"The Lerteiran Chronicles"
T'Lar input her unlocking code and entered the quarters she shared with her brother. It was time for the evening meal and she was feeling generous. Confinement to quarters was very difficult for the boy, but he'd given her no trouble all day.
"Selim!" she called. "Would you like to take a meal in the officer's dining room with me? Chef has a new recipe, Orion grakk-fruit pie. He tells me the dish is quite popular on station." Silence was the only response to her inquiry. "Selim!"
She swept briskly through the cabin, checking inside closets, beneath beds, inside the small bathroom-no Selim. So she went to the computer console on her desk and input a query regarding her brother's location. A second later she stared in disbelief at the line of text on the screen.
"The requested civilian passenger is no longer aboard this vessel."
With shaking hands, T'Lar input another query. "When and how did he leave the ship?'
"Sensors do not detect a means of departure. His biosigns disappeared from his assigned cabin at 0937 today."
Mentally chastising herself for not setting alarm parameters requiring the computer to automatically inform her of the absence of Selim's biosigns, T'Lar retrieved her cabin's internal sensor logs. Privacy concerns forbade routine vid recordings inside crew quarters on ships of the Vulcan Space Fleet, but biosign recordings were always retrievable. At the moment noted by the computer record Selim's biosigns had indeed ceased. There were no other individual's biosigns within the cabin at the time and no transporter traces, so presumably he hadn't been killed or kidnapped. She moved on to the cabin's security logs. A few moments after the computer reported cessation of Selim's biosigns someone had used her code to open the cabin door from the inside. A niggling suspicion caused her to go into her bedroom and inspect her collection of Pre-Sundering artifacts. Selim had been working on an ancient sensor baffle as a technology project, she recalled. When she discovered the missing fuel cell her worry was abruptly transformed into full-blown meditation-requiring annoyance. The child was hiding.
I have no time for this, she thought irritably. Then she got on the comm.
"T'Lar to Security."
"Centurion Solis here, Commander. May I be of assistance?"
Her chief of security was solid, composed, and invariably courteous. She took a deep calming breath. "My brother is somewhere on the ship wearing an operational Pre-Sundering sensor baffle, Centurion. Send out all the men you can spare. I want him located before the end of this shift and brought to our quarters under armed guard."
"Commander?" queried the unflappable security officer in a shocked voice. T'Lar took another deep breath.
"Don't injure him, Centurion, but if you get the opportunity to frighten the wits out of him you may feel free to do so."
"Put it on the main screen," Archer ordered in a confident voice. Hoshi shot him an uncertain look but complied. Her uncertainty was understandable, he supposed. His extended stay in sickbay and the recent visits by a Vulcan melder/healer-plus various speculations about possible connections between the two-were currently the chief subjects of the ship's rumor mill.
Rumors notwithstanding, according to the results of the psychological tests Phlox had performed he was now command-ready and more mentally stable than he'd ever been. More importantly, both Trip and T'Pol had cleared him. If he trusted nothing else in the galaxy, he trusted their judgment. He had never been more uncertain or frightened in his life than when he'd sat down across the table from the two of them to be judged.
He shook his head slightly and returned his attention to the view screen. Time to deal with this call and keep up an appearance of confidence. Only Trip, T'Pol, Phlox, and the healer Sorsen were aware of how close Jonathan Archer had come to permanently losing command of the Enterprise. Archer hoped it would stay that way. It had to, or his career was toast.
The grim-jawed visage of Admiral Gardner appeared, framed by what appeared to be a pair of civilians wearing business suits. The background looked to be somewhere other than the admiral's office. Perhaps a conference room? The civilian to the admiral's left was a silver haired man whose collar was concealed beneath two chins and deeply wrinkled jowls. The one on the admiral's right was younger, dark haired and wearing a supercilious expression. Archer took a deep breath and summoned up a welcoming smile.
"Hello, Admiral. It's good to hear from you," he told Gardner. "I've been expecting your call."
"No doubt," Gardner growled. He eyed Archer narrowly. "How are you feeling, Jonathan? The last few transmissions indicated that you were under the weather."
"Much better, Admiral," Archer smiled brightly. "Thanks for asking. Just some kind of bug I must have picked up while we were dealing with the station refugees." He kept a studiously innocent expression on his face.
"Humph," Gardner scratched his beard. "It's good to see you feeling better, Jon. We need to talk. I think you might want to take this in your ready room."
Archer glanced around the bridge. Hoshi kept her eyes fixed on her board like she was chained there. Malcolm stood at tactical in a parade rest position, with absolutely no expression on his face. Travis made a point of staying busy with the nav console. And T'Pol... was T'Pol. Just like always. Archer briefly considered inventing an excuse to call Trip to the bridge for moral support but shoved it aside. He had already loaded far too much on Trip as it was.
"I'm sorry, Admiral," Archer told the screen, "but we're still smoothing out some repair bugs from our fight with that Romulan warbird. Nothing major, but I would rather not leave the bridge just now. Just in case. I'm sure you understand."
"All right, Jon, if that's the way you want it," Gardner said slowly. "It's the aftermath of the fight with the Romulan that we need to talk about. This gentleman," he indicated the heavy-jowled specimen seated to his left, "is Senator Oliver Lawrence. Senator Lawrence is chairman of the appropriations committee for space operations. To my right," Gardner tilted his head, "is Mr. Wayne Olberman. Mr Olberman is a personal...assistant... to the president." Gardner's voice tightened slightly on the last few words and he gave Archer a warning look.
Archer nodded. "Pleasure to meet both of you. To what do I owe the honor?" He settled back in the command chair and tried to look as relaxed as possible.
Olberman's supercilious look barely escaped being a sneer, but he looked across at Lawrence and waited for him to open the conversation. The older man interlaced his fingers and pushed his chin forward a bit. "Well, Captain Archer, the fact is we have a bit of a problem. We're hoping that you can help us out with it."
"By all means, Senator," Archer assured him. "I'm at your disposal."
"Disposal is likely to be precisely the outcome, Captain," Olberman said between his teeth. "Do you have any idea how the Vulcan government reacted when they learned that you had locked weapons on one of their ships?" Gardner winced, looking unhappy but saying nothing.
"I would imagine they were not happy," Archer replied thoughtfully. "How did Earthgov react when they learned that the Vulcans had beamed an armed boarding party aboard Enterprise with the express intention of attacking my crew and kidnapping our prisoner?"
"That's none of your concer-" Olberman started.
"Wayne," Lawrence interrupted him. The younger man stopped and pressed his lips together, glaring. "You see, Captain Archer, it's like this," the old man told him. "There are still a lot of folks back here that would just as soon we quit mucking around out there. Terra Prime is fading out fast. But that doesn't mean xenophobia is a thing of the past." He sighed and looked tired. "And I'll just tell you the truth. A bunch of people haven't forgiven the Vulcans for not backing us up with the Xindi. That doesn't surprise you, does it?"
Archer gripped the arms of his chair for a moment. Memories of an old and long-standing anger surfaced, but they were distant. He understood only too well the inability to forgive in this instance, but his own feelings were closer to resignation, even acceptance. Vulcans would be Vulcans. It did no one any good to be angry about it. "No, Senator. I'm afraid that it doesn't." From the corners of his eyes, he noted that the members of his bridge crew were hanging onto every word.
Gardner stepped in. "You see, Jon, there have been incidents of friction between Vulcans working here and some of the civilian employees - both at the embassy and at Starfleet. It's gotten bad enough that Ambassador Soval has ordered a lockdown of the Vulcan compound. None of his people are allowed to go out except on official business, and then only under guard." Archer winced.
"That's only going to encourage paranoia, Admiral," he offered.
"Maybe so," Gardner admitted. "But we can't prevent them from taking precautions."
"Now you see, Captain," Lawrence picked up the ball again. "Not only is this situation turning into a diplomatic migraine, but if word spreads that an Earth ship and a Vulcan ship pulled weapons on each other... well. We still hold a majority in the Senate, but the House is not so solid. Starfleet could lose its funding completely."
"So tell us, Captain," Olberman sneered, "just exactly what were you thinking with your cowboy diplomacy? I suppose you thought you were going to intimidate the captain of that Vulcan battleship?"
Archer looked at him. "Actually, Mr. Olberman, the ship is a D'Kyr cruiser, not a battleship. And T'Lar is a commander, not a captain...but to answer your question," he went on calmly, before the red-faced civil servant had time to blow up, "I was trying to prevent the situation from escalating. Commander T'Lar is very young and unaccustomed to dealing with Humans. In fact, she's not used to dealing with diplomatic confrontations of any kind; witness the ham-handed way she dumped a boarding party onto a friendly ship. I knew I had to do something fast to grab her attention before she went too far and put us both into a position that neither of us could back out of."
T'Pol's eyebrow shot skyward, and she looked at Archer with new respect. He made a decision then and there never to ask whether she respected his decision about the confrontation with T'Lar or just admired his ability to spin a fast line of bull. Either one worked.
Olberman stared, flabbergasted. Both Gardner and Lawrence on the other hand, looked thoughtful. "I see," Gardner said slowly. "So you claim it was a calculated gamble. You were betting that she would back down rather than call your bluff."
"I don't claim anything, Admiral. It's a simple fact." Archer let a trace of irritation creep into his voice. "Vulcans instinctively disrespect weakness. The surest way to convince a Vulcan that they can get away with walking all over you is to let them push you without pushing back."
"What would you have done," Olberman was rapidly rebuilding his self-confidence, "if she had called your bluff? There would have been no way your ship could stand against Vulcan weapons," he pointed out triumphantly.
Archer raised one eyebrow in Vulcan fashion and gave him a look that he felt confident Surak would have approved. "There was no possibility that Commander T'Lar would open fire on Enterprise," he said firmly.
"What justification do you have for making that claim?" Senator Lawrence asked him, sounding more interested than anything else.
Archer scanned the three men on screen and sighed openly. "None of you gentlemen strike me as the type to be interested in the study of Vulcan mystical beliefs, so I won't try to explain what the recovery of the Kirshara really means to the people of Vulcan. The closest I can come in Human terms would be if someone were able to recover the original tablets of stone that the Ten Commandments were carved on. That's how important it is to them."
Gardner nodded. "We get that. Ambassador Soval said it was the single most important archaeological discovery in the past two millennia." The other two indicated agreement.
Archer smiled. "Of the three people who discovered the Kirshara, two of them were on Enterprise at the time of the confrontation with Sehlat. In addition, Commander T'Pol's mother was a close personal friend of Chief Minister T'Pau. Commander T'Lar may be young and relatively inexperienced, but she is far from stupid. Opening fire on a ship containing both of us would be career suicide for any Vulcan officer."
The two civilians stared speechlessly at him. Gardner on the other hand, started chuckling. His chuckling escalated into a full throated laugh despite his obvious efforts to contain it. "Nice, Jon," he choked out. "And since Vulcans think we're all crazy anyway, and there's no telling what one of us is likely to do at any given moment, she would have had no choice but to back off." He wiped his eyes and gave Archer a conspiratorial smile.
Lawrence nodded judiciously. "I see. Well, given the circumstances I don't suppose that we can justifiably take you to task."
"Senator!" Olberman exclaimed. "Whatever clever excuses he might offer, the plain fact remains that we are currently in a state of hostility with the Vulcans."
"Of course not," Archer said, disgusted. "Why would you think that?"
Gardner pursed his lips and interlaced his fingers. "You mean that you've kissed and made up with that Vulcan commander already?"
Archer's lips twitched. "I recommend that you never use that idiom with T'Lar, Admiral," he said, fighting to contain a smile, "She might blow a gasket seal. But we managed to get everyone's feathers smoothed down. In fact, she just offered me full access to the Vulcan security database on the Romulan Star Empire. In return, I have invited her security officers to be present and assist us in the interrogation of our new prisoner."
Gardner looked like he wanted to lunge through the view screen. "Excellent." The controlled excitement in his voice seemed to infect the two civilians as well. Even Olberman un-stiffened a trifle. "That is... excellent work, Jon," Gardner went on. "Very well done."
"I can't take all the credit, Admiral," Archer said. He glanced at his First Officer. "Commander T'Pol is personally acquainted with a member of the Vulcan task force from her days with the Security Directorate. She was a major factor in negotiating this. Probably the deciding factor, frankly."
Gardner glanced over. "Well done, Commander." T'Pol inclined her head to acknowledge the praise. Gardner went on. "There were some who objected to your appointment to such a high rank immediately upon your joining Starfleet. Situations like this are the perfect counter-argument to those objections."
"I am honored," she murmured.
"You may rest assured, Mr Johansen," Senek told him. "Raijiin is under complete control."
"How?" Daniel wanted to know. "Leg irons? Drugs?"
Senek pursed his lips. "Her telepathic abilities are quite formidable, but she lacks experience in many areas. My own skills are sufficient to ensure that her behavior remains within acceptable parameters." Daniel looked doubtful.
"If he can't control her," Sehlra assured him, "we've already told her that she's going out the airlock. No warning, no mercy."
"She will harm no one aboard this ship," T'Riss said firmly. "She will be monitored constantly, and any cause for suspicion will result in summary execution. She will not be given the benefit of the doubt, Agent Senek's assurances notwithstanding."
Daniel sighed and nodded. "All right." He gave T'Riss a long look. "Since I'm up anyway, I'm going up to the control room to help get Jenrali get us underway. Want to come?"
"No," Sehlra countermanded. "I need her to secure the passenger's luggage and do the final pre-flight checks down here. You put this away," she handed Daniel his sword hilt first. He took it, looking embarrassed. "Then go on up to the bridge. I'm going to the engine room and stow the parts Commander Tucker sent over." Sehlra shot T'Riss a direct look. "And I need to have a talk with you when I get back, Crewman."
"Yes, ma'am," T'Riss said stiffly. Sehlra turned to head for engineering while Daniel padded up the ladder in pajamas and socks.
"We had better escort Crewman T'Riss," Senek suggested. "To avoid misunderstanding."
"Agreed," the scarred man... Llahir?... said. "I will lead." He set off abruptly without looking back to see if they followed. T'Riss noticed from the set of his shoulders and his stride that he appeared less than fully comfortable in Senek's presence.
To her surprise, the hatch opened before they reached it. Damin stood in the entryway watching warily until Llahir made a reassuring gesture. He stepped back to allow them entrance, but continued to eye T'Riss carefully. She swallowed her discomfort and followed Senek into the cargo hold with an impassive expression. After all, she was a fully authorized crew member acting under direct orders. She had every right and reason to be there.
Once through the entranceway she glanced around the space, noting that Raijiin had taken position as far away from the door as physically possible. T'Riss saw with a guilty twinge that the telepath still wore an expression of trepidation. She tried to tell herself that Raijiin deserved it after all she had done. Not only had she manipulated T'Riss into attacking Daniel to begin with, but when she melded with T'Riss to gain her sympathies she must have done something devious to her mind. The sympathy that T'Riss felt for the woman was inconceivable otherwise.
Or perhaps not.
We are the same. She has been controlled...used... just as I have. She is still being controlled. T'Riss couldn't make eye contact with her. It brought back intolerable memories.
The other passengers were muttering among themselves and shooting nervous glances back and forth. After the incident involving the expulsion of the Orions T'Riss suspected that Lerteiran's reputation as a passenger liner was in dire peril, primarily as a result of her own behavior.
"I am here to ensure that the baggage is properly stowed and secured," she announced. "Please retrieve any toiletries and other necessary items that you will require during the trip. The remainder of your possessions will be moved to secondary storage and sealed for the duration of the voyage."
Her words caused a brief scramble among all of the non-Vulcan passengers with the exception of Raijiin and Damin. She turned to the Betazoid and inquired, "Do you have any luggage that requires stowing?"
"Actually," he told her, "mine is already stowed. It has been since last time." He looked with amused resignation across the room at the bevy of ex-slavegirls. "As theirs should be if they had any sense, since Captain Jenrali is charging them by the kilogram for any extra mass above the standard weight allowance. But of course, once they were back on the station they suddenly thought of a hundred more things that they simply had to take with them." T'Riss raised a brow and nodded.
Senek stepped forward. "There are three items to be placed in storage, one for each of us." He gestured at a large trunk and two duffle bags. "Our remaining possessions will stay here."
"Certainly," T'Riss said. She bent to pick up one of the duffle bags and paused. With her wrist broken she was going to have issues carrying the items. She transferred the first duffle bag to the shoulder of her injured arm and then picked up the second bag. "I will return shortly for the trunk." She paused and then announced to the room at large. "Be advised that secondary storage is kept at ship normal gravity and atmospheric pressure but the temperature is sub-freezing. If there are any items in your luggage that could be damaged by the cold you will need to advise ship's personnel." A burst of chattering followed her announcement, accompanied by the clinking of bottles and boxes.
When T'Riss returned from stowing the duffle bags she found Raijiin working with every evidence of concern to dress the minor cut on Senek's jaw. "It's only right," T'Riss heard her insist while applying disinfectant. "You were injured while defending me." Senek sat with a tolerant expression while she painted on tissue adhesive. "How did she do this, anyway? I never knew she carried a knife." The closing hatch jerked her attention around and she sent a glare toward T'Riss.
"You are mistaken," Llahir told her with an undeniable note of amusement in his voice. "It was not Crewman T'Riss. That Human boy did it with a sword after Senek broke the girl's wrist." Raijiin looked at him in disbelief.
"A... sword...?" she squeaked.
"Yes," T'Riss told her as she approached. "Daniel detected my distress through our betrothal bond. I regret to report that his anger momentarily overrode his self-discipline. Fortunately, no serious harm was done." She looked Raijiin in the eye. "I recognize the arrangement that has been made between the Security Directorate and the Lerteiran partnership. In response, I advise you to recognize that Daniel is my betrothed, with everything that implies. If you are not familiar with Vulcan biology and customs I suggest that you consult with your associates."
"We will provide her with a complete briefing, Crewman," Llahir told her seriously.
"Excellent." T'Riss turned toward the trunk and started examining it, weighing options for transporting it into the secondary storage area.
"I will assist you, Crewman T'Riss," Senek told her. He stood up, brushing Raijiin's hands aside. "It is only logical, since I was the cause of your injury."
"I contributed to the damage," Llahir spoke up unexpectedly. He came over. "The box is large enough to be an awkward burden for one. We will carry it while you direct its placement." He glanced at Raijiin quickly, as if assessing her reaction to his offer, then away. For some reason this caused the telepath to smile.
"As you wish," T'Riss said. 'If you will follow me, then." She turned toward the door.
"Wait!" Raijiin scrambled down from the secondary level bunk and trotted over to the trunk. "I just remembered. I was going to get my warmest robe out of there. These Andorians have no conception of proper heating. And that... woman," she winced, "acts like you're trying to steal her firstborn if you beg for a little extra heat."
"I cannot deny that the ship's temperature is somewhat cool," T'Riss acknowledged. "Please expedite your search. I have a great deal of additional baggage to move."
"I won't be long at all," Raijiin promised. She held her thumb against the trunk lock and the lid popped loose. Raijiin lifted it to reveal a dizzying spread of multi-colored silks, most of them either translucent or transparent. She reached for the end of the stack, muttering, "If I remember correctly, I put it on this end. It should be about halfway-." Raijiin froze for an instant and then yanked her expensive fabrics aside without a care, tossing them in a cloud across the floor. Her action exposed the tightly curled body of a small Vulcan boy. "Selim!" She scooped him up and rushed toward the nearest bunk.
T'Riss turned immediately toward the crowd that was closing in and raised her voice in a tone that she considered firm but polite. "STOP!" The mass of chattering courtesans froze in place, wide-eyed and completely immobile. Once she had their attention she continued more quietly, "The matter is under control. Please refrain from crowding the individuals that are providing assistance." The passengers backpedaled as one woman, never taking their eyes off T'Riss.
"He's not breathing!" Raijiin's voice rose in panic. "Senek! He's not breathing! DO SOMETHING!"
T'Riss strode to the comm and hit the button. "T'Riss to Sehlra, medical emergency in the passenger bay. Vulcan child. Male. Stowaway discovered in close quarters with no detectable respiration."
"Meet me in the medical bay. I will need help carrying the gear." T'Riss turned to survey the scene and found Senek competently performing rescue breathing on the child. He paused after two breaths and checked a pulse.
"He has a pulse," Senek informed them, making eye contact with T'Riss before resuming rescue breathing. Satisfied that the Vulcan agent knew what he was doing, T'Riss felt comfortable leaving.
"Acknowledged. T'Riss out." She hit the button again and headed for the hatch at a jog.
Archer stepped into the captain's mess, surprised to find the lights out. He fumbled along the bulkhead for the lighting controls, only to discover them inactive. "Crap." He turned to exit by the same door that he had used to enter and was abruptly blinded by a sudden flare as the lights all came on at once.
He spun and gaped at the sight of his command staff grinning in front of a hand painted banner. A triple decker cake sat on the table surmounted by a semi-melted model of the NX-01 built from cookie fragments and icing.
"But my birthday was three days ago," Archer protested.
"We know, Captain," Hoshi told him. "But you were in sickbay and it didn't seem like you would be in the mood for a party. So we decided to wait and have it now.
Archer looked around the room at the smiling faces. Hoshi, Malcolm in his dress uniform, Travis with a broad grin, T'Pol with her Vulcan dignity intact, but a suspicious glint of amusement in her eyes, and finally... Trip. His old friend stood propped against the bulkhead support adjacent to the viewing port, chewing his tongue with a noncommittal expression. But the coldness in his eyes had started to thaw, at least a little.
The captain moved forward, shaking hands and smiling. Cake slices and drinks were passed out along with pizza of various denominations. After an hour or so the group started trickling away. First Malcolm, as always. Then Hoshi and Travis. Finally T'Pol left to assume command of the bridge, leaving Archer and Trip sitting alone together for the first time in more days than Jon wanted to count.
"Thanks, Trip." Archer was the first one to break the silence.
Trip shrugged. "Hoshi did the planning and chef did the cake. All I did was print the banner."
Archer smiled wanly. "I appreciate it. But that wasn't what I was talking about. I want to thank you and T'Pol for giving me a second chance."
Trip turned to look out the port. "We didn't give it to you, you earned it, Jon. Phlox told us what you had to go through."
"It's not done yet, Trip," Archer said seriously. "I owe you a lot more than an apology. I want to earn your friendship back." Trip sighed.
"Don't worry about that, Jon. Just concentrate on being the captain this crew deserves. That's all I ask."
"I'm going to try to do both," Archer insisted.
Trip drained his glass and stood up. "Up to you. Right now I need to get back to work. Those refugees are griping and growling about the accommodations. I need to install extra showers and heads and figure out some way for them to have a little privacy."
Archer stood up as well. "I'm sure you'll work out something effective." He hesitated. "Trip, I really hope you will reconsider resigning. If you don't want to stay on Enterprise there are plenty of other options. For both of you. But please, don't let my stupidity drive you away from Starfleet."
Trip ran a hand through his hair. "Jon," he started, then hesitated. Finally he said, "It's like this. T'Pol and I have talked. After everything you just went through, it's only fair to give you some time and see how things work out. I'll make a final decision by the time we get to Earth, okay?"
"That's as much as I could ask for." Archer felt a weight leave his shoulders.
Llahir caught Raijiin as she backed fearfully away from the boy, offering her support that she did not refuse. Agent Senek delivered another breath and the boy gasped spasmodically before torturously and noisily beginning to breathe on his own. Senek then placed his hands on Selim's face at the proper contact points for a meld and bent his head. Llahir dropped his hand to the bare skin on Raijiin's arm and offered a reassuring squeeze. He usually felt helpless when such reassurance was required. His telepathic insensitivity handicapped him in that regard. A normal Vulcan would have been able to feel Raijiin's distress. Fortunately, telepathy was unnecessary. It was obvious that she cared about the boy. She was making no pretense of Vulcan calm now.
Senek released his touch and stepped back, looking frustrated. "He is deep in a healing trance." Raijiin took a shaky and tearful breath. " No doubt the boy instinctively fell into the trance when his oxygen became depleted."
"Then all is well," Llahir offered. "He is now in an oxygen rich environment. Once his brain receives sufficient oxygen he should awaken naturally."
"I fear not," Senek sighed. "The boy has been oxygen deprived too long for one of his youth. An adult would have been able to cope. But this child lacked the reserves of strength to endure, and now he is too weak for his system to repair the damage caused by oxygen deprivation. Unless he is brought back to consciousness immediately, restoring his body's functions will become a moot point. Irreversible brain damage will be unpreventable."
"Then bring him back." Llahir stepped forward with his hand raised. Senek caught his arm.
"The boy is insensate. He would not even feel it," the older man told him regretfully. "Otherwise I would have already applied the treatment." The child's tortured and wheezing respirations filled the chamber. The rest of the passengers were grouped together on the other side of the room whispering to each other as if they feared T'Riss even when she wasn't in the room.
"What treatment? What are you talking about? Why are you not DOING something?" Raijiin's voice was swiftly getting louder and closer to panic.
Damin stepped forward and quietly explained to her, "The standard method for rousing a Vulcan from a healing trance is to administer a series of brisk slaps to the face. Apparently Selim is too far gone for that."
"No." Raijiin turned cold and hard. "Senek. You must meld with him. Hold him here and support him. You can do that; I know you can. I have researched Vulcan abilities. The Andorian woman will be here soon with oxygen and stimulants."
"I tried." Senek rubbed his eyes. "The boy rejected me," he admitted. "He distrusts me and refused my attempts at connection." Raijiin stared at him for a moment, then lunged for the bunk and placed her hands on each of Selim's cheeks. "No! If he dies while you are in contact you may not be able to withdraw in time," protested Senek.
"Shut up," she told him through her teeth. Raijiin closed her eyes and took on an expression of intense concentration. "Damin. Help me... he is so weak..." Tears began to run freely down her cheeks. Llahir stiffened against an unaccountable urge to take her into his arms and wipe them away. "I know he will let me in if I can reach him, but he is so weak. You have to help me!"
The Betazoid moved over to the bunk and squatted down, staring intently at the boy, but to Llahir's surprise made no attempt to touch either Selim or Raijiin. No one moved or made a sound while Llahir counted 134 seconds. Then Raijiin's lips parted and she whispered in a barely audible voice, "Yes, Selim, it's me. I'm here."
Llahir observed with interest. He concluded that she must be unconsciously verbalizing the telepathic conversation. A brief pause, then, "It's all right; his name is Damin. He's a friend. I trust him. You can trust him too. You need to hang on to us. Let us help you." It might have been Llahir's imagination, but it seemed to him that the boy relaxed a fraction, that his breathing became less labored.
The hatch opened and Llahir looked up to see the Andorian engineer come through carrying two large cases. She was followed by T'Riss with an oxygen tank and mask in hand. The two Vulcan men moved quickly to take the equipment while Sehlra closed in on the boy. "What are they doing?" she demanded. Senek explained, quietly and quickly. The Andorian nodded and fitted an oxygen mask to the boy's face without dislodging Raijiin's hands. She glanced at the Betazoid several times and looked fascinated for some reason, but made no comment. Perhaps, Llahir speculated, the fact that Damin could make telepathic contact without touching his subject intrigued her. She retrieved a device from her medical kit and clamped it to one of the child's fingers.
"Blood oxygen levels still too low," the Andorian muttered. "Heart not beating fast enough." She reached for an ampoule and attached it to a hypo. "Damin. Pin him. This might cause reflex spasms." The Betazoid obediently reached his arms across the boy's torso and legs. The Andorian applied the hypo to Selim's neck and suddenly his back arched. Breath whistled into his lungs in a screech that was painful to hear. Raijiin gave a tiny scream in response and jerked backward. Llahir sprang forward and caught her, preventing her from falling to the deck. Damin winced but held his position.
Selim started coughing and gagging. Sehlra rolled him onto his side and lifted the mask. "Spit it out, boy," she ordered, holding a piece of cloth under his mouth. Selim hacked out a small amount of dusty phlegm and started breathing more easily. The Andorian removed the mask and let him return to the pillow. "Rest, boy," she told him gently. "Just lay there and breathe. Don't move or talk. I will get you some water."
Sehlra moved toward the sanitary facilities and Raijiin eagerly pulled away from Llahir to lean over the boy. He followed, bemused, to observe and offer support if needed. She stroked the child's hair tenderly and murmured, "Oh, Selim. What am I going to do with you?" The boy's mouth worked, but no sound came out. He was pale, his lips cracked from dehydration, but as Llahir watched he smiled and tried to say something to Raijiin. "No. Hush," Raijiin put a finger on his lips,"Don't try to talk. Be quiet and rest. You're going to be fine. We can talk after you recover." She leaned over to give him a kiss on the forehead just as the Andorian woman returned with a cup of water. Raijiin took the cup and helped Selim sit up. "Sip. Slowly."
Llahir watched her hovering. Plainly Raijiin had established a strong emotional connection to this child, a child to whom she had absolutely no familial relation or duty. Being unmated and childless, and until recently with a very low probability of changing that state of affairs, Llahir was disconcerted. Yet he could not deny to himself that there was something inherently appealing about watching the two of them together.
"We need to get him to the medical bay." The Andorian woman's voice broke into Llahir's thoughts. "Move aside, woman," she ordered Raijiin flatly. "I will carry him. T'Riss, Damin, the two of you bring the gear."
"I can carry him," Raijiin insisted indignantly. She stopped abruptly at twin glares from the Andorian and Crewman T'Riss.
"You. Stay. Here." Each word out of the Andorian's mouth was bitten off with a snap. "Understood? That was the agreement. Step one foot out of this cargo bay and your next step will be out the airlock."
Raijiin stiffened and Llahir spoke up in her defense. These women were unreasonably hostile, but an agreement had been reached. "Threats are not required. She is merely concerned about the boy. But she will remain here as agreed. Senek and I will see to it." He gave Raijiin a warning look and touched her arm, hoping she would read his unspoken desire for her to let the matter drop.
Apparently it worked, for nothing further was said as Sehlra carefully gathered the small boy in her arms. Despite her gruff words and tone, she handled him as gently as if he were her own infant. "Come along you two," she barked, and headed for the exit. The child's first words since being revived were a vigorous protest of his separation from Raijiin as Sehlra exited the cargo bay with him. He was certainly a resilient little creature, reflected Llahir.
Damin looked back over his shoulder and offered a smile to Raijiin. "Don't worry. I'll keep you informed." Then he took off after the two women, balancing the oxygen tank on one shoulder and a case full of medical supplies on the other.
T'Riss followed closely behind Sehlra as she started up the ladder with Selim cradled across one arm. Her offer to assist the older woman was met with a dismissive snort, but she made sure to keep careful watch - ready at any time to intercept either or both of them in case of a fall.
Her precautions were unnecessary. Sehlra climbed the ladder with practiced ease and swung off to head for the medical bay. T'Riss made haste to leave the access way in her turn and bent to relieve Damin of the second medical case. He smiled gratefully. "Accept my thanks, Crewman T'Riss," the Betazoid told her in a formal tone. "Ascending this ladder without using my hands was proving to be a challenging exercise in balance, even under Andorian gravity."
T'Riss gave him a tolerant look. "It was by no means required that you bring both items at once."
"No point in wasting time," Damin retorted, repossessing the case and heading for the medical bay, "Sehlra might need these." He sped up his steps.
By the time they reached the medical bay Selim was stretched out on the single biobed and Sehlra was running diagnostic scans one after another.
"You'll be fine, boy," she was telling Selim. "Just lay still and rest yourself. Let that shot of tri-ox take effect. We can discuss the matter of you sneaking aboard once you get back on your feet." Sehlra looked up and smiled as Damin came through the door, ignoring T'Riss who followed close behind.
"Whatever you did for him seems to have done wonders," she told him admiringly. Her eyes lingered.
Damin set his burdens on the deck next to the storage cabinets. "I would love to take the credit," he smiled in return."But Raijiin did the work. All I did was reinforce her."
Sehlra's face darkened and her antenna twisted in the manner that T'Riss had come to recognize meant disgust. "That whore..."
"She's my friend," a weak voice spoke up indignantly. The three adults turned their attention to the biobed, where Selim had regained consciousness. The little boy glared up at Sehlra and told her, "Raijiin is my friend! Don't call her names!"
The Andorian's face smoothed over. "All right then, youngster. I won't. How do you feel? Still thirsty?"
"No," Selim denied. "I am well. I want to see Raijiin!" He struggled to sit up. Sehlra reached over to push him back down.
"You can go back to the cargo hold soon, but I want you to stay here until I'm sure there aren't any problems." She turned her head. "You know Damin, right?" The man stepped up to the bed and smiled down at the boy. Selim eyed him cautiously but nodded.
"Raijiin told me that you are her friend." His tone was suspicious. "If you are her friend, then take me back to her!"
"I try to be Raijiin's friend," Damin said. "I'd like to be your friend, too. I told Raijiin that I would let her know how you're doing."
"I am well!" Selim fought to get loose from Sehlra's grip. "I am not a criminal! You have no right to keep me from Raijiin!" He glared at Sehlra. "You want to hurt her! I heard you!"
Sehlra tried another tactic. "How about this? Damin can stay here with you while T'Riss and I finish our work. Then if you're still all right he can take you back to the cargo hold."
"No! I don't trust him either. I saw him with you, when you talked about hurting her! I think you are both lying! He is just pretending to be her friend!" The boy starting kicking.
T'Riss stepped forward. "Selim. This behavior dishonors both you and your family. It must cease. What would Commander T'Lar say if she saw you behaving in this manner?"
"I don't care!" Selim burst out in a truculent voice. "Besides, you have no authority over me. You are in disgrace!"
"All right. That's it. Damin, pin him," Sehlra ordered. Damin grabbed the boy, who fought back tooth and nail. Sehlra turned around with a hypo and caught one of Selim's flailing legs, injecting a swift-acting sedative into the boy's thigh. A moment later peace had been restored.
"I'm too old for this," Sehlra panted. She turned to Damin. "Thank you for your assistance," she said breathlessly, and then paused, studying him as if she'd just realized his potential usefulness. "Would you mind watching the boy while T'Riss and I finish up what we were doing? If his vitals still look good and nothing else happens he can go back to the cargo once he wakes up."
The Betazoid smiled a sincere smile. "Anything to be useful to you, my dear." Sehlra's gaze lingered on his face a bit longer than was decent in T'Riss's opinion, and she was still breathing heavily for no obvious reason. She was obviously infatuated with the man. The idea made T'Riss uncomfortable for more reasons than she cared to count.
"In the mean time I am going to the galley for a beverage. Would either of you like anything?" Damin offered.
"Give me a moment to finish up here and I'll go with you," replied Sehlra. She turned to address T'Riss, suddenly all business and not breathless in the least. "Stay here until Damin returns to relieve you with the boy. Then you can finish with the luggage. After that, meet me in the engine room. "
T'Riss straightened, Sehlra's military tone triggering long ingrained reflexes. "Acknowledged," she told the engineer.
Sehlra stepped to the bed where the Vulcan boy lay with IV fluids running. She pulled a belt from around his waist and set it aside for later study. Hung on the belt was a device of some kind. She took several minutes to inspect it. T'Riss stood silently beside her, offering no insight. By the way its transmissions were messing with the instruments in her sickbay Sehlra suspected that the device had something to do with the reason why there were no Vulcan gunships pursuing them. Evidently no one had any idea that the child was missing-not yet, anyway.
He had certainly thrown a fit about being separated from Raijiin. The bitch must have done something to him. Was there no end to the woman's scheming? What could this boy possibly be to her?
Finally leaving T'Riss standing by the boy's bedside, for some inexplicable reason at formal Vulcan parade rest, Sehlra turned out of Lerteiran's tiny sickbay to find Damin waiting for her in the companionway. He was wearing an insignia-free green ship's coverall similar to the ones she, Daniel, and Jenrali usually wore on duty and had his long black curls tied in a tail at the nape of his neck.
Where had he gotten that coverall? Had he borrowed it from Daniel or had it specially made for the trip? She couldn't tell, but it was certainly more practical than his usual attire. A memory came to mind of the night when he'd come to fight fires in the engine room dressed in nothing but a silk dressing gown and a wisp of black lace.
She caught the thought and stuffed it. He gave her an expectant look. She said nothing, turning past him to walk down to the galley. He followed her smoothly, two steps behind. Arriving at her goal, she pulled a mug from one side of the cabinet and her chocolate from the other. After filling the mug a third full with sweetened condensed zabathu milk and a third with water she took a knife and began shaving slivers of bitter chocolate into the mixture. Damin still hadn't said anything. He was waiting across the room with a half-smile on his too-beautiful face, making no attempt to leave, to take charge of the situation, or to push her into discussion to get it over with. She'd never met a man capable of such behavior.
Her eyes were on the fist-sized lump of chocolate in her hand as she whittled away at it, but her senses were acutely aware of Damin. He smelled of exotic cologne. It seemed as if she could feel his dark pupil-less gaze on the back of her head. She knew that she was only imagining it, but she could have sworn that she could also sense his intense desire to please her.
"So...who is this suicidal child and why did he pick my cargo bay to suffocate himself?" she asked him casually.
Damin had melded with the boy. If he was determined to be useful to her he could start by giving her the information she needed.
"He's Commander T'Lar's younger brother. I've met him before on Sehlat," replied Damin.
Sehlra closed her eyes. By the Mother's Holy Teats. She took a deep breath, not certain that she wanted to know the rest. Then she put her chocolate in the warmer.
"And what is his connection to Raijiin?"
"He was taken from The Plains of Gol after the murder of his parents and held on the station in a brothel for months. Raijiin took care of him there...protected him." Damin's voice softened. He obviously felt sympathy for the boy. "She's done nothing to him, if that's what you're thinking. He loves her. It's that simple. She was leaving and he wanted to follow her, but something happened and he was locked in the trunk too long."
The warmer pinged. Sehlra reached in and grasped the steaming mug. She pulled it out, retrieved a spoon from a drawer, stirred it. The rich odor of chocolate filled the galley, calming her. Sehlra studied Damin's face over the edge of her mug. He looked like he was being honest with her. She wanted to believe him. He was certainly in a position to know the truth.
"What do you think will happen when we notify his sister of his whereabouts? Will she pursue legal action? Rescind our preferred trade status? Maybe even attack us?" Damin looked surprised.
"Doubtful. We had nothing to do with the boy's presence aboard and we're operating under the auspices of the Vulcan Security Directorate this trip. We should just have Senek call T'Lar and tell her what happened. He doesn't blame you, and there is no reason for her to blame you. Why would you think she might?"
Sehlra shrugged. "No particular reason. I just don't trust Vulcans," she replied. "Too hypocritical and unpredictable. One minute they're all frigid and logical and the next minute they're trying to blow you out of space just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Damin raised an annoyingly Vulcan-looking brow at her. "That hasn't been my experience. I find that Vulcans for the most part are set in their ways. It's very easy to anticipate what they will do."
"But you can read minds," countered Sehlra. She took a sip of her chocolate. It was perfect, but she barely tasted it. His face held her attention.
Damin tipped his head. "True. But sometimes anticipating what someone will do has nothing to do with telepathy." He took three steps toward her in the small galley. Without being consciously aware of doing so, Sehlra backed away a half step, then another. Before she knew it her back was against the cabinets. There was nowhere else to go. He had her trapped.
As soon as that thought registered in her mind Damin stopped in his tracks and backed off a step. He smiled reassuringly. Sehlra regarded him with suspicion. "You're reading me right now, aren't you?" she demanded. Damin's smile disappeared. He looked hurt, his eyes shining liquidly, sincerely.
"It's not a conscious thing, Sehlra. I have to constantly block what I receive from people around me and sometimes emotions get through, especially when they're very strong. I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but I'm not trying to read you. I promise."
Sehlra swallowed. All the time? He heard everything? Felt everything? She felt her face grow warm. She looked away, down into her mug, and took a healthy swallow. The chocolate was beginning to relax her. Maybe it would knock her out before she died of embarrassment.
Smooth pale hands covered both of her calloused blue ones as they gripped the mug, and she looked up to find herself eye-to eye with Damin. He maintained eye contact with her as he brought the other side of her mug to his lips and took a drink. Lowering the mug, he slowly licked the foamy moustache from his upper lip. Her eyes followed his tongue, and she found herself wondering what Damin-flavored chocolate would taste like.
Without speaking, Damin lifted the mug and brought it to her lips again. He tipped it, and she took a messy gulp, helpless to refuse him. He caught the drip from her chin on the tips of two fingers, placed the cup on the counter behind her, and then ran his fingertips, warm, wet, and smelling richly of chocolate, across her lower lip. She closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and took his fingers in to the second knuckle, suckling. She felt him shudder, heard his soft moan, and she was gone.
Selhra reached blindly for his head and bent it down for the tlasp, touching forehead to forehead, and his desire filled her, more than doubled by her own, feeding on the heat between them. Someone whimpered; she wasn't certain who. Her hands smoothed his shoulders, then his back, then his firm young backside to pull him hard against her body. At the same time his hands weren't idle. She could feel them doing their own eager exploration. His tongue explored her mouth, a strangely alien concept, this kissing she'd read about, but far from unpleasant. How was he doing that and maintaining the tlasp? She realized then that although her antennae were no longer in contact with his skin, the shared sensation was the same, an advantage she hadn't anticipated. To maintain the tlasp during the act of mating required the flexibility of youth. She'd had neither in recent years. But with Damin... Sweet Mother, the possibilities!
"Well, that didn't take long." Jenrali's amused comment effectively dumped a heaping bucketful of wet snow on the proceedings. Sehlra let go and jumped back, rapping her head smartly on the cabinet behind her. She caught a flash of annoyance from Damin before he severed the link between them and turned to face Jenrali with a bland expression on his face. Sehlra gathered her wits, rubbed her scalp briefly with a grimace, and then glared at Jenrali's dangerously toothy grin. When he just stood there without apology, facing off in stupid male fashion with Damin, she grunted in irritation, groped behind her to grab her mug, and then pushed between them.
"I'm gonna finish stowing those injectors and then get some rack time," she muttered on her way out.
Jenrali eyed Damin critically. With that coverall on all he needed was a haircut to look ready to work for a living, but Jenrali still couldn't fathom Sehlra's claims about the Betazoid's real age and his actual profession. Damin just looked like a skinny little man-whore to him. There was no accounting for appearances.
"What game are you playing dressed like that?" Jenrali asked, jerking his chin at the young man's coverall.
"No game," replied Damin. "With Daniel so recently injured, and now T'Riss as well, I thought Sehlra might need an extra pair of hands in the engine room, so I changed."
"Looks like you thought she needed some other things, too. Are your services part of what we got when we negotiated this transport contract with the Vulcans?" asked Jenrali, deliberately blunt. Damin's eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened, but he didn't rise to the bait.
"A reasonable question, I suppose, considering my recent history," he said. "But no, my responsibilities to the Vulcan Security Directorate ended when I brokered the transport contract. My time with Sehlra is my own."
"I see." Jenrali crossed both arms over his chest and studied the Betazoid. Damin met his eyes and waited. "Far be it from me to ruin whatever it is you two have got going," Jenrali continued finally. "The Mother knows Sehlra gets little enough pleasure in her life as it is. But let me tell you this..." He lifted one finger and pressed it into the center of the slender man's chest. "Sehlra isn't just a business partner to me...she's family. Closer than a sister. So if you ever hurt her you will live to regret it for the rest of your prematurely shortened life. Is that clear?"
"As crystal, Captain," replied Damin. "You can depend on me, sir. I'll take good care of her." His tone was firm but respectful. Jenrali blinked. For a second he felt like a father giving a betrothal blessing, but only for a second. Sehlra was a grown woman. Her choice of mate was none of his business, and Damin would certainly be just a passing entertainment.
"You'd better," he grunted. Then he shouldered past Damin to the stasis unit to choose a meal. "You can go now," he called over his shoulder. "When you see Sehlra remind her that she goes back on duty in eight hours, sleep or no sleep."
"Yes, sir," Damin acknowledged, and made his escape.
"You seem to have neglected your beverage," T'Riss pointed out to Damin as he came through the entrance to the medical bay. The Betazoid looked startled.
"Yes, I did." He laughed quietly. "Other matters distracted me. It's not important. How is the little truant?" He glanced at the biobed.
"He remains sedated," T'Riss informed him. "I anticipate that he will remain in this condition for the remainder of this duty shift, if not longer. He should not give you any difficulty." She made sure that Damin was aware of the locations of all emergency equipment and left to resume her duties.
Raijiin shot her a reproachful look when she entered the cargo bay. Senek was not present, having been summoned to the control room - presumably for the purpose of notifying Commander T'Lar that her brother was aboard.
The remaining items of luggage were dealt with in a logical and efficient fashion. She was gratified to note that the other passengers seemed uncharacteristically silent and compliant. They even made a point of bringing their bags forward and then backing quickly out of her way. It was most helpful.
By the time she finished, her wrist was aching intensely. T'Riss concentrated briefly, focusing on the proper Discipline. Endorphins flowed and the discomfort subsided to a point where it was possible to ignore. Without bothering to offer any gesture or word of departure, T'Riss exited the cargo hold and set out for the engine room in compliance with Sehlra's orders.
T'Riss found the older woman studying readouts on the side of the main impulse reactor. She did not look up when T'Riss arrived, so the Vulcan stood quietly nearby and waited to be noticed. After several moments she offered, "Crewman T'Riss, reporting as ordered."
Sehlra still did not look up. "Are you now? Good. Come over here and look at this readout." T'Riss obediently walked over and bent to examine the display panel.
A sharp pain flared between her shoulder blades while her face met the display screen with considerable force. Sehlra's elbow dug deeply into the first lateral node of her fourth thoracic cluster. The severe pain thus induced handicapped her, but was less important than the temporary paralysis triggered by the maneuver. She went limp from the waist down.
Meanwhile, the Andorian's other hand seized T'Riss by the right wrist and applied thumb pressure between the fourth and fifth metacarpal nerves while simultaneously restricting circulation at her wrist. She twisted the arm behind T'Riss' back and leaned on it, using her body weight to reinforce the pressure on both attack points. T'Riss still had the use of her free arm, but with her left wrist broken and the rest of her body inert it was of dubious benefit.
"Don't bother trying, girl," Sehlra told her in a conversational voice. "I was handling Vulcan prisoners before you were out of diapers. We are going to have a talk, you and me. And I want you to listen to me very carefully."
"This is not necessary," T'Riss told her breathlessly. "I will certainly listen without coercion."
"Maybe," Sehlra allowed. "But would you pay attention as closely? You need to understand something, girl. Because if you don't pay attention, I will have to hurt you. And you need to understand and believe me when I tell you that I am able and willing to hurt you."
"I understand. I believe you," T'Riss swore sincerely. Sehlra released her and backed away, leaving the young Vulcan to slump to the deck on numb legs. She struggled to a sitting position using her left arm and braced her back against the reactor, trying to estimate how long it would take for sensation to return.
"Crewman T'Riss," Sehlra said sternly, "you have been exhibiting an insubordinate attitude since your arrival aboard this ship. You are the most junior crew member aboard, and as such you command nothing at all. You are not even a partner. But you have been behaving as if you were a senior officer aboard a warship." She glared and T'Riss winced. "You. Do. Not. Attack. Passengers. Do you hear me?" Sehlra waited.
T'Riss firmed her chin. "I thought that-"
Sehlra smacked her. T'Riss' head rocked back against the reactor. The impact of the older woman's palm was negligible, but the psychological effect was massive. T'Riss stared in shock.
"You are not here to think, fool," Sehlra scolded. "You are here to work and obey. And even if you had reason to believe that something was wrong, it was not your place to deal with it." She waited for it to sink in. "You should have reported it to Daniel, and let him report it to Jenrali. You, the lowest person on the ship, do not have authority to piss without permission. Do you hear me? It is not your place to do anything without orders. If you see Raijiin outside the cargo hold, you DO NOT break her neck or even her legs. You report it. You do not threaten, you do not attack, you do not take it upon yourself to usurp any authority on this ship or I will thaw your backside as if you were one of my own girls. Do I make myself clear?"
T'Riss locked her jaws together. "Perfectly clear," she managed. Sehlra relaxed. "However...," T'Riss ventured. The Andorian tensed again.
"However... what?" she growled.
T'Riss reached back and worked her way up the side of the reactor to a standing position on shaking legs. "Daniel is my betrothed. I will protect him if he is attacked. I will seek no one's permission before doing so." She raised her chin and deliberately met Sehlra's eyes.
Sehlra softened. "That's different. Fair enough." She firmed her lips again. "But for everything else, you remember what I said. I don't want to have this conversation again. Now, take over here for the rest of the watch. All you need to do is keep an eye on things. If something goes wrong, call me instantly. Don't try to fix it yourself. Call me."
"Yes, ma'am. I wish to report something," T'Riss told her.
"Immediately prior to my altercation I was proceeding toward the galley. Daniel has not eaten today. He has also been medicated, and should be fed and then put to bed as soon as possible." T'Riss watched Sehlra hang her head and rub her eyes.
"Between that boy, Jenrali, this engine, and now you, I am almost starting to miss active duty." She sighed. "All right. I will chase the foolish child down to the galley and then shoo him off to his bunk. No doubt you will check on him when you finish your shift?"
"Of course," T'Riss agreed. Sehlra flipped a hand in acknowledgment and headed for the ladder.
"Commander T'Lar," the comm unit on the wall interrupted her evening meal. "I have an incoming message from Agent Senek aboard the Andorian trader Lerteiran. It is designated urgent."
T'Lar put down her bread tongs, slid her chair back, and reluctantly gave up trying to finish her meal without interruption. "Commander T'Lar here," she spoke into the comm unit. "Pipe the message to the officer's dining room."
"Commander? Senek here. Your brother stowed away in Raijiin's luggage. He suffered minor distress due to asphyxiation, but prompt application of oxygen and stimulants have restored him to optimum physical condition."
T'Lar felt her face freeze into a shield of impassivity. Fortunately, she was eating a delayed meal this evening and the room was empty. No one was present to witness her distress.
"Agent Senek." She took a deep breath. "Is there any possibility of returning Selim to the station?"
"I regret that it is not feasible, Commander. Even if Captain Jenrali were amenable to the idea, which I doubt, we cannot afford the delay. Our travel schedule has been calculated very carefully."
Agent Senek was tactfully reminding her that delivering Llahir to the Security Directorate took absolute priority over returning a mischievous child to his guardian. A guardian, T'Lar chided herself, who had no business permitting the boy to wander off in the first place.
However, one imperative question needed to be answered immediately. "What punitive action does Captain Jenrali intend to take against Selim?"
"None," Senek replied, and T'Lar came near collapsing in relief. "But he demands full passenger fare for Selim and requires that our party assume joint custody of the boy for the duration of the voyage. I have agreed to these terms."
"My clan will reimburse the directorate for any expenses Selim may incur," T'Lar told him. "I will contact the Vulcan embassy on Risa and arrange to have Selim met on arrival. I am in your debt, Agent Senek."
"There is no debt, Commander. I am here to serve. Live long and prosper. Senek out."
Alone and unseen, T'Lar permitted herself the indulgence of rubbing her aching brows. She sat keyed the comm again and asked her chief of security to join her, then sat back down at the table. T'Lar refilled her tea and pushed her plate back. She was sipping it thoughtfully when Centurion Solis arrived. He seated himself at her gesture and politely accepted a cup.
"Centurion, we find ourselves in a logistical quandry." Solis looked properly attentive, of course. T'Lar put the cup down and told him, "The Humans have invited us to send a maximum of two representatives to observe and assist them in the interrogation of their Romulan prisoner." Solis straightened in sudden interest, a gleam in his eye. T'Lar nodded. "As your logic will certainly make plain to you, this opportunity must not be squandered."
"Indeed not, Commander," Solis said emphatically. "Especially given our current strained relations with the Humans. In addition to the value of the intelligence gained, which may well be considerable, it will be an opportunity to re-establish rapport with our ally."
"Unfortunately," T'Lar told him, "Enterprise is under orders to transport the Romulan commander back to Earth as soon as possible. Quite understandable, of course. There is also the issue of the station refugees aboard Enterprise, who are growing increasingly anxious to return to their homes-or at least to begin their journeys homeward. Meanwhile Sehlat must resume searching deeper into the Orion Syndicate in an attempt to locate more survivors from the Plains of Gol. The Le'Matya will remain here to guard the medical ships." She paused and eyed him. "As you can well imagine, an experienced interrogator will be required aboard Sehlat during our ongoing investigation."
Solis nodded thoughtfully. "In this situation I believe the most logical course of action will be to assign myself and crewman Jowan to Enterprise. Centurion T'Iril can be transferred from Le'Matya to assume my shipboard duties on a temporary basis while I am away. If the other ships are to remain in the vicinity of the station, Le'Matya's assistant security chief should be able to manage matters well enough."
T'Lar relaxed. "I confess to relief, Centurion Solis," she told him. "I had hoped that you would be willing to volunteer for this mission, but I was reluctant to order anyone to spend an extended amount of time aboard a Human vessel. Under the circumstances there is a very real possibility that you might be forced to remain aboard until Enterprise reaches Earth."
"If so," Solis told her with dignity, "we will cope with the situation. There are diplomatic personnel at the Human embassy who have been on Earth for decades. I believe Commander T'Pol has served on Enterprise for more than four years. If others can endure it, we can endure it. We are trained and experienced officers. Our people aboard the Orion station endured slavery and torture; surely an extended visit to a Human ship cannot compare to that."
"We can certainly hope not," T'Lar said.
It was a small, nondescript shop located in the slums of the main port on a backwater trading colony deep inside the Orion Syndicate. A man in a hooded cloak walked through the front door. He glanced casually around and, seeing no customers (the usual state of affairs) he gave the proprietor a slight nod and proceeded to the back room.
Once there, he threw back his hood to reveal the distinctive ears and eyebrows of a Vulcan. The man paused briefly beside a workstation, inserted a data cartridge, and pressed two keys. He then withdrew the data cartridge and snapped it in half. The chemical mixture embedded in the cover of cartridge ignited on contact with air and began to glow. Three seconds later it began flaming. The Vulcan held the burning cartridge in his gloved fingers until he was sure that no detectable trace of information remained. Then he dropped it in the disposal slot and walked out.
In another place, on the other side of the same backwater colony, a concealed transceiver emitted a seven millisecond burst along a tight beam. There were no other ships or worlds along the route of the signal to intercept it aside from the intended target.
On the bridge of a concealed ship holding position on the edge of the Orion Syndicate farthest away from Vulcan space an indicator light began blinking on a communications console. The communications officer reported the incoming message to the duty officer, who duly forwarded the encrypted note to her commanding officer in his office.
The commanding officer, who also bore the distinctive characteristics of Vulcan ancestry, ran the brief message through a decryption algorithm. The words formed on screen caused a most un-Vulcan expression of rage to darken his face.
THE HALF-BREED LIVES
THE RAPTOR FALLS IN FLAME
THE HAWKMISTRESS IS BOUND
Daniel yawned widely and stretched. He smiled again at how good it felt to be able to do that without pain. He watched with mild interest while Senek signed off on the payment for the Vulcan kid's passage and sealed it with his retinal scan.
"Remember what I said," Jenrali warned. "If that child gets loose and damages anything I won't bother billing your government. I will let Sehlra take it out of your hides."
"Believe him," Daniel told him in amusement, "he means it."
"I never doubted it," Senek assured them. "Rest assured. Selim will be watched most carefully, but I do not anticipate trouble. He stowed away because he wanted to be with Raijiin. Since Raijiin will be staying in the cargo hold, so will Selim."
"He had better," Sehlra's irritated voice emerged from the ladder well, followed by her head and shoulders. She looked over the control room and snapped, "Are you done with your snack, old man? Daniel needs to eat something and get to his bunk. In case it slipped your mind, that girl broke his back in bed last night and he just came out of surgery less than two hours ago." Senek's eyebrows shot scalp-ward but no one felt like enlightening him.
"I hadn't forgotten," Jenrali grumbled. "The lad wanted to stay up here for a while."
"I couldn't sleep, Sehlra. Honestly," Daniel told her. "After all that adrenaline there was no way I could have gotten any rest."
"You will now," she commanded him. "But first, get down to the galley and eat something. Move."
"Yes, ma'am." Daniel levered himself up and headed for the ladder. Sehlra obligingly moved back down to make room, preceding him back to the galley. Only after he was up and moving did Daniel realize how tired he really was. The surgery, then the stress of confronting Senek over T'Riss, then the additional excitement of finding the stowaway had each bitten a chunk out of his energy. He barely made it down the ladder. By the time he reached the galley he was propping one hand against the wall to stay upright.
Sehlra looked up from the storage compartment and pointed at a chair. "Sit." He obeyed without argument. She slid a package of pre-prepared stew into the warmer and keyed it for 30 seconds. The machine chimed and Sehlra popped the package open, stuck a spoon in it, and plopped it in front of Daniel. "Eat."
"Can I trust you to clean up your own mess?"
"Yes, ma'am," he muttered between bites.
"Will you go straight to your quarters after this?"
A sigh. "Yes, ma'am."
"All right then." Sehlra rubbed the bases of her antennae tiredly. "I'm going back down to the medical bay to check on that child. Then I think I might try to hit the bunk myself."
Daniel nodded. Have fun. Tell Damin hello, he thought. But he was careful not to voice the thought. She was already in a touchy mood. He watched her walk out and noticed that her step lightened noticeably as she entered the passageway. Daniel grinned and finished his stew, dropping the dishes into the recycler and wiping down every surface he could find. Sehlra was a real stickler about sticky fingerprints.
Daniel dogged the hatch to his quarters behind him with more effort than he could ever remember needing. He shuffled toward his bunk and peeled his socks off. A groaning roll got him blanket wrapped and darkness descended with a thump.
T'Pol stood at dignified readiness between Captain Archer and Lieutenant Reed just inside the main port airlock. The shuttle carrying the Vulcan security team from Sehlat was completing final docking procedures and confirming atmospheric integrity. She glanced aside at her companions. Both the captain and Mr. Reed seemed tense. Understandable, but less than optimum for such a meeting. Hopefully she could provide a cultural buffer and defuse the tension somewhat.
The hatch slid open to reveal two Vulcans. One wore the uniform of a full Centurion, the other a Crewman, First Rank. Both visitors raised their hands in the ta'al, which T'Pol and her companions returned. "Peace and long life," the senior officer intoned. "I am Centurion Solis. My companion is Crewman Jowan. We have been assigned by Commander T'Lar to observe and assist with the interrogation of the prisoner. We request permission to come aboard."
"Permission granted," Captain Archer told them. "Welcome. I'm Captain Archer." He gestured. "This is my first officer, Commander T'Pol, and my chief of security Lieutenant Reed. Commander T'Pol will be your primary liason. "
"Acknowledged," Solis inclined his head. Jowan stood behind him without speaking or reacting - a silent, hulking presence who needed to duck in order to pass through the airlock door.
From his huge size, coarse hair, and thick features, T'Pol surmised that Jowan derived from the region of the To'Ledvar mountains. It was an extremely remote and rugged area of Vulcan noted for its harsh terrain, unpredictable storms, and the ferocity of its wildlife. Fleet personnel from the To'Ledvar region were preferred as diplomatic attaches and secretaries when entering into the occasional negotiation with Klingons. The intimidation value derived when the Klingons found themselves facing Vulcans even larger than they were often proved advantageous.
T'Pol said, "Mr. Reed and I will escort you to your cabins. Following which, I have scheduled a preliminary consultation in our briefing room. We will provide you with an understanding of our results to date, and we can strategize the most effective use of our joint resources."
"A superior approach," Solis approved. "Will you be joining us for the briefing, Captain?"
Archer opened his mouth. Then he closed it firmly and tightened his lips with a stubborn expression. "No. I am confident in the abilities of my officers. They know how to do their jobs and they don't need me holding their hands." From the corner of her eye, T'Pol noted Reed's jaw beginning to sag. "I will of course be available if needed, but otherwise I will leave this in the hands of the specialists."
"It is an honor to be aboard, Captain," Solis told him. "Perhaps we will speak again."
"We certainly will," Archer told him. "For now, I am needed on the bridge. Take over, T'Pol." With that, he turned and headed off down the corridor. T'Pol blinked thoughtfully and glanced at Reed, who seemed rather stunned. She made a mental note to talk to him later regarding the changes which were becoming apparent in the captain's style of command. The changes were welcome and long overdue, in her opinion, but would require some adjustments on the part of the crew.
"If you will follow me?" T'Pol started walking toward the cargo bay, where additional visitor's quarters had been constructed. "Given the number and variety of the refugees that Enterprise is carrying and the range of their preferred environments, our chief engineer has elected to construct temporary sleeping compartments in each cargo hold."
"I am certain that the accommodations will be acceptable," Solis told her stoutly, with a grim expression. Jowan straightened his shoulders as if expecting torture.
"We certainly hope so," Reed put in hurriedly. "After the compartments were constructed the engineering staff applied insulation and sealer to allow individual sleeping units to be set with their own temperature and humidity." The two visitors relaxed visibly, T'Pol noted. It was intriguing to realize that the longer she lived among Humans, the more sensitive she became to the slightest nuances of 'body language'.
As they waited for Solis and Jowan to unpack their meager belongings, T'Pol continued musing about the sleeping compartments that surrounded them. They were necessarily tiny, since some space had to be left for people to move around in, and of course nothing could be done about gravity, air pressure, oxygen content, or a plethora of other environmental issues, but just being able to sleep without freezing, drowning in sweat, choking on moisture, or waking up with a rasping throat from air that was too dry made a huge difference in the quality of life for their passengers.
It had, however, caused some disciplinary issues when Trip forcefully made it plain that it was not acceptable to accept gratuities from passengers simply for doing one's job. Particularly when such gratuities were of an intensely personal nature.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the nearly simultaneous emergence of the two Vulcans. "We are ready," Solis announced.
"Then," Reed said, rubbing his hands in satisfaction, "let us begin."
Senek entered the Lerteiran's tiny sickbay to check on the child and to tell him that his sister now knew of his whereabouts. To his surprise Damin sat in a chair at Selim's bedside with a padd in hand, reading what looked like engine schematics. He was wearing a green ship's coverall rather than his usual flowing silks.
"Are you crew now, then?" Senek asked the Betazoid. Damin looked up, but Senek had the distinct impression that he'd been aware of Senek's approach long before the agent had stepped into the room.
"No. Just a volunteer. Mistress Sehlra asked for my assistance." The tone of voice with which Damin said the Andorian woman's name and the Betazoid's manner of address were enough to raise Senek's suspicions. Did he actually expect Senek to believe that he had amorous intentions toward the Andorian? Admittedly, Damin was obviously unconventional in his sexual preferences, but the idea that this curly-haired boy harbored unrequited lust for a retired Andorian guardswoman who had to be three times his age was one that stretched the boundaries of even Senek's usually very open mind. He decided to play along for the time being.
Stepping up to Selim's bedside, he touched his fingertips to the child's temple to check his status. "This boy's been sedated," he told Damin, affronted. The child needed rest, of course, but sedatives were unnecessary. Any Vulcan not in pon-farr and capable of comprehension, even a Vulcan child, had sufficient control to self-calm given enough time and guidance. To sedate Selim in a situation such as this one greatly underestimated the child's capabilities. In an adult it would have been frankly insulting.
"He was agitated and would not be calmed," said Damin, setting aside his padd and standing to confront Senek. "Sehlra is the medic on this ship. She made the decision to sedate him for his own benefit. Are you challenging her medical decision?" Damin's tone was convincing. He looked and sounded like a man defending his woman.
"So, Damin...how's our stowaway?" Sehlra's question barely preceded her arrival to sickbay from the companionway. She paused in the doorway to glance from one man to the other in puzzlement, and then turned to Damin in reproof.
"Twice in one day, Damin?" she chided, obviously amused. "You'd best be careful. Your Alpha male is showing." To Senek's astonishment the Betazoid's face flushed and he immediately dropped his gaze. The boy had some amazing talents. First a meld without touching his subject and now the voluntary control of what Senek had always believed to be a completely involuntary response. Was it even possible to blush on command?
"Selim is well, Mistr... er... Sehlra," mumbled Damin, looking at the deckplates.
"I'm pleased to hear it," Sehlra replied in a totally befuddled tone. She tilted her head and tried to make eye contact with Damin, but the Betazoid's gaze remained fixed on the floor. The two obviously had some things to discuss. Senek was usually the curious sort, but even he didn't want to probe into the situation too deeply.
"I thought that you were going off duty," he commented to Sehlra. She paused in her study of the red-faced telepath to answer Senek.
"I am. I'm just checking on the boy." She stepped up to the biobed, shouldering past Damin and making it clear to which "boy" she was referring. After a review of the bioscan data she announced her findings.
"He's fine. He should wake up in eight hours or so. I'm going to bed." The Andorian sounded tired and cranky. She shot a single glance at Damin before leaving the room. Damin looked up finally as she left. The expression on his face was painful.
Senek sighed. "If you'd like to speak with her before she goes to bed I will stay with the boy. I have no other pressing duties at the present time." Damin looked surprised, and then visibly composed himself.
"Are you certain? Are you familiar with the monitoring readouts?" he asked.
"I will manage, I'm sure," said Senek in a dry voice. He was alone in the room in .5 seconds.
Sehlra closed her eyes, but sleep would not come.
He's regretting what happened in the galley. That's why he won't look at you. Get over it and go to sleep, you old fool.
The thought didn't set to rest the primary question in her mind. What could Damin possibly have seen in her to begin with? She was old, past any hope of seducing anyone. Was it the money they were going to make with this preferred trade status deal? Was it something else? And what had she done to make him change his mind?
In the tlasp she'd been able to sense his emotions. He wanted her. He wanted to please her more than anything. Or at least he had.
It was just as well, she tried to tell herself. A relationship with Damin had always been out of the question. Unfortunately, the assertion didn't calm the turmoil in her mind or the heat in her belly.
There was a tap on her door. She rose to answer, annoyed, and stood blinking in the doorway.
"May I come in?" Damin's voice was a mere whisper, apologetic. He still wasn't making eye contact.
"I really don't think that's a good idea," Sehlra told him. And then he looked up. His eyes made him look like the lerik pup she'd once bought for her oldest son when he was eight. The poor thing had run away after three weeks to escape the torture. "Oh, all right," she growled. "Just for a minute." And against her better judgment she let him in.
As soon as the door shut behind him Damin fell to his knees before her.
"Please forgive me. I had no right to behave that way with you in a public area," he told her in a fervent tone. "You should punish me. I deserve it." Sehlra stood looking down at the top of his bowed head. She crossed her arms over her chest and chewed on her lip.
What in the name of the Mother is Damin up to? Can he possibly be serious?
"Get up, go sit over there, and tell me what's got you so agitated," she ordered with a tired sigh. The Betazoid obeyed her immediately and took a seat where she was pointing, in the chair beside the desk. Sehlra sat down on the lower of the two bunks stacked atop each other against the back wall of the cabin and waited expectantly.
"Jenrali caught us engaging in activity which was inappropriate for duty hours," Damin explained in a hesitant voice. "It was my fault. You would never have behaved in such a manner had I not started...what I started. I was apologizing."
"And that is your customary apology," Sehlra clarified.
Damin smiled a fleeting smile. "Not all of it," he admitted. Sehlra felt her face go warm. She cleared her throat.
"It isn't necessary to be so subservient with me, Damin. I'm not really into that sort of thing... at least not all of the time." Damin perked up at that.
"So you prefer more variety, then," he said, smiling eagerly. "I can do that. Tell me what you want and I'll do it."
"What I want is for you to stop trying so hard and just be you," Sehlra told him, exasperated. "Believe me... that's enough to impress me."
Damin looked back at her with an inscrutable expression on his face. "I'm not certain I know how to do that," he said.
Of course he doesn't, you fool. He's been at everyone else's beck and call his entire life, thought Sehlra. She caught herself feeling sorry for him. It was the last thing she needed to be doing. All it did was make him even more impossible to resist. Despite that, she couldn't seem to stop the next words that came out of her mouth.
"You might start by deciding what you want." As soon as Damin's bottomless black eyes met hers she realized her mistake. He was smiling.
"I already have," he said, and rose from the chair to sit right beside her on the bed. She moved over a few inches to prevent their thighs from touching.
"Now, Damin," Sehlra warned. "We can't..."
"Why not?" he whispered, lifting a hand to trace one finger along her jawline. "You're not on duty. We're in private. Jenrali won't be off duty for another seven hours..." Sehlra closed her eyes. The sensation was exquisite. She fought to gather her thoughts. There was a question she'd needed an answer to...
"Why?" she whispered plaintively, her eyes still closed. "Why me?" A delicate touch travelled from her earlobe to the base of her right antenna. She gasped as she felt the tlasp take hold. Damin's desire, his determination to woo her, his fear of being rejected, all of it rushed in. She opened her eyes to find herself drowning in Damin's dark gaze. Something gave way between them and suddenly it was much more than a tlasp.
I need you, Sehlra. You complete me. I am weak where you are strong, and you deserve someone to remind you of how desirable you are. I can be that someone. His voice reverberated in her head. He absolutely believed in the truth of what he was saying, and through him, Sehlra came to believe it, too.
His hands pulled her down to the bed with him beneath her. She lay atop him, her eyes locked with his, her lower body molded against him. Please let me be that someone. The force of his plea sent shivers down her spine. His hands grasped her hips, pulling her astride him. Through two layers of clothing she could feel his straining arousal.
T'Riss acknowledged Damin's arrival with a feeling of bewilderment, looking past him in vain for some evidence of Sehlra's presence. He smiled and offered, "Sehlra is still resting. I offered to keep an eye on things down here. She agreed as long as I promised to scream in horror if anything starts flashing blue. I can wake her to confirm the order if you wish." A picture flashed into T'Riss's mind of Sehlra's likely response to that scenario.
"That will not be necessary," she replied hastily, and walked out, ignoring his cheerful suggestion that she sleep well. Given the conversation she was about to have sleep was the least likely of options.
Her gentle tapping on Daniel's door provoked no response, so T'Riss entered his quarters quietly. The welcoming warmth of his quarters, set at Human standard temperature rather than Andorian, enfolded her like the feel of his arms. Despite her misgivings, T'Riss felt some of the anxiety within her dissipate. After all, he had not reacted with anger to learning of the betrothal bond. Perhaps...
Daniel was still sleeping. He lay sprawled on his side with limbs splayed in every direction. His hair was disheveled and his whiskers were beginning to thicken. T'Riss briefly considered the aesthetic potential of facial hair, then pushed the thought aside and touched his shoulder. He awakened instantly. At the moment of skin contact, T'Riss noted a definite sense of connection. It was faint, but unmistakable. Being aware of the betrothal bond now made her wonder how she could possibly have failed to note the sensation before.
"T'Riss." Daniel smiled sleepily and glanced at the chronometer, rubbing his eyes. "I slept like a dead man. More than seven hours. Wow." He shifted and sat up, letting the blanket pool around his legs and lap. T'Riss firmly refused to permit herself to spend time appreciating the symmetry and proportions of Daniel's upper body.
"I wish to continue our earlier conversation, if you are willing," she told him.
"Sure," Daniel nodded. "Let me visit the head and brush my teeth. Be out in a few." He emerged from beneath the blanket wearing nothing but his briefs, triggering an irresistible memory of the previous night and what was hidden under those briefs. She deliberately avoided watching him walk to the washroom.
T'Riss settled herself on the edge of Daniel's bunk and tried to settle her mind. She considered her options and decided that there was no point in trying plan her approach. Everything would depend on Daniel's reaction to the betrothal bond. The washroom door opened and she looked up to see him emerge wearing a bathrobe. T'Riss squelched a twinge of disappointment, telling herself that it was better to discuss this matter without distractions.
"So," Daniel said, flopping down on the bunk next to her. "You hooked me with a betrothal bond. How did this happen? I don't recall you performing any kind of meld."
"No!" T'Riss caught herself. "I would never do such a thing, Daniel. Please believe me. Especially after what was done to me. I had no idea that the bond had formed until the melder-healer detected it."
Daniel nodded, half-smiling. "I believe you. Relax. Trip told me that it happened that way with them. They didn't even know a mating bond was possible with a Human until it was already formed. Considering the physical contact we've had, I suppose it isn't really surprising."
"I... I was informed that... if you wish... the bond can be severed without damage," T'Riss forced the words out before she lost her courage.
Daniel regarded her. He seemed concerned and a bit surprised, whether by her hesitance to sever the bond or by her fear, she wasn't certain. "Is that what you want?"
"No." T'Riss said the words firmly. "I desire you for my husband if you are willing to accept me."
"Are you certain of that?" Daniel raised a brow. "No doubts or reservations anymore? Not even if a Vulcan prospect comes along?"
"Yes," she told him definitely, "I am certain. You are the one I want." She swallowed. "I wish to tell you something, Daniel. Will you hear me?"
"Sure," Daniel shrugged. "Go ahead."
"I told you about the betrothal bond, and that it could be severed. But I did not tell you the rest of it." She filled her lungs. "Healer Sorsen informed me that he could suppress the memories of my captivity. This would allow me to return to my life on Vulcan and resume normal activity as if the incident had never occurred. I would even be able to seek another Vulcan mate, if I chose to do so. But he could only do this if I agreed to have him sever the betrothal bond first."
Daniel leaned back on one elbow and rubbed his chin. "That's very... interesting. Why didn't you? I probably would never have felt a thing. And you only picked me because you didn't think you could get a Vulcan worth having anyway."
T'Riss felt her abdominal muscles clench. "That is not strictly accurate, Daniel. I chose you for several reasons, but I have since realized that my initial considerations are no longer entirely applicable. I now desire you as my husband for other reasons. These reasons would apply regardless of your race."
"What might those be?" His lips quirked. For some puzzling reason he seemed to be amused. No matter. She took a deep breath and began.
"There are many, of variable importance. But the most significant is the fact that you are willing to accept me in my current condition. Even after my shameful display last night, you told me that you were still willing to consider me as a mate." Daniel started to say something and she held up her hand to forestall him. "Please. Permit me to finish. You are the only potential mate in the galaxy who knows me for what I truly am. You saw me-." She choked.
Daniel watched silently while she recovered control. "You saw me as a half-naked slave, watching while that... while Grigor-Tel ran his hand over me. Instead of lust and contempt, all I saw on your face was pity. And then you tried to help me." She turned her face away and fought for control.
"You were not responsible for any of that, T'Riss," Daniel insisted in a gentle voice.
She ignored his attempt at comfort. "Afterward, I acted in a most heinous and disgraceful fashion. I conspired with one of your people's enemies to ambush you and invade your..." Suddenly she stopped, unable to continue. Her breathing sounded harsh to her own ears.
Daniel reached across and took her by the upper arms, turning her gently to face him. "That's old news. Stop beating yourself up."
"How? How do you do that?" she suddenly demanded. "My people have spent our entire history tearing ourselves apart for the sake of revenge. We have destroyed our civilization and re-built it countless times in war after war after war, wars that were launched for the sake of vengeance. And you - you just... forgive me..." She stared at him. "We spend our lives studying, meditating, struggling to understand and to apply the teachings of Surak regarding IDIC and tolerance. But you live those principles as naturally as you breathe. How?"
He shrugged. "We have to. With as many different cultures and groups as Humans have produced, we had to learn how to get along with each other or blow up the planet."
"We - did - blow up our planet. Or very nearly." T'Riss looked down at her hands.
"I know." The real sympathy in his voice came very near to breaking her control completely. She looked up and met his eyes.
"It is not possible that I would ever find another male, much less a Vulcan male, who would be willing to tolerate what you have tolerated; who could accept the disgraceful truth of my past and still be willing to take me as a wife." She hesitantly brushed the fingers of her uninjured hand along his cheek. "I will never find anyone else like you, and I perceive no logic in wasting time and resources on a futile search."
Daniel's eyes half closed at the touch of her fingers. He turned his face toward her hand and brushed his lips across her palm, sending a jolt of sensation up her arm. He caught her hand when she reflexively jerked away.
"You know," Daniel said slowly, "as I understand it, Vulcans customarily marry people they barely know and then spend at least a year living together to get acquainted." He held eyes as he gently brought her palm up to his mouth and brushed his lips delicately across the inside of her wrist.
"Yes," she said, and weakly tried to pull free. He held her wrist firmly captive and she was disinclined to dispute the matter.
"We do it the other way around," Daniel said. He reached over and used his free hand to stroke the side of her neck. Meanwhile, he resumed working with his lips and tongue. He kissed along her wrist, danced the tip of his tongue across her palm, and then made feather light traces out to the tips of her fingers. "I won't do anything you don't want me to do," Daniel promised her softly. "Just say stop. Or say no. Do you want me to stop?" He ran a careful fingertip down the side of her neck and started tracing her collarbone.
"No," she said weakly. He released her instantly and sat back. "No! I meant..." she continued more calmly, "I meant that I do not wish you to stop. But I am concerned about the possibility of an involuntary bonding. I do not wish to entrap you."
"You won't," Daniel said. He slid closer and put an arm around her waist. "What I meant earlier is that we Humans spend that year, more or less, getting acquainted before we get married instead of afterward. Then, when we swear the oaths, we already know that we are compatible, theoretically at least." He bent forward and opened his mouth, placing his teeth at base of her throat and stroked her with his tongue again while gently nibbling.
"It-, It seems-, It would seem to be-, I cannot think while you are doing that, Daniel!" T'Riss burst out. He pulled back to look at her and T'Riss realized, to her chagrin, that her eyes were moist and she was trembling.
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry," Daniel said contritely. "I never meant to upset you."
"You did not." T'Riss clenched her unsplinted fist. "I am at fault. My control is less than perfect. I am..." She stopped to breathe heavily. "For so long, I was completely unable to control my responses to sexual stimulation." She looked at Daniel, silently pleading for him to understand. "On the station, whenever I was wanted I was prepared by being injected with the microbe. I had no choice and no control over my body's response. When you did... that... I could feel myself losing control again." She looked down again. "I am sorry."
"No. I'm sorry." Daniel took her face between his hands. "Please forgive me for being a thoughtless asshole. It never occurred to me."
She shook her head. "There was no reason that it should."
"Sure there is." He sighed. "But what I was talking about earlier kind of connects to that. It involves getting to know each other better. Understanding each other better. It's like I said the last time we talked, we really don't know that much about each other. I'd like to change that."
"You wish to gain greater insight into my background?" T'Riss asked him.
"Not just your background," Daniel said. "Everything about you. Where you came from, your favorite color, your dreams, your friends, your childhood pets, your shoe size, your birthday, your favorite flavor, your ticklish spots. Everything. And I want you to learn about me, so you can make a real decision about whether you want me. Not just pick me because you don't think you could do better."
T'Riss looked up sharply. "I told you-."
"I know what you told me," he interrupted her. "It still comes back to you not thinking anyone else would take you if they knew who you really were. I would rather have a woman who chooses me because she wants me, even if she could have her pick of any man in the galaxy. If I could get one like that, anyway," he added wryly.
"How do you wish to approach this matter?" T'Riss asked him stiffly. She braced herself for interrogation.
"Oh, for goodness sake," Daniel snorted. "Relax. I just want us to take the time to talk to each other. That's all. How about this? Every day, we can make a point of telling each other one new thing about ourselves. Doesn't have to be anything important, just something that we haven't mentioned before. For instance, my mother's name was Eleanor." He smiled at her. "Your turn. Tell me something about yourself that I don't already know."
T'Riss blinked. "Anything?"
"Anything at all," Daniel said cheerfully.
"I find the odor of cooked animal flesh unpleasant."
"That's exactly the kind of thing I was talking about," Daniel told her. "If we're planning to live together and I'm going to keep eating meat - which I am - then things like that are important to know up front."
"Do you wish to limit the exchange of information to only one item per day?" T'Riss asked.
"Uh, no," Daniel told her. "I meant at least one thing. You are welcome to tell me anything you want, whenever you want." He looked thoughtful. "You smell good to me. Kind of like the ocean. But kind of like sandalwood. But not really like either one. But good."
T'Riss felt her face growing warm. "It is agreeable that you find my scent pleasant. I also find your scent agreeable."
"Really?" Daniel looked surprised. "You're the first Vulcan I've ever met who's expressed that opinion about Human scent."
T'Riss pursed her lips. "Most Vulcans never leave our home world and consequently never encounter other species."
"I suppose by now you've encountered enough 'other species' to be the resident Vulcan expert on the subject," said Daniel, smiling.
"I do not believe that I am an expert on Humans... at least not yet," T'Riss demurred. Daniel's smile broadened.
"I can help with that. We've got an hour before change of shift." He turned and pointed at his desk. "Hand me that padd." She did so, puzzled. He turned it on and paged through several screens before he found the one he wanted. Then he settled back, propped up by a pillow at the head of the bed, and gestured for her to join him. T'Riss, after a second of hesitation, lay down beside him, tucked beneath his arm.
"Here we go. I got this bit of classic ancient Earth literature a few years ago... thought it would help me out with a certain situation." He grimaced. "Didn't help much, but it's a start at least." He lifted the padd in his other hand and began to read. "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, by John Grey, PhD. Chapter One..."
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