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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.

Chapter Text

John Torres turned his face towards the sun as he and Miral walked across the campus. At the edge of the beautifully landscaped grounds, the waters of San Francisco Bay glistened as they churned beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the white-capped waves foaming as they crashed into the rocks and boulders littering the shore. The waters were a deep blue today and looked cool and inviting. It had been several years since he’d last risked a dip into the chilly bay waters, and without a wetsuit, he’d only lasted a few minutes before deciding to get out. Since then, John had much preferred the warmer waters of the Caribbean or Mediterranean.

Because it was an academic day, the campus bustled with activity. Uniformed cadets crisscrossed the campus and John and Miral continually had to adjust their path and gait to account for the cadets’ frenetic movements. It didn’t seem that long ago when John Torres had been one of them. He felt a bit of nostalgia as he stepped to the side again to let a large group pass them.

“When I first arrived here, even though I’d done a campus tour and had visited a few times with my father, I still found it overwhelming,” John said. “The campus seemed enormous to me and just finding the right building, getting there before class started – it seemed like an impossible time. Over time I discovered short-cuts and managed to make it from one end of campus to the other in 15 minutes.” It seemed like an odd thing to brag about, but John had been genuinely proud the day he’d clocked the 15-minute sprint from Memorial Hall to Starfleet Command. 

 He enjoyed pointing different sights out to Miral, including the various buildings where he’d completed coursework. Miral seemed genuinely interested, and at one point, as they observed a group of cadets playing Velocity on the grounds, she noted just how similar the campus was to the one she’d attended on Qo’noS.

“We had a similar playing ground,” she said. “A garden surrounded by academic buildings. I liked to take my books out and spread a blanket on the grass to study, especially on a warm day. We Klingons, we don’t like the cold.”

“What did you major in?” John asked, intrigued. All the stories he’d ever heard about Klingons were about their warrior-like nature and moralistic ideas of honor and courage in battle. Miral, however, was redefining everything he thought he’d know about Klingons.

“Legal studies. I wanted to be a lawyer,” Miral said.

“But instead you decided to take up writing.”

She offered him a sad smile. “I did not complete my coursework.”

“Why not?”

Miral kept walking and John wondered if he’d asked the wrong question. It was a feeling he’d been getting on and off during all his interactions with Miral. It wasn’t that her personality was prickly, per se, but more that her reactions to nearly everything he said or did were less than opaque. In one way, John appreciated Miral’s expressiveness. Rosetta Pike, his former girlfriend, managed her emotions well, never letting anything slip unless she wanted it to. In retrospect, Rosetta’s impassiveness provided perfect cover for the surprise ending of their relationship.  

“Miral?” John picked up the pace to keep up with her. “Hey, I’m sorry.”

She stopped then. “Why?”

“Look, if any of my questions make you uncomfortable—”

“They do not.”

“I keep getting the feeling I’ve insulted you.”

Miral shook her head. “No, you have not. Why would you think that?”

“Your reactions to my questions.”

“You ask very personal questions,” Miral said softly, her voice trembling. John wondered if she was going to cry. God, what had he done?

“I’m just trying to get to know you,” he said apologetically. “Make conversation.”

“I know,” Miral said with unexpected gentleness. “And understand that I appreciate your efforts.” She took a deep breath. “You humans, you are very inquisitive, aren’t you?”

John felt the corners of his lips turn up. “You could say that. But listen, you don’t have to answer anything—"

Miral held up her left hand. “I left the university after my brother died. I—I found it difficult to focus.” She stared towards the bay. In the distance, the hills of Marin County rippled in hues of blue and green. “I still find it difficult.”

“I am sorry.” Every time she brought up her brother, John felt stymied by his inability to find the exact words. Platitudes seemed inadequate, generic, and it was clear to him Miral’s pain was still very raw. But he didn’t know her well enough to offer anything more than sympathy and he certainly wasn’t going to lie and tell her that he understood what she was going through.

“There is nothing for you to apologize. My brother’s death is not your fault.”

“I know. But if there’s anything I can do to help…”

“I appreciate it,” Miral said. She stared at the group of cadets still playing Velocity. “You must have been happy here.”

“I was,” John said. He gave a short laugh. “More importantly, my father was happy.”

“Why did you come to the Academy and join Starfleet if it did not make you happy? You mentioned your unhappiness about your career when we were on the Livingston. I do not understand this choice you made. I always thought humans had more… freedom.”

“I guess it’s my turn to be on the hot seat, huh?” he said, and then at Miral’s confused expression, he explained, “Just that I’ve been asking all the questions and now it’s my turn. But that’s fair.”

“So?”

“My father was in Starfleet and he wanted his sons to carry on the tradition. It’s that simple,” John said. “From day one, he talked to us about what life in Starfleet would entail, the sacrifices we would make, but at the end of the day, it would be well worth it because we were in Starfleet.” John scuffed at the pavement with the tip of his boot. “It wasn’t quite a shove, you know, but more like a strong hand on my back pushing me in the direction he wanted me to go. By the time I finished high school, I didn’t feel like I had any other choices. And because I didn’t know what else I might want in life, the Academy seemed to be as good of an option as any other.” He sighed. “I did well, particularly in the Science and Engineering tracks, but the stars lure me. So science it is.” He smiled. “Not a very romantic story, is it?”

Miral smiled, and John realized this was the first time he’d seen her smile. Her lips parted just enough to reveal sharp, pointed teeth, but he also saw she had a dimple, a feature he wouldn’t have normally associated with Klingons.

“No,” she said, “but it is an honest story. Perhaps one that has been told many times over several millennia.”

“Probably,” John said. “I’m hoping this next assignment is more interesting to me. I’d like to capture some of the excitement my father felt.”

“When do you find out?”

“Tomorrow.” John stood up and extended his hand to Miral. After a second, she grasped it and he pulled her fluidly to her feet. “I have to report to Commander Whitney’s office at 0900 hours. Not a minute earlier, not a minute later. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes or so.” He gestured towards the footpath that would take them down to the edge of the water. “Come on, there’s still more to see.”

They walked in companionable silence and John noticed passersby giving them a double-take on occasion. He hoped Miral didn’t notice and if she did, hoped she’d understand that Klingons on Earth were a relatively rare phenomena.

“That’s the main engineering building,” John said, pointing out the six-story building. “The first two years I was here, I thought I’d go into engineering, but then I had an absolutely fantastic professor for the Introduction to Astrometrics course. Professor Tal, for Vulcan. Not exactly the type of person you’d expect to generate enthusiasm for a subject, but somehow, he did.  And I did the stint on the USS Chapin and that was that. I changed tracks.  My father was somewhat shocked, but he accepted my decision after some discussion.  Actually, a lot of discussion.” John grinned at the memory. His father, who had chosen Engineering as his chosen field, was solely governed by logic; he’d found the idea of his son switching fields simply because he enjoyed and liked one more than the other to be anathema. The result had been hours and hours of debating the pros and cons of Science versus Engineering. But John had held firm. It was either Science or nothing, he’d finally told his father. “But that’s over now, though give my father a chance to relive it, and he will.” His father’s ability to never let anything go was legendary within the Torres family. “

Miral smiled wryly. “Sounds like my mother. She never forgets a single slight.”

“I guess parents are the same, no matter where you come from.” John stopped as he noticed Miral limping slightly. She was wearing thick leather boots, narrow near the toe and high in the heel – footwear clearly made for style, and not for a long stroll across the Academy.

“Were you happy with your decision?” Miral asked.

“Are you asking if I have any regrets about switching? No.” John pointed out a bench beneath a tall Sequoia. “Want to take a break? I’m a little tired.”

Miral smiled at him gratefully and John was struck by just how pretty she was: the high, angular planes of her cheekbones, the wide set grey eyes beneath the complicated braid of ridges on her forehead, all framed by flowing brown curly hair.

“That would be nice,” Miral said. She sighed as she stretched her feet out, her gaze moving towards the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. “San Francisco is such a lovely city. You have been so lucky to be here, to enjoy this.”

John considered. He’d been in the city more than six years now and of all the many places he’d lived, this was by far the most beautiful place he’d been. “I’ve had a lot fun here,” he said. “There’s a lot to do. Theater, music, museums, the beaches, the mountains. And it’s not terribly hard to go across the planet, if you want, or even to Mars.”

“Do you travel a lot?”

“When I can. We get a certain amount of leave. One advantage about being stationed on Earth is I generally get weekends free unless there’s interstellar phenomena occurring that I need to monitor so it gives me some freedom to explore.”

“Where do you like to go?”

“Anywhere with mountains,” he said finally. “I like hiking, like smelling the trees around me, listening to the birds.” He smiled at the memory of his most recent hike in the Cascades. There was something very soothing about making one’s way down a mud trail, footsteps muffled on a bed of pine needles. “We moved a lot when I was a kid because of my dad being in Starfleet. Cities, planets, stations, they all changed, and always took some time to adjust.” He paused for a moment as he remembered hesitating the door of yet another classroom, looking at all the faces staring back at him. “I started hiking when I was ten. We’d just moved to Calpine Two and our house was at the edge of a nature preserve. The first day of school didn’t go well and I just wanted to be anywhere else, didn’t even want to go home.” He took a deep breath. “So, I found a path and—” his voice shook slightly “—I found a kind of peace there among the trees. Eventually I made friends and every day was gradually less terrible than the day before. And just when I’d thought I’d found my place, we moved again.”

Miral touched his hand gently. “That sound like a lot for a small child to adjust to.”

“Well, that’s the life of a Starfleet brat,” John said. He got to his feet and indicated the path. “Do you want to go closer? The view of the bridge is spectacular from the footpath.”

“I would like that.”

As they took the last few steps down towards the water, John saw the gardener, Boothby, tending to the roses along the path.

“John,” Boothby said with a warm smile. “Please, introduce me to your friend.”

“This is Miral, daughter of L’Naan,” John said. “She’s visiting for a few months.”

Boothby bestowed that same gracious smile on Miral, his eyes twinkling with kindness. “Welcome to San Francisco. You’re in good hands with Ensign Torres.”

“Thank you,” Miral said. She cast a grateful look in John’s direction. “He has been very kind.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Boothby said. “John has always been very inviting to newcomers to our city and especially, our campus.”

“Boothby knows everyone,” John said to Miral. “And everyone knows Boothby.”

“You exaggerate,” Boothby said. He carefully clipped a pink rose and handed it to Miral. “A flower for the lovely lady.”

Miral’s expression softened into genuine delight. She sniffed at the delicate petals and offered Boothby a wide smile, showing just the slightest bit of sharp white teeth. “What a beautiful flower,” she said. “You’ve tended it well and it has grown strong.” She fingered the petal lightly. “Thank you.”

“I’m glad you liked it.”  Boothby looked at John, his expression suddenly serious. “You treat this one well, Ensign.”

“I intend to,” John said. Boothby seemed satisfied with that answer and waved them off as he turned back to his flowers.

Miral sniffed the rose again appreciatively. “It was sweet of him to give me this flower.”

“He must really like you,” John said. “He wouldn’t cut his precious roses for just anyone.”

“I am honored.”

“You should be,” John said. He took his next few paces in contemplative silence. What had Boothby meant exactly? Treat this one well, he’d said. Was it a warning, given what happened with Rosetta? And there was no doubt Boothby, being as tuned in with all things Starfleet as he was, knew about Rosetta. John felt sudden warmth in his cheeks as he came to the stunning realization that everyone must know by now. He pressed his lips into a thin line, his eyes swimming with tears. Miral’s hand fell gently on his arm.

“John,” she said. “Is everything all right?”

He cleared his throat and blinked the tears out of his eyes. “Sorry, I was just thinking about something. Someone.”

“Someone who meant a great deal to you.”

“Yes.” He paused. “But that’s all in the past.” He gazed resolutely out towards the Pacific. The sun was low on the horizon, golden light streaking the pale sky. In time, he knew he would be able to appreciate the sunset again, but for now, it only reminded him of his last night with Rosetta. “It’s getting late. We’d better get you back to your place.”

They walked back across the campus in silence. John couldn’t help brooding. Spending the day with Miral had been a nice enough distraction, but starting tomorrow, he knew he’d have to face the gossiping tongues, not to mention receiving his new assignment.

“Well, I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?” he asked brightly.

Miral started. “What did you say?”

“It’s just an old Earth saying,” John said. “You know, just the experiences you have in life, how they form and define you as a person? If you survive whatever happens to you, you come out a different person.”

Miral regarded him with a critical eye and John suddenly had the feeling of once again saying something wrong. After a moment, she released the tension, saying quietly, “Yes, I understand now.”

As they approached her apartment building, John felt a twinge of guilt. He knew Miral would have another week before her workshop started but he would be busy now that his leave was ending in the morning. Oh well, he thought, Miral wasn’t really his problem. He was sure she’d make friends soon enough. That was the great thing about the location of her apartment; her complex was filled with cadets and most of them were willing and open enough to extend friendship to someone new in their midst.

“Thank you for spending the day with me,” John said. “I had a good time.”

“I did too.” Miral was smiling as she looked at John. “Now I have at least one thing crossed off my list.”

“What else did you have on your list?” John teased.

Miral’s cheeks flushed red. “I have always wanted to visit Paris. I hear it is a beautiful city.”

“It is.”

“You have been there then?”

Was that a note of disappointment he heard in her voice? John nodded. “During my senior year at the Academy. It’s a requirement to take a course on the basics of government and law as it applies to the Federation and the highlight of that class is a visit to the Federation Headquarters in Paris. We didn’t get to meet the president; she was off world at the time, but it was still an amazing experience.”

“Perhaps I will plan on a visit before my workshop begins,” Miral said, but she looked uncertain. “But I’m not sure what to do or where to go.”

“My friends were just there a couple of weeks ago,” John said. “I can get you their recommendations.”

“I would appreciate that. Thank you.”

“I’m back on duty tomorrow,” he said, “but I will try to check in on you when I can. And you know how to contact me, so if you need anything at all, please, don’t hesitate.”

“I won’t. Thank you.” She gave him another smile. “Good night.”

John watched as Miral entered the building, the door slamming behind her with a resounding thud. After a moment, he turned and walked away, head bowed, hands tucked into pockets.

****

He ran ahead down the road, ignoring Carl’s calls to slow down. Every step put distance between himself and the school and he wasn’t about to slow down now. He could see their house – squat, brown, with a pair of windows on either side of a dull wooden door – ahead. He threw a disdainful look in the direction of the house. It wasn’t home, not yet; that was what he’d called the last place and the place before that. He wasn’t sure when the feeling of belonging would return. It seemed to take longer and longer with every move.

Just behind the house, the green lawn rolled into a ribbon of creek, and then a small incline led up to the grove of tall trees. John shrugged off his backpack, dropping it just inside the fence edging the proper. Carl continued to yell but John simply picked up speed. He easily hop-scotched across the creek and then sprinted up the incline. The trees were evenly spaced, and John realized this grove wasn’t natural; someone had planted it. No matter; he could still disappear here. He slowed his pace and found a path through the trees. He kept running.

 The path led to a small round glade, surrounded by the tall trees. The pine needles on the ground muffled his footprints.  He leaned over, hands on his knees, finally catching his breath. Fatigue filled his body. He stared up at the canopy of leaves above him. Every now and then, he heard the crack of a branch. He flopped on the ground, staring up at the white clouds swirling against the blue sky. The forest echoed with the call of birds chirping their conversations back and forth. The air was fresh with the smell of earth and pine.  He’d never felt so alive.

~ the end