After Perhaps This is as Good as it Gets
-=A Large Forest, on Sibalt=-
Ledbetter crept through the woods with a remarkable degree of self-preservation. When properly motivated, he could be a formidable foe. For Ashton, motivation was provided by the knowledge that there was something to be gained by putting in a strong effort. There was really nothing for him in the tug of war, other than the possibility of being the first one into the water. Perhaps if Zanh Liis had been on point for the other team he would have risked getting wet for the chance to pull her into the mud, but most likely not. As lovely a sight as that may have been, even that was not worth ruining his carefully placed head of hair over.
At least now, there was no real risk in trying. At the very worst he would be splattered with a small spot of paint, and at the very best, he would get to shoot someone. Besides, this was rather fun.
It had been some time since he had seen anyone. Other than the occasional splatter of paint on a tree, there were no signs that there was even anyone on this planet. Granted, the playing area was vast and their numbers were limited, so it was inevitable they would all be greatly spread out. Then again, perhaps this whole game had been a ruse to get him to wander off into the forest. Zanh Liis and her crew were probably watching him on the viewscreen from the ship at this very moment, laughing hysterically with tears in their eyes. Even the Vulcan was probably in stitches at Ashton’s misfortune. Doomed to wander the forest aimlessly for the rest of his life, until starvation set in or he was devoured by some local bird of prey, or Venus Flytrap-like plant.
All for her amusement.
Up ahead he spied a significant amount of paint splatters on the ground. Perhaps they really were still around here somewhere. He noticed several of the impacts were blue, which did not correspond to the colors he believed the two teams had, yellow and purple.
He darted out from in between trees like a cat in an old cartoon sneaking around the furniture to get at the birdcage unnoticed. He wanted to get a closer look at the damage to see if he could tell who was the victor of the battle, and who may have escaped, and in which direction they may have gone.
As he drew in closer, he snagged the toe of his boot on a small loop created by the roots of one of the trees. At that exact moment he heard the pop of a paint gun. As he fell to the ground, a pellet whizzed past his head, exploding in a blue splatter all over the tree trunk next to him.
He scrambled to his feet and behind the tree, as the sniper, whom apparently was frustrated that Ashton’s well-timed trip had spared him, began firing again in Ledbetter’s direction.
“So is this how it is Zanh Liis!” Ashton shouted. “After all I’ve done for you! You shoot me without even showing your face!” The firing stopped, and Ashton realized whoever was sniping at him would try to come around the tree and finish him now. He looked straight ahead, and tried best to judge how he should escape. There was a rock outcropping ahead that would provide sufficient cover, if he could reach it.
Ashton leaned slowly around the tree, pointing his gun out in front of him. There was another pop, much closer, and a blue pellet whizzed by again.
“You’ll never take me alive!” He shouted, as he began spraying fire in the direction from which the blue pellet had come, and then took off running. He zigged and zagged away from the shots behind him, more because of a lack of balance than any sort of tactical decision. When he reached the rocks, effectively screening him from further shooting, he kept right on running. After several minutes he figured he was in the clear, and stopped to catch his breath.
He sat on a log, and reached for his canteen. There was no sign of anyone now, not even splatters to indicate someone had been here. He took a swig of water, while constantly scanning his surroundings for danger. Suddenly he heard a large crash in the leaves behind him. He turned around, and grabbed his gun, but saw nothing. When he turned back, he was no longer alone.
“Drop it.” Jariel Camen warned. The Bajoran had his weapon pointed right at Ledbetter’s chest from just a meter away. Ashton threw his gun to the ground in frustration.
“No fair, damn it! How did you do that! And my God man, what is on your feet!” He shouted, pointing with incredulity at Camen’s “shoes”.
Jariel had dozens of large green leaves wrapped around his feet and tied together with some sort of vine.
“We have something similar on Bajor. The leaves are very large and rigid, which spreads my body weight over a much larger area on the ground, and all but eliminates any noise when I walk. Would you like me to shoot you in the leg? It will be much less painful.”
Ledbetter smirked, and stood up from his log. “You know what? I happen to know a lot about you, so I know you wouldn’t hurt a flea. I don’t think you have it in you to shoot me.”
Ledbetter slowly reached for his weapon, to pick it up off the ground.
“Don’t,” Jariel warned.
Ledbetter kept right on reaching, and suddenly there was a pop. Painted splattered all over Ashton’s back, and he cried out in pain. “You sick man! I thought you were going to shoot me in the leg!” Ledbetter whined.
“Sorry, I’m not really a very good shot.”
Ashton grabbed his gun and tired to fire, but the weapon was locked out after he had been hit.
“Are you going to come to the detention area nicely, or do I have to try and shoot you in the leg again?” Jariel asked.
Ledbetter pulled the trigger several more times, to no avail, and then swung the weapon down onto the log in an attempt to break it. He failed miserably, as the gun merely bounced off the log and struck him in the temple.
“AH! Flummox!” He shouted. Jariel tried not to laugh at the nonsense word, as Ashton accepted his fate as prisoner and began walking towards the holding area.
“You’ve made an enemy today!” Ledbetter warned.
“Me and everyone else.”
When they made it to the holding area, Ledbetter’s shoulders slumped, as he saw Jamie Halliday all alone, just waiting for someone to talk to. Instantly Ledbetter’s inbuilt desire not to be here, typically rather strong already regardless of where here was when he wasn't enjoying himself, had doubled by seeing Halliday’s face; Halliday’s eager to communicate and infuriatingly optimistic face.
Right now the only communication Ledbetter wanted to do was complaining and mostly just to the people who’d actually, to his mind, at least have some ability to do something about satisfying those complaints. The man may just have shot him in the back but even the Vedek would have been preferable company right now.
However with Ashton’s delivery now complete, Jariel had already disappeared back into the woods to resume the game.
Never mind the fact that they were in the middle of a rather large, furniture-free zone. In Ashton’s opinion it was evident that chairs were considered too much of a luxury to be allowed to enemy prisoners as their options were either standing or sitting on the ground. Ashton could quote chapter and verse of Federation treaties and conventions that he believed must surely have qualified this as cruel and unusual punishment. Temporarily this did provide him a certain level of amusement as he considered that even if just ‘in the game’ Zanh Liis could face court martial. The amusement was quickly dismissed though as he realized even in the game things could not be allowed to go that well for him.
So with an exaggeratedly laboured walk he found himself an appropriately arbitrary area in which to stand with his back towards Halliday with arms crossed unwelcomingly over his chest in a gesture he hoped would clearly convey his desire not to speak without his going to the effort of saying it. To do so would have been considered impolite anyway.
Jamie was of course disappointed, though it passed quickly. He did indeed recognize the gesture but while Ledbetter’s stance said ‘I don’t want anyone to talk to’ it also very clearly said ‘I want someone to complain to’. Complaining was not something Jamie understood, finding it took valuable time away from not complaining, but if it was what Ashton wanted even if he didn’t realise it then he would oblige him.
Jamie didn’t really know him but he tried to start off every relationship by believing something positive about someone. Ledbetter would prove a challenge, which was something Jamie never minded. Jamie decided he would admire the man’s impressive observational skills. With only a single look he had evidently gathered enough information to realize he hated this place. When all Jamie saw was a nice clean clearing in the shade of the trees with a single guard to help them with any problems, Ledbetter must surely have in seconds seen something which in minutes Jamie just couldn’t.
So he made up his mind that he would speak to him even if it took a bit of effort, something the toll of which was paid immediately, but the success from which could last you a lifetime. So he set out trying to figure out what Ashton was thinking, hoping to start a conversation from there, figuring there could be many fascinating things in the mind of a man intelligent enough to be a Temporal Investigation’s agent.
It was fair to say Jamie was quite far from the mark at the moment. Ashton was in fact thinking about how he’d gotten here and concluding the Vedek must have set out to get him in the first place. Now the Bajoran probably thought he’d won. Well, he’d see about that.
It was difficult to get to a holy man through Starfleet channels but Ashton had his ways. Like, maybe this charity season he wasn’t going to give any money to the Bajoran war orphans’ fund. He hadn’t intended to anyway but he’d make a donation to a rival charity and make sure it was plenty public, letting the Vedek see for sure what he was missing out on. Yes, that would be very rewarding.
He knew Jariel and Liis had a history so was sure they were in cahoots here somehow. They wanted him out of the game early to humiliate him. Now everyone on their team would get to see that he’d been shot before them; not knowing of the Vedek’s leaf based cheating, and so would conclude that they were better at this than he was. The only exception to that was of course the one man Ledbetter was sure didn’t think. Ledbetter almost scoffed with disgust at the one man people would associate his skill level with as he began impatiently tapping his foot as if thinking it'd more swiftly get him out of here.
Quickly Jamie concluded there was no point in thinking about what Ledbetter was thinking any further; it wasn’t getting him anywhere. Instead he just cleared his throat, hoping to get Ashton’s attention.
Ledbetter rolled his eyes with frustration and began counting the seconds in his mind until the inevitable. *Three, two, one…*
“So they got you too, did they sir?” Jamie cheerfully asked like clockwork
“Actually, no I came here of my own accord.” Ledbetter replied with abrupt sarcasm, just deigning slightly to look to Jamie over his shoulder. “Surprisingly, this outfit came with the rather large paint spot directly over my spine.”
“Oh, right.” Jamie acknowledged the question was a little pointless, still remaining cheerful. “So, it’s just the two of us then.”
“Yes,” Ledbetter added more defensively than intended.
Even if in this case first was worse, Ashton didn’t like being second for anything. He was entirely certain that on a ship with exactly two Captains in spite of being most certainly the superior he was still the second most popular. He’d even come out second best in his divorce proceedings. Third best if you counted Maris’ cats, which might not necessarily be easy as he was sure with the alimony he was paying she could have raised an entire army of them by now.
On the bright side sometimes armies turned on their masters, however with cats that only happened when you were dead and even when she was fighting him for a particularly valuable Chateau Latour he’d still always thought dying would have been sufficient punishment.
Halliday could see this was going nowhere so he decided to change tactics, sure if he could just get it going that he could have a very interesting conversation with Ledbetter.
“So then, would it be alright if I called you Ashton?” He asked thinking they’d benefit from the loss of a bit of formality. Evidently Ashton didn’t agree with him.
“It’s Agent Ledbetter to you.” Ashton replied swiftly, adding with a mumble about the fact that this wasn’t what he felt he should be called. “Though I’d rather you call me Captain.”
“Sure thing, Captain.” Jamie replied happily to Ledbetter’s surprise. “I just wasn’t sure because Lieutenant Commander prefers I call him Rada.”
Realizing Jamie was joking, something which displayed at least some basic intelligence, and more than a little pleased to be being addressed as he felt he should again, Ashton smiled slightly and his opinion changed a little of this Halliday. He finally decided to turn around to face him.
Suddenly Ashton actually considered he might want to talk to Jamie. Perhaps it wasn't as he would with a friend, but Jamie was still a person who could serve as a pleasant enough distraction.
“I have to say you are the first person on the ship that ever offered to address me by my rank. Zanh Liis is quite insecure about it. Probably because deep down inside she knows who should be running the ship,” Ashton adjusted his sleeves nonchalantly as he spoke.
“I think she does a great job! But I’m sure you are a great Captain too. Maybe I’ll serve on your ship someday. Oh, wait, I forgot, yours was destroyed.”
Jamie looked truly sorry. He hadn’t intended it as a joke at all, he had honestly just forgotten about what happened to the Consequence.
Ledbetter glared at him for a moment, then steered the discussion back towards a topic he would find more pleasant. “You are right, I am a great Captain, or I would be if my every attempt to embark on a mission was not sabotaged. Instead they trap me on this ship where I can’t so much order a sandwich in the café without the permission of that Betazoid woman or her French cohort.”
“Wren and Fleur. Those are their names.” Jamie added helpfully.
“Really? How charming. I’ll be sure to send them each a card at Christmas. I suppose you are wondering how exactly I rose to greatness, despite being surrounded by utter incompetence.”
Ashton was actually beginning to like this Jamie Halliday. This was usually the point in a conversation where he was either laughed at, sworn at, or served with a restraining order. Instead Halliday was not only going to listen to him, but he truly seemed willing to do so.
“Well recently there were quite a few vacancies that came up when several people left TI. I strode right in to Gemini’s office and demanded that my years of service be recognized. I spent the better part of my life serving under the likes of O’Sullivan, Zanh and Lindsay, and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that they’d all be dead were it not for me. After fourteen hours of regaling her with the details of my career, she finally could not help but acknowledge my contribution to the galaxy and time itself.”
Halliday was hanging on his every word. “That must have been quite a thrill for you! Do you remember what she said?”
“Yes, I do exactly. She stood up from the desk she had been seated at, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Fine’.”
“And then what happened?” Jamie asked excitedly. For him this was quite an experience as well. People usually didn’t talk to him this much.
“And then, I believe, she went to bed. It was quite late.”
Jamie quickly nodded that he understood and continued watching Ledbetter like he was a source of incredible inspiration. Much like Ledbetter, Jamie couldn’t at all imagine that sleep deprivation may have played even the smallest part in Lassiter’s decision.
“That really is fascinating.” Jamie declared, adding without thinking. “I don’t think I could ever understand why so many people don’t like you.”
With that comment, Ledbetter looked genuinely hurt and the near constant smile fell from Jamie’s face. He quickly added apologetically. “Sorry, I thought you knew.”
Even as his eyes become positively spiteful, Ledbetter made no attempt at a witty retort or even an argument. He merely gave something close to a hurt scoff and turned away from Jamie again.
Jamie Halliday however was not a man to allow this and he made a point of walking around to in front of Ashton who then turned again. Jamie followed to walk to where Ashton was now facing, Ashton turned and then Jamie followed again until finally Ledbetter realized it was futile and instead just did his best to ignore Jamie even if he was standing right in front of him.
“I really am sorry.” Jamie said honestly.
Though trying not to let it sink in, something in his tone got through to Ashton who reluctantly looked directly at Jamie again.
“Don’t be.” Ashton insisted quietly even as a large part of him still felt Jamie should be. “Veritas lux mea.”
At first Jamie simply nodded his acceptance of this, but curiosity got the better of him and soon he had to ask. “Is that a good or a bad thing?”
“It’s a good thing.” Ashton replied, unsurprised by Jamie’s ignorance. “It’s Latin and means ‘the truth enlightens me’. So, I guess I can’t begrudge a man for telling me something he knows to be the truth.”
“Thank you.” Jamie said simply, at least feeling a bit happier himself even if Ashton couldn’t yet.
“It’s not like I don’t try to be popular, you know? I don’t want people not to like me. I just go out every day and be me and it happens naturally.” Ledbetter’s words were drenched in self pity even if for once a desire for sympathy was not at all part of his motivation.
Seeing the pity on Ashton’s face Jamie found himself unsure of what he was supposed to do now. Typically when people were unhappy they avoided him, not being in the mood for smiles, so he didn’t have a lot of experience in this type of situation.
“If it helps,” Jamie started, hoping it would, “a lot of people don’t like me either.”
“Really?” Ledbetter asked eyeing Jamie with curiosity to see if he was being honest, wondering if of all people this simple largely harmless fellow could really have any enemies.
“No, not really.” Jamie admitted without enthusiasm, then added more cheerfully. “But a lot of people still don’t like being around me.”
“They don’t? Why not?” Ashton asked, before realizing that Jamie likely had no great desire to speak about it. “I mean, if it’s not too personal a question.”
“It’s not.” Jamie assured him before adding his theories. “I guess it’s because I don’t hold back. I never repress a smile or pretend not to love life as much as I do. I know it’s too much for a lot of people.”
“Haven’t you even considered trying holding a little back?” Ashton asked, feeling a rare moment of genuine concern for another human being, as Jamie seemed just too innocent to have to suffer with unpopularity.
“No, I’m me and that’s simply who I must be: me.” Jamie answered immediately without a thought because this was something he knew to a certainty.
Ledbetter nodded, understanding his decision, and quietly adding but without quite as much as Jamie’s enthusiasm, “Just like I too must be me.”
Ashton thought for a moment and made an offer. “When we return to the ship, we should have dinner. Maybe if our personalities can meet somewhere in the middle, people will finally, like us a little. Besides, I haven’t yet told you the tale of T’Lara, but that simply cannot be properly conveyed without a bottle of fine Champagne.
Crewman Jamie Halliday
USS Serendipity NCC-2012
TI Agent Ashton Ledbetter
USS Serendipity NCC-2012