Summary: And now for something completely different. Velveteen is gone, and Action Dude has found himself in situations his training never prepared him for.
Action Dude--who hadn’t been able to stop thinking of himself that way in months; it felt like Aaron Frank had become a luxury in the days since the Claw and Lake Pontchartrain had stepped down from their positions as co-CEOs of The Super Patriots, Inc.--paced in front of the big picture window that made up one wall of his office. He missed the person he’d been before everything went terribly wrong, but when the call had come, he had answered, and now he was paying the price. Technically, he shared the position of CEO of The Super Patriots, Inc. with Dotty Gale and American Dream, a fact that had earned them more than a few snide comments from government pundits. “If they’re going to set up their leadership like it’s a politically correct photoshoot, how can we trust them to regulate themselves?” was one of the nicer things he’d heard, and he was pretty sure that it hadn’t been intended as friendly.
One of the biggest conflicts he’d had with Vel when they were kids had always been over secret identities. She’d wanted to maintain one after she turned eighteen and the government stopped mandating it; he hadn’t. He’d always insisted that a proud superhuman should be able to go out without the mask, and say “Hey, I know that we may have our differences, but let’s leave them at the office when it’s time for the PTA meeting.” She’d never agreed with him, just looked at him sadly and occasionally whacked him with a pillow for being so unthinkably stupid.
Now, years and miles and deaths and resurrections and tragedies and terrors from that level of innocence, he found himself looking out the window at the manicured grounds of the company that had raised him (complete with the deceptive blue serenity of Lake Pontchartrain, who hadn’t returned to her human form in months) and realized that somewhere along the line, he’d started to agree with her. He would have loved a secure secret identity, something he could wear out of the house. He hadn’t been to Shabbat services in months. It wasn’t safe.
Nothing was safe anymore. Not even this room, with its big glass windows and the bloodstains hidden under the carpet. Nothing was sacrosanct. And soon, the new CEOs of The Super Patriots, Inc. were going to need to make a choice. Did they let the government into their records, those careful, terrifying records kept by Supermodel, after she’d gone bad and before she’d died? Or did they refuse, and face the consequences of that refusal?
“You’d know what to do if you were here, Vel,” he said, ceasing his pacing and leaning his forehead against the window. He wished he could go flying. Things were always so much clearer when he flew. “You’d tell me to stop being stupid and do the right thing, and then you’d tell me what the right thing really was. Why couldn’t you stay?”
“Because you don’t go making promises to holidays if you’re going to break them. Holidays have their own rules, and I wouldn’t want to get on their bad side.” The voice was young, female, and utterly guileless. That was part of Dotty Gale’s shtick. She could sound innocent while she was ripping someone’s larynx out.
Action Dude turned. The current avatar of the idea and ideals of Oz was standing in his doorway. There were no red spots on her silver slippers; she hadn’t killed anyone recently. That was a nice change. “Dotty,” he said. “What’s up?”
Her expression sobered, as much as it was capable of doing so. “We just got an anonymous call from someone in Portland. It’s about Velveteen. She’s back.”
Action Dude broke the sound barrier leaving his office.
Following the death of Supermodel and the second disappearance of Jolly Roger, The Super Patriots, Inc. entered a period of rebuilding. Their first interim CEOs had been chosen, according to eyewitness accounts, by Velma “Velveteen” Martinez, who had been severely wounded in the fight against Supermodel. They had stepped down following the first round of government legislation against the superhuman community, choosing replacements who were better equipped to deal with bureaucracy...or maybe who failed to run quickly enough.
Aaron “Action Dude” Frank was, at the moment of his coronation as the company’s heir apparent, the last member of Velveteen’s own hero class still standing. This may explain her willingness to single him out, although it is unclear whether she did so out of favoritism or anger. (Their relationship, and the end of same, has been well-documented in the files recording her time with the corporation.) Born the son of Daniel and Melissa Frank of Staten Island, New Jersey, he acquired his powers through exposure to irradiated maple syrup, as did so many others with the basic “flying brick” set. Charming, attractive, and well-positioned to be the all-American superhero, he frustrated his early handlers with his calm refusal to reject his faith, continuing to attend services at the temple he had belonged to since he was a child. This may be the only corporate edict he ever chose to reject. Action Dude’s history is a patchwork of compromises, concessions, and willing agreement to whatever The Super Patriots, Inc. asked of him. Not exactly the sort of thing that sets one up to become CEO.
Dotty Gale first appeared a week after The Wizard of Oz went into wide release, popping out of thin air on Hollywood Boulevard with a basket in her arms and a small, scruffy dog of indeterminate breed at her heels. She has remained essentially the same ever since: physically twelve years old, with golden hair, an angelic smile, and silver slippers which have never been seen to leave her feet. Her recorded powers include teleportation, summoning, controlling, and redirecting wind storms, and disaster recovery. She has been an invaluable help to FEMA over the past several decades, lessening the impact of major storms on human cities and preventing loss of life in the aftermath of the storms which cannot be prevented. Despite her adult attitude and opinions, her legal status has always been questionable, with some claiming that she needs to be placed in a stable home, while others insist that she is an illegal immigrant from a country that doesn’t actually exist.
The American Dream was recruited by The Super Patriots, Inc. as a child, and in their civilian identity has not yet been released, despite repeated requests for this information. The first photos of them in their heroic identity appears to indicate a female child hero, as their uniform is equipped with a skirt, and their hair is longer than the level of their jaw--at the time, a clear indication of gender on the part of the Marketing Department. The next appearances of the American Dream, however, would seem to indicate a male child. While the identity of the individual in the costume remained consistent, no clear cues as to their gender were ever given. It was not until the announcement of the new CEOs that the American Dream finally gave a statement:
“I am genderfluid,” they said, to a watching press conference. “Whether I am male or female right now is irrelevant to how well I do my job and protect the public. Thank you.”
Requests for further comment have been ignored and, in some cases, outright refused. With three individuals whose credentials are unclear at best, and absent at worst, in charge of the largest organization of superhumans in the world, is it any wonder that steps are being taken to guarantee the safety of the public? Humanity must be protected.
Sometimes even from our protectors.
Velveteen opened her eyes to find herself staring up at a blindingly white ceiling. She blinked several times, trying to reassure herself that she hadn’t somehow ended up back in Winter, about to go through the whole ordeal all over again.
The blankets were warm and soft and felt like polyester, a sensation she hadn’t realized how much she missed until it was back. The Seasonal Lands weren’t big on synthetic fibers. She could feel her heartbeat speeding up from the stress of not knowing where she was. Even having a heartbeat wasn’t a given anymore. She reached out with the part of her that animated the world, and while she didn’t find any toys in her immediate vicinity, she also didn’t encounter the barriers that Spring had placed on her. She was back in the Calendar Country, back in the real world. It was the only thing that made sense.
She attempted to sit up. The handcuff fastened around her left wrist stopped her. She looked at the cuff. The cuff did not do her the courtesy of disappearing.
“What the fuck?” She tugged on her wrist. The cuff clanked against the metal frame of the bed.
If there had been a master class on “how to take Vel from drowsy wakefulness to fully awake and yes, also really pissed off,” they would have used “handcuff her to a bed” as lesson number one. She jerked on the cuff, rattling it hard against the metal bedframe. Other details were starting to introduce themselves, details like the needle in her arm and the dull, persistent ache in her head. She’d been drugged. Someone had drugged her.
Someone was going to regret that.
The room she was in was not only devoid of toys: it was devoid of anything that might have given her a clue as to where she was. The walls were painted a dull shade of industrial cream, and there were no furnishings apart from the bed she was tethered to. A few machines stood duty nearby, presumably monitoring her, but also reminding her that she was a prisoner here. She couldn’t just disconnect them and go.
Vel narrowed her eyes. Somebody was going to get punched really hard, just as soon as she knew where she was. They couldn’t keep her like this, not without cause, and she hadn’t done anything wrong. She--
The door opened. A woman poked her head inside, looking carefully at the machines before she focused on Vel. “Oh, good, you’re awake,” she said. “I thought the machines were bored and yelling about nothing again.”
“Imagineer!” Vel sat up as far as the cuff would allow. “What the fuck is going on? Why am I chained to this bed? Am I under arrest? Is this The Super Patriots, Inc., or do you have me held in some sort of secret lair? Are you going to hollow me out and turn me into a robot?”
“Huh.” Imagineer blinked. “I guess those are all reasonable questions, or they would be, if you’d paused for breath between them and given me a chance to answer one or two. You are not under arrest. You are chained to the bed for your own protection, and so you don’t break any of my stuff. Yes, you’re at headquarters. I’m not going to hollow you out and turn you into a robot, although that’s an interesting idea. Now it’s my turn. How are you feeling? Any dizziness, nausea, disorientation...?”
“You’re a technopath, not a doctor.”
Imagineer looked at her wearily. Velveteen realized with a start just how tired the other woman looked. “I’m the best you’ve got right now,” she said. “I’ll tell Aaron that you’re awake.”
She closed the door behind her when she left, and Velveteen was alone again.
“Fuck,” she said, and closed her eyes. She was asleep before she knew it.
“No one calls me that anymore,” said Action Dude, eyes fixed on the surface of his coffee. It was too strong. He needed to be awake when Vel needed him. He’d been awake for three days. He wanted to sleep more than he had wanted anything in years. He was starting to feel like he was developing another super power, if hallucinations could be considered a power. “It’s always ‘Action Dude.’ I don’t get to have a given name. I gave it away.”
“Okay, that’s super interesting and everything, and I’m just thrilled for you, but you asked me to tell you when bunny-girl woke up.” Imagineer folded her arms, leaning up against the doorframe. “She woke up. She went right back to sleep, but she woke up. She’s going to be okay.”
“What?” Action Dude’s head jerked around so fast that he felt something in his neck cramp. He didn’t care. He was busy staring at Imagineer. “She’s awake? Why didn’t you call me?”
“Well, first, because she’s not awake. She woke up, she went right back to sleep. She’s exhausted. You get that, right? According to my machines, she hasn’t slept in years. People aren’t designed to go without sleep for years. I’m not sure how she’s still sane. Honestly, until she spoke to me, I wasn’t certain that she was.” Imagineer remained in the doorway. It made good tactical sense. As long as she was there, Action Dude couldn’t leave the room without either shoving her or punching his way through a wall. Now that he had to pay the insurance bills, he was a lot more careful about his wall-punching. “I don’t know how long it’s going to be before she can talk about what happened to her. I don’t know if she’ll want to.”
“I don’t care,” he said staunchly. “I just need to know that she’s okay.”
“Or maybe you don’t,” said Imagineer. “Aaron, you realize this is about to become a problem, yes? As long as she’s sick, as long as she’s unconscious, we’re not breaking any laws. We’re allowed to tend to the medical needs of our fellow superhumans, due to the presumed limitations of the normal hospital system. We don’t have to tell anyone that we have her. But as soon as she’s better...she’s a wanted felon. We have to turn her in.”
“Her crime was not reporting to register herself as an animus when she wasn’t even in this dimension.”
“I know the law. Funny thing: it doesn’t make any exceptions for people being outside this temporal reality when the registration period was open.” Imagineer raised her right arm, displaying the metal band clasped around her wrist. “I am very intimate with the regulatory structure now in place for the animus power class and associated disciplines.”
Action Dude winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to seem like I didn’t...” He stopped.
“I know.” Imagineer smiled wryly. “I won’t even ask why you wanted to avoid seeming like, because I know you don’t have a damn idea, just like I know that trying to use a machine to keep tabs on me was one of the stupidest things the government could ever have done. I would have run otherwise. I’d be a supervillain now, like Yelena and her little girlfriend.”
That was all it took to wipe the apology from Action Dude’s face, replacing it with steely chill. “We don’t talk about them.”
“Relax, Aaron. This room isn’t bugged. Believe me, I’d know.” Imagineer waved her wristbanded arm in an extravagant arc. “We are as clear and safe here as we’ll ever be anywhere. Although I wouldn’t put it past my handlers to ask me to plant bugs at some point, so I suppose your concern isn’t too misguided. We live in a new world, my friend. Your grade school girlfriend doesn’t get a pass just because she was in a different dimension when the rules changed. Hell, that’s why the rules changed. Maybe I should turn her in myself.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” said Action Dude coldly.
“I might. It’s not like you’re exactly giving us clear and present leadership here, buddy. I know they raised you to be a better leader in a recruitment poster than you were on the ground, but those days are done. You want loyalty, you need to do something more than remind people that you can punch as through walls.” Imagineer showed him her wristband again. This time, there was no levity in it. “This happened on your watch. Supermodel may have been an evil bitch who wanted to turn us all into villains when we weren’t looking, but at least she kept us safe. Just keep that in mind while you’re putting your ex-girlfriend above all the people who didn’t run away. At some point, you have to start rewarding us for staying, or we’re all going to go.”
Imagineer turned and walked out of the room.
Action Dude didn’t stop her.
When Action Dude finally got up and walked out of the break room, he found the American Dream waiting for him in the hall. He stopped, and groaned.
“Look, Dreamy, I’m not available for patrol right now,” he said. “I took myself off all the rosters because I’m not available. Can’t you handle it?”
“I’m more super-fast than super-strong, so no, we’re not really interchangeable, but I’m not here about patrol,” said the American Dream. Their voice was calm and level, like they were getting ready to break bad news to a child. “Imagineer called. She says Velveteen woke up.”
“Did she also say that Velveteen went straight back to sleep? Because I think that’s relevant here. Dairy Keen v. the State of Wisconsin means we can keep her as long as she’s too unwell to be released to the relevant authorities.”
“Does it also mean we don’t need to tell the relevant authorities that she’s back? Because I’m not comfortable with this. We’re on shaky legal ground.”
“I’m just saying, we’re responsible for a lot of people here. A lot of lives. People are scared of the government coming after us directly, rather than just sniffing around the fringes, and this sort of thing is what opens us to attack. You have to think about The Super Patriots, Inc. before you think about yourself.”
“You think I’m thinking about myself? That this is about me?” Action Dude laughed bitterly. “Oh, man, I wish this were about me. Do you have any idea how good I am at giving up what I want? I gave up the first girl I ever loved. Maybe the only girl I’ve ever loved, since it’s not like I could go falling for somebody for real when I was supposed to be in love with Yelena. I gave up the idea of going to college because my contract required me to do too many hours a week. I’ve given up having a secret identity and going to see my parents and every damn thing I’ve ever wanted. You really think this is about me? This isn’t about me. You can tell by the way I’m actually fighting for it. This is about her.”
“I’m sorry,” said the American Dream. “She was before my time, you know. I don’t even know why she’s so important that you’d want to fight for her.”
Action Dude paused and took a deep breath before he said, “I know you know that she used to be my girlfriend. I want you to understand that that has nothing to do with this.”
“Okay,” said the American Dream, with an expression that implied the exact opposite. Here, in these halls, Velveteen was always going to be the CEO’s ex.
She was going to hate that when she woke up. They just had to get her that far. “Velma Martinez was a child hero. The company bought her, the same way it bought half its recruits. They didn’t even have to pay very much.” That had been a shock, when he’d finally received access to the records. For all that her parents had always been there with their hands out, ready to take whatever they were given, The Super Patriots, Inc. had been able to purchase her for well below market value.
“So? The Super Patriots, Inc. bought a lot of people.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t let most of us down the way they did her. They tried to break her heart, and in the process, they broke her spirit. She walked on her eighteenth birthday. I used to think she had some sort of weird persecution complex. Every time I saw her, she’d have a story about the company not letting her go to school or hold a job or anything normal like that. Turns out she was exactly right. They wanted her to be a supervillain, even if they had to hound her into it.”
The American Dream blinked. “Wait, seriously?”
“Seriously.” Action Dude nodded grimly. “Supermodel had teams harrying her up one side and down the other. Technically, we couldn’t blow her identity, since she’d quit while it was still protected, but that didn’t stop the anonymous complaints about her work, or the evictions, or the revoked financial aid. Everything she ever tried to do, The Super Patriots, Inc. took away from her. Starting with me. Her whole life has been like one long, slow-motion chase sequence, and I’m not going to do that to her anymore. I’m going to let her wake up, and I’m going to let her choose, for once in her life, what she wants to have happen to her next. Maybe it’s turning herself in. Maybe it’s going back to the holidays. I don’t know. I just know that she’s going to decide on her own.”
“What if she decides she wants us to help her fight?”
“Then maybe we need to have a long talk about whether that’s exactly what we ought to be doing. When they said that there was legislation about the animus class coming together, we didn’t fight, because we didn’t want to scare people, and because there are so few animus around that it seemed better not to. Only now it’s also technopaths, and the plant-manipulators, and they’re talking about the psychometrists and the matter-manipulators, and I think we’ve lost.” Action Dude looked at the American Dream, wishing he were a better public speaker. Wishing anything in his training had prepared him for this. “They’re just going to re-categorize us, one by one, until we’re all animus, and we’re all under governmental control.”
“And you think hiding the last real animus in the world is the way to show them that they’re wrong?”
“I think it’s the last thing we can do to show that we did not stand idly by while we watched our children taken, one by one,” said Action Dude. “If you think I’m in the wrong, if you and Dotty want to vote to expel me, that’s cool. I just ask that you give us the courtesy of a day’s head-start before you tell anyone that she was here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some explaining to do.”
The American Dream stood and watched silently as Action Dude walked down the hall and disappeared around the corner. Then they sighed, shook their head, and walked in the opposite direction. It was time to talk to Dotty.
The second time Vel woke, she was not alone. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, considering the buzzing and beeping of the machines; the sound of another person breathing should have been all but inaudible. Somehow, though, she knew as soon as she opened her eyes. She turned toward the sound. The man slumped in the chair next to her bed was dressed in blue and orange, his head lolling to the side, his boyish blond hair in disarray. She blinked.
“Aaron?” she squeaked.
The impact was immediate. He opened his eyes and sat up in the chair, going from sleep to wakefulness in an instant. That had been a part of their training, she remembered: when you were under attack, you couldn’t afford to linger in drowsy dreamland, and as a superhero, there was every chance that anything that woke you up was actually attacking you. (That particular lesson had been one of the ones cited whenever Vel or the other trainees asked about going home to see their parents. No one wanted to see that manslaughter case. Everyone knew that it would be inevitable, if the child heroes were allowed out into the wild.)
“Vel,” he said, and smiled, a big, wide, relieved, camera-ready smile. “You’re awake.”
Velma did not punch him, which she really considered to be the height of restraint on her part. “I am.” She jerked on the handcuff holding her to the bed, jingling it against the frame. “I’m also chained. Want to start explaining yourself before I get pissed?”
“It’s for your own protection,” said Action Dude. He pulled the key out of his pocket, holding it up for her to see. “I need you to not run away while I explain what’s happened while you were gone, okay? If you promise to do that, I can unchain you.”
“And you trust me not to lie to you?”
“I’ve always trusted you not to lie to me. It’s everyone else who breaks their word.” Action Dude held his breath, waiting.
Finally, almost imperceptibly, Vel nodded. At the same time, her posture shifted: he was dealing with Velveteen now, not Velma. The difference was a subtle one. That didn’t make it any less important. He leaned across her and unfastened the cuff, trying not to breathe in the scent of her skin, or pay attention to the heat of her body next to his. He no longer had the right to focus on those things. No matter how much he wanted to.
Velveteen sat up straighter on the bed, rubbing her unchained wrist with the opposing hand. She looked at the IV needle in her arm. Action Dude winced.
“Please don’t take that out,” he said. “You’re a lot better than you were when we found you, but you’re still dehydrated, and I’d really rather you left here back in fighting shape. You need the fluids. You need the nutrients in the fluids. We don’t currently have a healer on staff, so we’re having to do things the old-fashioned way. Imagineer has some nanobots she’d be willing to let you borrow, as long as you promise not to use the fact that they have rudimentary faces to take them away from her.”
“Why didn’t she just dump them on me while I was sleeping?” asked Velveteen, sounding curious despite herself.
He grimaced. “Because she was afraid your powers would wake up before the rest of you, decide your body’s poor health was a sign of danger, and kick off what she called a ‘gray goo apocalypse.’ I’m not big on apocalypses under, you know, the best of circumstances, and that sounded sort of like the worst.”
“That’s fair,” said Velveteen grudgingly. “So what’s wrong with me?”
“Dehydration, malnutrition, exhaustion. Imagineer said it was like you hadn’t slept in years. People aren’t supposed to do that.”
“I wasn’t always a people when I was in the Seasonal Lands,” said Velveteen. Then she stopped, going perfectly still, one hand remaining wrapped around the opposing wrist. It was her fingers that moved first. They tightened, virtually spasming, before she forced her hands down to her lap, and asked, “Aaron, how long have I been gone?”
Action Dude took a deep breath before reaching over and putting his hands over hers. It was a more intimate gesture than he normally allowed himself to even consider. It was necessary. He was going to hold her down if he had to. “You defeated Supermodel and kept your word to the Seasonal Lands three years ago, Vel. That’s how long it’s been since you disappeared.”
She stared at him, uncomprehending, for several seconds before she shook her head and said, “You’re lying. This is a trick. It’s a mean trick, and I don’t understand why you’d do this, but it’s still a trick.”
“It’s not a trick,” said Action Dude. “Three years, Vel. We didn’t even know if you were alive or dead. We couldn’t find anyone who could give us updates on Spring or Autumn--no one’s seen Trick or Treat since you disappeared--and when we asked Jacqueline, she said she wasn’t allowed to comment on holiday matters. We hoped the fact that she’s your friend would mean she’d break the rules enough to tell us if you’d died, but we didn’t know.”
“Jackie?” said Vel, bemused.
“Things have changed a lot while you’ve been gone, Vel. You’re here for your own protection. I’m sorry about the handcuffs, and I’m sorry I couldn’t be here when you woke up, but we had to know that you wouldn’t run away. We had to know that you’d be safe.”
“Safe from who?”
Out of everything, this was the part he’d been dreading: this was the part that felt the most like failure. Action Dude let go of her hands. “After Supermodel died, with Tag out of the picture and you off in the Seasonal Lands, the government went looking for someone to blame for what had happened. You know how ordinary people are about superhumans. You took the same classes I did.”
“I remember,” she whispered. A World That Hates and Fears You 101; Great Responsibility 201; Everyone Wants to Be Special 301. Class after class explaining that people without powers would always be afraid of the people who had them, and that nothing would change this, and that the only way to cope would always be to pretend that it didn’t hurt. Even though it did.
“I guess the government’s been waiting for a long time for the chance to start regulating things. We have lawyers--they sort of run themselves, all we have to do is sign the checks--but all the old fights about keeping the law from impinging on the freedom of the superhuman community had been based on the idea that we were self-regulating. Only now it turns out Supermodel was sort of evil, and we weren’t self-regulating as well as we’d always wanted people to think we were.”
Velveteen was quiet for a moment before she asked, “What did they do?”
“They decided that the problem was the power set. All animus-type heroes are required to register with the government, and either agree to power suppression or to a certain amount of community service. For the greater good.”
Velveteen frowned. “But I’m the only one.”
“That’s how they got the law passed in the first place. It didn’t actually effect any real people. Only once it was there, they started changing what it meant. Technopaths are considered part of the animus class now. So are plant-manipulators. Polychrome and Victory Anna went rogue, rather than allow Torrey to be registered. They’ve been officially considered villains for over a year now. There’s going to be a hearing next month, about the psychometrists and the matter-manipulators, and Uncertainty says the probability manipulators and the psychics are next.”
“We’ve lost,” said Velveteen. She sounded faintly amazed. Looking at the IV in her arm, she asked, “Is that why you didn’t wake me up to tell me what was going on? You’re invoking Dairy Keen v. Wisconsin?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’m awake now.”
“I know.” He took a deep breath. “What comes next is up to you, Vel. It’s your play. If you want to hide here, you can. If you want to turn yourself in, I’ll let you. And if you want to run, I’ll unlock all the doors.”
“I don’t want to run, but I need some time to understand.” Velveteen looked at her folded hands for a moment before looking back to Action Dude. “Can you get me a mirror?”
“Yeah.” He nodded before he rose, walked to the small attached bathroom, and wrenched the medicine cabinet off the wall above the sink. The action came with a ripping, splintering sound. Velveteen put a hand over her mouth to hide her smile. Some things never changed.
“I own the building now, or at least a third of it,” he said, coming back and propping his pilfered medicine cabinet against the foot of her bed. “I figure I can break stuff if I want.”
Velveteen didn’t say anything. She was busy staring at her own reflection. When she’d seen herself in Halloween, she had been so overcome by the fact that she had skin again that she hadn’t really looked at her reflection. Or maybe she had, and Halloween had still been throwing masks, keeping her from losing her focus on the task at hand. Regardless, she looked at the woman in the mirror, who was thin to the point of seeming skeletal, with dark circles around her fever-glazed eyes, and barely knew her.
She swallowed her dismay. This wasn’t the time. “Mirror, mirror, from the wall,” she said. “Please will you connect my call? I need to talk to the Princess, in the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle.”
Her reflection exploded into cartoon fireworks. Action Dude sat back down.
“Do those words actually go in a specific order, or do you guys always just make it up as you’re going along?” he asked. His tone was light: he was trying to distract her. Part of her remembered why she’d loved him, all those years ago. “I always wondered, but the Princess doesn’t really talk to us corporate heroes.”
“She’s a smart girl,” said Velveteen. She reached over, putting her hand on his, and waited.
The fireworks cleared, resolving into the face of a beautiful blonde woman in a high-necked red gown. Her hair was pulled back in a style that was more severe than Velveteen was used to, and there was a certain promise to the cut of her dress, like it was whispering of an Evil Queen yet to come. Velveteen blinked. The Princess blinked back.
“Vel?” she asked, in a voice that quivered and shook. “Honey, is that really you?”
“I think so,” said Velveteen. “It’s been sort of hard to tell lately. Princess, what’s going on? Why are you dressed like that?”
“That’s a story that’s going to take some time telling, and maybe isn’t for all ears.” The Princess’s eyes darted toward Action Dude, making her meaning perfectly clear. She focused back on Velveteen. “Sugar, we need to get you out of there, and back here to the Cloud Castle, where you can recuperate. You look like twenty miles of bad road, and you’re about to drive it with a broken carriage axel.”
“That’s why I called,” said Velveteen. “Can I get a ride? I don’t think I can exactly take a commercial flight home, given that I’m apparently illegal.”
“Honey, you only ever have to ask.” The Princess raised her hand, fingers poised to snap.
“Wait!” Action Dude reached for the mirror with his free hand, like he could somehow physically change the reflection. It worked, in a sense: the Princess stopped what she was doing in order to turn and look at him, visibly bemused. He pulled his hand back, cheeks flushing. “Um,” he said.
“Did you have something to contribute, honey, or can I get back to getting Vel out of there before somebody decides to collect the ransom on her pretty little head?”
This was it: this was his last chance to back out. He’d spent his entire life taking the path of least resistance, doing what other people wanted him to do. He’d done it because it was easy, and because it was safe, and because he didn’t know what other options he had.
He knew now.
“Take me too,” he said.
“Aaron--” said Vel.
He shook his head. “No. I’m done sitting back and letting things fall apart. I want to help. Take me too.”
The Princess smiled.
When Imagineer came to check the room some ten minutes later, it was empty, save for the beeping machines and the medicine cabinet lying on the bed. She looked at it and sighed.
“Good luck, Aaron,” she said, and closed the door.