Summary: The time for patience is over. Now is the time for war. Not everyone is going to walk away, but a point comes when it is no longer safe to care.
The fall of Dead Ringer was initially unremarked. She hit the ground hard, and she didn’t get back up, but lots of heroes had hit the ground hard; lots of heroes had failed to get back up immediately. Then one of Velveteen’s model horses, doing a sweep of the damage, reached her body. The tiny plastic stallion tapped her nose with a hoof. The fallen heroine didn’t react. The horse turned and bolted back toward Velveteen, ducking and weaving across the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Velveteen had problems of her own. “We know they have Midwest here with them,” she snarled to the Princess, before throwing a sharp-clawed teddy bear at the face of an unsuspecting member of The Super Patriots. “Now I’m getting word that Leading Lady’s been seen near the building. Did they call in East? Because if they called in East, we’re screwed.”
“No more than we were a few minutes ago, when we thought we were just going up against two of the four teams,” said the Princess. “Most of South is here with us, and they’re having trouble hitting their own associates. The Super Patriots are having trouble, I mean. The Southerners are kicking ass and having a lovely time.” Maybe too good of a time, when you got right down to it; Lake Pontchartrain had covered half the lawn in an artificial lake, where Mississippi Queen and the Claw were taking on any attackers who got too close to the water. Jackie Frost kept freezing the surface of the water just enough to fool non-aquatic heroes into thinking it was safe to walk there, and then laughing hysterically as they fell into the frigid waters below.
“I don’t care; we didn’t give them this much warning.” Velveteen shook her head. “Something’s wrong.”
The plastic horse, which had fought its way through dangers no plastic horse should ever have been forced to face, reached her ankle. It reared up on its hind legs, whinnying to get her attention.
Velveteen bent and picked it up. “Hey, little guy. What news do you have?”
The horse whinnied again.
“I’ll never understand how you can talk to toy animals when you can’t actually talk to real ones,” said the Princess. “Sometimes, sweetie, your power set just doesn’t make that much sense.” She stopped talking as she realized that Velveteen wasn’t smiling; wasn’t reacting to her; wasn’t, in fact, doing anything but standing and staring, pale-faced, at the horse in her hands.
“She’s dead,” she whispered.
“Dead Ringer. Trick and Treat hit her--I knew that, Jackie saw it coming, and then she drew them off so that Dead Ringer would have a chance to recover--but she’s not going to recover, because she’s dead. They killed her.” Velveteen shook her head slowly. “They actually killed her.”
“My,” said the Princess. “That...changes things a bit, doesn’t it?”
Velveteen nodded grimly. Most superhuman fights weren’t intended to be deadly; everyone pulled punches, everyone held back, just a little bit, to keep from crossing that line. Once the line was crossed, there was no going back. You had heroes, and you had villains, and the heroes were never the ones who drew first blood.
“Do you think you can get Cinder to do that trick with my voice again? I have something this whole fight needs to hear.”
The Princess nodded, stepping back onto her carpet. “Wait right there, sugar, and don’t get caught. I’ll be back in a jiffy.” Then she was gone, zooming off into the fray.
Battles, large and small, raged all over the property. One on one, two on one, even five on one, there was no end to the combinations that the heroes had divided themselves into. But all of them froze when Velveteen’s voice rang out across the battlefield, tired and cold and angry.
“Dead Ringer is dead,” she said. “Trick and Treat killed her with a blast intended for Jackie Frost. We have lost a comrade. We have lost a friend. And The Super Patriots have lost the high ground. If you are fighting for freedom, if you are fighting for the right to make your own decisions, if you are fighting for me, this is your moment.” There was a very small pause before she added, “Light ‘em up.”
Brilliant flares of light marked four positions on the battlefield as Sparkle Bright, Epiphany, Gastown, and Showgirl all unleashed their powers. Cinder placed herself directly in the path of Epiphany’s blast, becoming a living disco ball as she shattered the single deadly laser beam into a hundred, all of which somehow seemed to avoid her allies as they lanced into the crowd. The Grizzly ran past on all fours, Brittle Red astride his back with a machine gun in her hands, whooping enthusiastically as she fired into the crowd. Her bullets were less discerning than Cinder’s refractions, and Poutine and Rue Royal had to dodge quickly to avoid being shot.
The Nanny, longtime member of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, hung back at the edges of the fight. “This isn’t right,” she muttered, looking from one cluster of furiously swinging superhumans to the next. “This isn’t right at all.”
“What’s wrong?” demanded Handheld.
“They’re not naughty.” She turned on her team leader, her umbrella already out and in her hand. “I swear to you, I don’t know how I know, but I know. These people? They’re not naughty. They’re here for the right reasons.”
Handheld, whose psychic powers were limited to communication with machines, had nonetheless learned to respect the Nanny’s appraisals of others. “They shot Swallowtail out of the sky,” he said.
“But they didn’t kill her, and they could have. We didn’t afford them the same favor.”
Swallowtail was still out cold. Handheld looked to her, and then back to the Nanny. “Can you get to Velveteen? Can you tell her...tell her that we surrender, but only if she’ll help us get Swallowtail to cover?”
The Nanny blinked. “What about the others?”
“Apex and Super-Cool won’t surrender, even if it’s that or die. Bedbug will follow Swallowtail. I don’t know about the Candy sisters.” To be honest, he’d never known about the Candy sisters.
The Nanny nodded. “I’ll be back,” she said, and opened her umbrella, and soared away into the cold blue sky.
Lady Luck and Fortunate Son fought back to back, spinning the probabilities around them to fell their enemies and help their allies hit their marks. Neither of them seemed to be doing very much, to the naked eye, but the sea of bodies and bloodstains around them testified to how effective their methods really were.
“I can’t say as I’ve ever loved you more,” panted Fortunate Son, yanking the luck out from under Firefly and sending her sprawling into the turf. “Your momma’s going to be very proud of you.”
“I’m already very proud of you,” said Lady Luck, hitting Poutine with a burst of good fortune that allowed her to twist out of the way of Jack O’Lope’s latest volley of bullets. “This is a good day.”
“Yes,” agreed Fortunate Son. “It is.”
They were both of them so focused on their work that they had forgotten that they weren’t the only probability manipulators on the field. Second Chance, who had been a trainee when Majesty died; Second Chance, whose powers allowed him to try again if he failed something the first time. He fired his blaster at Fortunate Son and missed, the shot deflected by their swirling shell of probabilities. Time rewound, and he fired again.
This time, he didn’t miss.
Fortunate Son was born lucky: he was the sort of man who would trip and fall on the sidewalk rather than walking in the path of an oncoming bus. And so, when Second Chance fired, Fortunate Son’s powers moved him just a hairsbreadth to the side. Still close enough for the shot to hit home...and at the same time, far enough that it didn’t hit its intended target.
Lady Luck screamed as she fell, a blistered wound covering half her chest. Fortunate Son shouted in dismay, and flung a ball of bad fortune at Second Chance before diving after his fallen wife. He didn’t see Firecracker slam into Second Chance; he didn’t see the two of them engulfed by the unforgiving waters of Lake Pontchartrain. He had no eyes left for anything but Lady Luck, who was gasping and glassy-eyed with pain.
“Come on, baby girl, don’t you do this,” he said, gathering her up into his arms. “Don’t you leave me. Shit, you think I know what to do without you? I’m a mess when you’re not running my world.”
“Let me,” said a voice behind him.
He turned, and there was Showgirl, glittering like a sequined dream. “Showgirl, this ain’t the time--”
“This is the perfect time,” she said, and leaned forward, pressing her hand against Lady Luck’s chest. The fallen heroine gasped, eyes going wide. “You’ve never respected me much, have you? I can’t say I blame you. I never tried to force the issue. But you could have asked what my secondary power set was.”
“What are you--”
He turned back to his wife, who was wide eyed and blinking at him. There was no sign of the wound on her chest. He helped her sit up, hands shaking. “It’s all right, baby girl. You’re all right.”
“The show must go on,” said Showgirl, and jumped back into the fray.
While this, all this and more, was going on, Velveteen fought her way steadily toward the doors. She was backed by Jolly Roger, Jackie Frost, and the Claw. Maybe not the most predictable of teams, but it turned out to be an effective one. Heroes fell all around them, and they pressed on.
Halfway there, a teenage girl in an old-fashioned nanny’s uniform, clutching an umbrella in one hand, descended from the sky. She put her hands up as soon as she landed. “Please don’t hurt me,” she said. “I come in peace.”
Jolly Roger stared at her. “We’re in the middle of a battlefield, girl,” he said. As if to illustrate his point, Whippoorwill went flying by overhead, blown backward by a blast from Jack O’Lope. “If you’re here to surrender, go get on the boat. We’ll deal with you later.”
“I’m not, quite. I just...” She turned to Velveteen. “You’re not naughty. You’ve never been naughty. How is that possible?”
Jackie snorted. “I could’ve told you that.”
“I just wanted to be left alone,” said Velveteen. “You’re the Nanny, right? Is the rest of your team okay?”
“I don’t know about all of them. One of the Candy sisters got busted like a pinata, but I’ve always suspected that they weren’t all real. Please.” The Nanny seized Velveteen’s hand. “You’re not naughty, and some of the people we’ve been working for are. Please, can we switch sides?”
There was a deeper question there, because it implied that Velveteen had a side to switch to: that this was more than just a temporary thing. She took a deep breath, sighed, and nodded. “Yes. Any of you who want to change allegiances, just go to the Phantom Doll and wait for us there. We’ll be back soon.”
“Thank you,” said the Nanny fervently. She reopened her umbrella and soared away into the sky. Velveteen and the others watched her go.
“You sure that was wise, girl?” asked Jolly Roger.
“No,” said Velveteen. “But it’s a chance I wish I’d been offered. Come on.” They resumed their slow passage toward the doors. Jackie blasted anything that got past Velveteen’s marching array of toys, and Jolly Roger and the Claw handled those who managed somehow to come in close. It bought them ground, yard by yard, until they were standing right outside the entry hall.
Apex, American Dream, Super-Cool, and Action Dude barred their way. All four heroes hovered a few feet off the ground, their expressions ranging from heroic determination to quiet desperation.
“Please don’t make me do this, Vel,” said Action Dude.
“Fucked up times five billion,” muttered Velveteen. Then she raised her voice, and said, “You messed up, Action Dude. I thought you were smarter than this.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I can see inside, asshole.” She closed her eyes and raised her hands, and the statues that lined the hall stepped off their pedestals and grabbed the last line of defense keeping her outside. The heroes struggled. The statues tightened their hands, and kept tightening until the struggling stopped.
“Did you...did you kill them?” asked the Claw, in a hushed voice.
“No,” said Velveteen coldly. “Come on.”
And she stepped inside.
The fight was losing momentum. Velveteen and her allies were outnumbered to start, but for every one of them who fell, they were taking out two or more of the corporate heroes. Their minds were clearer. Their tactics were harsher. They had, in the end, one hell of a lot more to lose. Rampion watched impassively as her hair choked Flash Flood into unconsciousness. Nearby, Victory Anna was tying up Mechamation, while Imagineer studied her thoughtfully.
“We would have given you much better toys, you know,” she said.
“I’m a grown woman,” she replied. “I have no time for toys. Now be silent, or I’ll shoot your fingers off.”
Sparkle Bright and Firefly were in the air above the artificial lake, blasting each other with glittering bolts. Sparkle Bright seemed to be wavering, and dipped lower in the air...allowing Mississippi Queen to lasso Firefly with a watery rope and yank her into the water, where Lake Pontchartrain made short work of her.
The former trainees of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, watched all this from the deck of the Phantom Doll. Only four of them had chosen safety: the Nanny, Handheld, Swallowtail, and the Bedbug. All of them were now absolutely sure that they had done the right thing.
The sound of the doors slamming shut was enough to catch their attention, even over the noise of the fight. “What do you think’s happening in there?” whispered Swallowtail, her hand groping for Handheld’s.
“Nothing good,” he said, and took her hand, and held it, glad to be out of the fight at last.
The elevators were still operational, but being slightly smarter than moss, the four heroes had chosen to take the stairs. Better a little panting than a lot of plummeting. Velveteen walked serenely in the lead, a carpet of dolls and plush toys scampering ahead of her, while the others followed.
“She’s going into the holidays after this, aye?” asked Jolly Roger of Jackie, pitching his voice softly so as not to be overheard. He barely needed to worry; Velveteen was clearly off in her own little world, splitting her concentration in a hundred directions as she controlled her tiny army.
“For a year,” said Jackie. “I don’t think she’s going to choose any of us, but she promised us a year.”
“Well, for our sake, lass, I hope you’re right. We need more like her.”
“I don’t like this,” said the Claw. “Does anyone else feel like this is too easy? We should be fighting more, and instead, we’re just walking.”
“They never thought we’d make it this far,” said Jackie.
“Aye,” said Jolly Roger. He sounded almost regretful. “That could be the explanation.”
“Do you have a better one?” demanded Jackie.
“Maybe we were supposed to make it this far,” said Velveteen, causing them both to jump and turn guiltily toward her. She kept climbing stairs. “Doesn’t this all feel a little scripted? Like we were supposed to do the things we’ve done since we arrived?”
“Dead Ringer died,” said the Claw.
“I know. That just makes it worse.” There was a door at the top of the stairs. Velveteen focused on it, using the need to know what was on the other side to keep herself moving. “But someone’s been doing all these things, all along. Some of the corporate decisions we’ve seen...they’re just not good business. Someone had another motive.”
“I wondered if you’d know who it was.” Velveteen reached for the doorknob, and pushed open the last door.
It opened on the back of a palatial office, one that was large enough to take up an entire floor. It had its own elevator bay, and its own stairway opening. The desk was the size of a luxury sedan. There was a single chair behind it, turned so that whoever sat there could watch the fight happening on the lawn outside. The four heroes entered, surrounded by toys, and formed a ragged line across the expensive carpet. The person in the chair said nothing.
Finally, when the silence began to take on physical weight, Velveteen asked, “So who are you? The head of Marketing? The final boss?”
“No, dear.” The voice was female, sweet as lead sugar and ten times as poisonous. It seemed to leave a sticky residue on their ears, like even hearing it was enough to require a hot shower and a thorough scrubbing. “I’m nothing so petty as the head of Marketing. I’m the CEO. This is my country, and in it, I am Queen.”
“Ah, lass,” sighed Jolly Roger. “I was afraid it might be you.”
“Roger.” The woman in the chair actually sounded pleased. “So this is what it takes to make you come back and take up your responsibilities again. You just needed an impossible crusade. If I’d realized that, I would have allowed an animus onto the junior team years ago.”
“Uh, pardon the ignorant blue girl, but who the fuck are you?” Jackie sounded annoyed. It was beginning to snow around her, large, fluffy flakes that stuck to the carpet at her feet. “You’re the CEO? Great. You’re fired.”
“What do you mean, allowed an animus?” asked the Claw, suspiciously. “They’re rare. You didn’t have an animus before Vel because there wasn’t one available.”
“Who tells us how rare certain power sets are?” asked Velveteen. Her eyes remained fixed on the chair. “Most of the reports are published by The Super Patriots, Inc. If they wanted to change the frequency of a power set’s manifestations, all they’d have to do is change a number on a computer somewhere...”
“There have been more than you could ever know in your general family tree,” said the woman in the chair, her voice taking on a light sing-song quality. “Animators and reanimators and resurrectionists and speakers to the dead. Oh, there are many kinds of animus, little toy box girl with your tin soldier army. I let them have you because you seemed harmless, and because I was curious. I wanted to know if you were any threat to me, if you would become a threat to me. And you know what?”
“What?” asked Velveteen, her hands balling into fists.
“You were never a threat. You never became a threat. You were a toy, just like the things you played with, and I proved it when I had you broken and thrown away.” The chair finally turned, revealing the woman who was sitting there.
She was beautiful, almost indescribably so. Her skin was like cream, and her wavy, naturally golden hair made every blonde any of them had ever seen look like the victim of a bad dye job. That hair fell to cover half of her face, but perhaps that was for the best, because the half that was still visible was lovely enough to eclipse every other wonderful thing in the world. Her one visible eye was cerulean blue, heavy-lidded and filled with promises, and her lips teased the possibility of the sweetest kisses anyone had ever known.
“Supermodel?” said Jackie, snow beginning to fall harder in response to her surprise. “But you’re dead.”
“So the papers said,” said Supermodel. She directed a half-smile at Jolly Roger. “Hello, sweetie. Welcome home.”
“Oh, I’m not coming home,” he said. “This place stopped being home a long time ago.”
Supermodel stood as fluidly as a dream, long legs falling into a perfect runway strut as she walked toward them. “Oh, sweetie. You still don’t understand. What’s mine is mine, and stays that way, forever. I don’t give up on my pretty things.”
“You’re a horrible person,” said Velveteen. She sounded almost surprised. “I mean, I’ve heard about the big fight, the one where Majesty died--where you supposedly died--and they all said that it wasn’t your fault, that your powers messed with your head. But they didn’t, did they? You were like this all along. This is who you really are.”
Supermodel stopped and blinked at her, an expression flickering through her single visible eye that could have been taken, easily, for fear. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Vel, maybe you shouldn’t antagonize the evil blonde Jessica Rabbit,” said Jackie, the snow starting to fall faster around her.
“Can’t you see the strings? She’s trying to wrap them around everyone in this room.” Velveteen froze. “No. You can’t see them, because you’re not...you aren’t...”
“They don’t have your power set,” said Jolly Roger grimly. He drew his sword. “Only an animus can truly sense another animus.”
“But we can’t have the same power set,” protested Velveteen. “We don’t do the same things at all!”
“An illusionist and a photon manipulator both work with light,” said the Claw. “Things take many forms.”
Like Lake Pontchartrain and Mississippi Queen, or Epiphany and Sparkle Bright. Velveteen nodded slowly. “So you’re the first animus,” she said, to Supermodel. “I can’t say I’m particularly impressed.”
“Says the girl dressed like a reject from the Playboy Bunnies,” sneered Supermodel. “You’re worthless. You’re beneath me.”
For a moment, Velveteen almost believed it. Supermodel was so beautiful, so perfect, and she...well, she wasn’t either of those things, not really. Surely Supermodel knew what she was talking about.
“Fucked up times infinity,” muttered Velveteen.
“What was that?” asked Supermodel.
“I said, you’re wrong.” Velveteen slowly raised her head, fixing her eyes on the other animus. “You screwed up, Supermodel. You built yourself this awesome empire, you suppressed the powers that could hurt you, you did everything that you could to make sure that you’d never be challenged. But you made one major mistake.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
The air was full of strings that no one else could see, all of them leading from Supermodel to someone else. Velveteen reached out with both hands, letting her toy army fall, forgotten, as she grabbed the nearest strings and yanked. Supermodel screamed. In the second before the office erupted into chaos, Velveteen said, through gritted teeth, “You taught me how to handle rejection. Now let’s fucking dance, you bitch.”
The fight was on.
Most superpowers come down to energy manipulation, of one sort or another. Maybe it’s light, or heat, or cold. Maybe it’s love. Or, as in the case of the rare superhumans categorized as “animus,” maybe it’s life. Velveteen grabbed the strings of life connecting Supermodel to her subordinates, pulling as hard as she could as she tried to free them from the grasping superhero-turned-supervillain. Supermodel pulled back with equal strength, spinning out new threads all the time.
“You can’t beat me,” hissed Supermodel. “I am better than you will ever be. Surrender now, and maybe I’ll allow you to live.”
“I’m sorry,” said Velveteen. “I couldn’t hear you above the sound of how outdated you are.” The two of them seemed to be standing in a bubble of absolute calm. If she really focused, she could almost make out the shapes of her friends through the candy-colored shell that had closed off the rest of the world. In a way, she was glad that they were so fuzzy, so distant and removed. It’s best if you don’t have to see me fall, she thought, and kept yanking on those strings. On those endless, endless strings.
“You are an ugly, worthless little worm,” said Supermodel. Strings lanced out from her body, wrapping themselves around Velveteen’s wrists and ankles, like the strings on a puppet. “Any fame you accomplished, you got because my Marketing department found a way to sell you to a public that didn’t even know you were worth wanting. Any fans you have, you owe to me. Pay me tribute. Bow down before me. Love me like you were designed to love me.”
“I’m thinking no,” said Velveteen--and then the strings drew tight and she screamed, feeling the essence of what made her her being ripped out of her body, only to be replaced by crushing emptiness and a void that could only be filled by love. Love, and admiration, and adoration, those were the boulders that would bridge the opening chasm, and there would never be enough. There could never be enough, because the gap was so deep, and the darkness at the bottom was so hungry. She screamed again, and even that was swallowed by the darkness. Not even sound could escape the black hole of her worthlessness.
Supermodel slunk closer, gathering in the slackened strings until they were tight and sustaining once more. “See? You can’t compare yourself to me. You never could. I’m so sorry that all those people misled you, making you think that you were worthy, that you were worthwhile. People never seem to understand how building up the self-esteem of social outcasts actually hurts them in the long run. We never gave you the opportunity to find your place, because we kept making you think that you could somehow march in here and steal mine. You poor deluded thing. You were always going to lose. The only question was how much it was going to hurt.”
The hunger on her half-visible face was raw and undisguised as she reached for Velveteen, fingers spread. Velveteen didn’t pull away. Supermodel took Velveteen’s head in her hands, cupping it gently, and pulled the other heroine closer, until their lips were virtually touching.
“I’ll try to keep this from hurting you too badly,” she whispered, mouth curling into a brittle, terrible smile. “But we both know that I’m going to fail.”
“Yeah,” said Velveteen, eyes suddenly focusing as the vacant look that she had been feigning for Supermodel’s benefit fled. She reached up and grabbed Supermodel’s wrists, yanking her closer, yanking her so close that the strings bound them both like a spider’s web. “You are.”
Supermodel screamed, and everything went white.
Meanwhile in the office, the Claw, Jackie, and Jolly Roger were busy trying to deal with a world that had come to sudden, violent life. Everything was moving, from the walls to the stapler on Supermodel’s desk, and it was all dead-set on murdering the three of them. Velveteen and Supermodel were locked together in the middle of the room, and neither of them seemed to realize that they weren’t alone. None of the animated objects got too close to the two heroines, which probably helped them to remain oblivious. Jackie wasn’t sure what they were doing, exactly, but she was willing to bet that it wasn’t the sort of thing that was aided by an attack from a murderous rubber tree plant.
“What the twisted candy fuck is going on in here?” she demanded, blasting Supermodel’s chair with a solid bolt of ice that blew a huge hole in the upholstery. The chair didn’t seem to approve; it shrieked, although it didn’t have a mouth, so it probably shouldn’t have been able to do that, and dove for her, castors spinning madly.
“There’s too much life for the room!” Jolly Roger shouted, parrying an attack of paperwork with his sword. “Both of them, they’re spending it like pocket change in attacking each other, and it’s spilling out into everything else!”
“Well make them stop!”
“Lass, if I knew how to make an animus stop doing anything, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” snarled Jolly Roger, slashing again at the paperwork. “My Nicole and I would have left this life behind, and spent the last decades on the high seas, where there was nothing to infect her with the need for more love than one man could give.”
“Uh, guys? Not to distract you or anything, but should we be helping Vel not die?” The Claw clipped a rampaging rubber tree in two with one snip of his mighty claws. “And how can Supermodel be an animus? She’s in all the books as a psychic of undefined focus and scope.”
“Who wrote the history books?” Jackie blasted the fax machine before it could sink its teeth into the Claw’s leg. “If she didn’t want anyone to know...”
“She was always proud,” said Jolly Roger. “But it was fame that killed her soul.” He hacked at the papers one last time, reducing them to confetti. Regretfully, he turned toward Supermodel and Velveteen. “I know what needs doing.”
Everyone was exhausted. No, more than exhausted; everyone was defeated, even the ones who were technically winning by any objective measurement. Powers were failing. Inertia was setting in. Half The Super Patriots were tied up or sealed in the hold of the Phantom Doll. The rest were still fighting, or trying to, anyway...save for those who would never be fighting again, ever. Lake Pontchartrain was sitting on her own bank, crying steadily into her hands. Fortunate Son looked shell-shocked as he bent the luck again and again, trying less to guarantee victory for his side--victory already seemed assured--and more to keep anyone else from being killed.
No one was walking away from this fight unscathed. Not the winners, not the losers, no one. Every side had lost people. Every hero had been forced to face the fact that sometimes, their powers ended lives. It had been years since there was a super-battle of this scale, and all of them were coming to realize that peace was the better option. Peace didn’t force you to look at someone you knew as they bled out on the cold ground. Peace didn’t make you choose who lived and who died.
Some of them had stopped fighting altogether, and simply stood staring up at the top level of the headquarters, where strange sounds and lights had started a few minutes before. They all knew, on some level, that the battle was decided down in the mud, but the war was being decided up in that room, amidst a chaos that none of them was brave enough to approach.
The only real question, at this point, was whether there was any way a victory for The Super Patriots would still be a victory for the world. Down in the mud, even those who fought for the corporation were coming to wonder whether losing might be the best outcome for everyone.
Everyone except the dead.
Velveteen had all the strings in her hands now, and she was pulling; pulling so hard that she could feel parts of Supermodel starting to come loose as fractures formed deep inside the other animus. She wanted to let go. She wanted to stop this, and find another way. And she knew that letting go would be a fast way to a faster death. Supermodel wasn’t fighting fairly. She had no interest in letting her opponents live.
“What happened?” Velveteen whispered, still pulling, still yanking strings from their moorings. “How did you get like this?”
“I needed more,” snarled Supermodel, trying to pull away. “I just...needed...more.”
“Get a puppy! Do something! Don’t enslave generations of superhumans to give you more fodder for your ego!” The strings were cutting into Velveteen’s hands, but that was all right; that was how it was supposed to be. The pain centered her, and kept her from forgetting that she was hurting a real person. Her actions would have consequences, and those consequences...
Those consequences were going to change everything.
Supermodel pulled away again, so suddenly that Velveteen almost lost her grip. The motion caused her hair to sway away from her face, and for a moment, Velveteen saw what was beneath. She frowned, puzzled. She’d been expecting a ruined face, a huge scar, and what she saw was the other half of the most beautiful woman in the world. Then, like a glass breaking, she realized that the hidden half of Supermodel’s face was scarred. A tiny, tiny scar, right above her lip. And for that, she had shut herself away in a tower and become a villain. Because if she wasn’t beautiful, what was she?
“You were the best of us,” said Velveteen. “That’s what you were.”
The strings began to snap in Velveteen’s hands, and as they broke, the candy shell that had appeared around the two heroines thinned, becoming a veil, and finally, clearing away entirely, revealing Jolly Roger. He was standing behind Supermodel, a look of profound regret on his heartbroken face. Velveteen looked down.
The sword that protruded from Supermodel’s stomach was only visible for an inch or so before it entered Velveteen’s. The pain followed the sight, and she released the dissolving strings entirely, taking a step backward. The sword’s bloody tip emerged from her body.
“Ack,” said Supermodel. Then, with no more fanfare than that, she fell. The sound of her body hitting the floor was followed by the sound of Jolly Roger’s sword landing beside her. Then the old pirate dropped to his knees, gathering her into his arms as he sobbed.
Velveteen wobbled. Velveteen asked, “Is it over?” And finally, Velveteen followed the older animus to the floor.
The last thing she saw before everything went black was Jackie, snow falling around her. “We won,” said Jackie. “You did it.”
Velveteen smiled, and the rest was silence.