Shameless Plug II: Heartaches

Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org

July 2000
14,000 words
*
Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or
consent. The characters of the MageLore novels, as well as all others, belong to the author.
*
This story is set before the events in the "Damien" trilogy. And yeah, I know Cagney's supposed to be a male, but as long as I'm
wrong, I might as well be consistent!
*
#68 in an ongoing saga


Someone was upset.
Alexander Xanatos, six years old and on his way back from the potty, stopped as he picked up the unmistakable flavor of distress
from someone's mind.
He cast outward with his budding aura-reading powers, making the walls of the castle invisible to him and showing him the world in
a spectrum of magical colors. Each energy source had its own unique pattern and signature, as did each living thing.
It was past nine o'clock, and he wouldn't have been awake at all if he hadn't wheedled Broadway out of an extra glass of apple
juice with dessert. But now that he was, the night seemed alive to him with its own strange, humming beauty.
Wasn't fair that he had to go to bed at eight every night, when all the grown-ups could stay up as late as they wanted. Even Amber
got to stay up later than him, and she was only a baby. They told him it was because she took her big nap during the day while he was
awake, but it still wasn't fair.
He spied the aura that was giving off the distress, and focused in on it.
Elisa?
At the end of the hall, the elevator dinged. Alex scurried quickly to his room, closing the door most of the way but leaving a crack big
enough for him to peep out. His parents emerged, looking tired but at ease, their auras calm and unruffled except for the flickers that told
Alex they needed some Mommy-Daddy time.
So nothing could be too wrong ... but something was the matter with Elisa.
Alex crawled into bed and projected a glamour of himself as sound asleep as his mommy came in to check on him. It was a quick spell,
one that wouldn't have fooled Unca Puck for a minute. But for all Mommy's power, shining from her like a star, she didn't notice a thing.
She bent over and brushed back his hair to kiss his forehead.
"There's our boy," Daddy said warmly.
"Sleeping like an angel," Mommy replied.
He kept up the glamour until the door clicked softly shut, then let it drop. His breathing slowed and deepened, like it would be if he were
really asleep, but his heart drummed rapidly and he felt the tension growing in his brain as he gathered his concentration.
A silvery-gold twinkle appeared above his bed, but no one else would have been able to see it. With a painless tug, Alex separated from
his body and floated toward it.
Free! He was light and air, he was thought alone!
But it was dangerous to stay like this for too long. Unca Puck worried that he might forget his way home, or that he'd fall prey to something
that hunted in the realm where Alex now traveled.
Better make it quick.
He brought an image of Elisa to mind, and was there. Without having to pass through the stone and timbers, he was there.
"I feel so stupid," Elisa said, dabbing at the corners of her eyes.
Alex was flabbergasted. Amber's mommy, almost crying?
Goliath stroked her hair consolingly. "You should not."
"I mean, we're only talking about a cat ..."
"Cagney was part of your clan before you met us, an anchor to your previous life."
Hovering over them unseen, Alex reeled in shock. Cagney? What happened to Cagney? His mind pushed at Elisa's without meaning
to, making her explain.
"It's not knowing that's the worst part," Elisa said. "She could have just wandered off, found a hidey-hole somewhere in the castle.
Could show up any time. But, Goliath, she's not a kitten anymore."
"Would you like us to search for her?"
"Isn't that a little silly?" Elisa crumpled up the tissue. "We all have more important things to do than look for a lost cat."
"This is important. To you, my Elisa, and therefore to me."
She leaned against his shoulder and sighed. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble ..."
"Never, for you."
As Elisa reached up to draw his head down for a kiss, Alex zipped back to his room.
Mushy stuff. Yuck.
He looked at his body, which was curled into a posture of normal rest. It would be easy to search for Cagney this way, but the strain
of being 'out' was already dragging at him. He settled back into himself, the weight of flesh and bone seeming new and weird though
he'd only been away from it for a little while.
Yawning and stretching, Alex sat up. He switched back to aura-reading, carefully scanning in expanding circles for the small feline target.
Nearby ... Mommy and Daddy, auras mingling. More mushy stuff. Further out, a brush against the crisp white starch of Owen's aura ...
and Owen raised his head with a fleeting frown, detecting him.
He moved on, briefly touching each of the clan, the eggs in the rookery, the plants in the garden, fish in the pond and the aquarium ...
some mice in the walls, that was interesting ...
But no Cagney.
His lower lip quivered. Did that mean ... he could only pick up living things ...
"Aren't you supposed to be in bed, young man?" intruded a severe voice.
Alex blinked and grinned a charming gap-toothed grin up at the tall figure in the doorway. "I'm on the bed."
Owen smiled tightly. "Your father's son through and through, I see. Do you mind telling me what you're doing?"
"Cagney's lost. I'm looking for her."
"I think that's best left for morning."
"But I want to help!" Alex protested as Owen pointed sternly at his pillow.
"In the morning."
"Awwww, man!" He flopped on his back, pouting. "I never get to do anything!"
"I'll speak to Elisa," Owen said, tucking the covers around him. "If she's agreeable, after breakfast I will teach you the spells of animal
summoning."
"Why not now?"
"Because you need your rest."
"I'm not tired!"
"All the same, you need your rest."
Scowling, Alex let himself be tucked in. "Don't see why we have to wait."
Owen switched off the lights. "Don't you?"
"Because you say so?"
"Precisely." The door closed behind him.
Alone in the glow of his Star Wars Episode Two nightlight, Alex grumbled fitfully to himself. "Not fair. Coulda done it now. I'm n
ot tired anyway. And what if they can't find Cagney? Elisa will be sad and worried all night. I could just do it now and make her
happy ..."

**

Owen returned to his room, shaking his head in amusement. So the young prince was entertaining himself with snooping around
by magic, was he? Oh, yes, Alex might be his father's son, but there was a goodly portion of Queen Titania in him as well --
A tickling at the fringes of his awareness alerted him an instant before a spell surged to life.
"Alexander!" he called sharply, his tone a reprimand that would have made even Goliath take a step back.
He stalked back down the hall, but had only gotten three steps when he felt something go awry, heard Alex's silent cry of alarm.
Owen broke into a run, his form changing as he went. Shorter, thinner, sprightly ... and then Puck was airborne, darting to and
through into Alex's room with all of his powers trained to their fullest alertness in his urgency to fulfill his duty and protect the boy.
Alex was thrashing on the bed, caught up in the grips of a magic he couldn't control. Puck extended his powers, meaning to cut
off and nullify whatever was happening.
That was his mistake. As soon as Alex felt him do it, the boy instinctively reacted as he'd been trained. If ever a spell got away
from him, or proved too big, he was supposed to draw on his tutor's resources as well as his own instead of siphoning off his own
life force.
Puck was riveted in place as Alex latched onto him with suffocating strength. Energy poured between them in a transfusion, devoured
by whatever it was that the boy had done. It was a hideous draining, taking and taking until even the Puck knew sudden fear.
VVWOMMP!
The world flashed inside out, all colors reversed into their negative. A concussive wave exploded outward from the center of the
room, door slamming, furniture skidding on hardwood, area rug bunching, toys hurled through the air. Puck was pasted to the wall
and knocked breathless.
POP!
The colors reversed again, turning the world back to normal.
Except for the gigantic, hideous creature slowly rising to its feet.
Puck scraped the dregs of his energy to throw a defensive ward around himself and Alexander, who had been rendered unconscious
by the blast. That simple spell took everything he had, leaving him helpless except to watch as the creature turned around.
It was humanoid and male, and huge. Not an ounce of his three-hundred-plus pounds was given over to fat, just bunched and corded
muscle. What skin showed amid a hodgepodge of plate and chain armor was yellowish-green. A five-headed flail, each ball shaped into
an armored gauntlet, swung from his belt against one trunklike thigh. His sloped brow was bordered at the top by short-mown black hair
and at the bottom by slitted, suspicious eyes. Below a nose that looked like the prow of a ship gone onto the rocks, his lower jaw jutted
massively. Twin curved tusks thrust up over his lip.
Something, a much smaller something, moved behind the behemoth. But Puck didn't have time to take a closer look, for that was when
Goliath burst into the room without bothering to open the door first. Slats and splinters rained to the carpet.
The ogre -- if ogre it was, and at the moment, that was Puck's best guess -- whirled to meet this new threat.
Behind Goliath, Elisa gaped and grabbed for her gun. Behind Elisa came Alexander's parents, incongruous in bathrobes hastily thrown
on and beam weapons at the ready.
But before anyone could do something sensible like shoot, taking out the ogre from a safe distance, Goliath settled the matter by roaring
and charging.
The ogre, stunned from his abrupt arrival, was rammed amidships by Goliath's shoulder. Any other being would have been sent sprawling,
if not killed outright; this one only staggered.
He bellowed, a sound equally as loud and deep but much more guttural, than any gargoyle roar, took a step back, and snatched the flail
from his belt. He seemed as if he should move with a thundering, lumbering slowness, but his speed nearly matched his strength as he
whipped it sidearm and struck the off-balance Goliath square in the torso.
Goliath's breath coughed out, all of his breath, even the tidal dregs at the bottom of the lungs. He slammed into the trio of humans, his mass
propelling them through the sundered door to pile in the hallway. Righting himself, Goliath's eyes went pure white with incandescent fury.
They were of a height, the two combatants, and Puck knew that any such battle of titans would probably destroy most of the castle before
either of them went down. He tried to muster a spell, but the last of his reserves had been depleted.
The ogre and Goliath faced off, a tense and intense moment as each of them seemed to bulge to even greater size in their rage, a pair of
juggernauts poised to strike.
A tiny figure ran between them, arms spread imploringly. "Ty'al dhak, Alphonse! Ty'al!"
Puck's mouth fell open.
She was no bigger than Aiden, at first easily taken for a child, but there was a slim womanly shape to her, nicely flattered by dove-grey
trousers and an indigo tunic trimmed with silver. Glossy dark curls bounced around small but pertly pointed ears, and from her heart-shaped
face anxiously peered two of the biggest, bluest eyes he had ever seen.
Although the ogre could have picked her up in one fist and snapped her in half, or batted her out of the way as if she were a moth, he
subsided into a wary stance.
Goliath paused when a less-noble being would have attacked, his personal code no doubt dictating that he couldn't run over the girl on
his way to the battle.
She turned to Goliath. All Puck saw in her expression was concern and curiosity, and a wide-eyed look of wonder tinged with recognition.
"Dsal kamma!" she said excitedly, taking a fearless step toward Goliath. "C'yam sefestes gargoyle?"
They all started at the word, their reactions giving them away. Goliath slowly nodded, keeping a watchful eye on the ogre, who was keeping
just as watchful an eye on him. Puck knew that if Goliath tried to put one claw on her, the rumble would be on again and this time there'd
be no stopping it.
The girl beamed and thrust out her arm as if she had every right in the world to expect Goliath to shake her hand. "Ta dolla! Kor c'yam
ekesda Brooklyn, Hudson?"
"Owww," groaned Alexander, sitting up. "Mommy?"
"Here, Alex," Fox responded automatically, digging an elbow into her husband's ribs. She had ended up at the bottom of the pile.
"Alex!" cried the girl. "Ta dolla!"
He blinked at her several times. "Cat? Vanurra c'yam sada?"
She started toward Alex, but Puck roused himself from his stupor and floated to intervene. Protect the boy ... comely or not, apparently
friendly or not, she wore a saber at her waist and had knife hilts protruding from her boottops ... protect the boy.
The stranger drew in a swift gasp as she saw him, but it just as swiftly turned to a sigh of disappointment, and then she hid both reactions
as if sweeping them out of sight. The ogre's brow folded down into a fierce glower.
"I believe some sort of explanation is in order," Xanatos said, having untangled himself from Fox and Elisa.
"Nobody move," Elisa seconded grimly.
"Kur dhada, Cat," the ogre said. He glanced at the beam weapon and then into Xanatos' dark eyes with an assessing expression and a growl
that suggested he didn't care what kind of weapon that was, one wrong move and it would take a talented surgeon to give it back to the
bearded human. And by then, he might not want it anymore.
"Ne'serra." The girl held her hands well away from her weapons, palms up, delicate wrists vulnerable.
"Alexander? Puck?" demanded Xanatos.
"It's my fault, Daddy," Alex admitted, squirming. "I was trying to help Elisa find Cagney ... but ... but I summoned the wrong Cat."

**

"Cat!" Brooklyn cried, shoving past Aiden and Angela. "[How did you get here?]" He saw the double-takes he got as the alien
language spilled from his mouth, and was more than a little surprised himself that Alex's spell had held so long.
"Brooklyn!" Delight lit her face. "[Well-met, my ally! And Hudson also! Well-met!]"
"[By the Dragon, it is Cat! But who is that]?" Hudson stared at the ogre. "[Be he friend or foe?]"
"[This is Alphonse, a friend ... my best friend! We mean no harm to you and yours, I swear it!]"
"[But what are ye doing here, lass?]"
"[That's what I'd like to know! We'd only just finished making camp for the night, when I felt a sudden great weight, as of invisible
air. I saw Alphonse running toward me --]"
"[She was surrounded by spinning lights,]" Alphonse said. His voice was a bassoon filled with gravel. "[I know magic when I see it,
and whatever happened to her, it wasn't going to be to her alone.]"
"[And then we were here!]" Cat finished. "[In your home, I take it. The tall one burst in, thinking us intruders, and he and Alphonse
swapped blows before I could stop them. Please tell them, we are not here to harm anyone!]"
"It's okay," Brooklyn told the others in English. "We know them. Remember that time Alex sent us to another world? We met Cat
there, and she vouches for the big guy. Stand down, huh?"
"You'd better be sure about this, Brooklyn," Elisa said. "Goliath --"
"I am fine, Elisa."
Cat tilted her head knowingly. "[City guard?]"
"Hey, Elisa!" Brooklyn laughed. "She made you as a cop on first sight!"
"She looks as if she came from Avalon," Aiden said. "And ... minor magics, more on her stuff than on her, I think. Is she your type,
Puck?"
"I'd say so," he sighed.
Xanatos hoisted a satiric eyebrow. "Do tell."
"What I meant," Puck backpedaled hastily, peeling his eyes away from Cat like a couple of lovesick decals, "is that while she's not
one of the Third Race, there are some obvious similarities."
"[More elves ... we need that like a boarhog needs teats,]" grumbled Alphonse.
"[I'm really sorry,]" Alex said to Cat. "[I didn't mean to bring you here! Did I hurt you?]"
"[Dizzied only, young Archmage,]" Cat assured him, either oblivious to or skillfully ignoring how Puck's gaze veered back to her.
"[Although unexpected, I am overjoyed to see you again!]"
"[That's good,]" Alex replied solemnly, "[because you might be stuck here a while.]"
"[Stuck?]" Alphonse instinctively curled his fist into an armored mallet larger than a human head.
"[I can't send you back right away, just like I couldn't take us home right away. I have to sleep! I can't do it until tomorrow.]"
"[And sleep you will, little one! You made it home, and gods willing I know we shall do the same,]" Cat said. She touched Alphonse's
bunched forearm, encouraging him to relax. "[For now, Alphonse, we've a chance to see a place more new than ever we thought to find
when we bid farewell to Thanis!]"
"[You were keen to get to Tradersport,]" he reminded her.
"[If indeed my father is there, I've waited years already to see him. I can spare a few days longer for the sake of a new world to explore.]"
"[Ye left Thanis, lass?]" Hudson asked. "[Ye left yer home, and yer Nightsider clan? Why?]"
Alphonse growled and was about to speak, but Cat quieted him with a gesture.
"[Much has happened since you visited us, my friends,]" she said, her eyes shadowed. "[Although not even a year has passed, I've seen a
lifetime's worth of change. I have chosen to say farewell to Thanis for now, that's all.]"
Xanatos cleared his throat. "This might be easier if we could all understand each other."
"I can do it," volunteered Alex. "I'm not too tired for that, anyway. If they'll let me. [Cat, I know a spell that will let you talk like us, if you
want, and him too.]"
"[By your leave, Alex, I would. What say you, Alphonse?]"
"[You're sure we can trust these people?]"
"[On my life.]"
"[It had better not come to that.]"
"[Please. You once thought my judgment sound.]"
"[Aye, about most things, I still do.]" His tone made Cat bow her head with a slight hiss of pain, and his shoulders slumped -- it was like
watching a landslide in slow motion. He thumped her gently under the chin with one metal-shod knuckle. "[I'm sorry. You know I do. Go
on, mageboy ... cast your spell.]"
Alex and Puck put their heads together for a quick whispered conversation, and then the little boy approached their guests. He barely
came to higher than Alphonse's knee. Fox made a small nervous noise, probably thinking that one stomp from that hobnailed boot would
turn Alex into a lumpy footprint.
Puck floated behind Alex. "Go for it, kiddo ... whenever you're ready." He gave Cat a dashing smile, and went crestfallen when she
averted her eyes with a troubled frown.
Alex chanted a singsong rhyme. Light gloved his waving fingers, leaving streaky trails in the air. Small red-gold cyclones of energy whirled
from him to briefly engulf the heads of their visitors before dissipating in sparkly shimmers.
"How's that?" Brooklyn asked. "Do you understand me?"
"What sorcery!" Cat said. "I hear your words and know they are in your speech, yet ... and I hear myself ... such magic!" She retained a
hint of an accent, the merest otherworldly flavor of her own language.
"Seems it worked," Alphonse said.
Cat dipped in a foreign but formal bow to Xanatos. "You, sir, are lord of the castle? I pray your pardon for our intrusion."
He drew himself up, managing to look regal despite the bathrobe. "No need. It wasn't your idea. I'm David Xanatos, my wife Fox, and
you already know our son Alexander. This is Goliath, leader of the gargoyles."
"I am Cat Sabledrake, of Thanis. My friend is Alphonse, an initiate in the service of the warrior-god, Steel."
Alphonse inclined his head to Goliath. "Sorry about the splintered rib."
"The what?" Elisa glared at Goliath. "You said you were fine."
"I have some battle-surgeon training," Alphonse began.
"That won't be necessary," Goliath said. "Pardon my attack --"
"Understandable." Alphonse shrugged with no sign of animosity. "A collision of defenses, is all."
A rare smile crossed Goliath's face. He offered his arm, and Alphonse clasped it firmly.
"Well, that's a relief," Fox said. "We don't need the two of you smashing up the furniture."
"And this is your ... what was the word? Clan. Your clan," Cat said, turning slowly from one gargoyle to the next in fascination.
"Some of my clan, yes," Goliath said. "The rest are on patrol. This is my daughter Angela, Brooklyn's mate, and she is Aiden."
"And I, milady, am called Puck," that worthy said, swooping to make a courtly flourish before her.
"[Lista lo valani?]" Cat asked, the melodic words making Brooklyn and Hudson frown in puzzlement at the different language. When
Puck shared their confusion, she translated. "You are elven? ... but not of the Emerin, or Lenais?"
"I am of Avalon. Our world has birthed three intelligent races. Gargoyles, humans, and Oberon's Children."
"'Huh," said Alphonse, purposefully setting himself protectively close to Cat and almost making it not look deliberate. "We've got ...
orcs, gnomes, humans, dwarves, and elves. Five. As well as crosslings like Cat and me. And goblinkind and the monster races, if they
count."
"I'm a crossling too," Alex piped up proudly. "So's my mom and my brother T.J."
"And Amber and Elektra," Angela said.
"You took me for an elf of your world?" asked Puck. "Is that what made hope first flare, and then so distressingly die, in those lovely
eyes?"
Cat shut the eyes in question and bit her lower lip, retreating to Alphonse's side with a blush darkening her cheeks. "Something like
that," she murmured.
Alphonse moved as if to put an arm around her but dropped it, and settled for giving Puck a smoking glare of warning.
"Better lay off," Brooklyn whispered.
It was more the amused smirks and muffled snickers from the others that got Puck's attention. Aiden in particular was trying hard not
to giggle wildly into her cupped hands. Even Goliath's eyes were twinkling merrily as they all took note of the Puck's discomfiture.
"I think the magic lesson's over for tonight, don't you?" hinted Xanatos. "And Alexander is clearly not in any danger from our guests."
Puck gave in grudgingly. "All right, all right."
"It's Oberon's decree I'm thinking of," Xanatos said smoothly.
"Mmm-hmm, you only remember that when it's convenient," Puck said, his voice sour. He flickered and resumed the familiar form of
Owen, adjusting his glasses. "Is that better, Mr. Xanatos?"
"Shaper-magic!" Cat exclaimed. "Or is it illusion?"
Alphonse reached out with a forefinger the breadth of a sausage and poked Owen harder than necessary in the upper arm, making him
lean to the side. "Not illusion."
Owen nodded stiffly to Cat and Alphonse. "In this guise I am Owen Burnett, aide to Mr. Xanatos. Please do not let the ... antics ... of
my alter ego disturb you."
"I think, David darling, that you and I could stand to make ourselves presentable as well," Fox said, plucking at the collar of her bathrobe.
"And our guests may want to freshen up and settle in before we give them the grand tour."
"Brooklyn and I will go find the others," Angela said. "We should have a party, and I know Elektra would like to meet Cat."
"With Puck's help," said Owen, "Alexander can send you back to the very moment from which he pulled you out of your world.
"So you can stay a while!"Alex chirped, clapping his hands.
"You are good folk and kind," Cat said. "Alphonse, what say you?"
"You know me, Cat. Where you go, I go, and it makes no difference to me."
"Then we shall stay, and gladly, for a time!"

**

A bundle of winged energy sprang at Goliath as they entered the gargoyles' suite. Amber struck her father full in the chest and dug in
with her tiny claws. "Daga!"
"And here we have our watchdog, and my daughter," he said, wincing despite the thickness of his skin.
"Come down from there, Amber," Elisa said, shooting Goliath a stern look. "Daga's got a splintered rib."
"The dawn will heal me," he reminded her.
"Clan leader, Guardswoman, you have a lovely child," Cat said, watching as Elisa pried Amber off of Goliath. Her smile was sad and
faint as she added, "Combining the best of both your races."
Bronx rushed up to snuffle at Cat and Alphonse. Alphonse hunkered down and submitted to an enthusiastic face-licking as he thudded
Bronx hard on the side.
"Now this is my kind of dog! Tough fellow! Yes, you are! Good boy! Who's a good boy?"
"Lord Taron's hounds have nothing on him!" Cat said. "Why, if watchdogs such as this were commonplace in Thanis, I'd be hard
pressed to do my work!"
"Yes, Brooklyn mentioned ..." Elisa paused, weighing her words.
"Thief?" Cat supplied, grinning impishly. "True and true. But fear not. It is my profession and my calling, but not my compulsion. I steal
by choice, not habit."
"That's supposed to make me more comfortable?"
"She means she doesn't rob friends," Alphonse said, still squatting. He had rolled Bronx onto his back and was scratching his ribs,
making both of Bronx's hind legs pedal at the air. Bronx lolled his head, making little grunting sounds of pleasure.
"And she said that you are a priest?" Goliath asked. "I would like to hear more of your warrior-god."
"I'm not a priest yet. A brother in the order of Steel, but only a beginner."
"Like a religious order of knights?" Aiden hopped to the back of the couch and perched there.
"Knights? Like the Knights of Blackmoon? No, not us ... those poor sons-of-sows are more weighed down with vows than they are
with armor. Steel is a warrior's god, a fighting man's god. Glory in battle, pride in fighting well, a good clean death by a good sharp edge.
Those are what we seek. Not codes and secret rites and all that." He fished a sword-shaped pendant on a chain from inside his surcoat.
"This is His symbol. When I've become a priest, I'll be able to call upon Steel to turn this into a full-sized weapon. In memory of the sword
that made Him a god."
"What was he before?"
"A man," shrugged Alphonse. "Human. Common born, a common soldier, rose through the ranks during the Tenscore War to become
High General of all the Northlands Army. He led his troops to sack Gul'Dez, the minotaur city, and there found the Sword of Ages, the
first and greatest magic blade ever forged. It let Him defeat Dezra, god of the minotaurs, in single combat. Then, as a reward, it made Steel
into a god himself."
"I've learned to be wary of artifacts with that kind of power," Goliath rumbled, giving Elisa a chagrined glance.
"Poor Dezra," Cat chuckled. "He gets the tallow whipped out of him in the elven myths, too, when Karria of the Emerald calls upon the
hunter-god Denethel to save her from being sacrificed."
"Steel's legend is no myth, Cat ... it's history!" Alphonse slapped Bronx heartily on the rump. "Good boy! Yes, what a good boy! Got
a rope, play tug?"
Bronx chuffed happily and burrowed his head into the toybox that he shared with Amber, despite everyone's best efforts to keep their
belongings separate. He came up with a length of rope as thick as a man's wrist, well-frayed by chewing.
"Let's have it!" Alphonse grabbed, but Bronx jumped sideways and crouched, his whole rear wagging along with his tail. Alphonse feinted,
then lunged and caught an end. Growling playfully, Bronx jerked his head side to side.
"You never played so with Bear," Cat said.
"Feared I'd break him, wardog or no. Besides, Greyquin didn't keep him clean enough. Always smelled like dirt and mulch from rolling in it.
Speaking of which, have you a bath-house nearby? I itch from camping. What I wouldn't give for a good steam-sweat and a hot bath, and to
beat the road-dust from my clothes!"
"I think we can oblige," Goliath said.
"And I can lend you a change of clothes, Cat, if you'd like," Aiden said. "I think we're about the same size."
"Though I doubt we have anything that'll fit Alphonse," Elisa said. "Unless you wear loincloths."
Cat looked Aiden up and down. "The same size, we may be ... but pretty though it is, I'd dare not wear such a scanty tunic-dress as that!"
Aiden flushed lavender. "Believe me, I'd wear more if I could, but these wings won't allow it!"
"Never thought I'd see the day we met someone more modest than ye, lass!" chortled Hudson.
"But I have other clothes, from when I was still human --"
"Huh?" Alphonse cut in.
"I was born and raised human," Aiden explained. "But changed into a gargoyle a few years ago, after I met Lexington."
"I'm glad you did," Elisa said. "The clan needed more girls, and I wasn't about to do it!"
"Lovely as you were with wings," Goliath murmured, curling a tendril of her hair around his finger.
Alphonse let Bronx win the next tug-of-war and straightened up to his full height, stretching. "Ahh ... it's nice to be someplace where I don't
have to duck to avoid the roofbeams! Let's see this bath-house of yours, shall we?"
"The steam room is in the one by the gym," Aiden said. "And it has the best shower, except the water pressure's a little too much for me."
Goliath led them to the spacious gymnasium, and Alphonse's eyes glittered with appreciation. "I'll have to give this a try as well! Look at it,
Cat! If the Brethren of Steel could see this ..."
The bathroom adjacent to the gym was all white and green tile and shining chrome. It had a steam room and massage tables, a large bubbling
jacuzzi, and shower stalls in which the water didn't just come from above but from sprayers mounted in all four walls. There was also a small
laundry room opening off of the changing area, mostly used for towels.
"Oh, you'll never get him out of here now," Cat said after seeing a demonstration of how all the facilities worked. "He'll be soaking and
scrubbing until he's scoured his skin down to the bone!"
"No, I'll come out for meals and ale," Alphonse said seriously.
"Enjoy yerself, lad," Hudson said. "When ye're ready, we'll see about that ale."
"There's a smaller bathroom in my old room," Aiden said to Cat. "If you'd rather not wait."
"Thankee, Aiden! And fresh clothes would be welcome, I grant you."
Alphonse was already shucking his armor. "Hot water ... soap ... the only way it would be better was if I had the sweat and blood of a battle
to wash away!" He stopped as he was about to pull his short tunic over his head, glancing at the females. "Uh ... staying, going, or watching?"
"Going!" Cat and Aiden chorused, then laughed.
"I guess he trusts us to look after you," Elisa said dryly.
"We're in the company of friends," Cat said. "He knows we're in no danger here."
On the way back to the suite, they encountered Brooklyn and Angela with the rest of the gargoyles. Cat met them all merrily, and readily
agreed when Angela and Elektra invited themselves to tag along to Aiden's room.
"Aww, just you girls?" Brooklyn pouted.
"Well, we're not having you in there while we change clothes," Aiden responded tartly.
"Besides, they're probably going to talk about us," Broadway said. "You know. Girl stuff."
"Only good things to tell, my love," Elektra said, kissing him on the cheek. "Never fear."
"We'll get back at them," Brooklyn said. "We'll go have a beer and talk guy stuff with Alphonse."
"I did promise him an ale," Hudson said.
"What about you, Elisa?" Angela asked. "Coming with?"
"Go on," Goliath urged, holding out his hands for Amber. "I'll keep this scamp with me."

**

"But I'm not tired," yawned Alexander, rubbing his eyes with his small fists. "I'm all awake."
"Alex," Fox chided. "You're half asleep already."
"No'm not ..."
"He's overstretched himself," Owen said, plumping the pillow and neatly turning back the blankets as Fox carried her feebly protesting
son to the bed. "He needs his rest."
She set him down and smoothed unruly tangles of hair from his forehead. "There ... good night, Alex."
"Don' wanna ..." He rolled his head on the pillow in negation ... once, twice, and then lapsed into slumber.
"The spell took a lot out of him. More than he had. Almost more than I had. It would be best if he took the time to recover fully before
attempting it again. Tomorrow may be too soon."
"Mmm-hmm," Fox said. "How long?"
"A few days, at least."
"Is that all, Owen? Why not a week? Month? Or how about a year?"
He regarded her without amusement. "I doubt it will take him that long to replenish his energies."
"But you said that you can send our visitors back to the exact moment they left, so it shouldn't matter to them ... and we really mustn't tax
Alex's health."
"Obviously, his well-being is as always my primary concern."
"And the fact that it'll keep Cat here a while longer has nothing to do with it." She reined in, with effort, the smile that wanted to play about
her lips.
"Is that meant to infer something, Mrs. Xanatos?"
Fox turned off the light and closed the door most of the way as they proceeded into the hall. "Infer something?"
"You seem to be implying that I have an unusual interest in our guests."
"Nonsense, Owen." She walked a few paces before adding, "Just one of them."
"I assure you --"
"Isn't it Cordelia that you'd need to assure? But don't worry. What's a little secret here and there?"
He fumed coldly, and Fox had to bite back a sly giggle.
"I have to admit, Owen," she went on, "I'd been wondering about Puck."
"Wondering?"
"Whether magic and pranks were all that he thought about. Whether there was anyone back on Avalon who made his heart beat faster."
"The ways of Avalon are somewhat different --"
"So, that'd be a no, in other words."
"There are many ways of sharing oneself, not all of which are the fleshy biological acts that you humans seem to favor. Though, admittedly,
many of Avalon's denizens have a penchant for that ... Zeus in particular is notorious for it, and even Oberon himself had dalliances here and
there."
"And Titania, as I well know."
"But several of us preferred to join auras, not bodies, and did not find mortals physically attractive."
"Past tense, Owen?"
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Xanatos?"
"I noticed you used the past tense there. Have you changed your mind about finding mortals attractive?"
"Among our other differences, the Puck and I have dissimilar tastes," he confessed as if it pained him to do so. "Naturally, I find Cordelia
to be most appealing."
"And Puck?"
"I consider this a highly inappropriate conversation, Mrs. Xanatos."
"Owen, Owen ... it's only me! But let me guess. Puck, being on the short side and of youthful aspect, likes them petite and girlish, innocent
but with a touch of wisdom. Like Cat ... my goodness, like Aiden too, as it happens!" She knew by his stiff countenance that she'd hit the
mark, twice. "Well, well. I should have figured that out before. But of course dear little Aiden will never be able to see Puck as anything
but a teacher and authority figure, so you certainly can't let her find out or she'd never be comfortable around you again."
"Is this where the blackmail comes in?"
"Oh, that's cruel," Fox said in a wounded tone. "You're part of the family. I'm only trying to help."
"I hardly see this relentless prying as being helpful in the least."
"What would you like me to do?"
"Would it be too much to ask that you mind your own business?"
"Tsk, Owen! You know we'd all love to see you happy. Cat's protector seems to have taken a dislike to you, though ... if he could be gotten
out of the way for a while, that might give you a chance to talk to her ..."
"Mrs. Xanatos ... Fox ... please. The young lady seems more troubled by me than anything else. I have no intention of disturbing her, or of
upsetting her musclebound companion."
"You might not ... but Puck's another story."
"Until Alexander has regained his strength, I doubt there will be much of a need for Puck's presence."
He quickened his pace, with noticeable relief in the set of his shoulders as David appeared at the end of the hall and beckoned.
"Ah, Owen, good. Broadway's in the kitchen having fits about his recipe files. He says you put them all on disk, and he can't seem
to access it."
"I'll go see about it at once, Mr. Xanatos."
As Owen vanished, David slipped an arm around Fox. "Well?"
"Oh, he likes her, of course, but is being as avoidant as usual. Since when did we become the castle matchmakers, David darling?"
"Since it worked so well for us, my dear. Since it worked so well for us."

**

"... the wand to change myself," Aiden said. "It meant giving up a lot, but it meant gaining so much more! I'm really a part of Lex's
world now, more than I ever could have been as a human." She blushed as she realized what she'd said and turned to Elisa. "Um ... I
didn't mean ..."
Elisa laughed. "It's all right, Aiden. I know I'm not as much a part of Goliath's world as I would be as a gargoyle, but we manage."
"And our clan is lucky to have you both," Angela said. "We have our eggs, we have little Amber to show us what we're in for when
they hatch, and we have each other. That's what matters, not what forms we take."
"'Tis a wonder, what love and a touch of magic can accomplish," Elektra said.
Cat sighed. "That, I know all too well."
The room that had been Aiden's proved too small for their gathering, so after Cat had tried the shower and donned some of Aiden's
old clothes – faded jeans and a soft shirt with an image on the front they told her represented something called ElfQuest -- they had
retired to the covered garden. It put Cat in mind of the courtyard of the Temple of Talopea, with its perfumed exotic flowers and invitingly
blue pool, but without the oft-unclad Talopeans lounging about and doing all that they customarily did.
"What's your world like?" Angela asked.
She combed her fingers through her still-damp hair and leaned back to study the glass panes shielding them from the sky above. "What
is my world like ... hard to compare it to yours, hard to compare it even to itself, being of so many lands and races! Even my home of
Thanis has as many sides as the cut gems made by the dwarves. Some sides are light and majesty, others thriving and lively, still others
dark, as the shadows where I dwelt living by knife and my wits."
"Alex said you knew about magic there, but he didn't meet many wizards," Aiden said.
"There is magic, yes, but found mostly among the elvenfolk. All of them have some talent, which comes as easily to them as breathing.
They use it in all things, so where the humans might rely on farmers to till the land and raise the livestock, the elves can bring food and water
from the very air. They are ... oh, they are fair! The stories say the elves were first and most favored of the gods, and to look on them is to
believe it. Tall and graceful, powerful and wise, and ... beautiful. They and their land, so beautiful it nearly makes the soul ache to see."
Angela gave Aiden a knowing nudge. "Are they much like Puck?"
Cat hesitated, remembering the brief shock that had come over her when she'd first seen him. "Very like ... although most would be
taller ..." A tingling blush colored her. "And his ears ... they are ... he is ... to the elves, I mean, he would be considered ..."
"What?" asked Aiden. "What's wrong with his ears?"
"They're ... very prominent," Cat said, face burning brighter. "And he shows so much of them!"
"I think I understand," said Elisa, hiding a grin.
"As above, so below," snickered Angela. "So most elves' ears are like yours?"
"Oh, no. My father was human, and thus I am elfkin, not pure-blooded." She fancied she could see the glow rising from her cheeks. "I'm ...
told that mine are, while small, rather shapely."
Elektra leaned over and touched her familiarly on the brow. "Such are we told about other features, Cat-sister ... as my mate likes to say it,
more than a handful is wasted."
Aiden collapsed in giggles. "Lex says that too!"
"It's called cognitive dissonance," Angela teased smugly. "Like an under-endowed male claiming that size isn't everything. You'll never hear
that from Brooklyn, about me or about him!" She thrust her chest out proudly.
"Girls," Elisa said sternly. "This is on the verge of getting raunchy. Look at Cat. She's nearly purple."
"Of course," continued Angela, "by the size of my father's hands ... it would take someone like Godiva to provide more than a handful!"
"Angela!"
"Oh, sister, you are too wicked!" Elektra said, shaking her head mirthfully.
"You're all terrible," Aiden said. "Don't mind them, Cat!"
"I am well," gasped Cat, recovering. "'Tis strange, only ... in all my years, I have had no age-mate kinswomen, and few female friends. Of
those that I did have, Sybil and Jessa, they were so markedly different and exasperating that, though I loved them well, it was nigh impossible
to see eye-to-eye with either of them. This ... this meeting here ... it is new to me."
"No sisters?" Angela said. "I can't imagine what it would have been like growing up without all our sisters on Avalon! We need to have
someone with whom we can gossip and make merry!"
Aiden nodded. "I know just what Cat means! I never had that either, until I came here! First at the Sterling Academy and then here. It's the
warmest, most welcoming thing, having sisters!"
"Though I'd count Birdie as one of the markedly different and exasperating ones," Elisa muttered.

**

"I'd hate to meet the siege tower that could take this place," Alphonse said approvingly. "Wasn't that awed by it, truth be told, until you
had me look down. Your stonemasons would put even the dwarves of Montennor to shame."
Even the interior was impressive. The ceiling of the dining hall soared overhead, supported by thick timbers. There should have been rushes
on the floor -- how else did they sop up the spills and grease of a meal? -- and the lighting should have been torches and firepits instead of
those weirdly glowing balls, but aside from such minor discrepancies, the castle made him feel right at home.
Unlike the rest of the city. All it took was one quick peek at the sprawling mass of streets and unnaturally angular buildings to convince him
that he'd seen all he needed to see of this Manhattan. Smelled all he needed to smell of it, too ... while the odor wasn't nearly as strong as
that of the lower Rings of Thanis, there was a smoky-metallic-swampy stench to the air that set his teeth on edge.
"How about that drink?" Brooklyn said.
Alphonse accepted the cold metal object and studied it curiously. "I thought you said beer."
"That is beer. You have to open it."
He crushed the can and it exploded in his grasp, foamy golden liquid gushing from the ruptured metal. Sniffing at it, he grunted and slurped the
beer from his wrist before fastidiously wiping up the rest with a rag pulled from inside his tunic. "Not bad. A touch thin, and weak."
"Here, ye may find this more to yer liking," Hudson said, handing him a bottle of Guinness Stout.
Alphonse drank deeply, and a broad grin pulled his lips away from his tusks. "That's more like it!"
"I remember the ale we had in your world. Now that was ale!" Hudson said fondly.
"So you're not all city guard," Alphonse mused. "Take it on yourselves to keep the peace, like a militia?"
"After a fashion," Goliath said. "That is where Gabriel, Lexington, Broadway, and Elektra were when you arrived. But my Elisa is part
of the police force, as Cat surmised."
"She can spot a guardsman at bowshot's distance," Alphonse said. "Keen sense of people. Most of the time."
"Yet Puck seems to trouble her," Goliath remarked.
"He'd better not. I'll --"
"Nay, lad, that's not what he meant. When we met Cat, she said something as to the effect that elves had little use for her kind. Mayhap
that be the problem," said Hudson.
Xanatos chuckled. "The feeling certainly isn't mutual. I've never seen him like that."
"Puck's not like the elves from your world," Brooklyn said.
"Close enough. Too close!" he snarled.
He could feel it building up inside of him, the anger that wanted to vent itself in a destructive rage. It happened to orcs sometimes, more
frequently to ogres and minotaurs. He'd given in to it more than once during his turbulent youth. But this wasn't the time or the place. He
silently recited a Steelite litany, forcing himself to calm down.
"What's the matter with the wee lass?" Hudson asked. "She's changed some since we met her, those months ago. Grown up, I'd say ...
and grown sadder beneath that sense of life's wonder."
"Aye, with good reason! And that's why your Puck had better stay away from her."
"Why's that?"
The bland question came from behind him, where he was sure no one had been.
Alphonse shot out of his chair, grabbing for Emily's handle before remembering that he'd left the flail behind with his armor as a token of
trust and respect to his hosts. He towered over the blond human, who stood there unconcerned, not knowing how close he was to death.
"One of these days, that trick is going to get you a black eye or a broken neck," Brooklyn said.
"Why?" Alphonse said. "Why? Because her heart's a yet-mending wound just now! Should anyone tamper with it, I'll bend every joint in
their body a way their gods never meant them to go. That's what I should have done to Arien, and I won't make the mistake again!"
He glared arrows into Owen's mild blue eyes, though it wasn't Owen he was cross with and somehow they all seemed to recognize that
because no one intervened.
"Do you hear how he said his name?" Xanatos said as an aside to Goliath. "That's exactly how you used to say mine. As if you'd spit it,
only it wasn't worth the wasted spit."
"Who is this Arien? An enemy?" Goliath asked, ignoring Xanatos.
"Well ... no friend of mine! The way he treated her ..." A grinding noise came from his jaw as his tusks scraped together with nearly
cracking force.
"What did this guy do to Cat?" Brooklyn demanded.
Alphonse recognized the spike of outrage in the red gargoyle's tone, a pale reflection of the outrage in him every time he thought about
that thrice-blasted elf. He realized that here, finally, was someone who would listen to him and see things his way, instead of trying to justify or
defend Arien's actions the way Cat so stubbornly and misguidedly did.
"He let her fall in love with him," Alphonse said.
"Is that such a crime?" Owen asked coolly.
It all spilled out in a furious spate. "Loved her, used her, threw her away like a gnawed bone! Begged her to help him, to risk her life
breaking some curse, and then took her back in time and save a pampered elfmaid he'd been betrothed to a hundred years before! And
what happens? What, I ask you? Cat did it! Back they came, to their own time, and the thanks she got was to have his-lordship-high-
and-mighty toss her out in favor of her."
The rest recoiled from his vehemence, and even Owen had the sense to draw back. "That has nothing to do with me. Puck is not this ...
Arien --"
"Looks like him. Not a lot, his hair's silver and he's taller and the ears are different, but enough. And you act like him, close-guarded
and controlled and haughty!"
"Ah," said Owen.
"You care for her very much," Goliath observed, breaking the danger-laden moment.
It broke his wrath, leaving him awash in the dull heat of shame, stammering and awkward. "Of course I do ... she's my friend. She'd be ...
like family ... if orc families were more like what the humans have instead of always attacking each other in dominance fights ... she's ..."
"Clan," Gabriel summed up succinctly. "She's clan."
"No ..." He shook his head, seething in frustration at his inability to find words that he dared to use. "To us, a clan is our entire orc tribe,
anyone that the chief can beat down and control, at least as long as he's strong enough to prevent one of his sons from killing him to take
over."
"That is not a clan!" Hudson said, appalled. "What leader would do such a thing?"
"Cat is ... Cat. My first real friend." He teetered on the verge of saying more, then took refuge once again in anger. "And to see her treated
like this makes my blood burn! She's left her home because of him, you know! She says it's because she's had word that her father might be
alive, in the service of the duke of Gamelin, and that he might even have her mother with him. I went with her. That's where we were when
your mageboy's spell seized us, camped along the road for Tradersport. But what she's really done is run. For the first time since I've known
her, Cat is on the run. She couldn't bear to stay in Thanis another day, thanks to that piss-puddle of an elf!"
"Why did you not deal with him?" Goliath asked, his voice taking on a low and dangerous tone.
"Believe you me, I wanted to! At first I thought he was merely stupid. But since we've left, since I've listened to her trying not to weep
herself to sleep each and every night we've been traveling, I've come convinced that he knew better. He chose his precious Alinora over
Cat full and aware. He knew she'd be hurt, and he did it all the same. For that, one day mark me, I will deal with him."

**

As the heavens continued to fade toward blue, and wisps of early fog blew apart like tatters of cobweb, the sprawling island city was
revealed in its entirety to the clan collecting on the battlements. Awe-inspiring as its lights were by night, the solid grey texture of Manhattan
was proof of its reality.
"Ohhh," Cat breathed, leaning fearlessly far over the edge. "Isn't it magnificent! Might we go out?"
"We'll take you for a glide tonight," Brooklyn promised.
Alphonse snorted. "Your whole clan couldn't carry me anywhere but straight down. I'll let this one go by, thank you, and spend the time
in that exercise yard of yours!"
"But remember, you're on vacation, not at work," Elisa said to Cat. "Besides, I doubt you'd last thirty seconds in Central Park."
"She's a thief, lass, not a mugger," Hudson said amusedly. "Makes it look like an art form, she does!"
"Shame on you, Hudson!" Angela cried in mock offense. "We're supposed to uphold the law!"
"Technically, vigilante justice is against the law," Xanatos pointed out. "But I'm curious ... what is it that you do, Cat?"
"Mostly cut purses," she said, with a slightly abashed grin at Elisa. "Or burgle houses, when the mood and the need strike me."
"How about a demonstration?" Broadway suggested.
"Yes, why not?" Xanatos said. "I'll volunteer."
"You haven't a purse for me to cut!"
"I keep a money clip in the inside pocket of my jacket, and a wallet in the back pocket of my pants --"
"David," Fox said warningly.
"It's in the interest of research, dear, not seeking to get a quick grope from a pretty girl."
"Go ahead, Cat," said Elisa, crossing her arms. "This, I've got to see."
"Well ... I'm unaccustomed to doing this with an audience, you take it ... but very well." She strolled casually behind Xanatos and deftly
dipped the wallet from his pocket.
"I felt that," he said, turning to retrieve it.
Cat pulled it briefly out of his reach. "Yes, because you were attending to it ... had you not been, had your mind been elsewhere, you'd never
have known."
"I doubt that. I pride myself on being observant." He took back his wallet.
"Here is your bracelet." She dangled his watch in front of his face.
"What the --?"
"How did she --?"
"Did you see --?"
Their surprise gave way to gales of laughter, mostly due to the look of pure astonishment on Xanatos' face. He stared at his bare wrist,
mouth agape, then snatched the watch from Cat.
"How did you unbuckle this without me noticing?"
"You weren't attending to that, only your wallet. Oh ... and here is your wallet again."
"Jalapena!" Lexington shouted in admiration.
"Told ye she was cunning," Hudson said.
"I think we've seen enough," Elisa said.
"Then you'll be wishing this back?" Cat inquired sweetly, holding up a small black leather case.
Elisa was thunderstruck. "My badge!"
"Do we get to frisk her before sunrise?" Brooklyn asked, winking.
"We haven't time," Goliath said, checking the sky. He took his usual place, and the other gargoyles followed suit.
"I've seen this once before," Cat said. "Wait and watch, Alphonse ... it is a marvel indeed! But it seems so much more right here, amid the
wind and below the sky, than it did in the back room of the Empty Mug."
The sun's first rays pierced the distant clouds, and with a grating crackle the gargoyles greyed and hardened into statue-shapes.
Alphonse rapped on Brooklyn's calf. "Now that's a goodly trick ... but a trap as well. They cannot wake, I take it, if danger threatens?"
"Not before dusk," Xanatos said. "To all intents and purposes, they are stone. Or at least an organic stonelike substance. They do have
some very minor signs of life, brain waves and electrical activity."
"And it heals them as well," Cat said. "I recall Brooklyn was wounded, yet when he woke, there was not so much as a scar."
"Something I'd not mind learning," Alphonse said. "To go to sleep and wake up mended? But it's just as well we don't have it. That's the
problem with other priests, the Talopeans or the Galatinites for instance. Knowing that all they have to do is beg their god for healing doesn't
give them the proper respect for pain. Makes them careless."
"The gargoyles respect pain, and they're not careless," Elisa said. "If they get hurt, they know they still have to survive until dawn in order to
be healed."
"But, speaking of sleep," Xanatos said, stifling a yawn, "we could all use some."
"Aye, that's so," said Cat. "We'd had a long day's journey before making camp. If I can sleep! It seems a shame to waste a moment in this
wondrous world! What will I see in my dreams more amazing than what I'd see here with my waking eyes?"

**

"Please stop! You're making me pale with fright!" Elektra called.
"Our rookery parents used to do this with us all the time when we were hatchlings!" Brooklyn shouted back.
"But you had wings!"
"Don't worry, we're not going to drop her," Broadway said.
"And if we did, we'd catch her!" Brooklyn grinned over at Cat, who was suspended between them, him holding one of her hands and Broadway the
other as they glided. "How are you doing?"
"Giddy and terrified!" she laughed. "But don't dare stop!"
"Want to loop-the-loop?" he challenged.
"I dunno, Brooklyn ..." Broadway hesitated.
"Just one little loop! Come on, bro, carpe noctem!" He put on his most wheedling face. "What do you say, Cat?"
"I say you've lost your senses!" Elektra said.
"The loop," Cat decided. "Why not?"
"Because it's a long way down," Broadway said.
"You have proved himself trustworthy to me," Cat replied. "I know you'd not show such poor hospitality as to let me fall!"
"The loop, it is!" Brooklyn flexed his wings and swooped, Broadway moving in tandem with him as they reached the bottom of their dive and then
soared steeply upward. Up, up, and then the moment of truth, arching the back and trusting to gravity and momentum to bring them around --
-- and at the top of the loop, Elektra's cry of alarm came too late to avoid the sudden turbulence that shoved Broadway one way and him the other.
Broadway lost his grip, buffeted by a crosswind. Brooklyn was spun in a sideways cartwheel as Cat's fall pulled his arm down and around. City lights
and star lights swapped places.
He fought for and regained control, scooping Cat over his shoulder. He could feel her body shaking, and his first thought was that it was with fearful
tears. Then he realized she was still laughing, as she pounded him companionably on the back.
"A wild ride, my friend! I rode a-wyvernback once, but it was nothing like this!"
"Brooklyn, I beseech thee, enough!" pleaded Elektra.
Broadway came to meet them. "Elektra may be right. The wind's picked up strength."
"And I mustn't be gone too long, else Alphonse will mother-hen," Cat said.
"Okay, okay, I know when I'm outnumbered." Shifting Cat to a more comfortable carry-hold, Brooklyn led the way back to the castle.
"Such a marvel," Cat said. "If all of Thanis was set with the lowest Ring there at the street, I doubt me if even Talus Yor's Tower would
reach so high!"
"Hey, what ever happened with that lord?" Brooklyn asked. "Did you Nightsiders get those emeralds?"
"It would have been easier had you persuaded Hudson to stay and help us," Cat teased. "But I proved able to do it without aid of gargoyle
wings. Lord Taron lost his emeralds. Even so, men like him cannot be kept down for long. It wasn't much later that I overheard him plotting
..." she trailed off. "That was my night for overhearing things, my night for so many things ..."
A small hitching of breath that was very nearly a sob surprised her nearly as much as it surprised Brooklyn. He looked swiftly at her, at the
watery shine of her eyes before she blinked it away.
Elektra and Broadway noticed as well, and glided nearer in concern.
"Cat?" Brooklyn asked.
"Only thoughts, memories," she said. "Ones still too new to fade."
"It might help to talk about it," Broadway suggested.
Brooklyn descended to the battlements and set Cat down. "Did someone get hurt? One-Eye or --"
"No, no ... all the Nightsiders are fine and well, or were when I left Thanis. The only one hurt was me, and it was a hurting I brought willingly
on myself." She rested her hands on the wall and lifted her face to the stars, the wind rippling through her hair.
"I know this pain," Elektra murmured, touching Cat's sleeve. "I have seen it, felt it for myself. You speak of love's pain."
Cat exhaled shudderingly. "When Brooklyn met me, I had scarcely been beyond the gates of Thanis. But now I have seen Hachland, Lenais,
and even the Emerin! I have seen the veil of time parted, and stepped through! I have confronted evil sorcerors, undone an ancient curse, seen
a friend die as I stood helpless to prevent or avenge it. And yes ... I have known love, and still cannot decide if the having of that time was
worth the losing of it."
"Better to have loved and lost," Broadway muttered under his breath.
"What?" Cat asked sharply.
"A proverb or something. It's better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."
"Is it? So I first thought, but as each day goes by without him, I wonder."
"How did he die?" Elektra asked softly.
"He did not. He lives, and chose another." Cat closed her eyes, fingers curling on the stone blocks. "I know why he did, and I bear him no ill
will for it. Nor her ... she had no knowledge of it. I knew, knew that he could never love me as he loved Alinora. I thought I was well with it,
gods know I did! But with each day that goes by, with each mile Thanis falls behind me, I miss him more and more. All of me misses him, heart
and mind and body, so much that I can hardly eat or sleep!"
Elektra embraced her sympathetically. "It will pass, Cat. Hard though it may be to believe now, it will." She shared a loving look with her mate.
"You may soon even find another, a better, to share your heart. Sometimes the love we truly wish is right before us all the while, as we fool
ourselves into pursuing another."
"Nice Guy Syndrome?" said Broadway with a wry grin.
"It seems a constant across the worlds," Elektra replied, skating her five slender fingers over his brow ridge.
"But I don't want to forget Arien!" Cat said, sounding as if her soul was being wrenched in two. "Never that! What we had, for however short
a time, was ours!"
"You won't forget him," Brooklyn said. "It's the hurting that will pass."
"And fade, and come to add its own touch of sweetness to your recollections," Elektra said. "You will be the wiser, the stronger, for it."
"Everyone else, my other friends, consider me mad to defend him, and stand by his choice! Alphonse would make Arien answer for it in blood,
Sybil would have me win him back by seductive arts of which I know nothing, the Nightsiders would arrange a mishap for Alinora as a favor to
me ... am I mad to say them all nay? Am I?"
"You can't turn your feelings off and on like a lightswitch," Broadway said. "And think about it ... if you let any of those things happen ... what
would that do to you?"
"Destroy me, for if I cannot be deserving of his love on my own, I won't take it by violence or trickery. But why will they not see that?" Cat
cried, hammering one small fist on the wall for emphasis.
"It's a natural impulse," Brooklyn said. "When someone we care about is hurting, our first urge is to make it better, and if that can't be done, our
second urge is to punish whoever is responsible."
"Even, sadly, if it would hurt the one we care for all the more," Elektra added.
"I know not what to think, what to do," said Cat wretchedly. She looked very small just then, small and fragile and despairing.
Elektra signaled to the two males to leave. "Let me speak with her," she whispered. "I know what she needs, and she'll not do it while you're here."

**

The gymnasium of Castle Wyvern quaked and thundered as Goliath and Alphonse beat the living tar out of each other in the name of fitness.
Grunts of effort, impacts of fists on flesh, and the thuds of large bodies being hurled violently to the floormats drowned out the encouraging cheers
from Angela and Gabriel, as well as Hudson and Fox's critical comments and shouted suggestions.
Xanatos stood on the sidelines with Elisa, who had just gotten off work.
"Is this a good idea?" she asked.
"It's about time Goliath had a sparring partner that could stand up to him full-force," Xanatos said. "He's wrecked every robot I've provided, and
none of the rest of us can take this kind of punishment."
"Plus, on some level, you secretly enjoy watching him take a punch."
"Don't think he doesn't feel the same about me. Last month when Angela mopped the floor with me, Goliath couldn't have been happier."
"I'm surprised to hear you admit to it."
"She's become quite the scrapper since that run-in we had with Ventura. I think seeing what her double was capable of lit a fire under her tail.
Next time those two meet, it ought to be a fight like none other."
"Unless Angela lets her emotions get the better of her," Elisa said. "In that, she's a little too like Demona. One good taunt, and she loses her cool
and starts making mistakes. Where's the rest of our happy family?"
"Lex and Aiden are fiddling with the VR unit again. Aiden thinks that she can whip up a spell that will let them look at Cat and Alphonse's visual
memories of their world, for a future Xantasia game. Brooklyn, Broadway, and Elektra took Cat for the aerial tour of the city that they promised.
And the kids are making Owen's life difficult as usual. He's been asking about a nanny again. Any thoughts?"
"Edie Bluestone."
"Would she be interested? More importantly, since when does the good detective trust me around his wife? He's always been so steadfast that
she not become an Illuminati pawn."
"Now that he's one of you himself, he's not so paranoid."
"Still, it might be better if you approached her."
Applause drew their attention back to the match, which appeared to be over. Fox threw towels at both combatants. Alphonse was an even
more impressive, though not attractive, sight out of his armor. Masses of muscle rippled beneath sweat-slick yellow-green skin. His torso and limbs
were marred with scars ranging from simple scratches to great ropy gnarls.
"Who won?" Xanatos called.
"I did this time, he did last time," Goliath replied, shaking out his mane of sable hair.
"Steel would make good use of you," Alphonse said. "If you ever chose to live in our world, you'd do well as a Brother!"
"If you chose to stay in ours, you'd be a welcome addition to our clan."
"And I'm sure Cat's skills would come in handy --"
"Don't even think it, Xanatos," Elisa said. "I'm glad she's on our side, but the last thing we need is her working for you!"
"I'm glad to finally be having proper instruction," Gabriel said. "On Avalon, we were largely self-taught, as Guardian Tom was only a boy when
he came there. That's why we were so lax against the Archmage."
"Ye did as well as could be expected, lad," Hudson said. "Never ye mind what Jericho had to say."
"If you're so eager for instruction, Gabriel," said Fox with a challenging glint in her eye, "come on then! You too, Angela."
"Both of us against you, Fox? That doesn't seem fair."
"Both of you against me and Alphonse, then?"
"That doesn't seem fair either," Gabriel said.
"Make it a melee," Alphonse said, grinning ferally. "Last one standing wins. That's the way we do it at the Temple of Steel!"
The room shuddered again as everyone but Elisa and Xanatos charged enthusiastically into the fray.
"Well, Detective?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Somehow," Elisa said, stripping off her jacket, "I doubt this was what Captain Chavez said when she wanted us all to get some practice
in riot control ..."

**

"How did you know?"
Cat's voice was muffled and indistinct, but it stopped him mid-air just as he was about to round the corner. With the uncanny stealth
born of magic, Puck floated closer to the wall and wove a shroud of dimness around himself.
"I knew," came Elektra's simple answer.
"When even I didn't?"
"To weep was what you needed, but you could not do so in the presence of the males."
Concerned, Puck drifted closer, until he could see them. Elektra was ivory-pale in the ghostly moonlight, a figure of light with her soft
gown shimmering. Although no older than Cat, she held her as if comforting a child many years her junior.
"'Tis true ... I couldn't cry in front of them, or the Nightsiders, and least of all Alphonse! It was hard going to prove myself as able a
thief and warrior as any, and to show tears would be to lose ground, reduce myself to ... to a useless girl in their sight. That, I could not
do."
"Nor could you do so alone," said gentle Elektra. "For to weep in solitude is among the most desolate of all things. So it was with me."
"Was it?"
"Once, and not all that long ago. Although methinks my story is some different than yours, for while you did truly love, I only thought I
did, and chased a fancy that my wishing mind made more than it proved to be."
Cat lifted her head, those stirring sapphire eyes awash and ringed by glistening tears. "What did you do?"
Elektra sighed, twining her slim hands. "On Avalon, I admired from afar one of my rookery brothers. He was all that I was not -- reckless
and bold, impassioned, tempestuous. There was about Jericho a sense of danger, a spice of risk, that spoke strangely to my quietness. And
handsome, yes, he was among the most handsome of all our clan. When he left, he did so on a path that would lead him to darkness and
despair. I chose to follow, in hopes that I might spare him, save him ... and in so doing, earn his love. I told myself I felt more for him than
I did, when we had in fact never been lovers, rarely spoke. I made much of him in my mind, Cat, do you see? Much that he was not, and
ignored that which I did not care to admit."
"I do see ..."
"In seeking Jericho, I was joined in my quest and aided by Broadway. Stalwart and uncomplaining Broadway, who selflessly helped me and
asked nothing in return, though by then he knew more of Jericho's nature than did I, and feared that I would find only pain. Rather than
dissuade me, he stayed my good and true friend, helping me not because it was right for me, but because it was what I wanted."
"But Broadway is your mate, is he not?"
"He is," Elektra said. "And whatever gods or fates there are, I thank them for it! He loved me all the while, and I came to love him without
realizing it. Until it was revealed to me, mockingly, by none other than Jericho himself. And I saw, in harsh truth's light, what a fool I had been
to chase a dream, when a better chance was already there for me. I am more grateful than I can say that Broadway stood by me, and took
me as his mate despite my foolishness to have ever thought to prefer Jericho!"
The invisibly observing Puck thought spitefully to himself that this was advice better given not to Cat but to Arien. From what he'd gleaned
of their situation, it certainly seemed to fit ...
"I'm pleased for you, Elektra. He is sweet and kind, and any eye can see that he loves you utterly."
"What worries me for you, Cat, is that you might repeat my folly."
Cat took a deep breath and loosed it slowly. "Oh, no, Elektra, I'll not. I cannot pursue Arien. He's chosen, we're done."
"But if you convince yourself that he was your one and only, and make much of him in your mind and memory, as I did with Jericho, you may
ruin your future's chance to find love."
"I don't seek love! How could I, now?"
"That is just it, Cat! Do not let love's hope die! Now, yes, with the pain still fresh upon you, I know you think it will never come again. But
it will." A secretive smile tugged one corner of Elektra's mouth. "Why, there may already be one near you, offering such a promise as Broadway
brought to me!"
"No ... I have only Alphonse now to stand by me, and he is the over-vigilant big brother that I never had," said Cat with a crooked grin.
The very idea made Puck recoil. Delicate, spritely Cat ... and Alphonse? A shudder twisted through him.
"Well ... suffice, then, to not lock away your feelings," Elektra said. "Remember, the heart carved hollow will hold all the more when finally filled."
"The heart carved hollow ..." Cat rested her palm upon her chest. "But it wasn't. He's still here."
"And will always be, in part. So, too, is the Jericho I thought I knew. Nothing can change that, nor take it from us. Just be sure that holding that
one treasured love in your heart does not bar the way for all others."
"As Arien did ... but he did love me!"
"I am certain so." Elektra pressed her knuckles to Cat's temple.
"You have my thanks, Elektra. I did not even know how great a burden this was to carry, until you helped to relieve me of part of it. I couldn't
have gone before my father, and mother if she lives, with such a weight on my soul. I want to meet them in joy."
"You shall."
"Now if we could but get Alphonse relieved of his burden, which is made of anger!"
Elektra laughed softly. "I believe that is happening even now. Hudson and Goliath took him to the gymnasium, where many have pummeled, or
been pummeled, into a jollier temper. Now, wipe your eyes, Cat-sister, and we'll within."
"Go on ahead ... I'd like a few moments, if that's all right."
"Of course." With an encouraging squeeze of the hand, Elektra turned to descend the flight of steps leading to the gargoyles' suite.
Cat leaned against the curved wall, looking into the sky. She had gone back to her own garments, the tunic and leggings flattering her much more
than the clothes she'd borrowed from Aiden. Puck reflected to himself how natural she looked against the castle backdrop, much more so than
any human of this time. Only a gargoyle could look more at home atop the ancient grey stones.
He didn't know what to do now. He'd come, hoping to find her alone, hoping to speak with her despite Alphonse's threats to the contrary. But
it wasn't the prospect of having all his joints realigned that kept him hidden in the shadows. It was something else, something he'd never expected
to discover in himself.
A conscience?
Where by Mab's gilded garters had that come from?
A conscience ... he needed that like he needed a singing cricket in a top hat!
It had to be the gargoyles rubbing off on him, because one of the things that had attracted him to Fox and Xanatos in the first place was their
total lack of a conscience. That's why he'd gotten so bored with Renard, all wrapped up in his moralities and ethics and feelings of honor and
responsibility.
But now here he was, hesitating, feeling bad and guilty and a little bit ashamed. When what he should be doing was what he'd always done!
Getting what he wanted, doing what he wanted, and never mind hurting the feelings of a mortal! They'd get over it, and if they didn't, oh well,
it would only be another few decades before they kicked the proverbial bucket anyway.
He sure hadn't shown any compunctions about toying with Goliath's hopes, fears, and emotions when he was trying to get the Phoenix Gate!
Even if he'd failed, he'd made a darn fine try ... those were the good old days!
Or maybe ... maybe it was something different. Sure, he could have Cat, or Aiden, or Fox herself, or any mortal woman he chose. The judicious
application of a little magic, and who'd know? But it wasn't enough! Wasn't enough to get them by trickery and deceit.
What was he saying? He lived for trickery and deceit!
Then he imagined the hurt that would well up in those beautiful blue eyes if he used his powers on Cat and she found out. Or the sliding, shifty
shame he'd see in his own eyes every time he looked at himself.
Couldn't do it.
How embarrassing!
Guilt to a trickster was like impotency to a seducer! They could say that it happened to everyone sometimes, but nobody wanted it to happen
to him!
As he hovered there, dithering and berating himself, he suddenly realized that he'd let his spell of dimness lapse, and Cat was turning toward him.
"Who's there -- Puck!" She released the hilt of her sword, when he hadn't even seen her put her hand to it in the first place.
On raw impulse, Puck decided to try something altogether new. Complete honesty.
"I was listening in," he said. "To you and Elektra. I heard what she told you."
Quicksilver anger flashed like the dance of light on a blade. "Why?"
"I didn't mean to, but I was looking for you, and what you were saying had some bearing on why I wanted to see you."
"I don't see how it could."
He alit before her. "Elektra left something out of her pep talk."
"What?"
"She forgot to remind you that it was through no fault of yours that he left. No flaw, no failing on your part, Cat. She didn't tell you how
lovely you are, and how this has taken nothing of your beauty and desirability away from you. If anything, it's enhanced ... because who
could not look on you and see your heartache and not burn to console you?"
The moonlight didn't show her blush, but he knew it was there. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because it's something you need to know, something you could only hear from me."
"I don't understand."
"I'm drawn to you, don't you see? From the instant I saw you. That's never happened to me before. Not with a mortal, not with my
own kind. So suddenly, so strongly!"
Eyes so wide, so deep! He could drown, and without a complaint, in those sapphire depths! But they were wide and deep with unnerved
dread and sorrow, giving him pause.
"Cat ... don't be alarmed," he said when he sensed that she was unable to reply. "I'm only telling you this because I thought it would help
you to know."
"Please don't! If you were listening, you must know how I felt, and still do feel, for Arien! I cannot bear to even think of these things so
soon!" She wrapped her fingers around a velvet pouch worn on a cord around her neck, clutching it as if in desperate need of comfort.
"I can help you. Let me help you, Cat!"
Being so close to her was maddening! Puck longed to close that gap of less than a foot between them, to touch her soft golden-tan skin and
kiss those trembling lips. He had never been so swept up, not even with Gossamer. This was a physical need roaring in his veins, a craving
like nothing he'd ever experienced before.
"Only time can help me now. I do not wish to replace Arien, or forget him!"
"Is it because I resemble him a bit? I can change that. Less like him, or more, or exactly if that's your will."
"No!" She pressed her back against the wall, staring at him. "Never that! No illusions ... that is not what I want! How could I accept someone
looking like Arien, when I'd know it was false?"
Puck mentally kicked himself. "Then no, let it be as if unsaid!"
"He is not as a broken sword to me, that I must rush right out to the armorers and find a new one," Cat said somberly, fixing her gaze on him
more directly than ever before.
"No ... of course not."
"And flattering though it is that one such as you, longer-lived and with greater magic than any elf of my world, would say such things to me ...
I cannot return the sentiment. I am sorry, Puck."
"Cat, I --"
Miaow!
Cagney came ambling into view, walking along a ledge as carelessly as could be. Cat slipped away from Puck just as he was about to reach
out and caress the silken texture of her dark curls.
"Who's this?" she asked, gathering the cat into her arms -- oh, lucky Cagney!
"Elisa's cat," Puck said. "It was her worries over Cagney that led Alex to summon you here."
"Then I'd best return her straightaway, and spare Elisa more worry." Cat glanced at him for a lingering moment that made his breath catch in
his throat, really looking at him that time as a girl might look at a suitor.
He opened his mouth to speak, but she was gone like an eddy of night wind.
"Thistlebristles," he hissed, and folded his legs so that he plopped tailor-fashion onto a cushion of air. He crossed his arms as well, and pursed
his lips, and blew a raspberry at the watching moon. "How do you like that? I can play giddy love pranks on Titania herself, but ..."
"How'd it go?" queried Xanatos, coming up behind him with hair still damp from his post-workout shower.
"Spying on me?"
"Listening in, just like you were."
"Then you should know. Shot me down, not even a kiss, not even a hand-hold. Going to use it against me?"
"You must really think I'm heartless."
"The thought occurred."
"Well, it probably is for the best. I've seen Alphonse fight. Felt it, too ... he could give Mount Rushmore a broken jaw."
"Robin Goodfellow has never given in to the bullying of a transdimensional ogre before, and isn't about to start now."
"Since, with Alex sending them home tonight, it's a moot point?"
"Yup," said Puck glumly, returning his gaze to the moon. "That it is. But I'll say you this ... whoever that Arien is, I can't imagine what he was
thinking to let her get away."

**

The End



Page copyright 2000 Christine Morgan / christine@sabledrake.com