THE FACTS OF LIFE

By Kimberly T.

The late afternoon sun shone down on Elisa Maza's raven hair as she looked carefully all around her, watching for potential onlookers, before opening the door that led to the underground Labyrinth. Once she was inside, she took a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior… And in that moment, she was grabbed by a huge winged creature with the head of a panther.

"Hey, Sis!" Derek Maza, known more often these days as Talon the mutate and chief protector of the Labyrinth, gave Elisa a brotherly hug and set her back on her feet. "Long time no see! Did you bring the stuff I asked for?"

"Got it right here," as she hefted one of the grocery sacks she'd brought with her. "The rest is just some groceries I thought you could use down here. I've kinda gotten in the habit of buying in bulk, even when I don't need to anymore now that I'm not the guys' main food source." There was no need for her to clarify to her brother just who "the guys" were.

Derek's eyes narrowed to slits and a hint of a growl entered his voice as he said, "I still can't believe that the gargoyles went back to Xanatos. I thought they hated him almost as much as I do!"

"I don't like it either," Elisa admitted, "but Goliath has assured me they keep on their guard around him. They always leave at least two behind to guard while the rest are on patrol, and they're to radio the others at the first sign of anything suspicious. Xanatos told me the castle is theirs, no strings attached, for their help in saving his son from Oberon, but it'll be a cold day in Hell before I trust that creep farther than I can throw him."

Derek growled with his ears flattened, "I wouldn't trust him even that far."

"That's because you could throw him almost half a block," Elisa teased him. "Seriously, though, I hate to see them there, but the castle's been their home for over a thousand years; they're willing to take the chance that Xanatos is sincere this time, just to have it back again."

"Figures. Hell, I wish we'd heard about that fight at St. Damien's Cathedral before it was over; by the time we did, Xanatos had already come and flown them back to the castle. If I'd been able to get there first, I would've told them that we'd set aside some rooms for them as soon as we heard about the clocktower blowing up. I even made sure it was way out of sight and hearing of the clones' rooms, just so they wouldn't bother them!"

Elisa stared curiously at him. "Goliath told me something about Thailog and Demona having clones made of the whole clan, and you bringing them down here after Thailog bit the gravel. How much like the originals are they?"

"The colors are all wrong, like they're photo negatives or something. But when they're asleep in stone, like right now, they're a lot alike. Wanna take a look?" he asked.

"Well… Sure, why not?" and they went through the maze of corridors and chambers that gave the abandoned laboratory its nickname of Labyrinth, Derek greeting several fellow denizens along the way. All of them were courteous and respectful but not afraid of the mutate, who was well established as their main protector and de facto leader since he, Maggie, Claw and Fang had come down here to live some time ago.

Reminded of his fellow mutates, Elisa asked about them, and was informed that Claw was guarding Fang's cell for the current shift, while Maggie was babysitting some Labyrinth children for a woman who was currently up in the city job-hunting, hoping to make enough money to get herself and her children back into proper housing. "Maggie really loves kids, and funny thing is, they're usually the first ones to accept us as being people instead of monsters." Talon chuckled. "Jody and Judy even asked us how they can get some wings of their own when they grow up. They're great friends with the clones, too, though their mom isn't too happy about that; she's worried they'll play too rough, as they're not much more than kids themselves even though they're full-grown. So far, though, they've been really gentle, no problems at all," as he ushered her into a large chamber that had five gargoyle statues inside.

The gargoyles statues were scattered about the chamber, standing in various threatening poses, except for one statue close to the entrance. That one that looked amazingly like Hudson, except it was carrying a lethal-looking mace instead of a sword at its belt…and was sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding its hands cupped together in its lap. A little ball of fur nestled in those stone hands, and as Elisa drew near, the fur sprouted a tiny head that opened its eyes to look at her curiously. "A kitten?"

"Yep. That's Fluffy; Burbank found her about a week or so ago, and named her after the cat in the first-grade primer we've been teaching them to read from. They all like her, but Burbank absolutely adores her, always makes a little cradle for her with his hands whenever he goes to sleep. He's even been teaching her how to catch rats, and always—uh, never mind." Derek looked oddly embarrassed for a moment, then said briskly, "Anyway, that's Burbank, this is Malibu, that's Brentwood, this is Hollywood, and this one's Delilah."

Elisa curiously studied the group's lone female after Derek pointed her out. "I can see the resemblance with the others, but this one doesn't look much like Angela at all."

"Um… I suppose not. Goliath didn't tell you much about these guys, did he?"

"He didn't tell me any more than he had to; everyone in the clan seemed very uneasy about them. I can understand why; it'd be creepy as can be, looking at somebody who's a distorted copy of yourself. But this one's not really a copy of any gargoyle I've ever seen… Well, the wings are a lot like Angela's, and Demona's…"

"Um…" Derek looked unhappy and worried about something, then shrugged his shoulders. "Well, shoot, you'll find out sooner or later. Sis, don't think about gargoyles for a moment. Now, does Delilah remind you of anybody?"

Elisa looked confused for a moment. Then Derek reached out and covered Delilah's brow ridges and short horns with his clawed fingers, and she gasped in horrified recognition. "She looks like me!"

"Yeah. Delilah's a clone of you and Demona. Thailog combined your DNA and hers to make his idea of 'the perfect mate,' as the bastard said when he introduced her to us. Now don't go running for a sledgehammer or anything, okay?" he said worriedly. "Delilah's a good kid, and it's not her fault that she's partly you."

Elisa couldn't stop staring at Delilah. "A clone of me… and Demona."

"Yeah. Hey, no matter how much you dislike the idea, Demona was furious. She tried to claw Thailog's face off on the spot. Can't blame her a bit, really; introducing 'the other woman' right in front of her, geez."

Elisa, still staring, said slowly, "Thailog made her… the perfect mate."

"Yeah. Sick bastard, wasn't he?" Then Derek looked at her sideways. "What bothers you about her the most?"

"Everything!" Elisa shuddered.

"Elisa, this is your brother talking. What really bugs you, now that you know who she's from and what she was made for? The fact that she's partly you? The fact that she's half Demona, too? Or the fact that Thailog had her made to be his woman, and Thailog is a clone of Goliath?"

Elisa couldn't answer that, as she turned and walked away from Delilah's stone form. Derek continued, "Look, just remember that none of this is her fault; it's not any of these guys' fault that they are what they are. Or what they did to the original gargoyles; the only thing most of them were programmed to do was to 'Obey Thailog.' Now that Thailog's not in the picture any longer, they're doing the best they can to fit in here."

Elisa looked at him wryly. "I heard that phrase, 'most of them.' So who got more programming than that, as if I couldn't guess?"

Derek looked at his feet as he admitted, "Yeah, probably no big surprise. Delilah has a little more smarts than the others, but she was programmed to love Thailog, too; she's… still dealing with that."

Fluffy had decided to check out the new person who'd come into the room, and was now sitting at Elisa's feet, mewing imploringly. Eager for a chance to change the subject to anything less uncomfortable, Elisa picked her up and cooed to her, "Hello, little cutie; so Burbank's your 'daddy,' huh? Bet you're his buddy like Bronx is Hudson's buddy. So he's teaching you how to catch rats, huh? How's he doing that?" Turning to Derek, she asked, "How big a problem are rats down here, anyway? I can buy you guys some industrial-strength rat poison…"

"Um, don't bother; rats are, well, they're not that big of a problem… Besides, if Fluffy got hold of a poisoned rat and died, Burbank would be heartbroken."

Elisa looked at her brother enquiringly. "Derek… what exactly aren't you telling me?"

Derek tried hard to look innocent. " 'Scuse me?"

"This is your big sister talking. I diapered you, remember? And I fed you mud pies, too. We've been there for each other through good times and bad, and never held anything back if we weren't sworn to for somebody else's sake. I won't say another word if you're holding back to save somebody's skin, but otherwise, what's the big secret?"

Derek sighed. "Okay, but remember, you asked for it. I don't want you to bring any rat poison down here because… Dammit, Elisa, the rats are a food source!" At Elisa's gasp of shock and horror, Derek said defensively, "Meat is damned scarce down here, and I've got folks living here who'd even eat Fluffy if Burbank wasn't protecting her! Hey, at least most of us skin and cook them before eating them."

" 'Most of us'… Derek, you…?" Elisa looked like she might be sick.

"Yes, but I cook them too! Elisa, look at me! Like it or not, and believe me I don't, I'm a carnivore now! I have to have meat, or I get sick and weak. Of all four of us, Maggie held out the longest against eating rat, and she must've lost twenty pounds she couldn't afford to lose before she finally gave in. She might have died if she hadn't finally agreed to eat that stew I made for her." Derek's eyes were haunted, probably at the memory of how close he'd come to losing his ladyfriend, and Elisa overcame her revulsion enough to put a hand comfortingly on his arm. He grinned weakly at her gesture and said, "Hey, like I said, most of us at least cook them first."

Elisa smiled wryly. "Do I really want to know who doesn't?"

"No, but you'll probably find out anyway." And Derek jerked a thumb at the gargoyle clones. "You asked how Burbank's teaching Fluffy how to catch rats? By catching, killing and eating them right in front of her. All the clones will eat their first rat-kill or two of the night raw, although they'll bring the rest of them to us for cooking. Gargoyle instinct takes over for the first kill, I guess."

"Like Hell!" Elisa flared at him. "The real gargoyles never do that!"

"Like Hell they don't," Derek retorted. "I've seen them do it! It was while you and Goliath were off on your little world tour, but I saw Brooklyn scarfing down a pigeon he'd snagged from its nest on a rooftop, and stuffing the rest into a sack to take back to the clocktower!"

Elisa stared at him for long seconds in silence. Then she smiled knowingly. "Okay, you almost got me. I almost believed you for a moment or two, there. If you hadn't pushed the envelope at the last minute, you might have actually suckered me into believing you. What would you have done then, tried to serve me stew and told me there was rat in it?"

Derek just shook his head and laughed wryly. "Yeah, Elisa, I sure had you fooled for a moment there. Yeah, there's no putting one over on the big sister. What you said. C'mon, let's go see Maggie, she'll be glad to see you," and they left the chamber.

Maggie was indeed glad to see them, and the three of them had a nice conversation while watching the twins Jody and Judy play. One or the other of the children would ask every three minutes or so, "Is it sunset yet? Is it time yet? How much longer?" Derek dutifully checked the watch built into one of his wristbands when they asked, confiding to Elisa that he'd had one of their residents write down the predicted sunrise and sunset times out of an almanac at the library, after the clones had come to live with them.

Finally, he announced, "Five minutes to sunset! Let's go see them wake up." Cheering, the kids stampeded out of the room with Derek and Maggie following, as he told Elisa, "They never miss this; it's like it's their favorite show." Judging by the small group of people waiting for them at the entrance to the clones' chamber, it wasn't only the kids' favorite show. Elisa didn't blame them in the slightest; watching her friends awaken had always been her favorite sight to see. If only they hadn't gone back to living in that castle with Xanatos…

Derek counted down the seconds on his watch, and right on cue, the familiar crackling noise was heard as cracks began to appear and spread all over the stone forms in the chamber. Seconds later, the stone exploded outwards, the gargoyle clones forcibly shedding their skins as they awoke to flesh again with familiar sounding roars and snarls. The only one not evidently thrilled by the sight was little Fluffy, who'd scurried under one of the sturdy chairs in the room seconds before the first crack had appeared; Elisa wondered if she'd guessed what was about to happen from the heightened excitement of the people waiting at the entrance, or if she'd sensed the change occurring inside Burbank with some hitherto unknown feline sense. Either way, she came out from under the chair readily enough when Burbank began searching and calling for her.

The other clones readily greeted their friends after their initial stretches and roars, seemingly delighted when the children ran right up and demanded piggyback rides from Malibu and Hollywood. Brentwood, on the other hand, looked a bit glum as Maggie handed him a broom and dustpan, saying it was his turn to sweep up tonight, but he accepted them and began sweeping up and collecting all the stone shards that had been shed by the clones. "We started doing this a week after they arrived," Maggie said in an aside to Elisa. "Otherwise, this room would be ankle-deep in shards and gravel by now."

Elisa found herself staring at all the clones, the differences between most of them and their originals in the clan glaringly obvious now that they were flesh. They stared right back at her, too, but in a friendly enough fashion; to them, she was just another Labyrinth resident they hadn't been introduced to yet. Once she was introduced, though, that all changed. Delilah visibly cringed away, while Malibu, Brentwood and Hollywood all placed themselves protectively between Delilah and Elisa, Malibu growling, "You not hurt Delilah!"

"Boys, you've nothing to worry about. Elisa would never hurt Delilah. Right, Sis?" as Derek looked pointedly at her.

"Uh, right; I'm not here to hurt her!" Elisa said hurriedly. "Why would I want to?"

"Father gargoyles no like us," Malibu growled, evidently their chosen spokesperson. "Call us 'forgery' and other bad names. Demona mother to Delilah, hate her lots. You other mother to Delilah, you hate her too. But you not hurt her! We protect!" as this strange Trio all snapped their wings out in direct challenge.

Burbank, though, looked thoughtfully at her from where he was standing and petting Fluffy, and finally shook his head. "She not hate. Not happy, but not hate. Not like Demona."

"Burbank's right," Elisa reassured them. "I don't hate Delilah." She couldn't, not after the way the poor creature had cringed away from her. She felt only sorry for her, for all of them; the only other people they knew that were like them, that could understand what it was like to never see the sun or even know what it looked like except in pictures, would have nothing to do with them. It wasn't right, and she knew she'd have to talk to Goliath about it, but for now she simply settled for smiling reassuringly at Delilah, who was peeking at her from behind Hollywood's wings. Delilah waved shyly at her, then ducked her head like a little kid when Elisa waved back.

Eventually, the gargoyles all relaxed again, and most of them, Delilah included, went running out the door once the other Labyrinth residents had left. Elisa had to smile at the sight of Fluffy digging her claws into the back of Burbank's jerkin and riding him as he galloped on all fours down the corridor, before turning to walk with Derek and Maggie back to their own quarters. Some time later, she had just finished telling them all about Officer Morgan's hilarious run-in with a thief who'd tried to pick Morgan's own pocket while being handcuffed, when Maggie looked over Elisa's shoulder and said kindly, "It's all right, Delilah, you can come on in. She won't bite."

Elisa turned, and smiled to see Delilah standing uncertainly in the doorway, holding something behind her back. "Come on in, it's okay. Really."

Delilah still hung back, but said hopefully, "Not hate me?"

"No, I don't hate you. In fact, I'd like to be your friend," Elisa said reassuringly.

"Friend? Good!" Delilah visibly brightened. "Brought you present!" as she brought her hand forward.

In her hand was a very large, very dead rat.

"First kill tonight, real big one too!" Delilah said proudly. "All yours, I give present to friend-mother!"

Elisa was strongly reminded of the first time Cagney had proudly presented her with a mouse he'd caught in her apartment. Thank God her mother had been visiting at the time, and had known what to do! She'd told Elisa she should accept the mouse as the best gift Cagney could give her, and to thank him kindly for it, praise him for his excellent catch so he knew his hunting skills were appreciated, then throw the mouse into the garbage after he'd swaggered proudly out of the room. And that's what Elisa did now; she marveled, "That's a big rat, all right! And it looks like it was a clean kill, too; you must be a good huntress!" Delilah visibly preened over the praise as Elisa accepted the rat. "You did very well, Delilah. But I'm going to give this to Derek for cooking, okay? I like my meat cooked."

"I like cooked meat, too, but raw is good, when just-killed!" Delilah confided. "I go catch more, for rest of dinner," as she ran back out the door.

Elisa waved goodbye to her, then sat back in her chair with a whoosh of expelled breath, staring at the rat in her hands. Then she tossed it to Derek with a wry, "Okay, I believe you now."

"Hey, you handled that pretty well," Derek said as he neatly snagged the rat in midair. "Better than I thought you would, considering," as he got up and matter-of-factly took the rat into the kitchen.

Maggie stared at Elisa, her shame visible in her slump and the cast of her ears, as she stammered, "We… I…"

"It's okay, I understand," Elisa said as she smiled wryly. "Meat is meat, right? Bet you've got some pretty good recipes worked out by now. Hey, over in Japan, they eat raw fish, and the French eat snails and frogs!"

Reassured, Maggie sat up straighter, as she confided, "I've gotten pretty good at making stews with them."

"She sure has," Derek agreed from the kitchen. "Gonna stay for dinner, Sis?"

Elisa hurriedly looked at her watch and babbled, "Sorry, can't do it tonight, I'll be late for work! Gotta run," as she gave Maggie a swift hug, waved goodbye to Derek as he poked his head out of the kitchen, and headed out the door at a fairly fast clip, asking them to explain her absence to Delilah and the others. She could handle, sort-of, knowing they ate rats, but no way was she eating rat herself tonight! Not when there was a perfectly good cow-burger calling her name at a fast-food joint somewhere in the city.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The next night she had off, and as she brushed her hair and put on the best dress left in her closet, she hoped fervently that this night would go better than the misadventure two weeks ago had gone. Staring into the mirror at her back, she examined the nearly-healed burn mark on her shoulder blade, and once more cursed the Quarrymen just for existing, not just for ruining what could have been a wonderful date.

Twelve nights ago, she'd had a beautiful new dress on, dinner nearly ready, a bottle of wine chilled and a CD of Mozart loaded and ready to play, and had been merely waiting for Goliath to wake up and join her for an evening of tentative, could-we-maybe-make-this-work-after-all romance. An evening of quiet conversation, perhaps some cuddling, and maybe even, if she were lucky, some kissing and tentative exploration; that's what she'd been expecting and hoping for, as she'd waited for sunset to come.

Instead, she'd gotten a brand-new batch of creeps who called themselves Quarrymen and packed electrically-charged sledgehammers, and a frantic fight to keep them from smashing Goliath while he slept. Followed by a game of cat-and-mouse, with her and Goliath as the prey, across the city rooftops for hours on end.

During that final confrontation in the ruins of the old clock tower, she'd really wondered if that night would be the night she and Goliath died, and without even having a chance to warn the rest of the clan about this new menace from the very citizens they were sworn to protect. Thank God that one Quarryman had had a change of heart at the last minute, and held off the leader long enough for them to recover and give nearly everything they had left to beat him. (What was that guy's story, anyway? He'd acted like he and Goliath were old buddies, almost, but Goliath swore he'd never even heard of the man before that time he and Hudson had been assaulted by him, down by the docks. With an honest-to-God cream pie, yet! 'Tis a strange world out there, Elisa me lass, as Hudson would say.)

They'd survived the night, but with Elisa bruised and burned where a blow from a charged-up Quarryhammer had actually melted the synthetic material of her dress onto her skin, and Goliath bruised and bleeding in over a dozen places, any thought of romance was completely out of the question. As it was, they'd had to hop and climb painfully from rooftop to rooftop back to her apartment, where she used her communicator to call the rest of the clan to come and take him back to the castle; her apartment just wasn't safe territory for sleeping during the day anymore.

When the clan had arrived, with fear, rage and concern on their faces and a huge net in their hands for carrying their largest member in, Goliath had flat-out insisted that Elisa go back to the castle with them. These Quarrymen had been willing to kill her, too, merely for defending him, and her apartment wasn't safe for her anymore either.

When the clan had arrived on the castle's parapets, they'd found Owen calmly waiting for them with first aid kit in hand. He'd efficiently treated their injuries, and had outwardly not shown any offense when Brooklyn had pointedly gathered up all the used and bloodstained supplies and flown them off to a dumpster himself; no more clones, thank you very much.

Once they'd been bandaged, the question remained of where Elisa was going to sleep for the day. Xanatos had generously offered her any room in the castle, her choice. Elisa politely thanked him and declined; she explained that she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. (Not in the home of her most hated enemy, the man who'd had her brother mutated into a winged freak, she did not say but everyone heard anyway.) But Goliath had pleaded with her, finally pulling out his ace in the hole, that he really wanted someone he knew he could trust nearby while he slept in stone. There was no way Elisa could refuse that, so she'd ended up accepting Xanatos' offer of a sleeping bag, foam pad and pillow and curled up on the battlements next to Goliath. Just as he had so often before, during their 'world tour' courtesy of Avalon, Goliath had painfully spread his wings over her to protect her from the elements just before he turned to stone for the day.

When she'd awoken later that afternoon, she'd found a covered tray by her elbow. The tray had contained a small bottle of orange juice, some cellophane-sealed muffins from a well-known bakery, a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol with the seal intact, a new black T-shirt, jeans, underwear and shoes in her sizes with the tags still attached, and a handwritten invitation for her to join Xanatos in his office at her convenience. She'd done so, after using the castle facilities to freshen up. She found him on the phone with some ambassador, whom he immediately put on hold when she walked in. "Good afternoon, detective!" he'd said cheerfully. "Did my wife guess your sizes right?"

"Yes, she did," Elisa had grudgingly admitted, before bluntly demanding, "What's this all about, Xanatos?"

Seeing that his normal charm wasn't getting anywhere with her, Xanatos had sighed and spread his hands. "Look, I know there is nothing I can do that will make you believe you can finally trust me, short of curing your brother and the other mutates, and I don't know how to do that yet. I've got scientists working on reversing Sevarius' work, believe it or not, but that's beside the point right now. The fact is, whatever our feelings for each other are, the clan considers you family. And they would rather have you staying here, safe during the day, than living in an apartment that's known to these 'Quarrymen.' Speaking of which, I've got some feelers out to find out more about them, and the only word that's come back to me so far is that they're run by a man called John Castaway."

"Thanks for the info; I'll check on it at work tonight," Elisa had said flatly. "But no way in Hell am I staying here. Even if I could trust you, which I don't, Internal Affairs would throw a fit if I moved in with a pair of ex-convicts."

Xanatos had smiled wryly. "I thought so. Which is why I have a list here," as he'd offered it to her, "of apartments currently on the market, with security measures already in place that make them a little less vulnerable than your current apartment. I've marked the ones with balconies or skylights, or other gargoyle-friendly entrances; it'd be simple to install an alarm at those points with a keypad and a ten-second delay, to give visiting friends just enough time to enter the correct code and disable the alarm before it sets off a rather noisy siren, and alerts both the castle and the local police precinct. I can have a driver take you to all these apartments over the next day or two, and a team of movers from the moving company of your choice standing by to move your belongings as soon as you decide on one of them." Elisa had glared at him suspiciously, but he'd just spread his hands and said, "I owe you a lot more than this, but this is all I figured you'd be willing to accept from me."

"If even that much," Elisa had growled, but she'd accepted his offer of a car and driver from the Aerie Building's motor pool, and had started apartment-hunting after a quick note to Goliath so he wouldn't worry when he woke up alone. She hated with a passion having to leave her old apartment, her home for several years, but she just couldn't stay somewhere that wasn't safe for her best friends anymore.

The fourth apartment on the list had proven to be nearly ideal, and when she'd inquired about the rent she'd been informed that it was only $200 more per month than she was currently paying. She'd figured she could afford it now that she didn't have to buy eight times the normal amount of groceries anymore, and the deal was closed the next day. Xanatos had hired a security firm to install the motion sensors and delayed alarm on the balcony, offering to have the work order inspected by Lexington so she'd know he wasn't adding anything 'extra' to the setup. (She knew he was mocking her paranoia regarding him, but had Lex inspect it anyway.)

The security installation had taken less than 2 days, and moving all her belongings had taken only 24 more hours, with several of her buddies from the precinct helping to pack everything for the movers during the day and the clan very discreetly helping during the night. Goliath had directed two gargoyles to be on watch and alert for Quarrymen at all times, one at each apartment, while the others ferried her belongings between the sites, never taking the same route twice. Hudson had declared it an excellent exercise in evacuation through hostile territory. She'd changed her mailing address to a post office box instead of to the new apartment, just to be on the safe side; then she had started unpacking boxes and sorting things out.

Now she finally had nearly everything unpacked and in place, she had a night off again, and she was going to make this evening a success, come Quarrymen or quarantine restrictions. Once again, she had the music, the food and the wine ready; all she needed now was Goliath. She glanced out the living room window, and noted with satisfaction that sunset was only minutes away. And Goliath had said he'd be here shortly after sunset…

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Minutes after sunset, Goliath dove off the battlements, carrying his gift for Elisa held carefully in one hand. He'd disliked having to ask Xanatos for a favor, but he could hardly have just walked into a store and purchased these Godiva chocolates himself, and he was quite sure that they'd be more welcome than the traditional gargoyle courting-gift. At least the man hadn't done more than smirk in his usual irritating way as he'd handed him the box when he'd awoken. If he'd dared to make any smart remarks, Goliath would have had to explain quite firmly that his relationship with Elisa was not subject to discussion, now or ever, while dangling Xanatos over the side of the castle just for emphasis.

Actually, he found himself slightly disappointed that he hadn't had to do that; he supposed that past sins may be forgiven but never really forgotten. Still, Xanatos seemed to be making a real effort to treat the gargoyles with respect and friendship; perhaps his heart had truly changed towards them after they'd saved his son. Perhaps; miracles have happened before.

He headed straight for Central Park, and landed in a small isolated grove he'd noted some time ago that had wildflowers growing in it. It took only a few minutes to pick a bouquet of the best blooms, tying them together with a twisted strand of hairs plucked from his own sable mane; then he ran for a nearby boulder and launched again. With caution this time ruling over his eagerness to be with Elisa, he took an indirect route to her new apartment, doubling back on his own trail a few times to ensure he wasn't being followed by anyone with a grudge against gargoyles.

Once as he doubled back, he glimpsed the castle where it sat high above the rest of the Manhattan skyline, and once again felt its tug on his soul. A tug he had resisted for two long years, while living in the clocktower, but now let wash over him like an evening breeze, gently ruffling his heartstrings instead of his hair. It wasn't Xanatos' promise of a safe haven that bade the clan stay there; it was the power the very stones of that castle had over those who had been hatched in its shadow, played as hatchlings on its ramparts and spilled their blood defending it for most of their lives. He knew that if he were ever struck blind, he'd be able to find his way back to that castle from anywhere in the city simply by following its silent siren call to his soul. The castle was HOME, in a way that the clocktower, though a fine and suitable dwelling place, had never been and could never be. To his way of thinking, the castle now lacked only one thing to hold all his heart once more: Elisa.

Elisa had come to the castle only twice since the clan had moved back there; once on the same night they had returned to it, so she could see with her own eyes that they were alive and well, and the second time when he had insisted she come with him and the clan, after the Quarrymen attack. He'd gotten too used to her coming up to see him nearly every night while they'd lived in the clocktower; after that first visit, when she hadn't come to the castle for night after night after night while he waited, her absence had dug into him like someone hollowing his heart out with a dull spoon.

He'd finally been driven to ignore the strictures he'd laid on his own clan, to fly to her home though dawn was perilously near, over the protests of his clan's elder and second-in-command. Their words of protest had been sensible, but that night his heart had vehemently overruled his head. His heart had roared that he needed to see Elisa, needed just to hear her voice and see her face, to reassure himself that she was well. He'd needed that… And he'd wanted more…

That dawn after they had returned to the castle, she had kissed him. She'd jumped up into his arms like an overeager hatchling throwing itself at its favorite rookery keeper, and had firmly planted her lips against his. While she'd been doing it, he'd been too shocked to react; it had been the first time he'd ever been kissed, ever in his nearly threescore years of living. (He never counted the millennium spent sleeping in stone, waiting for the spell on himself and his brethren to be broken; he'd been unaware of time passing, and he tried hard to never think about the dreams he'd had during those centuries of sleep, so he didn't count those years as having been lived, just… skipped over.) Kissing wasn't a gargoyle custom, even though they'd seen humans doing it while living at Wyvern. It was probably because so many of them had beaks like Brooklyn, which would make kissing like Elisa had done to him a cautious affair at best, ridiculous at worst. But he had to admit, once he'd gotten over his shock, he'd liked it. Oh yes, he'd liked it! He was sure he'd gone to his stone sleep that morning with a ridiculous grin on his face instead of a properly fearsome scowl.

When he'd awakened the next night, he'd hoped to find her there waiting for him, so he could try this new custom again. And maybe, just possibly, show her a gargoyle courting custom or two. But she hadn't come that night, or the night after, or the night after that, and when he'd finally been driven to see her he'd been too upset to try courting her then, and dawn had come before he could relax and attempt another kiss. And that sunset, when he'd awoken, thoughts of courting had taken a distant second to the very real concern over whether he'd ever see another sunset again.

He and Elisa had come closer to dying that night than either of them had wanted to admit; that was part of why he had insisted she come back to the castle with him after the danger had passed. He'd needed to have her near, to reassure his anxious heart, even though courting was out of the question until they'd both healed. He'd made sure she was within his sight or hearing even while Owen had been treating their injuries, and he'd begged unashamedly for her to stay with him that day while he slept. He'd known she wouldn't refuse him, once he'd made it seem as if he didn't quite trust Xanatos to not murder them all in their stone sleep.

(Actually, perversely, that was the only time he did trust Xanatos; for some strange reason he'd had cause to be very glad of, even while they'd been enemies, Xanatos had never tried to harm them while sleeping. Unless one counted that time Hudson had been kidnapped and a stone statue left in his place, which Hudson actually laughed about whenever somebody mentioned it. Speaking of which, he really should give leave for them to scavenge the clocktower for their few possessions, now that sufficient time had passed to lure the media's attention elsewhere; Hudson had commented on wanting his souvenir of that adventure, the statue's stone head, to display in their living quarters.)

So she'd stayed that morning, had even gone to sleep under his wingspan just like she had so often on their quest, but he'd awoken that night healed but alone again, with only a brief note from her to explain why. Just a brief note! He'd nearly taken a bite out of poor Hudson, who'd been the first to see him afterwards; in the decades since his courtship with his Angel of the Night, he'd forgotten just how frustrating it could be sometimes.

He'd have seriously wondered if she regretted that kiss, had developed second thoughts on their courting, if it weren't for the memory of that dress she'd worn while they'd been fighting for their lives. By the time he'd had time to appreciate it properly, both he and it had been bedraggled and considerably worse for wear, but he'd been very aware of its significance. He hoped that she'd have another dress on tonight… And he'd wasted enough time in reflection on past events, and dodging Quarrymen that apparently weren't out hunting tonight. He rose higher into the air, and sped straight for her apartment.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Dusk had settled over the city and Elisa was beginning to get both annoyed and worried by the time she saw Goliath coming in for a landing on her balcony. "Hey, Big Guy!" she greeted him as he landed and caped his wings about his shoulders. "It's well after sunset; I was beginning to think you'd forgotten where my new place is."

"Hardly," he retorted, looking somewhat offended that she would entertain the notion for even a few seconds. "I spent some time ensuring no Quarrymen were following me; the very last thing I wish to do is lead them to your home again." Then he cleared his throat, and brought his hand forward. "I also took the time to bring you these."

At his words and the motion of his hand, Elisa suddenly recalled in vivid detail the present that she'd received from Delilah the night before; for just an instant, the image of that huge dead rat was superimposed over his gifts. Then the image passed and she saw the wildflower bouquet and the 2-pound box of Godiva chocolates he'd brought, but some perverse demon of her subconscious made her say, "Well, now! These are way better than a rat or pigeon."

Goliath nearly dropped the box, and his jaw nearly bounced off his chest. "H-how did you--I told them all to never eat those in front of you!"

(Ah-hah!) Elisa regarded him with a rueful smile. "So you did eat them, sometimes."

Goliath looked like he was wishing he could rewind the last fifteen seconds. "Er…"

She raised a hand to ward off the explanation/apology she knew was coming. "It's all right. You didn't let the cat out of the bag just now; Derek did yesterday, when I went to see him before work. Then when I met the clones, Delilah tried to make friends with her 'other mother'—and by the way, we are going to have to talk about that—anyway, she tried to make friends with me by giving me her first catch of the night. It seems rats are part of a well-balanced diet for gargoyle clones; how about for the originals?'

"Er…" Yes, he was definitely blushing, a rather interesting shade of purple.

"Come on, you might as well tell me. I'm a big girl, I can handle it," Elisa joked. "What are we talking, a three-pigeon-a-night habit?"

"Er… More like four."

Elisa stared at him, then said weakly, "I was joking."

"Unfortunately, I was not. Elisa, I… we…" He looked away, then blurted out, "You never brought enough meat! You always brought food, but never enough meat; we have larger appetites than the average human, and these fangs are not just for decoration; we must have meat in our diet, to be fit warriors! But it would have been beyond rude to ask you to bring more than you were already providing, not out of a pact of protection like at Wyvern in days of old, but out of your heart's generosity! So, we foraged. Sometimes we would get the leavings from restaurants before the homeless humans came for them, but mostly it was pigeons and rats, caught while on patrol. The custom became for the first and last warriors to return from patrol to bring extra meat back for those who stayed to guard the clocktower. I'd made everyone swear to never eat them in front of you, so we got in the habit of tying the sack to the steeple upon returning, just in case you were waiting below. If you weren't, we went back for the sack; if you were, then the ones in need of the meat would feel the need to 'stretch their wings for a bit', and go to eat their fill." The whole time he'd been talking, he'd been staring out into the night, but at the last sentence, he turned to look at her and smile wryly; he was sure she could guess why.

"Oh, Goliath…" Elisa hugged him, feeling very ashamed of herself. "So that was why you were so hesitant sometimes, when you wanted to stretch your wings and I'd ask if you'd take me along for the ride!" On those occasions when she'd noticed his hesitation, she'd thought that maybe he actually needed to void his bladder or something, and had withdrawn her request immediately. But still, "I must have cost you quite a few dinners that way. I'm so sorry…"

He hugged her back, saying reassuringly, "You've nothing to feel sorry about. As you told me once, we are what we are."

"But you really should have said something! I could have worked out a way to buy meat in bulk, I'm sure, if you'd just told me there was a need for it. Instead, you had to forage for vermin." She shuddered eloquently. "I can't imagine what they must have tasted like…" She looked up into his face again, to see if he accepted her apology, and instead found a most interesting expression on his face. "What is it?"

"Er… What is what?"

"That look. What were you thinking of, just then? I want the truth, buster."

She half expected him to say something along the lines of, "Actually, the pigeons weren't half-bad." Instead, he blushed and said, "Since you asked for the truth… I was thinking, you seemed to think they tasted pretty good."

"WHAT!"

"We didn't always eat them raw, Elisa; actually, rat is far better if it's cooked properly. So, Broadway would experiment with rat and pigeon meat in his recipes. Those times when you occasionally shared a meal with us, the meat in the main dish hadn't always been part of the groceries you'd brought. Remember that stew Broadway made just before we left for Avalon, that you wanted the recipe for, but Broadway said he couldn't remember exactly what he'd put into it? He remembered very well, but he saw me silently warning him not to tell you that you'd just eaten pigeon stew instead of chicken... And that chili you raved over? That was rat."

"Oh. Oh, me and my big mouth." Elisa wondered if it was possible to throw up a meal from nearly a year ago.

Goliath saw her sickened expression and sighed. "I'm sorry, but you did ask." He looked away, and sighed again. "I should go now; they're probably waiting for me back at the castle." Actually, everyone there had been told not to expect him until close to sunrise, but he could tell that his confessions had most thoroughly killed any chance of continuing their courtship this evening. Why hadn't he just kept his big mouth shut? Some clan leader he was, with gravel for brains when it came to courting a female, he berated himself as he climbed onto the balcony's railing and prepared to launch.

"Wait, don't go!" Elisa said hurriedly. This was the first night she'd had alone with him in entirely too long, and darned if she was going to let her momentarily queasy stomach spoil it. She told him so, adding, "Besides, if I ate it and lived, and even liked it in Broadway's recipes, it can't be all bad. And like I told Maggie, in Paris they eat frog's legs and snails."

"Snails! I refuse to even try those. A gargoyle has at least some taste," Goliath said with wounded dignity. When Elisa smiled, he was heartened and continued, "We also considered it part of keeping our environment clean; the more rats and pigeons we ate, the fewer there were to spread disease and filth about the city."

"Hmph. Guess you're right at that," Elisa admitted. Then she grinned as she added, "And it must have been sweet revenge sometimes to eat the pigeons, considering what they like to do to statues during the day."

Goliath chuckled and agreed with her, adding that what pigeons and other birds did to them during the day was one reason why gargoyles were in the habit of forcibly bursting out of their old stone skins every night. "And yes, sometimes it was sweet revenge indeed. Besides, with a healthy pigeon you catch yourself, you're sure of good meat, and even if it's caught by others, you at least know what you're eating. There was food you brought to us that we truly wondered whether or not we should touch with our bare talons, let alone eat."

"What! Come on, did you seriously think I would ever poison you?" Elisa asked with outrage in her stance. "What was it that were you afraid to eat?"

In response, Goliath went into her apartment's kitchen, and searched through the cupboards until he pulled out a box of cereal. It was a kiddie cereal that Elisa couldn't get enough of as a kid, and still indulged in occasionally as an adult, mostly when she was feeling depressed (when her brother had first been mutated, she'd gone through three boxes in a week.)

He turned the box to read the ingredients label, and recited aloud some of the more interesting ingredients. "Partially hydrogenated soybean oil, modified corn starch, guar gum, high fructose corn syrup, calcium carbonate, dicalcium phosphate, trisodium phosphate, citric acid, malic acid, red dye no. 40… Some of these things sound lethal, or at least illegal. Are you quite sure this is safe to eat?" Then he turned, and grinned at her. Elisa's jaw dropped. It was so rare that Goliath showed his humorous side that she sometimes forgot he had one, but now he was out-and-out teasing her!

"Oh, that's it! That is it, buster!" she exclaimed, as she stalked towards him. Goliath hastily put the box down and retreated from the kitchen, a look of apprehension on his face as she followed him out, declaring, "I've been wanting to do this for a long time, Goliath… and now you're going to get it!" as she leaped straight for him. Goliath made an apprehensive sound and tried to dodge her, but she closed in on him with fingers out and poking, rapidly probing here and there… Then suddenly he yelped and tried to pull away, but she shouted triumphantly, "AH-HAH! You are ticklish! En guarde, Big Guy!" as she attacked without mercy.

In very short order she had Goliath on the floor and utterly helpless, laughing until the tears were streaming down his face. He curled up into a ball with his back pressed hard against the sofa and his wings caped tightly around his body, as he tried to protect himself from her merciless fingers. "S-s-s-stop, ha-ha-ha-p-please st-stop! M-m-mercy! Mercy! Ha-ha-ha-ha! S-s-spare the pr-prisoner!" Elisa grinned and decided to let up on him. She perched on the sofa, grinning smugly, as he slowly relaxed, uncurled and caught his breath. "Ohhh… Oh, by the Dragon… Oh, it's been decades." Decades since the last time he'd laughed so hard, let alone the last time anyone had dared to tickle him! He smiled weakly, wondering if he could stand up yet.

Before he could get to his feet, Elisa eyed the skin directly between his huge wings, which he'd kept pressed tight against the sofa for most of the attack. She'd just bet that was a very ticklish spot… Time for round two! And she lightly ran her fingers up his spine between the wings.

Goliath gasped and went rigid, his back straightening and his wings reflexively flaring. His face was turned away from her, but she could see his eyes go wide, almost bulging out from their deep sockets, before blazing white as though in a rage. Uh-oh. Evidently she'd done something seriously wrong. She jerked her hand back as she whispered, "Goliath?" When he didn't respond immediately, she carefully, soothingly stroked the area she'd just tried to tickle. "Goliath, I'm--"

His tail whipped around her waist before she even realized it was moving, and she yelped as she found herself being pulled bodily off the couch, and whipped through the air into Goliath's arms as he twisted to grab her. He crushed her to his chest with a rumbling growl, roughly stroking her own back.

Almost as suddenly as he'd grabbed her, he let go and held her at arm's length, and looked at her with utter dismay in his expression. "Elisa, forgive me! I-I lost control for a moment, I'm sorry!"

Elisa stared at him in honest confusion. "Goliath, what the heck was that about?" Then something told her to look down, and she did… And noticed that his loincloth was definitely hanging differently than before. As if something behind it had gotten larger… "Oh. Oh, my…"

Goliath slapped a wing down across himself, blushing furiously. "I'm sorry, I… I have to go!" as he let go of her and hastily rolled to his feet. He'd taken only two steps towards the balcony when he felt her grab his wing. He didn't dare look at her again as he mumbled, "I'm sorry. I know you didn't mean this to happen..."

"Maybe not," she said softly, "But I'm not all that sorry it did." He stared at her, as she continued, "Goliath, we're both adults. You've had a mate before, and you should know I've… well, I'm hardly a virgin. So we both know that sometimes, the 'little general' acts without orders…. but it doesn't have to destroy the entire evening. Take a glide to cool down if you need to, but I really want you to come back."

He nodded slowly, then went out to the balcony and simply stood there for a few minutes, staring up at the stars. He marveled again at this female he'd chosen to court, who had less than half of his span of years, since humans aged so much faster than his kind, but at times showed more wisdom than Hudson. Behind him, he heard the sound of dishes and silverware rattling in the kitchen and dining room. When he regained his composure and turned around, he saw that Elisa had set out the dinner she'd prepared for them. So wise, and so lovely in her human way. If only she'd been able to keep her wings, he thought wistfully, then ruthlessly squashed the thought as he walked back in.

They ate the salad and lasagna she'd made for them, letting the music from the stereo fill the companionable silence. Then she casually said, "So, I take it the skin between the wings is particularly sensitive."

Goliath almost choked on his food. Then he recovered and said, "Very sensitive. It's… usually, only one's chosen mate touches back there in love. An enemy landing a blow in that spot can easily incapacitate his opponent."

"Kind of like kicking a guy in the crotch." When Goliath agreed emphatically, she reflected that it was typical of them both, that it was easier for them to talk about fighting than about loving. Part of her wanted to retreat to that safety; they could easily spend the rest of the evening talking about her work as a cop, his clan's patrols over the city, and other safe subjects. But that wasn't what she was wearing the dress for, and that wasn't why he'd brought the flowers and chocolates. So, still looking at her salad, she asked in the same casual tone, "So, is that how you were seeing me just then? As your…" She couldn't quite get herself to say the words, "chosen mate."

Utter silence for a few moments, as she continued to look down at her plate. Then she finally peeked past her curtain of hair, to see Goliath slowly and inevitably rising from his chair (which groaned in relief), to stand next to hers. He held his huge hand out for her, and she tremblingly put her own hand in it. He noticed the trembling, as he gently drew her away from the table, to come with him out to the balcony again.

Once they were outside, he knelt on one knee, the better to see into her face, as he gently enveloped her in his wings. He said very seriously, "Elisa, I tried for a long time to resist my feelings for you, because I could not see how we could be together. We come from such different worlds, such different species. But I can not deny it any longer, nor do I wish to. Yes, Elisa, I love you, and I intend to court you for a mate. To become one with you, as my kind say, now and forever. I believe you love me as well, or I would not be so bold as to say this; if I'm mistaken in your feelings for me, please say so now, before we go any further."

Elisa gently laid a hand on his cheek as she said, "You're not mistaken, Goliath. I love you, too." Then she leaned in closer and tilted his head enough to kiss him soundly. Unlike the first kiss on the parapets, this one was returned with interest.

As the kiss went on, and evolved into nuzzling each other's features, Goliath began a low rumbling sound, almost a basso purring. Elisa found she liked that sound vibrating through him and into her as she pressed herself against him, running her hands through his sable mane and across the leathery skin on his shoulders, and brushing across his brow ridges with her lips. In turn, he nuzzled the curve of her neck with his own lips like soft suede, flicking his tongue into the hollow at the base of her throat, before progressing over to her left ear. The rumbling grew louder, rougher… Then suddenly he broke off the nuzzling and pushed her away from him, to hold her at arm's length for a few seconds while he threw his head back and gulped in great shuddering breaths, his half-closed eyes burning white with what she now knew was passion.

When Goliath had regained his composure, he said with that rumbling growl still evident in his voice, "We must be careful, Elisa. I love and desire you so much, but I dare not forget our physical differences. You possess such strength of spirit, but your form is so fragile… You're barely half my size, and your skin is… so delicate," as he gently caressed her cheek. "I would not for all the world want to hurt you. We must make this a slow courtship, learn what is and is not possible for us."

Elisa nodded slowly. "I understand… And you're right, Big Guy. We'll take it slow. It won't be easy to keep it slow, though," she said honestly. "I have to tell you, I've been wondering what it'd be like for over a year now."

Goliath half-chuckled. "So have I."

Elisa smiled and hugged him again, but a platonic hug like they'd shared often before, before leading him back inside and over to the living room couch. Once they were seated (and once again, she gave herself points for buying the sturdiest couch on the market), she snuggled in under his arm and settled against his chest. "So… why don't you tell me what a gargoyle courtship is like?"

He chuckled, and gestured at the vase of wildflowers and the box of Godiva chocolates sitting on the coffee table. "To start with, some of the traditional courtship gifts are different than what I've seen of traditional human gifts. We both give flowers, but in the old days the food would have probably been a haunch of venison, from a deer just killed by the courting male."

Elisa eyed him curiously. "Do tell?"

Goliath nodded. "In the old days, we didn't know such confections as chocolate existed. But even if we had, the point of the food was to show the female being courted that the male could hunt and provide for her while she was heavy with egg."

"Heavy with egg," Elisa echoed. She absently stroked his arm, not quite daring to look at his face as she said softly, "That's something we'd have to discuss sooner or later, you know. Any physical relationship between us won't--can't result in babies, or hatchlings or whatever. I mean, horses and donkeys can produce mules as offspring, but our species are just way too different; it'd be like trying to cross horses with ostriches."

Goliath nodded somberly. "I know. That has bothered me a great deal; part of the reason why I resisted the idea of our being mates for so long. Because it would deny you any children you might desire… And deny my race the hatchlings we so desperately need to survive." He sighed gustily. "That's why I attended the wedding of Fox and Xanatos, and tried to remind Demona of the love we once shared and the vows we'd once taken together, even though I knew she would never consent to being my mate again, after all that had happened between us. She was the only female gargoyle we knew of at the time…"

"And you were hoping that she'd at least be willing to bear an egg for you, just to keep the race going," Elisa said for him gently. When he nodded again, she continued, "But now that you know there are other clans in existence around the world, including all the clan's children in Avalon… And knowing that Angela, your own daughter, is full grown and probably looking at one of the Trio as potential mate material, to give you a grandkid eventually… I think all that has let you off the hook regarding Demona, at least as far as being mates with her again."

"Yes. And so… I can accept that we will never share the burden and joy of bearing an egg together," as he took her hand and looked seriously into her eyes. "But can you, Elisa? Can you accept a lifelong mate that can never give you a child?"

Elisa smiled half-sadly, half-wryly. "I've never been the motherly type, anyway. Whenever somebody hands me a baby, I get scared to death that I'll drop it or something. And I'd rather take on Tony Dracon and his men again than face a full diaper pail!"

He laughed with her at that last remark, then drew her against him with his wing, to snuggle her close again. "So that is one question settled."

"Which only leaves a few thousand more," Elisa agreed. "And the next one will be… sleeping arrangements. Goliath, I'm sorry, but there's no way I can ever sleep under the same roof as Xanatos; he's hurt me and my family too much. Some things, like Derek's mutation, just can't be forgiven. I understand, though, why you and the others want to stay there… But do you suppose, maybe, you could sleep here instead?"

Goliath looked troubled. "I would like to very much, but my presence in stone on your balcony would attract those accursed Quarrymen sooner or later. And leading my clan when I'm not actually there with them at sunrise and sunset could cause tensions the clan doesn't need now, so soon after our lives have changed yet again. Perhaps, though, on certain occasions… It's hardly dignified, but I suppose I could crouch down to sleep and let you drape some sort of concealing fabric over me for the day."

"To look like patio furniture under a dust cover," Elisa said with her half-smile. "Well, if you're willing, I'm willing! How about we do that for the mornings after my nights off, so we can enjoy each other's company right to the last minute?" Goliath thought that was an excellent idea, and they sealed the bargain with a kiss.

A kiss that deepened, and the rumbling purr began again as Elisa shifted herself onto Goliath's lap for some serious necking. She only stopped to come up for air, when she felt an object beginning to poke into her hip. She didn't need to glance down again to know what it was, and she whispered huskily to Goliath, "I know what question I want to have answered next."

His eyes burning white again, Goliath rumbled, "And that question is…?"

Elisa reached down to stroke the bulge under his loincloth as she whispered, "Just how much of a size difference are we really talking about?"

He framed her face in his hands to look straight into her eyes as he inquired huskily, "Are you truly ready for this?"

"Uh-huh."

"Then you shall see." And he gently set her to one side so he could stand up. His wings shivered ever-so-slightly and his tail twitched in agitation caused by equal parts of desire and nervousness, but he very deliberately got up from the couch, turned to face her, and undid the buckle of his belt, letting his loincloth drop to the carpet.

Elisa thought she had been ready for this, but she still gasped and her eyes went wide as she saw what the loincloth had hidden. "Oh… Wow. Oh, wow." His member was larger--really larger--than the biggest one she'd ever seen, and that included the guy in that "King Dong" porno film her roommate at the Police Academy had snuck into the dorm one night. And it was pointing straight at her… She could almost hear Christie's voice in her ears, saying cheerfully, "Now that's a loaded weapon!"

She swallowed hard, but reached out to gently stroke along his impressive length. Goliath's reaction to her touch was just as impressive; his tail lashed convulsively, shoving the coffee table aside, while his wings unfurled with a leathery snap and his head went back with a loud groaning growl of passion. His hands curled into shaking fists, his talons digging into his palms hard enough to draw blood while she stroked. And so help her, he grew even larger under her touch… Oh, this could be a problem. A problem Christie would have killed to have, but still a problem. But maybe… She stopped stroking, and waited until Goliath looked down at her as she whispered, "Goliath… You're so massive, I'm not positive I can handle this. But I want to try. We-we'll need a lot of foreplay to, um, prepare me, and…"

"And I must be able to stop," Goliath rumbled as he backed away a little and crouched down on one knee again, "whenever you feel it has become more than you can withstand. Hrrmmm…" He stared at the carpet as he considered. "Stopping will be the larger problem; when I'm close to the peak, even your voice may not penetrate the passion clouding my mind. But if you cannot reach back to hit me between the wings, then feel free to punch me in the eye." When Elisa protested that she didn't want to hurt him, either, he sternly insisted that she do so if she was ever in danger of being hurt. "I'd far rather go home with a black eye that will be healed by next sunset than with your harm on my conscience." Then he smiled, a slow suggestive smile as he reached for her. "As for 'foreplay'… I have a few ideas on that…"

He carefully removed her dress and high-heeled shoes without needing any help, and she managed to get her lucky bra off before he got frustrated by the hooks in the back. He snagged her nylons when he took them off, but she assured him that it was almost to be expected; they were practically disposable, really. They both trembled as he removed her silk panties, and she was naked on the couch with him as he explored her body and her pleasures.

He'd done a lot of reading to prepare for this night, even watched a particular cable channel when he was sure the clocktower was empty of the other clan members (except for Bronx, and he'd never tell.) He had a fair idea of what human females in general liked as foreplay, and a lot of it was what gargoyle females liked, too. Human mating wasn't too different, in theory, from gargoyle mating, if you ignored the wings and tails. Still, he shyly asked her as he nuzzled here, caressed there, "Do you like that? …And this?"

"Oh yes, I like that!" she gasped. "And more of that!" So far, this was better than she'd ever had it before; for a guy from another species, he was so good at this, it was unbelievable! He was so "Owww!"

At her yelp of surprise and pain, Goliath jerked back before freezing, as if he'd gone into stone at the sound of her voice. Then he carefully backed away even further, his head and wings drooping as he mumbled an apology.

Elisa grabbed him by the hand before he could get up and said, "It's all right. Really, I'm okay. You were doing fine, more than fine, up until that nip, and even that would have been okay if it were a little gentler. Not quite so hard next time, okay? Now get back here, Big Guy, because we are definitely not finished here yet!" as she pulled him down for another kiss. Hesitantly at first, then with returning enthusiasm, he returned to his explorations. She was very glad she'd managed to save the evening all the times he'd been about to stop or leave, as he used that delightfully long tongue on her… and even his tail! "Oh, Goliath… God, you're so good, that feels so good…" He answered her with his basso rumble and an intensifying of his efforts, until her back arched off the couch and she thought she was about to howl with her need.

When she sat up abruptly, his first thought was that he'd done something wrong again. But when she jumped up and grabbed him by the forearm, and started pulling him towards the darkened bedroom, he smiled again and willingly let her lead him in. She turned him so he had his back to the bed and pushed him to lie down on it face-up, and he understood; this way would keep her in control, reduce the chances of her being hurt again in their passions. As he carefully sat down and lay back, angling his wings so they wouldn't be in her way, some little demon of humor bubbled up from his subconscious and he couldn't resist saying as he fluttered his lashes at her, "Be gentle with me!"

"Gentle with…! Big guy, prepare to be ravished!" Elisa laughed, as she knelt on hands and knees next to him, then straddled his broad chest. Then suddenly all the humor vanished as the Big Question loomed in both their minds: Would she be able to… could they…

Yes.

THE BEGINNING