BOULDER, COLORADO: ‘Fairy Glen’ Queer Nightclub
“This club is terrible,” Dave complained, sneering at the surroundings, “and it smells bad.”
“That’s you,” Chris wrinkled his nose, “you smell bad. You should have taken a shower.”
BOULDER, COLORADO: ‘Fairy Glen’ Queer Nightclub
“This club is terrible,” Dave complained, sneering at the surroundings, “and it smells bad.”
“That’s you,” Chris wrinkled his nose, “you smell bad. You should have taken a shower.”
BOULDER, COLORADO: An Unmarked Van in a Filthy Alley
THE FLYING FORTRESS
SOMEWHERE ABOVE ICELAND
The Flying Fortress is a marvel of modern tech. It’s the sort of thing that Legionnaires bring up in every debate against a Freelancer, and that Freelancers have no real answer to. It shouldn’t be in the air, somewhere above Iceland – but it is. The thing is made up of steel and magic and no one really knows what else, and it houses the bulk of the Legion’s forces and administrative staff, and a good deal of tech and vehicles and workshops and a couple of secrets that still haven’t been wrestled out of McGowan or Müller.
The outer rims of the Fortress are all decorated for civilian eyes – mahogany floors, small monuments and statues and portraits of Heroes past, present, and future, plush carpets. The farther in you get, the more barebones it becomes.
Until you reach the Core.
THE FLYING FORTRESS
The Flying Fortress’s lower levels were carefully maintained by nanotechnology and robots more than humans. It was quiet down here, the air so still that every step that Nat took towards Emi Surikabe’s office seemed nearly deafening, or so Nat imagined they would if ey walked on the ground. Perhaps in the Legion’s prime, these parts of the Fortress would be bustling. Still, though, Nat knew that ey was never alone—Scanner’s eyes were everywhere, watching everything.
BLUE NOTE CAFE
Nat frowned, tugging at the sequined fabric wrapped tightly over eir hips.
“I am not a fan of this costume,” ey subvocalized, smoothing the pencil dress over eir body. “How do you landbounds even walk in stuff like this?”
“Landbounds? You have nicknames for us now?” Emi’s voice vibrated up Nat’s jawbone, providing an externally silent means of communication thanks to the Damselfly’s new comm implant. “Are you an Aerial Supremacist now?”
“I dunno, maybe,” Nat smirked at no one, “your people have such impractical ritual garb.”
“Okay Nat, focus for two seconds. The guy we’re hunting is almost certainly in the audience tonight, and he has connections with the Chicago mob. We don’t know what he looks like, so keep an eye out for anyone with muscle. He likes to rough up sex workers, so your talent should hook him.”
“I gotcha,” Nat slipped a blonde wig over eir head and checked eir makeup and costume in the mirror. “Mm-mm. I would take that home.”
“Feel free to disable your comm before making more comments like that.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Our next act is a brand new debutante from points unknown! Give a warm Naperville welcome to… Audra Natta!” The emcee’s announcement was met with moderate applause.
Pressing eir feet to the floor, Nat faked a convincing walk onto the stage, hips swaying. Eir petite size was offset by the four-inch stilletos ey wore, but ey still had to lower the mic stand to sing directly into it.
“How is everyone out there tonight,” Nat purred, and the audience applauded a bit louder. Nat started singing in a dusty alto to the pre-recorded track playing over the club speakers.
“Offer me diamonds; offer me pearls
make me a princess or queen of the world
I still won’t be happy, though it’s not a bad start
But all I really want is your heart.”
Nat looked over the crowd, person by person. If ey had been looking for stereotypical gangsters, ey would have found none: most of the crowd dressed casually or in suits with a modern cut, and not a single fedora could be seen in the audience.
“Buy me a big house of the greatest size
buy me the coolest car McGowan can devise
Yes, heap treasures on me, but if you’re really smart
You’ll give up and give me your heart.”
Worse, a large portion of the club was comprised of the kind of people who appear to be taking a brief break before returning to bouncer duty. No help there, necessarily.
“You could give me your hand but the meat’s too lean
you could give me a dirty look but my plate’s still clean
I need somewhere to sink my teeth, babe, but not down south
There’s just one organ that I want to put in my mouth”
The audience seemed to be growing more appreciative of Nat’s performance, laughing and whooping at the morbid parody of sexuality. A few audience members looked different: glassy eyes fixed on the stage, a lack of awareness for anything but Nat. One of these, the hypnotized and helpless, was eir quarry.
“Wanna wrap my hand round it, and feel it thud
wanna bite and lick til my chin’s dripping with blood
try to enjoy it, dear, before you depart
just watch me devouring your heart.”
As a musical break took over, Nat left the mic, walking out a hip-swaying rhythm and doing some simple, slinky choreography. Eir eyes stayed on the crowd, though, passing over the faces of each potential predator.
Moments before Nat had to sing again, the answer came. A desperate-looking man snaked through the crowd, beelining toward one of the glassy-eyed men in an aloha shirt and thick glasses. Feet away, a hulking patron with a similarly colorful shirt stood, placing a hand on the intruder’s chest. The desperate man argued with the goon for several moments, gesticulating toward his intended target, until the muscle got sick of the conversation and hauled him out of the club.
The bespectacled man hadn’t even noticed. His eyes stayed fixed on Nat. Bingo. The Damselfly grinned triumphantly, gripped the mic, and started crooning again.
Eir act over but still in the long cocktail dress, Nat walked a slow, weaving line through the club. Ey could feel eyes on em, but ey shrugged it all off. If the Legion’s quarry was who they thought he was, he’d make sure that he got to talk to the mysterious singer first.
Nat leaned against the bar and offered the bartender a directionless smoulder. “Yeah, can I get a cosmopolitan?” Ey was willing to do this noir theme, but drew the line at ordering whiskey neat.
“All you had to do was ask me,” a voice next to Nat said. Ey turned and found the aloha-shirted man sitting on the next stool over. The man’s goons had arranged themselves in a loose half-circle around them so they didn’t appear to be part of a group, but they were all within neck-wringing distance.
“Well, now,” Nat forced a grin, deliberately looking the man up and down, “I didn’t know this kind of cosmo was on the menu.”
“Only for the very lucky. Miss Natta, was it?” The man asked. “My name is Robert Bosko. I had to come by and talk to you after seeing your performance. You are a pleasure to watch onstage.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Bosko,” Nat held out a delicate, gloved hand, which Bosko took and kissed. “I’m happy that you enjoyed my song.”
“There is something inimitable about your stage presence, Audra—may I call you Audra?” Bosko paused to let Nat nod, then continued, “your singing is all right. I am not going to lie. Your singing could improve. But your movements, your stage presence—inimitable.”
Nat raised eir eyebrows. “Are you negging me, Mr. Bosko?”
“Please,” the man’s face darkened, and Nat saw the hint of something dangerous behind his eyes for only a moment. “Do not compare me to pick up artist trash. I am merely straightforward. See: I find you fascinating and attractive. I wish to speak with you privately over a glass of fine bourbon. There. No criticisms, only interest. What do you say?”
Nat grinned. “You have my attention, Mr. Bosko.”
“Please. Call me Robert.”
Pressed against the plush seat of a luxury car, Nat painted Robert Bosko with seductive glances. Ey had to admit, there was a certain allure to the man. He was confident, straightforward, and had a situational awareness about him that was easy to find attractive. His, er, “dad bod” looks wouldn’t have been for everyone, but Nat rarely discriminated on that basis. If ey didn’t know more about him, Nat might even have been interested.
But Nat did know more, and Nat was not interested. His arm around eir shoulders made eir skin crawl, and ey couldn’t wait to watch a Legion task squad herd this jerk into a custody craft. Thank goodness they were almost—
The gentle chime of Nat’s comm implant danced up eir jaw, followed by Emi’s strained voice. “We’ve got a problem, bug.”
“What’s going on?” Nat formed the words inside eir mouth. It felt weird to try to talk without vocalizing or even using eir lips, but ey’d practiced it enough that Emi should be able to understand. “I’m almost to his place.”
“There’s a Freelancer chasing a bounty in the Arboretum. Your route is gonna take you right alongside it.”
“Okay, so what?”
Nat was unable to stifle a sharp inhalation through eir nose.
“I hope you’re not having second thoughts, Audra,” Bosko’s smile sent chills down Nat’s spine.
“Just allergies,” ey replied, rubbing eir nose coyly before averting eir eyes and taking a few deep breaths.
The Freelancer known as ‘Collateral’ had not chosen that name. It was rumored that she was created as a failed experiment to make a hybrid between a human and one of the technosome machine beings, but neither she nor the Freelancers were inclined to talk about her history. Known for her violent temper, weapon-generating body, and determination to complete any contract no matter the cost, Collateral had earned her name when she wiped the entire town of Galesburg off the map during a bounty chase.
The Freelancers only called her when something big was going down, and usually evacuated the area first. Come to think of it, there didn’t seem to be many cars on the road.
“Can we listen to the radio?” Nat asked, trying to keep eir voice from shaking.
“Nothing but crap on the radio,” Bosko shook his head, “damn shame. There used to be a good big band station, but it got replaced with electronic junk.”
“I just thought it might be nice to—”
“Fine. Giorgio, put on a CD.”
Nat clamped eir mouth shut. Ey didn’t want to press eir luck with her mark’s already-dwindling patience, but…
“The fight is heading South, Nat, they’re going to end up on the freeway you’re exiting onto right now.”
“I don’t know what to do!”
“Abort the mission. Focus on your safety.”
“Do not die, bug! You are more valuable than—”
“What in the hell?” The driver exclaimed, squinting at something beyond Nat’s vision.
“Giorgio, would you please shut your—” Bosko’s voice faltered as he saw the massive wave of pavement approaching the car. “Oh shit!”
When the dust-choked air cleared enough to see, it seemed ridiculous that they had somehow survived. The asphalt was reduced to rubble, and a few other cars were smashed flat, overturned, or in trees nearby. The car that the three had been riding in was the only one that looked like it had been picked up and gently set down rather than thrown violently. It bore dents and damage and no longer had windows, but it was miraculously still running.
Robert Bosko looked around, then frowned at the lounge singer in the next seat over, whose hands were braced against the car’s roof as though she were holding it up.
“It’s all right, babe, we’re safe,” he said, and turned to his driver. “What in the hell was that? A bomb?”
“B-b-boss….” Georgio stammered, pointing up through the broken glass.
Above, a lean humanoid figure descended through the air in a slow arc to land on the pavement. It was dressed in a jumpsuit colored platinum and pale gold, with an androgynous figure and a face completely covered with a matte silver oval mask. The figure was familiar; Nat had seen it on television news stories about a master tactician who could track any variable and loved nothing more than a high kill count.
“Oh no,” Nat subvocalised. “It’s Scoremaster.”
“Get out of there, Nat!”
Moments later, a metal monstrosity slammed into the road in front of the figure. The thing was vaguely bipedal, made of various metals and indistinguishable parts. It was not at all clear how it moved, but each move produced a cacophony of horrid squealing.
“Curious,” Scoremaster’s voice had a slightly distant quality, as if it were coming from a loudspeaker nearby. “You had the chance to defeat me before, had you struck without announcing yourself. I was unaware of your involvement. You have squandered that opportunity, and every diminishing one since.”
A great roar came from the metal hulk that contained—was—Collateral, and Nat briefly saw a woman’s heavily-scarred face inside, contorted with rage. Deafening reports filled the air as she fired a massive fusillade of bullets at ScoreMaster. He turned gently in the air, dodging them all unharmed.
“See?” Scoremaster lighted on the ground, not far from the unharmed car. “No unseen variables exist. What I know, I can predict. You have no means left to harm me.”
“All right, all right,” a confident voice drawled. Nat’s head snapped to the side and she saw Robert Bosko, hands held up in a peaceful gesture, cautiously approaching the two paranormals. “Let’s talk this out.”
“Robert, no!” Nat scrambled out of the car, remembering just in time to put eir high-heeled feet on the ground and pretend to walk.
“Just stay back, babe,” Robert gave her a smirk. “I got this.”
“Nat, what in the world are you doing?” Emi demanded.
“Being a variable,” Nat replied silently.
Scoremaster turned. “Begone, if you value your life.”
“Now hang on,” Robert held up a hand. “Listen. I happen to be fairly important, all right? I’m the main supply contact for the Family in Chicago. I bring in a lot of value, yeah? Weapons, drugs, money, manpower. Your little playtime is a little disruptive to my business, and maybe I could make it worth your time to move on. Yes?”
“Did you get all that?” Nat subvocalized.
“Wow. Um. Yes. I’m gonna send in the squad, please get out of there.”
“One more thing,” ey said, walking with careful stops toward the mobster.
Scoremaster turned to face Robert, looming over him. Collateral seemed to confused to do more than stare.
“You do not understand my priorities, human,” the Villain said. “You consider yourself important. To me, you are a single point to add to my score, barely worth the miniscule effort it will take to snuff you. You are so unimportant that I need not even consider you as a minor threat variable.”
With no warning and no sound, Nat struck. Ey wrapped an arm around Scoremaster’s neck, then swept one leg out from under him. Though unbalanced, Scoremaster immediately reacted, gripping Nat’s arm and preparing to overwhelm the presumed human with crushing strength.
He did not have the opportunity. Nat yanked both of them into the air and tumbled into a headlocked somersault, rotating in air at a rapidly climbing pace. In only seconds, Nat was spinning the Scoremaster in midair too fast for either one to be visible as anything more than a blur.
For a few seconds, the Scoremaster struggled against Nat, adapting to the new and dangerous variable thrown his way, but the overwhelming motion eventually overcame him, and he went slack in the Damselfly’s arms.
Nat responded by wheeling about one last time, shifting eir weight, and driving Scoremaster mask-first into the broken pavement. Ey floated a few inches off the ground, breathing hard, eir wig gone and sequined dress ripped up to the hip.
Collateral and Bosko both stared. The gangster finally blurted, “who are you?”
Nat shrugged sheepishly. “Nobody important?”
THE FLYING FORTRESS: EMI’S OFFICE
THE FOLLOWING DAY
Nat had a large bruise on the side of eir face and was holding a bag of frozen peas to it, but eir grin was genuine and unsullied. Ey pressed down into the chair across from Emi’s desk, straight-backed and attentive.
“You risked a lot there.” Emi’s brow was creased with worry, and she seemed to have aged a few years since Nat saw her last. “On one hand, as an agent, you were spectacular. On the other hand…”
“I just… I had this feeling, you know?” Nat’s voice was excited. Ey’d slept for twelve hours after coming back from the assignment, and was evidently just now receiving the payload of adrenaline and endorphins. “It was an opportunity, and either I had to let everything go, and probably let Bosko and a whole bunch of civilians die, or bring him in and prevent further damage from the fight! I wasn’t trying to worry you, I just… couldn’t stand the idea of just letting it all play out.”
“No, no, objectively, you’re right. It was the right thing to do. You made a choice under pressure and you executed it perfectly. I am proud of you, bug. And it seems like you’re suited to this line of work. It’s just…” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I would really be quite sad, were you to end up a smear on the pavement.”
“I’d be kind of cranky about it myself,” Nat shrugged, “since I’m supposed to take that cute card witch from the restaurant for an aquarium date. It’d be very rude to stand her up.”
Eir shoulders slumped after a moment, realizing just how tasteless the joke had been. “I… know. I’m sorry, boss, I really don’t want to die out there either. I really ought to be more careful, probably, it’s just never a skill I learned. I only survived this far by taking risks, and it’s so natural for me to keep doing it.”
“As long as it’s always a calculated risk. You don’t want to end up like Jessica, going for that adrenaline high every time.”
Nat nodded, face thoughtful. “Honestly, it… it was calculated. Everyone’s mood felt almost tangible, each one acting exactly like I expected them to. I never even would have moved if I didn’t know for sure that Scoremaster had written us off as non-threats.”
Ey giggled. “Did you read any of the stories? The news sites can’t believe that Collateral won, much less brought someone in alive.”
Emi finally smiled. “And you’re not present in many of the narratives, which is good. The Freelancers are eager to claim credit, and the story of a bad girl gone…” Emi hesitated. “Better, at least, is a tempting one. Add in the fact that the Legion still controls our share of media outlets, and you get to stay under the radar. Yes, a success all around, I think. Do you like ice cream?”
Thumbs up. “I’m for it.”
“Good. A celebration seems appropriate, and nothing says celebration like ice cream, I think.”
“I can think of other things, but you’re my boss, so ice cream is probably better.”
Tabitha Armitage was dressed nicely, but not formally. A wide belt bisected her simple black dress, and a brown cardigan covered by a green shawl kept out the lingering March chill. Beside her walked Emi Surikabe, who wore a long-legged black romper with a burgundy silk shirt open and flowing over it.
“Apparently ey managed to suss the social situation well enough to know that Scoremaster wouldn’t see a sneak attack? I was equal parts terrified and impressed, if I’m being honest.”
“It sounds like Nat is really working out for you, love,” Tabitha smiled.
“Ey is. Are? No, it’s is.” Emi smirked. “Still learning. And yes, ey is. I know they’ve been a bit of a handful for you.”
“Nothing compared to Alice,” Tabitha laughed, and they stopped in front of the front door to the McGowan household. “Speaking of, are you ready?”
“Yes! I’m excited, actually; I haven’t seen the kids in too long.”
“Agreed,” Tabitha said, then rang the doorbell.
Alice McGowan opened the door, dressed in turquoise and fuschia. The bold jewel tones looked good on her, although she had a slightly strained smile. There was the smell of something burnt in the kitchen. Tim, her son, stood on the staircase behind her, waiting patiently for his two “Aunties” to enter and give hugs and kisses.
“So good to see you both.” Alice said. “Please, come in, both of you. Scott’s just, ah, getting some catering. He’ll be right in.”
“Oh dear,” Tabitha smiled, offering Alice a hug. “Sorry if things went awry.”
Emi followed Tabitha in offering Alice a hug, then immediately slipped under her arm and swept Tim up in a big hug. “Tiiiim! How’s my guy?”
“Auuuuntie!” Tim squealed as the short woman spun him around after a long hug. “I’m going to school with civilians now, an’ I made some friends, an’ -”
“Hold on, Tim, don’t talk her ear off.” Alice said, smiling. “Why don’t you go set the table?”
He nodded and bounded off, full of energy.
“You have to tell me all about it over dinner!” Emi called after him, then chuckled. “He’s gonna forget to tell me all about it.”
“I’m sure you’ll remind him,” Tab pulled the door shut behind her. “Are you doing all right, Alice? Just regular stress, or is something else bothering you?”
“…It’s Ruth,” Alice finally admitted, folding her arms across her chest defensively, keeping her voice low. “She’s Emerged.”
She paused, biting her lower lip. “She’s a Null.”
“Oh, Alice,” Tabitha placed a hand on Alice’s shoulder.
“I’m going to go help with the kitchen,” Emi said, slipping away quietly. “I think you two need a minute.”
“How are you doing with it, hon?” Tabitha took both of Alice’s shoulders in her hands and pulled her closer.
“I always wanted her to be special, to be… one of us. Tim is, and I always thought she was just a late bloomer. But this? Being Null is no easy path. I want better for her, but…”
“It’s not easy, but who better to make it livable than you?” Tab drew Alice into a close hug. “Ruth will still have a good life. She’s your daughter. I know this is hard on you, too, that you were expecting… something else. But Scott is here for you, and Emi and I are here for you, and we are all here for Ruth. It’s going to be okay.”
“Thank you, Tabs. I’m sure it’ll get better, it’s just… gosh, it’s easier to be a General than a mother some days.” She smiles, and then the front door swings open once again.
“work easier than life? don’t get me started,” Tab murmured.
“Who’s hungry?” Enter Scott McGowan, holding bags labelled with BURGER CHURCH. “It’s still hot.”
“Well this certainly takes me back,” Tabitha laughs, eyeballing the bags. “I haven’t had Burger Church in years.”
“It’s good!” He grins. “I mean, the new fry recipe isn’t as good as the old one, but that’s okay. Can’t have too many carbs, I’m gettin’ old.” He shrugged off his jacket, revealing the MERCURY unit underneath. “Hey, you guys go ahead and get started, I’ll join you in a second. This thing ain’t much suited for dinner with the family.”
THE MCGOWAN DINING ROOM
The McGowan dining room was significantly more cozy than a stranger would likely have expected of the Earth’s premier Legionnaire family, but Tab and Emi were well used to it by now. Ruth was sitting at the table already, nose buried in a book. Tim fiddled with the silverware. Alice’s face creased into the slightest frown at the burger bags, but sat down without complaint.
As everyone settled in, Emi asked, “So, Alice, Scott, how’s work? Anything exciting going on?”
“Let Alice say grace first, Emi,” Tab reminded.
“Oop! Right, sorry.”
Alice smiles gratefully. “Thank you, Tabs. Thank you O Lord, for these gifts…” She kept her head down, reciting the old familiar prayer. Scott made eye contact with Emi over the table and gave a small, slightly exasperated smile. By the time Alice looked up, his face was jovial as before.
“Well, y’know, I’ve been in the garage a lot lately, working on projects. Kind of thinking about the whole semi-retirement thing,” he mused, spearing some fries on his fork and dipping them generously in gravy. “On the other hand, not sure how much work there is for a guy like me these days.”
“I have faith in your ability to never run out of projects, Scott,” Tabitha smiled, “I’ve seen you solve enough problems that may not have existed before you set out to solve them.”
“Well, there’s some underwater sort of exoskeletons I’m looking at – you know, the MERCURY isn’t really equipped for underwater, and there’s been revelations that make me think we really oughta be ready for that sort of thing. I mean, I’ll always be happy in the garage, but part of me itches for front line action again.”
“There’s less and less of it these days.” Alice sighs. “You know how it is, with the Freelancers…”
“Didn’t we agree they ain’t appropriate dinner table talk?”
“I promise I don’t mean to maintain a contentious line of conversation, and I’ll drop it if you’d like,” Emi cut in, “but I’m seeing some very encouraging coalition-building between Freelancer and Legion agents. Nat has been making friends with anyone who isn’t a Villain, and it seems to be going very well.”
“Maybe, maybe, some of their new recruits are worth working with.” Alice grinds her teeth. “But the organization is corrupt down to the core, if you ask me. Did you know they stole some of Scott’s work, used it for their own means? One of them threw me off a roof.”
“Hon. Yes,” Tabitha said. “We remember. We’ve known you for more than the years it’s been since those things happened. You’re right that there’s still corruption in the Freelancers, but Emi’s right too. The proliferation of social media, networking, and friendship across factional lines is something I’ve been watching myself, and it’s hard not to feel somewhat optimistic about it.”
“Well -” Alice began, but Scott cut her off.
“Did you know that we moved the kids into civilian schools, speaking of factions and optimism and all of that good stuff. They’re really flourishing. Great staff, great teachers.”
“Tim was telling me! That’s great to hear.’ Emi grinned, then directed her next question toward the McGowan offspring. “It can be a lot of work to adapt to new environments like that. Are the other kids treating you okay?”
“Yeah, we were playing tag, and everyone agreed that since I’m suuuper fast, it wasn’t fair to have me on a team, so everyone just tried to chase me, and it was so much fun, and I got up the jungle gym, and then one of them grabbed me as I went down the slide, and then Mrs. Sanderson told us we had to be careful, so we started playing some other games…”
Ruth just shrugs, pushing the fries around her plate. “They’re okay.”
“Well you can tell me all about it when we play later!” Emi told them, glancing up at Scott and Alice to read their reactions to the kids before returning her eyes to them. “School is real hard work, but you two are gonna do great at the new one.”
“Have you talked to Miss Herja about your plans for the MERCURY, Scott?” Tabitha asked. “She’s been doing some exosuit R&D lately, and would probably have useful things to contribute.”
“Oh, yeah, she’s been great.” Scott grins. “She’s on another level in a lot of ways, just… us technokinetics or whatever you call it each have our own brand of genius. I’m an execution guy, she’s an ideas person… It works out super well.”
“It’s all utterly alien to me, but it’s just fascinating to see what the lot of you come up with,” Tabitha says, neatly annexing a portion of her burger with fork and knife. “Valkyrie’s just everywhere these days. It’s inspiring. Perhaps when you retire, you could open up a workshop for hire with her.” It wasn’t clear whether that was in jest.
“Aw, hell -” Scott began, and Alice cut in.
“Heck, we’ve taken over a good portion of the fortress already, and we’re starting to bring in some real income. Enough that Alice is thinking about re-starting programs like the Kids Corps, we can finally afford to start bringing in real Administrative talent too. I know that’ll be a relief to you, Tabs.”
“I won’t know what to do with myself!” Tabitha faked a laugh for a moment, then deadpans: “For all that is good and holy, yes. To say my hands are full is a gross understatement.”
“She’s sleeping in her office,” Emi complained.
“I’m sleeping in my office,” Tab acknowledged, looking sheepish. “Things got a lot easier once we hired the Sthenographer, but that only made me realize all of the things that had been put off before she showed up. It hasn’t been great for my stress levels, if we’re being honest.”
“It hasn’t been great for your love life either,” Emi muttered under her breath, but audible enough to hear.
“Emi, not at the table.” Alice chided. “But yes, I’ve been stepping up my recruitment. We’re finally starting to rebuild the Administrative sector. It’s hard, because if I find a promising candidate, I have to get them to sign ASAP. Cheney keeps poaching talent. But the promise of serving the Legion and having moral values seems to be a draw.”
“Yes, some of them slip away rather fast, don’t they,” Tabitha paused with a forkful of burger partway to her mouth. “At least the Freelancers didn’t get ahold of that Pariah girl. She seems to be doing a fairly good job over in Detroit. Markus worked with her briefly and had nothing but good things to say.” She put the forkful of burger in her mouth.
“She’s open to working with us?” Alice’s eyes brightened. “Oh my goodness, does she have an address?”
Tabitha held up a hand until she finished chewing. Then, “easy, hon. The coffin squad happened to be in her territory and she helped them contain a Wheird. I’m not sure how open she is to working with us outside of defending her home. We don’t have her address.”
“She did show up at Nat’s club when ey invited people, though,” Emi pointed out. “And there were both Legionnaires and Freelancers there. It seems like she’s at least not holding a grudge toward our agents.”
“Well, that’s good at least. I’m sure Scanner can help me find her. Once she hears my recruitment speech, I’m sure she’ll sign up.”
“We’re, ah,” Emi broached the topic in a delicate tone, “we’re actually thinking of something a bit subtler, Alice.”
“In my experience,” Alice says, looking proud. “Subtlety is highly overrated.”
Tabitha and Scott exchanged a Look, then Emi and Tabitha exchanged a Look, then Tabitha shifted in her seat, eyes down, before looking directly at Alice. “Actually, Alice… we’re going to send in the Damselfly.”
Alice considered this information briefly, before sighing. “I don’t have to like it,” she finally said.
“I would never ask such a thing of you, hon,” Tabitha said. “It’s just a matter of… the one thing we know about Miss Pauker’s MO is that she will show up if there’s a threat to her territory. Nat brings threats close to emself by nature. This is our best bet at having Pariah and Damselfly on the same side in the same room with a strong motivation to work with each other. If we’re going to establish a positive dynamic with Pariah, this is our best bet.”
“That sounds like a great idea.” Scott said with just a touch too much enthusiasm. Alice glanced at him, and then gave another sigh. “Kids, are you listening? Once you start your after school program with the Kids Corps, you’ll have to tackle problems with these. And it’s very important to be a hero who does the right thing, isn’t that right?”
Emi and Tabitha both bobbed their heads in agreement to reinforce the lesson.
Tim eagerly launched into another long speech about his thoughts on heroes and the Kids Corps. Ruth, meanwhile, had evidently finished pushing fries around her plate. “Mom, can I be excused?”
“Put your plate in the sink, please, honey.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.”
“Nat is doing really well, honestly,” Emi said once Tim’s speech was finished. “Ey nonlethally subdued a Villain while on a completely unrelated mission, and did so more safely than I care to tell em. Ey… needs to tighten up on the combat awareness, but I’m very proud.”
“I don’t think I’ve met the kid yet.” Scott says, thoughtfully. “Probably seen ‘em around in the cafeteria, though. Kind of short, floaty, redhead?”
“That’s our Nat,” Tabitha confirmed with a slight hint of weariness in her voice. “Ey’s been a handful for me, honestly. I think that ey might already be–” her eyes darted to Tim, then back to her plate “–close… friends… with Brozerker and Jupiter Strike, and apparently ey’s started dating that cartomancer we’re trying to recruit? Nothing’s exploded yet, but I’m trying to stay braced in case something does. And I can’t deny that ey has already been an extremely effective covert agent.”
“Mm.” Alice said, lips thinning in disapproval. “Who wants dessert? I managed not to burn that, at least.”
“Dessert would be lovely, thank you,” Emi smiled brightly. Tabitha nodded as well.
Before long, Alice had carved up a decadent triple chocolate layer cake, serving large slices to everyone at the table. “Oh, speaking of Administration, Tabitha… Ah, well, there’s something you should know.”
Tab raised her eyebrows and inclined her head slightly; a ‘go on’ gesture.
“…Helen Havelock wants to return to the Legion. In a strictly civilian role, of course, considering her… injuries.”
Tabitha and Emi both froze in place, blinking in surprise, a forkful of cake already halfway to Emi’s face.
“Helen Havelock?” Tabitha breathed. “I’ll be damned.”
Alice smiled widely. “She’s actually a very nice woman. We talked for a while. She had a lot of advice for me.”
Well, that was no surprise. Helen Havelock had founded the Legion herself, taking on the title of Excalibur. Wielding golden armour and a longsword, she had fought the forces of the Third Reich, the enemies of humanity, and been a vanguard for social change. Without her, there would likely be no Legion. It was a shame her powers had been stripped away by the Battle of New York, so long ago…
“And, just for saying that word in my house, you can put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Alice said, half-teasing. Only half.
“I was going to do it anyway,” Tabitha teased back, her tone prim to the point of exaggeration. “So there.” She stood and walked around the table, collecting the empty plates and glasses.
“What kind of advice did Mrs. Havelock have for you, Alice?” Emi asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“We talked about the pressures of the lifestyle, and the difference between then and now. But most importantly, she told me to always keep faith. She puts the same emphasis on faith as I do. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Emi agreed. “We all have different things keeping us going, and it can be very important to find mentors who can identify with that. I’m happy for you, Alice.”
“Don’t be happy for me,” Alice jokes. “Be happy for Tabitha. Helen knows the Legion like the back of her hand. I’m sure she’ll be a big help in the coming days, and maybe Tabitha can sleep in a gosh danged bed.”
“She’d better, if she doesn’t want me to bring other people into it,” Emi smirked.
“Emi! We weren’t gonna–” Tabitha hissed from the doorway, then pressed her lips together and chirped, clasping her hands. “Dishes are done!”
“Tim, hon, why don’t you go set up your Nintendo?” Alice waited until her son left the room and then looked at her guests with wide eyes. “Are you thinking about divorcing?”
“I’m sure it was a joke,” Scott says, standing and putting a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You know how crazy hours can get to a person, right?”
“Of course I was joking!” Emi laughed nervously.
“No no no!” Tabitha also laughed, also nervously. “We wouldn’t– that’s not what I meant at all.”
“We were just joking about the whole thing,” Emi shot a look at Tabitha so pointed that even Alice could catch it.
Tabitha wiped her brow. “Can I make some decaf for anybody?”
Alice glanced between the two of them, and then a lightbulb flared to life above her head. “Oh! Oh. I see. You know, I uh- I’ll take my coffee um, caffeinated. Black, please. Nice and strong, ha… ha!”
“Caffeine for everyone!” Tabitha disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Emi sweating silently, eyes darting between Scott and Alice.
“….. soooo.” Emi said.
“We – don’t need to discuss anything any further, thank you.” Alice says, red in the face and making intense eye contact with a light fixture. “Especially not with both of my children home. Your home, your marriage, your business.”
“Sure, s-sure,” Emi stammered, eyes averted. A moment later, she put her hands on the table and blurted, “it’s just–“
“Emi!” Tabitha rebuked from the kitchen.
“You guys are our best friends!” Emi continued, ignoring her wife’s objection. “It felt like lying to you. I lie to enemies, politicians. I don’t want to lie to friends. I hate lying to friends.”
Tabitha appeared in the doorway. “Emi, if Alice doesn’t want to know, Alice doesn’t want to know.”
“But she was–“
“It’s her call. Not ours.”
“What is there to know?!” Alice suddenly said, incredulous. “You – you have… extra… lovers. Okay, I know that. I’m aware. Are you planning to introduce me to any of them?”
“Well, we don’t, actually.” Tabitha folded her arms and shrugged. “Not yet. Look, I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have said anything, all right? I’m sorry, Scott, this must be terribly awkward for you.”
Emi put her face in her hands.
Scott leaned back in his chair, muttering: “Christ, this is hideously awkward, yeah.”
Alice was too shaken to even chide Scott on taking the Lord’s name in vain. “I… support… you? If you’re happy, that’s… good? And fine?”
“Thanks,” Tabitha replied, her voice as flat and cold as slate. “You know, I don’t really need coffee after all. Emi, I’m going to go get some fresh air.”
She walked out of the dining room with long, measured strides. Emi didn’t move.
Scott moved over to his friend and put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey.” he said. “Alice, why don’t you go check on Ruth?”
Alice acquiesced, standing and leaving the room, her face still incredulous and confused.
“Hey. Emi. Look at me.”
Emi turned her face toward Scott, lowering her hands. She wasn’t crying, but there was clear despair behind those deep brown eyes.
“What’s up?” He asked, keeping things simple at first. “Is this about the lying thing, or something else?”
“We weren’t expecting anything, Scott, we weren’t trying to… get you guys to do anything. This wasn’t supposed to change things, it was for us to actively be in each other’s lives. To be honest.”
“Yeah, I get that. Look, we’ve been kind of distant lately, but… hey, y’know, we’re all working and things are tense ‘cause of work and politics and all of that. But if you’re happy in your marriage, we think that’s rad and of course we support you. And you know Alice has come a long, long way that she said she supported it as well.”
He cracked a warm smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “So, that’s out of the way. All of our cards are on the table. We’re still here. Let’s make this more regular, yeah? Keep the momentum building, work on going back to how things used to be, back when we were… what, in our 20s? We were so young.”
“Cards on the table,” Emi murmured, eyes downcast, then looked back up. “Scott, Tabitha is still in love with Alice.”
“Huh.” Scott said, and drummed his fingers on the table, processing that. “I didn’t know she was in love with Alice in the first place. Then again, I’ve been pretty oblivious to this sort of thing. And hey, look, Alice is an incredible woman. It’s hard to blame Tabitha, God knows I’ve fallen for her charms as well.”
“She was. Is. And it’s never hurt me or made me feel like Tab didn’t want to be with me. But she’s had this locked up for decades now, and I wanted– I told her that she should… say something. Not to change anything, just to stop holding onto it. But it’s Tab.”
“Tabs likes to sort things nicely and compartimalize them. She has her little filing cabinet over here for work –” Scott taps the side of his head. “And this little filing cabinet over here for the marriage, and I’m sure that Alice goes into another filing cabinet. That’s her system, and I think she likes to keep her files nice and separate. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. You two are just different.”
“I know.” Emi sighs. “I’ve known that for a long time. But I guess I needed to hear you say so. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s something I hoped she’d do, and then this happened and she’s going to clam up about it for another twenty years. I don’t really think it’s good for her.”
“Eh, we all indulge in shit that’s a little bad for us. You’re still in the field despite your knee injury, I’m still married to Alice -” he gives a wicked grin. “Seriously, it’s one thing to love her from afar, but bein’ in the thick of it is a whole other ball game. I have a few cigarettes… It’s great of you try to and fix things, but Tabs is an adult, she can make her own choices. Even bad ones.”
Emi frowned. “Yeah, I noticed– is stuff okay, Scott? Are you and Alice okay?”
“Yeah, we’re okay. She’s a great mom, a great person. This sounds arrogant, so you’ll have to forgive me – I’m a genius, and she’s… not. She’s a little dim. It was hard to deal with for a while, so we went into counselling, worked on some stuff. She’s a good woman. She has so much love to give. Y’know? Before I ended up with her, I dated around, slept around. I know what a good relationship is and isn’t, and this is. Even if she’s ah, kind of a doof sometimes.”
“I’m not going to try to tell you that you’re not a genius, Scott,” Emi smirked, “nor that Alice’s intelligence isn’t… focused elsewhere. And I’m very glad that things are fine. The two of you are good for each other.”
Emi took a deep breath, then let it out and glanced back up at Scott. “Do you think less of us, Scott? For opening up our marriage?”
“Absolutely not. I’d be a massive hypocrite if I did. I slept around for a decade straight before I ended up with Alice, and if she offered me the same deal, I’d be – well, I’d be tempted. You’re like a sister to me, Emi, alright? Your marriage ain’t gonna change that.”
“All right. Thank you.” She sighed. “I should go retrieve my wife. Knowing her, her brain has already eaten itself with anxiety.”
“And I should take care of my wife as well.” Scott gives Emi another hug. “Bowling. Next Friday. A McGowan-Armitage-Surikabe affair. I expect you guys at the lanes in the goofy shoes and big smiles at seven sharp.”
“I look forward to beating all three of you into the finely-polished floor,” Emi grinned.
THE PRESTWICH ESTATE
Adam had always loved the smell of White Diamonds. Estelle wore the fragrance, even today, when she should have been focused on work. A woman was allowed a few indulgences, after all. She carefully, carefully, wrote a list of names in looping cursive. It was important to match the card that she had seen in her Vision, after all.
THE PRESTWICH MANOR
THE GUEST ROOM
“Come in, come in. Can I get you a drink?” Estelle swept the group into her guest room, a place of upholstered furniture and carefully organized china and a bar up against the wall, stocked with quality liqueur and expensive glasses of all sizes.
“That would be lovely, ma’am, thank you!” Nat said in a slightly pitched-up voice, beaming eir most winning smile. Continue reading “A Stitch In Time: Estelle”
FOUR HOURS AGO
Lights Show had been thinking hard, and he jumped up with his hand in the air like a schoolboy proud of his answer. He flushed, cleared his throat, and started talking before someone could tease him about his opening.
“Let’s go to the field where he’ll be. Let’s bring a stripper pole. Nat will do eir thing, I’ll drop the beats… No one could resist a show like that.”
He punctuated his idea with finger guns and an “Ayyyyyy!”
Estelle sat in the largest, most comfortable chair in the guest room, hands pressed together and fingers steepled.
“You may have saved the world.” she finally pronounced, a queen on her throne. “Everyone, everyone, on Earth must thank you.”
“Oh goob. Dat’s fantastig.” Fi mumbled from behind a handkerchief. Apparently, kicking an angel into the back of its own mind had consequences, and in this case, those consequences were periodic nosebleeds. “but I meang. I lib on da wurlb?” Continue reading “A Stitch In Time: A Just Reward”