"Your plans?" Winterhawk asked. "What plans do you have? How are you going to deal with this?"
"Brother," Stefan spoke up for the first time in a while, "surely you have told them enough now. As you said—but as they refused to hear—they are not involved."
"Oh, we're involved, all right," Joe said. "We're right up to our asses in this thing."
"Colorful, but accurate," Winterhawk agreed. He spoke to Gabriel, not to Stefan. "You'll have to travel to the metaplanes, I trust?"
Gabriel nodded. "We don't know the details yet. That is what Harlequin came to discuss with me earlier. He will, as I said, return in the morning." From his place near the darkened window, he regarded them. "But that is not your concern. Please—I have told you what you wanted to know, but now I must ask you to leave us to our plans. This has nothing to do with you. There is no reason for you to be involved." With a glance at Joe, he added, "The mere fact that you have had dealings with the Enemy before does not mean that your involvement extends to this situation."
"Incorrect," 'Wraith said.
Winterhawk nodded. "I too beg to differ with that. The Horrors—the Enemy—know us. They can find us. This is far worse than the Stefan situation from before. At least then, all we could expect was to become some dragon's midnight snack." He cast a sour look at Stefan as he said this. "With the Enemy—" He shivered a bit, involuntarily. "If there's a chance for us to make a difference in keeping them from getting here, then I think we'll be wanting to take it."
"Yeah," Joe said. "We did it once—it sounds like you can use all the help you can get."
"Out of the question," Stefan said flatly.
All three runners bit back retorts as Gabriel spoke. "I fear I must agree with Stefan this time," he said ruefully. "It simply isn't possible."
"What simply isn't possible?" came a weak voice from the couch. Everyone except Stefan turned to see Ocelot slowly rising to a seated position, rubbing his head. He looked like he had barely begun to shake off the effects of the sleep spell, but he was awake. "Shoving a two-by-four up Chuckles' ass sideways? I bet we could do it if we tried hard."
"Ocelot," Kestrel said warningly, coming over to him. "Stop it. You're just making a fool of yourself now."
He raised up a little more. "Oh, so you're all on his side now too, huh?" he growled. At least his voice didn't carry the edge of insanity as it had before.
Gabriel ignored them and addressed Joe, 'Wraith, and Winterhawk. "I'm sorry," he said, and shook his head. He sounded like he meant it.
"Sorry about what?" Ocelot demanded.
"They're going to the metaplanes to try to stop the Horrors," Joe said. "And they won't let us go along."
"Gabriel says it's none of our concern," Winterhawk added as if that was the most absurd thing in the world.
"Then he's as crazy as his brother," Ocelot said, shooting to his feet. Immediately he swayed as the sleep spell's effects caught up with him; Kestrel grabbed his arm to prevent him from falling and lowered him back to a seated position. From the edge of the couch he looked up at Gabriel. "You know what we did before. You said Harlequin told you. Fate picked us for that mission. You gonna argue with Fate?"
"This is not the same mission," Gabriel said.
"And you ain't Fate," Ocelot said stubbornly.
Winterhawk stepped forward. "We've been involved in this since Harlequin first took us off to the metaplanes to battle the Horrors years ago. If there's a chance that they're going to be making a return engagement, I think we've earned a chance to be involved."
Joe nodded. "Yeah. Harlequin can get us there. He's done it before."
Gabriel shook his head as if that was of no consequence. "I can get you there. That isn't the problem."
"What is?" 'Wraith asked.
The young dragon sighed. "Many things. Attitude, for one. I have made my truce—at least temporarily—with Stefan, and for the duration I can work effectively with him to achieve our mutual goal. Afterward, I do not know what will happen, but for now that is behind us. I don't see that you can do the same." Again he looked pointedly at Ocelot as he spoke. "If I agree to allow you to accompany us to the Netherworlds and you are unable to keep your—perspective—on the situation, it could endanger the entire quest. It could endanger the entire world."
"So," Winterhawk said slowly, "you're saying that if we can manage to keep our feelings about Stefan from interfering with our objectivity, then you would consider allowing us along?"
Gabriel didn't answer for a long time. "I—would have to give it serious thought," he finally said.
"In other words, you don't want us along," Joe said.
"No," Gabriel agreed. "I do not want you along. This is not a situation like the one involving Stefan. The Enemy has not sought you out. There is no reason for you to go."
"Gabriel," Winterhawk said, choosing his words with care, "You have admitted that you are very tired and that your judgment might be—impaired at the moment. You said that Harlequin will return in the morning. Will you hold off on making a decision about it until then?"
"He has made a decision," Stefan said.
Winterhawk looked at Gabriel as if Stefan had not spoken, waiting.
The young dragon considered, then nodded. "That seems reasonable," he said, almost reluctantly. "But I will tell you here and now that some among you—" he did not look at Ocelot this time, but it was clear who he meant "—will put the entire quest in jeopardy with their inability to control their impulses. I cannot in good conscience put anyone at risk for such individuals." He looked down for a moment, then back up.
"A moment," 'Wraith said, coming up next to Ocelot. "Speak with you?" He indicated a far corner of the apartment.
As Ocelot nodded, Gabriel regarded them with something that resembled approval. As the two moved off to a corner where two massive windows met, he finally allowed himself to sink down on the couch.
"What do you want?" Ocelot asked under his breath, casting glances back toward Stefan as if he was afraid the older dragon would jump him when his back was turned.
"Not worth it," the elf said.
"What's not worth it?"
Ocelot blew air through his teeth. "English, 'Wraith. Complete sentences. I ain't in any mood to play word games. Kid Lizard over there gave me a whopper of a headache." He rubbed his head to punctuate his words.
'Wraith paused a moment to compose a sentence. "Stefan—not worth your effort. Horrors more important."
"What are you tellin' me, 'Wraith?" Ocelot demanded suspiciously. "What the hell did Gabriel say while I was out on my ass?"
"Told us about what happened. Must stop Horrors." He looked back toward the group, which had broken up into smaller sub-groups: Gabriel and Kestrel on the couch talking to each other; Stefan in his chair, looking out the window; Winterhawk and Joe drifted off somewhat to the other side of the room.
"So what did happen?"
"Ask 'Hawk. Ask Joe. Important thing—must stop Horrors. Can't do it if we're not there."
Ocelot sighed, leaning on his arm which was propped against the window. "So you're sayin' I should play nice with Stefan?"
"No." The elf's voice was impassive. "Not nice. Must play, though. Professional."
"You trust him?"
"No," 'Wraith said again. "Believe he wants to do this, though."
"So you don't think he'll jump us first chance he gets?"
'Wraith considered that. "Gabriel said he had the chance to kill him tonight. Didn't."
Ocelot snorted. "That don't mean anything. He's a fuckin' dragon. They can bide their time forever if they have to. He's lookin' for an angle."
"Yeah, yeah. Still. Either I suck up to the big lizard or we don't get to go along." He clenched his fist. "I don't know if I can, 'Wraith. He's hittin' all my buttons. I can look at it a little bit objectively now, standin' over here, but as soon as he opens his mouth—"
"Not worth it," 'Wraith stated again. "Don't waste effort on him. Think of Horrors. Much more important. But after..." He let that trail off as he glanced back toward Stefan.
Ocelot sighed again. He was trying his best not to admit it to himself, but he knew that 'Wraith was right. He also knew that the elf was the only one of the team who could have convinced him. Winterhawk, his normal confidant and erstwhile therapist, didn't seem to have the proper respect for the gravity of the situation. Neither did Joe. Gabriel might be intelligent and powerful, but Ocelot was still convinced that he was being hopelessly naive to trust his brother after all they had been through. Kestrel didn't know enough about the situation to offer an objective opinion, and besides, it was clear whose side of the fence she fell on when forced to make a choice. That left 'Wraith—paranoid, suspicious, stoical 'Wraith, the guy who didn't trust anybody. If he could put aside his natural inclinations to kill Stefan where he sat in order to serve a higher cause, then Ocelot had to allow that there must be some merit in the idea. But as 'Wraith had alluded, after the Horrors had been dealt with, all bets were off. "Okay," he said grudgingly. "Guess I ain't got much choice. It's either play nice with the eight-hundred-kilo gorillas or they take their toys and go home. And damn it, we can't afford to have 'em do that right now."
"Yes," Wraith said, with a raised eyebrow indicating approval. "Too important. Bigger than Stefan."
That was the understatement of the year, but Ocelot kept that thought to himself.
Kestrel, meanwhile, sat down next to Gabriel, glad for a chance to have a moment alone with him. "You okay?" she asked gently.
He shook his head without looking at her.
"Is there anything I can do? I'm sorry about Ocelot. He's—"
"It isn't just Ocelot," he said, and then switched to mind-speech so they could not be overheard. "It is this entire situation. I fear that I may have gotten in over my head."
Kestrel stared at him. She had never heard him admit that about anything. "Why do you say that?"
"Everything is happening so quickly, and all of it is too important for me to risk making the wrong decision. Perhaps if I had gone to the other dragons—"
"You said you couldn't do that. You said they wouldn't listen."
"Oh, they would listen. Whether they would believe—" he shrugged, sighed. "Regardless, it is too late for that now. I wish that Telanwyr were alive. Or Dunkelzahn. Juliana, we are children. All of us are children. To have something of such moment thrust upon us—" Shaking his head, he brought his gaze up to meet hers. His eyes were full of despair. "I do not know if I can do this."
She gripped his shoulder, speaking in a whisper so Stefan could not hear. The other dragon did not appear to be listening, but she was unsure how to tell. "Gabriel, you can. We can. You're not alone. You have all of us. You have this Harlequin guy—you seem to have confidence in his abilities. You even have Stefan, if he's really serious about doing this." She paused, again trying to reconcile Gabriel's current form and his true one with that of a child desperately in need of guidance. Finally, unable to do it, she said: "I know your teachers are gone. I know you can barely stand to look at Stefan, let alone trust him on something this important. I know you feel like you've got nowhere to turn. But it's not true. You're tired—you look like you're ready to drop. There's no way you can think things through when you're in that state. I think Winterhawk was right—wait until the morning. Tell everybody to go away and come back tomorrow. Sleep. Then maybe things will look clearer in the morning."
He leaned back on the couch, his head resting on the soft black leather, his eyes fixed on the ceiling ten meters above. "You are probably right. I can barely think straight right now. I apologize for my rude behavior. There was no reason for me to lose control like that. I am sorry you had to see it."
She shook her head. "Don't apologize. You were a hell of a lot calmer than I would have been. If I were you tonight, I would have been biting off heads and spitting them at windows. I don't know how you're holding together as well as you are."
He smiled, a faint, faraway thing. "Dragons are supposed to be tough, remember?"
"Yeah, right," she said, squeezing his shoulder a little harder. Then she grew serious again. "I do have to ask you one thing, though. This whole thing is still a little confusing to me, but there's one question you have to answer."
"If I am able."
She frowned. "You told me before that Stefan wasn't involved. Did you lie to me then? I don't think you've ever lied to me before." Her eyes searched his face; obviously his answer to this question was very important to her.
He shook his head. "Originally, when I told you the situation had nothing to do with Stefan, I did not have all the facts. Later, I told you that you did not know the killer. You do not."
Slowly she nodded. "Okay. Stefan didn't kill him—he just set him up to be killed. So technically you didn't lie to me." Glancing over at Stefan again, she noticed that he wore an odd expression—fatigue mixed with contempt mixed with fear. Apparently he did not think anyone was looking at him; when he noticed Kestrel, the fatigue and fear dropped away, leaving only the contempt.
"I told you the selective truth. At the time I did not think that you would be involved." Gabriel's eyes were closed now; Kestrel still found it a little odd to be communicating telepathically with a guy who looked like he was asleep.
"Neither did I," she admitted. "I didn't realize how important this was to these guys. Ocelot never talks about it."
"He has great fear of the Enemy. I can see that. He uses anger to cover it. I do not know if he will be able to overcome it sufficiently that I can risk taking him along."
"Then you're considering letting us go?"
He opened his eyes when she said "us." They showed sadness. "Will you do this to me, Juliana? Will you force me to put you at risk as well?"
She sighed. "If they go, I go. I'm going to see this through. And I respect you more than to think that you'll refuse to let them go just to keep me here."
Gabriel nodded wearily. "I have not yet decided. Perhaps I will consult with Harlequin in the morning. He has greater experience with this sort of thing—and with this team in such situations—than I. He might have some insights that have eluded me." Rising to a fully seated position, he resumed normal spoken communication. "I think that I will take your advice, though. I will be of no use to anyone if I do not rest." He stood the rest of the way up and faced the group of people spread out around the room.
Before he could say anything, though, Ocelot approached him. He looked a little subdued, but there was still some defiance in his eyes. For a moment the two of them regarded each other without comment, then Ocelot spoke. "I'm—sorry I got crazy. I'll do what I gotta do. But we have to go along tomorrow."
Gabriel nodded. "It is done," he said. "As for tomorrow, we will discuss that tomorrow." Raising his voice a bit to carry to everyone, he said, "Please. I must ask you all to go now, and come back tomorrow morning. The decision will be made then, after I've had a chance to get Harlequin's opinion on the matter."
Four pairs of suspicious eyes (all but Kestrel and Stefan) immediately met Gabriel's. Ocelot, standing in front of him, said evenly, "How do we know that you after we're gone, you won't go without us?"
There was disappointment in Gabriel's expression as he looked at Ocelot, but he looked too tired to deal with it. Sighing, he closed his eyes briefly and then opened them again. "All right, Ocelot," he said quietly, "if you do not trust me, then I will give you my word: We will not leave without you tomorrow morning before we've discussed the situation with Harlequin."
Ocelot hesitated a moment as if trying to decide whether to pursue it further, but finally nodded. "Okay. We'll be back first thing tomorrow morning."
The other runners also nodded. Somehow any kind of farewell seemed incongruous, so they merely filed out of the penthouse through the door that had still not been closed. None of them spoke, each alone with his thoughts about the evening, the Horrors, Stefan, and everything else that had happened in this long and eventful day. All of them suspected that tomorrow would likely be far more eventful.
Alone now in the apartment, Kestrel, Gabriel, and Stefan watched them go. Stefan watched his brother for several long moments, then rose from his chair. "I will return tomorrow, then," he said. "I hope that you have not made a mistake, brother, in considering bringing them along. Nor in involving that painted elf in the situation."
"That is not for you to decide, Stefan," Gabriel said almost mechanically.
Stefan nodded, a brief, harsh movement, and swept out of the room.
Kestrel looked at Gabriel. "Can I stay here tonight? I won't disturb your sleep—I'll just crash on the couch here." Her voice took on edges of fear. "I don't think I want to go home to an empty house tonight, if that's okay with you."
"Of course, Juliana," he murmured, shifting and growing, his huge golden dragon form taking up most of the floorspace in the living room. He was already drifting off. She could see that, now that he was finally going to allow himself to sleep, there would be no waking him until the morning.
Quietly, she moved over and closed and locked the door, hoping that whatever wards Gabriel had constructed were still intact. Even here, comforted by the low rumble of his soft, rhythmic breathing, it took her nearly an hour before she was able to fall into a fitful sleep.
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.