Ocelot regarded Kestrel across the table. "Something wrong?"
It was a little after eight; the two of them were ensconced in a dimly-lit booth near the back of Izzy's, the dark, hole-in-the wall Redmond pizza joint they had discovered several months ago and still returned to fairly regularly, mostly because it had three things both of them valued highly: good pizza, good beer, and lots of anonymity. At Izzy's, nobody cared what you did as long as you didn't cause trouble. Its rough wooden booths, tables made from ancient cable spools, wood-panel-and-sports-motif decor, and clientele consisting of members of every metahuman race were just the thing for a couple of people who didn't like things pretentious and trendy.
Ocelot had given Kestrel a call the day after the team had completed their run and straightened out all the loose ends with Hennessy, asking her if she just wanted to go out, have some dinner, and maybe shoot a few baskets or go see a trid show. She had accepted, but there had been something a bit odd in her voice. Ocelot had let it go, assuming if there was something on her mind, she'd come out with it eventually. He figured a night out together might do them both good.
Now, though, as she sat across from him munching pizza, drinking beer, and keeping one eye on the sports scores on the trid screen across from their table, it became more clear that her mind was definitely elsewhere. She had responded to his attempts at conversation with pleasant enough replies, but the animation that normally characterized her interactions with him had somehow gone missing. "Hey," he said when she didn't answer his query.
She looked up, startled, from where she had been intently examining a pepperoni on her pizza slice. "What?"
"I asked if there was something wrong," Ocelot repeated. "I hate to think that pepperoni is more interesting than I am. That's a hell of a blow to the male ego, you know."
She chuckled. Pointedly holding his gaze, she plucked the pepperoni from the slice between the tips of her thumb and forefinger and popped it in her mouth. She then made a show of slowly and sensuously chewing and swallowing it. "Does that answer your question? About the pepperoni, I mean."
Ocelot smiled in spite of himself, but he wasn't going to be diverted from his main question. "Are you okay? You seem kind of—distracted tonight."
She sighed, dropping her eyes back down to the table. "I was hoping it didn't show."
"Hey," he said quietly, "if there's something wrong, why don't you tell me about it? Maybe I can help."
"I don't think you can," she said, shaking her head. She looked back up at him. "It's just Gabriel. I can't get my mind off him."
Six months ago that statement would have evoked immediate jealousy in Ocelot. Now, though, especially in light of recent events, he just nodded. "I thought it might be something like that. What about him?"
"I don't know," she said, spreading her arms in a gesture of futility. "I haven't seen him for days. He told me there were some things he had to do, and that there wasn't anything I could do to help him. I keep expecting he'll call, or come by, or get in touch with me somehow, but he hasn't. I'm getting nervous that something's happened to him."
Ocelot thought about that for a moment. "Have you tried to contact him?"
She shook her head. "No—not yet. I figured if he wanted to be alone, I wouldn't bother him. But it's getting harder to do." Picking up another pizza slice, she absently took a bite and dropped the rest on her plate.
"Can you tell me what's been going on?" he asked. Across the booth, someone switched the trid channel from a basketball game to an Urban Brawl contest; he glanced up at it and then back at Kestrel.
For several seconds she didn't answer. She appeared to be weighing things in her mind. Finally she shrugged. "I saw him a few days ago. After I was over at your place. He came by to tell me a little about what was going on, and that he'd be out of touch for awhile. That was the last I heard from him."
"Can you tell me anything more about it?" He leaned forward.
"I don't know if I should," she said with a sigh. "He didn't tell me not to, but I don't know how much he wants known." She smiled just a bit, but it didn't reach her eyes. "That's the problem with dragons—they never tell you what's on their minds, at least not so you can make any sense out of it."
"Was it another dragon?" he asked abruptly.
She nodded. "Yeah..." She paused, and then: "An old friend of his. Kind of like a godfather, he said. A mentor." Looking up at him, her face full of sadness, she added, "I really felt terrible for him, Ocelot. I know for a dragon he's just a kid, but I never think of him that way. That night he really looked like a kid who didn't know what to do next."
Ocelot didn't answer right away; he wasn't sure what to say. "Does he have any better idea who did it?"
"No, not really—not who's behind it, anyway. He said he had a couple of leads, but they were slim ones. I don't know if he's found out anything else since I last saw him. I just hope he didn't get into something over his head." She closed her eyes briefly. "If whatever this was could kill a dragon as old and powerful as his friend was, then he wouldn't even be a challenge for it. That's what I'm afraid of."
Under cover of taking a long swig of beer, Ocelot looked her over. Her face showed sadness, fear, loss. His mind traveled back to the aftermath of the fight with Stefan atop the Messina Building six months ago, when she had refused to leave the unconscious and bleeding dragon even after explosives had begun to go off in the building's basement. He remembered the way she had looked at Gabriel when he had lain near death in human form after they had escaped the building. He remembered how she had admitted to him for the first time then that she loved the dragon. That had been the beginning of the subtle change in Ocelot's feelings toward Kestrel, and the weird thing was, it had somehow made their relationship stronger. He cared for her now more than ever, enough that he did not want her to go through the pain of losing her dearest friend. "Hey," he said, a bit awkwardly, "he's tougher than he looks. He'll be back. You know that."
She didn't look convinced. "I hope you're right," she said, taking another bite of pizza and washing it down with a long pull from her beer glass. "Ocelot?"
"You're okay with this, right? I mean—I know sometimes this whole relationship seems a little weird, what with us and Gabriel and all—you never really talk about it, so I'm never quite sure where you stand."
He shrugged, pausing to mull over her words before speaking. "Doesn't really matter, does it? I mean, I know you're not seeing him—"
"Would it matter if I was?" she broke in.
Ocelot started to answer, then stopped. "I'm not sure," he said, retreating to honesty. Then, a little more suspiciously: "You aren't, are you?"
She shook her head. "No."
He looked at her hard. "Why not?"
"Why not?" he repeated.
Her eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure I understand what you're asking, Ocelot."
"I think you do," he said. "I've always been curious about that. You said he isn't your type, but—"
She sighed. "Ocelot—"
"No, never mind. It's okay," he said quickly, putting up his hands. He was suddenly a little ashamed to have brought it up at all tonight, when Kestrel was obviously not in the mood to be discussing such things. "Forget I said it."
Kestrel reached across the table and took his hand in hers. "No. You have a right to know. I guess I've been trying not to think too hard about it myself." She paused a long time, suddenly very interested in the latest ice hockey scores flashing across the trid screen. "The truth is," she said finally, quietly, "I would be if I could."
Now it was his turn to look confused. "You would be what?"
"Huh?" That was really no surprise, but he sensed there was more to it than that. "Well, then—why aren't you?"
She mumbled something, but Ocelot could not make it out over the crowd noise. "What?"
"I said," she repeated more distinctly, "that he doesn't want to."
He looked sideways at her. "You mean—you're not his type?" It seemed absurd, somehow. Maybe Kestrel wasn't as drop-dead gorgeous as her dragon companion, but she was certainly very attractive by almost any standard.
Kestrel nodded. "We talked about it shortly after we met. A couple of weeks after I first saw him in his human form." She smiled in a self-deprecating sort of way. "I wanted him. Bad. But I didn't know quite how to tell him. Looking back on it, it was all kind of embarrassing. But he was very nice about it."
"He—was." Ocelot didn't quite know where he should be going with this. He was pretty sure that there was nothing in any of the self-help books that covered talking to your girlfriend about her unrequited lust for a Great Dragon who happened to look like a cover model for GQ.
She nodded, either missing or ignoring his tone. "Yeah." Her expression softened as she remembered. "I never did tell you about our first few months together, did I?"
"Uh—no." This was getting more and more out of his areas of expertise. He took another long swig of beer. "Are you sure that's something you want to be telling me?"
Again she chose to ignore his tone and respond only to his words. "Sure," she said. At least she was smiling again. "It was pretty incredible, looking back on it. He's come such a long way since then. Longer than I ever would have expected."
"A long way from what?" Ocelot asked, interested in spite of himself. He leaned forward, pausing to fill up his glass from the pitcher on the table and grab another slice of pizza.
Kestrel settled back, her smile getting a little bigger. She had the look of someone who was recalling a very pleasant and memorable time, a look such as some people get when discussing their college days or their childhood. "From how he was when I met him. Did you know that he'd only been awake for a couple of months, and had almost no contact with people?" Without waiting for him to answer, she continued: "He was such a strange combination —he could tell me about things that happened thousands of years ago, but he didn't know about cars or skyscrapers or computers or any of the other things that we take for granted every day. You should have seen him, Ocelot—it was the most wonderful thing, watching him learn about the world. Picture somebody with a mind sharper than the smartest human or metahuman around, but with the perceptions of a child. Everything was new to him. And I got to be there with him while he discovered it."
Ocelot remained silent, not sure how to respond. He felt a little twinge of the jealousy returning, but this time it had nothing to do with romantic rivalry. How many people in the history of the world ever got an opportunity like Kestrel had had? Still, though, he was pleased that she seemed to be coming out of her funk, so he waited with anticipation for her to continue.
She did not seem to mind the fact that he wasn't talking. "I wish you could have seen him back then. Every day was an adventure. He wanted to learn everything at once. Even with the stuff I learned in college I couldn't keep up with him on the academics, so he ended up holing up in a room with a stack of chips and a reader for a few weeks—when he came out he knew more than I did about most of it. But the real fun was in the culture stuff. He was fascinated by the simplest things, like pizza and ice cream—and you should have seen him when he first discovered the trideo! I was afraid he was going to become the world's first dragon couch potato!" She smiled fondly. "His taste was atrocious, too. For some reason he was intrigued by Urban Brawl and bad movies and Japanese B monster films. He spent days watching every one of those he could get his hands on. He still likes them—we used to spend a lot of evenings at his place with a big bucket of popcorn while he caught up on the latest. I tease him about liking them because he harbors secret fantasies about stomping through Tokyo committing acts of mass destruction."
Ocelot chuckled, shaking his head. "He's one weird dude."
"You don't know the half of it," she said, warming to her subject. "He also hates movies with dragons in them, unless the dragons are portrayed sympathetically. He really gets annoyed by those old cartoons where the dragon is the comic relief. I'm not sure if he's serious or not, but he says that the dragons' publicity agents weren't doing their jobs while their clients were asleep all those thousands of years."
"I guess we all have our pet peeves," Ocelot murmured. It seemed a good time for another swig of beer.
She nodded. "It didn't take him too long once he got going to get used to things—it took me awhile to comprehend just how quick he is to pick things up. Just as an example, not too long after we got together, he saw some fast cars on the trid and decided he wanted to learn how to drive so he could get one too. It only took me a day to teach him, and he'd never even been in a car before." Grinning, she added, "After that he immediately went out and bought that Dynamit of his, and he's been charming his way out of tickets ever since. The guy's a speed demon."
"I guess this wouldn't be the time for me to make the 'dragon racing' pun, huh?" Ocelot asked innocently, getting ready to duck.
She pretended to be preparing to throw her pizza at him. "I'm just afraid he'll decide he wants a motorcycle."
"Hey, at least he isn't taking up skydiving or something," he said, trying to be helpful. In truth, he didn't think Gabriel had anything to worry about if he decided to take up motorcycling, either, since the guy could probably walk away from a 100-kph face-plant, but he didn't think that was the right thing to say at the moment.
She chuckled. "He can fly. I don't think skydiving would be much of a danger to him."
Ocelot nodded. "I guess you're right. So," he added a bit tentatively after a pause and a bite of pizza, "You never did tell me exactly—how come you guys didn't—uh—you know. What's his excuse for passing up a find like you? Maybe he ain't as smart as he's supposed to be." He kept his words light, but there was an undercurrent beneath them. He wanted to know the answer, if she'd be willing to tell him.
She looked down. "I guess I should have told you a long time ago." For a long moment, she didn't say anything. Then, quietly: "He—uh—doesn't date outside his species."
Ocelot's eyes widened. "Huh?"
"Yeah," she said, bringing her gaze back up. She was smiling, but in a somewhat embarrassed way. "He didn't say so in so many words, but that's basically what he told me. I came on to him pretty hard one night. I think I made him uncomfortable. He gave me the 'can't we just be friends?' talk. Believe me, that was surreal."
"I'll bet." Ocelot allowed himself a small smile of his own, seeing that she seemed to be okay with this. "So that's why you told me you hadn't ever—"
"Yeah. And we probably never will. I've accepted it. To be honest, I'd still like to, but it isn't going to happen. He said aside from that, even as a dragon he's too young to be thinking about that sort of thing. He says he has millennia before he's even going to start thinking about settling down with home and hatchlings."
"I guess none of us have to worry about getting stuck babysitting, huh?" Ocelot said jokingly, covering up the fact that it was still weirding him out to have a friend who spoke of millennia the way most people spoke of years.
"Guess not." She finished the last of her pizza slice and glanced at the remainder of the pizza as if trying to decide if she had room for one more. She frowned, looking upset again. "I just wish I knew where he was—if he's okay."
He sighed. "Yeah...I know. I wish I could do something to help you find out...did he say anything else about what's going on that might help you figure out where he went or when he might be back?"
"No...not really. Not much." She looked up at him. "Hey...do you mind if I bug out on you for awhile? I just want to go by his place and see if he's there. He probably won't answer his phone—but if he's home he might let me in."
Ocelot shrugged. "Sure. We can take a rain check on the rest of the night. Sure you don't want me to come with you?"
"No..." She stood up, brushing stray pizza crumbs from the front of her jacket. "I think I'd better do this alone. If you want, I'll call you later."
"Yeah, if you want. Just come by. I should be home. Or give me a call if I'm not." He stood too, finishing the last of his beer and putting the glass back down on the table. Leaning over, he kissed her gently on the forehead and grinned. "You do what you got to do. Just remember—I'm the same species as you, and I'll be happy to do whatever your twisted little mind can come up with."
"I might just take you up on that," she said, nodding as she turned to leave. "Hold that thought."
Copyright ©1998 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.