Tabitha Armitage was dressed nicely, but not formally. A wide belt bisected her simple black dress, and a brown cardigan covered by a green shawl kept out the lingering March chill. Beside her walked Emi Surikabe, who wore a long-legged black romper with a burgundy silk shirt open and flowing over it.
“Apparently ey managed to suss the social situation well enough to know that Scoremaster wouldn’t see a sneak attack? I was equal parts terrified and impressed, if I’m being honest.”
“It sounds like Nat is really working out for you, love,” Tabitha smiled.
“Ey is. Are? No, it’s is.” Emi smirked. “Still learning. And yes, ey is. I know they’ve been a bit of a handful for you.”
“Nothing compared to Alice,” Tabitha laughed, and they stopped in front of the front door to the McGowan household. “Speaking of, are you ready?”
“Yes! I’m excited, actually; I haven’t seen the kids in too long.”
“Agreed,” Tabitha said, then rang the doorbell.
Alice McGowan opened the door, dressed in turquoise and fuschia. The bold jewel tones looked good on her, although she had a slightly strained smile. There was the smell of something burnt in the kitchen. Tim, her son, stood on the staircase behind her, waiting patiently for his two “Aunties” to enter and give hugs and kisses.
“So good to see you both.” Alice said. “Please, come in, both of you. Scott’s just, ah, getting some catering. He’ll be right in.”
“Oh dear,” Tabitha smiled, offering Alice a hug. “Sorry if things went awry.”
Emi followed Tabitha in offering Alice a hug, then immediately slipped under her arm and swept Tim up in a big hug. “Tiiiim! How’s my guy?”
“Auuuuntie!” Tim squealed as the short woman spun him around after a long hug. “I’m going to school with civilians now, an’ I made some friends, an’ -”
“Hold on, Tim, don’t talk her ear off.” Alice said, smiling. “Why don’t you go set the table?”
He nodded and bounded off, full of energy.
“You have to tell me all about it over dinner!” Emi called after him, then chuckled. “He’s gonna forget to tell me all about it.”
“I’m sure you’ll remind him,” Tab pulled the door shut behind her. “Are you doing all right, Alice? Just regular stress, or is something else bothering you?”
“…It’s Ruth,” Alice finally admitted, folding her arms across her chest defensively, keeping her voice low. “She’s Emerged.”
She paused, biting her lower lip. “She’s a Null.”
“Oh, Alice,” Tabitha placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder.
“I’m going to go help with the kitchen,” Emi said, slipping away quietly. “I think you two need a minute.”
“How are you doing with it, hon?” Tabitha took both of Alice’s shoulders in her hands and pulled her closer.
“I always wanted her to be special, to be… one of us. Tim is, and I always thought she was just a late bloomer. But this? Being Null is no easy path. I want better for her, but…”
“It’s not easy, but who better to make it livable than you?” Tab drew Alice into a close hug. “Ruth will still have a good life. She’s your daughter. I know this is hard on you, too, that you were expecting… something else. But Scott is here for you, and Emi and I are here for you, and we are all here for Ruth. It’s going to be okay.”
“Thank you, Tabs. I’m sure it’ll get better, it’s just… gosh, it’s easier to be a General than a mother some days.” She smiles, and then the front door swings open once again.
“work easier than life? don’t get me started,” Tab murmured.
“Who’s hungry?” Enter Scott McGowan, holding bags labelled with BURGER CHURCH. “It’s still hot.”
“Well this certainly takes me back,” Tabitha laughs, eyeballing the bags. “I haven’t had Burger Church in years.”
“It’s good!” He grins. “I mean, the new fry recipe isn’t as good as the old one, but that’s okay. Can’t have too many carbs, I’m gettin’ old.” He shrugged off his jacket, revealing the MERCURY unit underneath. “Hey, you guys go ahead and get started, I’ll join you in a second. This thing ain’t much suited for dinner with the family.”
THE MCGOWAN DINING ROOM
The McGowan dining room was significantly more cozy than a stranger would likely have expected of the Earth’s premier Legionnaire family, but Tab and Emi were well used to it by now. Ruth was sitting at the table already, nose buried in a book. Tim fiddled with the silverware. Alice’s face creased into the slightest frown at the burger bags, but sat down without complaint.
As everyone settled in, Emi asked, “So, Alice, Scott, how’s work? Anything exciting going on?”
“Let Alice say grace first, Emi,” Tab reminded.
“Oop! Right, sorry.”
Alice smiles gratefully. “Thank you, Tabs. Thank you O Lord, for these gifts…” She kept her head down, reciting the old familiar prayer. Scott made eye contact with Emi over the table and gave a small, slightly exasperated smile. By the time Alice looked up, his face was jovial as before.
“Well, y’know, I’ve been in the garage a lot lately, working on projects. Kind of thinking about the whole semi-retirement thing,” he mused, spearing some fries on his fork and dipping them generously in gravy. “On the other hand, not sure how much work there is for a guy like me these days.”
“I have faith in your ability to never run out of projects, Scott,” Tabitha smiled, “I’ve seen you solve enough problems that may not have existed before you set out to solve them.”
“Well, there’s some underwater sort of exoskeletons I’m looking at – you know, the MERCURY isn’t really equipped for underwater, and there’s been revelations that make me think we really oughta be ready for that sort of thing. I mean, I’ll always be happy in the garage, but part of me itches for front line action again.”
“There’s less and less of it these days.” Alice sighs. “You know how it is, with the Freelancers…”
“Didn’t we agree they ain’t appropriate dinner table talk?”
“I promise I don’t mean to maintain a contentious line of conversation, and I’ll drop it if you’d like,” Emi cut in, “but I’m seeing some very encouraging coalition-building between Freelancer and Legion agents. Nat has been making friends with anyone who isn’t a Villain, and it seems to be going very well.”
“Maybe, maybe, some of their new recruits are worth working with.” Alice grinds her teeth. “But the organization is corrupt down to the core, if you ask me. Did you know they stole some of Scott’s work, used it for their own means? One of them threw me off a roof.”
“Hon. Yes,” Tabitha said. “We remember. We’ve known you for more than the years it’s been since those things happened. You’re right that there’s still corruption in the Freelancers, but Emi’s right too. The proliferation of social media, networking, and friendship across factional lines is something I’ve been watching myself, and it’s hard not to feel somewhat optimistic about it.”
“Well -” Alice began, but Scott cut her off.
“Did you know that we moved the kids into civilian schools, speaking of factions and optimism and all of that good stuff. They’re really flourishing. Great staff, great teachers.”
“Tim was telling me! That’s great to hear.’ Emi grinned, then directed her next question toward the McGowan offspring. “It can be a lot of work to adapt to new environments like that. Are the other kids treating you okay?”
“Yeah, we were playing tag, and everyone agreed that since I’m suuuper fast, it wasn’t fair to have me on a team, so everyone just tried to chase me, and it was so much fun, and I got up the jungle gym, and then one of them grabbed me as I went down the slide, and then Mrs. Sanderson told us we had to be careful, so we started playing some other games…”
Ruth just shrugs, pushing the fries around her plate. “They’re okay.”
“Well you can tell me all about it when we play later!” Emi told them, glancing up at Scott and Alice to read their reactions to the kids before returning her eyes to them. “School is real hard work, but you two are gonna do great at the new one.”
“Have you talked to Miss Herja about your plans for the MERCURY, Scott?” Tabitha asked. “She’s been doing some exosuit R&D lately, and would probably have useful things to contribute.”
“Oh, yeah, she’s been great.” Scott grins. “She’s on another level in a lot of ways, just… us technokinetics or whatever you call it each have our own brand of genius. I’m an execution guy, she’s an ideas person… It works out super well.”
“It’s all utterly alien to me, but it’s just fascinating to see what the lot of you come up with,” Tabitha says, neatly annexing a portion of her burger with fork and knife. “Valkyrie’s just everywhere these days. It’s inspiring. Perhaps when you retire, you could open up a workshop for hire with her.” It wasn’t clear whether that was in jest.
“Aw, hell -” Scott began, and Alice cut in.
“Heck, we’ve taken over a good portion of the fortress already, and we’re starting to bring in some real income. Enough that Alice is thinking about re-starting programs like the Kids Corps, we can finally afford to start bringing in real Administrative talent too. I know that’ll be a relief to you, Tabs.”
“I won’t know what to do with myself!” Tabitha faked a laugh for a moment, then deadpans: “For all that is good and holy, yes. To say my hands are full is a gross understatement.”
“She’s sleeping in her office,” Emi complained.
“I’m sleeping in my office,” Tab acknowledged, looking sheepish. “Things got a lot easier once we hired the Sthenographer, but that only made me realize all of the things that had been put off before she showed up. It hasn’t been great for my stress levels, if we’re being honest.”
“It hasn’t been great for your love life either,” Emi muttered under her breath, but audible enough to hear.
“Emi, not at the table.” Alice chided. “But yes, I’ve been stepping up my recruitment. We’re finally starting to rebuild the Administrative sector. It’s hard, because if I find a promising candidate, I have to get them to sign ASAP. Cheney keeps poaching talent. But the promise of serving the Legion and having moral values seems to be a draw.”
“Yes, some of them slip away rather fast, don’t they,” Tabitha paused with a forkful of burger partway to her mouth. “At least the Freelancers didn’t get ahold of that Pariah girl. She seems to be doing a fairly good job over in Detroit. Markus worked with her briefly and had nothing but good things to say.” She put the forkful of burger in her mouth.
“She’s open to working with us?” Alice’s eyes brightened. “Oh my goodness, does she have an address?”
Tabitha held up a hand until she finished chewing. Then, “easy, hon. The coffin squad happened to be in her territory and she helped them contain a Wheird. I’m not sure how open she is to working with us outside of defending her home. We don’t have her address.”
“She did show up at Nat’s club when ey invited people, though,” Emi pointed out. “And there were both Legionnaires and Freelancers there. It seems like she’s at least not holding a grudge toward our agents.”
“Well, that’s good at least. I’m sure Scanner can help me find her. Once she hears my recruitment speech, I’m sure she’ll sign up.”
“We’re, ah,” Emi broached the topic in a delicate tone, “we’re actually thinking of something a bit subtler, Alice.”
“In my experience,” Alice says, looking proud. “Subtlety is highly overrated.”
Tabitha and Scott exchanged a Look, then Emi and Tabitha exchanged a Look, then Tabitha shifted in her seat, eyes down, before looking directly at Alice. “Actually, Alice… we’re going to send in the Damselfly.”
Alice considered this information briefly, before sighing. “I don’t have to like it,” she finally said.
“I would never ask such a thing of you, hon,” Tabitha said. “It’s just a matter of… the one thing we know about Miss Pauker’s MO is that she will show up if there’s a threat to her territory. Nat brings threats close to emself by nature. This is our best bet at having Pariah and Damselfly on the same side in the same room with a strong motivation to work with each other. If we’re going to establish a positive dynamic with Pariah, this is our best bet.”
“That sounds like a great idea.” Scott said with just a touch too much enthusiasm. Alice glanced at him, and then gave another sigh. “Kids, are you listening? Once you start your after school program with the Kids Corps, you’ll have to tackle problems with these. And it’s very important to be a hero who does the right thing, isn’t that right?”
Emi and Tabitha both bobbed their heads in agreement to reinforce the lesson.
Tim eagerly launched into another long speech about his thoughts on heroes and the Kids Corps. Ruth, meanwhile, had evidently finished pushing fries around her plate. “Mom, can I be excused?”
“Put your plate in the sink, please, honey.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.”
“Nat is doing really well, honestly,” Emi said once Tim’s speech was finished. “Ey nonlethally subdued a Villain while on a completely unrelated mission, and did so more safely than I care to tell em. Ey… needs to tighten up on the combat awareness, but I’m very proud.”
“I don’t think I’ve met the kid yet.” Scott says, thoughtfully. “Probably seen ‘em around in the cafeteria, though. Kind of short, floaty, redhead?”
“That’s our Nat,” Tabitha confirmed with a slight hint of weariness in her voice. “Ey’s been a handful for me, honestly. I think that ey might already be–” her eyes darted to Tim, then back to her plate “–close… friends… with Brozerker and Jupiter Strike, and apparently ey’s started dating that cartomancer we’re trying to recruit? Nothing’s exploded yet, but I’m trying to stay braced in case something does. And I can’t deny that ey has already been an extremely effective covert agent.”
“Mm.” Alice said, lips thinning in disapproval. “Who wants dessert? I managed not to burn that, at least.”
“Dessert would be lovely, thank you,” Emi smiled brightly. Tabitha nodded as well.
Before long, Alice had carved up a decadent triple chocolate layer cake, serving large slices to everyone at the table. “Oh, speaking of Administration, Tabitha… Ah, well, there’s something you should know.”
Tab raised her eyebrows and inclined her head slightly; a ‘go on’ gesture.
“…Helen Havelock wants to return to the Legion. In a strictly civilian role, of course, considering her… injuries.”
Tabitha and Emi both froze in place, blinking in surprise, a forkful of cake already halfway to Emi’s face.
“Helen Havelock?” Tabitha breathed. “I’ll be damned.”
Alice smiled widely. “She’s actually a very nice woman. We talked for a while. She had a lot of advice for me.”
Well, that was no surprise. Helen Havelock had founded the Legion herself, taking on the title of Excalibur. Wielding golden armour and a longsword, she had fought the forces of the Third Reich, the enemies of humanity, and been a vanguard for social change. Without her, there would likely be no Legion. It was a shame her powers had been stripped away by the Battle of New York, so long ago…
“And, just for saying that word in my house, you can put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Alice said, half-teasing. Only half.
“I was going to do it anyway,” Tabitha teased back, her tone prim to the point of exaggeration. “So there.” She stood and walked around the table, collecting the empty plates and glasses.
“What kind of advice did Mrs. Havelock have for you, Alice?” Emi asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“We talked about the pressures of the lifestyle, and the difference between then and now. But most importantly, she told me to always keep faith. She puts the same emphasis on faith as I do. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Emi agreed. “We all have different things keeping us going, and it can be very important to find mentors who can identify with that. I’m happy for you, Alice.”
“Don’t be happy for me,” Alice jokes. “Be happy for Tabitha. Helen knows the Legion like the back of her hand. I’m sure she’ll be a big help in the coming days, and maybe Tabitha can sleep in a gosh danged bed.”
“She’d better, if she doesn’t want me to bring other people into it,” Emi smirked.
“Emi! We weren’t gonna–” Tabitha hissed from the doorway, then pressed her lips together and chirped, clasping her hands. “Dishes are done!”
“Tim, hon, why don’t you go set up your Nintendo?” Alice waited until her son left the room and then looked at her guests with wide eyes. “Are you thinking about divorcing?”
“I’m sure it was a joke,” Scott says, standing and putting a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You know how crazy hours can get to a person, right?”
“Of course I was joking!” Emi laughed nervously.
“No no no!” Tabitha also laughed, also nervously. “We wouldn’t– that’s not what I meant at all.”
“We were just joking about the whole thing,” Emi shot a look at Tabitha so pointed that even Alice could catch it.
Tabitha wiped her brow. “Can I make some decaf for anybody?”
Alice glanced between the two of them, and then a lightbulb flared to life above her head. “Oh! Oh. I see. You know, I uh- I’ll take my coffee um, caffeinated. Black, please. Nice and strong, ha… ha!”
“Caffeine for everyone!” Tabitha disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Emi sweating silently, eyes darting between Scott and Alice.
“….. soooo.” Emi said.
“We – don’t need to discuss anything any further, thank you.” Alice says, red in the face and making intense eye contact with a light fixture. “Especially not with both of my children home. Your home, your marriage, your business.”
“Sure, s-sure,” Emi stammered, eyes averted. A moment later, she put her hands on the table and blurted, “it’s just–“
“Emi!” Tabitha rebuked from the kitchen.
“You guys are our best friends!” Emi continued, ignoring her wife’s objection. “It felt like lying to you. I lie to enemies, politicians. I don’t want to lie to friends. I hate lying to friends.”
Tabitha appeared in the doorway. “Emi, if Alice doesn’t want to know, Alice doesn’t want to know.”
“But she was–“
“It’s her call. Not ours.”
“What is there to know?!” Alice suddenly said, incredulous. “You – you have… extra… lovers. Okay, I know that. I’m aware. Are you planning to introduce me to any of them?”
“Well, we don’t, actually.” Tabitha folded her arms and shrugged. “Not yet. Look, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have said anything, all right? I’m sorry, Scott, this must be terribly awkward for you.”
Emi put her face in her hands.
Scott leaned back in his chair, muttering: “Christ, this is hideously awkward, yeah.”
Alice was too shaken to even chide Scott on taking the Lord’s name in vain. “I… support… you? If you’re happy, that’s… good? And fine?”
“Thanks,” Tabitha replied, her voice as flat and cold as slate. “You know, I don’t really need coffee after all. Emi, I’m going to go get some fresh air.”
She walked out of the dining room with long, measured strides. Emi didn’t move.
Scott moved over to his friend and put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey.” he said. “Alice, why don’t you go check on Ruth?”
Alice acquiesced, standing and leaving the room, her face still incredulous and confused.
“Hey. Emi. Look at me.”
Emi turned her face toward Scott, lowering her hands. She wasn’t crying, but there was clear despair behind those deep brown eyes.
“What’s up?” He asked, keeping things simple at first. “Is this about the lying thing, or something else?”
“We weren’t expecting anything, Scott, we weren’t trying to… get you guys to do anything. This wasn’t supposed to change things, it was for us to actively be in each other’s lives. To be honest.”
“Yeah, I get that. Look, we’ve been kind of distant lately, but… hey, y’know, we’re all working and things are tense ‘cause of work and politics and all of that. But if you’re happy in your marriage, we think that’s rad and of course we support you. And you know Alice has come a long, long way that she said she supported it as well.”
He cracked a warm smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “So, that’s out of the way. All of our cards are on the table. We’re still here. Let’s make this more regular, yeah? Keep the momentum building, work on going back to how things used to be, back when we were… what, in our 20s? We were so young.”
“Cards on the table,” Emi murmured, eyes downcast, then looked back up. “Scott, Tabitha is still in love with Alice.”
“Huh.” Scott said, and drummed his fingers on the table, processing that. “I didn’t know she was in love with Alice in the first place. Then again, I’ve been pretty oblivious to this sort of thing. And hey, look, Alice is an incredible woman. It’s hard to blame Tabitha, God knows I’ve fallen for her charms as well.”
“She was. Is. And it’s never hurt me or made me feel like Tab didn’t want to be with me. But she’s had this locked up for decades now, and I wanted– I told her that she should… say something. Not to change anything, just to stop holding onto it. But it’s Tab.”
“Tabs likes to sort things nicely and compartimalize them. She has her little filing cabinet over here for work –” Scott taps the side of his head. “And this little filing cabinet over here for the marriage, and I’m sure that Alice goes into another filing cabinet. That’s her system, and I think she likes to keep her files nice and separate. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. You two are just different.”
“I know.” Emi sighs. “I’ve known that for a long time. But I guess I needed to hear you say so. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s something I hoped she’d do, and then this happened and she’s going to clam up about it for another twenty years. I don’t really think it’s good for her.”
“Eh, we all indulge in shit that’s a little bad for us. You’re still in the field despite your knee injury, I’m still married to Alice -” he gives a wicked grin. “Seriously, it’s one thing to love her from afar, but bein’ in the thick of it is a whole other ball game. I have a few cigarettes… It’s great of you try to and fix things, but Tabs is an adult, she can make her own choices. Even bad ones.”
Emi frowned. “Yeah, I noticed– is stuff okay, Scott? Are you and Alice okay?”
“Yeah, we’re okay. She’s a great mom, a great person. This sounds arrogant, so you’ll have to forgive me – I’m a genius, and she’s… not. She’s a little dim. It was hard to deal with for a while, so we went into counselling, worked on some stuff. She’s a good woman. She has so much love to give. Y’know? Before I ended up with her, I dated around, slept around. I know what a good relationship is and isn’t, and this is. Even if she’s ah, kind of a doof sometimes.”
“I’m not going to try to tell you that you’re not a genius, Scott,” Emi smirked, “nor that Alice’s intelligence isn’t… focused elsewhere. And I’m very glad that things are fine. The two of you are good for each other.”
Emi took a deep breath, then let it out and glanced back up at Scott. “Do you think less of us, Scott? For opening up our marriage?”
“Absolutely not. I’d be a massive hypocrite if I did. I slept around for a decade straight before I ended up with Alice, and if she offered me the same deal, I’d be – well, I’d be tempted. You’re like a sister to me, Emi, alright? Your marriage ain’t gonna change that.”
“All right. Thank you.” She sighed. “I should go retrieve my wife. Knowing her, her brain has already eaten itself with anxiety.”
“And I should take care of my wife as well.” Scott gives Emi another hug. “Bowling. Next Friday. A McGowan-Armitage-Surikabe affair. I expect you guys at the lanes in the goofy shoes and big smiles at seven sharp.”
“I look forward to beating all three of you into the finely-polished floor,” Emi grinned.