Summary: With Tag back in town, it's time for Vel to decide whether she's ready to take the next big step in a superhero relationship: sharing her secret identity.
Velveteen lounged against the wall of the movie theater, listening with mild disinterest to the screaming, crunching noises coming from inside the lobby. A piercing wail rose above the rest, cutting off as abruptly as it began. Velveteen yawned. More crunching noises followed, along with a high-pitched male voice shrieking "LET GO LET GO DEAR GOD I SWEAR I'LL NEVER DO ANYTHING LIKE THIS AGAIN I'M SO SORRY JUST LET G—" The words dissolved into more incoherent screams.
The flip-phone clipped to Velveteen's belt began ringing.
An observer who wasn't either running for their life or being pummeled by the contents of a Build-A-Bear franchise location would have seen the bunny-eared superheroine smile as she checked the phone's caller ID. She straightened her domino mask with one hand, opening the phone and raising it to her ear with the other. "Tag? Hi! No, I wasn't doing anything important..."
More screams sounded from inside the theater. They were weaker than the previous ones, but still loud enough to earn a frown from Velveteen, who put a hand over the phone as she called toward the door, "Can you finish it up in there? I need to take this call." The screaming from inside abruptly stopped, accompanied by the sound of one final, convulsive "thud" as the screamer hit the floor. Velveteen smiled. "Thank you!" she chirped, and uncovered her phone. "Tag? You still with me?"
"I am," replied Tag, with cautious enthusiasm. "Am I calling at a bad time?"
"What? No! Why would you think that?"
"I don't know. The screaming? I mean, either you're in the middle of battle, or you're answering your phone while you're at the movies, which is tacky."
"Oh, no, it's really no big deal. Just some of Cinemaniac's thugs trying to rob the movie theater so he could use the projectors to bring an army of unstoppable rubber monsters to life and wreak havoc on downtown Portland." A small procession of stuffed toys began emerging from the lobby, dragging unconscious henchmen along with them. "They picked the wrong movie theater to rob."
"Out of curiosity, where would one find the right movie theater?"
"Someplace that doesn't have a seriously bored local superheroine missing her boyfriend? I mean, just as a thought." Velveteen walked over to the first of the prone thugs, prodding him with the tip of her boot. He groaned, but otherwise didn't respond. "I may have allowed my toys to take my aggressions out on these boys just a teeny-tiny little bit."
"Broken bones, but no coroner."
Tag laughed. Somehow, coming from him, the sound was entirely affectionate. "You're hot when you're violent."
Velveteen's army of toys began tying up the downed thugs, moving with practiced efficiency as they secured hands and tightened knots. Vel stepped back, letting them work. "So to what do I owe the honor of this call? Please tell me you're not calling to say that you're going to be out of town for another week. I'm running out of people it's socially acceptable for me to hit."
"Actually, I was calling to tell you that I'm getting home tonight," said Tag. "Want me to join you on patrol?"
Velveteen paused. While the idea of patrolling with her significant other had its attractions—and was supposed to be the ultimate goal of all good superhero couples, since tandem action shots always played well in the papers—she hadn't exactly worn the nice costume for tonight's outing. Or brushed her hair. Or bothered to put on mascara. Why go to the trouble when she wasn't talking to the press or setting up any intentional photo opportunities? Apparently, because boyfriends were like supervillains, and would ambush you when they were least expected.
"How about you meet me at the usual place instead?" she asked, hoping he wouldn't notice her pause. "That'll give me time to do the paperwork on this latest bunch of morons. Maybe we could grab something to eat?"
"I'd like that," Tag said. His tone turned serious as he added, "I haven't forgotten what we talked about before, you know. The picnic, and the...talking."
"Neither have I," said Velveteen, and swallowed hard. She liked Tag. She did. She really, really liked him. But did that mean she was ready to take the next big step in their relationship? And if she wasn't...and if he was...would the relationship survive until the morning?
"I'll see you there," said Tag. "Later, Vel."
"Later," she echoed, and snapped the phone closed. She looked around as she slid it back into her belt, finally spotting one of the larger teddy bears. "Hey, you," she said. "Get over here and help me get these idiots bundled up for delivery. I have a date to make."
The teddy bear trotted obediently over, followed by the rest of her plush minions. Velveteen bent to help them, letting herself focus on her work, and not on the evening ahead of her, which suddenly looked a lot less like a pleasant date, and a lot more like one of those exams she was always afraid of failing. The ones that had Consequences. Velveteen knew way too much about Consequences. For one thing, she knew that she didn't like them.
For another, she knew that she liked avoiding them even less. Whatever else she did tonight, she was going to see her boyfriend, and she was going to see what happened next.
Maybe it wasn't exactly heroic of her, but when one of the men started to wake up again, Velveteen took great delight in bouncing his head off the floor of the lobby. Not hard enough to concuss him (if he wasn't already); just enough to make him stop moving. And then once more for good measure.
And then it was time to go. Whether she was ready or not.
One might expect the romantic lives of superheroes to be fraught with peril; they are, after all, superheroes. Everything else they do is fraught with peril. Why should their personal relationships be any different? Especially considering the well-established tendency of superhumans to become involved with other superhumans, it seems only natural that they would enjoy romances full of danger, disaster, and the occasional battle for the survival of mankind.
All these things are accurate. The average superhero relationship will involve multiple kidnappings, mistaken identities, alien invasions, and supposed deaths before achieving a measure of stability. The trouble is that all these things do not prevent superhumans from also suffering from the slings and arrows of a normal romantic life. "It isn't all spandex and starlets," said Jolly Roger, in an interview given shortly before his well-publicized disappearance. "The hard parts don't get any easier just because you can fly." When pressed to provide details on "the hard parts," he declared the interview to be over, transformed all the water in a six-block radius into rum, and flew away on his spectral pirate ship. Three days later, he was gone. And that, in its own way, tells us everything we need to know about superhuman relationships.
When all else fails, we must turn to statistics. The divorce rate among minor heroes (those ranked below "marketable" levels, who may or may not be on active duty with one of the super teams) is roughly equivalent to the divorce rate among normal humans, if not slightly higher. The divorce rate among supervillains, when it can be tracked at all—something that is not always possible, as their public personas rarely include a spouse or children—is substantially elevated, implying that the strains of the superhuman lifestyle can put substantial stress on a marriage. The major heroes, on the other hand, reveal a frightening duality. Those who are on active duty tend to marry and remain married, their love seemingly enduring everything the world can throw at them. Those who are not on active duty, or who are removed from active duty, tend to become single almost immediately.
This raises the question of whether superhuman relationships are any stronger than those of normal humans, or whether they might not be, in some ways, weaker...and whether The Super Patriots, Inc. might be engineering their more well-known and beloved family groups for their own benefit. How many of our role models are trapped in loveless relationships, unable to leave them for fear of being somehow penalized by the corporation which essentially owns them?
Perhaps more chilling...what happens when the day arrives which makes this fear no longer sufficient to keep the heroes of the world in check? How long before our superhumans rise up, not for freedom or justice, but for the right to love freely and without fear?
Velveteen—Velma—oh, she didn't even know anymore, and that was half the problem—looked mournfully at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. One of the stuffed bears was adjusting the tilt of her rabbit-ear headband, the good one that she generally reserved for court dates and casual photo ops. One of her eyes was normal: mascara on the lashes, a little hint of gold eyeshadow on the upper lid to make sure her eyes wouldn't vanish into her domino mask if someone happened to snap a picture. The other was somewhere between a train wreck and a disaster: three shades of eyeshadow, a jagged line of eyeliner, and a certain smudgy quality that could have looked sexy, but really just looked like she'd been finger-painting with her cosmetics. According to the book of superhero makeup tips propped open in front of her, following their step-by-step directions would result in a "dramatic, feminine allure, sure to win your suitor's heart as soon as the masks come off." After trying five times to get it right, Vel was starting to think that the book had been written by a particularly nasty supervillain.
The mascara wand bounced off the mirror, leaving a black smudge behind, and fell to the floor, where it rolled behind the toilet and disappeared. She glared at her reflection for a moment more before picking up the book and checking the back. "Intended for use by active members of The Super-Patriots, Inc., and their associated chapters; all rights reserved," she read. The book promptly joined the mascara wand on the floor. She might not know much about doing her makeup for civilian occasions, but she'd be damned before she let Marketing tell her how it was done.
The real trouble with doing your heroing out of a box of second-hand hand-me-downs and leftovers from your own teen years was the fact that you couldn't really be picky about your sources. Vel reflected grimly on this harsh truth as she wiped the makeup off her face, scrubbing until only a few streaky mascara-ghosts remained. She was on her own for this.
The bear made one last adjustment to her headband and hopped down from the back of the chair, while a fashion doll with an unfortunate mohawk tapped her high-heeled way along the sink, holding up Vel's basic velvet domino mask in her unyielding hands. She waited there, her fixed plastic smile eternally patient, until Velveteen took the mask from her.
"Thanks," said Velveteen.
The doll inclined her head, painted expression not changing, and turned to tap away.
Vel sighed, turning back to the mirror. No makeup; hair in need of a trim, or a style, or something to make it look moderately more fashionable than mud; rabbit-ear headband that had seemed childish on her when she was a child, and now looked either cynical or pathetic, depending on your point of view. At least her uniform fit, and was even, thanks to the Princess's mice, reasonably flattering; at least she'd been doing this long enough that she was starting to get some actual muscle definition back. Skin-tight velvet unitards weren't forgiving on anyone.
At least she knew how to conduct a midnight encounter when she was doing it behind a mask. Vel lifted the domino mask to her face, pressing down on the edges until they adhered to her skin. When she lowered her hands, Velveteen looked out of the mirror at her. Velveteen, child hero turned teen dropout turned surprise comeback. Velveteen, who faced down supervillains and Marketing and monsters, and still got out mostly sane.
Velveteen, who was scared out of her mind.
"Fucked-up times five billion," muttered Vel, and turned to leave the bathroom. Like it or not, it was time for her to go. It was time to meet her boyfriend...for the very first time.
One of the teddy bears turned the lights out behind her as she left.
Tag managed to beat Velveteen to "the usual spot"—the roof of the downtown branch of the municipal library, which offered shelter from the elements, lots of interesting things to climb on, and, best of all, access to the rooftop storage shed, allowing them to tuck little things away for later. Little things like picnic baskets, and buckets of ice, and bottles of champagne. There wasn't room in the storage shed for a table, but a few minutes with a Sharpie had been enough to fix that. The table and chairs he'd sketched into existence would only last for a few hours. That should be more than long enough.
A scraping sound to the right brought his head snapping around and his heart surging up into his throat. The pigeon that had just landed on the edge of the roof looked at him blankly, cocking its head first to one side, and then to the other. Tag sighed. The pigeon cooed inquisitively.
"I'm not going to feed you," said Tag. The pigeon continued looking at him. Tag flapped his hands in a vigorous "go away" gesture. "Go on, shoo. Scat. Get out of here. This is a private party. Come back later. Shoo."
The pigeon fluffed its feathers out, looking briefly like it was going to settle in exactly where it was. Then it turned, almost lazily, spread its wings, and flew away into the night. Tag sighed again, this time with relief.
"Stupid bird could have ruined the entire mood," he muttered.
"And that's in addition to providing the Princess with a blow-by-blow description of whatever goes on here tonight," said Velveteen from behind him, in a conversational tone. "Not that I think every pigeon in the city is working for her, but well. When one of your best friends can talk to birds, you learn to be a little wary of anything feathered that hasn't already been battered and deep-fried."
"Vel." Tag turned, a smile lighting up his face like the halogen street lights lit up the street below. Faced with that much delight, Velveteen couldn't stop a smile of her own from forming. She didn't pull away as he reached for her hands, either. "You came."
"I did," she agreed, still smiling. "I missed you. How was Canada?"
"Cold. How were things here in Portland?"
"Damp. Full of crime."
"I heard about some of that. Thanks for not turning out to be a supervillain while I was out of town, by the way. That would have really put a crimp in our relationship." Tag froze, eyes widening behind his mask as he realized that he had just dropped the "R" word into casual conversation. Which was, to judge by the sudden tension in Velveteen's smile, no longer exactly casual.
"Tag..." she began.
"I brought dinner," he said, cutting her off mid-sentence. He gestured toward his carefully-drawn table. A checkered picnic blanket covered the empty spaces in the tabletop, and mostly obscured the slightly sketchy-looking Sharpie legs. "It's pizza from that place you like downtown. The one that does the chicken and artichoke hearts with extra mushrooms."
Some of the tension eased out of her smile. "You don't like mushrooms."
"Ah, but you see, I am smart. I bought two pizzas."
The sound of Velveteen's laughter was nothing like music...but it was still music to his ears.
Both of them relaxed a bit as they ate. It helped that they were still wearing their masks, which kept them on familiar ground. Tag told jokes about Canadian superheroes and the impossibility of finding a convenience store in Montreal if you didn't know to look for the winking red owl. Velveteen talked about teaming up with Blacklight, and what a relief it was to finally feel like she had a community of friends that she could really relate to.
Eventually, of course, all the food that could be eaten had been eaten, and all the sodas were gone, and the legs of the table were starting to blur around the edges, signaling its impending disappearance. With a small sigh, Tag stood, starting to pick up the dishes. Velveteen moved to do the same, and he waved her back to her seat.
"I've got it. I just need to get things put away before the table decides to turn two-dimensional again." Tag placed the paper plates inside one of the pizza boxes, stacking it atop the other box before removing them both. "I'm getting better about keeping things animated for extended periods of time, but I'm still not up to more than a few hours."
"That's still impressive," said Vel. "I can keep my toys moving for as long as I'm paying attention, but they de-animate after they hold still for like, twenty minutes. I am not your girl for a stake-out."
"I don't know," said Tag, with a small, lopsided smile. "I think we could have a lovely stake-out together. Just you, and me, and a nice rooftop on a clear night..."
Velveteen smiled back, amused. "Ah, but how much crime would we be fighting?"
"Crime? What crime? I see no crime." The table legs blurred a final time, and then dissolved. Tag grabbed the tablecloth before it could hit the ground, managing—barely—to keep the remaining debris from their dinner from spilling across the rooftop. "Looks like we're eating dessert off our laps."
"Trust me, I've done worse." Vel leaned forward, studying the table sketched on the roof. "Can you do that with anything?"
"Mostly. Watercolors and pastels don't have much cohesion. Chalk works a little bit better, but it doesn't hold up in a strong wind." Tag dropped the tablecloth next to the cooler, bending and rummaging with his back to her for a few moments. When he straightened again, he was holding a bowl of strawberries, a bottle of champagne, and two plastic wine flutes. "I was so disappointed when I realized that. I'd wanted to go dance with the penguins."
"You realize you just admitted to watching Disney movies, which is, by definition, uncool," said Vel. "I say this with love. One of my best friends is basically a walking Disney movie."
"I want to come to one of your karaoke nights sometime. Which, I assume, happen wherever you happen to be, since hanging out with a Disney Princess means never having to say you weren't prepared for a musical number." Tag handed her a wine flute before setting the strawberries on his chair and popping the cork on the champagne. "It's really good to see you, Vel. I missed you."
Suddenly aware that the mood was turning serious, Vel smiled somewhat anxiously up at him. "I missed you, too. It's good to have you back."
"I didn't mean to be gone for so long." Tag filled her glass and sat, putting the strawberries down on the roof between them. He busied himself for a moment more with filling his own glass before clearing his throat and saying, "So..."
"Yeah," Vel agreed. "So. Very 'so.' This is about the most 'so' it's ever been."
Tag took a deep breath. Then he laughed, nervousness mirroring Vel's own. "I've never actually done this part before. The 'let's reveal our secret identities' part."
"Me, neither," Vel admitted. There had been Aaron, sure, but he was just...just Aaron, who trained with her, and lived with her, and had never really had a secret identity. Not where she was concerned. Except maybe for the part where he was secretly dating her best friend behind her back. Maybe "cheating bastard" was Action Dude's real secret identity, and she'd never known Aaron Frank at all.
"I guess that means I should go first," said Tag. Reaching up, he touched the painted-on rainbow swirl of his mask with the tips of his fingers. It pulled away from his face for a brief second, a dash of color hanging in the air, and then it was simply gone, fading into the nothingness he called his creations from. "Hi. My name is Tad Sinclair."
"It's nice to meet you," said Vel, automatically, before grinning. "Tad? Really? And you chose the superhero name 'Tag' for yourself?"
"Hey, at least it meant I didn't have to learn to duck when I heard it shouted during a fight," said Tad, somewhat defensively. He dropped his hand. "Feeling a little naked here, Vel."
"Sorry." Her grin faded into a timid smile as she reached up and removed her own domino mask. "Velma Martinez. At your service, I guess."
Tad blinked. Then he laughed. "Wait—you're really a Vel? And you laughed at my code name?"
"It was Marketing's idea," she said defensively. "I just got used to it."
"We can get used to anything," said Tad, and leaned forward, holding up his plastic wine flute for a toast. "It's nice to finally meet my girlfriend."
Vel's smile was much less timid as she tapped her glass against his. "My sentiments exactly."
It wasn't safe to sit around in public with their costumes on and their masks off. By mutual agreement—and after a lengthy make-out session, to properly celebrate the sharing of their secret identities—Velveteen and Tag both put their masks back on. Hers was the easier to apply, requiring only a few dabs from the tube of specially formulated adhesive she carried in her utility belt ("No superheroine should leave the lair without it!"). Tag's had to be drawn on the rooftop in marker before it could be lifted off the concrete and slipped into position.
"How come the table didn't last, but the mask will?" asked Vel, watching him.
"I'm just moving the mask from one surface to another," explained Tad. "The table was sitting in three-dimensional space, and that's a lot harder on the art." Almost as an afterthought, he waved his hand across the Sharpie sketch that had been their table. It promptly disappeared. "There. Always clean up after yourself."
"You know, that's about the only Junior Super Patriots lesson I've heard you mention," said Vel. She adjusted her ears with one hand—now definitely Velveteen again—and asked, "What made you leave?"
Tag paused. "I guess that's something I should tell you," he said, finally. "It's not worse than giving you my real identity, right?"
"Right," said Vel, encouragingly.
"Come over here." He sat down on the edge of the roof, motioning for her to join him. Vel walked over, and he pulled her down to sit beside him on the barrier than separated the rooftop from the open air. She obligingly nestled against him, resting her shoulders on his chest. There was something very comforting about that position; something very decidedly right. A long, comfortable silence stretched out between them before Tag finally spoke, asking, "Did they make you do those once-a-week sessions with a counselor in the West Coast Division?"
"Ugh." Vel wrinkled her nose. "Yes. They were mandatory, even. I think the only ones I ever missed were when I was kidnapped or missing or off visiting Winter. Why?"
"Visiting...never mind. I'll ask about that later. We had them in the Midwest, too. But I had a serious crush on one of my teammates—Match Girl."
"Isn't she Firecracker now? The one who does all the fire safety spots?"
"That's the one." Tag sighed. "She was, if you'll pardon the pun, seriously hot. And she barely even knew I was alive. I was being classed as a support string hero, and she only wanted to date a front liner." He laughed. "I know how sour grapes that sounds, but seriously. That's what she told me. 'You're nice and everything, but I want to go out with a guy who matters.'"
"What a bitch," said Vel.
"We were kids. We were all horrible to each other, just so we'd have something to do. Wasn't the West Coast Division like that?"
Velveteen quieted for a moment, remembering games of tag with Sparkle Bright, flying with Action Dude, and playing endless games of Scrabble with the Claw. "Not until the very end," she finally said, in a very small voice.
"You got lucky. We all pretty much hated each other, and having Match Girl blow me off was the last straw. I decided to spend some time sulking."
"What does all this have to do with counseling?"
"I'm getting there." Tag kissed the top of her head. "See, my new emo image didn't include making time for mandatory therapy. So I started making drawings of myself, pulling them off the paper, and sending them instead."
Velveteen tilted her head back to blink at him. "You can do that?" she asked.
"I can do that. My doubles can do anything I can do, except use my powers—I guess a drawing can't bring a drawing to life. I would make my sketches, send them to counseling, and use the extra time getting my sulk on. Only..." He hesitated, expression going a little vague. "Only it didn't work the way I thought it would. I started sleeping better. I was happier, I had an easier time understanding things, I felt...I felt awake for the first time in years. All the way awake, I mean, not just like I was having a sort of slow day. I reacted better."
"What?" Velveteen pulled away, twisting to fully face him. "That's what happened to me after I quit. It was like I'd been dreaming for years—"
"—and all of a sudden you wake up, and half the things that made perfect sense while you were sleeping seem absolutely horrible now." Tag looked at her gravely. "I dodged counseling for almost two months before they caught me and tried to make me go back. Lucky for me, it was the day after my eighteenth birthday. I said no."
"So they fired you?"
"For inappropriate use of my powers, yeah." Tag's face twisted like he'd bitten into something sour. "They said it was 'conduct unbecoming of a hero,' and promised that I'd never work with a Super Patriots-sanctioned team again. So far, they've kept their word. Every time there's a big team-up, as soon as the Super Patriots are in, I'm out. But I can't help feeling like it was worth it. I think...I think I got back something I didn't even know they were taking away."
Velveteen bit her lip, worrying it between her teeth. "I think you're right," she said, finally. "And that scares me, because I left friends there when I walked away."
"They're all grown-ups now, Vel." Tag smiled wryly. "You can't make them run if they don't want to."
"I know," she admitted. "But it's hard."
"What isn't?" he asked, and leaned forward, and kissed her.
"But was it a good date?" Jackie pressed. She was sculpting a snowman as she talked, with her phone set on speaker and being held up by a helpful penguin. (Penguins, lacking thumbs, were always glad when she found them a job that didn't require fine motor skills.) "Did he make you feel all warm and fuzzy?"
"It was a terrifying date," said Vel, slipping out of her bathrobe and sitting down on her bed. Her house was toasty warm, just the way she wanted it to be after spending a long night on the rooftops of Portland. "But yeah, it was a good date. Sort of a wonderful date, even. He brought champagne."
"Did you go all the way?"
Velma paused. "You realize that if I were anyone else in the entire world, I'd think you were asking about my sex life, right?"
"Yeah, but we both know you don't have a sex life, so we're all good. Did you do it with him?"
"Yes, Jackie, you incorrigible snoop, we did it." Velma switched the phone to her other ear, sliding further back on the mattress. "He told me his secret identity, and I told him mine."
"And? Dish, girl! Was it magical? Was it amazing? Did it rock your entire world so hard that you're still a little shaken? I demand details!"
"It was..." Vel hesitated before finally saying, "It was good. I really like him, and I think maybe I can like him even more now that I know who he really is. But it was a little scary, too, and not just because of the whole 'giving up the greatest treasure any superhero has.'"
"And now we're back to the bad sex jokes," said Jackie. She took her phone from the penguin, clicking the button to switch off the speaker before pressing it to her ear. "What else happened that scared you?"
"It was something he said." Velma scooted over until she could get herself under the covers, drawing them up to her chest before she said, "He told me why he left the Super Patriots. I think I know what's going on with them. And it's nothing good..."
The two superheroines continued to talk for the better part of an hour. When they were done—when Velma's phone was off, and she was tucked safely beneath her blankets, eyes closed and curtains drawn—a patch of darkness detached itself from the shadows outside her window, retreating until it reached the street. Once there, it resolved itself into Diffuse, a shadow-manipulator who worked for the Super Patriots, Inc. She glanced back over her shoulder several times as she produced a phone from the pocket of her cloak, checking to see if she'd been followed. There was no one there.
Pressing the first button on her speed dial, she raised the phone to her ear and waited for the answer on the other end. She didn't have to wait for long.
"Sir?" she said, hesitantly. "It's Diffuse. I'm one of the agents assigned to the Velveteen situation." There was a pause as she listened, brow furrowing. When she spoke again, she sounded more confident—and more afraid. "Yes, sir. That's why I called.
"I think we have a problem."