Wunderkinder: Strategic

THE FLYING FORTRESS

(CURRENTLY ABOVE MONTREAL, CANADA)

 

Alice “Oathkeeper” McGowan leaned back from her desk, stretching her wrists and cracking her knuckles. Her role as General, Recruitment Management Officer, Logistics Manager, Public Relations Officer (depending on the day and the duties at hand) and, of course, a mother was a challenging one. But sometimes, on days like this… She knew she was doing some good in the world.

Continue reading “Wunderkinder: Strategic”

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.

 

Recovery: Trial By Hire

THE FLYING FORTRESS

ALICE MCGOWAN’S OFFICE

 

Alice’s office is surprisingly small and cramped and cozy for such a high ranking officer of the Legion. Small desk, cross on the wall, and desk piled high with papers. Things look organized at a glance, but a keen eye can spot the chaos hidden beneath the surface – papers shoved into drawers, important forms under a keyboard. Alice herself glances up in surprise – it’s rare Tabitha comes to see her instead of the other way around.


“Estelle Prestwich,” Tab said, flatly. It was sort of like ‘hello’. Sort of.

 

“The witch, yeah? She seems kind of nice. We don’t talk much.” Alice shrugged. “Is she okay?”

“She’ll live,” Tab strode into the room, “but she insists that if everyone doesn’t do exactly as she say, no one will. She wants to reactivate… and she wants Core access. And all of her keycodes. In short, she wants authority.”

 

Alice looks briefly panicked before she manages to reign that original reaction in. “Gosh,” she finally says. “What was her rank before she retired?”

 

“Just below Legion-General,” Scanner pipes in from the walls, and Alice makes the same face she always does when she realizes Scanner’s been listening in.

 

“You know me, Alice. I am well aware that even the Legion needs to break a few eggs to make a… a justice omelette,” she barreled forward, committing to the analogy, “but Estelle is willing to break eggs whether or not they end up in the pan. She knew that this might happen to Nat. She gambled with eir life.”

 

Alice spun in her chair, an irritatingly childish nervous tic of hers. “Is she willing to work with a team?” She finally asks.

 

“Apologies, Legion-General, but I didn’t think to ask,” Tab’s tone and face were both flinty. “I imagine she’d be issuing commands to teams, if she were hired. I’d have little say.”

 

“And you’re talking to me because it’s my say?” Alice grimaces. “That’s a lot of responsibility, isn’t it?”

Tabitha put fingers to her temples, closing her eyes. “You are literally one of the three highest-ranking Legionnaires on Earth. Yes, it is a lot of responsibility.”

 

“But they didn’t make me a General because I’m good at making big picture plans like these,” Alice says with a hint of desperation in her voice. “Do you want me to decline her offer? I mean, her Vision has helped. I do want to use it a little. And she could go to the Freelancers, and we’d lose that…”

Tabitha looked at the floor for several seconds. When she spoke, her tone was quiet, almost defeated. “You’re right that her Vision would be very useful in our hands. And likely put to nobler use than with the Freelancers. If she’s right that there’s a war coming, some threat that we cannot see, she might be able to make a difference. Maybe that means letting her spend our agents, friends, family like gambling tokens. I don’t know.”

 

“Alice…” Tabitha shook her head. “I’m lost too. All right?”

 

Alice spins in her chair again for a few cycles, shaking her heavy mane of golden hair, and then straightens her back. Tabitha knew Alice; the administrator know how she will waffle on a choice until she makes up her mind. The sudden determination in her spine and eyes reveal that she’s made her choice.

 

“She starts at the bottom. She can get promoted back up. And she can have supervised Core access. And if she goes to the Freelancers, we’ll take her to court. We’re the good guys. We don’t do what the Freelancers to do get ahead.”

Tabitha nodded slowly. “The other Legion-Generals will need to weigh in too.”

 

Alice sets her jaw. “I’ll make them see reason. We are the good guys.”

“All right. Thank you for listening, Alice. I…” Tabitha frowned. “I think she is right that something is coming. Scanner and Stheno have reported a surge in Emergences and strange activity. We may… we may need to think about building bridges with the Freelancers, Alice.”

 

The Oathkeeper grinds her jaw. “They’re jerks.”

“Yes they—well. Cheney is an unbelievable jerk. Nova is a jerk. Many of their executive-level agents are absolutely jerks, yes. But… many of their field agents aren’t. They’re reaching out to Legionnaires. Helping us, with no gain for themselves. And if the Earth ends up in trouble from some kind of world-ending threat? We’ll need their numbers, their infrastructure. Their power. They’re competition, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be allies.”

 

“…I’ll talk to the other Generals.” Alice finally concedes. “The ones on Earth, anyways.”

“Thanks,” Tabitha sighs. “I should… probably sleep. It’s been days.”

 

“I worry about you, Tabs.”

Tabitha looked Alice in the eyes, frowned, and nodded. “Yes, that seems reasonable,” she conceded.

 

“…I’m making you take a week off.”

She looked at Tabitha’s face.

 

“Three days.”

“Hon. Alice. Sunshine. No. If I take more than one day off this place will collapse in on itself like a kinder egg with a black hole as its special prize.”

 

“I can take over for a day or two! I can do paperwork.”

“Alice do you remember that time that you tried to expense thirty six hundred dollars’ worth of candles?”

 

“…We needed candles. I’m wild about candles. And thirty six hundred dollars isn’t a lot, is it?”

“Listen, hon, I could go on about how many times you’ve forgotten what a gross is, but the point is that we are still understaffed and I am not nonessential staff. I haven’t been for a decade. I… I promise that once things die down a little, I’ll try to take a vacation.”

 

“One day?” Alice pleaded.

 

Tabitha looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well. Nat is having eir implant reinstalled tomorrow, and is recovering well. Adam Nova… left reasonably quickly after his impromptu visit. Estelle will be discharged as quickly as possible, and you’re taking responsibility for that mess and I won’t have to clean up for a few days. Um, yes. Yes, I think I can take a day off the day after tomorrow.” She didn’t sound sure.

 

“It’s an order. As a Legion-General, you HAVE to take the day after tomorrow off.” Alice folds her arms. “Go to a spa. Get some sleep.”

“Sleep,” Tabitha said wistfully. “Yes, all right. Okay. Actually, maybe I could actually get a little sleep now. After all, talking to you was the last thing I had t—”

 

Her wristwatch buzzed. Tab blinked and looked at it. “I thought I asked…” She tapped just behind her ear, activating her own comm implant.

 

“Ray? Is everything—no, I—I’m sorry Ray I’m very tired, could you say who it is again? No. No say again, it—” she laughed, an exhausted edge to the sound. “—it sounds like you’re saying ‘Helen Havelock’. That. What?”

 

Tab looked faint. “Oh. She… yes, no. Okay. I’ll be right there?”

 

“Helen Havelock’s very nice,” Alice says with a smile, and you realize it’s the first time that she seems more capable than you in a situation. “Have fun. You’ll like her, I think!”

“Why did she have to show up now?” Tab whined, but ran both hands down her dress to smooth it out and took a deep breath. “Yes. This is Fine. Okay. Alice, please let me know what the results of your meetings with the others are. Oh, and go say hello to Nat before ey gets discharged, please; ey really does like you in spite of the baiting.”

 

“Of course, I always listen to you, don’t I?” Alice teases. “Go, go, go meet her. She’s just a person. And remember – day after tomorrow! Take off!”

“Yes good sure right okay, ugh she’s never going to let me forget this moment,” Tab mutters to herself as she clicks away on her sensible mid heels.

Recovery: A Legend of the Legion

THE FLYING FORTRESS

ADMINISTRATION OFFICE

 

Excalibur had aged.

 

Tabitha hadn’t seen the woman since the Battle of the Big Apple. Which was fair. After being forcibly depowered and nearly murdered, it was understandable that she might… go away for a while. But Helen Havelock had been eternally young as the face, the founder of the Infinity Legion for so long that it was a shock to see that familiar face, but lined, and with a shock of white hair above it.

 

Speaking to Estelle Prestwich had been daunting, yes, and coming face to face with Adam Nova was an experience that could throw anyone off-guard. In both cases, Tabitha Armitage had been the picture of poise, standing up for herself, asserting her needs and the needs of the Legion, setting boundaries and keeping her cool. She had not slept in three days, but through copious under-eye makeup and titanium discipline, she had somehow made it through with a rigid spine and a feeling that she had handled herself admirably.

 

Now, however, she was face-to-face with the hero of heroes, Helen Havelock. Helen Havelock, the founder of the Legion, a brilliant tactical mind, a paragon of the principles by which Tabitha led her life.

 

Tabitha had maintained her strength until now, but in this moment, her vision nearly swam with nervous energy and a deep-seated hero worship. She was relatively certain that this woman could ask her for eternal servitude and receive it.

 

But she wouldn’t do that. Would she?

 

Helen Havelock extended a hand. “Helen,” she introduces herself. “Nice to meet you. Tabitha, right? I hear you do good work, Alice has always spoken very highly of you.”

Tab took her hand and shook it, smiling. “That was kind of her. I do my best, thank you, and it’s a remarkable honor to finally meet you in person.”

 

Helen’s smile becomes slightly strained. “I… am not that impressive. I’ve spent most of the last couple of decades scrapbooking and hiking. I’m sure your service has been more impressive than mine. Please, just treat me as any other recruit.”

“I’ll try,” Tabitha smiled. “To that end, may I ask… why now? Why us? I’d love to hear about where you see yourself in the contemporary Legion, and what it will mean to you as well as what you would bring to us.”

 

Helen hesitates. “Retirement is getting old,” she says. “And… well, Estelle Prestwich gave me a call. I couldn’t say no to an old friend. I’m not capable of too much these days, but I can help with filing and I’m great on the phone.”

“Well, in that vein, actually,” Tab’s face brightened a little, “Alice has been putting a great deal of effort into recruitment. We’re seeing a spike in Emergences, and our Earthside staff could stand to be bolstered. Much as I appreciate that you wish to be treated as any other recruit, you… are a globally-prominent figure for a reason, Mrs. Havelock.”

 

There was that slightly strained smile again for just a moment. “Understandable. If I can be a resource, I will be. Perhaps some PSAs? A couple of ads? I’m not too spry these days, so I can’t do too much for the cameras.”

“I have no need to press you into anything like that now, though. Frankly, your assistance in administrative management and HR would be absolutely invaluable. I’m effectively running four different departments by myself, and I have limited staff. I’d be eager to reactivate you even if you were only willing to work admin.”

 

“Throw anything you have with me. I like to think I’ve stayed up to date on certain skills. Is the Legion still using McGowan’s administrative software?”

“Well, yes, but two years ago we upgraded to the latest firmware and OS, and the transition has been a bit rocky. The Sthenographer is a superb sysadmin but she does not excel at assisting confused users.”

“I’ve raised twelve foster children and volunteered for years. I’d be happy to take over that role if it’s needed.”

“At the very least, let’s get you onto the admin team and acclimated to the system. We can work from there, I imagine. I’m thrilled to have you on board, Helen.”

 

“Absolutely.” she smiles, and glances at Tabitha. “Estelle thought we wouldn’t get along. Interesting, that.”

Tab’s smile immediately grows stale. “Estelle has, sad to say, lost a few coin flips over the past few days.”

 

“The Vision, hm?” Helen glances away. “The thing about gambles is that everyone likes you when you’re winning. When you lose, and lose, and refuse to walk away from the table… Estelle and I have had… issues over the years. Starting with Nova, but we never really… clicked. I consider her a friend, and I’d hope you respect her experience, at least, but…” She makes eye contact again. “I hope you don’t allow her decisions to reflect back on me, is what I’m trying to get at here.”

“Not at all,” Tabitha shook her head. “Even if your history of good works didn’t speak for itself, your flexibility and willingness to adapt would do so in its place. I’m thrilled to have you back on the team. You’re welcome to start whenever you’re ready, though I’m ill-equipped to give you the grand tour right now. One of my agents was… very badly hurt recently, and things have been hectic in the wake of that.”

 

“I’ve heard rumours of that. Is Scanner still -”

“Yes.” say the walls.


“Ah, excellent. I’m ready to get to work, then.”

“Fantastic,” Tabitha managed to maintain her smile, stood, and shook Helen Havelock’s weathered hand one more time. “I’ll walk you to admin, and my assistant Pris will help you get set up in the system, and reintroduce you to the archives. Thank you so much, Mrs. Havelock.”

 

“Let’s get started, then. Only so much time in the day with which we can save the world.”

 

Where There’s Smoke: Smoke and Mirrorballs

Smoke & Mirrorballs

 

THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

Someone had taken the Damselfly.

 

The whole point of the Damselfly, of Nat in the Legion, was to be bait. The problem was that a Legionnaire had given into the lure.


“This shouldn’t be…” Alice said, white in the face. “We screen people. We only recruit heroes. Villains go for Nat.”

Smokescreen, the Legionnaire who had taken Nat, was leaving a trail. She was tweeting as the Damselfly.

 

“It’s not that simple, Alice.” Tabitha said, trying to be reassuring.

Continue reading “Where There’s Smoke: Smoke and Mirrorballs”

Where There’s Smoke: Second Album Syndrome

SECOND ALBUM SYNDROME


Chad listened to the challenge from the loud speakers, took a breath and made to set Fi down. “Okay. I’m gonna…”  

 

Good enough for Fi. She stormed right inside.  

Continue reading “Where There’s Smoke: Second Album Syndrome”

Where There’s Smoke: The Hangover

A pool of flames and boiling blood erupted outside, and a tall figure in plate mail arose from it. He was carrying two figures – one over his shoulder, and another under his arm. He handed the smaller figure over to Gretchen, and then began to walk away with the unconscious Smokescreen.

 

“Drop the rogue agent!” Someone shouted. A poised woman in a flak vest, brown hair done up in a neat bun, ran onto the scene. She raised a stun pistol and fired it several times, but the bolts just bounced off the figure’s armor.

 

Callister ignored the bolts, not even deigning to smile at Tabitha Armitage. His bloody pool bubbled at his feet, and with each step, he disappeared. The bolts ting!ed off his armour, hitting the pavement. And then, he was gone.

 

Sawbones was there, with a kit at the ready. She went to Nat instantly, ignoring everything else.

 

The combat-suited woman holstered her stun pistol, cursing under her breath. She ran to where Sawbones was already attending to Nat. She looked like she was about to say something, but hesitated, nodded, and left her alone. She turned and strode toward Alice and the medic vainly trying to calm her down.

 

“Alice. Please.” Gretchen mumbled, settling Nat onto the ground so Sawbones can do her thing, and returning her attention to the panicky Paladin. “I do not think se-” She trails off, noticing her new company.

 

“It’s ANATHEMA, SHE IS BACK GIVE ME THE PHONE I NEED IT ARE YOU LEGION I AM A LEGION GENERAL GIVE ME THE PHONE -”

 

Alice Elizabeth McGowan,” Tabitha barked sharply, and Alice froze stock-still.

 

“T-T-T-T-T-T-Tabitha!” Alice said, hands frozen in panicked grabby motions around Gretchen, her face transfixed in a mixture of horror and an awkward grin as if it was possible to play this off.

She paused for a moment, thinking about her next line.


“Tabitha!” She repeated, this time less high pitched.

 

“I’ll… take her from here, Gretchen, thanks,” Tabitha shifted the infrequently-worn stun pistol’s holster further to the side and crouched down beside Alice. “Okay first thing, hon, let’s do a hug. Okay?”

 

The sound of music could be heard emanating from the club. Instead of dance music, it was the Sound of Music’s So Long, Farewell. Soapy bubbles carried the club staff, the Damselfly, and eir heroes to the club entrance with the rest of the Legion.

 

Nat stirred, groaning and coughing.

 

Fi ran in her bubble like it was a hamster ball before realizing that she could pop it, then kneeled next to Nat. “Nat?” she asked, cautiously.

 

Ey seemed to react to that.

 

“Nat? Yes?” Fi tried again.

 

With eyes closed, Nat reached out to touch Fiona’s face. “Fi. Fi. Fiona. Fiona, Fiona, Fiona.”

 

“Shh. Shh,” Fiona says, taking Nat’s hand. “Hey. Hey, I’m here, alright? Not going anywhere. And-” she looked around. “There’s like sixteen people here. You’re safe,” she said, trying to sound soothing.

 

Nat gripped Fi’s hand and practically tried to climb her arm, drawing her close. “The… she said, she—I thought I’d never see you again…”

 

The Legion gathered around, arguments and frustration forgotten. Nat was one of theirs, one of their family, and ey was safe.

 

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: Forgiven Angel

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

CHICAGO

 

Normally, Alice McGowan entering a coffee house and ordering a hot chocolate before sitting in the corner would draw attention. But this scruffy teenager with an undercut couldn’t possibly be Oathkeeper, and so, for once, she lacked an audience. Which was good, considering who was about to show up.

 

Tabitha Armitage had no idea how to dress casually any more, and it was evident when she walked through the coffee shop door. Not that she didn’t look amazing; she’d let her hair down, deep brown waves cascading down her back, over the forest-green cardigan she wore over a white blouse and brown pencil skirt.

 

She looked over and saw Alice, and a wave of mixed emotion swept over her face. Finally, she offered a small smile and made an I’ll be right there gesture, moving to place a coffee order.

 

Alice pulled the hood of her MCGOWAN CAMP hoodie down and offered a small smile and shy wave. A waitress came to refill her hot chocolate, and Alice muttered something to her. The waitress nodded, then went back to other customers.


Tabitha arrived at the table moments later, carrying the coffee that Alice had known her to take for decades: just a whisper of sugar and a dash of cream in a City+ roast brew, preferably guatemalan. Even in caffeine, Tabs was particular.

 

She sat down. “How are you holding up?” Her voice was… careful. Uncertain.

 

“I’m seeing Nami once a week right now. She’s… nice.” Alice said, equally cautious. “Can I… she said I should talk to you, and she helped me write up a little… letter?”

Tabitha blinked. Now she really didn’t know what to expect; was she about to get chewed out? “Sure, Alice. Go right ahead.”

 

Alice reached into the hoodie’s pocket and slowly uncrumpled a piece of paper covered in her scribbly handwriting, and then cleared her throat.

 

“Dear Tabitha,” she read, eyes locked to the paper. “Um. I owe you an apology for my actions. When I initially left the Flying Fortress, I did not know that I was suppressed and unable to take proper action. I did not realize the extent of that suppression until I was already in the situation. However, I was given multiple opportunities to walk away from the situation, or remove myself from danger. I have…” She clears her throat again, voice wavering. “Over the years, I have never resolved the trauma inflicted upon me by Anathema. I have been so focused on being Oathkeeper, that I have failed to work on Alice. You did me a great kindness by forcing me to get help, which I can finally admit that I need. Um. I mean, she helped me write that, so some of the… it’s a bit like… formal. But um, I… those are my words. I’m sorry, Tabs.”

Tabitha was still for a few moments, then she put one hand over her mouth as her face crumpled. She hunched, shoulders shaking, trying not to sob out loud. She put one hand on the table, either steadying herself or reaching out. Alice couldn’t quite tell which.

 

Alice reached out hesitantly and then put her hand on Tabitha’s. “I – hope that you can, in time, um, forgive me -”

“Alice,” Tabitha whispered, clasping Alice’s hand in both of hers, “I… grounding you was the hardest thing I had ever done.”

 

Alice’s lower lip trembles but she valiantly swallows and stiffens her jaw. “It… was… necessary, and, um, if… if the Legion should find Anathema before I am restored to duty, I… I… will stand back… as needed.”

“Good,” Tabitha snuffled, and wiped her nose with a napkin she’d brought to the table. “Good. You need… we need you so much more as a person than as a soldier, Alice. The Legion does, I do. Scott does.”

 

The Oathkeeper breaks eye contact, looking very, very young. “Um, Nami says I, um, center a lot of how I like myself around what I do for other people, and not, uh… any inherent qualities…”

Tabitha nodded, placing her free hand on Alice’s again. She seemed to already be recovering from her emotional outburst, becoming a Tabitha that Alice knew, recognized, considered a friend. “Dr. Meda is extremely insightful. I’m so glad that you gave her a chance, Alice. So very glad.”

 

Alice gets a bit stiff, self conscious. “Yes, um, I mean, I – Scott likes her, and she’s always telling me it doesn’t mean I’m crazy…”

“You’re not crazy,” Tabitha shook her head, “you never were. Headstrong, irresponsible, impulsive. I was… in some ways, I still am very angry about putting yourself in danger. But you’re not bad or broken. You’re family, and we love you. We will never stop loving you, Alice.”

 

The paladin nods and her lower lip trembling intensifies. “I love you too, Tabitha, and I’m glad we’re okay.”

Tabitha fixed her eyes on Alice for a few moments, then sighed. “I had a long time to think, while you were unconscious. To think about what it would mean if we lost you. To think about the last twenty-odd years. The way we’ve treated each other, the roles we’ve settled into.”

 

“Yes?” Alice took another long sip of her cooling hot chocolate. For once, she was listening.

 

Tabitha averted her gaze, then lifted her coffee and took a sip of it. Alice always felt like she could see the gears turning in Tab’s head, and right now they were spinning especially fast. When she returned her eyes to Alice’s face, her expression was serene.

 

“Twenty-two years ago, you asked me a question. I never answered it. Would you like me to do so now?”

 

Twenty two years? What was—

 

Denny’s.

 

“I – Yes. I – I – yes. Please.” She remembered it like it was yesterday. Why did you choose Emi?

 

“Because I never learned how not to hedge my bets,” Tabitha replied quietly, “so I did. Again. Always.”

 

“I understand.” Alice looks down, looking both embarrassed and serene. “It worked out, though, didn’t it? I mean, I never stopped… loving you, not really, but we both found happiness. And I love Scott, I do, and… we have good lives.”

“Of course,” Tabitha nodded. “Emi is a wonderful wife. I love her dearly. I need her. I can’t imagine life without her. But I never fell out of love with you, and I never said anything about it. And I never could forget it.”

 

Alice falls silent and her hands tremble, hot chocolate sloshing over the side of the wide mug onto her hands. “Can – I have two minutes to step outside and get some air, p-please?”

“Yes,” Tabitha whispered. “I’m—I’m sorry.”

 

Oathkeeper puts the mug down and strides out of the coffee shop. She produces her phone and Tabitha can see her talking to someone, rubbing the tip of her left shoe into the concrete as they talk. After a few minutes, she comes back in, looking a mixture of flushed and embarrassed and – exhilarated?

“It’s okay.” She said, quietly. “It’s, I mean, I told Scott. I had to tell Scott. He’s my husband. But, um, he said, I mean, like…” She falls silent and stares into the bottom of the mug.

 

“It’s fine, Alice,” Tabitha held up a hand. “I’m not telling you this because I… I expect something from you. But when you were in the hospital, I thought about losing you without ever having said anything, and it—it just—”

 

“No, listen, wait, you don’t understand, I – I’ve wanted you for decades, Tabitha, and I’ve wanted to – to – I mean, I – I thought it would never happen, and I respected that, and I thought you chose Emi, but I talked to… this strange, rude Freelancer, and Nami, and I – I’m not being true to myself if I bury this, am I? I’m the Oathkeeper, and I made a promise that I would be true to myself, and I can’t keep burying these feelings, and -” Alice clasps both hands over her mouth, bright red.

 

Tabitha blinked twice, and turned in her chair, and slowly rose from her seat, eye-to-eye with her old friend. “Alice,” her murmur was so quiet as to be barely audible, even so close. “Are—what are… you…”

 

“Tabitha,” Alice whispered through her hands. “Would you like to… go to…” The blush spread down to her neck, brightening in her forehead and cheeks. “To dinner with me?”

As the implications of what Alice was saying finally hit home, a deep flush started to creep across Tabitha’s face too. “You’re asking me out,” she finally concluded, her voice distinctly more high-pitched than it usually went. “On a date.”

 

“Yes,” Alice squeaked, and then nodded in case that confirmation was only audible to dogs.

 

“Well then,” Tabitha’s head bobbed in a slow, rhythmic nod, “Alice, I think my answer would have to be… yes. I would very much like to go on a date with you.”

 

Alice’s hands dropped, revealing that brilliant grin of hers, and then impulsively, she moved in –

 

—and was met halfway by Tabitha, their lips meeting, arms wrapping around one another, decades of pent-up feelings finally expressed.

 

Just as Alice lifted her hands up, one to pull Tabitha in closer and tangle fingers into her auburn hair, the other to place against her neck, a voice interrupted through Tabitha’s comm.

 

“Hey,” Scanner said. “Armitage. Whatcha doin’?”

 

Tabitha reared back, already fast-talking. “—fully intend to rearrange the chain of command to prevent the possibility of an ethical breach given recent developments!”

 

Scanner’s voice was heavy with humour; you could hear the smile that was splitting her face. “Your new administrative recruit arrived. Thought you should know, but if you’re busy…

“I’ll… be there in a bit,” Tabitha muttered, face bright red, shooting an apologetic look to Alice at close range. “Have them watch the orientation video in the meantime, please.”

 

It took Alice a second to understand; she no longer had a comm talking to her. But then she smiled and shrugged, making a ‘go on’ gesture.

“Estelle assured me she didn’t need to watch the orientation video.” Scanner said, still finding this amusing.

 

“Oh, hell—”

 

“Language,” Alice said, with no bite. Her voice was dreamy and soft.

 

“—fine, but… it’s going to take me at least fifteen minutes to get back to the office. Have… have Nat—shit, that’s not going to work. Have Jess pretend to want to hear one of her stories. I’ll be by.”

 

Alice didn’t even call out the second cuss; she was too busy smiling.

 

“I sent her to the cafetorium to get some lunch. You got an hour. But be more careful, yeah? If one person recognizes Alice and takes out a camera…”

“It’s not like we planned this, you know,” Tabitha muttered, “but yes. I understand, thank you.”

 

“You don’t have to tell me. I – held hands with a boy this month.”

Her eyebrows shot upward. “I—will definitely be asking about that. In the meantime, I’ll… see you soon.”

 

“Goin’ back in?” Alice asked, a bit envious.

 

“Don’t get too jealous,” Tabs rolled her eyes, “I’m going back in to get Estelle settled, and it is not a job I would wish on my worst enemies. Among whom you do not number. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

 

Alice gave a breathless little laugh. “Yeah, I think we’re – um, well, yes. Yes. I’ll let you get going. I need to talk to Scott. Tell everyone I say hi.”

“I will,” Tabitha smiled. “You know, just because we haven’t restored your Core access yet doesn’t mean you’re unwelcome on the middle and outer rings. You still belong on the Fortress, and some of your coworkers are really starting to miss you.”

 

Oathkeeper touched the shaved sides of her head. “I will. …Soon.”

“Still self-conscious? You… look really good, you know. Like this, too.”

 

“Thank you. I… it’s the video, not the hair. It’ll be fine. I’m getting help, after all.”

“I understand. You… you know that therapy won’t fix everything, right? We’re all going to have a lot of work to do, a lot of healing. For our whole lives.”

 

“It’s the first step in a journey. The first step is usually the hardest.”

Tabitha laughed, hugging Alice close. “It’s good that you remember so many of Dr. Meda’s lines verbatim.”

 

She grinned. “I can say insightful stuff! It’s possible!” She kissed Tabitha on the cheek. “I’ll let you go. Tomorrow night, I’ll pick you up at nine. Do you like Italian?”

“Alice Elizabeth McGowan,” Tabitha chided, “you know full well that I love Italian. Tomorrow night at nine.”

 

“Hee. Okay. I’ll… I’ll see you then.” Alice gives a small wave and almost skips out of the coffee shop.

 

Tabitha holds still for a moment, bringing her hand up and softly touching her lips with her fingertips.

 

It really happened.

 

Bonding Agents: Dinner Date

ATLAS STEAKHOUSE


Alice had rented a private booth and slipped in through the back of the restaurant. No paparazzi, no camera shots, no noisy patrons peeking in through the double wooden doors of the private dining space – no problem. She fussed with her dress – a soft rosy pink cocktail dress with gold jewelry. This was what you wore to a date with a new … what should she call Tabitha? Sweat broke out on her brow.

 

Then Tabitha walked through the door, and the thought was immediately lost forever.

 

It wasn’t the first time Alice had seen her friend in formal wear. Tabitha had always known how to rock a tight cocktail dress, and she wasn’t afraid to deploy one strategically when a situation demanded it. Alice knew that Tabitha still went to the gym regularly, ate well, kept fit for a middle-aged woman. She’d seen those breasts and hips fill out dozens of outfits. She’d seen those sapphire earrings, that black choker, that decorative hairstick.

 

But there was something very, very different about seeing all of those things, and knowing that they were being worn for her.

 

Tabitha looked like this for her. For Alice.

 

Alice’s mouth fell open and stayed there as Tabitha slid into her seat. She had been at dozens of cocktail parties, stealing wistful glances at her with as much subtlety as Alice could manage. This was something completely different.

 

“Hi,” she managed after a long, long pause.


“Hi.” Tabitha’s smile was small, but there were volumes in it: amusement, exhilaration, gratification… and what Alice could now recognize as desire. “Thanks for bringing me out.”

 

“Yeah.” Alice said, still lost for words. She cleared her throat and tried to regain some composure. “You, uh, look nice.”

“You always look nice,” Tabitha smiled wistfully. “Even as the rest of us start to go the way of candle wax, you’re as flawless as ever.”

 

“It’s not as easy as you might think.” Alice gave a crooked grin, finally relaxing a little. “You know I still get carded constantly? I still break out sometimes. No one takes me seriously.”

“Lots of people take you seriously,” Tabitha replied, “but I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that it’s all keggers and compliments. There’s always been a lot on your shoulders, just as much as mine. I mostly meant… I always thought you were more beautiful than me, and it only feels more true now.”

 

“Oh gosh.” Alice whispered. “I mean, um, thank you. I … that’s very kind of you to say.”

A waiter entered the room, head bowed and quiet, and poured them wine and offered them menus. Alice hardly looked at hers; instead, she gazed dreamily over it at Tabitha.

 

“Do you already know what you’re going to order, hon?” Tabitha teased with a smirk. She’d opened her menu already, and was scanning the entrees. It was fancy even by her standards.

 

“Oh, uh, filet mignon, medium rare. I uh, googled the menu before I got here. And how to pronounce everything. I just, y’know… this doesn’t feel real. I keep expecting to wake up.”

“I… know how you feel, I think,” Tabitha set down her menu, meeting Alice’s eyes, “every time I thought about this kind of thing, it was some alternate timeline I thought we’d lost access to decades ago.”

 

“I don’t think it would have worked out back then. I was so young. I was figuring out what it meant to be the Oathkeeper, figuring out what God wanted from me… I think it’s a blessing that we waited this long. And you might want to send Scott a thank you card.”

Tabitha leaned back a bit in her chair, wearing a self-assured smile. “Do you remember that mail-order steak service he liked so much? The one that closed, and he was so distraught over the closure that he cried real tears about it?”

 

Alice burst out laughing. “He was heartbroken. And he tried to start his own, remember? But he didn’t know any of it, so he sold it off – and then the person he sold it to closed that one as well.”

Lacing her fingers together, Tabitha leaned forward and smirked conspiratorially. Oh gosh, that neckline was. Um. Didn’t leave much—to—uh— “I’ve been getting one off the ground for months, to surprise him. Good people running it. Subsidiary of a company I’ve already seen succeed. It went live last week.

 

“Oh, um, wow, that’s…” Her eyes dropped. She was looking.


Staring.

 

Pull it together, Alice.

 

“I, uh, that’s, well, y’know, he’ll love that. A lot. He’ll be so happy.”

There was a short silence. “Do you like my dress, Alice?” Tabitha asked. Her voice was low and soft and inviting, much like the view.

 

“Y-Yes.” Alice said, managing to make eye contact with an incredible effort.

 

“I don’t mind you looking,” she straightened her back again. “But here’s our waiter.”

 

“What may we get you?” The server asked politely.

 

“F-FILET MIGNON, MEDIUM RARE, WITH POTATO ON THE SIDE THANK YOU.” Alice wasn’t shouting per se, but it all rushed out in a strangled sort of whisper.

 

“I’ll have the Canard a l’Orange,” Tabitha said with a smile, “and the salad.”

 

The waiter left, and Tabitha looked like she was stifling a giggle.

 

“I’m not good at this!” Alice said, awkward and embarrassed. “I – I never dated, I’ve never, um, been… with… a – a lady. You know how me and Scott just kind of… fell in together, right?”

Tabitha laughed. “I remember, yes.”

 

“So, I mean, it’s not like I have – you know, experience with…” She gestured widely and vaguely. “This?”

Tabitha placed one hand on the table. Her nails were glossy, painted to match her deep blue dress. “It’s just me, Alice.”

 

“You’ve always just kind of, um, been this… not perfect, but… you’ve always felt kind of…” She gestured again. “Out of reach. You know things, like how to vacuum and file tax forms. I feel like kind of a dummy, or a kid, in comparison.”

“But… Scott knows how to do all those things too, hon. We’re all the same group of friends.”

 

Alice smiles again, bashful. “You’re right. You’re a good friend. My best friend. I mean, smooching doesn’t change that.”

“It doesn’t. We’re still best friends. And I’m still just your Tabs. And you’re doing fine.”

 

“Hee.” She flushed, and glanced at the menu. “It says it takes about twenty five minutes to  cook the meals to perfection, huh?”

“Mm-hmm,” Tabitha nodded, “they pride themselves on discretion and quality. Speed is not part of the package.”

 

“So…” Alice in one, swift movement that demonstrated her incredible strength, picked the table up and moved it aside, closing the difference between her and Tabitha. “We have time to – kiss?”

“Yes we do,” Tab purred, standing up, “and I let the staff know to leave a signal when the food’s ready. We will not be disturbed.”

 

“Oh my God -” Alice said, grinning. “You planned it too?!”

“Alice, love,” Tabitha smiled and took Alice’s face in her hands, “I plan everything.

 

Alice snaked an arm around her handler’s waist, leaned in to kiss her. Even without her gauntlets and warhammer, she was incredibly strong, even though she looked like a slender girl. Able to maneuver Tabitha, tuck her in closer for kissing –

 

Then Tabitha did something she’d never done, something that Scott had never done, not like this, not in the way that Tabs did, that poise and posture tilting and moving and—

 

She gave her weight entirely to the Oathkeeper. Leaning back, moving until she slid a bit and Alice put her other hand lower on her back, to steady her, and Tabitha just let her feet leave the ground, resting entirely in Alice’s hands, her knees bending and lifting and pressing against Alice’s back, hands coming up and taking her face, lips closing in and a deep kiss, an upward-tilted relaxed surrender that said in this moment, I am all yours and I trust you to have me.

 

She hesitated, just slightly; you get the feeling that she’s never been given this level of total control before, but she continues to be firm, gentle, balancing Tabitha easily, her hands beginning to roam –

 

There’s a rap on the door.

 

Tabitha paused, pulled her head back slightly. “That is not… the signal I asked for.”

 

Alice blinked, dazed. “What? Signal?” You have the feeling a horde of rhinos could come through and she’d hardly notice it.

 

“Um,” Tabitha struggled for a moment with the desire to ignore the interruption, but ultimately decided that there’d be more time later. “A knock, hon. On the door.”

 

It sounds again, polite but insistent.

 

“Let me get it.” Alice gently lifted Tabitha, put her back on her feet, and moved the table back.

 

Tabitha smoothed down her dress and adjusted her jewelry, patting her hair briefly to make sure that she didn’t look too mussed. She didn’t, of course. She watched as Alice answered the door…

 

“Ah, Mrs. McGowan, ma’am.” It’s the manager of the restaurant. “Ah, Mr. Cheney just took a table, and he – said he noticed Ms. Armitage’s car in the parking lot. He wanted to cover your meals, and pass on this bottle of wine.”

Tabitha Armitage’s expression did not change, but it did freeze in place. She lowered herself gradually into the chair, placing one palm on the table.

 

“Tell him thank you, but we’re not interested in the wine or the bill. Thank you, though.” Alice said, tone cool.


The manager nodded. “Of course. My apologies, ladies.”

Alice sat, looking… annoyed.

 

Tabitha clasped her hands on the table, looking down at the centerpiece. “Alice…” she began, like she was about to break the news of a dead pet. “I think that it might be best if… if we went public.”

 

“You mean sit outside? That’s fine, they have a nice fireplace.”

“No, hon, I mean go public about us.”

 

Alice choked on her wine, spluttering and coughing for a moment before gasping: “Why?”

 

“Cheney sent us wine,” Tabitha tapped a spot on the table, then kept moving her hand and tapping in sequence, leading to the edge of the table, “and offered to cover our meals. Plural. He’s figured it out. Nat figured it out. I think that even that Freelancer, Rooster, has it figured out. People are starting to talk, hon. I… I love you, and part of what I love about you is that you are too honest and straightforward to keep a secret like this.”

 

The Oathkeeper is white in the face. “So he knows, people know, okay, that’s one thing, but why make it a big public thing?”

“Because if we let someone else break this story, their version is the official one, and we’re left running defense. Cheney sent us that wine as a message, Alice. He knows, and he’s willing to use the threat of outing us as leverage.”

 

“…You think he’d tell people I was cheating on Scott.” Alice says, the realization dawning on her face. “Or that I’m a lesbian, or…”

“Or literally whatever he wanted to say.”

 

“I have kids, he can come after me, but he has to know that my kids would be in the firing line if he did that, that has to be sacred to him -”

“Alice!” Tabitha reached out and took one of Alice’s hands with both of hers. “I love your optimism, I love your ability to believe the best of everyone, I love that you can’t imagine that the man who hurt me, who betrayed us would stoop this low, but you need to understand that if you gamble on your ideals here, you do so with exactly the stakes you just mentioned. Do you understand?”

 

“…Shit.” Alice said, very quietly.

 

And then she paused, and flexed her hand nervously inside Tabitha’s.

 

“How long do you think we have?”

“A few days, at least. I’d want to have a plan within a week, preferably sooner.” She slumped. “Alice, I’m—I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. I’m sorry. Maybe we can pin this all on me, somehow; maybe you could just—”

 

“No.” She sets her jaw stubbornly. “I love you, Tabitha, and I’m the Oathkeeper. I’m not throwing you under the bus for my choices. God never said anything against… what we have. I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid. We’re going to enjoy our dinner, and then we’re… going to… prepare for a press conference.”

Tabitha let out a sigh, then sat still for a moment, then slowly uncurled, regaining her posture. “I’ve already… drafted a few approaches for the possibility that this would happen. We can discuss them tomorrow.”

 

“Okay. Good. Um. I mean, okay, Scott took the kids to his parents’, and, um, the house is empty, and… in for a penny, in for a pound?” She smiled shyly.

 

For the first time all evening, Tabitha Armitage was caught well and truly off-guard.