Word count: 1548
Notes: You haven't seen Stealth? That's okay. It's a moderately awful action movie, but it's a moderately awful action movie arranged around a bizarrely adorable and realistic romantic subplot.
This is a very belated birthday fic for bantha_fodder, who made me fall in love with The Other Pilots in the first place.
Ben has always hated formal functions, and doesn't expect that this one will be any exception. He turns up fashionably late – an hour and a half fashionably late, by which time he reckons the speeches will be almost over and the complimentary buffet will be just about ready. As he slides into a seat at the back of the hall, the final speaker is just wrapping up, and he’s immediately sorry that he didn’t arrive earlier.
She’s a polished, white-clad figure with a polished voice and polished posture and that golden-brown hair that shines brilliantly under the lights. The air conditioning is broken. It's always broken at these things. Ben fans himself absently with the program and doesn’t take his eyes off her; stands when he’s expected to, salutes when he’s expected to, and has all but forgotten about the food until someone stands up and announces the buffet lunch in a bored tone. A hall full of decorated US Navy officers filters out through the doors, and Ben loses Kara Wade to the crowd.
Luckily for him, she’s hungry too. From a distance he counts shoulder stripes and blinks – four – so that by the time he’s sidled his way through the press of people to the buffet table the title comes easily, though it still feels odd.
“Ben!” and her voice is abrupt and stilted but the smile that breaks open on her face a second later more than makes up for it. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant Commander Gannon.”
“Oh, well.” He grabs a handful of the ridiculously tiny sandwiches that there always seem to be at this type of occasion and dumps them onto his plate, flashing a grin at her. “Not all of us are shooting up the ranks with your rapidity, chica. No need to rub it in.”
And it’s easy, it’s amazingly easy just to pick up where they left off a year and spare change ago. Kara rolls her eyes and he gives his most charming grin, and everything clicks back into place.
“I’m here for – but I guess – you know that, huh.” She waves an ineffectual hand towards the podium, biting her lip and looking like the endearingly sheepish Kara Wade she’s always been. He doesn’t know what he was expecting; if he thought she’d be more streamlined, more precise, less human.
“Good speech.” She could have been reciting Shakespeare; he’s got no idea.
She makes a face. “I didn’t write it. Well, I did, but then someone went through it with the official Navy thesaurus and patriotismed it up. Nobody wants the truth at these events. They just want validation.”
“Listen to the cynic.” He elbows her in the side. “Grab us some of those bread rolls.”
She raises her eyebrows at him, but passes him the basket. By the time they’ve finished perusing the buffet and insulting the caterers, Ben’s had an idea.
“That’s a pretty big table. And that’s a pretty thick tablecloth.” He looks at it approvingly – Navy white, reaching to the floor, a perfect obscuring barrier.
Kara catches on almost immediately. Of course. “Ben, no. No. Ben…” She starts to laugh, and he tugs at her wrist with his free hand.
“Stealth manouevres, Captain Wade. Come on.”
“There are people I’m meant to be talking to,” she protests feebly, but she glances around the room with mischievous eyes and then lets him pull her under the table.
“There, now, isn’t this nice?” It’s tiny and white and stuffy. Ben watches Kara screw up her nose and balance her plate of grapes and mini spring rolls, and he thinks it’s better than nice.
“Reminds me of ship quarters. Back when I was a lowly lieutenant, stringing my underwear up across the room.” Her smile is teasing.
“Snob.” Ben tosses a bread roll at her and settles himself on the carpet. She snatches it out of the air with a pilot’s reflexes and tosses it back, scattering crumbs all over their neat uniform whites.
“How have you been, Ben?” She looks less polished, in the cloth-filtered light. Softer. More like his best friend. Suddenly his chest aches.
“Good,” he says, nodding slowly. “I’ve been good. What about you?”
“Busy. Less air time than I’d like.” She manages to convey resignation with a spring roll, looping the loop midair, sweeping it past her face.
“Boyfriend?” and his tongue catches in his mouth. He tries not to look at her, but her eyes are wide and just this side of vulnerable, hooking his gaze.
“Had one for a while,” she says quickly, and he flew with this woman for so long that he knows the patterns of her voice better than his own, the minute stress of the past tense. “Didn’t work out. I don’t have enough of myself to give anyone, these days.”
What’s not said is: he wasn’t worth the risk, but I had to get past you somehow. Ben wonders if he’s going mad or just extrapolating from his own guilt, because that’s what he hears.
“I had a foster mother once,” he says, and oh it’s a bad idea because this is their dance: he takes two steps back and hides behind habit, and her face opens even further. The meaningless story dies in his mouth, unelaborated.
“Ben –” she starts, and he knows that beginning because it’s her Kara Wade, Model Of Naval Training voice, and this time there’s a new knowledge and authority behind it. None of which bodes well.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he says. Rough. Suddenly the stupid, juvenile hiding place seems far too small. He could reach out two inches and touch her.
“I made a mistake, Kara.” So he does. He reaches out and puts his hand under her chin and it’s not much, but it shuts her up. “I made a mistake, for me. But it wasn’t a mistake for you, so please don’t make me feel worse about it than I already do, all right?”
“Shut up, Ben Gannon.” She swats his hand away with unusual violence, and it’s a moment before he realises that she’s overcompensating. Making sure she doesn’t cry. “Just – shut up. I was prepared to try, you know that.”
“It wouldn’t have worked, Kara. You’re…” He waves a hand, helplessly. “You’re this. This is you. You know it wouldn’t have worked.”
“Is that what you think?” she snaps. She darts a look at the tablecloth, clearly surprised by the volume of her own voice, and then looks back at him with abrupt, angry heat. “You think I’m Captain Wade, giver of boring speeches and occupier of…of fancy quarters? You think that this is who I am, that all those years of flying with you and fighting and…that Henry and Edi, that that didn’t happen?” She’s losing herself in the sentences, her words coming with less and less fluency.
“No, Kara, I don’t. I don’t think –”
“No. You don’t. Because I think that we could have made it work, but you were too chickenshit to try. Too scared that you’d lose me to the system, so you couldn’t be bothered to give it a chance.” Her lip curls; wobbles; tightens out again. “Model of Navy courage, you are.”
She’s so damn beautiful, so indignant, and it’s entirely unfair. He wants to tell her that she’s being unfair, but he knows exactly how much that will accomplish and it’s nothing at all.
“Well?” she demands.
“Well what?” Feebly.
Kara rolls her eyes, sets her plate down and leans forward; forward, but not all the way. He has to meet her there. He catches on a millisecond too late.
“Ben,” she hisses, and he pulls her to him with such force that his bread rolls go flying and bounce out under the tablecloth.
“Oh, God,” she manages, starting to giggle, and then he kisses her, lying back and slipping his legs under hers. It’s a long table. Long enough. Her hands reach up and cup his face and she presses down to him with an eagerness that’s going to leave their uniforms disgracefully crumpled. Someone should invent a new kind of starch for occasions like this, is Ben’s only and vaguely hysterical thought before Kara Wade’s tongue is in his mouth and his arms finally remember what to do and wrap around her.
One part of him is, bizarrely, looking forward to the day when they look back on this and shake their heads at the fact that they went to an official ceremony and spent their time making out under the buffet table. He wants to see the spark of nostalgia in Kara’s eyes; wants to see it tomorrow, maybe the day after, maybe every day for the rest of his life. It’s too big a thought to analyse properly just then, with her lips tracing his jaw, but Ben thinks it’s probably a very good sign.
“Captain Wade?” someone says near the table, and Kara freezes. Covers his mouth with her hand and starts to giggle again, shaking with silent laughter. Ben keeps one arm firm around her waist and just looks at her, just holds her gaze until the voice moves away, and tries to promise her the future with his eyes and the palm of his hand.