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The Things That We Are Made Of

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Calix stumbled through the dark streets, his steps uneven and his gait unsteady. At the end of the dimly illuminated street, he turned to the right. The canal was to his left, and the popular waterfront stores and docks were empty at this late hour. Water pooled on the pavement, and unemptied dumpsters clustered at the corner filled the air with an unpleasant odor. In a few hours, when the sun rose over Qo’noS, the streets would come alive, first with the shop owners and suppliers, and then with customers. But Calix was thinking of none of these things as he wound his way towards home. His head and feet were heavy from the effects of bloodwine. It had been a young and sweet vintage,  smooth on the throat and warm in the belly. After thumping his first glass down on the counter, he’d called for another drink, and then another. It was only now, as he staggered between shadows, that he realized perhaps he’d taken his indulgence too far.

He leaned against a concrete wall, his breath heavy, and his stomach lurching. The nausea was acute, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down, preferably in his comfortable bed at home. He took a few uneven steps, blinking when a bright light shone on him as he passed a door. A few steps later, his left foot landed into a puddle, the water splashing up his leg and soaking his boot. He stumbled and fell to the ground. In the distance, he could hear the creak of the canal gates opening and water rushing past. He barely registered the warm stream of urine running down his leg.

As he slowly lifted himself up, he realized he wasn’t alone. Cloaked figures approached. One of them said his name. Another hit him. Calix barely registered the glint of the mek’leth before he felt the sharp pain in his side. He called out. Another stab, another punch. Calix lifted his hands, tried to defend himself, but the bloodwine dulled his response. He yelled again. Another stab, another punch. He collapsed on the ground. A steel toed boot to his ribs, a fist to his jaw, and a punch to his gut, and blood poured out of his nose. Rough hands rolled him across the pavement; gravel bit into his skin. He raised his hands to protect his face as another fist came towards him. His vision blurred. He screamed as he plunged off the pier. He sank beneath the waters, the pain in his head easing.

****

Miral jerked awake, her breath coming in short gasps as she sat up. She pressed her hands to her chest, trying to calm herself, but it was difficult. Calix, lying in a pool of blood, Calix floating in a canal, Calix dead. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, searching for the stability of the floor. A very faint trace of morning light peeked around the white window covering. She pulled on the string and the warm sun rays poured into the room, erasing the shadows left behind the night. Still breathing heavily, she went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and splashed water on her face. Her head felt heavy, her thoughts muddled. A raktajino would help, she knew. She stumbled into the kitchenette, the tile cool under her bare feet. At least she could feel that sensation and for this small comfort, Miral was grateful.

She inhaled the raktajino, reveling in its spicy aroma, and the smoothness of the beverage going down her throat. It felt like home and despite everything that had happened, Miral missed home. She gazed into her beverage. Her parents had accused her of running away, and her mother’s final words to her – A Klingon always faces her adversary in battle with honor and courage” – still haunted her. What if L’Naan was right? What if she was running away? And more to the point, she knew everyone on Qo’noS would know she had run; it wouldn’t matter that she had come to Earth to attend a workshop when everyone else believed something else entirely. When she did return home, she would have a lot of explaining to do and it was very possible her reputation – no, her honor – would never recover. She was still replaying her mother’s words when her comm rang. Frowning, Miral got up to answer.

“Good morning.” John Torres’ cheery voice rang out. “I hope it’s not too early? I assumed you were having trouble adjusting to the time difference just like I am. I hope I’m not wrong.”

“No, it’s fine.” Miral cleared her voice. She realized it had been at least two days since she’d spoken to anyone and that last person had been John Torres, when he’d been kind enough to see her to the apartment.

“Anyway, my friend Bill and I were planning to go to a Klingon restaurant for lunch today. We were wondering if you wanted to join us, tell us what’s good.”

Miral swiped her hand across her eyes. She didn’t really feel like company right now, but then as she took in the contours of the small apartment, the grey walls suddenly seemed to close in on her. She did not relish the idea of spending another twenty-four hours cooped up in here, with nothing but memories and regret for company. Miral nodded even though she knew John couldn’t see her. “I would like that,” she said.

“How about Bill and I come by around 1100 hours?”

Miral checked the chronometer. That would be in about five hours. “I will be ready then.”

“Great. We’ll see you then.”

Miral busied herself around the apartment while she waited. There wasn’t much to do. The apartment itself was compact in layout, with a kitchenette in one corner and then a half room divider separating the tiny sleeping area with its utilitarian single bed from the living room. The living area was simply furnished with a gray sofa, a low glass and steel table set upon a gray and maroon area rug, and a tall lamp. An abstract print in reds and grays on the wall was the only decoration in the place. In the kitchenette, the round glass and steel dining table was equipped with two steel backed chairs with thin maroon cushions on the seats. The cabinets themselves were of a shiny gray material Miral couldn’t name and the handles were thin metal bars. The counter top was black, contrasting with the gray cabinets and white tiled floor.

Miral had already unpacked all her belongings, hanging her clothing in the one closet in the sleeping area, and placing other items in the bathroom and the kitchen. As she organized the items, she contemplated the complete lack of personality in the place. If she’d been staying longer than four months, she would have thought about adding her own personal touch, but as it was, she didn’t want to collect more things she would need to haul back to Qo’noS at the end of her stay.

At exactly 1100, the door chimed and Miral opened it. John Torres stood there, dressed casually in a blue tunic and brown pants. The man next to him was slightly taller than John, stockier in build, and with reddish-brown hair, and eyes that sparkled with warmth and intelligence.

“Miral, meet Bill Ross. Bill, this is Miral,” John said. “You ready to go? I’m starving. Skipped breakfast in anticipation of lunch.”

“Let me tell you, I’ve been listening to his stomach growl all morning,” Bill said in a tone that spoke more of affection and amusement than true irritation.

“Let’s go,” John said. “We can walk. It’s only about ten minutes from here. If that’s okay with you, Miral.”

“That is fine,” she said quickly as she followed them down the stairs.

Outside, the sun was bright and there were no clouds in the sky. There was a gentle breeze in the air. Miral walked just to the side of John, trying to follow his lighthearted conversation with Bill. There was an ease in their interaction that she appreciated, but at the same time, felt out of her element. Her friends back home – those who were left, that is – didn’t spend much time on idle small talk. In fact, now that she thought about it, Miral wasn’t sure exactly what she and her friends talked about. She rarely discussed writing with them, and since she’d dropped out of the university, she couldn’t even follow their conversations about courses or professors. She certainly didn’t talk about Calix and they never asked her.

“Here we are,” John said, gesturing towards the restaurant. It was set in a block of stores, and a bright red light flashed ‘Open’. Inside, the aromatic spices of Klingon cuisine filled the air, twisting Miral’s stomachs with sudden homesickness. The restaurant itself was dimly lit and black-framed paintings depicting the passion between Lukara and Kahless lined the walls. All twelve tables were empty, and the hostess – a bored human woman who couldn’t be more than twenty years old – indicated the trio should sit anywhere. John Torres selected a table by the window. Bill sat opposite John, leaving Miral with the uncomfortable decision of where to sit. Finally, she decided to sit next to John.

“So, what should we start with?” John asked. “Raktajinos, of course, but what else?”

Miral studied the menu. The restaurant had ten different kinds of gagh on the menu, not to mention several varieties of blood pie. But eyeing the concerned look on Bill’s face as he perused the menu and recalling John Torres ordered a bland chicken salad sandwich on their journey from Utopia Planetia, Miral thought perhaps the grilled leg of lingta served with grapok sauce might be more suitable for the human palate. She also decided to order some jlnqoq bread and zilm’kach jelly.

“No gagh?” John asked as the waiter departed with their order.

“I would like to see how this restaurant prepares these basic items,” Miral said. Across from her, Bill gave her a grateful look. “Gagh must be prepared very fresh and I’m uncertain whether it will be up to my standards as we are very far from Qo’noS.”

“I’m looking forward to the lingta,” Bill said brightly and then he added, hesitantly, “Is that some kind of animal?”

Miral nodded. “It is similar to your species, the deer, I believe it is called.”

Bill looked relieved. “That sounds delicious.” He lifted his mug of raktajino. “To new cuisines and cultures,” he said.

“Cheers,” John said, tipping his mug against Bill’s. Miral quickly followed suit.

“So how long are you here for?” Bill asked.

“Four months. I’m attending a writing workshop with Jeff Tabor. It starts next week.”

“Jeff Tabor?” Bill frowned. “I think I read some of his stuff. He writes psychological thrillers, right?”

John shrugged. “Beats me. I’d never heard of him until Miral mentioned him.” He twisted in his chair to look at Miral. “What’s his writing like anyway?”

“His novels are extremely intense,” Miral said. “He believes in studying the criminal mind, understanding how and why it behaves the way it does and the actions that drive an individual. His research is compelling, and he is very thorough in his analysis and descriptions.” She paused for moment. Calix, in a pool of blood, Calix floating in the canal, Calix dead. “Because he does not ignore any aspect of psychology or leave any detail out, his descriptions and characters are exceptionally vivid.” And haunting, she wanted to add.

“Didn’t he also write that true crime book not too long ago? About the thirty-year unsolved murder on Vulcan and how he retraced the path of the victim, talked to all the witnesses, and during his investigation, uncovered new evidence as to what really happened? There was a fascinating documentary about it not too long ago. I hear the murderer will be standing trial in a few months.” Bill leaned forward. “If it’s the same guy, I’d love to hear about some of his techniques.”

“It is,” Miral said stiffly.

John regarded her with some surprise. “You told me you wrote romance. This workshop might take you in an entirely different direction.”

“I am aware that psychological mysteries are not my strength, but this will give me an opportunity to learn from an exceptional writer who has great control over his craft,” Miral said. Thankfully, the waiter arrived with their order. The lingta was arranged artfully on a white plate circled with gold trim, while the jlnqoq bread and zilm’kach was served on a wooden board, surrounded by an assortment of colorful fruits native to the Klingon homeworld.  To Miral’s relief, John inhaled the aromas and then helped himself to a large portion of the lingta. Bill was more cautious but then he followed suit.

“This is delicious,” John said after a few bites. “I would have never tried to this on my own, so thank you for steering us in the right direction.”

“Agreed,” Bill said. “I will admit, I’ve had gagh before and it probably wasn’t prepared with the care you were describing earlier. But this—” he waved his fork and knife rapturously over his plate “—is delicious.”

Miral was secretly thrilled with their reactions. “I am honored you find this meal worthy of you.”

“What do you think?” John asked. “Would you order the gagh here now?”

“Yes,” Miral said as she speared another piece of lingta on her fork. “The meat is tender, the garpok sauce is well flavored and the right consistency. I find the bread to be fluffy and the jelly is quite fresh and not overly sweet.”

“We should bring Rafe, Robbie and Louise here,” John said to Bill. He then turned back to Miral. “Some of our other friends. Rafe, Robbie, Bill and I all live in the same apartment complex. Robbie and Louise lived across the hall from each other and one thing led to another, as they say. They got married last year.” He winked at Bill. “We don’t see them that often anymore.”

They continued eating and Miral was pleased to see there were no leftovers. The chef would be honored by the humans’ appetites, she knew, and the next time she returned, she would order the gagh. She was about to suggest a dessert when Bill’s personal comm device beeped. He pulled it out, frowned, and then looked at John.

“It’s Ellora,” he said in surprise.

“You should take that,” John said with a knowing grin. “Don’t worry. Miral and I can entertain ourselves while you take that call.”

With a grateful look, Bill left his seat and went outside. Miral turned to John with a questioning glance.

“Someone he met on shore leave,” John said. “They apparently hit it off, and despite her promises, I don’t think he actually ever expected to hear from her again.”

“He seems happy that she called,” Miral said.

“Bill is perpetually happy. Nothing bothers him, and that attitude has served him well in Starfleet.  He’s five years in and already made lieutenant. I have no doubt that one day soon, he’ll have his own command,” John said. He wiped his lips with a napkin. “What about you? What makes you happy?”

Miral stared at him in disbelief. What was it about this human that he continually managed to ask such deeply personal and intriguing questions? Truth be told, Miral didn’t know the answer to the question posed to her. A few years ago, she might have responded with any number of things, but now, she didn’t know. Her days and nights were haunted by one image, and the continual horror of it didn’t leave much room for any other emotion.  So she answered truthfully. John considered her response thoughtfully.

“I get it,” he said finally. “Happiness is such a vague construct, isn’t it?” He sighed. “What about writing? You’re coming such a long way to get better at it. Doesn’t writing make you happy?”

“It is an escape,” Miral said softly. She’d never spent much time writing at all before Calix died. Unable to talk to anyone about what had happened, she’d started spilling her thoughts into a journal, and over time, she’d found a writing community on subspace, encompassing dozens of worlds and species. In that community, under a pseudonym, she found it easy to slip into a different persona altogether. Grief, sadness, tension, suspense, anxiety – that jumble of emotions that she couldn’t seem to escape in her real life – didn’t exist in this community. She could, momentarily, put aside reality, and pretend to be someone else.

“Is that why you write romance?”

“It’s what I read as a child. It’s what I know, what’s popular on my world.” She didn’t mean to sound defensive, but she’d fallen into the genre by chance after finding the writers’ group. The romance stories others posted were often light-hearted and humorous, never stressful or anxiety-inducing.

“I never have thought of Klingons as being particularly romantic,” John said. Miral gestured towards the paintings on the wall. The human has a lot to learn, she thought, biting back a smile.

“The story of Lukara and Kahless. Their hearts only beat for each other,” Miral said. “The triumph of love is as worthy a victory as that one against the fiercest enemy in battle.”

“Now that I can drink to,” John said. He lifted his mug and downed the last of his raktajino. “Still, you didn’t answer my question from earlier. Why Jeff Tabor? Why not find someone who specializes in romance?”

“I told you,” Miral said, trying not to let annoyance slip into her tone. After all, John Torres was pretty much the only friend – if she could dare call him that – she had on Earth. Maybe even in this galaxy, but she pushed that disturbing thought away quickly. “I found merit in his work and the workshop came at an appropriate time in my life.” She shrugged. “I had the time and it seemed like a good opportunity.”

“I see.” John regarded her contemplatively. “I hope it works out for you.”

“What about you?” Miral asked impulsively. “What makes you happy?”

John shrugged. “Cliché as it is, friends and family.”

“You have a large family?”

John shook his head. “It’s just my parents and my brother, Carl. My parents live a couple of hours from here in Oregon; they bought themselves a cottage on the beach. Carl’s married and on Kessik IV.” At Miral’s curious look, John clarified, “Kessik IV is in the Beta Quadrant. He got a job there at a trading post.” John’s expression seemed to take on a faraway look. “He failed the entrance exam to the Academy. My father was so disappointed.” He shook his head. “A few days later, Carl found the job at Kessik IV and took the first shuttle out. Married a girl he met there too. Her name is Miranda, and she’s pregnant with their first child now.” He sighed. “I haven’t seen Carl in three years. He keeps saying he’s going to visit but the Beta Quadrant is far and now that Miranda’s pregnant… What about you?”

“My father died when I was a child, but my mother—"

“L’Naan?”

Miral nodded, surprised John remembered. “Yes. She’s on Qo’noS. She is a doctor. She remarried when I was eight.” She hesitated and decided there was nothing to say about the man who wanted to call himself her father. “My brother Calix died two years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” John’s expression reflected genuine sympathy and compassion. He covered Miral’s hand with his own. “That must have been so difficult for you.”

Miral cleared her throat. “Thank you,” she said gruffly. And she said softly, “I think about him every day.”

“It sounds like you were close.”

She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. It had been so long since she had spoken of Calix to anyone other than her mother. Back home, it was almost as if he had never existed. If someone had asked, Miral would have admitted that yes, that worse than death was the agony of being forgotten. She had often thought she was strong enough to remember for them both but there were times when she faltered. As she looked at John Torres, she saw a kindness in his expression, compassion even. She sucked in her breath. “We were – are – twins.”

John squeezed her fingers between his. “Oh Miral.” His voice was tender. “That must have been – must be – so difficult for you.” His fingers played with hers. “I am so sorry.”

“Yes.” She felt emotion catch in the back of her throat as her eyes watered. She turned away, her fingers still intertwined with his. “I see his face every night before I sleep and then when I wake.” She turned back to John. “I apologize for my weakness.”

“No.” John thumbed a tear off her cheek. “I understand. And you are not being weak.” He sighed. “What you’ve been through, what you’re going through, it’s hard. I can’t even begin to imagine.”

At that moment, Bill came back. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No, no,” John said hastily. He withdrew his hand from Miral’s but not without giving her a deeply sympathetic glance. “How is Ellora?”

“She’s coming to San Francisco. Tonight.” Bill seemed flustered.

John’s eyes widened. “You must have made quite an impression on her.”

“I’m just as surprised as you are,” Bill said in awe. “She’ll be here in a few hours.”

“I guess that keeps the anticipation period short, huh?” John asked.

“That’s one way of putting it.” He looked at Miral apologetically. “I’m so sorry but I’m going to have to cut the afternoon short, but it was a pleasure meeting you.” He gave John a knowing glance. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

After Bill was gone, John turned to Miral. “I don’t know what plans you have for the afternoon,” he said, “but I’m on my last few hours of leave. Would you like a tour of the Academy?” His grin was sincere. “You did say it was on your list of things to see in San Francisco.”

“That would be very nice,” Miral said softly.