Honestly, I don't know why I get involved, throwing a chokehold around the strong neck of the muscular woman outnumbered by the pack of aggressive males she is faced off with. Nor do I understand why she doesn't shrug me off and continue her violent assault.
"Hey, come on, tough girl," I soothe in my best calming voice. "Looks like you taught the boys a lesson." When I reach down to flip back the edge of my jacket, the boys' eyes get wide. "Get lost, puppies." They scatter in the face of the magical gold shield.
"Thank you," the blonde grates out like it hurts to say, her body still fighting tense in my loose hold. "That was not how I expected my evening to go."
"I bet," I sass and let her go to saunter to the bar.
I know her type and I know her limp. Too many just like her come through this beat down old town. This war has dragged on too long, killed too many and left too many behind. I wonder sometimes if the ones like her really are the lucky ones.
When the jittery blonde slips onto the stool beside me, I'm actually fairly surprised. Few of the soldiers respect me enough to be social, much less nice. After all, I'm merely a stateside cop. Obviously I can't have had any experiences like theirs.
Though I certainly beg to differ.
"I had twenty on you, pilot," a new female voice speaks out from the shadows and she leans into the light. "I'll buy the next round. Even for you, lady cop."
There, that's the sneer I was expecting. The woman is haunted, her dark eyes fathomless with shadows of things better left unseen. Unlike the obviously damaged leg that sent the blonde to home shores, I can't make out what is wrong with the brunette. Except those eyes.
Madness is enough to get some of them sent home.
"I'm," the blonde starts up in a rusty voice, like she's not used to talking. "I'm not used to being not… anonymous. I didn't see the trouble coming until it was too late. Thanks, cop."
"Well, you are attractive," I shrug nonchalantly, not willing to show that I'm tickled by her gratitude. Hazel eyes blink at me, flummoxed, and I can't help but grin kinda flirtatiously. "Been a while since you were paid a compliment?" I don't quite succeed at keeping the sympathy from my tone and I watch the walls start to go back up.
"Lifer," the brunette says sagely, ignoring the pilot's glare. There's a sharp edge to the dark stranger, something that grates along the nerves. She's baiting the young, wounded soldier and I cannot fathom why.
"What can I get you two," the bartender shows the perfect timing of all her ilk and I smile gratefully.
"Just a synth for me."
The pilot nods jerkily and the prickly brunette seems impressed that we have made no attempt to take advantage of her offer to buy. Honestly, I've only had real beer once and felt like shit the next day. At least the synthetics won't leave a body hung over.
"Err," the pilot starts awkwardly and I return my attention to her, not wanting to deal with the knowing dark eyes of our beer buyer. "So you're a cop? My grandfather did that I hear. Not here, but somewhere. What do you do?"
If she weren't so painfully awkward, she would be adorable. "I'm a criminalist," I grin at her confusion and explain, mentally noting the brunette has perked up noticeably. "When someone commits a crime, they leave behind evidence, no matter how subtle. My job is to piece together those clues. It's a losing battle, but I fight it anyway."
Oh, how lost she looks, how intent the brunette stares at me. The sensation is almost a physical sensation. "Did that in Vegas," she unexpectedly volunteers and suddenly both I and the pilot understand.
After all, everyone knows what happened to Vegas. Wonder how she survived?
Clearing my throat, I raise the glass in a toast. "To survival."
Soberly, they do the same, the grimy bar lights playing in the amber liquid we share. "To survival."
And in this moment between strangers, it is a haven of sorts.