by Christine Morgan

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their knowledge or consent. Chas was created by Christi Hayden and is mentioned here only briefly.

        She was comfortably kicked back on the couch, remote in one hand and bottle of soda in the other, when the phone rang. She glanced that way but didn't stir except to flip past a blonde touting the benefits of an ugly rhinestone sweater on a shopping channel, settling briefly on a men's gymnastics show.         The machine picked up after the third ring, and she heard her father's voice .         "You've reached the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Yale. At the moment, no one is here to answer your calls. Probably because I'm out trying to make money faster than Lois is spending it. If you're yet another girl trying to reach Chas, he's living in Boston, and he's still without a girlfriend."         She grinned, wondering what Dad would do when he found out just how long Chas intended to be without a girlfriend.         The machine beeped, and a new voice came on. "Birdie? It's Aiden. Are you there?"         Birdie dropped the remote and grabbed the phone. "Hey, Fergs! How's your weekend going? Listen, guess what? My folks are in Boston for the weekend, one of Aunt Margot's swanky bashes that I wasn't invited to and wouldn't attend even if I had been invited _and_ Ethan Hawke was going to be there. So, I've got the place to myself, and I'm thinking party! What do you say?"         "Uh, no, Birdie, I don't think so."         "Yeah, right, you're not the party girl. Okay, so we could go out someplace. There's a great new club over on --"         "Birdie, I'm in trouble."         She sat up straighter. "What kind of trouble? The kind that cries and demands two a.m. feedings?"         "No, nothing like that." Aiden sounded fretful and distracted, probably twisting her hair around her finger in that way she had. "It's ... well ... I hate to bug you, but I didn't know who else to call."         "What, you need someone to bail you out of jail and don't want Mr. X. to know?"         "No. It's ... I don't think I should talk about it on the phone. Could you come over, though? Please? I'll pay for the cab!"         "You're at the castle? Hey, not that I object being the one you turn to; it says trust and friendship and all that good stuff, but what about Owen and Lex?"         "They can't help me right now," Aiden said in a way that hinted she might be on the verge of tears. "Please, Birdie?"         "Sure, I'm on my way. Settle down, Fergs. It'll be okay."         "God, I hope so! Hurry, okay?"         "I'm gone, babe." Birdie hung up the phone and stared at it for a moment, trying to imagine what sort of pinch Fergs had gotten herself into this time.         But why waste time wondering when she could be at the castle in ten minutes and see for herself?                 *               *         It was more like twenty minutes, given traffic and a brief skirmish with the Aerie Building's doorman, who insisted that he'd been told not to admit anyone to the upper floors. Birdie convinced him to buzz upstairs, and someone must have set him straight because she was soon rocketing up in the elevator.         The doors dinged open in the grand hall.         "Oh, Birdie!" Aiden rushed forward. She looked fine, maybe a little red around the eyes and more stressed out than a person should be on a Saturday night. "I'm so glad you came!"         "Said I would. What's the matter?"         A puppy bounded toward them, yipping excitedly. It was a golden retriever with a silky coat and the abundant energy that only puppies could have.         "Aw, how cute!" Birdie scooped up the pup, which went crazy trying to lick her face. "Mr. X. finally gave in and let Alex get a pet, huh?"         "Not exactly," Aiden said. "Come on, let's go see the others."         With the puppy frisking around their feet, they went to the family room, most comfortable place in the entire castle, and one of the few rooms where Xanatos relaxed his style of decor. Everyplace else was a curious mix of antique and ultramodern, but this was a place people could actually live in.         "Hey, where is everybody? And what's with all the animals?" She looked at Aiden, and her friend's expression told her that the two questions answered each other.         She turned in a slow circle, taking it all in.         "Oh, ye-es!" Birdie trumpeted. "Another magical blunder from the people who brought you Owen-and-Cordelia-in-love!"         Her peal of laughter was cut off by a sharp pain in her back. She spun and found herself facing a stern-looking snowy egret.         She closed her hand around the end of its beak and identified him immediately. "Watch where you're poking your pecker, Mr. Burnett!"         "It was an accident," Aiden said miserably. "I've tried every counterspell I know, but it got everyone in the castle except me. Turned them all into animals. Luckily, all the staff had left for the day!"         "Wow, Fergs, this is really something." Birdie shook her head, more than a little admiringly. "Lemme see if I can guess who's who. This little guy isn't Alex's pet, right? It's Alex."         Aiden nodded, and the puppy barked.         "I've never seen a fox smirk before, so that must be Xanatos. And the slinky vixen's the missus."         "Birdie, they can understand everything we say," Aiden cut in hurriedly. "They just can't talk."         "That so, Brooklyn?" Birdie addressed the eagle without looking straight at it, and saw it bob its proud-beaked head.         Next to the eagle was a swan, the kind of bird that hid a temper beneath its pretty exterior. "Angela. And the grizzly's Hudson?"         The bear raised its head, and she saw that one of its eyes was filmed with yellow and its muzzle was spotted with grey. A large shaggy dog was hunkered beside the bear, whining uncertainly.         "Poor Bronx! He doesn't have a clue what's going on, does he?"         A spider monkey hurled itself across the furniture on a course that looked sure to end in painful destruction, and shinnied up Aiden as if she'd been a tree.         "Hi, Lex," Birdie said absently. She looked at the next two. The falcon was large and majestic, its feathers boasting a metallic purple sheen. "Goliath, no doubt. Which means the -- what is that thing?"         That 'thing' showed her its fangs and hissed.         "Sorry, Elisa, but I'm not up on my zoology," Birdie apologized.         "I think she's an ocelot," Aiden replied. "See the spots?"         "Wow, Fergs. I mean, wow. This is really over the top, you know?"         She petted the monkey. "I don't know what to do! It's terrible!"         "Could have been worse, though."         "Yeah?" Aiden packed a paragraph of disbelief into that one word.         "Xanatos could have been hosting a dinner party for the Illuminati. But, you're right, we've got to do something. You can tell me how it happened later."         "Like I told you, I've tried all my counterspells!" Aiden plucked Hecate's Wand from the top of the entertainment center and all the animals scurried for cover.         Birdie figured they had the right idea, but knew it would hurt Aiden's feelings. "There's no tech support hotline for that thing, is there?"         She glumly shook her head. "I thought about asking another sorcerer, but ..."         "They're not exactly listed in the Yellow Pages. Do you even know of any besides Demona?"         "I know MacBeth has used magic, but what could he do against something like this?"         "Still, it's worth a try. He's been around; he might have some ideas."         "I already tried. He's out of the country."         "Damn. What about Elektra? She and Broadway turn up anywhere yet?"         Aiden shook her head again. "No word. They might even still be on Avalon."         Birdie snapped her fingers. "Avalon! Why not try Avalon?"         "No way!" Aiden said, and the egret squawked. "Oberon thinks this wand is long-gone! If I show up with it ... no way!"         "There's got to be someplace we can find the answer," Birdie insisted. "Can't you just wave your wand and take us there?"         "I know some transport spells, yes, but what you're talking about could take us anywhere!"         "What difference does it make if we can find what you need to undo this spell? You'll be able to get us back, won't you?"         "Oh, sure, I have complete control over my magic!" Aiden said sarcastically. "I'd probably blink us to Mars!"         The intercom buzzed.         A tense silence fell.         "Maybe they'll just go away," Aiden whispered.         "Get a grip, Fergs. This isn't Blakemoor Hall, and Miss St. John doing a surprise inspection."         "Miss St. John! What's she going to say when she finds out?"         The egret was already white, so it couldn't go any paler, but it made a darn good effort.         "Go on, answer it," Birdie urged.         Aiden shuffled over to the intercom. "Yes?" she tried to snap.         "Breckenridge, front desk," the doorman said.         "Yes, I know, I told you not to --"         "Get a grip," Birdie murmured again.         "Yes, miss, I know. But Mr. Xanatos is here and wishes to speak to his son."         "What?"         Birdie looked at the male fox, and he looked back at her, equally confused.         Breckenridge continued. "He's come all the way from Bar Harbor --"         Aiden uttered a sound somewhere between a squeak and a squeal, and slapped the switch, cutting him off. She spun, hands clapped over her mouth, eyes eating up the rest of her face.         "Explain?"         "It's his father!" Aiden gasped, jabbing her finger toward the fox. "Alex's grandpa!"         "You're going to have to let him in," Birdie said. "Or he'll get suspicious."         "Let him!"         "If we're going to go off searching for a counterspell, somebody's got to stay here and look after these guys. We can't call up one of those pet-sitter companies!" She waved at the roomful of animals. "They'd turn us in for violating the Endangered Species Act! Maybe we can convince Grandpa X. to keep an eye on them."         "Maybe this is a stupid question, but ... ARE YOU CRAZY?!?!?!" Aiden burst into hysterical tears and flung herself on the couch. The monkey scrambled over to her, patting at her face and hair, chittering. The ocelot sprang gracefully to the arm of the couch and rested a velvety paw on Aiden's hand.         Birdie blew through pursed lips. "Aiden ..."         "I have the worst luck in the known universe," she mumbled into the cushions.         The egret, the falcon, and the fox all exchanged a glance, then the egret nudged Birdie toward the intercom. He nudged her again, more insistently, and ruffled his wings imperiously.         "Well, at least you agree with me," she said, pressing the button. To avoid further complicating things, since he was the same man she'd had to get past when she came in, she both raised and softened her voice. "Breckenridge?"         "Yes?" he said, and in the background she could hear an older man, not the words but just the irritated tone.         "Send him up, please."         It was such an eerily apt impression of Aiden that all the animals stared at her, and Aiden herself looked up in surprise.         Birdie grinned. Then, in the voice of David Xanatos, she said, "Aren't you glad I'm on your side?"         Aiden jumped up. "That's it!"         "What's it?"         "Just hold still --" her eyes drifted to half-mast and she began to mumble in Latin.         "Whoa! Hey! Wait!"                 *               *         Birdie looked around at the others. "This is not going to work."         It was a funny sight, a roomful of animals all shrugging in a way that asked, "Yeah, but what else are we gonna do?"         From the grand hall, she heard the ding of the elevator's arrival, and Aiden's hesitant greeting. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Xanatos, but ... well ... you've come at sort of an awkward time."         "When haven't I?" a man responded. "Let's see what kind of a mess my son's gotten into this time. You work for him?"         "Yes, sir. I'm Aiden Ferguson."         They came into the family room, and Birdie was surprised to see that there was an extra person with them. A woman in her late fifties, a tad overweight but striking, with iron-grey hair and dark eyes.         Petros Xanatos looked at Birdie and said, "David. Hello, son."         "Hi, Dad," Birdie replied.         His gaze traveled the room, over the birds and other assorted wildlife, before coming to rest on Birdie again. "Pets?"         "Long story."         Aiden, behind them, silently beseeched Birdie to be careful. The senior Xanatos had such piercing eyes that they seemed able to see right through the spell of illusion with which Birdie was now disguised.         "Ah. Well." He glanced at the woman beside him, who smiled encouragingly. "This is Lydia Stephanopolos, a ... very good friend of mine."         It was a good thing foxes possessed what passed for eyebrows, otherwise the transformed David Xanatos would not have been able to do what he then did.         "Lydia's husband was a fisherman out of Duke's Bay," Petros explained. "We used to run into each other a lot. Had drinks at the Netmender. That sort of thing. He died a few years ago."         "My, Petros, he's even more handsome than he is on television," the woman said. "I bet you don't even remember me, do you? I babysat you when you were only this high!"         "Of course I do," Birdie said, putting on her warmest grin. "I never forget a pretty lady!"         "Oh, and so charming too!" she giggled. "You must get that from your father!"         "Where is Fox? And Alexander?" Petros asked.         "I'm afraid they're ... uh, out for the evening," Birdie said. "But I hope they'll be back soon!"         "Um, David. Son." Petros took a deep breath, then looked at Aiden as if he wished she'd scat and give the grownups some privacy.         "Aiden's taking care of the animals," Birdie put in smoothly. "Was there something you wanted to talk to me about? Dad?"         "Yes, actually, there is. David, you know your mother's been gone a long while now, and --"         Birdie goggled as she got where this was going, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the fox doing the same.         "Wait!" Aiden cried, springing between them. "I can't let you do this!"         "I beg your pardon?" Lydia was all set to be offended.         "Mr. Xanatos, this is all wrong," Aiden said.         "Young lady, I hardly think you know --"         "No, no, I mean, this isn't your son!"         Pin drop, Birdie thought.         "Way to go, Fergs," she muttered to break the awful silence.         Aiden snapped her fingers and the illusion dissipated, revealing Birdie in all her splendor. Which, since she'd been relaxing in front of the tube, consisted of baggy navy-blue sweatpants with a bleach splatter on one knee and a gigantic T-shirt emblazoned with space bum Dave Lister and the cheerful sentiment, "Hey, Smeghead!"         She flashed them a real big smile and said, "Hi!"         "This is my friend Birdie Yale. That --" Aiden pointed "-- is your son."                 *               *         "All things considered," the girl with the unkempt, streaked hair said to him, "you guys are taking this pretty well."         Petros snorted. "I knew something like this would happen. For his wedding, he introduced me to gargoyles and took me to the tenth century. We celebrated the birth of my grandson by fighting off Oberon. I knew that if I was going to bring Lydia here, I'd have to prepare her for strange things."         "It really was an accident," she said.         "Will she be able to show Lydia to the restroom and bring her back safely?" he asked. "Safely, as she was when she left, not turned into something?"         "Sure! Sure! See, here they come now, and everybody looks fine!"         "This wasn't what I had in mind when I wanted to introduce her to my family," he remarked as Lydia patted the puppy.         She overheard that, and straightened up. "You promised me an interesting trip, Petros, and I must say, you delivered! Besides, I just _love_ puppies, this fellow is so cute, just a little darling, yes he is, yes he _is_," she crooned to Alex, who flopped over on his back and waved his legs in the air, letting her scratch his tummy, his tongue lolling out.         "So, you really don't mind?" the meek magician-girl asked, all but wringing her hands. "I'm sure we can find a counterspell, but I didn't want to leave them alone."         "Go," Petros told her. "Find your counterspell, and fix this mess."         She hung her head. "Yes, sir!"         "Petros, you're scaring the poor child!" Lydia scolded. "I'm sure she'll set things right."         "I will, I promise! Birdie, do you still want to come with me?"         "Ready when you are."         The spider monkey leaped onto Aiden's shoulder and chattered emphatically at her.         "No, Lex, you better stay here," she said.         The monkey got her hair in a death grip and shook his little head.         "Aw, let him come," Birdie said. "All for one ..." she stuck out her hand.         "And one for all," Aiden sighed, covering it with her own. The monkey scrambled down her arm and placed his paw on top of their hands. "Okay, okay."         She wrapped her fingers around a gnarled stick of wood and held it upthrust like a majorette's baton. The other girl stood close beside her, and the monkey clung tight to her arm. She paused for a moment's thought, then pointed it at each of them in turn.         "Athos, Porthos, Aramis, take us where the answer is!" she intoned, her voice suddenly strong and sure. The wand flared with silver light.         Petros shielded his eyes and squinted, and when he lowered his hand, they were gone.         "Impressive friends, your son has," Lydia said, blinking.         Rather than answer, he looked at the fox that was his son. The dark eyes looking back at him were familiar, dispelling any lingering doubts.         "Couldn't be a fisherman, could you?"                 *               *         "Okay, Fergs, you want the good news, bad news, or weird news first?"         "Unh," Aiden said, not opening her eyes. She was aware of Birdie talking, a hard surface beneath her knees, and Lex's weight on her shoulder.         "Good news is we're all in one piece. Bad news is we're drawing a crowd. And the weird news has to do with that Musketeers reference."         Now Aiden opened her eyes, her weariness forgotten, sure that she was going to see 17th-century Paris. Her relief upon seeing a thoroughly modern street was so exceedingly great that she didn't even notice how squalid it was.         She looked at Birdie, and a string of exhausted giggles burst from her. They intensified when she glanced down at herself, and turned into screamy laughter when she saw Lex.         Royal-blue surcoats edged in silver, sporting embroidered fleur-de-lis. Wide-brimmed hats with great sweeping plumes. Knee- high boots with folded-over tops. And rapiers. On Lex, they were all in miniature, suited to his smaller monkey's form.         She also saw a disreputable crowd of punks, thugs, and lowlifes converging on them. The sight of studded leather, spiked hair, and pierced eyebrows assured Aiden that this was without a doubt the same time frame she was used to.         It finally trickled into her disorganized brain that the lowlifes were more menacing than curious. Lex leaped to the street and bared his teeth.         "Look out, the monkey's got Ebola!" Birdie tried, as she hauled Aiden to her feet. Lex obligingly gnashed and foamed, though it was hard for a costumed monkey to look particularly fierce.         Rough laughter and an appallingly rude offer answered this gambit.         "Help me out here, Fergs!" Birdie urged. She drew her rapier and took a fencer's stance. It made the crowd pause for a moment. She'd taken a stage combat course last quarter, so she _looked_ good, but Aiden knew they were mostly just taught how to miss convincingly.         She shook the last of the spell-fogginess from her head and drew her own sword, then tossed it skyward. All eyes followed its course, and she swept her hand in an arcane gesture and shouted some words of Latin.         Silver light danced along the blade. The sword was seized by an unseen force and began to move on its own, in deft, threatening jabs. Birdie exclaimed as hers leaped from her grip to join it.         One of the punks made a grab for a sword, and it skewered his palm. His shriek was more astonishment than anything, until the blade pulled back and he was left with a hole clear through his hand. Then he let loose a howl of genuine pain.         As if that was the signal they'd been waiting for, all the blades darted in to attack.         "Come on!" Aiden grabbed Lex by the back of his little surcoat and pushed Birdie. "That way!"         They ran for it, leaving the sounds of mayhem behind them.         "Those guys are shishkebab for sure!" Birdie panted when they finally stopped.         "No, I don't think so." Aiden dropped onto a bench. "They might need some stitches, some tetanus shots, but the spell won't kill anyone."         "That's pretty cool, Fergs!" She looked around, then said, "Alex, I'll take 'Where The Hell Are We' for $200, please."         Aiden flicked her fingers, and the illusory image of a game show host appeared before them, next to a blue television screen. White letters appeared, reading: THIS CITY IS KNOWN FOR SUCH LANDMARKS AS BIG BEN AND WESTMINSTER ABBEY.         "London!" Birdie barked incredulously.         Aiden smiled. "Sorry, Miss Yale, you forgot to phrase your answer in the form of a question. We'll have to deduct 200 from your total."         Birdie grimaced. "I think I liked it better when _I_ was the wiseass and _you_ were distraught."         Lex chittered gleefully.         "Zip it, Abu," Birdie advised him. "London. We're in London. And me without my passport."         Aiden stood up. "With luck, we won't need passports. We'll go home the same way we got here. Once we've found what we've come for, that is."         "Right. And how are we going to find it? Somehow I don't think those guys had a counterspell, you know?"         "We'll have to go back that way. In a while, when they've all split the scene."         "Careful, you're starting to sound like me. First thing, let's ditch these duds." Birdie took off her hat and surcoat. "What do you think, could I carry off the boots? I really like them."         "Be my guest." Aiden divested herself of Musketeer garb, but paused when she reached for Lex's hat. "Let's leave him how he is. That way, people might think he's trained."         Lex made an indignant, protesting noise.         "I didn't mean it that way," Aiden said.         "She meant you're cute, just a little darling, yes he is, yes he _is_!" Birdie chirped, tickling Lex's tummy. He bit at her fingers. "Can you believe it? Betcha old Mr. X. is going to marry that woman."         "I bet you're right, but it was a heck of a way to break it to his family."         "She took it pretty well, though."                 *               *         "Well!" Lydia Stepanopolos said briskly. "Does anyone mind if I make some coffee? I don't mean to impose ..."         "Some coffee would be nice," Petros allowed. "It is going to be a long night."         She whispered in his ear, "I think you might as well tell your son the big news. He's looking at us like he already knows."         She was right; the male fox kept his oildrop gaze fixed knowingly yet inquisitively on Petros.         "David," he said, still having a bit of trouble believing he was doing this, "can I speak to you alone?" Then he paused. "But -- what if the others get away?"         "Really, Petros, where would they go? They've got the sense to stay put. Unless that little girl was right, and their animal instincts start overcoming their human minds. Or gargoyle minds," she amended as several of them looked offended. "Maybe your daughter-in-law can show me where the kitchen is?"         The vixen leaped down and padded over to Lydia, and the puppy whined appealingly at her until she picked him up.         "And this little fellow wants to come find a cookie, I bet! Yes, a cookie for the little snookums, doesn't that sound nice?" Alex licked her face and barked.         "Try to remember, Lydia, he _is_ my grandson. He's not really a puppy."         "Oh, Petros! I know that! This is just how I treat adorable little boys, too!" Rubbing her nose against the puppy's cold black one, she followed the vixen out of the room.         "Ahem," Petros said, alone with the animals. "Shall we, son?"         The fox trotted to a door, which, if Petros' memory served him correctly, led to the hall that connected his son's office to the family quarters.         "Now, all of you stay here and behave," he cautioned the rest.         The falcon dipped his beak in acknowledgement, then turned to preen the ocelot's ear. Petros shook his head and went with his son.         Once in David's office, the fox sprang into the leather chair and stood with his forepaws on the desktop. Petros settled into one of the other chairs.         "This is very strange, David."         The fox yipped once.         "But in a way, it's better. You have to hear me out."         The fox looked mildly hurt that he would even say such a thing, attempting to convey astonishment that Petros would ever believe him capable of arguing.         "David," he said. "Your mother has been gone for many years. I know you loved her very much, and I did too. But there comes a time, son, when a man needs someone else in his life. Lydia -- she's a widow now, and a fine lady like that shouldn't be alone. We've been spending a lot of time together, and, well, we're thinking of getting married."         The fox shifted and Petros held up one hand to forestall any interruptions.         "You and I have had our differences. I've been something of a stiff-necked old man, and you ... face it, son, you've always been stubborn. We've let our pride come between us. Lydia, she doesn't have much family, and she's made me see just how important it is. I'm lucky to have you, and Fox, and Alexander. But I'm also lucky to have Lydia. I'd like to make her my wife. What I need to know, David, is how you feel about having a stepmother."         The fox walked across the desk and sat up straight, curling his thick autumn-red tail around him so that the white tip rested between his forefeet. He grinned, his black eyes twinkling.         "Oh, good," Petros Xanatos said.                 *               *         "Petros has shown me pictures. You are a lovely woman, Fox. May I call you Fox? That's not to say that you're not lovely now, mind you."         Lydia bustled about, brewing coffee, finding sugar and cream -- for herself; Petros drank his black and so strong it could peel the barnacles off a pier -- and feeding the puppy a cookie under the watchful eye of the vixen.         "He's very proud of his son, you know. Oh, don't look so surprised! Petros is really a very sweet man. I know he can be taciturn, but you should hear him go on about David! My goodness! It's only when they get together that the walls come up."         She poked through the drawers. "You must have spoons somewhere -- ah, here they are. You're such a good listener, dear. Of course, what choice do you have? Petros tells me that you're estranged from your parents. Call me old-fashioned -- well, what can I say, I'm old, I have a right to be old-fashioned -- but I think it's really a shame the way families are today. It used to be that people would stay in the same town as their parents. Now, it seems like everyone moves far away, paying strangers to take care of their children while grandparents only see them on holidays."         The puppy jumped up and braced his little paws on her knee, gazing up at her in pleading and adoration.         "Oh, my fine young man, one cookie is enough!" She smiled at the vixen. "Of course, if you weren't here, dear, I'd probably give him another one. That's what being a grandma is all about, getting to spoil the little ones. Yes, that's right, Petros and I want to get married. So that would make me a step-grandma, I guess. I do hope your David doesn't mind. I know I could never replace his mother, and I don't want to try. But Petros needs a woman to look after him -- most men do, don't you agree? -- and ever since my Gregor died, I've just been rattling around that old house like the last bean in the jar."         She laughed. "Good heavens, would you listen to me babble? You couldn't get a word in edgewise even if you could talk, poor thing. Well, you'll have your turn soon enough, I'm sure. We'll get this mess straightened out and you'll be your pretty self again in no time. I am glad, though, that Petros warned me about the unusual things that go on here! Gargoyles, magic wands ... all I can say is that life must be interesting!"                 *               *         "Looks like the coast is clear," Birdie said. "Our admirers are gone, anyway."         "Good." Aiden closed her eyes and turned back and forth like a human radar dish. "Hey, Birdie, I feel something weird."         "Yeah, spinning around like that, I bet you do. It's called dizziness."         "No, no. There's magic nearby. I can sense it."         Birdie brightened. "You mean we're on the right track after all?"         Aiden gave her a sour look. "Thanks for the vote of confidence!"         "No offense. Oh, look! Our swords!" She picked one up, wiping it off. "Eew. This one got somebody."         Lex grabbed Aiden's ear, making agitated noises. He crouched on her shoulder, peering upward and around anxiously.         "What is it, Lex?"         "Uh-oh," Birdie said. "Monkey-boy detects trouble. Okay, Fergs, where's this magic coming from? It's not the spell you put on the swords, is it?"         "No. That wore off. It's stronger. This way." She wandered down the street, probably looking like an aimless drunk but really doing the magical equivalent of following her nose.         She turned a corner, onto a narrower street. London's famous fog was rolling in, obscuring the lightposts so they looked like gaslamps. Their footsteps clocked hollowly on the pavement. It was easy to believe that at any moment a horse-drawn cab might go by, or a man in a top hat and cape. Or Jack the Ripper, looking for a victim.         "Creepy," Birdie muttered.         "Closer now," Aiden said. "Over there."         She crossed the street, and stopped in front of a storefront, crammed in between two taller buildings. It was set slightly back, too, giving the impression of lurking in the fog-shrouded shadows. The doorway was a recessed arch, with a round stone at the top. Carved into the stone were what looked like figures, a dragon and a winged unicorn, standing on their hind legs, forepaws almost touching over a star in a circle.         The shop, if that was what it was, had two windows flanking the door. The windows were tall and thin, arched at the top, and made of square panes of thick yellowish glass, covered with iron bars.         Aiden murmured a few words, and when she looked again, the door and windows were covered with an intricate tracery of pearly illumination.         "Wards," she whispered. "This place is warded!"         "Closed, too," Birdie said. "It's what, four, five in the morning local time?"         Aiden shrugged. "I could get past them, I think, but I don't want to break in."         "That's a very wise decision!" a deep, gutteral voice said sharply.         Lex uttered a high-pitched cry of alarm and they turned just in time to see a large shape land on the sidewalk. Its feathered wings swirled the fog apart, revealing a snarling, tusked face and a broad, muscular body.         He lunged toward them.         Birdie halfheartedly stuck out her sword and he slapped it aside, glowering at her. Taking in his distinctive boarlike features, she offered a tentative smile and said, "Uh ... hakuna matata?"         Aiden pulled her back as he tried to grab them. She stumbled on the stairs and both of them bumped into the door. She felt the tingle of the wards, something no one else would have noticed, and for a moment it seemed like her whole rear had gone to sleep. She didn't worry about that, though, not with a fierce gargoyle menacing them.         She started worrying when the wards interfered with her witchbolt. Instead of the wedge of light she was expecting, she got a squiggle of energy that quickly dissipated.         Lex sprang from her shoulder and landed on the gargoyle's head. He shrieked a primate challenge.         A clawed, finely-scaled hand shot out of the fog, seized Lex by the scruff of the neck and the back of his Musketeers surcoat, and lifted him high. The new gargoyle moved into view, this one a female with green iridescent scales and the sinuous head of a dragon.         "Lex!" Aiden got out of the wards and brandished her wand threateningly. "Let him go, or you'll be sorry!"         "Yeah," Birdie chimed in. "Violators will be toad!"         "Birdie, for pete's sake, shut up!" Aiden cried.         The door behind them, against which Birdie was still leaning, opened suddenly and she fell on her amply-padded behind.         "Bors! Draga! What is going on?"         Birdie looked up from her awkward pose, then shot Aiden an accusing glare. "Again with the unicorns, Fergs?"         "These humans were trying to break into the shop, and threatened us with sword and sorcery," the male, Bors, said. He didn't take his glowing white eyes off Aiden, and she knew he was waiting for the right moment to pounce, snatch her wand away from her, and break it over her head.         Lex, looking foolish as he dangled and twisted in Draga's grip, gestured and chittered urgently.         Aiden looked at the female gargoyle standing over Birdie. She was white, with equine features and a spiral horn. Behind her was another male, this one with a lion's mane.         "Una! Leo! You're Griff's clan!" she exclaimed, finally understanding what Lex was getting at.         The names made all the gargoyles pause. "Who are you, human child?" Una asked. "How do you know us?"         "My name is Aiden Ferguson. This is my friend Birdie --"         "Pleased to meetcha," Birdie said as she got to her feet.         "-- and this is Lexington. Of Goliath's clan."         "Goliath!" Leo and Una said in unison.         "The Scots gargoyle who saved Griff?" Draga loosened her hold on Lex, and he scampered back to Aiden's shoulder. "You say this ... chimpanzee ... is part of his clan?"         "They lie!" Bors said, making two very big fists.         "No! We met Griff at Goliath's wedding! He was with Arthur, Arthur Pendragon. And Lex isn't a chimpanzee. He's a gargoyle. Well, at the moment, he's a spider monkey, but that's my fault!" She held up the wand, and Una's eyes widened.         "I've seen that before! I sold it, many years ago."         "We should go inside," Leo said. "Before we attract attention."         "You trust these humans?" Bors grumbled. "You know who we brought with us."         "Oh, very well, if you're going to be like that." Una retreated into the shop, then returned with an ivory cup. She held it between her palms. "Tell me again, who you are and whose protection you claim."         Aiden felt power radiating off the cup. She repeated what she'd said before, watching Una carefully. "Well? Do I speak the truth?"         "You do. She does," she told the others. "Will we welcome this young sorceress and her friends into our shop?"         "Oh, fine," Bors said, though he didn't look very happy about it. "Hatchlings! Come down."         "Hatchlings!" Aiden gasped, and Lex echoed her surprise.         Three smaller shapes dropped from a ledge. One of them rushed forward, giving the humans a wide berth and a shy glance before throwing herself into Una's arms.         "This is Equa," Una said proudly. "My daughter."         The young gargoyle was about the size of an eight-year-old, with the golden coloring and creamy mane of a palomino. A tiny nub of a horn grew from her brow. She wore a dress just like her mother's, and her wings were a blend of white and golden feathers.         Another of the hatchlings hid behind Draga, peering at the humans with unabashed childlike curiosity. It was a male, with dark blue-green scales and draconian features. Like Draga, he did not have the feathered wings that the rest of the clan did, but had leathery ones reminiscent of Goliath.         "That is Drake," Una went on. "And that is Fawn."         The last hatchling stayed apart from the adults. She had huge soft doe's eyes, which went well with her soft doe's face and soft brown fur. Her wings were feathered in bands of tan and dark brown.         "Come in," Leo said, holding the door open. "We have a little while before sunrise."                 *               *         The ocelot's hindquarters quivered as she crept up on the falcon.         For some reason, the notion of pouncing on the proud bird was irresistible, though she ran into some confusion about what to do next.         Her instinct told her that breaking its neck or closing off its windpipe and then feasting on the warm flesh was the thing to do. But some other part of her wanted to pounce on the falcon for other reasons altogether.         The falcon, meanwhile, and the eagle, both kept a close eye on the foxes, which were only a little too big to be considered proper prey.         The bear kept up a continual low growl at the dog, who refused to take the hint and insisted on staying faithfully by his side. And both of them made warning snaps at the frisky puppy whenever he came too close.         "Do you think we should feed them?" Lydia asked.         "Yes, before they start eating each other." He sighed and looked at the clock. "What is taking so long? What if they don't return? What if they're stuck like this?"         "Petros Xanatos, you're going to 'what if' yourself to death if you don't quit it. Have some faith. I'm sure that girl knows what she's doing."         "If she knew what she was doing," he muttered, "none of this would have happened."                 *               *         "... and that's what happened," Aiden finished.         They were in a windowless sitting room, a little crowded with four adult gargoyles, two humans, three hatchlings, and a monkey, but it managed to be comfortable all the same.         Leo had led them through a thoroughly fascinating shop. About half the items seemed like they were just for show, props, trappings. But the rest carried distinct auras of magical power, ranging from a low hum to the almost-painful roar emanating from a tall oaken staff topped with a crystal held by a golden dragon's claw.         Aiden wished she had about a week to browse and ask questions, but undoing her current blooper had to take precendence over buying trinkets that would enable her to make other bloopers. She couldn't resist asking Una about the staff, though.         "My mentor, who had this shop before me, said it belonged to Merlin," Una had explained. "I had my doubts, but when Griff brought Arthur here ... well, he seems to believe it. He asked us to keep it safe until such time, if any, that Merlin returns."         Now, as she completed her story, she saw the gargoyles exchange a glance. Bors in particular wasn't happy about any of this. The hatchlings, at least, didn't seem upset. They were far more interested in playing with Lex, who amused them with his acrobatics.         Actually, Aiden was starting to get worried about Lex. He was acting more and more like a monkey, and not following the conversation.         "Should we take the children home?" Draga wondered.         "I'm not going to do anything, I promise," Aiden said. "All I need is a counterspell. The wand brought us here, so there must be something here that can help."         "Oh, please," Fawn spoke up suddenly. "Please don't make us go back yet."         "We won't, little one," Leo said. Seeing the perplexed looks on Aiden and Birdie, he lowered his voice. "Our clan is having a difficult time of it now. Fawn's mother was the leader's mate, and since her death, he's been in a black mood."         "If only Griff were here." Una's voice was wistful, and now Leo's glance shifted to her, dark and pained. Aiden suddenly understood that Una had been in love with Griff, but when she thought he was dead, she became Leo's mate. Griff's return had caused an unforseen complication.         "He was our leader, before his disappearance," Draga elaborated. "Hart, who had been hs second-in-command, took over. He said Griff had been too reckless, too involved in human conflicts."         "But then Goliath brought Griff back." Leo sighed. "Griff could have reclaimed his status as leader, and some think he should have done so. He felt as though he no longer really belonged. We, his rookery brothers and sisters, were much older, with hatchlings of our own."         "He chose to spend his nights in the city, looking after the humans, rather than being with his clan." Bors glowered disapprovingly. "Then he went off in the company of Arthur. Another human."         "We're so few already," Una said sadly. "Draga and I are the only females left, until Equa and Fawn grow up."         "There don't seem to be many female gargoyles anywhere except Avalon," Aiden said. "Angela is the only one in Goliath's clan, unless you count Delilah. Angela's been talking about having a breeding season, but with just her ..." she trailed off thoughtfully, looking at Lex.         Birdie caught that look, and smirked knowingly until Aiden kicked her in the ankle.         "These humans didn't come here to listen to our clan's problems," Bors said. "Can you give them a counterspell, Una, or not?"         "I didn't think to bring any money," Aiden apologized.         Una shook her head. "We owe Goliath so much for saving Griff's life! This will only begin to repay. Come with me."         "Lex!" Aiden called, then had to go fetch him when he didn't respond. "I'm so afraid we'll be too late, and they'll forget who they really are!"         "Hey, wait for me!" Birdie said. "I don't want to miss anything!"         As they followed Una upstairs, Birdie nudged Aiden. "So, how long until you pack it in and become a gargoyle for good?" she whispered.         "I don't know what you're talking about!" Aiden blushed.         "Oh, yes you do. What is it that appeals to you? The wings? The thought of cute little baby Lexingtons?"         Her blush deepened. "Well, yeah, all that, but also the _purpose_. Gargoyles don't get strung out about what they're going to do with their lives. They don't worry about getting into a good college, or making money so they can afford trendy clothes or snazzy cars or a split-level in a good neighborhood. They've got a ... gosh, a _nobility_ about them that we'll never have. They protect. That's what they do. And there's so few of them, like Una said. Their race is dying out. I don't want to see that happen!"         "Jeez, Fergs, you've really thought this over!"         "The only thing holding me back is my magic. I owe Mr. Xanatos a lot, and I promised I'd repay him by working for him. As a sorceress. As a gargoyle, I'd probably still be able to cast spells, but I wouldn't be able to use the wand."         They emerged into the dusty and mysterious main room of the shop. Una was looking oddly at Aiden, as if she'd overheard part of their quiet conversation, but she didn't say anything about it.         She took down a wide-mouthed ceramic jar, glazed in red ochre and decorated with images of strange distorted figures hunched at the feet of a woman.         Una opened the jar and they smelled sour herbs. She plucked out a dried leaf. "Sprig of moly," she said.         "What?" Aiden asked.         "Tsk, tsk, Fergs, don't you remember your Lit. class last year? The Odessey. That little FTD florist logo-guy gave Ulysses some of this to keep the witch-woman from turning him into a pig."         "Circe," Una said. "Quite right. The sprig of moly undoes any transformative enchantment. The trouble is in getting them to take it." She offered the leaf to the monkey, who sniffed and turned up his nose.         "Go on, Lex," Aiden wheedled. "How much does he have to eat? Can it be ground up and mixed with something?"         "One leaf, and it must be whole. But he doesn't need to eat it, only hold it in his mouth until it takes effect." Una deftly pinched Lex's jaw until his little mouth opened, then popped the leaf inside and clamped her hand over his face before he could spit it out.         Lex struggled, so Aiden grabbed him. She giggled, remembering a time when Aunt Mary's cat Winkie had needed medicine three times a day for a week, and it took the whole family to hold Winkie down, none of them escaping unscratched.         Lucikly, Lex was slightly more cooperative than Winkie. Or maybe the moly didn't taste as bad as it smelled.         His little surcoat split apart as he suddenly expanded. His fur turned into familiar olive-green skin. Aiden found herself holding onto the gargoyle she knew and loved.         "There," Una said, letting go of his face. "Hello, cousin."         "Lex!" Aiden threw her arms around him. "Oh, Lex, I'm so glad you're back!"         "Just a minute," he said, removing the soggy leaf from his mouth. "Bleah. You don't want to know what that tastes like!" Then he embraced Aiden.         "What do you remember?" Birdie asked.         "It got a little weird toward the end there," Lex admitted. "Like I had trouble remembering who I really was, what I was supposed to be." He glanced from Aiden to Birdie and back to Aiden. "And you two were talking about something I thought was important, but I couldn't quite understand it."         Aiden was relieved. "And you're okay now?"         "Yeah, I feel fine." He grinned at Una. "The rest of us had been hoping to meet your clan, though not quite like this!"         "You are welcome here," she replied. "I'm pleased I could help."         They went back downstairs, where Lex could properly greet the others. Bors seemed mollified now that he saw Lex actually was a gargoyle. The hatchlings turned shy all over again, but he quickly won them over.         "I was wondering about something." Lex looked at Una. "You said Equa here was your daughter. When did your clan start thinking about things that way? Angela had to drag Goliath kicking and screaming into the notion that he was her father."         "We used to view the hatchlings as the children of the whole clan," Una said. "But there were only three females in our last breeding season, and we each laid only one egg."         "When they hatched, it was fairly obvious who their mothers were," Leo added.         "Yeah, I bet," Birdie said. "Pretty neat, though. You guys are so, like, heraldic."         "We should introduce them to Angus," Aiden said. "He's only a little older than them."         "Yes," Draga said, patting her son's head. "That's good. Drake doesn't like being the only male."         Lex grinned. "I bet he'll change his tune in a few years!"                 *               *         "Did you find any iodine?" Petros Xanatos asked.         Lydia held up her bandaged hand. "All fixed. It barely broke the skin, but no sense taking chances."         "You should see a doctor. My son boasts about his medical staff, so we'll give him a chance to make good on it." He tapped on the top of the upended wicker laundry basket that confined the fox and the vixen, careful not to dislodge the books that were weighing it down. "Isn't that right, David?"         "Yes, that would be for the best," Lydia said. "I can't see going to the emergency room with an ocelot bite."         The ocelot yowled from inside her triple-bagged pillowcase prison. The pantry door shuddered from repeated heavy blows, and they could hear the sounds of shelves and canned goods falling over. This made the shaggy dog bark ceaselessly.         The eagle and the falcon had chosen to tolerate each other, after stuffing themselves to satiety on the platters of shredded meat Petros had provided. The swan was currently snoozing in the master bathtub. The egret stalked the room on his long legs, seemingly the only one of the menagerie to retain some awareness.         "How's your head?" Lydia asked.         "Not too bad." In avoiding a swat from the bear, he'd banged his head on the corner of a cabinet. How many men could net a grizzly with a tablecloth and trap it in the pantry, and escape with such a minor injury? "At least none of them killed each other."         "Goodness, what an evening!" Lydia sat on the couch, and the puppy jumped into her lap.         "I wonder what will happen tomorrow morning?" Petros sat beside her. "The gargoyles are supposed to turn to stone, but they're not gargoyles anymore."         "Hopefully, we won't have to wait that long," Lydia said, as a silver spark exploded in the center of the room. It expanded into a bubble, then popped, and spilled three figures onto the carpet.                 *               *         "Ow! Nice landing, Fergs."         "Ugh." She had reached her spellcasting limit for the night. Reached? No, exceeded. She was running on fumes, and wished this crazy night was over. All she wanted was a sandwich and a long nap. Her passengers, on the other hand, were full of energy.         "We made it!" Lex sprang up. "Hi, Mr. Xanatos. I don't know if you remember me, but I'm Lexington."         "Wow, what happened here?" Birdie looked around at the makeshift confinements, the bandage on Lydia's hand, the general disheveled condition of room and people.         "Animal nature," Petros said, rising. "We had to keep them from getting hurt."         "You poor thing, you look exhausted!" Lydia fussed at Aiden.         Aiden sat up groggily. "I couldn't take the time to rest. It was almost dawn in London, and I wasn't sure if my transport spell would work on Lex after that." She checked the jar, relieved to find it undamaged. She opened it.         As the bitter odor wafted out, Lydia hastily backed off. "What -- what is that?"         "An herb called moly," Aiden said. "It'll undo shapeshifting. It smells funny --"         "And tastes _bad!_" Lex chimed in. "But it works."         "Uh-huh," Birdie said. "And how are we going to get them to take it? Lex was a little monkey, no offense, but you were. Hudson is a killer grizzly, for instance."         "Petros, I have to ... um, well ... you know." Lydia edged toward the hallway.         "I netted him once, but I don't know how well it will work a second time," Petros said. "Maybe if we turn the others back first, they can help."         Aiden looked at the falcon's sharp beak. "Goliath could probably handle a bear, but I don't know if we could handle him. I guess I'll have to try a spell of calming."         "You're going to wipe yourself out, Fergs."         "Yeah, but if I don't do it, who will? Maybe I'm a crappy sorceress, but right now I'm all we're got!"         "Hey, hold on! You are _not_ a crappy sorceress!" Birdie objected.         "Look at this mess! It's all my fault!"         "Look at everything else you did right," Lex countered. "The illusions, the transport spell, that thing with the swords ..."         "You're judging yourself too harshly," Petros said. "From what I've seen, you're doing a fine job. So you made one mistake. So what?"         "I guess." Aiden sighed and her shoulders slumped. "I'm just so tired, and all messed up."         "Do Owen first," Lex suggested. "He'll cooperate if anyone will, and I bet Alex could use a lesson right about now."         The egret approached at the mention of his name, and stood patiently. Aiden used a forefinger and thumb to tweeze a leaf out of the jar. She dropped it into the open beak and stepped back.         The bird became a man, for only an instant before the man became a white-haired sprite.         "Puck!" Aiden cried.         "The one and only!" He got rid of the used-up moly leaf, making a face.         "Of course! Owen -- he's a transformative enchantment too!"         "Very good. Now, sit down, sweet cheeks, before you fall down. They're right, you know, you are underestimating yourself. I would never tolerate a crappy sorceress as one of my students. But you've had more than enough field work for tonight. Give Birdie the jar; it's about time she made herself useful."         Birdie made a raspberry at him, but took the moly. "Can't you just undo the spell?"         "Nope. Hecate's Wand. I can't. Luckily, I don't need to. The moly will do nicely. Alexander! Here, boy!"         "That was fun!" Alex piped as he turned back to himself and spat out the leaf. He pranced around on all fours for a moment. "Woof! Woof!"         His parents were next, and Aiden found the strength to begin an apology, but David Xanatos was having none of it. "These things happen, Aiden. Dad, I just want to say that I wish you and Lydia all the best -- where is Lydia, by the way?"         "Oh, she's just ..." Petros waved vaguely in the direction of the bathroom.         "She's very sweet," Fox said. "Congratulations!"         It was a very subdued ocelot that crawled out of the pillowcases and humbly accepted the moly leaf, then turned into a very chagrined Elisa Maza.         "I bit her, didn't I?"         "And you cost me a few feathers before she pulled you away," Goliath said, examining his tail.         Bronx was next, then Brooklyn and Angela. Last but not least, they braved the pantry, where the bear was working himself into a froth. The door, steel-cored like most of the doors in the castle, was bowed outward, and the hinges were hanging on by a prayer.         The bolt attachment snapped off with the next battering blow, and the bear lunged out. Alex quickly cast his calming spell, and it was with great unease that Birdie approached to drop a leaf into those powerful jaws.         "Well now, it's about time!" Hudson huffed, getting up from all fours and rubbing his shoulders, which hurt from his assault on the pantry door. "What took ye so long?"         Now that they were themselves again, Aiden began another heartfelt apology.         "No harm done, Aiden," Goliath assured her.         "You're all being really nice about this, but let's face it, I screwed up. Again! And this time, I zapped everybody!" She sighed. "I just don't know if I'm cut out for this."         "Sure you are, Fergs. It's just that wand that gets out of hand." Birdie grinned. "Besides, it was kinda fun! London and back, in a single night!"         "We met Griff's clan!" Lex excitedly told Goliath. "Una, and Leo, and some others that you didn't even meet! And their hatchlings! Una gave us the moly to undo the spell!"         "Oh, right! I promised I'd send the rest back to her!" Aiden reached for the jar, but Puck saw how badly her hands were shaking.         "No, you don't. It's off to bed with you. Alex and I will handle it."         "I can do it --"         "Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream," Puck sang, and blew across the tips of his fingers into Aiden's eyes.         She tried to protest, but she was just too tired ...                 *               *         Everything seemed to be back in order. Birdie and Lex had carried the sleeping Aiden up to her room, Puck and Alexander had blinked the jar of moly back to London, Hudson was grumbling as he cleaned up the mess he'd made of the pantry, and Elisa had apologized to Lydia for the ocelot bite.         "Quite a welcome," David Xanatos said with a wry grin. "I hope Dad hasn't convinced you it's _always_ like this. Tonight was unusual even for us."         "Well, I think I handled it all right," Lydia said.         "I'd like to give you the grand tour, but first I'd better make some calls. My staff are probably wondering why they haven't been able to get in touch with me."         "Yes, a nice young man named Breckenridge kept calling." She yawned. "Oh! Excuse me! We planned to get a hotel, but ..." she trailed off hintingly.         "Dad! A hotel?" David accused. "You know you're welcome here!"         "I'll show you to the guest room, " Fox offered.         "Me too! I wanna go too!" Alexander cried, throwing his little arms around Lydia's legs. "Are you really going to be my grandma?"         The women laughed, while Petros and his son exchanged a long look. Then David, with a smile, said, "Yes, Alex, it looks like she is. What do you think of that?"         "Yay!" he cheered.                 *               *         Lydia Stephanopolos left the room quietly, so as not to disturb Petros.         She paused by a window to admire the view. The first rays of the morning sun were raising wisps of mist from the walls and towers. The sky was pink and gold and the palest of blues.         The gargoyles stood in fearsome poses, locked in their stone sleep. The humans slept too, all of them worn out from the events of the previous evening.         She made her way to Alexander's room, and tiptoed softly over to the bed. She straightened the tangle of blankets and smoothed his unruly hair.         "My little prince," she whispered. "Yes, I'll be a grandmother to you. Whether they like it or not. You have my word on that. The word of Titania."                 *               * The End.
Menagerie / Page Copyright 1997 / Christine Morgan /