Mating Games 12: Game Over

12.2: Weddings and Other Ceremonies

After enjoying an hours-long glide together, Brooklyn and Isabel went into the kitchen to get themselves a snack. "Hi, guys!" Broadway happily greeted them as they entered. "If you're wondering where your deer went, Goliath found it outside the workshop door and brought it in to the larder. And finding a courting gift there pretty much confirmed the rumors already floating around, so congratulations on choosing, and I hope you weren't planning on surprising anyone with the news!"

Brooklyn said he was just as glad that he hadn't been required to make an announcement in front of everyone, then sniffed the air appreciatively. "Something smells good!"

"That's from my deer, my courting gift to Martha; yours is still hanging in the larder. I just finished cooking up and feeding her the first venison steak, and there's plenty left for you two if you're hungry," Broadway said agreeably. Which they were, so they happily accepted Broadway's offer, and he carved off two more steaks for them. While the steaks were grilling, Broadway said, "Listen, I want to talk to you guys about something…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Brooklyn thought Broadway's idea was just this side of ridiculous… but Isabel pointed out that in at least one way, his suggestion was actually a very good idea. Brooklyn conceded she was right, but made doubly sure that Broadway had talked it over with Martha before agreeing to the idea. "Okay, but after you get the stitches taken out, all right?"

"Well, yeah, of course!" Broadway said, as if surprised he'd even had to add that.

Brooklyn said wryly, "Dude, almost nothing about this night so far has been 'of course'." And after a bit more discussion, Isabel went to talk with Martha, still resting in the clan's clinic, while Brooklyn and Broadway went to find the clan leaders.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Goliath was in Adam's den/office, playing chess with the other clan leader, after they had compared their notes on the gossip flying all over the estate and confirmed who had chosen whom. "So you'll be gaining five clan members… nearly doubling the number of targets available for those Quarrymen to shoot at," Adam sighed. "Well, I'd already accepted it for the most part… but I want a sworn oath from you, Goliath."

"What would you have me swear?" Goliath asked with a raised brow ridge.

"I want your oath that if the situation with the Quarrymen has not dramatically improved by the time of the Breeding Season, you'll send all the pregnant females down here to bear and lay their eggs in secrecy and safety." Adam pointed his bishop at Goliath for emphasis as he said, "We can make a separate rookery for those eggs if you insist, but I insist that no harm be allowed to come near them. With our numbers as low as they are, we can't afford to risk any potential hatchling, in any clan."

Goliath nodded solemnly. "You have my oath on that, Adam."

"Good," as Adam put his bishop back on the playing board, in a new square. "Your move…"

Goliath picked up one of his knights, but paused and set it back down when they heard someone outside the den, knocking on the door.

"Come in," Adam called out. "Ah, Brooklyn and Broadway!" as the two males came in. "Congratulations on choosing and being chosen, both of you! Did you need to talk to Goliath?"

"Uh, to both of you, actually," Broadway said, looking nervous. "Y'see, um… you tell 'em, Brook…"

"Well…" Brooklyn nervously twiddled his talons before saying, "Now that we've both chosen for courting and our females have both agreed to become our mates, well… Broadway and I were thinking of a double ceremony…"

"An excellent idea," Goliath said with a smile, and Adam also smiled and nodded.

"…And we were wondering about having it… tomorrow. At midnight. Isabel and Martha are both okay with having it then," he finished in a rush, as both leaders dropped their smiles in favor of looks of shock.

"Tomorrow?!" After staring at them in open incredulity for a few moments, Adam leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling as he recapped: "Your entire clan left Manhattan to come visit us down here scarcely three hours after we first met you, when I'd thought it would take at least two nights to persuade just a few of you to come. Then your Lexington proposed to Rebecca on their second date, and Hudson proposed to Ursula not two hours later." He looked at Goliath as he continued, "You performed the mating ceremony for the trio less than one hour after a three-way mating was first suggested." Then he turned back to Brooklyn and Broadway. "And now, you two announced your choices only a few hours ago, and you want to have the mating ceremony tomorrow." Adam looked back at Goliath as he asked, "Is there anything you people don't rush into?"

Goliath harrumphed but otherwise gave no answer. He thought briefly about protesting that he hadn't 'rushed into' his relationship with his beloved Elisa… But in truth, while it had taken them over two years to actually admit their feelings for each other, it had taken only two evenings of courtship—and only one 'date' not interrupted by Quarrymen!—before they'd committed to each other in flesh as well as in spirit. In retrospect, that had indeed been 'rushing.'

"Um… the usual response is 'burning buildings,' but we've actually done that a time or two, when there were people inside that needed saving," Brooklyn admitted while scratching his mane.

"I know it seems like we're really rushing things, but Martha was actually happy with the idea when I talked to her about it earlier," Broadway tried to explain. "In fact, she sorta hinted it before I could suggest it! I think she's, uh, still worried that I'll change my mind. Even after I brought her a courting gift and cooked it for her, and even fed it to her by hand! Sure, I could reassure her that I'll always choose her, every night right up to the ceremony… but why not just have the ceremony tomorrow? She won't be worried after we're mated and bonded together!"

"If Elizabeth or Ursula were in here right now, they'd probably give you ten different reasons why not, but one reason I know they'd mention is wedding dresses… or lack thereof," Adam corrected himself. "Yvette wouldn't be able to come up with any decent dresses for the ladies in just the few waking hours left between now and next midnight."

Brooklyn coughed. "Um, actually, that's sorta an incentive to hurry things along, at least as far as Isabel and I are concerned. Because if Yvette was obliged to make Isabel's wedding dress, after I turned her down… it'd be like rubbing salt in the wound, y'know?"

Adam considered a moment before admitting, "A good point."

"Isabel told me she already has a fancy dress, that one she wore for the big party we had on Thanksgiving, and she'd be happy wearing that for the ceremony," Brooklyn said. "And that dress Martha wore for my first date with her in New Orleans was pretty nice; maybe she could wear that again…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The two hours remaining before dawn were busy indeed. Phone calls were made, people were woken up or called in from their duties, explanations were given—repeatedly, and one elderly human clan member even asked if there was any chance that one of the ladies was expecting—and arrangements were made to have a double mating ceremony out on the great lawn, as grand and lavish as could be done in just a few hours.

When the gargoyles awoke at sunset, Adam and Elizabeth were immediately surrounded by human clan members reporting on the work that had been done during the day. With such a large clan and such short notice, they'd had to hire four different caterers and two florists in order to get everything in time. The rings for the two couples were being made on the estate, by Alphonse Dubois, whose father had been the one to get Isabel interested in metalworking; on such short notice, all he'd be able to make would be plain gold bands, but he assured everyone that they would be ready before midnight.

When Goliath finished shedding his stone skin, he delightedly embraced Elisa, who had flown down from New York during the day. "Elisa! Did you get the note I left for you?"

"Sure did, Big Guy, but it was kind-of unnecessary," Elisa said with a wry grin. "The whole clan is buzzing with the news! When exactly did they decide to do a double wedding tonight?"

"About an hour after our phone conversation. I tried to call you again, but you must have already left for the airport. Did you manage to sleep during the flight?"

"Yes, dear," Elisa said, rolling her eyes. Her worrywart husband was always concerned about her not getting enough sleep. (Because it was true that she frequently didn't get enough, but she chose to ignore that fact once again.)

After a few more moments of loving banter, Elisa glanced over to where Adam was still besieged by his human clan members, with some other gargoyles coming up to him as well. She silently wondered if she'd have a chance any time soon to ask him some questions… not for a while, probably. But in the meantime, she could do some checking on her own.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Martha's many bruises, broken nose and black eyes had healed without a sign that they had ever been there, but she still had sutures here and there, as did two other gargoyles. Guilliame and Cecelia herded Broadway, Martha and Angela into the clinic for removal of their stitches.

Once the surgical threads were carefully snipped and pulled out, it was Guilliame's considered opinion that they would have almost no scarring from the fight—almost none, because after examining Angela's cheek, Guilliame chided Cecelia for not taking better care with her sutures. "This last half-inch pulled apart a bit, enough for scar tissue to form in the slash. We'll have to do a bit of cosmetic surgery on this, in another night or two, to remove the scar."

"Don't bother," Angela said quietly, still not looking at Martha and Broadway, in the same way she had been avoiding looking at them since Broadway had made his choice.

After a brief, uncomfortable silence, Guilliame clapped his hands. "Well! Martha, put an ice pack on that slight swelling from removing the stitches, and it will be gone before midnight; you'll be a beautiful bride. Now get out of my clinic, you disgustingly healthy people; I hear there's a big wedding to prepare for!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Elisa was talking to Brooklyn and Isabel when she saw Martha, Broadway and Angela all coming back through the roof exit a few feet away. "Elisa! Glad you could make it!" Broadway said happily.

"Hey, I missed one wedding already; I sure wasn't going to miss another!" Elisa gave Broadway a big hug, then Martha as she said, "Congratulations!"

Then she reached past them to Angela, who was quietly walking away. She insisted on giving Angela a big hug as well, with the whispered words, "We'll talk later, okay? Just give me a few minutes here first… meet in the library?"

"Okay," Angela whispered before slinking dejectedly away again.

Elisa rejoined the others, saying, "So, speaking of missed weddings, where are Lex, Robert and Rebecca?" as she looked around for them once more.

"Probably inside the cottage again; I saw them heading that way at dawn," Broadway said. "They probably wanted privacy for more, uh…"

"Quality time," Elisa paraphrased with a wry smile. "Well, I'll wait till they come back out, then. Did anyone take pictures of their wedding?"

After being assured that Erasmus had taken pictures and had a set ready for her, Elisa reached into the satchel she'd brought with her as she said to Isabel and Martha, "So, I understand that you ladies are getting married in your fanciest non-wedding dresses, due to time constraints."

"That's right; besides, I never really thought it made sense to go all out and spend a huge amount of time or money on a dress that you can wear only once," Isabel said practically.

Martha agreed with Isabel, though the somewhat wistful look on her face indicated that she wouldn't have minded a little impracticality. Isabel reminded her, "Hey, you have a great dress already, that mauve number with the rose pattern! That looks a lot better on you than any stark white dress ever would."

"White is vastly overrated," Elisa declared. "But anyway, guess what I brought with me, Brooklyn! Never mind, I'll just give it to you," as she pulled out a pair of black silk garments and handed them over. "I picked it up from the castle and packed it last night, even before finding out that you'd set the date for tonight."

"Oh yeah, the fancy outfit your mother made!" Brooklyn said as he held up and viewed the black silk vest and loincloth. "But, uh… you left the bow tie behind, I hope?"

"You'll look sharp in that, Brook!" Isabel said with a smile.

"Yeah, wear it for the ceremony!" Broadway urged. "It's really way better for tonight than a tuxedo would be."

"Are there any fancy clothes for Broadway, too?" Martha asked hopefully.

"Sorry, no; my mother made these for Brooklyn only because he was Goliath's best man at our wedding," Elisa said with an apologetic smile. "Guess you'll have to go as you are, Broadway."

"Excuse me," and suddenly Yvette was standing there with them, her expression almost grim. "May I see that outfit, please?"

Brooklyn slowly handed it over, his face worried, while Isabel watched her sister tensely. Elisa looked at the three of them and just knew in her gut that Yvette had also been avoiding certain people since the night before, and they were worried about what she would do now…

Yvette held the black silk vest and loincloth up, turned them this way and that, and declared, "A simple design; easy to alter to Broadway's measurements. And the silk is not patterned, a basic black; I can match it easily. Broadway, come to my workshop at ten o'clock and I will have your new clothes ready."

Broadway said uncomfortably, "Gee, that's great, Yvette, but you don't have to--"

"Perhaps not, but I will!" Yvette said fiercely. "You deserve fine clothes, and Martha deserves a mate dressed as nicely as she will be dressed!" There were tears glistening at the edges of her eyes as she glared at them all, saying, "You will not start the wedding without me, or these clothes!"

"Absolutely, got it; we'll wait for you and Broadway's new clothes," everyone hastily agreed.

Yvette gave a sharp nod before striding away, heading for her workshop. Elisa looked after her and mused, "Considering you just turned her down yesterday, she's actually handling this pretty well."

"Yeah," Brooklyn agreed. "I sure hope there's at least one real prince of a guy left single among Angela's rookery kin on Avalon; someone who'll really appreciate Yvette for all she is. She's really a fine lady... But she's just too agreeable for me."

"Too agreeable?" Broadway echoed, giving his brother a raised brow ridge.

"Yeah. I realized I needed someone who'd challenge me; keep me honest and doing the right thing instead of the expedient thing once I'm a clan leader. Someone who's not afraid to call me an idiot right to my face," Brooklyn said with a smile for Isabel, who smiled right back at him.

"Well, I'll leave you folks to get your pre-wedding jitters, while I go have a talk with Angela," Elisa said as she started away. Thinking privately to herself that after talking to Angela, she was going to talk to Adam, and check a few more sources of information…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

A truckload of flowers and other decorating equipment was brought onto the estate, and eight clan members hastily erected and decorated an arch with flowers and ribbons.

"Look, Isabel! All those roses… isn't it a lovely sight?"

Alphonse shouted from the workshop for the wedding party to come in for fitting the rings he'd made; he wanted to have time to resize them if necessary before the ceremony.

"Hey, if it doesn't fit, maybe I can wear mine as an earring, like Goliath does! Would you like that, Martha? …No?"

The kitchen was bustling as well, with everyone who possessed culinary skills preparing platters of food, while even more was being brought in from the shops and caterers in town.

"Nuh-uh, Martha; you are not setting one talon in that kitchen tonight! I know you too well, sis; you'd decide to fix some super-fancy dish especially for Broadway to show your love for him, and you'd end up being late for your own wedding! Come on, let's go find some flowers for our hair…"

Lexington, Robert and Rebecca emerged from the cottage at 10 p.m. with sheepish smiles, which grew all the more sheepish when they realized that some clan members had been waiting for them to vacate it so they could prepare the cottage for another honeymooning couple. The other couple would be staying in New Orleans, in the safe house attic that the patrollers normally used. The patrol that had been in town had already been recalled back to the estate a night early, so they could attend the wedding. And arrangements were made for the patrollers who would depart the next night to eat and sleep at another clan member's house in town; the couples would each have a four-night honeymoon.

"Okay, I found a coin for flipping. Heads, you and Martha go into town for the honeymoon; tails, Isabel and I go in. Ready? …Heads it is. Have fun with Martha in the French Quarter, dude!"

And other preparations were being made as well…

"Etienne, what are you—oh, I should have known. If there's a chance to make mischief, you just have to take it, don't you?"

"But this is a time-honored tradition, Adam!"

"I know, I know. Just make sure that everything you put on that truck to decorate it for the honeymoon trip can be removed before dawn, okay? Removed without sandblasting!"

"Well, yeah! I know we can't have the safe house's neighbors asking questions that Willie and Ruby can't answer. Say, if you see Brooklyn before the ceremony, can you ask him for my two-headed coin back? He said he'd be right back with it…"

In Adam's study, Goliath and Father Maurice were trying hard to be civil to one another, while disagreeing most emphatically about how the ceremony would be conducted—and, more specifically, who would conduct it. Father Maurice was insistent that the New Orleans Clan had always had a priest conducting their mating ceremonies, and he'd done the weddings for the last forty years, even a triple wedding once in the previous generation, so he could handle this double ceremony just fine even on such short notice. While Goliath was just as insistent that in the Manhattan Clan, which the females would be joining, the leader always conducted the ceremonies. Just as he'd done for Lexington, Robert and Rebecca a few nights earlier—and he hadn't noticed Father Maurice jumping up to officiate for the happy trio that night; why was that, exactly?

Elisa had been inside the mansion looking for Ursula, but when she heard the raised voices she popped into the study long enough to say with exasperation, "Both of you need to back off and agree to compromise, before the kids decide to just elope into the bayou! I understand there's precedent for that around here… Why not a 50-50 split, like the Big Guy and I had for our ceremony? The clan leader starts it off with the clan's traditional words about what a big step this is, and once the foursome all swear their love and declare their choices for mates, the preacher takes over for the exchanging of rings and whatnot. Whaddaya say? Okay, Father, Goliath's willing to compromise, now let's see you nodding your head… good. Now let's see you two shake on it—and watch the grip, Big Guy!"

And some preparations were even more discreet than others:

"Uh, listen, Martha… about the mating flight after the ceremony. I tried to tell Broadway that the 'just once around the block' flight that Lex, Robert and Rebecca did was standard for your clan, but he didn't buy it. So when the times comes, uh… remember his wing and go slow, okay? Make it easy for him to catch you. And when you're, uh, doing it, you'll probably need to keep gliding instead of letting him do all the work, so you don't end up crashing."

"Oh, dear… I hadn't really thought about that. I've just been so—oh dear, how will we manage with you and Isabel gliding too?"

"Oh, that's easy; we'll go east, you go west. Just remember, slow and careful, okay? And here he comes now in his new outfit. If he asks, we were talking about Isabel's favorite foods, okay?"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

At 11:30 p.m., half an hour before the ceremony, Elisa found Ursula in the cottage, bustling about replacing the linens in the bedroom and in the small kitchen, while other clan members stocked the icebox and pantry with plenty of food for two honeymooners. Elisa lent a helping hand in putting groceries away, then just waited silently until the other clan members left and she and Ursula were alone in the cottage. Then she said abruptly, "Satisfied? You got what you wanted, didn't you?"

"What are you referring to, dear?" Ursula asked as she turned away from fluffing up the pillows on the bed.

"Your plan to separate Angela and Broadway, so Martha—your daughter—could snag him. It worked, so are you satisfied now?"

"I beg your pardon?" as Ursula gave her a perfectly blank look—too perfect, actually.

"I'm a detective, remember; I notice things. Patterns, relationships. In this case, the relationship part is easy; Martha has your skin color, your basic build and a lot of your facial features, and I checked out some old photographs to determine that she has the same hair and wing configuration as your former mate Patrick. She's your biological daughter… and you know it."

Ursula sighed. "Yes, I am aware of our blood tie… but you know we never acknowledge such things out loud. Especially not after Abigail's example."

"Maybe you don't say it out loud, but you're not above doing something about it when your offspring is in need… and when you're interested in seeing grandchildren. So when the clan came down here and you decided that Broadway would make a good mate for Martha, you started doing everything you could to keep Broadway and Angela apart, and get Broadway and Martha together... even after Broadway declared himself 'off the market', and promised to Angela."

Now Ursula looked amused. "You think I arranged all this? Really… why don't you explain to me this fiendish plan I supposedly had."

Elisa ticked points off her fingers. "That first night, you arranged for Angela to go off with Benedict and tell tales about Avalon, while you took Broadway to the kitchen. You said it would be a terrible imposition for the humans of the clan to stay up so late or get up so early in order to cover for Martha and keep the kitchen going all night… and neglected to say that they were already used to doing that for at least one week out of every six, when Martha took her regular turn at fishing duties in the bayou.

"Then Benedict asked Angela to spend three more nights translating old Latin texts for him, since he couldn't read Latin. Which was a lie; Erasmus told me after the memorial service that Benedict had taught him Latin while he was growing up. Why would Benedict lie about that? Who benefited from it? I thought at first he was just a dirty old man—sorry, old male—who would use any excuse to keep a young and beautiful female around him. But someone else benefited from him keeping Angela occupied, both then and later on with telling more Avalon stories…

"Then Cassius and Lucretia took Angela under their wing, and into town without Broadway. Cassius and Lucretia, who were supposed to start their fishing duty that weekend; I checked the roster. Adam said Cassius had come to him on Friday and asked to switch duties with a younger couple, but didn't say why they had that sudden urge to go into town. And Lucretia and Cassius are your rookery brother and sister, and rookery kin tend to stick up for each other and ask each other for favors…

"And when you ran out of ways and reasonable excuses to keep them apart, you created one. You bargained with Goliath to get Angela into the rookery for a few nights… and you knew full well that, since she was raised by humans, sooner or later she'd try to match parents and hatchlings out loud. And that's all the excuse you needed to keep her in the rookery for most of the next few weeks, to try to get her to unlearn her 'bad habit'. In the rookery with the kids, getting stressed out and irritable from suddenly having to handle so many at once, which frequently carried over to when she saw Broadway.

"No one likes to be around someone who's stressed out when they can't do anything to alleviate the problem, so Broadway stopped visiting Angela in the rookery, except to bring food in at the kids' snack times. He stayed mostly in the kitchen with Martha—who was supposed to go on fishing duties this week, but Lucretia took her place instead.

"Adam told me that Martha had actually asked to go on her regular rotation, because Brooklyn had admitted to her that he was already favoring others over her. But someone else had already spoken to Adam and told him to not let her do, it, to admit defeat before Brooklyn officially made his choice, because she 'had a hunch' that Martha's love life was about to improve. And guess who that someone was?

"You kept Angela and Broadway apart as much as possible, and arranged plenty of time for Broadway and Martha to work side-by-side and grow closer together…"

Ursula had lost her amused smile not long after Elisa had started ticking off points, and when Elisa finished all she said was, "Twenty-five days isn't enough time for two people to fall out of love… unless they weren't really in love in the first place."

"Yeah, Angela told me about the confession Yvette forced out of her last night. It was wrong of Angela to keep stringing Broadway along like she did, trying to remake him into a reasonable facsimile of Gabriel. And I think Broadway must have figured out what she was doing and why some time ago; he just couldn't admit it out loud. He couldn't admit it… but realizing that she didn't really love him, set his heart free to fall for Martha instead. Which is why this conversation is going to stay just between you and me; I'm not going to fill Hudson and the others in on what a sneaky and manipulative creature you can be. In the end, my ol' crimefighting partner will probably be happier with Martha."

Elisa turned to go, then said over her shoulder, "You'd just better hope that Gabriel still wants Angela, too. Because if not, if she returns from Avalon without him, and if she ever puts the pieces together and figures out what you did… life in Manhattan will get a lot harder for you."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

And then it was midnight, and time for the ceremony.

The two couples walked side by side up the aisle, each pair holding hands, as they approached the arch of roses and Goliath and Father Maurice, waiting on the other side. The arch was just wide enough for all four of them to stand under it as Goliath began the ceremony with the words traditional to his clan: "Tonight, we come together as clan—as clans, to witness the joining of hearts."

Goliath fixed his gaze on first Isabel, then Martha as he continued, "Of all the decisions a female must make, the choice of a life mate is perhaps the gravest of all. He will stand at her side, guard her back, provide for her when she is heavy with egg and be a source of comfort for her for as long as he lives."

Then he turned his gaze to Brooklyn and Broadway. "And the male must be just as wise when he chooses a female to court," he continued, "because should she choose him, she will be his chief advisor and most cherished ally for as long as she lives."

"And so," he said with warmth, "now two sisters of the New Orleans Clan come before the two clans together to declare their choices for mates, and to join their mates in the Manhattan Clan." He focused on Isabel first. "Isabel, do you affirm your choice?"

Just as they had agreed upon in the five-minute dress rehearsal, conducted in Adam's study less than half an hour ago, Isabel said in a strong, clear voice, "Before both clans, I swear my love and affirm my choice."

Goliath focused on Martha next. "Martha, do you affirm your choice?"

Martha's voice was trembling slightly as she said, "Before both clans, I swear my love and affirm my choice."

Goliath pinned his gaze on Brooklyn. "Brooklyn, you have been chosen by Isabel. Do you accept the challenges that the future might hold for the two of you?"

Brooklyn took a deep breath before saying solemnly, "Before both clans, I swear my love and accept my future."

And finally it was Broadway's turn to be the focus of attention. "Broadway, you have been chosen by Martha. Do you accept the challenges that the future might hold for the two of you?"

Broadway was supposed to be looking back at Goliath, but instead he was gazing adoringly into Martha's eyes as he said, "Before both clans, I swear my love and accept my future."

Goliath nodded in acceptance of their words, then turned to Father Maurice and nodded again; his part in the ceremony was over for the moment.

The priest opened up his Bible to a bookmarked page, cleared his throat and began reading aloud. In the audience, Elisa recognized with nostalgia the passage that Father Maurice was reading: from the first book of Corinthians, chapter 13, the same verses that had been read by Father John Sullivan at her wedding to Goliath:

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all the knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

And now these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Then Father Maurice directed the two couples to join hands and repeat after him, as he recited the vows. Brooklyn and Isabel went first, and Brooklyn had to fight to keep his wings caped and tail still as he recited, "I, Brooklyn, take thee, Isabel, to be my mate, to have and to hold from this night forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. This is my solemn vow."

A single tear of joy trickled down Isabel's furred cheek as she responded, "I, Isabel, take thee, Brooklyn, to be my mate, to have and to hold from this night forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. This is my solemn vow."

Then it was Broadway and Martha's turn. Broadway gave a nervous gulp before repeating after the priest, "I, Broadway, take thee, Martha, to be my mate, to have and to hold from this night forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. This is my solemn vow."

Martha was openly sobbing now, but everyone knew they were tears of joy. And she choked out between sobs and sniffs, "I, Martha, take thee, Broadway, to be my mate, to have and to hold from this night forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. This is my solemn vow."

Father Maurice then asked for the rings, and each member of the wedding party pulled them out where they had been stashed. Broadway and Brooklyn had theirs in the pockets that had been sewn into their vests. Isabel gave Martha an encouraging wink, to which Martha blushed beet red in response; then both ladies, having no pockets in their dresses nor maids of honors to hold them, pulled the rings out of their cleavages and dropped them into the priest' hands.

Father Maurice stared at the ladies for a moment, looking scandalized, while someone in the audience wolf-whistled—and the whistle was abruptly cut off with the unmistakable sound of someone getting whapped upside the head. (Adam just shook his head and muttered "Etienne" under his breath.)

Finally Father Maurice refocused on the matter at hand. He blessed the rings, then handed them back to the brides and grooms for exchanging. And then Brooklyn and Broadway hastily swapped rings between each other; the ladies' rings had gotten mixed up during the blessing.

Under the arch, Isabel was visibly stifling a case of the giggles. In the audience, Elisa shook her head slightly, then muttered under her breath, "Please, let them all fit this time…"

Once the rings were sorted out, Brooklyn went first, holding a ring up and carefully sliding it onto the middle talon of Isabel's left hand as he said softly, "With this ring, I thee wed."

Having successfully swallowed down her giggles, Isabel went next, sliding a ring onto the middle talon of Brooklyn's left hand as she said, "With this ring, I thee wed."

Then it was Broadway's turn, and without hesitation he slid the ring onto Martha's waiting talon as he said, "With this ring, I thee wed." And since Martha was crying again, he patted her hand gently a couple of times in reassurance, before letting go and presenting his own hand for adorning.

Martha managed to stop crying long enough to say, "With this ring, I thee wed," as she slid the ring onto Broadway's middle talon—and hesitated, looking stricken, when the ring stuck and wouldn't go past his first knuckle.

"It's okay, don't panic, I got it," Broadway said hastily as he snatched up his left hand with his right, and gritted his fangs as he jammed the ring up past the knuckle, all the way up to its proper place. Taking a layer of skin off the last knuckle along the way, but Broadway said cheerfully, "See, it fits fine, really!" as he put his hand, the blood already starting, back in Martha's hands.

In the audience, Lexington's sharp eyes caught sight of the blood spotting his rookery brother's hand, and he had to clamp both hands over his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Robert and Rebecca both looked at him oddly, and he had to hiss "I'll explain later" before clamping his mouth shut again. He knew that later on, they'd be laughing too when he explained how Broadway had been upholding a recently-started tradition for the Manhattan Clan; that of the groom bleeding on the wedding night...

Father Maurice had already discreetly passed Martha a handkerchief for her tears; now he hastily produced another one from inside his vestments, to be wrapped around Broadway's minor self-inflicted wound. Then he raised his voice and said to the audience, "Now that these two couples have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I now pronounce them mates—that is, two mated couples, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. What God has joined together, let no man drive asunder. Gentle gargoyles, you may kiss the—Oh, young love," the priest chuckled, because the happy couples had already beat him to the part about kissing.

Everyone in both clans, human and gargoyle alike, erupted in cheers, roars, whistles and vigorous applause. The noise only increased in volume when the two couples stopped kissing long enough to turn to their audience and grin while presenting their ring-adorned hands for viewing. Behind them, Goliath looked as though he'd been about to say something, but paused when everyone cheered louder.

After a more few seconds of noise, Goliath loudly cleared his throat to try again—but suddenly Elisa was at his side, leaning against him and grabbing his arm, and looking adoringly up into his eyes while hissing, "Pssst, Big Guy!" He leaned down to listen to her, and she hissed, "The last part that was planned, formally declaring them part of our clan? Just skip that, okay? Everyone knows it already, and not everyone's going to be cheering about that." Goliath clearly wasn't happy about her suggestion, but he finally nodded and let her tug him away from the ceremonial arch, towards where the buffet tables had already been set up.

Adam had the privilege of calling for the first toast: "To the happy couples! To Brooklyn and Isabel, and Broadway and Martha! May you glide well together, all your lives!"

Wineglasses in hand (punch glasses for the children and hatchlings), everyone chorused "May you glide well together, all your lives!" before downing their drinks. And after the first toast, they wheeled out the two wedding cakes that had been purchased for the occasion. Both cakes were simple two-tier affairs, all that could be obtained from the bakeries on such short notice, but they were prettily decorated and topped with swans whose necks formed valentine hearts.

Each couple was handed a large knife for cutting the first slices and feeding each other; Brooklyn and Isabel discovered their cake was chocolate under the white frosting, while Broadway and Martha's cake was white all the way through. The couples happily fed each other cake; Brooklyn got a little bit on Isabel's furred muzzle, and she playfully growled at him. But Martha just smiled in response to Broadway's grin as he deliberately dabbed frosting on her nose, then kiss-licked it away.

Soon after the cakes were cut, much sooner than Elisa had expected, the brides prepared to toss their bouquets. A space was cleared and Yvette and Marie stood in the center; Angela joined them a moment later, when Goliath unsubtly nudged her out of the crowd and into the clearing.

Isabel and Martha turned their backs and tossed their bouquets together. And at the moment of tossing, Marie snapped her feathered wings out, slapping Angela in the face with the left wing, while whipping her tail around Yvette's ankle and yanking hard. Yvette went down on the grass with a yelp of surprise and Angela stumbled backwards while Marie looked skyward, ignoring the gasps of outrage emanating from all sides of the crowd, and readied her talons to catch a bouquet.

Isabel's bouquet flew high and straight back, and arced neatly down into Marie's waiting hands. But as often happens when the throw isn't practiced, Martha's bouquet arced over to the side of the clearing instead of the center. And would have hit the ground at the edge of the clearing, but Rebecca dived for it with her talons fisted like a volleyball player and hit it back up into the air, a low arc towards the center of the clearing. Still sprawled on the grass, Yvette desperately reached out an arm and snagged the bouquet just before it could touch earth.

Everyone cheered, including Lexington and Robert as they helped Rebecca back to her feet and wiped the grass off her beak and her green tank top, while the petite female modestly accepted thanks and praise from others in the crowd. "Well done!" "Great save!"

And then it was time for the mating flights. One at a time, the just-mated gargoyles all climbed a vine-laden trellis running up the side of the mansion, a structure that had been put there decades ago for just that purpose. Once on the roof, with everyone cheering and calling encouragement from below, the couples quickly shed their clothing and hung them from a clothes rack that had been mounted up there for the occasion. Then Martha and Isabel launched from the roof in two different directions, and split-seconds later Brooklyn and Broadway leaped after them. Chasing each other across the sky, the couples flew out over the bayou, with roars and cheers echoing behind them.

Standing next to Goliath, Elisa's eyes were wide. "Goliath… you weren't kidding about those mating flights right in front of everybody, were you?"

Goliath looked down at her in amusement. "Not a bit. In fact, the more daredevil couples would sometimes go as high as they could before ending the chase, and then they'd both close their wings and couple in free fall, seeking to complete the union before impact with either the cliffs the castle perched on or the ocean beyond. That one gave the onlookers quite a view, indeed. The elders tried to discourage that maneuver, since it's very risky, but there was at least one couple in every generation…"

Elisa swallowed hard. "For the record, I don't ever, EVER want to try that, okay?"

Some time later, Broadway and Martha returned to the estate; they landed on the roof and donned once more the clothes they had been wearing, then glided down to join in the merriment and feasting. Elisa was somewhat proud of herself, for being able to walk right up to them afterwards and say "Congratulations!" without blushing. Martha blushed as she responded to Elisa's words, but Broadway just grinned from ear to ear.

After another half-hour or so of being toasted and congratulated, the happy couple climbed into the back of the delivery truck that had been decorated from front to rear with ribbons and "Just Married" signs. The driver merrily tooted the horn before driving them off to New Orleans for their honeymoon.

Just as the delivery truck departed, Brooklyn and Isabel returned, gliding over the estate. Rather than landing and getting dressed to join the festivities as the other happy couple had done, they made a low pass over the roof and snatched their clothes off the racks while still in flight. They circled the mansion, clutching their clothes and waving to everyone, before landing at the front door of the honeymoon cottage that had been prepared for them and hurrying inside.

From the laughter and shouts that came from the people still at the feast, no one was really upset about the snub. "Guess they're still hungry for something besides the food here," Elisa said with a smile to Goliath, teasingly waving another morsel of food under his nose. Between all the merriment she'd seen and the wine she'd drunk, she was in a playful mood indeed. "So, Big Guy, got any plans for the rest of the night?"

Goliath neatly nipped the tidbit from her fingers, swallowed, then said, "As a matter of fact, yes. I plan to return to the library, to read a book I found there a few nights ago."

"My husband the bookworm," Elisa sighed, disappointed. "Well, maybe they'll have a book to suit me, too."

"Elisa… the library is very nearly soundproofed, with those thick walls and doors. Erasmus won't be in there; he went off into the bayou with his mate a few minutes ago. And the book I'm thinking of reading to you," as he bent low to whisper into her ear, "is an old and well-annotated edition of the Kama Sutra."

Elisa's eyes went wide.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next night, the delivery truck went into town again, this time packed to maximum capacity; in addition to the six gargoyles going in for patrol, Lexington, Rebecca and Robert were going in. They had a few visits to make…

Their first stop was the home of Marcel LeBeau, who was a close friend to both Rebecca and Robert, and who had rescued Rebecca after she'd been shot while up in Manhattan. But after they knocked on his upstairs window and he let them in, he scowled at them and immediately turned his back, saying that he was pissed as hell at them for not inviting him to their wedding.

"But Marcel… there just wasn't time!" Rebecca said, clutching tearfully at his arm. "I mean, we were married by Goliath in minutes! There wasn't time for us to even call anybody in from town to witness the ceremony, let alone time for you to make it from Mississippi back to New Orleans in your truck!"

"There really wasn't time, Marcel," Robert added earnestly. "If there had been, we would have made sure you were there, right in the front row—or even holding the rings for us! Please, try to understand… There really aren't that many who accept this new relationship of ours yet…"

"Aw, hell, I'm just funnin' wit' y'all," Marcel finally said, turning to face them with a grin. "I'm fine wit' what you t'ree made fo' yo'selves. It ain't like we ain't never heard of trios living here in de Big Easy, even if dey all been humans afore now. And if de wedding hadn't been all hurry-up, dat Barnabas an' de udder old bastards prob'ly would found de time an' some way to make more trouble for y'all."

Rebecca and Robert gratefully hugged him, and after hugging them back he accepted a handshake from Lexington. "You gonna keep bot' dese fine folks happy, eh?" Marcel asked.

Lexington grinned. "I'm sure going to do my best."

"Glad to hear it." Marcel added with significant looks at both Lexington and Robert, "An' maybe wit' bot' of you up dere looking out for her, you can keep 'Becca from getting shot again anytime soon, eh? Dat fille, she jus' can't keep out of trouble…"

"Hey!" Rebecca protested, but both males just grinned and promised again that they'd do their best.

After another hour of coffee and conversation, they left for their next visit. Marcel promised before they left that he'd come up to New York to visit them someday, in his job as a truck driver. "I nevah took de long haul jobs up nort' befo', but now I got a good reason to. And de long hauls sometimes got real good money, eh?"

Their next stop was a flower shop in the French Quarter. Rebecca and Lexington waited on the roof while Robert quietly broke in, took a bouquet of flowers from one of the refrigerated display cases, and left money for the bouquet next to the register. After that, they went to one of New Orleans' many cemeteries.

Robert gently laid the bouquet over a grave, next to an elaborately decorated headstone that read:

Philip Emerson Rogers

February 11, 1964- March 29, 1996

Sports hero, philanthropist and friend to all

"What are you just waiting around here for? Life is meant to be enjoyed!"

Lexington pointed at the inscription and said wonderingly, "He really used to say that?"

"He sure did," Rebecca confirmed, wiping a tear away. "Philip figured that a day spent not having a good time, or not helping someone else have a good time or a better life, was a day wasted. That's why he stayed in that old house on Rampart Street, instead of moving into more posh digs once he started making over a million a year; he gave most of his money to charities like the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club."

"He had a heart the size of all New Orleans," Robert said quietly, still kneeling on the grave. "He was… he was my home."

After a few moments of silence, Robert said quietly, "Philip… I know you can hear me somehow, and I want you to know that I'm going to a new home now. I'll be leaving New Orleans soon, for New York; I don't expect to come back that often, except for Mardi Gras. I have a new home now… and two new mates. Yeah, Rebecca and I finally made it work for us, with some help from Lexington here! I'm going to try being happy again, but…" he snuffled back tears before finishing, "I'll always miss you, Philip."

Lexington and Rebecca moved forward together, to each lay a hand on Robert's shoulders. "We'll take good care of him for you, Philip," Rebecca promised with tears spilling down her beak. "We promise."

"We promise," Lexington echoed softly. And they stood and knelt there for several more moments of respectful silence. Then Lexington said with a small smile, pointing at the inscription, "I think… I think Philip wants to have the last word."

Robert gave a teary chuckle as he read the inscription once more, then kissed the headstone. "Goodbye, Philip…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Back at the mansion, some clan members were putting up Christmas decorations, while an elder named Humbert, of Ursula's rookery generation, regaled Hudson with tales of some of their New Orleans Christmas traditions. "Mardi Gras is what everyone goes all out for, but we still do Christmas up right. 'Specially the feasts; the chefs get extra fancy during the Christmas season. Wait till you have a taste of Bûche de Noel, and Oysters Bonne Femme; Martha usually saves those for the holidays," Humbert said, the stout figure rubbing his belly while licking his lips in anticipation. "And then there's pretties to look at, too. The City Park, every year they have a Celebration of the Oaks; my mate and I are going there tomorrow night to see the lights, did you and Ursula want to come along? And every Christmas Eve a lot of us go down to the river, to see the bonfires they light all along the banks of the Mississippi. Those are lit to help Papa Noel find his way through the fog, to all the little children and hatchlings who've been good that year. And then there's the Christmas parades; they always parade a huge ox through town, all dolled up with holly and ribbons. I think we missed that by a few nights, though, with all the ruckus been going on here lately. So what did you do to celebrate Christmas in your clan, back in the olden times?"

Hudson stroked his beard as he admitted; "We really didn't celebrate Christmas; we left that for the humans, for the most part. Instead, the clan celebrated the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. We made a bonfire, and had a grand feast… really, not much different than what the humans did for their festival, though a few nights earlier an' without all that fussing over a feeding trough from the stables. Now, Humbert, I wonder if I might ask a favor of ye…"

And soon afterwards, Hudson went to the rookery and beckoned Ursula to accompany him into the hall; he had something important to tell her. Once they were alone, he clasped her hands in his as he said, "Ursula, dear lass, it really would mean a great deal to me if ye'd consent to becoming my mate on the Winter Solstice, a few nights from now. 'Twas a most important night to me old clan; as important as Christmas or Mardi Gras is to your clan. Many couples had their mating ceremonies on the Solstice."

"Mmm… getting mated in the clothes they normally wore, as I recall you saying. You're still trying to get out of wearing fancy wedding attire, aren't you?" as Ursula gave Hudson a skeptical look.

"Nay, I swear!" Hudson said fervently. "I even talked to Humbert, your rookery brother; he's nearly of a size with me, an' he's willing to loan me his tuxedo for the occasion!"

"Oh, really?" Ursula considered for a few moments, then said, "Well… It might do Yvette some good to have the challenge of making a dress for me and fitting a tuxedo to you in just a few nights; it will keep her busy… IF she agrees to it and is sure she can get the clothing ready in time, then we can have our ceremony on the Solstice." She smiled wryly. "At least that way I know you'll never forget our anniversary."

"Our what?"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

As it turned out, Yvette was willing to accept the challenge. And had already designed a dress for Ursula, which could be made in just a few nights with materials she already had on hand. A standard ball gown design with just a few extra decorative touches, and instead of the white traditionally worn by virgin brides, Ursula would wear ice-blue satin that better complimented her light gray skin.

While Yvette and Ursula were looking at fabrics, Goliath and Adam were looking at a calendar. A few minutes earlier, Goliath had told Adam he'd finished his calculations with Angela's assistance. He'd determined that next sunset on Avalon would three mortal-world days away, right after Winter Solstice, and next sunset after that would be January 15th. "The best time to arrive there would be right after their sunset; the more hours we have to persuade a few of the gargoyles on Avalon to leave with them, the better. Going on January 15th gives us plenty of time to--"

"Not January," Adam said decisively, with a shake of his head. "The earlier date; December 22nd. As soon as you're sure the sun has set on Avalon, the boats will be launched. Because the sooner they get there, the sooner they'll be talking to the males there and persuading them to leave. And the sooner they're back in the 'mortal world', the better I'll feel—and for more than one reason.

"I don't know what will happen if a female spends too long on Avalon, if it gets her body out of sync with the world's rhythm or doesn't affect it at all, but I don't want to risk any of the females not being physically ready to fly and breed on the Breeding Moon. And I don't expect you to be able to persuade the single males to leave and come back with them in only one night, or one month of our time; it'll probably take two of three. But the sooner the females get back here, the better… so the sooner they go, the better."

Goliath agreed, and they set the date: those traveling to Avalon would leave the night after the solstice. "They'll end up missing Christmas," Adam mused aloud, "but some things are more important than tinsel and bonfires and gift-giving."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

While Goliath was talking with Adam, Elisa was talking with Angela at the clan leaders' request. Because while helping Goliath with his calculations, Angela had announced she wouldn't be going to Avalon with Marie and Yvette, the other two seeking mates; that she saw no point in going to see Gabriel again.

Elisa started, "Look, Angela…If Gabriel loved you enough to want you for a mate before you left, then he's probably still in love with you now. Remember, it's barely been a week of Avalon time since the last time we were there! And less than a month since the first time you left the island with me and the Big Guy."

"Less than a month," Angela repeated with a bitter laugh. "Less than a month ago, Broadway had never even met Martha, and was still in love with me!"

"This isn't about Broadway," Elisa said firmly. "This is about you and Gabriel. You two grew up together, and there's a lot of history between you; that's not something that most people can let go of quickly or easily. So you go back to the island, and you tell him you still love him, and now you're ready to be his mate."

"And then what?" Angela asked. "And then I stay there, stuck on Avalon for the rest of my life? Gabriel leads the clan! They look up to him, and he's responsible for leading them; he can't just up and leave them all behind!"

"What about his second?" Elisa asked. "I know every clan has a backup, a second-in-command; if the second-in-command is competent enough, maybe he can turn the reins over to him or her and come to our world without any real worries. Goliath trusted Brooklyn to take care of the clan while he was on our World Tour, or he would have accepted Renard's offer of a flight home after we met in Prague."

The look Angela gave Elisa would have been amused, if it hadn't been bleak as a winter moon. "Elisa… I was the second-in-command."

Elisa paused. "Oh."

Angela laughed again, only it was more of a sob. "He didn't just love me, he trusted me with so much… and I left him. How could he ever forgive that? And even if he took me back, I know he'd insist I stay with him on Avalon forever—on that same little island I spent most of my life on, that I've been over every last inch of, where it's always summer and always the same and I was sick of it long before you and Goliath showed up!"

Elisa rubbed at her temple. "Oh boy."

"That's why I'm not going back there," Angela said, staring at the floor again. "There's no point in it, not for me. The other two might be able to persuade Perseus to leave, or Samson, or maybe even Theseus—and if either of them want Ajax, they're welcome to him—but I can't--"

"Yes, you can," Elisa said forcefully. She grabbed Angela by the chin and forced the gargoyle to look up and look her in the eyes as she said, "You can go back and face him, and you will! Or so help me, I'll take a leave of absence from the force again and drag you back there by the tail!"

Angela stared while Elisa continued, "Don't be a coward, girl! You're going to face Gabriel again, even if all you can say to him is 'I'm sorry', and you're going to at least listen to whatever he has to say to you, whether or not you choose to accept it! I know for a fact that you and he haven't had a single minute alone together since you left Avalon so suddenly the first time; at the very least, you both need closure! And if he tells you 'get out of my face, bitch', then you can just tell him to pack sand up his crack and leave with your head held high, because you at least had the courage to face him again!"

"Not quite what I was going to say," they heard, and they both turned to see Goliath standing in the doorway. "But the gist of it is the same," he continued. "Elisa is right, Angela. You should see Gabriel again, if only to settle matters between you for good." He raised a brow ridge in Elisa's direction as he rumbled, "Though I'm sure their exchange will be somewhat more civil than what you described."

"Hey, I'm a New York City cop; I deal in worst-case scenarios," Elisa said with a wry smile. Then she turned to Angela again as she said, "And that's probably the worst that could happen. The best that could happen is that he's so happy he swims right out to the boat to meet you, in which case you just turn it around as soon as he's on board and head for the mists again before he can change his mind. Remind him that six months out in our world is only a week on Avalon, ask him to take a vacation with you, and before the six months are up he'll be solidly hooked on modern life and never go back."

Goliath arched a brow ridge again. "Gargoyles don't normally take vacations, Elisa… and restarting a relationship should not be based on false pretenses, even one such as 'only for a little while'."

"You're right," Elisa said with chagrin. "Sorry, I had a flashback to my high school days. Back then, it was a rare couple who weren't lying to each other, at least in little white lies, to get what they wanted. The boys wanted sex, the girls wanted someone to treat them like princesses, everybody wanted to climb the social ladder…" She paused. "Which reminds me of another reason to go to Avalon, Angela. If you don't at least try to mend your relationship with Gabriel, Marie is sure to go for him herself. And she'd probably agree to stay on Avalon with him, at least until after the ceremony; she's been publicly humiliated in her old clan, and she'd likely be happy to leave that memory behind for a while. Of course, once she gets her hooks into him, she'll do her damndest to get her own way. She'll probably insist he make her the second-in-command…"

"Over my dead body." Angela's eyes were faintly glowing crimson. Whether the outrage was at the thought of Marie claiming Gabriel or of Marie having her old job, Elisa didn't know, but at the moment it didn't matter; what mattered was that Angela had her fighting spirit back and was willing to go to Avalon.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Over the next few nights, the clan made preparations for Hudson and Ursula's wedding while the clan leaders made plans for the expedition to Avalon, with a little help from David Xanatos. Xanatos' aid came in the form of supplies, sent Fed-Ex straight to the mansion; a specially equipped satellite phone, and a briefcase containing thousands of dollars in various currencies from around the world, just in case the return trip from Avalon deposited them somewhere besides the U.S. of A.

Goliath looked over the notes Benedict had made on the Avalon Clan before dying and muttered, "I really should have realized before why Angela was so reluctant to talk about her home clan. She didn't want anyone else--especially Marie--to know about Gabriel still being unmated."

Standing beside him and looking down at those same notes, Adam said, "There are also single males named Samson, Perseus, Theseus and Ajax. Five unmated males altogether, but thanks to Angela's reticence, all we really know about the males are their names and their favorite foods, and some of their antics as hatchlings. And there are still two unmated females on Avalon too; Naomi and Ruth. Females who might well have chosen from among the available males there but not been formally mated yet…"

Goliath looked troubled. "I could sit Angela down and plainly order her to tell me more about these males. No one except us and Erasmus has seen these notes yet; perhaps if I promise to not tell Marie or Yvette that Gabriel is available until after Angela had her chance to make amends with him, then she'd be more forthcoming with information about the others."

Adam shook his head and sighed. "We'll just invite all the unmated ones, male and female, to come to the estate for another round of dating and getting to know each other... and fighting and trickery and God or the Dragon knows what else. What the hell, there's room for more gray hairs on my head."

"Probably the best solution," Goliath agreed.

"So, who shall we send with the ladies? You of course, since you know the spell; myself, and--"

"Adam…" Goliath looked troubled. "I will not force you to stay behind. But I sincerely hope you will."

"And why is that?" as Adam gave Goliath a raised brow ridge. "Don't tell me it's my human blood…"

"Not that at all," Goliath said with a shake of his head. "I had in mind for the expedition myself, the unmated females, Hudson and Ursula—and Bronx of course, to woo Boudicca. Only those who are best suited for quickly persuading the unmated ones to leave their island and come to our shores. The Avalon Clan respects me for my having led their ancestors; in fact, I suspect that their human guardians embellished a few of the tales they were told about me. And they should give equal weight to Hudson and Ursula's words, since those two are visibly clan elders and, even being raised by humans, they were surely raised to respect their elders.

"But I simply don't know what to expect from Oberon. He was in an ill humor indeed the last time we saw him in Manhattan, and that was only a week ago by Avalon time. If things go badly on Avalon…" Goliath shook his head. "The Manhattan Clan must return to Manhattan, to fight with our allies there for our race's acceptance in the modern world. But while we're gone… and if we never return… Brooklyn will be leading the clan, without either myself or Hudson to look to for guidance. He may well need all the advice and assistance that you and your clan elders can offer."

Adam nodded in sober agreement. "I'll stay behind. And I'll have another talk or two with your Xanatos family, perhaps even another visit up there. Fox really wasn't down here long enough to learn everything about how what's needed for gargoyles and humans to live in harmony in close quarters, particularly during a breeding season."

"Thank you," Goliath said sincerely, before turning back to their plans for the expedition.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Humbert's old tuxedo fit Hudson with only a few minor alterations, and he and Ursula's wedding attire were ready in time for the Winter Solstice, the same night that the other couples returned from their honeymoons. Brooklyn and Isabel emerged from the cottage at sunset with satisfied smiles, and an hour later Broadway and Martha returned from New Orleans with wide smiles and more spices for Martha's kitchen.

When they heard about the impending ceremony, Brooklyn and Isabel willingly joined the others gathering deadwood in the bayou, for burning in the bonfire that had been a traditional part of the Wyvern Clan's Winter Solstice celebration. Broadway and Martha joined the people in the kitchen, to help prepare the wedding-Solstice feast. Broadway took a quick stock of the pantry and larder, and promised Goliath and Hudson that they would have hypocras and 'golden apples' for the feast--a warm spiced wine, and a dish of meatballs stuffed with cranberries and served in a saffron sauce; two of the foods that had been made in the kitchens of Castle Wyvern over a thousand years ago, and shared with the gargoyles at festivals during the years that Prince Malcolm had ruled and they'd enjoyed much better relations with the humans.

After the deadwood was gathered and the bonfire was lit, Hudson, Brooklyn and Lexington showed their mates and other interested parties, a couple of the traditional dances that the Wyvern Clan had done for their celebrations a thousand years ago. They started with the dances between couples, and while Isabel stumbled a couple times while learning the steps with Brooklyn, Ursula moved in step with Hudson as easily as if they'd been doing it together all their lives.

Lexington, Rebecca and Robert tried to adapt the couples dance for three people at once, but after Rebecca got her tail stepped on, Lexington got a toe stepped on and Robert got his muzzle slapped by Rebecca's wing while turning, they ruefully decided that the adaptation would take a lot of work, and that night was for fun and relaxation. After that Lexington alternated dancing with Rebecca and Robert, while whichever one was on the sidelines at the moment smiled and kept the beat with a drum.

Goliath watched from the sidelines as the dancing between couples went on, remembering the dances from so long ago… back when he and his Angel of the Night had been young and in love. However much they hated each other now, there had been a time… they'd had many happy years together, before…

Well, that was then. Now his heart belonged to a human woman, and he vowed that soon he would teach his beloved Elisa some of the traditional dances. Surely she'd be able to keep step with him in dances created by gargoyles, since they'd been able to waltz so well together on that memorable Halloween night. And there were other traditions and festivals he could share with her, as well; they would have a wonderful time together at the Spring Equinox!

The Wyvern clan had dances for more than just couples. Goliath gladly joined in and called Broadway and Martha away from the kitchen, for the group dances that Hudson and the others taught next. After a little practice, they got nearly forty people, humans and gargoyles together, keeping in step on the lawn for the Great Circle dance; laughing and cavorting while others cheered them on.

At midnight, by the light of the Solstice bonfire, Hudson and Ursula had their mating ceremony. Goliath and Father Maurice presided over it together, in the same manner and style that they had presided together over the younger couples' ceremony a few nights earlier. With one addition; after reading the verses about love from the book of Corinthians, Father Maurice remarked about the rarity of finding true love twice in a lifetime. "But it does happen, and those who find it are doubly blessed. It also gives me some comfort to know that age is no deterrent to true love's touch."

Holding hands and with their eyes on each other, Hudson and Ursula nodded in agreement with the priest's words, before he led them in reciting the vows and exchanging rings.

After the mating ceremony, the toasting and cake-cutting, it was time for another bouquet-tossing. This time someone tripped Marie as she was heading out into the clearing, and someone else tripped her again after she got up, until she finally got the message and retreated, fuming. Yvette came into the clearing but pointedly stood to one side of it, gesturing for Angela to stand in the center. Yvette told Angela, "In all fairness, you should have this one, since I already caught a bouquet just a few nights ago."

Angela stared at Yvette in surprise; they hadn't said two words to each other since the night Yvette had slapped her talons-out, and taken her harshly to task for the way she'd been treating Broadway while lying to everyone, including herself. And now Yvette was, by urging her to catch a bouquet, essentially wishing her good fortune in finding a mate?

Yvette saw the way Angela was staring and smiled wryly. "I try not to hold grudges. Broadway is with Martha now, and they are happy together; it's time to move on."

Angela dropped her gaze to the grass. "I… I'm sorry. I really misjudged you…"

"Yes, you did. Heads up, here it comes!" Angela jerked her head up at Yvette's words and looked around, and hastily caught the bouquet being tossed in her direction.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

After the tossing of the bouquet, it was time for the mating flight. Just as the younger couples had done a few nights before, Hudson and Ursula climbed the trellis to the roof and shed their wedding attire. Laughing like gargoyles half their age, they leaped naked into the night sky and chased each other into the bayou, with the gathered clans below giving them a rousing sendoff.

After the happy couple had departed and the feasting at the mansion really got underway, Isabel walked over to Yvette, carrying something hidden beneath her wings. "Hey, Yvette? I really wish you the best of luck in finding a guy on Avalon who'll be a good mate for you. No hard feelings over Brooklyn?"

"No hard feelings, as we three had promised," Yvette said with a wry smile. Even before Ursula had imposed the dating schedule, Yvette, Isabel and Martha had made a secret pact between themselves. They had agreed that there would be no jealousy or bad feelings from whomever Brooklyn didn't choose, towards whoever he did choose. Though they'd all sincerely hoped that he wouldn't choose Marie, if only for Brooklyn's own sake.

Yvette sighed, "In truth… Brooklyn would probably have been a fine mate for me, but he's really just a little too serious. I had been hoping that once we were mates, I could get him to relax and just have fun more often."

Isabel wryly pointed out, "Clan leaders and leaders-to-be tend to be serious types, it's pretty much part of the job description. So maybe you really will have better luck finding someone suitable for you on Avalon; from what I've heard about how Angela grew up, they led a pretty carefree life there for decades. Anyway, ready for some early Christmas presents?" And without waiting for an answer, she brought a hastily-wrapped package out from under her wings.

Yvette opened the gift, to find a small battery-powered electronic keyboard. Isabel explained, "Since you can't bring a whole piano to Avalon with you, here's another way you can wow the guys there with your musical talent. I found this in the junkyard last time I made an art supplies run there, but the only thing wrong with it was corrosion from old batteries interfering with the electrical contacts; I cleaned it up, and it works fine now! It doesn't have the range of a whole piano, so you should make up a repertoire of tunes you can do on the smaller keyboard—and make sure you can play Greensleeves by heart before you go!"

"Thank you, Isabel!" Yvette was genuinely touched by her sister's thoughtfulness, though her appreciation of the gift itself was tinged with wryness. "I certainly hope this works on Avalon. But there may be some truth to the fantasy stories that Rebecca reads so often; the ones where electricity and electronics don't work in the presence of magic…"

Isabel just smiled, and whipped out another gift for Yvette to unwrap. Nestled in tissue, Yvette found a deluxe harmonica, while Isabel explained with a grin, "Backup plan."

Yvette laughed aloud, and blew a few notes on the harmonica before saying sincerely, "Thank you, Isabel! But I have no Christmas gift for you; with all the sewing I've done for the weddings, there just hasn't been time to make any gifts this season!"

"You can make me smile, by bringing back some Avalonian stud who's perfect for you," Isabel said as she gave her rookery sister a hug. "Keep your new instruments out of sight when Marie's around, okay? She's probably not going to agree to any non-interference dating pact again, and if she saw these, I wouldn't put it past her to either take them for herself to play on, or just lose them for you; drop them overboard or something."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Less than an hour later, the Winter Solstice/wedding feast was winding down; considerably faster than the wedding feast for the two younger couples a few nights before. While talking to Goliath, it was Adam's opinion that "people are just 'partied out' at the moment… and those that aren't, know there's still a lot left to get ready for Christmas in a few nights. Look, less than half the champagne bottles have been opened. Just as well; this has been a great winter so far, but our festivities budget is already tapped dry. We'll have to either keep the New Year's celebration to a bare minimum, or spend a lot less than usual at Mardi Gras, if not both."

While the two clan leaders had been talking, Martha and Broadway had also been talking nearby, with occasional glances in the leaders' direction. Suddenly, Broadway left Martha's side and came up to Adam and Goliath. Judging by the way his tail and wingtips dragged in the dirt, whatever he wanted to talk to them about was not going to be good news. Adam and Goliath glanced inquiringly at each other, shrugged, and turned to hear what he had to say.

After inspecting his toe-talons for a few moments, Broadway coughed and said, "I, uh… Goliath, instead of going up to Manhattan after Christmas, Martha and I want to stay here for a while longer. Maybe a lot longer."

Goliath rocked back like he'd been slapped with a tail."What?"

Adam blinked in surprise for a moment, took one glance at Goliath's shocked face and spoke carefully to Broadway. "It's flattering that you like it here so much, Broadway…"

"It's not like that," Broadway interrupted with an upraised hand. "Not that it's not great here, both the climate and the clan, but this isn't about what I like. It's about… about the way Angela's hurting right now." The clan leaders listened as he continued, "If Martha and I go up there now, all Angela will see when she comes back from Avalon is a constant reminder that I chose Martha over her, every night she sees us together. I still like her, I always will, and I don't want to keep hurting her like that. Maybe once she and some other lucky male are mated and happy together, Martha and I will come to Manhattan. But until then, I think it's better that she doesn't see us every night."

Goliath gave him a searching look as he said slowly, "You are sure in your heart that this is the best course of action?"

Broadway nodded and said simply, "Yeah."

Goliath nodded in return. "Then I respect your decision… and whenever you deem it time to return to Manhattan, we'll keep perches open for you and Martha."

Adam nodded as well. "And you are welcome to the New Orleans Clan, Broadway, for as long as you care to stay… for the rest of your years, if you choose."

After Broadway left to tell his rookery brothers of his decision, Adam looked at Goliath and commented, "You took that pretty well… better than I thought you would, really."

Goliath glanced sideways at him for a moment. "I suppose my reaction when learning of what had happened up in Manhattan gave you the wrong impression... But I am ordinarily quite capable of controlling myself when given unpleasant news."

"Glad to hear it. But it's more than that; you didn't put up any argument for his going back with you at all. You didn't mention that the plan is for all the unmated people on Avalon to come here, for another round of dating and getting to know each other, so Angela will be seeing him and Martha anyway. You didn't even mention Angela's old flame, Gabriel, and the possibility that she could come back from Avalon mated to him already. I don't know what impression Broadway got, but I'm getting the feeling that you're… almost a little relieved."

Goliath looked down at his toe-talons as he quietly admitted, "There is some truth to that. I have no concerns over Angela having to see him and Martha together every night; she will learn to live with it soon enough. I'm more concerned about Broadway himself… and while I hadn't consdiered it before now, this is the best option for him, as well as a decision that only he could make."

"Because of his wing?" Adam asked quietly.

"Yes. Back in Manhattan, he'd be taken off warrior duties; he's simply not capable of gliding well enough to meet the continual challenges of patrol anymore. I was hoping that he would recognize his physical limitations and remove himself from those duties before I had to do it for him." Goliath's half-smile was painful as he finished, "As it turns out, he's removed himself from more than that."

"Patrolling is indeed no longer an option for him, but he can join one of our hunting parties instead; he can glide well enough to hunt prey. Or join a fishing party if he prefers; Martha prefers to fish. But for a start, I'll add him to Cassius' hunting team immediately, before he can even hint about joining a patrol," Adam said with a decisive nod. He gave Goliath a sympathetic look as he promised, "He'll be useful here, and well valued for what he can still do. We'll take good care of him."

"I know you will. And I will hold onto the hope that with frequent exercise in hunting, his wing will improve to the point where he can handle the capricious winds in Manhattan's manmade canyons again," Goliath said firmly. He would hold onto that hope… and he would not think about the likelihood of Broadway having, by that time, come to regard the bayou as his home for the rest of his nights. No, he refused to think about that.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

When the news was given to Brooklyn and Lexington, they took it hard, but reluctantly agreed that it was better for Angela this way. And without letting it show on their faces, both males silently thought that it was better for Broadway's wings, too. Brooklyn swallowed hard and laid his free hand on Broadway's shoulder as he gave him a warrior's forearm clasp. "Gonna miss you, bro'."

"Yeah," Lexington agreed with a trace of tears in his eyes. "And not just your cooking, either!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Rebecca, Robert and Isabel were also unhappy that Martha wouldn't be joining them in their new home after all, but Martha was careful to keep all reference to Angela out of their talk, not wanting them to blame the mateless female and end up resenting her. Instead, she said cheerfully, "Who knows, after a few months or a year, Broadway may change his mind and want to return to Manhattan, and when he does be assured I'll be coming with him!"

"You'd better," Isabel said with a forced grin. "Nobody else can make jambalaya like you can!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Hudson and Ursula had a good long mating flight; long enough that Adam and a few other people started to worry, but Goliath reassured everyone that Hudson's heart was strong and that in the old clan, the just-mated couple usually stayed out in the forest and away from the clan until just before dawn. "Those few hours between midnight and dawn were all that couples had for honeymoons back then; just as, since we're leaving tomorrow for Avalon, that's all this couple really has. And if I know my old mentor, he's making the most of those few hours!"

Finally, after the guests from town had departed and the wedding feast had been cleared away, the happy couple returned with somewhat erratic, wavering flight but with smiles on their faces. After they landed on the roof, Ursula put her fancy dress back on but Hudson scorned the tuxedo in favor of his comfortable old tunic.

Having worked up a hearty appetite while they were out, they went down to the kitchen to see what was left for them to eat. Broadway and Martha happily prepared special treats for them, in addition to the feast leftovers… and told them about the younger couple's plans to stay in New Orleans.

Hudson wasn't happy to hear the news but took it well enough, telling Broadway that the reason for his decision was yet another sign of his gentle heart, and it boded well for him and Martha having a good life together. "An' as I'm sure Goliath has told ye already, we'll always have perches open for you both."

Ursula was far more troubled when she received the news, and tried to persuade Broadway and Martha to go to New York right away instead of waiting 'for a while', but finally and reluctantly agreed that they had the right to determine their own destiny. "But I'll miss having you up there with me," she told Martha. "I've always been very fond of you, my dear…"

Martha smiled at her, a sad and somewhat wry smile. "I know."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

All over the estate, bags were being packed. Considerable amounts of luggage, including Robert's art supplies and Isabel's metalworking tools, were packed for a ride in Marcel LeBeau's specially-rigged truck for the trip up to New York. They were schedule to depart the day after Christmas, but Marcel had parked the truck on the estate and urged them to pack as much as they could ahead of time. "Take it from a travelin' man, folks; last-minute packin' always means sumt'ing impo'tant gets left behind."

Other, smaller bags were packed for a short stay on Avalon, though no one knew how many weeks or even months that stay would extend to in their world. In their nightly phone call, Elisa made Goliath swear that he would come home as soon as possible. "No World Tour this time!"

"Absolutely not," Goliath agreed. But he was wistful that that even so, thanks to Avalon's time difference, they would probably end up spending Christmas and New Year's Eve—Elisa's birthday, for which he'd been privately planning a special celebration—worlds apart.

Elisa said she would miss him dearly, but she was sure that the clan and her family would make sure she wouldn't feel too alone over the holidays. "And hey, Sergeant Jeffers in my precinct is former military, and he commented last night, after a rookie griped about working on Christmas, that lots of families in the military spend holidays and even several months apart. And their marriages survive too, if they love each other enough—and if they're nearly as strong apart as they are together."

Goliath gave a small chuckle. "My love, no one will ever accuse 'Detective Elisa Maza, NYPD', of not being strong enough. But I'm still thankful that for me, it will only be a few nights at most before I hold you in my arms again. Two nights, perhaps three; any longer than that and I'll just leave the youngsters on Avalon and--and swim home if I have to."

"No, you won't," Elisa countered. "Swimming would get the satellite phone wet and ruin it. Just use the phone to call me and Xanatos the minute you return from Avalon, no matter where you end up, and accept Xanatos' offer of a plane to fly everyone straight home."

All too soon, Elisa regretfully said she had to end the call and go back to work. Their goodbyes this time were protracted and painful, as they could not say 'Same time tomorrow night' anymore. After a final, mutual reiteration of "I love you; be careful out there," Elisa hung up. Goliath cradled the phone in his hands for a while longer, before carefully setting it down and turning away, to go over the expedition plans and supplies one more time.

Goliath prayed to the Dragon that they wouldn't need to be used, while he carefully wrapped two small iron bells that had been bought for him in the French Quarter; wrapping their clappers in paper towels to prevent their accidental ringing. Then he stowed them in the bottom of the carpetbag Adam had given him, next to half a dozen steel-bladed throwing knives.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next night the clans assembled at the dock, as the New Orleans Clan's two biggest pirogues were tied together stem to stern, and travel bags were placed inside them. After several rounds of hugs, warrior handclasps and well-wishings, the travelers to Avalon got in the pirogues; Goliath, Yvette and Marie in the forward pirogue while Hudson, Ursula, Angela and Bronx sat down in the rear pirogue. Once they were all seated, the lines tying the pirogues to the dock were cast off.

Just as Goliath picked up the pole used to steer and propel the pirogue through the shallow waters, a human clan member came out of the mansion hollering, "Hey, Manhattan Clan; someone's calling from New York!"

"I'll take the call," Brooklyn said with a reassuring wave to Goliath. "Safe journey to all of you!" as he trotted up to the mansion.

Goliath stood motionless in the forward pirogue for a few seconds, the pole poised for action but his face turned towards the mansion with a curious and half-hopeful look on it; it was plain to see that he wanted to wait for Brooklyn's return, in case it was his beloved Elisa calling. But Ursula said sweetly and rather pointedly from where she was sitting, "Ready when you are, Goliath…"

"Aye, we're ready," Hudson agreed. "And ye can trust yer second-in-command to handle clan business while we're gone. So let's be off; I'm right curious to see this magical island!"

Goliath reluctantly nodded, then dug the pole into the water and pushed hard. The pirogues glided forward a couple of yards, and once they were clear of the docks, everyone still on the docks cheered and shouted goodbyes while Goliath chanted the passage spell:

"Vocate venti fortunate

Ex rege Oberonis

Et hic navis flugem regate

Ad orae Avalonis."

As the last words left his lips, the magical mists of passage rose up, surrounding both pirogues. Seconds later the mists cleared, to reveal that the pirogues had vanished.

And with all the cheering and shouted goodbyes and focus on the water, no one noticed Brooklyn galloping back from the mansion, running on all fours at top speed. "Wait, dammit! Stop!" he shouted as he barreled through the crowd, pushing through to the dock's edge. "Shit, too late!" he cursed as he surveyed the empty water.

And when everyone else asked him what was wrong, he stood up and shouted, "Everyone who's going to Manhattan, get in the truck! We're leaving, right now! Where's the driver, Marcel? Marcel, you need to take us to the New Orleans airport, as fast as you can! Xanatos will have a jet there waiting for us! We're needed back in Manhattan, right now; Fox, Anne and the children have been kidnapped!"

To be continued in: Deadly Moon