Author's Note: Thanks to JustTripn for beta. Thanks to the reviewers for the reviews!
T'Pol led her to the tiny bridge, where she quickly checked various instruments and then turned to face her. "What exactly are you experiencing?" she asked.
Kendra licked her lips. "More concern than I believe I should, even for a patient. For awhile I almost felt as if I was having trouble breathing too. And I have this overwhelming sense of protectiveness..."
T'Pol said, "Are you also feeling ... attraction?"
Kendra looked down, too embarrassed to admit it out loud. "I don't understand," she said. "After what he did to me, the only thing I should want to do is kill him. But I don't. Or I do and I don't." She shook her head in frustration. "I feel like I've been hijacked in my head and ... in other ways."
"He mated with you," T'Pol said.
"He raped me," Kendra countered hotly.
"Yes, I know, in human terms it was rape." She looked bleak. "However, it appears that he has formed at least a rudimentary mate bond with you."
"But that's crazy. Are you saying Romulans develop a mate bond with every woman they ever have sex with? His wife, Lieutenant Remley, me, who knows how many others?"
T'Pol said, "I don't believe it is possible to have more than one mate bond at a time. So I would assume that if Vehlen was still mated to his wife, he could not also have been mated to Lieutenant Remley. Perhaps this is why it was relatively easy for him to kill her."
Kendra put her head in her hands and covered her eyes. "And you think I'm bonded to that monster?"
T'Pol said softly, "Vehlen is not a monster by his own people's standards of morality. He deeply regretted what he felt was his duty in the matter of Lieutenant Remley. And he has been willing to sacrifice much for a cause he considers just. However, you must not trust him, for I believe he would not hesitate to take control again if the opportunity presented itself." She paused, apparently considering, then added, "I do believe he is genuinely fond of you."
Kendra looked up. "You got that from the mind meld?"
"In part. But from the beginning he has watched you and sought you out. Commander Tucker noticed this as well."
"We considered that, but it was quite pronounced. We also came to suspect that the attraction was not entirely one-sided."
Kendra suddenly felt cold. "Are you saying this is my fault?"
"No. I don't pretend to know why or how bonds form. Or attractions, for that matter." She hesitated, then said, "I had no logical reason to ever take an interest in Commander Tucker, but I did, from nearly the first moment we met. He rather rudely informed me that he'd taken a shower that morning. I soon found myself wondering just what it would be like to take a shower with him. It was extremely irrational, especially since this was long before I began to consider him a respectable companion for a meal, let alone a lifetime."
T'Pol's candor surprised her. She realized that the Vulcan was making a real effort not to seem judgmental and smiled her thanks. "Did you ever tell Trip that?"
The Vulcan looked away. "Not in so many words. I hardly think it's necessary now."
If they were both human, Kendra would have told her to do it away. With a Vulcan, though, she was in uncertain territory, especially since mind melds had clearly occurred between them recently. Did that perhaps result in perfect understanding of such matters?
"I don't suppose this thing with Vehlen will matter much in the long run," Kendra said heavily, trying to sound tougher than she felt. "I don't think he has very long to live. And then I can just put it behind me." Assuming they were still alive themselves, anyway.
"You may have to do that sooner than you think," T'Pol said. "Getting the information we have gathered back to Starfleet is of vital importance. If the opportunity to safely leave Vehlen behind presents itself, I will take it."
Kendra scrambled to come up with a logical reason why that idea was as awful as it felt. "But he could be useful to Starfleet!"
"If Romulans have any consistent pattern in their interactions with us, it is that no one who has seen them is allowed to survive. They self-destruct rather than allow capture. I'm sure Vehlen doesn't wish to help Starfleet anymore than he already has. He'd probably like to destroy any traces of what he has already allowed to slip. We are perhaps fortunate that he may now be guided at least in part by a desire to protect you."
"Then why not keep him with us?"
"Vehlen's concept of protecting you could be significantly different than yours or mine, doctor."
"But he's sick! And I'm a doctor. I can't just abandon him."
"You can and you will, if you are so ordered," T'Pol said. "A bond does not remove free will. You are a Starfleet officer. You must remember where your duty lies - with the people of Earth."
Kendra made her way back to Vehlen's cabin, brooding about what T'Pol had said about a bond not removing free will. But wasn't that the point? If it wasn't, then why was it called a bond? And why, then, was she afflicted with one she certainly didn't want?
T'Pol had asked her to send Trip back to the bridge. Apparently she still felt Kendra could still be trusted to guard their prisoner, which was somewhat reassuring.
He gave her the weapon out in the hallway, where they could still keep an eye inside the door. Trip said softly said, "Everything all right?"
She flushed. "I'll let T'Pol fill you in. Anything go on with him while I was gone?"
"No. I tried to ask him about their cloaking technology, but he claims he doesn't know anything about it, he just flips the switch. I find that hard to believe."
"Did you search his database?"
"Yeah, all night. Didn't find anything. I'd love to take his cloak apart, but we kinda need it right now. He also claims it will blow up if I try to do anything with it. I don't know whether to believe that or not either."
"Maybe T'Pol should try another mind meld with him."
He drew back as if burned. "Are you kidding me?"
She raised her eyebrows. "The pon farr has been resolved."
"I don't care. I don't want her any closer to him than necessary!"
"Okay, but what if it's necessary?"
He shook his head as if to clear it, and said, "I think it's simpler just to assume we can't trust him. Keep a close eye and be careful. He could be stronger than he appears."
She scanned Vehlen. He was breathing much better. "Let's try doing without the oxygen," she said. She closed and detached the canister, then lifted the helmet off, after carefully placing the gun a safe distance away. The helmet was indeed heavy, and she wasn't surprised when he immediately lifted his free hand to soothe his shoulders where it had been sitting.
"What did she tell you?" he asked.
"I don't want to talk about it."
He frowned. "You're upset."
Kendra didn't say anything. He watched her as she collected her gun and sat herself down a safe distance away on the bed.
He said, "There is a connection between us. You can't deny it."
She scowled. "Unless talking about it will make it go away, I don't see much point in discussing it."
"It wouldn't have formed in the first place if there wasn't something there."
"Yeah, well, I'll probably have nightmares about what was there for the rest of my life."
She felt a stab of pain in her chest; he paled and went a bit clammy looking, clenching his hand over his belly. She held up the scanner. If she was interpreting it correctly, he was showing all the signs of a seriously stressed heart, including a rather abnormal heart rhythm, but no infarction. "Perhaps I'll be dead soon and then you won't have to worry about it anymore," he said, teeth gritted.
"You're okay, you just need to relax," she said, before she realized how ridiculous that advice must sound. She put the gun down, again at a safe distance, and approached him. "Take some slow, deep breaths, then exhale slowly. Come on, like this." She demonstrated and he followed her, though breathing deeply also made him cough. "Do you want the oxygen back?" How much gas did one of those canisters hold, anyway? She'd have to ask Trip if there were any more once this one was used up.
He shook his head, grimacing. "I had hoped the surgery would resolve this."
Then apparently he didn't know what her scans had been telling her. "Look, if I'm interpreting my scans correctly, the doctor opened you up, but didn't actually operate on your heart. According to what I can find in your database, very little surgery is done for this condition, because the benefits do not outweigh the risks. In any case, if it had been attempted, a tremendous amount of blood would have been required. But your surgical scars are entirely superficial, and I see no evidence of a massive transfusion, no implantation of any assistive devices, nothing."
Vehlen's face darkened. "That ryakna! After what I paid him..."
"Maybe he knew you were going to try to kill him."
He blinked. "I never kill without reason."
"But you do come up with reasons, don't you?"
"This is what you think of me!"
"Yes, this is what I think of you."
Kendra felt an odd compression in her own chest, and felt a helpless, ridiculous twist of guilt at distressing him in his condition. "Look," she said. "This thing-this bond. It's just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm sorry if it pains you, but you can't expect me to pretend anything else."
"I had hoped this would work out better," he said, still gritting his teeth in apparent discomfort. "Not a mating bond - neither of us needs that right now - but I had hoped that with more time together, you wouldn't have been so traumatized..." He swallowed. "Perhaps humans are more susceptible, but among my people, bonds don't form unless there is at least some interest. Some affection."
"Affection?" she said bitterly. "I'd have to be pretty desperate!"
His jaw worked for a moment. "I believe you were recently kidnapped and enslaved by the enemy with no obvious way to get home. And you fairly recently lost your entire family in one horrific calamity. I can come up with plenty of reasons why you might be somewhat desperate, if you need them. I certainly have reasons of my own for being desperate, as you put it. Unfortunately, none of them changes reality. A bond formed. It exists."
"So how do we get rid of it?"
He smiled. "You said I was dying. That should resolve the situation nicely."
She felt a stab of remorse. "I didn't mean--"
"It's okay, my dear. I'm afraid there's still an excellent chance that we're all going to die. But I'll try to see you safely out of this if I can. It is the least I can do for my bond mate."
Did he mean that? It was ... unexpectedly gallant of him, if true. Or, possibly, it was just another move in the game.
Eventually Vehlen dozed off again. She fought the powerful urge to curl up on his bed and nod off herself, and went back to the computer to continue translating medical files. She'd quickly exhausted any information on the ponvau and mate bonds - apparently they weren't topics Romulan doctors published extensively on, even if they weren't as secretive about it as the Vulcans. She moved on to heart conditions, about which there was all too much to learn.
Vehlen woke when the ship shifted gently under them. "We've changed course," he said.
Eventually T'Pol came by to inform Kendra that they were now shadowing a passenger liner as it made its way out of the system. It did not appear that they were being pursued.
"You have my alarms set?" Vehlen said. "If those energy readings show up, they will be at the very outer edge of my sensor range."
"Yes, Commander Tucker has been monitoring them most carefully," T'Pol said. "But we will have to break off from this liner's course eventually. Do you have any recommendations for us? In return for your help I am willing to deposit you safely somewhere along our flight path."
"I don't want you to deposit me. You need me. I can help you, at least until we get out of Romulan space."
"I'm afraid I don't consider that a practical option, Mr. Vehlen."
He straightened his posture and tugged down his robe. "Then, Commander, I formally request political asylum."
T'Pol gave him a nonplussed stare.
He lifted his chin. "I know there are provisions for this in your regulations."
Kendra felt relieved. There, a logical reason to take him with them.
"There are indeed," T'Pol said. "However, there is no requirement that such a request must be honored, especially when it could hinder a vitally important mission."
"Not taking me is just as likely to hinder you as taking me," he said.
"We have no reason to trust you in this matter," T'Pol said. "Perhaps if I had a team of crewmen I could detail solely to watch you, I could consider your request. As it is..."
"There's Kendra. Or use your damned mind meld!"
"I have been in your mind twice already. That was enough to show me that your motives are complex at best. I do not care to repeat the experience."
"I don't either, but you're a damned fool if you ignore the best resource you have at hand. Besides, you know I have reason to want the best outcome for you now." He canted his head toward Kendra.
T'Pol was clearly unmoved. "My original question remains. Do you have any suggestions for where we might safely depart from our current course?"
"There is no place to depart safely. They are watching for my ship and my cloak is not sophisticated enough to fool any military vessel. You need to change ships."
"That hardly seems practical, especially when we already have a perfectly serviceable craft under our feet," T'Pol said.
"You don't understand what you're up against. The Empire is expert at remote surveillance. And it employs vast networks of informers across a number of species. What do you think will happen when you need to purchase more fuel and supplies, which you soon will? The only way to get safely away is to fool them into thinking there is no remaining risk of exposure. Then they'll stop looking. I have developed a plan that you could put in place before the liner makes its next scheduled stop. I believe it will increase your chance of success considerably."
T'Pol stood and silently assessed their prisoner, who stared back at her as if not breaking eye contact was enough to prove he was telling the truth. T'Pol turned to Kendra with a questioning look.
Kendra grimaced. T'Pol wanted her opinion? She had no idea whether to believe Vehlen. She only knew that the idea of leaving him behind disquieted her beyond all reason. "Didn't you also try to fool them when you first bought us?" she asked him.
Vehlen looked a little chagrined. "I created transporter duplicates, but that was more for Zantira than for myself; I knew they wouldn't stand up to a proper investigation."
"Yes, but that means attempting to fool them is a pattern they'll associate with you," Kendra said. "That makes it less likely to work a second time."
T'Pol's eyes narrowed. "If you didn't expect that ruse to work, why did you even take the risk of purchasing Commander Tucker?"
"You don't think I should have kept you and your bond mate together?"
"I don't believe you would be motivated by altruism, Mr. Vehlen, especially on so short an acquaintance."
He smirked. "Perhaps not. Consider this, then: I delivered valuable intelligence to my superiors, at great risk to myself, and they rewarded me for my loyalty by murdering my family. So when I was suddenly presented with the opportunity to interfere with one of their goals...and meet my own needs at the same time..." He shrugged, perhaps noticing that T'Pol did not look persuaded. "I suppose revenge doesn't make much sense to a Vulcan."
"It doesn't make sense to me from you," T'Pol said. "I know that you blame yourself for your family's fate at least as much as you blame your superiors. You do not have a particularly vengeful personality. In short, Mr. Vehlen, I believe that you are - as Commander Tucker might put it - attempting to blow smoke up my ass."
Vehlen raised his eyebrows, apparently at the metaphor, then frowned. "All right then. This will sound unpleasantly calculating, I'm afraid." He glanced over at Kendra. "I knew I was going to need a companion for the ponvau. And it has been my general experience that people who are reeling from traumatic personal losses are dangerous and unpredictable. Call it enlightened self-interest, but in my family we have always taken pains to keep our slave families happy and intact. So I included Commander Tucker because he was clearly your bond mate. And I included Kendra because she could be useful as a physician, and also because I hoped she might prove to be a worthy - and unencumbered - alternative to you when my time came. As indeed she did."
So he'd considered her a possible partner - no, victim - from the beginning? Somehow that was at once infuriating and weirdly gratifying.
T'Pol nodded. "That sounds more plausible. It still doesn't give us any reason to trust you now. Your blood fever has been resolved. We are no longer your slaves, so you owe us no protection. So you have no further use for us, except perhaps as bargaining chips."
"No one can bargain safely with the people who are looking for Commander Tucker. No doubt my compatriots would consider my behavior somewhat craven and undignified, but my best hope for avoiding an early and unpleasant death lies in escaping Romulan space as quickly as possible. I also owe protection to my bond mate, whether she wants it or not. Finally: Conquering Earth will merely cement the power of the cynical cabal that currently runs the Empire, which will do my people no favor. In short, Commander, at present our interests align perfectly."
T'Pol stared at him, obviously still assessing. She finally frowned and said, "You may present your plan. But I want Commander Tucker to hear it as well."
"I don't like it," Tucker said with a scowl. He and T'Pol had taken advantage of the auxiliary controls in Vehlen's quarters to keep an eye on their status while they listened to Vehlen outline his plan.
"It's too complicated," Kendra said. She had listened to it with increasing disbelief.
"It does appear to carry an extreme degree of risk," T'Pol said. "More so than simply making best possible speed out of Romulan territory."
"I understand that it must run against every instinct you have," Vehlen said. "That is what gives it a good chance of success: they won't be expecting it. I know how they operate. They like to keep a light hand, to go undetected. There is still a pretence of democracy in the Empire, and they don't want to arouse the citizenry against them, especially at a time when a significant draft might become necessary. So if they think their target has already done their work for them, they may simply move on."
"May. There are substantial risks," T'Pol said.
"Oh, of course," Vehlen said. He sighed. "You hadn't struck me as quite so cautious before."
"Oh, save it," Tucker said. "You can't double-dare us into something like this."
"Meld with me if you must," Vehlen said to T'Pol. "You will see that I am completely sincere."
T'Pol folded her arms and looked at Tucker. "Perhaps I had better."
Tucker's voice deepened to a growl. "Oh no you don't."
T'Pol blinked. "Trip-"
"I don't want you so much as touching him!"
Vehlen looked amused. "Feeling territorial, Commander?"
"You shut up," Tucker said. He turned back to T'Pol. "We split off at the next asteroid, planet, system, whatever, and head for Earth as fast as we can. That's what I'd do. And Jon would do exactly the same. You know he would."
"You said that our fuel supplies are not sufficient," T'Pol said.
"So we'll find a supply on the way. It's still better than what he's suggesting."
"But if what he says is true..." T'Pol said.
"It's NOT!" Tucker roared.
"Perhaps we could discuss this on the bridge."
"I don't need to discuss anything. This is my bottom line, T'Pol. You are not to meld with that man. I forbid it!"
T'Pol's eyes widened. Kendra noticed that Vehlen's amusement had drained away, replaced by wariness.
An alarm began to sound.
"Somebody better check that," Vehlen said.
T'Pol turned to the console. "The liner is preparing to go to warp," she said. She turned back to Tucker. "Shall we follow it, or do you wish to forbid that as well?"
His face reddened. "Better follow it. For now."
"Very well," T'Pol said. They waited tensely as she made the commands from Vehlen's console and soon they felt the ship leap into warp. Kendra watched as T'Pol pulled up various control screens, monitoring the various ship's systems and navigation. Finally she reported, "I see no sign of pursuit."
Kendra relaxed slightly, until T'Pol turned around in her seat and said, "I resign my command, Mr. Tucker. The mission is yours."
Trip gaped. "What?"
"It's clear that the personal relationship between us is interfering with the chain of command. The logical solution is for me to resign. I will, of course, be pleased to serve under your command." She sounded impassive, but Kendra sensed a mortally pissed-off Vulcan underneath.
"Oh, come on, T'Pol!" Tucker said. "We disagree all the time. It's never gotten in the way before."
"You've never forbidden an action from me before," T'Pol said, a definite edge creeping in. "You may have that right as my bond mate, but I cannot hope to operate as your superior officer if you are going to exercise it. The only logical solution is to give you command of the rest of this mission."
His hands went up on his hips. "Now you're trying to manipulate me!"
T'Pol went completely still; her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Your orders?"
Tucker looked sick. "Okay, fine, you want me to take command? Here's my first order: Resume your own damned command!"
Her voice was steely. "If I am to do that, I need to be free to do what I think will best help us complete our mission successfully."
He stared angrily down at her. "Then do what you have to do." He turned and left.
T'Pol slumped in her chair.
Vehlen sighed. "You know, children, we really don't have time for this."
Kendra said, "Shut up, Vehlen."
T'Pol said, "Doctor, perhaps I could show you how to monitor this panel. I need to be free to perform a mind meld with Mr. Vehlen and I have no idea when or if Mr. Tucker will return."
Kendra raised her eyebrows. "T'Pol, I don't know the first thing about that. How about I get Trip and make sure he's monitoring it? From the bridge, if not here?"
T'Pol said, "That is a logical suggestion." Her tone was calm but her posture radiated misery. "I will await your return."
To be continued...
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