Kestrel settled back in her chair, set her drink on the table alongside it, and sighed with contentment. It didn’t get much better than this.
Her gaze skimmed over the big room, which was crowded with apres-ski revelers drifting from group to group, forming and re-forming little conversation knots, enjoying the beautiful evening. Past them, a huge floor-to-ceiling window afforded a spectacular view of the moonlit peaks beyond.
It was a perfect end to a perfect day. She smiled, gracefully propping her soft-boot-clad feet up on a low table, finally allowing herself to relax. She was tired, but it was the good, invigorating sort of tired that came from a long day of exercise. She must have made twenty runs down the slopes today, each one better than the last. Now, after a magnificent dinner at the chalet’s excellent restaurant, she was ready to see what the night would bring.
Across the room, cornered by the stairs with the look of amusement in his eyes visible even from this distance, Gabriel had been surrounded by a small collection of ski bunnies who appeared to be hanging on his every word. Kestrel chuckled. It was the strangest thing about going places with Gabriel: he was one of the only people she knew who tended to get more attention than she did from a crowd. She had had no shortage of it herself tonight; in fact, she had already made a mental hierarchy of the numerous men who had expressed interest in spending the evening with her and chosen the one she was planning to approach a little later, but her popularity was nothing compared to that of her traveling companion. From where she was sitting, Kestrel could see that he was being his usual polite, cheerful self, neither encouraging nor discouraging the attention. She knew he had a way of making every person with whom he spoke feel like she was the only one there, and he was using it to its utmost right now.
She was just glad to see he was happy. That hadn’t been a foregone conclusion of late.
They had been here for two days, and they were planning to leave tomorrow. Planning only, though, because they were on no set itinerary. If they felt like leaving, they would move on; if not, they’d remain here for awhile longer. Kestrel wondered if Gabriel would want to stay longer—she’d had a hard time believing that he had never been on skis before, given the prowess he had shown following his polite attention to her first attempts at giving him a few lessons. She smiled to herself, remembering how he had nodded, then taken off with the fearless abandon of a little boy, executing daredevil maneuvers and flinging up snow from his edges. Okay, so his technique still needed a lot of work, but for sheer fun he appeared to have it nailed in short order. They had spent the last couple of days skiing together, with Kestrel working on polishing her skills and delighting in revealing yet another aspect of the world to him, and Gabriel simply looking for ways to get down the mountain faster than before. She had given up worrying about him after he had emerged from tumbles that would have crippled a human skier with snow in his hair, a big grin on his face, and a look back toward the top of the mountain as if gauging how much trouble he’d cause if he eschewed the ski lift and just flew up there. Kestrel had laughed, shrugged, and given up. Dragons!
She sighed, taking another sip of her brandy (it was excellent brandy—she could get used to this jet-set lifestyle) and taking another look around the room. She picked out each of the four men she had her eye on, identifying which ones seemed to have already paired off with someone, and then her eyes once again settled on Gabriel. He had moved over to the bar, and his throng of admirers were trying to be subtle about following. She noticed that occasionally one of them would take a furtive and puzzled glance over toward her, then look away when she realized Kestrel had noticed. Kestrel knew why, too: since the two of them were nearly inseparable during the day, it only stood to reason that they must be a couple. But they didn’t act like a couple. Kestrel didn’t see any reason to enlighten them, since it really wasn’t any of their concern—and besides, it was more fun to let them figure it out.
She was pleased at how well he was coming along following the horrific events that had taken place a little over five months ago. She knew it was not easy for anyone to lose a mentor and a brother in such a short time, but for a Great Dragon, who expected that both he and his contemporaries would live essentially forever, it was a particularly crushing blow. Kestrel knew that the only thing that comforted him about the situation was the knowledge that his brother Stefan had died sacrificing himself to prevent the Enemy—the things that Ocelot and Winterhawk and the others called the Horrors—from crossing over to this plane and wreaking endless destruction. But that still didn’t make it easy, and she knew it still hurt Gabriel. Hell, it still hurt her, and she had barely known Stefan and not known Telanwyr at all. In the time since Gabriel had returned after taking off on his own for three months following the events’ completion, Kestrel had noticed that he occasionally seemed restless, especially in his sleep. When she asked him about it, though, he had told her he was fine and she shouldn’t worry. In fact, he spent more time worrying about her nightmares than he did about his own. He had done what he could to help, but short of removing the memories entirely (which he was capable of doing but which Kestrel had declined, saying she would rather have bad memories than no memories) he could only comfort and reassure her that it was over.
She had not regretted for a moment accepting his offer to go traveling the world with him. When he had returned to her, telling her that he needed to get away from Seattle because there were too many ghosts there and offering her the chance to go with him, she had not hesitated to accept. Now, two months later, she was very happy she had done so. Aside from the fact that she didn’t think it was healthy for him to be alone, she was having the time of her life. The trip had been as therapeutic for her as it had for him.
It had definitely been an experience. Traveling with a young Great Dragon who was possessed of enough curiosity about the world to keep a whole shopful of cats busy was a lot different from hopping on the tour bus with Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public from Branson, Missouri. So far in the past two months, they had visited ancient druidic ruins in Wales, ridden camels in Morocco, toured pyramids in Egypt, gone fishing in a small village on the coast of China, driven far too fast on the Autobahn in Germany (Kestrel suspected that this might have been Gabriel’s favorite part of the trip so far), bicycled in Africa, and sampled numerous local cuisines ranging from insects to squid to things that Kestrel wasn’t sure she wanted to think about too hard. And now here they were in an exclusive little ski chalet in Switzerland, where they had arrived after Kestrel had remarked in Africa that she wanted to go somewhere cold for a change. He had asked where that was and she had made a flippant remark about skiing in the Alps. At least she had thought it was flippant until he had gone off and returned a few minutes later bearing tickets.
Yeah, not your average traveling buddy.
Kestrel finished the last of the brandy and started to rise with the intent to get a refill when she noticed Gabriel coming toward her. Smiling, she settled back and waited for him to thread his way through the crowd. The ski bunnies, noting his destination, decided to find other things to do elsewhere, so by the time he arrived at her chair, he was alone. “Hi,” she said, waving him to another chair across from hers. “How has your evening been going so far?”
He returned her smile, dropping gracefully into the indicated chair and running a hand back through his hair. “Well,” he said, his bright violet eyes showing amusement and a little exasperation, “so far tonight I’ve gotten four comm codes, two room keys, five offers of lunch tomorrow, one marriage proposal, one offer of a contract to model underwear...and the gentleman over there in the gray turtleneck wants to show me his etchings. You?”
“I should be so lucky,” she said, laughing. “So, are you going to take anyone up on them?”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, affecting a mien of seriousness. “I’ve noticed you’ve been sitting over here for awhile—are you all right?”
Kestrel nodded. “I’m fine. I’m just trying to decide what I want to do with my evening.” The gleam in her eye suggested that she had the general idea, she was just as yet unsure on the specifics.
“Ah.” Gabriel smiled and rose. “Well, have fun.” His tone clearly showed that he expected that she would.
“I hear they’re going to be having some torchlight skiing tonight. It might give you some more time on the slopes before we leave tomorrow. If we’re leaving tomorrow,” she added.
He shook his head. “I think I’m going up to the suite. I’ve been feeling a bit tired today. I just wanted to make sure you were all right before I go.”
She looked at him with some concern. This was the first time in quite awhile that Gabriel had admitted to being in anything but top shape. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” he assured her, reaching down to squeeze her shoulder gently. “A good night’s rest should take care of it.” His eyes twinkled. “Don’t worry about waking me up if you bring a friend back to your room. I expect to be dead to the world tonight.”
She chuckled. An odd relationship indeed, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “You just rest, okay? I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Breakfast? There’s a little cafe down in the village—”
“It’s a date.”
He nodded, and with one last smile turned to go. She watched him a little wistfully as he moved with nimble grace back through the crowd, never seeming to touch anyone and making it look effortless. She continued to watch him until he had disappeared up the stairway toward the suites, and then directed her attention back to the crowd, once more noting the positions of her potential companions. She didn’t normally do this anymore, but tonight she felt inexplicably a bit lonely. It wasn’t regret, but she was surprised to find herself wishing that Ocelot was here. It was the one thing that was missing, and Gabriel couldn’t—or more accurately did not wish to—give it to her. She respected that, although she wasn’t always happy about it. A little male companionship would be just the thing to finish off the night.
In the end she was pleased to find that her first choice was equally interested in her, and had been watching her from the other side of the room for most of the night. His name was Jean-Paul, and he was one of the ski instructors at the chalet. She drifted over toward him, and a challenging smile was all it took to initiate the contact. They spent the next half-hour or so talking—he told her about his year as an alternate on the Swiss Olympic ski team, she told him about her travels—but it was clear that both of them primarily had one goal in mind for the evening. It did not take long before they were headed to Jean-Paul’s little cottage about a kilometer away from the chalet. As they drove, Kestrel idly noted that with his long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Jean-Paul reminded her very much of Ocelot. She wondered if that was why he appealed to her.
It was much later that night when Kestrel awoke. For a moment she wasn’t sure where she was, but then she felt Jean-Paul’s warm arm wrapped around her and his chest rising and falling under her head and she knew. She smiled, remembering the earlier part of the evening with pleasure. It had been just what she needed. She snuggled up a little closer and pulled up the heavy comforter over them, preparing to drift once again off to sleep.
Kestrel stiffened as the soft voice sounded in her mind and she immediately recognized it. She realized that she had heard it before, and recently. Could it have been what had awakened her? “Gabriel?” she whispered. Was he in the room with them? How could he be? He wasn’t the type to—
Kestrel sat upright, eyes wide open. “Gabriel?” she whispered again. “What is it? Where are you?”
Next to her, Jean-Paul stirred, mumbled something unintelligible that sounded like French, repositioned his arm, and went back to sleep.
“Please...something...wrong...help...” Now the voice drifted, almost as if he were still asleep, but there was an edge of fear to it as well.
Kestrel didn’t wait for more detail. She was already leaping out of bed, her low-light cybereyes aiding her in plucking her clothes from the disorderly heap next to it, shrugging into them at full jacked speed.
Jean-Paul stirred again, this time opening his eyes blearily. “Kestrel? What is it? Is something wrong?”
“I have to go,” she said gently as she zipped up her jeans. “Thanks for a wonderful evening, but I have to go now.”
“Go?” His voice was fuzzy, half-asleep still. “Go where?”
She realized that she was a kilometer away from the chalet and it was freezing outside. “Jean-Paul—I need to borrow your car, all right?”
He looked at her suspiciously. “My...car?”
“I have to get back to the chalet!” Her voice was taking on an edge of desperation. “I have to hurry. Somebody’s in trouble!”
“Juliana...” Once more Gabriel’s nebulous, fearful voice drifted through her consciousness. “...help me...please...”
“Please, Jean-Paul! Either let me borrow it or drive me back!”
Something in her tone seemed to get through to Jean-Paul, convincing him that if he did not act, she would take the car without his permission—or go running off into the frozen night. “All right,” he said. He nodded down toward his clothes on the floor. “The key is in my pocket. Leave it at the chalet, in the car park...but be careful. The roads are—”
But Kestrel wasn’t listening. By the time he finished his second sentence, she had fished the key from his pocket and was heading for the door. “Thank you, Jean-Paul. Thanks for everything.” And then she was gone.
Jean-Paul watched the door for a moment, then shrugged, sinking back to the pillows with a chuckle. “Les Americains...” he muttered to himself, then slipped back off to sleep with visions of his evening with Kestrel in his mind.
Kestrel wasn’t thinking about such things, but she would have done Gabriel and his daredevil driving techniques proud with her trip back to the chalet. She drove the car at a higher rate of speed than was safe on the treacherous icy roads, flinging it through curves with a combination of enhanced strength and sheer cussed willpower. Her mind was on nothing but Gabriel, wondering what could be wrong with him that he would reach out to her as he had. Was he having a particularly virulent nightmare? Was something attacking him? The latter hardly seemed likely, since there was very little on Earth that would be foolish enough to challenge a Great Dragon, and less still that one could not deal with effectively without having to call in human aid.
When she rounded the last bend and brought the car to a skidding stop in some random position in the car park, she noticed that all looked well at the chalet itself. It still looked like it belonged on a picture postcard, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, presided over by the enormous full moon that hung high overhead. There were no alarms sounding, no lights other than the normal perimeter lights, no obvious threats. She leaped out of the car, slammed the door shut, and pounded across the car park, taking the steps up to the chalet’s main entrance three at a time. The few people who still remained in the greatroom taking in the last warmth of the dying fire looked up at her with expressions of surprise, but she was already gone almost before they had noticed her, flying up the stairs toward the suites.
His voice was still in her mind as she fumbled with the code and flung open the door, her gaze darting back and forth as if she expected to see an intruder.
The suite’s living room was eerily silent.
“Gabriel?” Kestrel called, running toward the door to his room. It was closed, but from experience she knew it would not be locked. She knocked anyway, insistently. “Gabriel, answer me! Are you all right?”
That was it. She threw open the door and moved swiftly inside, instinctively popping her hand razors. She wished she had a firearm, but even as she wished it she knew it would do her no good. If something was threatening Gabriel, the fact that she was or was not armed with an SMG would not make any difference at all.
She needn’t have worried. There was nothing in the room.
Nothing, that is, except Gabriel.
He was in bed, moving fitfully around, his head thrashing violently from side to side. His teeth were gritted, and sweat stood out on his chest and forehead in little droplets that caught the moonlight through the room’s big window. His hands were knotted into fists.
Immediately she was beside him, trying to take his hand. “Gabriel! Wake up! You’re having a nightmare!”
He did not seem to hear her. He continued to thrash, and Kestrel could still hear the message he was broadcasting to her, growing more insistent as time went on. His hair was soaked, stuck to his forehead; his eyes were clamped tightly shut.
“Gabriel!” Her call increased in volume as she sheathed her razors and captured his shoulders, one in each hand, pressing them back down to the bed. “Wake up! It’s me, Kestrel! I’m here!”
She was shocked at the feel of him—his skin was hot, sweat-slicked, feverish. From the dampness of the sheets and the pillow under his head, he had been at this for some time. “Gabriel! Please answer...you’re scaring me...”
For a moment it seemed as if he would not answer. His whole body stiffened as a shudder ran through him, and his eyes flew open, staring up at her unseeingly. “Help...” he whispered. Then his head dropped back to the pillow and his body went limp under her hands.
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.