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Mea Culpa (IC)

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Taylor had apologized first to her family for the sudden vanishing act. The worst part was they had been more resigned and disappointed than all that surprised. She couldn't blame them. Oh, the Farrettis had continued to do the monthly dinners at her parents place but as JJ had gotten older - as there had been more and more threats to his young life, Taylor had seen the logic of vanishing from the public eye. Over time, they'd become ghosts, with Jack's vampiric politics ever further buffered from his young family and Taylor's pretense at having a 'normal life' vanishing until one day, they just... vanished entirely. 

Taylor understood the necessity - but she regretted the damage it had caused.

Now that they'd returned, though, Taylor hoped to if not repair it, at least apologize for it.

It was with that in mind that she appeared as suddenly as she'd vanished, standing on Stesha's front porch - still incorporeal because who knew if the defenses of Sanctuary would recognize her at this point. She blinked, taking in the changes and growth... significant growth that had taken over in her absence. It was lovely, that she'd expected, but far more cultivated. And the bees! 

Taylor eyed them in the distance before turning her attention to the door.

Except for her hair, Taylor looked the same as she ever had, wearing a simple sundress and sandals. Her hair was longer but other than that, the immortal guardian was unchanged. The eye of Heshem still glittered darkly in the hollow of her throat. In her hands, she held a white box that looked to have come from a bakery. 

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Knocking on the door of a house made of leaves was not an uncomplicated process, but after a moment Taylor was able to find the resonant wood center that broadcast her knock loudly into the house. Moments later, there was a loud, high-pitched "I'll get it! I'll get it!" followed by racing footsteps and a "Come back here, you little monkey!" before the door was thrown open by a small green-haired girl wrapped in a hooded bath towel and entirely dripping wet. She gave Taylor one look and shrieked "Stranger Danger!" before slamming the door in Taylor's face. 

"Amaryllis Marie Lumins! That is not how you answer the door!" The door opened again a moment later to reveal Stesha, her flower crown askew and her green braids trailing down her back. She was fully dressed, but also pretty wet, since she'd scooped up a recalcitrant Amaryllis under one arm. "Sorry ab- Taylor?" she gaped, staring at her long-absent friend. "Oh my god, you're back!" 

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Taylor just laughed at the response she'd gotten. She was still laughing when Stesha returned to open the door although she sobered quickly enough, her amusement turning to a sheepish sort of smile, "Hi..." She said, the words low and softer than usual. Even though Stesha had her hands full, Taylor lifted her box up, "I brought cheesecake, a bottle of wine and an 'I'm sorry I'm a crappy friend' card. I thought it might be a good enough bribe to get me through the door to apologize at greater length."

She turned a small smile on Amaryllis. "Hey there. You look wet. You've gotten huge but I suppose that's to be expected."

Her gaze turned back towards Stesha, her brown eyes penitent as she wiggled the box, "I got it from the very best bakery in Paris. Or so they assured me."

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Still looking a little stunned, Stesha stepped back from the door to allow Taylor inside. Stesha's house had grown a bit, which it seemed to do organically over time, so that now the kitchen had a full set of pantry cupboards and a center island, plus there was a small foyer that opened onto the living room. She set down her daughter and gave her a little nudge towards the hallway. "Go on now, your clothes are on your bed. Don't forget the underpants! Then you can come back and have some cake." Amaryllis' mutionous look cleared up entirely with that promise, and she raced away down the hall, leaving Stesha and Taylor standing in the living room. 

"Where did you go?" Stesha blurted, as soon as Ammy was out of the room. "I needed- I mean, I tried to call you so many times, and you were just gone. I thought something had happened to you!" 

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This was the hard part. Taylor took a steadying breath, discordant slightly as Stesha well knew she didn't need the air, and spread her hands slightly, "After the last run at JJ, we shifted the Manor free of Earth Prime. It wasn't..." Taylor's hands widened, trying to find the words to explain, "I had to keep them safe and I didn't know how to do that and be here anymore. I didn't see any way to make it all work so we moved someplace we knew that no one would be able to get him. I didn't set out to be gone so long - I really didn't - but there were problems in other worlds, other places and time just... kept on moving."

"I'm not making excuses," Taylor said, letting her hands fall to her side. With a gesture she pulled the wine and the card out of the Void, setting them on Stesha's table as well. "You deserved much more than sudden silence and I'm sorry. It wasn't well handled of me."

Letting her fingertips linger on the wine bottle for a moment before she pulled them back and tucked them in her pockets. "You're my friend and I have been a terrible friend. It wasn't intentional but I'm not sure if that doesn't make it worse. I thought you deserved an apology and an explanation. Well, and cheesecake."

Taylor's smile was brief, a little shadowed, but for all that her features looked the same, there was a maturity there behind the young lines of her face. "And I really am sorry, I don't expect that makes it better right away. I mean, I would be mad at me for a while, I think." Taylor cocked her head to her side, trying to wrap her head around the reverse. "And I can go if you want me to, of course."

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"No, don't go," Stesha replied immediately, looking from Taylor to the apology gifts on the table. "I missed you a lot. Things were so-" Again she cut herself off, this time turning away to the kitchen to dry her hands and eyes with a dishtowel. "If you were in danger, you had to go. But you could've told me, or your other friends. Maybe we could've done something to help you, or to track down the threats." She turned back, twisting the towel in her fingers. "But it's okay now? No more trouble than usual?" 

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"I should have told you I was going, even if I didn't tell you where it was," Taylor agreed readily, her shoulders dropping, "I had to make a choice for what was best - what we needed to do as parents and it was hard. It was good for us but it was hard and I did not handle it perfectly by any stretch. There was collateral damage and I am so, so sorry that it hurt you. I am sorry I didn't come back sooner to make amends. There are several things I could have done differently. Not even I can go back and time and fix mistakes."

She said with a small, not entirely dry eyed smile herself, "All I can do is make amends going forward and change the behavior."

Taylor paused then and added, her voice going softer, "It's okay if you're still mad at me for a while, really. I don't expect things to get better without working at them. That's a thing I understand much better now."

Taylor paused for a moment and then answered Stesha's question. "No, it's not really okay now. It's worse, in some ways. It's a long story, really." 

Hovering for a moment, somewhat literally as Taylor tended towards insubstantial when distressed, it took a moment for her to compose her emotions enough to ease herself into her seat. "But it's a story that can wait. I know I wasn't here when you needed me. Do you want to talk about that?"

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Stesha shook her head, then nodded, then looked in the direction Ammy had gone and shook her head again. "I can't," she murmured. "I'll just fall apart again, and I don't want to scare her. After it happened I was just... just useless for days. It's getting better, but it still hurts. Can we just open the cake instead?" she asked plaintively, turning to the cupboards for plates, forks and wineglasses. "And I appreciate the gesture, but you know you didn't have to come bearing gifts. You're my friend, Taylor. I'd never throw you out." Stesha busied herself with opening cupboards and the large flowers that dotted the counters, pulling out supplies, finding a corkscrew, pouring juice in a plastic cup. She passed the corkscrew to Taylor. "I'll let you do that part." 

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"I didn't have to, but it seemed appropriate. Besides, now we have wine and cheesecake," Taylor pointed out with irrefutable logic. She accepted the corkscrew and opened the wine handily enough, popping the cork from the bottle and setting it aside. "In a way it was more for myself than you, really. You know I've never been all that great with saying just the right thing. My mom always baked food for apologies. When I was little, we always showed up at the neighbors with food and..."

Taylor shrugged, the gesture a little uncomfortable as she poured the wine, "It gave me something to open with rather than just standing on the doorstep and blurting awkward and weird apologies."

She nodded her head, her gaze going dark for a moment and said, simply, "I'm sorry it ended like that. You deserve better. You both do."

Leaving the topic though, she shifted, "So my son's time shifted doppelgänger had spelled his age and apparently is somewhere in his teens. I have been the mother a teenager for six months now, who apparently was a teenager the whole time and who KNOWS what all he's gotten up to when we thought he was older. He's currently grounded from everything, forever. The wine is definitely for me."

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"Wow..." Stesha took the bottle and topped up Taylor's glass a little fuller. "I did always wonder a little about JJ, big JJ I mean. He seemed so immature for his age, but I'd wondered if I was just projecting from baby JJ. That must've been a shock for you. What are you going to do? I assume you're not planning on letting him live on his own again anytime soon. Will you be sending him to school?" 

Ammy chose that moment to come in with a clatter, her hair now a dandelion-pouf of green curls, her outfit a sturdy set of blue overalls and a pink shirt, accented by a large pair of tulle fairy wings. "I got dressed!" she announced importantly, then climbed into the seat next to her mother. "Cake, please!" 

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"Well, he wasn't really living alone before so much as lurking in his lair in the void and sneaking out in the middle of the night to raid the fridge." Life of a teenage dhampir right there. Taylor gave a small smile of thanks as her wine glass was refilled and pulled it back towards her chest. She sighed, about to go on when Ammy burst back into the room. Taylor couldn't help but smile at that, "I really like your wings, Ammy. They're very pretty."

Taylor watched with amusement as the girl claimed her slice of cake and added, "We're sending him to Claremont - which is partially why we're back. He's going to Claremont and JJ's going to kindergarten. It makes Jack nervous - me too, honestly - but what can I do? Huang - JJ the elder - is so mad about it. He thinks its some sort of punishment, or that we're sending him away. It's a bit of a disaster."

She turned slightly, including Ammy in the conversation, "What about you, honey, are you in pre-school these days? I'm Taylor, I'm an old friend of your mothers. It's nice to meet you again."

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Ammy nodded enthusiastically, though her mouth was too full of cheesecake to speak. "Ammy's in the creche school here on Sanctuary," Stesha explained, taking a much more dainty bite for herself. "Her name is down for Nicholson next year, but I'm just not sure. Her powers are really well-controlled right now, all fairy rings and dandelions, and she's made a lot of friends here. But I also want her to be comfortable living on Prime, since she'll spend part of her life there. But it also feels weird to start a school for the children who live here, and then send my own child to school somewhere else. It seems like I lack faith in the program." She licked her fork. "Has JJ gotten over the whole biting thing yet?" 

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"Ahhh..." Taylor temporized, "Largely."

In that JJ had stopped biting when hungry but resorted to it when frightened or feeling threatened - or needing to display his dominance. "JJ's starting Nicholson this year and they've assured me they can handle what he's capable of. I'm still uneasy about sending him off to school. Honestly, I'll probably spend the first day lurking around the edges in my car just in case."

Taylor admitted that and took a sip of wine before she pointed out, "You know, some schools of thought think its better if your child isn't in a school that you teach or take part in. It means that you don't have to ever feel like you have to play both roles. I mean, its nothing I've had personal experience but I've read a lot of books about parenting lately. So many books about parenting. I swear, someone should write one for parents with powers."

She pulled her plate over and began to pick at her own slice of cake, giving a shrug of one of her shoulders, "Or you could contact Nicholson and put together an exchange program. I mean, we're a small community and chances are good that all the kids are going to need to know about both worlds. Maybe you can set up something so students spend part time in both schools. Like a sister school thing."

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"Oh, I don't know, there aren't really any other superpowered children in the schools here, at least not that I know of," Stesha explained with a slight frown. "None of the other children are from Earth Prime, and you know how we got way more than our fair share of metahumans compared to a lot of worlds. And most of the children here are probably going to be here their whole lives, unless they go to college or trade school or something like that. Prime isn't their home the way it is ours." She brightened somewhat. "You might be right about the other thing, though. At Nicholson, Ammy wouldn't be the boss's daughter or the only metahuman, and that might be good for her. She's getting a little bit s-p-o-i-l-e-d," Stesha spelled out, glancing at her cherubic daughter. 

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"I think its a risk of being a very loved only child," Taylor said with a small smile that showed the dimples in her cheeks as she, too, looked at Stesha's sweet-faced daughter. It was a very different reason than hers for seeking out Nicholson. JJ very much had the sort of powers that could be problematic for a normal sort of school experience. Her thoughts going to her young son, Taylor added,

"We could set up a few play dates with Ammy and JJ so she'd know someone there by the time she went. JJ doesn't really have any friends his own age with the way we've been living the last few years. Actually... Huang doesn't either." Taylor frowned, "Although he's got a pair of entities that he's summoned that he calls friends but its really not the same thing at all."

She gave a shake of her head, "You have a year to prepare her for the potential jump and to think it over. For JJ, it's really been that he needs to make friends with people in an environment that's capable of handling his quirks. And not panicking when he runs into the Void."

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"I'm sure they'll be able to handle him at Nicholson, I've heard nothing but good things. People are coming in from all over the world to send their children there, it must be a good school, right?" Stesha considered the cake, then served herself another sliver. "Playdates sound like great fun, though. I haven't seen JJ in such a long time, it's hard to imagine him ready for school. And Ammy could use more company. I never really planned for her to be an only child..." Stesha shut herself up with an unwisely large bite of cake, followed by a gulp of wine that left her coughing and Amaryllis giggling. 

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"You never know what the future holds," Taylor said, keeping things vague in honor of the giggling Amaryllis, but her look was meaningful. Stesha was young, there was no reason she should give up on the family and life that she wanted just because things had ended badly with Dark Star. 

She smiled slightly at the little girl, adding, "She's gotten so big too. I alway pictured JJ and Ammy playing together as they grew up. Well, once we got the biting thing under control. Other than that, he's always been a real little charmer."

Once Stesha's coughs had subsided, offered, "Well our schedule is wide open until school starts so when ever you'd like, I'm happy to come by. You can come visit us or we can meet some place else."

Taylor offered, trying to make it as easy as possible. She was still feeling guilty and likely would for some time where her few friends were concerned. "JJ's very much into the Centurion and the old heroes right now. Lots of running around the house with crashing noises and everything on his bedding is all blue and gold. He's got this adorable little lisp but does not like when it's mentioned. At all."

Taylor's features lit up with real pleasure at mentioning her kids, her affection obvious. 

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"Oh, we should take him to League Headquarters!" Stesha suggested enthusiastically once her coughing subsided. "I've got a little office there now, but it's pretty boring, but I bet he'd get a real kick out of the statues in the library, and the Centurion's get-ready room, and all the video monitors with old news programs and documentaries. We get school groups going through all the time to see it." She took a napkin and wiped Ammy's face, nearly unnoticed by the little girl still deep in the throes of dessert. "How's Jack doing with the whole being back thing?" she asked. "Did some big vampire power vacuum end up forming while he was gone?" 

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"Hmmm," That was a noise that Stesha usually heard from Taylor when she was all cloak and cowled up and trying to temporize about mystical anomalies that may or may not try to eat their faces. It had a definitely different timber when it was just Taylor making the noise. Taylor was trying very hard to walk the line between 'normal human relationships' and not tromping on the very strongly held opinions her spouse had of his business, especially his vampire business, being talked about. She finally settled on, "Whatever problems there might be with his absence and return, I don't think its anything Jack can't handle."

Which, really, covered an unfortunately large swath of territory. Taylor's voice was apologetic then as she added, "Jack's always been touchy about discussing the vampire side of things and that's not changed much. We don't always see eye to eye about it, but I'm not a vampire so..."

She spread her hands wide then in a seated version of a shrug. Taylor, after all, had expressed more than once to her spouse that she thought he'd be better getting out of vampire politics all together. "We are all adjusting."

Taylor's dimples flashed then, "You would be JJ's most favorite person, I think, if we did that. He's infatuated with all things super-hero at the moment. We watch a lot of the old cartoons and, well, he knows his parents are superheroes although I think he thinks its a lot more 'pow!' 'zorch!' than the way I work. Though, I imagine my heavily edited bed time tails of exploits of all of us probably hasn't helped that comparison."

She gave a little 'what can you do' shrug and then brightened. "So, how is working for the League?"

Edited by alderwitch
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"It's good," Stesha told her with a nod, "even if I end up being a little overbooked a lot of the time. Most of the pay I just dump into the coffers for this place, but there's enough to put some into the college fund, pay for the apartment in Freedom City for when we need it, things like that. And I like my team, they're mostly great people, and it's good to be able to help. I feel like without the League, I'd probably start feeling really separate and remote from Freedom City. I spend so much of my time here on Sanctuary, get really caught up in everything going on here, and Earth Prime seems really far away. But with Tarrant and Carson living here and being on the team too, we've all got a lot in common. Have you met them, Gabriel and Gaian Knight?" 

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"I don't think so," Taylor said after a long, quiet moment of searching through her memory to connect names and faces to people she might have tripped over in the past, "If I did, it was very brief and a long time ago, at least."

Taylor set her half empty wine glass back down on the  counter, watching Amaryllis continue to demolish her cheesecake with the sort of unfettered enthusiasm unique to small children, a small smile curving her lips. Her dark gaze transferred back to Stesha, clearly much more relaxed than when she'd first shown up penitent on Stesha's door step. "Hopefully I'll get a chance to meet them sooner than later. I feel woefully out of touch with the community these days - my own fault and I've always occupied the fringes even before we vanished...."

Her voice trailed off and she circled one fingertip along the rim of the wineglass, her gaze dropping to the crimson liquid for a long moment. "It's a lot bigger than I remember it, your Sanctuary."

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Stesha snorted laughter. "Yeah, it was kind of a surprise to me, too. I originally was using the place for a sandbox, you remember, back when I was starting to develop my powers. Nobody wanted me terraforming bits of the city, for obvious reasons, but this place was just the ticket. I built my little HQ for me and Derrick and the baby, started working on cleaning up enough around it to go on walks and not have bad smells in the air. Then Beekeeper had to do his thing with the bees, and suddenly I've got giant bees, baby giant bees, giant dragon bees, and robot giant dragon bees all setting up shop. And then it turns out this world wasn't quite as empty as advertised, so I wound up with a hundred settlers who'd been living on lichen for a couple generations cause the world's so ruined." 

She passed Ammy her juice as the little girl finished her cake. "Almost time for your nap, kiddo. Anyway, then my friends from the Aux league started building, part to have room to spread out their headquarters, and part to give me a hand so I wasn't alone out here with no backup. And you remember how the Gorgon thing went down, little JJ was here for that while you guys were working. Making Sanctuary a fallback site for evacuation was kind of a crazy desperate idea, but it did get a huge number of sod huts built, water purification facilities constructed, outhouses dug, all the luxuries of home." Stesha grinned a little. "So of course I said yes when Blue Jay, she's a nice girl, went to Claremont, I don't think you know her, when she asked if she could bring maybe a thousand of her people from their world before it fell into the Doom Coil. You can't say no to that kind of request if there's any way you can help, right? Then a thousand turned out to be ten thousand, and it's been a little crazy her for awhile." She chuckled dryly. "But we get by." 

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"Just be careful taking in refugees from the Terminus. You really don't want to get too many in the same location all at once," Taylor warned, after having listened intently, her fingertips still tracing circles on the wine glass. She smiled then, a corner of her mouth kicking up, "But it really has grown by leaps and bounds since then it sounds like. I didn't sense any sort of instability when I popped in but I can always take a look around if you get concerned, or ever notice anything odd. Well, odder than usual."

Taylor added the last with a low laugh, rather sure that 'normal' for Sanctuary was a little left of what most people might consider typical. She shifted in her chair since Amaryllis had to take a nap in the near future, "If you need me to go..." She offered, the words trailing off before she cleared her throat.

"It's really something what you've done. How far you've come. It was only a few years ago that you were just getting a start on your powers - remember the sweatshirt you started in at the very beginning? - And now, saving the worlds and working with the League.... and all while raising Ammy. You should be really proud Stesha. It's incredible." 

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Taylor's offer to leave earned her a disbelieving grin. "Come on, you've got one of your own. You know naptime is code for 'let mommy talk to her friend' time." Amaryllis furrowed her brow at that, but was still pretty busy with her snack. "I've been keeping an eye out for any signs that the Terminus might be checking us over, but so far nothing. This is a pretty out of the way universe, and we aren't exactly making a big splash most of the time. But if you'd give me your expert opinion, I'd be obliged." Stesha considered the wine bottle for a moment, frowned thoughtfully, then got up and poured herself a glass of milk from an old-fashioned glass bottle in the refrigerator. "You want some? It's fresh." 

"I want some!" Ammy called before Taylor had a chance to say anything. 

"Just a little for now," Stesha agreed. "I don't foresee us taking on any more new residents any time soon, Terminus or no, knock on wood. We are pretty much bursting at the seams as it is, and it'll be another year before I'm comfortable that the people here could feed themselves if anything ever happens to me." She brought the milk bottle and cups over to the table. "And I am proud, but sometimes I miss the days when it was just me and my hoodie and a city full of potted plants, you know what I mean? When did we get so indispensible?" 

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Taylor's smile demonstrated both dimples, perhaps a little abashed, "In my defense, JJ has forsaken naps - much to our dismay - and I don't often have friends over the the manor. I think I may have become something of a recluse of late. A fact which the teenager is quick to point out the hypocrisy of when I am lauding the benefits of a social life."

She gave a little roll of her eyes, tossing both hands up in the universal expression of parental dismay in moody teenagers. Her exasperation with Huang was utterly apparent in her body language before she forced her shoulders to relax. At the question of wine, Taylor gave a small shake of her head, declining the offer. "I don't mind taking a quick look around to double check. It's not so much that they'd be lurking - Sanctuary wouldn't be a high priority target - but the more strain, the weaker the barrier until..."

Taylor gave a twist of her fingertips then. "On the bright side, the more people who become dimensional natives, the stronger the barrier so it's just a balancing act. I don't think you have anything to worry about, truly."

As the topic of more somber things faded, a small, almost wistful smile curved Taylor's lips, "Oh, Stesha, you've always been indispensable. It's just more people share that sentiment these days. Though, I understand what you mean. It's hard not to miss simpler times." 

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