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The morning sunlight streaming through the window of the modest apartment above the Espadas School School of Self-Defense and Swordsmanship took on pale renditions of the vividly hued flowers growing across the window sill and up the sides of its frame. The plants were flourishing despite the lingering chill of early spring and the curtains were open to allow the cascade of light to gradually work its way across the floor, over rumpled bedsheets and finally across the eyelids of the slumbering couple.


Ever the light sleeper, the leisurely way Erik Espadas opened his eyes belied the quickness with which he was alert, consciously choosing to luxuriate in the softness of the bed and the warm tangle of copper toned arms and legs wrapped around his own. Minerva's flowing white mane was practically a second blanket all on its own but with her lithe form pressed close against him Erik never would have noticed a draft anyway. He opened one eye wide enough to watch the familiar metronome twitch of her delicately pointed ear, in sync with the heartbeat in his chest and finally risked shifting from his immensely comfortable position to kiss the tip of the ear. Settling back down he rolled slightly to pull his wife further on top of his bare chest, lined and dimpled with faint scars, and murmured with feigned concern, "You know, Mrs. Espadas, I'm beginning to suspect this isn't a one night stand at all."

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Minerva smiled before opening her eyes, the amber orbs showing equal parts amusement and affection. "Are you complaining, dear husband?" she asked, snuggling against Erik while her fingers traced a lazy pattern between his numerous scars. "Perhaps next time you invite a strange woman into your home, one you had just found sleeping in a tree in your backyard, you shouldn't demonstrate your skill in the kitchen."

Erik knew Min didn't need to eat, and she often did not, unless he preparing the meal since Min genuinely loved Erik's cooking. That she stuck around only for his cooking was a familiar joke between the couple, a joke that just lightly brushed the surface of the truth; his offer of a warm meal got her in the door, his kindness got him into her heart.

Sitting up, letting the blankets pool around her hips, Min made a casual attempt to brush her hair back before looking down at her husband. "Good morning, love."

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"Who, me, complaining? Are you kidding?" Erik laughed musically, hands sliding up toned thighs to rest on his wife's hips, thumbs rolling in slow circles across the sides of her stomach. "You may not have married the sharpest foil on the rack, mi reina, but your hubby's no dummy." With her back to the window, Min's hair became a hazy nimbus of white light framing her silhouette and Erik found a rumble of contented approval emerging from deep in his chest. A year later he doubted he'd ever get tired of waking up that that. In fact he knew he wouldn't, he mentally corrected himself; knew with the same razor certainty that told him which way to step in a duel without question or hesitation. "Happy anniversary, love."

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Minerva stopped mid stretch, throughly enjoying Erik's ministrations, to cock her head to the side. "Has it truly been a year?" she asked. Her brow knitted, and her expression turned inwardly thoughtful as she mentally counted back the days. "Seems like we married only yesterday," she murmured.

At least she had the decency to blush at the comment, her pensive expression giving way to sheepish smile, as she leaned forward to give her husband a light kiss. "Please forgive me, Erik," she said, "I lost track of time." Which was the truth; for someone as long lived as the ancient guardian the days tend to blend together and unless she was careful she would lose track of days, after all it was easier to live moment-to-moment when your life spanned millennia.

Her smile became impish.

"I'll do anything to make it up to you."

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Given how low key their witnessed visit to City Hall had been and the way the dryad measured time more by the passing of seasons than calendar days Erik hadn't really expected her to have remembered the anniversary on her own but he wasn't above meeting her smile with a coy grin. "I dunno, Min, this is pretty serious. Probably need to brainstorm together to think of an appropriate apology." One hand left his wife's hip to pull her shoulder toward him for a longer, more heated kiss that offered some suggestions of its own.

* * * * *


Later, with the sun outside the apartment's windows considerably higher in the sky, Erik kept an eye on the stove top in their small kitchen and dining room where omelettes simmered. Adjusting the towel he's thrown around his waist right out of the shower, he looked over his shoulder at the toddler watching him intently from her highchair. "How're those cheerios working out for you, Edie?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Good, daddy," Eden chirped before spooning another mouthful of the oat ring cereal and banana into her mouth.


Min joined her husband and daughter a few minutes later. Her long white hair, still somewhat wet from the shower, was bound up in a length of green ribbon and she wore a comfortable skirt and blouse. Brushing her fingers through her daughter's hair, the dryad bent over to kiss the toddler on the top of her head.

"Something smells good," Min commented brightly, briefly joining Erik near the stove and kissing him lightly on the cheek before fetching a large glass of water. It wasn't for her to drink, of course, but to water the various plants that decorated the modest, but intimately cozy, apartment.

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"That'd be you, fresa," Erik replied smoothly, sliding the frying pan around without really looking and giving his wife a toothy grin. "Eggs are turning out alright, too, though, sure." Deciding that omelettes were indeed as ready as they were going to get, he slid them onto plates and then the plates onto the kitchen table before ducking back into their bedroom to quickly dress.

Emerging again in dark denim jeans and pulling a light long-sleeved shirt on over his head, Erik continued, "Mi hermanita should be over in about half an hour to watch Eden, then we've pretty much got the day to ourselves. Figured we could take a walk out through the forest, see what we felt like after that?"

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  • 3 weeks later...

Erik's initial comment made Minerva blush, and a hint of color still suffused her cheeks as she returned to the kitchen table. After checking on her daughter, who was still working her way through her own breakfast, the dryad settled into her own place at the table. She took a few bites of her omelette, making a happy sound of approval.

"I imagine I'll feel like all sorts of things," Min observed, winking at the swordsman. "Ellie doesn't mind?" she asked, her tone of voice becoming serious for a moment.

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Looking entirely too pleased with himself over Min's reaction, Erik shook his head as he sat down at the table himself. "She's got some reading to do, if you can believe it." Given the number of textbooks he'd seen his younger sister work through over the years he had a hard time believing there was still more medical knowledge for her to cram into her head but it seemed like there was always another journal or case study to work through. "She said it's just as east for her to do it over here. Plus I think she likes having me owe her one."

Once Ellie had arrived and gotten settled in, the celebrating couple stepped outside. Zipping up the front of his tan jacket, Erik offered Min the crook of his elbow as they walked down the street, shops opening their doors for the day while the smattering of coffee shops died down from the initial morning rush.

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The couple walking arm-in-arm wasn't an infrequent sight for this section of the West End; Erik himself, through the efforts of his self-defense school, had a measure of local celebrity, and they were met with the occasional nod and smile of greeting.

His wife was less well known but she was often seen volunteering time to neighborhood cleanup and beautification. There was also her hair, which was unusual, but the people of the West End didn't pry too much into it; the Espadas family was well regarded.

"You do good work," Min said, giving an appreciative look of the neighborhood. "I'm proud of you."

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Erik squared his shoulders a bit unconsciously and stood a little straighter, grinning broadly as he waved to a passerby heading in the opposite direction. "Well, y'know. I try." It didn't feel like all that long ago people in the West End were more likely to recognize him for the long string of part-time jobs and seasonal work that had seen him in more of the local shops and restaurants than not as he struggled to make ends meet. Being a business owner, a teacher and respected community leader was something else entirely and it was still a strange feeling.

Which may have explained why it wasn't until they were sauntering up the dirt path into the forest that he paid attention to the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. It was probably just the wind, of course, or simply a little paranoia. Even so... "Hey, you brought your seed pouch, yeah?"

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It took Min a moment to register Erik's question, there was always a moments distraction when she entered a forest, but she nodded.  She lightly touched the seed pouch on her hip, it was almost a tender gesture, just to confirm to herself that it was there.


"I would no more leave this seed pouch behind as you would your lighter, living with you has taught me to be prepared."


The dryad smiled at her husband, studying his face for a moment.


"Though with this much plant life around, the pouch is hardly required.  Why do you ask, beloved?"

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"Well, we do keep things pretty interesting, yeah," Erik agreed, a little distracted himself as he glanced over his shoulder and stood a little closer to Min. The fencer placed his arm over his wife's shoulders in a gesture that was a little more consciously protective than idly affectionate. "It's probably nothing, just had a weir--"

His sentence was cut off as a trio of six-pointed metal stars landed in rapid succession in the tree just ahead of them, sinking a good inch into the bark. Ducking his head reflexively, Erik rushed forward, pulling Min along as he quickly placed one of the larger trees nearby between them and the direction from which the shuriken had come. "Really?!"

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"Friends of yours?"

Min's voice was low and though she and her husband were just attacked it carried a small hint of amusement. Inwardly the ancient guardian held a small measure of respect, and wariness, for their attacker; it wasn't often someone could get the drop on a person whose sight and hearing well exceeded the norm.

"You've made a grave error, friend., in your choice of battleground. But seeing as you have harmed none, I will give you a chance to withdraw with no repercussions. Continue your assault, in my domain, at your peril."

The ancient guardian stepped out from behind the tree shielding her, not eager to fight but certainly ready to defend herself.

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As Min stepped out to get a better look a shadow in the distinctive blood red garb of a Katanarchist dropped soundlessly down from the upper branches of a nearby tree, wickedly sharp sword in one hand and another trio of throwing stars in the other... and collided painfully with the ground, letting out a pained groan before going completely limp. Her eye was immediately drawn back upward as the familiar sounds of steel on steel and the meaty impact of body blows rang out in the foliage overhead. Erik was only a step behind her, lighter in hand but cautiously closed and unlit as he scanned the shaking branches for a better look at the scuffle.
Another pair of ninjas toppled out of the trees with yelps of surprise, landing atop their brother already on the forest floor in an artful pile. Finally a fourth figure somersaulted gracefully into view, one booted foot coming down squarely atop the heap of fallen ninjas in a jaunty pose. With a thin rapier place balanced over one shoulder and a blond goatee that ended it a well defined point, the swordsman cut a dashing silhouette despite the laugh lines scoring his high cheekbones suggesting that he was well into his fifties. With twinkling, sky blue eyes that matched the sparkling white teeth revealed by his grin, he bowed deeply in the dryad's direction, flourishing with his free hand in a manner that was naggingly familiar. "Well spoken, ma bichette, mais never let it be said Jean Pique stood by while une demoiselle was beset by scoundrels such as these!" he announced with a noticeably French accent before turning to Erik. "Hallo, mon fils. Quoi de neuf?"

"Still not fluent in French, if that's what you're asking, old man," Erik grumbled, putting away the lighter but taking a step toward the new arrival that placed him just a little bit ahead of Min. "What's going on here?"

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Min initially gave Jean a cursory glance before turning her attention to the shuriken embedded in the nearby tree, giving the tree a gentle pat after she removed them. Unceremoniously dropping the metal stars next to one of their assailants--she truly was unconcerned about returning a weapon to a likely foe--she rejoined her husband.

"Ah, so you do know them, or at least one of them."

The dryad was speaking to Erik, in a voice that managed to sound both amused and accusatory at the same time, but her gaze didn't leave the older man. She gave Jean a faint smile.

"My husband cuts to the heart of the matter, I would consider it a favor if you answer true."

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Pique adopted a wounded expression, placing his free hand over his heart. "Ah, you haven't told your lovely lady wife about me?" he asked Erik reproachfully.

"Yeah, I guess somehow she missed seeing all those family photos you were around for," the younger man shot back bitingly, teeth grinding slightly while he rolled his shoulders and forced them to relax. "Weird." Letting out a slow, controlled breath the fencer cracked his neck once then folded his arms across his chest. "Min, meet my father. Y'know, French expatriate, former Jack of Swords, the guy who walked out on us before mi hermana was born..."

This time the Frenchman's wince was subtler and less theatrical but he didn't argue the point. "Oui, well, perhaps it's not so surprising I wasn't invited to the wedding, non. I don't suppose you would accept my congratulation, hm?" With a shrug that bought him a moment to regain his composure, Pique continued, "Still, I am the lesser evil afoot aujourd'hui!"

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  • 4 weeks later...

"Thank you, Jean."

It was Spring, so it was easier for Min to be cordial. It's also easy to be polite when one is practically standing in their place of power and possesses every advantage from doing so. The dryad also had no (direct) personal stake in Jean's abandonment of his son and daughter, but where it Winter she may not have been so nice. She even smiled.

"What do you mean 'lesser evil?' I'm familiar with the phrase, and I imagine you mean your unexpected and unnaounced insertion into your offspring's life, but what is this greater evil? These other attackers?"

Min raised a snow white eyebrow.

"What do you know?"

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"Ho, there is a loaded question!" Pique chuckled roguishly, smoothing one side of his moustache with a pair of fingers. For all his easygoing manner both Erik and Min noticed from the way he subtly tilted his head that he was listening intently to their surroundings. "The answer could fill many a book, even after les censeurs had had their bloody way with the text!"

"Watch it," Erik warned in an irritated growl, stance shifting back and forth minutely as he reflexively forced tense muscles to stay loose and ready. "Just spit it out."

Pique's mouth twitched with the half-apologetic look of a man who knew he was pushing his luck with an inappropriate comment but was evidently powerless to hold it in. "Well, I was holding out for the most dramatic timing, mais-- ah, there we are!"

As the words left his mouth the brush around them in the forest was suddenly alive with bursts of smoke obscuring forms dropping from upper branches and stepping out from behind tree trunks. "The Katanarchists and our estranged family in la Maison d'Épées have come to an arrangement and you, mon fils, are part of the bargain." The smoke thinned enough to clearly make out at least a dozen ninja in crimson robes brandishing their namesake blades and surrounding the trio, with just as many more holding back slightly to avoid getting in their comrades' way. Pique gestured leisurely with the hilt of his sword. "Shall we?"

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Min sighed and the forest surged around her, wrapping the white haired woman's body in a layer of foliage that shifted and transformed itself into her signature armor. A series of vicious looking thorns sprouted along the forearms of her armor, and her hands were obscured by what looked like massive claws, but for all the menace the plant armor provided there was a spot of color as wildflowers sprang into bloom.

"They are to be disappointed."

The ancient guardian's tone of voice was still conversational, but there was a distinct edge to it.

"He is mine, and I did warn them about antagonizing me in my domain."

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"Somewhat possessive, hm?" Pique noted offhandedly as the Katanarchists in the outer ring surrounding them wasted no time letting loose a barrage of deadly sharp shuriken. The throwing stars were easily parried by the Fenchman's rapier or collided noisily with Willow's wooden armor without doing any serious damage but the veritable hail of slicing metal provided ample distraction for the rest of the ninjas to charge forward, blades flashing.

With a sword of flame erupting into being in his hand, Erik knocked one projectile aside and reduced another to misshapen metal slag before neatly sidestepping a thrusting katana. "She can afford to be." The shape of his blade shifted slightly, flattening and broadening into a curved scimitar that blocked a pair of parallel strikes from two particularly well coordinated ninja. "Hff. So this thing is bad enough you felt obligated to swing by?"

"Dozens of ninjas ambushing mon soleil et belle-fille wouldn't be 'bad enough'?" the older man questioned, his expression a bit hurt as he tripped one Katanarchist into the path of another. "That's hardl-- nngh!" The distraction of the conversation was enough to let a third ninja slip past Pique's blade and land a long gash across his side.

Erik was forcing the ninja back immediately, placing himself in the way and giving his father a chance to recover. "Dammit, old man, you're getting sloppy!" he barked, fiery sword flaring to match his heated words even as he snuck a glance over his shoulder to make sure Pique was going to be alright. "Min?"

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A number of blades, Willow wasn't entirely sure how many, managed to penetrate her armor and come away with a hint of crimson on their edges. It was a superficial wound, one that rapidly healed almost as soon as it was inflicted, not that the dryad was terribly worried in the heart of her domain.

The forest responded in anger, however, with a sudden wild surge of growth. Low lying vines and brush grew lush and thick, hampering the movement of those around her (but curiously avoiding Erik and Jean) while some vines actively sought out anything living and attempted to seize hold of it and drag it down to submission.

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The Katanarchists were skilled, faster and stronger than the ones Erik recalled fighting in the past - or at least better trained to work as a cohesive unit and better prepared for the targets they'd been sent to engage. What that training evidently had not covered, however, was what to do when the battlefield itself turned against them.
Vines shot forth from a dizzying array of angles, snaking around wrists and ankles, slapping weapons out of hands and pulling their targets down to the forest floor. A few of the ninjas were wrapped up in flora cocoons before their allies had a chance to even realize what was going on. The rest were canny enough to place themselves back to back, slicing away at the attacking foliage with their blades but under Willow's stewardship the greenery regrew anything that was cut away more quickly than the Katanarchists could keep up. By the time her first attack subsided the clearing was littered with struggling bundles of vines while one lone ninja remained free and mobile, considerably less certain of his position than he had a minute before.

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As the last ninja made ready to bolt for it, Erik raised a calming placating hand. "Hey, woah, it's alright man," the fencer assured the ambusher in a soothing tone even as vines continued to rile about their feet. Jean had recovered enough to get his feet back under him and prod one of the flora-bound Katanarchists curiously with his sword, some mixture of annoyance at being struck and appreciation for Min's dominating show of force on his face. "Obviously this didn't go the way you were planning, yeah? How about we all just calm down?"

The sword wielding cultist hesitated, looking as if he might be considering the suggestion. Before he could, however, Erik sprung forward like a coiled jungle cat and brought an overhand slash of his own fiery blade down across the ninja. The katana clattered to the forest floor in too pieces, glowing red hot where it had been sliced in half. Its user fared better, the metamagi pulling his proverbial punch to merely knock him unconscious and seriously singe his robes. "It's our damn anniversary, jackass," Erik muttered angrily to the fallen opponent.

"Is it really?" Jean interjected, surprised. Well! Joyeux anniversaire, then!"

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Thank you."

Min gave her father-in-law a faint smile, silently appraising his injuries and not seeing anything life threatening that would require her intervention. Something the dryad was silently thankful for, she wasn't exactly designed to heal so it took a lot out of her. Min rejoined her husband's side, keeping an eye on their subdued attackers.

"You should come with us and meet your granddaughter."

She looked at Erik.

"This is the second time in little under two years that this House of Swords has attacked me or mine. It's time to consider taking the fight to them, and soon, to send the message that certain things are off limits."

"Unless you'd prefer we wait until winter."

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