An hour later, Sean finally did pinch himself.

He stood in his room, his hands pressed agains the holo-window, staring once again out over the false view but not seeing it at all. His mind hummed with emotion: happiness, relief, disbelief, and confusion raced around his head and had been doing so since they had left the hall. He still couldn’t quite believe that it was over.

He was half dragon, and he was going to live.

His mind kept going back to that moment after Lofwyr had cast his final vote—the vote that had lifted the cloud of dread that had hovered over Sean since the moment when Shaozu had arrived at the Golden Dragon Restaurant the night he had first met his father. For several seconds everyone had just stared in silence: some in surprise, some in shocked disbelief, some in outrage. Then from the box where he had been seated there had come a cheer—started by Kestrel, it had been quickly taken up by Ocelot and then Winterhawk. Then it had been minor-league pandemonium as all of them had left the box to run over and pull him into happy embraces. He’d looked at Gabriel then for a moment: his father was still on the dais next to Lofwyr and hadn’t made a move to come over, but Sean could see the relief and happiness shining in his eyes.

It was over.

Most of the dragons had left quickly after the vote was cast; some of them spoke to Gabriel, but none to Sean. He didn’t mind. In fact, right at that moment he was surprised to find that all he wanted was a little time to be alone, to digest everything that had occurred and come to terms with it. Kestrel and the others had thought his request to go off and change his clothes before rejoining them odd, but Gabriel had understood. Sean could see it in his eyes.

So now here he was, alone in his room while the others waited for him up in the main hall. He took a shower, got out of the unfamiliar suit and back into his beloved jeans and leather jacket, and spent the last few minutes just wandering around the suite in a daze. He supposed he should head out and meet up with the others, but—

“Sean?” The voice in the doorway was soft behind him. Gabriel.

His father.

Sean turned. Gabriel still wore the suit he’d worn at the vote; his expression was hard to read. “Hi.”

“Do you mind if I come in?”

Sean shook his head. “C’mon in. I’m just—” He realized he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, so he spread his arms and shrugged.

“I understand.” Gabriel came over and leaned on the edge of the room’s small table. He sighed. “Sean, I wish you hadn’t had to go through all of this. I wish I could have spared you.”

Sean turned back to face his father, noting how serious he looked. “It’s okay,” he said, and as he said it he knew it was true. “At least it’s over now.”

Gabriel nodded. “Yes. It is over.” His expression got even more serious. “You should not have done what you did, you know.”

“Why not? It worked, didn’t it?”

“We will never know that,” Gabriel said soberly. “It is possible that Lofwyr planned to vote as he did all along. Probable, in fact. I doubt that you could have swayed him had he chosen otherwise.”

Sean pushed himself off the window and moved to perch on the edge of the bed. “But we’ll never know. Maybe it did help.”

“I would not have allowed you to do it.”

Sean started to say something, to protest, but as he did it occurred to him that it didn’t matter anymore. He shrugged. “It’s over now. There’s not much point in going over it at this point, is there?”

Gabriel paused a long moment, then sighed. “No, I suppose not.”

“Besides, from what I hear you would have done the same thing, wouldn’t you?”

This time Gabriel didn’t answer. Instead, he changed the subject. “The others are waiting. Would you like to join us? The spirits are preparing a light lunch before we’re due to leave for the airport.”

Sean nodded. He looked up at his father. “Are they all gone? The dragons, I mean?”

“Most of them. Many of them had pressing business that this Council meeting interrupted.”

“Who’s still here?”

“Aside from our own group—Neferet and Uneki have remained, at least for a short while.”

“What about Minhailreth?” For the first time, Sean smiled a little.

Gabriel returned the smile. “She is gone. She apologized, but she had to return to her people. We have said our goodbyes. She asked me to tell you she is very proud of you and hopes the two of you might have the chance to meet formally some day. She was impressed by your courage.” He paused a moment, and when he spoke again the words sounded almost reluctant: “As was I.”

Sean ducked his gaze. Even at this point, an hour after the vote was done, he still didn’t know what had possessed him to make his impassioned speech. He certainly hadn’t planned it. He’d been as surprised as everyone else in the room when he’d left his seat and jumped over that railing. All he knew was that it had been almost a physical compulsion that had driven him to do it—a feeling that all of these people, especially his father, had made great sacrifices for him and it wasn’t right for him to allow those sacrifices to be in vain without even trying to help. Even if the vote had gone his way without his plea, he knew he would never have felt right about himself afterward. “So,” he said after an awkward silence, “What happens now?”

Gabriel didn’t answer right away. He pushed himself off the edge of the table and began pacing the room. “You are no longer in any danger from the dragons. All of them know you and it is the will of the Council that you be spared, so you have no need to worry that you will be harassed any longer.”

“Even the ones who voted against us?”

Gabriel nodded. “All of them know that to defy the will of the Council is a grave matter indeed. If it were ever proven that they did so, they would find themselves in deeper trouble than we faced today.”

“So this isn’t a banishment offense?”

“It would be up to another Council to decide, of course, but the punishment for directly defying such an edict would be significant.”

Sean nodded slowly. “Okay. All the same, though, I think I’ll try to stay out of their way. Some of those dragons looked like they wanted to fry me where I stood.”

“A minority, but yes,” Gabriel said. “A wise decision, I think.” He nodded toward the door. “Come. We can talk further at lunch—the others are waiting for us.”

Sean nodded. “Yeah. Suddenly I’m hungry again.” As Gabriel turned to cross the room, he said quickly, “Dad?”

The young man turned back, tilting his head questioningly.

“Thanks. This is all pretty strange and I’m still getting my head around the fact that I’m not just having the world’s most convoluted dream, but I appreciate what you’ve done. You didn’t have to do it, but you did.”

“Of course I had to do it,” Gabriel said softly. “You are my son.” He smiled a little. “But I would have done it regardless of obligation. I’m honored that you are my son. I could not be more proud of the man you’ve become.”

Sean felt a slight blush rising on his cheeks and ducked his head to hide it. “C’mon,” he said a little gruffly. “Let’s get down there before Ocelot eats all the good stuff.”

“So you’ve done it. I knew you would—it was just a matter of the particulars.” Winterhawk grinned as he finished putting together a plate of meat and fish for Maya.

The dining room was deserted now except for their party, who were seated around a large table in the center of the room. Spirits flitted around filling water glasses and carrying off empty food trays, nearly unnoticed by those at the table.

“Damn straight,” Ocelot agreed. There was admiration in his tone. “That was quite a stunt you pulled, kid. I don’t think I’d’ve had the guts to stand up to all those dragons that way.”

“Yeah you would have,” Sean told him. He had just arrived and taken his place at the table between Gabriel and Kestrel. He looked around at the all the faces, including Neferet and Uneki, who were regarding him proudly. “Hey, listen—would it be okay if we didn’t talk about that anymore right now? Now that it’s over I’d like to concentrate on what’s coming up, not what’s already happened.”

Gabriel nodded. His eyes showed approval. “I think that would be fine.” Next to him, Kestrel’s eyes were shining with love and pride. She hadn’t said much after her war-whoop cheer following the vote’s end, but she hadn’t needed to. Her face showed everything that needed to be said.

“So then,” Winterhawk continued. “What are your plans for the future, Sean? Still planning to start at Georgetown in the fall?”

Sean sighed. This was something he hadn’t had time to think about in quite awhile, and now that the immediate threat was past he hadn’t the faintest idea what he wanted to do. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “It doesn’t seem quite—right, after all this. But I don’t know what does.”

“You’ve got time,” Ocelot said. “Not like you couldn’t take a year off—or more—to figure out where you want to go, if you want to.”

Sean nodded, then looked at Gabriel. “Did you mean what you said about my having powers?”

Gabriel inclined his head. “Now that you know your true nature, I will of course remove the spells that hide your natural dragonkin abilities, and help you learn to use them if you wish.”

“I’d like that,” Sean said gratefully. “I mean, having powers like that is great, but I don’t want to end up fireballing some poor slot at the mall because he grabbed the last Irina Azure sim.”

Gabriel started to say something, then smiled and shook his head. “No, that wouldn’t do at all.”

Sean chuckled, but then grew serious again. He looked around at the others: Ocelot, Winterhawk, Neferet, Uneki. “I will get to see you guys again, right? You aren’t going to just disappear back to where you come from and drop out of sight?”

Ocelot grinned. “Try to keep us away, kid.”

Winterhawk, too, smiled. “I think we’ve all got a vested interest in keeping track of your progress, my friend.”

Kestrel nodded. “And as for me—I’ve been out of your life for eighteen years, so I think we’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for.” She looked at Gabriel. “Right?”

“Indeed,” Gabriel agreed solemnly.

Sean smiled. Leaning back in his chair, he looked around the sumptuous dining room. Almost of its own accord, his hand reached up, his fingers clasping gently around the golden dragon he wore around his neck. His mind flitted over images: the Hunters, high school, Bainbridge, his old home, Jay, Althea, Sensei Watanabe—all those people and things seemed like they had been part of him a lifetime ago, but nonetheless he still felt a warmth from the memories. Yes, his life had changed—probably more drastically than those of most 18-year-olds around—but now that he had the whole story he didn’t feel like he was closing one door and opening another. Instead, he perceived his life more like a tapestry, or maybe like his beloved old leather jacket: the past was woven there, painted as a background that would color everything that was to come in the future. The present and everything he had to look forward to would be there too, adding its colors, blending with what had been to create the picture. He looked around at the faces of his friends again and realized it was going to be a beautiful picture indeed. Strange, but beautiful.

He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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