Summary: Joining the Junior Super Patriots included a lot of paperwork. Now, years and years later, Velveteen may find that the contracts she signed then still have the power to make her life miserable now...
It was a beautiful afternoon, which, for Portland, meant "it wasn't actually raining at the moment, and the weather forecast indicated that this incredible state of affairs might continue for as much as six more hours." The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Velveteen—official superheroine of the city of Portland, Oregon, which was arguably even weirder than the weather—was sitting on a brick retaining wall three stories above street level, watching one of the city's other superheroes beat the living crap out of a supervillain dumb enough to interrupt his date. Their date, actually. After six weeks of giggling on fire escapes and unmasking behind locked doors, she and Tag were finally taking their relationship public.
Good things about going public: not needing to pretend that they were "just friends" whenever the media was around (as if the media had ever believed them). Being able to officially list each other as approved for team-ups on the state roster. Jackie no longer threatening to "accidentally" post candid pictures of them making out on every superhero discussion forum from here to Anti-Earth. Picnics in the park. The possibility that Action Dude would see a picture of the two of them making out and realize that he'd been wrong to ever let her go but ha-ha, too late now, sucker.
(Vel understood that maybe, "My ex is going to be jealous because I'm dating you" wasn't the basis for a long and healthy relationship. At the same time, she couldn't quite muster up the capacity to care.)
Bad things about going public: every stupid supervillain in Oregon suddenly thought that if the two of them were together, they'd be an easy target, since they'd be so busy gazing stupidly into each other's eyes that they wouldn't notice the man sneaking up behind them with a lightning gun.
"Are you almost done?" she called, adjusting her rabbit-eared headband with one hand. They weren't quite to the "secret identities in public" stage. Sure, it meant fewer supervillains at your picnic, but it was considered gauche to bring both sides of your relationship out of the phone booth at the same time. "I don't know how long the potato salad will stay safe to eat."
"Just about there!" Tag grabbed a Sharpie from his belt, ducking away from the madly swinging supervillain long enough to scrawl a quick lasso on the nearest wall. Yanking it free, he swung the lasso overhead before looping it neatly over the villain's shoulders and pulling it tight. Finding his arms suddenly pinned to his sides, the supervillain staggered backward, and the ton of bricks Tag had sketched out a few minutes previously promptly fell on his head.
Covered head to toe in pastel brick dust, Tag turned and grinned at Velveteen. "See? The potato salad is fine."
"Will the potato salad still be fine when we finish filling out the police reports?"
Tag's grin widened. "That's why we eat while we wait."
Convincing the Portland P.D. to send officers to the roof was relatively easy: like any city with a healthy superhuman community, they had learned to adjust in little ways, like equipping all patrol cars with ladders and size XXXL handcuffs. The supervillain Tag had detained turned out to go by the uninspiring moniker of "Brick," which just made his brick-based defeat all the more pathetic. Velveteen sat on the retaining wall chewing idly on a cookie, and watched as Tag finished filling out the last of the forms. Her own statement—"Yup, I saw the fight, yup, he initiated super-powered combat without provocation, yup, I'll be happy to come down to the station tomorrow and sign things confirming what I saw"—had taken less than five minutes to complete. Tag, on the other hand...
Sometimes Velveteen suspected that the real downside of living the superhero life wasn't the attacks, ambushes, dimensional rifts, or constant threat of alternate universe doppelgangers trying to take over your life. It was all the damn paperwork.
After what seemed like half the afternoon, Tag handed the arresting officer's clipboard back to him, snapped a quick, joking salute, and turned to walk back to the wall where Vel was waiting. "Sorry that took so long. I hope you weren't too crazy-bored?"
"I had cookies," she said solemnly. "No afternoon which involves my boyfriend wearing spandex pants while beating up a supervillain, and comes with bonus cookies, can be entirely bad."
Tag laughed. "You know, I would worry about your standards, except that I enjoy being able to live up to them."
"That's me. I'm a cheap date because otherwise, I'd be out of every price range that I have an interest in." Velveteen slid off the wall. "Our picnic seems to be over. Care to walk a girl home?"
Velveteen raised an eyebrow. "On what?"
"On whether you're the girl I get to walk home. I'm sorry if this makes me sound like a slacker, but I don't really feel like escorting any damsels in distress right now." Tag reached over and took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. "Not that I'd be adverse to distressing you—or was that undressing you?—if that's what you had in mind for the rest of the afternoon..."
"Get me home and we'll see," said Vel, and winked. Flirting was still a little difficult, full of rules she'd never bothered to learn and pitfalls she'd never figured out how to avoid, but she was getting better. It helped that Tag had almost as little experience as she did, and was always willing to be patient with her. That probably wouldn't last forever. Hopefully, it would last long enough.
As neither of them was actually high-profile enough to have a signature vehicle (and what would hers be, anyway? The Bunny Mobile? Hugh Hefner probably already owned the trademark), and driving civilian cars while in a superheroic identity was a no-no, they actually did walk, on foot, back to the government-owned building that contained Vel's "office." Once there, they changed to their street clothes and walked to the parking garage where she'd stowed her beaten-up car for the duration of their picnic.
"You know, you could probably get a new car at this point," said Tag—Tad, now that he was out of his costume—fastening his belt.
"This one's been with me through a lot," said Vel—still Vel. Sometimes she thought Marketing hadn't even been trying, with her. "I'm going to keep it as long as it can run."
"I can understand that," said Tad.
Vel slanted him a smile. "I sort of thought you might."
When they pulled into her driveway, there was a man in a three-piece suit standing on the porch. Velma stiffened. "Do you know him?" she asked.
"No," said Tad. "He doesn't look like a supervillain..."
"Maybe he's with the home owner's association, and he's here to yell at me about weed abatement."
"Does this neighborhood have a home owner's association?"
"I sure hope so."
Velma stopped the car and got out, walking briskly toward her porch. Tad was close behind her. She heard the small "click" of a Sharpie being uncapped at the same moment that she heard the rustle of green plastic army men moving in the gardenias planted beneath her window. If her unexpected guest was looking to make trouble, he was going to be in for a nasty surprise.
He turned as Velma and Tad came walking across the lawn, his gaze focusing on Velma. "Velma Martinez?" he asked.
She stopped, frowning warily. "Yes?"
"Here." He thrust a large manilla envelope toward her. She took it automatically. "You have been served. Have a nice afternoon." Not waiting for her reply, he turned and walked briskly away.
Velma opened the envelope, only dimly aware that her hands were shaking. One look at the papers inside confirmed her darkest fears. She sighed.
"Vel?" said Tad. "What's wrong?"
"My parents." Velma wiped the tears from her cheek with the back of one hand as she looked back toward her boyfriend. "They're suing me for emotional distress and financial support."
"...oh," said Tag.
Superhuman law is a complicated thing, and one which has led to more than a few vicious legal battles, all of them fought by men and women who might lack superpowers, but possess law degrees. (While superhuman lawyers exist, they have thus far been required to recuse themselves from cases relating directly to superhuman law, for fear of conflict of interest.) How do you try a child whose superpower manifests on the playground of their daycare, leading to injuries and property damage? Is breaking a statue which used to be a living human, prior to meeting Medusa, considered vandalism or manslaughter? The list goes on, and the cases only get stranger.
For the most part, American superhuman law has been shaped by the intervention of the largest superhuman special interest lobby, The Super Patriots, Inc. They have reliably hired lawyers, provided scientific data, and organized focus groups to confirm public opinions relating to the more complicated theoretical issues. The Super Patriots, Inc. have even gone out of their way to seek rulings on specific situations before those situations can arise, demonstrating a level of foresight and consideration which is truly admirable in an organization of their size and standing.
At the same time, some people have suggested that there might be a less altruistic motive behind the involvement of The Super Patriots, Inc. with the creation of superhero law. After all, those voices argue, at the end of the day, The Super Patriots, Inc. retains control of the majority of the world's superhumans. Thanks to their careful intervention, it is not murder when a supervillain is killed in conflict with a registered hero (the estate of Harmageddon v. Sweet Pea), it is neither theft nor willful destruction of property if, during a superhuman conflict, a registered hero makes use of civilian cars, fences, or other objects to prevent further damages (the city of St. Paul v. Dairy Keen), and superhumans cannot be declared legally dead until they have remained both biologically and etherically inactive for a period of no less than seven years. (It should be noted that, during this seven year period, their merchandising rights and trademarks will remain active, and under the custodianship of their estate. In ninety percent of all cases covered by this ruling, the estate is managed by The Super Patriots, Inc.)
At the end of the day, the fact remains that superhuman law is essential: without restrictions and guidelines, the sheer number of superhumans in North America would present a clear and present danger to the unpowered population. Only through agreed-upon legislation can people with the kind of power that they possess be kept under any form of control. Which still begs the question of what will happen on the day when, inevitably, heroes and villains alike reject the laws which have been used, for better or for worse, to reduce them to a more human level.
The lawyers have not yet had a satisfactory response to this issue. The Super Patriots, Inc. has no comment.
"You don't have to do this, you know," commented Jackie, lounging on Vel's bed like it was her personal property. The bright orange bedspread—a bargain-bin special from the Bloomington Coat Factory—clashed jarringly with her pale blue skin. That was almost reassuring, at least as far as Vel was concerned. Seeing Jackie dressed in a three-piece suit, with makeup that didn't look like it had been applied with a paintbrush, was disconcerting enough. Seeing Jackie dressed in something that went with her skin tone might have been enough to trigger a panic attack. "All you have to do is come with me to the North Pole. There's no way this lawsuit will hold water there."
"Don't be stupid," said the Princess. She continued working on Vel's hair, trying to get it to layer properly under the band of her formal bunny ears. They were only half the height of her usual accessories, and made of a brown velvet that matched her formal uniform, but that didn't make them easy to style around. "She'd never be able to come back. Frivolous or not, it's a lawsuit brought against a superhuman by members of the normal public. She runs, she's guilty, and she's stuck with your frozen blue butt forever."
Velveteen didn't say anything. She just kept staring at her reflection, watching without comment or complaint as the Princess and her team of woodland fashionistas turned her into something that would be appropriate for a court of law. Behind her, Jackie and the Princess continued their good-natured bickering, and only someone who really knew them, or was really listening, would have heard the manic edge beneath their laughter. They'd been Vel's friends since she was still young enough to cry for the parents who'd abandoned her. It didn't matter that those parents had sold her to the highest bidder just as soon as they got the chance; they were her parents. Vel's friends remembered listening to her crying through the walls when she thought she was alone.
As ways for her parents to come back into her life went, this one certainly left something to be desired.
Finally, the Princess stepped back, motioning for the squirrels manning the hairspray can to do the same. She looked at Velveteen critically for a long moment. Then she nodded. "All right," she said. "I think you're ready to face the judge."
Velveteen didn't say anything. The Princess sighed.
"Sweetie, unless you want to go hide in a holiday, you're going to have to deal with this, and you're going to have to deal with it today," she said gently, putting a hand on Velveteen's shoulder. "I know it's hard. But it's something you have to do."
Jackie remained uncharacteristically quiet, letting the Princess do the talking for a change. Out of the three of them, she was uncomfortably aware that she was the only one who was still on speaking terms with her parents. Vel's had handed her over to The Super Patriots, Inc. at the first opportunity they got. The Princess had sought emancipation as soon as it became clear that one of the side effects of her fairy tale abilities was the universe's sudden conviction that she should be an orphan. It was cut all ties with her parents or bury them, and she chose the option that left as many people as possible alive. Both of Jackie's parents were superheroes, with winter-themed powers. The closest she'd ever come to losing them was the time she got left out in the sun at the Minnesota State Fair, and her mother had been able to fix that with fifteen seconds of deep freeze and a whole lot of frozen hot chocolate.
This was something she had to admit that she didn't share with her friends. And if she was being completely honest with herself, it was something she hoped she'd never understand.
Several minutes ticked by before Velveteen took a shuddering breath, finally pulling away from the Princess. "Okay," she said, and stood. "Let's go to court."
The case of Harmageddon v. Sweet Pea determined that, when a superhero is charged with a crime that does not equate directly to supervillainy, they cannot be forced to reveal their secret identity without just cause. (The case of Lindsey Thomas v. the State of Nevada further determined that a superhero charged with a crime that does not equate directly to supervillainy in their civilian identity cannot be "outed" by the courts. While many considered Neon Lass a second-rate heroine, she received a first-rate payout when the jury found in her favor.)
Because of these, and other, precedents, it was Velveteen, not Velma Martinez, who stepped out of the Princess's enchanted pumpkin carriage. It was Velveteen, not Velma Martinez, who walked past the inevitable crowd of paparazzi that assembled for every trial involving a known superhero (although she did have to wonder, grimly, who had tipped them off that she'd be arriving at this courthouse, at this time). And it was Velveteen, not Velma Martinez, who stopped at the courthouse door, next to two people in suits that looked very much like hers, minus the bunny ears, domino mask, and pockets full of little green army men.
"I don't know what to call you," said the man, somewhat awkwardly.
"How about 'late with the check'?" suggested the woman, and glared at Velveteen.
Velveteen was too tired to glare back.
Despite the fact that her—that Velma's—parents had been extorting money from her since she walked away from The Super Patriots, Inc., she had managed to see them only twice since the day when she was essentially sold into corporate service. The first time had been the day she graduated from training to the junior team, when Marketing brought them to the compound for "a touching family reunion." At the time, she'd thought they were being stupid, assuming that she would ever want to see her parents again. After a few more years, she'd realized that they were being cruel, but very, very smart. Remind your junior heroes what you took them away from, and they'll be all the more loyal to what you've given them instead. It was clever. It was manipulative. It was exactly the sort of thing she'd come to expect from Marketing...
...and that was why the second time had happened. When she quit the team, they said she could call anyone she wanted to come and pick her up, but that she wasn't going to travel anywhere on the company's dime. Those perks were over. And Velma, back in full civilian clothing for the first time since she was a little girl, asked them to call her parents.
Her parents came—of course they came, when The Super Patriots, Inc. calls, you come—but their reunion had been nothing like Velma could have envisioned. That was why she was able to look at them now, and not feel abandoned, or betrayed, or used. All those feelings had died the day her mother's open palm struck her hard across the cheek while her father looked silently on, both of them hating her for not being the meal ticket they'd been promised for so long.
"Velveteen," she said, quietly. "You call me Velveteen. You don't have the right to call me anything but that."
For a moment, it looked like her mother wanted to argue with her; wanted to make some impassioned statement about how, having given Velma life, she had the right to call her whatever she wanted to. The moment passed. And with a final heartbroken look back at the Princess's carriage, Velma "Velveteen" Martinez turned and followed her parents into the Portland City Courthouse, to find out what horrors her future might hold.
Velveteen sat in the holding room in her uncomfortable court suit, trying to calm her nerves with breathing exercises. She was never going to be serene—not here, not now, not with her parents sitting on the other side of the room glaring daggers in her direction—but she didn't want to risk losing control of her powers while she waited for her case to be called before the judge. A superhero who loses control in court is a superhero who's about to lose everything, even if the case has nothing to do with powers beyond human ken. "Always remember that the people can love you and fear you in the same breath," that was what the woman from Legal had said, when Marketing brought her in during Vel's second year. "They want to worship you. They also want to see you fall. Never give them an opening, because if you do, they will take you all the way down, and they'll tell themselves that you deserved it. And so you're aware..." Her smile had contained too many teeth, like a shark in a three-piece suit and sensible heels.
It was her closing words that echoed in Velveteen's ears now, making her feel like she really had the super-hearing Marketing had always hinted might be a part of her power set. "If you give them that opening, as far as the company is concerned, you will deserve whatever you get. We may bail you out, because you represent a substantial investment. But we will never forget that you failed us."
Then the woman from Legal had turned and walked away, leaving Vel's tiny class of budding superheroes staring after her in stunned, terrified silence. Maybe that had been the goal. Intentional or not, it felt like that silence had never really been broken; it had been waiting all this time, lurking in the back of Velveteen's mind as it waited for the opportunity to pounce.
She had left this opening. She had stopped paying her parents their blackmail money when she left California—and that's what it had been, that's what it had always been, blackmail draped in a veil of filial responsibility and parental concern—and since those payments had always been intended to keep them from going to the tabloids with her secret identity, she hadn't even considered resuming the payouts when she became an honest-to-God superhero again. The thing she'd been paying them to avoid had happened. What was the worst that could happen?
"The worst that could happen" was a contract she'd signed when she was twelve years old, granting her parents a percentage of every payment she received for superheroic deeds. Forever. It was all part of the generous package offered by The Super Patriots, Inc. when trying to convince parents to sign their children over to the corporation. "The worst that could happen" was a lawsuit demanding that she make those payments, with interest, as well as the "sleeper" payments that were meant to accrue when events outside the recipient's control rendered their supporting superhero unable to meet the full amount.
Fifteen percent of everything she'd made since arriving in Portland, and fifteen thousand dollars a year for every year when she hadn't been on active duty. Plus interest, of course. Mustn't forget the interest.
"Fucked-up times infinity plus three," she muttered, earning a stern look from her lawyer (chosen for her by Celia Morgan, which meant that the pleasant-faced man in the Brooks Brothers suit could probably eat corporate law for breakfast) and a bewildered look from her father. Her mother didn't look at her at all.
They sat there for another twenty minutes, waiting for their turn to stand in front of the judge while the lawyers explained why she both did (her parent's lawyer) and did not (her own lawyer) owe a great deal of money. Schrodinger's crime had been committed, and until the lawyer brought the gavel down, she was neither innocent nor guilty. It was a difficult place to be. Not for the first time, Vel found herself feeling sorry for both Schrodinger and The Cat, whose heroic exploits were all-too-often disrupted by the question of which, if either of them, was currently the dead one. Death, War, Famine, and Conquest might be the traditional Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but Vel was pretty sure that Uncertainty, Insecurity, Waiting, and Corporate Law were even worse.
Her lawyer glanced over at her, and offered what was probably intended as a comforting smile. It wasn't his fault that he smiled like a robot that was still trying to figure out its human emotion module. (He probably wasn't a robot. Probably. If he was, well, that was fine. She wasn't opposed to mecha-Americans, and they were allowed to practice law. She just hoped that his law modules were more up-to-date than his emotional ones.) "It's going to be all right," he said quietly. "This is a frivolous lawsuit. The judge will see that."
Unless the judge disagreed with that assessment. Or had a supervillain somewhere in the family, tucked quietly away from the public eye. Or was a supervillain who hadn't been unmasked yet—it had happened before, it would happen again, and it would be just her luck if it happened to her. Or hated superhumans, regardless of alignment, and wanted to prove the woman from Legal right. Frivolous wouldn't matter if the judge wanted to see her behind bars.
"Would Mr. and Ms. Martinez and, ah, Velveteen please come with me?" asked a bailiff, sounding uncertain. Vel's lawyer gave her another smile, this one slightly more reassuring than the first, and they stood, all five of them, and followed the bailiff to the judge's quarters.
It could have been worse. That was what she kept trying to tell herself as she stood, ramrod-straight, in her formal uniform and waited for the judge to decide her fate. It could have been a question of facts, which would have meant a jury, would have meant more media, and would have meant her face splashed across every super-focused tabloid in the world. Instead, it was a question of the law, and that meant that it was the judge, just the judge, who was going to decide everything.
On second thought, maybe that wasn't the better option.
"Let me see if I understand," said Judge Kuhn, slowly. He was a round-faced man with thinning black hair and equally round glasses perched on the end of his nose. He didn't look unfriendly. That was a plus. He didn't look friendly, either, but Vel was long past the point of wishing for everything she wanted. "You are suing this young woman for back wages on the basis of a contract you signed on her behalf with The Super Patriots when she was twelve years of age."
"Yes, Your Honor," said Ms. Martinez.
"Contracts of this type have been standard within The Super Patriots, Inc. since they first began employing and training child heroes, Your Honor," said the Martinez's lawyer. Velveteen couldn't remember his name, possibly because she didn't want to. "Child labor laws, and simple ethics, made it clear that we would need a way to pay these children for their time."
"This is true. And while I won't challenge the need for contracts to keep our younger protectors being paid, and to reimburse their parents for the pain of separation," the glance Judge Kuhn shot at the Martinezes made it clear that he didn't think they were experiencing any pain over being separated from their only daughter; Vel felt a surge of hope in the pit of her stomach, "I will note that these contracts are intended for younger heroes."
"Your Honor, the contract stated that a portion of Velveteen's earnings would be given to her parents for every year in which she exercised her powers."
"That's an extremely broad interpretation of what seems to me to be a very basic and straightforward contract," said Judge Kuhn. "This promises the hero's parents a yearly stipend for the duration of their career with The Super Patriots, Inc."
The lawyer smiled. Like the woman from Legal, he seemed to have more teeth than his head should have been capable of holding. "If you'll look at the language, Your Honor, you'll see that in actuality, she's pledging to pay her percentage for the duration of her superhero career, regardless of whether she remains in the employ of The Super Patriots, Inc."
"So she owes us," said Ms. Martinez, more stridently than she should have. She glared around her husband at Velveteen, who managed, barely, not to cringe away. "She's our daughter, and she's supposed to be supporting us."
"I believe that normally, the arrangement goes in the other direction, at least until a child's eighteenth birthday," said Judge Kuhn. "Regardless: this contract hinges on two clear concepts. The first is that a twelve-year-old child can sign a legally binding document and be expected to abide by its terms into adulthood. The second is that 'career with The Super Patriots, Inc.' and 'superhero career' are exactly and unquestionably the same thing."
"I move that both those concepts are provably false," said Velveteen's lawyer.
"You would, wouldn't you?" shot back Ms. Martinez. "Like she'd even need a lawyer if she wasn't trying to cheat her poor parents out of house and home."
For a moment, it looked like Judge Kuhn was about to lose his temper. Then he took a deep breath, and said, "The first is irrelevant in this instance—something I am frankly relieved to say, since I have no real interest in spending the rest of my career fighting off challenges by The Super Patriots, Inc. legal department. In regards to the second, I remind you of the case of Liberty Belle v. The Super Patriots. She was able to resume her heroic career outside the corporation, as it was based entirely on inborn abilities, and not on augmentation by The Super Patriots, Inc. It is the opinion of the court that the individual known commonly as 'Velveteen' did in good faith retire for several years, during which time her contract with The Super Patriots, Inc. expired. She is under no further financial obligation. We're done here."
"But—" began Ms. Martinez.
Mr. Martinez clamped his wife's hand firmly in his. "Thank you, Your Honor," he said.
"You're all dismissed," said Judge Kuhn.
"Thank you," whispered Velveteen, and turned, and bolted, with her lawyer walking close behind.
Jackie and the Princess were waiting for her on the steps. Pigeons blanketed everything, including the photographers foolish enough not to run when they saw the way the weather was turning. The gooey, pigeon crap-based weather. "Well?" asked Jackie, when she saw Vel come bounding down the steps. "How did it go?"
"We won," said Velveteen. "I'm in the clear."
"Oh, honey, thank Disney," said the Princess, and threw her arms around Velveteen's shoulders. "I knew it would work out."
Slowly, all three heroines turned to see Mr. Martinez standing behind them on the courthouse steps, looking anxious. His wife was nowhere to be seen.
Velveteen pulled away from the Princess, asking, "What?"
"I just wanted to...well, I'm sorry that we did this, and I wanted to..." He hesitated before asking, "Are you happy, Vel? Is this what you wanted?"
A superhero's life. The thing she'd been running away from since the day she turned eighteen. The mask she swore she'd never wear again...
Velveteen smiled. "Yeah, Dad. I am."
"Good." With that, he turned and walked away, leaving the three to blink after him.
As always, it was Jackie who spoke first. "What the hell was that?"
"I think it was closure," said Velveteen, slowly.
"Miracles happen," said the Princess. "Now come on, honey. Let's get you home."
The woman from Legal stood in front of the CEO's desk, her eyes fixed straight ahead at the wall. "I told you there were no guarantees," she said. "It was a shaky case, mostly intended to rattle her, and possibly cause her some financial distress. I never promised anything."
"Neither did I," replied the silky voice of the CEO of The Super Patriots, Inc. "For example, right now, I'm not promising you that anyone will hear your screams."
In point of fact, the screams went on for quite some time. No one heard them at all.