ix. Ocelot

I slept fitfully that night and awoke early, the images of blood and death still in my mind, though I couldn't remember my dreams. The first light of dawn was coming in through my window, playing across my bedcovers, the heap of disordered clothes by the side of the bed, and my weapons leaning next to it. Even as tired as I'd been last night, I still had taken time to painstakingly arrange them there in case I needed them. The habit was too old to die.

I stretched, and a lance of pain reminded me of what had occurred last night. Glancing down at my side, I saw that the bandage Aubrey had put there was still in place. The wound wasn't too serious, just painful—I'd had plenty worse in my days on the street. If Winterhawk got time, I'd ask him to heal it for me. Otherwise, I'd just let it go.

Suspecting that no one would be up at this early hour, I got out of bed and went through my morning stretching and conditioning exercises, favoring my wounded side more than I would have liked to. Then I sat down in one of the room's chairs and carefully stripped and cleaned the Defiance (I was slipping: I should have done it last night before I went to bed) and did the best I could cleaning Glenrik's blood off my katana with tissues from the bathroom, flushing them when I finished. I'd have to go over it again with better materials, but that would do for now.

By the time I completed all this, an hour had passed and the sun was up, though it was still early. I showered, shaved, and dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and boots, then went downstairs to see what was going on.

Aubrey was already up. He looked like he might have been up earlier than I had. When I found him, he was polishing one of the low tables off the main hall with a diligence that suggested that he was cleaning the Crown Jewels. "'Morning," I said.

He started a bit at my voice, but turned to look up at me, polishing rag in hand. "Good morning," he said, trying to look cheery but failing. "Breakfast will be in an hour, unless you can't wait."

I shook my head. Food was the last thing on my mind right now. "Is 'Hawk—uh, Dr. Stone—up yet?"

Aubrey nodded gravely, hooking a thumb over his shoulder toward the study. "He was up when I got in this morning. He's doing some kind of project in there, but he won't tell me what it is."

"Thanks," I said, moving past him in the direction he'd pointed. Project? Puzzled, I tried to figure out what kind of project he might be working on now, especially with Nigel here. This didn't really seem the time for him to get involved in some obscure bit of magical research.

I reached the doors to the study, which were closed. I knocked softly.

"Aubrey, please, not now," came his voice from inside. "I'll be out shortly." He sounded all right, if preoccupied.

"It's not Aubrey," I called back. "Let me in, 'Hawk."

There was a long pause, during which I wondered if he had forgotten about me or was ignoring me, and then the door swung open. I entered quickly before he changed his mind, watching his retreating figure as he returned to his desk and sank back down in his chair.

The study was a mess. Every flat surface, including the spare chairs, was covered with open books, printouts, and magazines. The big desk behind which Winterhawk sat was piled high with them, in some places a foot deep. Off to one side of the desk was a dataterminal, images flashing across it at a high rate of speed. I noticed many empty spaces on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the room, providing a clue as to where all the books had come from.

Winterhawk himself was almost as much of a mess as the room. He no longer looked injured, so I figured he must have used his healing spell on his head wounds. His hair, however, was disheveled, he hadn't shaved, and his clothes looked like he had slept in them (though he wasn't wearing the suit he had been wearing last night, the clothes he might have logically slept in). In anyone, this would have looked odd; in Winterhawk, who was always so meticulous about his appearance, it was downright shocking. He was paying no attention to me; he had returned to his desk and appeared to be checking something in one of the old books against the display on the dataterminal's screen. "'Hawk?" I said hesitantly.

"Just a minute," he snapped, raising the index finger of his left hand toward me to punctuate the statement. He finished what he was doing, cursed softly under his breath, slammed the book closed, and looked up at me. "Oh, it's you. Good morning. What can I do for you?"

I stared at the chaos. "What the hell are you doing?" I blurted.

He leaned back in his chair and stretched impatiently. "Research."

"Research? What research?"

For a long while, he didn't answer. "I spoke with Nigel last night," he finally said, leaning forward again. "I thought—hoped—that perhaps Ann might have lied to me about what she had done to him. But for once in her life, she was telling me the truth. Nigel verified it—he...remembers when it happened." He looked away from me, back into one of the books on his desk.

I cleared several of them carefully off one of the other chairs and sat down, propping my elbows on the end of the desk. "So—you're trying to find a cure."

He nodded. "Yes."

"But—I thought you said there was no cure."

"There isn't," he said quietly, closing another book. "At least, not one that anyone knows about. But that doesn't mean I can't find one. Perhaps somewhere, in some musty old book, someone has—" Trailing off, he shook his head.

"You're sure...if nothing's done..."

"If nothing is done, he'll die," he said, soft but blunt, meeting my eyes. "And fairly soon, too, though I haven't told him that. He may have a couple of weeks. It's been quite some time since she last—gave him what he needed." Long pause. "You can already see it in him."

I shifted in my chair uncomfortably, and not because of my injured side. "If you don't find a cure, he'll die, and you don't think you can find a cure."

"I don't know," he whispered. "I've only just started; there's still time. I've got calls in to the University—some friends in the thaumaturgy department, chemistry, genetics, physiology—I've offered to pay whatever it takes if they can come up with something. I didn't give them all the details, but they've got enough to go on. Until then, I'll have to do whatever I can." He slumped in the chair; he still looked exhausted. I wondered how long he'd slept the previous night.

"Where's Nigel now?" I asked him.

"Upstairs. Asleep. I think he was in shock from all that's happened to him lately. I talked to him for a few moments before he dropped off, but I think he'll be out for at least half the day."

I was a little surprised at the level of emotion in Winterhawk's voice when speaking of Nigel, considering the way he had reacted to the boy last time he was here. Before, the mage had had no interest in being a father; now he seemed to be desperately grasping at anything he could find in order to ensure that he could keep his son alive. "Yeah," I said, "It's probably good for him to sleep. I'm glad somebody could." Getting up, I paced the room, stepping carefully around the drifts of books and papers. "Can I help with this?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so." Looking up at me, his eyes following my progress, he added, "You'll have to forgive me for not being a very good host just now, but—"

"Yeah, I understand," I cut him off. "You do what you have to do." I headed for the door. "I'll see you later. Let me know if you need me to do anything." He didn't answer; I was already forgotten as I closed the door quietly behind me.

As I expected, Aubrey was lurking outside, far enough away so as not to be too obvious, but close enough that he wouldn't miss anyone leaving the room. He looked up at me, trying to keep the questions from his face.

"He's gonna be busy for awhile," I told him.

He continued to look at me. I could see that he was hesitant to ask further, and I really didn't want to go into detail about the situation right now, so I said, "He's trying to find out about Nigel." Before he could gather the courage to ask me anything, I moved past him and out of the hall.

Before breakfast, I went for a run around the grounds to clear my head. It felt good to be outside, even if the weather was overcast and drizzly and the ground was spongy under my feet; the physical activity was welcome after the oppressive stillness that seemed to have fallen over the house in the past couple of days. By the time I got back to the house, showered again, and got downstairs, it was breakfast time.

Surprisingly, Winterhawk was at the table. More surprisingly, so was Nigel. I sat down silently, surreptitiously checking them both out. Winterhawk didn't look any different than he had earlier that morning (in fact, Aubrey was casting little half-worried, half-disapproving glances in his direction as he laid out the breakfast dishes); Nigel, while well-scrubbed and neatly dressed, looked decidedly unwell. His dark eyes were sunken deeply into their bruised hollows, while the rest of his skin was pale, almost as pale as Winterhawk had been when the vampire had finished with him. Though he tried to sit still, the boy's gaze darted restlessly around the room, taking in both occupants and inanimate objects (it was a toss-up at the moment which category Winterhawk qualified for).

Aubrey finished laying out breakfast and went back to the kitchen with a couple of backward glances. He had said nothing; his eyes were tired and sad. I guessed that he had realized that there was nothing he could do or say right now that would change anything, so he had reverted to his good servant's persona and made himself scarce so he didn't have to watch Winterhawk and the rest of us in this state.

Once Aubrey left, there was silence for several seconds, then Winterhawk raised his head, visibly rousing himself from his stupor. "Well," he said brightly to Nigel, forcing a smile that made me wince, "Let's eat, shall we? You must be hungry after last night."

It was painfully obvious to me, and to Winterhawk too I could tell, that what Nigel was hungry for was not the eggs, fruit, muffins, and other breakfast finery Aubrey had set out for us. Still, though, the boy tried his best to play along. He smiled wanly. "Yes, sir. I am." Picking up a muffin, he nibbled on it and tried not to let us see that he was looking sick.

"Did you sleep well?" Winterhawk asked the boy, motioning for me to fill up my plate. To keep the peace, I didn't argue with him.

Nigel nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you." He returned his attention to his muffin, taking tiny bites and swallowing them very slowly, as if the fate of the world depended on his properly doing so.

There was a long silence, punctuated only by the sounds of my silverware (I wasn't very hungry either, but I decided I'd better eat something). Winterhawk had subsided back into silence, slumping morosely in his chair and staring down at his steepled fingers. I looked back and forth between him and Nigel, then out the window at the gray and sunless day. A light rain was beginning to fall, fuzzing out the dark outlines of the trees.

"Sir?" Nigel spoke suddenly.

Winterhawk looked up. "Yes?"

"Am I going to die?"

The boy's voice shook a little, but his haunted eyes met Winterhawk's unflinchingly. The mage drew himself up in his chair a bit and did not answer for a long time. Finally, he said carefully, "I don't know, Nigel. I hope not. I'm working on trying to find a cure for your...condition. We still have a long time."

"But there—isn't a cure, is there?" Nigel asked, hesitant, like he didn't really want to know the answer.

"I don't know," Winterhawk said again, softly. He leaned forward. "I'm not going to lie to you, Nigel. I don't know of a cure right now. But that doesn't mean there isn't one. It just means I have to find it. I'm going to do everything I can to find it, that I promise you."

Nigel nodded. "I know you will, sir." He sighed and stared back down into his plate.

Winterhawk watched him for a moment, then stood, almost knocking his chair over in his haste, flung his napkin down on the table, and stalked out of the room. After a moment, I heard the door to the study slam shut.

The boy looked up at me. "It's not his fault," he said sadly.

I nodded. "I know. I think he does too. He just hasn't realized it yet."

After a moment, Nigel nodded too. Slowly, he got up. "I—I think I'm going to go lie down. I don't feel very well. May I be excused?"

My jaw tightened, and for a few seconds I didn't answer him because I wasn't sure how my voice would come out. "Yeah," I finally said.

Once he'd gone and I was alone, I mechanically finished what was on my plate, staring out the window at the worsening day. Aubrey did not come before I left.

Life went on with little change for the next week. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between wondering why I was still here and trying to figure out how to prevent Winterhawk from self-destructing as he continued in his quest to find a cure for Nigel's affliction.

I wasn't sure if it was by accident or by design, but we all kept pretty much to ourself that week. Nigel remained in bed most of the time, stocked up with some old children's books Aubrey had found in boxes in the unused wing and his own trideo unit; the caretaker, when not attending to the boy, decided that it was time to do some intensive cleaning in the guest bedrooms; Winterhawk spent virtually all his time conducting his research either in the study or at the University, and I occupied myself taking long runs on the grounds, practicing my shooting and martial arts out behind the house when the weather was decent, and occasionally helping Aubrey with heavy work like chopping wood when it was needed.

During that time, though, it was hard not to notice that Nigel was deteriorating rapidly. When he did make occasional appearances at the dinner table, I had to be careful not to let my shock show at his thin, sallow face, sunken eyes, and slight but nearly continuous case of the shakes, as if he was constantly in need of a sweater. He ate little; his trips down to meals were almost entirely for show at this point, although he tried to please Aubrey by sampling whatever was put before him. It was becoming apparent to me, and I think to Aubrey too, that if Winterhawk didn't find a way to deal with the boy's illness soon, it would be too late. Privately, I wondered if it wasn't already too late. I had put in a couple of calls of my own back to Seattle, most notably to Harry, our team's fixer, who had a reputation for being able to find anything if given enough time and money. I hadn't given him any of the details, though I expected he was smart enough to figure out that if I was in England, it must have something to do with Winterhawk. However, to my intense disappointment, he had finally called back yesterday and regretfully told me that his searches had come up blank. As far as he or his sources knew, there was no cure to the vampiric pawn's condition. He hadn't even charged me for the search, which gave me more of a clue that he knew more than he was letting on. Harry wasn't the kind of guy who let a nuyen go by. After I'd gotten the news, I'd spent most of the rest of the day away from the house, alone with my thoughts.

If Winterhawk noticed Nigel's deterioration, he did not speak of it. After that first day, he no longer looked like an unshaven bum in rumpled clothes, but there were other ways to look scary, and he was managing nicely. His eyes were almost as sunken as his son's, the product of long nights without sleep. Aubrey told me once that every night that week, he had found the mage asleep over his papers at his desk; his bed had not been slept in since he had begun his research. He ate and drank only enough to keep his strength up, and sometimes not even that much. His project was beginning to take on the uneasy signs of an obsession: he devoted every hour to searching for a cure, but he spent almost no time with the child he was trying to save.

I could see this was affecting Nigel too; on the rare occasions I went to visit him (I still didn't get along very well with kids, so I felt doubly uncomfortable around this little doomed boy) he always asked me if his father was going to visit that day. I always told him I didn't know, but that I would mention it to him if I saw him. I felt pretty bad about doing that, but what could I say to him? Sorry, kid, but your dad's too busy chasing an impossible cure for your terminal illness to spend any time with you? I don't think so. I may not be the world's most compassionate person, but even I couldn't say that to a ten-year-old kid.

Finally, though, I had enough. I sat in my room one evening after dinner (which I had eaten with Aubrey because neither Nigel nor Winterhawk had shown up) and stared out into the darkening sky, wondering why the hell I was still here. I had come to England to teach Winterhawk how to shoot better; this whole thing with Nigel and the vampire had caught me totally by surprise. Sure, I'd gone with Winterhawk to destroy the vampire, because that was personal, at least indirectly. But now here I was, nothing more than Winterhawk's friend and team member, hanging out essentially uselessly in this musty old mansion while some kind of family drama played itself out around me. Not just that, but I couldn't sit still and watch Nigel slowly waste away and die in agony. It was none of my business; I couldn't tell Winterhawk how to deal with his life or that of his son, but I sure as hell didn't have to stick around and watch it happen, either.

Slowly, I got up and moved around the room, pulling my few clothes out of the armoire and stuffing them in a duffel bag along with my shaving kit and other small items. Then I carefully got my weapons together and arranged them on the bed, packing each one in turn in its proper position in a second duffel. That was what passed for packing with me. It had taken less than fifteen minutes, and that long only because of the care with which I'd packed the weapons. Now, all that was left was to go tell Winterhawk I was leaving in the morning.

Surprisingly, he wasn't in the study where I first looked for him. The books were still there, still opened (they may well have been different books by this time) and the terminal was still flashing through some long data search, but the lights were out. Had he given up for the night?

I checked the kitchen, half-expecting to find Aubrey there, but the lights there were out too, the dishes neatly put away, everything else left in that state of cleanliness that meant that the caretaker had finished in the kitchen. Looking out the back door, I could see the lights on in his apartment: he'd gone home for the night.

Puzzled, I wondered where Winterhawk could have gone. It was a big house, true, but he seemed to have been confining his activity to the study lately. I didn't expect that he would suddenly take a tour of the place, or cloister himself in some unused bedroom. He might have gone out for a walk, but I didn't think so: the rain was coming down hard, the wind making weird rustling sounds through the trees and the old chimneys.

I headed up the stairs, deciding that I would tell him in the morning, when I looked down the hallway past my door to his. It was open a centimeter or two and there was a light on inside.

Debating whether to bother him, I rationalized that it was not yet late. Besides, if he didn't want me around, he wasn't shy about saying so. I knocked softly on the door. "'Hawk?"

For a moment, there was silence. Then, "Come in." The mage's voice was soft and ragged.

I pushed the door open and looked around. The room was quite large and done, like the rest of the house, in an old-fashioned, almost medieval style. One wall was dominated by a huge dark-stone fireplace, inside which a fire was cheerfully crackling. The flames cast strange shadows across onto the opposite wall, which was equally dominated by a large, heavy wooden four-poster bed. The room's other furnishings included several large rugs, a small sitting area consisting of sofa, chair, and coffee table near the window, and various chests, dressers and armoires all made of the same dark wood as the bed. One of the armoires, I knew, housed a weapon locker within it. Two doors led off from the inner wall; one was closed, the other looked like it opened onto a large bath. On the walls were heavy tapestries, more coats-of-arms and hanging weapons, and a few paintings of what appeared to be scenes from the Middle Ages and British countryside. Rain beat down on a skylight in the ceiling above the bed.

Winterhawk sat on the sofa, his back to me, looking out the window at the rain. His posture was slumped, suggesting that he was either exhausted, despondent, or most likely both. He didn't turn as I came in. "'Hawk?" I said again, pausing near the fireplace.

He twisted around in the dimness, his eyes glittering at me. "Yes?"

"I just wanted to let you know—I'm leaving in the morning."

He nodded slowly, almost as if he expected it. "Yes, that's understandable," he said softly. "I haven't been much of a host, and I never did get my firearms practice, did I?"

I shrugged. "We can do it later. No problem with that." I paused, and then, "Are you having any luck with your research?"

He ran his hand through his hair with a long, shuddering sigh, then shook his head. "Not one bit," he said, his tone bitter. "I've searched everywhere. Everywhere. I've talked with mages, shamans, physicians, chemists, talismongers, herbalists—I've tried science, I've tried magic, I've tried superstition...I even bribed a librarian at the University to let me into the part of the Thaumaturgy Library that normally almost no one has access to—but I've found nothing, other than that there's no cure." He lowered his head. "I can't do it, Terry," he whispered. "The boy's going to die, and there's nothing I can do about it."

"There is something you can do," I said, my voice very quiet but unwavering.

He looked at me for a long moment, his gaze searching my face, but his expression did not change. "What can I do, then?" he asked finally.

I moved closer to him, leaning over the back of a tall leather chair. "You can help him go."

For a time, he seemed not to comprehend. Then his eyes widened a bit. "Help him—go?" A long pause, and then, "You mean kill him, don't you?" When I didn't answer, he said again, "You mean kill him."

I didn't answer; I didn't think I needed to. Instead, I said, "How is he going to die if you don't do anything?"

Winterhawk turned back around and stared out the window. "I don't know what you mean," he said in a monotone.

"Yes, you do," I pressed, coming around the chair and into his line of vision. "You know damn well what I mean. You mean to tell me you can't see that kid suffering?"

"Of course I can see him suffering!" the mage lashed out, glaring at me. His voice again took on that high edge that presaged loss of control. "What do you think I've been trying to find a cure for all this time?"

"You know what I think?" I demanded. "I think you're scared to death to face the truth—to face the fact that you know there's nothing you can do, and you're too scared to tell the kid that!" I threw myself in the chair and faced him. "How much time have you spent with him while you were doing all that research to save him? Have you talked to him? Do you even know if he wants to be saved? How's he gonna die if you keep chasing your cures and don't do anything to help him?"

"What do you want me to do?" he demanded. "Just stop looking? Just let him die and stand by and do nothing?"

"At least you'll be there with him," I said. "Look, 'Hawk, I'm not much good with kids, and even I can tell that what that one wants is his father. He wants you, not some cure that might not even exist. Have you looked at him lately? I don't think he's got much time left. And you still didn't answer my question about how he's gonna die."

His eyes grew cold. "All right, then—I'll answer your question. Do you want the clinical medical explanation, or the colorful layman's version? I've got both. Believe me, I've got both. I think I've read every bloody case study of every documented case of vampiric pawn death in the whole bloody world. I can recite them for you, if you like. Case by case, with full, unabridged details!" He shoved himself to his feet with an amazing amount of force, pacing around the room like a madman. "Is that what you want?" he said in a clipped, angry tone. "Or do you just want to know that it's one of the most unpleasant deaths a human being could experience?"

"So why don't you end it for him?" I asked dispassionately, forcing myself not to be affected by his outburst.

He stopped, staring at me. "That's all it is for you, isn't it?" His voice was low and incredulous. "Just end it. You think that's all there is to it."

"Yeah," I told him harshly. "That's right. That's what it is. That's what the world's like, whether you want to believe it or not. Bad things happen, and we ain't got any control over them. It's life. You get used to it after awhile. Nobody gets away from it." Gesturing at the fine room around me, I finished, "—No matter how hard they try to hide from it." When he didn't answer, I said more quietly, "You know you're not going to find the cure in time, don't you?"

Wordlessly, despairingly, he nodded without looking at me.

"And you know Nigel's only going to suffer more if you don't do something, right?"

Again, he nodded, more reluctantly this time.

I drew a deep breath. "So how can there be any dilemma here? I don't get it. You do what you need to do."

"What I need to do," he repeated in a whisper. Then he looked up. "I think you should go," he said quietly.

I nodded. "Yeah, I think so too." I met his gaze for a few more seconds as if trying to burn my message into him, then turned and left the room. Behind me, I heard him sink back down into his leather sofa.

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