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May 21, 2012

Erik Espadas was a man who had faced everything from alien armadas to demons from the foulest pits, a living weapon honed to peerless sharpness by talent and training, a hero who risked his life routinely with no regard for risk or fear of failure. None of which helped in the least to prevent him pacing back and forth across the living room of his family home, hands clasped behind his back and shoulders set with stress as obvious as the fretting expression plastered across his face. More than half a year of mental and emotional preparation had evaporated the first time Willow had experienced a 'fake' contraction earlier in the week. Now, as the rest of the house filled with family and friends preparing, the knowledge that he was about to become a father had become somehow more real. Running a hand across his heavily stubbled jawline, the fencer redoubled the speed of his pacing.

"Try not to wear a rut into the floor too deep for my chair to get over," a wry, matronly voice requested as Gina Espadas wheeled out of the adjacent bedroom and over to her son. Still inside, his thankfully medically trained sister saw to the heavily pregnant dryad in what, surprisingly enough, was not her first experience with midwifery. Although Ellie had made the case for handling the whole affair in a regular hospital, Willow's fairly obviously more-than-human nature presented a problematic risk to their collective secret identities. Compromising, she'd asked her girlfriend to clear a section of the Lab's extensively equipped medical floor, intending to use Mara's teleportation technology to whisk the soon-to-be mother there once they were sure she was about to go into labour.

In the meantime, the West End home had accumulated the eclectic assortment of characters collectively known as the Interceptors, including the artificial intelligence colloquially known as Vince running on a borrowed laptop and the quietly precocious six-year-old girl Ellie and Mara had brought back along with more than three hundred refugees of a recently destroyed alternate reality. Orphaned by the creatures who had devastated her version of Earth, Yolanda had been staying with Gina and Ellie since a few strings had been pulled to have the former expediently declared her legal guardian. While Vince had elected to have his monitor left in the kitchen area with a joke about staying out of the way, Yolanda had taken up a cross-legged vigil in one corner of the bedroom, silently watching the proceedings with wide eyes. Erik gathered that this wasn't even the first time the little girl had been present for a birth and considerably better circumstances. He found himself envying her composure.

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Mara had picked out a corner of the living room where she could be near the bedroom, just in case they needed to be gone in a hurry, but without an easy view of the bedroom, for the sake of her own stress level. She was here for Ellie, and the rest of the Espadas family, and to help in what ever way help was needed...but she'd never been so big on the medical problems or people in discomfort, so she was trying to focus as much as possible on the smallish, turtle-like device in her lap.

Not that she wasn't absolutely sure it would work; she'd started building it quite a while ago, and it was extensively tested and finely-tuned, even for her. But she couldn't help but tweak it; it had to be perfect, and it was something to do with her hands so that she didn't join Erik in wearing a hole through the floor. "Could always build you a bridge," she offered to Gina, though she didn't look up from her careful, hundredth examination of her gadget. "Intelligent one. Put it on a track in the rut. Have it travel along as you need it."

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Geckoman was setting up shop in the kitchen, utility belt and grapnel hung over a chair beside the back door, the Pitchoo parked a few hundred feet directly above the house. As the only one without a direct familial or romantic attachment to the birth, he'd volunteered to be the one answering any and all shouts for help.

"Are we working?" he asked the laptop sitting on the kitchen table. "Or should I turn you off and on again?"

A simulated fist mimed knocking on the screen from the inside. Vince shook his head, and mouthed something inaudible. "What? I can't hear yo- oh, volume." He tapped some keys rapidly, and adjusted his mask where it hung loose over the collar of his leather jacket.

"Alright, we're working, Goggles!" proclaimed the computer program, 'moving backwards' so his whole body was visible on the screen. "Shall we get this baby out?" In a flash, the computer program was clad in medical scrubs.

"Um... no, monitor all calls in case of an emergency, and call me if anything comes up. If I'm not in the room, the wireless USB," rattled off Geckoman, slotting a peripheral into the side of the laptop, "Is hooked up my radio." He tapped his earpiece.

"On it, boss!"

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Fulcrum stood just inside the kitchen, leaning against the door frame. Gently. She occasionally sipped her ubiquitous coffee but otherwise looked like a statue. Oh, becoming an aunt excited her greatly, even if she wasn't Espadas blood. She just preferred to keep things cool like Gina.

Speaking of Gina, she glanced into the living room and added, "You'll be changing diapers in no time, Erik." Smirking to herself, she asked, "Did you two finally settle on a name?"

The baby would arrive in her own time. She was a teenager when Fatima was born and witnessed first hand how the whole 'miracle-of-birth' thing played out. Erik and Willow would be proud parents very soon. The new Espadas was in good hands. Erik wasn't the daring little boy living out his own personal Calvin and Hobbes childhood. He was grown, responsible and would make a wonderful father. Like any good, big sister, she reminded him of that on a daily basis.

"Thanks for taking the calls, Chris. Looks like we have a long night ahead of us," she said to Geckoman as Vince came online.

"Looking good there, Doc V. We really need to find you a permanent home."

Okay, Erik was still daring, but he certainly wasn't a boy any longer.

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Willow paced around the bedroom, pausing occasionally to gaze out into the Espadas backyard through the open window. She felt antsy being indoors, in a city, and she had to fight the urge to flee and find some place wooded and quiet. The presence of the mighty oak on the lawn mitigated this urge somewhat; the oak was the same oak that once lived by the Brownstone, the former headquarters of the Interceptors, and was transplanted here by the dryad some months ago. Well, Willow admitted to herself, Sister Oak and Ellie.

The ancient Guardian flashed the young woman in question a faint smile, certain that the metamagical medic knew what Willow was thinking, and turned away from the window. The walking helped take her mind off the contractions (which were stronger and more regular) but she needed more.

"I'm going to draw a bath," she quietly announced to Ellie, indicating the attached washroom with a tilting of her head. "Might do some good."

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"I appreciate the thought, dear, but that may not be the best use of your time or talents," Gina told Mara with an amused smile, the way the inventor was compulsively checking and rechecking her device reminding the retired police officer of the way she herself had rarely been completely satisfied that her service weapon was in absolutely perfect working order. The Espadas matriarch had been taking the diverse attendees in proverbial stride; like her children she was quick to accept those she trusted as the equivalent of family. Whereas Mona had held that status for years and Chris reminded her more than a little of an only slightly younger Erik, she hadn't quite gotten over her initial period of doting on the easily distracted engineer yet.

Erik himself was busy burying his face in his hands. "Augh, Dios. 'Diapers'. Why would you even say that," he practically moaned, lifting one foot to begin pacing again and forcing it back down with a titanic show of willpower. "No, no, we haven't picked out a name yet. We came up with a few ideas but nothing that really stuck," he admitted, moving his hands to the back of his neck and lacing the fingers to keep them there. "Figured maybe once we actually saw the kid something would just, y'know, click. I guess." There was a vague way about his usually decisive voice that suggested he was asking a question as much as answering one.

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On the screen of the laptop, Vince was sitting in front of an old-fashioned switchboard, randomly plugging and unplugging cords with both hands. "Not to worry, tall, dark and gorgeous, the Interceptors are wired in, tuned on and lit up!" At the nickname, however, the artificial intelligence's gregarious grin slipped for a moment. "Er, yeah, right. A little cloud to call my own with a RAM-picket fence." Although all of the team had strong feelings of one sort or another toward Archeville, Vince was perhaps the only one who more than anything was hurt and saddened by the betrayal. Although they'd never established their relationship in such term, the Doktor was the closest thing the sentient program had to a father and the temporary reprogramming had been every bit as invasive as the organic heroes experience with mind control.

In the bedroom Ellie gave Willow a nod as the dryad headed for the attached bathroom, walking in the same direction so as to keep an eye on her. "Sure. Just not too hot and no bubblebaths or oils or anything," she cautioned, her voice authoritative now that the trials of the day were squarely in her own area of expertise.

"You look much better than Missus Heartbeat did when she had her baby," Yolanda offered encouragingly from her seat in the corner, the little girl's expression gravely serious in the way only a wide-eyed, precocious child could be. The dimensional refugee had been adapting about as well as could be expected given what she'd been through and staying close by Ellie along with visits from Erin and Mara had helped. She was still very quiet, however, and had more than once tried to hide tear-stained cheeks when something reminded her of her parents or home.

Ellie gave the blonde girl a grin as stepped into the bathroom and gave Willow a hand getting the bath ready. "Yoyo's right, we're in good shape," she assured the ancient plant controller. After a slightly awkward pause, she began, "So, erm... We never really stopped and talked about the whole 'you having my brother's baby' thing. Just between us, I mean."

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"Wouldn't take that long," Mara noted, giving the idea a half-second of actual thought.

Not that there were actual ruts to make bridges for, but the intelligent track system was at least interesting, and worth filing away for later thought. She was occasionally tempted to try to build Gina some sort of...she wasn't even sure, some kind of super-chair?...but the prospect of bringing it up with the woman was more than a little intimidating, and even after spending time around Ellie's family she couldn't be sure how it would be received. need more data

"Could have drones in here to build it, feed them instructions. Could almost maybe promise they wouldn't disassemble your refrigerator for parts, too."

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Geckoman sauntered into the living room, nodding to Fulcrum on the way fast. "Eh, I've done all nighters before. It's nothing new."

He gave a casual half-hearted salute to Erik. "Right, Jacko, I've got the world's most irritating computer progra-"

"Hey!" shouted the communicator clipped onto his belt.

"-m," continued Chris without missing a beat, "Locked and loaded. We'll handle any shouts we happen to get, so you can dedicate all your time and pacing about on hoping the kid looks more like her mother!" The younger man grinned broadly, and fiddled with his goggles with one hand before leaning in.

He put a hand on Erik's back and spoke in a low voice so Mara and Gina'd have to strain to hear him say, "Chill out, man, I'm sure everything's gonna be fine. Ellie knows what she's doing, and techno girl's on hand to get help if anything goes wrong, which it won't. Don't stress."

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Willow absently nodded, adjusting the temperature of the water at the med students instruction. While she had no intention of using oils, salts or bubbles (not this time at least, living indoors did have the occasional perks) she would have preferred a warmer temperature, though she suspected Ellie had her reasons against.

As the deep tub filled with its inviting warm water, Willow undressed and set her clothing to the side, pausing for a moment to fish the simple leather hair tie out of her pants.

"So, erm... We never really stopped and talked about the whole 'you having my brother's baby' thing. Just between us, I mean."

Willow paused, hair pulled back into a ponytail but still unbound; the dark coppery-hued skin of her hands lending an interesting contrast to the stark white hair. "No, we haven't," the dryad quietly agreed. "You do not approve, I take it?"

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Whether she thought Mara was actually joking or not about the refrigerator, Gina seemed amused, chuckling to herself as she wheeled past Chris towards the kitchen as the teenager exited. "It's good you're all here," she noted aloud, nodding absently. "My kids have good friends. Any of you want something to drink or eat?"

"Heh," Erik breathed with a smirk, punching Chris lightly in the shoulder at the crack about the baby's looks. "I know, I know. Just hate standing still while other people do the hard part," he admitted in a similarly lowered voice, looking toward the bedroom. "Thanks again, by the way," he added at a normal volume. "If anything goes down tonight, Vince can break out the little black book and get you backup regardless, deal? No stupid solo act stunts."

"What? No, that's not what I -- It's a weird situation is all," Ellie attempted to convey, leaning with her back against the wall next to the bathroom's doorway more to avoid showing Willow her own awkward expression than to preserve the dryad's privacy. Given the circumstances, I'd say we crossed that line a while ago. Taking a moment to marshal her words, she tried again, "I was pretty mad at first, yeah. I thought you were trying to take advantage of mi hermano and he's absolutely stupid enough to fall for something like that. But I... think I get it now. Why you get why this would be weird, I mean, and why you did it." The medic didn't really have a lot of comparable social situations to gauge this one against and was floundering more than a bit. She decided to shot rambling long enough for Willow to respond.

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The dryad let out a faint sigh, releasing the breath she wasn't aware she was holding, and finished binding up her hair. Shutting off the tap Willow settled into the tub, a low groan of relief-mixed pleasure escaping her lips, the warm water helping assuage some of the pain and tension.

"In a way I did," Willow murmured, resting her head back against the tiled wall, her eyes closed. She felt her cheeks color with shame but she didn't open her eyes to look at Ellie. "I love your brother," Willow admitted. "I have known others, by choice or not, but I have felt nothing for them. Erik was to be no different, but my heart felt otherwise."

"Suddenly the passage of time actually meant something," she concluded.

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"Heh," Erik breathed with a smirk, punching Chris lightly in the shoulder at the crack about the baby's looks. "I know, I know. Just hate standing still while other people do the hard part," he admitted in a similarly lowered voice, looking toward the bedroom. "Thanks again, by the way," he added at a normal volume. "If anything goes down tonight, Vince can break out the little black book and get you backup regardless, deal? Not stupid solo act stunts."

"I think my little black book will suffice on its own, dude." Geckoman pointed to the old little silver YF communicator he kept on his belt for old time's sake. "Hell, I've got Midnight on speed dial. Could probably even call in the Raven and the Freedom League in a crisis. And yeah, I've got Vince. Who I could... oh god, actually no, not patching him into the Pitchoo." He put his finger up to temporarily shut off his computer.

"Like the guy, not handing him a flying nuclear reactor." He took his finger down. "So... father, huh? I'm not sure if I ever offered proper congrats, what with the... you know. Congratulations!"

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Ellie turned her eyes skyward, vaguely asking for a sudden infusion of social graces to see her through the increasingly frank and intimate conversation. "Yeah, I guess... I think I can understand that, at least a little bit," she allowed, doing her best to put herself in the mindset of someone who had seen the long millennia that Willow had. "I just want to make sure you get that this is more than just having a piece of mi hermano to hang on to. This kid is going to have an aunt and a grandmother and everything else and we're going to be part of her life." The sardonic medic's voice softened a bit as she added, "Which means you're part of that family, too."

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"Met him once; think he has asthma or something," Erik muttered distractedly as Chris attempted to reassure him, the fencer glancing out the window partly because he half expected some crisis to suddenly erupt and partly out of a desperate need to focus his attention on something. With a slow breath, he looked back to the green clad teenage hero. "Haah, yeah. 'Father'. Ngh." Running a hand over his face, he shot Chris a dejected expression. "I wouldn't trust me with other people's kids, and I'm going to be responsible for a... a little person."

"And considering the kid's genes, she's probably going to be an unholy handful," Gina agreed, rolling back into the living room with a tray of glasses on it, the retired policewoman's sense of humour showing through her deadpan even as her son groaned loudly.

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"You're right, Erik. The right name will arrive the first time you look into her eyes," replied Mona after checking her phone. She didn't try to hide her smile this time. "At least that is the story my Mom gave me about 'Mona'."

She turned to look at Vince as he replied. Something about the A.I. complementing her felt off, not bad off, just different, but she didn't let the feeling show on her face. Instead she took the complement at face value and patted the side of the laptop's monitor. Much in the same way she cupped a friend's head when they need reassuring. "Thank you too, Vince. We wouldn't be the Interceptors without you."

"Actually, Vince, I have a nice little server that may interest you. Maybe as a vacation home? ArchiMedia is looking for a full-time IT director. Small start up, lots of potential. Generous server with multiple multimedia projects in the pipe. Sound interesting?" Yes, she was offering the technology director job at her publishing company to an A.I.

"No, thanks, Mrs...," catching herself just in time, she added, "Gina." Gina was still a giant to her after all these years.

At the mention of an 'unholy handful' of a daughter, Mona didn't say anything. Nope. Absolutely not. She just took a big drink of her coffee and said nothing. Nothing.

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The dryad's voice was quiet and thoughtful, Ellie's declaration reminding Willow of something the medic's brother said when he first found out about the pregnancy. "I'm only starting to understand what that means," the ancient mother-to-be confided.

Another contraction took the dryad as she opened her mouth to elaborate on what she said. Sucking in air into rarely used lungs, Willow then let out a slow, measured breath. She continued this pattern of deep, slow breaths until the pain passed.

Opening her eyes, Willow glanced over at Ellie. "As I was saying," the dryad said, offering the coltish young woman a weak smile. "Thank you. You're all the family I have left, now."

"Well, aside from the Gorgon, but she and I aren't on speaking terms."

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"Have actually thought about the...mmh...." Mara fiddled with her multi-tool for a moment, flicking the little screwdrivers and other tools in and out one-handed. "....'super-baby' problem. Kind of interesting. High-density cag...mmh. Cribs. Sorry. Sensitive, low-impact nullifiers. Adaptations to toys to make them more durable."

She picked her little device back up and went back to inspecting it, apparently at the limit of her ability to not tweak the small gadget. "Very unusual set of constraints - makes for entertaining thought experiments."

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Ellie ducked her head into the bathroom when she heard Willow's sharp breathing, but said nothing when it became clear that the dryad had remembered her breathing exercises and had the situation under control. The young medic swore that she nearly had a heart-attack every time Willow had a contraction but she did her level best to at least appear calm for the other woman's sake. "Yeah, we're all pretty thankful mi hermano knocked up less planet-killy sister," she confirmed dryly, belying the warm smile she offered along with the quip.

In the living room, Erik gave Mona a nonplussed look, evidently trying to determine whether or not she was making fun of him. "Dios, Mo', could you be a bigger ham?" he asked with a worn-out chuckle, running one hand through the hair on the back of his head. "And let's put a pin in the 'cage' idea for now, Mara," the fencer suggested with a lopsided grin in the inventor's direction, though he added more quietly, "Not that I'm ruling it out..." Suddenly making a face, he turned back to the window muttering something about a crackling red aftertaste.

"Mulitmedia, eh? Well I -- wait." Vince stopped in the middle of whatever punchline he'd been set to deliver, his image freezing momentarily while he devoted the whole of his processing power to something else. When he started moving again a moment later, his voice came from both the laptop and Chris' pager. "Hey gang, it's probably nothing, but I'm reading a weird EM build-uzzZZHKzz...!" With a surge of static, Vince's voice went silence and the lights in the house flickered out. Erik let out a shout, clutching the side of his head, while a stream of profanity came from Ellie in the next room over.

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Mara had some profanity of her own to throw into the mix as she immediately lost her ever-present connection to her choker...and some more foul language for good measure as she realized that the choker itself, and the suit it was linked to, were now just a bunch of handsome metal. unknown effect - power dampener? - no - not that specific - hit the building power - too slow for EMP - I think - could have noticed the effect on local power grid? - shouldn't have hit Erik - have to assume it was intentional

Not having her suit made her awfully paranoid, but all she could do was sit forward in her chair a little and, one-handed, flick the knife out of her multi-tool. "Don't like this. At all. Don't know what that was, but hit my tech, too - not just the local power."

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Chris reacted swiftly to the outages, yanking out his earpiece and tossing it aside even as he shucked out of his jacket and darted to where he'd hung his belt. He returned to the living room with his mask and goggles on, as he buckled his belt of tricks on.

"Hold on, testing..." He rapidly pressed a few buttons on the side of the belt, to no effect other than some metallic clicking noises. "Nope, I'm apparently down to blunt objects and springs. And I can't call down the Pitchoo, since its remote and doors work on electric motors."

He paused in his babbling, and looked sharply about the room. "Right, guard Willow, I'm going to investigate." And with that, he bolted for the front door.

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Mona walked across the living room, which wasn't more than two steps, and gave Erik a kiss on the cheek. Softly, she replied, "The name will come to you."

She was about to ask what was wrong, but Vince beat her to it. Instead she steadied Erik as the power flickered off. Obviously this wasn't a normal outage. If it affected Ellie and Erik's metamagical abilities and Mara's technology, the EMP was an attack. Chris was on the right track.

"Form a perimeter. Erik and Ellie with Willow. Gina, Mara: the house. I'll take the back," she called out as she hovered for the back door.

"Don't you have a manual override, Gecks? Need a lift?" She yelled from the kitchen.

Her movement was relatively slow while she drifted into her own cosmic senses. Penetrating barriers were still beyond her ability, but if anything unusual was still about the house, she wanted to know and right now. Glancing out the back window, she threw open the door and stepped outside. As gamers would say, she was a tank and her job was to draw aggro.

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Willow chuckled at Ellie's little joke, secretly amazed and amused at how the youngest Espadas could change the mood of a situation with a few choice words; a trait she shared with her brother. The water was starting to lose some of its warmth when Willow carefully leveraged herself out of the tub, but bath had served its purpose relaxing her muscles and taking some of the edge off.

The ancient guardian slipped into a robe she had set aside earlier and belted it loosely before pulling Ellie into a hug. Willow didn't know why she wanted to hug Erik's sister, only that she needed to and Ellie felt right; the two women were careful around each other and rarely had much to discuss but the dryad felt safe and comfortable around the coltish woman.

She was still holding onto Ellie when the EMP hit but before she could ask what was wrong Willow felt another contraction, more painful than those that came before, and much sooner than she was expecting. "Not now," she hissed through pain clenched teeth.

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"Guh, like my head is wrapped in gauze... Hey! Mo', you know--" Erik began but the imposing paragon was already out the backdoor. "She knows she's not in charge, right?" the fencer finished the thought to the rest of the room, still clutching the side of his head and squinting though one eye as he acclimated to the unpleasant sensation of the electrical dead zone surrounding them.

"Someone leaping into action rather than waiting for your orders, dear?" Gina observed, calmly wheeling herself over the a cabinet along the wall and unlocking a drawer. "I believe that's called 'karma'." From within she drew a well-maintained service handgun, taking a moment to check it over before setting it in her lap. "How're your magic fairy swords?"

Straightening fully, Erik snapped the fingers of one hand a few times, with no result. "Nada." In response, his mother retrieved a sharpened fencing foil from the cabinet and tossed it to him. Catching it easily in one hand, he jogged past Mara and into the bedroom, finding Ellie supporting Willow as they made their way over to the bed, the younger Espadas still muttering assorted obscenities under her breath.

"It's time!" she hissed to her brother as she helped Willow lie down.

Erik stood silent for a split second, looking between the two women before blurting, "Now?!"

In the corner of the bedroom, Yolanda had drawn her knees up to her chin, arms wrapped around them and eyes wide but keeping very, very quiet, obviously reliving the horrors of the end of the world she'd escaped in reaction to the sudden air of confusion and panic in the house.

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Outside, Geckoman and Fulcrum could see that it wasn't only the Espadas' house affected; several blocks in all directions were similarly dark, with no sign of electrical lights. Further into the city, however, the skyscrapers of the downtown were lit and easily visible.

In front of the house, Chris found a number of figures walking toward him from either end of the road. Easily visible in the unusually dark evening twilight was a crackling red glow atop the roof of a business at the closest intersection, a few hundred meters to his left. The features of the people of the ground were harder to pick out, further concealed from his superior night vision by hoods. Most of them wore long coats or leather jackets, but each carried a drawn sword in hand, the metal glinting in what little light there was. There were at least a dozen or more of them, spaced out along the street but all drawing nearer.

"Ah, the Geckoman," the closest of the figures remarked in a masculine voice creased by wear and sporting a light but noticeable French accent. This one carried a thin longsword casually in one hand and strode with the confidence of one used to others getting out of the way. Chris could make out a greying goatee beneath his hood, framing a faint smirk. "Enhanced agility, regenerative capabilities."

"Promising..." another voice noted nearby, this one coyly feminine with a undercurrent of amusement and a heavier English accent. She carried a wicked looking scimitar balanced against one shoulder, sauntering forward with a predatory grace. Her outfit was ostentatious in its matching white leather, from the flared pants to the fringed jacket.

"Hmm. We'll be in touch," the first swordsman agreed thoughtfully, "but our business is not with you tonight. Where is the Jack?"

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