The mug between his hands was hot, ceramic comfort, steam rising from the black coffee inside. He blew on it gently before sipping, savoring the warmth, a scarce commodity that not many had the credits to pay for. The old grandfather clock resting on the back tan and gray dappled wall ticked away, the brass hands reading two past ten. It was an old-world treasure, expensive beyond measure, and the tock-tock-tock seemed to help soothe the snow-weary when they wandered in from the cold, steel world of the complex, or from the even colder blizzard-ridden wasteland beyond.
There was a sigh. "I don't believe it."
Lance didn't bother to look up. Just from the sarcastic lilt in the voice, he knew exactly who it was. His lips twitching into a slight self-satisfied grin, he indulged himself in coaxing her on. "Believe what?"
"You're still here."
Another sip, followed by a low, contented noise from the back of his throat. Damn good coffee. "Yeah."
"Shouldn't you be home?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "Not really."
"Either way, you're going to have to leave soon." With an off-white towel hanging over her shoulder and a black-beige apron tied tightly around her bony frame, Brianne jerked her thumb to the ever-ticking clock. "Shop closes ten-thirty. Coffee fixes a lot of things, but I'm not a miracle worker. I can't stay up all night for you."
Lance said nothing. He released a disappointed sigh, kicked the bottom rung of the stool he sat upon with his heel, and stared blankly at the bar wall ahead from his seat, which shelved all sorts of cool- and warm-brewed drinks. Lengthy black hair framed his youthful, angular face, and he made a point to place his elbow on the counter and rest his jaw in a free palm, as if in complete boredom.
"Don't give me that," she said sharply, brushing a few roguish strands of short, mousy brown hair away from her brow. Sweat had pearled along her forehead and dampened her hairline, most likely from working all night. "This shop doesn't run on your money alone, you know."
"No, it doesn't, but my patronage has pulled it out of many a slump, if I do recall." He allowed himself a smirk as he looked up from his mug, gray eyes tracing her from her slender, worn work boots to her unruly mop of hair. Her mouth made a thin line beneath her freckled nose, and he was pleased to see that she was obviously flustered from the telltale hint of pink that dusted her cheeks. "I could always stop coming here," he suggested casually, turning back to his mug. "Your daddy doesn't like me, but he sure does love my credits."
Brianne folded her arms with a huff and gave him a deep, displeased scowl, complete with wrinkled nose and beetled brow. "Are all data miners as arrogant and annoying as you?"
He took a lazy sip of coffee and licked his lips with approval. "Probably not. Most of them are dead. Or lost. Or freezing to death, which I suppose also counts as dead." Lance sniffed the beverage between his hands before taking a steady inhale. "Mm," he murmured contentedly. "Good coffee."
Brianne threw up her hands in exasperation. "At least do me a favor and shut the door after you leave," she grumbled, turning away to continue her ritual cleanup, the towel now bunched in her hand as a trusty maintenance tool. "And maybe you'll be kind enough to leave some brew for the rest of the complex, huh?"
"I will, sweetheart," he chuckled, swiveling on his stool. He took another sip as he watched her stretch across the other tables in the shop, scrubbing them clean. Lance Wolfram's smirk couldn't have been more complacent. "You can be sure of that."
She paused to return his pointed leering with a challenging glare. "Keep your eyes to yourself, Wolf," she warned, standing upright. "There're plenty of other places to look."
He held up his hands in mock-surrender, his eyebrows arched as though he were genuinely surprised. "Hey, why are you making me out to be the bad guy here? I thought it was generally considered rude if you're not looking at the person you're talking to. Am I wrong?" He brought his fingers to his chin and absently stroked the dark, neatly trimmed goatee that grew there. "Hm, they must have changed that while I was out. They really need to stop doing that. Or perhaps I should stop being gone for so long."
Brianne glowered at him from a nearby table. "Trust me, you're not missed."
Lance brought a hand dramatically over his heart, the other bringing the mug to his mouth. "Such harsh words," he managed between appreciative sips. He made sure to exaggerate his false grief more than usual, which included trying to catch her green eyes with some of his better sulky faces. "What did I ever do to you?"
"You started coming to this place," she grumbled, now scrubbing what seemed to be a particularly stubborn stain. Brianne gritted her teeth. "I almost would have preferred the shop to go under."
Lance dropped his pouting fašade and in an instant his face returned to a cool neutral. "Well, now you're just being unpleasant," he deadpanned. He set the coffee cup on the counter and rose from his seat, smoothing out the fabric of his long coat. "Do you treat all star patrons like this? If so, I'm definitely surprised you're still in business."
"No," she said offhandedly. Her lips were pursed in a sour frown as she continued to work with the stain, perspiration dotting her temples. "Just you."
He stepped toward Brianne, his thick black boots making heavy thunking noises against the faux parquet floor. "Why the special case?" he asked, loping up to the pine-wood table. He noted how her body seemed to stiffen as he stopped beside her and rested an idle hand on the cool, smooth surface that she was working on.
Brianne didn't look up. Instead, she paused for a moment mid-scrub, as if truly considering his question. "Because you're you," she answered with a clipped sigh and a roll of her eyes. She left the sud-covered towel on the table and placed her hands on her hips; thumbs hooked on her apron's ties, she swiveled on the balls of her feet to face him. "And you know, if you weren't so damn self-absorbed, you'd get better reception around here."
"Even from you?" Lance questioned, cocking his head to the side. His eyebrows were arched, dark hair falling into his sight, and his lips were tugged in a lopsided, hopeful grin. He watched her carefully, gauging her response through her eyes, and while her expression remained a definite scowl, he caught a small flicker of surprise. "I don't really care about them, you know," he continued, leaning a smidge closer. "They're not the reason I keep coming back."
"I thought it was the money," she said, appraising him warily.
"Oh, sure, I come back to the recorders for the money," he said, gesturing with a free hand, "but that's not why I come here."
"You're a coffee addict." Brianne blew a few strands of hair from her eyes, now seeming impatient. "Of course you come back here. Everybody that knows a good cup comes here. Will you be getting to the point anytime soon, or am I going to have to wait until tomorrow morning?"
Lance inhaled sharply through his teeth. "You really know how to put a guy down, don't you?"
She shrugged, and the rest of her body seemed to shrug with her; her toes lifted, her back arched, her head tilted to the side. "Part of the job," she said, a nonchalant air overtaking her. "Can't have men like you pawing at me all day. Not very good for appearances. Best to get 'em quick and again while they're already down."
He winced, acting as though he had been physically struck. "Absolutely brutal," he said in an accusatory tone. "I'm not even sure I want to tell you now." Lance didn't expect to garner any sympathy, but he hoped at least for some better humor.
Brianne didn't seem the least bit interested. "Right. Because I'm sure it was riveting information."
"It was," he assured. "Truly. And it's such a shame that you're not going to hear it."
"If you're going to keep talking about it, then talk to yourself," she said, turning back to the table with a scoff. "You're wasting my time. I have the rest of the Roost to clean before I can finally get out of here. I don't know about you, but I value my sleep."
Lance sighed. He looked back to the counter where his mug sat expectantly and was rather disappointed when he saw that steam no longer rose from the drink. He then glanced around the rest of the shop, skimming over the rest of the crumb-cluttered, drink-dappled tables that had yet to be scrubbed. Guilt started to gnaw on his conscience. So she had to do all of this herself, huh?
Slouching a bit, he prodded her shoulder. "Ah," he began awkwardly, "want some help?"
Brianne bristled in anger. "Damn it, I told you, I—" and then she froze, mid-motion, mid-thought. "Wait…" She peered at him from over her shoulder, her eyes glinting in the dim light with wild bewilderment. "What did you say?"
"I, uh, asked if you wanted help. I guess you're all right then?"
"No, no, I would love some," she said hurriedly, "I just… didn't expect that. Not from you." Keeping her eyes on him, she strode away behind the counter, probably to procure another towel and some cleaning solution. When she returned to the table, another towel and a bucket in hand, surprise had given way to skepticism. "All right, so, what's the catch?"
He frowned and attempted to grab the towel. "There's no catch."
"There has to be," she insisted between clenched teeth, holding it just out of reach. The bucket dropped to the floor with a thud. "You're you."
"You said that earlier," he remarked, trying again. "I can't help but feel insulted when you say that."
Brianne rolled her eyes and sighed, as if tired of explaining something she had thoroughly covered many times before. "You're Lance Wolfram the data miner," she said crisply, "the wolf, the heartbreaker, the millionaire, the crash course loner with an agenda for cold hard cash and as much coffee as he can drink." She balled up the cloth in her fist and held it behind her back. "What else needs to be said? You have a reputation. You like things for you. Why should I believe you when you say that you want to help me for nothing in return?"
He opened his mouth to protest, but quickly realized that he didn't have much to protest with. Instead, he offered a wan smile. "I, ah… see your point."
She made a noise of disapproval. "At least that's one thing we can agree on."
"But in spite of all of that," he continued, reaching once again for the towel behind her back, "I am capable of caring about other people, even if they happen to run a shop that happens to carry my drink of choice." He managed to grasp onto the cloth that she was holding so tightly behind her. "I come here for you, you know. It's kind of nice to have something to look forward to when you're out there." He gestured beyond the Roost's doorway with a slight jerk of his head. "The stories can be true. Seeing nothing but snow, metal, and zen for weeks on end tend to drive you up a wall."
Brianne's grip on the towel loosened, but she stood her ground. "You must be on the ceiling by now."
"Probably," he conceded, "but being a data miner requires some kind of crazy. I'd be dead by now otherwise."
"On the ceiling for the fourth time," she said.
"I wouldn't doubt it. I mean, I'm sitting in a gourmet bar after hours fighting the stunning shopkeep for a cleaning towel. I don't think you could get much more 'on the ceiling' than that."
"Yeah, you could." Brianne let go. The towel hung limp in his hand.
Lance quirked an eyebrow, pulling away. "Oh?"
"You could be thinking that Lance Wolfram the data miner—the wolf, the heartbreaker, the crash course loner—just might be telling the truth." Her lips had curved into a thin smile and her eyes flickered with something he couldn't quite pin.
"Wow," he murmured, watching her as the ends of her mouth widened a bit more. "Caught me a bit off-guard, there. I honestly thought you were going to carry through with one of your threats or… or something along those lines. Or tell me off. And I kind of prefer those, actually. I'm used to them."
"For some reason, you happen to be convincing tonight." Her hand reached out and tugged on the fabric of his coat, pulling him a step closer. "And that's the funny thing. There are a lot of things about you that are convincing. Nobody questions them. Your reputation's a good example." She peered up at him through curled brunet bangs. "Everyone knows it. The recorders, the holosphere, the media, the people in the complex… they all see that arrogant, self-absorbed prick that cares about money, coffee, and himself more than anything in the world."
"Thanks," he said flatly. "Lay it on thicker."
"But you know," she went on, ignoring his comment, "after years of you coming in here, staying all day, drinking late, leaving for a month and then somehow returning still intact only to come back and drink some more, I never really thought to question it. I never thought to really talk to you about your life or the things you did. I never thought to ask you why."
He swallowed. "Why?"
"Yeah. Why." Brianne tilted her head to the side curiously, brown hair tumbling into her green eyes, her gaze seeming to trace over every inch of his face. "You sounded so sincere just then," she remarked. "I don't think I've ever heard you sound that way before. It was… different. Outside anything I've ever come to expect from you. And that includes making stupid passes at me while I'm waiting on you."
"Well, believe it or not, I can tell the truth from time to time."
She smirked. "It's a rare occurrence, I'm sure."
"Ah," he said with an admonishing finger, "but not unheard of." He hung the towel over his shoulder and looked toward the old grandfather clock that was still tock-tock-tocking away against the back wall. "Well, it's almost ten-thirty, Bri. What do you say we get finished cleaning up so you can head out?"
Brianne tugged him toward her by the fistful of his coat, taking him by surprise. "You're not staying here. You're walking me home." She said it firmly; it was not up for debate.
On tip-toes, it was quick and feathery; a light kiss to his cheek that made his blood stir and sparks jump through his bones. A contagious grin spread across his mouth as he watched her freckled face flush with embarrassment, something he very rarely saw.
"You heard me, Wolf," she muttered, averting her eyes.
"You're more of a wolf than I am," he said. He pried her fingers off of his coat and covered them with his own, marveling at how warm she was. "Close in for the kill so quickly, huh?"
Brianne sniffed. She did not seem pleased. "Back off before that towel gets stuffed in your mouth."
"Ah, well," he sighed, and let her hand go with a defeated shrug. "It was worth a try, wasn't it?"
She shook her head with a light chuckle and returned to scrubbing the table. The stain was almost gone. "You can start over there," she said, gesturing to the other side of the room with a casual raise of her heel. "We'll meet in the middle and then we can get out of here."
Lance glanced in the direction in which she had pointed and then let his gaze settle on her. Already cleaning determinedly with her apron tied tight around the small of her back, her mouth was worked into a thin, resolute frown, and he couldn't help but smile at her and the way she was. In spite of his own mannerisms, he was thankful that she had been inclined to believe him. The Hawkins girl was, needless to say, one of a kind.
He began to walk to where he had been directed, but as he passed her by, his hand skimmed down the curve of her back and tugged on the apron tie. "Sounds good, sweetheart," he said, catching her eyes as he drew away.
Brianne looked over her shoulder, cheeks flushed and a complacent smirk shaping her lips.
The Roost was quiet except for the tick-tock of the grandfather clock, fabric against old wood and tablecloth, and the occasional shuffle of boots. Rolling up his sleeves and grabbing the towel from his shoulder, Lance decided that this just might be a bit better than coffee.