Summary: What is there for a formerly retired superheroine who's managed to find herself in the state she was aiming for -- good -- and somehow thrust back into the public eye (bad) at the very same time? Is it time for her to start moving past the things that have been holding her back?
Velveteen remained crouched on the edge of the roof, feeling like some sort of perverse Easter-themed gargoyle as she stared fixedly at the bank below her. An anonymous tip had informed her that one of the city's less-intelligent criminal organizations was planning to knock the bank over sometime around midnight. While she wasn't quite dumb enough to trust anonymous tips—Superhero Rulebook, Rule #18: An anonymous tip that sounds too good to be true is probably another way of saying "trap"—it had been a slow night, and she was bored enough to check it out. The Princess was off on one of her endorsement tours, and it was close enough to the end of summer for Jackie to be distracted by the various chores and pieces of paperwork required to usher in a successful winter. How Santa kept her on task was a mystery to everyone, Velveteen and the Princess included. Vel was willing to bet that it involved threatening to cut off her credit cards.
Another minute ticked past on the bank's large decorative clock, and Velveteen resisted the urge to go looking for something more interesting, like a jaywalker or a kid out tagging city property. The thought of taggers just reminded her that Tag was out of town on business—with "business" being another way of saying "off fighting crime in Vancouver, a city she couldn't go to without getting arrested by The Super Patriots, Inc."—and made her even crankier. What was the point of finally acquiring a maybe-possibly-sort-of boyfriend if half the time he was working outside of the area she was legally allowed to operate in? Not that she was absolutely certain of their maybe-possibly-sort-of status. They'd had three dates, all of which ended with a satisfying amount of kissing, but nothing beyond that. She wasn't sure how she was supposed to signal her desire for anything beyond that. With Aaron, it had been so natural. It just happened. With Tag...
There really wasn't a good dating guide for the super-powered set. Was it rude to sleep with somebody before you knew their secret identity? Maybe that was the step that was missing. First date, first kiss. Second date, heavy petting. Third date, heavier petting. Fourth date, reveal secret identity, and then have wild, crazy sex all over the secret lair of your choosing. Not that she had a secret lair, although she could probably make a case for her bedroom, since it hadn't really been seen by anyone but herself, the movers, and the toys, and the toys probably didn't count.
Something was happening on the street below. Velveteen snapped into the present, thoughts of her potential sex life dismissed as she focused on the bank doors. Come on come on come on, she thought tightly. Don't make me regret sitting up here for the last two hours. If I made my ass numb for nothing, somebody else is getting their ass so kicked—
Before she could finish the thought, a man in the dark clothes and ski mask that seemed to be the "in" attire of the modern bank robber came flying out through the bank window, impacting heavily with the brick wall on the other side of the street. Two more followed after him before Velveteen had a chance to move. They didn't appear to be flying through the air because they wanted to—more because they were somehow being thrown. If it was another hero working in Portland without filing the proper paperwork, they could finish the mop-up together. If it was a villain who'd just decided to rob the same bank, well...there was nothing wrong with getting a little workout. Velveteen launched herself from her crouch, grabbing the side of the nearby fire escape and half-sliding, half-rappelling down to street level.
One of the robbers groaned when he saw her coming and stretched out a hand in what looked less like a fending-off and more like a plea. "Velveteen!" he croaked. "Thank God you're here! She's killin' us!"
Well, that answered the hero question. "She who?" Vel asked, already reaching out to activate her toy soldiers and start moving them into position around the fallen robbers. Inwardly, she ran through a flip-file of her active supervillains—a pathetic list, unless you wanted to count the entire Marketing Department of The Super Patriots, Inc. Definitely no one who could sling a full-sized man across a city street, except for maybe the Claw, and he was, well, distinctly not the sort of person you'd refer to as "she."
"Her!" said one of the robbers, voice dripping with terror as he raised his hand and pointed back toward the bank. Velveteen turned to see a female figure framed in the open—scratch that, broken—window, her costume a shade of black so dark that she seemed to actually swallow the light around her.
"Me," she said, and launched herself at Velveteen.
Several studies have been done on the tendency of superpowered individuals to fight on the occasion of their first encounter. While not guaranteed, this happens often enough that multiple names have been put forward for the syndrome. "Team-Up Rage" may be the most commonly used, although the more prurient tend to prefer the simpler, more visceral, "Superhero Bitch-Fight." Casual sexism aside, the syndrome is not limited to superheroines, nor is it restricted to those on the "hero" side of the spectrum. Heroes or villains, seasoned heroes or new rookies, the facts are clear: when two superhumans meet for the first time, someone is probably getting punched in the face. The only question is how much property damage they'll manage to do in the process. Why this happens—some animal urge to protect territory, or merely delusions of invincibility brought on by being effectively invincible—Team-Up Rage is the reason most normal humans choose to spend a few extra dollars on a superhero-inclusive insurance plan.
(Some sociologists have put forth the theory that the very existence of Team-Up Rage would be sufficient justification for the otherwise morally questionable tendency of The Super Patriots, Inc. to form and train child hero teams. After all, when two heroes meet for the first time at the age of eleven, they will generally restrict their lashing out to hair-pulling and name-calling. If those same two heroes meet for the first time at the age of twenty-one, there's a reasonable chance of one or more city blocks being reduced to rubble. It may be important to note that none of the sociologists to subscribe to this theory have children, or come from families with a history of expression of superhuman powers.)
It does seem apparent that the initial burst of Team-Up Rage serves two major purposes: first, it immediately resolves the question of which of the clashing heroes is more powerful. While this may not seem important to the owner of the newsstand the combatants have just flattened, it allows them to establish and maintain a stable hierarchy. Second, in the case of hero/villain encounters, it allows the hero a chance to potentially end a reign of terror before it gets truly underway. The number of supervillains eliminated in the first throes of Team-Up Rage is high enough that this benefit really can't be dismissed.
In the years since the discovery of superpowers, only six individuals have died during or due to injuries received from a fit of Team-Up Rage. Given the number of clashes, and the average power rating of the superhumans involved, it must be assumed that they are, on some subconscious level, pulling their punches to avoid killing each other. Clearly, there is some social benefit to these impromptu battles, one which escapes the eye of the unpowered human. Regardless, when two superhumans meet for the first time, it's a good idea to get the hell out of the way.
The black-clad woman's fists slammed into Velveteen's stomach hard enough to knock the wind out of her and send her flying backward, toward the hard brick of the wall. Summoning as much focus as she could manage when she couldn't breathe and her stomach felt like it was on fire, Velveteen commanded the largest of her bears to move into position. She wasn't sure it had worked until the point of impact, when instead of brick, she hit a wall of plush. Plush with hard glass eyes that bit into the skin of her back, but that was still better than hitting anything harder, especially at the speed she'd been flying.
"That's going to leave a mark," Velveteen muttered, bouncing back to her feet. Teddy bears pattered to the ground behind her, but she couldn't take the time to assess the damage. She'd repair them later, assuming she didn't wind up needing more stitches than they did.
The black-clad woman was advancing on the robbers, hands clenched into fists and surrounded by coronas of solid darkness. Velveteen's eyes narrowed, while a small part of her brain began cheering and pumping its fists in the air. She'd been waiting to lay the smack-down on a photon-manipulator since before she left The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, and now it looked like she was finally going to get the chance. In her city, no less, where her license allowed for the use of any force she deemed necessary in stopping and subduing a potential supervillain.
This one was clearly going to require the use of a lot of force.
Ignoring the ache in her belly, Velveteen raised her hands, calling down a squad of toy helicopters and stealth bombers from the nearby rooftops. They were quickly joined by reinforcements as the summons spread through the city, awakening the caches she had been tucking away here, there, and everywhere. The first wave caught the woman in black by surprise, forcing her onto the defensive. She threw up a screen of solid darkness in front of herself with one hand, the other groping behind her, like she was trying to grab a weapon out of the air.
"Oh, I so don't think so," said Velveteen, and dropped her hands, hard, amending the summons. A herd of brightly-colored plastic horses came stampeding out of the alley, each carrying one or more toy soldiers on its back. Rainbow manes whipping in the wind, they circled the woman in black, and the soldiers opened fire. She shrieked, less with pain than with anger, and dropped her shield, using both hands to send a ring of spreading darkness across the ground. It scattered the horses and soldiers like the toys that they were, throwing the formation into total disarray. Velveteen's growing smile died as quickly as it had come, replaced by a scowl.
"Hey, bitch!" she shouted. "Didn't anyone ever teach you to play nicely with other people's toys?" The woman in black—God, would she just declare a code name already? No one went this long without monologing—whipped around, and promptly answered Velveteen's taunt with several flung spheres of solid darkness. No, not darkness; it glittered when it slammed into the walls, although Velveteen was really too busy dodging to appreciate is finer points. This was light, dialed all the way down the color spectrum to blackness. Not as subtle a distinction as you might think.
Racing to keep ahead of the balled-up black light, Velveteen gritted her teeth and focused on sending a new command to her collection of planes and helicopters. They zoomed away, while the plastic soldiers and toy horses resumed their assault on the stranger's ankles. She stopped flinging her spheres at Velveteen in favor of blasting the things that were actually hurting her, and Vel took advantage of that brief respite to call in one last support squad.
The seemingly-innate supervillain fondness for dinosaurs means that every superhuman in the world, good or bad, has heard the hunting cry of the Tyrannosaurus Rex at least once in their lifetime. Velveteen's T-Rex was only two and a half feet tall and made of vividly painted plastic, but he bellowed just like the real thing. He screamed and charged, the rest of the toy dinosaurs following closely on his heels. The woman in black whipped her head toward the sound, clearly startled, and Velveteen slammed her hands together, signaling the planes to finish their maneuver.
All at once, the planes dropped towels, sheets, plastic garbage bags, and anything else they could find over the streetlights and shop windows surrounding the fight. Darkness slammed down like a sudden curtain. Velveteen stopped running, and listened. She could still hear the pop-pop-pop of the toy soldiers firing at the woman in black, but the faint rushing sound of the thrown domes of black light had stopped. "Do you surrender?" she called, before moving a quick few feet to the left. Just in case.
"Ow!" replied the woman in black. "Ow ow—dammit, call off your weird little army! This stings!" Her voice was distorted by the full-face mask she wore, but still understandable; "mask lisp" was so common among the face-hiders that it just wasn't considered polite to remark on it anymore.
Velveteen wasn't feeling particularly polite, but she also wasn't feeling like taking another hit to the stomach. She waved a hand, signaling a cease-fire, and the sound of guns went silent. Only the scuff of pony hooves against the concrete and the sound of bank robbers running for their lives broke the stillness stretching between them, until she said, "That better?"
"Yes," agreed the woman in black, sounding faintly sullen.
"We done fighting?"
"Are you going to turn yourself in?"
For a brief, terrible moment, it felt like a brick of ice had been dropped into Velveteen's stomach. Barely aware that she was summoning toys from all over the town, teddy bears and baby dolls crawling out of their owners' beds and starting to make their way toward her, she took a step backward. "What are you talking about?" she asked, and wished that her voice wasn't shaking.
"Your accomplices let you take the beating and ran. I don't think they're going to come back for you. So if you'll just give yourself up and come quietly, we can avoid any more violence."
Velveteen blinked. All over Portland, teddy bears and baby dolls turned around and began trudging home as Velveteen started to laugh, slumping back against the brick wall in a vain attempt to keep herself from falling over. Laughter just made her stomach hurt more, which made her start laughing even harder. It was a vicious cycle, and it only got worse when the woman in black demanded, with increasing anger, "What? What's so funny? Why are you laughing at me?"
"You!" Velveteen gasped. "You attacked me! Because! You thought! I was here! To help the bank robbers!" It wasn't a question. Still slumped against the wall, Velveteen put her hands against her knees and shook her head, trying to get her breath back. "Didn't you check the city roster before you came here?"
"I was just passing through," said the woman in black, anger fading in the face of obvious confusion. "Weren't you here to help them? I mean, you showed up, and they immediately started calling for you—"
"Yeah, because I'm this city's licensed hero." Velveteen straightened up, breathing finally returning to something like normal, and reached up automatically to adjust her rabbit ears. "So you weren't robbing the bank?"
"What? No!" The woman in black shook her head in furious negation. "Absolutely no. I don't rob banks. But I was in the area, and I've been on the road for days, and I thought that beating the holy hell out of some criminal elements would be cathartic."
"I totally share the sentiment. Just check next time. I'm going to have some really impressive bruises to show my boyfriend when he gets back from beating the hell out of the criminal element in Canada."
"You're going to have some bruises?" The woman in black laughed. "Those little plastic bullets sting! I'm going to be a miniskirt no-go zone for weeks." She extended her arm toward Velveteen, clearly intending to shake hands. "I'm Blacklight."
"Velveteen." Velveteen took the offered hand and shook, firmly, flashing a smile at the stranger. "You're a photon-manipulator, right? Really dense light?"
"I thought you'd figured that out," said Blacklight wryly, reclaiming her hand. "Most people assume I'm manipulating darkness. They don't think to shut off my light sources, since that would just make me stronger if I were actually doing what they think I'm doing."
Velveteen's smile faltered slightly. She managed to maintain it—early media-management training to the rescue once again—and said, "I used to do a lot of team-up work with a photon-manipulator. You learn to recognize the tells. Dark light is still light, and darkness doesn't glitter."
"True, true," said Blacklight thoughtfully.
There were no visible eye holes in the mask that covered her face, but Velveteen still thought she could feel the other woman looking her over—that probing, overly-invasive look that came right before a question she didn't want to answer, usually one that started with some variation on "didn't you used to be...?" She braced herself for the inevitable.
"So when did Portland finally get its own superhero?" asked Blacklight. "I must have missed the announcement, or I wouldn't have started poaching baddies on your territory. I swear, it's so hard to keep up with things these days. If I don't check Wikipedia six times a week, I can barely remember who my arch-enemies are."
"I qui—" Velveteen caught herself in mid-word as she realized that the question she was starting to answer had never actually been asked. "I, uh. Not that long ago. I'm only licensed within the state, and I don't think the story got covered by any of the major magazines." That was a lie; Vixens and Villains had contacted her three times for an interview, and when she turned them down, ran the story anyway, along with a selection of the most embarrassing pictures from her professional career, including her advancing angrily on the camera crews just shy of the Oregon border. Well. Vixens and Villains might be big, but it wasn't like it was serious.
"Well, good. This place deserves some standing protection. I've always wondered why Portland didn't have a permanent hero." Blacklight's tone was chatty, all traces of her earlier fury gone. That's Team-Up Rage for you. "I might've taken the position myself, if it was ever posted."
"The Governor of Oregon prefers to remain outside the Super Patriots network for personal reasons, and no, those personal reasons aren't connected to her having a side career as a supervillain. She doesn't." Velveteen shrugged. "I showed up, I was clearly persona non grata with the current core team, she hired me to protect Portland. It's been a pretty good gig, so far."
"That's nice," said Blacklight, glancing back toward the busted-out front window of the bank. "The police should be here soon. Do you want to hang around and tell them that the bank robbers got away, or do you want me to do it? I was first at the scene, after all..." She sounded understandably reluctant. Paperwork—especially the paperwork surrounding a failed capture—was the bane of every licensed superhero's existence.
Tempting as it was to run off and let Blacklight take the heat for letting the robbers get away, the fact was, she probably had the situation under control before Velveteen's arrival went and mucked everything up. And it was her town. No sense in letting the new girl think Portland's only official hero was some sort of a flake. "How about we both stick around," she offered, amiably. "They'll probably take it better coming from me, and you can help me fill out all the damn forms."
"It's a deal." She had the distinct feeling that Blacklight was smiling at her, even through the mask. "So if we're going to stick around and play team-up for the police, can I ask you another question?"
Here it comes... thought Velveteen. "Sure," she said aloud. "What did you want to know?"
"Don't take offense, but...what is up with those rabbit ears? Did you buy your costume at the Halloween Store or what?"
Velveteen's laughter rang through the stillness of the city air.
In the darkness of the bank vault, the shadows stirred. Just a little at first, barely a twitch or a tingle, but the movement spread quickly, thin lines of electric blue glittering through the dark until—at last—it flowed together into the shape of a hand, fingers outlined by that same glittering blue. It darted forward, vanishing into one of the safety deposit boxes, only to emerge clutching several necklaces and a bundle of unmarked bills. This same process was repeated five times, the hand moving through the metal like it wasn't there at all, like there were no barriers. Each time, the spoils of the ransacked box were dropped into the shadows that had birthed the glittering blue lines, disappearing without a sound. At last, the hand snapped its fingers, making a "click" that was softer than leaves rolling across a dry riverbed, and just like that, the blue glitter was gone; the shadows were just shadows, and there was no one there at all.
The thefts wouldn't be discovered until the next day, when bank management performed their standard post-robbery check of all the bank's valuable assets. Even then, review of the security recordings wouldn't show anything conclusive; just the shadows, reaching out to empty the security deposit boxes.
Just the darkness.
An hour and a half later, after the damage report forms had been filed, the "failure to apprehend criminals due to superhuman intervention" papers had been filled out, the proof of superhero insurance had been provided, and the police were finally satisfied, Velveteen and Blacklight stood atop the highest building they could reasonably be troubled to climb, looking out upon the sleeping form of Portland, Oregon. Velveteen's stomach still ached when she breathed in too deeply, or when she laughed, which she'd been doing quite a bit of since Blacklight showed up. It was oddly...nice...to have someone around that she could laugh with. Oh, she could laugh with Jackie and the Princess, but they had magical kingdoms to run, or at least, in Jackie's case, to fail to destroy out of misuse of powers. They weren't around enough to really hang out on rooftops, laughing.
Blacklight's power set proved to include short-range flight—not uncommon among photon-manipulators, but still impressive. She was actually "standing" a few inches above the surface of the rooftop, her toes pointed delicately downward in the standard "if I fall, I am less likely to face-plant" position most aerial heroes had drilled into them by the age of fifteen.
Drilled...Velveteen stopped studying the city in order to cast a sidelong glance toward Blacklight. "Where did you get your training?" she asked.
It was an innocent question, and she'd been expecting an equally innocent answer. What she wasn't expecting was Blacklight's abrupt landing, stumbling slightly, like she hadn't realized she'd been relaxed enough to float, and her hurried reply of, "Oh, gosh, all over the place. Lots of different places. It was a definite ongoing process. Look, it's been really awesome meeting you and all—sorry about that whole 'attacking you' thing, you know how it goes sometimes—but I should get going."
"Oh," said Velveteen, disappointed and confused at the same time. "Are you on your way out of town already? Where are you heading?"
"Um." Blacklight hesitated before saying, "I'll be in town for a few days. Maybe we can team up properly before I need to go? Go out, bash some baddies, work a little of the aggression out on people that aren't each other..."
Despite the oddity of Blacklight's initial reaction, Velveteen smiled. Hell, she probably would have reacted the same way if someone asked her where she'd trained, given how much she liked to remember her time with The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division. It had to be even harder for an independent hero, after all the crap they had to go through to get a license, rather than a mandatory training session with The Super Patriots, Inc. "I'd like that a lot," she said. "We can remind people why super-teams are even scarier than superheroes. Meet you here around eleven?"
"It's a date," said Blacklight, and waved before trotting to the edge of the roof and stepping off into the dark beyond. A few seconds later, she flew back into sight, turned toward the western edge of town, and soared off, leaving a thin trail of glittering darkness in her wake.
Velveteen stood on the edge of the roof, smiling thoughtfully, and watched her go.
"No, it was actually a lot of fun, once we got past the requisite 'beating the holy crap' out of each other part." Vel flopped down on the couch, relaxing into the warm comfort of her bathrobe, deliciously dry against her just-showered skin. "It sucks that the robbers got away, but that sort of thing happens. They'll try to hit another bank or a liquor store or something, and we'll take them down."
Tag chuckled, the telephone wires carrying his laugh across the miles and what felt like straight into Vel's nervous system, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on in. Was this what infatuation felt like? It had been so long, she wasn't sure that she remembered. "Basically, what you're saying is that you've replaced me with a mysterious woman who dresses like there was a clearance sale at the ninja store. I think I'm hurt."
"Oh, so you want me to start grilling you about all those Canadian heroes the tabloids keep taking your picture with? Tell me, is Poutine 'a really good friend,' or is she the next entry on my arch-nemesis list?"
"What are you going to do if I say 'arch-nemesis'?" asked Tag, sounding genuinely interested. "Does it involve breaking through your house arrest and coming to join me in beautiful Vancouver? We have a ring of art thieves. Lots of flash, reasonably little danger. The perfect date night."
"I understand that people without superpowers think something similar, only when they're talking about that particular scenario, they're talking about some sort of caper movie." A teddy bear walked over to the couch, carrying a Diet Pepsi clutched carefully between its paws. Vel took the can, mouthing "thank you" to the bear, and added, "They pay for tickets."
"And we pay for medical insurance," Tag replied promptly. "It's basically the same thing."
"It isn't the same thing at all, and you know it." She cracked open the can of soda, taking a long drink before she asked, "So when will you be coming home? I'd demand to-the-minute, but we haven't reached that stage in our relationship just yet."
"Soon," said Tag, and laughed, sending more of those delicious shivers across her skin. "Like I said, we have art thieves, and there's just the four of us working here in town. As soon as they're tucked safely behind bars, I'm going to be all yours. I promise."
"You promise, huh? Pretty big words for a guy who hasn't even reached the secret identities stage," said Vel lightly. Then she realized what she'd just said, and froze. "Tag, I swear I didn't mean that the way that it sounded."
"I know, but I'm still going to take it that way," said Tag, suddenly serious. "When I get home, I think we need to talk about secret identities. You know. The sides of us that can have a picnic in the park without getting attacked by Mantor and his Army Ants."
"I'd like that," said Vel. Her voice came out very soft, maybe because her throat was so very dry. "I think I'd like that a lot."
"Good. Now, in the meantime, you just be careful around this Blacklight person, okay? I haven't heard of her, and she could be some kind of nutcase. I'll start asking around, see if anybody knows where she came from, or what her track record is like. It's good to team up once in a while, but..."
"—but that doesn't mean letting my guard down, I know. I can be careful when I have to be. Remember, I'm the one who actually went off the radar for more than six weeks. I don't think you get to tell me about being careful."
"Fair enough," he said. "Just take care of yourself. I miss you."
Vel sighed, closing her eyes. "I miss you, too, Tag. I really miss you, too."
The woman sometimes known as "Blacklight" sat on the roof of her cheap downtown motel, knees tucked against her chest, wind whipping her thin nightgown hard against her body. She wrapped her arms a bit more tightly around herself, shivering, but made no move toward the open window of her second-floor room. She'd get some sleep eventually. She could sleep all day, if she wanted to. That was one of the nice things about being in Portland; except for Velveteen, no one was going to come looking for her, and Velveteen would never know her without the mask. She was, for a little while anyway, completely free.
She liked the way freedom felt. It made a nice change.
No longer really aware that she was shivering, she tilted her head back and counted the stars, naming them silently in her head when she could, sending silent apologies when she couldn't. Eventually, exhaustion won out over the cold and she drifted off to sleep, still sitting on the motel roof, arms still wrapped tight around her body. The sunrise woke her, and she shuffled to her feet with an awkward half-skip, stepped onto the light, and let it carry her into the room. She shut the window behind herself, but just like nothing can really shut out the darkness, closing the window didn't do anything to shut out the light.
Half a city and a world away from one another, Velveteen and Blacklight slept.
TO BE CONTINUED...