Check out our latest Fleet Action!

 

Part of USS Endeavour: Drink the Wild Air

Drink the Wild Air – 5

Aeriaumi III
September 2400
0 likes 803 views

They hit the town of Borean as the sun was hitting dirt and scattering gold across dusty land and sandstone buildings. Though this gold could not reach the town’s streets and walkways, shadows were pushed back by the kaleidoscope of colours from lanterns on the walls, lights rigged across and overhead in vibrant mosaics, and the flickering torches of the stalls of the night market.

Beckett parked the ATV at the town’s periphery and they proceeded on foot. He was already in full-swing explaining the night market’s history to an amused Lindgren, and Thawn had no choice but to follow and try to not be too blatant in her sourness. If nothing else, she’d chosen to be here, and knew that would be used against her the moment she complained.

He was at least, she thought, cheering Lindgren up as he pointed out impressive sights, ridiculous goods for sale, things that were a scam or a bargain or just plain ugly. They stopped at a used book stall and he identified a few well-worn volumes he thought she’d like, then had the audacity to do the same for Thawn as she lingered near the back.

‘Come on, Thawn,’ he said with a crooked grin. ‘Don’t tell me you can resist an early edition of Verebier’s only poetry book.’

‘Maybe,’ she allowed, ‘but did we need to come to a small-town market to get a worn out hardback? I thought we were going looking for ruins.’

‘The ruins are still a few days away,’ Beckett pointed out. ‘If you wanted to see them and not have the journey, you could go hiking with Rhade and beam over to join us in seventy-two hours?’

Her eyes flickered to the stall, where Lindgren was still picking through what looked like a selection of short stories and seemed to have already found a few volumes of horror tales by local authors Thawn was sure would make her own hair curl. Trying to not grimace, she met Beckett’s gaze with a cool air. ‘I’m not on the journey to see things.’

His smile was knowing. ‘Then try to have fun when I’m trying to make things fun, hm? Come on.’

He had the audacity to move them on to a few stands by local artists then, something of too much interest to all of them and far too genuinely original and unique for her to summon up even a token protest. From there they weaved through the bazaar to the food stands, where a dozen sizzling scents competed for their attention.

‘I bet half of this is replicated,’ Thawn said a little snootily.

‘I bet that doesn’t matter if it’s local cuisine and if you’re not a snob,’ Beckett retorted.

‘I bet,’ said Lindgren with an eye-roll, ‘neither of you can manage a whole skewer of that spiced meat.’

If it hadn’t been Lindgren challenging, Thawn wouldn’t have tried. She got two mouthfuls down before nearly collapsing against the food stall, sputtering, and Beckett laughed even though he was sweating. He barely got through half of the skewer before surrendering, while Lindgren smiled serenely at them and polished off the whole thing.

‘Amateurs,’ was all she said as she helped herself to Thawn’s leftovers. Then she heard something despite the buzzing of the crowd, all locals and tourists alike mingling together, and turned down the street. ‘Oh, there’s dancing?’

It must have been the music she heard, Thawn realised when they got to the main square and were met with the swirling mass of cheer and life hammering along at the tempo of the four-man band atop the dead fountain in the centre. The fiddle and pipes gave the music a folksy twang, and its toe-tapping quality only made it harder for Thawn to evade when Lindgren grabbed her hand.

‘Oh, yeah,’ Lindgren said, pulling her into the square. ‘There’s dancing.’

If it hadn’t been for Lindgren, Thawn would have lurked at the periphery, pretending to be superior to it all but actually being too awkward to dip her toe in. But aside from being forcibly bundled into the throng of dancers, she was here to try to help. To cheer Lindgren up.

But if there was one thing Elsa Lindgren never struggled with, even when difficult and grief-wrestling, it was finding company and finding attention. They swirled through the first tune, but by the second there was a local coming to sweep her in on his arm, and while for this next song he’d had the foresight to find a friend to whisk Thawn off, too, Thawn didn’t think it would last. She wouldn’t let it last, in truth.

Beckett had, of course, either found or been hunted by a partner, and that at least meant she could beat an escape after this second dance. There were too many social cues she couldn’t read – was she supposed to make eye-contact at a prospective partner for a next dance, would that make her look eager, did she even want to dance? – and too much of sights and sounds she didn’t know. In a Betazoid ball-room she’d be fine, but this was something more raw and casual and neither of these were words which fit her well.

She found her way to the periphery of the dancing, alone and satisfied enough for it; found a stall giving drinks, and she had to try something sickly sweet and local and probably very alcoholic before she could also find just a beaker of water. She sat on a bench in the shadow of the back of a stall where a craggy-faced man drew bad caricatures for tourists, and found it wasn’t any quieter here. Not in the way that mattered.

Perhaps that had been bothering her more than she’d thought – the crowds. Their thoughts. It wasn’t that she could hear them, it wasn’t that she was listening, but she was aware, painfully aware, of all these minds bursting with ideas and thoughts and feelings. There’d been so many in the resort, too, and the transportation hub, and only now did she realise that she’d only begun to feel relaxed on the long stretches of empty road.

Thawn leaned back against the dusty wall, closed her eyes, and exhaled slowly through her nose. Carraway’s meditative methods weren’t fit for the middle of a crowd, but they were all she had in this battle to rebuild the walls her time on the other Endeavour had not broken, but had at least cracked. No wonder she’d been so on-edge.

Nope.’ One eye snapped open at Beckett’s voice, and she found him stood before her, hands on his hips.

‘I’m just sitting down, Beckett -’

‘You’re wallflowering,’ he said, and extended a hand. ‘It won’t do.’

She looked at her beaker and held it up. ‘I warn you, it’s very sickly -’

‘I don’t want your drink!’ He took it anyway and put it on the bench beside her. ‘I want to dance.’

‘You can dance all you -’

‘I want,’ he said, grabbing her wrist, ‘for you to dance.’ It was the lightest of grips, enough for her to pull away very easy. She realised why he sounded so casual: it made it easier for her to bat him away if she really wanted to.

Thawn chewed on the inside of her cheek a moment. Then she stood up. ‘Fine,’ she said with an aggravation she didn’t quite feel. ‘Or you’ll never stop calling me a buzzkill.’

‘Please,’ said Beckett, leading her back to the crowd with an even bigger grin. ‘You gotta stop being a buzzkill to make me stop calling you one.’

He was an annoyingly good dancer. All her skills were fit for ballrooms, but it meant she at least could manage some footwork and follow a beat and follow his lead. The next tune had enough of a tempo to have them swirling through the crowd, breathless, and she had to laugh when he spun her so clumsily they both nearly went flying. It had her hanging onto him tight enough that when the next song started, she didn’t have a chance to disentangle, and this one was slower, at least.

‘You should know,’ she said once she had her breath back, now they were in a dance where they had a chance of talking instead of fighting to keep up, ‘I’m only here because of Elsa.’

‘Yes, you clearly had her at the top of your mind when you agreed to dance with me,’ he drawled.

‘I mean –

‘I know what you meant.’ Beckett shrugged. ‘You’re a good friend.’

She’d expected him to make some obnoxiously smug joke, perhaps about how right he was that this would be a fun trip. The sincerity wrong-footed her, and she looked away, spotted Lindgren with the same man she’d danced with after her. They were talking, and there was a lightness in her eyes Thawn hadn’t seen in months, now.

‘It’s good for her to get away,’ she realised. ‘But I don’t think she should be completely on her own.’

‘Yep. So, thank you.’ He shrugged again as she frowned at him. ‘Hey, Elsa’s my friend. But I’m not pretending it wouldn’t be hard work if it was just me and her. That’d be a bit intense, right? But you’re here, and…’

‘Intense is just my everyday?’

He grinned. ‘You said it, not me.’

She laughed despite herself and shook her head. ‘You’re a surprisingly tolerable dancer.’

‘Excuse me,’ he said with mock-indignation. ‘I came up through the best prep school on Alpha Centauri. We were taught to be excellent young citizens and future leaders. Learning to schmooze was mandatory, and schmoozing includes dancing.’

‘That’s quite the curriculum.’

‘Schmoozing, hobnobbing, waltzing – all important lessons.’

The buzzing thoughts and feelings of the scores of people around her felt less pressing. ‘Thank you,’ she said quietly, and grimaced as he raised an eyebrow. ‘For giving us an out.’

‘I notice the plural there, with your totally normal choice to sack off spending time with your beloved fiancé doing something wholesome, and I’m not going to draw attention to it.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘You just drew attention to it.’

‘Yes, but like, in a subtle and charming way where you don’t have to answer and can just change the subject by saying something like, I don’t know, “Oh, Nate, you’re such a good driver, by the way, can you teach me?”’

‘Why in the Great Fire would I ask you to teach me how to drive an ATV; we all went through the same training -’

‘But there’s training and there’s talent…’

They made it back to the ATV late, and the further they drew from the lights of Borean, the more the stars above shone bright. It would only get better from here, Thawn knew; the night would be deeper and the sky more seductive the further they drew from Aeriaumi III’s cities and towns, and into the hinterlands on this wandering journey she knew, deep down, all three of them needed.

When Thawn and Lindgren rolled into the big bed above the driver’s compartment together, Beckett sprawling out on the seating section below and in the back, Lindgren paused to pull her into a quick, strong hug. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured, then rolled away and gave the impression of falling asleep almost at once.

It was just as well, Thawn thought as she settled under the blankets to sleep. She wasn’t sure what she’d say to that.

The next day, Thawn insisted on them driving in shifts. Hard-worn habit meant she complained about Beckett’s driving to justify this, and it was worth it for his look of sheer outrage. He retaliated by seizing control of the music when it was her shift, insisting on playing Klingon acid punk as the ATV raced down wide, open roads taking them from the sandy scrubland that housed Borean and its night market, and up to narrower routes through hills and trees. The mountains were still a shadow on the horizon, but it was like they could begin to feel their shadow as the terrain became less flat and more green, with the sun more often broken up by thick trees and the flash of clouds.

They stopped for dinner at a break stop that was, at last, the kind of sticky diner that spoke of convenience rather than culture, and all agreed over greasy slices of pizza and too-sweet fizzy drinks to press on for another hour. Eventually, they found a spot off a dirt-track emerging from under a canopy of trees to find instead a canopy of stars, and it was Beckett who brought the ATV to a halt and said that while it was pretty, he was very tired, and was going to crash out.

‘I’m going to sit up for a bit,’ said Lindgren, looking wistfully out the window.

‘Do you want company?’ said Thawn awkwardly. ‘We could pop the canopy, get chairs…’

Something sparked in Lindgren’s eye. ‘Only if you replicate hot chocolate, and it has to be in a battered mess cup.’

They were bundled on their chairs outside under blankets, hands wrapped around steaming mugs of cocoa, settled under the scattered beacons of shining stars, before either of them spoke.

‘You didn’t have to do this.’ Lindgren’s murmur carried in the dark, even over the chirrup of insects in the long grass sprawling beyond their vehicle. Thawn glanced over, saying nothing, and at length Lindgren shifted in her chair. ‘Come with me, I mean.’

Thawn sipped her drink, partly for warmth, partly because she had to gather the strength for an honest answer. ‘I didn’t know you wanted me to.’

‘I didn’t,’ came the awkward admission. ‘But it’s easier to talk to you than Nate.’

Thawn had to gently scoff despite herself. ‘Nobody ever says that.’ But she kept her words wry, as much of a self-effacing jest as she dared, because this wasn’t about her self-pity. ‘I don’t want to push you. But I do know… a little what you’re going through. I know it’s not the same…’

Lindgren bowed her head. ‘That’s not something you talk about much. Noah, I mean.’

‘Everyone liked him. And Gorim. And T’Sari was… one of us. And we’ve lost Connor since then, too.’

‘You don’t need to pretend that you and Noah weren’t close,’ Lindgren said gently.

The conversation was shifting in the wrong way, and Thawn had to speak quickly. ‘I’m not trying to off-load about Noah’s death or divert from it, I’m trying to say that I know what it’s like to lose… someone. Someone important.’ She had to swallow other thoughts, other memories, at a discussion of Noah Pierce. Of cold metal chairs, and restraints, and eyes she’d once known and trusted in her life now impassive and uncaring as they oversaw her torment on the ISS Endeavour.

Lindgren sank more under the blanket. ‘Petrias and I were just dating. And only sort of dating. Besides.’ She sipped her mug. ‘He dumped me before the battle.’

Thawn’s heart sank. ‘I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.’

‘So, it’s really awkward that he went and died when I wanted to smack the hell out of him. And I know it wasn’t going to go anywhere, I know he saw me as a silly little girl and that it was just a silly little fling, and I can’t even pretend that I really liked him…’

Thawn, ever gently prudish for a human, let alone a Betazoid, squirmed a little. ‘It’s okay to acknowledge you were, uh, mostly just hooking up.’

‘That’s not really the thing.’ Lindgren’s eyes turned skyward, to the canopy of silver specks on velvet above. ‘The thing is that he died, and I’m just here, living my life. Days keep happening. Suns keep burning. It’s like something big happened, and like absolutely nothing happened at all.’

Thawn was quiet, remembering the first day after the Wild Hunt’s attack on Endeavour, when she’d woken up, remembered Noah was dead, then got out of bed and made a coffee like she always did. ‘Yeah,’ she breathed. ‘Yeah, I get that.’

Neither of them said anything for a while. Gradually, the chirruping from the undergrowth faded. The wind settled for less rustling in the nearby trees. Any light from nearby settlements dimmed and dissipated, leaving them in a still dark, with a rolling view of the lowlands they’d left on one side, and the looming promise of the hills they were headed to on the other.

But by the time Lindgren broke the silence, their eyes were on the sky. ‘Why is it we’ve come down to a beautiful planet,’ she murmured, so soft it was as if she didn’t want to break a spell, ‘and we’re still captivated by the stars?’

Comments

  • I'm very much appreciating how our number 1 himbo knows how to help his friends when they need it, even if they don't see it themselves. Also, when will Thawn realise she doesn't need Rhade? Plus Lindgren really needs to make an appointment with the counsellor. She's got a lot of issues she needs to work through. I loved the random night life on this planet. It makes me feel that even though it's like every other Federation world, there's the uniqueness that comes after its population are properly settled and begin to develop their identity.

    October 24, 2022