Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
seanan_mcguire

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Velveteen vs. Everything You Ever Wanted.

Title: Velveteen vs. Everything You Ever Wanted.
Summary: What happens when a former child superhero returns from her travels in the seasonal lands, only to discover that things have changed, possibly forever? Velveteen is home. Home is not the same.

***

The mirrors stretched out to infinity around them, recognizable as mirrors only while they were at a distance. As long as no one was standing directly in front of them, they reflected the hall around them, creating a fractal wonderland of light and shadow. As soon as a member of the group passed, however, the mirrors flickered to life, showing distorted reflections of the people they were not, but could have been, had things gone ever so slightly differently.

Velveteen walked past Marionettes in white and gray, past Roadkills in black leather and silver spikes, past a hundred variations of her bunny costume. Past versions of herself who were holding Action Dude’s hand, or Tag’s hand, or no one’s hand; past Velveteens with toddlers on their hips and older children standing nearby. Those children were just as fractal as their parents. Some wore costumes; some wore street clothes; some--and oh, those hurt her heart--wore the training uniforms of The Super Patriots, Inc. She did her best not to meet their eyes. She just kept walking.

Action Dude walked past mirrors that showed him married to Sparkle Bright, both of them smiling company-approved smiles, both of them with eyes that might as well have been painted on. He walked past mirrors that showed him married to Velveteen, both of them smiling honest smiles, if occasionally strained ones (and one that showed her in a white and gray uniform, which was a little weird, but she was still holding his hand, and they still looked happy). Sometimes his uniform changed, the “AD” on his chest replaced by a smaller “E” high on the right side. Sometimes there were children, in the mirrors he shared with Velveteen. He tried not to look at them. They hurt his heart.

Polychrome walked past mirrors that showed her in white, in black, in rainbows; alone, or with Velveteen, or once, with a woman who looked like Jack, only blue-skinned and wearing a leotard that would have made an ice skater blush. None of them showed her Victory Anna, and she tightened her grip on the hand of the woman she loved, reminded, once again, that they were never meant to be together. Somehow, the universe had given her two shots at the impossible, and she was never, never letting go.

Jack walked past Frostbites and Jackie Frosts and Snow Princesses, and she wept with every step she took, and her tears fell as trails of glitter, and there was nothing frozen about them. She had lost all the ice that had ever been in her, and some things, once lost, as impossible to regain. Some things are lost forever.

Victory Anna walked past mirrors that showed her nothing but herself, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

“Do we actually have a goal in mind, or are we simply enjoying our tour of all the mirrors in the damn world?” she asked pleasantly. “I inquire primarily because I did not bring any libations for this journey, and will eventually require a cup of tea, lest I murder you all for the crime of existing in my general vicinity when I do not have anything to drink.”

“You sure do know how to pick ‘em, Lena,” said Velveteen. She kept walking, eyes fixed resolutely forward. She knew better than to give the mirrors any power over her. “You heard Santa. We need to find the door. Once we find the door, we go through it, and we find out what comes next.”

“You’ll forgive me if I put little faith in an anthropomorphic personification rooted in a culture I have never fully been a part of.”

“So put your faith in me,” said Jack, looking over her shoulder at Victory Anna. “I’m your friend. You know I wouldn’t lie to you. If Papa says this door exists, then it exists.”

“Any idea what’s on the other side?” asked Action Dude. Somewhere between the front steps and the first mirror, he had started thinking of himself as his heroic ID again. It didn’t matter that he was still in street clothes. This was a job for a hero. This was a job for Action Dude. Not Aaron Frank, who was a nice guy, but who would honestly have been happy to just be left alone for a little while, especially now that Vel was speaking to him again. It was such a novel situation that he just wanted some time to enjoy it.

“Not a clue,” said Velveteen, and kept walking.

*

The existence of parallel realities--the multiverse, if you will--has led to the rise of several schools of philosophy. Some argue that the very existence of branching realities means that all choices are good choices: all choices are reflected somewhere, after all, in some parallel world. Because of this, morality is a social construct, intended to make this world, this reality as palatable as possible. It is not inherently good or evil. It simply is.

Those who have made an actual study of the multiverse dismiss this view as simplistic, and probably a sign that the person adhering to it just wants an excuse to be a supervillain. Not all possible choices can be reflected or, if they are, not all possible choices can be viewed when starting from our world. Every reality they have been able to find has had some points of commonality with our own. Even Victory Anna, currently viewed as unique within the multiverse, can be traced back to a time-travel accident in a world that would fit nicely into a cluster of neo-Victorian steampunk realities which endure even to the present day. Her uniqueness is a consequence of her world’s demise; in all the other parallels where she might have once been born, she has long since died of old age.

The greatest argument against a truly infinite accessible multiverse is the persistence of individuals. Conception, argue the scholars, is a matter of timing, a matter of luck, a race against a million other factors to even begin the long, slow process of gestation. So many pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage, unable to attach properly, unable to mature--and that accounts only for the wanted ones, the pregnancies that are somehow desired across the multiverse.

Finding a single world which contains a single cognate for a person known to exist in this reality should, in a truly infinite multiverse, be cause for global celebration. But we do not find a single cognate. We find worlds of cognates, reality after reality which matches our own in all but the smallest of details. Their points of deviation are frequently within the last century. Those worlds are more comprehensible than the steampunk worlds, the cyberpunk worlds, the worlds where the divergence happened hundreds of years ago, yet somehow resulted in the same familiar faces populating the stories we have access to.

The multiverse, it seems, has a plan. What that plan is, and whether it is being formed by an unthinking personification of the vastness of reality or by some group of heroes as far beyond our comprehension as our superhumans are to squirrels, we have no way of knowing. Perhaps that is the most terrifying aspect of what is, after all, a terrifying topic: we have no way of knowing.

If our branch of the multiverse exists for a reason, and not simply because this is the way reality organizes itself, we have no way of knowing what that reason is. We have no way of influencing the outcome. All we can do is hope that whatever it is, it will be kind.

*

They had been walking for a long time. Long enough for the reflections around them to grow more and more bizarre in comparison to their reality, showing scenes of mermaids and vampires and worlds where everyone dressed like Victory Anna, all gears and copper stitching and impractical little hats. Victory Anna had paused in front of one of those mirrors for almost a minute, hungrily drinking in the details of her friends and teammates dressed in what she considered appropriate clothing.

Other mirrors showed a blackened, blasted, empty world, the aftermath of some great and unspeakable catastrophe. All of them hurried past those reflections, not looking at them any longer than one necessary. One of the devastated worlds was empty except for a stuffed bear wearing a felt domino mask, and somehow that small reminder that there had been versions of them in all those felled worlds, versions of them who hadn’t been able to stop the apocalypse, just made things worse.

“Wow, Jack,” said Action Dude, after a particularly nasty world overgrown with mutated brambles had gone silently past. “How do you deal with all this?”

“Mostly I don’t,” she said. “I’m not the Snow Queen’s heir. I thawed too much to be a Snow Princess, and thawing at all meant I couldn’t be a Jackie Frost. The Snow Queen keeps the mirrors, and that means it’s never going to be my job. I’ve been here before. I had to walk from one end to the other in order to become Papa’s heir, because this is part of Winter, and someday it’s going to belong to me. but I’ll never have to be responsible for them. I’m glad.”

“Jackie was,” said Velveteen, not looking back at Jack or sideways at Action Dude. Her eyes remained fixed on the hallway ahead, searching, always searching for the door. “She brought me here when I needed to understand my place in the multiverse. She didn’t like the mirrors, but she understood them.”

“I guess it’s different for everybody,” said Jack uncomfortably.

Velveteen started to reply. Then she stopped dead, dragging Action Dude to a halt with her. The others stopped in turn, Victory Anna’s heels clacking against the floor in angry punctuation.

Warning, please,” she said waspishly.

“Look. Do you see that?” Velveteen pointed to the nearest mirror. Like some of the others, it was reflecting the hall: they hadn’t reached it yet, and it had yet to summon up a parallel world for their amusement.

Unlike any of the others, its reflection of the hall showed a door on the opposite wall.

“The door,” said Polychrome. “Shit. I wasn’t sure it was real.”

“Papa doesn’t lie,” said Jack.

“Yeah, he does, but not about things like this,” said Velveteen. She started to reach for the mirror, and hesitated. “If it’s reflecting the door, does that mean it contains the door, or does that mean the door is on the opposite wall?”

“Ah, good,” said Victory Anna, stepping briskly forward. “A logic problem. Let us consider. Mirrors reflect: that is the nature of mirrors. But with each reflection, they lose fidelity. As I am the only one among us who will not actually trigger a window into another world by stepping in front of a looking glass, it would behoove you to stay where you are.”

“Got it,” said Velveteen. “Do your weird science thing.”

“My science is not weird,” said Victory Anna primly. “Improbable, perhaps. Arrogant, absolutely. But never weird. My science behaves with the appropriate poise and decorum at all times.” She continued walking until she was standing between the two mirrors in question.

She had no parallel selves to reflect; she had no other futures to explore. The mirrors rippled like they were trying to tune themselves to a new frequency before settling on a simple reflection. She smirked. “You see?” she said, looking back over her shoulder. “I defy their programming. Magic is just science with the safeties off, and everyone knows that safeties are why your hair isn’t currently on fire.”

Victory Anna turned her attention to the mirror with the door in its reflection, studying it for several moments before turning to look at the mirror on the opposite wall. Logic said that it should have been reflecting a reflection of a door, continuing the back-and-forth exchange of images that defined the hall of mirrors. Instead, it reflected her reflection, with no sign of a door.

“The door is in the mirror that reflects it,” she said, turning back to Velveteen. “Were it not, it would appear more than once. You may proceed to do whatever ridiculous thing you feel is appropriate.”

“Thanks for that vote of confidence,” said Velveteen. She looked at Action Dude. “If you want to let go, now’s the time.”

“Nope,” he said. “I did that once. Worst decision I’ve ever made. I’m holding on from now on.”

Velveteen smiled a little and stepped through, Action Dude by her side. The world shattered into prisms of silver glitter around them, and was gone.

From the perspective of the three people still standing in the Hall, the two of them had disappeared completely. The mirror continued to reflect nothing but Victory Anna. She touched the surface experimentally, and grimaced as her fingers found only unyielding glass.

“Small problem, I’m afraid,” she said. “This style of travel only works for those whose cognates live beyond the glass.”

“Maybe it’s just because you’re alone,” said Polychrome, and took her free hand, offering her girlfriend an earnest smile. “I’ll take you through.”

“As you say, my Pol--but try not to be too upset if it doesn’t work. I want you back again. That means not becoming distracted by my absence.”

“I won’t, because you won’t be absent. You’ll be right by my side. You’ll see.” This sincere proclamation made, Polychrome turned and stepped through the mirror, pulling Victory Anna with her...or trying to. As her wrist vanished into the mirror, her fingers slipped out of Victory Anna’s, suddenly too slippery and intangible to be held.

Victory Anna sighed heavily. “Sometimes genius and perception are terrible burdens to be borne,” she said, turning to Jack. “Well? Scurry through, winter-girl, and keep my beloved safe. Her friends as well, I suppose. I may not be currently well-inclined toward either one of them, but she is the dearest star in my sky, and they are important to her.”

“I’ll do whatever I can,” promised Jack, and stepped into the mirror, vanishing like the others.

Victory Anna sighed, looking around herself at the empty Hall before calmly, almost regally sinking down to sit on the floor. “One down,” she said, and there was no one there to argue.

*

“Daddy, catch me!” That was all the warning Epitome--golden boy of The Super Patriots, Inc., strongest man in North America, Hero Beat’s sexiest superhuman three years running--had before his seven-year-old launched herself off the balcony.

She was an incredibly good faller. She didn’t plummet; instead, she spread her arms, increasing her surface area, and dropped with all the grace and poise of an Olympic diver. He had a split second to admire her form before he realized two things in the same horrified moment:

First, that he both did and did not know who she was. Looking at her, he knew that her name was Katie, that her favorite color was purple, at least this week, and that she had a severe allergy to beestings, prompting every member of the family to learn how to operate an epinephrine injector. He knew that she loved puppies, interesting rocks, and singing along to Taylor Swift songs. He also knew that he had never seen her before in his life.

Second, he knew that she was falling, and falling fast. Whoever she was (his daughter), she didn’t know how to fly. Not yet, and maybe not ever. Superhuman genetics were still a largely unexplored field, and there wasn’t that much known about what circumstances led to powers being passed from parent to child. She was falling. She was going to hit the ground.

Technically, his powers didn’t include super-speed. Speaking practically, anyone who could fly was going to seem like a speedster to a bystander; he could dismiss gravity and move with a mentally-fueled self-propulsion that put him in the top percentage of human potential. Less than a second after he had registered the danger to the little girl, his feet were off the ground and his arms were snatching her out of the air, gathering her to him with an instinctively parental tenderness.

She was giggling. She had been falling, and now she was giggling, and her eyes...she had Velveteen’s eyes. No. She had Velma’s eyes. She had her mother’s eyes. She had her mother’s eyes, and she had blonde hair like his, and she was his daughter. She was his incredible, impossible daughter.

“Hi,” he said, sounding dazed.

“Good catch, Daddy!” she said, and squirmed until he put her down. Then she took off running, heading deeper into the house, off on some unknowable child’s errand.

Aaron--Action Dude, Epitome, whatever his name actually was--stayed exactly where he was, staring after her with wide, hungry eyes. Then he turned, finally looking around the room where he’d appeared. It was the sort of comfortable, lived-in foyer that he had seen in a hundred homes, including the one where his parents still lived. There was an umbrella stand next to the door, and a framed copy of Newsweek on the wall, showing him standing between Polychrome and Velveteen. The caption read “A new generation takes the skies!”

“What the hell...?” he asked, taking a step toward the picture. The glass, strangely reflective for what it was, caught his image and bounced it back at him. There he was. Aaron Frank. Blond hair and blue eyes and an all-American jawline that had triggered a hundred angry meetings with Marketing, all of them geared at making him pretend to be some flavor of Christian, some flavor of football star, some flavor of “you’ll play better in Ohio if you’d just.” If he’d just let them tell him who to be, the way he’d once allowed them to tell him who to love.

But he hadn’t done that here, had he? His uniform still held echoes of his old Action Dude persona: the blue, the cut, the positioning of his logo. But the orange was gone, replaced by a burgundy that he knew without even asking himself would echo the color of Velveteen’s current costume. This was a world where he had somehow managed to dig his heels in and stand up for what was actually important. He’d managed to stand up for himself. He’d managed to stand up for her.

“This isn’t fair,” he whispered, and the world didn’t answer him. Worlds so rarely did.

Like a man in a dream that he feared would end at any moment, he began making his way deeper into the house, following the trail blazed by (his daughter) the little girl. He hadn’t gone far before he heard her laughing. He followed the sound, and emerged into a room that was half kitchen, half greenhouse, with domed glass panels making up one entire wall. There was an island built into the middle of the room. There was Katie, sitting on a stool, kicking her feet and munching on a carrot. There was a highchair, holding a small child of indeterminate gender captive, like a miniature supervillain being brought to justice for their crimes. And there...there...

There was Velma. She was wearing her costume, or something like it; she was wearing the costume he guessed she would have had if she’d been allowed to grow into it, updating and refining it with every stage of her superhero career. It was still burgundy and brown, still form-fitting, but the neckline was gently scooped across her chest, neither a child’s turtleneck nor a sexpot’s plunge. Marketing hadn’t designed that neckline. She was wearing neither mask nor headband--this was a private moment with her family, either right before or right after patrol. A pair of fashion dolls were holding up a bowl of mash, while she steered a spoonful of the same stuff toward the smaller child’s mouth.

He must have made a sound, some small, almost inaudible expression of longing and dismay, because she looked up, and she smiled at him. Really smiled at him, the way she used to before he broke her heart and left her unwilling to trust him ever again.

“There you are,” she said. “I was starting to worry that you weren’t going to have time to grab something to eat before we had to go. Do you want some lasagna? I can reheat it for you. Or you can reheat it for yourself while I handle the kids.” Unspoken was the threat that if he asked her to fix his dinner, he was taking over childcare.

He wanted to take over childcare--he wanted it more than he’d wanted anything in years--but he had no idea how to handle children, and besides, he was about to take that smile off her face. He didn’t want to be holding one of her children when it happened. “Blueberries,” he said, in a low, almost strangled voice.

Velma blinked. “We don’t have any,” she said. “It’s lasagna or you could make yourself a sandwich. There are some cold cuts in the fridge. Or there’s Sho’s mash, but she’ll get mad if you eat too much of it.”

“I...” He stopped, shaking his head to clear it, and said, “You know, we made one mistake when we were kids.”

“What’s that?” asked Vel. She put down the spoon, standing up a little straighter. She was starting to look wary. That was a good thing. She might be less furious with him if she caught on without him actually needing to say it.

Who was he kidding? He was an intruder in her home. He had replaced her husband and failed to keep her daughter from jumping off the stairs. She was going to straight-up murder him once she realized what was going on. “Remember how we used to play ‘How Would You Know If I Got Replaced’?”

“Yes,” she said slowly.

“We didn’t account for the fact that maybe our code words would be different from world to world.”

Velma froze. Utterly froze. Aaron waited. He knew what came next.

When she started moving again, she was Velveteen, even without the mask and rabbit ears. Her posture was tight, her motions sharp; her every angle screamed “justice,” even if there was nothing here for her to fight. “Katie, why don’t you take your sister and see if you can find all those Legos you dumped out in the backyard?”

“Can’t the dollies do it?” asked Katie.

“They could, but this way it’s like a game,” said Velveteen. “Go on, now. If you can find them all before I come outside to get you, you’ll get a prize.”

“Okay, Mommy,” said Katie, and slid down from her seat, waiting until Velveteen had freed the smaller girl from her high chair before taking her sister’s hand and skipping toward the back door. Velveteen watched them go, posture still tense.

The children vanished out the door. The door swung shut. A surprising number of plush toys appeared in the corners of the kitchen, pulling themselves out from under shelves, stepping out of shadows. A few of them had knives. Because that wasn’t terrifying or anything.

“Who are you, and where is my husband?” demanded Velveteen, in a low voice.

“My name is Aaron Frank. I go by the code name ‘Action Dude’ in my home dimension. I--do you know a Jacqueline Claus, or a Snow Princess, or anybody like that?”

“I know Jack Claus, Santa’s son.”

“Okay. Okay. So I went into the Hall of Mirrors at the North Pole with my world’s version of you, and my world’s version of Jack, because we’re trying to find a special door that Santa Claus told us to look for.” The more he talked, the more ridiculous it sounded. “Um, anyway. I’m not your Aaron, I’m not sure whether I’m inhabiting his body or what, but this isn’t my costume, so I guess probably? And I’ll leave just as soon as I know how, I promise.”

“You could have tried to lie to me. You could have passed yourself off as my husband.”

“I would never lie to you,” he said--and even though he had, if only by omission; even if he’d allowed his Vel to think, for years, that he didn’t love her, that he loved her best friend instead--he absolutely meant it. He could remember a life lived without lying to her. He could remember their wedding. His eyes widened. “And I think we have a problem.”

“Oh, trust me, you have a few dozen problems right now, and I can come up with twenty or thirty more if you give me a few seconds.” She bared her teeth. It wasn’t a smile. It was closer kin to the expression he would expect to see on a cornered animal. “I’m an animus in a house with two small children. Do you know how many things in here have faces? You shouldn’t have approached me on my home ground.”

“If I were here to attack you, do you really think I would have told you that something was going on?” Their honeymoon, spent on a cruise ship owned by the company the Princess worked for, miles from shore or supervillainy; Velma, trading in her civilian clothing for a swimsuit that had stolen most of his capacity for rational thought for days... “Please. Listen. Something’s wrong.”

His voice broke on the last word. Maybe that was what made her stop, looking at him warily, and ask, “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m not your Aaron, I know I’m not your Aaron, but the longer I stand here,” he waved his arms, indicating the kitchen around them, “the more I remember of his life. Like the swimsuit you wore on our--on your--honeymoon.”

She blinked before smirking at him and saying, “You know, somehow it doesn’t surprise me that if you were going to remember one thing about our marriage, it would be that damn swimsuit.”

“I’m not joking.”

“Neither am I. Aaron, take a deep breath, and focus. I believe you when you say that you’re not from this reality, especially if you’ve been hanging out with Jack again. I just think that you’re also my husband. You’re experiencing a dimensional overlay. Hold on, and it will pass.” Concern shone in her eyes. “We’ll need to go back to base and have Apothecary take a look at you, but it’s not like this has never happened before. You’re going to be fine.”

It was like a rope thrown to a drowning man. Aaron took a sharp breath. “You really think so?”

“I don’t want you near the kids until this has passed and Apothecary says you’re all right, but I know my husband, and you’re my husband. I know so.”

The doorbell rang.

Velma smiled wryly. “All right: you can’t answer that right now. If Katie comes back in with Sho, give them juice and come get me. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

“Okay,” said Aaron, and watched as she walked out of the kitchen. Most of the toys stayed behind, their knives still pointed at him. That was soothing, in its own weird way. She might believe that he was her Aaron, but she wasn’t going to leave him alone in her house, with her children close by. She was going to protect them.

Could he be her Aaron? Was there any possible way that she was right when she said that? His memories seemed so bright and clear, and increasingly improbable in the face of this comfortable kitchen, in this lived-in home, with those little girls--his daughters--playing outside the window. How could that be any more real than this?

Snow swirled in the middle of the kitchen. A white-haired girl in a red sweater patterned with snowflakes appeared at the middle of the portable blizzard, sagging with relief when she saw him. “Aaron,” she said. “There you are. We’ve been looking everywhere.”

“We?” asked Aaron blankly. She looked a little bit like Jack Claus, heir apparent to the North Pole, but Jack would never have worn pants that tight, or let his hair get that long. He liked the casual playboy look. It got him into more bars. “I’m sorry, have we met? And what are you doing in my house?”

The woman wrinkled her nose. “Maybe we should have looked a little faster. Aaron, it’s me, Jack. We lost you when we stepped into the mirror. I need you to come with me. Vel’s waiting, and we still need to find Lena.”

Vel was in the other room, and the children were out in the yard, and this woman’s words were calling images out of the depths of his memory, thin and wavering and already fading away. He could go with her. He could fight. Or he could give in, just once, and be happy. He could be happy.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but my wife is in the other room, and I think you should go. She’s going to be angry if she finds me here.”

“You’re not, because you know you don’t belong here. Aaron, please.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, with genuine regret. “I don’t know you. Please leave.”

The woman looked pained. She produced a snow globe from inside her sweater and smashed it against the floor. A swirl of snow rose around her, and she was gone.

“Door to door solicitor,” said Velma, behind him. He turned. She was leaning against the doorframe, smiling a little. “He was a little freaked out when he realized who I was. I had to give him an autograph to get him to leave. What were we talking about before? I know it was important, but I guess he distracted me so much that I forgot.”

“I was thinking it might be time to take the kids to the beach,” he said, and was rewarded with a bigger, brighter smile, and everything was finally perfect.

*

The snow swirled, resolving itself into Jack. She was panting, and looked pained. Velveteen hurried to help her stand up.

“What happened?” Vel asked. “Where’s Aaron?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t find him fast enough. This isn’t my world, and it isn’t my North Pole; it doesn’t like me pulling on its magic. He’s already been overwritten by the life of his cognate.” Jack grimaced, straightening. “I couldn’t convince him to come with me.”

“Dammit, Aaron,” muttered Velveteen. She shook her head. “Why isn’t that happening to us? And where’s Yelena?”

“We’ve both been touched by the Seasons. I think that makes it harder for the mirrors to reflect us incorrectly. We’re still ourselves, even when we go to other worlds. Also, I’m a guy here, and I think that would be weird for all involved.” Jackie pulled another snow globe out of her sweater. This one had a tiny rainbow in the middle, surrounded by swirling white flecks. “I don’t know where Lena is, but we need to find her soon, before we lose her too. That, or we need to find the door.”

“I’m not leaving Yelena,” said Velveteen firmly.

“You may not have a choice,” said Jack. “You can only stay in a mirror for so long before it either tries to eat you or eject you. Aaron’s already lost. If we both get lost, or worse, thrown out, that’s it. That’s the carol, chorus and verse. We need to find this door, or we’re never going to find what’s behind it. We get there, you go through, I’ll stay here and get Lena out.”

Velveteen looked unsure. Jack forced herself to smile.

“I know you don’t know me,” she said. “I know you’re trying to think of what Jackie would do, and hating me a little bit for still not being her. But I remember Lena being my friend for years. I remember how much it hurt when we had to cut her off. I remember how she stood up for me when Marketing got too aggressive and scared me. I’m not going to abandon her, even if it means letting you go on alone.”

There was a long pause before Velveteen nodded, slowly, and said, “Okay. If we find the door, I’ll go through it. But first, we’re finding Yelena.”

Jack didn’t argue.

*

“God, Cin, I swear, I don’t know whether petty criminals are getting stupider, or whether I’m just too grown-up to deal with these amateurs.” Iris--light manipulator, co-captain of The Super Patriots, Inc., and utterly exhausted businesswoman in need of a drink--virtually threw herself onto the couch, her powers kicking in automatically at the last moment to soften the landing. She sagged, letting her eyes slide closed. “I quit. I retire. I am going to grow roses and write my memoirs.”

“No, you’re not,” said Hyacinth calmly. She stayed in the kitchen, waving her hand above the tiny herb garden and summoning equally tiny storm clouds to rain on the plants and aerate the soil. “You’d get bored and come out of retirement inside of a week, and you know what that sort of reboot does to your sales numbers. You’re going to have dinner, and have a good night’s sleep, and go back out tomorrow, ready to make the world safe for truth, justice, and whatever else comes to mind.”

“I’m going to retire, and I’m going to get another girlfriend. A more supportive girlfriend, who understands the importance of my dreams.”

“Uh-huh,” said Hyacinth indulgently. She had clearly heard all this before: it had the feel and flavor of an oft-repeated routine, the sort of thing that happened at least once a week, in the pause between daytime and dinner. “Where would you find that sort of woman? And would she be prettier than me? Because let me tell you, lady, I am bangin’.”

“No question there,” said Iris, tilting her head back and smiling at her partner.

She had had years of experience at concealing her actual feelings. Before she, Velma, and Aaron had overthrown the old leadership of The Super Patriots, Inc., she had been expected to hide almost everything about herself. So it was only natural that she should put a brave, calm face on her confusion, which had been raging since midway through her daily patrol.

When those robbers had pointed at her and shouted “It’s Iris! Run!” she had looked behind herself to see who they were talking about. The code name felt wrong. She couldn’t put her finger on what she expected it to be--certainly not “Sparkle Bright,” a name she had gladly put behind her years ago--but it was still not right. And while Hyacinth might be joking...

She looked at her long-time girlfriend and live-in love, knowing every curve of her body, every shade of her laughter, and couldn’t help feeling like they were strangers, like she was betraying someone else by even being here. Like this, too, was wrong.

“Cin...” she began.

Snow swirled in the middle of the room, clearing to reveal two women, one in what might as well have been ski gear, the other in an old version of Velveteen’s costume. They looked wildly around, finally focusing on her.

“Yelena, thank Santa,” said the stranger, and suddenly there were more important things to worry about than a little existential dread.

Iris stood. Iris spoke.

“Who the fuck,” she asked, in a calm, clear voice, “are you?”

The woman who looked like Velveteen groaned. “Oh, goodie,” she said. “This is going to be fun.”
Tags: short fiction, velveteen vs.
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