Family: Chop Chop

Chop chop chop. Slice slice slice.

 

Hurry hurry hurry or Chef will yell again.

 

How’s that sauce? Don’t it burn!

 

How’s that order of nachos going? They wanted it yesterday.

 

Sue Gilford put her head down and worked hard at prep. The kitchen became a mess of unending chores and tasks where the only highlight was that she could yell at the dishwasher if he were slow.

 

A hierarchy of yelling.

 

Sin watched from the sidelines, unnoticed for now, as the chef, who was the best that money could by, ran by, yelling.

 

He chuckled at some of the creative swears the man could really put out, and how red the man’s face was getting.

 

Apparently it was like this most nights, and a few of the staff were upset with his management style. Sin didn’t like unhappy employees. Unhappy employees were disloyal employees.

 

But he was paying for the best, and wanted to make sure that he was getting his money’s worth. The mayor and his mistress were going to have a table later tonight, and there might be a little extra pressure. So Sin watched, and waited for a moment that the head chef wasn’t screaming at someone.

 

Sue’s chef whites resembled her son’s artwork by now. She only had two jackets and she was going to have to visit the laundromat after work. No time for that now! Next order, lobster bisque! Sue hurried, gathered her pre-prepped elements and started assembling the plate.

 

She poured out some chilled soup into a pan to gently reheat and her hand jerked a little. A little of the soup splashed on the stovetop, but not a lot. Sue couldn’t get rid of the feeling that someone was watching.

 

Indeed, someone was. The head chef finally shut up for a long enough moment for Sin to get his attention, who quickly hurried over. The man may rule the kitchen, but Sin owned the kitchen, and possibly the man. You didn’t keep a thing like Sin waiting.

 

The dishwasher who was the only person that Sue could yell at rubbernecked on his way over, dropping a dish near Sue.

 

“Luis!” There was more she could have said. A lot more.Words like lazy, or just like you. She bit that back. She wasn’t that sort of person anymore. “Clean that up, please.” Luis shuffled away to find a broom, and Sue spun to set the dish of bisque on the pass. A shard of porcelain was under her foot, setting Sue up for a fall. Then it wasn’t there, seemingly kicked aside to the rest of the pile, though Sue’s foot didn’t touch it. It was a small thing that someone would not have noticed if they weren’t paying attention to little Sue Gilford.

 

Someone always was. The dish breaking wasn’t something that different in a kitchen, but the woman in the corner looked familiar. He motioned for the head chef to stop talking, then for the man to follow him. Sin’s eyes went icy blue as he looked at all the food, then stopped at the broken dish pile.

 

“Chef. Who’s this?”

 

Sue stopped mid-chop, readying a garnish. She’d known the men were coming, but thought that Chef was just showing the visitor around. At Sin’s words, she turned partially, and froze. It wasn’t just any visitor. She thought it might have been the maître d’, but noooooooooo. Sue paled behind her freckles. The boss.

 

Oh god, she needed this job.

 

“I’m Sue, sir.”

 

“My new apprentice chef, Susanna Gilford.” Chef Nerone nodded firmly. “I couldn’t run this place without her.” Then he glared at Sue as if saying don’t let that get to your head.

 

“Hmm.” He kept his eyes on Sue for a long moment, studying her. After a long moment, he broke eye contact, and looked at the broken dishes. They jumped from the floor into the trashcan of their own accord, and Sin looked up to Luis, who was returning with a broom and dustpan, flushing red.

 

“Be a little more careful, Luis. Please. If you think I’m terrifying, the Chef is worse.” Sin joked, though everyone knew it was a lie. He raised his voice a little, so it could carry to the rest of the kitchen.

 

“You’re all the best at your jobs here on the West Coast. I, or some of the people I trust, picked you, and hired -you- out of everyone else who tried to get a job here. Take pride in that. But also remember, I expect great things, from all of you. You’ve all worked hard, seized the opportunity. There’s always room for growth, for everyone.” He flashed an easy grin, and nodded to Chef Navarone, and more quietly. “You’ve done good work, here, Chef. Keep it up.” Sin nodded to him, and looked around once more.

 

How do you say I don’t want any trouble, I just want to do my job? Sue didn’t, so she stepped back, letting the bench hit her back. She swallowed and nodded as Chef made a reply.

 

Need this job need this job better than a short order fry cook Daniel deserves better.

 

It was the litany that kept her through endless days of slaving in a hot as heck kitchen.  

 

Sin nodded, and left the Chef to his work. This wasn’t his world, it was the Chef’s, and honestly any more interference could piss the guy off. He strode out of the kitchen, and looked around his club. His world. Everyone obeyed him, or wanted something from him.

 

Sitting in a booth on the far side of the club was an elderly man in a pure white suit, a smoldering cane clutched in his hands tightly as he too examined the bar from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. Upon making eye contact with Sin, his expression widened to show eerily perfect teeth in an otherwise crooked grin. Everett DuPont nodded his head to the club owner before lowering his hat once more. Still… It felt as if the man’s eyes were upon him.

 

Life was good, here. Except….

 

Sin got on his cell phone, and called his information people. “I need some information on Susanna Gilford. Full background, family, everything.” He paused a moment, as he walked, sharing the brief nod with DuPont as he passed.

“Of course, sir.”

 

“And one more thing,” once he was out of earshot of DuPont. “Man in the hat, at the bar. Get me whatever you can on him, too.”

 

Sin hung up the phone. Sometimes, it was better to act on a hunch… Hunches could save his life.

 

Family: Welcome to the Garden

Eden, Los Angeles

 

It was the hottest new club in LA. People said you could get anything you wanted there. Privacy? Drugs? You got it. Security was good if you wanted safely, and the food even better thanks to the Michelin class chef that could be seen at the pass.

 

It was early yet, but the seats were filling up though the dance floor was still scarce.

 

The Damselfly arrived on the back of a six-foot-tall woman, eyes dilated and full of admiring wonder.

 

Nat is immediately recognised as the famous Damselfly. A hostess with a thousand watt smile and a dress with a slit all the way to her hip welcomes you and Vin.

 

“Table for two, Mx Zygoptera?”

 

Nat gasped, delighted. “You used the right address, oh you’re wonderful. You’re so good. What’s your name? Um yes! Table for two, please,” Nat said, then whispered excitedly in eir date’s ear: “Vin, I’m a celebrity. How neat is that. Can we get food? I want some food. I hear it’s good here.”

 

The hostess grinned. “Yes, Mx Zygoptera, you certainly are. I’m Priscilla. Let me show you to your table.”“Priscilla, you are wonderful. You can totally call me Nat though.”

 

“And yes, food can certainly be ordered. Chef Nerone is famous for his risotto.”

 

Pandora grinned widely as she examined the club with wide-eyed wonder. She was completely out of it at this point, her mind having wandered far-afield whilst her legs had carried the pair of drugged-out buddies to this bright and colorful location. At the mention of food from the Damselfly on her back, the tall woman nodded eagerly and licked her lips as her stomach grumbled.

 

There’s a woman lounging near the booths. It’s hard to miss her – even though she’s only about five feet two, and maybe a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, she’s dyed her asymmetrical haircut neon green and bright pink. Her hands shuffle a deck of cards in a practiced motion. She’s not here to dance — she’s scanning the other patrons, looking for something else. When she sees Vin and Nat, she tilts her head to one side and gives them a long, considering look.

 

“Holy shit, risotto,” the Damselfly whispered reverently. “I can’t remember the last time I ordered that. My sister made super good risotto back in the day, and whenever I got it at restaurants it was disappointing. Just… yeah.”

 

Ey dislodged from Vin’s shoulders and waved to a few staring fans with a cheerful “hiiii!” before settling down onto the chair.

 

[Risotto… Risotto…] Vin watched her hands with clear interest as she signed, seemingly shocked that she could understand what they were ‘saying.’ [Have you noticed that when I move my hands like this it is almost like I am saying words? But then, when I do this…] Vin waved her hands around randomly. [When I do that it does not make any sense. Isn’t that weird?] She took her own spot in the booth, a dreamy smile still upon her lips.

 

“Well it’s like,” Nat struggled to find the words, “when you have intent… that makes all the difference. Your intention infuses meaning into your… movements? It’s the same with spoken words. And symbols on paper. We shape the world around us… using intent and the force of will.”

 

[Yeah… Yeah… That makes so much fucking sense!]

 

Priscilla set menus down at table, still smiling that thousand watt smile. “Now, our specials of the day are lobster risotto, sea bass with an apple cider reduction, and I especially recommend the tiramisu for dessert. Matthew will be your waiter for the evening, and he’ll be by to take your orders.” She left them to their decisions. “Fuuuuuuck that all sounds so good”

 

Nat ogled the menu for a few moments, squinting and blinking to try to read the words that didn’t seem to want to stay still, then ey set the menu down and looked over to see that one of the people looking at them was kind of different. Somebody who looked more confused and intrigued than starstruck.

 

So of course Nat grinned and waved.

 

The obnoxiously haired girl seemed to take that as an invitation. She sliiid into the booth, wearing an audacious grin. “Mx. Damselfly,” she said. “Everyone’s buzzing about you. Who’s your friend?”

“It’s Pandora!” Nat volunteered loudly. “We’re dating!”

 

Pandora’s face was literally INSIDE of her menu as she tried to read through it. She gave up after a few moments and tossed her menu aside. [Who thought it would be a good idea to make the words on this menu move!? It makes it really hard to read!] It was then that she noticed the newcomer and blinked at them. [You have cool hair. Very colorful.]

 

“Thanks.” Elise grinned. “I like your hair too. And you’re dating, eh? Good shit. Good shit. Elise Atlas, by the way.”

 

Dr. Atlas was one of the Infinity Legion’s premiere scientists, explorers, and researchers. He was known for his affairs and his womanizing as much as he was his work with the Legion. He adopted the name ‘Atlas’ after joining the Legion as a way to signify his allegiance with the Legion’s mission of one Earth. He has been missing for over two decades, but his legacy remains in statues and museums and university wings around the world.

 

The significance of the name sailed right over the Damselfly’s head. “Oh dang you understand ASL? Now you have to hang out with us!”

 

“I know a lot of things.” Elise said. “I’m pretty great like that.”

 

Vin’s eyes narrowed and she looked into Elise’s eyes in a challenging fashion. [So… You could understand that… But can you understand… THIS!?] The drugged-out superheroine waved her arms about wildly for a few moments and then stopped. [Got you there! There is no way that you could understand THAT.]

 

[We are extremely high on drugs,] Nat signed to Elise. [Want some?]

 

[I’m not THAT high, Nat.] Vin signed back with a sigh despite most certainly being ‘that high.’

 

Matthew the waiter, handsome in a rough around the edges way, approached the table with an orders pad and a pen. He had a tattoo on his neck, and polite brown eyes. “Would you ladies like some drinks to start the night?”

 

Folding eir hands, Nat waited for the ladies to order, since apparently enbies weren’t first in line.

 

Pandora looked to Nat as she suddenly realized something, eyes wide in horror.

[Oh shit, Nat… I think I might be totally fucking broke.]

 

“Oh whatever, I got you, I brought my card,” Nat waved that sentiment away. “Get whatever you want! Both of ya.”

 

Pandora squealed with delight and then turned to the waiter with a semi-serious expression. [What is the most amazing drink you have on the menu? Which one will blow my goddamn mind with flavor?]

 

Matthew smiled apologetically, looking around. “Sorry, honey. I don’t know sign. Could you ladies help her out?”

 

“There’s a third?” Genuinely confused.

 

Vin blinked and looked around for this mysterious third lady.

 

“Ladies?” Elise raised an eyebrow. “I’m… technically a lady, although I don’t know that it’s the most accurate description, what with all the fuckin’ and cursin’ and drinkin’ and –” Elise grins, clearly unashamed with that long resume of debauchery. “And this is the Damselfly.” She says that as though its explanation enough, and then leans into Nat. “And I would absolutely love those drugs.” wink.

“Oh, I can help! With what Vin– um. She just wants your most amazing drink. Something that’ll blow her mind. And I’ll wait for the ladies to finish ordering like you asked but I want a drink too.” Nat looked around for the third lady again.

 

Matthew gave Nat a confused look. “Er….what would you like to have?” He clearly had no idea who Nat was.

 

“I want! The fruitiest and sugariest and most colorful drink you’ve got.” Ey grinned. And the risotto. Wait, are we not ordering food yet? I want the risotto.”

 

“I want that drink too!” Elise chimed in, equally as exuberant. “The fruity and sugar one. Thank you. You know what, I’ll just have what The Damselfly’s having.”

“I like you, Elise Atlas.” [I like her too. She’s got panache. That’s a word, right? Panache?]

“So! Three Bubblegum Explosions? A risotto…and?” Matthew risked smiling at the other two not as yet confirmed ladies.

 

“A risotto aaaaaand a garlic bread aaaaaaand a cheese n’ crab dip.”

Nat turned eir eyes to Vin, ready to translate.

 

Pandora’s stomach grumbled loudly as she once again attempted to read the menu in front of her, eyes going a bit cross-eyed before she wound up giving up again and ordering the first thing that popped into her head. [I want a mac-n-cheeseburger, buffalo fries, onion rings, and chipotle mayonnaise on it. Could I also get potato skins and a salad on the side?]

 

Nat translated in real time, rattling off the order to Matthew, being asked to repeat it, asking Vin to repeat it, and translating some more.

 

Matthew, to his credit, recited their order accurately. “Thanks again, ladies!” He said as he walked off.

 

[Wow… I cannot believe he actually accepted my order.] Vin burst into a fit of silent giggles. [I really like this place, Nat. We need to come here more often.]

 

“Yeah, whoever runs this place knows their shit,” Nat squinted, trying to turn an appraising eye to the decor. After a moment, ey thought of something. “Oh! Yes. You wanted drugs. How’s your metabolism, Elise? Baseline or Para?”

 

“I’m a Para.” she said. “But not the laser-from-the-eyes type.”

[Holy shit! Really!? ME TOO! We’re like… Sisters or something!]

 

“Right but like. Are you, like… super metabolism or whatever. Dazzlefly will kinda mess you up if your constitution isn’t super. I have something else for baselines.”

 

“Give me the regular stuff.” Elise gave a crooked grin. “It’s for the best, anyways. I don’t want to make an ass out of myself around you two rad as fuck individuals.”

“I like you very much, Elise Atlas,” Nat said, sliding a folded paper packet across the table, “and this is for you. It’s called Fly Dancer, and you should only take it if you don’t have anything super important to do tomorrow. It doesn’t taste too good, but dissolves in liquid.”

 

[It’s 100% safe though!] Vin signed with a grin. [I would know. I was the… The… Ummmm… What was my title again? It was some kind of an animal…]

 

“Lab rat?” Nat pondered. “Guinea pig! Guinea pig.”

 

[That was it! Thank you, beautiful~!] Vin blew a kiss across the table to em.

 

“I always have something important to do, and I never do.” Elise sprinkled her Fly Dancer into water and chugged it in one go. “I’m a gambler, darlings, and a nomad. I don’t really do the whole 9 to 5 thing.”

Leaning over and draping an arm around Elise’s shoulder, Vin began to sign once more. [Elise, you’re pretty fucking awesome, you know that? Like… Damn… Do you like dancing?]

 

“Right? I feel like. We’ve stumbled over a… a kindred spirit. Also she’s cute? She’s cute. You’re cute.”

 

[She is totally cute. Hot too. Hot and cute. Both. At the same time. Kind of like you, Nat.]

 

Elise beamed at the attention, clearly enjoying it. “I like to dance, but I don’t think I got much in the way of ability.”

“Once we’re all high as proverbial kites,” Nat smiled, “who cares? It’ll be three hot people dancing, two of whom are pro-level, but which two? Who knows? Can anyone ever really know?”

 

“A mystery for the ages.”

“Aaaand here are three bubblegum explosions for three explosively charming girls,” Matthew smiled, setting them on the table.

 

Vin held up two fingers. [Two girls. There are two girls. I looked and I could not find a third.] She then picked up her drink and immediately began to drink it down as if it were water.

 

“I… still don’t understand sign, sorry.”

 

“She said there are two girls here. One. Two. Count ends there. No third girl. That getting through to you yet?”

Sudden realization dawned on Nat’s face. “Ohhhh, I’m being misgendered,” ey marveled, “I thought there was a third woman here! I was really confused!”

 

Vin nodded as she continued to drink down her Bubblegum Explosion. It was just sweet enough that it made it difficult for her to stop drinking until it was almost all gone. With a long exhalation, Vin grinned at her two companions for the night. [Are you going to drink those?]

 

“I’ll get to it,” Nat assured.

 

Baffled, Matthew stammered, “uh, would you like… another? Or something else?”

 

The mute belched in a distinctly unladylike fashion and then burst into another fit of giggles before giving Matthew a thumbs-up and nodding.

 

He toddled off, still looking distinctly off-kilter.

 

Elise propped her hand on her chin and grinned off after him. “I think we shake him.” she said. “I think he’s used to people who fit nicely in their little boxes. Not that I haven’t fit in a few boxes in my day.”

“Shouldn’t be that weird,” Nat began, “with this place’s, um… I’m sure he… but I guess.” Ey nodded, as if a coherent thought had successfully been conveyed.

 

Vin blinked. [What?]

 

“Yeah, probably!” Nat agreed.

 

[Ohhhhh! Okay.] She nodded. [I get ya.]

 

Elise just shrugged and took a loooooong sip on her bubblegum explosion. “Maybe it’s his first day on the job.”

“Yeah, probably!” Nat rotated in the booth and changed eir floating position a bit so that ey could flirt with both Vin and Elise effectively. “Elise Atlas. Mysterious gambler, stylish and cool. We know so little about you! Tell us more.”

 

Arm still draped across Elise’s shoulders, Pandora nodded in agreement. [Yeah! What is your story, Elise? What do you do? What brought you to this neck of the world?]

 

“My dad was Legion, my mom was a nurse.” Elise grinned at both of her new companions, soaking up the attention. “Well, she’s still a nurse, but she’s like… President Nurse, or whatever, relatively cushy job at the moment. Anyways, she wanted me to go to school, I wanted to chase my passion – which is playing cards… I bounce up and down the coast, up here, then Rock City, the Bay… No real commitments, nothing tying me down but a platonic lifemate and a van.”

“That’s so fuckin romantic,” Nat breathed.

 

[So you’re a professional gambler? That is fucking awesome.] She picked up her glass, tried to take a drink from it, and frowned deeply when she realized it was empty. Her smile returned moments later, however, as she turned to Elise again. [So who is this platonic lifemate? Are they as hot as you are?]

 

“I dunno, they’re a man, and I’m weapons grade gay.“that’s a familiar turn of phrase…” He draws attention from the ladies, so I guess? He’s a dude named Jericho. Allergic to shirts.”

Nat squinted. “Are yoouuuuu. Monosexual tho.”

 

Vin’s grin widened a little at the direction this conversation was going as she once again attempted to drink from her empty glass with the same result. [Fucking Hell… Someone needs to invent bottomless booze already.] She looked to Elise, waiting for her answer to Nat’s question.

 

“I used to think I was, when I was nineteen and dumb and still figuring things out. Now I just know I’m not into masculine dudes.” Elise said, clearly being a bit careful in her choice of words. “If that makes sense? I just try to… go with the flow, these days.”

“That was a good answer,” Nat grinned. “That was the answer I wanted you to do.”

 

Pandora turned to look at Nat, catching eir eye and flashing a wry grin before blowing em a kiss across the table.

 

Elise considered that for a moment. “Y’know, when I saw the Damselfly roll in, I was hoping for like… an autograph. I mean, I thought a free dinner and drinks was the best case. But hey, like I said. I’ll just… go with the flow.”

Her stomach gurgles.


After that risotto gets here.”

“Yeah for real,” Nat leaned eir head back against Vin’s shoulder. “I’m starving. This risotto probably is gonna disappoint but I like. I just had to know. Anyway.

 

Ey turned to face Elise, catching her blue eyes with eir green. “I’m not– Elise. Elise I’m, please understand, I’m not going to fuck you tonight? Because I’m not sober, and I don’t fuck people for the first time when I’m not sober. But if you want to make out a lot? We should do that?”

 

[Oh yeah! I had forgotten that you have that rule…] Vin chuckled lightly as she nuzzled her cheek against Nat’s. [I don’t know if I follow that one very well. Haven’t in the past, at least.]

 

Elise shot a thumbs up, grinning. “Sure, fine by me. Ain’t goin’ to push on a ground rule like that, especially not an ethical one.”

“Elise Atlas, I really like you and I think we should all have sex at the next available sober opportunity.” Sage nod.

 

[So long as I get some hugs and kisses tonight as well, I am down for that.]“Well you I can fuck tonight.” The superheroine looked to Elise and grinned wryly. [I like you as well. You’re fucking rad.]

 

“I am fucking rad.” Elise leaned back, luxuriating in the attention. “I should try to swing by LA a little more. Maybe even make the trip to… where’s the place you dance? The Glen?”

“Hell yes. You’d love it. Top of the line theatre tech, good food, good booze, and wall-to-wall gorgeous queers who don’t blink an eye at paranormals needing to chill out and have a good time.”

 

[Their music is also top of the line. Probably has some of the best in-house sets I have ever experienced and I go to A LOT of shows. The Glen is pretty much my fave club.]

 

“I definitely have to try it. This place is… okay. I have a deal with the owner, he lets me gamble, I get some perks, and I don’t take too much money from the house.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s the owner? Maybe we should meet ‘im.”

 

Vin’s attention had fallen upon a spotlight which now danced around the room, watching it with the interest of only someone as high as she was could possibly manage.

 

If anybody was looking in the direction of the front of the club, they’d see Priscilla the hostess talking to Matthew. She appeared to be hiding a smile behind a menu held up to her face while Matthew talked.

 

“Some guy named Blake? I dunno. Hey, what is our waiter doing?” Elise propped her chin on her hand, scowling. “I’m starving. And I want another drink.”

“Blake,” Nat nodded, a little dreamily. If ey had been sober, it would have dawned on em right away. Luckily, ey was not even remotely sober. “That rings a bell. Anyway. Yeah I want the food too! And–” ey drained eir drink, “another drink!”

 

Pandora blinked and turned her eyes to their waiter and the hostess, squinting her eyes as if she desperately needed glasses. [I dunno. Kinda looks like he’s doing the worm standing. That is actually kind of impressive. Belly dancing is not as easy as you would think.]

 

Matthew and Priscilla finished their conversation, with the former wandering to the kitchen pass with an enlightened look on his face. He soon came back with another waitstaff, both of whom were laden with plates of delicious food.

 

“Ladies, enby, your dinner!” He directed where the dishes went.

 

“More Bubblegum Explosions?” Matthew collected the empty glasses.

 

“Oh, he learned! Yay Matthew!” Nat smiled and clapped both hands. “And um! I will have… your finest cosmo, please!”

 

[Oh my gosh! A mac and cheeseburger! How did he know I wanted one?] Vin seemed to have Andrew Jackson, he did all that, but he still adopted two American Indian boys. what. forgotten ordering the dish and immediately scooped the odd dish up before tearing a large chunk out of it with her teeth. [Can I get a beer? The shittiest one you have, please.]

After translating, Nat added: “She’ll also have a water, and she’s not allowed to have another drink until she’s finished it.” [Awwwww! Come on, Nat! Don’t be a party pooper!] “I’m not. You just need water.

 

“One water, one Bubblegum Explosion,and one Cosmo. Coming right up!”

 

Elise immediately begins to tear into her food like a starving woman. It’s a wonder that someone so small can put that much away so quickly.

 

Nat leaned over and sniffed at the rice dish, then blinked in pleasant surprise. Ey cautiously picked up a forkful of the food and tasted it, and eir eyebrows shot up. Ey shoveled in another forkful.

 

“Either the drugs have an effect I’ve never had before,” there was genuine awe in eir voice, “or this is the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. It’s… just like Susie used to make, but… but better, somehow!”

 

Pandora had not heard her friend, far too busy stuffing her face full of delicious burgery-goodness. A wide smile spread across her lips as she ate, the food on her plate disappearing at a remarkable pace.

 

“The staff here are pretty great.” Elise bragged once she inhaled the garlic bread, spooning crab dip onto a chip. “I’ve uh, fooled around with a couple of the bartenders and regulars. Everyone’s super nice. Not surprised the cook’s a boss.”

“I would fuck someone who made me risotto like this in a second.” Ey made a face. “Unless it actually was my sister. Not going there. Didn’t go there with Buster, and she’s pretty hot.”

 

Pandora’s food seemed to have vanished as quickly as it had appeared, the mute woman leaning back with her hands resting upon her stomach with a satisfied expression upon her lips. [That… Was so fucking good. Like… Holy fucking shit.]

 

Matthew came back with a tray of drinks. “How’s the food? Can I get you ladies and enby anything else?” He seemed pleased that he was getting the terms right.

 

“Matthew, I want to personally hug whoever made this risotto,” Nat told him with a fierce intensity. “Chef, sous-chef, whoever was involved. I want to hug them for reminding me that there was anything good about my childhood. That was too much information. Can I do that? Can I hug them? I’ll hug them with money later also.”

 

Matthew beamed. “I’m sure we can arrange something like that. Will that be all?”

 

“Drinks! Oh.” Nat saw the drink. “No, that’s it, thanks Matthew.”

 

Picking up the glass of water set in front of her, Vin grumbled as she began to drink it down. It tasted soooooo bland in comparison to her usual orders and thus found it harder to drink than it really should have been.

“Attagirl! Oh huh, I forgot to order water for myself. Oops.” Vin grumbled and pouted.

 

Matthew nodded and made his way through the swinging kitchen doors.

 

“Hey.” Elise said, quietly. “Uh, I don’t really talk to – I have siblings somewhere out there, too. I just think you’re really cool, and I hope you know that, no matter what family is or isn’t in your life. That’s about as mushy as I’m ever gonna get, okay?”

Nat blinked, surprised by the sudden sentimentality, but in a moment ey grinned and wrapped both arms around Elise. “You’re really cool!!” Ey insisted. “Elise Atlas, you can very much stay.”

 

Noticing the hugs happening beside her, Vin grinned and wrapped both of her friends up in a hug of her own. She nuzzled her cheeks against theirs affectionately as she gave them both a squeeze with her long arms.

 

There was a bustling from the direction of the kitchen and Chef Nerone burst forth through the swinging doors. He sailed forward like a man of war vessel, dragging Matthew and someone else in his wake.

 

“I had heard that the Damselfly was here and that she wanted to hug the creator of her spectacular dinner!”

 

“Er, Chef, the Damselfly prefers ey, em, and eir…” Matthew consulted the penned noted on his wrist.

 

Chef Nerone ignored the opinion of a lowly waitstaff. “The Damselfly honors my kitchen with her offers of hugs! But I cannot take all the credit for myself. This is my apprentice, Susanna. She, too, deserves your tribute as she slaved over the stirring of the risotto!” He reached out behind him without looking and dragged a freckled and blonde woman to stand before him.

 

Susanna blinked, overwhelmed.

 

It didn’t dawn on em, not right away. Ey gave an enthusiastic, sweet-scented hug to Chef Nerone first, and then hovered backward and turned to face Susanna.

 

“Thank you so much! It was just amazing, I haven’t had risotto that good since I lived with my sis–“

 

There was the lightbulb. Eir eyes widened, staring at Susanna’s face. “–ter…”

 

[Hey… Nat… That lady who made the same kind of risotto as your sister and shares her name has your freckles.] The still-drugged woman chuckled a little. [Isn’t that wild? What a weird coincidence, huh? It’s like… Fate or something.]

 

Susanna stared back at Nat. Her jaw was slack and she appeared to be working out a word.

 

“Pe…Pe-t-”

 

Matthew looked back and forth, his waiter senses picking up drama.

 

Elise could tell that something was up, but she knew this wasn’t her place. She downed what was left of her drink and just watched.

 

“Um–” Nat’s eyes, still dilated wide, darted back and forth. Ey twisted in midair to check and make sure that eir friends hadn’t also transformed into family members. “This is. Is this actually happening? This all seems extremely improbable. You’re — are you– Susie?”

 

“Su-Susanna. Yes. I’m Susie.” She continued staring at Nat, her hands twisting in her apron. “Petey? Is that you?”

 

“My name’s Nat now,” eir voice was still a bit disbelieving, “Nat… Zygoptera. The Damselfly.”

 

“I…what’s going on?” Baffled, Susie looked around, perhaps trying to spot a hidden camera crew or such like.

 

Chef Nerone looked overjoyed. “I have brought together two sisters who have lost contact with each other!” He boomed, hugging both Susie and Nat to his generous torso. “Susanna, stay with your sister and her friends, you have the night off! I will send you the finest patisseries from the kitchen!” He let them go, like doves into the wind, and marched back into his domain.

 

“I– I’m not–” Nat looked utterly discombobulated, hanging in midair next to eir equally baffled-looking long-lost sister. Ey looked to Vin and Elise with pleading eyes. “Is this happening?”

 

“Yeah.” Elise said, squeezing Nat’s hand in an attempt to be comforting. “It kind of is, yeah.”

Suddenly realizing what was happening, Vin blinked and pulled Nat into even more of a comforting and supportive hug against her. She watched Susanna as if she were some kind of a mythical beast which she had never seen before.

 

All alone, Susanna looked increasingly uncomfortable by the stares of onlookers from the other tables. She twisted her apron in her hands. “I…excuse me.” She backed away and retreated towards the staffrooms in the back.

 

“W-wait!” Nat held out a hand. “I– I’m–“

 

Forgotten, Matthew had taken refuge at the bar where he and the barkeeper observed with wide eyed fascination.

 

“I’ll– be right back!” Nat stammered to eir friends and swooped in the direction Susanna had gone, flying over the heads of diners and deftly sailing around elaborate chandeliers.

 

Vin turned to Elise and blinked a few times, now alone with her new friend. She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then finally closed it with a sigh. The shock of what was going on seemed to have shaken her out of her drug-addled state for the time being as she took Elise’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Whether she was reassuring the woman or herself was another question entirely.

 

“Do you… think ey’ll be okay?” Elise asked, slightly nervous.

 

[Yeah. Yeah, I think Nat will be fine. Eir one tough cookie.] The mute gave Elise a small and reassuring smile, squeezing her hand. [I would know. Ey have punched me in the face many a time during training. Can dish out one heck of a whooping.]

 

Elise burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me? I can’t picture em punching anybody.”

[I am totally fucking serious!] Vin replied with a silent chuckle of her own. [To be fair though, ey generally uses grappling instead of straight-up punches. Don’t know how many people out there can say they have been both beaten up and slept with the one and only Damselfly.]

 

The green and purple haired girl grins. “I don’t intend to join that club. But one out of two ain’t bad.”

[Totally! That one is pretty spectacular as well.] Vin grinned back and wrapped her arm around Elise’s waist to pull her close. [Like… Wow is it a good club.]

 

The gambler griiiiinned. “Y’know, if ey’re not here, we can get more drinks. Ey won’t make us drink water.”

 

[Holy shit! You’re totally right! I should kiss you for coming up with that!] Vin snatched up her second drink, putting aside the water as she chugged it down with a grin. [That’s the ticket!]

 

“Should? You totally can.” Elise half-jokingly puckers up and winks.

 

With a wry grin, Vin pulled Elise close to lock lips with her. The kiss is small at first, just a peck, but then the mute took a breath in through her nose and deepened it just a little bit.

 

Elise returns the kiss with enthusiasm, then waves to Matthew. “Hey! We need more drinks over here!”

 

Susanna had only been in the staff area for a few seconds when she heard the Damselfly’s quavering voice call into the room.

 

“Um. Hello?”

 

Susanna came out from the women’s toilets, holding a towel to her face. She lowered the damp cloth. “P-. Nat. Hi.” She stood, staring at Nat, looking for her little brother in Nat’s features.

 

“Hi,” Nat floated a little further into the room, looking around. There didn’t seem to be anyone else on break here at the moment. “Um. I’m sorry for… look, I. Uh. How… have you been?”

 

Susie sat down heavily. “Been..okay. Yeah. Okay is a word. Got married to Zachary Gilford. You’re an uncle? By the way. He left us, and now I’m here. How’ve you been? I see you fly now.” She appeared wide eyed still.

 

“I… I’m not an uncle cuz I’m not a boy, but, um. Yeah. I fly. I’m, uhm. A Legionnaire. I’m sorry to hear about Zachary. He never, um. Deserved you.”

 

Susanna nodded. “It makes sense you’re not a boy, seeing as you kept stealing my hairclips and ribbons.” She paused, worried. “This…isn’t because I used to play dress up with you? Paul and Dad always got mad at that.”

 

Nat laughed a little shakily. “Other way around. No I um. Yeah. I’m genderqueer. I go by ‘ey’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’. Outside of Glenwood Springs, people are um. Actually pretty chill about it.”

 

“Yeah, the “outside” is a lot more….varied than Glenwood Springs. Legionnaire, huh? That’s great. You must know the Oathkeeper.”

 

“Yeah, um, I’m in the video where she came out as bi and poly, actually. I was the flying kid who hugged her around the neck. She’s my, um.” Nat blushed a little. “General mom, I call her.”

 

“That’s…great. I’m happy for you.” She gave Nat a fragile smile. “So…what do I call you now? What would Isaac call you? That’s your nephew.”

 

“Oh. Um. Well, ‘unty’, I guess? But you can call me your sibling, or– Benny recently called me his ‘enster’, that was cute.”

 

Susie froze. “You’ve met Benny?”

 

Nat realized eir gaffe immediately, looking embarrassed. “Oh um. Yeeees? Only very recently but yes? Buster too. I mean… your sister who used to be named Bartholomew and is now named Beth, and goes by Buster.”

 

“What?”

 

Ey screwed up eir face in thought, trying to make sure ey made any sense through the drug-induced haze. “Benny… is a barista. His identical twin, whom you used to know as Bartholomew, is actually a girl, and she’s named Beth now. She drives a tank for PHALANX, and they call her ‘Buster’ cuz it’s ‘Beth’ plus ‘Schuster’.”

 

“Bart is a girl?” Susie worked her mouth soundlessly.  “What?”

 

“Umm. Here, I’ll–” Nat pulled out eir smartphone, tapping and swiping through the gallery app. Finally, ey turned the phone around and showed Susanna a photo. In it, three of the Schuster siblings posed, dressed in nice clothing, joy in their faces. Benny looked the same as he always had, but for the glitter in his eyes. Nat was in the center, dressed in garish but admittedly matching clothes. And on the other side… a muscular woman, her hair in a soft mohawk dyed in toothpaste colors, flexing for the camera and grinning wide. She bore almost no resemblance to the depressive, sullen brother that Susanna had known in her childhood, but she could see the features if she really looked for them.

 

“This is the night I met them again, a couple of months ago.” Nat said quietly.

 

Susie clutched the phone, staring at the happy faces. She gave the phone back to Nat, was quiet for a moment, then burst into tears.

 

“Why does God hate us? Why are we all such freaks?”

 

“Wh-what?” Nat had no idea how to react to that. “S-Susie, I– that’s– d… d’you i dunno want a hug..?”

 

Susie sobbed in her hands. “I just want to be normal.” It actually didn’t sound like that, but Nat got the gist of it.

 

“Wouldn’t you rather be… um. Happy?”

 

That increased the onslaught of tears. “I was happy. I was normal. I had a loving husband. I just couldn’t keep my freak to myself.”

 

“You’re a paranormal too,” Nat whispered. “We’re all Paranormals. Susanna, it’s not — it’s not a bad thing to have powers. It’s not bad.”

 

Susie looked up at Nat. She had always been hideous with blotchy eyes and nose after a crying bout, and she still was now. Ah, childhood memories.

 

“Then why do so many bad things happen to us?”

 

“Because our role models fucked up,” Nat’s voice was steel, suddenly. “Because we weren’t taught right. Because we had to fight to get out. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t get to be okay.”

 

Susie hiccuped. “Yeah. I know. I moved back in with mom and dad after Zach kicked us out. Why do you think I married him in the first place? He got me out of there.” She hiccuped again and wiped her face with her towel.

 

“He’s gone,” Nat offered, “and you’re still out. And you’re…finding siblings again.”

 

“Yeah.” She stared at her towel, then up at Nat. A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Get over here and hug me, you brat.”

 

And those spindly limbs were around her, lifting her into the air with shocking strength, a sweet natural scent like sugar and musk and flowers filling her nose, the only thing familiar about it was that hair, that silky orange hair that still looked and felt the same against her cheek.

 

Susie hugged her little sibling back, not even minding her feet dangled beneath her. This was okay. This was good. She had her own issues with Ben and Bart, but she’ll sort them out later.

 

Family: Guess Schu’s Coming to Dinner

THE MCGOWAN MANSION

CHICAGO

 

The McGowan mansion was at the top of a hill, with a winding white stone path leading up to a gate and the front gardens.

 

Benny Schuster looked over at his boyfriend, a cold sweat on his forehead. “Here we are!” He said in a voice typically reserved for I’m going to throw up!

 

Callister looked like he wished he packed a  hipflask of moonshine. “Yes. Here we are.” He considered the McGowan mansion. He did not suggest that they “lose their way and go have burgers instead”. He was trying to behave. Flashing a tight smile at Benny, he said, “I’m looking forward to this.” Well, that’s what he said. His tone said we’re going to be fine, we’re going to get out of this alive. That grip on Benny’s hand was trying not break the blond man’s hand.

 

The gates open as soon as Callister’s done talking, and the two guests can amble up the white stone path. The double doors leading to the McGowan home are… surprisingly un-reinforced. They could probably be shouldered past by a determined burglar.


Of course, who would be stupid enough to break in on the McGowans?

Benny escorted Callister up the path. He took a deep breath. He nodded, either to Cal or to himself. He pushed the doorbell.

 

Callister nodded back. We can do this. We can do this. We can do this without bloodshed.  Hello stray thought.

 

After a pause the door opened, and Scott McGowan smiled at both of them. “I’m so glad you could both make it!” he said, sounding genuine. “Alice really wanted this to happen. I’m not one hundred percent sure why, but thank you for indulging her. Can I take your coats, get you a drink?”

He guided them into the living room.

 

“Yes, thank you sir—Mister Mc—Scott,” Benny stumbled, handing over his coat and walking in but staying close to Callister.

 

Callister, too, handed over his coat. He was sedately dressed, and had left out the warpaint/guyliner because seriously, this was dinner, not battle. “Thank you, sir.” He debated. “I’ll just have water for now.  Quite a walk up the driveway,” he tried to joke. He slipped his arm around Benny’s waist.

This seemed to calm Benny down, who pressed one cheek against Callister’s chest and stayed close.

 

“That’s one water and one drink, got it.” Scott nodded. “You guys like pizza? It seemed a safe bet.”

“Yes that is fine”

Okay, they could do this. They couldn’t fuck up a pizza order. “Sure, that sounds good.”

 

“Great. Alice is just prepping the crusts in the kitchen. We’ll invite you in in a bit. I’ll go get those drinks.”

Callister did not comment on how threatening that sounded. Oathkeeper prepping the crusts. Instead he kept his arm around Benny’s waist, looking around the place.

 

“I’ve only been here once before,” Benny said, looking around as well, “it was spaghetti night.”

 

There are pictures of the McGowan children on the walls, plaques of their achievements at school, a couple of newspapers framed to show the front page news that the McGowan parents had achieved… Other than the occasional signs of their occupations at the Legion, it looked… normal. There was even a clay craft made by the youngest McGowan in between some chick lit books about shopping and friends on the bookshelf.

 

“Spaghetti night,” Callister marvelled. “Who in the world does spaghetti night? I mean, apart from boarding school dinner halls.”

 

“That’s what Buster said,” Benny went to a nearby loveseat and dropped himself into it with shaky legs.

 

A young girl, fourteen maybe, appeared in the doorway with a glass of water in one hand and Scotch in the other. “Mom told me to tell you that we’re about to start making our pizzas.” she said, a touch sullen. “She also said that you should have some water with every drink that you have.”

 

Callister looked down at her, surprised. He turned to Benny. “Well, you’re not having my water.”

 

“You must be Ruth,” Benny smiled. “Hi, I’m Benny, Nat’s older brother. This is my boyfriend Callister. It’s nice to meet you in person!”

 

“Yeah. Hi.” Ruth said, managing the bare minimum of politeness. Then she paused and glanced at Callister. “You’re a Freelancer, right?”

‘For the last couple weeks, yeah.”

 

“Could you get me like, some informational pamphlets? Or a number to call about their teen programs?”

Benny’s eyebrows shot upward, but he didn’t say anything yet.

 

Callister flicked his eyes towards the kitchen then back at Ruth. “Yeah. But most of this stuff is on the net. You afraid your mom will check your browsing history?”

 

“Pfft. Like she even knows what a browsing history is. But Dad might narc.”

“Yeah, okay, you can check my phone right now. It’s not on wifi.” Callister shrugged, pulling out said device and handed it over after unlocking it.

 

Callister could almost hear Benny’s nervous sweating.

 

“We’re just trading Pokemon. Stop that, Benny.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

 

“Cool. Thanks. You two should go in the kitchen before Mom comes down to see what’s taking you so long.”

 

“And don’t steal my Magikarp. It’s almost a Gyrados.”

“Okay Ruth nice to meet you thanks—” Benny stood, wiped his brow with a sleeve, took Callister’s hand, and led him to the dining room.

 

The dining room and kitchen were part of one big room, separated by a counter island. Scott and Alice were laying out pizza crusts and toppings.


“We like to make our own pizzas.” Alice said cheerfully in lieu of a greeting. “It just seems like so much more of a family activity, don’t you think?”

“Sure!” Benny agreed automatically.

 

Callister’s “family activities” in the past were limited to:

 

  1. Conquering the world
  2. Boning Benny and then Nat
  3. Fighting for the last slice of pie when at school

 

“Food always brings people together,” he nodded, settling on Option C as the safest reply.

 

Alice beamed, and gave each guest a platter with nearly every pizza topping imaginable and a home made crust. “Go ahead! Build your own pizzas!”

 

“Oh!” Benny smiled and started constructing a pie starting with canadian bacon and pineapple.

 

As Alice sprinkled cheese on her pizza, she ventured some causal conversation. “So how are… things, Benny? And Callister?”

Benny was about to launch into an honest answer when he realized what a terrible idea that would be. “Been—spending a lot of time with my sibs,” he smiled.

 

“Been working, spending time with Grandmother and Benny when I can.” His pizza was cheese and pepperoni.

 

“How is she holding up?” Scott asked carefully, as he piled another layer of meat on his pizza.

 

“She’s…” Callister thought a moment, then shrugged. “Very quiet. I’ll be moving her into a hospice soon. Got a nice one near Rock City. She’ll have her own apartment with a nice kitchen.”

 

“That’s wonderful.” Alice said with a warm smile. “You know, the Legion would be happy to take you on. We could help with your Grandmother, and train you, and it’d be wonderful opportunity.”

 

SWEATING.

Callister looked up, looked at Benny, then looked back at Alice. His mouth was full of pizza toppings. Choke or spit? Usually such a nice thing to have to consider.

 

“Well!” Benny began, “that’s! Really, nice of you. To offer, Alice? It’s really nice.”

 

Callister swallowed. “Yes. Thank you.” There was a pause. “I’ve already accepted an offer from the Freelancers.”

 

Benny braced.

 

“…” Alice dropped a block of cheddar on her crust and hardly seemed to notice. “That’s… wonderful. A job! Wow. That’s great.”

“It is.” Scott said quietly. “So why don’t we move on and –”

“I just don’t get why you’d accept a job with them, I suppose. It just seems, well, unusual! An unusual choice.”

This was an all too familiar conversation for Benny, who looked just about ready to faint.

 

Callister looked Alice, then at Scott, then back at Alice. “Yeah. The pay’s good, had a lawyer look at the contract.” Then very quickly, he turned back to Scott. “I got a ‘77 Dodge Charger. It’s a real fuel guzzler. Got any advice?”

 

Alice opened her mouth, but Scott barrelled ahead. “Good model, that’s a nice choice. Holds up surprisingly well, and it’s one hell of an ice breaker.” He deftly removed the block of cheese from Alice’s crust as he talked. “What I would do is spend a couple of grand, get a new fuel system and engine put in. It’s a bit of an investment, but it’ll pay off within the year. Looks like everything’s good to go in the oven! Alice, can you handle that. Boys, do you smoke?”

“Sure do!” Benny replied more cheerfully than was really appropriate.

 

“Yes!”

 

“Let’s go out back. Thanks darling, I know you’ll cook them wonderfully.”

And then Scott fled out to the patio.

 

Benny stood and clung close to Callister as the two of them followed Scott out to the patio.

 

Retreat.

 

As soon as the doors closed, Scott gave a sigh of relief and offered each of them a cigar. Alice was visible through the bay windows. You never realized it was possible to angrily set an oven alarm before you watched her.


Callister took the offered cigar. “Never smoked one before.”

 

“Don’t inhale too deep.”

Benny puffed on the cigar morosely. “I sort of feel like I can’t win with her,” he admitted.

 

Callister shrugged, choked on smoke, and recovered.

 

“She has a long history with the Freelancers. Not a positive one. They did her wrong, she can’t get over it… It’s a cycle. You want advice on how to get her to quit bein’ mad over it?”

Benny glanced over at Callister.

 

“Like anyone can imagine me working with the Legion. And sure.”

 

“We’d love to hear it, Scott.”

 

“Tell her that you don’t know the long and sordid history of the Freelancers, ‘cause I’m guessing you don’t. Just tell her that they approached you and offered you a deal.” Scott exhaled a smoke ring into the evening air.

 

Callister nodded. “That sounds reasonable.” He didn’t choke on this next inhale. “And it was a good deal. Full medical for my Grandmother. Access to Mother. That sort of thing.”

 

“She’ll get over it. And she is trying to include all of you Schusters.” Scott takes a puff. “And Schuster Plus Ones.”

In spite of his nerves and anxiety, that drew a beam from Benny’s face.

 

Callister’s face screwed up in confusion. “Okay, but why?”

 

“She thinks family is important, and so she strives to spread it to all you unfortunate kids without much of a family life.” Scott said, with only a touch of sarcasm. “She is a good mom. It’s not a bad offer.”

Callister stared at Scott, speechless incredulity in his face.

 

Benny blinked at this too. “I mean, I know she considers Nat like… a nibling, but…” “The fuck’s a nibling? That like a fried chicken bit?” “No, babe, it’s a nephew or niece, but gender-neutral.””Huh. But now I feel like fried chicken bits.”

 

“Alice’s parents… tried. But they weren’t very good to her, and when she Emerged, they flipped. She sees people in similar situations, and her heart aches.” Scott shrugs. “She’s taken people on in this role before. Sometimes it lasts, sometimes they drift apart. But she has a very special relationship with Nat.”

“Ah, gotcha, makes sense.” Callister looked up and around casually. “So. FYI because you’re a standup guy. Your kid was asking me about Freelancer brochures and the teen program info line. She’s on my phone now checking through stuff. Thought you should know and like, be subtle about stuff.”

 

“Thanks for the heads up. That’ll be a trainwreck, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. You guys ready for pizza?”

“Yes please.”


Callister stubbed out the cigar, tucking the rest away for later. “Sounds good.”

 

Back in the dining room, Alice has served everyone generous portions of their respective pie. She’s also poured wine for the guests, and seems to have returned to her previous cheerful, if strained, state.

“It smells amazing, Alice!” Benny enthused.

 

“Oh, gosh, thank you, the secret is to use just a little cornstarch in the crusts.”

Callister, veteran of many a baking session where he sat at the kitchen table while his gran baked, only nodded and made the appropriate appreciative sounds.

 

“So Alice,” Benny said as he sat down in front of his meal. “I hear that you’re back to smashing evil robots and stuff. How’s that been for you?”

 

She lit up. “Oh, it’s so good to be back in action. I love everything about it. There was this one robot that was shaped like a dragon, and had these crashing metal jaws –” She goes on at length.

 

Benny reacted appreciatively, and actually seemed kind of interested in the robot fight.

 

By now Callister figured that the best way to survive the night was to make sure his mouth was appropriately stuffed. “Mmm!” He said, both in appreciation of pizza and of the robot fight.

 

“How are things at the Bean Sidhe?” Alice asked, once she had gotten past the part with the glorious smiting.


“Oh, they’re okay!” Benny smiled. “It’s all been pretty routine. I’ve got my eye on a nicer artisan coffee place, though. If they decide to start hiring, I might apply. They take coffee real seriously there.”

 

Alice and Scott both seem genuinely pleased with this, offering Benny luck and hoping a spot opens soon.


“So, um, Callister, I apologize.” Alice said, nervously. “I’m very glad you’ve found a job you like.”

Talk time! Callister took a moment to wash his bite with some red wine. “Yeah, me too. I’ve only been with them for a couple of weeks. Still in training, but already cleared for duty. Haven’t decided where I’m based at yet.“Rock City Please” Hope it’s Stateside, else my Frequent Flyer points are gonna rack up.” He spared a grin at Benny.

 

“Well, now that there’s an alliance, I suppose that I should try to be more positive about the Freelancers.” Alice said with a smile that hinted at restraint. “How about a toast, to the future?”

“I can get behind that,” Benny smiled a bit, raising the glass of bourbon Scott had poured him.

 

Callister opened his mouth, remembered where he was, and didn’t reply to Benny with what he wanted to say. Benny saw the look anyway, and blushed fiercely.

 

“To the future.” That was a safe bet.

 

Family: You, Me, and the Scalpel

DeLeary’s

New Orleans, Louisiana

 

DeLeary’s Bar in New Orleans was just as terrible a location as it always was. Not only was the barroom floor covered in a layer of caked-on grime but the door the the bar had not yet been fixed either, a blue tarp having been put up in its place. The grizzled, old, nonverbal bartender which the regulars simply assumed was DeLeary stood behind his countertop with a dirty rag as he “cleaned” an even dirtier mug. If there was to be pride in coming in last place, this man surely did not show it in his deep frown.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrPe5ekHL4Q

Forgotten Sounds – Funkies>

 

Vin “Pandora” Peters skipped her way happily into the bar in her hero’s attire as she gave the bartender a cheery wave. It had been a while since she had last visited her favorite bar on the planet and she was excited to be back. With some flair, the tall woman moved to sit at the bar and flicked her notebook from a pocket as she scribbled something down within it.

 

Hey there, Bobby! Did you miss me?

 

The bartender looked at the words and then shook his head. Vin had been trying to guess his name for years and had not once figured it out. He did, however, go to pour her a tall glass of terrible beer before going back to cleaning that dirty mug of his.

 

“Hi Lear-dear~!” Alex cheered, skipping in behind his girl and wrapping his arms around her. “Whaaat, Bobby? Last time it was Larry.” He seemed SO confused.

 

“I know this is shocking, petal,” Nat floated in behind the other two, “but most bars have more than one employee. Oh no wait, that’s the same guy. Huh.”

 

[It’s always the same guy. No one else works here, I think.] Vin smiled as she turned in her chair to grin up at Alex and Nat. [This guy seems to be as mute as I am though and will not tell anyone his name, so I’ve been trying to guess it every single time I come here. One day I shall figure it out. One day!]

 

“Hey, mystery bar-person! I’ll have a cuba libre, please!” Nat called over. “With… I dunno, whatever your best available rum is today. Captain? Bacardi? I’d take Castillo, just… not rail. Anything but rail.”

 

The bartender rolled his eyes and grabbed a glass for the Damselfly’s drink.

 

Vin took a sip from her beer, made a pained face at the terrible taste, and then continued to drink as her old resistance to the world’s worst brew returned to her. She let out a contented sigh as she slammed her now empty glass back down onto the bar. [Just like old times. Some things will never change and that flavor of dirty-socks-beer is certainly one of them.]

 

Alex stole a sip from her beer before it was all gone. His face scrunched, like a flower wilting, before returning to it’s normal happy demeanor. “That tasted terrible!” He cheered.

 

“I love you both dearly but I do not understand why you subject yourself to this place’s beer,” Nat shook eir head, accepting the cocktail. Ey took the wedge of lime perched on the glass’s rim and squeezed it, then stuck the lime wedge in the drink.

 

[It’s a part of the ritual of coming to a place like this,] Vin signed back in reply as she grinned happily at her two loves. [You come here because it is cheap and terrible, not because they serve anything decent.]

 

Alex just assumed it was part of what you were supposed to do to be nice here. “Yeah but it’s like. Amazingly terrible.” There was a sparkle in his eye.

 

Vin nodded her agreement and smiled as if this were the perfect explanation for why she drank here despite how awful it always was.

 

“Can I taste tho?” Alex asked Nat with those big blue eyes, leaning in close. “Pleeeeaaaaase~”

 

“It’s not nearly as good as the margaritas we had last night, just warning you.” Nat pushed the drink toward Alex. “Hey, um. Can I talk to you two about something important real quick?”

 

[Of course, Sweetie Fly.] Vin grabbed the tall glass of beer the bartender had refilled and took a long sip from it, this time without any negative reaction. [What’s up?]

 

Alex plopped a straw in it, taking a sip and looking up to em. The drink wasn’t good, but it was certainly more palatable than the beer. “Of course Nat.” He nodded encouragingly as he squeezed Vins free hand.

 

Nat took a deep breath and let it out, then smiled. “…I’ve scheduled my bottom surgery. It’s next week.”

 

A mixed expression of excitement and worry appeared upon Vin’s face as her fingers entwined with Alex’s. [That… Wow, that is so much sooner than I thought it would be.] She bit her lower-lip a little nervously and then smiled confidently. [Congratulations are in order then! I mean, I’m nervous about you going under the knife, of course, but this is what you want and I am happy to hear that you are getting what you want!]

 

Alex squeezed Vins hand with a look of extreme worry at first, but as Vin spoke that switched to one of confusion. “So…um.” He blushed a bit, playing with Vins fingers. “Your. Uh. Your butt is ok? It’s not getting surgery cuz it’s sick?”

 

“Oh gosh, petal, I’m so sorry. I never explained to you what’s happening, did I? This stuff is just. So hard to talk about. Um. You know how… I don’t like to have my underwear all the way off?” Nat lowered eir voice enough that the other two could hear, but even the bartender would have to lean in to eavesdrop.

 

Alex nodded quietly, leaking in so ey didn’t have to raise eir voice. “Oh. Mhm.” He nodded. “I understand. Is it…something to do with? Oh…ok.” He seemed to at the very least vaguely get the idea. “I will love you and support you no matter what.” He told em with that big smile. “Surgery can be scary.”

 

Long arms wrapped around both Alex and Nat to pull them into a hug as Vin snuggled her two lovers close, nuzzling her cheek against Nat in particular to let em know that she supported em.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y6smkh6c-0

Swedish House Mafia (Feat. John Martin) – Don’t You Worry Child>

 

“When it’s over, I’ll be able to be… naked, with both of you. Without feeling bad or gross. It’d mean a lot to me. But also… I’m going to need help while I’m recovering. I’d really like that help to be the two of you. The last time I was in the infirmary, I’d nearly been killed. I’m a little scared about being in recovery there again.”

 

Alex nodded. “I would be so happy to take care of you for once!” Alex teased, wholeheartedly in the hug. “You can count me in cutie-fly. I’m here for you till the end.” He wrapped em and Vin up tight.

 

Vin nodded emphatically and placed a small kiss upon Nat’s lips before taking eir hand in her own and giving it a light squeeze. She would be there for em as well. Of course she would.

 

Nat squealed happily. “You two are the best.

 

Family: Won’t it be Gran

Won’t it be Gran


Callister picked Benny up in his beloved, fuel guzzling, ’87 Dodge Charger. There was an enthusiastic greeting as soon as Benny got in the car.

“Oh, babe, I’m nervous!” Benny was dressed sharply in his usual ‘casual dress’ attire: a button-down,  vest, and slacks. “I hope she likes me!”

“Babe, I think it’s fine? You look good, though.” A big, appreciative grin. “But yeah, I don’t think she’s the raging hater like mother is. Anyway, it’ll be nice. I’ll make dinner for us.”

“Ooh, I finally get to try your cooking? Red-letter day.” Benny kissed Callister on the cheek and buckled up. “Does your Gran drink tea? I brought some loose-leaf imported chamomile. Good stuff.”

“Yeah, she’d like that, I think. She’s really quiet these days. Think something nice like that will cheer her up.”

“I’ll have to ask more about what she likes to drink,” Benny nodded firmly. “If Qun hires me, I’ll have access to some really amazing teas for cheap.”

“Nice. Think he won’t, huh? You like saved the day with a cup of coffee.”

“Nah, they probably will, I just don’t want to treat it like a sure thing. It’s bad luck.”

Callister grinned. “Could put that on your resume, though.”

“If I hadn’t already turned the resume in, I just might’ve.” Benny said, then looked at Callister’s face and sighed happily. “You… really want me to move in? Like you’re sure?”

“Yeah. Like, I know it’s a huge step and all, but it kinda makes sense. You get a bigger place, I don’t have to stow my shit at your place and take up room. Yeah, I’m not gonna be there all the time plus it saves us a bit of money too. And like, I like the idea of coming home to you.”

“Oh~” Benny’s eyes got distinctly dewy at that. “I—like that idea too. Really a lot.”

“Yeah, it’s a nice thought, yeah?”

“It’s… yes. It’s an amazing thought. Just a few months ago, and I never could have imagined I’d be moving in with the man I love.”

Callister made a deep pleased sound in his chest at that. “Oh yeah, baby. Talk dirty to me like that.”
Benny laughed. “The sincerity was getting to you, huh.”

“Heh. Nah. I like it when you talk mushy like that. Means I don’t have to.” Callister winked.

“You could anyway,” Benny said, leaning his head against Callister’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t tell anybody, I promise.”

“Pffft ‘sif.” He grinned. “it’ll be all over Twitter.”

“Maybe. But you could still do it.”

Callister only grinned as he drove out of the city limits and onto the Washington side of Rock City.

“Tease,” Benny said, nuzzling his boyfriend’s shoulder. He was mostly quiet for the rest of the car ride, though clearly in a good mood.

Callister snickered but was also clearly enjoying the ride. They soon pulled into a driveway with manicured gardens.

“Oh, it seems nice,” Benny looked out the window, taking in the environs.

“Yeah, this was a lucky find.” Callister found a spot, got out and pulled a shopping bag from the trunk


Benny shouldered his backpack and followed, still looking around curiously.

It was modern looking, and looked like a small block of apartments rather than a nursing village. There were little walkways with gentle or no slopes, green grass and sheltered benches under trees as well as covered picnic areas.

“Not sure if I could afford this if not for Nova Insurance.”

“I’m so glad you can,” Benny said. “I hope your gran likes living here as much as I think ​I would.”

“Yeah…we’ll see. It’s still different from having your own home, you know. And I can’t be here often.” A note of worry in Callister’s voice

Resting one hand on Callister’s shoulder, Benny smiled gently. “If she’s not happy, you’ll figure something else out. And I’m here to help too.”

That brought a huge grin to Callister’s face. He bent a little to smooch Benny’s hair, then led them in, arm around Benny’s waist.

The facility had several levels of care, and Callister’s grandmother was in the medium level section. A nurse directed them to a common area after they signed the visitors log, and there they found Mathilda Mills amongst a group of like aged ladies.

Benny hovered by Callister’s side, poised to be introduced.

According to Callister, his Grandmother was barely seventy. She looked at least twenty years older. Deeply wrinkled skin, stark white hair, she looked tired and old beyond her years. She was quiet among the chatter of the other ladies, but her hands were sure as she cut out quilt squares.

Benny’s eyes flickered up to Callister, then back to Mathilda as they approached.

Chatter dropped as the two young men approached. There were nervous stares, more so at Callister than at Benny. While Callister was dressed in a sedate manner ​_for him_​, the studded leather collar, the cuffs and bracelets at his arm, and the shock of bright red hair were not exactly “visit grandma”  material. Mathilda hadn’t noticed the quiet but dropped her shears when Callister knelt beside her chair. “Hey, Grandmother.”

Mathilda’s smile lightened her face and she hugged her grandson.

Benny smiled broadly.

Callister hugged her back before gesturing at her work. “Do you need help cleaning up here, I brought Benny with me and I’m gonna make us dinner.”

“Hello, Mrs. Mills. It’s so nice to finally meet you.”

The cluster of old ladies broke out in relieved smiles and there was an indistinct murmur that they’d take care of the cuttings.

Mathilda looked around and up at Benny. Her blue eyes studied him and she held a hand out to him. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes seemed happy.

He took her hand, freckled face radiant.

Mathilda patted his hand, her grip surprisingly strong. She got out of her chair and looped her arms into Callister’s and Benny’s, leading the way to her apartment floor.

Benny remained attentive both to Mathilda and Callister as she led them down the hallway.

Her apartment was nice, if small. A door led to a bedroom from the living room. There was a decent gallery kitchen, a small table for four, and a comfy looking sofa. The bathroom was big with wide doors, obviously made with wheelchairs in mind.

Mathilda took the shopping bag from Callister and started unpacking it. She looked at the supermarket cake he’s brought with some kind of affront.

Callister shuffled.

“Oh, it’s lovely!” Benny observed, missing the cake exchange.


The cake went into the fridge with some finality, and out came a set of baking kit.

They were all shiny and new but Mathilda put them to good use.

Callister stood awkwardly. “Gran, I was going to cook…”

An imperious spoon was pointed at the sofa.

“Okay, guess we’re sitting, Benny?”

“Mrs. Mills, may I make you tea? I brought a fine imported chamomile,” Benny ventured.

A sweet smile. What a nice boy. She nodded.

Benny at once set about the task, weaving around Mathilda so as not to disturb her work while still making a good pot of chamomile.

Callister, exiled to the sofa, turned in the television. There was static and snow.

“Ba—Cal, do you want any tea?”

“Er, yeah?” He frowned at the television. “Thought I fixed this last week.” He bent to the grandsonly duty of fixing the television.

A few minutes later, Benny had served Mathilda her tea and been summarily exiled from the kitchen himself. He brought his boyfriend a cup, peering at his handiwork.

“Thanks, babe.” Callister set the remote down, having set the channels on scan. He took a sip. “This is like flowers, babe.”

“Yeah, chamomile is a kind of flower. Tea made from it helps you relax.”

Callister took another sip. “Weird,” was his pronouncement.

He peered worriedly at the kitchen. The batter was in a cake tin and and gone into the oven.

The chicken, pasta, cream and herbs were considered, then the cream set aside as Mathilda proceded to do something apart from the easy Alfredo-ish thing that Callister had planned.

“Better get used to floral notes,” Benny warned, “cuz I love em.”

“Eh. I like tea that looks like coffee.”

 

“I know, babe.”


Callister took another sip. He tried to not make a face.

“It’s good that you have a classy boyfriend,” Benny said, his ‘prim little brat’ smile on, “to inject a little culture into your life.”

“What? Nat’s a boy now?” He grinned back.

“I’m gonna tell Nat that you implied ey was classy,” he threatened back, “and you’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Pffft like ey’d believe I ever said that.” Callister covertly checked in on the kitchen. There was something smelling like lemon and herbs in a fry pan and a pot of water on the boil. Mathilda was watching both, her hands around the cup of tea, apparently enjoying the fragrance.

“Smells good, Grandmother!”

“Yes, it’s wonderful!”

Mathilda turned to smile at the boys.

Then she looked at Callister and pointed at the cream, a bowl, and a whisk.

“Whip it good,” Callister muttered, getting to the silent command.

“Doo-doo-doo-doo-doot,” Benny sang in response. “May I have a task too, Mrs. Mills?”

Mathilda considered Benny then pointed at the pasta. She then carried her cup to the sofa to enjoy.

“Aye aye, ma’am!” He cheerfully strode over to the boiling pot, keeping an eye on the timer and stirring the pasta occasionally to ensure that it didn’t stick.

There was sliced chicken in the next frypan, simmering in lemons and herbs. Freshly chopped herbs stood on a board next to the stove. Callister made short work of the whipped cream, and stowed the results in the fridge. He then bent to look through the oven door at the cake. “Oh man, yeah, chocolate cake.”

“Nice.” Benny gently shook the frypan to stir its ingredients a bit, checked how done they were, checked on the timer. He wasn’t a gourmet cook like Nat, but he knew how to multitask.

“Hmm plates.” He found the dishware and as an afterthought, found a large shallow bowl of the pasta and sauce. “Grandmother, you want us to stir the pasta into the sauce?”

Mathilda smiled and nodded at him.

“I got it,” Benny smiled. Once the chicken was close to done, he stirred in the herbs, then fished a piece of spaghetti out of the pot and ate it, then nodded with a satisfied smile as he moved to drain the pasta. “Molto bene.”

“Stop calling yourself names.” Callister grinned.

“You’re a dork.” Benny closed one eye, leaning back from the curtain of steam as he poured the pasta into a colander, shook it free of water, then returned the pasta to the pot before emptying the contents of the frypan over the pasta. “Gosh that really does smell amazing.”

“Oh yeah, Grandmother’s a great cook. Best thing about coming home from school.”

“She should meet Nat and Sue,” Benny said, then turned around. “Mrs. Mills, the pasta is ready. Would you like me to serve you a bowl at the table?”

Mathilda nodded at Benny, leaving the sofa and seating at the table. Callister brought over the cutlery.

Benny expertly carried all three bowls of pasta at once to the table, setting them on each placemat.

With everyone sitting, Mathilda gave Callister an expectant look.

“Uh, yeah, we say Grace before dinner.”

“Okay!” Benny nodded, seeming okay with this.

They held hands and Callister led the way through the short prayer concluding with the “Amen.” Mathilda gave her grandson a proud pat on the shoulder. What a good boy.

Benny bowed his head and said ‘amen’ like another good boy! What a pair of good boys.

Such approving patting!

And dinner was good!