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Friday, November 13, 2015

 

Even with Merlin around to help supervise Raina was a little surprised to find herself to be anyone's first choice for a babysitter, short notice or not. Still, Talya had been as difficult to say no to as ever and it wasn't as though the young pyromancer couldn't use the extra income. And so she found herself in the apartments above the Espadas School on a Friday night, armed with a list of contact numbers, money to order a pizza, the knowledge that one of Erik's other students would be downstairs using the training equipment after hours and instructions that, should anything go truly badly she should literally call for 'Vince', whatever that was supposed to accomplish. While little Mia Espadas sat on the carpet in front of Raina concentrating mightily on her efforts to maneuver her own foot into her mouth, her older sister Eden looked up the tall blonde expectantly.

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Raina had done her best to look both responsible and trustworthy despite nature and inclination, not entirely sure that Erik would ever leave the house at all if she didn't manage to convince him of her bona fides. Who needed ten contingency emergency phone numbers anyway? But finally they did leave, the echoes of their voices fading away down the steps as they headed out. Merlin rolled his eyes at their antics, but kept most of his attention focused on the baby, who he was regarding like some kind of alien life form.

 

"All right," Raina said, surveying the situation with her hands clasped in front of her. "All the grownups are gone, the television is ours, and I'm pretty sure your sister can't actually swallow her own feet and choke. So the house is ours! We get to fool around and do fun stuff and stay up past your bedtime," she informed Eden. "But we should get dinner ordered, because it takes forever for pizza delivery guys to actually bring food. What do you like on your pizza?" she asked the little girl. 

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The promise of staying up past her bedtime clearly piqued Eden's interest but the three year old did her best to play it off and keep her expression skeptical in the hopes of negotiating further concessions from their new babysitter. Giving her the choice of what to get on the pizza broke her tenuous composure, however, and with glee she hopped up onto the sofa and began bouncing up and down to punctuate her chant of, "Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese!" Mia, meanwhile, rolled over until she was upside down and made a burbling giggle that made it clear that any assumptions based on underestimating her commitment to getting her foot in her mouth where she could better examine it were foolish indeed.

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"Three cheese it is!" Raina agreed, taking out her phone and navigating to the pizza place's website. "Oh hey, they've got hugenormous cookie on sale this week as well. Let's get one of those too." She tried to show Eden the picture, but the bouncing made it tough. "Okay, how about you cool it with the crazy jumping so nothing gets broken, and then in a little bit you and I can go flying?" she offered. "It's even better than jumping." She gave Mia a confused look, then bent down to straighten out the inverted baby, not sure what else to do with her. Babies were very mysterious. "And there's a bottle in it for you if you behave yourself," she told Mia. "You don't get pizza until you have teeth, I'm sure about that much." 

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Whap. Whap. Whap. Each impact stung at Buffy's fists as the punching bag shuddered and jerked, the chain rattling noisily in time with the blows. She kept her breathing to steady, controlled inhales and exhales, resisting the urge to gasp for air. Her fists were wrapped in padding, but despite that she could already tell that her knuckles were going to be sore as hell later. As well as her arms, her shoulders, her legs, her abs, and probably her ears. It would all doubtlessly be worth it in the long run, but she was starting to miss the days of fighting by pure instinct. All this "actual training" and these "proper exercise regimens" so that she didn't "lose a fight" and "get killed" was really starting to cramp her style.

 

Her watch beeped, and with one last swift jab that sent the bag swinging back like a pendulum, she stopped and tried to shake the feeling back into her arms, still breathing hard. She walked over to where she had left her gym bag and patted down her face with a towel before taking a long drink of water from her bottle. Okay, so the punching bag is good and punched. She had made sure not to use her full measure of strength on it, because if she accidentally punched a hole in it or ripped it off the chain, she had a feeling they would make her pay for it. Next up...ugh, weight lifting.

 

One by one, she collected each of the heaviest weight plates available and slotted them onto a barbell, until it resembled the kind of thing professional body builders had nightmares about. Then, with a resigned sigh, she lay down on the bench, gripped the barbell, and lifted it off its stand with a grunt. Her muscles burning, she lowered it unsteadily to her chest, then pushed up. One. "I..." she gasped in between lifts, sweat stinging at her eyes, "...hate...this...place..."

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A bit put out, Mia made a little coughing burp to point out that she wasn't going to get anywhere with regard to sticking her foot in her mouth if Raina was going to insist on turning her right side up every time she started making progress. Her older sister ceased her energetic bouncing when the teenager mentioned flying, instead standing atop the couch and fixing her babysitter with a surprisingly steely look for a three year old. Looking Raina up and down carefully she suspiciously opined, "You don't look like a cowboy."

 

Downstairs Buffy had just cracked the double digits for her weight lifting set when she heard the rapid staccato of someone knocking on the front door of the school. The main room where she was training was separated from the entrance by the mirror-lined wall in front of her with a break to her far right connecting the two sections. Erik and his wife -- Wives? That part hadn't really been covered and it hadn't seemed appropriate to ask for details. -- had only left about a half-hour before and they'd have had a key anyway. The school's proprietor had been pretty clear that she had the gym to herself for the evening, too.

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Merlin hopped down from the couch and went to inspect Mia, who was a great novelty if only because most humans were not nearly so close to his own size. He informed her rather archly that human feet were not designed to go in mouths, and in fact could not even be used for gripping or manipulating objects, and so were not particularly interesting at all. He displayed his own foot with its prehensile toes, a much superior design. 

 

"A cowboy?" Raina asked Eden quizzically. "I'm not a cowboy. I'm a witch. Witches can do all kinds of cool stuff. We can fly and talk to animals and turn invisible." She didn't mention setting things on fire, she wasn't _totally_ irresponsible. "I can ride a horse though, that's something cowboys do. But being a witch is better." 

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Buffy paused in mid-lift, irritated at the interruption to her workout. If I'm going to suffer, I'd like to do it in peace, dammit. She was tempted to simply continue with her weight training and ignore whoever that was trying to knock the door off its hinges, but relented after a moment's hesitation. Besides, she wouldn't be able to concentrate if the knocking persisted. With no small amount of relief, she reminded herself that the barbell didn't really weigh very much at all, relatively speaking. One moment it was crushing down at her chest like an elephant, the next it felt nearly weightless as the laws of physics bent to her will. Holding it casually in one hand, she got to her feet and placed it back in the rack like a toy, then headed for the entrance area.

 

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" she yelled as she approached the door. Did somebody order a pizza, maybe? If that was the case, she wondered if she would be able to bum a slice. Pressing iron was hungry work, as it turned out. She took this opportunity to towel the sweat from her eyes with one hand, groping blindly for the door handle with the other. "Gym's closed. But if you have pizza, we might be able to make an exception," she said, pulling the door open and taking the towel away from her face to look at the visitor.

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"Cowboys fly," Eden explained the Raina with exaggerated patience, planting her hands on her hips and leaning forward imperiously even though it meant she had to consequently crane her neck to maintain eye contact with the tall teenager. "An' Tal'a can turn invis'ble an' she's not a witch. I think your story is veeeeery susp- suspit- I don' believe you. You need to do some magic and prove it." The three year old adopted an expression that was actually quite sly all things considered even if it was immediately transparent to Raina.

 

Meanwhile, on the floor, Mia expressed largely though the medium of drool and humming that if she was going to follow what the funny looking, hairy baby was getting at she was going to have to get a closer look at the extended foot. Unstated but heavily implied as she began crawling toward Merlin was that this was probably going to involve using her mouth more than her eyes.

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The sandy brown haired man at the door leaned forward on the door as soon as Buffy unlocked it, smiling a little too widely as he stuck his booted foot over the threshold between the door and the frame. "Hey! Hey, sorry to bother you so late, yeah?" he greeted, tilting his slightly cleft chin down slightly to look at the younger woman and taking great care to be what she gathered he imagined to be charming. He wore a baby blue windbreaker zipped up over dark brown pants, one hand on the door and the other resting on his belt. He indicated the other man with him, a reedier looking blonde in a maroon tracksuit with hair that reach almost down to his chin and framed an almost manically amused grin. "My buddy and I were looking for Ricky Espadas. This is his place, right? We're old pals, see."

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Buffy felt her smile grow slightly stiff as her instincts prodded warningly at the back of her mind. They were smiling too much. There was no good reason for somebody to be smiling that much. Well, unless they were really nice, but nice people didn't stick their boots in the door when young women answered it. Semi-consciously she shifted into a stance that subtly lowered her center of gravity, despite the fact that she usually considered gravity to be highly overrated. "Ricky? You mean Erik?" She looked from one to the other. "Yeah, this is his place, but he's not here right now. Gym's closed. You'll have to come back some other time, or," she watched their reactions closely, "if you want, I can give him a call right this very second. Tell him you're here, give him your descriptions. What were your names again?"

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"It's suspicious," Raina told Eden superciliously, "and it's not suspicious at all. And don't think I don't know what you're doing. I basically invented what you're doing. But hey, think of a wonderful thought. Any happy little thought." She flicked a handful of imaginary powder at Eden, which abruptly materialized in a shower of glitter as it showered down onto the little girl, sending her rising gently into the air. "And you," she added to Mia, blowing glitter onto the baby as well. "Stop trying to eat my monkey." Merlin was saved from baby attack as Mia bobbed into the air as well, freeing the beleagured familiar to escape to the couch. Very faintly, Raina could hear voices from downstairs, but didn't pay much attention. There was somebody working out down there, maybe they brought a friend along. 

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"Sure, sure," the man in the windbreaker agreed affably, squaring his shoulders a bit so that he more obviously loomed over Buffy while widening his smile even further. "Ricky's what the boys all called him back in the day, is all. I'm Dave, this is Jake. We were hoping to catch him here, see."

 

"Just bad luck, huh!" the other man laughed, the chuckle a little high pitched for a man his side, not to mention out of place given the lack of anything actually funny.

 

Dave didn't even look back at his companion, instead staring Buffy down with a thin veneer of friendliness. "You could call him, though, yeah! Why don't we wait inside with you?"

 

Upstairs Eden gaped as she floated into the air, giggling as she figured out how to flip herself head over heels in surprisingly short order and with uncommon coordination for a three year old. Mia was equally startled to find herself rising off of the ground but where her older sister was delighted the infant flailed all four limbs looking for purchase, making increasingly plaintive noises. Within moments her face had screwed itself up into a knot and she'd begun bawling at the top of her lungs, still thrashing about in the air. "No, Mia!" Eden called, trying to propel herself toward her sibling without much success. "You're not hurt, don't cry! Put her down-down-down!"

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Buffy tensed as she heard the faint sounds of a baby crying from upstairs. Crap, that's right, his kids are here right now. By now she had effectively discounted the possibility that they were telling the truth. Her veiled threat hadn't had the effect she had hoped for - the two men didn't seem the least bit discouraged by the idea of her contacting Erik. If they weren't scared of Erik, they definitely weren't going to be scared of her, whether they knew who she was or not. And she was hoping she didn't, because if it came down it it, the element of surprise might be her only advantage.

 

Refusing to be intimidated by the man's superior size (she had gotten used to living in a world of tall people many years ago), she held her ground, staring up at him. "No, that's not going to happen," she said, showing him her teeth. "I can't just let you in. I'm sure you understand. Why don't you wait outside while I give him a call?" Then he can show up with the rest of the gang, and we'll all take turns tap-dancing on your face. She dropped the smile in an instant. "Now take your foot out of the door." Or I'll break it off, and you won't like what I'll do with it.

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Merlin attempted to reason with Mia, pointing out that it would now be trivially easy for her to grab hold of her own foot, but when that didn't work, Raina went ahead and scooped up the baby into her arms, ending the part of the spell on her. "You're okay," Raina insisted, jogging Mia up and down a little. "See, just fine, gravity and everything. You want some food?" she asked hopefully. "We can go find that bottle in the fridge for you, then put on pajamas that make you look like a small fuzzy animal. Big fun, right?" She reached out and took Eden's hand, pulling her gently along through the air as she headed for the kitchen. "You come on too, you can have a cookie, just don't tell your folks." 

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Mia squirmed about in Raina's arms for a few moments, not much happier to find herself abruptly restrained than she had been at the sudden absence of gravity but eventually the bobbing motion seemed to calm her down and her crying petered off. Eden, on the other hand, had taken up a scowling expression and was attempting without much success to drag her feet while Raina pulled her through the air. "You're not s'posed to make Mia cry," she pointed out somewhat unnecessarily, not at all placated by the offered cookie. "Don't make her cry 'gain." She jutted out her chin as best she could at the awkward angle in which the levitation had left her and the teenaged witch realized she was being threatened by a three year old.

 

"Tss, yeah, that doesn't really work for us, is the thing," 'Dave' told Buffy, leaving his foot exactly where it was. "Staying outside, I mean. Waiting's fine; I got all the time in the world." As he said that his left hand moved toward his belt and the young woman's heightened awareness of the underpinnings of the universe began to shout a warning, temporal ripples traveling backward from whatever he was about to do. 'Jake' similarly was reaching for the zipper to his tracksuit, something jingling like bells as he moved his shoulders.

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"Babies cry," Raina told Eden matter-of-factly. "Saying that a baby shouldn't ever cry would be like saying that you should never talk. Crying is how babies talk and tell people what they want. It would be mean to never let a baby cry. But we'll see if we can do something that makes her happy now, kay?" Still bouncing Mia on her hip, she reached into the fridge and pulled out the cold bottle of milk, then dropped it into the pan of warm water already sitting on the stove. With the crying finished, she cocked her head, listening downstairs. "Huh, I thought I heard voices for a minute. Is there a TV downstairs?" 

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Buffy wasn't quite fast enough and the moment the man's hand touched his oval belt buckle he vanished from view. In practically the same instant she was thrown back forcefully, colliding painfully with the reception desk near the entranceway while the door itself was flung wide open. Not invisibility or super-speed, her temporally sensitivity insisted: time dilation. From his perspective she was effectively standing still even as, in her own frame of reference, she struggled to get back onto her feet.

 

The other man had thrown off his jacket and pulled a jester's cap over his head, the instantly recognizable costume of the Crime League member Wildcard. That had to make the first attacker Downtime. She'd seen enough news stories to know these were a pair of arch villains, perhaps not the Crime League's powerhouses but longtime and potentially deadly foes of the Freedom League and other experienced heroes. And there she was, out of costume and outnumbered.

 

The crash was clearly audible even upstairs in the apartments, if muted by distance. It occurred to Raina that it might have simply come from the woman downstairs inexpertly dropping her weights or something of the sort but when the television set in the living room turned itself on abruptly that benign explanation began to seem less and less likely. The man dominating the screen had a sharp jawline and hair that was slicked back enough to be shiny, in a way that came across as a knowing exaggeration more so than oily. His lime green suit was similarly outrageous but his expression was sober and urgent. "Hey! Melissa Joan of Arc! We got a real code red here, kiddo!"

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Raina took Eden by the hand and hurried back into the living room, snacktime forgotten. She'd been told about VINCE, but seeing him in the flesh, so to speak, was a different story. Either the AI was a little glitchy or he maybe was as fond of obscure nicknames as Erik, but right now that was the least of her worries. "What's going on?" she demanded, trying to hear what was happening downstairs. "Can you get ahold of Talya and Erik?" 

 

Operating on instinct, she scooted Eden into the far corner of the room, behind a chair and in the most secluded, protected place she could see. "All right honey, you stay here for a little bit, and I'm gonna do some magic," she told the little girl. "I don't know what's wrong, but I'm going to make sure nothing bad happens." She pressed Mia into her sister's arms, then pulled out her compact. "You're going to be invisible for awhile, okay? Nobody but me will be able to see or hear you, so it's like the best hide and seek ever. And you might not be able to see me, but I'm not going anywhere, I'll be right here in the room. I just need you to hold still and be quiet and take care of the baby. And then we'll get into the ice cream." 

 

Raina gave Eden her best encouraging smile, then smeared her finger in the powder and rubbed it all over the mirror, obscuring it entirely. She hummed a few bars, then blew a little powder onto the girls, sprinkled some onto herself. In moments, the room might as well have been empty, but for a curiously lifelike toy monkey on the couch. 

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Buffy clutched at the reception desk to keep herself from falling, the wind knocked out of her by the impact. She tried to remember the last time she was hit that hard. Forget being sore from exercise - she had a feeling that by tomorrow, you would be able to see a big desktop-shaped bruise on her back. Assuming she lived that long. I really hope I live long enough for this to hurt.

 

She forced herself to think. Downtime and Wildcard. Not exactly A-listers, but dangerous enough that she would probably have her hands full dealing with one of them, let alone both at once. She was already hurt. She was out of costume. And, worst of all, there were kids in the building. Jack would surely be pissed if she let a couple of badly dressed scumbags kill his kids. He might even revoke her gym membership. So she needed to both make sure they stayed focused on her, and also try to take the fight somewhere else. She was confident about the first one, at the very least. Getting attention had really never been a problem for her.

 

"You two," she said, raising her gaze to stare with exaggerated menace at the villains, "have no idea who you're messing with here." She flung herself forward and down, pushing off from the ground with her hands, sending herself into a graceful handspring. "I am Escher Girl, a member of the Upside-Down Fashion Police." With an audible whumph, she vanished in mid-movement, appearing directly behind Wildcard just in time to slam both of her feet into the back of his head. "And that hat..." She vanished again, reappearing now in the middle of the street in front of the building, finishing her handspring and launching herself back to her feet. "...is an insult to everything I hold dear."

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'Escher Girl' connected solidly with Wildcard's head, the regained element of surprise granted by her teleportation and her increased combat training coming together in a way that should have bought her time to regroup if not taken the criminal out of the fight altogether. As the attack landed, however, Wildcard began to turn, turning what should have been a decisive hit into a glancing blow mostly absorbed by the unexpected protection woven into his ostentatious cap.

 

The grinning jester laughed disconcertingly as he stumbled back a few steps and refocused on Buffy's new location. "And I thought I was gonna be bored, ahaha! I owe Andersen a beer!" Pulling a pair of pistols with weirdly flared muzzles out of his pockets he opened fire, playing card shaped flechette flying across the street in a flurry of deadly steel. "But you're gonna bust on my cap, I'll have to bust a cap! Get it? Hah!They were sharp enough to stick, quivering in the brick wall behind the young woman as her enhanced agility kept her one step ahead of the wild shots. Her danger sense blared just a moment too late, however, and the next flurry of deceptively whimsical projectiles sliced at her arms and legs, leaving red gashes showing through tears in her workout clothes. It seemed that the stories about Wildcard's impossible luck hadn't been exaggerated.

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The image on the television screen blinked a few times as Raina and the girls disappeared from view. Even though he must have been monitoring the room via some sort of a cameras Vince's avatar still craned his neck about as if trying to get a better view from the corner of the screen, like someone looking through a window from outside. "Well that's a heckuva thing! I'll just assume you're sill in earshot then, alright? Alright!" 

 

With a brief flicker the image on the television changed to a shot of the chaos on the street below, the whistling of steel slicing through the air audible from the window while they watched the man dressed like a jester open fire on the display. "Those chowder heads are Wildcard and Downtime, from the Crime League and it's looking like they didn't come to sign up for yoga!" The camera caught the latter of the two villains stepping back out of the school before disappearing again in a blur of motion too quick to be recorded. "I called ol' Fearless Leader and the ladies but they're a good ten minutes away and I don't thing our gal's gonna last that long, kiddo! Open to suggestions; there are no dumb ideas, like they say!"

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Raina's voice seemed to come from somewhere in the vicinity of the kitchen, though she herself was still nowhere to be seen. "Do you have any defenses, Vince?" she asked the AI. "Like protective shields, or laser beams, or anything? And have you already put a call in to 911? Even if the cops can't do anything, maybe them being around will crimp the bad guys' style." A cupboard closed, and there was a sudden muted crunch of breaking glass as a couple of water glasses met an untimely end wrapped securely in a kitchen towel. "I haven't got much mojo left if I want to keep protecting the littles, but if you haven't got anything ready to go, Merlin can maybe help you jury rig something. It looks like those guys are trying pretty hard to get up here." Her voice was grim but not panicking, not yet anyway. 

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"Do I have defences! Who do you think you're talking to here, Baby-Sitters Club?" Vince rebuffed peevishly, appearing again on the television while the feed of the battle outside shrunk down to show beside his head like a newscaster's inlay. "...they've just chosen this moment to short out. Which really, really ought not to be possible; I've got some extremely enthusiastic interior decorators! I'm working on fixing them, 'natch, but with that Wildcard jerk out there I'm not having much luck, if you see what I mean. The files say he's supposed to have a limit but we'd have to get him to push his luck." 

 

The avatar grimaced, visible agitation showing through cracks in his outgoing persona. This was his home being attacked and his responsibility. Being unable to protect them was clearly weighing on the AI more with each passing moment. "Not to mention Downtime's moving too fast to target but one problem at a time, my processing's not what it used to be..."

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It was tough to say whether Echo's head was ringing from the impossibly fast punch that cracked into her jaw or from the way her super-senses were trying to communicate the hash the two villains were making of localized reality between the time manipulation and the twisting of probabilities. It might have occurred to the young woman to be thankful that the pair had no greater ambitions for their formidable abilities than violence and burglary but as she struggled to stay standing it was likely difficult for her to feel thankful for much at all.

 

With a brief blur like an old VHS tape pausing mid-playback Downtime reappeared, synced back up with the normal flow of time. "Listen, girl, we don't even know you, yeah? You're just taking the beating we owe Jack of all Blades. Guy uses swords and hangs out in the West End, sooner or later he's gonna show up at the gym that teaches sword fighting in the West End." Considering that the grudge Downtime bore for the leader of the Interceptors was several years old his detective work wasn't the most impressive but seeing as the school wasn't a constant target for supervillain attacks he had some room to be proud of himself. "You keep giving us a hard time, we're gonna kill you. No joke, yeah? Whatever your deal is it can't be worth it so how about you teleport away and let us do our thing?" He folded his arms over the hourglass insignia on his chest and tilted his masked head to one side.

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