Summary: When The Super Patriots Inc. finally go too far in their ongoing war against Velveteen and her friends, will she be able to take it lying down? Or will this finally be the straw that breaks the plush camel’s back?
Celia Morgan was accustomed, as Governor of Oregon, to dealing with people whose concept of “patience” had been left behind somewhere between their homes and her office door. What she wasn’t as accustomed to was dealing with those people plus super powers. Even sharing her home with her sister--Jennifer, Jory, whatever you wanted to call her; the fact that she was alive was more than enough for Celia--hadn’t prepared her for the strain of sharing her office with not one, not two, but five individuals who could easily kill her with their powers.
For the first time, she actually understood some of the motivation behind The Super Patriots, Inc.’s incessant attempts to control the superhumans of the world. These five...no one controlled them, or perhaps they controlled themselves. Celia honestly wasn’t sure which possibility frightened her more.
Jennifer was at home, in costume, waiting for her baby sister’s call. Celia hoped both that she would never need to make it, and that Jennifer would be able to reach her in time.
“You can’t honestly mean that,” said Velveteen. There were dark circles under her eyes. She didn’t look like she’d slept since the men from The Super Patriots, Inc. had come and carted her wayward friend back to their offices. It had only been two days. The strain was still showing very clearly in the young animus’s face. “They have no legal right--”
“They have every legal right,” said Celia, trying to ignore the glare from the redheaded gadgeteer, and the way the blue girl was making it snow in the corner of the office where she stood, broodily glaring. It shouldn’t have been possible for someone who looked so much like she’d just escaped from a Rankin-Bass holiday special to brood, but she was accomplishing it. The other animus, Tag, just stood next Velveteen, arms crossed, looking at the governor.
And then there was the Princess. But the less Celia dwelt on her, the better.
“That’s bullshit,” said the blue girl.
Contract law was one of the few places where Celia felt absolutely confident, even in the face of a group of angry superhumans. “No, it’s not. I’ve read the standard boilerplate for The Super Patriots, Inc., and based on that, it should be possible to terminate the relationship between a hero and the corporation. I’ve also read Velveteen’s child contract.” She nodded toward Velveteen, trying to remind them with that small gesture that they were in her office, in her state, and that she was one of the only allies they had in the battle that was so obviously to come. “Is there any chance that Miss, ah, Sparkle Bright would have requested a whole new contract following her eighteenth birthday?”
“None,” said Velveteen. “They had her brain so fried by that point that she would probably have gone on working for them without a contract if they’d asked her to. They’re manipulating their heroes.”
“Ah, but the contract explicitly allows for that.”
The redhead stiffened, eyes blazing and hands clenching white-knuckled on the arms of her chair. “I do beg your pardon?” she said, in a thick London accent.
Calmly, Celia, calmly; these people are your allies. Ah, but it was so easy to think that when they were somewhere else, wasn’t it? Or when they came to her one at a time, these people who could control seasons and make things that had never lived come alive to do their bidding? Five of them was enough to be considered a team. That was one word for a group of superhumans. The other word was “danger.”
Keeping her voice calm and level, Celia said, “The contract which Velveteen, Jory, and presumably Sparkle Bright all signed with The Super Patriots, Inc. allows the corporation to make ‘minor and necessary adjustments’ to their psyches, with or without their awareness, in order to keep them calm and productive. Mind-control is usually illegal without explicit consent, but The Super Patriots, Inc. was able to get an exception for reasons of national security.” Calling it “an exception” was putting it mildly. The Super Patriots, Inc. had the legal right to completely mind-wipe their superhuman employees, and to rebuild their personalities from the ground up.
“We have to get her back,” said Velveteen. “Governor Morgan, what legal grounds do we have here?”
“Quite honestly? None. Two of you are unlicensed--”
“I have diplomatic immunity,” said the blue girl, and bared her teeth in what a charitable person might have deluded themselves into calling a smile. “Want to see how much damage it lets me do before Santa puts me on the Naughty List for life?”
The Princess didn’t say anything. She just sat there silently in her heliotrope and silver ball gown, watching Celia with sad, judgmental eyes. There was a bunny in her lap, and a falcon sat on the back of her chair. Somehow, she was the worst one of them all.
“I can grant you, Miss, ah, Cogsworth, a superhero license within the state of Oregon--they won’t be able to use the ‘unlicensed hero’ ploy against you again. And Velveteen, while right now you’re technically confined to the state, I do have the authority to send you on out-of-state missions as needed. I can get you all to California, but honestly, you don’t have a legal leg to stand on in where The Super Patriots, Inc. are concerned. She’s still under contract with them.”
“Still under contract...” Velveteen frowned. “Governor Morgan, the contracts we all signed were for children. They held until our eighteenth birthdays. By the time they expired, we were all well and truly mind-controlled. I was only able to resist because I was being regularly abducted by the seasonal countries.”
“Guilty,” said the blue girl. She didn’t sound guilty.
“If I’d been doing what The Super Patriots, Inc. wanted me to, I would have been completely under their command. Even if they had the legal right to have me mind-controlled, would a contract signed under those circumstances be legally binding?”
Celia blinked. “No,” she said slowly. “It wouldn’t be.”
“Well, then.” The Princess’s sweet, sugary tones were underwritten with a thin line of poison, like an apple dipped in arsenic. “It looks like we’re going to California.”
Most regulation aimed at superhumans can be easily read from two different directions. Looked at one way, it is overly restrictive, even cruel, in its efforts to limit and curtail the freedom of an entire class of people. Very few superhumans became that way voluntarily, and even fewer can be “cured” of their powers, but all are covered by a series of laws which, if enforced to their strictest limits, can strip away liberty, independent thought, and even life itself. No other group of American citizens can be presented with the death penalty for the simple crime of existing. The law is not on the side of the superhuman.
Looked at from the other and opposite direction, the laws which regulate superhuman activities within the United States are designed to protect the majority of American citizens from a clear and present danger, one which can arise without warning and which must, at times, be answered with an unfortunate degree of deadly force. There is no other way to stop the child whose body naturally emits fatal levels of radiation, or to control the housewife who suddenly begins transforming everyone who meets her eyes to stone. Perhaps the child could be confined in a lead-lined room, perhaps the housewife could be blinded--but is either of these alternatives any safer? Will either help the greater populace sleep at night?
Superhumans are terrifying. Whether they are your friends, your family, or your lovers, they are more than they were meant to be, and by their very presence, they make other humans feel that they are somehow less. It is only natural that, faced by such an inescapable demonstration of our place in the universe, the human race would strike back in the only way we knew. With rules, with laws, and with violence.
Most of the crueler regulations--the ones making it legal to use mind-control, for example, the ones making it legal to strip someone’s powers with or without wrongdoing on their part--were originally proposed and championed by The Super Patriots, Inc.
Make of that what you will.
Velma “Velveteen” Martinez had crossed the border from California into Oregon while semi-conscious, propelled by a blast of charged photons generated by her former and future best friend, code name: Sparkle Bright. Her return, sitting in the first class cabin of the Virgin America Portland/San Diego flight, was thus a bit of a step up in the world.
There were eight seats in the first class cabin. Velveteen and Tag occupied two. Jackie and the Princess sat across from them, and Victory Anna was behind them. The other three seats were unoccupied. Governor Morgan was not a foolish woman. If sharing her office with the five superheroes made her uncomfortable, when superpowers ran in her family, what would it do to anyone who had to share a plane with them?
Traveling incognito wasn’t an option. For Velveteen to legally leave Oregon, she had to be traveling on official superhuman business, which meant full costume. Jackie was actually incapable of concealing her true nature, and while Victory Anna and Tag could be inconspicuous if they really had to, the Princess was followed by flocks of birds everywhere she went, in addition to occasionally generating spontaneous glitter and musical numbers.
The flight attendant had passed out drinks and their complimentary cheese plates before disappearing into the back of the plane. Velveteen was pretty sure they were supposed to get better service than this, but she didn’t feel like pushing the issue. Sharing a plane with five superhumans was stressful under the best of times. When one of them persisted in glowing bright blue, one was building clockwork bats, and one had somehow managed to produce a bunny and two robins after take-off, well...it was really no wonder the flight attendant wanted to be elsewhere.
Leaning her cheek against her fist, Velveteen yawned. Tag touched her shoulder gently. “Hey,” he said. “Are you sure you’re up for this? Maybe it would be better if we sent Jackie and the Princess in first. You know. The ones who never broke their contracts with The Super Patriots, Inc.”
“I’m just tired,” said Velveteen. “I’ve been tired before. Tired isn’t going to keep me from saving my best friend.”
“Vel, you’re not just tired, okay? You’re asleep all the time. I’m starting to worry about you.”
“Don’t.” Velveteen removed his hand from her shoulder. “This isn’t the time to worry about me. When Sparkle Bright’s home, then we can think about what else is going on.”
On the other side of the cabin, Jackie and the Princess exchanged a look.
“You have to deal with this,” said the Princess softly, trusting the roar of the plane’s engines to keep her from being overheard.
“I’m not sure...”
“Yes, you are. If you weren’t sure, you wouldn’t be looking at her like that. You have to deal with this.”
“Why me and not you?”
“Because, honey, this isn’t my kind of fairy tale.” The Princess sighed deeply, looking down at the bunny sleeping curled in her lap. “My fairy tales have happy endings.”
Jackie winced and turned to look across the aisle. Velveteen, for all her protests, was asleep with her head against Tag’s shoulder. He was petting her hair, a concerned expression on his face. When he saw Jackie looking, he raised his eyebrows in question. She shook her head, gesturing for him to focus on Vel.
She’d have to talk to him soon. But not now. Not until they had Yelena safely home.
The plane landed on time; they had no luggage. Even Victory Anna was traveling light, carrying only her carpet bag, which she had assured them all would contain everything she needed for the fight to come.
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t travel via magic mirror,” said Jackie, as they descended the escalator toward the level where they could catch a cab.
“Because that could be taken as a sign of aggression and used to justify a massive superhero fight in the air over San Diego,” said Velveteen, stepping off the escalator. “Not exactly good for our ‘we’re just here to talk’ image.”
“Nothing ever is with you,” said a vaguely familiar voice. The five of them turned to see a black-haired young woman in a skin-tight red and orange outfit standing near the luggage carts. She was holding a sign that read “VELVETEEN & PARTY.”
“Match Girl?” said Tag, sounding bewildered.
Her lip curled. “It’s Firefly now, okay? I see you finally managed to sink to the level where you belonged.”
“At least I got out.”
“You were kicked out. Don’t try to make it sound like some big heroic choice. Oh, wait. I forgot.” Firefly redirected her sneer at Velveteen. “You found a girlfriend as incompetent as you are. I guess that must make it easier to convince yourself.”
“Wait,” said Velveteen. “Are you here to give us a ride or something?”
“Oh, wow, she can read.”
“That’s it,” said Jackie. Snow began to fall around her as she balled her hands into fists. “This is me, kicking the little match girl’s ass.”
“Now that’s a fairy tale I can get behind,” said the Princess.
“Hang on.” Velveteen raised a hand. Jackie and the Princess quieted, although they didn’t stop glaring, and the snow around Jackie continued to fall. “We’re here to talk to a lawyer specializing in superhuman law, and have a meeting with The Super Patriots, Inc.’s Human Resources department. Why would we be stupid enough to get into a car with you before we even got started?”
“God, bunny-girl, I don’t know, okay?” said Firefly. “I don’t want to be here, and I sure as shit don’t want to be driving your second-string ass around. I just know that the boss told me that if I wanted to keep my spot on the team, I would get in the car, come down to the airport, and offer you a ride to HQ, where we could all discuss this like grown adults before we went and got the lawyers involved.”
“I don’t know--” began Velveteen.
“I say we do it,” said Victory Anna. The other four turned to look at her. She squared her shoulders and said, “It is best to know one’s enemies. By witnessing the tactics they attempt to use against us before facing us fairly over a barrister’s desk, we will be able to deduce how much faith they have in the eventual outcome, and adjust our own tactics accordingly.”
“You’re the new mad science girl, aren’t you?” asked Firefly. “No one knows where you came from. I don’t know what these losers have been telling you, but you should take this opportunity to get a private meeting with HR. Get yourself affiliated with a real super team.”
“I came by Epona’s grace from the glorious Empire of Her Majesty the Queen,” said Victory Anna, with withering politeness. “We will accompany you. But do not think for one moment that you will sway us from our righteous task.”
Firefly blinked at her for a moment before turning to the others and asking, “Does she always talk like this?”
“Sometimes she sleeps,” said Velveteen.
Tag snorted a laugh, covering it with his hand.
Velveteen hesitated. The others would go along with whatever she decided to do. Talking to the lawyer first might be the right thing to do, but if there was any chance at all that they could resolve this without turning it into a three-ring circus...
“All right,” she said. “Take us to your leader.”
The mini-van sent by The Super Patriots, Inc. was perfectly balanced between extravagance and practicality. The seats were plush black leather, and a mini-fridge was set into either side, offering an assortment of snacks, energy drinks, and alcoholic beverages. At the same time, the windows were bullet-proof glass, and the ultra-absorbent shocks meant that they could drive over any terrain in the world without feeling a thing. It was perfect for the transport of socialites and the direly wounded, and made no distinctions between them.
“They sure don’t believe in being subtle,” drawled the Princess, and swatted at the bluebirds that were trying to restyle her hair. Her ball gown had changed at some point since they entered the van, turning pink and gold, with an ocean of ruffles. “Come on now, shoo. I need to look professional, and birdies don’t help.”
“We don’t agree to anything,” said Velveteen, cracking the tab on an energy drink. She didn’t want to take anything The Super Patriots, Inc. was offering her, but she was so tired. She was afraid that if she tried to stand on her principles, she’d wind up falling on her face. “No matter what they say, no matter what they offer, we don’t agree.”
“Not even if they offer to return her to us?” asked Victory Anna. The aching need in her voice made names unnecessary.
Velveteen nodded grimly. “There will be strings, and those strings will strangle us,” she said. “We find out what they’re willing to give. We take notes. We learn exactly what they think they’re going to get out of this exchange. And then we go to our lawyer, we explain the situation, and we get Sparkle Bright back without cutting our own throats in the process.”
“What if we can’t?” asked Tag. All four women turned to look at him. “I’m just saying what we’re all wondering. She has a contract. Unless we’re willing to go to court to prove that The Super Patriots, Inc. has been using mind-control to get their adult heroes to sign--”
“--which they have, and which we are,” said Velveteen.
“They won’t let that happen,” said Jackie. “I know a little something about labor law, okay? All those elves. They unionized a century ago.” She rolled her eyes as the others stared at her. “Do you people think I spend all my time doing my nails and plotting to ruin your lives? Don’t answer that. Anyway, the crux of the matter is this: The Super Patriots, Inc. has a vested interest in keeping those contracts legal. If we go to court, they could all be invalidated, and the laws about using mind-control on superhumans who haven’t committed any known acts of villainy could change. They’re not going to let things go that far.” She turned toward the pane of mirrored glass that separated them from the driver’s cabin. “Isn’t that right, Match Girl?”
“I told you not to call me that,” said Firefly mildly, as the glass rolled down to reveal the side of her face. “How’d you know I was listening in?”
“Santa Claus is a master of espionage,” said Jackie. “He sees you while you’re sleeping, remember? Now answer the question.”
“I can’t. I’m not the one you’re going to be discussing your case with.” Firefly turned smoothly onto The Super Patriots, Inc.’s private drive. Screaming fans lined the street on either side, held back by velvet ropes and robot guards. Most of them were teenagers, Velveteen noted queasily. Some were wearing homemade costumes. Many were holding signs that said things like “WELCOME HOME SPARKLE BRITE” and “AD + ME-ME-ME!!! 4-EVA.”
“They can’t even spell her name right, but I bet they’re real good at screaming it,” said Firefly, a note of bitterness creeping into her voice. The gates swung open at their approach, and they drove onward, entering the perfectly manicured grounds. The looming shape of Headquarters was like a corporate brand against the skyline, designed to be iconic from every angle. Velveteen’s queasiness turned into flat-out nausea.
“If it’s not you, who is it?” asked Jackie.
Firefly laughed. “I told you. You’re meeting with the boss.”
They had reached the head of the driveway. Firefly brought the van to a stop, and the rear doors swung open automatically, revealing the two superhumans who were standing there, patiently waiting for their guests. He wore orange and blue, heroic as always, the golden boy that every mother adored and every father dreamed of raising. She wore white with rainbow accents, virginal and wild at the same time. His smile looked natural. Hers looked like it barely concealed her rage.
“We’re so glad you could come,” said Action Dude, putting an arm around Sparkle Bright’s waist. “Aren’t we, dear?”
Sparkle Bright didn’t say a word. She just glared.
Sparkle Bright and Action Dude didn’t stay to escort them into the building. Tag privately thought that was for the best, since Velveteen looked like she was torn between despondence and fury, while Victory Anna looked like she was going to start killing people. Jackie and the Princess just looked grim. That was probably a good thing. He and Vel both had history with The Super Patriots, Inc., and Victory Anna was dealing with a broken heart. If they didn’t have at least a few neutral parties, this was going to get ugly, fast.
Firefly led them up the stairs to the main doors. Tag allowed himself to rubberneck shamelessly, even going so far as to turn to Velveteen and comment, “I never got to see the West Coast headquarters. The one time my team came out here, we were doing one of those stupid holiday specials. We never even got the public tour.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t decided to be an idiot, you’d be living here now,” said Firefly smugly. “State-of-the-art everything.”
“I’ll take my apartment, thanks,” said Tag. “At least it doesn’t come with a leash and collar.”
Firefly glared, sparks crackling in the air around her. Then she turned her back on him with a huff and opened the doors, leading them into the grand foyer. It was a huge room, large enough to be considered part of a museum. Ten-foot statues of the current members of The Super Patriots, Inc. ringed the room, caught in perfect, heroic poses and preserved eternally in marble. All of them had their unseeing eyes turned toward the triptych of the Big Three that stood in the very center of the foyer, Majesty, Supermodel, and Jolly Roger frozen forever as they were before the final fall.
“Statues with an animus on the property,” said Jackie, studying her nails in a careful display of boredom. “Gosh, this is going to be a long and entertaining fight. Oh, wait. That was sarcasm.”
“I know what sarcasm is,” snapped Firefly.
“And yet you don’t seem to know that your costume is unflattering for your hair color, skin tone, and body type,” said Jackie. “So you’ll forgive me if I assume you’ve missed certain other nuances that would be obvious to the rest of us.”
“Stop it, Jackie, okay?” Velveteen sounded more than just weary: she sounded beat-down, like there was nothing left for her to give. “We don’t need the full tour, Firefly. I used to live here. Jackie’s been here as my guest. Can we just skip to the part where we talk to Human Resources and you let us leave?”
“You will be letting us leave,” added the Princess, in a sugary drawl. “Believe me, sweetie, you don’t want to deal with the lawyers that I have on my side. We’re all properly licensed and allowed to be here, and we’ve made no aggressive moves of any sort. Sarcasm isn’t illegal yet, even when it’s coming from the future incarnation of the living Winter. So don’t go getting any ideas about trying to keep us here in that pretty little head of yours. You’ll just hurt yourself.”
“Oh, trust me,” said Firefly. “I don’t want to keep you. You guys are poorly designed, even more poorly branded, your team balance makes no sense, you’re like, a taco stand--”
“What the fuck’s a taco stand?” asked Jackie.
“It’s the opposite of a sausage fest, hello. How are you supposed to appeal to the eighteen-and-under demographic if you focus on a single gender? Did you flunk your Superhero Marketing class or something?”
“No,” said Velveteen and Tag, in unison.
“I never took one,” said Jackie.
“What the bloody fuck are you on about?” asked Victory Anna.
That seemed to conclude the conversation. The Princess just shook her head, looking faintly disappointed. Firefly rolled her eyes and led them out of the foyer and down a corridor to a much less showy hallway. This was the more corporate part of the building, where primary colors and photo opportunities gave way to spreadsheets and quotas. She walked on until they came to a plain wooden door.
“Here you go,” she said. “If I were you, I would have taken the tour.”
“If you were me, you would have run for your life years ago,” said Velveteen, putting her hand on the doorknob. “Thank you for the escort.”
Firefly hesitated. Then, almost grudgingly, she said, “Good luck,” before turning and fleeing back the way they had come.
“I can’t believe I used to have a thing for her,” said Tag, shaking his head.
“Your taste has improved since then,” said Velveteen, and opened the door.
It was no real surprise to any of them when the conference room contained the current lineup of The Super Patriots, West Coast Division, minus Firefly, who was only a provisional member after all. Sparkle Bright and Action Dude sat at the head of the table, flanked by virtually identical representatives from Legal and Marketing. Mechamation and Imagineer sat on one side of the table; Jack O’Lope and Uncertainty sat on the other.
“Welcome,” said one of the interchangeable representatives. He stood, gesturing toward the open chairs. “I’m Jonathan Smith. I’m here to represent The Super Patriots, Inc.’s Legal Department in this discussion. My colleague, Sam Jones, is here to represent the Human Resources Department. We realize this is somewhat irregular, but hope that you can understand that going to court would not be in any of our best interests. We had the sincere hope that by meeting and discussing our differences today, we can bring this unfortunate misunderstanding to a satisfactory conclusion for everyone involved.”
“This is stupid,” muttered Sparkle Bright, directing a venomous glare across the table at Velveteen. “There’s no misunderstanding. I was stressed out from planning the wedding, I had a minor nervous breakdown, okay? I’m not proud of it, but does the bunny-bitch really have to turn into a federal case? I ran away from home. I thought you of all people would understand what that feels like.”
“I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” asked Velveteen. “My name isn’t ‘Bunny Bitch.’ Although it’s got a nice ring to it.”
“While you are doubtless overdue for a rebranding, I believe we should stay on message here,” said Sam Jones from Marketing. “Sparkle Bright was understandably overwhelmed by her duties here, as a member of one of the world’s premiere super teams, and suffered a temporary lapse of reason. This lapse, while tragic, was completely understandable. Now that she’s home with the people who love her, she’ll be able to receive the help she needs.”
“Uh-huh,” drawled the Princess. “All that sounds real good, and you’re right, it would be a shame to drag someone who’d suffered that kind of breakdown through a court battle, but I’ve got just one little question, if you’d be so kind?”
“Yes?” said Mr. Jones.
“If she was just having a little...let’s call it a crisis of faith, shall we? It seems like the least accusatory way to keep talking about things. So if she was just having a little crisis of faith, how is it that she was able to fool Santa Claus? The big man doesn’t look kindly on liars, especially not ones who exploit the affections of the people who care about them.” The Princess cocked her head, studying Mr. Jones. “Seems to me he’d have noticed that something was up.”
“While the opinions of Mr. Claus may be of great value to small children around the world, they do not have any legal weight in the state of California,” said Mr. Smith. “Furthermore, as the only currently active superhuman originating from the North Pole is a member of your little, ah, ‘team,’ I must object to the idea that he is somehow an unimpeachable authority. It’s clear that allowing Sparkle Bright to be exploited would be in the best interests of one Miss Jacqueline Frost, making it even less likely that Mr. Claus would be considered an expert witness in this case.”
“We weren’t exploiting her,” said Velveteen.
“You were parading me around as part of your freak show,” snapped Sparkle Bright, lunging halfway out of her chair, face contorted with rage. “You’ve always been jealous of me, and when you finally saw the opportunity to bring me down to your level, you just couldn’t resist, could you? You little bitch. I should have killed you in that locker room! Do you hear me? I should have killed you!”
“Mind-control is a delicate thing, isn’t it?” said Jackie. She sounded almost bored. Only the frost that was slowly spreading over her chair and the floor around her feet betrayed how angry she really was. “There’s a reason Santa doesn’t make all the children in the world nice. You can change a lot of things. But deep down, the essence of what makes you who you are will always hold on, and will always fight. So you get, for example, irrational amounts of anger from someone who escaped their golden cage, only to find themselves hauled back in against their will. I don’t like Stripy the Rainbow Clown over there very much. I think she’s a pampered show poodle who pretends to be a pit bull. Even poodles can bite. I wouldn’t want to be sitting where you are when she finally snaps her lead.”
Action Dude’s hands clamped down on Sparkle Bright’s shoulders before she could launch herself out of her chair at Jackie. Grayscale sparks popped and danced in the air around her. “This isn’t getting us anywhere,” he said, with a glance at Mr. Smith from Legal. “Can we please get on with this?”
“I think you may have the right idea.” Mr. Smith bent to produce a briefcase from under the table. He placed it in front of himself, opened it, and withdrew a stack of manila folders. “The Super Patriots, Inc. is grateful to you for your service in taking care of one of our wayward heroines in her hour of need. We understand your desire for reparations, and so we are prepared to offer you this quite generous settlement, in exchange for walking away, and never contacting Sparkle Bright again.” He began passing the folders down the table.
Victory Anna received her folder, opened it, and calmly studied the paper inside. Then, for the first time since entering the conference room, she spoke. “It seems a fair blood price,” she said. “Were we giving her over to be sacrificed at the Church of Demeter for the spring mysteries, I would be quite pleased with this as a payment. Given the circumstances, however, I believe you have woefully undervalued one of the brightest stars in the firmament, and should be ashamed of yourselves. You should be ashamed of your parents as well. They clearly did not provide you with the proper guidance.”
“I’m with the time-slipped Victorian girl, which is one of those sentences that I never thought I was going to have a reason to say,” said Jackie. “You want to buy our girl? You’re going to need a lot more zeroes and also a huge side order of fuck you, you assholes, we are not for sale.”
“Bless your little hearts, you really did try this time, didn’t you?” said the Princess sweetly.
“No,” said Tag.
All eyes turned toward Velveteen. She stood, tossing the folder back down the table toward the man from Legal. “You people think you can get away with anything, don’t you? Steal our childhoods. Steal our thoughts. Steal our futures. Fuck. That. I’m not taking your deal, and I’m not letting you turn us against each other again. I promised Sparkle Bright that I would be her friend forever. I meant every word.”
“That’s adorable, but friendship carries no legal weight in the state of California.” Mr. Smith stood, all genial pleasantries forgotten as he walked around the table toward Velveteen. “You think we brought you here because we’re afraid of going to court. You’re wrong. We brought you here because we’d rather avoid a scandal, and because we’d really rather avoid tightening the legislation again. Do you honestly think any judge is going to find in favor of allowing a group of weapons of mass destruction to run around without oversight? It will be a bloodbath if you face us in court. Five poorly trained, impulse-driven superhumans against the weight of this corporation? We will crush you. We will destroy everything you have ever loved. And when the dust clears, we will still have what is ours.”
Velveteen’s eyes widened. “You made them attend this meeting because you wanted them to know that they couldn’t run away from you.” She looked toward the gathered members of The Super Patriots. “Don’t you understand? You’re not free. You’re slaves.”
“Everyone’s a slave to something,” said Imagineer. “At least we’re slaves with medical benefits.”
Mr. Smith smirked. “You can’t win. All you can do is choose not to play against us.”
“This isn’t over,” said Velveteen.
“I think you’ll find that it is.” Mr. Smith stepped closer. “Do not test me, little girl. I’ve read all your files. I know what you’re capable of doing. And I am not afraid of you.”
“Maybe you should be.” Velveteen raised her chin, meeting his eyes. He wasn’t afraid of her? Oh, he was going to change that tune. The foyer was full of statues. She reached out, trying to call them to her...
...and found nothing. It was like she had hit a wall. Exhaustion washed over her, and she flinched, her eyes flickering away from Mr. Smith’s for just an instant.
He smirked, clearly reading her motion as a break in her resolve. “As I said. We are willing to go to court with you. But you won’t like what happens if we do.”
“Someone won’t like what’s coming,” said Velveteen, gathering the last of her strength. “Come on, everyone. We’re leaving.” She turned and stalked for the door. Her team--her friends, her family--rose and followed her. No one stopped them as they left.
Once the door was closed, Mr. Smith turned to Uncertainty, and asked, “Well?”
“There is a ninety-four percent chance that any attempts they make at interfering with the current course of action selected by The Super Patriots, Inc., will fail,” said Uncertainty.
Mr. Smith smiled. “Excellent.”
“That means there is a six percent chance that they will succeed,” continued Uncertainty. He looked up at Mr. Smith, and added calmly, “Sometimes six percent is enough.”
Firefly was waiting in the foyer. “Well?” she asked, as Velveteen and company stepped back into view. “Where to?”
“The airport,” said Velveteen. “We’re going home.”
“I’m glad you saw reason,” said Firefly, smiling.
Tag moved to walk beside Vel as they followed the fire-manipulator back to the van. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“No,” she said, in a very small voice. “I think there’s something really wrong with me. Take me home?”
“Sure, Vel.” He put an arm around her waist, surreptitiously keeping her on her feet. “Let’s go home. We’ll figure this out.”
“We have to get her back.” Velveteen put her head against his shoulder, allowing him to all but carry her. “If we can’t do it in the court, we’ll have to find another way, but we have to get it back.”
“We will,” said Tag. “It’s all going to be okay. You’ll see.”
Behind them, Jackie and the Princess exchanged a look, but said nothing.
They were going home.