‘Oh, hey, this must be why you left,’ said Cortez by way of greeting as she sauntered through the doors to the main offices of Admiral Beckett’s staff. ‘The replicators here look like the newest model so they must give you the good coffee.’
Davir Airex looked up like she’d not only appeared suddenly but sprouted a second head while she was at it. ‘Commander. I didn’t expect to see you here.’
‘I can tell by your expression of sheer delight. The yeoman out front heard I served with you on Endeavour and thought you might like a visitor.’ Cortez swaggered through the bullpen with her mug of coffee. At this time of day most of the desks were empty, but she still looked around with an assumed air of superiority, just to be annoying. ‘And yet, back home you had your own office.’
Airex sighed, seeming to realise his former comrade was not going to be dissuaded. ‘I can give you ten minutes.’
‘Oh, with the galaxy no longer in immediate danger you can spare me that much, huh?’ She pulled up a chair. ‘Come on, Airex. I saved your life on Teros. Fifteen minutes.’ Without waiting for a reply, she tilted the chair back. ‘How’ve you been anyway? For real.’
‘For real,’ he echoed in an arch tone. But after a moment he subsided. ‘There are a lot of worse jobs than serving as a scientific advisor to the Director of Fourth Fleet Intelligence. My opinion here can have a galactic impact.’
‘A lot of worse jobs,’ she echoed in turn, tilting her head. ‘You sound giddy.’
Airex met her gaze. She had never been able to get a good read on him; would have figured him to be another uptight bureaucrat had he not from the beginning been Valance’s friend. But they hadn’t worked together much until the crisis at Teros, when he’d had one foot half out the door. ‘I don’t think you came here to ask about my wellbeing, Commander,’ he said at length.
Her brow furrowed. ‘I think your wellbeing’s pretty damn important to everything that’s going on. Of course I’m here because you left suddenly and people are confused and upset. That doesn’t mean I’m here to wriggle truths out of you with no care for your feelings.’
He leaned back with a sigh, but she caught his gaze flicker around the quiet bullpen, clearly noting who was or wasn’t in the room. ‘You want to ask why I left. Is it so difficult to believe that I was stifled by an assignment like a Manticore?’
‘Speaking as another officer accused of slumming it on Endeavour – no. But let’s not screw around, Dav, you left out of the blue, requesting transfer after a nothing assignment. If you were sick of the posting you’d have left after the Wild Hunt, or after the D’Ghor.’
‘Dav. We’re on first-name terms?’
‘I thought we were, after Teros. Or does that change depending on your mood?’ Cortez cocked her head. She didn’t normally have to strong-arm people, but either Davir Airex was a deeply damaged man or he was a deeply manipulative one. Either way, he’d slip through her grasp if she used a light touch. ‘Or is it just easier to act like you didn’t care about the ship now it’s out of sight?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Which sent you?’
‘You mean, am I here for Karana or am I here for Saeihr?’ She made sure to watch his reactions to either name, and wasn’t much enlightened. ‘Why can’t it be both? Okay, let’s not dive into the whatever the hell with you and Sae. But you and Karana were thick as thieves for years and all of a sudden you don’t just ditch Endeavour, you ditch her.’ Cortez hesitated. ‘She won’t say it, but you hurt her by leaving like this. And she misses you.’
Airex looked away again, gaze flickering. ‘Is there any explanation I can give which would satisfy you?’
‘I don’t think satisfying me should be the goal so much as trying the truth. Or are you trying to figure out what words will make me go away faster?’
‘This is rather irregular, Commander; barging into my place of work and -’
‘Oh, we’ve pivoted to professionalism.’ She snapped her fingers. ‘Don’t act like it’s not weird to leave your post with no notice and not reach out to your best friend when her ship’s docked at your station right after a crisis I know you were following. I read your reports from Abnia.’ She made sure to catch his gaze as she pressed on. ‘I’m pretty sure having that information from you saved our lives. Definitely saved Karana’s.’ Without all they’d known of the Tkon outposts, she wasn’t sure they could have talked the Portal down from the sandstorm that might have buried them all.
She watched the tiniest of flickers in his brow, the war raging in deep waters she could barely see a hint of. At length, Commander Airex straightened. ‘Honestly, I’m surprised you’re reaching out like this on Karana’s behalf. She’s a difficult person to be close to. You’ll make all of these emotional efforts and get nothing in return.’
Cortez frowned. ‘That’s a damned cold way of describing a friend.’
‘It means that I know her,’ he said, and met her gaze. ‘And I know that she’s not really capable of reciprocating such gestures and sacrifices. You can bend over backwards for her, and she’ll never be able to reach back in kind. If you think I owe you my life, Cortez, then let me do you that kindness: emotionally investing in Karana Valance is like venting warp plasma into a black hole. Your patented fixation with seeing and thinking the best of everyone will lead you to nothing but misery.’
‘I don’t -’ Anger had tightened her throat before realisation sank in, and her jaw set. ‘Oh, hell. You’re trying to play the bastard to drive me off.’
‘Or I’m free of Endeavour,’ said Airex bluntly, ‘and I don’t have to lie to you any more. Saeihr Kharth’s a similar sort of parasite. Her emotional needs will tie you up in knots, but don’t expect her to ever be there for you.’
‘I’m not rising to this,’ Cortez said, even though she fancied shaking him by then. ‘I’m not going back to them and telling them you’re a stone cold son-of-a-bitch they should give up on.’
‘As you wish.’ He shrugged. ‘Then tell them I was strange and evasive. Leave them dangling in agonising uncertainty that will never be answered. The simple truth, Cortez, is that I’m long gone, I’m not coming back, and they should forget about me. It’s up to you on if you want to torment them with hope. Perhaps I was just a bastard all along.’
She stood, aggravation coiled through her gut and up to her throat. ‘Fine. Have it your way.’ But she hesitated, and scowled at him before she turned. ‘I get the feeling you don’t have people in your life. Not any more. Forget, for a moment, about my relationships with Karana and Saeihr. I know you’re a good man, Dav. If you need me, if you need help, if you need an ear, just – just call me, okay? I won’t even tell them. Because if you’re who I think you are, then you’re hurting. A lot. And people shouldn’t hurt alone.’
Their gazes locked, and she fancied he faltered for a heartbeat too long than he would if he was the stone cold bastard he was pretending to be. But at last all he said was, ‘Good day, Commander.’
She left the cup of coffee behind on his desk. It wasn’t that much better a brew after all.
Karana Valance was right when she’d accused Rourke of downplaying his education and class, and he knew it. He was born, raised, and schooled on Earth, the shining light of Federation civilisation, opulence, and opportunity. He’d trained at the prestigious San Francisco campus of Starfleet Academy, later taught there, and in between he’d served on high-profile assignments the length and breadth of the Federation. He had dined with admirals, rubbed elbows with foreign ambassadors, and debated with leading minds of multiple governments. His tendency to play this down was not out of discomfort or shame; rather, he found it telling to assess how others, especially Starfleet officers he perceived as establishment souls, treated him if they thought he wasn’t half so privileged as them. All the time in between such experiences of culture and opportunity had been spent in some of the darkest and most fraught corners of the Federation, and he had no time for officers and officials who thought less of those who lived there.
This was all to say that his nervousness as he was shown to his table at Vandorin’s Bistro was not an affectation. ‘I’ll just have a still water while I wait,’ he said to the waiter a bit more brusquely than he meant as he sat down, then added, just as the man had begun to turn so he felt like more of an inconvenience, ‘Could you get a bottle of that sparkling emerald on standby, though; bring it and some glasses once she’s here?’
The waiter was clearly more accustomed to nervous guests than the guests were accustomed to the simple opulence of Vandorin’s, and soon enough Rourke found himself trying to not fidget with a glass, or cutlery, or his shirt collar while he waited. He was early, he knew that from the look he’d received at the front desk, but it didn’t make the delay any less nerve-wracking.
He had to fight to not bounce to his feet at the arrival of First Secretary Hale, and she made it easier for him by sliding into her seat before he’d fully processed her arrival. While he was wrong-footed by the whole establishment, she looked as at-ease in Vandorin’s as she had on his bridge, or in tense negotiations with a warbird commander, wearing the atmosphere of sophistication as comfortably as her cocktail dress.
Rourke grinned more than he should have. ‘First Secretary. Welcome back to Bravo. I don’t -’
Of course, that was when the waiter appeared, as if summoned by a dark and inconvenient force. ‘Your drinks, sir, ma’am,’ he declared, and at once popped the cork on the sparkling emerald to pour two delicate flutes. He left the bottle in the ice bucket before he vanished.
Hale’s eyebrows raised. ‘Esterra must be in a particularly prompt mood.’
Rourke was tempted to keep his mouth shut, but he reached for the glass. ‘I asked for it, but he was quick off the mark. I was hoping you’d have a chance to, well, breathe first.’
Her expression lightened. ‘And confirm if we have something to celebrate?’
‘We could drown ourselves in expensive emerald if not, I figured,’ he said with a shrug that belied his nerves.
‘Don’t worry, Captain.’ Hale lifted the flute. ‘This dinner isn’t goodbye. But I dare say the Diplomatic Service doesn’t expect me to celebrate being dispatched to the gloomiest border the Federation has.’
‘You got the mission? We’ve got the go-ahead?’ His grin went even broader as he lifted his glass to hers. ‘Then, uh. I should have had something pithy planned to toast.’
She tilted her glass. ‘To paying the devil.’
They drank and perused the menu, and Rourke let his heart rate slow with the news and the tart fizzing of the drink and the soothing strings of the live music flowing across the restaurant. At last he could let the opulence of Vandorin’s bring the comfort it was supposed to, instead of the tense apprehension that had laced him since his arrival.
Hale swept her gaze up from the menu. ‘You must have the right friends to get a table here within only a few days of arrival. I’ve never got in at such notice unless I was with a more important ambassador.’
‘Must have been lucky,’ he said, choosing to not mention he’d put himself down on the waiting list the moment they’d been in comms range of Starbase Bravo. ‘Or maybe I’m more notorious than you, First Secretary.’
She gave the smile he’d noticed could disarm an irate Romulan delegate. ‘If I’m going to run this diplomatic mission off your ship, and we’re going to represent the Federation out there together, we might do well to stop standing on such ceremony, Matthew. Or is it Matt?’
Almost nobody ever called him by his full name, but Rourke found himself not minding. ‘Matthew’s fine. Sophia,’ he said, his grin softening to share her smile, before he smothered it all with a timely gulp of emerald fizz. ‘I hope the Service didn’t drag you over the coals too badly for Ephrath.’
‘They weren’t thrilled I forced their hand,’ Hale admitted. ‘We’re more on the back foot with the Star Empire than anyone wanted. But with everything that happened in the crisis – not just Endeavour, there were multiple tensions on the border as Starfleet shut down supply lines – we were going to have to compromise.’
‘Is that going to be a problem for the Republic? They spend years wanting a close relationship with us, and now they worry we’ll abandon them to cosy up to the Star Empire that would destroy them?’
‘The Star Empire might be the biggest power talking to us,’ said Hale, her brightness not at all fading in the face of shop-talk, ‘but we can be frank here at dinner: the Federation wants the Republic on top in the region. They’re the democratic future who will treat with us, and we still expect them to reopen reunification talks with Vulcan once they’re more secure.’
Rourke blew his cheeks out. ‘You don’t think the Star Empire will still be here in ten, twenty years, do you.’
‘That’s common wisdom,’ sighed Hale. ‘But common wisdom was surprised they lasted this long. I think it depends on what the Free State does next, and now the Federation would much rather the two balanced each other out. Dealing with the Free State was always playing with a snake that might bite us; it just turned out they poisoned us longer ago than we knew.’
The waitstaff proved to have excellent timing, cutting off any maudlin consideration of the Attack on Mars by arriving to take their order. Rourke had to fight to keep himself from making any dismissive comments of anything he ordered, or anything he asked about, and when the waiter finally left, he found Hale’s level, assessing gaze on him.
He gave a slightly abashed smile. ‘I thought we could eat here to celebrate, and… so I could make up for that dinner on Endeavour.’
She gave a light, amused shrug. ‘I admit that wasn’t what I expected. I’ve had captains invite me to dinner with their staff, but that was usually so they could prove themselves masters of everything within their bulkheads. But you’re not the first to try to wrong-foot a diplomat.’
She’d had as much chance to assess him, he suspected, as he had her, and Rourke was reminded of his second motivation in dumbing himself down: it made it hard to disappoint people if you controlled their expectations. Hit with a sudden shame of the childish insecurity of his antics, he straightened. ‘How did you end up in diplomacy, then?’
A wistful look entered her eye. ‘My father was in the service, and was the Federation Ambassador to Qo’noS in the 60s,’ she explained. ‘So I grew up all over, and always around the life of a diplomat. I don’t think I wanted to do anything else.’
‘But you’ve always worked with the Romulans,’ he recalled.
‘My first job with the service was with the staff picking up the pieces of Federation-Romulan relations after the Shinzon Incident. At that time, not a lot of the Diplomatic Service had much experience of cooperating with the Star Empire; there were a lot of older diplomats much more used to the cold relationships of previous decades, so coming in at the ground floor then was… useful. Fewer preconceptions.’ Hale shrugged. ‘But y mentor was a big opponent of ending the evacuation after Mars, which made him a lot of enemies, so the rest of the service wasn’t lining up to offer anyone associated with him much work elsewhere.’
‘So that nailed your fortunes to the Romulan factions and kept you out there all that time?’ Rourke shook his head with a marvelling air. ‘That’s an astonishing commitment.’
She hesitated. ‘Not all that time. I took some Earth-based work after Mars; the service was fretting in that time about internal stability.’ But there’d been a further flicker to her expression, and she seemed to realise he’d noticed, the corners of her eyes creasing. ‘I was married, for about seven years. And then I wasn’t.’
Again he shook his head. ‘This wasn’t meant to be prying. Though believe me, I understand trying and failing to balance a marriage with a job like this.’
Her expression twisted ruefully. ‘I was trying to not bring the mood down. You misunderstand; I could work on Earth and be married to Henry. But he and our son were killed in a shuttle crash in ‘92, and a year later I came back to the frontier.’ As he rallied, he saw her expression steel, and he felt the sincerity as she leaned forward. ‘Which means we’re at the part of the meal where it gets awkward, which isn’t fair because you have a robust personnel file I’ve been able to read. So I have you at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing about each other, and I forbid you to turn dinner into feeling sorry for me.’
He felt the deft assurances; the insistence that they didn’t need to linger on old griefs, the inference that she knew he had at least some understanding of her loss if she’d read about the Firebrand. Rourke inclined his head. ‘Pity was the last thing on my mind, Sophia.’
‘Good.’ Her smile returned, a little strained at the edges but, he thought, sincere. ‘Or I’d have to remind you that you agreed this dinner is supposed to make up for the evening with your senior staff.’
Rourke gave a wry frown. ‘You should know I didn’t expect Valance to be that weird.’
‘She was compensating for you,’ Hale said gently. ‘So you might want to think about that next time you sell yourself short to make people underestimate you. It embarrasses your XO.’
He had to laugh, even as he felt himself flush. ‘Or I’ll bring Cortez instead.’
‘Of your staff, she might be the one I’d trust most to talk with people,’ Hale agreed. ‘Though I was surprised your recommendation of Lieutenant Kharth came so… measured.’ At his expression, she tilted her head. ‘She pushed very hard on that deal with the Star Empire. I’m not sure I could have hammered out the details without her.’
He straightened. ‘I didn’t know she did more than feed you information.’
‘If you sent her to me to keep her out of the way during Ephrath,’ said Hale with that same wry smile, ‘it not only failed, but you tried to bench one of your more insightful and loyal officers. I understand she was in a situation at Teros. But are you the only one allowed to feel disillusioned by Starfleet and have doubts, Matthew?’
That stopped him short, and Rourke worked his jaw for a moment. ‘I’d hope my crew don’t have their doubts about me,’ he managed, knowing it sounded weak. That was a poor counterpoint when they were all embedded in an institution whose flaws he was never going to dismiss or defend. He glanced away. ‘I guess a Romulan member of my crew has all the reason in the galaxy to be wary.’
‘You can want a better galaxy, believe in a better way of unity and cooperation, and still be cynical about the reality in front of you.’
He gave her a sidelong look. ‘Is this how our mission’s going to go? You’ll play diplomat not only with the Romulans, but with my crew?’
Sophia Hale’s smile widened with genuine amusement as she regarded him, and behind her the waitstaff approached their table with the first course. ‘Only if you need my help building bridges, Matthew.’