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March 20, 2015

 

It wasn't that Erik Espadas was expecting trouble, not really, but he subscribed to the idea that it paid to be the one carrying the biggest stick. Or to be friends with the people carrying the biggest sticks, anyway.

 

When they'd worked out the rough schedule for Min's pregnancy nobody had been particularly surprised to find her due date landed on the vernal equinox. After the unexpected 'visit' by his extended family in the House of Swords for the birth of his first daughter, though, a whole different sort of planning had seemed in order this time around, just to be safe. Stesha had offered to host them on Sanctuary, of course, but even with one or two super-powered healers on hand the idea of being in a whole different reality from the closest modern hospital made Erik a little nervous. If he were being completely honest with himself there was also the fact that he wanted his second child to be born in Freedom City's West End just as he had. If was their home and he wasn't about to let anyone chase them out.

 

That said, even if they weren't going to an earth goddess, the earth goddess could still come to them. A good section of the first floor of the Espadas School of Self-Defense and Swordsmanship (!) was covered in toys where Stesha was keeping watch over Eden and Amaryllis laughing and playing, chatting amiably with Gina. Nearby Mara and Liz were engaged in an animated discussion of tweaks and improvements to the building's security over a folding table covered in computer equipment including a laptop displaying Vince's neon-green suit wearing avatar. They'd sent Chris out to get food mostly because it seemed like the only way to keep him from standing watch on the top of the building in full costume while Steve had insisted on standing guard, gargoyle like, outside of the second floor apartment where Ellie was making her sister-in-law comfortable. Yolanda had taken up a position across from Steve, solemnly following the taciturn bald man's example.

 

It was, all told, a small army of love and support. Not that that stopped Erik himself from pacing back and forth with nervous energy, his gaze jumping back and forth between the stairs, the clock and Eden, hands clasped behind his back.

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With the girls happily sharing crayons and butcher paper for the moment, Stesha rose from her seat and walked over to Erik. She interrupted his pacing by waiting for him at the turn, then putting her hands on his shoulders. "Everything's going to be just fine," she reminded him soothingly. "Min's as healthy as can be, right at term, and with a couple of top-notch healing types on hand. And anybody who is foolish enough try to crash this party is going to get a very rude surprise. I've already been in touch with all the trees outside, and the lawn. If they somehow escape Steve's notice, they're still unlikely to make the front door. Why don't you sit down for a minute?" she suggested. "You're going to want all your energy once the action really gets started." 

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"You are growing quickly," commented Steve after he and Yolanda had stood together in the corridor for a companionable little while. He certainly wasn't lying - like most children on Earth-Prime, she looked impossibly well-fed and treated to his eyes, but even more so than most it was clear she was growing into strength and dexterity. "They treat you well at your school."

 

"I can bench sixty-five pounds," agreed Yolanda with a quick nod. "I'm the strongest kid in my class without any powers." 

 

"Good," said Steve with a serious nod. "Your flesh and blood give you strength - just as your will does." He wouldn't have talked this way to most children on Earth-Prime, but then Yolanda was unlike most children in this place. The eyes. The eyes were familiar. He looked away, for a moment unable to bear their gaze. "So...soon there will be another child in the family. Your thoughts?" 

 

"S'okay. Erik and Min are a good mom and dad. They'll take good care of the baby, just like they do with Eden." She rocked lightly back and forth on the balls of her feet, reminding him very much of a smaller version of Erin White. "Are you and Miss Americana ever going to have kids?" 

 

Steve smiled, faintly, quickly, imagining that conversation with Gina - and knowing what he could never have. He looked down at Yolanda and shook his head definitively. "...no." 

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"Pneumatic net gun," Mara mused. One of her little drones was sitting amidst the parts and wires, little legs deployed and its great eye pointed straight up. Said eye was flickering, a translucent projection of something straight out of a steampunk convention floating above the table. "Electronics being shut down is interesting," she admitted, frowning at the projection - it twitched, a couple parts being swapped out and streamlined. "As challenge, I mean. No guarantees someone would try it again. No guarantees they wouldn't. Pays to plan. Would normally favor high-force, low-damage explosives - knock targets away, disrupt enemies, knock-up and let pavement hurt them - but most ingredients are volatile or toxic in some way."

Lights danced behind her eyes, gaze unfocusing for a moment as she checked in with her drone network. They were set up around the building, inside and out, forming a cloaked security camera network that was...less complete than she'd have liked, but better than nothing. Her babies didn't operate well without her suit active, but they had simple instructions: watch for danger, physically get her attention if they saw any.

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"Huh? No, I-- I'm good," Erik insisted distractedly, carrying on for a handful of paces before stopping awkwardly mid-step as Stesha's words actually caught up with him. He had to blink a few times before they actually sunk in and he could give the green haired woman a sheepish look. "Sorry, Sprouts, just feel like I ought to be doing something useful. I know everything's covered and nobody's heard anything from the Swords on this coast for months and of course everything's going to be fine and--" He stopped halfway through his rambling sentence to let out a long breath and slump his shoulders. "...Ellie kicked me out of the bedroom until it's time."
 
"An' show'er col'ring an' make pic'ures an' bes' movies an' cer'al an'..." Eden was explaining to Ammy very seriously as she made judicious use of a brown crayon to fill in the truck of the massive tree that was making shape across one corner of the roll of butcher paper the girls were sharing. The toddler had become increasingly vocal over the past few months and she understood enough about what was going to to know she was going to get to be the big sister just like how Ammy was bigger and got to do things first and show Eden how they worked. Her excited babbling had hit most of the same handful of highlights over and over again for the entire morning so far but she didn't show any signs of slowing down or even taking a break.
 
Smiling indulgently, Gina wheeled herself back a few feet away from the girls to get a better look up the stairs. "Yoyo!" she shouted with the directed volume developed over years of motherhood, "You're not bothering Steve, are you?"

 

"No, abuela!" the stocky little dimensional refugee shouted back with equal abandon, cupping her hands around her mouth before settling back into her skilled imitation of the big man's somber quiet. Gina was Yolanda's legal guardian of paper but with the elder Espadas taking the role of grandmother more often than not in the past three years it had ultimately felt more natural to settle on that dynamic. Turning her attention back to Steve, she considered his answer for a while before deciding, "That's okay. Even if you don't wanna be a dad I think you're a good uncle. It's kinda the same but not."

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Chris crashed through the door, plastic bags dangling from each arm as he struggled with a handful of brown paper bags. "I have the food!" he announced. "I didn't know what everyone liked, so I just got stuff." He staggered over to the nearest available surface and dumped his cargo of edibles. 

 

"Except pneumatics aren't exactly maintenance-light," Liz was musing to Mara. "You could still use chemical explosives, and get around any toxicity by regular maintenance like you'd end up having to do on pneumatics." She was suddenly ambushed from behind as Chris poked his head over her shoulder and balanced a bowl of nachos on her head. 

 

"What if you got mechanized pneumatic maintenance?" he sprayed through nacho crumbs. "Like, wall-roombas. Wallbas."

 

"Dammit, Kenzie, that's..." Liz reached up to pull the bowl off her head, and stuffed some nachos in her mouth. Her brow furrowed. "Probably workable?" she said morosely with a muffled voice. "Would that work, Hallomen?

 

Satisfied, Chris kissed Liz on the head and leaned back. "See, Erik! Keep your mind busy." He produced a hot dog from his pocket, holding the bun out as he yanked a small bottle of mustard from inside his leather jacket. "Or have a hot dog."

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"Mara," the young woman corrected, involuntarily wincing at the use of her last name. "Meant toxicity concerns when setting up - babies and young children around, putting things in mouths, so on. For long-term defenses, perfectly viable given time to set up. Maintenance...."

She bit her lip, turning that one over in her head. "Could work, sure, with sufficient time and testing. Maintenance recursion concerns - have to maintain the...'wallbas'. Or teach them to maintain each other and test very well for replication and harvesting errors. If exercise is 'non-electronic methods', could even attempt clockwork repair drones; very difficult, but robust."

Mara settled her head in her hands, lights dancing behind her eyes as her drone projected a rapidly-expanding series of gears and springs. "Clockwork is fun sometimes. Difficult to do complex AI, very interconnected. Bulky. Handles novel situations poorly. Impossible to hijack, though; difficult to disable without severe physical damage or changes to universal spring constants."

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"I saw a baby that just got borned at home," Ammy told Eden soberly. "His face was all red and smooshed, and he said 'WAH-WAH-WAH!'" This last bit was at the top of her lungs to demonstrate, and earned her a quick "Inside voice, Ammy!" from her mother. "They putted a diaper on him and rolled a blanket up on him and his mommy fed him with-" 

 

"Ammy!" Stesha interrupted. "Why don't you go over to our coats and get Eden the present we brought for her?" As Ammy scrambled up from her seat, Stesha turned back to Erik. "I'm sure Ellie has things under control, but maybe you can help me boil some water down here and gather another set of clean linens? I'm willing to bet that when you're a little calmer and more relaxed, Min will be happy to have you up there with her. She needs you to be an emotional anchor when you're up there, so now's the time to get out all the wobblies." She leaned in and gave him a hug, surrounding him briefly in the scent of flowers and green grass. "You're going to meet your daughter in just a few hours. It's a wonderful day." 

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"Thank you," Steve replied, after his usual long hesitation when a compliment came his way. "And you are a fine niece." They fell silent again in the corridor, the two survivors, faintly listening to the sound of the happy family inside. Yolanda belonged to this family, of course, as much as she belonged anywhere in this new world. "If I could have children, I would want them to be like you." It was the simple truth, but she was brave, resourceful, and one who had lived through much already - what more could a father ask for in a child? 

 

To his surprise, she hugged him, fierce and strong, burying her square head against his stomach for a long moment. He hugged her back, a little awkwardly, one big, scarred hand against her muscular shoulder. When she looked up at him, there were no tears. 

 

"Do you wanna see my katas?" she asked. With his silent nod, she began demonstrating them, showing the mixed martial arts taught to Nicholson students as a means of promoting self-discipline and exercise. For some, like Yolanda, they had an entirely different purpose, one that would be hers as she grew into womanhood. In the corridor there was silence, except for an occasional explosion of breath and kia as Yolanda threw a punch, or kick, or body blow. 

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Upstairs Minerva padded back into the master bedroom, her skin still slightly moist her lengthy warm shower, adjusting her towel. The amber eyed woman was never one for modesty, though she had certainly made a few adjustments over the years, but her gravid belly was hindering her token efforts.

It gave her something to do.

She tried not to think about all of the people downstairs--friends all--that were not only here to share in welcoming the newest Espadas into the world, but were prepared to defend her and the children against another House of Swords attack. For someone who was by all accounting immortal, Min was surprisingly feeling quite impatient.

"Ellie," Min said, shooting a smile at her sister-in-law. "Could you get your brother? I know we were going to bring him up when it is time, but I could use him now."

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Ellie glanced up from folding a pile of freshly cleaned sheets and snorted. "Alright, fine, hermana. Hopefully he's gotten some of the stupid out of his system." Erik had a talent for taking up a lot more of a room than he physically should have which was great in some situations but he'd been all but bouncing off of the walls earlier. Now that they were more of less set up in the bedroom there seemed little hard in bringing him back up. Besides, she could just kick his butt back downstairs if she needed to.
 
Stepping out into the hall she had a friendly smile for Steve and a much broader one for Yolanda. "Hey, Yoyo, you're not scaring Steve off with your deadly fists of terror, are you?"
 
"No, he's seen lots scarier stuff than that," the girl assured her seriously before explaining to the bald man, "That's not what the katas are really called. I think they wait until you're at Claremont to teach deadly fists of terror. Ellie went there so she knows about them."

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"Claremont training is excellent," agreed Steve, equally seriously. "Both with unarmed combat and all forms of weaponry." His own visits to the campus had been sporadic, but he had been called in as an expert consultant on the combat style of Omegadrones. "I am sure you will learn well - and have much to teach the other students with what you already know." He gestured to the girl. "Now, come at me, show me your speed." She went at Steve with a fast, hard-hitting style that was certainly inappropriate for an elementary school student in most situations.

 

Under her breath, she muttered as she pounded at Steve, "Shin," a kick, "instep," a stomp, "nose," she couldn't reach the standing Steve's face, but he obligingly bent low so that she could hit the bridge of his nose with her hand, "groin!" A solid knee, with all her seventy-pounds of weight behind it. 

 

"Fine work," he told her, pleased at how well she'd learned her lessons. Turning to Ellie, looking none the worse for wear for a solid pounding, he asked, "Is the birthing going well?"

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Erik looked at the hotdog in Chris' hand for several silent moments before managing to ask, "But why was it in your pocket?" The lack of innuendo or a snappy rejoinder showed just how distracted and frazzled the older man truly was. Waving the questionable street meat away he added, "Thanks anyway, hermano, not really hungry. This is going to sound all wrong but at least last time, with Eden, I had something useful I knew I could do in the meantime to distract me." He returned Stesha's hug with one arm and a rueful smile, the hard-won self-awareness he'd gained since becoming a father winning out over the anxious man of action in him. "Never have been much good at waiting."

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"Could find you a supervillain," Mara dryly offered, without looking up from a hologram display of what looked, suspiciously, less like a building defense and more like Yolanda's kata demonstration from the perspective of a drone camera. Her smile wasn't visible with her back turned, but it could be heard at the edges of her voice. "Several, probably. Unsure what a group of supervillains is called. Monologue?"

She turned her head to raise an eyebrow at him. "Could find you a monologue of supervillains, to ease boredom. Preferences? Science? Magic? Magic science?"

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"You're going to be fine," Stesha insisted, after a quick grin for Mara. "Even if it doesn't seem like you're doing anything, you're still very important to the process. You can't even understand how vital it is that you just be there for her..." She swallowed once, quickly, then went on. "And I think you'll find it's very easy to focus once things get going upstairs. Until then," She reached into a flower that opened out of nowhere and rose to her hand, withdrawing a pink egg of Silly Putty. She put it in his hand. "I brought this for the girls, but you may need the fidget a lot more than they do right now." 

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Erik didn't entirely hide the little flash of anger at seeing Stesha's momentary discomfort but he refrained from comment, at least. He knew she'd dealt with the situation herself and was working to move on with her life but it was tough to shake the feeling that someone should have gotten his nose broken in the course of things. It helped focus the expecting father's attention, however and he accepted the plastic egg with a wry smirk, a bit of his insulating boyish charm pushing through to the fore. "Would you believe they used to tell me I had trouble sitting still in class?"
 
"Give us a moment to contain our shock," his sister's sardonic voice called from the stairs. "Your lady is waiting for you upstairs, Mister Antsy-Pants, move it!" With a last grateful smile to Stesha, Erik tossed the toy in the air and caught it again deftly before dashing up the stairs toward the bedroom, leaving Ellie to take stock of the guests on the main floor. "How's everything down here? Good?"

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Liz rolled her eyes. "I'm right here," she protested. "Whatever is the purpose of my paycheck if not to just have a supervillain kicking around?" She rubbed at one hand with the other, trying to dislodge some smeared ink from the scrawl of notes she'd been writing on a battered looking notebook.

 

Chris stood, dejected, hot dog in his hand. "Well, good luck!" he called at Erik's departing back. "It's going to go great! Come back with a little Espadas!" He took the hot dog in his teeth so he could put two thumbs up, and mumbled something incoherent through it. He yanked the hot dog out again, now missing at least three bites worth. "Seriously, not in favour of having the rent-a-goons show up this time.

 

Liz didn't fall for his lenient tone. Chris's usual babble and his secretly-worried babble were distinguishable. "No one's stabbing you this time." Her voice softened. "And they're going to be fine." She leaned back in her chair to call back to Ellie. "We're all fine, beyond a sudden outbreak of the guys showing emotions. How's it going up there?"

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"We're sitting pretty down here," Stesha agreed, beginning to unpack and arrange the bags of snacks that Chris had brought. "The girls are having a good time playing, so Eden's not worrying at all. We've got plenty of snack food, and in a little bit, we can start putting together some food. How are you doing?" she asked Ellie. "If you need a break or a rest at any point, I can spell you for a few minutes. I haven't got your training, but I can probably hold down the fort for a few minutes," she offered. "You want some coffee, water? Does Min need anything?" 

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The two fighters at the top of the stairs stopped their combat immediately at the sound of running feet - relaxing fractionally at the sight of Erik Espadas. "We can dispense with the password system for the moment," he said to Yolanda, stepping back to let Erik pass. "We have not yet seen signs of infiltration. We stand guard for you and yours yet, my friend," he said seriously. 

 

"But couldn't not seeing anything be a sign of impersonation too?" asked Yolanda, giving Erik a smile and wave. "Hi, Tio Erik." Being around her Uncle Steve always brought out the little tactician in Yoyo. 

 

"True," Steve conceded, big hands in parade rest at his side, "but overcaution is as much an enemy as undercaution. The only solution is to ever be ready." 

 

"Ever be ready," she agreed, for a moment her hands adopting the same posture as her scarred mentor. Steve didn't smile, really - but for a moment he practically radiated pride. 

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Even taking the stairs two at a time Erik still paused for a moment to give Yolanda a broad grin and place a grateful hand on Steve's shoulder. The former was undisputedly a great kid and the fencer felt a little surge of confidence about bringing a new life into the world just by looking at the serious girl. With the latter keeping watch, well, it was tough to be too worried about any of the more immediate threats on his mind. "Keep up the good work, guys," he complimented before rushing past them into the bedroom and hurrying over to his wife. "Hey, florecita, you alright? What can I get you?"
 
Downstairs Ellie sauntered over to the table covered in electronics to tease Liz, "Well, she probably meant one of the good supervillains, Witchiepoo. Which is to say a bad one." She wrapped an arm around Mara's waist long enough to lean over and kiss the engineer on the cheek before adding, "Min's fine, she's just not much better at sitting around inside waiting than mi hermano." Ellie would have generally described her sister-in-law as a fairly patient person but this was obviously something the dryad was ready to have over with. "You get anything good, Green Jeans?"
 
A small beep sounded from Vince's laptop and the well dressed avatar on the screen made a show of pulling a length of old-fashioned perforated printer paper covered in data from somewhere 'off screen' and scrutinizing it with a pair of spectacles that had appeared on his nose. "Hm, ahm, hm. One of your little fly-guys just sent an alert," he related to Mara, more for the benefit of the rest of the room than the technopath herself. "There's a passerby who's been hanging out in the area long enough to tick over into 'statistically unlikely'. Could be something, could be nothing. By the by, you gotta teach these things to talk like normal people, they don't get any of my jokes!"

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"They aren't sapient," Mara countered, already bringing the feed up on her display. "Sub-sapient hive mind. Empathetic actualization engine. Easier to feed raw information and processed sensory data than translate into language; algorithm's less lossy....besides, humor requires higher intelligence for translation and context. Don't think of them like people. Think of them like really smart dogs. Or a really smart dog, with lots of bodies. I guess. Depending."

She paused, frozen for a beat the way she often did when something turned over in her head. "....do not play fetch with my drone AIs."

She drew some hair back behind an ear, frowning at one of the graphs - live data, apparently - that had accompanied the video of their lurker. "....agree with their findings, though. Statistically unlikely given known traffic in area. Worth investigating. Pleased they reported to you, actually; means they recognized you as a person. Proud of them. Volunteers to check out our guest?"

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Stesha grinned and waved a hand. "Oooh, me, I'll do it! Put a little fear into anybody who might be casing the joint." The small green-haired woman smacked a fist against her palm and probably could not have looked less intimidating if she'd been trying. "Or, alternatively," she offered cheerfully, "I'll go strike up a conversation with them and see if they've got any good reason for their loitering, or if they're as statistically improbable as they seem. If we cause a ruckus for no reason, all we'll do is draw attention to ourselves. Somebody else may want to get to a higher vantage point and make sure they don't call out reinforcements or something like that." 

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"I could go on the roof," volunteered Chris, pulling his goggles out from inside his jacket. "I'll keep an eye out for anyone else who might be lurking around."

 

"Don't jump off the roof, dear," said Liz distractedly, opening up a bag of chips. 

 

"No promises. Anyway, I've also got the Pitchoo sitting in cloud cover somewhere up there." He waved one hand in the air above his head, vaguely. "So... go check on Lurky McLurkerson, find out what the lurking's for, and if it's not savoury, we hit things until they fall down. Again." Chris twanged his goggles onto his head. "Variety. It's what our lives fundamentally lack."

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"Works for me," Stesha agreed, tossing on her windbreaker and tugging up the hood to hide her distinctive hair. She took a look at Mara's schematics to get the look and location of their intruder, then nodded. "Okay, back in a couple minutes. You be good, baby, play nice," she instructed Ammy, who was too busy to notice her mother was off to work. With a quick touch to the flowers in her hair Stesha disappeared, reappearing moments later a block away and around the corner. She rounded the corner at a brisk walk, only to start looking around in confusion and growing dismay at the buildings as she passed them. 

 

She brightened up immediately upon seeing the loitering man, hurrying towards him as though drawn by a magnet. "Oh, hi!" she called cheerily, "excuse me, do you happen to live around here?" 

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Tucking his smartphone away into the inner pocket of the light tan sport coat he wore over a dark blue polo, the bald man turned to give Stesha a warm smile full of pearly white teeth that drew attention to cheek bones that could have cut glass. "Ah, indeed I do not, madame," he replied in a buttery accent that Stesha was well-traveled enough to recognize as Dakanan, inclining slightly at the waist in a faint implication of a bow. "Perhaps I may still be of service, though? Where are you trying to go?" He spread his hands in a gesture equally casual and inviting that perhaps coincidentally provided a better view of the sort of powerfully athletic frame most people would have associated with a swimmer.
 
Up on the rooftop of the Espadas School, Geckoman was provided both a direct view of the conversation and copious shadows in which to conceal himself, bright green outfit or no. It didn't hurt that Min had added her own touches to the exterior of the building, climbing vines of ivy snaking up the brick walls to join with an impressive rooftop garden that practically made his costume appropriate camouflage. It was all in all an excellent hiding place.
 
"Well, I wouldn't trust him," a French-tinged tenor voice offered from behind him, clear and relaxed though pitched so as not to carry. "Much too handsome, si je peux mets mon grain de sel."

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