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Lottie and The Nutcracker

The following is a short Christmas story set at Rosewood Hall. It has no official time frame, although it most likely takes place in December of Book 4. It is unedited, and hasn’t been proof read.

Lottie and The Nutcracker 

Christmas time at Rosewood always had the distinct smell of spiced apple and pinewood. It was the idealistic ‘shop window’ fantasy of Christmas that they sell you in magazines and hallmark movies, except at Rosewood, it was very much real. Picturesque holly wreathes covered every door, with Christmas trees decorated with such painstaking elegance that they’d put Santa’s elves to shame. For Lottie, this charming winter wonderland of crackling fireplaces, where they served up hazelnut hot chocolate and filled the common rooms with Christmas candy, was a stark contrast to the lonely, colourless Christmases she’d become used to back at her home in St Ives. It felt like home, and she relished the almost absurdly jolly scenes and scents that swept everyone up into the holiday spirit.

            But what she loved more than anything, was getting to enjoy it all with her new family, on their now annual pyjama and movie night tradition.

            This year it was Raphael’s turn to host, and he’d managed to commandeer two of the sofa’s from the Conch common room which Jamie had carried and dragged into his dorm in a swoon-worthy display of strength, much to the excitement of the on-looking student body. Percy had gotten permission to borrow one of the projectors from the visual arts department, and the twins had supplied an array of fancy treats for them to gorge themselves on during the movie. It had been Anastacia and Saskia’s turn to choose the films, so they’d ended up with the eclectic mix of Mean Girls followed by Die Hard

            And that left Binah, Ellie, and Lottie, who’d taken it upon themselves to eat as much of the food as they possibly could.

            ‘You’ll have weird dreams if you eat all that cheese,’ Anastacia scowled at Ellie who was nestled into the corner of the sofa with Binah between her legs on the floor. There was something even more dramatic in Anastacia’s glare than usual, sharp eyes complimented by her choice of nightwear - a matching silk camisole and fur sleeved red gown, that gave her the distinct appearance of someone who might have a husband who’d recently died under mysterious circumstances.

            Ellie turned, revealing the entirely empty cheeseboard, grinning at her accomplishment. ‘Too late.’

            ‘You ate it all?’ Raphael balked, but he looked more impressed than angry. ‘We haven’t even started the first movie yet.’ 

            ‘I didn’t work alone,’ Ellie responded in defence. ‘I had collaborators.’ She gestured to Lottie at her side in the middle of the sofa, and Binah who was already trying to sneak away to nab a bean bag while everyone was distracted.

            ‘Hey! I only had a little bit,’ Lottie lied, quickly wiping her mouth of the evidence. 

            Rolling her eyes, Anastacia laid herself down in Saskia’s lap, throwing her legs over the side of the armchair ‘Well don’t come crying to me when it gives you nightmares.’ She griped, then nestled herself into the crook of Saskia’s neck, the venom in her voice not matching her almost kitten like behaviour, and Lottie, Binah, and Ellie had to hold back their gleeful smiles.

            ‘Movie’s ready to go,’ Percy signed, signalling for Micky to dim the lights. 

            ‘Can I sit here?’ Lottie looked up to see Jamie gazing down at her, looking distinctly awkward in a pair of snowman shorts and an oversized black t-shirt that simply read ‘this is my Christmas t-shirt’ – a gift from Raphael which he found absolutely hilarious.

            ‘Yes, of course,’ Lottie scooted over a little towards Ellie, the cotton of her pink nightdress tangling up with her Princess’s oversized Camp Crystal Lake t-shirt, the two fabrics swirling together in a dark and glittery pinwheel. 

            Jamie sat himself down, somehow managing to avoid touching her, like an invisible wall stopped their skin from making contact, but she could feel him there next her, the warmth of both her Princess and Partizan radiating on either side like they were foxes nestled in a den. 

            ‘I bought a blanket for you two,’ Jamie held up one of the burgundy blankets from the Ivy Wood linin room, and with a graceful flick of his wrists, the fluffy sheet rested over them.

            Ellie made a contented noise and wrapped an arm around Lottie’s waist to pull her closer, while Jamie let his arm rest over the back of the sofa, his fingers dangling near Lottie’s cheek. 

Lottie couldn’t explain why, but the action made her blush, feeling so happy and comfortable that she felt she might burst, yet on either side of her there seemed to be a growing tension, both her Princess and Partizan inching slightly closer then changing their minds. It felt like some odd game of chicken, one that Lottie was somehow caught in the middle of. 

Before she had time to dwell on it, Binah clapped her hands, pulling her out of the thought.

‘O.K, Mean Girls here we go.’ She announced, and everyone quickly fell into silence as Lindsey Lohan’s voice blasted through the room. 

Ellie and Jamie finally relaxed, and Lottie sunk into the sofa, curling up in her little cocoon.

 

*** 

 

            Lottie woke slowly, mind heavy with sleep, lazily piecing together how she must have drifted off on the sofa in Raphael’s room while watching the movie. Like reaching out for the comfort of a teddy, Lottie stretched her arms to hunt for the warmth of her Princess and Partizan, only for her eyes to fling open when her hands met with empty air. 

            ‘Hello?’ Lottie called, her breath coming out in ghostly wisps into the unusually brisk air. ‘Where is everyone?’ she whispered to herself, cradling her arms against the low temperature. 

Tinged blue like a dream, and hazy at the edges, Raphael’s empty room seemed steeped in a fog frame, and it was not until Lottie’s vision began to focus that she saw it was not a haze at all but a glittering frost.

‘Well that’s odd,’ She mused.

Moving with a sleepy curiosity, Lottie pealed the blanket off herself and tip toad to the edge of the room to wipe her finger along the delicate sheet of snow on the windowsill. It was a soft, soothing iciness, not a biting cold, and when she held it up to her nose, there was the slight smell of sugar plums, despite it leaving no sticky residue.

‘Well that’s definitely not right,’ Lottie mumbled, her eyes wondering to the view out the window to find the whole world had been covered in shining, silver snow. Strangest of all, there was not a single footstep or dent in the scene, as if everyone in the world had vanished.

            A creek from the door caught her attention, and peeping through the crack were two eyes that looked almost identical to her own, sapphire locked onto sapphire, and beneath the piercing stare was a set of wild, grinning teeth.

            Such a site might have been frightening under other circumstances, but Lottie felt an odd pull towards this mirror person, and as far as she knew, they were the only other human around.

            ‘The battle is about to begin,’ The mysterious figure beckoned before taking off down the corridor where Lottie caught a silken flash from a purple cape. 

            Nearly tripping over herself, Lottie pulled up the skirt of her nightie and followed in a sprint to catch up with them. 

‘Wait!’ She shouted, flinging the door open with just enough time to see the purple clad figure vanish through the arched door at the end of the hall.

Deep, joyful laughter echoed behind her, accompanied only by the sound of Lottie’s steady breaths as she ran to catch up with her eccentric guide. 

The corridor stretched like chewing gum in front of her, a wobbly, rickety fun-house ride, pushing and pulling the door at the other end closer and further away.

Lottie let out a disgruntled noise, ‘would you stop that?’ 

            All at once, the corridor settled on a shape, leaving Lottie skidding to a halt in her slippers, sure she was about to slam face first into the heavy door, but it gave way with all the ease of snow melting on a tongue. 

            ‘Oof!’

            Lottie found herself tumbling forward, slippers flying off, and legs splayed out into a warm, sweet scented room with so many colours it felt liked she’d fallen into a rainbow. Behind her, while she lay dizzy on the floor, the door closed with unnatural speed and quiet, followed by an alarming click. Getting up on to her feet and righting her nightie, she turned back to shake the door to discover she’d been locked in.

            ‘How very rude,’ Lottie tutted.

            Turning back around, she took in her new prison, only to find her eyes traveling up and up and up to take it all in.

            The room was strangely familiar, although she was quite sure she’d never seen such a place in Rosewood Hall before, in fact she was very sure Rosewood had never had a room with such wonky proportions or absurdly giant furniture. Laid out in front of her, or rather, towering above her, was a multi-coloured, festive, living room set: a pink and yellow sofa, a candy striped ottoman, a snow tipped Christmas tree with wrapped presents underneath (all of them bigger than Lottie), and an orange sherbet rug, the fibres of which were so big under Lottie’s little doll-body that it was like walking through grass.

            She’d shrunk.

            The door she’d come through was tiny in comparison, a mouse hole in the wall, and upon further inspection, there seemed to be bread crumbs littering the floor in front of it. There also appeared to be no other way out. 

            ‘Hello?’ Lottie called again, and gasped upon finding her voice too had shrunk. It came out in a pitched chirp, a squeaking miniscule sound she might expect from something small and soft.

            Shaking off her shock, Lottie slapped her cheeks in between her hands.

            ‘Come now, Lottie, you can’t let a little thing like shrinking put you off,’ She told herself. ‘Kind, brave, and unstoppable, that’s what you are.’ Although the words sounded funny in her new chipmunk voice. With a new spark of determination, she set off across the orange rug towards the presents. 

            ‘What would Jamie do?’ she asked herself, jumping up so her hands met with the top of the smallest wrapped gift under the tree. ‘He would climb up as high as he could to get a better view of his surroundings.’ 

            With little in the way of grace, Lottie clambered over the gifts, jumping and hopping until she found herself on top of one large enough to reach for a branch of the Christmas tree.

            Cautiously, Lottie pulled on the branch, testing her weight against it. A few pine needles came loose, the smell of them lush and refreshing, but for the most part, it seemed sturdy. With a deep breath, she hauled herself up.

            ‘How do you do?’ She asked a small wooden clown ornament. It didn’t reply. ‘Rude,’ She muttered to herself.

            Huffing from the exertion of clambering up the tree, Lottie was only halfway to the top when something clattered dramatically on the other side of the room. 

            ‘Eep!’ She slid off her branch in shock, scrambling to get a hold on anything, only for the pine needles in her little hands to come loose, leaving her falling to her inevitable doom. 

            ‘Help!’ She screamed out, and just as she was sure she’d hit the floor, a pair of arms reached out and cradled her from the impact. 

            Disoriented, Lottie looked up into the eyes of her saviour to find she was face to face with the most beautiful toy soldier to ever be crafted. The soldier smiled down at Lottie from under a bearskin dragoon helmet, her lean body protected by a charming red coat reminiscent of a palace guard.

            ‘Ellie?’ She asked, trying to blink away the wonder that felt like glitter in her vision.

            ‘Careful, little Princess,’ She crooned, leaning down close as she carefully sat her on the wood flood. ‘The mice are coming.’ 

            Lottie’s heart skipped a beat as she felt the Ellie-soldier’s warm breath against her cheek, until she abruptly pulled away, falling into a defensive stance as three more soldiers joined her side. It was only then that the absurdity of her statement hit her.

            ‘The- what?’ 

            Her question was answered almost immediately when, from behind the door she’d come through, the same clanging and clattering that had nearly sent her to her death got louder and more ferocious until the door burst open to reveal… mice. Two mice to be exact, both standing upright with long, half human limbs, their sharp little feet scratching the floor where they burst from the darkness in a blaze of fur and armour. 

            ‘Ready your weapons,’ Ellie called to her companions, who expertly unsheathed their swords sending out a proud, metallic ring.

            With no time for Lottie to adjust to the downright ludicrous turn of events, the mice charged at the group of soldiers surrounding her, skittering across the floor on their too-long legs, until, to Lottie’s horror, they got down on all fours, and leaped toward her group with monstrous strength. 

            Instinctively, Lottie rolled herself further under the tree, watching with baited breath as the armoured mice clashed with her beautiful soldier, weapons out, and sharp white teeth visibly snarling through their helmet. 

            Ellie effortlessly side stepped the closest mouse, bringing the back of her blade down hard on the creatures back to stun it. The mouse tried to scurry and right itself, but the soldier on Ellie’s left climbed on top of it to hold it in place.

            Wow! Thought Lottie, she must have very strong thighs.

            The thought had Lottie’s gaze wondering up the soldier’s body to find a thick honey-brown mane of curls peeping out from under her helmet that Lottie recognised instantly as belonging to Saskia. 

            ‘Keep still.’ She ordered, ‘You’re going to mess up my hair.’

            Yep. It was definitely Saskia.

            Upon this realisation, Lottie turned to survey the last two soldiers, who were currently locked in a fierce battle with the remaining mouse-monster. Their swords clashed with claws and knives, the two soldiers refusing to let the mouse get its own rhythm, then, with frankly appalling form, the soldiers pirouetted, sticking their legs out in a timed onslaught to trip the mouse.

            The creature fell with a hard thump, its too-long knees caving under grey, fluffy torso where it fell like a stack of cards, leaving it exposed for the Ellie’s soldier to swoop in and tie it up.

            ‘Hell yeh!’ one of the dancing soldiers whooped, and Lottie went completely still at the sound of his voice.

            While he engaged in a high five with the other soldier and began signing gestures with his gloved hands, Lottie marched over and before he had a chance to react, she plucked his helmet off his head.

            ‘Ollie!’ She nearly screeched, turning around to pull off the other boy’s helmet even though she already knew who it was. ‘And Percy!’ she was blinking rapidly between the two boys. ‘Since when are you two friends?’ She asked, then shook her head, realising there was a far more important question she should be asking. ‘Since when are you all toy-soldiers? And where are we?’

            Ollie and Percy only stared at each, lips pursed together in a way that suggested they were trying not to laugh. It began to dawn on Lottie that none of them appeared to have any idea who they were.

            At once it all clicked into place - the snow, the toy soldiers, her mysterious guide, the mice. 

Lottie clapped her hands over her mouth. ‘Oh God.’ 

She was in some messed up version of The Nutcracker, and there didn’t seem to be any way out.

            ‘Fear not, little princess,’ 

            ‘Hey!’ Lottie let out an indignant sound as she was swept out of her thoughts and off her feet to be held once more in the arms of her Ellie-soldier. 

            With a roguish smile, Ellie caught her gaze, melting away any of Lottie’s irritation.

            ‘I am the nutcracker, and these are my soldiers,’ She swept Lottie around in a circle as she spoke, and despite herself, Lottie felt as though she could get used to being carried around by Ellie like this, her own personal throne in the shape of a brave knight come to save her. ‘We’re here to rescue you from the Mouse King and his minions,’ She explained, gracing her with a dazzling wink. ‘His minions are trying to stop you from dancing with the Sugar Plum Fairy.’

            ‘…Me? Save the fairy from what now?’ 

Lottie was temporarily dazzled by the twinkle in Ellie’s eye and it took her a second to realise none of this made sense. She wracked her brain for any part of The Nutcracker story where the Sugar Plum Fairy needed saving, and found herself quite sure they were heading dangerously off script.

            ‘From a mouse, duh,’ Saskia interjected, throwing the now tied up mouse over her shoulder. ‘I used to work for the Mouse King; he’s smart enough to know that only you can save the Sugar Plum Fairy. You must be the one to dance with them.’

            It would have been flattering to be held on such a pedestal, but Lottie didn’t even know who the Sugar Plum Fairy was, let alone what they needed saving from.

            ‘That’s very sweet of you to say,’ Lottie murmured, not wanting to say anything that might dash their spirits. ‘I’m just wondering how exactly am I meant to save this Fairy of yours?’

            All the soldiers stared at her and shrugged as if it was obvious.

‘Just be yourself’ They spoke and signed in unison.

            Lottie blinked, both impressed and blind-sided by the preposterously simple solution. 

            ‘I’m not sure if- hey!’ Lottie had been gearing up to politely request more information, when Ellie swirled her around again, her little toy legs running her at full speed to the other side of the room. Lottie just caught a glimpse as Percy throw what appeared to be a bag of dust into the previously empty fireplace, which at once lit up in a blaze of blue flames that spurted a snow flurry from its icy tips.

            ‘We have no time to waste.’ Ellie called heroically. 

            There was indeed little time, not even a chance to so much as scream before all five of them jumped into the cold flames.

            Fireworks! It felt as if she were inside an exploding fireworks display. The world around her hissed and crackled, distorting into an illusion of stretched limbs and kaleidoscope colours. In the back of her mind, Lottie vaguely registered the sweet and invigorating scent of peppermint, but it mixed with something else, something powdery that made her sneeze. 

            ‘Ready to jump.’ Ellie called, her voice swinging around them like it had separated from her body and gotten lost in the chaos. 

            As if called by Ellie, a slow growing whine like a balloon losing its air filled their whirlwind of blue flame until, at last, it popped, and so did the world.

            The oversized living room vanished, and Lottie was transported to a forest of soaring ferns, and heather, delicate purple petals the size of her feet peeking out from under a slivery blanket of snow. Long streams of star lanterns wound themselves up the tree bark and stretched between the branches, linking the forest together in a web of warm candle light.

            Gently, the Ellie-soldier set Lottie down on her feet again.

‘Where are we?’ Lottie breathed, and watched in wonder as her warm breath danced through the air until it vanished into glitter. She took a step forward only to be abruptly pulled back, flush against Ellie’s body once again.

Her breath caught sharp and cold in her lungs at the danger she’d nearly walked right into.

‘Careful, princess,’ The Ellie-soldier breathed.

They were perched at the lip of a cave, each of them dangerously close to plummeting down into its vast darkness. Hammered into the nearest tree, beside a golden bell, a wooden post read in showy calligraphy‘please wait to be escorted down to the grotto’ and Lottie couldn’t help shuddering at the idea of going ‘down’ into that dark hole in the ground.

‘This is snowed over,’ Ollie replied, placing the mouse-monster he’d had tied up down into a sitting position on an old tree stump where it sat strangely complacent.

‘Don’t you mean snowed under?’ Lottie asked, her noes scrunching up against the cold as she realised how exposed she was in just a nightie and slippers. 

Saskia leaned back and laughed, throwing her own mouse on the ground with little care. ‘No, Snowedover, that’s the name of the world we’re in.’

Lottie gave a small sneeze in response, that turned into another, and another, and she was sure her nose must be turning as red as her freezing fingertips. 

‘Here,’ Ellie placed her red coat over Lottie’s shoulders, the heavy padding making an ideal security blanket, even if her toes were still going numb. ‘This will keep you warm until the fairies take us down.’

Fairies… fairies... Lottie began skimming over the story of The Nutcracker in her mind, trying to anticipate what was coming next, when her vision snagged on the mouse-monsters, or more, the lack thereof. In the few minutes Lottie had looked away from them, their fur had shifted from skin to pelts, human faces now visible from behind sharp, gruesome teeth, and the more she stared at them, the more human they became. 

‘Hey, what are you doing?’ 

Without paying attention to Ollie’s protests, Lottie shuffled through the snow to approach the smallest of the two mice. Reaching into the jaws of the beast, she pulled them apart with a wet crack to expose the very human, and very familiar face hidden beneath.

‘Do you mind?’ The girl beneath hissed, a wash of freckles folding in on itself where she scrunched up her nose in irritation.

‘While you’re being nosy, would you mind loosening my ropes?’ The human on the floor drawled with a southern twang. Lottie turned to him just in time to watch a snowball whizz through the air and whack the man on the side of his face, quickly shutting him up.

With smug satisfaction, Saskia stood at Lottie’s side, readying another snowball. ‘Ignore Ingrid and Julius,’ She advised, a casualness to her tone that suggested she knew them well. ‘They’ve always been surprisingly catty for two little mice.’ Saskia rounded off her last words with one more snowball, this one landing square in the middle of Ingrid’s eyes.

‘I swear I’ll gut you when I get my hands on you.’ Ingrid snapped, a twitch in her snarling lips that was impressively intimidating for someone currently tied up on a tree stump covered in snow.

That twitch in her lip turned downward, a frown settling over her, and perhaps Lottie’s hearing was not as good as a mouse’s, because it took her a moment to realise what had caused the change in attitude. Like the friendly trill of a xylophone, it was quiet at first, the suggestion of a sound more than the sound itself, but as it grew it became clear that what Lottie had assumed to be cave water, was something far more peculiar.

The ice was singing.

A crisp and clear sound, as fresh as a bell, and with every chime, it was getting closer. At first, Lottie wondered if she was imagining it, but now she was sure, where there had once been nothing but darkness seeping out of the cave’s yawning mouth, there was now a growing snow flurry. So fine and powdery, it looked more like mist over a sun dappled lake.

‘Oh great, here come those little flying nightmares- hey!’ Julius grumbled, flinching as Percy pulled him forward toward the mouth of the cave, and to Lottie’s utter disbelief, he pushed him over the edge.

There was no prolonged scream, no hard thud of a body hitting the ground, instead, Julius floated in front of them, spinning slowly like an orbiting planet while the ice mist surrounded him. After holding him there in consideration, the mist seemed to make up its mind, and down went Julius into the glacial darkness.

The whole thing might have seemed like an elegant dance if not for the string of eye-watering expletives Julius let off in his wake.

Looks like it’s ready for us.’ Percy signed, grinning down the hole while Ollie came to join his side. They gave one more glance behind them, and then as casually as if they were falling backwards on to a bed, the two of them fell into the cave, their smiles the last thing Lottie saw.

To Lottie’s side, Saskia hauled up a squirming Ingrid. ‘Alright, you next,’ she said in a much too chipper voice.

‘Don’t you dare,’ Ingrid began to twist violently, trying to get out of Saskia’s iron grip, but to no avail. ‘I swear, Saskia, I’m going to- ARGH!’

‘See you on the other side,’ Saskia called out, and then she too was falling into the cave mouth, a trail of laughter following behind her accompanied by Ingrid’s screams.

Once more, the forest was silent, all but for Lottie’s own shallow breathing and the twinkling tune of the magic snow. With her moment of quiet, Lottie began to wonder if perhaps she had gone mad, that maybe her mind had finally caved under the weight of all the fairy-tales she filled it with, and she was doomed to live in this mutant version of The Nutcracker forever. Just when she thought her legs might buckle in on themselves, a delicate, gloved hand appeared beside her. 

‘Princess,’ The Ellie soldier leaned forward in a half bow, extending an arm for Lottie to take. ‘Would you let me escort you down to the grotto?’ 

Hesitating, Lottie followed the hand up to Ellie’s molten brown eyes, warm and thrilling, like a bonfire on a winter’s night. Like this, in her knightly gear, Ellie truly shined, gallant and handsome and oh so charming. Looking at her now, hand outstretched, waiting for Lottie to follow her, she felt brave and exciting, and precious. So she decided, then and there, that if her madness looked this wonderful, she’d follow it anywhere. 

 ‘Well, if you insist,’ Lottie took her hand with a coy expression, causing a mischievous grin to creep over Ellie’s face. With the two of them hand in hand, running full speed, their laughter winding together like a perfect song, they jumped. 

The mouth of the cave opened wide for them, the ice mist whirling around their legs in greeting and at once, all sense of gravity vanished. Lottie had to use her other hand to hold her nightdress down, lifting her knees up as the gust carried them down. 

Lottie had expected the darkness to swallow them up, but the further they floated, the more she saw how wrong she was. The darkness gave way to the blue glow of the luminescent life that lived in the walls, suspending them in an endless starry universe. 

It was so beautiful that Lottie could hardly breath for fear of waking from the dream.

‘It’s enchanting,’ Lottie breathed, and turned to find Ellie staring at her.

‘Yes it is,’ She sighed, not taking her eyes off of Lottie, and she couldn’t help the blush that spread over her cheeks.

A small smile played over Ellie’s lips, and she tilted her head to the side as if she were asking to dance. Lottie obliged. 

With a sudden flick of her arms, Ellie twirled Lottie out and pulled her back in to spin her in her arms, before dipping her low, the two of them twirling gracefully in the magic gust, like a gentle snow fall.

They danced and laughed all the way down, caught up in their dreamy world and Lottie was so enraptured that she hardly noticed the world below that was getting closer and closer, a world of ice, and magic, hidden deep underground, and she certainly didn’t notice the four figures that were poised and ready to attack.

The bioluminescent blue made spirals and patterns of light to guide the cave’s visitors down makeshift streets. Radiant mushrooms and a pools of icy black water dotted the gardens of petal roofed houses with snow brick walls.

‘You might want to prepare yourself,’ The Ellie soldier warned, but it was too late.

The moment Lottie’s foot met with the cave floor, she was struck by an onslaught of silk and ribbons. She tried to grip onto Ellie’s hand, only to find herself being pulled and spun away into a nearby house, Ellie’s fingers slipping out of reach. Each cry for help or attempt to reach out was stifled with dainty hands spinning her round, and violent puffs of sweet, cloying powder. 

‘Get off me,’ Lottie coughed in her squeaky mouse voice, blindly batting away her assailants, but they had already dragged her behind a screen, and with not so much as a warning, they pulled her nightdress up over her head.

‘Hey-’ Lottie opened her mouth to protest and nearly swallowed a wad of fabric as little hands replaced her nightdress with a heavy hoop skirt and petite coat.

It was only after Lottie had been thoroughly dizzied, stripped, and redressed that her attackers finally stepped away, and she could get a good look at them, and the second she got a clear view her jaw dropped.

Four beautiful fairies stood in front of her, each dressed in ice and petals. Delicate snowdrops were woven together over their bodies with spider silk thread and frost embellishments like miniature diamonds. As delicate as spun sugar, fluttering behind each of them, was a set of translucent sapphire wings. But it wasn’t their dresses and wings that had Lottie so stunned, she knew these four fairies, and somehow it made perfect sense for them to be there.

‘We need to get you in ship-shape for the ball,’ Anastacia was the first of the fairies to speak, giving Lottie a deeply scrutinising appraisal with her sharp blue eyes.

‘You need to blend in.’ the Lola and Micky fairies spoke in unison, nodding along in agreement with Anastacia.

Shaking her head of this confusing, yet somehow perfectly palpable turn of events, Lottie finally found her voice again to ask, ‘blend in to what exactly?’ 

Now Binah, the last of the fairies, stepped forward, holding up a long piece of peach gossamer to Lottie’s shoulder and draping it over her like a shawl. ‘Well you can’t rescue the Sugar Plum Fairy in your pyjamas now can you?’

‘Oh dear, not this again,’ Lottie grumbled, burying her head in her hands. ‘I don’t even know who the Sugar Plum Fairy is,’ She argued. ‘In fact, until only a little while ago, fairies and talking toy soldiers only existed in stories inside my head and-’

Lottie abruptly froze in her protests when Binah spun her around once more to face the mirror behind her and she was confronted with how magic these fairy versions of her friends truly were. 

What gazed back at Lottie in the mirror was a fantasy, an enchanted, make-believe creature brought to life. Her skin glittered gold like a frozen lake in the early morning sun, the glow spreading right up into her hair, each strand immaculately curled and arranged amongst a bouquet of hellebores and winter aconites. 

She was a shining ornament, the fairy at the top of a tree. Even her dress was woven from the same kindly spark of a hearth, and when she fanned out the feathered skirts, the sweet smell of gingerbread and cinnamon wafted from the fabric.

Lottie brushed a hand over her cheek and gasped, ‘I’m radiant.’

Anastacia rolled her eyes, ‘well, obviously,’

‘Now all you need to do is get to the ball and save the Sugar Plum Fairy.’ Binah grinned at her, as if this was a very simple and easy task.

‘Right, yes, about that,’ Lottie tried again, coming to her senses. ‘How exactly do I save them, and what am I saving them from?’

The twins looked at each other and shrugged, ‘don’t know.’ they said, and Lottie nearly groaned, burying her head in her hands once again.

‘All we know,’ Binah began, Lottie’s saviour in this confusing mess. ‘is that The Mouse King and his minions are after them, and you have to get them to dance with you first.’

With no time to dwell on Binah’s mysterious words, the screen was pulled back to reveal their four toy soldiers patiently waiting.

Ellie, confused for a moment, scanned over the five of them before going completely still in a state of bug-eyed awe as her gaze settled over Lottie in realisation.

 ‘Wow!’ It was all she could manage, and the unabashed sincerity behind the statement had heat flooding right up to Lottie’s cheeks. 

Saskia, Ollie, and Percy began a riotous round of applause, which was very impressive for such a small group, each of them stepping forward to shower their fairies with praise.

‘Is there anything my perfect little snow fairy can’t do?’ Saskia swooned, stepping forward to dip Anastacia, dramatically kissing the back of her hand. 

With a charmed expression, Percy ruffled Lola’s hair, then kissed the top of Micky’s head, a trail of twinkling frost following in the wake of his lips which he licked off like it were icing sugar.

Most surprising was Ollie, who sauntered up to the snow fairy Binah like they were sharing a secret.

‘Fae,’ He smirked down at her.

‘Moreno,’ She countered, a twitch in her lips, and as if some hidden signal had gone off, the two of them broke out into laughter.

It was only then that Lottie realised their dastardly mice prisoners were nowhere to be seen. Seeming to read her mind, Percy cocked his head and signed ‘we locked the mice away.’

Despite what she knew, Lottie couldn’t help hoping their cells weren’t too unpleasant, it was Christmas after all.

‘Right,’ Anastacia called, clapping her hands, and bringing everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand. ‘It’s time for our princess to go to the ball and dance with our Sugar Plum Fairy,’

With no question, the rest of the fairies pushed Lottie and Ellie out of the house – which Lottie could now see was in fact a hollowed out mushroom – and back to where they’d landed.

‘There’s no need to push now, really.’ Lottie tried to interrupt as she was placed in the middle of a frozen pool of water, her feet nearly skidding out from underneath her like a new-born fawn.

‘You can’t be late though.’ Saskia agreed. ‘Or all the food will be gone,’

Ellie, mostly undisturbed by the pushy logistics, perked up at the mention of the food. ‘We must away at once,’ she bellowed, pulling her sword out from its holster and holding it up with fierce determination. ‘Come!’

Lottie let out a little yelp of surprise as the Ellie soldier pulled her to her side, holding on tight. 

There was a great warbling snap, the same sound ice makes in warning before it collapses beneath you, only there was no plummet down into freezing water. Instead, appearing like a lightning bolt, a door made entirely of ice cracked into existence in front of them. It opened on its own and through the ice frame, Lottie could make out what appeared to be floating lights. 

‘Don’t forget,’ Binah trilled. ‘mice hate cats, which means cats are on your side.’ Lottie blinked in confusion at this, but it was the only warning she was given before she was being coaxed through the door. 

‘Wait!’ Lottie gripped onto the doorframe, desperately holding on while little snow fairy hands rudely attempted to shove her through. ‘I still don’t understand what I’m supposed to do. How will I recognise this fairy? How am I supposed to stop The Mouse King? What am I even stopping him from doing?’

‘Don’t worry, Princess,’ Ellie winked down at her, voice confident and charming. ‘Whatever happens, I’ll be there to protect you.’

All Lottie’s resolve melted in an instant, her fingers sliding off the frame. With Ellie by her side, things as trivial as sense and logic didn’t matter.

This is only a dream, she reminded herself, so why not enjoy it?

And so, in a dress of gold, and a toy soldier by her side, Lottie stepped through the door into the unknown.

For half a second, they were floating, horizontal above the ground, and above them, Lottie discovered that the floating orbs were in fact the lit candles on a crystal chandelier which meant the door they’d come through must be on the floor. It was just as she came to this realisation, that their centre of gravity shifted to adjust to their new surroundings, and the two of them landed on their bottoms with a hard thud.

Lottie quickly righted herself and held out a hand to help up her solider.

‘So, where are we now?’ She asked, surveying the area.

            There wasn’t a whole lot to look at, and it appeared they were hidden behind a curtain, the real party lying somewhere beyond where a mesmerising waltz could be heard.

            ‘We’re in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle,’ Ellie explained. ‘We’ll need to find a way of getting them to notice you,’

Only half listening, Lottie peered around the side of the heavy velvet curtain, where she had a clear view of the ball. Dancers glided across the marble floor and Lottie couldn’t help smiling at the eclectic collection. Amongst fairies and gnomes in fancy clothes, there was everything from legged mushrooms with toadstool caps, to furry voles in twin-tail suits, all of them flitting about the floor and gorging themselves on the tables of seasonal treats. 

Lottie’s eyes snagged on a particularly large figgy pudding in the centre of the table that seemed to be permanently lit up with blue flame. She could practically taste the brandy butter on her tongue and wondered if she had time to grab a bowl and also rescue this enigmatic Sugar Plum Fairy.

Attention still on the pudding, a trumpet blared from the other end of the hall at the bottom of a red carpeted staircase.

With everything she’d seen, Lottie was not surprised to find that the owner of the trumpet was a frog in a suit, who begun to clear its throat. ‘Gentlefolk of Snowedover, please may I have your attention as we welcome your gracious host of the night, the Prince of our frozen wonderland, The Sugar Plum Fairy.’

From the top of the stairwell, the mysterious fairy appeared.

Dressed in flowing plum robes and framed by two glittering black wings, they were beautiful and graceful, but that was where any similarities to the story-book version ended. It was safe to say, The Sugar Plum Fairy was not at all what Lottie remembered from the story of The Nutcracker, and who they were was as far from all realms of logic that she had half a mind to slap herself back to reality then and there.

Jamie Volk looked decidedly bemused by the adoring crowd, although Lottie had to admit, that despite his obvious cynicism, the royal get-up looked good on him. Not just good, he was a natural, and the horned crown on his head belonged there just as much as the starry glow in his eyes. 

‘I think I need to lie down,’ Lottie said, abruptly closing the curtain again.

Unfortunately, Ellie didn’t seem to have any adverse reaction, ignoring Lottie’s statement to escort her into the ball while everyone’s attention was put upon their Sugar Plum Jamie.

As they slipped effortlessly into the crowd besides a particularly well dressed shrew, the frog cleared its throat again. ‘And the Sugar Plum Fairy’s escorts for the evening. The three cavaliers.’

‘Wait, what?’ Lottie had to quickly cover her mouth, her confusion escaping her, because at the top of the stairs, adorned in ruffled shirts and what appeared to be dress-up animal ears, stood Raphael, Wei, and… Haru.

Even from a distance, Lottie could see the mischievous fox-like expression on Haru’s face, and despite her assurance that she must be in a dream, she couldn’t help the sudden sense that she was in the presence of great danger.

This was no longer a dream, now it was personal.

Once more, the frog cleared its throat, letting out a loud croak before continuing. ‘Tonight, our Sugar Plum Fairy will pick one member of the court to dance the Final Waltz. It is up to you to catch his attention.’

The music started up again, a merry string ensemble that quickly had everyone back to dancing– everyone except the Sugar Plum Fairy and his cavaliers, who sauntered up to a platform where Jamie promptly sat down on a plush golden throne.

‘Ellie,’ She announced, suddenly taking her mission seriously. ‘We need to get over there,’

Ellie nodded in agreement, swiftly pulling Lottie into position to waltz her across the floor.

No one approached the throne, and it soon became clear that they were not allowed to, meaning the snow fairies had been smart in thinking the only way to get to Jamie would be to catch his eye. Lottie just had to figure out how to get him to look her way, and she needed to do it soon, because if her knowledge of The Nutcracker was accurate, and it was, then Jamie would be dancing with one of his Cavaliers at any moment. With her luck, she knew exactly which one he’d pick.

‘Quick, spin me around.’

Ellie accommodated, and while they continued to dance in circles, getting closer and closer to the throne, Lottie tried to read their lips from across the ball room, and wished more than anything she’d persuaded Percy to come with them. 

After the strange events of the day, she was sure nothing else could surprise her, but while scrutinising the royal group, trying to ignore the easy way this fairy prince version of Jamie was laughing with his ‘cavaliers’, Wei caught Lottie’s eye, gaze locking on her as sharp and incapacitating as a harpoon, and then she realised, the ears he was wearing, they were cat ears.

Lottie couldn’t help it, she stumbled, and if not for Ellie holding her up, they would both have been on the floor. Wei didn’t look away, instead he pushed his glasses up his nose with a smirk, the light glinting off them like the dizzying flash of car headlights, and with such subtlety she almost missed it, he tilted his head to the side, sending Lottie’s attention to few meters away where two court jesters were approaching.

This time she noticed it instantly. The two jesters Wei had sent her attention to were wearing colourful, harlequin suits, one baby blue, and one bright crimson, both with ruffled sleeves and collars, and hats with bells at the ends. It was the way that the hats stood up on end that gave it away, perfect little triangles that from the back looked exactly like cat ears.

Just as Binah had said before they stepped through the ice door, there were cats about, and they seemed to be on her side.

‘Finally, some real entertainment,’ Raphael held an empty hand out to have it instantly filled with a steaming gauntlet of mulled wine which he nearly spilled on Jamie as he patted his shoulder. ‘Maybe they can even get you to lighten up.’ He joked, but even from Lottie’s vantage point she could see Jamie roll his eyes.

 ‘My sweet Sugar Plum Lord,’ the blue jester bowed low, bells jingling obnoxiously. ‘We are here to perform some acrobatics for you,’ the red jester continued, and Lottie had the trifling sensation that she recognised their voices.

A resounding gasp echoed through the ball room when, from thin air, both jesters pulled out three juggling knives and began to pass them back and forth to one another. The gasps soon turned to cheers, which turned to bellowing applause when they added a back flip into the mix.

The Sugar Plum Jamie did not react, which Lottie might have found rude if she wasn’t convinced he was perfectly capable of doing half these knife tricks and acrobatics himself.

 ‘Let’s get a little closer while everyone’s distracted,’ Ellie suggested, inching them further to the throne.

They made it a few more metres before the jesters apparently decided it was time to do some cart wheels, and it didn’t take a genius to see that Ellie and Lottie had danced directly into the crossfire. 

‘Look out!’ Thinking not of herself, Lottie pushed her Ellie soldier out of the collision course, leaving herself exposed to an onslaught of blue and red legs and jingling bells. 

It was the blue jester that made first impact, the heel of her boot coming down onto Lottie’s shoulder and leaving her sprawled out on the floor like a broken Christmas ornament.

Looking up at her assailants with the intention of telling them off, Lottie froze at the blue and red haired trouble-makers sniggering at her expense.

‘Miko!’

‘Hello, Princess.’

‘You kicked me.’

‘We got him to notice you though, didn’t we?’ Rio winked, gesturing over his shoulder.

‘Oh!’ Lottie followed his gaze to see that Sugar Plum Jamie had finally left the comfort of his throne and was heading right towards her. 

‘Young lady, are you hurt?’ for the first time all evening, his expression was something other than bemusement, and Lottie couldn’t help feeling flattered at the genuine concern he seemed to have for her well-being. ‘I must apologise on behalf of these clumsy clowns.’ He tutted, effortlessly pulling Lottie up off the marble floor.

The clumsy clowns in question were already skipping away behind the safety of the velvet curtains, and it took all of Lottie’s will power not to laugh when Miko turned around and stuck her tongue out before disappearing.

‘Thank you, umm, Sugar Plum, but I’m fine, really.’

‘Please,’ a smirk played at the edge of his lips, the stars dancing in his eyes. ‘call me Plum.’

Lottie felt the blush crawling over her cheeks and prayed that her golden shine would hide it. ‘O.K,’ She whispered, ‘Thank you, Plum.’

It should have been funny, to hear Jamie refer to himself by such a quaint name, instead it was entirely disarming, like seeing a picture of someone as an innocent child when you’ve only known them as a grownup.

So caught up in this miraculous moment, Lottie almost didn’t notice the trumpets blaring again, until Jamie finally looked away to where the noise was coming from. 

‘Gentlefolk of the court if I may have your attention once again.’ The suited frog croaked over the ballroom. ‘Your Sugar Plum Fairy will now be picking a partner for the Final Waltz.’

Immediately, Jamie turned back to her, and every set of eyes in the ball room turned with him. 

This was her chance.

Darting her gaze behind Jamie, she could see Haru’s mask drop, and what lay beneath looked ready to gobble her up for interfering.

If she wasn’t trying to keep up appearances, she might have followed Miko’s example and made a face at him.

‘I hope this isn’t presumptuous, but seeing as you’re already holding my hand,’ Lottie began, and only then did Jamie notice they were still interlocked from when he’d helped her up. ‘I’d be happy to help you get this dance out of the way.’

This time, he let his recognisable smirk come out in full force, not bothering to cover up his disdain for this whole charade anymore.

‘It is tedious isn’t it?’ He rolled his eyes with good humour. ‘I would hate to impose on you like that after you’ve only just recovered from your tumble, unless…?’ black wings fluttered in a way that almost seemed shy, the question unspoken on his lips. 

Their hands were still linked.

‘It would be my honour- AH!’ Lottie dropped Jamie’s hand in shock as an arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her backwards.

She was only left more confused when she realised the person dragging her away was none other than her Ellie soldier. 

‘I’ve changed my mind,’ Ellie announced, unrelenting with her grip around Lottie’s stomach. 

‘What? Ellie you can’t just-’

‘I want to dance the Final Waltz with you.’

What?

Thoroughly confused, Lottie dug her heels into the floor and squirmed free, refusing to be pulled another inch, but the second she was free, both Jamie and Ellie grabbed an arm and she found herself being pulled like a Christmas cracker.

‘Nutcracker,’ Jamie said the name like a curse but his expression was whimsical, as if they were old friends. ‘I should have known you’d show up to cause trouble.’

‘Actually, Plum, I was here to rescue you,’ She countered, blowing a raspberry at him. ‘not that you’d ever allow such a thing if you knew it.’

Jamie only scoffed. ‘I don’t need rescuing,’

See?’ Ellie squealed, looking around the ballroom as if she expected everyone to agree with her. 

‘Stop it you two, there’s no reason I can’t dance with both of you.’ Lottie had officially had enough, and her arms were getting sore. They were behaving like children fighting over a toy. ‘If you don’t let go this instance I won’t dance with either of you.’

They let go, unfortunately not because she’d asked them to.

The whole dance floor had gone still, locked in place by the terrifying thing that had just entered the hall.

From across the room, an unnaturally large, black furred goat stepped toward them, its hooves clopping on the floor with a menacing echo.

Lottie certainly didn’t remember this from The Nutcracker.

‘Who’s that?’ She whispered.

The Ellie soldiers face twisted into the shape of fury, her hand resting on the handle of her sword. ‘That’s The Mouse King,’

Lottie blinked. ‘Umm, that’s not a mouse, it’s a goat.’

‘Enough of this,’ The Goat’s voice boomed through the ballroom, deep as thunder, sending chills through everyone’s bodies. ‘Plum, you will dance with your cavalier.’ He ordered, pointing a hoof with finality.

‘Me?’ Raphael intoned, hopefully, a surprised but happy smile spreading over his face.

Haru gave him an apologetic look as he stepped down from the throne platform. ‘He means me,’ 

By now, Lottie was losing her patience. ‘Am I the only one who sees that that’s clearly a goat?’ 

No one paid Lottie any mind, too focused on Haru who was getting dangerously close to her Sugar Plum Jamie, and worst of all, Jamie didn’t seem to be making any move to protest, too baffled by the turn of events.

‘Stop right there!’ A new voice bellowed through the hall with enough power to rifle the Goat.

Good grief, Lottie internally groaned. ‘What now?’

Two figures jumped down from the top of the stairwell, dressed in long black robes and cat masks, landing perfectly on the marble before they both broke out into a series of elaborate sword movements, finishing on either side of The Goat Man, their weapons held up to his neck.

‘We’re the Cat Demons,’ The one on the left announced.

‘And we’ve been one step ahead of you, you dastardly Mouse King.’

In perfect synchronicity, they both removed their masks, one of them revealing a slick of oil black hair that fell down their back, and the other a similar display, but with black fabric wrapped around their head to mirror their partner’s.

Lottie could recognise that hair and ferocious expression anywhere.

‘Sayuri!’ She yelped, and despite herself, a small amount of glee found its way into her voice at getting to see her friend again… even it was in a nightmare world of fairy-tales.

‘Hello, Princess.’ She called over, ‘I’d introduce you to Emelia, but I’m afraid you have to wait another year for that.’ 

Emelia glanced over at the sound of her name and offered Lottie a wink of encouragement that was surprisingly effective.

‘Welcome to the party, pal.’

Lottie nodded in bewilderment, quite sure that was meant to be her line.

Unfortunately, the moment of calm was quickly popped when Ellie roared, charging after the Goat.

All hell broke loose.

Mushrooms in suits ran for cover, while well-dressed frogs ducked under tables as the Goat clopped around the hall, upturning everything in his path to run from the Cat Demons and Ellie. 

‘Get back here and answer for your crimes,’ Emelia growled, diving on to his back.

In all the chaos, Haru appeared at Jamie’s side offering his hand to dance, which to Lottie’s relief, he promptly declined 

‘Really, Haru?’ Jamie shook his head in disbelief. ‘Now?’ 

‘Is something wrong?’ Haru cocked his head to the side in fake innocents, and Lottie wanted to kick him. 

It was then that it happened, the most unforgiveable thing of all. 

The Goat made a terrible bleating sound, and threw his back hooves into the air, colliding directly with the figgy-pudding that promptly went flying across the ballroom, raining fruit and nuts and sticky cake all across the marble floor like a terrible shadow of doom. 

That was the last straw, Lottie didn’t care if this was a dream anymore, she’d been looking forward to that figgy-pudding, and they’d ruined it.

‘Enough!’ Lottie bellowed, slamming a foot down hard. ‘This is getting silly.’

Finally, they all stopped to stare at her, half of the ballroom covered in the food she should have been enjoying.

‘Can’t you see?’ Lottie asked, baffled. ‘We’ve gone completely off script.’ She took a furious step forward, gesturing around her to the ruined party. ‘There’s no Cat Demons or undercover jesters in The Nutcracker.’ pausing, she pointed at the worst offender. ‘and don’t get me started on your Mouse King that is very clearly A GOAT.’

Almost breathless from her outrage, Lottie dared anyone to argue with her.

‘But-’ Ellie opened her mouth as if to protest, but Lottie quickly shut her up with a look.

‘Don’t question me when it comes to fairy-tales.’ Lottie warned. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I simply cannot abide this butchering any longer and I’m going to wake up.’

Not knowing what else to do, Lottie squeezed her eyes shut.

‘Wait!’ Sayuri appeared in front of her, faster than she should have been able to, and Lottie nearly stumbled backwards from her unexpected appearance. ‘Some of it’s real,’ she huffed.

‘Excuse me?’ Lottie shook her head. ‘I’m quite sure none of this is in the original story of the-’

‘She’s right.’ Now Emelia came to join her. ‘Some of it’s real.’

Faltering, Lottie looked into both of their eyes, and it wasn’t like the rest of the dream. It wasn’t glossy with frost and the scent of gingerbread, they were clear as cut ice, and she knew she couldn’t ignore this.

‘You have to save the Sugar Plum Fairy.’ Sayuri said slowly.

Emelia nodded, and they both put their hands on Lottie’s shoulder. ‘We’re leaving it up to you.’

There was no time to reply, only a puff of smoke, and the world vanished.

 

***

 

Lottie woke fast, images of snow fairies, and mushrooms in suits swallowed up into the fog of her mind. Eyes flying open, the first thing she noticed was how warm she was, and when her vision focused, she smiled. 

            Everyone was asleep, and she was safely tucked between her Princess and her Partizan, Ellie’s head in her lap, their breathing sweet and calming like a hot drink on a cold evening.

            Jamie groaned slightly, unconsciously leaning his head into Lottie shoulder. 

As if rising to the challenge, Ellie’s hand came up to Lottie’s knee, and then she mumbled the strangest bit of nonsense.

‘I want to dance the final waltz.’

Lottie froze, squeezing her mouth shut in fear that she’d burst out laughing and wake everyone. 

Somewhere, buried deep under the snow of her thoughts, she felt like Ellie’s words had ignited something, like an ember in a forgotten fireplace, there was something she was supposed to be remembering, something from her dream that she mustn’t forget. 

Ellie let out a contented sigh, her breath tickling Lottie’s leg, and she quickly lost her train of thought.

Whatever it was, she was sure it could wait until after Christmas.

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