31 - "Worlds Collide"
Originally Written: April 30th, 2000

January 7th, 2001
"I'm not so sure this is a good idea." Annika's soft voice carried gently on the still air of
her spacious room, a growing apprehension interweaved within the melodious tone.

"Ah come oooonnnnnn," Todd urged her on, reclining on Annika's large bed, "we
missed our first New Year's together because of that Sobek freak...gaaugh...I can't
believe what Elisa told us about that motherfucker and his eating habits. Man, he eats
humans..." Todd's face twisted and contorted, forming a sickened scowl. "Remind me
to always stay away from any barbecue sauce. Anyway, getting away from psychopaths
and their hundred and one recipes of human soufflé, I've been invited to a party and I
want you to come."

A week had passed after the brutal attack on the castle, and a quiet night had rained down
upon the clan. Their physical injuries had healed, yet the fear still lingered with them.
Their celebration of the New Year had been forcefully interrupted by a fanatical
gargoyle, with nothing on his diseased mind but twisted compunctions of ruling the
world. A favored holiday the young human wanted to share with his gargoyle love had
been shattered, and now, with a peace having settled in once more, he wanted to treat her
to a night out.

"I've met your friends," Todd continued, "and now I want you to meet mine."

Annika whirled around, a swelling nervousness spreading across her exquisite features.
"Are you sure?" she replied quietly, "will they...you know, like me?" She flared her
wings slightly, stretching the dark rose-colored membranes out to prove just how
different she was from her boyfriend.

"They're my best friends. None of them will treat you different than from anyone else."

"I don't know..." Annika whispered, taking a place back at her writing desk.

Todd immediately jumped from the bed and moved behind her. The young gargess
rarely caped her wings, instead letting them hang free above her shoulders. Todd poked
his head through and ever so softly, touched his lips to her neck, sending a cool breeze
across her skin. She shivered slightly and smiled. Her boyfriend always had the magic
touch. He lifted his head to bring his mouth level with her ear, dragging his bottom lip
over the skin and near her gold earring. "Come on," he drawled, sending his most
engaging charms her way, "it'll be great. I promise."

She turned to face him, as he leaned in and slipped her a quick peck on her bottom lip
and pressed his forehead to hers. She soon sighed her reluctance to his irresistible smile,
"It better be."

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

A dark shadow maneuvered the currents of the New York city skyline, darting in and out
of the light cloud cover, a dash of rose pink among the snowy striations. "Not so high!!"
Todd yelled out to Annika, tightening his grip and clenching his arms tightly around her
waist. "Are you trying to break orbit?!"

"Oh quit bitching," Annika responded as she scanned the ground below her, "the currents
are better up here." The wind had softened, discovering a refreshing tranquillity upon
leaving the chaos and troublesome hindrance of the skyscrapers behind. The urban
sprawl of Manhattan's upper West side, with endless rows of impressive manors, each a
castle in their own right, had lined the quiet streets with the very embodiment of wealth
and luxury. Annika's sapphire eyes became wide at the sight. "I've rarely been out this
far before," she breathed in astonishment, "it looks so peaceful."

"Welcome to suburbia. Now this is where the real weirdoes live." said Todd as he too
searched the streets below him, looking for his intended target and finding the city of his
residency was nothing but a twisted mess from over a hundred feet above. "There it is!"
His hand shot out near Annika's field of view and directed her gaze to a large house, lit
up against the unforgiving night sky. Annika abruptly descended, a freefall position
quickly forming, causing Todd to wrap his arms around her neck and squeeze tight.
"Damn!! Stop that!" he yelled as the gargess heeded his wish and slowed her flight,
nearing the three floor mansion complete with a vast fenced courtyard, surrounding the
dwelling in a swallowing field of emerald crystal. "Land on that balcony."

With a quiet thump, the dawn-tinted gargoyle touched down, and allowed Todd to jump
from her back. Annika could hear, and could even feel on the terrace's surface, the
techno-styled music thumping through the glass doors of French design leading inside.
She crept closer, purposely enshrouding her form in the inviting embrace of the shadows,
and peeked through one of the clear panes, gazing at over thirty young men and women
just inside. She turned to see Todd straightening his clothes, a short-sleeved, blue ringer
shirt with a Superman symbol, light tan baggy pants, and large soled, black Caterpillar
shoes, noticeably wrinkled from the long flight.

He smoothed his black Adidas jacket and raised his glare to Annika, noticing her fearful
expression. He simply returned to her his loving smile and joined her side, peering into
the room beyond. "Don't worry, gorgeous," he assured her, slipping his hand to her
backside, a gentle massage hitting the sensitive spot just below her wing, "it'll be fine.
I'll go in first and then I'll introduce you."

Annika breathed deeply and nodded.

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

The large stereo continued to pound away, the subwoofers shaking violently back and
forth within the stained ash cases. The gathered throng had assimilated themselves into
the living room, clustered around the furniture and engaged in lively, spirited
conversation. Drinks were being served rapidly from the kitchen, and every single person
there was taking advantage of the free alcohol.

Barely a soul noticed Todd slowly push the balcony doors open, and slither inside. He
scanned the crowd, watching his friends talk, dance, and pass out on the floor. 'God I
love these guys.' he thought to himself. He waited for the song to finish and cleared his
throat. "Okay you drunken, drop-out monkeys," his announcement grabbed the group's
attention and they turned their collective gaze towards him, "the real party has arrived."

"Hawkins, all right!!" They cheered to their friend and instantly, a drunk, black haired
teen staggered towards him and slumped onto his shoulder. "Whassup?!!"

A exhalation of malted hops and barley hit Todd directly in the face. "Your breath,
man." he wheezed. "Whoa..."

"This guy is classic." the drunk exclaimed to his friends and disappeared back into the
crowd, perhaps never to be heard from again until the morning hours when waking in a
puddle of his own drool.

"It's about time you showed." a soft voice broke through the background noise and Todd
whirled around to see a short haired blond woman stroll casually towards him, with a
look of mock anger presented forth. "I haven't seen you in a while, Hawkins," she came
to a sudden stop and poked her head forward, causing him to edge back suddenly, "just
where have you been hiding yourself?"

Todd put on his most trusting expression, as his lips curled back and his gray eyes
actually appeared to gleam with a charlatan luster. "Would you believe...a castle in the
sky?"

"No." The blond tilted her head and pressed a slender finger to her chin. "Could your
absence from the bars and parties be because of this...new friend of yours you've been
telling me about?"

"Maybe..."

"Hmmm." The blond thinned her eyes, and soon realized Todd had emerged into the
room through the second story balcony. "How the hell did you get up on the terrace?"

"My girlfriend brought me." Todd answered succinctly.

"Is she here?" she asked with a great anticipation.

"Is who here?" a new voice chimed in and the pair turned to see two more women
approaching them.

Todd sighed, "My girlfriend."

"Ah," a tall redhead glanced to the other girl, a shorter Asian with blond hilights in her
raven locks, "the mystery girlfriend we've all heard about these many months.
Intriguing."

"I think he made her up." the Asian chuffed.

Todd crossed his arms and scowled. "No. I didn't make her up. In fact she's right
outside." he quipped, pointing towards the balcony doors.

"You left her outside?!" The blond came close to yelling as she smacked Todd on the
shoulder.

"Um, ow!! There's a reason she's outside."

"And what would that be?"

"Just...let me show you." Todd swiveled around and moved to the double doors, leaving
the trio in a jumble of strange, confused, and perchance skeptical looks. With a quick
yank, he opened them and stepped aside, again turning to face the crowd. "This is my
girlfriend, Annika."

The three women and most of the group were met with what they had all along expected,
the simple backdrop of stars just outside. Yet, the dark expanse between the French
doors yielded a swarthy shape, stepping into the light and instantly, the noise level
dropped to a virtual silence as the young humans came face to face with the rose colored
gargoyle. Even those at the far end of the room, who had completely flooded their
bloodstreams with numbing liquor and sweet spirits, were left dumbstruck.

Annika took another step forward and sheepishly waved her hand. "Uhm...hi."

"...oh...my...god..." The blond could barely manage three quiet words as she and her
friends examined Annika from claw to talon, roaming with wide eyes the large wings
hanging from her back, her long, slender tail and the tall spurs raising from her brow.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Annika Smith." Todd announced over the mumbling and
whispers of the group.

The blond pressed a pair of open palms to the sides of her head, striving to view her
situation with at least some sense of sanity. "Hold on, hold on. The woman you've been
telling me about for the past six months...is one of those...those...gargoyles?
You're...dating a gargoyle. She's a gargoyle."

"Yes, Kendra. She's a gargoyle. Notice the wings?" Todd replied as he ran his hand
down the slender arm of Annika's left wing.

"This is amazing. I've never seen a gargoyle except for those news reports. God, I
thought they were a hoax." the Asian girl whispered to her taller, redheaded friend, who
nodded in agreement. The others in the room crowded around the mismatched couple,
trying their best to receive a glimpse of the new arrival to the party and some even
reaching out to graze their hands upon Annika's wing membranes, and sharply pulling
back when they twitched at even the most subtle of contact.

Knowing she was still extremely nervous, Todd took her taloned, and trembling, hand in
his own. "Annika, these are my friends. This is Michelle..." He pointed to the Asian girl
and watched Annika extend her arm.

Michelle hesitated for a moment, staring at the four fingered appendage placed before
her, but eventually reached out and grasped the gargoyle's palm. "It's...uh, nice to meet
you."

"Same here." Annika replied softly.

"This is Jackie..."

The tall redhead came forward at Todd's introduction and excitedly snatched the gargess'
hand. "This is so cool!"

"And this...is Kendra..."

The blond haired girl stepped from the crowd's edge and gracefully accepted her hand.
She was a little shorter than the rest, about five foot five, and wore a tight T-shirt that
tucked into her large jeans. Her black, thick framed glasses almost concealed the deep
ocean blue of her eyes, a soft tint surprisingly similar to Annika's. "Are you a good
gargoyle," she started teasingly, "or a bad one?"

"Definitely a good one." Annika replied, as question after question soon shot out in
perfect succession, and the gargoyle did her best to answer them all. Incessant
explorations about her kind, her past, and most especially, her relationship with her
human boyfriend. And between the inquiries, she was able to catch a quick glimpse at
Todd, who stood just beyond the crowd and seemed to be enjoying her predicament. She
then noticed Kendra come near him and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She
whispered something into his ear and he returned her hushed words with a gentle kiss to
her forehead. Annika thinned her eyes and growled, centering her vindictive gaze on the
blond woman, held in her boyfriend's arms.

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

"So, you guys like, fight crime and stuff?" Jackie asked, as most of the group had
remained circled around the gargess, a perfect ring about the couch and chairs.

"Yeah, I guess you could put it that way." Annika answered, raising a blond eyebrow and
spurred ridge, discovering from another perspective of how her kind was being
misrepresented in the media. "Don't listen to those loud-mouthed morons on the
television. Gargoyles are protectors. We protect those who need it, human or not."

"Man, this could make a great story..." Jackie muttered to herself as she scratched her
chin and drew into a far off gape.

Michelle rolled her eyes and swallowed hard her bottled beer. "Uh oh," she mumbled
wearily, recognizing her friend's well-tread journey into her imagination, "I know that
look."

Annika skipped her sight to the others, with a sudden perplexity having been formed
from Michelle's simple utterance. "What look?"

"Big Red here's a writer. She's always scoping for a good storyline." Michelle answered,
taking another sip of her drink.

"Really?" Annika exclaimed, having found at least one similarity to her boyfriend's
certain group of friends. "You write?"

Jackie placed a hand on her chest. "I dabble." she chuffed.

"Oh please," Kendra leaned over and berated her friend, "your notebook is practically
attached to your hand."

"What's your point?" she snapped back, with a laugh quickly erupting from the four
ladies.

For the entire time, Todd had watched from an opposite matching chair, and now shook
his head at the female cries of joy, wondering if it was such a good idea after all,
introducing his significant other to his human friends. Yet, she finally seemed to be
enjoying herself and for the first time tonight, had allowed herself to relax after the
frightful events of last week. Her life had been full of turmoil, and he so wanted for her
to find the peace she so richly deserved. He rested his head on his hand and continued
staring at the she-goyle, but he was broken from his thoughts when a loud voice boomed
in behind him.

"Okay peoples, Crash...is...back!! I got here, the famous Henderson jigglers and vomit
balls." The crowd exploded into cheers and drunken shouts as another young man
strolled into the kitchen. Hidden behind the stacks of containers he carried in his arms
was a young, black man, roughly six feet tall, with a shaved head and a thin goatee. A
black long-sleeved shirt, baggy jeans, tan construction boots and a long jacket, catching
within the void of black leather, every flicker of light cast it's way. Almost every party
goer in the room jumped from their seats and rushed the kitchen in an overflowing surge,
surrounding the bemused teen. "Hey," he shouted, moving back to allow the throng to
rip the plastic containers open, "one at a time!" As he barely dragged himself from the
ensuing chaos of rabid teenage snacking, he set his sights on Todd. "Hey, Hawkins!"

"Crash." Todd nodded to greet his friend. "I see you're still feeding us working stiffs
and poor college students."

"Hey man, kids gotta eat."

"And just what are they eating?" an unfamiliar voice asked.

Crash turned back to the feeding frenzy, as the mob downed the food without a second
thought. "Oh you know, chocolate rum balls and vodka jigglers." he answered the
unknown phonation, and swiveled slightly to match a face with the gentle voice.
"Haven't you...ever...had...holy shit..." Expectations of what perhaps a simple human
mind could comprehend were instantly annihilated when a rose-colored, winged creature
fell into place within his cinnamon eyes, and he nearly choked on his own tongue.

"Oh," Todd had almost forgotten, "yeah. Theo 'Crash' Henderson, meet Annika Smith,
my girlfriend."

"Hello, Crash," she grabbed his hand, still waiting for a response, "it's good to meet you.
And what are vodka jigglers?"

"You've had Jell-O, right?" Todd answered for his stunned friend. "Well, these are jello
shapes made with forty proof vodka." He fought his way through the crowd and grabbed
a handful of colorful gelatin molds. He emerged unscathed and handed a couple to
Annika, and watched with amusement as she downed her first one and immediately felt
the effects.

"Whoa..." she wheezed, attempting for a breath and quickly ascertaining that her throat
was on fire.

"Pretty cool, huh?"

"I'll say." she exclaimed, trying to shake the cobwebs from her head. "Powerful little
suckers." She moved up near Crash, who, for the entire conversation, hadn't taken his
eyes off of her. "Did you make these yourself?"

Crash blinked his eyes a couple of times and tried his best to respond to the question
asked of him. "What? Huh? Oh...yeah. Yeah! You...you might say they're an old
family recipe."

"Bullshit," Todd cut in, crossing his arms, "your brother made these during his house
party we crashed a couple of years ago."

"Now that was cool."

"You passed out naked on the front lawn and your brother's friends threw me in the
pool."

"Like I said...cool."

"You are both weird." Annika sighed as she finished her last jiggler. A few moments
passed, as Annika and Crash became better aquainted, until the music changed subtly, a
new song announcing it's presence with a slow rhythmic baseline.

Kendra appeared from out of nowhere and grabbed Todd's arm. "C'mon Hawkins," she
excitedly called to him, "remember this song?!" She pulled him to the empty floor space
near the stereo and wrapped herself around him.

Crash smirked and turned to resume his conversation with Annika, only to be bathed in
the blood red glow of her eyes. He edged back slightly, at the gargoyle's resentful rage.
"Holy shit..."

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

The celebration continued, and the party remained strong past the midnight hour. The
music played on and the alcohol flowed freely, keeping the young twenty-somethings
dancing and laughing well into the night. They had slowly come to accept the gargoyle
within their midst, and listened in as she related to them, the story of her life and the clan
she had come to call family. The group seemed particularly interested in how she met
Todd and how he saved her life almost nine months ago. And with her curvy figure
displayed forth, with nothing but a tight white tunic and loincloth to cover her creamy
skin and ample contours, some of the men present were only there to fill their eyes with a
body rivaling that of any fashion magazine.

Annika seemed to attach herself to Todd's four closest friends, who would barter her
stories of the clan's many adventures for small snippets of Todd's carefully guarded past,
most of them quite unflattering. "He punched his twelfth grade art teacher in the face?!"

"He gave him a B." Crash explained. "He worked for a long time on his final project,
and Mr. Billingsly didn't approve of it too much."

Annika appeared slightly angry at Crash's statement, having seen her boyfriend's art and
knowing it deserved more than a low grade from some high school teacher. "Why not?"

"It was a portrait of his wife..."

"And what's so bad about that?"

"She was completely nude!" Michelle shrieked, leaning back into the plush couch and
laughing giddily. Jackie and Crash joined in, leaving Annika to shake her head.

"That's Todd." she sighed and looked away, her small smile growing into a goofy grin.

"Yeah, that's Todd." Michelle sucked in her laughter quite abruptly, and shuffled closer
with her beer in hand. "Speaking of which, you two seem pretty tight."

"Tight?" Annika replied.

"You know," Michelle licked her lips seductively and flicked her brow several times,
"tiiiiight."

"In looooove..." Jackie added, fluttering her eyelashes.

"Having lots of seeeeexxx..." Crash broke in, invoking a sullen look from the ladies.
"What?"

With an angered groan of contempt, Jackie turned back to face Annika. "Men...anyway,
you and Todd seem more than just a simple couple."

"And what makes you say that?"

"Well, for one thing, I've never seen Hawkins look at any other girl the way he looks at
you."

"I wouldn't say that..." Annika whispered under her breath, scanning the room and
catching her boyfriend in the kitchen, sitting at the table with a large clear glass of rum
and coke in his hands. Kendra was beside him, and the two friends were talking. Todd
obviously had his charm in high gear as the blond haired girl could barely stop herself
from laughing at every one of his jokes and simple quips. "They get along well." she
spat out.

Annika's contemptuous tone seized Michelle's attention. "You mean Todd and Kendra?
Well they should, they used to be an item."

"WHAT?!!!"

"Didn't you know?" Michelle looked back to the kitchen. "They used to date."

Annika's very posture became tensed, and her lips curled back, baring fanged teeth.
Another one of her boyfriend's secret's had been spilled, and she grew even more furious
that he had failed to mention this.

"What the hell is that?" Crash asked his two friends, as he soon noticed a low grating
rumble surrounding them.

"Uh guys?" Michelle whispered as she continued gazing at Annika. Jackie and Crash
looked to the gargoyle, who was staring intently at the couple in the kitchen, her eyes
bursting with a scarlet glow. They had at last identified the foreign sound as Annika's
growl, emanating from deep within her chest. The fragile glass held in her hand
splintered with an increasing pressure as tiny hairline cracks swelled upon the surface,
threatening to burst in a spray of shards. "Holy shit..."

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

A mass of platinum blond coiled and curled within the supple grasp of the wind. Annika
brushed away the strands from her face as she perched herself upon the wide wooden
railing that framed the entire length of the terrace. Having replaced her broken glass for
a fresh one, she had now downed almost all of her vodka mix. She had moved outside to
get a breath of fresh air, release herself from the stifling confines of the party, and get
away from Todd and Kendra.

Her boyfriend had become scarce, often blending back into the crowd and disappearing
for long periods of time. She would see him with Kendra the most, talking, laughing, his
arms wrapped around her... She could feel herself inadvertently gritting her teeth, her
tongue gliding against sharp fangs. She quickly finished the rest of her hard liquor and
threw the drinking container into the backyard shrubbery, hearing the familiar, and
expected, shattering of glass.

"Well, that was mature."

Annika whirled around to see Kendra coming through the glass doors. She huffed her
disdain and looked away again.

Kendra sauntered to the railing's edge and leaned over, trying to find where the glass had
landed, and most likely scattered itself about the yard. "Did the glass do something
wrong?"

Annika never answered.

"Wow, you're a mean drunk."

"I'm not drunk," Annika hissed, "gargoyle metabolism."

"Then what's your problem?"

The gargoyle lept from the ledge and slowly tramped up to the blond haired girl. "You."

"Me?" Kendra was slightly taken aback. "And just what the hell did I do?"

Annika prepared to tear into the young woman before her, but stopped and turned away,
her arms falling to her sides. "Everything. Nothing. I don't know." She used her hand
to gently sweep the stray blond hairs from her face and slowly drooped her wings. "I've
never seen Todd behave like that with another woman, besides me of course. You two
act like you're more than friends."

"Well, we are."

Annika looked over her shoulder, giving Kendra a sight of her glowing eyes. "I see."

Kendra suddenly broke into a gleeful grin and began to laugh, effectively invoking a
mean scowl from the gargess. "Oh man, you're jealous."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You are jealous. That's so cute."

Annika clenched her fists and quickly approached the smaller girl.

But she held out her arms to keep the gargoyle from most assuredly ripping her head off.
"Whoa there, Xena. Before you remove any vital body parts, just let me explain. Todd is
very special to me, but not in that way. He's like my brother."

"Your...brother?"

"You know how Todd's parents were killed and he grew up in an orphanage? Well, so
did I. My mother abandoned me when I was a baby and I was sent to stay in the same
home."

"I'm sorry." Annika relented her anger, her eyes returning to their normal obsidian color.

"I met Todd when I was about four years old. I was a little smaller than the others and I
got picked on a lot. But Todd was always there to help me, to fend them off, to keep me
safe. You might say, he's my protector."

Annika could only remain silent as the past had surfaced through Kendra's heavyhearted
words. "Oh..."

"He's been there for me all of my life. Before we graduated from high school, we
decided to take our relationship to the next level."

"You started dating."

"Yeah." Kendra took a seat on the park bench near the doors leading back inside. "The
first year was really great, but..."

Annika sat down beside her. "But what?"

"It got a little weird. I mean, we grew up together. I love him like a brother. We both
agreed to be just friends, and I've never regretted that decision since."

Her anger now had been completely replaced by a consuming guilt, and Annika
sheepishly lowered her head into her awaiting hands. "I am such a bitch," she expressed
true regret for her actions, "I can't believe I acted like this. I'm so sorry, Kendra. I'm..."

"In love with him," Kendra cocked her head and curled her large lips into a crafty grin,
"and he's so in love with you. I've never seen him like this. His eyes glaze over and he
practically melts when he looks at you."

"He's everything to me. If I were to lose him..."

"You won't. Todd would never do anything to hurt you. He's smart enough to recognize
a good thing. Besides, you'd probably rip him in two if he cheated on you."

"Damn straight...thanks, Kendra."

"No prob. Just don't growl at me anymore. It creeps me out."

"I promise."

"Good. Now getting back to the subject of your boyfriend, it looks like someone is
searching for a certain gargoyle." Kendra pointed to the doors, and the two women were
able to see Todd searching the living room.

He perked up when he caught sight of them on the terrace, and quickly headed their way.
The doors flew open and he popped out. "There you are," he started, "I've been looking
all over for you! What are you doing out on the balcony?"

"Just putting some things into perspective." Annika answered, leisurely getting to her feet
and advancing on Todd's side.

He gave her an odd look and shrugged. "Ooooookay." he uttered as Annika ran her
talons down the curvature of his face, and snared him in the resplendent azure of her
eyes. She pressed her cheek to his face, feeling his warm breath on her neck and
grasping him even closer with a tug of her arms around him. But the romantic mood was
essentially shattered when several of the party-goers spilled boisterously onto the terrace,
led by Crash.

"Yo, Hawkins, we're all going down to Sneaky's pub," he yelled, "want to come?!"

"Uh, no thanks."

"Why not?" Crash asked, suddenly feeling a sharp pain in his side as Kendra's elbow
caught him in the ribs. "Ow. What was that for?"

"He can't go, moron." she whispered.

"Why not?"

"It's not like Annika can walk into a nightclub and not get noticed." Kendra said, hoping
she was out of earshot of the gargoyle.

"Oh yeah."

Annika placed a hand on her boyfriend's shoulder, giving him a light squeeze. "It's all
right, Todd. You can go."

"Not without you, gorgeous." he briskly answered back.

"Go. I don't want to ruin your night."

Todd whirled around and cupped Annika's cheek, and this time his own sterling gaze
radiating a warmth to her. "You ARE my night. Besides," he began, a sly smirk growing
upon his lips, "I have someone for you to meet tonight."

"Who?" she asked, placing her hand on his own.

"It's a surprise."

The couple watched as the balcony emptied, with Kendra taking up the rear. She stopped
in front of Annika and held out her hand. "I enjoyed meeting you tonight. Give me a call
sometime. Todd has my number."

"Thank you for everything, Kendra. And here..." Reaching into a small pouch on her
belt, Annika pulled out a pen and began to write on Kendra's forearm. "The castle's
unlisted number and my private extension."

The blond haired girl nodded her goodbye and moved on to Todd. "Any other secrets
you're hiding from me?" Todd grinned and opened his jacket, revealing the Superman
symbol and thrusting his chest out. "Sorry, Hawkins. There's no way you could fill out
those tights like big blue." She hopped up and tenderly kissed his cheek. "See you
around, Todd. Don't be a stranger." Kendra closed the doors behind her and
disappeared from sight as the lights dimmed and the chatter drifted away to nothing,
leaving Todd and Annika alone on the terrace.

"So...enjoy the party?" said Todd, turning to face Annika.

"Very much. Thanks for inviting me."

"So what did you and Kendra really talk about?"

"Oh, nothing." she lied.

"Uh huh. Anyway, let's get going."

"And just where are we going?"

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

They flew high over the rooftops, Annika once again carrying Todd on her back. A far
cry from the opulent neighborhood left behind, the streets had turned to a somber ashen
dusk, with nothing but the scattered streetlights bringing an eerie luminescence to the
elderly buildings of crude burnishment, quite a few condemned due to extreme age and
damage. Todd directed her to a large church, sitting alone between the derelict corpses
of tenements long abandoned. Though ancient, and with part of it's fragile stone
structure crumbling, it's elegant spires stood proudly against the drapery of the plenteous
heavens.

"This is where we're going?" Annika asked curtly, softly setting down on the precipitous
set of steps, created from a delicate framework of stone brick and mortar, leading to a
pair of massive wooden doors. "It looks pretty run down."

"Yeah." Todd whispered quietly as he grabbed her hand and led her inside. The doors
solemnly creaked open and the couple entered the church, meeting with the soft glow of
hundreds of burning candles, strategically placed around the rows of polished cedar pews
and the podium up front. The grand hall was lined with tall stained glass windows, an
amalgam of color and hue fused into beautiful pictures, bringing an unearthly light to
brighten the room even further in a dazzling cast. "This way..." Todd opened a side door
and the couple ascended a narrow staircase, winding it's way upwards to another smaller
room.

As they reached the last step, Annika gasped at the sight before her. Plants and flowers
of every size and shape spread forth across the walls and suspended in baskets from the
ceiling. Lush green leaves with a smattering of white, blue, yellow, red and orange
flowers stood out from the dark brick walls, spilling out from their containers and
growing upwards, almost seeming to be reaching for the sky. "Oh wow," she whispered,
"what is this place?"

"Sister Rose's room."

"Sister Rose? Who's that?"

"That," a soft voice loomed from the abyss, "would be me, child." A figure emerged
from behind an alcove, and stepped into the light of the lamps providing nourishment for
the plants. It was a woman, dressed in traditional black and white parish robes, with a
silver cross hanging from a thin chain around her neck. As she came closer, Annika
noticed significant scarring across the left side of her face, yet she possessed kind and
trusting eyes. "Welcome to my home."

"Hey Rose. How've you been?" Todd asked as moved to greet her.

"Well, my child," the woman answered as she allowed the young man to sweep her into
an affectionate hug, "and you?"

"Same as always."

"Good. I see you have been keeping..." Rose clicked a look to the gargess near her,
"unusual company."

"Sister Rose...this is Annika Smith." Todd stepped aside to allow Annika to take Rose's
hand in her own.

"Hello. It's nice to meet you." said Annika.

"Likewise, child. You are one of those gargoyles, are you not? The ones who dominated
the nightly news reports."

"Yes, I am."

"And a very beautiful one at that."

Annika blushed in spite in herself. "Well...uhm...thanks."

"Stop embarrassing my girlfriend, Rose." Todd laughed and grasped his girlfriend's
hand.

"Of course, Todd Matthew. Would you care for some tea. Annika?"

"That would be nice, thank you." The gargoyle took a seat on a padded wooden bench
and watched Rose prepare the tea on her small stove. "I love the stained glass
downstairs. They're breathtaking."

"Yes. Thankfully they have withstood the test of time. When Todd was younger, he was
quite fond of them." the robed woman sighed as she poured boiling water into two
delicate china teacups. "I have tried my best to keep them in good condition, but..." Rose
paused in mid-sentence as she served the tea and sat down beside the gargess.

"But?" Annika urged her to continue as she accepted the cup in her nimble talons.

"Funding for the church is sporadic at best. As you might have noticed, the exterior has
seen better days."

"It's still beautiful, though."

Rose nodded in agreement. "But enough of this old building, I believe the topic of this
conversation should revolve around you, my child. Todd Matthew's special, mystery
friend. I've heard a lot about you, but he failed to mention you were...not human."

Annika gave Todd a light smack on the arm and his only response was a simple shrug of
his shoulders. "Hey, I didn't know how she'd react. The last thing I need is to give a nun
a heart attack. There's a one way ticket to Hell."

"Todd Matthew!" Rose chastised the young man.

"Sorry."

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

Hours passed as the trio exchanged stories, most of them centering on Annika and the
clan. She filled Rose in on what parts Todd was forced to leave out, in order to protect
her identity. It was almost four in the morning and the lengthy conversation was broken
when a small clock near them chimed in, announcing the new hour. Rose turned to
Todd, her expression hardening slightly. "My child," she started, "I wonder if you could
check the furnace for me."

"But I checked it three weeks ago," he whined, "it's working fine."

"Please."

Todd threw out a frown and got up, heading towards the exit. "You know, if you wanted
to talk to Annika alone, all you had to do was ask me."

"I would never be so rude, my child." Rose managed a slight smile and watched as Todd
stomped out of the room. She turned to face Annika, who met her gaze and cocked a
blond eyebrow.

"Was he right?" she asked incredulously.

Rose laughed quietly. "He's very perceptive. I wanted to speak with you in private."

"About Todd?"

"Yes. You mean a great deal to him. He talks about you often."

"He's special to me too. Have you known him long?"

"Almost all of his life. I used to help out at the children's home where he grew up."
Rose looked down into her tea, catching her reflection in the rippled surface. She
brought a hand up and slowly trailed the scarred flesh of her face.

"Used to?" Annika moved closer, sensing the human was holding back, perhaps a
painful past that would not readily be released.

"When Todd was nine years old, I was caught in a fire. I survived but...my body was
terribly burned. Second and third degree burns covered over seventy percent of my
body."

"Oh my god," though Annika had suspected the actual cause of her injury, it was still a
shock to hear, "I'm so sorry."

"I was in the hospital for over a year. I rarely had visitors. I suppose it was my
appearance that drove them away. But...every week, one small boy would make the
voyage from the orphanage to the hospital, a twenty block journey through the busy city
streets, to monitor my progress."

Annika smiled warmly. "Todd."

"Todd, with little Kendra in tow, would come every Saturday to bring me flowers and
pictures he had drawn. He assisted me with my physical therapy until I could walk again.
And every week after I got out, he came to this church to...check up on me, as it were."

Annika leaned back into the bench, idly rubbing a talon about the cup's edge. "I can't
believe it," she said under her breath, "he never told me any of this."

"He never told anyone. I guess he was afraid he would ruin his reputation." Rose joked.

"Does he still come to visit?"

"Yes. He and Kendra still come, though not as much. They grew up, got jobs, created
lives for themselves. And, of course, Todd now has a lot more to worry about. These are
trying times for your clan."

"You could say that. But whatever doesn't kill us will only make us stronger." Annika
replied as she turned to see Todd emerging from the stairway. "We're a family, and have
too much at stake to give up now."

"Furnace is fine, Rose." Todd sarcastically chuffed, casting a knowing look towards the
nun.

"Thank you, my child." Rose answered, as Annika stood up and wrapped herself around
her boyfriend.

"Oof. What is this for?" Todd labored with his words, as the breath was forced from his
lungs.

"Because you deserve it." She pressed her forehead to his, immersing herself in his
scent, a rare and wondrous fragrance speaking volumes to her gargoyle senses. Out of
the corner of her eye, she noticed Rose attempt to hide her yawn from view. She glanced
to the clock and gasped, "Oh wow, it's almost five in the morning. You must be tired."

"I have adjusted my schedule to the night. It's usually when the lost and grief-stricken
need the most help. But, you're right, it has been a long day."

"Then we'll let you get some sleep." Annika grasped Rose's slender hand, being mindful
of the scars. "Thanks for everything."

"I hope we meet again soon."

"Count on it." Annika answered back.

"And goodnight to you, Todd Matthew. Please take care of yourself."

Todd grinned slyly. "Hey, it's me remember?"

"That is what we're both afraid of."

"Oh, you're a riot." Todd started back down the staircase and paused for a moment.
"See ya soon, sister." With that, he took off downstairs, leaving Annika to follow, but
she was held back by Rose's hand on her arm.

"Before you go, there's one more thing you should know. Underneath all that machismo
and those bad jokes, there is a caring and gentle soul, who will do everything in his
power to keep his loved ones from feeling any grief, any pain, any sorrow."

"I know. That's why I love him."

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

A familiar clicking of talons on the vinyl covering of the terrace signaled the arrival of
the couple back at Todd's apartment. Annika set down on the balcony outside the doors
leading inside and allowed her boyfriend to hop from her back. He shook his head and
rubbed the back of his neck. "Man, I ought to be racking up some frequent flyer miles. I
don't think I've flown so much in one night." he joked as he pulled his keys out and
entered his apartment.

Annika followed behind. She had been silent the entire flight home and now wore a
peculiar smile on her face.

Todd took a seat on the arm of his large couch and looked up to Annika. "Well, we got a
couple of hours before the sun comes up, gorgeous. Anything in particular you want to
do?"

Without warning, a pink hand shot out and forced him onto the couch cushions.

"Whoa!"

Annika laid down on top of him and immediately caught his bottom lip with her own.
She roamed with sharp claws about his clothes and skin, while never releasing her feral
grasp on his mouth. Her tail slowly rose up and caressed the skin underneath his shirt,
causing him to shudder.

He closed his eyes and coiled his arms around her back, just below her wings. After
several minutes, she set free his lips from her embrace and a sensual chill ran through his
body. "Whoa...what the hell was that for?"

"For being such a great guy," she responded, flipping back her blond hair and resting
coyly on his chest with her elbows, "a great, handsome, caring, gentle, and wonderful
guy."

"You're talking about me right?"

"Oh yes. Now, according to the clock, we have a little more than two hours before I turn
to stone. What say we, retire to the bedroom."

"God damn." Todd rolled her over and lifted her from the couch. With Annika cradled in
his arms, he moved quickly to his bedroom and gently laid her down on his quilts,
covering the queen size bed. With a quick hop, he ended up beside her and she curled up
to him.

"I guess I was wrong."

Todd took notice of her wistful expression. "About what?"

"About your friends. I thought they wouldn't accept me."

"I told you they would. Well, at least I knew Kendra and the 'three stooges' would. And
Rose."

"She means a lot to you, doesn't she?"

"She's the closest thing I have to a mother. And I'll have words with anyone who treats
her indifferently because of her scarring."

"I thought I was supposed to be the protector."

"She took care of me all of my life, and now I'm returning the favor." Todd lifted his
brow and raised a single finger. "But this sure as hell doesn't mean I'm going to jump
off buildings and fight crime."

"I bet you'd look pretty cute with wings."

"Oh yeah, the last thing I need is a tail growing out of my ass." Todd chuffed as Annika
giggled under her breath.

She wrapped her arm around his waist and covered them both with her wings. Using her
left hand, she ran her knuckles down his brow and cheek. A low growl came forth from
the back of her throat, almost like the soft purring of a cat, and she placed her head
beside his. "I love you." she whispered adamantly, assuring him of the devotion she
carried for him.

"I love you too, gorgeous." Todd whispered back. "Of course, not as much as I love
Demona. Rrrrreow." As soon as the words left his mouth, Annika's tail snaked up and
caught him in the ribs. "OW!!!"