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Part of USS Challenger: The Old Order Changeth

3. Dinner Plans

U.S.S. Challenger NCC-71099
January 3, 2401
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Gentle music played gently in the background, providing the ambience for their evening. Forrester was cutting two large carrots into chunks to be added to the vegan lentil stew he was preparing. The smell was already beginning to fill the captain’s quarters. He wore an apron that read, ‘I’m the Captain of this Kitchen’. Bentley knew better than to offer his help, so he was enjoying a glass of shiraz that Forrester promised would pair well with the stew. Bentley had come to trust his boyfriend’s judgement in this area.

“Commander Rix came to see me today,” Bentley announced after taking a sip of his wine. 

Forrester added the carrots and moved on to chop three celery sticks. “What did he want?” Forrester asked, keeping his focus on what he was doing.

“He asked me about you and Everett Ashford,” Bentley added.

That caused Forrester’s knife to still briefly. “What did you tell him?” He asked as he resumed chopping.

“The truth,” Bentley replied casually, taking another sip of his wine. “That you’ve hated each other since you met and have had this stupid rivalry ever since.”

Forrester stopped chopping and looked up at Bentley. “We are not rivals.”

“Really?” Bentley asked challengingly. “When he made XO before you did, he sent you a message to gloat. When you made CO before him, you sent him a message to gloat. So tell me again that you’re not rivals.”

There was no immediate response from his boyfriend. He watched as Forrester added the chopped celery to the stew before plucking a peeled potato out of a water-filled bowl. Picking up the knife again, Forrester began cutting the potato into chunks.

“I’ve never understood what your problem with him is.” Bentley had always gotten along well with Ashford and remained friends with him after graduation.

The sound of Forrester’s knife hitting the wooden chopping board became louder. “He’s always looked down his nose at me,” Forrester replied hotly. “Thinks I’m a simple agri-world farm boy hick and that he’s better than me because his family’s served for generations.”

“Babe,” his tone caused Forrester to stop and look at his boyfriend, “we just spent our vacation working on your family’s farm. You are an agri-world farm boy.”

That drew a wry look from Forrester. “Nice to know I can count on your support,” Forrester replied sarcastically as he returned to cutting the potato.

“Everett doesn’t care where you came from,” Bentley told him. “He’s not like that.”

Forrester didn’t look up. “I guess you don’t know him as well as you think you do.”

“That’s rich coming from someone who never took the time to get to know him,” Bentley scoffed. “You just decided that he looked down on you and have stuck with that idea for more than twenty-five years. Have you ever actually heard him say that he thinks he’s better than you?”

There was no direct response from Forrester; he just pushed the potato chunks to one side, grabbed another potato and started cutting it. That was all the answer Bentley needed. He thought the most likely scenario was Forrester projecting some of his insecurities onto Ashford.

“Rix is worried you won’t be able to work together,” Bentley said, steering clear of that minefield for now. “Is he right?” 

Bentley watched his boyfriend add the potatoes to the stew and stir it. He placed the cover on the pot and adjusted the hob’s temperature. “Of course not,” Forrester’s voice was confident; he seemed very sure. “Ashford and I may not like each other, but we’re Starfleet Officers. We can put our feelings for one another aside to achieve our mission.”

“Good,” Bentley took another sip of wine, “because I told Rix the same thing.” As he watched his boyfriend wiping down his chopping board, a thought occurred to him that caused a smile to pull at his lips. “You know, one of you will have to be the bigger man and rise above this rivalry of yours. Don’t you wanna beat him to the punch?”

The chortle that got out of Forrester caused his face to light up. “Are you trying to use my petty rivalry with Ashford to get me to end my petty rivalry with Ashford?”

“So you admit you’re rivals and that it’s petty?” Bentley cocked an eyebrow with a victorious smile.

Forrester ignored him and lifted the lid off the pot, giving the stew another stir before replacing the cover. “Okay, you win,” Forrester said as he walked around the counter to where Bentley was standing. “We’re rivals, and it’s petty.”

“They say admitting you have a problem is the first step.” Bentley grinned as Forrester’s arms snaked around his waist. “You think you can bring this stupid rivalry to an end?

“I’m game if he is.”

“Thomas fucking Forrester.” Ashford fumed. “Of all the people Starfleet could assign as my squadron commander, they assign Thomas fucking Forrester.”

Despite being on the Inverness for a month, Ashford’s quarters had none of the embellishments one would expect. There were no photos of friends or family, no ornaments or keepsakes collected during his career. Just a few objets d’art that had been there when he arrived. The only sign that the quarters had been lived in were piles of PADDs strewn throughout the room.

Only you could be made second in command to your mortal enemy.” The disembodied voice of Ashford’s best friend, Elias Powell, said over the comm channel. 

The amusement in his friend’s voice only served to wind Ashford up further. “Stop taking pleasure in my misery.” He paused momentarily, “And we’re not enemies, don’t exaggerate.”

Okay, only you could be made second in command to a guy you’ve hated for more than twenty years,” Powell replied, his amusement replaced by a wearied tone. “You’ve never told me why you hate him so much.”

Ashford sighed heavily and dropped his fork onto his half-empty bowl of soup with a clatter. “He thinks he’s better than me,” Ashford replied, unable to keep the indignance he felt from his voice. “He thinks I’ve had it easy because my family has a legacy of Starfleet service, and he’s had to work harder every step of the way.”

Is that what he thinks?” Powell asked. “Or is that what you think he thinks?

There was no need for Ashford to fight the urge to roll his eyes; his friend couldn’t see him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“How do you know that’s what he thinks? Has he ever said that to you?” Powell asked though it was clear from his tone that he already knew the answer.

Frustration bubbled up from deep within Ashford. “He doesn’t have to. It’s been obvious from the day we met.”

“Or maybe you’re wrong, and he doesn’t think that at all.” Powell pointed out. “But since you’ve never sat down with him to get to the heart of the matter and try to overcome it, you remain entrenched in your opinion.”

That’s nonsense, Ashford thought. “I’m not wrong.” He said with certainty.

“Well, it’s good to see that you’re keeping an open mind,” Powell said with a long sigh. There followed a silence on the channel until he announced, “I’m being summoned to the bridge. At least think about what I said. This is a chance for the two of you to clear the air and make a fresh start.”

Ashford had no intention of thinking too hard about his dislike of Forrester, but he told his friend what he wanted to hear. “I’ll think about it.”

“No, you won’t,” Powell shot back with the smile on his face evident in his voice, “Anyway, I gotta go. Speak again soon.”

The comm channel went dead, leaving Ashford alone in his quarters once more. He picked up his spoon but dropped it again almost immediately. His soup was cold now. He returned the bowel to the replicator and recycled it.

Having spent the day stewing about Thomas Forrester, he decided instead to focus on the mission that lay before them. During his twenty-six years in Starfleet, Ashford had never been to the Gamma Quadrant. Few Excelsior II-class starships were given assignments beyond the confines of Federation space; the Inverness was one of the few being sent a long way from home. 

The Inverness’ job within the squadron was logistical support. In practice, that meant the Inverness would handle the heavy-duty engineering tasks. That was why a detachment from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers was being assigned to the Inverness, arriving tomorrow.

Ashford settled himself on the couch and reviewed the Challenger’s crew manifest. A note from Forrester earlier in the day had informed Ashford and Matheson that any gaps in their crews would have to be filled from the Challenger’s compliment. He wanted their requests ready for the meeting in the morning.

In silence, Ashford studied the Challenger’s medical roster to determine if there was someone qualified to be the Inverness’ new chief medical officer.

One of the benefits of the Higgs undergoing repairs at Starbase Bravo was that Matheson and Egan could avail themselves of the station’s many eateries. They’d settled on a small pizzeria on the promenade where the pizzas were made by hand in view of the patrons rather than simply being replicated. The atmosphere was intimate, with subdued lighting, candles on the table and music playing gently in the background.

If they thought agreeing on a restaurant had been difficult, it was nothing compared to the protracted negotiations over which toppings to have on the pizza they’d decided to share. Finally, with their toppings chosen, the pizza and a bottle of house wine were ordered. 

Another benefit of being on Starbase Bravo instead of staying on the Higgs was that they weren’t the captain and the counselor here; they were just Ana and Callum. 

Conversation flowed as they ate, avoiding work-related subjects, which often meant chewing over the recent gossip flying about the Higgs. It was only when the plate between them was empty, and there was only a glass, maybe two, left in the wine bottle that the conversation turned to work.

“Are you nervous about tomorrow?” Egan asked, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

Matheson set her wine glass down and stared at it while slowly turning it by the stem. “I’m not nervous, no,” she replied, looking up to meet Egan’s gaze. “I guess intimidated would be a better description. Forrester and Ashford are highly decorated officers with years of command experience. I was only XO for a year and a half before the captain’s death.”

“Starfleet wouldn’t have given you command if they didn’t think you were capable,” Egan assured her. “You’ll do great. And you’ll get to lead us in exploring a new sector in the Gamma Quadrant.”

That brought a bright smile that lit up Matheson’s face. “I am excited about that,” she admitted. “We’re going to be the first Federation starship to study these worlds; we’ll be the first Starfleet Officers to set foot on them. This is why I joined Starfleet.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you get this excited about a mission.” Callum told her softly, “I’ve missed it.”

Matheson couldn’t disagree with that. “What was there to get excited about?” She asked rhetorically. “We spent the last year lurching from one humanitarian mission to another. First, it was the aftermath of the century storm, and then it was the fallout from another Romulan coup. There hasn’t been much chance to do any exploring.”

“It’ll be nice to get back to doing what we all came out here to do.” Egan agreed.

The brief lull in the conversation that followed gave Matheson the opening she needed to tell Egan what she’d found out. “I was looking over the Challenger’s manifest earlier.”

“Anything interesting?” Egan asked as he glanced around for a waiter.

She watched him for a moment before announcing, “Your ex-husband’s the first officer.”

“What?” Egan’s head snapped around, his eyes wide. “You’re kidding.”

Matheson shook her head slowly. “He was assigned a few weeks ago.”

“XO of the Challenger.” Egan was lost in thought for a moment before a smile pulled at his lips. “He’s doing well for himself.” He said, meeting Matheson’s gaze.

There was a wistful look on Egan’s face that Matheson hadn’t seen before. He’d never talked much about his marriage or the reason it had ended. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Egan replied. “It’ll be nice to see him again.” At Matheson’s questioning look, he elaborated, “The divorce was amicable, and we parted on good terms, so I don’t think there’ll be any awkwardness.”

Matheson studied her boyfriend. He’d always been reluctant to talk about his marriage, so she’d always assumed it had been a difficult time in his life. But Egan’s reaction to the news suggested otherwise. “You’ve never really talked about him.”

“You never asked,” Egan told her. With a shrug, he added, “I always figured you didn’t want to know.”

They’d both made an assumption and been wrong, only proving the old human proverb that when you assume, you make an ass of u and me. “I always thought it wasn’t a happy time for you, so I didn’t ask.”

“Nothing like that.” Egan shook his head vigorously. “Tarven and I had a great relationship, and our,” he paused, “physical chemistry was intense. But we realised we weren’t in love, and we weren’t going to be.”

Matheson smiled. “Well, that’s much better than all the scenarios I’ve considered over the years.” She told him. “That’s why I wanted to tell you; I was worried that seeing him again might be traumatic.”

“No.” He told her with an appreciative smile. “We haven’t kept in touch, but now that I know, I’m looking forward to seeing him again. Hopefully, we can still be friends.”

That was enough talking about the past and Egan’s ex, Matheson told herself. “That can wait until tomorrow,” she told him as she stood and took his hand. Matheson pulled him out of his chair and started for the door.

“Where are we going?” Egan asked as he was led, practically dragged, out of the restaurant by the hand.

“You’re taking me dancing.”