10.2: Dust to Dust

During the welcome-back feast, Elisa had seen Angela at another table with the New Orleans Clan's rookery keepers, but she'd been so busy with the hatchlings that Elisa had decided against going over to say hello to her. But after talking about options for Broadway, Elisa asked Goliath if he thought it would be all right for them to pop into the rookery for a visit. "It shouldn't be a problem with the rookery keepers, and I'm certain Angela will be glad to see you," Goliath said.

So they went back to the mansion, to the clan's rookery. But paused before reaching the doors to the rookery, at the noise emanating from behind those solid oak doors; they could hear several shrieking children, and at least two shouting adults. They exchanged concerned glances, as Elisa said, "Should we come back later?"

"A tempting thought… but we should see first if the hatchlings are just more exuberant than usual, or if something is seriously wrong," Goliath rumbled with a grim expression as he reached for the doorknob. Since 'seriously wrong' for gargoyles tended to be life-threatening situations, Elisa's hand twitched at her side for a moment, before reminding herself that (a) it would be a really bad idea to bring a loaded gun into a room full of hatchlings, and (b) she'd left it behind in her gun safe in Manhattan.

Goliath opened the door—and stepped hastily back from a cloud of white smoke that came billowing out towards them, snarling as he threw a protective wing in front of Elisa. Not that it did any good, as white particles came swirling over his wing and onto her. They both covered their mouths and noses, but it was too late; the air around them and in their lungs was filled with (cough cough) white… (sniff) …powdered sugar?

"Fa-Goliath? Oh, now look what you've done!" they heard, and after whipping enough of the powdered sugar away from their eyes that they could see again, they saw Angela in front of them, wringing her hands—or at least, she sounded like Angela. At the moment the female sure didn't look like Angela, being largely covered with white dusty splotches instead of lavender skin and a sable mane.

Goliath roared. Elisa thought that it was actually a half-hearted roar at best, but he was probably trying to keep it down enough to avoid alerting the rest of the mansion. But even that half-heated roar was effective; every hatchling in the room stopped shrieking and jumping around in the white haze, and went silent as they turned wide-eyed to the door. Once they had, Goliath demanded, "What happened?"

"Beignets happened," a rookery keeper sighed; judging by her height and leanness, Elisa thought it might be Joan under all the white. "We limited them to two per hatchling at the feast, but afterwards Lucretia and Cassius had the bright idea of bringing ALL the leftover beignets in here for the hatchlings to enjoy, and now they're so buzzed on sugar they're bouncing off the ceiling!"

The third rookery keeper in the room—Elisa was sure the big horsey-looking fellow was Adelbert, though now totally white instead of red and white piebald—complained, "It's supposed to be only Joseph's night off, but Ursula took off with Hudson after the feast, Elizabeth took off with Adam, and Giselle took off with Stephen. And it takes more than just three of us to handle them when they're like this! Before we knew it, they'd started a food fight!"

Angela looked pleadingly at Goliath. "Please, tell me you've come here to call me away for something! More translating? Gator-hunting? Anything?"

Goliath shook his head as he rumbled, "Even if I had come for that purpose, you're needed more here at the moment. I'll let Adam know about needing more keepers back in the rookery. In the meantime…" He strode into the middle of the room, folded his arms, and just glowered at the hatchlings for several long moments while they stared back at him. He just stood there, somehow looming over each of them without moving a muscle, until all twelve of the hatchlings were cringing away and promising to behave. "See that you do behave," he finally said. "Because if I have to return here, I will personally remove the most unruly of you for disciplinary measures."

After leaving the rookery and finding a bathroom for cleaning off the powdered sugar, Elisa said with a smile, "Great bad-cop technique there, Big Guy. But what 'disciplinary measures' did you have in mind?"

"I didn't; I was bluffing," Goliath admitted. "But I suppose if one of them calls that bluff, I'll have that hatchling start digging for whichever local tubers are edible, for cooking in a stew. I always hated that when I was growing up; it was much more fun to hunt rabbits for the stew instead."

Elisa chuckled gently, then told her husband to turn around, so she could check his backside for powdered sugar. He turned around and crouched down to make it easier for her to clean, then heard her say, "Yep, some of it got back here, too. Oh look, you've even got some right between your wings… well, I can't use a cold washcloth on that sensitive spot, can I?"

"You could always use your tongue," Goliath suggested with a grin… then gasped as his mate proceeded to do just that.

Five minutes later they opened the bathroom door, glanced around to be sure no one was looking in their direction, then ran swiftly across the hall to a room with a window large enough to open, so Goliath could leap outside with Elisa in his arms. All their sugar-dusted clothing had been left behind in the bathroom, but Elisa had snagged a large bath towel for wrapping around herself later. Even in mid-December, New Orleans weather is frequently mild enough for couples to indulge in mating flights…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

After Goliath had cowed the hatchlings into submission, Joan, Adelbert and Angela were able to get them cleaned up, just in time for Gisele and Ursula to come back and tsk-tsk over all the mess still remaining. They were still cleaning powdered sugar out of all the nooks and crannies it had drifted into when Angela's shift ended at 3 a.m., and she wasted no time in leaving.

She found the nearest bathroom, and took note of the clothes piled in the corner with a small wry smile on her face as she stripped and stepped into the shower. Once she'd gotten all the powdered sugar out of her mane and off her skin, she carefully shook out or wiped off her clothes before putting them back on.

After Broadway had ripped her tunic apart in that horrible moment in the bayou, everyone had expected her to turn to Yvette, the New Orleans Clan's finest seamstress and clothes designer, to make her a new outfit. But Angela had decided she'd rather wear Elisa's old and too-tight swimsuit forever, than ask that—that shameless hussy, still occasionally showing interest in Broadway even while dating Brooklyn!—for any sort of favor. So instead, she'd done her best to salvage what was left of her tunic, with a needle and thread that Broadway had brought her. And if he'd borrowed those from Yvette, she hadn't asked.

Her old tunic was now a two-piece outfit, the top cropped off just below her bosom and the bottom basically a loincloth, stitched at strategic points onto her old belt. She'd gotten a lot of odd looks the first time she'd stepped out in public with her reworked outfit on… not that those looks mattered to her at all, really.

So what if the New Orleans Clan thought she was odd for not taking the opportunity to get more modern clothing? None of the males of her clan had been talking about getting new clothes; they were content to keep wearing loincloths! And so what if she'd overheard Brooklyn muttering to Goliath that she was 'even dressing like Demona now'? Not everything her mother did or touched was evil! …Okay, a lot of it was, but there was nothing wrong with wearing clothes that somewhat resembled hers!

Once she was clean and dry again, she thought about what else she'd be doing that night. Now that Broadway was able to exercise his wing in the air again, there was no need for her to coach him through the grounded physical therapy exercises. Deciding that she might as well get it over with, she went to the library for her nightly session with the New Orleans Clan's chronicler.

At roughly 4 a.m., Benedict was sitting at a desk in the library and writing while Angela sat in an overstuffed chair nearby, and a tape recorder sat between them. She had a smile on her face as she finished saying, "And when Gideon and Hippolyta found out that the 'monster' they'd beaten to death was really just a hollow tree rigged with twine, they were furious with Raphael for the rest of the night! But the rest of us couldn't stop laughing for hours, and by the next sunset even Gideon could see how it had been funny. Mind you, he still had Raphael sweep his and Hippolyta's perches every night till the next full moon…"

"Our resident prankster, Etienne, has done his share of sweeping as well," Benedict said with a smile.

"Oh, Raphael always made it up to the people he played pranks and jokes on; hardly a month went by that he wasn't sweeping somebody's perch for a week, or braving the bees to get a honeycomb for them, or—oh, that reminds me! Raphael once drove poor Pericles nearly crazy with worry! He hadn't done anything to Pericles for at least a year, when one night he just brought over a broom and started sweeping Pericles' perch, and wouldn't say why. He did that for a full week while Pericles racked his brains trying to figure out if a prank had been played on him without his realizing it, and then started worrying if Raphael was trying to apologize in advance for some truly wicked prank he was going to pull—when the sweeping itself was the prank! When Raphael told him that he'd done it just to see how Pericles would react, we could hear his howling clear to the beach below the castle!" Angela chuckled in reminiscence.

Benedict gave a half-smile as he said, "I can just see Etienne pulling something like that, too. I hope nobody gives him any ideas." Then he reached over to turn off the tape recorder, before saying, "Now, Angela, before you tell me about any more pranks pulled by Raphael, I want to be clear on one fact: Raphael is mated to Esther, correct?" as he looked down at his notes.

Angela stopped smiling, and seemed to shrink back in her chair slightly. "Yes."

"I thought so, from something you mentioned a few nights ago. For the past week you've been telling me tales about all your rookery kin, and the people who raised you. And I've let you say what you will, because their tales should be preserved as well."

"Hudson told me to talk about everyone!" Angela said defensively. "He said it's important to honor all of them!"

"And so it is. But you know well that our respective clan leaders had a specific reason for requesting that you tell me more about Avalon, and it's time to honor that too. I…" Benedict paused, then continued, "I'm still very interested in hearing more about all your rookery brothers and sisters, but it… it's time that we went over the notes I've been taking while you've been talking, to see if I'm correct about who—hurrrh—who is mated to whom, and who is still single. You've let slip a few things in the course of your stories, but you've openly confirmed only one mating so far, and that one only because I couldn't believe my ears and was sure that one of us had gotten something wrong. Now…" but Benedict paused in his speech again, while rubbing his chest.

"Benedict, is something wrong?" Angela asked anxiously.

"Just some indigestion… too many beignets at the welcome-back feast. I always eat too many of them. But this will pass, eventually. Now then, I--"

"Antacids!" Angela said as she jumped up from her chair. "I've seen on TV that antacids are very good for indigestion. I'll go get you some! Your healer Guilliame surely keeps some in his clinic, right?"

"Yes, he does," Benedict said as he sat back with a sigh. "And yes, some antacids would probably help. Hurry back, please…"

And Angela went and got the antacids. But she didn't exactly hurry… there were people to greet and talk to as she passed them in the hallways, since it didn't seem polite to just rush past them. And since Guilliame's clinic was right above the kitchen and she could faintly hear Broadway's voice through the floorboards, after getting the antacids from Cecelia she just had to go down and say hello to him as well. And since she actually hadn't eaten that much at the feast, being too busy keeping the hatchlings in line, Broadway was happy to fix her a snack. But after her snack, she went back to the library with a glass of water and the antacids in hand.

"I brought the antacids!" she announced cheerfully as she opened the library door. "I'm sorry it took so long, but I wanted to talk to Broadway."

Benedict's chair faced away from the library door, but Angela could see him sitting upright in it, not moving... and not speaking to her, either. The same way that the Magus wouldn't speak to someone when he was angry with them, Angela thought with a guilty pang.

"I'm sorry, it wasn't right of me to delay, but I couldn't talk to Broadway at the feast, we were both too busy, and I was even too busy to get a full meal then," Angela babbled as she set the water and the antacid on the desk in front of him. "I didn't want my stomach to start growling, so I had a short snack, but I hurried right back, and…" as she turned to look Benedict in the face.

A face made of stone.

A face that crumbled, disintegrating to gravel while she stared at it.

"EYYAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Given gargoyles' unique physiology, they don't have autopsies; it's hard to determine cause of death from a pile of gravel. But they do have inquests.

"He was rubbing his chest where, exactly?" Guilliame demanded of Angela as she sat in Goliath's lap, clinging to the comforting arms wrapped around her and to Elisa's hand on her shoulder. The couple had returned to the mansion and gotten dressed just in time to hear her scream echoing out of the open library doors. Now that they'd gotten her calmed down a bit, they were trying to determine exactly what had happened.

"H-here," Angela said with a slight hiccup, rubbing on her own torso. "But h-he said it was indigestion…"

"The most common form of denial," Guilliame said with a shake of his head. "Heart attack, it had to be a heart attack. Dammit, I warned him about his cholesterol level…"

"Benedict always lived life to the fullest, and that included indulging his sweet tooth," Adam said from where he and Stephen were working at Benedict's old desk, carefully scooping up the gravel and stone dust and depositing it in a series of black velvet sacks.

But Guilliame wasn't ready to let the matter rest. He told Angela, "But if you'd come straight back with the antacids, you might have been here when he collapsed and been able to perform CPR, or at least alert someone who knows CPR! Why didn't--"

"Back off!" Elisa barked right in Guilliame's face, before Goliath could say anything. "Lay off the kid; she's feeling bad enough already!"'

"Angela… has led a rather sheltered life until recently," Goliath rumbled. "While we've encountered violence aplenty, she has never actually seen a gargoyle die before."

"Only one who ever died on her was the Magus, one of her guardians, and he hung on long enough for everyone to say their goodbyes," Elisa added, still glaring at Guilliame. "She's had a helluva shock, so if you got anything else to say, you save it for tomorrow, okay?"

But Angela roused herself and stood up, saying determinedly, "I'm not a kid. I'm an adult… and yes, I made a serious mistake in dawdling. All I can say is that I believed Benedict when he said it was merely indigestion. And that I stopped to eat because I was still hungry from being too busy with the hatchlings to eat much at the feast."

"Done is done, Guilliame," Adam said as he stood up with two black sacks in his hands. "Berating her won't bring him back. And we both know that even CPR might not have revived him; not if too much of the heart muscle had been damaged in the attack."

"True," Guilliame muttered. He looked over at Angela again and said, "I apologize for the accusation. Just remember that next time someone complains of indigestion that starts up a full four hours after eating, it's probably a lot more than indigestion, all right?"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next night, at midnight, the clan held a memorial service for Benedict; another jazz funeral. But instead of creating portraits to be burned in ceremony, after Adam and other clan members gave their eulogy for the clan member four warriors went aloft, each carrying black velvet bags containing Benedict's gravel. They circled high over the cemetery as they emptied the bags, and gravel pattered down in a solemn rain while the clan, standing just outside the cemetery walls, sang and played "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Instead of falling straight down to become part of the land, the finer particles of stone dust were carried away by the night breezes, to become part of the wind forever.

While the warriors were scattering the gravel and stone dust and most of the clan was singing, one gargoyle chose to do something else. Ignatius was now the oldest clan member by two full generations, Benedict having been a generation younger than him. After saying his part in the eulogy, he picked up a jug that had a black ribbon tied around it; some clan members whispered to others that they'd heard that Benedict had promised Ignatius that he'd uncork some specially-reserved jug of moonshine at Ignatius' own funeral. Ignatius raised the jug on high for a moment, then uncorked it, chug-a-lugged the whole thing, and threw the jug down hard enough to shatter it.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

After the last bag of gravel and dust had been emptied and the four warriors had spiraled back down to earth, the band had struck up a rousing "When the Saints Come Marching In" as they'd paraded back to the mansion, where Broadway, Martha, and several human clan members had put together another feast on short notice. Two hours later the joyous wake that was part of every jazz funeral, in which the departed were celebrated for the good times they'd had and made for other people, was still going on. But some people had slipped away already; some to duties that couldn't be put off for long, and some (mostly the people from Manhattan) because they still weren't comfortable with such merriment so soon after losing a clan member.

Goliath and Elisa had slipped away as soon as they could do so without being noticed, and made their way to the library. Now Elisa was curled up in an overstuffed chair with the galley proof copy of Martha's upcoming book, Sweet Lies. She'd read the first three books during the two weeks of her first visit to New Orleans, after finding out that Martha had written the books that Matt and Broadway had been raving about. Elisa wasn't normally a fan of humorous mysteries, but she had to admit that it was a good series.

Goliath sat at a desk, carefully leafing through the first of a pile of ancient books he'd pulled off the shelves; the handwritten copies that had been made of the Paris Clan's chronicles when their offshoot had come to America to become the New Orleans Clan. He was looking for more information on the Praying Gargoyle that the Paris Clan had once owned. He was hoping to find a spell that would deactivate it, as well as the spell to activate it; some way of countering its effect. As he'd explained to Elisa earlier, "I was unable to use the Grimorum Arcanorum, having no talent for magic, but I looked through its pages while we kept it in the clocktower, and many of the spells written therein were accompanied by counterspells. I believe the first Magus who created the book researched every spell he could for a counterspell, before writing it into the book, and I'm hoping that the maker of the Praying Gargoyle was equally responsible in its creation."

"Always a good idea to put an off switch on your power tools," Elisa agreed.

"Indeed. And the next time we encounter it, we may not be able to get close enough to break it and disrupt whatever spell is being cast with it. Therefore, we must find a way to counter it."

Before coming down to New Orleans again, Elisa had personally searched not only every square inch of the ruins of St. Damien's Cathedral for the Praying Gargoyle, but every box and file related to the cathedral in the police evidence locker. Since the ruined cathedral provided plenty of hiding places, it was a favored spot for drug dealers, and the Vice Squad made a point of sweeping the place on a regular basis. Elisa had used her authority as a member of the GTF to get into the evidence locker and formally search all the files and evidence boxes that had accumulated since the Hunter's Moon, looking for evidence that might have been missed regarding "the gargoyle infestation that had been cleared out of that church". It had bothered her to use words that were better used for describing rats or bats, but that was the language and attitude expected of a GTF member.

She'd searched every box and baggie and photo, looking for pieces of the object Goliath had described to her and wondering how she could sneak anything she found out of the evidence locker, past the sergeant on duty. But ultimately she'd found nothing; not even the smallest piece of the magical statue that Goliath had shattered, not knowing at the time that it could repair and regrow itself. When she'd given him the news three nights ago, they had agreed that the prudent thing to do was to assume that Demona had sneaked back a night or two after the battle and gathered the pieces up.

"I shouldn't have waited until you were done searching before asking Benedict about his clan's oldest chronicles," Goliath berated himself. "I should have come right in as soon as Adam had told us about the ability to regrow itself! There were times that I meant to do so, but there was always something else occupying either Benedict's or my attention." He shook his head in frustration before continuing, "The night after you finished searching, I made a point of going to him and was about to ask for his assistance, when Isabel walked in and… disrupted that opportunity. Now we've wasted a full fortnight, and the one who knew these books best has gone to dust! And it'll probably take another fortnight at the least, to search all these old books… and translate this atrocious Latin. Angela was right, the Gallic derivatives scattered throughout the text are almost as bad as the handwriting."

"Didn't Angela spend a few nights in here translating the old chronicles already?" Elisa asked.

"She did, and I asked her about it first, but she said that the chronicles she translated for Benedict started in the year 1587. Benedict had told her that someone else in the clan had already translated the earliest chronicles, over a century ago, but if those translations are in here," as Goliath indicated the entire library with a sweep of his hand, "they're not titled as such on the spines of the books. Since the earliest chronicles very likely spoke of the clan shamans and the use of magic, then Benedict may have hidden those translations away to prevent the more devout Catholics among the human clan members from discovering the truth about the clan's past."

"So you have to do it the hard way," Elisa agreed. "But aren't you forgetting something, Big Guy? There's no need to rush in finding an off switch; Adam was positive that it takes the Praying Gargoyle about sixty years to regrow itself to the point where it can be used again."

"Yes, he did," Goliath agreed without looking up from the page he was reading. "But I think you've forgotten something, as well. In particular, Coldstone."

Elisa arched an eyebrow at her husband. "What does Coldstone have to do with the Praying Gargoyle?"

"Nothing directly, but Coldstone is living proof that sorcery and modern science can be combined effectively... very effectively. And modern science enabled Sevarius to grow the clones in a matter of months, when it should have taken them at least fifty years to mature from mere egg yolks to full adults. If Demona has the fragments, then we can't assume we have 60 years to plan for ways to deal with the Praying Gargoyle again."

"Good points," Elisa said with chagrin. "Do you want me to go get Angela and Brooklyn, so they can help translate Latin too?"

"Not yet. They would both probably welcome a break from their current duties, but Brooklyn needs to learn everything he can about the females of this clan in order to choose his mate wisely, and Angela… is required in the rookery until later." Goliath looked up from his book long enough to say, "Which reminds me, you should talk to Ursula when you have an opportunity; she can tell you about a deceased gargoyle named Abigail, and how the previous generation of hatchlings was raised. It's knowledge that may prove important in the future."

Elisa looked at him curiously. "If it's important, can't you tell me yourself? Or is this some sort of 'girl talk'?"

"Something like that," was all Goliath would say before returning to reading the chronicles.

Moments later, the door to the library opened and the scarlet bull-headed gargoyle Erasmus walked in. He paused in surprise when he saw them and said, "Oh, hello! I wasn't expecting anyone to be here; do you need privacy?"

"We're fine, I think," Elisa said with a glance at Goliath. "That is, if you're, um… conversant on the finer points of your clan's history."

"Benedict named me his apprentice several years ago," Erasmus said quietly, as he shut the door and deliberately locked it from the inside. "So yes, I know about certain subjects that aren't normally spoken of in polite company. And tonight's topic would be…?"

"Magical items," Goliath said bluntly.

"The Crystal Tear, in other words. What do you need to know about it?"

"Close, but no cigar," as Elisa shook her head. "We need to know more about something that was left behind with the Paris Clan; the Praying Gargoyle."

Erasmus knew about that as well, and after they explained just why they needed to know more about it, he willingly agreed to help. "I came in to find out where Benedict had left off on chronicling the Avalon Clan, but that can wait another night. The translations of the earliest chronicles are locked in a vault, and getting the key from Adam will have to wait until tomorrow, but in the meantime I can help you read Latin."

Goliath gladly separated the pile of books he'd accumulated into two stacks, and Erasmus took one stack with him to another desk at the other end of the library.

Soon afterwards, wanting to be useful, Elisa asked Goliath if she could get him anything to eat or drink while he was reading. Goliath agreed that a snack would be nice, and before leaving for the kitchen Elisa went over to Erasmus' desk to see if he wanted anything. "I'm fine, thanks," Erasmus said in answer. "I had a full meal earlier, at the wake." His bovine eyes looked up from the page for a few seconds as he sighed. "It's still hard to believe he's… gone, just like that. I kept expecting him to walk in on the party and help himself to some of the beignets…"

Elisa nodded in sympathy. "It takes a while for it to sink in, sometimes. You said you were his apprentice?"

"Yeah. I used to spend hours in here, every night when I wasn't hunting or on patrol in town, while Benedict put me through chronicler training. Handwriting practice, memory training… He used to quiz me by reciting passages from books, two to three paragraphs at a time, then having me repeat them back word-for-word… and then translate them into French or Latin, or from Latin into English, on the fly! And if I got even one sentence wrong, it was no dessert at dinner that night! There were times I just hated that, but it was all part of the memory training a good chronicler needs. And right now I'd recite all of Faulkner's works forwards and backwards, while hanging by my tail, if I could just see his smile again…"

Elisa gave him a sad smile of sympathy, before turning to go get a snack for Goliath. She paused halfway to the door, muttering under her breath, "Benedict…knew…" She gave Erasmus a searching look, but his head was bent over the chronicles again, so she turned again to go to the kitchen.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The Praying Gargoyle had been documented a few times in the old chronicles, and while they found the spell that was recited to activate it—words that were not in Latin, but from an unknown language Erasmus thought might be older than Latin—neither Goliath nor Erasmus found any mention of a spell to deactivate it.

"Perhaps the Praying Gargoyle responds to whoever spoke the activation spell most recently, even if that person isn't the one holding it," Erasmus suggested hopefully. "In that case, you could affect it even if you can't reach it."

Elisa shook her head. "I'd still rather that the good guys be the ones holding it. Which means doing something not-so-good; a search-and-seizure raid on Demona's place, while she's still in Japan. And it'd have to be done by the clan, because I can't see any way to justify the warrant without spilling the beans on a lot more than we want John Q. Public to know about."

"Raiding the enemy's stronghold. Which is bound to be covered with traps and deadly defenses; Demona's paranoid hatred of humanity virtually guarantees that," Goliath mused.

"And you've no guarantee that it's even there," Erasmus threw in. "I mean, if I were immortal and I wanted to hide something away until later, I'd put it in a fireproof ceramic safe and hide it inside an active volcano, or something else that's deadly to most of us mere mortals."

"Perhaps another magic-user could detect its power and its location, even while broken and dormant," Goliath considered aloud. "Like those humans I've read about who are able to fashion dowsing rods, that point the way to water in underground springs."

"You know of another magic-user?" Erasmus asked with interest.

"Not one we can reach easily, no," Elisa said swiftly, before Goliath could say anything. Which was true, after a fashion; Puck could only make an appearance when the infant Alexander was in need of protection, or ready for more magical training. "It's something to keep in mind if we ever do encounter one, though," she finished, while giving her husband a subtle warning look. Goliath nodded slightly in acknowledgment; the Xanatos family's secrets were not theirs to tell, even to another clan.

And the discussion had to stop there, because it was nearly time for Elisa to be driven to the airport, to catch an early flight back to Manhattan. She promised Goliath that she'd do her best to sleep on the flight and get a nap once she got back to her apartment, to be refreshed for her return to work the next night. "Take care, my beloved," Goliath said with a final hug and kiss after handing her bags into the van.

"You too, Big Guy," Elisa said as she kissed him back. "I'll call you tomorrow at the usual time, okay?"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next night Brooklyn went on another hunting date with Yvette. They brought back plenty of game for the clan's larder, and Brooklyn made a point of pulling from the game bag a young gator, the first of the two gator tails that he had promised to Evan in repayment. Martha promised him that she'd mark the tail for Evan and keep it on ice until he caught the second gator, then arrange to have them driven into town for her clan member, along with a jar of her special sauce.

The night after that Brooklyn went out again, into the bayou with Isabel. While back in the kitchen:

"…and that's it for Sunday. There we have it," Martha said with satisfaction as she looked at the sheaf of papers in her hand, with Broadway looking over her shoulder. "A week's worth of menus planned, a shopping list for Amelie to take into town, and a catch list for the hunters and fishers too."

"Great, but… isn't that catch list kinda, um, too specific?" Broadway asked. "I mean, I did my fair share of hunting in the old clan, and there were nights when no matter what the hunters set out to catch, we ended up throwing more tubers and rats in the stew instead. Sometimes the game just hides too well or gets away too fast for hunters to catch, even the most experienced ones, and that probably applies to fishing too."

"Which is why I always pad the list with more kills and catch than we actually need, and put aside any extra for preserving," Martha assured him. "That way even when the fish aren't biting and the land-based game is holed up, we have something from the larder or smokehouse for eating. But I'm pretty sure I'll be able to bring in enough catch every night to make the quota; I have a knack for fishing, if I do say so myself. For the last two years that we've been going out on rotation together, Veronica has even let me direct the pirogue and decide where to set the nets and traps—and she's been fishing for two generations longer!"

"I'm impressed," Broadway said, and meant it. "Say, how about on Wednesday I make up two nights' worth of dishes, then on Thursday I come out with you two? I'd like to learn how you folks fish down here, and maybe I could help with baiting the hooks or something. Would Adam okay my coming along?"

"Thursdays are my regular 'cook's night off' and the menus are planned appropriately, so he shouldn't have a problem with it at all," Martha said with a smile. "But I'll go ask him, just to be on the safe side. He should be up in his office right now; back in a bit."

And Martha trotted out of the kitchen, while Broadway checked on the venison stew they were making and added another tablespoon of celery flakes to it. He'd just decided that it needed another tablespoon or two of chopped onion as well when Martha came back in, looking perplexed and a little upset. "Well, what'd he say?"

"Adam said that you can go out on a fishing trip if you want to, but I'm not going," Martha said with a frown. "Lucretia's taking my place with Veronica instead, for the entire week!" She shook her head. "I told Adam that I didn't mind going even though the courting's still going on, because Brooklyn admitted to me that he doesn't think we'll ever be more than friends. But Adam still wants me to stay here, instead of doing my duty for the clan! That's just not like him…"

"Well… maybe he figures you're selling yourself short when it comes to courting," Broadway offered. "Because Brooklyn's smart, but he doesn't always know just what he wants, and he's been known to change his mind on other things. And you've got a lot going for you; you're pretty, got a good sense of humor, a great storyteller, and a fantastic cook! Besides, Brooklyn took Marie off the dating schedule but went out with you the next night, right? So I'd say that means you've still got a chance!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

At nearly the same time but elsewhere in the mansion, Rebecca stopped in at the rookery and asked if she could talk to Elizabeth privately. "Of course, cherie," Elizabeth said with a smile, before excusing herself to the other keepers. They went together to the small room nearby that the rookery keepers used for an office, where lesson plans and such were prepared. Once the door was shut behind them, Elizabeth asked, "So, what is troubling you?"

"Well…" Rebecca looked down at the tail-tip she was nervously wringing in her hands. "I think there's a problem between Lexington and Robert, and I don't know what to do about it."

Elizabeth shook her head. "We were afraid that would happen… Even with Robert being gay, it was inevitable that Lexington would become jealous of all the time you two spend together. Send Lexington to Adam, and he will try to explain--"

"It's not that; at least, I don't think it's that," Rebecca interrupted. "Lex hasn't said anything about us spending too much time together. In fact, there were a few times here at the mansion when Rob was willing to leave and give us privacy but Lex said he could stay! But while we were on that 'extended hunting trip'…"

"While you were temporarily banished, and you'd best use that phrase to describe it in the future," Elizabeth swiftly corrected her. "There are a few people who thought your wings should have been bound as well, as a lesson to others to not go injuring their clan members just to get their way. And if you ever do that again, your wings will be bound for the duration; that's a certainty. But what happened while you were out there?"

"I honestly don't know, but… well, I think it started the night after we were banished, when Robert fell out of a tree."

"Again?" Elizabeth said with resignation, not surprise. With equine hooves and horsetails instead of the taloned feet and prehensile tails common to most gargoyles, both Robert and Adelbert had a harder time than most when it came to climbing up or perching in trees.

Rebecca nodded. "He was landing with his hands full, because he was stashing a deer that had enough meat left on it for the next night's breakfast. He slipped on some moss on the branch and went over backwards. I grabbed for him, but all I got was the deer he'd been holding; he let go of it instead of holding on so I could pull him back up. Lex was on the ground below the tree, but he dodged out of the way in time. Robert wasn't hurt much, just had the wind knocked out of him, and Lex helped him get to his feet… but then…"

Rebecca shook her head in frustration as she tried to articulate what she remembered seeing, from where she'd been perched still up in the tree with the deer carcass in her grip. Robert, on his back with his wings splayed, his chest hitching as he tried to suck air back into his lungs. Lex, after dodging out of the way, scrambling back in and leaning over Robert to ask anxiously if he was all right. Robert finally answering with a stream of Cajun profanity, which had reassured Rebecca; if he'd been seriously hurt, he would have been either howling in pain or stoically silent. Lex helping Robert back to his feet, and brushing the dirt off his wings… and then the two of them just stopping and staring at each other, for a long moment.

Rebecca had been about to call down and ask if everything was okay, when they'd simultaneously turned away from each other and gone back to the business of stashing the leftovers of their dinner out of the way of other predators. When she'd asked them if everything was all right, they'd both said that they were fine, what was she all concerned about? So Robert had slipped and fallen; no big deal, he hadn't been hurt, and he'd remember to keep a hand free for gripping branches next time. And everything was fine with Lex, just fine!

But for almost every other night of their exile/hunting trip, at least once per night there would suddenly develop some awkward moment of silence. And Rebecca would catch either Robert looking at Lex, or Lex looking at Robert, and neither of them were smiling. Lex would look sort-of worried… while Robert would more often than not look downright grim. And if the two of them happened to be looking at each other at the same moment… it was like they'd been sparked by static electricity; both would jerk and quickly look away. And afterwards, both would pretend nothing had happened; they would answer Rebecca' repeated queries of concern with either blank looks or irritation that she kept asking. They were just fine

"But they're not fine!" Rebecca insisted, fisting her talons and grinding her beak in frustration. "Before we got in trouble and were sent out, we all three had good times together… but now that we're back, they're avoiding each other! And I don't know why!"

"Perhaps… perhaps Lexington is uncomfortable with Robert's sexual orientation," Elizabeth suggested delicately.

But Rebecca shook her head emphatically. "That can't be it, because Lex knew about that and was just fine with it all the times we were together, for at least a week before we were banished! Gays are accepted in their clan, and they were okay with it even back in the Dark Ages! It's got to be something else… honestly, I'm wondering if there's some 'guy thing' taboo about falling out of trees!"

"Well, it is something of a bad omen for a hunt… but from the sounds of it, you'd already hunted well together before it happened." Elizabeth considered for a few moments more. "You're sure it started then, and not before--or after? I haven't seen Lexington hunt, but the way his arms are attached to his wings surely makes it hard for him to bring down prey. While you were out there, did he miss what should have been a clean and easy kill, or do something else that might make Robert think he's not a fit mate for you? That would surely cause tension between them."

Rebecca shook her head. "Lexington is great at diving down and pulling up at the last second to sink his foot-talons into prey. He brought down a buck that way, by landing on it and hanging on until he could break its neck, and he insisted on ripping off a haunch and gliding back to me with it to show he could provide for an egg-heavy mate like any other male! Robert even said he was impressed with his skill, and wanted to sketch Lex in action, except he hadn't brought along his sketchpad." And for some reason, that had turned into another awkward moment that neither of the males would explain to her...

Elizabeth finally shook her head and concluded, "Well, whatever the problem between them is, it's likely not enough to cause a rift between the clans, and perhaps it will resolve itself in a while. The three of you were together near constantly for eight nights straight; give them some time apart, and perhaps they'll decide to forgive and forget whatever it is."

"But what if it doesn't?" Rebecca wrung her tail even harder. "The Manhattan Clan will be going back to their territory as soon as Brooklyn has chosen, and Robert is supposed to be going up there with me, but what if he and Lex just can't get along anymore, and he decides to stay behind?"

"Well, Adam and I would honestly prefer that he stays here with us; it's bad enough that we're losing you and one of your sisters! But I know how close you two are. If not for his being gay, you would surely have been the first pair of your generation to mate. And perhaps he would be better off in a new protectorate, without reminders everywhere of his lost love Philip… particularly during the football season," Elizabeth conceded.

While the trio had been gone, the Saints had played another football game, which their human clan member Alphonse had considerately taped for the enjoyment of those gargoyles who were football fans. And once again, both at the start of the game and after a play that went badly in the third quarter, the commentators had mentioned how tragic it was that last season's star quarterback, Philip Rogers, had died in a car accident in the spring. They'd said he was missed by all the team, never knowing how much more badly he was missed by a gargoyle.

Elizabeth thought for a few moments more, then decided, "Whatever their problem is, if they won't talk to you about it, then my guess is that they're afraid of upsetting you with it. So tell them that if they won't talk to you, then they should at least talk to each other without you present, and work out their differences. Tell them that you'll leave them both alone for one night, and ask that they talk and resolve their problem one way or another before dawn. Robert will surely agree, and if Lexington isn't allowed to escape into a computer game—like you so often do, cherie," she chided with a smile, and Rebecca blushed in answer, "then he may agree to talk it out as well. Give them the time and space to do it, and see what happens."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

But Elizabeth should have known that ever-impulsive Rebecca would take her advice a step farther than intended. Anyone else who had heard the advice given and knew Rebecca well would not have been surprised to learn what she did less than an hour later:

"Don't bother trying to go out the windows; I locked them from the outside, and you know Adam will be pissed if you break the glass for no good reason. And I'm locking the hall door when I leave," she said as Lexington and Robert stared at her in dismay. "I'll come back for you in a few hours… but before then, I expect you two to talk out what's bothering you, okay? I care about you both, and if you really care for me, you'll talk it out and settle it!"

"But, Becca--" Robert began, but she didn't let him finish the sentence before she swiftly backed through the door, slammed it shut and locked it.

She went to the computer room and started playing one of her favorite videogames, but she couldn't concentrate on it; her thoughts kept straying to the two people locked up together a few rooms away. After her Mario got his butt waxed three times in less than twenty minutes, she gave up and went back to the room. She stuck her ear against the door and tried to hear what they were saying on the other side, but she heard nothing.

She saw Amelie coming down the hall towards her with an expression that tried to be disapproving, but ended up being mostly curious. "Eavesdropping, dear? That's not like you… what's going on in there?" the human elder asked.

"Nothing, I think," she said with disappointment. The guys were probably sulking in opposite corners of the room, determined to say nothing to each other just to spite her.

She unlocked the door and opened it, to tell them that they really needed to act like mature adults and…

And they weren't in opposite corners.

But they weren't talking either.

Instead, they were right there in the middle of the room, liplocked in a passionate embrace!

To be continued in:

Mating Games 11: Changing the Rules