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Tension, boredom, rage and animosity are an explosive mixture at the best of times.
Under the command of Major Hayes, the MACOs had brought even more tension on board with them, though there was plenty there already. They were used to being outsiders; it didn't bother them in the slightest. It just made them bond together even more closely, if that were possible. They didn't expect an effusive welcome, and they didn't get one, though in fairness the ship's personnel did their best to be professional in accommodating them – after all, they were all stuck in this flying tin can till the mission was over, and it made sense to try to get along as well as possible.
Boredom started to set in quite quickly. Hayes' crew comprised an elite fighting unit, primed and ready for action. They knew, of course, that it would take some weeks to reach the Expanse, and probably a lot longer than that to discover and reach their goal. Previous operations had involved a lot of patience before they finally got to kick some ass; they were used to waiting. But being reliant on others to do the searching, and pretty well everything else as well, was a new experience. They didn't like it, and it didn't get any easier as time went on. The major kept an eye on the situation, devoting a lot of his time to thinking up various combat simulations that might replicate situations they might encounter, and hammering himself and every one of his team through physical and weapons training exercises that would have reduced the average human being to a quivering wreck. But he knew it would only get worse the longer time went on. There is only so much preparation one can do before preparation itself becomes redundant.
Rage was a given, in this situation. The cowardly and unprovoked attack on Earth was a blow that cried out to be repaid with interest. That, at least, was something they could share with the Starfleet crew. Some of them had actually lost friends or family on that appalling day; Commander Tucker, for one, was a grim and obsessed man from that cause. Discreet inquiries had revealed that he'd lost his kid sister. He was a good-looking guy, with a face that might otherwise have been good-humored to match, but now smiles were something his features seemed to have forgotten how to produce.
But the animosity ... now that was personal.
Major Hayes had scanned the Mess Hall as he entered, without even thinking about it. It was as automatic as breathing. There weren't many people eating; there were plenty of vacant tables that he could have selected. When there were none of his own people present he would normally eat alone.
Boredom, however, was not affecting only his team. He was aware of that. Nonetheless, a memory of an incident the previous day had lingered in his mind, and it prompted his next action: a stroll over to where Ensign Hoshi Sato, the ship's young and extremely pretty communications officer, was sitting alone, and with an expression that suggested her thoughts weren't particularly happy.
A gentleman, of course, had a duty to offer her a little light distraction. She'd introduced herself to him and a couple of his team a few days ago, so he knew she was of a sociable disposition. He politely asked her permission to join her, and received it. Her face lightened with more than dutiful acceptance of his company. He'd been right: she was definitely glad of distraction. Small talk with a pretty young ensign was an agreeable form of relaxation at any time, even if it had no additional advantages attached. Hoping nevertheless that those advantages might be forthcoming, he took a seat that gave him a good view of the door with his peripheral vision. It wouldn't be courteous to let on that this was as much an act of provocation on his part as it was a genuine acceptance of an opportunity to chat with a friendly face.
As he gently and skillfully drew her into conversation, the minutes passed. She finished her drink. At any moment she would stand up and return to the bridge, and the opportunity would be lost.
Then, just as she put her hands to her tray and opened her mouth to say her time was up, the door opened and the major's prayers were answered.
Animosity in a blue Starfleet uniform with two pips on the shoulder had just walked in.
Scanning the environment was naturally as much of a habit with Lieutenant Reed as it was with Major Hayes. His glance swept the room. And stopped.
The business end of a phase rifle would have looked less menacing than that stare. Nevertheless, he had no valid reason for interfering; the ensign had been chatting away happily, and the smile was still on her face. He joined the queue for food, selecting a plate of lasagna. A cup of black tea was added to the tray. No dessert. The lieutenant not so much walked as stalked to a nearby table and sat down at it. His tray was put down with a lack of sound that suggested that almost superhuman self-control had been required in order not to crash it on to the table top. He sat down, his back ostentatiously turned, but as rigid as a board.
Ironically, Hayes had begun to suspect that in Reed he not only had an enemy worthy of his steel, but a man that in different circumstances he might actually have been able to like. Certainly he respected the military efficiency with which the lieutenant ran his department: he was hard, but scrupulously fair. It was unfortunate that when it came to his own position Reed had a streak of suspicion bordering on paranoia, seeing threats where there were none. He'd evidently decided almost immediately that the new guy was after his job, and that decision colored his judgment on virtually everything thereafter, though luckily not to the extent that he allowed it to override sense when it was pointed out to him.
"I'm sorry, Major. I'm due back on duty." Ensign Sato stood up, her tray in her hands.
He automatically stood up too. Excellent manners were drilled into him and all his team, and a man didn't sit when a lady was standing. "Thank you for the company, Ensign."
"It was a pleasure." She had a really nice smile, even if it was now a little nervous. Briefly he felt slightly guilty, but tactics said you used the best weapon to hand, and boy, had he got one now. And she didn't have to know the double game he was playing. He'd make sure she didn't end up as collateral damage.
He accompanied her to the door. This took him into the lieutenant's direct line of sight. Just as she reached for the door control pad he deftly caught hold of her hand, lifted it and pressed the lightest of kisses on to her knuckle. "Till next time," he said with a wink that would be invisible to anyone watching from behind him.
Not that anyone would be watching, of course. Not that he could feel the glare eating into the back of his head, exactly as he'd intended. Years of training had taught him the awareness of a laser sight trained on him, and the sensation of it now was almost scorching his skin. Suck it up, Lieutenant.
He was far too good at the game to allow the faintest fraction of consciousness of Reed's stare to show on his face as he turned and sauntered back to his half-finished meal. He didn't even let himself smile, though the memory of Sato's quite enchanting blush tempted him to.
It was fortunate – or perhaps unfortunate – that whatever else he was, the lieutenant was as much of a professional as he was himself. After all, that was the root of the trouble. They were both determined, aggressive, hard leaders. Normally the ship wouldn't have been big enough to hold both of them and it wouldn't have been expected to. Circumstances had forced them into a confined space and into each other's faces. Position and experience gave Reed a slender edge on board ship: out here, lieutenant cut major. But that didn't mean that his judgment couldn't be questioned, or that his orders had to be accepted without demur. Almost from the moment they'd been introduced it had been war, a conflict between them that was no less savage for its stealth.
So instead of being able to reach an accord that their common aim should have fostered, the two leaders were locked head to head like a pair of stags battling for mastery of the herd. Unerringly their teams picked up on it, though so far the prickling tribal hostility on their leaders' behalf hadn't led to any trouble. Ideally it would drive them both to excel in the effort to outdo each other, which would ultimately benefit the ship. Hayes knew he was tough enough to keep hold of his pack, and at a guess the little Limey bastard would do the same for his – if he didn't, that would be an involuntary blink in their perpetual stare-off, and he'd never stand for that. But that didn't mean that the lieutenant wasn't fair game in the meantime for everything that could possibly test his mettle. And a moment's carelessness in the corridor yesterday had laid bare a gap in his armor of which even he had perhaps been unaware until that moment.
As he sat down again and resumed eating, listening with relish to the way a nearby fork speared pieces of lasagna with unnecessary venom, the major replayed that incident in his mind.
It had been an entire accident. He'd been coming out of the turbo-lift in something of a hurry, and had encountered a small body in Starfleet blue hurrying in the opposite direction. The impact had startled them both, and he'd had to grab hold of her quite reflexively to stop her falling on her rather attractive ass. It had been a nothing, a non-incident; he'd released her immediately and they'd both apologized, laughing. At which point he'd looked up and encountered the eyes of Lieutenant Hard-Ass-Brit Reed, who'd been a couple of steps behind the ensign and had seen the whole thing.
And what he'd read there had transformed a non-incident into a whole new ball game.
It was natural, of course, for Reed to be protective of his ship's crew. As the head watchdog, perpetually on guard, that was his job; that was what he was paid for. A finger placed amiss on any one of them could expect to be bitten off at the knuckle. And Hayes had devoted some time and effort to making that plain to his team, just in case it wasn't already. The owner of any such offending digit would fall into his hands after Reed's, and whatever mangling the lieutenant had handed out would pale into insignificance in comparison with what they'd get from their own boss.
But the look of incandescent rage that had ignited in the hitherto cold grey eyes had illuminated a reaction that was far more than the suspicion that one of the crew had suffered a physical assault. Reed had literally blanched with fury in the second it had taken Hayes to remove his hands from Ensign Sato's waist, and he'd shot forward as though ready to remove her physically from the scene if necessary. "Are you all right, Ensign?" His rigid lips had cut off each word like an executioner's blade; his nostrils had been flaring, his stare a wide open challenge. Professionalism be damned – in that moment he'd have given anything for an excuse to launch into battle there and then. They both knew it.
Hayes had also received an answer to a question that had been niggling at him for some time. It had been obvious from the start that the Starfleet officer was wedded to regulations, was a 'do-it-by-the-book' freak as well as a typical uptight English asshole. What hadn't been as obvious was whether that was all he was. The major had met men like him before who talked a good fight but had in fact never got further than a bout on a gymnasium mat. Now he'd found himself staring into the blank, freezing eyes of a killer. Malcolm Reed was no tin soldier, but a very dangerous man.
"I'm fine, sir. Absolutely fine. It was just an accident." The ensign must have picked up something, however slight, of the electric tension between the two men; she'd gone pale. For a moment it almost seemed that she'd actually lay hands on the lieutenant's body, but her assurances evidently convinced him. The utter rigidity of his posture relaxed infinitesimally, though the stare continued for a moment before it was hooded again.
"Good. Please be more careful in future." It was impossible to tell whether the curt words were addressed to either or both of them. He'd obviously been headed for the armory and he went on his way, leaving them to their conjectures.
At Hayes' suggestion some days previously, Captain Archer had agreed to hold extra combat training sessions for the ship's senior staff. As luck would have it, one of these had been scheduled for that evening. It would have been far too obvious for him to have had a hand in the matter himself, but on the way to the gymnasium the major had made occasion to have word with his second, Corporal Cole. As a result, Cole had selected Ensign Sato for her opponent in a training bout and applied a little extra pressure. It wasn't anything beyond the line, and to give her credit the feisty ensign had coped remarkably well. But despite being himself involved in a bout with Ensign Mayweather, Hayes had contrived to snatch surreptitious glances at Lieutenant Reed, who was watching on the sidelines prior to his own session. The man was so self-contained that an amateur would have gained virtually no information from these glances, but Hayes was not an amateur. Every line of the lieutenant's body told him that for all that he was superficially paying no attention to the women's bout, not a move in it escaped him.
So, he'd mused, dumping Mayweather ignominiously on his butt on the mat for the second time. Strictly-by-the-book Reed had the hots for the little ensign, hey? Tsk, tsk. Naughty boy! Fraternization, no less! He was pretty sure that a man as hard-assed as the Enterprise's tactical officer would never have acted on his attraction. He might not even have admitted it even to himself, but it was there all right. And as such, it was a fatal weakness.
There might be weeks of boredom still to endure while the Starfleet guys tracked down the Xindi, but in the meantime Hayes had found his enemy's Achilles heel. He looked across now at the straight back at the other table, still radiating anger, and permitted himself an unseen, feral smile.
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