It was no small relief to feel the hum of Endeavour’s deck beneath her feet again. They’d been underway for ten hours now, departing Bravo that morning for the remnants of the Neutral Zone, and despite the station’s many comforts, space, and changes of scenery, Valance was glad. Endeavour was not a big vessel, and after spending most of the last few years in her narrow corridors she’d expected to enjoy variety more.
But Rourke was right. As her mood levelled out, as the shadows of Teros and Tagrador began to fade, their next mission was setting a spark in her veins she hadn’t felt for some time. For so long, Endeavour’s duties had been grim necessity, preventing serious threats to life and limb. This was about building something. Yet Valance couldn’t breathe freely, because it was their first night underway, the new lounge had been installed, and Captain Rourke had insisted on a party for the senior staff and anyone who could square away their duties to baptise it. A party she was in absolutely no mood for.
But she knew the XO couldn’t get away with not attending, she knew these instincts were ones she’d stayed on Endeavour to fight in the first instance, and she knew Rourke would frown on showing up in uniform. So she was stood before her wardrobe in pressed trousers and a vest, studying her shirts without much enthusiasm, when the door-chime sounded. ‘Come in!’ she barked, not looking back.
The doors behind her opened and closed. ‘Oh, uh… hey.’
Valance turned, eyebrow raised, and hesitated when she saw Cortez stood in a party dress – but more pressingly, fidgeting with a small bouquet of flowers. Valance’s shoulders squared. ‘Are you – is that…’ Are you here to sweet-talk me so I forget why I’m mad at you? she wanted to demand, but the flowers had, as was probably their intention, taken her aback.
‘This?’ Cortez waggled the bouquet. ‘Yes. These are for you,’ she said, advancing a step with flowers outstretched. Valance did not move, and she winced. ‘They come with an apology.’
‘Really,’ said Valance flatly. ‘What are you apologising for?’
‘Oh, we’re not screwing around here, huh.’ Cortez grimaced. ‘I’ll start with this: I’m sorry for making a joke of you suggesting we spend time together. I’m double-sorry doing that meant we didn’t spend any time together on Bravo.’
It would be easy to give in then, because if she held her ground she knew she was going to have to explain herself. Valance folded her arms across her chest. ‘And?’
Cortez’s shoulders slumped. ‘Okay. Really not screwing around.’ She looked about the quarters, and with a sigh set the flowers down on the high-top table. Turning back to Valance, she twisted her fingers together with unusual self-consciousness. ‘I got out of a serious relationship not a million years before I came to Endeavour. You know this.’
‘You asked me out,’ Valance said before she could stop herself. ‘If you weren’t interested in a relationship, why the hell did you do that?’
Cortez lifted her hands. ‘Woah, hold up. You’re jumping to Warp 10 there. Is that what pissed you off? You think I’m only interested in keeping this casual? We almost died in Archanis and I suggested we take weeks of leave together on the planet where I grew up. You met my parents.’
Valance hesitated. Anger had surged quicker than she liked, and she knew this was why she’d avoided this conversation. She disliked it when her feelings eluded her vocabulary, but she disliked it even more when they ran away from her. Her jaw tightened. ‘I don’t know what you want,’ she said at length, forcing her voice level. ‘You’ve called me out for being stand-offish, you’ve called me out for not navigating professional boundaries well, and every time I have tried to listen and improve and still it’s…’ Not enough, she didn’t dare say, tilting her chin up and trying to find anger again, because anger was less vulnerable.
‘Oh, cariño,’ Cortez sighed, expression softening with something approaching horror as she watched, and Valance tensed at the sense she was being seen through. ‘I’ve been screwing this up, but you’ve got it all wrong. You’ve been working hard, and I’m grateful – but I didn’t want to push you.’ At Valance’s nonplussed expression, she took an awkward step forward – then stopped. ‘I thought I was letting you set the pace on the relationship, because I didn’t want to spook you or pressure you or anything. And then I let that turn into me not making enough of an effort.’
Valance felt herself simmer down, and tried to not look surly. ‘What does that have to do with just getting out of a serious relationship?’
‘It made it pretty seductive for me to not try,’ Cortez admitted bashfully. ‘I was telling myself it made me a good and thoughtful girlfriend to move at your pace, but it also gave me an excuse to hold back. To protect myself.’
‘I’m not Aria,’ Valance said at length, because she wasn’t sure what else to say. ‘I’m not cheating on you.’
‘I know. I know.’ Cortez sighed, but drew a deep breath and straightened. ‘I didn’t come to this ship too broken-hearted and messed-up to commit, but seduce you anyway and convince you to try to work on a relationship I had no intention to get serious about. I promise that’s not going on, and I’m sorry I made you feel like that.’
Despite herself, Valance shifted her weight. ‘Okay.’ She hesitated, not quite ready to accept the apology, not so unappeased she wanted to throw Cortez out. ‘I don’t know what you need from me.’
The corners of Cortez’s eyes creased. ‘To accept that I’m gonna screw this up sometimes, but I’m… sure, I got out of a serious relationship not long before we met, but you get that means I fell for you real hard, right?’ She advanced slowly, and Valance didn’t pull back or stop her from coyly reaching out to take her hand. ‘And maybe I work on this and we go to that party together. Once I pick your shirt.’
Valance worked her jaw, her defences feeling like sand shifting underneath her, scrambling away at Cortez’s closeness. She didn’t know if she wanted to lay the issue to rest, or if surrender was just easier. ‘Alright,’ she decided after a moment. ‘Except for the shirt part.’
Cortez gave a more ready grin as Valance pulled away, the atmosphere shifting, and Valance took her time to rummage through the wardrobe, took her time to finish dressing. It let her settle her racing heart and racing thoughts, bitterly contemplating that she’d want to talk to Carraway about this. The aftermath of arguments were difficult, she reflected; there was nothing more to say, nothing more to do, but the hurt hadn’t completely faded.
But a thought still struck her just as she finished buttoning up her shirt, and she turned to Cortez with a startled, guilty air. ‘Oh,’ she said, falteringly. ‘I forgive you. I’ve not been perfect either.’
Cortez had been watching thoughtfully, but she blinked at this – and then beamed that bright, sunshine smile that always made Valance’s days seem lighter, and that alone made forgiveness ten times easier. ‘Guess we’re just two imperfect people figuring this out. But I’m here, okay? I’m in this. Being apart these last days has been crap, I hated it. I miss being around you.’
Valance reached for her hand as she headed for the door. ‘I missed you too.’
‘So I… don’t think I’m over-compensating. And let’s just enjoy the party tonight. And we can talk about this later.’ Cortez tilted her chin at Valance’s querying look, and her smile softened to become more sincere, more apprehensive. ‘It’s just, my quarters suck, and yours are so much bigger…’
It was smart to not make commitments fresh out of an argument about commitment, to not try to soothe deep problems with big gestures, so Valance didn’t give more of an answer than a wry shake of the head and a sincere smirk. But she tightened her grip on her hand as they headed off to the party, which suddenly wasn’t so unpalatable after all.
‘You get your wish, Matt,’ Admiral Beckett had said that morning when Rourke stopped by his office, his last duty on Bravo before Endeavour got underway. ‘Attachment to a Diplomatic Service mission that could scuttle your independence and your prospects.’
Rourke had hesitated at that. While he understood the risks and sacrifices, it had not occurred to him that Admiral Beckett might have been motivated, even in some small way, by the belief he was making a mistake. ‘I know what I’m doing, sir.’
Beckett harrumphed. ‘Apparently. There was talk of giving Hale a different ship. The Tianwen’s finishing shakedown and someone thought an Obena would be better-suited. But Operations can’t agree who should captain and crew her.’ He shifted his weight. ‘I told them to stop wasting time and give Hale the damned Endeavour.’
Rourke’s chin tilted up. ‘I take it Graelin didn’t find anything to hang us over, then.’
‘Petrias is a weasel, Matt, we both know that,’ Beckett said bluntly. ‘That’s useful, because now I know your crew’s weak points if anyone comes for you, and his fate is tied to yours. You have this mission, and we can’t afford to let it fail.’
After all these years, Rourke still wasn’t sure if Admiral Beckett was lying, delusional, or simply possessed hidden depths when he made such protective assertions. While Beckett looked after his creatures, Rourke had seen the ruthless decisions he’d make when it came to cutting them loose, and he had long ago given up trusting the admiral to be his safety net. He supposed Beckett’s loyalty was motivated self-interest, with his name attached to Hale’s mission.
Rourke had made sure he was on the bridge when they got underway, even if departing space dock was a routine operation the like of which he’d normally reserve to let a junior officer get some command chair experience. But setting off this time hadn’t come with the usual apprehension, the familiar tension of what dangers lurked in the dark between the stars or the shadows behind them. This was something new, a journey to distant lights.
So when he walked into the lounge that evening, with most of the crew encouraged to attend if possible, it was with a swagger to his step that made him feel like he was positively floating. The refit had cast the lounge in warmer shades of brass and burgundy than its previous stark design, a promise of Federation opulence and comfort in contrast to much of the rest of the ship. If Endeavour was to play host to diplomats and delegates, it would be needed. Organising the party that evening had been Petty Officer Nestari’s first proper task as his yeoman, and he took in the bouncing music, the inviting lighting, and the already-building buzz of an atmosphere with a tight, satisfied smile.
‘Good work,’ he told her as he passed where she sat, out of uniform but with a PADD to hand to make sure everything was organised properly.
She gave that airy, easy smile. ‘Thank you, sir! I worked out how to make-do with the space,’ she said, and Rourke’s heart again sank. His new yeoman really did think this was a backwater gunship.
Crew filtered in at a steady rate to join the gathering throng, but Rourke’s chest tightened at the latest arrival, all thought of Nestari’s judgement fleeing at the sight of Lieutenant Kharth. He pulled up a stool at the bar and ordered a drink before tilting back to catch her eye and beckon her over. The flicker of apprehension in her eyes told him all he needed.
‘Sit down and have a drink, Kharth, this is meant to be a party,’ Rourke grumbled. She did not look at all reassured as she obeyed, but he waited until they had glasses in their hands before he pressed on. ‘I’ve seen Graelin’s recommendation. No further action to be taken for Teros. That holds weight above my head.’ He watched as her expression flickered with uncertainty. ‘You wanted to talk before Ephrath, I told you to focus on the mission. I don’t have a right to be pissed off if you didn’t sit around waiting for me to be ready for me to discuss things.’
Her gaze was closing down, and all he got was a rough shrug. ‘I don’t expect you to coddle me.’
‘No. But loyalty goes both ways.’ He tried to meet her eye, but she didn’t look to him. ‘I told you if you stuck with me, you wouldn’t have to rely on the likes of Beckett.’ He wasn’t sure what had happened for her to win Graelin’s stamp of approval, but it was likely not a good sign.
‘Then came Teros.’
Her voice was toneless, and Rourke realised how badly he was in danger of letting her slip through his grasp, how badly he was in danger of becoming another authority figure to pick her up and discard her. He twisted on the stool. ‘And then came Ephrath,’ he pressed. ‘Hale told me how much you did, how much you fought for me. And that’s after Tagrador. Saving my life twice over, going above and beyond. It’s not right for me to keep you in the doghouse for the bad but not thank you for the good.’
Kharth’s gaze flickered again. ‘Teros wasn’t personal, sir,’ she said at length.
Even the slightest fizz of bile on his throat was enough to take him back to that moment on the bridge, when he’d given that order and she’d not obeyed. ‘It was, because I failed if you didn’t have enough trust in me as your captain at a moment like that.’
Now she winced. ‘Sir – Captain.’ A muscle twitched in the corner of her jaw. ‘I froze at Teros. I didn’t obey, but I didn’t fight you, I didn’t physically get in Valance’s way, I didn’t try to stop your orders from being carried out. You’ve known me long enough by now that I don’t normally… not act. For good or ill.’
He frowned at that. In his mind’s eye, all he saw of moment on the bridge was Kharth refusing, Rhade refusing, and all of his control and authority collapsing around him until Valance saved the day. It hadn’t occurred to him that Kharth’s resistance had been of uncharacteristic inaction, not opposition. ‘I take your point.’
‘I could have pulled a phaser, I could have fought Valance, I could have…’ She shook her head, eyes going distant, and he saw her struggle with everything she hadn’t done. ‘You gave me an order I couldn’t follow. I didn’t disobey you because I didn’t trust you, Captain. Because I trusted you, I didn’t fight you.’
He heard how much that admission hurt. She was no stranger to fighting if she didn’t know how to do anything else. He leaned in. ‘I want you with me on this mission, Kharth. I want you to keep working with Hale, I want your insights as we go to the Neutral Zone and try to build better lives for people there, I want you watching my back, watching the crew’s back, our crew.’
Their eyes met, and she gave a slow nod. ‘I’m still here, Captain. I’ll do my job.’
But there was something in her voice that echoed in him as she left the bar, some disconnect that rattled inside, and as he watched her walk away, Rourke had to wonder how badly he’d fumbled the delicate loyalty of Saeihr t’Kharth.
He was still frowning when Hale joined him at the bar, her eyebrows raised. ‘I was going to compliment you on the new lounge, but I feel I should be asking if there’s bad news?’
Rourke blinked away his expression, and forced a wry grin. ‘No news. And wouldn’t a compliment on the lounge go to yourself? I know the Diplomatic Service fast-tracked these modifications.’
‘I gave only broad parameters to the request,’ Hale said airily. ‘I left the rest up to your operations manager, who clearly made fine decisions.’
‘Don’t tell her that,’ Rourke sighed. ‘Her head’s about to over-inflate tonight anyway.’ He watched as more crew filtered through the door, and smothered a smirk at the arrival of Valance and Cortez together. Not all mistakes forged impassable rifts. He glanced back to Hale, feeling himself relax as thoughts of Kharth were pushed aside. ‘I hope you’re settling, and that your quarters will suffice for the long term?’
‘I might be a ranking member of the Diplomatic Service, Matthew, but I’ve done my time on missions in a lot of places. I was on Nimbus for a while. I’m hardly roughing it on Endeavour, and I’m not a delicate flower,’ Hale pointed out with an amused look. ‘I’d rather those VIP quarters are available for guests we want to keep happy. Officers’ quarters are fine.’
‘We’ll make sure to find something comparable for your staff when they join us,’ Rourke insisted, but then the shadow fell over him of a new arrival, and his heart sank as he saw Graelin approach.
‘Captain, good evening.’ With that swagger that usually made Rourke’s teeth itch, Graelin inclined his head to him before turning to give a deeper nod to Hale. ‘First Secretary; I’m Commander Graelin, Chief Science Officer.’
If Hale picked up on Rourke’s discomfort or somehow sensed Graelin’s inherent lack of virtue, she did not show it, shaking his hand with her usual affable air. ‘Commander. I look forward to working with you.’
‘Likewise. It’s an impressive operation you’ve proposed. I’m excited to be a part of it.’
‘Now you found nothing you could screw us on, hey, Pete?’ Rourke said, eyebrows raised.
Graelin’s mask barely flickered, and in fact compensated with a smirk like he was part of the joke, and not the joke itself. ‘You’ve got a good crew, Captain. I’ve put them through their paces and I’m impressed with them and all they’ve endured.’ He gave Hale another nod. ‘You’ve chosen your ship well, Ma’am.’
Hale’s smile remained intact even as Graelin moved on. ‘Anything I should worry about there?’
‘No,’ said Rourke quickly, eager to keep her out of the Starfleet politics if possible. As he watched, Graelin crossed the crowd to intercept Lindgren as she detached from a knot of junior officers, and he fought a scowl. Sadek’s warning rang in his ears, but Lindgren was a smart girl. She’d see through his fake charms.
‘No,’ he said again, and drained his glass. ‘But I should get the obligatory bits of this party out of the way, and then make sure you meet everyone properly.’
‘I’m the captain. I have to be the centre of attention for a bit, but it’s alright,’ he said, straightening his shirt and turning to the lounge’s new, short stage. ‘What I’m about to do is one of my favourite parts of the job.’
‘I could get used to this,’ Nate Beckett drawled as he and Athaka wandered into the lounge while the crew were still milling. ‘This place was sterile as hell.’
Athaka beamed with unusual confidence. ‘The Diplomatic Service was very clear on its requests,’ he said proudly. ‘They wanted a space we could use to host, so it had to present the best of Federation aesthetic; we used a lot of designs from some of the halls on places like Bravo and Starbase 1, and -’
‘I get the inspiration,’ Beckett said with a smirk. ‘You’ve been itching to show this off all week, haven’t you?’
‘Lieutenant Thawn deserves most of the credit.’
‘Of course she does.’ Beckett sighed. ‘Alright, come on, let’s go congratulate her on her hard work, and you can bask in her radiance or whatever.’
Athaka’s puppy-like devotion to Thawn was a frustrating feature in a roommate, but Beckett followed with a good-natured groan through the crowd to where Lindgren looked like she was trying to talk Thawn down off the wall.
‘Lieutenant, this work looks great,’ Athaka gushed.
Thawn looked stricken at the sudden arrival, and Lindgren had the wary eye of someone managing a volatile situation. The Ops Manager straightened. ‘Is it? I don’t think the carpets are the right shade; the lighting must be different -’
‘It looks fine,’ Lindgren said long-sufferingly. ‘Better than fine. It looks great.’ She gave Athaka a warning look.
He wilted. ‘I thought we’d done a good job. Everyone seems to like it.’
‘Yes,’ said Thawn, twisting her fingers together, ‘but does the captain like it? Does First Secretary Hale? Does Commander Valance?’
‘I can guarantee,’ Beckett drawled, ‘that Commander Valance doesn’t give a shit about the carpet.’ That won him an outright glare from Lindgren as Thawn stiffened, and he cleared his throat. ‘You look great, by the way.’
That stopped Thawn dead. She was in a dress with more floral accents than he’d come to expect of her usual look, which he’d never out-loud describe as ‘feminine and deeply self-conscious.’ She brushed a lock of red hair behind an ear. ‘Oh. Thank you. Elsa picked something out for me.’
But her tension felt different, more natural, and he gave a lopsided smirk as he shrugged. ‘You should keep listening to her. Looks great. As it should, if this whole damn room’s your baby.’
‘Well, it was Chief Lann’s teams who did the work, we just sorted out the design…’ She rolled a shoulder as she straightened. ‘Yes. It looks good, doesn’t it?’
Athaka gave another over-eager nod, and dove into further analysis of the minute details Thawn had added he felt were particularly masterful. With her thus mollified, Lindgren grabbed Beckett’s arm to steer him towards the bar.
‘Thank you,’ she hissed. ‘She’s been climbing the walls all day. I don’t know what she expects is going to happen here, but something’s got under her skin. It would have been easy for you to tease her, so I appreciate you not lighting the fuse on that bomb for me.’
‘Her fuss levels were too high for my tricorder to read,’ said Beckett, watching as the doors slid open and in walked Lieutenant Rhade with Counsellor Carraway. ‘But I get she’s going through some stuff right now. I’m not here to upset anyone, she just winds me up and I push back.’
Lindgren followed his gaze. ‘I really can’t imagine the mess of working with someone I’m maybe supposed to marry some day.’
‘Is it really that maybe?’
‘It’s not like anyone can be forced.’
‘Sure,’ said Beckett flatly. ‘That’s how family expectations work. Especially when you’re so obsessively eager to please as Rosara Thawn.’ He shrugged, then looked at her. ‘I didn’t say. You look great, too.’
Lindgren gave an airy laugh. ‘Don’t give me that, Nate.’
‘Give you what?’
‘Rosara isn’t used to nice compliments so she doesn’t see through your charms. I, on the other hand, know exactly what you’re doing.’
He cocked his head, the initial flash of indignation fading for a playful smirk. ‘And what am I doing?’
‘Trying to annoy Tar’lek.’ She tilted her head to the bar, where Tar’lek Arys sat with Harkon, looking like he was desperately trying to not look at them.
‘I don’t need to flirt with you to annoy Arys,’ Beckett pointed out.
‘But you don’t mind the package deal. Play nicely, Nate,’ she said, squeezing him on the arm before pulling away. He watched her, hands on his hips, but he’d expected her to join back up with Thawn, or the corner where Zherul sat with some of the medical staff.
His smile collapsed when he saw her saunter up to Commander Graelin and take his arm in the same companionable way she’d taken his moments ago.
Before he could figure his next move, Captain Rourke stepped on the stage, hands lifted before his spoke, voice amplified around the crowded lounge. ‘Good evening, Endeavour!’
A low murmur met him as all conversation died and all eyes turned on their captain. ‘I’ll keep this short and sweet,’ he promised, hands now in his pockets, voice going to that conversational manner Beckett remembered from his lectures at the Academy. ‘We’re heading for the Neutral Zone. In a week, we’ll be meeting representatives from the Romulan Star Empire and the Romulan Republic to discuss terms of a treaty to conduct research in the zone itself; regions no powers could enter since the dawn of the Federation. We’ve had a lot of hardship, a lot of difficulty these past months, but we’re turning a corner.’ He gave a firm nod. ‘Building bridges, not blowing them up.
‘But that’s next. Tonight, I want to welcome you to our new lounge. Give a hearty congratulations to our Operations and Engineering teams; they’ve worked hard to outfit this place while you were all taking leave on Bravo. Put your hands together for Commander Cortez, Lieutenant Thawn, Chief Lann, and all their people.’ Rourke clapped enthusiastically, the thunder of applause rippling through the lounge in response. Beckett looked to the three. Cortez was with Lann, and amiably lifted a glass, soaking up the attention with a jocular, self-aware air, but Thawn was next to Athaka, awkward and self-conscious again.
So Beckett frowned when Rourke’s eyes landed on her, and he said, ‘Lieutenant, you masterminded this; come on up.’ He wondered if she was going to explode at the attention but, gait careful, Thawn crossed the lounge to join Rourke up on the stage.
The captain put a reassuring hand to her shoulder. ‘I’m not singling you out to steal credit from the rest. You worked hard on this, but you work hard on everything. Since I’ve come aboard, you’ve been perhaps the most dedicated member of my senior staff, the most committed to your work and to this ship. You know every inch of this ship; you know who and what goes where, and it all happens under your watch.’ Rourke straightened as she began to turn red. ‘And you’ve saved my life. Not just as part of the command team rescuing me and Lieutenant Dathan from Tagrador, but months ago, in the Azure Nebula, you – and you alone – figured out how to transport me off that station. Nobody else did that.’
Realisation dropped in Beckett’s gut, and he slid sideways through the crowd, towards where Carraway and Rhade stood, but Rourke spoke on.
‘So I wanted to make my admiration and respect for you public,’ said the captain. ‘And I wanted everyone to be here for this moment. Because it is my greatest pleasure and privilege to promote you, Lieutenant Junior Grade Rosara Thawn, to the rank of Lieutenant.’
Cheers and applause broke out across the room, starting with a jubilant whoop from Cortez that rippled through the crowd, and Beckett slid in next to Rhade. ‘When this is over,’ he hissed at the burly Betazoid, ‘you should go over there and congratulate her. But also – and this is really important, you great walking reject from an Austen novel – you should compliment her not just on her work, but how she’s looking tonight.’
Rhade frowned at that, and glanced over at Carraway, who shrugged. ‘He’s not wrong,’ said Carraway. ‘About the advice or the description.’
‘You wanted my help without asking for it?’ said Beckett. ‘There it is. Be charming at her. You can make people feel like they’re the most important person in a room. Don’t bloody well hold back.’
Normally he wouldn’t have spoken to a lieutenant like that, but he was embittered enough at Rhade trying to weasel information out of him the other day and a party was the best time to get away with it. So he clapped him on the back as he walked away, and a glance over his shoulder confirmed Rhade was heading to the stage to intercept Thawn as she stepped down. He had the presence to make the crowds part before him, let him be the first to get to her, and if he couldn’t turn his considerable charm, then he was beyond Beckett’s help.
Beckett reached the bar just as Rourke told them to get back to partying, and the only space he found was next to Arys and Harkon. ‘I need a drink.’
Arys was scowling when Beckett turned back with his bottle. ‘What do you have to complain about?’
‘Oh.’ Beckett glanced past him to Harkon, who rolled her eyes, before his gaze swept the crowd. ‘You’ve spotted that Elsa’s flirting with our new second officer.’
‘Flirting,’ scoffed Harkon. ‘Who do you think she ditched us for at the club?’
Both men looked at her with expressions of horror. Beckett took a swig of his beer to try to swallow down the surprised bitterness. ‘God damn it.’
Arys visibly deflated. ‘She said she had work in the morning.’
Harkon arched an eyebrow at him. ‘That’s what people say when they’re ditching you at the club,’ she pointed out, then grabbed her drink and left them.
Beckett’s gaze followed her, and he watched as she headed for Thawn to give congratulations, only to veer away as Thawn broke from the crowd with Rhade, the two of them headed for a more cosy corner of the lounge. He had another bile-defeating swig of beer, then clapped Arys on the shoulder. ‘Chin up, pal.’
Arys gave him a flat look. ‘Don’t mock me.’
‘I’m not,’ Beckett sighed. ‘Look, I don’t – I flirt with Elsa because it’s fun. Because she’s fun to flirt with. There’s nothing to it, and we both know that, and we’re messing around.’
Arys’s shoulders slumped as he looked towards Lindgren and Graelin. ‘A vast comfort now.’
‘Yeah, well. Screw around too long and the girl will move on to someone who’s not screwing around. Especially if they’re this charming and heroic senior officer.’
‘But that works in your favour. Trust me.’ Beckett drained his bottle in record time and turned back to the bar for another. ‘It’ll blow up before too long.’
Those probably weren’t his exact words, but they were the words Nate Beckett would remember saying in that moment. It would have been too prescient, too pithy, for him to say that when a heartbeat later there was a low, rumbling boom from deep in Endeavour’s belly, when the deck surged up under them and the lights went wild and the whole world span and sent them flying.
He’d remember that amidst the screaming, the darkness, the jolting impact of hitting the deck, he could feel that they’d dropped out of warp, feel that somehow, suddenly, Endeavour had been seriously, mortally wounded as if from nowhere. Of course, in truth, he couldn’t have possibly known; couldn’t have known anything but the concord turned to chaos, the party turned to terror, his world turned literally upside-down before he could ever know it had happened figuratively, too. He would not learn for minutes how bad it was, and not learn for hours what it even was, and not learn for days, months, exactly the how or the why. But in his memory, one moment everything was light and casual and he was making an off-hand comment to a heartbroken Tar’lek Arys – and hiding his own bitterness, to boot – that was accidentally perfectly prescient.
And in the next moment came the explosion.