The Return

Six years. It had been six years since Azriel had been back. Six years changes so many things; and yet, even after six years the Seattle sprawl was somehow just the same as it always was. Azriel could feel the constant hum of life that ever beats beneath the streets. The almost tangible feel of desperation that permeates the air, the sweet smell of success that wafts from above, the sound of life shuffling on from one point to another and all soaked by the familiar Seattle rain.

Azriel worked his way down the crowded streets, the rain dripping off the brim of the hood pulled over his head. He had put out feelers almost immediately upon arriving and found almost exactly what he had expected. Torrid had been busted and was doing a stay in the klank. Frost-Frog had been promoted and moved to a new CATCo compound. Pierce had been killed by a Go-Gang. Everyone had moved on in one way or another.

Change. Everything changed overnight, and everything else changed the six years after.

The only constant was the sprawl and the rain; and the latter was a cold reminder that he had come back to a home that had moved on without him. Azriel made his way down the familiar side streets full of unfamiliar faces towards the only remaining contact he had had in Seattle before that night; the only contact that still mattered and the only reason he was still there. She had always been a rock for him, and if things had changed that much, then there really was no reason for him to stay.

Eventually he found himself standing in front of a very familiar sight. A smile began to form as he gazed upon the Forgotten Legacy Garden. If the compound was where he had lived, this place had been his home. At least it was once. He had been close with the proprietor all those years ago. Very close. Late nights spent sitting and talking, the comforts of waking up with a warm body next to his; good memories of all sorts began to wash over him, warming him through the rains chill. The worry that she had forgotten him in the years since he had been here last lingered in the back of his mind, but he had to try. Some chance was better than no chance at all.

For the first time he saw the two hulking trolls standing outside the main entrance, a vast upgrade from the orc who used to be bouncer. Azriel smile melted into a rueful grin and he shook his head a bit.

She never did make things easy.

He stepped into the street and made his way toward the door.

* * * * * * *

“Hold on boys, I know this one. Let him in.”

The two trolls looked back to her a moment before begrudgingly parting just enough to let him by, which was to say not much at all. Azriel made his way confidently past shooting a smugly triumphant smile up at them, even as they glowered back. His smile warmed greatly as he turned towards Lilly, but vanished in a flash as she reached out and grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled his head down one sharp motion. Before he knew it, she had him doubled over and was dragging him through the establishment. Thank God no one was there to see it at least. He didn’t have much time to think more than that before she backed him against a wall and threw his head to bounce off of it. His head rung a bit from the impact but the pain barely registered in his mind before he felt her press against him to have her lips meet his. The kiss was deep, passionate, and full of a fire that only she could instill. Now his head was really spinning. Pain was a distant memory as he melted into her. She bit his lower lip as she started to lower herself back down; and when they finally broke, his eyes met hers.

I could get lost forever in those eyes.

He was abruptly pulled out of that moment and back into reality with the sharp sting in his face as she slapped him. Hard. He was afraid that she had unhinged his jaw. His ears rung, his head throbbed, his jaw hurt and his mind was spinning; all the calling card of Lilly.

“Aw! Good feeling gone.” he said through a clenched jaw.

“Oh, Manto…” she said with a playful sigh. “You always were my favorite.” A smile broke across her face.

“I’m afraid to see what you’d do if you hated me.”

“As well you should be. Glad to see you remember.” She caressed his cheek a moment and patted it playfully before gliding behind the bar. Azriel could already feel it turning red.

The Forgotten Legacy Garden was not open yet, not this early in the day. Most of the live in employees were still in their quarters above, enjoying their free time before work. For that reason the bar was empty save for the two of them, and Azriel was thankful for that. His head finally starting to clear from her welcoming, Azriel gathered himself up, swept his hair back out of his eyes and situated himself on one of the stools to face her.

For the first time he really saw her, and she was a vision. The girl he had left six years ago had been beautiful to begin with, and now she had grown into the woman before him. He drank in her every line and even took time to admire the new ink she had had placed on her arms in the time between their last meeting and now. Her jeans were low cut and fitted, her mechanics shirt tied just under her bosom bearing her smooth midriff with her trademark wolf paw tattoo just below her navel. She had had that as long as he had known her. Her top unbuttoned just enough to show a hint of cleavage. Her chestnut hair fell in cascades over her shoulders and, as always, the white eagle feather braided into it hanging just behind her right ear. Anyone taking one look at her could see the palpable air of confidence she projected. She was gorgeous and in charge; and she knew it.

“Like what you see?” she half cooed.

“I always have.”

“I hope you remember that I’m more than just a pretty face.” There was a hint of playful danger in her voice. She may have been only teasing, but she also wasn’t lying.

“Believe me, I haven’t forgotten.” His mind drifted to the scar on his chest she had left when they first became close.

“Well don’t go starring to long or I may have to slap reality back into you.”

“No, one is enough for now. So whats with Frick and Frack out front? What happened to Oleander?”

“One of the clients got a little rough with one of the girls. Ole escorted him outside and, apparently, he tripped on the sidewalk and broke three ribs, a wrist, and a leg.” A wry smile spread across her face.

“And these two?”

“Nightshade and Hemlock. Ole had just started his vacation in the klank when they stopped in. They were pleasant enough, kept to themselves, were always polite to the others. We started to have a bit more trouble with certain types when Ole left. They actually stepped in a time or two to help me keep the peace, so we adopted ’em.”

“So you brought them in to be dumb muscle.”

“I don’t think I like you’re tone, Manto. They’re more than that. They’re family.” Her tone had suddenly become severe. She wasn’t yelling, but she may as well have been. “You of all people should know the lengths we go to for family.”

She looked as if she were about to vault the bar and tear into him. Six years had not diminished her in the least. She still learned well from her spirit mentor. Loyal and protective, loving and dangerous all wrapped into one intoxicating package, and he loved it.

I’ve missed this.

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

The tension in her muscles relaxed visibly and she settled back into resting her hands across the bar.

“They may not be the brightest of people, but they are loyal beyond question. We accept them and they us. Give it some time and you will too. There is no judgment in my house.”

“And what about them accepting me?”

“That… may take a bit more time,” she said through a chuckle. “I think its more likely they’ll tolerate you for the time being. They’ll learn to like you eventually though. Most everyone here has. They just don’t see you the same way I do.”

They starred at one another for what seemed an eternity. Lilly stood up and stretched out her hands to rest lightly on the bar as far apart as they could reach. She looked him over playfully biting her lip.

“So what happened Azriel. You don’t write. You don’t call. You just disappear without so much as a ‘good-bye.’ A girl could start to feel unappreciated.” She had adopted the tone of a hurt teenager in a mocking way. “Where did you go in such secrecy?”

“Oh come on. If I told you all my stories right away, what reason would you have to keep me around?” He leaned across the bar a bit on his elbows and grinned up at her.

Her smirk was knowing and warm at the same time. “You’ll tell me. Eventually, but you will. Everyone always does.” She stood upright and sighed. Smiling, she went over and grabbed a bottle from the cupboard where she kept the good stuff behind the bar and threw it at him.

“Knew you couldn’t stay away forever.”

“You see that one or were you just guessing?”

The slightest laugh escaped her lips as she tilted her head in that manner she always did when she saw something she liked.

“You always were my favorite angel. I didn’t need to consult the cards to know you were going to come back.”

Azriel sipped at his drink as he watched her glide from the behind the bar. There was a grace to her movements that could draw anyone’s eye in a room. She stopped at the stereo she had modeled after a centuries old jute-box, with a modern twist of course. She stood considering it more a moment before pressing a few buttons and music began to play through the sound system. It was a song from her personal collection, nearly a century old. He watched her as her hips swayed gently with the melody.

“Cheap Trick?” he asked.

“Very good.” she said turning to face him. “What’s the song?”

“Damned if I know.”

She swayed her way back across the room to sit beside him. “The Flame,” she said and she flicked him in the center of the forehead. “You’re gonna hafta brush up on this game if you’re gonna be coming back here back here. You are going to be coming around again?”

She was trying to hide it behind her teasing demeanor, but there was just enough genuine concern in her voice that Azriel caught it. They had shared so much and gotten to know each other so well that there was little one could actually hide from the other.

“You’re two mountains in the front couldn’t keep me out, Awen.”

Her smile was warm and genuine. For the first time, he saw some of that mask she wears melt away and the true Lilly shine through. This was the side of her that made it impossible to stay away. Underneath all the rough play and sharp words, there was still a woman who wanted nothing more than to be assured and comforted. Her eyes shown with affection but even in the dim light Azriel could see the dark circles under them.

“Still not sleeping well?”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about it,” she said rubbing at her eyes. “So how is your favorite little kitten?”

“That’s part of the reason I’m here. I haven’t had any contact with anyone for years but I hear that she is still around. I was wondering if you knew anything? If she’s still alive, where she may be at, or anyone who could put me in contact with her.”

She half smiled at him. “Come dance with me.”

“What? Oh, no. You know I don’t-” but it was too late. She was already up and leading him by the hand to an open space between two tables. The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody had come on, one of her favorites. He had only ever heard her play it for just the two of them. Azriel had little experience dancing and Lilly knew it. She placed her left hand in his right and placed his other on her back before sliding hers around his waist. They then began to sway gently to the music, bodies pressed together. Azriel was thankful she wasn’t trying anything complicated.

“I don’t know anything about the person you’re looking for. However, I do know of someone who you might be equally interested to see; and he you.”

“Who?”

A wry smile spread across her face as she looked up at him. “Large fellow with long dark hair. Comes in most nights and sits at a table in the corner. Tends to be a little crude but never mistreats anyone. Mostly he just likes to drink and watch. After a few, he likes to share stories about runs he says hes been on. Come in tonight and I’m sure you’ll find him.”

“Thank you.”

She smiled and pressed her head into his chest. The two of them swayed to the music with one another. Azriel got lost in the melody and moment. They were the only two in the bar, but they may as well have been the only two in the world for all he cared.

God I’ve missed this.

“Manto,” she said into his chest. “What happened that night?”

This was not the tone she normally had when she was trying to sniff out secrets. Her voice was saturated with genuine concern.

“Don’t you watch the vids? We’re all traitors to CATCo.”

She looked up at him. “I mean what really happened?”

“Well,” he sighed. “It was a dark and stormy night…”

“Oh fuck you, Manto!” she laughed, playfully slapping his chest. He laughed along with her before the two melted back into one another to sway to the music again.

“Truthfully, I don’t really know. All I know is that we were sold out and marked by someone we all implicitly trusted. That’s all I can say and keep you and your family safe.”

“Our family,” she corrected him.

Azriel could feel those two little words lifting a weight on his shoulders that he had forgotten was there. He wanted nothing more that to just live in that moment forever, and from the way her grip ever so slightly tightened on him, he was sure she did to. The song ended and the two slowly broke from one another.

“I have to go,” he said. “but I’ll be back later tonight.”

She grabbed him by the collar of his coat. “You’d better be, or I’ll be sending my boys to come and drag you back. Here.” She pressed a golden charm the shape of a Lilly into his palm. “This will get you back in without hassle or cover.”

She kissed him again. This time it wasn’t just filled with raw passion. It was tender, familiar, delicate and sweet. Azriel had heard it said that a mind link between two people could allow them to know everything the other was thinking, but she had not used that on him in a long time; not that either of them needed it to know. Azriel took her in his arms gently and kissed her back. Her breath shuddered lightly when they broke.

“No matter what anyone else says or does, you are mine Mantotohpa.” It was a statement of fact more than anything; clear and dangerous. Dangerous to any who would try and speak otherwise in any case.

“Always was, Awenasa.” he said. “See you tonight.”

He turned and made his way towards the door.

“And Manto,” he turned back to her. “Welcome home.”

A smile spread across his face as he looked at her. He then pushed his way through the large door at the front of the building and out into the Seattle rain.

The Return

GDL Shadowrun DanielHoffman