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It was a sad truth that even superheroes had to do their nightly chores, particularly if said heroes were also small business owners, and parents of an ever expanding brood of small children.  So whilst the kids may have been a bed the adults of the espadas household had their labors yet before them.  Dishes to be done, toys to be stowed before the morrow brought a new and exciting minefield of small and startlingly share bits of plastic artfully concealed beneath princess dresses and costume capes, the life of quiet domesticity that kept the whole household running.

 

Of course for the Interceptors, such moments were never long enough.  In a cloud of hellfire and sulphurous smoke a small bundled folio appeared on the kitchen table,  the magical signature of it's arrival familiar to Erics metamagi senses, Raina's young demonically inclined companion. Atop the parcel a hasty note, 

 

I'm safe and I'll tell you all about it soon.

Tonight has been Bananas.

You need to see this right away though.

Raina  

 

the handwriting easily recognizable as was the passphrase the teen had insisted was far from cool but that's she'd use in an emergency if Talya promised not to let any of her friends ever see it.

 

The folder itself was heavy for its size, the paper within clearly of sturdy stock.  The exterior printing was much like the interoffice mailers used before everything went electronic, Talya would recognize it's pedigree as even older.  Printed across the most recent delivery line read,  

 

To: Captain Browning C/O Raina Sanderson [eyes only] From: Major Redacted  

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That the poof of fire and brimstone wasn't immediately alarming said something about the level of 'normal' in the Espadas household, but it was unusual enough to immediately capture the ex-thief's attention. Talya set down the glass that she'd been drying on the sink's edge, droplets of water still clinging to its surface and the towel was forgotten as she set it down hastily to give her attention to the package. The relief at seeing Raina's code phrase was short lived as her gaze dropped from the teenager's handwriting to the envelope it was attached to. It was all too familiar; a typography that Talya could have happily spent her immortal life without ever seeing again. 

 

Her hand was steady as she flipped open the folder, her expression mutely impassive as she opened the folder with practiced fingertips. Methodically, she began to lay out the glossy photos as if they belonged to someone else entirely, as if it wasn't Mia's sweet little face, as if it wasn't Min walking Eden to her preschool, the little girl's expression so very serious about making a good impression on her first day. Picture after picture, Talya scanned, assembling them mutely in a grid on the kitchen table, next to the neatly written schedule of their comings and goings. 

 

She let out a slow breath, the only real outward sign of tension as her hands squeezed the back of one of the kitchen's chair until the wood creaked in protest. Talya's hands were strong; she dangled from buildings by her fingertips after all, but if she'd had Min's strength, the chair would have splintered in pieces. 

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The brief pop of hellfire had Erik spinning about from the kitchen counter reflexively, the kitchen knife he'd been putting away flipped about into a combat grip and his heart immediately racing the way it always did when he wasn't expecting that particular sensation tightening around his metamagi senses. He let out a relieved breath when he saw it was just an envelop, beginning to calm... until he noted Talya's reaction to the printed label. He exchanged a look with Min before putting the knife down and stepping over to the table to watch over the Englishwoman's shoulder.

 

As the pictures were laid out it took him a beat to process what he was seeing, then his entire body tensed visibly and he let out a long string of Spanish cursing under his breath. Without looking up from the contents of the envelope he called to the room, "Vince!"

 

The cheap tablet he'd been convinced to purchase for recipes sprung to life where it was propped on the counter, displaying the AI's avatar dressed in an opulent, monogramed robe with hair disheveled. Affecting a yawn, Vince inquired, "What's the word, big guy?" For once not bothering to play into the conceit that something needed to be shown to the avatar's face for Vince to see it Erik made a clipped angry gesture at the grid of photographs. Immediately Vince's image was dressed in a noticeably low res version of his default lime green suit, a clear tell that he was using processing power elsewhere as he repeated Erik's profanity.

 

For his part the swordsman brought both hands up to either side of his face, willing his razor honed fight or flight instincts to silence themselves in favour of rational analysis with mixed success. The last time he'd been so simultaneously furious and terrified he'd been facing a gang of superpowered mercenaries on his mother's front lawn. Even the ambush during the birth of the twins hadn't carried the same sort of cold threat, that someone could reach out and hurt the people he cared most about when they were most vulnerable and whenever they chose. It sounded like they'd already done something to Talya's protege and her friends and he looked down to realize that the fading heat from the stovetop had flowed across the room to gather about his clenched right hand, distorting the air around it as it burned hotter to match his tightly coiled rage. "Do we know who this is?" he asked Talya, usually melodic voice little more than a flat growl.

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Talya was silent for just a fraction too long. Most people would miss the moment of hesitation. Erik and Min were not most people, "I'd have to make some calls to confirm," she said, her words crisp and clipped with the posh accent more pronounced than usual, as if she drew it up like armor - which, really, was what it was. "Blackstone is notoriously closed mouth about its escapees, which is why I check in every couple of months. I cannot fathom why anyone would ape this particular identity. I have enough enemies but there is little enough reason to fake this particular persona if one was not, in fact, the Major."

 

She gave a little shake of her head, as if to stop herself. Closing the folio, she ran her fingertips over the lettering with the same delicate light touch that she used with particularly tricky locks. "No, it would have to be..."

 

Talya grimaced once, her gaze down on her bare hand with its french tipped nails, not entirely avoiding Erik's gaze but certainly not meeting it dead on. Focus on the task at hand, she could feel guilt later.... Later, when everyone was safe. "Bennet. His name is James Bennet. I served under him during the war. I stopped him in the 70's. He's immortal, like me." She paused once, finally pulling her blue eyed gaze up to Erik's clenched features "Its the sort of folio he'd send back then, when I had a target. It's a mission dossier." What Talya did during the war remained unsaid but heavy in the air, her expression finally faltering.

Edited by alderwitch

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On the tablet display Vince's image turned choppy for a few moments as the artificial intelligence furiously ran calculations and played back footage. "I have algorithms, alerts," he insisted in the tone of a desperate man bargaining with a higher power. "Anyone who shows up within two blocks of the place enough gets flagged. I know they work, that's how I caught the Dakanan sword guy, Nassar." His avatar placed its hands on either side of its face then winked out, replaced with a wireframe representation of the building they were in and the surrounding street. The scene was quickly populated with red dots labeled with heights and dates, dashed sight lines illustrating from where each photo had been taken. "The only way those photos make sense is if we're talking about dozens of different people, maybe a different person for each one even! The DPI's all over the place, some of those were taken with phones, some probably high end hobbies equipment, quality's all over the place. Hold on..."

 

The screen went black again and scrolled with text for a split second before a video feed of the sidewalk in front of the dojo appeared from just over a week prior. In it Erik and Min were returning from the farmer's market, the latter with two almost comically large bundles under her arms while the former had his chin lifted in the way that meant he was telling an intentionally awful joke. As they stepped inside a heavyset blonde woman passing by snapped a picture with her smartphone without ever slowing her stride or even looking at what she was doing. The woman didn't seem to check the photo afterward, tucking the phone away without ever seeming to realize what she was doing.

 

Vince popped back into view. "There's a bunch like that now that I know to look. Guys, I swear, I'm so careful. I mean, I barely have anything else to do all day. I scrub anything that catches you in costume before it hits the cloud, I do background checks on anybody who signs up for classes, nobody's even tried to get onto my servers. I've got countermeasures that could stop-- stop anybody." He didn't have to name his own creator as an example, the implication was always there. Ever since his code had been violated and he'd been forced to betray the team years before the overall gregarious and whimsical intelligence had been almost obsessive about security and closing potential back doors. Now his avatar had a haunted look on its slack features. "...there's just no pattern. I can't catch it if there's no pattern."

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Relieved for a chance to look away from Erik, Talya turned her attention to Vince, "It isn't your fault," she told the AI, "And you've kept the Interceptors identity clear; that's no small task. I imagine your programming is based around years of op-sec protocols. They wrote the book on those, quite literally." She paused, closing her eyes for a long moment with her expression pained before she corrected herself grimly, "We wrote the book on op-sec. Could you re-play that video feed of the woman taking the photograph, please?"

 

Talya watched the video, her expression composed and impassive and her blue-eyed gaze flicking over the woman's expressions and gestures. "If you could contact Blackstone, or hack them - however you do it," Talya said finally to Vince, clearly holding Blackstone's security protocols as anything but sacrosanct, "Find out how long James Bennet has been missing. It's probably too much to hope that he didn't free the other two; Lance Carmichael and Henry Witbeck. The Freedom League captured them in 1971."

 

She turned back to the photographs, pulling one out of the grid that focused on Eden caught mid-laugh. Her touch was light and gentle; utterly at odds with her final flat statement, "And unlock the gun safe, please."

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Vince's expression said that he was less willing to absolve himself than Talya; unsurprising given the group of people the artificial intelligence had built portions of his personality by emulating. Without a word the tablet display winked out, his attention elsewhere while he followed up on her request.

 

Erik had taken a minute to carefully dissipate the heat he'd gathered around his hand, the muscles in his hand tensing and untensing involuntarily. "Okay. Alright," he muttered largely to himself, eyes losing focus slightly as he stared at the array of photographs. "So this @#%$ is trying to call you out or get in your head but if he doesn't know about the rest of us he's got no idea the hammer about to drop on his neck."

 

Despite his often ill-concealed distaste for firearms he hasn't blinked when Talya mentioned her gun safe. Instead the part of him that found common ground with a millennia old destroyer of cities and a career espionage agent familiar with both sides of the law had come to the fore, the singular weapons master and proven field tactician prepared to leverage every available advantage. And yet it was the husband and father who turned to look at Talya, brow creased with concern as he searched her expression. "I'll get everybody here. What do you need?"

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Her aristocratic features were composed but the tension coiled in her muscles was plain to Erik, her bare arms flexed as she braced on the back of the chair in a way that highlighted the sleek muscles under her skin. She gave a short, abrupt little shake of her head, her voice dropping low in sentences so short and flat that the words were harsh, "Its my fault, Erik. They tracked meand now there's danger on our doorstep."

 

Talya shoved away from the chair and the pictures, well aware that she was perilously close to losing any ability to think rationally, which - of course - was exactly the goal of the folio. She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, as if the gesture could rub away the images of their children in the cross hairs of a telescopic lens. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She said before finally forcing herself to take a steadying breath. Focus, Talya, focus. Why send the dossier?

 

"They haven't been able to get any intel on the inside - nothing more than the entrance of the dojo. They're trying to scare me into relocating, to take us out en route to whatever secondary location I have set up because I could never hide that many civilians in transit."

 

 

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"Let them think they succeeded."

 

Minerva Espadas stood in the doorway to the kitchen and to those less familiar with her, she looked and sounded calm and composed but Erik and Talya knew different.  It was her posture, like a snake coiled to strike, and the narrowing of her eyes to betrayed her fury.

 

"Let them think they succeeded," she repeated, walking into the kitchen and resting a hand on Talya's back.  "And then they can spend the rest of eternity crippled.  Danger did not come to our doorstep, dear heart.  It lives here, and our enemies are about to learn this."

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"Works for me," Erik agreed, stepping over to Talya's other side and laying a brief kiss on her forehead. "I'll call in some friends to watch the kids here then we can pretend we're heading for a safehouse. I'm willing to bet this @#$% didn't write the book on getting pulped by six hundred pounds of motivated ex-Omegadrone. Just have to make sure Steve leaves some for us." There was a dark edge to his voice that suggested he wasn't really joking about that.

 

Between them he and Min wrapped the blonde in a blanket of protective muscle and light touches. "This is not your fault, mi cielo. We make a habit of kicking assholes' teeth in, sometimes they're going to get it into their heads they can try kicking back." The swordsman let a wry smirk pull at his lips. "If we count the time with Downtime and Wild Card as one of mine I'm still way ahead on numbers. Although Min's big sister is probably worth more points. We'll work out a scoring system after."

 

Vince reappeared on the tablet screen with an affectation of clearing his throat. "Sorry," he apologized vaguely, still looking deflated. "As far as Blackstone's records are concerned they've never even heard of Bennet, Carmichael or Witbeck. So that's probably not the greatest."

 

"Guess that makes sense." Reluctantly Erik stepped away from his partners to retrieve his phone. "Do we need to have somebody check in with Raina? I know the note said she's alright but that kid wouldn't ask for help if her foot was in a bear trap."

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Talya sagged for a moment between the support. Part of her, honestly, had expected the castigation. Certainly, part of Talya felt she deserved it. Buffered on either side by nothing but love and support, Talya's chest moved subtly as she took the first real breath since the brimstone had broken the calm of the dining room. Looping her arms around Erik and Min's waists, she tilted her head to the side until her temple rested against Min's jaw and her hip against Erik's thigh. She was silent for only a few seconds, her breathing slow and steady as the Espadas provided support to re-center. 

 

"You're right," she told Erik finally, tipping her head enough to offer the tall swordsman a wan smile. That she let them see beyond the professional facade was a testament to the trust given, "But the collateral damage would be immense... Hmmm, let me look at this again."

 

The 'thank you' was unspoken but clear as she touched first Min and then Erik lightly before padding forward to lift - not the schedule or the photos - rather, she plucked up the folder itself to turn it over carefully in her hands. After a long moment she finally turned her gaze up to Erik, not as husband and partner, but as the leader of the Interceptors, "This folder... I know where this came from. Erik, I know where they're hiding."

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Despite his size, Caradoc was capable of great stealth - but this was no occasion for that. He landed on the roof amid a roar of engines and with a heavy bang as his feet hit the surface, the better to announce his coming and make sure no one in what was sure to be a jittery house below had been startled by his coming. "I am here," he said aloud, the message transmitted by the radio Miss Americana had planted in his jawline on an Interceptors frequency down below. There seemed no need to say more than that, so without another word he trod heavily to the roof access door, with only a short delay to make it inside. Getting him through Interceptors security (once there was enough of such a thing to matter) had initially been a challenge - after all, Omegadrones shared much DNA and many biometrics. But the system had finally found what was unique in his body and soul, and so after a brief scan he was admitted downstairs to the rest of the building. 

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Mara was, on her best day, not much of a team player. Or a joiner. Or a 'team' person at all, really.

 

Teaming up with other heroes was a task to endure to get the job done. Her company was hers, which was different from having to collaborate much, most of the time - and even then she had to keep other people out of her lab. She couldn't see herself ever flying team colors, or under a catchy name, or especially under any kind of dedicated, prolonged leadership without it ending extremely poorly for everyone involved.

 

Erik, though, was family, and that made his partners family too. Not like Ellie or Yolanda or Josephine were family, but family none the less, and she'd gotten just enough from the brief phone call to drop what she was doing, pick up Ellie, and hop on her bike toward the Espadas house as fast as ground travel would go. Nobody was going to put her extended family at risk and get away with it...and if she found out that Yolanda was at risk too, there was going to be hell to pay.

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With Steve coming down from the roof and Mara and Ellie up through the dojo to the apartment over it the group soon gathered in the kitchen. The surveillance photos were still arranged across the table, partly in case another set of eyes might provide additional insights and partly because Erik's hands clenched in anger every time he moved to put them away. The swordsman was bending over the counter as they entered, focused on a satellite photos Vince had provided of Lonely Point in the south of the city. He looked up with a relieved sigh as they entered, though his expression remained dark.

 

Erik quickly caught the new arrivals up on what they knew so far. "This guy's got mind whammy powers on top of the regeneration so we have to assume he'll have a decent number of innocent people fighting for him. Hard to say how many 'cause apparently he's been getting stronger the whole time he was stewing in Blackstone. Probably explains how they broke out." Ellie moved closer to Mara's side at that, unconsciously gripping the blonde's elbow. There were still nights where she woke with a start from nightmares about Archeville's turn. "Of the other two one got jacked up and the other's a sniper with some tee-kay, again on top of being able to heal themselves. They also know a bunch of Talya's tricks and even though we're pretty sure they don't know who we are," he continued, pointing to himself and Min, "if they've seen Bombshell working with the Interceptors we have to assume they don't some legwork on us, too."

 

He rubbed the back of his neck and looked up to glance about the room. "Good news: they're going to be expecting Talya to panic and try to move a bunch of defenceless civilians to a safer location so they can ambush her in transit. They shouldn't be expecting an attack on their hideout, this decommissioned SigInt place out on Lonely Point. Talya only knows about it because of a thing with Ace. They're still going to be ready for infiltration which is why I think out best plan is going loud." He gave Steve and Mara each a significant look. "The Major doesn't sound like the sort of guy to mix it up in the actual ambush so I'm betting he'll be at home while his best muscle is out waiting to grab us. That's why I need you here, watching the kids, hermanita. Ace and Dimitri are going to swing by, see if they can spot anything but I'm not taking any chances."

 

Erik looked back down at the photos with enough intensity to nearly bore holes into them. "He doesn't just want to hurt Talya, he wants to hurt anyone she cares about, to make her suffer. He already tried something tonight with Raina Sanderson, the girl Talya trains, babysits for us and helped when Wild Card and Downtime showed up that one time. He does not get to try again on any more of our family."

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Mara put a hand around Ellie's waist, squeezing her reassuringly even as her own eyes darkened a few shades. She didn't have Ellie's nightmares, but only because the figurative and literal wounds had largely scarred over - she had no love of psychics herself. "Can do loud," she confirmed, already running down a mental checklist. She'd just done a suit tune-up; she had a new drone search & rescue package ready too, but this wouldn't be the time for field testing. Better roll it back. "Not immune, but significant unnatural defenses against mind-whammies; bet he gets a bad surprise if he tries."

 

Her checklist had moved down to sorting through her drone fleet; 0-5 were still down, lucky shots from a rocket. 17 was half-finished on a bench at home, no time. The rest were already running diagnostics, sitting on custom charging racks in a dimension so near and yet so far away. "Do we want him conscious, unconscious, or broken?"

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His voice low, quiet and almost contemplative, Steve spoke, "I too have protections against psionic interference." Psychics who had so tried tended to flee in terror from what they found inside his skull. He could hardly blame them. "Point me to a foe, and I will strike them down." His hand on his chin, he considered their tactical options after a brief consultation with Talya. "Caradoc is loud, powerful, and bulletproof. I will fly in the front of their building and demand satisfaction. They will know I am a distraction, but they will need to divide their forces even so lest I cut the building down around them. That will provide you what you need to enter the building and do what you must." He looked down at the photos, flushing faintly along his scars. "If they have penetrated Caradoc's secret, they will reveal themselves in exploiting it."

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"Broken."

 

Min had turned her head to address Mara and her question, the immortals voice was hard and her eyes were harder.

 

"Broken," she repeated, "Bound and buried."  She gave Talya a gentle squeeze on the shoulder completely at odds with the coldness of her words.  "None may threaten what is mine.  And since mortal methods have proven inadequate it is time to... improvise a solution that can contain something that can not die."

 

She gave Erik a look, her features softening and she gave him an apologetic smile.  "I am sorry, my love.  You have tried to teach me the right way of this world, but I do not think that will work here."

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The ex-spy had been unusually quiet, providing none of the teasing banter or drawled innuendo that she often engaged in. Without her jacket, the steel of a well maintained side arm glinted from its holster in addition to her usual gear. She reached up to pat Min's hand gently. It wasn't as if she hadn't had those thoughts before in the past, or even now. 

 

"The amount of time it can take to... recover from mortal wounds has varied over the years for me, generally increasing over time. I don't know how finite the blood magic that powers that is. I heal now faster than I did, though I do lead an exciting life. It's conjecture, but I can only assume that their abilities too grew over time, keeping it secret from their captors until they could make good an escape." She let out a sigh, closing her eyes briefly as she admitted, "It's what I would have done. The Major-" 

 

The grimace was brief but it flickered across her features, "Their leader, rather, is the key. The other two are very good at what they do but, without direction, far more easy to handle." Talya moistened her lips briefly, "I know I don't need to tell you how much I appreciate your efforts tonight. I know that with this family, it's a given." She included Steve in that gesture as she was well aware that the Interceptors were really more family than team in many ways, "But I do. Now, can I provide any further answers to any questions?"

 

Finally a wry smile tipped the corner of her lips, a ghost of her usual smile, "Which is not an offer I make often."

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"What would you have us do?" Steve laid his hand on the pictures, then looked questioningly at Bombshell. The resonant echo of his words and the shadow in his eyes seemed to call forth images of the dead, piled up like so much firewood, in the aftermath of the Terminus invasion - and all the others. He was familiar with beings that imagined themselves to be immortal. There were ways to prove them false. He also knew, deep in his bones, that whatever horrors these people had done could be matched by anything he remembered when he closed his eyes. And so he didn't. Not now, anyway - instead giving his human or closer-than-she-thought-to-human friends a long, questioning look. 

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