Bonding Agents: The Red Knight and the Oathkeeper

A SIDESTREET

NEW YORK CITY

 

“I’m proud of you.”

She had said I’m proud of you.


There had been no hateful invective, no cold stares, no silence. She had put one hand onto his shoulder and said “I’m proud of you.”

And so, Callister found himself slightly out of sorts. There was shock…a sense of accomplishment. He’d finally done something worthy of praise. He’d hoped for this for so long…The acquirement of Smokescreen was the result of no intense planning. There was an opportunity, and he took it. He didn’t even dare to think she would be pleased. He just let himself smile as he left Twin Falls.

 

Gosh, wasn’t it a lovely day out?

 

Were those birds singing?

 

Of course not, this was NYC.

 

Well, he could pretend.

 

His revelry was interrupted by a woman charging into him. There was a blur of motion – blonde hair, grey blouse.

 

If the Oathkeeper was at full strength, if she hadn’t willingly Suppressed herself and breathed in enough toxic gas to kill a human, she would have put him through three walls.

 

As it was, she grabbed his wrists and pushed him back a few steps.

 

You.” she hissed.

 

Callister looked down. The good mood hadn’t dissipated. He was surprised by manhandling, but easily pushed back, bringing his wrists up and around, easily twisting out.

 

He smiled down at her.

 

“Good evening, Alice Fishby. How are you?”

 

The fury in her face turned to surprise. She lifted one hand. A golden gauntlet sparked into existence, and then she breathed in sharply – wrongly – coughed, and the  gauntlet disappeared.

 

“It’s McGOWAN -” she snapped back. “Alice McGOWAN, I’m the Oathkeeper, and you are under arrest.”

“Am I? Do try harder.”

 

He stuck his hands in his pockets and turned to walk away.

 

Callister has had extensive experience in infuriating women.

 

She charged behind him, threw herself around the backs of his legs in a bid to take him down.

“Babe! Is this about what I said about your prom dress?” Callister said aloud for the benefit of the passerbys. He twisted and gripping her shoulders, pushed away. “You looked great, but that bright pink don’t suit nobody.” He got to his feet and jogged away, long legs eating up the pavement.

 

The Oathkeeper made to sprint after him, and then she coughed, sucking in air, and stumbled forward. “This isn’t over!” She screamed down the sidewalk. “I’m going to find you! I’m going to find your mother! I’m going to stop both of you! You can’t run forever!”

Callister did not, in fact, run forever. He stopped at a doorstep a street down, turned and waved at Alice. He went on through.

 

In response to his jaunty little wave, Alice tried to yell more. Instead, she ended up coughing. And coughing. Hideous, hacking coughs. She fell to her knees.

 

Could this day get any better?

Callister merely waited as he leaned against the wall, arms crossed. He’d even taken his phone out.

 

Sure enough, she staggered around the corner soon enough, eyes wild and bloodshot.

 

A thin hooded figure leaned against the wall next to Callister, witnessing the distraught and weak Oathkeeper trying to keep up. “Man. What are you even doing?” He asked in a voice that seemed tired, and frankly kind of creeped out by this public powerplay Callister was doing.

 

Callister didn’t appear surprised. “Hmm? I’m just inviting a lady for a drink.” Indeed, they were beside an entrance to a cafe. “What are you doing?”

 

“Making sure you don’t do something you regret. You don’t just fuck with a Legion-General and get away with it man. Even if she is. Ah. Well.” As he saw her getting closer he teleported to a safe distance again.

 

“I said, “ Alice gasped again as she laid eyes on Callister. “You’re – under – arrest -”

Callister merely entered the cafe and found a seat inside. He was in the midst of ordering a cappuccino and a muffin and he looked expectantly at Alice.

 

Dellen had already positioned himself inside the cafe, a short distance away. He tried not to draw attention to himself. Luckily this was something he had a lot of practice in, as well as eavesdropping.

 

“I hope you – got that order to go,” Alice said, standing over Callister and planting her palms on the table. “Because you’re… under arrest.”

“How will you stop me?” Callister looked genuinely curious.

 

She stared at him. No one had ever asked her that question before. There had never been a point to asking it. The answer had always been obvious.


She changed tactics.


“Tell me where she is.”

His coffee arrived. “Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” He shrugged. “And why should I?”

 

She took a seat (to hide her shaking knees). “She killed my parents. She tried to kill me. She’s a monster. We had her in custody, we can help her, but -”

Can you help her? You? Why would she want your help?” Callister had pulled on a pair of glasses with round red lens.

 

The little bell over the door dinged in the cafe, and a man in sunglasses and a dark suit walked in. He went to the register, all smiles, flirting possibly with the person behind the counter, and ambled over to where Callister and Alice were. The smile dropped to a smirk, and he pushed up his sunglasses slightly. His body language, however, was loose, and ready for a fight, if it came to that. “Callister. Making friends?”

 

Alice’s eyes move onto the man who’s just approached, and then they widen. “You -”

“I am. Would you like coffee? Tea? They do a lovely single origin blend here if you’re after coffee. Take a seat.”

 

He took a sip of his drink.

 

Alice slowly, slowly began to move her hand down to her pocket.

 

“Really? Alice Fishby, Mother assured me that you were a better opponent than that. Sin is a very strong telekinetic and I am here also.”

 

Sin smiled, and nodded at Callister. “I’ll try that single origin blend, haven’t had a decent coffee in ages.” He took a seat, lazily looking at Alice. “Go ahead and try it, but from what I’m looking at right now, it’ll be very unfortunate for you.”

 

Dellen eyeballed, or rather, eyesocketed the fire alarm. He really should stop following Callister around. This was way above the sort of shit he allowed himself to get into.

 

The Oathkeeper froze. The Oathkeeper was afraid. “You can’t threaten me. You -”

Sin mocked a gasp, and looked falsely horrified. “Callister! You weren’t ‘rude’ to the lady, were you?” Then that scary shit eating grin appeared on his face, and behind the sunglasses, Sin’s eyes started burning a bright red.

 

“I am never rude. Mother wouldn’t stand for it. Ah. Did I not introduce myself?” Callister held out his hand. “Callister Rayne.”

 

Dellen let out a quiet sigh. Fire alarm would be a bad idea. Being there in the first place was a bad idea. Just lay low. Stay cool.

 

Alice burst out laughing. “Callister. Callister. She’s still obsessed with me! She murders my parents, she tries to get into my head – it’s been decades, and all she can think about is me! Callister. Alice.” She draws the similar syllables out.

 

Sin nearly spat out his coffee, which came, and is delicious, as he realized this, and desperately tries to hide his laughter. He set the coffee down, coughing, and pounded his chest. The red is gone, changed to a very amused purple in his eyes.

 

Just like that, Callister’s good mood fled. It was replaced with rage. He stood up, flinging the table aside and summoned his red armor.

 

“You will regret those words, Alice Fishby.”

 

She stood, attempting to summon her own armour – for a second, it flickered around her, roared into life for a moment – and then vanished.

 

Running simply wasn’t in her DNA, so she grabbed the cup of coffee from Callister’s place and threw it into his face.

 

The liquid froze in midair, as Sin flicked a finger, sighing. There was a bit of adrenaline when the armor started to manifest, but thank goodness it didn’t. The hot coffee dropped to the floor in a splash.  He moved another hand, and a crushing, invisible grip held Alice in place. “As funny as it was, it was kind of rude. But Cal, we’re going to have to go to a new cafe, now.” He gestured, and all the people around were staring at them, terrified, taking pictures, whispering quietly.

 

“We made a scene. Is this what you wanted, McGowan?”

 

“I want justice!” She screamed, kicking and flailing to the best of her ability. “She’s going to get in your head. She’s going to get in your head and core you out!”

“She is my mother. I will never let you have her.” Ruby red eyes burned. “I will tear down all you have built, and she will stand on your neck as all that she deserves will come to her.”

 

Sin chuckled. It was an evil, just… monstrous thing. Amusement in someone’s pain. He looked around, and the smirk went into a grin. He reached out with his telekinetic power, and cell phones rose up, from those who were filming. They floated around, and filmed Alice McGowan, the Oathkeeper… helpless.

 

“You can’t do this to me. You can’t do this to me -”

 

Sin cleared his throat, and put on his showman’s voice. Someone had been taking notes from Mr. Magic’s shows… “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls of ALL ages…. I want to show you all what the pursuit of ‘justice’ gets you. Behold, your hero, your champion, the Legion-General Alice McGowan, the Oathkeeper!” He gestures, and the crushing grip squeezes HARD on her.

 

She fell silent, but she refused to scream or show pain. Her head dropped, golden mane of hair falling over her face, and she gritted her teeth and clenched her jaw as hard as she could.

 

“Justice, her justice…. This is all you get from pursuing that kind of thing.” With a devilish smile, Sin gestured to Callister.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Callister held out his hand. The hilt of the sword appeared first, then the long steel blade slowly manifested from base to razor sharp point. A long two handed sword, it was almost as tall as he. Callister snarled from behind his visor, and with a massive swing brought the hilt to her jaw.

 

“Remember your words the next you speak of Mother.”

 

With that, he strode on through the cafe.

 

“Leave her. We have other work.”

 

Sin chuckled. “He goes for the honorable path. Of course.” Sin walks up to her closely. “Just remember this, Alice. We could have killed you. But you’re not my kill, or his. And believe me when I say this, it is going to get a whole lot worse for you.”

 

She brought her head and stared at Sin, eyes full of cold rage. “And you’re a host of demons wearing the skin of a man. Bring her to me, or bring me to her. I’m not afraid.”

And then she spat in his face.

 

Sin blinked. Removed his glasses, as spittle dripped down from them, and wiped his face off. He flicked a hand down, wiping the spit off, and laughed a dry, hollow laugh. “You sound just like my mother.”

 

And every window in the cafe shattered,  a storm of glass ripping through the air towards McGowan in a terrifyingly beautiful tornado around her, slashing and lacerating her flesh and body. He held her like this for about ten seconds, the storm whirling and mixing with blood and hair and flesh.

 

And then he dropped her, the glass, and her body, falling to the floor like yesterday’s trash. Sin grunted, then cleaned his glasses, and followed after Callister.

 

As soon as Sin left, people began to scream. One or two people dialed 911, one woman stayed, shrugging off her jacket to press against Alice’s wounds – a kind gesture, but there simply wasn’t enough surface area for what had been done – and the rest fled into the street.

 

Sin’s phone gave a gentle buzz.

 

Anathema.


“Return home. We need to talk.”

Bonding Agents: Buster and Benny

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

RC ROUTE 1, EXIT 13, SOUBRIDGE

ROCK CITY

 

Time seemed to fly by when Benny was cleaning. He’d get into it and just lose track of everything, and before he knew it, the workday was over. So Benny cleaned often. He ground bags of coffee often. He checked fridge temperatures, refilled dairy carafes, restocked the display shelves often. If there was a repetitive, solitary task to be done at the shop, Benny was on it; his reputation for busy work was so thorough that one of his coworkers had floated the nickname ‘Benny Againy’ for him. It didn’t catch on because it was a terrible nickname, but the reputation was still there. Another coworker watching him work observed that it was like he entered a kind of fugue state, his perception of time bending as he mechanically worked his way through one task after another.

 

None of Benny’s coworkers had any idea how true that was.

 

Benny’s commute home was short. Two stops on the metro, any line, just a little further south in Soubridge and a few levels down to an apartment block originally created as a set of offices later abandoned and repurposed. It was, by many accounts, an amazing deal: the studio apartment was affordable on Benny’s meager salary and its window offered a breathtaking view over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Its downsides were a bit harsh, though, as was the case with any affordable Rock City apartment. The sound of the trains passing by was loud enough to drown out casual conversation, and they shook the whole room enough to knock over a carelessly-placed water glass. There was no kitchen, only a compact fridge and a microwave; as a result Benny pretty much lived on leftover sandwiches from the shop. Possibly worst of all, he shared a public-style stalled bathroom, sloppily expanded to have a set of shower units, with five other people.

 

Benny’s neighbors complained frequently about the dorm-style living, but it didn’t bother him too much. It was the closest he’d ever really come to living on his own. Besides, one of his two only real friends lived with him.

 

“I’m home, Petey,” Benny called, stepping into the apartment. He tapped a panel on the inside of the wall and the door slid shut behind him with a hiss. Moments later, a ginger cat hopped down from a wall shelf and padded to Benny, meowing plaintively. “Yes, I know, I’m just the worst, aren’t I? The worst. I’m a horrible person.”

 

Benny reached up to one of the numerous cheap wire shelves that ringed the single-room apartment and retrieved a plastic container of cat kibble. He went through the repetitive motions of measuring out and serving the food to the cat, checking the water fountain’s level, and tossing a bag from the automated litter box into the trash chute, but unlike at work, his eyes didn’t glaze over.

 

Even though they were the same every day, Benny never used his time-perception compression powers with his cat. He didn’t want to miss a minute of time with Petey.

 

Once cat maintenance had been completed, he walked to the corner of the room he used to sleep, which stored a heavy, compact bedroll. He untied it and rolled it out, then lay on his back and pulled out a mechanical arm with a viewscreen attached to the end of it so it hung above him and pointed down.

 

He tapped at his phone for a few moments, and the screen came to life, displaying an icon meant to evoke a telephone headset that no one had used in fifteen years. Benny found his pair of wireless noise-canceling headphones and put them on, pulling down the microphone arm.

 

Seconds later, a face appeared on the viewscreen. It looked… like Benny, if he had magically become a girl and happy. And gotten his hair shaved into a floppy mohawk, then dyed powder blue, baby pink and white.

 

The cheerful doppelganger yelled into Benny’s ears. “Iiiiiiit’s the bro!!”

 

“Hiya Buster,” Benny grinned. “How’s lunar life treating you?”

 

“~I nearly diiiied,~” his sister sang to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth.

 

“Again?” He sounded skeptical.

 

“For reals this time! Big ole Cataclysium explosion. If I hadn’ta acted real fast, my Cestus woulda had a hull breach and I’d be Event Horizoned all over the place.”

 

“Acting real fast is your thing,” Benny rolled his eyes, “just like acting real slow is mine.”

 

“Let me brag, asshole. How’s the shop?”

 

He shrugged. “Eh.”

 

“When are you gonna get a different job, breh? Aren’t you bored?”

 

“I dunno,” he sighed, “maybe? Maybe.”

 

“Get a boyfriend, at least,” Buster teased, “or come to the moon and I’ll lend ya one of mine.”

 

“I don’t meet anybody down here, Buh,” Benny complained, “it’s just me and Petey and my coworkers and my cranky roommates.”

 

“I know there are bars down there. There are probably some gay bars on the surface. If you want that ‘desperate and broke’ vibe you seem to like so much, you could take the metro up to Oak Bay or something.”

 

“Why are you so invested in my sex life? You’re my sister. That’s weird.”

 

“I’m just worried about you, Benny. You’re not doing anything. I know I’m over here blowing shit up on the moon but there’s some space between here and there, yeah? You’re gonna stagnate.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Benny replied in what he intended to be a final tone, “I wanna hear more about you blowing shit up on the moon. Or roller derby. How’s roller derby?”

 

“I nearly broke this girl’s arm, it was sweet,” Buster began.

 

Benny smiled. Life was better when his sister was talking.

 

Things were alright.

 

Bonding Agents: Angel Awakens

THE FLYING FORTRESS

MEDICAL CENTER

 

Beep.

 

A hand stirred.

 

Beep.

 

Head felt light. She tried to lift her hand, feel her head. It snagged. There were IVs going into her and threading out. What?

Beep.


Didn’t make sense. Her eyes fluttered open. It was bright and washed out and everything hurt.

 

A voice: “She’s awake.”

And then the sound of someone in heels running towards her.

 

Didn’t make sense.

 

“Alice,” the voice sounded muffled, like it was coming through water, but she could tell that it was thick with emotion too. “Alice, don’t move too much. You’re all right.”

 

All right? Her head swam. That didn’t make sense either. She was the Oathkeeper. “Where am I?” She muttered. “Where’s Scott?” She suddenly tried to sit up, panicked. “Oh God, the kids –”

Slender hands pressed her shoulders. Gentle strength. “Scott is sleeping. The kids are being looked after. Even Nat is fine now. Everyone is all right.”

 

Her blue eyes struggled to focus. Tabitha’s face danced in and out of sight for a moment before becoming clear. “I’m not alright.” She protested. “Something’s wrong, I… New York. I was in New York…”

“I promise we’ll go over everything, hon,” Tabitha’s voice was smooth, soft, gentler than Alice had heard it in many years. “But right now, please just… focus on resting. Try to relax. Please.”

 

“I have to find her -” Alice protested, trying to sit back up – and then the gentle beep in the background accelerated. There was a click, and a soft hiss of a sedative being administered. She fell back against the pillows. “Have to find her -” she managed to get out…

 

And then she fell back asleep.

 

Time passed, and her eyes drifted open again. She had stitches, but her wounds were starting to knit themselves shut at an inhumanly quick pace. There was a sharp pain inside her of bones shifting, rearranging.

 

Alice cried out.

 

Two sets of hands on her at once, gentle, steadying. Both firm, strong, one set steady and calloused and familiar, one slender and careful and deliberate.

 

Then, moments, later, a third set. Tiny, like a child’s, but more steady, more articulate.

 

They steadied her, one stroked her arm. Soothing voices.

 

“–Hurts -” Alice gasped out. “I want my kids, I want -”

A nurse spoke. “She’s healing herself, and if we bring a Null into the hospital -”

“She’s not a Null, she’s my daughter, she’s not a Null -”

 

Click.

 

Hiss.

 

Darkness.

 

And then, finally, she opened her eyes and felt… tired. So tired.

 

“She’s awake again, y’all,” Nat was literally hovering directly over her. Moments later, Scott and Tabitha hovered in a slightly less literal sense.

 

“Welcome back, hon,” Tabitha murmured.

 

“Nat!” Alice wanted to hug the Damselfly, but she was still restricted. She settled for pulling herself up to a sitting position. Scott fussed, pushing pillows behind her and cranking up the back of the bed. “You’re okay. Thank God you’re okay.”

“Oh my god, General Mom, think of yourself for like five seconds.” Nat took one of her hands with both of eirs. “I was out of the hospital the very next day. But you… it’s been a week, Alice.”

 

“A week?” Alice furrowed her brow. “I… that doesn’t make sense. I haven’t lost that much time since -” No, not Hong Kong, that had been two days. Not the Arachnid Queen’s lair, either, that had been three. Or four. And she had never been unconscious. Captured, hiding, sure. “I’ve never… That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Smokescreen’s abilities lengthened your suppression, hon,” Tabitha’s voice was tight. “You had to know how weak you were feeling. You… you couldn’t summon your armor.” Her voice cracked a little at the memory of the video she couldn’t keep herself from watching.

 

Scott glanced at Tabitha. “Y’know, Nat, I think… one of the nurses said something about needing a reminder. Maybe we should go for a walk. Get some coffee.”

“Yeah,” Nat floated gently backward. “The Boss will wanna know that Alice is talking, anyway.”

 

Scott squeezed Alice’s hand with an I’ll be right back smile, stood, and stole away with the Damselfly trailing after.

 

“It’s starting to come back.” Alice furrowed her brow. “I… I went to Scanner. Callister! Callister Rayne, that’s it, that’s the name. I… I found him. He ran. I chased him. And then Sin…” She moved her hand to toy with a strand of her long hair in thought, and found nothing. Alice felt the side of her head. “They – they shaved my head – Why did they? -”

“You had lacerations all over your body, Alice. All over,” Tabitha’s voice was so quiet as to be barely audible. “Hundreds of stitches. They couldn’t… they couldn’t get to them all with your hair in the way.”

 

“Oh, God, my hair! Scott loves my hair, I -”

“Alice!” The cry escaped Tabitha’s mouth, then she clapped a hand over her mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut, and a single tear trickled down one cheek. When she unclenched and lowered her hand, her face was composed again, but the tear’s track down her cheek remained. “Would you just… please. Think of your own well-being right now. You nearly died.”

 

Tabitha had been working with Alice for nearly two decades now. She knew every quirk of the paladin’s face. And she knew that the look coming across the Oathkeeper’s face right now was the beginning of denial.

 

“I –  I – I can’t die, I – No, look, it’s…”

“You can, you nearly did, and you will if you keep thinking that you can run after threats without thinking,” Tabitha’s voice stayed controlled for now, but there was a wobbly undercurrent beneath it, “what you did was… was so—” she clenched her jaw and shook for a moment.

 

Necessary!” Alice’s voice was rising. “It was necessary! If I had been stronger, if I had forced myself harder and manifested my armour, you know what we would have? ANATHEMA’S LOCATION.”

“If you had waited one day and let us help you,” Tabitha whispered, “you wouldn’t have had to push yourself. Alice! We had so many resources you didn’t stop to ask about! We had the means, and now not only do we not have Anathema’s location, we nearly lost the strongest paranormal in the universe, the heart of our organization!”

 

“I had the shot! I don’t know why, I don’t know what caused it, but Callister was being stupid that day! He was out in the open, I saw him, Tabitha! I saw him, and I am never the first one to see these things! And I had to take the shot, I had to before he disappeared! Don’t you get it? She killed my parents. She’s going to kill my kids if she gets the chance. She’d kill you, kill Scott, drown the world in venom. I had to take the shot!”

Tabitha’s eyes fixed on Alice for several seconds, powerful mixed emotion roiling behind them. The next thing she whispered was dripping with icicles: “Selfish.

 

“No, no, no, you have it wrong, I was protecting -”

“Selfish,” Tabitha repeated. “You knew how weak you were. You had no intel on Rayne but a visual. You didn’t read Nat’s reports on him, didn’t know that he’s infatuated with em. You saw an opportunity and assumed that you were the only one who could take it, and in so doing you nearly deprived the world of the Oathkeeper. Your children of a mother. Me of my b-best friend.”

 

Tabitha had known Alice McGowan for over twenty years. She thought she knew everything there was to know about Alice. But what happened next was a surprise, and the fact that it was a surprise was a surprise. She had seen Alice be angry before, countless times. She was quick to anger. But this was something else. Her face twisted, she bared her teeth:

BECAUSE I HATE HER!” She roared. “I hate Anathema, I hate anyone who’s thrown their lot in with her, I had to take the shot because the last time I had her at the end of my warhammer I tried mercy, and how many people DIED for it? How many people got HOLLOWED OUT – WORSE than death, WORSE than Hell, lost their SOULS – I am going to find her. I’m going to find her, and Sin, and her Red Knight. And I am going to SALT THE  EARTH.”

Tabitha reared back, shocked and quite nearly afraid for a moment. A heavy stillness hung in the room for several interminable seconds. Then, Tabitha settled. Her poise returned, a steel frame in her spine and shoulders and hips. Her eyes so, so cold.

 

“Alice Elizabeth McGowan,” she said in a voice like frosted iron. “As lead administrator of the Infinity Legion and under consultation and advisement from the other Earthside Legion-Generals, it is my regrettable but necessary privilege and duty to remove you from active duty until further notice.”

 

Silence. And then a small, small whisper: “What?”

“In spite of your rank, I am authorized to temporarily deactivate you according to chapter 7, section 9, paragraph 4 of the Infinity Legion charter due to a lack of psychological fitness and irresponsible action in the field. Contingencies upon which your reactivation hinge include, but are not limited to, completion of an agreed-upon mental health treatment plan with Dr. Nami Meda. Assessment and agreement by both other Legion Generals and myself. Adherence to travel restrictions for the duration of your deactivation. Your teleporter access has been limited to your home and the Flying Fortress for the time being, and any other transportation must be cleared with me. Failure to adhere to these restrictions may result in sanctions including power suppression. Do you understand?”

 

Tears sprung up in the corners of Alice’s eyes, and her mouth worked desperately. “The Core,” she said, desperately. “My Core access.”

“Revoked,” Tabitha whispered.

 

“There are only two Generals Earthside, that’s – that’s illegal – there always needs to be at least three -”

Scott knocked softly. “I just got the call,” he said. “I… I’ve been…”

“We’ve taken care of it, Alice,” the well-dressed statue replied.

 

“You think I need mental health treatment?”

“I think it’s for the best, Alice -” Scott tried, and the words died in the air.

 

“Yes.” Tabitha held up a hand. “Yes. You do. Badly.”

 

“I’m fine! I’m fine! You know I’m fine, you know I’m fine, you know me, you know I’d never do anything to hurt my -”

“Alice.” Scott said. “Stop. Please.”

“YOU ALREADY DID!” Tabitha stood up so quickly that she nearly knocked her chair over. “You already hurt all of us! You need help because I cannot live through this again! None of us can!” She stalked through the room and out the door before anyone could reply. In the hallway, Nat and Emi trailed after her, making small noises of appeasement.

 

Scott pulled a chair up to sit by his wife. “I… think this will do you a lot of good, Alice. I think you need this -”

And explosive, wracking sobs burst forth from the Oathkeeper, following Tabitha down the hallway.

Bonding Agents: Thicker Than Cream

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

RC ROUTE 1, EXIT 13, SOUBRIDGE

ROCK CITY

 

Benny was cleaning again. The Bean Sidhe was a 24-hour location, being on a major thoroughfare as it was, and given that Benny had one of the least active social lives of anyone at the shop, he ended up with overnight shifts more often than not. That was fine. Benny liked overnight shifts. They were slow. He could clean. And these days, he often had the company of his new friend Janet.

 

Not today, though; Janet had gone home two hours ago, leaving Benny and a single supervisor alone. The supervisor was in the back, performing financial busy work, and Benny was going through rote motions on the floor, keeping an eye out every so often in case someone showed up.

 

There was a jingle at the front door, and a tall figure stepped through. His hair was too red to be natural, clothes too…well, romantic goth, to be actual clothing (who wears a poet shirt with leather pants like that?) but the overall look just fit on him.

 

Benny startled, but he startled late. He moved slow, then not slow any more.

 

“Evening. I’ll have a tall cappuccino with a shot of hazelnut syrup.” Ruby red eyes took in Benny’s startlement and a curious lift of the brow.

 

“Absolutely! Let me just get behind the bar and I’ll wh…i…p…” Benny’s eyes widened as he looked up and saw the kind of character he’d been writing as a fanfic OC for the past ten years. He did a really terrible job of not looking Callister up and down. Holy shit.

 

Benny cleared his throat. “Whip that up.” He scurried behind the bar.

 

Callister casually leaned against the counter. “It’s Benny, isn’t it? We talked over Twitter. I’m Callister.”

 

“Oh! Right. Yes. I’d been meaning to ask. How did you find m-my sister?” Benny poured a small pitcher of whole milk and started steaming it.

 

There was a shrug. “The usual way. Someone responded to her, the conversation seemed interesting. I followed her, checked her previous Tweets, and there you were.”

 

“Wild,” Benny dispensed and packed a puck of espresso grounds, then fitted the brewing arm onto the espresso machine. “So that profile pic is… really you, huh. I figured it was, like, an actor you liked.”

 

Callister looked genuinely surprised. “Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment. More people should use their own pictures. It reflects them more.”

 

Benny let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “With looks like yours, I could see why you’d say that.” He pulled two shots of espresso, glancing at his watch to time them as they poured.

 

“And what’s wrong with your looks? You’ve got good hair and nice eyes.” He poked at the counter display, picking out a couple bars of overpriced chocolate.

 

Benny’s pale, freckled face blushed almost as crimson as Callister’s hair. “You’re… that’s—very sweet of you to say. You came here for a cappuccino, not to compliment an insecure barista. Here, let me just—”

 

As he free-poured the steamed milk over the espresso, Benny shook the pitcher and moved it back gently, then caught the end of the foam with a wide spoon just as he finished pouring. It left a heart design etched in the foam, a wobbly tail trailing off its end. Still blushing, he smiled, set the drink on the counter, and fitted its lid on top. “Is that gonna be everything for you, Callister?”

 

Callister noticed the design on the foam, his fingers brushing against Benny’s as he took the cup. “Yes, this is fine.” He passed his card over for payment (who does that anymore?), and pressed something in Benny’s hand as he left with a wink.

 

It was a phone number. Call me.

 

Benny reeled, a bit faint.

 

A BRIEF TIME LATER

 

Was it too early to call? It was probably too early to call. It was too early to call.

 

Benny called.

 

One ring. Fuck, I could still hang up. Two rings. I could still hang up, I could just—but he’d see—three rings OKAY maybe he was just not gonna pick up and I could leave a me—

 

“Callister Rayne speaking.”

 

“Um. Hey! Callister!” He tried to smile charmingly. He was talking on the phone. “Um, Benny Schuster. From the coffee shop, and twitter. How’s it going?”

 

“Benny! Hello!” Callister sounded pleased over the line. You could almost hear his grin. “I’m well, you?” There were some weird sounds in the background, things hitting things it sounded like.

 

“Um, good! I’m good. Same old same old, you know?”

 

“Sorry, it’s a bit noisy in here. I’m at the gym.” Someone cried out in pain in the background. “Let me find somewhere quieter.” The sound of Callister moving, the ground sounded rough underfoot, like gravel? “What’s up, Benny?”

 

‘Is,” Benny shifted on his futon, “everything okay? I can call back if—”

 

“Oh, no no, everything’s fine here. The guys just get a little intense when a fight’s soon. How’s the coffee shop today?”

 

“I have the day off,” Benny shrugged, “and the neighbor I’m friends with is working a shift, so I figured I should give you a call.”

 

“Glad you did. It’s early yet, you free later? I’d ask you out for a coffee but let’s try something different.”

 

“Yeah I probably don’t need more coffee,” Benny laughed, “so what did you have in mind?”

 

“Ice cream? Froyo? I hear boba tea is real popular the the kids these days.” You could hear the good natured grin over the line.

 

“You have very wholesome tastes for somebody with a bloody sword as his social media banner!” There was a joking tone in Benny’s voice, but also genuine surprise.

 

“No no, blood doesn’t go in ice cream, it messes the flavor up.” There was a pause. “That joke went too far, didn’t it?”

 

“No, you’re fine,” Benny assured. Like he’d even know what an appropriate joke about blood sounded like? Oh god he was out of his element. “So yes! There’s, um. There’s a really interesting international dessert place in the new development that’s a few miles north of my shop on the surface. The menu looks very cool. Wanna… go?”

 

Benny tried not to wince as he spoke. That place was out of his price range, but he could afford to go… once? Maybe?

 

“That sounds great. Meet you there? What time?”

 

“Well uh, I’m done with my errands earlier than I expected,” Benny lied, “so actually I can get there by sixteen o’clock.”

 

“I can do that. Text me the address? Right, see you then!”

 

Just before Callister ended the call, a shout erupted from the background:

 

“CAL, GET OFF THE PHONE AND CATCH THE GUY ESCAPING.”

 

Dialtone.

 

“th-the—” Benny stared at the phone.

 


 

Later
At the Tempered Sweetly dessert bar

 

18:00

 

Callister was waiting at the front. His outfit was slightly different from before. If the white, loose poet was different, his neckwear certainly was. He’d swapped out a long chain for a studded collar, but wore his hair in a high ponytail.

 

Those leather pants were seriously tight.

 

He looked up with a grin. “Benny, hey!”

 

Oh, fuck, Benny thought, I am so powerfully out of my league. He’d dressed up as well as he knew how, in slacks and a button-down with the collar open and a cute fitted vest. It would probably have been easier or better if he’d consulted Buster or Janet, but he worried about getting steamrolled if they got too excited. Also, something about this… made him want to keep it on the down low. For now. Just for now.

 

“Hey!” He waved, giving his best attempt at a confident smile. “Great to see you again!”

 

“You too. You’re looking good. Ready to go in?” Callister held out his hand.

 

Benny walked forward and took the proffered hand, visibly a bit dazed. “Y-yeah!”

 

Callister’s hand was a lot firmer and rougher than anyone would expect on first meeting him. Benny could feel the callouses on Callister’s fingers and thumb. A waitress met them and led them to their table in the back. Callister held out a chair for Benny before settling in his own.

 

Bemused, Benny sat down and watched Callister circle the table. He rubbed his own fingers together, feeling his own calluses from burns and hot liquid-bearing containers, years of guitar playing… but Callister’s were somehow even rougher. What did he do?

 

“Thanks for meeting me on short notice,” he said. “My schedule is unpredictable.”

 

“Mine too. But we finished up for the day pretty quickly and here we are.” Callister smiled, flipping though the menu. “What have you heard about this place? What’re they famous for?”

 

“Unusual flavors and ingredients for a western palate,” Benny smiles. “They have sweet dessert soup with tremella fungus, shaved ice in unusual flavors, imported fresh fruits and confections. I’m gonna try to rose syrup shaved ice.”

 

‘Heh. I’ll give the fungus a miss. Lychee over shaved ice for me.” He quirked a slightly wry grin. “I’m not that adventurous with food.”

 

“That’s okay. You seem pretty adventurous in like. Every other way.”

 

“The look?” Callister shrugged. “It fits, I like it. Like yours looks good on you.”

 

“No, I mean,” Benny chewed his lip for a few moments. “You’re a fighter, aren’t you? Or a soldier?”

 

“Soldier? With this hair? What army would employ me?” Callister chuckled. “Fighter, yeah, more so. I’m looking to break into amatuer boxing and MMA. Thought I’d give that a year then see about school, maybe.”

 

“What’s your weapon of choice?”

 

“Swords. I’ve been getting fencing lessons since I was a kid. But I don’t like modern fencing so I’ve been training unarmed.”

 

“Dang,” Benny sounded impressed. “Do… are you a Freelancer? You really have that hero air about you.”

 

“Me? Nah. I’m hardly a hero. This is just sports, y’know.” Callister paused. “Why Freelancer? Why not Legion? Am I too bad for Legion?” He grinned.

 

“Oh, I wasn’t trying to—um—” Benny stammered.

 

“I’m teasing. God, your blush is fucking adorable.” Callister grinned at Benny for a moment, watching him fluster. “Okay, so. About you. Only one sister?”

 

Benny gripped the edge of the table, trying to somehow will away his blush. His complexion, unfortunately, made that task extremely difficult. “Um. Well, not technically. Buster’s the only sibling I’m still in touch with.”

 

“That sounds rough. The rest don’t like that you’re a barista?” Callister’s tone was light.

 

“It’s… not exactly that, no,” he demurs. “My, um. My parents were—are. Very religious.”

 

“Ah…Yeah. My mom too. I..er…used to dress like this as a form of rebellion. Now I wear stuff like this because I like it.”

 

“If you’re cool with talking about it,” Benny leaned back in his chair, “do you still talk with your mom? Nobody I know around here came from a fundamentalist family.”

 

“Yeah, I do. Live with her when I visit her and grandmother. I was sent away to boarding school so I barely saw them for a few years. It’s…yeah. This is basically like a shield I threw up, and I kinda liked it. You?”

 

“Um, no,” Benny gave a weak shrug. “Buster and I were thrown out for being queer. Haven’t talked to any of our sibs or the parents since.”

 

“Mother doesn’t know I’m bi.” Callister shrugged. “She doesn’t need to know. How’s your ice?”

 

“Oh dang,” Benny suddenly realized he’d been served while they were talking. He tried a bite. “Whoa, it’s really good. The rose is strong but it works. I think there’s a little lychee in here too. Wanna try it?”

 

“And I’ve got some strawberry in mine. And sure. Swaps?”

 

“Just reach on over.” Benny grinned. As he started to loosen up, his expressions were a lot more… expressive. And cute.

 

“Heh.” Out came the spoon and there went a goodly scoop. “God, is that rose? It’s..interesting. Very floral. Like that time grandmother made lavender cookies.” He offered his own bowl for tasting.

 

“Oh wow, velvety,” Benny looked upward as he tasted the other bowl. “This is nice. So I know what your hobby is, I guess. What do you do for a living?”

 

“Oh man.” Callister laughed, holding his hand to his face. “I don’t know if I’d call it a living. I work for my mom. I’m a courier for her business. Getting into the family business isn’t exactly a job, y’know. More like charity.”

 

“I guess not. Don’t… ” Benny’s voice was hesitant. “Don’t you feel a little weird living a kind of a double life, though? Hiding stuff from your mom, I mean.”

 

Callister tapped his spoon into his shaved ice. “Nah. I mean, sure she’ll probably kick me out, but by then, I’ll have enough of a basis to take care of myself. Sides, gotta be my own man sometime, yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Benny took another bite of ice, and pondered this while it melted in his mouth. Once it had, he said: “I guess that in some ways, Buster and I were lucky. That decision got made for us, and we didn’t have to make it ourselves like our little brother did.”

 

“That…doesn’t sound lucky at all.” The spoon of ice in his mouth had too much ice and not enough topping, and it chilled his teeth. “That’s hard, making it out without support. You find out where your brother went?”

 

“Nah. I’m sure he’s doing way better now. Not sure whether I should be calling him my brother, though. Or ‘him’. But we didn’t have new pronouns for him when he left, so…” Shrug.

“Be good to track him down and find out, huh? He left before you did? Rough for a kid. Bet he’d like to know that there’s family who still wants to be family.”

 

“I’ve tried, but he definitely changed his name. Records of his old name stopped after a certain point, and then like a couple of months ago, those records just kinda. Vanished. Like he never existed.”

 

Callister shrugged. “Social security number? That wouldn’t have changed, right?” He didn’t say have you checked hospital records or morgues? Because he wasn’t that much of a dick.

 

Benny shook his head. “No. Somebody who wants to be found doesn’t do all that. If he wants to leave behind all traces of the Schuster family, that includes us and that’s fine. I can’t blame him.”

 

Callister set his spoon down and leaned forward. He had a look about him that said if he knew Benny better, he’d get him off his passive ass and do something more definitive about finding his brother.

 

As it was, he only smoldered.

 

Benny looked a little wan at the smoulder. “…you don’t agree,” he surmised.

 

“No. You can’t take someone’s need to run and hide as a passive message that they don’t want positive relations from understanding family. And give me another spoon of that rose ice.”

 

Pushing the bowl of rose ice forward, Benny nodded thoughtfully. “Now that Buster is deployed on the moon,” he mused aloud, “she’s meeting a lot of important Phalanx and Legion people. Maybe they could help us find out what happened to Petey. Um. My brother, I mean, not the cat.”

 

“Good boy.” Callister stole a spoonful, but pushed his own bowl forward too.

 

The blush remained as Benny took a spoonful of the lychee ice. He smiled. “You’re pretty nice for a guy who looks so intimidating.”

 

“I’m not that nice. Maybe I’m just angling to see if you’ll take me home.” Callister’s grin was slow.

 

“I dunno,” Benny’s blush deepened. “That… sounds pretty nice.”

 

“Mmm. Does it? Want to suck my cock, Benny?”

 

Benny flushed. Hard. Callister could practically feel the waves of heat radiating off his face. “Wh—I… you—y-your—”

 

“Let’s go.” Callister waved for the check and stuck some cash in the folder. He stood, and held his hand out to Benny.

 

The red-faced barista took Callister’s hand and stood gently, like a Southern Belle at a Cotillion. His eyes were dinner-plate-wide, but he certainly did not look like he was about to object to the idea of being stolen away and having his mouth fucked.

 

Callister grinned at him, leading them out of the restaurant. “Where to to your place?”

 

“Um, it’s—it’s a total matchbox, j-just so you—it’s on the transit level under Hayes station.”

 

Callister sighed, stepped close and slowly, deeply kissed Benny. “We don’t need much room.”

 

The noise that Benny made into Callister’s mouth was the helpless squeal of a prey animal caught.

 


 

STILL LATER

 

Benny’s futon had never quite been as mussed as it was now. Nor had Benny. He wasn’t sure how he’d done; he’d literally never had sex with anyone before except himself, but he’d practiced going down on his toys plenty of times, and had other toys that had been other places even more times. He had to hope that that translated all right.

 

If nothing else, he was feeling bruised and used up and good.

 

Callister patted Benny’s rump. He too was heavily mussed and catching his breath. “Good boy.” There was laughter in his voice. He pushed his hair out of his face, folding his arm behind his head and held Benny close.

 

He seemed pleased.

 

“Th-thank you, Callister,” Benny panted, pressing his cheek to his lover’s oh my god amazing abs. “That was amazing.”

 

Callister pressed a kiss on Benny’s hair. “I know. You were too.”

 

“Mmm,” Benny grinned and nuzzled Callister. “Do we get to do this more than once?”

 

Callister reached down and pulled Benny up with a slight grunt. He kissed him again, a lingering kiss on the mouth with slow, tender nibbles. “What do you want?”

 

“Mmmh,” wow, he made that prey noise almost every time Callister kissed him. “I, uh. I definitely want to do this again.”

 

“Good boy. Then we’ll do this again.”

 

“Yessss,” Benny buried his face in the slope of Callister’s neck and kissed his collarbone. “Yes. Good yes. Mmm.”

 

Callister turned them over on their sides, and he slid his knee between Benny’s while still holding the slighter man close. “You got my number, I got yours.” He nuzzled Benny’s fair hair.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bonding Agents: Alice and Nathaniel

After a ten hour surgery and a couple of days of recovery, Alice McGowan was finally taking visitors outside the family in her hospital room aboard the Flying Fortress.

 

Nathaniel gave a short few knocks on the door, waiting to hear an invitation before entering. He had seen the video. Knew about what happened to her. How they had stripped her of rank. Best to not walk in on someone that can lift buildings when they were upset. His metal hand thunked.

 

“Come in,” a familiar voice calls. Hoarse, but definitely Alice. She’s in bed, leaning against some pillows. Her head has been shaved. She looks both very young and very old.

 

Nathaniel walks in, 5’6 in his Admiral Directors uniform, holding a small get well soon card. “Hey Alice. How are you doing?” His voice is soft but firm as he steps in a bit closer, setting the card down by any others that might already be there.

 

She glares at him. “Take a wild guess.”

He seems unphased by her tone. Like it just bounced right off him. “Well, it certainly is nice to see your fight is perfectly in tact.” He turns to look at her in the bed. She looked weaker than he had ever seen her before. Was she suppressed? “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I know how much you wanted to find her.” He had a small frown on his face as he said it.

 

“You don’t know, but thank you.” She sighed and settled back into the pillows. “They’re discharging me soon, I guess. I mean, like… I’m healing up. Tabitha’s making me get help, though.”

“I know what it’s like to go on the warpath after one of your family dies.” Nathaniel corrects sternly. “I’m glad to hear you are getting out soon though. The legion needs you down here.” He let out a small laugh mentally at the needing help bit. Just a week ago any mention of the concept would be shot out of the sky with denial. He failed to see how he did the exact same thing, saying he had no time.

 

“Yeah.” She sighs. “Yeah, I know, I… I messed up. I messed up and I’m benched until I fix it. It’s hard, Nathaniel, it’s really hard. But… I mean, you don’t… No one understands. Not really. You don’t know Anathema like I do.”

“No, you’re right. I probably don’t. To be honest I’m grateful for it.” He paced to the other side of the room in his thoughts. “I came here to let you know that the Legion cares. Your rank wasn’t suspended just to add insult to injury. I came down to re arrange some assets, make Anathema more of a priority. Put some of the resources we have to spare into finding her. Helping justice find her.” She could tell by his voice that he was being genuine here. Call Nathaniel Cross whatever you will, he wasn’t a liar. “It won’t be much but…I won’t stand idly by while one of our generals struggles.” He thought about Joseph, and Helen. How the legion should have done more to help keep him alive, put less strain on her and her powers. “They will go under Scott’s jurisdiction until you are deemed fit of the position again.”

 

She settled back against the pillows, watching him with those big blue eyes of her. “Thank you. I appreciate that. I am sure Scott will, as well. The moon doesn’t need you? You can afford to take that time off?”

“There are plenty of other admirals and generals up there keeping an eye on things.” He said, taking a look at an old pocket watch he kept around.  He was worried about it, but this time he was spending down here was necessary. “Besides, you spend too much time up there and you forget. All of that we have built…it’s nothing compared to what we have down here. The only way we can extend it is to keep the earth safe. Keep the people happy. And that’s what you do. You and Chessmaster and Hans, every man and woman and everything in between.” He closed it and placed it back into his pocket. “If we can’t even protect our home, what hope do we have in distant planets and star systems?”

 

“Nice speech,” Alice said, surprisingly dryly for her. “You’re still going to have to tell us what you’re doing up there, exactly.”

“The legion at large even keeps secrets from me.” He admits. “Personally? I just want to ensure we have room to grow. Things are good on earth, but there’s only so much space. Less people are dying. More of them are growing old, and older. We are better off than we’ve ever been before.” He looked up at the ceiling lights. “God I swear when half of your job is making speeches it just kind of filters into the normal conversations.” He turned back to her. “All I can tell you for certain is what we are doing matters. And that’s what’s important.”

 

Alice grimaces, and you can tell she’s biting back a comment. She forces her expression into something close to a pleasant smile. “I do appreciate you coming down. I hope I’m not here for long, and I hope that they restore my access soon. There may be a war coming. We’ll appreciate any help we can get.”

“It’s no problem Alice. I will make sure to provide as much as we can. Now you get better soon alright? You’re the best damn recruiter out there. Hell, Chessmaster is probably already feeling the statistical hurt already. Now, I have some phone calls to make and some people to see to keep things on the right track.” He opened the door, looking at her one last time. She looked weak physically, but for some reason he was sure her faith was still as strong as ever.

 

She grinned at him and gave him a casual salute with her index and middle fingers from her forehead. “Give ‘em heck, Cross.”

Nathaniel saluted her back, cracking a bit of a grin himself before heading out. She was going to do just fine.

Bonding Agents: Homecoming

The Underground don’t even look at either Sin and Callister anymore. They keep their heads down and get the teleportation working.

 

And before long, they were outside Anathema’s childhood home.

 

Sin arrives, and rubbed his chin. He might have gone too far with this one. Lost his temper. He stood  outside the house, wondering what Anathema was going to do. He hadn’t even really begun the cult, only about a hundred people were now enslaved to Anathema through the Midnight Gathering. Pretentious name, but it got people to show up.

 

Now, he’d stirred things up again. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to go toe to toe with Anathema, especially with Callister here backing her up. Well. If it was time…. He’d go All In.

 

Beside him, Callister shrugged and settled his shoulders. He didn’t seem bothered, and sometime along the way, Callister had lost his sneer around Sin. The boy simmered, however, still stinging from Alice’s words.

 

“She wasn’t right, was she?” Then he bit his tongue. He was never to show that much weakness in front of Sin.

 

Sin looked at Callister. The kid was… well, a kid. Bit of sympathy wouldn’t hurt, but neither would lying to the kid.

 

“I dunno, Cal. Could be your mom never even realized it. It could be that she really is that obsessed with Alice.” He took a breath.

 

“But, just want t’ tell you. That doesn’t matter. You choose who you are, now. You’re old enough to make that kinda decision.” Sin shrugged, and walked up to the door, knocked twice.

 

Mathilda opened the door. Callister paused to kiss his grandmother on the cheek. She silently led them to the parlor, before serving them lemonade and ginger snaps, bowing, and leaving.

 

Anathema swept in shortly afterwards. Her eyes fell on Callister, and she smiled.

 

“My son.” She said, voice warm. “I saw the feed. You were magnificent. You are truly my son.”

Recent doubt fled, surprise almost causing him to smile. “Mother.”


Her amethyst eyes shifted to Sin. “Is she dead?”

“She’ll live. I don’t kill steal. She’s your kill, not mine.” He waited for either the explosion of rage, and the fight of his life, a derisive comment, or praise. He’s not sure which, but he’ll be ready for either. He’s calm, and proud of what he’s done, dark purple eyes matching Anathema’s own amethyst gaze equally and calmly.

 

She smiled. “Good. Good. You both played your part well. It could not have gone any better. Things have… accelerated. We could not predict that. But we will overcome. Good.”

Sin nodded, though inside he was a bit concerned. “The Midnight Gathering group is growing, faster than I’d hoped, but still more slowly than what we’d need, I think. I know Callister did one hell of a job grabbing that Paranormal, Smokescreen, but we’re going to need a lot more muscle if we’re going to war.”

 

“The first boy who attacked me… Paul, I think. A good name. He is converted. He has let me in. He will return home to the Legion. This Smokescreen… She will let me in soon. She is ripe with self hatred. And she will go to the Freelancers.”

“Interesting. With, ah, Paul, in the right place, we could bring down the flying fortress. Or recruit less known folks. Same with Smokescreen…” Sin rubbed his chin, thoughtfully.

 

Callister nodded. A two prong attack. “We need one more, for PHALANX. Surely they will come when they see the Legion in danger.”

 

“That will take time. PHALANX are hard to find, reclusive.” She smiled. “You will find one for me, I am sure of it.”

 

Sin nodded again, thinking. “Extraterrestrials. They deal with…. The machine aliens, usually. Make a ruckus with them, perhaps, and they’ll send some of their boys down to earth. Another question. Can you possess one of those Machine Aliens?” Sin’s mind worked overtime. This was going to be one hell of a war.

 

“Other than that, I’m not sure.”

 

“Machines have nothing for me. I deal with flesh and blood and souls.” Anathema admitted, in a way that suggested that she was not a fan of it. “Callister. My son. I am so proud of you. I have something to ask of you.”

Callister snapped his head up. “Mother, anything.”

 

“You put cracks in the Oathkeeper’s mind. Cracks I can use to enter her. We will continue that. Deliver this card to her bedside.” Anathema produces one, slipping into her son’s hand.

 

Callister took the card and slipped it into his inner jacket pocket. “I will do this.” He looked stunned at the continued praise.

 

“I would speak to Sin alone, please.”

Sin raised an eyebrow. Oh shit.

 

“Of course, Mother.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek goodbye then he turned and left, presumably to join Mathilda in the kitchen.

 

Anathema swept towards Sin. “You are a man of the world.” She said. “Have you considered… settling down?”

Both eyebrows shot way up. This was not going to where he thought it was…. Uhhh… “Settling down, ma’am? Never. That ain’t the life I want t’ live. I’ve seen people with that kind of thing, and I know it isn’t for me. I couldn’t ever do that.”

 

She looks… hurt? “Ah. I meant – I didn’t mean offense, I simply meant – perhaps as – political move – you said this was a war, and…”

Was she hitting on him?

Sin blinks. Wait, she’s wait. Wait, what? All seven demons in Sin’s head just kinda freeze, and Sin’s mind comes to a screeching halt. Pride starts screaming, Lust is in the corner crying, Sloth rolls over, Wrath bangs his head against the wall, Greed and Envy go back to fighting over things, and Gluttony whines about more food and drugs.

 

Pride finally starts making coherent sense. Don’t piss off your boss don’t piss off your boss don’t piss off your boss.

 

“Ah, I’m sorry, ma’am, I…. don’t mean offense to you, either. I just…  Uh.” SPIN SOME BULLSHIT DAMMIT.

 

“I don’t think I could do that kind of thing, that kind of relationship. It ain’t in me. When we win this thing, ma’am, I’ll probably be off stirring up trouble somewhere else. Kinda addicted to it.”


There was a pause, and then she nodded. “It is an open offer. Leave me, now. I need to plan.”

“Yes, ma’am”. Sin nods, and walks out. He doesn’t stop at the door, he doesn’t stop to say later to Callister, he doesn’t stop until he’s far into the plains of Idaho, checks to make sure no one is around, puts his head against the ground, and starts screaming into the dirt.

 

Bonding Agents: Something Like Gravity

PHALANX FITNESS CENTER

DREAMLIGHT, LUNA

 

The PHALANX fitness center was mostly quiet, except for the occasional, repetitive bang, bang, bang of weights rising and falling, and the similarly cyclical thump, thump, thump of sneakers on the treads, breathing irregular with the push.  There weren’t many people there, though.  Not at this hour.

 

Outside the large glass-like panels, the sun glared too bright, the Earth not shading it quite yet, leaving everything in the fitness center washed out, like light was bleaching the color away. In a few hours, the angle would be more preferable, more muted, as the moon rotated onward.

 

Beth Schuster was there, clad in a loose, breathable warm-up suit. She’d spent a lot of time in the fitness center, and enjoyed almost all of it, but this area was the exception. The padded mats, the open space, the utter lack of equipment—they all signalled the thing she was worst at: hand-to-hand combat.

 

She fidgeted, looking at the figure on the other side of the room. This frail motherfucker is who the Sergeant sent her to train with? Really? What was their game?

 

Of every place in the fitness center, this is the one in which Simon Lydes feels most at home.  He has spent the most time on those mats, after all, and the way he is standing, squared shoulders, straight posture, shows it, to an extent.  Of course, he does look out of place. He is lean, but not quite lanky.  Rather than loose exercise clothing, he’s in what looks like a sleek black combat suit with small metal sensors laced through it.  He is not wearing the helmet, though, calm, even face visible, along with those too bright eyes, calmly watching.

 

When he had agreed to come to the training mats today, it was because his trainer told him he needed to be less nervous when going in for throws, and that he needed to work on ‘not falling back’ so much.  He was hoping that mountain of a woman approaching was not his trainer’s solution to this.

 

“Uh. Hey. You’re… Simon sa—um. Doctor Lydes, right?” Buster approached with slow, cautious steps. She was brash, but not stupid; if Sarge had put her up against this little wisp of a man, he had to know what he was doing. “I’m Buster. I guess we’re… training together today.”

 

Simon Says. He caught it before she could fully correct her trajectory. Simon closed his eyes, taking in a deep, long breath, spending double the time on exhalation.  Finally, that done, he opened his eyes again, lips set in a firm line, and regarded her.

 

Perhaps he would be able to use her caution to his advantage. He was already watching how firm her steps were, estimating the amount of weight she carried on each, how she shifted, what her center of gravity was.  It might not have been fair– he was standing utterly still, after all– but if she managed to land a hit on him, he knew he would be going to the infirmary.

 

“Yes. So it would seem.”

 

“Well, uh,” she fell into a stance that Simon recognized well—the standard CQC stance that most PHALANX troopers learned for the first time in basic training. Hands up and open, knees bent, feet planted and aligned toward the opponent. For such an imposing and fit trooper, she seemed awfully nervous, and the stance was practiced but uncomfortable. “Come at me, I guess.”

 

Lydes shifted into the stance as well. His breathing was measured, gaze sternly watching her, though he actively concentrated on not reading into what chemicals were raging through her.  In certain combat scenarios, his abilities were called for; this was not one of them.  He would have to do this on his own.

 

The call to come at her made his eyes narrow a touch.  Lydes was the reactive one in combat, or at least that was how he usually played it.  It was the safer game.  It meant he was left open or off balance less often– Oh, right, he was supposed to be getting more comfortable as the active agent.

 

It seemed his trainer had given this more thought than Lydes had given him credit for.

 

With that, Lydes darted forward, fast, but not an inhuman sort of speed– just the type that someone with his frame and training could maintain. He had no plan to strike first, but would bait for it.

 

Buster tensed, like she thought she should be able to do something, hit a switch, fire a gun—but it was just her and her body. She moved as if to intercept Lydes; it was a clumsy move, and one that he could gain advantage from easily. At the last moment, however, she pivoted, stumbling to safety as if she’d realized her mistake just in the nick of time. It was odd. Bad technique, but absurdly quick reflexes and improvisation. Not a combination Lydes was used to training with.

 

Just like that, she was stomping towards him and then– My my, wasn’t that interesting? Lydes turned, sliding sideways on the mat for a moment before he came to a stop, crouched low.  He had been about to go in for a throw, an easy one at that, and then she was out of his grasp.  He was not entirely sure what had happened, or how the situation had changed so very rapidly, but it felt a lot like they were playing Chicken, seeing who would swerve off first.

 

This was the last thing he had expected from Mountain Woman.

 

Rather than give her a moment to rethink, he was coming in again, at the last moment dropping down to slide and hopefully take out her legs– or at least disrupt their angle just enough to topple the weight.

 

And she noticed, and moved, and if she’d been a better opponent she’d be out of the way, but she didn’t seem to have any idea what Simon was doing when he started doing it. In spite of her speed and observation, she dodged the wrong way, and he caught her legs squarely with the slide. The mat shook as she hit the ground, even in the reduced gravity.

 

He was not expecting to hit her square on.  He was not expecting her to fall straight for him.

 

Thankfully, he rolled to the side just in time, even as he bounced slightly off the mats as she hit them beside her.  He carried the roll onward, up, into a kneeling position, and back to his feet again, a semi-smooth motion.

 

Mentally, he marked off Simon: 1, Buster: 0.

 

“Right, okay,” Simon could see Buster kicking herself mentally for the mistake. She should have known how to dodge that. They taught it in basic. She took the stance again. “Once more with feeling.”

 

Simon paused, quirking a dark eyebrow at her. “…Did you just quote Buffy?” He did not wait for a response, instead coming in, this time ducking low on the other side and grabbing for an arm with a synthetic, cold to the touch glove.

 

As before, Buster’s reflexes were superb and she seemed to have no idea what she was doing with them. Her off hand came in to bat his away, and did, and she was reaching out to wrap around him but she’d completely neglected her legs again, and seemed to realize that she was open to a throw just as it would have been impossible for her to escape it.

 

He barely managed to get under what would have been a very painful bear hug, swinging a leg around to put a knee in the back of her knee, other one pushing off for forward momentum as he got ahold of her extended arm and used his weight, her weight, and the inevitability of gravity carry through the throw.

 

Simon caught a good glimpse of her face as she went down. It wasn’t a look of surprise, or shock, or even bracing to hit the ground. She looked… frustrated. It was the face of someone who was already lying on the ground, going over what she did wrong and trying to figure out why she didn’t remember how the fuck to avoid an incredibly simple throw.

 

Of course, then she did hit the ground, wincing, and lay there for a second.

 

Simon definitely saw that look, and continued to see that look as it was arcing past him and to the ground.  He straightened, quite nonchalantly, and circled over, to Buster’s feet, offering a hand down to her.  His expression was still placid, eyes nearly indifferent to this entire situation, but the gesture was there.

 

She grimaced, took the hand, and vaulted up. “Thanks,” she muttered, eyes averted. “I ain’t so good at this.”

 

“You are letting your nerves get to you.” Simon stepped a few paces back, to regain the proper starting distance again.  One of the men watching them– Simon’s trainer, cleared his throat loudly, disapprovingly, to which Simon quickly snapped, “That’s plainly obvious, Sir.”

 

With that, he dropped back into stance like he was ready to hit something.

 

Buster blinked, eyes darting between the trainer and Simon, squinting, trying to figure out what weird dynamic she’d just walked into. She shook her head, took a deep breath, and exhaled into the stance, doing her best to let her nerves slip away. Her breathing was even, regular, but her eyes flickered a little faster than they had, moving from spot to spot on Simon’s body, her mind clearly racing even as her body and breath were slow and settled.

 

The next few direct confrontations were a lot of the same: Dr. Lydes getting the throw, Buster being frustrated, and the occasional quip from the trainer at the sidelines.  With each throw, Lydes was getting more confident, Buster more frustrated– but better.

 

And he did not realize it until it was too late. He’d over-extended, trying to get a high arm grab, near the rotator cuff, rather than going for the forearm which would have gotten him the desired throw and compromised his position less.

 

It showed in the slight furrow of his brows, the minute widening of his blue eyes, the thrum, thrum, thrum of his pulse visible and quickened on his pale, sweat slicked throat.

 

He realized it, but his body had not quite caught up, brain still not registering.  His body was still trying to carry through the throw, even as his mind was telling him he should brace himself.

 

Their eyes met, and Lydes saw that Buster knew. She’d seen what he’d seen, was already twisting her body to get in a position where he couldn’t stop her from completing the throw. For a moment, it felt almost like time was moving as slowly for Simon as it seemed to move for Buster, and then his world turned upside down.

 

He braced for a painful impact, but none came; he hit the ground no harder than if he’d fallen on his own. Buster’s hulking form towered above him, his arm in a lock. She’d tossed him, but she’d broken his fall too, on the way down.

 

The flag-haired trooper smiled for the first time. “Nice. Now I don’t feel quite as bad about you throwing me around more than my brother Paul used ta.”

 

Simon squeezed his eyes shut, breath held– not in, mind you, that was asking for disaster; he’d exhaled first– and waiting… waiting… Wait.  Slowly, Simon opened his eyes, blinking a few times in confusion.

 

He had expected to be slammed into the mats with a whole lot more force.  Whenever his usual sparring partners got a hold on him, they made sure it hurt.  This was.  This was strange.

 

Simon blinked a few more times, looking at that arm, then Buster’s face, then back at the arm again, and when his lungs started burning a bit remembered that breathing was a necessary human function.

 

He opened his mouth to say something back, but couldn’t manage any words, still a bit on the dazed side.

 

“Uhh, doc, you okay?” Buster’s face was a little concerned as she straightened. “I tried not to let you hit the mat too hard but you look mad winded right now. You want a break?”

 

She held out one hand to help him up.

 

“That… was not what I was expecting.” Simon spoke plainly, staring up at her for a moment longer.  Finally, he reached for the arm and hopped back up.  Once there, he took a step back, stretched for a few moments to make sure nothing locked up from the jolt.

 

Buster beamed at her staff sergeant, who rolled his eyes, barely impressed. She turned back to Simon. “How bout it? Break? Keep going? Hit the bar?”

 

Markus Cross, Captain of the PHALANX Coffin Division, walked into the room to stand next to the Sergeant. “What’s this? You managed to get Buster to do CQC training willingly?” Shit. They should give my captains badge to this guy. “And she’s winning! Hot damn. Nice work. And nice technique, you two.”

 

Simon’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced quickly over his shoulder, taking stock of who it was who obviously had not been watching very long at all.  It sounded like a challenge to him, and normally he did not rise to such base accusations, his heart was pumping and his body was flooded with a chemical cocktail made for a little bit of competitiveness.

 

“Let’s keep going.”

 

Of course Simon ignored the bar comment entirely.

 

“Oh my fucking god, Markus,” Buster laughed. “I am not winning. That was my first throw. The doc has already landed twelve. Anyway. Keep going it is! Let’s see if I can’t learn a little faster.”

 

She took the stance again, trying to settle back into focus with limited success.

 

“Yeah….no. That sounds about right.” Markus laughed. “Good work anyways. Let’s see what you two have got.” He crossed his arms and made himself comfortable for the next round.

 

There were even more eyes on them now.  Simon tuned them out, training his focus back on Buster. Did she seem more comfortable now?  Simon was certainly feeling more restrained now, but knew he could not take too many steps back into his old routine, lest his trainer lay into him.  It would likely happen either way.

 

With no warning, Simon sprung forward again, fast on his feet, weaving rather than taking the direct path.  He was ready to change his momentum at any moment this time– rather than getting trapped.

 

Buster’s movements weren’t any faster than they’d been before, but her eyes tracked him unerringly, and as he got close she pivoted, clearly intending to stay nimble depending on which way he chose to go.

 

Huh. She was focusing on almost pure evasion this time.

 

Simon found the evasion more refreshing than frustrating.  He went for multiple grabs only to find Buster’s limb no longer in position, or weight shifted enough that he would not have been able to carry her movement into a throw.  Simon continued with his weave, left, right, behind, right, around, left, a constant sequence, trying to find something he could leverage.

 

“Keep up the good footwork.” Markus directed at them. “Delaying the inevitable Buster, he’s faster than you.” His voice was loud and clear, same way he talked back in basic. “But it’s a good strategy. Stay well rooted and adaptable.”

 

Buster didn’t reply, but she did respond. She kept those quick eyes on Simon and positioned her body across from him step by step, keeping one rooted and squaring off. When she finally saw what she thought was an opening, she went low and rose fast and hard and broad—almost a body slam and a bear hug rolled into a single stable lunge.

 

Simon was extended again, and she rose up under him like a Great White breeching under an unsuspecting seal– and this time he did not even see it coming.  A moment of panic hit him just as she collided, and for that moment, there was a thick cloud, invisible to the eye but not to the nervous system.

 

The sympathetic nervous system would rapid fire under that, activating fight-or-flight in the lower brain.  He was too startled to even realize he was doing it.

 

But there was one other option from flight or fight, and it seemed that Buster’s brain was inclined to take it. Both of them hit the floor hard, but Simon barely felt it—Buster had immediately wrapped around him like an animal protecting her cub. Instead, Simon struggled to breathe as his opponent held him tight, shaking in stimulated fear and otherwise unmoving in a tight huddle on the mat.

 

“Schuster!” The staff sergeant yelled, mortified. Markus had never seen this fighting technique before, and was markedly confused.

 

“Lydes!” The other trainer was yelling as well, obviously recognizing what was happening.

 

Simon was, indeed, struggling to breathe, heart rate sky high, pounding in his head– and then he realized that she was hugging him? Simon went still, and gradually, the cloud changed from sympathetic to parasympathetic stimulation: fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest (the other nickname, feed-and-breed, had never been one he used).

 

His face was growing markedly more red, but he was trying to conserve as much of his air as possible by not struggling.  They had, after all, run him through scenarios like this for his zero-atmosphere training.

 

Buster’s muscles slackened as the sympathetic reaction relaxed its death grip on her system. “What… what? Oh fuck, I’m sorry doc,” she clambered back, letting Simon up. “I dunno what happened. I feel… weird.”

 

Markus stepped forward to help the two get back on their feet. “Yeah that was a bit strange. You two alright? Nice job keeping your breath by the way.” Markus noted, seeing Lydes training in action.

 

Simon brushed himself off as he was standing, taking a few deep breaths before his face began to return to its usual pale.  He glanced over at his trainer, and at seeing the very stern, very disapproving glare from him, sighed loudly.

 

“I… suppose I should apologize for suddenly manipulating your autonomic nervous system.” Simon paused for a moment. He was not looking at anyone in particular, more at the mats. He heard that throat clear again, and added, “It was… unintended.”

 

“Oh dang, is that what happened. I was really confused,” Buster didn’t seem angry, just baffled. “I was like, I sure as shit hate the training room but usually it don’t remind me that much of Thanksgiving at the Schuster homestead.”

“No harm done I don’t think.” Markus said, examining Buster who seemed to be doing ok with it. “Having good reflexes can really save your ass on the frontlines.” He added. “Besides…you seem like a man who understands discipline. Keep working on it.” He turned to Buster, back to Lydes, then the Serg. “I think now is a good time for a break.”

 

Lydes quirked an eyebrow, staring at this random man who happened in during their training, made no introduction of any sort, and then started making comments like he was a commanding officer.  Normally he would just write it off as a hot headed soldier– weren’t most of them– but now, when his ears were still ringing and his own neurotransmitters were slightly off kilter, was not normally.

 

“Who are you?” The words are grated out, a bit rougher than Lydes was intending, but he continues staring at the man like he would somehow discern the answer.

 

“Ladies and Gentlemen and Distinguished Guests,” suddenly Buster was a wrestling announcer. “Introducing the man with the plans, the Wizard of the Wheird, the Bad-Assinest Black Sheep! Leader of the Coffin Division, terrible with the ladies but real good with dogs—MARKUS! FUCKING! CROSS!!!! Hhhhhhhhhhhhh–” she aspirated into her cupped hands, imitating a crowd cheering.

 

Markus had a large grin there, and was holding himself back from laughing. “Not quite the leader yet. I’m a Captain.”

 

“Pfff whatever”

 

I run the strikeforce consisting of the 9th, 10th, and 11th regiments.” He didn’t seem to give two shits about Lydes tone. “And you?” He tilted his head and waited for an answer, remaining composed and respectful to this man he had not met.

 

That was… one of the most obnoxious introductions he had ever heard before. Simon stood there, utterly unimpressed, hands laced together before him, fingers fiddling with his combat gloves.

 

Once all the commotion was over, Simon deadpanned, “Dr. Simon Lydes.” No other titles, no references to his ‘project name’, the division he fought with, or his other nickname.

 

“He’s the neuromancer, Markus. That’s why I got all accidentally messed up.”

 

“Oh yeah yeah, that’s right. You’re the one whose base is full of assholes who need to learn how to behave. Right.” Markus said, remembering a conversation he had months ago on twitter. “Well it’s nice to meet you Doctor Lydes. You fought pretty well out there for science staff.” A hint said that he was kind of impressed. “Hey Buster do you think I could get that intro on a recording? Would save me a lot of time when arresting Tox’s.”

 

“I do commissions,” Buster replied primly, her voice suddenly in a feminine range again.

 

Simon frowned at that. He could practically feel the angry look his trainer was giving him. He mumbled, more to himself, “They mostly leave me alone,” before just watching them and listening. It seemed like they were friends and he felt like he was intruding, despite being commanded to be there.

 

“Well that is good to hear at least.” He did seem genuinely happy for Simon, and nothing would really put off that Markus felt he was intruding. “A doctor though, that’s interesting. You are training to be a medic in the field? Or ah. Of course. Your abilities.” He nodded. “Those should be invaluable.”

 

“Hey okay well. This is cool. But. Now that I have a super cool new friend and we’ve been through some crazy times together, how booooout we go get a pint together? Yeah?”

 

That was most certainly a blank stare.  In fact, it would have seemed like the blankest stare; however, Simon’s trainer had to speak up on his behalf and that stare became even more wide and blank.

 

“That’d be good for Lydes. He’ll go.”

 

“Well now isn’t that lovely? I could go for a pint or two.” The captain grinned, ignoring Lydes discomfort. “Don’t have active duty again for another 4 or 5 hours, it sounds perfect.”

 

“And my brother has a shift at his shitty coffee shop right now, so I can’t even video call ‘im. It’s a plan! I just gotta go run some water over this temple and get changed. Meet y’all at The Cheese in a half hour? Yeah?”

 

No. The stare just got even blanker. He was not even entirely sure what she had said, but apparently he was going somewhere and should probably shower— oooohhhhhh— and change into something more socially acceptable than his Kite Division combat undersuit.

 

“Yeah, you two clean up. Blunt would never forgive me if something happened to that “temple”.” He smirked teasingly. “I will probably be the guy sampling the fondue.”

 

“They don’t actually serve cheese, markus.”

 

“See you two soon!” He waved to them before heading out.

 

“See you soon, doc?” Buster grinned and winked. Shit. She actually expected a verbal response out of him.

 

“Sure.” That was probably the best response she was ever going to get.

 

“Cool! See you then!” And she bounded away.

 

‘The Cheese’ was the name of the civilian spaceport bar just outside of the PHALANX barracks and training facility in Dreamlight. Though it was open to any of the visitors to Dreamlight’s main port, it was well-understood to be mostly a PHALANX bar.

 

Even though Buster had only been a ‘loonie’ for less than six months, everyone there recognized her.

 

“AYYYYYYYYYY,” she yelled at the crowd as she walked in, receiving an identical response from them. “Three pints, Joaquin, Markus is coming and so is a new friend!”

 

“Who’d you fuck this time, Buster?” Someone heckled.

 

“Your sister!” She shot finger guns back.

 

Markus laughed, walking in with her “Heya Joaq, long time to see!”

 

“Markus! Hey,” the bartender grinned, then sobered. “You’re not going to ask for fondue again, are you?”

 

“You guys are called The Cheese, can you blame me?” He chuckled, leaning on the counter. “I’ll just grab some booze tonight though.”

 

“Who’s your third?”

 

Doctor Simon Lydes!’ Buster cut in, grinning as she hopped up onto the barstool.

 

Joaquin blinked. “You mean Simon Says?”

 

And there was Lydes, himself.  He was obviously freshly showered, hair still damp.  The combat suit had been discarded for a pair of slacks and a dress shirt, the top button undone and the sleeves rolled up– perhaps the most casual he had ever been besides when he was sleeping.

 

It took him a moment, but he eventually spotted the tall, muscular woman and equally tall and muscular Captain at the bar and made quick, clipped strides to join them.

 

“Come on Joaq, that name’s not nice.” Markus scolded lightly, then looked back at Simon and sighed. “Moon-shine for me, by the way.”

 

“I’LL—” Buster started singing at the top of her lungs. Immediately, a quarter of the bar joined in for the extremely brief pub song, which was to the tune of Luna’s International Anthem. Even Joaquin sang it as he poured the beer. “HAAAAVE~ a Lu-nar-I-P-A!!”

 

Suddenly it was a musical and Lydes was not sure what he felt about that.  The bar was louder than he remembered bars being, but it had been a while. He had more important things to remember.

 

Once the noise had died down enough his quiet voice could be heard, he ordered, “Stout. Or next darkest.” He at least understood how the process worked, even if he was looking around like the noise itself was invading his personal bubble without his permission.

 

Markus leaned back and moved his drink in tune with the song, not spilling a drop. “Ahhh, see you added your special mix to it. Someone’s getting an extra large tip tonight.” The big man nodded a friendly thanks to the bartender. “We need to have more moon pun beverages here.”

 

“Doc! You showed. Great,” Buster grinned toothily. “Saved ya a seat right between me and the Captain.” Pat pat.

 

Simon’s protests never made it out. The Dark Side of the Moon Stout sat in front of the empty stool, and he took both. Sitting between the two and sipping on his beer, he reflected on what a terrible idea this was, and also how he was likely expected to say something.

 

“Hello.  Again.”

 

“So! Fill us in. ~Where do you woooork, what do you doooo, what else should weee know about youuuuu~”

 

Why was she singing again. At least this time, nobody else joined in.

 

Markus downs the special mix pretty quickly, leaning over to watch. “Well I mean he is a doctor so he probably patches people up.” It was impossible to tell if Markus was being for real right now.

 

Rather than glowering directly at Markus, Lydes glowered at his beer, and then finally spoke up, turning slightly on his stool so he was more facing towards Buster.

 

“I am, part time, a neurosurgeon and researcher on Moon Base 1. Otherwise, I am with Kite Division.” Lydes took another sip, generally ignoring Markus. For a moment, he wished that he had made better friends with that Cosmic being. He’d rather be listening to lectures on flesh crystals than deal with… whatever it was Markus was doing that was subtly annoying him.

 

“That’s badass,” Buster replied, then took a sip of her pale ale, then said, “I pilot the Cestus.”

 

CODEX UNLOCKED: The Cestus Bipedal Tank

Though deeply locked under top secret PHALANX classification for years, the Cestus Tank has finally hit the field. Powered by an experimental and dangerous Catalysium reactor and equipped with Catalysium augmented armor and weaponry, this compact power armor rocketed into notoriety shortly after deployment for being one of the toughest, meanest, scariest pieces of personal armament in the PHALANX Arsenal. Costs and resources are currently too steep to produce another so for the moment, there’s only one Cestus, and only one Cestus pilot.

 

“It’s pretty cool.” Sip.

 

“I can attest to that, it is, in fact, very cool.” Markus nodded. “Brain science sounds pretty awesome too though.”

 

“Oh wow. That Cestus.” Simon did actually seem impressed. Barely.  It is more that he did not sound unimpressed, really.  He raised his drink, “Cheers.”

 

“Skol!” Buster happily toasted.

 

Markus joined in, downing another mix. “So hows the moon been treating the two of you? I only come up on occasion.”

 

“It’s pretty sweet,” Buster says after taking another generous draught of the beer, “I’m makin’ friends, makin’ waves, sowin’ oats. I worry about my brother but he’s a god damn adult, so whatever.”

 

Maybe it was the fact that Simon didn’t really drink much and was a lightweight, or maybe Buster was actually growing on him a bit, but he did laugh at how she phrased it all. He wasn’t sure sure he wanted to know what she meant by sowin’ oats, but he could probably guess, and good for her.

 

“I actually prefer the moon.” Lydes shrugs, and takes another large swig, almost done with his pint by now.

 

“Well from the sound of twitter Benny is sowin’ a few oats himself.” Markus chuckled. “Glad you two are enjoying it up here. If I am being honest I find myself missing the place pretty often down on the surface.”

 

Buster slammed the pint glass down. “Can you fuckin believe it??? I thought the kid would never lose his virginity, like we’re twenty fucking six, he’s cute, just go to a bar and tuck your hair behind your ear a lot, right? Right?? But suddenly some video game protagonist from the internet shows up and is like ‘suck my cock’ that shit doesn’t happen, does it? Does it?!”

 

Simon’s mouth fell open, and then he remembered himself and sipped the beer. “Wait, protagonist from a… Is that how you are describing his looks or is the person actually claiming to be a protagonist from a video game?”

 

Yes, it was an honest question.

 

“Oh no I mean his looks,” Buster waved off the notion. “Like, crimson red hair, smoldering eyes, too many belts. That kinda stuff.”

 

Markus’s phone buzzed. “Markus Cross. Oh, hey dad. Yeah. I’m kind of in the middle of something? Yeah? Yeah? Yeah that does sound pretty important. Alright. Sure. Bye.” He hung up. “Sorry gang. Seems I need to start my flight back to earth.”

 

“Bye Markus!” She waved. “Anyway yeah, ‘video game protagonist’ was Benny’s description, then I looked at his photo and confirmed it.”

 

“Oh, um, bye?” Simon watched the captain go, and then it dawned on him who the ‘dad’ must have been, and yeah, that was probably a really important phone call.  Lydes did, however, decide to order a plate of nachos along with his next beer. A lab tech had brought in a to-go order of them once, and they were very good. “Hmm, strange.”

 

“I feel like we all lead pretty strange lives,” Buster said, sounding oddly philosophical. Well, maybe not odd, considering that she was starting on her fourth pint.

 

“I thought I had a normal life.  Until… two years ago?” Simon shrugged.  He had a second pint—he was a slow drinker, and still had enough wits to realize he should really pace himself—which he was pleased with, and nachos were on the way (with real cheese and peppers, not any of that squirt cheese monstrosity). “I guess researcher on a moon base isn’t normal, is it?”

 

“That was when you Emerged, huh?” She sipped her beer, then nodded. “My Emergence kinda changed everything too, though probably not for the same reason.”

 

Simon tilted his head slightly and quirked an eyebrow, his universal ‘please go on’ signal without having to waste energy for words.

 

Buster was about to launch into it, but balked, and looked into her beer. “Aw man, you’re bein real patient with me. You seem like a to-the-point dude, you don’t wanna hear about some t-girl’s fucked up childhood.”

 

There was a moment where Simon just watched and waited, utterly unphased. “We’re drinking and sharing. I’ll tell you about my emergence, if you tell me about hers.”

 

Simon had not really talked about his emergence with anyone. There were a few rumors swirling around about it. One said that he’d been hiding it all along. Another was that he had emerged in the training room when someone punched him and he wasn’t expecting it.  There was another one that said something about alien experiments, but no one believed that kid anyway—his hair looked like aliens were abducting it in slow motion.

 

“Um, okay,” Buster shrugged a little. “If you want. I grew up in a super religious household in the midwest, right? Like, not quite megachurch central, but definitely the whole sorta thing where it’s a tight-knit community and anybody who sticks up gotta get cut short, you know? I had this younger brother named Peter, who was just like. Queer as all get out. Said he wasn’t a boy, refused to do normal boy stuff, said that gender didn’t make any sense and he wasn’t ever gonna get married. Obviously he got the shit kicked out of him constantly. He was little, and pretty, and stood out even from us—we were all blond, he had red hair. So anyway, he turns 14, mom and dad take us to the zoo, tell him something he really doesn’t like. Dunno what it was, but the next day, he was gone. Never came back.”

 

She paused to take a long drink of her beer.

 

Simon nods, listening respectfully without making any noises to interrupt her.  He was, after all, good at being quiet.  Though the nachos just arrived, steaming hot, and they looked and smelled amazing.  Simon took one and gestured for Buster to do the same, still focused on her story otherwise.

 

“Shit got worse around that time,” Buster said quietly. “Our parents blamed our eldest brother Paul. Paul took it out on us. It was a bad time. The only person I really trusted or felt close to then was Ben, and one day, he… he told me he was gay. And I told him… I was actually a girl. We swore to look out for each other for the rest of our lives.

 

“Then, um, something happened. An accident. I don’t—I don’t think I can talk about it in a lotta detail, but Benny and I both Emerged. I could slow down how I saw time, and he could speed it up. We only got out of that… cave alive because we had those powers and each other, but our folks saw it as some kind of sign that we were bad. Satanic or something, they didn’t seem too clear on it themselves. So we did like Petey, and we… left.”

 

“I was told science was the devil’s work.” Simon shrugged, then actually held up his bare hand to high five.

 

He was not going to say he understood, because really, he could not understand that kind of situation, but he recognized similarities in his own life and appreciated them, or rather that there was some shared thread there.

 

Buster chuckled, getting a bit of her composure back, and returned the high-five. “Thanks for listening, man.”

 

Simon mumbled something along the lines of ‘no problem’ but it was lost in the din of the place.  He took another sip, munched a bit more, and then finally had him pulled together enough to comment on his own emergence.

 

“Two years ago…” How did he phrase this? “I had to repair a solar array panel that powered my lab. And I emerged.”

 

There. Perfect.

 

Buster nodded for several seconds, then looked up. “Cool,” she said. And left it at that.

 

“I guess it was more complicated than that but…” SIGH.  He played with his pint glass for a moment, then finished it off, waving for another. “It was outside the base. Space suit. Tools. No clue what I was doing. I may have had a panic attack and then discovered I could manipulate neurotransmitters.”

 

Her expression was confused. “How was that useful when you were by yourself in space?”

 

“I stopped my own panic attack?” He kind of shrugs, but it is rather noncommittal.  His tone is still considerably more flat that 98% of the other patrons, but this is, perhaps, the most expressive he’s been in Buster’s presence.  Of course, that could be because he was tightly controlling his own neurotransmitters constantly, but that was not something Simon would even think about, much less admit to anyone.

 

“Oh—” Buster began, then realized the full implications, possibly more than Simon assumed she would. “Ohhhhhhh.”

 

“These nachos are really good.” He wasn’t trying to change the subject, of course.

 

“You’re trying to change the subject.” Damn, these nachos are really good.

 

Simon shrugged. He didn’t really have anything to say about that.

 

Buster shrugged too. “Whatever, man. You seem all right. Thanks for listening to me blather about my shitfuck upbringing.”

 

He waved it off like it was nothing. He wasn’t sure what to say.  That’s a psychologist’s job.  He pokes the brain with sharp objects. There is a big difference there.

 

She squinted, then looked at her glass, then drained it, set it down on the bartop, and signaled for another. “So. You got a girlfriend or boyfriend, or what?”

 

Simon nearly choked on a chip.  He paused for a moment, taking a gulp of his third pint, and swallows hard, taking a moment to process the question.  He opened his mouth once, twice, then finally shut it again, thinking a little more.

 

“Not quite?” How did he… “More like a dial up playmate.”

 

Because that did not sound creepy.

 

“What so like… a phone sex fuckbuddy? A sext partner? C’mon dude I spilled my guts, you ain’t gonna offend me.”

 

She certainly did have a point.

 

“One of us texts the other. We meet up. We have sex. We go about our lives.”

 

That was, quite totally, the sum of it. Usually he did not bring it up because, well, some people thought that was horrible or unhealthy, but even a man of his demeanor had occasional needs.

 

“Oh, okay!” Buster seemed pretty happy with that answer. “That sounds like a damn decent arrangement. If it does what you need it to, good on ya.”

 

“It’s been a while. Scouting mission, HIVE.” Simon did sigh at that, and then tapped on his glass for a moment. “I’m not really… good at relationships.”

 

Buster knit her brow, and frowned, and fixed Simon with an intense look for a few seconds. “Okay, well,” she said, “d’you wanna go have sex, Simon?”

 

Simon was about to drink from his pint and was glad that he had not quite gotten to the glass to his lips yet.  He blinked a few times, then gave Buster a quick up-down glance.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

He did not want to respond until he was certain what he heard wasn’t a mix of all the other noise around them distorting strangely.

 

Buster held up both hands. “No pressure! I don’t even know if you’re into girls. Or girls with dicks. Whatever. Sorry. I got no tact. Please don’t tell my staff sergeant I propositioned you. Uh.” It was starting to catch up with Buster that she had said something incredibly rude.

 

Simon glanced between his almost done pint, and the almost done nachos, then deadpanned at Buster, “Let me finish my drink first.”

 

“Y-yeah,” she stammered, and stuffed a nacho in her mouth.

 

Simon knocked back the last of his drink like he actually knew what he was doing, then glanced at Buster.

 

“Your place? Mine? Somewhere random?”

 

Buster took a looooooooooong draught from the beer, draining it. “I live in the barracks. If you got a place, let’s go there. If not, hotel.”

 

Barracks, not the best place. Not a place he was welcome either, as far as he knew.  Simon thought for a moment, then leaned over, whispering low in her ear, “I know a place. A balcony overlooking the city. No one can see up there. I could… It’s a good view of the sunrise while bent over the railing.”

 

If he could feel embarrassment, it did not show, as his tone did not even change.

 

“Put it all on my tab, Joaquin!” She barked, then leapt up from her stool. “Show me.”

 

 

It was a hell of a way to watch the sun coming up.

Bonding Agents: Forgiven Angel

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

CHICAGO

 

Normally, Alice McGowan entering a coffee house and ordering a hot chocolate before sitting in the corner would draw attention. But this scruffy teenager with an undercut couldn’t possibly be Oathkeeper, and so, for once, she lacked an audience. Which was good, considering who was about to show up.

 

Tabitha Armitage had no idea how to dress casually any more, and it was evident when she walked through the coffee shop door. Not that she didn’t look amazing; she’d let her hair down, deep brown waves cascading down her back, over the forest-green cardigan she wore over a white blouse and brown pencil skirt.

 

She looked over and saw Alice, and a wave of mixed emotion swept over her face. Finally, she offered a small smile and made an I’ll be right there gesture, moving to place a coffee order.

 

Alice pulled the hood of her MCGOWAN CAMP hoodie down and offered a small smile and shy wave. A waitress came to refill her hot chocolate, and Alice muttered something to her. The waitress nodded, then went back to other customers.


Tabitha arrived at the table moments later, carrying the coffee that Alice had known her to take for decades: just a whisper of sugar and a dash of cream in a City+ roast brew, preferably guatemalan. Even in caffeine, Tabs was particular.

 

She sat down. “How are you holding up?” Her voice was… careful. Uncertain.

 

“I’m seeing Nami once a week right now. She’s… nice.” Alice said, equally cautious. “Can I… she said I should talk to you, and she helped me write up a little… letter?”

Tabitha blinked. Now she really didn’t know what to expect; was she about to get chewed out? “Sure, Alice. Go right ahead.”

 

Alice reached into the hoodie’s pocket and slowly uncrumpled a piece of paper covered in her scribbly handwriting, and then cleared her throat.

 

“Dear Tabitha,” she read, eyes locked to the paper. “Um. I owe you an apology for my actions. When I initially left the Flying Fortress, I did not know that I was suppressed and unable to take proper action. I did not realize the extent of that suppression until I was already in the situation. However, I was given multiple opportunities to walk away from the situation, or remove myself from danger. I have…” She clears her throat again, voice wavering. “Over the years, I have never resolved the trauma inflicted upon me by Anathema. I have been so focused on being Oathkeeper, that I have failed to work on Alice. You did me a great kindness by forcing me to get help, which I can finally admit that I need. Um. I mean, she helped me write that, so some of the… it’s a bit like… formal. But um, I… those are my words. I’m sorry, Tabs.”

Tabitha was still for a few moments, then she put one hand over her mouth as her face crumpled. She hunched, shoulders shaking, trying not to sob out loud. She put one hand on the table, either steadying herself or reaching out. Alice couldn’t quite tell which.

 

Alice reached out hesitantly and then put her hand on Tabitha’s. “I – hope that you can, in time, um, forgive me -”

“Alice,” Tabitha whispered, clasping Alice’s hand in both of hers, “I… grounding you was the hardest thing I had ever done.”

 

Alice’s lower lip trembles but she valiantly swallows and stiffens her jaw. “It… was… necessary, and, um, if… if the Legion should find Anathema before I am restored to duty, I… I… will stand back… as needed.”

“Good,” Tabitha snuffled, and wiped her nose with a napkin she’d brought to the table. “Good. You need… we need you so much more as a person than as a soldier, Alice. The Legion does, I do. Scott does.”

 

The Oathkeeper breaks eye contact, looking very, very young. “Um, Nami says I, um, center a lot of how I like myself around what I do for other people, and not, uh… any inherent qualities…”

Tabitha nodded, placing her free hand on Alice’s again. She seemed to already be recovering from her emotional outburst, becoming a Tabitha that Alice knew, recognized, considered a friend. “Dr. Meda is extremely insightful. I’m so glad that you gave her a chance, Alice. So very glad.”

 

Alice gets a bit stiff, self conscious. “Yes, um, I mean, I – Scott likes her, and she’s always telling me it doesn’t mean I’m crazy…”

“You’re not crazy,” Tabitha shook her head, “you never were. Headstrong, irresponsible, impulsive. I was… in some ways, I still am very angry about putting yourself in danger. But you’re not bad or broken. You’re family, and we love you. We will never stop loving you, Alice.”

 

The paladin nods and her lower lip trembling intensifies. “I love you too, Tabitha, and I’m glad we’re okay.”

Tabitha fixed her eyes on Alice for a few moments, then sighed. “I had a long time to think, while you were unconscious. To think about what it would mean if we lost you. To think about the last twenty-odd years. The way we’ve treated each other, the roles we’ve settled into.”

 

“Yes?” Alice took another long sip of her cooling hot chocolate. For once, she was listening.

 

Tabitha averted her gaze, then lifted her coffee and took a sip of it. Alice always felt like she could see the gears turning in Tab’s head, and right now they were spinning especially fast. When she returned her eyes to Alice’s face, her expression was serene.

 

“Twenty-two years ago, you asked me a question. I never answered it. Would you like me to do so now?”

 

Twenty two years? What was—

 

Denny’s.

 

“I – Yes. I – I – yes. Please.” She remembered it like it was yesterday. Why did you choose Emi?

 

“Because I never learned how not to hedge my bets,” Tabitha replied quietly, “so I did. Again. Always.”

 

“I understand.” Alice looks down, looking both embarrassed and serene. “It worked out, though, didn’t it? I mean, I never stopped… loving you, not really, but we both found happiness. And I love Scott, I do, and… we have good lives.”

“Of course,” Tabitha nodded. “Emi is a wonderful wife. I love her dearly. I need her. I can’t imagine life without her. But I never fell out of love with you, and I never said anything about it. And I never could forget it.”

 

Alice falls silent and her hands tremble, hot chocolate sloshing over the side of the wide mug onto her hands. “Can – I have two minutes to step outside and get some air, p-please?”

“Yes,” Tabitha whispered. “I’m—I’m sorry.”

 

Oathkeeper puts the mug down and strides out of the coffee shop. She produces her phone and Tabitha can see her talking to someone, rubbing the tip of her left shoe into the concrete as they talk. After a few minutes, she comes back in, looking a mixture of flushed and embarrassed and – exhilarated?

“It’s okay.” She said, quietly. “It’s, I mean, I told Scott. I had to tell Scott. He’s my husband. But, um, he said, I mean, like…” She falls silent and stares into the bottom of the mug.

 

“It’s fine, Alice,” Tabitha held up a hand. “I’m not telling you this because I… I expect something from you. But when you were in the hospital, I thought about losing you without ever having said anything, and it—it just—”

 

“No, listen, wait, you don’t understand, I – I’ve wanted you for decades, Tabitha, and I’ve wanted to – to – I mean, I – I thought it would never happen, and I respected that, and I thought you chose Emi, but I talked to… this strange, rude Freelancer, and Nami, and I – I’m not being true to myself if I bury this, am I? I’m the Oathkeeper, and I made a promise that I would be true to myself, and I can’t keep burying these feelings, and -” Alice clasps both hands over her mouth, bright red.

 

Tabitha blinked twice, and turned in her chair, and slowly rose from her seat, eye-to-eye with her old friend. “Alice,” her murmur was so quiet as to be barely audible, even so close. “Are—what are… you…”

 

“Tabitha,” Alice whispered through her hands. “Would you like to… go to…” The blush spread down to her neck, brightening in her forehead and cheeks. “To dinner with me?”

As the implications of what Alice was saying finally hit home, a deep flush started to creep across Tabitha’s face too. “You’re asking me out,” she finally concluded, her voice distinctly more high-pitched than it usually went. “On a date.”

 

“Yes,” Alice squeaked, and then nodded in case that confirmation was only audible to dogs.

 

“Well then,” Tabitha’s head bobbed in a slow, rhythmic nod, “Alice, I think my answer would have to be… yes. I would very much like to go on a date with you.”

 

Alice’s hands dropped, revealing that brilliant grin of hers, and then impulsively, she moved in –

 

—and was met halfway by Tabitha, their lips meeting, arms wrapping around one another, decades of pent-up feelings finally expressed.

 

Just as Alice lifted her hands up, one to pull Tabitha in closer and tangle fingers into her auburn hair, the other to place against her neck, a voice interrupted through Tabitha’s comm.

 

“Hey,” Scanner said. “Armitage. Whatcha doin’?”

 

Tabitha reared back, already fast-talking. “—fully intend to rearrange the chain of command to prevent the possibility of an ethical breach given recent developments!”

 

Scanner’s voice was heavy with humour; you could hear the smile that was splitting her face. “Your new administrative recruit arrived. Thought you should know, but if you’re busy…

“I’ll… be there in a bit,” Tabitha muttered, face bright red, shooting an apologetic look to Alice at close range. “Have them watch the orientation video in the meantime, please.”

 

It took Alice a second to understand; she no longer had a comm talking to her. But then she smiled and shrugged, making a ‘go on’ gesture.

“Estelle assured me she didn’t need to watch the orientation video.” Scanner said, still finding this amusing.

 

“Oh, hell—”

 

“Language,” Alice said, with no bite. Her voice was dreamy and soft.

 

“—fine, but… it’s going to take me at least fifteen minutes to get back to the office. Have… have Nat—shit, that’s not going to work. Have Jess pretend to want to hear one of her stories. I’ll be by.”

 

Alice didn’t even call out the second cuss; she was too busy smiling.

 

“I sent her to the cafetorium to get some lunch. You got an hour. But be more careful, yeah? If one person recognizes Alice and takes out a camera…”

“It’s not like we planned this, you know,” Tabitha muttered, “but yes. I understand, thank you.”

 

“You don’t have to tell me. I – held hands with a boy this month.”

Her eyebrows shot upward. “I—will definitely be asking about that. In the meantime, I’ll… see you soon.”

 

“Goin’ back in?” Alice asked, a bit envious.

 

“Don’t get too jealous,” Tabs rolled her eyes, “I’m going back in to get Estelle settled, and it is not a job I would wish on my worst enemies. Among whom you do not number. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

 

Alice gave a breathless little laugh. “Yeah, I think we’re – um, well, yes. Yes. I’ll let you get going. I need to talk to Scott. Tell everyone I say hi.”

“I will,” Tabitha smiled. “You know, just because we haven’t restored your Core access yet doesn’t mean you’re unwelcome on the middle and outer rings. You still belong on the Fortress, and some of your coworkers are really starting to miss you.”

 

Oathkeeper touched the shaved sides of her head. “I will. …Soon.”

“Still self-conscious? You… look really good, you know. Like this, too.”

 

“Thank you. I… it’s the video, not the hair. It’ll be fine. I’m getting help, after all.”

“I understand. You… you know that therapy won’t fix everything, right? We’re all going to have a lot of work to do, a lot of healing. For our whole lives.”

 

“It’s the first step in a journey. The first step is usually the hardest.”

Tabitha laughed, hugging Alice close. “It’s good that you remember so many of Dr. Meda’s lines verbatim.”

 

She grinned. “I can say insightful stuff! It’s possible!” She kissed Tabitha on the cheek. “I’ll let you go. Tomorrow night, I’ll pick you up at nine. Do you like Italian?”

“Alice Elizabeth McGowan,” Tabitha chided, “you know full well that I love Italian. Tomorrow night at nine.”

 

“Hee. Okay. I’ll… I’ll see you then.” Alice gives a small wave and almost skips out of the coffee shop.

 

Tabitha holds still for a moment, bringing her hand up and softly touching her lips with her fingertips.

 

It really happened.

 

Bonding Agents: Dinner Date

ATLAS STEAKHOUSE


Alice had rented a private booth and slipped in through the back of the restaurant. No paparazzi, no camera shots, no noisy patrons peeking in through the double wooden doors of the private dining space – no problem. She fussed with her dress – a soft rosy pink cocktail dress with gold jewelry. This was what you wore to a date with a new … what should she call Tabitha? Sweat broke out on her brow.

 

Then Tabitha walked through the door, and the thought was immediately lost forever.

 

It wasn’t the first time Alice had seen her friend in formal wear. Tabitha had always known how to rock a tight cocktail dress, and she wasn’t afraid to deploy one strategically when a situation demanded it. Alice knew that Tabitha still went to the gym regularly, ate well, kept fit for a middle-aged woman. She’d seen those breasts and hips fill out dozens of outfits. She’d seen those sapphire earrings, that black choker, that decorative hairstick.

 

But there was something very, very different about seeing all of those things, and knowing that they were being worn for her.

 

Tabitha looked like this for her. For Alice.

 

Alice’s mouth fell open and stayed there as Tabitha slid into her seat. She had been at dozens of cocktail parties, stealing wistful glances at her with as much subtlety as Alice could manage. This was something completely different.

 

“Hi,” she managed after a long, long pause.


“Hi.” Tabitha’s smile was small, but there were volumes in it: amusement, exhilaration, gratification… and what Alice could now recognize as desire. “Thanks for bringing me out.”

 

“Yeah.” Alice said, still lost for words. She cleared her throat and tried to regain some composure. “You, uh, look nice.”

“You always look nice,” Tabitha smiled wistfully. “Even as the rest of us start to go the way of candle wax, you’re as flawless as ever.”

 

“It’s not as easy as you might think.” Alice gave a crooked grin, finally relaxing a little. “You know I still get carded constantly? I still break out sometimes. No one takes me seriously.”

“Lots of people take you seriously,” Tabitha replied, “but I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that it’s all keggers and compliments. There’s always been a lot on your shoulders, just as much as mine. I mostly meant… I always thought you were more beautiful than me, and it only feels more true now.”

 

“Oh gosh.” Alice whispered. “I mean, um, thank you. I … that’s very kind of you to say.”

A waiter entered the room, head bowed and quiet, and poured them wine and offered them menus. Alice hardly looked at hers; instead, she gazed dreamily over it at Tabitha.

 

“Do you already know what you’re going to order, hon?” Tabitha teased with a smirk. She’d opened her menu already, and was scanning the entrees. It was fancy even by her standards.

 

“Oh, uh, filet mignon, medium rare. I uh, googled the menu before I got here. And how to pronounce everything. I just, y’know… this doesn’t feel real. I keep expecting to wake up.”

“I… know how you feel, I think,” Tabitha set down her menu, meeting Alice’s eyes, “every time I thought about this kind of thing, it was some alternate timeline I thought we’d lost access to decades ago.”

 

“I don’t think it would have worked out back then. I was so young. I was figuring out what it meant to be the Oathkeeper, figuring out what God wanted from me… I think it’s a blessing that we waited this long. And you might want to send Scott a thank you card.”

Tabitha leaned back a bit in her chair, wearing a self-assured smile. “Do you remember that mail-order steak service he liked so much? The one that closed, and he was so distraught over the closure that he cried real tears about it?”

 

Alice burst out laughing. “He was heartbroken. And he tried to start his own, remember? But he didn’t know any of it, so he sold it off – and then the person he sold it to closed that one as well.”

Lacing her fingers together, Tabitha leaned forward and smirked conspiratorially. Oh gosh, that neckline was. Um. Didn’t leave much—to—uh— “I’ve been getting one off the ground for months, to surprise him. Good people running it. Subsidiary of a company I’ve already seen succeed. It went live last week.

 

“Oh, um, wow, that’s…” Her eyes dropped. She was looking.


Staring.

 

Pull it together, Alice.

 

“I, uh, that’s, well, y’know, he’ll love that. A lot. He’ll be so happy.”

There was a short silence. “Do you like my dress, Alice?” Tabitha asked. Her voice was low and soft and inviting, much like the view.

 

“Y-Yes.” Alice said, managing to make eye contact with an incredible effort.

 

“I don’t mind you looking,” she straightened her back again. “But here’s our waiter.”

 

“What may we get you?” The server asked politely.

 

“F-FILET MIGNON, MEDIUM RARE, WITH POTATO ON THE SIDE THANK YOU.” Alice wasn’t shouting per se, but it all rushed out in a strangled sort of whisper.

 

“I’ll have the Canard a l’Orange,” Tabitha said with a smile, “and the salad.”

 

The waiter left, and Tabitha looked like she was stifling a giggle.

 

“I’m not good at this!” Alice said, awkward and embarrassed. “I – I never dated, I’ve never, um, been… with… a – a lady. You know how me and Scott just kind of… fell in together, right?”

Tabitha laughed. “I remember, yes.”

 

“So, I mean, it’s not like I have – you know, experience with…” She gestured widely and vaguely. “This?”

Tabitha placed one hand on the table. Her nails were glossy, painted to match her deep blue dress. “It’s just me, Alice.”

 

“You’ve always just kind of, um, been this… not perfect, but… you’ve always felt kind of…” She gestured again. “Out of reach. You know things, like how to vacuum and file tax forms. I feel like kind of a dummy, or a kid, in comparison.”

“But… Scott knows how to do all those things too, hon. We’re all the same group of friends.”

 

Alice smiles again, bashful. “You’re right. You’re a good friend. My best friend. I mean, smooching doesn’t change that.”

“It doesn’t. We’re still best friends. And I’m still just your Tabs. And you’re doing fine.”

 

“Hee.” She flushed, and glanced at the menu. “It says it takes about twenty five minutes to  cook the meals to perfection, huh?”

“Mm-hmm,” Tabitha nodded, “they pride themselves on discretion and quality. Speed is not part of the package.”

 

“So…” Alice in one, swift movement that demonstrated her incredible strength, picked the table up and moved it aside, closing the difference between her and Tabitha. “We have time to – kiss?”

“Yes we do,” Tab purred, standing up, “and I let the staff know to leave a signal when the food’s ready. We will not be disturbed.”

 

“Oh my God -” Alice said, grinning. “You planned it too?!”

“Alice, love,” Tabitha smiled and took Alice’s face in her hands, “I plan everything.

 

Alice snaked an arm around her handler’s waist, leaned in to kiss her. Even without her gauntlets and warhammer, she was incredibly strong, even though she looked like a slender girl. Able to maneuver Tabitha, tuck her in closer for kissing –

 

Then Tabitha did something she’d never done, something that Scott had never done, not like this, not in the way that Tabs did, that poise and posture tilting and moving and—

 

She gave her weight entirely to the Oathkeeper. Leaning back, moving until she slid a bit and Alice put her other hand lower on her back, to steady her, and Tabitha just let her feet leave the ground, resting entirely in Alice’s hands, her knees bending and lifting and pressing against Alice’s back, hands coming up and taking her face, lips closing in and a deep kiss, an upward-tilted relaxed surrender that said in this moment, I am all yours and I trust you to have me.

 

She hesitated, just slightly; you get the feeling that she’s never been given this level of total control before, but she continues to be firm, gentle, balancing Tabitha easily, her hands beginning to roam –

 

There’s a rap on the door.

 

Tabitha paused, pulled her head back slightly. “That is not… the signal I asked for.”

 

Alice blinked, dazed. “What? Signal?” You have the feeling a horde of rhinos could come through and she’d hardly notice it.

 

“Um,” Tabitha struggled for a moment with the desire to ignore the interruption, but ultimately decided that there’d be more time later. “A knock, hon. On the door.”

 

It sounds again, polite but insistent.

 

“Let me get it.” Alice gently lifted Tabitha, put her back on her feet, and moved the table back.

 

Tabitha smoothed down her dress and adjusted her jewelry, patting her hair briefly to make sure that she didn’t look too mussed. She didn’t, of course. She watched as Alice answered the door…

 

“Ah, Mrs. McGowan, ma’am.” It’s the manager of the restaurant. “Ah, Mr. Cheney just took a table, and he – said he noticed Ms. Armitage’s car in the parking lot. He wanted to cover your meals, and pass on this bottle of wine.”

Tabitha Armitage’s expression did not change, but it did freeze in place. She lowered herself gradually into the chair, placing one palm on the table.

 

“Tell him thank you, but we’re not interested in the wine or the bill. Thank you, though.” Alice said, tone cool.


The manager nodded. “Of course. My apologies, ladies.”

Alice sat, looking… annoyed.

 

Tabitha clasped her hands on the table, looking down at the centerpiece. “Alice…” she began, like she was about to break the news of a dead pet. “I think that it might be best if… if we went public.”

 

“You mean sit outside? That’s fine, they have a nice fireplace.”

“No, hon, I mean go public about us.”

 

Alice choked on her wine, spluttering and coughing for a moment before gasping: “Why?”

 

“Cheney sent us wine,” Tabitha tapped a spot on the table, then kept moving her hand and tapping in sequence, leading to the edge of the table, “and offered to cover our meals. Plural. He’s figured it out. Nat figured it out. I think that even that Freelancer, Rooster, has it figured out. People are starting to talk, hon. I… I love you, and part of what I love about you is that you are too honest and straightforward to keep a secret like this.”

 

The Oathkeeper is white in the face. “So he knows, people know, okay, that’s one thing, but why make it a big public thing?”

“Because if we let someone else break this story, their version is the official one, and we’re left running defense. Cheney sent us that wine as a message, Alice. He knows, and he’s willing to use the threat of outing us as leverage.”

 

“…You think he’d tell people I was cheating on Scott.” Alice says, the realization dawning on her face. “Or that I’m a lesbian, or…”

“Or literally whatever he wanted to say.”

 

“I have kids, he can come after me, but he has to know that my kids would be in the firing line if he did that, that has to be sacred to him -”

“Alice!” Tabitha reached out and took one of Alice’s hands with both of hers. “I love your optimism, I love your ability to believe the best of everyone, I love that you can’t imagine that the man who hurt me, who betrayed us would stoop this low, but you need to understand that if you gamble on your ideals here, you do so with exactly the stakes you just mentioned. Do you understand?”

 

“…Shit.” Alice said, very quietly.

 

And then she paused, and flexed her hand nervously inside Tabitha’s.

 

“How long do you think we have?”

“A few days, at least. I’d want to have a plan within a week, preferably sooner.” She slumped. “Alice, I’m—I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. I’m sorry. Maybe we can pin this all on me, somehow; maybe you could just—”

 

“No.” She sets her jaw stubbornly. “I love you, Tabitha, and I’m the Oathkeeper. I’m not throwing you under the bus for my choices. God never said anything against… what we have. I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid. We’re going to enjoy our dinner, and then we’re… going to… prepare for a press conference.”

Tabitha let out a sigh, then sat still for a moment, then slowly uncurled, regaining her posture. “I’ve already… drafted a few approaches for the possibility that this would happen. We can discuss them tomorrow.”

 

“Okay. Good. Um. I mean, okay, Scott took the kids to his parents’, and, um, the house is empty, and… in for a penny, in for a pound?” She smiled shyly.

 

For the first time all evening, Tabitha Armitage was caught well and truly off-guard.

 

Bonding Agents: Apprehension

THE MCGOWAN MANSION

CHICAGO

Rooster had received a panicked text message at 3am, and the next day, she found herself in the sitting room of the McGowan mansion. It looked… cozy. Lived in. But why had Alice called her? She was curious enough to show up, but…

 

She fidgeted in her seat, refreshing Twitter, drumming her fingers on the arm of the chair. This was seriously weird. Was Oathkeeper – she still couldn’t really think of her as “Alice McGowan” – still pissed at her? Or … wanted her help? It just didn’t make sense and she couldn’t do anything but wait. Ugh.

 

Finally, Alice opens the bay doors to the sitting room and enters, holding two mugs of coffee. The mugs each have a kitten painted on the side.


“Thank you for being here, I just… Need your help.” Alice offered an apologetic smile and a mug with a Tonkinese kitten painted on the side to Rooster.

 

Rooster took the coffee. “Uh. Sure. Thanks.” She took a sip. Pretty good! And … cat mugs. Exactly what she would’ve pictured. Did Oathkeeper have pets? “What with? Um, it’s not … official business, I’m guessing.”

 

“Noooo. No no no no no. Um. You’re… gay, right? Like, into ladies? Publicly? Which is fine! I’m not here to — change that!”

“Ha. Yep. Very gay.” Oh god. Was Oathkeeper – she took another sip of coffee and then that thing happened again where once she thought of something it’s not like she was gonna not say it.

“You want coming out tips?”

 

Alice turned beet red and chugged about half of her tea in one gulp.


Well, that was an answer.

 

Rooster set the coffee down on the table, stifling laughs. “Well uh … don’t be a rude as- jerk like me about it, and your PR people can probably spin it.”

 

“What do I even say. I’m not a lesbian, I’m not leaving my husband, I…” Alice runs her hands through her short hair. “Gosh.”

“Yeah, that’s fine, you’re … bi?” A pause. “Um. Bisexual. Which means you’re attracted to more than one gender.”

 

“I knew that.” Alice lied. “I’m not a total dummy. Um. I guess?”

“It’s also possible to be gay but not leave your husband. I’ve known some people who only realized after a long time that they, like … didn’t actually like sex with men, but they didn’t want to stop being a family with their husband. That’s a thing you can do.”

 

“No, no, I definitely – still like – um… You know. With Scott.” The blush is splotchy and creeping down her neck. “So. Bi, I guess. Biscuits. People are going to be so mad.”

“I mean. Maybe. Yeah, probably. But I was mad at you and that didn’t make you, like, denounce Christ. I know a lot of people love you, but it’s not like no one’s ever hated anything about you before. And like … you’re still going to come out of this looking good, y’know.”


The Oathkeeper blinked. “I am?”

“Sure! I mean … I dunno, did you cheat on him? I guess that could be harder to swing.”

 

“No! Nononono, I had permission when I slept with Tabitha!”

Rooster’s mouth falls open into an oh, which quickly spreads upward into a wickedly pleased grin. “Holy – what. You’re poly?”

 

“I guess? Maybe? I mean I have a husband and a girlfriend, is that -”

“Oh. Yeah.” She calms down slightly. “Yeah, so, uh, ‘poly’ is short for ‘polyamory’ which is like … basically that. Husband and a girlfriend. That’s kinda my situation too, I got a girlfriend in New York and one in Portland. Uh, there’s a lotta different ways to do that though, like I dunno if you want hookups or – obviously that’s for your and your partners to talk about, not my business.”

 

“Oh my gosh!” Alice stands and begins to pace. “I could have hookups! Scott said we could talk about anything, and we could, oh my gosh this changes – aaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAA -”

Rooster jumps to her feet, cautiously putting her hands out. “Easy. Easy. It’s okay.”

 

“And now I’m going to have a press conference where I explain all of this to the world?!”

“Uh. I mean. Do you have to?”

 

“Yes.” Alice said, flopping back down in the armchair. “Or it’s going to be done for me. And I’m not ashamed. I’m not hiding Tabitha fro the world, or making up a lie. Even if it wasn’t going to happen, I should be honest. Open. It’s the right thing to do.”

Rooster nods. “Yeah, I mean. That’s good. But y’know, you definitely shouldn’t have to go up on a stage and be like … ‘Hi my name is Alice and I fuck my husband on Mondays and Wednesdays, my girlfriend Tabitha on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and the weekends are for one-night stands!’”

 

“LANGUAGE.” Alice glowers at Rooster from the safety of her chair. “So what do I say?”

“Oh. Guh. Sorry.” She blinks. “Um. I … don’t know? I don’t think I ever, like … told people. About my relationship situation. On camera, I mean. Like, I know people know, because I don’t hide it, but … “ She sits down again as well. “Wait, Tabitha … Tabitha Armitage?”

 

“I’m surprised you know her. She’s kind of… behind the scenes most of the time.”

“Well, uh. I think we’ve interacted on Twitter. … shouldn’t helping you figure out how to announce this stuff be her job? Since it’s … her job?”

“It’s just awkward to talk to her about the details of it considering I was knuckle deep in -” Alice clears her throat. “Can I practice a couple of uh, speeches on you?”

Rooster snorts at ‘knuckle deep’. “Oh. Yeah, totally. Go for it.”

 

“Okay. Okay. My name is Alice McGowan. I’m the Oathkeeper, and I’ve been married for over two decades. You all know me. But what you might not know is that I’m…” her voice raises a few octaves. “In a polyamorous relationship with my husband and another womaaan.”

“… not. The worst. Maybe try saying it again? ‘I’m dating a woman.’ ‘Meet my girlfriend.’ That kinda thing, until you get used to it.”

 

“I am in love with my new girlfriend Tabitha Armitage.”

Rooster puts a fist to her mouth. “Oh wow. You’re in love. Oh man, congrats.” She actually looks a little twinkly-eyed – half-laughing? Tearing up? “So. Like. What’s your – what do you actually want people to know? About you and Tabitha? That you’re together, obviously. And – that it’s okay with you and Scott and all. D’you want to like …” She takes a deep breath and sits up straight. “Do you want to say anything about being queer? Or, uh, being poly? More generally? Like maybe how … it’s not evil?”

 

“It’s not. It’s not. I looked in the Bible, I pored over the word of the Lord, there’s nothing there about it. There’s nothing wrong with being… queer?” She hesitates. “I like that word. Queer. I’m queer. My name is Alice McGowan, the Oathkeeper, and I’m queer. Yes. Queer. There’s nothing wrong with it. Less than nothing. Even if there was a Hell, a kind and loving God wouldn’t send people there for being queer.”

Rooster grips the arms of the armchair … maybe a little too tightly. Good thing it’s probably built for super-strength. “Y-yeah. Please say that. God, please say something like that, Alice.” She blinks hard.

 

“You think so?” Alice winces as the arms of the chair dent and sag under Rooster’s grip. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. I mean, that’s good… context, right? Tabitha says context is very important in PR. So I’ll say that. I can say that. I mean, I’m passionate and I have strong beliefs and I’m honest. I should play to that! Not give a stilted PR statement!”

Rooster releases the chair. “Ah – jeez, your chair, I’m sorry, my bad -” She folds her hands in her lap, between her knees, and leans forward. “Uh. I can cover the repair. Yeah! That’s – I mean, you really care about this woman, y’know, and you clearly … you know how important that love is, and you could, you could really help a lot of people. Telling them about that.”

 

“We’re rich, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Alice waves a hand, clearly in a fantastic mood. Okay. Let me try this again:

My name is Alice McGowan, the Oathkeeper. I’m queer. I’m married to my husband, who I love dearly, and I’m also in a relationship with a woman. Some of you might ask about biblical values, but there’s nothing in the Bible  condemning this love. All love is preferable to hate, and even if there was a Hell, the kind and loving God I serve wouldn’t send anyone who’s queer there. I… love Scott. I love Tabitha. That’s not a sin. It’s serving our Lord by sharing joy and love and care and compassion -”

Rooster sniffs and rubs the back of a hand across her eyes. “Yeah. That sounds awesome.”

 

“Oh my goodness oh my goodness oh my goodness -” Alice dances a few steps. “Oh! I’m sorry, I’ve been very rude. Would you like to stay for dinner? It’s taco night.”

She sits up super straight. “Oh god. Wow. Don’t take this the wrong way but no thanks. Um. I just got a little … overwhelmed, I guess. But you, you’re gonna do fine, y’know? You probably have amazing speechwriters and s-stuff, and your heart’s – it’s in the right place.” She smiles a little crookedly. “I … I’m really honored you wanted to check with me about this, y’know? But I … believe you’ll be fine.”

 

Pause. “Can I hug you?”

“… sure.” She stands up and holds open her arms.

 

The smaller woman flings herself into Rooster’s arms. “Thank you, Maxine. You’re a true friend.”

Pause.


“Even if you are, ah, um… a… brasive?”

Max hugs back a little tentatively. “Uh. Thanks. You’re … really sweet.”

 

“Thank you.” Alice says. “I need to start dinner, the kids are home from school soon. But um, you’re welcome over any time. Scott said he really liked your cross country tour you did that one time.” She’s clearly vague on the details, having no interest in it herself.


“Heh. Thanks. That was a fun one.” She backs off. “So … yeah, I’m gonna head home. But let me know if you wanna talk again. Or if you want to take out some kind of huge gross monster, that would own. See you around!”