By the time she made it back to the Uther Pendragon, she’d been gone for six hours. The journey back and forth was not a short one. There’d been the body to deal with, as well as Kowalski’s gear, once she’d recovered her faculties. She’d had to consider her story and its necessary supporting fabrications before she got close to the runabout.
And she’d had to take care of Kowalski’s shuttle.
So it was dark as she crunched across the open expanse of rocky, grey nothing towards the Uther Pendragon. Before she was close, before she could have possibly been spotted by even the keenest eyes, the landing ramp whirred down, bathing the path before her in a light she knew should have been warm, welcoming.
But when she stepped out of the shadow, instead it was blinding. She had to lift a hand to shield her gaze, even at the silhouetted figure at the top of the ramp who bounded down once she was at the bottom.
‘Let me take that.’ Adamant Rhade’s voice was low, firm as he helped her out of her pack, clearly not taking no for an answer. ‘Get in, and sit down.’
She’d steeled herself for a cool, rational report. Prepared her story forwards and backwards, with evidence to match. She had not been ready for him to guide her to the mess room, ease her into one of the chairs, put a steaming mug of tea in front of her, and only say, ‘Do you want us to depart right away?’
When Dathan’s hands wrapped around the mug, she realised how numb they were. It took a physical, wrenching effort to look up at him, frowning. ‘What?’
‘Is there anything more you need to do here,’ Rhade pressed gently, ‘or should we get underway?’
It was not what she’d been prepared for as a first question, and swept away the lines she’d drilled into herself for a moment. Dathan swallowed. ‘Let’s go.’
He lifted a hand. ‘Stay there. Drink that. I’ll get us gone.’
She was left in the mess section with a tea she recognised as one of Carraway’s favourite replicator blends, with nothing more to do than sit and drink as she felt the Uther Pendragon hum around her as it alighted, as it rumbled through the atmosphere of Theta Curry IV. For a moment, she thought it was shaking off the dust the world had left inside her, but then they were in the smooth nothing of the void, and still it felt like too much grit was in her.
When Rhade returned a while later, she was gripping the long-empty mug of tea far too tightly. She felt his eyes flicker to her white knuckles when he said, ‘We’re at warp. We’ll be back at Endeavour at approximately 1400 hours.’
She drew a deep breath as he approached, but all he did was reach for her cup and take it to the replicator to refill it. Her hands felt empty, cold at the absence, and when he put the fresh mug before her, he only said, still in that same soft tone, ‘I’ll be in the cockpit.’
He was almost out the door by the time she found her voice, and then the only words she could find were a wavering, ‘That’s it?’
Rhade turned back to her. ‘Are you hurt?’ he said with a sudden frown. She shook her head, and he gave a slow nod. ‘Then if you need me, if you want company, I’ll be in the cockpit. If you want to stay here or get some rest, do so. Like I said: I’m here to have your back. Not to press.’
Her throat constricted, and in her silence he’d yet again almost left before she finally spoke once more. ‘He’s dead.’ It was the first part of the lines she’d practiced all the way back, the lies she’d made ready to tell him, to tell Captain Rourke, to tell anyone who needed telling. With Rhade breaking the script, breaking all her preparations, all she had were the shards, clumsily dealt like she was playing cards with a mismatched deck.
Rhade said nothing for a long moment. Then he approached the mess table and drew up the chair beside her. She wasn’t sure how conscious he was of the presence he projected, the aura of calm that emanated off him, but she felt it anyway as he sat in silence for several thudding heartbeats; felt his closeness soothe even though she knew how dangerous it was. At length he said, ‘Was he dead when you got there?’
Dathan tried to recite the next line. The Rebirth must have got to him. It was a trap. I didn’t have a choice. But the words threatened to choke, and all she managed to do was shake her head.
Rhade nodded. ‘Is there anything you need to do next? Does this need reporting to anyone? Does anyone need warning?’ She hesitated, and he pressed on. ‘Urgently, I mean. Before we return to Endeavour. One step at a time.’
Now she lifted her head, eyes locking on him with a wonder she couldn’t disguise. All she saw was open concern in those honest eyes, and even as her gaze dragged across his face, every furrow held worry, not suspicion. She could not help but sound awed as she breathed, ‘What do you think happened out there, Adamant?’
He was silent for a moment, frown deepening as he visibly gathered his words. ‘I don’t know if that matters. I know I trust you, and I trust your judgement. I know that if you want to talk, I will listen, I will support you.’
‘You have no idea what happened,’ she breathed, too shocked to be disciplined, all scripts and masks forgotten in the face of his sincerity. ‘You have no reason to trust me like this. You don’t even know me.’
‘I know you more than you think,’ Rhade said softly. ‘That includes knowing there’s a lot I don’t know.’ He hesitated, and tension roiled in her at the apprehension his eyes. ‘I felt it. On Tagrador, on the rescue mission. I found you because I sensed you, and I sensed you because…’ His voice trailed off, the frown deepening. ‘It’s difficult to explain to a non-telepath. I know the feel of your mind, not because I’ve ever broken your privacy, but in the same way I know what you look like because we’ve been in the same room. That was how I recognised you on Tagrador. But I noticed you from a long way away because of the sheer depth of your… feelings.’
She’d been alone. Trapped in the dark, without any of her tools and weapons, a cheap life to the Romulans who held her, expendable to the Starfleet who had every reason to cut her loose, with nobody coming. Not until the door had open and he’d been there, armed and armoured and her saviour in every possible way. If he’d sensed her, then he was being diplomatic to simply say feelings because the right word was terror.
But then he pressed on. ‘And I know you didn’t expect anyone to come for you. I don’t know what happened in your life, in your work, to make you feel like that. I’ve no right or intention to ask. So I want to be as clear as possible, Tahla: Whether it’s waiting on standby while you put to rest this past that hurt you, or fighting through enemy lines to rescue you, you can count on me. Always.’
If you knew the truth, she thought, you would either run a hundred light-years, or you would put me down in an instant. But there were parts of her still trapped in that dark cell on Tagrador – parts of her that had been trapped in a dark, cold place long before then. In the dark, he was always the shining beacon of light come to rescue her.
Cold calculation told her to make excuses and go to her room – until they added the factor that she’d just killed Kowalski, just refused an extraction order, and gone rogue to live a lie that would see her killed or imprisoned if the truth came out. Cold calculation had played no role in her decision then, and couldn’t guide her now. She’d acted on some deeper instinct, some deeper feeling, too far beyond her comprehension to turn to it.
Rhade shifted his weight, and she realised she’d been locked in silence for long enough that he’d drawn back. He cleared his throat self-consciously, and got to his feet. ‘If you need me,’ he said again softly, ‘I’ll be in the cockpit. I’m sorry.’
She didn’t know why she’d acted when Kowalski had turned his back. But she knew that when Rhade pulled away, the cold in his wake threatened to be unbearable.
‘Adamant.’ Her chair rattled as badly as her voice as she stood. His name tasted like copper, and she realised she’d bitten the inside of her mouth hard enough to draw blood. ‘Don’t.’
One more time he turned back, expression open in its uncertainty, and the sincerity of his apprehension, concern – affection – made the cold around her ache. He didn’t say anything, merely waited, and that made it worse, forced her to take a stumbling step closer, extend a hand and not know what she was reaching for.
‘You…’ You should hate me. Cast me away. Destroy me. There was no end to that sentence she could utter and she froze, her hand inches away from his arm. ‘I don’t deserve that. That trust,’ she managed at last.
‘I think that,’ said Rhade softly, ‘is a matter of perspective. And that you are far, far more than you think you are.’ He hesitated, and she realised she didn’t know if he was being careful about her obvious distress, or if he, himself, was nervous.
She didn’t know if she stepped forward or if he reached for her; she didn’t know which of them decided words were inadequate, but when his arms wrapped around her, warm and safe, she all but collapsed into the hug. Had the ringing numbness from Kowalski’s death and the magnitude of her decision passed, she might have cried. Or perhaps the numbness went longer, deeper, back as far as she could remember having feelings. Regardless, she did not cry, and the cold within her did not thaw, and even the warmth and comfort of Adamant Rhade’s simple trust could not make everything better.
But she could bury her face in his shoulder and clutch at him like he was the only thing she had in two universes. And worst of all, she didn’t have even that much.