From the Story Arc: Phoenyx Ascendant

Previous Story in the Arc: Crossroads by Seraphym (Friday, February 10, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Time Flies by John Murdock (Thursday, September 28, 2006)

(posted Tuesday, March 14, 2006)

Toddler John Michael Murdock played with his "stuffed animals" out in the grass and moss-covered yard of the little sanctuary where John and Sera Murdock were raising him. In a place that looked like virgin Minnesota forest, in a log cabin. Only these "toys" were able to move and play on their own, and if anything had penetrated to this protected domain and threatened the child, they would suddenly become the protectors they truly were. Teddy bears with teeth. Big teeth. Teeth as long as your finger, and sharp as ingratitude.

They were Underhill in an Elven Domain where a year passed for every day in Paragon City, and where the log cabin had been wished into existence.

Sera, however, was not watching her beloved child play with more than half an eye. Most of her attention was focused on Vickie.

"Elven Healer, home pregnancy test, Bella's lab tests all say the same thing, Sera." Vickie looked at her soberly. "All confirming exactly what you thought. You're pregnant again." She held up the little packet of birth control pills. "This is the culprit. Something turned them inactive. Nothing but sugar pills now."

She had been so careful. She took the foil and plastic packet and stared at it. This was the scenario they had been trying to avoid with come back to haunt them, redoubled. Something...

"What did this?" she asked, numbly.

Vickie looked sympathetic, but shrugged. "It's Underhill. No telling. Magic isn't exact, and shit happens. Could be a mischievous sprite, could just have been a passing waft of ambient power, could have been JJ wishing hard for some candy." Then her mouth firmed into a hard line. "Or it could have been deliberate. I just have no way of telling. A better mage than I could...but not me."

Sera swallowed.

"Um, one more thing?" Vickie ventured. "Elven healer says twins. Fraternal. One boy, one girl."

Sera felt stunned...and yet, there was a strange feeling of familiarity here, for she had dreamed, dreamed of three children with John's eyes. Two boys, one girl. JJ--and two others. Dreams...dreams...could she have done this to herself? Wishing without knowing she was wishing? Wishes were dangerous here, where power could make them real.

No matter. No matter what had caused this, it was now time to deal with it. But not without talking to the other half of the equation. "I--I have to talk to John," she said, not wanting to think past that moment.

Vickie nodded. There were times that she envied Sera...but this sure wasn't one of them.

It'd been a long day on patrol, and John could think of nothing he wanted to do more than to get home, have a shower, and curl up next to the fire with Sera and JJ. He had made his usual rounds through Peregrine Island and the Crash site, doing what good could be done. Bella had been recruiting him lately too; more Portal work. His old "pals," the Praetorians. He landed at the edge of a lake in Atlas Park, a short bridge bustling with traffic overhead. He scanned around, looking for just the right spot---there. A very plain looking stone, sitting in a patch of grass near one of the bridge pylons. As he neared it, it looked as if reality shimmered, details blurring and fading into a different picture. A dozing Hellion on a nearby building happened to watch this violation of the laws of the universe. He shook his head, and settled back down to sleep off a night of debauchery. It wasn't the first time he'd seen someone "disappear", especially after heavy partying.

John kept walking forward, with the haze around him resolving into a thick fog. After a few more steps, the fog lightened to reveal a four-pillared structure, with arches and an openwork "roof" like marble carved into filigree. Snatches of light reflected off at odd places from the structure, twinkling; each face of the pillars was inset with precious gems as big as golf balls. John stopped in front of the nearest two pillars, pressing a series of the gems with his gloved thumb. The air between the pillars seemed to ripple, giving off a weak and tremulous light from strands as fine as spider-silk. John stepped through, taking a breath before he did. It was a habit he'd never broken; he knew that if technology failed, it was through something that could be fixed. With magic...he wasn't as trusting.

In a bare instant he finished his step. He was in a small clearing in a set of pristine woods, surrounded by sturdy beams of wood. The beams were connected in the same shape as the Nexus Gate had been, and the structure was just as tall. Wide enough for a truck, and tall enough for a horse-mounted rider. He let his breath out, smiling; almost home.

It was a short walk through the woods back to the cabin, with the path almost seeming to ramble through the trees at random. The short grass of the turf, the evenness of it, however, betrayed that it was anything but natural. John hefted his small backpack, forcing it to ride up on his shoulders more. There was some extra weight in it today, making John smile. Today had been a big day Topside; more food from Thea, and also something special. John had stopped into the 'old' apartment ---what a wonder all of the back and forth through different time-dilations did to one's perception--- to look in on Ratt and Shuma. Just the regular gossip and chit-chat, sharing news and such. Ratt had handed John a book before he left, however.

"Well, gee, Pops. I figured he might like this. So, uh, yeah." John had smiled and taken the present; "So You Want To Be A Wizard", by Diane Duane. One of Ratt's favorites, if he remembered correctly. JJ wouldn't be old enough to read it for a good while, but it was still a wonderful gesture on Ratt's part; he still had trouble with some social interactions, though he'd come a very long way since he'd first been brought to Earth Odin.

John was brought out of his recollection when he noticed that the woods ahead were thinning out some, and that the path was widening. He almost skipped, his pace quickening and growing a half-stride longer. He came to the edge, and there it was; home.

Sera sensed him long before he crossed the Nexus Gate, felt the subtle relaxation as--for a moment, anyway--John set down the burdens of duty and entered his own little peaceable kingdom. She kept her anxieties to herself, under ward and shield. She would allow nothing to spoil this "daily" moment for him; getting home to spend time with the two of them was his favorite part of the day. Even if the "day" was going to be two or three days or even longer...the clever Gate-mage who had created their terminus had made it possible for anyone keyed to this pocket realm to reinsert himself Underhill or Topside with exactly fifteen minutes between the time of leaving and the time of returning. JJ would never know how lucky he was; he had a working mother and father who were also full-time parents. A small miracle...

Though now, for Sera...the elapsed time was going to be somewhat longer...she well recalled the Elven Healers' admonition from the last time. No Gating while pregnant. Or at least...if John wanted these children. Wanted the worry, the stress of trying to solve, once again, the problem his fatal genetics posed to them, and do so without compromising his strong beliefs about personal freedom. If he wanted them...

She bit her lip at that thought, and waited for John's arrival. He crossed the distance between the edge of the woods and the porch of their home, sliding his pack casually from his shoulders and onto the ground. "Miss me?" He said, smiling as he wrapped his arms around Sera.

"If I were Zach, I would say, 'yes, but my aim is getting better,'" she replied, standing on tiptoe so she could kiss him. "But the bare truth is--hmmmmm." She let her kiss speak for her.

After the 'welcome home' was done, John turned in Sera's embrace to watch JJ bumbling around the grassy meadow in front of the house like a beetle on espresso. Moments like these...this is what makes everything worth it.. He held Sera closer, savoring every second.

John was at peace; there was simply no way things could get better. He was content, and in ways that he and Sera alone hadn't been. This was what was right for them, and he could feel it. Was conscious of it...but there was something else. Since John had become a Peacebringer, he had gained a slight talent for telempathy; nowhere near as strong as Bella or Sera, but enough so that he could "sense" people easily enough. Most people Topside allowed their emotions to slosh around like an over-full water bucket in a train wreck; no control. Around Sera, however, it was harmony. Right now, though, he could feel some discordant strain underneath the surface.

"Love? Do you want to talk about something?" He leaned back so that he could see Sera's face as he spoke, his expression calm and his voice even.

She tensed. Then, before she could censor herself, it just spilled out. "I--we--are--going to have a child. Two."

John took a step back out of their embrace keeping his hands at her arms. "You're...pregnant, love? You're sure?" It was a dumb question; John knew that if Sera had been anxious about something, it was for a reason.

But she nodded. "Elven healers, Bella, all the tests." She bit her lip hard. "Vickie says--" Sera didn't have time to finish her sentence before John surged forward, picking her up in a hug. He had let all of his own meager guards down; he was almost glowing with joy.

It took him a few minutes, of holding Sera and kissing her before he had calmed down enough for coherent speech. "Wait--you said two, right? Twins?"

All of her apprehension melted in the full force of his joy. And now she allowed herself to feel--well--the same joy. Her babies, her three children--the children she had dreamed of. They were going to be real! He wanted them too! Rapture filled her and overflowed into him.

"Twins," she whispered, her face turned up to his like a flower to the sun. "One boy, one girl."

She would worry about the repercussions later.

"Well, I'll be...fraternal twins. You want to have these children, right? I'm mean, I definitely do, but only if you're--"

She interrupted him with a hand over his lips. "Come wind, come storm, I want them, beloved. Oh, glory, how I want them!"

John opened his mouth, about to speak---then glanced to the right at their cabin. "Y'know...we're gonna need to add another room. Hell, two rooms eventually." His mind was racing with all of the possibilities, everything about their child ---children!---. What their names were going to be, what they'd look like, how they'd grow up. He had been, and still was, filled with wonder when he looked at John Jr. Now that same feeling was washing over him a thousand-fold.

Still...there was a tickle at the back of his mind, something in his connection to Sera that wasn't in tune.

*Love? There's still something else, isn't there?* He caressed her, soul-to-soul, through their connection.

She let out her breath, unaware until that moment that she had been holding it in. "Yes...Vickie pills were interfered with. Made useless." She didn't have to say how, this was a place where magic drifted in on the breeze. There had already been some funny incidents; once when the ambient magic was particularly heavy, John had come home very ebullient and proclaimed that she was "his angel" and she had sprouted wings...actual, feathered wings. But tiny ones. Quail-sized. It had taken one of the Healers to wish them off, and it had taken them half an hour to stop laughing to call him.

But this wasn't funny. And given the subtle nature of the interference...Sera knew that Vickie suspected it wasn't an accident. She stepped out of his embrace, but took both his hands in hers.

He stood for a moment, thinking hard with his brow furrowed. "She's certain that they were tampered with? Ain't no room for doubt?"

"They are now all sugar pills. All of them. Twelve months' worth." She looked up into his eyes. "I don't know how long ago that happened. It could have been as little as a month, or more than six."

"But it happened after we already had JJ." He turned his gaze to watch JJ giggling and playing. "Someone wanted us to have another child?"

"Vickie...said it could have been an accident. Or--love, I could have done it, wishing for more children..."

He turned his head back to look at her, his expression softening. "Well...Vickie is going to look into it, right? Find out the cause?" He paused for a moment. "Don't get me wrong, love. I want these children, just as much as you do. But...we didn't do this on purpose; I just want to be sure. Does that make sense?"

"A great deal of sense. If this was not an accident, if it was not something I or even JJ did then--" it was her turn to glance at JJ. "The bargain. Someone wanted insurance, and was arrogant enough to impose his will on us to improve the odds that a child of ours would choose the spurs and belt of Knighthood."

"One of Vick's Elven buddies? They would actually do that sort of thing?" He knew that the Elves weren't all fairy-tale and make-believe good; even the good ones weren't entirely that good to begin with. But this sort of thing was another level. And John sure as hell didn't like it.

"I fear it is possible. More than possible. Some of them regard us as tricksters who will try any means to get out of a bargain. Some--see mortals as lesser creatures. Those who think of us as inferior, see no harm in manipulating mortals to serve the cause of the Seleighe Sidhe." Mortal warriors had one potent ability that no creature of Underhill had. Mortals could wield Cold Iron with impunity, and iron and steel were fatal to the beings of Underhill. In fact, so potent was the metal that unless heavily shielded, its mere presence distorted and disrupted magic, and one way to kill an Elf permanently, past all hope of revival Underhill was to do so with a blade of iron or steel.

And if the Seleighe Sidhe Realm of Robin Goodfellow came under attack by the Unseleighe...he could, and would, ask his mortal warriors to wield those weapons. One of those would be--a Murdock. But a child trained from the beginning as a Knight-Guardian might be more inclined to do so without argument than John...or her. Robin Goodfellow, spirit of anarchy as he was, probably would not find that any sort of drawback. But the commanders of his liegemen? That could be a different tale altogether.

"We didn't come down here to get embroiled in their politics; and we sure as hell didn't come down 'ere so that our children could get caught up in it." John sighed.

"We become embroiled in politics no matter where we are," she reminded him gently. "That is the way the world wags. Think of the CCCP. Whether they join or not, our children will become embroiled in that as well." She shook her head. "But we chose that, and they will choose whether or not to involve themselves. If this was done to us by design and not accident, it took the choice out of our hands."

She would never regret having these babies. No, a thousand times no--she cupped her hands instinctively, protectively, over her flat belly and smiled a little, thinking of them. The children with John's eyes...

But if this had been deliberate on someone's part--she would find that very hard to forgive. She reached for his hands again. John lifted her hands to his lips, kissing them. "We'll make it through this. Our children will, too. We can do our best to make the world as good of a place as possible for them to grow up in...but we can't give in to the fear that the world isn't "perfect" enough for them. With the twins," a smile crept onto his face, "we'll deal with what may come. And they will, too. Just look at what stock they come from; ain't much that I can see that'll keep them down." He poured himself into their connection; what little trepidation he had had in the past concerning his children's futures was gone now. He knew that come what may, they would prevail.

She searched his face. She found peace there. If he was at peace with this--however he had come to that peace--then all was good. She took his hands, pulled his arms around her, and came home to his embrace as a weary bird does to its nest.