Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. The Alternate Timeline, Part I.

Title: Velveteen vs. The Alternate Timeline, Part I.
Summary: Into every superhero's life the occasional alternate timeline must fall. Whether she wants it to or not. Of course, then the question becomes...what if you like this new timeline better?

***

Velveteen stumbled into her bedroom somewhere between midnight and two o'clock in the morning, muscles aching from a long night of chasing would-be evil-doers over rooftops and through the streets of Portland, her left thumb still throbbing a little from where she'd slammed it in the car door, her domino mask still covering her eyes. She managed, barely, to yank off her rabbit-ear headband and remove her uniform boots before collapsing onto the bed, already half-asleep.

The teddy bears and stuffed rabbits who kept her bedroom from devolving into a state of primal chaos slipped off their shelves and crossed the floor to the bed, where they carefully tugged the blankets out from under her limp body and tucked her in. Vel mumbled something in her sleep, one hand sleepily slapping the covers. The various plush toys exchanged what could only be described as a look, despite their lack of functioning optical nerves. The battered plush rabbit who usually directed the bedroom toys when Vel couldn't do it herself paused a moment before pointing to one of the older bears. The bear clapped its paws together with an air of definite delight, then ran and slid itself beneath Vel's questing hand. She made a small, satisfied sound, pulled the bear close, and sunk deeper into sleep.

The plush toys continued cleaning the room, dragging the discarded pieces of Velveteen's costume into the closet, using the small hand broom to sweep up the mud she had tracked onto the carpet. Vel slept through it all...until just before five o'clock in the morning, when the toys abruptly stopped moving and fell over, assuming the traditional positions of inanimate things waiting for someone to come along and play with them. In a way, that was exactly what they were.

The last to stop moving was the teddy bear who had been chosen as Vel's companion for the night. It didn't move under its own power, exactly, but as the mattress sprang back into place, it rolled out of the empty bed and onto the floor, where it stopped just under the edge of the blanket, half-hidden from view. Its blank button eyes stared sightlessly up at the ceiling.

The air in the house hung heavy, still, and undisturbed. There was nothing to disturb it. Velveteen was gone.

*

The existence of alternate timelines was first posited long before the existence of superheroes was confirmed, although "alternate reality science" didn't really acquire a strong following in academic circles until the appearance of the first known visitor from another timeline. Alter-Nate (whose powers consisted mostly of crossing dimensional borders when he was trying to cross streets) opened the door to countless research studies, frivolous grants, and serious discussions of whether turning left would lead to a more positive future than turning right. Alter-Nate himself was only present for the first six months or so of the debate before he went out for coffee and vanished back into the ether. He has not been sighted in our dimension, egotistically referred to as "Earth A," since that day. It is generally hoped that he eventually made it back to his home reality, or at least managed to get himself that cup of coffee.

Since that time, several hundred alternate realities have been documented and cataloged, ranging from dimensions of pure fantasy, the seasonal universes, upward of fifty places claiming to be Hell, an equal number of places claiming to be Heaven and, of course, the inevitable variant timelines. Some stem from simple differences, like the classic "what if you turned left instead of right?" (the "which came first, the chicken or the egg" question of alternate reality science). Others are more complicated, worlds where mammals never evolved, or where superpowers never manifested in the human race.

Statistically speaking, every superhuman will encounter at least one parallel dimension, alternate continuity, or externally manipulated reality during the course of their career. This number is naturally influenced by the lifestyles of the superhumans in question: someone like Jackie Frost, who lives in one world and regularly commutes to another, will encounter substantially more variance in her personal reality than someone like Dairy Keen, who has never voluntarily left the state of Minnesota. There is also the fact that alternate worlds apparently call to each other. If a wormhole opens next to someone who has never left their original reality and someone who has left that reality dozens of times, the odds are good that the more seasoned traveler will be the one pulled into a dimension beyond their understanding. This may be because of some residual radiation left by the crossing. It may also be because the universe has a sick sense of humor.

All Earth A superhumans who undergo training with The Super Patriots, Inc., are required to pass Heroing 101, including units on Alternate Reality Survival and Recognizing a Dreamscape in Ten Easy Steps. There has been, as yet, no evidence to support the claim that these units increase the chances of Earth A heroes surviving in another reality. There has also been no evidence to support the claim that these units get Earth A heroes killed. Given the alternative, most heroes try to remember their lessons. It's the only way to be sure.

*

Velveteen woke slowly, lured back into a doze several times by the optimally-firm mattress and the perfectly-layered nest of blankets that she had built around herself. She was dozing off for the third time when a male arm was draped around her waist, pulling her firmly backward.

Normally, that sort of thing would have been answered by immediate violence, followed a split second later by actually waking up. But something about the situation—the shape of the arm, the smell of the air in the room, even the mattress underneath them—was so impossibly familiar that Vel's sleeping mind insisted this was just another dream, and allowed her to stay almost entirely limp.

"Vel."

"Mmm."

"Vel."

"Mmm-mmm."

"Vel, honey, you have to wake up. Morning call is in a little over an hour." The owner of the arm leaned over to kiss her cheek, and that was familiar, too, so familiar that Velma finally opened her eyes, staring into the dimly-lit room. From where she was, she could see a dresser, a laundry hamper, and a metal shelf packed with toys. She couldn't make out any details, but what she could see was enough to make one thing extremely clear: this wasn't her room.

Slowly, feeling like the world was getting ready to shatter around her, Velma rolled over. Action Dude—no, Aaron; he wasn't wearing his mask, and he was always Aaron when they were alone together, it was something they had both insisted on—looked at her, confusion and concern in those big blue eyes of his. He wasn't wearing a shirt. For one guilty moment, Vel allowed her gaze to drift downward. She hadn't seen Aaron like this since they were both seventeen, after all, and well. You can't blame a girl for dreaming...

No, Vel. Bad Vel. Stop it, she thought firmly, wrenching her eyes back up to his face. That didn't help as much as she would have wanted it to. Not with him looking at her like that. "Aaron?"

"Honey, are you okay? Were you having a bad dream or something?" The concern in Aaron's eyes grew stronger. "I can call Medical if you want me to."

"No!" She almost shouted the word, sitting up at the same time. The blankets went with her, revealing Aaron's pajama pants. The were blue, printed with his Action Dude insignia, and a small war broke out in the back of her mind, between the thought Thank God he's wearing pajamas and the thought I wish to hell he wasn't. "I mean, uh, no. No, I don't need to see Medical. I'm fine. I'm totally fine."

"Wow." Aaron sat up in turn, frowning at her. "The last time you said 'I'm fine' and sounded that fake about it was after your last trip to the Autumn Country." He paused. "Honey, you didn't—I mean, they didn't—last night—"

Oddly, she had no trouble at all guessing what he was trying to say. "No. Halloween didn't take me last night. I haven't heard from the holiday in years." She looked down at herself. She was wearing a burgundy nightie with lace trim, something she recognized as being as close to "costume pajamas" as Marketing could get without infringing on Playboy. Somehow, it wasn't a shock to see the wedding ring on her left hand. She raised her arm, looking at it, and sighed deeply.

That was the real problem with alternate timelines. Sometimes, when you got right down to it, you found out that you really wanted to stay.

"Aaron, I'm not sure just how to say this..."

"You think you've fallen into an alternate timeline, and you're trying to figure out how to tell me without pissing me off," said Aaron amiably. Vel turned to stare at him. He smiled at her, concern still hanging in his eyes. "This is the third time this week, honey. I'm sort of getting used to it."

"What?"

Aaron offered her that little half-smile that always made her heart jump up into her throat, and said, "We were fighting Dr. Darwin ten days ago. He was planning to use some sort of revision ray to change the history of the planet, so that humans never managed to invade some pristine ecosystem or other. I mean, he was in full-on monologue mode, it was kinda hard to follow, you know?"

"Uh-huh," said Vel. Her mouth was completely dry and her head was starting to spin. She wanted to believe what he was saying. She wanted to believe it so bad. "What happened?"

"I managed to knock him over, but he grabbed the gun as he was going down. He was going to shoot me. You didn't have any toys big enough to interfere, and so you did it yourself, because you a crazy, wonderful, mind-shatteringly impulsive woman. You jumped in the way of the beam—"

"Why is it always a beam?" Vel mumbled.

Aaron heard her, because he smiled, and kept talking: "—and got yourself shot. You were out for a day. I was pretty much useless that whole time. Medical actually said they'd have to sedate me if I didn't stop accidentally breaking chairs. Your..." He faltered, smile fading. "You nearly died, Vel. Okay? You nearly left me. And when you woke up, you thought you were from a different reality. It faded after a little while, but it gave me a pretty major scare. Medical thinks Dr. Darwin's ray sort of scrambled your internal clock, made you start living out lives you never lived."

The unit she'd taken on Alternate Reality Survival so damn many years ago told her that every alternate reality was like this; they all wanted to be treated as the real timeline, the real universe. Velma looked into Aaron's eyes, and realized that there was one thing the unit hadn't done anything to prepare her for, not really:

She didn't give a damn whether this was the real timeline or not. "I guess it's a good thing that all my lives involve you, huh?" she asked, and got onto her knees so that she could crawl over to his side of the bed. Aaron grinned up at her, relief evident in his expression. And for the first time in so long that it hurt, Vel leaned down and kissed him.

*

"How's that sense of reality?" asked Action Dude as they walked down to the hall toward the briefing room for morning call. He was wearing his standard field uniform, and this early in the morning, it was almost bright enough to hurt her eyes.

Not that her own costume was all that much better. It was still burgundy and brown—thank God; she didn't know how she would have handled finding out that she was now the kind of heroine who ran around dressed in neon—but it was a lot skimpier than she remembered, with a high-cut leotard over tights replacing her old unitard, and an inexplicable oval cut-out running down the length of her back. At least her headband and domino mask were the same as always. She wasn't sure what she would have done if they'd changed.

"Shaky, but I can fake it," she said. "I don't want to go to Medical."

"Good. With as much time as you've spent with them since you got shot, I'm not sure my heart could take it." Action Dude gave her hand a squeeze. "We'll go over things once we finish checking in. In the meanwhile, just smile and nod."

More and more, it was starting to feel like she'd never left The Super Patriots, Inc. "I'm good at smiling and nodding," she said.

Aaron smiled. "I know you are," he said, and led her inside.

The rest of The Super Patriots, West Coast Division were already seated, waiting to begin. Uncertainty was looking up at the ceiling, his eyes mostly focused, for values of "focused" that included "clearly looking at something that wasn't in the room." Imagineer was gazing moonily at Mechanimation, who was gazing with equal mooniness at the conference phone. Jack O'Lope was cleaning one of his guns, while Firefly played tic-tac-toe with herself in a grid of light that she'd drawn in the air.

"Where's—" Velveteen began, and caught herself before she could finish the sentence, changing it in the middle to, "—Marketing? I thought we were supposed to be getting started."

Where's Sparkle Bright? She should be here. This is morning call. She's never missed a morning call. Oh, God. What if her still being part of the team somehow meant that Yelena was dead? Stranger things have happened in the multiverse. Velveteen realized that she was shaking. She tightened her grip on Action Dude's hand.

"I was waiting for you to assemble," said a voice behind her. Action Dude all but dragged her to the table. As they turned to sit she saw the man from Marketing, impeccably groomed (they always were) and looking far too awake for this hour of the morning, standing in the doorway. "Welcome, Super Patriots. What is your goal today?"

"To preserve and protect the American Way," chorused the gathering heroes, even Uncertainty, who was still staring at nothing. Old habits died hard: Velveteen answered with the rest of them.

"How will you do that?"

"By using our powers to their full potential to defend the citizens of the planet Earth against all threats that might rise to harm them." It was actually a little comforting to recite the old mantra with so many other voices. Like coming home.

The call-and-response went on for quite a while. Velveteen couldn't shake the feeling that the man from Marketing was watching her with a special intensity, like he was waiting for her to slip up. She didn't. Not once. Her timeline had used the same series of questions and answers to open their meetings, and there were some things you never forgot, no matter how hard you tried. Some things sank all the way down to the bone.

Once the preliminaries were over, the man from Marketing got straight to business, presenting a rapid-fire list of sales numbers, upcoming events, and suggestions for improvements. Velveteen let herself glaze out after he got started. She smiled and nodded every time he looked at her, and that seemed to do what she wanted it to; he didn't look any less suspicious, but he didn't look any more suspicious, either.

After half an hour, he encouraged them to "Go out and do good!" before calling the meeting over. Pieces of paper with everyone's patrol assignments had discretely appeared on a small table next to the door. Velveteen grabbed one as she followed Action Dude out of the room, and was pleased to see that they were supposed to go on patrol together. It made sense, since he could fly and she couldn't, but it was still nice. The last thing she wanted at the moment was to go out on the streets alone.

*

If the Marketing Department was still up to their old tricks, the bedroom was almost certainly bugged. So Velveteen didn't say anything until they were both in their patrol uniforms (Aaron with a slightly shorter cape, her with slightly sturdier high heels on her boots, and didn't that say something about the gender of the people doing their costume designs) and on their way to midtown. Action Dude flew with her cradled in his arms like a starlet from a 1950s monster movie, a sort of casual helplessness that could only be achieved through remarkable core strength on the part of the woman being carried.

(That was something else about this timeline. Apparently, never leaving The Super Patriots, West Coast Division meant living a largely carb-free lifestyle. She'd never been exactly heavy, but she remembered carrying a few extra pounds, thanks to lots and lots of fast food and truck stop dinners. Now she felt like she could crush walnuts with her abdominal muscles. It was a bizarre sensation, although it definitely made wearing the spandex a lot easier on her nerves.)

Once they were far enough from the building that they probably weren't being monitored, Velveteen cleared her throat, leaned in close so that Aaron would be able to hear her above the wind, and asked, "Where's Sparks? Why wasn't she there today?"

Action Dude nearly dropped her.

Several minutes later—after a quick recovery and a lot of apologizing—the two of them were standing on a nearby rooftop, Velveteen adjusting her headband and staring fixedly at her husband (ex-boyfriend) as she waited for him to answer her question.

Finally, slowly, Action Dude said, "Vel...in the timeline you think that you...in the timeline you remember right now, what happened to Yelena?"

Well, Aaron, after I found out that you'd been cheating on me with her, she kicked my ass in the locker room, and I quit the team. You're currently engaged to her. You're co-leaders of the team. I probably won't be invited to the wedding. Velveteen swallowed her words, instead saying, carefully, "She's still with the team. I'm not."

Oddly enough, Action Dude looked relieved. "So you're not super-close anymore. You don't, like, spend afternoons drinking coffee and talking about combat tactics."

"No. We haven't done that sort of thing in years."

"Good. That makes this a little easier." Action Dude took a deep breath. "Sparkle Bright's a supervillain, Vel. She quit the team right after her eighteenth birthday. We've been trying to track her ever since."

For the moment, Vel chose to ignore the Marketing-endorsed branding of any superhuman who quit the team as a supervillain, and focused on the important part: "She's alive?"

"She was as of last year, when she stopped Marketing from bringing home a nine-year-old metamorph. Don't worry," he added, before she could show alarm. "The kid's fine. Said Sparks just wanted to talk to him about his 'options.' The bad guys are recruiting younger and younger these days."

Or maybe Yelena just remembered what it was like to be sold by the people you trusted into a future that you weren't prepared for. "I'm glad the kid's okay," she said. "Thanks for telling me. I didn't want to ask during morning call."

"That was a good call. Marketing's been nervous since you got zapped." Action Dude glanced over his shoulder, and for the first time, Vel realized that he was nervous. "Honey, you gotta try to come back to me, okay? We can call for help if you really think we need it. White Rabbit or somebody, one of the time manipulators. Maybe they'd be able to get you stable."

"Maybe Jackie could help," said Vel, carefully. "She can borrow her mother's magic mirror sometimes. That might let her look into my heart and see if there's something lodged there."

Action Dude hesitated before saying, "That might not be the best idea. We're not on such good terms with Santa's Village right now."

Velveteen blinked. "We're not on good terms with Santa?" she said, disbelieving. "But he's...he's Santa. Everybody who isn't on the Naughty list is on good terms with Santa. And Jackie's the one who taught us both how to ice skate."

"Well, sure. But Marketing says it sends a bad message if we associate with them."

For a long moment, Velveteen just stared at him. Then, slowly, she said, "Santa refused to take Yelena off the Nice list, didn't he?"

Action Dude nodded.

"Okay." Velveteen shook her head. "Okay. Come on. Let's get back on our patrol."

Expression utterly relieved, Action Dude spread his arms and let Velveteen hop back into then, curling herself against his chest. He launched them both into the air and soared across the city without saying another word, and if he noticed the thoughtful expression on her face, he was smart enough not to say anything about it. She was just living out a timeline that never happened, that was all. She'd get over it soon. She'd come back to him, and everything would be just the way that it was supposed to be.

His Vel always came back to him.

*

Patrol was reasonably uneventful: they foiled a mugging, helped a little old lady cross the street, and eventually joined up with Jack O'Lope and Imagineer to defeat Cinemaniac, who was trying to bring the stars of a midnight B-movie festival to life. There was something deeply soothing about using Slinkie dogs and teddy bears to bring down Godzilla, and Velveteen was almost willing to forget about the absence of Sparkle Bright by the time they made it back to headquarters. No one had been seriously injured, although they'd all been battered enough to make for some exciting pictures. Even without recent Marketing refreshers, Velveteen found it second nature to pose for the photographers who swarmed the aftermath. Some of those shots would probably make the front page of the local paper.

Afterward, she ate a quiet dinner with Aaron, just the two of them in the dining room attached to their quarters. They didn't talk much, and they didn't need to. She hadn't been with Aaron in her real timeline (if that was the real timeline; why was this one any less likely?) in years, and somehow, that didn't matter, because he was the one, he was her first love and her last love and what were a few years in the face of that?

"What's on the deck for tomorrow?" she asked, over dessert (lavender lemon sorbet, low in calories but high enough in flavor to make up for it).

"We're on backup, so it's a training day," said Aaron. "I think you have a meeting with Marketing to discuss seasonal costume options in the afternoon, and then we have the evening free, as long as no cosmic threats try to undermine the fabric of reality or anything."

"So business as usual," Vel said.

Aaron smiled, relief evident. "Exactly. Business as usual."

They left the dishes on the table. The Super Patriots cleaning service would clear them away in the middle of the night, leaving a fresh hot breakfast in their place. One of the many benefits of living where you worked, and working for a corporation powerful enough to buy and sell small countries. Then they went into the bedroom, and rubbed each other's bruises, and yes, did more than that, once their clothes were scattered on the floor like leaves. Any guilt Velma might have felt was soothed by knowing that Aaron wasn't really cheating on anyone; not really, not technically. She put thoughts of Tag firmly aside. He wasn't here. Maybe he'd never been here. Maybe he was a creation of Dr. Darwin's ray. And even if he wasn't...

Even if he wasn't, she'd always known she didn't love him. She loved Aaron, and Aaron was here, in front of her, looking at her the way he looked at her when they were both teenagers and thought that this was going to be their future. Once upon a time, this was the only future she could imagine. If she took a night to enjoy it, who could blame her?

Aaron fell asleep with his arm wrapped loosely around her waist, looking totally at peace with the world. Velma waited until she was sure he wasn't going to wake up, counting the slow rise and fall of his breathing. It was a soothing sound. Part of her just wanted to relax, to follow him into sleep, and admit that this was the better timeline. This was the place where she belonged.

She couldn't do that. Moving slowly, so as not to wake him, Velma slipped out from under Aaron's arm. He didn't stir. "I love you," she whispered, and stood. It only took a moment to grab her night patrol costume out of the closet, and then she slipped out the door, and was gone.

*

Sneaking out of The Super Patriots, West Coast Division headquarters was easier than Velveteen expected it to be, maybe because no one in their right mind would be sneaking out. It would be a lot harder to sneak back in. Hopefully, she could get Aaron to cover for her, the way they all used to cover for each other when they were kids...although it was mostly Yelena doing the covering in those days, wasn't it? Yelena and her endless bolts of light. Sparkle Bright wasn't a supervillain. It just wasn't possible. Something else was going on.

Velveteen hopped rooftop to rooftop until she reached her destination: the roof of Technophilia, a nightclub for technological superhumans of all types. Everyone knew that heroes and villains alike frequented the place, and no one did anything about it, because a supervillain who was too drunk to stand wasn't going to be robbing any banks, and a superhero who wanted to be left alone to play Halo wasn't going to be righting any wrongs. Almost all the major power sets had bars like Technophilia's. There was only one thing Technophilia had that none of the others did.

Secure, entirely unmonitored, entirely untraceable phone lines.

Velveteen showed her ID at the rooftop door, accepting her visitor's pass (no powers, no team-ups, no pictures, half-off technological augmentation consultation on the third floor) and clipping it to the front of her costume. Then she descended into the club.

The quantum pay phones were on the third floor. If Jackie wasn't an ally, she probably wasn't a good one to call, and so Velveteen dialed the next best number she could think of. The first ring was normal. The second ring sounded like birds singing a happy summertime melody. The third ring was birds singing a happy summertime melody. And then the phone was answered.

"You've called the Princess's Castle, you're speaking to the Princess, what magical emergency can I resolve for you today?" The Princess sounded dead bored. That wasn't unusual. After she'd been in her castle for more than three hours, she usually sounded dead bored. It was really a pity that her powers required her to stay there for six hours a day.

"Princess, it's Velveteen."

There was a long pause before the Princess said, sounding bewildered, "Velveteen who?"

"Velveteen from The Super Patriots, West Coast Division." There was a longer pause. Finally realizing that the Princess wasn't going to fill it, Vel added, "I need your help."

"What would you need my help with, sugar?" The Princess's natural Southern accent was suddenly stronger, a sure sign that she was on her guard. "I'm sure that team of yours can take care of anything your little heart desires."

"I'm sure they could, too, if they were actually my team. I'm from an alternate timeline, one where you and Jackie Frost from the North Pole are my best friends. I need to find Sparkle Bright. They're telling me that she's a supervillain, and I don't believe it. I have to talk to her and find out what's going on. If anybody knows where she is, it's you."

"And so what if I did know?" There was a sudden edge to the Princess's voice, although her accent didn't soften. "Why would I believe that this wasn't a trick? Poor girl's been off the edge of their map for years. What makes you want to go looking for her now?"

"I wasn't in this timeline years ago. I woke up here this morning. If this is the real timeline and I'm just messed up in the head right now, you have my word that I won't tell anyone else where to find her. But if this isn't where I'm supposed to be...she's the most glaringly obvious divergence point between here and home. Because in my timeline, she's the co-leader of The Super Patriots, West Coast Division, and I'm the one they called a supervillain for quitting. That's why we're friends. You thought they'd treated me poorly, and so you came to make sure that I was okay. You brought a whole bunch of rabbits that first time, so I'd feel comfortable. You baked me a sour cream cake." Velveteen stopped, then added, "It tasted like charcoal, but it was the first time anyone had cared enough to try, and so I ate every bite."

"If this is a trick, you people have stooped lower than I ever thought you would," said the Princess, in a hushed tone. "I just want you to know that. I thought better of you than this, and that's saying something."

"Unless I'm being mind-controlled right now, this isn't a trick. And if I am being mind-controlled, Sparks isn't the only one who's going to wind up being called a supervillain."

Maybe it was the "Sparks" that did it. The Princess sighed. "I'm still not sure this is the right thing to do, but I figure you two girls have things to work out no matter what I do. You want to find Sparkle Bright? You're sure about that?"

"Totally sure," said Velveteen.

"...you really are from another timeline," said the Princess. "She hasn't been Sparkle Bright in years."

"What?"

"You're looking for a woman who goes by the name of 'Polychrome.' To find her, hang up the phone, close your eyes, and count to thirty."

"What are you—"

"And remember, you're the one who asked me. I didn't contact you." The Princess hesitated, and then added, "Good luck getting home."

The line went dead.

Velveteen looked at the phone for a moment, blinking. Then she placed it gently in the cradle, closed her eyes, and began to count. Maybe it was crazy, but she was a grown woman wearing a mask and a headband with rabbit ears on the top. Crazy was sort of her lot in life.

She had just reached twenty-eight when the electric prod was shoved against the side of her neck, and several hundred volts went coursing through her. Velveteen collapsed like a sack of potatoes, and the world went away.

*

...TO BE CONTINUED...
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