“You don’t need to eat dinner with me, master sergeant,” Carol protested, her face turning bright red. “Corporal Holmes has been assigned to watch me.”
“What’s the matter? Are you terrified of pigging out in front of me? Don’t worry, I like a woman with a healthy appetite.” he teased, letting himself touch her elbow, feeling the soft curve of her bone as her blush deepened and she sputtered,
“Aren’t you supposed to be busy, or something? Surely you don’t have time to …”
“I have all the time in the world for you–” Hartmann stopped himself before he called her the cleaning lady out loud. “Now that I don’t have the Suit.”
She caught the undertone in his words and turned away, silent. He noticed that she was clenching her hands into fists, and the glint in her eyes was too hard for her to be feeling any sort of regret or sympathy about ousting him out of his position in the Suit, sparking his own anger once again.
“I need to train you how to eat properly, since you’re practically skin and bones,” he snapped.
“It doesn’t matter in the Suit,” Carol retorted, catching Hartmann by surprise. “I didn’t feel the slightest hint of fatigue while I was inside it this morning. If anything, I felt better.”
“That’s … unusual,” he muttered. He had gone on countless missions in the Suit, and while he certainly had enhanced abilities, he had still been very conscious of the passing hours. The mental exhaustion had more than made up for the lack of physical exertion, and it was something that he had willed himself to ignore. The thought that Carol didn’t experience it at all was galling.
Everything about her pushed him to his limits.
But orders were orders. As much as he ached to renegade with the Suit, he didn’t know where he would go or what he would do, and practicality kept him there. After he had lived half his life in the military, he didn’t know what he would do without any missions to devote himself to – without orders, he would be adrift.
He needed to keep himself under control.
“Maybe I’m worried about your health,” he purred, knowing that it sounded too smarmy in light of the growing tension.
“I’d prefer to eat alone.” She turned to face him, her jaw muscle twitching slightly. “As alone as I’m allowed to be.”
“Have it your way, then,” he replied dismissively, and turned to leave.
Good riddance, he thought. He couldn’t keep up the act for much longer anyway; Carol was getting too much under his skin. Her reluctance to speak meant that he had to study her carefully, to pay attention to every twitch and turn of her body to read her thoughts, and she was starting to drive him crazy. The way she curled in on herself made her seem shorter than she was, and he wanted to grab her shoulders to straighten her out, to tell her to hold her head high so he could gaze at the curve where her neck met her shoulders.
He had never had to work so hard for a woman in his entire life. After he had developed a pair of biceps, women had practically lined up around the block to throw themselves at him, and all he had to do was learn how to pick carefully. Carol was making him doubt himself, because she didn’t seek him out with flirtatious eyes, or try to give him a peek of her cleavage to catch his interest. She made him feel … invisible.
The irony was almost hilarious. Perhaps invisibility wasn’t a talent that Carol had perfected, but an infectious disease that descended on everyone she interacted with. The moment he first touched her had sealed his fate, and he was now dissolving into the background, unnoticed.
Left on his own, he made his way to captain Lambert’s office with the deliberate swiftness that had become second-nature after the years he had spent in the military, and sharply rapped on the door. A gruff voice answered, “Come in,” and he opened the door.
“Do you have any idea how much paperwork you created for me?” Lambert growled after a quick glance up. “Would’ve been easier on all of us if you had left Carol alone to clean the Suit.”
“I am well aware of that, sir,” Hartmann replied, standing at ease. “And I regret my mistake.”
“The fucking cleaning lady …” Lambert pressed his hand to his forehead. “Between the two of us, MSG Hartmann, the General has gone off the deep end. One look at Carol, and it’s obvious that she’ll never be able to handle combat – even inside the Suit – but now that anxiety-ridden mouse is our problem whether we like it or not.”
“I know that, sir,” Hartmann replied. “She expressed concern over the possibility of going into combat, and I replied to her that I didn’t know the specifics of what was expected of her.”
“Basically, the General wants to see what sort of offensive features she has access to in the Suit. So, yes, she will be going into combat at the end of next week.” Lambert set his pen down and leaned back in his chair. “However, don’t mention that to her unnecessarily.”
“I won’t, sir. I won’t do anything to upset her,” Hartmann answered dutifully.
Hartmann had started working with Lambert two years prior after the captain had been brought on to the Suit project, and while their personalities clashed, they had developed an unique respect for one another. In many ways, Lambert was the opposite of Hartmann, and had achieved his rank through education – he had never had to prove himself on the battlefield, and that fact hung between the two of them every time they spoke. While Lambert was the commanding officer, Hartmann was the one with the experience, and had earned himself a level of admiration that the captain would never replicate.
“Did you need something?” Lambert asked. With his temper soothed, he was becoming more relaxed and amicable. They were comrades again, which made it easy for Hartmann to make his request.
“I would like the rest of the day off, sir. Carol has hit her limit with how much training she can do, and there’s nothing left for me while she is resting. I could use some personal time.”
“Granted.” Lambert picked up his pen and began writing. “But first, give me your report on how the first day of training went. You already mentioned that she’s concerned about combat … what else is there?”
“Carol has no endurance or stamina, even for a civilian woman. Otherwise, she didn’t talk much.”
“Very mouse-like, isn’t she.” Lambert smiled slightly. “She’s every bit as quiet and timid as one, and practically as small, too. I’ll have more free time tomorrow, so I will be assisting more with her physical training.”
Hartmann wanted to bristle. That was the nicest thing that he had ever heard Lambert say about a woman, and he didn’t like the idea of having to overtly compete for someone as difficult as the cleaning lady. Lambert was supposed to stay distant and divorced.
Fortunately, Lambert’s temper combined with his borderline alcoholism were certain to serve him poorly; Hartmann was much better at playing suave than the captain. If he worked the situation so that Carol pushed Lambert’s buttons, he would not only look better by comparison, it would create a vulnerability that Hartmann could exploit. Carol was definitely not the sort who could withstand being yelled at.
Hartmann forced a smile to hide the real one brewing under the surface. “I’m looking forward to your input, sir.”
“If that’s all, then you’re dismissed.” Lambert turned back to his notes, and Hartmann made his exit.