Heart of Stone Ch. 21bypsyche_b_mused©
21. Preemptive Strike
Mary rapped sharply on Robbie's door. There were a number of people she trusted completely, but of them, he was the only one who might know what to do. She waited and knocked again, hoping that no one else would wake up and ask what she was doing. Finally she heard someone moving around on the other side of the door. She glanced up and down the hall, reassuring herself that she was still alone.
When Robbie finally opened the door, he looked significantly older than he usually did. It looked as though he'd tried to smooth his hair down, but not all of it had cooperated.
"Mary? What is it?" He asked softly.
"This house is on Twitter." She said. It was a bad explanation, but she didn't have a better one that was as concise.
"Alright. I'm not certain why that's important at this time of morning." There was an unfamiliar edge of annoyance in his voice. Mary didn't blame him, really. She still didn't know how to answer him.
"Please Robbie, I wouldn't get you up at this hour if it wasn't important." She said.
He looked at her closely for a long moment. "I'll be right there."
Mary went back down to the library, but found that both Meris and the laptop were gone. She checked the solarium next and found all of the gargoyles gathered there. Meris was giving the others a short lesson on Twitter and the Internet in general. Calvus brought a chair for her and set it next to Aiden.
"Robbie's coming down," she said to Aiden, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Good. I cannot say that I fully understand how Meris came upon this, but I can see how upset you both are."
"Maybe I'm overreacting," Mary said, suddenly uncertain about the seriousness of what she had seen. Sure her house and the crowd were on the Internet, but there were pictures of aliens and Bigfoot on the Internet too, and no one took those seriously. When she considered her feeling that something was off about the crowd, her reaction didn't seem so out of proportion.
"No," Aiden said firmly. "These photos could mean our exposure. We wish to be part of your world, but we wish to become a part of it on our own terms."
She grasped his hand, a little smile touching her lips. Meris was fielding questions from the others, she knew from the expression on his face that Aiden was only half listening. He had more of an understanding of what Meris was describing than the others just because he'd been awake and interacting with the modern world longer than the others. Anything that he wasn't sure of, Mary was certain he would ask later.
"Are you in pain again?" he asked.
Mary smiled a little. "No. I wanted some tea and happened to find Meris in the library."
"After, you will go back to bed."
"Aiden, I can't just leave when-"
"I do not think that there is anything to be done about it now. Making yourself ill will do no good."
She sighed. "Maybe you're right. I'm not going anywhere until I hear what Robbie thinks though. How would it look if I woke him up and then disappeared?" She smiled a little.
He smiled too. "I agree, that would be rude."
She heard footsteps on the stairs and started to position herself so that she could get up. She didn't want Robbie to have to look all over the house for them.
"Stay." Aiden gripped her wrist. "Calvus."
Calvus nodded and got up quickly. Mary sighed and moved back in her chair. Calvus returned a moment later with Robbie, who had taken time to dress and comb his hair. He looked considerably more awake than he had just a few moments ago.
Meris let him look at the postings and click through the photos on his own. Mary could see the worry on his face growing with each new image that appeared on the screen. He got to the end and then went back to the one that had so struck Mary. He look at it in silence. Mary was certain that she could see the vein in his temple pulsing.
He looked up at Mary. "I'm sorry I was so short with you."
"It's so late, you don't have to-"
"Yes I do. I should have known this was serious." He sighed. "The problem is, I don't have any good answers for you."
"May I speak?" Jerel asked.
"Of course," Aiden said.
"It occurs to me that whoever is making these images from inside the grounds has access to much more..." he paused. "I do not know the word," he growled out something. Meris thought for a moment.
"Sensational," he supplied.
"Thank you. This person would be able to capture far more sensational images than the one we see here. Is it possible that the person is not a willing participant in this...group?"
"What Jerel says has merit," Meris said.
"We have been betrayed," Kitra said. There was an icy edge to her voice. "If we allow for excuses we will have no safety in our own home."
Calvus shook his head. "Betrayal is a conscious choice. A betrayer must be aware that the knowledge he has is harmful and he must make an effort to use that knowledge to the detriment of others," His eyes were fixed on Kitra. "If this person truly had no desire to cause harm, then it is not a true betrayal as we define it."
She leaned forward, her lip quivering, as if she were about to bare her teeth. "You would have us-"
Jerel gripped her wrist tightly. She turned, snarling. Jerel was calm, but the set of his jaw and the way his wings arched made it clear that her outburst was unwelcome. She tugged her arm away from him and turned away.
"Kitra has a point," Mary said. The dangerous-looking female looked at Mary quickly.
"I do not need you to approve of my opinion!" Kitra shouted.
"That's not why I'm agreeing with you," Mary countered. Kitra's eyes narrowed. "The only fact we have is that the photo was taken from inside the grounds and inside the house looking out at the crowd. It's not very clear. None of us, human or gargoyle, is in it. It could be something innocent that found its way onto this site. It could be the person who took it only had time to snap this in a moment alone and means to get more. We just don't know, we won't know until we figure out who it is."
"I am sorry, but I fail to see how this image could have made its way into this collection by innocent means," Esme said.
"The way I understand it," Meris started. "Images, or anything else, that is sent on the Internet can end up anywhere. Perhaps this image was sent to a friend and the friend noticed the interest and reposted it to this community." He turned to Robbie. "Is that an accurate description?"
"Yes it is. I agree with Mary, that we don't really know what the intent was behind it," Robbie said. He looked over at her. "How do you propose to find out though?"
"Ask," she said simply.
Kitra sneered. "Ask? That is your great plan to find the truth?"
"Someone who meant no harm would be likely to admit to their act," Calvus said.
"You assume they have honor," Kitra said.
"If we are left to solve a mystery, then it will be clear that harm was intended," he replied. "If nothing comes of it, what have we lost?"
"The element of surprise," she said.
"We lose that no matter what method we use to find out in a timely manner," Jerel said. "I see no benefit in letting the mystery linger."
"I agree." Aiden nodded. "The longer we wait, the worse this has the potential to get."
"We should meet tomorrow morning," Robbie said to Mary. "If we bring everyone together we'll have a better chance of guaging reactions."
"No." Aiden said firmly. "Our entry into your world hinges on this knowledge. We will not be excluded from your investigations."
"Forgive me." Robbie said. Kitra snorted. "The hour and the adrenaline must be getting to me, I was only thinking of resolving the matter, not of everyone's conflicting schedule. Of course you should all be present."
"I am certain there were good intentions behind your suggestion," Aiden said.
"There were. Tomorrow evening, after you all wake?" Robbie suggested.
Aiden nodded. "That is acceptable to us."
"Then I'm not certain that there's anything more to say at the moment." Robbie said.
"No, and the hour is very late for you and Mary," Aiden agreed.
Robbie offered to walk Mary back to her room, but Aiden thanked him and assured him that he would see that she was taken care of. Robbie went back upstairs and the other and the other gargoyles left. It was a gesture of respect for the privacy of their leader and his mate that was not lost on Mary. Once they were gone, Aiden picked Mary up carefully. She smiled and snuggled against him.
Mary slept late the next day, and when she woke up it was a little after eleven. Everything seemed to take longer now that she'd grown so large, so by the time she'd showered and dressed, it was lunchtime. Going downstairs wasn't appealing, and she had just picked up the phone to ask something be brought up when someone knocked at the door.
Robbie peeked in before opening the door wide. "I was wondering if you were coming down for lunch."
"I don't think so." Mary said.
"You are going to eat, aren't you?" He looked instantly worried.
Mary laughed. "Yes, I was just going to call when you knocked. Would you like to join me?"
"I'd like that very much. Let me go down and make the arrangements."
"Do you know what's being served?"
Mary smiled. "That sounds wonderful."
"I'll be back in a few minutes." He let himself out and Mary went to stretch out on the sofa in her sitting room. She rested on her hip with a pillow supporting her belly. The baby moving was what had woken her up to begin with, and he hadn't been still since she got out of bed. In the shower, she'd been able to see her abdomen changing shape as the child shifted.
A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. "It's just me, Mary."
"I'm in the sitting room."
He joined her. "I have strict instructions from Nigel to make certain that you're feeling well."
"I feel as fine as a beached whale can feel." She tried to manage a smile. "I'm just not certain I can go down there and face everyone, wonder who took the picture, and keep quiet about the whole thing until tonight."
"I'm having a difficult time with that myself." He admitted. "I know Andy and a few of the others have been contentious, but I have a hard time believing that anyone would betray us on purpose."
"If someone did, what will the gargoyles do?"
He shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Before he had a chance to answer, someone knocked at the door. "That must be lunch. I'll get it."
"Good morning, miss." Maureen said. Robbie helped her set up the small table in Mary's sitting room.
"Morning, or afternoon I guess."
Maureen laughed softly. "If anyone deserves a little extra rest, it's you. I gave you an extra portion of fish and more greens."
"That sounds wonderful." She started arranging herself so that she could get up. Robbie helped her up, and let her use his arm to steady herself as she sat down.
"Will there be anything else for either of you?" Maureen asked.
"I think we have everything we need for the moment. I'll call if we need anything else," he said. Maureen showed herself out. "This looks delicious."
"You didn't answer my question." Mary took a bite of the fish.
He looked uncomfortable again. "Did you ask Aiden?"
"Yes. He wouldn't answer me either."
"For one of their own, the penalty is up to the one who was wronged. It might be anything from a term of servitude to death. I don't have any recollection of what happens to a human who betrayed one of them. I may have something at home in my library, but I don't have a way to access that right now." He sighed. "I don't know if Aiden will follow those traditions or come up with his own idea of what's appropriate if it comes to that."
"Why couldn't he just tell me that?"
"Because he can see the pressure you're under. He doesn't want to add to it."
Mary found it very hard to argue with that.
"What's this about?" Andy asked. They were all gathered together, but Mary still hadn't told them why.
She and the gargoyles sat facing the group. Watching everyone's reaction was as close to a strategy as she and Robbie had been able to come up with. "I'll let Meris explain."
He turned to Robbie. "If you will assist me."
Robbie had set up a connection between his laptop and a television set to make it easier for everyone to view the images. He hadn't had a chance to explain the set-up to Meris beforehand though.
"It works like Mary's laptop." He spoke softly. "Whatever you do will project there."
The gargoyle ran his finger experimentally over the touchpad and watched the cursor move. "Ah, thank you." Meris began to speak, calmly recounting the facts that had so upset all of them the night before. Mary scanned the faces in front of her. At first, all she could see was worried curiosity. Even after Meris started scrolling through photos, all she could see in front of her was concern. She began to think this wasn't going to work. Her mind started to race, wondering what their options would be if no one reacted.
"This next image, was the one we found most concerning," Meris said. The photo taken from the house came on the screen. Mary watched expressions of shock bloom in front of her, but all the color drained from Veronica's face.
"Veronica?" Mary said. "Are you alright?"
"I-" The older woman started to tremble. "I had no idea it would end up there. Oh God I think I'm going to be sick." Caroline gripped her hand. All eyes turned to her.
"What do you mean?" Robbie asked.
"I keep in touch with my granddaughter by e-mail. She and my daughter haven't been getting along and she asked if she could stay with me for awhile. Of course I didn't want to say anything about what's going on here, so I tried to help her work it out with her mother. I've never been much of a peacemaker, and I succeeded in making things worse. I had both of them asking me to take Emma in. I had to tell them something. Neither of them believed me when I said I was here and couldn't leave. It broke my heart when Emma said I didn't care about her. I sent the photo to prove what I was saying was the truth. I didn't even have the beginning of an idea..." she looked at Mary and then Aiden. There were tears in her eyes. "I am so sorry."
"I think we need to take a break," Robbie said.
No one protested, they all still looked too shocked.
Mary got up and went over to Veronica. Aiden followed.
"Aiden, I don't even know how to apologize enough." The older woman was still trembling.
He dropped to one knee in front of her. "You had no ill intentions, that much is obvious."
"That doesn't change the fact that I've ruined everything." Veronica tried to keep the tears in her eyes from falling.
Caroline handed her some tissues.
"No you haven't. The fact that this is a topic of conversation at all changes things," Mary said.
"Mary is right. Decisions would have had to be made whether or not that image had been among the ones we saw," Aiden said.
It took fifteen minutes for Veronica to calm down again. By the time she did, everyone else was getting restless. Aiden gave Mary his arm to lean on while she got up.
"I feel terrible about this." Her voice not above a whisper.
"You had no way of knowing what would be uncovered. This was the best way." His tone was equally soft.
They sat and let Robbie call the room to order again. "I think it's clear that operating in secret is no longer an option."
"Why not? For all we know this is nothing more than a bunch of children who have nothing better to do with their time," Caroline said. "We have no proof that they actually know anything."
"Maybe they don't, but in a public forum, there might be someone else who does," Quentin said.
"What if it isn't about actually knowing anything at all?" Mary asked.
Everyone looked at her strangely.
"I'm sorry, you'll have to explain that." Robbie said.
"This whole time we've been trying to figure out why he's bothering with the crowd because he wasn't drawing any power from them, or at least not nearly enough to do anything."
"Yes, unwilling subjects in that state really don't have anything to give." Robbie said.
"But they do draw attention," Nigel said, understanding dawning in his eyes.
"You can't mean-" Andy paused. "That's positively ridiculous."
"Is it?" Ramona said. "The last time it started with rumors of demons and plague. He used the fears of the population to draw his power and when he had enough he carried out his plan. This time the crowd is his red herring."
"He can't have known it would make it to the Internet though." Andy said.
Robbie shook his head. "Everything makes it to the Internet eventually. Besides, it damn odd. Even if he didn't start the discussion himself, someone driving by or trying to make a delivery tells someone and they send it in an e-mail or instant message to a friend. Maybe one of the police tweets about it just as a 'saw a strange thing today' kind of thing and the curiosity of ten other people is piqued. It would be only natural to speculate about what might be going on, as well."
"All he has to be is wait and guide that speculation." Gordon said.
"We're idiots." Ramona said.
"We were distracted by what was in front of us," Nigel said. "That doesn't make us idiots."
"It makes us damn short-sighted," Andy said. For the first time in a long time, there was no sneer evident in his voice.
"Maybe so, but agonizing over it won't help now," Nigel said.
Robbie nodded. "Nigel's right. We could debate where we went wrong from now until doomsday, that isn't going to get us anywhere. Where do we go from here?"
"We wait." Ron said.
"If we wait that gives him the advantage," Ramona said.
"Why?" Andy asked, the sneer was back.
"Think back to when you were a child and you were accused of something. Even if you didn't do it, no matter what you said, it sounded bad," Ramona said.
"What does that have to do with this?" Ron asked.
Calvus looked at Aiden, Mary recognized that he was asking for permission to speak. Aiden nodded slightly.
"Because unless one is highly prepared in advance, defending almost always places one in a position of weakness," Calvus said.
"In this case, we would be left to answer the allegations they make," Meris said. "Those allegations and the view of us defending against them will be the only view of us the public has."
"Are you saying that you want to..." Robbie paused. "to introduce yourselves, to the world first?"
"We wish to control this," Aiden said. "The only way to control it is to do it on our terms. We will be forced into defense often enough."
The room fell silent.
"There may be an advantage in that," Nigel said slowly.
"Explain," Robbie said.
"Mary?" Nigel said.
Mary blushed and looked down at her swollen stomach. "Go ahead. It's not like it's a secret."
"Mary is reaching the point in her pregnancy where she needs more rest and monitoring than I can provide her at home. It would be safer if she were hospitalized until the baby is born."
"Immediately?" Ramona looked worried.
"No," he said. "But within the next few weeks certainly. It would be considerably easier to find a hospital - and safer for Mary - if all the specifics of her condition are known."
"And I will not be separated from her." Aiden said.
Nigel smiled. "There is that too. Anyway, I have a few private facilities in mind, but I think there would be less turmoil if Aiden's existence wasn't a complete shock to the staff."
"Do the rest of us have any input in this?" Andy asked.
"No," Aiden said. "We are grateful and we know we will continue to need your assistance, but in this matter the final decision must be mine."
"And if we don't continue this assistance?" Ron asked.
"We will." Quentin's voice was firm.