51 - "The Return: Part 1"
Originally Written: March 12th, 2001

September 10th, 2001
A relatively normal night in Manhattan, where became the figurative adage true to form,
for it was business as usual on this cool evening. The summer had slowly drifted past,
soon giving away to the piquant taste and scents of the drying foliage of Autumn. The
season of dramatic change, where the soft emerald fell away to crisp shades of red and
light brown, bathed in the setting sun.

Upon the cornices came the dying light, the final remains of the sun, surrendering it's
domain to the ancient stars above. And within the drone and clatter of the city, a chorus
of voices scattered across each stone with a vibrant resonance, carrying each inflection
and emotion in perfect clarity. An argument had ensued in Wyvern's courtyard, as two
youthful tones fused together in the light winds.

"When I volunteered for this, I didn't think you were tapping directly into my brain,
Lex!"

"It's perfectly safe, Hawkins. I've read the specs, and even helped design this thing,
there's nothing that can go wrong. Unless of course, you're hit by a freak bolt of
lightning, and the ensuing electrical charge short-circuits your brain, leaving you a
complete vegetable."

Todd Hawkins looked wide-eyed to his smaller counterpart, as Lexington threw him a
wide grin, a sardonic gesture to instill a sense of fear into the human. "That ain't funny,
man!"

"He is only kidding, Todd," replied an approaching figure, "the suit and it's cybernetic
systems are completely protected and insulated against any electrical charge." It was
Demona, brushing Lexington aside and indicating for him to take his place back near the
computers. She reached to his forehead, a light touch of her talons grazing across the
young man's peach-toned skin, where she made the final adjustments to the cybernetic
device, adhered to his very flesh. "Even though this device is transmitting directly into
your cerebral cortex, it is automatically designed to shut down if anything breaches the
safety limits." She reached behind to the back of his neck, adjusting a matching device,
embedded into the skin just above his spinal cord. "As is this one..."

Todd grimaced slightly, even as he felt the warm skin of a beautiful gargoyle adjusting
the foreign apparatus on his forehead, teeming with a temperate warmth, a peculiar
radiance that seemed quite unnatural. "I sure hope so."

"Trust me." Demona calmed him, her voice unlike that he had ever heard before,
appearing to change whenever she was in direct contact with him. "Nothing will happen
to you. I intend to take very good care of our test subject."

"You guys only accepted me as the first test pilot because I'm the most expendable of the
clan." Todd drawled, his biting tone seething through thinned lips.

Demona smiled, and rapped a few times on the left shoulder joint of the armor. "Trust
me." She drew in another breath, before facing Todd for the last time. "Are you ready?"

Todd cocked an eyebrow, and straightened out, a stance of a soldier, and the grin of a
fool. "Look at me, Red. I'm Heero Yuy. 'Mission...accepted'." He laughed out loud, if
only to ease his nervousness, and Demona dragged a talon across his cheek, before
moving away.

She backpedaled in a swaying motion, keeping her eyes glued on the human, left to
himself on the helipad of the castle courtyard. She rejoined Lexington near an
assemblage of computers and vital statistic monitors, connected with a thick umbilical of
cords and wires to the castle's power systems, and watched with envy the young
gargoyle's hands becoming a blur as he delved into his favored dominion of technology.
A part of his healing process, spending several hours a night in either helping to design
the suit's hardware, or even continuing to rebuild the Coldstone cyborg. He was now
busy preparing the pre-flight sequence, and seemed oblivious to Demona's presence, or
that of David Xanatos, watching from behind, having as much stake in this as the azure
gargess.

"I hope this works," he commented idly, with a languid step towards the gargoyle pair,
"previous tests have been complete failures."

"What was that?!" cried Todd, too far away to pick up more than a smattering of hushed
words and remarks.

"Nothing!" Demona called back, swelling into a crooked grin at his growing fear.
"Please, Xanatos, it doesn't make good business sense to alarm our guinea pig.
Especially when he needs a clear mind to concentrate."

Xanatos echoed her own smile. "Indeed."

"Lexington, upload the transfer software and form the link, but slowly. Give him time to
adjust..."

Lexington complied silently, reaching for a dial in the absolute chaos of his computer
systems, including a polaroid of a certain emerald-skinned girl. His gaze flicked up to
where Todd was standing, and knowing the human's eyes were planted squarely on his
friend's. A nod of his head was the only signal given, and he slowly moved the dial in a
circular motion. The computers were empowered with his simple command, as they
surged with a caustic humming, unnerving the trio with the incredible power flowing
through.

Todd stood silently, until he felt a odd sensation in the device attached to his forehead.
Suddenly, a small jolt erupted in the base of his neck, inflaming every nerve in his spinal
cord. "Whoa..." he gasped, as his body seemed to expand into the suit of armor he was
wearing. A nervous twitch resulted in a flicker of his wings, the metallic pinions
outstretching with a snap.

Demona leaned forward, watching with a giddy excitement, her expensive business
venture between Nightstone Unlimited and Xanatos Enterprises, perhaps bearing fruit
before her dark eyes. Xanatos took great interest as well, seeing his costly investment
powering up.

Todd tilted his head up to the sky, his lower lip trembling with a rush of energy flowing
through his body. He could feel the suit of armor he had volunteered to test, a brand new
design, crossed between Demona's Valkyrie, and Xanatos' Steel Clan, becoming as if his
own skin, the systems feeding power acting as his veins and arteries.

Slightly resembling the gargoyle form yet without the tail, it was sleeker, dressed in a
glossy black, with violet metallic trim, and perhaps a few embellishments and styling
queues borrowed from a Japanese anime. The wings were outstretched, razor sharp,
possessed of a reflective raven tint, with a fifteen foot span, and were fluttering. A direct
neuro-link had allowed Todd to control his new appendages with just the two implants
and his own thoughts, and it seemed the experiment was working. He spied upon his
hands, with the taloned ends of his fingers being balled into fists, clenched with ten times
his own strength. "Oh man," he whispered, "this feels...awesome."

"Todd," called Demona, "the helmet."

Todd nodded, and with only a few seconds of concentration, the stowed helmet flipped
around and the two separate pieces were joined with an invisible seam. Barely
possessing a face, but with two deep glowing eyes set against a ghostly, featureless
facade and a sharpened dual-spurred brow, as if a ninja stolen from feudal Japan.

"Todd, can you hear me?" It was Demona, speaking through the helmet's digital
transmitter.

"L-Loud and clear, Red." he responded, still struggling to maintain a clear mind through
the euphoria of this new burst of power.

"How do you feel?"

"Like I have wings. This is friggin' amazing. I can feel the wings...my wings, my claws,
my weapons...everything..."

"Good. That means the neural implants are working perfectly. Now, can you access the
flight systems?"

Todd stalled his answer, searching through the flood of information, displayed directly
into his mind as if a floating, disembodied computer screen. "Hold on..."

"Concentrate, Todd." Demona whispered softly, her harmonious voice caressing upon his
ears. "See it in your mind. Just like we discussed."

His wings responded lightning quick, and the twin boosters, hidden within a louvered
scoop, powered up. "Let's fly." A column of flames erupted from the jet pack in the
armor's backside, and spilled upon the battlements. The force of the thrusters lifted him
effortlessly, the added weight of titanium, steel and carbon-plastic composites seeming to
disappear completely. The trio of spectators watched with a silent awe as Todd took off
into the night sky, leaving only a slight waft of smoke to mark his passing.
"YEEEEEEEEEE-HAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!" He cleared the highest turrets, and found
himself in the swath of currents, his polished form cutting through even the most
powerful of Autumn gusts. His implants were reacting even to the balmy weather, he
could sense the winds against him, even feel what clouds remained to hinder his flight,
swirling around his armor.

As he straightened out, he was still attempting to smooth his trajectory, the direct link to
his mind clear as a Winter frost, yet having never flown before, he was unsteady among
the clouds. A new respect was gained for Annika and the other gargoyles, never
understanding just how much concentration it took to fly as gracefully as they always had
managed to, even in the harshest of weather conditions.

"How does it feel to fly on your own two wings?" asked Demona, her voice seeming to
fill the entire cavity of his helmet. She was left within the confines of the castle walls,
using a simple transmitter hooked over her ear, with the microphone extended near her
lips, to speak to her friend now crossing over them at speeds up to two hundred miles per
hour.

"Oh man, Red, this is some hot shit!" he yelled back to her, executing a barrel roll and
several aerodynamic movements within the air, leaving a slight trail of white smoke, only
to dissipate extremely quickly.

"Lexington," said Xanatos, with the ever present smirk, "release the clan."

Lexington chuckled beneath his breath, at last discovering just what could make him
laugh in these past few weeks, that of torturing the human artist, and punched in the
startup codes for a silent army roosting to their side. Four Steel Clan robots, and a
Valkyrie, surged with energy one by one, and with a distinct row of metallic snaps, a
disheartening tone, came their instruments of flight. They launched themselves into the
air, their targeting systems trained on the suit above them, and increasing their speed with
every passing second.

"Is this wise?" asked Demona, eyeing the robotic gargoyles approaching Todd's playful
acrobatics.

"Tests one and two were successful. The mindlink and flight systems." Xanatos replied.
"Now it's time for test three. Weaponry and defensive systems."

Demona sighed, and turned her gaze back to the sky, and a battle about to ensue.
"Todd," she spoke clearly into the microphone, "I believe you should look below you."

"Huh?" Todd looked down, hanging suspended in the sky, and seeing his helmet register
five incoming targets. "What the fuck? Are they going to attack me?!"

Suddenly, a crimson energy beam strafed across his shoulder, allowing him the answer he
had asked for in quite a brutal response. The suits enclosed on him, a classic stratagem
for an aerial battle, to effectively trap him and limit his maneuverability.

"Shit!!" Todd was almost on the verge on panic, as the Steel Clan formed a ring around
him, steadily increasing their proximity.

"Access the weapons systems," came Demona's calming influence, "and display just how
powerful this new suit is."

Todd searched through the screen in his mind, accessing what seemed to be a part of him
now. A slight tingling in his forearms resulted in two matching beam weapons
protruding from hidden compartments from the armor. "Targeting systems online." he
whispered, as the helmet display found each robot in his view within the scanners.
"Well...welcome to the party, boys...let's dance." His bravado was supported by the
upsurge of energy erupting from the prominent weapons, a laser beam directed towards
the first two robots, and shearing through their steel forms. The first two victims were
effectively cut in half, and their broken forms falling to the castle below. "Two down..."
Todd remarked, now beginning to feel perhaps a little more confident.

The three remaining robots rushed in to shorten his weapon range, and Todd recognized
this particular move, and instructed his suit to lift in altitude. The robots followed, still
sending their own laser beams at him. He broke through the light cloud cover, bathed in
the light of the crescent moon. His suit reflected the delicate beams of an eerie, azure
radiance, as he ducked between stray drifts of ivory cotton, evading his attackers. A
simple course correction resulted in a perfect loop, bringing him behind a single
automaton, and he unloaded with his weapons, creating an explosion of an orange-tinted
ball of flames and a spray of dull gray metal, sent falling to rain upon the castle's ancient
stones. Todd soared through the billowing smoke, and hoped to find the other robots
near him.

Yet only one lingered within the sights of his scanners, the last of the Steel Clan, and he
dived low to bring himself on top of it. Todd drove himself into the robot's back,
directly between the wings, and before it could react, used a single clenched fist to
puncture directly through the robot's chest cavity, ripping out a handful of wiring and
circuitry, an impressive feat, due to the robot's thick armor plating. Todd lifted from the
dead corpse, and pushed it away from him with cybernetically enhanced legs. He
hovered there, watching it descend and impact on the castle's surface.

Xanatos grimaced when the last of his robots were dispatched. "Those were expensive."
he muttered, only inflaming Demona's smirk, to swell into an even larger grin.

"The Valkyrie is the only robot left, naturally." she jested to her business rival turned
partner. "Let's see how Mr. Hawkins deals with the top of the line."

Todd whirled around, completing a three hundred sixty degree circle on both axes, yet
the Valkyrie had disappeared. It was not until a hit registered on his left wing, creating a
scorch mark, and leaving a puft of smoke to rise off the shimmering ebony steel, that he
knew the robot was close. "OW!!!" Todd screeched. "I...felt that..."

"The uplink to your suit allows you to feel whatever befalls your suit," Demona
explained casually, having heard his cry of pain, inflicting her own heart in seeing this
young man hurt, "yet to a much smaller degree."

"Tell that to my wing!" Todd yelled back, circling around to catch sight of a rapidly
descending Valkyrie, almost appearing to form it's stoic female features into a cold
sneer, modeled after Demona. "Oh crap, here comes the bitch..." Todd took off, seeing
just how fast this suit could take him. The Valkyrie followed behind, mimicking every
movement he made in his attempt to gain the upper hand. "This one's good..." he
grumbled, hoping Demona would not hear that brief liberation of his fear. He turned
completely around, sending out a few loose blasts, but even with the automatic targeting,
could not hit the agile android. A raw burst of speed from his opponent ensued, and
suddenly, a metallic haymaker was released onto his jaw. "Oof!!" Todd was sent
reeling, flipping end over end, until he found a moment to right himself, only to be
dragged into another punch, and a kick to the chest plate.

Demona, Xanatos, and Lexington watched from below, using the castle's cameras
directed skywards, to witness the battle on the computer screens, for they had flown too
far to be seen without the aid of technology. "Come on, Todd," whispered Demona,
"fight back."

The armor clad duo engaged in an aerial slugfest, with Todd receiving almost worse than
he was giving to his opponent. He was losing in the blow to blow contest, and could not
steady his arm mounted lasers to get off a single shot. Without warning, another hand
came across his jaw, an open-handed slap. Todd reeled back, and realized just what had
befallen him.

"She...bitchslapped me..." The emerald eyes of his suit flared, as the adrenaline coursed
through his body, released in a moment of anger. "This chick is toast!" His right arm
lurched, and from above his hand, a flash of silver burst forth into the celestial splendor
of their night sky battlefield. A long blade, more than foot in length, was unsheathed,
and with one last charge ahead and a furied swipe, Todd had relieved the robot of her
head.

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

"Where is he?" Demona scanned the sky, having lost Todd on the video cameras a few
moments ago.

"Maybe your Valkyrie won the battle." Xanatos chuckled, only to be silenced by
Demona's growl.

"That is not funny." She curbed the crimson glow of her eyes and instead redirected her
onyx eyes to the cosmos, laying bare before her.

"There!" shouted Lexington, his own bionic systems capturing a descending suit, landing
onto the stones with the grace of a ballroom dancer.

"Thank the dragon..." whispered Demona thankfully, though cursing herself for allowing
such an irrational alarm to flow through her. She watched as Todd powered off the dual
thrusters and ran towards them. He grabbed Demona, she being the closest, into his arms
and whirled her around as if a small child, his strong arms wrapped firmly around her
waist.

"Oh man!!" he yelled out in a mirthful cheer, opening his helmet with a hiss of
hydraulics, his handsome face emerging from the dark mask. "I gotta thank you, Red.
That was too wicked..." He set Demona to the stones and flicked her a steel object held
in his hand. "Here," he muttered, while Demona recognized the object caught in her
talons as the Valkyrie's head, "a souvenir. The rest of the robot is back on the other side
of the courtyard, with the others. I did a little clean-up."

Demona rested the severed head back on the computer tables, and smiled back at the
human. "I take it you enjoyed your trial run?"

Todd enjoyably shook Xanatos' hand, a strong grip resulting from the suit, and causing
an injured expression to form on the billionaire's tanned hide. "Oh yeah. I thought the
fastest I could go was in the Superbird. Now I know better."

"You did extremely well, with someone without any battle experience." she quipped.

"And Rose said I played too many video games." Todd joked. "Little did she know, they
were just practice, eh, Mr. X?"

"Indeed. Congratulations are in order, Mr. Hawkins." came Xanatos' smooth response.
"You have successfully tested the Epsilon-Alpha prototype suit, and the mindlink
hardware."

"What do you want to use this stuff for anyway?"

"The mindlink will allow human operators to keep their distance from their machines,
yet still have complete control and an absolute finesse in tricky maneuvers." Xanatos
explained, forming a circle around the suit of armor, impressed by the amount of damage
it absorbed while protecting the wearer. "We will also be able to use these new suits for
mining operations in dangerous conditions, or for bomb squads to diffuse explosive
devices. The practical uses are endless."

Todd flicked out the lasers and the titanium blade. "And these?" he scoffed.

"Purely defensive." Xanatos replied. "A test of some designs the boys and girls in R and
D have been toying with, including a young, brilliant technician, a mister Michael Hugo,
who seems to be earning his paycheques quite earnestly. The lasers are top of the line,
and the blade is not actually meant to be used as just a weapon, more like a cutting tool.
This suit is designed to hold a full compliment of armory, including dual gatling guns,
rocket launchers, pulse mines...you name it."

"Oh, I see." Todd held up his hands, spreading them apart as if reading a newspaper title.
"Xanatos Enterprises sponsors World War Three. Real humanitarian of you."

Xanatos smirked, shaking his head. "Most of these weapons will probably never see the
light of day in the financial market. They are mostly for protection of our...winged
friends. The Steel Clan are due for an upgrade, tomorrow night to be exact, along with
the castle's defensive systems. My own personal suit will be included, and will closely
follow the Epsilon design. They will ensure this castle is well protected."

Todd nodded goofishly, and allowed this reason to convince him of this destructive
power held in a billionaire's hand, would be placed into good use. "And this suit," he
started, eyeing Xanatos questionably, "what will happen to it?"

"It has served as a successful prototype, and will remain in service." He looked back at
the youth, who seemed to be becoming quite possessive of his newfound toy. "It's here
for your use, if you help to defend the castle in times of crisis."

"Seriously?! Yeah, of course." Todd's brow lowered, and he bared his teeth in an evil
smile. "I hope we get attacked soon."

"Easy for you to say," Lexington jibed him, even as he was occupied with shutting down
the software, and preparing the readouts and specs for later evaluation, "you don't have a
suit of armor whenever the next psychotic decides to announce himself by blowing up
our home."

"Dude, you ARE a suit of armor."

Lexington shrugged, continuing to pack up the computer systems and prepare them for
the journey back to the research and development laboratories.

"You can stow the suit next to mine in the hangar bay," said Xanatos, "and be careful.
Extremely careful. That suit cost over one hundred and fifty million dollars."

Todd froze, now almost afraid to take another step when hearing just how much money
this armor had been valued at. "Okay..."

"Yes, Todd," Demona appeared to his right shoulder, thinning her deep charcoal eyes
towards him, "and I paid for half of that. The design will be used in the Valkyries as
well."

He shored up his posture and saluted. "Yes, ma'am!"

Demona released a pleasant laugh, and curled her arm around the raven-hued steel of his
forearm. "So, for a successful test flight, may I treat you to dinner? We can order in.
Your choice..."

"Yeah, sure. Sounds fi..." Todd's eyes snapped away from her, and he smiled when
eyeing a distant object. "Uh, sorry, Demona. Can you take a rain-cheque?" Todd
snaked away from her, heading for another part of the castle. "Annika..."

"Wait..." Demona stopped him from taking off, with a hand clenched to his arm.

Todd whirled around, forming an odd expression. "What?"

"Please, I...I don't want you to go..."

Todd skipped a breath, wondering what emotions her eyes held, as they peered into his
own crystal ashen gray, wordlessly begging him to stay with her, if only for a minute
more. "I'm sorry," he whispered sorrowfully, "but I need to go see Annika now." He
pulled his arm away, and propelled into the air, using the suit's thrusters to direct himself
to his steady girlfriend.

Demona's smile swiftly fell away, having been literally abandoned on the cornices, as the
young man she loved was flying towards the woman he loved. She clenched her fists and
stayed the anger incensing her blood. She kept a keen eye on Todd as he used minimal
thruster power to sneak up upon the rose-skinned gargess, having emerged from the
castle's interior. Before her great hearing could identify the source of the rumbling, she
was swept off her feet by the young human.

"Whoa!!" Annika screamed, as Todd threw her against his chest and took off into the
sky. "What the hell are you doooooiiiiiiiiinnngg?!!" Her shrill outcry at last faded away,
carried off into the breadth of the heavens, as Todd effectively showed off his new toy.

Demona watched as they disappeared, leaving only the quiet drone of the city, and the
solemn beating of her heart. She edged towards the door, a lethargic tread taking her into
the halls of Wyvern. She thought perhaps she would check in with her daughter, and
attempt to forget the pain she was forced to endure, for she knew she was the favorite
prey of the eternal siblings of fate and destiny, and their cruel sense of humor.

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

"I can't believe you did that!!" yelled Annika as she slammed her bedroom door shut,
barely allowing Todd to slip through. "First that damned car, and now hauling me
through the air!"

"What?! You take me all around the city all the friggin' time!" Todd defended himself,
checking to see his pants were still in one piece, and not torn off from the door's
ferocious motion into a locked position. "Flying here and there, with me hanging off,
inches away from becoming nothing but a bird dropping on the street."

"I don't carry you with a rocket attached to my back, zigzagging between the castle
towers." Annika fumed, playfully lashing out with a clawed hand, as Todd skillfully
dodged it.

"Whoa there, spitfire." he joked, dancing around as if a drunken boxer, watching
Annika's eyes of dark sea cerulean follow his every swaying stagger. "You're just pissed
off because I can fly now, and faster than you." He laughed, the elated rush of sailing
throughout the open sky still residing within his heart.

"Oooooh, that is going to cost you." She stalked closer, wings flared, eyes turned from
sapphire grace to a scarlet inferno.

Todd edged back, wishing he had not stowed his suit in the Eyrie's hangar bay moments
ago, if only to use it's great strength to fend off an angered gargoyle lover. "Now now,
honey...Annika dear..." He was forced backwards, tripping over furniture, her pottery
wheel and tools, the numerous shelving units holding her private collection of books and
finished sculptures, until he had formed an unperfect circle, bringing himself back to the
bed. He was stopped in place, entrapped by the mattress' edge and found a taloned paw
on each side of his face. "Uh oh..."

With the grace of the wind, she grabbed ahold of him, and pushed him down to her bed,
landing on top of his athletic form. An animal lust peaked within her breast, and she
savaged herself upon his mouth. Todd attempted to crawl backwards, struggling to move
and lift her at the same time, until they were both in the middle of the bed. She captured
his hands, weaving their fingers within the other's, a simple contact of skin against skin,
yet connecting themselves on a level unknown to those who have yet to find their one
true love. Her long blond hair littered the sides of his face, streaming over her features,
framed in a cascade of platinum strands.

Annika at last released him, pulling back slightly, leaving her large lips just barely
grazing across his skin, teasing him with her sweet flavor.

Todd looked up at her, and found the face that had haunted his dreams, and even his
every waking thought. A growing fear, an uncertainty of losing her, of having her torn
from him, and of his own confused feelings of love, never having experienced this kind
of affection and passion for any woman before, became a searing pain in his chest. It
was perhaps so great it would motivate him to ask of her a simple question. He shook off
what trepidation lay within him, and his distraction of another winged female very close
to his heart, and attempted to form the words. "Annika..." he started in a hushed tone,
and her eyes centered on his own, a swirl of ocean tide, brimming with an unequivocal
devotion.

"Yes?" she answered softly, sensing he was struggling with a subject weighing heavily on
his heart.

"You know I love you, right?"

"Of course, as much as I love you."

Even though he knew of her feelings for him, it still felt so good, and very reassuring to
hear the words spill from her own mouth. "Have you ever thought about...the future?
You know...you and I?"

Annika blushed and looked away. "Sometimes..." she whispered back, then laughed
sheepishly. "A lot of the time, actually."

"Me too." Todd gently nudged her, allowing her to fall haphazardly upon his side, yet
still holding her close. "For a long time, I was without a family, only a few friends and
Rose. But now, I've found a family. People to laugh with, spend time with...to love..."
He pressed his forehead to hers, reveling in the creamy skin gliding sensually across his
own, a texture of the purest milk and the color of the lightest rose. "I love your laugh,
your lust for life, the way you always put up with me, your innocence when looking at the
world through those big, blue eyes...I want to be with you, always..." His words were so
hard to bring forth, and he wondered why he could not place his feelings for her into a
simple sentence. "Annika..."

"Yes?" she asked, implored, demanded of him to say what he wanted of her.

"I...will you..."

"What?"

"Will you...stay with me until dawn?" He forced a weak smile, inwardly angry he still
could not find the courage to ask her.

Annika smiled graciously, a sadness left inside to match his anger. "Of course. Are you
going to stay here today?" she asked, her own biological cycle sensing the draw of
daybreak encroaching closer with every stroke of the clock.

"Might as well. Mostly because I really don't feel like leaving this bed right now."

Annika burrowed deeper into her boyfriend's chest, careful of her tall brow spurs,
preventing herself from stabbing her lover in the chin with the sharpened spikes of bone
and skin. "Neither do I."

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

"No sir, he hasn't arrived home yet, nor has our primary target. She hasn't shown since
we started this stake-out a few days ago." His grated voice answered into the cellphone,
concealed in the shadows of the apartment's roof. "Shall we continue the surveillance?"

"Of course, you fool," came the enraged reply, striking back through the phonelines with
the mordant hiss of a rattlesnake, "I will stop at nothing to get her back. Now do the job
I am paying you for, and stay there until dawn. Then either you or one of your cronies be
sure to get back there before sunset. If I know her, she'll be dragged back to this
apartment by her...sweetheart."

"Maybe we should have followed him to where..."

"I don't need you running a futile chase all around the entire island, only to find an
arcade or some damned coffee house, or wherever the young vermin of this city infest.
Especially to draw attention from the authorities." The voice was becoming irate with
the continued questioning of his orders, clearly evident on the demanding tone. "Besides,
if there's any more creatures like the ones we fought last year, it will be much easier to
capture her without any outside interference. So just stay there and call me when they
both show." An abrupt click seconds later, and the line went dead.

The shadowed figure stowed the device away, and released a fervent breath, a clear sign
of his growing exasperation, releasing from the eclipsing darkness in a spiraling eddy,
and would have almost given himself away, if perchance he was not alone on this
rooftop. He fell back into a more comfortable position, resuming his watching of both
the apartment below and the sky above, hoping perhaps he would spy upon what his
services had been originally hired for.

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

September 11th
Even beneath the sheets and thick comforter, a barrier against what distractions could
intrude upon his slumber, he still was woken from a satisfying dream, as a piercing cry
ripped through the closed door of his gargoyle love's bedroom. Todd struggled to find
his way from the covers, and peered out into the blinding rays of sunlight, unimpeded by
any barrier, streaming through the windows with a brilliant ferocity, nipping at his
budding eyelids. Todd grumbled, and fell out of bed with a loud thump, crawling his
way across the carpet and to the doors. He was moving blindly, his eyes still desperately
attempting to adjust to the effulgent surroundings. He reached the knob and peered
outside, only to find an earful of Elisa's rabid screaming.

"Oh, Maggie!!" she cried, a cordless phone pressed to her ear, as the slender woman
traveled the length of the great hall. "I can't believe you're pregnant! You must be
thrilled, and Derek's gotta be bouncing off the walls! Do mom and dad know?"

Todd slumped against the door, hearing not a cheerful conversation, only a shrill nagging
echoing within his very mind.

"They do? Well, I guess I know why they canceled their playdate with Trini last
night...how far along are you?" she continued, oblivious to Todd's crooked glare. "More
than a month?! And you just found out now, a week after you guys move into the
shelter? I hope there's extra room for another Maza. What? An empty bedroom beside
your own? Was this planned? Yeah...I know, it's almost as if Xanatos can see into the
future...just like Goliath and I, I know..." Elisa passed by Todd once more, and suddenly
looked up into an angry youth's face, deprived of his much needed sleep. "Oh...Todd.
I'm sorry, did I wake you?"

"Graauggh..." Todd growled, his intellect submerged. "What's the deal with you and that
friggin' phone?!! You're always on the phone!!" he ranted feverishly. "You know, it's
hard enough trying to fall asleep in the middle of the day, let alone when some crazy
woman screams bloody murder outside the door."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she apologized profusely, her brow knitting together to display her
penitence, "but Maggie's pregnant."

"Who the hell is Maggie?"

"You know, my sister-in-law."

Todd cocked an eyebrow, and barely opened his squinting eyes. "You mean the chick
who used to be a cat?"

Elisa nodded, a flattened expression replacing all regret she once had.

"Well, that's just fantastic..."

Elisa resumed her conversation, all the while shaking her head. "Todd says
congratulations," she told her sister, "yeah, really. He's extremely happy for you." Not
completely a lie, as Todd shrugged and smiled, yet mimicked the hunched position of a
Neolithic man from pre-history, groggily stalking down the hallway away from someone
so cheery at such an hour. "Bye, Todd. And good morning." Elisa called to him,
receiving a half wave in response to her curt laughter.

He was wearing only his pajama bottoms, and stumbled upon the smooth stones in bare
feet, discovering his path was taking him outside, into the courtyard, where the warm
rays of Autumn sunlight flooded the entire enclosed area. He walked out to where the
roosts of the sleeping gargoyles lined the foremost wall, and as if guided by an invisible
force, crept up directly behind Annika's statue. "Hmmm..." he thought to himself out
loud. "Is it wrong to cop a feel when we're dating?" The height of Annika's roost
brought her well toned buttocks and tail directly in front of his grinning face, and he
fought back the urge to rest against them. "Nah, she'd probably feel it, knowing my luck.
And I've already been slapped by a woman once this week."

His eyes roamed the statue of his love, her wings outstretched, her arms pressed to her
sides, a relaxed position of an angel gracing her home, amidst the frightening postures
and poses of the rest of the clan. He guided his hand over her splayed fingers, the
smooth, marble stone of the young gargess flowing with an unnatural warmth, yet he
knew it was not from the heat of the slowly fading day, but from the being contained
inside. For a very apparent reason, her middle finger interested him greatly. "I hope I
got the right size..." he muttered.

"Todd?"

"AAAAHHH!!!" the young man screamed out, nearly toppling over the cornice into the
city below. He whirled around to see in the light of the late afternoon, a lithe woman
dressed in a dark maroon business suit, slowly sauntering towards him, her hips swaying
seductively, and her hair, though tied back, appearing as if trying to burst forth from their
bonds. "Oh..." he breathed heavily, "hey, Red."

Demona approached him, her human guise as Dominique Destine as beautiful and
enchanting as her gargoyle form. "Taking a stroll in the buff?" she asked coyly, admiring
his undressed form.

"Huh?" Todd realized just how much of his skin was exposed, and purpled slightly.
"Oh...yeah...well, Elisa woke me up, and I thought I would visit Annika." Todd turned
back to the feminine statue.

Demona was now allowed an extremely rare experience, that to peer upon his back, and
the massive raven ink tattoo, a tribal design forming the head of a tiger. A handsome
trait associated with one of his kind, the uninhibited artist, who took life by the reins and
squeezed out all he could muster. If only she could live by his example her own troubled
life, now afflicted by something as laughable as an expiry date. She found the young
man still staring at the motionless sculpture, until she nonchalantly cleared her throat.

"You still here?" he joked. "What are you doing here anyway?"

"A follow-up meeting with Xanatos, regarding the Epsilon suit." she explained, rubbing
her temple, to ease the build-up of fatigue and narcosis plaguing her form.

"You look bombed." Todd remarked idly, noticing the beginnings of deep rings rimming
her eyes. "Do you even sleep anymore?"

"I barely got a few hours after last night's test, before I had to be in a series of meetings
this morning, before this one of course." She sighed, releasing her tied hair, and guiding
the wild-natured strands about the shoulders of her suit jacket. "But...I am finished for
the day, and I believe I shall go home and drown myself in the bathtub and a chocolate
sundae." She already could feel the soothing temperate water caressing every inch of her
sculpted physique, yet now wished she could share her marble spa with another.

"Go home, Red." Todd demanded of his friend. "Get some sleep." He walked past her,
yet stopped to lightly brush a firm hand to her shoulder. "Come on, I'll walk you to the
elevator."

Demona relented quite easily, and took Todd's extended arm as an invitation, allowing
him to escort her into the castle.

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

"Can I ask you something, Demona?" Todd had stopped near the elevator doors, and
actually passed on using his affectionate moniker for the former immortal, incensing a
deep worry in Demona, who stopped and directed her deep glistening onyx to his
unsteady features.

"Of course."

"When you...and Goliath...uhm, got...mated, I guess," he stalled, hoping he would not
drag up a painful portion of Demona's sordid past, "did you think...you made the right
decision?"

"What do you mean?"

"Was he...who you wanted to be with?"

Demona swallowed hard, attempting to find the courage to answer his question
truthfully, and not yield to the nagging pain always present when speaking of her past
love. "Yes, he was." she answered quietly, her voice laden with heavy emotion.

"Were...you scared when you two became more than just lovers?"

"A little. But when we were first mated, I knew we had made the correct choice."

"But," Todd suspired, snapping his haunted glare to hers, "it never worked out between
you two. How can you be so sure of something, and then have it fall completely apart?"

Demona sighed, her response laying upon the tip of her tongue, though reluctant to
release itself into the open air. "Our relationship only failed because I single-handedly
destroyed could have been...what should have been. I was unable to let go of the hatred,
the pride, the utter conceit. I allowed myself to be consumed by bigotry and prejudice,
and pushed him away whenever he tried to reason with me. It was me, who ended the
love between Goliath and I. And that...will not happen to you." Her hand found it's way
to the side of his face, and surprisingly, he did not pull away from her gentle touch.

Todd looked abashedly to the floor, his own thoughts beginning to clarify, and center on
what single action he knew he wished so to make. "Thanks, Red."

"Anytime...Mr. Hawkins." she answered back, passing him by to take her place in the cab
of the Eyrie's elevator. She pressed the illuminated button for the ground floor, and
whispered her farewell. "Goodnight."

"Later." he called back.

Demona watched the doors close, a shimmer of sterling titanium effectively stealing him
away from her longing gaze. She slumped against the elevator wall, choking back the
urge to break down and wail, to scream and vent her rage in a bloodcurdling howl. For
her convincing argument had been the absolute antithesis of what she so desperately
wanted, yet she loved him enough to help him in any way possible, even if it perhaps
meant losing him in a declaration of four simple words to another woman.

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

"Come on, Todd, you've been quiet ever since I woke up." said Annika, over the rush of
the currents grazing past her voluptuous form. She felt him move slightly on her back,
yet still remain silent. If she could see his face, now resting just above her right shoulder,
she would discover a foolish grin besetting upon him, twisting his young features into a
fusion of deep thought and utter bliss. "Fine, don't answer..." she drawled spitefully,
angling in towards Todd's apartment.

The gargess tipped herself into a landing position, resettling her slender form to perch
onto his tiny balcony. A skitter of taloned feet, a unique sound of the graceful gargess
touching down and coming to a rest, with Todd dropping from her back. He slid around
her, gracing a hand across her wing, shoulder, and lower arm, until he moved to the
doors, and unlocked them, allowing them to swing open into his darkly lit apartment.

Annika could sense his strange behavior, for even his particular scent was changed from
the usual aroma of her lover, a concoction of cologne, spearmint gum, and treated car
leather, among others. She followed him inside, noticing he only turned on one lamp
near the couch, his large studio dwelling stirring with a swath of living shadows, and his
deep ivory skin aglow in the dusky setting. He reached out to her with an open hand, and
she accepted, allowing him to guide her to a seated position on the couch.

He fell to one knee in front of her, and clasped onto both her taloned hands, tenderly
kneading her warm paws with a soothing massage. He avoided his eyes to hers, knowing
he would perhaps lose the nerve of the very reason he had brought her here.

"Todd..." she whispered, attempting to find out why he was acting so peculiar, and his
entire body almost seeming to tremble, a shiver coursing through him, causing a
definitive ripple even in his loose fitting clothing.

"Don't say a word," he cut in quickly, "or I'll probably puke." He was breathing deeply,
trying to bring his rapidly beating heart under some semblance of control. "I...I've asked
you here...to, uhm..." he stalled to regain his composure, and Annika was growing
apprehensive. He looked up to see her sapphire stare descending upon him, and for a
moment, forgot what he was trying so desperately to say. His gray-tinted eyes fell away,
and he numbly fingered the small square object in his pants pocket. "When I first met
you," he began, his voice strong, his emotions kept in check, "I felt as if I wasn't alone
anymore. You gave me something that...I can never repay...your love. Your friendship
and devotion. Your respect and honesty. Your laughter and tears. Your highest hopes,
deepest thoughts, most desired dreams...you allowed me to see a side of yourself that you
had kept hidden all your life. You gave me your trust." Todd leaned in, if only to better
see she who he cherished so very much, their eyes bridged with an unearthly connection.
"I love you, Annika Smith, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

Annika's breathing grew unsteady, heated, brushing against Todd's face through
trembling lips. Her very thoughts were centered on the man now inches away, preparing
to give himself to her completely, yet she was still unaware of his true intent.

"Annika," Todd whispered, "will you..."

In the silence of the moment, his question was interrupted by a shattering that tore apart
his windows and balcony doors, sending shards of glass towards the couple. Annika
instinctively flared her wings, as Todd wrapped himself around her, both curling to the
floor below, and allowing the couch to take the brunt of the jagged shrapnel. The
sickening sound of splintering wood, and the tumultuous droning of powerful machines
filled the entire studio apartment. Todd buried Annika beneath him, and peered over the
couch, only to be momentarily blinded by a pair of searchlights, crossing their way along
the breadth of the far walls.

The spotlights centered on the young man, who immediately ducked down, yet knew he
had been discovered. A hiss of air forced it's way across the carpet, surging past the
cowering couple, the smell of exhaust and gasoline discernible within the ebony-hued
smoke. The sounds of the engines grow even louder, only to cease their mechanical
growl, and allow their masters to dismount, directly in the middle of Todd's living room.

Annika flipped her platinum tress away, to peer into Todd's steeled glare, as he watched
from around the corner of the couch, two massive figures standing at attention, as if
trained soldiers awaiting their next command. He wondered just why they had paused,
after such a dramatic entrance, and was severely angered, choosing this night, this very
moment, to introduce themselves through his apartment walls. "Fuck..." he hissed,
clenching his hand around Annika's with every ounce of strength he possessed. "Is it just
me, or do these motherfuckers seem all too familiar?"

Annika nodded silently, her features awash with a burning memory, a flashback to when
she had first met her boyfriend.

"We know you're here, Hawkins," came a grated call from one of the men, as Todd
perked up, "stop cowering behind the couch, and come out."

Todd scowled, yet heeded his hostility and stayed near his girlfriend. "Fuck you."
he answered succinctly.

"Such foul language," came another voice, "in front of my daughter."

Annika shuddered, her eyes falling wide open, as the voice had struck total terror into her
heart. "Oh god, no..."

"Yes, Annika, my dear, it's daddy..." A shadowed figure moved into the apartment, a
long trenchcoat disguising his form, billowing in the scathing winds flowing into the
damaged wall, causing him to appear as if the spirit of death itself. "And it's time...to
come home now..."


To be continued...