"Would it kill them to fix the heating in this place? Geez..."
It felt to Aire that the mall was just as cold as the parking lot outside, even though that shouldn't have been possible. She knew it was just two weeks until Christmas, but still, it was shockingly cold.
"Sorry, Aire. You know how cheap this place is. I wonder if they even have heating, or if the insulation is all that's keeping us warm right now."
"Noel, I wouldn't be surprised if there was no insulation. Anyways, the freezing cold isn't the point right now."
"Right. A job. I know."
The reason Aire and Noel were wandering around the mall was for a job. Through some completely horrible stroke of fate, the gift set of china cups that they had gotten Noel's mother for Christmas were completely shattered. Now, they needed to quickly get enough money to buy a new gift, one that wouldn't break before it arrived.
"Once this is all over, I'm never using the internet to buy things ever again."
"Hey, what about that place?"
He pointed across the mall to Pablo's Pizza, probably the most well-known restaurant in the mall. Sure, they apparently had had some issues with animatronics before Noel and Aire were born, but the staff was friendly and the pizza was some of the best on the planet. On top of that, so many people ate there daily that the staff was paid above-average salaries. If they could get a job there, getting Noel's mom a new gift would be a cinch.
They walked over to the counter, staring at the plump owner of the joint, Pablo .
"Hey, Pablo. You got any openings? We need a quick job for over the holidays."
The portly pizza purveyor pulled a fresh pie out of the oven. Green olives and pineapple- Aire's favorite and Noel's least favorite.
"Sorry, kiddos. Ain't got a single job opening right now."
Noel leaned over the counter, his usual sly smile on his face. He pulled a crisp 10-dollar bill out of his sweatshirt pocket, handing it to Pablo. "If that's the case, then I'll take a 10-dollar gift ca-"
"Noel. We're not getting your mom a pizza gift card for Christmas."
He slid the bill back into his pocket. "Come on, Aire, it'll be a lot easier than trying to get a full job for only two, three weeks tops."
She sighed and stared directly into his eyes. "Look, your mom has been more of a parent to me than my own mom and dad have ever been. I want to show her all my gratitude towards everything she's done. She needs a legitimate heartfelt gift."
"Sigh... You always were a stubborn one. Fine, let's look around."
The two wandered around the mall, looking for any store that just happened to be looking for two kids to sign on, even if only for a few weeks.
Unfortunately, that didn't seem like the case. Either the stores were too focused on the Christmas rush, or they just didn't want any new employees at the moment. Not a single store accepted them.
Noel collapsed on a bench. "Look, Aire. We've been up and down the mall, and there haven't been any signs of anybody looking for workers. I think we're going to have to look elsewhe-"
"What about that place?"
The place in question must've been very new, as neither of the two had seen it in the mall before. The storefront was white and cyan, with a snow-themed design across the windows. It seemed empty, and the only person around it was a woman with white hair and heavy winter clothes. The name of the store was the Crystal Cream Creamery.
"Noel, I don't like the thought of working in an ice cream joint during the winter. But if this our only option..."
The two walked towards the white-haired woman. Aire's first glance was correct, as she actually was wearing very heavy winter clothing, most notably very thick winter boots. Her face had that sort of timeless quality to it- she couldn't put her finger on what it was, but it made her feel somewhat comfortable.
"Why, hello, dearies! What can I do to help you today?"
At the very least, she seemed nice. "Umm, Mrs..."
"Anna Oyuki. Founder of Crystal Cream Creamery and recent immigrant from Japan."
Noel stepped forward. "Mrs. Oyuki, my friend and I are in desperate need for holiday funds. If you're in need, we'd be happy to take on a job."
She smiled and clasped her hands together. "Wonderful! I was looking for workers, to tell the truth. We can get started right away!"
"Sigh... Well, at least we have our job."
Aire was thankful for Mrs. Oyuki being so eager to giving them the job- just a quick search of credentials, no recommendations or anything- but her uniform was rather... warm. It was pretty much just a cyan polo shirt with white shorts and an apron- nothing too bad for summer, but absolutely terrible for winter weather. And it was just as cold in the creamery as the rest of the mall.
"I'm glad you two were so eager to take the job. Young people nowadays are usually a lot less likely to do this sort of thing."
Noel strapped on the body of his mascot costume, which resembled a smiling wisp-shaped swirl of ice cream. "Not at all, ma'am. Just one question... What's the pay?"
"It's not much, but you'll both receive a pay of 4 dollars an hour. I pay in cash, not paychecks, so you'll receive a day's pay every day."
Effectively meaning 180 dollars for a week's work. Not bad- they might be able to afford a gift sooner than they both thought.
Noel placed his mascot head on, walking outside to attract attention. Meanwhile, Aire was to be put in charge of running the register- Crystal Cream Creamery was one of those self-serve ice cream places, apparently.
Nine hours later, Aire and Noel were exhausted. It was shocking how many people wanted ice cream in the flipping winter, but, by Aire's count, the creamery had made over 500 dollars on its first day in business. Maybe the ice cream was the best thing ever, or maybe it had to do with Noel's costume- they had no idea.
"Yawn... Noel, you go on and get the car ready. I'll help Mrs. Oyuki clean up."
"On it." He walked out of the shop.
Mrs. Oyuki looked really happy, not seeming to mind the busy work day or the increasing level of coldness. "I really appreciate you doing all of this for me, sweetheart."
Aire began stacking chairs on top of the tables. "No problem, ma'am. I just want to help you get your business up and running."
The store owner went into her personal office for a second, bringing out some objects- two envelopes and a small black box.
"Here's the paycheck for you and that friend of yours."
She grabbed the two checks and looked at the box. "Umm... What's this?"
She opened the box and pulled out a necklace. Shining silver metal, decorated with small light blue gems and a snowflake charm. It seemed so bizarrely lifelike, a true work of art. It was truly an amazing piece of jewelry.
"I wanted to give this to you. It used to be my mother's, until she... passed on."
"Mrs. Oyuki, I can't-"
"Please. Take it. I have no use for it. Just please promise me that you won't sell it."
Aire hesitantly took the necklace and put it on. The metal was cold against her skin, making her realize just how cold it was outside. She waved goodbye to her new boss as she ran through the closing mall, trying to make it to Noel and his heated car.
After Noel dropped her off at home, Aire just walked up the stairs, not even bothering to explain her day to her two bickering parents. They were always fighting each other, ignoring her entirely, and she was surprised that they hadn't divorced by this point.
Maybe they just liked arguing.
She went upstairs, brushed her teeth, put on sweatpants and a nightshirt, and went straight to bed. At last, peace and quiet in a nice, heated house.
Except she didn't feel any heat. She got to sleep well enough, but she spent the entire night shivering, a cold sensation coursing through her body.
When Aire woke up, she was still freezing.
"For the love of... Did we lose our heating too? This sucks."
She got out of bed and walked into the bathroom, brushing her teeth and tying her jet-black hair into a ponytail. Aire really didn't care about her appearance all that much, but she enjoyed her hair color, possibly because everyone else in her immediate family was a brunette.
Putting on winter clothes thicker than the previous day's to keep her warm in the snowy winter morning, she noticed that she was the only one in the house. She checked her watch- nope, she wasn't late for work.
Her parents had probably left her to go do some errand or something. Wouldn't have been the first time.
She took her bike to the mall, arriving earlier than Noel did. Typical- he was always the one sleeping in while she showed up on time. She made her way to the Crystal Cream Creamery, holding her uniform in between her chest and arm.
Mrs. Oyuki was already in her back office, wearing a blue and white kimono instead of her heavy winter clothing from yesterday. It was a beautiful robe, trailing all the way down to the floor. At any rate, she just seemed to be counting money.
The creamery owner turned to Aire, a warm smile on her face. "Why, hello there! Back already?"
Aire just shrugged as she walked into the changing room and started putting on her uniform. "Not only do we want to help out, but we really need the money. It's for someone special to both of us."
Mrs. Oyuki just nodded and went back to the money counting. "Do you enjoy the necklace, dear?"
Suddenly, Aire realized that she was still wearing the necklace from last night, having gone straight to bed without taking it off. She held the snowflake charm in her hand; once again, the ambient temperature made the metal extremely cold to the touch.
"Yes, Mrs. Oyuki. It's beautiful... I'm just wondering why you were so willing to give it away."
"We all have our reasons, dear. Now dress quickly. It'll be opening time soon."
The work day went by even faster than the previous day, even though the amount of patrons to the creamery seemed to have doubled. Once again, Aire was already tuckered out by the time Mrs. Oyuki handed her and Noel's paycheck.
"Thank you for all of the hard work, hun."
"No problem, Mrs. Oyuki. See you tomorrow."
The two teens walked out of the mall, the sunset hanging over the parking lot like a spotlight. Aire noticed that Noel wasn't nearly as tired as she was.
"What's your secret?"
"Yawn... Why aren't you tired?"
"Well, that's easy. You have to work the register all day, which requires a lot more mental and physical work than wearing a costume."
"At any rate, I'm just gonna go home, order some takeout, and spend the night trying to beat that one boss. I swear, I'm developing a phobia of comic sans."
A cold breeze flew through the air, chilling Aire to the bone. Noel just shivered a little bit- it was then that Aire noticed that he wasn't wearing anything nearly as warm or thick as her.
"Aren't you cold?"
"Huh? Oh, not really. It's warmer than yesterday, at least. Still chilly, though."
That was certainly odd.
Aire was determined to complete her plan for the night. Her parents had gone out to dinner (most likely to argue) and left the place to do what she wanted. The first thing she did was reheat a piece of leftover pizza as she hadn't eaten anything since breakfast.
"Why is it... still cold? Ah, no matter."
Her next step was to ensure that the house stayed warm enough for her to actually sleep well, unlike the night before. She ran around the house, turning up the thermostat in every room she could, especially her own. Finally ready to sleep, she collapsed on her bed.
It didn't work.
Aire spent the entire night freezing cold, especially around her head and neck. She couldn't understand how it could be colder than the previous night, especially with the heat on.
And then there was that weird tingle in her feet...
"Are... Are you alright, dear?"
It was nice of Mrs. Oyuki to be so thoughtful, especially during working hours in freezing conditions. Aire told herself not to think about the word "freezing", as the temperature seemed even colder than the day before.
"Yes, ma'am. Just tired... and cold. Mostly cold."
"I see." Aire thought she saw the slightest hint of a smile on the woman's face- no, it must've been her imagination. She was excessively tired. "Well, if you want to take a break, I can always-"
"No thank you." Aire didn't want her boss disappointed in her. Besides, she really needed all the money she could get. Once this was over, she could sleep until Christmas.
"Alright. If there's anything I can do to help, just ask me." She turned back toward her office, taking off her winter clothing and pulling out her blue-and-white kimono. Aire hadn't thought of it as anything special before, but now it felt... oddly compelling.
Her boss turned her head for a few seconds. "Nice hair, by the way. The color suits you." A strange comment, but nice nonetheless.
She shivered as she set her mind back to work.
Work blazed by as usual, and Mrs. Oyuki decided to let Aire out early. Noel had left by the time Aire had arrived, as he had run into a crazed child who had broken his mascot costume. She let him off early for the day, but just while the suit was being repaired.
Aire decided to visit Noel's house. After all, she needed a break from her recently hectic life. At the very least, it would be a good way to get out of the cold that seemed to have been following her the last few days.
The snow was hard to walk through. It was densely packed and should've been easy to walk on, but her feet were so cold that they refused to cooperate most of the time, eventually, however, she made it to Noel's home.
"FOR THE LOVE OF-"
Noel was upstairs in his room, playing on his PC. Apparently, he was having a bad time, much like he had for the past week. The door unlocked, Aire walked inside and headed upstairs.
Noel didn't even have to turn his head to realize she had walked in. He handed her a plate, which held two slices of cheese pizza and a mound of crust.
"Warm up. It's cold outside."
"Tell me about it." Aire thought about removing her coat, then thought against it. After all, she needed all of the heat she could get. "How many times have you been dunked on by this point? 20?"
Noel just grumbled to himself. "You sent me up for this. You told me genocide run or bust. I just wanted to have fun, but NO."
The two shared a bit of a laugh, with Aire putting her hand on Noel's shoulder playfully. To her surprise, he jumped back.
"Holy heck, why is your hand so cold?"
"My entire body's been cold for the past two days. It's freezing out."
"No, it's not that. Your body is literally radiating co- Wait a minute. Have you dyed your hair recently?"
Aire went from slightly confused to full-on worried. "Wha-WHat do you mean, have I dyed? Of course not!"
Noel turned around, his eyes still fixed on her head. "Then somebody must've played a prank on you. Your hair is snow white."
Aire excused herself to use the bathroom for a second. Noel was confused, but didn't object, and went back to his seemingly futile attempts to get past the boss. Once she looked in the mirror, her suspicions were confirmed.
Her normally black hair had become pure white. She knew it couldn't have been a prank of any kind, as any attempt to dye it would've been prevented or at least known of by her. It wasn't just snow, either. Her hair had just changed color. Her skin had also gotten paler, but it wasn't as drastic as the hair.
Even worse was the fact that her breath was fogging up the glass. If it really was as cold in the house as she felt, she would've just seen her breath, but this proved that she was effectively generating her own low temperature.
And then there was that weird feeling in her feet.
She took off her left boot and sock. Her foot was not only even more changed than the rest of her, but hardly there. All she could see was a sort of vague, foot-like shadow where the appendage used to be.
Aire knew something was wrong. She thought of what could have caused all this... then, her necklace got even colder.
The same necklace given to her by Mrs. Oyuki. The one she wore the night the cold started affecting her.
The kind old woman was the one behind Aire's changes.
Aire didn't even bother heating up the house that night. Instead, she took off Mrs. Oyuki's necklace, certain that it was the source of the problem.
Unfortunately, things seemed too far-gone. Her body was so cold that she was beginning to create frost on her blankets. At the very least, the cold was now soothing her to sleep- something that was definitely unnatural. It was almost as if she was starting to become something... inhuman.
Her immediate reaction was to call Noel.
"Groan... Aire, is that you? It's like 11:30 at night."
"Listen, Noel. I think Mrs. Oyuki did something to me."
"What are you talking about?"
"My hair's turned white, my skin is paler, I think my eyes are changing color, I make everything around me colder... My freaking feet have started turning invisible."
"Are you entirely certain Mrs. Oyuki has anything to do with-"
"I know it. That necklace she gave me started all of this transformation. Tomorrow's Friday, Noel. Our last possible day to get answers."
"...Alright. I'm with you. What's the plan?"
"Simple. We go to the mall early and ask her directly."
Aire awoke earlier than usual the following morning, yet wasn't as tired as she had been the past few nights. It was scaring her to think that she was becoming used to the cold emanating from her body, but she bundled up and walked to Noel's house.
The two drove silently towards the mall. Aire was still in shock about what was happening to her, and Noel had to focus on driving in the massive snowstorm that had erupted. It felt almost... malevolent.
Eventually, they did make it to the mall, and wandered around the mostly empty building until they reached the Crystal Cream Creamery, the friendly-looking storefront looking much more sinister. Mrs. Oyuki herself was there, dressed in her kimono while counting bringing in a box of what she assumed were toppings.
"Mrs. Oyuki! We need to talk!"
The woman turned around, at first surprised, but then shifting her expression to her usual grandmotherly smile. Aire was no longer charmed by her facade, and walked up to her angrily.
"Why, hello there! Early today, I see. I appreciate you-"
Aire held out the necklace that Oyuki had given her. "I know something's up with you and this necklace. Explain. Now."
Her face went from a smile to a stern scowl. "Alright, my dear. It appears that you've figured me out. There is indeed more to me and that necklace than you know."
Noel chimed in. "Mrs. Oyuki, are you some kind of... ghost?"
"Of course I am. Have you never heard of a yuki-onna before?"
A chill swept through the building, or at least, Aire assumed it did. All she had to go off of was Noel's sudden shivering fit- neither she nor Mrs. Oyuki seemed to feel anything. This was clearly no ordinary chill.
"I- I'm not sure what that is, ma'am. But what I do know is-"
"Oh, come now. If you're complaining that I've been making your little friend Aire a yuki-onna as well, don't. It's beneficial for the both of us."
"How is turning into some freakish ice ghost good for me?"
"...Well, it's good for me at least. You see, that necklace was, in fact, my mother's- we simply both died in a snowstorm in northern Aomori, our spirits turning into yuki-onna. That necklace was cursed upon her death."
"And now, it turns anyone who wears it into one. You... You killed me."
The woman simply smiled and clapped once. "Good for you. It's not exactly true, since yuki-onna and other yokai are corporeal and we just have long lifespans, but yes, you are a spirit now."
"Why would you do this?!"
"It's simple. It gets very, very lonely with a lifespan on the level of a yuki-onna, and my mother has since passed on. But you... You gave me hope, Aire. I gave you thank necklace because I thought you and I-"
"Could be friends? Why would I ever want to be friends with someone who killed me? You're an inhumane monster, Mrs. Oyuki, and even if we were the only people in the world..." She walked up to her former boss with an indescribably angry expression.
"After what you've done, I could never be near you."
The white-haired woman, looking defeated, turned to Noel and handed him another envelope. "I figured that you'd be made once you found out about the necklace. I'll be leaving soon- but I wanted you to have this. It should be enough money to get your gift and more. As for the transformation..."
"It's permanent, isn't it?"
Mrs. Oyuki held Aire's hand. The contact point was so cold that ice started forming around their hands- but Aire no longer felt anything. Her entire body was taken up by the chill radiating from deep within her soul. Part of her was horrified, but the other part was finally at rest- this was her life now, and nothing could change it.
"Sweetie... I'm truly sorry. When me and my mother died, it was a natural death. But you? You were just a normal girl that I effectively murdered. Keep the necklace. You'd hurt more people by getting rid of it."
The woman dispersed into snow particles, blown away by an unseen wind. The two teenagers simply stood in the abandoned ice cream shop, holding a cursed necklace and a fat envelope of money.
The following weeks were exceedingly normal. Aire and Noel purchased the vintage china set that Noel's mother had been eying, and had enough left over to get some gifts for themselves. Aire's parents continued either arguing or abandoning her to do stuff, so she spent an excessive amount of time with Noel.
Only the two of them knew about Aire being effectively dead.
Finally, Christmas Eve came at last. The decorations were set, the cookies left out for Santa by Noel, the subsequent teasing of Noel at the hands of Aire... It was almost like a normal holiday.
After the celebrations at Noel's house, Aire headed home. As usual, her parents weren't around... but they had left a note on the stairwell, stating that she was no longer allowed to crack up the heat to the levels she had been.
No problem, she thought. It won't help anyways.
She climbed into bed, her transparent, ghostly feet, tingling on contact with the floor. Her body coated the bed with a fine layer of frost as she drifted off to sleep...
Finally, Aire thought, I can sleep in peace.
- While the story was originally intended to simply be a one-off with no real continuation, writer Pyrostar has expressed interest in "expanding the world and continuing the story".