The Quiet Ones

By Kimberly T. email: kimbertow at yahoo dot com

Author's note: Those characters that aren't owned by The Almighty Mouse belong to Christine Morgan, not me. This vignette takes place in her timeline, in the spring of 2002. However, it's strongly recommended that everyone read at least the 2005 "Hill People" segment of Christine's 3-in-1 story "Not Forgotten", before proceeding any further.

"And Sevarius' clones weren't the only ones who had proven to fit the "utterly amoral scientist" mold; Dr. Irene Johnson had been expelled from the castle back in 2002, after the clan had discovered that the xenologist had been secretly trying to recreate the cloning process that Sevarius had used, solely in order to provide herself with subjects for experiments." -- Samson and Delilah: Letters from Homes

March 26, 2002


Dr. Irene Johnson was not a woman prone to clapping her hands and shouting with glee, or any other form of exuberance. But she permitted herself a wide smile as she looked through the microscope at the item on the slide, carefully suspended in a nutrient solution to keep it alive… an embryonic gargoyle. Not too long ago it had been a single cell in suspension, but cellular mitosis had occurred again and again and again, and now a mass of at least a hundred cells lay within the microscope's view. And the slight variation in shape of that small group of cells at center of the mass was evidence of specialization beginning, cells beginning to specialize into internal organs. Yes, this was indeed a gargoyle embryo.

It had taken some time to quietly arrange for this private laboratory less than a mile from her workplace in the Aerie Building, and discreetly divert more of her employer's funds to requisition all the equipment she needed for it. It had taken far more time to successfully perform the microsurgery of converting the various tissue samples she'd collected into cells capable of producing a whole gargoyle, rather than simply gargoyle skin or hair.

Six times before this night, she'd been sure that she'd achieved her goal of creating a proper embryo, only to discover each time some flaw in the process that left her with nothing but layers of skin or strands of hair in Petri dishes, when the cells reproduced at all.

It would have been so much simpler if she'd been able to collect all the samples she'd desired; if she'd been able to collect egg cell samples from the female gargoyles. The skin, hair, blood and talon samples had been obtained during routine medical examinations of the gargoyles in the castle. During their breeding season she'd even been able to collect a few viable sperm samples, one from the brick-red male called 'Brooklyn' for their official study of gargoyle fertility and two more from discreetly visiting favored mating sites soon after they had been used by breeding pairs. But there had been no way to collect egg cell samples short of invasive procedures on the females, and she'd been unable to think of a plausible excuse for doing so that would satisfy her partner at the castle, Dr. Kurt Masters, or their employer Mr. Xanatos.

Without an egg cell to manipulate and take advantage of its natural ability to convert into a zygote once fertilized, the way most animal clones were made, creating a viable embryo had been a long and difficult process. She had been guided in large part by the notes of Dr. Anton Sevarius, who had created the first gargoyle clone back in 1995 from no more than a few blood cells.

But Sevarius' notes were maddeningly incomplete; an utter prima donna, a large portion of his writing had been devoted to proclaiming his own genius and decrying the work of other scientists, rather than actually documenting his processes. All too often she'd had to guess precisely what tools and equipment he'd used to perform a particular procedure, and what steps were missing from it.

But now, she had a gargoyle embryo, in a nutrient solution that simulated the yolk that would likely be found inside a gargoyle egg. And since she always conducted her experiments in batches rather than on one sample at a time, the other samples in this batch should be developed into embryos by now as well.

She would need to check, of course; she preferred to check and double-check rather than assume, and never wrote even a word in her records until she was completely certain. But still, she had a strong hopes that she would find she had created embryo clones of all the fullblooded or changed-to-fullblooded gargoyles in the clan under study, two clones each of the half-human hybrid females, and three clones of the wingless, nonsentient variety that was frequently referred to as a 'doggoyle'.

Up until now, her research into gargoyle anatomy and physiology had been severely limited; their habit of disintegrating into gravel upon death made the standard autopsy studies impossible. And the only living specimens available to her were closely watched by David Xanatos and his employees; there was no question of even trying to quietly appropriate one of them for her own experiments.

But now she would have sixteen gargoyle clones for experimenting on; to do whatever she desired to do in order to know more about how gargoyles accomplished their 'stone sleep', how they converted solar energy to fuel for their bodies in that stonelike form, why their eyes glowed when under stress, and in what other, less obvious ways they differed from those of ordinary mammals and reptiles. Sixteen clones on which she could experiment as she pleased, even vivisection, without interference from her employer or her hopelessly softhearted partner Dr. Masters. That was such a wonderful thought…

But of course, before she could do any real experimenting, she had to grow these embryos into viable gargoyles. It would not do to simply wait for these embryos to mature on their own; gargoyle eggs were painfully slow to hatch, taking a full ten years, and though Irene was as patient as any good scientist should be, she was not that patient. But it would be ridiculous to attempt the more advanced experiments on gargoyles that were not yet capable of surviving outside the nutrient solution.

Sevarius had created full-grown adult gargoyles in a matter of months by creating special chambers that greatly accelerated the aging process, but again, his notes on how those chambers were constructed and how they worked were at times as maddeningly vague and incomplete as the notes on the cloning process. But she believed she had successfully recreated the chamber he'd used; two such accelerated maturation chambers were sitting in a corner of her laboratory, awaiting use.

Earlier tonight, before leaving the castle at the end of her shift, she had double-checked Sevarius's notes on the high-energy formula used to nurture the clones during the accelerated maturation period, and she was quite sure that she had the formula right. After she had checked all her samples and thoroughly documented the results achieved this night, she would load two of the successful samples in and begin accelerating the aging process.

Half an hour later, Irene Johnson was no longer smiling.

Over half of her samples had failed to become proper embryos. None of the 'doggoyle' samples had developed properly, nor any of the hybrid samples. Even one of the straight gargoyle samples had failed to develop; instead, mere single cells floated in those nutrient solutions. Despite her best efforts and the initial test results, those cells had not been converted into viable zygotes that would develop into embryos. What had gone wrong?

She had frankly expected that there would be problems with cloning at least one of the hybrids; each had been created under vastly different conditions, one of them even gestated inside a human mother, and each hybrid's DNA was radically different from not only the standard gargoyle female's DNA but from each other. That was why she had arranged for two clones of each hybrid; so she would have one for a thorough testing and examination inside and out, while still having a backup clone for less destructive testing.

But for not only all the hybrid zygotes to fail, but the 'doggoyle' zygotes and one of the full-blooded gargoyle zygotes as well… There must still be some minute flaw in the microsurgery process she'd used to create the zygotes from non-zygote cells. Some tiny flaw in her procedures that some of the more viable, 'robust' fullblooded gargoyle cells had been able to withstand, but the others could not. But of course, she would have to carefully examine the failed experiments and analyze her findings before actually committing any possible theory to her lab records.

In the meantime, out of sixteen experiments in the batch, she was left with only six; five male embryos and a female embryo. Well, she still had carefully preserved tissue samples of all the others, which could be mined for more genetic material later when she was ready to begin preparing another batch. For now, it was time to begin growing some subjects for all her planned experiments.

She carried two of the embryos in their solutions over to the maturation chambers, and carefully loaded them in; the surviving female embryo, and Gargoyle Male #1. Then she set the acceleration rate to 64X. Growing at 64 times normal speed, these clones would mature visibly every night.

It was slower than Sevarius' work; his notes stated clearly that he had matured his clones at 256 times normal speed. At that speed, he'd been able to produce a fully mature adult gargoyle from a zygote in only a few months, rather than fifty years.

But she preferred a slower speed, which would give her more time to document the changes in the embryos as they matured into fetuses, and finally into gargoyles capable of surviving outside their 'eggs'. Since her work at the castle required her to be on hand there until 1:30 a.m. every weeknight, she had less time to observe the changes than she would like; a slower rate of acceleration worked in her favor. At 64 times normal speed, she should have viable juvenile gargoyles in roughly 50 days, rather than 10 years.

She would keep the female in the acceleration chamber until it matured into adulthood, then harvest the egg cells she needed in order to create gargoyles in more genetic variety. But the male would be taken out of the chamber in the infant/young juvenile stage; by that time, its internal organs should have matured enough that a vivisection study would give her a wealth of information on gargoyle anatomy.

The chambers hummed, the pitch rising as they began to work. And Dr. Irene Johnson began to smile again.

Hours later, at the castle…

Dawn was near, and almost all the gargoyles in the castle were taking their perches. Elisa gave Amber a final hug before putting her down in her playpen, with a motherly reminder that she was expected to go to sleep just like her Daga and all the others were doing; the twins had been in bed for hours already, and 'Zaza' was planning to go to sleep herself very soon.

Amber gave the usual protest that she wasn't at all sleepy, but her tiny yawns betrayed her and when the sun peeked over the horizon she turned to stone just like all the other gargoyles. Elisa gave a sigh of relief, then tugged once experimentally on the 'gargy doll' Amber still held in her hand, before deciding that a day of exposure to the elements wouldn't put any more wear-n-tear on the doll than had already been done.

It had been six weeks since Xanatos had given all the castle's kids a surprise present in the form of a deluxe set of fully poseable gargoyle action figures. That had been a nice surprise for all the clan, seeing official gargoyle dolls that portrayed them as heroes instead of savage monsters, unlike previous toys.

The toys were for the kids, of course, but somehow most of the adults had found themselves playing with them too—in order to demonstrate for the kids the best tactics and proper techniques for patrolling and beating up bad guys, of course. Many a 'GI Joe'-type action figure had received a sound drubbing in the last few weeks from gargoyle dolls, and if the beatings were especially vigorous when the human action figures were dressed in dark blue uniforms with hoods, no one commented on it.

Six weeks ago had been a high point for the clan, in the roller-coaster of emotional extremes they'd been on for the last year and more. Almost everyone had been smiling at least once in a while, enjoying the signs of an early end to dreary winter—though it was only mid-February, the first crocuses had already been spotted blooming in Central Park—and enjoying even more the improved attitude that not only New York but most of the United States had towards the clan now. Goliath, Elektra and others had been asked to appear on numerous talk shows, speaking up on behalf of their clan and for their entire race, and been not only accepted but applauded each time they'd appeared.

A rough draft of a bill that would grant them citizenship and all the legal rights that human citizens enjoyed, had been introduced in Congress at the start of that year's session. The bill had been voted down, but Xanatos and their friend William Harmond, a former senator, had told the clan that was to be expected; it was a new and radical idea for most people, and such radical ideas took time to be fully accepted. Xanatos and Harmond both swore that the bill would be introduced again, and again, until it was finally voted into law… and the fact that over a quarter of the representatives had voted for the bill, when they'd expected only 10 of the vote the first time, was a positive sign indeed.

Six weeks ago had been a high point for the clan… and two weeks ago, a low point. That had been the anniversary of the night the media had dubbed Devil's Night. It was ironic, really; nearly the entire city had turned out to not only remember those who had been lost, but to show their support for the heroes who had saved the city from Hell itself. Not only the mayor but the state governor had come to the castle to personally thank the clan for what they'd done, in fighting off hordes of demons and saving hundreds of thousands of citizens.

But every reminder of that night, every word of thanks, had been like twisting the knife in the clan's still-healing emotional wounds. What the rest of New York didn't know--what they'd told no one else because they hadn't dared even try to explain--was that the Prince of Darkness that everyone had seen, the terrible red winged figure that the clan had been spotted fighting, had actually been Brooklyn and Angela's son. Their egg, stolen from the rookery by Jericho, grown to adulthood in Sevarius' accelerated maturation chamber and perverted by exposure to Demona's sorcery.

Xanatos had done all the talking to the media and city officials last spring, when they'd come to the castle demanding answers for what had happened. He'd explained that the clan was in deep morning for their members that had been lost that night; that the clan had lost not only Maggie Reed Maza, the mutate mother of two who had been burned alive in a burst of Hellfire, but one of the clan's eggs as well. Without stating it outright, he'd given the media the impression that the battle for the city had been fought inside the castle as well, and a demon had broken into the rookery and shattered one of their precious eggs before being defeated.

Brooklyn and Angela had received thousands of sympathy cards, many of them from families who'd suffered miscarriages or stillbirths and thought they could understand what the couple was going through. But of course, since the clan's status as heroes was still too fragile for the full truth to be known, they didn't really understand… no one else could ever really understand. After nearly eight months of visibly aching grief and depression, Brooklyn had finally begun to improve and could even smile a little occasionally, but Angela only retreated further and further into her shell of grief; she still spent most of her nights in the rookery, hovering protectively over her sole remaining egg.

The only way Angela could be coaxed out of the rookery was for at least three other clan members to take her place guarding the eggs; only then would she reluctantly emerge for meals with the rest of the clan or for just enough exercise to make sure her wings didn't wither from disuse. She even slept down there most of the time, and would probably do so all the time if Goliath hadn't firmly ordered her to come out and perch with the clan at least one day in four, to receive enough solar energy that she wouldn't become sick and weak. And she might have defied that order as well, if wise old Hudson hadn't pointed out that if she became too weak, she wouldn't be able to protect her egg.

Two weeks ago, as the anniversary of Devil's Night had come upon them, Angela had become completely irrational with grief and the obsessive need to protect her remaining child; not only had she spent all of the next few nights weeping in the rookery, but she'd spread her wings over the egg and snarled, eyes blazing ruby-red, at anyone who came too close. No one, not even the other females or her mate Brooklyn, could approach her nest without receiving snarls and glares and semi-coherent threats of a violent death if they came too close. Only gentle Elektra could approach, slowly and carefully and just close enough to set Angela's meals on a tray within reach of the nest, before sorrowfully backing away again.

Thankfully, over the last two weeks, Angela had gradually returned to… well, what was normal for her these days. She still spent all her time in the rookery, but at least she would let her mate and others approach her again. And she was sleeping in the rookery today, but Elisa had heard her promise Brooklyn that she would perch with him tomorrow.

Elisa hoped that the event taking place in three more nights would bring smiles back to everyone's faces; in three more nights, the twins would have their fifth birthday party, and both the Maza family and the Xanatos family were determined to make this one a doozy.

Last year's birthday hadn't been celebrated at all; in their grief over losing Maggie and the egg, no one had even remembered the occasion until it was nearly two weeks too late. But this year, they were going to have a celebration to remember; Elisa's parents would bring all the psi-powered children that they were minding to the castle, to be guests at what was likely to be a blowout birthday party.

As mistress of the castle, Fox had put herself in charge of organizing the decorations and entertainment for the party, and she'd hinted that they could expect something really special for the occasion. Elisa thought the kids would be happy with a clown who could make balloon animals, but wouldn't be surprised if Fox found a way to bring an entire three-ring circus into the castle.

Elisa yawned and turned towards the stairs, thinking that she still had to wrap her gifts for the twins before going to sleep. And she'd set her alarm for a good hour earlier than normal, so after she awoke in the afternoon she'd have some time to spend working on her gift for Amber, who would turn two years old a few weeks after the twins' birthday. It was kind-of a pain to plan for children's birthdays, but Elisa welcomed the challenge; it was good to plan for happy occasions after enduring so many sad ones.

After giving Delilah a final good-sleep kiss before she turned to stone, Samson went downstairs to their quarters for his own sleep. On the way there, he passed the rooms for the other mutates, who always turned in sometime in the wee hours of the morning; Samson was the only one who stayed up until dawn, to be with his gargoyle mate.

Talon's bedroom door was slightly ajar again. Samson peeked through the crack, already half-guessing what he'd see inside: Talon, his twins Dee and Tom, and Cagney all curled together on the king-size bed in one huge furry heap. This time it was Dee held close in one of her father's arms as he lay on his side, while Tom was wrapped in the wing he'd extended over them. Cagney had evidently made a nook for herself behind Tom's knees again, because Samson could see the tip of that slim gray tail extending out from under Talon's wing. So it was Dee who'd woken up with a nightmare this time…

The poor kids. And poor Talon. Losing first their home and then Maggie so suddenly, in the space of just a few weeks, had left internal scars that were still slow to heal, even after a full year of mourning. During their waking hours, the kids were back to smiling and playing and having fun, even if their father was still given to prolonged fits of brooding. But at least once a week, somebody woke up with a nightmare and they ended up all huddled on the bed together, Talon drawing comfort from his children and the kids drawing comfort from each other and their sole remaining parent… and from Cagney.

When the mutates had first arrived at the castle, Elisa's cat had stayed well clear of them at first. Eleven years old by the spring of 2001 and rather set in her ways, Cagney had regarded each new acquaintance with suspicion, staying clear and quiet until they had proven themselves worthy of being friends with a cat. (She and Bronx had reached an informal truce years ago, shortly after she had moved into the castle with Elisa; each had apparently pretended the other didn't exist, and went about their business in separate patrols of their domain.)

Samson had won Cagney over in a relatively short time, and she had permitted Delilah to stroke her while Samson was holding her, but she'd stayed well clear of the rest of the newcomers, especially Dee and Tom. Despite how the twins had tried to befriend her, purring and speaking in wheedling tones as they dangled kitty treats for her, she had generally stayed under the bed in Elisa's bedroom, eyes wide and wary.

Elisa had confessed that Cagney's behavior was probably because of Amber, who had the unfortunate habit of pulling at any tail that passed within range of her grasping hands. The rest of the clan tolerated it in the same way they tolerated her infantile yanking on manes and teething on whatever was handy, because she was the darling of nearly the entire clan. (Goliath had even been known to dangle and wiggle his tail invitingly for her, further proof that fatherhood fostered masochism.) On the other claw, Cagney did not tolerate it, but had learned the hard way that if she tried to discipline the baby as she would a kitten, with swipes and growls, both Goliath and Elisa would swoop in to swipe and snarl at Cagney instead. Cagney probably had decided that any youngster with wings was apt to be a tail-puller, and was to be avoided at all costs.

For reasons ultimately known only to Cagney, her attitude had changed after Devil's Night. Though Elisa swore her cat had never had kittens, being spayed before she'd reached adulthood, Cagney now showed every intention of trying to be a mommy to Dee and Tom. For months after Devil's Night, anyone looking for Cagney would generally find her curled up with whichever twin was crying or looking lost and bewildered, purring at full volume and determinedly grooming the fur on whatever limb was within reach. If both twins had been depressed at once she had usually, with gentle head-butts and paws hooking around ankles, persuaded them to come together so she could mother them both at once.

Cagney and Bronx had even apparently come to an agreement to be more cordial to each other, for when the gargoyles were awake Bronx had also often been found sitting next to one of the twins and crooning soothingly, licking the tears off their furry cheeks, and would help to herd the twins together for comforting. But Bronx had also spent time playing with Amber to keep her from getting jealous, and would occasionally try to comfort Angela when she would let him into the rookery, whereas Cagney had devoted herself almost exclusively to the twins.

Cagney had even brought out her old catnip mousie in an effort to cheer up the twins, batting it back and forth as if she were an energy-filled kitten with a brand-new toy instead of a staid old cat who had let the thing gather dust in a corner for over three years. She'd played with it in front of them until they played with her as well, giggling as they batted it back to her with their own paws or sweeps of their wings in what Elisa amusedly called "mouse-hockey."

Nowadays the twins were doing much better, but Cagney still played with them and every night when they went to bed, she followed them to their connected rooms and almost tucked them in, hopping up on the beds and purring them to sleep in turns. And if one of them had a nightmare, she was right there to purr them back to sleep, or to accompany them to Talon's bedroom for a group snuggle. Elisa had once said ruefully that she was almost jealous of all the attention Cagney was giving her brother's family, instead of her. But everyone else was sincerely glad for her devotion; that old grey cat had done a lot to restore the twins' good spirits, and in turn nearly everyone else's.

The twins weren't the only ones prone to nightmares. Some time later and two rooms away, resting atop a sprawling mound of identical flat cushions, Claw jerked up out of his sleep with a noise that was somewhere between a whine and a snarl. A few seconds later he shook himself fully awake, to discover that he'd turned another one of his cushions into shreds of fabric and foam stuffing.

He sneezed to get a few flecks of foam out of his nostrils, then eyed the mess in resignation. That was the fourth cushion this month, and he'd lost count of how many he'd destroyed in the throes of nightmares since he'd moved back into the castle. Owen always replaced the cushions with identical ones, and without a word to anybody else so far as he knew, but the penniless boy that Claw had once been still cringed inside at such a waste of money. He really should go back to sleeping on bundles of rags again, like he had back in the Labyrinth.

Of course, it would be better if he didn't have nightmares that caused him to claw up his bedding trying to fight or flee from them, but that wasn't even a faint hope anymore. He knew he'd always have nightmares, just as he'd been having them for the last couple of decades. He'd just been through too much that a body had every durn right to have nightmares over. And being changed into a furry two-legged tigerish thing was only part of it…

Just growing up 'different' in the Hills had been bad enough. Little Beau Ellis had always been able to hear other folks just fine and understand them; sometimes he could even hear what they weren't saying with their mouths, if they were touching him. But he could never abide the sound of his own voice; the words were just too loud. It had been so much easier to just talk inside his head, where his Ma could hear him just fine even if she was in a different room of their shack.

But other folks who couldn't hear him that way had thought he was dumb, both for talking and for thinking. While he was with his Ma they hadn't bothered him, but when he was alone they'd delighted in teasing and bullying and even beating on the boy who wouldn't even cry out in protest.

Then he'd been taken away from his Ma and Pa, strapped up in a straightjacket and hauled away, because of the one time he'd decided to fight back. Not on his own behalf, but because he'd seen in Buster McGill's head what he planned to do to little Cindy Hooper when he got her alone, and he couldn't bear the thought of anything happening to sweet little Cindy, one of the few kids who treated him nice. So when Buster had come looking to surprise Cindy he'd found Beau in the way, waving a tree branch and trying to look threatening even if 13-year-old Buster was not only three years older but already near a foot taller than him.

Fat lot of good it had done. Buster had grabbed the branch away and beat Beau unconscious with it, then told his own Pa that Beau had turned dangerous and had to be sent away for everyone's safety. So the men from the city had come two days later with the straightjacket, but that hadn't been the worst of it; as they'd been loading him into their truck, Beau heard the news that little Cindy had been found dead, strangled, and robbed of her maidenhood to boot. And Beau was being blamed for it!

After that, he hadn't much cared what had happened to him, for a while anyway. Until the doctors who said they wanted to 'help' him started giving him electric shocks, and pumping him full of drugs that made him throw up or faint or forget even his own name for days on end. And then that orderly who was there to take care of the patients, had decided that Beau looked right purty for a boy…

Those had been horrible, horrible years. One abuse piled on another, till Beau was sure that he'd gone straight past Death and Purgatory and right into Hell, except the Devil had decided it'd be fun to turn the heat off for a while.

When Dr. Sevarius had shown up at the asylum looking for patients, and picked Beau as a suitable candidate for some new experiment, Beau hadn't objected any. Even if this new doctor couldn't help him after all, Beau had already been through so much that he just wanted to get away from there; away and back home to the Hills and his Ma. And the doctor had promised that after the experiment had been run, he'd be a free man…

If only Sevarius hadn't been wearing gloves all the times he'd touched Beau, before they'd arrived at his laboratory and the experiment had started. If he'd been bare-handed, maybe Beau could have heard the truth in his head before it was too late. Because Sevarius had lied, every which way. When the experiment was over, Beau hadn't been freed. And he hadn't even been a man anymore.

But at least he'd still been alive. That was another reason to have nightmares, another one that only he knew about. The thing he'd become, this mix of tiger and bat and eel and sweet Jesus alone knew what else that folks had decided to call just "mutate", had been Sevarius' first complete success. And before he'd been renamed "Claw", he'd been dubbed "Mutagen Experiment #17." While still in his cage, he'd seen what had become of Experiments #15 and 16, a black man who'd twitched a lot and a white woman who'd claimed that aliens were watching their every move.

#15 had died on the examination table, screaming his life away as he'd turned into a furry lump of twitching limbs that already reeked of Death and dissolution. #16 had been in her cage when she'd wonderingly touched a hand to the fur growing on her cheek… and yelped as sparks had uncontrollably jumped from her fingertips. Fifteen minutes later, she'd been dead from self-electrocution. Beau had been able to smell her internal organs roasting from the inside out as she'd died, still whimpering for help to stop it or at least something to deaden the pain, that a fascinated Sevarius had been too busy watching to provide.

Beau—by then mutated and renamed Claw—had been awake in his cage when Sevarius had contacted his unknown employer, to announce that the Mutagen Project was a success. Though Claw hadn't been able to see the face on the viewer screen from his cage, he'd clearly heard the unknown man say "Well done! How many trials did it take?"

"Just one, of course," Sevarius had said with a smile. "I am a genius, after all." And just like that, the other experiments—other people—had been erased, and no one else except Claw ever knew they'd existed.

If he'd ever learned to read and write, Claw might have put some of his nightmares on paper, to explain to the others in the Labyrinth when they'd asked him why he always had such trouble sleeping, more than the other mutates. But it was probably for the best that he hadn't; there wasn't a durn thing anyone could do about them anyway. What's done is done, as his Ma had said sometimes, and what can't be cured got to be endured. And there was no good reason to make anyone else endure his troubles.

Claw sighed, got another one of the trash bags that Owen had quietly provided him with, and set about picking up all the pieces of cushion. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep after that nightmare—he'd dreamt he was back in the asylum again, but thankfully the details were already fading—so he might as well clean up and get ready for another day.

Kurt Masters was already at work when his partner Irene showed up in the late afternoon, looking as stoic and severe as ever. "Afternoon, Irene!" he called out cheerfully. "How's the boyfriend? Or is it boyfriends, now? How many do you have in your harem?"

Irene just gave him a flat stare, as usual, before turning away to put on her lab coat and check her instruments. Kurt grinned, knowing that one day he'd get a response from her, even if it wasn't anytime soon.

Kurt didn't mind being the one who did all the talking in their partnership, let alone when it came to dealing with the gargoyles or with the rest of the clan. He'd figured out six years ago, when they'd first begun working together, that Irene Johnson just liked to keep her mouth shut just as much as he liked to talk.

It was actually an admirable trait in a scientist; he could name a few others who had started shooting their mouths off about their great experiments and projects only to find out later that they'd been dead wrong about something, and now had to eat crow in front of their peers. While Kurt occasionally had to rein in his own tongue before he got carried away and let something slip before their team was ready to publish results, he had no worries about Irene on that score. When it came to science and medicine, she was utterly professional.

But Kurt knew, he just knew in his heart that Irene had a deep dark secret that she was keeping from him and from the rest of the world… and he was betting that it was a bedroom-type secret. That once she was away from the castle, she let down her hair and turned into a wild thing that frequented the clubs, and would randomly pick some sweet young thing to be her prey and lure him back to her apartment for hours of hot raging sex.

Well, maybe it was a little far-fetched, but it sure was fun to think about! Kurt grinned again as he checked his own instruments and prepared for another evening of studying and caring for a clan of gargoyles and mutates. His current project was coming up with a cough syrup that little Amber would actually take in instead of spitting out; she'd had a cold last month, just a mild one, but her constant coughing and resultant crankiness had made both her and her parents miserable.

That night, down in Central Park, Samson and Delilah were strolling hand-in-hand through the trees skirting Sheep Meadow. Before they had left the Labyrinth, Samson had been used to striding through miles of tunnels on a nightly basis, and living in the castle now simply didn't provide him with enough room to really stretch his legs. So he and Delilah came to Central Park at least twice a week, borrowing the van with tinted windows and gargoyle-friendly seats and controls that Samson could also handle, now that he'd learned how to drive by using Xanatos' vehicle simulator.

Sometimes Samson would go running, thundering down the walkways and through the trees like a great furry Juggernaut, while Delilah glided overhead to scout out a pedestrian-free path for him. More often they simply walked together, enjoying the night and each other's company.

Tonight, after a stretch of companionable silence, Delilah asked seemingly out of the blue, "Samson, you remember doctors from before we met?"

"Hm? Sure, I remember a lot of them," Samson said while absently reaching up to snag a handful of maple leaves; he'd found them to be the most flavorful in the spring. "Why do you ask?"

"I not know many doctors," Delilah replied softly. "Only Dr. Masters, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Fielding… and Dr. Sevarius." Both of them involuntarily flinched at that last name, the name of the quintessential 'mad scientist' who was responsible for both Samson's present form and Delilah's very existence. The fact that they had found a measure of contentment in their lives and happiness with each other did not obligate them to thank him for what he'd done.

Upon moving to the castle last year and discovering to their dismay that he was living below them in the Aerie Building and in the crippled body of Sabra Indrani, Samson and Delilah had made every attempt to avoid him… Which wasn't entirely easy, with the doctor's distressing habit of bypassing security codes and his clinical interest in how his biological son's form had subtly changed since his initial mutation.

Samson had even barricaded himself in the gymnasium a few times on the pretext of working out, preferring to lift weights for five solid hours rather than spend five seconds in the same room with the man who had killed his mother and turned him into a Sasquatch. He knew that someday, his Christian upbringing would require him to make peace with the man who was still, in a very tenuous way, his biological father… but he just wasn't ready to even try, not yet.

Samson almost wished he had the nerve to do something like what Talon had done, as soon as he'd found out about Sevarius staying in the building. Talon had hunted Sevarius down and used a burst of electricity to burn out the scientist's powered wheelchair, then jolted him/her unconscious and left him/her in the middle of the hall, waking up to find a note pinned to his/her blouse and a dying rat in his lap.

The note explained that Talon had been merciful to Sevarius that one time, because he was now a cripple. But if the scientist ever so much as looked in the general direction of Talon or especially his children, let alone tried to touch or talk to them, Talon would come after him again. And instead of being given a swift death by electrocution, this time Sevarius would remain alive… but as a blind cripple, without a tongue or hands to communicate with… The bloody eyeless, pawless and vivisected rat dying squealing on his/her lap seemed to give enough weight to the threat that Sevarius had made no efforts to haunt anyone but Samson during his stay.

Then roughly a week after Devil's Night, Sevarius had made the mistake of idly wondering aloud about the status of the eggs in the rookery, just over a year into their ten-year hatching cycle... When word of that reached the clan, the instantly resulting uproar convinced Xanatos to transfer Sevarius to another facility well away from Manhattan even before that night was over, before the already traumatized gargoyles ripped him into bite-sized pieces. None of the clan had seen the mad doctor since then, which was just fine for all concerned.

Now Delilah asked Samson, "The doctors you remember… were they all like Dr. Masters? Or like Dr. Sevarius?"

Samson munched on the leaves while thinking back to the days of his youth, when he'd been human-but-terminally-ill Samuel Blake instead of Samson the mutate. Morgan's Syndrome was a relatively rare disease, and Samuel had been a 'textbook case'; doctors and interns had frequently visited the hospital to talk with his primary physician, Dr. Jonathan Curran. Many of the ones who'd also wanted to observe his case with their own eyes had made him feel like he was something less than human already, just some sort of flesh-and-blood study guide, with their dry clinical discussions of his disease sometimes right in front of him.

But some of the doctors had really talked with him, to see how he was handling his illness, and even asked what he wanted to do with the time he had left to live. A few had even taken the time to play checkers or other board games with him, and one visiting doctor had even brought him a prized possession, a wooden whistle that sounded uncannily like a train's whistle; he'd used to love to toot on it while playing with his model train sets, when he was feeling well enough to go home for a while.

Finally, Samson said, "I guess most of them were more like Dr. Masters; caring about people. There were a some doctors who were cold-hearted, a little like Dr. Sevarius, but nobody I knew back then was really that bad; not cruel and completely uncaring." After a short pause, he asked again, "Why do you ask?"

Instead of answering directly, Delilah mused to herself, "Cold hearted…" Then she nodded decisively. "Fits her."

"Fits who?"

"Dr. Johnson. Cold hearted."

Samson blinked at her in surprise. He knew Delilah was uneasy around that doctor in particular, because she'd once deliberately missed a checkup appointment during her pregnancy when it had been scheduled with her instead of Dr. Masters, but he hadn't really thought much of it since then. Both of them were none too fond of doctors in general, Delilah because Sevarius was the first one she'd known and Samson just from having spent too much of his youth being poked and prodded by people in lab coats.

But Dr. Masters was okay, they agreed between themselves; he'd endeared himself to Delilah and all the other pregnant females during the breeding season. And once they'd come to the castle to live, and Dr. Masters had observed the tense situation between Samson and his biological father, he had cheerfully 'run interference' for Samson a few times by hauling Sevarius down to the medical clinic for one examination after another of the body he was now residing in, until Sevarius had been the one to beat a retreat when he/she saw Dr. Masters coming.

But for Delilah to describe Dr. Johnson as cold-hearted… Samson asked, "Why do you say that? What has she said to you… or done, that you saw her do?" The latter was more likely, he knew; in the nearly three years since coming to the castle, Dr. Johnson hadn't said more than three sentences altogether, at least not within anybody's hearing.

"Is what she does not do," Delilah said slowly, trying words out to see if they fit the concept she was trying to convey. "She not just not talks… she not listens. Not listens to us when we talk, not… not hears us as people. She just looks and looks at us, but never in our eyes. Like we are…"

"Like you're just animals, or lab experiments," Samson finished grimly. "Objects to be studied." From his own experience as Samuel Blake, he knew exactly what she was talking about.

Samson thought it was likely that many if not all of the gargoyles had noticed the doctor's inconsiderate behavior, but most of them had probably just wearily dismissed her as another human who just didn't fully accept them yet… like so many Manhattanites who still gave them a wary eye and wide berth, even after Devil's night. But of course Delilah would be particularly sensitive to such behavior and the underlying attitude; Delilah, who had been created by Sevarius and subjected to that scientific detachment from the moment of her conception.

Delilah nodded almost violently in agreement with what Samson had said, then gave an equally violent shiver, as if trying to shake away a bad memory. "There is more… Last night, went down to where doctors are, to get bandage for Dee." Samson remembered that incident all too well; a little squabble between the kids over some toys had somehow escalated into a full-blown fight before anyone could stop it. And when the twins fought, they clawed; Tom had scored a good one on his sister's arm before Talon had managed to separate them. Delilah had taken Dee to get the shallow gash seen to, while Talon and Samson had a stern talk with Tom. Tonight Delilah said, "Dr. Johnson down there, at computer; she turn off monitor when we come near, but I saw… picture of growth tube."

"Growth tube?" For a moment Samson didn't get it. Then he remembered; that was what Delilah called the accelerated maturation chamber she'd been grown to adulthood in. It wasn't surprising that the doctors would sometimes refer to Sevarius' notes; for all his callousness and cruelty, the scientist had been the foremost expert and for years the only expert on gargoyle physiology. But for Dr. Johnson to be specifically looking at his notes on the cloning maturation process… and then trying to hide it…

They stared at each other for a few moments, before Samson abruptly turned around and strode back to the park entrance they had left the van parked at. "Let's go back home. I think we'd better talk to somebody about this."

In the living room of the castle, Claw sat close by while Talon led his children through the pages of "Dr. Seuss's ABC's." Dee's favorite character in the book was Rosie's Red Rhinoceros, and she asked her daddy again if people ever really rode rhinoceroses for fun. Talon chuckled before moving on to the S's, and pointing out how all those sodas Sammy had been sipping had obviously made him sick; that's what too much junk food did to a person.

'S' makes a hissing sound, and it's for Sammy, soda, sipping and sick, Claw recited in his head as he once more tried to look at the page without letting anyone see him doing it. After all, he had his pride, and he didn't want anyone else to find out that this grown man—well, grown mutate—was still trying to figure out how to read.

He thought he had all the letters and their sounds figured out by now… well, except for one or two. That C was right peculiar; near as Claw could tell, sometimes it sounded like a S and sometimes it sounded like a K. Then there was that X letter, which sometimes sounded like someone had squeezed a K and S together, and sometimes sounded like a Z. Then there was that Q that always sounded like a K with a W hanging off its tail… It made no sense to him; why waste time making letters that just sounded like other letters?

At least them bowels—no, they were called 'vowels'—weren't wasteful. In fact, that A and E and them other vowelly letters did the work of two or even three letters, with all the different sounds they could make. In his opinion, the folks what had made up Spelling should have made some more vowels to pick up the slack, instead of wasting time conjuring up that C and X and Q.

But then, as his Ma had pointed out, some folks just liked to spend lots of time and worry over things they just wanted, instead of doing what was really needed. Seems like the more 'civilized' folks got, the less common sense they used.

Claw was drawn from his musings by Samson and Delilah coming into the room, and asking Goliath in his chair by the fireplace if they could talk to him. And Delilah was wringing her tail again, so whatever they wanted to talk to Goliath about, it wasn't good news…

Goliath had set aside his book when Samson and Delilah approached him, and now he listened with mild concern to what they had to say about Dr. Johnson. When they were finished, he said he would give the matter further thought, and if he felt it was necessary he would talk to Xanatos about his employee next sunset; the Xanatos family had already gone to sleep for the night.

Goliath could think of a fairly innocuous reason as to why Dr. Johnson would want to look at such devices as cloning chambers, and why she would want to hide that desire from the clan: simple curiosity about 'the forbidden'.

Back in the old clan, how often had he caught curious youngsters trying to spy into the humans' bedchambers, to see if the rumors were true and they were hiding proper tails under their clothes? And he remembered how his own rookery sister, she of the pumpkin-colored hide and spiral horns, had been drawn to any new mechanical device like a fly to honey, and once had sneaked into the armory to have a closer look at the firing mechanisms of crossbows. He remembered that particular incident well because he'd been sneaking right in with her…

Curiosity was a trait familiar to both humans and gargoyles, and Goliath knew that it was considered an admirable trait indeed in a scientist. Scientific curiosity could easily tempt any researcher into peeking into computer files, even files on uncomfortable subjects such as cloning.

As for why Dr. Johnson had turned the monitor off when Delilah had approached, that might well have been out of consideration for Delilah's feelings. The clan generally took care to not bring up any reminders that Delilah hadn't been properly hatched from an egg or raised in a rookery like the rest of them, and it wouldn't be surprising if their doctors had picked up on their embarrassed silence about that particular subject and decided to follow suit.

In truth, Goliath hadn't given this particular doctor much thought at all since she and her partner Kurt Masters had come to the castle, just before the clan's breeding season. When one of the clan needed medicinal help, they just talked to Dr. Masters and he talked to them, even if Dr. Johnson was in the same room with them. If she had been treating the clan with less than the respect and care that Kurt Masters showed, it was also true that the clan had not treated her with proper respect either.

But now that he thought about it… there had been one incident, a week or so into the breeding season, when it was still far too early for any of the females to start showing signs of pregnancy. A careless moment in the heat of passion between Lexington and Aiden had resulted in Lexington getting a gouge in his left wing membrane from a sharp stone, and he had gone to the doctors to get the bleeding staunched and the wound taped shut so it would heal without scarring at sunrise.

Goliath recalled now that Lexington had returned with a frown on his face; he'd told Goliath that he'd tried to strike up a conversation with Dr. Johnson while she was applying bandages to his wing, talking just to take his mind off the pain, and she had not responded to anything he'd said. But Dr. Masters had come in while Lexington was still being treated, had made some joke about Dr. Johnson's shyness and proceeded to chat amiably with Lexington while his partner finished her work on his wing.

At the time, Goliath had just dismissed Dr. Johnson's silence as mere shyness, just as her partner had joked; it was hardly uncommon. Goliath remembered well how Aiden had originally been too shy to talk to Goliath himself, and had stammered and mumbled and blushed as red as Elisa's old jacket when she managed to say anything at all. But now that he thought about it, Lexington was well-acquainted with shyness, and if mere shyness had been the cause of Dr. Johnson's reticence, he would surely have recognized the signs and made an effort to put her at ease.

Lexington wasn't available to ask any questions of his memories of the incident; he and Aiden had been invited up to the Sterling Academy, to begin arrangements for teaching the more open-minded students enrolled up there when the next semester began. Lexington had been invited to teach a computer seminar, while Aiden would assist "Professor Lennox MacDuff" in teaching Thaumaturgy.

But there was no reason to ask Lex about memories from nearly three years ago, when he could investigate the doctor's reticence for himself. He would simply go down to the infirmary and deliberately strike up a conversation with her, on some biology-related subject that would be apt to catch her interest. Goliath turned and rifled through the stack of reading material that lay between his and Hudson's favorite chairs, looking for yesterday's newspapers. Hadn't there been an article in the New York Times, about…

Ah, there it was; a study on brain development in infants, and what parent-child activities in the first few months were purportedly likely to boost the infants' aptitude for mathematical and problem-solving skills later in life. He'd already been thinking of clipping the article to save for when the eggs hatched, but in the meantime it should make a decent conversation piece for his talk with the doctor. Her responses, not necessarily to the article itself but to his own views on the subject and how it might apply to gargoyle hatchlings, would tell him a great deal about her true attitude towards his species.

Unfortunately, when he went down to the medical facilities, Dr. Johnson had already left for the night. "She took off as soon as her shift ended; you missed her by about fifteen minutes," Dr. Fielding said apologetically. "Is it something I can help you with, instead?"

In her private laboratory, Dr. Johnson stared in dismay at the readouts in front of her. There were no life signs in either of the accelerated maturation chambers; only a few specks of stone dust floating in the solution, where 64-day-old gargoyle fetuses should be. The embryos had terminated! But why?

She checked and double-checked every last aspect of the chambers, from the power strips supplying them operating power to the nutrient balance in the solution. Everything that aggravating Sevarius had noted in his logs, she had duplicated down to the last detail; she had even made sure that the basic electronic components used in constructing the chambers' controls had come from the same manufacturer as the prototype. And every aspect that she hadn't found adequate documentation for had been carefully calculated and analyzed for the best possible solution before the first chamber had even been built. So why had those two embryos terminated before even reaching the fetal stage?

The only part of the maturation procedure she'd used that differed even slightly from what Sevarius had documented was the acceleration rate for maturing the embryos. Could it be that… the nutrient solution was designed to be utilized by embryos aging at the much faster rate of 256X, and was far too rich for consumption at 64X aging rate? Like running high-grade race-car fuel through an engine designed to use kerosene?

She went over the data again and shook her head. Until she had the opportunity to vivisect a gargoyle and properly study its digestive system, there was no way of knowing whether the hypothesis was correct. …No way of knowing without simply testing it on another embryo, that is.

She was loath to test the hypothesis using such a 'brute-force' method, but she saw no other way around it. No other way except tracking down Sevarius in whatever facility Xanatos had stashed him in, and outright asking him to advise her… and she was simply not that desperate yet. Not desperate enough to risk receiving the sort of condescending, superior smirk she knew that Sevarius would be sporting if she approached him/her seeking help. In the few weeks that they had stayed in the castle together, Sevarius had wasted no opportunity to turn that smirk on Irene or her partner, the sort of smirk that said as loud as words, "I am superior to you; even trapped in this decrepit body my mind is far superior to yours, so you might as well get down on your knees and worship my astounding intellect properly."

Dr. Irene Johnson had seen smirks like that enough times during her education and her years of research before meeting Kurt Masters, from male professors and scientists who seemed to believe that the organ dangling between their legs somehow boosted their brainpower to a level superior to that which any woman could ever hope to achieve. She would crawl on broken glass before she'd willingly accept that smirk from a man who was now, technically, a woman as well.

Well, she still had four embryos left in this batch. She would load one of them into Chamber #1, and set it to the 256X acceleration rate. And while the embryo matured, she would begin preparations to create another batch of clone zygotes. But this time she would adjust the ratio on the amino acid solution in step #47; perhaps increasing the ratio slightly would result in more viable zygotes from the batch.

Over the next few hours she drained Chamber #1 of the old nutrient solution and failed embryo, carefully cleaned and sterilized it, then prepared and poured more nutrient solution inside. Finally, just before dawn, she loaded Gargoyle Male Embryo #2 into the acceleration chamber and carefully set the controls.

As the chamber began humming, she stepped back and nodded in satisfaction. At 256 times normal speed, she'd have that juvenile specimen for vivisecting in less than two weeks. But now it was time to go home and get some sleep, to be ready for the next day.

The next night they had an 'incident' at the castle; one of Alex's magic lessons had gone awry (Puck swore it was an accident, but Goliath wondered), and the place was flooded with tribbles. Tribbles who were cooing balls of fluffy delight when held by a human or a gargoyle, but went into shrieking fits that threatened to pierce eardrums whenever Cagney or any of the felinoid mutates approached them.

The tribbles had appeared an hour before sunset, and by the time the gargoyles were awake and apprised of the situation, they'd gotten into the castle pantries and proved that they could reproduce just as fast as their reputation foretold, if not faster. By the time the clan had hunted down, found and carted every last tribble out onto the battlements so Alex could send them back where they came from (and by the time Goliath and Elisa together had convinced Amber that no, a tribble would not make a good pet), it was well past 2 a.m. and Dr. Johnson had already left for the night. Goliath made a mental note to try to have that conversation with her tomorrow, as he collapsed next to Elisa on the sturdy couch in the library.

"God, there must have been thousands of the fuzzy little buggers," Elisa sighed wearily as she leaned back against the cushions.

"I overheard Owen doing some calculations on my way in here," Goliath tiredly informed her. "His first estimate is that there were over 4,096 tribbles in that force bubble that was transported back to that alternate universe."

"Good thing our resident 'Trekkies' Lex and Aiden are up north right now, or they'd have been campaigning right along with Amber to keep one or two of them as pets," Elisa said as she rolled her eyes. "It's probably a good thing that they were reacting to Cagney and most of the mutates like they were Klingons… Oh, that reminds me; I should call Mom and Dad and let them know it's safe now for Derrek to bring everyone back from their house."

"That can wait a few minutes," Goliath said firmly as he pulled Elisa back against him and wrapped an arm and wing around her.

She willingly snuggled into his embrace, and the exhausted couple simply rested on the couch for several long minutes. Then Goliath perked his ears, and a moment later Elisa stirred to sit up next to him. Their eyes met as Elisa asked almost fearfully, "Do you hear a faint cooing sound?"

In her laboratory, Dr. Johnson studied the results in front of her for several long minutes, before putting down her pen and notepad with perhaps a bit more force than necessary.

The second accelerated maturation experiment had failed as well. The embryo had terminated, at roughly the same stage of development as the first two failures if she had interpreted the timed readouts correctly. Beginning at what should have been roughly the thirty-night mark of development, the embryos' life-signs began to waver. By the forty-night mark, they were specks of dust. And she had no idea why they had failed.

This was maddening. She could find no good reason for these clones to terminate, when she had ample living proof at her place of employment that the same procedures had produced viable clones for Sevarius!

Well, she would simply have to let the three remaining viable samples mature at their natural rate, until she had produced more clone embryos for working on. At that point, she would decide whether to use the trial-and-error method of adjusting the nutrient solution and the rate of development until she had viable gargoyle infants, or swallow her pride and open a line of communication with Sevarius to receive his input on the subject.

Turning away in disgust at the very thought, she failed to see the shadow that hastily moved away from her window. Instead she focused on her computer, at the far side of the laboratory; it was time to go online and place her orders for more material to continue her experiments, before getting some sleep for the day.

Claw almost panicked and jumped off the ledge when he saw the doctor turning around, but managed to keep calm and moved to one side of the window instead. Then he waited, holding his breath as he strained his ears to listen inside. Footsteps, moving away across the tile floor… the creak of a chair as weight was placed on it… no sounds of hurried movements, no dialing of a phone for Building Security or whatever. She hadn't seen him, then.

But he'd sure seen plenty… enough to know that he'd been right to follow the doctor's car until she came to this building, then peek in through every window until he found her laboratory. Enough to know that the gargoyles needed to learn about this, as unhappy as it was apt to make them.

Claw had overheard everything Samson and Delilah had said to Goliath the night before, and it had gone right along with what Claw himself had always thought of Dr. Johnson. That woman weren't no lady, not with those cold eyes that always made him feel sorta chilly inside whenever she looked at him. But he'd always kept his peace about it, since she was in the gargoyles' home and their doctoring was their own business. And he'd always kept his distance from her, too, until a few hours ago.

When them "tribble" critters had appeared all over and started cooing at the humans but shrieking at the folks what had cat genes mixed into 'em, Talon had declared that as soon as it was night and safe for gliding unseen, he was going to take his family and Cagney and spend the night at his parents' house until the clan got the mess cleaned up. Claw had completely agreed with him; those little balls of fluff shrieked louder than a pig caught in a fence! The noise was somewhat hurtful to human hearing, but to mutates it was like someone was poking through their ears and straight into their brains with a sharp stick.

But while they all waited for dusk to come over the city (and watched in dismay as the tribbles seemed to multiply and spread right in front of their eyes), Claw had made his way down to the medical facilities, where Dr. Masters and Dr. Johnson were working. And on his way there, he'd gritted his fangs and gashed himself in the right arm with a claw, a shallow but long cut that would surely need stitching or at least a bandage to keep it clean. Then he'd licked the blood off his claw so no one would know he'd done it to himself, just before going inside.

Dr. Masters had been on his hands and knees, reaching under an examination table to pull tribbles out from underneath and drop them into a wastebasket. Dr. Johnson had been standing, holding a cooing tribble and eyeing it speculatively, but she dropped the tribble when it started shrieking as Claw came near.

"Cripes, what's setting these things off?" Dr. Masters had complained while backing hastily away from his suddenly shrieking wastebasket. "Oh, it's you, Claw. Look, if it's not urgent, would you mind going somewhere else? It's easier to deal with these things if they're not screaming at us."

Again, Claw had silently agreed, but instead of leaving he'd reached out and carefully snagged Dr. Johnson by the wrist. She'd gone stock-still, and stared at him with those cold eyes. Then she'd looked at where he was holding her, then back up into his face with the message as clear as if she'd spoken aloud: his grip was not welcome, and he'd better let go immediately.

But he'd continued holding on with the arm that had been injured, while pointing to the wound on his bicep with his free hand. Dr. Johnson had glanced at it but said nothing, so Dr. Masters as always stepped into the conversational breach: "What's that; you've hurt your arm? How'd that happen? Oh, never mind, we'll take care of it… but not here. Irene, take a stitch kit and go with him to his quarters, will you? I'll finish cleaning up here."

When the doctor had reached for a kit of some sort on a shelf nearby, Claw had swiftly snagged it for her with his free hand, then began tugging her towards the exit, trying to give the impression that the gash hurt a lot (which it did) and he wanted to get it doctored up right away. Dr. Johnson had glared at him but went along, with him holding her wrist until they got to the elevators. Then while they were waiting for the lift, she had pointedly removed his hand from her wrist and dropped it to the side.

But it had been long enough. While holding her, Claw had concentrated hard on doing what had always come so naturally back when he'd been little Beau Ellis; hearing the words she wasn't saying. And for not having much to say, the doctor sure had a lot to think about…

A lot of what she'd been thinking at the time hadn't been too friendly towards Claw himself, but he'd already been figuring on hearing that and strained to hear past it. It was the extra thoughts that edged in around the don't-like-the-mutate ones that he wanted to know about, and he heard a few of them. Enough to know that the doctor was impatient for her shift to end, so she could get back to her experiments. Experiments that involved gargoyles. He didn't get many details, but she'd thought about something growing real fast, and the label 'Gargoyle Male #2' had come in loud and clear.

When he put those thoughts together with what Delilah had said she'd seen… He'd have bet his next two dinners that Dr. Johnson was making some clones, somewhere else in the city. But how could Claw tell the others that, in a way they'd understand? Heck, he'd had a hard time getting Broadway to understand how he liked his eggs for breakfast.

And besides, his gift weren't always a hunnert-percent accurate; there'd been that time in the Labyrinth that he'd been absolutely convinced that one of their residents was secretly a witch even more powerful than his Ma, because he'd touched the gal while she'd been thinking about casting spells. Then he'd found out that some of the residents had made up some "Arrpeegee" thingy that was all about pretending to be magic-users and sword-waving fighters and stuff. (Good thing he'd found that out before he'd thought of a way to tell Talon about it, so Talon could ask her to change them all back to human…)

But if he was right in what he'd picked up from Dr. Johnson's thoughts… if he could find that secret laboratory, then he could show them what she was doing…

By the time dusk had arrived, Cagney had taken refuge from the tribbles in the castle dungeons, so Talon had left her there as he gathered up Claw and his kids, wished the gargoyles well in rounding up the tribbles and took off across the city for his folks' house. Dee and Tom had been in good spirits about the whole thing; the trip meant that they could see their friends the psychic kids even sooner than their birthday party tomorrow night! And all three of them had been puzzled and a little worried when, not two blocks from the castle, Claw had handed Dee over to Talon and indicated that he wanted to go his own way for a while.

Talon had asked, "You sure about this? You don't normally go off on your own like… Oh, I get it; you've already heard enough shrieking tonight, and you don't need to hear more from a bunch of excited kids, right?" Claw had nodded in agreement; it had been as good an excuse as any. "Well, just be back at the castle by an hour before dawn; they're bound to have all the tribbles rounded up by then." And with that, he'd soared off to the northeast with a child under each arm, while Dee and Tom waved backwards to Claw. Claw had waved back until they were out of sight before turning to go back to the Aerie Building, and find a good spot for perching while keeping an eye on the parking garage entrance.

Now, several hours later and on a ledge outside the secret laboratory, he silently looked through the window again; staring hard at everything, to memorize as much of what he was seeing as he could. Then he turned around to check nearby landmarks, and orient himself before flying back to the castle. He'd need to be able to bring folks back to this place tomorrow night, so they could see for themselves what their doctor was secretly up to.

The next morning, while sorting through the papers that had just been given to him by the undersecretary, Owen came across a printout that raised his eyebrows. After months of inactivity, their embezzler had finally triggered the telltale that had been set on his/her account, to indicate money had been withdrawn.

Owen had become aware of the embezzler three months ago, when a new accountant on their staff had brought a curious item on the castle budget to his attention. The accountant had noted that Xanatos was still making payments electronically on the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine in the castle's medical center, when the contract to buy that expensive piece of equipment stated it should have been paid in full by January of 2001!

Further investigation showed that the $80,000 per month payment was no longer going to the MRI manufacturer; instead, it was being sent via a rather circuitous route to a numbered Swiss bank account. Someone had carefully prevented the paid-in-full notice from reaching the castle's accountants, changed the nature of the electronic allotment from limited-time to open-ended, and arranged to divert the money to that other account instead. It was a rather clever bit of embezzlement, and when notified of the situation, Xanatos had said he might even shake the embezzler's hand in congratulations for his cleverness, right before having him arrested.

Xanatos had enough influence with the Swiss government that he could have forced them to disclose the name of the owner of that numbered Swiss bank account, but he chose not to do so; he preferred to use his favors sparingly and avoid creating ill will with the Swiss officials. Instead, he had directed his best hackers to painstakingly set up an alert system, that would let them know if any more withdrawals were made from that account and where the latest withdrawals were sent to. If no more withdrawals were made in the next six months, he would lean on the bank officials, but it would be more satisfying to find the culprit through a little more detective work.

The printout in Owen's hands stated that last night, between 3:45 and 4:40 a.m., no less than three withdrawals had been made from that account, totaling over $50,000. And the tracer showed that the funds had been transferred to two different laboratory supply companies and a chemical supply company.

Interesting indeed. Owen had been expecting the money to be used for purchasing items like a new car or new home, or expensive luxury items that greedy people might think of buying, since greed was certainly characteristic of embezzlers. To use the money for buying equipment for laboratory experiments… that certainly narrowed down the list of suspects.

So, which of the scientists on Xanatos' payroll was secretly conducting experiments? Owen thought he already knew the answer, but for thoroughness' sake he still requested the castle security tapes from last night and checked for what their medical scientists had been doing at that hour of the morning.

Dr. Fielding had been in the medical center, dissecting and studying that last tribble that Goliath had found in the castle library after the others had been banished to their home dimension. Dr. Masters had been in his private quarters, and he had a personal computer in there, but the server for that computer network showed no activity during the crucial timeframe; he'd likely been in bed and asleep. Dr. Johnson did not sleep in the castle, so her whereabouts at that time were unknown, but Owen was far more concerned with another scientist still on Xanatos' payroll: Dr. Anton Sevarius.

"Fish gotta swim, gargoyles gotta glide, and some scientists just gotta experiment," Xanatos sighed when Owen informed him of his findings. "Call the lab director in Albany and have them go through the server logs up there, and see if they can't find the entrance to Sevarius' latest secret laboratory. He's probably trying to create water-breathing mutates again; check the police records in Albany and see if they've had an unusual number of drowning victims lately. No, wait; that can be put off till tomorrow. Fox wants your help in getting everything ready for the birthday party tonight…"

On his way to see Fox, Owen passed the kitchen and decided to get another cup of gourmet coffee; it was going to be a long and busy day. He found Claw sitting at the kitchen table, his head hanging almost to the oaken table surface and a mug of warm milk clutched in his paws.

After all their time together in the castle, both before Xanatos' duplicity had become known and in the last year since the mutates had returned from the Labyrinth, Owen had learned to read the signs. Claw had woken early from another nightmare, and was now trying to convince his body, with warm milk and probably some cookies from the cookie jar, that it was okay to go back to sleep.

Owen had no idea what these frequent nightmares were about, but he could still sympathize with the mutate's plight. After those few but terribly potent nightmares he himself had suffered, in the first few months after he had become more-or-less trapped in this mortal frame, he would not mock anyone's sleeping visions.

Owen was not normally given to gestures of comfort—he did still have a reputation to maintain, after all—but since Claw would certainly never tell anyone and might appreciate the contact, he reached over and gently squeezed the mutate's shoulder as he passed. Be at ease, poor fellow; you're safe here. …Perhaps he'll be able to have some fun at the twins' birthday party tonight, he thought absently. He let the touch linger for a few moments, even as his thoughts marched on to the business awaiting him today. In addition to the party preparations, he really should call Albany and set the wheels in motion for investigating what their embezzling mad scientist was up to in whatever secret laboratory he'd made this time…

Claw's head jerked up just as Owen let go of his shoulder, and he twisted in his chair to stare back at him. Then, still staring, he sharply shook his head.

Oh, for Avalon's sake… these humans and their sexual hang-ups, Owen thought in mild exasperation. Obviously Claw had mistaken a gesture of mere comfort for something with more sexual overtones, and was now trying to tell Owen that he "didn't swing that way."

"I can assure you, Claw, I meant no more than mere sympa-thy!" Owen's mildly exasperated rebuke turned into a squawk of alarm, as Claw rose from his chair, grabbed Owen's hand and almost ran from the room, dragging Owen along with him. What was going on?

Claw led him to the mutate's own bedroom, and Owen really began to wonder. Perhaps Claw did "swing that way" after all, and thought that Owen's gesture would be better performed behind closed doors? But instead of tossing him onto the mound of cushions and pouncing on him, Claw stopped at the nightstand and picked up a pad of paper; one of the drawing pads they'd gotten for the twins to draw and color in. The pad of paper was flipped open, and thrust into Owen's hands.

Owen blinked, and studied the series of four drawings carefully. They were crude, hardly the work of a gifted artist, but it looked like Claw had been drawing… a laboratory? And the stick figure in the middle of the second drawing had breasts; a female. The body Sevarius was currently inhabiting was female, but the figure was also standing and Sabra Indrani had been confined to a wheelchair for decades.

Owen looked at Claw sharply. "You drew this after seeing something? Very recently?"

Claw nodded, then pointed to the fourth drawing. The female figure was standing next to a large tube or chamber the size of a shower stall, that was apparently empty. But off to one side, Claw had drawn a stick-figure with wings; a gargoyle. And there were arrows connecting the gargoyle with the chamber…

Owen flipped the pad shut, then commanded Claw, "Show me."

Some time later, Fox's cell phone rang, while she was directing the pony handler to put his animals into the temporary pen made for them in the arboretum. She flipped it open and said, "Yes? …Owen, where have you been! I need your help fixing the setup down here! The Tilt-a-Whirl ride is in the wrong corner; there's no room for the funhouse!"

"My apologies, Mrs. Xanatos; it could not be avoided," Owen said smoothly. "I suddenly found myself busy with another urgent project. But I do hope to be done with it before the party gets underway."

When Dr, Johnson arrived at the castle that afternoon, Kurt Masters met her with an uneasy expression. "Mr. Xanatos wants to see us, and he won't say what for," he said before she could take her coat off. "But whatever it is, I don't think it's good news…"

They walked into Xanatos' office together, to find their employer sitting behind his desk, his fingers steepled in front of him and his face grim. "I'll get right to the point," he said bluntly. "A few months ago, I discovered that I have an embezzler working in my employ. There are thousands of employees on staff, but last night, we had confirmation that the embezzler works in the field of medicine and scientific research. That narrows the field of suspects down considerably. I have investigators working to determine exactly which scientist the perpetrator might be… but in the meantime," as he gave them both piercing stares in turn, "I don't suppose either of you would care to tell me something?"

Kurt was absolutely flabbergasted, "Embezzling! Sir, I assure you, I would never do anything like—you're actually accusing us!" as outrage followed fast on the heels of astonishment. "For Pete's sake, I actually live here in the castle with you, and Irene is here nearly every night; we've treated the kids and helped to stitch the clan back together time after time! And this job is the opportunity of a lifetime for both of us; do you really think either of us would do anything that might possibly jeopardize that? Irene, tell him!" as he turned to his partner. "I know you hate confrontations, but this time you have to speak up; tell him how wrong he is!"

Irene Johnson gave Xanatos a long hard stare, which he returned without flinching. Then she reached up, unclipped her employee badge from her collar, and slowly, deliberately laid it on his desk. She said flatly, "I will not work anywhere that I am not trusted and respected."

Oh Hell, that was a lot more drastic move than Kurt had been thinking of! But still, trying not to shake, he unclipped his own badge and said with only a slight quaver in his voice, "She's right; if you don't trust us after all we've done for you, we can't work here." And inside he prayed, Please don't call the bluff… PLEASE, GOD, don't let him call the bluff

But he did. Xanatos leaned back in his chair and said, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but I accept your resignations. Dr. Johnson, there are two security guards outside the office; they will escort you while you collect your personal effects and leave the building. I advise you not to leave town until we get this embezzlement matter settled. Dr. Masters, since you have a great deal more personal effects in the castle, you'll stay here with me until we get a moving team ready for you and some quarters set up elsewhere in the city; I'm not so cold-hearted as to kick you out into the street. Have a seat while you're waiting…"

Numbly, Kurt sat down in an available chair while Irene turned around and marched out, to where two security guards were indeed waiting. Dear God, his career had just been flushed down the toilet… what was he going to do now?

Xanatos got up to shut the door that Irene had left open, then went to sit in the chair next to Kurt instead of behind the oaken desk. After studying him in silence for a few moment, Xanatos reached over to where the badges were lying, picked up Kurt's badge and handed it back to him. "Here; before you break out in tears."

His hand visibly shaking, Kurt accepted the badge and clipped it back on. Xanatos leaned back and said with a sigh, "Doctor, it appears there are a few things your silent partner was keeping from all of us…"

She'd kept very few personal effects at the castle; it had taken Irene only a few moments to collect them and leave, escorted by the two security brutes. Thankfully, they did not engage in chatter or seem to expect her to say anything; they merely escorted her to the Aerie Building's parking garage and gestured her into her car. She drove out of the garage and away, circled a block twice to ensure she wasn't being followed, then set off straight for her laboratory.

It was fortunate that Kurt had decided to quit with her; that gave more credibility to the excuse she'd given for turning in her badge. Hopefully, the investigators would concentrate on Kurt's financial matters first; that would give Irene more time to secure her resources and leave town.

She wondered briefly if Kurt honestly expected to continue working as her partner in another laboratory for some new employer, then shook her head. Likely the idealistic, chattering fool was thinking just that, which was just too bad for him. Irene had listened to enough of his chatter, his casual assumptions about her likes and dislikes and even his sexual innuendo over the last six years; he'd been useful as a front man, doing all the talking with clients and employers so she could do her work in peace, but all tools outlived their usefulness eventually.

Not having any idea how close the investigators were to linking her to the money, she decided her best bet would be to assume they were less than 24 hours from positively identifying her as the culprit, and leave immediately. It was fortunate that none of the surviving cloned embryos had been placed in an accelerated maturation chamber at the moment; their current containers were much more portable.

She would take the clones in their containers, her computer's hard drive and all her notes on paper, all the equipment necessary for sustaining the embryos in their current environment, and the preserved tissue samples for making more clones later; that would come to roughly 600 pounds of equipment, that should fit inside one U-Haul van. After pre-staging the packout of necessary items, she would transfer the rest of her embezzled funds to a new account, then go out to rent moving vans and find a couple of strong-backed teenagers who would be happy to do the heavy lifting and keep their mouths shut for a few hundred bucks. If all went well, she would have all her belongings packed up and be out of the city by midnight.

There was some risk that Xanatos would decide to sic the gargoyles on her; from her studies of their behavior, she was sure they took violent exception to those who betrayed their trust. But she planned to get most of the necessary work at the laboratory done by sunset; it should take less than half an hour to pack what was needed there. She wouldn't go to the apartment listed as her home on her employee record until after she'd secured the laboratory equipment in a moving van, and she would leave that van parked in a garage while she went to the apartment in another van to gather her clothes and other belongings. Only when she was sure she was safe from pursuit would she combine everything into one van and leave the city.

She keyed the lock to open the door to her lab, already thinking of where she would go after leaving the city. First, Chicago; she knew of a laboratory there that was already notorious for unscrupulous research. If that didn't pan out, then…

"Good afternoon, Dr. Johnson."

Shocked, she looked up to see Owen Burnett standing in the middle of the room… just as a huge furred hand reached out from behind the door and grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her further inside.

The mutate called Claw shut the door behind her, while Burnett said coolly, "Since we are reasonably certain that all this equipment was bought with Xanatos Enterprises' money, that makes everything XE's property. And a court order will ensure that they are not removed until we have indeed determined property ownership to the judge's satisfaction."

Damn, damn, damn. How had they found out about this place so fast! And why hadn't she remembered that mutates could fly during the day?

This obviously meant a drastic change in her plans. But she should still be able to salvage something…

The mutate was still holding onto her wrist; she gave it a cold glare just as she had last night, and this time it took the hint and removed its hand. Then she turned back to Mr. Burnett and said coolly, "I have personal effects here as well."

"Personal effects may be removed," Burnett conceded, and gestured for her to proceed. So she went straight for the computer desk and picked up her coffee mug, and the mystery novel she'd brought in for reading while waiting for experiments to finish running. Then she reached into the desk drawer, to pull out a large ballpoint pen… than had built into it a 50-megabyte memory chip, that she'd first used for secretly transferring files from the Aerie Building to her private setup. Since then, she'd gotten into the habit of backing all her files up onto the miniscule drive every other night. All but last night's research would be on that drive, and still be hers when she left town…

But the mutate grabbed the pen out of her hand—how could they have known! It looked like a pen until the cap was removed—and clutched it in its paw. Then came the sound of electricity sparking, and the smell of melting plastic…

"MY RESEARCH!" she shrieked, driven beyond rage at the thought of all that had literally just gone up in smoke. "YOU FUCKING OVERGROWN HOUSECAT!"

The mutate laid its ears back and cringed away at her words… then straightened up, and deliberately stuck out its tongue!

"That's enough, both of you," Burnett said firmly. "Doctor, the door is that way. Don't try to return later; security guards from the Aerie Building are already on their way here…"

After Dr. Johnson had stomped out of the room, Owen turned to Claw and said with a humorous glint to his eye (not that he actually smiled, of course), "Nicely done. Though someday you'll have to tell me just how you knew about all of this…"

Claw shrugged, and Owen saw there was no point in questioning the mutate further tonight. Instead, he turned on the computer and started looking at files.

Interesting; Dr. Johnson had managed to recreate most of Dr. Sevarius' research into the successful cloning of gargoyles, despite the gaps in documentation that Owen knew Sevarius had deliberately left in his notes. That particular mad scientist was notorious for sabotaging his own notes about a project, once he knew for certain that the project was successful.

Owen gathered that Sevarius was paranoid about some other scientist stealing his notes and duplicating his progress, then backdating the results and attempting to claim that they'd found the solution first. (Of course, the rumor was that Sevarius himself had once done just that, and that was the reason he'd been disqualified for the Nobel Prize back in 1990.) That was the main reason why the other scientists Xanatos had discreetly hired had never found a way to reverse the process that had created the mutates; they had never been able to successfully duplicate the mutation formula in the first place. All the rats and monkeys that had been test subjects in their attempts to duplicate the mutation, the first step in reversing it, had died horribly in the process.

But despite the gaps in documentation and perhaps even misinformation that had been planted in those notes, Dr. Johnson had successfully created six gargoyle embryos… and three of them still existed. Owen got up from the computer station and went over to the containers that the surviving embryos were contained in.

Male #3, Male #4 and Male #5. He hadn't read far enough back in the notes to determine which clone had been made from which gargoyle, but he strongly suspected that he was looking at embryonic clones of Brooklyn, Broadway and Lexington… not that it mattered. He picked up the first container, and headed over to the deep sink in a corner of the lab.

But Claw blocked the way, and shook his head slowly but firmly. Then he plucked the small glass container out of Owen's hands and cradled it in his arms like a baby, gently rocking it back and forth.

Owen sighed, and tried to explain. "Claw, these are not gargoyle eggs, and what must be done… it isn't murder, not like it would be for killing a newly-hatched gargoyle or a newborn human. These embryos are only clusters of cells, a few days old. They have no nervous system, not even the beginnings of a brain yet. If I switched to my true form, Puck would probably be able to detect the barest stirring of life… but no more than he would detect from a grass seedling beginning to sprout. Truly, these embryos have no more self-awareness than a houseplant."

Claw knew that Owen was right about the self-awareness. He'd been trying his darndest to read the minds of the itty-bitty critters inside the glass tubes, and they just didn't have any minds to read at all.

Claw had heard about that whole 'pro-life'/'pro-choice' argument, and knew well which side of it he sat on. Back when he'd been little Beau Ellis, he'd watched his Ma, the greatest witch of the Hills, make up herbal potions that had helped many a woman get rid of a pregnancy she just wasn't ready to handle. A couple times, he'd even helped sneak the potions into households where the menfolk were so possessive that they wouldn't let their women out to sneak up and see his Ma for the medicine. Some folks were already miserable enough that there was just no sense adding another baby to the misery.

But this was still different. These littluns might not have been conceived proper-like, but they weren't unwanted… or at least, they wouldn't be for long, not once the gargoyles knew about 'em. Them gargoyles were always "the more the merrier" in their thinking about kids; he'd heard Hudson and the others say so a hundred times. And if these littluns weren't all wrapped up in them tidy stone shells, well, what of it? Delilah had started out just like this, and she was a full clan member now.

He tried to convey all that to Owen, with gestures and more drawings on some paper that was handy, and finally Owen seemed to get the idea. "I believe I see your point; the clan will not turn down a chance to increase their numbers. And since Delilah turned out very well, there is every chance that these cloned embryos will turn into gargoyles with minds of their own… particularly if they're aged merely to the infant stage, then decanted and raised like regular hatchlings from that point on."

Claw nodded vigorously at that, then gestured to first mimic breasts, then tears running down his face… then cradled an imaginary baby in his arms and smiled widely.

"…Angela? …Yes, you could well be right! Having three male infants to care for could ease the pain of losing her male egg. And all the clan would be happy if she could learn to smile again… an excellent idea!" Owen actually smiled that time, and Claw figured he'd just won Owen's personal award for Mutate of the Year.

The security detail had arrived by that time, and Owen gestured to their leader. "We'll be borrowing that van you came in, Henson. And I'll need Sherman and Haggard to help transport some delicate equipment back to the Aerie Building…"

It was well past sunset by the time they returned to the castle, and from the joyful sounds of children that echoed down the corridors to them, the party was already in full swing. But Owen was sure that the clan would forgive him and Claw for missing the beginning of the children's party, when they found out what they had brought with them. Not another gift for the twins, but a gift for the entire clan!

Owen had appropriated a mail cart from the main building for loading the embryo containers and their delicate life support equipment onto, and as he wheeled the cart off the elevator, with Claw hovering protectively close, he had the fanciful thought that the gargoyle children-to-be were receiving their very first baby carriage ride… not that they were at all aware of it yet.

There were a great deal of arrangements to be made, of course. The medical center would do for housing the embryos' containers for now, while he and Xanatos contacted Sevarius and forced the scientist to tell them what data had been left out of his notes for the accelerated maturation chambers, so a properly working one could be constructed. It would have to be tested before the clones were put in, of course, but some freshly-laid bird eggs and mice embryos should do for the testing.

And while the embryos were maturing to the infant stage, a second nursery/rookery would have to be prepared for them; once they were decanted, they would need a safe place to play and learn without disturbing the precious eggs in the main rookery. Some place close enough to the main rookery that Angela could still go in and check on her remaining egg when the urge struck her, and close enough that the happy sounds of infant gargoyles would entice her back out again. That unused bedroom across the hall and three doors down from the rookery entrance should do nicely…

Claw couldn't help sticking close to the cart with the littluns on it, even though he knew Owen was steering it as carefully as he could. In his head, he'd already started thinking of the littluns as his own, since he'd been the one to prevent their being poured down the sink.

Yep, he'd be Uncle Claw to them littluns when they were ready to come out of their tubes and be little gargoyles. And if he rocked and held and cuddled them often enough, then maybe they'd pick up his gift for reading thoughts by touching; his Ma had said once that he might be able to pass it on to a loved one, if he started early enough. He'd tried that with the twins, and thought he'd made some headway with 'em, but then that Jericho had done knocked him out for three years straight. And when he'd finally been woken up by Julian, the twins had done lost what little knack he'd given them, and been too far along in their growing to try starting again. But it would be so great to have kids that he could talk to in his own way...

He made up his mind that sometime real soon, he'd get all them letters figgered out and learn how to read. Then by the time the little gargoyles was ready for books, he'd be the one to teach them how! That'd be great, almost like having littluns of his own flesh, and probably as close as he'd ever get. That'd be… what was that buzzing sound?

Owen was drawn from musings about what names might be chosen for the new gargoyle children, when he heard a high-pitched buzzing sound. The sound drew nearer, as did the noise of shouting and laughing children, and mere seconds later, a golden ball whipped around the corner and headed straight for them at about chest height.

The Golden Snitch! After Delilah had brought the first Harry Potter book up from the Labyrinth last year and Goliath had read the story aloud to little Alexander, Xanatos had decided that a Golden Snitch would be the perfect toy not just for playing Quidditch, but for entertaining winged children too. He'd had his Robotics department working since last fall on a Snitch-sized robot that was not only capable of flight, but had a built-in sensory system and avoidance programming that would enable it to avoid being caught easily. The prototype had four different levels of speed and difficulty, from Slow/Infant to Superfast/Adult, and Fox had wrapped it herself four days ago to give to the twins as a birthday present. They'd obviously opened that gift already, for now it was headed right for them!

The Golden Snitch was evidently operating on Medium/Child setting, for it was whizzing along at a decent clip, somewhat faster than the average housefly. It neatly avoided Claw's instinctively outstretched hand, and zipped right between their heads; it clearly avoided the delicate contents of the cart by several feet.

The laughing, shouting herd of children and Bronx that came thundering around the corner after the Snitch were not so fortunate.

Oh, they were in trouble now! Tom and his sister and the other kids had been chasing after the Snitch and having a great time, when all of a sudden they'd run into Owen and Claw and a cart full of some breakable stuff. Tom had tried to stop in time, but then Bronx or somebody else had barreled right into him from behind and then he'd fallen and... what an awful mess!

Nisha and Mulan were crying, Nisha because she had a bloody gash on her arm and Mulan probably because Nisha was crying; Mulan's power was funny that way. Tom's arm hurt, but it wasn't real bad; he didn't see any blood, just some bits of broken glass in his fur and this… icky stuff that had been inside one of the glass thingies, that had broken when he'd hit it. Dee and Blaze had some glass bits and icky stuff on them too, and were making faces while trying to brush it off. And Bronx must have figured out that they'd done something really bad this time, because he was whining and his ears were drooping like they were going to fall right off his head as he sniffed at the mess they'd made on the carpet…

But then Owen told them all that it was all right; that he and Claw had been just bringing up some old junk from a laboratory downstairs so it could be cleaned up and used again, and it wasn't stuff they really needed anyway; they had plenty already. He told them all to go get cleaned up in the bathroom down the hall, and then keep having fun and enjoying the party.

Tom was relieved; they weren't in trouble after all! That was good; so far this was the best party ever. And the best was yet to come; Fox had said that when they finished the cake and ice cream, they had some rides set up down in the Arboretum!

After the children had left for the bathroom, already beginning to laugh again, Owen laid a comforting hand on Claw's arm and murmured, "It just wasn't meant to be."

Claw slowly nodded. Some things just weren't meant to be. And what can't be cured got to be endured; he'd just have to endure another disappointment and dream that would never come true. …Heck, he'd probably never get them letters figgered out anyway.

Several miles away and several hours later, Irene Johnson threw up in the toilet again and finally remembered why she'd stopped drinking back in college; she had little to no tolerance for alcohol. But getting stinking drunk had seemed like the thing to do, after losing not only her job but all her research on gargoyles and cloning techniques. She could recreate some of it if she tried hard enough, but there had been too much data for any one human of normal mental capacity to absorb and recall perfectly. Years of hard work down the drain, along with all that money she'd acquired… why hadn't she scattered the funds across several accounts, instead of all in one? Now she had nothing, not even her dignity left…

After rinsing her mouth out, she staggered back into the living room, and gawked at the people who had suddenly appeared there. A middle-aged, well-dressed woman was sitting patiently on the couch, with a man, much younger and carrying himself with the alertness of a bodyguard, standing beside her. "…Who…How…?"

"Lorraine Diamant, at your service," the woman said cheerfully. "And the gentleman with me picked the lock on your front door. I understand you're a woman of few words, so I'll get right to the point, shall I? My organization has had its eye on you for some time, Dr. Johnson. And now that you are no longer employed by David Xanatos—yes, word travels fast, particularly when there are people eager to listen—we'd like you to come work for our Coalition…"