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CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700 hrs.]

[USS Theurgy - Deck 02, Senior Officers' Quarters - CWO1 Sten Covington]

Sten Covington lived by a rather simple leadership model. He would always be the last member of his crew to leave the workspaces at the end of the day's work and he always strove to be the first one in. However, there were always exceptions to this, as to everything else. Such as this morning.

He and his staff had worked late simply diagnosing the litany of propulsion-related issues with the twenty Valkyries of various vintages in his fighter bay, and instead of starting the inevitable removal and complete rebuild of twenty ash-clogged impulse drives, he and his crew went over the runabout that was sitting there and prepared the bay for the next day's work. And before Sten turned in, he took the time to arrange for a breakfast meeting with his departmental head, Lieutenant Commander Stark.

Indeed, after all that had just happened, if he was feeling this pressure, his young superior was bound to be under a great deal of stress herself. And, as the most senior enlisted man in the Operations department, he knew on a deep level that it fell to him to look after her to some extent. After all, it was a centuries-old tradition for veteran non-commissioned men to be their officers' sounding boards. And this was no different.

It was in a clean set of his Operations-yellow coveralls and a fresh white TAC/CONN undershirt that Sten made his way to Stark's quarters, by way of the galley for eggs Benedict and a pot of coffee. Perhaps he was granted some benefits due to his rank and seniority but Covington still did not have access to a food replicator on a regular basis.

As for his dress, he and the Bear Cubs had been allowed this concession. It was, for them, a small acknowledgement of their expertise and it was treated no differently than the pilots' entitlement to wear flight jackets in lieu of the standard issue one. And it was good for morale. The Lone Wolves were generally very open in their appreciation of their ground crew, but the reports never made mention of the lowly technician who ensured their phasers were properly collimated or the Chief of the Deck who launched them and retrieved their damaged birds; it was all about the pilots and their nerves of steel, tactical acumen and retina-detaching flying.

Upon reaching the familiar door, Sten simply hit the chime and spoke. "Good morning ma'am. You called for breakfast?"

And, despite the formality of his address, there was genuine warmth in Sten's gravelly voice.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #1
[Natalie Stark | Deck 02 - CoOps Quarters | USS Theurgy]
Fingers reached up, tugging down on bleary eyelids, and a frustrated sigh bubbled out past full, puffy lips. Natalie had to resign herself to the  fact that she looked like she got no sleep, despite the shower. She'd hoped to at least be some what presentable, given that she had plans for breakfast with one of the few people on the ship she didn't have to be presentable for - logic, that. But every time she'd tried to close her eyes and drift off, memories, or nightmares, kept surfacing. Voices in her head, the feeling of not being alone coupled with worry, over Rory - she still hadn't found him.

It was a miracle she was upright.

She chewed on her bottom lip, but before she could strip back down and try another shower, the door chime went off. Blowing a few stray hairs away from her forehead, she turned and tugged her jacket into place. Some guests were worth making the effort, even if she thought she looked like death warmed over. Turning on her heel, she moved across the room, with a shuffle of her sock feet across the carpet. The only bit of her uniform that was missing - shoes. She rarely wore them inside her quarters.

Natalie took one more breath and opened the door. It whisked into the wall, revealing the tall man in yellow ops overalls. True enough, the site of the occasionally crotchety Chief of the Deck standing there with breakfast never failed to bring a smile to her face. It was small, and subdued, as there were appearances to keep up, given her (relatively) new position as Chief of Operations, but all the same, it was genuine.

"Thank you, Chief," she answered, just as formerly, "please come in." Natalie stepped back and to the side, gesturing for her subordinate to join her. The table was already set up, clearly seen from the entrance to her quarters.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #2
When the door opened to Natalie Stark's smiling face, Sten stepped in and made his way to the table where he silently sent the heavy tray before turning back to his superior officer. This time, his smile was broad and warm despite his own stress levels. In fact, despite the fact he was running on only four hours' sleep, he looked as fresh as if he'd just come back from a relaxing week of shore leave. His clothes were pristine, he was freshly showered and clean-shaven. In fact, with his sleeves pushed to his elbows exposing his hirsute, scarred and powerfully muscled forearms, he, looked every inch the grizzled old Sargent-major of centuries past.

With the door safely shut, he proceeded to set a covered plate at each of the two place settings and he poured two cups of the strong coffee he'd procured and handed one to Natalie. The gesture was small, but it was one of those that spoke volumes about the level of comfort between the two vastly different members of Starfleet.

Indeed, he towered a mere fraction of an inch under a full foot taller than his superior and outweighed her by nearly a solid hundred pounds of bone and muscle. And the gentleness with which he handed the mug of coffee over might seem almost comical to the outsider. However, Sten's impressive presence appeared to be a great comfort to the younger woman.

Taking a sip of his fragrant black brew, he finally spoke again. "So, Hen, how you holding up, really?"

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #3
The doors had wooshed shut behind the older crewman, by the time he had set the plates down with his usual straightforward grace, and turned to smile at Natalie. Her lips pressed together and then grew a bit wider, nervous, but then relieved. The younger officer didn't have very many people she could relax around, especially after her promotion. One of the appeals of the errant musician turned bartender, Rory, was that he helped her relax. Sten Covingtion, despite looking every inch a grizzled veteran that he was, was another such person.

THe brunette took the mug in hand, let her fingers trace around the ceramic cup, and brought it just under her nose, inhaling the strong scent. Her eyes fluttered shut for just a moment, and she sighed. "Better, now that I have this," She told the CWO. And it was true, the coffee surely helped. But she knew that wasn't what Sten meant, and she also knew that the older man had an amazing ability to tell when someone was doging the question. So she allowed herself one small sip, lips closing over the edge of the mug, before looking back up at him and answering, truthfully.

"I've, been better," Natalie admitted, softly, "Objectively speaking, I'm a nervous wreck." She gave the man a brittle smile, the two standing close to each other, and the table. "Mind you, so is half the crew, so that doesn't make me stand out all that much, does it?"

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #4
Patience was a trait that was essential to the successful senior NCO. Patience with the work, patience iwith the situations presented to him, patience with subordinates, and with superiors. Another one was the ability to listen. Sten was no counsellor but it was his job to actually figure out the meaning of the actual spoken words. Both when trying to make sense of pilots' less than accurate technical descriptions to being his department head's close advisor.

And what Covington heard was a wan attempt from Natalie to downplay the stress she was under. And that led to ten older man shaking his head. Of course the crew was on edge. Twice the ship had been attacked by some nightmare ship from the future, they had taken heavy casualties and one of their own was one of those enemies Ives was leading this crusade against.

"Natalie, I've been right there, right behind you since I got on board. I'd like to think I got to get to know you fairly well. You know that isn't what I meant."

Sten took a long pull from his own coffee and he laid a large, furry paw on his superior's shoulder, the joint disappearing under his callused appendage. "You aren't half the crew, Duck. And you know I'm not interested in that 'objectively speaking' noise. We're in your quarters and you know whatever happens in our little chats stays between us. Take a deep breath and talk to me. I'm not just your Chief of the Deck, I'm your advisor and your friend. You don't need to put up that tough Bridge face with me in here."

And there was something left unspoken. Already Sten had some chats with junior Ops officers and several enlisted men who'd been rather vocal about their impression of their less than ready department head and he did remind them of the chain of command and of their duty to perform to the best of their abilities despite their personal feelings, and how they were honour-bound to support her and not undermine her position. And one of those had resulted in a particular Ensign going to Sickbay to be treated for walking into a bulkhead, an injury that may or may not have had been assisted by an irate Chief Warrant Officer who needed a more forceful way to explain the facts of life to that particular officer...

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #5
Sten's head started to shake, just a little bit, but clearly Natalies attempts at dismissing her worries were something the NCO just wasn't going to buy in on. She shouldn't really be surprised; after all, his ability to read her was what made him such a good mentor to lean on. A completely different kind of support structure, then the one that Jien Ives was offering - and that was a train of thought needed the brakes put on it. She hadn't the time to pursue the physical training that the Cpt. had offered her. Other things to focus on, like keeping the ship from falling out of the sky, or being swallowed up by a planet on the brink of destruction.

Or having your thoughts invaded by the tactical officer she added, bitterly.

He was right, she didn't need to put on a front here, even if her 'tough bridge face' wasn't terribly tough, considering how it cracked a bit during her (so far) only jaunt in the center seat. She shrugged a bit, under that hand, not to move it, but to acknowledge his words. If she had any idea some of the things that went on behind the scenes, she'd have even less faith in that 'tough' face he mentioned.

But that was neither here nor there. With a resigned sigh and a small, self deprecating smile, she opened up a bit. "In that case, I'm not doing good, at all." She sipped again taking a step towards the table where breakfast sat, waiting. Opening up for Natalie was hard, even with someone she did trust. And despite the age and rank difference, or perhaps because of it, she trusted the Chief of the Deck.

"The nightmares are back," she admitted, though truthfully, it was more that she had new nightmares, instead of the dreams of being ensnared by the plants from the Niga system that had so thoroughly infected the ship. More a combination of that, and people prying into her head. Again, a parting thank you gift from her duty on the bridge the day before. Oh, she didn't really blame Fedd. He wasn't trying to do any harm, but it still felt like a violation, and it certainly cracked her fortitude.

There was tracking down Rory too. She had been too exhausted the night before to see what she could find. Did that make her a bad person? She figured Sten would tell her once she fessed up to that concern.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #6
There was something that all Starfleet Officers had in common to some degree, and those in senior staff and departmental head positions even more so. It was this self-impression of invincibility. Some were so absorbed by their need to maintain the image of the stalwart and unshakable officer they would refuse to accept help and it would eventually destroy them. Others were well aware of their vulnerabilities and did seek out what support they could, although sometimes to excess. Others, like Natalie Stark, would eventually welcome help when it was offered to them, given a certain amount of effort trying to provide it.

At least, that was how it seemed to Sten Covington.

When his superior finally acknowledged she was having a hard time, the older man took one more pull from his coffee and set the mug down on the table before seating himself in his customary chair. Nightmares. Many on board had them, and truth be told so did Sten. While he did manage to keep himself together, he too needed the odd support. However, it was no meeting with counselors that helped him. A great deal of his solace came from being there to support Natalie. She did not know, and could not know, she was as crucial to his mental health as he was to hers. And another great contributor to his rock-solid stability was his ability to speak to the other senior NCO's on board. This "old boys' club" was another artefact of ages past, but it was still there and very effective.

"How bad are they this time?" Sten was speaking quietly, his gravelly voice gentle. He was no counsellor, but he did know nightmares, if discussed, could lead to the source of at least one of the reasons for the irrational fears that caused them and give an opportunity to deal with it. And it was far healthier than a bottle of non-synth scotch before bedtime.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #7
He'd taken the chair facing small kitchen nook (a corner, really, with a replicator, and a double burner top) and Natalie moved to take the seat across from him, as she often did when they ate like this. The chair moved out with just a slight scraping sound, before she seated herself, tucking up under the small table. Her quarters - Hendricks quarters for so long - were starting to look like her quarters. And meals like this helped reinforce that.

"Bad," she stated, directly, before scooping up a bite of eggs into her mouth, and chewing. Good food helped with bad times - someone in her past, her mother, maybe? had said that before. Regardless of who said it first, it was certainly a universal truth, as far as she was concerned. "Different, too," she admitted, after swallowing, "some of the same from before, plus a nice new flavor of...invasion and loss." Because thats not cryptic, Natalie she mentally chastised herself.

Still, she didn't elaborate, not right away, instead attacking the food before her with a surprising amount of gusto, considering the lack of sleep and the slightly haunted look she'd had in the mirror, not 15 minutes before. Normally, this kind of conversation would leave someone with no appetite at all, but clearly, something deep in Natalie knew she needed to eat, and eat well.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #8
Sten waited until Natalie had attacked her eggs Benedict before he proceeded to pierce the poached eggs' yolks and stir the bright yellow fluid with the lighter-coloured Hollandaise sauce, thoroughly drowning the peameal bacon and English muffins beneath. The older man did not speak, though, when a scant overview of his superior's nightmares. Instead, he followed her lead and attacked his food and coffee at a pace that was only slightly faster than a leisurely meal on a day when he did not have to report in for duty. But then again, one could argue this was not entirely a social call. And besides, if it was good for both the Ops O and the Chief of the Deck then it was good for the ship.

After another long pull from his coffee and refreshing both mugs on the table, Covington finally spoke again, changing the subject somewhat. "You know Duck, maybe you need something less... mentally involved to do for a while, get your mind off things. We have plenty of manual work that needs doing on the flight deck, if you can spare a few hours away from being a department head."

"And besides, it would my deck apes some good seeing their officer getting her hands dirty. It's been a while since you've been down there with us." The suggestion and its addition were spoken with a smile, and as always Sten would take no for an answer if that was the case. But then again, he had explained in the past how it was a basic point of leadership to walk in ones' subordinates shoes at least once in a while. It tended to reinforce the loyalty they felt to their superiors and kept those above connected with the realities of life for these men and women they led.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #9
The duo devastated the breakfast before them. The younger woman's quarters were filled with the sound of silverware clicking and sliding against the plates on the small table. The clack and clatter and all the other noises associated with eating, from the slurp of coffee to the muffled sounds of chewing. Natalie swallowed, with her eyes half closed, the flavors exploding across her tongue from the dripping mix of egg, sauce and toasted bread. Sten was the first person to introduce her to the meal. While she'd had plenty of 'Earth' meals growing up on Mars, this was just something her family had never done.

No matter how far you go from home she thought wryly, as she leaned back into her seat, watching the older man top off the coffee cups.

The subject shift caused her to lean a bit further back in her chair, the front two legs popping up off the floor ever so slightly. Feeling a bit like a kid in school, she brought the coffee cup back to her lips and took a slow sip this time. CWO Convington had a point - it had been a long while since she'd gone down to check up on the deck officers. She'd gotten her hands plenty dirty during the (aborted) refit of the two ships while they were on theta endradi iv. But Natalie couldn't find any fault in the logic of the suggestion, and she found herself nodding.

"I should make the rounds more. Especially after the past few days"

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #10
When Natalie finally relaxed and allowed herself to enjoy her meal, Sten's face cracked into a warm smile. Eggs Benedict had always been one of his favourite and it seemed that his superior enjoyed them nearly as much as he did. Of course, he could replicate them as often as his rations allowed but it was far better to get them fresh from the galley. And it was something special between he and Stark, or at least it felt that way.

When she replied to his suggestion, Sten knew Natalie was no stranger to hard work, but cleaning engine parts, as menial as that was, was a task that could be oddly relaxing as it required very little thinking and allowed one's mind to wander and go into an almost meditative place. Or he could put her to work on that new fighter in the bay after he'd disable its weapons and remove its antimatter bottle, ask her to map its command pathways or some more technical task he would need to bring in outside help for. Either way, the morale boost to the Cubs and a chance to interact with their department head aside, it would help a lot in the bay.

"Well Duck, you still have a spot in the bay's locker room and there's coveralls and safety boots in there waiting for you. You're always welcome on my deck and there's not many outside the Wolves or my guys who can say the same." Indeed, Sten liked keeping control on the comings and goings in the fighter bay. And that included the visitors, even if they were fighter pilots themselves or Theurgy's personnel who was not absolutely required for the work at hand. To him, it was a matter of safety and effectiveness, and at least Theurgy's personnel respected that policy.

Once he finished his food, Sten refreshed, again, both cups of coffee with the last from the carafe and asked what he always did towards the end of their informal meetings. "So, is there anything I can do for you? This old Chief is all yours, Duck and if I can do it, you got it. If I can't, I'll find someone who can."

Again, he did it, reinforcing the fact he was there to be a strong left arm.

Re: CHAPTER 01: Breakfast in the Neutral Zone [0700]

Reply #11
Why am I not surprised, she thought to herself, that he never reassigned that locker after my promotion. It wasn't that there were a lot of new hands eager to take on the deck work. But in her prior position as Asst. Chief of Ops she had spent far more time doing the 'grunt work' then she did as the full Chief, and had as a result, kept a locker with the deck crew, and one in Main Engineering as well, with the ops officers that often assisted the grease monkeys that ran the engine room. Now days, most of her 'gear' was kept in Hendri - her office. But it seemed Covington followed the military axiom: Redundancy is good, Redundancy is good. Or perhaps it was simply "be prepared".

In any case, it looked like there was little excuse at all to avoid a shift down in the fighter bay - not that she would avoid it, once the suggestion was given. It was a good idea, after all.

That matter was settled, for the time being. Natalie would find herself down in the bay, in a shift or three from now, working under the diligent and experienced eye of the Chief of the Deck, in and among the 'grunts' once more. It would be good for all parties involved. The coffee was topped off again, cup number three would have her jittery to use the bathroom in a short while, but as always, there was Sten pulling her thoughts from breakfast to the tasks at hand, with his ever present offer of help. And with a gesture that completely dumped propriety of rank by the wayside, Natalie reached up and squeezed the left hand on her shoulder, tightly, and shook her head. "Just keep those fighters up and running, Chief, and I'll be happy." Words that hopefully conveyed far more then the surface implication.

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