Shades of Grey
Mid-day. The Garden was never busy around mid-day.
What time is it anyway?
The ever present Seattle gloom lingered, always making it hard to really judge time by the sun anyway; but that was just an excuse, a crutch. In truth, Azriel had almost lost track of time. How long had it been since he had had a decent nights rest this time? Three nights? Four? A week? It had been just over a month since the team arrived home for Stuttgart. They had gotten their cut of Hartwin’s profits and everyone else seemed happy. Jackie and Scot continued to bond over their love of Shadowrunner Sam vids, Judas was wrapped up with his drones and Winrey as always, Balthazar found contentment in his exercises and Raziel had taken a side job and was out of town. Everyone had moved on from the last job and never seemed to give it a second thought; yet Azriel couldn’t manage to shake it. This one was different. It lingered with him in an uncomfortable way that kept him awake at night. The only real peace from the memories he found was in the bottom of a bottle. It was his least favorite place to be, but it quieted his mind and allowed him to sleep; and sleep had been elusive at best.
Azriel scarcely remembered the walk through the streets. He had merely just gotten up began to walk as his thoughts drifted in his head. He didn’t know how long he had been walking, only that when he left their small flat the sun was barely above the horizon. Now the light was diffused by the almost perpetual gray and the streets were full of their usual frenzy; and Azriel found himself standing just across from the Forgotten Legacy Garden and a halfhearted smile broke out on Azriel’s face.
Azriel withdrew the charm Lilly had given him upon his return and flashed it to the pair of mountains standing beside the door.
“Morning boys,” he all but mumbled as he passed.
“Afternoon” came the low rumble of a reply from behind him.
The truth paused Azriel for a moment. He didn’t turn to them. He didn’t need to. They lived with Lilly and knew the signs. They had become more accustomed to his visits, and even more accepting of him in the months since his return, and they knew when to just let things alone. Lilly had taught them that.
Azriel sighed to himself and headed through the doors. The Garden was all but silent. The chairs were upturned on the tables, the stage curtain was lowered, the lights were out, and even the juke box was silent. Azriel pulled up a stool at the bar and planted himself there; it was then that he noticed it.
Tucked just behind the bar, out of reach of any possible drunken hands was a single white lily in a glass vase. The sight immediately brought a fond smile to his face. The Forgotten Legacy Garden had the unusual ability to revitalize those that find a home there. It had been weeks since he had seen that flower and it looked as fresh and alive as the day he had sent it. How many flowers had he sent to Lily over the years? Azriel had lost count, but in the six years he was away, she had received none. That may have been the hardest part, not being able to let her know that he was still alive somewhere. His mind floated through memories of missions past; each time returning and sending that single white lily. His message to her that he was still alive. Each lily tied to warm memories; happier times. His gaze lingered on the newest one, and just as quickly as warm feelings had arrived, fresh memories of their latest mission darkened his mood once again.
Reaching behind the bar, he pulled out the first bottle his fingers found, withdrawing a glass with it.
The dark irony hit him as a rueful laugh slipped out and he uncorked the bottle.
Downing the first few drinks in quick succession, he sat at the bar staring off into nothing trying to keep his mind from drifting back to the hard realities of life now. Time was only marked by the silence. The bottle depleted itself in steady fashion, and still reality refused to belay its assault on his mind. Taking the bottle in hand, Azriel made his way over to the juke box.
It wasn’t a true juke box. Those had been extinct for decades. This was the same digital music player found everywhere stylized to look like one to fit the motif. It was a custom order and the craftsmanship was exquisite. Azriel punched activated the screen and entered in the code Lily had given him so many years ago. He was mildly surprised to see it still worked and soon after he found the playlist he was looking for. Moments later an acoustic remake of “Wrong Side of Heaven” begins to play through the Garden’s speakers. Azriel let the classic rock wrap itself around him and he worked his way back to the barstool.
He scarcely heard the song. The melody and lyrics floated through him without ever really registering; but the combination of classic rock and booze was enough to keep Azriel’s mind occupied. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there or how many songs had played, but movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
Lilly was gliding up to him from behind the bar with that intoxicating grace she always had. There was a radiance to her that brightened any room and with it Azriel’s mood. She wore her typical attire of jeans that dropped to just the right height and hugged every curve; sleeveless mechanics shirt that, instead of being tied hung loose and open over her white tank; and as always, the lone eagles feather tied into her loose hanging hair just behind the ear. Everything in its exact place and all designed to let the eye linger and mind wander; an advantage she never failed to cultivate.
“So what brings you home at this hour, mon cher?” She already had an idea why he was there. The coo in her voice gave that away; and she knew how hearing it would always affect him.
“Went for a walk.” She leaned over, resting her elbows on the counter; her hands clasped around a simple white mug. It was then that Azriel finally noticed the strong smell emanating from the cup in waves of steam. “I take it you like it then?”
“You always know how to pick out just the right gifts,” she smiled and took a sip.
“Well I’d hate to disappoint, my first job since coming back home.”
Azriel managed a half smile as he followed her lead, drinking from his own glass. Lily’s smile faded from her lips as she watched him. She then climbed up onto the bar between them and sat with her back against one of the support beams, stretching her legs out across the length; surreptitiously sliding the bottle just out of Azriel’s reach as she did so. She took another sip of her coffee as she looked down at him intently. Azriel knew that look. He had used it countless times himself. That far away gaze as someone is looking at you without looking at you. She was reading his aura. An almost exasperated sigh slipped out as he faced straight ahead, waiting for her to finish. Even with the music playing, there was a palpable silence.
“You going to tell me what’s wrong?” she said finally.
“I feel fine,” he said, not looking back at her.
“You look like drek. I don’t need to read you to see that.”
He felt a prick of anger in the bottom of his stomach.
“Just haven’t been sleeping well. That’s all.”
“Bullshit.” Azriel looked back up at her as she leaned a little forward. “I’ve known you for damn near ten years Manto. I’ve seen you tired. I’ve seen you worried. I’ve seen you broken, bloody, and half dead. Hell, I’ve seen you naked. Through it all there was always this light to you. But recently, there’s been such a darkness around you that it’s almost oppressive.”
“Is that what you see? Maybe you need more practice then.”
“You were always a shitty liar. You may be able to hide it from your chummers but you can’t hide it from me. I’ve seen it since the day you walked back through my door. Every time you come in here, you’re not yourself. We speak, we smile, but you’re always wearing a mask.”
“And you haven’t been? I can read just as well as you can, and you’re not exactly glowing like you used to either. You wear more masks than I could ever have. What pains are you hiding?”
“Nothing that sends me to the bottle every night. Something is weighing down your soul, Manto; and unless you fix it, it’ll kill you.”
There was a note of urgency and concern laced in her voice.
“If there is a problem, then I’ll deal with it myself. I told you, it’s nothing.” Azriel finished off the rest of his glass in one motion.
“Oh, don’t give me that! You don’t come in here, play this particular song set, and drink this drek,” she yanked the bottle he had retrieved to refill his glass from his hand and all but slammed it on the bar behind her, “over ‘nothing.’ Now talk to me.”
“What is it you want to hear?” his voice was getting rougher.
“I want to hear the truth!” She was raising hers.
“Truth? There is no truth!”
He had never yelled at her before. He scarcely yelled out of anger at all and she was as startled by it as he was; but he plowed onward.
“Ever since that night I’ve been moving from one place to the next, and you know what I saw? The same sick plague of apathy played out everywhere. This world is sick, Awenasa! You look outside and you can see the symptoms just as well as I can. Justice going only to those corrupt enough to afford it. Lives snuffed out and discarded like scraps of burned paper. People feeding off the hopelessness and despair of others in order to sell poison and line their pockets. This world is sick; and what’s worse is it doesn’t seem to want to get better!”
He was up and pacing around now as months, years worth of frustrations came pouring out; and Lily just sat, watched, and listened.
“Do you know what we were doing out there? We were contracted to secure product prices for someone at any cost; all so he could keep selling his junk to addicts. We were willing to destroy the life of some young girl to get her father to do what we wanted. A girl! There was a time when we wouldn’t have even thought to entertain that idea; but now even Raziel seems as comfortable with that as breathing. But instead of the girl, we just set up some tin man, getting him in contact with an arms dealer to bring in illegal weapons just so he can better keep the peace. We helped a man who just wants to do right to become corrupt and assured that someday that decision will be the end of him. Not only that, we sold out the contact of one of our own to do it! Thats the part that makes me sick. Living through the last few years and trying to keep a shred of decency about myself, and I toss it out for the ‘lesser of two evils.’
And all for what?” He withdrew a cred stick from his pocket and held it out for her to see. “So we can become as corrupt as any other; for a dip into the monthly profits of poison sold to the hopeless?!” The glass shattered against the wall, spilling the rest of its contents amidst the broken shards as he threw it.
Azriel slumped back down onto his barstool and set the cred stick on the bar in front of him. He finally felt the full weight of his exhaustion pressing down upon him as his strength began to falter. Lily had not moved or said anything, just merely watched him in silent contemplation.
“Back with CATCo, everything was much simpler.” His voice was much softer now. “We got our mission; we executed it. We never saw the results of our efforts; never saw the people we hurt, and never hurt each other. Everything was black and white back then, all for the greater good. Now…” he scoffed, “Now it’s all just shades of gray.”
He lifted the bottle he had retrieved from behind Lily back to his lips, but it never quite reached there. Lily slapped the bottle out of his hand, sending its contents spiraling outward in nearly all directions. He looked up at her incredulous. He only had a moment, however, to register the fire in her eyes.
Everything went white in a flash of pain radiating from his nose. He felt himself falling through space just before the solid ground rushed up to force the wind out of him. Lily’s fist had found its mark right between his eyes and had knocked him clean over onto the floor. There was a coppery taste running into his mouth and, touching his fingers to his throbbing nose he could see the blood coming from it. The pain barely registered though.
Lily had hit him before. A slap here, pulled on his ear there, even left a few small scars where she had scratched his back; but she had never actually punched him. Whether it was the booze or shock that dulled his pain, Azriel couldn’t tell; and Lily didn’t give him much time to figure it out.
In one deft motion, she had swung herself off the bar and was now straddling him, taking a tight hold of his shirt in both fists. There was a fire in his eyes and a fierceness in her voice he had seen once or twice, but never had it directed at him before.
“You listen to me, Mantotohpa; and you listen well! You think I don’t know that the world is shit? I saw it every day while you were living coddled up in your corp. I lived it! Everyone deals with the reality of things their own way, but I’ll be damned if I am going to sit here and allow you to become some soused up, wasted piece of meat like that friend of yours, Crowley! You get this through your thick head. You are mine and I will not sit by and watch you destroy yourself!”
She shoved him back down, bouncing his head off the floor and climbed off, sitting on the floor beside him. Azriel brought himself to a seated position and the two of them just sat there. Once again, the silence was only heightened by the classic rock emanating from the speakers.
“You hit like a girl.” He grinned at her sheepishly. A slight laugh slipped out of her as she wiped a few tears from her eyes.
“Yeah, well you drink like a dandelion eater,” she chided back. The tension eased out of them and the room with their chuckles. Azriel was sure that most of the house had heard them, but none would dare to stick their heads in to even look around until much later. When Lily got mad in her home, everyone knew to give her a wide berth. When she was with Azriel, they knew to do the same. He was sure that now they didn’t even dare to breath.
Kinda surprised I don’t hear anyone running for the doors.
“Look, Manto. There’s one thing I’ve learned from running this place. Drink when you want to remember, not when you want to forget. Your chummer Crowley has been trying to drown his memories for years now, but they always float back to the surface.”
Just then, Azriel realized that she wasn’t just talking about Crowley. Years of pent up emotion had flooded to the surface for her as well, and just now the walls between the both of them were coming down far enough for him to finally see.
They sat in silence for a while longer, the dulcet tones from the speakers washing over them, before Azriel worked up the courage to ask what was on his mind.
“How long did you wait to see that red lily before you gave up?”
There was a somberness to the sigh that escaped her lips as she looked off. Azriel knew that look. She was trying to keep herself composed. That first day he came through the Garden’s doors was the only time they had been truly emotionally honest with one another. Since his return, their relationship had not just fallen back into place where it had been before as they may have hoped. They did the same things, went through the same motions, shared the same moments.
Perhaps they had both been naive enough to think that they could just pick up from where they left off; but after that first day he had come through those doors into the Garden, it had almost seemed forced; as if they had each had placed a wall up to keep from being hurt by the other.
“I knew that something had happened, it was all over the matrix. And when you came to me that night, broken and half dead, I knew; I knew that you couldn’t have done what they were accusing you of. I wanted to let myself believe that I could hide you here with me; that this would all blow over.” Her voice was cracking and tears were welling up in her eyes. “And then you were gone. My guardian angel was gone. And I waited. I waited for something, anything to tell me you were alive somewhere. And with each passing week and month I knew it was less and less likely, but I dared to hope. I even thought to offer my soul for your safe return to me. After a few years, it was too much. I couldn’t take the pain and the not knowing. So… I let you go.”
She looked at him in the eyes, and years of pain radiated out to him; pain that had echoed in his own soul those years. Six years. Six years too long. Too long separated; too long wondering; too long waiting, hoping, believing. The pain in her eyes and stagger of her breath was almost too much for Azriel, and he felt a lump of emotion in his own throat that mirrored hers.
“I mourned you,” she continued quietly through breathy sobs. “I mourned you. Can you imagine what that’s like? The not knowing. I grieved for years. I offered prayers to the Great Spirit to watch over you and guide you to your ancestors. I forsook any other to share the life that I forced myself to continue.”
She paused for a moment, slowly shaking her head and biting her lower lip for control. Heavy streams of sorrow mixed with joy flowed down her face as she spoke through ragged breath.
“And then, one day, there you were, standing here, in my entryway, as large and beautiful as I had ever dared remember you. My favorite angel, come home. I feared you were a dream. I wanted to never wake up and be alone in my bed, knowing you would never be there again if it were.”
She reached out took his hand in hers and squeezed it as if she were trying to become one. Azriel reveled in the sensation; the softness of her skin against his, the warmth; and all manner of memories came flooding back with it. He gave hers a reassuring squeeze and they smiled warmly to one another. No playful pretense or masks of obfuscation; just love laid bare for the rest of the world to see, if anyone dared to look.
“You know,” she continued. “Now that you’re back, I won’t allow you to leave like that again. You may not live here, but your home is always with me. If you ever leave again, I leave with you.”
Azriel said nothing. There was nothing to be said. It was a statement of fact that they both had silently agreed to when he had come back, and even more so now that the walls had come down again. For a long time the two of them sat there, drinking in each other in every facet possible and taking comfort in their renewed bonds.
After a while, Azriel found his voice again.
“You know, I remember what my grandfather always told me. He said: ‘Believe in yourself. Dream. Try. Do good.’ I really thought we were doing good in the world; that it was a better place when we had finished. That light that was always on the horizon was brighter yesterday.”
Lily laughed a bit, still wiping away the last stubborn remnants of tears. “That’s one of the things I always loved about you, Manto. You’re an idealist. Completely naive and an idealist.” She smiled at him.
“Idealism doesn’t earn a living that lets me sleep at night,” he chuckled ruefully. “How can anyone do good when the world doesn’t want any good done to it.”
She smiled at him and started to climb to her feet. “Come with me, I want to show you something.”
She stretched out her hands to him. He took them and, getting to his feet, smeared some of the blood from his nose across his sleeve. It had stopped flowing freely at least.
“But first, you need a shower and a shave.”
“What, you don’t like the rugged look?” he smiled at her.
“I told you, you look like drek; even with my improvements. Now get your ass upstairs and clean up.”
Despite her playful tone, she broached no argument. Azriel turned and began to make his way to the door that would take him to the upstairs and her private bedroom.
“And no healing my love tap!” she called after him. He stopped and turned to face her again. She was all strength and grace again, beaming with pride.
“You can’t be serious.”
“I mean it,” she shot back. “You heal yourself when I say you can or I’ll have Nightshade give you one you won’t forget.”
He sighed, defeated and knowing that this wasn’t just an idle taunt. He turned again and continued his path back to the staircase.
“And you owe me a new bottle of U.C.A.S. 12 year!” she yelled after him.
“Put it on my tab,” he called back down, not breaking his stride as he disappeared up the staircase.