Ocelot, for one, was glad that this whole thing was probably over. He didn't like this nebulous "almost on a run" feeling he'd had ever since the night the hallucinations occurred. Normally when the team was on a run, they devoted all their energies to it, using all their resources to accomplish whatever objective they'd been hired to accomplish. This time, though, there wasn't an objective. The circumstances were forcing the runners to be reactive rather than proactive, and there were few things Ocelot liked less than being reactive. The feeling of waiting around for something to happen—especially when it was probably something dangerous—not only made him nervous, but tended to exacerbate his short temper and his minimal sense of patience.
Fortunately, however, Kestrel's work-related activities seemed to have slowed down a bit, meaning that she was more than willing to spend the day with him when he called her after leaving Winterhawk's apartment. She suggested that they take a drive; it was a rare sunny day, and she knew some nice places outside Seattle where they could get away from the Sprawl for awhile.
She showed up in her Westwind, dressed in her ubiquitous jeans and leather jacket along with a Shadows T-shirt, hiking boots, and a Seahawks baseball cap tilted rakishly off to one side. Grinning, she motioned for him to hop in, and then peeled off at a high rate of speed. Ocelot leaned back in his seat with a smile, feeling relaxed. Although he had spent the previous night with her, he had not felt nearly so unworried. He'd spent more time drinking than relaxing; to her credit, she had not asked any questions. That was another thing he liked about her: she knew when to let something alone. Today was different, though. He'd even left his wristphone at home. Whatever came up, it could wait a few hours.
"Aren't you even going to ask me where we're going?" Kestrel asked teasingly.
"I don't care," he said. His eyes were closed, his hands clasped up behind his head. "Wherever it is, I'll like it."
She chuckled. "My, you're trusting today. I like that." She flipped on the radio and tuned it to a bluesy elven-rock station, then settled back to drive.
Ocelot eventually opened his eyes and watched the scenery go by, noting that they were heading north, out of Tacoma and up through Seattle into the western Snohomish area. The view gradually changed from plascrete and buildings to rolling farmland, meadows, and forest. Eventually they turned off the road and on to a much less maintained one; a tiny sign marked it as Shadow Lake Nature Preserve. "Never even knew this was here," Ocelot said, "and I've lived in Seattle all my life."
"I used to like to come here, back when I was in town before," she said, a note of wistfulness in her voice. "When I wanted to get away from everything."
They continued up the road, which continued to be badly maintained but didn't get any worse, until they reached a tiny parking area with room for no more than about ten vehicles. It was currently empty. Kestrel parked the Westwind and got out. It was cool but not cold out, with just a hint of wind.
Ocelot got out and stood for a moment, savoring the smell of clean air and the sun on his body. "You're right—this is a good place to get away."
Kestrel chuckled as she opened the trunk. "Silly, this is only the parking lot. There's a bit of a hike before we get to the lake itself." Pulling out an oversized daypack, she slung it over her shoulder and closed the trunk.
"We're not backpacking or anything, are we?" Ocelot asked. A city boy, he always felt a bit edgy out in the wilderness. A nice afternoon was one thing; camping was something else.
Again she laughed. "You are silly." She indicated the backpack. "This is lunch. Sorry, but I couldn't find a picnic basket."
"You cook?" he asked, grinning mischievously as he caught up with her. "I never would have guessed."
"Sorry to disappoint you—it's takeout from the deli. But I did bring a nice bottle of wine. And even one of those red-and-white checked cloths. All very traditional, you know. Now come on—the sooner we get up there, the sooner we can eat—or whatever," she added, glancing back over her shoulder at him.
He got going.
They spent several hours at the preserve, hiking around and enjoying its natural beauty. Kestrel took Ocelot to a meadow near the small lake, where they had lunch followed by more hiking. They climbed trees, scaled hills, and leaped lithely from stone to stone across little creeks, staging contests to see who could do it without falling in. Ocelot marveled at Kestrel's dexterity and strength: she was almost as strong as he was, and moved with even more grace. He had not worked with any female runners for any length of time in his career, so with the exception of his old teacher, he had never had a chance to be involved with a woman who was his physical equal. It felt good.
He said as much as they lounged around a sunlit meadow they had found toward the end of the afternoon. She was stretched out in the grass, using her jacket as a pillow; he was draped over a thick, nearly horizontal tree limb like the cat that was his namesake. "This is great," he said, and meant it. "I never thought I'd meet a woman who could keep up with me."
"Aren't you conceited?" she asked, smiling up at him. She picked up a small rock from nearby and tossed it languidly at him.
His hand snapped up and he caught it with no effort. "No, I'm serious. `Hawk used to tease me because I never went out with anybody. When I was looking for that kind of thing, I always just—well—"
"Hired somebody for the night?" she suggested, looking like that didn't perturb her.
He nodded, brushing his long hair out of his eyes. She'd pulled off the band he used to keep it in a ponytail long ago, and it now hung down loose around his face. "Yeah. I could never really explain it to him, though. He teases me about not being able to get a date, but that isn't it."
She shrugged. "Maybe you just didn't find a woman you had anything in common with before now. That happens."
"That's part of it," he said. He fluidly rolled over on his back, hanging one leg off the edge of the branch. "That's not the whole thing, though."
"What is, then?"
He hesitated. He'd never told anyone this before, so it wasn't easy for him to put it into words. "I guess I've always been—scared."
"Of what?" she asked gently, sitting up a little. She smiled. "You sure don't seem to be afraid of women."
"No. I don't know—commitment, maybe. I guess I was never cut out for the wife and kids and the house with the picket fence, you know?" He fidgeted uncomfortably as he spoke, and didn't look at her.
Kestrel nodded. "I understand that. Hell, I'm not either. That's part of why I bailed on my family responsibilities—because I saw my life going just that way. Except that on top of having the family and the nice house and all that other drek, I was supposed to run the family business too. I just couldn't stand the thought of being that tied up at such a young age."
He sighed, not answering for a long time. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and full of uncertainty. "Have you ever—gone out with anybody who wasn't a runner? I mean, after you became one."
She thought about that for a moment. "I haven't really been out with that many guys, come to think of it. I've been sort of like you, except that I didn't hire guys to go out with me. There were plenty who'd do it for free." She smiled a bit. "I think if you're a woman it's easier to get dates, as long as you don't look like The Elephant Girl. But it was always a short-term thing for me. I don't think I ever saw anybody more than twice, except you." With a deep breath, she added, "I had a little thing going with Raptor for a month or two a few months after we left Seattle, but it didn't work out. It was just physical, like the rest. He realized it too." She looked up at him. "So I guess the short answer to your question is: no, not really."
"Any idea why not?"
Considering, she shook her head. "I never really thought about it, to be honest. There was always just something that held me back."
He gracefully jumped off the limb, landing on his feet, and started exploring the clearing. "I know exactly what you mean. I can't quite put my finger on it either."
She was silent for a moment. "Why don't you tell me why you enjoy us, and maybe it will give you an idea. Or maybe it'll give me one."
He came back over and sat down, obviously restless but just as obviously trying not to show it. "I'm not completely sure. I mean, it's all the usual things—I enjoy being with you, I can talk to you about anything..." He grinned. "The sex is great..."
"Well, yes," she said, grinning back. "But I don't think that's it."
"No, you're right. It's not." He stared up through the tree branches at the sky for a long time. "I think the reason I like being with you is that I don't have to worry about you."
"What's that mean?" she asked.
He sighed. "When I started this business, I wasn't sure I was going to make it to thirty. I'm still not sure I will, though I'm starting to believe that maybe it's possible. But this stuff's dangerous. I'm okay with that. I've gotten used to having people trying to kill me. I don't like it, but I'm used to it. I've trained myself most of my life to be ready for stuff like that, and deal with it when it happens."
"Sure," she said. "I'm the same way. You have to be on your toes almost all the time or someone will get you. It goes with the territory."
"That's it," he agreed. "So having to be like that, I never really had time for anybody. I always rationalized it that if I started to like being with somebody, they'd then become a liability. For me and for them. Now all of a sudden I have this person to worry about, and she's not safe if she's around me. Especially if she doesn't know the score."
Kestrel nodded. "As soon as you start to care for someone, your enemies can use them as a lever to get to you."
"Yeah. It's different with you. I mean, I still worry about you—but it's not the same. You can take care of yourself. You're in the same business I am. I could just as easily be a liability for you as you could for me. And I don't have to worry that if somebody tries to jump you in an alley, that you've got no way to deal with it."
"No," she said with an evil smile, flicking out her hand razors with a snick. "You don't have to worry about that at all." Sheathing the razors, she leaned back. "I worry about you too, you know. But I know what you mean. I know I can't be sure of anything, but at least with you I can be fairly confident that if you go down, at least it'll be fighting. Nobody's going to run you down in an alley or kill you in your bed or anything."
"I hope not," he said, grinning. His expression immediately grew more serious as he nodded. "I think you hit it, though. I've been trying to figure out why I feel so relaxed around you, and I think that's it. It's kind of the same reason I feel relaxed around the team: I can watch their backs, and they can watch mine."
She chuckled. "Well, I hope it's not quite the same reason. And you were worried about Gabriel."
His grin returned. "You mean I never told you about the secret thing I have going with Joe? I meant to tell you that awhile ago."
"Hmm," she said, trying to look serious but unable to completely suppress a smile. She started to rise. "Maybe I ought to go back and talk to Gabriel after all. I mean, I like trolls just fine, but I just can't picture—"
He grabbed her arm and pulled her down on top of him. She was rolling him over and slipping his jacket down off his shoulders before they hit the ground.
It was another hour or so later when Kestrel dropped Ocelot off at his house in Tacoma. The hike, the discussion, and the lovemaking under the sky had left him feeling better than he had in weeks. He grinned at her as he got out of the car, still brushing twigs out of his hair. "Great picnic," he said teasingly through the open passenger window. "We'll have to do it again. Soon."
"You got it," she said. "But next time you get to cook. And next time we should bring a bigger groundcloth." Without waiting for him to answer, she nimbly leaned over and kissed him, then stomped the gas pedal and peeled off, waving out the window as she went.
Ocelot wasn't thinking about much other than Kestrel when he entered the house, so he almost didn't see the message light flashing on his machine. Sighing, he flopped down in his chair and hit the button, wondering who was trying to bother him now. Couldn't it at least wait until tomorrow, whatever it was?
The voice was Winterhawk's and the timestamp was two hours ago. "Where are you? We've been trying to call you for quite some time now. `Wraith thinks he's found something. Come over to my place when you get back, will you?"