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Part of USS Endeavour: A Handful of Dust and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

A Handful of Dust – 30

XO's Office, USS Endeavour
February 2400
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The message shone at her like it had for the past two hours. But no amount of staring in the dark in her office could change it. Still, that was where Valance found herself when she realised that, over the course of the long evening, the low hum in the deck that had become an accepted background sound over the last weeks had faded.

They were finally out of the Paulson Nebula. The worst was over, at least of their navigational woes. But that also meant Valance was out of excuses.

Ten minutes later, Cortez opened the door to her quarters with a rather apprehensive look. She was still in uniform, the jacket flap hanging open, fresh off her shift as Valance had expected. ‘Hey.’

Valance walked in and tried to not slouch. ‘How’s work?’

‘I’ll be scrubbing out the Bussard collectors for a week. Or, really, engineers who annoy me will. But we’re standing down now – forget the ship. You okay?’ Cortez watched as Valance advanced into the quarters, despite herself heading for a window to frown at the stars streaming past Endeavour.

‘A notification’s gone out,’ Valance said, voice more bland than she wanted, and for the moment she couldn’t look at Cortez. Coming here had taken wrenching something frozen deep inside her, and jagged shards of ice still cut as they were fractured. ‘Cassia’s being posthumously promoted to captain.’

There was a silence as she stared at the stars, and only after a few heartbeats did she feel Cortez slip up beside her, slide a hand across her back. ‘How do you feel about that?’

‘I was thinking. For hours. And I… don’t know.’ Valance sighed. ‘A part of me knows she’d be delighted to go down heroically with the ship and then – and then – win the damn bet.’

‘That doesn’t mean you can’t grieve.’

‘I epxected I wouldn’t know how to go on if she wasn’t out there. Which is stupid, now I think about it,’ Valance mused. ‘We weren’t together in any sense for years. I’ve been going on without her for over a decade. Or…’ She grimaced. ‘Or something else schmaltzy Greg might say, like her not needing to be here to be with me.’

‘That does sound like Greg wisdom. Doesn’t mean it’s not true. Have you talked to him?’

Valance shook her head. ‘He’s been up to his eyeballs with refugees. He made me promise I’d talk if I need to.’ She sighed, and looked down at Cortez. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What the hell for?’

‘Being – being away. Being nowhere. I know I’m not easy to help…’

Cortez’s hand slid down to take hers, and she met her gaze with a solemn frown. ‘You do whatever you need to work through this. I don’t like you locking yourself away for a while, but I think I get it.’

Valance looked down, watched as Cortez’s thumb traced gently across her knuckles. ‘Yes. You do by now, don’t you.’

‘It’s going to be weird, grieving someone who’ll leave a hole in your life but you weren’t around much any more. It’s a different kind of space she’s left behind. I guess it’s going to hit you at different times, and that’s okay if it suddenly smacks you out of nowhere, and…’ Cortez’s voice trailed off as Valance’s eyes raked across her, watching her but not fully listening, and the frown deepened. ‘What?’

‘This isn’t about comparison,’ Valance said carefully. ‘Losing Cassia is – it’s like the unfathomable has happened, but I’m still here, and that’s something I have to learn to live with.  But you…’

‘What about me?’

Valance stepped closer, bowing her head to rest her forehead against Cortez’s. ‘You, trying to sacrifice yourself. You, almost dying over there. That’s the thought that keeps me up, wakes me up; that’s the nightmare I keep having. Losing you, too.’

Cortez softened against her, hands running up to cup her cheeks. ‘I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.’

‘You tried to, and you might, and I don’t need coddling, I need…’ Valance hesitated, because yet again words felt too clumsy to encapsulate her evasive feelings, like using oven mitts to grasp smoke. ‘You. I need you, for as long as I’ve got you. You keep me… lighter.’ Airex’s words came humming back, with all their accusations of weakness, and she shoved those away somewhere darker and tighter. ‘I cut off a lot of myself a long time ago, and the old me is gone. You don’t bring that back. But you bring me to… I don’t know. Balance.’

Cortez gave a slightly stupid, crooked smile. ‘I didn’t set out – I don’t want to – change you. You’re brave, and smart, and driven, and like a goddamn tornado I want to be swept up in. But I’m pretty okay with making you happier.’

‘I don’t…’ Valance hesitated, then Cassia’s voice raged in her memories. Set the world on fire a little, sometimes. ‘If you want me to shut up about this until we’ve got more distance from the mission, if you’re worried I’m just overwhelmed and reacting badly, then… that’s fine, but…’

‘I’m not going to assume you’re in distress just because you showed one feeling, cariño,’ Cortez said with gentle wryness.

‘Because we talked about this a bit ago. And then we wanted to think about it, and then we lost the ship, and then you were all… I mean, it’s fine, but…’ Valance grimaced at Cortez’s amused and bemused gaze. ‘You shouldn’t live here.’

Cortez’s eyes lit up, amusement intensifying as she realised what was going on. ‘Ah, we’ve hit the “get the hell off my ship,” stage of the relationship.’

‘That’s not -’ Valance bit her lip with faint indignation at both the stumbling and the teasing. ‘Move in with me.’

‘With you?’ Still with that jocular air, Cortez raised an eyebrow as if this were an outrageous prospect. ‘All my stuff’s here, and – actually, that’s a great idea, it’d give me more room to leave things lying around. Spare PADDs, dirty mugs, laundry…’

Valance slid her arms around her waist, grip tight. ‘Move in with me,’ she said, her own tone lighter now, ‘so I can figure out where’s best to dump your body.’

Cortez laughed, then leaned up for a kiss that was more delight than intense passion, and still made Valance’s heart and chest hum with the joy of it, a joy that nestled right alongside the ground-shattering pain that had rumbled within her since leaving the Odysseus. Neither overwhelmed or negated the other, the two somehow intertwining for something exquisite that shone bright. Life and death. Ends and beginnings.

‘You know I love you, right?’ Cortez murmured against her lips.

Despite herself – despite all that had happened, the years of self-doubt, a crusade to take everything bright and passionate and freeze it in the deepest depths of ice – Valance gave a slow, broad smile. ‘I love you too,’ she breathed, and kissed her again, and wondered if it was possible to feel complete even with a gaping hole inside one’s self.

* *

‘Doctor?’

Airex’s footsteps were light as he padded into the anthropology lab on Starbase Bravo. It was part of the compromise over the Koderex archives that Karl T’Sann had the exclusive use of one of the smaller facilities, with all of his database work accessible by select Starfleet officers. With Airex, Graelin, and others absent in the Paulson Nebula, oversight had been limited during the Century Storm.

Now Airex was back, it was time for changes. And an enlightening conversation with Lieutenant Thawn was precipitating quite a change.

In the small room there was nowhere to hide, despite the gloomy lighting. T’Sann popped up from behind a holographic display, a little wild-haired and wild-eyed, but nothing was unusual for a man deep in his life’s work. ‘Commander! I heard you were back. It’s a pleasure to see you again.’

‘Likewise.’ Airex’s voice was low, guarded, barely courteous. ‘I see you’ve made considerable progress in my absence.’

‘Fewer distractions,’ T’Sann said airily. ‘I hope you’re well, I hope Endeavour is well…’

Endeavour is about a week behind me, but they’ll be back. I returned with the crew of the Odysseus.’ Airex’s eyes dragged over him, taking in his dishevelled appearance, his compact, wiry frame of a distracted academic, and the tension in his shoulders eased a little. This could be little more than a conversation, for now. ‘I caught up on some of what you were looking at.’

T’Sann raised his pointed eyebrows guilelessly. ‘You sound like something in particular caught your eye.’

‘It did. After reviewing the whole body of data.’ Airex advanced, a hand trailing along the edge of a console as he joined T’Sann at his work station. ‘I’m curious, Doctor, about one thing in particular: your interest in the Arretans.’

The way T’Sann’s expression didn’t change was, in itself, telling. ‘“Interest” is a strong word,’ he said slowly. ‘I’ve found information about them in the Koderex archives. But it’s only notable because these are unique records, ones which seem to have been destroyed on Vulcan. Obviously the focus of the Koderex is Romulan history, but artifacts like this are essential in establishing -’

Airex’s hand moved out to tap the console in front T’Sann, and he killed the display. ‘Then why hide it?’ His gaze was cold, now, stony. ‘Why look into these records in secret?’

T’Sann hesitated. ‘Starfleet would love to take away my work. I’m sorry for slightly shifting outside the boundaries of the agreement, but you understand I have to be careful to not lose everything to the likes of Petrias Graelin. You’re a scientist, Commander Airex, you understand.’

‘I do.’ Airex’s jaw was tight. ‘And you were placed under these restrictions for a reason. I’m sorry, Doctor, but I’m going to have to suspend your access to the Koderex until we can look -’

No.’ The anger that flowed from T’Sann was sudden, intense, but low and cold. ‘That is unacceptable.’

‘Out of respect for you and your work,’ Airex pressed on, louder, ‘this does not have to be a formal withdrawal of your access, this does not have to be a suspension of our agreement with the Daystrom Institute. I’m going to lock you out and, as a gesture of good faith, you and I can resolve this between us.’

Something shifted in T’Sann’s expression, and the hairs on the back of Airex’s neck went up. ‘You’re right,’ he said, voice like iron wrapped in velvet. ‘We can resolve this between us.’

Airex had seen his share of combat, violence, and brutality. He still did not have time to react as T’Sann grabbed him by the shoulder and slammed him face first into the console, stronger and faster than expected even for a half-Vulcan. Airex’s head hit the display, and he felt glass crack as his vision exploded at the impact.

But before he could do more than scrabble and reel, T’Sann leaned down. He still had his hands on him, the Trill pinned against the display. ‘This,’ T’Sann hissed, ‘can be a gentlemen’s agreement.’

The last thing Airex knew before he blacked out was fingers pressed against the side of his head, and the clear, piercing sense of some external presence tearing into mind, thought, and memory to rip, wound, and obliterate.

Comments

  • THAT IS AN AMAZING CLIFFHANGER! For one thing I am shipping Valance and Cortez, especially the growth that Valance has gone through during this storyline. I look forward to seeing Valance and Cortez take their relationship to the next level - what impact would this have on their relationship? Can they juggle their personal lives with their professional lives even more so now? And two, is karma getting Airex back for how he had behaved before? I feel there's something more here with T'Sann that we need to know to truly understand if he is a good guy that is twisted to do something he believes is the right thing, a victim of his own beliefs/pursuits or if he is a true villain who has been planning this since day dot! I cannot wait to find out!!!

    March 19, 2022