Ocelot's face contorted into a dark mask comprised of equal parts terror and rage as he recognized the newcomer. One by one the runners looked toward the door, and one by one each of them stiffened, eyes widening. They all remained in those positions as the newcomer entered the room.
Without turning, Gabriel sighed. "Stefan. This is not a good time."
Several long, tension-filled moments passed as the five shadowrunners and Stefan faced each other across the expanse of floor. On each face was an expression of undisguised hatred. Slowly, the runners began spreading out across the floor.
Kestrel moved forward, drawing up next to Gabriel. She was watching Stefan warily, but she was also watching Gabriel, her questions clearly visible in her eyes.
For several moments, no one spoke.
Finally Ocelot broke the silence. "What...the hell...is he doing here?" he asked, keeping his voice very quiet, very controlled, as if he was afraid if he raised it something terrible would happen. Still, every ounce of hatred he was feeling was injected into the single query.
Stefan ignored him. "I see your—friends—are as well-mannered as ever, brother," he said in a fair imitation of his usual tone. "I wish to speak with you. Alone," he added almost as an afterthought, raking a glance over the runners.
"We're not goin' anywhere, asshole," Ocelot snapped. His hand hovered near his jacket; if Stefan tried anything, he was going to get a face full of throwing knives for his trouble. A futile gesture, he knew, but he didn't care.
Gabriel ignored Ocelot's outburst and turned to address his brother. "Later, Stefan. I thought you were going to return in the morning."
"He was here before?" Ocelot demanded, taking a step forward. "And you didn't tell us? What the hell is going on here?"
Kestrel looked at Stefan, then at Gabriel, her expression growing less angry and more confused, with the barest tinge of suspicion around the edges. "Gabriel?"
Again Gabriel ignored them. "Stefan—?"
Stefan glared at the runners, then returned his gaze to Gabriel. "Must we discuss our business in front of them?"
Ocelot was having a hard time controlling himself. "Listen up, shithead," he growled. "You don't hear so well, do you? We ain't goin' anywhere. Why don't you get your scaly ass outta here before we hand it to you?"
"Ocelot..." Winterhawk warned, coming forward and putting a hand on his teammate's arm. His eyes never left Stefan.
Stefan moved toward Gabriel. "Come, brother," he said. "We have much to discuss, and it does not concern them."
"What doesn't concern us?" Joe demanded.
"Gabriel, what's going on?" Kestrel asked, still watching the other dragon. "What is he doing here?"
"Yes," 'Wraith said flatly. His expression was as usual unreadable, but there was something in his eyes that suggested hatred.
"This does look a bit odd," Winterhawk said, nodding.
"Damn fucking right it looks odd," Ocelot agreed, his voice still coming out as a feral snarl. To Stefan, he said, "Are you gonna get the hell outta here, or are we gonna have a rematch?" Some part of his mind was telling him that he was a fool to goad the dragon so, but his mouth wasn't listening to the rational part of his mind right now. And what the hell was up with Gabriel? Why was he just standing there? Why was he acting like he was expecting Stefan—like he had been here before, earlier?
Gabriel looked back and forth between Stefan and the runners. He continued to stand in the same place, halfway between them. "Gentlemen...Kestrel...please—" He sighed. "You must go now. Stefan is right, that it doesn't concern you. I know how this must look to you, but I assure you—he represents no immediate danger to any of us at this time."
Ocelot laughed, but there was no mirth in it—it was a sarcastic, nasty bark of a sound. "No danger? Are you out of your mind? Did you hit your head or somethin'? This is the scumbag that nearly killed us all, and you're sayin' he's no danger?"
"If I were a threat to you now, impertinent one," Stefan said coldly, "you would be a smoldering pile of ashes on the floor."
"Yeah?" Ocelot demanded, voice rising. "Yeah?" He made mocking 'come-here' gestures with both hands. "Why don't you come over here and say that? Oh, and how's your eye doin' these days, huh?"
"Not now," 'Wraith said quietly to Ocelot, with a contemptuous glance toward Stefan. "Not worth it."
"He's right," Winterhawk muttered. "Don't waste your breath on him."
Stefan glared at them. "You will not speak to me in this manner," he snapped, stepping forward. "I will—"
Everyone stopped in their tracks, staring. It took them a moment to realize the source of the booming command that echoed through the huge room.
Gabriel's violet eyes were blazing, his normally smooth and handsome features clouded by rage. "Stop! All of you!" he ordered, his gaze flicking back and forth between the runners and his brother. "We have neither the time nor the energy to spare for such petty bickering!" He wheeled on Stefan, a lock of dark hair falling down over his forehead. "Or have you forgotten so soon, Stefan, the gravity of the situation that brings you here?"
For a moment longer, everyone merely stared. None of them, including Stefan, had ever heard Gabriel raise his voice, let alone issue such commands. The young dragon continued to divide his attention between the two sides, as if daring someone to challenge him. Only Kestrel, who was standing right next to him, noticed that he was shaking.
Surprisingly (to the runners, at least), Gabriel's words seemed to have some effect on Stefan. "I have not forgotten," he said quietly. "I simply—did not expect to find you with—visitors." Even then he managed to infuse the last word with contempt, but the contempt sounded tired, forced.
"Does somebody want to let us in on what's going on here?" Joe demanded.
Gabriel's shoulders slumped as he stood; he looked as if he wanted nothing more than to sit down, but he knew that he could not do that. All the rage had drained from his face, leaving him looking more tired and despairing than ever.
Kestrel regarded him with concern. "Are you all right, Gabriel?"
"No," he said softly. "No. I'm not all right." Taking a deep breath, he visibly pulled himself together and looked up, taking in all his visitors. Stefan stood off by himself near the door, his imperious demeanor beginning to slip ever so imperceptibly. The four runners had moved in closer to each other again, the other three forming a subtle ring around Ocelot, who looked sullen and uncooperative but did not speak. Winterhawk was grim as well, while 'Wraith's eyes never left Stefan's face. Joe was watching Gabriel, still waiting for an answer to his question.
Gabriel spoke softly and evenly, taking in each gaze as he did so. "We do not have the time for this behavior, and I haven't the energy or the desire to serve as referee between you. If you cannot conduct yourselves civilly in my home, then I must ask you to leave." His eyes swept the group again, looking for takers. Kestrel stood next to him, trying to provide both strength and comfort. It was clear from her expression that she was still confused and unsure of what was going on, but that she was willing to give Gabriel the benefit of the doubt until further notice.
"Explanation," 'Wraith said quietly.
"Yeah," Joe added. "This guy tried to kill you—"
"—tried to kill all of us," Ocelot muttered under his breath.
"—and now it looks like you've patched it up," Joe continued, ignoring Ocelot. "What gives? Did we miss something?"
"No doubt," Stefan said acidly.
"Stefan..." Gabriel warned, casting a cautionary glance back toward Ocelot. "Enough. I will not say it again." To the runners, he continued: "Please. This does not concern you. I know you are curious, and I wish I could satisfy your curiosity now, but I cannot. Time is short, and Stefan, as long as you are here, we had best begin discussing what we must do."
"No way," Ocelot said, shaking his head for emphasis. "There is no way we're leavin' here until you tell us what's goin' on." He gestured toward Stefan with a quick jerk of his head. "After what happened to us, you damn straight owe us some explanation for why you and Chuckles here seem to be all nicey-nicey all of a sudden." Glaring first at Stefan, then at Gabriel, he added, "You can make us leave, but I don't think you'll do it. You got us sucked into this whole thing, and now we ain't bein' run off like a bunch of kids at a party."
"I'll be most pleased to remove them, brother, if you won't do it," Stefan said with an oily smile and a glance toward the massive windows that enclosed the penthouse.
"Remove this," Ocelot snapped, with an appropriate gesture.
Winterhawk, catching the look in Gabriel's eyes, raised his hands placatingly. "Gentlemen, please." To the young dragon, he said in a half-apologetic tone, "Gabriel, you can hardly blame us for our suspicions. Ocelot tends not to have the best self-control among us, but I think nonetheless that he expresses—crudely, yes, but accurately—the feelings of our team toward your—visitor. I think, considering the circumstances and the fact that something has apparently changed in your relationship with your brother, that you do owe us at least the courtesy of an explanation before you ask us to leave."
"Yeah," Joe added. "This whole thing looks pretty weird from this side of the world. Can't you tell us what's going on?"
Gabriel regarded them for a moment, the nascent anger draining once again from his features. He sighed. "All right," he said quietly. "I realize how this must look to you, and apparently my assurances are doing nothing to ease your minds." His posture slumped a bit more as he looked away. "Nor will your minds be any more eased, I fear, were I to satisfy your curiosity, but it must be done regardless."
"Gabriel, why are you—?" Stefan began sharply.
"Stefan." Gabriel silenced him with the single word. "Remember why you are here. It is not for you to question my methods or my decisions."
Stefan's eyes narrowed, but he did not speak further.
The runners looked at each other, all of them still trying to puzzle out this new development. Stefan was actually listening to his younger brother? He certainly didn't look happy about it, but he was doing it. What had occurred?
Gabriel moved slowly across the room to a group of couches and chairs arranged near the window. "Come," he said grimly. "Sit down, and I will tell you what I can. But then you must go."
Ocelot grumbled something under his breath that no one heard, and Joe moved in to cover him again. This time, though, Ocelot did no more than glare at Stefan with a look full of daggers as the group moved over to the indicated place.
Warily everyone arrayed themselves. Except for Gabriel, they consciously tried to be as far from Stefan as possible, to the extent that both Ocelot and Joe pointedly moved their chairs away. When they had finished settling themselves, they looked rather like a stern jury facing a defendant, with Stefan seated with his back to the window and the others lined up facing him. Gabriel sat at the end of the two groups, with Kestrel perched in her customary spot on the overstuffed arm of his chair. Stefan did not seem bothered by the arrangements.
As the two groups once again set up a glaring contest, Gabriel spoke softly. "I want to make something clear before I continue. I am very weary now, and unfortunately that means, among other things, that my self-control is not at its highest. I am not pleased with the situation as it stands—part of what that means is that I have no remaining energy to devote to keeping order among you. If I must then I will do so ruthlessly, so please do not force me to do this. Much of what I have to say will anger you. It has angered me. But as you will see when I have finished, anger is inappropriate at this time. The events that have occurred are far too grave to permit such a diversion." He looked around at the assembled group, his gaze lighting a bit longer on Ocelot than on the others. "May I count on your cooperation?"
"Ask him," Ocelot growled, hooking a thumb at Stefan.
"Stefan," Gabriel said with a hint of danger in his tone, "has given me his word that he will not harm or otherwise harass any of you."
"And you believe that?" Ocelot asked incredulously. He had always thought Gabriel somewhat naive about the realities of the world, but this won the prize.
Stefan started to say something, but Gabriel cut him off without looking at him. "Dragons do not give their word lightly," he said, the hint of danger growing a bit, "and they do not break it once given." His expression grew cold, although Kestrel could see the strain beneath it. "May I count on your cooperation?" he asked again, this time looking pointedly at Ocelot even though the question was directed at all of the runners. Kestrel put a hand on his shoulder and felt it shaking slightly.
"You can count on me not to initiate anything," Winterhawk said with a sideways glance at Stefan. "If your brother behaves himself, then there won't be a problem."
"Yes," 'Wraith said, nodding. He too was looking at Stefan.
Joe nodded. "Yeah."
Ocelot was silent for a long time, scowling, but finally nodded grudgingly after looking at Kestrel. He knew he was making a mistake, but he didn't have much of a choice. He just hoped that Gabriel's fatigue hadn't made him take leave of his senses, or they were all in trouble. He still wanted to kill Stefan, and wasn't sure that if he got the opportunity he wouldn't take it despite what he had told Gabriel.
Gabriel's posture slumped slightly, but it was difficult to tell if it was from relief or just more fatigue. "All right," he said, and paused a moment to gather his thoughts.
Winterhawk looked back and forth between Gabriel and Stefan. The short time he had had to sit down and consider matters had brought some revelations—ones which he was not sure he should voice. "Gabriel..." he said at last in a strange tone, "it was no coincidence that Harlequin was here tonight, was it?"
Before Gabriel could answer, Stefan fixed Winterhawk with sharp gaze which he immediately transferred to his brother. "Harlequin was here?"
Gabriel shot a look at Winterhawk that clearly indicated that he had wanted to reveal that bit of information in his own time, but did not linger with it. "Yes, Stefan," he said in a near-whisper. "He was here. He is returning tomorrow morning."
"How did he know of our business?" Stefan demanded, eyes narrowing. "Did you contact him, brother?"
"No, I did not," Gabriel snapped. "He is not a fool, Stefan. He has had far more experience making these sorts of connections than we have. Given—what has occurred, I am surprised that he did not appear sooner than he did." He paused, then sighed. "With circumstances as they are, I am grateful that he has decided to offer us his assistance. Perhaps," he added in a colder tone, "he might increase our chances of success."
The runners were getting tired of being forgotten and ignored. "Chances of success for what?" Joe asked, leaning forward.
Gabriel didn't answer the question directly. Instead he leaned back in his chair and looked away for a moment. "You asked before if the Enemy had returned," he said. "I told you that they had." A pause, and then: "What I did not tell you was why. Or how."
The runners all riveted their attention on him and waited for him to continue. Stefan stared impassively off at nothing.
"It seems," the young dragon continued, "that the Enemy has used the murder of my friend Telanwyr to provide the power for—something." He appeared to take it for granted that the runners had already heard the story of Telanwyr's death from Kestrel, and thus did not offer further explanation.
"Something?" Winterhawk ventured warily. "What—sort of something?"
"We don't know yet," Gabriel said. "That is what we must find out."
"But—the Bridge—?" 'Wraith said. "Thayla—?" He seemed too interested in Gabriel's response. So, in fact, did Joe.
"Thayla is no more," Gabriel said sadly. "She has fallen to the Enemy."
The runners stared at him. All of them, in one way or another, were thinking about the quest they had performed with Harlequin to ensure her safety and her ability to continue the song that kept the Enemy at bay. All of them had been forever touched by her beauty, her purity, her goodness. And now she was gone. The shock drove them to silence.
"I am sorry," Gabriel said, his voice soft. "I am aware of your involvement."
"But—" Joe began, struggling for words. "If Thayla's dead, then—who's guarding the Bridge?"
"How?" 'Wraith put in, paying no attention to Joe. "When?"
Gabriel raised his hands for quiet, shaking his head. "I do not know the answers to your questions," he said. "Harlequin did not tell me the details—all he said was that Thayla had fallen. I do know," he added, his eyes coming up to meet the runners' in a way that he hoped was encouraging but ended up looking sad, "that the Bridge has been destroyed. I'm not permitted to say more about that, but you can be assured that it is true. I have it directly from Harlequin, and he would not lie about such a thing."
"Then how are the Hor—the Enemy here?" Winterhawk asked.
Gabriel sighed. "I do not know. Perhaps some of them made it across before the Bridge was destroyed. But the fact remains that at least one of them is here, and must be dealt with."
"Query," 'Wraith spoke up, looking troubled.
Gabriel swiveled around to face him.
"Your friend—sacrificed?" He frowned. "To bring over the Enemy?"
The young dragon shook his head, his eyes clouded with grief. "Not originally. Some of them must have been here previously, to set up whatever ritual they set up. This much we know. What we do not know yet is what the ritual was used to power. I am certain there is more to it than simply bringing over more of the Enemy, though. "
"Why?" Joe asked.
Winterhawk looked suspiciously across at Stefan. "Yes, why?" he repeated. "And you still have not told us why your brother is involved in this—and why you two are not at each other's throats."
Gabriel sighed, looking down. It was very clear that he had been attempting to avoid that particular question as long as he could, but now here it was. Kestrel put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed slightly; he brought his hand up and covered hers with it. A brief communication seemed to pass between them, and then he looked up again.
To his credit, Stefan did not speak. In fact, he seemed very interested in the view out the window. The imperious expression still covered his features, but there was something beneath it that was so obvious that everyone in the room could see it.
"Stefan has made a grave mistake," Gabriel said. "He has come here of his own free will to seek my help in rectifying it. I have agreed to aid him in this."
"You're—helping—him?" Ocelot sputtered, his rage rising again. "After all he's done to you? To us? To Kestrel?"
Gabriel glared at Ocelot, visibly trying to bring himself under control before speaking. He took a long deep breath; when he finally did speak, his voice was soft and carefully measured. "I had no choice," he said, and with those words the anger left him, replaced by despair. "I had no choice," he repeated in a whisper.
For a moment the silence hung in the air like an oppressive fog. Even Ocelot was not sure what to say: the young dragon looked like he was at the end of his tether, so that even the slightest push would dislodge his fragile control. Ocelot knew that feeling well; it was a fairly common occurrence with him, especially now. To see it in calm, unruffled Gabriel, though, was a little unsettling.
Finally 'Wraith broke the silence. "Why?"
"And why would he come to you, of all people, for help?" Winterhawk asked quietly.
Gabriel got up, shrugging off Kestrel's hand, and began pacing around. Reaching the window, he leaned against it and looked out over Downtown. The others, including Stefan, watched him and did not speak. After several moments, he turned back around and faced them. "Stefan was deceived by the Enemy," he said.
Five gazes sharpened on him; one—Stefan's—lowered.
"What's—that mean?" Ocelot asked, an odd strained undertone in his voice. He could feel his muscles stiffening, coiling up to prepare for—what?
Stefan started to say something, then looked off at nothing again as if realizing that anything he said would only make him look like a fool.
Gabriel had apparently decided that the direct approach was the best way to get this over with. "The Enemy used Stefan's hatred of me to influence him," he said in a tone devoid of inflection or emotion. "Unknown to me, following the incident six months ago, Telanwyr had taken his oath that he would not attempt harm on me or my friends. The Enemy convinced him that if Telanwyr were no more, then he would be free to continue his vendetta against me."
It took a few seconds for this to sink in. Ocelot's eyes widened as he grasped the implications of Gabriel's words and his rage and irrational terror welled up. "You mean—he's workin' with the fuckin' Horrors?" he yelled. "And you're helpin' him?" That did it for the remainder of his sanity. Screaming something inarticulate, he launched himself out of his chair, hands out in front of him, and lunged at Stefan. Any promise he had made to Gabriel not to do so was swept away with the last of his rational thoughts.
His friends tried to grab him, but even 'Wraith wasn't fast enough to get to him before he was out of his chair. Pandemonium ensued for a second or two as the runners, including Kestrel, tried to head Ocelot off while Stefan rose from his chair.
Suddenly Ocelot lifted from the floor, his legs pumping like some crazed cartoon character, his arms flailing as he tried to reach Stefan. He continued to scream inarticulately at the top of his lungs; the only word anyone could make out was "Die! Die!" repeated over and over. This continued for a couple of seconds, and then he slumped in the air as if someone had removed all his bones.
The runners stared at him, then as one they wheeled around to face Stefan. The older dragon had returned to his chair, watching Ocelot with a look of contemptuous amusement. As Ocelot's body lowered gently down to the couch, his attention turned to his brother.
Gabriel stood in front of his chair, breathing hard, gaze cold, teeth clenched tightly together. He lowered his hand from where it had been raised toward the position Ocelot had last occupied. "Understand this!" he ordered as Ocelot's three teammates and Kestrel gathered around to check their fallen friend. "This is the last time that I will say it!" He lowered his voice a bit as if just realizing that he was shouting; the next words came out between breaths. "You will—control yourselves. If you cannot—then you will leave now." His gaze, which hadn't warmed at all, swept over them. "I have far greater cause to behave as you have toward Stefan, as you will see, but I have accepted the fact that there is more at stake here than my private grievances. When I explain the rest of it to you, you will see that. Until then, if you want to know, I expect that you will listen. Do you understand?"
"What did you do to him, Gabriel?" Kestrel asked quietly, grim-faced. She crouched next to Ocelot's head as the others laid him out and straightened his limbs.
Gabriel caught something in her tone and his expression immediately softened. "Merely a sleep spell," he said in the same tone. "He will be unconscious for some time, but other than that he'll suffer no ill effects."
Kestrel held his gaze for a few more seconds, then nodded and rose.
After a moment the other runners did as well. "We're listening," Winterhawk said. "Ocelot is—a bit unstable when it comes to both Stefan and the—Enemy. I don't think he was in control of himself."
Gabriel sighed. "I am sorry that was necessary."
"Better than letting Stefan have him," Joe muttered.
"Stefan gave his word," Gabriel said. "He did not attack even though he was surely provoked to do so." He paused a moment, then added: "He had the chance to kill me earlier this evening and he did not take it. A dragon does not break his word."
"You did say," Winterhawk said, returning to his seat with one last glance back at Ocelot, "that he conspired with the Horrors to kill your friend. Does that not count as breaking his word?"
The young dragon looked troubled and a little angry, but it was clearly not directed at the runners now. "Not—technically. He gave his word to Telanwyr that he would not harm me. Telanwyr's death would release him from that obligation." He looked down, sadness passing across his face as he remembered his old friend once more. Kestrel sat down next to him and put her hand back on his shoulder.
"Details," 'Wraith said. As an afterthought, he added, "Please."
Gabriel took a moment to compose himself before answering. "Yes," he said at last, and sighed. "Details." Slowly he told the runners of all that had occurred during the past week, as he had told Harlequin. Although he paused often, no one interrupted him. On the couch, Ocelot showed no signs of waking.
When he finished the story, Gabriel got up again and began pacing. He looked like someone had wrung him out. "So," he said, not looking at them, "now you know. Stefan has caused this with his hatred, and now he seeks to right it and in the process remove the Enemy's taint from himself. I have agreed to help him, as has Harlequin. He will return in the morning, and we will discuss our plans from there."
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.