I don’t realize, until he takes his coat off, that he’s still in his combat gear--minus the belts that house his knife and gun.
“Thank you,” I say, scooting my chair closer to the table.
“Didn’t feel like changing, huh?” I ask, eyeing his outfit.
“I didn’t want to leave Echo.”
He takes a deep breath, running his hand through his hair. That’s typically a nervous habit people have. I’ve never seen Michael nervous. Seeing it makes me a little anxious. His answer is a hard one to swallow. I get a pang in my stomach from his confession. I didn’t take into consideration the sting I’d feel from his words when I asked the question. Mostly because he’s admitting something real. An actual emotion. I can honestly say the feeling is shitty. He finally decides to infer he cares about someone and it has nothing to do with me. Not wanting to look at him, I avert my attention to the brick walls, painted white. They hold old pictures of downtown London scattered about. There are black and white photos of Big Ben and the London Bridge, along with other landmarks. Most of the wooden square tables around us are empty. Looks like we missed the lunch rush. We pretty much have the place to ourselves.
I think about when Laci came to see me in the Infirmary. What she said about Michael loving me because he visited me. I knew she was crazy. I guess he must love Echo as well.
My inner companion is quickly approaching inner annoyance again with that last comment. Still, neither I nor my inner annoyance/companion enjoy hearing his words.
“What’s wrong?” Michael asks.
I look at him, confused. “What do you mean?”
For the first time in a while, I let my emotions play across my face. Thankfully, the server comes to get our order before I can answer.
“What can I get you two?” She asks.
“Ladies first.” Michael prompts.
“I’ll take a martini, dry please.”
The server nods turning to Michael. “Scotch, neat, Peggy,” he instructs, glancing at her name badge.
“You got it,” Peggy replies before walking away.
There are still stragglers left at the bar from the lunch crowd.
“Looks as if you have some admirers.” Michael comments, nodding in the direction of two men who haven’t stopped staring at me since we walked in.
“I noticed,” I reply.
Everything is a test with him. His comment has me wondering if he’ll ever trust my abilities without constantly being grilled. I mean, of course I noticed. I’ve only been doing this job for how long now? Ugh.
“Would you like to grill me on how many cars I saw in the parking lot as well, or how about the make and models while you’re at it? I thought we came here to get drunk?”
His look is incredulous. I get I still have a lot to learn, but this is elementary stuff, and honestly, I’m a little insulted by it.
“You can’t allow social engagements to cause distractions to your safety.”
I roll my eyes. Can’t he ever give it a rest? As if reading my mind, Michael changes the subject.
“Look, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about what happened with Griffin-”
“No need, I know what you did. It was better than the alternative, so thank you,” I say, holding his gaze.
“I would like to know about you and Echo, though,” I blurted out.
I can’t hold it in any longer. The care he took with her in the van and the fact he didn’t want to leave her side tells me something happened between them.
“What are you asking, specifically?”
He knows exactly what I’m asking. I can tell by the tone in which he phrases his question. He just wants me to spell it out for him, for shits and giggles. The man’s a torturer by nature.
“I’ve heard about your past with her . . .”
He raises an eyebrow. “People do like to talk in the cave, don’t they?”
He leans back in his chair, getting comfortable before speaking. The server drops off our drinks, and he quickly knocks one back before signaling for another.
“You know, Brianna asked me a similar question about you when we went for coffee.”
I don’t like where his head is going. What happened to her isn’t something I want to revisit. I decide to stay focused on us, and this conversation. Smiling, I say, “You’ve adopted my nickname for the Collective.”
Michael shrugs. “It’s catchy. You remember how it was when you first came to the Collective. How scared and lonely you were?”
“I never felt that,” he admits, looking me in the eyes. “I was used to being on my own. I’ve never had anyone. Echo was like me, so naturally we gravitate towards one another.”
He’s far away. I can see it in his eyes. He’s back there, with her.
“I didn’t get it then, but I do now,” he continues. “It was her strength that drew me in. Her overwhelming need to survive. She’s much like you in that regard, only without your compassion. The General and Sonja view that as a weakness, but not me. I know it’s an attribute. At any rate, a handler doesn’t usually get two new recruits at the same time, but for some reason the General gave me and Echo to Jessup. We spent a lot of time together. Learned to fight together, survive together. We bonded.”
He finishes with a shrug, as if it’s a simple thing. It’s not. Relationships are forbidden in the Collective, yet they had one with no apparent consequences. Why?
“Did you love her?” I’m not sure I’m ready for the answer, but the need to ask the question is too great.
“Love?” he questions, narrowing his eyes at me. He says it like I’m speaking a foreign language.
“I cared for her,” he says a little easier.
He leaves it at that, but I still have questions.
“What are they going to do with her?”
“Question her. Find out where she’s been all this time. Make sure we weren’t compromised,” he answers with another shrug. He’s very relaxed about a situation that is anything but.
“They don’t allow relationships here. I mean, they were going to kill Griffin. How the hell did you get away with a sexual relationship inside the walls?”
“Honestly, I don’t know why they never said anything, and I certainly wasn’t going to point it out. Maybe that’s why they moved her to Greece.”
We sit in silence as I eye the three empty scotch glasses on the table. I’ve barely finished my first martini. The gentlemen at the bar finally get up to leave. My ignoring them doesn’t stop one of them from having the server drop off his number. He watches as she hands it to me. I glance at him and he smiles. I frown at the simple fact that, I’m with another guy, what gives him the notion I’d be open to his gesture? His eyes shift to Michael. His smile dries up like water touched by fire.
I clear my throat. “Why does seeing her again make you want to get drunk?” I refocus him.
“Why are you asking so many questions? Are you thinking about going into psych ops?”
I’m asking because I can’t stand not knowing anything about this man. He knows everything about me.
“No. Just curious.”
“Life makes me want to get drunk. More so, lately,” he admits.
He won’t open up to me completely, not yet. It’s a start that we’re even having a conversation. There is one question still plaguing me. Ever since Laci told me about the night I was brought in, I’ve craved an explanation. I figure, why not try my luck. In this moment my feelings are unmasked. Michael must see something in my expression because he asks, “You have another question for me, don’t you?”
“Don’t think you know me,” I say, although we’re both aware that he does. I smile before I add, “but, yes, I want to know about the night I was brought in. About the operative you killed.”
Just as the last word leaves my mouth, Michael’s phone rings. He answers right away, listening to the instructions. Looking up, he puts the phone back in his pocket and stands.
“We gotta go.”
Impeccable timing as always. I stand as well, grabbing my coat to follow Michael out the door. On the way back to the cave, I’m stuck in my head. Michael and I were making progress. I can’t help but think, if I had a little more time he might’ve told me more about himself. Now, I may never know. I may never get another chance, now that there’s a mission on the table.
We walk into the Collective together, and it seems every head turns to look in our direction. Michael continues to walk towards Tactical, never noticing a thing, but I feel very self-conscious. I don’t want anyone, especially the General and Sonja, to get the wrong impression. I already know people are talking. If Echo being shipped off to Greece truly is because she had a relationship with Michael, I don’t want to be next. I despise this place, Sonja, and the General, but I can take it if I know I have Michael by my side. Michael doesn’t seem worried about it, so I won’t either. Why look or feel guilty about something that hasn’t, and most likely won’t happen? We take our seats as the General wastes no time getting started.
“I’m sure you’re all aware of the conflict in South Sudan; however, they are continuing with Operation Broken Silence. Our intel suggests a militant has placed himself within the Sudanese border patrol, making it virtually impossible for refugees to cross the border safely. Michael, you and your team will be on this detail, helping the refugees safely cross. Your objective is to find the rebels and take them out before they cause more carnage,” the General says while turning to Vivian. “Vivian, pull up the profile.”
A picture of the suspected target pops up as Vivian takes over speaking.
“This is Amir Artoli. He’s part of the new regime led by General Sadiq Akol, the leader of the largest faction of the Liberation Army. Artoli will be looking to shut down this part of the border and extinguish all thoughts of continuing Operation Broken Silence. General Akol rejects the idea of a free Sudan, and will do anything to remain in power. He will stop at nothing to make sure this operation is not a success.”
“Thank you, Vivian,” the General says. “Michael, after Amir Artoli has been taken out, I will need you and another member of your team to stay back. General Akol will be looking for retribution once he finds out his man on the inside has been neutralized. He may try a more desperate attack.”
Michael nods his understanding.
The General continues, “A more extensive profile will be on your phones. Study it. I want boots on the ground in ten hours.”