DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc and Viacom. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2006 by Djinn. This story is Rated R.
"Have you thought about your next assignment?" Admiral Bosson was smiling at her. He seemed to be happy over the way things had turned out, even if Spock had not been.
"Yes." She slapped a padd down on his desk.
He read it quickly, looked up at her with dismay written on his features. "Retirement?"
"Christine, you should rethink this. After that last assignment, there's nowhere you can't go if you want to."
"There's nowhere left I want to go, sir."
A lie. There was one place. And it lay deep within the Klingon empire.
"Think about it. Don't make an emotional decision." He handed the padd back to her. "Bring it back tomorrow and I'll approve it."
"I've had nothing but time to think about it. This is what I want."
She'd passed Spock in the halls. He'd acted like she wasn't there. She could see a lifetime of that kind of behavior looming.
He pushed the padd away. "Christine. There's something you don't know. Spock took Valeris's death very hard."
"Oh, sir, I know that." Hard--like the pummeling he'd put her body through.
"Let me finish. You don't know the rest. He's...he's making overtures toward a Romulan diplomat. I worry that this man could become an influence over Spock, now that those he cared about are gone."
Funny how she wasn't in that group. Despite everything. "And you think I can change that?"
"Spock chose you for that mission for a reason, Commander. I think he'll choose you again if you let him. He needs you. We need you. And I don't have to tell you what a valuable asset he is to us."
No, he didn't have to tell her that. She'd given her body to save that valuable asset.
Well, and maybe to assuage the guilt. Even if she shouldn't have felt guilty. She'd completed her mission. Starfleet had been fine with her methods, even if Spock hadn't.
"Starfleet as matchmaker. Who'd have thought it?" She reached over, pushed the padd to him. "I'm not interested in Spock's future, Admiral. Only in my own."
He stared up at her; she stared back. She tried to imitate a Klingon warrior. Tried to throw everything that was dark and dangerous into her expression, into the way she stood.
He finally approved her request.
She grabbed the padd before he could change his mind. "Thank you, sir."
"Where will you go, Chapel? Your life is hardly over."
"You're right, sir. My life is just beginning."
She walked out to the corridor, out to the windows that lined the hallways that were home to the upper, upper brass. She pulled the communicator out of her jacket pocket, flipped it open, and waited.
"Where are you?" Rotakh's voice sounded as if he was standing right next to her.
"Do you wish to change that?"
"Good." He gave her a string of coordinates. She recognized it as the planet with the bar and the patron who'd taken exception to her. The planet that strode the line between Federation and Klingon space.
"What if that man objects to my presence there, again?'
"I expect you to take care of him if he does. I will not always protect you."
No, she imagined that once she was on his home world, she would have to become adept at protecting herself--or at least standing up for herself. "I don't need you to protect me."
"Good. I want a parMach'kai who can carry her own weight."
"I know." She closed her eyes, wanted to ask him to say that word again. It meant so much more than he'd said. It meant...hope.
"Did he hurt you?" His voice was guttural. As if he would come through the communicator and make Spock pay if she said yes.
"No." It was a lie, but only a small one. Spock hadn't hurt her any more than Chapel had already hurt herself.
"When will you be there, Christine?"
"I'll need to settle my things here." Settle them permanently. "Give me a week."
"I'll give you five days."
She smiled. "Five days, then."
"Qapla'," he said, satisfaction evident in his voice.
"Qapla'," she murmured, as she cut the connection and went to sever old ties.
--14 days earlier--
The ground was cold and hard, and Spock's hands were relentless as they pressed her into it. She closed her eyes, tried to ignore the way he was pounding at her.
His mind was no longer linked with hers. Thank God his mind was no longer linked with hers. If she'd had to listen to him call out Valeris's name one more time...
She thought he was doing it to punish her.
He finished and rolled off her. "It is finished."
She felt a wave of relief. Reaching for her tricorder, she checked him. "It's not finished."
"I can control it from this point." He did not look at her, seemed to be trying to meditate.
"Spock, I don't think you can." She touched him and saw him shudder.
"I do not want you."
"Yes, you've made that abundantly clear." She slid her hand down his body, down and down until he caught her up and pulled her to him with what sounded like a hiss of disgust.
The next time he let her go, he got up and stalked off into the woods. She made her way to the shuttle, using the shower in the little bathroom to clean herself up as best she could. As she stared in the mirror, she fingered the scar on her neck.
If she tried hard enough, she could see herself bathed in reddish-purple interior lights, could imagine a cold metal cup in her hand, taste the blood wine running down her throat. She could bring back hands that were rough and warm, not smooth and hot, as they played over her skin.
She heard Spock come in; his silence as he waited in the shuttle destroyed the fantasy. She pushed down on the scar, knew that Spock had done his best to avoid touching it during the sex. At least Spock hadn't marked her the way he had Valeris. Forever. Whether she'd wanted it or not.
She opened the bathroom door, stood staring at him. "Spock, I--"
"If you are done, let me pass."
She flushed, felt the sting all the way into her insides, where he'd been not too long ago. She moved out of his way, let him have the bathroom. She heard the shower go on. He was in there a long time.
Scrubbing her off him. The same way she'd scrubbed Rotakh off herself.
She suddenly regretted having done that.
Moving to the replicator, she said, "Raktajino," knowing it wouldn't be able to make the stuff.
"Please restate request," appeared in simple block letters.
"Coffee, lots of milk."
A mug appeared, and she wrapped her hands around it, trying to use the hot porcelain to get warm.
Spock came out. His hair was still wet, and he passed her without a glance. He did not tell her to take a seat as he started the engines, but she knew by the change in sound that they were revving up. She shoved the mug into the stasis of the replicator and threw herself into the nearest seat.
Once they were en route, she got up, retrieved her coffee, and took the copilot's seat. Spock didn't look at her. He didn't talk the entire voyage. The silence seemed to grow huge between them. Bigger than the shuttle. Bigger than the clearing where crossed beams had started this--and finished this.
She shuddered. Realized she was freezing and checked the temperature. Spock had it set on Vulcan hot, and she was still cold.
She wondered if she would ever be warm again. She pulled on her jacket, shoving her hands in the pocket, touching the little communicator.
Warm. It was probably warm on Qo'noS. She closed her eyes, slipped into an uncomfortable sleep, never letting go of the communicator.
--15 hours earlier--
Chapel's phaser cut through the night, illuminating Spock's face as he crashed to the ground. Valeris screamed in rage, and Chapel could hear her talking to Spock in Vulcan.
"She is preparing to attack," Rotakh said, his keener Klingon eyesight apparently tracking what Chapel could barely make out.
Valeris screamed again, and the horrible sound told Chapel where to shoot. She fired, the beam enveloping Valeris, but not stopping her as she rushed them.
But then Valeris's scream was cut short as a Klingon disruptor joined the Starfleet-issued phaser. She disappeared in a flash of greenish-white.
The night went still.
"Is Spock alive?" Rotakh asked, striding to the place where Valeris had stood.
Chapel struck a light stick against the bottom of her boot. The night gave way to the brightness of artificial day. She walked slowly to Spock and crouched down, her hand going by instinct to his neck, then adjusting for where the Vulcan jugular would be. She'd checked his pulse so many times on so many missions. The touch of her fingers on his throat would be familiar to him by now, if he'd been conscious.
"He's alive," she said.
Spock moaned softly.
"Spock? Can you hear me?"
He opened his eyes.
Rotakh crouched down, not speaking, just waiting.
"Valeris?" Spock's voice was frighteningly weak. Then his eyes met Chapel's. Accusing her without words of the thing she'd thought about doing but hadn't. "Where is she?"
"Dead. Gone." Rotakh answered for her, not looking away.
Spock closed his eyes. Swallowed hard. His fists were clenched.
Rotakh looked at her. His smile was hard--smug. He pushed himself to his feet and stalked off.
Opening his eyes, Spock stared at her. "She was to be taken alive."
"The plan changed."
He tried to sit up, but managed to rise only a little before he collapsed back to the ground. "You had no right--"
"I had my phaser set to stun. Rotakh didn't. I'm not sure how you think I should have stopped him?"
He looked away. "It does not matter. It is over."
She wasn't sure how all encompassing that statement was until she looked in his eyes, saw how empty they were. He'd lost too much. Kirk. His mother. Now Valeris, destroyed in crossed beams of Starfleet jealousy and Klingon vengeance.
Chapel and a Klingon warrior had murdered his love. What else was there to say?
She started to rise.
He caught her, holding her wrist in a death grip. "I will still need help." He sounded as if the thought of her helping him in any way was only slightly preferable to taking poison.
"When I can no longer care that your Klingon lover murdered the woman who should have been here."
Chapel swallowed. "I never said that he and I were--"
"We melded, or have you forgotten?" His eyes burned again, this time with what looked like hatred.
She wished she could remember what had happened in the meld, but she didn't. "I'm sorry. I tried to shield, but I'm not trained."
"Even if you had, I would have noticed the mark on your shoulder. He has marked you just as certainly as I marked Valeris with the bond."
She touched the scar, realized it was right over where the nerve pinch would have been done. "Did you do that on purpose? Mark her?"
He shrugged. An awkward, Vulcan version of the gesture.
"Was it on the bridge? During that interrogation?" Uhura had told her about that. How Valeris had cried out--in pain...or something.
It took him a long time to nod. "I was angry." He let go of her wrist. "I will call for you when I am ready."
And she knew that when he did, her name would burn in his throat.
She stood up too fast and felt her head spin. Ignoring the dizziness, she fled the coldness in his eyes.
Rotakh waited for her where the shadows began. Shadows that fled in the face of her light stick. "So," he said, his voice a strange mix of satisfaction and pain.
"Don't." She didn't look at him.
"You chose him. It was a poor choice. I told you that."
"I said don't."
He held something out to her. She saw it was the communicator. He'd said it was long range. Just how long range was it?
"You lost this."
"I left it on your ship."
"As I said." He showed her that he had its twin. "I will guard mine with more care."
"I left it behind on purpose."
"I know." He smiled a hard, dangerous smile. "I forgive you." He pushed the communicator into her hand and closed her fingers over it. "Should you find you have need of me after you finish this."
"You aren't going to fight him for me?"
"Why should I? Since I killed his woman, it is honorable what he asks of you. In some way, I...owe him this."
"And then what? You'll come get me?"
"I will." His stare was unrelenting.
"What if I don't want you to?"
He didn't look away. "Then do not use the communicator."
She felt her head spin. Klingon logic was worse than Vulcan, seemed to roar in ever tightening circles. "You didn't have to kill her. Doesn't your weapon just stun?"
"What good is a weapon that just stuns?"
"Damn you!" She hit him as hard as she could. It was like hitting a brick wall. "You didn't have to fire. I had her. She was caught."
His eyes burned into her. "A skilled warrior--and I am a very skilled warrior--sees where an opposing alliance is vulnerable and strikes there to destroy the association. Once Valeris was taken, Spock would have turned to you again. With appreciation instead of hatred. Now...?"
"This was about me?"
"I told you before. There is not much that isn't."
"And yet you leave me to him?"
"I delivered the first blow. The two of you together will deliver the last." He smiled, but something else shone from his eyes. "Be brave, Christine. He may make you pay for this. But then it will be over. And the future--and who you spend it with--will be up to you."
He lifted the communicator as if it was his personal spoil of war, then jammed it into his pocket and stalked off. As she sank to the ground, she heard the sound of his ship taking off.
She didn't watch it disappear into the night sky. But she did push the communicator into her jacket pocket and closed the fastener to keep it safe.
She heard Spock moaning. It would be time soon. And then it would be over.
And the future would be waiting. If she was brave--or foolish--enough to take it.
--One hour earlier--
"She is here." Spock seemed to be shaking, and Chapel held her hand out to him. He shied away. "Christine, please."
"I thought..." She looked away, feeling herself color. "Spock, you're sick."
"Sick?" He shook his head, the expression on his face unreadable. "You thought you could heal me? That I would still need you if she was near?"
Chapel started to answer, but words wouldn't come and tears seemed like they might. She turned away, caught a motion out of the corner of her eye. "Valeris," she whispered.
Valeris's eyes burned with a fire that matched the one in Spock's eyes. "I had no choice, Christine. Believe me, I wanted to keep running. I could have been halfway across the galaxy, would never have even stopped at this world, but for this."
Spock nodded. "I understand. It is no longer a matter of logic."
"No." Valeris sucked in great breaths, as if she was in an airlock being drained of air. "I hate that it is no longer a matter of that."
Chapel pulled her phaser out of the holster. "Valeris, be reasonable. I don't want to hurt you."
Valeris looked at her with such affection it made Chapel gasp. "I know you don't. I couldn't hurt you. Not even when it was logical." She took several quick breaths, as if she'd been running hard. "But that was before. Now--just get away from us."
"I can't. It's time to stop running."
"Yes, Valeris. It is time." Spock looked over at Chapel, then reached for her, his hand heading for her shoulder. For her neck. For the nerves that once pinched, would send her into unconsciousness. No doubt he'd do it with a sincere "forgive me." Would he catch her and settle her gently to the ground? Or would he just let her fall?
She knocked his hand away, shot him a hurt look that she hated but couldn't stop. "No way, Spock." She looked at Valeris. "You're going back to Rura Penthe. I'll take care of Spock."
For a moment, some primal fury burned in Valeris's eyes. Then she seemed to force control on herself. "I almost wish I could, considering what lies ahead. But he won't let you take me."
"He doesn't have a choice."
"I do." Spock's voice was odd. Harsh and almost regretful.
Chapel just had time to analyze it before he backhanded her. She hit the ground hard, felt the wind knocked out of her. Her eyes clouded, but she could still see Spock stumbling toward Valeris, then the two of them running into the darkness.
Could Vulcans see in the dark? She passed out before she could think of the answer.
"Christine." Rough hands on her skin. Warm, not hot. "Open your eyes, woman."
She managed to say, "He hit me," just before the world started to spin, and Rotakh turned her so she could throw up on something other than herself.
"You chose him. It would seem, however, he did not return the favor."
She felt her phaser being pushed into her hand, and she clutched it as if it was a lifeline. Her finger found the controller. It was set to stun. She dialed it up, all the way to maximum--to kill.
"Interesting," Rotakh said.
She dialed it back down. She'd made a promise to Spock. Take her alive. She'd keep her side of the bargain, even if he seemed incapable of keeping his.
But that wasn't his fault. It was biology, really. It all came down to that.
She'd never stood a chance. And Valeris was her friend. One who didn't seem to want this any more than Spock wanted Chapel. She had to remember that. Her friend wasn't the enemy here. Except she was the enemy--she was the traitor.
Was this why Spock had chosen Chapel to do this? Because she'd be perpetually off balance?
"I should have stayed home."
"Too late now."
Her head pounded as Rotakh pulled her up to stand.
"Disappointed in me?" she asked. She checked the phaser again, to make sure it was really on stun--to make sure he knew it was really on stun.
"No." He took her arm, letting her lean on him while they walked. "You aren't a killer."
"Why do I think that's an insult rather than praise?"
"I can't see a damn thing, Rotakh."
"I can." His hand on her arm tightened. "If we use these"--he pressed several light sticks into her free hand--"we will only broadcast where we are."
"Right." She jammed the sticks into her pocket. "I can't believe he hit me."
Rotakh, for once, did not comment.
"We take her alive. I promised."
"Yes. You promised. I remember." He slowed their pace. "Are you in pain?"
"My head hurts. But I'm all right." She laughed bitterly. "If he'd gotten that pinch in, I'd have been out for much longer."
"You knew he was trying to incapacitate you and you let him try again?"
"I didn't let him. He hit me."
"You should have moved away at the first sign of danger, found a more defensible position."
"Well, I'll remember that next time."
"It is basic technique."
"I'm not a goddamned warrior."
"Neither is he. He still took you down. And next time might come sooner than you think."
She wasn't sure how to answer him. So, she just walked on in silence, letting him lead as she held on to his arm, trying not to think about how easy it would be to slide the phaser back up to the kill setting.
--10 hours earlier--
"You seem distracted," she said to Spock as she fiddled with the logs. It was nice to have something to do on his shuttle. She'd had no way to distract herself on Rotakh's ship.
"I am fine." But Spock's answer was snapped at her.
He turned to look at her, the cold fire in his eyes making her stop talking. "It is just what?"
"Silence would be agreeable," he said, and the temperature in the shuttle seemed to go down a little.
"You asked for me to beam over. I guess it wasn't for small talk?"
His jaw set in a tighter line. She thought about how he'd asked her to do this. To help him find Valeris. What if it hadn't been because she'd known the woman or Cartwright? What if it had been to have a substitute--his second string--handy?
"Spock. I know what's going on."
He did not answer.
"We've been through this. You and I. Remember?" She knew her tone was too conciliatory. Hated that she sounded this way with him. But the Pon Farr would make him unpredictable. And dangerous. Far more dangerous than a Klingon warrior. There was some horrible irony to that.
He finally answered her. "We have not been together for some time."
She heard the unsaid. Not since Valeris had stepped in to take over.
"No. Not for some time. But..."
"I did not ask you here to serve as a substitute." But his words didn't ring true, and he wasn't meeting her eyes as he spoke. "I do not trust the Klingons in this matter. Valeris must be taken alive. I want your word."
"Of course, Spock. If I can take her alive, I will." But she thought the Klingons would want that, too. There was honor in a quick death, and they would not want Valeris to have that honor. They wanted her to suffer. It was what Rura Penthe was for. It was a place for those with no honor.
"You hedge, Commander. Promise me you will take her alive. No matter what."
He whirled to look at her, and she saw raw fury in his expression.
"Spock, I know you're not thinking clearly. And you have to think clearly. And in the past, you could think clearly when we..." She blushed. "Perhaps you could think of Valeris with more logic if some of the fire was burned off?"
"And you offer yourself?"
"It's worked before."
But only before Valeris. Just how important was she to him?
"I need your promise, Christine. You will not harm her."
"And I'll give you my promise. When you ask for it in a more rational way. Deal?" She held out her hand, knew that he understood what she was saying.
Spock nodded, and as she started to get up, he pulled her to him, dragging her onto his lap. She felt the fasteners of her uniform being opened in a far rougher fashion than Rotakh had done the night before. Then Spock was pulling her in for a kiss, his lips brutal on hers. Her lips crashed against his teeth; she tasted blood.
"Spock. Slow down. Please."
"You wanted this."
"I want to help you. I don't want you to hurt me."
He nodded, and a deep sigh escaped. "I am not sure I can oblige you, Christine."
"Try," she said, and she leaned in, kissing him gently.
His kiss was still fierce, but no longer savage. No longer something that hurt. She began to pull his uniform off, felt his fingers find the meld point.
And then she was lost. Buried somewhere in their joined thoughts, no warmth except the heat of lust--but that was enough. He knew her. He knew who he was with. Even if he didn't call out her name, didn't say a word during their coupling. At least he didn't call out Valeris's name, either.
She woke up, her head fuzzy and her body sore, and found they were both on the floor. The ship was on autopilot, and Rotakh was hailing them. Spock pushed himself off her, staggered to the comm panel.
"What is it?"
"You sound almost Klingon, Ambassador." Rotakh's voice dropped at the end. Probably as he took in the disarrayed hair, the unfocused gaze--the naked chest. "Is Commander Chapel there?"
"Yes. Where else would she be?"
"Let me see her, then."
She pulled on her clothes, fixed her hair as much as she could with just fingers. Then she stumbled to her seat, leaning in so Rotakh could see her. "What is it?"
His eyes narrowed, and she had a feeling he knew exactly what they'd been doing. "I know where Valeris is."
"Where?" Spock's voice was savage. As if he'd not just slaked some of his lust in her body for--she glanced at the chrono--four hours.
"Six hours ahead. It is a sparsely inhabited planet. Typical for the neutral zone. She must have put down for supplies. A Ferengi there made sure her ship wouldn't take off again. There are times that having no honor is very useful."
"Sabotage," Spock murmured. "From the French sabot."
"What?" both Chapel and Rotakh asked.
"It is...ironic." Spock seemed to be sinking into himself. "Transmit the coordinates."
"You need to understand something, Ambassador. Valeris must not escape. Her capture is my only duty--in whatever fashion that occurs."
"Commander Chapel and I have already been over this. She will be taken alive." Spock glanced over at her, looking light years from a man who'd just made love to a woman. "You promised."
She hadn't really, not yet. But this was it. This was the time to promise. She glanced at Rotakh, seeing something hard in his expression as she nodded. "I did promise."
"Very well, then. You promised." Rotakh looked down, seemed to be working something on the controls. "Coordinates transmitted."
"Acknowledged. We will see you there." Spock hit the panel to kill the comm panel. Then he increased speed. The shuttle seemed to burst forward, and he did it again. And again.
She glanced at the readings. They were well above recommended speeds. She glanced at another panel; Rotakh was falling behind.
"You promised. He did not."
--7 hours earlier--
"Are you ever going to speak to me again?" Rotakh glanced over at her from the pilot's seat of the small Klingon ship, his eyes glinting in a way that immediately annoyed her.
He grinned. "To have left you speechless after a night together can be taken several ways."
"Get over yourself." She heard him laugh, fought the urge to throw her raktojino in his face. "You got me drunk."
"Nobody gets someone drunk on bloodwine. It's not like your Earther champagne, tripping down your throat with a will of its own. Bloodwine is an acquired taste, and if you drank enough to become inebriated, it was by your own choice."
She folded her arms over her chest, and looked out the side viewscreen.
"Tell me I'm wrong, Commander."
"You never call me Doctor."
"You aren't on this mission to heal Valeris." He grinned at her. "And you are changing the subject."
"There is no subject. We are not a subject."
"So it was what? The passion of a moment?"
"That's right." She'd required quality time with her regenerator. The love bites alone--the first one had left a scar, despite her best efforts.
"Hmm." He did something to the controls that must have put the ship on autopilot, because he stood up and walked over to her.
As he touched her neck, his warm, rough hands brought back memories of the night before as they moved over her scar. And they were hot, sweaty, violent memories. She felt something deep inside her twist with remembered pleasure.
He leaned down, his breath hot in her ear. "Are you sure it was just of the moment?"
She jerked away. "Stop it."
"Very well." He straightened up, but his hands lingered on her neck. He pressed harder, working deep into pressure points, unclenching muscles she hadn't realized had been tight.
"Please stop? Or keep going?" He didn't wait for her to answer, just let her go and returned to his seat. "By the way, we are meeting up with an old friend of yours in a few hours."
His smile was impossible to read. "Spock, of course."
She felt her heart skip a beat.
He seemed to know that. "Were you lovers, then? You never answered that question."
"I wouldn't go that far."
"I didn't mean for you to take that piece of information personally."
"It's possible I now take everything personally where you are involved. We Klingons do not take sex lightly."
"Even bloodwine-induced sex?"
"Even that." He looked at her, his eyes meeting hers, holding hers. Then he looked down. "Why is Spock here?"
"He said he would come. Once he finished what he was working on."
"Does he not trust you to do this job? Does he think you can't find Valeris? Or that you can't work with a Klingon?" His smile became a leer almost.
"He is here for his own reasons, I'm sure."
"You cannot trust him in this, Christine."
"I can't trust Spock?"
"His judgment toward her is questionable. He will want to offer mercy."
"Starfleet Command wouldn't have sent him if they didn't think he could be trusted."
He made a disparaging sound, a click of tongue and expelled breath. "Starfleet Command may not realize what is going on."
"He was in love with her. She played him with ease."
"It's not a failing to be in love with someone."
"It is a failing to be made a fool of. I believe Valeris is not the first Vulcan woman to make a fool of him? Yet he keeps going back to them."
Chapel could feel her lips tighten.
"Struck a nerve?" Rotakh sighed. "This would have been simpler without him."
"Why? He understands her better than any of us. He was in her head, after all."
"And still he wants to help her."
"He wants to recapture her."
"No, little fool. He wants to save her from Klingon justice. I have reports that indicate he has argued for her to be remanded to Federation custody."
She looked at him, could feel disbelief coloring her face.
"Reports from a source we trust implicitly."
She exhaled slowly. Spock wanted Valeris freed from Rura Penthe? "He must have a good reason...if your reports are even right."
"I'm sure he has his own reasons. Good ones? The question would be good for whom?" His expression was ugly. "It's interesting, the timing of how she escaped."
"I don't follow."
"I mean...just now. The timing is remarkable."
"When the Ambassador is reported to be under the weather. The seven-year flu, I believe."
She felt her heart sink. So that was why he'd acted so strangely in the conference room. She had some experience with this. She should have seen. But she'd wanted to believe he'd been missing her. That they'd had a chance. Even though she knew he loved Valeris.
"I've heard when a Vulcan suffers from this infirmity, only his parMach'kai will do."
That damned word. It had sounded pretty last night. Now it sounded hateful.
"I'm not going to discuss this with you, Rotakh."
"Of course not." His expression was knowing. "The Ambassador has asked that you beam over once we are in range."
"I think you should stay here."
"Christine, you owe this man nothing."
"He just wants to talk to me about the mission." The mission: getting the love of his life back? The love he might have helped escape from a Klingon prison?
"My reports indicated another thing. Something about your relationship with Spock."
She took a deep breath. Could imagine what was coming. "Don't."
"In the past, you've helped him, have you not? Healed him from earlier bouts of this seven-year flu?"
"I know what you said." He sighed--even a sigh sounded dangerous when it came from a Klingon. "You still love him."
"If I have feelings for him, they're not your business."
"If you have feelings for him, then you are a greater fool than I thought. He burns, Christine. And he does not burn for you."
She felt as if he'd struck her. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
"Don't I? Open your eyes, woman. See that this man does not care about you. He never has and he never will."
Looking away, she reached into her pocket and slipped the communicator out, slamming it on the console. "I won't be needing this."
"Choices made in anger are often regretted."
"Oh, as if a Klingon never makes a choice in anger? Don't you dare lecture me." She got up. "I'm going to shower. I smell of things Klingon."
This time he colored darkly. Had she managed to wound him?
"Let me know when we rendezvous with Spock," she said.
"Who am I to interfere with your little reunion?" He turned to look at her, his eyes raking over her body. "He is the wrong choice."
"I'm not choosing anything."
But she could tell he knew she was lying.
--8 hours earlier--
"I cannot believe we were too late." Rotakh held out a hand, pulled her up the high step into his ship.
"At least we know we're on the right trail." She gazed up at the ion storm. They were safe on the ground. Valeris would have to go to ground eventually, too.
"We will stay here tonight." Rotakh glanced back at her, as if expecting her to decline.
His smile was pleased. "I will introduce you to Klingon blood wine."
She shook her head. "I've heard it compared to sulfuric acid."
"Sulfuric acid is for weaklings."
At her dubious look, he said, "You enjoyed the raktajino, didn't you?"
He grinned at her as he hauled out a barrel from a storage cabinet. "There are cups up there." He pointed with his chin at a cabinet over her head.
She pulled two down. The cups were more like steins and were made of a dull metal, intricately carved with some kind of crest.
"It is my house seal. The house of Mortess. He is a famous warrior." Rotakh had moved behind her, his breath was warm on her neck.
"Aren't all Klingons famous warriors?" She leaned back a little, then realized what she was doing and pulled away.
"Some are more famous than others." He moved closer again and blew on her neck.
She tried to hide the shiver he caused. "You're doing that on purpose."
"I am. Does it feel good?"
"Liar." He laughed, but he moved away.
"How did you wind up on Rura Penthe?"
He sighed, taking the cups from her and dipping them into the blood wine. "It was an obligation."
"Does it involve dishonor?" She took the cup he held out to her.
"Do you think I would tell you if it did?" But his eyes sparkled. "It was our house's turn to man it. It is how such unpleasant duties are apportioned out. I was chosen."
She tried the blood wine, felt it burn as it went down, and started to cough. When she finally stopped, she asked, "Why were you chosen?"
He watched as she sipped again, seemed to be appraising her, smiling when she swallowed and didn't cough. "Because I have no parMach'kai, no children. No obligations other than to house."
"Parma...?" The translator had not changed it to Standard.
"ParMach'kai. My...beloved I suppose is closest word for you."
"Ah. So, no one to miss you?"
"I believe that is what I said. Although there are those in my house I'm close to and who miss me." He moved closer again. "Who misses you?"
"I have friends. And family." She sipped at the wine again. Then took a longer gulp.
He laughed. "You are brave."
"Or very, very foolish." She could feel the pressure building from the storm outside. "It's going to be a bad one."
"Yes." He leaned back against the table. "Are you afraid of storms?"
"Are you afraid of anything?"
"Ending up all alone." She stared down at the wine. Wanted to pour it out and blame her sudden honesty on the Klingon alcohol.
"Why are you alone? You are a spirited woman. You possess intelligence and are pleasant enough looking--for a human." He smiled at her. "Perhaps the men you desire are unattainable?"
"Roger was my fiancé. That's hardly unattainable."
"That was also a very long time ago. You have been alone for many years."
"And so have you, right?" She raised her cup. "Here's to two losers."
He didn't lift his cup. "I am not a loser. Neither are you."
She looked down. "I'm sorry." Had she been picked for this mission because she was...expendable? Because she had no one to care about her?
She downed the rest of the wine.
"You should go slowly."
"I'll go slowly when I'm dead." It was an old Emergency Ops habit of adding "when I'm dead" to any possible saying, and from the look in his eyes, he liked it. She held out her cup to him, and he took it and filled it.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
She nodded, praying his answer to that hunger would not involve anything that moved on its own.
He pulled out some kind of dried meat and cracker-like things. He smiled at her sigh of relief. "No gagh, I'm afraid. I'm sure you had your heart set on it."
"Some other time." She threw back half her wine.
"Christine." Her name sounded odd coming from him. He made it dark and exotic. "The wine will go to your head. I don't want you doing anything you might regret later."
"Doing anything--or anyone?" She smiled at his embarrassed look. So Klingons were a little prudish, were they? "What if I want to?"
How long had it been since she had? And what the hell had she been waiting for all this time? Spock?
"Do you want to?" He downed his own cup.
"Do you have to do that? To find me attractive?"
"No." He smiled, reaching into her pocket, pulling out the communicator. "I would not have given you this."
As he put it back in her pocket, she moved closer, and he dropped his hand to her hip. "Do you have to be drunk to want me, Christine?"
She shook her head, put down her wine, then his. "Stop talking."
"Or you'll what?" His question came out as a growl.
She pulled him down to her, met his lips with her own, wincing a little as her tongue ran over his sharp teeth. He drew her closer, making short work of their clothing, easing her up on the table and pushing her hair out of her eyes. His expression was extraordinarily tender, even if his hands were not.
She played with his hair--it was coarse, as she'd suspected. "You protected me today."
"I need a Starfleet partner to wander freely here. Just as you will need one from Qo'noS if we cross over the neutral zone."
"You didn't hesitate. That wasn't about alliances. It was something more elemental."
"Yes, Christine. It was." He sniffed her neck, as if memorizing her scent. He kissed her throat, worked his way back to her ear, down her shoulder. Then he bit down viciously.
She yelped in pain, and he roared, the sound echoing through the shuttle. She should have been frightened. She should have gathered up her clothes and run from him. But she didn't.
She laughed, and then as he pulled her to him, she cried out. He seemed to love the sounds she made because he made similar ones. She was very glad the storm was raging outside, so that those in the spaceport couldn't hear them--and so that they didn't have to think about stopping until exhaustion and the haze of his blood wine drove them into sleep.
--4 hours earlier--
"She's not here." Chapel looked around the bar in dismay. "Damn it."
"She may be in the back." Rotakh ignored the proprietor, striding through a curtain of beads to a room in the rear. There was the sound of heavy crashing, then of frantic feet.
Making a circuit of the bar, she showed the holo of Valeris to everyone there. No one had seen her. No one had talked to her.
A young man came in. He took one look at Chapel and seemed to bristle.
She held up a hand. "I just want to ask you a few questions." Moving closer, she showed him the holo.
"I don't like Fleeters," he said as he pushed her hand away.
"Please. It's very important that we find this woman." Chapel was using her sweet nurse voice. It almost always got the brusque types to settle down.
"I said"--the man grabbed her arm, threw her back into the wall--"I don't like Fleeters."
Chapel moaned, feeling dazed, but she brought up her leg, kicking him away from her.
"I don't know who the woman in your holo is, but I like her because she's giving you the slip. That makes me happy. And you know why?" He drew out a knife.
Chapel didn't take her eyes off the knife, heard the bead curtain giving way, the clomp of Klingon boots across the floor.
"Because you do not like Fleeters. She heard you the first time." Rotakh joined his hands to make a fist, slammed it like a pile-driver into the man's back.
He went down and didn't get up.
"I had it under control."
"Of course you did." He was looking around, his eyes flashing. As if he was daring anyone else to try something. As if he wanted that. His hand was on her arm, and she realized he was gripping her hard. Not hard enough to hurt, just hard enough to keep her half behind him.
He was protecting her?
He seemed to relax. Taking the padd from her, he held it aloft. "To sum up, none of you have seen this woman?"
There was much frantic nodding--or whatever the alien equivalent was for those who weren't bipeds.
"Let's get out of here." He'd never let her go, his hand still tight on hers.
He looked down, frowned slightly. Then he released her. As they walked out of the bar, he looked up at the night sky. "She will not get far."
Chapel looked up, too. Saw the beginning of what looked like a mother of an ion storm. "Oh. We better find cover."
"Yes." He glanced at her as they hurried back to the spaceport. "Next time you are in trouble, use the communicator I gave you."
"I'm not sure I was in trouble. I do have some skills."
"I doubt that fighting is one of them."
She started to argue, but at his look let it go. He wasn't wrong, anyway. Fighting had never been something she was good at.
--3 days earlier--
Chapel tried to surreptitiously run some diagnostics on Rotakh as he piloted them off the horrid dun-colored world she'd thought he might not walk away from.
"Stop doing that."
"Doing what?" She wasn't that familiar with Klingon normal, but his readings seemed within reason--and much better than they'd been after he'd been shot.
"I don't need you being a doctor. Think like a warrior. Where would she go?"
"I don't know."
"She said she had friends. She said it as if you might know who they were."
She thought about the way Valeris had been talking, how she hadn't shot her, too. "What do you mean?"
"She wanted you to come with her."
"Yes, as evidenced by her asking me to come--which she didn't actually do, or were you delirious as well as paralyzed?"
"She was waiting for you to take the bait she was dangling." At her look, he nodded. "I had very little to do but listen, Christine. I think she wanted you on her side."
"On her side and at her side are two different things."
"I am aware of that." He exhaled loudly. "Thank you, by the way."
"For not letting her shoot me again."
"You're welcome." She glanced over at him, saw how tightly he seemed to be holding himself. "I thought Klingons weren't afraid of death?"
"We're not. But if she had finished it, left me in that state, I would have asked you to kill me."
"I wouldn't have."
"Then the healers on Qo'noS would have when I returned to them."
"It is our way. There is no honor in living beyond our time."
"That's crap." Her words came out too harsh, and she looked down. "I'm sorry, but I can't believe you'd just give up that way."
"Would it bother you if I did? On a...personal level?"
"Every death bothers me on a personal level."
"That is not what I asked."
"I know it's not. It's the answer I'm giving you." She scanned him again as he turned around, and rolled her eyes when he caught her. "Just let me finish and I'll stop."
"Fine." He fiddled with the controls, then grinned. "I do like that you are worried for me."
"I'm worried for my patient. And my new partner. I am not worried for you."
"Of course not." He leaned back. "Tell me about your men."
"These scientists for whom you change your life."
"It wasn't that way."
"Did you have long, scintillating conversations with them?"
"Your answer lacks conviction." He smiled. "I decided to read up on your scientific men. Doctor Korby, I imagine, did most of the talking. And having a conversation with your Ambassador Spock would have been like pulling teeth."
"Spock is perfectly capable of having a conversation."
She didn't answer.
"So I am right?"
"You seem to be doing most of the talking."
He laughed loudly. "I do, don't I? Perhaps you would care to speak?"
"No. I'm fine."
"Then think about where Valeris might be going." A control screen lit up in front of her. The list that appeared was in Federation Standard. "And while you're at it, check through the recently arrived ships to Eliadar. She had to be on one of them."
He smiled in that irritating Klingon way and went back to piloting the ship.
--4 hours earlier--
"You're sure she was seen here?" Chapel tried to blend into the somber populace on Eliadar, but her uniform and Rotakh's leathers and furs stood out like poppies against ashes.
"Our reports indicate yes." He glanced over at her, handed her something. "Here."
She looked at the little instrument. "What is it?"
"A communicator. Very long range. In case we ever become separated."
"Thanks." She shoved it into her pocket. "What do you think she's--"
"Strangers. Do you seek someone?" A voice, nearly a whisper, sounded from the doorway of a gray building that was no different than any other of the gray buildings. A man stood half hidden in shadows.
Rotakh looked over. He pulled Chapel with him as he navigated through the drone-like people making their way across town. "It is possible we are seeking someone."
"A woman with pointed ears, perhaps?" The man rubbed his fingers together in what Chapel had long ago decided was the universal sign for "It'll cost you."
Rotakh was already reaching for his money bag.
"Not here. The authorities will take a dim view of this." The man gestured into the building.
Rotakh followed him, taking up most of the doorway. Chapel brought up the rear, glancing back when she heard a noise halfway down the hall.
"Hello, Christine." Valeris smiled at her, then shoved her into the wall.
Valeris fired, and Rotakh went down. He wasn't dead or even unconscious; he just lay staring up at the ceiling, eyes moving frantically.
"You can try to move. But you won't get far. This gun paralyzes the central nervous system." Valeris held the gun up at Chapel. "Don't try to help him."
The man who'd called them nodded at Valeris, then ran off.
"Good help is so easy to find if you pay generously. Have you ever noticed that?"
"You're only making things worse."
"Spock sent you after me, didn't he? That would appeal to him. Pit friend against friend."
"We aren't friends."
"We were. Before it all fell apart." Valeris's eyes were hard, glittering with some emotion Chapel was surprised to see. It looked like anger. "Did you see Cartwright?"
"Is he all right?"
"No. He's dead."
Valeris clenched her lips together, but they still shook. Her eyes glistened. She seemed to be having a hard time controlling her emotions. "Did he kill him?" She kicked Rotakh.
He didn't make a sound, but Chapel saw the pain register in his eyes.
"No. Cartwright was just...tired. And he was ranting at me. I think it took all his energy."
"He wanted that, Christine. To tell you what he thought of you."
"What he thought of me? I'm not the traitor."
"We could debate that all day. And it will get us nowhere." Valeris moved to the other side of Rotakh, away from Chapel, and crouched down. "This is for Rura Penthe. For the mines. For the savagery. For everything that you and your people are. Everything you tried to make us." She lay the gun against Rotakh's temple. "The second shot will make the paralysis permanent, which delights me because I know how well you Klingons do with disability." Her smile was vicious.
"Delights? Valeris, what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing that this man and his people didn't set into motion."
Chapel moved closer. "Don't."
Valeris looked up at her. "Why not?"
"He's not the enemy here."
"And I am?" Valeris gave her the version of a smile that Spock had never mastered. Her eyes lightened, her lips tilted a bit. It was what had drawn Chapel to her in the first place. "We were friends, Christine. We still could be. There are others who think like we do."
"We don't think the same way."
"I'm on my way to join them. I could have kept going, but I heard this one was on my tail." She patted Rotakh on the arm, and he moaned, but Chapel thought it was probably supposed to be a roar. "And you. I heard you were coming, too."
"And that mattered?"
"It did. Don't let this man or Spock turn you against me."
"You did that all on your own." Chapel tried to load her voice with every ounce of command she had in her. She'd been this woman's mentor once. Valeris had listened to her. "Don't hurt him."
"Nice try." Valeris looked up at her, her gaze serene. Then, she frowned, and the hand that clutched the gun seemed to go into spasm. She dropped the weapon and slumped back, falling against the wall.
Chapel didn't stop to think. She grabbed the weapon. "Don't move."
But Valeris didn't seem to hear her. She was holding her head, moaning slightly. "No, not this. Not this again."
"Valeris?" Chapel's old instincts to help were rising to the fore. She knew it was dangerous to feel sympathy.
Valeris let go of her head, sat breathing hard. "I should have kept going. It was an emotional impulse to stop just to pay Rotakh back. I didn't understand why I was doing it."
"I don't understand." Chapel crouched down, Rotakh's big body between them.
"It's ironic, actually. Spock's final revenge." Then she lunged for the weapon.
Chapel fell back, cradling it, and instead of fighting her for it, Valeris pushed herself up and ran from the building. Chapel wanted to follow her, but she was afraid to leave Rotakh alone. What if Valeris--or her helper--came back to finish him? She sat next to him, pulling out the diagnostic tool and running it over him.
Rotakh was making sounds, and Chapel patted his shoulder. "It's all right. It will wear off shortly."
He fell silent, his eyes glued to hers as if trying to see if she was lying.
"I promise. It's temporary." She leaned back against the wall, waiting.
Five minutes of silence passed, and it was unnerving. People passed them, never looking inside at their little drama.
"It was odd being her friend," she finally said, desperate to fill the room with sound.
His eyes turned to her.
"I knew Spock cared for her. I wanted to hate her. But I couldn't."
She noticed his fingers twitching. "Good, it's wearing off."
His eyes seemed to lose some of their panic.
"I couldn't believe it when I found out what she and Cartwright were involved in. I felt as if it was a personal betrayal." She ran the tool over Rotakh again. His vitals were elevated, which wasn't surprising since he was obviously trying hard to move. "Don't work so hard at it. You're stressing your system. It will unthaw on its own."
His eyes seemed to promise her a long, nasty death if she was lying.
She rambled on, telling him things he probably didn't care about. She realized she was talking about Roger, was about to talk about Spock, and trailed off.
"Just when it was getting interesting," he said, sounding as if he had a mouth full of marbles.
"You can talk." She smiled broadly. "See, I told you."
She took his hand, was heartened to feel him grasp her weakly.
A few minutes later, he said, "Help me to sit up."
"You're not ready."
"Do not make me ask again." His voice was harsh even if it was very weak.
She didn't make him ask again.
--2 days earlier--
"I was surprised they picked you as my partner in this, Commander." Rotakh was making some kind of morning beverage. He saw her watching and held up a mug in silent question.
She nodded, unsure what she was in for but desperately needing some caffeine. Surely Klingons needed a morning boost, too?
"I knew Valeris," she said.
"Yes, you were on the list of potential accomplices. Did you know that?"
"Yes, but I'm not sure how you know that."
"I was well briefed before this little mission." He carried the mugs over, hands wrapped around the mugs not on the handles. It was no doubt the height of Klingon machismo to not care about burns. Unless the stuff was served cold?
She reached for the handle to be on the safe side, gingerly touching the mug itself and whipping her finger away before it burned. Not just hot, boiling hot.
He grinned. "Caution is, at times, wise."
"But not very Klingon?"
"On the contrary. An injury gained when one could be avoided, is often little more than stupidity."
"Yet you carry the mug that way."
"I have burned myself so many times it no longer hurts."
He grinned again, and she found herself responding. "You say that as if I am a specimen under your microscope."
"So you know I'm a scientist?"
"As I said, Commander. There is not much I do not know about you."
She sipped at the drink. It burned going down but she didn't care. It was hot, it was dark brown, and it smelled more like coffee than any other alien beverage she'd tried over the years. Besides, it tasted good.
She glanced at him in time to see a look of approval. "So my file must have been mighty boring."
"Why do you say that?"
"I've been a doctor or a nurse most of my career. I know Klingons don't value that."
"You have done other things. And I like to read between the lines to try to understand the real person, the one who is more than a list of her assignments and accomplishments."
Probably a side effect of having been a prison warden. "And what did you discover?"
"That for a scientist, you make extremely emotional career choices."
She had the raktajino halfway to her lips and stopped. "Meaning?"
He didn't take his eyes off her. "You joined Starfleet to look for your fiance. You became a doctor to escape our silent partner in this exercise."
"That's not true. I became a doctor to finish what I started."
"So you were not fleeing from Spock?"
"No." She hadn't felt warm and fuzzy about Spock when she'd left. But she'd left for her own reasons. Not because of him.
"And when you again left the Enterprise. You were not fleeing from him then?"
"No." But that was a lie. She had run from him. After that first Pon Farr she'd helped him through. She'd been...shaken by how unaffected he'd been by what they'd shared.
"You are awfully quiet, Christine."
She started at her name. "Did I say you could call me that?"
"No. Did I ask if I could?" He stared her down, then broke into a huge grin.
She shook her head, fighting a smile.
"You chose Emergency Operations for yourself, I think."
"I did. You're right."
"So you admit you did not choose the others for yourself."
"No." She started to laugh. "Whoever said Klingons weren't wily never took a long trip with one."
"It takes more than brawn to plan a battle, Commander."
"I know." She'd found that out serving under Kirk. He'd been tough and lucky, but underneath it all, he'd been smart. "But as you said, I'm done making emotional decisions."
"I did not say that. I said you made that one decision for your own reasons. But, Commander, you don't want to be here. You did it for one reason: Spock asked."
"That's not true." Her voice rose; she could tell she was blushing.
"You mistake my meaning. I am not judging the action. Personal loyalty is highly valued in our society. Emotional ties run deep, and we follow those we care about."
"Then why are you grilling me?"
"Because I wish to get to know this woman who chases after one friend on behalf of another."
"Valeris wasn't my friend."
"That is not what my reports say. Admiral Cartwright, too, was your friend. Despite his hatred for you at the end."
"He thought I was betraying him. All of them."
"Are you? Was there anything to betray?"
She realized he'd gotten them back to the original question. Just how involved had she been. "I wasn't part of it."
"Would you tell me if you were? I have the impression we Klingons are not high on your list of favorite aliens."
She met his eyes. Was surprised to see not anger but something else. Something more like understanding.
"I never chose to be part of it. But--" She swallowed. She'd never told anyone this. "I think I used to run errands for them--for Cartwright, actually, but ultimately for them. I didn't know at the time, but looking back..."
He didn't say anything, just stared at her with the same expression.
"I should have come forward once it all broke. But I was scared. It was like a witch-hunt back then. Everyone who knew them was suspect. I was afraid my career would be over."
"And you cared about that?"
"Do you still?"
"You are close to retirement."
"I'm not that old."
"They are different things, and you know it. Do you have grand plans for when you are no longer Starfleet?"
She had no plans for when she was no longer Starfleet. Oh, she'd continue with medicine, probably. At a civilian hospital. Or maybe work with some institute for science or relief efforts. She hadn't gotten that far yet.
He turned to the controls, as if sure she was not going to answer him. She watched him work, the silence growing. It was the first long silence they'd had. It startled her to realize they'd been talking non-stop.
It startled her even more to realize she missed the conversation.
"I don't," she said, to break the silence.
He turned to look at her.
"Have big plans. Not really. The future will take care of itself, right?"
"You believe in fate, then?"
"I believe that when I get to the future, my path will become clear."
"Ah." He sounded as if he thought very little of her beliefs.
"You have a better way?"
"Yes. See what you want and take it."
"How very Klingon of you."
He smiled. "It is a good way to live, Christine. Very simple."
"You think I don't know what that means, don't you? Occam was a Klingon."
She laughed. There'd been a time when Chekov would have claimed he was a Russian. "He was English."
"From the Klingon part of England, then." He grinned at her. "My tutors emphasized science."
"Yet, here you are. A warrior."
"All Klingon's are warriors. You have no idea what I also am."
"That was a temporary posting. And what of you. A healer out tracking an escaped criminal. Is that scientific?"
She shook her head, laughing softly.
"I enjoyed physics the most." He smiled. "When I get back to Qo'noS, I will be working on a new type of weapon."
"It is only with a strong hand that one maintains peace."
"You're right. All your money being pumped into the war machine is what led to Praxis. And what happened there led to peace."
He grinned, glancing at her with approval. "Nicely done, Commander. As logical as a Vulcan." His smile didn't change.
He laughed. "Ah, now that was an emotional response."
"Just drive this thing." But she was smiling. It was hard not to when he grinned that way.
--23 hours earlier--
"Federation shuttle, you are cleared for Rura Penthe." The Klingon voice sounded even harsher somehow as it was translated into Federation Standard.
The pilot looked over at Chapel. "All set, ma'am?"
"All set." She watched as the ship descended into a frozen world. "My God."
"Yeah. You sure you don't want me to wait?"
"I'm supposed to ride with one of them."
"I'd feel better if you rode with us."
She smiled at him. "I would, too. But I'm not sure how we feel is relevant."
"If you don't mind my asking, what are we doing here?"
"If you don't already know, then I do mind you asking."
"Understood." He busied himself with the controls. "Good luck. With whatever it is you're doing."
"Thanks." She saw a contingent of Klingons waiting for her, snow whipping around them.
"Show no fear." At her look, he shrugged. "It's like with dogs. Show no fear."
"Right." She got up and grabbed her carryall, opening the door to the whipping snow and frigid air.
Why had she let Spock talk her into this?
One of the Klingons strode forward, clapping a fur around her. She looked up, met eyes that stared back not in dislike but in curiosity.
"Can't have you freezing to death before we start our chase."
"I am Rotakh. I was warden here until a few days ago. I've known Valeris longer than anyone."
"I doubt you've known her at all."
He nodded, some Klingon version of "touche." "I was here during the bulk of her stay. How's that?"
"Fine. Can we get inside?"
He turned and nodded to the other men, who separated to show a hole in the ground. "Welcome to Rura Penthe, Commander Chapel."
"Thanks a bunch." She followed him to the hole and down the ladder, breathing easier as she hit warmer air. "So did you get fired after Valeris escaped?" At his look, she shrugged. "What? You said you were the warden, not are the warden."
"I was rotating out. No one stays here for long. No one who's not a prisoner."
He led her down a wooden bridge. Below her she could see the prisoners. They looked like animals: long, unwashed hair, ragged clothes and furs. She swallowed hard, not wanting to imagine Cartwright or Valeris here.
He seemed to be watching her. "You are soft."
"I'm not a warrior, if that's what you mean."
"Why did they send you? I expected an experienced tracker on this."
"Are you an experienced tracker?" She held up a hand before he could answer. "I retract the question. Of course you are--you're Klingon. But are you the most experienced tracker?"
"No. But I have a stake in this."
"Bingo?" His translator obviously was having trouble with that one.
"It means 'correct.'"
"Only in a ruder way."
"Maybe." She peered down into the pit again. Saw a dark man in dirty red rags huddled in the corner. "No."
She looked around, saw a guard in front of a staircase and tried to push him out of the way. It was like trying to move a mountain.
"Let her pass," Rotakh said, following her down the stairs.
She fell on her knees, running her diagnostic tool over Cartwright. "He's sick."
"No, Commander. He's dying."
Cartwright looked up, his eyes bleary and watering. Then he seemed to realize who she was. "Get away from me, traitor." He pushed her, but he had no strength in his hands. "Everyone left me."
"We're going to get Valeris back, sir."
"Don't sir me, Chapel. I've been court-martialed, or haven't you heard?" He struggled to sit up and she helped him. "Leave Valeris alone, Chris. She doesn't deserve this. None of us do, but she got out. She really did it. Let her go."
"Sir, I can't."
"Turn a blind eye, Commander. That's an order." He started to cough, blood-flecked spittle landing on his filthy clothes.
"Oh, but you did, didn't you, Chris? You never wanted to know what we were up to. Your good friends. You turned a blind eye, then. Turn one now, damn it."
Rotakh was studying her. She met his eyes, blinking back tears that were part guilt and part anger. She hadn't known. It wasn't until later, after the conspiracy had blown up on intergalactic news, that she'd put two and two together and arrived at "my friends are traitors." It had not been a pleasant realization. Starfleet had been having a little trouble buying it, too. The interrogations hadn't been fun.
"I'll bring Valeris back, sir." She meant it as a promise; it came out as a threat.
"Leave her alone."
She eased Cartwright back down and rose.
As she walked away, she heard him cursing, then he fell abruptly silent. She started to turn, but Rotakh stopped her, his hand firm on her shoulder.
"Don't. The guards will see to his body."
She pulled away somehow. Turned and saw that Cartwright was staring at her, his mouth open in mid-curse. "He was my mentor. He took a chance on me when others were pushing for someone else. He was my friend."
"Yes, he was all that. And now he is a traitor. A dead traitor. And seeing you probably killed him."
She could fill her lip trembling, pressed down to stop it. Glaring at him, she jerked out of his grip.
"You did him a kindness, actually."
She thought he was mocking her, looked up at him and saw that he was serious. "I suppose in your world, dying quickly in a fit of anger at a friend must be preferable to a long, lingering death among those who don't care at all? I'll never understand Klingons."
"I'd say you already do." He pushed her ahead of him, aimed her for the stairs. "Let me fill you in on what we know so far."
--5 days earlier--
"Commander Chapel?" Admiral Bosson smiled at her as he hurried up. It was a dangerous smile. A snake-oil salesman smile.
"The answer's no, sir."
He just laughed. She was lucky he thought she was funny. Had since they'd worked together on a major relief effort, back when he was still a captain.
"I have a little project for you, Christine."
"I've got plenty of projects now."
"This is different. It has my blessing. I thought you should know that." He gestured toward a briefing room that appeared to be empty. "Please."
She started to walk in, realized he wasn't coming. "Sir?"
"Just wait." He hit the door mechanism, and it slid closed, shutting her off from the corridor.
She walked into the room but didn't sit down. A minute passed, then two. "This is ridiculous."
She heard the door open and whirled.
Spock stood in the doorway. "Good afternoon, Commander."
"Captain Spock. Or do you prefer Ambassador?"
"Either is fine." He walked into the room but did not sit. In fact, he seemed a bit antsy, moving around as if studying the pieces of art on the wall, the holos of prominent personnel.
"You called this meeting?"
"Yes." He took a deep breath. "Valeris has escaped from Rura Penthe."
She wasn't sure what to say. She'd seen no comms on this, that was for sure. Someone was keeping it quiet. She wondered if it was Spock himself.
"And you're telling me because...?"
"Because you will find her."
"I will?" At his look, she said, "Perhaps you should do that?"
"I will join you. But I am in the middle of a delicate negotiation. I will not be able to leave for at least two days. And time is of the essence."
"I'm not a bounty hunter, Spock."
"But you knew her. She was your...friend, was she not?"
"Then you have an interest in finding her. And I know you are interested in helping me. Or...you were in the past."
She colored at the thought of how many different ways helping him had translated to.
"Of course, I'll help you. But I've never done this."
"You won't be working alone. The Klingons also have a man on this."
"One man? Valeris escapes from their 'inescapable' prison, and they only send one man?"
"I asked them to limit the numbers. One or two are likely to do better, to blend in where she might hide, than an entire army of Klingon soldiers."
"And...I trust you, Christine." He looked up at her, a deep urgency in his expression. "I trust you to be a mitigating factor on the Klingon."
"Keep her alive."
A surge of jealousy roiled through her, and she tried to bite it back. She'd known Spock and Valeris had been involved. Had known for years.
"I appreciate your faith in me. I'm not sure I can live up to it, though."
"You have always been there when I needed you."
She blushed again, looked away. "I know. But...that was different. And we both know it."
"Not so different. Please. Do this for me." He walked over, surprised her by taking her hands in his.
He squeezed, his hot skin bearing down on her as if he thought to sway her through touch alone.
"You still care for her?" As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to kick herself.
He didn't answer, just held onto her hands, watching her with what was almost desperation.
"I'll do it. If it means that much to you."
"It does. I won't forget the role you play here." He closed his eyes, as if in relief, then let go of her. "Your contact's name is Rotakh. Be careful around him, Christine."
"And be careful of Valeris."
"I still don't think this is the best idea."
"It is the only idea I have." He touched her cheek, his hand seemed to tremble. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She leaned up, kissed his cheek.
He didn't pull away.
"Safe journey," he murmured. "Admiral Bosson has the details you will need. I will see you soon."
Then he was gone.
She touched her cheek where his finger had rested. It hadn't meant anything. This was about Valeris.
Her heart was beating so hard, she knew it wasn't listening to her.
Why couldn't she ever give up on the past?