Jupiter Strike and Oathkeeper IN: Rallying the Troops

The great meeting hall could easily sit a hundred Legionnaires, from the hulking Blast Zone to the meek Nix. Today, there were only two Legionnaires on Earth and on duty.


One of them was Alice “Oathkeeper” McGowan, one of the highest ranking Legionnaires on Earth and a legend. She sat, wearing a black and white spotted blouse above narrow white slacks. Her mane of golden hair was brushed back.

 

Next to her sat a girl, about twelve, with dense curly hair and disinterested hazel eyes, reading a book. This was not a Legionnaire – this was Ruth McGowan, daughter of Oathkeeper and Blue Streak.


There was a sizzle and a crackle outside the building, followed by a roll of thunder that reverberated through the building. It was maybe two, three heartbeats away. A minute later, a slim figure flew in, slow and gently for anyone who knew her.

Continue reading “Jupiter Strike and Oathkeeper IN: Rallying the Troops”

A Stitch In Time: Family Dinner

CHEZ McGOWAN

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

 

Tabitha Armitage was dressed nicely, but not formally. A wide belt bisected her simple black dress, and a brown cardigan covered by a green shawl kept out the lingering March chill. Beside her walked Emi Surikabe, who wore a long-legged black romper with a burgundy silk shirt open and flowing over it.

 

“Apparently ey managed to suss the social situation well enough to know that Scoremaster wouldn’t see a sneak attack? I was equal parts terrified and impressed, if I’m being honest.”

 

“It sounds like Nat is really working out for you, love,” Tabitha smiled.

 

“Ey is. Are? No, it’s is.” Emi smirked. “Still learning. And yes, ey is. I know they’ve been a bit of a handful for you.”

 

“Nothing compared to Alice,” Tabitha laughed, and they stopped in front of the front door to the McGowan household. “Speaking of, are you ready?”

 

“Yes! I’m excited, actually; I haven’t seen the kids in too long.”

 

“Agreed,” Tabitha said, then rang the doorbell.

 

Alice McGowan opened the door, dressed in turquoise and fuschia. The bold jewel tones looked good on her, although she had a slightly strained smile. There was the smell of something burnt in the kitchen. Tim, her son, stood on the staircase behind her, waiting patiently for his two “Aunties” to enter and give hugs and kisses.


“So good to see you both.” Alice said.  “Please, come in, both of you. Scott’s just, ah, getting some catering. He’ll be right in.”

“Oh dear,” Tabitha smiled, offering Alice a hug. “Sorry if things went awry.”

 

Emi followed Tabitha in offering Alice a hug, then immediately slipped under her arm and swept Tim up in a big hug. “Tiiiim! How’s my guy?”

 

“Auuuuntie!” Tim squealed as the short woman spun him around after a long hug. “I’m going to school with civilians now, an’ I made some friends, an’ -”

“Hold on, Tim, don’t talk her ear off.” Alice said, smiling. “Why don’t you go set the table?”

He nodded and bounded off, full of energy.

 

“You have to tell me all about it over dinner!” Emi called after him, then chuckled. “He’s gonna forget to tell me all about it.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll remind him,” Tab pulled the door shut behind her. “Are you doing all right, Alice? Just regular stress, or is something else bothering you?”

 

“…It’s Ruth,” Alice finally admitted, folding her arms across her chest defensively, keeping her voice low. “She’s Emerged.”

 

She paused, biting her lower lip. “She’s a Null.”

 

“Oh, Alice,” Tabitha placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder.


“I’m going to go help with the kitchen,” Emi said, slipping away quietly. “I think you two need a minute.”

 

“How are you doing with it, hon?” Tabitha took both of Alice’s shoulders in her hands and pulled her closer.

 

“I always wanted her to be special, to be… one of us. Tim is, and I always thought she was just a late bloomer. But this? Being Null is no easy path. I want better for her, but…”

“It’s not easy, but who better to make it livable than you?” Tab drew Alice into a close hug. “Ruth will still have a good life. She’s your daughter. I know this is hard on you, too, that you were expecting… something else. But Scott is here for you, and Emi and I are here for you, and we are all here for Ruth. It’s going to be okay.”

 

“Thank you, Tabs. I’m sure it’ll get better, it’s just… gosh, it’s easier to be a General than a mother some days.” She smiles, and then the front door swings open once again.

“work easier than life? don’t get me started,” Tab murmured.

 

“Who’s hungry?” Enter Scott McGowan, holding bags labelled with BURGER CHURCH. “It’s still hot.”

 

“Well this certainly takes me back,” Tabitha laughs, eyeballing the bags. “I haven’t had Burger Church in years.”

 

“It’s good!” He grins. “I mean, the new fry recipe isn’t as good as the old one, but that’s okay. Can’t have too many carbs, I’m gettin’ old.” He shrugged off his jacket, revealing the MERCURY unit underneath. “Hey, you guys go ahead and get started, I’ll join you in a second. This thing ain’t much suited for dinner with the family.”

 

THE MCGOWAN DINING ROOM



The McGowan dining room was significantly more cozy than a stranger would likely have expected of the Earth’s premier Legionnaire family, but Tab and Emi were well used to it by now. Ruth was sitting at the table already, nose buried in a book. Tim fiddled with the silverware. Alice’s face creased into the slightest frown at the burger bags, but sat down without complaint.

 

As everyone settled in, Emi asked, “So, Alice, Scott, how’s work? Anything exciting going on?”

 

“Let Alice say grace first, Emi,” Tab reminded.

 

“Oop! Right, sorry.”

 

Alice smiles gratefully. “Thank you, Tabs. Thank you O Lord, for these gifts…” She kept her head down, reciting the old familiar prayer. Scott made eye contact with Emi over the table and gave a small, slightly exasperated smile. By the time Alice looked up, his face was jovial as before.


“Well, y’know, I’ve been in the garage a lot lately, working on projects. Kind of thinking about the whole semi-retirement thing,” he mused, spearing some fries on his fork and dipping them generously in gravy. “On the other hand, not sure how much work there is for a guy like me these days.”

“I have faith in your ability to never run out of projects, Scott,” Tabitha smiled, “I’ve seen you solve enough problems that may not have existed before you set out to solve them.”

 

“Well, there’s some underwater sort of exoskeletons I’m looking at – you know, the MERCURY isn’t really equipped for underwater, and there’s been revelations that make me think we really oughta be ready for that sort of thing. I mean, I’ll always be happy in the garage, but part of me itches for front line action again.”

“There’s less and less of it these days.” Alice sighs. “You know how it is, with the Freelancers…”

“Didn’t we agree they ain’t appropriate dinner table talk?”

“I know.”

“I promise I don’t mean to maintain a contentious line of conversation, and I’ll drop it if you’d like,” Emi cut in, “but I’m seeing some very encouraging coalition-building between Freelancer and Legion agents. Nat has been making friends with anyone who isn’t a Villain, and it seems to be going very well.”

 

“Maybe, maybe, some of their new recruits are worth working with.” Alice grinds her teeth. “But the organization is corrupt down to the core, if you ask me. Did you know they stole some of Scott’s work, used it for their own means? One of them threw me off a roof.”

“Hon. Yes,” Tabitha said. “We remember. We’ve known you for more than the years it’s been since those things happened. You’re right that there’s still corruption in the Freelancers, but Emi’s right too. The proliferation of social media, networking, and friendship across factional lines is something I’ve been watching myself, and it’s hard not to feel somewhat optimistic about it.”

 

“Well -” Alice began, but Scott cut her off.


“Did you know that we moved the kids into civilian schools, speaking of factions and optimism and all of that good stuff. They’re really flourishing. Great staff, great teachers.”

“Tim was telling me! That’s great to hear.’ Emi grinned, then directed her next question toward the McGowan offspring. “It can be a lot of work to adapt to new environments like that. Are the other kids treating you okay?”

 

“Yeah, we were playing tag, and everyone agreed that since I’m suuuper fast, it wasn’t fair to have me on a team, so everyone just tried to chase me, and it was so much fun, and I got up the jungle gym, and then one of them grabbed me as I went down the slide, and then Mrs. Sanderson told us we had to be careful, so we started playing some other games…”

Ruth just shrugs, pushing the fries around her plate. “They’re okay.”

“Well you can tell me all about it when we play later!” Emi told them, glancing up at Scott and Alice to read their reactions to the kids before returning her eyes to them. “School is real hard work, but you two are gonna do great at the new one.”

 

“Have you talked to Miss Herja about your plans for the MERCURY, Scott?” Tabitha asked. “She’s been doing some exosuit R&D lately, and would probably have useful things to contribute.”

 

“Oh, yeah, she’s been great.” Scott grins. “She’s on another level in a lot of ways, just… us technokinetics or whatever you call it each have our own brand of genius. I’m an execution guy, she’s an ideas person… It works out super well.”

“It’s all utterly alien to me, but it’s just fascinating to see what the lot of you come up with,” Tabitha says, neatly annexing a portion of her burger with fork and knife. “Valkyrie’s just everywhere these days. It’s inspiring. Perhaps when you retire, you could open up a workshop for hire with her.” It wasn’t clear whether that was in jest.

 

“Aw, hell -” Scott began, and Alice cut in.

Scott -”

“Heck, we’ve taken over a good portion of the fortress already, and we’re starting to bring in some real income. Enough that Alice is thinking about re-starting programs like the Kids Corps, we can finally afford to start bringing in real Administrative talent too. I know that’ll be a relief to you, Tabs.”

“I won’t know what to do with myself!” Tabitha faked a laugh for a moment, then deadpans: “For all that is good and holy, yes. To say my hands are full is a gross understatement.”

 

“She’s sleeping in her office,” Emi complained.

 

“I’m sleeping in my office,” Tab acknowledged, looking sheepish. “Things got a lot easier once we hired the Sthenographer, but that only made me realize all of the things that had been put off before she showed up. It hasn’t been great for my stress levels, if we’re being honest.”

 

“It hasn’t been great for your love life either,” Emi muttered under her breath, but audible enough to hear.

 

Emi, not at the table.” Alice chided. “But yes, I’ve been stepping up my recruitment. We’re finally starting to rebuild the Administrative sector. It’s hard, because if I find a promising candidate, I have to get them to sign ASAP. Cheney keeps poaching talent. But the promise of serving the Legion and having moral values seems to be a draw.”

“Yes, some of them slip away rather fast, don’t they,” Tabitha paused with a forkful of burger partway to her mouth. “At least the Freelancers didn’t get ahold of that Pariah girl. She seems to be doing a fairly good job over in Detroit. Markus worked with her briefly and had nothing but good things to say.” She put the forkful of burger in her mouth.


“She’s open to working with us?” Alice’s eyes brightened. “Oh my goodness, does she have an address?”

Tabitha held up a hand until she finished chewing. Then, “easy, hon. The coffin squad happened to be in her territory and she helped them contain a Wheird. I’m not sure how open she is to working with us outside of defending her home. We don’t have her address.”

 

“She did show up at Nat’s club when ey invited people, though,” Emi pointed out. “And there were both Legionnaires and Freelancers there. It seems like she’s at least not holding a grudge toward our agents.”

 

“Well, that’s good at least. I’m sure Scanner can help me find her. Once she hears my recruitment speech, I’m sure she’ll sign up.”

“We’re, ah,” Emi broached the topic in a delicate tone, “we’re actually thinking of something a bit subtler, Alice.”

 

“In my experience,” Alice says, looking proud. “Subtlety is highly overrated.”

Tabitha and Scott exchanged a Look, then Emi and Tabitha exchanged a Look, then Tabitha shifted in her seat, eyes down, before looking directly at Alice. “Actually, Alice… we’re going to send in the Damselfly.”

 

Alice considered this information briefly, before sighing. “I don’t have to like it,” she finally said.

 

“I would never ask such a thing of you, hon,” Tabitha said. “It’s just a matter of… the one thing we know about Miss Pauker’s MO is that she will show up if there’s a threat to her territory. Nat brings threats close to emself by nature. This is our best bet at having Pariah and Damselfly on the same side in the same room with a strong motivation to work with each other. If we’re going to establish a positive dynamic with Pariah, this is our best bet.”

 

“That sounds like a great idea.” Scott said with just a touch too much enthusiasm. Alice glanced at him, and then gave another sigh. “Kids, are you listening? Once you start your after school program with the Kids Corps, you’ll have to tackle problems with these. And it’s very important to be a hero who does the right thing, isn’t that right?”

Emi and Tabitha both bobbed their heads in agreement to reinforce the lesson.

 

Tim eagerly launched into another long speech about his thoughts on heroes and the Kids Corps. Ruth, meanwhile, had evidently finished pushing fries around her plate. “Mom, can I be excused?”

“Put your plate in the sink, please, honey.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know.”

“Nat is doing really well, honestly,” Emi said once Tim’s speech was finished. “Ey nonlethally subdued a Villain while on a completely unrelated mission, and did so more safely than I care to tell em. Ey… needs to tighten up on the combat awareness, but I’m very proud.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve met the kid yet.” Scott says, thoughtfully. “Probably seen ‘em around in the cafeteria, though. Kind of short, floaty, redhead?”

“That’s our Nat,” Tabitha confirmed with a slight hint of weariness in her voice. “Ey’s been a handful for me, honestly. I think that ey might already be–” her eyes darted to Tim, then back to her plate “–close… friends… with Brozerker and Jupiter Strike, and apparently ey’s started dating that cartomancer we’re trying to recruit? Nothing’s exploded yet, but I’m trying to stay braced in case something does. And I can’t deny that ey has already been an extremely effective covert agent.”

 

“Mm.” Alice said, lips thinning in disapproval. “Who wants dessert? I managed not to burn that, at least.”

“Dessert would be lovely, thank you,” Emi smiled brightly. Tabitha nodded as well.

 

Before long, Alice had carved up a decadent triple chocolate layer cake, serving large slices to everyone at the table. “Oh, speaking of Administration, Tabitha… Ah, well, there’s something you should know.”

Tab raised her eyebrows and inclined her head slightly; a ‘go on’ gesture.

 

“…Helen Havelock wants to return to the Legion. In a strictly civilian role, of course, considering her… injuries.”

Tabitha and Emi both froze in place, blinking in surprise, a forkful of cake already halfway to Emi’s face.

 

“Helen Havelock?” Tabitha breathed. “I’ll be damned.”

 

Alice smiled widely. “She’s actually a very nice woman. We talked for a while. She had a lot of advice for me.”

Well, that was no surprise. Helen Havelock had founded the Legion herself, taking on the title of Excalibur. Wielding golden armour and a longsword, she had fought the forces of the Third Reich, the enemies of humanity, and been a vanguard for social change. Without her, there would likely be no Legion. It was a shame her powers had been stripped away by the Battle of New York, so long ago…

 

“And, just for saying that word in my house, you can put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Alice said, half-teasing. Only half.


“I was going to do it anyway,” Tabitha teased back, her tone prim to the point of exaggeration. “So there.” She stood and walked around the table, collecting the empty plates and glasses.

 

“What kind of advice did Mrs. Havelock have for you, Alice?” Emi asked, sounding genuinely curious.

 

“We talked about the pressures of the lifestyle, and the difference between then and now. But most importantly, she told me to always keep faith. She puts the same emphasis on faith as I do. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Oh, absolutely!” Emi agreed. “We all have different things keeping us going, and it can be very important to find mentors who can identify with that. I’m happy for you, Alice.”

 

“Don’t be happy for me,” Alice jokes. “Be happy for Tabitha. Helen knows the Legion like the back of her hand. I’m sure she’ll be a big help in the coming days, and maybe Tabitha can sleep in a gosh danged bed.”

“She’d better, if she doesn’t want me to bring other people into it,” Emi smirked.

 

“Emi! We weren’t gonna–” Tabitha hissed from the doorway, then pressed her lips together and chirped, clasping her hands. “Dishes are done!”

 

“Tim, hon, why don’t you go set up your Nintendo?” Alice waited until her son left the room and then looked at her guests with wide eyes. “Are you thinking about divorcing?”

“I’m sure it was a joke,” Scott says, standing and putting a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You know how crazy hours can get to a person, right?”

“Of course I was joking!” Emi laughed nervously.

 

“No no no!” Tabitha also laughed, also nervously. “We wouldn’t– that’s not what I meant at all.”

 

“We were just joking about the whole thing,” Emi shot a look at Tabitha so pointed that even Alice could catch it.

 

Tabitha wiped her brow. “Can I make some decaf for anybody?”

 

Alice glanced between the two of them, and then a lightbulb flared to life above her head. “Oh! Oh. I see. You know, I uh- I’ll take my coffee um, caffeinated. Black, please. Nice and strong, ha… ha!”

“Caffeine for everyone!” Tabitha disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Emi sweating silently, eyes darting between Scott and Alice.

 

“….. soooo.” Emi said.

 

“We – don’t need to discuss anything any further, thank you.” Alice says, red in the face and making intense eye contact with a light fixture. “Especially not with both of my children home. Your home, your marriage, your business.”

“Sure, s-sure,” Emi stammered, eyes averted. A moment later, she put her hands on the table and blurted, “it’s just–“

 

“Emi!” Tabitha rebuked from the kitchen.

 

“You guys are our best friends!” Emi continued, ignoring her wife’s objection. “It felt like lying to you. I lie to enemies, politicians. I don’t want to lie to friends. I hate lying to friends.”

 

Tabitha appeared in the doorway. “Emi, if Alice doesn’t want to know, Alice doesn’t want to know.”

 

“But she was–“

 

“It’s her call. Not ours.”

 

“What is there to know?!” Alice suddenly said, incredulous. “You – you have… extra… lovers. Okay, I know that. I’m aware. Are you planning to introduce me to any of them?”

“Well, we don’t, actually.” Tabitha folded her arms and shrugged. “Not yet. Look, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have said anything, all right? I’m sorry, Scott, this must be terribly awkward for you.”

 

Emi put her face in her hands.

 

Scott leaned back in his chair, muttering: “Christ, this is hideously awkward, yeah.”

Alice was too shaken to even chide Scott on taking the Lord’s name in vain. “I… support… you? If you’re happy, that’s… good? And fine?”

“Thanks,” Tabitha replied, her voice as flat and cold as slate. “You know, I don’t really need coffee after all. Emi, I’m going to go get some fresh air.”

 

She walked out of the dining room with long, measured strides. Emi didn’t move.

 

Scott moved over to his friend and put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey.” he said. “Alice, why don’t you go check on Ruth?”

 

Alice acquiesced, standing and leaving the room, her face still incredulous and confused.

 

“Hey. Emi. Look at me.”

Emi turned her face toward Scott, lowering her hands. She wasn’t crying, but there was clear despair behind those deep brown eyes.

 

“What’s up?” He asked, keeping things simple at first. “Is this about the lying thing, or something else?”

“We weren’t expecting anything, Scott, we weren’t trying to… get you guys to do anything. This wasn’t supposed to change things, it was for us to actively be in each other’s lives. To be honest.”

 

“Yeah, I get that. Look, we’ve been kind of distant lately, but… hey, y’know, we’re all working and things are tense ‘cause of work and politics and all of that. But if you’re happy in your marriage, we think that’s rad and of course we support you. And you know Alice has come a long, long way that she said she supported it as well.”

 

He cracked a warm smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “So, that’s out of the way. All of our cards are on the table. We’re still here. Let’s make this more regular, yeah? Keep the momentum building, work on going back to how things used to be, back when we were… what, in our 20s? We were so young.”

“Cards on the table,” Emi murmured, eyes downcast, then looked back up. “Scott, Tabitha is still in love with Alice.”

 

“Huh.” Scott said, and drummed his fingers on the table, processing that. “I didn’t know she was in love with Alice in the first place. Then again, I’ve been pretty oblivious to this sort of thing. And hey, look, Alice is an incredible woman. It’s hard to blame Tabitha, God knows I’ve fallen for her charms as well.”

“She was. Is. And it’s never hurt me or made me feel like Tab didn’t want to be with me. But she’s had this locked up for decades now, and I wanted– I told her that she should… say something. Not to change anything, just to stop holding onto it. But it’s Tab.”

 

“Tabs likes to sort things nicely and compartimalize them. She has her little filing cabinet over here for work –” Scott taps the side of his head. “And this little filing cabinet over here for the marriage, and I’m sure that Alice goes into another filing cabinet. That’s her system, and I think she likes to keep her files nice and separate. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. You two are just different.”

“I know.” Emi sighs. “I’ve known that for a long time. But I guess I needed to hear you say so. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s something I hoped she’d do, and then this happened and she’s going to clam up about it for another twenty years. I don’t really think it’s good for her.”

 

“Eh, we all indulge in shit that’s a little bad for us. You’re still in the field despite your knee injury, I’m still married to Alice -” he gives a wicked grin. “Seriously, it’s one thing to love her from afar, but bein’ in the thick of it is a whole other ball game. I have a few cigarettes… It’s great of you try to and fix things, but Tabs is an adult, she can make her own choices. Even bad ones.”

Emi frowned. “Yeah, I noticed– is stuff okay, Scott? Are you and Alice okay?”

 

“Yeah, we’re okay. She’s a great mom, a great person. This sounds arrogant, so you’ll have to forgive me – I’m a genius, and she’s… not. She’s a little dim. It was hard to deal with for a while, so we went into counselling, worked on some stuff. She’s a good woman. She has so much love to give. Y’know? Before I ended up with her, I dated around, slept around. I know what a good relationship is and isn’t, and this is. Even if she’s ah, kind of a doof sometimes.”

“I’m not going to try to tell you that you’re not a genius, Scott,” Emi smirked, “nor that Alice’s intelligence isn’t… focused elsewhere. And I’m very glad that things are fine. The two of you are good for each other.”

 

Emi took a deep breath, then let it out and glanced back up at Scott. “Do you think less of us, Scott? For opening up our marriage?”

 

“Absolutely not. I’d be a massive hypocrite if I did. I slept around for a decade straight before I ended up with Alice, and if she offered me the same deal, I’d be – well, I’d be tempted. You’re like a sister to me, Emi, alright? Your marriage ain’t gonna change that.”

“All right. Thank you.” She sighed. “I should go retrieve my wife. Knowing her, her brain has already eaten itself with anxiety.”

 

“And I should take care of my wife as well.” Scott gives Emi another hug. “Bowling. Next Friday. A McGowan-Armitage-Surikabe affair. I expect you guys at the lanes in the goofy shoes and big smiles at seven sharp.”

“I look forward to beating all three of you into the finely-polished floor,” Emi grinned.

 

Bonding Agents: Angel Awakens

THE FLYING FORTRESS

MEDICAL CENTER

 

Beep.

 

A hand stirred.

 

Beep.

 

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

Beep.


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

 

A voice: “She’s awake.”

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

 

Didn’t make sense.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

And then she fell back asleep.

 

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

 

Alice cried out.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Click.

 

Hiss.

 

Darkness.

 

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

 

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

 

“Welcome back, hon,” Tabitha murmured.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

“Revoked,” Tabitha whispered.

 

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

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

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

 

“You think I need mental health treatment?”

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

 

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

 

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

“Alice.” Scott said. “Stop. Please.”

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

 

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

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

Bonding Agents: Admission

LEGION PRESS CENTER

BENEATH THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

There hadn’t been enough time to prepare.

 

If she was on her A game, Tabitha could have done better. But Cheney had beat her to the initial punch, and then Alice had distracted her, and…

 

The Oathkeeper was standing in a backstage room, staring at racks of wardrobes that the Legion had provided. Makeup artists and stylists hovered nearby.


“I don’t know what to wear,” the paladin was in the midst of wailing.

 

“You’re going to fret about it for twenty minutes,” Tabitha assured, arms folded, “then go with the same skirtsuit you always wear at press conferences.”

 

“This isn’t just any press conference!” Alice said, considering a tie before casting it aside and beginning to button up a pale pink blouse. “…It is a nice suit, though. Charcoal, do you think?”

“Charcoal is good! It’d work. You’re going to pick navy, though.”

 

“…It looks professional.” Alice grumped, wriggling into the pencil skirt. A stylist swooped in to help with the zipper. “Heels, do you think?”

“Of course, because you feel short standing in front of a crowd without your armor on. Alice, you know what you’re going to wear. We all do.”

 

Alice glared at Tabitha. “Right. Okay. Yes. Thank you.” She spun in front of a mirror. “So, tell me, what am I going to do about makeup?”

“As natural as possible,” Tabitha advised, “today especially.”

 

“Alright. You’ll be backstage, yeah? Doing your magic behind the scenes?”

“Well, actually, I’ll… be watching you. Helen is helping with the logistics, Alicia is handling the social media aspects. Even Estelle is… well, she’s there. For this conference, I think it’s more important that I, ah. I be…”

 

“Detached?” Alice asked. “An… audience member?”

“No,” Tabitha replied, quiet. “There for you.”

 

Alice gave a slow nod, and for a moment it looked like she might well up – and then one of the stylists took her by the face. “No, no, don’t cry honey, it’ll take so much work to cover it up if you’ve been crying –”

The other stylist smiled at Tabitha. “We’ll be out of here in thirty. Privacy, please?”

“I’ll be right behind you, hon,” Tabitha inclined her head, then walked away, her heels clack clack clacking on the padded metal of the folding stage..

 

There was already a buzz of interest from the assorted journalists and audience members. There had been rumours swirling about the Oathkeeper now for weeks. The footage of Sin’s assault on her in a cafe, Callister Rayne’s threats, the surgery… The Legion tamped down some of it — her grounding was not public knowledge yet, and thank God for that — but it would be impossible to keep everything from going public. They probably thought this press conference was to set the record straight on Sin.

 

Well, they’d be in for quite the surprise.


Alice finally emerged from the backstage. There was a moment of collective shock: she looked healthy, strong, with dewy and minimal makeup… but she had had the same glorious mane of blonde hair since she emerged into the spotlight at nineteen. The short cut was… a surprise.


She sat and cleared her throat. This close, Tabitha could see her hands shaking.

 

Tabitha’s eyes swept the crowd, then flickered over to Alice. Strength, hon, she cheered silently, you’ve got this.

 

Alice’s jaw set in that stubborn way, and she began to speak.


“You’re probably all wondering why I’ve called you here today.” She said. “The truth is, this isn’t about the recent rumours floating about, and it’s not about the Legion, and it’s definitely not about my haircut.”

That was a good line; the crowd laughed appreciatively. Encouraged, Alice plowed onwards.

 

“I’m here because as the Oathkeeper, I need to be honest. I need to be open. I refuse to be bullied into silence about certain beliefs of mine any longer.”

The laughter died. The hall was dead silent.

 

“My name is Alice McGowan, and I’ve been married for twenty years, but I’m queer, and I’m in a polyamorous relationship with another woman.”

The silence stretched on.

 

“Some of you may ask about Biblical values.” Alice continued. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no conflict. There are no words in the New Testament speaking against this, but there is a line I want everyone to remember: Judge not, lest ye be judged. There is no sin in being queer. There is no Hell, and if there was, being queer wouldn’t send you there. I encourage everyone to be open and honest with themselves, and I can’t do that unless I lead the charge.”

The icy silence was painful at this point.

 

“You slut!” Someone shouted from the audience. “God hates you!”

 

Time seemed to stop for minutes. How many seconds was it actually?

 

Alice reared back as though she had been punched in the gut. Tears sprang into the corners of her eyes. “No,” she said, but there was no strength or conviction in her voice. “Look, you don’t understand, it’s –”

 

Tabitha’s eyes darted about, heart in her throat. She could see Nat hovering nearby, face red, fully prepared to fight the entire crowd for turning against Alice. Even she hadn’t expected the reception to be so icy, this was going to be hellish–

 

“Thank you, Oathkeeper!” Someone near the back of the crowd shouted. It was only a single voice, but enough to light a fire.

 

“We love you!” Another voice shouted from the crowd.

 

“Bless you, Oathkeeper!” Another.

“God save the Infinity Legion!”

 

Where the dissenting voice had spoken up alone and cast a chill over the crowd, the supportive voices became a conflagration in seconds. The air suddenly filled with words of support, applause, becoming cheers. Such a majority of the crowd was speaking up for Alice that no one dared insult her again.

 

Nat dove down from the air, caught up in the energy of the crowd, and wrapped eir arms around Alice’s neck in a joyful hug.

 

Alice grabbed em back, spinning them around and laughing. “You made it, bug! You – I can’t believe it, it’s – it’s all right, everything’s alright, they -”

“Oh my god, oh my god, you did it, you really did it,” Nat bawled openly. “I’m so fucking proud to call you General Mom!!”

 

“Language!” Alice said, but she was crying and laughing too. The two of them were illuminated by camera flashes from the crowd, snap snap snap.

 

“Easy, bug,” Tabitha walked up to them with a smile, and gave a gentle nod to Scott on the other side of the stage, beckoning him to come up with them, “they’re going to think you’re Alice’s secret girlfriend.”

 

“They’ll think that anyway,” Nat shrugged, beaming. “They’ll think everyone is Alice’s secret girlfriend. Let me hug my legion mom!!”

 

Scott bounded on stage, throwing his arms around both of them. “I’m so damn proud of you -”

Language -”

“I know, whatever, enjoy the moment.” Scott turned the embrace into a group hug – and then made grinning eye contact with Tabitha.

 

Tabitha returned the smile with her own. Confident, poised– she was the very picture of herself as she stepped in, gently moved Nat to the side, and took the space on Alice’s other side.

 

“Let’s let them get their publicity shot,” she said, and squared herself, turning outward so that the message was clear: it’s me.

 

The crowd went wild, camera flashes filling the room.

 

This would be on the front page of every country’s Infinity Report, every magazine, every news program would feature this. Story of the century — and it wasn’t Oathkeeper’s Gay Scandal splashed on a tabloid, it was a blended, queer family all grinning at the crowd. Oathkeeper was glowing, and it wasn’t the makeup; an ambient haze of golden light surrounded her. The crowd ate it up.

 


“There is no sin in being queer,” the woman on the television said, and Paul’s shock coalesced into rage. He stood in a quick, stiff motion, clutching the remote control with white-knuckled intensity. He couldn’t breathe. This was– this betrayal– he had idolized the Oathkeeper, her image had kept him going through it all…

 

Paul didn’t even hear what the heckler in the crowd shouted, but he saw its effect on General McGowan. The way the color drained from her face, the shock. It filled him with a kind of vindication, a belief that perhaps there was some order to the universe, that those speaking their sins may feel the weight of God’s judgment…

 

The remote control went crunch. Paul looked down, raising his hand, and beheld a great platinum gauntlet, the remains of the television remote falling to the floor in pieces as he opened its fingers. Paul stepped back and beheld the rest of his body, encased in shining armor, more majestic, purer than the Oathkeeper’s had ever been. For a moment, his heart sang triumph. God Is Good!

 

Then the scene on the television changed. The crowd was… cheering? Supporting this disgusting display? The Oathkeeper’s face lit up. She was happy again, enabled in her betrayal. Something swooped into view, a figure, slight and fey, crimson hair–

 

When the Damselfly hugged Oathkeeper, turning a freckled face toward the camera, Paul froze.

 

“Peter,” he whispered, “the prodigal brother shows his face, embracing the false prophet.”

 

As the press took photos and the audience cheered, Paul’s rage mounted.

 

“You abandoned us. You all abandoned us.”

 

He raised his arm and a shining holy sword appeared in his hand. “HOW DARE YOU!” He brought the blade down on the television, cleaving it in half with a single, mighty strike.

 

Then, suddenly, the sword was gone. The armor was gone. The great strength Paul had felt… it was gone from him. But his heart still burned, and his path was clear.

 

“I promise you, Alice McGowan,” he growled. “I promise that I will find this power again, and use it to bring you low. I promise to reclaim the brother I thought lost to my family. It may take me years… but I will keep this promise as I keep them all.”

 

He turned and strode from the room.

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

 

Family: Guess Schu’s Coming to Dinner

THE MCGOWAN MANSION

CHICAGO

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

He guided them into the living room.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

“Yes that is fine”

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

‘For the last couple weeks, yeah.”

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Callister could almost hear Benny’s nervous sweating.

 

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

“I didn’t say anything!”

 

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

 

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

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

 

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


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

“Sure!” Benny agreed automatically.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SWEATING.

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

 

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

 

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

 

Benny braced.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

“Yes!”

 

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

And then Scott fled out to the patio.

 

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

 

Retreat.

 

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


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

 

“Don’t inhale too deep.”

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

 

Callister shrugged, choked on smoke, and recovered.

 

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

Benny glanced over at Callister.

 

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

 

“We’d love to hear it, Scott.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Callister stared at Scott, speechless incredulity in his face.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

“Yes please.”


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

 

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

“It smells amazing, Alice!” Benny enthused.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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


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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

“To the future.” That was a safe bet.

 

The Tribunal: Fill Me In, Son

THE BEAN SIDHE
UNDER SOUBRIDGE ROCK CITY

 

When world events are troubling? You clean and stock. When you feel helpless and don’t know what to do? You check temperatures and mark out expired food. When everything is big and scary and you’re the one member of your family who can’t do anything about anything? You staff the bar and make drinks.

 

Benny Schuster was working to pass the time.

 

It was quiet, and Benny was so entranced in his usual routine of cleaning, stocking, making drinks, cleaning the machines, making drinks, refilling the bottles, and so on, that he didn’t even realize Scott McGowan had entered until he walked up with his manager to examine the latte machine.


“So, I’m thinking that I can upgrade these to something faster, cleaner, easier to use, more durable… As a favour. In exchange, you let me take Benny out for the rest of the day for some paid time off. How’s that sound?”

“You know Benny?” The manager goggled, staring first at Benny and then at Scott. “I mean… yes, of course Mister McGowan, but just—”

 

Benny blinked at about a quarter of the speed a human normally would, then his jaw dropped at half the speed as his eyes focused. “Scott?”

 

“Hey,” Scott said, all smiles as he handed the manager a business card. “How do you feel about Thai?”

“The nearest upscale place is actually really bad,” Benny said automatically.

 

“Schuster!” The manager chided. “He isn’t—”

 

“Tom Yum Yum is kind of a hole in the wall, but it’s really good,” Benny continued.

 

“Sounds great. Lead the way, kid. We need a driver, or is it walking distance?”

“It’s a fifteen minute walk from the surface level, so… I guess that depends how much you like walking.”

 

At this point, the manager had fallen silent, clearly unsure how to handle this casual, friendly conversation between one of the most famous business tycoons in the world and his own underling.

 

“A walk sounds good. Get some of that…” Scott’s grin widened. “Fresh Rock City air, yeah? Thanks, I’ll be back with the machines on Thursday. Take care of yourself.” And with that, he strode out of the Bean Sidhe.

 

“Uh,” Benny said, after a moment of mutual staring.

 

“Get your apron off and follow the man!” The manager squeaked.

 

Minutes later, Scott and Benny were aboveground, walking side-by-side as they headed toward Tom Yum Yum.

 

“I’m going to be honest. This isn’t 100% about grabbing some Thai.” Scott said. “But I’m not going to pretend like you and your sister aren’t becoming adopted by my wife and I, yeah? I figure we might as well do this once in a while. God knows I can get out of Chicago sometimes.”

Benny blushed a little at that. “Oh—gosh, I mean. You don’t have to feel like. I know that Nat is very special to Alice, but we’re just—I mean we’re fine, I’ve really been enjoying—” The awkward stammering did not seem like it was going to abate any time soon.

 

Scott let Benny try to finish a cohesive thought before waving a hand dismissively. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. Ruth’s smart as fuck, I can see her taking over the business. Tim’s great, and he’s taking after Alice. But you and Buster are special too, and you fit in with our weird little family well enough. Don’t ever talk yourself down, kid, there’s a whole world of assholes waiting to do it for you.” He strode into the Tom Yum Yum, ignoring the incredulous stares and cell phone shots of passersby.

 

“I usually try not to get noticed by the assholes,” Benny said quietly, following Scott inside.

 

The restaurant was small, austere, and mercifully had a host who was out of touch enough that he didn’t recognize Scott. They were seated at a tiny corner booth, facing one another.

 

“Alright, let me cut to the chase. What’s up? Nat went into see Scanner, Scanner wiped the logs of the convo, all of the Schusters are being quiet, I’m hearing the name Paul come up again and again, Nat’s blatantly misdirecting Alice away from something…”

Benny blanched, eyes going wide. “I… uhm. Well, that is. You see…”

 

“What do you need from me to feel safe telling me? Promise of secrecy? You need help with something? I don’t want to extort this from you.”

“Alice… can’t know.” Benny stared at the table. “I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell Alice. Please.”

 

Without hesitation: “Understood.”

Benny looked up at Scott, still a bit pale, his pupils pinpricks in sky blue irises. “Our eldest brother Paul m-may have inherited the Avatar of Dominance from Anathema. He thinks he’s the new Oathkeeper, and he’s starting a cult.”

 

Scott’s eyebrows shot up. “Alright,” he said. “Yes. Alice absolutely cannot know. A cult. Hostages?”

“Our youngest sister Drusilla,” Benny murmured, “and he may be coercing the second youngest, Esther. She seems fairly strong, though—she’s like Callister in white armor.”

 

Scott’s brow furrowed. “I need to get into the lab.” he finally said. “The Stay at Home dad thing isn’t working anymore. This is history being made, and I’m helping with grade school homework.”

“I’m literally a barista, sir,” Benny replied automatically.

 

“Yeah, sorry, that was kind of a dick thing to say. How can I help?”

“I’m—I’m not sure? Nat hired that shapeshifting Freelancer. Everyperson? To infiltrate the cult. Ey might send Vin and Alex down there to keep a further away eye on things too. Paul sent Esther to tell me that we had to stay out of the way. The siblings, I mean. There was an implication that if we didn’t, Drew would pay for it.”

 

A long pause. “What about after you get your sisters out?”

Another long pause. “I don’t know about Sue,” Benny nearly whispered, “but if Paul dies… Nat, Buster and I won’t even shed a tear.”

 

Scott nodded. “Whatever ends up happening, whatever you feel is… okay. And you don’t have to apologize for it. But I’m not talking about Paul. Your sisters. Do you have a plan for them?”

Benny blinked. “Um. No, we don’t.”

 

“Alright. Look, I don’t know too much about your circumstances, but taking in two teenagers is hard. Whatever Alice and I can do to help, alright? Financially, logistically, legally… Our resources are your resources.”

“Gosh. Um,” Benny scratched the back of his head. “Thank you, Scott. I don’t… I hadn’t really thought about that. We’re so focused on saving them, and stopping Paul…”

 

“You’re what, 20? 22?”

“…um. I’m actually 26. But it feels like I’m younger most of the time.”

 

Scott waved a hand. “You had to deal with more shit. Makes you more mature in most ways, but don’t blame yourself for not figuring this stuff out. That’s my job, alright? You focus on taking care of you. I’ll take care of the deets.”

“Um. Okay. What are we gonna do about Alice, though? If she finds out, she’s probably gonna go over there. Paul’s like… his armor looks just like hers, but platinum. He’s got a huge sword. It’s like his Emergence was designed to be a big ‘fuck you’ to her.”

 

Scott held up a finger and pulled out his phone. “Hey, Alice, darling? Yeah, I was thinking of you. I was thinking, you’re right. Our bedroom set is terrible. I’m thinking we should just bite the bullet and get it taken care of. I know you had some sets in mind. Uh huh. Right, we might as well take care of it while Stheno is being so generous with her babysitting. Uh huh. Absolutely. A budget? Gosh, I guess we’ll have to look at options. You like, uh, silk sheets, right?”

A pause.

 

“Well, if you feel so strongly about it, let’s just book a hotel and make it a weekend. We’ll take our time picking the right set. Alright. Love you too. Kisses. Bye.”

Benny finally let one of the giggles he’d been stifling out. “I have never seen anyone get played as hard as you and Nat can play Alice.”

 

“It’s not too hard.” Scott grinned. “We’ll teach you some time, I’m sure. Alright, I’m ready to order. Let’s hope the food here is as good as you say.”

It was.

The Tribunal: Manual Override

Alice McGowan knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was not a part of the Council ruling over Earth because she was a tactical genius. She knew that her role was to approach dangerous situations, and be the Oathkeeper — a solid mass of light and faith that could tackle any problem.

 

There was no problem more tailor made for Alice McGowan than the False Oathkeeper appearing in Glenwood Springs.

Nat’s old family, or so she surmised from the news, had returned with this maniac at its head. They called her out by name.


Sinner, deviant, oathbreaker.

 

Alice McGowan keyed in her teleport code and waited for the tickling sensation of Scanner’s teleport tech to bring her halfway across the world to confront her destiny.

 

And waited.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Alice checked her heavy brass comm unit, exclusive to the Generals. There was a code reading across the display:

MANUAL OVERRIDE // BLACK OPS // PERMISSIONS DENIED.

 

The Oathkeeper was powerful, but rarely was she patient, and so no one in the Legion was surprised when LG-03 appeared on the Legion-wide comms demanding an immediate explanation and override to the override.

 

The first voice that answered her was Nat’s. “I’m sorry, Alice,” ey said, voice flat. Determined.

 

“…You’re black ops.” Alice said, putting two and two together. “You locked me out. You didn’t even talk to me?”

“Ey didn’t lock you out, Alice,” Emi’s voice was quiet. “I issued that order. I’m sorry.”

 

Alice paused, and when she spoke again her voice was thick with emotion. “So you pulled a coup to make sure I couldn’t help? He’s wearing my armour, calling me a whore in front of the world, and I have to – what, sit and watch? I’m too stupid to help, is that it?”

“No, Alice, that’s not it,” Nat cut in. “He has my youngest sister hostage. I haven’t gone to Glenwood Springs. None of us have, because my sister made it clear that if we showed up… Paul wouldn’t be afraid to kill Drew.”

 

Scott’s voice broke in. “We knew that you’d want to do the right thing, and help people. It’s just complicated, Alice, and this is why you made Emi head of Black Ops. You know that things can be complicated.”

“Too complicated for me, I guess.” Alice said quietly. “Can I – Can I do anything?”

“Once we get the rest of my family out of there?” Nat’s voice was like ice. “You can drop the hammer on my dear brother all you want. More than you want, preferably.”

 

“…You’re going to need me, if he’s another me, Nat.” Alice said. “But I…. trust you. Turn on my teleporter access, and tell me when.”

“Please promise me that you won’t go to Glenwood Springs until we’ve gotten my sisters out.”

 

“I promise. And please promise that you’ll call me in when it comes time to put this False Oathkeeper down. I don’t want you to try to make a duel with destiny when… Nat, if he’s another me, he could… I’m not letting you put yourself in danger just when you’ve reunited with your sisters.”

“I know, Alice. I have no intention of letting my old family take my new one away from me. I promise that when we strike, you’ll be right in front. Okay?”

 

When Alice spoke, her voice was clear and untroubled. “Legion, move out.”

The Tribunal: Family Meeting

THE MCGOWAN MANSION
TWO DAYS AFTER THE GLENWOOD SPRINGS BATTLE

 

The McGowan Mansion gates were open today, on account of all of the villagers. Alice was in the kitchen as Scot welcomed guests and got them settled in the living room. There were couches and bean bag chairs and knitted covers and all sorts of things to host the talk between the Schusters and the McGowans about the future. The smell of chili came from the kitchen, and a maid took coats and served drinks.


Susanna Gilford arrived, and wide-eyed, looked around at the living room, slightly awed. The invitation to the Oathkeeper’s home had left her slightly flustered and grateful that she had brought Isaac along. The little boy was currently napping in her arms, his little blond head on her shoulder.

 

The Damselfly was furiously assisting in the kitchen, but also flitting out to make sure that introductions were made and everyone was comfortable. Ey had been an Avatar for a few days now, and was starting to get used to it. Those taking a close look at eir body might note that ey was a bit curvier than usual, bearing a slightly feminine shape to eir face.

 

Those who had spent time with em would have noticed that yesterday, it had been precisely the opposite.

 

Buster, on Earth leave to help sort out the ‘family issue’, sipped a beer and watched the proceedings silently.

 

Callister was also there, his arm around Benny’s shoulder, a beer in his spare hand. He took a sip. The hell kinda family he married into?

 

Benny looked more than a bit overwhelmed, but remedied this by leaning into Callister and sipping from one of the craft doppelbocks that he had brought to share with the gathering.

 

Poor Noah was most out of his element. Wide-eyed, he clutched his coke from an easy chair and tried not to freak out about being in the presence of celebrities and long-lost family, some of whom were the same people.

 

Ruth and Timothy McGowan were ushered out of the house well before the meeting to a brightly coloured playroom on the other side of the grounds – far enough away that they had no chance of overhearing, and far enough away that Ruth’s Null powers wouldn’t affect them.

 

Alice finally began to hand out bowls of chili, quietly murmuring welcomes to her guests.


Scott wore a button down shirt that was undone over a dark blue t-shirt that read MCGOWAN INDUSTRIES, and was drinking a beer and talking animatedly to Callister and Benny about machines that had hidden compartments.


“Well,” Alice said, cutting off her husband. “Thank you all for making it. I’m sorry the place is kind of a mess. It’s been a rough few days.”

Sue set Isaac to sleep on the sofa. “No, it’s fine. You’ve done much for our family.”

 

“Speaking of… Drew and Esther are old enough that I think they should be part of this conversation. I’d like to bring them in.” Alice inclined her head to the Schusters. “That’s not my call, though. It’s yours, as a family.”

“They absolutely have the right to have a say in their own futures, at the very least,” Nat said, “and I haven’t seen either of them since… since I d-died.”

 

Noah looked at the floor. He, Buster, and Benny all made vague, affirmative noises. Sue added her voice to theirs. Callister was silent, not his call.

 

“Drew!” Alice called. It was a little unsettling how her ‘mom’ voice was different from her ‘General’ voice. “Esther! Could you two please come into the family room?”

The two girls had been staying with the McGowans. They had the space, after all.

 

Esther strode in like she owned the place, badly bruised but seemingly unruffled. Drew shuffled behind her, head down and masked by a curtain of hair. Nat immediately circled around the two and hugged Drew, making a happy noise. “Look at all the siblings, peanut.”

 

Sue made a subtle movement, shifting so she hid Isaac with her body while keeping an eye on Esther. “Drew, honey, want to sit next to me?”

 

Drew made a happy squeak, finally lifting up and peering at everyone from beneath the curtain of hair. “Oh wow, everyone’s here.” she said.


“Yes,” said Esther. “Even me.”

“Shut up, Esther.” Drew said, settling in next to Sue and beaming at her siblings. Sue slipped an arm around her youngest sister.

 

Scott glanced at Alice, who shrugged.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Esther,” Nat said, sincerely, putting a hand on her shoulder as ey flew by. “I’m really glad that all of you are here. I honestly never thought we’d be together like this again.”

 

“And we want to help you guys stay together.” Scott said, looking at everyone. “From what we understand, you guys have… You’ve been leading your lives. Taking in two teenagers is really, genuinely hard, even for people with everything going for them.”

“We want to help.” Alice blurted out. “Educational, financial, giving them a place to stay. Anything we can do.”

Noah raised his eyebrows. From his perspective, this was as sudden as it was unexpected.

 

Even Nat was a bit thrown. “It… that kind of. Sounds like… you’re offering to adopt Esther and Drew.”

 

“…We’re not asking anyone to give up their parental rights.” Scott said, quickly. “We understand that you will always have the ultimate authority over them and we will never fight you on what you think is best for them. But we have… finances, connections, a pool, extra bedrooms… Everything they could need.”

Buster raised one eyebrow. “Yeah no offense Scott but the last thing most of us want is ‘ultimate authority’ over our sisters. Glad to have ’em back, but I feel like Sue’s the only one of us who might feel different.”

 

Nat, Benny, and Noah all murmured their agreement. Callister shrugged, not his place.


Sue looked at Esther and Drew. She was all too aware of sleeping Isaac at her back and the mound of bills at home. She squeezed Drew about the shoulders. “And…I cannot take either in.” She sounded heartbroken.

 

Scott shifted. “Sue, if you need a place to stay, you could help with the kids. We have a teleporter as well, so you can get to work or travel.”

“Scott! The teleporter is supposed to be for emergency use only.”

Scott scoffed. “Yeah, hon, that ship has sailed. Nat and I use that thing for everything.”
“In my defense, no one has stopped me.”

“I tried to! Four times!”

“In my defense, Scanner hasn’t stopped me.”


Sue bowed her head, frowning. “I…I need to finish my apprenticeship but I can do that at any restaurant, I think.”

Scott and Alice nodded, holding hands. “Anything we can do to help. We consider you family. All of you.”

Noah’s eyes went wide at this. Surely they didn’t mean him too.

 

Buster laughed. “Okay, I’ll go change my last name to McGowan I guess.”

 

Scott shrugged at the joke. “If you want to.”

There was a long pause.

 

“…you’re being serious. You’re being serious?” Benny blinked rapidly.

 

Alice blinked, tears in her eyes. “We’re sorry if this is presumptive, we don’t mean to make assumptions. Just… the Legion was quiet for so long. We thought it was dying in front of us. And then Nat walks into the recruitment room, “I mean I didn’t really walk and we… we’ve grown close, and we know that the relationship is young, but you guys are… the next generation. Even Benny, and Sue, and… It’s not about Powers, or serving in the Legion, it’s… you guys started out representing so much hope to us, and we… care for you, deeply. And I know we don’t know you, Noah, or Drew or Esther yet, but… We want to be family to you. We just…” she sniffed and wiped at the corners of her eyes.

 

“Wh—!” Noah blurted. “M-me? I’m just a cr—a nobody!”

 

“You seem like a nice young man, and Nat cares deeply for you. You’ve all spent too many years apart, or under the reign of a tyrant. We want to… be a stable presence in your lives. We want to, if you’re interested, well… show you a life of familial love. If you want that, of course, we don’t want to intrude -”

“I want to!” He shouted, then covered his mouth with both hands.

 

“T’be honest… me too,” Buster clearly had something in her eye. Jeez, get that shit out of there.

 

Sue wiped the corner of her eye with the heel of her hand.

 

Callister only sipped his beer and held Benny closer.

 

Benny looked up at him hesitantly. “Babe, would it… would you be okay with it? If I… changed my last name?”

 

Callister choked on his beer.

 

“Babe, I’m not gonna be okay with being Rayne-McGowan. Just so you know.”

 

Benny laughed. “Obviously I’d change my name again when—wait did you just imply—” “Nufink, just thinking long term.” “ohmigod”

 

“Well damn, I guess I’d better change my last name too,” Nat grinned and folded eir arms.

 

“McGowan-Rayne sounds lo-” Alice began, and Scott cut her off. “You guys are great. All of you.”

 

“I’ll change my name too.” Drew grinned, leaning into Sue.

 

“It’d be an honour if I could as well,” Esther said, eyes bright. “I’ve… never really had a mom.”

Callister looked at Esther. He frowned then bent to whisper in Benny’s ear. “Esther might be trouble, we should offer to take her in later.” In response, Benny gave him a Look, but said nothing.

 

“Aw,” Nat welled up. “I’m all verklempt. The McGowan siblings. A fresh start for a bunch of mostly-queer paras.”

 

“We’re mostly queer?” Noah wondered.

 

“Hey, somethin’s been bothering me, actually,” Buster frowned. “We all know that there are nine of us, right? Nine Schuster kids?”

 

Benny and Noah nodded. Nat thought, then frowned too.

 

“Yeah. Well, so like. All of us are here but Paul. Yeah? Drew, Esther, Benny, me, Nat, Noah, Sue… and then there’s Paul, that’s… that’s eight. Where’d we get nine? We all know it’s the number, but where’d that number come from?”

 

Sue bit her lip, worried again.

 

“I… I dunno,” Nat admitted, “but it is nine, it’s always been nine. That’s super weird.”

 

“Does it matter?” Esther asked. “They’ll find us on the news. It’s not like this whole adoption thing will stay a secret. People love Alice. They love Nat. This’ll be a big thing.”

“Them not being here isn’t the disturbing bit,” Benny shook his head, “it’s that we forgot. I never forgot a single one of you. Nat was gone the longest, ey remembered us all. How could we all, every single one of us, forget an entire sibling?”

 

“We’re all paras,” Noah ventured. “What if… the one who’s missing has a power that means forgetting them?”

“Photographs. School records. There must be some trace of them.”

 

“I thought… I dunno, I just…” Drew shook her head. “I can’t remember anything. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“Oh,” Nat’s eyes flashed pale pink, and ey swooped over to snuggle Drew. “Peanut, nobody’s mad. We’re all just curious and a little confused. Sue’s right, this is worth looking into. I’ll have the Sthenographer do some research.”

 

Drew smiled inbetween Sue and Nat. “Okay. I um, I think this’ll be nice. Staying here. I like Ruth. She’s nice.”

There was a bit of quiet murmuring as everyone let the subject of the missing Schuster go for now. Small talk started again, and Buster started talking tech with Scott as Benny and Callister murmured to one another.

 

Nat checked in with Esther about her hand, then resumed eir task of cuddling the smallest Schuster… soon the not-smallest McGowan.