Red Flag

Chapter 12

I am really spoiling y'all with updates these days... XD

Rachel stepped onto the rocky coastline of the island, felt at ease. The sun was setting, the breeze was chilly, but the air felt incredible. She felt like she was being cleansed. She took a deep breath and began toward the large group of sailors, enjoying themselves as a couple of them played guitar, and Lt. Granderson sang along. She walked up to the large circle of people, a bonfire in the middle, and plenty of dancing going on all around.

Unintentionally, out of pure instinct, her eyes searched the crowd for one particular person. She spotted him yards away, playing what appeared to be tag with Ashley, Sam, and Ava. The kids were shrieking with laughter, and the scene brought an instant smile to her face. He lifted Sam up over his shoulder and spun him around, the girls laughing hysterically. It warmed Rachel's soul to see the children, including Ava, having a wonderful time with the Captain.

She settled down on a rock a little bit outside the circle, watching the crew dance and sing, listening to the wonderful music the two on guitar played. She rested her chin in her palm, which rested on her knee, taking in all of the happiness around her. Danny and Kara danced to the slow song, her arms wrapped around his neck, his face pressed into her neck. It seemed their relationship had only blossomed since they'd been outed during the trials. She was envious.

She looked around the group again, and was disappointed she had lost Tom and the kids. Her mind drifted back to the handsome captain, she missed his smile and his laugh. She wasn't entirely sure how to go about the conversation she wanted to have with him, how to go back to being friends. She'd been thinking about it constantly, amongst other things about the man, and she wished it was so much easier. She didn't know how it could be, but she so wished it was.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a young voice crying out. She heard it behind her, surprised as the kids had been on the other side of the fire not long ago. She turned, looking around, and saw Sam on the ground a few yards away, holding his knee. She was on her feet and quickly by his side, concern evident in her actions.

"Sam! Are you all right?" She asked, her hand running over the young boy's hair soothingly. He sniffled, looking up at her, his eyes glossy with tears.

"I tripped and hit my knee on that rock," he pointed to the one a foot away, "it really hurts," he was trying so hard not to cry and Rachel admired his toughness. He got it from his father, she knew.

"I bet it did! Can I take a look?" she asked, reaching for his pant leg. He nodded, releasing his knee and letting her pull up the jean material. She couldn't see too much detail in the dull light, but she knew he hadn't done any real damage. A small cut was on the knee cap, and she blew across it, helping to sooth the sting. "Looks like just a scrape, though you'll have a bruise in the morning. Do you want to go back to the ship for ice?" She didn't mind tending the boy's wounds, and would take him back to the ship immediately if he asked. He sniffled and shook his head, not ready to give up his fun. She grinned. "You're a brave one, you know that?" She encouraged, standing and helping him up.

"My dad tells me that all the time," he spoke proudly, his tears forgotten, his spirit lifted. She smiled at the young child warmly.

"I bet he does," she leaned a little closer, indicating a secret. Sam eagerly leaned in. "You get that from him," she winked at him, and the small boy stood a little taller with a bright smile.

"Thanks Dr. Scott!" he exclaimed, before running off to find his sister. Rachel wrapped her arms around herself and watched him, an overwhelming sense of adoration coming over her for the children.

"You're good with them," a deep voice caught her off guard, and as she turned, she saw Tom's father walking toward her. She grinned, her cheeks turning pink.

"They're wonderful children," she replied, not responding directly to his comment. She took it to heart, though, happily.

"They really are," he nodded. She noticed how much healthier he looked since the last time she'd seen him. Tom definitely got some of his good looks from the older man. A new tune began, a slower one than the previous, and he outstretched his elbow. "Care for a dance, Dr. Scott?" he asked with that charisma she'd seen on Tom before. Her laugh was heartfelt and real, as she impulsively looped her arm through his.

"Sure. Please, call me Rachel," she replied, allowing him to lead her out to the area where many people were dancing in pairs. She placed her hand on his shoulder, as he took her other hand and placed on high up on her back.

"Only if you call me Jed," he replied playfully.

"Fair enough, Jed," she replied equally as playful. They danced in a small circle, rocking easily to the music.

"So what's your story, Rachel?" It was a simple question that she didn't entirely know how to answer simply.

"I'm a doctor, a paleomicrobiologist. I've traveled extensively, I love Italian food, a good book, and a glass of red wine," she wasn't sure how to answer, so she played it safe.

"Husband? Kids? Dog?" he asked, assessing her reaction. She threw her head back and laughed, for some reason finding his question laughable.

"No, no. Haven't found any time for that," she replied, her voice giving away her regret. He eyed her, reading her.

"Really? A woman dedicated to her profession. All right," he was thoughtful for a moment, "My son tells me you single-handedly created the cure to the Red Flu," he told her, as she laughed again, this time raising her eyebrows in surprise.

"Don't believe everything he says," her laughter quieted and she looked down, her cheeks warm from the attention. Jed didn't look worried.

"He speaks very highly of you," he countered, spinning her around. She settled back in his arms, but stayed quiet. "Admires your work," he added, choosing his words carefully. Tom talked about this woman a lot, Jed had to see whether she was as charming as Tom made her out to be. So far, he was taken by her. And from the look on his son's face several feet away, watching them, so was he.

Tom watched her dance with his father, watched her throw her head back in laughter at something Jed said. Her hair was down, a rare occurrence, and it flowed in the light breeze. She looked relaxed, like she was enjoying herself even. Jed spun her around to the catchy tune that filled the air. His crew was quite talented on guitar, but Tom didn't hear it, he was too distracted by her.

He watched them talk, wondered briefly what his father could possibly be telling her, what stories he could be sharing. He took a drink of the cup of water in his hand, his throat suddenly dry.

He missed her, longed to talk to her. They were playing this battle of wits, both avoiding the other. He knew his reasons for avoiding her, imagined hers were different. Kissing her and then telling her to get out was probably a good place to start the apologizing, he thought ruefully. And maybe explaining why he'd been so upset about her behavior, going off ship against his wishes. He wasn't worried about her; he was worried about all the things that could happen to her. If he lost her….his heart ached at the thought. He'd already lost so much.

The slow song ended, and a more upbeat tune began. Several people clapped along, and Tom watched his crew, his family, enjoying themselves. Alisha had an incredible voice, and mixed with a few of the male crew singing along with her, it was a nice blend. He looked away from the crowd to see Rachel rocking to the music, clapping along, and staring directly at him. He couldn't read her expression, but her eyes were locked on his. Sam popped up from between her and Jed, and she broke the eye contact, laughing down at his son. The feeling in his chest, the feeling in his heart, he couldn't explain it to himself, or chose not to even. He just couldn't stop watching her.

The girls appeared beside her then, and Rachel felt settled and comfortable between the three children and Tom's father. The girls sang along, their arms linked. Ashley, who was standing closest to her, linked her arm through hers, and Rachel grinned down at the child. She looked up to catch Tom's eyes again, intense from across the crowd and the fire, the warm flames lighting him up enough for her to see the soft grin on his features. She was taken aback by the look he was giving her.

Jed watched the two, neither of which noticed. He knew they only saw each other in this moment, and he could tell that there was something between them. He planned on asking Tom about it later, when they headed back to the ship. Sam leaned against him and yawned. He knew what that meant.

"You ready for bed, buddy?" He asked Sam, rubbing his back. Sam reluctantly nodded, his eyes heavy. Ashley yawned, followed by Ava. Ashley leaned into Rachel, who wrapped her arm instinctively around the little girl. Ava leaned on her other side, and Rachel enjoyed the feeling of being needed. When she looked up Tom was before her. He smiled kindly at her, noted how neither of his children moved to him, content where they were. He was pleased by their relaxed demeanor.

"Looks like we've got some worn out kiddos," he observed, ruffling Sam's hair.

"I'll take them back to the ship, you two enjoy your evening," Jed glanced at his watch, and then back at Tom. "The night is still young," the wink Jed gave his son was not lost on Rachel. She blushed.

"Really, Dad, I can take them back," Tom offered arguably. Jed shook his head and Tom knew the decision had been made. Even at forty-one, he knew better than to argue with the retired Army Ranger.

"Come on kids, say goodnight to your father," Ashley left Rachel's side to hug her father, Sam following suit. Quincy and Kelly were aboard ship, enjoying some alone time, Rachel knew they'd be expecting Ava soon anyway. The children shared 'I love yous' and 'goodnights' with their father, before following Jed back to the rib waiting to transport people back to the ship. Rachel and Tom stood awkwardly for a long moment, neither saying anything.

Rachel noted the way Tom looked younger tonight, in his casual clothes, his hands tucked deep in his pockets now. The uniform mixed with his gray hair made him look distinguished. Tonight, in the dusk and fire light, he looked several years younger and more relaxed.

"You want to take a walk?" Tom suggested, a little shrug to his shoulders. Rachel glanced up at his handsome face and nodded.

"Okay," she replied, letting him pick the direction and the pace. They walked in silence for a few minutes. She was enjoying his presence alone, just the feeling of him next to her was enough for now. After a bit, she spoke first. "Your children are really great," she offered, chancing a glance up at him as they strolled. He smiled.

"Thank you. Darien raised them well," he replied, his voice sounding distant. Rachel presumed it was because he was thinking of the past. She chose to ignore it. "I was gone a lot, she worked really hard to make sure they were well adjusted."

"They are," she assured him. "What would have been your next career move after this mission, had all gone to plan?" She asked curiously.

"I would have been promoted to rear admiral, taken a desk job with the Pentagon. That was the plan, anyway," he laughed ruefully, "This is definitely a little more exciting."

"Well, that's putting a positive spin on it," she laughed a little, wrapping her arms around herself, the chill in the air seeming to go right through her button down cotton jacket. He looked down at her, her porcelain skin lit up by the moon. She was beautiful tonight.

"Everything happens for a reason," he responded, and though it sounded cliche, he believed it. There had to be a reason behind why he lost his wife, why all this had happened. As he watched Rachel walk beside him though, he was pretty sure he knew at least one reason, as hard as it was sometimes to think about.

They walked in silence again, Rachel thinking about all the things she wanted to say to Tom, all the thoughts running through her head. She wanted to talk about the kisses they'd been sharing, the feelings that sat in the pit of her belly. But the words just wouldn't come out.

"So," Tom began tentatively, deciding to push himself to get it off his chest, "I'm.. sorry I kissed you," he forced out, the words carrying more weight than he could comprehend. Was he really sorry? How did he mean that statement? Even he wasn't sure.

Rachel sucked in a breath, surprised by the admission, and surprised by the way her stomach dropped. He was sorry? "Oh," was all she could squeak out. She had thought through this conversation starting all sorts of ways, but never like this.

"It wasn't the right way to handle the situation, or an appropriate response to my being upset with you," Tom got the words out, but was beginning to wish he hadn't said anything, as she remained quiet. "All it has done is create animosity between us, and we can not function on board the ship in this fashion." Really, he just missed her. He couldn't find the words to say that though.

His professional tone reappeared, and she had to bite her tongue before she said something she'd regret. She took her time formulating a response, was having trouble finding the right words. "I understand," she replied softly. Tom couldn't read the meaning behind her words.

He stopped walking, needed to see her face, needing to know all was well. She stopped along side him, and he silently begged for her to look up at him. When she did, he couldn't read her reaction. "Will you accept my sincerest apologies?"

He wore that lop-sided boyish grin that made her weak in the knees. She couldn't be mad at him, anger was not a feeling she had when it came to this man. "I suppose I also owe you an apology for kissing you in the ward room," she mumbled, as if against her will. She finished the words with a small smile, "I accept your apology."

"And I accept yours," he chuckled a little, his expression was one similar to relief. He stuck out his hand. "Friends?" He needed her to say yes, needed her agreeing that this was the best way to handle everything. A beat passed before she accepted his hand, shaking it, relishing in the warmth the strong hand provided.

"Friends," she agreed, finding it deep within herself to smile at him. She couldn't be mad, realistically, how could anything become of their friendship at this point anyway? Not too mention, fraternization was banned on such ships, not that the rule had stopped Danny and Kara from falling in love and conceiving a child. She shushed her busy mind.

They began walking back toward the group, which was a good distance away. "Pretty neat seeing the baby today," he started up the casual conversation, wanting to ensure they were okay. A grin spread across her pretty face.

"Very much so. I'm not so sure how the birth will go aboard a destroyer, but we have six more months to figure it out," she laughed a little and he enjoyed the sound more than he thought he should.

"Did you ever want children?" He asked curiously. She giggled.

"Your father asked me almost the same question," she replied softly. Tom made a mental note to ask his father about that. "I always have, still do. It's just never been the right time, or the right person," she spoke softly, chancing a glance up at him. He looked thoughtful. "It's probably not in the cards for me, at this point," she added, in light of everything they were going through, and that the world was experiencing.

"You never know," he shrugged, his mind playing out a picture of a pregnant Rachel. He shook his head to remove the imagine, couldn't go there.

She laughed, "I'm not sure the Nathan James can take more than one infant."

"If it's our home now, we should probably start making it more accepting and accommodating of those types of things. It's bound to happen," he shrugged again, and she found herself over analyzing his words.

"Let's just see how everything goes with Kara," she replied, uneasy with the idea.

They made their way back to the ribs, silently both deciding it was time to head back. She took a seat, as he stood above her, unconsciously stationing himself there to shield her from the cold wind on the ride back. Both played their conversation over in their minds, neither necessarily content with the others words. Tom was internally conflicted, while Rachel knew it was only a matter of time before being around the Captain became unbearable due to her growing feelings.

Friends, she said the word in her mind with disappointment. It would have to be that way for now, she decided. It was better than nothing.

They climbed aboard the Nathan James, and walked through the helo bay door, into the lab. She checked on her work as he waited patiently to walk her to her stateroom, ever the gentleman. They walked shoulder to shoulder as far as they could go, before he dropped behind her, following her closer than he should have been. The scent of her was still very vanilla, but a new spice had joined it, and he'd spent most of their walk subconsciously trying to decide what she smelled of now. He enjoyed it, more than he knew he should.

She stopped in front of her door, leaning on the handle. "Thank you for the escort, Captain," she spoke, looking up at him. His gaze down at her was soft, sweet even.

"You're welcome, Rachel. Please, call me Tom. I think we're above titles now," he replied, surprising her with his request. She nodded. Him saying her name gave her chills. It was so out of the ordinary.

"Okay, Tom," the word slipped of her lips easily, and was music to his ears. "Goodnight, then," she turned toward the door, and he found himself grabbing her arm instinctively.

She looked down at this hand and back up at him, her eyes questioning.

"Meet me for coffee in the morning? On the east bridge wing, at sunrise? The view is exceptional," he fought the urge to kiss her, shamed himself for having just apologized for it, now wishing he could take it back. Instead, her company would just have to suffice.

This man was making it his job to confuse her feelings, she decided. There was no way she was declining his invitation though, ever. "Of course," she replied immediately, barely taking a moment to think about it.

He grinned down at her, releasing her arm slowly, his fingers brushing along her skin. "Great," he spoke, his tone exposing his pleased demeanor. "I look forward to it," He turned to leave, giving her one last smile, "Goodnight, Rachel," he murmured.

She could feel her insides melt. "Goodnight, Tom."

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