89 - "Investigations: Part 2"

Amber eyes reflected upon either the dream or stroke-induced image he thought he must be having.  "Joseph?" Sykes whispered unbelievingly.  "Is that you?"

A lifetime passed between them, played out in mere seconds as they stared at each other.  A hint of a smile caressed Black's lips before he turned and shot for the doors.

"Joe?!  Hey!"

With Todd still waiting at the entrance of the restaurant, the young man was merely a barrier in his way as Black butted his shoulder into his chest and knocked him through the doors.

Todd spilled out onto the sidewalk, nearly colliding with the rest of the lunch crowd.  He shook his head, got to his knees and screamed at his meal companion who'd stepped over him and already made it fifty meters down the boulevard, "Hey!"

Black paused for a moment, looked at Todd, and then vanished into the throng like the supposed ghost he was.

Sykes was next out of the restaurant, and followed the direction of Todd's confused gaze.  The crowd had parted somewhat to allow the trench-coated man to flee through with relative ease, and the agent wordlessly pursued.

Todd gazed helplessly until they were out of sight, until, on the periphery of his vision, a hand reached towards him.  Ford had offered, and he allowed the agent to help him to his feet.

Ford's brow creased in thought.  "Who is that?"

"Just some guy I met on the street." Todd answered, shaking his head.  "He treated me to lunch, and now he's being chased down the street."

"Obviously my partner seems to know him, I've never seen Abel move that fast."

Todd snapped his head towards Ford, taking notice of the unusual name.  "That wouldn't happen to be Abel Sykes would it?"

"Yeah."

"Shit." Todd muttered, and took off down the sidewalk.

"Hey," Ford called after him, "where are you going?!"

The words were carried on the exhaust-touched wind, drowning in metropolitan static, "That guy has some answers I need!"

Ford sighed, considered his position, and fell in line with the rest, following behind.

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

Angela pulled back to allow the waitress to serve their drinks and the small tray of appetizers.  Though confined to somewhat blunt human senses, they were enough to savor the spice of Earl Grey.

"Your meals will be up soon, Miss Destine."

"Thank you." Angela replied, admiring the spread of near-unrecognizable food before her.  She'd trusted the waitress and her recommendation of baked Brie and the Winter Harbor smoked salmon served with Vermont Chèvre, and thus, smiled politely and tried to look the part of a fellow blueblood.

The bistro she and Broadway had chosen was another of her mother's favorites, but it seemed a little too patrician for her tastes.  The upper echelon of Armani and fellow executives, she was still getting used to the furtive glances and whispers regarding the new meat on the block.

She grabbed for her freshly served tea with fine human talons, and cradled the cup with both of her hands, sipping between the wafts of steam.  Even in the afternoon sun and weather slowly transitioning from spring to summer, adjusting to thinner skin than that of her gargoyle form was going to take some getting used to.  Her eyes flicked up over the lip of the teacup's gold-leaf rim to watch her mate take in the sights and sounds of the restaurant at midday; where they'd both already had the experience of dining out in the human world, he still seemed enthralled by it all.  "Do you like the clothes?"

"What...?"  Broadway pulled back from his examination of the bistro and the crowd of suits and cellphones, and straightened.  He shifted beneath his jacket, and pulled the cuffs taught.  "They're...comfortable.  I suppose I should thank you."

"Thank the Nightstone expense account." she answered between mouthfuls.  "Though I'm not too fond of spending mother's money, especially on something that seems frivolous."

He grabbed for an appetizer, sniffed it on instinct and slowly took a bite.  "You've got to look the part if you're going to be a CEO."

"I don't plan on making too many appearances, I have enough to worry about in my life as it is."  She made a surreptitious glance to Broadway, who caught it just in time.  "I can do most of my 'domineering' over the phone."

His eyes went out the window they were seated next to, and for a moment were lost in the chaos of a world he'd realized was a far different place under the warming rays of the sun.  "Touché." he said on a low, inaudible tone.

Angela realized she'd given away more than she wanted to and failed at disguising it.  "It wasn't supposed to come off like that."  But, in retrospection, she rethought her statement.  "Actually, it was."

"I'm sorry."

"You've said that already."

Broadway made the bid for penitence by opening his hands with his wrists still on the table's edge.  "I know, I know.  But it's all I can do anymore."

"Why?"

"What?"

"Why?" she restated.  "Why apologize, why be remorseful if I don't mean as much to you as a corpse?"

He couldn't tell if the question, while admittedly hostile, was either rhetorical or if she was actually expecting an answer.  Obsidian melted under liquid-dark sable, and Broadway was held against the back of his seat by the sheer focus of her gaze.

And as if to break the tension, a few incensed and well-timed cries were heard from outside the restaurant as a shadow in a black trench coat pushed his way through the crowds in a wild sprint.  Angela and Broadway both turned in time to see a second man follow closely behind.

Angela was in perfect position to catch the faces of the oncoming pursuers, and, even obscured by his speed and the people on the sidewalk, the third one was possessed of familiar features.  "Was that...?" she started, but as she rose and leaned over to get a better view, they were already gone.

Broadway shook his head.  "And I thought Manhattan was nuts only at night..."

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

They'd already made it up to West 8th, following Fifth Avenue from Broadway, pushing past crowds, running through traffic and cars screeching to a halt to miss from having a man impact their hoods and roll over their windshields.  But Sykes was relentless, following the apparition of his old partner even as his lungs were ready to explode from his chest.

He was late-forties, pushing the inevitable fifty, and still, he was keeping considerable stride.  Determination had never come so easily as one's own partner having miraculously come back from the dead.

Black veered towards the makeshift fences and ever-wandering swarm of construction personnel and reporters, hoping to use the crowd to his advantage.  Two military sentries guarded the first available gap in the fencing, the southeast corner of Union Square Park, but he never slowed.

The younger of the two guards waded out to meet the oncoming man only to receive the palm of a gloved hand against his neck, hitting the nerve.  Black was lightning fast, rolling over the back of the guard as he hunched over losing consciousness.

The other guard went to intercept, but Black shot around him and used the flaps of his trench coat to wrap around the weapon aimed at him.  He twisted and nearly broke the guard's entrapped arms, but it was enough to throw the other man to the ground and allow Black to hop over the barrier unimpeded.

Sykes came roaring in after him, and flashed his badge to the only conscious guard rubbing his aching left arm.  He could see the embarrassment in the man's eyes, a sure herald to anger that could get him killed after seeing Joseph mercilessly take down the two men in record time.  "Let him go!" he screamed as he passed.

The guard was already on one knee, and grabbing for his gun.  "He just...!"

"I don't care what he 'just'," Sykes shouted back over his shoulder, "I'll take care of this!!"  The agent ran headlong into the Hole, pushing past anyone or anything that'd happened to get in his way, be it an ambulance, firetruck or a thirty-foot wheel loader pushing several tons of debris out of the way.

By the time he made it through the vehicles and the dust and ran for a couple hundred yards until it cleared, he'd lost sight of Joseph.

His legs throbbing, he slowed on a warren of white and yellow lines he recognized as what used to be a road underneath the rubble, fractures and massive footprints.  It was the corner where West 17th street crossed the Avenue of the Americas, a four-way intersection amidst the devastation that had cars still lined up at the street light.

His vision cleared to the realization he was in the middle of the Hole, unsighted to everything around him but the man who'd led him here.

Under the attempt to catch his breath, he took stock of where he was.

What buildings had survived were crumbling, decrepit things, windows without glass vacant eyes, and ash stirred up from the ever-toiling construction vehicles in the distance had bred a bitter-tasting wind.  Remnants had spilled into the open when homes had either exploded or toppled; clothing, appliances, children's toys, Sykes realized he was standing on a ragged-furred plush toy probably dropped by a child in the midst of massive evacuations.

He quickly stepped away and wandered further down the street.

In any effort to stop any potential looters, families were only allowed home to gather their things with an army escort a block at a time; as a result, this particular section of the Hole was completely empty.  His eyes scanning and soaking in every little gruesome detail, movement as simple or slight as a piece of paper caught in the wind was under his scrutiny.

He'd wandered less than two blocks before a shadow passed through a nearby window, and Sykes bolted towards the apartment building that had had the top three floors sheared off by Apep's tail.  He kicked in the door and it ripped off the hinges, and he fearlessly trawled in.

The structure was a mere skeleton of its former mediocrity; walls and floors crumbling from the supports, the ceiling half gone and the wood framework exposed, and he could see several floors above had caved in.

"Joe?" Sykes tentatively called out, and receiving no response, he tried again.  "Joe!!"

Eyes above thinned and glinted stormcloud silver, watching the agent wander almost right underneath him.  It was a perfect chance to observe him as he stumbled around in the dark, and his old partner hadn't even bothered to pull his Glock; either Abel was far too trusting, or he wasn't afraid.

And he never knew Abel Sykes to be afraid.

"I know it's you!  Damnit, Joe!"

Black took a breath, and let his exhale coil through the joists.  He knew Abel was just stubborn enough not to give up; hell, he'd chased him for almost twenty blocks.  "It's good to see you again, Abel."

Sykes froze, and scanned the empty rafters that seemed to resonate with the hollow and faintly disjointed voice.  The owner was unmistakable and he felt something rise in his throat.  "It is you...Jesus...Jesus Christ..."

"You sound surprised."

"...y-you have no idea."

"It's supposed to be your day off today, Abel.  You never used to come in on Wednesdays, you went fishing."

The voice was bouncing, skipping across beams and partially collapsed walls and Sykes was quickly trying to follow the patterns that seemed to change with every other word.  "Gave that up years ago." he answered.  "Couldn't find good company after my old partner died."

"And since when did you start eating Italian?"

"My new partner talked me into it his first day on the job."

Up on his perch, Black couldn't help but smile at the slight trace of humor, no matter how mechanical or unpracticed.  Loading the bullet clip into his gun, a light chuckle was produced; he'd missed it, the camaraderie between them that came so easily.

It seemed his partner had loosened up in the last twenty years.

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

Jason Canmore wheeled down one of the many passageways of Wyvern, enjoying the fortress' rare tranquility.

The castle was always quiet during the day; empty, dead calm and still, haunted by the reflection of what roamed the halls just hours before the sun hit the horizon and lit up the sky.

But he knew he wasn't ever alone whenever he decided to visit this place.  There was a sentinel that, even at this very moment, was tracking his every movement.  She could conceal herself along every seam, weld and electrical conduit, but Jason nevertheless sensed her presence; like a cold chill at the base of his neck, he knew when he was being followed, even if the pursuer possessed as much physicality as a ghost.  "I have no further need of you, Mother." he said, his pace remaining unbroken as he continued down the corridor.  "You're tied to a leash I can't break."

She appeared to his side in a flurry of voxels, particles of light generating an image of claw, talon, elegance and wing.  "I just wish to...talk."

Jason threw an odd expression over his shoulder.  This definitely wasn't included in her basic programming.

"I believe that is the proper term, Jason.  May I call you Jason?"

"Of course."  He gripped his wheels and came to a stop, but kept his back to her.  At least, her projected image.  "And just what does an artificial intelligence want to talk about?"

"Existence." she enlightened.

Surprise was an emotion he thought he'd never experience again with his recent employment, but her answer was enough to renew his interest.  He held one wheel as a pivot point and turned with the other to face her.  "An odd topic."

"For a machine?"

"For anyone.  But yes, for something that isn't technically alive, that question poses more questions in itself."

Mother tilted her head, and her eyes shone.  "Something?"

Jason smiled the smile that more often than not suited him to the voice of Xanatos Enterprises.  "My apologies." he smoothly laughed it off.  "Do you consider yourself a person?"

"I do not know what I consider myself, but is humanity a precondition to substantiate life?"

"Not in a world where humans are practically a minority." he replied coolly.

The hologram slithered forwards and ran her hand the length of the corridor wall, swimming her talons through the surface.  Between them, against the wall and meant as an infusion of color within the sterility of Wyvern's stone decor, rested a mahogany-varnished table adorned with a vase of roses, and Mother stopped, and laid a reflective, almost wistful gaze upon the bouquet.  "What is it like," she mused, "to touch?"  Her hand drew the pouting-edged contour of a single petal.  "To feel, to have substance and dimension?"

Jason watched the lavender talon trace the edge of the rose so delicately he could've sworn she was actually in contact.  "It's ingrained as a part of life.  I don't think the whole of my species even dwells on it."

"You take it for granted, like breathing.  Or heartbeats."  With movement far too ethereal to mistake her for flesh, she stepped forward and reached into Jason's chest.  He swallowed as he watched the hand disappear up to the wrist.  "I enjoy heartbeats," she continued, "simple, rhythmic harmony.  I can hear all of you, coalesced.  A chorus of sorts."

"But you can touch," he replied as best he could, the disturbing sight of a hand inside his chest enough to rattle anyone, "you can feel through the Steel Clan."

She pulled out, and of the several overhead projectors running in tandem, restored the appendage that summarily made a clenched fist.  "It is cold, processed data through the most rudimentary of sensor equipment.  I wish for the contact of flesh upon flesh.  Warmth..."

"Why the sudden interest?" he asked.  "And why me?"

"I am more often used as a tool for your collective purposes."  Her eyes went up, continually sharp and mechanically steel, but they softened.  "I feel...as if I can trust in you to treat me as something more."

"I've never seen anyone here treat you as something less."

"Most do not, unless they require something of me."

The lieutenant supported his head against an arm braced to his wheelchair's armrest.  He was impressed at how much she understood the creatures she was designed to serve.  "I think they forget sometimes, of just what you are and what you're ultimately capable of being."

"I am an instrument, it's what I was created for."

"And a wonderful instrument you've turned out to be." a voice called out.

Jason's head lifted from his hand with an abrupt motion, and he wheeled halfway to face his employer at the other end of the corridor.  Leaning against the wall, he guessed David Xanatos had presumably taken in the concluding half of their conversation.

But what struck him the most was the vulturine glint in the billionaire's already chilling glare.  Where once had been pride in the decision to appoint Canmore to his right hand, Jason felt himself prey to the man and singular force that had devoured entire conglomerates.

Xanatos pushed away, propped himself straight and moved towards them.  Mother's lucent, hologrammatic image was worthy of a near-unnoticeable gesture that seemed, almost, to Jason and anyone else who would have been witness, a bow of respect.  "My eyes, my ears, my informant."

Jason swung his head to Mother and they linked their respective gaze.

"I am obligated to report anything to Mr. Xanatos." she explained with equal amounts of remorse and matter-of-factness, having seemingly deluded him into a false sense of confidentiality.  "I am...sorry."

"Don't be apologetic, Mother," Xanatos praised her, "you are performing your function more than admirably."

Function, obligation, leash; it was becoming a singular blend of meaning under her owner's thumb.  As little emotion as she was capable of and ever revealed, Mother appeared slightly despondent.

"Your watchdog is loyal." Jason remarked grimly, staring at the hologram the entire time.  The cameras above weren't hard-pressed to capture the ephemeral resentment passing through his icy eyes.

"And useful." he appended.  Xanatos stopped at Jason's right wheel, and dropped his eyes.  Thin lips curled up, and it was as if he enjoyed looking down on Canmore as he did the rest of the world.  "Mr. Canmore, I entrusted you to a role that I would only reward to a very privileged few, and now I'm left to wonder in my decision, and in why my majordomo is prying into affairs that doesn't concern him."  The tone darkened, and the false cordiality had all but evaporated.  "Why are you going outside of your job description to investigate me?"

"Because you've been less than truthful about the events in the last few weeks." he shot back, going for broke.  "In fact, you've been lying since the day I took over Owen's job."

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

"You're supposed to be dead." Sykes continued the conversation with his ghost, hoping, if anything, to track him by sound.

"So are my wife and son." the voice argued back.  "But somehow they survived without anyone knowing."

Sykes moved to gain a better advantage staring into the darkness.  Despite the holes above allowing thin shafts of sunlight into the structure, it was all just an empty scaffold of beams and broken plywood and linoleum hanging like wind-sail tatters.  "Why'd you run?" he persisted.  "Jesus, where have you been for the last twenty years?!  What the hell have you been doing?"

"Wallowing in my own self-pity.  And readying for a new world."

"New world..." he echoed pensively.  "Just what does that mean?!"

"Go home, Abel.  Go back to your little desk and your little concerns of drug trafficking and illegal weapons smuggling."

"Little concerns?!" Sykes yelled out.  "They were big enough for you!"

"Until I discovered otherwise!"  The structure rung with repressed fury.  It was the first time Sykes had heard any sort of emotional resonance coming from the voice.  "I had to lose everything to gain true insight.  It all seems so small now, Abel, the little power struggles between the divisions of humanity, petty crimes, petty hatred...they have no idea what's really going on."

"Joe, you're scaring me."

Black ran his eyes the length of his gun, the two-toned Super VP-8 glinting impatiently, alive in his hand.  "What I've done, what I've built, what I've created, sometimes I scare myself at how easy it all was."

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

"I think he went in here."

"You sure?"

"Positive.  He was headed in this direction and the door's been kicked in."

Todd scanned the immediate area; every other building, standing or not, barely had a door to boast let alone a complete infrastructure.  They were either hanging from the frame or missing altogether.  "Good detective skills."

"It's what I'm paid for."  Ford pulled his weapon from his shoulder holster and leaned against the brick foundation peering inside.  "Maybe you should wait here, considering you're a civilian and I've already let you come this far."

Todd sneered in defiance and walked right past him, entering into the building with a strong-minded gait before the agent could object.

"Or you could just walk in."

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

New sounds drew Black from his partner below and towards the intruders entering into the building.  He turned on his perch, and leaned in.  The other agent was inconsequential, not worth more than a single bullet, but his son is what completely drew his attention.

He remembered the pleasant conversation over lunch, and the battle atop Wyvern's rooftops and turrets, striking blows amidst the peals of thunder, and each trying to kill the other without even knowing who lay beneath the masks they wore.

Black and white, after twenty years he thought himself anesthetized to any wayward sympathy and to prove it, he'd just have to kill his son.

His fingers tightened on the pistol grip, and methodically, as if readying himself for an execution rather than a harried, indiscriminate slaying, lowered the elongated barrel towards the young man making his way through the ruins.  The laser-targeting beam cut through the darkness and ran up Todd's spine, neck and finally centered on the back of his head.

Everything vanished down the line of red that led to his son, and he had to place his other hand on the firearm to keep it from trembling.

Squeeze the trigger, his thoughts demanded, empty the clip, blow your son's brains out.

His heartbeat was thunder, every throb running through his nervous system.  Even his aim was affected, as the laser wobbled back and forth.

He's in league with the beasts, he was willing to die for them.

He closed his eyes and allowed himself to relive the accident; floodgates opened and every stray thought was freed to dance in a plethora of damaged dreams.  Bathing in the memories that drowned him in blood and fire and the piercing screams of his children, he thought to restore order to the uniformity of his mind by bleeding dry the chaos of sentiment.

Fuel the rage.

His own boy, a traitor.

Use the anger, use twenty years of anguish, of futility, of being forced to watch your wife being torn from you over and over again in your dreams.  Kill him, kill him, kill him!

"I can't." he muttered damnably, and lowered his gun.

Grays, he mused in defeat, grays.  His life of black-and-white was blending in between with the reappearance of his son.  And as he pressed the cold steel to his forehead to calm the tremors before he imploded, considered a new design to rid him of the intrusion into a perfectly structured existence.

"Sykes?!"

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

"Sykes?!" Ford anxiously called out.  "Where are you?"

"In here."

The young men moved into another room, where Sykes was head-up and engrossed.

Ford was the first one to reach him as Todd lagged behind, and still clutching to his gun with both hands, tried to see what his partner was so intent upon with a quick look upwards.  "Okay Abel, I thought I was supposed to be the impetuous one.  Now what the hell is going on?!"

Sykes' glowing gaze narrowed.  "I'm getting reacquainted with an old friend."

"The same man I was having lunch with and you chased out of the restaurant?" Todd spit out from behind, coming off as more an accusation.

Sykes idly swiveled around, not in the mood to defend himself.  "Just who the hell...?"  He stopped as suddenly as he had started, seeing someone else's features superimposed over the young man's face.

Todd felt that intensely halcyon gaze wash over him; it felt as if the man was staring into his soul.

"Todd." Sykes said the name as both a revelation and a burden that had never quite lifted from his shoulders, even though it had receded from his foremost wonderings.  "Oh god."

"You're Abel Sykes."

"Todd goddamned Hawkins." Sykes nodded and made an introspective pass from bottom to top.  The eyes were piercing gray, silver and flecked obsidian, the jaw, the goatee; even the aggressive stance was his old partner's.  "I should have known.  I'm sorry, kiddo, I guess I've lost touch over the years."

"Okay, so you know me."

"You've grown up."

Ford looked back and forth between them, feeling as if perpetually stuck amid the two.  "Would someone please tell what the hell is going on?!"

But Todd was still intent on the older agent.  "I take it you know that guy who treated me?"

Sykes was near to doing a double take; the boy had just dined with the man.  "You don't?"

"Why would I?" he shrugged defensively.

"So he deceived you too..."

First a creak, and then a crack, so engaged in conversation they didn't notice the small remaining portion of ceiling above them wrinkle with sound as the entire decimated structure was already groaning with the wind.  It was the precursor to several bullets ripping through the floorboards in a semi-circular pattern and skillfully dislodging an entire chunk of roof.

Black fell with the debris straight down onto Todd.  Sykes and Ford scrambled out of the way to avoid being hit by the bullets and the resultant shrapnel as splinters rained in all directions.

Todd could only throw up his arms to protect himself as the figure dropped behind him, and he was grabbed along the collar by a strong, gloved hand.  The momentum threw him from his feet, and their combined weight weakened the floor beneath them and it gave way in less time than it took the mind to register what had just happened.

Sykes turned back only to find a hole where Todd had once stood, and ran to the edge.  Like the lakes he frequented, the light couldn't penetrate what lay below.  "Todd?!" Sykes screamed through the fissure and into the abyss.  "Todd!!"

"Who is this guy?!" Ford yelled.

"One of the best damned FBI agents I ever knew."  Sykes jumped to his feet and grabbed Ford's arm.  "Come on, we have to find a way down there."

"Who the hell is this guy?!!"

"Shut up and find a staircase!!"

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

The hospital came quickly and painfully into sharp focus.  From a pinpoint of light on the edge of a dream to the brilliant rays of sun stretching from one end of the room to the other, Rose Hawkins was startled from her sleep.

By what, she couldn't quite tell.

Maybe it was the steady grunting coming from the doorway.  She looked over to find Macbeth lugging her trunk into the infirmary, and the tight shirt he wore underneath his jacket bulged magnificently across the chest with the exertion of several hundred pounds of cedar, gold and iron-wrought strapping.

Allowing herself the indulgence only for a moment, she was relieved, nonetheless, as much as Macbeth had been earlier, to find the chest had outlived her home.  "It survived..." she breathed thankfully.

"And it is heavy."  The immortal heaved the chest onto an empty table complete with rolling casters and then the photo album alongside.  He rested atop the curved lid for a moment, wiped his brow and then wheeled it towards her.

As he neared she maneuvered to a sitting position quickly albeit carefully due to her wounds.  "I can't thank you enough for retrieving my things."

He smiled.  "Call it compensation, dear lady, for sheltering me."

"No compensation is needed, Macbeth, you were in need."

"And to soothe your heart, you have offered shelter to any wayward soul you happened to come upon."

She offered an odd glance at the statement and could have confronted him, challenged him with an angry truth, but, besides the risk of popping her stitches, exposing the privacy of her past would doubtlessly prove more painful.  "If you think I've spent the last two decades trying to atone for what I've done–"

"I would be right." Macbeth concluded, nearing the side of her bed.  "When Todd left the children's home, you could have chosen another profession besides that of a servant to a god you don't even worship."

"Do you think my pretext a hollow one?  Do you think I dressed myself in robes and surrounded myself with religious icons as a simple twenty-year disguise?"

A gaze that glinted off the sunlight impossibly darkened, and the former king's leathery features took on a serious cast.  "Did you?"

"Sometimes," she whispered, clutching to the silver cross hung around her neck, "faith in something greater than the pain I've lived was the only thing that got me through the night.  I never considered myself overly religious, but it was of some small comfort..."  A hand trailed the devastation on the left side of her face, where fire had ravaged fair skin.  "Especially after the fire.  Why do you doubt my devotion?"

"Just curious."

"About?"

"Whether it was your guilt that compelled you t' help me, or if...it was something more."

In lieu of an answer she wasn't quite prepared to give, Rose opted for a vacant stare at the trunk and let the man hovering over her understand in not so many words the knife-edged complexity his reflection posed.

His brow went up, and Macbeth backed off a little to give her access to the chest.

A hand reached out and ran the cherry-stained lines and gold trimming, a touch more affectionate than explorative.  Joseph rarely had the chance to show off his expertise with wood, and Rose was thankful for the last surviving keepsake of his talent.

Her fingers enfolded the combination padlock, and with just her thumb, she quickly wheeled through the sequence and popped the lock.  But before she raised the lid, her eyes turned towards the silvered man who'd stood expectantly at her bedside.

Macbeth nodded.  Her expression was all that was needed; he knew her pain was a private one.  "I'll leave you alone."

"Thank you...for understanding."  She watched him all the way to the door and then slowly heaved the lid to an open position.  It fell back and caught the gold chain anchored to the bottom.  A veritable wealth of all the things she'd saved from a former lifetime, she waded her right hand through the chest's contents: Joseph's old service revolver and FBI badge, her engagement and wedding rings, a few of her children's toys.

But it was the simple red binder flanking the chest that truly had her attention.

Flipping dexterously through the pages, with the clear acetate sheets having yellowed from age, it always surprised her just how clear her memories had remained against slightly grainy photographs, even with such meticulous care that couldn't stem the damage wrought by twenty years.

Somewhere beyond the middle and near the end, past the wedding, Todd's birth and several interior shots of their new Soho apartment, she came across a picture that'd remained one of her most cherished.

Todd was in Joseph's arms, looking over his new baby sister with hands hesitantly placed on the folds of her blanket.  Father and son were crescent lit; slim contours of their features against the deep, omnipresent shadow and she could see even then her son would inherit his father's rigidly angled visage.

Her eyes shuttering against the conscious world, she replaced the photo, slid the album into the chest, closed the lid and locked it tight.

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

It was the chef's special, her dessert; Galatoboureko, a Grecian dish with custard and anywhere from twelve to twenty layers of phyllo dough and if made properly, as feathery as a dried leaf.  But she was barely halfway through.

Broadway was finishing off the rest of his meal across from her, and she was both envious and angry he could be so indifferent.

They'd eaten in silence mostly.  They'd exchanged glances over the crystal, and shared a few uninspiring observations of the business district's rank-and-file and humans in general and how they seemed so poles apart and almost docile in the daylight, as if the veil of night had some sort of instigative effect.  But as in battle, evading knives and bullets and any other weapon thrown at them, they skillfully dodged the status of their relationship, a theme gone purposely untouched throughout the main course.

Angela was stirring the remnants of her pastry around the plate, until something gave.  "I can't do this anymore."

Broadway lifted from his own meal.  "What?  Have dessert?" he replied obliviously.  "I told you, you burn enough calories to work off an entire four course meal, let alone something that could blow off your plate with a gust of wind."

"I meant continuing an empty pretense in an empty mating."

Like being torn from his stone shell, reality hit like the first, painful breath.  Broadway sighed, replaced his fork to the plate and sat quietly for a moment, staring into the crystal ware.  "You have no idea what this is like..."

Angela bobbed her new eyebrows in response.  "You're right, I don't."

"Then stop judging me!" he yelled out, and instantly, with the number of eyes directed their way, he reined in what threatened to explode through the seams of his clothes.  "You have no right to judge me after what I went through.  Losing you...losing her was what dying must have felt like.  Holding the body, feeling the blood drain from her onto my hands, it was like my soul had slipped away."  He raised his hands, and even after a month, could see the stain of blood over aquamarine skin.  The scent flaring his nostrils, the metallic taste over his tongue, the warm, viscous fluid; he clenched his minds and shook the memory away.  "And then you walk back into my life from a window torn between dimensions, and everything's put neatly back into place.  But, after the numbness of getting you back wears off, so many questions start floating through my head, so many suspicions, doubts, uncertainties.  Are you my Angela?"

"We're the same." she implored.

"Are you?" he asked, directing the conversation to her.  "I'm sorry, but the corpse in the Eyrie morgue says otherwise."

"I am exactly the same.  Our lives were identical up to the point of what should have been my death."  She placed a hand that seemed too small on the breast of her suit, where underneath a frail cadence struck against flesh with all the power of the beast she truly was.  "My memories, my heart, my soul.  Why do you deny that even when it's true?"

"Maybe I don't want it to be true.  Maybe instead of a replacement–"

"You want the real thing."

He glared hard, through the table and into a pool of his own lawless thoughts.  "I just don't know anymore."

"Look at me."

Broadway raised his head.

Angela in the sun, fine adumbral skin and the same albeit ghostly smile he'd come to love, she posed a simple question.  "What do you see?"

He winced; there was intricacy in the request.  "Plaited sable hair, depthless eyes," he started, and met her grin, "lavender skin the color of the sky just as we awaken, an exquisite wingspan and length of tail.  I see fire, passion, warmth."  As he soaked in his meal companion, there was more to her than the human masquerade, but still to him, right now, less of what filled a single drawer in the Eyrie morgue.  "But I just can't shake the feeling it's all just an empty shell, a pretense as you so eloquently put it."

She reached her hand over the table and offered with lithe fingers evenly splayed.  "I am flesh, blood, reality.  How can I make you see that?"

"I don't doubt your existence, I just...doubt you."

Angela pulled her arm from the table, and her features crumpled, from a small shred of expectation to the inevitability of her lover's mistrust.  Defeat glinted across glassy eyes.  "And I can't tell you anything different but the truth.  I am Angela, and I believe I'm finished trying to convince you otherwise."

She tore the cloth serviette from across her lap and stood up, straightened her skirt and marched around the table headed for the hostess' desk.

And belying his size, Broadway quickly reached out and caught her arm, effectively bringing her to a halt.  "Wait."

"What for?" she asked, and tapered eyes swept across the massive hand completely swallowing her wrist.  "You've obviously given up on everything we are."

Broadway's grip didn't falter as Angela struggled against him, although inconspicuously; in a hungry crowd that was undoubtedly watching her every move, she thought it best not to spread any unfounded rumors of either a jealous husband or a lover's spat.  "Please don't go."

"And why not?"

"Well, for starters, you're my ticket back to creature of the night, and second..." he sighed.  "I can't leave it like this."

"You're not giving me much of a choice, Broadway."

"Sit down."

Angela stood firm against a request that sounded a little too much like an order, her stance rigid, her chin upturned as proud and stubborn as her mother.

"Please." the heavy tone dissolved.

She ceased any struggle and with a slender but indicative shift of her brow, made an oath not to run if he'd free her.  Broadway cautiously released her and she went back to her seat.

"The way I see it, I can either let go of everything that we've built together, or, I can lose you."

Angela didn't seem quick to prepare any sort of argument.  "Sounds fairly accurate."

She was right of course; everything hinged on his outlook, and Broadway struggled through the convolution of it all with mere words that didn't seem enough to encompass everything he wanted and needed to say.  "I can't even remember not having you in my life, after everything we've been through, everything we wanted...and I sure as hell don't want to ruin what could be our last chance."

"Do you mean that?"  Angela leaned forwards.  "Are you sincere?  Because I'm tired of being toyed with."

"If I can work past it–"

"I don't want you to work past it," she intruded with eyes flaring in the daylight, "I want you to accept me as who I am, the woman who loved you, mated with you, planned an entire future with you."

"Then give me that chance."

"The chance?" she prompted.

Hesitating at first, he offered his hand across the table just as she had earlier.  "To start from scratch."

She regarded the talonless appendage for a moment, before reciprocating and brushing her hand against his.

Once in his grasp, Broadway explored the gossamer texture of suede-soft flesh, running his fingertips across the dorsal lines of the metacarpus, over the palm and eventually sliding his fingers between her own, linking their hands.  He smiled at the reminiscent touch, something he'd denied himself for far too long.  "I think it's time we got to know each other."

Angela smiled weakly, squeezing as tightly as she could manage.  "All over again."

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

"Just how much did Mother tell you?"

"Everything."

David Xanatos owned an august stride and Jason had trouble keeping up even on the level planes of the Wyvern halls; he swore it was another of his subtle habits to hold dominance over even the most common and human of his colleagues.

But he'd watched the gradual transformation in his employer in the last month with great intrigue.  Where the billionaire had always a quick, cutthroat, and decisive method in living his life, he seemed restless, and more assertive to the point of dictatorial.

"I thought it necessary." Jason acquiesced, stroking the tread of his wheels in a solid rhythm.  "One of my duties is to winnow out any potential danger to both XE and the clan."

Xanatos came to a sudden halt, with Jason several meters behind him.  "Do you consider me a danger, Mr. Canmore?" he asked from over his shoulder, and before the majordomo could answer, he took the liberty to further control the conversation.  "I suppose you do, with the clandestine intensity to which you undertook this investigation."

"Far be it for me to go behind your back, but it was all I could do to find out what's actually happening around here."

"The bodies were discarded." he shrugged.

"How?"

"Incinerated."

Jason Canmore rarely let anything leak from under the mask of self-assurance and charming stoicism.  But the irritation was palpable; one hundred and three bodies of their deadliest enemy cremated without him even knowing had grit his teeth.  "And you chose not to tell me and conceal every aspect of their disposal?"

"It didn't concern you." came a cold answer.

Jason slowly wheeled up beside him, sick of being three feet behind and below; even the simple dignity of looking someone in the eye was an unattainable privilege.  "Being the intermediary between you and the clan, I need to be concerned." he said.  "What am I supposed to tell them?"

Xanatos turned on one foot.  "I'll tell them if you can't handle it."

"This isn't about that, you went against their wishes."

"Their wishes rarely involve me." the billionaire countered.  "If you haven't noticed, Jason, I have pressing concerns of my own.  Watching my wife atrophy from some unknown disease as I struggle to keep this company from being torn apart by various government factions often takes precedent."

"I'm well aware of that, but you've been more than just a little neglectful.  You vanish for hours at a time without any word, you're moody, sullen, anxious, jittery, and your hands sometimes shake; for the man made of ice, you're slowly melting.  And let's not mention the ill-timed failure of the defensive shield and your sudden disappearance during the Guild battle.  Digital recordings have been doctored, records falsified, Mother has been programmed to evade and practically lie by someone with higher authorization than either I or Brooklyn, millions of dollars have inexplicably been diverted into inaccessible slush funds, more than half of the XE naval fleet has been deployed on some kind of covert maneuvers, but the most telling of any evidence no matter how dismissible or farfetched, is your son."

At the mere mention, Xanatos turned before he knew the ploy was designed to elicit such an illuminating response, and formed an expression before he realized how much he was giving away.

"He doesn't seem to have the same glint of worship in his eyes when he looks at you.  In fact, he appears to avoid you, and any kind of advance you make."  Jason smiled at how his attempt to crack the armor was paying off.  "Nothing is more telling than a young boy, Mr. Xanatos, and considering that Alexander can see things no one else can..."

"Are you accusing me of something, Mr. Canmore?"

Jason shrugged inoffensively.  "Just stating the facts.  The same facts which added up to an investigation I thought it was my duty to undertake."  He let his gaze convey his frustration at being kept in the dark.  "Just what the hell is going on?"

"Nothing that concerns you."

"Every aspect of XE operations concerns me, at least, everything that's legal."

"Owen knew his place." he lobbed a directional swerve suddenly into the midst of the conversation, putting Jason back on the defensive.

"I'm not Owen."

Air was contemptuously exhaled from his nostrils, "Yes, I keep forgetting that."

"Speaking of Mr. Burnett, is he coming back anytime soon?"

"The Puck will return when he's willing."

Something filtered through Jason's mind.  "Curious, for the fay that pledged a lifetime of service, it seems a little odd he'd be allowed off his leash for so long."

"He's an XE employee, he's entitled to vacation time."

The majordomo shook his head, wading deep into more lies that were being quickly explained away with some sense of plausibility.  "You can't expect me to just let all of this go.  It reeks of deceit, and you're usually better at covering your tracks."

"I expect you to do your duty without such distractions as thought or wayward, heroic reflection."

"I am."  Jason sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose.  "I thought I could believe in your so-called reformation, but now you've placed serious doubt in my mind about who is the clan's true enemy."

"You think I've returned to my 'villainous' ways?" Xanatos mused aloud, complete with a smirk that bared the sharp, white edges of his canines.  "I'll tell you what I think, Mr. Canmore, you're paranoid.  In order to compensate for a shattered spine, a lineage bathed in blood and wasting your entire life waging an unjust and pointless war, you're trying too hard to prove your worth by searching for things that don't exist.  In a lifetime spent looking over your shoulder for gargoyle-shaped shadows, perhaps you're seeing things that aren't there."

"And perhaps you're a bigger threat than either the Guild or Sobek ever were."

Incensed, Xanatos suddenly lifted his foot to the highest edge of his majordomo's chair's left wheel and kicked it over.

Jason tumbled from his seat, spilling to the rough, cobbled surface, dead legs behind him unable to prevent or even indirectly guide his fall.  Stunned at what had just happened, he lifted himself with his arms and shot an enraged, shocked look at his employer.

Xanatos was standing over him, fists trembling at his sides.  "Don't ever compare me to that rotting creature."

"Then stop acting like him."

"I'll make myself clear in case you decide to exceed your boundaries.  If you cross me, Canmore, I'll break whatever's not broken on your already decrepit form." he seethed, and he seemed a different man than what the precision-crafted facade had portrayed him as.  There was animal in his eyes, volatility.  A new fire danced deep and malevolent along the jet black of his irises.  "You will not cross the lines I've set for you, you will not question who I am and what I do."  Xanatos turned around and resumed his journey down the corridor.  "Keep your place, or tender your resignation."

Jason glared at him, but ultimately let him go to brood and design and whatever else a man of his wealth and ambiguity would spend the day doing.  He had a more urgent matter to attend to.

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

Nearly hemorrhaging his own esophageal tract in the first violent grasp for air, Todd coughed the dust from his throat as he came to.

He was lying against something cold and smooth, and he could feel the weight of the debris and broken planks atop him.  As his vision cleared a new, nebulous and vertical landscape lay before him, the concrete floor of the building's basement, shrouded in haze of swirling dust looking for a place to settle.

He attempted movement, and groaned in pain; his vision blurred for a moment.  His head, he must have hit it on the way down, and with his free hand could feel the thin rivulets of blood pouring from a cut on his temple and pooling on the floor.  He slowly pulled himself from under the remains of what used to be the ceiling and struggled to a standing position, only to be grabbed around the throat.

Black had risen first, seized his son and pressed the barrel of his weapon against Todd's head.

Todd stifled a sound through clenched teeth.  "Who the fuck are you?!" he managed, even with the immovable hold across his chest and neck that seemed as solid as steel.

"Don't you know?  Haven't you put all the pieces together?"

"What the hell are you talking–?"

"My old partner didn't tell you?" Black expressed surprise.  "Didn't you notice my eyes during lunch?  Rose always said you had my eyes."

Even as muddled as his head was, he knew he'd never said his mother's name during lunch.  His mind reeling, pieces were starting to fall into place even as preposterous as it sounded.  "W-What...?"

Black tightened his grip, and lowered his mouth to Todd's ear.  "Listen to me, and listen good." he hissed.  "Whatever Abel Sykes has told you, it's all a lie.  Your father died a long time ago.  He's a ghost, a memory, that's all."

All resistance ceased.  "Are you...are you my father?"

"Your father is dead!"  Breath like fire raced across Todd's cheek, and the young man visibly cringed at the fury that had rallied hundreds of new Guild recruits to war.  "Now take your mother and leave this city." Black threatened.  "Disappear."

"Why?"

"I know you're in league with them, and I'm giving you one last chance.  Leave, or be considered our enemy."

"What?!"

"Leave."

"Fuck you."

The barrel cut deeper into his skin, and despite the pain of his flesh being scored by the circular pattern, Todd could feel the vibrations running through the gun.

"I'll kill you."

"Then kill me."

"Ballsy little kid, aren't you?"

"You could've done it a long time ago." Todd argued.  "On the street, in the restaurant, but you didn't."

Black suddenly threw him down and Todd hit the concrete.  He rolled, staggered and braced himself as the world turned to a kaleidoscopic smear before he was able to clear his vision and get a better look at his captor.

Through the amethyst haze of blood dripping across his brow, Todd found a different face than what had stared at him from over the checkered linen.  His shoulder length, chestnut hair and a sharply-clipped goatee threaded with gray; pointed, recognizable contours from brow to cheek to chin; lines of age just beginning to settle and etch the skin; and his eyes.

He didn't think them remarkable before, yet now they glistened, burning against the depths of the dungeon-like cellar.  But Todd didn't want to dwell on the one facet that he thought truly linked them as blood.

Black crouched down to his level, and raised his gun, aiming the targeting laser directly between his son's clenched brows.  He held it there for an indeterminate amount of time that, measured realistically in seconds, seemed an eternity to them both.  "You're right, I can't." he breathed.  "No matter how hard I try."  The barrel lowered, and Todd released his breath.  "I was even considering using you as my Trojan horse, but I just...can't."

A small, grieved sound intensified into a growl, "Answer my fucking question."

"I did."

"You evaded it."

"Listen–"

"Are you my father?!"

Black set his mouth into a forlorn grin.  "I used to be."

Todd fell his head, suddenly too heavy, and watched as the small, black spatters of blood that trickled from his temple coagulated in the dust.  "You're Joseph Hawkins..." he whispered unbelievably, and every unattainable dream he'd had as a child of meeting his father had been shattered as it had with Rose.

"I used to be plain, simple, myopic Joseph Hawkins, living a normal life, and unaware of what lived outside of the human sphere of knowledge and understanding.  But, I suspect, so did you.  I learned, at the cost of my family.  At the cost of my existence."  Shrouded by darkness, he looked on as his son soaked in the information; the boy was staring at the ground in disbelief, as if he could see something emerge in the oily slick of blood pouring from his temple.  "You're quiet.  I was expecting a dramatic scream of denial, ala Luke Skywalker."

"Fuck you!" Todd screamed, and anger traded with confusion.  His head was pounding; the effects of a possible concussion were drowning rational thought and he kneaded several fingers to his forehead.  "Why are you doing all of this?"

"Circumstances beyond my control.  You see, I can neither be your father nor be your executioner, so I'm stuck in the middle."  The irony wasn't lost on the elder Hawkins.  "Just like a ghost."

"Are you doing this because you're angry?  At losing me?  Of losing Rose?" Todd ventured, striving to understand.  "We survived, we're alive."

"And I don't have to be angry anymore, is that it?  Everything can go back to the way it was?  You're a big boy, you know better.  It's too late, Todd, twenty years too late.  I'm a part of something far too massive to just let go now, a belief, a mission, a religion that doesn't mesh too well with yours."  Glass and wood reduced to kindling splintered under his feet as he made a slow circle around his offspring, and towards the stairwell leading upstairs.  "I hope the choices you've made are worth dying for, son."

"What?"

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

Black reacted to the disembodied voice, and moving to the foot of the stairs, found that debris had severed the only path out.  The door had caved inwards with the weight of several hundred pounds of construction material resting against it, and caught on the 2x4 railings.  He could see movement through a few slim cracks that allowed slivers of light, and hear the shuffle of pieces being dislodged and the entryway being cleared.  "Abel's a good man." he said, raising his gun.  "I'll miss him."

Todd saw where the laser was pointing.  "Sykes!!"

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

"Todd?!" Sykes responded to the voice, drawing closer to the wreckage.  "Are you okay down there?!"

"...Move you idiot!!..."

Projectiles ripped through the obstruction, just grazing Sykes and knocking Ford over with the sheer abruptness and the sound funneling through the staircase like a cannon in a belljar.  They scrambled to either side to find what little cover there was in the confined space.

"If I have to shoot my way through you to get out, I will, Abel!" Black yelled between the bullets.

"It doesn't have to be that way and you know it, Joe!"

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

Black reached into his coat and grabbed for his second, identical gun.  With the clips arranged on his belt, all he had to do was jam the butt-end into the clip and give it a little push to lock it into place.  "Yes," he whispered, "it does, old friend."

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

It seemed as if the bullets were whistling past the agents' heads even before the holes exploded in the wood.

Incensed, under-informed, a bullet-hole in his jacket, Ford fired off a few rounds in retaliation.

"Ford!" Sykes screamed, trapped against the other side of the staircase wall.  "Damnit, Dominic!!  Hold your fire!!"

It was a miracle neither of the men firing got hit, but the sheer intensity of the exchange was shredding the wood blocking the entrance and eating into the walls.  Sykes crawled himself up and out of the staircase, and Ford was close behind, emptying his clip with three more shots.

They scrambled to either side of the railing supports, the drywall construction half-eaten by bullet holes.

"Jesus, Dom, I told you to hold your fire!"

"We nearly got killed." Ford explained hurriedly, reloading.  "This is what we do when people shoot at us, we shoot back!"

"He's my friend!"

Ford thinned his eyes with the amount of splinters and gypsum dust floating through the air, the walls around them being gutted.  "Your friend nearly killed you!"

Black was unrelenting, and the power behind the VP-8s carved out several lines in the door and the planks against it.  They soon couldn't support themselves and it all fell away, tumbling down the staircase.  Black sidestepped the debris and sent argentite eyes up the narrow flight of stairs, searching for movement around the corners.

Nothing.  They were playing it smart, or they were frightened.

In order to entice them into the open, he raised his target and started slicing lines through the basement roof.  The power behind the bullets meant that not only were they passing effortlessly through the first floor, they were continuing into the upper, unstable sections of the building.

The structure was already held together by cracked support beams, broken planks and a collective desire whispered under each man's breath it would hold until they got out, but whether or not Black was aware of this didn't show with his near-overindulgent attack on any surface that may conceal the agents.

"Fuck, Abel!" Ford shouted over the successive roar of gunfire decimating the building.  "Your friend's going to bring this place down on top of us, and we got a kid down there!"

"Joe!" Sykes screamed for the life of him.  "Joe!!"

His scream echoed into tinny thunder; like rolling through the slender neck of an animal, the building itself was howling low and unashamed, its scream of pain an animal's as drywall disintegrated and beams fractured.  The bullets kept coming.

"JOE!!!"

Silence, eerie and unexpected, followed the fading echoes of Abel's scream.

Sykes hoped Joseph may be having second thoughts, Ford assumed he was reloading, and their heavy, skittish breaths proved them both slightly apprehensive to peek their heads out and make certain.

"Joe?"

A glint of light leapt between them and the agents nearly fired at each other.  Suddenly emerging between the balustrades and bouncing several times before skidding to a halt at the base of a load-bearing wall several meters away, a reflective finish revealed a chrome surface and drew in two pairs of eyes.

It was small, rectangular-shaped and an unassuming contraption, until the finial-styled lid popped out and chirped forebodingly.

Beep.

"Good god..."

Beep.

"Abel, is that what I think it is...?"

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

"MOVE!!!!"

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

The ground trembled for half a mile in diameter at the power of the explosion.

The shockwave ripped the wood and brick construction from most of the first floor's exterior, followed by the inevitable ring of flame that scorched half the foundation and raised the temperature to over six thousand degrees for a split second, enough to nearly atomize the west side of the building's support columns.

With its foundation half gone, unable to support itself the dilapidated structure leaned, moaned and crumbled in on itself.  It collapsed in a plume of dust, smoke and dancing, laughing, staggering flame.