Milo Thatch was a joke.
At least, that’s what she tried to tell herself: one big joke on the whole world, a ‘gotcha’ that hadn’t yet reached the ‘got’ part. Because Thaddeus Thatch’s granddaughter had gone away to England to study, but his grandson had come back, and all that anybody had really remembered from Milo’s youth had been a scabby-kneed child of indeterminate gender in oversized glasses and with mud or ink on their hands.
A woman would not have gained a job at the Smithsonian. Well, she might have managed the cleaning role, but even then the boiler alone would probably have been considered beyond the functions of her meagre female brain. Linguistics and cartography would definitely have been out of the question.
She considered it, sometimes, when the board were being particularly petty and she felt about ready to explode with the frustration and indignity and injustice of it all. Ha! You were employing a woman all along! A woman translated your signs and restored your maps and tutored your students! (And had taken particular care to encourage the female students, because there were so few and they already had so much set against them.) A woman kept your offices cosily warm while you sat on your backsides and did nothing!
But it always felt like it would never pay off. She may not have had much, but she did not want to lose it for the sake of one blaze of glory. There were movements in some countries for women to vote, but she never dared go to the meetings in Washington for fear of being recognised. A man could, of course - he might be ridiculed, but he could never be exposed as as fraud and a lie and a cheat.
Because of course it was cheating to live like a man. It was only a way of getting ahead in life, after all.
She met Lisa McGrath in the new year in 1903. Lisa McGrath was everything that Milo was not, it seemed; she was short and curvaceous and worked in her father’s shop, and was the first person to have ever seemed interested in the tall, thin, gawky excuse for a man (excuse for a man, never mind a woman) who had only entered the shop in search of new shirts.
They spent Milo’s birthday dancing, at Lisa’s suggestion, and Milo was amazed how fun it could be to go dancing when you actually had someone to go with.
Lisa kissed her at midnight, and she did not even care about her glasses getting knocked askew. It was the first time she had ever been kissed.
Twenty-two days into walking out with Lisa, and after Lisa had kissed her twice more, Milo admitted the truth. Lisa ended things immediately, but was nice enough to promise never to tell anyone. Milo had been a good enough friend for that, she said, but she was not like that.
Milo heard the words that were not spoken. Deviant. Homosexual. Invert. But at least Lisa was not kind enough to speak them aloud.
It was a little bit like having a friend.
When Preston Whitmore sent for her, Milo did wonder if the old man knew. If there might still be one other person in the world who knew about Philomena Thatch whose grandfather had told her that she could do everything that men could do, but had been forced to admit that those men might not believe the same. But after so long, her tongue was tied, unable to form the words, and then the weight of the Shepherd’s Journal in her hands forces everything else away.
Languages didn’t care if you were a man or a woman, or whether you liked men or women. Atlantean did not even have grammatical gender. As long as you have a mind to understand the words, they do not even care whether you can read or hear or speak them. Milo felt immediately at home within the Journal and Atlantean.
The people… well, they were a bit more difficult. With thirteen years of practice under her belt, Milo did not feel too paranoid about being caught out, but it was still not all that appreciated when the doctor tried to listen to her chest without warning and Mole struggled with the concept of locks on the bathroom door. But at least it worked in her favour when they largely ignored her, leaving her to her own devices with her book and her work.
She was like nothing that Milo had ever seen before. Strong and a leader and a polyglot and beautiful, so beautiful, and a million other things that Milo could never dream to be. Just Atlantis was enough to make Milo feel weak at the knees, as if she were walking into a dream and a fantasy and a heaven all at the same time.
But Kida, Kida, she was something that Milo could never have. Milo was used to that. There were many things that had been impossible for her in life, and a chance with Lisa McGrath was only one of them, but god, Milo wanted to stay in Atlantis more than anything she had ever known.
That evening, while Atlantis was celebrating, she returned to the throneroom and sat on the steps. Still feeling the cool age and quiet of the place. So ancient, more than anything the world above knew. She had always felt more at home in ancient places.
Atlantis felt like home. At least, she thought it did; she hadn’t really felt much like anywhere was home since she had been fourteen years old and moving away to Oxford University. It had been the last time she saw her grandfather; letters or even phone calls had just not been the same. And nowhere had quite felt like home since.
It was as if she could feel him down here, like some part of him had been meant to be here all along. She could imagine him stepping gently on the stones, as if not to mark them, and looking at the carvings and the mosaics with wonder in his eyes. It would have been enough for him, she knew, would have made up for everything that had been said or done in his life. Even as a child, Milo had seen his occasional moments of sadness, ones that he tried to hide from her. As she had grown older, she had understood what they had been from.
She wished that he could have seen this.
Tears blurred her eyes, and for a moment she thought that she could see her grandfather in the room, rapt at the beauty around him. Then she blinked, and realised with near-horror that there was someone there; Kida, removing the gold-trimmed shawl with which she had been draped, expression unreadable between tears and smudged glasses.
“Hey,” she said, trying to sound bright, “hey, Kida. You’re, uh, you’re away from the party. Guest of honour and all that.”
“I am not the only one,” said Kida. She sat down next to Milo on the steps, and looked over the room with her. Milo tried to surreptitiously wipe her eyes; no doubt she absolutely failed at it, but Kida at least gave her the dignity of pretending it had been successful. “You have done us great service, Milo Thatch.”
She didn’t know what to say to that, and it was only partially to do with the fact that Kida’s voice leave her feeling tongue-tied. She shuffled in her place, draping her hands over her knees. “I’m sorry about your father,” came blurting out, and god, that was completely the wrong thing to say. Worst thing to say. Rourke murdered her father and you, Milo Thatch, just had to go and bring it up all over again. Well done.
Remarkably, Kida did not seem to resent the words, even if she did sigh softly. “It… is not real, yet,” she said, quietly. “I know it will be, soon enough, but it is not yet. For now…” she raised her eyes, gazing towards the open door again. “I know that he wanted to see his people happy, and safe. That, we have achieved. I think he would have been proud of you.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” said Milo. She reached up to take off the pendant that the King had given her, and which she had put on more as a symbol of solidarity than as any sort of actual claim. “Here. This-”
“Was given to you.” Kida’s hand came to rest on Milo’s, and it really was that perfect balance of firm and gentle that Milo had not even been sure existed. Her hands were hard from climbing and the use of her spear, but not truly rough, and Milo stilled her own hands mostly because she did not want the touch to end. “I too would have you keep it.”
“Thank you,” said Milo, little more than a whisper. She only realised that she had said it in Atlantean when Kida chuckled warmly. “I mean…”
Kida squeezed her hand. Milo glanced away, fearful for a moment that she would show too much on her face, or that Kida would somehow hear the pounding of her heart in her chest. Because she felt a home in Atlantis, wanted desperately to remain here as she knew was being offered, but she knew as well that if she stayed she would only fall more in love with Kida, like falling in love with a star. And she could not afford to do that.
A touch beneath her chin, and Milo let herself be guided to face Kida again, could never have resisted even the lightest of touches. There was a flutter in her chest, the same tremulous fear that had once come with the thought of reaching Atlantis, of that impossibility. She saw Kida’s eyes flicker, down to Milo’s lips and back up again, and thought that she could say something but could not, her heart so huge in her chest that there was no room for her to breathe.
“You risked everything for Atlantis,” said Kida. Milo could feel her breath. “You belong here, Milo - I would have you belong here. Stay,” she said, and it was the closest thing to faltering that Milo had ever heard, the closest thing to uncertainty.
She leant in closer, did not ask Milo to move but drew in herself, and Milo could almost feel the brush of her lips but abruptly turned her head away, squeezing closed her eyes.
It tasted bitter on her lips. There was silence, Kida’s touch falling away from her chin again, and Milo dared to peek round.
“I can’t stay here,” she said, but there was hurt in Kida’s eyes, not rejection but true hurt, and Milo wished desperately that there was something that could be done for it. But this was not the sort of pain with which the crystals could help, she could see that much as well. “I… I have to go back. With the others.”
“I am sorry,” said Kida. “I hope that you do not think it is a condition of your stay that…”
“No,” Milo said quickly, but she meant, yes, but not because of you. She could already feel it, the first uncertain stirrings of love, from the moment that they had first met and even more now that she knew that Kida had been defying everything just to heal the injury to Milo’s shoulder. And she knew that if she stayed, it would only grow stronger, that this would never be something that she could quietly pack away to go to dust, not like other things on which she had been forced to give up over the years. “I mean, I know it’s not, I…”
Kida shifted more towards her, knee brushing against Milo’s. And it probably didn’t mean anything to her, who had slapped Milo on the shoulders without a care, who walked among her men as equals, but the intimacy of it was like a blow to Milo’s chest and a brand on her skin. “There is something that you do not say,” she said, quite correctly. Milo would give her that. “Please, Milo, tell me; I will fix it for you, if I can. I have seen the smile on your face when you look over Atlantis, you - you deserve to be happy here.”
“This isn’t something you can fix,” said Milo, even if there was the momentary absurd thought in her head that what if, what if the crystals could give her a man’s body? She already lived a man’s life, and did not hate it so much as she almost felt she ought to, even if it was because it had opened some doors to her at the cost of others. Would it really be so unbearable, to…?
Yes, Milo realised, as she looked into Kida’s eyes. Because it would be lying still.
“I’m sorry, Kida,” she said. She took one of Kida’s hands in both of hers, although she knew that such a touch was probably a foolish sort of indulgence. “I haven’t… been honest, with you.” It was the first time that she had readied to tell someone since Lisa McGrath, all those years ago, and her mouth went dry and her hands started trembling. “My name isn’t Milo. I mean, I go by Milo, but it isn’t. It’s Philomena. I’m - ah, jeez, how do I even say this;” there was probably nothing for it but to be blunt; “I’m not a man. I’m a woman. The museum didn’t even respect me while I was saying I was a man, they wouldn’t have… you aren’t stopping me,” she cut herself off, desperately, as Kida gave her a look that was more curious, uncertain, than it was judgemental or angry. “Why aren’t you stopping me?”
“I do not understand,” she said quietly. “You… are a woman, but your people do not accept you as one? Or you do not wish to be seen as one by your people?"
Milo felt her cheeks growing hot. “Where I come from,” she said, with a sort of vague nod upwards that didn’t really explain very much, “there’s a lot of men who don’t think that women can do… well, a lot of things really,” she said, delicate words sliding into annoyance even as she spoke. “So if you want to do those things… you have to pretend to be a man.”
Kida was frowning. “Your world is strange.”
“It’s changing.” Milo shrugged, thinking of the women’s suffrage movements, the slowly changing property laws. Women like Audrey, who were coming into a changing world and changing it further. To someone like Kida, the age difference between Milo and Audrey was probably nothing more than the blink of an eye, but to Milo it still felt like an age. “Just… faster in some places than in others.”
“You do not have to live as a man if you do not want to, here,” said Kida. “You are a scholar, and for all that I tease,” she cocked her head slightly, and Milo did not even know whether the motion was flirtatious or not, would have called it so in Washington from a woman to a man but did not know what it could mean between anyone in Atlantis. “That is a skill more rare than diamonds in this place. My people will not care what you call yourself or how you wish to dress, although,” a smile twitched at her lips, “they do find these clothes you currently wear strange to the eye.”
It was only the half, though, that was the worst part, everything that she had said was still only half of the explanation and somehow that, unravelling thirteen years of lies, was nothing compared to what remained unsaid. And it made it worse, because Kida had so unwaveringly accepted her being a woman, and it felt like the cruellest sort of crime to her trust to say, to say…
“Don’t you see?” said Milo. “I’m a woman, Kida,” it still felt difficult to say the second time around, like a stone in her mouth, “and I can’t stay here with you because,” she hadn’t meant to say that part so soon in that sentence, “with you,” and she certainly didn’t meant to say it again but it felt as if her brain was jamming as badly as that old boiler, “with you…”
Kida’s expression had not changed; she still looked slightly concerned, slightly confused, but there was no anger or disgust there. It was as if Milo were trying to explain some surface thing that she had not come across yet, like zippers or gliders or poodle dogs with their carefully-clipped coats.
“I’m sorry,” Milo said again. “I should have told you before we nearly kissed, I mean…”
“Well, I did not give you much chance,” said Kida, her voice still warm. Then she frowned, and for a shuddering instant Milo thought that finally she had realised, that the horror had come, that Lisa McGrath’s promise not to tell might have been the kindest response she could have received and not just an attempt to avoid any complications for Lisa herself. “You are saying that where you come from, there are those who would not want me to show interest in you? Because I am Queen?”
Okay, now Milo was getting confused. She frowned back. “Because we’re both women?”
There was a long, heavy pause as they both looked at each other in bewilderment, until it finally dawned on Milo what could be causing at least part of the confusion. She burst out laughing, disbelieving, putting a hand to her forehead and then running it back through her hair and all the while looking at Kida with the warmth in her chest seeming to redouble and flood out through every part of her.
“It doesn’t matter here, does it?” she said. There was a hysterical edge to her laughter, perhaps, but she could not help it, could not help the sudden feeling of liberation that swelled within her. “Men or women… it doesn’t matter.”
“I do not understand.”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter!” Milo tried to collect herself, breathless now. “I’ll… I’ll tell you one day. If you want to know. You probably don’t want to know. It’s people being stupid.”
Kida tilted her head a little further. She still looked confused, but there was a definite hint of a smile there now, as if she were amused by Milo’s latest bout of rambling. Milo would take it.
“Then does this mean,” she said, slowly, as if she were tasting the words, “you might reconsider that kiss?”
If Milo had not already been blushing, she certainly would have done then, but she found herself nodding and smiling foolishly as she leant in to be kissed, for the first time, as herself.
“So, wait,” said Vinnie, gesturing with a bar of gold that was almost the exact same shape as stick of dynamite and had made the Atlanteans look significantly less worried, “you’re telling me that all this time you were a girl?”
“Well, that kind of thing don’t really change overnight,” Sweet said, before Milo could even manage a response.
“Pourquoi?” Mole wailed. “Pendant tout ce temps-là, il y avait une femme parmi nous!”
She decided not to point out Audrey and Mrs. Packard.
“I cannot believe I did not see it,” said Audrey, shaking her head.
Sweet looked at her askance. “Oh, you’re surprised?” Back to Milo, as sharp as a knife. “Was this why you skipped out on your medical exam?”
“No, that was largely terror of those huge glass jars,” said Milo truthfully. If there had been any of the group that she might have trusted, it would have been Sweet first, but even that had taken a while to come. She would have hidden in closets and under tables to escape, otherwise.
“Comment ont-ils pu me le cacher?!”
“You want some tips,” Mrs. Packard said, tapping ash off the end of her cigarette, “I can give you some tips. My third husband, he had this girlfriend-”
“Yes thank you Mrs. Packard we appreciate your support,” said Milo very quickly, doing her best to avoid the cigarette as she ducked in for a quick embrace.
She nodded to the ship.
“And you be sure to get that letter to Mr. Whitmore, won’t you? I just… I want him to know what’s here. That we did find it.”
“You want us to say anything?” said Audrey, with a pointed look over Milo from head to toe.
At that, she could only laugh sheepishly. “He and my grandfather go so far back… I think he probably knows.”
Audrey stepped up, grabbed her, and before she could react pulled her down to plant a kiss to her cheek. “Almost makes me feel bad for punching you,” she said, raising her fists. Milo flinched out of habit, and Audrey laughed. “But not quite. Two for flinching.”
This time, they were only light taps to the arm, and Audrey gave her a salute before backing away again.
“Well, now I feel bad about the nitroglycerine,” said Vinnie.
“Qui sait ce qui aurait pu se produire!”
As the ship took off, Kida’s hand wrapped around hers, twining their fingers together. Then there was a tug, and Milo looked round just in time to see Kida smile impishly before she was pulled away and back into the heart of Atlantis.