Written by: Melissa "Merlin Missy" Wilson (email@example.com)
and Tas "Vince" Burrfoot (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Story concept by: Kathy Pogge
Illustrations by: Amber
Previously on Gargoyles...
Renard: "And fun is still more important to you than honor. I can't understand that."
~ Outfoxed ~
Hudson: "Ah. You wish to be immortal."
Xanatos: "Of course. What good are all the riches on earth if Fox and I can't enjoy them forever?"
* * *
Hudson: "And what's in this for you?"
Owen: "Service is its own reward."
~ The Price ~
Anastasia: "I have remarried."
Renard: "When? To whom?"
Anastasia: "My first husband."
~ The Gathering, Part 1 ~
* * * * *
* * * * *
"Yes." Fox held the rubber-tipped spoon by Alexander's mouth, as he shook his head from side to side.
"Carrots are good for you." She looked for help from her husband, but saw only the dull drab black and white New York Times staring at her straight in the face.
"David ... "
"Eat your carrots, Alex. They'll help you see in the dark."
"That's good. Lie to the kid." She held the spoon to his mouth again, let him hold onto it as she guided the neatly cut-up vegetables into his mouth. Alexander made a face, but chewed them anyway. As a reward, she scooped a spoonful of apricots and let him eat that next. He smacked his lips as he chewed, much happier with the sticky-sweet fruit.
"That's my little sugar addict," she cooed. He grinned.
She smiled wistfully, remembering the long-ago time when David Xanatos had proposed to her. They were impetuous then, she with whatever danger she could find to stave off the boredom regularly threatening to overtake her, he with his mysterious technologies and contraptions and tales of gargoyles. What had changed them this much? When had they changed for good from a television show heroine celebrity and mysterious shady billionaire to just another idyllic couple of the nineties? Now they were a normal couple with normal responsibilities like...
Her thoughts turned back to the frowning mother side of her personality as Alex burped and spit up half his breakfast. She wiped up the orange mess with a spare rag, then brushed his forehead with her fingertips. He was warm, but not hot. His eyes went glassy.
"Sweetie, are you feeling okay?" Concern was quickly turning to fear. David put down his paper, attention fully on their child.
Alex burped again, then blinked and started to cry. Fox pulled him from his highchair into her lap. He no longer felt hot. It could have been her imagination. His breakfast was done for now. She placed him against her shoulder, patting his back and crooning, all the while trying to eat some of her barely touched waffles. He continued to cry.
"If only I could yell like you, Alex, I'd be a celebrity again," Fox commented.
David chuckled at this, stabbing his fork into his over-easy eggs and taking a bite as he kept one vigilant eye on his son and the other still busily scanning the newspaper. Fox's thoughts turned to where they had been. Ordinary couple. Right. Just like everyone else. Nothing special about them.
Tell that to the folks at the Five O'clock News. There were times she wished life was a little more in the ordinary range of the excitement spectrum.
She shivered involuntarily as she looked just outside the wall of paned glass at the sudden tumbling of a few flakes of snow.
"Are you cold, dear?" David asked, noticing his wife's stare. Fox mumbled something unintelligible, her gaze fixed to the frozen cityscape. She knew something was wrong, felt it. Perhaps it was a new development in her fay powers or maybe just intuition. She tightened her grip on her son.
Owen entered the room, just as she was about to ask him to turn up the heat. Perfect timing, as usual. She shuddered again, suddenly hot, and with trembling arms placed Alex back in his chair.
"Fox?" His voice held more concern.
"Mr. Preston Vogel is on the phone," Owen stated, motioning to the hallway.
"Can you please tell him to call me back, Owen? Now isn't a good time," David said, turning back to her.
"I'm fine," she lied. Alex threw his juice bottle on the floor. She picked it up and inspected it for dirt.
"He said it is urgent, sir."
"I see," David said, taking the hint. He took the napkin from his lap and smiled at Fox. He mouthed "I'll be right back," and Fox smiled back, weakly. Something was out of kilter, something right out of her range of vision, like the tricks the lights sometimes played in the castle at night.
Between Alex's renewed fit of crying and the noise of the heater coming to dramatic life, Fox couldn't get the gist of anything that was being communicated in the hallway. She tried to calm her son, her own pulse racing too fast.
David returned to the dining room, face drawing into sympathy.
Fox stood, dropping Alex's juice bottle to the floor with a splash. He cried but she did not hear it, every pore of her body listening to what her husband spoke with his own, with his stance and posture. She knew without words what had transpired in the hallway. She collapsed back into the chair before he told her.
"I'm sorry, Fox. Your father just passed away."
* * * * *
Everything had gone hazy.
Alex fussed in his car seat as he dropped a purple dragon-shaped rattle on the floor for the fifth time. David's image swam down to get it, dust it off, and hand it back to the baby, whose attention had already reverted to his fuzzy. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, they were at the landing field where Fortress 2 lay, a metallic whale caught on the shore. David unbuckled Alexander and fuzzy, carried both behind her as she approached the ship.
An ambulance had just arrived. There were official pronouncements to be made, certificates to be signed. The business of death had commenced even before her arrival, and she started to run, trying to catch up, grasp some last trace of her father before he was gone forever.
She ran up the hatchway, into the labyrinthine belly of the ship. Stark metal walls yawned up to all sides of her. She kept running through the passageways, towards the small room her father used as his quarters. The door was open.
Vogel stood by the bedside. Opposite stood two people in white, doctors, EMT's, she neither knew nor cared. Vogel's head turned towards her, and she saw the sadness in his own face, the loss of his only friend. Her father still lay there, eyes closed, but lightly, as if any minute, he would open them to squint sharply at her. Her stomach twisted in a tight knot.
"Leave," she said, her voice calm.
"Fox ... " Vogel started, but she cut him off.
"I want a few minutes. Now." More softly, she added, "Please."
Vogel met her eyes, then shooed the others out. When the cabin door closed, she took another step closer to the bed, and another. Then, unable to look there any further, she cast her eyes around the room, taking in the spare decorations, the chair which had been her father's sole means of mobility these past few years. His nightstand held a lamp, the reading glasses he never admitted to needing, and a book.
"Guess you couldn't outrun fate after all, hm?
"I wish you'd told me you were, you thought you were ... " She broke off. Talking to him was eerie. He should have come back with some patient parental martyr remark by now. His silence was the final evidence. He was really gone.
Her knees stopped working. She sat on the edge of the bed, took one cool hand, brought it to her cheek, tried to think of something meaningful to say. Everything that came to mind sounded like dialogue from a movie.
"What were you thinking about last night?" She spied the book again and, with a cold shiver, saw that it was a copy of several plays of Shakespeare. There was a bookmark. She was not surprised to see that it opened to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
A few lines were underlined in very light pencil, disturbing behavior from the man who had taught her the importance of respecting the sanctity of books. She read aloud in the tiny room:
"God's my life stol'n hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare vision ... Methought I was --- there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had, but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had.'" She recognized the speech. In the play, the lines were spoken by a doltish man who'd spent one night with the Fairy Queen and wakened to find her gone like a vanished dream.
"You still loved her, didn't you?" she asked to the form on the bed. He had no answer for her.
* * * * *
Madoc lounged in his throne, paying only slight attention to the litany of reports being given to him. The leader of the United States was being accused of misconduct. Halcyon Renard, owner of Cyberbiotics, had died. Unrest in the West Bank continued. Their projects in London were proceeding apace. All in all, nothing but good news. Yet, he barely listened, and he brooded.
"Sir," said Umbriel diffidently.
"What? Oh yes, tell Adrians he's doing well." He waved the boy on.
"I'll do that. However, there's another piece of interesting news attached. The Banshee was sighted in the area a few days back." Maeve stepped into the room, and lurked near the back.
"So Oberon has allowed more of his little ones out to play, has he? Follow up on that, Umbriel. Find out what she's doing and why."
"Yes, sir," replied the youth. Then he asked even more hesitantly, "What do you plan to do with her?"
"That depends on her answer. Go."
Umbriel nodded a bow and left, casting a glance over his shoulder as he did so.
"The rest of you, away." The messengers, Halflings mostly, wandered out in the direction Umbriel had taken. Only Maeve remained.
"You look pensive," she said. "Not worried about what trouble our songbird cousin might bring us are you?"
"Hardly. In fact, it would not surprise me if we could convince her to perhaps change her affiliation."
"I'd have no objections to that." She paused, head cocked to the side. "So what's eating you, then?"
"I can't say. Everything is falling into place smoothly. Too smoothly. Why hasn't Oberon acted? He must know we've returned."
"Oberon is hardly one to concern himself much with mortal affairs. By the time he notices our presence, we'll be tapping on his gate and taking his throne."
"I'm not so certain. The Banshee. The Puck. Why are they in the world? Has he sent them to watch us?"
"Possibly," she responded. "And if he has?"
"They should be destroyed!"
"Isn't that a bit hasty?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
"I believe so, yes. Talk to them. Act as though we don't know Oberon sent them. Invite them into the fold. As you said, the Banshee is just as likely to join our side as not, and from what I know of the Puck, he's a flighty one. I wouldn't be half surprised if Oberon booted the both of them out for truth."
"And if they join us and turn out to be spies?"
"Then we'll already have them where we want them, and can dispose of them without much problem. And if they're not spies, which I believe, then they'll be valuable allies."
"You're only saying this because the Banshee is your kinswoman," he said sternly, but he knew she was right.
"I admit I would prefer her to live. But trust me, were she to betray us, I would destroy her as soon as look at her."
He considered her. "Very well. We'll try this your way. But Umbriel will be the one to speak to the Banshee. He needs a bit of authority. And if she is to be convinced, I'd rather it not be on the basis of her familiarity with you or the Morrigan."
"Very well. I'll see to the Puck, then." She inclined her head and turned to leave.
"No." Her head turned back to him. "Leave the Puck to me. If he is well and truly banished, I believe his conversion will require a more ... personal touch."
"As you wish. How long will you be?"
"A day, perhaps two. Not long."
"While you're gone, I'd like to attend to some unfinished business."
"Not with the Banshee."
"Very well. Put Garlon in charge if you leave the Brocken."
"I will. Good luck."
"To you, as well." Maeve did not follow him out. Although he knew she would tell him if it concerned their plans, he wondered what her unfinished business might be.
* * * * *
Fox had been aloof since their return from Fortress 2. Other than a few instructions to Vogel concerning the funeral arrangements, she had not spoken more than five sentences to anyone since leaving her father's room. David anticipated a storm of tears, but five hours had passed since they'd first heard the news and still none came. She played with the baby, spoke a few short words on the phone when Vogel called with information and questions, and on the whole, seemed to be facing her father's passing with extraordinary sang froid. He wasn't fooled, but he wouldn't push.
So, the old man was dead.
David had always respected Renard, thought him a fine scientist and a worthy adversary on the business front. Their work together on the Xanatos-Renard Foundation had begun to build some kind of relationship, if not a close father-son-in-law bond, and he had a passing regret at the lost opportunity they might have had at real friendship.
He did have more pressing concerns than mere grief. His wife's outer calm certainly hid emotions she wasn't ready to face. Renard's death left a vacuum, not just in their family, but in the business world and the ownership of Xanatos Enterprises' oldest competitor. Halcyon would have left some indication regarding who was to inherit what, and it was in David's own best interests to know the identity of that person or persons. The most likely candidates sat before him on the living room carpet, playing with brightly-colored plastic blocks, but with Renard one never knew.
"Sir, this just arrived for you." Owen held a small package in his arms.
"Attend to it, Owen. I'm not working today."
Owen cleared his throat. "I already took the liberty of attending to it, sir. I believe this is something you would rather handle personally."
He noticed the package had already been opened, but neatly. There was a letter folded inside. One look from Owen confirmed it was safe. David removed the letter and read it:
It's time to make a decision that will change your life, David. Enclosed with this letter is the answer you have been searching for all of your life. Use it wisely.
It was in his own handwriting. The last time he had received a letter in his own script, it had been two weeks before his wedding, and it had meant everything.
"I see," he said.
"What is it?" asked Fox from the floor, only vague interest in the question.
"I'm not certain," he replied, truthfully. "You're right, I should attend to this myself."
He headed towards his office. When Owen made to follow, he stopped his assistant.
"Keep an eye on her."
Owen nodded and went back towards the living room.
Safely locked inside his office, David unwrapped the rest of the brown paper from the package to reveal a cardboard box, tied with white string. His hopes fell. Such a container would likely not hold what the note promised. He should toss it and think no further on it. On the other hand, there should be no danger attached. The package would have had to go through the GC drug and explosives sniffer, as all his mail did; if there had been magic attached, Owen would have sensed it and warned him.
He cut the string with a quick snip of scissors and sliced open the cardboard. Popcorn packing greeted him. He greedily threw it aside and tunneled deep into the package. An ordinary manila envelope slowly materialized from under the popcorn at the very bottom of the box. His name was written on the envelope, again in his own handwriting. The scissors made short work of the seal.
A single sheet of parchment, thin as a bee's wing and twice as fragile, lay inside. He cut the envelope away so as not to damage the document, and delicately pulled it free.
At the top of the page in flowery calligraphic letters were two Latin words: "Anima Perpetua." In a might tighter script, Latin words crammed their way down the page. The border was an equally compact illumination of a tree, whose branches stretched and touched the roots at the bottom. At the center of the "P" was the tree's sole fruit, an hourglass lying upon its side.
Even had he not already known those few Latin words from his studies on the subject, the picture would have stopped him cold. As it was, he barely restrained his instinctive clutch on the paper, the gasp escaping his lips.
Forcing himself to be calm, he immediately took out pen and paper, and copied the unfamiliar text word for what he hoped was word. That took some time, during which he refused to think about the ramifications. When he had finished, he placed the original document in his desk and locked it.
Then, copy in hand, he headed towards the library.
* * * * *
As David searched through his partially lighted and dust-covered library, he reflected on the many things that had been whirling through his mind ever since the morning. Renard dying, Fox in shock, this mysterious letter, the images chased themselves in his thoughts.
He'd thought that he had abandoned the quest for immortality at Alexander's birth. Certainly, his son's future was more important than his own. As early as the Cauldron of Life fiasco, he'd been reconsidering his goal. Why would his future self send him the key now? A warning of some disaster yet to be?
It was late afternoon, and the little light afforded by the overcast day seemed to suck the energy from the overhead lamp as well. David squinted as he ran his fingers over the many classical texts and volumes he had collected over the years and added to his huge collection. Finally he found what he had been seeking, pulled it in a hurry from the shelf with a small explosion of dust. He sneezed as he slammed the translation dictionary down onto a nearby table.
Perhaps this spell was intended for his wife and son. David quickly ran through the spell's preparations. No, this particular incantation could only be used for one individual, not three. The spell was clear on the matter. He sighed in exasperation. Why did everything always have to be so difficult?
The afternoon was lengthening into evening. There were other things he should be doing, even if those things were simply being with his wife and waiting for her to fall apart.
Nevertheless, it had been some time since he had run anything through a translation himself. He was getting rusty. Fox was with Alex, and when she wanted to talk, he could listen to her then. Owen could watch them in the meantime.
Having almost convinced himself that this simple intellectual exercise could bring no harm, David continued to translate the rest of the spell.
* * * * *
Goliath listened with sorrow as Owen related the news of Renard's death. The man retired, leaving Goliath with the long faces of Elisa and the rest of the clan.
"He was a good man," said Brooklyn. He reached over to touch Sata's hand.
"And a fine ally," Hudson said.
The others muttered in agreement. Angela, he noticed, had drawn her wings in tightly and had moved away from the rest.
"He said the funeral is going to be Saturday," said Elisa. "But it'll be during the day."
Goliath told her, "You will have to attend in our place."
"I would have gone anyway. I didn't know him well, but I liked him." Her eyes were misty, and Goliath suspected she would be calling her parents at the next opportunity.
"We should pay our respects to Fox," he said. "Do any of you want to come?" He glanced, worriedly, at his daughter. "Angela?"
"No." Her voice was cold. He would ask her about it later.
"I'll go," said Hudson. Lexington chimed in his own willingness, as did Ariana. Elisa took his arm.
"I'll stay," said Broadway, with a glance towards Angela.
Goliath led the small group into the castle proper. The living room and kitchen were empty. They found Xanatos and Owen in the Great Hall, who told them Fox was in the nursery with Alexander.
"Mayhap we should wait," Hudson suggested. "It isna like we don't live in the same castle."
"Indeed. We will try again later this evening. Elisa, a word?" As the others dispersed to their various evening plans, he escorted her into an unoccupied passageway.
"Angela. She seemed highly agitated when Owen told us of Renard's death. He was a friend to the clan when we had few friends, but I had not realized they were close."
"I don't think that's the problem."
"I don't understand."
She placed her hand on his shoulder. "Let her work through this on her own. Trust me."
"Very well," he said, still confused. She pulled him into an embrace, but did not explain.
A door opened beside them and they jumped apart as Fox came out into the hallway. "Oh, I didn't mean to interrupt."
"That's quite all right," said Elisa far too quickly.
"We were saddened to hear of your father's passing," he said. "He was a friend to the clan. I was honored to consider him a personal friend, as well."
Fox swallowed. "I know he thought well of you. If you'll excuse me ... "
"But ... " he was about to say more, but she was walking rapidly away.
He turned to Elisa, who raised her hands in a surrendering gesture. "Try again later. Much later."
He looked down the hallway as Fox turned the corner and was gone. It seemed Angela was not the only one he could not understand.
* * * * *
The silence was maddening. His heels made sharp clicks as he walked down the echoing corridors of Fortress 2. The ship's metal heart had stopped pumping. It was an even bet whether the great hovering beast would ever fly again. Dr. Renard had created the second Fortress to be an airborne laboratory and his private living space away from the bustle of humanity. As a matter of course, Vogel had also used it as his residence, and it was to here that he had returned because he had nowhere else to be tonight. With Renard's passing, the ship would no longer be used as living space, and might not be used as a laboratory, depending on the decisions made by the new management.
Renard was dead.
The thought stopped all other thought for a cold minute. Vogel found himself on the bridge.
If Renard was dead, what did that mean to the company? Fox or Alexander would almost certainly inherit everything. He had no illusions in that respect. Fox had the business savvy, if not the scientific interest, to keep Cyberbiotics afloat financially. On the other hand, her husband owned the same corporation that had stolen vital data from them four years ago, and went up against them for every government contract for which they applied. Unless Renard had put something in his will specifically against Cyberbiotics becoming a part of the Xanatos Enterprises umbrella, it would probably be absorbed into that company sometime in the next three to five years.
The company would survive. Would he?
For the past several years, he had been Renard's attaché, right hand, occasional nurse, and confidant. Even when he was away from the old man's side, he tried to operate in his best interests, or those of the company, which in his mind was merely an extension of Renard. His existence had been completely wrapped up in that of his employer.
If Renard was dead, who was he?
He had seen to the funeral arrangements. As per Renard's wishes, he would be cremated in the morning. Saturday, there would be a memorial service. His ashes would be scattered to the sea. Vogel would make smooth the transition from one owner to the next.
His life had run against a sudden wall. He had been anticipating Renard's imminent demise for some time, had thought he was prepared for it. Instead, he found himself filled with unexpected grief and faced with a throng of possible pathways before him. Stay with Cyberbiotics? Find a new position with another corporation? Do something completely different with his life?
He turned. The empty husk of Fortress 2 yawned before him. Hands clasped behind his back, he returned to his pacing. His echoing steps were the only sound in the dark and brooding ship.
* * * * *
Fox tried to remember, had the clown been at her fifth birthday party or her sixth? She wanted to say that she had been turning six, because she recalled the way the frightening, grease painted face had pulled all six candles and offered the frosting-covered treats to the guests. Five children who were the offspring of her father's more important business contacts, she had never seen any of them before in her life, and only once or twice after. Two of them had been sisters, eight and six, in matching blue checkered dresses and mary janes. It must have been her fifth birthday, then, because both had been older than she, so one of the candles was one to grow on...
Fox blinked away images of red fuzzy wigs and pigtails. Perkins watched her from across the table, politely concerned.
"What? Oh, I'm sorry. We were discussing ... " she thought back, "the funeral arrangements."
Owen, ubiquitous in the corner, cleared his throat, as Perkins said, gently, "Several minutes ago, yes. Now, the terms of your father's will are quite specific as regards the ownership of Cyberbiotics." He spoke with the air of someone who had just said these same words not ten minutes ago. Embarrassed, Fox made an effort to pay closer attention.
As the man had said, the terms were precise. Cyberbiotics was now the property of Alexander Fox Xanatos. Fox herself would be principal trustee until Alexander reached his majority. There were other details, items named in the will that Perkins, as executor, would have to see distributed: some personal effects for herself and her mother; other, no doubt less emotional objects for Vogel.
As Perkins read over the list, Fox observed him critically. His silver hair was combed over in a poor attempt to hide the shine atop his head. Working for her father these past twenty-five years had been good for him, and it showed in the growing jowls on his face, giving him a bulldog appearance. The first time she'd seen him, he had been young and driven, and he'd deferentially called her Miss Janine. During the divorce, he had made an effort to treat her as an adult, and she'd made fun of him behind his back, but inside she'd been secretly glad someone acknowledged her existence.
Perkins was watching her expectantly. She realized she had no idea what he'd asked her, or if he was merely waiting for permission to leave.
Owen moved to her side, saying smoothly, "Thank you, Mr. Perkins. Mrs. Xanatos will look over the documents as you requested, and we will be in touch with Mr. Vogel regarding the funeral arrangements. Good day."
"Yes," she said, then more confidently, "Yes. This afternoon. We'll. Contact you. Yes."
"I'll inform Mr. Vogel," said Perkins. They stood. Before Owen escorted him out, Perkins turned and offered his hand. "I respected your father, Fox, both as a client and as a friend. He was one of the most honorable men I ever knew."
"Thank you," she said, was all she could say, and Owen saw him out the door. Fox lingered in the boardroom, hearing old voices in her ears.
* * * * *
The note lay on his desk blotter, folded with crisp edges into a packet, a little corner sticking out with an arrow drawn in ink pen, indicating which way it should be pulled. Owen, who had never been to elementary school, had never seen its like and almost called building security.
His name was written on the outside, in block letters. Carefully, he tugged at the corner. The paper came loose, and unfolded to reveal a terse letter:
You want a return to grace. I can give it to you. Four thirty this afternoon.
There were instructions on how to reach a certain park bench. No name was signed. His fingertips detected the slightest hint of magic, which suggested it had not been placed on his blotter by mortal hands.
He read the note again. He had to be at Cyberbiotics in an hour, but that meeting would probably not last long. He could stop by the bench on his way home. Alternately, he could crumple the note and get back to work. He took the paper into his right hand, intending to do just that, but the words caught his eye again: "return to grace."
Oberon would not have sent a note, but Titania might, personally or through one of her servants. He reminded himself that they were not the only players in the game, that any number of his cousins, Seelie or Unseelie, might want to catch themselves a Trickster.
He very much wanted to believe that it was Oberon.
The paper rested in his hand, waiting for an answer.
* * * * *
Maeve sniffed the air eagerly. Less than a year had passed since she'd last been to Cairn Chullain, hardly a fingersnap in her long lifetime, but something had changed. Beneath the rich scents of earth and putrefying leaf mould, the lay of the air had altered, just a fraction. The boy, Cuchullain's latest shade, his was here, but fading. He had not been to this place for some time. Her other, older senses could feel no trace of him in the wind.
Rory Dugan was no longer in Ireland.
She cursed under her breath, wasting a touch of magic as she did. Something black and horrible was created with the words and died moments later.
Fortunately, Rory Dugan was not her only reason for being here, not since she had passed through the city. She'd come within a hairsbreadth of a new prize, and this time, she had not been fooled. She had seen his eyes and known him despite the human forms they both wore.
Her quarry had not yet arrived, nor did she feel that he had been and gone. She selected a large oak, dripping with moss, near the edge of the clearing. She held her hands high, chanted three syllables, then stepped back into the tree, her arms making two stunted branches jutting from the ancient trunk.
Now she needed to wait, and not fall under the lazy spell of the tree as it whispered old dreams in her ears.
winterspringsummerfallwinterspringsummerfall went the lowest muttering, the rhythm of years. The tree had been young hundreds of years before, and the root-memory from its parent oak had no memory that did not include the burial place. In the flicker of memory, she saw the tender sapling grow, send out acorns, weep silent tears as they did not take root, and although she maintained an emotional distance between herself and the tree, still she wept for the fallen acorns. No wonder the dryads were such silly, flighty creatures; how could they not be and live, surrounded by so many centuries of despair? With a shake, she pulled her emotions free from the oak. Now was not the time to become entangled in vegetable mourning.
Shortly, although there was no word for "shortly" in the tongue of the trees, she sensed a disturbance in the forest. Someone walked through the trees, pausing here and there, stroking a branch, listening to the wind. Inside the oak, Maeve smiled.
He stepped from the woods into the clearing, his shock of red hair glowing in the last dying rays of sunlight. Without taking notice of her, for she was indeed hidden securely within the embrace of the oak, he walked with heavy tread to the burial mound. She took note careful note of his form, burly and in good health, despite his appearance of age. He could have been a man of sixty, were he a man. Unashamed, she watched him kneel in the cold dirt before the dark mouth of the mound.
"Son ... " he said to the bitter air.
"Touching, but he can't hear you," she purred, as she pulled herself from the tree. Like warm molasses, it tugged back at her, echoing its eternal winterspringsummerfall in her mind until she was entirely free. She controlled her shiver. "Well met, Prometheus. I knew ya'd be here, on this day of days."
His head turned to her, eyes filled with ancient sorrows. Like the trees this one was. "Hello, Maeve. Has Oberon finally forgiven his wayward twin and allowed Madoc's playmates home?"
"Oberon has no authority over us," she said loftily. "In fact, you might say that soon, the reverse will be true. There's a new rebellion afoot, and this time, we're going ta win."
He shrugged, and turned back to his contemplation of the mound. It was not quite the effect she'd expected.
She crept up behind him. "I meant what I said. He isna here." She smirked, delighting in the knowledge of a secret. "Yuir boy's been reborn." Maeve breathed into her palm, and a tiny image of Rory Dugan appeared standing plain as day in her hand. "He's no' much ta look at, but it's Cuchullain, true."
He turned his gaze onto the small figure, taking in the rough-looking youth, the impossibly deep green eyes. He sighed, and his sigh was the shake of brittle leaves in an autumn wind. "Twenty centuries in the grave this day, and alive again?" His eyes went to hers. "What dark power are you trying to hush in that requires this?"
"Would you like ta find out?" She wiggled her hand. Rory's image shimmered and danced. "A fine boy he is, and already a thorn in my side. He has the spear." That caught his attention. "See how much he favors you, even in this form. Why, he's like to when you yourself slew Balor of the Fomori. And fine thanks you had from your king for it."
"Get to the point, woman."
"I like you, Lightbringer, although I can't for my life understand why. Perhaps it's that you stood up for what you believed in when a certain blowhard thought you should let sleeping hounds lie. We're not so different, you and I."
"We are worlds different, Maeve. Mortals mean nothing to you but as keys to more power." He rose to his feet. He had her in height by a foot; his mere presence forced her back a pace.
"Untrue. Some mean more. To you, most definitely. Why else would you be out among them?"
"It is no concern of yours."
"But it is. I should like to know what fascinates you about them. If you were among the Unseelie, you might even persuade Madoc to be more lenient on them once he's king. He would certainly be more inclined to allow your boy to live."
"And you? What do you gain from all these machinations?"
She allowed herself a smile. "Oh, I've nothing to lose here. If you will join me, I gain a powerful ally. If you will not ... " Again she shrugged. " ... then I'll be revenged and slay your son. Again."
His eyes glowed green in rage. "Begone, witch! I'll not join you and your dog of a master, not for false promises of protection nor for idle threats against me and mine. You will not touch my son!"
"And why would I, if his father was one of my allies? Join us. We're going to win. It'd be in your best interests. And his. If you're one of us, your boy will be kin to us by alliance, and safe from us." She paused, letting him consider her words, then added, "You know he won't defeat me a second time, not at my full power."
"I might remind you, my lady, that this entire war is being fought between two close kin and their followers. No, I'll have none."
"I do admire your loyalty to Oberon. Misplaced though it may be, it's ... commendable."
"It's not for loyalty to Oberon that I oppose you, Lady Maeve. My loyalties are my own business." He paused, looking at her thoughtfully. "Ten thousand years in the World, and you've learned nothing. Ten thousand years living among mortals, and you've never given one a moment's care. Never grieved for a mortal's death."
Maeve looked away abruptly, but when she spoke her voice was deliberately light. "I suppose that's that, then. Well parted, cousin Lugh. I'll see you again once Avalon has fallen." She gave him a friendly smile which she did not feel.
She expected him to give some sharp retort in reply, but he did not. Instead, he merely watched her with his luminous green eyes. She read sadness there, and pity, not just for the mortals. Her smile melted. Even thoughts of finally killing Rory Dugan, something she intended to accomplish as soon as the chance presented itself, could not bring back that smile. Turning on her heel, she stalked away, refusing to look back as he returned his contemplation to the mound and the soul who no longer rested there.
* * * * *
Owen held the note in his good hand but did not unfold it from its neat square. This was the proper bench. He was certain. He had walked past it three times, casting out the fragile sum of his senses, but had not caught the least taste of magics. His briefcase, emptied of all but the most mundane of reports, stood stark and black against the fine white powder covering the walk by the bench. If whoever had sent the note did not arrive within five minutes, he would pick up the briefcase, walk quickly, but not hastily, back to the Eyrie Building. He would discard the note in the first wastebasket he found along the way, and he would get on with his life.
He checked his watch. Four minutes remained.
A young couple walked by him, engrossed in their conversation and each other, strolling despite the cold. As Owen watched, the man's breath puffed out a few words. The woman laughed at whatever he'd said, her titter carried on a cloud of light steam. As if a good man hadn't died yesterday. As if the Unseelie had not ridden through this park on thundering mounts just a few months before. As if the whole of what his allies were fearing and fighting held no more substance than a dream, and the only true magic was between the two of them.
The Puck he had been would have found a song in that, and perhaps a touch of hope.
"May I sit down?"
He jerked his head around, embarrassed at having been caught unaware. His eyes snapped wide as he scrambled to his feet.
"Madoc ... "
The man once known to the world as Nicholas Maddox smiled amiably. "Occasionally, yes. Just as on occasion you are known as Puck. How ironic that we interacted so much, neither of us knowing the other's true face and form. What a pity, that we lost so much time, and begin our relationship on such a sour note."
Owen checked their perimeter. He could neither see nor sense anyone in the proximity. He backed away carefully while keeping Maddox in his sight, not that it would help.
"If you'll excuse me, I must be going."
Maddox held out his hand, covered in a fine leather glove. "Wait. Please." Owen tensed, expecting a compulsion spell. "I have no intention of binding you against your will. If you choose to walk away, I won't stop you. If you don't believe me, go. I will remain here."
Owen took a step back, then another. He felt nothing to impede his movements. Maddox was toying with him somehow. He had no intentions of staying to see why.
"Good day, Mr. Maddox."
As he turned to leave, Maddox said quietly, "Don't you even want to hear what I have to say?"
In a flash, Maddox was beside him, grasping his good hand. With the deftest touch, he pulled the note free from Owen's clutch. "Then why did you come, Trickster?" He held the note up pinched between forefinger and thumb. "Such a pity and such a waste. You served Oberon your entire life, hinging your existence on his every whim and request, giving all you had, asking nothing in return. Then, when you showed the least sign of independent thought," the note flared, crisped, fell to ashes, which Maddox dusted from his gloves, "he banished you. He stripped you of your rank, your title, your powers, your very essence, and denied you the splendors of our homeland."
"I stood against him. It was his right and duty as king to punish me as he saw fit." He kept his voice steady, but his eyes strayed to his left arm, the stone fist a tangible reminder of all he could no longer do.
"But it wasn't fair, and it wasn't right." Maddox placed his hand on Owen's shoulder. "I understand. Believe me. I, too, served my king as well as I could. I gave him everything. But then he died." Old grief, not unlike that which had settled onto Fox, passed over his face like a cloud. "And Oberon cast me and mine out just as he cast out you, and for no better justification."
"'No better justification?' You committed high treason." He brushed off the hand.
"Was it treason to try to reclaim what was rightfully mine? The throne should have passed to me. The Council knew that Oberon was a braggart and a fool, and yet they gave it to him. I know why he banished you."
"You do?" Garlon had been in the nursery. If he had seen or sensed too much about the child, Alexander was in greater danger than they'd thought. He tried not to think of the damaging information lurking in the stolen computer files.
Maddox waved his hand dismissively. "Not the specifics. But I know his style, you might say. He tried to take something from you, something you valued more than your life, and it was too much. You would give him everything, but not this. So you fought him and you lost, and for that, you are Owen Burnett, now and forever."
He kept his relief internal. Madoc did not know about Alexander, at least not yet.
"He stole something from me as well, more precious than Avalon itself. How could I not fight him, although I knew losing would surely spell my doom?" He shook his finger, the kindly smile back on his face. "You and I are not so much unalike as you might think, eh?"
"We are nothing alike. I know what you did."
"You know? You know?" For a moment, Owen feared he'd taken his final step, and prepared to become a grease spot. Then Maddox threw his head back and laughed until tears streamed from his eyes.
Still chortling, he said, "My dear boy, you must forgive me. I just realized what you must have heard of me, and what a villain you must think me to be. Shall I start twirling my moustache next?" He tried, and failed, to demonstrate, looking faintly ridiculous in the process.
Stoically, Owen replied, "That will not be necessary."
"Oh, I believe it is. I remember you, Puck, a shadow at Oberon's side, his page I suppose." Owen kept his face impassive, refusing to be drawn into whatever game Maddox was at now. "You and your playmates held witchlights under your blankets and terrified each other with stories of the Three Little Sisters and Big Bad Madoc, yes?"
"Not exactly. I know what I saw, and I have heard the histories by the rest."
"Ah, history. Surely you have realized that history is written by the winners. I won't waste your time or my own trying to dissuade you from what you feel comfortable believing to be the truth, but I offer you this: the worst that I have ever done was no worse than what Oberon has committed in his time. You know him, better than almost anyone else ever could. You know this to be true."
Against his will, he thought back to what he was beginning to regard as the Good Old Days. His king had never been the most shining example of virtue, and he knew it.
"Do you have a point to all of this?" He tried to sound bored, hoped his anxiety did not peep through.
"I do. Walk with me, Puck."
"Belvedere Castle. It isn't far." Owen regarded him with distrust. Maddox sighed. "Would it help if I promised no harm will befall you?"
"I give you my word, as a fellow member of our race, that neither I nor any of the Unseelie will harm you this day. I came here to talk. Alone."
He hesitated. He had no reason to trust Madoc. Even if some of the stories he knew had been colored by Oberon's infamous embellishments, they still had an iron truth to them. On the other hand, so did some of Madoc's words. If there was a chance to make peace, to end what loomed on the horizon without bloodshed, he owed it to those in his care to try.
"Splendid!" Maddox dusted the top of his cane. Owen picked up his briefcase. The afternoon sun sent lengthening shadows beside them as they made their way along the winding blacktop trails.
"Tell me," said Maddox. "Are David and Fox well? And young Alexander?"
Again he tensed, but there was nothing to the question more than an attempt at small talk. "Mrs. Xanatos' father passed away yesterday. The family, understandably, is in mourning, but otherwise, they are reasonably well."
"I'm sorry to hear that. It is never easy to lose one's father. I'd ask you to send them my condolences, but perhaps that would not be a good idea."
"Dr. Renard was a great scientist, and I'm sure he will be missed, not only by his family, but by the scientific community at large. Has the new ownership of Cyberbiotics been determined yet?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
"I see. I apologize for asking."
They walked in silence a few paces.
"What do you want?"
"You, of course."
Owen stopped dead. "If you kill me, it will be a small loss to our allies."
Maddox chuckled again. "My, my, you are a suspicious one, aren't you? I gave you my word, and I intend to keep it. I won't pretend that there aren't those among my companions who would be just as happy to see you run through with an iron pike, Garlon chief among them."
"The Mouse encroached on my protectorate."
"The Mouse has fangs. Which you seem to have clipped quite handily for someone who has no apparent powers." The tone was light, but Maddox's eyes had gone keen.
"My current abilities are my own concern."
"Not entirely. I imagine Oberon left you some loophole through which you might dance from time to time. Given time and inclination, I could probably deduce it. I have better things to do with my time." They had reached the castle. "Come."
Maddox led the way up the dark, winding stairway. Owen reconsidered the rendezvous, but he had already come this far. He followed Maddox into the shadows, and out onto the third story of the castle. A few hardy tourists, undeterred by the cold, stood at the opposite edge snapping pictures of the courtyard below. Maddox waited away from them, watching the skyline. Owen moved beside him.
"Such a frail world. And so fascinating! I can see why you might trade Avalon for it in a moment of recklessness. The complexity of it, the life!" He turned back to Owen. "I could give it to you, if you'd like."
"I imagine the citizens of Manhattan would have something to say about that."
"Them? They can hardly complain. They bought the island for what, twenty-four dollars? I can give them so much more."
The smile was back. "Call it what you will, it is a chance to survive to the end of their miserable lives. Under your wise leadership, of course. I could set you as their governor, give you jurisdiction over all this tiny chain of islands. As a bonus, I would even consider sparing the lives of those mortals you seem especially to favor. I harbor no resentment against David or Fox."
"You seem to forget that you don't own any of the lives you're attempting to barter away."
"But that's the beauty of it, dearest Puck! I shall. And you have the unequaled opportunity to be at my side when I do."
"You will fail. If you are not stopped in the World, you will be defeated at Avalon's gates."
"Can you be so certain?"
"I have faith in my lord."
Maddox spat. "He has forsaken you. Can you not see that simple truth? You stand by the king who banished you, while I, who have no reason to do so other than my sense of kinship with your predicament, offer you your powers, a place by my side, the very world and ask nothing in exchange but the same loyalty and love you now grant to Oberon." He seized Owen's stone arm. "We can give each other so much, Puck."
Pinpricks of pain shot through his left hand, as if it had been asleep and suddenly shaken awake. As he watched, stone flaked away from the fist, as it flew from the gargoyles each morning, revealing new, pink flesh. Incredulous, he brought his hand to his face, wriggling his fingers for the first time in two years. The pain lessened as blood began to circulate through arteries and veins long left dormant. Already, tiny fair hairs poked through on his wrist, which would within a few days be indistinguishable from the hair on his right arm.
He placed his hands together, clapping them as a baby might, not hard, enjoying the sensation. He reached down, scooped up a bit of powdery snow, felt the bitter sting as it touched his skin, rejoiced as it was warmed by his own heat and melted into teardrops in his palm.
A chuckle shook him from his delightful rediscovery. Maddox was watching him, his lips curled, but his eyes again sharp. "I'm glad you enjoy the gift."
With regret, he brushed the last of the snow off his hand, felt the cold wind against the wet flesh. "I can't accept this."
"Why not? Surely having that stone hindrance has been nothing but a burden to you. It pleases me to see you free of it. Again, it is a gift."
"Sir," he said quietly, "every gift has its price. I cannot pay yours. You said you would do me no harm today. If I return to my life with my hand restored, it would be harmful."
"I cannot imagine how."
"It would be ... against the rules. If my hand is destined to be restored, it will happen in its own due time, and will not cost my soul in the bargain. Please. Change it back."
Maddox sighed. "For you, I will change it back." He held out his own gloved hand. Owen made a fist, gasped only slightly as the feeling leached out of his fingers again, as though he'd been injected with anaesthesia. The old, familiar weight dragged on his left shoulder. He tested the weight, found it to be the same as before.
"When you come to me, I will be happy to change it back for you."
"I don't believe that will be necessary."
Maddox regarded him carefully. "We shall see." He looked out onto the city again. "The hour grows late, and I believe I have overstayed my welcome here. I hope this conversation has been as productive for you as it has been for me."
"I'm not going to join you."
"Of course not," replied Maddox, tapping his cane on the pavement. "Would you like to share a cab?" He started down the stairs, leaving Owen no choice but to follow.
"I'd prefer to walk." The bravado sounded thin in the chilly air.
"Very well. I don't suppose it's far for you."
"No." He paused. "I meant it. I'm not going to join you."
They paused on the second flight of stairs. "I heard what you said. I'm in somewhat of a rush, but I can give you time. Sunday morning, meet me here. You may give me your answer then."
They walked together out into the courtyard. The sun had almost set. Owen would have to walk quickly to make it home before it was down altogether.
"I won't be there."
"Puck," said Maddox with a heavy sigh, "despite what you might think, I am not deaf. I know what you believe you will be doing. But tell me, little one, considering those you have sworn to serve, would it really be such a great change to serve me?"
"Greater than the world. I thank you for the offer, but I'm afraid I must decline."
"Of course. Sunday, then."
Owen bit back his automatic reply, and the almost more automatic, "Have a nice day." Instead, he watched in silence as Maddox ambled off towards the street. When he was out of sight, Owen brushed off his suit, but could not remove the feeling of being somehow dirty. Briefcase in hand, and mind in disarray, he headed towards the Eyrie Building at a brisk pace.
* * * * *
Angela woke with a roar, and for a moment, forgot everything. She would open her eyes upon her rookery siblings and her three beloved foster parents, she would be living on the enchanted isle of her birth, and there would be no such thing as death.
She opened her eyes reluctantly. Broadway stood beside her, concern on his kind features. She managed a smile for him, but it was forced, and they both knew it.
"Talk to me," he whispered. Rather than replying, she drew him against her heart.
"Promise me you'll never go away."
He drew his wings around her. "I promise."
When she pulled away from him, she noticed Goliath standing uncomfortably to the side.
"Angela, if you have a moment, I would like your opinion on something."
"All right." She walked with him a few paces away.
"There is a tradition among gargoyles which you may not know. When a member of the clan dies, the rest of the clan will hold a Remembrance Ceremony. It is a means to honor the dead and allow the living to say good-bye and let go. I would like to hold such a ceremony for Renard. Do you believe that would be a good idea?"
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I think that would be a very good idea."
He smiled in something like relief. "I will make the arrangements with Xanatos."
"I'll go with you. Tell me more about this ceremony."
"It is an ancient tradition," he said as they headed downstairs. "The clan gathers around the deceased one last time. We share good memories and thoughts. Afterwards, the gargoyle's mate or closest friend takes the body to the cave by the sea. Things will be different with a human, but the sharing of the memories is the most important part."
She listened without speaking, forming an idea in the back of her mind. "On second thought, you speak with Xanatos. There's something I'd like to do."
"Very well." He headed off in search of Xanatos. She turned, on a different mission.
She found Fox reading in the living room, a thick stack of papers beside her on the couch. "Fox?"
The human woman's face was strained. "Oh, hello, Angela. Do you need something?"
"Yes, I think I do." She placed herself in the armchair Hudson usually adopted. "I just wanted to say ... "
Fox crumpled the paper in her hand. "Angela, I know. You're sorry. My father was a good friend. He will be missed. I've heard it a lot in the past few days, and if I hear it one more time, I'm going to scream."
"That was part of what I was going to say, yes."
"Well don't." Fox stood up. "Sorry, Angela. I'm not myself right now."
"I know," she said. "I know how you're feeling right now."
"You do." Disbelief dripped from her voice.
"Yes, I do. Two years ago, I lost someone I'd considered a father."
Fox colored. "I'm sorry."
"I should have been expecting it, but there's no way to prepare for the death of someone you've known and loved all your life."
"No, there's not," came the soft reply.
An onslaught of memories from her hatchling days threatened to overwhelm her; she pushed them away, knowing she would have to face them again soon enough. "Goliath wants to hold a Remembrance Ceremony for your father. From what I can infer, it's a gargoyle way of saying good-bye to the dead. Would that be all right with you?"
"I think Dad would have liked that."
Angela smiled, then said, "I have another request. We never had a ceremony for my other father. With your permission, I'd like to say a few words for him as well."
"Sure. That would be fine." She blinked quickly. "I have to go. Excuse me."
"Wait! If that's not all right, I understand."
"It's not you. I just need some air. Really. The ceremony sounds lovely. I just need. Some air." She hurried out of the room.
Angela considered going after her, but knew better. She went instead to the kitchen, where she was fairly sure she would find Broadway. She hadn't much to say to him, but his presence would be a comfort when the memories reappeared, demanding her attention.
* * * * *
Kick. Turn. Kick. Punch. Duck. Flip. Punch. Kick. Dust flew in puffs from the stuffed dummy as she made contact.
Her first baby tooth lay in her father's hand, as he whispered a story about a fairy with wings like down who would slip into her room while she slept and steal the tooth away. Her mother paused in the doorway, a mystery in her face.
Punch. Kick. Flip.
She stood in her father's study, hiding her eyes behind her bangs. His scowl punctuated his words as he told her how disappointed he was, how her behavior reflected poorly on him, how she was old enough to know better than to pick fights in school.
Swipe. Knee lift. Kick. Spin. Kick.
She walked with him along a corridor in Fortress 2. He told her how disappointed he was with her lack of integrity and she laughed, because it was easier to laugh than to shout back.
Punch. Duck. Kick.
The stars were out in their full glory, dulled only by the warm glow from the other side of the screen door. Crickets and less identifiable insects filled the night air with music as he focused the telescope and showed her the moons of Jupiter. Work would get in the way of further trips to the summer place, and they would sell it for good by the time she was nine, but on that night, her daddy gave her the universe.
Punch. Punch. Punch. Feel the coarse fabric of the dummy give. Punch. Side kick. Duck.
She held her son on her lap. Her father tickled under the baby's chin, his eyes alight with life.
Kick. Punch. Punch.
Her latest boyfriend waited on the stoop. Her father confronted her in the front hallway, refusing to let her go out dressed like a trollop. She pushed past him and left anyway.
Spin. Miss footing, fall to the floor badly. Get to feet. Punch.
She sat in the waiting room while the doctors spoke with her mother. The room was too bright, the magazines too bland, the smells too potent. When she was finally allowed to see him, he lay pale and weak on the hospital bed, needles poking into blue veins, a plastic tube in his nose. He smiled at her and told her he was going to be fine, but she didn't believe him. When he was released, it was to a wheelchair.
Kick. Spin. Kick. The fabric split in the dummy's side, spilling the stuffing out onto the dojo floor. Kick. Kick. Kick.
"I think it's dead."
She turned, in fighting stance, chest heaving. David waited at the edge of the floor, dressed in his gi. She lowered her arms, as a hundred sharp rejoinders came to her lips and stayed there. Her shoulders began to shake as she knelt, fingers splayed.
David approached her slowly, knelt with her, placed his arms around her. She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed.
"I was going to go see him last week, and then, with everything that was happening, I didn't get to it, and I was going to go on Tuesday ... " Her breath hitched.
"I know, I know," he soothed.
"He wasn't supposed to die, don't you see? He was in and out of the hospital all the time. He always gets better. He was supposed to get better this time, too. He's been sick since I was twelve, and he's been going to die since I was fifteen, but he always got better. I spent half my life thinking he'd be dead in a year, and every year he was still there. I thought he'd live forever."
She pulled her face away. "When Oberon came for Alex, he stayed. He had no chance, but he fought for us anyway. He risked his life, and I couldn't even take the time to go see him for a few hours."
The sobbing began again. David held her.
* * * * *
When he was certain Fox was asleep, David slipped quietly out of bed. She'd been weeping and talking for the past several hours, until she had finally collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. He watched her as she slept, her hands drawn up against her face, wrapped in her frumpiest yellow nightgown and the soft down comforter of their bed. She looked like nothing so much as a child, and his heart welled with love.
The hallway was chill, even with the heating system he'd spent a fortune putting in with the reconstruction of the castle, and he was grateful for the warmth of his robe. It was the small hours of the morning, when the gargoyles would be roaming the castle, and he could not sleep. There was work in his office waiting; he hoped the intellectual puzzles it offered would distract him from the uneasy feeling that gnawed at him tonight.
There was a light beneath Owen's office door. On a whim, wanting any distraction available, he knocked.
"You're up late," he remarked as he let himself inside.
"As are you."
David noticed that his desk was bare of all but the blotter and the computer terminal, and the latter was off. "Am I disturbing you?"
"No. Was there something you needed?"
"No. Maybe. Fox hasn't mentioned it, but have you tried to contact Titania?"
"If she does not know, she will soon enough, and she will mourn in her own fashion."
David nodded. He hadn't been thrilled at the prospect of seeing his mother-in-law. It would just make things more difficult for Fox.
Almost to himself, he finished the thought out loud. "It's been hard on her these past two days. She set herself up to believe that he'd never die." He twisted his mouth. "I did the same, when my mother died, but I was also much younger than she is."
They spent an awkward moment in silence.
Hesitantly, not sure he wanted an answer, David asked, "During your life, have you watched many people die?"
Owen's eyes flickered. "Enough."
"I'm not certain I could get used to that."
"Nor am I."
David returned to the shelter of his own thoughts. Owen said nothing, but made no motions that he should leave.
The deaths of friends and family had been weighing heavily on his thoughts since the moment he'd opened the mysterious package. Immortality, yes. His dream, for himself and for Fox. Yet, the loss of one person had devastated Fox, and as he was forcibly reminded of the tumult of emotion he'd experienced at his own mother's death, he also remembered the numbing agony of that loss. Could he face that pain the hundred or thousand or more times he would during an extended lifetime such as he was now being offered? If he could not find a means of extending her life, could he face the loss of the woman he loved?
"Hypothetical situation: you're given one ride, one free chance at the brass ring. The catch is, you're not sure if the ride is really free, or if you have to pay when you get off the merry-go-round. What do you do?"
His assistant grew faintly paler around the edges. "What do you mean?" he asked in a small voice.
"Nothing. As I said, hypothetical situation. Never mind."
Again, the silence returned.
"I should be going," said David.
"I suppose," said Owen, "it depends on how much you trust the person offering you the ticket. Is he really who he says he is, or is he disguising himself as a friend?"
David felt a touch of relief. Owen must have guessed his motivation, but he was continuing to speak in metaphor. Good old Owen.
"You know the ticket holder is a doublecrosser and a thief, but that he understands you better than anyone else. Do you trust his word?"
Owen shifted in his chair. "You can't. The more important question perhaps is do you care? Do you take the ride and the chance anyway, and hope you can make the best of it for everyone else?"
"Yes, Your Honor, I did lead the world into darkness. But I did it with the best of intentions." He smiled bitterly at his own joke, until he saw the waxen terror on Owen's face.
"Owen? Are you all right?"
"Certainly, sir," he whispered.
He returned to his comfortable metaphor. "So you take the ride, and hope the cost is worth it. What if part of the cost is the chance of losing everyone you care for?"
"You have often said that every man has his price. I believe the question is, will the prize be enough to pay yours?" His expression was unreadable behind his glasses, even for David.
Was it enough? Could what he would accomplish during his immortality be enough to pay whatever unknown awaited him if he used the spell?
"I believe I will be retiring now, sir," said Owen unevenly. For a moment, David considered asking him if there was something troubling him, but the disquiet on his face, growing more apparent as he stood, stopped the question.
"Good night, then. And thank you."
Owen frowned, momentarily perplexed, then said, "Likewise, sir." He clicked off the lamp and closed the office door behind him. David went to his own office alone.
Instead of working, he looked out of his great window down onto the slumbering city, and wondered what his own price might be.
* * * * *
Owen went directly to his quarters, frightened. From the pointed questions, Mr. Xanatos must have somehow known about Madoc's offer. In spite of this, he had said nothing directly, leaving Owen with more questions.
Had this been some subtle means of letting him know that Xanatos wanted him to join with the Unseelie, or had his careful council been to beware Madoc?
For that matter, had it really been Xanatos in his office? He thought so, and the alarms had not gone off, but many of his kind were crafty and might slip past to tempt an agitated Puck in the wee hours.
The offer remained open to him, and he was certain that its like would not come again for many years. Oberon's wrath was not easily dispelled. Could he join Madoc just long enough to reclaim his powers, then make sure the terrible things he foresaw did not come to pass? Would Oberon understand? He thought that his king would not.
A more immediate dilemma caught him. Should Madoc choose to restore his powers for a moment as he had the arm, could he face losing his magic again?
He sat on his bed, deep in thought, and knew he would not sleep much this night.
* * * * *
David's wrist was going to fall off if he shook hands with one more person. He glanced over to Fox, but she was in deep conversation with Vogel. Owen would be no help; he held Alexander and undertook the thankless job of keeping drool off his and Alex's dark suits. David turned back to the next guest.
"Dr. Sauder, thank you for coming." He shook hands with the woman, indicated the crowd which had already gathered on the pier.
"Mr. Perkins, thank you for coming." The end was in sight; only two guests still waited to be greeted.
"Detectives," he said pleasantly. Bluestone had a black suit similar to although obviously not as well-tailored as his own. Elisa wore a simple black dress. As there were no more guests, David offered her his arm, and escorted them both over to the rest of the group. He left them with the guests and went to Fox's side.
She nodded. On impulse, he bent to kiss her forehead. "You can do this."
"Yeah." She had been crying on and off all morning, and her pretty eyes were red-rimmed beneath her spare makeup. She'd finally allowed the hurt inside. She would be in pain for a long time, but it meant she could start healing.
Fox stepped to the front of the crowd. The ornate silver urn containing Halcyon's ashes rested on a red velvet cloth covering a small table beside her. Behind it stood a plain black stereo.
She raised her voice to be heard over the cries of the seagulls and crash of waves against the pier. "Thank you all for coming. I'm know my father would have been proud to see you here." She took a breath.
"All of you knew my father. Some of you knew him as a businessman. Some of you knew him by his scientific accomplishments. A few of you," she glanced at Vogel, "knew him as a friend. I was lucky. I knew him in all those roles, as well as the role in which I knew him best."
"When I was a child, that meant my father was always busy, either in his lab, or behind his desk. He made time to be with my mother and me, but it never seemed like enough. As I grew up, we spent more time apart than we did together, and when we were together, we usually fought over something trivial. Most of the time, it seemed that was the only way we could relate."
"What I couldn't know then was what he did during the times away. My father was a great man. The advances he made in robotics led the field for a generation. Meanwhile, his research into genetics helped design new and better strains of wheat and barley. The nanotechnology which he developed is already being used as a surgical aid in some hospitals. Cyberbiotics products can be found in the warehouses and factories almost every major manufacturer in the country. The work he did is raising the quality of life for people in regions as diverse as Nebraska and Zimbabwe. In many respects, his legacy will live on for years to come."
David noticed Owen wincing, and wordlessly, took Alexander from him.
"I could stand here the rest of the day and tell you about my father's achievements, but I won't. You know them as well as I do. My only regret in that regard is that I didn't know when I was young. All I knew was that Dad was at work most of the time. But not all the time."
"I have a lot of happy memories with my father. It's funny, I never thought much about them when he was alive. I held onto the times he wasn't there. With your permission, I'd like to share some of my good memories of my father. It's too late to tell him, but sharing them with those who knew and loved him will have to be the second-best thing."
Fox began telling stories. As the rest listened patiently, she spoke of learning to ride her bicycle, of looking through a telescope, of stories Halcyon had read to her, and meals he had cooked, and how he taught her to dance. She began weeping in the middle of the last story. David went to comfort her, but she put up her hand.
"I'd like to invite anyone who wants to share memories of my father to do so now." He was not surprised to see that Vogel was first.
Fox moved beside him and slipped her hand into his. "I've invited Preston to join us tonight at the Remembrance Ceremony."
He squeezed her hand in response.
Others spoke after Vogel. Perkins mentioned Halcyon's integrity. Sauder had known him when Cyberbiotics had been young. She spoke of his fairness, and his blindness when it came to the differences among his workers. The reminiscences went on for almost an hour.
When no one else came forward, Fox returned to her place beside the urn.
"Thank you, everyone who spoke, and everyone who listened. In many ways, my father has achieved a kind of immortality."
David shivered, thinking of the package in his desk.
"My father's legacy is in the things he created, but more importantly, it is in all of us. In my memories, in yours, he lives. As long as just one of us remembers his smile, he lives. As long as someone whose life he touched, through his research, through his corporation, through the foundation he helped create to aid the homeless, he lives." She cast a warm glance to Alexander. "Through you, too, sweetie." Alexander burbled in response.
"My father gained and lost many things during his life. When he lost the use of his legs, he lost much of the freedom he once knew. He was too ill to donate any organs, so he asked instead that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered to the sea and winds."
Vogel went to the stereo they had brought and turned on the CD player. Haunting piano music echoed from the speakers, was almost lost in the noise of the bay. Fox had explained to him earlier that the piece was her father's favorite but had neglected to tell him the title or the composer. As the music continued, Fox went to the urn. As the assembly gathered in to watch with respectful silence, she unscrewed the lid and slowly poured the ashes.
The classical piece ended. After it on the tape was a more familiar song. Tears again dribbled down his wife's face as the lyrics flowed forth and her father's remains flowed into the waiting waters.
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years.
Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thoughts
I'm afraid that's all we've got
You say you just don't see it
He says it's perfect sense
You just can't get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defense.
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye.
So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It's the bitterness that lasts
So don't yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don't give up, and don't give in
You may just be O.K.
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye.
I wasn't there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn't get to tell him
All the things I had to say
I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I'm sure I heard his echo
In my baby's newborn tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years.
Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye."
The music ended. Fox remained kneeling at the edge of the pier. David gave Alexander back to Owen, and went to her side. She took his hand, placed it against her tears. Her lips were moving, but he could not hear her words.
With his help, she got to her feet and held the empty urn against her chest. She cast one final look to the sea.
"Good bye, Daddy."
* * * * *
David held the box protectively in his arms. He had very little time. He made his way to the library and locked the door behind him.
He set the box on a table, and looked at it for a long moment. All the dreams he'd once had were contained within the parchment, within the words. Those were old dreams, though, from a time before he understood that the most important things in his life were the beings who filled it.
Sunset was upon them, and he fancied he could hear the roars from the towers. In a few minutes, the gargoyles would meet them in the garden for the Remembrance Ceremony.
He turned his gaze from the box to the picture over the fireplace. That was one means of immortality. Alexander was another. Everything he did with his life from this moment onwards would be more ways to live forever. If he did achieve literal immortality, it would be through those actions, something he had earned. His father would be proud, he mused, and he reminded himself to call the old man later in the evening.
The picture swung open as his fingers brushed the catch.
Reverently, he placed the box and both copies of its precious missive inside the wall safe and locked it. The picture went back into place as though it had not moved.
Of course, it never hurt to have a backup plan.
* * * * *
The morning was cold and foggy. A thin frost covered the few trees of the Park that he could see. Within the mist, he could almost believe himself back on Avalon, but he knew better. His being did not sing with the magics of the place. The frail glamour worn by the trees would last until the first kiss of sunlight burned through the fog, when it would shimmer and melt into nothing. Quick, bright things were mortal beauties and mortal lives, and he had no choice but to love both for that ephemeral glory.
"Good morrow, Puck," said Maddox. He had not been there a moment ago, and Owen suspected he'd merely appeared.
"Have you considered my proposal?"
"I have, and I've concluded that it is a generous one. I may have been mistaken when I judged you on what I had been told by Oberon."
Maddox's face split into another smile. "I knew that you would be open to reason. Now, please forgive my haste, but I've made airline reservations for ten, and we really should be getting to the airport. There will soon be a time when you and I will be able to travel as we please, but for the moment, Customs has some odd ideas about going abroad."
"I won't be joining you."
Surprise, and anger, rippled through the human mask and vanished. "May I ask why not?"
"As I said, the offer is generous, but I cannot accept. This is the life I have created for myself. Flawed though it may be," he glanced at his hand, "it is mine, and the reward it brings cannot be matched by anything you can give."
"Are you certain? Think, Puck. The mortals might bear you affection now, but they do not truly understand who and what you are. When given a choice between their own kind and you, in your weakened state, whom do you think they will choose? They are not like us. If you stay with them, you will be forever alone, isolated among a throng. And when our day comes, rather than standing by my side as I would have you, you will be under my heel, and those you call friend will curse you for not joining me. You can save them. I extend my offer one more time."
Owen turned his head to the trees. The mist had grown bright with early sun, and the branches glittered like a forest of diamond. The week would begin cold and clear. There were reports to be read and discussed, and he needed to be back for a meeting at nine-thirty, in which Fox would discuss the actual running of Cyberbiotics with Preston Vogel. While Fox would be in charge in name, Vogel would handle the day-to-day affairs of business, just as he had during the final months of Dr. Renard's life. Owen likewise needed to look over the details of a merger proposition which XE was considering, and plan a meeting later this week between Mr. Xanatos and the owner of the other business. There were errands to be run in the afternoon, and already he had in mind a lesson for Alexander this evening.
Oberon had abandoned him. Madoc wanted him. David needed him. Had there ever been a question?
"Good day, Mr. Maddox."
Madoc looked to say something, then angled his head in an elegant bow.
"Good day, Mr. Burnett. It has been pleasant talking with you. I fear our next meeting will not be so convivial."
When he was out of sight, Owen turned his contemplation back to the trees. He had promises to keep, but still he paused a moment, waiting for the sun to break through and cast the park into dazzling light.
* * * * *
Maeve stood overlooking the mists below the Brocken, the cold, hard stars above her. She wore an introspective face, as the wind moved through her hair, the nearly-full moon casting it emerald. He observed her for a time, knowing she knew he watched her, before he spoke.
"Ill met by moonlight, proud Maeve." Madoc could not prevent his smirk.
"You're in a better humor," she remarked without turning. "Did you catch the Puck?"
"He declined our proposal. Some foolish notion of dignity and loyalty, I believe. A pity. He would have made a useful ally."
"Indeed. We shall have to see what kind of adversary he'll be."
"Did you finish your personal business?"
"Part of it, yes. When the opportunity arises to deal with the rest of it, I'll finish with that particular business permanently."
She was being intentionally vague. If it was his concern, she would let him know. He considered and discarded a number of conversational topics. None were vital tonight. He joined her at the rail. Eyes fixed firmly on the stars, he reflected upon his conversation with the Puck. As an attempt to seduce one of his brother's puppets into his own camp, it had been less than satisfactory, but as a trial-run for his grander intent, the game had given him necessary insight.
When the time came, when Avalon was his as it should always have been and his brother gone for good, he would take aim at his true quarry. He would speak his case, offer his undying love to the woman who had filled his dreams each night for over ten thousand years. And this time there would be no refusal.
* * * * *
"The Living Years," lyrics by Michael Rutherford, © 1988. Used without permission.