How Sad the Winter Can Be by planet p

Disclaimer I don't own the Pretender or any of its characters.


It was her best dress, her 'going out' dress; her only. It sported a flower pattern. She wore it with joggers; the combination was mismatched. Partly, that had been what had attracted his attention to her. Her long, dark hair was arranged in a bun; to make her look older, he supposed. She would be thirteen but she looked older; the same age, by sight, as her mother when he'd first met her.

At the sight of her, a strange feeling had overtaken him. He'd heard of her work, of course, of her history; he'd been keeping tabs. In his mind, she was his estranged daughter. Seeing her now hurt. He wanted to take her in his arms and say he was sorry; sorry for leaving her. It was a feeling he'd personally never felt before, and it brought with it mixed blessings.

He wasn't her father, he'd been in love with her mother (and was, still) but he'd hurt her. He didn't know he should be feeling fatherly over a girl who wasn't his daughter, especially this girl: a girl who'd told him once that he was 'a part of her heart.' It wasn't just how much of her mother he saw in her when he looked at her; it was more than that. Perhaps he was afraid, afraid of this strange, new feeling of validation to something that, in his youth, he'd decided was romantic and proof of his love for her dead mother. A promise to protect her. He hadn't done that, despite all of his convictions; he'd been no better than her own father; he'd left her, too.

And now, it hurt.

She was so big; so much bigger than he remembered. She was beautiful and guarded, a touch of sadness there, in the corner of her right eye; her father's hair, her mother's skin; mother's teeth, a little gap between the front two teeth, the figure of a girl who's growing up; the shape of her eyes and her eyelashes were her father's; her bones not as small as her mother's, but the same shape: sturdier on her.

And, of course, she looked nothing like him.

Except, she did. He could make that up in his mind: she had a bit of his tan; her brown eyes weren't his eyes, but they weren't her mother's or her father's, either. They might as well have been those of his mother or father; if he'd been able to remember them, he might have assigned them to one parent, a grandparent, perhaps.

He regarded her walk, how she held herself, the way her eyes moved over everything she saw; the shine in them, as though one of these things, or all of them, might be able to tell him if she was 'okay.'

She wore no makeup; her fingernails were unpainted and cut short, her laces tied neatly. Her hair might have been done up by her, or by someone else: it was done well.

He looked for messages: she didn't chew her nails, didn't chew her lip, didn't scratch her face or neck; her skin was clear.

But she didn't smile.

Her walk was sure, stable, but not what he'd call outstandingly 'confident.' He wondered if she had friends, he wondered how she related to others. Was she really okay?

She didn't touch the wall, the table, the backs of the chairs as she passed them; she didn't pause to mull over a particular patch of floor. She had her mother's sureness, none of her father's… strangeness; a strange, little kid trying to be an adult; not quite getting there. He always thought that when he made it, that her dad would be something to reckon with, but maybe he'd misjudged him all along; maybe, even then, he'd been more grown up than he'd given him credit, maybe it was a strange sort of grown up which comes from never really being young enough. Maybe it hadn't been uncertainty, just the way he'd been damaged; a lack of socialisation, or disregard for notions of embarrassment or appropriateness.

In contrast, she was perfectly appropriate; everything about her was proportioned perfectly. He wondered how long she'd been made to practise it, how many times it had taken for it to become ingrained; if it was ingrained or a clever act. She might have been an Empath and not a Pretender, but he knew, too, that Empaths could make great Pretenders when applied to it the right way. He wondered if she was frightened – so many new people – he'd never know, of course. Her face was perfectly schooled. Written across it, there was no boredom, no nervousness at her outfit, proudness; a wish that everyone would just hurry up.

If it hadn't been for her joggers, she would have been perfectly overlookable, he thought: invisible. One more of many, except, she wasn't. She was a highly-trained Class Five Empath, and, choose she to be, she was dangerous! He'd learned that early, that to ignore an Empath was a folly too high to contemplate: they were wickedly devious and sharp as Hell, and deep down they weren't soft and cuddly; they were dark and twisted! If he'd learned anything in his life, he'd learnt never to trust an Empath: in the end, they'd be the ones with the pleasant expression as they were twisting the knife they'd just stuck into you.

Then again, he'd also heard that, in addition to being crazy as anything, some Empaths were fiercely loyal and could get stupid about people they cared for, get careless, blind. That was why Empaths needed someone else to moderate them. Just like Pretenders, in a way; except Empaths didn't have a switch they could flip to turn 'the gift' on and off; they had to train hard and put in long hours their entire lives to work up to some semblance of control. They could start out with zip, as Pretenders often did, or exactly the opposite: in which case, he often thought, they were fucked from the get go; no point, really.

They came in from 'the real world' and they were off their heads; completely cracked. Of course, not to be disloyal to a 'friend,' he could easily say the same of Alex, and he was a Pretender, not an Empath. It just figured on the individual, he supposed. Though Alex was one smart freak; creepy as Hell smart. Even creepier still was the fact that he knew that a Mediator would do Alex no help; his Pretender smartness didn't require him to cross over into an altered state (or Sim); he was perfectly capable of running several lines of Simming simultaneously whilst holding down some ridiculously convoluted conversation. Which was why Alex was a Tower Pretender, he supposed, and he wasn't. Apparently, as they were friends, it was a secret he had been allowed to know; I work better than you!

Even so, Alex wasn't without his flaws; apart from the fact that he saw everyone else as 'savages' compared to himself, he was completely unable to grasp the notion of 'making it up' when it didn't relate to Pretending or a Sim. When the Tower had asked what his favourite colour was, he hadn't made something up, he'd pulled out some antagonistic shit so the attending Sweeper had had to lag him in with something he'd made up.

He smiled.

Underneath, he had a feeling that Alex was so painfully bland that he didn't really want to be Alex the Person; he'd much rather be Alex the Tower Pretender. If it wasn't completely pathetic, it might have been fairly sad.

Of course, he might have been taking a biased stance on matters because of their friendship; Alex might just have been that fucking mental. Who could say? Sometimes, he wondered if even Alex knew. Still, he supposed, it was crazy in itself to play being a lunatic, or maybe Alex just didn't have any compunction, at all. About anything, really.

There was a call for quiet and, silently attached to that, for seats to be taken, and the first speaker was announced. He wandered away from the table where he'd been pouring himself a coffee and took the seat he'd been allotted. Alex would hate it, he thought; he'd probably pull some typically fucking crazy shit to piss everyone off and he'd be the one trying not to crack up. Some people got really offended when they were called savage, no matter that they acted like it or not; when in company, they were always seen to uphold their integrity.

Pay attention to the speaker, he reminded himself amusedly, we're to be seen on our best behaviour today.

Unlike Alex, he minded how he was regarded by others; if he was 'bad' he'd get crap from the folks back home for making them look bad, too. He could do without too much crap this week, frankly. He wasn't that desperate for attention. Then there's the girl, he reminded himself.

He had to make a good impression for the girl; didn't want to embarrass her.

Fucking awful coffee, he thought. If he hadn't been 'on his best behaviour,' he might have thrown it on someone. Disgusting!

The girl was quiet, attentive. She listened to the speaker's words, then she listened to what they were really saying: what are they not saying, what are they saying to a minimal degree, what is the trend of their words, what are the associations they are triggering and in what sequence. What's the truth and what's bullshit.

He made it a game: pay attention so, say they were in competition, they could compare notes later and he could say, Ha! I'm better!

He tried not to smile; he's got to pay attention.

She frowned; uncrossed her legs, and recrossed them. She was alone, he decided. Being watched from afar; nobody familiar sitting beside her.

He had the urge to move seats; he refrained.

She had to know he was there, he knew, but he wondered, suddenly, if it would be good for her if he was seen to be associating with her. It was a strange feeling, one he couldn't decide whether he found it irritating or not; it wasn't a thought he had often. If he wanted to do something, and it wouldn't kill him to do so, he did. There was no point to doing nothing when he could do something, he'd always thought. So it was different.

Usually, he liked different, but this was… unsettling. It didn't feel quite safe. It was more than his usual likes and dislikes, more than entertainment value; it was frightening.

With her mother, it had been frightening, but in an exciting way; this was just plain frightening. Caring about this kid could hurt him badly!

The people she was mixed up with weren't people he'd known for years; they were dangerous and unknown; a big No, no. They'd put her in the kind of danger that had made him want to find them and kill them, and they'd not just done it once, they'd done it over and over; they'd assigned it as her job description. If he wasn't careful, he could hurt these people!

Goodness knew, he'd wanted to before; plenty of times; but, as it was, with being in another country, he'd never had the opportunity. He could feel it within him. He'd have no compunction killing them. They'd hurt the kid he considered like his own; he'd only be sticking up for what was his – and she was his!

She was the daughter of the woman he loved.

He couldn't keep his concentration. Finally, he fell back on an old certainty. He thought of Alex: Alex the Friend protested foul language and profanity, he wasn't a friend of violence and lewdness; if you mentioned necrophilia, you were in for a slap. As a rule, words were just words, if the person you were speaking to understood that; if not, then you'd, of course, say very little and listen up. Conviction was fine, as long as it was for what the people around you wanted to hear; otherwise, it was a recipe for upset. In an establishment like the Center, you played the game or you lost. Suicide was frowned upon, so losing wasn't an option; besides, you were 'valuable.' If they killed you, they'd be damned sure they could bring you back – that was a world of unnecessary unpleasantness you didn't want.

Feeling a semblance of comfort return, he returned his attention to the speaker's words. The speaker hadn't changed yet; good.

He didn't resent the kid that he cared, but if he let himself think on it too hard, it would upset him that he wasn't allowed to care; she was too valuable, he was too smart; he got angry too easy, she might be easily manipulated by someone like him.

He didn't think on it; he cast his mind to the rubbish the speaker was spewing out, the same bullshit he'd been dishing up half an hour again, with no surprise.

He decided, in a moment of weakness, that it would be best not to approach her, best not to start conversation. For a crazy moment, he wondered if he'd made his newly found resolution because he liked pain – a small, secret part of him associated it with intimacy, or some other crap – and he wanted to laugh: it hurt! He wanted to talk to her, say anything, it didn't even matter; he wanted to hug her, to feel what it felt like to hug his 'daughter,' to hug someone with whom it wouldn't all be a pretence. Only, he couldn't.

Wildly, he thought, that if she'd been his real kid, none of this would be a problem. Nobody said anything about parents talking to their kids, hugging their kids. When you became a parent, you suddenly had someone you were allowed (if not, expected) to care for.

Never me, he thought. He'd never be allowed to care, even if she'd been his honest-to-goodness, real kid. Shit like that just never happened in the Center.

Ah, shit! He was back to, Unfair! Back to, pissed off!

You've got to stop thinking about the damn kid, Kyle, he told himself. It wasn't fair, but there came a point where self-preservation kicked in and said, Hang on there, just a moment!

Trying not to let himself get worked up, he waited for his self-preservation to return and kick him, but it wasn't moving fast – it'd missed the bus, or something – and he wondered if it was some crazy, When you're a parent, you suddenly… nonsense.

This is bullshit!

He stood up to get another coffee; he needed something to distract him from the kid, coffee would have to be it. Maybe it was impolite; he just didn't care.

As he was making his way toward the table where he'd found the coffee the last time, he thought, Maybe I'll leave early, then scrapped the idea: Stupid move.

He turned his mind to the trip, the weather, anything outside of this room, away from the kid. The trip had been a non-highlight, the same with the weather, though crappy could also be added the dossier on that: typical Canadian weather; never a 'warm welcome' to be found short of indoors in the winter. Indoors, it was too damned stinking hot. Dislocating, ill-inducing.

He removed his suit jacket and sipped his coffee; stupid to have gotten a hot drink, really. The guy who was speaking at present – third speaker – irritated him; he had the urge to punch the guy.

For a change, the coffee was too hot, like the sort that came from an overpriced vending machine; he sipped it more slowly; the speaker was talking so slowly that he was likely to fall asleep, even with the three coffees he'd had.

The speaker wove in varying directions, in a seemingly random fashion, his words picking up speed only to slow again, picking up pitch and then dropping it again; he related facts to examples that were unthinkable outside of his own conception of Oh, that's funny; that'll hold their attention; they'll get it this way.

Kyle felt ill: When would this be over?

The speaker's voice came to an abrupt halt, jerking him from his painful attention. He looked around and spotted the kid, with her hand up in the hair.

She stood up to pose her question. "Oh, no, it's nothing to do with you," she cleared up quickly, "I want to ask when the biscuits will be coming back."

The speaker's face twitched as he fought not to let his incredulity and offence twist it into something too scary. "Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to that question," he replied frostily.

"I didn't think you would," she answered, "I had meant the question for the group as a whole."

The speaker bristled; she was not impressing anyone with that behaviour!

"Incidentally," she added, "I find that I have no patience for narrow-minded persons who will label themselves 'intelligent.' Educated, perhaps, but I'd veer away from intelligent. The ability to swallow other people's lies and misinformation isn't intelligent, it's idiotic-in-the-extreme or you're just covering your own posterior – and that's sad and pathetic. One aims for a healthy awareness, one doesn't perpetuate the status quo: stupid is controllable, people are nothing more than a human herd, after all. It's much more profitable to control them than not to; they'd never be able to manage on their own, either way; it's just not in them. I find such an attitude despicable!" she announced.

The speaker's ears blushed red.

Firmly, she said, "You, sir, are sad and pathetic."

His face twisted into anger.

In disregard of his anger, she stepped up onto the chair, and said, "You, sir, you are wrong! You, who furthers the dirty agendas of human society, are wrong! We are capable! We deserve that, at least! But you, and people like you, would take away even our chance at that! Understand this, sir, you are gambling with our future, and it is losing! You tell us that we are separate from what you label 'the environment,' that we are separate entities, but you are lying; you're lying again! We are a part of the environment; we need people to become aware, to understand and glean a sense of interacting in a manner as least harmful as possible! We don't need manipulators, sir! With your people in place, manipulating us, few of us are able to see through the lies and misinformation to the simple truth. You'd have us squabble amongst ourselves so that we're unable – simply unable – to spare the slightest regard for what you call 'the environment'! How can you, sir? Aren't you human, too? Aren't you a living, feeling entity?"

As Kyle had been watching, his attention held by the loud girl, a group of Sweepers had been called and had begun to make their way over to where she stood, the only one standing amongst a mass of seated people.

The girl didn't try to run; there was nowhere for her to run to. Instead, as a Sweeper approached from either side of the aisle in which she'd been directed to sit, she stepped down from her chair and addressed the speaker, "It's people like you who are afraid to die!"

A Sweeper took her arm, only to have it pulled back from his grasp with a snap of, "I am perfectly capable of seeing myself to the door, sir!"

The speaker huffed, "Well!"

Getting close to the door, the girl began, as to address the group, "I hope you all thin-" A hand was placed over her mouth, stifling her words.

Kyle forced himself to remain in his seat. She'd be alright; she was an asset. They wanted her alive and capable; they'd dress her down, but that'd be the extent of it. Stupid, he thought, at a conference of renowned experts; stupid child. She was too much like her father; she had a mouth that rarely did her any good! Give her time, she's still a kid; she'll learn.

He concentrated on his breathing, on his heart rate.

From the hall outside came the shout, "We're not social animals to be used and manipulated; we want companionship – we want to share things that we truly care about! We want to care!"

Now, don't frown, he told himself; she'll clue on, one day. What we want isn't to care, it's to hold power over anything and anyone that we can. Whether because we're raised feeling inherently inadequate, or we're just shitty, who knows, and, rightly, who cares! Doesn't change the fact! Money and power, kid! That's the world!

He felt a stab of regret that the kid mightn't make it, that she might never fully grasp the reality; really, he only wanted what was best for her, but she, it seemed, did not want what he wanted. As hard as she rallied, the case would always come back to: where there was a profit to be made, there would be a market. Within human society, that fact would remain the same throughout time. In her position, preoccupations with notions of love and caring were unwise.

They could never be anything else.

She was not just some schoolkid in some city somewhere. All her life, she'd encounter the same attitude. Physical intimacy was all fine and good, but love, care for someone else, was something that you never even touched. Love yourself, care for yourself; no-one else was going to. You can't help them when you're starving, when you're homeless, or dead, he thought. Wake up, kid!

You've got to play the game until the very last moment.

Three and a half hours later, he was finally relieved when the conference came to a close. He took a walk, his legs felt all funny, and found himself in the 'hospital.'

The girl sat on a bed, rambling to thin air in a slurred voice, "He writes books; people read them. He's poisoning them. They trust him; they're told to trust him. It's horrid. I wanted to walk up to him and slap him. I didn't like that. I don't like feeling like that."


He hadn't spoken loudly, but still she'd heard him. Maybe he'd been hoping she hadn't, but she had, now, in any case. He watched as her eyes rolled in her head absurdly and she turned her head slowly toward the door.

He stepped into the room from the hall and closed the door quietly after him. "You're dreaming," he told her, taking some steps further into the room; not too close. "Those feelings, they stay inside. They don't come out. Keep them inside; keep them safe there. Don't let them die."

She blinked. "I love you," she slurred.

For a moment, he thought he would stand there forever, immobile. He didn't; he nodded. He couldn't say the words back. How strange we can be, he thought. To be told you are loved is generally considered something that makes a person happy, and, of course, in typical fashion, I feel exactly the opposite. He looked to the floor, refrained from scuffing it with his shoe, and let himself turn, back to the door. Yeah, he loved her, too. He left the room; he blanked out anything she might have said after he'd began to leave.

Please stop hurting, he thought, as he walked away from the room, from the girl.

It didn't, but maybe the pain hid itself away, upset by being ignored time and time again. How sad that is, he thought, but he didn't feel sad; he hid that, too.