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In Our Nature: Book Two

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Everyone would have gone to bed by now if they weren't waiting to see what the deal is with Moreau. After helping Leonard scrounge up something from the kitchens that he could feed to Hosanna, Nyota started taking a meandering walk around, ending up in the long tunnel on the opposite side from where the holding is entered. This area was presumably built as a kind of lookout compartment, but it's mostly glanced on in recreation, with parents walking their kids down here to look for fish out in the water. Nyota likes the sense of moonlight emitted by the sharks that look like miniature hammerheads; they usually only appear when the schools of prey are swimming by, but occasionally a straggler will linger close enough for its rocky luminescent surfaces to glow just beyond the glass.

In the middle of the rounded end of the widening tunnel she finds herself alone and sits on the floor, curls her legs in to cross her arms over her knees. She thinks of a few things: the scent of burning bodies sifting through the air throughout the whole town after the Knot was attacked, the murmur of Brighton's voice she would often hear drawling from the office back when she worked for him, Commander Spock's cold demeanor that told her she wasn't going home again on the first day they got into this world. Mostly she tries to think of nothing in particular and push through all the weariness she never quite gets a chance to scrub off.

When she's leaving the end of the tunnel later, she starts back toward the brig cabin. She almost doesn't notice Leonard's voice carrying from far to the right, where the overhead lights have been shut off for the evening. For a second she wonders if she imagined it; then she makes him out under the synthetic tree in the little faux garden next to the medical tent, in a patch of the illumination coming out from under a wall of the tarp. She also sees Jill, just as quickly as her instinct understands the body language: his tight gesturing movements and the restless cadence of her pacing, her hung head. Then Leonard grasps tightly on her shoulder and is shaken sharply off, his mostly unheard speech and his motions becoming more emphatic, almost desperate. Nyota wonders if they would be shouting if they weren't trying not to be heard.

For a moment she stands there stilled by the cold shot of concern, then finally manages to turn her back on it and walk away.

 

Jim wasn't sure whether or not Moreau should be present to help explain what the hell is going on, but questions are sure to come up that he hasn't gotten the chance to ask yet. Gene grunts a knowing warning before he wraps Moreau's hands in front of her in vinyl cuffs; after his comment she says, "But you're such a fun little cat to set on a chase."

Barbed against her familiarity, Gene pushes her at the shoulders. "Walk up ahead." He has his gun, but he doesn't take it out. She starts leading their walk back to the security cabin, and on the way out of the brig Jim notices something: dusty trails of what looks like pale blue sand strewn on some areas of the floor. Noticing the glance, Gene says, "Watch out you don't ever inhale that crap."

"What is it?"

"Sometimes it's called fever dust. It's a hallucinogen that's been making the rounds from some dealer claiming it can be used as a truth drug."

"Can it?"

"Maybe there's something wrong with this strand, but I don't think so." Gene's hooded eyes are closely watching Moreau. "It sure as hell doesn't seem pleasant, but as an interrogation tool..."

"You didn't mean for it to hurt her," Jim infers. Up ahead, there seems to be a shift in Moreau's shoulders.

"No," Gene says very quietly. After a few seconds he adds, "But maybe I would have been more careful if I hadn't been tempted to."

Back at the long narrow room built in next to the security shed Bones has gotten a tall cup of the colony's own bitter brew to stay awake. He takes one look at Moreau, and from the eyebrow he cocks in Jim's direction he wonders what kind of charged look he's getting from her. She doesn't wait for an invitation before she toes out a chair and sits down, her bound hands set neatly in front of her. Nyota arrives with the others and takes a seat next to Jim, not meeting eyes with Moreau until she's greeted with a sighing, "Lieutenant Uhura."

"I'm afraid we've never met," Nyota says.

"But it sure is a pleasure," Moreau replies, ignoring her flatness. "I've been waiting a long time to get a look at your little crew, Kirk."

Jim tries to ease the tension in Nyota by giving her a brief look attempting to convey, See what I've been dealing with for the last hour? Her eyes have a softer sardonic look then, but there's still that edge of worry.

Moreau gives the same vaguely irritating greetings to Scotty and Bones; around them are several other members of the security team, suggesting along with the absence of Jill and Alel that Gene quickly organized this as more of a tactical meeting.

"Miss Moreau," Jim starts in, thinking that this introduction might take her a little off guard. "We might start with you telling the others why it was you were only willing to speak to me about this issue first."

She rises visibly to making him see she isn't at all out of water for being pushed to explain herself. She makes an innocent little hum of noise, then handles the room with, "Well, I think it would be best to first explain what it was I had to tell you about. How many of you are familiar with the existence of the medical base known as Third House?"

It's still and silent all around the table; when Bones clasps his hands on the table in a shifting motion there's a deep sort of stilling in his eyes, like he's settling on the peak of an inner fight becoming more palpable. Jim turns into him in a bit of surprise.

"I came across a lot of stuff about it when I was researching what to do about..." Bones means Jill, but for some reason isn't inclined to say her name. "There are several lab vessels out there run by Imperial Starfleet, and something like nine of them are participants in slave breeding...but this is the big one. It's where most of their research is conducted, it's where most of the data that exists on the genetic alterations is developed; not only that, but it's the central hub where any of that information can even be attained."

"That's all correct, Doctor," Moreau says. "And all of that is part of the reason why we're going to infiltrate it and then blow it up."

Bones has to talk over a few responses, scoffing and saying, "Well, you'd have to find it first. Trust me, if we had a chance in hell of even hacking that place I would have been nagging Jim to try to get us there almost as soon as we were back in space. But it's constantly moving. And the shielding technology..."

"Of course, you've done the homework. But this is why the attack has to be at a very specific time. We're lucky enough to have attained actual coordinates of where this station is going to be ten days from now; we probably wouldn't get another chance to hit this place in a few lifetimes, so if we want to make a huge dent on what I'm sure you all would consider the most detestable institution the fleet has to offer, we need to do it now. And the reason that I didn't tell you this, or my name before, my lovely friend Gene..." The acridness in her voice seems to wind up a couple people at the table. "Is because you Romulans are so damn paranoid I didn't know if you trusted Kirk farther than a few throws, and I had no idea if you would even tell him about the plan if you decided I was trying to lead you all into a trap. But if I teased you enough with the mere possibility that I was just a ticking bomb straight from ISF, you'd have to put me face to face with Kirk just to see what it would drum up."

"How do you even know about the location?" Nyota steadily interjects.

"I actually didn't get the chance to tell Kirk this."

"You implied you've got an informant," he offers, then says to everyone else, "I'm not sure I buy it."

"Why? For being what's supposed to be our home planet's gallant little warriors, they're actually pretty devoid of strong loyalties. It's just a matter of finding somebody you already have a reason to think will be easy to buy."

Jim is admittedly curious now, his brow furrowing down. He looks more directly at Moreau in question.

She points out in a silky tone, "You realize Winona Kirk is still active?"

Hearing the name nags his breathing a little. "And you...bought whatever information she's been giving you, I assume, without telling her I'm not really her son?"

"She may think that you've gone right off the deep end," Moreau says lightly, "but it doesn't make a difference. You're still her little boy."

"And..." The agitation only rises the more he thinks about it. "You made her think you were offering me protection rather than an idea about a mission that could very well guarantee me and my cute little crew as good as dead."

Moreau settles in her chair, making a face. "That's a little over-dramatic, don't you think?"

"If you can buy information from Starfleet, who's to say that an organized, militia-sized gang of bounty hunters couldn't?" The realization pricks up around the room; Scotty mutters a curse. "How hard could it possibly be for them to get info from somebody who would probably love to see me in a noose? This would be the first time we've gotten out these kinds of guns but this attack would fit the profile the propaganda has been quick to assign to us, thanks to your Commander Spock, to a T. All it would take is one of them saying, 'How would you like some extra security hanging out a few clicks from your lab? All you have to do is tell us where it is.' Please, Lieutenant, can we go past the part where you pretend not to have considered this?" he interrupts just as she's pertly trying to interject.

Moreau goes for, "You have put the safety of your crew on the line for the sake of helping people many times before..."

"Not like this. It could be suicide. Anyhow, our very presence there could end up jeopardizing the purpose of the attack. If we plan on blowing that thing up with nobody inside of it we're going to need some serious organization, not something that could turn into a shootout clusterfuck at the drop of a hat. We're lucky if this colony has thirty people trained for battle, and that's not enough."

"Of course there's back-up," Moreau says steadily. She told him some of this before and is patiently aware he's making sure she can hold her case in front of everyone else. "We've got people."

"That's nothing without good tactics," Jim says. Before he didn't ask: "Where the hell are we even gonna get a schematic?"

"Spock. He'll mind meld with a member of personnel—"

"Spock's gonna be with us? Are you hundred percent on that?" There's a hesitation in her answer, so he shakes his head and interrupts, "And that doesn't help everyone else know what they're doing."

"We'll have a couple Nyroks with us," Moreau says. When she realizes he doesn't understand, she sighs. "They can project telepathically? I thought you realized this. After all, it's the whole reason Spock sought them out."

A few glances lock together around the room. "What do you mean, 'project'?" Bones asks.

"Initially, he told me, he didn't know if he could even try to subvert the Empire because he needed everyone to understand this exact same vision he had." With what little motion Moreau can give with her hands, she spreads them out in a sort of flowering gesture. "He thought that with Vulcan destroyed, there was no hope, but then he sought out other telepathic species and he found that if he could meld with one Nyrok, that guy could go on to hold a meeting with a hundred others and project the most complicated concept into the others' minds. Maybe a slightly diluted version of it, less emotional. But the right idea."

"...What 'emotional idea' did he show them?" Jim asks, a little dubious.

Her focus is split open by surprise at him having to ask. "Come on, it was you he melded with. It's not just an idea; it's your entire world, as far as he was able to understand it."

Suddenly Jim can feel the eyes from all around the room resting on him. "Oh."

"You melded with the commander?" Gene mutters.

"Didn't exactly give the okay; I was passed out after he neck-pinched me." Jim straightens back up from his self-conscious slump, on Moreau again. "Anyway, while we're working out this far from bulletproof plan, I can't help pointing out that even if everything else goes off without a hitch, we have no way of knowing how the prisoners are going to behave. We're lucky when a slave we try to pick up from a planet decides they trust James T. Kirk; in these places, these people may not even know who the hell I am."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Gene says. "I was born in a place like this. Networks thrive...Information gets around slowly, but it does get around. Of course, you mat'chkai do need to worry about the fact that if the battle gets at all panicked, they're not really going to be able to tell much of a difference between the humans that are helping and the ones they need to get past."

"We're used to worrying about that," Nyota says.

"I'm willing to work with you, Kirk, and all the tactical people of this colony to draft out an idea of how many people we need," Moreau says after a brief but heavy moment. "I'm even less willing than you are to go on a suicide mission, and I'm not willing to take an army in if it's not a big enough number. Which means we're going to have to decide just by way of the volunteer count. Does anyone object to this?"

After a few seconds of silence Gene says, "Okay. No promises from anyone, let's just get Larade and her boys in here to talk about what kind of number we're looking at, early tomorrow. Are we adjourned?"

The crowd is still untangling at a drowsy speed when Jim, after learning that security still wants her in custody for the duration of her time at the colony, helps one of the younger Romulans on the security team walk Moreau back to the cells. The guard was told absently by Gene that they can "skip the bracelets this time," and she walks along at a park stroll with her hands in her pockets.

"There's something I wanted to ask you."

"Mm?" She gives an attentive little blink in his direction. It's the first moment she really looks tired.

"...Exactly how close were you and Kirk?"

His one loose memory of Moreau from aboard the ISS Enterprise was from one of the first nights they were there: She had access to his quarters and he'd been in some sulking stupor over something as vaguely off-putting as the other Kirk's book collection when she took him by surprise by walking right in. He was trying to gather up some assumption about her that would help him figure out how to get her to walk back out, and in only a couple seconds the look of slight alarm obviously meant something different to her than what it really was. She stared back at him, seeming to absorb this coldness where he couldn't give her any familiarity, and then took on a defensive sigh of resignation. Accepting a misplaced conclusion to some earlier fight maybe, she walked right back out without saying a word, and he almost immediately forgot her, though—and it was strange that this memory came to him only through the connection to the other, since there was a time Jim would have claimed he never forgot a name from a crew file—he had recognized her, from the Marlena Moreau who'd come up in a memo about two recent transfers to the USS back home, only a few days before he left that ship for the last time.

The moment the night before when he realized she was that woman was strange, like the difference between what he'd seen during that first encounter and the way she has to be handled now gave him no definition in what to expect from her. Maybe it's just something about the way she looks at him: evoking something deeply personal on her end, but distant, like the fleeting one-sided amity that belongs through the sight of a sniper rifle.

In response to the question, she tilts up an eyebrow. "Come on, I'm sure you've already figured that out."

"You were the captain's woman, naturally—Come to think of it, maybe you still are—"

"Spock's no captain now. He's no commander either, and yet I've noticed a few of you refer to him that way."

He doesn't bother explaining how the rank epithets are easier for them. "I was just wondering if he trusted you enough that maybe you might have had access to any of his personal files. And if so, if there was any chance that information could still be in the ISF database somewhere."

"No, not James. He could be an extremely private person...Why?" Somehow she's fallen into walking ahead of him just a little, but she dwells back, slowing down in her realization. "Don't tell me: The ionic rippling trick?"

A little chagrined, he looks at his boots for a moment.

"Oh, hon. Surely you've realized he never figured it out. He would have bragged about it up and down...Hell, more than that. With that kind of technology, he could put the entire Empire under his thumb." She shakes her head. "The accidental Holy Grail of the Kirk family. I can't imagine how much it must have driven his father crazy; I read some old article where George said it was like the hand of a god just reached into his brain, gave him the knowledge, and then yanked it back out right after Nero was staved off for the time. And he couldn't even use the computer systems to recall the data because the ship had to go on energy conservation to get home and then everything was fried; he had to start over from scratch and it never worked out. And yeah, I know, James stole all his notes, but...I think if there was any way in hell he could have finished what was started, he wouldn't have given up."

Another moment runs by as they turn a corner to steer her far out of the way of a prayer group.

"And I'm not," Moreau says.

"...What?"

"I'm not his woman," she says. "At least...we're not close."

Perplexed by this disclosure, he amends, "Okay."

"It's just...I'm not sure how much I completely disagree with you about him. It's the tenacity of him that's so intriguing I just can't look away...Do you know he doesn't think he'll even live to see how far his plans are supposed to culminate?"

Jim blinks in surprise.

"Seriously. But there's something about the way he thinks about it...it makes me not want to be in his noggin for too long. It's true, what I said about his whole vision; it's all because of something he saw in your head. And he changed so immediately, but if you're anywhere close to him you realize it's just this systematic reassignment of priorities. I wonder why he's after preserving life if he doesn't love it." Her tongue licks along her teeth as she has some self-berating thought. "In a way that's what I miss the most about James, you know. His fear."

Something brushes at him and makes him look harder at her while she speaks; a curiosity. "You ever think about whether you'd take him back?"

She turns a look on him, slowly.

"Just, hypothetically, if James Kirk found his way back into this universe somehow..."

She scoffs. "He can't."

"But if he did. If you got the chance."

Her look turns defensive. "That's not an interview question I get every day."

"Look, you don't have to answer."

"How could I possibly imagine something like that?" Her usually serene expression cracks into some fragile amusement at the mundane sentimentality, before that glassy distant thing is forced into irritation. "We weren't exactly doing well as a...couple, back before he went missing, which you seem to have worked out. So I don't know how it would go."

Jim is frowning in the direction of someone's flashlight flickering off behind a tent wall; a homey giggle carries from behind a different one. He's a little surprised when Moreau continues.

"The answer is that I think about it," she declares. "I guess that doesn't recommend me very well to you, does it?"

Jim rests his hands into his pockets, sighing in thought. "You think he's making a lot of trouble back at my home? If he made it, that is."

"Jesus, I don't know." She gives him a speculative glance. "Did you ask about his notes cause you thought you might gave better luck yourself?"

He shakes his head in dull ruefulness, not even sure if she knows what she's asking; the other possible uses for such a technology are all too theoretical, and maybe not very interesting to someone like her. "Not really. But I had to ask."

They're just outside the brig now; she gives him a last hesitation, seeming to back out of something she thought about saying. "Goodnight," she says with a hard glint in her eye, and walks ahead of the guard.

 

Nyota has to wake him up when they're close to being late for the meeting. This one is surveyed at the edges by Alel and a couple others who aren't prospective volunteers. This apparently includes Jill, to Jim's surprise. In general it's said that she prefers making weapons over using them, but she's a good shot and ripe for the cause. He doesn't have the nerve to ask her about it; there's a good stack of trust between them but she tends to get prickly when she has to look at it.

When Jim is taking a seat the little legion of half a dozen Klingons are already there in an obedient gaggle around Larade, who is slinging an arm around one of her teenage soldiers to tease him about showing up in his fine vambraces as if this were some ceremonial affair. Larade is a presence to get used to: just easygoing enough to get comfortable with before you realize or remember that she's scary as fuck. She and Gene have the best rapport between a Romulan and a Klingon Jim has ever witnessed but that's barely saying anything; she considers security and enforcement tasks to be light lifting and therefore not worth her time and only pulls her back-up when the circumstances sound like fun. Naturally Gene is a little annoyed when the Klingons show up all hot and bothered about only knowing they had a prisoner around since last night.

"You know, I would have brought you over to Moreau but I wouldn't want our guests getting the idea we have no concept of hygiene down here," Gene deadpans while he's getting into his notes.

"From what I hear, your idea of interrogating a prisoner is to tickle her with a feather," Larade returns, "so I think she's got a pretty good idea of who isn't willing to get their hands dirty."

Gene is struck into a sulk, but at that moment Moreau is being led in right over Larade's shoulder and says, "Oh, give him a passing grade. I was trained to stand up against everything, but we never thought of feathers." Jim feels a surreal push in the air over her reflexive peacemaking among the several parties. The comment certainly earns her some immediate respect from the more hard-natured members of the congregation. The cuffs are back on but no one protests to her getting them off for the duration of the meeting, and after her hands are freed she pauses to take off her jacket, revealing a simple t-shirt that's dark enough in color to look clean, before sitting down.

There's an initial storm of disagreement over who should even be present, since Larade is of the opinion that only people who intend to consider the fight have any business giving advice. The fact that this is even a debate sets some mystery on the presence of some people standing or sitting around the table; one of Larade's guys is the first to point at the wall. "What about Prince over there, Gene?"

"Alel's got nothing to do with a vote," Gene says (his only hesitation being the "I'm the only one who can call him that, asshole" that Jim can practically read in a thought bubble over his head). Alel comes over closer to him, but doesn't seem inclined to say anything. "He can shoot, but he has no training."

"Be that as it may," Larade says in a mocking show of delicacy, "we're going to be dealing with a few recently acquired prisoners, and he comes from some high position in Romulan society, right?"

"Yeah, once upon a time," Gene says with a heavily dubious gesture. "You think anybody's gonna give a fuck? It's not like anyone at the Knot recognized who he was..."

"I think what she means," Moreau cuts in, "is that he's what a fully cultured Romulan will immediately spot as respectably full-blooded. Even I could tell where he's from just when he walked in here a few minutes ago: He's lucky enough to not have a neck brand, his accent is very upper-class...I don't think he could hide his breeding if he tried."

"And they'll assume the worst he's had to be is a kitchen nape and immediately hate him."

"I think they'll assume whatever is comforting to them. They'll respond to the familiar with immediate trust, and that's what we need, not just a Starfleet linguistics expert who will be able to translate 'Go that way.'"

"We're talking about a pretty negligible percentage, though," Bones says in impatience. "The attempts to breed out the superior strength has been more successful with Romulans than with any other species, but there will definitely be other types of captives and only a few of them will have been shipped from home planets. Anyhow, can't you tell he's too young?...Don't look at me like that, Gene, you're younger than I was when I entered med school."

"Who said anything about me voting on?" Gene asks, the rhetoric an obvious evasion from the protest he doesn't want to hear from them.

"What, the head cop isn't gonna put in?" Larade interrupts.

"I think Gene's good for this type of thing, so we need him right now," Jim levels, ignoring Larade, "and generally I'm going to suggest that anyone who could be of help be allowed in on the discussion; after all, they could always change their mind and throw back in if we end up meeting the minimum for volunteers."

The room folds into a few side debates, and Jim looks sternly at Gene. "Have to say I agree with Bones. Aren't you barely, like, drinking age? You're a kid, and Alel's even younger. And how hard is Jill gonna kick your ass if you don't sit this one out?"

"Twenty-year-old Terrans are young, maybe," Gene grunts, but there's an exasperated sigh from Alel next to him that makes him not push on it.

Larade proves to at least be very rational about strategy, and what's painstaking about the debating that follows is nothing Jim hasn't been used to slogging through since he had to do group simulations in school. But gradually the thought process gets fuzzier under the weight of his increasing realization that there are too many things that could go wrong, no matter how high their numbers are. He voices every single concern that he thinks they could do a damn thing about; the problems he doesn't bring up yet he can see reflected in some of the other eyes around the table. Everybody seems to feel slightly different about what they're proposing to do. He keeps catching grim smirks from Nyota, but she's managing to be exceptionally unreadable on this one.

The security team has to go deal with a dispute next to the school, giving them all a brief break. Jim runs to get a sandwich and comes back to find the room crowded with people awaiting the final news; he quickly gives up on sitting close to the same people as before and uses this to his advantage, standing in-between Gene and Larade and trying to smooth over their disagreements. About an hour after the meeting resumes they've finally got their number.

At the word "adjourned" the crowds start to unwind out of the tent, but Jim stands up tall and looks around, holding up three fingers and then waving in the direction of the least busy corner of the tent. The signal reels in Nyota and Bones and Scotty. They stand in an informal but sturdy way in their small circle, and Bones is starting to ask Jim a question when he quickly shushes him.

"Okay, sorry, look..." Jim swallows, looking every one of them in the eye for a second. In cringing hesitation he rips off, "I don't think that we should talk about which way we're going on this."

Nyota's eyes flick between him and the others. "Why?"

"Well, I'm not going to tell you not to talk to each other. I guess what I mean is don't talk to me." Looking around again and nodding, he says, "I've been saying for two years now, right, that I am not the captain anymore, but the fact is...with the four of us working the way that we work, even when I say that, I end up making decisions for other people anyway. It's hard when we've always been in it together, but this one...if we're all in it or out of it after the initial tally, fine, but up until then..."

Bones opens his mouth, but then he shuts it and lets out a sigh.

His voice fights against the stalling somewhere in his diaphragm. "It's that question that we never actually asked, you know. Are we going to be able to stop, are we going to say we did enough and lie down for good, or are we willing to fight for these people until we die? I'm not saying we'll probably die on this one, but...if not this one, it could be the next thing or the next, and I'm telling all of you, if by some chance in hell you're not scared, get scared, and it's okay if you decide you don't want to keep this up. I need to know for sure that that's not my decision this time."

There's a thick acceptance settling on the others' faces; finally Scotty mumbles, "Of all the days for you to start getting humble, Jim." It's only a consolation; they all know things started changing a long time ago.

"Oh, and also." He tries to smile but it's a weak one as he speaks with the shaky laughter of earnestness. "I guess it's a little late for the team-building speech. I know I can't pretend I've always been strong enough through all of this for everyone else, but...I'd rather be scared shitless with the rest of you than fine all by myself, so...I'm just sorry if I was never—"

Before he has to try to articulate, Bones is pulling him in with an arm drawing up to his shoulder, giving it a squeeze, and he knows he doesn't have to say anything. Nyota looks so wrecked with something he almost wants to take back everything.

"Okay," he finally says, in the relieved humor after awkward emotion. "We'll talk after the volunteer count; until then it's bad jokes and the weather for me."

 

Nyota keeps an eye on Leonard, not sure what kind of tells she's really looking for, but she swears he was heavier in the shoulders than any of them before Jim's little meeting even occurred. He catches her staring at him over the dinner table and looks only lazily confused, ends up giving her a rueful little smile she can't bring herself to return.

"What's on your mind?" he asks, turning a cracker over his knuckles while his other hand stirs up his soup. His eyes seem to flick in some indication at her notes from the tactical meeting sitting in front of her. Scotty is off with Jill somewhere and Jim is talking god knows what with Charlie and Gene on the other side of the mess.

"I'd have no idea where to start," she says.

"He didn't tell us what to do," Leonard finally grunts after a considering moment. "But to be honest I'm not too eager to get into it with anyone else."

She can feel herself furrowing down in worry; he cocks his eyebrow.

"I'm an alright sounding board though, if you want to talk."

"Why?" she asks, in hazy reluctance, "I mean why don't you want to talk about it? Are you thinking...? Nevermind, Leonard, I'm sorry."

He's setting his food away, and now he looks at her for a long time. "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong? Is it your reasons you don't want to talk about?"

There's a give in his expression, just the tiniest jolt of surprise. "I just asked if you wanted to talk to me, hon."

"It just seems unlike you not to talk back, that's all." There's a burn of obvious agitation in her voice and she's not sure how it got there.

His arms crossed in front of him, he looks like he hates this whole puzzle so hard he could get mad at anything. "So ask me."

Something about the disarming just bothers her somewhere in her chest. She gets up from the table, shaking her head.

 

She and Jim attempt to have something like a quiet night in; back at their bunk he's reading something when she comes in from brushing her teeth and ends up standing warily at the entrance after fastening a couple of the tent catches behind her. When he finally looks up at her it's with a heavy sigh. He puts his PADD down.

"Spill it."

Caught off guard, she goes stiff.

"Something's messing with your head," Jim says. "What's going on?"

Her thoughts need a moment to spool up, and when she ends up talking her voice sounds far more uneasy than she expected it to. "It's just that I know what you're doing, and you're right, and the thing is I've always been okay at putting my life on the line when I have to. But I guess I've always been a little better at it when I'm being ordered to do it, and I'm not sure if this is something I know how to do, Jim, I..."

He starts to get up from the bed, his expression darkening.

"I know I can't expect you to make all the choices, but it's not without reason that sometimes you do end up making them. And I just feel like you're starting to get so tired again, and you're going to leave us hanging in the dark like..."

His arms come around her. She holds him tight, feeling him trying to calm down as firmly as she is. "It won't be like that. I told you I wasn't going to get that way again," he mutters into her hair.

"I shouldn't even talk like that. You shouldn't have to promise me that." Her words and her hands are patting him nervously away.

"And we should be fanning ourselves on some getaway spot." Jim is looking closely at her, maintaining a loose hold at her waist. "Are you diverting? You're gonna make me leave it alone?"

She takes a long breath in and out. "I don't know anything for sure, and even if I did I probably shouldn't tell you."

She can see the mathematically precise guessing game flitting through his mind, and she realizes she's not going to carry this alone. It would just be driving both of them crazy if she did.

"I think something's wrong with Jill."

A blank depth takes over his face and he paces back away from her a few steps, turning fully around in the process as he scratches at his hair. "You think or you know?"

She's busy considering if there could be any way she's wrong.

"Nyota," he pleads.

"I don't know what else it could be," she says. "But before the initial meeting, just with us and the Romulans, I saw Leonard and Jill having some kind of fight."

"It could have just been a fight," he suggests, but the wheels in his head are obviously not reassuring him.

"They definitely thought they wouldn't be seen. It was quiet. And it didn't look like there was any problem between them that night, except for then. They're hiding something."

"How the hell could something be wrong with her again?" Jim demands in empty frustration. "That heart transplant..."

"Plenty can go wrong with transplants, Jim. Keep your voice down."

"She seems more than fine. All the time."

"She's had a lot of practice her entire life at acting like everything's fine." Nyota only realizes it then. "And so have her friends."

"You think that Gene and...?"

"Who can tell? I mean, none of them have seemed very sound this week but I figured it was all about Moreau."

At the card table, even, there was something a little too forced. After one too many post-Ludo evenings of partying on Ulysses, they've become immune to thinking too hard about the most somber elephants in the room, to the point that they've forgotten what it is to have a good time without them around; now they may have missed when the tension was something new. But no amount of contemplation on how unhappy or distracted any of the Romulans have been seeming would be likely to get her or Jim anywhere closer to the truth; the others have been at this kind of denial their entire lives.

"It adds up," Jim sadly says after a moment of consideration. "I have no idea how long Bones can have known..."

"Surely not longer than when we landed?"

"I don't think it's likely, but you never know. You know what he's like, total loose canon with his opinions, but he actually takes patient confidentiality pretty seriously when he's able to, even these days."

"...Sometimes with the exception of when he thinks anything can be done about it."

"Nyota, we can't."

"Are you kidding me?"

"Do you know how hard he worked to get Jill to trust him as her doctor? God knows it's probably her strong and silent crap that's the reason she's keeping this locked down, but there's the explanation for the bickering right there."

"He isn't just her doctor, he's a friend, and he knows that." Now she has to remind herself to keep it down. "He's got several reasons to be dying to take this place, but...What if there's something at the base that can help her?"

For a few seconds Jim shuts his eyes and takes one or two deep breaths. Then he shakes his head and slowly goes back over to the bunk and tosses himself into bed in a sigh. She gets in after him, holding him from behind as his back curves into her.

"I don't want to know any of this," he says after a long moment. "I can't talk about this with you. I can't think about this with you, and now I've gotta know it could be just as hard...on Scotty, for fuck sakes, if we say no, as it could be on all of us to say yes. How the hell am I supposed to...retain objectivity when referring to all of you as my 'crew' feels like kind of a joke. We're all we've got. It's practically all I can think about."

She bites her lip and rubs at his shoulders, not knowing what to say to him or to herself. "We've done a lot, Jim. We've helped so many people..."

"And we'll just tell that to all the others who are going to wonder why Kirk dropped off the map?"

"You're worth the highest bounty in the whole quadrant; they're not going to need an explanation."

"Still...I just have this feeling it's not time to give up just yet."

She feels the bitter, distant contemplation tensing through his muscles as she lies behind him. After a few minutes of their nearest neighbor snoring lightly and the faint echoes of boots skidding on the polished central floor, Jim speaks again.

"Spock would tell me what to do." His voice is faint, almost with caution, and so sad that she stops breathing in the sudden stillness between them. "He'd have his...calculations and probabilities. He'd iron it all out."

Nyota cannot remember the last time either of them mentioned Spock by name. They allude to him, take subtle measures of supporting each other in the moments when his absence is undeniably in their thoughts, but never like this. The utterance feels somehow reckless and makes her heart tighten to a sharp ache, with just the feel of having it in the air, with the realization of how exhausted Jim must be. The name is an admission that he wants or needs the time they never fully took to mourn, and something about this coming from his direction first feels like the sway of some oncoming torrent.

Jim's voice is cracked low with the heavy afterthought: "Do you think he's okay?"

For a second she thinks she won't be able to speak. "Of course he's okay," she whispers into his shoulder. "He always is."

They lie in silence for another moment. Then Jim complains in heavy realization, "And to think if we go through all this bullshit, we've still got to worry about Moreau knowing about the colony's location."

"...Actually," she says, "that reminds me I have something I need to do."

His head shifts like he wants to finally twist around and look at her. "What?"

She squeezes his shoulder, snugly inches in to kiss him on the neck. "Get some sleep. You need it."

Now he does turn around, one brow mildly cocked in confusion. He seems to mean to kiss her a quick chaste goodbye but her mouth insists it's something else, her hand grabbing at his shirt below the collar as if to hold the feel of his heartbeat in her fist. "Don't take too long," he mutters, sounding a little unsteady still, when she finally pulls away.

 

She slows in reluctance and crouches down just outside the attachment of tarps set up just a little too low for walking in, confirming that someone's still awake by the lamplight coming from inside the fort. The canvas isn't completely closed so she tries to unobtrusively peek in, then notices Gene sitting on the floor close to the double bunk. There's an idle frown on his face as he seems to be reading something sitting by his lap. She leans back out and knocks her fist on the floor just inside the entrance.

Immediately she hears him moving and in a few seconds the flaps part to reveal his pout that softens into surprise at seeing she's the one there.

"Uh-oh," he drawls. "Come in a sec."

With a rueful smile she follows him into the cozy sleeping quarters where he has a couple candles lit on top of an old chest. She now sees Madda fast asleep and sprawled on the bottom bunk curled into Alel, whose eyelids are flickering in half-sleep while he listens to something on a pair of headphones. Looking at the floor, she realizes Gene wasn't trying to read anything heavier than some set of ancient picture books preserved in laminate.

"Oh my god," she whispers when she gets a closer look. "Where did you get comics?"

Gene's face lights up easily. "Oh, Anik lends them out. He stole them from somewhere. They're actually banned because, look..."

Upon closer inspection, she can see that these issues had to come out during Earth's 1960's, if not earlier, and that they are plain and simple anti-Empire propaganda from when there were still competing national entities on Terra. "Holy shit," she hisses in excitement at the image of a villainous sword-wielding creature bearing on the chest of his costume what is now the recognizable daggered planet of the Terran Empire.

"I know, right?"

"Gene, these are amazing. And they're so old. God, if I could only get into an encyclopedia and see what kind of stuff this artist did, back home..." Her thoughts trail off, and then there's an awkward sobering like they just caught themselves laughing at a funeral or something.

"Anyway, you'd be surprised what's still hanging around. I'm not sure the people who collect them are necessarily as antipatriotic as you are, but..." He shrugs, and a brief moment goes by. "What can I help you with?"

She gives him a heavy look, not sure if he might have some idea of the answer. She says simply, still keeping her voice at barely above a whisper, "'M.'"

Gene goes into a thoughtful look, then checks the chronometer. "Give me a minute."

When he reaches over to the head of the bunk she expects him to explain more of what's going on, but all he does is hook his finger around one of Alel's, getting back a brief tightening grasp on his hand and then patting him on the arm as he gets up. Madda yawns and turns, pulling her blanket up higher in the squeeze of a fist, and Gene pushes a couple curls out of her face. Then he slowly, quietly slips his tactical belt out from under one of the pillows.

"Is this anything you wanna tell me about?" he asks once they're well out of hearing range of anyone sleeping.

"I don't see why I shouldn't, but I'd rather wait till afterwards."

Gene caught Madda's yawns and is shaking himself out of one as he stops to fish into his locker for his extra set of brig keys.

"You know, I always thought Romulans and Vulcans didn't yawn?"

"Came as a shock to me, when I first heard it," he says with a crooking mouth. "It's a spay thing, I guess. One of those human traits we got from the bottom of the test tube. Not one that bothers me, though. You need me there? With Moreau?"

"Does she trust you at all?" she asks dubiously.

Something swells of understatement in his expression when he shrugs and says, "I wouldn't think so."

"I'd be fine with you sitting in hearing range, if that's possible. I think it might be best if she feels like we're alone."

"Okay."

When he lets her in, Moreau's not alone in the brig chambers, and Nyota's grateful she doesn't even have to ask him to get the other security members to clear out for a little bit. The one long table set up outside of the cells is currently hosting an array of objects, the huge duffel bag that some of them presumably came from discarded next to one of the legs. There are a lot of weapons, but several other types of materials as well; Nyota imagines it as effective survival gear for an away mission with some sentimental extras thrown in. She finds herself examining one thing after the next until her stroll down the length of the table ends at something she recognizes instantly as a branding phaser. She picks it up by the long handle, forgetting the rest of the room. The crude 'X' on the end of the metal twists a flicker off the yellow lamplight. She's a little startled when Moreau speaks.

"Do you forget that it's there?" she asks. Nyota hears her sliding up from where she was sitting and taking a couple steps closer to the crudely welded bars.

"I can't afford to forget that it's there," Nyota answers, setting the phaser down. "Disguises are hard enough without having to cover up my neck all the time." Moreau has sidled up to lean in on the bars at her shoulders, setting her head on one of them in calm expectation. Nyota's eyes meet hers and then look back down. She asks, "What is all this?"

"They're negotiating use of some of the goods I brought in. I suppose I should take it as a good sign they haven't considered all my stuff permanently confiscated."

"This is all yours?" She gives another look along the table. "Did you think the branding iron would be nice for decorating cookies?"

Moreau has a look of exasperated innocence. "It can be up-cycled into one of many tools. Ask your engineer what he could do with it."

"Do you have any idea if they checked these for tracking devices?" In the next second, Nyota wants to add "Why am I asking you?"

"A tracking device might have been a good idea, but if they looked they wouldn't have found one. I don't think Spock is wasting our resources on things like that anymore. He was pretty disappointed when you guys dismantled that one he planted on you last year."

"I'm sure he was," Nyota replies. She's walking up to the cell with her arms crossed, keeping her face frozen against Moreau's attempts at levity. Finally she asks, "Do you enjoy scaring us?"

Moreau tilts her face like a confused puppy. "Why would you ask a thing like that?"

"Do you enjoy screwing around with us, making us think that the safety of this colony is a total joke, because you were able to hitchhike right in?"

Moreau is landing into the realization that this was Nyota's whole objective in coming here. She considers her with a scoff. "Look, I told your captain that Spock doesn't know what I know, and I also told him I don't know how else to try to make you believe it. So what do you want?"

Nyota bites her lip in thought for a couple seconds before saying, "I know that there's no surefire way I can get you to tell me the truth, or of making sure I have any real reason to believe you, even if this mission doesn't turn out to be some elaborate trap; for the moment I do find it easy to believe that the commander doesn't know where the colony is, but whether you will tell him about it in the future is up in the air, and none of us are feeling too good about that."

Uninterested, Moreau says, "It's a real pickle."

"The one thing that reassures me is that I'm sure he doesn't really need your loyalty. If you told him you weren't able to give him some information he wanted out of plain and simple fear for your own safety, I'm sure he'd understand." Predictably, Moreau has a look of astonished cynicism, but Nyota interrupts her. "I'm not threatening you, no. I'm not even asking you to tell me anything or do anything. I'm just letting you know that you might want to consider that you need the colony to be secure because you might want to live here some day."

Moreau considers this for a moment with little inspiration. "You're kidding."

"Tell me then, what's the plan? Do you have a safe place to settle down once you've reached the end of your part in the whole scheme? Have you even thought that far ahead?"

"No." She shakes her head. "I assume that he has plans for when that day comes."

"You're lying. I heard that you've been saying he doesn't believe he'll live to see this universe come to be what he wants it to be. I'm sure you've considered that he isn't just saying that because of how long it will take?"

"Of course that's what he means. You think this whole coup is something that can be done overnight?"

"No. But it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the commander isn't arrogant enough to think that he'll somehow manage to duck all the fire that's headed his way. And what's going to happen to you then? What about when you're seen somewhere and they figure out you're a defector and there's a bounty on your head? You're either going to have to fight this war to your death, or find somewhere to hide. And as far as I know, there isn't even a dream of somewhere else this solid for anyone like you or me to go to. So I'm not telling you or asking you to do anything except consider that you might not want to sell us out, for your own good."

Moreau paces in a small circle for a bit, hands resting on the back of her hips. Her jaw tensing in an almost gnawing motion, she looks back over at Nyota. "What makes you sure I'm not willing to fight it to the end?"

"Why are you even with him?"

She cracks into a small snigger, deflecting, "Feeling jealous at all about the old flame?"

"I don't care if or why you're screwing him. Why are you on his side?"

She scratches at the back of her neck, grunting up at the ceiling. "It's...a huge change he's trying to bring about. Just seeing the way it moves in his head, I don't know...it's intoxicating. Being at the center of all of it."

"Only, possibly you misread what kind of power he really has." Nyota waits for some opposition before saying, "Maybe you didn't realize that he was willing to be a casualty. You saw that there was something big coming and you threw down with the new captain, because it's your reflex to think that's where all the agency is. And now that you realize you're in anything but safe company, you've taken to convincing yourself that he'll figure out the self-preservation thing somewhere down the line. But you're afraid."

Moreau takes in a sniff of the air. "You think you know everything about me?"

"I know what a death wish looks like and you haven't got it. And nobody in your position who doesn't want to die could possibly be doing just fine." She swallows, her eyes falling to one of the bars. "...I know I'm not."

When she walks out to where Gene is waiting at the threshold to the brig compartment, he frowns at her in surprise before locking the door and giving a quick status report on his comm. She grabbed the branding phaser on her way out and is idly banging it against her thigh.

"You better not be about to tell me there's no way you'd ever let her live here, because I'm thinking that's the only card we have."

"Don't worry too much about it," is all he says on the subject. He's shaking his head at her nerve, but the slightly awestruck look is still on his face and beginning to fall to something softer. "Hey, is that true? That stuff she implied about you and the other Spock?"

Twice in a night. "What would she know?"

"But is she right?"

"Gene," she says in warning.

He pouts, persisting anyway with an almost childish curiosity. "Was it serious?"

She sighs at him, more stern this time.

"Sorry, it's just..." His eyes flick to the floor in hesitation. "Do you miss him?"

"Yes," she says evenly. "Now drop it."

He lags behind a little when she bluntly walks on back toward the tactical shed. He sits down close by when she's trying to figure out where she should store the phaser. After a long moment he says, "I just feel like there are so many things a lot of us don't know about each other."

No longer giving him any coldness, she casts a look of mild doubt. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I've never felt like it mattered that much to you before."

"It's just a reflex. Back at the Knot it was, I mean, you didn't tell anybody about your past there, not unless they were practically your family." He frowns, shrugs. "I think a lot of us are used to assuming the worst about the stuff people won't talk about."

She considers that with a slight grimace. "...What are you thinking about, Gene? You don't have to wrap it up for me."

"Nothing."

"Fine," she accepts, patiently.

"I don't know, I guess I'm just trying to figure out...if it could ever work out, between two people who are so different." Gene rests his crossed arms down on his knees, looking to the floor again.

"Like?"

"Like, you know, Jill and Scotty. If she actually knew for sure that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with that guy, no matter how long or short that might be, and just be more upfront about it, cause I think we both know she kind of isn't. And I get it; they haven't been through the same things..."

She gives him a considering look. "Is this about being from two different worlds or just different species or something else? Because Jill told me you and Alel couldn't speak more than about five words in the same language when you first met and you still got stupid for each other—"

"I can't believe she told you that."

She lets loose a short smile that tugs Gene into sharing it, but in a moment he sobers again and sounds more nervous.

"...But you know I've been on the other side of it, right? When somebody can do so much more in the world than you can, and you need them so much you can't even see the way you feel about them under all that need. Like sure, everything's good for a while, everything's happy, but then one day you realize if he comes home late smelling like somebody else you're not going to say a word about it, because if he decided to kick you out you could get killed."

She's never heard more than a sentence at once about Gene's life before the Knot, it seems, and she's a little taken aback. "I'm sorry—I can't pretend to understand—"

"No, it's fine, I'm just trying to make a point, like...What if it was like that, but it was two people who actually should be together, who would be together just fine if everything was different? Or if they trusted each other completely, if one of them didn't depend on the other or anything, and it was still...I don't know. What if they just can't understand each other because one of them will never have as much?"

She waits for him to go on, going through another crate with the instinct that being busy makes him less self-conscious.

"It feels weird to tell you this, but a lot of us here, and pretty much around any slave or ex community...we have this general idea that we love better than humans do. Which, is unfair to someone like you but it's like—"

"It's the only privilege you feel you can have."

"Well, when you put it like that, I guess. And if you think something like that for a really long time and when the entire world makes it so damn easy to think it, sometimes I think...I mean, I can't imagine Alel not being Romulan, right, but if somehow he was the same person, but he was human...would I have ever been able to..." Gene puts his hand over his mouth for a few seconds, fidgets, shakes his head. "I don't know."

She looks at him for what feels like a long time, then asks, "Why are you suddenly getting worried about Scotty and Jill?"

His look before he averts his eyes from her is no consolation at all. She won't swerve her glance from him, pushing him to stammer a response through a frown: "Nothing...It was just, you know, an example."

She gives a cursory last look at all the storage boxes and lazily settles on stowing the phaser in with the tricorder parts. She claps the dust off her hands and shoves them into the pockets of her cardigan. "So little we all know about each other," she mutters, and then leaves Gene where he's now standing in a heavy slouch.

 

So what happens in half of a week is that Gene, who has been tallying up the pledged volunteers, seeks out Jim after he's eaten in the mess and says, "It looks like it's on you."

"What?"

"We're one hand short of quota, and you're the only person I haven't asked."

Gene is holding his PADD with the stylus at the ready, being ruefully casual about all this. Jim glares down at it and then shakes his head. "Christ. It had to come down to me in the end."

"It's not that people can't change their minds. I just heard you were kind of on the fence so...I guess I had to ruin your day by letting you know it's kind of a big deal."

"Tell me something I don't know next time," Jim says gruffly, and waves him off. "I don't know yet."

"Final word's tonight."

"Yeah, and I'll know by then."

Gene resigns, anxiously tapping the stylus. "I guess we need to get everything ready just in case anyway. Thanks for nothing."

"Anytime."

It's not until later that he's hit with the implied possibilities of Gene being the only one who's aware of the number. Nyota is off translating for one of the patients in medical when Jill steals right into their tent. Jim is washing off the tension with a few sit-ups and falters back the second he sees her stalling over him.

He pushes himself into sitting with his weight on one hand. "What?"

"I need you to say no."

He stares back for a second. "I thought Gene wasn't gonna tell anybody I'm the last notch."

"You're not the last notch. And he didn't tell me, I looked at his checklist."

He cocks an eyebrow. "So you're a hacker now too?"

She rolls her eyes at the diversion. "His passwords are embarrassingly easy to guess. But I counted the pledges, and it's not one under, it's two under. Which means he's lying for some reason. And that reason is probably that he's thinking about throwing in."

"...He said he wouldn't." The protest sounds weak as soon as it leaves his mouth and he suddenly adds in narrowed agitation, "Isn't anybody upfront about a single damn thing around here?"

"The point is he can't decide. He probably wasn't going to before but he really wants the mission to go over so now he's thinking he'll have to tip the scale. It's bullshit."

In a long sigh, Jim gets up from the blanket on the floor, and his eyes waver over Jill's boots for a good half a minute. He then looks into her eyes for a second. "I don't think I can make you any promises."

He's got the whole outline ready, about how many people could be helped with the knowledge and the medicine that they'll be acquiring, that he knows she wants to protect Gene and protect Scotty, that she's thinking about the types of things they can't afford to think about, all in a way that wouldn't imply she's being selfish. But Jill has never gotten used to expecting anything from anyone, and she's already laid down the begging. She looks dead tired, and she says, "See you at the meeting, then," and leaves before he even has a chance to reply.

He gets up and stands for a long moment with his hands on his hips staring at where she walked out, overwhelmed. Then he paces back, his head staring up to the tapestry, and loudly seethes, "Fuck it."

Nyota is in the entryway, staring with fuzzy concern, when he looks back down.

A confused static charges between them for several seconds. Then Nyota starts into a low snicker.

He says, "It's not funny."

"No," she says, but keeps laughing. She walks into his arms and he smiles sadly into her hair.