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The mid-March weather was warming up just enough to make being outside bracingly brisk rather than an invitation to numbness and a lingering ailment. Wildlife had begun to return and become active again, the still largely bare trees home to more chirping birds than layers of snow.

As he adjusted the sizeable pack slung over both shoulders and trekked further into the Wharton State Forest, Erik Espadas had a moment of unusual introspection and reflected that the gradual thaw wasn't dissimilar to the slow return to normalcy after his sister's kidnapping by the cosmic villain known as the Curator and eventual rescue. Then again, the wide eyed infant strapped into a harness across the dusty brown haired fencer's chest was a potent reminder that the normal of the day was a far cry from what normal had looked like a year before.

He hadn't been camping since well before he'd taken up the heroic identity of Jack of all Blades but given the connection the mother of his child shared with the natural world, it was something they'd intended to do for a while. In the fallout of what the media had insisted on titling the Day of Wrath, however, he'd been reluctant to let Ellie too far out of his sight and had ultimately dragged not only her but her girlfriend and their adopted younger sister along as well.

"C'mon, ladies," he called over his shoulder. "Almost there! ...I think."

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"You think?" Mara protested, following behind with a pack which, while not quite as large or heavy as Erik's, betrayed that she was in better shape than first impressions would lead one to believe...though she was pretty sure that too much of this was going to leave her awfully sore.

The young engineer had never been camping, and hadn't taken much convincing when asked to try it out - especially for Ellie's sake. She'd quickly decided that the worst part so far was the quiet - like someone struck blind turning their head in search of light, she kept catching herself mentally checking for machines to talk to in the relative absence of the ever-present hum of technology.

It was kind of unsettling.

"You 'think'. We are going to get lost," she dryly suggested, "and then we are going to get eaten by bears. We will be bear poo. Don't think that's a good way to go."

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Working to keep up with the taller campers while carrying the backpack of her extra clothing she'd insisted on being responsible for herself, Yolanda covered her mouth with both hands before more than a giggle could escape at Mara's grim prediction and amusing choice of words. More than a year after evacuating to Earth-Prime the now seven year old had regained much of the natural energy that went hand in hand with her stout, active frame but was still quieter than most of her peers at the Nicholson School. Letting her actions speak for her seemed to suit her just fine, however, as she jogged about the forest foliage, intent on picking up and examining every loose stick and rock.
"Don't think of it as 'lost'," Ellie advised her girlfriend with a ghost of a smile ruining her deadpan. "Think of it as 'exploring'." A month earlier the prospect of leaving civilization behind wouldn't have been well received by pre-med student, not after spending weeks stranded on the Curator's deserted faux-planet. With more time to recover, though, she was glad for an excuse to spend uninterrupted time with her family. Armed with the knowledge that they could return to the city at any time, she found the walking through the tranquil forest holding Mara's hand soothing for nerves that were still a bit ragged from her ordeal.

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"There are worse ways to go," Min observed.  "But you could eat the bear first; apex predators that you are."
She adjusted the pack she was carrying--food mainly, a few toys for Eden, and some baby care items--and took in a deep breath, letting it out in a very contented sigh.  There had been a gradual though noticeable change come over the elfin-eared woman as the group headed deeper into the forest; Min's eyes were a warm golden color, her copper colored skin was more radiant and her wild mane of long white hair was practically luminescent.
As she responded to the forest, so too did the forest respond to her.  It was a subtle thing but the observant would note that the undergrowth, even though it was relatively light this time of year, shifted away from her to not hinder her progress and her barefoot progress through the state park was leaving no footprints.
"I lived out here for a time, you know.  Here, parks around the city, the occasional tree in a backyard."
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The subtle but effusive glow that had come over Min was not lost on or unappreciated by Erik judging from the grin he sent her way. It was the sort of expression that would likely prove unbearably embarrassing to their daughter when she was old enough to appreciate it. "The backyard tree thing worked out pretty well, considering," he opined innocently, ducking until a branch.

"I just can't get over your bare feet not falling off in this weather, hermana," Ellie added, wincing involuntarily at the thought of the prickly twigs and chilled air. She knew perfectly well that exposure meant next to nothing to the immortal dryad but it was still disconcerting to see. Forcing herself to stop staring, she gave Mara's hand a light squeeze and asked in a lowered voice, "How you holding up in the tech-free zone?"

With a faint, serious frown Yolanda caught up to Min after making a thorough accounting of some moldy bark. "What did you eat, then?" she asked soberly, looking up at the guardian with intent, wide eyes. "Not bears. ...right?"

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"It's...really quiet," Mara admitted, squeezing Ellie's hand back and flashing her a little smile. "Kind of hard to explain. Can't hear machines like I could when I was little, but still, they're...like being in a room full of people. Can't make out all the conversations, but can hear the background noise of their talking. Makes the forest feel really empty."

She used her free hand to adjust her pack a little, taking a deep breath of the March air. "Still. Silence is kind of peaceful. How are you doing?"

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Min caught Erik's grin and mirrored it, sealing Eden's fate to a life of perpetual parental embarrassment.


"No," Min said with a chuckle and a shake of her head. "I did not eat the bears, Yoyo.  Strictly speaking, I do not need to eat, but I do because I enjoy the experience; and Erik is a joy to watch in the kitchen."  Well, that was normally the case, but through her pregnancy and while she was still nursing Eden, the ancient guardian did require some small measure of nourishment.


"I also tend to run a little warmer than most," Min continued, looking up from the seven year old to direct a shrug at Ellie.  "It's not that I don't feel the weather, I do, it is more that my temperature tolerance runs a bit extreme."


"And, well, I like feeling the ground under my feet."

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Yolanda considered Min's explanation thoughtfully for a few silent moments before deciding that they bore out and nodding gravely. "That's why Erik is always saying how hot you are," the girl deduced, processing the new information she'd been given and considering how it fit with what she already knew.

"Yes. Yes, it is," her adopted brother agreed with a light cough, perfectly happy to allow that minor misunderstanding save him a more difficult explanation. The young dimensional refugee tended to be a little quicker on the uptake than Erik expected and he's already been take off-guard by her pointed questions in the past.

"One of the other girls in my class can set herself on fire only it doesn't hurt her," Yolanda noted, bending down to pick up an interestingly shaped rock and turn it over in her hands. "She's gotta super careful, though, and she has to wear special gloves just in case. If people can have powers, what about other things?" she asked, abruptly taking another direction in her inquiries. "Like bears?"

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"I'm... alright," Ellie answered Mara's question with some hesitancy, weighing the sentiment in her mind to decide how true that was. "The sleeping outside and everything wasn't really the worst part of... y'know. That whole thing." It was still difficult to talk about her abduction and imprisonment. Whenever she tried the words felt clumsy and wrong in her mouth, insufficient to the task. "It was more all the not knowing. Where we were, why we were taken, if you were okay." Pulling her shoulders inward reflexively not coincidentally brought her closer against the engineer's side. "That said, thanks for agreeing to come along. Don't think I would have been up for this without you here."

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"Always," Mara replied, with a matter-of-fact tone the meant she thought it went without saying, but was worth saying anyway. "Anytime you need anything. Including bears," she mused, a little louder and directed toward Yolanda. "Ways to stop bears, I mean. Cannot actually supply bears, or superhu--mmh. Superursine bears. But could defeat them. With science. Forest science."

She paused, glancing up at the trees, with their twigs and leaves and distinct lack of oil and plastic and metal. "....probably."

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"I have seen many strange things over the years, young one," Min said to Yolanda. "A superursine, as Mara put it, is not outside the realm of possibility. I don't think any such bear--super or otherwise--that we encounter would be hostile beyond reasoning, but I have complete confidence in our engineer's ability to protect us."

The dryad glanced back as she spoke, smiling at Mara and Ellie both. Min didn't speak to either of them much, she never knew what to say to either of the brilliant young women, but she loved being in their company. She had hid it well, but the white-haired woman reached a state of incandescent fury at her "brother" The Curator's snatching of Ellie, and was also sick with worry when Mara mounted the rescue mission--anger and anguished worrying vanishing upon both women's safe return.

They were her family, and the ancient protector wanted to keep them safe.

"Tell me more about your school, Yoyo," Min prompted, forcing her thoughts off of the past.

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"It's kinda like my old school," Yolanda reported after some thought, momentarily deterred from more bear related questions by the direct inquiry, "but not really. Lots of the other kids have powers that make then really good at stuff and it's harder now that I'm in Grade 2." The girl didn't seem overly bothered by the challenge; Nicholson was, by necessity, good at tailoring curriculum to the individual student and Yolanda was both bright and athletic by any reasonable measure. "I'm glad Ellie's not so busy anymore and can help with my homework again."


The university student's expression went taut for a moment, her body stiffening against Mara as she tried to hide how stricken she was. "Of course, Yoyo. Any time." The Curator's doppelganger hadn't bothered to keep up with the more easily dismissed aspects of Ellie's busy schedule but the whole thing had been too difficult to explain to the young refugee. Yolanda had only just started to truly feel safe again after the loss of her homeworld. All Ellie could do was try to make it up to her now.


With a light cough, Erik gracefully changed the topic, gesturing to a break in the trees. "Here we are, ladies! Told you I knew where we were going." The clearing was a sizable circle of grassy dirt that had obviously been used as a campsite many times over the years, though less frequently than the bottle and litter strewn spots they'd left closer to the edge of the forest.The absence of stumps suggested the clearing had formed naturally while a circle of stones formed a simple firepit at its center.

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Mara squeezed Ellie's hand as she stiffened, and then slid her own pack off with a satisfied noise, carefully setting it down near the edge of the circle and stretching. "No bears, either," she complimented, casting an eye around the clearing. "Good job. Faith in you is restored. As long as you also know the way back out."

She was silent for a beat as she looked around again, and then she ducked her head a bit. "I...have never been camping," she admitted, grimacing. "Haven't even really been this deep into nature when there weren't criminals or vampires or whatever. What do we do now?"

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"First priority is shelter," Min said shucking off her backpack and setting it next to the fire pit.  Her hand went to her hip, and the ever present small brown leather pouch, but froze when her fingers brushed the drawstring.  With a faint shake of her head, the dryad moved her hand away and went to help Erik out of his own pack, pausing for a brief moment to kiss her daughter on the forehead before leaving her in the care of her father.
"But Erik and I, with Yolanda's help, can take care of that," she continued while pulling a tarp and the tent from Erik's bag. "Why don't you two find us some firewood?"
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Eden made a happy sound at her mother's touch, waving arms bundled in miniature winter clothes and knitted mittens that matched the white cap covering her flaxen hair. The infant's rosy cheeks dimpled around a wide smile apparently unconcerned with the brisk weather. Her father offered the index finger of one hand for her to grab onto and pull up and down enthusiastically. Erik used his other hand to set down his pack and start removing the collapsible tent pieces within. Yolanda was already waiting expectantly beside him to receive and sort the components with surprising gravitas for her age and stature, immediately focused once given a task and responsibility.
"We'll be back in a bit, then," Ellie agreed with an affectionate smile for the children and an appreciative look for Min despite the downturn her mood had taken. Her brother had been making a point of having the family together as much as possible since her rescue but the dryad had better understood the young woman's need for occasional moments of quiet as well. "Don't worry, hermana, we'll stick to wood that's fallen on its own," she promised, pulling Mara along with her. "Might take a bit."

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"Spare tent in my pack," Mara called out as she was pulled away, albeit with little protest. "Just in case!"

"....she'll understand," she said, as soon as they were out of easy earshot. "Yolanda, I mean. She's smart - don't say that lightly. And she's seen...a lot of things. Will probably figure it out herself eventually." The young woman paused, letting go of Ellie's hand only long enough to duck down and grab a decent-sized branch off the ground. "...sorry. Not very helpful. ...mmh...how much wood, do you think? And dry grass maybe, if there is any; surface area to chemical potential to heat?"

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"I know," Ellie agreed, looking down at her feet and wrapping her arms around herself once Mara let go of her hand. "She's such a good kid. I know mi hermano and I were way bigger pains at that age. It's just... I promised I'd be there for her and I wasn't." Sighing self consciously, the young woman scooped up a few loose branches of her own. "I'm not blaming myself, obviously, but I still wasn't there."

Back at the campsite the tarps upon which the tents would be set up had been rolled out and Erik was in the process of undoing the straps of the harness holding Eden against his chest so that he could hand her to Min and begin hammering in the tent pegs. "Decided to do things the old fashioned way, huh?" he grinned as he cradled his daughter in one hand and leaned in close enough to kiss her mother on the cheek, enjoying the contrast of her distinctive scent against the stark freshness of the forest air. "Well, I guess your way is more old fashioned, technically. You know what I mean."

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  • 2 weeks later...
Min chuckled.
"Yes beloved, I do know what you mean," she said as she received her daughter from Erik so he could work on the tents.  "We could find us a cave somewhere if we really want to get old fashioned," the dryad continued, smiling.  "But I have no desire to share sleeping arrangements with bears, super or not."  Cradling Eden against her with one arm as she talked, Min helped fish the other supplies Erik and Yolanda needed to set up the tents.
"Besides," the amber-eyed woman said in a very pleased sounding tone, "This way I get to watch you work."
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Eden responded to the chuckle with a bubbling giggle, reaching for her mother's long white hair with insistent fingers. Bowing with a flourish, Erik replied, "Happy to oblige." The swordsman made something of a show of his work though with his heavier clothing much was left to Min's imagination and an unexpected stone buried right where one of the pegs needed to go necessitated some unexaggerated work.

"I don't think I like caves much," Yolanda interjected softly, dutifully pulling the tent's lining over on of the pegs before scrambling over the clearing's ground to the next corner. Frowning slightly she added more quietly, "Definitely not underground ones, anyway."

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"Knowing you shouldn't blame yourself and not blaming yourself are not the same thing," Mara pointed out - her tone wasn't reproachful, just the sympathetic voice of experience. "I...don't have useful advice, I think. Not very good at it. But will always be here if you need anything." She paused for a beat, blinking once as her reply and the topic of conversation collided in her head. "....unless I get kidnapped by aliens. Then you have to take a ship out to find me," she insisted, gesturing at Ellie with a stick.

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"That actually works out alright, since you being there is the only thing I really need," Ellie murmured with a quirk of a smile that didn't make the saccharine words any less heartfelt. Wandering over, she leaned against her shorter girlfriend's shoulder, lightly knocking her hip into Mara affectionately. "I would, too, you know. Go find you." The young woman sighed, shoulders slumping slightly. "Pretty done with the damsel in distress thing. Just when I thought I was over the whole mind control thing."

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"Pretty sure you've paid your dues by now," Mara wryly agreed. "Damsel tax. Paid up for years - any more kidnapping and the universe owes you kittens and rainbows. Possibly rainbow kittens."

She leaned up to give Ellie a quick kiss on the cheek, returning the hip bump as she settled back down and got a better hold of her collection of sticks. "Would offer you armor so you could punch Ellie-stealing idiots with science, but not really your style? Also, wouldn't be able to wear your pants anymore. And I would be sad."

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"We'll stay above ground and avoid the caves then," Min solemnly told Yolanda, treating the young girl's objection with gravitas.  "I don't particularly care for caves either, I prefer trees and open sky."  She chuckled,  "Naturally."  Gathering up a strand of her hair and putting it into Eden's hand, and receiving a pleased sounding burble in response, the dryad settled on the ground watching Erik and Yolanda.  She had her head cocked to the side as if she where listening to something, a faint smile forming.  "How are your tree climbing skills, Yoyo?"
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Snorting, Ellie wandered off far enough to retrieve another few branches of fair size. "True, I don't have the the lights-behind-the-eyes to work one of your suits properly," she observed, looking back over her shoulder at Mara and placing her free hand on her hip. "You could stand to mention the pants appreciation more often, though."

Yolanda stopped what she was doing and walked quickly over to where Min was seated, looking down at the druid with a grave expression. "I am the best at climbing trees," she answered somberly, folding her arms and jutting her chin out slightly. "Lucie at school is faster but she's half Avian even if her wings haven't grown in all the way yet and we all agreed that's sort of like cheating."

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"It's a design problem," Mara admitted, though her outward attention was precisely where her attention should have been, which came back to bite her when she nearly ran into a tree. "The suit interface, I mean. Good security, easy interface design, but making something usable by someone else would be difficult. Interesting, though."

She smiled, though with great effort she kept her tone scientific. "Pants, no design problems. Ideal shape and cut. Cut is easier - shape is mysterious. Sometimes suspect there may be something supporting pants to provide the shape. Requires more research."

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