Author's Note: Thanks to JustTripn for beta, kindly supplemented by Escriba. Thanks to the reviewers for the reviews! I'm afraid this chapter is TnT-light due to unavoidable POV requirements. Don't worry, we'll rejoin them in Chapter 14.
Kendra tracked down Trip in the engine room and resisted the slightly hysterical urge to tell him they really didn't have time for this. Instead, she strove to sound neutral. "What are you doing?"
"Just checking things," he said. "Engines usually calm me down."
He grimaced. "You know, maybe something did happen with the bond. Maybe I am feeling more territorial. Either that or I'm just not really capable of putting up with any more shit at all right now. Of any kind." He sighed unhappily.
"After what you've gone through recently that would be understandable." She pushed it a little further. "A little wide-ranging anger might also be understandable."
He snorted. "Maybe to you. To T'Pol, I'm suddenly a big scary monster."
"I doubt that."
"No, I can feel it, right here." He put his hand on his heart. He took a shuddering breath. "Vulcans aren't supposed to get scared." He turned wide eyes on her. "I need her to be the voice of reason right now. Not to buy into crazy schemes hatched by desperate Romulans with nothing to lose! I don't see any way this plan can work, even if it isn't a trap."
"I think she's just as skeptical of him as you are," Kendra said. "That's why she wants to do this meld. If he's sincere, maybe we can collaborate on something that makes more sense. But right now she needs us to trust her ... and to watch her back. And, more specifically, she needs someone to monitor the ship's status while she does this mind meld."
He frowned with distaste.
"Do it from the bridge if you don't want to be there," Kendra said. "But think about what kind of message that sends your bond mate."
He threw up his hands. "Has it ever occurred to you how completely one-sided this whole bond thing is? Wham, bam, you're bonded for life. Nobody asks you. Nobody warns you. In your case, you barely even know the guy. He raped you! And do you get any rights in the matter at all? Even a very simple, basic one, like no, honey, you can't go feeling up another guy's brain while I watch?"
"Do you think she enjoys the prospect?"
Trip slumped. "Son of a bitch. I hate this. I want my engines back. I want my life back. I want to wake up and find out that none of this ever happened." He took a last, wistful look at Vehlen's tiny little warp engine, scowled, and headed for the door.
Kendra followed Trip in and watched him lay his hands on T'Pol's shoulders as she sat at the desk. He said, "I'll take over here. Go do your thing."
"Thank you," she said, and got up.
He nodded and sat down, stone-faced and intent, though Kendra saw him close his eyes and take a breath when T'Pol briefly caressed his head as she turned away.
It seemed to take so little for those two to reconnect. Kendra met Vehlen's eyes and he gave her a tiny, crooked smile, almost as if he had noted the same thing, before his attention snapped warily back to T'Pol.
"You agreed to this," T'Pol reminded him.
"So I did," he said grimly. He threw a nervous glance at Kendra as T'Pol settled herself at the end of the bed and reached her hand across to his face, almost as if she was seeking the greatest possible physical distance between them.
"My mind to your mind," she said softly.
Vehlen's hands gripped the chair until his knuckles turned white. Kendra watched uncomfortably. Why was he so nervous? Did he somehow hope to hide the truth from T'Pol? Or was it simply impossible not to fear such unfiltered contact?
"Our two minds are merging," T'Pol intoned. "Our minds are one."
Kendra felt a tendril of envy wrap around her consciousness. She'd never have that kind of access to Vehlen's inner thoughts, or to anyone's. Though perhaps it wasn't really something to envy. She wasn't sure her marriage could have survived having complete access to Ruben's opinions of her, or vice versa.
Trip swiveled around and watched the pair for a moment, his face unreadable. Then he gave Kendra a sour grimace and turned back to his work.
"Why help these people?" T'Pol said.
Kendra leaned forward, interested to hear the answer to that, but T'Pol remained silent. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be locked in silent struggle with Vehlen.
"Trip?" Kendra said, concerned.
Tucker jumped up and put his hand on T'Pol's shoulder. "T'Pol?"
Her eyes fluttered open.
"What's going on?" Tucker asked her.
"His motivation for helping us is not particularly verbal," she said, and Vehlen flushed green.
Tucker scowled. "Maybe he's playing you. Distracting you."
"I don't think so," T'Pol said. She hadn't removed his hand from Vehlen's face. Neither did Tucker remove his hand from T'Pol's shoulder. "Let us move on to your ideas for our escape, Mr. Vehlen."
He nodded slightly, still in thrall. He looked so vulnerable that Kendra felt a pang of anxiety for him. T'Pol started narrating his thought processes behind the plan he had recommended and Kendra felt oddly relieved at hearing what sounded something like his own voice at work -- even though it was coming out of T'Pol's mouth -- at least until it occurred to Kendra that they might actually have to carry his plan out.
Because it was just insane.
When T'Pol finally broke off the meld, she sat back a little woozily.
Tucker said, "You okay?"
She nodded briefly, and took a long breath. "He does genuinely believe that his plan has a better chance of success."
Tucker shared an unhappy glance with Kendra. "And you?" he said.
"I... am not certain," she said. "I fear that Mr. Vehlen may be overestimating his own abilities, or underestimating our enemies. I also have concerns about his ability to physically handle the effort involved. He is quite ill."
Vehlen said, "That works in our favor. They are likely to underestimate a man on his last legs."
"If those legs give out we would be in serious trouble," T'Pol said.
"That's why we are fortunate to have Kendra with us," Vehlen said. "But all you really need me to do is get you onto another ship, adequately provisioned. After that, I think you can handle it, as long as you have the stomach for it."
"It also depends on the ship," Tucker said, clearly annoyed. "What if it's not even warp capable? It would take us years to get home!"
"Please, Mr. Tucker, give me some credit. I've yet to meet a successful smuggler who runs slow ships. And I know this particular smuggler quite well."
"A smuggler could also be intercepted by the authorities," Tucker pointed out.
"Yes, but the authorities on Vierra earn a hefty percentage of the profits from this fellow. They won't interfere."
"Do you know what really bugs me about this?" Tucker said to T'Pol. He turned back to Vehlen. "I don't understand why you would betray your own people. I know they killed your family. I understand that you might despise the people who ordered that. But this goes way beyond that."
Vehlen scowled. "Our fearless leaders are using war as an excuse to destroy our republic and seize absolute power. I know Earth well enough to know that it poses no serious threat to my people even if it wins the war. I can't say the same for the Empire." He turned to T'Pol. "You believe me."
"There is not much time to prepare," Vehlen said. "We'll arrive at Vierra tomorrow morning."
T'Pol looked at Tucker. "Would you like to discuss this decision further in private?"
He sighed and shook his head, glancing at Kendra. "No. I'll follow your lead."
T'Pol stood up. "Then we have much to do."
Vehlen looked at Kendra. "First, we'll need some blood."
Kendra wondered if Vehlen could hear her heart pounding as the port opened and they walked out onto the surface of a planet Vehlen had described as "a scab on the ankle of the Empire." The bright heat and humidity slammed into her immediately, far beyond anything she had experienced in the Caribbean. Vehlen hesitated, perhaps also adjusting, before slowly moving forward. Trip had fashioned a cane for him, but Kendra kept her hand under his other elbow.
In the busy spaceport, heads turned to regard them - some clearly Romulan, others from other species Kendra didn't recognize - then quickly turned away.
She had dressed in Vehlen's simplest robe, slightly converted to look more appropriate for female wear, with a scarf patterned like some animal pelt draped around her neck and head. "You should look like a slave, but a slave of privilege," he had said. They had cut down a pair of his slippers to make her some ill-fitting shoes, since the Orions had taken her boots, but she was glad to have anything at all between her and the hot pavement. She could feel perspiration beading and rolling down her bare skin under the robe, and tightened her sweaty grip on the satchel in her other hand. It held the precious canister of oxygen and the medical scanner, as well as some food and water and various other items Vehlen had insisted they take with them.
He looked quite pale and sweat stood out on his own forehead. "Are you okay?" she asked, and heard it translate. Vehlen had given her a translator to wear around her neck.
"Just playing the part," he murmured, though she could tell he was truly in some distress. "I'm going to faint now."
"What?" But Vehlen had fallen to his knees, gasping and clutching his heart, then rolled onto the ground. She kneeled down next to him. "Vehlen?" She anxiously loosened his robes at the neck.
"This is where you were supposed to cause a scene," he said between gritted teeth.
So she shrieked. Heads turned. She shrieked some more. The sound reminded her of her great grandmamma, a woman not known for her stoicism at gravesides or anywhere else, and she began to channel some of that full-throated tropical hysteria as she yelled, "What is dis fuckery! You drag me to this fucking hellhole and now you want to die and leave me stranded?" She took out their bottle of water and dripped some of it on him. "Wake up, you worthless bloodclot!"
Bystanders watched, but not a soul came forward to help. Apparently it really was a fucking hellhole. She shrieked a little more for good measure, then lifted Vehlen up to a sitting position and pounded on his back a little. "Do you need oxygen?" she hissed quietly.
"Not now," he said, coughing all too realistically.
She helped him up, not particularly gently, and they began to hobble unsteadily along. "Bloodclot?" he said. "Is that a doctor insult?"
"Oh. Nice." He pointed his chin at a nondescript grey door in a nearby, ramshackle building. "There's our destination. Don't!" He tugged hard on her as she began, without thinking, to look back toward the ship they'd left behind.
"What if they didn't make it?"
"Looking won't help."
Once inside, they shuffled down a narrow, dismal hall to a nearly-empty waiting room of some kind, where an alien with an unnerving resemblance to a bat sat behind a counter. It eyed Vehlen, then nodded, and two other bat-like beings arose silently from chairs and escorted them as they slowly made their way into another room.
A corpulent Romulan behind a messy desk looked up, clearly surprised, and then smiled in greeting - or perhaps winced would be more accurate. "Vehlen! What are you doing here?"
"Selling you my ship," Vehlen said. "You always said you wanted it."
"Yes, but that was before it became the subject of an Imperial search," the man said. "Who's your companion?"
"This is Kendra. Kendra, this is Fabian. Don't believe a word he says and you'll do fine."
Fabian's eyes sharpened and he abruptly dismissed the bat creatures. "She's one of the humans," he said. "Where's the other one?"
Vehlen smiled grimly. "Would you mind if I sit down? I'm afraid my heart is not up to all this excitement."
"Sit, sit. Make yourself comfortable. I had heard you were quite ill. Dying, in fact."
"Yes, I fear it's all too true." Vehlen sank into the lone chair that sat in front of the desk. Kendra stood uncertainly behind him.
"And the other human?" Fabian prompted him.
"You know, this whole thing started simply because I needed a female to get me through my ponvau. Unfortunately, Commander Tucker did not appreciate it when I required his Vulcan bond mate, and I wasn't exactly a model of restraint myself at the time. I'm afraid he's dead."
"But why would you buy him in the first place?" Fabian asked. "That was utter madness."
Vehlen shrugged. "Perhaps I was already in the early stages of the blood fever. I must admit I enjoyed the prospect of screwing with their plans. I can't say it makes much sense to me in retrospect."
Fabian shook his head. "They might have been content to let you go before, but now? Where's the body?" There was an unpleasant gleam in his eyes.
Vehlen coughed for a bit, and then Kendra marveled at the ease with which he lied as he said, "Floating in space somewhere between Rigel and here. Unfortunately, when the Vulcan recovered from our exertions, she was quite distraught at having lost her mate. Blew herself and his corpse out my airlock. Such a waste. His body would have still been worth something. And I had certainly found hers quite satisfying too."
Kendra balled her fists, a little surprised at how thoroughly even his lies could infuriate her.
Fabian's eyes had narrowed. "Can you prove any of this?"
"Prove?" Vehlen chuckled. "Would there be any point? Though I suppose we haven't had time to clean up all the mess quite yet, have we?" He looked up at Kendra. "She's a physician, did you know that? Quite useful in that regard. Not much of housekeeper. Give me a decent price for my ship and I'll throw her in with the deal, once I'm dead. I fear it won't be long."
"They're probably already in there. They'll take that ship apart looking for that engineer." He nodded at Kendra. "Likely to take her apart, too."
"That would be a waste of time. She wouldn't tell them anything different than I just told you," Vehlen said. "Come now, Fabian. Even if they make a mess with their investigations, she'll still be a fine ship. She's top of the line and you know it. Help an old friend out. I need cash. Not a lot. You'd be getting an excellent deal."
"What makes you think you'll get a chance to spend it?"
"All I need is another week or two," Vehlen said. "I simply want to get my slave and myself on the next ship heading to Kalpurnia, so I can settle my affairs there before I die. There are certain ... independent ... parties on that planet that are depending on certain dispensations from my estate. You understand."
Fabian stared at him, frowning. "I don't have any departures until tomorrow. And that's the Trevia - not exactly a comfortable ride."
"It will have to do. For now, I merely require enough to allow us to stay comfortably at the Eagle's Wing tonight, and perhaps lay in a few supplies for the trip. I suppose I might as well try to make a profit on the journey while I can."
Fabian stared at him with narrowed eyes. "Aren't you afraid I'll turn you in?"
"Oh - well, yes, of course I am," Vehlen said. "But I believe you have also profited a great deal from our independent-minded friends on Kalpurnia, have you not? I don't believe you'd want the Tal Shiar to know quite how much."
Fabian scowled and opened a drawer. He pulled out some currency and handed it over. "You'll need to sign her over to me. The ship and your ... physician." He gave Kendra a skeptical once-over.
"Of course," Vehlen said smoothly. "Have your people prepare the papers."
Kendra stiffened, suddenly doubting this whole set-up. "What are you-"
"Silence, slave!" Vehlen barked.
She shut up. Could he really be double-crossing her as easily as this, or was this part of the performance?
Vehlen coughed. "Let me be clear about our terms, Fabian. This one here only becomes yours upon my death - and that must be either natural, or at the hands of the government, and no sooner than a fortnight from now, or the deal's void and she gets her freedom. I realize that's a little peculiar, but a man wants to enjoy some companionship in his final days. Agreed?"
"As you wish," Fabian said, as if it made little difference. "I still think I'll be lucky if there's anything left of your ship or your slave. But as you say, you are an old friend." His smile was chilling. "If you will step out, my assistant will give you documents to sign and the details for your trip tomorrow. For both our sakes, I suggest you attempt to avoid drawing attention to yourself."
"Of course," Vehlen said. "You have been a true friend. Jolan'tru!"
"Jolan'tru," the other man answered, with a grimace, and Kendra could feel his eyes on her back as they left the room.
Vehlen carefully read and signed the padds placed in front of him, then a bat creature ushered them through a hallway door and along a twisting passageway to the back of the building to a door that opened onto a busy street. Vehlen immediately hailed a passing vehicle and requested the same establishment he had named to Fabian earlier. Then he slouched against the seat, wheezing.
She took out the oxygen canister, opened the nozzle and held it under his nose with her other hand forming an informal hood until he took hold of it himself and copied her. Unfortunately, they couldn't carry the EV helmet with them, which meant much of the precious gas was being wasted.
He breathed for awhile, his color gradually improving, and finally handed the canister back to her just before the vehicle stopped in front of a surprisingly opulent hotel.
She looked askance at him. He paid the driver, then got out and waited for her to follow. To her dismay, he walked right in and registered at the front desk, took the key provided, fussed for a moment, demanded a different room on the first floor, then insisted on going straight to it. Once there, he immediately took the scanner from the satchel and prowled the entire space, scanning until satisfied.
She watched him with helpless curiosity. It seemed hotel rooms were much the same the galaxy over, although this one was more luxurious than most, thick with drapes and hangings. It also had grills on the windows that she found oppressive, considering their situation.
"What are we doing here?" she said.
"Drawing attention to ourselves." He gave her a wicked grin, and lay down on the bed. "Care to try it out with me?"
He commed the front desk. "I need a physician immediately. Please see to it." He smiled at her. "Let us establish just how dire my condition is," he said. "Besides, you felt I could use some medications, did you not?"
"But shouldn't we be...?"
"Not yet. Provisions, my dear. Provisions. Would you like to take a shower? You look hot and bothered."
"How do you know Fabian isn't turning us in right now?"
"Fabian is turning us in right now."
She stared incredulously at him. "Then what are we doing here?"
"Take a shower, Kendra. Go cool off. I know what I'm doing."
"If that were true, we wouldn't be here in the first place."
He smiled. "Touché. Well, if I prove to be wrong, you won't have to blame me for very long. We'll each have other, more pressing concerns."
She fumed all through the shower - although it felt wonderful - then fumed some more when she came out and watched a local doctor, a man who looked both morose and wary, finish his examination. "You have suffered significant damage to the valves of your heart," the doctor said. "I fear there is little to be done; as you suggested, it is a terminal condition."
Kendra frowned. She'd concluded the same, but it was still chilling to hear it pronounced.
"How long do I have?"
The doctor smiled. "Such matters are necessarily imprecise. I would prefer not to even attempt an estimate."
"And I would prefer that you did," Vehlen said sharply.
The man held up one hand as if he were weighing something in it. "One, two months? Perhaps more, with proper care and fortune's embrace?"
"And what would constitute proper care?" Vehlen asked carefully, his eyes shifting to Kendra.
The doctor shrugged. "A steady supply of oxygen, certain helpful medications, sufficient rest and nutrition... You should take some care to avoid undue exertion, but at the same time, you must not allow yourself to become sedentary. Once you become bedridden, death will follow quickly."
"Sexual activity?" Vehlen said, with a smirk.
Kendra folded her arms and scowled.
The doctor glanced up at her and said, "I suppose you'd have to decide whether it's worth the risk."
Vehlen sobered. "Have the supplies you mentioned delivered here within the hour. Enough to last us at least a month. We're taking a long journey tomorrow morning."
"Of course, sir," the doctor said, then bowed low and backed out of the room almost as if Vehlen were royalty. Apparently he retained some sort of rank or position that the man recognized.
Kendra said, "So what's next? Room service? Pay per view?"
Vehlen chuckled. "I want a shower. And then one of the local traders is coming by to show me his wares."
"You're not serious."
"You need shoes that fit, don't you? Perhaps other items as well?"
"They could pick us up at any moment!"
"That's not how it works, my dear. Not for someone of my rank, in this setting. They're investigating my story, deciding whether it's worth the potential exposure to pursue me when I'm clearly dying anyway, especially if your colleagues are no longer a factor and they believe they can regain control of either of us at any time. And even if they do decide to move, they'll do it when no one is watching."
"No one is watching now."
"They'd still have to get us out of the building." He shrugged and coughed. "Do you think I could have a bit more oxygen?"
Kendra improvised a hood out of a wash cloth and gave him the canister, then went to the window and stood looking out at the bustling street below. Most of the people that passed were Romulans or those bat-creatures - Remans, Vehlen had called them - though she also saw the occasional Orion, Coridanite, and Rigelian, as well as other species she did not recognize - as well as a couple of people who looked human, or close enough to pass.
"Are there humans here?" she said.
"Quite possibly," Vehlen said. "But they'd be slaves, of course."
Eventually she became aware that a man across the street was keeping a steady eye on the Inn and their room in particular, and backed away from the window instinctively. "We're being watched," she said.
"Yes," Vehlen said. His color had improved significantly, and he put the canister aside and took a deep breath. "Of course we are." He got out of bed and headed for the bathroom. "Care to join me in the shower?"
"Probably just as well. We really don't have time for that sort of thing right now."
"We're never going to have time for that sort of thing."
"Your loss," he said, and shed his robe in front of her as if determined to prove it.
He did have a fine figure. She scowled and turned back to the window. Captor, slave owner, rapist, spy, murderer. She recited the litany to herself as she watched the busy street below and kept a discreet eye on the agent who was watching them. It wasn't her fault she found Vehlen attractive, even in his debility: it was the bond's fault - this bond she'd never asked for and didn't want. Even if she had found him interesting before - and if she was completely honest with herself, she had - that didn't mean she would ever have seen him as anything more than an oddly compelling but irretrievably awful man.
Was this why Trip had broken it off with T'Pol back on Enterprise? Because he could never truly trust that his connection with T'Pol was something he had chosen of his own free will? Or, for that matter, that she had either?
Then again, even among humans, who ever fell in love by choice? Choice only entered in as you decided what to do about it ... whether to pursue it or let it fade away ... whether to stick it out or run ... whether the commitments made in the heat of infatuation were serious enough to carry you through the fights and the day-to-day friction and occasional sheer boredom of living with another human being who really just didn't seem to appreciate you nearly as well as he had at the beginning.
Trip had tried to exercise that choice by walking away from T'Pol before, and Kendra would not be surprised if he did it again when all this was over, assuming they survived long enough to have that conversation. Except that he could never truly separate himself, could he? Nor could T'Pol. If Vehlen was right, there would be no starting over for either as long as they both lived.
She ought to be relieved that for her, Vehlen's death would put an end to this. But she wasn't.
Of course, they could all be dead very soon anyway, making all this angst about relationships pretty damned irrelevant.
When Vehlen came out, looking refreshed if pale, the desk commed them with the news that the apothecary had arrived with an order and a tradesman had arrived with a cargo container. "I'll see them both in the buyer's room," Vehlen said, with easy authority, and turned to her. "Do you have everything?" he asked her.
"Now we're going?"
"Better leave the canister, it's probably nearly empty anyway. Tuck that satchel under your robe. That's it. I have a question for you."
"Have you ever suffered from claustrophobia?"
"We're about to spend a number of hours in a small, dark, airless space. If you find that difficult, you might want to consider taking a sedative of some kind. I already asked the doctor for a script, so we'll have them available."
"A small, dark, airless space?" she asked, thrown for a loop. This hadn't been part of any plan she remembered them discussing.
"Sedative or no, Kendra? Time is of the essence."
"I'm sure as hell not taking any sedative around you," she said. "And what do you mean by airless?"
"You're going to have to trust me on this one," he said. "We've made our appearance. Now we have to make our disappearance."
Less than an hour later, Kendra was lying on her side in the dark, cramped bottom of a cargo container with a sick Romulan curled behind her. They had just enough room to pass the oxygen mask the apothecary had provided back and forth. Any attempts she made to talk he shushed.
She knew the plan was to get aboard the smuggler's ship. But she had assumed they would walk on as passengers, not be loaded on as cargo.
"How long are we going to be in here?" she whispered furiously, refusing to be quieted.
"As long as it takes," he whispered back. "Keep quiet!"
Eventually there was the mildly nauseating sensation of being lifted, swinging, and moved, then deposited into a vehicle of some kind, which bumped and clanked along a noisy highway for awhile before coming to a stop.
There were voices, rumbles, clanks. They were lifted again and moved and deposited somewhere. Kendra became conscious of growing heat, even more than she was already getting off Vehlen's naturally higher body temperature in close quarters, and wondered if they were outside, baking in the late afternoon sun. She wouldn't give them very long if that were the case. But then there was more lifting and it sounded as if they were being rolled into a new, cooler position. A heavy clank settled them into place. Another, heavier clank settled overhead, and then another.
"Damn," Vehlen whispered.
"We're on the bottom."
He was quiet. She grew conscious of his coppery, musky smell and his shallow, crackling breaths.
"Don't worry," he said.
But he was worried. She could tell. He rubbed his hand up and down her bare arm, comforting her, or perhaps himself.
For once, she didn't object to his touch.
To be continued...
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