Red Flag

Chapter 4

She entered the ship's gym quietly. It was the middle of the night, a few nights after their grand escape from the Russians. She'd been working around the clock to secure and test the vaccine; she felt she needed a mental break, some time to run out her frustration.

She hadn't expected to find the gym occupied.

Shirtless, and clearly lost in his own world, the captain was having a push up contest with himself. She slowed her walk, as to not to disturb him, she told herself, but also to admire what she saw. The muscles that rippled under his skin all along his back, the way his arms bulged with every upward motion. He didn't stop, didn't rest, occasionally grunted from exertion. She tried to keep count, and when she reached twenty, she stopped; she knew he'd been at this a while, judging by the gleam of sweat off his back and arms. Not facing her, he didn't know she was there until she finally made her move to the treadmill, climbing on and pressing the 'start' button.

He glanced up and saw her reflection in the mirror before him. She immediately glanced down to avoid his eyes, and he looked back down as well, continuing working off his steam. Every day that went by that he didn't hear from his family, that his crew didn't hear from their families, was one more day he stopped, at least for a moment, to make sure he'd made the right decision.

And then occasionally he thought about her. He prided himself at remaining stoic with her most of the time, trying to keep her at arms length, but the truth was that he'd grown fond of her over the time they'd been working together, since the Arctic. It had been easier when she had just been down in the helo bay, minding her own business. Now she was very much a part of their every day lives on board the ship, and he hadn't anticipated feeling a sense of camaraderie with her, or the constant need to check on her and protect her. These were lines he knew how to draw, had always drawn. But now, all the lines seemed to be blurring.

He gritted his teeth, and finished his push ups, before standing, sucking in air at a rapid pace, sweat pouring from his brow. He'd run five miles before that, and now headed for the dumbbell rack. Daily workouts were not something he was able to enjoy, so he had to sneak it in when he could. And when he couldn't sleep, it was his best option.

He chanced a look at her on the treadmill. He nodded his head in acknowledgment, she offered a tight smile back. She ran at a good clip, he noticed. He also noticed the way her hair was tightly braided and bounced as she ran, a few pieces escaping to frame her pretty face. She ran hard and fast, and he noticed the way she seemed to favor the self-punishment as he did. She was a petite thing, and in the tank top and running tights, he could see much of her frame, to his delight or dismay, he wasn't sure. He tore his eyes away and picked up two heavy dumbbells, making his way to sit on the bench for a few sets of bicep curls.

She had tried not to watch him watch her, but it was definitely not an easy task. As he turned away, she admired the thick, strong man before her, the visible muscles in his back, the broadness of his shoulders. He was not young anymore, she guessed early-mid forties, judging by rank and graying hair. He was thick through his midsection; he was no a small, weak man. He had the strength and stature to command the respect he deserved, and a kindness that always hid right behind his eyes. He was a hard one to read, she had decided. They hadn't talked directly about the kiss, but it definitely was between them, in the air.

She admired the way the Navy-issued sweatpants sat right at his hips. She suspected if it were not the middle of the night, he'd be properly dressed. She assumed he hadn't thought anyone would find him down hear after midnight. She realized she was staring and quickly cut her eyes away, staring down at the console of the treadmill.

Tom didn't know what to do. Watching her run out of the corner of his eyes, the sweat glistening on her brow and shoulders, her ragged breathing, his peaceful nighttime workout had now welcomed a distraction. He was a man, just like any other man, and he admired women, knew when he found one attractive, knew what he liked. That didn't mean he laid a hand on anyone. He was married, as Tex had so kindly reminded him the other night after she had lunged for his face. But right now, as she ran her heart out, he couldn't take his eyes off her.

He went for the heavier weight for a set of hammer curls, trying desperately to distract himself from looking at her. He wondered how long she would run, how many miles he could put down. He wondered whether he should go, separate himself. But he kept lifting the heavy weight, grunting occasionally, trying so hard to stay on task.

He continued his workout, and she kept running, each one chancing glances at the other occasionally, trying not be get caught. Rachel ran until her legs began to shake and slowed to a walk, checking her time. She generally didn't run for distance, and she ran until she felt tired, until the tension left her shoulders. She watched him pick up his towel and shirt as she stopped the treadmill, as he chugged water from his water bottle.

She wiped off the machine, they both finished their duties in silence, as Tom re-racked his weights. He slid his USS Nathan James t-shirt back over his sweaty upperbody, and she noted it was similar, if not the same shirt she'd worn when they'd kissed. Her breathing hitched more than it already was from her run.

"How many miles you do?" He inquired, his voice raspy.

"Four," she replied confidently. She was proud of her distance this evening. He nodded, impressed.

"They must be what-eight to ten minute miles?" He asked, tossing her a dry towel. She welcomed it, pressing it against her sweaty face. She felt like she must look like a mess.

"Roughly. I try to stay around nine. It's a solid pace for me." She stepped closer to him, was surprised when he didn't step back. He thought about it, felt the pull that carried him closer to her, but resisted.

"I'm going to take a shower and try to sleep; I need to be back on the bridge in a few hours. You should get some rest too.." He gestured for her to head toward the door, and she moved in front of him, walking that direction. He walked behind her, cursing himself for checking her out from behind.

"Always worrying about me, captain," She replied with a small laugh, throwing her head back to catch his eye. She found that kindness again, and a small smile.

"It's becoming a habit," he responded, before wishing he could take the words back. It was true, it was a habit these days, but she didn't need to know that. She grinned a little broader and he noticed the blush that spread across her cheeks. It complimented her.

"I appreciate your concern, captain, but I promise I sleep. It's just in small increments." He gave her a dubious look, and as she stepped over the doorway, she glanced back at him with a grin, and tripped with her other foot. Tom grabbed her arm quickly to steady her, pulling her back into his chest a little too strong. She collided with his sweaty chest and caught her breath.

"Careful there," he gently cautioned, his voice soft and low. She dropped her head in embarrassment, with a small laugh. When she looked back up at him, for a long moment they stood, searching each other's face. She was definitely in over her head; he was definitely in over his. Something about this woman drove his senses crazy; she could feel more of him against her than she needed too, knew it wouldn't help her rest very much. She caught him look from her lips to her eyes, and she did the same, before he realized they were treading dangerous waters.

"My legs are a little weak," she replied. She didn't specify from what. Something about being against his hard chest, his hand clasped around her bicep, made her knees shake. She steadied herself and he reluctantly let go, allowing her space.

"Well be careful on your way back to your room, you probably have ten more of those," again, with that chuckle, she wanted to tell him to stop being so captivating. She dropped her head again, and he noticed the way her hair fell loose from her braid, accentuating her face.

"Good night," she offered, turning and heading toward her stateroom. She wanted to run, to distance herself from everything that was the handsome man behind her. Instead, she walked calmly away, could feel his eyes on her back.

Tom watched her go, offering a return 'good night'. Every day seemed to be harder to be around her. He was having a hard time not envisioning her, she was captivating him.

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