Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
seanan_mcguire

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Velveteen vs. The Uncomfortable Conversation.

Title: Velveteen vs. The Uncomfortable Conversation.
Summary: What happens when a former child superheroine finds herself back in the business, whether she likes it or not? And what happens to her allies?

***

It was a beautiful Portland night, which meant that it wasn't raining, although it had been raining an hour earlier, and would probably be raining again in another hour. Velveteen, sitting once again like an Easter-themed gargoyle on the edge of the municipal library roof, wouldn't have minded a downpour. Hell, she wouldn't have minded a blizzard, as long as she didn't have to go back to her house. She wasn't a "living with roommates" kind of person. The last roommate she'd been willing to live with voluntarily had been...

Had been...

Had been Yelena, back when they were Velma and Yelena, best friends, not Velveteen and Sparkle Bright, teammates, or Velveteen and Sparkle Bright, mortal enemies. Lena was the only person Vel had ever lived with happily, and even though all that had been years ago, sometimes she still missed waking up and knowing that there was someone else she really, truly trusted in the room with her. Under normal circumstances, she probably would have grown up to fill that role with a boyfriend or a husband, but she'd never had normal circumstances, had she? She'd never had a chance.

What she got instead was superpowers, and an unwanted housemate from a dimension that didn't exist anymore by way of a dimension that never existed in the first place, and a cold rooftop under a starry sky, and waiting for someone who might not decide to show up. In short, what she got was her life, and now that she had it, she was going to have to live with it.

Somewhere in the city below her a horn blared, and somewhere else, someone screamed. Velveteen twitched toward the sounds, but forced herself to stay where she was. Portland had survived before she showed up; it could survive for an hour or so now that she was on the job. Besides, Tag and Jory were both out there on patrol, fighting the good fight against petty crime, parking violations, and the occasional really stupid mugger.

(Velveteen understood the attraction of living a life of crime, she really did. Make your own hours, be your own boss, and never worry about the office dress code. She just couldn't understand what would drive a person without superpowers to take up a life of crime in a city that had a resident superhero. Especially since the plural of "superhuman" was essentially "squadron." It was extremely rare for anyone with powers to be fighting solo for very long; they attracted each other, like self-illuminating moths with a tropism toward world-ending crisis events.)

Fifteen more minutes. She could wait on the roof for fifteen more minutes before she had to admit that Blacklight wasn't coming, and either she'd been wrong about Blacklight's secret identity, or that secret identity was the reason that Blacklight wasn't coming. It didn't matter which it was. If she was still alone in fifteen minutes, she would leave the roof, return to street level, and dispense justice until she was tired of punching people in the face. Which, judging by the way she currently felt, might be the better part of a year. Fifteen more minutes.

Those fifteen minutes raced by like they had super speed. When the last one was gone, Velveteen closed her eyes and sighed heavily. "Damn," she murmured.

"I'm not sure the situation calls for profanity," said a voice behind her. Velveteen turned to see a familiar female figure, dressed head to toe in form-fitting black spandex, hovering about six inches off the roof. Her toes were pointed demurely downward, the flying ballerina. "Sorry I'm late."

"It's okay," said Velveteen, and stood. Her hands were shaking. She balled them into fists and stuck them behind her back, where hopefully they wouldn't be noticed. Keep it together, Vel... she thought. "Thanks for coming. I know I don't usually call you out of the blue like that, but this was sort of important."

"I'm always open to a team-up with you," said Blacklight. The black mask that covered her face shifted slightly, like she was smiling under the fabric. "Your call surprised me, I'll admit. Is everything okay with you? You sounded a little bit stressed out in your message."

No, everything is not okay with me; everything hasn't been okay in a very long time. Velveteen took a breath, trying to sort through her thoughts. Then she opened her mouth to say what she'd called the other heroine to Portland to hear. What came out, instead, was: "Do you want to go beat the holy crap out of some muggers too stupid to find themselves an unprotected city?"

"I thought you'd never ask," said Blacklight. By the tone of her voice, this time she was definitely smiling.

*

It is a generally accepted truth that superhumans do not make friends easily. Their jobs are naturally isolating; they have trouble forming casual bonds with the people around them, fearing that too much familiarity might lead to murder or mutation. Classes of superhumans can be common, but some specific power combinations are incredibly rare or even unique, leading to enhanced feelings of isolation. A superhuman with an uncommon power set knows, deeply and without question, that no one understands them.

As a consequence of this daily isolation, when a superhuman does manage to form a close emotional bond with another individual, whether superpowered or non, those bonds tend to acquire strength at an accelerated, almost unhealthy rate. Friendships and undying rivalries are born in a matter of hours, all fueled by the desperate, undeniably human need to connect—to know that someone, somewhere, understands them well enough to love them, or hate them. It doesn't seem to matter which emotion wins. It's the connection that matters, the feeling that, for one brief moment, they are not alone in this world.

Superhuman relationships can change forms repeatedly during the lives of the parties involved, going from platonic friendships to romantic entanglements to sworn enemies without visibly affecting the status quo. Superhumans do not, for better or for worse, "move on."

It has been suggested that this tendency is exacerbated by the policies of The Super Patriots, Inc. regarding interpersonal communication and interaction. Rather than offering peer counseling and support, The Super Patriots isolates groups of young heroes to "forge teams out of lone wolves and individualists." The official documentation on this policy claims that it is the only way to give superhumans any concept of teamwork, which does not come naturally to people who can juggle cars. The world's few solo heroes say that this is not just bullshit, but dangerous bullshit; superhumans are just people, and they will develop their personal stances on teamwork and friendship without having a corporate model thrust upon them. The Super Patriots, Inc., naturally claim that this is exactly what the dangerously unstable elements within the solo hero community would like everyone to believe, since a world without teams would be a world more open to manipulation by those same dangerous elements.

Whatever the truth may be, these things are certain: superhumans don't forge bonds easily...and once those bonds are formed, they rarely, if ever, let go.

*

Blacklight darted and weaved in the air like a monochromatic lightning bolt, leaving trails of black glitter behind her. They sparkled for only an instant against the night. The light pouring from her hands was equally black, visible because it was so much darker than the darkness around it. Seeing light that black coming from the other heroine's hands made Vel's heart hurt a little. Yelena's powers weren't emotion-based, exactly, but the spectrum of her blasts was affected by her emotional state. Most of her colors didn't match up to any normal color wheel—she blushed blue when she was embarrassed, and she shot out beams of bright yellow when she was angry. But depression and heartbreak and sadness had always been darker than her other colors, trending finally into absolute black. The whip she'd used on Velveteen during their first, and last, real confrontation had been made of black light.

"Velveteen! Check your twenty!" shouted Blacklight. She blasted another mechanical bank robber with a solid bolt of blackness. He went down hard, stuttering and spitting sparks.

Velveteen didn't even turn. She just waved a hand, and Breyer horses swarmed the robot that had been able to slam into her, knocking the thing over and allowing the G.I. Joe dolls—sorry, action figures—that had been riding them to begin the process of hog-tying the struggling automaton. Another robot charged straight at her. This one, Velveteen grabbed by the head and flipped over her shoulder. It landed hard, and stopped moving.

In satisfyingly short order, nothing was moving but the two heroines and Velveteen's army of animated toys. Blacklight turned her head toward the other woman. "Are you hurt?"

"No. You?"

"No." Blacklight landed, prodding a robot with her foot. "New villain?"

"Oh, probably. I was about due for one." Especially now that Tag was in Portland practically full-time, and Jory was still getting accustomed to the idea that her sister was alive, well, and Governor. Adding Victory Anna to the mix had made a resident supervillain practically inevitable. "Looks like whoever it is does the robot thing. I like the robot thing. If they have anything I can call a face, they belong to me."

Blacklight did a double-take. If her face had been visible, she would have been blinking. Then she said, "I always forget how versatile your powers really are."

"That's me. The most versatile support heroine on the West Coast." Velveteen wasn't going to get a better chance than this; she knew it, and she still hesitated, waiting for the sick feeling in her stomach to go away. It didn't go. Finally, she took a breath and forced herself past it, saying, "Look, we don't have to wait around here for the cleanup crew. I can call this in and say that we were in pursuit of another incident. The paperwork can wait until tomorrow."

"What's the other incident?" asked Blacklight.

"There's something I want to show you."

Blacklight went still, apparently considering the statement. Velveteen held her breath, wondering if it was obvious just how nervous she was; wondering if there was anything she could have said or done differently, anything that would have guaranteed the other woman would come with her. She was just starting to believe that she'd failed, this wasn't going to work after all, when Blacklight shrugged.

"Sure," she said. "I don't have anywhere else to be tonight."

Velveteen grinned in relief. "Come on. Follow me."

*

Like all major cities that wanted to maintain a good relationship with its superhero population, Portland had established good maintenance on selected rooftops around town, making them safe places for conversation and the occasional stakeout. The superhuman community repaid the city by avoiding those locations when they were planning to have a full-blown battle. Even a supervillain can respect the convenience of a rooftop where you don't step on broken glass every time you forget to look where you're putting your feet. Of course, the media usually kept a close eye on those rooftops, hoping to catch a few candids of a hero—or villain—that could be used as filler. And that was why, when she needed a place to talk privately, Velveteen steered as far away from those superhero roach motels as she possibly could.

Sadly, Blacklight didn't seem to understand the logic behind Velveteen's choice of locations. "I realize this is your city, and that you're the one with all the local knowledge and everything," she said, slowly, "but why are we hiding behind a giant doughnut the color of Pepto-Bismol? Did I miss something? Is Easybake on the loose again?"

"As far as I know, the Baker still has Easybake under wraps," said Velveteen. Then she paused. "There is something wrong with my life that I can say those words and they make sense and are not a sign that I have hit my head."

"There's something wrong with my life right now," said Blacklight. "What's wrong with my life is that I'm standing in the shadow of a giant pink doughnut. Please explain the giant pink doughnut. I'm having a really hard time with it."

"Voodoo Doughnut is a Portland landmark," said Velveteen. "No supervillain will attack the place, because it's where they get their four a.m. bacon maple bars. No superhero will come near the place, because everything contains carbs. It's the perfect spot to have a private conversation."

"Why are we having a private conversation?" asked Blacklight warily.

Velveteen took a deep breath before reaching up and removing her domino mask. It was a small thing, and could never have concealed her identity from someone who knew who she really was; like most heroes, she wore it out of tradition, and to maintain the polite social fiction that she could live a normal life if she wanted one. Taking it off was still one of the hardest things she had ever done. Blacklight stiffened, every line of her body screaming confusion and surprise. Velma lowered the mask.

"Yelena, I'm so sorry," she said.

Blacklight recoiled. "What are you talking about?" she demanded. "Did you hit your head while we were fighting those robots? Did one of the robots hit your head? You're clearly delusional. Put your damn mask back on before somebody sees you."

"I'm not going to put my mask back on," said Velma. "And if I'm delusional for taking it off, you're delusional for thinking that you could fool me like this forever. I know you, Lena. I've known you for most of my life. You're the only sister I've ever had. Did you honestly think you could fight beside me and never have me figure out who you were?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," snarled Blacklight. She gave a little skip, ending with her hovering a foot in the air. "You need to seek psychological help."

It would only take a few seconds for Blacklight to launch herself from the roof and disappear, and once that happened, Velma knew that she was never going to get another shot at this apology. She took a deep breath, and blurted, "Marketing lied to you."

Blacklight froze.

Seeing her chance—maybe her only chance—Velma continued: "They told you I was going to go to the tabloids. They said that I had been demanding money in exchange for silence. But I never did, Lena. I never did that. I didn't even know what they told you I was threatening to tell."

"And what is it that they told...Lena...you were threatening to tell?" asked Blacklight, in a low, dangerous voice.

"If you're not her, I can't tell you," said Velma. "It's not my secret now, and it wasn't my secret then. I don't tell other people's secrets. I'm a better friend than that."

"If you're such a good friend, why did you leave?" For the first time since they arrived on the roof, Blacklight didn't sound confused, or angry: she sounded almost hurt. "Shouldn't you have stayed and tried to fix things?"

"I left because Marketing lied to me, too. They told me that you and Aaron had been having a relationship in secret, because you didn't want your parents to find out. They said you'd been using me as a distraction. They even had copies of an interview the two of you had supposedly done together." Velma's mouth twisted in a small, bitter smile. "They wanted me to understand that I was a second string hero at best, and that the two of you, you were going to be stars. Stars shine brightest when they shine together."

Blacklight's heels hit the rooftop with a soft but audible thump. "What?" Her voice was barely above a whisper.

"I was hurt. I was confused. I believed them. I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry, Lena, I'm so, so sorry. I was a terrible friend. I should have trusted you. I should have talked to you. But I didn't. I let them drive me away, because..." Velma took a breath. In for a penny, in for a pound. "I was jealous, you know? Everyone knew you were going to be first string, that you were probably going to lead the team one day, and I was always just going to be the girl who brought toys to life. Part of me wanted to believe them, because if you were a bad person, I wasn't being a bad friend by being jealous of you. I'm sorry."

For a long moment, Blacklight said nothing.

"Please say something," said Velma. "Please. Tell me I'm crazy again. Tell me you're not who I think you are. But please say something."

"You weren't a bad friend," said Blacklight.

Velma blinked. "What?"

"I said you weren't a bad friend." Blacklight slowly reached up and pulled off the hood that concealed her face. Her hair, freed from its confinement, tumbled down her back. She wasn't wearing any makeup. She looked tired. "I'm the one who kicked the crap out of you in the locker room. If someone's getting the 'bad friend' trophy here, I think it's going to be me."

Even though she'd been sure she was right—well, almost sure; sure enough to confront the other heroine, anyway, and that could have gone really badly—Velma froze, mouth working silently. Finally, she said the first thing that came into her head: "How do you fit all your hair under that mask? You should look like a conehead."

A small smile tugged at the corners of Yelena's mouth. "Imagineer made it for me. It's supposed to be a trans-dimensional shower cap."

"And it covers your face because...?"

"See, the nice thing about Imagineer is that she's so busy thinking about what she's going to do next that she doesn't ask very many questions. I told her I didn't want to smudge my eyeliner, and she bought it without a second thought."

Velma shook her head slowly. "Wow. And she's supposed to be defending truth, justice, and the merchandising revenue?"

"We just keep her away from open flames and things pretty much sort themselves out."

Silence fell after that. Velma and Yelena just looked at each other for a long while, two former friends turned bitter enemies turned...something else. Maybe. If they could find their way across the rooftop, and across all the things it represented.

Finally, Velma spoke. "You're the reason I got to Oregon, aren't you? You zapped me across the state line."

"I don't think of it as zapping, exactly, but...yeah." Yelena shrugged. "I thought you deserved a chance. You never really had one."

"Neither did you, you know."

"You know who I am now," said Yelena. "What did Marketing use to make me hate you?"

Velma took a deep breath. "They told you that I was going to tell the tabloids that you were gay."

Yelena didn't say anything.

There didn't seem to be any good way out of the conversation, and so Velma kept barreling forward, saying, "I never said any such thing. I didn't even know that you liked girls like that until a couple of weeks ago."

"What happened a couple of weeks ago?" asked Yelena suspiciously.

In for a penny, in for a pounding: "Santa Claus and Hailey Ween—you remember her, she's the current Halloween Princess, she kidnapped me when we were kids? Yeah, her—decided that I needed to start living up to my responsibilities, whatever that means, and they created a whole alternate timeline to show me what could have happened if I hadn't left The Super Patriots. Only it turns out that for me to stay, you had to go, so in that reality, you were the one who walked out when we turned eighteen."

"And somehow, that told you that I was..." Yelena stopped, seemingly unable to get the word out.

It was odd. Marketing had been controlling their lives since they were children, and Velma could make a real case for them having practically ruined her life on several occasions. But she had never felt more like setting the entire department on fire than she did when she realized that Yelena couldn't make herself finish that sentence. "No," said Velma, gently. "You told me. After you introduced me to your girlfriend. Who hit me with a cattle prod. I guess no matter what world we're in, we were always going to have a falling out."

"What makes you think what's true for her is true for me?" asked Yelena. There was a sudden coldness in her voice, like she was just waiting for the blackmail to begin.

"I know you, Lena," said Velma. "Even if you never speak to me again after this, even if this ruins any chance we had of being friends, I know you. I knew it was true as soon as I saw your alternate with Vic—with her girlfriend. That version of you looked at her like she was the whole world. And you've never looked at Aaron that way. Not once."

Velma stopped talking. For a long moment, Yelena didn't say anything. Velma winced, looking down at her feet. She wasn't sure how many long silences one conversation could contain, but this one had to be approaching the limit, if it wasn't there already.

"I knew I was a lesbian by the time we were eleven years old," said Yelena. Velma's head snapped up. Yelena kept talking. "Marketing figured it out a year later, and started trying to talk me out of it. They're good at talking people out of things, and talking people into things, but they couldn't talk me out of who I was. I guess that's why they decided I needed to be with a boy who'd hold my hand in public and smile for the cameras and not care when I only ever let him kiss me when people were looking. The worst part is, I wanted to do it. After what they told me you did...I was terrified of being outed to the press, and I was so mad at you. I hated you for betraying me. It was the best way I could think of to hurt you."

"It worked," said Velma. "I hated you for years."

"Why did you stop?"

"Because I met that other version of you, and realized we'd both been played. We should have been best friends forever, Lena. It should have been you and me against the world. But instead, we wound up on different sides. They put us on different sides. I can't hate you for that. But I can sure as hell hate them."

"I realized there was something wrong when they started telling us that you were a supervillain," said Yelena. "I was willing to believe that you were a back-stabbing little bitch. Marketing worked hard, for a long time, making sure that I thought everybody was out to get the front pages. But I couldn't believe that you were evil. The Vel I knew could be selfish and pushy—"

"Hey," protested Velma.

"—but she wasn't evil." Yelena shook her head. "Aaron didn't believe it, either. He helped me get to Oregon in time to get you over the state line. It's easier when we work together. Neither one of us can stand up to Marketing on our own."

"I think they do something to your head when they get you by yourself," said Velma. "I've been dating a guy who used to belong to the Midwest team, and he stopped buying the party line when they stopped getting him to counseling."

"I think you're probably right," admitted Yelena. "The longer I'm away from headquarters, the clearer my head gets. When I'm being Blacklight...I don't know. It's like she really is a different person. A smarter person. I think better, I react faster, and it's not just because I'm working with you again." She smiled. "Although that helps. It was never the same without you, Vel."

"That's because I'm awesome," said Velma, and laughed—only somehow the laughter translated into crying, and the crying into sobbing, until she was standing on the rooftop with her face in her hands, trying to make the tears stop. She didn't hear Yelena's approach, but then the other woman's arms were around her shoulders, and they were both crying. Velma uncovered her face, put her arms around Yelena, and wept like her heart was breaking, when that wasn't the case at all.

After spending far too many years wounded, her heart was finally starting to heal. And so two heroes held each other in the shadow of a giant pink doughnut, and cried.

*

When they were finally finished crying—and had the pounding headaches and aching eyes to commemorate the occasion—Yelena and Velma sat down side-by-side on the roof of Voodoo Doughnut, not looking at each other. Velma leaned back on her hands, looking up at the sky. Yelena looked down at her black-gloved hands.

"So," she said, finally. "Now what?"

"I don't know," said Velma. "I just had to apologize for letting Marketing do that to us. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try."

Slowly, Yelena asked, "So you don't care that I'm...that I'm gay?"

"God, no," said Velma, finally looking at the other woman. "Why should I give a damn about that? You were my best friend. You were an awesome roommate. I've missed you. What difference does it make if you're gay or straight?"

"It makes a difference to Marketing," said Yelena bitterly. "They were pretty confident that it would make a difference to everybody else."

"Well it doesn't," said Velma. "At least not to me."

"I've missed you," said Yelena, glancing up. "Everyone there is so fake all the time. Like they're posing for the cameras even when the cameras aren't on."

"I remember," said Velma. "I'm sorry I left you there."

"I'm sorry I tried to kill you with a light whip," said Yelena.

"Don't worry about it; I know you weren't really trying to kill me."

Yelena blinked. "Really? How?"

Velma smiled a little. "If you'd been trying to kill me, I would've been dead."

"You were always more powerful than you thought you were, Vel," said Yelena. "It used to drive me crazy, the way you put yourself down all the time."

"I had people supporting my point of view," said Velma. Marketing had always been more than happy to make sure she understood her place on the team, and that place was not on the front lines. "Anyway, that's over now. I'm figuring things out. I'm getting it all under control."

"I know. I've been watching you." Yelena paused, grimacing. "That sounded better in my head, I swear. I'm not stalking you or anything. I just wanted to know that you were doing okay, and then you seemed so happy, and I just wanted to fight with you again. That's why I put on this costume. Because I wanted to fight with you, and know that everything was okay again. Like it should have been from the beginning."

Velma sighed. "And that, right there, is where Marketing fucked up. If they hadn't tried to drive a wedge between us, I would have stayed with The Super Patriots forever. That's where my friends were." They could have kept all her merchandising dollars—and she and Aaron would probably have married by now, maybe even had a kid. Lots of superhero wedding and superhero baby gear for the fans to buy. But they threw that all away because they were worried about their light manipulator not playing properly in Peoria. Bitterly, Velma added, "Idiots."

There was no need for Yelena to ask who she was talking about; she already knew. "So what do we do now?"

"I don't know. I don't want to go back to being enemies—"

"I don't think I could do that if I wanted to."

"That's reassuring. I really don't want you to hit me with another light whip." Velma grinned. After a pause, Yelena grinned back. "But how much of this is Marketing going to figure out?"

"None of it, if we don't let their spies report back to them," Yelena said. Then she turned, and directed a blast of brilliant white light at the shadow beneath the big pink doughnut. There was a shriek, a thud, and a woman's outline was left where the shadow had been. The outline turned solid, and the body of a second-string shadow manipulator who went by the code name "Diffuse" collapsed onto the rooftop.

"What the fu—" Velma caught herself before she could quite finish the word. If she started swearing now, she was never going to stop. "That was a spy! Watching us! Me! You! Here!"

"I know." Yelena walked over to Diffuse, prodding the fallen heroine with her toe. Diffuse groaned. Yelena responded by throwing a ball of glittery pink light almost the same shade as the doughnut at Diffuse's head. Diffuse stopped groaning. "Marketing's been monitoring your movements for some time now. I didn't have a way to warn you without blowing my cover, and it's not like they were coming back with anything interesting."

"Says you," said Velma. "It's my privacy that they've been violating."

"At least you got to have privacy," Yelena snapped. "I haven't had any since The Super Patriots bought me. She never found out anything too sensitive. If she had, Marketing would have tried to send us after you, and I would have found a way to warn you about what was coming."

Velma took a deep breath. "Wow," she said, finally. "I never really got out of the superhero life, did I? I just put it on hold for a little while."

"No one gets out until they're dead."

"Maybe not even then," said Velma, thinking of Jory. "What do we do with her?"

Yelena looked tired. "I have no idea."

Velma paused. Then she reached for her mask. "I have an idea," she said. "But you're going to need to trust me on this..."

*

Anyone observing the scene would have seen something which seemed to make no sense at all: a doorway made of twisted black corn stalks rising from the ground at the graveyard's edge. Two figures, one all in black and one dressed like a cross between the Easter Bunny and a modern jazz dancer, supported a third figure between them. She was limp, and her arms and legs seemed to trail off into shadow. Then the doorway lit up, showing a moonlit pumpkin patch where no pumpkin patch was (not unless you were looking through the door, something which was not to be advised), and a blonde teenage girl stepped into view.

Anyone observing the scene would have needed the sense to stay out of hearing range, but they would have seen the discussion punctuated with nods and vigorous gestures, and ending when the woman with the fade-out arms and legs was dumped unceremoniously through the door, which closed behind her. Then the other two turned, shoulders slumped in exhaustion, and made their way into the night.

*

"Now what?"

"I can't go back. They'll know someone had to tell you about Diffuse."

"It's a little crowded at my place right now. But I bet Jackie will let you come and stay with her, for a little while."

"And what happens after that?"

"After that? We take the bastards on, and we win. There isn't any other option left."

"If you say so," said Yelena.

"I do," said Velma, and took her hand.

Together, they walked on into the Portland night.
Tags: short fiction, velveteen vs.
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