Despite a lack of manpower, the Wardens were prepared for just about anything, be it vampire attack, legions of zombies, or the sudden appearance of a demigod.
They were not prepared for an angry young man to come storming through the door, completely ignoring the grey-cloaked figures with swords, and demand to see their boss. Loudly.
"You can't see her!" the desperate young Warden on door-duty said, as he backed towards the Commander's door. "She's very, very busy!"
"Ask me if I give a rat's ass!" the young man snarled back, heading towards the door the Warden was backing into. "I'm going to see her, and you're going to get the fuck out of my way if you know what's best for you!"
"You can't," he began, just as the door burst open and a petite, pretty woman bellowed, "What the hell is going on out there?"
The boy blinked and looked down. "You're the Warden Commander?"
She scowled, and barked to the office at large, "Who let him in?"
"We did try to stop him," the poor apprentice volunteered. "Several times. Sorry, Commander."
"Yeah, not their fault," the intruder agreed before crossing his arms over his chest. "And I will gladly be on my merry as soon as you tell me where the hell you lot stashed Gabrielle!"
Luccio blinked, and a blank expression crossed her face. "Who?"
Brown eyes narrowed. "Gabrielle Benske. She'd be about fourteen now. You bastards took her away two years ago."
"Benske, Benske..." The name seemed familiar, something she'd heard years ago. Luccio mouthed something for a moment, her eyes distant and unfocused, then shook her head. "I'd have to look through my files, and I want to know just who you are to be asking that question before I do." She crossed her arms, immobility clear in her posture.
He stared at her unflinchingly, meeting her eyes. Luccio had seen enough souls by now to stare back, unblinkingly. She didn't like it, but if this boy expected her to hand over a child's whereabouts, he had better be ready for a soulgaze.
His eyes widened a fraction of a second before the soulgaze began, and then she could see a tired, wounded lion cub, searching relentlessly through a forest for something. It ignored or fought the predators that went after it, and in the doing became stronger. Sometimes it would group temporarily with others, only to split away and resume the search once more.
She blinked, shook her head, and caught the doorframe for temporary support while she rearranged her mind to handle reality. Interesting, that searching... "You've been looking for her." It was not a question.
"Ever since she vanished," was the quiet reply. The boy looked shaken by whatever he'd seen in her soul, but he maintained his aggressive posture. The anger was still present as well, but under tighter control.
Luccio looked at him, then over his shoulder at the office full of extremely interested Wardens. "Don't you all have work to do?" she snapped, and under cover of the bustle that followed, said, "Come into my office."
He followed her in silently, pulling his worn coat tighter against him. Despite everything, he looked nervous.
Her files were in order for once in the bins lining the back of her office, though it had taken five apprentices two weeks to get them straight. She found the girl's file, sat down at her desk and went through it quickly; suspected abuse, burnout, transference to a safe home, with her own old mentor, as it happened, which was why the name had sounded familiar. Nothing the boy could change or help, and where was he in the file, if he'd been looking for her for two years? She closed the folder and stared at him.
He stared right back at her. "Well?" He was not going to leave without answers.
"Why?" she asked, simply.
"Because I'm the only person in the world who gives a shit about her," he replied. A pause, then pain entered his eyes. "And because she asked me not to leave and I told her I'd see her tomorrow and went home. And came back the next day and her house was gone."
"You are not the only person who cares about that child," Luccio replied crisply; one of the things in the file had been a summary of Saul's increasingly emotional reports about the girl. "She's in a safe place."
He leaned forward, putting both hands on her desk. "Tell me where." It was not a request.
Mildly insulted by the--well, she might as well call it an order, Luccio drew herself up and stared pointedly at his hands. "Excuse me," she said, in the deadly calm voice that caused apprentices and Wardens alike to break into a cold sweat. "I don't think I will."
He moved his hands, but he did not back down. "I'm not leaving until I find out where she is."
"Yes, you are," she said. "Listen, boy. The girl you knew is dead. The child was soulgazed by one of my best Wardens, and there is nothing left, just an empty shell. She burned herself out, do you understand that? Give up."
"No." He all but snarled the word. "I will not give up on her. And if I have to knock on every goddamned door in the country to find her, I will fucking do it."
"Gods save me from sentimental brats," she muttered, audibly, and glared at him. "You will do neither yourself nor her any good."
"You said she was a shell." The boy's tone showed that he didn't believe her. "How will me seeing her hurt?"
"Because she is a shell," Luccio snapped. "There is nothing left of the girl you knew. All you'll do is hurt yourself and leave her no better off than you found her. Get out of my office."
"Not until you tell me where she is," he snapped back, venomously. "I've got the run-around from every single one of you goddamned grey cloaks I've found, and I'm fucking sick of it! I'm not leaving unless it is to see her."
"And if I tell you flat-out that I won't let you see her?" she asked. She was tempted to just give him the address and wish him to hell, but Saul did not deserve this young man descending on him so abruptly.
"Then I will sit down in the middle of the office and not move until someone gets sick of me and takes me where I want to go. Or I steal the files and find her myself." His eyes bored into hers. "Gabrielle is everything to me."
Luccio threw her hands in the air. "Fine," she said. "Buffalo, New York, Wizard Saul Rosenburg. Now get the hell out of my office and don't come back."
"I won't be back," he growled. "From what I've seen of you Wardens, I'm not impressed." That said, he stalked out of the room and from there the building. He managed to somehow slam the building door behind him.
Luccio stared into the space where he had been for a moment, then said, out loud and venomously, "Heads. Will. Roll."
The Wardens outside suddenly found reasons to be elsewhere.
Saul had settled Gabrielle in her daily spot on the couch, and braided a blue silk ribbon into her hair for a little color contrast against the daylight. He'd thought she might like to look out at the garden, since it really was a beautiful spring morning, so he'd opened the curtains for her, and she almost blended into the light. Poor lost little girl... his throat tightened, and he welcomed the knock on the door as a distraction.
He opened the door to find a scruffy-looking young man in worn clothes standing there, bouncing from foot to foot somewhat impatiently. "Are you Saul Rosenburg?" he blurted.
"Yes," he said, cautiously, closing the door just a bit more to hide Gabrielle from sight. If this boy was from the Red Court... "How may I help you?"
"My name's Lionel," he said. "I... I'm a friend of Gabrielle's."
The blank shock must have shown on his face, however briefly. The Wardens said she had no one left... so who was this boy, then? "What do you want with her?" he asked, coldly.
"To see her," was the soft reply. "I've been looking for her since the Wardens took her away."
Saul glanced over his shoulder, at the child who not moved on her own, much less spoken, since before he'd taken her in, and looked back at the boy. "I'm afraid you won't find much here," he said.
Brown eyes narrowed. "I'm not leaving until I see her. And so help me, if you try to stop me too..."
The older man sighed. "I'm not trying to stop you, boy. I'm only trying to warn you. I have been caring for her for three years, and I..." He had to pause while his throat closed again, and in the end could only say, "She will not recover."
"I. Don't. Care." The words were snapped out. "I love her, Rosenburg. Like she's my sister."
Saul had been worried about her, what would happen to her when he died. If she lived that long. He swallowed down the fear, and opened the door further. "Come inside, then."
All the building aggression in the young man's frame instantly drained. "Thank you," he said softly, following him inside.
"Save your thanks," Saul replied, and gestured to where Gabrielle sat unmoving, looking sightlessly out the window.
The boy paused, then resumed walking to her. "Hey, kid," he said quietly, crouching beside her. His voice had changed - there was affection there now. "It's me. Lionel."
She did not respond, and Saul closed his eyes. He hadn't known he was hoping until the hope died.
The boy didn't stop, however. He continued to talk with her, some small chat of something amusing that had happened in the past. When he finished his tale, he reached into his bag and pulled a plush lion from it. "I meant to give you this three years ago," he told her then, settling it on her lap and gently moving her hands so that she held it. He then rose to his feet and kissed her forehead. "Happy late birthday, Gabrielle." His voice cracked.
The wizard had to swallow hard to keep from crying, and in the end he couldn't even look at the children. We failed, he thought, over and over, we failed and we failed both of them... "I'm sorry," he said, at last. "I'm so sorry."
Lionel stroked her hair before turning to Rosenburg. "What the hell happened?" he asked. "She was all right when I left, but when I came back on her birthday..."
He shrugged. "We're not sure, exactly. The Wardens got a call early on New Year's Day that suggested someone had broken a law. They came to the house and found her like that, and she's been that way ever since." He gestured in Gabrielle's direction without looking at her. "Complete burnout. I've been taking care of her."
Lionel sighed. "If I have to break some heads to get the story from someone--" He cut himself off with a headshake, looking at Gabrielle again. "...can I borrow your phone? I promised her neighbour I'd call when I found her."
"What story?" Saul asked, and shook his own head. "Never mind, that can wait. The phone is in the kitchen."
The boy disappeared to hold a hushed conversation, then reappeared looking annoyed. "Thanks," he said despite that, sitting down on the floor next to Gabrielle.
"Is something the matter?" Saul asked, and added, "I expect you to explain that earlier remark. I don't like mysteries in my house."
Lionel waved a hand. "I got the neighbour's dad. He's kinda absent-minded. I hope he remembers to give her the message. As for the story..." He craned his head to look up at the girl. "I never found out what happened to her. Why she disappeared, why her house exploded."
"Oh," Saul said. "Why didn't you say so? She is...maybe was...a wizard. She used everything she had destroying her house and killing her family. Essentially, she did it to herself." He shrugged. "Though I believe the Wardens think it was a side effect of something else she was trying to do. Since she cannot tell us, we cannot be sure."
Lionel was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "Fuck," and buried his face in his hands.
The wizard blinked, and let silence fall for a moment. "Perhaps you can clear up a mystery," he said, cautiously. "I assume you have some idea why she would have done that."
"I think she was abused." His voice, coming through his hands, was muffled. "She was a little scared of me when we first met. And she'd flinch all the time... She'd get bruises from time to time and never say where she got them. Oh, God."
This time, the silence was Saul's fault. He couldn't help being horrified; he'd been correct, but God, why hadn't someone noticed? Why hadn't someone done something? Anyone, any of them...
After a frozen moment, he crossed over to Gabrielle. "Excuse me," he said to her, gently, and bent her forward a bit, then lifted up the back of her shirt and touched the shooting-star scar that curved across the back of her ribs, away from her spine. "Have you ever seen this before?" he asked Lionel.
The boy looked up, and then went completely still. "No," he said, his voice somewhat strangled. "No, I haven't."
"I have," Saul said, his voice quiet. "On her, and on a young man I knew in the Wardens. He got it from a broken bottle in a bar fight. Since little children are not often in bars, I have to wonder where she acquired hers."
The boy's hands clenched into fists. "Damn it. Damn it. I should have called Child Services. Something."
Saul privately agreed, but no use hurting the boy more. "It's the past," he said. "You cannot change the past. Think on why you did not, and then do not make that mistake in the future." He tucked Gabrielle's shirt back in and raised her again, then rested his hand on her hair for a moment. "This is the present, unfortunate as it may be, and this is what you must face."
Lionel was silent again for a long moment, then he ventured, "Do... you need any help looking after her?"
"Oh, yes," he lied. "I am an old man, you understand, and though she really isn't that much trouble, it can be so difficult sometimes." It was clear to Saul at least that Lionel wanted desperately to stay, and who was he to deny him? It was only a little lie, after all.
Lionel smiled sadly. "I gave up everything to find her," he said quietly. "I'm not going to abandon her now that I have."
Saul nodded, unsurprised. "The second door on the left is her room," he said. "The third is empty. Feel free to take it. I am going to make breakfast." And with that, he got up and shuffled into the kitchen, feeling unreasonably lighthearted.
Several months later, Saul had taken Gabrielle outside to wait for Lionel, since it really was a beautiful evening. Cool, but not too chilly to sit outside, and fireflies lit the front garden and danced above the walk. He passed the time naming the stars for her as they came out, and tried very hard not to be too sad.
Lionel had been a great help, even after he found his own apartment and job; the boy had taken over as much of Gabrielle's care as he physically could in the time available. Saul was rather guiltily pleased with the situation, as it meant he no longer had to do the difficult, hard things, but he consoled himself with the thought that he was still willing to do them. Anyway, he hadn't asked Lionel to do anything. The boy had simply begun, and Saul had not stopped him.
Gabrielle seemed pleased, anyway, or he thought she did, if she recognized anything around her. Lionel was as fussy as an overprotective older brother, gentle and loving, and all anyone could have wished for in a caretaker.
Saul felt something around his heart tighten. At least Gabrielle would always have someone to care for her.
The moon had risen completely as Lionel came walking up, looking tired and annoyed. On seeing Gabrielle and Saul waiting, however, a grin moved across his face, and he waved to them.
"Evening," Saul called, and waved back. "How was work?"
In the trees across the road, a night bird went abruptly silent.
"Tiring," Lionel replied. "People are idio-" he cut himself off, frowning.
Saul frowned as well, reflexively. "What is it?" he asked. He'd learned to trust Lionel's instincts in the weeks and months he'd known him.
"It's quiet," the young man said softly. He tipped his head to one side, listening. "I can't hear the birds any more."
...that was not good. Saul rose, and tugged gently on Gabrielle's elbow to make her rise as well. "Come inside," he said, to Lionel, and turned the girl around.
"Right," Lionel replied, slipping out of his jacket. His eyes darted around the area as he retreated backwards.
Saul felt the vampire a split second before it exploded out of the trees; long enough to shove Gabrielle backwards towards the front door. She tripped and fell, and he could not get her up; falling to his knees, he pulled her into his arms and shielded her with his body. Death curse, he could use his death curse, but he had to think fast and the vampire was coming towards them too quickly...
A roar cut through the night air, and a long tawny body sprang from the side, catching the vampire mid-lunge and knocking it off course.
The vampire (Red Court, Saul noted, now that he had time to think rather than just react) rolled and sprang to its feet, snarling, its flesh mask gone. The wizard instinctively gathered Gabrielle closer and pushed her face into his chest. She should not see that. And where was Lionel, and what was that other thing... a panther? A cougar?
The large cat snarled, whirling to face the vampire; Saul could just barely make out a large brown mane around its neck. It remained between the vampire and its intended prey, making threatening noises. Now that it wasn't blurring in motion, Saul could see the rags of clothing hanging off the animal.
...oh. So that was where Lionel was.
Speechless, he held Gabrielle and watched; as the vampire leaped again, as the lion jumped on it and tore it to bits. Even when it was over, all he could do was hold Gabrielle and stare.
The threat gone, the lion turned to face Saul and Gabrielle, then changed back to an angry-looking, naked Lionel. "Let's go in," he said quietly.
"...yes," Saul managed, at last, and got to his feet with a groan. Falling had not been kind to his old bones. He helped Gabrielle up, carefully, and steered her inside to her familiar spot on the couch, all the while looking away from Lionel.
Lionel maintained his distance - and locked the door behind him - then disappeared into the guest room where he stayed in the beginning, and again when Gabrielle had once taken a turn for the worse, and came back dressed.
Saul heard his footsteps coming down the hall and did not look at him. "That's an interesting skill you have," he said, carefully, and busied himself fussing over a slight scrape on Gabrielle's right hand.
"I threw myself in over my head when I went to look for her," Lionel said quietly. "If I hadn't learned to change, I wouldn't have survived this long."
"I suppose," Saul said, and he did mean it--the magical underworld was a dark and dangerous place, not for the unwary. "Unusual to be so dedicated." So dedicated and yet...
"I failed her. She asked me not to leave and I left and oh, God..."
"Why?" Saul demanded, finally turning to face him. "Why did you leave her? Why didn't you tell Child Services? Thank you for saving me, by the way, but answer the questions. You'll have to someday and it might as well be now."
The boy looked at him, unusually calm for the loaded questions. "Because I wasn't sure she was being abused. Because I had no evidence as such. And I didn't know if they would believe me if I called them and told them I thought a girl I knew was being abused but had no proof of this."
Saul waved a dismissive hand. "If you say so, but are you satisfied with that answer? Child Services is more usually known for being trigger-happy."
The boy shook his head in silence, his gaze resting on the small child.
"Then why?" he asked, again, somewhat more gently this time. "You must answer yourself in the end, Lionel. My curiosity has nothing to do with it. Neither does she, in the end."
The next answer was several moments in coming, and eventually came out as a whisper. "I didn't want to lose her."
Ah. And he must be berating himself for selfishness. "There," Saul said. "Now, can you forgive yourself?" He glanced at Gabrielle. "She is gone beyond recalling. She cannot do it for you."
Lionel mutely shook his head and moved to kneel by the girl, wrapping his arms gently around her. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," he said quietly. "Oh, Christ, I'm sorry."
In a rare calm moment between crises, Anastasia Luccio decided to see how the girl was doing. It was odd that she'd forgotten Gabrielle Benske, in hindsight; she was a bit of a unique case, after all, and Luccio occasionally sent Wardens around to see the child as an object lesson in what not to do if one could avoid it. Besides, it had been a while since she'd seen her old master. She took the next group herself.
Saul's porch trembled as she and the five apprentices climbed up the stairs, and she made a mental note to have someone check it for termites. It would do him no good if his house collapsed on him. She knocked, and knocked again with a frown when no one answered in a timely fashion.
Finally, the door opened to reveal a young, dark-skinned man without a shirt and holding a hammer. "Can I he--" he started to stay, but stopped and stared.
Her two female and one gay male apprentices tittered until she shot them a glare, then returned her gaze to the boy. She knew him. Oh, she knew him. "We're here to see Gabrielle Benske," she said, and grinned with absolutely no humor.
One eyebrow went up. "You, Madam Commander, have got to be shitting me," he announced, ignoring the apprentices.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I am not," she said, and made a shooing motion. "Move aside now, there's a good boy."
He hooked the hammer through a belt loop and crossed his muscular arms over his chest, still ignoring the apprentices. "Yeah, don't think so. Why are you and the glee club here?"
She gave him a flat look. "To see the girl," she said. "I believe I made that clear." The apprentices could handle themselves, she decided, and followed his example. Even if those three were tittering once more (and she hoped to never hear Oliver titter again; it was downright unnerving).
"Yeah, that part I gathered. Why?"
"Because," she said, speaking loud enough for the apprentices to hear in an attempt to sober them a little, "she is a mistake. One we hope to never make again. Am I clear?"
There was silence from the young man for a moment, then he stepped aside.
Luccio shepherded the apprentices in, clipping Oliver briefly about the ear when he refused to stop staring at the boy, and grouped them around the girl. "This is Gabrielle Benske," she said, briskly. "You've all read the file. Now tell me what you would do for her."
The young man, apparently unconcerned, leaned against a wall and watched them silently.
She sighed, and said, "Oliver. What would you do with this girl?"
He blinked. "Uh. Well, she isn't going to recover, so, uh...I don't know, put her in foster care somewhere? I mean, surely Wizard Rosenburg has better things to do."
Behind them, the man (whose name she still did not know) let out a not very discreet cough.
Luccio, who had a rather sadistic streak at times, raised an eyebrow at him. "You have something to say?"
He gave her an innocent look. "I was wondering if the fashion plate might elaborate on his opinion."
"Indeed," Luccio said, and turned to her nattily-dressed apprentice. "Oliver?"
Oliver scratched an ear and flicked a nervous glance between her and the boy. "Uh, well, we're at war, Commander, and she isn't going to get better. We need every resource we've got. I was just thinking we should find someplace better for her, like...I don't know, they've got schools and stuff for disabled kids, someplace like there."
"I thought Rosenburg was retired," the young man mused aloud, staring at the ceiling. "Not to mention he's old, even for you lot."
"Kindly remember, children, that Saul Rosenburg taught me magic when I was but a wee little thing, and he was old then," Luccio told her apprentices, taking an unholy glee in the uncomfortable look on the faces of all the apprentices except one of the girls. "How, Oliver, would he be useful in the field?"
"Not in the field, Commander," he replied, and she gave him a few points for quick wits. "For teaching tactics or such. Helping with the war effort in other ways."
"If he knows any tactics," the young man muttered, not softly. "He might not, you know."
Oliver lost his temper then. "There are other ways to help!" he snapped at the boy. "We need him doing something besides looking after a useless burned-out kid!"
Luccio slapped him across the back of the head and opened her mouth to rebuke him, but the young man got there first.
His fist drove across the apprentice's jaw, flooring him. "Did it ever occur to you, Fashion Plate, that maybe somebody cares about that 'useless burned-out kid'?"
One of the girls jumped to Oliver's defense, and was midway through a spell when Luccio roared, "Enough! All of you! Idiot children and not a brain to share between you!" She hauled Oliver up by the collar and shook him hard. "You should know better than to lose your temper and you--" she rounded on the young man-- "will apologize for hitting one of my apprentices. Now."
The boy looked prepared to be stubborn, then ground out, "I'm sorry for hitting one of your apprentices." Unsaid but clearly heard was even though the son of a bitch deserved it.
"Oliver," she snapped, and he mumbled something incoherent. Since his jaw was currently turning a fascinating shade of purple and green, Luccio was prepared to let that stand. "The rest of you. Stop being idiots. Eva, why didn't you say anything?"
Eva, the one girl who hadn't been nodding in agreement while Oliver spoke, jumped, then said, very quietly, "Because he's right. We made a mistake and we should atone for it."
The young man paused in massaging his hitting hand to give her a grateful look. Then he said softly, "The Wardens weren't the only one to screw up in her case."
Eva smiled shyly back, and Luccio decided to break it up before she lost an apprentice. "Correct, Eva," she said. "We have responsibility for this girl. You do remember what responsibility is, children? It's the reason we're in this war to begin with. We have a responsibility to protect people, and not just against the vampires. Remember that."
The young man shouldered between Oliver and a nameless apprentice to check on Gabrielle and make sure the visit and the near-fight hadn't disturbed her.
Luccio eyed him, the way the little girl's muscles had all tensed at once, and the expressions on her apprentices that ranged from mulish to blushing, and decided they'd been there more than long enough. "Out, children," she told them, then made a half-bow in the young man's direction. "Thank you for your time, and you may return to my office at any time now."
He glanced back at her and smiled. "Because I'm not going to be forcing my way past everyone who tries stopping me?"
"I would hope not," she said, dryly. "I would also imagine that they have not forgotten you from last time. Do give my regards to Saul."
"Sure thing. Shut the door on your way out." His eyes flashed to Eva, and then he turned back to the little girl.
That last glance was not lost on Luccio. She rolled her eyes as she shepherded the apprentices out, and decided that the next lecture (after the one on keeping one's temper) would be on personal involvement and how to manage it. She had a feeling at least one of the children would be needing it.
The visit over, Lionel returned to working on the backyard porch, though his mind was churning over the visit. He hit his thumb twice with a hammer before he replaced the vision of Eva in his head with that of the fashion plate, which got the anger going. An hour after Luccio had left, he swore, tossed the hammer on the porch, and walked inside to Gabrielle.
"I refuse to believe you're gone," he told her quietly, kneeling in front of her and looking into her eyes, knowing perfectly well he was about to trigger a soulgaze.
She stared back, unblinking, lifeless, until the soulgaze kicked in, a sudden snap into a reality completely divorced from the everyday.
The world fractured about him into a crazy-quilt of colors and shapes that gradually muted themselves until there was nothing left but white mist, and before him, a splintered mirror. He was not reflected in the mirror, nor was the mist; instead a mannequin of Gabrielle lay shattered on a black marble floor. And yet...her face was mostly intact, and as Lionel watched, she opened her eyes and looked back.
His eyes widened, and he whispered, "Gabrielle?" And then the mirror was gone, and the mannequin as well, and he was looking into her blue eyes.
She was shaking, and blinking, her mouth slightly open, breathing in tight little sobs that escalated into one tiny word, in a voice rusted from years of disuse; "L-Lionel?"
"Gabrielle," he whispered, his every instinct screaming for him to hug her, but at the same time afraid that he might shatter her if he touched her.
She reached out a trembling hand to touch his face, her fingers coming to rest just below his cheekbone. "What...where..." Then, abruptly, her small face crumpled and she flung herself into his arms, sobbing.
His arms automatically went around her, and he hugged her as tightly as he dared. "Shhh, Gabi, shhh," he whispered, rocking her gently. "It's all right. It's all right."
"It h-hurts..." she sobbed, clinging tight enough to leave bruises. "It hurts, it hurts, make it stop hurting!"
"What hurts?" he asked her, not caring how tightly she was holding onto him.
"My h-head..." She pressed her face into his shoulder, still shaking.
Gently, he stroked her hair. "Do you want me to get you some aspirin, Gabrielle?"
She gasped, cried, "No!" and clung harder. "No, no, don't go..." She coughed.
Alarmed, he held her a little tighter. "I won't leave you. I won't leave you again, baby. I promise."
"Don't leave me," she whispered, her voice sore and rusty. "Don't leave me."
"I won't," he told her, standing up with her in his arms. "I'll take you with me. Do you want aspirin?"
Gabrielle appeared to have run out of words. She nodded, and sniffed pathetically, but her tears were slowing, and her bruising grip had relaxed a little.
He walked with her to the kitchen, snagging the aspirin from its place and getting her a glass of water. "Here," he said soothingly, sitting her down in a chair. He kept one hand on her at all times, as if afraid that if he stopped touching her she would fade away.
She clung to that hand, desperately, and though she said nothing more, silent tears rolled steadily down her face. The water and aspirin she took quickly and then abandoned the half-full glass; for a moment she stared out over the table in an echo of the catatonia.
After a moment, Lionel asked her quietly, "How's your head now, little one?"
Her free hand came up and touched her temple, and she said, hoarsely, "'Kay." She looked up at him then with a question in her eyes, and tilted her head just a hair to the side.
"What is it?' he asked in response to the question.
Gabrielle waved her free hand around in a distracted, swooping motion, then made a concentrated effort and said, "Everything."
He almost asked her what she remembered, then changed his mind. "We're in Buffalo, New York. Wizard Rosenburg has been... looking after you for a long time."
She needed another sip of water before she could talk again. "Who? How?"
Lionel chose his next words carefully. "You've been... out of it for three years, Gabrielle."
Absolute shock erased her expression, then horror began to filter in. She mouthed "three," and her hand closed convulsively on his.
Lionel stood and hugged her, tightly. "But you're okay now."
"I did..." She had frozen again. "I did..."
Lionel fell silent, still holding her. He wasn't sure what had happened that night, but he wasn't sure he wanted to find out now.
He didn't want her to relive whatever had caused her to burn out.
"They were screaming," she said, finally, and began to shake again. "I can still hear screaming."
"Gabi...," he whispered, holding her closer and stroking her hair.
She let go of him and wrapped her arms across her chest, rocking slightly in his hold. The tears increased and she still made no noise, drawing into herself tighter and tighter, slipping away again.
Lionel lifted her in his arms like she was a little girl and not fourteen years old. "Gabrielle, it's okay, you're safe now," he told her, his voice cracking. "You're safe. I'm here with you."
When she spoke, it was more a wail. "But I did--I killed--"
"It wasn't your fault," Lionel told her, having no idea if that was true or not. "Do you hear me? It was not your fault."
"Mama said..." she gulped off the rest, wound her arms tighter around her chest as if to squeeze herself smaller. Every muscle was tense; she held herself away from him by sheer will only.
"What did she say?" and it was an effort to keep his voice calm as he carried her from the kitchen back to the warmer, more comforting living room.
Gabrielle turned her face away and said something so softly that it was inaudible. Lionel could just barely make out the word "worthless."
Rage flashed through him, but he kept it out of his body language by sheer effort. "You're not worthless, Gabrielle," he told her as he sat down with her still in his arms.
"I killed--" she started, her voice spiraling up into a wail again.
Gently, he put a hand over her mouth. "It was not your fault, Gabrielle."
She shook her head and closed her eyes, tears squeezing out from beneath her eyelids. "Please don't hate me," she begged, relaxing just a little into his touch. "Please don't leave me."
He smiled at her. "I spent two and a half years looking for you, Gabrielle. I don't hate you, and I'll certainly never leave you." He paused. "...outside of work, which I unfortunately have to do in order to be fed. But when I'm not here, Rosenburg will be here, and I'll give you my cell phone number so you can always be in touch with me, okay?"
The girl opened her eyes wide and looked up at him, her lip trembling. "You looked?" she said, not quite disbelieving. "You found me?"
"I dropped everything to find you, kid," he told her with a gentle smile. "You mean that much to me."
She unwound all of a sudden and wrapped her arms tight around his chest, bursting into another fit of weeping. Somewhere, half-lost in the tears, she managed, "L-love you. Love you."
"I love you too, sis," he said softly, smiling down at her.
The garden was sparkling in the sun; another early June. Gabrielle laughed at a butterfly, twisted to smile up at Saul and point. She looked already less pale, more alive.
She had chosen to live with Lionel, and Saul could hardly blame her, since she had no memory of the time she'd spent lost inside herself. But she still loved the garden. She would spend hours in it, staring at the flowers, or making the butterflies dance, or watching the birds fly.
Saul still felt strange, as if at any second she would sprout wings and fly away herself. She was still so fragile... she didn't speak much, even to Lionel, and she was shy of the world. He thought she felt safe in his garden, though. Certainly safe enough to laugh. She felt safe with him.
"Mister Rosenburg!" She clearly felt he wasn't paying enough attention. An annoyed wrinkle formed between her eyebrows. "Come and see!"
A faint warm hope stirred in his chest; the guilt eased for the first time in years. She would recover.