"So—are we ready to do this?" Ocelot asked. He wasn't surprised when no one replied.
It was a little more than half an hour after they had split up; they had now reconvened in Winterhawk's parking garage to prepare to leave for Gabriel's. Ocelot looked around at his teammates. All of them, including Ocelot himself, looked very different than they had when they had parted company. Although they had not yet gotten into all of their gear and shouldered their weapons, each runner looked like he had made his peace with the idea that there were good odds he wouldn't see the next sunrise. Even Winterhawk, who was normally never without a sardonic commentary on any situation, looked grim in his black leather longcoat. Ocelot noted that the mage hadn't even changed out of his sweater and jeans into his usual shadowrunning attire.
The drive over was unusually subdued. No one spoke, each content in the privacy of his own thoughts. Ocelot, in the back seat, leaned against the side window and considered how much his life had changed in the past month. When Kestrel had headed off back East with her team two years ago, he had never thought he would see her again. He had not been happy about that, but he'd dealt with it and eventually accepted it. It all went along with his overriding philosophy of life: that it was going to get you in the end, no matter who you were. You could tread water and stay ahead of it for awhile, but eventually something was going to blindside you. What defined your worth as a person was how well you dealt with that. Ocelot prided himself on being able to take whatever life threw at him and come up fighting. He knew one of these days he was going to get knocked down so hard he wouldn't get back up, but until then, he would keep on doing things the way he had ever since he was a kid on the streets of Seattle. It was the only way he knew how to do things.
He looked around at his teammates, noting, as he occasionally did, how unlike one another they all really were. It still sometimes amazed him how they worked so well together, being so different.
Joe, next to him on the back set, looked troubled and deep in thought. How they had all underestimated the young troll, when he had first joined the team. Earthy, excitable, with a tendency toward crudeness, Joe had been at first dismissed as the big dumb troll that he so carefully pretended to be. Yeah, he had a way of running off at the mouth at the wrong times, and he had very little sense of the social graces (a fact which alternatively annoyed and amused Winterhawk), but there was a lot more to Joe than immediately met the eye. Especially in the past couple of years, since he had found the ways of Bear and began exploring the heritage of both his birth tribe, the Nootka, and his adopted tribe, the Sioux, he had calmed down considerably. He was less impulsive, more contemplative and thoughtful, and possessed of a strong protective instinct toward his teammates. There was no one on the team who had not been the grateful beneficiary of Joe's newfound sense of responsibility.
In the driver's seat, ShadoWraith appeared to be concentrating on steering the truck, but Ocelot suspected that the elf's mind was far away. Easily the most secretive member of the team, `Wraith kept himself to himself during times when he wasn't involved in a run, usually taking off on his motorcycle to destinations which he did not share with the others and about which they did not ask. When he had first joined the team, he had been even more tightly controlled than he was now, performing his duties with an absolute minimum of verbiage and interaction. He was the consummate perfectionist, seeming to care only about his twin goals of increasing his already frightening speed and bettering his skill with his firearms. Outside of the context of shadowrunning, he appeared to have few other interests. Over time, though, specifically following the team's run into the Chicago Containment Zone and the party where he had met Desire, `Wraith had begun to loosen up a bit. He had developed an effective fighting partnership with Joe where the two would watch each other's backs in combat situations (although on a personal level the two grated on each other); he had also shown evidence of a friendship (as opposed to a working relationship) with Winterhawk. Ocelot figured it was because the two were, in a strange sort of way, similar.
Winterhawk, in his way, was the biggest enigma of all to Ocelot, despite the fact that he knew more about the irreverent, sarcastic mage than he did about either of his other teammates. He still couldn't quite figure out, even after all these years that they had been working together, why someone with `Hawk's background would want to risk his life breaking into research labs and fighting bug spirits. Unlike any of the other members of the team (at least as far as Ocelot knew), Winterhawk actually had a real identity and a place to go home to. When he was not on a run, `Hawk almost always wasted no time in returning to his home outside London: a huge, drafty old mansion that had been in his family for generations. While in England, Winterhawk ceased to exist, temporarily replaced by Dr. Alastair Stone, college professor and reluctant lord of the manor. `Hawk claimed he ran the shadows mainly due to boredom, need for excitement, and fodder for his research; Ocelot used to believe that, and used to mistrust the mage because of it. These days, though, he wasn't convinced that that was the whole reason. He also wasn't convinced that even `Hawk himself knew the whole reason. When it came down to it, though, Winterhawk was damn good at what he did. Just like everybody in the team. When you were counting on somebody to help keep you alive, that was what mattered. That, and trust.
Ocelot sighed, wondering as he surveyed his friends how many of them would live through the ordeal that they were heading toward. He wished that there was another choice: for all his bravado and bluster, he would have vastly preferred not to have to do this. He was a street kid from the Barrens. He had grown up running with the Predators, a small-time gang with small-time aspirations, and had moved on when he'd outgrown both the gang and the aspirations. Still, though, he was essentially just a Barrens kid with more brains, sharper skills, and better cyberware. He wasn't a guy who fought dragons.
He thought about Gabriel, remembering again the scene in the motel room. Guess I'm a guy who punches out dragons, he thought wryly, but it didn't help. What was it the kid (the dragon—mustn't ever forget that) had said about them, way back what seemed like an eternity ago, at the Dreamscape party? He'd praised their versatility, and their individuality. Said that they were good because they could deal with anything that came their way. Ocelot's gaze returned to the window, where he watched the light rain fall on the darkened streets. We'd damn well better be able to, he thought. We're gonna need every scrap of that so-called versatility to come through this one with our butts intact.
They were approaching the towering structure that housed Gabriel's penthouse apartment now. `Wraith stopped the truck about half a block down. "Garage?" he asked.
"We don't have the code," Joe said.
Ocelot was already on the phone to Kestrel. Part of him was expecting that there would be no answer, but she picked it up on the second ring. "Ocelot?"
"Cutting it short," she said, looking briefly at something offscreen. "Only five minutes left."
"We're downstairs, outside the garage. Can you let us in?"
"It's open. Just come on in, and go all the way to the rear of the first level. There's a car waiting. You can't miss it."
As promised, the security doors at the garage entrance swung silently open as the Nomad approached them. `Wraith guided the truck in and down the rows of cars toward the back. Ocelot noted as they drove by that the black Dynamit was still in the same spot where they'd seen it an hour earlier.
They rounded the last row of cars and stared. Parked lengthwise across several empty parking spaces, its trunk currently standing open, was a shining black Rolls-Royce Phaeton limousine. Standing next to it was Kestrel, watching for them.
"She did say we couldn't miss it," Ocelot muttered.
Winterhawk smiled cynically. "At least we'll be going to our deaths in style."
`Wraith pulled the truck up next to the Phaeton, and the runners quickly got out. "We're all going together," Kestrel said, coming over. "Gabriel insists. There's plenty of room in the trunk for all your stuff. You can leave the truck here and pick it up later."
"Where is he?" Joe asked, looking around.
"He'll be down in a couple of minutes. Let me help you move that stuff over."
Together, the runners transferred their gear from the truck to the Phaeton's spacious cargo area. By the time they finished, there wasn't much room left. Joe's gear, especially, took up quite a lot of room. Ocelot noticed before they started that there were already an Ares MP light machine gun, several spare clips of APDS ammunition, a large compound bow with a quiver of razor-tipped arrows, a Dikoted katana, and a handheld grenade launcher carefully arranged there along with an armored leather jacket and a black helmet with blue flames airbrushed on it. He also noticed that there was no longer any trace of Kestrel's earlier ordeal on her person. Clad in a military-style black jumpsuit, combat boots, web utility belt, and black sunglasses currently perched atop her white-blonde hair, she looked anxious to take on just about anything, and impatient to get on the road.
"You've returned," came a quiet voice from behind them. "And just in time."
The runners turned. Gabriel stood there, watching them from a few meters away. Unlike Kestrel, who looked like she was preparing to go on a military expedition, the young man appeared ready to attend a rather festive business meeting. His white suit, purple silk tie, and pale gray wool overcoat were decidedly at odds with the attire of the runner team. His face was expressionless, completely unreadable.
"We're as ready as we're gonna get," Ocelot said.
Gabriel nodded once. "Please get in, then. But before you do—" He paused, regarding each of them. "It is not yet too late to turn back. I want to give you one last opportunity to reconsider my request that you permit me to handle this on my own."
"It won't work, Gabriel," Ocelot said. "Why don't you just put that away, okay? We're going. Now let's get on with it."
Again, the young man nodded, almost sadly this time. "Done." He indicated the doors to the limousine's passenger compartment.
Everyone climbed in and got settled in the buttery-soft leather seats. Ocelot looked around at the almost sinful level of luxury inside the car, having to suppress a twinge of anger: this was the kind of car that usually contained the fat-cat corporate bastards that he still, after all these years, hated. Even so, though, there was something nice about the turnabout. He glanced around at his fellow runners; he didn't even think Winterhawk, with his high-class tastes, had ever ridden in something this fine. "Guess we're not planning to be inconspicuous, huh?" he asked as the car smoothly started up and headed out of the garage. Nobody asked who was driving.
"There is no need to be," Gabriel said. "He knows we are coming, and I will not creep in the shadows like a thief."
"How do you know where he is?" Joe asked. "I thought you said you didn't even know he was in town until he left that box."
In answer, Gabriel slipped a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and withdrew an old-fashioned business card. "He knew that I was the only one capable of opening the box," he said, passing it across to Joe, "so he left this inside for me."
Joe took the card and examined it, as did `Wraith, who was sitting next to him. It was printed on fine, heavy cardstock of the kind that was difficult to find anymore, and read simply:
"What's Messina Corporation?" Joe asked, passing the card to Winterhawk and Ocelot.
"I've heard of them," `Wraith said. "New to Seattle."
"Yes," Winterhawk said distractedly. "They're bigger back east, yes? Just opened up a branch office in Seattle in the past year or so."
"That's correct," Gabriel said. "Eight months, to be precise."
"So what you're sayin'," Ocelot put in with suspicion, "is that we got another megacorp run by a dragon? Isn't Saeder-Krupp enough?"
"Do you want to tell him?" Winterhawk handed the card back to Gabriel.
"Stefan has covered his tracks well," Gabriel said. "Messina's corporate structure underwent a major upheaval two years ago, but it occurred quickly and showed little indication of anything out of the ordinary. He must have done this, as is his usual mode of operation, quite slowly and secretly. If I know him at all, he is not running the corporation as much as pulling strings behind the scenes. Although there is probably no important decision that does not go the way he wishes it to go, it is possible that very few souls at Messina have actually seen him, in human form or otherwise." He shrugged, putting the card back in his pocket. "No matter. We will find him. He wants us to find him."
"I've...uh...been meaning to talk to you about that," Ocelot ventured. "I'm a little uncomfortable just waltzing in like this. If he's really that tough, he'll make mincemeat out of us before we even get to him. It seems to me like you're walkin' right into the trap he's set for you."
The young man's expression did not change. "There is no other way. Even were I capable of shielding us from him in his own domain, I won't do it. I don't fear him—why should I behave as if I do?"
Joe decided it was time to change the subject. "Hey—do you mind if I ask you a question before we get there? It's been bugging me for awhile."
Gabriel nodded once, turning to face the troll. "Go ahead."
"How did you know the things you knew at the party? About Bear, I mean, and Desire?" Joe shifted position a little, trying to get comfortable. Even in a spacious car such as this, there wasn't sufficient room for his massive frame. "Did you read our minds? I mean—you guys can do that, right?"
"We can," Gabriel confirmed. "But I did not. And I would not, without your consent." He smiled just a bit, a faint echo of the smile from the party. "Caimbeul told me," he said.
All the runners looked perplexed. "Who?"
"You probably know him as Harlequin."
Winterhawk sighed in exasperation, slumping back into the seat. "Why does it not surprise me that you know Harlequin?" he asked the air.
Now it was Kestrel's turn to look perplexed. "What are you guys talking about? Gabriel, who's Harlequin?"
"Another one of those things you didn't want me to tell you," Gabriel said.
"So you knew about us all along," Joe said.
Gabriel nodded. "Yes. I didn't think I would get the opportunity to meet you, though."
Ocelot glanced out the window; they were still in Downtown, but headed north, up toward the Queen Anne Hill area. "So why a fixer?" he asked suddenly. "That's the part that I don't get. I mean, you're a dragon. There must be hundreds—thousands—of things you could do with yourself to make more money than you know what to do with. Why get your hands dirty in the shadows? You don't seem like the greedy type to me."
Kestrel smiled mischievously. "He likes the parties he gets invited to."
The young man returned the look. "You make me sound like a social degenerate, Kestrel," he protested.
"If the shoe fits—"
The runners watched the interplay between the two with some astonishment. Here they were, heading off to a confrontation that could possibly mean all of their deaths—including Gabriel's—and yet the two of them were acting like a couple of longtime buddies on their way to a ball game. Ocelot, especially, had noticed the way their relationship had loosened up, gotten more playful, since Gabriel's "secret" had come out. He figured it must be because she didn't think he considered Gabriel to be romantic competition anymore, so she was free to act more naturally with him. He wasn't so sure about that—the guy might be a dragon, but right now he still looked like a very desirable young man, who most likely had all the things he needed to make a woman very happy. Ocelot knew he had to work through that; he planned to do it, assuming he lived long enough. For now, though, he was too busy worrying about what would happen when they finally got where they were going to allow any other feelings to sway him from his focus.
"I'm sorry," Gabriel was saying, still smiling a little at Kestrel. "Forgive me, please. I've gotten off the subject. As for why I decided to become a fixer, let me leave it at the fact that doing so gave me an excellent opportunity to observe all segments of society firsthand. There is more, but I think I'll keep my other reasons to myself for the time being." Taking a quick look out the window, he added, "We're getting close now. If you have anything else you want to ask me, best if you do it now."
The runners looked at each other, all of them with a single question on their minds but each of them reluctant to ask it, unsure of the effect it would have on their new ally. You didn't, after all, win friends and influence dragons by requesting that they share their weaknesses and vulnerabilities with you. Finally, as was usually the case in exchanges requiring bluntness rather than finesse, Joe broke the silence. Even so, his tone was somewhat hesitant: "Can you—uh—give us any tips for how we can hit Stefan? Weak points, maybe?"
Gabriel returned his nervous gaze calmly. "Why are you reluctant to ask me such a question? It's always wise to know your enemy before you go into his den."
"Yeah, that's the truth," Ocelot agreed, spreading his arms in a go on gesture. "So...?"
"Dragons aren't invulnerable," Gabriel said, settling back in his seat and occasionally flicking his attention off to check the view out the window. "Even Great Dragons. Our sadly departed ex-President is proof of that." The words sounded a bit flippant, but the tone did not. A look of brief sadness crossed his face, then was gone as he continued. "We are, however, quite resistant to almost all attacks, owing not only to our natural armor and magical defenses, but also to the fact that most of us have other sorts of protections, both mundane and magical, in effect at almost all times."
"The guards on the island hurt you, though," Ocelot pointed out.
"Yes, but only because I was weakened by the drugs. Even then, only the highest-powered of their firearms were able to get through my defenses." He considered for a moment. "Stefan's greatest vulnerability, I think, is his arrogance. I suspect that if there is a physical confrontation—and I will avoid one if possible—he will ignore you to concentrate fully on me. If you can somehow make your attacks effective when he is not paying attention to you, you might have a chance of injuring him."
Again the runners exchanged glances. He made it sound so easy! Just hit him when he's not paying attention, and you'll hurt him. Suuuurrre.
Gabriel didn't appear to have noticed them. "As for weak points," he went on, "if I can manage to get through some of his magical barriers, I suggest that you aim for logical unarmored areas: eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and joints. I warn you that that is highly simplistic advice, but I'm afraid it's the best I can give you." He smiled wryly. "This isn't Tolkien. Every Great Dragon is an individual, and we're all as different in the ways we choose to defend ourselves as you humans and metahumans are. Since I haven't fought Stefan for several thousand years—and even then it was only brief skirmishes—I have no way to know what kind of precautions he's taken. To our advantage, though, the converse should be true as well."
"Let's hope so," Ocelot said in a tone that suggested that he wasn't convinced.
"Never forget his arrogance," Gabriel said seriously. "If anything will be his downfall, that is it. I expect him even to underestimate me, since I am nothing to him but the hated younger brother. If he doesn't discount your presence completely, I'll be quite surprised." He looked up, and paused briefly. "We've arrived."
The words, though he clearly did not mean them to, held an ominous note.