Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. The Retroactive Continuity.

Title: Velveteen vs. The Retroactive Continuity.
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 four women were locked in an uneasy standoff, none of them willing to be the first to move and hence kick off the fight. On one side, a woman in a battered velvet leotard and tights, with a rabbit-eared headband and a domino mask completing the impression that she’d dressed herself out of the back of the nearest Halloween store. Next to her, a white-haired woman in clothes that were better suited to a ski holiday than a superhuman smackdown, a snow globe in each hand and a distressed expression on her face. Not exactly the sort of figures who struck fear into the hearts of evildoers.

On the other side, Iris, co-captain of The Super Patriots, living rainbow, champion for justice, and person responsible for the condo’s safety deposit, which probably explained why she had yet to move. She was still dressed for work, in a sleek white bodysuit that shimmered with rainbows every time she shifted her weight even slightly. She had a rainbow sash tied around her waist, and rainbow eyeshadow framing her big blue eyes. Behind her, in jeans and a tank top, stood a woman with green and purple hair and a small storm cloud hovering over her left shoulder: Hyacinth, weather-controller and seriously annoyed superheroine on her day off.

Really, she was probably the scariest person in the room. No one with the ability to sling lightning bolts should ever look that aggravated.

“I’m Velveteen,” said the woman in the rabbit ears. “I don’t know who your fourth team member was in this world, but in my world, you and I--”

“My Velveteen and I were recruited at the same time,” snapped Iris. “We grew up together, which is not some big secret you can use to manipulate me. It’s been in every official bio.”

“And a lot of the fanfic,” said Hyacinth. “Sparkle Bright Velveteen slash is one of the biggest Super Patriots RPF categories on AO3.”

“All of those words were words but I don’t think any of them made any sense at all,” said the white-haired woman, looking baffled.

“Be glad,” said Velveteen. She raised her hands, palms outward, and said, “If you and your Velveteen grew up together, then you know who I am. I’m her. Or rather, I’m who she would have grown up to be if things had gone a little differently. I don’t know much about this reality, so I don’t know whether things were better or worse for me, but I know that no version of Yelena would attack me without hearing me out.”

Iris’s eyes narrowed. “You know my secret identity?” She looked toward the white-haired woman. There was something familiar about her, something in the way she held herself. “You’re saying it out loud, in front of a stranger?”

“My name is Jacqueline Claus,” said the white-haired woman hurriedly. “I’m Santa’s daughter. I promise you, she’s telling the truth. She’s the Velveteen from another reality, and I’m her guide, and you’re actually our version of Yelena. We lost track of you when we came through the mirror.”

“Oh, good, it’s getting seriously weird,” said Hyacinth. “Here I was worried that this was just another fangirl home invasion, but no, now it’s dimensional-hopping and body snatching and mistaken identities. This is exactly what I wanted.”

“Cin...” said Iris.

“It’s my day off,” Hyacinth snapped. “It wasn’t bad enough that you had to work, that we couldn’t do something normal, but now you’re bringing work home with you on my day off. I thought we talked about this.”

“Could we maybe not have this fight in front of the people who are either from another dimension or trying to mess with our heads?” asked Iris plaintively. “I did not bring work home on purpose. I was talking about retirement, remember? They just sort of showed up.”

“Magic snow globe,” said Jack. She held one up, with an apologetic shrug. “They get me where I need to go. And since where I needed to go was to our Yelena, and the snow globe brought me here, that means you’re really our Yelena.”

“We’re not supposed to be here,” said Velveteen.

“You got that right,” said Hyacinth. The storm cloud over her left shoulder began dumping rain onto her shirt. “What are you doing in our apartment?”

“We need to find a door so we can find whatever the hell it is that Santa sent us to find, or there’s a chance our world is going to be ruined forever,” said Velveteen.

Iris and Hyacinth both blinked.

“Oh,” said Iris finally. “Is that all.”

*

When considering the multiverse, even within the context of a localized divergence (i.e., a multiversal plane in which all individuals existing in world A will have been at minimum conceived in world B, if not allowed to live to a fruitful adulthood), it must be considered possible for there to be more than one potential “good” outcome for any given situation. Take, for example, the matter of Yelena Batzdorf, known, depending on the parallel world in which she is found, as “Sparkle Bright,” “Iris,” “Polychrome,” or “Prism.”

Born to a highly conservative family, the young Miss Batzdorf has expressed an early attraction to members of the same gender in virtually all known parallels (in those which she did not, she was either born male or assigned male at birth; in the three where she was assigned male at birth, she was still attracted to women, but was not recognized as a lesbian until after her actual gender became publicly known). This conflict between her family’s values and her heart has led, almost inevitably, to her being surrendered to The Super Patriots, Inc. for training and “rehabilitation.” The fact that such rehabilitation is not possible, and is in fact harmful to those individuals who have been subjected to it, has never yet been known to change her family’s decision. World after world, they have chosen the same irresponsible solution, leaving their daughter to be raised by people who saw her more as potential profit than person.

In some worlds, Miss Batzdorf has become the perfect face of the corporation, burying her desires under her dedication to the people who raised her. In others, she has been the one to walk out at the age of eighteen, choosing freedom over living someone else’s script. And in other, rarer worlds, she and her friends have been able to seize control of the corporation, ushering in an era of superheroic honesty and openness, where she has not been required to conceal herself under anything more than a mask.

In many worlds, she has been happy. She has been loved. She has made a home for herself, and she has had few regrets. But Victoria Cogsworth, code name “Victory Anna,” exists in only one world. While few who have met Miss Cogsworth will deny that she has been a positive influence on Miss Batzdorf, her absence from the rest of the multiverse must be taken as an indication that more than one match ideal enough to result in a truly “happy ending” must be available.

In some worlds, Sparkle Bright and Velveteen have found a way to grow together, instead of growing apart. In other worlds, Iris and Jacqueline Claus have provided one another with the greatest gifts of all. In still others, she has found love with a weather-controller named Hyacinth who has yet to manifest in our world.

Happiness can be found anywhere. Who is to say that the status quo we believe to be ideal is the “right” one, or indeed, even the most common in an unending multiverse? Every happy ending denies another. It always has.

*

The four of them gathered in an uneasy peace around the coffee table, Iris on the couch with Hyacinth standing behind her, while Velveteen and Jack squashed onto the loveseat like a pair of teens on prom night. The only way it could have been any more uncomfortable would have been if someone had asked about someone else’s intentions, and in a way, that was the entire thrust of the conversation. Why were they here; what did they want to do to Yelena; did they have any right to do it.

“Okay, slow down and let me try to unpack this a little bit,” said Iris, pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand. “Basically you’re saying that I am who I think I am, but I’m also a version of myself who goes by ‘Polychrome,’ and is supposed to be helping you find this door because I’m really a mirror ghost?”

“Neither of us said ‘mirror ghost,’” said Velveteen. “We said ‘psychic reflection.’ When we crossed into this world, you and Aaron both got overlain on your local cognates, because you haven’t spent enough time outside the Calendar Country to have any actual resistance.”

I said ‘mirror ghost,’ because it sounds vaguely less completely stupid than ‘psychic reflection,’” said Hyacinth. “I would know if she weren’t my girlfriend, okay? And there is nothing about her that isn’t my Iris. Also, what the hell is a ‘Calendar Country’?”

“Hasn’t your Jack Claus ever taken you to the North Pole?” asked Jack, carefully. “To see Papa--I mean, to see Santa?”

“Santa Claus is a construct of the collective unconscious, and I have no idea how he’s real, but he doesn’t prove the existence of whatever a ‘Calendar Country’ is,” said Hyacinth primly.

Jack took a deep breath before launching into an explanation of the Seasonal Lands, how they interacted with the “real” world, and why the Spirits of the Season called anyplace that wasn’t an anthropomorphic representation of metaphor the “Calendar Country.” Velveteen, who had heard all this before, turned her out in favor of focusing on Iris, looking carefully at the other woman, searching for some sign that her version of Yelena was still in there.

She couldn’t blame Aaron for being seduced by the life the mirror had offered him, enough so that he had stopped fighting and let himself be absorbed. Jackie wasn’t here, and Jack didn’t control these mirrors, and every version of cosmic travel had its risks. She was worried about him, yes, but she was also confident that they would be able to get him back after they’d found the door and whatever was behind it. Santa wouldn’t have let Jack take them through if there was a chance they could be lost forever.

Or maybe he would have, because Santa lied. But there wasn’t time to worry about that now. She’d lost Aaron. She couldn’t lose Yelena too. Not when they still had so far left to go.

Iris met her eyes, and something in the other woman’s face wasn’t Iris, not really. Something in her face was confused and conflicted and contrary, the same look she’d had when she was pretending to be Blacklight just to give herself a break from being the perfect icon The Super Patriots, Inc. had wanted her to be. Something in her face gave her away. She knew. She knew they were telling the truth. She knew this world, while real, wasn’t hers. She knew.

“Hey,” said Velveteen, the sound of her voice startling Jack into silence. She kept her eyes on Yelena. Not on Iris: on that flickering little scrap of understanding and dismay that was her first and oldest friend. “What do you say? Trust us?”

Iris didn’t have the chance to say anything. Hyacinth grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet, saying, through gritted teeth, “Iris can I talk to you for a second alone?” before turning and hauling the taller woman after her into the kitchen.

Velveteen blinked. “I guess she always likes the short girls,” she said, voice low.

“I guess so,” Jack agreed. She reached over and squeezed Velveteen’s hand. It was a friendly, companionable gesture, the sort of thing that implied years of similar gestures. “It’ll be okay. She’ll come with us.”

“I hope so,” said Velveteen, and looked down at Jack’s hand covering hers, and wished that it were blue. “I really do.”

*

“You can’t seriously be listening to them,” snapped Hyacinth. “They’re...I don’t know what they are. Role-players trying to suck you into their weirdness. Fangirls looking for your attention. They’re something, and whatever it is, I don’t like it.”

“Or maybe they’re exactly who they say they are, and we should listen to them so that everything can go back to normal around here.”

Hyacinth’s eyes widened. Her tiny storm cloud belched lightning. “You’re not serious.”

“I can’t remember your real name.”

Everything seemed to freeze. Even the cloud stopped raining quite as hard. That was never a good sign, Iris knew that much; when Hyacinth was too stunned to keep up a good storm, heads were about to roll. She pressed onward anyway.

“I know I know it, because I know we’ve been together for seven years. I know I met you at a mixer for LGBT superhumans. It was my first one. You saw me across the room, and when you came over, you laughed, because I was literally changing colors out of fear. You called it ‘power incontinence.’ You offered to show me around.”

“I wound up showing you my apartment,” said Hyacinth, in a low, almost horrified voice.

“Yeah, and I moved in three weeks later, because I am nothing if not good at moving way too fast,” said Iris. “I remember seven years, Cin, I remember coming out on national television, and you kissing me like I’d just done the bravest thing in the universe, and I don’t remember your name. But I remember some of the things they’re saying.”

“What are you saying? Are you saying you’re not real?”

“I’m saying I think they may be right about me being a psychic overlay on your Iris, and if they can get me to this door, then I can go with them, and you get your Iris back. The real one, who deserves you.” The one who wouldn’t keep waiting for a flash of red hair and a complaint directed at a god or goddess that didn’t exist. The one who could love Hyacinth without the shadows.

For someone who created light from her very skin, Iris spent a distressing amount of her time terrified of shadows.

Hyacinth scowled. “Well, I think they’ve put this stupid idea in your head, and now you’re starting to believe them, even though you know you shouldn’t.”

“What harm does it do?”

“What harm? What if they’re con men? We go to this door, and when nothing happens, suddenly you need to pay them a thousand dollars for an exorcism, or...or something. I just don’t like it.”

“I don’t either.” Iris glanced to the kitchen door. She could see a slice of the maybe-Velveteen’s leg, weight balanced on her toe, heel bouncing. Vel had always done that when she was anxious. Always. This was Vel. Maybe not hers, or maybe the one she remembered so vividly wasn’t hers, but...Vel. “We have to find out for sure.”

Hyacinth, who had been with Yelena long enough--first as Sparkle Bright, and then as Iris--to know when her mind was made up, sighed. “You’ll be careful. And if we find out you’re not a psychic overlay, you’ll let it go.”

“I don’t remember your real name, Cin. Do you really think I’m not?”

“No,” said Hyacinth quietly. “But a girl can dream.”

Iris paused. “Cin, why would you...if I’m not your Iris, shouldn’t you want her back?”

“I do! Believe me, if you’re not my Iris, I want her back more than anything. Except for the part where I’ve been afraid for years that one day you were going to wake up and realize that you could do better than a weather-slinger named after a T.S. Eliot poem. You’re one of the top three superheroes in the world. I wouldn’t even be second string if I weren’t with you.”

“I don’t remember your real name, but I remember so much else, and you need to stop thinking like that,” said Iris sharply. “If I’m your Iris, and I’ve been making you feel that way, we need to talk. If I’m not your Iris, then as soon as I’m gone, you and she need to talk. Because you’re amazing. You deserve to know that. Now come on. Let’s go find out whether the world is broken.”

Hyacinth followed her out of the kitchen. It seemed that there was nothing else to say.

*

“This is a terrible plan,” said Velveteen.

“All plans are terrible plans until they succeed, and then they become the best plans ever,” said Jack. The four of them were trudging through a snowbank that smelled like hot chocolate and pine-scented air freshener. The sky above them was a rainbow of living light, and Iris had barely taken her eyes off of it since the snow globe had dropped them all in the North Pole.

“Are we really going to see Santa?” asked Hyacinth, eyes shining.

“How’s the phrase ‘fuck, I hope not, I am really running out of the willpower required not to punch him in his smug, stupid face’?” asked Vel. “Because I think that’s way closer to the truth.”

“You know, we don’t like it much when people come here to punch the Big Man,” said a voice from behind them. All four turned. A white-haired boy in a red and white suit was standing atop the snow, which would have been more impressive if he hadn’t been wearing snowshoes. He looked enough like Jack to seem related, and enough like himself to be a stranger. He blinked at her, eyebrows lifting, before he asked, “Universe-jumping? That’s adventurous.”

“Are you saying that because I’m a girl?” asked Jack, frowning.

He shook his head. “No, because you’re a me, and I would have to be in a very adventurous mood to do something like that. Well, maybe if I needed a kidney. Do you need a kidney?”

“No,” said Jack.

“That’s a relief.”

“We need access to your Hall of Mirrors,” said Velveteen. “We’re looking for a door.”

“A door.” Jack--er, Jack II--looked at her flatly. “Miss, I know you’re not the Velma from our universe, but our Hall of Mirrors contains only, well, mirrors. If you want a door, you’ll need to go to the Hall of Doors.”

Velveteen and Jack I exchanged a startled look before Velveteen asked, carefully, “What’s the Hall of Doors?”

“That’s how Papa visits all the children in the world, of course. It used to be fireplaces, but not many children have fireplaces these days. He switched over to a closet-based access system in the 1950s. Why?”

If Hyacinth had been looking for proof that Iris wasn’t her Iris, she would have received it in that moment, as the light-manipulator joined Jack I and Velveteen in staring at Jack II.

Finally, Velveteen said, “Take us there.”

“Of course,” said Jack II. He bowed. “Follow me.”

They did.

The Hall of Doors was located right next to the Workshop, presumably to make it easier for Santa to refill his sack. It was a large, ornate structure, rendered odd by the shining second door that seemed to have been painted over the first. Velveteen made straight for it, Jack I on her heels. Iris paused, looking at Hyacinth.

“Cin...” she said.

Hyacinth shook her head. “Just go,” she said. “If any part of you is mine, she’ll come back to me.”

Velveteen plunged into the ghostly door, vanishing. Jack did the same. Iris ran after them. As she stepped through, her image split in two for a moment, one in white, one in black. The one in black disappeared an instant later, following the others out of the world. The one in white collapsed.

“Lena!” shouted Hyacinth, running to kneel in the snow next to her girlfriend. The flickering door was gone. Somehow, that didn’t matter. “Hey. Hey. You okay?”

“Alexis?” Iris opened her eyes and blinked up at Hyacinth. “I had the weirdest dream...”

Hyacinth laughed, and everything was going to be okay.

*

The other side of the door was absolutely nothing. It wasn’t black, because black would have been something, and it wasn’t white, because white would have been something; it was nothing, stretching on forever.

Velveteen, who could not, in fact, fly, made a small sound of dismay. “How am I not falling right now?” she asked, looking to her left, where Jack was clutching one of her snow globes and trying not to hyperventilate. “How am I not plummeting to my doom?” She looked to her right. Polychrome was there, incarnate once again in black and rainbows and a bewildered expression. “You, I get, but how are we not falling?”

“Gravity only exists when there’s such a thing as up and down,” said Polychrome, sounding dazed. “I was inside a different version of my own head. Like, did that happen to you? Or did I get the special ticket for the what-the-hell express?”

“Just you and Aaron,” said Velveteen. “Jack’s a metaphorical construct, and I guess the fact that this is technically my mission kept me out of my own head.”

“Yeah,” said Polychrome. “Where is Aaron?”

“He didn’t want to give up what he never got to have.” Velveteen’s expression turned briefly sad. “Jack wouldn’t tell me exactly what it was, which I think probably means that was a world where we figured out how to make things work when we were teenagers.”

“It was,” said Polychrome, and reached for Velveteen’s hand, tangling their fingers together and holding tight. “We were braver there. I don’t know we found it in us, but we were braver.”

“If we were brave there, we can be brave here,” said Velveteen. “It’s still in us. And if Santa Claus sent us here, it’s because there’s still something we can do. So we walk.”

“How far?”

“Until we find an ending. Jack, you with us?” Velveteen turned to look at Jack again, and stopped, eyes going wide. “Jack?”

Jacqueline Claus, adopted daughter of Santa Claus, metaphor given flesh and now pulled outside the realm of fleshy concepts, offered her a wan smile. She was translucent, more like a girl projected on the air than a girl in any actuality. “I don’t think I can exist here,” she said. “Sorry about that. I hope this doesn’t mess things up for you.”

“No,” said Velveteen, shaking her head firmly. “No, you are not going to disappear on me. We need you. We can’t get Jackie back without you.”

“Sure you can,” said Jack. “Just make a Christmas wish, and maybe it’ll come true.”

“Jack--” Velveteen reached for her, fingers closing on empty air. There was nothing there to grab onto.

Jack offered one last, flickering smile, and she was gone, leaving the two superheroines standing alone in an endless, empty nothingness.

“Um,” said Polychrome, after a long pause. “Does this sort of thing happen to you often?”

“Disturbingly more often than I like,” said Velveteen. She looked blankly at the place where Jack had been. “I keep losing people, Lena. That’s been my whole life. Losing people. I lost my parents, and then I lost you, and then I lost Tad, and Jackie, and now I’ve lost Aaron and Jack. None of you should come anywhere near me. I’m dangerous.”

“Everyone’s dangerous, Vel.” Polychrome squeezed her hand. “You lost me because I was a scared kid. I came back. You’re not going to lose me again. Pinky-swear.”

Velveteen laughed, a little unsteadily. “I don’t think infinite nothingness cares about pinky-swears.”

“Maybe not, but I do, and that’s what matters here.” Polychrome looked around the emptiness. “What do we do now?”

“I guess we keep going.” Velveteen took a cautious step forward. The nothing continued to hold her up. “All right: looks like we walk. You up for this?”

“Sounds fun,” said Polychrome, and followed.

*

Two women walked across an infinite plane, surrounded by absolutely nothing. They held fast to each other’s hands, as if they feared that letting go could mean being separated forever. It wasn’t an unreasonable concern, given the blankness around them. It was impossible to even tell if they were gaining ground, because there was no distance; only the emptiness.

“This isn’t working,” said Velveteen. “We’re not getting anywhere.”

“How could we tell if we were?” Polychrome shook her head. “I’m not tired. I feel like we’ve been walking for hours, but...I’m not tired.”

“Jack disappeared. That means time isn’t really passing here. If this place knew about time, she’d still be with us.”

Polychrome gave her a sidelong look. “You really don’t think she’s supposed to exist, do you?”

“No. I don’t. If you could remember Jackie Frost, you’d understand why. Jack is...Jackie made more sense as someone I’d be friends with. Aurora assigned her to befriend me, so that Winter would have a way in, but she still made sense. She wasn’t just sugar cookies and smiles. She was snide and cynical and one of my favorite people. The idea that she’s gone forever because of me, it hurts.”

“But we’re superheroes,” said Polychrome gently. “Even if you’re right--and Jack said you were, so I guess I believe you--we were always going to be taking bullets for each other. That’s part of being a team. And the way I remember things, Jack has always been on your team. That means Jackie would have been, too. If she took a bullet for you, she did it because she wanted to. Because she was your teammate, when I couldn’t be. That means she was a hero.”

“She never liked you,” said Velveteen fondly. “She used to call you horrible names, and threaten to feed you bacon.”

“Sounds like a real charmer,” said Polychrome. “I’m glad you had her.”

“I’m going to get her back. I’m going to get them all back.”

“I believe you,” said Polychrome. She looked around. “We’re not getting anywhere. Got any clever ideas?”

“We could call for a taxi.”

“Genius,” said Polychrome. She paused before saying, “You were always smarter than you thought you were. Even when we were kids, I knew it would be your team someday, no matter what Marketing said. I guess I was jealous. I thought you’d leave me behind.”

“I would never have done that.”

“I know that now. We grew up. That makes a lot of things easier.” And some things harder. Polychrome gave Velveteen another sidelong look. Some things so much harder.

Sometimes she felt like the greatest gap between her and the woman who had been her best friend for so very long was experience. While Velma had been running from her powers and her past, Polychrome--then Sparkle Bright--had been turning into a professional superhero. She’d taken the advanced classes. She’d learned the tips and tricks and warning signs that Velveteen had never been able to study.

This, all of this, was a test. There were chapters in her textbooks about situations like this one, and it fit every requirement of a test. They’d lost one person for each phase. Victory Anna in their world, Action Dude in the mirror-world, and Jack Claus here, in this shapeless plain. Polychrome didn’t need to be a genius to know that it was going to take a sacrifice for them to move on to the next level, whatever that was.

“Do you really think you’re going to be able to rewind the world?” she asked. “To get everything back the way it was before you went away?”

“I do,” said Velveteen. “There has to be a way, and Santa...he may not always tell us everything, but he doesn’t outright lie. Not even to me. He wouldn’t have sent us here if he hadn’t thought that this could fix things.”

“So those three years would, what? Not have happened? Or we’d remember everything, only we’d be back at the start?”

“I don’t know. I guess we have to get there to find out.”

Polychrome took a deep breath. “I have an idea about that,” she said. “Remember how I used to fly with you when we were kids?”

“Yeah,” said Velveteen. “We were smaller then.”

“Relative sizes have stayed about the same. What do you say? Let me give you a boost?” Polychrome offered what she hoped was an impish smile. She didn’t want Velveteen to realize what she was doing.

There was a pause before Velveteen shrugged and said, “Why not? It’s not like we’re getting anywhere just walking.”

“Great,” said Polychrome.

It took them a few minutes to find a carry that would be comfortable for both of them. They wound up with Velveteen riding piggy-back on Polychrome, her legs locked around the taller woman’s waist, her arms slung around her shoulders. Polychrome gripped Velveteen’s wrists like she was a backpack.

“Hold tight,” she said, and launched herself into the colorless, spaceless sky on a trail of rainbow light.

*

Many people had asked themselves, over the years, just how high Polychrome could fly if she didn’t have to worry about silly little things like “running out of air.” Most of them would have had their questions answered if they had been present when she launched herself into the sky that had no borders, flying upward as fast and as hard as she could go.

After two miles straight up, her rainbow trail turned into an oscillating swirl of colors, melting into one another like an oil slick painted in the air.

Two miles after that, the colors vanished completely, replaced by a beam of pure, eye-searing whiteness. It was light without gradation, and it was as beautiful as it was alarming. Velveteen would have panicked, if she had been able to see it, but her eyes were squinted tightly shut against the rush of air, and she couldn’t see anything at all.

“You’re going to fix everything,” said Polychrome serenely. “I believe you. I believe in you. You’re going to fix it all.”

“What?” shouted Velveteen.

“I said, I’m sorry,” said Polychrome, and exploded into light.

It wasn’t a literal explosion: more the sudden conversion of all the nothingness around her into prismatic reality. Polychrome had created illusions before, but this was the largest, and the most complex that she had ever attempted. One instant, there was nothing; the next, Velveteen was tumbling onto a black and white floor, like a chessboard, like something out of a story, and she would have laughed at the sheer cliche of it all if she hadn’t been so damn scared.

“Poly?!” she shouted, slapping the floor like she thought she could somehow make it disappear again. “Yelena?!”

“There’s no rulebook to this place,” said an unfamiliar female voice. Velveteen whipped around to find herself looking at a dark-haired woman in a Grecian gown, with a spindle slung across her chest like the world’s most pointless fashion accessory. “Your friend, though, she remembered something from one of her lessons about ways this sort of terrain can be navigated, and she took a chance. We rewarded it.”

“Where is she?” demanded Velveteen, scrambling to her feet. “Give her back!”

“She forced us into visibility,” said another voice. Velveteen turned. A man stood behind her, dressed similarly to the woman, with hair the color of pomegranate seeds in the sunlight and an hourglass dangling from his belt. “It took everything she had. She’s falling, currently. She’ll fall forever, if you don’t make your case.”

“What?” Velveteen looked back and forth between the pair, finally taking a step backward, so that she could watch them both at the same time. “Who are you? Where am I?”

“You don’t ask who you are,” said the woman. “That’s interesting. Are you that confident in yourself, that you don’t need to ask who you are?”

“My name is Velveteen. I’m a superhero, and I’m here because Santa Claus told me that if I went through a door hidden in a mirror, I could find a way to fix the world.” Velveteen paused. “Okay, when I say it like that, it sounds sort of stupid, I’ll admit. But it’s the truth.”

“All the identities you could have claimed, and that’s the one you’re going to go with,” said the man. He took a step toward the woman, and his clothing changed, melting into 1920s American finery. His hourglass became a pocket watch. “Superhero. Super. You don’t want to be ordinary.”

“For me, this is ordinary,” said Velveteen. The woman still matched the man. She hadn’t seen her change. This was all getting a little cosmic for her tastes, and she really just wanted someone to hit. “Where am I?”

“Where the Spirit of Giving sent you,” said the woman. “I am Ananke, and this is Chronos.”

“We’re basically the template off which you were struck,” said the man--Chronos. He smiled thinly. “I’m a chronopath.”

“And I’m a precognitive strong enough to adjust the world to fit the futures I see,” said Ananke. “I see that you are still confused. Remember when you had your power level assessed?”

“Yes,” said Velveteen warily.

“They told you the scale went to five.”

“Yes.”

Chronos smiled. “We’re the tens.”

“...oh,” said Velveteen, after a horrified pause. “So you’re the reason everything is so fucked-up.”

“We’re not gods,” said Ananke. “We’re just not equipped to live in the world the rest of you inhabit. We’ll break it simply by trying to walk in it like we belong there. So we live here, where things do as we tell them, and every so often someone from the ‘real’ world will show up and tell us that things have gotten out of hand.”

“So say the word, little hero,” said Chronos. “We can put it all back in the bottle for another fifty years. No more heroes, no more villains. You’ll be free.”

Velveteen jumped. “What? Wait--what? That’s not why I’m here.”

Chronos looked bemused. “But that’s always why you’re here. You can only come once, you little mortal heroes, so that’s always what you ask for.”

“No! I like being a superhero. Maybe there was a time when I didn’t, but I like who I am. I like my friends. If I weren’t a superhero, I wouldn’t know Jackie, or Torrey, or anybody. We would never have met. So no, I don’t want the powers to go away. I just want to go back three years and keep everything from going wrong.”

“If that’s all--” Chronos reached for his watch.

It was too easy. Velveteen glanced toward Ananke, who was shaking her head, very slightly. She was missing something.

“Wait!” she cried. Chronos stopped. “If we go back three years, am I going to remember this?”

“No,” he said.

“So it’s all going to happen exactly the same way.”

“Yes.”

“But I won’t be able to come back here. We’ll be stuck with it.”

He sighed, pouting like a child who had just been cheated out of a great prank. “Yes,” he said.

“Is there another way?”

“Yes,” said Ananke. “The Seasonal Lands are less temporally anchored than the Calendar Country. They can send you home the moment you left. No time will pass. No one will have the chance to miss you, or to exploit your absence.”

Velveteen paused. She was missing something, she knew she was...and then she wasn’t. The inevitability of it all was almost poetic in its painful simplicity. “But that time, for me, will have passed exactly like it did in this timeline.”

“Yes.”

“Jackie...”

“Everything has to cost, little animus. Even a second chance.” Ananke reached for her spindle. Somehow, it remained, even as her clothing had changed. “Will you take it?”

All those laws, passed in her absence, designed to narrow the world when it should have been getting wider. Polychrome and Victory Anna, hiding from the world; the Princess, increasingly needing to hide from herself. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. Even Jackie would have agreed. Jackie never liked anything that made the world smaller than it had to be.

“I’ll find a way to get her back,” said Velveteen. “For now? Take it all back. Three years, and I do my term of service to the Seasonal Lands, and this never happened.”

Ananke smiled as she drew her spindle. “I’m glad I got the chance to meet you,” she said, and held it out, needle-first, toward Velveteen.

I’m sorry, Aaron, thought Vel. It would have been nice to have been heroes again, together.

Then she touched the spindle’s point, and collapsed on the checkerboard floor.

Chronos and Ananke looked at her. “That was new,” he said.

“Some things have to be,” she agreed. “Send her back. No cheating.”

“Yes dear,” he said, and kissed her cheek, and disappeared, taking Velveteen--and the floor--with him.

*

The door that opened in the fabric of reality had no foundation, no wall to hold it in place or justify its existence: it simply was, a twisted thing of knotted paper roses that dripped with black type and red ink. It didn’t fit in with the rest of the gardens at the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle at all.

The body of a woman, bone-thin, was shoved through the doorway and collapsed in the dewy grass, unconscious, barely seeming to breathe.

Once again, Velma “Velveteen” Martinez had come home.
Tags: short fiction, velveteen vs.
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