Several days later, it was raining in London.

Alastair Stone made his way slowly down the hallway toward Rodney Leifeld’s office. It wasn’t far, but he was in no hurry to reach his destination. His footsteps echoed in the silent hall—it was a Saturday afternoon, and no one else was here. The Thaumaturgy building was eerily quiet, as if it were holding its breath in anticipation of something but not quite sure what.

Leifeld was waiting for him. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen each other since Stone had returned from Amazonia, but it was the first chance they’d had to talk outside the harsh glare of the spotlight. “Rodney,” he said quietly.

“Alastair. Come in.” Leifeld stepped aside and ushered Stone into his inner office, motioning for him to sit down in one of the chairs facing the desk. Stone noticed that his old friend seemed to have a few more lines in his face, a little darker circles under his normally cheerful eyes. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

Stone shook his head, lowering himself heavily into the chair nearest the door. He was still tired—even several days’ good sleep hadn’t yet erased his ordeal completely. “How are you, Rodney?”

“I should be asking you that.” Leifeld settled into his own chair, leaning back with a sigh. “How are you feeling?”

Stone shrugged. “As well as can be expected,” he said.

“Your friends got home all right?”

“Yes. I’ve heard from them. They’re—fine.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, meeting his friend’s eyes. “You’ve had a time of it, I’ll imagine.”

Leifeld didn’t insult Stone by attempting to deny it. “Ram Prakesh’s family are considering bringing suit against the University, but I doubt they’ll follow through with it.”

Stone lowered his head. “I wouldn’t blame them if they did.”

“It’s nothing you need worry about—they’re focusing on the plane, claiming it was unsafe and not properly inspected. From what I hear, Alastair, you’re coming out as quite the hero. Frasier practically fell over himself praising your performance out there.”

“I’m no hero.” Stone didn’t raise his head. “I did what everyone else there did—what was necessary to survive. You can’t call a strong instinct for self-preservation heroism. If you want to call anyone heroes, save it for my friends, or for Frasier for dragging my sorry arse through the jungle after I got myself shot. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if it weren’t for them.”

Leifeld nodded slowly. “Yes, I’ve heard that too—but I’m not going to let you run yourself down over this. It wasn’t just Frasier—all of them said the same thing, Whittaker included. Especially after the real trouble started.” He glanced up. “I’ve always suspected there’s more to you than meets the eye, my friend. The students are speculating about you, you know.”

“And you?” Now Stone did look up, his gaze settling on Leifeld in challenge.

The older man shrugged. “It’s your business, Alastair. I know you’ve got some cyberware and I know you go off to America for some purpose you won’t discuss. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the best professors I’ve got here, and I think it best if I don’t pry too deeply. I can’t guarantee that the students will give you the same courtesy, though.”

“I can handle the students.” Stone’s voice was tired. “Once I get back to work the memories will fade. At least I hope they will. I don’t want to be some kind of celebrity, especially not for something like this. It was an altogether unpleasant time, and I’ve already attended one funeral too many. I’d rather just forget about the whole thing.”

Leifeld nodded. “Do you mind if I ask you to clarify a couple of points I don’t yet understand before you forget it?”

Stone made a ‘go ahead’ gesture.

“This—installation—in the jungle. They were testing experimental weapons, yes?”

Stone nodded. “Portable ultrasonic energy projectors.”

“Nasty things.”

“Quite. Although I’ve since spoken with one of my friends who has a knack for finding out things that aren’t easy to find out, and he says some deckers of his acquaintance have managed to discover that the company has decided to scrap the program—not just because of our activities, but because they came to the conclusion that the weapons weren’t robust enough to be useful under adverse conditions. Apparently they were easy to knock out of alignment when jostled about too much, or even used for too long, and once they were misaligned their performance was unpredictable.” Stone smiled a little to himself. Gabriel had shared that bit of information with him and the others a couple of days after they’d all returned home. Stone had been quite pleased to hear that in all likelihood he and his team wouldn’t be facing these horrific weapons on some upcoming run—at least not for awhile.

Leifeld was nodding along with Stone’s explanation. “And there really was a dracoform—a feathered serpent—behind the whole thing? That wasn’t just something the press made up to sell more datafaxes?”

Stone shook his head. “No, I saw him with my own eyes. I’ve forgotten what Gabriel said his name was—Dzit-something I can’t pronounce.” He smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “Along with that last bit of information I just told you, he discovered something else as well—apparently the biggest reason, aside from human guinea pigs, that the project was so hush-hush was that it was a joint venture between Ares and none other than Aztechnology. Dzit-whatever works for the Azzies, and he was bankrolling Ares’ research in hopes of their coming up with a weapon they could use against the rebels in the Yucatán. The odd part was, as nearly as Gabriel’s deckers could find out, only parts of Aztechnology knew about the existence of the installation. It was a pet project of one of the higher-ups along with our feathered friend. It’s all being scrapped now, and a few heads have rolled, or so I hear.”

“I see.” Leifeld smiled a tired smile. “You know, you’ve always had a reputation for being the chap to make a situation interesting. I suppose this is no change.”

“I wonder if I wouldn’t just like to take a long holiday from being ‘interesting’,” Stone muttered. “I’m getting too old for it, I think.”

Leifeld shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think you’re just tired right now and need a nice long rest.” His gaze sharpened. “You don’t think any of this is your fault, do you?”

Stone sighed. “No. Not on an intellectual level. But on a purely emotional level I can’t help but think these things tend to follow me around. If I hadn’t gone along—”

“That’s bollocks.” Leifeld’s tone was gentle but insistent. “You know it as well as I do. If you hadn’t gone we’d probably have had to scrap the trip.”

“And that would have been so bad?” Stone said bitterly. “If we’d scrapped it, Prakesh and the rest would still be alive. I hear Hsu’s withdrawn from the University. Is that right?”

Leifeld nodded reluctantly. “It’s only a leave of absence, he says.”

“Yes, and I’ll believe that when I see him back in my classes. I shan’t hold my breath.”

“Nor shall I,” Leifeld said with a sigh. “But you can’t blame yourself for it, Alastair. You were probably the reason I’m signing his withdrawal papers instead of attending his funeral.” He paused, then got up and came around the desk, putting a fatherly hand on Stone’s shoulder. “Listen to me, Alastair. It was a bad situation, and you handled it as well as anyone could be expected to handle it. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a hero—but if you want to just try to forget it and move on, I’ll support that as well. I’ll support whatever you want to do. Want to take a leave of absence as well?”

“No!” The sharp word came almost involuntarily as Stone twisted around to look up at Leifeld. He shook his head. “No...That’s the last thing I want to do. But I think if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather just stay ‘round here for awhile. No more field trips in the foreseeable future. Paperwork and a few fluff classes are sounding like just the thing.”

“I think we can arrange that,” Leifeld said, patting his shoulder. “Just the thing, indeed.”

After leaving Leifeld’s office, Stone dawdled back down the corridors of the Thaumaturgy building. He took the stairs instead of the elevator, wanting the exercise but not sure why. He smiled a little as he thought of Rodney—the head of the Department of Thaumaturgy had been more like a father to him than his own father since he had been a skinny fifteen-year-old overachiever contemplating his future career. He wondered if Rodney had had any inkling that he would turn out like he had, and doubted it.

He hadn’t told Leifeld everything, of course. In fact, his own mind was still reeling a little from the piece of information Kestrel, Ocelot, and Gabriel had dropped on him as they got together for a final drink before going their separate ways. He supposed he must have looked quite undignified as he’d goggled at them in frank amazement when they told him. He hadn’t even suspected that dragons and humans could—

He smiled, wondering if Kestrel and Gabriel had gone off to Gabriel’s lair yet to prepare for the blessed event. He wondered too if Ocelot was doing all right. Because he was an objective (well, reasonably objective, anyway) observer, he probably had a better idea of the strange interpersonal dynamics between those three than any of the three themselves did, but he stayed carefully out of it because none of it was any of his business. He felt honored that they would share their secret with him—even though he had overheard part of it, it would have been easy enough to let him go on believing that it was Kestrel and Ocelot.

He reached the ground floor and went out through the imposing front doors of the Thaumaturgy building, pausing to draw on his overcoat and put up his umbrella. It was shaping up to be quite a storm. Aubrey will have a fire going, and a nice cup of hot tea sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

He almost didn’t see the figure waiting for him at the foot of the steps, not until he was almost upon him. “Hello, Dr. Stone.”

Stone was startled. “Frasier! What are you doing here?”

Kevin Frasier lounged against the building’s wall under a brief overhang, the collar of his coat pulled up against the rain. He wore no hat and carried no umbrella. “Was walking by the building and saw your car.”

Stone nodded, continuing toward the car park and motioning for Frasier to come along. The student fell into step next to him. “What can I do for you, Frasier? I still owe you a drink—I think the whole bloody pub is more like it.”

Frasier waved him off. “I told you—don’t worry about it. I think everything sort of evened out by the time we were done, anyway. I guess I just wanted to see if you were doing all right.”

Stone looked at him oddly. “Why wouldn’t I be? I mean—any more so than the rest of you.”

Frasier didn’t answer.

Af ter a moment, Stone glanced at him again. “That’s not really why you stopped by here, is it?”

“A little,” Frasier admitted.

“And the rest?”

Again a long pause. “You know I’m set to finish my Master’s this year, right?”

Stone nodded. He’d looked up the academic records of the students before the trip, though most of the information had slipped his mind in the subsequent days.

“Remember I said I thought I might like to go into magical security?”

Again Stone nodded, wondering what Frasier was getting at and afraid he already knew.

Frasier took a deep breath. “Well—” He jammed his hands in his pockets and trudged doggedly onward. “I thought—perhaps—you might be able to give me a recommendation or two.”

Stone stopped. He was about to ask why Frasier would make this request of him instead of his own Parazoology professors, but then he understood. “You—” he said slowly, “—want...my sort of recommendation.”

Frasier nodded, looking at him with a challenging gaze. “That’s exactly what I want. I learned some things about myself on that trip. One of them is that I don’t want to go back to a dull life of cataloging specimens and feeding devil rats.”

Now it was Stone’s turn to pause. The two of them walked along in silence for several moments, the rain pattering on Stone’s umbrella. Finally, he spoke: “You know what you’re asking, I trust?”

“I think so.”

He smiled a little, with a small, harsh chuckle. “Tell you what, Frasier—you finish your Master’s, then come talk to me. I think I might be able to find you something that’s to your liking.”

Frasier grinned. “Thanks, Dr. Stone. I thought you might.” He stopped. “Well, here’s your car so I should let you go. You’ll be back, right?”

Stone’s sigh was rueful as he looked back over his shoulder at the buildings of London University, the place that had been his life for so many years. “Try to keep me away, Mr. Frasier.”

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