Summary: Now what?
Thank you all so much for reading these. And thanks to Landley, for sponsoring today's final installment in the adventures of a superheroine named Velma Martinez, who did so much more than she ever thought she could.
The cathedral room of the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle was quiet. A single figure sat next to the closed glass coffin. She had put her bloodstained uniform back on, complete with the bunny-eared headband on her head and a thick roll of bandages wrapped around her midsection. She had removed her domino mask and was holding it in her hands, turning it thoughtfully over and over, like she expected it to somehow start giving her the answers that she needed.
“I thought I should come and tell you what happened,” she said. Her voice was soft, and the room rendered it even softer, pulling it up into the vaulted ceiling, silencing her echoes. This conversation was for the two of them alone: for the girl in the rabbit ears and the boy who slept in the coffin made of glass. “There were just so many moving pieces, and I never quite realized how much this was going to change things...for everyone...”
Velveteen staggered out of the headquarters on her own two feet, although even a fool could have seen that the Claw and Jackie were bearing most of her weight. As for Jolly Roger, he had a burden of his own to bear: the body of Supermodel, draped across his arms like a bride being carried to her bridal bed. Her hair was her veil, hiding her face forever from the world.
“You’re alive,” said Sparkle Bright, a wondering smile spreading across her face. Fireworks accompanied her expression, exploding in bright sprays all around her. She ran forward, stopping herself just short of sweeping Velveteen into a hug. “I was so sure--Vel, are you okay? Is it over?”
“That depends,” said Velveteen. “Are you on our side again?”
“The power of love, and Epona’s own grace, has returned her to us,” said Victory Anna, walking forward to stand beside the willowy blonde. The smile on the redhead’s face was almost as bright as Yelena’s fireworks.
“And I’m changing my name,” said Sparkle Bright. “I like Polychrome much better.”
“The focus groups will hate it,” said Velveteen, with a pained smile. “I’m so glad to see you both.”
“We’re glad to see you two, sugar,” said the Princess, gliding in on her magic carpet. “Looked like you were having a little trouble up there.”
“Yeah, well.” Velveteen glanced back at Supermodel’s body. “Things have costs. We need to remember that, so that we never have to do this again. This should never have happened in the first place.”
“Vel?” The voice was horribly familiar, and so was the tone: apologetic, hopeful, sad. Filled with years of history, and even more years of isolation. Almost against her will, Velveteen turned and watched as Action Dude settled lightly to the battle-scarred lawn. His blue and orange uniform had somehow, against all odds, remained virtually pristine. Looking at him was like looking at her own alternate future, one where this became her home. She could stay here, rebuild The Super Patriots as a force for good, and he’d be there with her every step of the way. “Are you okay?”
“I’m bleeding on the lawn, your CEO is dead, and I’m going to pass out again soon,” said Velveteen, more harshly than she actually meant to. Maybe a little harshness was justified. “No. I’m not okay. I don’t think any of us are okay, and that’s probably a good thing, because we’d have to be sociopaths if we were okay right now.”
Action Dude winced. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know.” Velveteen closed her eyes, sagging against the Claw. “I’m just tired. Princess?”
“How bad is it?”
The Princess, who had been present for the entire fight, took a deep breath before she said, “Well, honey. It ain’t good.”
“Both sides lost people.” Velveteen looked down at her domino mask, turning it over and over between her fingers. Tad, asleep in the coffin, said nothing. “I always knew there would be deaths, just like I knew toys would be broken every time I went out on patrol, but knowing something and seeing it are very different things, you know? People actually died because of a fight that I said we should have. I know that a lot more people died because of what Supermodel and The Super Patriots, Inc. did, but that doesn’t really matter. Not when I close my eyes and try to sleep.”
She sighed, and it was the lost, hollow sound of a woman who had never been allowed to be a child, and whose adulthood had been scarred by weapons she had no way to defend herself against. “Lake Pontchartrain had the highest body count. She drowned at least three people before the fight was over, and she’s actually being a lake right now, here on the castle grounds. The Princess said she’d been wanting a water feature, and told Lake Pontchartrain that she could stay here for as long as she needed to get her head back together. I feel really bad for her. But the Claw is with her--you remember the Claw, my old teammate? He was good, and then he went bad, and now he’s good again, because I asked him to be. He only ever needed permission to be a hero. He’s a pretty good one.”
Velveteen closed her eyes, leaning sideways until her cheek was pressed against the glass. “I really wish you were here right now. I really wish that I could talk to you. Because it’s not over yet, and what comes next is going to be hard.”
Velveteen insisted that Action Dude, Dotty Gale, and the American Dream accompany her as she limped her slow way around the battlefield. Jackie Frost and the Claw walked with them, still holding her up, and glared at anyone who seemed to question their presence. A larger group formed behind their small one as every standing hero fell into step, all of them waiting to see what would happen next. Only Jolly Roger walked away, carrying Supermodel’s body with him as he retreated back into the familiar safety of his beloved Phantom Doll.
“This is on you as much as it’s on me,” said Velveteen, indicating the damage all around them. “You were being mind-controlled, and that sucks, but there were ways of breaking out of that. Polychrome proves it. So did Tag, and so do I. So you don’t get to say ‘oh, people died, but it wasn’t my fault, a bad woman was controlling me.’ Do you understand? You have to own what you helped to build, and what you helped to destroy.”
“That’s a lot to put on us,” protested Dotty Gale. There were bloodstains on her silver slippers.
Velveteen looked at her dully, and asked, “Does that mean that it wasn’t a lot to put on me?”
Dotty Gale looked away.
“Vel, you need to get off your feet,” said Jackie. “You’re still bleeding. I’m honestly not sure how you’re still standing.”
“That’s okay. Neither am I. But I’m not dead. I know what that feels like now, and I’m not there yet.” Velveteen stopped walking, letting go of the Claw in order to turn herself around and face the others. “We can’t dismantle The Super Patriots, Inc. It matters too much. The world needs to be protected from us, and the only way to do that is if it’s protected by us. But this company, this structure, it needs to change.”
“Are you going to help us with that?” Action Dude’s question was earnest, accompanied by an all-too-familiar look of pleading hopefulness. It made Velveteen’s heart ache to look at it.
But she didn’t look away. Instead, she shook her head, and said, “No. I have other commitments, and they’re going to take me off this plane of existence for a little while. Besides, I left when I was eighteen. I don’t know how you people do things. This is all on you, and you’d better get it right, because I’m coming back, and when I do, I’m going to check up on you.”
The American Dream frowned. “Was that a threat?”
“I don’t know.” Velveteen looked slowly around, taking in the destruction that her forces had wrought. Finally, she looked back to the American Dream, cocked her head, and asked, “What do you think?”
“They’re still going to be training children, because children with superpowers are basically accidents waiting to happen, but they’re not going to buy them the way The Super Patriots used to,” said Velveteen, cheek still pressed against the coffin. “Kids will be able to see their parents, and once they’ve learned to control their powers, they can leave, if they want to. No focus groups, no forcing pre-teens into combat against dangerous supervillains. Just school for people who can fly, or bench press trucks, or talk to animals. They’ll have the training we should have had, and maybe they’ll live longer.”
She sighed. “Of course, there will still be kids like me, and like Yelena, ones whose parents can’t wait to be rid of us, and they’ll still get the old fosterage contracts, but instead of living in dorms, they’ll live with heroes who’ll serve as foster parents. They’ll have people around who can understand them, and things will be better. That’s all we can really hope for, right? That things will be better, and we’ll have fewer funerals to attend after I make it home...”
“Jolly Roger?” Velveteen knocked on the door to the captain’s cabin before pushing it open. “Are you here?”
“I am, lass.” The old pirate was sitting at his table, back where she’d first seen him. This time, his cup of rum was filled to overflowing, and spills on the table made it clear that this wasn’t his first. “I wondered when you’d get around to me.”
“I’m not going to be getting around to much after this,” said Velveteen, touching her heavily bandaged side. “We only have one healer operational, and she’s looking after people who are a lot more messed up than I am.”
Guilt twisted Jolly Roger’s face. “I didn’t mean to--”
“It’s okay. We both did what we had to do if we wanted to survive. I can forgive you if you can forgive me.” Velveteen leaned back against the wall. “Where’s her body, Jolly Roger?”
“There.” He waved a hand, indicating his bunk. There was a figure there, swaddled in blankets, face hidden. “I’ll be taking her away with me, if it’s all the same to you. She and I, we have a history between us.”
“Is she going to wake up? Because I know there are dimensions where I’ve died and gotten back up again. I’m pretty dangerous in those worlds.”
Jolly Roger sighed. “I wish the answer was ‘yes,’ and damn the danger, but no. She’s gone. I’m going to take her to the sea, where she always should have been, and I’m going to bury her somewhere that will never be found. I want my girl to rest in peace. That means taking her away from all of this nonsense, and leaving her alone.”
“Don’t be.” He took a swig of rum. “She made her choices. We all did. But oh, you should have seen us when we were younger, when we all believed in doing good, not doing for ourselves. She was the most beautiful woman in the world. She still is, to me.”
“Your mermaid looks a lot like her, you know.”
“Funny thing, that.” Jolly Roger smiled. “You did well, lass, and I’m glad that I helped you, no matter how much it cost us both. You never get anything good in this world without paying for it. Remember that, no matter what you decide to do with yourself when the cleanup’s done and the bodies have been buried. We pay for everything that’s ours, and if the cost is dear, it’s because the prize is even dearer.”
“I’ll remember,” said Velveteen. “After you take Supermodel away...will you be coming back this time? The world still loves pirates, you know. There’s always a place for you here.”
“I think this was Jolly Roger’s last hurrah, lass,” he said, and stood, walking over to enfold her in a warm hug that smelled like rum and saltwater and adventure. “I’ll hang up my sword, and leave the piracy to the younger generation. You would have made a fine pirate, my dear.”
Velveteen, hugging him back with her eyes full of tears, laughed.
Jackie Frost helped them get the fallen home for their funerals, opening mirror portals between the battlefield and their home states. Since some superhumans couldn’t be autopsied, and cause of death was generally very clear, only cursory medical examination was needed before the bodies could be released for burial. Velveteen and her “team”--Jackie, the Princess, Polychrome, Victory Anna, and oddly enough, the Claw--attended every single funeral, regardless of who the dead had been fighting for. They were all superhumans together. That was enough.
At Dead Ringer’s funeral--her civilian name, it turned out, was Maryanne Bellman--her mother asked Velveteen to provide a remembrance. There was no way to politely refuse, and so Velveteen, in her black costume with the matching domino mask, took the podium, and said, “Dead Ringer and I entered training around the same time, although we were with different teams. There was a photo shoot with the two of us, back when she was Liberty Belle, and I remember she had the most amazing laugh. It was like listening to sunlight. She did...she did a lot of good. Maybe that’s silly now, because she’s not going to do any more good for anyone, and I’m so, so sorry, but while she was with us, she did a lot of good. She saved a lot of lives. And I guess that’s all that any hero can ask.”
She was crying as she walked back to her seat, where the Princess was waiting to gather her into a hug. Velveteen put her face down against the Princess’s shoulder and sobbed silently, letting the funeral run on all around them. The Princess stroked her back with one black-gloved hand. “Shh, darling, shh,” she whispered. “Happy ever after isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t fight so hard to have it.”
When they got back to the somewhat battered headquarters of The Super Patriots, Inc., Jolly Roger and the Phantom Doll were gone. They’d been expecting that, but still, it made Velveteen’s heart ache a little to look at the torn-up earth where the ship had been. The roses were squashed, just like Victory Anna had requested.
“Hey Jackie,” said Velveteen suddenly. “Think you can manage another magic mirror?”
“Sure. I’m feeling pretty solid. What do you need?”
“Can you go find Garden Show, and let her know that we have a landscaping emergency that could really use her skill set?”
Jackie Frost blinked. And then, sounding delighted, she laughed. “You got it.”
“There were parts I couldn’t be there for, of course,” said Velveteen. The glass was beginning to warm beneath her cheek. “People told me about them, or I guessed. No one can be everywhere at once, right? I mean, except for maybe Uncertainty. And there was so much to do...”
Trick and Treat stood before the twisted, blackened doorway, their daughter--their only daughter; the other two had always been candy golems, created to draw fire and provide their precious girl with the chance to escape if the need ever arose--standing between them, terrified and trembling. Trick put a hand on her shoulder, trying to be reassuring. Treat just stepped forward, took a deep breath, and knocked.
The hinges didn’t just creak as the door swung open; they howled, damned things protesting their enslavement to the sky. Beyond the door was darkness. Then lightning flashed, revealing a teenage girl with pale blonde hair streaked in bands of green and orange. She was wearing a patchwork witch’s costume in purple and orange and green, and pumpkin-shaped earrings dangled from her earlobes. There was no mercy in her face. She might look like a sixteen year old girl, but she scowled like a wicked queen.
“What do you want?” she asked, eyes going from Trick to Treat before finally settling on the girl who stood between them. Her scowl faded somewhat as she studied her. “And who are you?”
“This is Mischief,” said Trick, voice unsteady. “Our daughter.”
“Huh.” Hailey continued to study the girl, who had hair that started white at the crown of her head and darkened to orange before fading to yellow at the tips. “What do you do, Mischief?”
“Um.” Mischief looked to her parents for approval before turning back to Hailey and saying, “I’m a matter manipulator, but everything I manipulate sort of turns into candy.”
“Uh-huh. What are your limitations? How much can you handle?”
“She’s been running two candy golems at all times since she was four years old,” interjected Treat. “She’s good.”
“Is she, now?” Hailey turned her flat-eyed gaze on the two former guardians of her season. “Why are you here, Trick, Treat? Why have you brought your daughter to meet me? What are you hoping to achieve? And don’t lie to me. You may be powerful, but I am Halloween, and I’ll know if you try to lie.”
“We want to come home,” said Trick. “This world is...”
“It has too many themes,” said Treat. “They can never make up their minds whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy or a farce, and nothing makes sense, and we’re tired. It was fun being heroes for a little while. We’re done. We just want to come home and be guardians again.”
“You abandoned your duties once,” said Hailey. “Why should I trust that you won’t do it again?”
“We’re parents now,” said Trick. “We understand responsibility. And Mischief...this world isn’t where she belongs. She should be in eternal autumn, where the bonfires light the night, and trick-or-treat is the first question anyone will ever ask you. We should never have come here. We should never have forced her to grow up here. We want to come home.”
“And what about you, little girl?” Hailey turned to Mischief, who managed, barely, not to flinch away. There was nothing young in Hailey’s eyes. She looked older than the season, and nowhere near so kind. “What do you want?”
“I want to know what home is,” said Mischief.
That seemed to be the right answer. Hailey stepped to one side, beckoning the small family forward. “Well, then. Welcome back.”
When the door closed behind them, it disappeared, and it was as if they had never been there at all.
“You’re breaking a lot of rules right now,” said Jacqueline Claus, sitting at her table with her hands wrapped tight around her cocoa mug, trying to pull the warmth of it into her bones. That was getting harder and harder these days. She had so very little left in her. “If your mother catches you...”
“Then she’ll give me hell and a half, but I’ve been on the Naughty List before.” Jackie Frost sat at the other side of her parallel self’s table, watching the pink-skinned girl with obvious concern. “I came to you because I needed help, and I’m not blind. I knew that you needed help as much as I did. I just couldn’t give it to you.”
“And now you can?”
Jackie nodded. “My Velveteen stopped animating her boyfriend. He’s asleep now, with the Princess, waiting until Vel can wake him up. We went up against The Super Patriots not long after that. They didn’t give us any choice.”
“What happened?” asked a voice from behind her--almost familiar, but not quite. Velveteen had never sounded so...thin, like a paper doll that had somehow learned to speak. Jackie managed not to jump. It was a near thing.
“We won.” Jackie forced herself to keep looking straight ahead. She didn’t want to see Marionette again if she could help it. “We took them on, and we won.”
Jacqueline’s eyes widened. “How?”
“The head of the corporation, in my world at least? It’s Supermodel. She didn’t die, or maybe she did die, and then managed to get back up again. She’s an animus, like Velma. She’s still sucking the good out of the world. That, and her pet psychics...it’s enough to keep her in power, even when she does things that no one should be able to forgive.”
“An animus,” breathed Marionette. “That makes so much sense. Yes. I can see it. I can raise an army against it. Everyone is afraid of me. If I tell them this will not end me, but end a greater threat...”
Jackie couldn’t miss the sudden exhaustion that washed across Jacqueline’s face. “You’ll need to get your strength up, then,” said the girl who had willingly slaved herself to an undead horror, because when that horror had been alive, they had been friends. She gave so much.
She had so little left to give.
“I’ll do it,” said Jackie.
You could have heard a snowflake fall in the silence that followed. Jacqueline finally broke it, saying, “You don’t understand what you’re offering.”
Jackie Frost, who had never really had a reputation for generosity--and had never sought one out, to be completely fair; she was happy being the selfish spirit of Christmas, the child with outstretched hands and no thought for whether anyone else had any gifts beneath the tree--shook her head. “I do understand, and I know that it will hurt. But if you can survive it this long, I can survive it once, and she’s going to need you with her on the battlefield. I get to go home after this. You have to stay here. So let me do this one thing for the both of you, because you helped me once, and because it’s the right thing to do.”
Jacqueline smiled slowly, sadly. “We really are the same person, aren’t we?”
“No,” said Jackie. “But sometimes I like to think I could have been you, if I’d been a little more willing to share.”
“Just close your eyes,” said Marionette behind her, voice whisper-soft and hungry. Cold fingers slid around the back of Jackie’s neck. “It’ll all be over soon.”
In the end, of course, she couldn’t keep herself from screaming. No one who heard thought any less of her. How could they have? When your very essence is being eaten, it’s only natural to scream. And eventually, the screaming stopped.
The Princess didn’t necessarily enjoy drinking with the Fairy Tale Girls. They were too rowdy for her tastes, and their humor tended to be crass and inappropriate. It had taken her nearly a decade to make Brittle Red understand that racial slurs and transphobia weren’t funny, and while the weapon-toting heroine tried to censor herself, she still slipped sometimes. Beauty was quick to defend her, saying that she didn’t mean anything by it, and no amount of explanation seemed to get the point across. Still, even flawed people can be good people, and when the Princess called, they had come. That seemed to be worth a round or two of drinks.
Cinder had retreated to her usual silence. One of her arms had been smashed during the fight, and she was still piecing it back together; light could shine right through the gaps in her body, which was disconcerting enough to make the Princess glad that it was drinks, not dinner.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Rampion. “We should overthrow things more often.”
“Just remember that unless they’re evil, that’s a sort of supervillain thing to do,” said the Princess. “It’s better to be heroes. Keeps you out of trouble.”
“We’re always trouble,” said Snow Wight.
“That’s true enough, but there’s a big difference between ‘oh, that’s Snow and Rose, they’re trouble’ and ‘oh, that’s Snow and Rose, call for an exorcist.’” The Princess shook her head. “Stay in the first column. It’s better for your health.”
“What will happen now?” asked Rose Dead.
“New management, new rules, and we wait to see how things settle out. That’s the trouble with living in the real world. Nothing ends easy. You don’t just get a pretty scroll that reads ‘happy ever after’ and takes your troubles away.”
The Fairy Tale Girls were briefly quiet, thinking about this. The stories that drew their power from might be twisted, but they were still, at heart, hopeful; innocence fueled even the most monstrous of interpretations. Easy endings were all they really knew.
Finally, Brittle Red asked, “You wanna hear a joke?”
“No, I don’t believe I do,” said the Princess. “But the next round’s on me.”
The Fairy Tale Girls cheered.
“Jackie’s fine,” said Velveteen. “It took her a few days to get her strength back to the point where she could take a mirror home, but she said that dimension’s Santa was very nice to her, especially considering what she’d done for his daughter. She’s at the North Pole now, recovering. I’ll see her soon. She said to tell you that they’re going to take really good care of me while I’m there, and that you shouldn’t worry, okay? There’s nothing for you to worry about at all.” A tear ran down her cheek, landing on the glass, where it glittered like a diamond.
Velveteen looked at it for a moment before she took a deep breath and said, “So there’s something else I need to tell you, before I go...”
It wasn’t really a surprise when Aaron showed up at the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle two days after the battle. It was sort of a surprise when the Princess let him in. Velveteen (she never took the ears off anymore; she hadn’t thought of herself by her civilian name since she stepped into Supermodel’s office, and she was direly afraid that she’d finally allowed that part of herself to die, sacrificed to the black chasm Supermodel tried to rip into her soul) was sitting in the library when she heard the sound of footsteps, and a throat being cleared. She looked up, and blanched at the sight of the Princess, in blue jeans and tank top, standing in front of a shamefaced Aaron. He was wearing tank slacks, a black T-shirt, and a hangdog expression, and he’d never been more handsome.
“You’ve got company,” said the Princess. “I’ll just leave the two of you alone, and remember, I can have an army of SWAT-trained raccoons in here in under a minute, so no throwing things, animating the furniture, or sex on the ceiling.” Then she was gone, moving with surprising speed for someone in heels that high.
“What are you doing here?” Maybe not the friendliest opening a conversation had ever had, but even as she spoke, Velveteen realized that it was the right question.
“I wanted to see you,” said Aaron, stuffing his hands awkwardly into his pockets. “I checked for you in Portland, and Yelena’s new girlfriend told me to go fuck myself. She, um, was pretty firm about that, actually.”
Velveteen snorted. “Let me guess: she threatened to shoot you with a gun that she physically shouldn’t have been able to lift, right?”
“Yeah. Also, who’s Epona, and why do I need to be worried about her wrath?”
“She’s a horse goddess. In Torrey’s original dimension, her worship was sort of the dominant religion. I think. Talking to her is hard sometimes.”
Aaron smiled a little. “Yeah.”
He didn’t say anything after that. For several minutes, neither did Velveteen. Instead, they both looked anywhere but at each other, the awkwardness in the room slowly growing. Finally, grumpily, she stood and demanded, “Aaron, why are you here?”
“I wanted to see you,” said Aaron again. “I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry. Marketing said...they said that if I didn’t go along with them, they’d have to transfer you to the Midwest Division, because what we’d been doing wasn’t appropriate. They never out-and-out said it, but they made a lot of comments about how ‘support heroes’ don’t last long in the Midwest. I thought they were going to kill you if I didn’t let them make me a couple with Yelena. I’m so sorry. I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Velveteen stared at him. Aaron had been the first of them to figure out how to play Marketing, how to twist what they wanted until it turned into what he wanted. But the flip side of that was that he had always put more faith in Marketing and in their power than Velveteen had. If they’d told him that she’d be killed if they didn’t break up...
“They lied to you,” she said.
Aaron shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think that out of the three of us, I was the only one they told the truth. They wanted us to be more marketable. You needed one lie. Yelena needed a different one. I just had to go along with it.”
Velveteen sighed, looking down at her feet. “Why are you here, Aaron?” she asked, for the third time.
“I wanted to see you.”
“You keep saying that.”
“I just feel like...things with us, they shouldn’t have ended the way they did. They shouldn’t have ended at all. You were the love of my life, Vel, and you still are. I think you always will be. I wanted to see you, because I wanted to ask if there was any way that we could have a second chance.”
“A second chance.” Velveteen raised her head, looking at him. He looked back, hope and fear written baldly on his face. “You let me go because you thought they’d kill me. You stayed with them because...what, you thought they’d kill us both? You couldn’t desert Yelena? Where were you when they turned David into a supervillain, Aaron? Where were you when I couldn’t make the rent, when they sent the junior team to take me out, when they were wearing Yelena down to nothing? Where were you then?”
“No. I am willing to believe that you broke up with me to save me. It’s the sort of noble, shitty, self-centered thing you’re good at. But everything after that? Everything after that is on you. You were supposed to be a hero, Aaron. You were supposed to be my hero. I love you. I’m going to love you until I die, and that makes me furious, because you don’t deserve my love. You deserve the life you let Marketing design for you.” Velveteen was unsurprised to realize that she was crying. “Get out of here. I don’t want you, and you can’t have me, so go.”
Aaron looked at her for a moment. Then, finally, he nodded. “All right, Vel,” he said. “It was good to see you.” He turned and walked away, leaving her alone in the library.
She managed to stay on her feet until she heard the door slam in the distance. Then her knees went weak, and she collapsed back into her chair, sobbing.
More tears had joined the first one on the side of the glass coffin; Velveteen felt vaguely as if she should be wiping them away. But they were so pretty where they were, and selfish as it was, she wanted to leave something behind her when she left.
“I don’t know what he expected,” she said. “I don’t know if he thought that he could just walk back into my life and be welcomed with open arms or what, but I sent him away. I loved him more than anything once, and I sent him away. I just thought you should know that.”
She sighed. The sound seemed very loud to her own ears.
“So I guess you know what happens next. I promised the holidays a year, and I have to give it to them. You don’t break your word. Not to people like that. Not to anyone, if you can help it. You don’t need to worry about anything while I’m gone, okay? The Princess will be here, so you won’t be alone. Jackie will be with me, at least while I’m in Winter, and she’ll make sure everything’s fair. Yelena and Torrey are going to be the official heroes of Portland until I come home. They’re even living at the house, so that it won’t be standing empty.”
They were so happy together, Polychrome and Victory Anna, Yelena Batzdorf and Victoria Cogsworth, together the way they were always intended to be. And all it took was destroying two worlds and overthrowing the CEO of a multinational corporation to get them there. Privately, Velveteen didn’t think she’d ever be going back to that house on a permanent basis, even if she got to go back to Portland. After a year, it would be theirs, and they’d both waited long enough to be happy. She didn’t want to get in the way.
“I love you, Tad,” she said, and stood, bending to kiss the plane of glass above his face. It was still cool, unlike the warm spot where she’d been resting her head. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay? And maybe by then, I can wake you up. So just wait for me.”
Her footsteps echoed as she walked across the silent room to the door, and opened it, letting herself out into the hall. The Princess was waiting there for her.
“All done?” she asked.
“I’ve done everything I can do.”
“All right.” The Princess started down the hall. Velveteen fell into step beside her. “You feeling okay?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Velveteen laughed, a little unsteadily. “I just can’t believe it’s over. The Super Patriots are under new management, Yelena’s happy, things are finally starting to look like they might work out...and I have to go. I don’t want to go.”
“I know. But sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to.” The Princess stopped in front of another door, offering Velveteen her hands. “You know we’ll all be here when you get back. Take as much time as you need, all right?”
“I will.” Velveteen took the Princess’s offered hands. “I love you a lot.”
“Oh, sugar. We love you, too. Now go on. Go do what you need to do.”
Velveteen nodded and pulled her hands away as she turned to open the door. On the other side was a small green garden. At the center of the garden was a doorway made of braided candy canes and silver tinsel. She smelled snow. No one was waiting for her, but she didn’t really need anyone; this was a journey she knew how to make.
Head high, Velveteen stepped through the doorway, and was gone.
The Princess stayed where she was for a few minutes, looking at the empty space where the gate to Winter had been, where her friend had disappeared. Then, without saying another word, she closed the door and walked away. The story was finished, after all. There was nothing left to say.