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In Our Nature: Book Two

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"I will cut out all the preliminary crap and get right down to it," Gene says. The meeting is a crammed chorus of whispers all around him and he's the only one standing at his end of the table. "We have 49 confirmed volunteers, which is one under bare minimum. Mission is trashed. Take your fights to the gym mat and have a lovely evening."

A couple of the Klingons are already shouting in protest as Gene drops his poker face and shoulders the strap of his pack with a dark sulk setting into his eyes. Next to Jim, Bones is casting a hard look down at the table; Nyota turns with a small flinch against an insult in Klingon roared at someone a few steps away from her, one hand nursing at the headache she complained she woke up with.

Soon they all push past the small crowds to get back out into the open. Jim sees Jill grab at Gene's elbow and say something into his ear. Gene makes some harsh retort, and then she's following him with a tight pace around the side of a water storage tank. In the next second Scotty appears at Nyota's side looking around drowsily: "Where'd Jill get off to?"

"What was I supposed to do?!" Her voice carries over from behind the tank, a concise angry high among the incoherent buzz of a rising fight where they sound like they're walking farther away. With concern piqued, they start to move in closer.

They lose the sound of them and almost let it go, but then when lingering back the way they came Bones spots them down behind the bleachers, and it's right when Jill cuts out something with a hard push at Gene's chest. Just as it looks like they might be going at each other harder, that's when Bones comes between them, furious and shouting, "What the hell is going on?" They're practically snarling over his shoulders and he pushes Gene back; Jim insistently pulls Jill a few steps to keep them to their own air for a second.

"None of your goddamn business," Jill grumbles. Jim can feel her trembling with anger, and she seems to forget anyone other than Gene pretty quickly and shouts, "It's not my problem you're a fucking liar! Did you even tell Alel? What did you think he was gonna say, after everything he gave up to get here?"

"I was going to be fine," Gene growls. "What about you?"

Something drops out of the atmosphere, Jill's whole body thrumming with sudden new tension. "Don't you dare—"

"We both came from this fucked up place and I have the chance to take it down—you want me to just keep my head down and act like everything's great?" Gene's voice is raspy, shaky and impassioned. In a sudden snap he shouts over her, "They couldn't even bother to put a good heart in your chest and I'm supposed to sit here while you're dying?"

Jill's body bruises against Jim's with the force of her trying to spring violently back to Gene; "Hey, hey, knock it off—Calm down, Jill, we already knew!" he shouts, and she goes lax in shock, steps away from him slowly.

Bones gives Jim a look flaming with alarm: "What?"

"I saw you and Jill arguing the other night," Nyota says from right next to him. "I didn't know what else to think."

Bones processes that, then says, "Scotty...?"

They all go silent around the hard weight of Scotty and Jill's eyes locked on each other, and Jim is struck by the realization that his unconscious assumption was wrong all along. He thought all this time, surely Scotty knew or suspected something, but he's never seen him look like this.

He'll tell himself it was about knowing for sure what he could only speculate before, that the factors shifted irrevocably because of it, but if he's honest it's really the dead silence in Scotty's whole frame that does it. He looks at Gene.

"I'm going to put in." He feels Jill revving up but doesn't look at her and just says steadily, "On the condition that you trade into doing back-up. I want you on the vessel running dispatch; if you give me your word that you're not setting foot on that base, I will volunteer."

Through a stiff slant of his eyebrow, Gene shrugs and says, "Yes, sir."

Jill is gone in some trepidation. Finally Scotty speaks.

"You didn't think that this was something that I might want to know?" he asks, with some stonily conversational gesture.

"I knew that you'd probably go running off to do something stupid if you thought it could help me." Jill's voice is angry in a small sad way. "Just like last year, when you and Nina could have easily gotten killed because you thought you'd wander right into the Knot just to babysit me—"

"I love you," Scotty interrupts, a simple even conveyance.

"Which means what? A bunch of shit misery for one of us? For both of us?" Jill kicks hard at some empty container that clacks over and rolls away. "You're not responsible for my life."

A small bark of frustration and Scotty grunts, "Jill, for God's sake, that isn't fair."

She walks away. Jim isn't sure if he expects some angry look from Scotty, but there's something all too crestfallen in the neutral look he gives the rest of them before turning in the opposite direction, probably to go find something to fix.

Jim wants to head back to the bunks and sleep for hours and hours, but he can't. Gene is already off to intercept Moreau's handler so he can give her the good news. They have less than four days to get ready.

 

The drapes that section off the infirmary beds tamp the quiet, holding nothing but a couple patients rasping through the night. Once it's late, Jim ends up there to find Bones rooting through the medical supplies.

"Could you hand me that?" Bones mumbles at the first second he notices him, and Jim looks where he's pointing and grabs one of the medical PADDs.

Jim sits on an unoccupied bed for the couple minutes it takes him to have his hands free and then come over finally to slowly sit down next to him.

"You know I would have said something if I could have."

Jim just nods. Quietly he finally asks, "So what's going on?"

He shakes his head, eyes a little wide and overwhelmed. "I cocked it up to hell is what's going on. I should have known that her immune system is too unpredictable; I knew her body would probably reject the organ at least for a while, but nothing like this...The transplant didn't take. Probably just some other goddamn factory-sealed limitation she’s got wired into her genetics that I can’t understand. The only thing that's currently stopping her body from eating the organ right into cardiac arrest is the immuno-suppressants she's drilling in every day, and every other suppressant I've ever given her has only worked for a while before her system has adapted, so it can't be any different with this one. I told her if she wasn't so insistent on looking like everything's okay she could be buying herself more time, taking things one day at a time, but...she just kept taking them. When we got here earlier than she expected, I was half-hoping she'd have gone off them, but maybe we're not the only ones she's putting on the front for."

It stings against his instincts that Jim can only defend futility with futility. "It's not like there's anything else you could have done, Bones. We almost lost her before the surgery."

Painful anger flares in his eyes. "She was counting on me, if she was counting on anything; that I would come up with a miracle. I just can't stop thinking...how easy it would be to do something about it, if we were back—"

"Don't. There's no point in thinking it, and it's not your fault the resources are dry." He cringes. "How long, though? How long was she planning on keeping up the show?"

Bones lifts an eyebrow ruefully. "Probably until it was too late for us to try to do anything like this."

"So if we get a good haul out of the clinic," he slowly asks, "could you save her?"

"Well, you know the reason why I think her system adapts to or rejects all the drugs, right?"

"There's some...designed mutation, so that slave owners have to treat their servants with the company's prescriptions."

"It's a theory; I'm not sure how much it would make sense for her, when she comes from one of the earliest batches, and I'm...not able to say there's anything in there that could cure her, but yes, the drugs they've got could get her a hell of a lot more time. Probably. And if we get enough information off of them, there could be something that could save her. Maybe."

Jim stares at the floor next to the bed for a moment. "That's enough for me."

When he looks back at Bones he sees the deep creases of devastation for the first time. He lightly grasps a hand around his forearm.

"Hey," he mutters in simple consolation. "I know you've got a soft spot."

He grunts out a bittersweet scoff. "She's just about the worst patient I've ever had in so many ways, hell, much worse than you....But I just wanted to make something good happen for her."

"Don't give me that; you have," Jim insists. "You've helped."

A patient emits a crack of a yawn. A long moment slips by in a deeper silence that is abnormal for the echoing chamber around them. Bones furrows his brow. "How did everyone tally up anyway?"

Jim attempts a smirk. "I'm the one who wouldn't know, remember? Come on, though, it's us. I think I'm probably the only one who didn't say yes."

 

Nyota comes into her and Jim's sleeping quarters to find Scotty sitting down on the floor against the bunk. His face is something that would be sheepish if it wasn't shrouded in much heavier stuff. "Oh, honey," she says. She slides down next to him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

"M'alright," he mumbles scratchily, patting her hand. "...I think."

In a moment she says, "You really had no idea?"

"No, 'course I had an idea. I have a bit of a tendency to pay attention to the girl.”

After a few seconds all she can do is nod sadly.

"We'll do what we can." Scotty nods, and the words seem to be spoken mostly to himself. "We'll just have to see what happens. I'm just trying not to be angry with her, you know?...There's no room left to be hard about anything."

"Yeah. I know." Leaning back into her own space a little, she wipes a troubled hand over her mouth, then drops it. "I mean...Jim keeps things from me sometimes, at least he used to. And I could never stand it, not knowing if something awful was going on with him and I would have no idea. To think, something like this...I would be furious, but it's the same old stuff you always get for caring enough. It might seem easier to hate her right now, but you just have to suck it up and be there."

Something is unfazed in a sort of chilling way in Scotty as he says, "I almost think she wants me to hate her."

Nyota slowly gets up and scoots to the far side of the bunk, patting the space next to her. "Yeah. I know."

Scotty kicks his boots off and they sit side by side against the head of the bed. He takes a moment before speaking again. "The first time Jill and I really got to having a grave talk with each other, after all that ugly stuff went down at the old Knot...I remember she kept talking like everything was only something that could have been. How when she first met me she couldn't help thinking we could be something good, but like it was all washed up somehow. And it didn't have anything to do with that Khamak fellow or anything, it was just..."

She nods.

Scotty frowns into deeper reflection, shaking his head. "That poor Tom. He was her blood, it was simple as that for her. After what had happened, she just knew that she wasn't going to be the same ever again. And all this time, I knew that, but I think I wanted to believe that she could be alright. Not the same again, but still sort of happy. But she's got it in there...this idea that her time's almost up. I don't know what to do. A woman like that knows how to make you feel like it's none of your business, and I...I'm not sure anymore where I fit in, if I'm a part of her life she'd want to fight for."

Nyota wants to make a rushed assurance but she bites her lip, takes her time on understanding it. "I think you make her scared to death. As far as she's concerned, you're just more that she has to lose. It might have been easier to never start with it, but it couldn't have been helped."

Scotty looks at her, like he's heard something she didn't say. "...D'you feel that way about Jim?"

"That he's a huge pain?" she parries.

He just looks at her, mildly unyielding.

She puts up her knees so she can rest her forearms over them, looks past him and out at the sash of movement between the openings of the tarp. "I think I actually thought for a minute, back after we first got stranded, that it would be easier if I just let myself get into it with him. I was looking for this disappointment...like I knew it would fail to fill this hole but I didn't realize it would just open up a different one."

Mouth crooked, Scotty says, "Shagging during wartime isn't what it was in the movies."

"Depending on your definition, it's no actual shagging anyway." She laughs, darkly startled by what she just said, and Scotty cocks an eyebrow. "Sorry if that's too much information."

"I wouldn't want one on the way either. But we don't have to worry about that."

The mood softly capsizes, her face falling in regret. "She can't...? Even if—?"

"No," Scotty says. "She can, sure. Just not in this life."

In the quiet that falls between them Nyota feels as if some weight has gotten knocked right off balance by nothing in particular, and that she is about to cry. For a moment all she's doing is rocking herself out of that spell with her arms crossed over her legs, managing not to.

She finally looks back at Scotty, lips pressed together until she can offer, "At least you met her in this one."

"Yeah." He nods, and the immensity of his genuine gratitude combined with pure weary sadness nearly overwhelms his eyes. "There is that."

 

In less than two days they're packing up to get back in space. Jim volunteers to make a few routine security rounds while he's waiting for everyone else to be ready; it might be out of some attempt at closure, like he isn't counting on ever making it back there.

Finally before they're readying to take everyone up the lift, Alel and Gene show up as the last latecomers. There was some tension over what to do with Madda; they'd left her with friends while they went up on Ulysses once before, but that day she threw into frantic crying while they said their goodbyes without having any reason to understand the different sense of danger this time. No one would have uttered anything to her about the potential battle, but sometimes kids detect that ring around them of conspiring to keep the dark thing away from young ears; sometimes they just know.

After all the checklists are counted off Gene and Alel come away to the lifts looking exhausted and a little hard towards each other, and Jim wonders if he will ever see that little girl again.

 

That night the ship is buzzing with the constant noise of its over two dozen occupants. Larade bosses a couple of her boys around the small kitchen until they've helped prepare a thin soup with some eel-like meat that somebody must have gotten up very early to catch. Jim is nervous about people he doesn't even know by name screwing around on the bridge, and Nyota manages to give some tactful reason to make most of the passengers stick to the areas where they've been lined up in their sleeping bags.

He leaves the kitchen where Nyota has found some common ground with Rai in the form of a drinking game, her hand surreptitiously squeezing his hip as he passes by. He was at the smaller table where Alel is now teasingly flicking the end of Jill's braid while he sniffs at a coffee cup in his other hand, Gene leaning against the back of his chair across from them and trying to describe a drink he had once because the name has gotten away from him.

Low on energy but knowing he won't actually be able to sleep soon, he grabs something to read on the bridge and the sight of Leonard and Scotty there makes him feel like he hasn't caught sight of them in hours. On the way to the back of the ship he heard two of the Klingons debating mildly in their tongue, one of them not sounding fluent; over the next half hour or so it becomes the mumble heard down the hallway while Scotty and Bones make grim remarks about the state of the bathroom and the mess in the kitchen. The combination of voices eventually feels less clamoring and strangely hypnotizing; Jim is close to falling asleep in the pilot's chair when he becomes aware that Jill has joined them. She comes in and sits down somewhat across from where Leonard and Scotty are leaning into the console, with the quiet aura of someone only here to watch. There is surely but barely a blip of anxiety in the air, but Jim doesn't look at Scotty, just shifts up a bit out of his sleepiness and glances out at the stars over Jill's head. She looks at him then, an expressionless notice; the look is so idle and natural between them, that Jim contemplates her in some way, for the first time.

The woman who once held a gun on him sits hammocked into the webs between them and for a short moment Jim smiles a rueful smile down at her brown head, and after a second, her mouth crooks up at him in slanted warmth; then she looks at her lap and he looks back at the stars.

After what seems like a long moment she demands, "What is that smell?"

Catching right in, making it look easy, Scotty says, "It's Jim's hair dye. It stenches up the whole place for days and days, but we've all kind of gotten used to it."

Jim says, "I just tell myself it smells better than a prison ship."

"Actually, I think it smells pretty good," Jill says.

Scotty chuckles wickedly. "She's such a weirdo, this one."

Jill grins right across the room. When Bones starts off on an explanation to do with differently evolved olfactory systems, they go to the same teasingly bored expressions and plugging up their ears, and Bones gives Scotty's arm a gruff little smack until he starts into half of a snicker; the conversation becomes remember-that-patient, remember-that-planet, remember-that-time? And Jim begins to realize, probably very belatedly, that he does know Jill quite well by now, and that for the past year and a half she has actually been something like a friend to him, and that he doesn't know how they're going to lose her.

 

The next Moreau is wearing one of Leonard's ratty sweaters, presumably without permission, and Nyota notices this as she pours herself some coffee for probably the first of several tactical discussions. Jim decided it would be better to wait until they convene with the rest of Moreau's or Spock's or whoever's little army was joining them, but there are issues Jim is too worried about to wait on.

"It's not reassuring that you haven't heard from him in so long. To say the least," Jim is saying tiredly when she sits down among the tight group of personnel in the kitchen.

"It was never part of the plan to keep in touch while I was underground," Moreau says, then shifts her feet, rolling her eyes up. "Not to imply that he has any idea the colony is under anything."

"I'm still not seeing anywhere close to a hundred percent certainty that we'll have him with us when we hit the clinic, and we can't bet on being able to wait around for him for very long without being detected."

Moreau's lips press along each other in an expression Nyota can't quite read. She says, "He'll be there. Unless someone or something actually shackles him down, he'll get there."

"Unless," Nyota parrots dubiously.

Jim gives a scoffing flinch of agreement. "It's not good enough. The entire plan is hinged on the idea that we can get the ship mapped out telepathically; the kind of gamble we're taking if that doesn't go over right is not what these people signed up for."

Whatever denial or suggestion Moreau was gathering up is interrupted by Charlie.

"May I speak just with the ship's regular crew?" It's maybe an overly tactful way of wording it, but she could have hardly gone over well describing Jim as the highest in command of this mission. As it is, a few of the others look suspicious and impatient, but possibly considering the oddity of Charlie speaking out, they clear away pretty quickly until Nyota and Jim are alone with her in the meek privacy only a few yards away from where the crowd of still-waking people are buzzing up through the corridor and sleeping quarters. As Charlie sits down in the chair Moreau was leaning into before, Nyota catches Jim's eye in a sudden breeze of anticipation, as if they've both just realized they understand something of what she's about to say.

"The reason I asked for a limited audience is because, while this information isn't exactly a secret, it pertains to some details I would rather not announce very...theatrically." Charlie cocks an eyebrow at an almost-spent cigarette someone left propped over a saucer, picks it up and snubs it down in a precise pinch. "I understand that Spock is considered invaluable to the mission because of his ability to extract the floor plan of the facility from one of its members, and the attack will go more efficiently if he is involved; but should he not appear in time, it's best for you to know he isn't the only Vulcan you can use."

Nyota feels like the appropriate response should be so simple, but it's not quite coming to her. Finally it's Jim who swallows and half-wryly asks, "Are we the last to know? You know, out of—?"

"Hardly." Charlie shakes her head in one of her flat efficient half-motions, reminding Nyota that maybe this fact occurred to her, in faint and brief speculation, before. "Jill might suspect, but I've never known for certain. Tom knew, from the second day I lived at the Knot; no one else."

"Why?" Nyota asks before she can think better of it. "Why pretend for all that time?"

Looking at her with flavorless surprise, Charlie slowly asks, "Would you like to know the whole story?"

Nyota only exchanges an uncertain look with Jim, hesitating.

"I don't mind; it's only that I've never...actually told it."

Somebody lingers at the threshold, one of the volunteers he can't identify probably looking for more food. Jim motions him away sternly.

Charlie began with a tilt of her head, "I am really called T'shar, though the name feels strange to me now. With my accent, if I said it fast enough it sounded to Tom a little like 'Char,' and that's how the nickname started. But long before that, when I was nineteen, I was part of a research mission with my mother on a desert planet not far from Vulcan. The project was raided for dilithium by Terran Imperial soldiers and most of the Vulcans there were brought back to Earth. I was then sold into construction labor, repairing bridges and landmarks mostly. The work was hard. My mother had a condition that made her prone to seizures if her body temperature went too high; she fell off of a loading dock one day and drowned. I remember that they didn't even go in to retrieve the body.

"I kept working that way for years. It was lucky for me that one day I just happened to get mixed up in the wrong shuttle car to the wrong job; it didn't mean better work, but it meant that I was in a new place very shortly before Vulcan was swallowed into a black hole. There was myself and only two other Vulcans in my work block, but it was one of the technicians there, a Romulan named Niole, who first realized the precarious position we were suddenly in simply because we were a rarity...There had always been the occasional Terran who would come by our work stations and stand leering, and we came to understand that sometimes they would negotiate with the operators and put down a price to take slaves home with them. Sometimes only to...borrow, you understand, but not always. For whatever reason, there would always be the type of person who would find the most expensive foreigner the most desirable, and now that we were part of an endangered species we could count on being very, very expensive, to the point that we would probably only be coveted as aesthetic completion for 'collectors.' They always used that word. 'Collectors.'"

Nyota takes an awkward swig of coffee, in the silence, while Charlie takes a moment.

"The other Vulcans wouldn't listen to Niole, and I think it may not have done them as much good even if they had. At first I didn't either, but he convinced me finally that I would be safer if I could make a very convincing Romulan; he was very insistent that the buyers can tell the difference. To this day I almost can't comprehend his kindness and concern, but he was determined to help. He apparently had some kind of academic interest in Vulcan; he'd committed an amount of studying to understanding the process by which we control our emotions and perhaps it was because of that that he felt he could help me attempt to unlearn it just enough to pretend.

"We began meeting every night for these endless, tiring lessons. He thought anger was a good place to start, and he provoked me and prodded me daily in the work square, until I began to react to my increasing resentment of him. We went from there. Humor was the hardest, but everything was hard. I did everything I could to understand what it was to be at the mercy of feelings; I was learning to blame my mistakes on other people, to overreact, dumbing down every kind of fervor to its crudest forms. Like some kind of cognitive therapy in reverse. I would have let Niole take me to bed if it would have helped me comprehend that sort of passion, but he never became comfortable with the idea. He made my dedication into a joke, though, when I brought it up; after all, I had to learn how to laugh, no matter how bad things got."

A brief flicker in her expression: old amusement, worn dry, but painful too. Nyota can't remember if she's ever seen her laugh.

"As could be expected, the other Vulcans thought that I was obscene. A few months after I'd arrived I was one of only two left in our work force; the other was a girl named T'nel, and she told me I was killing what was left of our culture by behaving in such a way. I could not argue with it. When she was finally sold, I shocked myself by weeping over it. I had become quite good at crying when it was for the benefit of the charade, when I was being beaten for taking too much water, but I couldn't remember weeping for myself before. And that made me cry even more, for the fact that my ability to do that was what was saving me." Her eyes are frozen forward on the table. "It was also one of the times I questioned if it was worth it. A slave losing all this sleep to avoid being another kind of slave. But I've talked to refugees who...got the more personal relationship with those types of buyers I was trying to avoid. I can only tell myself that it was."

They are all stooped over the table on their elbows now. After a moment Jim asks, "How did you ever end up at the Knot?"

"There was a fight one day, at a shuttle station we were waiting at on the way to a construction site. It was a feud between two Terrans that had nothing to do with us, but one of these drunks had a bullet gun and got the idea to prove how serious he was about using it by pointing it at one of us. The man he threatened was a close friend of Niole's, and younger than me; I moved around him and took the bullet in my shoulder. I have a vague memory of Niole stroking my hair while the medics took their time to get to me, and then of waking up in the servant ward and being told they had already replaced me with another industrial nape, which meant I had no idea where I would be going next. A few days later I managed to escape from a shuttle that was going through Kentucky, which as you know wasn't too far from the Knot.

"When I made my way into the town it was only by reflex that I still presented myself as a Romulan, though it was something of a shock that it wasn't just the Terrans who never suspected the disguise. It used to be everyone was so proud; we knew it was the enemy's mistake to think Vulcans and Romulans look exactly alike. But I guess it's not that simple anymore when you're surrounded by genetically engineered mixed kids who can't lift much more weight than humans...soldiers with accents from America, Ireland, Australia, all with this shared non-identity...I just happened to meet Tom a day after I first arrived, when he was trying to interrogate a human he thought was some kind of spy, and I figured that a person who was in charge of something like that should know that I'm capable of performing a mind meld. And then I kept my secret, and he kept my secret...until the day he died."

Nyota's voice feels scratchy when she speaks. "Couldn't you have told a few others, though? Someone like Gene?"

"...That's a little complicated. For one thing, I am not so sure what I would even call myself anymore. I'm hardly the personality I put on in front of the Terrans while I was put to work, but I am not the person I was before then either. Some Romulans find the slave-bred among them to be impostors, but I always had a strange envy for those around me who hadn't been born on Romulus or could barely remember it but could still feel connected to it, because it was stolen from them. And then there I was, part of an endangered race that I had forsaken."

Nyota interrupts in frustrated assurance, "But they did steal it. You were only trying to survive with what you had left."

She hesitates with the slightest gleam of something in her eyes, pulling in a breath too even to quite be a sigh. "Most Romulans will accept me sooner if they don't know. But I think the most honest reason for my silence is that, after lying for so long about who I was, I was too ashamed of the lie to begin to tell the truth."

Rubbing the heel of his hand at his eye, Jim quietly says, "It must have been hard to tell us all this...Thank you."

"I maintain, however," she says, changing her tone, "that I should be in charge of handling the explosives, no matter what my other responsibilities are."

"Like I'd ever let you off the hook there." Jim is already getting his notes back up. "Have you seen the list of everything we have to work with?"

She gestures for him to hand his PADD across to her. Nyota gets up for more coffee.

 

Eventually Bones is dragged up to give his input on projected floor plans. Their own Starfleet back home had handsomely stocked medical bases—obviously for very different uses, and not as large—but the bizarre correlations they've seen leads them to believe the place may end up being similarly built.

Bones took some elective course at the academy that involved schematics, and his fingers flick confidently over the touchscreen to draw up a very basic floor plan while Jill looks over this with curiosity. He's able to designate a second possible plan and leaves the rest up to Jim's theorizing.

"I like this one," Gene says, nodding at one of the screens and making the doctor blink over his shoulder. He makes a wide-open gesture, adding, "The wings are organized very, uh, intuitively."

"Are you up here to actually be useful?" Scotty teases.

Gene settles into business with a mock-simper and asks Jim, "What's the point here?"

"These are five basic floor plans that are likely to be close to how the clinic is laid out," Jim says without looking up. "No guarantees. We won't know which the actual schematic is closest to until we get there, so everyone has to memorize a tactical plan for every layout. Within a few days."

One of Larade's younger men marches confidently into the kitchen. "Mr. Kirk."

"That's me."

"I'm notifying you we should meet our rendezvous point with the Nyrok vessel in less than an hour."

"Oh. Thanks." Jim looks at Scotty as soon as the Klingon has walked right back out. "Is Jill still sitting the bridge?"

"Did you explicitly ask her to stay there until one of us got back up there?" Scotty asks. "Then no."

"Ooh, Daddy, can I?" Gene offers, already getting up.

"Don't touch anything 'cept the comm system to let me know if something beeps," Jim calls after him, which he probably knows is an insult to Gene's experience with vessels, but still. "And have your notes so I can send you these plans as soon as they're done."

"You're welcome," Gene replies, and Alel falls into step with him down the corridor.

 

When they beam over, the first person to greet them is part of the miscellaneous party of Spock's Terran activists who got a ride with the Nyroks. He's a sturdy-looking guy with a red beard growing in, and as he escorts them out to the halls he strikes Nyota as having a pinch of star-struck nervousness, which is frankly a new one for her, coming from a fellow human.

The Nyrok ship is basically designed and sizeable, and totally pitch-black in color except for the white trim around the doorways and equipment nooks, and the glow of white lighting coming from the high ceilings. The Nyroks themselves are all very tall and very bald, with large expressive but otherwise quite human-looking eyes ranging in colors from olive to blue-green. Their skin comes in human shades, with an an only slightly scaly sheen. Most of them speak fluid standard, and one of the first things their spokesperson, a woman named Peel, says is, "If you're aware of our tradition of presenting gifts to new allies, I regret we couldn't provide anything lavish. Our cook has promised one of the best meals we can give for later tonight."

Nyota feels awkward caught in the flinch between Jim and Moreau, the two twitching for the authority as they aren't sure which of them should speak first.

"No need for apologies," Moreau takes it, seemingly as Jim's in the middle of saying a thanks. "We need to discuss how you'll all be fitting into the plans, but first I need to talk to Spock."

"I'm afraid he's not with us," Peel replies, her eyes casting to one of her neighbors for a second. "The rest of the team we agreed to pick up was accounted for. One of them wanted to speak to you about it, so I had better reserve my own explanation."

If there was much detailed talk about when and how the commander was expected to join up, Nyota missed it. It's when she turns and sees Moreau's offset face that she understands what this could mean. After a moment Moreau simply declares, "That's not good," and marches past Peel and the welcoming party.

This leaves the several who just beamed over a little lost as to whether they should follow her. A good deal of the ragtag groups make it to them first: In curious response to the rumors of the beaming party the volunteers start spilling in until that area of the hall is bustling and loosely separating Jim and Nyota from the others.

Without the manner of Moreau's exit the meet-and-greet might have been pleasant rather than overwhelming in its informality. A woman with the look of being unkempt after an all-nighter but content to be there picks out Nyota and starts trying to introduce herself, but Jim has just come to some decision and is pulling lightly on her forearm. Then when they get a little closer to the door they hear a strong voice suddenly booming: "Hey!—Hey, Cyrus!"

Jim almost ignores the call, and then they both stop at the same time, grabbing at each other with the realization. Looking around, Jim yells, "If that isn't Ed Brighton I'll eat his holster!"

"All this time and you still suck at answering to an alias," the voice says, and finally they spot the familiar figure standing close outside of the transporter room doorway; Brighton snickers and leans back against the wall as they approach. He nods at Nyota. "Good to see you in one piece, ma'am."

"Mr. Brighton." She nods, catching his old-timey courtesies even as she stammers, "We figured you were dead."

"So did I. I was right on the hook to get tortured for intel, and then one of the security assistants turned out to be some Enterprise defector who goes by the name of—"

"Moreau?" Jim is fairly shocked to put it together. "Moreau got you out?"

Brighton shrugs. "Thing is, back when both of us were still at the Knot, just a little before you left, this blond gentleman who looked a hell of a lot like he could be your father passed into town and shot the shit with me at my shop for a while, and he was looking for you...Turns out that piece of small talk saved my ass. He passed on my name to Spock at some point and when the government brought me in for information somehow it went through the right channels and sent up a red flag. Of course, she was hoping I could tell them where your colony was. I said thanks for the ride but I've got no damn clue; she said thanks for nothing, now you're with us."

Nyota stares. "You don't look like a hostage to me."

"It's either buckle down with you all or enjoy being on the lam back home. I never was able to do anything interesting with that ship money, not since I was blacklisted and had to keep a low profile.”

Jim hesitates before asking, “What do you know about any other Terrans who were associated with the Knot? I have a hard time imagining they all got as lucky.”

Brighton shifts his weight to the other leg and leans back into the wall, thinking. “Since you guys left there have been a hell of a lot more little fortresses setting up here and there on Earth, for people with reputations like mine, or even for servants; it's not pines and fresh air anymore for those guys, but it's a lot easier to find someone willing to put up a fugitive in their basement...there's more of an actual underground network now. It's cause so many people have got bees in their bonnets about Mazel's policies. Lots of angry civilians. As for you guys...Still four of you?"

Jim nods.

"I'm glad to hear it. What about the others?” He cracks a remembering smile. “That Romulan with the braid, did she and Scotty ever jump the broom or anything?"

They both hesitate, and Nyota leaps in, "Maybe we'll catch up later. It's great to see you're okay."

"You too," he says with a final nod, clapping Jim on the shoulder as they start their way down the corridor.

 

Moreau still looks plenty surly later on and that means, Jim figures, that the commander is still M.I.A. This assumption is confirmed within the hour when they organize an urgent meeting to move around a lot of their plans.

This is not good news for anyone, but for the time he finds it difficult to summon any deep feeling of unease. He might be more tripped up with concern if Moreau seemed to be, though it's not like he knows her well enough to really tell.

The feeling among the four, now knowing that they probably won't be working through the attack alongside Spock, seems to mostly be unspoken relief. Charlie's revelation is turning out to look like a lifesaver, and though Moreau and a lot of the other volunteers look appeased when it's brought out in the open, she still looks to be pocketing the assumption that something has gone very wrong.

Jim does his share of reassuring the others that they have no reason to think that Spock knows anything that could endanger them if he's captured and is being interrogated, though he himself isn't entirely convinced. Something tingles unpleasantly at his moral center for going straight to that concern, but from how Moreau describes the commander and what Jim remembers of him, he's not the kind who would consider the worrying anything but a waste of time if he were on the other side of the mess.

On the other hand, the news that Moreau secured Brighton seems to marginally allow some more comfort with her. Just the previous morning Bones was referring to her as "Hauptsturmführer Kirk's cloak and dagger," a sentiment which might be aired now more in grim laughter than resentment. Eddie is nobody's ethical paragon but there's still something that rearranges the picture in his rapport with her; he grumbles, "Dammit, Marlena," patting at his pockets when they're all waiting for instructions in the rec room, and Moreau passes by to hand him back his lighter while she's going over her notes in her other hand. She stays on her feet and never sits down at anyone's table.

Peel makes a round to Jim and the others to announce that there should be a meeting of all the fighters together for the sole purpose of a telepathy demonstration. "The way in which the knowledge is acquired can feel strange to some who aren't of our people, so it would be helpful if the mind projection during the raid isn't your first experience with it."

Nyota nods. "What are we going to be learning?"

"My assistant Denn has assigned you all to specific areas in the sleeping barracks; I thought we could communicate the look and location of the area."

As it turns out, Nyrok telepathy is something that Jim thinks could be pretty damn scary in the hands of the wrong person; it’s so far from invasive that the subtlety of it feels too easy. They all gather in one of the two huge hangar decks and feel like they’re supposed to be watching a demonstration when Denn rises up out of his chair, but it’s all pretty unceremonious. He doesn’t even lift his hands and there’s nothing to watch; the new knowledge is simply there, and a good half of the audience is convinced it hasn’t worked right until they pause to realize the mental image of their assigned sleeping spaces is as vivid as any genuine memories.

Sitting next to Jim, Bones tilts his head and says with gruff appreciation, “Huh. Wonder what else they can do with that trick.”

On their way heading to bed later, Bones goes aside to a pale-looking Jill who is looking after the anxious Hosanna with an insistent bracing grip. He takes the cat out of her arms but sits down next to her, and Jim knows that look more than well enough to understand he’s got some serious talk to lay on her. Jim tucks into his own business and goes to find Nyota, wondering vaguely what that’s about, but has good reason to assume that was Bones persuading Jill to start staggering her immuno-suppressants into less frequent doses.

Less than two days before they’re estimated to come into contact with Third House, while most of the ship is dreaming soundly, Jim and Nyota stir awake around the same time, still set to similar clocks, and notice that none of the Romulans are in their bunks, and neither is Bones. They hear from Charlie at breakfast that Jill had some intense chills and shortness of breath that woke her up in the night, but she's stable for the time. Jim's coffee goes cold before he's finished half of it. He goes over the notes a thirtieth time.

 

Gene takes the job of proctoring the reload timing the next evening, pushily marching everyone into sitting around a long ovular table in the cluttered seminar room.

With a batch of ten people at once sitting down with three semi-automatics each laid out in front of them, he announces, “Okay, you unload, strip, then reload for all three weapons in front of you. If you don’t already know how to take apart a gun that looks like this, please don’t waste our time even trying."

This whole thing seemed to be both his and Moreau's idea: a spirit of competition encouraging people to make an honest show about how competent they were with handling the hard guns, with the slowest and least practiced "winning" the phasers, of which they have only eleven. The fastest will have to negotiate among them who can handle the small-load revolvers as well as who gets one of the truly depressing stock of bigger rifles.

"We’re not going to do a strict bracket or anything, but we may test some people more than once. Obviously we didn’t load them but try not to be too embarrassing with your safety. If there are no questions, I’m calling hands off your pistols. Not those pistols, Rai. Yeah, fuck you too. Ready, set. Time!”

The room cocks and clicks. From where she's standing behind Leonard, Nyota notices Moreau is by far the fastest: she slides home the loads with a blind clockwork and sets her last gun down with time to start wondering what they’re serving in the mess, right before a Klingon across from her places second. Leonard makes some fumble while pulling back a barrel slide and knocks his magazine off the table, and Nyota lifts her left arm to disqualify him with her other hand giving him a regretful squeeze on the shoulder, making him chuckle and pat at her fingers.

Jim places fourth and then gets up to be her judge when they’re switching in another round.

She’s done this a handful of times and she’s only decent at it. Jill showed her how one day after accepting an offer of help with the gun cleaning and Nyota ended up fascinated by the Romulan’s fluid dexterity with the things that was like something out of an old action flick. It was a reminder that it’s the mechanics much more than the actual application of weaponry that Jill enjoys—one of the things Scotty affectionately recognized in her very quickly—but despite Nyota’s casual respect for what she sees as purely antique technology she can’t help hoping for a phaser whenever one is available, which makes the idea of intentionally going slow a little tempting. She noted when Gene was talking about their stock that he didn’t say whether the phasers were equipped with stun settings or not; probably it’s a mix of both.

She lets out a sigh just before Gene calls time: Either the table’s a weak one or it’s beginner’s luck, but she comes in third.

“Now, now,” Moreau is saying a little mockingly off at the wall, as one of the Romulans is grunting in irritation at his own poor speed. “It's not a contest.”

By the end of the day weapons are distributed, along with yet another update on tactical discussions that were carried out in the painstaking hours they've been spending around the dinner table going over finite details while cramming noodles and vitamin bread. Nyota’s third place somehow got her a phaser anyhow; she goes up to ask Gene about this, and he mutters around some explanation, not really trying to hide that he decided her experience made her too good a shooter to give her a weapon she wasn’t comfortable with. She tries to give his coy shrugging a stern look but ends up walking off listlessly.

“I think he’s right,” Jim says simply when she catches up to him where he’s gone to ask Brighton about something. "The tests were mostly a show anyway, so that he can say he was being careful about the fighters he doesn't know."

“Somebody who’s worse than I am with the old-fashioned guns will—”

“—will be more careful with how they choose their battles. You don’t think Gene’s considering that?” Jim's eyes go a little more reflective. “He isn’t taking this job lightly. He can’t be on the inside with the rest of us, and the mission’s important to him, so just let him have it, let him do his thing.”

“...Okay,” she finally concedes.

“It’s all a really complicated failsafe anyway. With any luck we’ll be able to disarm from the ground up and most of these people won't spend even a bullet...”

“I said okay,” she interrupts, but the terseness is said in affection, some chagrined look playing between them. “Have we picked up any blip of the base yet?”

“Not that I know of. And I guess I’d know.” He looks her up and down. “You should get some sleep.”

“...If you’re coming.”

He absently pulls her in at the hips to drop his head into her neck. “I’ll head off in a bit.”

A moment pulls by, and Nyota murmers into his ear, "She's looking at us again." Not exactly: Moreau's figure in the distance only gave a subtle motion of notice. But she doesn't like it.

"...It wasn't her idea," Jim says softly.

They won't be together during the raid, and they've barely talked about it; there's nothing to be said. "I know...It's fine. It's the right plan."

They unwind enough for her to accept a kiss. Her hand slides down his arm in a drift as she walks off, and before entering the hallway she turns briefly to look at him again. His hunched studying posture makes her long to know what their lives will be in a month, in a week. Not whether this will be over, but how it will be. The feeling is hungry and heavy, and tired.

She decides that when she wakes up later she’ll have to put in some target practice in the simulations chamber—if there’s still time.