(c) 1993, Rat
There must be something more to England than you can see right away, I thought. Looking around as I walked down the ramp of the ferry that had just brought me across the English Channel and into London, all I could see was slate-colored skies, a drizzling, noncommittal rain, and a collection of decaying buildings competing with the sky for which could be more gray and depressing. All in all, a lot like Seattle, without the trees. Winterhawk must like this place a lot, to come all the way over here for six months. He wouldn't have missed anything if he'd just stayed home, judging by the look of things.
I continued down the ramp, swept up momentarily in the sea of people disembarking from the ferry Royal Elizabeth. Pretty high-blown name for that barely-seaworthy tub, but the Brits were nothing if not traditional. I checked my duffel bag again, for what had to be the hundredth time since I'd boarded the boat: it wouldn't do to have anybody get too curious. I'd left most of the ballistic hardware at home, but my leather bag carried enough pointy things to outfit a half-dozen ninjas and still have a couple left over. I had to admit I was a little dubious when 'Hawk had told me he'd wanted to learn swordfighting, but since he'd agreed to teach me the toughness of mind that I needed to master, I figured I'd give it my best shot. Somehow, though, he'd never struck me as the close-order combat type.
Not that I knew him that well. It was a little amazing how little the four of us knew each other, considering that we'd been together for a little over a year now. We knew nothing about each other's background, what we did for fun, or even each other's real names. Knowing somebody's real name wasn't always a good thing, admittedly. But after all this time I did occasionally wonder who these three guys were that I was trusting my life to. Maybe this would be my chance to find out something about one of them.
Smiling a little to myself, I wondered if Winterhawk would even recognize me. I was still getting used to the extra bulk from my recent muscle replacements, and I haven't gotten over doing double-takes when I look at myself in the mirror. The plastic surgery was change enough, but seeing those almost-glowing reptilian green eyes with their slitted black pupils staring back at me, instead of my familiar golden feline ones, was disconcerting. I had told him I'd look different, but how different, I hadn't said.
I reached the bottom of the ramp, stopping a moment as the eddies of humanity swirled around me. No metahumans, I noticed, and wondered if that was a coincidence or something else. Maybe this wasn't the metahuman part of town. I looked around, scanning the crowd for a familiar face. I almost didn't see him, standing there by a railing. I had been looking for the black-and-white hair.
He hadn't seen me yet, so that gave me a minute to look him over. He looked different too, though not as different as I did. Actually, he hadn't changed at all, except his clothes were different. I was used to him in his stylishly baggy suits and ubiquitous black duster with the feathers and buttons all over it, so the understated tan trench coat (which looked a lot like my own) and British tweed jacket, not to mention the umbrella and the broad-brimmed fedora pulled low over his eyes, took me a minute to get used to.
At that moment his eyes met mine, and I saw recognition, followed by a bit of astonishment. Then he was smiling, heading over toward me. I met him halfway. "My," he said, looking me up and down, "you have changed."
"A little," I admitted. "I call myself Viper now." It would be tough to be Ocelot with the reptilian eyes and snakeskin jacket and boots.
Winterhawk nodded. "Yes, that makes sense," he said agreeably. He certainly looked like this ungodly climate was agreeing with him. "Shall we go? No point in standing around this place all night." Glancing at my duffel and the other bag I had slung over my shoulder, he said, "Have you any other bags?"
I shook my head. "I travel light." All I'd brought with me, aside from the swords and the clothes I was wearing, were about four changes of clothes, all of which fit nicely into my bag.
He shrugged. "All right, then--let's be off."
"Do you have a car here?"
"I didn't bring it--didn't know how much stuff you'd be bringing with you. I'll get us a cab."
Both of us were silent when we had settled into the cab. Winterhawk had given the cabbie an address and gotten into the car, obligingly scooting over to accommodate my arsenal, which I had refused to allow the driver to stow in the trunk (boot, I corrected myself: when in Rome and all that...). I wondered where we were going--the whole place looked rather dingy and depressing. I figured he'd probably found himself an acceptable flat somewhere in the not-too-bad end of town, and was a bit surprised when we seemed to be leaving the city area. "I thought you said you lived in London," I said.
"Not London proper," he admitted. "It's a ways out of town. We'll be there soon."
Nice setup, I thought. I'd forgotten--if he was hiding out like the rest of us, someplace out of town would be much better than something in the middle of the London Sprawl.
We drove for about another hour, wending our way through the hellacious traffic (all of it driving on the wrong side of the road) of the Greater London area until we finally broke free and found ourselves on a smaller and less-traveled road leading out of town. Things got a little prettier out here, though the ubiquitous sleety rain was beginning to get on my nerves. I hadn't liked it in Seattle, and I didn't like it in England.
It was beginning to get dark when the cabbie finally stopped the car in front of a tall wrought-iron gate. I thought we might be having car trouble or something, but Winterhawk was already getting out of the car. "Here we are," he said cheerfully, reaching back in to pay the cabdriver. "We'll have to walk from here: it's not far." He swung his umbrella jauntily, motioning me to accompany him. I hefted my duffel, threw my bag over my shoulder, and started after him.
By the time I reached him, he'd already tapped in the code on the gate's maglock, causing it to swing slowly open. The wall into which the gate was set was about eight feet tall, and had obviously been there for quite some time. Most of the rock was covered with many years' growth of ivy. Topping the wall on either side of the gate were two lights fashioned to look like old-fashioned gaslights. They lit our progress in the fast-ebbing daylight as we went through the gate. It swung silently closed behind us.
"Where are we going?" I asked, beginning to wonder what was going on.
"It's not far now--just around this bend," he said, indicating where the graveled driveway turned and disappeared behind some trees. I continued following him as we rounded the corner.
Then I stopped.
The road dead-ended into a mansion. You know, one of those old English mansions that you sometimes see on antique Christmas cards. Two stories, stone steps leading up to an ornate front door, cheerfully-lit windows, a huge wing off either side, the whole bit. Winterhawk turned back to see why I'd stopped, and then I got it. I felt much more relieved. "You rent a room here," I said appreciatively. "This is a nice setup--great place to hide out. How'd you manage that, anyway?"
Winterhawk smiled a little, shaking his head. "No, you don't understand. Welcome to Stone Manor. My family home."
I couldn't believe it. This had to be one of his jokes--the kind you had to be from another planet (like England) to get. "You're kidding, right?"
"No, not at all. It's been in the family for two hundred years. It's been mine for a few years now. Come on--let's get inside. I'd rather not stand out here in the drizzle, if you don't mind."
Numbly, I followed him, still trying to sort this out. It just didn't make sense. This wasn't the same Winterhawk I knew, the combat mage you could always count on in a fight, even if he didn't like getting his shoes dirty in the sewers. It couldn't be, not with all this. I decided to just follow along, reserving judgment for the moment. Maybe it wasn't like it looked.
The door opened as we topped the steps, to reveal a cheery-looking, slightly heavyset man in his early sixties. "Ah, you're home!" he greeted, swinging the door wide to admit us. "Come, let us get you out of those wet coats--I've got a fire going, and it looks like you'll be needing it."
Winterhawk shrugged out of his coat, handing it, the umbrella, and the hat to the old man. "Aubrey, I'd like you to meet my friend--" he indicated me, uncertain for the moment. I could see why.
"Terry," I filled in, extending my hand to Aubrey. It probably wouldn't do to have him calling me Viper for two weeks. Somehow it didn't seem right.
"Terry," Winterhawk confirmed, looking at me with an arched eyebrow. I'd never told him my name before, and for all he knew it could have been a fake. It wasn't. "Terry, this is Aubrey, my caretaker. He looks after the place when I'm not around, and generally looks after me when I am." He smiled, and so did Aubrey; obviously an old private joke between them. "Well--let's get inside where it's warm, shall we?"
I allowed Aubrey to take my coat, but as politely as I could, refused to surrender the duffel. "It's all right," Winterhawk said to me under his breath. "He knows. About me, at least. I didn't tell him anything about you. He's completely trustworthy--been with the family since before I was born."
"It's okay," I said, my grip tightening on the handle. "I'd rather take it myself, if you don't mind."
He shrugged. "Have it your way," he said indifferently, then smiled again. "Come on--I'll show you where you'll be staying. I hope you'll find it acceptable."
He was already heading up the large formal staircase, so he didn't see the grimace on my face, nor the dirty look I gave him. Acceptable? This place was bigger than any house I'd been in in my life, and he wanted to know if the room was acceptable? I hadn't even seen it yet, and I didn't have any doubts. Well, I did, but not about the room.
Up at the top of the stairs, he took a right down a hall, then opened a carved wooden door that looked to be at least a century old. "Here it is," he said, pushing the door open and letting me enter first. Aubrey hovered behind us, silent and attentive.
I walked into the room, not sure what to expect. It was bigger than most of the apartments I was used to, furnished in solid, old-fashioned style. The bed, a sturdy four-poster of the type you read about in history books, was covered with a heavy, ornate quilt and piled high with pillows. The drapes, also heavy, had been pulled aside to reveal a large window complete with window seat. The furniture was all of heavy wood: a chest of drawers, two nightstands, a vanity table, a chest at the foot of the bed, and an enormous oaken armoire. The floor was hardwood, scattered over with small throw rugs. On near wall, near the door, was a fireplace. The whole place smelled vaguely musty, as if it hadn't been aired out in awhile. I barely noticed: it didn't smell like sweat, or death, or any of the other unpleasant human smells I was used to--it was fine with me. And the door off the far side of the room promised another luxury--a private bath.
"Sorry it's a bit musty," Winterhawk said apologetically. "We didn't get much time to air this part of the house out, and it's been some time since some of these rooms were opened up. And I'm afraid the plumbing's rather old-fashioned..."
I glanced up at him quickly to see if he was kidding, or having some kind of sick joke on me. It was obvious that he wasn't--he had the look of a host trying his best to make his guest comfortable despite some unforgivable faux pas, like finding a skunk sleeping on the bedspread. Aubrey had the same look. It was very apparent that they were trying hard to make me comfortable, and I couldn't even tell them that this was by far the best accommodations I'd ever had in my life. "It's fine," I said, trying to infuse just the right amount of casualness in my tone. "You wouldn't happen to have a hat rack around here, would you?"
Winterhawk and Aubrey looked at each other with some confusion, but the old caretaker took off and returned in less than a minute with an ancient wooden hat rack. "Will this do?" he asked.
I nodded. "That's fine. Thanks." I set it down inside the room and proceeded to take the swords out of my duffel, one by one, hanging each one on the hat rack. Winterhawk looked at me like I'd lost my mind, but made no comment. Aubrey made some excuse about having to finish making dinner and left us alone.
"I didn't know which one you'd want to learn," I said, trying to ignore my fancy surroundings, "so I brought a selection." I finished hanging up the real swords, then began drawing the wooden practice weapons from the bottom of the bag. "We'll start out with these. When you get good enough, we'll go to the real thing."
"That's comforting," Winterhawk said dryly, eyeing the weapons on the hatrack. "I have no desire to be Mage Fricassee." When I didn't comment, he continued, "I'll decide in the morning, all right? Dinner's going to be ready in about half an hour--is that all right, or do you need more time to settle in?"
"No, that's fine," I told him, biting off the urge to say something sarcastic. I couldn't believe he couldn't see how this was affecting me. "I didn't bring anything formal to wear, though."
He shrugged that off. "We're not formal around here. Just wear whatever you want. It'll be just us--Aubrey's made some excuse about something on the trid he wants to see; I think he just wants to give us some time to talk. Good man, Aubrey. Don't know how I'd keep this place up without him. Well then," he said, without giving me a chance to answer, "I'll see you at eight. Just come down the main staircase and turn right, and you'll be in the dining room." He turned and was gone down the hall before I could think of anything to say to that.
Half an hour later, I was heading down the stairs. I'd changed clothes into the nicest outfit I'd brought: synth-leather pants and a button-down shirt, combined with my soon-to-be-trademark snakeskin boots. It had taken me about ten minutes to get ready; I'd spent the other twenty sitting on the window seat and staring out into a darkened courtyard, thinking. I just couldn't figure it out, and twenty minutes wasn't long enough to make any serious inroads into it--why would somebody with a life like this want to risk it by being a shadowrunner? It didn't add up. It still wasn't adding up as I descended the stairs and followed Winterhawk's directions toward the dining room.
The dining room was large and dim, the walls hung with coats-of-arms and various pieces of ceremonial weaponry. A window on the far side looked out over the same courtyard into which I had been staring only a few minutes before. In the center of the room was a large, dark-wood table that currently had chairs enough for eight. The room was long enough, however, to accommodate at least six more. The chairs were tall and carved, with well-used velvet cushions, and light was provided by a chandelier that hung high over the table. A door at the end of the room led out into what was most likely the kitchen.
Winterhawk (it seemed strange to call him that under these circumstances, but it was the only name I knew--I still wasn't sure if "Stone" was a family name or an architectural style) sat at the far end of the table, his feet up on one of the other chairs. He looked up as I entered and smiled, drawing himself up to a more civilized posture. "Ah--right on time. Good. Sit down--we have a lot of catching up to do." He indicated a chair next to him, opposite the one on which he'd had his feet. Only two places were set, and I was a little surprised that there weren't at least three forks per setting. Somehow it seemed appropriate. But no, the places were simply set--bread plates, soup bowls, wineglasses, silver, and cloth napkins--still pretty fancy for a guy like me who was used to grabbing whatever was on special at the Stuffer Shack, but nothing too out of line. I could see now why Winterhawk turned up his nose at my usual sloppy-soy stuffer runs, though.
I crossed the room and sat down, wondering if there was real food to go with the real place settings. This still seemed like something out of a dream. Winterhawk had changed clothes and was now wearing a loose-fitting sweater instead of the tweed jacket--obviously his idea of formal and mine were miles apart, but I already knew that.
Aubrey came out almost on cue as I sat down, causing me to speculate that he had been peering through the door-crack, waiting for all the guests (i.e., me) to arrive. He carried a large tray containing a tureen of soup, a bottle of wine, and plates containing some sort of small game bird, potatoes, and vegetables. I was interested in spite of myself--I don't get to eat this well too often, and I wasn't going to waste the opportunity. The food smelled wonderful.
I waited for Aubrey to set down the plates before saying anything. Winterhawk thanked the old man and once again invited him to join us, but Aubrey reiterated that there was a good show on the trideo that he simply had to see, and bustled out, leaving us to ourselves.
Winterhawk watched him fondly as he went. "I don't know what I'd do without him," he said. "Probably starve, or exist on that ghastly soy stuff all the time. That's fine for Seattle, but over here it's nice to get a bit of non-synthesized dinner now and then."
"So--this is real?" I asked, looking down at my plate. The little bird, covered in some sort of sweet glaze, almost beckoned me.
He nodded, briskly shaking out his napkin and laying it across his lap. "Quite real. Go ahead--dig in. You needn't wait for me. I told you--we're not formal around here." He busied himself opening the wine (I caught a "19" as the first two digits in the bottle's year) and pouring it into the two ornate goblets.
I looked at him a little suspiciously. "You don't do this every night, do you? With the wine and the fancy dishes and all this?"
"No, not every night. Most of the time Aubrey and I just call out for pizza or something." He smiled. "But I like a little civilization now and again, don't you?"
I bit my lip to keep from replying the way I wanted to, and covered it up by taking a bite of the bird. Real meat was a luxury in Seattle; I could afford it, but with the prices I didn't see the point most of the time. That didn't take anything away from the meal, though. I almost forgave him his flippant remark for a taste of it.
"Besides," the mage continued, ignoring my glance, "You're my guest. Can't serve one's guests pizza, can you? Wouldn't be polite."
I didn't answer, because I wasn't sure what I would blurt out if I spoke. He really didn't get it--it wasn't just an act. He was serious. "Why do you do it?" I asked quietly.
"Do what?" He picked up his goblet, took a taste of the wine, and set it back down, nodding approvingly. Then he looked back at me, waiting.
"Risk your life as a runner, when you have this." I gestured around me, encompassing the whole house.
"That's a silly question--" he started to say, then got a good look at me. "No it isn't," he amended softly. Leaning back in his chair, he picked up the wine goblet again and stared at it, twirling its slender stem between two fingers. "I do it because I'm bored," he said at last.
He must have noticed something in my tone (maybe it was the incredulity) because he set the glass back down again. "There isn't much to do around here. It's pleasant for awhile, but it gets old. I'm ready to go back to Seattle soon."
"So--" I said carefully, dinner momentarily forgotten, "This is all a game to you? That's all it is--a way to relieve boredom?"
"In a way," he said. "And a way to use magic in a practical setting--theory is fine, but nothing beats application." He smiled, as if it were mildly amusing, taking another sip of wine.
I glared at him. "You don't take any of this seriously, do you?"
"Of course I do," he said, looking at me strangely. "Say--are you all right? This isn't like you at all."
"I just don't believe it." I stabbed another piece of the little bird with more force than was necessary. "I don't get it at all. There are better ways to get rid of boredom than risking your life without needing to. Some of us do this because we have to, you know. Because we can't do anything else." I paused. "You know, I'm not sure I want my back watched by somebody who's just in it for the fun," I finished, meeting his eyes.
"Have I ever given you cause not to trust me?" he asked in that low, quiet tone he always used right before he fried somebody's brain.
"Not yet," I said, undaunted.
"And I never will," he continued in the same tone. "Everyone has different reasons for what they do--that's mine. You did ask. Now, shall we move on to something a tad less confrontational? I do dislike arguing over dinner. We can discuss it more later if you'd like."
I considered pushing it, but finally nodded: he was right, and I was his guest. Returning my attention to dinner, I tried to forget what he had said, but it would not go away. Nonetheless, I finished off the meal with great enjoyment. The food blunted my anger, at least for now, as did my amusing mental picture of Winterhawk and me, two of the deadliest shadowrunners in the Seattle plex, sitting here sipping wine like a couple of harmless English country gentlemen.
"So," he said at last when we'd finished, "We've got the night--what do you want to do? We could hang around here, go into town, or whatever you'd like--just say the word."
I considered, then had an idea. "Why don't you show me your version of London--you know, the places you go. I'd like to see how you spend your time around here."
He looked at me like he was trying to fathom my ulterior motive, but must have determined that if I had one, it wasn't readily apparent. "All right," he agreed. Gesturing at his outfit, he said, "but you'll need to give me a few minutes to change clothes. I guess I'm just old-fashioned enough that I don't go into town dressed like this. Feel free to wander around the house, and I'll meet you down in the main hall by the staircase in about fifteen minutes." He tossed his napkin on the table and left.
Since I had no intention of changing clothes (especially since what I was wearing was the most formal thing I'd brought), I decided to take him up on his invitation. Leaving the table, I followed Winterhawk's path out of the dining room, and spent the next few minutes wandering around the main house.
The place was beautiful, there was no doubt about it. Everywhere I looked I saw things that must have been in Winterhawk's family since the previous century--the furniture, the rugs, the various pieces of bric-a-brac lining the shelves. Having visited Winterhawk's apartment back in Seattle and knowing his apparent preference for something a bit more high-tech, I assumed that he hadn't done much with the decorating scheme since coming back. It made sense, though--I knew he didn't spend much time here, and the ambiance of gracious country living could be very restful when compared to the constant hustle of Seattle.
The house had two wings, but one of them was obviously closed off: two chairs blocked the hallway, and no light could be seen coming from under any of the doors. It was obvious why: I could see the dust and cobwebs even from where I stood, and graying sheets that had once been white covered some of the furniture in the hall. They must not have had a chance to restore this part yet--I imagined the upkeep on a place like this must not be anything to sneeze at.
Wandering back toward the main house, I headed into the other large room near the staircase, which must be a library. I could see that this was where Winterhawk spent most of his time; two full walls were lined from floor to ceiling with real, old-fashioned, bound books. There was another fireplace in this room, and near it was a large, overstuffed leather chair. I could just picture him sitting there reading by the light of the dim lamp nearby. Also in the room was a piano and a big leather couch, along with the usual assortment of bric-a-brac, old weapons, and framed photographs.
The door opened and I turned, thinking Winterhawk had returned. Instead, Aubrey started to see me. He smiled, embarrassed. "I'm sorry to startle you," he said. "Have you seen Dr. Stone?"
Before I even thought about what I was saying, I pointed in the direction of the staircase. "He's upstairs. He should be down soon."
Aubrey nodded. "Thank you. I'll leave you to yourself, then." He turned and went out, closing the door behind me and leaving me to wonder. Dr. Stone? This was a new one. At least now I knew his name, or part of it. Still wondering, I left the room and headed for the staircase.
Winterhawk met me halfway down, back in his tweed jacket and overcoat. "Are you ready to go?" he asked.
I nodded. "What's this about Dr. Stone?" I asked him as we headed out.
"Oh, that," he said with a little chuckle. "I'm still getting used to it. That's part of why I came back over here--to finish my Th.D in applied thaumaturgy. Finished it up a couple of months ago." He led me out to a garage that looked like it used to be a stable in the distant past. Inside was a small car, barely big enough for the two of us.
"So you're a doctor," I said as I got in. "I guess there's a lot we don't know about each other."
"Best that it remain that way," he reminded me. "You know that better than I do--I thought you were the paranoid one."
"That's true, I am. And with reason." I leaned back in the seat, mulling over what had happened that had led up to our deciding that we'd better disappear for awhile until the heat with Ares let up a bit. I still didn't know where Vrool or Wraith had gone, nor did they know where I was; I had given a number to Winterhawk where he could reach someone who could contact me, but that was all I had told him. And he, for his part, had only said that he was going "home" for a few months. We all knew where that was, but England was a big country.
Both of us remained mostly silent as we drove back toward London. Winterhawk asked me a few questions about what I'd been doing over the past months, and I told him a little about my surgery, the new cyberware, and how the new Viper was different from the old Ocelot. He told me about his studies, and the fact that he'd picked up "a few new spells," but he didn't elaborate and I didn't ask. Someone had once told me that I might have had a talent for magic (the shamanic type) a long time ago, but I hadn't been interested then. Now, even if I was, there was far too little of the real me left to have any chance at it. It was probably just as well--magic was too strange for me. Give me a good monofilament whip or a katana any day. Up close and personal, that was the way I liked to do it.
The next couple of hours were enjoyable, if a little strange. Winterhawk proved my theory by taking me to see the University, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and a few rather upscale pubs. Never once did we stray into anything that looked remotely like the bad part of town. Maybe he was doing it because he wanted to show me the tourist's-eye view of London, or maybe it was because he didn't know the bad parts. I suspected the latter. I had a good time anyway, though, and when we arrived back at the house, it was nearly midnight. We agreed to meet in the library for sword training early the next morning, then retired to our respective parts of the house.
Next morning, after one of the best rests I'd had in a long time, I arrived downstairs with my rack of swords to find him waiting for me. I was in a tank top and loose-fitting pants; he looked more casual than I'd ever seen him in a baggy gray London University sweatshirt and jeans. He was staring out the window at the courtyard (it was a typical gray and depressing day, but he didn't seem bothered by it) but turned immediately when I came in. "Good morning," he said cheerily. "Shall we get started?"
After deliberating over it a bit, he finally chose the katana as the weapon he wanted to learn first. I knew he would have preferred a longsword, but he had to agree that since he might actually have to use this thing in a fight, anything that could augment his less-than-stellar strength was a definite advantage. We spent half the day with the wooden practice swords, as I showed him the various strikes, blocks, and parries. He was a quick study, but it was a decided case of "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak"--although he was trying hard to hide it, he was tiring out quickly. I pushed him as far as I could and then let him have the rest of the morning off.
We had lunch (this time Aubrey joined us, and we spent a pleasant hour listening to his stories of fixing up and restoring the old house) and then it was time for Winterhawk to teach me how to resist spells. I knew my mind was stronger, relatively speaking, than his body, but he still pushed me so hard that I was exhausted by dinnertime. I couldn't figure out how someone with Winterhawk's lack of physical strength could have such a strong mind, but I guess the two didn't necessarily depend on each other. It was all I could do to eat dinner and fall into bed afterward, and he assured me that he wasn't far behind, nursing an impressive collection of sore muscles.
Things went on like that for the next few days, as we fell into a routine: mornings were for swordfighting lessons, and afternoons for mental training. Between the two of us, I think we both improved--his blocks and attacks got better, and I found myself not getting as confused by his Confusion spell as I had when we'd started. In the evenings, we would either go into London or spend time in our own pursuits: he would sit in the library and read, and I would practice my fighting skills or take walks around the grounds. I was beginning to get used to having this much space almost to myself, and caught myself regretting somewhat that soon I was going to have to go back to the gritty, overcrowded Seattle. I didn't see how Winterhawk could possibly get bored with this--if it were my place, I could seriously consider retiring here.
I tried not to let Winterhawk see it, but there was one problem, and it made itself apparent early on--he was getting on my nerves. It was that ever-present, vaguely-cheerful, vaguely-sarcastic attitude he had most of the time, like he was amused at the world. Too often I found myself wondering if he was taking this seriously at all, or just learning something new to satisfy his curiosity. He didn't seem to have much respect for hand-to-hand combat, not when he could stand back and fry people's minds at line of sight range. So why was he even bothering to learn swordfighting? I didn't ask him, and the subject of his not taking things seriously didn't come up again in conversation. But it continued to seethe just below the surface. The only time that he didn't seem to be tossing things off was when he was teaching me to resist spells: then he was deadly serious. But it wasn't enough. I knew something was going to come of it soon, but I hoped I could just keep it to myself.
As is most often the case, when things did finally start to come to a head, I wasn't expecting it. It's like when you're talking to someone, going along just fine, and then all of a sudden you unwittingly say the wrong thing and set them off for no apparent reason. It was one night about a week after we'd started the training, and we were sitting down, as usual, for dinner. Aubrey had been joining us for the past few days, so we hadn't had the opportunity to discuss much in detail. Tonight, though, the caretaker had taken the car into town to visit a friend, so we were alone with the excellent meal Aubrey had prepared and left for us before leaving. I was enjoying myself, finally getting a little comfortable with my surroundings. Halfway through dinner, I looked around me, commenting, "It must have been nice, growing up around here."
Winterhawk shook his head. "I didn't really grow up here. I wasn't around very often."
"Where were you?"
He leaned back in his chair. "In school, most of the time. I spent most of my childhood in boarding schools. Only came home on holidays."
I felt something inside me tighten up, just a bit. "Boarding schools."
He nodded. "Yes. My parents were never too comfortable with having a child around the house. Can't say I blame them--frightful little beasts, children. Unpredictable, and they break things. But at any rate, their solution was to send me to all the best schools. Took care of the guilt, you know."
"Right." My tone was a little hard, and he must of picked up on it, because he looked at me funny, but said nothing. "I take it your parents are--?"
"Gone," he finished. "Unfortunate plane crash about fifteen years ago. Probably had something to do with a corp they got on the wrong side of. No evidence was ever found."
"Your parents were corpers?" The edge in my voice got a little harder.
"Both of them. I'm sorry it had to happen, but I think they brought a lot of it on themselves. They were committed to the fast track to the top. They probably got the wrong people mad at them."
I nodded. It happened. It was tough to be a high-level corp type without pissing somebody off--you needed a score card to keep track of who was pissed at whom this week. If you cared, that is. "Sounds like you and your parents didn't get along too well."
Winterhawk shrugged. "We were all right," he said indifferently. "They didn't pay much attention to me, but that was okay. They left me alone, I left them alone. You know?"
It was only the fact that he didn't sound like he had any self pity about the fact that his parents didn't care about him that prevented me from blowing up at him right there. I couldn't believe what he thought was a problem. In my book "my parents didn't understand me" ranked way down the list. Behind, for example, "Where is my next meal coming from?" and "Am I going to be alive in the morning?" Rough life. My heart bled.
Using my newfound strength of mind (I guess it was already proving useful for something), I nodded but did not reply further until after we had finished dinner. All the time, my mind was racing, trying to sort out my feelings about this man who sat across from me. Was he my trusted comrade, somebody I could count on in a tough spot, or was he some kind of spoiled ex rich kid who was dabbling at shadowrunning until something better came along? I didn't know, but I knew I wasn't going to feel right until I did. Inwardly seething, I nonetheless managed to make my excuses and head off to an early bedtime, telling him that I wanted to be ready for the morning's practice session. I hoped one of those new spells he'd learned didn't enable him to read minds, because what was on my mind at the moment probably wouldn't have made very pleasant reading. He looked at me strangely again, as if he was trying to fathom where I was coming from, but made no comment beyond wishing me a good night.
A couple of hours and a strenuous exercise session later, some of my anger had abated, and I felt rather ashamed of myself for deserting him like that, considering that he probably had no idea what had set me off. I decided that, if he hadn't gone to bed yet, I would go down and apologize to him, and maybe try to talk further about this. Maybe if we had a chance to get everything out in the opening, we could work something out. Maybe not, but at least it was worth a chance. He'd give me the benefit of the doubt if our situations were reversed, I suspected. I owed him that.
There was a light coming from the doorway of the library as I descended the stairs; I hoped it was Winterhawk and not Aubrey. Fond as I'd grown of the old caretaker over the past week, I didn't want to talk to anyone else just now.
I moved quietly, my bare feet making no sound on the polished wood floor, and peered through the doorway. There was only one light on in the room: the dim one by the leather chair. Dying but still-glowing embers in the fireplace were evidence that there had recently been a fire there. Winterhawk sat in the leather chair; all I could see of him from where I stood was the top of his head and one arm draped over the arm of the chair. I started to speak, then thought better of it and moved further into the room first.
From my new position, I could see he was asleep. He was curled up in the chair, his head leaning on one arm, the other one (the one I'd seen) hanging over the side of the chair. A book lay open on his lap, as if he had fallen asleep while reading it. The hard expression normally on his sharp features had softened in sleep: he looked as if he were having a pleasant dream. I took in the whole scene: how comfortable he looked, the elegant room, the fireplace, the old leather chair, and felt the tightening inside me again. Closing my eyes, I clenched my fists so tightly that I could feel my nails biting into my palms, and stood there for a long time. Winterhawk didn't stir. Finally, I turned and left the room as silently as I had entered it, returning up the stairs to my room. Without further thought of an apology, I went to bed. Regardless of how I felt about the student at this moment, I had a training obligation in the morning.
I was there before he was this time, shortly after dawn. I hadn't slept too well, but that hadn't been a surprise: I never get much sleep when I'm angry. I busied myself laying out the practice swords, then wandered the room, checking out the bookshelves. His collection was impressive: most of the stuff was magical and didn't make much sense to me, but there were several shelves dedicated to the British and American classics. The books were probably worth a fortune, but I doubt he'd bought them; they had probably been in the family for almost as long as the house.
"Good morning. Up rather early, aren't you?" I turned at the sound of Winterhawk's voice behind me. He stood in the doorway, dressed in his usual training outfit, watching me with his lopsided half-smile.
"I couldn't sleep," I said shortly. "Want to start a little early?"
He shrugged. "Why not?"
Looking back, I was definitely hard on him. Harder than I should have been. I propelled him constantly around the room, never letting up or giving him a chance to rest. While I'd pulled my blows before, I didn't do so this morning. Let him have a taste of what real combat was like, I told myself savagely. If he ever gets into a real fight with real weapons, he isn't going to be able to dance around, making elegant but ineffectual parries. Let him see what real brute strength is like.
For his part, he didn't say anything for quite some time. In fact, he endured it better than I expected him to, especially considering what a bastard I was being. He allowed me to push him around, trying his best to feint out of my way and block my attacks with the wooden practice sword. No doubt about it--he was getting better. But not good enough.
Finally, though, he had enough. After I had backed him up into the far wall and whacked him across the arm when he missed a parry, he held up his hands, puffing. "Stop," he said between breaths. "Let's take a breather--you're wearing me out. Got a crick in my back from falling asleep in that blasted chair last night, so let up, okay?"
Well, if they had been giving a prize for saying exactly the wrong thing, Winterhawk would have been off for a week's vacation in Paris. I don't know why precisely that did it, but whatever thing inside me that had been tightening up since yesterday snapped at his words. I think it was the picture again--curled up in the chair, rich, without a care in the world, having no idea how the rest of the world had to live, playing at what to me was deadly serious--I was going to wipe that look off his face if it was the last thing I did. "No way," I said, my voice almost a snarl. "No rest. Real world, now. You don't get to rest in a fight--not 'til the other guy's dead." I held the sword up in his face, right under his nose. "See this?" I demanded.
"Sure," he said, with just a shade too much indifference in his voice. "I--" He didn't get to finish the sentence, except to expel a sharp breath as my foot drove into his ribs and jammed him back into the wall. "Should have been watching this," I said nastily as the foot hit and he crumpled down the wall, staring up at me with confusion and pain.
I stood over him, waiting to see what he'd do next. It had felt good--in that kick I had put all of my feelings toward all those rich corp bastards who screwed up everyone else's lives with their games and their money and their power. It's amazing how a rage can take hold of you and hold hostage any rational thought. I knew that if he tried to get up, I'd deck him again. Perversely, I hoped I'd broken something--he could heal it, and it would serve him right if it had.
I should have known better than to think he'd try to get up, though: Winterhawk wasn't a physical fighter, and he knew it. He also was no dummy. Slowly, his look of confusion transformed to one of cold anger, as he raised his hand. A nimbus of blue energy flickered around it: I knew it wasn't the Confusion spell he'd been practicing on me with before--this one could well be deadly. I reacted before I thought, my first instinct to prevent him from finishing the spell. Moving with my dramatically enhanced reflexes, I knew he had no chance to react first. I picked him up and flung him with all my strength across the room. He skimmed the couch, crashed into the far wall, and went down, stunned. I followed quickly, ready to nail him if he should try the hocus-pocus again.
I needn't have worried. Slowly, painfully, he pulled himself up to his knees and glared up at me, but there was no evidence that he would cast another spell. "What--the hell--are you doing?" he demanded through gritted teeth. "Have you gone mad?"
I shook my head. "No, I haven't gone mad. No more than usual, anyway. But I finally realized that I had to make you see. You really don't get it, and that burns the hell out of me." I threw myself down on the couch and flung the sword across the room, where it landed in a corner. When I spoke, I could hear my voice getting louder, but I didn't care. "All week I've been living in this fancy house, eating fancy food, living better than I ever had in my life, and you just toss it off like it's nothing. Like you're used to it. You and your mansion and your servants and your fucking boarding schools. You who's a runner 'cause it's fun--a little diversion until something better comes along. I'll bet you never had to worry about where your next meal was coming from, did you? Ever?" I glared at him.
He hadn't moved from his position on the floor, but his face had changed. Funny, but instead of getting angrier as I'd expecting to, his hard, unnaturally-brilliant blue eyes (one of the few parts of him that wasn't original equipment) had softened a bit. "No," he said quietly. "I haven't."
"Didn't think so," I continued sullenly. "You want to hear what it's like to live on the street--to not know where or even if you're gonna eat, or where you're gonna sleep, from one day to the next?"
He pushed himself gingerly back until he was sitting with his back against the wall, still on the floor. "Suppose you tell me," he said in the same quiet tone. There was no hint of sarcasm or lightness in it now.
"Okay, I'll tell you, then. You want to know what I was doing while you were getting bored in your boarding schools, and going on holiday to the suburbs? I was living on the street. I was five years old when my mom deserted me. You think your parents didn't love you? At least they didn't ditch you at a bus station. Yeah, that's right--I never knew my father--maybe my mom didn't know him too well either, if you know what I mean. But she kept me until then--she didn't have much money either, and she did what she had to to live. But then she met this guy, and I guess she thought she might have a chance at a better life without a kid. So you know what they did? They took me to a bus station. Left me outside, and said to stay there--they'd only be gone a few minutes, while they got the tickets. It was that evening before I realized they weren't coming back, and I was on my own." It was funny--when I started telling the story, it was like a floodgate opened up. Almost like it wasn't even me talking: somebody else was telling my story using my voice, but it wasn't me. This was the first time I'd told it to anyone. And I wasn't done yet. Winterhawk just sat there, watching me, his expression carefully neutral.
"So I did what I had to do--it was rough for awhile, sleeping in alleys, behind dumpsters, trying to find buddies to sleep back to back to, one of us staying awake while the other one slept...I got burned a couple times doing that--woke up missing my shoes, or my jacket--but I got to where I could tell who you could trust and who you couldn't. Eventually, I started doing some errands for a local gang called the Predators. They pretty much owned that territory; if you didn't hook up with them you were meat. I taught myself to fight, and a few years later took over the gang. By that time I was pretty tough--big man in the neighborhood, but that didn't matter for shit outside the gang. Anytime they wanted to, the corps or the security guys could come by and blow you away. You know what the best weapon we had in that gang was? The one we guarded so jealously, and took out only for the most special of occasions? They even named themselves after it--the Predators. Yeah, we were tough, but it just didn't matter. In the eyes of anybody who made the rules, we were scum. We didn't matter at all--just more little pawns for their games. And you want to talk about boring? I'll tell you about boring--try spending day after day just hanging out by the pool hall 'cause you don't have enough money to play. Try hanging out in a neighborhood where everything's gray and depressing and falling to pieces, and nobody cares because if they built it up, some other group of punks would just come along and tear it down, so it was better not to draw too much attention to yourself, you know? I'd say that's a hell of a lot more boring than not being able to decide whether you want to go into London to visit the pub or maybe stay home and read a book in your library, wouldn't you?" I glared at him again, but my anger at him was dissipating.
"I would," he said softly, after waiting to see whether I was going to go on. "You're right." He drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, clasping his hands. "I've been quite an ass, haven't I?"
I shrugged. "You didn't know."
"No, but I should have suspected. This has been bothering you ever since you got here, hasn't it?"
"It's all right," I said. "I don't want your sympathy. I just want you to understand. To see that some of us do this because we have to, not because it's good fun. Becoming a runner was my ticket out of that neighborhood, and I've never gone back. I see some of my old friends sometimes, but not too often anymore. I don't want to remember that time in my life. I got lucky and came into some money a few years back, and I didn't ask for a second chance. I just want you to get it."
He nodded. "I think I do. Believe it or not, I can understand. Maybe not on an emotional level, since I've no frame of reference and it would be terribly presumptuous of me to claim I understand what you went through. But I understand why you had to do what you did."
I sighed. "So what do we do now? I don't know if things can change--I'll be honest, I've changed the way I think about you since I came here, and not in a good way. I'm just afraid there's always going to be that doubt in my mind that you're really taking what we're doing seriously. And you know as well as I do that that can be dangerous."
"Absolutely," he agreed. "But then, you've given me cause not to trust you, as well--we can't have you flying into rages in the middle of firefights. I don't mind being whacked with a wooden sword, or even tossed across the room if it proves a point, but I don't fancy having you at my back with that monofilament whip of yours if you can't keep control of yourself."
"Touche," I said. "Listen, I'm sorry I threw you across the room. I'm sorry for this whole morning. I shouldn't have lost it like that."
"Don't worry about it. It needed to come out sometime, and better now than a less opportune moment. But it seems to me that the crux of this little dilemma is that you don't think I understand how the other half lives, right?"
"Basically, yeah," I agreed. "How could you?"
He pulled himself up to his feet and began pacing around the room, pausing to inspect a glass figurine here, a book there, walking with a decided limp that he ignored. "Then perhaps I should find out," he finally said.
"What?" I wasn't sure I'd heard him right. Had he said what I thought he'd said?
"I said, perhaps I should find out. You could show me, you know."
"Show you?" I was still confused. I twisted around on the couch so I could watch him behind me. "How can I show you?"
He came back around the front of the couch, perching on one of the arms. "You were just telling me about your neighborhood. Sounds like a pretty tough place. Why not there?"
I paused before answering, then shook my head vehemently. "No. Absolutely not. You wouldn't last a minute down there, unless you started frying brains. And that doesn't prove anything--we already both know you can do that."
"Well, I wasn't thinking of going alone," he said, his mocking smile returning. "What's the matter--afraid to face it yourself? Or afraid to see how I'll do down there? You've got this image of me now as some kind of soft, self-indulgent fat cat, and it's not in my best interests having you think of me that way. No magic. Just you and me against the world, as it were."
I had to admit, the idea had its merit. "You'd stand out like a sore thumb dressed like you usually do," I reminded him as a token protest.
"Bugger that," he said cheerfully. "I'm sure you could find me some appropriate attire." He seemed to be back to himself now, and funny thing--so was I. "Besides," he continued, "This might give me the chance to try out some of that fancy footwork you've been teaching me."
"Yeah, right," I told him. "And you'll cut off your fool head, and I'll have to sew it back on. You'll have to learn to stay out of sight, that's all. That's the secret to survival."
And so it went. We continued making plans throughout the rest of the day, pausing only for lunch with Aubrey. By that evening, we had two tickets back to Seattle. This, I thought, was going to be interesting.
Copyright ©1993 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.