Bonding Agents: Buster and Benny

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

RC ROUTE 1, EXIT 13, SOUBRIDGE

ROCK CITY

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Again?” He sounded skeptical.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He shrugged. “Eh.”

 

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

 

“I dunno,” he sighed, “maybe? Maybe.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Things were alright.

 

Bonding Agents: Thicker Than Cream

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

RC ROUTE 1, EXIT 13, SOUBRIDGE

ROCK CITY

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It was a phone number. Call me.

 

Benny reeled, a bit faint.

 

A BRIEF TIME LATER

 

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

 

Benny called.

 

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

 

“Callister Rayne speaking.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Dialtone.

 

“th-the—” Benny stared at the phone.

 


 

Later
At the Tempered Sweetly dessert bar

 

18:00

 

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

 

Those leather pants were seriously tight.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What’s your weapon of choice?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As it was, he only smoldered.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

STILL LATER

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He seemed pleased.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Good boy. Then we’ll do this again.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Yeah.”

 

Orientation

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

RC ROUTE 1, EXIT 13, SOUBRIDGE

ROCK CITY

 

“Well, uhhhhhh,” the store manager, a slow-talking man with a wide mouth and sloping shoulders, had been puzzling over the application form for a while. A nametag read: Marlon Whittaker. “While your, uhhhh, work history is highly unuuuuusual, your skills and attitude are superb, and your references are veeeerry good. You’re, uhhhhh, you’re hired.”

 

Janet Li smiles at him and extends a hand. “Thank you very much, sir. I can assure you that you won’t regret this!”

 

“I, uhhhh, imagine not. Can you begin your orientation todaaaay?”

 

“Yes, I don’t have any other commitments at the moment.” She smooths down the pencil skirt. “I hope I’m dressed appropriately?” She’s wearing a sensible white blouse on top, a pair of flats, and her shoulder-length black hair pulled back into a bun.

 

“Mmmmyes,” the manager replied, “but you maaaaay want to invest in more sensible shooooes. You will be standing for hours at a tiiime. SCHUSTER!”

 

“What,” the 90s boy band member behind the counter replied.

 

“I need you to show our new employee the rooopes.”

 

There was a long pause. The ‘Schuster’ employee tucked an errant lock of floppy blonde hair behind his ear. “Okay.”

 

Janet stood up and strode over to the counter, facing Schuster the way an employee would. “Thank you, Schuster. I hope we’ll make a good team.” She extends a hand to shake. “I’m Janet Li. Pleased to meet you!”

 

The boy– no, up close one could tell that he was older. Mid-twenties, possibly, but with a real baby face, dusted with freckles. The barista winced visibly. “Please don’t call me by my last name. I’ve asked Mister Whittaker to stop, and he just. Won’t. I’m Benny. I mean my real name is Benjamin but nobody calls me that.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry! Would you prefer to be called Benny or Benjamin?”

 

“Benny’s good. Anyway, nice to meet you, Janet. I’m gonna show you the stuff we do every day. For now I’ll mostly have you cleaning and operating the register, but we’ll teach you how to make espresso drinks next week. Um, sorry if it gets confusing or whatever. I’m not a very good teacher.”

 

“Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll do fine, Benny.” Her tone is very warm. Up close … are those seams he can see along the edge of her jaw? They could be fine scars. But it kind of looks like she has a faceplate separate from her neck.

 

“… okay,” he seemed a little off-guard, but rolled with it. This was Rock City. Shit was weird. It wasn’t any of his business. “Let’s start out with a little tour of the lobby. This is the condiment bar…”

 

An hour later, Janet had learned how often the dairy carafes get changed, the expected temperatures of all fridges, how long any given ingredient can sit out, the procedure for swapping coffee urns, and innumerable other facts about the shop. Benny had started out simple, but the new coworker just kept asking questions, and seemed to remember everything he said, so he just kept talking.

 

Now they were done, and Benny had never seen an orientation go by so quickly, much less one he led.

 

“So that’s everything? Thank you so much, that was really helpful.” She casually puts a hand on his shoulder. “Will we be working together often, do you think?”

 

Benny’s eyes flickered to the hand, then back to her face. “Probably, yeah. I’m full-time, and I take overtime pretty much whenever I can, so um. I’m here most of the time.”

 

“Lovely. I don’t have much experience interacting with humans, so …” She looks up at him through her lashes. “You’ll help me out, won’t you?”

 

“W-with humans?” He stammered, “do you mean… ‘other humans’, or are you. Not a human.”

 

She blinks. “I … yes. I thought … you could tell? From the seams.” She pulls her hand back from his arm and, tilting her chin up, strokes the edge of her jaw. This close … yeah, that is definitely some kind of gap between plates. “I’m part of a Legion integration program. They said it would be ideal to get a job and start becoming a member of society.”

 

“Oh!” Benny blinked. “You’re an AI! That’s cool, yeah, I had no idea. Welcome to the team. I hope you like working here, and I’ll do my best to help you acclimate, but um. I may not be the best example when it comes to human interaction.” He laughed ruefully. “Like, my only two real friends are my sister and my cat, and one of them lives on the moon.”

 

“Well, I have no friends, so I still appreciate your willingness to help.” She smiles.

 

Benny shrugs a little. “I’ll do what I can. So where do you live? Oak Bay? Milnes?” He assumed she lived somewhere poor, if she was working here.

 

“My address is – “ and she rattles off something in the converted office blocks not actually that far from here. “May I ask where you live?”

 

His jaw drops, and he looks astonished for a few seconds. Finally, he says, “… two doors down from you, apparently.”

 

“Oh, how convenient! Would you like to head home together after your shift is over? I know how to get there, but it still might be nice to have a guide.”

 

“I– sure,” Benny was off-balance. This was not Benny’s plan. Benny had no idea how to react to this confident yet guileless stranger. “Sounds good.”

 

“Thank you. I’m glad to have a friendly neighbor.” She sighs. “And they were so worried over us! It seems it’s not that hard to land on one’s feet. What a relief.”

 

“Well like. Hang on,” he held up both hands, “don’t get too relaxed. Things can get intense here at the job, and when people interact with each other sometimes things get messy. You’ll do fine, I’m sure, but this is the easy part, right now.”

 

“Oh. Yes, I see, that makes sense.” There’s a pause.

“Will I start working in earnest today, or should I find somewhere to wait out the rest of your shift?”

 

“Well, your orientation was supposed to take longer, so…” he shrugged. “Why don’t we get you started learning the espresso machine?”

 

 

Hours later, they stepped off a red line train car together.

 

“I think this is the first time I’ve gotten off at this stop with someone I wasn’t related to by blood,” Benny chuckled.

 

“Surely other people get off at this stop every day.”

 

“Oh, I meant out of people I know.”

 

She blinks. “Ah, that makes sense. Sorry, it seems my natural language processing is still developing. So … what do you typically do after work?”

 

“Oh, no, you’re doing great. And I uhm… feed my cat. Sometimes I videocall my sister, when she’s available. Sometimes I surf the internet. Sometimes I just sorta sit and let my mind go blank.”

 

He led them to the hallway with the sliding doors that absolutely did not look like they led to apartments.

 

“Hm. I think the internet connection has not yet been set up in my apartment. I was planning on just going to sleep and charging, but if you would enjoy my company, I would certainly enjoy yours.”

 

“Um,” Benny scratched his cheek. “I dunno. Maybe… well, like. You can use my wifi if you want. And if you wanna meet my cat. You could meet my cat.”

 

“I’ve never met a cat!” She sounds quite excited.

 

“Well then,” he smiled, and tapped the door panel, which detected his key chip and slid open. “Petey! I’m home, and I brought somebody who isn’t Buster!”

 

The ginger cat hopped down from one of many wire shelves covering the walls of the little studio. It came over to get pets from Benny and sniff the strange new guest.

 

The guest smells like a computer. She glances at Benny, not sure how to interact with cat.

 

“He likes to have his back stroked gently,” he explained, shutting the door and crouching next to Petey. He ran a hand from the cat’s head to the base of his tail, eliciting a happy purr. “Sometimes he likes ear scritches, but not always. Back pets he always likes. Oh! The internet, right. The SSID is ‘Earthbound’, password is ‘Buster97’.”

 

Her eyes went blank for a moment as she connected. Then she smiled warmly and extended a hand to the cat, palm up. “Hello, Petey.”

 

The cat sniffed at Janet’s fingers for a moment, then decided that This Was Fine, and headbutted it chin-first, demanding pets.

 

“Yeah, you’re in,” Benny smiled.

 

She kneels to get closer and becomes absorbed in petting the cat, making little cooing noises. After a moment she looks up at Benny, practically glowing. “This is so nice! Do you think I could get a cat?”

 

“I don’t see why not!” Benny shrugged. “If you do, though, you’re definitely gonna want to invest in a really good litterbox, or your apartment’s gonna smell like cat pee. The one Buster bought me combs out smelly stuff and releases ionized air so things smell nice even though there’s so little room.”

 

“Oh, that’s good. I should learn more about cat ownership before I make a decision, I suppose. And figure out what my expenses are going to be like…” The cat started purring again and she completely trailed off. “Oh! It’s purring!”

 

“He likes you,” Benny smiled and joined in the petting, eliciting even more purring from Petey, who flopped dramatically on his side. “Don’t touch his tummy though. He lets me do it like once a month, and even then it’s a risk.”

 

After a moment of petting, he turned his head to look at Janet’s face, his eyes tracing the seam along her jaw. “I was gonna say that living in these rooms is really hard, but… I guess you probably haven’t lived that many places, have you? I don’t know what you’d consider easy or hard.”

 

“I don’t know that I’ve ‘lived’ anywhere. I spent a little while in a Legion facility after they activated me, and then they transferred me to Rock City and my apartment here. I admit, it’s smaller than the apartments in my default information … but it seems quite doable, since I don’t need a lot of typical human accommodations.”

 

“Maybe you’ll get on here pretty well, then. Most of what my neighbors complain about is having to share a bathroom, and you probably don’t even have to use one.”

 

“Likely not, although if I get my chassis dirty I will have to wash it. But my instructions indicate that can be done with a damp cloth.” She moves her hand to petting the cat’s head. “Is there anywhere in Rock City I should make sure to visit? Or should avoid?”

 

“Oh geez, that’s… that’s complicated. Rock City is a really complicated place and I… I keep to myself mostly. To be honest, I think I know more about Dreamlight than Rock City.”

 

Even if Janet hadn’t heard that name before, a quick google search would reveal that it was the largest settlement on Luna.

 

“Is that where your sister lives? You mentioned she was on the moon.”

 

“Yeah!” Benny cracked a smile larger than Janet had yet seen on him at the mention of his sister. “Buster is super cool. I was actually gonna give her a call nowish, do you want to meet her?”

 

“If you think she’d like to meet me, then yes, that would be very nice.”

 

“Buster loves meeting people,” Benny smirked, pulling the monitor arm out from its shelf and pointing it screen at the two of them. He pulled a headphone jack from the side, eliciting a quiet pop from the screen’s speakers. “Everyone. All the time. I don’t know how she does it, to be honest.”

 

[what’s the furniture situation in here? Is there a couch or something? I was picturing Janet kneeling on the floor for maximum cattage][there is no furniture. There’s a heavy futon roll currently tied to the wall. That’s it. Oh, and a few floor pillows]

 

Janet scooched so that she could sit back and face the screen more easily, hoping the cat would follow.

 

The cat did not follow. He fucked off, circling the outside of the room. Ah, the first taste of fickle affection.

 

“He’ll come back,” Benny assured her, then tapped at his phone for a few moments. The screen came to life, showing a tilting handset icon, meant to represent a phone even though phones haven’t looked like that for ages.

 

Moments later, a face that looked strikingly like Benny’s but also entirely unlike him appeared on the screen. Their bone structure was identical: delicate, youthful, heart-shaped. Everything changed from there. The person on the other screen had fuller lips, brighter eyes, hair dyed pink and blue and white, and muscles.

 

“Bennaaay!” The woman shouted cheerfully, then her eyes widened. “Hoooly shit you brought a girl home!”

 

“Now hang on,” Benny objected, but his sister steamrolled him.

 

“Welcome to the matchbox, girly! I’m Buster, Benny’s twin sister. What’s yer name?”

 

Janet waved cheerily. “Hello! I’m Janet. I’m Benny’s new coworker. I just got hired today.”

 

“Dang, dude, you’re dating a coworker?” Buster whistled. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”

 

“We’re not dating, Buster, I’m still gay.” Benny sounded kind of annoyed.

 

“Being attracted to only one gender is passe, Ben. It’s just a phase, you’ll get over it.” Buster smirked. “She’s very cute! I’d hit it.”

 

“Buster jesus christ”

 

Janet blinked. “Ah … thank you, Buster! I came over for other reasons, though, such as petting his cat. That’s a new and exciting experience for me.”

 

That actually seems to strike Buster silent for a moment. Benny chimes in, “Janet is a sapient robot. She’s doing a lot of stuff for the first time right now.”

 

“Huh!” Buster ponders that for a moment, then grins. “Cool!”

 

“Thank you! I’m very excited to start work in earnest. I’ve been programmed to be helpful and sociable, so I think the Bean Sidhe will suit me.”

 

“Okay, well I’m gonna tell you what I tell Benny all the time, since you seem smart and friendly: you can do better and probably should.”

 

“Buster–“

 

“–and that’s all I’ll say! For now. T’be honest, I’m just real happy that Ben’s got an in-person friend, finally. I was starting to think he’d never pull it off.”

 

Janet glanced at Benny. “Well, I’m glad to provide! I will say, ah … I’m not sure what exactly you mean by better? Better-paying?”

 

“Better paying, room for promotion and a career, not having to deal with ‘the customer is always right’ crap…”

 

“A career … that’s something I hadn’t really considered. I suppose … a human can’t, physically, do that sort of work for too long without physical consequences?”

 

“Or psychological ones. And you’re just– a job is supposed to work up to something. It’s supposed to improve your life over time.”

 

“Can we talk about something else,” Benny whined.

 

“Benny said you live on the moon? What’s that like?”

 

“Extremely cool,” Buster nodded sagely, “exceedingly awesome and badass. It’s the fucking moon.”

 

“Isn’t it difficult to get some things?”

 

“Um, like what? Gravity? I don’t really need much of that stuff.”

 

She shrugged and gave a somewhat helpless expression. “I… don’t really know, I just thought, since it’s remote … Why doesn’t everyone live there?”

 

“Well, no I guess it’s true. Food is more expensive, definitely. Working for Phalanx, I don’t have to worry about that too much though.”

 

“Phalanx …” She went briefly blank, sorting through Google results. “Ah, how interesting! That must keep you busy much of the time.”

 

“Hell yeah it does! I’m the best ground tank pilot on earth or luna! That’s why they gave me the Cestus.”

 

“She’s a blowhard, but it’s true. She was at the top of her class.”

 

“Impressive.”

 

“Well, to be fair, she sort of had an advantage,” Benny rocked back and forth for a moment, then shrugged. “See, we’re actually paranormals.”

 

Buster seemed really gleeful at the comment. “Bennyyyyy! You never tell anybody that!”

 

He shrugged.

 

“Oh, really? What are your powers?”

 

“Buster can slow down her perception of time. It means that she can make decisions super fast, though her body can’t move any faster than a baseline human’s theoretically could. I’m the opposite; I can speed up my perception of time. It’s, um. Not as useful.”

 

“Ah, I see.” She thought about it for a moment. “I think I would enjoy either, though.”

 

“It does make me more patient, I guess,” Benny shrugged.

 

“Hey Ben I gotta go,” Buster said. “Nice to meet you, uhm. Robot lady? What was your name?”

 

“Janet Li. It was lovely to meet you as well, Buster.”

 

“Yeah! See you around! I’ll let y’all know if I’m earthside anytime soon. Byee!”

 

“Bye buh,” Benny smiled. The call ended, the screen went blank, and he pushed it so it folded back in against the wire shelf. Petey padded back over to them, positioning himself between the two. “Well, that’s Buster. Anyway, um. Sorry I don’t have much to do here. You’re welcome to use my wifi for as long as you need to, though, and you can pet Petey some more. It’s… kinda nice having another person around.”

 

“Thank you. I think I should probably return to my apartment and charge soon, but I have truly enjoyed spending time with you.” She sighed. “Also, I should apologize – I’m sorry for hitting on you. It was rude to do that, since you aren’t interested.”

 

“It’s okay, you didn’t do anything that upset me. Buster is kind of obnoxious about trying to hook me up with people, cuz I’ve never had a boyfriend and she’s dated like. Dozens of people since we moved out of our parents’ house. I don’t think about romance the same way she does,” he smiled, “but I’m not upset that you hit on me. You were pretty respectful.”

 

“That’s good to hear. I’ll try to be more careful with others in the future, though.” She stood up. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

 

“You will. Thanks for… reaching out.”

 

“Thank you for hosting me! See you soon.” And she left.

 

Distant Thunder: Together Again

TOP OF THE ROCK RESTAURANT

NORBRIDGE ROCK CITY

 

“I’m underdressed,” Benny fretted, adjusting his bow tie and smoothing down his fitted vest. “I’m underdressed. I look like some kind of hipster fuck.”

 

“You’re fine,” Buster scolded him. “You’re better dressed than I am.” That, at least, was true. At least she wasn’t in BDUs, but Buster wasn’t about to dress up formal for something as simple as going to dinner at a fancy restaurant with an international celebrity. She was wearing slacks and an untucked button-down, the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. She didn’t even bother taking off her dog tags.

 

“Yeah, but you can pull it off,” Benny shot back, checking the tuck of his undershirt into his slacks.

 

“Whatever. You’re hot stuff. You’ll be boning the Damselfly before the evening is over.”

 

“I’m sure ey didn’t bring us here to hit on us, Buster.”

 

“Dream big, buh!” Buster grinned, then strode up to the Maitre D. “We’re the Damselfly’s guests, my good man! Lead us to your finest… table that we have reserved.”

 

Buster—”

 

“This way, madam,” the host seemed unfazed, nodding to Benny too. “Sir.”

 

The siblings followed, and were led to a smallish table near one of the windows. Window tables at Top of the Rock were what made the restaurant famous, and for good reason—it was fifty stories up, looking out over the entirety of Norbridge Rock City, all the way to the Canadian shore.

 

“Whoa,” Buster breathed. “I know I live on the moon, but damn.”

 

“Kinda dizzying,” Benny agreed.

 

“So, been practicing your pick-up lines?” Buster smirked.

 

“Would you stop?” Benny scolded. “I thought you’d let up once I had a boyfriend.”

 

“Why stop at one, though?”

 

“Forget it. Seriously, though, why do you think the Damselfly wants to take us to dinner and drinks? Us, of all people? We’re nobody special.”

 

“Speak for yourself!” Buster folded her arms and leaned back in the seat.

 

“You know what I mean. We’re not… superheroes, or celebrities. There’s nothing that should make us stand out.”

 

“Oh, I dunno,” a voice came from above. “You seem pretty distinctive to me.”

 

The twins looked up. Above them, floating in air as if laying tummy-down at the edge of a bed, was a slight, freckle-faced redhead grinning down at them. Ey was wearing a pair of loose pants made of some wispy fabric, a scoopnecked top, and a full face of evening makeup with colors to match.

 

“Um,” Benny said.

 

“Hi.” Buster added.

 

“Wow, you…” Nat floated down, grabbing the back of eir own chair. “You two look totally different. I never would have…”

 

“Different from what?” Buster blinked.

 

“Um nice to meet you Mx. Damselfly,” Benny stammered.

 

“Right! Hosting.” The Damselfly was positively beaming. “Do both of you like red sangria? I seem to remember that you both liked sweet wines when we were little.”

 

“When we were… what?” Buster asked.

 

“Oh my god,” Benny murmured, eyes wide. “Oh my god.”

 

“And Benjamin gets it,” Nat said quietly.

 

“What—OH.” Buster’s eyes went wide too, staring at Nat.

 

“Petey?” Benny’s voice was tiny.

 

“Not any more,” intense emotion crept into Nat’s voice. “I’m so happy you made it out, sibs.”

 

With a voice-breaking cry, Buster lunged forward and swept Nat and Benny into a tight hug. “Oh shit,” she wailed. “Oh shit, oh shit! We’ve got our kid back! We’ve got you back!!”

 

Benny, too, clung to Nat, sobbing. Finally overcome by the emotional display, Nat burst into tears too, and the three held each other for a while.

 

 

Only a few minutes later, they were all at their seats again, a pitcher of red sangria on the table in front of them, a full glass in front of each sibling.

 

“So,” Nat began anew, snuffling. “Hi. My name is Nat Zygoptera. They call me the Damselfly. I’m kind of a big deal celebrity superhero. It’s.. really nice to see my brother and sister again.”

 

“I’m uh, Beth Schuster, but everybody just calls me Buster,” Buster smiled, clutching her sangria glass in both hands. “I drive the best tank that PHALANX makes. Also, I’m bi and a girl.”

 

“And um. I’m Benny. I make coffee. Also, I’m gay.”

 

“Look at this queer little family,” Nat got a little misty again, and took a sip of wine. “Oh! That reminds me. Benny, you know how your boyfriend was asking you about whether you were exclusive.”

 

Benny stared, a blush creeping across his freckles.

 

“Yeahhh, I kind of fucked him. Sorry, I didn’t know he was yours.”

 

“I mean, um. I guess I don’t mind if… you don’t mind?”

 

“Oh. Also, he’s kind of maybe possibly a supervillain?”

 

Benny stared, his face flushing red.

 

“Well, maybe. We know his mom is one. The Oathkeeper’s sworn nemesis, actually. He might be okay.”

 

Benny stared, face bright crimson, looking faint.

 

“You’re fucking a supervillain?” It wasn’t clear whether Buster was addressing Benny or Nat. “I feel way better about myself now.”

 

“I feel like there’s hope for him,” Nat shrugged a little, “I dunno. Just… wanted you to know.”

 

“Should… do I need to break up with him?” Benny’s voice was a little small.

 

“Nah. Don’t. I’ll let you know if you should. Let’s talk about literally anything else.”

 

 

Two hours, three fancy entrées, and two full pitchers of red sangria later, all three siblings were flush-faced and loud.

 

“An’ then,” Buster slurred, “he says, I know a place. In public! That has a real nice view. Of the lunar sunrise! And do you want to go there. For sex. He didn’t say that last bit.”

 

“Doctor Lydes did that?” Nat clutched the edge of the table to keep from floating away. “You propositioned Simon fucking Lydes and he suggested a public place to fuck you in??”

 

“Buster,” Benny said sagely, “is magical.”

 

“I’m a fucking unicorn,” Buster agreed, “and yes. So like, he takes me up there, and it’s legit one of the nicest views I’ve seen in Dreamlight. And he bends me over the railing and fucks my brains out. It was amazing.”

 

“Holy shit,” Nat whispered, “I have to get in on that.”

 

“I recommend it highly.”

 

“Maybe we should hook you up with Callister too, Buster,” Benny suggested, giggling.

 

“Ehhhhh.” Buster waved off the notion derisively. “Too pompous. I don’t wanna fuck no world of wartime blood elf poet shirt limpdick.”

 

“His dick is really very not limp,” Benny pointed out, and Nat nodded agreement.

 

“Whatever! You know what I mean. Anyway that was kind of something. So Nat are you like. In a relationship, or just fucking everything that moves.”

 

“Both,” Nat sipped eir drink. “I am in love with a girl, though. Her name is Fiona. She’s… awkward. You’d like her, Benny.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“You’ll have to meet my polycule,” Nat nodded, “you’d love the hell outta the other couple, Buster. It’s all gotta happen. How many days before you have to head back to Luna?”

 

“Three.”

 

“Okay. Just. Wow,” Nat smiled, eyes tearing up again. “I’m drunk with my gay as fuck siblings. I’m drunk and gay with my siblings.”

 

“Drunk and gay,” Buster agreed. “Fuck.”

 

“Here’s to being drunk and gay with real family,” Benny raised his glass.

 

“Drunk and gay!” Nat agreed, and they all toasted.

 

And then Nat made everyone drink a ton of water so they wouldn’t be hung over, the end.

 

Distant Thunder: The One Good Thing

SOUBRIDGE EDGE PARK
ROCK CITY, THE SURFACE

 

Benny was still wearing a vest, bow tie, and button-down tucked into khaki slacks. He looked good. He gazed over the edge of the park, to the end of the Rock City Bridge, a higher vantage point than his apartment but lower than the restaurant he’d just been to.

 

He was waiting for his boyfriend.

 

“Hey. You look nice.” Callister slouched out of the shadows, hands in pockets, hair in a loose ponytail and wearing a plain black tee and grey cargos.

 

Benny turned around, saw Callister, and blinked. “You… look nice too. That’s more casual than I’m used to seeing you, but honestly it’s a good look for you.”

 

Callister shuffled and muttered something that sounded like “Laundry day, but thanks.” Then he stared awkwardly at Benny.

 

He adjusted his vest and took a few steps forward. “You wanted to talk.” He didn’t look upset.

 

Callister took a few steps forward too. “Yeah. Erh. So yeah. Nat told you about me and em and about my mother, huh?”

 

“Ey told me the basics,” Benny looked up at the Rock City Center, the tall building that contained the restaurant where he’d eaten with his siblings. “That your mom is the Oathkeeper’s sworn enemy, that ey slept with you.”

 

And then he met Callister’s eyes dead-on, blue to red. “Ey said that there was hope for you. And that I shouldn’t break up with you.”

 

‘Yeah. Mom is Anathema.” Then he shuffled. “Yeah?” His tone was one of optimistic embarrassment. “Fuck. Dunno if I’m doing something wrong or right, then.”

 

“You’re probably doing both,” Benny took slow steps up to Callister, and took both of his hands. “But I’m… I’m happy to have my sibling back. Thank you.”

 

“Erh….sorry for fucking your sibling.”

 

Benny laughed. “Cal,” he smiled up, “I really don’t care. Keep fucking em, if you want. Just don’t hurt em. Okay?”

 

“Yeah, wasn’t intending to.” Callister finally relaxed into a grin. “Right before we figured out you two were siblings, I invited em to come meet you and we could bring em out for desserts. Think ey’ll like Petey Cat?”

 

“Ey will,” Benny smiled, “and approves of the name going to a cat. Nat said that the cat would be ‘more responsible with it’, which I guess sort of makes sense.”

 

Benny took a deep breath slow, and let it out even slower.

 

“I was worried you were gonna dump me in advance because this all freaked you out too much,” ey admitted.

 

“I, yeah, was worried about the same. I mean, I’d be mad if someone I dated turned around and screwed with my younger sibling.” Callister shrugged. “Not that I have one.”

 

Benny chewed his lip for a moment. “Learning that we could screw anyone, at all, ever was sort of a huge revelation for me and Buster. She sorta took it and ran with it, I kind of got scared and sat on it. But neither of us really has the same kinds of moral feelings about it that most people seem to. If you want to sleep with Nat, that doesn’t really bother me unless it means that you don’t want to sleep with me.”

 

“Nah. That was a one time thing, I’m pretty sure. ‘Sides, it’s dangerous for me to spend too much time with Nat. Eir power drives me a little crazy if I don’t take care.” Callister dropped Benny’s hands and slipped an arm around his waist to bring his boyfriend flush against his body. “Besides, don’t wanna talk about Nat anymore. Wanna kiss you instead.”

 

Benny drew in a hitching breath involuntarily. “Y-yes please.”

 

Callister bent his head and did just that.

 

Benny Schuster wrapped both arms around his boyfriend, head tilted up, and let himself forget that anything else existed except the two of them pressed together.

 

Distant Thunder: Bye Bye Benny

Callister entered Benny’s shop, the door tinkled as he stepped inside. He wore dark glasses over his red eyes, his hair pulled back into a sedate bun. He was quiet he waited for Benny to notice him, his eyes unreadable behind the shades.

 

Benny was ‘In the Zone’, doing that thing he did where he’d get really into a repetitive task and just do it until he was done, ignoring everything else. It probably would have taken him minutes to realize that Callister was there, but his coworker (a tall, rail-thin boy with spiky black hair) jostled him from his daze with a greeting.

 

“Hi there! Can I get you something?”

 

Hearing this, Benny looked up, saw Callister, and grinned. “Babe!”

 

Callister responded to the grin with one of his own. It lit his face up. “Hey. When are you off?”

 

Then, while he was there he addressed Benny’s co-worker, “Cappuccino, tall, with a shot of hazelnut, thanks.”

 

“Aight,” the barista replied, smirking a little as he watched Benny bound up to Callister like a blond, apron-wearing puppy.

 

“Um, I have a few more hours to go, but I can probably take my break now. It’s not very busy.”

 

Callister smiled, “Get you a drink too?” He placed a hand on Benny’s waist, but limited his public display of affection to that at Benny’s job.

 

That got an immediate response, though; Benny did that thing he did whenever Callister touched him in anything resembling a possessive or affectionate fashion, where his eyes looked distant for a second and he took in a sharp breath.

 

He recovered pretty quickly, though, and smiled a bit coyly. “You know I’m going to mark out your cappuccino anyway, right? I don’t pay for drinks in my own shop.”

 

“I’ll make you a Benny, Benny,” the other barista offered.

 

“Thanks Caleb!”

 

Callister smiled at Benny’s reaction, a different sort of smile from the one he wore when he first greeted Benny. This one had more than a hint of promise and affection, and also more than a little bit of smug satisfaction.

“Good to know I can always come by to bum drinks off you.”

 

“As long as you don’t abuse the privilege. So um. To what do I owe this lovely visit?”

 

The smile faded a little. “Tell you when we’re outside. What’s new with you?”

 

Benny laughed. “You know you’re the only exciting—well, okay, now that I know Nat’s my sibling, you and Nat are the only exciting things in my life that aren’t Buster.”

 

Callister made a rude noise. “That means I gotta work harder to be the most exciting thing.”

 

“Nat’s rough competition there,” Benny admitted, but then the edge of his mouth quirked up in a sly smile. “But you have some advantages over em that you can leverage.”

 

“Hazelnut cappuccino and a Benny,” Caleb called from the bar.

 

The door tinkled as the little bell went off, and a pale man in dark sunglasses, and a dark suit with a blood red tie walked in, a sharklike smile on his face. His hair was pretty much perfect, and he walked like he looked good, and knew it, too. He went up to the bar, and nodded at Caleb.

 

“Hey. Get a mocha frappuccino, easy on the milk?” He looked over his sunglasses at the barista, and around the small coffee shop. He waved one hand at Callister.

 

“One blended latte it is,” the barista said a little more acidly than was professionally appropriate, then added, “what size?” “Medium, please.” The guy placed a twenty on the bar.

 

“Do you know that guy?” Benny frowned.

 

Callister had become quiet. He was still mostly relaxed and calm, but the hand on Benny’s waist had begun to rub against his lower back. “I do. Let’s get our drinks and go outside. Meet out out,” he said to Sin, carefully not mentioning him by name.

 

Benny blinked, then glanced over at Caleb, who shrugged and made change for Sin, then rushed to make the drink.

 

Sin left a tip of ten dollars in the tip bucket, ‘cause, what the hell, he can be nice. Sometimes. Rarely. When he has obscene amounts of money. He nods at Callister as the red haired man tells him about ‘out out.’ And waits patiently for his drink.

 

“Cal,” Benny pushed through the front door, his apron over one shoulder and an iced coffee drink in his hand. “What’s going on? That guy in there looks like a mobster.” He whispered that last sentence, his eyes straying in the direction of the man still waiting on his drink.

 

Callister slipped his hand all the way around Benny’s waist, holding him close enough that Benny could hear Callister’s rapid heart beat. “Don’t panic. That’s Sin. He must have followed me here. I’m sorry.”

 

Now it was Benny’s heart that was racing, his face going pale. “Sin?” His voice was barely audible as it shot upward in pitch. “The guy who nearly murdered Nat?”

 

The door tinkled again as Sin left, his medium BLENDED LATTE in his hand, as he takes a sip. He eyes Callister and Benny. “Well. Nice t’ meet ya, Benny.” The man smiles, and pushes up his sunglasses with his free hand.

 

“Sin. Nice of you to trail me.” Callister took a sip while casually holding Benny closer to him. Whether this was for Benny’s sake or his, that was up in the wind.

 

“Woah, easy. When you said you were going out for a few days, thought I’d meet your boyfriend. That’s all. Wasn’t intending to trail you, mate. You’re your own man.” Sin held up both of his hands, palms facing the two of them, apologetically. “Honest.” Of course, Sin is an accomplished liar.

 

Benny’s face was wan, and he looked like he was about to faint. He probably would have been wobbling on his feet if he weren’t clinging to Callister’s chest. He looked like he may have been trying to say something—a greeting, perhaps—but noise just wasn’t coming out of the boy’s face.

 

“Hmm. That would have gone down well.” Callister took another sip of his drink. “Benny, this is Sin. Sin, Benny. Sin, Benny’s scared of you because you tried to kill Nat. Nat is Benny’s younger sibling.”

 

Sin blinks, and looks at Benny over his sunglasses with icy blue eyes. “Wait, what? No way. Damn, small world. Honest, no issue with Nat. The whole thing was a huge cluster fuck. Wasn’t even trying to go after eir.” He takes another sip of his drink, and tilts his head. “Well, okay, yeah, wasn’t going to introduce myself as Sin, dammit. Just wanted t’ get to know the guy who you were on the phone with for weeks while we were working. Damn.”

 

Benny squeaked something that may have been reassurance about water under the bridge, or perhaps swearing revenge, or maybe just asking to go use the restroom. Who knows. All that came out was a sad little squeak.

 

“Blake Smith, Benny Schuster. Benny, here, hold my drink, take a sip.” Callister handed the cup to Benny without letting him go.

 

“Okay, the squeaking? Fuckin’ adorable. I can see already why you like the guy.” Sin takes a sip of his drink, chuckling, but watches Callister carefully.

 

Benny somehow paled and flushed at the same time, taking Callister’s drink out of his hands and taking a sip of his own.

 

Callister shoved his hand into his pocket. “I like him for plenty of reasons.” He grinned. “But ain’t gonna kiss and tell.”

 

“Good man.” He takes a long sip of his drink, then looks at it. “Damn. That is pretty good. Was gonna put the guy through the expresso machine, but…. eh. Anyway, Benny. Just wanted to let you know, ain’t got anything to be worried about from me.” He takes another long sip. Yeah, he’s probably addicted to coffee.

 

“Thanks,” Benny managed. It was quiet, but he managed it.

 

“Yeah, thanks for not doing that. Would like Benny to keep his job.” Callister nodded.

 

“Oh, Benny wouldn’t get blamed for it, sheesh. Like everything, it’d fall on me.” He sighs. “Anyway, just wanted to say good luck, you too. You both deserve a happy ending. Thanks for sticking up for me, Cal, I know you did, even if you didn’t have to. Benny, like I said, I know the whole villain shtick loved ones all that bullshit may come up in your guy’s relationship, but that ain’t me. I might be a full blown murderous monster, but just because Nat stands up to me, won’t be comin’ after you. Same if Cal said fuck you, to me. You ain’t in my way, so no reason to do anything to you. I know there’s some guys out there that would, but that’s not my style.” He pauses, and takes a long swig of his drink, finishing it off. The drink flies off into a nearby trash bin.

 

“Damn, that really is a good drink. But yeah, I guess that’s mostly what I wanted t’ say. Get across. Not sure how I’d do that if you didn’t know who I was, so guess it worked out better this way. Anyway, ya two chill, have a good night. I guess, hope I don’t see ya around.”  With that, Sin shrugged, and headed past Benny and Callister.

 

“Hey, Sin.” Callister partially turned. “Thanks for putting up with me, too. And helping with Grandmother. I’ll be back in a couple of days, got some business to wrap up, got some things to think about.”

 

Benny blinked, confusion at the news cutting through his terrified demeanor.

 

Sin laughs. “You ain’t so bad, Cal. Do whatever you need t’do, just like I’m gonna do.” He waves as he walks away, chuckling.

 

Callister watches Sin walk out of sight then guides Benny around the corner where there was a bench and sat the blond man down, sitting down beside him. “Take your time.”

 

Benny put his head down, clutching it, and spent a little while trying to regulate his ragged breaths. “I’m,” he gasped, “I’m okay.” He clearly was not okay.

 

Callister rubbed his back. “It’s okay. Just breath into three, breathe out to three. Slow count.”

 

After about a minute of deep breathing and calm reassurance, Benny finally sat up slowly and leaned his head against Callister’s shoulder.

 

“Thank you. I’m—I’m sorry. I… I decided not to join PHALANX because I always got so scared of danger compared to Buster. I don’t handle that kind of stress all that well, I guess.”

 

“I don’t blame you. Sin’s okay…to me. Then again, I’m…sturdier than you are. I could probably take him on. You couldn’t. But trust him to keep his word, don’t betray him, and he won’t bite. He’s like a cobra like that.” Callister continued to gently rub Benny’s back, moving his hand up his spine to the back of his neck.

 

As Cal touched his neck, Benny relaxed more, making a little “hmmn” noise and leaning more against Callister. “Okay. I trust you.”

 

Callister leaned down and kissed his brow, holding Benny tighter against him. “Okay. So tell me something normal about your day.”

 

“I.. well. It’s not that normal, but it made me happy. You know that coworker I made friends with, Janet?” Benny took another deep breath and let it out, slowly losing the anxious tension. “I got in contact with her sibling, and they’re gonna get together.”

 

“Yeah? That’s great. Janet’s an AI, right?” Callister paused, frowning. “Sibling? How does that work?”

 

“They said that they’re the prototype that the other models were based on. I hope it goes okay, but if this ‘y’ character is anything like Janet, it’ll be great.”

 

Callister nodded. “So what else has happened?” He was obviously trying to get Benny talking to distract him from his scare.

 

“Well, I mean, since… since meeting Nat, not much…” Benny frowned, recalling something suddenly. “Cal, what did you… mean about the business that you had to wrap up? Is… it your mom?”

 

A heavy sigh. “Yeah. It is. I’ll be going to Twin Falls.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Benny closed his eyes and nodded. “I understand,” he said, his voice oddly calmer than it had yet been. “Please do everything you can to come back to me alive, Cal, okay?”

 

“Yeah. Gonna try. I…don’t intend to fight. And I don’t get hurt easy…” Callister paused, organising his thoughts. “What I mean is. I don’t know what’ll happen. I think I know what I’ll do…but I don’t know yet.”

 

“O-okay,” Benny nodded, “thanks. It’s a relief to hear that you’re gonna try not to fight.”

“Yeah.” He paused looking down at Benny. “You’ve seen the cafe video right? You know I manifest armor? I don’t get hurt easily. I’ll be fine.”

 

“I believe you. I mean, I trust you. But I’m a worrier, Cal, you know that. I get nervous every time Buster gets deployed.”

 

“Okay.” He kissed Benny on the temple. “Okay. I’ll be careful. I’ll contact you as soon as I’m able, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Benny murmured quietly. “Thanks love.”

 

Well, that got a response form Callister. He paused a moment, then tilted Benny’s face up and kissed him deeply and soundly, eliciting a little whimper from the smaller man, who reached up and wrapped both of his arms around Callister’s neck.

 

They stayed there for a little while, lip-locked and wrapped around each other.

 

Summer Sweatin’

PHALANX FITNESS CENTER
DREAMLIGHT, LUNA

 

The Fitness Center in Dreamlight never closed, and it was never empty. Today, it was close, but several troops went through methodical, repeat motions in frictional exercise machines. One trooper stood out; a muscular, tall, broad-shouldered woman in her mid-twenties with a colorful soft mohawk and an even more colorful warmup outfit. She was in a clear cylindrical tube, bounding off the walls in a rainbow-hued streak.

 

Another figure that stood out was the pink alien lady in the silver uniform. She’d taken off her jacket and cape. Cape? And what looked like a sword and buckler belt and and laying it at a practice dummy barehanded. And in thigh high boots.

 

Aliens ammirite?

 

Meanwhile, across the room, walking out of the bathroom was a shirtless figure that appeared to be made completely out of obsidian filled with stardust. Also baggy grey workout shorts. He placed his hands on his hips and examined the entirety of the workout room with a curved featureless head, aside from the galaxy floating within. His hips made some cracking noises as he stretched them, and his arms popped multiple times as he stretched those too. It had been literally years since he had worked out. “Ok Summer you got me here, now what?” He asked as he approached her.

 

Summer finished her set with a spin kick that would have made someone’s day worse and jogged on over. She gave the obsidian man a critical look. “Let’s start with some stretches. Let me see how well you can touch your toes.”

 

“Ok. Right.” He pointed two hand downward. Then leaned with his back until there was an audible crack. “Ahhhhh jeeez that hurt then felt good.” He said, voice strained as he reached further. His fingertips were only able to get down to his ankles.

 

It gradually became apparent that they had an audience. The jacked woman in the clear plastic tube had ceased her focused bounding, and was staring, fascinated, at the two aliens(?). People. Interesting looking… bipeds.

 

“That’s good, better than I expected!” Summer clapped her hands, then she waved at the woman in the tube. She returned the wave immediately, beaming. Summer turned back to Shane. “Let’s go through a few more stretches then we’ll go on the running machine things.”

 

The colorful woman resumed her exercise, though she kept glancing over to the cool looking people across the room in the process.

 

Shane glanced back a few times, though it was hard to tell because well, he had no eyes. “Alright alright more stretches more stretches.” He sat on the floor and attempted to get his foot behind his head and was surprisingly quite successful at doing so, though it was preceded by a series of sharp popping noises until it came into rest. “Oooooooh there’s the spot….” Apparently he had a lot of practice doing this one before.

 

“That is good! You’ve done -” and here her translator split into three voices as opposed to the normal two. One, the word she used, xi’latie’s. Two, an extended explanation of the term. Three, a simple Earth term, yoga. Summer paused, looking annoyed as she tapped what appeared to be an ornate hairclip. “I’m sorry, it’s still adjusting. What was that word you know? Yo-ga? You’ve done such stretch and breathing exercises before?”

 

The slamming noises from the plastic tube resumed. The woman was once again sending herself in a controlled ricochet from one end of the tube to the other, turning in midair so her sneakered feet always hit a different place on the wall. She was very fast for a human, though she certainly didn’t seem to be faster than baseline.

 

“Oh yeah I have liked weirding people out with stuff like this since I was a kid.” Shane chuckled as he slowly pulled his foot back down, making noises that could only be described as wincing. “Though it hurts a lot more to do it now days. Yeouch.” He slowly brought himself back up to his feet with a groan. “Hey. We should try those grav tube exercises. Looks fun.”

 

Summer nodded. “They certainly look like they’ll give you a full body workout. I’ve not tried these yet. There’s a few empty ones…yes, there are.” She led the way to them.

 

The woman finished a circuit and then braced herself at the end of the tube, sweaty limbs splayed and watching the other two. “Tastemaker!” She told herself with a toothy grin.

 

Shane walks up to it, tapping it on the glass. “Hmmmm. I really should know how to work one of these.” He flicks a few switches on the side. “Ah. There we go.” He puts it up to high weight gravity, stepping inside with thunks so loud one would assume he is made out of solid iron. “Well I’ll be damned, the techs they had working on this did a great job.” He slowly fought against it, feeling the weight on his body. “Feels just like when I jump in the Map.”

 

Summer looked at the setting Shane set it as and her jaw dropped in protest. “But….” Then stared. “Ah, I see. But perhaps you should start at a lower setting. You have not worked out in a long time and your muscles will protest tomorrow.” Somethings were basically universal.

 

“No way I need to feel the burn!” Shane replied as he forces his arms up in the air defiantly. Perhaps some of Dr. Lydes serotonin experiments had longer lasting side effects than intended. “Why don’t you give it a try?”

 

Summer gives an indelicate and unladylike snort. “Oh no. You can’t fool me like that.” She crossed her arms, looking amused. “Why don’t you try a few…” she paused, looking for a word. “Squats? Yes, squats.”

 

“Fine fine sure.” He took a wide stance, his body crackling under the weight as he went into his first squat. Man baggy pants looked weird under high gravity. Shane appeared to be stuck in his squatting position, making straining sounds as he tried to come back up. He did  not ask for help.

 

Summer gave it anyway, adjusting the gravity settings to something more comfortable while still being a challenge. “You need to start small before you can do big things,” she said gently.

 

“I totally had that Summer.” Shane assured, though it was in a joking way. “I just don’t get out much. Probably won’t have much time to build up enough small to do big anyways.” He sighs, pulling his elbow in yet another stretch.

 

The tube in which the colorful lady had been exercising was no longer visible from their current vantage point. After a few minutes, purely coincidentally, she left the grav tube and walked over to a tension pull machine across from them. She set the weights– high, for her size, but certainly very human– and clambered into the machine.

 

“You don’t have time to hurt yourself by starting big. And perhaps you can schedule breaks into your shift?”

 

“No can do, I need to be at my post as often as possible. I am instrumental to the expansion of earth settlements in this system and keeping an eye out on other civilized planets. Not to mention every hour I have off I spend in the labs working on Wheird and Catalysium physics.” He looks up dreamily. “I could be in the labs right now.”

 

“So do exercises at your post!” The woman in the tension machine blurted in an enthusiastic and husky alto. In the silence that followed, she realized that she had committed a gaffe, and hurriedly added something to save face. “….nerd!”

 

Shane looked over at Buster. He stared. He stormed right up to her. “Do you even know who I am?” He leaned his head in close to hers. She reared back a little. She probably wasn’t supposed to punch him, so rearing back seemed good. “I’m the biggest fucking nerd.” And then he leaned back. “Thanks for the advise. Sorry if that was a bit weird. Let someone mess with my brain a bit earlier.” He scratched the back of his head a little more, turning to look at Summer. He shrugged.

 

Summer shrugged back, bemused. “That is very good advice. There are a great deal of exercises that you can perform at your station.” She wandered on over.

 

“It weirds me out that more people up here aren’t weird! We on the moon, people! You’re all right. Are you two from offworld or what?”

 

“I am,” she nodded. “I am Summer of the Gi’ia’n Star Empire.” Her tone was friendly to match her smile.

 

“I have no idea what that is!” Buster said cheerfully. “I’m Buster! I drive the Cestus.”

 

“Human born and raised here.” “Huh.” “Oh!” Shane said calmly, readjusting himself as the strange serotonin surge died down. “Shane, or Astral. Nice to meet you. The Cestus huh? That’s a good one. I worked on the Ether Chalk and Phase Cascades designed for that. It’s treating you well?” A lab coat materialized out of cosmic dust around him as he said this.

 

“Oh for real? Fuck yes! I love my baby. Run drills every other day, and we’ve been on a dozen-ish sorties. Best tank I’ve driven yet.”

 

“Fantastic. I will be sure to let the techs know their driver is satisfied.” Shane nodded, sounding pretty pleased himself. “Summer is from another solar system, more advanced than us.” He clarified with a motion of his hand. “It’s very impressive.”

 

“Hell yeah! I’m mad impressed! I’m also impressed that you’re human-born but obviously way fuckin cooler than most humans!”

 

“Heh, thank you. I personally agree with you but….you do have to be a bit careful who you say that around.” He said it a bit softly. “There are others who have a similar condition and it isn’t exactly something that happens by choice. They get treatments and can remain, for the most part human but…yeah. Some folks get rather touchy about it.”

 

“Right. Sure. Cool. I’m still kinda learning this uh offworld diplomacy thing. I was real sheltered before I joined Phalanx to be honest.”

 

Shane did a small wave in dismissal “Oh it’s fine, don’t worry about it too much, I think we are good here. But, ah, yeah. The Cestus? One of it’s main functions is to keep anyone who doesn’t want to become this-” He gestures to his body “From becoming it once they enter the Cat zone on the other side of the moon.”

 

“Ohhhh. Yeah. I’d be four kinds of dead and even more kinds of messed up without it by now.”

 

Shane nods. “Yeah I was one of the lucky ones. Was a really messy business when all that went down. Anyways….how are you enjoying the moon so far? I know it’s not exactly the ideal place to live but….we are trying.” He kind of sounded like one of those door to door surveyors.

 

Shrug. “I don’t have much of a basis of comparison. I applied for my Phalanx scholarship the day after I moved out of my parents’ place, so it’s been, uh. Dorms dorms dorms.”

 

“Yeah I can’t really say much either. I basically like in my lab. And the observatory.” He sighed. “Nice to hear that the scholarship is bringing in smart talent though. Not anyone can handle machinery like the Cestus. That was a good decision.” He looked around. “Our gyms beat the shit out of earth ones though am I right?”

 

Buster beamed at the praise. “Hey, thanks, that’s right nice of ya. Not for nothing, neither. I’ve got the highest recorded scores on the CLAMORs since they were implemented. And yeah! This gym is the best I’ve ever worked out in. I spend more time in here than I spend video calling my bro.”

 

Summer had stepped to the side, taking a call. “I’m sorry,” she said to Shane. “I’m being called away. I do hope this has helped you.” She nodded at Buster. “It’s been good meeting you.” She gathered her things and left in a hurry.

 

“Bye cool name lady!”

 

“Find a job you love and you won’t work a day right?” Shane said in response to Buster’s fantastic test scores. “Bye Summer, keep looking for that masseuse for me will you?” He chuckled after her as she left. “Ah, so a brother on the surface then?”

 

“Yeh. Benny, my identical twin. Kinda shy, but he’s a mensch. Miss ‘im. Tried to convince him to join up too, but couldn’t convince him. He works some shit job and lives in a matchbox under Rock City.” She pauses for a moment, then frowns. “I worry about ‘im.”

 

Shane placed a hand on his chin, thinking for a bit. Hell. He was in a good mood. Why not. “Would you like to check up on him?” He asked with some curious mischief in his voice.

 

“I check up on ‘im like four times a week,” Buster replied, audibly confused. She wasn’t connecting the dots.

 

“Right. He is working right now though right?”Shane said patiently. “I think it’s normal business hours down there at the moment.”

 

“Uhm… yeah I guess he does have a shift right now. He’s a barista, so his hours are kinda weird, but he keeps me up to date on his schedule week to week.”

 

“Now what if I told you we could send a hologram of you down there right now into his shop and have a conversation with him?”

 

“Yooooooooo,” Buster whispered.

 

“Want to give it a shot?” Shane asked, pretty amused at the moment.

 

“Yeah let’s do it,” she squeaked, “he is gonna fliiiip.”

 

“Awesome.” Shane says, the hype real. He sets a hand on Busters shoulder, and slowly the Gym and Luna fade out. They are floating in space, but it doesn’t feel like space. Just looks that way, and the earth’s massive orb is resting in front of them. “Now don’t worry too much, this is just how my power works. It’s a bit weird at first, but if at any point you feel uncomfortable all you need to do is take a step back and I will let go.” And it was true, he had no real grip on her shoulder. “Rock City right?”

 

“Yeah. Route 1, exit 13, transit level, at the Bean Sidhe coffee shop.” Buster bounced on the balls of her feet, excited.

 

“Alright, hold on to your lunch.” Shane said, raising an outstretched hand to the earth , slowly pulling it to the side, causing it to rotate until they were looking directly at Rock city. He strained his obsidian muscle and squeezed his hand into a fist and the sky split before them as they rocketed down, down, down till they floated in the skies above Rock City. Buster whooped in delight.Route 1, exit 13” Shane said ponderously as he moved the earth beneath him, or rather, moved their own position rather quickly. Soon they found themselves right above the Bean Sidhe, slowly floating down to the ground. “This the place?” Shane asked with a bit of pride in his work. He very rarely projected towards the earth, and honestly his memory of it’s landscape was quite weak.

 

Buster looked down at the pavement, and up at the girders and the ceiling of Rock City’s transit level, then over at the populated parking lot and the rush of cars on the other side of the lanes. Every surface was painted a harsh yellow from the rest stop’s sodium lighting.

 

“Yup, this is the shithole.”

 

Shane chortled. “Ha, I dunno. It’s kind of quaint. Cute little shop.” He shrugged, taking his hand off Busters shoulder. “We’re invisible right now…we should wait till we get inside. Really spook him.” His voice was all mischief as he began walking up to the Bean Sidhe’s door, phasing right through it.

 

Buster scampered past him and ahead, then pointed at a dishwater-blond boy behind the counter. “That’s Benny,” she tittered. The resemblance was obvious the moment he lifted his head; other than Buster’s slightly fuller lips and softer face shape, the two were identical right down to the freckles. They probably had the same hair color when Buster’s wasn’t dyed in the colors of the trans flag. Their bodies couldn’t have been more different, though; Benny lacked Buster’s breasts, hips, and musculature. He had broad shoulders too, but little muscle to speak of and a fair bit of pudge in its place.

 

At the moment, he was the only barista on the floor. The shop was nearly empty, save for two customers sitting in corner seats.

 

Shane walked behind the counter. “So this is Benny! He seems to be doing alright for himself.” He then looked right back up at Buster. “How should we scare the shit out of him?”

 

Buster squinted, then grinned. “See how mechanical his motions are right now?” She whispered, even though Benny couldn’t hear her. “He’s using his time dilation powers right now to make a boring task less boring. That means he’s slow to react and spacey. Perfect time to imitate one of his supervisors.”

 

She scampered through the counter, taking a position just behind Benny and to his right. She gave an exaggerated ‘okay’ symbol and a wink to Shane.

 

Shane returned it with a thumbs up and Buster slowly began to fade into existence, only slightly retaining a wispy see through quality. She could see it herself when looking down at her hands. Shane then gave her an okay symbol back, letting her know she was all ready!

 

“SCHUSTER!” Buster bellowed, her voice suddenly a perfect natural baritone. “Whaaaaaat did you dooooooo!!!”

 

Benny startled so hard that a spray of coffee grounds flew upward into his face. “What! I didn’t– what– WHAT??” His confusion only deepened as he turned to see his spectral sister, laughing too hard to speak.

 

Shane appeared behind him. “I was supposed to reap her soul, but your sister decided she would rather haunt you for eternity instead.” His voice was deadpan and flat.

 

“Oh my god what? What??” Benny’s eyes were wild, and he reared back at the sight of Shane.

 

“Say what again, motherfucker!” Buster quoted, imitating Samuel L. Jackson’s voice nigh-perfectly.

 

“Wh–“

 

Shane was cracking the fuck up at that. “Don’t say it man she will go poltergeist on your ass.”

 

“Bennyyyyyy. I didn’t aaaaaalmost die this time,” Buster said in a spooky ghost voice. “I died for reeeeeaaaallll!!”

 

“You’re such a fucking asshole,” Benny scowled at her, “and I don’t know why PHALANX lets you use expensive equipment.” There was no venom in the assertion; he was just cranky about being pranked so hard.

 

“You should have seen your face, dude,” Buster said, and twisted hers into an imitation of it.

 

“Are you gonna introduce me to your friend the grim reaper, or what,” Benny brushed coffee grounds off the front of his apron.

 

“Oh yeah. This is Shane. Shane, Benny.”

 

“Hi there.” Shane gave a small wave. “I do holograms and projections along with a bunch of other stuff up on the moon.” He was still shaking the laughs out of his voice. “And yeah, your face was pretty sweet.”

 

“Yeah, leave it to Buster to make a friend with a cool power and then use it to punk me right away,” Benny made a face. “Well uh. Nice to meet you, and welcome to the Bean Sidhe. So to speak.”

 

“To be fair, it might’ve been my idea.” Shane says, only a little apologetically. “Don’t get to do this stuff very often, so I saw my opportunity and took it.” He chuckled a little bit. “Nice place you have here.”

 

“Oh,” Benny replied, looking around, “is it?”

 

“No,” Buster replied.

 

“That’s what I thought. But it’s a living, right?”

 

“No,” Buster replied.

 

Benny glared the glare of someone who agreed but was mad about it.

 

“You want to work for Phalanx?” Shane said, giving Buster a look that said…well. Something. No face. Was kind of hard to tell.

 

“I kind of don’t, to be honest,” Benny shrugged apologetically, “I was still living with Buster when she went through basic, and that nonsense is brutal. Also it’s way dangerous. I’m not thrilled that she’s doing something so risky.”

 

“Oh. Well like. I meant you could be a space barista. But yeah it’s hard to make drinks at zero G too. Super dangerous. Could burn yourself.” Shane nodded in understanding. “But your sis is going to be fine. She drives the Cestus. That’s like….well. It’s as close as we can get to making one person into a full sized tank. It’s pretty dang cool.” He turned to Buster “You’ve shown him the Cestus right?”

 

“She’s described it,” Benny said, “in lurid detail.”

 

“Nathanyul Craaaawss,” Buster elaborated via whining, “says that I’m not supposed to distribute images of it because it’s claaaaaaassified.”

 

“Oh yeah that guy’s a dick.” Shane nods. “Well when it’s unclassified you should drive it over for Benny to see. It is a MARVEL of modern technology.” Shane was hyping it up big time.

 

Benny smiled knowingly. “You worked on it, huh.”

 

“Well, yeah. A bit. Valkyrie also helped. It is SO cool.”

 

“Gotcha,” Benny said. “Well, I really oughta get back to work. Nice to meet you, Shane.”

 

“Talk to you tonight?” Buster shot twin finger guns at her brother.

 

“Sure, buh.”

 

“Nice to meet you too!” And with that, they were suddenly and immediately back in the gym, Shanes hand still on Busters shoulder. “So that was pretty cool right?”

 

“That was so cool,” Buster clenched both fists and bobbed up and down. “Thank you so much! I haven’t been in that awful coffee shop in almost a year!”

 

Shane grinned. “Glad I could help. Now i’ve only got about 15 minutes before my next shift starts….” He checked a watch weirdly attached over the sleeve of his lab coat. “Need a spotter?” ((Tag/endscene? Gonna have to shower n then go to work soon))((sounds good! Thanks! 🙂 ))((I had a lot of fun! Thank you too!))

Outreach: Surprise Visit

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH

 

Callister hadn’t contacted Benny in almost a day, and the boy had given him room too, evidently realizing that his boyfriend still needed some time.

 

Then, a text from Benny.

Hey. What are you up to?

 

A reply came back about five minutes later.

Kicking faces in Salt Lake City.

 

cool

 

That was it, for about fifteen minutes. Then:

Are you kicking faces, like, now-now?

 

About two minutes later.

Texting you inbetween bouts.

 

Pretty soon after that:

Okay. Wanna take a break for dinner?

 

It seemed that his bouts were about five minutes long.

Yeah could eat. Wait. you’re here?

 

Kinda, yeah

 

Actually definitely yeah

 

Um where should I meet you

 

The reply came with a map tag.

A diner nearby. Got good burgers.

 

See you soon. <3

 

Callister was already there when Benny arrived. There were already a couple of burgers and fries in front of Callister, but he was eating slowly due to what appeared to be a swollen jaw and cracked and bruised knuckles. He waved his burger at Benny when he spotted his boyfriend through bruised black eyes.

 

“Hey! Got you a burger, but I was gonna eat it if you didn’t come sooner.” He sounded…almost chill, if not cheerful.

 

“You can still eat it, if you want,” Benny’s voice was more than a little relieved at Callister’s tone, but also reflected a cringing sympathy at his injuries. “I can, like. Buy my own. God, it’s good to see you.”

Callister shrugged. That looked like it hurt too as he lifted his shoulder experimentally then winced again.  “Is’okay. Got pie coming. And more fries. You look good.”

 

“Really?” Benny’s smile was a little wan. “I haven’t been sleeping much. And you look like hell, but I’m sure you know that. Sorry I dropped in unannounced, I was just getting– um. You know what I’m like.” He drew the burger toward him and picked it up, then took a bite once he was done talking. This elicited an appreciative noise, and he nodded to Callister: oh hey, yeah, the burger is good.

 

Callister smiled widely (as widely as he could) at shared appreciation of good burg. “Yeah, it’s okay. Surprised me is all.” There were a couple milkshakes on the table, and Callister pushed one towards Benny before taking a pull out of his. “Feeling better than I did earlier, yeah.”

 

“I’m glad. Nat filled me in. That must have been…” Benny trailed off, unsure how or whether to finish the sentence. He took a bite of burger instead.

 

Callister shrugged again. “Yeah.” He took glum bite out of his burger.  There was silence for a moment. “Nat brought you here?”

 

Benny smirked. “What, you don’t think I can afford a sudden plane ticket halfway across the country?” He took a sip of milkshake. “Yeah, ey brought me here.”

 

The redhead snorted, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, you’re a secret millionaire is what you are. Slumming in your one room to fool us all.” Callister grinned. It was pretty disgusting with painful looking gums and bits of burger in his teeth, but it lightened his face up.

 

“It’s how I hide my superhero identity,” Benny said through a mouthful of burger, “it’s true, Callister. I’ve been lying to you. I am… The Icon.”

 

“It hot how you turn into a mysterious fighting lady, but I’m sad you never fight me.” That pout, Callister. Stop.

 

“Well, I can’t risk winning,” Benny said, playing right into it. “It’s so much more fun to lose fights to you.”

 

“Now I can’t boast that my boyfriend’s the Icon.” A big, heavy sigh. “This is sad and bad. You know how many more fights I could get if I say that?” He snickered.

 

“Your mouth is telling stories about how hard it is for you to find a fight,” Benny said, “but the rest of your face is telling a real different story, babe.”

 

“Yeah…but beating up the Icon’s boyfriend. You know how many people would want to do that? Plus, pretty sure they’d buy me drinks after.” Callister nodded.

 

“What is it with you and wanting to get beat up?” The joking look on Benny’s face fell away. “How much do you need to punish yourself for this, Cal?”

 

Callister shrugged again. “I like pain. Sometimes. Giving, taking. Needed to give and take this time. Just needed to make the pain numb today.”

 

“Oh, babe,” Benny’s voice was pained, but he nodded. “Okay. Just makes a guy worry, you know?”

 

“Yeah. Sorry. I..Yeah. I got real angry at myself. I’m kinda not so much anymore.”

 

There’s a quiet, but distinct sound of repetitive ‘thoom’ outside the diner. Salt Lake City wasn’t really known for a lot of super heroes, but there was one walking this way in the fading evening light. He entered carefully, the door giving a little jingle, and the dark green helmet with glowing eyes looked around until it settled on Callister and Benny. And he started walking their way.

 

“Babe,” Benny murmured in a surprisingly calm voice betrayed only by the width of his baby blues, “were you expecting The Wasteland to join us for dinner? If so, could you like. Give me a heads-up next time?”

 

“Babe, if I were, I wouldn’t have gotten my knuckles all busted.” Callister frowned as he got out from the booth. He didn’t look like he was readying himself for a fight, but more like meeting an opponent on equal ground. “Wasteland. To what do I owe this honor.” There was wariness in his tone.

 

“Tough man to track down, Callister. Or do you prefer the Red Knight?” Wasteland asked, looking around. A few people were gaping similarly to Benny. Oof. Hokay, lets just… oy.

 

Wasteland paused, and looked at Callister. “If you’re willing, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

 

“I wasn’t planned on being found for a few days.” Callister shifted his weight and crossed his arms. Standing up, it was pretty obvious that he was hiding a limp and holding his torso stiffly. “What sort of proposition?”

Wasteland remembered his manners, a little late, but still. “Sorry for interrupting your dinner.” He said to Benny, and looked back at Callister. “It’s, uh– okay–“ “You can sit down, man, I’m not here to do anything serious. Just wanted to make you an offer. People higher up are impressed. And you’ve got no criminal record, and you’re a free agent.”

 

“I’m here to make you an offer. Competitive salary. Insurance. Support. Hazard pay. Training for your powers and your skills, and a safe haven, if you want it. We’d like you on the Freelancers,” Wasteland said quietly.

 

Callister did not sit down. Instead he frowned, squinting through bruised black eyes. “Why? I’m Hyacinth Mills’ son. Last thing you people need is to trust me. Get your badge on me, get your training, and maybe I might go rescue dear old mother from the nasty Legion.” He wasn’t exuding hostility, only caution and distrust.

 

Benny’s eyes darted back and forth as the crowd started to stare more in earnest, murmuring to each other.

 

“Benny, is everything–” The redhead who’d just poked eir head into the restaurant blinked in surprise. “–Wastey?”

 

“Hey, Nat.” He waved, and nodded at em. “You’re friends with Nat too. Of course. Of course.” He looked back at Callister. “If the Freelancers, believed that, if I believed that you’d try to rescue your mother, I don’t think I’d be here, offering you the job. You don’t have to say yes, Callister. It’s an offer. That’s all. I think you’d fit well with us.” He shrugged. “This isn’t something you need to answer right away.”

 

“And just because you’re someone’s son, shouldn’t define who you are. At least, that’s what I think.”

 

“Damn straight. Is all this as weird as I think it is? It feels weird.” Nat chimed in.

 

“Yeah…I’ll think about it.” Callister looked like he was satisfied with the answer even if he wasn’t ready to say yay or nay just yet.

 

Wasteland nods. “We’ll be in touch, then… oh, christ. Did I really just say that? I did. I sound like Cheney. Gonna go drown myself in at least two bottles of scotch…” Wasteland shakes his head, chuckling to himself. He waves as he heads out. “Glad you made it out okay, Nat.” He says as he passes em on his way out.

 

“Thanks, buddy!” Nat grinned, then stage-whispered, “that’s my brother, by the way! That’s Benny! Oh hey can I come with? I wanna stick around but I don’t want to interrupt their date. More.

 

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” He chuckles. He gives em a thumbs up about the brother….. Trying to be discreet. He fails.

 

Callister watched Nat and Wasteland see themselves out before he slipped back in the booth. He ignored the whispering crowd and picked at the remains of his burger. His eyes looked up and caught Benny’s. “You wanna we get boxes for the pies and go to the park or something?”

 

“That sounds good,” Benny nodded, looking a little nervous about the attention from the crowd.

 

“Para faggots!” Someone in the restaurant shouted. It wasn’t clear who.

 

Callister stood. He was smiling, his split lip opened up and bleeding again as he slowly looked around at the crowd. Try me said his teeth. See how you like it said his eyes. I want to see you at my feet said his stance. I. Will. Destroy. You.

 

No one met his gaze.

 

And then there was the gentle touch of a callused hand on his arm. Benny’s voice, low but audible, behind him.

 

“Love. Let’s just… go. Please?”

 

Callister was slow to respond, milking the fear in the crowd. His teeth were bared in a ready grin.

 

Then, making sure that everyone knew that their peaceful lives remained peaceful due to the soft words of a young blond man, Callister bent slightly and kissed Benny’s hair. “Sure thing, babe. Lemme grab my coat.” Callister then took Benny by the arm, his heavy steps ringing out a definite message to the diner. I could burn you all. Laugh at your ashes. But not today.

 

The bell tinkled. And they were gone.

 

“Shame,” Callister said once they were outside. “I liked that place.” He shrugged and the Red Knight was gone.

 

“You can, still,” Benny replied, looking up at Callister’s eyes. “Everything has a rough side.”

 

“Nah. Next time I go in, I’ll smell their old fear. Not good y’know.” He smiled at Benny, hugging him close. “When’s your next shift?” He didn’t elaborate why it wouldn’t be good.

 

“The day after tomorrow. I told the manager that I had a family emergency, so if I need to be longer I have an excuse.”

 

“Good.” Callister smiled. “What say you and me roadtrip back to Rock City?”

 

Benny smiled broadly. “I like that idea a lot,” he said, “but can we, um. Take a minute before we leave?”

 

“Yeaah? Sure.” Callister was already leading them to his car.

 

“Well, um. We haven’t really. Had time to ourselves in a while…”

 

“Wanna fuck me, Benny?”

 

There was that signature Benny blush. “Um,” he said quietly. “Yeah.”

 

“Good.” Callister’s voice had gotten husky. “Cuz I need to scream and I know you can do that for me, Benny.” He nuzzled his blond lover’s temple.

 

“Ohgodyes,” Benny gasped, pushing back against the nuzzle. “Do you have a hotel or…”

 

“I was thinking we find somewhere private and you could fuck me in the car.”

 

“Oh fuck. Yes that’s– yes. Um. I’m… really glad I dropped by, Cal.”

 

“And I’m glad I dropped my pants for you.”

 

They reached the car, consulted a map, and drove off.

 

Outreach: Spaghetti Night

THE MCGOWAN FAMILY HOME

 

“Benny, are you okay? You look sick.” Nat literally hovered over eir older brother, face showing concern. Ey was dressed ‘formally’ in eir best wrap pants, a vest, and a bottle of rosé wine cradled under one arm.

 

“He always looks like that when he’s nervous,” Buster grinned, tossing her bottle of sauvignon blanc end over end before catching it effortlessly. She was dressed in slacks and an untucked button-down, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows—her standard ‘dress’ attire. “You shoulda seen him before we met you for the first time.”

 

“I don’t think the two of you understand,” Benny clutched a bottle of merlot close to his chest. His outfit was similar to Buster’s, but the shirt was tucked in and tidy, the top button was done, and a pair of suspenders and a bow tie rounded out the ‘incredibly dorky dress’ look. “I’m about to go have dinner with the most famous woman in the world, and I’m dating her worst enemy’s son.”

 

“Whatever, geez, I fucked him too and she still loves me,” Nat zipped ahead on the cobblestone walkway, then turned and shrugged. “You’ll be fine. You’re a sweet guy.”

 

Benny just sighed and hugged the bottle of wine tighter.

 

“Here goes!” Nat grinned, whirled about, and pressed the doorbell with a flourish.

 

Scott McGowan opened the door, giving his trademark grin. “Nat! Good to see you again. And wine! I’m always glad to see wine.” He offered his hand to Nat’s siblings. “Hey, I’m Scott. I don’t think Alice mentioned your names. You’re the twins, right? Nat’s siblings?”

“Yes sir,” Benny extended his hand first, eyes a little too wide. “I’m Benny Schuster. It’s an honor, Mr. McGowan.”

 

“Buster!” His sister took Scott’s hand after Benny shook it, grinning widely. “Real honor. I couldn’t be driving the Cestus without your frameworks, Mr. McGowan.”

 

“Hi Scott!” Nat dove in for a hug. “I missed you! Aren’t the twins adorable?”

 

Scott returned the hug, laughing. “They have a certain bright-eyed enthusiasm about them, that’s for sure. Just Scott, please. Christ. Mr. McGowan is my dad’s name.”

“That’s such a dad thing to say,” Alice said, coming out of the kitchen and wiping her hands. “No one actually cool has said that.”

“I’m pretty sure they have, ‘cause I just did.” Scott shot back.

 

“Sorry sir,” Benny said, eyes even wider at the sight of the Oathkeeper, freckled skin pale, “Scott.”

 

“Alice!” Nat squeaked, going in for the hug. “Look look! Siblings!”

 

“Scott it is!” Buster agreed cheerfully. “Hello Mrs. Oathkeeper!”

 

“Does that make me Mr. Oathkeeper?” Scott asked, amused. Alice smiled and shook her head at him, approaching to offer handshakes to the twins and a peck on the cheek and hug for Nat.

 

“I dunno, do you wanna be? Sounds kinda cool, right?” Buster replied.

 

As Alice shook his hand, Benny looked just about ready to faint, a thin sheen of cold sweat on his brow.

 

“I dunno,” Scott said with a grin. “People might expect the hammer and wings combo from me, and that ain’t my style. Benny, you look a bit, ah, pale. Would you like to sit down? We can get you some water, something to nibble on while the sauce simmers?”

Alice nods. “Anything, really. It’s no problem at all.”

“Oh! No. I’m fine,” Benny attempted a feeble reassurance.

 

“Benny’s just a li’l nervous,” Buster clapped her brother on the back and led him inside after Nat. “Until last week, I was the only VIP he knew. Now he’s drownin’ in ’em!”

 

“VIP, huh?” Scott expertly guided the conversation away from Benny. “So you pilot a McGowan tank on the moon? That does sound pretty important, I gotta say. But what are you shooting, exactly?”

“Usually nothin’,” Buster shrugged, “since the Cestus has the best Catalysium shielding of any personnel-sized vehicle, they usually have me walkin’ the dark side of the moon for research purposes. But I’ve blown up some Wheird stuff in my time, if y’know what I mean.” Grin.

 

Nat gently guided Benny to one of the dining room chairs, which he sat in heavily.

 

“No shit,” Scott began, before being interrupted with a: “Language!” And correcting himself with a sigh. “Well, you know, if you want to bring the ol’ girl down while you’re on Earth leave, maybe we can tune her up. Put some racing stripes on her.”

“Holy shhhhoes, that would be amazing,” Buster looked like a kid in a candy store. “I mean like it’s deviated some from the McGowan designs, especially since Valkyrie worked on it, but uh. I think you’ll like it. It’s a real fine tank, Scott. Best walker in PHALANX, maybe anywhere.”

 

“We’ll make it better.” Scott said, clearly thinking about how to do that. “Gotta figure out how the gravity would affect what I’m thinkin’, but…”

“Scott, tone down the work talk, please. We’re here to meet Nat’s siblings.” Alice interrupted. “Please, dinner is almost ready. Why don’t you have a seat? We can get to know each other.”

“Okay! Don’t worry too much about gravity; Cessie’s got Catalysium inverters for shocks that adapt to whatever environment. You’ve got to see ’em in action; I can jump off an earthside dropship with no hull damage.” Buster claimed the seat next to her wan-looking brother as she yammered on, while Nat pretended to take the chair on Benny’s other side.

 

The McGowan children were out of the home at the moment – Alice was concerned about safety risks. And so, the group… ‘enjoyed’ a slightly more close dinner, with the far seats at the dining table being ignored.

 

“So!” Alice said. “You’re, ah, a barista, Benny? That sounds… nice!”

“Yes ma’am,” Benny replied, “in Rock City. I… like to serve people.”

 

“I keep telling him he can do better,” Buster lamented.

 

“I think it sounds nice.” Alice repeated. “I guess you can make lots of… drinks? I thought there was just coffee.”

“Um, well yes,” Benny looked a bit more comfortable, talking about something he feels knowledgeable about. “We have a decent selection of teas, and we sell and mix lemonade and hot cider drinks in the hot and cold months, respectively. Even just with coffee, there are a lot of different things you can do with espresso, and I’ve been practicing my latte art.”

 

He chuckled to himself, recalling something. “In fact, making a little foam heart for him is one of the first things I did when I met my boyf—” he halted mid-word, realizing what he had said.

 

A long, awkward silence dragged by. Scott stood, excusing himself for a moment.

 

“Your boyfriend.” Alice said, smiling just a touch too widely. “That’s so nice. Isn’t that nice?”

“It’s very nice!” Even Nat looked kind of nervous now. “Benny’s a really sweet guy. To everybody.”

 

“To everybody!” Alice agreed. Was her voice a bit higher? “That’s so nice. Even someone like Callister. Who -”

Alice looked at Nat.

 

She looked at Benny.

 

You could see the wheels turning.

 

“I should go,” Benny whispered, teetering in his chair. He didn’t look like he was in any state to even stand.

 

“No! Nope,” Nat placed a firm hand on Benny’s shoulder. “No, we’re all gonna have a nice family dinner. Everyone here is a beloved member of my family and we are going to have dinner together.

 

Alice opens her mouth –

 

And Scott bursts in carrying a heavy pot. “SPAGHETTI!”

“Spaghetti!” Nat agreed!

 

“Spaghetti!” Buster added.

 

Scott eagerly begins to spoon up spaghetti. “It smells delicious, doesn’t it? Alice is such a great cook.”

Alice pours herself a large glass of wine.

 

Nat floated out of eir chair and poured all three siblings glasses to match Alice’s, then looked over at Scott with a questioning expression, wiggling the bottle a bit.

 

He mouthed “yes please,” then redoubled his valiant efforts to change the subject. “So, what kind of machines do you guys use in Rock City? I’m curious. For the coffee, I mean.”

“W-we use the Bean Sidhe’s standardized model,” Benny blinked a few times, fighting to maintain consciousness through dramatically elevated blood pressure, “it automates temperature regulation and monitors pull time, but we grind and dispense ourselves because it’s…” groping unsuccessfully for words, “…better.”

 

“Better, huh? Better quality coffee?” Scott gently slid the conversation back on track as Alice poured herself another glass of wine. “You’re clearly passionate about it. That’s great to see.”

Nat returned to eir seat after pouring Scott a glass of wine to the brim. “Yeah, us Schuster kids,” ey winces a little at saying the name aloud, “we um, take our crafts seriously. In case it wasn’t already obvious.”

 

“How many more siblings do you three have?” Alice asks, and her voice is surprisingly gentle.

 

“Six,” Buster replied. “But we don’t know how many of ’em are still with our folks.”

 

“Is there… anything we can do to help?” Alice continues the line of questioning carefully.

 

Nat averted eir gaze, not replying.

 

Buster glanced at her sibling and then looked back to Alice. “I don’t know,” she said, “our family was pretty f— f-fouled up.”

 

Benny drained his wineglass.

 

“Okay.” Alice said. “If you ever need a family, you can come here. We understand. Even when you… have… problems? That I can’t… quite… understand.”

“Benny has a robot coworker!” Nat cut in, “one of the ones we placed, I think!”

 

Benny nodded, looking miserable but willing to try to dig the conversation out. “Her name is Janet.”

 

“Wow!” Alice said, pouring herself another glass of wine. “What’s… that like?”

“She’s… the most curious person I’ve ever met,” Benny dabbed his forehead with a napkin, “and very considerate. I wish more people were like her.”

 

Nat wiped the corner of one eye, trying to be surreptitious.

 

“I think that’s very sweet.” Alice managed.

 

Scott leaned in to speak to Benny. “If your friend ever needs – help. I know people who can help her. With anything. We used to work with Evocatus.”

Evocatus was born of a military chassis project and the EV0 AI project of Scott McGowan. He was a member of the Legion for many years, and served alongside many of the most decorated war heroes on Earth today. After one battle, he retired, saying that he needed to focus on helping his fellow AIs. He now works as a politician, on the front lines of the fight for AI rights.

 

“I’ll—let her know,” Benny blinked. “Thank you.”

 

“Any time. More wine?”

“Yes sir, thank you.”

 

Buster fidgeted, casting a concerned glance at Benny and then Alice.

 

There’s a pause where everyone eats in silence, Alice refilling drinks and offering her guests buns. The mood is slightly better after a few minutes, although the air is still tense. Nat came out of eir funk, once again playing the glittery peacemaker, and Buster and Scott resumed technical discussion.

 

Benny, however, remained cowed—head down, shoulders hunched, staring at the table, offering sparse commentary, mostly polite observations about how good the food was.

 

Scott stood. “Benny, why don’t you come for a walk with me? Get some air. Check out the property.”

“Yes sir,” Benny stood and followed Scott, seemingly relieved to have something to do.

 

The dining room was silent for a few moments as Scott led Benny away. Once their voices were distant enough, Nat turned to Alice, eyes blazing.

 

“He thinks you hate him!” Ey hissed.

 

Alice looked up from the sandwich she was making by ripping apart her bun and stuffing it with spaghetti and sauce. “What? Why? I was nice. I didn’t do anything!”

“You were about to launch into a tirade about how evil his boyfriend is! Do you think we couldn’t tell that?”

 

“Whoa, Nat—” Buster tried to cut in, but Nat silenced her with a glare.

 

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” Alice replied defensively, face flushed with wine. “I said it was nice. That’s all. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to say anything. I’m not Scanner. I don’t peep in on other people’s personal business.”

“You do that constantly!” Nat’s voice spiked in pitch. “Alice I love you like the non-shitty mother I never had, but—”

 

“But what?” Alice shoots back. “Do I approve of Callister? No, I don’t. I don’t. But I wasn’t going to say anything, and I wouldn’t say anything, because when I was nineteen years old I had my dad try to ship me off to a facility because he didn’t like who I was or what I was doing and I’m never going to do that to anyone who looks up to me, even if they are making choices I don’t like!”

And then she bursts into over-emotional, too drunk tears.

 

“God fucking damn it Alice,” Nat burst into tears emself, “Callister is an abused child too!!!”

 

There was a long, miserable, soggy pause, before Alice asked: “W-What?”

 

“Just look,” Nat gesticulated, “all of the signs are there. He wants her approval, he’s not getting it, he’s desperate for affection, his behavior is erratic and confused. He’s just like us. Just like you and me. And yes he’s been an utter shit, but when Benny and I look at him, we see someone who is going through what we’ve been through. What we got away from.”

 

Alice shoves half of her spaghetti sandwich in her mouth and chews desolately, her face a blotchy mess. She finally swallows and mutters: “This is all Anathema’s fault.”

Nat snuffled and wiped eir face with the cloth napkin. “Five bucks says she was abused too,” ey replied quietly.

 

“Still a Villain, though.” Is all Alice can muster.

 

“Oh yeah,” Nat murmured, draining another wineglass.

 

Alice looks at Buster and Nat, face red and splotchy. “…More wine?”

Nat glanced left, then right, then scratched eir cheek. “Alice,” ey ventured cautiously, “you’ve been in a fairly groundbreaking mood lately. You, uh. You know I love you like a mother and would never do anything to harm you, right?”

 

Buster’s eyes widened. “Oh em gee Nat—”

 

“R-Right? I know both of those things,” Alice squinted.

“Would you like to try…” Nat searched for a euphemism, “a new thing?”

 

Alice sniffed and took another long drink of wine. “You know what? After tonight? Yeah. Whatever. Why not.”

Without another word, Nat pulled out a small, hand-folded paper packet, tore open the end, and tipped the powder inside into Alice’s wineglass.

 

“Nat!!” Buster squeaked.

 

“Shh,” Nat shushed, emptying the rest of the powder into eir own glass. “I brought E for you and Benny.”

 

“Shushing,” Buster squeaked, quieter.

 

Alice drained the wine glass and smiled at Buster and Nat. “Things can only get better from here, right?”

 

“Iunno,” Nat shrugged.

 

The older man led Benny out onto the balcony. It’s surprisingly… suburban. A couple of armchairs are facing out over the gardens, there’s a tricycle and a picnic blanket in the distance, and there’s a barbecue that someone has added mysterious, engine shaped augments to.

 

“You okay, bud?” Scott asked, grabbing an armchair.

“Yes sir!” Benny assured him, actual fear in his eyes. “I’m fine! I’m just shy. I apologize.”

 

“Hey, no problem. I get it. It’s intimidating. Big house, war heroes, terrible small talk…” Scott laughs. “You smoke?”

“N-no,” Benny lied poorly.

 

“It’s okay.” Scott produced a couple of narrow cigars and a lighter, winking. “Neither do I.” He handed one to Benny and lit his own.

Benny peered at the cigar, sniffing it and seeming impressed. He accepted the offer of a light, then, after a pause, stammered, “I’m sorry I’ve brought this conflict into your home, sir.”

 

Scott laughed. “What conflict? That my wife’s a total spaz who doesn’t know how to keep a dinner conversation going? Christ, that conflict’s been going on since well before I married her. I don’t know how you could possibly make it worse.”

“I can tell she’s angry with me. She has every right; I told Nat that she wouldn’t want to see me.”

 

Scott took a deep inhale on his cigar and puffed out a perfect ring. “Nah,” he finally said. “She’s mad, but not like you think. Definitely not at you.”

“What do you mean?” Benny asked. Then, “if… it’s all right for me to ask. Sir.”

 

“Scott.” Scott reminds him, smiling again. “Just Scott. Yeah, it’s alright for you to ask. It was kind of begging the question. She’s mad because my wife doesn’t like loose ends. She was hoping that there’d be a neat and tidy end to the Anathema thing. Callister… bothers her.” Scott took another puff. “But he bothers her as an abstract, not as a person. Every time they interact as people, she looks like an idiot because she can’t stop thinking of him as that abstract.” Scott shrugs. “She’ll get over it. And it has nothing to do with you.”

Benny rubbed one eye with his free hand. “Two weeks ago I was just a barista,” he murmured. “I thought my sister could do all the big world changing stuff and I could just… make drinks.”

 

“Y’know what the bitch of life is? Everything you do changes someone’s world. Does this Callister kid make you happy?”

Benny looked up at Scott, then down at the cigar, then shifted in his seat, then looked up at Scott again.

 

“…yeah.”

 

“You make him happy?”

“I’m— I mean—I seem to?”

 

“Well, hey, there you go. You’re a hero of that very small corner of the world. And who gives a shit about the rest, honestly. You got a guy, he’s happy, you’re happy. That’s great. And sure, he’s got baggage, but we all do. At least he’s upfront about it. Ain’t like he dropped 300k of credit card debt on you.”

Blink. “Did somebody do that to you, sir—Scott?”

 

Scott laughed. “You know why I married Alice? She’s honest. I mean, part of that is she’s just hideously incapable of telling a lie. But most of it is I can trust her with my life. I trust her to be a good mother. And she isn’t a fan of Gucci.”

“She… seems like a really good person, from everything I’ve seen,” Benny puffed on the cigar. “She didn’t have to come out for queer rights like that, but she looked so… proud to do it. And happy. I was so upset at the idea that someone like that might hate me.”

 

“She doesn’t hate you at all. She called you family. It means she likes you. She ain’t one for half measures like that. I’m sure we’ll walk back in and she’ll apologize and serve you some more spaghetti and it’ll be a nice, calm time.”

 

“Hi Scott!” Nat greeted Scott and Benny with wide, glittering, powerfully dilated eyes. “I got your wife super high!”

 

“I’m sorry you what -” Scott managed.

 

“I’m super high!” Alice spun on her chair to face Scott, one leg around each side of the chair’s back. “But it’s okay. We’ve had a great time, but now it’s time for a serious talk -”

She looked at Scott with dilated eyes.


“About Jesus Christ.”

And then she burst into laughter.

 

Benny looked at Buster, wild-eyed. “Please tell me ey brought drugs for us too.”

 

Buster wordlessly handed a small capsule to Benny.

 

“Thank goodness,” Benny breathed.

 

Nat giggled. “Scott I dunno if you—what’s your metabolism like?”

 

“It’s… good?” Scott replied, still bewildered as Alice had somehow managed to get off the chair and was now slinging both of her arms around his neck.


“Okay I should… be clearer,” Nat nodded sagely, “do you want drugs if so do you want para drugs or baseline drugs also sorry I didn’t check with you about the drugs first but to be honest I’m not very sorry.”

 

Scott considered for a moment. “Side effects?” He finally asked.

 

“Of Dazzlefly? Few!” Nat chirped. “Loss of focus, jaw clenching, erectile dysfunction for the duration. Some dehydration the day after, mild headaches. For the baseline one, that’s just MDMA, you can erowid that shit.”

 

“Pffft. You think I haven’t taken that before?”

“Hee hee hee.” Alice snickered into his neck. “That’s terrible. You shouldn’t do drugs.”

“Alice, you’re high right now. I think I’ll just babysit for tonight, but thanks.”

“Best cyborg dad,” Nat patted Scott’s cheek. “Best family. I’m sorry I yelled at you, General Mom.”

 

In the background, the twins clinked their wineglasses and downed both capsules.

 

“You have one prosthetic arm – and you put a human sheath over it – and they call you cyborg dad.” Scott mused, grabbing a seat and spinning a fork in his dinner. “They don’t call you billionaire dad, or genius dad.”

 

“To be fair, Scott,” Buster pointed out, “cyborgs are extremely cool.”

 

“I’ll show you putting a human sheath over something,” Nat giggled.

 

Things that Definitely Happened That Night

 

– Buster going over the technical specifications of the Cestus in excruciating detail at Scott, whether or not he is listening

– Benny making improbably good coffee for everyone and preparing cold brew for the next day

– Scott taking away Alice’s phone to keep her from tweeting, multiple times

– Nat and Alice petting each other’s faces while complimenting each other for a full hour

– Alice aggressively attempting to seduce Scott

– Alice loudly extolling Scott’s sexual prowess while Scott covers his face with both hands and tries not to laugh in the background

– “Fuck Bunker” mentioned

– Tour of Fuck Bunker

– Buster offering to spar with Alice

– Buster offering to spar with everyone

– Benny crying while everyone else pets him reassuringly

– Alice following through on the Jesus Talk thing

– Alice talking wistfully about Jesus like He’s a family friend

– Benny and Alice trading Wine Tips

– Alice and Benny having a Good Nice Talk About Callister and make nice

– Alice complaining about so many people being attracted to Callister

– Nat and Benny extolling Callister’s sexual prowess

– Scott taking pictures of Alice’s extremely red face

– Wrestling match over whether Scott has to delete those photos

– Alice informs everyone how much she loves them for like a half hour

– Sad Schuster Family Story Time

– Everybody cries and hugs

– Nat loudly demanding that “we talk about something nice for fuck’s sake”
– “Language!” gigglefit.

– Buster talking about that time she got nailed on a balcony while watching the Lunar Sunrise

– Buster talking about that time she got nailed in a relaxation pod

– Alice whining to Scott about how he “never takes me anywhere nice” with the obvious implication intact

– Someone says they’re hungry and Alice declares that she will cook the best meal EVER

– a small kitchen fire

– Burger Church delivery

 

The Anteater: Nothawking

There’s no such thing as an ‘early night’ in Rock City. The city of technological forevers, the night-time oasis of digital labour, the bridge of tomorrow, it’s basically always going, and the labourers who hit the sack at seven in the evening, chances are good, were working at four AM. It’s a city of nooks and crannies across a long, architectural smear – a fascinating study in finding places.

 

Finding places like this coffee shop, helpfully just called The Anteater, which had the fortune of being smack dab halfway between a five-star hotel and a much more sedate set of coffee houses that serviced commutes. Basically, if Benny and Silvered met, after work, the natural flow and currents of traffic pushed them towards The Anteater.

 

Charming little place, it was like if Norman Rockwell had been industrial-strength queer. The aesthetic was smooth, elegant, a sign on the wall said THEY IS USUALLY SAFE, and the paintings were wonderful reimaginings of classic 50s style in a world that didn’t exclude but instead included. Queer families having thanksgiving, red-and-white check pattern tabletops, and the person running the bar, Qun (“Just pronounce it Quinn”) did everything they could to make the place comforting and warm in the twilight hours, when shift workers and late day folk came out to do something other than fall down in an apartment they were barely affording.

 

Silver sat at the bar, resting his phone on the counter, which almost felt like a tiny crime, standing out in the crafted aesthetic. The app – known as OMW – was pinging with Benny’s marker, letting the brunette boy keep vague track of his friend.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e__PmyXwI8I

Stepcat Vs Ella Fitzgerald: It Don’t Mean a Thing>

Sitting in a booth with a steaming mug of coffee that had not yet been touched was a woman with platinum-blonde hair and purple highlights who looked as if she were just getting back from a long night of partying. She wore a neon-green bra top, a pair of black elbow length fingerless gloves, and a pair of extremely baggy denims over which the top of her neon-green underwear could be seen. Head on the table, music pumping through the bulky LED headphones keeping her hair in check, it looked almost as if she had passed out when, in reality, she was simply nursing an already-forming hangover.

 

Today, the chalkboard by the service counter and Jukebox read:

JOURNEY TAX: $2.00, $5 For Don’t Stop Believing

 

The twentysomething boy who shouldered his way through the front door of the Anteater was certainly dressed a little nicer than someone might be expected to when coming to hang out after work at a coffee place, especially when your work was a different coffee shop. He had on a pair of black slacks, a green button-down shirt (tucked in and belted but the top two buttons undone), and a grey vest.

 

Since Benny had started meeting Silvered here, he’d slowly started to dress nicer and nicer to do it. It was obvious to everyone except Benny that he was pulling some kind of flirt, but it was harmless enough, so.

 

Silvered, by comparison, looked… well, look. Some boys worked with what they had. Silver (“Saul Veron” if you checked his government ID, which… you really wouldn’t) always had that slightly bushed look, like he’d been thrown out of a tree. A long shift didn’t do him any favours, and he wore his clothes in a way that could be called rakish if it was more intentional, and not a function of having had to change out of a work uniform at work before heading home.

 

Loose brown hair that fell down to his shoulders, a slight not-from-around-here darkness to his skin tone (though really, between Canada and Seattle, that wasn’t really too remarkable), and a fair bit of extra height on Benny, Silver’s shirt was two buttons undone, his jacket sleeves rolled up and open in front. He’d even walked down the backs of his slip-on shoes slightly getting in here – yeah. Guy was a bit of a mess. When Benny put his hand on the door, he’d notice his friend glance over at it – either the app, or those senses of his.

 

Weirdly, though, he’d also turned the other way and grinned over at Vin, making a two-fingered gesture, a beckon.

 

The hungover woman looked up from her spot on the table and blinked. Was that guy over there asking her to come over? Yeah… That was certainly what it looked like. With a small groan of effort, Pandora stood and walked slowly over to Silvered; coffee mug held firm in one hand as she raised an eyebrow as if to both examine the man and ask what he wanted. The guy was not bad looking. Not bad looking at all. That could have been the beer talking… Probably not though, this guy was definitely hot.

 

The bell over the door tinkled and a nattily dressed gentleman stepped through. Well made as his clothes looked, they also had the slight feel that they’ve been thrifted as opposed to having flown off a designer’s rack. He blinked brown eyes in the sudden change and of light and whistled good naturedly as he walked up to the counter to make an order (black coffee with a splash of soy milk). He spoke with a slight Japanese accent, he’d obviously been in the States for a while, and he grinned genially at the other customers of the cafe.

 

Benny waved to the guy behind him and made it the better part of the way to Silvered when he caught sight of the club girl who was approaching him. What… what is this. Who’s that. He halted just a few steps away, forming a triangle of awkwardness between Silvered, Vin, and himself.

 

Silvered sat in what seemed to be the middle of some profane symbol, looking around at all three, before he cleared his voice and spoke in a voice that probably belonged in the mouth of a gargoyle more than a slender brunette guy. “Hey. C’mon, sit down, everyone. I’ve had a good day at work and I wanna commit some god-damn acts of random f-” a sudden look from Qun, “rrrricking kindness.” he said, reaching down under the chair, lifting up a box. A box decorated with a hotel logo, the vaulted place known jestingly as The Imbruglio. “C’mon, friends and strangers and whatever else we got.” he looked around, again.

 

“C’mon. Coffee’s on me, I guess.”

 

“Heard that. No takebacks.” Qun said, from behind the counter. They were sharply dressed as always, sharper eared still.

 

Pandora blinked a couple more times, her alcohol-addled brain taking a bit longer to process the words of the hot-guy than it probably should have. She shrugged and took a seat beside him, not even remotely noticing the awkward triangle that she had once been a part of. Setting down her mug, she took a leather notebook with a golden musical note out of her pocket and flipped a few pages in before pointing to a sentence.

Hey there! My name is Pandora! I am a superhero! Can I get into this club for free?

It was clearly something she had written down earlier in the night and was too lazy to rewrite at this point in time. She gave the man beside her a thumbs-up though.

 

Benny blinked and squinted, gears turning rapidly in his head. “Pandora… Pandora! Oh! You’re Nat’s new girlfriend!”

 

“Another? Your enster, I swear.”

“Oh that’s good, I’m stealing that”

 

“Mind if I join you folks?” The dapper young man smiled, adjusting his glasses and sticking his hand into his pocket. “I’m Kaito, I just moved into the city.”

 

“Welcome to Rock City, neighbour,” Silver said, grinning, gesturing at one of the chairs. “Pull it up.” A quick pause, pointing around. “Don’t know you well enough but based on the smell Qun’s already got one going for you,” he said, gesturing to Kaito. Then over at Pandora, “You’re after a Slow Wakeup, yeah? And Benny’s a chocolate affogato, and I’ll have a Rough Start.” he said, grinning at Qun.


“You sure?” they asked, standing over the bar. Qun was not a small person. That wonderful mix of easy, Cary-Grant style cool with an appreciation of the world around them that also suggested they could throw Silver through the window if he’d started anything. “Right time of month for it?”

 

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” he said. “Anyone here got a problem wiiith…” he peeked into the box. “Cinnamon, gluten, uh, sugar, and um… raspberries, I think? There’s meringues.” Then, as if catching Benny trying to look into the box, he snapped it shut. “Patience, hon, jeeze.”

Benny drew back, looking appropriately chastised.

 

Pandora looked at the cup of coffee she had ordered earlier, looked back to Silvered, and then pushed the steaming mug aside before giving the hot-guy another thumbs up. Upon hearing Nat’s name, she turned to look at Benny and blinked a couple times before flipping through her notebook to find another pre-written sentence.

You’re hot, do I know you?

“… how many times do you need that phrase-”

Flipped through to a new page. I’ve done it more times than you could imagine.

And that set Silver off, hand over mouth in a clenched fist, clearly grinning like a wolf behind it, trying not to laugh.

 

She pointed more specifically to the second part of the sentence in this case, but once again was simply too hungover to bother writing anything new down.

 

Benny stifled a giggle at the use of the pre-written phrases.

 

“Um, not exactly? But I’m pretty sure you’re dating my sibling. My name’s Benny. You, uh, must be Vin. It’s nice to meet you.”

 

“Thanks.” Kaito took a seat. “And no, no problem with any of the above.” He grinned, a flash of white teeth. “Although Grandmother will complain about my diet when I call home.” His dark eyes watched the Silver/Pandora interaction with dancing amusement. “What about all of you? Rock City natives?”

No. I have not had too much to drink. You could buy me another to find out though. She pointed to the first word.

Dang, Benny, she’s almost got handwriting as pretty as yours.”

“Almost, yeah.”

 

“Us? Well, um, I live under Soubridge now, but I’m originally from Colorado.”

 

“I’m… sort of native? I’ve been here a few years, but I wasn’t, like, I didn’t grow up here.” then, a low, hollow invocation, in that already boot-rattling deep voice: “Nobody ever really grows up in Rock City.” a grin.

 

Qun reached across the bar and shoved his forehead. “Stop that.”

 

“Fiiine.” Silver muttered, as Qun set out the cups; old, classy style 1950s aesthetic, but reshaped for different sizes. Benny’s had a little flower shaped cookie on the dish, which wasn’t strictly speaking necessary, but coffee servers, they knew their own. Solidarity. The drink he’d mentioned was set before Vin, too – a dark coffee, but with a distinctly sweet, almost syrupy smell, more like a molten chocolate fondue than a normal drink, at first glance. Then down came Kaito’s soy white, and finally, in a cup that looked more like a shotglass, the ink-black drink Silver’d ordered.

 

“Thanks Qun. You’re royal.” he said, fishing around for his wallet, before flicking out some bills onto the table. Someone got paid today, it seems.

 

<Current Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YnuuSLncsA

MAGIC!: Rude (Zedd Remix)>

Pandora picked up her coffee, sniffed it once, smiled, and then downed the whole thing in one distinctly unladylike chug before letting the mug hit the table once more. It was good coffee and it helped with her growing migraine a little. That was something, at least. She then flipped through her notebook and pointed to another sentence.

Thanks for the dance. The stepping on my toes part though… Yeah, you’ve got to work on that.

She underlined the first word emphatically with her finger so as to make sure there would not be any confusion on what she wanted to say.

 

“… Hey Benny have you ever seen anyone take a Slow Start like that?” Silver asked, one eyebrow raised. And he’d seen a werewolf on a cocaine bender, once.

 

The drink was sweet and easy, really went down gentle. The warm tingle that came afterwards, that chocolatey sweetness – then the rolling headache-suppressing effect of caffeeine followed hot on its heels. Slow Starts were great for hangovers, because you could sip them a little at a time, enjoy the texture, the comforting feeling, then the caffeine worked its magic.

 

All at once? May be a bit much.

 

“I, uh, haven’t, no…” Benny shifted awkwardly, realizing that his superhero sibling’s superhero girlfriend did not seem to be in a ‘oh hi there nat’s brother’ kind of mood. He gently carved off a small bit of ice cream and scooped up some cooling espresso with it from his cup.

 

Kaito sipped his coffee and nodded. “That’s good! Thank you.” He gave Qun a shallow bow from his chair. He nodded at everyone. “That’s real interesting. You go to a city like New York and half the people in the room are born and bred.” He shrugged lightly, taking another sip.

 

Pandora turned and looked at Benny. It was not that she had not heard him or even that she did not care that he was Nat’s brother. She simply knew she did not have anything written down that would make that conversation easy to follow. Still, she wanted to know more and so, with another groan of effort she began flicking through the notebook in search of SOMETHING that could work.

 

If there are cocktail names in that book, there are some pretty funny conversations Benny could have with that.”

 

You have a twin? That’s fucking rad! Are they into dancing too? We should hang out.

 

“This book speaks of a single night more fun than my entire life.” Silver noticed, looking over Vin’s elegant fingertips. He nudged Benny, then gestured back and forth. “So, okay, Benny here is super shy, but that’s kind of his thing, since he’s just, basically, the sweetest.” He laughed, slinging an arm around Benny’s shoulder, tugging him close, as if he was showing Benny off to Vin.

 

Benny laughed along, leaning into the casual bro-ey embrace. What a couple of bros! Ha ha! Just friendly buddies.

 

“And Nat is…” he paused, snapping his fingers and looking to Benny. “I am awful with pronouns, uh-”

 

“They’s usually fine,” Qun said, behind the bar, almost on automatic.

 

“Yeah, but this is – ey … like?” he paused, as if he was conjugating on the fly in a language he didn’t speak. “Ey are… no, ey is Benny’s sibling or enster or … well.” he shrugged. Then a pause. “I’m doing this for my benefit, by the way, I am so clueless about what’s going on in this little rockstar’s life.” He tousled Benny’s hair with one oversized hand.

 

This treatment had elicited a growing blush under Benny’s freckles. “Um well, that’s kind of it I guess? There’s me, and I’m just a barista, and my twin sister Buster lives up on the moon and drives a tank, and Nat is like… cooler and more famous than me and Buster put together. Which you know, of course. So like… yeah.”

 

“A tank, seriously?”

“Well. Kind of? It’s a mech. It walks on two legs. Sort of. It’s very cool though.”

 

Pandora nodded and then, looking between Benny and Silvered she began to chuckle without so much as a sound escaping her lips. To someone like Vin, it was 100% clear that Benny was interested in the other man. She gave Nat’s brother a knowing smile, however, eliciting an even deeper blush from Benny, and then went about continuing the conversation.

It is nice to meet you. I am a dancer. No. No I do not do lap dances. What the actual fuck?

Once again, she makes certain to point to the first part and tries to ignore the rest.

 

Kaito peered at Vin’s notebook and chuckles. “Do people actually ask that?” Amused and appalled at the same time.

 

Silvered was visibly holding his breath there.

 

With a sigh, Vin nodded regretfully.

 

“I tell people I’m a writer but when they find out I make a living by working for a newspaper, they then say they thought I was a real writer.” Kaito grinned with a laugh.

 

Pandora gave him a look. She was not entirely certain that was on par with being asked if you gave lap dances after saying she was a dancer. With a sigh, however, she shrugged and gave Kaito another look which showed some sympathy for the guy.

 

Kaito read that first look and gave a rueful laugh. “Not on par with your experience, but I find people are heavily influenced by a great deal of…expectation.” His phone beeped and he looked at it. “Right, I have to get going. Great meeting you all and thanks for the coffee. Hope to return the favor soon.” He stood, getting ready to leave.

 

“Come by the Bean Sidhe on route 1 northbound sometime! I’ll hook you up.” Benny smiled, still a little red around the freckles but perfectly capable of being polite.

 

Kaito winked. “Will do.” He held his hand up, waving, and left.

 

“Okay,” Silver said, reaching over to his box. “Okay, I’ve made you wait too dang long already,” he said, flipping the box open…

 

And it revealed a mess. A sort of mess, really; cinnamon rolls and meringues and cream, and pavlova and cakes, slices and breads – all sort of inelegantly stuck together. It was the dessert cake version of a Hot Mess – as Silver gave a grin. “We got a new trainee in the bakery, so we had some over-orders, and that means… stuff was going to get thrown out.” he reached into the box, plucking up a pair of small, nibble-sized treats. “Here, come, friends, take some, enjoy.” And then, showing either a great degree of awareness or none, he held out a treat to both each of Vin and Benny – as if they could just eat them out of his hands.

This thought occurred to Benny too, and his blush returned with a vengeance.

 

Pandora looked at the hot mess of baked goods and, with a shrug, snatched up a treat with her bare hands and started stuffing her face with it. The simplicity and lack of manners with which she did this was actually kind of cute in a way. It was either that she did not know any better or did not care. Having just gotten to know the woman, it was probably the latter.

 

“Um,” Benny delicately reached out to take what might have been a bear claw, if the bear had suffered a terrible accident prior to being turned into a bear. “Thank you, S.”

 

The evening air outside was warm and windy, the ocean keeping the temperature stable even as the breeze slid around. Concrete spires and glass towers kept it splitting up, stopping anything from becoming a gale – and here, in the corner of a corner of the city of a bridge that was Rock City, people had a nice, calm little while in The Anteater.

 

A beep from the phone, and Silver glanced down at it. “Aw nuts. Okay, I gotta get moving.” he stood up, setting the box on the counter as if he was making a chess move. “I guess someone is going to have to take this home, because I can’t.” a pat on Benny’s head, a nudge to Vin’s shoulder – a smile at Qun. Then he stepped back, wriggling to get his shoes on properly. “You stay great, okay?” Tapping his toes against the ground, he reached out to take his coffee, that little shot – and slugged it in one, giving a long, deep gasp afterwards. Then, he waved over his shoulder as he headed out the door, just in time for Qun to notice.

 

“Hey, hang on, Si-” but he was out the door, and they called after him. “What the hell is Jugglerphobia?