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Happy Birthday To The Patriot

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The night of Ashley’s 30th birthday, she dozed on Stesha’s couch with a half-eaten small cake in front of her. Things weren’t as bad as they looked, she’d told herself before she’d closed her eyes. She’d had a perfectly fine party with the Raven family the weekend before, and Fa’Rua was finally getting two weeks on Earth starting the weekend afterwards, so they’d have a party of their own then. 


She’d left her personal League information blank when she’d joined, keeping it all safe behind the emergency contact paywall. Nobody knew her birthday, nobody knew her family, and that was how she liked it. Most of the time. 


So what if the only people in town who knew when her birthday were the tween she was babysitting at the behest of her work friend and her green-eyed baby brother? Amaryllis had gone to sleep after talking for hours to her friends on a League issue phone (she’d gotten some cake, Ashley figuring it was better to be indulgent than not and not minding a bit a reputation as a soft touch), Basil had fussed his way through dinner and then fallen asleep in his toddler bed, and the apartment was quiet. 


She set up the card she got from her mom to look at after she ate, a big cheery red HAPPY BIRTHDAY with a fluffy birthday cat that was her only companion before she closed her eyes for a few minutes. All right, it had been a tiring day, but doing things for your friends was what it was all about - especially if they were some of the greatest people in the world. In multiple senses of the word. 


Ashley had an uncanny knack for sensing danger; but of course Stesha’s return wasn’t dangerous at all. 




Ashley’s offer to Stesha, months earlier, had been tentative. “If you ever need anybody to watch your kids, consider me available.” She’d meant it, the New Years when Basil was very small and Amaryllis was just leaving her tweenhood behind, but hadn’t expected it to come up very much. Sure, Ashley herself had plenty of experience - more than anyone else on the League, when it came down to it. 


How often would a plant goddess on maternity/family leave with her own city full of people need a sitter, anyway? But Stesha had seen something in her offer, or maybe something in her, and so more than once she’d found herself pressed into a service that went beyond just being the Patriot. 


It honestly was - pretty good? Outside of humanitarian disasters and the occasional supervillainous attempt to kidnap the President, mind control him, or turn the population of Washington DC into gold, the Patriot generally didn’t work by surprise: which meant there were days (post office work) when she just didn’t know what to do with herself now that she wasn’t working full-time for the Secret Service anymore. With Fa’Rua still on the Moon, there’d been enough nights spent alone that she was happy to have something to do that didn’t involve work, super or otherwise. 


And this was a job she could do with some frequency. Stesha traveled a lot, but whether it was just taking personal days in Freedom City or doing humanitarian work all over the world, she seemed to return home refreshed and happy. She did most of her sitting in Freedom City, Stesha having a full roster of sitters at home back in Sanctuary. (It helped that Ashley herself tended to suppress weak superpowers when she was around, so she could make sure there were no ‘accidents’ in public without actually having to put nullifiers on a baby.) 


She’d often been accused of overthinking things. (Except of course by the Raven, who thought she didn’t think things through enough.) She knew objectively that being a babysitter wasn’t the same thing as being a parent - she’d learned that particular fact when she was babysitting five younger sisters at the age of 14, and she’d learned that again in much less stressful circumstances as the oldest aunt in an ever-growing family of nieces and nephews. (That didn’t even get into pretending to be a teenager and keeping a big-hearted but dopey First Daughter from getting herself killed or kidnapped by supervillains.) 


Being able to take Amaryllis out for the kind of fast food her mother didn’t like, or out to a neighborhood she’d never visited, with Basil riding along in a babyseat, then back to overnight with kids movies and videogames at Stesha’s apartment until she returned home, was definitely not the same as parenting. (Really, Amaryllis was old enough that she could plausibly have babysit herself and her little brother too, but as long as Ashley was taking her places her mother probably wasn’t interested in, this was more like an adventure with her little brother along than anything else.) 


It was almost certainly a lot better. It was a lot easier to be around kids when you never had to be the bad guy or the authority figure, when you were always Mom’s friend from work with the cool hair and the nice car. It wasn’t like she was spoiling them all the time or undermining her friend’s authority with her kids (well, kid - you can’t really undermine a baby’s relationship with their parent). The mom had the hard work. 


Which is what Ashley reminded herself every time Amaryllis (who was a pretty well-adjusted kid for the child of a world-famous single mom) said something clever, or Basil looked up at her with movie-star green eyes (or as the months went by, started waving up and babbling up, and even crawling around with much more speed than she’d have ever given a baby credit for.) Parenting would be much harder. Much harder. 


Stesha’s return was quiet, as usual, heralded not even by the opening of a door but by the gentle jingle of the bells she’d tied to the leaves of the enormous pothos in the corner of the living room. That had been a concession not only to Ashley, but to anyone who watched the kids and got jumpy at the thought of her just appearing in the room whenever she pleased. She probably could’ve simply put a plant in the common hallway and walked into the apartment, but the bell was a decent compromise. As soon as Stesha stepped into the room Ashley caught the strong smell of woodsmoke and charred greenery, almost strong enough to make her eyes water. Wildfires again, then. 


Within a few moments, Stesha had shucked off her cowl, boots and gloves and shoved them back into the plant, which cut down on the worst of the smoke smell. “Hey,” she greeted Ashley with a tired smile. “Sorry to be back so late. The wind was really not on our side today and things kept flaring up. But there were no bad injuries and we kept the damage to a minimum.” The tone of her voice wasn’t exactly triumph, but at least it was weary satisfaction. “How were the kids?” 


As she rounded the couch, Stesha caught sight of the little table display. “Oh, is today your birthday?” 


The part of Ashley that dealt with crises had awakened immediately when she heard Stesha come in. “It’s a good thing you were there. Those damn fires.” Australia was outside the Patriot’s purview, but she’d kept track of what was happening on her phone - and the League’s signal device - the whole evening. Just in case. “It was a good evening” she went on. “Ammy got some extra chocolate but I think she’s actually asleep, and Basil went out like a light when he had a full belly.” She smiled a little, thinking about the expression on the kid’s face, then realized what was in front of her. 


“Oh, uh, jeez, yeah, I didn’t - ah, I didn’t mean to leave that out,” she fumbled, thinking of the cake before the question Stesha had actually asked. She and Stesha had a good relationship, she was confident, but it was hard to forget the memory of Stesha, the wife of her high school science teacher, who’d always had a good word for the students.  “Everybody had a scheduling thing today.” Don’t look pathetic. “Ammy sang me Happy Birthday unprompted, she’s a good kid.” Automatically, she picked up the plastic cover to put it over the cake, then looked at Stesha. “Did you want a piece?” she asked. There were plastic utensils still out, and an extra plate.  


“Happy birthday!” Stesha told her, sounding sincere despite the tiredness. “I don’t think I can eat anything right now without it tasting like ash, but thank you. Now I’m doubly sorry I kept you so late.” She tugged off the protective cap that had been shielding her long green hair and shoved it into the plant as well. The plant was starting to look a little sorry for itself. “I appreciate you saying yes tonight, I could’ve put them in the creche on Sanctuary but they both prefer their own beds.” 


Stesha’s Freedom City apartment was sparsely furnished and looked like it was mostly secondhand pieces, but the fridge was nearly new and had a top of the line water filter. Stesha made use of it now, dispensing a tall glass of cold water and drinking the whole thing where she stood before refilling it and heading for a chair. “Did you do anything fun for your birthday?” 


“I’m always up for sitting,” said Ashley easily. “My nieces and nephews are halfway across the country. Gotta get my kid time in where I can.” She hesitated just a fraction at Stesha’s question and said “Some things fell through,” she admitted. “Everybody’s got some kind of crisis this month. But the Ravens gave me a party last week, and Fa’Rua’s coming next week, so we’re going to have some fun.” Stesha had met Ashley’s elven girlfriend, the Lor officer assigned to the small Lor facility in the Solar System, mostly when space crises came to Earth. From the sound of things, her work in near space kept her busy and off-planet most of the time. She took a moment to show off her new stud earrings, brightly colored tortoises that Judy Cahill had bought from their friend’s Etsy store. 


“My sisters pulled off a group Facetime with my mom, and for the first time nobody dropped the call or was on mute the whole time, so that was nice.” She’d poured herself a glass of water too, probably the best thing to drink this late at night, and smiled. “I turned twenty-seven and twenty-eight undercover, so this wasn’t so bad.” She hesitated again, finger over her mouth, before she went on. “You guys are still planning on Christmas back in Sanctuary, right?” 


“Yes, we spend most of our time in Sanctuary, except for weekdays in the school year,” Stesha agreed. “Amaryllis got to middle school and discovered extracurricular activities and now there’s not enough hours in the day for a commute between worlds.” She smiled a little ruefully. “But Nicholson has a few more days of holiday break than most schools, so we’ll be at home for a few weeks, at least. Not everyone on Sanctuary has Christmas traditions, but there are a lot of good midwinter and new year parties that go on.” Her smile toppled over into the humorous. “If you’re looking for a good Christmas tree, I can definitely hook you up.” 


“The Patriot’s Christmas tree is coming from Oregon this year,” said Ashley with a faint smile of her own, “don’t tell anyone I told you. North Carolina tree farmers just aren’t good enough Americans.” She hesitated again, looking down into her water, and pictured Stesha and her family and friends at Christmas. “I don’t really have Christmas plans yet. I might be down in New Orleans, I might be on the Moon, I…” She sat down her glass. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s stupid to make those kinds of plans in our business. There’s always somebody pulling some kind of crap around the holidays in this godforsaken town.”

She looked away, thinking about stories she’d heard about superheroes encountering Santa Claus, of all things. “I’d like to be able to make plans for the holidays that don’t involve my secretary and kids who want an autograph,” she admitted. “And where I can be sure everyone I want to be there will actually be there.” A question about how hard it had been to balance the holidays with Dark Star had died on her lips, because of course she knew the answer to that one. 


“The Patriot’s tree may come from Oregon, but Ashley’s tree doesn’t have to. You’re more than your uniform, especially at this time of year,” Stesha reminded the younger hero gently. “Sure you might be on call for part of the time, but you still deserve to make plans and go to see family and friends. One thing about hanging out with superheroes, there’s pretty much always someone who can get you a ride where you need to go!” She laughed a little. “The Moon’s a bit more of an ask, but I do know a couple people. Let me know if you need a lift sometime.”


“I…maybe a small one,” she said, allowing it after a moment’s thought. “I mean, it’s just - it’s just me on my boat, but I could get one of those little miniature trees and decorate it.” The picture flashed in her mind of her and Fa’Rua decorating the tree, or even just her herself, and it was a nice picture despite everything. Maybe she’ll be able to make it this year…God, Stesha’s so nice. Everyone on the League was when the chips were down, even Tiamat, and her professional identity was being a big fiery bitch. “I’ve never actually had my own Christmas tree,” she admitted. “But that would be nice. Thank you.” 


She thought about the people who’d be standing around that tree, hesitated, then said, “Stesha, I…I know it’s late and you already had a hard day saving western Australia, but can I ask you something personal?” She took a breath, and then said, “What made you decide you wanted to have kids?”  


Stesha’s eyes had been drifting downward, maybe even halfway to shutting, but they flicked upwards in surprise at the question. “Why did I want kids?” she asked. “I don’t know, I suppose I’ve always wanted them. I grew up in a big family, I have five siblings, and that was the sort of life I wanted to have myself. Loving marriage, lots of kids close together, some kind of job that I loved. The details were a little vague,” she admitted with a half-laugh. “Things didn’t turn out quite how I planned, but I got two great kids and I’m happy about that.” 


Steepling her fingers around her water glass, Stesha studied Ashley. “Nothing like a birthday to make you take a look at the direction your life is going, hmm?” she guessed. 


“Your kids are great,” Ashley told her sincerely, “I don’t know how you managed to be such a good mom, but you are. As for me, I was the total opposite,” she admitted. “My parents are Catholic. Five kids in ten years and I wanted nothing to do with that.” She snorted. “My first real boyfriend started planning how we’d have our first kid before we graduated, so that was a flat no.” She looked away, then said, “I…I actually like kids. I just didn’t think they were right for me. So I babysat when I started getting nieces and nephews, and I did teen mentoring…” 


Deep breath. Good soldier. “I want a baby,” she said, and for a minute she wasn’t crying, but she wasn’t talking either. When she could, she whispered “I know, it’s stupid. I can’t just take a year off to get pregnant…” The Patriot’s powers and training didn’t allow her to just get behind plant walls for a year, after all. “I want a family.”


Stesha’s eyes widened briefly at Ashley’s first declaration, but by the time she’d finished talking, the plant controller’s face had softened into sympathy. “It’s not stupid, not at all,” she assured Ashley, leaning forward in her seat. “Having a child, making a family, that’s one of the most beautiful and satisfying things anybody can do. It’s the deepest and most natural desire coded in our DNA, why wouldn’t you want it?” 


Setting aside her water glass, Stesha gave Ashely a long look. “It absolutely seems daunting, I understand that. With your powers, you probably would have to take time off. But anybody who wouldn’t let you, who wouldn’t encourage you,” she emphasized, “is a fool you shouldn’t be working for anyway. Do you know how many superheroes burn out from the work every year? From the loneliness and the ugliness and the same routine every night for a world that won’t stay saved?” Not waiting for Ashley to respond, she barrelled on. “You have to bank time and energy for your real human life because that’s what will keep you going when everything is way too hard. You need a family, whatever that looks like for you, because they’re going to keep you alive.” 


Ashley knotted her hands in front of her, seeming to stare at nothing. “...God, I didn’t even tell most of my super-friends that I’m the Patriot. Much less how jealous I am that they had kids that just fell out of a wormhole on them.” She took a breath. “I don’t…” She trailed off, her mind working faster than her mouth. She couldn’t look at Stesha, not with Basil asleep in the other room, and tell her that the Patriot needed to be married to have a family. Fleur de Joie didn’t have the same kind of people gunning for her job and her identity, in more ways than one. “I’ve never been very good at that. I can’t be in a room with my mentor without biting her head off, and the best relationship I’ve ever had is with a woman who doesn’t have to see me more than two or three times a month. God.” She still wasn’t crying, but her eyes were distinctly wet. 


“It doesn’t sound like you’re very happy with your life right now,” Stesha pointed out softly, without judgment. “You’ve chosen an especially hard row to hoe, being a government superhero with a set of strict rules to follow. If that’s something you want, then that’s great and you should keep doing it. But if it’s making your life worse, if it’s keeping you from living an authentic life with people you care about… maybe that needs to change?” There was something in Stesha’s face and voice that said she maybe understood the problem more deeply than Ashley would’ve guessed, but how did anybody ask that sort of question? 


Ashley hesitated, considering what Stesha’s words meant for both of them. “I wasn’t very happy before I put on the costume,” she admitted hoarsely. “So I can’t blame it all on the Patriot.” Unthinkingly, she ran her fingers over the place where her chest emblem was when she zipped up her jacket. “But you’re right. I have to figure out if I can be happy doing this.” She thought ahead, picturing what would certainly be a professional coming-out to match her personal one. “And that means figuring out how to be honest with the people I love - and figuring out how to have a family.” She hesitated, looking at Stesha and weighing her words. Commenting about how Stesha had been defending the world since she was in high school and deserved some of her own happiness seemed declasse - even if it was certainly true. She finally said, “And just for the record, if you ever decide you want an authentic life on Sanctuary with the kids or something, I will find a way to make that work, and so will everybody else on this planet. You deserve it.” 


Stesha gave her a smile for that, a smile that was surprisingly exhausted for someone whose dossier said she didn’t even need sleep. “I appreciate that, seriously,” she told Ashley. “I don’t know that I’ll ever find it in me to retire, not when nobody else can do exactly what I do, but I don’t mind riding the bench a little more this past couple of years.” 


She took a sip of her water and began working a couple of pins out of her tightly bound hair. “The world’s never going to get to a point where we can just make one big overwhelming effort and save it forever. Hero work is a marathon, not a sprint, and nobody can do it at full speed forever. Except maybe Dark Star,” she quipped, then looked like she wished she hadn’t. “In any case, I think you might find that being more comfortable in your personal life makes your work easier, and vice versa as well.” 


Oof. That had to hurt. Ashley got up and stretched, automatically throwing away her paper dish and plastic forks. It was not a long motorcycle ride back to her houseboat, even at this late hour. The city was usually quiet; there was time to think. “I have kept you on my bullshit long enough. Thank you, Stesha.” She hugged her friend lightly and said, “I’ll let you know how things turn out with - everything. Maybe someday we’ll-” She looked at the kids’ rooms, thought a minute, and decided it was better not to count her chickens before they hatched. “-do this again. Preferably without fire to go with it.” 


Stesha returned the hug, briefly surrounding Ashley in a cloud of fresh-grass-and-flowers scent, mixed liberally with woodsmoke. “Thanks so much for watching the kids, I know they have a good time with you. Let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to return the favor, all right? And not to be a yenta or anything,” she added, a twinkle in her eyes, “but if you’d ever like an authentic life on Sanctuary, I can guarantee there’d be a place for you, and plenty of available colonists around your age. But take care now, and drive safe!” 

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