88 - "Investigations: Part 1"

"A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer.  If you are searching for anything in particular you don't find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting."

                                                                                                - Sir James M. Barrie

April 23rd, 2002, near sunrise, Castle Wyvern

"Todd?"

No answer.

"Todd?"

He jerked, evidently back into the real world.  "Hn?"

"You haven't said much."

Todd ground out a breath on the cusp of a growl, his gaze still level with the windows across from their bed.  Hunched up, arms around his knees, he'd watched the sky transform through a spectrum of color until that slip of light just beneath the stone sill implied the coming dawn.

Annika leaned against him; beneath the queen-size sheet, a warren of creases going this way and that gave their nude bodies some sort of recognizable form.  The gargoyle was slowly tracing her talons across the tribal mane of his tattoo, her ministrations not so subtle enough to occasionally illicit a purr from her husband.

"There's just too many holes." he mumbled after a pause.  "She's still holding something back."

"Everyone is entitled to some amount of privacy.  Maybe there's nothing more but what existed between your mother and father.  I know for a fact what exists between us is for no one but us."

Todd turned his head a little.  "You taking her side?"

Her hand slid up and squeezed his shoulder.  "There're no sides here, I'm just trying to keep the peace.  We," she rubbed her stomach, "just happen to be caught in the middle."

He felt her reposition behind him, claws brushing past his flesh, tail slithering around his legs and her hair was like velvet against unprotected skin.  He shivered.

"It's deceptively simple, isn't it?" Annika said.  "Left to an orphanage while your mother is forced to hide to save your life.  Rose may have filled in most of the gaps, but it still seems empty, an explanation that was supposed to take the place of so many questions you built up over a lifetime."

She had a gift for stating what he thought were private reflections.  Maybe he wore them on this face a little too plainly.  "I just want to know more, and every time I ask she evades."

"It's painful for her."

"And my life isn't?" he replied.  "There's so damned much that's missing.  Where did we live?  Where did my...mother go?  And who the hell were these people that tried to kill my family?  Why did they target my dad?"

Slipping from underneath the sheets, Annika moved towards her ensemble hung over her husband's drafting table.  For lack of motivation to use the wardrobe or in the throes of passion, the slanted desk suited the young couple as the closest place to throw their clothes.  "Well, isn't this agent Sykes the same one who was your father's old partner?" she said as she slipped into her mid-riff, unfurling her wings as she squeezed them through the slits.

"Apparently," Todd snorted, admiring from afar, "and the fact my life is an ever revolving circle full of uncanny twists of fate and predestined occurrences is starting to piss me off."

She buckled her loincloth, and adjusted the loose fitting belt to the perfect angle across her hips.  As the fleeting thought of how that abdomen would soon expand passed, she looked up and beveled an eyebrow.  "Maybe he knows something Rose isn't willing to tell you."

He fell back, secure in the fact the mattress would be there waiting for him.  "Maybe..."

"You wanted gaps filled in?"

Todd rolled his head to the side.  "The last thing I need is to place any sort of connection between me and this castle in that guy's head besides the goddamned 'starving artist' excuse.  We were lucky enough to get away with it."

"And he didn't recognize you." Annika maintained.  "He hasn't seen you in what, twenty-one years?"

Todd looked away, eyes up at the stone that formed the ceiling and looking somewhere beyond.  "It's risky.  If he does recognize me, how the hell am I supposed to explain myself out of that one?"

More than the natal intuition that told her she had mere moments to get outside and onto the parapets, the chrome and slate-themed room was starting to glow from the outside in, and Annika moved towards the door.  "You are the king of equivocation, Mr. Hawkins, if there's anyone who can talk himself out of prison time it'd be you.  You already have a plausible excuse, and no one here is asking you to abandon something you've wanted all your life, and are so close to."

"I'm not going to risk this clan, especially you."  His eyes trickled down to her stomach.  "Both of you."

Annika shrugged.  "There are some risks worth taking."

"Maybe..." he replied abstractedly.

"Just don't get yourself killed."  Talons clacked across the surface of the door handle, and just as she was about to leave a chuckle rose and grew into gentle laughter.  "I still can't believe you slept through the entire FBI search."

"I was tired!"

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

That damned stale coffee.

Somewhat gritty, a little bitter without the proper amount of cream and sugar; the agent had to be an amateur alchemist to get the flavor just right.  But here he was, waiting as the plastic nozzle drained into a Styrofoam cup, and awash in a caffeine-heavy steam trail that licked its way past his face, teasing, tantalizing and ensuring that addiction kept the outdated machine in business with one of a few loyal customers.

As soon as the cup was full, Abel Sykes pulled it from the hatch and to his lips without the prerequisite additives or concern for the temperature.  He sighed in relief, and thought himself ready to start the day.  "Okay, let's start from the top." he said, turning around and moving towards his desk.  "It all starts with that night."

Ford appeared from behind his partner's shoulder, leafing through a letter-sized manila folder nearly spilling from the sides.  "Which, by every indication was just another normal, temperate, spring night, until satellite photos of Manhattan catch this little gem launching from Long Island."

He threw down a stack of glossy photos.  Remarkably clear between the portions of cloud that had gathered into a storm on the onset of dusk, they were satellite images from April 1st, the night of the now infamous attacks on Manhattan.  Ford's fingertips waded across the surface until he came to seven indistinct blurs and tapped as an indication.

Sykes thinned his eyes over the rim of his cup to focus in.

But Ford was way ahead of him, flipping the first photo over to show a close-up of the shadows now with a well defined, swallow-tail shape, and the recognizable limbs of helicopter rotors.  "I ran them through the military aviation database, and I got in return two of the most powerful models ever used by the U.S. army.  Sikorsky MH-53H troop carriers, and a pair of AH-66 Comanche Warriors."

"Heavy duty hardware."

"Eight pm, shortly after sunset.  We have seven attack helicopters taking off from JFK, a civilian airport.  I've checked with both the FAA and the air force, and neither can account for these craft."

"Xanatos' aircraft always have always filed public-accessible flight plans," Sykes pointed out, "and are in contact with either La Guardia or JFK's terminals."

Interrupted, Ford shot him a glance.

Cup to his lips, Sykes shrugged.  "Just saying."

"The ones we know about." he countered.  "Now, besides the glaring fact they're powerful combat craft flying in a traditional attack formation, they head towards," he flashed an index finger and his grin, "and here's the kicker, the Eyrie building."  He flipped over more of the photos, each at a different time interval and drawing a path for the small airborne militia straight towards the castle.  "The gathering clouds obscure most of their path, but by measuring their speed and distance, when they should have passed by, they didn't and they don't.  In fact, residents who live near the area reported a disturbance just after eight fifteen.  Now, at roughly the same time, the DeMoro building's top five floors suddenly explode, and..."  He pushed off from the desk, and, with the rest of Manhattan, was at a loss for words to explain what had happened next.  Especially with Sykes hanging off every remark, and most likely judging his competency as an agent by what some would consider a foolish belief system.

"And a giant creature," Sykes concluded, "somehow fashioned after the Egyptian god Set, emerges from the rubble and starts to rampage through the city."

Ford stared at him, with an inquiring look that fenced on the side of peculiar.

The agents locked eyes for a few moments before Sykes grew uncomfortable.  "What?"

"Just seems strange, the ever rational Abel Sykes actually acknowledging something as irrational as gods coming back to life in the middle of New York."

He shrugged his shoulders.  "What else would I claim it to be?"

"I thought maybe holograms," Ford embellished, making fun, "or an orchestrated media stunt, or a collective hallucinatory dream induced by drugs released into the city or something that would analytically explain away any paranormal aspect no matter how small."

Sykes laughed to himself despite the obvious blindside by his young partner the amateur comedian, then pulled out his chair and relaxed into it, careful to place his coffee cup gently to the surface.  "There's nothing to explain what happened," he intoned, quickly becoming serious, "besides what we saw with our own eyes."

"What do you think they were?"

Sykes' half-lidded eyes didn't move, intent on something unseen beyond the younger agent and the bureau's walls.

"I thought so." Ford huffed.

"Five minutes later..." Sykes urged him to continue.

"Five minutes later, four more skyscrapers explode in a semi-circular pattern, less than two blocks apart."  Another photo, this time with four cobalt splashes of color amidst the gray, where four skyscrapers near and a little to the north of the financial district had erupted in mystical flame.  "More creatures are...ah..."

"Born?" Sykes offered.

"I suppose that would be the best description.  They're 'born' in a similar manner, and three cultural professors have identified them as more Egyptian gods, namely Sakmet, Septu, Menhit and Apep."  Ford skimmed through his pile, peeling off one glossy after another and between the clouds the small glowing apparitions were slowly trawling through the city center.  It was like a children's flipbook, only with a more morbid theme than most as the area of destruction slowly grew in proportion.

Sykes reached across the desk and grabbed the only close-up shots available of Sobek's pet creatures, taken by evacuating residents.  The pictures were slightly distorted, swept across the false gods' features as the photographers were running for their lives, but it was enough to identify them by a loose comparison to historical texts.

"They, with the first, begin rampaging across the city.  These things tear into Manhattan like a hot knife through butter, destroying more than eight city blocks, and even withstand a round with a squadron of army attack jets.  Then-"

"Here it comes." a disgruntled voice intervened.

"In the midst of the chaos, we have two gargoyles fighting in the streets."

Sykes immediately muttered something under his breath, lost to his own prudence.  Every tangent, no matter how far his partner could take himself and any wild theory, had a connected premise.  "I'm sorry, Dom, but the whole gargoyle sighting in the midst of the Hole seems like this cop's desperate cry for fifteen minutes of fame."

Ford's nascent features opened up.  "He seemed sincere."

"Most nuts are." Sykes' comment was distorted into his coffee cup.

"You believe in Egyptian gods coming back to life but you don't believe in gargoyles?"

Amber eyes flashed sincerely.  "No."

Ignoring his partner and his infuriatingly unimaginative mind, Ford continued.  "Now, if this is even possible, things start to get weirder.  There's rumors floating through the military reserve of a small boy floating in a sphere made of energy, and a woman made of solid gold that awoke in the bottom of a crater–"

"Rumors."

"–a massive flare in the lower atmosphere is observed from Japan and Hawaii," Ford continued without skipping a beat, backing up the claims with newspaper clippings somehow salvaged from countries several hundred miles from his own, "and then an object descends into the atmosphere over the East coast and is rumored to have actually hit Manhattan."

Sykes pulled the clippings toward him and gave them a once over.

The Japanese paper had a full color print of a brilliant flare in the darkness of the night sky, the result of the merged being that was once Goliath and Alexander taking out its frustrations on Sobek in the middle of the mesosphere.  Though impressed with the research, having told his partner to do some digging, he wondered just what the point was.  "And what all of this has to do with this investigation is beyond me."

"Never overlook evidence, no matter how small it may be." Ford recited with a smile.  "One of the first lessons I was given by my new partner a year ago.  Now, through all of this, the storm inexplicably starts to get stronger and more violent.  There's increasing electromagnetic spectrum distortion and atmospheric intensity increasing worldwide, and the epicenter?  Manhattan.  And as the thunderstorm gets stronger, having destroyed about eight city blocks these gods disappear as suddenly as they appeared."

Sykes' brows went up, a sure sign of the thought process in motion.

Ford thought he saw something traverse his partner's features that begged release, but it was gone just as quick.  Rather than trying to pry it from whom most of the agents had dubbed The Rock, he let it pass, knowing if Sykes had something to say it'd come up sooner or later.  "By this time, the Eyrie's completely obscured by the storm clouds, but near the Southern tip of the island, through what holes I can see, the helicopters take off to the south and disappear off satellite imaging.  But I can't really tell on the direction besides the fact they head straight into the North Atlantic."

"Jesus..."  Something caught Abel's eye.  It was one of the last photographs, where the storm that had gathered over Manhattan; he'd seen images like the one between his thumb and forefinger before, off the lower East coast.  This particular thunderstorm had escalated into a typhoon in a little less than two hours.  "That storm is absolutely massive."

"And perfect cover for the helicopters.  It gets increasingly worse until suddenly, at the apex, it too dissipates and everything returns to normal within minutes.  Winds die, lightning fades, meteorologists have never seen anything like it."

Sykes finished the rest of his coffee and threw the empty cup into his trashcan.  He replaced the photo and looked up.  "And what does this have to do with David Xanatos and a hundred and three dead bodies?"

"Maybe nothing, maybe everything." Ford answered ambiguously.

"How about nothing?"

"Your mysterious informant said he killed them on April first, and anything we've just gone through could be connected.  Threads."

"Threads." Sykes echoed, his head propped up on the desk with an elbow.  "But we need a definite, proven connection, not just several wild conjectures."

"Then let's start with the helicopters.  Five of them were troop carriers.  They could have easily transported over a hundred bodies away, and no one would notice a damned thing with the attacks going on."

"But we have no way to determine what they were doing and we can't trace their departure."  He drummed a finger on the last few images, a dark, churning mass with a few intermittent flashes of lightning.

Ford sighed, and rubbed his hands down his face; it was the physical expression of hitting the wall.  "Everything vanishes, the supposed corpses, the helicopters, the monsters, even the storm..."

Sykes peered at the two desks butted together completely covered with photos, newspaper clippings, survivor reports and anything else his partner was able to scrounge up and stuff into a single folder.  "Why do I get the feeling all of this has just brought up more questions?"

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

His eyes were intense, a light ice sapphire that seemed to soak in the light and illuminate under the stolen power.  But there was something else beyond the oddly shimmering hue.

"Camera seventeen, section forty-five, morgue hallway."

The monitor swapped locations to the sterile corridor leading up to the Eyrie morgue, the image slightly warped from the convex lens of the camera.

"Speed up the footage."

The playback doubled in speed and ran through several hours in mere minutes.  The glacier-eyed observer wasn't satisfied.

"Faster."

No change.

"Faster."

The entire night played out before his eyes, every moment was like the next and the latter; it was too perfect.

"Seventeen hours of security recording, all exactly like the minute before it." he said aloud, his rich voice crawling about the sealed chamber.  "This footage has been digitally looped."

"I am unaware of any such tampering, Mr. Canmore."

Jason turned to look at the ghost that had stayed by his shoulder.  "Were you ordered to say that?"

Mother went mute, and the hologram could have passed for indigo marble.  Any programmed response had the unfortunate task of running through what machinery functioned as her heart, but the sentience had learned, and perfected all those minimalist, emotive variations in her features that could give away crucial information.  "I am unable to answer."

"Of course." he consented, and returned a pensive gaze to the monitors.  "I'm actually impressed, the recording is nearly flawless.  It's a perfect spot, no traffic, no windows, nothing to indicate the passage of time in any sense."  A single keystroke halted the footage, which in turn, didn't give the impression it had actually stopped.  "I've gone through more than several reels of footage from April first on including the morgue, the hospital, and a few surrounding hallways.  They're all the same."

Mother lingered as a silent companion, without an opinion on the subject.

"To move one hundred and three corpses from the morgue, there is only one route available."  He motioned to the paused image of the morgue hall.  "That one.  Yet somehow, absolutely nothing is captured on video except a few gargoyles, a billionaire and our good doctor."

"And what exactly is the problem?"

"On some of the reels, the rotational time is just a little out of whack from cameras that turn every thirty seconds like clockwork, and there are a few image shadows unaccounted for."  Despite what little evidence that could be explained away by the so-called technical glitch, Jason's talent, or flair for those who knew him intimately, to reveal the truth beneath layers of untruths, fabrications and a polished veneer of slander was almost unearthly.  The sentience wasn't being completely honest with him.  "How did he move the bodies, Mother?"

"I am unable to answer."

"Where are they?"

"I am unable to answer."

"Damnit, where are they?!" Jason hollered.  He forced a strong hand down on his left wheel to turn his chair and face the hologram before the realization hit him he was directing his gaze towards an empty representation.

Mother lowered her chin towards him.  His eyes softened.

Sometimes, the image was so authentic it could fool senses as honed as his gargoyle brethren.  Mother was all around him, under his fingertips at the computer room console, watching him from the ceiling cameras, breathing in the mechanical cadence of the rows of sleek computer banks that filled this small, centermost chamber.

This reflection before him was a ghost, a whisper of her essence.  "I'm sorry." he whispered, and swiveled back.

Somewhere up above, a camera purred as its lens slowly rotated, focusing in.  Mother studied his stone expression under the pallid glow of the monitor, and she knit her brow in consequence.  "You seem...determined."

"I didn't accept this job just to be used as Xanatos' token lackey, spinning his lies.  I owe a debt, and right now, the man that protects the clan could very well be their greatest threat."

"You are a Hunter."

It wasn't hard to miss the conversational swerve.  "Former hunter.  And what does this have to do with–"

"Why would you owe a debt to the creatures you have, in the past, tried to kill?"

Jason fell silent, brooding actually, Mother's inquisitive comment having opened up the wound that hadn't quite healed.  Underneath the ribbed crew-neck lied a scar just beneath the sternum where the laser had entered, and echoed on his back by a somewhat smaller twin where the laser had continued between his organs, severed the spinal cord and burned the skin from the inside out.  It was a remnant, of a life and cause forced on him by his bloodstained ancestry, and whenever fingers would idly graze the dead skin, it would bring him to an introspective pause.  It seemed so long ago, but the memory of compressed light running him through was still potent after all these years.  "I've learned humility." he whispered.

An odd answer, for an odd, often-contradictive species.  "Humility?"

"If it weren't for the clan, for Goliath, I would have either become like my brother, or died under the weight of a thousand years of Canmore lineage.  If the loss of my legs was the only retribution demanded of me, so be it."

Mother digested his answer, and the computer banks hummed an octave higher; she was thinking.  "May I see it?"

"What?"

"The scar." she clarified, and Jason craned his neck to better pass along an incredulous expression.

"No.  Can we get back to the task at hand please?"

"Of course."

He ran a hand through his hair, smoothing the shadow-black slick and composing himself as best he could with the eerily warm sensation of Mother's hologram image just beside him.  Her interest was innocent, and all the same disturbingly enamored.  "Where was Mr. Xanatos during the courtyard battle?"

"The courtyard." Mother answered, and as much as it gave the impression of humor, he didn't believe it; Jason never thought she was this capable of mastering those little idiosyncrasies decidedly organic.

"The entire time?"

"As far as my cameras are aware."

Such a soft, perfunctory lilt didn't suit the flair for sarcasm, but somehow Mother was making it work.  "Lexington says otherwise.  Xanatos was reported leaving the battle less than an hour after the Guild had landed.  Show me the footage from the battle." he demanded.

"Of course, but I might remind you footage is limited."  She moved from one side of his chair to the other, a disturbing lack of sound where talon against stone should have been.  "Several exterior cameras were lost in the battle, and more than half of the footage was destroyed."

"Destroyed or later deleted?"

"Destroyed." she confirmed.

Jason smiled.  "How convenient."

"I'm sure Mr. Xanatos would agree."

He noticed the subtle attempt, this time, to let him in on something she was unable to completely profess.  "You can't tell me anything about him, can you?" he asked, turning towards her and pinning the hologram under those gemstone-blue eyes.  "He's got you locked up in security codes and firewalls, dancing on his strings and telling his lies."

Her image looked away, and the idle monitors flashed to life with several different exterior camera shots from the Guild battle.

Jason was distracted as she had hoped by the scenes unfolding before him, the savagery of gargoyles unleashed, a sea of black-suited invaders shooting everything that moved, castle defensive turrets and the guardian automatons laying down suppressive fire; it was chaos.  Several scenes were infused with brief interruptions of static, and a few reels suddenly stopped altogether, destroyed, from either a stray or intended blast.

"There," his voice shot out, "camera seven."

The afore-mentioned footage transferred to the larger screen, where a demon-armored fighter wearing red and granite steel lithely battled his way through the smothering ranks.  The static was growing worse, and he lost sight of Xanatos several times, having to switch between surviving cameras to find him again.

"Wait." said Jason, eyes narrowing into burnished slits.  "Pause camera three.  Back it up about five minutes."

The footage rewound until the majordomo found what he was looking for.  His employer, between the blizzard of static and the endless figures caught in the shot, appeared momentarily distracted.  Xanatos maneuvered himself to a safe spot and fired his rocket boosters, taking off into the night sky with an umbilical of smoke.  Lexington's disembodied voice could be heard screaming over the jumbled audio.

"He's leaving in the middle of the battle.  Why?" he directed towards Mother.

"I am unable to answer."

"Where did he go?"

She struggled, and her image flickered slightly like a stone breaking the surface of a pond.  "I am...unable to answer."

The tone was growing progressively more adamant.  "What is Xanatos up to?"

Mother's image was increasing in distortion, and like something had snapped it vanished, leaving a small, flickering rain of light particles that fell and faded away before ever hitting the ground.  "My apologies," her disjointed voice resonated softly, "but I've already gone beyond my established parameters."

Jason leaned back into his wheelchair, and eyed the monitor repeating Xanatos' quick escape from the courtyard every three minutes.  "What are you up to?"

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

The first thing he noticed was the voices.

Often when traveling this particular corridor, it was deathly quiet other than the sound of one's own footsteps.  Now it sung with a lively conversation he could swore he knew one half of more than intimately.

Todd hurried his pace, and swung through the threshold of the infirmary's door only to find his mother laughing out loud despite a stomach wound and sutures.  And the catalyst, a shock of gray turned silver in the slatted light, strong hands, tough skin and an cater-cornered, windswept mug that literally screamed ruggedness.

It was Macbeth, sharing her laugh and spooning honey with a rich Scottish burr.  Women fell to pieces over the accent, and he thought his mother had the veteran cunning to see through every advance.

Something rose in his gullet, bile, red-hot rage, a growl, and the latter unintentionally spilled out, "What the hell is this guy doing here?"

He had announced himself in true Hawkins fashion, so much so the two occupants simply turned their eyes and stared at him.

"Visiting." Rose admonished, chagrined if not slightly reassured to see her son acting so protective of her.  "He is allowed to do that, is he not?"

Todd moved in further, ensuring as acidic a glare as possible was leaned on Macbeth, but the king returned it with a tempered smile.  Todd took the seat on the opposite side of Rose's hospital bed, and noticed Macbeth didn't make any effort to leave them alone.  He was close to growling at him for territory too small for them both.  "You mind?" he seethed.

Rose could feel the heat between them and decided to interject, a hand to her neck feigning a dry throat.  "Could you get me a glass of water, Macbeth?"

Eyes still against the boy Macbeth got up, taking the hint.  "Of course."  He was as chivalrous in his departure as he was his offer, bowing to the bedridden woman and slowly walking towards the far side of the infirmary to give mother and son some privacy.

"You were rude," she said, "I didn't raise you to act like this..."

"You didn't raise me.  Sesame Street raised me, the Transformers, 42nd street, muscle cars, comic books, Sunday afternoon matinees and a bunch of goddamned ornery nuns."

Rose was by rights completely silenced; for twenty years she had shared custody of her son with the entire island of Manhattan.

"I want to know more." Todd demanded.

His request, if it could be called that, was followed by a reflexive grimace Rose couldn't quite hide, and her hands tightened on her bed sheets.  "I've told you everything there is."

"It's not enough."

She swallowed; Todd's eyes bored into her, and flashes of her husband replaced his features with another, ghostly, distant image.  Her throat was getting dry.  "Then what would you like to know?"

"Where did we live?"


"A two bedroom apartment in Soho."

"And who the hell tried to kill us?  Tried to kill you?"

Rose shook her head slowly, causing the long strands to shimmy in the sunlight.  "I don't know.  I spent the better part of six months roaming across Europe asking myself the same thing until I thought it a waste of time.  My life had already been destroyed, it was all I could do to keep from throwing myself off the Tour Montparnasse."

His breath caught.  Her statement was so matter of fact it was as if another person was speaking in her voice; the very thought of suicide was a discursive factor in his anger towards her.  "I didn't know you felt that way..."

"There wasn't a minute that passed that I didn't think of what I had lost, of you and your father.  I would often sleep until midday, lacking the strength to get myself out of bed.  I didn't interact with anyone around me, I rarely stayed in a city for more than a month before I moved on.  Before anyone could get to know me."  Her tone was becoming hollow, almost dark, as she relived half a life spent drifting in a haze of self-denial; across modern capitals gleaming in the Eastern sun or stone ruins whispering of an ancient age, it didn't really matter, she was often apathetic to her surroundings regardless of how glorious or exotic.  "I was trying to escape."

Todd leaned back, hands rubbing back and forth on the denim of his jeans, eyes darting around and refusing to lift towards his mother.

"I know that won't alleviate any anger you hold towards me..."

"You're damned right it doesn't." he barked, but, stopped, and bit his tongue.  It wouldn't do well to keep screaming at her, as his wife was so diligent to point out whenever she accompanied him.  He calmed himself, and resumed, "I just want to know, and you keep...glossing over everything like it was a dream."

"Sometimes it feels that way."

"It's my life, my past, and damnit I just want to know.  What are you still afraid of?"

This time she looked at him, truly looked at him without the fear of such hatred so clear in steel-gray eyes and met him on his own level.  "You."

The undeclared rift that lingered between them reared its ugly head again, and each of them shifted uncomfortably, hoping movement, even in the slightest, would fill the awkward pause with at least something.

"Why?" Todd couldn't help but ask.

"I'm afraid of what our relationship has become."

Again, "Why?"

"Being something other than your mother was freeing in a way," she admitted sheepishly, "it allowed me to become something more than the apparition of Rose Hawkins, matron of a slaughtered family and forced to exist as a ghost, and it warranted the chance to finally live.  I was able to watch you, talk with you, reconnect with the only surviving part of my family without the ramifications of the truth."

"Then you're stabbed through the stomach..." Todd prompted.

"And just as I think I'm going to die, I take that comfort, and security, and destroy it with a selfish need to have you understand just who I am, and who I used to be."

"So you wanted to burden me–"

"I wanted to free you." she rectified, before her son got any other distracting, dangerous notions in his head.  "I wanted to free you of those questions you constantly asked yourself."

"Questions I asked for twenty years," his voice directed downwards, it swiftly fired up, "questions I asked you!  But fuck, you dodged every one because you were too goddamned afraid."

She gave a limp, fluid shrug in the affirmative.  "I'm a coward."

The chair squeaked; his weight shifted.  Todd's hand shook in the air, not quite a fist, and not quite a suitable indication of his mounting frustration.  "You're making it really hard for me to hate you right now!"

At this point, her son was probably blind to the fact she was putting herself in front of him as the bulls-eye.  "Good.  Hate me, yell at me, do anything you feel you have to to release your anger."

"Don't you care?!"

"About what you think of me?  Your life is already far beyond my own, beyond any of this mess that is your family.  So, no, no I don't care what you think of me."

He ran his fingers up past the hairline, through the gelled peaks and down around his neck, massaging the back of his spine.  "Damnit, I want you to care...damnit, I want you to suffer!" he snarled.

The skin around her eyes creased.  "Truly?"

"It's unfair you get to unload all of this onto me just so you can relieve some pent-up sense of guilt."

She let her head fall back on the top edge of the pillows, directed her eyes upwards, closed them and allowed the answer to roll freely into the heavy air.  "I suppose it is."

"And stop agreeing with me!"

Rose shed an amused look at the ceiling tiles, confident her son wouldn't see it.

"I saw that."

She dropped her head and settled on Todd.  "Are you going to hate me for the rest of your life?"

Taken back, he was startled with what to answer, "I don't know..."

"Then leave."

"What?"

"Leave."

He coughed up a breath.  "You're kicking me out?"

"Yes," she said, nodding towards the door, "I've had enough."

"Hey wait–"

"No," Rose cut him off, "I've lived a lifetime of pain, death and loss, and yes, I was wrong to have kept both the truth and your life from you, but how long do I have to suffer?"

Todd looked inward for an answer, but found himself clouded by a wealth of suppressed rage that didn't award clarity of thought.  One eyebrow shifted position as the other fell, and lithe artist fingers laced together in front of his mouth.

Rose laughed in spite of herself, her hand on the bed sheet on the hospital gown on the gauze wrap.  "I'm tired of being screamed at.  So let me heal in peace and soon I'll be out of your life."

"It's not that easy."

"I think it is."

"Well...wait." Todd made the bid for peace, but couldn't finish what he'd planned to say or hoped to ad-lib.  It trailed off and he wondered where his courage had disappeared to; he had no trouble blaming her, yelling at her and screaming, but when it came to forgiveness...  "Can I...can I at least see some pictures?" he asked weakly.  "Of my dad?"

"What pictures I have left are still inside the church." she said defensively.

Todd snapped his head up, glassy eyes wide and somewhat sympathetic.  She didn't know.  Her home, her refuge from the world was a burned out husk.  "Oh god," he whispered, "you don't know...shit, I guess you wouldn't..."

"Don't know what?"

"The church was completely destroyed."

On the fringe of the conversation, Macbeth had not done well to his father's teachings by listening in.  He took considerable interest in Rose's expression as it turned to one of fleeting disbelief, then sorrow, playing through a range of emotion and ending in a look he'd seen once before in revolutionary France, when a young soldier had a rapier unexpectedly struck through his heart.

She was able to manage a short breath that must have been like swallowing fire.  "Everything that I had left..."

"We'll go there," Todd reassured her, "and try to find–"

"No!" she snapped, leaning forward just a little too quickly for stitched-together skin to extend against the staples sewing up her side.  Her mistake was costly, and she tactfully laid herself back into place.  "Not you...please, send someone else..."

"I'll go." a voice rang out from across the expanse.

He didn't know what to react angrily to, his mother's forbiddance or Macbeth's gracious offer.  "What?"  Todd shot an angry look over his shoulder at the approaching Scotsman and then returned to Rose.  "Why?!"

"There are...private things there..."

Todd's eyes flashed, either a reflection of light as he stood up from his chair or resentment taking a more physical form.  "More secrets?"

"A part of my life that no one else belongs to except your father."  She turned to Macbeth and her gaze so intense slowly muted to an unspoken plea.  "And you shouldn't go either.  You could be exposed."

He'd lived a life of restraint, but the man of a thousand years could never turn away a challenge from a woman.  Macbeth stepped up, taking to the side of the bed and Todd was vaguely aware of how tall he was.  "My dear lady," he nearly purred, workmen's hands nearly swallowing her own, "I've met much worse in my lifetime."

"Oh Jesus Christ..." Todd muttered, jaw grinding against the sight.

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

Talons firmly entrenched into the overhang and assured of her concealment, Angela brooded over Nightstone's home boulevard and just above Demona's office window for the third time in as many nights.  Her breathing slow and deliberately metrical, it was as if she was searching for something beyond the saw-tooth horizon.

But answers had never come easily.

She was sick of playing successor to her mother, already having inherited her features, her impulsive temperament and now, insanely, a conglomerate.  She'd have thought this universe would have been a little less harrowing than her own, but no such luck.

With a sigh, she extended her wings and used them to stabilize the quick descent to the ledge beneath a massive pane of reinforced glass, narrowly allowing a view inside the darkened office.  It was just the same as last night, and the night before, obsessively clean and reminiscently vacant, and all hers for the taking.

Hands indiscernibly clenched, gouging into the side of the building.  Lungs expanded.  She could see the hesitation in her reflection, and wondered just what it was she dreaded.

As her hand waved and stalled across the one part of the windowsill etched with the indication of something underneath, she froze.  Thoughts raced faster than she could keep track of as the transatlantic gale breathed through her hair, and just before she drowned in a thousand voices of doubt and self-denial and that which kept her from proceeding for the past two nights, she flipped open the small panel on the sill and punched in a numerical sequence on the newly revealed keypad.

The window hissed, unlocked, slid open and Angela slipped in.  "Well, that wasn't so difficult."

But before any victory over baseless fears could be celebrated the room exploded in searing, geranium light.  Lines as thin as spider silk began to rove through the office from the crown moulding above, an upgrade her mother neglected to warn her.

Angela recognized them as targeting scanners.  "Dragon, Mother!"

Quickly, frantically, she scanned her surroundings in the moon-dashed silver and made the bid for the first piece of technology she could discern in the office with the wide-spaced, cathedral theme.  Wings cloaked closely to her body, talons snapped and she launched between the ribbons of hungry red towards her mother's desk.

A beam made a line just in front of her and she stopped short, dodged it by a hair's length and threw herself towards the desk, an island in an angry sea, and crouched near the opening.  A flat panel lay out before her to the computer's side, similar to the Eyrie's (the coincidence wasn't lost on her, between her mother and Xanatos and their quest to top the other, certain technologies were sure to be 'borrowed') and she threw down her hand with a prayer under her breath.

It lit, scanned and verified all in less than three seconds, and the targeting beams vanished.

One eye opened, then another; Angela sighed in relief and fell back into the chair.

Was this the typical Monday morning routine for Dominique Destine?  She could easily see her mother swaggering in, stepping blindly from recollection where the beams wouldn't hit and taking to her red lambskin throne, then disarming one of the most deadly security systems in the city while delicately nipping at hot Darjeeling from fine china.

She was now staring at the computer screen through a few fallen strands; it'd come to life with the deactivation of the security system and one cryptic line of text glared back at her.

PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: _________________

Apparently her fingerprints weren't proof enough.  Faced with the barrier, she leaned forwards and entered the first thing that came to mind, delicately and inexpertly with her talons.

PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: ANGELA

The computer barked.

ACCESS DENIED PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: _________________

Angela tried again.

PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: DEMONA ACCESS DENIED PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: _________________

She let something loose from between her teeth.  Talons clacked across the keys in another attempt.

PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: ALONE ACCESS DENIED PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: _________________

This could go on all night, choosing random words with any sort of association with her mother, unless of course Angela gave in to the little instinctual voice that wanted to tear the keyboard in two.

But sparing the only way in, a brow arched divinely as an idea spurred.

PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD: GOLIATH ACCESS GRANTED

NIGHTSTONE UNLIMITED CONFIDENTIAL:

FOR ANGELA DESTINE-MAZA'S EYES ONLY

Triumph.

Think outside the box, Angela mused, realizing something as simple as a password access was undoubtedly another subtle test by her mother, perhaps to prepare her for some grand designs waiting for her outside of simply tending to her corporation.  How many more will there be?

The screen suddenly reflected her features remade in beryl and cascading fire red.  Her mother bridged the distance with ancient eyes that looked tired even as a clear digital recording.  But at least, they were eyes she recognized, not eyes that sized her up as either a ghost or prey whenever she entered into that cramped little Eyrie cell halfway across the city.

"Hello, Angela.  I suppose the first question on your mind is why."

"That would be a start."

Demona cocked her brows as if she'd heard her daughter.  "You are here to protect my investments, my livelihood, I have had threats to my company before, but none that required an extra pair of eyes."  The recording paused; the words had been ill chosen.  "Another pair of eyes.  If you are watching this, then I have been...removed.  Perhaps something as inane as a kidnapping or, as I am now infuriatingly mortal, I have been killed, and that leaves Nightstone vulnerable.  My board of directors has been instructed to get in touch with you if they haven't had any sort of contact with me for three weeks.  You are now acting CEO, and have sovereign rule."

Heir to a throne she didn't think would ever be passed to her, Angela was more than a little reluctant to take the reins.  But in the cutthroat world of big business, her mother's sweat and blood could be carved up and served to the highest bidders without a watchdog.

"But," there was a catch, there was always a catch, "in order to facilitate your handling of my corporation, you'll need to pass as human."

Angela was quick to mumble, "How do I do that, mother?"

As soon as the words had left her mouth...

Eyes widened; wings flared.  Realization was about to hit as hard as one of Goliath's right hooks.

"There is an incantation I've prepared for just this occasion."

Even as breakneck reactive as gargoyle reflexes were, her body scarcely had time to register the faint charge on her skin before she heard herself screaming, and her vision ebbed and flowed with blinding, crackling white.  A lightning bolt, or her best guess, had shot from the screen and hit dead center in her chest.

Out of the few disjointed and quasi-cohesive thoughts, one held the answer to why she felt as if she were on fire.  Her hands were still clenched across the keyboard, her mother had bound the earthly machine with a spell commenced by a simple program and the contact of flesh.

Flesh unglued between the molecular bonds, bones and tendons shifted, appendages withdrew into folds of skin that tightened over a new silhouette.  Angela was knocked back with the pain reminiscent of a boot to the gut and ended up on the floor, steaming, groggy, and drooling on the carpet, coughing up half her lungs.

"The computer was enchanted, by the way." the recording deadpanned.  "I hope the transmutation spell wasn't too wounding?"

Angela's first breath was a swirl of smoke and irritation.

And as the tremors ran the length of her and began to dissipate, she became aware of her own form like it was floating above the carpet.  It was feathery, gossamer, she was used to heavy, flinty sinew.

She raised her hands, and saw through blurred sight a changed complexion to say the least.

"I'm sure you'll notice your hands first, the extra digit, the lack of talons, soft, supple skin, and in order to match your father's pedigree when he was once human," the tenor grew velvet, and if Angela were completely attuned to the recording, she would have thought her mother slightly engrossed with Goliath's human form, "a dusky European tint."

She was human, almost electrocuted to death, and human.  She had fingernails, eyebrows, a smooth brow and teeth, terra-cotta-toned skin, and her sense of smell was seriously dull.

On the screen Demona wore her lips in a smug, curling pout; by her calculations, her daughter should be over the expected bewilderment by now.  "Sorcery can be a tailor-made tool, my daughter, if it's used prudently." she minded, and Angela responded by spitting a muffled curse and pinning her eyes to the screen just above the desk's red cedar tabletop.  "Now, if you're over the initial shock of transforming into another species, it's time to learn just what will be expected of you."

"Oh, joy."

That same feeling of dread was justified.

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

It was hard to wrap around the idea of something so great being airborne, and gracefully as well, but Broadway defied such common laws of physics on a daily basis.  And even as refined as his glide, it was still carrying almost a quarter of a ton of momentum with the winds behind him, hurling fast and about as easy to steer as a semi-truck.

Aiming for the light against darkness, he opened his wings to slow himself and alight near the topmost window's open crack.  Breath was expelled, claws embedded into steel, and he swore he felt the building shake.

Nightstone Unlimited, sleek and unembellished, he'd rarely been this close.

But something new warranted his attention, and that something was palpable outside of the window's slim breach as if he could reach out and swim his fingers through.  His eyes ran the frame, searching for the telltale signs of an active security system, but everything was completely inert.

Testing with his talontips, he pulled open the window and wedged himself through, all the while cursing his inquisitiveness under his breath; sure enough, a red laser beam would stray through the darkness rewarding his curiosity with a hole through the head.  But all he found inside was a figure leaning over the desk, illuminated around the lissome edges by the glow of a computer screen.

The bound mane was a dead giveaway, and it spurred him on.  He planted both feet to the Barathea loop pile, crept in and was about to announce himself until he noticed several features lacking from the silhouette, most noticeably wings.

She was human.

He sucked in a breath.

"Damn..."  He'd done it now, broken into an office building for the purpose of finding his mate and instead, Brooklyn would read about his indiscretion the next night with front-page headlines screaming Monster Attacks Woman.  He wondered with a grimace if he could squeeze himself back through the window and escape, but he was never one for subtlety with his size.

But the scent blooming from this female was familiar, echoing against his memories, and it fixed him in place.

It didn't take superhuman senses to hear the thump of four hundred and fifty pounds dropping through the window or feel the vibration through the desk, nor could she forget how her mate took to the ground with a deliberate, lead-footed gait.  Angela barely turned her head as she heard the rustle of wings relaxing into a limp state.  "Broadway."

He wrinkled his nose; that was her voice.  She was human, and he was wide-eyed, astonished, curious, and sizing up her new form.  "You're human..."

"You can thank my mother for that." Angela answered from over her shoulder.  "The new CEO of Nightstone Unlimited can't make personal appearances looking like a creature of the night."

"Which begs the question–"

She whirled on him, and flashed human eyes that sparkled behind the light obsidian with an animal's wily demeanor.  "Why did she make me her successor." she finished.  "Being exceedingly paranoid, she doesn't trust anyone else in this world.  And I suppose handing down a multi-national corporation to a daughter makes much more sense than a complete stranger."

Broadway caped his wings, creating a downdraft of air that Angela felt up her skirt.  "True enough."

"Why are you here?"

He stalled, and a nervous twitch trekked from brow to mouth.  "Just...curious."

"Of how helpless, island-bred Angela could ever run a corporation?"

"Of how you're doing."

Dark eyes grew darker.  "You haven't so much as batted an eye towards me the last few weeks and now you wish to see how I'm doing?"

His mouth tightened into an imperceptible line; in the dark-lit expanse of Demona's chamber office it nearly disappeared.  "Yes.  It must be...hard."

"You have no idea." she replied, still staring.

He lumbered in, and the desktop lamp served to bleakly illuminate rigid features that Angela noticed were still clenched and cautious.  He was darting his eyes around, watching shadows clung to the walls that somehow moved on their own volition; he was expecting something to jump out at him.

"You seem nervous." she observed.

"It's just...odd being here." he confessed.  "I feel like I should be watching my back."

"Well, don't worry, it's my office now.  No one's going to shove the barrel of a laser gun into the back of your head."

"Speaking of your office," Broadway stressed, trickling an introspective gaze downwards to further drink in the newly acquired contours, "how are you supposed to run a multi-national corporation?"

"I'm not running it, just watching over it.  At this point, Nightstone is capable of operating for about three months without any major executive direction."

"And the personnel has just accepted a twenty-something daughter that's only been seen once?"

Angela leaned against the desk, crossed her arms and started to rub her hands to the opposite bicep; besides the vivid color change her skin had considerably thinned, and her choice of attire didn't help.  "I wouldn't know yet." she sighed in response.  "I...just got inside an hour ago."

"But you've been coming here for three nights."

She shrugged.  "Any excuse to get away from the castle..."

He heard the insinuation rife in her tone, and understood.  "Ah." was all he could manage, knowing it was his withdrawn demeanor that had pushed her away.

"I spent most of those three nights circling the building a few times and sitting on the rooftop."

"Doing what?"

"Thinking.  I actually haven't had contact with any of the staff besides a wonderfully enlightening phone call with a Miss Bianca Cartier."

He started shaking his head, his brow crumpling.  "So...?"

"It's all been worked out.  I am the product of a whirlwind romance between two young lovers, Liath Maza and Dominique Destine.  They were married upon learning of the pregnancy, had me, divorced after a while and then shared a tentative custody.  I lived in Avalon, New Jersey for a while but relocated back to Manhattan to live with my father and continue my education.  Birth certificate, social security number, dental records, health insurance; anything a human would need I have, including the credibility to take over my mother's company."

Broadway was impressed.

And to Angela, the pretext was still miraculous considering the parties involved.  "I'm surprised mother and father could actually work something out so beneficial without killing each other..."

"They had a justifiable reason to make it work."

Angela threw up her gaze.  She could've sworn that was genuine concern for the imposter that was wedged into his life, but Broadway stole away and kept his distance.

He fled to safety away from those imploring, limpid eyes to the computer screen, hoping desperately for any diversion.  And it came in the form of a text message with a familiar signature.  "I see you and Una are still talking."

She sighed in frustration, back to business.  "We've been e-mailing back and forth, trying to find a spell that will block whatever's tampering inside Demona's head.  She's been very helpful considering the intended recipient."

"And how's it coming?"

"So far...nothing, and I think Una's already gone through half the Mystic."

Broadway looked back, tempting fate with those mournful eyes.  "Well, even if you do succeed, your mother still has some severe emotional problems..."

"I'm well aware." she replied in Demona's trademark snarl.

Bang bang bang!

Like a clap of thunder had repeated itself three times over in the middle of the office, the doors resounded with a balled fist from the other side.  "Miss Destine?" a voice called out.

Broadway froze, and Angela swiveled around on the balls of her feet, which, she was still getting used to.  Company had come calling at the worst possible time.  "Oh no."

"Miss Destine, is that you?"

The visitor was persistent, and Angela had just realized she'd shut down the security system, which included the electronically latched office doors.  Instantly, she calculated how long it would take to shove Broadway out and into the night sky to escape, but there wasn't enough time.  There was only one way out, and she knew she might regret it.  "Broadway, come here!"

She was spry in her new form, and whether it was the burst of adrenaline or a residual splinter of gargoyle brawn, it was enough to forcefully guide her cross-dimensional mate towards the computer and slap his hand to the keyboard.

"What the hell are you–?"  His protest was cut off mid-grievance, and in a brilliant flash, the spell had enveloped new flesh.

The door swung open just as the light died away and Broadway was thrown back, rolling into a smoking, pink-skinned heap.

An impeccably manicured eyebrow rose at the sight.  "Am I interrupting?"

Tearing herself from the illusion of her mate transformed, Angela eyed the stranger.

Alabaster skin, black business suit and skirt, hair pulled back into so severe a bun it was distending her already austere features; this pale woman could only be Bianca Cartier.

"Ah, miss Destine I presume.  And..."  On the floor a man, a linebacker more appropriately, who'd probably stand more than six and a half feet dazedly rubbed his head as ghostly wisps rose from the skin's surface.  "A large, steaming man in a loincloth.  Charming."

Angela rubbernecked back and forth.  "I can explain this..." she said in a splutter.

Miss Cartier crossed her arms and soaked in the view of her new employer, in a tight fitting tunic dress that didn't leave much to the imagination, and then the brickhouse-built man sitting dazed on the carpet.  "I hope so.  It doesn't suit a CEO to treat her office as a playpen."

"Right.  My office," the former gargoyle seethed combatively, "in which you are currently intruding upon in the middle of the night."

The woman inched her way closer, back stiff.  "Call me curious when I saw a light on through the window.  I've yet to see you for three days since we spoke on the phone."

"Pardon me for dealing with the crushing weight of an entire conglomerate on my shoulders."  Angela offered a hand to Broadway and he took it, before realizing the shape of his new appendage.  He was transfixed for a moment, until she tugged on his hand and he struggled to a standing position.  "This man is my m­­–husband," a slip of the tongue, she fixed the remark just in time, "and we were discussing the recent change in our lives."

"Half nude?"

"We just got out of the hot tub."

An emotion not unlike uncertainty filtered through taut skin.  Miss Cartier had not seen Demona's office past the side doors that led into only what her imagination could discern, but knowing the battleaxe and her self-serving penchant for extravagance, there could be an adjoining sauna and aviary as well.  "There's a hot tub?"

By the dragon I hope so, Angela replied inwardly.

Bianca's eyes thinned considerably.  She was already unenthusiastic to the change in ownership, and now, a college girl was holding her financial future in the palms of her hands.  "You often take a soak at one thirty in the morning?"

"And are you this desperate for overtime?"

The only original human in the room smiled, and it was chilling.  "I've adjusted to your mother's odd hours.  I've become more or less nocturnal thanks to her."

"Well, I'm pleased to allow you the night off."  Angela crossed her arms.  "Go home, Miss Cartier."

"There are several files on your desk," Bianca ventured in defeat, "you should get acquainted with Nightstone's most recent acquisitions."

"Goodnight, Miss Cartier."

She took the hint, and backpedaled towards the doors.  "I hope to see you soon, miss Destine-Maza."  Despite the three-inch heels, there was no sound in her step as she slipped out and into the shadows of the corridor.

A growl tickled Angela's throat.  "Lovely woman."  She turned and noticed her mate was still performing a self-examination, especially around his ears.  "Are you all right?"

Broadway smoothed his fingers the length of his skull, unearthing a distant memory.  "Well," he acquiesced, "I was kind of hoping for hair."

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

April 24th, mid-morning, near the Hole

Aerial photos didn't give this place justice.  Being down on street level, staring at the fields of rubble and skeletal skyscraper remains humbled the hardest and cynical.

Safe in the obscurity of a long, hooded coat, Macbeth scurried across the street to avoid a pair of massive dumptrucks lumbering past full of twisted steel; only human, embarrassingly mortal, he was at the mercy of several tons of lumbering machinery and thought it best to tread lightly.

There was the inevitable blend of wind and exhaust, brewing about him and it threatened his hood.  A hand flew up to seize it.

But seeing the crowd, the coat as an afterthought wasn't even necessary; of the thousands of people on the periphery of the Hole, the reporters, the rescue workers, the repair crews, he was just one or another in the great unwashed.  But emerging from the flames of what was once his castle mansion had reinforced the lessons of prudence over pride, as any one of the nameless faces could be a Guild mole.

He was able to make his way through to where Rose's church had once stood, following a makeshift plywood fence for roughly two and a half blocks, but found several blockades and a single military guard out front.

The soldier noticed his approach and shifted the position of his hands on the barrel of his rifle; apparently nerves were still raw around here.  "Can I help you, sir?"

"Yes, you can let me past.  I'm here on an errand for a friend that used t' live here."

"What?"  He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, his words riding a subtle wave of laughter.  "You mean someone used to live in that pile of rubble?"

Macbeth dipped his head somberly.  "Aye."

"Really?"

"Aye, a servant of god.  Now are you going t' let me through, young man, or are you going t' risk the wrath of you know who?" he played on a common fear, indicating upwards with a gesture.

The guard was a little skeptical, an atheist at best.  A smiting from God was nothing near what his commander could and would do if he let an undesirable past.  The army was having trouble identifying the looters from the innocents who just wanted back into their homes to retrieve whatever survived.

Macbeth could read the cynicism tightening the soldier's brow, and aimed for a different approach.  "Her name is Rose.  She was a nun here, and one of the only caretakers.  This was her home."

The guard took another look at the remains of the church, wondered how anyone could have lived there and then turned back to the argent-haired stranger.  Eyes that absolute didn't lie; he nodded sympathetically and let him through.  "Be quick.  That place could completely collapse at any moment."

"Thank you, lad.  Somebody up there will be smilin' down on you."  Macbeth passed by and took to the wide, concrete staircase, and was halfway up before noticing a faded trail painted across each step.

He slowed and got a better look, skin creasing around his eyes.  Blood.  The pallid color was unmistakable.

The spattered path led down the stairs, across the street and into what used to be an alley.  His ever-tactical thought process putting the pieces together, he knew it was Goliath's, and it drew a vivid picture of just how he and Elisa escaped with their lives, and where.

Continuing, he took the steps two at a time and shoved one of the doors down to create a path over the toppled foyer roof, and then, peering out from under the hem of his hood, stood in awe of his surroundings.

The church was gutted, with only a few support beams and half-crumbled walls giving presence to the magnificent but decaying structure that used to sit here.

He'd seen countless battlefields, grass and soil and debris sprayed red, and the king stood in awe of the destruction sown by Goliath and Sobek in what must have been a mêlée fought tooth and nail.  Perversely, and contrasting a stately rearing, he wondered what it would have been like to be in the midst, watching these creatures tear each other apart and feeling the ambient temperature around rise and swoon with their intensity.

He could tell by the patterns of blood where they'd moved, the claw marks embedded in the walls and across the toppled beams told him how they each gloriously and guiltlessly thirsted for the other and allowed no mercy.

"Bloody hell." he muttered, his voice lost in the breeze through the sun-drenched remains.  "Goliath, you are an impressive beast."

He stooped to his knees and ran two fingers through the stains of wet soot.

A fire had broken out when the building had weakened under its own weight and collapsed, crushing the natural gas pipes and feeding the hundreds of candles Rose often kept lit.

And Macbeth had hoped the blaze would have burned any evidence the gargoyles were ever here, including Goliath's severed wings; or at least, hoped several tons of rubble had crushed them, buried them and hidden them from the excavators soon to rumble their way this direction.

He shook off the gruesome thought and wandered deeper into the ruins, using the memory of his time spent here to navigate the decimated structure; behind the dark redwood beam (snapped in half), through several arches (both fallen), up the staircase (crumpled and lying in pieces and shrapnel on the first floor) and into the meager living quarters.

Macbeth harrumphed.

Rose's entire room was twelve feet lower than it should have been.  It had pancaked what lay below, collapsing an entire story and resting almost too neatly in place.

A mere shift in his brow denoted how impressed he was.  Flipping back his hood, he set out to do his work by using those rough, leathery hands to dig through planks and beams, shattered flowerpots and personal items either burned, crushed or spoiled by rain water.

"Where are you?" he muttered, throwing off slabs on near unrecognizable wreckage to even see portions of the floor, "Where?", until...

A chest strapped with iron had sat at the foot of Rose's bed and, when the entire room's contents had settled into their new resting place, its weight had dropped it straight down and right side up.

"Got you."

He brushed the dust off with his hands to reveal a deep cherry stain, that sung with rich hues and gold rivets sparkling under the shafts of light pouring through the damaged roof.  He could see the attention Rose had lavished upon it, and was relieved it'd survived.

"One down..."  His eyes went up, across the horizon of debris towards a trampled bookcase, where the nun who'd concealed him here had lent him the use of her own meager collection.  There had always been a thick red binder on the top shelf and in between the gently-read tomes he'd dared not to touch even when alone; unmarked and deceptively plain, and sweeter the wealth inside he mused.

Wading over, he saw the tip protruding upwards, glaring in all its brilliant blush and allowing him an easy end to his search.  He picked it up and examined it.  It'd survived the destruction and fires with a light dusting, as if someone, a little less than corporeal, had spared it.

He could see the edges of photos right there under his thumb, and temptation, not counting his little foray into the bed of an enemy a millennium old, had never been so strong.

"Blast you, you old bird." the venerable king sighed in self-deprecation.  Rooting through the woman's past would certainly not make the best impression, thus, his hand slipped from the yellowed pages within and he placed the book underneath his arm.

He replaced his hood, tramped over and grabbed the chest by one of the iron handles, grunted under the weight, and hauled himself out of there.

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

"They dropped me off on Broadway, south end.  The meeting was short, illuminating but short.  I should be back soon, I want to get out of here as soon as I can."

"...Good.  We have things to discuss..."

If it weren't for the reception of his cell-phone, he'd swear his subordinate had pushed against the strictures of his rank.  Again.  "Agent White, I hope that's not a condescending tone."

"...No sir, merely an impatient one.  It's been weeks, our enemy recovers strength, our people are antsy, confused by inaction, and our leader has his head buried in the clouds..."

He pulled in the loose flap of his trench coat to avoid a couple walking past.  "I assure you, White, my attention is more focused than you could possibly imagine."

"...The longer we wait, the more precarious our position becomes.  We're on top right now, I'd like to stay that way..."

"Humans will always be at the top of the food chain," he growled, hissing quietly into the mouthpiece amongst the rank and file sharing the sidewalk, "if I have to kill every other species on the planet."

"...Yes sir..."

"Recruitment is stronger than ever before, our benefactor is re-supplying us..."

"...And all the while you toy with Xanatos and empty threats..."

"It's called testing our enemy." he replied, his voice edging on a growl.  "I want to see just how far he'll go to protect the beasts."

"...We've already seen how far!..."

"Wait wait..."  Something had caught the sun in just the right angle, pulling his gaze.  "Damn."

"...Sir?..."

"Hold on..." he trailed off, straining his eyes into traffic and the loudest, fastest predator in between the common herd.  It wasn't hard to miss the spoiler rising twenty-five inches and trawling through a metal-tinged, chrome-rippled sea.

"...Black?..." the other end of the conversation called out.  "...Black?!..."

Entranced, as reason went to war with impetuousness, he barged through the crowds and leaned on the edge of the curb to better see the muscle car's direction.  "I've got to go."

With a click, his second in command was cut off and he replaced the phone to his inner pocket.

A moment of indecision glued his feet to the ground, and he rubbed a gloved hand down the bristle of his silver-veined goatee.  He couldn't believe he was doing this, he was already risking exposure, but being dead for twenty years had smoothed the progress of vanishing into nothingness, and the chances to see his firstborn before he may be forced to kill him were growing slim.

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

It was just before lunch in the heart of lower Manhattan, 26 Federal Plaza was quasi-organized bedlam and Todd could barely find a parking spot.  Braving a left-hand turn into oncoming traffic, the heavy car was agile enough to get him across two lanes and into a private parking area with the right amount of pressure to the gas pedal.

He wasn't too troubled over the possibility of a ticket; it'd join the rest in the back of the glove compartment.

The car growled as it met the curb, twenty-inch Goodyear rubber coming within inches of the cement.  Todd got out of the car and gave a double-sided look, a warning in patent male instinct; Manhattanites had the infuriating habit of looking with their hands.

His gaze went up, looking through the towers.  There in one of them was the 23rd floor and the bureau headquarters of the FBI, and inside, he hoped, a man who could shed some light on the part of his life that was denied to him.

"Nice car."

Todd reeled on the voice, turning around to see someone approaching him through the sidewalk's emerging lunchtime crowd, and they appraised each other through their sunglasses.  "Thanks."

"I saw you from across the street," he continued, "that car glistens."

"Wax'll do that."

Black stiffened beneath his coat, giving a trembled laugh.  Even as he felt Todd's eyes exploring his features, he was assured the boy would never identify him as the mask-bearing Guild leader who'd nearly killed him on Wyvern's turret-tops.

How ordinary, had been Black's first thought up close, without the ebony plating that fashioned him into the spitting image of the very beasts he was trying to eradicate; how human.  It was hard to believe he'd held a gun to his neck, roared parochial dogma over the thunder and threatened to blow a hole in his throat.

Of course, beliefs evolved with the death of one's family.  But Black never for the rest of his life would think he'd be looking into the face of his son again.

He lowered his eyes and found the skyline faintly reflected in the Superbird's hood.  "I had one of these back when I was your age." he reminisced.  "A '68 GTX, or as we called them, boomboxes."

"Boomboxes?" Todd echoed, watching as the man's gloved fingers traced the car's distinctive contours just above the steel.

"Nothing but a chassis, a body and the most powerful engine available." he replied fondly.  "It didn't even have a radio."

"Cool."

Black was making the loop around the car and slowed near the snout.  "Four forty?"

Todd nodded, "Yeah.  Six barrel."

He came full circle and noticed the decal in the rear window.  "And I see by the NOS sticker you've got this beast running on nitrous."  He smiled a jackal smile.  "Must be a screamer."

"A what?"

"Fast cars make women scream, either in manic fear or unadulterated pleasure."

"True, you should have heard my wife the first time she got a ride."

The blood drained from Black's face.

"Your...wife?" he rambled off.  "You're married..."  Several betraying suspicions danced in his head, as did an arcane flicker that shot through his lowered gaze; was his son involved with one of the creatures?  "I don't see a carseat," he said, a measure of composure to mask the uncertainty, "no kids?"

"She's expecting actually." Todd unthinkingly delivered another blow.  "And the thought of putting a baby-seat in that car scares the hell out of me."

Black's eyes were churning behind tinted lenses, and he was glad for them.  He was going to be a grandfather.  The thought was relatively close to what a knife impaled in his chest would feel like; it cut his breath short just as a steel blade between his ribs.  He steadied his breath and whispered soberly, "Fatherhood will do that to you."

"Says everyone else I know."  Todd turned to leave, directing himself back towards the FBI building as a subtle indication.  "Well, as much as I'd love to talk cars, women and explosive fuel additives, I'd better go."

"Wait...!"  A hand darted out and caught the sleeve of Todd's coat, desperately clenching into the loose folds.  "Please, don't go."

Todd eyed the hand; this guy had a grip, but not much for reality.  "See," he said calmly, "this is why New York gets such a bad reputation with psychotics like you."

Black pulled back his hand as if fire had blistered the skin, and gritted the fingers.  "I...I'm sorry."

"Okay, leaving now."

"I was just going to lunch." he blurted out, before he lost his chance.  "How about I treat a fellow car enthusiast?"

Wary, Todd cocked a brow.  "Is this a come on?"

"No, I just enjoy conversation over a good meal." Black said, alleviating the young man's fear.  "There's an Italian place just across the street, it's the best in the city.  I should know, I used to work around here."

"Sorry, I have something to do."

"The best in the city."

Todd clenched his jaw.  "Listen..."

"A half hour.  We'll be in, and then out."

In between the decision of whether or not to accept, his stomach growled.  He hadn't been eating much lately.  "Well, if you're planning to lull me into a false sense of security and then eat the skin off my face, this'd better be a damned good restaurant."

"I guarantee it."

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

"Man, I'm starving."

Ford led the way through the restaurant doors, and from the brilliance of sunlight into a cultural blanket of duskiness balanced by candlelight, the agents had to re-adjust their eyes to the considerable change in atmosphere.

It was the local Italian restaurant/bistro/bar that had served the public sector so faithfully, catering to the FBI bureau, Immigration, City Hall and anyone else in the neighborhood at any given time.  In the ambient lighting and curtained windows, the restaurant was larger than it actually appeared, corners blurring into obscurity, intimate booths with green-and-white-checkered tablecloths; it was designed for escapism for an hour at a time.

The peppery scent of garlic and basil wafted towards them, and while Ford seemed to revel in the change of wind, Sykes was caught between his stubborn refusal and the fact he was getting a free lunch in one of the best Italian restaurants in the lower tip of the island.

"How about you, Abel?"

The door closed and sealed, removing the street and any accompanying noise.  "I can't believe you talked me into this..." Sykes muttered.

"What?  Lunch?"

"An interview with a wack-job cop that claims he saw gargoyles."

The younger man shrugged, loosening his tie.  "Call me interested, but he was also there in the Hole when the attacks were happening.  If anything, you get a free meal, I get some info and we may get a clue as to what happened."  Ford was already scanning the large, atmospherically bedimmed restaurant, and up on the second level of the dining area he found a single customer waiting anxiously in a sequestered booth.  He nodded towards him.  "There he is."

Past the salad bar, and between several waitresses balancing trays on either arm, they made their way through the restaurant, climbing the three-tier stairway and continued into the corner, where the low-slung light fixture and low wattage bulb supplemented the shadows that encircled the booth.

Sykes noticed the stranger's hands first on the table, and all the anxious gestures that twitched through them.  Either he was simply impatient, or, nervous about meeting two federal agents who'd come to dispute his account.

"Officer Blair." Ford greeted him, and the man jumped with the voice at his back.

Seeing who it was, the police officer nodded a quick and predictably reserved greeting, glancing outside the security of the booth and then returning to the suited men sliding into the opposite side of the table.  "Agent Ford."

Ford on the outside, he dropped his arms on the table and clasped his hands.  "Thanks for meeting us.  I'm sure you're already drawing a lot of flack for your account of April first."

"More than you'd think." he said.

Sykes formed a smirk.  "You can't blame most of them."

"I can now."  The candle shuddered by either a breath or delinquent draft of wind, and a resentful shimmer in his eyes reflected the dancing light.  "After what I saw, no one has the right to dismiss my claims.  Who are you, anyways?"

"My partner, agent Abel Sykes." Ford said with an extended hand.  "What did you see?"

"You know exactly what I saw, or you wouldn't be here."

"There're gaps I need filled in."

His shoulders hunched.  "Fine." he sighed.  "April first, I'm assigned evacuation duty after whatever those things are start tearing up the city.  Besides the fact there were fifty-foot monsters knocking buildings over less than a block away, it was all going as smoothly as possible, until..."

"Until...?"

"Then," he was careful of how to word his account, "blowing through the side of a building, two...creatures spill out into the street, kicking the hell out of each other."

"What did they look like?"

"Both massive, one was a kind of purple under the layer of blood and was wearing a canvas around his chest and back.  He was hurt bad, a walking bruise, breathing hard, struggling..."

"I saw the artist's interpretation."  The newspaper clipping was pinned to Ford's bulletin board.  "A gargoyle."

Officer Blair nodded.

"And the other?"

Blair took a breath, and shuddered at the memory.  The smell of blood was as vivid as his daughter's first birthday, and laughter that often woke him up in a cold sweat had been engraved in his skull.  "H-He looked similar, but...he didn't have any skin."

"No skin?!" Sykes gasped.

"Hello gentlemen."

All three men nearly leapt out of their skin, at the waiter who seemed to materialize from the darkness that was supposed to have had guaranteed their privacy.

"I see the rest of your party has arrived." he observed, a pad and pencil waiting in his hands.  "Are you all ready to order?"

The trio of diners promptly composed themselves and all grabbed for the menus in perfect sync.  "Oh yes, yes..."  Sykes opened his and skimmed the selection; he and the rest of the 23rd floor nearly knew it by heart.  "I'll have the linguini with white clam sauce."

"Scallops D'Angelo."

"And I'll have the eggplant parmigiana, with salad and Thousand Island."

A quick scrawl later, the waiter retrieved the menus and walked off towards the kitchen.

Satisfied they were alone, Ford picked up where they left off.  "Okay," he opened his arms, "did you just say no skin?  Because I swear you've never included that in the interviews.  At least the ones I've heard."

"I could see his muscles, all of them, underneath all these bony plates.  He was insane, maniacal, he was laughing the entire time.  They punched, kicked, threw cars at each other, the purple one set him on fire and still, he shrugged it off."

"They could talk." Ford reaffirmed, if only for his own assurance.

"They were as intelligent as we are, and obviously didn't like each other."

"Some kind of war maybe..." the young agent ruminated.  "Rival clans or something."

An odd sound leaked out from the corner of the booth.  Exasperation mixed with weariness mixed with hunger.  "Jesus," Sykes grunted, "we're getting off on a tangent here.  And a ludicrous one at that."

"But you want to know the funny thing?" the cop kept on, seemingly oblivious to Sykes and his comments and instead focusing on Ford, who seemed genuinely interested.  "While these two were beating the hell out of each other, a detective–real hot one too, long, black hair, coffee skin–ran in front and blocked our shot."

Ford leaned in closer, intrigued.  The other agent though was simply silent; dim-lit features a cold cast of detachment, his gaze still burned.

"She told us not to shoot, she said...that we'd take away our best chance of surviving.  Then she yelled at us to get the innocents out of there, and so we did.  And that was the last I saw of her."

"Someone else saw her?"

He answered, "There were reports that she appeared again 'bout a half hour later–"

"The same time the object was seen descending into the atmosphere." Ford whispered to his partner.

Sykes rolled his eyes.

"–then she screamed at the cops like she was the goddamned commissioner," Blair carried on, "and disappeared into the Hole."

"Disappeared?"

"She ran back in there, like she wasn't finished."

"A lot of cops and rescue workers were lost in the Hole," Sykes mentioned, "they weren't finished rescuing survivors as well, and it had nothing to do with gargoyles."

"I saw what I saw, and do you think I'd be risking my job, my pension and my family if I was lying?" he posed, and received nothing but a taciturn pause in response.  "You asked me here to hear what I had to say, I did and now I'm finished."  Sykes went to say something but a hand rose on the opposite side of the table.  "I've heard every jab, every joke, every piece of advice, so please, spare me."

Whatever thought was going to be voiced, was swallowed.  "All right."

Blair's mouth tightened, and he shook his head.  "You know," he said, grabbing his coat, "I'm suddenly not very hungry anymore."

"Wait, wait," Ford tried to stop him, "don't let my partner scare you off.  He's like that with everybody, even me."

"Sorry, agent Ford."  Blair zipped up his jacket, replaced his hat and walked away, ignoring Ford's protests that grew louder as he grew farther away.

Sykes watched him all the way to the doors.  "I guess he doesn't want lunch." he joked, as Ford moved to the other side of the booth and sulked.  "Well, that was interesting, and just a tad frightening.  His imagination is almost on par with yours."

"Thanks Abel," Ford pouted, "thanks a lot."

"I'm just trying to figure out–"

"Why I wanted to come here."

They eyed each other from opposite sides.  "Yes."

"To selfishly satisfy my own curiosity."

He kneaded his brow, knowing that his young partner caused several of the lines the tips of his fingers wandered over.  "Dom, your indulgences in these goddamned fantasies–"

"You know that mysterious dark haired detective he was talking about?" Ford interrupted, staring at something on the table.  "She matches the description exactly with an Elisa Maza, second class detective at the twenty third precinct, and married to Liath Maza, Xanatos' security director."

Abel went silent.  It could have been anybody, it could have been anybody, but it was too delicious a coincidence to readily throw out just yet.  Damnit, he was beginning to believe in the absurd like his over-enthused partner.  "Threads..."

"A vicious little circle, isn't it?"  He gestured towards the small container between them, precariously situated on the table's halfway point.  "You gonna have the last breadstick?"

Sykes reached out in a leisurely pace, grabbed the breadstick, deliberately waved it in front of his partner's eyes, and then ate it.

"That was just cruel."

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

She smoothed the material from his upper back towards the shoulders, and couldn't hold back the inevitable, possessive smirk as her fingers probed the moraine of muscle; even in his human form he was just as thickset, just as exquisitely massive.  She was glad the store had a selection in his size as, with her mother's resolution she never buy 'off the rack', waiting for a custom fit for her broad-shouldered beau would leave them stuck in tenth century accoutrements for the better part of the day.

Broadway was moving beneath the fabric as she fussed over the few wrinkles, he wasn't used to wearing clothing so she'd kept it as simple as possible.  Aquamarine turtleneck (the saleswoman had thought it looked good on him), black slacks and matching jacket, and she knew as she peered around his arm into the full-length mirror he was suited to the labor-intensive obsession that was human clothing.

Something like a growl leaked from around the being-shaped mountain, and Angela took notice.  It was low-key frustration.

Those shoulders were shifting to find the proper fit; the jacket was confining compared to loosely caped wings.  "This feels weird." came the subsequent remark.  "Even the second time."

"I have to agree.  I can barely smell a thing, my eyesight is blurry, my hearing is muffled and," she wriggled ten diminutive toes in her shoes, "I have to wear three and half inch heels to make up for these flat human feet."

"How long is this going to last anyways?"

"As long as we wish, if I understand the spell." she replied, stepping back to admire his entire profile in the small changing area, from Oakley sunglasses to L.L. Bean stitched leather boots.  "The computer will return us to our gargoyle forms with the proper commands.  I'm sure mother wouldn't 'curse' us by permanently transforming us to human."  She bounced her eyes from the mirrored surface to Broadway's.  "Which begs the question, why have you chosen to stay as human?"

"I don't often get the chance to walk around under the sun and in the middle of the city without people screaming in fear.  Besides, I thought we could..." he took a steadying breath, "take in some sights."

Her features grayed, folding in on themselves.  "I didn't think you wanted anything to do with me."

"I'm trying, Angela, I really am." he said contritely.  "Maybe...maybe we could go to the restaurant you went to with Demona the last time you were human."

"Le Ciel Azure.  But I'm sure you'd feel more at home at the restaurant you were 'dragged' to by Brooklyn and Lex."

Broadway smiled.  "Tavern on the Green."

"It was Hooters, actually." she corrected, picking off a loose thread.  "You had the steak, medium rare, and a healthy serving of human cleavage."

His reaction was mute, and near motionless.  He thought if he could only sidestep the suspicion he knew burned at the forefront of Angela's every thought.

"Still testing me, Broadway?"

Too late.  "I never–"

She turned, and without concern for the neighboring dressing rooms and anyone who could hear, exploded, "I AM ANGELA!!!"  If anyone had a doubt of her true species, it was the snarl that shook the mirror on its screws and seemed out of place from the delicate owner; it was animal, gargoyle.  "How long must I try to prove this to you?!"

Broadway glanced to the side over his shoulder, unable to fully look at her.  "You can't blame me for being...prudent."

"Clever choice of words."

"You have no idea how this feels." he said with a despondent sigh.  "Watching the woman you love die and then be replaced by someone who wears her face and speaks in her voice."

"Have you ever thought that I feel the same way?!"  She came around and pushed him against the wall, her hands nearly shredding the material of his shirt, her eyes depthless and desperate for him to understand.  "If you want to argue semantics, then you are not my Broadway, he's just a memory, destroyed along with his and my entire timeline.  But I treat you all the same, because you are the same.  You are the man that I fell in love with, that protected me and showed me the wonders of this world, and that allowed me a glimmer of himself no one else ever saw."  Her hands fell, as did her gaze.  She turned and grabbed the rest of the clothes from the slatted wood bench and draped them over her arm.  "But I suppose that doesn't matter anymore."

Every breath she took was labored, and finespun fingers twisted into the fabric of clothes that didn't make the cut.  Emotions were threatening release if not for such a public place.

"Angela..."

She choked out a laugh, looking upwards at the track lighting with liquid eyes.  "I've never once doubted this mating, or mistrusted my feelings."

Broadway grimaced, every word designed to maim.

"But there's...there's always been a little thought in the back of my head throughout our entire relationship, that...you may have..."

"Settled for you." he concluded, and the fact they kept finishing each other's sentences was a sure sign of compatibility lost on them at this particular moment.

"It was like I was convenient, something rare to be won over Brooklyn and Lexington, and your fear of never finding another gargoyle mate scared you into choosing me without truly loving me."

"No, no, no." Broadway protested vehemently, his voice lowering in tone as if she had gotten everything wrong.  "Angela, as soon as I saw her...you, you, as soon as I saw you I fell in love.  I wanted you, I wanted the woman I had come to befriend and respect and worship."

"Are you sure?" she asked.  "Ever since the Guild attack, this mating has been cold, and lonely.  And I can't continue like this if you still believe me to be some kind of counterfeit."

He allowed himself another look.  Even in a human disguise created by sorcery running through a microprocessor, where features had dulled and smoothed, she was radiant; if a copy, she was near perfect.  Sable hair an abyssal void, given substance only by the halo of light atop the crown, and ebony-brown eyes, he'd longed for something warm rather than clinging to the lifeless slab of flesh in the Eyrie morgue.

He reached out his hand, and Angela felt herself leaning into the embrace, seeking the clawless fingers with baited breath.

"How are we doing in here?"

Broadway snapped back as the folding change-room door was thrown open to reveal a young blond woman, and Angela released the breath she'd been holding, that close to actual intimate contact.

The saleswoman flashed a smile that gleamed off the lighting and, after seeing how the clothes fit Broadway with a stare that seemed a little awestruck, turned to the young executive.  "Is there anything more I can help you with?"

"No," Angela pulled her Nightstone charge card from an inner pocket and flashed it cavalierly, "I believe the expression is 'ring it up'."

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

The waitress served their orders, and with a smile to the two handsome men luckily seated at the booth in her section, sashayed off.

Looking over his ravioli, Black unfolded the cutlery from his linen napkin and met his eyes to his guest.  Todd was already into his own meal before the steam had dissipated; he'd survived on free meals most of his adult life and wasn't about to let this one, as strange as the circumstances were, escape.  "So what brings a young man such as yourself this close to the financial district?" he asked, doing his part to establish a conversation.  "Soaking in some of the Hole's most morbid sights as you drive past?"

"No," a thin thread of noodle was sucked into his mouth, "I was...looking for someone actually."

"For what, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Information." Todd answered evasively.

Black knew the tone in which the young man was veiling his emotions.  "Fair enough.  Sorry I pressed.  You seemed...out of place among the suits, and I was curious."

"Let's just chalk it up to family matters..."

"I understand."

Todd snorted in defense, "I really doubt it."

And Black returned it with a smile towards his feast.  It seemed all the older, more experienced men were doing that to him.  "Trust me, I've had my share."

"Is your mom getting wooed by Groundskeeper Willy?"

Black snapped his head up, and the auburn, candlelit milieu of rustic Italiano made a fire in his eyes.  "I beg your pardon?"

"Yeah, it's funny actually," Todd replied, oblivious to his companion's near-traumatized expression, "he's Scottish but sounds like James Bond."

"What did you say about your mother?"

Todd raised his eyes, surprised by this man's uncomfortably personal interest.  "That I hope she won't fall for him."

He remembered crawling through the wreckage searching for survivors, the heat, the pain, the blood obscuring his vision.  He had found Sarah before she died of exposure, but Todd...and Rose.  The forensic, newspaper and television reports had all told of their death, and in his grief he believed them.  If only he looked longer, damn the pain and his own scars from the accident, if only he'd looked a little longer.  "She's alive..."

The background hum of the restaurant disguised his benefactor's stunned comment.  "What?"

From searing heat and metal debris to the pleasant, classical-guitar-themed muzak, Black was thrown back into the present.  "Oh...nothing, it's nothing..." he waved it off.  "Your mother, she's...single I take it?"

Todd leaned back into the padded, vinyl bench.  "Oh Jesus, not you too...was this entire meal just so you could curry favor with the unsuspecting children of lonely, single mothers?  FYI, pal, she's a nun."

He nearly choked on his food.  "Your mother's a nun?" he coughed out, and was forced to take a drink to clear the obstruction having gone down the wrong pipe.  Every new shred of information he was able to squeeze out of his son was beginning to feel like a game of Russian roulette played with a howitzer.

"Fuck," Todd sighed, digging into his own meal, "why is everyone so surprised when they hear that?  Yes, she's a nun."

Reeling from the revelations, Black was surprised he was still able to form coherent sentences.  "You...you sound like you've got an tenuous relationship at best."

"You might say that.  She did something that...I don't know if I can ever forgive her for."

"Did she have a good reason?"

An attack and ensuing accident, the constant threat of death, her own fears, Todd mulled over his mother's motives in the fragrance of pasta and Parmesan.  "I suppose so."

"Take it from me, Mr. Hawkins," Black said earnestly, "every parent that gives a damn will go to any length to protect their children, even if it may end up hurting them."

"You have kids?" Todd asked.

"I used to have a son," he answered, those stormcloud eyes washing over both the boy and the man in front of him, "he was a lot like you.  But I lost him a long time ago."  He took another bite, chewed, swallowed, and then resumed.  "If I had the chance to spend just an hour with him, I would.  I'd sacrifice everything, everything, to see him again."

"Yeah but..."

"Listen.  Whatever your mother did, it isn't worth torturing her over it.  Life is too short to cut yourself off from family."

Todd was incensed, and fired back in justification without thinking of the consequence, "She left me at an orphanage and took off, then when she comes back, she lies to me about her real identity.  She may have saved my life in doing so, but she also robbed me of it."

Black slowly bobbed his head up and down, and as he was able to piece those shreds together into a moderately feasible timeline, the rhythm increased in speed.

Abel.  It would've been Abel who had her leave, whether she agreed with him or not.  He was always more machine than man, he could think clearly without his emotions interfering.  Rose would never have left her son if his life weren't in danger.

The clatter of utensil hitting the dinnerware ripped him from his reverie.

On his last bite, Todd had thrown down in fork in frustration.  "Jesus," he muttered, running a hand down his goatee, a congenital gesture that he'd unknowingly inherited, "why the fuck am I telling you this?  Some stranger off the frigging street who just happens to have good taste in cars and restaurants.  It's no one's business but my own."

Black shrugged.  "It's always good to have a sounding board.  I don't mind."

"Well, these days it's hard to know just who to trust anymore." Todd grumbled, passing along a doubtful glint.  He readied to leave, grabbing his jacket from the corner of his seat and throwing it on around him.  "Thanks for the meal, but I'd better go."

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

Sykes sighed, "Even if it was Maza, she's a detective, simply responding to the attacks."

Ford, still working on what remained of his parmigiana, still kept his eyes trained on the man across the table.  Beside him, the third and apparently unwanted meal was packaged up in a white cardboard box.  "According to that cop," he replied, "Maza, and it was Maza I'll bet you, was a little more than cozy with this gargoyle than most humans–hell than any humans should have been.  She defended him, argued his presence as a protector."

The fact Sykes was arguing something he didn't either believe in or believe actually took place didn't seem to impact his fervor to dispute the point with his partner.  "Because she saw him defending the humans around them.  That simple."

"I thought you didn't believe in gargoyles." the younger agent caught him.

"I don't.  At least, not until I shake one's hand."

Ford grabbed the glass in front of him and took a healthy swig of his Sam Adams.  "Regardless," he said upon swallowing, "Maza is still connected with Xanatos.  Everything leads back to Xanatos.  Hell, maybe he engineered those monsters as a distraction for the murders he committed."

That was stretching it.  "He put a crater in his own city and killed over two thousand people as a distraction?" Sykes posed, reducing a complicated plot down to its barest minimum.  "Were those one hundred and three people that important?  Most of them were residents here.  The only link between them all was the fact they had some kind of military, weapons or martial arts training."

"Then an army." Ford supposed.  "Maybe they attacked the Eyrie, off-loaded by those troop carriers."

"And you're implying the one hundred and three were the unlucky ones that didn't make it home.  And our mysterious caller was simply a sore loser who tried another way to topple his competition?"

"You've seen his weaponry, those machines in his hangar bay, they were more than enough to repel an invasion.  Espionage is commonplace between large corporations, and what's bigger than Xanatos Enterprises?  It'd take a private army to try and knock that guy off."

Fingers tapped the laminate tabletop, as Sykes put some serious thought into another farfetched theory.  "Well, hoping you won't jump out of your seat in excitement, I have to admit I agree with you, that all of this feels as if it's connected somehow."

Somewhat vindicated, Ford wiped the sauce from his lips with a thumb.  "So what do we do about it?"

"Find something we can actually prove and connect to Xanatos."

"More digging?"

"More digging."

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

Todd stood at the doors watching as his companion paid the bill at the front counter.

For some apparent reason, he'd decided not to just leave; childhood lectures of impoliteness had somehow worked their way from the attic of his mind, and spoke, much to his chagrin, in Rose's inflexible voice.  At least, he owed the man an appreciation for the meal no matter how bizarre the circumstance.

Black pocketed his change, smiled at the hostess and went to leave.  On moving towards the doors and his son, he collided with something, someone, who'd come up behind him intending to pay.  "Pardon me." he said, turning on the figure.

Sykes went to apologize before realizing just who stood before him.  "My...fault..."

Those eyes, the goatee; his hair was longer and had grayed considerably, but it was still him.  Old partners and friends had come face to face.

"Jesus..." Sykes whispered in startled horror.  "Joseph??"