I knew he'd been there because he'd stubbed his cigarette in the sink. He'd gone into the debriefing, come out of the debriefing, and since I hadn't been apprehended and sent back to prison where I belonged, I assumed that Overstrike 9 was still operational.
"You know, no matter how hard your day is, black coffee makes it all worthwhile."
And I also assumed that the voice belonged to Dalton Brooks. Turning to find the source of the voice, it was an assumption that turned out to be correct.
"Well?" I asked.
"How did it go?" I pressed. "Are we still operational?"
The merc shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. As long as I've got my coffee, I don't care."
"I bet you don't…"
"Bet what you will Naya," the merc answered, taking another sip of that bloody coffee. "Just don't come crying to me if you don't win the jackpot.
I remained silent. God, Dalton could be an arsehole. He was uncouth, unsophisticated, and why Overstrike made him the leader of our team, I'll never know. But he was the leader, and as such, he'd given the debriefing on our latest mission in Europe, along with, according to scuttlebutt, our entire operational history. A history of collateral damage, breaches of protocol, and exposure to sensitive information. Terminator knock-offs notwithstanding.
So it mattered that Dalton was the one who'd provided an account of our actions to the higher ups. It mattered because at the least, while my style isn't as…explosive as my other teammates, I've often broken protocol myself. So I followed him down the hallway from the interrogation room. Trying to catch up to him and trying to ignore the scent of coffee.
"Come on," I said. "You can't just leave us in the dark."
"Sure I can."
"You can try," I said, cutting in front of him, only to start walking backwards as he failed to stop. "But if I can't get it out of you, Jacob and Izzy will do the same. And I'm not sure if they're as diplomatic as me."
"Diplomatic? Please. Hate to break it to you babe, but fancy hair and tits? It ain't diplomacy."
I shoved him, spilling his coffee. He looked down at his trousers. He then looked back at me.
"Spilling coffee isn't diplomacy either."
"Course it is. I've got you talking to me."
"For now. So move it."
Dalton tried to walk around, so I shoved him again. Not too hard mind you. Yet the result was different. He staggered back, clutching his chest.
"Dalton?" I asked. "You okay?"
"Fine," he grunted, getting to his feet. "Fine…"
He wasn't. He tried walking forward, but he stumbled again. Towards me. I managed to catch him, but when you're dealing with over ninety kilos of muscle, it isn't that easy.
"Let me go kid."
"Izzy's the kid, not me," I said, helping him to the chairs in the reception area. "Crap, you're in a bad state."
"That's what happens when you take away my coffee."
Or it was what happened when an eight foot robot kicked him in the chest. He'd been wearing body armour at the time, but clearly it had done him more harm than I expected. I should know, the thing's hand have closed around my neck during the fight. And yet, looking at the guy…
"You're a mess," I said.
Dalton snorted. "That's nice of you."
"No, seriously…" I said. "You're a bloody mess."
I should have seen this sooner, but perhaps being at HQ was what was required for me to adopt the mindset of actually…well, caring. The band-aids on his face. The scars. The bruises. The unkempt, unshaven look. And what about the fact that we were operating against the terrorists that Dalton used to be part of? I'd always operated on my own before being recruited into Overstrike. But how would this merc feel? Did he have any friends back in his old group? Was he forced to fight them? Kill them? Not that any of us really have much problem with killing as a rule, but…
I sat down beside him, rubbing my neck to erase the ache that had grasped it. Maybe it had always been there. Regardless, I watched as Dalton rubbed his eyes. Maybe he needed that coffee more than I thought.
"Come on Dalton…" I said awkwardly. "Talk to me."
Dalton snorted. "Fine." He turned to face me.
"Overstrike Nine should be fine," he said. "I'm a people person. Jacob's a pacifist. Izzy's the little kid sister who's surgical in the field. And I've never seen you break protocol."
"And they bought it?" I asked.
"Of course. Like I said, I've never seen you break protocol. With your cloaking device, that isn't a lie."
Maybe not. But he'd lied to our bosses about everything. Whether that lie would come back to bite us was another matter.
"But hey, if they find out, I'll deal with it," the merc said, getting up. "I always do."
I? I wondered. Not "we?"
"But not before I get a proper breakfast."
He began walking off, rubbing his stomach. Maybe he was hungry. Maybe he was still feeling chest pain. Maybe I should have stopped giving a shit and make full use of my downtime. But-
"Dalton?" I asked.
He turned around. "What?"
"I…" I felt tongue tied, but soon gathered my composure. What to say? Thank you for covering for us? For me? Thanks for helping us against your old friends, especially if it hurts you personally?
"Just…" I trailed off, brushing away some of my hair that had fallen in front of my face. "If you want to talk…I…the team…well, maybe not Jacob…well, I'm here for you."
There. I'd done it. I'd removed any shred of dignity I had left. I'd put myself on the spot. A spot where I stood still as Dalton walked over…brushing the hair away from my face.
"I know kid," he said. "And thanks."
And with that he walked off. And I stood there. At least for a few seconds. After that, I started to follow him.
All things considered, I could use a good breakfast as well.
This was based on a challenge to begin a story with "I knew he'd been there because he'd stubbed his cigarette in the sink." And...um, that's pretty much it. And, you know, shipping. Because with Overstrike 9 having an equal gender ratio, the game's pretty much asking for it. :)