Big thanks, as ever, to goddess9991 for her editing. If I sound like I read at above a 6th-grade level, it's all her doing.
A note to those who know the US Navy: I edited all petty officer initials into the generic "PO" so there's no job-specific info, changed the location of the story, and obviously changed all names or just used first names. So if by some tiny chance Rainey reminds you of some officer you know, it ain't her.
I was sitting with my back to the door when Commander Rainey came into my office. My feet were up on the windowsill, the weekend's watch roster on my lap. I'd like to say I was working on it, but really I was kind of staring into space. She tapped twice on the open door.
"Come in," I said without turning, thinking it was one of the girls from the training barracks the Navy had me running while I convalesced from a broken leg.
"I'm already in," she said. I turned to see her halfway to my desk. She waved me down as I started to stand.
"Sit, sit. No need to discover military protocol this late in the game." The Commander had been giving me good-natured grief for a couple months over my somewhat haphazard relationship with the little rituals of the service. I turned my chair and let my feet drop to the floor as she came to lean her butt against my desk on the near side, right by me.
She was in whites and so was I: mine the long-sleeved jumper and neckerchief and hers the short-sleeved officer's summer whites, which looked great on her. I mean, everything looked great on Rainey, but the whites set off the red-brown hair that just reached her collar and seemed to fit her nice figure better than her khakis did. I schooled my gaze carefully so I wouldn't get caught verifying the fit from two feet away.
"Good morning, ma'am," I said with a smile, taking her white cover and setting it on the meticulously clean shelf by mine. "Congratulations on your promotion. I'm sure you'll wear your silver leaves as well as you've worn those gold ones."
"Thank you. How did you know? The list just came out." Her smile was very bright. As it would be, making O5 is a big deal, and she'd made it pretty young. Young enough to keep an eagle well within expectations and a star a distinct possibility down the line.
"A little bird told me." By which I meant 'I know someone who saw the list early or the instant it came out, but I can't tell you that. Wink, wink.' She nodded, understanding me perfectly.
"That's just the kind of thing I came to talk to you about, PO3." She paused. "I talked to your Captain Fielding about you. Did he tell you?"
He had, but there was no way I'd betray his confidence.
"It's been a while since I saw the Skipper, ma'am." I grinned at her. "Should I be saying 'Wait, let me explain?' Or maybe 'I swear I've learned my lesson?'"
"You know damn well that he spoke highly of you." Her light blue eyes regarded me for a moment.
"Why are you leaving the Navy? You know you'll get that stripe back. Hell, you'll probably get more to go with it. There aren't many sailors with one of those," she tapped my fruit salad, "and it buys you something. You'd need a war to put anything in front of it."
"Given that I almost drowned getting this one, here's hoping I never have anything in front of it. I think all of those come with the purple one with Washington on it. So no thanks."
"You evade questions very adroitly, PO3." she said with a smile. "Which is a characteristic of what makes your Captain and I want you in the Navy. But knock it the fuck off now. That's an order. Are you leaving because you're bitter at losing the stripe?"
"No ma'am. I'm at peace with that. I was furious at first, as you no doubt know, but I have some perspective now. The Skipper protected me. Right or wrong, I'd have gone to a court and done time with a lot of CO's. I mean real time, not the forty-five, forty-five, and half-times-two that I got."
"You're right. With most CO's, probably including me. Are you mad at the Navy, then? For making him protect you?"
"No. Yes. Kind of. I should have taken a different course of action. I do get that. But it sucks that I came closer to getting locked up than the guy buying the child-whore did and that what he did got whitewashed. Out of the Navy is a joke as a punishment for him no matter who his granddaddy was. It makes us look like Catholic priests."
"Agreed," she said in a tone that implied a 'but.'
"That's not even the reason though, ma'am." I paused, and she spoke before I could go on.
"Ever hear the phrase 'wartime hero, peacetime fuck-up,' Ken?" she asked, smiling again.
"Yeah. From the Skip. About me. I don't know if it fits though, ma'am. I did one thing that anyone would have done in my place. The fuck-up part works..." I said with a grin.
"First of all: no, everyone wouldn't have done what you did. A number of people stood right there and watched you do it, right? That's why you have that thing on your chest." Her tone brooked no argument, so I gave none. "Secondly, that's not exactly what he meant."
"No, ma'am," I said after a moment.
"You get that?"
"So why can't you get past this and re-enlist? Clearly you've learned to stay out of trouble. Discipline over here is perfect, better than any of the other training companies, virtually all the women have graduated since you took over, and you've managed to have your fun around here so quietly that the Chief still thinks you're a homosexual. You can go as far as you want to in the Navy, Ken."
My gast was flabbered, and it must have shown. She grinned, and was proud of surprising me.
"You don't think any woman can spend five minutes around you and think you're gay, do you? I don't know how Chief G got that idea, but I knew he was wrong quite a while ago."
I made no answer for a moment. The Commander kept smiling at me.
"Ma'am... I've got less than eight months left on my enlistment, now. I don't really get why you and the Captain are both pressing me like this. He basically ordered me to come to dinner with him before he leaves for Washington so he can give me the full-court press, and now he's turned you loose on me. Which, to be honest is not a bad tactic, but it seems a lot of attention for a Fuck-Up 3rd Class."
"You're an asset, Ken." she snapped, suddenly angry. "You were an asset to your ship, you're an asset around here, and you'd be an asset with me. You're an asset to the Navy. Whether it's charm, luck, brains, whatever, the rules just don't apply to sailors like you. And you know it. You could still be a chief by thirty. Or an officer, there are ways to get through school. Or a warrant. This is where you belong."
"It isn't, ma'am. I'm a career time bomb just waiting to go off. And there's absolutely nothing to say I won't end up in irons next time. Or that I won't take some concerned officer's career," I indicated her with a gesture and raised brow, "with me. Hell, ma'am, I've committed more than one offense against the UCMJ this week."
"I'm aware," she said. "But your girlfriend is still on top of her class, and in fact her evals have gone up. There's no reason for me to take notice."
"Lady, you are something else," I laughed. "Usually it's the senior noncom that has the command that wired."
"Well, Senior Chief G is retired on active duty," she smiled. "It behooves me to keep an ear to the ground and some songbirds on my staff."
"Like I said. Something else." I returned the smile. "But you see what I mean. Tick... tick... tick."
"Ken... how many E4s do you think can get away with saying 'lady, you are something else' to a newly-frocked full commander? Or compliment the way she's worn her rank the way you did and have it actually mean something to her? That felt better than the congratulations I got from my boss."
She smiled at me for a second.
"You're special," she said. "Things get done around you, and smoothly. You set the tone around this place despite being the lowest-ranking noncom here. Even the Chief just rolls with what you say."
She held out a hand to forestall the protest that was on my lips.
"It's like this: A lot of officers have favorite noncoms that they take with them from command to command, and I've reached that rank now. I'm on my way to the Med. I want you to re-enlist and come with me." She grinned and added: "That's an order."
"I'm very glad that's an order you can't give, Commander." I said with a laugh. I grinned at her for a second, and then laughed again, louder, my head rocking back.
"Jesus, there's a recipe for disaster," I said. "I'd be in the brig twenty minutes after I re-upped."
"Oh? Why's that?" Her eyebrow went up in clear warning, but I wanted to put this to bed.
"You know damn well why, Commander. I have to school my manner toward you every second. I've seen guys, officer and enlisted, who are so intimidated by your ability and your rank that they just can't see the woman behind it, and that's probably the right way to be. Or at least the safe way. And I've seen guys who are incapable of seeing who you are beyond your beauty, can't see what a fine officer and better human being you are, and that's very much the wrong way to be.
"Thing is," I went on, "I see all of it. You're fucking amazing, to say nothing of drop-dead gorgeous. Bad enough right now. I can barely resist making a pass at you when it's just the hots, or a crush, or whatever. Put us in proximity long-term and you'd either have me arrested or be fighting me off once a week. I'm just not good at seeing the uniform instead of the person, and sooner or later it'll cross me up. Hard."
Rainey just looked at me, and the silence stretched. I couldn't read her eyes. They must have a class in poker faces at Annapolis, I swear.
"How's that for not evading a question?" I finally said.
"Shut up," she said, sort of absently. After another pause, she nodded.
"Alright, I told you not to evade my questions and you didn't. Fair enough. I'm going to leave so neither of us says or does something in the heat of the moment, but this discussion is not finished. When are you having dinner with Captain Fielding?"
"Alright," she said, straightening up and gesturing for her hat. "Save Wednesday night for me. We may be more comfortable finishing this discussion out of uniform."
"Ma'am, I'm not sure what else there is to say."
"That was an order, PO3."
I won't say I worried, exactly, over the weekend. I'm not really given to that, but let's say I had a few moments of trepidation about having pissed the very cool Rainey off enough that she'd had to walk away. Not good.
I spent the time with Jordan. We had a blast. There was a bittersweet feel to our time together because it was the end, she'd graduated and had orders to her first duty station. She left Monday morning. We'd discussed it as her graduation neared and resolved to do our best to just enjoy the time we had. It took the form of spending most of our time in bed, of course. She got a kick out of my retelling of my conversation with Rainey.
"I can't believe you said that," she laughed when I was done. "'Gee, Commander, I'd love to come with you, but I'm really just an erection with feet.' You're such a fuckin' idiot."
"I think we can call that a well-established fact at this point. But shut up, it's not like you wouldn't come on to her sooner or later, too."
"Sooner. Definitely. But I wouldn't warn her ahead of time." She laughed. "I'd make her my love slave."
"More like you'd end up her love slave, you little wild child," I laughed.
"That works too." she said agreeably. We grinned at each other for a minute.
"What you need to do is get her to take me along, too. Then I could wear you out so you're not tempted to come on to her. All I'd ask is that you forget to put my name on the duty roster a lot."
"Or I could talk her into bringing you along as both of our love slave. Give you a whole different kind of duty assignment."
"I'm in. I knew I'd like the Navy. Where do I sign?"
By the time Wednesday rolled around I thought Rainey had forgotten the dinner order, there'd been no contact between us for days. I was wrong, though. My phone rang mid-afternoon.
"Barracks five-five-five, this is a non-secured line, PO3 Ken speaking." Answering phones in the service can be a bit cumbersome.
"So your Captain had no luck," she said without preamble.
"No, ma'am, I'm afraid not."
"Alright. My turn. There's a place in Pacific Beach..." She gave me directions. "Eighteen hundred, in civvies."
I had no clue how she'd dress. Nor did my closet offer any help, no matter how long I stared at it. Finally I hedged my bets, putting on jeans, a nice white button-down shirt, and a dark blue jacket. If she dressed well I'd be okay and if she was casual I could just lose the jacket.
She beat me to the restaurant. I'd even made sure to pull up fifteen minutes early, but there she was. Damn it.
I laughed when I saw her outfit. She'd gone casual, but I still couldn't lose the jacket. Blue jeans and a white button-down shirt. Her shoes had a modest heel, but other than that we could have been the kind of couple that coordinates their outfits. She saw it too and laughed as I walked up to her.
"Out of uniform, but we still match," she said.
"It's embarrassing, really. You wear it much better than I do, though." I instinctively started to salute, caught myself, and held out my hand instead. She laughed again, obviously seeing the aborted gesture, and shook it.
"If I'd known you could dress, I'd have worn something nice." she said. "I have a whole closet full of dresses I never wear."
"I'm sorry I missed that," I said, looking her up and down. "Our second date, then."
"This is not a date Mister Ken, and you would do well to park that wise-ass sense of humor."
"Indubitably. But what are the odds?"
"They'd better be one-to-one. Clear?"
"Aye." My grin may have given me the lie. Or the fact that I said 'aye' instead of 'aye, aye.' Either way, she looked at me a bit sideways as we went inside.
We ordered dinner and beer and sat for a few minutes talking about nothing in particular before she got to the point.
"So what's it gonna take, Ken?"
"There's nothing, Commander." I took a drink. "Look, I'm flattered that you want me with you. If anything could give me pause, it's that. But in the end, it's just reinforcement that I'm doing the right thing getting out."
"Well," I paused. "Okay, you know how I got in trouble. And at first I was mad at the Navy about that. But the truth is that I couldn't have gotten away with that on the outside, either. You just can't go around breaking people's jaws. And I hate having to deal with jerks like Shroeder, but I know that'll happen out there, too."
"Maybe calling my fellow officers jerks isn't the best idea."
"And see, there it is. That reinforcement, again. The dude is a grade-A, government-inspected asshole. He may never get above lieutenant as an officer, but he's already a four-star jerk. That's simple fact. But I can't say it, even to someone I genuinely like and get along with," I gestured to her, "because of the difference in our rank."
"You need to watch it now." she said curtly.
"Commander, you invited me here, in civvies, to have this discussion. I took that to mean we were speaking a bit more freely. You are, after all, trying to persuade me to change a major life decision." There was a long pause.
"Fair enough." she finally said. "But you seem to be railing against basic military discipline."
"In a way. I'm not arguing against its propriety or effectiveness or necessity or any of that. I'm just saying I don't think I belong in it."
"Well, you'll be faced with a lot less of it if you come with me. You'll be on shore-station, with an abbreviated chain of command. Especially as you make rank, it won't be all that long before you only answer to me, at least functionally."
"And that has its appeal. But the idea of serving closely with you hammers the point home hard. I do not want to spend my life working in proximity to you and pretending you aren't a woman and I'm not a man. I don't want to wake up one day and realize I've gotten used to that, that I've accepted that you're somehow above me. The idea is absolutely abhorrent."
"Bullshit." she said, and I could see the anger in her eyes. "Don't try to use me as a cop-out, Ken."
"I don't mean to, Sarah. This is a symptom, not the disease. I'm just citing the most relevant example."
"I do not recall giving you permission to use my first name," she said, and now the anger had moved from her eyes to her voice. I grinned. Couldn't help it. I could see that it pissed her off, but the woman is quick as a whip and after a few seconds she shook her head a little and grinned back.
"It's like one of those courtroom dramas where the other side keeps helping Perry Mason make his case." I finally said. She laughed.
My beer had evaporated. I gestured to hers, got a nod, caught the waitress' eye and held up two fingers. She was there quickly, dropping off our salads at the same time. We munched quietly for a few minutes.
"Setting aside my authority issues, Commander," I finally said, "do you really want me as your pet PO? I thought you were going to chuck me out the window a minute ago, and last week I made you so mad you had to leave lest you choke me to death."
"I wasn't mad." She grinned and pointed at me with her fork. "I am now though, so watch yourself."
"Yes ma'am." Another quiet moment passed.
"What are you grinning about, Mister Ken?" Her tone was amused and kind of friendly.
"Just guessing that I've moved from 'unwashed mass' to 'person' in your Yes ma'am."
"Fair enough," she said after a pause. "So long as you understand that you're grossly generalizing, that it's not that I or any other particular officer see enlisted personnel as less than people. You've changed status in my eyes, true, but it's not what you seem to be implying."
"Is it? Because it's important. Your Captain would not have gone to so much trouble for you if he didn't see your value as a person."
"Yeah. I get that. I should have said 'moved from child of large growth to adult in your eyes.'"
She nodded, looking at me intently. That's another thing I think they teach at Annapolis, that 'I don't care if it makes you uncomfortable, I'm going to stare directly at you until I see what I'm looking for' gaze.
"Good," she finally said. "Now eat your vegetables."
"Oh, very dry," I laughed. Rainey grinned at me.
"I was hoping you'd get that. Sometimes my humor goes fshoom." She waved a hand over her head.
"Yeah, well, like I said. I get you better than most. At least most that I've seen. Does that sound arrogant?"
"Yes," she said flatly. She didn't elaborate, didn't even look at me when she said it. We enjoyed our dinner in pleasant conversation, talking about the food and the view and the impending beautiful sunset.
We lingered over dessert and Irish coffee. I could see the gears turning in Commander Rainey's head. She hadn't given up, but I think she'd intended to entice me with offers of re-enlistment bonuses and promotions and college programs and Italy. I'd put her off her game.
"You're grinning again, PO3 Ken." she said with her own smile. "Am I about to throw you out the window?"
"No, ma'am." I said with a laugh. "I was just thinking that this is probably not how you envisioned this conversation going. I know it's not how I envisioned it going."