It was a particularly busy night at Lunar Dreamscape, but the six individuals who occupied one of the club's lesser-known back meeting rooms had not come to see the one-night-only engagement of the novahot new all-troll band Trog Nation.
It had been a week since the spectacular collapse and destruction of the Messina Building, and only now were the news stories speculating about the causes and the responsible parties beginning to die down. The datafaxes, both mainstream and underground, had been alight with facts, first-person accounts, Lone Star sources, flights of fancy, and everything in between. It seemed as if everyone who had been anywhere near the disaster and lived through it wanted to have their say about what had caused it and why it had occurred.
The death toll, after all the counts had been tallied up, stood at 34 people, most of them killed by falling debris. No one knew exactly how many people had died inside the Messina Building because that corporation, invoking its extraterritoriality rights, had refused to allow Lone Star access to the premises to investigate. Messina's own statement, issued the day after the explosion, had attributed the unfortunate incident to a faulty gas main, and regretted that fifteen of its employees had perished in the collapse. Their families, naturally, would be handsomely compensated for their losses. Messina had also announced that its insurance would cover the costs of the repairs to the Hendricks Building next door, which had sustained severe damage when Messina's tower had crashed into its side. Those repair costs would be extensive; the Hendricks Building had been closed by order of the Seattle Building Commission until the authorities could be convinced that it was safe to enter.
Naturally, no one with an ounce of brainpower believed the story about the gas main. There were too many eyewitness accounts of what sounded like timed explosions going off inside the building, and too many people had seen the controlled way in which the tower had—at least at the beginning—gone down. A number of radical groups had immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, but both Lone Star and Messina's own investigation team had discounted their claims. Also discounted were the reports, from two unrelated witnesses, describing a large and winged creature flying out of the top of the tower and then disappearing into the night. The fact that both of these witnesses had been nightclub-goers who had indulged in a few too many drinks before venturing out into the street had not done anything to increase their credibility.
In the end, the investigation officially continued, but unofficially everyone knew that nothing would ever be found. The day after the explosion, equipment and specialized personnel were brought in to raze the remainder of the tower, and the day after that a tall fence topped with razor wire and monowire went up around the entire area where it had formerly stood. If the powers that be who ran Messina had made any decisions about where they were planning to go from there, they chose not to make these decisions public.
The six people who sat around the linen-covered table at the Dreamscape had each spent a fair amount of their time in the past week thinking about both the explosion and the powers behind Messina.
It had been most of the week since many of them had seen each other. Ocelot, dressed in jeans and a corduroy sport jacket as his concession to formality, looked around at his companions, his gaze sweeping slowly around the table.
He was still amazed that they had all survived. It had been a close thing for some of them, particularly Joe, but a combination of a top-flight private hospital and money-is-no-object magical and medical care had brought the team through the ordeal with as few permanent effects as possible.
Harry had been surprised as hell to hear Ocelot's voice on the other end of the line that night a week ago. He'd been even more surprised to find out where he was. "I heard there's a war zone downtown," he'd said. "One of the big towers down there got blown up."
"Yeah, I know," Ocelot had said wearily. "I'm standin' in front of it. And we need help fast."
Harry's eyes had narrowed. "I shouldn't ask, should I?"
"No, Harry. Don't ask. Just get some ambulances and medical people down here as quick as possible." He paused for effect. "Money's no object, Harry. Just get `em here fast."
Those three words, "money's no object," had had the desired effect on the fixer. Within fifteen minutes, two large ambulances had pulled up to their location and loaded up the injured team members. Ocelot didn't bother asking how Harry had managed to get them through the Lone Star cordon—he didn't care. He'd watched as Joe and `Wraith had been loaded into the back of one of the ambulances, and Winterhawk and Gabriel into the other. Ocelot and Kestrel had ridden in the second ambulance, the former because there was more room there, the latter because she wouldn't leave Gabriel. She had pulled out her tiny portable phone and made her own arrangements as they went, and there had been yet another ambulance—a much smaller one—waiting for them in front of the private hospital. She had seen to Gabriel's transfer into the new vehicle and then sought out Ocelot.
"I have to go with him," she'd said. "I'll see you in a few days, okay?" She looked down. "Get that foot looked at, okay? You might have broken it."
He had nodded. "Yeah. I will." Glancing up at the second ambulance, he'd said, "You guys gonna be okay?"
"Yeah," she said. "We'll be fine. Gabriel's got places he can go. You know—to be himself, so he can heal up." Leaning over, she'd kissed him, brushing her lips across his. "Go take care of your team. We'll see you soon." A pause, then: "And thanks. For everything."
And then she'd gone. He hadn't seen her again all week, until she had called yesterday with an invitation from Gabriel for them all to get together at the Dreamscape.
They sat around the table now, looking much better than they had when they'd parted company the last time. Joe, back in his Western-style suit, showed no evidence of his ordeal. The surgeons had been good: he'd ended up with only a slight scar from Stefan's vicious attack. `Wraith, too, looked completely healed. Since most of the elf's injuries were magically-induced and didn't show, his recovery had been complete. Winterhawk was back to his usual elegant self in a tailored Armante' suit, looking a tad more pale than usual but otherwise well.
As for Ocelot, it hadn't taken much effort for the magicians at the hospital to heal up his foot—which had, in fact, been broken—and fix up his bruised shoulder. He almost felt wrong about even bothering them with it when his friends were in such bad shape, but they had insisted. In the end he was glad they had.
The award for most miraculous recovery, however, had to go to Gabriel. Winterhawk and Ocelot, who had been the only two of the team to have seen him in his near-dead state, had stared in frank amazement when he had strolled into the room, immaculately tailored and every hair in place, the smile on his face matched only by the one on Kestrel's as she came in behind him. "Good evening, gentlemen," he had said, pulling up a chair as a cadre of uniformed waitstaff swept in pushing carts full of delicacies. He waited until they put the trays in the middle of the table and departed before continuing. "I hope you all feel as well as I do tonight."
"Not bad at all—all things considered," Winterhawk said, picking up on Gabriel's good cheer.
No one talked much until they had made serious inroads into the fine cuisine and liquor laid out before them; Joe, especially, seemed more interested in eating than in conversation, but that was nothing new. It wasn't until the trays had been carried back out and the group sat comfortably back sipping their after-dinner drinks that Ocelot spoke. "You were wrong, Gabriel," he said. "We did all come back."
Kestrel nodded from where she sat between Ocelot and Gabriel. She had come through the events the best of any of the group, getting out with only bruised ribs and pulled muscles. She now reclined casually in her chair, dressed in jeans, white blouse, and a short jacket of bright red leather. "I don't think I ever want to cut anything quite that close again, though," she said.
Gabriel's expression sobered. "No," he agreed. "Nor do I."
"There is one thing, though—" Winterhawk ventured. "It's been troubling me all week."
"And that is—?" Gabriel turned to look at the mage.
"Stefan," `Hawk said. "He isn't dead. I just can't see how what Ocelot and Kestrel did was sufficient to kill a Great Dragon."
"No," Gabriel said. Kestrel had told him the whole story when he'd awakened.
"So he's still out there somewhere," Winterhawk continued. "And undoubtedly quite unhappy with us for what we did to him."
The young man shrugged. "I wouldn't worry too much about it. It will certainly take him a while to recover from his injuries; from what Kestrel described, you hurt him badly. You might even have blinded him, though I truly doubt that. But if I know him at all, he won't allow himself to acknowledge that you were able to hurt him." He paused a moment, then sighed ruefully. "Sadly, he has very low regard for humans and metahumans, but this might work to your favor this time. He will likely not rouse himself sufficiently to exact revenge on what he considers to be insignificant beings."
Joe raised his glass and grinned. "Hey, let's hear it for us insignificant beings."
"And you?" `Wraith asked Gabriel.
He shook his head. "Don't concern yourself with me. He won't fool me so easily again. If he even tries, I suspect it will be a long time before he does it. Remember, dragons think in terms of centuries the way you think in terms of years."
"There's a bloody comforting thought," Winterhawk said sourly. Only the look in his eyes indicated that he was kidding.
"I do have a bit of business I'd like to discuss with you," Gabriel said. His gaze picked out each of them in turn as he spoke. "First, I want to thank you. For everything. You were right, and I was wrong. If it had not been for your presence, Stefan would have killed me. I owe you much for that."
Ocelot shook his head. "Forget it. We made our choice to come along. We knew what we were in for—or at least we thought we did."
The others nodded their agreement.
"Still," the young man said, "if there is ever anything you need that I can provide, you have only to ask. In addition, I insist that you allow me to replace the equipment that you lost."
There had been a lot of lost equipment. Ocelot and Winterhawk, in their desperate attempts to get Joe and `Wraith out of the disintegrating building, had had to leave behind most of their heavy gear, including `Wraith's Barret and Joe's Panther cannon and HMG. "Thanks," Joe said. `Wraith nodded. The gesture was definitely appreciated.
"One more thing," Gabriel said. Closing his eyes briefly, he spoke a short sentence in an odd language. Then he opened his eyes again. "I have released you from your oaths. I have no more right to enforce them. I simply ask you to respect my desire to continue my—little masquerade."
"Then you're staying `round?" Winterhawk asked. "I had rather wondered if this whole thing might cause you to decide to take up residence elsewhere."
"No, not at all." He looked around the room, taking in the gorgeous view of the Seattle skyline out the far window. "I told you before—I believe it was right here in this building—I like Seattle."
Kestrel grinned. "He'll miss too many good parties if he moves."
Gabriel gave her a sideways look. "And I still have big plans for my team," he continued as if he had not heard her. He was smiling, though.
"Do they know?" Ocelot asked.
"About me?" Gabriel shook his head. "No. I don't think they're ready for that knowledge yet. Some day, perhaps."
Everyone fell silent, enjoying the good liquor and the feeling that the whole long thing was finally over. As hard and frustrating and dangerous as it had been, each of the runners was glad that the strange events that had been ruling their lives for what seemed like an eternity were now at an end. Gabriel hadn't been completely successful in convincing them that Stefan wouldn't come looking for them someday, but right now, in this beautiful room with the spectacular view, surrounded by friends and good food and comfort, that possibility seemed a remote one.
For now, they were going to enjoy the rest. They had, after all, earned it.