It was almost two minutes into the third quarter of the UCAS League playoff game, and the sold-out crowd at the Kingdome was in high spirits.
It had been a hard-fought first half, but coming out of halftime the Seahawks had managed to carve out a slim 17-10 lead over the heavily favored Patriots following a spectacular 75-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chuck Strczynski to hotshot ork receiver Matt Low. Low was only in his first year with the Seahawks, but the team had high hopes for him. So far he was living up to his press releases, helping to lead the team to one of its best seasons ever.
The game was the hottest ticket in town. It had been five years since the Seahawks had even made the playoffs, let alone managed to survive the first two rounds of eliminations and sit poised on the brink of a Super Bowl berth. As a result, tickets were selling through legitimate ticket-broker outfits for as high as a thousand nuyen each, and fetching up to three times that amount on the street.
Nonetheless, it was probably safe to say that of the six current occupants of luxury box #7 high above the gridiron, at least four of them would not have been present had they been required to pay the astronomical prices needed to secure such a coveted spot. All of them could have easily afforded it, but they likely would not have thought of doing so under normal circumstances. Their interest in the game ranged from fairly strong attention through total indifference, but they weren't here entirely for the game.
As the Patriots called a time-out and the action ground to a halt, Ocelot spared another moment to be a bit amazed at the turns his life had been taking lately. Before this he had never even been to a football game, let alone attended one surrounded by such splendor. The box had everything a football fan might want, and more: liquor, food (and more being continuously brought in at their beck and call), beer, large trideo screens overhead so you could follow the action up close, almost sinfully comfortable leather seats—yeah, I could get to like this, Ocelot thought, leaning back in his chair with a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other. None of that foo-foo food, of course, but the rest of it's not bad. He had pointedly ignored the more upscale offerings on the menu in favor of traditional sports-type food: hot dogs, chips, popcorn, pizza, beer. Nice to see somebody other than those fat corp bastards can get to enjoy this kind of stuff, he thought.
He looked around at his friends, wondering what they were thinking about this whole thing. Joe, his huge troll bulk spread out over a leather couch in the second of the box's two rows, leaned forward in anticipation as the Seahawks set up once more for a play. He looked like he had settled in for the long haul—on the table in front of him was a pitcher of beer (what Joe considered a glass) and a plate of hot dogs, onto which he was sloshing condiments without taking his eyes off the game. Off to his left side was a tub of popcorn the size of a small trash can.
It was hard to tell what ShadoWraith was thinking—but then, it was always hard to tell what ShadoWraith was thinking. The elf sat, his face utterly impassive as usual, his gaze roving over the action on the field, the fans in the seats down below, the other occupants of their own box, the sidelines, and probably anything else there was to see. He apparently did not share Ocelot's dislike of "foo-foo food," because he had some sort of vegetarian-and-seafood plate in front of him, complemented by a glass of his favorite Anchor Steam beer.
Next to 'Wraith, Winterhawk was trying gamely not to look bored. Ocelot grinned, watching the mage perusing the overhead screen for clues as to exactly what was going on; when they had been invited to attend the game, 'Hawk had almost declined, citing total lack of interest in football. As a native Englishman he had not grown up with it like the others had, and on top of that he had never been a fan of team sports. There had been only two reasons he had come: Ocelot's urging and the fact that he had no desire to offend the host of this little party. "What are you thinkin' about, 'Hawk?" Ocelot couldn't resist asking. "You look confused."
The mage turned back around. He didn't have a plate in front of him, but he was holding a glass of Guinness—at least his third, if Ocelot's count was correct. "I am not confused," he protested. "I'm just having a bit of trouble following what's going on, that's all."
"You don't really want a lecture on the finer points of football, do you?" Ocelot asked innocently, taking a deep breath as if in preparation.
"No," 'Hawk quickly interrupted. "Thank you, but I'll just soldier on."
"It's not really that hard," Joe spoke up from the back row.
"Yes, well, remind me to describe cricket to you sometime," Winterhawk said, twisting around to face the troll. "That's not hard either, once you get used to it."
"No thanks," came a voice from the other side of the box. "From what little I know about the rules of cricket, we'll be here all night."
Ocelot grinned again, looking up. Kestrel was in the process of drawing another beer from the mini-bar. As he watched, she came back over and plopped down in her seat, shoving her baseball cap back on her short white-blonde hair. "What do you know about cricket?" he asked teasingly.
"I've been to a cricket match," she said in mock offense through a mouthful of popcorn, her green eyes twinkling. "Nearly bored me right out of my skull. I think it was in India—trust me, there were a lot more interesting things to do in India than watch a bunch of guys in white outfits whack a ball with a funny stick."
"She's right," admitted the final member of their group. "We ended up leaving early. I think we might have offended some of the fans."
Ocelot nodded, sparing a quick glance down at the action on the field before returning his attention to the speaker. The Patriots had gotten the ball back on their own 38 yard line, and it was now 2nd and 14. It looked like they were setting up for a rushing play, moving their two troll running backs into position. "Uh...yeah."
If someone who didn't know the man sitting next to Kestrel were asked to identify his occupation, "fixer" would probably have been one of the last things they'd have picked. Sim star, maybe, or spokesmodel, or some other calling where looks and charisma and presence were the primary attributes. For one thing, he didn't look old enough to be a fixer. He didn't even look old enough to be drinking the beer in front of him. But despite his uncanny, almost androgynous beauty and his youthful appearance, there was something more in his bright violet eyes—something that even a moment's examination would reveal to be deeper, older, wiser.
Right now, however, he didn't look particularly deep or wise. Leaned back in his seat with his feet up on the edge of the box, he wore a leather Seahawks jacket, faded Levi's, and bulky high-topped basketball shoes. His gaze, flicking back and forth between Ocelot and the game, seemed to miss nothing. Smiling, he added, "We tried to sneak out, but I'm afraid we didn't blend in too well."
Kestrel yanked off her baseball cap and dropped it on his head, pulling it down over his eyes. "Yeah, Gabriel. Sure. You trying to blend in anywhere. That's a laugher." She regarded him with great affection. "Tell them why we were in India in the first place, why don't you?"
"I don't think—"
"So why?" Joe spoke up.
Gabriel paused, then answered almost sheepishly, "I heard there was a restaurant in Bombay that served a truly incredible vindaloo."
Kestrel grinned, reclaiming her cap. "Most people just go for takeout. But no-oo-o—he hears about a good restaurant halfway around the world and off we go."
"I didn't hear you complaining," he said with an impish smile.
"So—was it worth it?" Winterhawk asked, glad for something else to pay attention to besides downs and yardage and blitzes.
Gabriel nodded. "Oh, yes. Every bit." He pulled the tub of popcorn from Kestrel's lap, put it in his own and, still smiling, focused his attention back on the game.
"Don't listen to him—he likes everything," Kestrel put in, wrinkling her nose in affected disapproval.
Ocelot looked back and forth between Gabriel and Kestrel. Six months ago, their easy familiarity would have awakened feelings of jealousy in him that he would have found hard to control. Even though he knew that Gabriel's and Kestrel's relationship was one of best friends rather than of lovers, it still caused twinges even after all this time and after all that had occurred.
He did think it was kind of funny, though, that none of the team showed the least amount of astonishment that Gabriel would dash off to Bombay with Kestrel just to try an exotic dish at a recommended restaurant. He was like that, they had found out. Impulsive, eternally amused, always willing to try something new—when you coupled these traits with 'richer than Midas', you ended up with a 100% unpredictable combination.
Add that to the fact that he was not what he currently appeared to be, and that made the equation even harder to figure. Ocelot had encountered several Great Dragons in his shadowrunning career, but Gabriel had to be without doubt the strangest. Maybe it was because, by the standards of Great Dragonkind, he was still just a kid. But for whatever reason, life around him was never boring.
Ocelot thought back a little over six months ago when the team had first encountered Gabriel. Kestrel had been just back in town at that point, trying to pick up a relationship that she and Ocelot had broken off two years previously following her team's move from Seattle to somewhere back East. Ocelot—in fact, the whole team—had been suspicious of Gabriel upon first meeting him, but Ocelot had had more reason than the others. To him, it had appeared very much like Kestrel had taken up with a very handsome young man for whatever reason, which meant that he couldn't figure out why she was interested in getting back with him. Even after she'd assured him that there was nothing more between her and Gabriel than friendship and business, he had been uncomfortable with the whole thing.
Strangely, Gabriel's revelation of his true nature had both calmed and exacerbated his feelings of jealousy. Calmed because he was finally able to internalize the fact that Kestrel was not having a relationship with him, but exacerbated when, following a catastrophic fight with Gabriel's half-brother atop a Downtown skyscraper, she had admitted that she did, in fact, love him. They had all nearly died—even Gabriel himself—during that battle, and it was at that point that Ocelot had gotten to see an unfiltered demonstration of Kestrel's feelings for the young dragon.
She and Ocelot still saw each other—in fact, they saw quite a bit of each other, and on the surface things had continued to go on about the same way as they had gone before. They still went out, and not too many weeks went by when one of them wasn't spending at least one night at the other's place. The change was something less obvious but more profound, as they had both realized that what they had felt was not love, but merely strong attraction. Ocelot was okay with that, since he had been uncomfortable with the idea that a guy like him, who didn't like any ties in his life, had actually managed to fall in love with someone. He was pretty sure Kestrel, who was as much a career shadowrunner as he was, felt the same. Neither of them would have admitted it without a gun to their heads, but in a way it had been a bit of a relief. It had taken away all those messy questions of commitment and permanency and left them free to just enjoy each other's company for as long as it was fun.
Suddenly the crowd was on its feet; Ocelot snapped back to the present to realize that the Patriots had just tried a long bomb (their quarterback, an ork with heavy mods, specialized in just such a thing) that was very nearly intercepted in the end zone by Seattle. The pass was ruled incomplete and the fans settled back down again.
"Great game, huh?" Joe said enthusiastically, guzzling beer.
"You bet," Kestrel agreed.
'Wraith got up to refill his glass without comment as Winterhawk watched the instant replay on the trid monitor. He had missed the initial play because he'd been amusing himself by examining the bright flaring auras of the die-hard fans on the astral plane.
"Wonder if Harry's here," Joe commented. "Seems like the kinda thing he'd be interested in."
"Didn't ask us," 'Wraith said.
Winterhawk chuckled. "If he had, he probably would have tried to charge us for the tickets."
"Ain't that the truth," Ocelot agreed. Harry, their own fixer, got them the good jobs, but he certainly wasn't known for his generosity. "He's probably up in one of the other boxes with half a dozen bimbos, eating filet mignon and caviar and sipping wine out of their shoes."
"Bleah." Kestrel grinned. "Sounds pretty unsanitary to me."
"Yeah, that's Harry all right." Joe took another swig of beer and washed it down with a mouthful of corn chips.
"I can just hear him sayin' You guys don't give me no respect," Ocelot said, doing a fair imitation of the fixer's gruff tones.
"He's right, isn't he?" Winterhawk finally succumbed to hunger and leaned over to grab a slice from the remains of the huge pizza on the table in front of Ocelot.
"Well...yeah. But that's not the point."
Kestrel laughed. "You guys are terrible. What do you think, Gabriel—you think your team talks about you like this when you're not around?"
"I don't make a habit of drinking wine from women's shoes," he said mildly. "Besides, I think your combat boots might prove a bit daunting even for my constitution."
Kestrel swept her cap back off and thrashed him soundly about the head and shoulders. "You better show some respect, lizard-boy," she growled through a big grin.
"So," Winterhawk said, deftly trying to change the subject before things got out of hand and popcorn started flying, "how is this team of yours doing?"
"Yeah," Joe added. "And how come they didn't get to come to the game?" He glanced down at the field: the Patriots had just gotten nailed with some sort of penalty (illegal procedure, according to the ever-helpful trideo screens) and were now at second and 30 on Seattle's 42 yard line.
"They're on a run right now," Gabriel said. "Somewhere down in the California Free State. It wouldn't have been practical to invite them."
"Are we ever gonna get to meet 'em?" Joe asked. He finished the last of his plate of hot dogs and dragged over a bowl of chips.
Gabriel shrugged. "I never really thought about it. They were at the party at Lunar Dreamscape, but I don't suppose you had any reason to meet them then."
"We were a little busy," Ocelot said. That was when they had first encountered Gabriel, and he had given them more than a bit of a reason to be wary of him at the time.
"Just throw another party," Kestrel said wickedly. "Oh yeah, I forgot—you hate parties, don't you?"
Gabriel just smiled and swung back around to watch the game.
For the next few minutes, the rest of the group did the same, settling back into their seats. The action was heating up now: it looked like the Patriots were going to score when ork quarterback Gary "Grunt" Gronstein faded back for a long pass only to be taken down by a massive sack when his offensive line fell to a Seattle blitz. The thunk of Gronstein's head hitting the Astroturf was carried loud and clear over the trid, accompanied by the cheers of the Seattle fans. The game paused for a few moments while Grunt was carried off the field and second-string QB Billy Hunsaker hustled in to take his place. This changed the odds of the game considerably; while Grunt had been the centerpiece of a punishing Patriot offense, Hunsaker was only in his third year and suffered from notoriously spotty performance. Suddenly it didn't look like quite such a certainty that the Patriots would pull this one out. All around, excitement began to build in the stands.
Ocelot moved over a seat so he was next to Kestrel. "So," he whispered with his best bad-movie-villain leer, "you want to come over after the game for a little—uh—post-game activity?"
"Hmm...depends on what you had in mind," she whispered back. "I don't think I could handle much more popcorn and beer."
"Popcorn and beer were the farthest things from my mind," he assured her. "I was thinking more of...I dunno...hitting the showers."
"Hey you two," Joe spoke up. "Don't'cha know it ain't polite to whisper?"
"Just jealous," 'Wraith commented, startling everyone.
"Jealous?" the troll demanded, grinning. "Of what? Them?" He hooked one huge thumb toward Ocelot and Kestrel.
Winterhawk turned in his chair. "He may be right," he said speculatively, his eyes showing his amusement. "You never told us your Native American name, Joe, but I'll wager it could be Whispers Like Foghorn."
"You wanna come over here and say that?" Joe demanded with his own grin. For emphasis, he grabbed a massive handful of popcorn.
Gabriel rose, heading over toward the bar with his empty glass. "Gentlemen, gentlemen," he admonished. "Take it outside, before you—" Suddenly he froze in mid-step, his sharp gasp clearly audible all around the box. Staggering, he fought to remain standing as his hand flew to his head. The glass, ignored, slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor.
Kestrel's eyes widened in fear. "Gabriel—?"
He stood there a moment, swaying a bit from side to side. Then, after a second or two, he lost his balance and toppled.
Joe, closest to him, caught him before he fell and effortlessly laid him out on the couch he himself had just vacated.
Kestrel vaulted over her seat and came down next to Joe, kneeling by the couch. "Gabriel? What happened? What's wrong?"
As the other runners, football game forgotten, hurried over and surrounded him, Gabriel's eyes opened. His normally fair skin was more pale than usual, and beads of sweat stuck his ink-black hair to his forehead. His breathing was fast and shallow, like someone who had just had a bad fright. "No—" he whispered. "No..."
Kestrel took his hand, her features wreathed with worry. "Gabriel—what is it? What happened? Please tell us."
Taking a deep breath, he waved her off. He used his other hand to swipe his hair off his forehead. "I'm—all right," he said shakily.
As he started to rise, Kestrel put a gentle hand on his chest. "Stay down," she said. "Rest. You just fainted."
He shook his head, moving her hand aside and sitting up the rest of the way. "No. I'm—fine. Really. No harm done." Gradually color was coming back to him and his breathing was slowing.
"Are you sure?" Winterhawk asked. "P'raps you might let me examine you astrally, to see if—"
Again Gabriel shook his head. "There's no need for that. Besides, you wouldn't get anything useful anyway...not with my masking in place." He looked up at them, meeting each of their gazes in turn, ending with Kestrel. "Please. I'm fine. There's no need for concern." Over Kestrel's protests, he stood. After testing his balance for a moment and determining that it had returned, he regarded them again. "I hope you'll excuse me," he said ruefully, "but I think I should go now. Please stay and enjoy the rest of the game."
"Wait a minute," Ocelot spoke up. "Is there something wrong? Something you're not tellin' us about?"
"No. No. Nothing you need to worry about." There was something odd and weary in Gabriel's eyes, but his expression was unreadable. "Please. I—I must go now."
He started to turn back around toward the door to the box, but Kestrel grabbed his arm. "Gabriel, wait. I'll go with you. You shouldn't drive like this. It could happen again."
Taking her upper arms in his hands, he shook his head. "No, Kestrel. Please. Let me go." For a moment he just stared at her, fixing his violet gaze on her face. It seemed to the other runners that some brief communication passed between them, and then she nodded.
"Okay," she whispered.
He squeezed her arms gently, then turned and was gone.
Copyright ©1998 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.