The bird-song was glitching.
Thawn heard it the moment they set foot in the arboretum and the holographic sky overhead filled with holographic swallows. There was just the fainted crackle in the warble of those dark shapes bobbing and weaving, something in the way the noise bounced down to them.
‘I don’t like them either,’ came Rhade’s soft voice from beside her, and she tore her gaze from the false sky to give him a quizzical look. He shrugged. ‘This place is too penned in on the sides for a holographic skyline. Let it be what it is: a patch of green beauty on a starship. That can be enough in itself, no?’
‘That’s not…’ She snapped her mouth shut. She’d noticed the technical malfunction while he was waxing philosophical about the sheer existence of Endeavour’s arboretum. She shook her head. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
They were interrupting the captain down here. She’d been able to tell by the tension in his voice when she’d called, by the way he clearly would have preferred to not make time for them. But time was of the essence, and Thawn was just glad to find Captain Rourke sat alone on a low wooden bench between the path and the arboretum’s sole water-feature. She could not count the number of times she’d stopped the fake river from flowing whenever she’d needed to cut down the ship’s power use. It was almost her favourite – unfavourite – non-essential system.
‘Sir. Thank you for making time.’
At least he wasn’t with his daughter. He was, for once, out of uniform, and Rourke set a book to one side as he twisted on the bench to regard them. There was a tired crease to his eyes and she could feel how forced his smile was. ‘You didn’t give me much choice on the call, Lieutenant. You know there’s a staff meeting this evening.’
Once she would have fretted at interrupting her captain’s private time so blatantly. She felt even Rhade, normally so confident, falter at Rourke’s attitude – but Rhade was not himself still. All the thoughts flowing from him were shot through with doubt, like a black dye dripped into the waters of his very being.
But now she steeled herself and said, ‘I know, sir. That’s the point – we’re headed spinward at high warp. But Lieutenant Rhade and I are needed on Betazed, so we’ve come to ask you for a leave of absence.’ She’d already had to wait so long, December dragging out with them in the Delta Quadrant after missing the wormhole window. Leave had been promised – and now revoked. She had to find another way.
Rourke’s eyes creased with concern. ‘Needed? Something’s wrong?’
She was considering lying when Rhade said, his voice in those subdued tones that were all he was these days, ‘We need to return to Betazed to get married.’
The captain’s bracing was almost palpable, but Thawn didn’t care enough to read deeper into the wave of apprehension. ‘If you’ll forgive me, that doesn’t sound very urgent.’ He shook his head with a hint of apology. ‘We’re needed back near the Triangle. I don’t know the full extent of what the Mo’Kai are doing – when I know, you’ll know – but Command wouldn’t have cancelled our leave for nothing. You’re needed here.’
‘You don’t know that,’ she pointed out. ‘Give us just a little time, we can catch up before Endeavour’s too deep into anything.’
‘That sounds like one hell of a rushed wedding.’ Finally Rourke looked like he was treating her as a person and not inconvenient personnel. ‘Wait a few days. See what the lay of the land is with our operations on the border. Book in some leave then, take the time to plan. Hell, take the time so more of the crew can come – don’t you want that?’ A wryness tugged at his lips. ‘Or is this you getting out of having to invite us to the wedding?’
‘Sir, of course we’d want you all there,’ Rhade said with all his usual dutiful eagerness. Thawn wanted to smack him.
‘But,’ she jumped in, ‘it’s important we do this soon.’
The why hummed between them, and she felt Rourke’s eyes on her. Felt the evaluating flicker, felt him consider and then reject the archaic notion of a pregnancy giving this urgency, and felt him, at last, decide this was none of his business. At length, he gave another regretful shake of the head. ‘I can’t give you permission now. Maybe once we have more information, once we’re at Starbase 86, perhaps. But everyone on this ship has been run ragged by the last two months. I’m sorry.’
Anxiety didn’t so much flutter in Thawn’s chest as spiral into knots. ‘But sir…’
‘However.’ Rourke stood, raising a hand. ‘I understand you will want a traditional Betazoid ceremony at some point, and you’ll want your families involved, and so this isn’t quite the same. But if your priority is getting married quickly… why not have a wedding aboard Endeavour? And do something big and ceremonial later, when you and everyone have the leave.’
Adamant Rhade’s honest brow furrowed. ‘That’s a very kind suggestion, sir, but it’s important to us for our families to -’
‘No, that’s an excellent idea,’ Thawn blurted before she let herself think. ‘We can make it… formalised. And see to the proper ceremony later.’ Her aunt would not be mollified, not really. Her family would not consider the deed done in a way that mattered, in a way that was politically useful, until everything was done properly on Betazed. But they would be married. It would be legal.
She wouldn’t be able to throw it away.
Rourke smiled at last, tired but plainly relieved he’d helped them navigate this. ‘I’d be proud to conduct the ceremony. It’s not often a captain gets that privilege. Schedule it in some time that suits you. But it would be very kind of you to let it be a proper celebration, something the crew can enjoy as well. God knows we need something to celebrate.’
‘Of course, sir,’ said Rhade before Thawn could just demand Rourke married them there and then. ‘I think that’s an excellent compromise.’
‘Good.’ But the captain’s gaze turned on Thawn, suddenly rather beady, and she could sense he was not all innocence when he said, ‘Maybe you can do me a small favour in return, Lieutenant. Do you know why Beckett’s asked for a transfer?’
Her breath caught. Surely Rourke would see, surely Rhade would feel. But the glitching chirruping continued overhead, Rhade retained the gentle numbness the Delta Quadrant had imprinted on him, and Captain Rourke remained inscrutable even to a telepath. She swallowed. ‘This is the first I’m hearing of it.’
‘I’d hoped to offer him the Intel job on a permanent basis, but he’s determined to go,’ sighed Rourke with an innocence she didn’t quite believe but it suited her to accept. ‘And I doubt Starfleet can offer him anything better at such short notice – he’ll probably need to take a much worse position. But it’s his choice. If you get a chance to twist his arm, though, take it. I worry he’s doing something foolhardy.’
Something foolhardy. That was their modus operandi these days.
‘That seems,’ said Rhade once they were out of the arboretum and back in the corridor, ‘the best conclusion for everyone.’
He was frowning in that quiet, thoughtful way of his that by now only fizzed irritation in her veins. But he didn’t notice even as she turned sharply. He didn’t notice very much about anyone or anything else these days, she thought. ‘It’s not the best conclusion for our families,’ Thawn reminded him. ‘But it will do.’
Now his frown deepened. ‘I don’t see how we’d be able to get married quickly and with the sort of ceremony your aunt would like. You know that there’s still no need to rush…’
‘…as I said, it will do.’ Her jaw tightened. The last thing she needed was for him to start questioning. ‘It’s just that after everything we’ve been through, Adamant, I know if we don’t act right away something else horrid will happen. To you. To me. To the ship. To people that we trust. To our trust in ourselves.’
His hesitation brought guilt slicing into her gut like a knife made of ice that could never melt. Between the betrayal of Dathan Tahla and Rhade’s own actions under the influence of blood dilithium, she knew he felt like he was the one who had something to prove, and her the innocent. It was why he hadn’t asked too many questions when she’d told him she wanted to finally get married. It was why he’d keep cooperating without applying his usual empathy or consideration, and it was why she had to act fast before he had the chance to ground himself.
‘I have to go,’ she continued before he could rally too much. ‘I’ll make arrangements for a ceremony. Something simple.’
‘Dress uniform if we’re aboard, I assume.’ A whisper of a smile tugged at his lips. Once it would have been a warm expression.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Thawn as she turned away. ‘I won’t expose this crew to too much of our people’s open honesty.’
Lies properly told, she left. Her quarry in her next point of business was locked away, so she had to wait outside the secure science labs on deck eleven, trying to not wear a hole in the carpet by pacing. Commander Airex emerged first, and looked both apprehensive and guilty at the sight of her – but quickly realised she wasn’t there for him, and beat a hasty yet polite escape.
He had barely disappeared around the corner before the doors opened again and Nate Beckett stopped dead. ‘Oh no.’
If she’d lost all decorum for Rourke, she had nothing to lose for Beckett. ‘You’re leaving?’
He rolled his eyes and stalked past her. ‘Here we go.’
She didn’t let up, keeping pace about half a step behind him. ‘Since when are you leaving? Captain Rourke said…’
‘I guess Captain Rourke has a big mouth…’
‘He said you didn’t even want to be Chief Intel permanently, so you’ll take some second-string assignment to a Cali-class? Are you insane?’
‘Hey, nobody mentioned a Cali-class -’ He snapped his mouth shut, nostrils flaring as she drew him into the argument he plainly didn’t want. ‘Let’s not talk my career. You don’t care about my career.’
‘I care about you throwing it away over a stupid point of pride -’
‘Stupid…’ Already he stopped, rounding on her. ‘Do you even know why I’m leaving?’
Thawn faltered, not because she wasn’t sure, but because she didn’t want to say it out loud. This part of the ship was quiet, the science labs rarely bustling at the best of times, but putting thought and feeling into words was to put them in neat categories and boxes. To make them absolute. To make them real. ‘Go on. Tell me, then.’
His lip curled and he waggled a finger at her. ‘Ah-ah. You don’t get that. Don’t you remember, Thawn? We’re not friends.’
He turned away again, and she followed again. ‘Don’t play stupid games of rhetoric with me. We both know what’s going on, and I’m saying you’re being ridiculous. You’ve got the best possible career prospects aboard Endeavour, you’ve got a good thing going on here -’
‘A good thing?’ he scoffed. ‘You’re unbelievable. And I’m not challenging you to be coy. If you want to have a conversation about this, Thawn, use your words. If everything’s so good, why would I possibly throw it away?’
She faltered and he kept walking, and even if she’d wanted to talk, her mouth went dry. He was a couple of metres away before she found her voice again, and it was the quietest and most hoarse it had been for weeks. ‘Because of me.’
Something in her tone stopped him, but he only half-turned so he didn’t have to look fully at her. ‘Yeah,’ he said at last, how own voice dropping. ‘Because of you. Because you’re gonna marry Rhade. And I don’t need to stick around for that.’
Distant footsteps made her fall silent for moments longer, though it was a mixed blessing when two blue-shirted officers simply crossed at the next junction and did not come their way. She twisted her fingers together. ‘I don’t want you ruining your career for me.’
‘Ruining my career.’ His eye-roll was less dismissive. ‘Let me worry about my life, Thawn. You’ve got plenty to worry about in yours.’
‘I don’t -’
‘I don’t fancy doing this,’ he said, and finally turned to face her. ‘So let’s cut to the chase. This conversation only ends with you saying one of two things. We both know it’ll be you wishing me luck – acidic sarcasm optional.’
‘I can hardly wish you luck if you’re going to be this stubbornly self-destructive,’ she said, tilting her nose in the air. He did her the courtesy of not laughing at her hypocrisy, which meant things were really bad. Her voice dropped another few decibels as she finally asked, ‘What’s the other thing I might say?’
Beckett drew a raking breath. ‘Ask me to stay.’
‘You should stay,’ she said hotly. ‘You’ll make full lieutenant in a year, you’ll have every option for a career in science or intelligence, which could lead to staff positions and command -’
‘I don’t mean “tell me why staying is the best thing for my job;” if I cared about that shit I’d be listening to my father.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘I mean… ask me to stay.’
She could look at Adamant Rhade, right now as beaten and battered as a man could possibly be, bereft of any trust in his own judgement or actions, and all she felt was a quiet exhaustion at the thought of helping him. But four murmured words from a crestfallen Nate Beckett were making her soul turn inside out.
And still Rosara Thawn inhaled shakily and said nothing.
After thudding heartbeats that felt like they’d been in-time, Beckett clicked his tongue. ‘Yeah,’ he said at length. ‘That’s what I thought.’ He turned away again, and this time as he left, she did not follow. ‘Have a great life.’
In the rushing silence that filled her, all Thawn could think was that, for the first time, she missed the whispers of blood dilithium. Because now, back safe in the Alpha Quadrant with no escape from the status quo, or the wants and dreams that had burdened her all her life, she only had her own thoughts and feelings for company. And her own thoughts and feelings to blame.