She got there in fifteen, throwing herself down into the seat that had been formerly occupied by Harry. Her green eyes were flashing anger like Ocelot had never seen before. "You've been checking up on me," she said bluntly.
That caught him completely off guard. He stared at her. "Huh?"
"You've been checking up on me," she said again, enunciating each word slowly through clenched teeth, like she was talking to a dull-witted child. "And I want to know why."
"How—how did you know?" he asked, still blindsided by the fact that she had found out so quickly. He knew Harry's methods; they were discreet and usually untraceable.
"I have my ways," she said. "It's true, isn't it?"
"Is it?" she demanded.
"Okay," she cut in. "All I want to hear from you right now, Ocelot, is why. I could have done the same to you, you know, but I didn't. I trusted you. Don't you trust me?"
Ocelot took a deep breath to center himself. "Okay. I'll tell you. But how did you find out?"
She settled back in her seat, arms crossed. "Gabriel told me."
Of course. "Gabriel told you."
"Yes. Now, why?"
He paused again, pushing down his anger and resurfacing jealousy. Apparently, her new friend was keeping close enough tabs on her to know when people were snooping into her past. That made him very angry. But she was right, and she deserved an explanation. "Because something happened last night, and I had to find out if you could be involved in it."
Now it was her turn to look at him in confusion. "What do you mean, something happened? At the party?"
"No. After it. A bunch of strange things happened to me and my friends. I was just trying to verify that you couldn't be involved in them." He told her about the events, quickly. "I didn't want to snoop into your past," he finished. "I just had to know what you were doing for the past couple years. I had to know if I could still trust you."
She was giving him her full attention, her hard expression softening ever so slightly. "All that happened after you left the party?"
Anger again. "But Ocelot, why didn't you just ask me? After something like that, I would have told you what you needed to know. Of course I'm not involved. I wouldn't even have the faintest idea how to do something like that."
He sighed. "Yeah, but come on, Kestrel. You've been in this biz as long as I have. Maybe longer. Tell me what you'd have done if it had been the other way. You don't see me for two years, then I turn up all of a sudden and weird things start happening. What would you think?"
She stared hard at him, then nodded reluctantly. "I'd think that you were the last person I'd want to ask. I'd probably have somebody check out your mysterious past to see if there was anything in it that might explain what happened. So," she continued, "did you find anything?"
Now it was his turn to pause. "I found out some things that made me nervous. But nothing that directly connects you to what's been going on."
"Okay," she said softly. "Tell me what you found out, and I'll try to answer your questions."
He looked down at the table, his gaze roaming over the bits of graffiti carved into its plaswood surface by countless past patrons. "I found out what happened to your team," he said.
She was silent.
"Why didn't you tell me they were dead?" he asked, bringing his eyes up again to meet hers.
"It's not the kind of thing I like to talk about," she said. Her voice was very quiet, very subdued. "I don't even like to think about it."
"What happened, Kestrel?" He tried to keep his tone soft and comforting.
She looked at him, started to say something, then dropped her gaze again. "I need a beer," she finally said. Signaling to the bartender, she ordered one and waited for it to arrive, then finished off the first quarter of the glass in one pull. "Did you find out about the team?"
"Yeah." He nodded. "Harry said you'd been together a long time."
"Six years," she said quietly. "I knew them better than I ever knew my real family." She paused for another drink before going on. "I saw the way you were with your team at the party, Ocelot. I think you understand. The way you act with those guys—comfortable. Like you've been through hell together."
Soberly, he nodded again. "Yeah, you could say that."
"That's the way I was with my team. We all knew each other, trusted each other. We'd all saved each other's lives more times than we could count." She stared down at the table. "We were there for each other even when we weren't on runs. Before I met you, I really didn't have anybody else I trusted like that, except for my team."
Ocelot remained silent, waiting for her to go on at her own pace.
She shrugged out of her jacket and tossed it into the corner of the seat, then drained the rest of her beer. "It looked like the same kind of job we got all the time. It came through our regular fixer, who we'd been working with for a couple of years. He got us the kind of jobs we liked: quick and quiet. None of us were the big loud type. Usually it was Raptor, Cabal, and me who did the actual infiltration, while Indy stayed with the vehicle and supported us with drones, and Geist took care of security systems and things like that. We had it down to a science, practically, but we never took chances. We were all going to get out of there. Nobody got left behind.
She took a long breath, composing herself carefully before resuming. "We got in all right, or so we thought. I think that was what they wanted us to believe. It was an ambush. They knew we were there, and they were waiting for us. Suddenly they were shooting at us from all directions. Geist was in the matrix, and I heard him scream over the commlink as he got brain-fried. I yelled for a retreat, but as we were getting out we got separated. By the time I got out of the building, the others had already reached the helicopter. I was too far away." Her voice caught a bit, but she steadied herself sternly. "I screamed for them to leave without me, but Indy—" a pause again "—Indy insisted on waiting for me. I was halfway there, staying under cover, when he finally realized he had to leave or everybody else was going to die too, and started to take off. They—they nailed the `copter with a missile. It went up instantly." Sighing, she lowered her head, her voice dropping to a whisper. "They didn't have a chance."
Ocelot just sat there, watching her. He didn't know what to say. He could imagine how he would react if something similar happened to his team. Like Kestrel, he felt that they were the closest thing to a family that he had. To lose them all at once, so suddenly... "Kestrel—"
She shook her head. "You wanted to hear it, Ocelot. You can see why I don't like to talk about it."
"Yeah." A moment, and then, slowly: "How did you get away?"
"They didn't look for me. I think they thought I was on the helicopter too, when it blew. I hid under cover until it got dark, and then I sneaked down to the docks and stole a small boat. Had to kill two guards to do it. They never even saw me coming." She spoke with a certain vengeful pride.
"You need another drink?" he asked.
"No. I'm—okay. Even something like this starts to fade a little after awhile. I just don't like to think about it too much. That's the easiest way."
He nodded. "Yeah. But—you said you'd answer my questions, and I have another one." His voice was gentle but insistent.
"What?" She looked up at him, no trace of anger in her eyes now. There was nothing but sadness and resignation.
"What happened after that? You disappeared for a year. Harry found out about the job, but he didn't find out how it turned out. You just dropped off the earth for a year."
She closed her eyes and remained that way for a long time, as if steeling herself. When she spoke, her voice was still soft and carefully measured. "When I got back to the mainland, I called our fixer. I told him that the run had failed and that I was quitting the business. He'd already heard about Geist, so I think he was expecting it. After that, I wandered around the city for hours and finally ended up in a bar. I decided I was going to drink myself into oblivion, and kill anybody who tried to mess with me. At that point I didn't care what happened to me. If I got hauled in to jail for murder, at least I wouldn't have to make any more decisions."
Ocelot nodded knowingly. He understood that feeling all too well. "Did you?"
"Did I what? Kill anybody?"
She shook her head, still not meeting his eyes. "No. That's when Gabriel came in."
Ocelot's eyes narrowed. "Yeah..."
She looked up at him then, more composed than he expected her to be. "He asked me if he could sit down. Funny thing, but if he'd been anybody else, I might have killed him. But his voice was so kind, and he looked—" she shrugged "—I know this sounds corny, but he looked so innocent. Like there was no way he was going to try anything. So I said, yeah, sure, like I didn't care one way or the other. Which I didn't, at the time."
"So what did he do?"
"He talked to me," she said with a faraway smile. "He drew me out, and got me to tell him what had happened. Looking back I can't believe I actually told all that to a stranger, but I guess people get a little weird after they've just been through trauma like that. He just sat there and listened, asking all the right questions."
"Didn't that make you a little suspicious?" Ocelot asked, his paranoia radar going off again. "I mean, here's a guy who shows up right after you've been through something like this, and he's askin' questions. Didn't it even occur to you that he might have been behind it?"
She shook her head. "No, and I'm not sure why. I felt comfortable with him right from the start. I mean, it's not like it sounds—I didn't tell the guy my life story or anything. But I think he knew I just needed somebody to talk to, and he was there when I needed him." Meeting his eyes, she said, "You're having trouble with this, aren't you?"
"Yeah," he said. "It's not like you to just trust somebody like that, that quick. Runners don't live long when they do that."
"I trusted you," she reminded him, shrugging. "Remember? I didn't know if you were with me or against me. And I recall you trusted me, too."
"Yeah, but that was in combat. That was different. I mean, what do you know about this guy? How do you know he's not some kind of mage or something, who's influencing your mind?"
"Come on, Ocelot," she said angrily. "If that's what you think, you're crazy. Can't you just believe that he was there at the right time, and we got to be friends?"
He sighed. "I'm tryin', Kestrel, but it isn't easy. Things don't just happen like that. He must have had a reason for showing up right then. Doesn't that worry you at all?"
"No." She shook her head. "No, it doesn't. He's a good person, Ocelot. He wants to help people. He helped me. He talked me through a tough time, and helped me get my life back together. He's my friend. If you can't accept that—"
He raised his hands to stop her. "Okay. Okay. And you're tellin' me that you're not involved with him. Like I told you before, I believe you. But do you mind if I ask if you were before? It sounds like you two are pretty close."
"Ocelot..." Gently, she reached across the table and took his hand. "No. I'm not involved with him. I never have been. I'll never understand the male inability to believe that a man and a woman can just be good friends. Gabriel is a good friend. If it helps, you can think of him more like my brother. And if it will really make you happy, I'll even let your mage friend take a look at my aura and verify that I'm not under any mind control spells. Okay?"
Reluctantly, he nodded. "Okay." It didn't really make him happy, but there wasn't much else he could do. "I do need to know one other thing, though."
"What?" She kept hold of his hand.
"How did you disappear for a year? Harry's good, and he couldn't find any trace of you. Or Gabriel, for that matter. Where were you?"
She shook her head. "I can't tell you that. I'm sorry, but Gabriel made me promise. I'll tell you that he has places all over the world, and that he's very good at hiding when he doesn't want to be found. I was with him, working out the details for the business we wanted to set up, but I can't tell you where."
Ocelot didn't like that answer any more than he had the last one, but again, there was not much he could do. He couldn't force her to tell him. He wasn't sure whether he would even if he could. "But you didn't have anything to do with the weird stuff last night? Or Gabriel?"
"No. I promise you that I didn't, and I'm almost certain that Gabriel didn't. I'll ask him, but I know what his answer will be. That isn't the kind of thing he would do even if he could."
Ocelot wasn't so sure, but he nodded. "Listen," he said quietly, "I'm sorry I had to ask you about all that, but I had to be sure."
`It's all right," she said in the same tone. "Like I said, I probably would have done the same thing if it'd been me. But from now on if you want to know something, ask me first, okay?"
"Yeah. Okay. I will."
She smiled. "Good. How about you take me out to dinner, and we'll call it even? Then we'll go back to my place and I'll do some snooping for a change." Her green eyes sparkled as they lost their hauntedness, and he couldn't resist smiling back.