Echidna never expected to see anything like this. Normally, the biotech nursery was a quiet place, with just soothing white noise interrupted by the cries of her creations- the latter of which was always quickly taken care of, naturally. The scene that confronted her when she walked in, therefore, was completely unexpected and absolutely unprecedented.
Her latest creation, ANI- Augmented Neural Interconnections- wasn't in her crib anymore. No, the little girl, pink clothes and all, was nestled in the last set of arms she'd have ever expected. Compared to ANI, Goliath was a monster, fully nine feet tall and all rippling muscle and solid bone. She neatly fit into the crook of his neck, and one hand alone could hold her with some room left over. And yet…
…and yet, the most unexpected thing of all was that Goliath was smiling.
It disappeared the instant that he laid eyes on Echidna, but even on his grim features, there was still a bit of playfulness. "Doctor," he greeted in his low rumbling voice, "Marty and I heard her crying."
Marty- Martichora- was in the far corner, arms crossed over his bare chest, his ruddy skin erupting with fine, razor-sharp barbs, each over a foot in length. Only his face, throat, and the front part of his torso were clear, and when he scowled, his teeth were serrated and uneven from where new ones had grown to replace the old. His voice was louder, higher, than Goliath's own. "He's the one who insisted on going to help! If he breaks her, it's not my fault!"
"I won't break her," Goliath gently said, his own voice rising a bit in pitch as he addressed the baby, "will I? No I won't, you're too precious for-"
He broke off in mid-sentence, his eyes narrowing at Echidna. She couldn't help it, though- she laughed, giggling at the gentleness that Goliath had never shown any living thing. "No, no, it's true! I know you can take care of her. But hah… I would never have imagined that you'd be the doting brother."
She walked over to him, affectionately ruffling his dark hair and grinning. "And she is precious, isn't she? Such a beautiful baby I made…"
Marty sourly shot back, "She's fragile. No weapons. Did you just want a girl, after all of us?"
"Hah, well, there is that. But no… her weapon will be her mind, someday. If I'm right, she'll be even more brilliant than me, someday." Echidna smiled softly as she pressed her lips against ANI's head, then grinned over at Marty. "…besides, you didn't have any of that when you were her age, either."
The look of utter confusion on his face made the scientist burst out laughing. "No, not at all! You looked just like her when you were a baby."
Goliath blinked. "Me too?"
"Yes, you too, though you were much bigger, of course." Her eyes grew distant as she said that, and her smile grew wistful. "It was a nightmare, with you two and your brothers. I designed you, all of you, but… I never really understood what I was making until I held you in my arms for the first time. Both of you looked like any other child."
At those words, both of the men started shifting, Goliath's face growing more dour and Marty's spines rustling like a tree in a sudden breeze. Before either of them could say anything, though, Echidna scowled, "Don't start acting like it's a bad thing, either way! I knew what you'd look like when you were fully grown, and you're both still my babies. Having you like that was just an extra bonus."
"Mm… it is kind of nice," Goliath murmured after a moment.
Echidna nodded firmly, then turned her gaze to Marty. He'd always been the difficult one, and so she motioned for him to come close. "Here. You hold her for a moment, and then you tell me if she's not a bonus, no matter what she grows up to be."
Instantly, Marty uncrossed his arms and violently shook his head. "No, absolutely not! She starts crying every time she sees me! She thinks I'm some kind of monster, even more than Goliath!"
The bigger man winced at that, but said nothing. For Echidna, though, that was everything she needed to know. "Good thing she's sleeping now, then. Sit down."
Both of them were used to obeying her, and so Marty gingerly sat down on a simple wooden chair, carefully rearranging his quills so that he didn't hurt himself. Then Echidna gently took ANI from Goliath and cradled her protectively close as she moved over to the younger of the two. "Rest one hand on the back of her head. She can't hold it up yet, so you have to be there for her. The other goes here, and relax, she won't bite!"
From the look that Marty had, he wasn't so sure. His eyes were wide, almost panicky, and a faint tremor passed through his body as Echidna gently, so very gently, rested ANI on the bare patch of skin at Marty's throat and chest. He was as tense as a coiled spring, and yet, as ANI relaxed and shifted to make herself comfortable, the spined man did, too. Slowly, so very slowly, he started to smile, his voice falling to a whisper, as though he was afraid to break a magic spell. "…she's not crying?"
"She's not crying. Start rocking her."
Marty blinked, then awkward started rocking back and forth. Too quickly at first, too jerkily, but he fell into a rhythm. After a few seconds, he breathed, "Was I really like this, as a baby? She's so soft and warm…"
"Yes, you were exactly like this."
Row after row of sharp teeth gleamed in Marty's smile at that, but just as quickly, it faded. Goliath saw it, and said, "You're still a baby, just not as soft."
"Shut up, you-" Marty cut off his tirade in mid-sentence, the instant that ANI started shifting against him. He started rocking again, but still shot daggers at Goliath and hissed under his breath, "I am not! Just because I'm not emotionally castrated doesn't mean-"
"Boys, boys." Echidna's voice was quiet, but no less commanding for that. Both of them fell silent, on guard, and yet she acted anyway. She leaned forward and brushed a kiss against Marty's cheek, then ran an affectionate hand through his quills- from the crown of his head and down, the only way to touch him without getting skewered. "Remember what I said. You're both still my babies. It doesn't matter what form you take, or what changes we end up making, or anything. You're mine, and that won't change."
She gazed into Marty's eyes until he finally nodded, which earned him a kiss on the other cheek. "Good. Now, read her a story, both of you. It'll be good for you to do something creative."
Goliath grinned. "Something creative? Marty's stories?"
"Sorry." "Fine, fine…"
She gave an affectionate huff, shaking her head as she turned to go. Honestly, they were both still so immature, still trying to puzzle through the mystery of life that she'd given them… but maybe this would be good for both of them. At the least, as she walked away and heard them both discussing what kind of stories to tell, and finding themselves in rare agreement on anything- the fact that she was the most adorable sister that they could have asked for- she grinned. As chaotic as life was with her creations, days like this made her feel sure that she was making progress with them. Maybe, someday, with a lot of effort… they'd finally start to see themselves as she saw them…