Everyone continued to stare at Gabriel in stunned silence for several seconds. Kestrel, especially, drank in the sight of him. She ran over and caught him up in a hard hug. “Gabriel!”

He looked pale and tired under the smile, his face streaked with grime, his hair disheveled. Looking him over, though, Kestrel didn’t see any indication of injury. Nothing physical, anyway.

Now clustered around them, everybody was talking at once: “What happened?” “Where’s the dragon?” “Are we safe?” “Can we go home now?”

Gabriel didn’t answer any of the questions, but just stood and waited for them all to run their course. When it was quiet again, he said softly, “Let’s go home. Everything is fine now.”

Whittaker and the students obviously weren’t pleased by the lack of information, but the thought of the last hurdle to their going home being finally cleared spurred them to excited action. They hurried to load up the jeep, and the others set about helping them. Everyone moved with more energy than they thought they had left—they were going home!

Before long they were loaded up and begun on their slow way along the river bank—slower than usual because the vehicle now carried nine people and their gear, a fact which seriously compromised even its previous slow speed through the thick vegetation. Nobody said much—Gabriel, especially, seemed even more reticent than usual. He did not appear to notice (or at least to acknowledge) the glances the others were casting his way; his thousand-meter gaze suggested that while his body was present in the jeep, his mind was far away. Everyone seemed content to sit or lie back, watch the mesmerizing greenery trundle past, and wait for it to be over.

It was after about two hours of driving along the riverbank thusly (they’d had to stop and switch to the second battery pack Ocelot had brought along about halfway through the trip) that Frasier spotted the first indication of movement up ahead on the water. “Look!” he said, pointing. “Is that a boat?”

The others scrambled for a look, and Kestrel took a pair of binoculars from her pack for a better view. “It is!” she called, excited. “Looks like fishermen—maybe they’ve got a working radio on that thing!”

Ocelot wasn’t so trusting. “You sure they’re fishermen?” he asked, reaching for the binocs. He had stiffened and gripped his gun in anticipation.

“Whoever they are, they mean us no harm,” came a murmur from the back of the jeep. It was Gabriel—by this time everyone had almost forgotten about him, thinking he was asleep.

That was good enough for Kestrel. She gunned the jeep’s protesting engine to greater speed, hurrying down the bank in anticipation of meeting up with the first sign of civilization many of them had seen in days.

From his place in the rear of the jeep next to Gabriel, Alastair Stone smiled a very tired smile, half satisfaction, half resignation. “About time,” he mumbled. “Right now I could spend about eight hours in a nice hot bath.” It was only after thoughts of all they had lost in these past few days resurfaced in his mind that the smile faded. They might be back to the real world soon, but it wasn’t over yet. That much he knew.

“Is he dead?” Kestrel asked softly. “Did he—hurt you? Is that why it took so long?”

It was almost twelve hours later, and they were in Trujillo, Peru. The last few hours had been a whirlwind of activity: the people on the boat had indeed been fishermen and had indeed had a working radio, which meant that the crash victims and their rescuers had paid them handsomely to permit them to broadcast their plight and their location on a large number of frequencies (in case the Ares forces were still attempting to squelch the whole thing). Apparently Ares had given up at this point, however, because shortly after that they were met by a much larger boat containing a contingent of public safety officials, medical personnel, and other similar types. The group had been whisked off and taken quickly to Trujillo, where those who needed medical attention were conveyed to the hospital (Stone had refused to go) and the rest of them were installed in the nicest rooms the local first-class hotel had to offer. After that they had been besieged by reporters, first of the local variety and then, as some hours passed and news reached the rest of the world, more persistent types from some of the larger international publications. Ocelot, Kestrel, Stone, and Gabriel had retreated to Kestrel’s suite and locked the door to avoid them, and this was the first chance they had had to speak privately in hours. They did so now over a myriad of delicious-looking dishes representing the best the hotel had to offer: apparently its staff felt it was an honor to be hosting such a group (and the additional revenue provided by all the reporters didn’t hurt either). Some among the group had worried for awhile that Ares and those in their employ would make an attempt to pick them and the vulnerable University students off one by one, but that didn’t materialize—apparently the harsh spotlight shining on the situation had convinced them to cut their losses and get out while they could.

“What?” Gabriel’s gaze switched back on and locked on Kestrel—he had been mostly in his own world since they had boarded the second boat. He replayed what she had said and shook his head slowly. “No. He’s not dead.”

Ocelot stared at him. “You let him live? Or—he didn’t win, did he?”

Gabriel shook his head. “No, he didn’t win. Truly he didn’t have a chance, not without allies. Adult feathered serpents are nowhere near the size of great western dragons, and the magical disparity was—” He shrugged. “He was a formidable opponent, but the battle did not last long before he acknowledged defeat. There was no need to kill him.”

“Then—” Stone began, pausing to savor a sip of wine. He looked and felt much more human now after a long shower, a shave, and a fresh set of clothes. “—what took you so long to get back to us?”

“We had a lot to discuss,” Gabriel said.

“You and the serpent?” Ocelot asked. “You kicked his ass and then you sat down to talk?

Gabriel’s expression suggested that, despite the fact that he often wore the guise of one, he would never truly understand humans. “Of course,” he said simply.

“What did you talk about?” Kestrel asked.

Gabriel shrugged. “What he was doing, why he was doing it—and the fact that he will no longer be doing it. I believe that Hualpa will see to that, but I am not concerned. He has given me his word that he will no longer support the Ares project.”

“Who is he?” Stone asked. “Is he someone you—know?”

“No, we have never met before this. His name is Dzitbalchén.”

“That’s a mouthful,” Ocelot muttered.

“So what did he tell you?” Kestrel asked curiously, again.

“I don’t think it’s wise to talk about it here,” Gabriel said, looking around. “Not with all the—outside influences—around.”

“You think the press might be trying to eavesdrop?” Stone asked, looking around a little nervously.

“That’s true—I wouldn’t put it past them,” Kestrel said, nodding. “They’ve been trying to talk to us all day. We’re going to have to give them a statement just to shut them up.”

“I don’t want to be news,” Stone said. “Right now, all I want is to get out of this godforsaken place and go home.” He shook his head as if clearing it. “I’m not looking forward to the explaining I’m going to have to do when I get there, but at least it will be familiar.”

Ocelot started to reply when his phone, which he had recharged in the room, suddenly went off in his pocket. He looked perplexed for a moment, then answered it. “Yeah?” He listened for a few seconds, then grinned and held it out to Stone. “It’s for you.”

Stone looked ever more perplexed than Ocelot, but he took the phone. “Yes? This is Alastair Stone.” A pause, and then he too grinned. “Aubrey! Yes, indeed, it’s good to hear your voice too.” He listened a little longer, rolling his eyes in amusement at his friends. “Yes, Aubrey. Yes. I’ll tell him. No—I’m sorry we didn’t call sooner. It’s been a bit chaotic down here....Yes, all right. Tell him I’ll call him when I get back. We should be leaving here tomorrow, so I’ll be back then.” Another pause, and then his tone sobered. “Yes, that’s quite true...No, I don’ t know yet. I’ll have to come up with something, I know...Yes. Listen, Aubrey—I need to be going now, frightfully busy—I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Will you pick me up at the airport?” He smiled. “Yes, but I had to ask. Goodbye, Aubrey—what? Oh, right. I’ll tell him that too.” He closed the phone slowly and returned it to Ocelot. “He says to tell you he’s angry with you for not letting him know sooner that we were safe—and that he doesn’t have words for how grateful he is for what you’ve done.” He looked at each of them in turn, his eyes glittering with sudden emotion. When he spoke again his voice was husky. “He’s right, you know. I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to all of you.”

Ocelot smiled. “Hey, it was your watcher that found us. If you hadn’t done that, we’d never have known.”

“Perhaps so,” Stone said, “but without your intervention—”

Gabriel leaned back in his chair. “Don’t speak of it. It’s over now, and although it didn’t end as well as we might have hoped, I think it ended as well as can be expected.”

Stone nodded soberly, and didn’t speak. He was thinking of Ram Prakesh, of Santiago and Corazon, of the nameless pilots who had died so all of them might live, of the remaining students and Whittaker, many of whom would probably suffer from nightmares for years to come, even if they didn’t need therapy to deal with what had happened. It was a lot to think about.

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could do with a stiff drink or three,” Ocelot said in an attempt to break the suddenly somber mood.

Everyone allowed that that was a good idea indeed. Kestrel located the room’s bar and together they set about making the idea a reality.

Late that night, after the reporters had left, Kestrel found Ocelot leaning on one of the railings of the walkway out in front of the hotel, looking out over the plaza in front. She hadn’t expected to find him here—she’d spontaneously decided to go out for a little walk and spotted him as she exited the hotel. “Hi,” she said, coming up beside him.

He turned to her, then back to his gazings. “Hi.”

“What are you doing out here?”

Ocelot shrugged. “I was getting cabin fever back there in that damned room. I figured if anybody tried to get me to make a statement, I’d just have to pop him one and get on with it.”

She smiled. “You didn’t pop anybody, did you?”

“Nah. Haven’t even seen any of ‘em lately. They probably thought we all went to bed and went off to get drunk somewhere.” He looked around. “Where’s Gabriel? I know ‘Hawk’s dead to the world, and probably will be until morning.”

“He went off somewhere by himself. He said he’d be back in awhile. I didn’t ask him where he went.”

“Probably best not to know.”

She nodded, leaning on the railing next to him. Several minutes of silence passed before she spoke again. “So—” she said hesitantly.

Ocelot didn’t answer, but neither did he make any indication that he didn’t want her to continue.

Thus emboldened, she continued: “Uh—” Taking a deep breath, she spit it out in one unbroken sentence: “Have you given any more thought to what Gabriel and I asked you about?” It seemed to her like that had been a million years ago, not just a few days.

Again there was a long pause. Kestrel was beginning to think that he wasn’t going to answer when he finally spoke. “Yeah.”

She didn’t let herself breathe this time. “And—?”

He wasn’t looking at her. “Yeah. I’ll do it.”

For a moment she didn’t believe she’d heard it right. “You—will?”

Now he did turn to her. “Come on, Kestrel. You knew it all along, didn’t you?”

She shook her head in surprise. “No—I guess I didn’t.”

Ocelot sighed. “Well, you should have.”

“I—” She turned to face him. “What changed your mind? I mean—before you said you weren’t sure.”

“I’m still not sure. But—” He shrugged. “What else can I do? It’s not like I’m putting myself in danger if I do it.”

She smiled a little, mostly in her eyes. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re afraid if you don’t do it, I’ll be in danger.”

Ocelot didn’t answer that. “We’ll still have to convince Harry, you know. That won’t be easy. And Gabriel can’t charm him into it, either. It’ll have to be us.”

“I think we can manage it,” she murmured. She moved a little closer to him, until their arms were almost touching. Slowly, hesitantly, she leaned her head over until it was resting on his shoulder. “Thanks...” she whispered.

“Yeah,” he said. His tone was gruff but he made no attempt to move away from her. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

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