Maybe somebody else standing before Kindly Cheng's table in the mahjong parlor, surrounded by Triad thugs, would have been trying to talk their way out of trouble while they still had a tongue. Me, I couldn't stop thinking about how I spent two god damned years keeping Duncan alive on the streets, and tonight I'd gotten him killed. Judging by the look in Kindly Cheng's drug-sharpened eyes, it was going to be a bad death.
The human triad leader was looking at me, not my musclebound orc might-as-well-be-brother standing beside me, because she knew how we operated together. Tiles clicked at the mahjong tables behind us, loud in the sudden silence. "So what you're telling me," Kindly Cheng said in Cantonese that creaked with age and disgust, "is that you could have delivered the message just the way I asked you to, but you chose not to. Because you felt I owed this… fucking eel another chance."
The eel she was referring to, Ah Lok, was an enforcement target when we tracked him down in the sewers, but we aren't the triad's enforcers. Averting my eyes to try to show Kindly Cheng some respect just locked my gaze with Duncan's. His red-lensed goggles were propped above his forehead, exposing fury he tamped down in narrowed eyes and clenched fists. If I didn't say something, he'd say something worse. I made the call, even if Duncan agreed with me. I had to say something. "Auntie, Ah Lok is more than willing to extend his services on an exclusive basis, for your generous sparing of his life and his family's home."
Kindly Cheng was still focused on me, and I thought I'd gotten Duncan out of her ire entirely, for about three heartbeats. Then Duncan muttered, "He deserves that much."
The old triad fixer was still looking at me when she flicked the end of her cigarette holder between Duncan and her big troll bruiser bodyguard. Before either of us had a chance to move out of the way, the troll doubled Duncan over around a punch to the gut. The ballistic armor Duncan wore wasn't up to the sledge-hammer impact of a casually vicious troll fist. Duncan grunted and hit the floor on one hand and one knee.
I stepped toward the two of them, but one of the wiry human thugs got me in a wrist lock. She twisted and leaned into it. The pain froze me in place. Too much was riding on our work for Kindly Cheng for me to risk shadowrunning one-handed.
The troll's boot thudded into Duncan's jaw and sprawled him across the wood floor. Blood from what I hoped was just a bitten tongue trickled over his chin. The troll's green eyes were half lidded with boredom while he kicked Duncan in the side once, twice. Duncan groaned, the sound sharp and pained and more than I could handle.
"Auntie," I said, "please, it was my call."
Kindly Cheng raised one eyebrow, just a little, and the human holding me leaned harder on my wrist. My knees hit the floor. It was that or lose my hand. The troll kicked Duncan again, and something cracked. It had to be the armor. We could replace that. It had to be Duncan's armor, not his ribs.
When he tried to get up, the troll kicked him in the groin. Face twisted with rage and agony, Duncan lunged at the bruiser's waist like he thought he could tackle the guy. All that did was wake the troll up so his eyes were wide open when he peeled Duncan off of him with one massive hand, landed three solid punches to the face with his other, and let Duncan fall.
I wanted to look away. Duncan's full set of orc fangs were bared in a bloody rictus of pain, but he kept trying to stand. The troll kept kicking him down again. Every time Duncan hit the floor, he looked over at me. I could bear witness. I wouldn't look away. I told him with my eyes that I'd get him out of here, even if I had to drag him out. Even if I got my wrist broken doing it.
That last part must have showed on my face, because Kindly Cheng waved the troll away from Duncan. Any combination of Kindly Cheng's regular shadowrunners would be able to complete the jobs she had lined up, but only if I were in one piece to go with them. "People deserve what I say they deserve," she sneered.
I bowed as low as the wrist lock let me and kept my mouth shut, eyes on the floor. My arm shook with the strain the position put it in, probably hard enough for everyone to see. Humiliation didn't matter. What mattered was proving to the old triad bitch that I understood the lesson she was using Duncan's blood to teach me.
When I glanced up after a long moment, Kindly Cheng twisted her wrinkled mouth into a smile that said she accepted the bow and the silence in the deferential spirit they were intended. "Get out. I'll have something for you day after tomorrow, maybe."
The human gave me a shove when she let go of my wrist, but I was already moving in a crouch to Duncan's side. Without the bruiser laying into him he'd pushed himself up on his hands and knees, but he wavered there, eyes squeezed shut. Each panted breath spattered his blood on the bamboo floor.
I patted one arm until he shifted his weight off it and let me wrap it around my shoulders. We stood together, him with a long, pained growl until he got his feet under him. We took our time edging around mahjong tables full of armed gamblers to reach the door.
The night was warm and humid, and sweat broke out on my forehead as soon as we left the fan-cooled parlor behind. Duncan was heavy even without his gear, and we hadn't had time to get back to base after the last run. He made it two steps around the corner and out of the door guard's sight before he puked what was left of his guts out on the dark street. "Sorry," he grunted.
It was deeper than the voice he used to apologize in when he was a sick and starving kid, but it hit me as hard now as it did then. "Fuck that, and fuck Cheng," I said. "Can you make it to the chop shop?"
He wiped blood and vomit off his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded, so I hauled him that direction. His breaths were quick and shallow. I'd thought about taking him back to our hideout aboard the Bolthole, but now I was glad we didn't waste time staggering toward the dock. He needed a doctor, or as near to one as he could get in this garbage heap of a neighborhood. When we walked under a flickering streetlight, the bruise swelling on his jaw made me want to burn the whole city down.
What we'd done on the mission wasn't a fuckup, or at least, not the level of fuckup I was afraid it was while I was bowing and scraping in Kindly Cheng's mahjong parlor. That man she sent us after, Ah Lok, had a family he was trying to do right by. They wouldn't have survived without him.
"Worth it?" I asked.
"Yeah." Duncan chuckled and let me take a little more of his weight on my shoulders. "I'd do it again." And if we were lucky, he'd live to do it again. After he got patched up, I'd make him thank me for that.