84 - "Bender"

April 8th, 2002

Two days.

Where, in the span of forty-eight hours, lives can begin, change, pass on or, ultimately stay the damned same.  Such was the mortal coil.

Another battle among the succession had passed for the clan, day and night had each passed twice for the humans below in their contained, little world; existence continued to exist in every shape and form.

But down, in between the steel monoliths and basking in the sultry, smoky glow of a faded neon sign crackling on its last legs, life could often be measured on how fast one walked through this particular neighborhood, lost in irrelevance and the sheer size of Manhattan Island.

This was the tacit splendor of New York they left off the brochures; under cyclopean streetlights and a urine glow, a few corners had managed to fade into obscurity and the gloom of night.

O'Harrigan's pub, against a smear of a darkened, brick-wizened block, and distinguished by script painted over an endearing shamrock motif on the front window, erupted.

A body broke through, landed on the curb and tumbled into the gutter.  If it weren't for the jacket and loose-fitting jeans, the shards could've done some serious damage.

The winter runoff had created a thin, bubbling stream, a brook riding the crevice between asphalt and cement that served to rouse the victim, face down in the watery mire.  "...fffffffuck..."  Todd Hawkins stirred under the layers of glass, grumbled, wiped away the collected drool, and then struggled to his feet.

The night had blurred like his vision, into a string of visited bars, clubs, grills and any other hovel that served liquor, slowly degenerating as he moved on; and he wondered, while under the damply lit conditions, if day had passed.

It did.

And he must have missed it.

He was of course too busy drinking.  Venting his frustrations as best he knew how over the rim of a shotglass, he knew he was owed this, owed the chance to do something incredibly stupid to numb the pain.  He was just a pup, unschooled in how to properly give voice to something deep, dark and silent, and inexplicably rooted in the past.

Nursing his right eye, the skin bruised and angry bloated mauve, Todd staggered towards his car, for the shape that vaguely looked vehicle-like against the darkness.  Near comatose he was the walking dead, with formaldehyde of malts and fine hops.

He was ready to give up; he'd exhausted every bar he knew of, and this one in the dregs of a lesser-known district had taken the last of his money and pride.  He'd been too brash, and his rarely used proclivity for tact had, again, yet to be practiced in any way, shape or form.

Hence the vicious exit and the broken shards of glass under his feet.

Parked to the side, near an alley entrance, the Superbird gleamed in the night, dotted stars and skyscraper windows reflected in the violet gloss, four layers of paint and a clear coat to seal.

Slowly, vigilantly, to protect the paint, he aimed his key towards the car's door, and finally made contact; a small triumph, until he opened the door and fell in, nearly impaling himself on the stick shift.

Exhaust pipes rumbled with an angry breath, and the car lurched into a main artery of Manhattan, a drunken, disheartened man behind the wheel.

****************************************

Annika stood waiting.

Staring into an evening sky cleared of the once thick and noxious plumes of smoke pouring from the Hole, the stars were nude and unbidden, and ferocious in their number and light, like the wild flecks of a brush thrown against an oil painting.

Beautiful, serene and sanguine; truly, she didn't care.  She'd concentrated on a far point of light for most of her time spent brooding, narrowing her gaze, fine-tuning her anger.

Among the comforting merlon-structured walls, atop the slate finial, above where, below, two thousand feet down lay another world, she waited.  For him, for her husband, for the stupid, stubborn idiot who'd disappeared from their home.

He didn't even have the decency to call.

Hell hath no fury like a gargoyle scorned or neglected; she ran a newly minted proverb through her gold-rimmed head, and red made blood a sea of blue.  Her eyes glowed, crimson, in thinking just what she'd say and do to him when he dragged himself home.

If he dragged himself home.

"I can hear your teeth grinding."

Annika was aware of the steps taken on the stone behind, Brooklyn's approach all too prudent.  Even the wind was doing well to avoid her.  "Two goddamned days." a hot breath went cool with her frustration.  "Do you know how much trouble he can get into in that time?  Especially when he's left alone?"

Brooklyn stalked forward, eying the precariously perched gargoyle, tail whipping across a delicate hock.  "Todd's a big boy, a New Yorker, he can take care of himself."

"Not when I get through with him."

"You can't really blame him.  Yeah, he took off, but considering what he's been through, maybe he needs a recharge in the only way he knows how."

She snorted, a dual rush of air.  In many ways he was the strongest man she knew, and the most vulnerable.  And often, the most impulsive.  "For some apparent reason, I keep running over our marriage vows, and wonder if he was lying the entire time."

"You do realize, he never said he'd obey you."

"Sneaky little bastard."  As she turned, ocean blue eyes caught the newspaper in his hand, well worn and crinkled; it had been read over several times.  "Light reading?"

Old eyes flicked over the ink, and the infamous beak rutted into a frown.  "Just checking out the newest articles on the urban legends of Manhattan."  The newsprint was big and bold, the picture an artist's rendition with flamboyance where fact should have been.  The gentle creature who just happened to be seven feet tall was now an object of fear and loathing with the flair of a pencil.  "The cop who saw Goliath fighting Sobek in the streets is making the rounds.  I heard he's even scheduled to do a radio interview."

"The vultures are circling."  She swiveled her gaze back into the city and accompanying ravage, where New York wore the scar of necromancy under a ring of construction site spotlights, borne of a madman that could never be brought to human justice.  The people were angry.  "I guess anything to get the city's mind off the massive hole in downtown becomes news."

Brooklyn shook his head, leaning on an adjacent finial.  "This is dangerous.  Every little bit of evidence we were able to get away with is now being slowly pieced together, and the fact the latest eyewitness, among several others, is a respected protector of the peace...it's too close this time, we just can't hide every snooping journalist in the castle until something else catches the collective attention of the world."

There was fear in his voice; maybe he wasn't ready for the awesome responsibility he seized.  "St. John tried to expose us with her pictures, it didn't work.  What makes you think this will do any worse?"

"Because Manhattan's angry," he shoved himself from the wall, "and looking for a scapegoat."

Just as he turned, it was like a snowstorm had suddenly collected over the castle courtyard and he walked straight through.

A shape solidified from the flecks of light, tingling along his flesh like warm spring rain.  He was distracted for a moment, before he realized he'd strayed into Mother's holographic projection beam.

The hem of computer-generated fabric rippled in the breeze, or, what her weather sensors defined as wind-speed and direction and effectively altered her program to suit.  Highbrow, regal as a queen, she stood proudly, and eerily, like staring at a spirit not really there.

"Mother." he breathed in recognition, the image of Goliath's own dead mother coming into focus.

"Brooklyn."  Hollow eyes slowly roamed towards the gargoyle still atop the merlon, obsidian so deep and dark, and disturbingly unreflective.  She had news.  "Annika."

Hope glittered.  "Did you...?"

"Street level security cameras have observed a 1970 In-Violet Plymouth Superbird heading towards the building.  The license plate GARGLVR seems to correspond with your husband's registration."

Annika flipped from the wall, plowing straight through Mother, and rushing towards the castle's interior in a straight bead for the elevator.

****************************************

He arrived with a roar and the red streak of taillights chasing behind.

The heavy vehicle lurched down the incline, and into Xanatos' personal and private parking garage at the base of the Eyrie.  The reflection of something big and wayward and breathing noxious fumes followed the contour of each parked import.  Metal whispered on metal, as the overweight muscle car tore through the narrow corridor between the parking spaces, and the legions of vehicles some worth more than the driver's life.

The smooth concrete provided no traction, as Todd found out when he hit the brakes just a little too hard and skidded the machine to a lopsided halt, bumper to bumper sprawled across the path.

As soon as he opened the door, he fell out, and tumbled to the ground.

And landed at Annika's feet.

The impact from hitting his head on the garage floor made it difficult to focus his eyes.  Or maybe it was the booze.  "Oh..."  There was a blurred shape above him; blue, rose and gold, and wrapped in a snarl that could melt steel, it could only be his wife.  "...hi."

"Where the hell have you been?"

She seemed angry.  "Drinking."

"For two days?"  Claws evolved for hunting clenched into the furrow of her palm.  "For two damned days?"

Todd righted himself, stood up, and blinked.  He nearly toppled; bile nearly rose.  "I did a lot of drinking."

She could smell it on him, his breath, and clothes; it was an overpowering stench.  Annika thinned translucent eyes, and roamed the bruise wrapped around the human-smooth brow and cleft of his cheek.  "Jesus, baby, what happened to your eye...?"

She reached out and dabbed at the swollen skin.

And the wounded man reacted accordingly, to the sharp talons prodding at raw, violet pulp.

"Urrghh!" he winced, his features contorting as a strangled gasp skated through clenched teeth.  "Samoan!"  A hand flew up, protecting the battle scar.  "Big...surly...Neanderthal-like.  Uni-brow, large hands."

"Short temper.  Or maybe he was someone who didn't fully appreciate the rapier wit."

Todd matched dull fang, curling back his lip; Annika always knew how to get under his skin.  Glaring, he rubbed the edge of his index finger across the bruise.  "Good one."

"Looks like he got a good one in too.  Didn't duck quickly enough?"

"Funny thing about alcohol," he quipped as he walked past her, intent on aiming for the elevator door, "dulls the reflexes."

She followed, tap tapping with her claws against the concrete floor; and Todd, inured to the sound, the breath against his neck despite his skin numb and callused with cocktails, knew she was right behind him.

For such an impenetrable creature, she was graceful, and light on her feet.

She slipped between the closing doors, as Todd verified his handprint against the scanner disguised as a black piece of Plexiglas flush with the elevator wall.  Access to the castle two thousand feet above had been granted with an affirmative chirp.

The elevator started the ascent, slowly, then gaining speed in a matter of seconds; Xanatos Enterprises the cutting edge in technology, providentially to reach the top of the global empire's own home spire.  Their stomachs dropped, gravity playing havoc, and Todd backed against the falsetto-wood overlay to steady himself.

Annika's lip curled up.  He was paying for the binge, and rightly so, but she didn't want to be trapped inside a titanium bell jar with her husband's last meal.  "Did you spend two entire days in bars?"

"Bars, pubs, strip joints, alleys, gutters...and a McDonald's...I think..."

"Where did you sleep?"

"Car."

"The big back seat, I know it well..."

She trailed off and they each strayed their gaze around the small cabin, the soft, metrical hum of the elevator almost hypnotic.

Undisguised anxiety rippled through her shoulders, an uncomfortable twitch.  The casual banter and awkward pause was killing her, and in traditional Hawkins fashion, in which she now was a part, it just burst out, "Do you know what we've been going through?!  Do you have any idea of what's happened?!"

From above the rings a dead wine, young eyes turned hard, and cynical.  "No."

Across from him, she leaned back against the encompassing steel rail.  "The portal decided to burp an alternate and quite angry version of Goliath onto the courtyard, and he tore through us like you'd drive through rush hour traffic."

33rd floor.

Todd showed the reaction through a shrug of his shoulders, a flick of his brow.  "Oh." he answered nonchalantly.  "That's nice.  Shadow get all scary and frothy?  I usually enjoy watching that."

"Cute."  She crossed her arms, her leggy stance hipshot.  It was the dangerous pose, flaunted as a forewarning of action or words that would cut as deep as any talon.  "Let me guess, while the rest of us were fighting for our lives against an evil, immortal, inter-dimensional Goliath, the irrepressible Mr. Hawkins decided to throw a tantrum."

67th floor.

His steadying hand discerning the tremor of each floor through the cab's wall, Todd clenched the other into a fist.  "I wouldn't exactly call this a tantrum."

Her head fell to the side, and a drift of loose spirals followed.  "Awww, I would.  Mommy did you wrong, so you act like an idiot."

He didn't like that, the presumption everyone had his pain was trivial compared to the rest.  "You wouldn't know." a dark whisper.  "And I can do whatever incredibly stupid and inane thing I want.  America.  The freedom t' be reckless."

89th floor.

"I don't think this country rose to greatness on egocentricity."  She stopped, and rethought the statement.  "Well, actually..."

"That's not fair."

Her neatly plucked brows went up.  "What, America?  Or you being selfish?"

"I'm allowed to be selfish!!" it exploded.  "I'm allowed to scream and rant and bitch about everything I don't have!!  I'm owed that, damnit I'M OWED THAT!!!"

"Yeah, you are."  Annika reached for him, and the contact made him flinch.  "You've fought so hard, haven't you?  Been attacked and threatened for the life you chose and took it all with a smile."

123rd floor.

There was a fine line between sympathy and condescension; she walked it well.  He wrested from her, irate, and denied that lingering touch of his wife, pacing the inside of the elevator cab.

She watched him, crossing in front of her like some caged beast ready to throw his claws into the confines of his hurtling jail.  This particular shaft didn't lead anywhere else but the parking garage, the top two floors of the Eyrie and the castle; they were effectively trapped together.  "Holding something harmful inside of you, that's dangerous.  Especially something pretty damned marginal, that you latch on to for some perverted sense of validation to hate your mother."

"You don't get it, do you?!!" he turned and snarled into her face, blowing back the strands of hair from her shoulders with a howl like cold fresh fire.

It echoed inside this little tuning fork, and she shivered against the wild flail of his arms.  She could easily overpower him, but something about the savagery was more and far less than the man she married.

He echoed briefly, just briefly, the same look as her adoptive father before he'd beat her.

145th floor.

"She stole my life!  She stole what could have been!!"  The level of his voice he could hear shaking, reverberating against the inside of his ears and the elevator cab.  He was shouting without realizing, numbed by vodka and gin and whatever swill was served over the bar.  "Everything I was and would've been, everything I wanted and dreamed for and she made sure I never had that by forcing me to stay in that goddamned orphanage!"

"I don't believe that.  Pardon me for being skeptical of the 'evil' this loving nun embodies, but she doesn't seem that sadistic, or at all.  There was something, something she wanted to protect you from..."

"Bullshit!" he thundered at her, holding precariously to an emotional control threatening to burst and engulf them both.

"A woman who cares for you that much would never deliberately hurt you!"

He shook his head, even as Annika pressed into him.  He closed his eyes, even as the memories of the life with his caretaker still ran hot through his skull and imperiled that comforting, encouraging anger he needed.

He was growling, hot breath made whiskey sterile.

The gargoyle pinned him down, backing him against the wall, her wings flared to effectively keep him cornered.  "She would never condemn you to that life if there wasn't something she was afraid of by revealing her bloodline!"

"She was afraid of me!!"  Hatred glimmered in stormcloud gray, betrayal, and abandonment.  "She was afraid to raise her own goddamned son!!  So she left it to the state, and hid away."

Ding.

A chime passed as the only sound between them, the elevator slowing to the castle level.

The opened doors waited patiently as husband and wife stared each other down, a young couple living each with a pain twice their respective age, but Todd nearly breaking from his brought painfully to the surface.  Vehemence had done well to poison a young and munificent soul.

She watched as he rubbed a hand across a brow riddled with lines.  Anger clenched his jaw, so much so it trembled, and Annika wondered just what he masked.  His past was rarely spoken of, and never in full, as if it physically pained him to keep it fresh by continually tasting the memory across his tongue.

"You know that isn't true." she at length answered, allowing him the calming pause of breath.  "If she truly felt that way, she wouldn't have been there your entire life."

"You're wrong."

"Then why didn't she leave?"

No.  He wouldn't have any of it, he wouldn't have an advocate take his mother's side to contend with years of pain, a wound centered in his gut he wanted bleeding and raw, and a constant reminder of just how much he was forced to endure.  "Don't make excuses for her!" he screamed back, suddenly.  "Don't you dare argue for her!"

"I argue in her stead, for a woman who's unable to.  For a woman who screams in her drugged sleep and periodically bleeds through her stomach!" she roared in defense, matching effortlessly the intensity of his voice.  "She almost died, and you almost lost the only link to your family.  I would give anything to have my mother back, and here you casually spit in the face of yours, damn you!"

An anger mounting into a scream suddenly tapered off, Annika thwarting a personal side to this drama lest it explode.  As Todd stepped back and dropped his eyes to the floor, a clenched fist pressed to supple cherry lips, and fangs nearly bit warm flesh.

The gargoyle sighed, breathed, and composed herself.

"I'm not going to compare broken childhoods," she whispered, shaking her head and making the dangled threads dance with movement slight and svelte, "I'm not going to weigh one against the other to score points for pity, I don't need to remind you what my life was like before your well-timed white knight rescue.  But remember, please remember, back then and now, that woman was there every time you needed her the most."

"You know, out of anybody," Todd rebutted, "I thought you'd understand."

She shook her head, and turned her back on him.  "I'm sorry, I don't...not this."

"Then why the hell did I even come back here...?"  Grabbing her by the shoulders, he shoved her out through the open elevator door with a boot to the tail.

She stumbled across the threshold.  "Hey...!"

Gargoyle strength would've prevailed if she'd been prepared.  And if her toes hadn't hooked between the stone floor's seams, the limestone cobbles would be a painful cushion to break her fall.

He jabbed at the buttons, as Annika turned and charged towards him.  And through the sliver, Todd stared her down beneath a thick line of jet brown, wordless, emotionless.

"Todd, wait, I'm..."

The doors closed with a hydraulic hiss.

"...pregnant."

A pantherine snarl echoed the scrape of enamel against titanium, lean shavings of sterling falling to the ground.  She'd gouged the doors, deeply, in her burst, and stared headlong and heatedly into her reflection, marred by three perfect swipes.

She breathed deeply to soothe a rapid thrum beneath her breast, her husband, her hero, dying inside, and acting like an idiot while doing so.

She'd flown through storms, she'd seen from the safety of the embrasures the clouds twisted and rent by the fury of nature, and what flickered through his features, this was no different.  No one really knew how much anger he was capable of, and it was slowly twisting him.

He was about to do something very stupid.

****************************************

Todd stumbled his way through the parking garage, towards his car, parked in the same haphazard manner as he'd left it.  The door was still open, the dome-light slowly draining the battery.

In any other instance, he'd be so anal enough to care for any small detail, but now it barely registered as he slumped into the seat and turned the key, jabbing the pedal to the floor.

Fire and smoke lit from under the spinning wheels, three hundred ninety foot-pounds of torque nearly taking half the concrete with it as the Superbird made the horseshoe of parked cars, circumventing the rows of expensive imports by a little skill and a lot of sheer luck.

He hit the exit ramp at a solid fifty, jumping over the incline and into traffic.

****************************************

Like the car that run riot in the streets, she too led a trail of fire nipping at her heels.

Brooklyn and Dr. Pierce appeared in a corridor junction, but her sight blurred by the haze of deep thought, Annika simply fumed past them.  And it wasn't hard to guess what'd happened by the red-stained color of her eyes; the sea had turned rough.

"He take off again?" Brooklyn presumed.

"Bastard flew the coop." she answered from over her shoulder.  "I can't believe he pushed me out of the elevator."

"His commlink?"

"Not answering, as if that's a surprise."

"Well," Pierce shrugged, "he is under a lot of stress.  Have you told him about..."  He made the distinctive rounded gesture over his stomach.  "You know, the supposed miracle of two completely different species conceiving for the fourth time."

Wincing at the reality of how her body was soon going to betray her, she whispered, "No."  The anger died a little, faced with her own inabilities.  "I've tried but I'd rather approach this topic with caution, as blurting it out would probably kill him."

"Or in his present state, with two days worth of drinking obviously having played havoc on the brain chemistry, he could be just numb enough to take the news.  You see, alcohol..."

"Doctor, please." Brooklyn interrupted the impending lecture, as Pierce disappointedly buried his hands back into his labcoat pockets.  The leader's gaze was on the fringe of the castle's muted, and determinably caliginous light.  There was something watching them, an indistinct contour given legitimacy by the glint of auburn eye and practiced breath.  "Shadow."

The darkness looked back, his presence revealed.  "What?"

"Go and get him."

"What?"  He emerged like some great thing, like the murk clinging to the corners of Wyvern's haunted corridors had coalesced into a form, led by two burning sapphires.  He tramped towards Brooklyn, his stride purposeful and intimidating.  "Why am I the babysitter?  Let the little fool have his outburst."

"That's my husband!" Annika growled.

"And my apologies, but he is an idiot."

Brooklyn quickly interjected, using his body as a buffer between two high-strung twenty-somethings ready to go to war.  "Todd's eventually going to wrap himself around a telephone pole in his condition.  Might I remind you that alcohol, anger and thirty-seven hundred pounds of American muscle car don't mix well."

"I'll say, in my days in the emergency room, I've seen some pretty gruesome, bloody..."

"Doctor."

Shadow bristled.  "I am not going to be treated as your own personal bloodhound."

And Brooklyn raised his eyes upwards a foot over his head, met with a warrior that would, without blinking, break his neck if insulted.  Or just on a whim.  "I'm not asking, Shadow, I'm telling.  This is my clan, my call, and I own you."

There was a challenge between their gaze, but honor demanded something more of Shadow's grit.  He snorted, then stalked off, grumbling.  "Damned fool..."

****************************************

Needle in a haystack.

The banal adage quickly came to mind as Shadow banked against the wind, the transatlantic gale in flux between the change of seasons.  Winds ran hot and cold, like the raucous city below, and like the ninja reduced to an errand boy.

His eyes directed downwards, he was hunting for a speck of light amongst the dappled, human-conquered landscape.

Picking a car from the dark tangle that was the greatest of island cities had already proved exceedingly difficult, even one with a twenty-five inch high spoiler and wild glossy pelt.  Thus, Shadow looked for the fastest set of headlights riding the veins of a metropolitan creature, the one that took the corners just a little too carelessly.

Madison, the corner of east 71st, up towards Lenox hill, the telltale cry of rubber on asphalt led the seeker towards a single dot heading deeper into a more suburban quarter.  It growled in a distinct sub-vocal tenor, the reckless driving style reducing many possibilities to one.

He turned, angled, wings billowing and the membranes snapping with the sudden change in direction, caught a westward updraft and gained speed to chase the distant speck.

Scenarios ran through his mind.  Hunt him, kill him and rid his life of a nuisance, then face the bothered mate; it was an option of course.  This particular human had brought him to the end of his patience and sanity more than once, and now, he was forced to play truant officer to a drunken brat.

But, in all practicality, he thought pulling him through the window and dragging him home by the elastic of his boxer briefs would sufficiently end his task and sate his irritation.

He soared closer, lower, tucking his wings to reduce the drag his massive and spurred body caused, and trying to match the speed of the Superbird hitting a long stretch of road.  He gained, his momentum carrying him over the hood and into the lead, a race between combatants with one unawares his airborne opponent was slowly pulling several lengths ahead.

The dark-denim shape suddenly dropped into the car's path, gouging the asphalt with his claws to skid to a halt, and the young man at the wheel didn't expect the sky to fall and block the road ahead.

"Shit!"  Todd slammed on the brakes, nearly punching his feet through the floor pan.  The wheels locked, the tires squealed, and the heavy machine shuddered as it shed rubber in two long, black trails all the way towards the figure standing the yellow line.

Shadow stood up and raised tapered and somewhat introspective eyes, calmly measuring the remainder of his life in mere seconds.  He watched as the gap between him and the approaching beast narrowed, the car screaming as it tried to bring nearly two tons of weight to a standstill.

The Superbird's ample snout stopped an inch from his knees.

Silence.  Not the whine of a damaged horn, or the mournful moan of a body slumped over his hood.

It took a few spastic breaths before Todd gained enough courage to look past the steering wheel, only to find Shadow pinning him against the back of his seat with that same arrogant, steely gaze.

With the mild shock of either nearly killing a clanmate or damaging his car quickly wearing off, Todd peeled his hands from the wheel and shakily set the gear into park.  "Jesus goddamned Christ!!" he screamed, before leaning halfway out the open window and pressing a sneer against the man he nearly severed at the knees.  "You wanna get yourself fucking killed?!!"

"Yes, how ironic to end up a mere statistic and a fleck of blood on your fender."

"I don't need a lecture."

"I could have been a child."

"I would've stopped.  Now get th' fuck out the way!"

Shadow stood his ground before the wide-footed beast, mantled in a cloak of wing, and crossed his arms.  His eyes, like the opposing headlights he stared down, flickered and went to light.

Todd settled back into the bucket seat, growling through his gas pedal.  He pumped and flooded the engine with fresh fuel, as a typical male warning, heaving the tachometer past five thousand, and shaking the ground with the pure pony muscle at his disposal.

Shadow set himself into a fighting position, talons catching the rough grade of asphalt.  "You wish to test two tons of steel against me?"  The ninja was taunting, staring down the hungry gullet of a machine five times his size and well armed to do battle.  "Please, try, I've never hoped for so much fun."

"You're gonna lick the bottom of my muffler, you fucking douche!"

Muscles rippled, and a warrior's pulse quickly bulged at dark, dark tattooed hide.  "What did you call me?"

"You heard me, douche!"

Shadow hissed, a tremor running through his vocal cords.  Fire was building; his task to bring the boy home just may result in bringing home a corpse.  "Just try it you little twit."

"MOVE!!!"

"...Todd?..."

He heard it, the crackle of a voice over a digital channel, and responded on instinct, "What?"

"...Todd!..."

He was looking around for that voice, echoing inside his car.  "What?!"

"...Listen to me, we have to talk...Now!..."

His passenger seat, his commlink, jarred loose from the vinyl folds when he hit the brakes and now lying in full view.  It had been muffled between loose change and shards of Doritos.

Glancing from between the little mechanism and the winged warrior hungrily eying his car, Todd was forced into the conversation.  "Talking is the last thing I want to do." he growled back.

"...There's something you need to know...we need to talk..."

"I've been attacked, almost erased from existence, found out my mother's still alive, my two best friends are getting married and moving away, we do not need to talk right now!"  His hands tightened their grip on the steering wheel.  "Fuck, next you'll tell me you're pregnant!"

"...Baby, I'm pregnant..."

She'd finally managed to get it out.

And it would've been easier to shoot him; it would've yielded the same result.

Todd froze, his face hideously malformed.  His jaw hung loosely on the tendons, yet, no breath leaked out.  The dreaded words every young, unprepared husband feared had done their damage, and probably ruptured an important artery somewhere.

Neurons weren't firing; he was as close to death as possible without actually dying.

"...Todd?  Are you there?  Todd??..."

Shadow peered through the windshield; the drunken threats had ceased, miraculously.  He traveled the length of the conical fender, the ninja studying the human closer.  He leaned down to better gaze inside, and studiously cocked a ridge.

"...TODD?!!!..."

He thought if anything were to snap the human from the stupor, it would've been his wife's voice calling through the commlink's private network.

Shadow reached in through the window and waved a hand past Todd's blank expression.  Nothing.  "Annika," he spoke loudly enough for his voice to be captured by the commlink, "I believe you have killed him."

****************************************

Annika on the other end groaned, burying her face in her hands.  "This is not how I wanted to tell him."

"May I?" Pierce intervened, holding out a hand for the commlink hooked around Annika's ear, and nearly lost in the waves of satin.  He placed it on his own ear, and continued the conversation.  "Shadow.  Are his eyes wide?"

****************************************

Shadow peered closer to the young man statue still, hands clenched to the steering wheel, the knuckles turning bone white.  He'd think him dead by the comatose state, but knew his luck was never that grand.  "Yes."

****************************************

"Jaw slack?" Pierce continued.

"...Yes..."

"Almost comatose?"

"...Yes..."

He turned to Annika, togged up in the compassionate expression well practiced in his days at Manhattan General.  "Yup.  You killed him." he pronounced.  "Aneurysm most likely.  I'm surprised actually, with all the fast food, the Jolt, the Epsilon neural link, the constant shocks and the Nintendo, by all medical estimation his brain should have completely liquefied and leaked out his ears a long time ago."

****************************************

Moving in closer, Shadow could detect the heartbeat, the cadence of blood beneath the skin, but nothing else.

Nothing else.  He leaned closer.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA...!!!"

A howl split the night.

The ninja leapt back as if he'd burst into flames, Todd suddenly coming to life and emptying his lungs into the cool April evening.  It continued without pause or breath or any thought of the afore-mentioned aneurysm bursting the capillary on his forehead.

"...AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA..."

The noise was deafening, and Shadow, for fear of Todd's rampant, endless scream drawing unwanted attention, retreated from the threshold of the streetlight's pallid glow.  He virtually disappeared under an architectural overhang, shadows on dark skin vanishing the great creature from any sight, save for two glowing embers that outlined russet pupils.

"...AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH...!!!!!"  It trailed off, and all that remained was a faint, breathless whine, as Todd languidly fell forwards, and impacted his head on the steering wheel.  "Ow."

"Are you all right?" the gargoyle asked from his urban cloak.

"She's...PREGNANT?!!!"

"It seems so."

"...I didn't want to tell you like this..." the commlink crackled to life.  "...But...with everything that happened..."

He'd yet to blink, and maybe yet to breathe.  "You're pregnant...you're fucking pregnant...I...I can't deal with this..."

"...Yes you can, breathe...go to your happy place; me, naked on Maui beach, slathered in coconut oil..."

It was more than a bombshell; this was impossible.  To him at least.  The certainty of fatherhood now dawned as something more than simple wisps of expectation and dread.  "But...you...we can't...I never thought..."

"...Damn that breeding season..."

"So you got a little horny, now we have a kid?"

"...Now we have a kid...or egg...well, it hasn't really been confirmed yet...it should be an egg..."

"An egg..." he echoed, stunned.  "A baby."

"Come home, Mr. Hawkins." Shadow intervened, taking the opportunity of Todd's quasi-rational thought, for as long as it would last.  "We are family, clan."

It didn't last long.

Todd turned, bearing a revolted expression.  "Jesus, man, did Iliana and Delilah each take a testicle when they dumped you?!" he snapped, playing with his own life like a child would with fire.  Again.  "And when the hell did you start caring about things like clan or family?!"

Shadow stood up, and barreled his already wide chest with a fortifying breath.  Engraved with unidentifiable ink, the scrawls distended as muscles swelled to the bursting point; they could be heard grinding underneath the skin.  "When I was given one to care about.  To fight for, and die for."  His voice was grave, as was everything he did.  "For whatever reason, your mother made a decision.  And since you have thrived, even with an inherently self-destructive lifestyle, it was clearly just."

"To her..." it rolled off like poison, any mention of his mother.

Shadow nodded, "Yes, to her.  You know nothing of why and how, and yet you unreservedly presume to accuse her."

"She stole everything," his steering wheel, an original Mopar part, was in danger of being torn from the column, "my parents, my entire past, my life as it should've been."

"Perhaps.  Or perhaps she did it to ultimately save the life that is now.  She at least deserves the chance to explain."  He crossed his arms, and smirked.  It looked out of place on a perpetually hard-faced mug.  "Then, afterwards, you can hate her if you wish."

"...See?..." Annika quickly took to Shadow's side.  "...The cold, unemotional ninja gets it, why don't you?  Thank you, Shadow..."

"I suppose it is what friends do."

Todd angled his brow.  "We're friends?"

"No." he rushed to clarify his role.  "I am friends with Annika.  I was...volunteered to search for you."

"Good, 'cause if we were gonna have to hug...that would put me into therapy for the rest of my life."

"Likewise."  The car suddenly and violently leaned on the driver's side, Shadow's six hundred pounds weighing down on the windowsill.  He lowered his head, his eyes just visible below the window's edge, glistening brilliant, mesmeric cobalt.  "Now, if you do not return and face your wife, and your mother, I will personally, and elatedly, crush this pretty little plaything with my bare hands."

He noticed, the claws that had come to rest on the doorsill were clenching, threatening damage to hours of labor and the very reason he survived on canned, fast and take-out food for most of his bachelor life.  "Point well taken." he swallowed.  They clenched further; it was reinforcement to the gargoyle's warning.  "Hey man, hands off th' paint, hands off th' paint!!"

Shadow backed off, and the Superbird righted itself, rocking back and forth on the shocks.  "Your unhealthy devotion to this vehicle is becoming frightening."

"...He has a point, baby..."

"Says th' guy who turns to stone with weaponry hanging off of him..."

"...He has a point too..."

A tremor passed through the dashboard.  It was Shadow.  "Don't test me, Hawkins."

Todd propped his arms up on the steering wheel, and fell his head.  He breathed long and hard, as images flooded his mind.  The reality was starting to sink in.  "Good god...Annika's pregnant..."

There were only a few things Shadow ever dreaded, and this, this reality of a carbon copy, of a child with Todd's features and blessed with his DNA; that was enough to drive him mad.  "I fear for the world.  Another Hawkins has spawned."

****************************************

The elevator doors opened and Shadow shoved him through.

Having returned to the castle under his chaperone, Todd was under guard the entire way to the castle level.  Shadow was behind him, prodding him with his hand if he fell behind in the gargoyle's stride.  He'd bragged about what he could do in the trip up from ground floor, and by threat of death, or, whatever punishment the ninja deemed either adequate or rewarding, Todd was forced to continue.

Another jab to the human's back caught the dawdling human unawares.  "Move."

"Okay!" he barked, seeing where Shadow was herding him, towards the blond-haired silhouette at the end of the corridor.

"Apologize."

"Fine..."  He walked a few more steps, and Todd and Annika mutely met their stares.  He faced her, and swallowed his pride.  "I'm sorry."

WHAM.

Annika decked him, a wicked right hook.

And Shadow, his revenge played out better than he could've ever imagined, smiled.

Todd ricocheted from the hard end of his wife's three-fingered fist, thrown back to the floor.  As the pain shot through his nose and upper lip, reminiscences of the Samoan came flooding back.  "Fuck...!"

Annika straddled his stomach, pulling on his collar with claws dangerously close to his throat.  "YOU STUPID SON OF A BITCH!!!" she roared, bathing the human clenched between her thighs in blood red.  "How dare you act so goddamned reckless and moronic and stupid!!"

"Why th' hell didn't you tell me you were pregnant?!!"

"Because I was afraid something like this would happen!  Lo and behold, you played the part to absolute perfection."

Todd's eyes darkened.  "Get off me."

****************************************

A silent spectator to the newest Wyvern drama to break out, Shadow was well engrossed.

His gunmetal skin enabled the massive creature to blend in with the medieval ambience preserved for the creatures that roamed, the lighting unable to wholly surround and dissect the furthest corners along the decorative outcroppings.

The gargoyle had become a chameleon to better listen in to the distant conversation.

Honed senses as always turned on, he noticed the air subtly change around him.  Perfume like long nails raised the hairs on his neck, a familiar scent he'd still not forgotten or recovered from.  "Eavesdropping, Iliana?"

The detective, attracted by the commotion, sidled up to her former lover, her arms crossed.  "Yes," she answered, as blasé as ever, "point?"

"I believe they deserve their privacy."

"Then why are you listening?"

"I had to find the brat, I deserve at least something for my trouble."  His neck thickened, as he leaned back into his stance.  He didn't seem impressed by what little had transpired between one of many mismatched couples to ever find love inside these long, snaking corridors.  He wanted blood.  "But all the exertion leads to a simpering human with a gripe about the mother who he thinks abandoned him."

"Well, if she did or didn't, he still went through something obviously painful."

"He was raised well, with someone to watch over him.  What he went through is nothing compared to the lives most of us have led."

Iliana shot ice blue askance, looking up way above a shoulder with deadly bone having speared itself through the musculature.  It was hard to believe she was in love with this callous, well-sculpted block of granite.  "You're not on the other side," she slapped him in the stomach, and though he barely felt the small hand impact against the six pack, the gesture was surprise enough, "you don't sacrifice everything you have for the chance of a romp in the sack with a gargoyle.  You don't live with the threat of death or bombs in your apartments, or the radical change it brings to your life."

Either she was rambling, aiming to even the score of their convoluted relationship, or trying to make a, "Point?"

"My point, ninjabutt, is that our pain is just as throbbing, and just as excruciating as yours.  Even if we aren't the sexual obsession of evil spirits or we're forced to fight reanimated corpses of our family, even if we're not involved in battles to decide the survival of our species, our ordinary human existences still hurt, and we're allowed to complain and do stupid things."

"You tend to do a lot of stupid things."

Iliana glared at him.  The stab at her decision to leave him wasn't so oblique.  "Ah bite me."

****************************************

"Good god woman," Todd muttered, rubbing the bridge of his nose, "one of these days you're gonna push a shard of bone into my brain..."

"You could have killed yourself!"

"I should have been dead a long time ago." he reasoned back, morbidly to say the least.  "But somehow I keep surviving."

Annika lowered a four-horned crest into place, throwing a burning blue gaze into shadow, to make it burn just a little brighter.  "By sheer dumb luck."

The spree catching up, his system so overloaded it was beginning to break down, and he suddenly wanted to sit.  He found the wall for support.  "Ever since I found out Rose..."

"You wanted to douse the flames with something even more flammable." she interrupted.

"I don't need your permission."

"I never said you did."

He sighed, more like a mewl brimming on the tip of his tongue, "Please don't tell me we're gonna retread the same argument we just had."

She rubbed the base of her tail, Todd's shoeprint a lingering trace of pain and livid red.  "That's up to you."

"You were supposed to understand..." he muttered, under his breath, and if not for his wife's incredible hearing, she would've missed it.  "You were abandoned, you were left alone in this fucking hole of a world.  You know what it's like to live without any sort of identity, as some empty, angry shell."

She nodded in agreement; that fact couldn't be disputed.  "So I did my best to make a new one; I took what I was given, transformed it, made it my own.  I am Annika Hawkins.  Who're you?"

"For a long time I didn't know.  And who knows who and what I could have been?"

"A rapist, or a republican.  I was being trained as an assassin.  But I don't care about those men, I care about the man who exists now, due in part to her."

"I didn't even know if Todd Hawkins was my real goddamned name until records were found.  And all it was...was a faded birth certificate."  The argument subtly swerved, he reached for his wallet, and started digging through the leather casing.

Annika narrowed in, intrigued of all things over a cowhide cash receptacle, worn around the corners and used primarily for coupons and condoms.  In all the times she'd had rummaged through his things, longing to discover more about the human that had saved her life, she'd somehow missed the unstitched fold he just pulled back from the liner.

"And this..."  He plucked from the wallet a damaged photograph, and held it warily between his fingers, as if it were to crumble on contact.  The very image seemed to disturb him, Todd's stare become reverent and desirous.  "This was all I had."

Annika softened the glare, her brow unclenching.  The picture he held to was obviously old, charred along the edges, and in some places burned right through.

She'd never seen it before.

"All I had to hold on to, the cliché of a burned photograph."  He saw the questions in her downward-directed gaze.  "It was found in the wreckage of the car."

Annika reached out, and delicately took what she discerned as a Polaroid in the inception of the technology.  The image of her infant husband between her talons was arresting, haunting almost, the colors so faded by the heat it gave the impression it was more than a century old.  It was a family portrait, taken hastily, and coincidentally seared along the top where two proud parents should have been.

"I couldn't remember their faces, I tried so long to build them from what was left up here," he pointed to his head, "but they were gone.  They were stolen from me."

Annika was enrapt with the picture.  A new side to their argument had been uncovered, and Todd's pain was suddenly given strength.

"After my identity was discovered, the social workers who took my case couldn't find any other records, anywhere.  No family, friends, employers, my last known address was nothing but an empty house, completely stripped of furniture, pictures, everything.  It was like someone had erased my entire life.  And Rose knew all along, she knew all along, and left me without anything, no history, and no future."  The voice had grown embittered throughout, his life abridged in a simple explanation.  As his wife raised her eyes, they met slate to sky.  "So you can see why I'm a little pissed off right now."

What could she say, to sate or even calm the anger that trembled his form.  Words so eloquently argued before were suddenly hard to come by.  "Todd..."

"Don't you understand?  Don't you understand how much this hurts?  I know you think I'm selfish, I know everyone thinks that...it's just...it's like my chest is on fire, a-and I can't breathe..."

Annika's instincts kicked in.  He was skirting his gaze, unable to choose a single direction, as animals would when wounded and cornered and ready to do something drastic.

She slowly edged closer.

"For years I watched, as others were adopted, were given homes and schools and families and I got nothing!"  The rant was growing louder, more desperate.  "I was there for more than thirteen years, and grew up knowing that nobody wanted me!!  That nobody wanted to waste their time on an angry, misbehaved throwaway...!"

He struggled to stay standing; he was choking.  If she didn't know better, she'd swear he was going to puke.

Tears flowed, freely, glinting against the subdued hallway light.  The barrier had eroded, and everything came to a head.  "Why didn't anyone want me, Annika?" a breathless plea, his voice had never sounded so small.  "Why didn't anyone want me...?"

She saw his legs give out, and knew he didn't even have the strength to stand any longer.  Moving quickly, she put herself between him and the floor where he was eventually headed.  His weight against her threw off her balance, and they both sunk to the floor, Todd crying into her tunic top.

She held him, silently, as he sobbed, and allowed him the release where two days worth of drinking didn't quite succeed.

****************************************

Shadow looked on as the human fell completely limp into the arms of his mate.  The shock of Hawkins actually crying ran through him as nothing more than a simple crook to the brow.  Perhaps he'd been too harsh on how he measured the anguish of existence.

Pain was pain after all.

"Hrm."  The gargoyle suddenly turned and veered off.

"Where are you going?" Iliana called after him.

"To get the brat something for his eye."

Between the cherry-pure strands licking her chin, she couldn't help but smile.

****************************************

Hours had passed, at least, they thought so by a limited perception, the passage of time was almost inconceivable in this small interior corridor.

Lying in each other's arms and crumpled into a corner along the hall where Todd had collapsed, they saw no need to move.  There was comfort in their touch, a melody in the coalescing rhythm Annika could hear, and Todd could feel against her chest.

Soothing, and ultimately denigrating words would've rung empty, thus, she didn't bother.  The Hawkinses healed in their own way.

A melancholy air had settled on them both, each trying to ingest an overload of information.  In addition certainly, to the life-altering consequence of unprotected sex and genes just compatible enough.

Annika was holding the icepack to his bruised eye, helping to alleviate the swelling.  And thinking, of all the battles he'd been a part of, of all the times he'd been under the gun and ready to die, his own pain and the little buried spark of rage was the enemy he couldn't just laugh off with a moderately witty remark.

His anger; he'd kept it as the comfort zone, as the very reason he lived his life so brazenly.  Anger made Todd Hawkins what he was, the fighter, the brawler, the masquerade of a jester, and in the inevitability that was the circle of his existence, it was almost his executioner.

Such was the mortal coil.

Blanketed by her wing, his fingers were idly tracing lines around her stomach, entranced with the impression of muscle beneath silky dawn skin.  Something grew beneath, something impossible, and damned if it didn't scare the hell out of him.

"So..." came the first word spoken in hours, "there's a tiny cluster of cells in there, huh?"

The humor of the situation touched to her lips, the fact she was going to be a mother, and of course, the mother to Todd Hawkins' child.  "Destined to wear your face and develop your sense of humor." she whispered.  "I fear for the world."

He shook his head.  "That's exactly what Shadow said.  I hate that guy."

Annika nudged the icepack closer to her husband's eye, and he winced.  "Oh yeah," she sung dryly, "you two hate each other."

He was pensive for a few minutes more, then, "We're having a baby."

"Yeah.  Are you...happy, about this?"

"Happy, scared, worried, freaked, I really don't know if just one applies.  As for being parents, well, we didn't exactly come from the American nuclear family."

Annika laughed, and leaned back into the wall.  "Trust me, our family is an explosion far beyond nuclear."

****************************************

So, after two days trying to anesthetize himself to the world, he was back here again, staring at the lifeless, dark-sheeted body.

The infirmary moonlit through Venetian blinds, slats of lunar sterling had painted the entire room, giving it a cold, and ghostly ambiance.  Lights in the peripheral darkness above Bluestone's bed blinked in perfect succession, never changing their measure, a perfect complement to a room where sorrow often outweighed joy.

Todd welcomed the gloom, the obscurity, as he lingered by Rose's bedside perhaps not really wanting to be seen.

Her stitches and sutures healing, and the pain gradually lessening, tonight she'd been granted the luxury of a peaceful slumber.  The IV drip was loaded with sedatives trying the dim the dreams turned nightmares that wracked her mind and body.  It gave him the chance to study her, to see what traits he'd inherited besides the dark woodland hair.

And since the night of the Guild attack, that remnant of a childhood fantasy, of what his parents may have been, mingled with the bare shards of memories he thought he'd lost a long time ago, had come back in full force, every time he looked into her face.

His mother, and soon to be a grandmother.  His link to something that was taken from him, and the one question that invaded every other stray thought, was she to blame?

Even with a coffee-cleared head, he didn't know anymore.

So many questions needed an answer, and there deserved an explanation to the young boy turned man.  "What happened twenty years ago?" he whispered, not really expecting a response from an unconscious woman.  "What did you do, that made you take everything I had away?"

Rose lay infuriatingly still.  It seemed as if she'd never betray her secrets.

He reached out over the hospital bed rail for her hand, and paused.  He dwelled for a while, thinking, before gently clasping to the cool flesh.  Leaning over, he brought the hand to his lips, and enfolded it within his own.

In the darkness, he would hold vigil for the rest of the night, waiting for the explanation he was owed.