53 - "The Return: Part 3"
Originally Written: March 29th, 2001

She was led down the darkened halls, her head tipped forward, peering upon nothing but her own feet. Her injuries had healed from her stone sleep, leaving only a slight tingling in her midsection, where the largest and most life-threatening wound had once been. She could feel the cold titanium of the collar secured around her neck, almost to the point of choking her, and making every tortured gulp even harder through her dry throat. Her wings fell on either side of her shoulders, drooping, with no feeling at all. Her entire back had been numbed by the restraining collar, and her wings were nothing more than dead appendages, gently rising and falling with each labored step down the corridor.

"Hurry, my dear," Crowe called out to her, tightening his vice-like grip on her shackled arms, "I have to get you to your room. Your re-training will begin soon enough."

She merely nodded, and allowed herself to be dragged at a quicker pace. Crowe had no trouble in dealing with his usually rebellious daughter now, as she had been witness to what she thought to be the end of her lover's life. It had completely destroyed what spark of life lay within her heart, and transformed the woman who had blossomed into a creature of celebration, intelligence, and possessed of a lust for this new existence, to the young, orphaned hatchling, cowering in fear in the corner of her cell. The fire had been extinguished and thus, so had her spirit.

Crowe reached the door near the end of the hall, where Annika had lived most her life. An access code granted him passage, and the steel door pulled away, revealing a large room, with only one small window to flood the spartan chambers with the moonlight. "In." he commanded, and Annika was practically shoved inside, almost tripping in an unsteady tread. "You are mine now, girl, and you always will be. Remember that." He stepped out, and as the door slid closed with a silent hiss, he lowered his silver brows, and whispered one last conclusive message, simple words to enforce his absolute dominion over her. "Welcome home."

The door closed, and Annika was alone. She slowly peered out with tarnished eyes, the sparkling ocean blue having faded to a dusky gray, and found herself within the cage she so dreaded. A lifetime flooded back to her, trapped within these four walls, only released to be trained, and to allow her wings the precious gift of taking to the sky, and caressing the stars, though kept on a very short leash.

She could almost hear the screams of a young gargoyle, calling for her mother, crying out for anyone. She needed companionship, for she was alone, left to wallow in a quivering mass in the corner. Annika took a few lethargic steps around this room, seeing the remnants of clawmarks upon the steel-lined walls, where she tried in vain to escape this dungeon, if only to flee from the beatings whenever she misbehaved. On the verge of panic, of sheer insanity, she had scraped away at the dull metal barriers enclosed around her, her eyes tearing, her talons raw and bloody. As she grew older, she would become increasingly bold, attempting to make her way from this place, and almost two years ago, when the death of her adoptive mother, the only person in this world who cared for her, encouraged the gargess to at last make her frantic bid for freedom. And on her last try, the successful try, she crashed through the bathroom window of the man who would give back to her what was so harshly denied, her life.

Annika faltered, and slumped to her knees, eventually falling completely to her side, and curling into a ball upon the frigid, unforgiving ground. She released her tears, wailing for her boyfriend, and his apparent death before her very eyes. He was her life, he was her strength, he was her hope, and now, he was gone. Taken from her in a twist of fate, by the man who now controlled her destiny.

And yet, she did not care. Not any longer. Without Todd Hawkins in her life, she believed Annika Smith was forever lost, only existing now in the memories of a select few.

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

"She seemed pretty easy to deal with since the last time, she didn't even put up a fight."

"Of course not," Crowe answered, settling his weary bones into his antique, leather-cushioned armchair, "she just witnessed the death of her boyfriend. The one man who gave her her precious freedom."

"And how do you propose to keep her from escaping once again?" the mercenary asked, crossing his arms, standing at the edge of Crowe's massive desk.

"This time, my friend, I shall correct my mistake of allowing her to have any kind of a life. My...'darling' wife," the words bit into his tongue, as this man's spiteful feelings to the woman he married only proved his lack of a heart, "talked me into allowing her at least some frivolous amenities, which only served to spark any insurgent feelings I hoped I had crushed. But now, with Annika's mother finally gone, I intend to wipe all that she is...away, and leave nothing but a receptive, docile servant."

The merc raised an eyebrow. "How do you intend to do this?"

"With this..." He raised yet another collar, though larger in size and technological complexity. "It will fry, for lack of a better word, certain synapses in her brain, particularly her personality and memories, and leave her nothing but a mindless vessel, with only one task to be performed, following my exact orders." Crowe ran his weathered fingers upon the slick surface of the electronic headband, and licked his parched lips in delicious rapture. "I have invested a lot of money in having these designed and built, and hope to build myself an army of loyal gargoyle slaves."

"You're going to enslave the others at Xanatos' castle?" the merc inquired, almost fearing such a chore, especially when filling his thoughts of the two largest gargoyles he had fought with the previous evening. For it was he who piloted the suit against Goliath and Shadow, and until now, had never faced an adversary so powerful, so ferocious, so determined to win at any cost.

"Can you imagine?" Crowe's grated voice cut through, his dark eyes actually glimmering in the lack of light. "All those powerful creatures at my beck and call. We could make millions. Especially with the leader, that large, lavender one. Renting out gargoyles to the highest bidder...seems almost too good to be true."

"How effective are these devices?"

"Very, though still in the test phase. But luckily," he stalled, and looked back to the merc, "we have a test subject just waiting for her very first assignment. Soon, my little Annika will be the first to become one of my very own, in both body...and mind, and at last, there's no little loud-mouthed brat to get in my way..."

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

With all the power he could summon, the suit responded in kind. Powered to the utmost limits, even beyond the safety perameters, did he keep this armor prepared, perhaps to face an entire army thrown against him. The senses were incredible, the direct link to his brain causing him to feel every subtle draft of the Autumn tempest, every directional change of the currents, even the drifts of clouds he burst through. The vapor clung to his raven steel skin, and he actually perceived the tiny droplets of water skidding across the titanium hide, and being cast off into the violent wake of his boosters.

Todd flew on, approaching the Northern end of Manhattan island, his suit's powerful computer displaying the map, and his destination marked in red. He constantly checked his power levels, and the suit's lasers and flight apparatus, perhaps a nervous impression that these new systems may fail, a demoniac jest in the heat of battle for this inexperienced young man in the ways of war.

He approached the shores, seeing the water's edge upon the island, and Todd descended near an empty street, with a lone house set against the ebony ink of the ocean surface. 313 Mockingbird lane, and Todd knew this place to be true, for it matched what Annika had confided to him long ago. Beneath the mask, he managed a smile, noticing the absolute calm surrounding this place. An air of serenity, yet possessing the feeling of a faded nightmare come back to haunt the dreamer. He never relinquished his speed, instead allowing his momentum to carry him to a velocity he had never achieved before in this suit.

His motion sensors picked up three distinct forms flying towards him, it seems a few of the mercenaries had spotted him. Todd felt his heart increase it's rate, beating fiercely against his ribcage, feeding his body with boiling blood, and this suit with the strength to make it through the upcoming battle. And when faced with three men atop their hovercraft, he ignored the armaments of pure destruction incorporated into this suit, and instead pulled the weapon chosen in a moment of anger, the baseball bat, and readied himself.

Through the emerald tinted viewscreen of his mask, Todd found them to be spreading themselves out, to possibly close in around him. He had experienced this maneuver before, and dropped suddenly, allowing the mercs to follow him on a mad chase. He knew what they did not, that the Epsilon was more considerably agile than their machines, and he then stopped, and directed himself skywards once more. They were caught off guard, and as Todd flew past the closest adversary, he swung the bat, and struck the man in the head. "Batter up..."

The man was sent sprawling, violently thrown from his machine, and tossed into the winds, barely releasing his parachute in the mindnumbing pain of his battered skull.

"Strike one." Todd hissed, and headed towards the other two. He was flying circles around them, and they tried desperately to follow each agile acrobatic of this intruding suit, and still keep their balance on their machines. Todd passed through a stream of bullets, flipped around and appeared over another merc. With one savage swipe, the hovercraft was deprived of it's master. "Strike two."

Todd whirled around, and found the other hovercraft advancing on him. He simply hovered in mid-air, allowing the mercenary to come ever closer, until he engaged his boosters and they met in a duel above the streets. A split second attack, as they crossed paths, and Todd flew on ahead, feeling a growing pain in his side, his wound from last night inflamed once more. The merc had gotten in his shot, yet, so did Todd. He looked over his shoulder, and saw a parachute open below, and watched as the injured man hit the ground and crumpled, before the thin canvas material of the chute covered him as if a deathshroud. "Strike three. You boys are out..."

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

"Sir!!" A taller man burst through the door to Crowe's private office, and found his team leader sitting across from their employer, obviously enjoying their conversation, having been centered on their future plans for the simple curved device atop the oaken surface.

The leader quickly stood up, and flashed angered eyes towards this man having barged his way into the room without proper authorization. "What is it?!"

"We're under attack!"

Crowe now took notice, and he too rose to his feet. "By whom?"

"Unknown. It's some kind of armored suit, and it's already taken out the Northern perimeter guards..."

Crowe slammed both hands to the desk. "Xanatos." he hissed, his voice frozen over with the mere mention of a former business associate. "It seems he has found my home as well. No matter, get your men and deal with this little interloper."

"Yes, sir." The team leader acknowledged his employer with a curt response and a rigid salute in respectful military style, especially to he who paid them well for their services, and was possessed of an extremely short temper.

Crowe watched them disappear from the office, and found himself dwelling on just who was piloting this suit now attacking his home. "It can't be..."

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

Todd flew past the front of the large mansion, a seemingly ordinary home from all appearances. Though his scanners were picking up traces of thick steel plating beneath the ordinary wooden exterior and embellishments. He hesitated as he kept a perfect circle around his target, thinking how just to gain access.

His anger won out over any rational thought, and he powered up the boosters, and decided to enter right through the front doors. His titanium shielding was more than a match for the steel barriers, and they crumpled and fell away, as the sleek black suit had successfully entered Crowe's manor.

"Shit..." he cursed, upon seeing five more men waiting for him in the grand foyer, weapons aimed and ready. Todd instinctively rose up and pressed his wings against the high ceiling, seeing all guns directed to his every move. They opened fire upon him without hesitation, and Todd defiantly stood his ground, as the bullets merely bounced off the Epsilon with the telltale shriek of numerous ricochet, though with every hit he could sense clearly, almost as if mosquito bites piercing at his flesh through the mindlink. Todd barely muffled his laughter on witnessing the defensive capability of this suit, and allowed them to keep firing, hoping they would discharge their bullets quickly, and grant him the opening he needed.

Until one man at last grew frustrated, tired with his inability to take down this newest foe, and pulled out a rocket launcher. Todd's eyes became wide, as the suit's systems screamed to him with flashing lights and the targeting tracer centered on the launcher's barrel being marked upon him. The mercenary fired off, and the rocket burst from the chamber with a roar of crackling fire and a trail of smoke, and Todd dodged the projectile, hearing the explosion erupt behind him, taking out the foyer's ceiling in a shower of wooden planks and shattered pieces of the steel lined structure beneath.

Todd dropped to the stairway with a clatter of his steel talons, and opened up the lasers on his forearms, taking out the launcher, searing it in two directly in the mercenary's hands. He threw himself towards them and released a clenched fist to his head, watching him fall away to the floor. Another crept up behind him, and he swept around, his metallic wings disarming him instantly, and he quickly knocked him out.

A larger man appeared beside him, and using his own thick body armor, slammed a wildly aimed fist into Todd's side, and the young man faltered, and barely kept his balance. His injury was opened up with a streak of pain flooding his entire chest cavity, and Todd blindly swung around with the bat, hearing the crack of steel on skin, and the attacker went down. The last two men swarmed him, attaching themselves onto his body, and Todd staggered blindly, until he grabbed their arms and threw them against the far wall, impacting against the varnished decorative wallpanels.

Five men down, and Todd righted himself, easing up on his wounded side, as even the armor plating could not protect him from the powerful blow. His breathing was labored, and he felt his lungs constrict. Something was wrong, and perhaps his injury was far worse than he ever imagined. But the inviting chance to rest for at least a moment was swept away when he noticed more men flood into the foyer from three separate doorways, all clad in thin body armor. It was now nothing more than a brawl, for revenge of their fallen comrades, as they surrounded him, and beat down upon him with weapons of their own, his suit disappearing beneath a mass of raven-hued forms.

He fought his way through both the men and the pain of his shoulder and side, fighting the urge to unleash with the lasers, but perhaps he would hit somewhere where their armor did not protect. He would not take a life this way, if he did not need to. He was too young to become a murderer, unless she whom he loved was hurt in any fashion. The steel glint of the bat rose up, and three men slumped to the floor, only to be replaced by more, stronger foes. The lure of money drove these men to savagely tear this new suit apart with their bare hands if need be, and when empowered by their own armor and weaponry, they believed to be superior, without realizing the awesome strength the Epsilon prototype possessed.

Todd unleashed in an instant of anger, and threw off those who were attempting to bind his arms and limit his mobility. "Get off me!!" he screamed, and unleashed with the bat, fighting off the mercs one by one. Bullets bounced off his steel skin, powerful electrical charges, released from tasers, scraped across the plating, even armored gloves pounded upon him, yet he fought on, drifting his way back into the main landing space, between the broken doors and the main staircase.

The massive stained-glass window above the doorframe glistened with a stylized assortment of crystalline color and dark tint, catching the moon's rays, forcing them through into the manor as thin shattered beams, creating a contorted collage upon the carpeting, where Todd was pushed back. He grabbed the nearest merc and twisted him around and thrust his fist into the man's stomach, tossing him away, and moving back to the others. His strength versus their greater fighting skills, an almost perfect match. But he was still outnumbered, and now wishing he had not left to confront this man and his cronies alone.

But the power of clan he had forgotten. He had neglected one important fact, that he was part of a larger family, that always took care of their own. And thus, in the customary nick of time, the window blurred with large black forms, and instantly, the cut patterns within the glass exploded inwards, releasing both a jade and crimson gargoyle into the house.

Sata landed first, and swiped at the nearest merc with her katana, nearly taking his head off in her swiftness. Though possessing none of his mate's limber grace, Brooklyn still touched down softly and joined in the fray, with an untamed smile etched firmly into his beak.

Todd looked back to the battling couple, helping to sway the great numbers of hired men. "What the hell are you guys doing here?! I told you I could take care of..."

"You don't actually think you'd actually beat all these guys by yourself, do you, Hawkins?" Brooklyn replied back, thoroughly enjoying this fight, born for the backalley brawl. "Goliath, and Demona, insisted."

Todd grimaced beneath his featureless mask, annoyed at the fact Brooklyn may have been right. "Just you two?" he cut back.

"The rest are outside, securing the perimeter and rounding up any stragglers."

"Well, Sata's a great help, but you?"

"Do not worry, Todd-san," Sata interrupted as she battled off two more men, "we have brought our own re-enforcement's."

The entire room froze as a ear-splitting cry echoed throughout the entire house. Through the doors came a grayish-purple blur, weapons in hand, and passing by the stunned Wyvern members and practically diving into the stunned mercenaries. Shadow thirsted for revenge, on those who attacked him in his own home, and now found the chance to exact his own form of cold justice and unleash what rage he had held within him since the previous night.

"Let the three of us deal with these guys, Hawkins," Brooklyn yelled out amidst the confusion, "go find Annika!" He then motioned to the microphone transmitter hooked over his right ear. "And call us when you've either got her, or need our help!"

Todd paused, then turned to catch another mercenary attempting to escape from Sata's ferocious blade. "Where is the gargoyle you're holding?!" he screamed, pressing his mask directly to the man's face, watching the small beads of perspiration drip down his skin. He pointed to the second floor, a doorway leading into another dark hallway. Todd coldcocked him and powered up the boosters, taking to the air and slicing through the battlefield, disappearing down the long corridor, searching for his girlfriend.

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

"I said, put this on..." Crowe hissed stringently, holding the headband towards his daughter, hearing the battle still wage on the opposite side of his manor through the open door, leading into the hallway.

The gargess looked up from her position in the corner of her cell, physically and mentally exhausted, her very form drained of any resistance to this man. The collar had absorbed her strength, and created a docile child from the mighty gargoyle woman. She studied him with cold eyes, the once brilliant ocean crests having frozen over, a stare of death now afflicting her. "What...is it?" she whispered, her throat raw.

"A new toy I have invested in, to allow you to fully reach your ultimate potential." Crowe was practically brimming over at this device's power to instill a giddy warmth in his chest at long last, at the infinite possibilities that could be reaped. "All you have to do is place it around your head."

Annika looked away, and burrowed herself deeper into the corner she had chosen to inhabit. "No..." Once thought diminished, it seemed the spark still remained.

Crowe cocked an eyebrow, upon hearing this last stand of defiance. He quickly approached her and grabbed forcefully onto her forearm, pulling the gargess to her feet. "I said...you will put this on..."

Annika staggered and stalled her words, her psychological state teetering on the edge, barely holding together with the events of the last two days. "Or you'll what?" she responded, with traces of a dying laughter within the grated utterance. "Kill me? Go right ahead, because as far as I'm concerned, I'm already dead..."

"Then this shall be even easier than I thought." With a gloved hand clenched to Annika's neck, he wrenched her forwards, and father and daughter met face to face, both possessed of dead eyes, one from seeing her lover cast into the night, the other due to his complete lack of a soul. He placed the glistening ring over her brow spurs, and secured it to the blush pink hide and blond locks. "With one flick of a switch, all you are and ever will be, is wiped away, and left ripe to be reprogrammed."

Annika littered her skin with tears, flooding from her eyes with wild abandon, for she knew her life would soon come to an end. Cherished memories erased with the frigid grasp of technology, stolen from this woman finally given the chance to relish her freedom for only a fraction of her lifespan.

"It's too bad your mother couldn't be here," Crowe whispered, pulling the wailing gargess closer to him, devilishly teasing her with a comforting stance, and light strokes to her platinum tress, still a little surprised she had given up hope so readily, "but it seems life is rarely fair. Just ask your poor deceased lover, whom they are most likely still scraping off the pavement." Annika grasped even harder at the mention of Todd's seeming death. "Goodbye, my dear, but take heart, for I will mold you into the perfect killing machine, and finally achieve what I've wanted ever since I stumbled upon that large spotted egg along the waterfront." He reached up to the activation switch with an ever steady hand, and prepared so bring forth a new being born form the ashes of Annika Smith.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

The shadows had come alive, beseeching for the young gargess' life, and freezing Crowe's hand before the chance had presented itself to wipe Annika's mind. He clenched onto the gargess, and focused his black eyes to the door, where only two ardent flickers of an emerald fire burned in the darkness. "Who...what?" he stammered, as the voice was distorted somewhat, but still extremely well-known, and he still could not fathom that an adversary disposed of in front of his very eyes, had possibly cheated death. "Who are you?!"

The eyes seemed to burn even brighter, piercing their way through the dimly lit room. The figure approached, a sharpened definition of serrated shapes bringing pause to Crowe's paced breathing. "You have five seconds to let go of her, or I will kill you."

"A weak threat," Crowe countered, pulling his own weapon, aiming at what he thought to be the head of this beast, "from a weak throat, and an even weaker heart."

"You want to test my mettle," the voice continued, moving ever closer, "old man?"

Crowe let loose his mouth, falling open in the abrupt familiarity of he who was slowly stalking towards him. "I killed you..."

"No," Todd stepped into the weak light of the smaller window, the Epsilon catching every stray beam of moonlight, "you didn't."

Annika at last lifted her heavy head, to see the black suit of armor standing mere feet away. Her vision blurred, her soul clouded with uncertainty and doubt, she found this humanoid form to inflame a portion of her mind almost lost, shattered in her grief. "...t-todd?..." she managed a weak gasp.

The Epsilon stood silent, until the helmet hissed, releasing into the room, a breath of heated, compressed air. The mask split and opened, to reveal Todd Hawkins, and his cocky grin. "Hey, gorgeous."

"Y-you're...alive..."

"Not for long!!" Crowe fired his weapon towards the suit, and Todd instinctively pulled back into the mask, and raised his arms, allowing the armored forearms to take the brunt of the blast.

"Leave him alone!!" Annika roared, grabbing the gun and struggling to wrest it from her father's grip. The fires were rekindled in her heart, her very soul aflame with the passion given to her long ago by this young man across from her. But no matter how hard she tried, the restraining collar had sapped her strength, and Crowe, with a raised fist, slapped Annika away.

Hearing the impact of his dried, deteriorating flesh upon her soft skin, Todd lunged forwards and sent the baseball bat directly into Crowe's chest. A youth's anger translated into sheer power, his weapon ultimately used for what intentions he had brought it for, and the breath was forced from the older man, ripped away with a well placed blow, sending resounding shockwaves throughout his chest padding. Crowe fell away, perchance acting his true age for the first time, his elderly body failing him and dropping to the floor. Todd attached the bat to his back and immediately grabbed for his girlfriend, scooping the gargess from the ground and practically throwing her into his arms.

Crowe spit out a spattering of saliva and bile, and scrambled to a haphazard sitting position, ripping yet another weapon from his trenchcoat, sending blast after blast towards the couple, and Todd turned his back to protect the still dazed Annika in the protective sheath of his wings. Crowe was blind with rage, seeing his plans destroyed yet again, by this young man who refused to die. He nearly discharged his weapon's energy cell in his haste to destroy the huddling black suit, and his delicacy in attempting to keep his daughter from any harm washed away in the madness driving him on.

Todd felt the blasts cover the breadth of his back and wings. He could barely move, lest he may leave Annika vulnerable to attack. The only choice left to him was to flee, and at least get them both to safety. The boosters powered up with but a thought, and he grasped Annika to his chest and flew from the room, his wings scraping across the steel doors, leaving a trailing ribbon of sparks to be traced along the walls.

"HAWKIIIIIIIIIINNNS!!!!" Therias Ebon Crowe screamed at the top of his lungs, still unleashing his weapon into the farthest wall, and the door where they had just escaped. "I will find you, boy!!" He snatched from his pocket a small remote control, and with barely a light caress among a few lighted buttons, the other end of the corridor, leading out into the main foyer, was closed off by a massive steel barrier, and he had effectively cut off the couple's escape. "This is my home, my castle, and I am king here. You will not escape from me, and if I have to, I'll kill you both..."

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

Todd jerked to a sudden stop, seeing the hallway close off, and trap both him and the gargoyle held in his strong hands within the lengthy, spacious corridor. Todd landed, dropped Annika and pummeled savagely upon the steel door. Thunderous booms echoed within the hallway, yet Todd's titanium claws barely made a dent. "Dammit!" he cursed, and ultimately gave up his frantic bid for freedom.

Annika tugged on his arm, and motioned for him to follow into yet another room beside them. She stopped within the middle of the floor, and shot him her cerulean eyes, beaming with an intellect to display a plan forming, as this home was more familiar to her than anyone else. "Through here," she whispered, "I think the service tunnel that leads into the rooms beneath this mansion is located around here somewhere."

"You want us to go through the floor?" Todd asked incredulously, preferring an all out fight to this moderately eccentric stratagem.

"This house is crawling with passageways, especially leading down below ground." she explained calmly, her voice possessed of strength and vitality. "Or would you rather wait here until my dad finds us?"

"Fine. Watch out..." Todd moved in, and unloaded both his lasers to the floor, cutting a perfect circle in the floorboards, and the steel plating underneath. With a fine touch of sterling talons, the floor fell away, revealing a circular tunnel leading on a steep descent into the bowels of the earth. "Let's go." he ordered, as Annika happily accepted his outstretched arm, and they both fell through the ring of melted steel, glowing with an orange haze, reflecting on the Epsilon's reflective surface as he carefully lowered into the tunnel.

Todd followed the steel tube, perhaps a service tunnel, almost a quarter mile on a twenty degree decline, until reaching a massive room, and the couple spilled out onto a wide catwalk, above what seemed to be an automated factory. He let go of Annika to the steel grating and allowed his mask to open and slide back behind his head. The fresh air, though re-circulated through massive ventilation fans, was a welcome release, until a blur of blush pink swept upon him.

Annika instantly pressed her large lips to his, and nearly toppled him in her lust to taste him, to feel his warmth once more in her arms, even though wearing the armored suit She pulled him intimately close, forbidding him to grasp for breath until she had had her fill, to drink from his sweet flavor, after thinking she had lost him forever. She at last yanked away, leaving a trace of her own tears of joy to cascade down his cheek.

Todd swallowed hard, and controlled his nerves, finding the kiss had left him unable to concentrate, and his metallic wings were fluttering uncontrollably. "Wow..." he gasped, forming a crooked grin. "I take it you're happy to see me?"

"Very." she answered truthfully. "I thought...I thought I had lost you...when you crashed through that glass...I thought you were dead...that I had lost everything..."

"Hey," he whispered, pulling her close and gently wiping her tears away with a taloned hand, "I'm okay. We both are. I said I would always take care of you, always protect you...always."

Annika smiled at his sincere declaration, and found the power to strengthen her own heart, through his charm and grace, and ever infinite devotion to her. "I know." She rubbed a hand around the restraining collar, and Todd noticed her discomfort.

He tenderly offered a hand, and placed two talons underneath the restraint, and pulled it from her with a quick tug. It snapped in two under the pressure of the Epsilon's great strength, and Todd quickly threw it away from him, hearing it bounce off a steel wall. "Better?"

"Yeah..." she answered, attempting to flap her drooping wings, but to no avail. "But my wings are still numb, and I'm...really weak."

"It's all right, I'm here. This time, I'm the one playing the protector. So, you dragged us down here, but just where the hell is here?" Todd hovered to the railing's edge with Annika in tow, and they both peered over, onto a frozen assembly line, stopped cold without any power to feed the machines. They peered onto unfinished armor, and disassembled weapons, just waiting for the surge of electricity to see their completed forms take light, and cause only destruction and death upon the millions of dollars they will be sold for. "Jesus," Todd muttered, unbelieving of what he beheld here, of what his misty gray eyes reflected in their splendor, "what the hell is this place?"

"I think this is where my dad makes his weapons," Annika finally replied, with her own eyes taking in every jagged shape and twisted animalistic essence of the automated machines, "I escaped here only a couple times, and barely saw anything like this when I was taken back to my room...it's gotten so much bigger..."

Todd eyed the machines, the finished weapons, and even numerous stacks of missiles lined up below them. "I think daddy's been doing some upgrading since you've been here last."

"This is horrible. Do you have any idea just how many weapons and suits of armor he can build in this place?" Annika hissed, as with every passing moment she spent in this place, her hatred for her father grew within, her very soul threatening to burst. "Enough to take over a city."

"I'm really starting to hate this guy. Even more than when he tried to kill me..."

"The feeling is quite mutual, boy..." A disembodied voice called from every corner of the cavernous underground factory. "I had finally achieved what years of work had resulted in, and then some snot-nosed punk takes it all away from me. On numerous occasions." It seemed Therias Crowe had followed them below ground, knowing this labyrinth that was once a Victorian mansion true to heart, to exact what twisted vengeance his diseased mind could conjure in his enraged mental state. "This is the final straw, boy, the last stand. The question of whether or not I get Annika back is irrelevant now, until I kill you with my bare hands."

"You've already tried a couple times and failed!!" Todd yelled back, his own voice casting off the walls and machinery, slightly unnerving both him and Annika, as she nestled deeper into his chest. "What makes you so sure you can do it this time?!"

"Because," the rumbling of expunged fuel and erupting fire filled the entire cavity of the factory, and Todd and Annika both turned to see a massive suit of armor with barely a human shape creep towards them from another larger tunnel, "I have toys too." Crowe landed in front of them, and even his touching down to the catwalk created a tremor beneath the couple's feet. Almost seven feet tall, and with a blood red trim intermixed with dark navy blue, he appeared as a demon cast in tempered steel, his own armor a direct comparison to the Hunters' years ago.

Todd slowly edged Annika behind him, re-attaching the helmet and measuring the suit placed against him with his targeting systems. It seemed a behemoth compared to his, with similar armament, weaponry, and power. Todd stood firm, ensuring his swelling fear would not be placed forth, and possibly giving his adversary a strengthened heart to commence this battle with. Todd nudged Annika back, a silent plea for her to gain as much distance as possible from the two suits, and she hesitantly moved back, yet unwilling to abandon her lover to her father's mercy.

"This time," Crowe started maniacally, "I will not allow you to ruin everything."

Todd prepared the suit's systems, and readied the lasers, for this time, he would not fear in searing human flesh with the amplified light, colored a crimson gleam. "I am leaving with Annika. If you want to stop me, you're going to have to kill me."

"With great pleasure..." The last words spoken, and the battle had begun, as Crowe swept at him with a massive armored fist, impacting against the Epsilon's side. Unexpecting of such a savage blow, Todd bit his lower lip, attempting to suppress his cry of pain as his injury flared up once more. He was sent staggering to the right side, and Crowe unleashed again, with another clenched hand to the smaller suit's chestplate. A strategic contact, for retribution of the earlier swipe with the baseball bat, and Todd was pushed down, collapsing on the steel grating.

Annika stood near, unable to help in any way, and watched Todd shake his head, and struggle to ascend to a standing position. He pointed both lasers at Crowe, and fired off the beams, creating twin trails of melted steel down the front. They barely cut through the thick shielding, and Crowe rushed forwards, clamping both hands around Todd's forearms, effectively crushing the lasers with unimaginable strength, and eliminating perhaps the greatest threat the Epsilon possessed. At least, the greatest threat he knew of. Crowe lifted the young man from the ground, and pulled both his arms in opposite directions.

Todd grunted, and gritted his teeth, as the suit strained against the tremendous force exerted upon it's structure. His shoulder wound still scalding, Todd could also feel the pain flowing through his mindlink to the armor's systems, though on a much smaller scale. The warnings were blaring in his ears, the suit screaming it's agony to the wearer, and Todd knew he could not allow Crowe to gain the upper hand so quickly. He lifted his legs, and delivered a double kick to Crowe's chest. Todd was thrown from the suit, as Crowe faltered, and utilizing the Epsilon's greater speed and agility, he unsheathed his blade, a weapon unknown to Crowe, and struck true to his enemy's heart. A moment of anger, and Todd sensed Crowe's body jerk and stiffen even through his armored suit, and he know thought that the line had been crossed.

"Nice try..." It had not. Crowe swept him away with a wild punch, and Todd was knocked to his backside. The blade had left a visible mark upon the dark Prussian surface, where brilliant blue sparks erupted forth. Perchance more damage had been done, yet Crowe never allowed any weakness to show. From above each shoulder, small cylindrical attachments flipped over from their stowed position on his back, and two guided laser beams drifted their way to the center of Todd's chest. "Your playthings are impressive, but no match for mine."

Todd froze in the oncoming weaponry, outmatched, and now, with the absolute severity and awesome size of the launchers being aimed at him, outgunned.

"Todd...get out of there!!" Annika screamed from the side, and Todd broke from his stupor.

Crowe launched two sleek missiles directly towards Todd's position, hidden within their own exhaust and the trail of toxic propellant fumes. He barely managed to roll from the path of the incoming projectiles. They hit the steel grating and erupted in twin balls of fire, powerful enough to create an awesome shockwave that impacted upon Todd's frame and sent him reeling. Annika too was blown back, tumbling head over heels and coming to a painful rest against the steel railing lining the catwalk. As the rippling flames died away, Crowe stomped through the blackened smoke, and grabbed the shaken young man, delivering several punches to his stomach and side, and tossing him like a doll across the entire breadth of the catwalk.

Todd groaned, visibly trembling upon the cold, steel ground. He resisted retching into his helmet, tasting the blood risen from his throat and coating his tongue with the flavor of iron and salt, and used the railing to help himself up. Suddenly, a blinding collision struck his backside, directly between the steel molded pinions, and Todd was sent into the railing, bending and twisting against the powerful fists driven into the breadth of his back. Crowe hovered over him, and continued to pummel upon the smaller form, a growing madness seizing upon his heart, eradicating all intelligent reason in the fury to destroy this usurper.

Annika forced her sluggish limbs to move, fighting against the numbing effects of the collar still afflicting her. She combated against the deadening lethargy, and aching pains roving through her lithe form, using what strength remained to rend the steel railing and pull a piece off. She ran towards Crowe and brought the steel pipe against what passed for the head. The pipe reverberated violently upon his steel skin, sending the shock directly to Annika's hands, almost causing her to lose grip on the jagged weapon. Crowe turned around, only to have the spear-like end scrape across the suit's visor, nearly penetrating through to Crowe's astonished expression.

He staggered back, and Todd took advantage, opening his blade onto the exposed metal. As if a hot knife through butter, the blade cleaved and sliced, ripping out chunks of armor, as Todd directed the blade into the seams of the separated armor plating and the rivets and welds holding them together, where the suit was most vulnerable.

"I think not, boy!" Crowe demanded, turning to face the young man, yet found only a ebon-hued fist filling his entire visual sensor area.

Todd punched Crowe directly in the damaged visor, shattering the thick plexiglass and opening the thin mask to Crowe's black eyes. For the first time this night, Todd saw fear sweep through the inky pools of the elder man's pupils. He clenched his fists and unleashed the ultimate sum of all his rage into the powerful thrusts, finally knocking the massive suit off it's feet. Todd placed an arm to his side, rubbing a soothing massage about the steel skin, the mindlink sending the direct signals to his own bruised skin, actually helping the soothe the throbbing pain. Annika ran up to Todd's side, throwing her arms around him, and resting her sore body against his rigid stance.

Their celebration was cut short when Crowe stirred and sat up, aiming the rocket launcher towards the couple. Both fear and natural instinct caused Todd to instantly pull Annika around and place his unfurled wings towards Crowe's point-blank weapon discharge. The missile fired and exploded on Todd's back, sending both the Epsilon, and Annika, into a freefall over the railing's edge. Todd secured the gargess on his stomach and twisted his backside towards to upcoming ground. He hit with a distinct thud, an echoing crack, on the stalled assembly line, landing with enough force to actually bounce from the steel track, and roll to the side, onto the concrete floor of the factory.

"Fuck..." he moaned, with barely enough breath to release a grated lament, the Epsilon's rear quarter marred with deep carbon scoring from the missile's impact.

Annika sluggishly rose up, and found Todd still laying face up, utterly still, and deathly silent. "Todd?" she called to him, crawling over to his side with her wings sagging across her back. "Todd, come on, we...we have to get away from him..." She pulled him from the ground, and allowed him to rest his body against her shoulder. She did her best to escort the burdensome suit from the open area, luckily clouded with thick smoke to conceal their escape. She dragged him to a far corner, and settled him against a nook in a massive machine. "Hey," she slid her talons down the Epsilon's mask, "you still alive in there?"

The mask hissed and opened, and Todd compelled his lips to display a grin to his lover, if only for her sake. "Alive...but hurting like hell..."

"I know. You're favoring that side of yours." She had guessed correctly of the injury sustained last night. "And the shoulder where he shot you..."

"Yeah, my side's worse than I thought. And my arm hurts like hell." he muttered, seeing Annika's facial expression turn to downright horror. "But I'll be fine. This suit's taking most of the damage."

"Maybe you should turn off that mindlink."

"Can't...it's the only reason I'm still alive...it helps the reaction time, and is vital for the control of the suit...without it, I'm pretty much trapped in a useless tin can..."

Annika graced his cheek with her warm caress, and traced his lips with the softest hint of a kiss, before succumbing to her passion and almost tearing his bottom lip off with her fanged teeth. She noticed Todd's head turn abruptly, as the suit's systems were picking up an energy source nearby. "He's close," she whispered, "isn't he?"

Todd nodded soberly. "Yeah. We're going to have to finish this, gorgeous...once and for all. Or he'll never let you live your life." She looked down and silently agreed with his declaration with a nod of her own. Todd reached out to grasp upon her face, wiping away the falling tears. Though her features smudged with dirt and grime, her hair tangled, her clothing slightly blackened and charred, she had never looked so beautiful to him at this very moment. Everything around him disappeared, even his own anxiety of the question plaguing him for the last couple days, except for the gorgeous creature, who had given all she was to him, her love, her laughter, her entire life. He knew he loved her, he knew their future was connected, their souls joined. "Marry me..."

Annika snapped up her eyes to his. "What?!?!"

Todd smiled. "Be my wife."

Annika's own heart thumped against her chest, and her breathing became erratic. "A-Are you serious?? Todd...I mean...w-we're so young...and, we've only known each other for a little more than a year..."

"I know. But it's been the best year in my life." He pulled her closer to him, their faces yet mere inches away. "I love you, and I want you to be by my side always. I want you to be Mrs. Annika Hawkins."

"So this is what you were going to ask me..." Annika trembled, her cerulean eyes not once blinking, as she fought an inner battle against her burning love and her most dominant fears. "I...I don't know...Todd, I..."

Suddenly, Todd's suit warned of an approaching figure through the milky mist, still laying upon the factory from the missile blast, yet light enough to make out the stark reality of a massive armored suit reaching out for Annika. Before Todd could struggle to grasp her arm, she was pulled away from him by Crowe's hand.

"Mind if I interrupt?" the older man hissed, lifting the gargess from the ground by her neck.

Todd sluggishly rose up, fatigued, weary from the fight. "Let her go, bastard..."

Crowe looked down on him, peering into the youthful facade possessed of alarm and dread, but also defiance. "This time, I will not allow any more mistakes," he started, clenching his right hand even tighter against Annika's larynx, "for as of this moment, you have lost all usefulness in my eyes, my dear. You have caused too much damage, too much grief, too many problems. It's time to clean up the past, and look to the future..." Crowe launched himself into the air, dragging Annika along with him, her face contorted, her jaw left slack to gasp for any air to feed her lungs through a severely constricted throat. He soared up, reaching the factory roof within seconds, now over sixty feet above the floor, where Todd was left to quickly ponder what action he should take.

He too powered up the boosters and flew skywards, a straight ascent directly towards Crowe, and soon they hovered mere meters from each other, a standoff, as Annika was mercilessly held between them, a living barrier securing Crowe's safety.

"Now listen up, Mr. Hawkins, for I'm only going to say this once," Crowe threatened, his caustic barb flowing above the quiet rasp of his suit's booster rockets, "you leave now, or I will kill your lover."

"You're bluffing..." he bit back, his face left unfettered as he had chosen not to reseal the helmet, leaving his lowered brow upon deep-set, thin eyes.

Crowe sneered, laughing at the uncanny similarity to his first encounter with this annoying young man a year ago. "I never bluff." he responded. "I believe you've heard the old adage...if I cannot have her, then no one shall."

"You won't kill her. She's too important to you, especially after chasing her all the way around Manhattan for a year. You've fought too hard, invested too much to just throw her away now."

"True, but look what she has cost me. My hired force is defeated, hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain, I have creatures running around destroying my very home...besides, I now know where an entire family of gargoyles live, ones possessed of much greater strength and speed than that of my daughter. I can enslave them all, and build an army." Crowe lifted his free hand, and a small hatch flipped open. "Voice ident: Crowe, Therias Ebon. Factory start-up sequence...engage."

Below them, the machines roared to life, pursuing their task of creating implements of war from mined materials, guided by sophisticated computer systems. Crowe was directly above a pit of molten steel, now uncovered when the power was switched back on. One hand wrapped around Annika's throat, the other trained on Todd. "It seems Annika has been left unable to fly due to the collar, and when released from my hand, will plummet directly into the recycled molten steel. She will burn, and incinerate, and ironically, her very atoms will be spread into thousands of Black Raven firearms, sold all across the world. She will become my weapon after all, just not in the way I would have ever imagined." Crowe revealed a laser weapon from his own forearm, pointed at Todd's chest. "You attempt to save her, I will shoot you down. You may survive the initial blast, but Annika will still fall to her death. Now, the question is, what will you do? Will you kill me, or allow your precious lover to die? The choice is yours, boy..."

"I'll never lower myself to be like you. Never."

"Are you sure? What other way do you see to save Annika's life?"

Todd hesitated, and centered his eyes on Annika's ocean blue pools. Plain on his face, was the war fought within his heart. To kill, to finally step past a boundary set of civilized man, would perhaps drive him mad.

"Come now, boy," he emphasized his moniker for the young man, "you have five seconds. Do you have the fortitude, the guts, to see this through to the very end?"

His eyes formed as steel, a fervent inferno erupting within the misty gray. "Yes," he answered, "I do." Todd immediately flew towards him, surprising Crow in his audacity to risk Annika's life in such a deranged stunt. Before the chance presented itself to fire off a shot, the smaller suit collided with Crowe, who remained steadfast, yet grappled to maintain the upper hand. Todd grasped each of his hands to Crowe's wrists, and the three of them lay suspended in the air. Todd and Crowe came face to face, struggling against each other's strength. And with every passing second, Crowe's grip become stronger on Annika. She could not breathe, let alone scream for her freedom, as the life was crushed from her ever so slowly. As her body went limp, and as his hatred grew in waves washing upon him, attacking Annika, shooting him, leaving him to his fate in the cold winds, Todd made his final decision, to save the life of the woman he loved. "You're wrong, Crowe, there is another way to save Annika..." Todd unsheathed his blade, and with a wave of shimmering steel, and a spray of scarlet blood, Crowe's hand was effectively separated from Annika...and his own body.

Todd ripped Annika away, and wrenched the severed hand from her neck, throwing it away into the factory's deepest bowels. Crowe screamed in pain, losing control of his armor as he pulled the bloody stump to his chest, releasing a steady stream of vermilion fluid to cover his suit. Todd had cut directly through the wrist joint, where the armor was thinnest, and the most vulnerable. He landed on the catwalk, still howling in mordant animosity and sheer torment.

Todd held the amending Annika, kneading her throat, coughing and straining for fresh air. He flew off to a far distance, then turned, where his eyes settled upon the barely moving Crowe. "I could have killed you, old man!!" he yelled out, grabbing Crowe's attention. "But I spared you. As I figure it, you owe me."

"I OWE YOU NOTHING!!!" he replied in a caustic tongue, almost frothing at the mouth, attempting to sway the massive loss of blood from his wound. "I WILL KILL YOU, BOY!!! YOU AND YOUR LOVER!!! AND I WILL TAKE YOUR ENTIRE CLAN AS MY OWN!!!"

"Not with any of these weapons, you won't. I have one last 'toy' I never showed off yet." Todd raised his right arm, and from the side, just beside the damaged lasers, popped out a small circular object. "A prototype. Mr. X calls it a pulse mine. I only have one, so I saved it for just such an occasion. To wipe out this entire factory. To make sure you'll never hurt anyone else again, human or gargoyle." The small mine was launched, deep into the factory, and attached itself to a stack of surface-to-air missiles.

Crowe balked at his choice of a target, knowing the power these rockets possessed. "You son of a bitch..."

Todd re-attached the helmet, and spoke into the transmitter, "Hawkins to Brooklyn."

"I'm here." came the beaked gargoyle's response. "Did you find Annika?"

"Yeah. If you guys are all finished up there, you have less than a minute to get out of the mansion. I've set a mine to destroy Mr. Crowe's weapons factory below."

"Gotcha. We've rounded up all the mercs outside for Elisa, and we'll be waiting for you some distance away." Brooklyn's voice was cut off, and the transmitter went silent.

"You'd better get out while you can, Crowe." Todd hollered to the wounded man. "In...forty-five seconds now, this place goes boom."

"I will have my revenge, Hawkins, I swear it!!"

"Hey, you stopped calling me boy." Todd joked. "See you around, jerk." Todd threw Annika into his arms, and took off through another service tunnel. The last sight he saw, was of Crowe slinking his way from the catwalk, into another tunnel, leaving behind a trail of his own blood. He traveled the length of the tunnel, toward the surface, and halfway through the underground passage, he heard the explosion go off, shaking the entire structure around him.

The missiles went up with the pulse mine, obliterating everything within it's impressive range, and within a matter of seconds, the entire factory was destroyed. But the ferocity surprised even Todd, as the detonation's backfire crawled it's way up the tunnel after him. He curled his wings in to protect Annika, and transferred all the available power to the boosters, hoping he could outrun the lapping flames, biting at his feet.

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

"Is everyone accounted for?" Goliath asked of his clan, perched upon a rooftop some distance away from Crowe's mansion. The entire group nodded, and Goliath released a heavy sigh. "How long, Lexington, before the mine goes off?"

Lexington checked his internal chronometer, and his eyes opened even wider. "Now." The ground shook even from where they stood, and soon, the entire mansion was opened up to the heavens, engulfed in flames. The ground around the mansion cracked, split, and crumbled, as the entire factory below the earth was destroyed by the weapons it had produced.

"Where is Todd and Annika?" whispered Sata to her mate.

Brooklyn smiled. "Hawkins will get out. Trust me..."

"There!" Demona yelled, her lips curving into a smile as she found a dark speck tear its way from the scorched earth, and approach the clan. "Oh my...the suit...it's..."

"Trashed." Broadway finished for her, seeing the damage afflicted, and even the light, ghostly steam wafting from the steel surface.

Todd hovered over them, holding a barely conscious Annika in his arms. "I think, Red," he announced, "that the suit just got it's second test, and passed with flying colors. But you may not like the repair bill." Demona smiled back to him, and simply shook her head. "I'm going back to the castle, if any of you want to come along."

"We will meet you there." said Goliath, noticing the familiar flashing of red and blue in the distance. "A job well done, Mr. Hawkins. We are all relieved both of you are safe."

Todd nodded, and flew off, as the clan took to wing behind him, knowing that the police would find over sixty wanted men, and because of their greed, had found themselves at the mercy of the gargoyles, and would now find themselves behind bars.

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

"You still alive, gorgeous?" Todd asked jokingly, mimicking words spoken to him when she inquired of his own health, as he touched down on the stones of castle Wyvern.

"You can't get rid of me that easily..." she whispered, opening one eye and cocking a blond eyebrow. Todd opened the helmet, and allowed Annika to rest her feet on the courtyard surface. They had beaten the clan here, and found themselves both treating this place as a welcome home. Annika took a few tedious steps, and balanced herself with Todd's help, still massaging her sore throat. She turned back around and looked at him sternly. "Thank you," she whispered, almost embarrassingly, "for coming to rescue me."

"I love you, Annika. I couldn't do any less, I suppose." He pulled her close to him, and kissed her, as she coiled her arms around his neck.

"Oh, by the way," she started softly when pulling back, "the answer...is yes."

"Yes? Yes to what? Oh...OH!!! Yes?! Yes!! YES!!!" Todd screamed in pure joy and lifted Annika from the stones, surprising her in the strength of the Epsilon.

"Whoa there, handsome!" she squealed, as she was once more granted to touch the ground. "You have to do it properly..."

"Huh? Oh...yeah..." Todd opened the entire suit, and with barely a hush of the hydraulics, the suit split apart, and Todd stepped out. He staggered slightly, the wound throwing off his balance, yet he preserved his amiable attitude and charming smile. "This thing's been chafing me something fierce..." he muttered, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the small velvet box.

"You were carrying a ring around with you?"

"Yeah...what's your point?" Todd dropped to one knee, and held out the open box to her, giving Annika a sight of the golden engagement ring he had purchased months ago, with a setting of twin diamonds, catching the frosted light of the moon, glistening much like the gargess' wide ocean eyes.

"Oh...woooow..." she whispered, seeing the ring in all it's glory.

"Annika Smith...will you marry me?"

"Yes, Todd Hawkins," she answered honestly, "I will."

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

The clan drifted along with the Autumn winds, and landed on the castle's cornices, each sporting weary expressions, and rubbing their arms, legs, and any other body part which had sustained damage in the fight with the armored, and heavily armed mercenaries.

Demona instantly broke from the group, her eyes darting about the courtyard to find where Todd had landed. In the distance she found him, kneeling in front of Annika, and slipping a golden ring on her finger. She came to a sudden stop, her heart having fallen, her breath lost, and she almost broke down on the spot, seeing the young man having finally given himself totally and entirely to another woman.

"I am...sorry, my sister," Desdemona appeared from behind her, her low, husky voice directed across her shoulder, "but you knew this day would eventually come."

Demona growled. "Don't be sorry, for it was nothing but a passing affection, which has been completely forgotten." She swerved away from Desdemona's side, and stomped away from the group, forbidding her sister to witness her tears of pain.

"Mother?" Angela called out to her matriarch, seeing the azure gargoyle quickly walk away. "Mother?!"

"Leave her, Angela." Desdemona replied, bracing the young lavender female from chasing after her mother. "I believe at this moment, she needs her privacy."

"What is going on with her?!" Angela demanded furiously. "Why won't you tell me?"

"It is not my place, rookery daughter. It is something your mother needs to work out on her own." Desdemona walked away, to join in with the rest of the clan on their congratulations to the young couple on their planned mating, leaving Angela to hang her head, and wonder what secret Demona was keeping, that was eating away at her heart.

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

September 13th, 9:24 a.m.
"Todd, you here?" Elisa poked her head through the apartment door, seeing the damage inflicted by Crowe merely covered up until the repair crews could finish their task. "Todd?"

"Right here, Elisa." Todd stepped out from his small bedroom, and sighed at seeing the destruction, a noticeable habit he had picked up when having returned to his home at daybreak for much needed sleep. "Fuck...this place is messed up. At least they didn't destroy my most prized possessions." Todd looked back to his massive television and drafting table.

"Xanatos' repairmen will have this place back up in no time, complete with a state of the art security system." Elisa countered, stepping towards the young man, who was still favoring his bandaged side beneath his shirt, his injuries, including the bullet wound on his shoulder, finally allowed both the time and chance to heal properly. "Besides, until your place is fixed up, you can spend that time at the castle with your...fiancé."

Todd smiled at the mention of that simple word, almost a giddy chortle was released before he suppressed it. "I guess you heard, huh?"

"Goliath called me at the station with the news. Congratulations." Elisa smiled sweetly, slumping to the couch and resting her fatigued form into the plush cushions, after the long evening of booking the mercenaries found near the remains of Crowe's mansion. "I have to admit, it'll be nice to have another married interspecies couple around."

"Yeah, I think everyone else is even happier than we are. Especially Fox, for the chance to plan another wedding. She and Annika were already choosing the flowers before dawn..." Todd trailed off with a light laughter, and Elisa picked up on the wavered tone of his voice.

"You okay?"

Todd at last met her gaze with his own, and took a deep, cleansing breath. "Yeah, I guess..."

"You're afraid," Elisa commented, seeing the usually boisterous young man unusually pensive, "of Crowe."

"You should have seen him...he was friggin' furious. Have you guys found anything?"

"We have our best forensic teams on the site right now, but the place is pretty much demolished. All the mercenaries were charged and are facing at least a few year's worth of jailtime..."

"But no sign of Crowe." Todd cut in, as Elisa solemnly nodded.

"The explosion was intense enough to destroy any human remains. It's possible he never made it out."

"With our luck?" Todd replied, cocking an eyebrow and seeing Elisa curve her lips into a smile. "He's out there somewhere, and extremely pissed off at me."

"Yeah, but are you strong enough?" Elisa inquired, and Todd looked back at her with the strange question. "Can you live with this man wanting you dead?"

"You can...somehow." Todd countered. "You live everyday with this fear, of those who want nothing more than to kill you, and it seems as if it doesn't bother you in the slightest."

"Not true." Elisa snapped. "It does bother me. Everyday I hope that my family, the man I love, and my daughter won't be wiped off the face of this planet by some psychotic."

"Then what keeps you going?"

Elisa reached into her coat and pulled out her wallet, delving into a hidden pocket in the leather pouch and pulling out pictures of her family. She handed the Polaroids to Todd, and he found snapshots of Goliath, Trinity, and the entire clan in his hands. "That is what keeps me going."

Todd couldn't help but laugh.

"You could have killed Crowe, according to what you told Goliath and what he related to me, but you ultimately made the choice to spare his life, even though he surely would have destroyed you when placed in the same position."

"Why would it be wrong to kill him?" Todd asked of she who has been forced to take lives in the line of duty. "He lives for nothing but enslaving the clan, ensuring the deaths of hundreds of innocent people because of the guns he sells, and of course, strangling me with his bare hands. He's barely human, and not even worth the life he was given."

"It's always wrong to kill, unless absolutely necessary to save the innocent. We're all faced, at some point in our lives, with the choice you were forced to make. It would be so easy to kill him, and then forget he ever existed. But his death at your hands would have slowly destroyed you. You may not think it now, but you made the right decision." Elisa graced a hand to his arm. "If you would have taken his life, it would have cost you your soul."

"And letting him live, may cost me Annika and the rest of the clan...my family."

Elisa shrugged. "That's life. It's never easy. But you're better than him, Hawkins. We all are, because we have to be."

"Being one of the good guys is a pretty hard job sometimes."

"Yeah, but the rewards are always sweeter."

Todd nodded slowly, seated on the arm of the couch, still staring at the picture of Trinity, intrigued by this innocent, hybrid child who gave Elisa and Goliath so much joy. "Well, he's gone from wanting to take Annika to wanting to kill me, especially after I...I..."

"Did what you thought was the only way to save Annika's life." Elisa defended his decision to sever Crowe's hand, perhaps done in anger, or fear.

"He scars me, I cut off his hand." Todd muttered, rubbing a few fingers over his shoulder wound, where a scar would eventually form. "Fair trade. But she's safe now, and through it all, I've gained a...a wife." The word rolled off his tongue so easily, and he found he would never fear using this term to describe Annika.

"A wife you'll protect from him, and anyone else, for the rest of your life. Just like I will do for Goliath and Trinity until the day I die. Love is more powerful than anything on this planet. It's gotten me through a lot, it's been the one thing I can count on, the one thing that keep all of us fighting. So my original question still stands. Will you be okay?"

Todd looked away, through the remnants of the apartment windows that have not been boarded up, and found the sun casting it's brilliance down upon the city. "It may be a little hard to get to sleep at night for a while, but...I'll be okay." he whispered.

Elisa got up, and moved over to Todd, wrapping her arms around him. "Welcome to the family, Mr. Hawkins." she joked. "Welcome to the family."

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

"Ms. Destine?"

She remained silent, lost in thought, encased in tanned leather stretched over a wooden frame.

"Ms. Destine?"

"W-What?" Dominique Destine stuttered and at last paid attention to her secretary's soft calls. "Yes...yes, what is it?"

The young woman swallowed, though her employer had mellowed in the last few years from the considerable tyrant, she still slightly feared this lithe woman, and her explosive temper. "I-I was just going to remind you of the meeting in fifteen minutes."

"Of course, thank you." The door closed, leaving the human Demona to settle back into her chair, and release her scarlet tress from it's bindings. She swiveled around to look through her massive office window, and the silhouetted skyline bathed in the morning sun. She was tired, having never received adequate sleep last night, after seeing Todd propose to Annika, an image destined to be marked within her head for a very long time. She would be unable to remove this simple fact from her mind, that he would never feel the same way. She knew she should move on, forget about this human, this child, who was not worth her time or affection. But she also knew, he was what she had been looking for, for perhaps the last thousand years of her tortuous existence. Someone who would take away the pain with only a smile, and erase the incredible torment cast upon her heart, if only for a few minutes when blessed with the rare gift of laughter.

"Dammit!" she screamed, raking a hand across her face, actually feeling the warm moisture spill from her eyes. "No...not this time, I will not allow yet another man I love to slip through my fingers. I lost Goliath, I lost Michael, I even lost MacBeth...but I will not lose Todd. Not now...not ever..."