The Angel of Clemency pondered. His gift was the mercy of death, granted to those suffering beyond their capacity to endure; the gift was not to be given lightly. When, then, was it appropriate for usage on oneself?
Duriel closed his eyes tiredly. Four hours ago would have been a perfect time to deliver himself from agony. At two hours into the soiree, he had already reached the summit of his tolerance for idle social babble. At four, he had almost lost his composure when yet another young officer started a perfectly fascinating conversation about his supposed military bean-counting.
For the merciful, there truly was no mercy in this world.
Rubbing his eyes, Duriel exited the building, grateful for Shateiel's intervention. Her timing had been impeccable, assuring him with a calm glance that she would take care of the remainder of the social reconnaissance for the evening. His almost invisible answering smile of gratitude nearly made her laugh out loud as she led the aforementioned young officer away, giving Duriel an escape route.
It was too late; he had been working too late every night this week, it seemed. Now, finally, it was time to go home. Shateiel would report her findings tomorrow sometime, and they could collate a bit more data on prospective Fallen.
What could be more fun that going to a party specifically to watch for the depressed? Amused for a moment, Duriel imagined himself at the party, dour expression, barely contained boredom; seemingly a loner, a likely candidate for a Fall himself. Hopefully that didn't impugn the accuracy of his behavioral model for Fallen candidates.
Definitely time to go home, when jumping at shadows within oneself.
Duriel was so caught up in his thoughts of rest that he almost missed the figure siting on the bench to his right. As it was, he stopped short, making a scuffing sound on the pathway. At the small noise, the waifish figure looked up.
"Well good night, Master Duriel. Glad to know you've been enjoying the party."
Gabriel looked a bit irritated, he thought. Best to tread lightly. "I was under the impression, Gabriel, that you had gone off to the dormitories. You did, after all, leave some hours ago."
At this, Gabriel's eyes flashed. "Well, I was waiting for someone. Someone who dislikes parties, I've been told. But apparently I've been given incorrect information."
"One must be credulous only when the source is objectively reliable, apprentice," Duriel responded smartly.
"You told me. I suppose my trust was misplaced." Following this exclamation, Gabriel made a sharp noise and turned her head to the side, eyes closed.
Duriel studied her for a moment, caught up in the quick motion. She was wearing the same revealing dress as before, with her legs drawn up in front. Brown hair fell along her left shoulder, tossed about by her irritated gesture. Her neck curved gracefully, her head inclined away from him, lips pouting. For a moment, he almost reached out to turn her toward him. Fortunately, shaking himself mentally, he resisted the impulse, closing his eyes. Find your center, Duriel.
For a second, he concentrated. His newfound peace was interrupted by a scalding voice. "Aren't you even going to say anything in your defense?"
Caught off guard, both by the voice and the vision, Duriel faltered. "No. I would rather spend the time convincing you to get out of the cold. You do know how cold it is here, correct?"
She did. Gabriel drew her head down to her knees and hugged them to herself.
"It is cold, Master Duriel. But I've decided that I am not leaving."
"Not leaving?" Eyebrows raised, Duriel continued, "and why ever not, Gabriel?"
She looked directly into his eyes, disregarding her shivering shoulders, "I have received no apology."
"I suppose then that I am sorry for staying inside for so long, apprentice."
"That's not really a sufficient apology. I'm looking for some sincerity, Master Duriel." Gabriel appeared quite serious.
Duriel knew that she was quite stubborn enough to stay on the bench all night. She already had. She already looked more than mildly angry; she was always implacable when she was riled.
"Well? Can you not do any better, Master Duriel?" Her smile was quite sharp now, almost mocking. Something had to be done.
He would wonder, later, that he did not even look around beforehand, but then, he would wonder a great deal more than that. With neither forethought nor warning, Duriel leaned in and kissed Gabriel's lips, happy to note their change from smirking to shocked. Before they could move to something else, and as he began to think about it, Duriel realized he was afraid to find out exactly what they would change into, he pulled away, pleased, on some level, to note that her arms had fallen around him.
"I . . . Duriel, Duriel . . ." She began furtively, but he cut her off, pulling her to her feet.
"You are freezing to death out here; come with me, Gabriel." Duriel heard the awkward quickness of his speech, and took a deep breath. He walked toward his home, and Gabriel followed, her hand clutching his, an expression of shock on her face.
Their walk to his small living quarters was short and silent, neither of them wanting to remark on what had just occurred. A cold breeze played with Gabriel's hair; she failed to notice.
Taking a moment to steady himself, Duriel opened his door. Turning to Gabriel, he motioned her to go inside. After a pause, he realized that she was simply . . . staring at him.
"Gabriel, please go inside. I'll make a fire." Please, pay attention, apprentice.
Paying altogether too much attention to her mentor, Gabriel entered his quarters. As she remembered, it was a tiny affair, bare of most decoration. Duriel kept few memories enshrined in his residence, and only the most functional of furniture.
Shaking her head in an attempt to clear it, she walked to the chair at the far end of the room. Duriel locked the door and prepared the fireplace.
Concentrating on his task, Duriel did his best not to look at the girl sitting not more than a few feet away. Gathering kindling, he meticulously set a small arrangement of sticks underneath the logs, putting more effort into snapping the twigs than was perhaps necessary. That side was a bit uneven; perhaps one more bundle there would be serviceable. Would another log be too much? Perhaps after the rest catch, yes.
"Can I make some coffee, Master Duriel?" The voice startled him, causing Duriel to knock over his tiny bundle of sticks.
"Damn. Damn. Yes, Gabriel. Go ahead. Sorry, I did not hear you behind me." Did not hear her behind me? Yes. Did not hear her. Distracted. Duriel rebuilt his shattered log cabin.
"I'll just make it when the fire's ready, all right Master Duriel?" Gabriel's voice sounded shaky. Duriel supposed that he was not the only one off-balance.
Of course she was off-balance, what did you think? That she was going to take that kiss perfectly well in stride? Ignore it? No consequences at all? Sighing, Duriel lit the bundle and watched the logs crackle into orange flame.
She looked so very hopeful. He simply could not bring himself to shatter her illusions. "The coffee is quite serviceable, thank you Gabriel."
An expression of relief replaced the nervous tension on the young girl's face. "I'm glad, Master Duriel. I almost never cook anything!" She smiled, and it was well worth the burnt taste. At least the coffee served to clear his head somewhat.
The fire seemed to be doing her some good, although he noticed that she was reluctant to sample the coffee. At the very least, she had stopped shivering. She had her legs tucked beneath her again, he noticed. The dress, the red dress, was not covering quite enough for Duriel's taste, and it seemed out of place somehow; perhaps a different dress was what she needed. Blue? No, green. That was her color, the dress should have been green. Maybe then he would not have paid such close attention . . .
"Master Duriel? W-what are you staring at?" She sounded so surprised, as though it was astonishing that anyone should be looking at her.
Standing abruptly and clearing his throat, Duriel turned toward his small kitchen. "Gabriel, it is getting quite late now. I believe that you should get some rest. You can return to your dormitory in the morning." Stupid, stupid. The morning? How was he to occupy his hours between now and then?
"But where will I sleep?" She sounded so impish. Sleep was definitely not an option. He had to stay on guard.
"You may take the bed, apprentice. I find the armchair you're in quite comfortable." And you had better not say no.
"But Master Duriel, that's your bed!" She was standing up now, walking toward him. In the kitchenette, there was nowhere to run. "I don't mind sleeping in the chair."
Everything would be so much easier if she sounded less sincere. "Gabriel, you have had a very long night, and you need rest. Please get in the bed." Duriel did his best to sound stern.
Gabriel took a step forward and clasped her hands to her breast. "Master Duriel, please! I can tell you're tired as well, and I was the one who waited outside-"
"Gabriel, no," he interrupted quickly, anxious to move into the open space of the living area. "I want you to listen to me."
She took another step, now standing only inches away. "But it isn't fair . . ." Her pouting expression, initially serious, became amused. It occurred to Duriel that he was in danger of another kiss, and grabbed his apprentice's shoulders, trying not to notice the amused, hopeful gleam in her eyes.
"Go. To. Bed. Now, Gabriel. Please." Sincerity. Duriel sounded not so much authoritative as afraid, and Gabriel sensed it. She backed off into the living area, and toward the bed.
"All right, Master Duriel. I'll get in your bed if it upsets you so." Still smiling. Damn.
"Good. I'll just stay here by the fire. I'll wake you in a few . . . Gabriel!" He said sharply to the girl by his bedside, who was currently looking through a drawer.
"I'm only looking for a shirt, Master Duriel. I'm sorry! I can't sleep in the dress, after all." She smiled, and he stared for a moment before turning toward the corner.
"Please hurry, apprentice." Just don't think about the sound of soft cloth. Ignore it. Pretend you won't remember which shirt she wears this night, that you are not thinking about which she is choosing.
After a few moments of shuffling and the sound of cloth falling to the floor, Gabriel announced "All done!"
Duriel turned to look at her, before realizing that she did not, in fact, have on any pants. Of course, the shirt reached quite far down, but . . .
"Very well then, good night, apprentice. Sleep well." And soon, he thought furtively.
"You too, Master Duriel. You too." Her voice faded as she pulled the sheets around herself.
Duriel sat in the armchair formerly occupied by his teen-aged apprentice, and closed his eyes. Head back, arms folded, he thought for a moment that sleep just might claim him. Forget about the kiss, wake up and just be a Master to her Apprentice.
It was not to be.
Thinking about the kiss had been a bad idea. That led to thoughts of the red dress, and his shirt, and his bed, and his nubile fourteen year old charge. Bad trend. Sleep eluded Duriel for some time as he tried his best to think of other things, all of which invariably disappeared whenever he heard a soft sliding of cloth over skin, or a light sigh, or a small yawn.
Two people were far too many for Duriel's peace of mind. Accustomed to solitude, he dwelt on every sound, his hearing growing more acute with each passing moment of silence. He half-fancied he heard Gabriel's heartbeat, every third breath.
She had not had any problems going to sleep, it seemed. She had to be confused about the kiss, maybe even more confused than he was. Why did she find rest so easily? Was he over-analyzing an essentially frivolous and spontaneous event? Did he, perhaps, read more into his actions than was warranted? Maybe the loss of control meant nothing at all.
Was she really asleep? It seemed to him quite impossible that his young, impressionable apprentice, so well versed in misbehavior, would so completely ignore their kiss of just a few hours past. Everything he knew about Gabriel pointed to fraudulent sleep. She must be faking. She had to be.
There was simply no alternative. Duriel had to find out.
Duriel had never found his living quarters cramped, but he had selected them on the small side for purposes of safety. Smaller space means less open area, better security.
Or at least that is what he had thought before this evening.
Never had a simple four-walled structure felt so paradoxically minuscule and enormous. On the one hand, Gabriel had been far too close for comfort ever since the walked in, but now, as he rose from his chair, his bed seemed miles away. Tremendous caution was needed to ensure silence in the approach. If Gabriel was asleep, then he was loathe to wake her. If, on the other hand, she was, as he surmised, merely faking, then the only way to tell was to catch her in the act, up-close. Either way, his many evenings of tracking paid great dividends as he padded silently through the room.
He approached the bed from the right side, minimizing the walking distance. Squinting a bit in the firelight, he looked at his apprentice's face.
Her hair was in disarray, falling over the pillow and off the side of the mattress. She was facing away from him, her hands clasped beneath her cheek, legs tucked up under the blankets. His shirt, he noted, had moved (been pushed?) more than a few inches up since his last observation.
For a moment, he watched her breathe. He almost reached out a hand to touch her hair-- almost. Regaining control, he pulled back. Apparently, he had some misconceptions about Gabriel. She certainly looked lost in slumber.
Shaking his head, Duriel began to turn away.
A soft, lilting sigh stopped him dead. His heartrate, formerly resting, spiked to what seemed like two hundred beats per minute. Irrationally, he wondered if it would wake Gabriel.
He watched, frightened, as she rolled to the left, unable to move from his stooped pose for fear that she would awaken. Her eyes were still shut, he noted. Her head rested on her hair now, making a soft sound as she settled again, facing directly toward him.
Just when she seemed to have settled, and Duriel began to think about moving, her lips parted slightly, another soft sigh escaping.
For Duriel, bent over to observe her from no more than a foot away, tired, nervous, and heart beating wildly, it was simply too much.
He leaned forward, craned his neck, and kissed her. However, with her lips already parted, he could do little but deepen the kiss. He felt momentarily giddy as he leaned in further placing his hand on the bedside for balance. Then, he heard a whimper.
Not a whimper of pain or embarrassment, but of pleasure. More than a bit of pleasure, actually. More pleasure than Duriel was capable of dealing with, at any rate.
Breaking the kiss, he staggered back against the wall, breathing heavily. Gabriel sat up, lips and faced flushed, supporting herself with one hand, the other going to her face.
"Master Duriel, I . . ."
"No. No, Gabriel, no. I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry." Duriel almost hung his head downward, ashamed, before he noticed something. Something in Gabriel's bearing that was . . . a little less than traumatized, or afraid. In fact, as he regained his senses, he saw the corners of her mouth upturned in a smile.
"Don't be, Master Duriel! It's . . . ok with me." She lowered her head demurely, but, Duriel thought, a bit too quickly.
"Yes, Master?" She replied without raising her head.
"Were you asleep, just now?" Duriel stood straight, no longer relying on the wall.
"Well," she began, a tone of childish lecture in her voice, "I'm awake now!"
She smiled, and Duriel decided, grudgingly, to drop the subject. Confused? Yes. Happy? Also yes. Maybe that was enough for today.
"Where might I find your spatula, Master Duriel?" Duriel watched as an extremely energetic Gabriel moved around his kitchenette, happier than he had ever seen her. He had agreed to her rather abrupt request to prepare an early breakfast, since it was already almost six. It had been an eventful evening, and they could both use something to eat.
"I honestly do not know, Gabriel. I rarely eat here. Just look around; there's not all that much space to search."
"Ok, I found it!" Beaming, she began preparing eggs. Humming to herself, she began to make more coffee.
"How is it?" She looked so apprehensive. So fragile. "Please, tell me." Hopeful. "I want the truth, Master Duriel."
He had to lie.
"It's . . . just fine, Gabriel. Thank you very much." Strangely hard eggs, strangely burnt coffee. He'd had worse. Not that he planned on elaborating on his response.
"Really? It's bad, isn't it! Please, I promise I'll do better. I'm so sorry!" She looked horrified. Well, she had looked horrified when the eggs were "finished" earlier, too. He supposed that she was correct.
"You just need to practice, Gabriel. I'm sure you'll be a fine cook if you work hard." Yes, that was it. Focus on the future. Not the now, and not this evening past.
The second kiss was only an hour or so gone, but it did not feel far away, in time or space, with Gabriel and his bed nearby to remind him.
Still, along with his guilt, he felt strangely energized. Nevertheless, he did not intend to take advantage of his Mentor's daughter and his apprentice any further.
Even if she wanted him to do so.
Still, watching as Gabriel hummed to herself, washing his dishes, washing away the bad eggs, her smile seeming to grow brighter with each passing moment, he found his resolve weakening.
As he watched her scamper down the pathway toward the dormitories, he leaned against the doorframe. They had not spoken of either kiss. She had not even hugged him when she left.
Duriel watched Gabriel go, and realized his predicament. She was not going away from him. And he, for his part, did not want her to.
This was going to be a difficult apprenticeship.