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Five Times Gaila and Sulu Saved Each Other

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One: The Pit of Spiders
Gaila and Sulu meet because of a pit of tarantulas.

It's their first real mission simulation, and they've been told to expect complications. No one was really surprised when their shuttle crashed halfway to their proposed destination, leaving their mission leader dead in the pilot's seat. Gaila is 99% sure he's actually just sleeping – and probably taking notes about their performance when they aren't looking – but she does give him bonus points for being able to lie exceptionally still for a long time. She also gives herself several bonus points for not actually poking him with a stick, or suggesting that any of their crew do the same.

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, she has a distraction. Someone – she couldn't really see who – has just kicked their only spare stabilizer into a very dark hole. The whole team goes silent, listening to it clatter against the rocks. It falls for a really, really long time.

Gaila grabs a flashlight from the emergency kit. Given enough time, she could probably rig a replacement, but it would have to be salvaged from somewhere else on the ship, and shuttles don't have a lot of parts that weren't important. Not to mention that they don't have nearly enough water to sit around and wait for her to improvise a blowtorch and weld something.

She shines the flashlight deeper into the hole. She catches a glint of metal that has to be the stabilizer. Probably it's not even damaged; it was made to withstand the force of atmospheric re-entry. Now if she could just figure out what's crawling all over it.

“Olsen!” she shouts at the big, dense-looking engineer she thinks kicked the stabilizer into the hole. Not that she'd ever know for sure; her crew was sticking together, determined to protect the guilty party. She gestures down the hole with the flashlight.

“What are those?”

“Tarantulas, sir. We don't have them at home, but I've seen pictures.”

Tarantula. She rolls the word around in her brain, trying to summon a definition. It won't come.

“What are those? No, wait, I don't care. Are they dangerous?”

“Not to my knowledge, sir. They bite, but it's not very toxic.”

“Okay, then. Get the rope from the emergency kit.” She looks around at her crew. “One of you is going down that hole.”

Olsen is practically jumping up and down with eagerness, and Gaila is suddenly glad that humans don't seem to pick up on Orion gestures of derision.

“Don't be stupid,” she snaps. She thinks it's a pretty tall order for him. “There is no way you will fit into that hole.”

She eyes the rest of her crew. She has a spare pilot and a doctor. And herself, but she doesn't count. Her gaze drifts wistfully to the exposed engine. She'd love to get her hands on it, or to go down the hole and find out what exactly a tarantula is, but apparently captains don't do real work; they just order other people to fix things and explore places. If only she hadn't gotten the highest score on that test last week, she wouldn't be the ranking officer, and she could explore the pit of tarantulas on her own...

But no, that's not an option. Captains can't risk themselves. Or their only medical officers. That makes her choice easy.

“Sulu!” she shouts. “Come crawl into this pit of tarantulas.”

“Sir?”

He looks kind of white under his California suntan.

“The stabilizer. It's down there. I need you to get it.”

“Right.”

He steps a little closer to her, looking over his shoulder as if he doesn't want anyone to overhear whatever he's about to say.

“Sir. There's a bit of a problem.” His voice is almost a whisper. A tarantula crawls toward his boot and he jumps hastily away. “See, uh, I'm kind of afraid. Of the spiders, I mean.”

“Oh.” Gaila nods like she understands, even though she doesn't. She thought humans liked small fuzzy things, like kittens and rabbits. The tarantulas were smaller than even very small kittens, so it seems like they should be even cuter. But she can ask him about that later. Now she needs a stabilizer.

She knows what her command book would tell her to say: Well, Cadet, I don't give a shit about your problems. We need a stabilizer, and you're the only one who can get it, so suck it up and get down there. Problem is, she doesn't much agree with the command book; she's just been repeating it so she can get her grade. But their “dead” instructor is too far away to hear them, and she's decided that first place is overrated anyway. If she weren't in first place, she'd be down in a tarantula pit right now.

She steps closer so she can whisper too.

“I'll help you, okay? We'll lower you down on a rope, and I'll talk to you while you're down there. But you know you have to go, right? I'll flunk if I go because the captain is supposed to stay up here and be useless and direct things, and you'll flunk if you don't go because you're supposed to do things and be useful.”

He smiles at that, and she smiles back. She'd thought she'd like being in charge, but she's starting to think she likes equality more.

“Now, I'm going to make up something stupid for Olsen to do on the other side of the shuttle so you can have some privacy while you go down there. You get the rope and start making a harness.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Gaila. Just Gaila.”

Five minutes later, Sulu is poised at the edge of the hole, wearing a harness and a rope.

“Lower me down there on the count of three, okay?” he says. She must have looked a little too eager because he adds, “ Slowly. I want to go down slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, because she's in charge and she can do what she wants, including breaking promises to people who don't know what's in their own best interest. And then she drops him into the hole on the count of one because getting scary things over fast is better for everyone.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck yoooooooooooooooooooooou!”

Sulu's voice sounds hollow and sort of ghostly as he falls in, but the message is clear Gaila leans over the hole and smiles sweetly.

“That's not a bad idea!” she shouts down the hole. She's not being funny – she'll probably need an orgasm by the end of this day – but she hears Sulu's laughter echoing around the pit before it trails off into strangled noises that sound vaguely like “Gah! Spider!”

“There are a lot of spiders,” she agrees, swinging her flashlight beam around the hole since Sulu seems to have lost fine motor control. As soon as she finds the stabilizer, she shouts, “Pick that up right now, soldier, or you'll be stuck in the tarantula pit forever.”

“Fuck you!” he shouts up at her again.

“That line is getting kind of old!” she yells back.

He lunges for the stabilizer and waves it triumphantly in the air. She hoists him up as fast as she can, and he leaps out of the pit, brushing a tarantula out of his hair disinterestedly.

“I don't think I'm afraid of spiders anymore,” he says. “But you owe me a drink anyway.”

She twirls a few of the silky black strands between her fingers. He's cute.

“Yeah, I think I do.”

Two: Peanut Butter Ration Bars and the Wrong Major
Two months, six dates and uncountable booty calls later, Gaila and Sulu are lost in the woods. It's not terrible, Gaila thinks. They had found a nice little cabin to stay in, and they have food, even if it is just ration bars. Of course, they are going to flunk the sim because they should have been back hours and hours ago because they should have another team for directions when their satellite guidance went out but how could they have possibly known that asking Jim Kirk for help would be a good idea? She shouldn't mind, except that she would lose her first place ranking, which she wasn't exactly enjoying, but if she had it, the smart thing was to keep it...

And then she gags.

“Are you alright?” Sulu leans toward her, rifling through their backpack for the med kit with one hand while he peers at her with worried eyes.

"I just...what's the expression? Threw up in my mouth a little?"

She looks around for the sources of the stench and spots a collection of ration bars neatly arrayed on the floor. She points at them accusingly.

"They're peanut butter."

She shudders involuntarily, thinking of the way the thick globs of peanut butter will cling to the roof of her mouth so that she'll taste it all night. Sulu winces sympathetically.

"I guess they don't make Orion ration packs, huh?"

"Nope. They told me I'd have to eat whatever I got unless it was toxic to me."

"Yeah, they tell the human cadets that too. But somehow we never get the dehydrated plomeek soup." Sulu looks genuinely pained. “Gaila, I'm sorry. If I hadn't taken us on that shortcut, we probably would have been home by now.”

“And if I had asked Jim for directions, we'd be home too. We both messed up tonight.”

“But you're the one who won't have anything to eat.”

“It's not so bad. I've been hungrier than this before, you know. At least we've got four walls and a roof and two potential window exits in case of emergency. And I know you won't steal my shit in the middle of the night. This is not the worst situation I've been in. Not by a long shot.”

Sulu looks at her askance at that, but he doesn't press her for more information, which she appreciates. He never asks her for more about her past than she wants to tell, which is probably why he knows more about her past than anyone else.

“Okay,” he says finally, “but if you're not eating, I'm not eating either.”

He sweeps the ration bars back into his pack, looking so determined that she doesn't even bother trying to argue with his ridiculous act of chivalry. Instead, she leans against the wall next to him and lets him wrap his arm around her shoulders. His chin settles on top of her head, and he laughs when her curls, wild with humidity, tickle his nose.

“Hikaru?” she asks, feeling very cozy and inexplicably shy.

“Yeah?”

“What does it feel like to go to sleep with someone without having sex with them first?”

He pulls his arm around her even more tightly, and she presses her forehead against his neck.

“Wanna find out?”

The last thing she remembers before she falls asleep is his fingers tracing curlicue paths through her hair.

***

Three days after they return home to failing grades and a scathing evaluation, Gaila trips over something large and square lurking just inside her bedroom door.

“What the --” she mutters when a ration bar falls out and lands on her toe.

She sniffs cautiously. Chocolate and almond. She looks at the big, square object again. It's a box. A really huge box. PROPERTY OF STARFLEET ACADEMY FOOD SERVICES say big, block letters on the top. She slices it open with a blade from the engineering tool set she wears on her belt even though command track cadets don't get to repair a lot of things. Inside are twenty small cases of ration bars, one of every flavor Starfleet offers. Except peanut butter. She doesn't even need to ask who sent it, or how she's going to thank him.

But it will have to wait for later -- after she finds out her exam scores. Raspberry ration bar in hand, she curls up in her desk chair with the warm but tattered blanket she'd taken from the donation box at the refugee center long ago. The test she'd taken that afternoon wouldn't make up for the disastrous score on the last sim, but it might help mitigate some of the damage.

“Long night tonight?” her roommate, Uhura, asks.

“Maybe. I'm waiting for test scores. You?”

“Same.”

The conversation drifts off after that, but Gaila feels a faint flutter of relief anyway. She hadn't meant to alienate her pretty, talented roommate by asking her to join a threesome. From her perspective, sharing a good sex partner was the right thing to do, especially if someone had walked in on the act. From Uhura's perspective, though, the proposition was quite rude, and their relationship had grown chilly. Maybe the brief conversation was a sign it was getting better though.

An hour passes, and she twists a corner of the blanket absently between her fingers, wishing that humans were more sensitive to her pheromones. They noticed when she wanted sex, but unlike an Orion, they never noticed if she was sad or distressed. If Uhura could tell that she was worried, she was sure that she would try to console her, but Gaila didn't like to ask for help, and she knew that she looked far more calm that she felt. She would have to wait it out alone.

When a computerized chime sounds, both of them leap for their padds simultaneously and laugh at themselves together.

“Mine,” Gaila says. “Sorry.” She has a feeling it's very hard for Uhura to wait.

The score is exactly what she expected, a one hundred percent. She always could memorize anything. The test raises her rank from number five to number four, but the feeling of relief she'd been waiting for doesn't arrive.

“Didn't you get the score you wanted?” Uhura asks.

“No...no, it was great. I just failed a simulation earlier this week, and it's going to take awhile to recover.”

Uhura nods sagely, even though Gaila is sure she's never failed anything in her life, and Gaila pastes a smile on her face. How can she explain to someone as driven as Uhura that she's felt trapped ever since she'd landed the top score on that first exam?

She stands up suddenly, and several foil-wrapped ration bars rain onto the floor. Uhura looks up, startled, but Gaila doesn't bother explaining. She wants someone she can actually talk to.

Hikaru is waiting for her in their usual place, a small alcove at the bottom of a stairwell. She has the feeling that he'd rather be outside, some place where they can see the stars, but she likes hidden places like this one, and he tolerates it for her. They've been meeting down here for a few weeks now after exam scores come in. She's too tense to wait with anyone, but she likes to compare notes when it's over. This is something else Hikaru is willing to tolerate for the sake of their friendship.

“How'd you do?” he asks as she settles on a pillow he'd brought from his dorm room. The pillowcase is emblazoned with yellow, five-pointed stars and pictures of spaceships.

“Who cares?" she says. "I got twenty flavors of Orion-compatible ration bars.”

“You like them?” he asks. “I tried to get some real Orion ones, but it turns out that Starfleet doesn't like it when you contact Orion smugglers.”

“I could have told you that. And found you a more secure comm channel.”

“Yeah, I'll remember that next time I need something smuggled from the Syndicate. Which isn't a surprise for you. Which will be never.”

“I don't think I want anything they have anyway, not anymore. But really, Hikaru, thank you.”

She wishes that humans communicated more with their bodies; the words don't seem adequate for the gratitude she feels.

But maybe he understands her anyway; he clears his throat in the gruff way some human men have when they feel uncomfortable because of an emotion.

“You don't have to thank me, Gaila. You should have things that make you comfortable here.”

She's about to tell him that she does have to thank him because he's one of the only people in her life who's given her something without wanting something in exchange, but he changes the subject before she can get the words out.

“You didn't tell me how you did on the exam.”

“I got a hundred,” she says glumly. She hadn't understood her sadness before, but she understands it now. After she had failed that sim, she had wanted to keep failing. If she was bad at command, she could leave it and revel in camaraderie and equality below decks instead of thinking about power and how to keep it, just like she had her whole life.

Of course, she can't expect Hikaru to understand that. Not right away at least.

“I'll trade you my seventy-two.”

She sighs, a gesture her refugee relocation counselor had taught her so that she could communicate her emotions without her pheromones.

“If you got it by writing what you really thought, I'll take it.”

Her voice comes out more desperate and despairing than she had meant for it to, and she realizes suddenly how trapped she has felt here.

“It's a curse, you know? I can memorize anything. I can figure out what people want from me and give it to them. It's how I survived before. But now...I just figure out what my professors want me to do, and I do it. I memorize the textbook and I write it. And there's nothing – absolutely nothing – of me.”

“Well, you could just write down what you think, even if you get a bad grade,” Hikaru says reasonably, but she shakes her head.

“It's more than that, Hikaru. I don't want to be anyone's captain.”

“So don't be.”

And this, Gaila thinks darkly, is why she hasn't discussed her problem with anyone. All these freeborn people in Starfleet see are cans: can change her concentration, can go to a party and flunk a test, can make a mistake and try again tomorrow. And she can see that too, to an extent, but she knows how easily all her freedom and choices can be snatched away. She can't let that happen to her again.

Hikaru is explaining something about academic advisors and change-of-concentration forms. It makes her feel desperately, hopelessly lost. How can she bridge the gap between someone like her and someone who thinks relinquishing power is as simple as filling out a form? Command is a resource, and if she's good at it, she can't give it up. Not if there's even the smallest chance it will protect her one day.
“Hikaru, I've lived my whole life at the bottom. People use you and hurt you. The ones who survive are the ones who have the most power.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I wish it were different, but that's the way it is.”

She doesn't know how she expects him to look. Sad, maybe, or resigned. Even pitying, though she hopes not. Anger is the last thing she expects.

“Gaila, that is bullshit, and you know it.” She has to will herself not to shrink back from the intensity of his gaze, but he doesn't seem to notice. “Look at yourself. You came from nothing, and you are at Starfleet Academy. I can't even pretend to know what you went through before, but where I'm from wasn't exactly roses and sunshine either.” He looks a little tired and a little bitter when he says it. It's the first time she's ever seen anything remotely unpleasant in his face. “But people on the bottom can get to the top, and it's not rank or a starship or a command insignia that keeps them there. If it were, you'd still be trapped on a slave ship somewhere. Nobody's going to hurt you the way they did, Gaila. Not because you're a command track cadet, but because you wouldn't let them even if you were the lowest midshipman in the fleet.”

The both stare at each other for a moment, breathing hard. He stands up to go. In the silence, the sound of his feet scraping on the concrete floor is almost unbearable. He stands awkwardly between their alcove and the stairwell, not ready to leave but not sure where their conversation can go.

“Don't forget you have friends to help you here,” he says finally.

His voice is soft now, and his eyes are even softer. She recognizes that look. It means romance, not friendship.

“You're not my friend, Hikaru. We're dating. Not even exclusively.”

“I know. But I'm your friend too. Whatever else we are, now or in the future, I'm your friend.”

She's about to argue with him, but he doesn't let her.

"It's okay if you don't trust me now. But I'll prove it."

And he does, many times over. Sometimes they are dating, sometimes they are not. Once in awhile, they are exclusive, though that rarely lasts very long. Through it all, he is her friend.

She changes her concentration at the end of her first semester, and she regrets it only once: standing with the other operations cadets means she doesn't get to say goodbye to Hikaru before they depart for Vulcan.

Three: Grief
Twenty-four Terran hours after the destruction of Vulcan and the defeat of the Narada, the only survivor of the U.S.S. Farragut selects a pair of worn ballet slippers from a donation box in sickbay. Her left leg drags a little as she turns around to face Hikaru, but she smiles and waves the slippers triumphantly in the air.

That is what you came down here for?”

“Don't be silly. I didn't even know they were here until I saw them.”

She plops down into one of the empty chairs in the waiting area and presses the ballet slipper against the sole of her foot. Her smile widens. They are exactly the right size.

“I wonder who these came from,” she murmurs absently. She pictures someone in the ballet studio at the Academy gym, hastily tucking her slippers into her uniform pocket when the alert sounded. “I hope she's still alive.”

“Of course she's alive,” Sulu snaps. “What do you think we do, plunder our dead friends' quarters and throw their possessions into charity boxes?”

“I don't know. Do you?”

Suddenly it seems like an important question, with so many humans dead. She had never really thought to ask how they grieved.

“No, Gaila, we do not.”

“Oh.” She shrugs her shoulders. “Well, if I die, I'd like it if you gave away my possessions.” She remembers her cold, hungry flight from the Syndicate and adds, “As quickly as possible. I don't want someone who needs them to have to wait.”

This is important now too. She doesn't care if the humans don't perform the right rituals to the Goddess on her deathbed, but she doesn't want them keeping her stuff away from people who need it. Especially not the one human who understands her better than the others. She glances up at him, waiting for his assent – because isn't now the time they should be finding out each other's dying wishes? – but he looks confused, and underneath that is a flash of anger that would make her draw her weapon if she didn't know him so well.

She doesn't really know what to say about that, so she begins to strip off her socks and boots so she can replace them with the ballet shoes. The right one is easy, but the left is harder; she can't quite seem to bend it the right way. Hikaru kneels in front of her, grasping her injured leg with delicate fingers, watching her face for signs of pain. He pulls the boot off.

“Gaila, what are you doing?”

“Going dancing,” she says. She thinks it's obvious.

Apparently he doesn't.

Now?” She sees the flash of anger again. “You're going dancing now? With all of this?”

He flings his arm out, gesturing at crowded biobeds, the scorched walls, the soft murmurs and groans of the injured, the doctors and nurses stumbling with darkened circles beneath their eyes. Around the periphery of the room, computer screens scroll through the names of survivors. It's faster than listing the dead.

“Yes. Yes, I am.” Her voice is harder and louder than she means for it to be. She wants to challenge him. Does he really think that all his anger will bring back the dead or make the Farragut whole or put Vulcan back in its place? But meeting anger with anger never works, so she closes her eyes, counts to five, and softens her voice.

“Yeah, Hikaru,” she says again, her voice a little softer this time. “I am going dancing exactly because of all of this. What else can I do but something I love?” She runs her fingers lightly through his hair. “What can any of us do but hold onto what we love?”

“Okay,” he says. “Okay.” He eases the ballet slipper onto her other foot, squeezes her hand. She runs her thumb lightly over the inside of his wrist before she stands. It's as much intimacy as she can stand right now.

In the gym, the dance cubicles are empty and the punching bags are full. She picks the cubicle in the center of the second level – the one you can see from all over the gym – and flicks on the light. Her feet are slow at first; it takes her awhile to figure out what her injured leg will bear. When she thinks of Tonya Ramirez, her first partner in the engineering lab, she falters but forces her arms and legs into an unsteady rumba. Ariel, the tiny little ensign who'd died in the fire before all the rest, gets a bird-like flutter of her arms, and Captain Anya Valentin gets an authoritative swish of her hips. She forces herself onward through her own pain until she's danced for everyone she'd known on the Farragut's crew, and then until she's recovered a memory of their faces smiling at the Academy or beautiful in their final, fighting death.

The gym is darker when she leaves, and most of the punching bags are empty. Every step sends an arrow of pain from her heel to her thigh, and when she stops to rest, she sees Hikaru. He's standing at the far end of the gym, close to the mirrors but not looking at his reflection. His sword – the one he'd built himself, right down to forging the blade – gleams in his hand, but his movements are slow and controlled. For the first time today, he looks peaceful, and because he is not trying to fight it any more, she can see the pain and exhaustion in every line and angle of his body.

He comes to her when he is done, his right still clenched around the hilt of his sword. He wraps his other arm around her, pulling her close, splaying long fingers over the curve of her hip.

“You were right, Gaila,” he whispers into her hair. “All we can do is hold onto what we love.”

He pulls her tighter, and she thinks she's finally ready to let him hold onto her.

Four: Failed Simulations and Certain Death
They are together for one Terran year, five Terran months, and six Terran days.

That's when they dock at Starbase 11, and someone named Captain One asks to meet with her.

It's not a notice of transfer, that's for sure. Those are letters, not personal meetings. She frowns, thinking of a recent incident in engineering involving Scotty, a still, and the sort of explosion that had to be reported because there was not other way to explain the sudden need for an unusual quantity of spare parts. Jim had said he'd try to keep her out of trouble, but unauthorized alcohol production facilities, especially exploding unauthorized alcohol production facilities, were sort of a big deal and...

Well, there's nothing for it but to ring the buzzer outside Captain One's office and find out what's in store for her.

The Captain's back is to the door when Gaila comes in. In all the years since she'd escaped from the Syndicate, it has never stopped surprising her how people here take their safety for granted.

“Lieutenant Gaila, I presume,” One says without bothering to look over her shoulder. “Have a seat, please.”

She presses a button on the wall, and the glowing blue schematic disappears before Gaila gets a good look at it. She settles into the cold silver chair in front of One's desk, feeling slightly disappointed. The schematics had looked like they were very interesting.

One settles into the chair behind the desk, which is wider and more imposing than it needs to be. A small sign of power. The chair behind it is nice too, much nicer than the ones allotted for visitors. Gaila takes note of that, and then she studies One while keeping her expression carefully vacant. The captain wears red lipstick and black mascara, and her straight brown hair, shot through with strands of gray, falls neatly down to her shoulders. Absolutely nothing about her is frivolous. Each of her movements is purposeful and contained; she exudes authority, but not in a showy way. Not in a way that would suggest she values power for its own sake. Gaila decides to trust her, with a disciplinary hearing or whatever else.

“You are aware that Starfleet is rebuilding the Farragut?” One asks with no preamble.

Gaila nods cautiously, just a small bob of her head. She doesn't really know where this conversation is going.

One presses a button, and the console on her desk comes to life. Outlined in blue is a smaller version of the schematic that had been on the wall before, and Gaila can see now that it's a ship. A small ship, two or three hundred crew max, she calculates, with a long arrow-shaped saucer and streamlined nacelles.

“That's her,” One says, and Gaila can't miss the pride in her voice or the faint upward curve of her lips.

“She's beautiful, sir,” Gaila says, still not sure why she's here. Because she's the original Farragut's only survivor, maybe? And Starfleet wants her to christen her or take part in some ceremony? But no, One wasn't a frivolous woman, and there was no need for a personal meeting for something like that.

“Do you know why I've asked you here, Lieutenant?”

Gaila shakes her head.

“This is a job offer. In six Terran months, the Farragut will make her inaugural flight from Utopia Planetia shipyard. You would be the primary tactical and navigational officer. Shifts will be available in engineering if you want them, but they would be in addition to your regular bridge rotation.”

“I'm sorry, sir, but tactical is a command position, and I left command track.”

“After a semester at the top of your class, in order to pursue your passion for engineering. I know. But I am asking you to reconsider that decision. As I am sure you are aware, the border between Orion and Federation space has grown increasingly volatile since the destruction of Vulcan. The Farragut will be the lead ship of a task force created to control pirate activity and protect civilian ships along that border, with the ultimate goal of finding and eradicating growing pirate strongholds in Federation space. Do you understand why I need you for that mission?”

“But sir, you understand that I was just a --” she stops herself just before she says whore -- “prostitute. I'm not an expert, not the kind you're looking for.”

“And I suppose you, what, laid quietly on your back, listened to nothing, spoke to no one, and waited for rescue to arrive?”

“No, sir. There was no rescue. I never thought there would be.”

“Then you know how these people think, better than anyone else in Starfleet. There is no substitute for that. I need you, on my bridge, in my chain of command, not below decks in engineering. Lieutenant, I know why you left command. You wanted the power for its own sake, and you were right to make yourself leave it. This is different. You would be returning to command track because there is no one better suited to this task or this mission. There is no better reason to take on responsibility for other lives than because you can do it better than anyone else.”

Gaila can already feel the answer forming in her heart and rising to her lips. She wants this mission. She wants this captain. She wants this chance to hold power and exercise it for the right purpose. But One holds up a hand.

“I will not accept an answer tonight. This assignment entails significant personal sacrifice. In addition to the personal danger, there will be long and unpredictable periods of radio silence. Maintaining friendships, or romantic relationships outside the ship will be very difficult.” At that, a look of sadness flickers across One's face, just for a split second, before it is replaced by resolve. “You know the evil of the Syndicate first-hand. You know this job needs doing by the best possible people to do it. But I want you to be sure, because this mission cannot afford anyone who is less than certain about her participation.”

The answer is yes. She doesn't say that to One because she doesn't want her new captain to think that she's undisciplined or impulsive. But something in her heart had clicked into place as soon as she had heard One's words, something she hadn't known she was missing: a reason to be a part of Starfleet other than to save herself. She'll give up Hikaru for that. It's not even a question. But she won't tell him tonight; he's taking her out for a nice dinner, and she won't spoil that for him. And maybe, just maybe, she'd like one more carefree romantic night with him.

But Hikaru can see something's wrong as soon as she steps into the restaurant. His eyes are widening with alarm, he's getting up from his seat, and shit, she should have realized that she would have to talk about her meeting with One as soon as she arrived. He knows that she was expecting a disciplinary meeting, and now she's come to this beautiful, romantic restaurant, looking preoccupied, and she can't let him go on believing that she's in trouble.

But she can't tell the whole truth yet. Because One had said that she had to take at least a day to think over the decision, and that means the decision isn't really made. No need to alarm her boyfriend over something that isn't definite yet.

“Was your meeting alright?”

“Yeah, yeah it was,” she says, trying to feign nonchalance, but the words come out tense and unnatural.

“Gaila,” he says, drawing out her name slow and teasing, reminding her that he knows her too well for her to hide the truth from him. He thinks she's upset, she realizes sadly. It's hard for her to admit when she needs support, even now, so he teases and cajoles it it out of her. For the first time in their relationship, she wishes she could pretend he was a client so she could paste on a dazzling smile and change the topic before he asked anything that would get him hurt. But she's not like that anymore. And she is also deliriously, selfishly excited.

“It wasn't a disciplinary hearing. It was a job offer.”

“That's great!” he exclaims, beaming at her. For her. She doesn't smile back, and she watches the light fade from his eyes.

“Oh,” he says. And then again, more quietly, “oh.”

“You're taking it, aren't you?”

She nods.

“Well, that's great. I'm happy for you. I really am.”

His smile looks horribly forced, yet she knows he's trying to mean it.

“Hikaru, do you want to leave? Hang out with your friends tonight, maybe? I'd understand.”

But he shakes his head.

“I'm your friend, right? So we should celebrate.”

She would desperately prefer to leave so that they can talk about this some place more private, but there's already a bottle of champagne on the table, and Hikaru is pouring her a glass with a look of grim determination.

“I don't want you to think I made this decision lightly. I...” she falters for a minute, not sure if she should really talk about her exciting new mission when Hikaru is clearly devastated. But she wants him to know why it's worth it to leave him.

“It's the Farragut,” she says. “Did you know they were rebuilding her? And Captain One asked for me personally, because of Pike's recommendation, and because they're on a mission to eradicate piracy in Federation space.”

And then she curses herself, because she can feel the smile on her face and the excitement in her voice, and this is not the right way to tell someone that you are leaving him. But she sees some of the tension ease out of Hikaru's body, and if the smile on his face is a little sad, at least it's real now.

“I understand.” He covers her hand with his. “I really do. One is an incredible commander. It's an incredible opportunity. I don't want you to give up something like that for me.”

He shrugs his shoulders, his smile growing a bit larger.

“This is what we always said we would do, right? Enjoy things while we could, and let go when we had to. And besides, the Farragut's not even leaving for another six months, so we still have a lot of time together.”

At that, her face freezes and she watches his smile shatter. It had not even occurred to her that they would stay together, counting down the days to the end of their relationship. Clearly, he had thought differently.

“So this is it then?” His voice is bitter, and he won't look at her, but she thinks she can see tears gleaming in his eyes. “You can just, what? Take five minutes and decide you're leaving me right this instant? After everything we've been through together?”

He stands up from the table suddenly. A fork clatters to the floor. The whole restaurant stares. He's out the door before she even gets a chance to explain.

***

Gaila doesn't even realize that she's fallen asleep until Nyota shakes her shoulder. She looks up, bleary-eyed, and Nyota presses a teacup into her hand.

“It's Vulcan, so it might be an acquired taste. But it'll keep you awake.”

Gaila sniffs cautiously and recoils.

“Is acquired taste a nice way to say gross?”

Nyota giggles, and Gaila glances at Spock, whose chest is still rising and falling slowly in the bed across the room.

“Do we need to be quiet for him?” she whispers.

“When co-habiting, it is logical to cultivate the ability to sleep through distractions,” she deadpans, not bothering to lower her voice. “I think he's pretty good at it.”

“So you're happy then?”

“Yeah,” Nyota says. “Yeah, we are. Are you?”

Gaila shifts, and three of her padds fall off her lap and clatter to the floor. Spock still doesn't stir.

“No,” she answers, half-joking and half really, really not. One had put a lot on faith when she selected her for the mission; now she wanted to know that faith was justified. The barrage of command and navigation tests were more than just a Starfleet formality. Captain One reviewed the results herself, and Gaila had known instinctively that passing alone wouldn't be good enough. One demanded excellence from everyone. That was why she wanted the posting badly enough to surrender all of her waking – and many of her sleeping – hours to studying and simulations.

“But you think you did the right thing?”

“I know I did the right thing. I wouldn't give up this assignment if the whole galaxy depended on it.”

“And Hikaru?”

“We tried to talk about it a couple weeks ago. But I just couldn't imagine hanging on to something that would just have to end, you know? I want to look forward to this assignment, not dread leaving the old one.”

“Then you did the right thing. But do you know that it's okay for you to miss him?”

She doesn't have an answer to that. She does miss Hikaru. Until he was gone, she'd never realized how many small things she saved up to tell him each day. Now most of those things – tiny, inconsequential things that no one else would have cared to hear – rattle around in her brain, looking for release. And, although she hated to admit that she needed it, she would have liked to hear him cheering her on through the endless simulations and exams.

“I don't have a co-pilot for tomorrow,” she says, which is as much of an answer as she feels up to. Tomorrow is her first graded navigational sim, a necessity she loathes because she knows how to fly, and One knows she can too; she never could have escaped from the Syndicate if she didn't. But her flight training had been decidedly unofficial, and Starfleet had insisted that she make it up.

“Do you want to ask him?” Uhura asks. “I'll bet he's still awake.”

“Yes. But I'm not going to.” She was the one who had ended the relationship; she couldn't ask him for the same support he would have given her if she had stayed. That felt uncomfortably like using him. “I'll get Jim to do it with me instead.”

Uhura raises her eyebrows, and Gaila knows exactly what she's thinking – that Jim's piloting skills extend just far enough not to crash a shuttle, and she'll have a hard time justifying her selection in her mission report. But she won't fly with someone she doesn't trust, and she doesn't even know any of the other pilots on the ship.

“I'll bullshit it into a command decision somehow,” she mutters. “Do you care if I sleep on your couch tonight?”

Uhura shakes her head, and Gaila even allows her to find a blanket and tuck her in.

The next morning, Gaila narrowly suppresses her panic when she sees Jim pacing outside the flight simulator, in uniform but not suited up.

“What's wrong?” she demands. Had there been an emergency, and he couldn't fly with her anymore? Or had he assigned some pilot to the mission with her, for her own good? But that wasn't fair. Her co-pilot was her decision, and she'd live with the consequences. That was what command was about.

But Jim just smiles at her enigmatically and opens the simulator door.

Hikaru is sitting in the co-pilot's seat. He doesn't look at her, but her station is powered up, the mission briefing and a proposed course glowing on her console. She doesn't ask how he knew about the test, and he doesn't tell her, but they fly together seamlessly – on this test and every other one she takes to earn her final mission clearance. When she receives it, she finds a small, hand-lettered card on the front seat of the flight simulator. It says congratulations in English, Japanese, and Orion, bordered by dozens of small, intricate flowers. She doesn't have to ask who it's from, or whether he means it.

Two weeks before she leaves the Enterprise for good, Hikaru almost dies.

The mission is hers, one small chance for more command experience before she joins the crew of the Farragut. It's pretty straightforward as missions go. The colony on Delta Omicron VI has suffered a crop failure. The people are about to starve. No unusual activity has been detected on the surface, so they'll travel lightly armed, just enough firepower to protect the cargo in case hungry settlers mob them when they arrive. It's just a two-shuttle mission; she'll fly the one with the medicine, and Hikaru will take the one with the food.

The first shot is so subtle they actually miss it.

Sulu's shuttle suddenly loses altitude during atmospheric entry. She watches it fall away behind her in a steep but controlled dive.

“I think my stabilizer blew,” he says, voice tinny through the comm. She smiles, remembering their first simulation together, and wonders if he is doing the same.

“Enemy fire?” she asks even though the scans are clear.

“No sign of hostiles. Must be mechanical failure. Controls are still good. I can find a place to set down.”

“I'll circle and keep an eye on you. Send me your coordinates when you land.”

She types a quick message to the Enterprise. Shuttle down, controlled crash landing, stand by for beam-up coordinates.

And then, suddenly, she is falling too, the blue sky streaking by too fast, jagged rocks below her growing closer with every second, and it's not the worst trouble she's been in, not by a long shot, but it's the first time she's been in this kind of trouble and needed to be responsible for anyone but herself. For a second, there are too many things to do – save her ship, save her life, warn Hikaru, warn the Enterprise. She turns the shuttle into the direction of the spin and pulls the throttle back slowly. She's still falling – there's no avoiding that now – but she has a little more control, just enough to point the shuttle toward a reasonably flat patch of ground and shout, “Pirate attack!” into the open comm. And then her shuttle is skidding over the tops of trees, branches flying around her, the seat shaking, metal screaming as it hits the rocky ground and finally comes to a stop. The safety harness yanks her back so hard it almost knocks the wind out of her, but it stops her just short of banging her head on the console. Her ears are ringing and her head is spinning, but she still clicks off the safety harness as fast as she can and drops flat onto the ground.

“Lieutenant Sulu, report. Lieutenant Sulu, report,” she whispers into her communicator. No response.

Overhead, the comm is squawking, and she reaches up to kill it, then jerks her hand back as fast as she can.

“Enterprise, we are under attack,” she whispers into the communicator. “Avoid shuttle comm system. Is there any sign of Lieutenant Sulu?”

“Negative.” It's Spock's voice. “Excessive magnetic polarization in the rock face is impeding sensor scans. We are working to compensate.”

“Gaila, what's happening?” It's Kirk on the line now.

“Pirate attack.” She doesn't need to see them to know what this is. “They probably kidnapped the settlers and forced them to make the distress call. I've seen it before. Don't send anyone else down till I report. I'm going to look for Sulu.”

She snaps the communicator shut before anyone can order her to stay put and crawls out of her shuttle into the tropical heat. The humidity is so thick that the air feels like soup, but she forces herself to leave her flight suit on anyway. It won't be much protection against a weapons blast, but it's better than nothing, and the dark gray jacket will blend with the terrain better than her gold command tunic.

Cautiously, she lifts her head over a rocky outcropping and glimpses Hikaru's shuttle a few hundred meters from her own. The first disruptor blast singes the upper left arm of her flight suit. She hits the ground, turning automatically to look behind her, but no, that blast had come from the front. Maybe there's someone hiding for her in the trees, but her tricorder says no, and that means they're shooting at Hikaru. She runs, but not toward his shuttle.

There's a tall spire of rock halfway between her shuttle and his, and she climbs the back of it. If they're shooting at Hikaru, then they haven't taken him yet, and if she can get to the top in time, maybe she can see who's doing the shooting and take them out. Her sweaty hands slip on the rocks. Sweat drips into her eyes. Her feet skitter on the uneven surface, and she slides down more than a meter, banging her head along the way. But she keeps going, and finally, stomach muscles aching in protest, she slithers along the top of the rocks till she can see over the edge. There's no ship out there, at least not that she can see, and that's a good sign. A bright red disruptor beam races out from a smaller tower of rocks, and she tracks it with her binoculars till she finds its origin – five pirates, well-protected from Sulu by the rocks, but easily vulnerable to someone in her higher position. She fires five times in rapid succession, not bothering to stun. They're dead before they even look up from their hiding place.

From the front, her tower of rocks is more like a gently sloping hill, and she slides down it easily and runs to Sulu's shuttle. He's lying on the ground behind it, binding a wounded leg, but he's clearly alive and breathing.

“I think I got them all,” she pants.

He pulls himself up, bracing himself against the shuttle, and wincing. She loops an arm around his shoulders to steady him.

“Thanks.” He sounds almost as winded as she does, and half from fear and half from reflex, she pulls him closer until their hips are touching and their heads are resting against each other.

“So is this what we have now?” he asks. “Not talking for weeks, then swooping in and saving each other once in awhile?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” She smiles, half-bemused and half-sad.

Hikaru turns to look at the disruptor-scarred carcass of his ship and grins.

“I'll take it.”

She tightens her arm around his waist, and they walk together toward the safety of her ship.

5. Space Pirates
Fourteen years later, they meet at an elegant restaurant on Starbase Eleven, where he is on shore leave and her ship is awaiting repairs. It's not the first time they have seen each other since she left the Enterprise; they had run into each other on shore leave when they were both still lieutenants, and in strategy meetings as they rose through the chain of command. Once or twice a year, when the Farragut's period of open communications occurred when the Excelsior was in range, they shared long video conversations. And, though she has only ever admitted it to Uhura, she has a small box beneath her narrow Starfleet bed stuffed with mementos of their old relationship and copies of the transmissions they had exchanged over the years. She didn't get it out often, but on the nights that the loneliness of command wore her down, she slipped them out and read the story of his life since their separation: his promotions, the birth of his daughter, his happiness that she had a good stepfather mingled with fear of being replaced.

And now, fourteen years later, they are meeting alone for the first time since their separation. It's a surprise to see him aged; the lines around his eyes and the gray in his hair don't show up in vid chats. Neither do the dozens of tiny scars on his hands. But underneath all that, he is familiar: the same eyes, the same mannerism, the same walk. The same feeling of comfort she'd always had when they were together.

“Captain Sulu,” she says gravely, but she can't raise her glass without smiling.

“Captain Gaila.” He clinks his glass against hers. His eyes are warm.

They look out at the sea of white tablecloths and intricately folded napkins.

“Hey,” he says. “Isn't this where we...”

“Yeah.”

“I never thought I'd forgive you for that.”

“But you did.” It's not even a question.

“I did.”

He leans back in his chair, looking meditative.

“Hey, Gaila, do you ever wonder if --”

“Yeah.”

Their eyes lock across the table. And then, predictably, his communicator beeps.

“Duty calls,” he says wryly, standing up to leave.

Starfleet gets a ransom note two days later. And she can't do anything about it till Jim Kirk strolls casually into her guest quarters two days later, never mind that she didn't know he was coming and he didn't have an access code.

“Don't tell me. You saved the Federation by picking a fight with a Romulan Bird of Prey, and now you've limped back here for repairs, accolades, and reprimands?”

“Pretty much,” Jim says, half-boastful and half-chagrined. Some things never change. “Hey! Did you hear Sulu got kidnapped by pirates?” he asks. His tone is joking, but his eyes are serious.

“Haven't stopped thinking about it since it happened.” She doesn't mention what she and Hikaru had been talking about when she had seen him last. “Is Starfleet going to rescue him?”

“Theoretically. But Excelsior's on a famine relief mission on the other side of the quadrant. The Federation Council wants diplomatic intercession first, and the admiralty can't decide whether to send a surgical strike team or a whole attack force...”

“So no, they're not going to rescue him. Not in time for it to matter anyway.”

“No,” Jim says softly, “no they're not. His XO called me last night. She's beside herself.”

“So which one of us is going to rescue him?”

“I'm closer,” Jim says.

“By which you probably mean the Enterprise is parked in Bay 2 and I'm parked in Bay 6. That's bullshit anyway, Jim, and you know it. Neither one of us is taking a whole starship.”

“Well, I'm the one who has a fleet of those cool new stealth plane things on his ship.”

“And if you're calling them 'stealth plane things,' you have absolutely no idea how to fly them. This one's mine, Jim.”

“Okay,” he says, and does that unnerving thing with his eyes where he goes from looking like an oblivious dipshit to looking like he instinctively understands all your innermost thoughts and feelings. “I'll get Bones to come by and inject you with something wacky. Then you'll come to the Enterprise, the wacky drug will take effect, he'll have to quarantine you, and then Chapel will let you out through the Jeffries tubes. And I'll have one of those cool spy planes prepped and waiting for you. Nobody will even know that you're gone.”

“Except for whoever opens the hangar door, and whoever checks the flight log, and anyone who counts the planes...”

Jim looks at her with wounded pride.

“Hey. I can hack my own flight logs. And open my own hangar doors. And I can offer to inspect the flight deck myself so Ensign Viswanathan can have more shore leave. I still do things like that, you know.”

It's a good plan. It's a really good plan. She's not having it.

“Jim, if I get caught in an Enterprise craft, they'll know you helped me, not to mention McCoy and Chapel. I'm not taking that many people down with me.”

“You don't have a better plan. And you're not the only one here who cares about him. McCoy and Chapel already volunteered. So did half my ship, as a matter of fact.”

“Okay. Let's get our man.”

***

She wakes up in quarantine unit in the Enterprise's sickbay five hours later, her head still reeling from whatever McCoy had given her. Above her, Chapel's face is blurry and indistinct, but Gaila sits up anyway, ignoring the stubborn buzzing in her head.

“Time to go?” she asks.

“Time to go. Uhura intercepted a transmission while you were out. Sulu's being held on a freighter just outside the Argos system, but they're planning to move him tomorrow if they don't get a response from Starfleet.”

Definitely time to go.

Her legs are still shaky with the after affects of the drugs, but they hold her up well enough to climb into a flight suit and up the ladder through the Jeffries tubes. Jim's waiting for her in the hangar bay with a bundle of furled paper in his hands.

“Seriously? Paper?” she asks, rubbing the thin onionskin between her fingers. Each holds a blueprint of ships currently known to be a part of the Orion fleet, and each is exactingly drawn, but she's already longing for the neatness of her data files. Of course, data transmissions are traceable, and papers are not. Starfleet will never know Jim had given these to her.

“You're brilliant,” she says softly.

“Be careful,” he replies. It's the closest either of them will come to admitting that of all her missions in the past fifteen years, this is the most dangerous. She is an escaped slave and a Starfleet captain, flying toward the ship of her former owners without a crew and without any hope of rescue if she's caught. It's not worth thinking about, so instead she puts on a cocky smirk and says, “I won't do anything you wouldn't do.”

“And if you do, take pictures,” Jim shoots back, flashing her a lascivious Jim Kirk grin that erases the past fifteen years' wrinkles and worries from his face.

The refrain is an old one, all the way from their days at the Academy, all the more precious now that the endless tumult of Starfleet life has eroded so many of her friendships. Their hug lasts just long enough for him to murmur, “Come back, okay?” into her hair, and then she is in her ship, sailing out toward the stars alone.

***

She finds the Orion ship just where Jim had said that she would, hidden in a nebula just outside Federation space. The beauty of it catches her by surprise. The pink and gold of the nebula radiates off a copper hull dented, battered, and jury-rigged into shapes that testify to the ingenuity of her crew. This ship – no matter how warped and greedy its inhabitants – is a part of her home and her people. She hates herself a little for the strange wave of longing that sweeps over her at the sight of it; she shouldn't miss any part of a civilization that had abused and exploited her. But then, she should be grateful for the part of herself that will always be Orion. If these were not her people, she would not know how to fight them, and Hikaru would be lost forever.

For the first time in her life, she offers a small prayer to her favorite Goddess that her people have not changed too much. She knows only one way to sneak onto a ship like this, and if it's not there, she doesn't know how she's going to get Hikaru back. She skims along the belly of the ship, hidden from portholes and sensors that are searching for something much, much larger than her tiny craft. And just when she's about to give up hope, she spots it: three long sanitation shafts, and a tiny outcropping behind them, just large enough to set her ship down. She had escaped through shafts like these more than twenty years ago. Now they will lead her back to the one place she had never thought to return: into the belly of a slave master's ship.

If she can set her own ship down, that is. She flies directly above her parking spot, programming her nav computer to match the slight drift of the larger ship. Holding her breath, she eases down the throttle as slowly as she can manage; if she hits too hard, or clips the edge of the ship with one of her wings, alarms will sound and she'll be caught. The tail touches down first, and she counts to five, waiting to see purple alert lights blinking through the portholes a hundred meters away. When that doesn't happen, she brings down the nose and counts to ten this time, not quite daring to believe that the first step in her plan is complete. But there are no alert lights, no guards, no attack ships swarming toward her. She is safe. For now, at least.

The problem is, the sanitation shafts are much further above her than she remembers, at least twice as high as her only tether cord will reach. That means she'll have no choice but to climb, unanchored, more than two hundred meters along the hull. One tiny slip, and she'll be spinning through space, lost forever.

“Okay, Gaila,” she whispers to herself. “You trained, for this, remember?”

She seals her gloves to the cuffs of her suit and closes her helmet with a soft click. Now she's running on her suit's air supply, which she can't afford to waste. That knowledge propels her out the exit hatch, toward the hull of the ship. She keeps her eyes pointed firmly forward, but it's no good; she can still feel the vats, open star field behind her, threatening to swallow her up.

“Step one. Check your resources,” she says into her helmet's silent's comm. She only ever talks to herself when she feels really scared, but somehow the sound of her voice makes her feel less alone.

She has one hour of air and one small advantage: the ship has been in service long enough to be pitted with the impacts of thousands of tiny pieces of debris, and the grooves between the panels are deep enough to fit her fingers in. She'll have hand holds to go along with her magnetic boots. With one last look at the looming expanse of hull above her, she begins to climb.

Terror sinks in about twenty meters up. Her ship is getting smaller and smaller every time she looks down, but the distance to the sanitation shafts seems the same every time she looks up. If she weren't so afraid of running out of air, she'd probably just stop and cling to the hull for as long as she could. To keep moving, she summons every good memory she's ever had, a trick the slave sisters had taught her when she was new to taking men into her bed. It's not long before her thoughts slip back to Hikaru. How the comfort she'd felt with him at dinner three days ago was the same as the comfort she had felt with him every day of their relationship. How he told her the truth, even when she didn't want to hear it. How he'd never tried to hold onto her when she didn't want to be held, even when letting go had hurt him. Once, in a rare moment of candor, Captain One had said that her relationship with Pike anchored her without tying her down. Now Gaila wonders if she and Hikaru could have something like that too.

Climbing is easier once she reaches the sanitation shaft. It's a long way up, but at least now she has a ladder, and the narrow walls mean that she won't drift off into space if she slips. Now she turns her attention to the rescue plan. On a ship this size, Hikaru could be almost anywhere: the brig, the captain's quarters, a secret compartment, painted green and sedated in the infirmary... But a raiding party would search for hidden compartments first, and most of the other locations would expose Hikaru to greedy crew members who might want to steal him. That leaves the captain's quarters, which will be heavily fortified, but there is one other option. Some place so disgusting that no one, Federation or pirate, would want to search it: the ship's garbage hold. That's where she's going first.

The doors at the top of the maintenance hatch open easily with the help of a small virus she carries on a data chip in her belt. She slides through the doors just as her air indicator flashes red. With one hand, she yanks off her helmet; with the other, she pulls her tricorder from her belt and scans her surroundings. There are no signs of life within a hundred meters, which gives her some time to explore. The maintenance hatch is small, but clearly not considered a security risk – if it were, there wouldn't be three envirosuits hanging on the walls or a map of all the ship's maintenance passages. It's everything she needs to find Hikaru and smuggle him off the ship. Except for a good disguise.

Hardly daring to believe her luck, she spots a small closet at the corner of the room and finds exactly what she needs: two custodial uniforms, one for herself and one for Hikaru. Changing is awkward since she refuses to take her eyes off the door or let go of her phaser, but she manages. The uniform is far too big for her, and for that she's grateful. She puffs out the extra fabric to hide her curves and tucks her hair under a cap. If she runs into someone here, she'd rather not look like a woman.

The maintenance passageway outside is dank, sour, and narrow. Voices echo through the thin walls, and every once in awhile she stops to listen. It's gossip, mostly, and simple conversations about the ship's daily business, but the sound of her own language, spoken by native speakers, fills her with longing. Especially when she hears the dialect of the slaves. If only she could talk to them for just a moment, make them realize that they have choices and hope... But she's one woman with one extra seat on her ship, and she has no way of knowing whether they'd embrace her or sell her back to her masters for their own freedom. There's no choice but to keep going. She drags herself away from the wall and starts singing English pop music in her head until she can drown the voices out. It works until she hears sobbing on the other side of the wall.

She walks past once, reminding herself that Hikaru could be barely clinging to life in a prison cell right now, and Jim and Dr. McCoy and Nurse Chapel's safety depend on her speedy return. But the walls are too thin, and the girl's sobs echo down the corridor. She walks back to the source of the crying and presses her ear to the wall. Perhaps the girl's slave sisters are there to comfort her... But her tricorder only reads one life form in the room.

There's a hole in the wall where it meets the floor, and Gaila leans down to it, recoiling at the feeling of dirt on her hands. She pushes her chip of computer viruses through the hole and flicks it with her thumb so that it shoots across the floor.

“Have hope, little sister,” she sings through the wall, using the tune of a song her slave sisters had used to comfort her when she was young. Then she runs.

The garbage hold is right where she expects it to be, and the door opens without so much as a code.

“I almost died in one of these,” she says even though there's no one there to hear it. Except her. The sight of the garbage doesn't bother her, but the stench transports her straight back to the garbage hold where she'd hidden on the ship that had unwittingly carried her to the borders of the Federation. Somehow she needs to hear the almost to remember that she had, in fact, survived.

She wouldn't have, except that while she was retching in a corner, her fingers had brushed a switch that opened a small, secret door. On the other side was a cell just tall enough to stand in. Shackles lined the walls, and bones littered the floor. It had been a place for delinquents to die where no one would ever find them. But it had kept her alive.

And she was sure that there would be just such a cell here. She just has to find it. Her tricorder won't work, of course. The cell would be fortified against the means a technologically capable searcher would use. That means there's only one way to do it: by hand. Holding her nose, she jumps into the decaying mountain of garbage. The trash rises almost to her chest; dirty water sloshes all the way up to her knees. Decaying fruit peels cling to her arms, and sharp bits of discarded metal poke through her thin uniform. Struggling against the weight of several months' worth of refuse, she makes her way to the furthest wall. The cell would be just above the line of garbage, most likely, and probably across from the small landing where she'd entered. Probably there was even a secret, extendable walkway across the garbage, but without her chip of viruses, she'd known she wouldn't be able to find it or use it.

Now she'll just have to trust that the walls will sound hollow wherever the cell is. She picks a likely place and starts pounding. It's not long before she hears an answering tap from the other side of the wall.

“In here!”

The voice is faint but unmistakably Hikaru's.

“Stand back!” she shouts. “I'm going to cut a hole in the wall with my phaser.”

The superheated metal falls into the garbage pit with a heavy thud; Gaila barely jumps back in time. She crawls through the hole without waiting for the edges to cool.

Hikaru almost stabs her in the eye with a rusty fork before he realizes it's really her. Lucky for her, he's weak from exhaustion and dehydration, and the momentum of his thrust carries him forward into her body, the fork grazing ineffectually against her right ear.

“Sorry,” he mutters into her shoulder. “I thought it was a trick.”

She answers him with the gentlest hug she can manage. His face is bruised – she doesn't imagine he was taken without a fight – and he's holding himself like his ankle is hurt. But he is still himself, right down to the playful glint that never seems to leave his eyes.

He takes a couple steps back from her – she's glad to see he can walk – so that he can look at her face.

“I missed you,” he says. It's obvious that he's talking about more than just the last three days.

She swallows a lump in her throat. It's not often that she's at a loss for words. But what does anyone say after a fourteen-year separation that culminates in being kidnapped by space pirates?

Hikaru shakes his head like he's trying to snap himself out of a reverie.

“Later,” he mutters. His stance is becoming more captainly, even though he's clearly weak. “We have to get out of here. Where's the rest of the -- ”

He studies her, taking in her disheveled hair and her garbage-covered uniform.

“Wait. Did you come here all by yourself? Just for me?”

His voice holds an equal mixture of horror, awe, and admiration.

She swallows the easy answer – that not talking for weeks and then swooping in to save each other is what they do – and threads her whole fingers carefully through his broken ones. She will give him the true reason, not the safe one.

“I did. You have to hold on to what you love.”

They wind their way out of the cell, through the garbage and the desolate corridors, out the airlock and across the hull of the ship. When he stumbles, she supports him; when he fights to cling to the slippery panels of the hull, she overcomes her fear and holds him against it with her own body. And then, when she almost falls only a few steps from the end of their journey, he's the one who catches her. They settle into her ship side by side and sail away into the safety of the stars, together at last.

When the pirate freighter and the nebula have vanished from behind them, Gaila finally lets go of Hikaru's hand. What she has to say isn't easy, but she won't allow herself to be any less than honest with someone she loves this much. And the truth is, she's known what she has to do ever since she heard that girl sobbing on the other side of the wall.

“I have to go back there, you know. For the rest of them.”

Hikaru nods. He doesn't look angry or sad. Just determined.

“I know,” he says. “I'll come with you.”

***

On stardate 2274.65, Captains Gaila and Sulu simultaneously resigned their posts; Captain Gaila after recovering from a mysterious illness and nearly fatal that kept her quarantined on the U.S.S. Enterprise for thirty-six hours, and Captain Sulu after his unexplained rescue from Orion pirates.

Two years later, an Orion freighter sailed into Federation space carrying 1,437 newly liberated Orion slaves. Two former Starfleet captains were at the helm.