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.
“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