As Kestrel slowly returned to consciousness, she did not open her eyes immediately. Her mind still fuzzed, her thoughts indistinct, she listened.
Far away, the soft whoosh of flowing water. Closer, the gentle crackle of a fire. Ghostlike images flickered against her closed eyelids. A light, pleasant odor of woodsmoke hung in the air.
She was lying on something soft, covered with something soft and heavy. As the memory of what had happened crept tentatively back into her awareness, she moved her arms and legs slightly.
There was no pain.
That’s weird...I remember pain...
Somewhere nearby, a soft sigh.
Exhausting the sources of information she could obtain from her other senses, she opened her eyes with hesitant care. She did not know what she was going to see—or what she hoped to see.
The first thing she noticed was the fire. It was on the other side of the room (a small room, some corner of her subconscious noted, not a huge chamber), licking cheerfully at the top of a rough stone fireplace. The rest of the room, beyond the fire’s glow, was wreathed in shadow.
She did not need to see the figure sitting in the chair next to the bed in full light to know his identity. Everything about him was familiar to her: his posture, his profile, the way one errant lock of hair fell over his forehead.
He did not appear to notice her. He looked utterly miserable.
She turned her head slightly, just a tiny movement that enabled her to study him. His eyes were downcast, his fingers steepled, his bearing tortured. He was dressed in simple black; the unadorned lines of his clothing melded with the shadows that swallowed his body, leaving only his hands and his pale face floating like disconsolate ghosts in midair.
She sat up a little, pushing herself back toward the head of the heavy, wood-framed bed in which she lay. When she spoke, her voice shook with uncertainty, a soft voice like a child whose world had been turned upside-down: “Gabriel?”
The figure in the chair bowed his head, resting his forehead on the tips of his still-steepled fingers. “Juliana,” he whispered. The roughness in his tone was the sound of a man who had never wept fighting desperately not to break.
Kestrel stared at him in fear—not of him now, but for him. She reached out a gentle hand and touched his arm.
He did not pull away, but neither did he respond except to close his eyes.
“Gabriel...? Are you—okay now?” She continued to speak softly, as if afraid that speaking too loudly would cause his fragile control to shatter.
Carefully, methodically, he unclasped his hands. Raising his head slightly, he opened his eyes and stared into the fire, the flames’ hungry yellow tongues reflected in their darkened purple depths. “Are you...well?” Still his voice did not rise above a hoarse whisper; still he did not look at her.
She took a slow deep breath and sat up a little more, moving each limb in turn. She was a little surprised to discover that nothing hurt—even the stiffness she had been starting to experience from her long hike was gone like it had never been. “I’m fine,” she said at last. Her hands found the soft, heavy fabric of the comforter that covered her, closing around it as a tenuous anchor in the midst of this sudden minefield. “I’m—more worried about you. Are you—?” She let it trail off, not sure how to end it: well? sane? safe to be around? She hated the suggestions her mind was offering—he wasn’t like that. He couldn’t be. But—
He must have picked up something, because he lowered his head into his open hands, his fingers spasmodically plowing his short inky hair into spikes. “I am sorry, Juliana...so sorry...” It took her a moment to realize that he was speaking now not to her ears, but to her mind, and that there was something profoundly, deeply wrong in that mental voice.
Kestrel sat up the rest of the way, only a slight light-headedness marking the vestiges of whatever had occurred while she slept. She looked down at herself, realizing that she was dressed in loose-fitting shirt and pants, similar to a doctor’s scrub suit, rather than the T-shirt, jeans, and jacket she had worn before. “What...happened?” she asked softly, as images of sharp fangs and the sound of a dragon’s scream filled her mind and she shivered, drawing the cover up closer. How much of that had really happened, and how much of it was only in her dreams?
His reply answered that question with stark simplicity: “I hurt you.”
Kestrel didn’t think she had ever heard anyone inject so much emotion into three simple words. The despair, the utter hopelessness were enough to bring hot tears to her eyes. They glittered there, unshed, as she watched him. “Gabriel, I—”
He had not yet raised his head. “Are you hurt? I—thought I healed all your injuries, but—”
The deadness in his tone cut her deeply. “No...” she said slowly. “I—I’m fine. Really. Not...hurt at all.” She chose her words with care as her mind continued to try to make sense out of what had happened. “What—what about you?”
A quick shudder passed through his body, as if he had suddenly stiffened. “When you are feeling well enough to travel, I will see to it that you get back to Seattle safely.” His voice was flat, lifeless.
Kestrel’s eyes widened. “Gabriel, no! Why?” She swung her legs around until she was sitting on the edge of the bed, facing him. Everything was going wrong, spiraling out of control, and she had no idea how to fix it. “Please tell me what’s going on. Don’t just shut me out like this.”
This time, he did face her. He turned slightly in his chair and raised his head from his hands. His eyes were haunted, his expression that of someone who knew he had committed an unpardonable sin and was just waiting for the inevitable sentence to be handed down. “What is going on?” he asked. “Juliana—what is going on is that I have hurt you. I have done something I swore to myself I would never do. That is unforgivable.” He lowered his head. “It is fortunate that I was able to heal you—that you have suffered no ill effects—but that does not excuse what I have done.”
She took a breath and let it out slowly. “So...now you want to take me back to Seattle.”
He nodded without looking up.
“Why? Because...you’re afraid you might hurt me again?”
Again the nod was his only reply. This time it was more of a sharp jerk of his head—more an admission than an agreement.
Another deep breath. “Gabriel...will you look at me?”
After a long pause he raised his head again.
“Will you tell me what happened? I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. There was something—wrong with you before. That was why you had to get away from me, wasn’t it?”
He nodded reluctantly.
“So...what did I do then? I followed you. You told me to go away, and I didn’t listen. That’s not your fault, Gabriel. It’s mine.” She leaned forward a little closer to him, her eyes begging him to hear her, begging him to put aside his despair. “You seem...better now,” she ventured after a moment’s pause.
“Better?” The word was harsh, bitter, self-loathing. “I injured you, Juliana. I could have killed you. It is a miracle that I didn’t. And you think that is better?”
“That isn’t what I mean,” she said, keeping her voice low. “You know that. What I mean is—whatever...had control of you before...doesn’t seem to be here now.” It was almost a question, colored by faint tinges of hope. Was it gone? Would it stay gone? Was this only a brief reprieve?
He didn’t answer. Instead, he stood, the movement another sharp jerk, and crossed the room to the fireplace where he stood, hunched slightly, his hands gripping the stone. “Juliana, you don’t understand.”
“Then tell me,” she urged. She turned again and watched him there, his slim, black-clad figure backlit eerily by the crackling flames. With his back to her he looked even more like a shadow that had broken free of its host. “Gabriel—I’m your friend. I thought you trusted me.”
His grip tightened on the stone until his hands shook. “I...do trust you. Don’t you see? You can’t trust me. I can’t trust myself.”
“I think that’s up to me to decide,” she said softly. “If I’m willing to forgive you—because I know that wasn’t you back there—then why aren’t you?”
“You didn’t see what I did to you.” He sounded like he was speaking through clenched teeth.
“What difference does it make now? Whatever it was, you must have fixed it, because I feel fine.” She paused. “You didn’t mean to do it, did you?”
“Of course not!” His answer came quickly, shocked.
“Then...how can you beat yourself up over this? I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter if I meant to,” he said wearily after a moment. “The fact remains—I did it.”
“And you won’t let me forgive you for it.”
He shook his head. “I won’t let me forgive myself for it.”
Kestrel sighed. She patted the soft bed next to where she sat. “Will you come over here and sit down? You’re making me nervous over there. I keep thinking you’re going to—jump into the fire or something.”
It was meant as a joke, but she didn’t think Gabriel took it that way. He stared into the flames for a moment as if contemplating just that, then sighed and turned, moving with the slowness of a condemned man back toward where she sat.
“Okay,” she said after he had sat down heavily next to her, back in his elbows-on-knees, head-bowed position. “Why don’t we start from the important question: is it gone?”
He didn’t ask her what she meant; he didn’t have to. Slowly, without looking up, he nodded.
Again he nodded.
“How—do you know?” She hated to ask him, but she hated even more not knowing.
Gabriel sighed. “After I—hurt you—” he whispered, “I was filled with—rage. The kind of rage I have never experienced before, not even when Stefan told me he had led Telanwyr to his death by impersonating me. Rage at this—thing—that would dare to take over my mind and cause me to hurt my dearest friend.” His gaze roamed around the room, taking in the fire, the walls, the chair—anything but the woman sitting next to him. “The rage...gave me the strength to...drive it from my mind. I realized that it had been there—some part of it had—ever since the incident at the chalet. It had been—hiding—lying dormant, waiting for a chance to insinuate itself into my mind again.” He lowered his head. “That is why coming here did not stop it—because no magical protection, no matter how powerful, can stop something that is already inside.”
She touched his shoulder gently. “Oh, Gabriel...You mean...you’ve been fighting this...whatever it is...ever since then?” No wonder he’s been acting strange all this time.
He drew away a bit, not allowing himself the comfort of contact. “I didn’t realize it until it was gone...If I had...perhaps then I would not have—”
“None of that,” she broke in. “It wasn’t your fault. I can’t blame you for what you did when you were fighting something like that. I’m just glad it’s gone.” She looked at him, again reluctant to ask but again needing to know. “What—happened in there? I remember you coming toward me—it was more like you were trying to get out than to attack me. I just didn’t get out of the way fast enough.”
He shook his head. “You could not have done it. When I realized—that I was about to attack you—that that was what this...thing...wanted me to do—I fought it. I tried to block its influence long enough for you to escape...to get as far away from you as I could, so perhaps you would have a chance to run...” He ran a tired hand back through his hair, making the spikes even more pronounced than they had been before. “When I turned...I moved too quickly. I struck you...with the end of my tail...” He looked like he was about to cry, although there were no tears. “I slammed you into the wall, Juliana. I hurt you badly. I thought—I thought I had lost you. How can you ever forgive me for that?”
Moving slowly, she scooted over until she was very close to him. She put her arm around his shoulders, pulling him close, tears glimmering in her eyes as she felt him trembling. “Gabriel...let me tell you a story, okay? I’ve...never told you this before. It’s not something I like to think about. But back when I was with the team, we were on a run one time where we ended up in a firefight out on a city street. I hadn’t been doing this very long—I was still the new kid, anxious to prove herself to the others—and I got a little overzealous. Instead of hitting the guy I was trying to shoot, I hit a child. A little girl about eight.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “That about did it for me. She wasn’t doing anything—she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I was gung-ho to prove myself to my team.” She paused a moment, looking at Gabriel for his reaction; he appeared to have none. “I wasn’t much good for the rest of that firefight,” she continued softly. “I was torn up with guilt about what I’d done. They managed to get her to the hospital—I donated my whole cut of the payment for that run, anonymously, to make sure she got the care she needed. She recovered okay—it’s amazing what they can do with magic when the money’s there to pay for it—but I was a mess. It took a lot of long talks with the guys on the team before I finally accepted it and learned from it—learned to be more careful next time, to pay attention better—but more than that, I learned to forgive myself. I don’t know if that girl ever forgave me, because I didn’t see her after she went in the hospital. You’ve got one up on me there, Gabriel—I am forgiving you. I love you. You’re my best friend. It’s hurting me more to see you like this than anything physical you might have done. Can’t you forgive yourself?”
For a long moment he did not respond, remaining in the same position, staring down at the stone floor. Then his gaze came up to meet hers, his eyes pleading with her to understand. “I keep picturing you there...” he whispered. “Bleeding...not moving...and knowing that I had caused it. I, who had sworn to protect you with my life, had almost taken yours instead...” He shook his head.
“That wasn’t you,” she reminded him firmly, and with that statement she realized something that had not previously made it to the forefront of her mind. When she spoke again, her tone was nervous. “Gabriel...”
That tone accomplished what her words had not: his gaze sharpened and a small bit of the despair dropped away. “What is it, Juliana?”
She swallowed. “Do you—do you know what it was? You...keep calling it a thing...Do you know more about it than that?”
His nod was slow and tormented, as if he had wished she had not asked that particular question, because he knew he could not keep the truth from her.
When he met her gaze again, his eyes were clear. There was fear there, and sadness, but his expression was that of a man who knew what he was facing and would face it even if it meant death. “It was the Enemy, Juliana. They have found me again.”
Kestrel gasped. Somewhere in the back of her mind she thought that might be what he would say, but it had not reached the point where she had given it conscious thought. “Then...it isn’t over?” Her voice shook a little as she whispered the words, afraid to raise her voice any louder and risk something else hearing.
Gabriel suddenly looked very tired. “I don’t know. It doesn’t have the feel of what we faced before—but it is the Enemy. I thought I felt it after what happened in Switzerland, but I wasn’t sure.”
“And now you are.” She suppressed a shiver, remembering the hell (almost literally) they went through facing that the last time.
He nodded. “That is why I want you to go back to Seattle. I don’t know what is causing this—but whatever it is, I don’t want you to be near it. If it manages to affect me again, I don’t want to hurt you. Next time I might not be fortunate enough to repel its influence with enough time to heal you.”
“The Enemy...” she whispered to herself, trying to fight off the fear of something that had given her nightmares—still gave her nightmares occasionally—since they had returned from the metaplanes. If these things were back already—if all their efforts, Stefan’s sacrifice, had not been enough—fear was not a strong enough word to describe what she was experiencing, for what anyone else who truly understood what such a realization meant would experience. But even as she fought the fear, she realized that something frightened her even more: the thought of being alone with this. At some deep, instinctual level, she knew that ‘alone’ was absolutely the wrong thing to be in the face of what was to come—even if she didn’t know what that was yet. She shook her head firmly. “No. I’m not going anywhere, Gabriel. I’m staying right here with you. If it is...what we fought before...it probably wants us to be apart. That’s how we won last time—by being together, remember? If we go off in different directions, we’ll never fight it. It’ll pick us off one by one.”
“Juliana—” Gabriel’s gaze entreated her, the last-ditch effort of a fighter who knew he had already lost the battle.
She pulled him into a hug, her arms tightening around him, giving and getting comfort at the same time. “No, Gethelwain. I’m not going. I told you before—I love you. I don’t care what this is, or how dangerous it is—I’ve faced death before, plenty of times. If I walk away from this now, I’ll never be able to look at myself in the mirror again.” Her eyes glittered as she raised her head and faced him. “Don’t even think of trying to drive me away for my own good. If you don’t want me around—if you can honestly tell me you want to get rid of me—tell me and I’ll be out of here in a minute. But you can’t protect me from everything, just like I can’t protect you—or anybody else I love—from everything. That’s just the way life works. You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way it is.” She continued to watch him, her eyes challenging, knowing she was doing the right thing.
When he looked back at her, she realized he knew it too. For a moment he held her gaze, and then his lowered. “You are truly a wonder, Juliana,” he whispered.
She shook her head, her arms still around him. “No, I’m not. I’m just somebody who doesn’t want to watch her friends suffer. Just like somebody else I know.”
He sighed. “Even in the face of this—even with the thought that this might never be over—you still remain here. Even after what I have done to you. You are a wonder.”
She looked at him. “Let me ask you something—if the situation was the other way—If something had taken over my mind and I’d accidentally hurt you—would you forgive me for it, or would you blame me?”
“Of course I would forgive you,” he said, as if the answer was obvious. “But—”
“But nothing. Is it different because you’re a dragon? You cared enough about me to kick that thing out of your mind so you could make it right. That tells me a lot about what you think of me.” She moved her head down, forcing him to make eye contact. “Do you want me to go, Gabriel? Do you want me to go away because you don’t want me around anymore? Answer me honestly—I know you won’t do anything else, because you’re the most honorable person I know. Do you want me to go?”
He closed his eyes; she could feel his slight tremble grow a little stronger. Several seconds passed. “No,” he finally said softly. “I don’t.”
Even though she already knew what his answer would be, she still smiled. “Good,” she murmured, pulling him close, “because I didn’t want to go.” She took a deep breath, allowing herself to relax a bit now that the immediate crisis seemed to be averted—which in turn brought the enormity of the full situation crashing back down on her all at once with frightening immediacy. She shuddered a bit, realizing that this was far from over—that she had just signed herself up for another hitch at the nightmare factory. She didn’t regret it, not for a moment, but—involuntarily, her grip on Gabriel tightened.
“Juliana?” His voice was soft, concerned.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak quite yet.
He pulled back a little, looking at her, his eyes full of worry. “Juliana, what is it?”
She looked up at him. Doing that, as she tried to get her fear under control, she wondered how she could ever have doubted him: his eyes were so gentle, his voice so comforting, his attention fully on her—and then all at once other feelings, ones she understood much more and with which she felt much more comfortable—began overcoming the fear and the uncertainty. He was so beautiful—“Gabriel...” she murmured tentatively, like a child.
He continued to watch her, waiting, patient.
“Please—I—” She shook her head, remembering the last time she had spoken to him in this way—but that time somehow seemed different, far away, almost from another lifetime. “Just—this once...” She lowered her gaze, burying her face in his shoulder, feeling him trembling beneath the soft thin fabric of his shirt. “I want you...”
He did not pull away from her. “Juliana—” His voice had an odd rough quality to it. She could feel the heat of his body, the intensity of his heartbeat matching that of hers.
“Just this once,” she whispered. “I love you so much...I want you...please...Don’t...turn me away...” Her hands moved over his back in the hug, rubbing, loosening his tensed muscles, slipping up under his shirt to continue the massage on the warm skin beneath. “You said once...that you would...if I wanted it...”
She could feel him nod. “I...did...” he whispered. “Are you...sure, Juliana?”
Her only answer was to pull him down next to her. This time, he didn’t resist.
The fire was burning down to a low soothing glow in the stone fireplace when Kestrel awoke. For a moment she was disoriented, the room unfamiliar, and then she heard soft breathing next to her. She smiled.
She was lying with her head on his shoulder, her arm draped over his bare chest, which rose and fell in the gentle rhythm of his sleep. She raised up very slightly, not wanting to wake him, looking down at his face. How serene he looked, calm and carefree like a young boy who still had faith in the inherent goodness of the world. She wished she could fix things so he always looked like that. It seemed wrong somehow that someone like him should ever have to suffer. That thought brought on a silent chuckle—listen to me. I’m thirty-three, he’s over seven thousand, and I’m trying to protect him from the evil of the world. Yeah, sure...how’s that for idealism?
Something in her thoughts must have broken through his thin veil of sleep, because at that moment he opened his eyes. When he saw her looking up at him he smiled; it was the radiant smile that she saw so rarely these days and loved so much.
“Hi, sleepy,” she said, gently pushing his hair off his forehead. For a moment, a sense of deja vu gripped her as she remembered the morning at the chalet when they had awakened together under similar circumstances. Similar, but not quite the same...
He sat up a little bit, still smiling. “How long have you been awake?”
“Not long. Just a few minutes. I was watching you.”
He tilted his head. “Why?”
“Because you’re beautiful, that’s why,” she said teasingly. She ran a hand over his chest. “If you didn’t want women looking at you, you shouldn’t have made yourself look like that.”
He ducked his gaze a little, surprising Kestrel. A shy dragon? There’s another one for the books. “How—are you?”
Suddenly she was shy too as once again reality intruded. She paused. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice soft. “How about...you?”
He looked down at himself and then at her. His smile was a little different now—contented. “I am very well.”
She let out a mental sigh of relief, realizing that she had been metaphorically holding her breath ever since he had awakened. “Really?”
He nodded. “Really.” He looked around the room, noting how far the fire had burned down, the slight chill in the air, and the little piles of clothing on the floor. With a gesture he levitated two more logs on the fire; after a moment it blazed up again, licking hungrily at the new fuel.
“Nice trick.” Kestrel grinned, but it was short-lived. Turning back to Gabriel, her expression sobered, although there was still the pleasure of memory in her eyes. “So...now what?”
“I thought that was your department,” he said.
She was startled until she saw the twinkle in his eyes. “You know what I mean.”
He nodded. “I know what you mean. I—just don’t have an answer for you yet. Do you?”
She took a deep breath, realizing that she didn’t. This was the part you never thought about. After a long pause, she ventured, “I should—call the guys—Ocelot—see if they’re okay...” She was aware that she sounded a little awkward, but that was all right. She felt a little awkward.
He sat up the rest of the way, looking into the fire for several moments before turning back to her. “Perhaps you should,” he said at last. His tone had a distant quality to it, as if he was working something out in his mind before voicing it.
She tilted her head at him. “What?”
“I don’t know. Nothing, I hope. But—perhaps it would be wise if you did call them. I will feel better knowing they are well.”
Uh oh...She took a deep breath. “Gabriel...is there some reason to believe they aren’t well?”
He did not answer, except to get out of bed and begin gathering up the piles of clothes the old-fashioned way.
He looked back up at her. “I don’t know, Juliana. Anything is possible. I pray that I am wrong.”
She nodded slowly, her lighthearted mood ebbing away to be replaced once more by the feeling of dark foreboding. “I’ll call Ocelot,” she said quietly.
When she found him again he was standing on the outcropping outside the lair, staring out over the valley. He looked like he had been there for quite some time. He didn’t turn when she came out, but she could sense the question in his mind.
“I couldn’t reach him,” she said. It was unnecessary, but she said it anyway. “I tried the others—I couldn’t get through to any of them.”
Gabriel nodded once without moving.
She joined him at the edge. “Maybe they’re just not answering their phones—they do that sometimes...when they’re on a run...” Even as she said it she knew she didn’t believe it. Several minutes passed in silence as together they regarded the beautiful, tranquil landscape spread out before them as far as the eye could see, belying the unease that hung in the air between them. “You think it’s got them, don’t you?” she finally asked. “Can you just—find them astrally? Send an elemental?”
He shook his head. “It would be dangerous—I have driven it off once already, but the more contact I have with the astral plane, the more likely it is that it will take hold of me again.”
She nodded slowly. “What about...your friend Neferet? She helped you before—”
Again he shook his head. “No. I don’t want to involve her in this—at least not yet. She is a good friend and more powerful than I, but to ask this of her would require certain—obligations—that I am not yet prepared to grant.” Now he turned to her, looking into her eyes. “I have to find them, Juliana. And I have to do it the slow way. Once I know whether they—need help—then I can determine what to do next.”
“We,” she corrected gently. “We have to find them. We’re a team, remember?”
He nodded with a slight, faraway smile. “We are,” he agreed. Still, though, as he turned to head back inside, Kestrel couldn’t help noticing the tense set to his shoulders. Sighing, she followed, knowing somehow that something had already been set in motion that none of them could stop until it had run its course—for good or for ill.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.