The water was cold, just like Reach's autumn night wind was cold, but it was a welcome sort of cold that put one into focus. I closed my eyes and just stood motionless under the showerhead for one full minute, content to let the steady rain wash over me. It ran down in trickles and streams, over the little dents where muscle groups connected and the raised, rough lines that were scars.
Noble was bunking down with the Army tonight. Holland had sent us here so he could outline some sort of plan to Carter, and of course Kat was with the Commander in the briefing room. The rest of us were free to do as we wished. Jun had gotten started cleaning his rifle (by now I'd had come to think of his constant cleaning as a tic, something he did so he wouldn't talk instead), Emile had simply vanished, Jorge had begun dismantling his suit of armor for a breather, and I had ditched mine in order to take my first shower in over two weeks. It felt good. I inhaled, and the plain beige bar of soap I used gave off a surprisingly sweet fragrance, or maybe it was just my heightened senses picking up what normal people could not. No matter. I was glad for the scent; it was a break from air scrubbers and the smell of smoke.
Five minutes later I was padding back to Noble's quarters, wearing a simple off-white tank top and a pair of gray sweat pants that had UNSC stitched along the waist. I opened the door and surveyed the environment before entering, a force of habit. Jun was snoring fitfully, sitting upright against the wall with his helmet off, while Jorge sat on the edge of his bunk, fiddling with a radio. A female voice speaking in a language I did not know but had been hearing during my whole time on Reach came from the device, and it sounded stressed. Not wanting to intrude or distract, I slipped in (I was good at slipping into places, always the stealthy assassin) and eased down onto my bunk.
I wasn't ready to go to sleep yet and I had to occupy myself with something so I decided to study Jorge. I liked to think of him as my friend, which was a novel concept to me, the Spartan so many referred to as a "lone wolf." Friends didn't come easy in my line of business. He was different than I was, in more ways than the obvious, and though I wouldn't admit to it to anyone (or myself) I had developed something like a fascination for the older soldier.
I watched as the little lines around his eyes intensified when he furrowed his brow, a reaction to whatever was being said on the radio. He was good at concealing his emotions (they all were, it was bred into them) but he chose to let what he felt show, whether it was through expressions or gestures or words. At first I had been baffled, nearly annoyed by this, but time and circumstance had found the cracks in my shield and shown me how those things could be good, could build a bridge between two teammates who were as different as day and night.
(I had learned to imitate him, and through mimicking how he communicated I had learned to actually feel things on my own, instead of little pulses that got killed off by self-discipline.)
Jorge let out a little huff and turned off the radio, glancing over as if just now realizing that I was sitting there watching him. His face had changed since I first saw it fifteen days ago, or maybe it was just the look in his eyes that caused him to appear... older. He gave a little rueful smile that was half-hidden by his mustache and gestured at the radio. "Just thought I'd see what's on the air," he explained. "Intel's sketchy. Civvie news is a bit more... involved."
There was something in the way he let his massive shoulders slump just a fraction that bothered me. "Bad news?" I asked, wincing at the bluntness of the question.
"I'm afraid so. Nothing new, of course. Evac reaches cities before settlements, and people go hide in caves and forests, thinking they'll be safe. It's... unfortunate." His voice flattened at the end of that statement. "That, plus the fact that this planet's got loads of people who don't trust the UNSC and won't evacuate, makes for a lot of casualties."
I was silent for a moment, then I shifted my weight and placed my hands on my knees. "Sajnalom," I said. It was quite possibly the only Hungarian word I would ever truly be able to learn and pronounce; my mouth was more suited for English, my brain wired to think in an American accent.
That brought a tired grin to the big Spartan's face and he gave a short laugh. "Seems like you've got a favorite word now," he said, and sat up a little. "Perhaps I should teach you more, since you'll be around for a while."
I tilted my head to the side slightly, a rare smile quirking one corner of my mouth. The way he said that reminded me that I wasn't just here for one campaign, I was here to be part of the team. After Reach, there would be more battles to fight, more Covenant to kill, more orders to follow. It was a strange thing to think about, not being on my own, but I was getting used to it more and more every day.
"Maybe you should," I answered. "I wouldn't mind learning something new."
"You'd like it. It's a complicated language to people who've never heard it before. But I think you'll pick up nicely. You seem to like challenges."
The smile that had been tugging at the corner of my mouth became a full smirk. "I do," I said, injecting a bit of bravado into the statement.
"That reminds me." Jorge fished around in the left pocket of his pants and produced a small, rectangular object that I recognized as a stack of cards, all kept together with a rubber band. "Speaking of challenges..." He tossed the deck at me and I caught it lightning-fast. It had been a long time since I handled a deck of fifty-two, but looking through the cards and the symbols printed on them was tantalizing. I had always loved games, especially the ones that required a unique combination of skill and luck to win.
"Not that again," Jun complained, inserting himself into the conversation. Now wide awake, the sniper blinked and stifled a yawn. "Do you just enjoy flaunting your superiority or something? Don't torture the rookie, Jorge, it's just cruel."
"I play poker," I said, tossing the cards back to Jorge. "Texas hold 'em. I'm good."
"Heh. Say what you will, no one beats Jorge," Jun said with an air of finality. He glanced at the Spartan-II. "Is this your version of initiation or something?"
"Just a card game between teammates," Jorge replied serenely. "No credits, just a show of skill. That's all."
"No credits, he says. Bah." Jun leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "Get rich off of us and have mercy on the newbie? Fine, I see how it is."
Jorge just shrugged. "There's room for a third player."
Jun was silent for a few seconds, then he opened his eyes and sighed. "All right, but you know what? I'm getting the distinct feeling that I'm about to be the red shirt in this battle."
Skill and luck were two commodities that I prized in my possession, and I put them to work. For a man who chose to wear what he felt on his sleeve, Jorge was nearly impossible to read when he played cards. All three of us were gathered around the small table in the center of the room, eyes fixated on the hands we'd been dealt. Jun had a good poker face, but not as good as Jorge's, and I felt a prickle of excitement as I perceived the challenge I faced.
Focus. You're good at winning.
Cards came and went, my hand changed, and somewhere along the way Jun folded, probably because he just wanted to watch me and Jorge face off. (It was like wetwork, analyzing and accepting variables and choosing moves carefully). It was a tough game, and even though there were no stakes, I still felt the thirst for victory. Finally the stillness and concentration was broken by Jorge, who presented his hand. "Four of a kind," he announced, and waited for me to respond.
I simply blinked and slowly lowered my hand for all to see. Jun cackled and elbowed Jorge. "See that? It's called a Royal Flush. Ain't it lovely?"
"You said you were good," Jorge grunted approvingly. "And you were right."
"I can't wait to tell Kat. She probably won't believe me, but still," Jun gloated. "Somebody had to give a good kick and get you off your throne."
"Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up," Jorge muttered, but there was a good-natured glint in his eyes. "There's such a thing as getting lucky, you know."
I watched as Jun exited the room, still smiling deviously, and began to pick up the cards and put them back into a stack. "That was... fun," I said, picking up an ace of spades and studying it. "It's been a while."
"You put me through my paces, Lieutenant," Jorge mused. "We'll have to set up a rematch sometime."
"Yes." I felt that odd twinge again, the one that came with thoughts of teammates and friends and I've-got-your-back. "I'd like that."
I handed him the deck and he bound it up and put it back into his pocket. When he turned his head the light hit just so that I could clearly see the gray mixed in with his short brown hair. He was so like Kurt, the man who had overseen my training and augmentations, and yet he wasn't. Kurt hadn't been as big as Jorge was, nor as personable, though he had a knack for understanding people on a deeper level than most Spartans. Or maybe I never really had the opportunity to see him as a friend instead of a commander, maybe that was it.
I went back and sat on my cot, not quite ready to swing my legs up and go to sleep. I watched as Jorge unbuttoned his uniform shirt, then took it off and folded it, placing it on the trunk at the foot of his cot before coming around to take a seat across from me. Spartan-IIIs were bred and altered for combat; Spartan-IIs were bred and altered for destruction, and it showed in his appearance. My eyes traced the scars that snaked out from under his muscle shirt, some faded and some fresh, and the long, thin, identical ones that ran along his biceps and forearms caught my attention. They looked too intentional to be battle-inflicted. I remembered what little Kurt had told Beta Company about the II's augmentation procedures. Not drugs like we got. Scalpels, surgery, lots of blood and long recovery. It gave me a funny feeling deep down that I couldn't quite identify and didn't want to.
He noticed my lingering gaze and gave me a querying look. "Something wrong?"
"No," I answered. I held up one arm, indicating all the criss-crossing white marks that bore testament to hurts long healed. "I've got plenty of my own."
"Hm." He got me by my wrist and gently turned my arm over, viewing recently-fused flesh that was still discolored from forced mending. "Looks fresh."
"Got that on Mamore, fighting Innies. They had Lotus mines," I told him, somewhat perplexed at how thin my wrist looked in his grip. I don't doubt that he could snap it like a twig if he wanted. "Didn't hurt as much as it looks."
"Can't believe they'd send one Spartan," Jorge groused. "Should have at least had a partner, a two-man team. Somebody to watch your back."
"I'm here, aren't I?" I said, in an almost defiant way. "So that's fixed."
"Damn straight." His hazel eyes met mine and I wondered what thoughts lay behind them. (It was one thing to know how someone felt, but knowing what went on inside their head was another matter entirely). "You're uncommon, Six. But that doesn't mean you've got to go it alone."
I wished I knew why I felt the way I did when I heard that. It wasn't an emotion, it was almost an ache, barely perceptible but still present beneath the surface of my senses. I was so close that I could just reach out and touch Jorge if I wanted, but I didn't dare, all sorts of protocols and personal reservations beating down on that desire with full force. It was different than being in MJOLNIR armor; then there were barriers between us that could not be breached. But here there was only air between us, and the ever-present stern voice that whispered what ought to be done in my head. I wanted to trace the lines on his arms with my fingertips instead of my eyes, and thinking about it made me wonder where on earth I was getting these notions from.
And I wondered why he wouldn't just let go of my wrist already.
"Am I interrupting something?"
Emile stood in the doorway, taking up most of it due to his armor. He looked at us from behind the holes in his skull-mask and crossed his arms. His demeanor was bold, intrusive, challenging.
I pulled my arm back and Jorge sat up a little straighter. Then a familiar bionic hand grasped Emile's left shoulder plate and Kat pushed past him, followed by Carter. They were both out of their armor, clad in the same kind of fatigues Jorge was wearing. "Listen up, Noble. Holland's worked with us and we're planning on infiltrating the dark zone that's been holding up progress in our offense," Carter announced. Jorge and I stood out of respect for the Commander and to give the utmost attention to what he was saying.
Jun came in last, chewing on one of the tasteless protein bars affectionately dubbed "gluesticks" by the Army, and stopped when he saw that Carter was outlining something important.
"Good of you to join us, Noble Three. You're just the Spartan I wanted to see," Carter said. He turned to look at me. "And you, Noble Six. I've reviewed mission records of your recon experiences and I suggested that you and Jun combine your resources to scout out what's inside that dark zone. Holland gives you his blessing."
Orders. Objectives. "Yes sir," I responded.
They talked of mission parameters and specs and odds, and then Emile sauntered off to do whatever he did while Kat placed a hand on Carter's shoulder and led him away, muttering about intel and classified data and tech. I watched them leave and wondered why it looked so natural for Kat to touch the Commander, why they seemed to move and breathe in unison. Maybe it's because they've been on this team for so long together. Maybe... It wasn't my place to assume anything, especially when I couldn't even figure out my own feelings, so I just watched. Watched as Jun went back to sleep, then as Jorge picked up the radio and switched it back on, listening to the fast-paced voice talking in words I didn't understand (but wanted to). He sat on the edge of his bed again, the furrow in his brow returning as he heard what was happening to his planet.
(I wanted to trace the lines on his arms with my fingertips and maybe the one over his right eye too, but discipline held my actions in check like a constricting leash).
So I went over to my cot and bedded down, lying on my side so that I was facing the wall. Presently the radio chatter died and the light dimmed, and when I turned over a few minutes later, Jorge was in his bunk, staring up at the ceiling. His profile was rugged, like one of Reach's many mountain ranges, and though handsome wasn't a word in standard Spartan vocabulary it crossed my mind as I shut my eyes to avoid staring.
He's... uncommon, I thought, utilizing the word he'd used earlier in place of words I wasn't comfortable with.
Perhaps the mission ahead would put things into perspective. Creeping about in the dead of night had always been enough to keep emotion down and give training control. Maybe the darkness and the red dots on my motion tracker and the feel of my blade cutting through alien hide would help resolve my now-uncertain feelings.