Title: Velveteen vs. Recovery. Summary: What happens to a child superhero who finds that after everything she has done, everything she has endured...life goes on? *** As a rule, life at the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle followed a fairly strict set of guidelines. “Magical, predictable, marketable,” was the household motto, frequently proclaimed by any one of a number of rabbits wearing waistcoats. They were, in their own lapine way, the best possible demonstration of how a thing could be both magical and predictable. Sorcery was not a barrier to boredom. Nor should it have been. Magic without predictability was better known as “chaos,” and that was not the way to make the parades run on time. Predictably, a five minutes past noon, a scream rang out across the sculpture garden. It was followed by the sound of a voice swearing, loudly and creatively. The Princess looked at the decorative hourglass in the center of the table, sighed, and put her teacup down. “Sometimes I think that girl doesn’t actually want to get any better,” she said, pushing back her chair as she stood. She cut a striking figure, as was only right for the pinnacle of all princesses in the heart of her power. Here, her innate magic combined with the unconscious desires of a million children, making her peerless, perfect, and virtually incapable of getting jam on her sleeves. Her golden hair was gathered into a crown of ringlet curls. Her gown was a confection of silver satin and silk that had somehow been dyed the rippling rainbow color of mother-of-pearl. She was, in short, perfect, assuming one was willing to discount the scowl on her face. On the other side of the table, Jacqueline Claus--“Jack” to her friends, and “Jackie” in her dreams, when she found herself shoved into another life, wearing another skin, one which fit her substantially better--regretfully put down the sugar cookie she had been preparing to dunk in her cocoa. “At least she’s feeling better enough to yell?” “Honey, that girl’s been feeling well enough to shout at people since before she regained consciousness.” The Princess began the long walk down the garden path toward the stained glass doors that led to the rest of the Castle. Every path here was a long one, to allow for stately sweeping-down, as well as accommodating the sometimes ridiculous trains on her really fancy gowns. Just one more perk of living in an impossible fairy tale castle. “Now if she’d just start feeling well enough to listen to her damn doctor, we’d be in business.” “Technically, the Night Shift isn’t her doctor.” Jack had to virtually jog to keep up with the taller woman. It probably looked pretty silly, but the birds and woodland creatures who had been serving them tea didn’t say anything. “She’s--I mean, they’re--her nurse. Es. Nurses. What is the pronoun for one person who is a female person but sometimes is a whole bunch of people at the same time?” “Confusing.” The Princess raised her hands and shoved against the doors, which flew open with a satisfying “slam.” That, too, was a part of the castle’s magic. It fitted its responses to its owner’s mood. The recovery room was the sort of vast, airy space that would have been used as a ballroom in a smaller, more logical residence: it was the only ordinary use that could justify a ceiling that high and walls made entirely of colored glass panes. Here, it was one of the less impressive rooms. Why, that vaulted ceiling wasn’t large enough for a Pegasus race, and they would have been hard-pressed to fit more than half a herd of unicorns inside! Jack had grown up at the North Pole, surrounded by the infinite vastness of the living Winter, and sometimes she felt like the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle was a little bit over the top. Maybe more than a little bit. In the middle of the room, three identical women in white nurse uniforms straight a World War II documentary were frantically playing what looked like a game of keep-away with a woman in a burgundy ball gown. Their prize, and her objective, was a simple brown domino mask. As Jack and the Princess watched, the woman in the ball gown lunged for the nearest nurse. The nurse flung the mask into the air, where it was snatched by a newly-appeared fourth woman in uniform. “No fair !” howled Velveteen, trying to push herself off the floor. The nurse she had been sprawled atop disappeared, and the other two originals sat on her, pinning her down. She shouted in wordless fury and frustration, unable to break free. “And that, my dearest, is why we will not help you defeat your keepers,” said the Princess, gliding across the floor toward the ruckus. “If you can’t even beat the lady who brings your morning Jell-O, how are you supposed to stand up to a mugger? Or a supervillain? Or, Grimm forbid, the press ?” She shuddered delicately. Velma, who had never met a delicate gesture she didn’t want to punch, scowled at her. “Did you tell her to start sitting on me?” she demanded. “Is that why my nurse is getting so aggressive?” “I’m getting this aggressive because I suit the treatment to the patient,” said the Night Shift primly. Two more of her appeared. After helping herself up, she informed the Princess, “I’m taking my lunch breaks,” and stalked out of the room. Velma rolled onto her back. “Ow,” she said. “Well, honey, I’m not going to argue with that,” said the Princess. * Superhumans are injured at a rate which is substantially higher than that of the general public. Even those who do not actively pursue a career in either heroism or villainy are likely to be drawn into the epic battles which their more civic-minded fellows provoke. Action hero or actuary, if you can throw a car, you’re likely to be called upon to save the city. As many superhumans are unable to file insurance claims or visit municipal hospitals without compromising their secret identities, the question of recovery looms large over the community. While the occasional hospital devoted to superhuman services has cropped up, they have all been forced to operate under conditions of utmost secrecy--not, as some assume, due to threat of personal rivalry following a hero to chemotherapy or a villain to their prenatal checkups, but due to the increasingly invasive and restrictive legislation pushed through by The Super Patriots, Inc., who did not want anyone associated in any way with their organization seeking medical care outside their own R&D Division. These laws have historically kept the hospitals from either assisting the community they wished to serve or meeting their own funding need, and most have closed their doors in under a year. Some hope that the collapse of The Super Patriots, Inc. as the dominant figure in superhuman legislation will make it easier for these facilities to establish and maintain themselves. Others take grim joy in pointing out that as long as the superhuman community loses a certain number of its members to ailments which have nothing to do with their work--as long as they’re dying of cancer, burst appendixes, and blood poisoning--there will never be any risk of their numbers growing beyond a certain point. Fear, in other words, will continue to take their medical options away. When a superhuman is injured in the line of duty, the only options available are positively Victorian in nature: bedrest, the aid of friends and trustworthy specialists, time, and hope. Hope for healing; hope for a good outcome; hope that their friends will not tire of them before their recovery is complete. With hope playing such a large role in the process, is it any real wonder that hopelessness is the most common of complications? * “Sweetie, I don’t know if you know this, what with you having been basically broke for your entire adult life--and that’s a choice you’re allowed to make, you being a grown woman and all, but maybe if you’d called on your friends a little sooner things wouldn’t have gotten so bad--but nurses cost money.” The Princess folded her arms and glowered down at Velveteen, who was showing no inclination to get off the floor. (Honestly, Jack wasn’t sure Velveteen could get off the floor. It had only been a week since the other hero’s return from the Seasonal Lands, and while she was recovering quickly, she wasn’t recovering that quickly. Velveteen had been malnourished, dehydrated, and run down in every way it was possible for a body to be without actually dying. She was over the dehydration, and the petting zoo that staffed the kitchen was working on the malnutrition, but still. She needed about a month in bed, eating bonbons and thinking soothing thoughts, before she tried to wrestle anyone , much less another hero.) “I’ll pay you back,” said Velveteen. “No, you won’t,” said the Princess, not unkindly. “Even if I wanted you to, which I don’t, you couldn’t possibly afford it. The Night Shift’s hourly rate is more than admission to our flagship theme park. For a family of four.” Velveteen blanched. The Princess had always been a truly independent heroine, in large part due to the global entertainment concern that paid for her services and kept her hero’s license up to date. Between that and the fact that her housing, wardrobe, and meals were all provided by her powers, it was no surprise that the Princess was able to save the majority of what she made. According to Masks magazine, she was one of the five wealthiest superhumans in the world, and the only one in the top ten whose powers did not relate directly to the creation or accumulation of wealth. “Now that we’ve settled that, what were you thinking ? The Princess bent to offer Velveteen her hand. “You could have been hurt.” “I’ve been hurt before,” said Velveteen, allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. “I need to be working out if I’m going to get my strength back. I need to go on patrol.” “We’ve been over this. Beating the living snot out of muggers isn’t physical therapy, no matter how therapeutic it is.” Velveteen shrugged. “It’s how I’ve stayed in shape for all these years.” “The thing is, though, you usually let the teddy bears do most of the fighting for you,” said Jack carefully. She still wasn’t sure how to talk to Velveteen. All her memories of the woman were second-hand, colored by the fact that she had been someone else when they had been formed. It was too bad no one else could remember that part. Velveteen shot her a wounded look. “You’re supposed to be on my side,” she complained. “I think I’m mostly on the side of whatever doesn’t end with you getting stabbed and bleeding to death in an alley,” said Jack. “I thought you liked not having to go out and fight for truth and justice just to keep the lights on. Lena and Torrey are paying all the bills, and Governor Morgan is still maintaining your position as official state superhero. You can rest . You can get better .” “I can go out of my mind from boredom,” said Velveteen, folding her arms and looking away. Jack frowned. “I feel like there’s something you’re not telling us.” “Ask Aurora,” suggested Velveteen, in a dull voice. Jack recoiled from the other woman like she had suddenly transformed into a raging fire. Hurt and shame filled her eyes as she clapped her hand over her mouth. Then she turned on her heel, sending her skirts kicking out around her in a froth of velvet and unnecessary lace, and ran out of the room. “Vel.” The Princess shook her head. “That wasn’t very kind of you. She saved your life, remember?” “My life wouldn’t have needed saving if she hadn’t lied to me about what was going to happen when I went to Winter,” snapped Velveteen. She stopped before she could say anything else, running her hands through her hair and taking a deep breath. Once she was sure she wasn’t going to yell, she continued carefully, “I love Jack, I do. She’s one of my best friends, and I know how much I owe her for saving me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be angry with her at the same time, for putting me in that position.” “And Jory? You going to be mad at her too?” Velveteen was silent. Jennifer Morgan--Jory--was a superheroine, an elementalist whose power focused on the manipulation of earth and base minerals. She was reasonably powerful, extremely well-trained, and up until Velveteen had decided to get involved, she had been dead in this reality, the victim of a supervillain who should never have gotten close enough to kill her. Her sister, Celia Morgan, was the current Governor of Oregon. Celia had grown up bitter over the death of her sister, and determined to get her revenge on The Super Patriots, Inc., who should have been able to keep Jory safe. Death became something of a revolving door once powers beyond the mortal ken got involved, and Velveteen had ransomed another version of Jory from the universe, via the North Pole’s Hall of Mirrors which connected every known reality, in exchange for promising to do her service to the Seasons. Now that service was done, and Jory was free to spend the rest of her natural lifetime with the little sister who, in her original reality, had been the one to die. Getting Jory and Celia another chance to be together had been a truly selfless thing, and it really wasn’t fair that the universe was punishing Velveteen for it. But then, when had the universe ever been fair? Velveteen looked so genuinely despondent that the Princess sighed. “Do you honestly feel like you’re ready to get back out there? You only get one chance at a long convalescence. As soon as you’re sighted in the real world, where my lawyers can’t protect you, the press is going to come looking for blood. What you did...” “What I did should have been done a long damn time before I came along.” There was no room for argument in Velveteen’s voice. Not for the first time, the Princess silently cursed whoever had decided that Jack couldn’t talk about what had happened to Vel while she was traveling in the Seasonal Lands. She had left them sad and bruised and needing time to heal. She had come back so close to broken as made no difference. The slightest strike from the wrong angle, and she was going to shatter. That didn’t mean they could coddle her forever. It was clear that Velveteen’s patience was drawing to a close, and if the Princess didn’t want to wake one morning and find her gone, some compromises needed to be made. “If,” she began, holding up a finger for emphasis, “I let you go out on patrol, you’re going to have to make me a few promises.” Velveteen’s eyes lit up. “Anything.” “You may regret that in a moment. First, you’re not going solo. I will call a bruiser to go out with you.” “You could go with me.” “No, I couldn’t. Until you’re done hidin’ from the press, I can’t be seen with you in public, and you know it. I love you like my own sister, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to piss off my corporate overlords. Especially not now.” There were rumbles of legislation on the horizon, of politicians who wanted to make absolutely sure that there could never be a repeat of the Supermodel incident. It was all greedy bastards looking to control the one thing they’d never been able to get a grip on before, but they had money and they had fear, and those two things sometimes went together distressingly well. “All right,” said Velveteen. “You pick the team-up. What else?” “You agree to have a sit-down with a public relations expert, again of my choosing, to start figuring out how you’re going to explain your absence, and how you’re going to navigate what’s ahead of you.” The Princess shook her head, expression grim. “I am not going to rush your recovery, but as soon as you’re well enough to face the press, you’re going to have to. It’s not optional anymore.” “Deal.” “I’d try to get you to agree to an image consultation too--that headband of yours is so last decade--but I don’t want to push my luck.” The Princess unfolded her arms. “When did you want to go out?” “Tonight?” Velveteen put on her best hopeful expression. It twinkled. The effect was unnerving. “I’m sure there’s evil somewhere that needs to be defeated. Small evil. Misdemeanors and muggers, not like, world-shattering supervillainy.” The Princess sighed. “What did I do to deserve this?” “I don’t know, but aren’t you glad you did?” “I am, honey.” The Princess smiled. “You know I am. Now go tell the rabbits that you’re going to need a costume for tonight.” “Thank you, Cara, I won’t forget this,” burbled Velveteen. She dove in, hugged the other woman, and then darted off to find a rabbit, leaving the Princess sighing and alone. “You ain’t going to like it much, either,” she said, and turned. She needed to make a couple of mirror calls. * There were many advantages to life in the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle. One of the larger, and less well-known, was the fact that as a fairy tale construct, it existed in its own time zone, connected to the “real world” via a network of magic mirrors. While the Princess largely stayed on Pacific Time out of deference to the entertainment company which supported her career and autonomy, she could travel virtually anywhere in the world in the blinking of an eye. “So who’s coming to play babysitter?” asked Velveteen, tugging one of her burgundy gloves up over her elbow. It was an unnecessary adjustment: the rabbits that had styled her had done an impeccable job, as always, and not a hair--or hare--was out of place. Her costume was its usual simple self, burgundy and brown, cut to preserve her sense of modesty and topped with a domino mask and a bunny-eared headband. Various soft toys and dolls were clipped to her belt, culled from the quality control rejects generated by the Princess’s parent corporation. In Velveteen’s hands, they were as good as an army. (The Princess wished she could find a way to film this night’s patrol. Despite several offers, Velveteen had never allowed a single entity to fund her army of toy soldiers and stuffed bears, preferring to take volunteers from thrift stores and garage sales, toys that had been around the block and didn’t mind the chance of being broken beyond repair. Tonight’s army of princesses and cartoon mascots was going to be unprecedented, and it would have been nice to be able to watch it over and over again.) “A friend,” said the Princess carefully. “Way to narrow it down,” said Velveteen. She gave her glove another tug, seemingly unaware of how incredible that statement had been. The Princess wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she snapped out of it. It hadn’t been that long since Velveteen had been totally alone in the world, cut off from the rest of the superhuman community by her own choice and her feelings of betrayal over Action Dude’s supposed relationship with Sparkle Bright. She’d been a child hero, and then she’d been a dropout, and then she’d been a supervillain, at least in the carefully curated media spin provided by The Super Patriots, Inc. The Princess was pretty damn sure that if she were to snag a chronopath and ask them to run her back in time a year or so, she’d find a version of Vel who wouldn’t be able to name a single person she called “friend,” much less refer to them so casually. You don’t even know how far you’ve come, thought the Princess, and the thought cheered and saddened her in equal measure. Miracles were meant to be appreciated. When they weren’t, sometimes the universe saw fit to take them back. Aloud, she said, “If I told you, that would spoil the surprise.” “I know it’s not you, and I know it’s not Jack. Did you get Yelena to come?” Velveteen cast her a quick, hopeful look. “I know she and Torrey have been busy keeping Portland under control, but it’s Portland . It’s not like they’re trying to protect Manhattan without backup.” “She wishes she could, sugar, but the two of you together, there’s no way you’d be able to avoid the media. She’s literally a neon sign saying ‘look over here.’” “Not always.” “Doesn’t matter. She’s not coming.” The delicate sound of crystal wind chimes filled the air. The Princess relaxed. “Oh, good. Your escort is here.” Velveteen turned with her, all but bouncing on the balls of her feet with her eagerness to get out there and punch something. The Princess watched her out of the corner of her eye. She saw the moment the other woman’s face fell. “Oh,” said Velveteen. “It’s you .” Action Dude, dressed in a slate gray and black version of his customary blue and orange costume, smiled wryly as he shrugged. “Always am,” he said. “I’ve asked about changing it a few times, but it turns out all I can really change is my code name. Not even entirely that. People were calling Dead Ringer Liberty Belle right up until she died. They still do it. Like what she wanted to be called and who she wanted to be doesn’t matter.” The Princess snorted. “People always feel like they know who you are better than you know yourself. It’s not fair, but there it is.” “We’re getting away from the point, which is why is he here?” Velveteen pointed at Action Dude to prevent any possible confusion. “I’m not going on patrol with him.” “Well, then, you’re not going on patrol,” said the Princess. Before Velveteen could protest, she said, “Once you take your usual team off the table, there’s no one out there who cares more about your well-being than this asshole. He’ll make sure you get out of there alive.” “I’m going to look for muggers, not supervillains,” protested Velveteen. “Oh, yeah, because supervillainy never takes anybody by surprise.” The Princess looked at her flatly. “Accept the escort or don’t go. Those are the terms that you agreed to, and I’m going to hold you to them.” “This was a low-down dirty trick and I hate you,” said Velveteen. “I can live with that,” said the Princess. Her smile was as radiant as the fireworks above the castle battlements. “You kids have fun now, and don’t stay out too late. You know how I worry.” * Kansas City had been chosen as a good place for Velveteen’s first post-return patrol. It was big enough to have a decent amount of crime, while small enough not to have a resident supervillain with technopathic inclinations. Having the local Legion of Naughtiness show up before Vel could punch any local muggers in the face would have made the entire exercise pointless. “The door will stay here until you come back,” said the Princess, opening what should have been the library door to reveal a narrow alleyway. “If you pass an all-night barbeque place, bring me some. I could really do with some decent barbeque about now.” “On it,” said Velveteen, and dove through the open door into the alley. Action Dude moved to follow. The Princess’s hand on the collar of his cape stopped him cold. He turned to find her beautiful, unforgiving face only inches from his own. Suddenly nervous, he forced a smile. “Yes?” he asked. “If you hurt her, if you allow her to come to harm, I don’t care how important you are to rebuilding your little clubhouse, I will break you in ways you have never considered being broken.” The Princess’s tone remained perfectly pleasant in every way. “I will shatter you and leave you behind without a second thought, and the only people who’ll mourn you will be the ones who didn’t know you as well as I did. Do we have an understanding?” “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Good.” She let go. “Run along now. She’s not likely to stay out of trouble while she waits for you.” He ran along. Admirably fast, too: the Princess wasn’t sure she’d ever seen someone run along that quickly when not running for their lives. Then again, maybe she still hadn’t. Chuckling to herself, she closed the door and wandered toward the kitchen. After all that, she’d more than earned a little pie. Half a continent and a time zone away, Action Dude jogged to catch up with Velveteen, who was making for the end of the alley like she was afraid her shore leave was going to be canceled at any moment. She barely spared him a glance as he stepped up beside her; the bulk of her attention was reserved for the empty street. Nothing moved. Not even a raccoon. Privately, Action Dude thought that might be for the best: he couldn’t imagine a situation in which a raccoon would have committed crimes great enough to deserve the full force of Velveteen’s pent-up wrath. “Do you want to hit the rooftops?” he asked. “You can get a better view.” “No fire escapes, and I’m really not feeling up to scaling a building,” she said. Action Dude lifted an eyebrow in answer before allowing his feet to lose contact with the ground. Drifting, he waited. It wasn’t a long wait. It never was. Velveteen turned to look at him, already scowling. “Show-off,” she snapped. “I don’t need anyone to carry me. I’m not a trainee anymore.” “I never said you were,” he said. “But when one half of a team-up can fly and the other can’t, it only makes sense to take advantage. Don’t think of it as me carrying you. Think of it as you riding me.” As soon as her cheeks flushed red, he knew he’d said the wrong thing. It was too late to take it back, and too late to avoid the finger she jabbed at his chest. “I’m not still mooning over you, got it? I got past that a long time ago. So if you’re here because you think we can start up where we left off--where you dumped me off--then you’re out of your fucking mind. Got it?” “Got it,” said Action Dude wearily. “Honestly, I got it a long time ago. I fucked up. If I could go back and do it all differently, I...well, honestly, I don’t know if I would, because maybe if we’d stayed together Supermodel would still be alive and screwing with everyone’s heads, and Sparks would still be pretending to be happy when she was completely miserable, and I don’t know if I could live with myself knowing I’d been that selfish. But I’m also pretty glad I’m never going to have the chance to find out. So please, can you give me the benefit of the doubt for one minute, and just let me boost you onto the rooftop?” “I...” Velveteen stopped, looking at him carefully. Then, finally, she said, “Sure. We’ll have a better view from up there anyway.” His smile was a fleeting thing, there and gone almost before it could fully register. He opened his arms. Velveteen turned her back on him and, with the ease of long practice and training, fell into them, positioning herself so as to be easy to hoist and even easier to drop. (When doing teammate transport, the onus was generally on the one being transported to protect the flier, rather than the other way around.) Effortlessly, Action Dude launched himself into the sky, shooting upward at a speed that defied several laws of physics. Velveteen was heavier than she’d been the last time he’d carried her this way, but he was stronger, and it balanced out: it all balanced out, oh, this was where his equilibrium was, where it had been waiting for him for years on years. This was where he had always been meant to be. By the time they reached the rooftop and he set her gently down, Action Dude was grimly certain of two things. First, that he had made a mistake by agreeing to be the Princess’s representative on this little adventure, and second... Second, that he was a hypocrite of the worst kind, because if some cosmic force had appeared to him in that moment and offered him the chance to take it all back, he would have done it without hesitation or regret. He would have traded a world that wasn’t better yet, necessarily, but was getting there for a world where he had been smart enough to hold on tight and never let go. He was so screwed. Velveteen spared him a quick smile, just a few shades warmer than professional, before creeping to the roof’s edge and peering over. Her form was perfect. Her form had always been perfect. Out of their training class, she had been the only one who couldn’t handle a bullet without serious repercussions, and so she had been the one to work hardest at never getting shot. After a moment’s silent surveillance she stepped back from the edge, straightened, and started for the corner, moving at a dead run. Action Dude realized what she was going to do a bare second before she did it. He zipped after her, grabbing her outstretched hands while she was at the peak of her jump and using himself as a sort of human trapeze bar, launching her onto the next roof. She rolled easily through it, getting back to her feet and resuming her run. They fell into an easy rhythm, familiar and novel at the same time. How often had they used this pattern to canvas, him in the air but flying low, her moving under her own power as much as possible to increase their combined flexibility? How many nights, how many evenings, how many patrols? Not enough. It could have been a lifetime--should have been a lifetime, the two of them against the world--and it would never, ever have been enough. On the fifth roof, Velveteen stopped, creeping to the edge again before she gave a little hop of delight and signaled for him to come closer. She held up three fingers, then pointed. Action Dude followed the angle of the gesture. Three men lurked in the alley across the street, their attention fixed on a woman who was walking briskly toward them, rummaging in her purse the whole time. She was paying no attention to her surroundings, so close to her car that she probably thought she was home free. Action Dude nodded. It was possible the men weren’t planning to do anything wrong. They weren’t wearing masks or carrying visible weapons. Superhero insurance covered a lot of things. Property damage, injuries sustained by individuals who had been actively committing a crime when apprehended, even injuries sustained by the people they had been trying to save. It did not cover injuries sustained by individuals who just really enjoyed lurking in alleys. (Every so often someone who had taken the works of Phillip K. Dick a little too far to heart would start babbling about “pre-crime” and the duty of the superhuman to protect mankind from itself. The hero and villain communities were united in thinking that this sort of thought-policing was a step too far for either good or evil, and had dutifully ignored--and occasionally poisoned; half of them were villains, after all--anyone who suggested it.) The woman reached the mouth of the alley. One of the men reached out and grabbed her. She screamed, high and shrill and terrified. Action Dude looked at the smile on Velveteen’s face and thought the muggers were about to learn a very important lesson about true fear. * Because it was Velveteen’s show, Action Dude had been more than happy to hang back in his charcoal-colored stealth suit and watch as she and her army of highly motivated toys descended on the poor, unsuspecting muggers like the wrath of a highly ironic god. She couldn’t fly, but she had mastered the art of using small flying helicopters, their vacant cartoon faces distorted into grimaces of malicious glee, to slow her fall. It might have been better if the muggers had never seen what hit them. As it was, Action Dude was pretty sure that their prison terms were going to be followed by a lengthy time under the care of a psychiatrist. The one on the left, for example, was probably never going to see a fashion doll without screaming again. Those tiny stiletto heels were sharp . Anyone who thought toys had to be chrome and shaped like weapons to do damage had clearly never been besieged by an entire herd of angry plastic horses. When the dust had settled and the screaming had stopped, Velveteen picked up the woman’s purse from the sidewalk, offered it back to her, and said, “Here. This is yours.” The woman took it cautiously, watching the various plush toys for signs that they were about to attack. “Um,” she said. “Thank you?” “It was my pleasure,” said Velveteen. She hesitated. “Look, I don’t mean to be a rescue-and-request girl, but I’m sort of not licensed for Kansas City. Can you do me a huge favor and not, you know, mention exactly who saved you?” The woman’s eyes widened. “You’re Velveteen,” she said. “I thought you might be, but then I though no, no way. No one’s seen you in weeks.” “I got hurt,” said Velveteen. It wasn’t quite a lie: the hollows of her cheeks and the bruises under her eyes made it endlessly believable. “I’m supposed to be resting, but I was getting cabin fever pretty bad, so they let me out for a little bit. Please, can you keep this secret? For me?” “Absolutely,” said the woman. Before Velveteen could react, she grabbed her and pulled her into a tight hug. “ Thank you,” said the woman again, voice slightly muffled by the tangle of Velveteen’s hair. “What you did...my nephew is an elementalist. He’s going to get training and stay with our family, and it’s because you made them change their rules. We owe you so much. Of course I’ll keep your secret.” “Thank you,” whispered Velveteen, and pulled away. The woman stood there watching silently as Velveteen walked across the street and vanished into the shadows. If she saw the flicker of motion from the nearby rooftop, she didn’t say anything. She just waited until she was sure Velveteen was gone before turning and heading, finally, to her car. * They stepped through the mirror together, Velveteen laughing a little as she leaned on Action Dude’s arm, her face flushed with exertion and her army of toys sticking to her heels. Not for the first time, Action Dude wondered how she could ever fit them all on her belt; there had to be a small amount of matter manipulation built into her power set, tucked off to one side, where almost no one noticed it. The Princess, who had been curled in an overstuffed chair reading through a stack of romance novels, looked up at the sound of their footsteps and smiled, rising gracefully as she set her book aside. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” she said. “How was your night of freedom, sweetheart?” “Amazing,” said Velveteen. If the hand she had braced on Action Dude’s arm shook slightly, he was too polite to mention it. “Thank you both so much.” “Just keep getting better,” said the Princess. The Night Shift--one iteration of her, anyway--stepped out of the hallway, and Velveteen found herself summarily bundled away, back to bed, back to her recovery. The Princess turned to Action Dude. “Thank you for keeping an eye on her tonight. Everything go all right?” “Oh, yeah,” said Action Dude, thinking of a smile bright enough to light the sky, of laughter ringing out over the unforgettable sounds of plastic hitting flesh. “Everything was great.” “Good,” said the Princess. “Now get out.” She turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Action Dude behind. He waited until he was sure he was alone before he groaned and put his hands over his face. “Fuck,” he said. “I am so screwed.” Nothing in the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle saw fit to argue.