What Tomorrow Brings

Written by: Madame Destine
Email: m_destine@hotmail.com

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. The characters belong to their various creators: Buena Vista Television / The Walt Disney Company and The Gargoyles Saga, and they are used without their express knowledge or consent.

Warning: This is a work of adult fan fiction. Some scenes contain explicit depictions of sex, adult language, and are intended for mature readers only. If you are under the age of consent, please stop reading now.

* * * * *


Goliath stood at the front of his gathered clanmates with Talon at one shoulder and Hudson at the other. To Hudson's left and slightly to the rear, Demona, her wings caped about her shoulders shifted uneasily. Her conditional status as member of the clan still made her uncomfortable and she was well aware that she wasn't alone in the sentiment. Goliath was aware of her discomfort, he shared it; even before his ex-mate had come before the clan and announced she was no longer alone but had taken the artist Andrea Calhoun as her lover and mate, that Andrea was under her protection and by extension, that of Clan Manhattan.

Their ceremony had been of the ancient bonding ritual, spoken between lovers, just as his and Elisa's had been. He did not question its validity, but he was stunned at his ex-mate's choice. Even Angela, who of them all had the most contact with her mother, was taken aback by Demona's depth of feeling for the human woman, so carefully had she kept their courtship a secret.

He cleared his throat as he looked out at the small cluster of expectant faces. Delilah's Labyrinth clanmates, the Xanatoses and Matt had joined the Manhattan clan to witness the bonding. Ariana cried out softly "There they are!" And the others turned to see as Delilah, in a new white dress that accentuated the tan of her skin, and Lexington, wearing a black loin cloth with matching black bow tie, appeared from opposite sides of the courtyard and walked slowly to stand together before their clan leaders.

The couple joined hands and raised them to face the elders. Talon stepped forward. He placed his great, panther-like paw over their entwined fingers. Goliath broke ranks with Hudson and Demona and did the same. Once more he cleared his throat and then he began to speak. "Delilah has asked to be admitted to our clan, to take her place at Lexington's side. This act I approve."

Talon growled a little as he cleared his own throat. He was proud of Delilah. She was no longer the frightened victim she had been when she'd first come under his protection. The clone had gained in courage and confidence and Lexington's devotion to her had been instrumental. He felt strangely paternal as he spoke. "I too approve. And in return, I accept Lexington into my clan. He shall be brother and friend to all under my protection."

The two leaders removed their hands leaving the couple's talons entwined. Talon moved back and Goliath shifted slightly to stand centered before Lexington and Delilah.

Goliath spoke again, repeating the old words that would bind the pair together. He spoke them solemnly as benefited the occasion, but he was happy for the couple who had found each other in the face of their own adversities. "Lexington and Delilah have come before us to swear and affirm their love for each other." He looked down upon Delilah and remembered the first time he'd set eyes upon her. Then she'd been cowed and afraid, willing to do the bidding of others without hesitation. She'd changed and her gentle prodding had healed Lexington and Goliath had been glad. He gave her what he hoped was a comforting smile and then resumed the ritual. "Of all the decisions a female warrior must make, the choice of a life mate is perhaps the gravest of all. He will stand at her side, guard her back and be a source of comfort for her for as long as he lives."

The clan leader paused, turning his gaze to Lexington. The kite-winged male stood tall and proud, his lamp-like eyes wide and shining. "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."

"For as two vines woven together make a stronger rope, so it is when two warriors unite," Goliath stated. "And so now Delilah comes before this clan to declare her choice as mate. Delilah, do you affirm your choice?"

"Before the clan, I swear my love and affirm my choice." Her voice trembled just a little, as she gave the ritual response though whether it was fear at the grave undertaking or joy, it was difficult to tell.

"Lexington, you have been chosen," Goliath continued. "Do you accept the challenges that the future might hold?" The smaller gargoyle turned to Delilah and looked deep into her eyes. He seemed to be lost in their depths for a long moment and then he replied in a firm voice, "Before the clan, I swear my love."

"Then let it be known," Goliath intoned, "that these two are one in the eyes of the clan."

Even Demona shed a tear as the pair took the ceremonial flight around the castle.

* * * * *

One Month Later...

Elisa strolled through the bullpen, nodding to the various day shift detectives as they went off shift and greeting the others, like herself, who were straggling in to do the long night's work.

She stopped at her desk long enough to sift through the stack of pink phone messages and pick up her coffee cup. After stopping at the coffeepot and exchanging barbs with some of the other newly arriving detectives, Elisa returned to her desk. She had just noticed the absence of her partner Matt when Captain Chavez stuck her head out of her office and called to her. "Maza, in here. I need to talk to you."

Elisa took another swig of the acrid brew and nodded. A moment later she was seated before her captain, notepad and pen in hand. "What's up, Cap?" she inquired.

The older woman shuffled a stack of papers in front of her. "For starters," she began, "where is your partner?"

Elisa shrugged. "I don't know. I had errands to run before work and was running a little late myself. I thought he'd be here waiting on me. We're still trying to get an angle on the Central Park auto strippers and we were supposed to go through the crime scene reports and evidence files to see if we couldn't come up with a more defined pattern to the hits."

"I may be able to save you some desk work," Chavez said. "It's a long shot but Jimmy Sanchez, one of those Trey Deuce boys you busted a couple of months ago wants to talk. He says he has evidence that implicates a rival gang member."

"Revenge?" Elisa speculated as she wrote down the name.

"Most likely," the Captain agreed as she ran a hand through her short, but impeccably styled black hair. "But you know how this business goes. We have to take the information that's offered to us."

"In the spirit with which it's intended and a large grain of salt," Elisa finished with a small grin. "Still, to save their own skins, these guys have been known to come through for us. He's out at Rikers on warrants pending trial still, isn't he? I'll go talk to him. Maybe by the time I get back Matt will have shown up."

Chavez merely nodded as she handed Elisa Jimmy Sanchez's rap sheet and the transcript from his prison statement requesting a police interview. The detective scanned the documents as she closed the office door behind her and frowned as she realized that Matt had still yet to appear. She picked up the phone, calling first his apartment and then his cell phone and got no answer at either. Figuring he must have been detained en route, she next called the prison, advising them that she was heading over so that her witness could contact his lawyer. Phone calls completed and a quick survey of the night's hot sheets and other paperwork done. Elisa realized that she could wait for her partner no longer. She put on her red leather bomber jacket and headed for her interview.

* * * * *

The jail was as it had always been, cold, industrial and smelling of caged men and cleaning solvent. Elisa grimaced as she surrendered her gun to the guard and allowed him to lead her to an interview area. She nodded her thanks as he pulled out the chair and asked her if she needed anything. "No thanks, just bring in Sanchez and his lawyer if he's here so that we can get started."

Elisa pulled a small tape recorder from her jacket pocket, opened a fresh packet of batteries and a second of tape and got the machine ready. She was just completing her "test, test," playback when the door opened and a tall skinny Puerto Rican in prison overalls and a trim, but tough looking African American woman entered accompanied by a prison guard. The guard took his place in the corner by the door and the woman stuck out her hand. "Justine Ubari, Public Defender's office. And you are?"

Elisa stuck out her own hand. "Elisa Maza, 23rd precinct. I understand your client has something he wants to share with us."

"Only if you have a little something for me," he said with a smile as he slouched into one of the straight-backed metal chairs. The appreciative smile faded under Elisa's no nonsense stare and Sanchez shifted uncomfortably.

"What my client is trying to say," Ubari said smoothly as she took her own place at the table, "is that he would appreciate it greatly if you would pass along to the district attorney's office how cooperative Mr. Sanchez has been in the interest of justice and fair play. Perhaps by reducing the pending charges?"

Elisa shrugged. "I'm just a cop. What you're asking is out of my hands. I can write the reports and put in a good word..." She held up a hand. "assuming that what Mr. Sanchez has to offer is significant and not a gigantic waste of my time. So why don't we cut around the preliminaries and hear what he has to say. Shall we?"

The P.D. nodded. She had gotten all the assurances she could hope for considering they'd busted her client dead to rights. "Go head, Mr. Sanchez. Tell the good detective what you know."

He squirmed a little straighter in the uncomfortable chair as Elisa hit the "record" button, identified the occupants in the room and the matter at hand. When she finished she pointed the little recorder closer to her witness. "Your turn."

"Okay, it's like this. One of the Padrinos. Marco Reubens. He'd been sweet on mi prima, my cousin, Teresa." He grimaced and frowned, like the words were unpleasant to say. "She lived in their turf. We warned her to stay away from him, but she's kind of pigheaded. Next thing we know, they're hooking up. She's bought the dress, talked to the priest."

"What does this have to do with stripped out cars in Central Park, Jimmy?" Elisa said as the tape rolled on.

"I'm getting to it," Sanchez said. He looked at the steely glances of the two women and sighed. "Okay, I'm getting to it faster. Teresa was all set to marry this chusma when he dumps her for a puta he met on the street."

"Wait a minute," his lawyer interjected. "I thought you didn't want your cousin to hook up with this guy. Shouldn't you have been relieved when he called the wedding off?"

Sanchez's thin face grew taut with anger. "He humiliated her, lady. He may have been scum but she loved him. He shouldn't have treated her the way he did, embarrassing her in front of the entire neighborhood. Teresa couldn't take the shame. She overdosed two nights ago and they're gonna bury her in that fine new wedding dress."

Elisa nodded. "Okay, I see. You have a score to settle. Fair enough. So give me something I can use, Jimmy."

He leaned forward closer to the tape recorder. "Okay, here it is. Marco and some of the other Padrinos, they have a deal going. They're not actually jacking cars. They just put the word out they're looking for certain parts, no questions asked, and they'll pay top dollar. They have a warehouse they use as a base. That's their only permanent crib. Otherwise they put the word out that they'll be at a certain location at a certain time."

"Where's the warehouse, Jimmy?" Elisa said as she jotted down the pertinent facts to back up her tape of the interview.

"I think, but I'm not a hundred percent sure, that it's on the west side of the park behind the hotel district. They may have moved by now."

Elisa nodded again as she closed her notebook. "Thanks. If this checks out I'll talk to the D.A." The angry look hadn't faded from Sanchez's dark eyes. "I'm sorry for your loss, Jimmy. Your cousin paid too high a price for getting involved with the wrong guy."

He looked up from the space he'd been studying on the worn gray table. "You're right, detective. You took us out of play so we couldn't settle Teresa's account. Now you make things right and get Marco Reubens. You make him pay. Or put him someplace where we can do it ourselves."

Elisa let it pass. She'd note it in her report so that when they finally did catch up with Reubens, the state might take notice and not house him in the same block as a Trey Deuce, but the prison system was over crowded and there were few guarantees in life. She sighed and signaled the guard she was ready to leave.

On the way back to the precinct she tried Matt again with the same result. She considered swinging by his apartment, but the information Sanchez had provided was important and needed to be checked into. She ignored the worm of worry that began to wiggle at the back of her skull and returned to the police station.

* * *

It was much later in the evening. Elisa stared at the empty chair in front of her and frowned. She hadn't heard a word from Matt all night. Her hand hesitated over the telephone, then withdrew. She glanced at her watch. Her shift wasn't over for two more hours. With a frown, Elisa pulled on her jacket and crossed to the captain's office. She knocked.

"Elisa, you turned some good information tonight," Captain Chavez said as she looked up from the stack of reports in front of her.

"Thanks, Captain," Elisa acknowledged, pleased by the compliment. "I was wondering if I'd be all right if I checked out a little early. I'm worried about Matt. It's not really like him to go missing like this."

"No, he's usually calls in, even when the excuses are hard to swallow," Chavez nodded her head. "Go ahead, detective. For his sake, he better be dying, or by the time I get done with him he'll wish he was."

"I don't doubt it," Elisa said softly as she recalled Captain Chavez's special brand of guilt-laden tongue-lashing. "I'll keep you posted."

"You do that." A moment later, Chavez was back at her paperwork. For the second time that night, Elisa closed the door softly behind her and exited the Detective's Bullpen.

* * * * *

There was space in front of Matt's apartment building generous enough even for Elisa's somewhat exacting standards. She eased the red and white classic car smoothly against the curb and stepped out, bumping the door closed with her hip. A few steps later she had bypassed the creeping elevator in favor of the four flights of stairs and the apartment Matt shared with Sara Jasper.

She knocked. Both detectives worked night shift so the apartment should have been empty but there was a noise on the other side of the door. Elisa knocked again. "Matt?" she called then added, "Sara?"

There was a crash, glass breaking and a sound not unlike a moan. Elisa frowned. She slipped her keys from her jacket pocket and inserted the spare for Matt's apartment into the door. Then she withdrew her gun from beneath her jacket. "Matt? Open up. It's Elisa!"

There was another crash and a thud. Elisa wrenched the door open and gun drawn, she stepped inside leveling it at the only moving object in the room...

Matt looked up at her with stricken eyes. He attempted to crawl to his feet, stumbled over his own shoes and fell. The apartment looked different, Elisa noted automatically. She couldn't place the change right off and shoved it to the background as she focused on her partner. "Matt! Are you all right?" She put her gun away and hurried to his side.

The stench of alcohol was overwhelming and, involuntarily, Elisa repelled away from her partner. Bourbon and beer. He staggered as she shied away and nearly pulled her down with him.

"'Lisa, whaderyoudoin'here?" he slurred as she caught his weight anew and helped him onto the couch.

"I came looking for you," she said. "You missed work tonight. I could have used you there." She looked at the nearly empty fifth of whiskey sitting on the table and the scatter of empty beer bottles that littered the floor. "Is this a private party or can anyone join in?"

Matt's face crumbled. "Isssa wake," He picked up his glass, poured a healthy shot that emptied the bourbon bottle and tossed it back. "I'm waking m'lovelife. May it rest in pieces." He threw the glass across the room and it shattered against the hearth as the lanky redhead buried his head in his hands.

Elisa scanned the apartment again and realized what she'd missed. Everything belonging to Sara was gone. There were fewer books on the shelf, the battered stuffed bear that previously had sat on the worn arm chair was no longer in its place. The photos of her and Matt that had gradually begun to fill up the walls during the months of their courtship had disappeared. She'd cleared out.

"Came home," Matt explained, though his words were muffled, "all gone. She's gone. Lefta note."

Feeling a little guilty for prying into her partner's private life, Elisa picked up the much-handled sheet of writing paper. It was written in blue ink and Sara's penmanship was precise as if she were filling out a crime scene report, though Elisa noted as she first scanned and then slowly read the document that occasionally the clinical script faltered.

"Matt," it began. No endearment, just "Matt".

"If this seem harsh, I'm sorry, but sometimes quick is better. It isn't working between us. Not like it ought to. It's not that you haven't tried. But we are who we are and your secrets are too much like mine. I can't live this life, not a cop's life. And not a life of secrets. I've already left the state. Don't look for me. I don't want to be found."

There was no signature.

A tight knot of anger coiled in the pit of Elisa's stomach. She crumpled the note, adding to the network of creases that already crisscrossed its surface and dropped it back to the table. "Oh, Matt," she said. "I'm so sorry."

He stirred at her side, tried to sit up and slumped against the cushions of the well-worn couch. A moment later he was snoring. Elisa shook her head. There was no way she could leave him in the state he was in. Her own plans for the rest of the night, her few precious hours with Goliath, were shot. Matt was in a dangerous state. Drunk and depressed, there was no telling what he would do.

She rose from the couch and searched the apartment until she found his service revolver and his backup gun, and double-checked them both to make sure they were empty. Then she removed his supply of ammunition and took it and the guns down to her car where she locked them in the trunk.

Elisa returned to the apartment a few minutes later. Her partner had not stirred. She moved into the bedroom so as not to disturb him and dialed the phone.

It rang three times and then Hudson picked up.

Elisa greeted the clan elder. "May I talk to Goliath?" she asked as soon as the pleasantries were out of the way.

"I'm sorry, lass," Hudson replied. "But Goliath is on one of those conference calls with the Council. I'm afraid he can't be disturbed right now."

Elisa sighed. It seemed this just wasn't their night. "That's okay. Just tell him for me that a situation came up and I'm at Matt's. Tell him-" she grew shy and hesitated and she could nearly see Hudson smiling.

"That's okay, lass. I know what you want me to say. He misses you too."

They exchanged a few more words then Elisa rang off, shucking her jacket and shoes as she hung up the phone. She wondered if she should try and sober her partner up before putting him to bed then thought the better of it. For one night he deserved his escape from pain. He'd earned it.

Elisa spoke to him softly as she pulled him to his feet and helped him stagger into the bedroom. She ignored his muttered replies. They were nonsensical anyway - something about crickets or grasshoppers.

Matt had already jerked the knot of his necktie loose. Elisa untied it the rest of the way and removed it and his shoes and belt. She propped his head up on a stack of pillows and covered him up to the chest with a blanket.

Elisa found a chair and blanket for herself and settled in to watch over her partner.

* * * * *

Matt groaned as he woke and his senses kicked slowly into gear. The light that filtered through his bedroom window stabbed at his barely open eyes. His head throbbed in time to his heartbeat and his mouth... there was no describing the incredibly evil flavor that curdled his tongue.

He attempted to rise from the bed, and wondered absently how he'd gotten there. His stomach lurched and he dropped back down, breathing slowly and heavily as he swallowed convulsively. Five minutes later, when he was sure he could make the short trip to the bathroom, he tried again.

The room swam and the nausea returned, but not as strongly, and he stumbled into the bathroom. First the small rubber stopper into the drain, then the cold water tap on high. Matt stuck his face under the spray, pausing long enough to rinse the fur off of his tongue. The icy water felt good against his pounding skull and he gingerly massaged his temples with clumsy fingers.

When he thought he could face his reflection, Matt straightened and stared into the mirror. "Death warmed over," he muttered as he tried to focus on his bloodshot eyes and stubble-ridden chin. He eyed the shower, considered his unsteady knees and decided cleanliness could wait in favor of coffee.

The detective lurched into the kitchen. Unsteady on his feet as he was he ignored his surroundings concentrating his feeble attention on the coffee maker that stood prominently on the counter. Matt scratched his unshaven face. The machine wasn't in its normal spot against the paper towel dispenser. He reached for the basket. It was full of grounds and there was already water in the reserve tank. "When did I get so organized?" the lanky redhead muttered as he hit the "on" switch.

Three minutes seemed like an eternity but the aromatic vapor was a start and Matt breathed of the fumes deeply. When the pot was nearly full he poured a cup, also neatly lain out, and shuffled over to his favorite easy chair adjacent to the couch.

He sipped and his stomach didn't rebel overmuch so he took a deeper swallow of the bitter liquid.

"Smells good," a voice muttered from the direction of the couch. Matt nearly dropped his cup as the blanket thrown carelessly over the sofa stirred and Elisa emerged from its depths.

"Elisa?" her partner said in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

Elisa yawned and ran a hand through her disheveled black hair, patting it down somewhat into place. Then the female member of the detective team rose from her blanket and poured her own cup of coffee. "I went looking for you last night," Elisa replied after taking several swallows. Another yawn. "I didn't like what I found. I put you to bed and then hung around to make sure you stayed okay."

Matt shook his head and then regretted the gesture as pain lanced through his skull. "Sorry, I don't remember much about last night."

Elisa's dark eyes turned unreadable. She set down her coffee mug and then crossed to join her partner. Elisa removed the mug of still scalding coffee from his hands before replying. "Sara took off. She cleaned out her stuff, quit her job and left town. From what you said last night it was kind of unexpected."

Matt's face crumpled as his recollection of the previous day became clear. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I remember now." He looked over at his partner who'd resumed her spot on the sofa. "When did you show up?"

Elisa shrugged. "A lot of Boiler Makers after you found her note if I read the scene right. I should warn you, the captain wasn't real happy with you not showing up last night. We got some new information on the car part case."

Matt shrugged his shoulders as if to say he wasn't surprised. "I guess I'll tell her I was sick."

"Not entirely a lie," Elisa replied with a grimace. "I rinsed out your shirt the best I could and put it in your hamper. You'll want to get that one to the cleaners as soon as you can."

"I-" Matt said as he swallowed hard and noticed belatedly that he was bare to the waist. "And you-" He pointed to his partner.

"I held your head and made sure you hit the bowl. It wasn't your proudest moment, partner, but under the circumstances, don't worry about it."

He avoided her eyes as he replied, "Thanks."

"It's okay, Matt. You had your life turned upside down," she replied not willing to mention Sara's name. "If we'd reversed situations I -" Elisa couldn't finish the sentence. Waking up one night and finding Goliath gone with only a note to explain? "I don't know what I'd do."

"I still don't," Matt replied, miserably. "How could she do this to me, Elisa? Yeah, we had problems. The last couple of weeks we were arguing a lot. I thought it was cold feet. You know just wedding jitters. And her work, I know that wasn't helping. It was a mistake for her to move to Hate Crimes. She knew it. She identified with the perps and it made her guilty. And she related to the victims and that made it worse. Sara wasn't cutting it and her captain knew it. I think he was getting ready to transfer her for her own good off the unit."

"I guess that explains the sudden career change," Elisa speculated. "Sara wouldn't deal well if she thought she'd failed. She wanted that assignment to make amends for the hurt she'd caused. At least that's what she told me when she put in for it."

"I know. She told me the same thing." Matt swallowed more coffee and grimaced.

Without a word, Elisa rose, retrieved the pot and refilled their cups. She then returned to the kitchen, and rummaged through the refrigerator until she found the last quarter of a loaf of white bread. She stalled, fiddling with the toaster settings to give her partner time to wrestle with his pain. Only when the toast popped up, golden brown and fragrant, did she stir from the safety of the kitchen.

"Here, eat a little if you can." Elisa set the dry white toast and a glass of orange juice down in front of Matt. "Do you have any vitamin pills?" she added almost as an afterthought. Elisa stopped herself before she asked another inane question. She was unwilling to deal with Matt's pain and the knowledge shamed her.

Matt picked apart a piece of toast, peeling the crust off and dunking it halfheartedly in the orange juice. "You don't have to do this, Elisa. I'm a big boy. I got dumped. I got drunk. It hurts, but I'll live."

He was withdrawing too, Elisa noted clinically. Trying to reclaim his dignity, or what was left of it. It was tempting to argue with him. To remind him of the sorry state he'd been in when she'd burst into his apartment at 4:00 in the morning. "Sure. I can call the station for you, let them know that you've came down with a tremendous case of ...food poisoning and you were too sick to call in yourself."

Matt swallowed orange juice gingerly. He nearly spit it back into the glass as he noticed an unaccustomed addition to the beverage. "What did you put in there?" he sputtered.

Elisa looked up from the telephone and shushed him. She muttered a few more words into the receiver before replying, "Ground ginger. For the nausea. It's something I picked up from my sophomore roommate in college." Matt made a face. "It will help. I promise." A few more words into the phone and then she hung up and folded the little cell phone and dropped it into her jacket pocket. The jacket went over her arm. "I told them at the station that you were too sick to work tonight too. Get some sleep. I'll be at the castle later if you want to talk. Oh," Elisa added as she pulled her keys from her jacket pocket. "Don't worry about your guns. They're safe. You can have them when you're ready to go back to work."

He looked up at her surprised and just a little ashamed. "That bad, huh?"

Elisa nodded and left her partner to pick up his pieces.

* * * * *

It had begun to rain by the time Elisa arrived at the Xanatos complex. The detective growled with irritation and the beginnings of a sleep deprivation headache, a remnant of her long morning with Matt. She parked in the underground garage and took the ever-efficient freight elevator up to the castle proper where she was greeted by Owen Burnett.

The majordomo was engaged in the delivery of dinner to the Xanatos's private wing and his greeting was polite but brief as he wheeled the silver capped butler's tray through the main hall.

Elisa returned his greeting and asked about his day.

"Eventful as always, detective," Owen replied cryptically, as he continued on his way.

The detective smiled in a self-depreciating way. What else had she expected? For the taciturn jack of all trades to lean on his cart and dish gossip? She shook her head and quickened her pace towards the gargoyle's wing of the castle, hoping to find Goliath.

Instead, she found Brooklyn, who was sitting in the common room studying the newspaper. He smiled as Elisa cleared her throat, breaking his concentration.

"Hey, Elisa," he greeted. "Have you seen tonight's news?"

She shook her head. "Uh-uh, too busy with other things. What's up?"

The former time dancer pointed to an item in the local news section. "Angela made page three. She's appearing tonight at a meeting sponsored by P.I.T. Now that we've been declared Sentient Non Humans and supposedly have the right not to be hunted in the streets, the public wants to get to know more about us."

"That's a good thing, isn't it?" Elisa said. In the hassle of the last couple of days she'd lost track of the calendar and Angela's public appearance. "If you guys are going to become completely recognized as citizens then you have to start appearing openly. I'll admit that it won't be easy at first...but change will happen. It just takes time."

"I know," Brooklyn acknowledged reluctantly. The age lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes reminding Elisa that he probably did know how this was all going to play out. "It's just hard watching the process."

Elisa studied the gargoyle before her. One night he'd been a youth, minutes later he'd been transformed. In the blink of an eye he'd gained twenty years and his face reflected that they'd not all been easy ones. Like the others she wanted to know what he'd seen, what Sata and the twins had experienced. But all of them had tried to respect the shroud of secrecy that veiled the time dancers. She felt compelled to ask and the question slipped from her lips. "It will be okay, won't it?"

Brooklyn frowned, hesitated and shrugged. "Elisa, I can't say. I know you well enough not to lie to you. You'd know it if I was. I don't know the moment by moment events that will occur. Even when I had the opportunity to learn more about what shaped the things I saw, I turned away. I didn't want to know. It made it easier to accept each present as it was. I never knew where time was going to take me next. I didn't want to have to always second guess myself or those around me." Brooklyn's beak puckered bitterly. "Maybe somebody else, someone smarter or wiser would have handled things differently."

Elisa tried to fathom herself in a similar position and couldn't. "I doubt it," she replied sympathetically. "You didn't know when or if you'd every find your way home or what things would have been like when you got there. And assuming you did find your way back to us, who'd want to be an observer for the rest of their days? It'd be like trying to live a movie you'd already watched." She shrugged. "Lame analogy, I guess. But I can't think of any better. It's been a long day and I still have a long night ahead of me. Speaking of which, are you free for a little surveillance job?"

Brooklyn shook his head. "Sorry, can't. I'm going with Broadway to keep an eye on Angela. But I could detail Sata and the kids to help you."

"Thanks," the detective replied. "That'd be perfect. I want to go say hi to Goliath first and then I'll fill them in on what's going on."

Brooklyn's face grew troubled again. "He's already in a meeting, Elisa." The crimson gargoyle set aside the newspaper and rose. He paced a little as though trying to compose his thoughts. "This Gargoyle Council." He shook his shaggy mane of long white hair. "It seemed like such a good idea at the time Goliath came up with it. I mean it is a good idea!" Brooklyn corrected himself quickly and emphatically. "It's just who knew that we gargoyles had the capacity to be as stubborn and political as you humans?"

Brooklyn's agitation was infectious. Elisa gave him a long contemplative look. "What do you mean, Brooklyn?"

"The usual," he said evasively. "Power plays, manipulating for the best position on all these committees, the need for one clan to dominate its ways over the others."

Worry prickled the back of Elisa's neck and her headache throbbed against her temples. "Is there something specific going on?"

Brooklyn raised his hands defensively. "Elisa, this is one of those times when I think everything will turn out okay, but I don't know how."

"Brooklyn-" Elisa warned, her temper foreshortened by her rough day. "What is happening? What is this meeting about that Goliath has been caught in for the last two nights?"

The gargoyle sighed. "I'm not sure. Goliath isn't talking, not to me anyway. But he was muttering something about 'clan rights' after last night's conference call."

"Clan rights? That doesn't make any sense. Don't all the clans have the same rights within the structure of the Council?"

"I thought so," Brooklyn said with a shrug. "Before I forget, Goliath left a message for you. He's sorry he couldn't see you tonight and asked if you'd make sure to come back here later, after your shift."

"I will," the detective replied.

Hudson entered, Bronx at his heels, a sheaf of papers in his talons. Elisa looked at her watch and sighed. It was nearly time to leave for work. "Look, I've got some bad news of my own. Matt's wedding is off. I don't really want to go into the details right now, but he's really broken up about it. I think I persuaded him to stay home tonight, so Hudson, if you're not busy or Brooklyn, if you and Broadway could swing by his place after Angela finishes her speaking engagement, I think he might be able to use the company."

"I was going to step over to Robbin's tonight," Hudson replied. " We're working on chapter revisions. But I can look in at Matt's on my way there."

Elisa nodded. "That would be great." She turned to Brooklyn. "Could we find Sata and the twins now? I'd like to tell them what I had in mind before I go."

The crimson gargoyle nodded. "They were in the gym. Come on, I'll walk you over."

The trio parted, Elisa and Brooklyn to find his family and Hudson to prepare for his visit to his blind friend.

They walked the castle corridors in silence each lost in their own thoughts. Brooklyn opened the heavy padded door of the gymnasium to find a full blown martial arts class in session. Sata stood at the front leading the group through closing katras while his children, Fox and Alexander, in a tiny white belted gi, followed along.

"I wish I'd gotten here sooner," Elisa remarked as the group finished their closing salutes. I could use one of Sata's refresher courses."

"You know you're welcome anytime," Brooklyn said, acknowledging the unspoken compliment of his mate's abilities.

The small class broke up and Sata bowed as she greeted Brooklyn and Elisa. "You are nearly ready to escort Angela-chan, my mate?"

Brooklyn looked up at the large round clock on the opposing wall. "Yeah, we need to head out. But I have a change of assignments for you and the kids." He looked towards his children, still engaged in a mock fight with Alexander and waved them over. "Ari, Graeme, come here a minute. Your Aunt Elisa has a job for you!"

Alexander looked disappointed at the loss of his playmates, but he took it in stride as Fox lifted him up and swung him around. He giggled and levitated his mother a foot off the ground so that they were both rotating freely.

"Auntie Elisa!" Ari cried. "Where have you been lately? We never see you!"

Elisa looked chagrined. Time at the castle had been precious of late. She and Goliath had dominated the bulk of what little they had together hiding away in their chambers or the library as she tried to help the clan leader unwind from the stresses of dealing with inter-clan politics. "I know, kiddo, life has been way too busy. But let me try and make it up to you." She knelt down so that she was at eye level with the two twins. "How would you like to help me with a case I'm investigating?"

"A real police investigation?" Graeme said dubiously. "Not just patrolling for muggers and purse snatchers?"

Elisa nodded. "Yep, and you guys are the only ones who can do this job. I need you to do a surveillance stake out." She dug into her inside jacket pocket and extracted an envelope which she handed to Sata. "Inside are some pictures of two men we're interested in talking to about a ring of car part thieves. The men fence the stolen parts for juvenile gang members and anyone else out to make a dishonest buck." Sata's face soured at the idea of corrupted youth. "We think they're working out of a warehouse someplace in this area." Elisa pointed out a section on an aerial photo and again on a standard street map. "The problem is, we don't want to spook them. There's a lot of trucks moving in and out of this block and we're not sure which, if any, of these warehouses they're using."

She looked at the two young gargoyles to emphasize the importance of their role. "I need you to be my eyes and ears. If us cops go sniffing around then they'll get nervous and fold up shop. I don't want that to happen. Find these two but don't confront them. Get me pictures at the location." Elisa pulled a camera out of her pocket and handed it to Ariana. "And call me if you see or hear anything." She slipped a tiny cell phone into Graeme's talons. "Any questions?"

"When do we get started?" Graeme asked eagerly.

Elisa exchanged a smile with Sata over the children's feral smiles. "Tonight." Elisa regained her feet and stepped back as Sata instructed her young ones further.

"Go, my loves," she said mildly. "Change your clothing and prepare yourselves for the hunt. We will leave here as soon as you are ready."

The twins bowed, their excitement barely constrained, and as soon as their mother acknowledged the gesture of respect they tore out of the gymnasium.

"Your timing has been most auspicious, Elisa-san," Sata remarked. "The children have grown restless. The current political situation both within and without of the castle has required them to be more circumspect then their nature prefers."

Elisa thought she could understand. Groups such as P.I.T. and the Guardian Angels were petitioning to gain official recognition for the gargoyle's need to protect. Some city leaders were beginning to favor a plan deputizing the clan so they could play a legitimate role in the protection of the city. Until then, they'd been asked to pull back until the wheels of progress could grind away at the bureaucracy.

Goliath had chafed at the idea, but had yielded in the face of his other, growing, responsibilities. The clan had found new ways to occupy their time: Hudson had his budding writing career and Delilah had invited the others to find work in the Labyrinth to busy them. But for the two exuberant twins it had been a difficult time.

"Sometimes it's not easy being a kid," Elisa acknowledged. "But this isn't a busywork assignment. I need to tie these guys to this warehouse. It's key to my case. If there were any other way to get into the area, I'd use it, but the situation is just too volatile right now to risk tipping our hand."

"I understand, Elisa-san," Sata replied. "We will bring you your proof, so that you may bring these criminals to justice." The jade green gargoyle bowed deeply and Elisa bent at the waist in return. The two females walked a short distance together before splitting up, each to their own night's obligations.

* * * * *

Matt stood at his bathroom mirror. He looked himself in the face and studied his reflection critically. His eyes were only faintly bloodshot due to the liberal use of eye drops. His cheeks were cleanly shaven, though there was a pair of nicks on his chin where his hands had grown unsteady while using the razor. He ran a comb through his short auburn hair and straightened the crooked knot of his tie. He didn't feel one hundred percent. "Why lie to myself?" he admitted to his reflection. "I don't even feel fifty percent. But I won't den in here like a beaten dog. I'm a man. And a man doesn't hide from his responsibilities no matter how rotten he feels."

"I'm glad you feel that way, Matthew," said a voice from the doorway.

Matt turned, startled. Martin Hacker stood leaning against the door frame looking much the same as he always did, neat cap perched atop his head, overcoat lightly speckled with the persistent drizzle that had only recently turned to rain. "Why are you here, Hacker? What do you want?"

Hacker held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "I just wanted to swing by, see for myself how you were doing. Word got out about your girl."

Matt's face drew into a hostile scowl. "Did you-"

Hacker turned serious. "Don't even go there, Matthew. The Society isn't interested in manipulating your love life, contrary to what you might think. What they are interested in is the mental health of one of their more promising junior members. I know how you treat love, partner. When I heard the news, I needed to see for myself that you were holding together."

Matt blinked, trying to make sure if the man standing before him was real or a leftover alcohol delusion. "I can't believe you were ever my partner, Hacker. That for nearly two years you ate my food and fed me that line about how we were just two regular guys out to make our marks on the criminal justice system. You pretended to be my friend."

The Illuminatus shook his head. "That wasn't an act, Matthew. I was your friend. I always had your best interests at heart. I still do."

"Yeah," Matt replied bitterly. "As long as they coincided with the Society's."

"Fine," Hacker said. "Don't believe me. But I'm around if you want to talk. You know how to reach me."

Matt turned away. He didn't want to talk to Hacker. He didn't want to talk to anyone. The hurt was still too close to the surface. The desire to let it overwhelm him too great. He looked up to reply, but his ex-partner was gone. "Get used to it, Bluestone," the detective counseled himself. "You're probably going to get a lot of that tonight." With one more savage tug at his tie, Matt turned away from the mirror. So involved was he in his own thoughts, he didn't hear Hudson's tap on the window against the sound of the beating rain.

* * * * *

Elisa shed her wet jacket at the squad room's threshold and wove through the spaces between people and desks. She felt eyes upon her and one or two of the other detectives half rose as if to stop her, but they retreated before they'd committed themselves to the act. Word spread fast in the Blue Fraternity. Without a doubt nearly the entire 23rd had heard about Matt being dumped and Sara quitting the force.

Elisa angled toward the Captain's office. It was a preemptive strike. She knew Maria Chavez would call her in as soon as Elisa's presence was noted.

She stopped and stared in surprise, one hand on the door handle, the other poised to knock. The Captain was seated at her usual spot talking to the redheaded occupant of the only other chair in the room. Elisa knew that high forehead and carefully combed cowlick. "Matt," she whispered. Against her advice he'd made it into the station under his own power. Quietly she withdrew. Whether he stayed was dependent on the Captain's assessment. Elisa would know soon enough if she had a partner for the remainder of the shift.

* * * * *

Goliath broke the connection of the conference call and expelled a frustrated breath. The uniqueness of gargoyle physiology had been the source of many difficulties since the Council was formed, not the least of which was communicating across time zones. He had spoken in real time to as many of the committee members who were awake and recorded his statement of objection to be viewed later by those whose sleep cycle conflicted with his own.

Still, it seemed he had lost this argument. He was angry and heartsick and he did not know how he was going to break the news to any of his clanmates. Fortunately, it seemed he would be spared for a little time. No one was waiting for him when he stepped out of the small stone chamber that had become his office.

Goliath retreated to the library. He closed the heavy wood doors behind him and retreated to his favorite spot high among the stacks. There, he allowed himself to sink under the depths of his despair. His words to the Council replayed themselves as he wondered if perhaps he should have taken a different tact. If instead of speaking of love and honor he should have begged they show more compassion or argued that their decision violated the tenants of his clan's law and therefore were unacceptable.

"And they are unacceptable!" His eyes glowed an angry white and his tail lashed threateningly at the sturdy wooden ladder. "Once vows of love and commitment are spoken they may only be broken by those that gave their oath. No one else has that right!"

Still, what choice did he have but to comply? The rulings of the Breeding Subcommittee had been agreed upon by all clans, some more reluctantly than others, it was true. Gargoyle numbers were perilously low. The Unseelie crisis had caused them to fall even further. It was paramount to their survival that every eligible gargoyle, male or female take a mate and when the time came, contribute to their clan's rookery. Their survival as a species depended on it.

Goliath sighed. Ponderously he descended the ladder and looked at the mantle clock. He had a little time before he had to break his news.

* * * * *

Elisa and Matt returned the department issue sedan to the motor pool and reclaimed Elisa's prized Fairlane. The raven-haired detective eyed the mechanic suspiciously as he tossed her the keys. "You guys drove it, didn't you?"

The squat dark man nodded his head good-naturedly. "I did," he admitted. "Once. I had to move it from the space you left it in to make room for a cruiser that needed a valve job. Other than that, it never left the lot."

Matt rolled his eyes over the exchange. Elisa could be a little manic about the aging Ford. "If you drove a newer car, partner, you wouldn't have to worry so much."

"I like my car," she replied as if that closed the discussion. And Matt knew that if he wanted a ride home, it would.

"Whatever you say," he agreed as he slid into the passenger seat.

"If it's all the same to you, Matt," Elisa said casually. "I'm ready to call it quits for the shift. I want to see if our surveillance team had any luck."

"Whatever you say, boss," Matt replied. "I could probably use the extra sleep anyway."

Elisa eased the car into gear, pointed it out of the police garage and into the steady rain. "It's picked up again," she noted automatically.

"Yeah." Matt shifted against the bench seat and stared out the window.

Silence filled the car as Elisa cruised toward her partner's apartment. Her thoughts turned inward. It seemed Matt would survive his crisis. She was relieved. But it brought her uneasily back to her earlier conversation with Brooklyn. What had he meant when he said 'he thought everything would turn out all right'?

"I'll pick you up tomorrow," Elisa said as she parked neatly at the curb. "But if you want or need anything, call me, okay? Even if it's just to talk."

Matt smiled tightly. He'd had that offer more than once already. He parroted the appropriate words back, but this time he meant them. "Thanks, Elisa. I mean it. For last night, especially. But I think it's gonna take me a while before talking's an option."

Elisa nodded. "You know where to reach me." She made sure he made it inside the apartment building before pulling away from the curb. As she did so, her cell phone rang. With a sigh she flipped the tiny clamshell open. "Maza."

"Elisa, lass, it's Hudson. About Matt… I tried to stop by to talk to him but he was going out just as I arrived."

The detective smiled at the elderly gargoyle's thoughtfulness. "Thanks, Hudson. I know. He pulled himself together enough to go to work. We just called it quits for the night and now he's safely home."

"That's good to know." There was a noticeable hesitation in the old soldier's gruff voice. "Do I take it to mean that you're free then?"

Elisa's eyes narrowed. The alarm bells in her head were starting to jangle. "Yeah. I was just on my way over. Is something wrong?"

They rose to a claxon as Hudson replied, "That's not for me to say, lass. But Goliath has called a meeting of the clan. He's got news of the Council."

* * * * *

Elisa didn't slam the cherry colored emergency light on the top of her car, nor did she hit the siren, though she was sorely tempted as she dodged an amber light and hurried to the Eyrie Building. Hudson's burring tone was mellow as always, but there was an unspoken suggestion that time was of the essence.

When she arrived a few minutes later, just slightly out of breath, the assembled clan had gathered in their snug common room. Their faces were a study in anger and despair. Delilah was crying openly, her head buried against Lexington's shoulder, while Angela tried to comfort her from the opposite side.

Broadway had taken a similar post near his rookery brother standing protectively at his shoulder. Elisa heard him say, "Don't worry, Lex. There has to be a way around this," while Sata and Brooklyn exchanged heated words in Japanese from across the room.

"What is going on?" the detective asked, raising her voice to catch everyone's attention. "And where is Goliath?"

He appeared from his office carrying a sheaf of papers between his talons. "I am here, my Elisa. And I am grateful for your presence."

Elisa crossed to his side slipping her arm around his broad waist while allowing him to cradle her head briefly against his chest. "I'm here now. What's happened? Why is Delilah crying and Lexington so angry?"

Goliath pulled her back into the recesses of his chamber. "I had to tell them separately. It wouldn't have been right to reveal the Breeding Subcommittee's decision to the clan without preparing them first."

"Oh no." Elisa sat down. "What have they done?"

"Lexington has been assigned a mate. A female from the Egyptian clan named Miw. The subcommittee chair is the clan's matriarch and she would not be swayed in pressing her case."

Elisa stared in non-comprehension at the clan leader. "But don't they understand? Lexington has a mate. He has sworn his fidelity before our clan! Doesn't that count for something?" she protested.

Goliath shook his head and pinched at the bridge of his nose to relieve the pressure building behind his eyes. "To us it is everything. But this was one of those unforeseen cultural differences we failed to anticipate. For Miw's people it is a sign of great honor to have more than one mate. Her matriarch, Senen is trying to curry favor by providing her unattached females to our males."

Elisa, though she had been somewhat dulled by the stresses of the last day and night, raised a hand to halt any further words. "Wait a minute, Goliath," the detective said, noting at once the significant plural. "You said 'males', not 'male'. Who else is Senen planning to honor?"

Goliath knelt before his lover and took her hands in his. Elisa grew numb and her heart began to hammer in her chest. "Oh no! Goliath, no!" she whispered.

He nodded, as miserable as the woman who took his chin in her hand and forced him to meet her gaze. "I argued that my vow to you was as inviolate as if it were to any of our kind. I argued that I already had a child. It seemed to matter not. Because of the technology we have provided to the others our clan is perceived to be powerful despite its small size. Senen is not the only one who has suggested forging bonds of alliance through the exchange of mates."

"Don't I have any say in this?" Elisa protested. "Doesn't Delilah?"

"According to the rules of the council, none of us do." Goliath rose, taking Elisa with him and embracing her in the protective shield of his wings. "I had no idea when I proposed a world council that matters would spin so far out of control," the Manhattan clan leader said bitterly. "I should have left well enough alone!"

"We'll fight this, Goliath," Elisa replied grimly. "Somehow we'll find a way to fight this."

But neither she, nor any of the others, had come up with a solution when the clan later went their separate ways.

* * * * *

Upstairs in her suite, Elisa slept, remembering happier times. The previous night she and Goliath had retreated to their own private sanctuary. He had taken her to bed and loved her gently, taking comfort in the physical act when words had failed them both.

It had been with greatest reluctance that he had left their bed. Only the coming dawn had driven Goliath from Elisa's embrace.

Now she dreamed. "I would choose you for my mate, my Elisa. If you would have me."

Even in sleep the words surprised her.

She pulled back, stunned at the words she had long to, but never truly believed, she would hear. "You want me to marry you?"

"Marriage is a human tradition, a custom born of contracts and alliances," Goliath corrected. "No, Elisa, it is my desire that you and I should become one heart, one mind, one soul, for as long as we both shall live."

"No!" the dark-haired woman muttered in her sleep. "Our love isn't about politics! It's about what's in our hearts!"

"My Elisa. My love." Goliath rose, cradling his beloved in his arms. He pushed the chair roughly away from the table, toppling it to the floor. Taking several quick strides, he carried her to the living room and laid her gently down on the sheepskin rug.

"I've dreamed about this moment for a long time, Goliath," Elisa whispered softly as she rose to her knees and began to explore the muscular gargoyle's body. She began trail small, wet kisses from the crest of his collarbone, working her way down along his rib cage. "I love the scent of your skin," she murmured as she savored a spot at the curve of his waist.

"You do?" the gargoyle replied, pleasantly surprised.

"Mmmm," she replied as she trailed her tongue along his abdomen and began to work back towards his sternum.

"Elisa," he moaned as he unfurled his wings. Reaching downward, the lavender gargoyle began to caress the gentle curve of her neck. His hands slipped lower and he began to massage the muscles of her back through the thin fabric of her blouse.

She looked up at him, dark eyes shining with desire. "Here." Pausing her exploration for a moment, Elisa pulled reluctantly away from her lover. With trembling hands, she undid the small beaded buttons. With a shrug of her shoulders, the blouse fell away revealing a satiny beige bra.

Goliath reached forward, pulling the dark-haired woman into his embrace. He leaned forward, rubbing his cheek against hers as he fumbled with the unfamiliar garment. The fabric tore and it slipped away under his caress. Elisa pushed him gently away and stood bare-breasted before him. She did something with the catch of her skirt and it pooled around her feet, leaving her clad only in the briefest wisp of satiny fabric. She stepped out of her shoes and away from her clothes then hesitated, enjoying the feeling of anticipation and Goliath's lust filled growl, before sliding the panties down over the swell of her buttocks and revealing the triangle of dark curls. He reached forward again, running a talon over the springy-soft hair already damp with desire before Elisa stepped backwards with a coy smile.

"We were always so careful not to take things too far," she murmured. "I ached for you to touch me here." She ran her hands slowly over the curve of her breasts, arching her back sensuously. "But I didn't dare let you." Goliath stared, transfixed, as he watched his love's provocative display. He swallowed hard as months of repressed passion welled up inside him. The blood began to sing in his ears and he did not notice Elisa had stepped behind him until she began to rub his shoulders. Goliath growled quietly. "You on the other hand, always got just a little tense when I touched you… here." Elisa pressed her body against the brawny gargoyle's back, straddling the base of his tail between her legs and squeezing it firmly. She looped her arms under his, caressing her hands against his chest and lower, until they rested against the buckle of his loincloth.

It was her turn to fumble and the aroused gargoyle, frustrated by his longing and the heady scent of the woman who pressed so seductively against him, could stand no more. Goliath moved her insistent hands away and unbuckled the heavy leather belt that held the garment in place with a series of quick motions. "Come here, Elisa," he commanded gently.

Breath caught in her throat as the loincloth slid away and Goliath was revealed. His penis was erect and ready, the mushroom shaped head a deeper shade of purple than the engorged shaft. She reached out a curious hand, but the gargoyle pushed her gently away. "It is my turn to explore." He reached for her and the dark-haired woman stepped into his embrace. "You are even more beautiful than I imagined." The lavender gargoyle's voice was rough with emotion. Experimentally, he squeezed the erect pebbles of darkened flesh that capped each breast. Elisa gasped in pleasure. Raising a curious browridge, the gargoyle leaned forward and took a nipple carefully between his teeth. This time, she moaned and pulled his head tighter against her chest. As Goliath nibbled, Elisa's gasps became ragged and her hands pushed his head lower, even as she caressed the back-swept tips of his ears and buried her lips in his sable mane. He savored the salty-sweet taste and the smooth texture of her skin, pausing his exploration as the woman who now lay beneath him exhaled in pleasure.

He lowered himself until he reclined at her side and took her into his arms. "My Elisa," he began, "I did not even dare to dream about this moment … " She reached over and kissed him, capturing the tip of his tongue with her lips before letting him continue. "and now that it is here, I want it to last as long as possible."

"We've got the rest of our lives," Elisa murmured absently as her hands continued to rove hungrily over his muscular body. She caressed the hard plane of his abdominal muscles, then reached lower, capturing his erection between her palms; stroking the length and cupping the testicles that hung beneath in a firm grip. "But right now," She sighed as Goliath began to caress her thighs and the soft flesh between them. "I don't want to wait any more."

"Come here, Elisa." He lowered his head. "Wrap your arms around me and hold tight."

Eagerly, she encircled her arms around the gargoyle's thick neck and clung to him as he rose to his full height. Her long legs followed, wrapping snuggly around his hips as she impaled herself on the rod of dark purple flesh. Elisa moaned, savoring the sensation of completeness that engulfed her. Goliath began to rock his hips gently forward and back, teasing her, withdrawing nearly completely before impaling her once more. She sunk her nails into the back of his neck and Goliath growled his pleasure, "Yes, my Elisa, fight against me, just a little."

Her eyes widened in surprise, but curving her fingers in imitations of talons, she raked a hand down Goliath's back between his wings and struggled playfully in his embrace. He responded by bucking harder and nipping gently at the crest of her shoulder.

The pain was sharp, but strangely sensual and Elisa's protest was lost amid the swell of pleasure that began to consume her. Her breathing, already ragged with desire, shortened to gasps as Goliath pulled her into a fervent kiss, then drew away, caressing his cheek against hers before seeking out her tongue again.

Orgasm swelled within her, and Elisa mewled as waves of pleasure over took her. Still, Goliath did not stop. The long strokes became shorter as his partner's grasping flesh became reluctant to release him. He wrapped his wings around her, cradling her even closer and kneaded the soft rounds of buttock that wiggled in his grasp.

She moaned into his neck and clung tighter, alternately biting and sucking the side of his neck with abandon. Goliath's growls became more frequent and Elisa felt another swell of pleasure build within her even though the first had yet to dissipate. "Yes, Goliath," she moaned as she felt him tense within her. His rhythm changed again and his shaft buried itself completely in the wetness of her flesh. He bellowed and pulled her tight against his chest as his wings flared outward. Elisa cried out as her second orgasm over took her and the world went blinding white. A minute or so went by and she opened her eyes, only to find herself lying once again on the floor, cradled gently in Goliath's massive arms.

"Elisa?" He was looking down at her, gently pushing strands of sweat dampened hair out of her eyes.

"Mmmh, I guess I forgot to breathe there for a second. Come here, big guy." She reached up and captured his lips with hers. They kissed slowly, sensuously, the need for heated passion momentarily sated. "Happy?"

"Very," Goliath murmured as he caressed the length of his lover's athletic frame. "I see I should not have worried about our differences coming between us."

"We always find a way, Goliath," Elisa said as she smiled up at him. "That's something that will never change."

"No, my…mate," The gargoyle paused as he savored the sound of the word. "You are right. With you at my side, no problem is insurmountable."

"We'll find a way, Goliath," Elisa muttered, her voice determined even in sleep. "We will always find a way."

* * * * *

It was just past eight o'clock and the morning sky was still gloomy as the air express delivery service unloaded the pair of oversized wooden packing crates and hauled them to the freight elevator inside the Eyrie Building. "Personal delivery to Mr. G.O. Wyvern," the driver said.

The desk guard raised an eyebrow and rang the desk of Owen Burnett. "Mr. Burnett? Yes, sir. A pair of packages, big ones, just showed up for a Mr. G. O. Wyvern. It says on my sheet to notify you of any such deliveries." He paused and listened for a moment as David Xanatos's personal assistant issued instructions. "Yes, sir. I'll send the boxes right up."

He signaled to the elevator guard who inserted a key into the car that serviced the upper floors of the building and the deliveryman carted the crates inside. "We'll take it from here," the second guard said as he signed the express driver's delivery log.

"Thanks, bud," the driver replied. "Those crates are heavy!"

The guard nodded and stepped inside barely squeezing between the two crates. The doors slid shut and he disappeared from view.

* * * * *

There was a persistent knock at the door and Elisa stirred unwilling to rise from the safety of her dreams. Goliath held her. Goliath pledged his eternal love and nothing would ever make him break his vow.

The knock repeated and finally, the dark-haired detective removed the pillow that had somehow ended up atop her head and mumbled, "Just a minute!"

She slipped from the bed, pausing to knot a robe around her otherwise nude body. Elisa opened the door to find Owen standing before her bearing a tray of coffee. "Good morning," he said as he stepped around the dark-haired woman and placed the tray on the dresser. He poured a cup of coffee and handed it to her. "Did you sleep well?" Xanatos's right arm kept his gaze on the coffee service and ignored both the barely clad detective and the gargoyle crouched just outside the balcony window.

"Pretty well, actually," Elisa replied as she took the proffered cup. "You really don't have to do things like this for me, Owen," she added.

"I understand your wishes not to be catered to, Ms. Maza. However under the circumstances I thought it advisable."

How was it a monotone could convey so much emotion? Elisa wondered. "What circumstances?" she asked guardedly.

"This morning the downstairs staff took delivery on two large packing crates for Mr. G.O. Wyvern, which as you know has become Goliath's code name for correspondence and so forth. Routine x-ray screening reveled the packing crates to contain two female gargoyles. They are, of course, currently frozen in stone sleep."

Elisa choked on her coffee. "So soon?"

Somewhat alarmed at the detective's suddenly faded pallor, Owen took the cup from her hands before she could drop it. "Is there a problem, Ms. Maza?"

Elisa sighed and her hand went to her forehead pushing her unbrushed mane out of her eyes. "Understatement, Mr. Burnett." She closed her eyes for a minute trying to think. "I guess we really can't send them back," Elisa said at last. "And I guess we really ought to unpack them. It wouldn't be polite to let them wake up inside a box. All right, Owen. Give me ten minutes to get dressed and wake up and I'll be right with you."

"Of course," he replied politely. "Will the old granary be acceptable?" the majordomo inquired, referring to a little used chamber near the gargoyles' wing of the castle.

Elisa nodded. "Yeah, that'd be fine. We've got company, Owen. I guess we should try to make them feel welcome. They might be sticking around for a while."

* * * * *

Ten minutes later, clad in blue jeans and a pale yellow tee shirt, Elisa stood before the twin packing crates. Owen stood beside her. He had removed his jacket and hung it neatly on the door handle and rolled the sleeves of his snowy white shirt up to his pale elbows. In his hands was a large iron crowbar which he was applying to the first of the packing cases.

There was a screech as the nails gave way and the box opened. Unwilling to confront the contents therein, Elisa left the lid propped against the packing case and motioned for the butler to open the second box.

A moment later the protesting nails had been silenced and Elisa felt the steady gaze of Owen Burnett upon her. "I guess there's no putting this off," she said reluctantly as the first of the two gargoyles was revealed.

She was clad in a snug layer of raffia and packing material. It was sturdy enough to keep her from being jostled during transit, but porous too, so that if there'd been some kind of delivery slipup the gargoyle within would have no trouble freeing herself upon awakening.

With remarkably calm hands and a nearly clinical detachment, Elisa removed the obscuring layers of packing material and stepped back to examine the gargoyle ensconced within.

The female was petite as gargoyles went. She appeared to be graceful, and her head was bowed in a demure pose. Her features were distinctly feline and decidedly kittenish and Elisa wondered archly if the small box at her feet contained a ball of yarn among her personal possessions.

An envelope was taped to the inside of the packing case lid and discreetly Owen handed it to Elisa. She nodded her thanks and read the contents silently. "So this is Miw," the detective said cryptically.

That left the other packing case. Elisa looked at the crowbar now propped against the wall of the small stone chamber. It would be so simple, she thought, to ask Owen to leave, pick up the heavy iron bar and smash the sleeping gargoyle who rested inside. It would appear to be a terrible and unfortunate accident.

The detective shuddered, cold to the core. Did the desire to protect her mate and her relationship from this travesty make her capable of murder?

"Owen," she said as soon as she was sure that her voice wouldn't tremble. "Would you mind?"

"Of course not," he said giving his companion an unreadable look. "Are you sure you're all right, Ms. Maza? I'm certain this can wait a little while longer."

Elisa shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Owen. Let's just get this over with."

Burnett shrugged minutely and then removed the packing material from the second enclosure. He stepped backwards and adjusted his spectacles, then he drew an uncharacteristic appreciative breath.

She looks like a dream walking, the human woman thought as she studied her rival. "She's beautiful," Elisa admitted aloud.

"Indeed," Owen replied.

She was taller than Elisa and perfectly proportioned. She had the impossibly slender waist that seemed to be characteristic of some gargoyle females and a generous swell of breast and curve of hip. Her coloration was impossible to determine, but her face, though distinctly inhuman, was lovely and the crown of horns that capped her long carefully braided hair made her look like a princess.

It took Owen longer to go for the envelope this time. He seemed distinctly rattled as he pulled the heavy parchment enclosure from its resting spot.

Elisa took it from him. Her hands were trembling as she broke the seal and began to read. "Her name is Tiy," the detective announced softly.

"Named for a queen," Owen replied at her side. "How fitting."

Elisa found his comment irritating. "Well I hope she doesn't think that gives her the right to pull rank around here."

"Who is she?" The majordomo finally asked.

Elisa gave him a long steady look. "That depends on who you ask." Declining to answer further, Goliath's mate turned her attention to practical matters as she instructed Owen to make the pair comfortable. "I'll be back later," Elisa concluded as she turned on her heel and abandoned the chamber.

* * * * *

The afternoon slipped by nearly unnoticed and dusk was settling over the city when Matt reached the castle atop the Eyrie Building. He found Elisa sitting among her clanmates. Matt examined the studies in frustration and sorrow and knew that something was terribly wrong. "What happened here?" he asked as he sat down next to his partner.

Elisa looked up at him, her features matching those of the gargoyles. "Love and politics don't mix," she said, then realized that she'd have to do better if it were to make any sense to her partner.

Briefly she explained the situation to Matt and the irony made him sarcastic. "I can't hang on to one girl and these guys have to beat them off with sticks. Life is not fair." The bitter smile on Elisa's face made him realize his insensitivity. "I'm sorry, Elisa. I know this can't possibly be in any way, shape or form, funny to you."

"You're right about that," she admitted. "Up to and including the notion of beating these two off with sticks. Except in my case I was thinking iron might be a better choice."

Matt's face crinkled in confusion and Elisa was forced to explain. "I actually thought about taking a crowbar to Tiy! What was I thinking, Matt? Those two are just as much pawns in this situation as Goliath and Lex are. Maybe more so. And yet I'm not even willing to give them a chance."

"You're in love, Elisa," Matt replied quietly as the sun slipped further and the shadows grew. "This was dumped on you. You've got every right to feel protective."

"I guess," the conflicted woman replied. She shook her head trying to clear her thoughts and put matters back on track. "Anyway, I didn't ask you up here to cry on your shoulder. I wanted you here in case Sata and the kids came up with anything on the stake out. This thing had already blown up by the time I got back here last night and I didn't have time to ask." She looked up at her partner guiltily. "I'm afraid I might need you to cover for me tonight depending on what happens."

"Sure," Matt replied. "I guess we won't have long to wait now," he observed as darkness over took them and the clan awoke.

Elisa rose, conflicted over where she wanted to be most. Duty to her badge demanded she follow Matt to talk to Sata and her children. Her heart told her she needed to be at Goliath's side to deal with their personal crisis.

And then she remembered their guests, waiting, no doubt expectantly, for somebody to acknowledge them and welcome them to their new home.

Elisa forced herself to move as Goliath appeared in the courtyard swooping down from his balcony perch outside their chamber. She crossed to him and they embraced tenderly. It wasn't easy, but she forced the words out in a hoarse whisper. "They've arrived, Goliath. Miw and Tiy. They're waiting."

"So soon?" the clan leader replied, echoing her own response to the news. "Very well. I should-"

Elisa shook her head. "No Goliath, I'll go. You tell the others, get them ready." She took his hand in hers and gave it a firm squeeze. "It'll be okay, big guy. I know it will."

Goliath stroked the crown of her ebony hair, then raised her entwined hand to his lips. He kissed Elisa's knuckles and then pressed them to his cheek. "Have you a plan?" he inquired.

His mate shook her head as she broke their embrace. "No plan, Goliath. Only faith."

The brawny gargoyle had no reply, but he found himself heartened as he gathered his clanmates together.

* * * * *

Elisa found herself once again at the small room that had once served as the castle granary. She paused and tried to reverse positions with the females who waited on the others side of the door. It was her responsibility as the clan leader's mate to make them welcome, even if the truth was they were both decidedly unwanted guests. She knocked and a carefully modulated, exotically accented, voice bid her to enter.

Elisa stepped into the room. Inside she found the two gargoyles both in various stages of preparation for their introduction to the clan. Miw was applying a heavy layer of kohl to the lids of her eyes. Her coloring was golden and the dark tint of the makeup accentuated her wide, kittenish eyes. She was clad in a simple shift of creamy linen. She seemed wholly relaxed and excited by her new adventure. "Hello, human," Miw greeted when she'd finished with her eyes. There was no malice in her tone, and Elisa decided that the greeting hadn't meant to be hurtful.

"Hello to you, Miw and to you, Tiy," Elisa said with a slight incline of her head. "My name is Elisa, mate to Goliath. I've come to escort you." As Elisa introduced herself she shifted her attention from Miw to her regal companion. Tiy was everything her stone form promised and much more. Her cheekbones were curved high, and her nose though slightly flattened was proportioned perfectly to her face. She was a dark midnight blue and her wings caped her in silver. At her breast, over her more intricately cut linen dress, she wore a falcon shaped necklace worked in gold and precious gems. It suited her.

The two females bowed low, their hands pressed before them in a gesture of respect. Tiy's gaze never left Elisa's as she replied, "We place ourselves in your service."

The air was growing thick with tension. Elisa replied, "Right. Well, if you gals are ready, the others are waiting to meet you."

Elisa had spoken slightly out of turn. When she returned to the courtyard, the two Egyptian females in tow, Lexington and Goliath were nowhere to be seen. Delilah was also absent. Angela regarded the new females with faintly hostile eyes and she placed herself protectively between them and Broadway as Elisa attempted to make introductions.

Hudson took over the hosting responsibilities as Elisa took Angela aside. "What is going on here?" she asked the younger female. "Where did everyone go? And why were you so rude just then?"

Angela looked slightly ashamed. "I'm sorry, Elisa. I don't know what came over me. I just saw those two standing there and it really bothered me that they were looking at Broadway. Like maybe if they couldn't get their talons into Father or Lexington then they'd go after him next."

Elisa shook her head. The entire clan was falling apart. "Where is your dad and Lex and Delilah? Where'd everyone go? What happened to Matt?"

The younger female attempted to recount the movements of the others. "Matt and Sata left together with the children. I'm not sure where they went, but Matt said not to worry, he had things handled." Then Angela's normally sweet features hardened. "The minute Delilah and Lexington found out about Miw and Tiy they both put their foot down. Delilah got angry when Goliath said we were honor bound to at least be polite to them. She took off with Lexington close behind. I think Father lost the last of his patience too. He stormed off in the opposite direction and locked himself in his office."

"He probably decided to put in one more protest to the Council," Elisa surmised. "They really mouse trapped him, Angela. They mouse trapped us all."

* * * * *

"Delilah!" Lexington called as he glided furiously after his mate. "Delilah please wait for me!"

The hybrid clone raced blindly through the Manhattan skyline heedless of either destination or safety. "I won't do it, Lexington!" she called to the kite-winged gargoyle who was now nearly at her wing. "I won't be nice! I won't let her have you!" Tears streamed from Delilah's eyes and ran freely down her flushed tan cheeks.

Lexington canted his wings higher and caught an extra burst of speed. He pulled ahead of the angry female and put himself directly into her glide path. She had no choice but to slow down or knock her mate from the sky.

Delilah allowed the olive colored gargoyle to catch her, to take her into his arms and they glided for a time, her cheek against his lantern jaw, taking solace in one another.

The air current changed and the pair was forced to part to capture the wind. Delilah looked down. She was surprised at the distance they'd covered. The territory beneath them was familiar and she smiled in recognition. Below was the slightly forbidding edifice of Destine Manor.

The hybrid hesitated momentarily as she considered her sudden decision. It seemed right. She needed to talk and she knew that the mistress of the manor understood what it meant to have her lover threatened.

"I'm going to talk to Demona, Lexington," Delilah announced. "You can come with me or wait, it's up to you."

Lexington hesitated. Should he follow his mate or return to the castle to renew his acquaintance with Miw? He'd met so many gargoyles in the aftermath of the Unseelie war, but he thought he remembered her a little. She'd been the one who watched curiously as he'd unpacked the computer equipment that had allowed the Egyptian clan to talk with others of their kind. She was about his own age, give or take a thousand years. When they'd met in Egypt she'd been so terribly sad. Her mate had been killed during Unseelie incursion. Lex felt suddenly guilty. Despite the circumstances of her arrival he was acting poorly toward someone who'd tried to make him feel at home when he'd been a guest of her clan. "I'm going back," he said at last. "If there's a way out of this, that's where we'll find the solution."

Delilah only shook her head as she veered sharply downward to land on the lush green grass below.

* * * * *

Delilah wrapped her talons firmly around the strange gargoyle-like knocker and struck it firmly against the heavy wooden door. She waited fifteen seconds and dropped the knocker again. This time the door opened, revealing Andrea Calhoun. The artist was wearing her painter's togs and she smiled at Delilah as she ushered her inside.

"This is unexpected," the artist said pleasantly as she guided the gargoyle into the living room. "Can I get you something? A soda or a glass of wine?"

"No," Delilah said. "Thank you," she added remembering her manners. "Please just tell Demona that I'm here."

Andrea frowned, but nodded her head as she left the pretty tan gargoyle to pace before the unlit fire. "I'll be right back."

The artist disappeared up a broad expanse of stairs that Delilah recalled led to the upper level of the spacious residence. She tried to use the time to organize her thoughts. Words still weren't always easy for her, especially when she was troubled.

The wait wasn't long. Demona, dressed in a green silk lounging robe, appeared at the base of the stairs, Andrea at her side. Impatiently, Delilah went to meet her. "I need your help, Demona," the anxious gargoyle began. "Could I talk to you, alone?"

Andrea nodded. "I need to get back to my painting. It was good to see you, Delilah."

Demona directed her guest back to the sofa and took a seat herself in a brocade covered wing back chair. "Of course," she replied. "Calm down and tell me how I can help you."

Once again, Delilah turned down the offer of a beverage as Demona poured for herself from a crystal decanter. The drink was amber and it sparkled in the lamplight. "I helped you when Thailog tried to take Andrea from you. Now they want to take Lexington from me. I don't know how to stop them," the clone said miserably. "Nobody does."

"Who does?" Demona asked sharply. "Explain yourself, Delilah."

"The Gargoyle Council." Delilah began to twist the tip of her tail anxiously between her talons. "They decided that Lexington needed another mate. She showed up at the castle tonight," she added miserably. "They said Lexington has to mate with her so they can have an egg. Lexington said he'd never do that with anyone but me. I don't understand. And I don't know what to do!"

"Why hasn't Goliath put a stop to this nonsense?" Demona asked impatiently. "If Lexington doesn't agree with this council's decree then why hasn't Goliath sent this new female packing?"

Delilah looked up at Demona and wiped the tears from her eyes. Impatiently, Demona handed the girl a tissue. She blew her nose and then replied, "They sent Goliath a new mate too."

Demona sat back on the couch. Goliath's maudlin plan of gargoyle peace and harmony had blown up in his face! So what did he expect? War and human encroachment had threatened their numbers to a dangerous level. It made sense that once the world's population of gargoyles started to interact they'd see a chance to increase their numbers by invoking some sort of mass breeding program. Add whatever political and economic pressure available that could be brought to bear... Goliath had been caught in a very pretty trap; one he and his human lover should have, but probably never did, anticipate.

In a way, it was delicious. But from a common sense standpoint it was also typical, archaic thinking. Science had provided many avenues for human infertility; some if not most, would work equally well for gargoyles. It was just a matter of overcoming tediously delicate sensibilities.

"I believe that I can help you," Demona finally said as she took another sip of her drink. "But let me think on it a little while. In the meantime," She poured Delilah a small amount of the amber beverage. "You're overwrought. You were right to bring your problem to me, Delilah. I'm sure everything will be just fine."

* * * * *

"So this is to be our new home," Miw said to her companion after Hudson had given them the grand tour. The elder gargoyle had escorted the pair back to their lodgings in the granary so that they might settle in while the clan attempted to find its bearings.

"It has some potential," Tiy replied grudgingly. "A vast castle in the air that stands sentinel over a great human metropolis."

Miw's kittenish muzzle looked troubled as she added, "but the clan doesn't seem to like us very much. Senen said that Lexington and Goliath would be honored at having secondary mates bestowed upon them. Perhaps she was mistaken."

Tiy shrugged, her elegant shoulders were as expressive as the slight upturn of her lips. "Perhaps they merely need to get used to the idea. This is a foreign place, Miw. Their ways are different from ours."

Miw studied the small statue of the god Bes, the Egyptian guardian of domesticity. The dwarfish little image smiled merrily back at her and she sighed. "I didn't even get to present Lexington with his gifts," she said referring to both the talisman at her elbow and the fine new linen loincloth she'd woven with her own talons. "It's funny too, I remember him as being much different when we first met."

"At least you had the opportunity to meet your new mate," Tiy reminded her clan sister. "Tell me," she said shifting the subject somewhat. "What do you know of this Goliath?"

Miw cocked her head as she strove to remember all she'd learned from Lexington. There wasn't much, so she stuck to her own impressions of the clan leader. "I don't know," she admitted. "He seems very loyal to his clanmates and he to them. His daughter has a temper and she may share it with her father. But still, the human he calls mate loves him fiercely. I could tell by the way she was looking at you earlier this evening. She's not pleased by this recent turn of events."

"I am her rival," Tiy stated bluntly. "I will give Goliath the one thing she cannot: fine daughters and strong sons to carry on his line. She is afraid that Goliath will come to his senses and set her aside."

"Perhaps," Miw admitted. Tiy's ambition made her melancholy. She thought of her own, much missed, mate, Hapu. They had spoken of strong sons and fine daughters once. Sons and daughters who would never be hatched now that her beloved was gone. The felinoid gargoyle rose from her place at the dressing table. "I believe I should like to look upon our new home a little more. Perhaps I shall return to the arboretum that Hudson showed us earlier."

"Do as you wish," Tiy replied. "I think it is time that I sought out Goliath. It is long past time that we were properly introduced."

* * * * *

Lexington alighted in the castle courtyard. The rain that had threatened earlier in the evening had dissipated without more than a few drops falling and the night air was cool and quiet. No one occupied the courtyard, not even the beasts. He entered the castle proper intent on finding Miw.

The main living space was also deserted. He hesitated before the granary door, knocked, and found himself relieved when no one answered. "I wonder where everyone is?" the gargoyle said softly.

Lexington wandered further into the castle, into the domain shared by the Xanatoses. He caught sight of the flare of golden wings turning into the vast indoor garden and he realized he'd run down his quarry. "Miw!" he called after the visiting Egyptian gargoyle. "Miw, wait up!" Lex hurried down the corridor and caught the heavy glass door, still in the process of swinging shut.

The cat-like gargoyle stood in the garden transfixed by her view of the lush green expanse. "It's so beautiful," she said softly. "So unlike the cold stone of the castle or the vast city below."

Lexington cast his glance around the room. "I guess you don't grow many tropical plants in Egypt, do you?"

The female turned, startled. "Lexington," she bowed her head and pressed her hands before her.

"Hi, Miw," Lexington stood awkwardly before his intended mate wondering what he should do or say next. Take it a step at a time, the gargoyle thought to himself. "How was your trip?"

Her whiskers twitched, though it was difficult to tell if it was amusement or confusion at his odd question. "I remember very little of it after I stepped into the box," she replied. "I am grateful that the journey took so little time."

Lexington calculated the distance. "You cut it close. If we'd been in San Francisco you'd have woken up over Kansas. It was brave of you to travel that way."

Miw shrugged. "It was necessary. Our people have few friends among the humans. We could not travel openly as you might have done."

"No," Lexington realized. If they'd requested transportation then it would have ruined their matriarch's surprise. "I guess not. How are those back in your village?" the kite-winged gargoyle tried. "I get an email from Djoser every once in a while, but he never talks of anything but the crops. How are your people managing since we visited?"

Miw smiled at the thought of her desert home. She wondered if she would ever see it again. "The dead have been honored. Our gathering places rebuilt." The felinoid gargoyle looked down at her feet. "And there is a fine new rookery to replace the one we were forced to abandon. Life goes on."

"I guess it has to," Lexington replied. "Um look," he said running out of small talk, "Miw, we need to talk." He directed his companion over towards a low marble bench under one of the weeping willow tree. A small artificial pool lay placidly at their feet and Lexington stared into its depths as he tried to collect his thoughts. "Look. I don't know what they told you before they nailed you into that shipping crate, but I have a mate."

Miw's whiskers twitched. "I know. Delilah. The others spoke of her. I'm afraid my presence has somehow offended her."

"She's upset," Lexington replied. "And I know it's not your fault, but she has a right to be. It might be okay in your culture for a male to have more than one mate, but in ours things are different. I pledged myself to Delilah body and soul. If I were to take you as my mate I'd break my vow."

Miw nodded. "I understand Lexington. I loved Hapu the same way. He promised me I would be his only love and I promised him that he would be mine. But Hapu occupies the spirit world now. He understands that I must live in this one. We must honor what is in our hearts, Lexington, but we must also accept the obligations of our clan."

"Wait a minute. You would mate with a total, well, nearly total stranger, out of clan duty?" Lexington said shocked. "You'd share your body with someone who didn't share your heart?"

"Perhaps love will come someday," Miw said quietly. "But we do not have the luxury of waiting to find out. My time is nearly upon me. Our mating must happen within the next few nights or I will fail our people."

"What?!?" Lexington hissed. "Oh man, your matriarch doesn't mess around, does she? Don't take this the wrong way, Miw, but what a cold blooded, manipulative scheme! She doesn't care about you or your rookery sister. I'm assuming she's in the same boat?"

Miw nodded. "More or less. Tiy was mated to a fine warrior named Ahmose. He was killed in an accident one day when the wall above his roost collapsed. He'd been caught out among the ruins outside of Cairo and had taken refuge. It was a terrible thing. It left my sister alone and eligible. Others males of my clan courted her, but when the Council announced the idea of exchanging mates, she went to Senen and volunteered. Tiy made her choice freely."

"Too bad we don't have the same option," Lexington replied bitterly. "Is an egg really so important, Miw?"

"We are young," she countered. "It could be many eggs over our lifetime." She turned to face Lexington her eyes lowered shyly as she took his hand into hers. "I will make you a good companion, Lexington. I will honor Delilah as primary mate and make it my goal to please her as I would please you. I know this is not the life I might have wished for myself and I can see that it is not one you have chosen freely either. But we must think of the greater good."

Lexington sighed. He didn't like what Miw was saying but, in some respects, she was right. He rose from the bench. "You've given me a lot to think about." He reached out and hesitantly, Miw took his hand. "I'm still having trouble with the mate idea," Lexington said gently, "but at least we can be friends. Come on, you're gonna need a guide to the Big Apple and all things considered, that probably should be me."

Miw smiled hesitantly. In her heart of hearts she felt relieved and maybe just the tiniest bit hopeful.

* * * * *

In the security of his office, Goliath growled as he shut down the communications console. He'd sent the obligatory message to Senen informing her that her clanmates had arrived safely and that they would be offered his clan's hospitality. He promised no more and he did not acknowledged Senen's pledge of alliance that had accompanied the two females. Senen had provide to be a wily politician, but Goliath was stubborn and as long as there was hope then there might be a way to circumvent the Egyptian matriarch's intentions.

The gargoyle started to rise from his desk, knowing that he'd breached the rules of etiquette severely by his conduct towards his guests. He would have to make amends as best he could and there was no point putting off the inevitable apologies.

The knock at the door startled him. "Yes," he called.

The door opened. Tiy stood at the threshold a tray of wine and fruit balanced on one hand. She inclined her regal head. "May I come in?"

Goliath nodded. "Of course." He gestured toward his desk. "I was just going to speak with you."

"Then I have saved you the trouble," Tiy replied graciously. "May I pour you some wine?"

"Thank you," the clan leader replied. He studied the female before him for the first time. She moved with the fluid grace of a dancer, and the confidence of the finest of warriors. When she stepped close to offer him the goblet of pale golden wine, he caught a whiff of subtle perfume, exotic and compelling. "I must apologize for my earlier conduct and that of my clanmates," Goliath replied as he accepted the glass. "It was most unbecoming."

"I'm afraid that our presence has been somewhat unsettling." Tiy dipped her head in a gesture of regret. "For that I must apologize. Senen meant no offense by her decision."

"Our cultural traditions are different from your own," Goliath replied diplomatically.

Tiy sipped her wine considering Goliath's statement. "I quite agree. Among our kind it is considered an honor to be bestowed with a second mate. Only our finest warriors and artisans are gifted thus."

"The intention of the... gift... is understood," Goliath met Tiy's depthless eyes. "However, our clan traditions forbid the acceptance of such a gift. Among my people, mates must choose each other. It is a grave decision not taken lightly."

"It was my decision to come here, Goliath," Tiy stated frankly. "I was deeply honored to be selected as your mate."

"I have already chosen," Goliath replied gently. "Elisa is my love in heart and mind. To chose another goes against the vows I have already sworn to her."

"But she is human!" the regal female protested, her voice rising. "And I am sure she is an honorable one. But you will never teach her son to hunt or her daughter glide swiftly over this vast city of yours."

The brawny gargoyle's eyes dropped. It was his one regret, but in the grand scope of things a minor one. "I accepted that long before we exchanged our promises to one another."

Tiy set her glass down on the neatly organized desk and removed Goliath's from his hand. She looked up at him appreciatively through the fringe of her eyelashes though she kept her pose demure. "Your loyalty does you credit, Goliath. I still offer myself to you, to you both. I shall be Elisa's surrogate. I will bear the children she cannot. It will be my honor."

Goliath sighed as he stepped backwards from the beautiful Egyptian female. He wondered what it would be like to be wrapped in those silvery wings or to feel the crest of her brow against his as their bodies twined. He shook his head, angry at the traitorous response of his body to hers. He thought it odd. As a youth, Goliath had been the center of attention for nearly all of his female rookery siblings. Many of them had been stunningly beautiful. Yet he barely noticed their physical charms, more attractive to him was the quickness of their wit or their warrior skills. And yet the more time he stood in the confines of his tiny office the more irresistible the Egyptian female became. "I will not make this decision without consulting with my mate." Goliath said firmly as he took another step backward. "In the meantime, you are our honored guest and my home is yours. Now if you'll please excuse me I have duties I must fulfill."

Tiy inclined her head and bowed in the manner Goliath had come to recognize as the Egyptian gesture of respect. "I await my opportunity to serve," she said as she left the clan leader alone at last.

* * * * *

Matt felt his stomach lurch as the roof rose up to meet him. Sata murmured assurances, but the human detective couldn't contain his unease as the Japanese gargoyle, assisted by her two children dipped under his weight as she prepared to land atop the old hotel.

"Uh, thanks," the lanky detective replied as he crouched down out of sight.

The others took similar postures as they moved quickly to the periphery of the building. The previous night's rain had kept the fencer's clients at home, at least that was Matt's hope as he returned to the site of the stake out.

There was a chill to the air and he gathered the collar of his overcoat tight around him as he attempted to settle in next to the crumbling wall that shielded him from view.

A steady stream of traffic flowed beneath them. Most of the trucks and delivery vans seemed to be engaged in legitimate business, restocking the hotels and small cafés that predominated in the neighborhood. The tip had seemed worth checking out, but what if Elisa's jailhouse informant had misdirected them unintentionally or worse, deliberately, and they were wasting their time?

No. He had to keep faith that not everyone was out to get play with him, otherwise he'd end up more paranoid than he already was.

There was movement from Graeme's position at the west corner of the building. Keeping his head low, Matt scuttled to see what had caught the gargoyle youth's attention.

In one skinny green hand he held one of Marco Reuben's mug shots. The other he used to point out a chunky blue-jeaned male who had just stepped from a white panel van. "Look, Matt," the excited young male hissed. "That's him! We got him."

Matt peered downward to see what had caught Graeme's attention then focused his binoculars on both the man, who having opened the service door to an underground parking structure allegedly closed for renovation, was in the process of clambering into the passenger side of the van. "I think you're right!" the detective replied. Quickly he pulled a camera from his pocket and got off several snaps before their quarry disappeared from view.

"Do we go get'm now?" Graeme hissed.

Matt shook his head. "Uh uh. We have to do this through channels. First I have to get this processed," he said indicating the film in the camera. Then I go bug a judge until I can get a probable cause warrant."

He looked down onto the street. The white van had disappeared down the steep driveway then shook his head sharply. "It's not enough. He could have a legitimate reason for being in that building. I need more proof."

"Would a witness willing to testify he was bringing stolen merchandise to this 'fence' suffice, detective?" Sata inquired quietly.

Matt started. He dropped the binoculars and they thumped against his chest. "I'll never get used to how you guys do that. No disrespect intended, Sata."

"None taken," she replied. "It is a skill and like most skills needs to be practiced and honed. Now about that witness?"

"Yeah, that would be great. Do you have one?"

Sata shook her head. "Personally, no. However Ariana-chan became suspicious of a young man carrying a large bundle. She left her post to investigate and found the bundle held several small electronic components currently used in automobile entertainment systems." Matt looked up sharply. "While I believe that Ariana-chan must be disciplined for disobeying instructions, perhaps you might find interrogating the young miscreant she detained below in the alley useful."

"Sata, I could kiss you!" Matt replied happily. "And Ariana. Don't go too hard on her, that kid has good instincts. Graeme, you keep an eye on things from up here. We might be able to shut these guys down if our luck holds out."

* * * * *

Elisa slammed to halt in front of the precinct house, unmindful for once of her tires or paint. Her brief conversation with Goliath had left her angry, frustrated and tired in body and mind. Hardly the best conditions in which to conduct a police investigation, she realized, but the criminals rarely seemed to take her personal life into consideration.

"A distracted cop is a dead cop," Elisa muttered as she locked the car. The detective paused, leaned against the cold metal and glass of the car and let the chill seep into her. Only when Officer Morgan paused on his way down the precinct stairs to greet her did Elisa rouse from her sulk and try to pull herself together.

When she reached the pair of desks she shared with Matt there were signs he'd been there though the desk had been recently vacated. A new layer of paperwork littered the surface and a broken pencil was tossed carelessly on top of the pile. "Halloran," Elisa called to the detective at the adjacent desk. "Where's Bluestone?"

"Interrogation," the veteran robbery detective replied. "He came in with a light-fingered teenager about an hour ago. He claims he found a half a dozen C.D. players and was looking for someplace to turn them in when he was accosted a little gargoyle with a big stick."

Elisa smothered a grin. "I would have liked to have seen that. Thanks for the tip, Dick." She dropped her jacket across her chair and set off in search of her partner.

* * * * *

"All right, let's go over this one more time." Matt leaned back in his chair and consulted his notebook. "The word on the street was that Marco Rubens was buying CD players. You just happened," Bluestone rolled his eyes at the pint sized car thief's Public Defense lawyer, "to find six JVC units in a dumpster and thought you'd turn them in for the $50.00 each reward he was offering."

"Yeah, that's how it played," the boy confirmed. "I was going to the warehouse, I got stiffed the last time Marco was buying so I followed his van. I knew he must be keeping his stash somewhere. I figured I'd beat the crowd this time around."

Elisa watched the interrogation, nodding with satisfaction as Matt continued to examine the boy. "He can't even be fifteen and he's already figured all the angles."

"They learn early these days," assistant district attorney Jim Henderson agreed. "But you should have enough for your warrant. Judge Marciano usually works late. If I can expedite it, you guys should be able to move on the warehouse tonight."

"Thanks, Henderson, that should just about make my week."

* * * * *

"There goes another one," Graeme muttered quietly to Sata. He handed the binoculars over to his mother. "Green Chevy, two kids inside."

"Three," she corrected. "There is another human getting out of the back seat. It appears that he is the one with merchandise for sale."

The car pulled away and the youth Sata had spotted hurried furtively into the warehouse.

"This can't go on all night long," Graeme murmured. "They've got to be packing up soon. I wonder what's keeping Auntie Elisa?"

There was a tinny burr as the cell phone rang. Sata flipped it open. "Yes?"

"It's Elisa. We got our warrant. Expect to see a whole bunch of squad cars moving into your position in about thirty minutes. Matt and I will be there in an unmarked white sedan."

"Do you wish us to remain, Elisa-san. Or would our presence not be welcome?"

The detective hesitated. "You know I want you guys in on this, but it might be best if you pulled back. I'll tell you what. Remain on the scene until the cops move in. We'll be distracted down here so no one should see your retreat."

"Very well. Good hunting, Elisa." Sata flipped the phone close even as Graeme tugged on her sleeve again.

"Do you see them, mother?" He pointed to several clusters of young Latino males moving stealthily towards the warehouse. "They've been working their way into position circling the warehouse."

"Strange," Sata mused. "These young men seem to have a different purpose than the others we have been observing. Several of them appear to be carrying guns. I fear the situation will not keep until the proper authorities arrive with their warrants and procedures." She flipped the phone hitting the speed dial number to the castle. Her mate answered on the second ring. "Bring the others, Brooklyn-san." Rapidly she explained the situation even as a cargo van circled the block and more teenagers laden with electronics jumped out. "Hurry, there is little time."

* * *

Brooklyn hung up the phone. The common room was deserted. "Great, I've got a situation and everyone has gone to ground." Broadway and Angela were probably still outside on the terrace trying to work things out after their fight. He should probably pry Goliath out of his office and then go after them. He heard Lexington's tenor and Miw's soft reply a few seconds before they entered the chamber. "Good timing you two. Look, Miw, I need to borrow Lexington." He pulled his rookery brother aside. "Sata and the kids ran into trouble on their stakeout. The cops are on their way but they aren't going to make it in time. Go get Goliath. I'll round up Broadway and Angela. He pulled an aerial view map out of a desk drawer, oriented himself briefly and pointed out a building. "Here's where the action is. Now move!"

Lexington nodded. He turned to Miw. "You're unfamiliar with the city, you'd be safer if you stayed here." He didn't wait for her reaction as he hurried out of the room and towards Goliath's sanctum.

Miw looked down at the map abandoned on the table. It didn't seem right to stay behind if her hosts were in danger. She studied the map. There was no time to get Tiy but she could follow from a safe distance. Wasting no more time, the cat-like gargoyle followed after Lexington.

* * *

Elisa tightened the last strap of her Kevlar vest and slipped behind the steering wheel of the unmarked sedan. Matt finished the last of his instructions to the uniformed officers providing their backup and followed. As soon as the passenger door slammed shut, the dark-haired detective slid the car smoothly into gear and away from the precinct.

Traffic had thinned out nicely and Elisa moved rapidly dodging cab drivers and the late theater crowd. They were two blocks out of position when the cell phone tucked in the depths of her red bomber jacket rang.


"Auntie Elisa, it's Ariana."

Elisa debated running the amber light that verged on red. A taxi pulled in front of her and she was forced to slow. The light changed. "We're about six minutes from the warehouse-"

Ariana was replaced by Sata. "Elisa, there appears to be others, not your officers, moving in on those within. Many young men, on foot. They appear to have lethal intentions."

"What do you mean?" Elisa took advantage of a break in the traffic and ran through the still red light.

"Several of the persons observed appear to be carrying arms, although they are attempting to keep them concealed from the others we were sent to watch." There was a pause and Elisa thought she could make out Goliath's worried rumble. Sata began to speak again. "The first of your officers have arrived."

Elisa glanced at Matt. He was taking radio traffic in a calm monotone.

"Okay," the detective acknowledged, "that's good. We're just a few minutes away. Where are the cops in relation to the guys with the guns?"

More muffled rumbles. "Elisa, they appear about to converge."

The unmistakable sound of shots fired carried over the tiny cell phone.

A barely controlled but stricken voice rode in its wake. "Shots fired! I repeat shots fired! Officers need help!"

A cacophony. Rustling wings and the rapid buzz of more gunfire. The phone connection severed. "Sata?" Elisa cried. She dropped the phone and floored the accelerator. "Tell all units Code Three, but proceed with caution. Ring the perimeter. This isn't about serving a warrant anymore."

Matt relayed the information, hanging on to the doorframe to keep his grip as Elisa gunned the engine further and narrowly avoided a slower moving delivery truck.

* * *

Miw dropped to the roof of a building adjacent to the rooftop observation point of Clan Manhattan. Even from her vantage point it was obvious that the other gargoyles were terribly agitated. She barely noticed as Tiy alighted a few moments later. "This clan has shown us remarkable rudeness! First they snub us and then they abandon us. I'm not surprised you followed after them. How dare they leave on their nightly revels and leave us behind!"

"They haven't come here to play, Tiy! There's trouble. Bad trouble. Look! They're on the move!"

Miw pointed as Goliath and Brooklyn leapt off the rooftop, followed closely by Lexington, Angela, Sata and Broadway. Only the hatchlings remained behind, though it seemed that their inaction was under duress.

More gunfire erupted. Humans in uniform tumbled from vehicles; blue and red lights blinding bright contrast to the darkened street.

"I'm going to help." Miw unfurled her wings and dove into the fray.

"Stupid, little fool!" Tiy muttered as she followed. "This is not our fight!"

* * *

Marco Rubens shoved the wad of cash he'd been using to pay off his suppliers into the pocket of his chinos. "What was that!" he growled at the first sharp report of gunfire. "Sanchez, go take a look. The rest of you guys, spread out."

The runners who'd lined up to be paid off exchanged nervous glances. Guns began to appear as Ruben's men moved into defensive positions.

"Trey Deuces!" Sanchez cried and then he was silenced by the roar of an AK-47. Bullets sprayed the warehouse, taking out Padrinos indiscriminately.

"Madre de Dios!"

"Move it!"

"Take cover!"

Sanchez swore, ducked behind the upturned trash barrel he'd been using as a chair and returned fire. He coldly noted the sharp cry and cease-fire to his left. His brother Pedro had gone down. "Murdering bastards!"

He returned fire emptying his gun blindly. White-hot pain lanced his midsection. He looked down blankly, noticed the hole where his chest had been, and slumped to the ground.

* * *

Elisa dropped the sedan roughly into "park" and yanked her revolver from its holster. The pair dropped to their knees and began to advance into the war zone that now surrounded the Padrino's headquarters. The street turned a blinding white as a police helicopter ignited its spotlight. Reflexively, the dark-haired detective looked up. Brooklyn had an injured cop cradled in his arms. Elisa turned away. There was nothing she could do for either of them. Matt hissed at her and pointed at a slender figure in blue jeans and a black tee shirt. Elisa nodded, and raised her weapon to cover. Matt dove low. The gunman went down. The detective snapped a cuff around an opposing wrist and ankle before pulling the youth behind the sedan.

"One down," Matt snarked blackly.

"Here let me help," Angela alighted in a crouch next to the pair of detectives. She picked up the bound youth easily and tossed him over her shoulder. A moment later she was gone.

Elisa took a deep breath, ignored the angry scream of a gargoyle, and plunged into the fracas.

* * *

Miw watched, transfixed, as the human, a young man, barely grown, raised his firearm at Lexington. Her friend's wide eyes glowed white with anger and he dove low tumbling end over end with the angry human. The pair struggled for the gun. Miw sprung as the human came to rest atop Lexington. She knocked him to the ground and raised her talons to strike.

"Miw! No!" Lexington cried. He grabbed her hand and pulled it downward to her side. "It's not our place to kill."

The Egyptian gargoyle looked at him curiously. "Does he not deserve to die?"

"We don't judge. That's for the humans to do." He helped the female to her feet then picked up the unconscious thug's gun, crushing it between his talons. "I'll try and explain later. Right now, I think it's time we left."

The gunplay had given way to the harsh sound of police ordering their captives to their feet and the plaintive cry of ambulances. Even the helicopter had retreated. One by one, the gargoyles took to the air. Tired cops raised their faces to the skies and waved their thanks. Goliath, despite his worry over Elisa's safety, noticed. He dipped his wing in acknowledgement and the others did the same.

* * * * *

Demona folded her wings neatly about her as she alighted on the courtyard flagstones. She frowned a little as she examined the restored castle walls. It was strange, but just being around the ancient structure evoked an uncomfortable sense of guilt. "No wonder I avoid this place," she said softly.

Demona felt the eyes of security cameras upon her and a wave of resentment rolled over her. "I have every right to be here," she said to the unseen monitors. Resisting the urge to block the surveillance equipment with a quick burst of magic, the ancient gargoyle retreated into the castle depths in search of the clan.

She didn't need to travel far. The gargoyles were gathered in the common room, making awkward conversation with two females unknown to her. The first, the one whom Delilah and Lexington had bracketed on a low bench, was rather sweet looking. However the other one, the one seated with Hudson to one side and Brooklyn and Sata to the other... Delilah rose abruptly as Demona announced her presence. Angela, whose attention seemed to be fixated solely on Broadway, barely seemed to notice her entrance. Only her former mate and his human lover were absent, the azure gargoyle noted.

"I came as I promised," Demona said abruptly, not waiting to be introduced to the strangers. "Now where is Goliath so that we can put this nonsense to rest?" She set a black leather bag down carefully out of the way as she addressed the room.

Hudson rose ponderously from his spot next to Ariana. "He and Elisa are talking in the other room. I'll go fetch them." He looked at the two youngest members of the clan. It was likely that the upcoming discussion would be a bit much for those of their tender years. "Why don't you two come along?" he said to the twins. "I've got a bit of writing to work on and I could use an audience to tell me how my story is coming along."

Graeme and Ariana exchanged an annoyed glance. Whenever Demona showed up things always got interesting. "Okay, Hudson." Graeme tugged his sister's long black hair. "Come on, Ari. I'm sure it will be loads more fun than another boring meeting. Especially after tonight!"

"Coming." The red-beaked female smiled at Demona. "See ya, Auntie Demona!" Ariana said cheerily as she followed her brother and Hudson. Demona frowned thoughtfully as she watched the twins exit. They'd never treated her with hostility or suspicion unlike their adult clanmates, and from the night she'd met them the hatchlings had acted as if the three of them shared a long and familiar past. It bore investigation, she decided. Soon, at the earliest opportunity.

Goliath entered a moment later. Elisa trailed behind the brawny male. "Demona," he said gravely, "thank you for coming. I would like you to meet-" He paused a beat unwilling to commit status to the two gargoyles. "Miw." The lavender gargoyle indicated the insipid kitten. "And this," he added with an incline of his head, "is Tiy, of the Egyptian clan. Their matriarch Senen has sent them to live with us."

"How nice for you both," Demona replied blandly. "Look, Goliath," she said, dismissing the two interlopers, "this isn't a social call. Delilah told me about the mess you've managed to get into and, despite my better judgment, I believe I can help you."

Goliath regarded his former mate quietly. He felt Elisa inch closer. Her dark hair tickled where she leaned against his chest.

"Pardon me for saying so, Demona," Elisa said, "but you don't sound too enthusiastic."

The azure gargoyle gave the human a withering glare. "Believe it or not, detective, I occasionally have sentimental feelings towards my clan. I haven't met them and I don't know much about them, but already I don't like this Council of Goliath's. Our clan should be autonomous to the will of outsiders. It shouldn't bow down before a bunch of power hungry, manipulating old hens whose best days are behind them." Tiy's eyes flared crimson at this slight to her matriarch and Demona's lips curved into the slightest of smiles as her barb sunk home.

"However, I am not immune to the difficulty that our kind have found themselves in. Our clan is lucky. We've managed to move successfully into these modern times. Lexington has mastered computers and technology. While I," she manicured a talon against her ragged halter, "have had a few modest successes of my own. I've done enough dabbling in reproductive science and genetics to know that it could be the path out of your dilemma, if you were willing get past your somewhat unhappy previous experiences."

Reproductive science. Genetics. Demona. Elisa cast her glance without realizing it toward Delilah. "What are you suggesting, Demona? That we send Miw and Tiy home with a pair of bouncing baby clones?"

Demona rolled her eyes. "Must you always be so melodramatic, Elisa?" She shook her head as though lecturing a bunch of stupid children. "Cloning has its uses, but for practical purposes it's much too expensive. I was thinking of something much lower tech."

"Like what?" Lexington asked. Though his expression was equally suspicious, his tone at least, was not dismissive.

"If I understand your problem correctly," Demona lectured, "these two females have been sent by their clan in order for you, Lexington, and you, Goliath, to breed them." The males nodded.

"That is correct," Goliath confirmed.

"However, if you accommodate them," Demona continued delicately, "then you will violate our clan tradition of fidelity."

Delilah looked at Lexington sadly and nodded her head.

"However, if you honor the clan's tradition and fail to impregnate these two, then you will have broken your vow to cooperate in the world wide gargoyle council's initiative to save our race from extinction. Does that sum it all up?"

"You have stated the case most succinctly," Goliath admitted.

"A very pretty problem," Demona said as she crossed her arms over her chest. "However, I believe I do have a solution."

"Well don't keep us waiting, Demona!" Broadway said impatiently. "Don't you see how upset everyone is by all of this?"

"Very well," she said with a sigh. "I believe I will begin by telling a story."

"Is it really necessary?" Elisa said, wondering what her old enemy had up her sleeve.

Demona shot the human a sour look. "In this case, yes. Now be quiet. You may have wondered how our clan developed its custom of treating all of its children as one large family."

Angela looked up, her interest peaked. When she'd first learned of her true parentage it had taken her a great deal of time for her parents to accept her as their own child.

Lexington nodded and even Brooklyn looked curious. "There were times when it seemed strange. Especially when the human kids were so close to their parents."

"Humans had to contend with their own difficulties. Now listen. This was a story passed down only among the females of our clan. Doubtless, it will something of a surprise to the rest of you." Demona resettled her wings and began to speak. "Long ago, before our clan had settled at Wyvern, our people were nomadic. The land was largely deserted, there were no humans to smash us in our sleep, and so we roamed in small groups, never staying in one place. After a time, these smaller groups began to join up. The human incursion had begun, the land was less free than it had once been."

She had their attention, each member of the small group settled into a listening pose and Demona continued her tale.

"Eventually, these small nomadic groups joined forces and formed the first clans. When they united they were wary of one another and so as a protection against one faction dominating another, they developed some ground rules for their interactions."

She held up a hand at the sudden, shifting impatience of her audience.

"This is what's important. One of these early rules was that the males and females had to intermix so that the clan's children could belong to no one but the clan. In order to accomplish this, the first matings were arranged alliances."

"You mean they didn't chose mates out of love?" Angela said. Her clanmates expressions varied the gamut from surprise to non-comprehension. Even Goliath looked startled.

Demona shook her head. "There wasn't time for romantic notions in those days. Life was harsh and survival of the clan was everything. Some clans went to an extreme to keep anonymity. It was feared that couples might identify their children despite the precaution of a common rookery. So when these clans bred, each female mated with several males. They were allowed to chose companions during the interim between mating cycles, but all breedings were always anonymous."

Tiy looked offended. The Egyptian gargoyle rose to her feet and she addressed the azure gargoyle indignantly. "Surely you are not suggesting that I offer my body to the entire clan! I was meant for Goliath alone."

Demona watched as Elisa's eyes flashed in irritation. A tiny corner of her soul felt sorry for the human woman. "No, of course not. The point of this exercise is to avoid breaking the mating bonds. I wasn't suggesting wholesale infidelity. Rather, I was suggesting a very simple medical procedure called artificial insemination."

Elisa looked interested. "What did you have in mind, Demona?"

"It's simple enough really. Each male will donate sperm. Once the samples are collected, they will be commingled and then these two," she indicated Tiy and Miw, "will be inseminated with the result."

"What do you mean, donate?" Broadway said unsure of the elder female's terminology. "How?"

Oh this was going to be a long night, Demona thought acidly. "It's very simple. You need to-" her audience was looking at her expectantly and she wondered how she could get through this part of the lecture without resulting to drawing pictures on a blackboard, which the gargoyle didn't want to do, even if she had one. "Spend your seed into a special collection container that will keep it at body temperature until it can be processed and implanted."

Demona's eyes rested on Elisa. The human female was looking up at Goliath with a bemused expression on her face, but it was Brooklyn that cracked the inevitable joke. "I know you can find a lot of things in this city, Demona, but Playgoyle magazine isn't one of them."

Why were they being so dense? "Look," she said impatiently. "I don't really care how you get the samples. Have your mates help you if it makes you more comfortable. But unless you have a better idea, I suggest you find a way."

Silent communication between four couples, questions and answers, the occasional stray glance towards the two Egyptian females who sat unperturbed at the eye of the storm. Angela kept shaking her head 'no' and Broadway's cheek nuzzled against her brow. At last she added her agreement to the others.

"Very well," Demona said. She motioned Miw and Tiy aside and examined them closely. "I see we haven't much time. I'll need a place to work and to perform the insemination. Do you suppose Xanatos will let me use his infirmary?"

"I will make the arrangements," Goliath replied as he quitted the meeting.

"Fine. The rest of you gather around while I show you the collection equipment and explain exactly what I need you to do."

* * * * *

David Xanatos watched the closed circuit security feed from the castle infirmary with rapt interest, smirking as an uncomfortable looking Detective Maza reluctantly accepted the last of four identical insulated containers Demona had distributed among the gathered couples.

"For optimal results, you must each return your specimen to me here as soon as possible after producing it," the azure gargoyle stated. "I've already gone over the rules you must follow to safeguard against contamination. So unless you want to do this more than once," she added, eyeing each of the couples in turn until her gaze fell at last upon Goliath and Elisa, "I suggest you resist the urge to get creative and do only as I've instructed."

Fox Xanatos stood beside her husband, stifling a chuckle as the latest subtle jab from the gargoyle sorceress elicited another scowl from Elisa. "You know, for someone who's just had to explain to her ex's new lover the proper way to get him off, I think Demona's handling this pretty well."

"Touché, my dear. But just wait," David replied, nodding at the corner of the huge screen, "I think the best is yet to come."

Fox followed his gaze, watching with renewed interest as Demona turned her attention to the two Egyptian females who stood in the background.

"As for the two of you," Demona stated authoritatively, "While we are waiting for the specimens to arrive, I will prep you both and show you the equipment that will be used for the insemination."

Miw and Tiy traded a skeptical glance. "Equipment?" Tiy asked.

"Don't worry," Demona replied flatly, "the procedure will not hurt. I will need to perform a brief examination first, but I'll endeavor to keep it from being too… stimulating."

Fox grinned, unable to hold back the giggle this time. As Demona dismissed the gathered couples to their business and turned to escort Miw and Tiy to their infirmary beds, David clicked off the camera feed. Fox raised an eyebrow. "You pick now to stop watching?" she asked. The redheaded woman crossed her arms. "You do love to torture me, don't you?"

David smiled mysteriously. "Yes, but patience, my dear… I've one thing to attend to first." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, smiling at the amusement dancing in her eyes, and moved to his desk.

Fox made to speak, but before she could, David had pushed a button on the intercom and his voice changed to an all-business tone, "Owen, I know it's late, but I have a quick question."

"Yes, Mr. Xanatos?" the voice of the dapper majordomo replied.

"We still own the patents on everything Dr. Sevarius developed while in our employ, do we not?"

"Of course, sir. And the genetics division is still putting in twenty hour days trying to figure out some of his techniques so that we can bring product to market."

"So it's high time for a new strategy anyway… excellent. I want you to call Nightstone and arrange a meeting for me with Dominique Destine. I don't care if she comes here or I go there… just set something up as quickly as possible. If she wants to know what it's about, just tell her I think it's time to discuss the possibility of pooling our resources… but I think after tonight you will find her more than amicable."

Owen's hesitation was barely perceptible. "As you wish, sir," he answered. "I'll take care of that first thing in the morning." He paused. "Will that be all, sir?"

"Yes, thank you Owen." David cut off the intercom and leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers together. "Excellent," he repeated.

"You know how I love it when you start scheming, David," Fox purred as she placed her hands on the edge of the desk and leaned over, recapturing her husband's full attention. "So what's it going to take to get you to share?"

The multibillionaire stroked his goatee thoughtfully. "Why don't you show me what you have to offer, my dear."

Fox's smile turned devilish. "Hmm, I'm sure a demonstration can be arranged," she replied.

* * * * *

Angela let her unlaced tunic slip to the floor and ran her hands along the curves of her hips. The space between her legs was already damp, and as she watched her mate set aside the specimen container and remove his loincloth, desire rose anew inside her. "Come on, Broadway," she pleaded, her tail lashing as she stepped closer to her mate. "It would be so much more fun if you'd let me help you."

"Angela, I..." Broadway looked up, his eyes going wide as he took in the sight before him. Angela stood in the spot of moonlight which came through the small window of the tower room, nude but for her jewelry, wings flared and tail swishing. One taloned hand drifted across her breast, gently caressing the hardening nipples, while the other traveled downward, the talons sliding slowly across the glistening, pouting lips of her sex.

"But all those things Demona said…"

"I won't tell," Angela whispered huskily. She moved closer still, a soft growl rising in her throat as she slid a talon between her passion-swollen nether lips. "Please?" she pleaded again.

Broadway shifted uncertainly from one foot to the other and reached tentatively for his mate. "Well, maybe we could..."

The pair nuzzled brows, and he ran his talons gently through her dark hair. Angela growled throatily, and her hands began to roam. Curling her tail about his ankle, she pressed herself close and found his penis with her hand. Aroused by her scent and the proximity of her nude body to his, he was already coming erect. Angela licked her lips and smiled, baring her fangs hungrily. "Mm, that's what I want," she purred, stroking him gently. Her talons were still slick with her own juices, and he hardened to readiness rapidly under her touch. Angela growled in anticipation, low and enticingly, and caught Broadway's ear delicately between her teeth.

The pleasurable jolt of pain both excited the burly gargoyle and brought him out of the fog that was beginning to envelop him. "No, Angela. We can't do this. Not the way you want." He broke their embrace, and took a large step backward.

Angela stared at him questioningly, her expression a mixture of hurt and frustration. "What will it really hurt?" she demanded. "Those interlopers will still get bred, just not by you!"

"I'm not doing this for them, Angela," he said gently, "I'm doing this for our clan. For Lex and Goliath, and for Delilah and Elisa too. Do you want them to lose their mates over the Council's decree?"

A twinge of guilt replaced the warmth that filled her moments before, and Angela averted her eyes. She'd been so focused on herself, she hadn't even thought about her female clanmates.

"It's just one time, love," Broadway continued. "We can sacrifice that much." He gave his pouting mate an encouraging grin. "And I promise, we can spend lots of time later doing this properly."

Angela looked back up and raised a brow ridge at that, her insatiable hunger reasserting itself. The momentary feeling of shame at the reminder of Delilah and Elisa's dilemma vanished as those thoughts slipped again to the back of her mind. "Hmm… so if I wait," she asked, "will I be able to have anything I want?"

"Anything," her mate replied. "I'll even rub your knee spurs."

Angela grinned. "Well, what are we waiting for, then?" she teased. Gracefully, she caped her wings about her nude form and picked up the specimen container Demona had provided. "Let's get this over with," she said, approaching her mate. "If we hurry, we just may still have enough of the night left for you to properly appease me."

* * * * *

Brooklyn unfastened his breastplate as his mate double-checked that the latch on the door was secure. "Well, here we go again," he said. He lay the armor out of the way on a nearby chair. "It sure was easier when they just scraped a few cells."

Sata snorted. "Easier for you, maybe. I was the one who had to take the ovulating drugs."

"I can't even remember anymore how many times we've both done this… or will do it… um, you know what I mean," Brooklyn commented. He started to unbuckle the belt of his loincloth, and paused. "I wonder if Demona even realizes what she's actually starting."

Sata considered his comment a moment before replying. "For tonight, Demona-chan is doing nothing more than helping her clan in the way she knows best. What tomorrow holds, if she has even considered it, is secondary to that."

Brooklyn finished removing his loincloth and draped the garment over the back of the chair. "You know, as much history as you and I have seen first hand, this is one of those times where it still feels, well… kind of weird to be a part of making it."

Sata nodded. "The gargoyle race will be given a chance to thrive again thanks to what begins here tonight. With each egg I have donated, I've always felt honored to be a part of something that transcends clans to help all gargoyles. And you are honored, as well, Brooklyn-san," she stated, smiling coyly as she began to undress. "Tonight you shall become one of the founding fathers."

Brooklyn surveyed his mate as she stepped toward him, a broad grin forming on his beak as she shrugged herself free of her silken kimono. "You know, my love," he commented, reconsidering his earlier statement, "even though it's a little more involved, there's still something to be said for this old-fashioned method."

"Baka, Brooklyn-san," the jade female chided, "no more talk." She stepped free of the last of her clothing and re-caped her wings demurely on her shoulders. Pulling the pins from her hair, she shook her head, sending the dark tresses cascading down over her shoulders. Sata smiled and moved closer, her taloned hands falling against his chest as he embraced her with his wings. Gently, she guided her mate to the edge of the king-size bed as they nuzzled brow ridges, then let her hands slip lower. With a contented growl, Brooklyn and sank down onto the mattress, his legs going weak beneath him as Sata took in earnest to her part of the task at hand.

* * * * *

Elisa examined the empty vial she held in her hands. It hadn't come as a surprise that Demona had an interest in genetics, but she had been a bit taken aback at how much knowledge the immortal gargoyle actually had command of. Absently, she wondered if the scope of Demona's latest ongoing research project might include humans, as well. It seemed with Demona lately that anything was possible… her taking Andrea as her mate had proved that much.

She glanced across the room at her own mate. Maybe someday, Goliath and I… she started to think, then stopped herself as old memories replayed in her mind's eye. It had been painfully hard at times, growing up as a mixed-race kid, enduring the teasing and taunts of her peers over her dual heritage… and the odd looks frequently cast by strangers in her family's direction when they were out together.

Elisa shivered as she though how much worse it could be for a child with wings or a tail. Neither fully human or fully gargoyle, where would a child like that ever be able to feel accepted? Growing up, she'd always had Derek and Beth with whom to share her feelings and frustrations, and when that failed, someone older and wiser who understood what she was going through always seemed to be around to offer empathy and advice. But a human / gargoyle child would be totally unique… unique and alone. Miserably, Elisa sighed, more certain than ever that the world would be ready any time soon to accept a child like that.

"Elisa? Elisa, my love, is something wrong?"

Goliath's hand on her shoulder jolted Elisa from her thoughts. "Goliath, no, I'm fine," she said, turning to him. "I was just thinking about… things." She paused, raising an eyebrow as she noticed he had removed his loincloth. "I take it you're ready to do this now," she stated, holding up the vial.

The lavender gargoyle growled. "I wish only to get this over with and send Miw and Tiy on their way home. I still do not care much for Demona's method, but given the alternative…"

An imagined image of Tiy having her way with her Goliath flashed through Elisa's mind, sending the human woman's stomach into a knot. "The 'alternative' isn't an option," Elisa replied, the agitation in her voice rising. "Here." She thrust the vial into his talons and turned away. "Just do it, Goliath."

Goliath stared at the back of her head for a moment in quiet bewilderment. "My Elisa," he spoke gently, "aren't you going to help me with…"

Elisa crossed her arms and let out an audible, growling breath through clenched teeth. "I said," she repeated, "just do it, Goliath."

* * * * *

"Wow," Lexington said, finally catching his breath. "That was amazing, Delilah… I mean… wow."

Delilah brushed a stray lock of hair back behind her ear as she finished shrugging back into her jacket. Smiling, she picked up his loincloth from where it lay discarded on the floor and took a step closer to hand it to him. "So perhaps we should try that again sometime?" she suggested.

Lexington's odd grin widened. "You mean you…?"

Delilah nodded. "Oh yes… definitely." She leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on the top of the web-winged gargoyle's head. "Now get dressed, silly." Stepping away, she picked up the sealed vial from where she'd left it on end table a few minutes earlier. "Demona said we should get this to her as fast as possible." The tan-skinned clone paused, her eyes fixated on the vial thoughtfully as her mate reluctantly belted his loincloth.

"Lexington," she asked, turning to him, "if Demona can help Miw and Tiy, do you suppose she might be able to help us, too?"

Lexington's forced the last of the afterglow to clear from his mind as he realized what his mate was asking. Like all the clones, Delilah would never be able to have children naturally. Whether their sterility had been purposeful or just another unanticipated side effect of the cloning process was something Dr. Goldblum hadn't been able to determine, but either way it was a moot point, as there was nothing he or anyone else could to change things. But that was something he and Delilah had both accepted, and after her initial fears of it being a barrier to their continued courtship had been put to rest, having children hadn't been an issue they'd really discussed any further.

So Delilah's question now, spoken so wistfully, caught him a bit off guard. "You mean, help us with an egg?"

Delilah nodded. "Yes. Not right now, of course," she added, assuaging her mate's sudden anxiousness, "but someday. When we're both ready."

Lexington relaxed a bit. "I guess if anyone could come up with something, it would be Demona." He smiled again and took the taloned hand Delilah offered into his own. "She is pretty full of surprises lately."

"You know," Delilah said hopefully as they started out the door together to deliver their package to the infirmary, "maybe someday she might even be able to help Goliath and Elisa, too… then our hatchling will have a playmate."

Lexington shrugged. "After all that's happened, Delilah… Demona and Andrea, you and I… I'm starting to think that anything is possible."

* * * * *

Angela carried the insulated vial into the infirmary. She found Demona poised over a microscope examining the motility of one of the other samples. Not wanting to disturb her mother, yet knowing the necessity of handing over the fragile genetic material, the younger gargoyle cleared her throated gently.

Demona finished with the slide, and nodded, acknowledging her daughter's presence. She discarded the slide and pipetted fresh specimen into a vial. She set the vial into a water bath before turning to greet Angela. Her browridges came together in concern as she viewed her child's conflicted expression. "Is everything all right?"

Reluctantly, Angela thrust the specimen into her mother's talons. "Here," she said turning quickly away.

"Wait a minute," Demona commanded. She placed Broadway's sample into the waiting water bath and rose to stop her daughter. "Let me look at you."

Gently, Demona placed her fingers against the inside of Angela's elbow and counted the beating throbs of her pulse. She examined the color of her eyes and noted the sharp contrast between orb and iris. "These unattached females have set you on edge, haven't they," the elder gargoyle stated to her child.

Angela nodded, and flushed guiltily. "I don't know what's come over me."

Demona smiled a little sadly. "I do. I should have noticed earlier." She gathered the younger female into her arms and hugged her briefly. Then she cleared her throat before breaking the embrace and giving the other female a gentle shove toward the door. "You've done your duty for the greater good," Demona told her daughter. "Now return to Broadway. It's a fine night out and we used to have a saying when I was young that the strongest hatchlings were those conceived on the wing."

Angela's blushed deep purple. "You mean?"

Demona nodded.

The younger gargoyle hurried from the lab in search of her mate.

* * * * *

Miw cautiously opened her eyes, squinting in the bright fluorescent lights of the infirmary. "Was that it?" she asked hesitantly.

Demona regarded the cat-like female with a slightly bemused expression as she returned the now-empty insemination device to the shiny medical tray she had left on a nearby counter. "Yes, young one, all done. That wasn't so bad, now was it?"

Miw shook her head "no" and settled herself back against the pillows as Demona took her arm and checked her pulse once more. "Now just try to remain still. We have just one shot at making this work, so I do not want to see you move from that bed for at least half an hour."

"Yes, Demona."

Tiy sat on the edge of her own infirmary bed, arms crossed, listening with growing agitation to the conversation taking place on other side of the plain, pale green curtain separating the beds. "Meek little kitten," she muttered disparagingly under her breath as the female called Demona gently admonished Miw. The tip of Tiy's tail twitched anxiously. Already she had been forced to surrender her fine clothing for an ill-fitting disposable gown, and been poked and prodded by the azure female in places that until now only her now departed mate had ever touched her.

At one point a few moments earlier, she had gotten up and peeked over the curtain. A quick look found Miw lying compliantly, knees up, legs open, and eyes closed as Demona prepared the phallic-like insemination device with a generous coating of water-based lubricant. Disgusted, and now fully aware of the further indignities to come, Tiy sank back down from her tiptoes and growled under her breath, then returned to her bed to await the inevitable.

"Your turn," Demona stated as she stepped around the edge of the curtain. "This won't take but a few seconds, so please lie down as I instructed earlier and we can proceed."

The Egyptian female had had enough. She sneered disdainfully. "No."

"No?" Demona echoed flatly. "What do you mean, 'no'?"

"What I mean," Tiy hissed, hopping to her feet and meeting the other female eye to eye, "is no, I will not lay down spread my legs for you. This is not how gargoyles were intended to mate. This is not our way, and I will not be a part of it!"

Demona took a small step back, eyes narrowing, but didn't have a chance to reply before Miw emerged from behind the curtain.

"Tiy, please don't act like this!" Forsaking the order to stay in bed she'd been given moments before, Miw put herself between her rookery sister and Demona. "Can't you understand they're trying to help us?"

"Stay out of this, sister," Tiy yelled back, her eyes flashing crimson. "We're not wanted here, and all this has been is a poor attempt to appease us before they stick us back in those packing crates and send us home. I've been a fool to let it get this far, and so have you, sister. Perhaps you may have chosen to allow yourself to be bred like a barnyard animal, but that doesn't mean I must surrender what little is left of my pride, as well."

Miw gaped in shock. "How dare you," she hissed, eyes glowing scarlet.

"Enough!" Demona snarled and flared her wings, stepping between the two and pushing them apart. Miw backed down quickly, but it took another angry growl from the older female before Tiy stepped back. "You, back to your bed, now!" Demona ordered, grabbing Miw by the forearm and pushing her back to her own side of the curtain. "And as for you," she began, turning an angry, impatient glare on Tiy, "you have the audacity to speak of your pride?"

Tiy cringed ever so slightly under the azure female's gaze, but remained recalcitrant. "I came here to mate Goliath, not a test tube!"

Demona's scowl deepened. "We must all make sacrifices, child. This clan has already been more than accommodating to you and your sister, but you choose now what is more important to you: your pride, or your clan."

Tiy tried to back away, surprised, but Demona grabbed her by the wrist and forced the insemination device into her talons. "I can not force you to do this, but I will caution you, child. Your pride may seem the most important thing in the world to you now, but beware the consequences of the choice you make tonight." An inexplicable shiver ran down Tiy's wings as Demona's expression darkened. "Choose wisely, child. For if you make the wrong choice, you will surely live the rest of your life regretting it."

A moment later, Demona was gone and Tiy found herself alone, staring at the device in her talons.

* * * * *

One month later…

"It would seem an inauspicious beginning, Brooklyn-san," Sata said softly as she peered over her mate's shoulder into the converted storage room. Inside, Angela and Broadway's egg lay safe and warm in a nest of golden oak straw.

"True," He took her talons in his and squeezed lightly. "but it's kind of like that egg. You know that someday good things will come from it."

"'Tis a fine sight," Hudson affirmed as the pair turned away from the new rookery and rejoined their clanmates. "One I never thought I'd see again."

"Indeed," Goliath rumbled.

Before he could continue Lexington cut in, "They're coming."

Delilah entered first, escorting Tiy and Miw. The pair had painted their eyes heavily with kohl and each wore a intricately decorated ceremonial linen shift. In their arms they cradled an egg. Angela brought up the rear. In her talons she held a small statue of a squat, laughing figure.

Clan Manhattan stood as the three females took their places before the rookery door. Reverently, the Egyptian females lifted their eggs on outstretched hands. Tiy spoke. "We entrust these, our eggs, to you. To act as their guardians. To be their protectors. As we have become vessels for a new way, so they shall be the first. We are one people, and our children, born of this new alliance, belong not to one clan, but to the world.

Together the trio entered the tiny rookery. Miw settled her egg, then assisted Tiy in doing the same. Finally, Angela set the statue of Bes on a small shelf next to the doorway.

"Bless this place, Oh Bes," the Egyptian gargoyles prayed softly. "Protect and keep our children."

Angela added her own plea separately. She hadn't met the fay named Bes, but if his role was protecting hatchlings then, she would ask for his intercession too.

Tiy gave a last, longing look at her egg. "I will miss you, little one."

"Don't worry, Tiy." Angela put a protective arm around the proud Egyptian female. "We'll take good care of all of them while you're away. They're part of this clan, just like you are. Besides, you'll be back soon."

"When we came to this place," Tiy said, addressing the assembled clan, "we expected a much different reception." She gazed coolly upon Goliath who stood with one arm resting softly on the human woman's shoulder. "We expected to be honored and cosseted by our intended mates. Instead, learned that your traditions were very different. And that we were unwelcome."

Elisa rose as if to protest, but Tiy raised her hand to stall her words. "We eventually came to accept your custom. And I suppose that is what we must all do. We must all learn about and understand one another's traditions if we as a race will survive."

"Miw and I will return to Egypt. We will share our experiences. And we will welcome our clan brother Brooklyn and his children to live among us and learn our ways." She turned to Sata. "We promise, clan sister, to take good care of your family, in your absence."

Sata pressed her palms together and bowed minutely from the waist. "I know you will guard them well. And I too will visit soon. This homeland of yours holds great interest for me."

"And on that note," Brooklyn interjected, "I think it's time we got this show on the road. Ladies, Xanatos's transport is waiting downstairs for us. If we leave now we will just might arrive before sun up."

"You're sure you won't stay a few more nights?" Elisa asked as she rose and embraced each of the departing females in turn.

Miw shook her head. "No, we must make our case to Senen in person if we are to convince her to advocate this new way of breeding to the others on the Council. It's the only way."

"All right, then," Elisa replied. "Travel safe."

Sata embraced her mate and children one last time and the travelers filed out of the common room, followed by the others each to their own pursuits. At last, Goliath and Elisa were left alone. The human female turned to her mate and smiled. "We found our way, Goliath."

"Yes, we did." He stroked his love's long dark hair fondly. "I never dreamed that our crisis could bring new hope for my kind."

"I never dreamed that Demona would bail us out the way she did. Face it, Goliath, we'll never be her favorite couple."

Goliath shook his head. "Truthfully, I doubted her as well. But Demona has shown she has the capability to act for the greater good. If the Council accepts her techniques in time then an entire generation of gargoyles may look upon her as their clan mother. And if Demona has demonstrated one consistency, it is she will do anything to protect her children."

Elisa pondered the notion of Demona surrounded by dozens of adoring hatchlings. She couldn't quite make it mesh with the Demona who'd threatened her life and that of her clanmates. "I guess only time will tell."

"And what of you, my Elisa?" Goliath said softly. "Are you content to be a surrogate clan parent?"

Elisa nodded. "This is one of those times, Goliath, when the gargoyle way really is best." She looked up and shook her head at her mate's unsure expression. "I'm content!" Elisa grinned at him playfully. "All the perks and none of the morning sickness. Who could complain about that?"

He gathered his lover into his arms and embraced her warmly. Over the peak of her raven head he contemplated the rookery, just out of his reach. She was right. Together, the entire clan would parent the eggs. They would be loved and protected by many, just as he and his rookery mates had been. They would thrive. The clan would survive. It was a new beginning.

The End