Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 10a

Lambert joined them again in the evening, and Hartmann stepped back as the captain took the lead with directing Carol’s training. The captain kept her repeating drills in the dark, until with a frown he looked at his watch and told her that it was time to call it a night. Holmes escorted her away, and Hartmann waited for his own dismissal.

“My office,” Lambert grunted instead. Once they were behind closed doors, the captain took a key out of his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and pulled out a folder which he slapped down onto his desk. “You’re going to help me get as much of this shit programmed onto autopilot as we can.”

Hartmann picked up the folder and opened it, silently reading for awhile. “I can program in the coordinates to get her there and back,” he mused after awhile. “The targets are a different story, but at least there shouldn’t be any civilians to be concerned about.”

Lambert opened his drawer again, and took out a specialized flash drive that he handed over to the master sergeant. “Better than having her lost over the ocean. This came in last week from R&D, so here’s hoping it works the way it’s meant to. C’mon, to the Suit, now.”

The two men proceeded to the bunker, and Hartmann sat in the pilot’s seat of the Suit, but didn’t close the doors. He plugged in the flash drive, and put together a basic computer program to get Carol through her first mission, testing and verifying as much of his work as he could without actually leaving the Base. Lambert stood close by, leaning against the doors as he quietly dictated the necessary data, but the going was slow. Hartmann had always operated with coordinates and objectives, and while he knew that others were working on an external drive that was compatible with the Suit’s computers, he never thought the project seemed interesting or relevant. He certainly hadn’t expected that he would be the one learning how to program the autopilot settings for someone else to use. He tested as best as he could without actually taking the Suit out, knowing that if he screwed up, Carol would struggle enormously with navigating on her own. It resulted in him performing a number of redundant checks, but Lambert listened to each one patiently without pushing him to hurry up – his thoughts were likely the same.

By the time that they were done, the captain took one glance at his watch and immediately headed for a vending machine to buy a couple of energy drinks. There wasn’t much point in trying to sleep before the mission was scheduled to start, and with their suppressed jitters, neither of them would be able to anyway. Instead, they passed the next couple of hours in silence, sitting kitty corner in the cafeteria. When Lambert stood, Hartmann stood as well.

The hallway outside of Carol’s room was dimly lit, and the captain pounded on the door with such force that it was certain to startle and scare the mousy woman, bellowing “Rise and shine, commander!” There was a thump inside, the sound of bare feet slapping against a hard floor, and the door flung open to a disheveled Carol looking up at them with alarm. “Get dressed. Quickly,” Lambert growled. “You have thirty minutes to eat a light breakfast.”

“What’s going on?” she asked faintly, but the captain barked, “Just do as you’re told!” in response.

The door closed, then opened again after a mere two minutes. Carol was still hastily pulling her unbrushed hair back into a ponytail, and her boots were unlaced, but she was willing to accompany the two military men. Lambert’s face softened with approval, and with a nod the three of them set off towards the cafeteria.

The three of them sat down to a meal of granola, yogurt, canned fruit, and sausage. It satisfied the basic checklist of nutritional requirements, but Hartmann still secretly wondered how Carol would fare if she vomited up a combination of yogurt and sausage during the course of her mission; it was a disgusting thought. Lambert still hadn’t offered any explanation about what the day would bring, likely holding the news off for as long as he could.

Holmes arrived after ten minutes, saluted dutifully, then stood at attention. Carol’s suspicions were definitely growing, but she willfully avoided looking at Hartmann. In fact, with the way her eyes skipped over him and lingered on the captain, he struggled to suppress the jealousy that welled up inside of himself.

It was my hand you held last night, he thought, tightening his fingers into a fist. My lips that kissed you. Look at me, not him.

But Lambert was the commanding officer in charge of giving orders.

“I’m finished eating, sir,” Carol said slowly. “What are we doing today?”

He stood, nodded to Holmes, the replied dismissively, “You have your first real combat mission. Congratulations.”

Lambert was a coward, Hartmann thought as he watched the captain retreat. He, however, remained to watch Carol blanch, her face turning pale enough that he wondered if she was going to lose her breakfast already.

“You all right?” he felt compelled to ask, and she looked at him blankly before nodding.

“Yeah. I guess.” Her voice squeaked. The color was completely gone from her lips.

Hartmann frowned. Part of him wanted to assume the role of the doting boyfriend, and assure her that everything was going to be just fine because he had spent all night working to make her job easy for her. The other part, the one crafted and shaped by his life in the military, barked orders for her to toughen up and grow a pair – to ‘fake it till you make it,’ the same way he did. He reminded himself that he was playing the good cop, and he couldn’t be calloused towards her.

“The Suit will help you,” he said slowly, carefully considering each word. “You’ll laugh about how nervous you were later tonight.”

“Yeah,” Carol faintly repeated. Her eyes were unfocused, and Hartmann wondered what sort of tumultuous storm was raging inside her head.

He stood. “Have corporal Holmes escort you to the bunker. I have something to take care of first.” He headed in the direction of the nearest restroom to throw them off, glanced back to ensure that Carol wasn’t watching, and ducked through the doorway and around a corner to escape out into a hallway. He pressed his back against the wall and took in a deep breath, fighting against the thought that they were hopelessly fucked.

When it came to Carol, he was turning into as much of a coward as Lambert. Seeing her repressed internal struggle had gotten the better of him, and he had fled on a flimsy excuse just like the captain had.

Cut her loose before she ruins you, some deep inner voice urged him, but he knew that he couldn’t let her go.

Carol was under his skin.

And he was going to spend the next several hours monitoring her using the Suit in combat – it was certain to be a fucking miserable day.

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 9c

As the hours flew by and Hartmann had Carol progress to practicing shooting targets, he began to fancy that as long as he kept her busy, he could hold off the onset of the morrow. She seemed oddly oblivious to dramatic change in the nature of her training, and her good mood had a relaxing effect on him. Surprisingly, she would occasionally drop a comment over the radio that hinted at the events of the night before without exposing too much, and it was refreshing to realize that he wasn’t left to do all the work in flirting. Had she similarly spent the night preparing for the role that she would play in their secret romance?

They were reflections of each other, despite the dramatically different manifestations.

When the sun brushed the horizon, Hartmann decided that it was time to stop for a meal. He hadn’t eaten since his morning coffee, but he barely felt it; what he wanted was the moment alone with Carol. Once they were in the bunker and Carol was out of the Suit, he feigned indifference as he asked, “You eating in the cafeteria?”

She looked at him, then nodded as she slowly unclipped the radio from her t-shirt. “I guess so, master sergeant,” she replied.

“You’re dismissed, corporal,” Hartmann said to Holmes. “We’ll resume training in an hour, so take care of your personal shit for the day.”

“Yes, sir,” Holmes answered, saluted, then turned to leave.

Hartmann’s eyes were fixed on Holmes’ back as he said, “You’ve made a lot of improvement today, so I’m going to take you out for ice cream.” When he was certain the young soldier was out of earshot, he turned fully to Carol and smiled. “It will be a date.”

Carol blushed, bit her lip, and turned away, though she nodded and squeaked, “Sure.”

“Don’t be nervous.” Hartmann’s hand found her elbow, and he purred, “I’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt.”

Her cheeks turned an even deeper shade of red, and she lightly stuttered as she said, “M-master sergeant.”

“Trust me.” He looked around, but decided the bunker was far too exposed for him to try anything. “Let’s go. We only have an hour.”

“It’s hard to believe that it’s dinnertime already. Feels like we haven’t been training for very long,” Carol spoke in a conversational tone as they headed outside and turned towards the street. “I like being in the Suit much better than physical training or book learning.”

“We should focus on that from now on.” His reply was more autopilot than anything else, but his hand slid down from Carol’s elbow, along the soft underside of her arm, then clasped around her own hand. He liked making her blush, and she responded readily whenever he made his advances. In contrast with his experiences in the military, it was unreal to think that a woman like her existed – he understood why Lambert had called her a mouse. “Where would you like to eat?”

“I don’t know.” Carol hesitated, then moved to hug his arm between her breasts, holding onto him tightly. “Where ever you want.”

She was different now than she had been earlier in the Suit. More shy and uncertain, as if she had left all of her confidence inside the mecha. Hartmann related to her change in demeanor, knowing all too well how much better it felt to be big and indestructible. He knew exactly how to use it to his advantage, too.

“Burgers and fries, since that will give us enough time to hop over to the ice cream place. Let’s get my car.” He wanted the walk to the parking lot to last forever, to keep hold of the sensation of Carol’s heart beating against his tricep. “I’m proud of how much better you’re doing today.”

She beamed. “Me too. I thought that shooting and target practice were easier to get the hang of than running around, and it’s more fun. Are we going to do more of it tomorrow?”

“Absolutely.” Hartmann winced inwardly, but hid it. “And at the rate you’re going, you’ll be a pro by the end of tomorrow.”

Carol was too elated to protest the flattery, or to notice the forced note in his intonation. He was content to let her live in the moment, filled with the high that comes after piloting the Suit, and out on her first official date with her new secret boyfriend. He wasn’t going to spoil his chances by trying to burst her bubble with reality.

When they were seated in the front seats of his car, he couldn’t hold himself back any longer. Hartmann leaned across the center console and pressed his mouth against her lips, his fingers gliding through her hair just behind her ear. The taste of her was so intoxicating that it was difficult to maintain his senses and keep control of himself, and his nerves cried out to feel her skin against his. He had to break away when it became too much for him to endure.

Carol’s lips had turned a deep red and she was studying him closely, but her expression was difficult to read. “When did you first start liking me?” she asked.

Hartmann shrugged. “Can’t say, honestly.”

She entwined her fingers with his after he started the car, and surprised him when she said, “I’m sorry that it took me so long to notice you.”

The Scions

The Scions – 9b

The corners of Hartmann’s mouth bent upwards when he saw Carol in the bunker early the next morning. For a moment their eyes met across the distance, and she smiled in return. Then captain Lambert interrupted to clip the radio onto the collar of Carol’s shirt, and said gruffly, “We’re continuing with the drills again today. Your movements are too sloppy.”

“Yes, sir,” she murmured in reply. “I’ll do my best.”

“Do better!” Lambert snapped. “Your performance yesterday was abysmal, and I won’t have you embarrassing our military with your ineptitude when you’re out in the field. Do you understand?”

Carol was taken aback, and looked over to Hartmann for some sort of support. He shook his head slightly, so she squeaked out, “Yes, sir,” and fixed her eyes down on her shoes as her fingers fidgeted.

Lambert was in a sour mood. There was something else going on than a simple hangover, which made Hartmann suspect that the captain’s disappearance the day prior involved more than a few stiff drinks. Whatever had transpired, it had made him especially irritable in response.

Hartmann stepped close to Carol, moving subtlety to touch her back in a reassuring gesture, before sliding past to stand before the Suit and stare up at it. He missed it. Missed the way it felt to climb inside and settle himself comfortably, and the way he could move around with ease as a giant mechanical man. He also missed the praises that came after a successful mission, and the sense of having accomplished something important. Letting go was hard, and he didn’t understand why the General’s decision to make Carol a pilot also included firing him from the job.

Carol seemed smaller than she had before when she approached the Suit, and again it hurt to watch the doors close with her inside. Captain Lambert ordered her to practice running outside with Holmes supervising from the jeep, but he stopped Hartmann from following, and both of them remained inside.

“She’s going out on a mission tomorrow,” Lambert said gruffly. “Orders came down.”

A jolt shot through the master sergeant, but he kept up his practiced emotionless mask. “She’s not ready, sir.”

“I sure as hell know that – I told the General the same damn thing yesterday, too. But, he wants her out in the field ASAP.” Lambert’s brow was creased deeply, and his complexion was pale. The thought of sending Carol out into combat, even within the indestructible confines of the Suit, was terrifying.

“Sir, I am still the best pilot. I can go instead.” Hartmann knew that his words were nothing more than ungrounded hope. In a sane world, he would be sent out on missions until Carol reached an adequate skill level in her training, but that was not the world they lived in. With only one Suit, every day she spent training put them behind in their efforts to win the war, and putting Hartmann in the Suit would only take away precious time from her training. She was going to be learning on the job, irregardless of what everyone thought.

“Orders are orders,” Lambert grumbled dismissively. “She’s going to be in the Suit all day today. We need to get the most out of it.”

“Yes, sir.” Something cold and heavy was settling in the center of his chest. Hartmann had spent the night preparing for the subtle attentions he would use to seduce his clandestine girlfriend, only to discover that she would be separated from him inside a 12-foot mecha. Nothing involving Carol was going the way it should.

“Push her harder. Get her practicing a wider variety of maneuvers,” Lambert ordered with a defeated voice, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “But don’t scare her.”

“Yes, sir,” Hartmann mechanically replied.

“I need to prepare for tomorrow. Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t, sir.”

With a sense of unreality pressing down on him, Hartmann drifted to the jeep where Holmes was waiting, and instructed Carol through the radio to practice jumping and landing. His mind was racing for the basics, to reduce the formula for success down to something that could be learned in a single day, all the while wondering when his heart was going to start beating again.

It was crazy to send Carol out on a mission so soon.

What if she tripped and accidentally demolished a school full of children? What if the enemy bombarded her with artillery, and she didn’t have the maneuverability to avoid taking a direct hit? They had never pushed the limits to see just how indestructible the Suit really was.

Carol was too pathetic to be sent out onto the field. She didn’t have any survival instincts, and there was no way that she could succeed on her own.

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 9

“What the fuck are you doing, John?”

Hartmann had driven himself home to his apartment after dropping Carol and Holmes off, and now stood freshly showered in his bathroom, a towel wrapped around his middle as he stared at himself through a wet mirror, water dripping down his shoulders.

The taste of Carol’s tongue still tormented his memory, as did the caress of her hair, and the soft curve of her breast under his hand. But, despite all of the maneuvers he had carefully deployed to get them to that point, he was beginning to doubt himself.

Carol wasn’t a slut, and he wasn’t aiming for a one night stand. Aside from the overwhelming lust that had seized hold of him, he didn’t have the first idea what his end goal was. He was pushing ahead blindly and risking his entire career, all for the cleaning lady. Had he totally lost his mind?

He wished that he could take Carol fully under his power, dress her in something feminine and tease her without restraint. He would never reveal how entranced he was by her, but he would certainly wrap her around himself until she grew to adore and worship him. He would teach her how to express herself more vividly.

What Hartmann couldn’t explain was the strange hollowness in the center of his chest.

For years, the master sergeant had been hailed as a hero, and had done everything in his power to become one on the battlefield. What he had always kept secret was the terror he had felt the first time when his commanding officer had been killed in action, and it was his duty to take charge while enemy bullets rained down around them. The responsibility of the soldiers’ lives being place in his hands had weighed heavily on him, leading him to overcompensate with the heroics, and in the end he was certain that his success had been due to dumb luck.

But then it happened again, and again. He was praised repeatedly for his leadership skills and tactical abilities, and he permanently buried every doubt he had ever had.

Until now.

But second guesses were not a luxury he could afford, and Carol, despite all that she was, had still stolen his glory. Whatever uncertainties he experienced were sure to fade as he continued to push forward toward his goal. He needed to claim her to regain control of the Suit by proxy, and that mattered more than anything.

Hartmann pulled on a pair of baggy pajama pants then flopped shirtless onto his couch, grabbing a gaming controller and loading a first-person-shooter to pass the time. It was oddly a relief to be in his apartment alone, without the crowd of friends or a random hookup. As he played, he half imagined that Carol’s weight was pressing into his side, as if she was sitting on the couch quietly enjoying the moment with him, and it killed his ability to aim or react in the game. Still, he didn’t mind; the sensation was a pleasant one that covered his arm in goosebumps.

He found himself looking forward to the following day, and the continuation of his illicit relationship with the cleaning lady. It was by far the most exciting endeavor he had ever undertaken outside of the Suit.

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 8b

Late, because I had to recover from a totally wild Easter celebration. Lol.

“What did you have planned for us after ditching corporal Holmes?” she asked.

“I dunno. I got caught up in the moment.” They stared at each other, and all the while Carol kept hold of Hartmann’s hand. “I should take you back.”

“No.” Carol shook her head. “I want to … live like a person.”

“That’s an odd thing to say.” Hartmann gave her hand a small squeeze, then pulled her to begin walking, keeping away from the parking lot and surrounding roads.

“I’ve been thinking that I need to do more with my life.” Carol nervously bit her lip, then continued, “I don’t have any family or friends to miss me, – or any pets either. I’m not really sure what the difference is between now and before, other than where I sleep.” She pulled her hand away and mumbled, “Sorry for rambling. I know that I’m not making any sense.”

Hartmann hesitated. He still had the intoxicating taste of Carol on his tongue, pleading with him to kiss her again, and a hard lump in his throat that made it difficult to talk. He willed himself to regain control, to slip back into his usual mannerisms, and hide how exposed he felt by Carol’s confession – it mirrored his own life too closely for comfort.

“You have me, now.” He forced a grin.

“Really?” she asked, sounding surprisingly earnest.

“As I said before, I can’t keep myself from liking you.” He pulled her close to put his arms around her waist, and leaned to whisper in her ear, “Will you let me like you?”

Carol’s cheeks turned a deep red and she avoided his gaze. “I’m thirty-one,” she replied, a little breathless. “Don’t you think I’m too old?”

“I’m thirty-five. We’re right for each other.” Hartmann ran his fingers through her hair, watching as her eyes half closed. She was succumbing to his words, and this time lifted up her chin when he kissed her for the second time.

His lust for her swelled so intensely it hurt. His hand cupped her breast before he realized it, and his tongue ventured into her mouth. The desire to claim her screamed and raged at him, but a small portion of sensibility shone through: pushing Carol too fast would backfire badly. He reluctantly let her go. She swayed on her feet, and her eyes quickly pointed at the ground.

They walked in silence for awhile, with no destination in mind. Their hands were clasped together with their fingers intertwined, but each was in their own thoughts. Eventually their meanderings took them on a loop back around, as when the restaurant came into view, Hartmann released her hand.

“Do you think that we’ve let Holmes panic for long enough?” he asked jovially.

“Probably.” Carol wrapped her arms around herself.

“I don’t want to say this, but …” Hartmann trailed off, giving a moment for suspense to build as he worked out the proper phrasing. “I’m a master sergeant, and I was assigned to assist in training you. It’s considered an abuse of authority for me to engage in a relationship with you.” He studied her reaction carefully. “I’m not supposed to feel this way.”

“So … that means we have to keep this between the two of us?” Carol asked.

“You’re much smarter than you give yourself credit for.” He put his arm around her and pulled her against his side. “That is unfortunately correct.”

“I guess that’s all right,” she said slowly, but her mouth turned downwards. “But you should know that I have a terrible poker face. I’m awful at hiding things.”

“I trust you.” He set his jaw and dropped his voice to a dramatic murmur. “I don’t know what I’d do if I was dishonorably discharged. The military is the only life I’ve ever known.”

Carol nodded enthusiastically. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Honestly, this seems so surreal, it feels more like a dream. I half expect to forget all about it tomorrow morning.”

“I hope you don’t.” He smiled. “C’mon. We have to go find our escort and apologize.”

Something felt wrong.

Carol wasn’t the sort to gush giddily over anything, but her behavior was still off. Everything about her inner world was a gigantic unknown, and despite his best efforts to read her, Hartmann had his doubts about how accurate his impressions were.

Holmes was sitting on the hood of Hartmann’s car, and as he stood he gave them a sour look. Carol scooted so that she was half hidden by Hartmann, who in turn adopted his most suave demeanor, calling out, “Hey!” with a wave that was more like a small flourish.

Holmes scowled but stood and saluted, giving a bitter, “Sir!”

He returned the salute. “We were sitting around the side of the building waiting for you to come out, but we missed you. Spoiled the joke, didn’t it.”

Holmes glanced over at Carol, who blushed deeply and looked away, fidgeting with her hands. “Yes, sir, it did,” he replied.

Carol had been speaking the truth when she said that she was terrible at hiding things, but thankfully her obvious struggle with anxiety in all its various forms served as a sufficient cover story for her behavior. Hartmann was pleased to note that there wasn’t any hint of suspicion in the corporal’s eyes, but rather pity for the poor woman.

“Let’s call it a night.” Hartmann reached into his pocket and thumbed the key fob, unlocking his car doors. “We’ve got many more long days ahead of us.”

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 8a

Although there were a number of civilian employees present, the majority of the crowd was in uniform, and for better or worse, Hartmann’s reputation preceded him; a number of curious glances were cast their way as they were shown across the restaurant to their table, and he met them with a roguish grin.

Carol’s new role as pilot was classified, and consequently, Hartmann’s humiliation as well. Had it been well known that he had been ousted from the Suit, he would have never allowed himself to be seen in public with the cleaning lady. But as it was, he could relax and enjoy himself, all the while playing it up for the mystery.

He had chosen an Italian themed restaurant on a whim, and the three of them settled into their seats as a basket of breadsticks was placed on the table along with the menus. He immediately picked one up and tapped Carol on the nose with it.

“You should eat this,” he said. “You are far too skinny.”

“I wish everyone would stop nagging me about that,” she muttered, but she took the breadstick and pulled off a small bit to put in her mouth, chewing slowly as she picked up the menu. Hartmann grabbed another, and this time used it to tap her cheek.

“They say garlic is quite healthy for you, so it might help with your complexion. Unless it’s too flavorful for you.” Hartmann grinned.

Carol narrowed her eyes at him and pushed the second breadstick away. “I’m not that boring, master sergeant.”

“Oh?” He leaned towards her, a mischievous look in his eyes. “What sorts of exciting things have you been up to lately?”

“Well …” A small smile crossed her lips. “I took over your job of piloting a badass mecha suit.”

Hartmann forced a laugh and willed himself to brush the comment off. “Touche.” He hadn’t expected her to push back in such a manner, and from the pleased yet anxious expression on her face, she wasn’t accustomed to behaving in such a manner either. Funny enough, however, it was her own words that threw her off balance far worse than anything he could have done. Her hands shook at she held the menu, and from the way her eyes were unfocused, he could tell that she wasn’t reading the words.

When the waiter arrived to take their order, Carol blurted out “spaghetti.” After the other two entrees were ordered, Hartmann added, “A bottle of white wine as well,” then grinned devilishly at Carol as he lowered his voice and purred, “You need something grown up to balance out that spaghetti.”

“Oh hush!” Carol snapped back. “I like spaghetti.”

“Toddlers do too, or so I’ve heard.” Hartmann gently touched her leg with the toe of his boot. “Don’t worry though, I’ll make a woman out of you sooner or later.”

Carol’s face turned bright red, and she focused her gaze down at the table as she took another breadstick and began eating it, deliberately ignoring him. Hartmann took that as a sign that it was time to back down, and instead engaged in small-talk with Holmes, asking a series of routine questions about the corporal’s life before the military, and chipping in small anecdotes from his own early years. Once the waiter arrived with their food, all conversation stopped, and when Hartmann placed the glass of wine in front of Carol, she immediately took a drink.

An idea popped suddenly in Hartmann’s head, when near the end of the meal, Holmes leaned over and whispered that he needed to take a break in the restroom. “Go on,” he replied. “You can trust that she’ll be safe in my company.” He watched the corporal walk away towards the back of the restaurant, then pulled out his wallet and counted a number of bills that he dropped onto the center of the table and stood.

“Come. Quickly,” he said, taking Carol’s arm and boosting her up to her feet. She didn’t resist, but silently followed as he whisked her through the restaurant, and he was grateful for her compliance. Once out the door, he quickly pulled her around to the side of the building, then pushed her up against the brick to minimize their presence as he watched the front entrance, waiting. A minute later, Holmes appeared, looked around, then ran towards where Hartmann had parked his car.

“Looks like we’ve escaped,” he muttered with a chuckle, and looked down at Carol. It was then that he realized he had her against the wall, staring up at him with wide eyes and trembling lips, her feminine contours pressing into him and reminding him vividly of his own masculinity. Purely on impulse, he pressed his mouth against her.

Carol didn’t move. She was frozen, doing nothing to either reciprocate or to pull away, but Hartmann knew her well enough to expect her non-reaction. To avoid overwhelming her, he moved slowly and lightly, more tickling her lips with his own, though the urge to claim more of her surged through him stronger than ever. A small whimper sounded in her throat, and snapped him back to reality. He released her and pulled away.

“I, uh …” His mind was blank.

“Master sergeant.” Her voice sounded small.

“I violated protocol …” Dammit, why did his brain turn off the moment he needed it most?

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 7c

((This one is short because I’m a scatterbrain, lol))

When he realized that he had been silent for an unusual amount of time, he flashed a smile and replied coyly, “You’ll think of something.”

“So …” Carol shifted, looking down at her feet as she bit her lip shyly. “Did you say that you’re going to get dinner with me?”

Hartmann considered for a moment, then suggested, “If you’d like, we can hit up one of the restaurants on Base. Beats the hell out of the cafeteria food, and I’ll pay for you.”

“No.” She shook her head, a little too emphatically. “That’s too much like a date.”

“Corporal Holmes will be there to protect you.” Hartmann raised his voice as he asked, “Isn’t that right, corporal?”

“Right, sir,” Holmes answered back, grinning. “Especially if I get a free meal out of it, sir.”

“See?” Hartmann gestured. “I’ll pay for him too. There won’t be anything remotely intimate about it, just better quality food.”

“I guess …” Carol’s cheeks flushed. “I’ve never actually visited any of the restaurants here.”

“Of course not!” Hartmann teased, playfully pushing his knuckles into her shoulder. “You always went straight home after your shift ended, like a good little girl. Isn’t that right?” She nodded timidly as Hartmann laughed, and he pulled her to the door as he quipped, “Come with us, and we’ll show you a good time.”

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 7b

Hartmann studied her, still feeling a little choked over the way Carol had latched onto his confession of the truth. Any normal person in her position would still be seething with resentment towards him for abruptly shattering everything about their life, but Carol … she had yet to complain that she missed her friends, her apartment, or her favorite pair of shoes. As they recited the NATO alphabet together, it was almost as if she didn’t even remember that he was the reason why she was there in the first place, or that her life had been different just a few days prior. She submitted to her fate as a military asset without resistance, and was now clear-headed enough to peer through his facade when she should have been overcome with emotion.

After repeating “x-ray, yankee, zulu,” a few times, Carol mused quietly, “I wonder where the captain went.”

“Undoubtedly for a little …” Hartmann curled his fingers into a loose fist with his thumb out, which he pointed at his mouth as he tilted his head back. Carol looked at him, baffled.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Captain Lambert is a drunk,” Hartmann replied.

“But he never seems drunk.” Carol’s brow wrinkled.

Hartmann shrugged. “I don’t know the exact particulars of his drinking habits, but everyone knows that he hits the whiskey bottles hard. He’s under a lot of pressure to make something useful out of you, so he’s probably going to be indulging more than usual for the next while.”

Carol fixed her eyes on the table and pushed her fists hard onto her knees. “I’m not trying to be difficult.”

“I know.”

“I really am doing my best,” she continued. “I don’t see why it would drive him to drink. It’s not like I’m making him fight me to be more cooperative or anything like that.”

“It’s the general, not you. Captain Lambert’s been given orders that he’s got to push through, no matter what.” The image of Lambert encouraging Carol as she lay on the ground flashed through Hartmann’s mind and tightened his jaw. “It might be best if you keep low around him, and try not to agitate him.”

“You think so?” Carol asked slowly, and bit her lower lip. Hartmann glanced over at the corporal, and was disappointed to see that Holmes was watching them.

“Yes.” He stood and made a show of stretching. “Let’s get dinner. You need to remember to always eat three square meals a day to keep your strength up and build your muscles.”

“You guys are so weird about that,” Carol said with a smile.

“We’re trained to be.” Hartmann held out his hand to help Carol up, and she took it hesitantly then let go quickly. “Unless Captain Lambert instructs otherwise, you’re dismissed for personal time afterwards.”

Something about that made Carol laugh. “Personal time, huh?”

Hartmann studied her carefully, trying to read her thoughts. “Don’t have anything to do?” he asked.

She looked him straight in the eyes, her expression strange and uncharacteristic as she replied bluntly, “No. And you already know that.”

It reminded him of the moment she had mysteriously slipped through his fingers and jumped into the Suit – the moment that had begun this entire debacle that held him captive. The thought flashed through his mind that there was another Carol hiding inside, and that was the reason why she seemed so empty at first glance. Was the boring, bland woman a mask for something else?

The pieces were beginning to form. Carol, orphaned as a toddler in a tragedy that had nearly killed her as well, had grown up in foster care, emancipated herself at a young age, found stability, then stagnated for nearly half of her life as she drifted into invisibility. While he knew that there was some significance behind it all, he couldn’t place his finger on what.

For a brief moment, he considered asking Lambert for his analysis – it was well known that the captain had worked as a psychologist before enlisting, and would be able to better interpret what Hartmann had discovered – but he immediately disregarded the idea as harebrained. He needed to keep those two apart, not give them an excuse to engage in emotional bonding.

Stories, The Scions

The Scions – 7a

“Book learning” saw Carol in a small classroom with her military entourage. Lambert was up front, using the projector in an attempt to teach her how to read maps, while Hartmann leaned against a desk close behind her. He noted that Holmes was in the back corner furtively glancing at his phone, and simultaneously felt annoyed at the lack of discipline with the younger soldiers, yet relieved at finding a weakness he could exploit.

After an hour, the captain gave in to the despair in Carol’s eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he grumbled for Hartmann to take over, then left the classroom. Unlike Lambert, Hartmann wasn’t under any pressure to turn Carol into a soldier, so he found her ineptitude comforting – the woman had such a hard time grasping basic geography, it made sense that she only traveled by bus; if it was up to her to navigate, she’d never make it anywhere. By the end of the week, he was certain, Lambert would report that Carol was impossible to work with, and Hartmann would be back in the Suit for the mission.

“Let’s switch over to something easy,” he said, not moving from his spot. “The NATO phonetic alphabet.”

“What is that?” Carol asked, turning around to look at him.

“It’s for over the radio, to reduce potential confusion.” He grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen, and began scrawling down a series of words. “You memorize it, then use it instead of the ABCs.” A minute later, he handed the paper over to Carol, and she stared at it.

“Your handwriting it terrible,” she blurted, then turned red with embarrassment.

Hartmann grinned. “I’m a military guy, remember? It’s a miracle I even know how to write, given that my career revolves around point and kill.”

She smiled in return. “Maps and running too, apparently.”

“Words just get in the way. Why, if I picked up a book and started reading, I might get ideas in my head.” He sat down in a chair next to her and leaned towards her.

“Like what?” Carol asked, her eyes seeming huge as she looked at him.

“Like that I’m actually a person, and not a killing machine.” He jabbed his finger down onto the paper. “Alpha, bravo, charlie,” he said. “C’mon and repeat it.”

Carol repeated it, over and over, until it sounded like a sing-song. Then he moved her onto another group of letters to recite. After reaching “tango,” she randomly commented instead, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually a person, too.”

Hartmann paused, an uncomfortable lump forming in his throat. “Why do you say that?” he asked, his voice rasping a little.

“You said that we have more in common that you realized at first,” Carol answered. He hated the sincerity in her words, and the way that she looked at him earnestly. “It occurred to me that was something that we shared.”

Hartmann unconsciously clenched his hand into a fist, but forced a smile as he replied, “You’ve been thinking about what I said?”

Carol blushed deeply and turned away to stare intently at the paper, muttering, “Sorry.”

He glanced back at Holmes, ensuring that the ever present corporal was distracted with his phone, and reached over to lightly touch her fingers. “Most people don’t see through me. I didn’t expect that you’d connect the joke with what I confessed earlier.”

“I didn’t mean to, I …” Carol stuttered, then bit her lip.

“Be careful, Carol,” he said quietly. “If you keep this up, I might not be able to keep myself from liking you.”

She was red clear to her ears, and pulled her hand away as she recited, “T-tango, uniform, victor. Tango, uniform, victor.”