Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Vice and Virtue"

By Christina Moore and Joseph Manno
_____


Someone once wrote, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

According to the literary experts, it wasn't Mark Twain, though some sentimentalists still prefer to think so: It is, after all, a very Clemensesque thing to say.

Very few, though, dispute its truth—not if you've lived on the Bay…

…and especially not if you've lived at Starfleet Academy.

The end of August had arrived, bringing with it the rise in temperature that long-time residents hailed as the height of summer. Guests and newcomers, meanwhile, nodded their heads and kept their jackets handy: The breeze ran hot or cold; and from moment to moment, you never knew which it would be.

Lieutenant Serutian Hale, however, was far too busy to care… or even notice.

She was immersed in taking the classes necessary for a change in discipline: Until about ten weeks ago, she’d been a litigator with Starfleet’s Judge Advocate General. And though she was (by most accounts) a very good lawyer, the Mittengaard case, her last, had affected her so profoundly that she'd decided leaving JAG for starship security the best option…

...especially for her.

It helped the transition that the courses were stimulating. 

It didn't help that one of her classmates was even more stimulating.

When she'd first seen him, sitting apart from the rest of the gathered students, Serutian's thought had been, Well, aren't we special?

Then, she'd noticed his rank—captain, in a room where no other student had even reached commander—and, as he shifted in his chair, gotten a good look at the man's face…

…and a great look at his form.

She'd bitten her lip, and, with difficultly, suppressed the approving hum that almost escaped her.

He was a tall, human male of what appeared to be Latin descent, with an olive complexion, blue-black hair trimmed not quite according to regulation… and features that on a less attractive man would've been labeled angular, but were in this case well-defined.

And it wasn't the only part of him she'd have said was "well-defined."

He also had a body to die for. 

And so, her struggle had begun.

Every time she found herself straying from the subject matter being discussed, watching him or admiring his looks, Hale would give herself a silent, private lecture: Regulations didn't precisely prohibit fraternization between command-level and junior officers... but considering how rarely she saw such a pairing, and the reaction it usually provoked, Serutian knew it was simply one of those matters about which the protocols were unofficial… but understood.

There was, she'd soon learned, not only a major difference in rank, but background, as well. 

Hale tended to keep her own counsel—no pun intended—but had a source or two upon which she relied when attempting to covertly acquire information.

And if Lieutenant Sera MacLeod—Vulcan-human hybrid, prodigy head and shoulders above the myriad geniuses at Starfleet Research, and one of Serutian's best friends—didn't know it, it either wasn't yet known, wasn't knowable… 

…or wasn't worth knowing.

So she'd headed across the Bay to hear expert testimony, as it were.

Sera had responded to the none-too-subtle inquiry in her unique way, with arched brow and amused grin immediately gracing her elfin features.

"I find your use of the word 'delectable' as a descriptive term for the male form peculiar, Seru, but possessing a logic all its own—assuming my extrapolation of the man's identity is correct."

Sera had then returned to the various tasks currently occupying her.

Hale, unimpressed with her friend's "Get away from me, kid, you bother me" stance, poked her in the ribs, and was rewarded with a yelp, a dropped stylus and MacLeod's undivided attention.

"Who is he?"

"Does your hopping indicate a need to use the facilities? They are located…"

"Sera! Who is he?"

The smiled broadened, and she relented.

"I would imagine, from your drooling description of the man, and the circumstances in which you encounter him, that you are speaking of Captain Luciano Mantovanni."

That revelation had made things far more interesting.

Mantovanni was a man out of time. Nearly 70 years ago the captain, his ship and crew had simply… disappeared. A temporal distortion had taken the Constitution-class Intrepid out of the 23rd century and deposited her well into the 24th. At about the same time she'd been resigning from JAG, the Intrepid had suddenly reappeared; now, Mantovanni and his crew were acclimating themselves to their new time.

What could they possibly have in common?

With such circumstances working against them, there was no possibility for a romance. Hale knew this, of course; she wasn’t blind to the facts. But like many a young woman still learning to cope in the all-too-harsh adult universe, she was having one hell of a time attempting to follow all the rules… 

…while trying not to fall for someone she knew was out of her league.

***

Hale and eight other officers filed onto the holodeck for the "lab" portion of their Advanced Tactical Training class. Most of them then took part in the daily scenario—on this occasion, an intricate situation involving well-to-do Orion hostages, Maquis terrorists, Cardassian troopers, and a gul with an itchy trigger finger. On this day, Lieutenant Commander Edmund Price was given the role of "captain," and the task of making the final determination on the best strategy for solving the "problem."

The scenario terminated six hours later… 

…and the little piece of bloody, smoky chaos they'd managed faded into the familiar grid pattern of a holodeck calmly waiting for its next victims.

This is not good, thought Hale, as the dispirited group trudged back to its classroom.

After they were again seated, the replays commenced. They saw things from every perspective and angle, pausing and replaying when either an instructor or student requested it, until each was intimately familiar with all aspects of the mission gone awry. 

Eventually, one of their instructors, Captain Sorak, stood, took center stage… and regarded them in silence for some time before delivering, in that drolly Vulcan style, a succinct synopsis of the patently obvious. 

"Your rescue was unsuccessful. 

"The results of your efforts were a crippled Miranda-class cruiser, seven of nine dead hostages, Maquis terrorists further entrenched in their recalcitrance, and increased tensions with the Cardassian Union—that is, assuming the diplomats following in your wake are able to avert outright warfare."

For some minutes, silence prevailed.

Sorak was clearly waiting for someone to come forward with what they had done wrong.

It was their worst showing as a group since day one of the training program. Price, who'd commanded them today, was stiff-lipped and red-faced with embarrassment.

It's his own fault, Hale thought.

As if able to read her mind—a disturbing possibility, all things considered—Sorak's discerning gaze fell upon her.

"Lieutenant Hale, your expression is usually indicative—in beings hampered by emotion, that is—of irritation. Are you frustrated at your lack of success in resolving this crisis?"

Perhaps a simple affirmation would do.

"Yes, sir."

No such luck.

"And what is your analysis of Commander Price's decision-making? Please stand and address the class."

Their other instructor, Commander Parsons, had never done this. With him, the training had been hard, but the debriefings rather light-hearted. Sorak had never seemed to have a problem with that style, and had offered logical and helpful analyses.

Evidently his method was more… confrontational.

Aw, shit.

"Lieutenant?"

Reluctantly, Hale had finally stood.

She was as matter-of-fact with her statements as she could be, striving for both thoroughness and impartiality—giving her thoughts on what could have been done differently.

Opinions were mixed, at best.

Price, of course, would have none of it.

"There are established tactical procedures in place for a reason," he challenged. "Your plan—a plan I rejected during the scenario, I'll add—was far too risky."

"I respectfully disagree, sir."

"Of course you do, Lieutenant," he added sourly. "That much was apparent when you immediately struck off on your own the minute after insertion."

Hale could feel her temper slipping, but for a moment, didn't care.

"Oh, yes, Commander," she replied. "We risked destroying our ship and losing the hostages." Her face then lit up in mock surprise. "Oh, I forgot… that's what happened anyway!"

There was a murmur of disapproval at her sarcasm, and, for a moment, she felt like an ass for having employed the barb. 

When Price spoke again, though, her regret vanished.

"Perhaps it was execution rather than tactics that were at fault, here. My instructions were to disable the fusion generators and then attempt a rescue of the hostages; that's not what you did."

She had led the away team, on his orders… and now things were getting ugly. Not only was he questioning her solutions, but her motives for speaking out.

Why he thought that was obvious: Their respective grades and rank were a matter of public record. The two were in a dead heat for class valedictorian… and Price was obviously implying that she was attempting to sandbag him.

Hale defended herself as best she could… and, for an ex-attorney, that was pretty well. 

"I was the commander on site. Once communications failed, adapting to the new situation became necessary. It's called 'using your initiative,' Commander."

"No… it's called 'ignoring your orders,' Lieutenant. The minute you were unsupervised, you abandoned the agreed-upon plan and…"

Her rival's rail became a monotonous babble, as Serutian Hale glanced up…

…and, for the first time, met the eyes of Luciano Mantovanni.

Perhaps it was her imagination, but his expression seemed amused—whether at Price, her or the situation she wasn't certain.

Serutian decided she needed to know.

"Captain Mantovanni," she announced. "You've been with us through our entire curriculum; I know you're simply auditing the course, but you must have an opinion."

He arched a brow, and answered, "Must I?"

It seemed half mockery, and half warning.

Undeterred, she answered, "Yes. 

"You must."

It was bold… almost disrespectful. 

Hale glanced to her instructors: Sorak showed no inclination to intervene. Parsons, on the other hand, actually cringed.

Oh, no.

"Very well, Lieutenant. 

"I think both you and Commander Price are so enamored with your own ideas, and the vision of that pretty little valedictorian medal resting on one of your respective chests, that you're forgetting the goal is to accomplish the task—not to accomplish it your way."

Once again, she felt like an ass.

Sorak then surprised the class by announcing, "That will be all for today.

"Dismissed."

The class members left quickly; Price shot her a look that was at once resentful, frustrated and even apologetic.

She found herself alone with the instructors.

Sorak had already turned to his observer and said something that reminded her that while Vulcans were stoic, they weren't humorless.

"I surmise you will now expect to be compensated as a guest lecturer."

Parsons laughed.

Mantovanni didn't.

That brow came into play again, though, telling as any Vulcan's she had ever seen. Hale sensed a smile behind the poker face, though.

"You're avoiding the fact that I won our wager, Sorak. Since Lieutenant Hale was the first member of your class to directly address me, you owe me plomeek soup, prepared in the traditional fashion."

Now a hint of humor seeped into Mantovanni's tone.

"That'll be payment enough."

"Indeed."

She'd watched the exchange in fascination… 

…then, abruptly, realized doing so constituted eavesdropping. 

Hoping to slip out before it could result in a dressing down or worse, a reprimand, Serutian moved for the door…

…too late.

“Lieutenant Hale, I'd like to speak with you for a moment.”

Serutian squared her shoulders, hoping her face didn’t reveal the panicked pleasure she felt at the request. 

Get a grip, Ru, the young Trill scolded herself. He's not about to ask you for a date. The man is a captain, for pity’s sake! You already know you haven’t a snowball’s chance on Vulcan.

She glanced at the wall chronometer as she turned. Commander Parsons and Captain Sorak strolled past. She didn't even bother searching the Vulcan's face for some nuance of emotion, but the little New Englander was another story. 

Oh, ayuh, he was.

He covered his mouth for a cough that struck her as a badly disguised laugh, and studiously avoided meeting her gaze.

Uh, oh.

"Sir, I have another class in five minutes…" she tried.

"…and if our conversation runs past that, you'll be late," he finished. "No doubt Lieutenant Commander Brackett will find the request of a superior officer sufficient justification for your tardiness.

"Walk with me, Lieutenant."

And so she did.

***

“Yes, Captain?”

A cool breeze braced her in the courtyard. 

His first observation wasn't much warmer.

“I must say… I wasn't impressed with how you handled Commander Price.”

Hale couldn’t stop the frown that crossed her features. 

“With all due respect, sir, it would have been remiss for someone not to have called the commander on his mishandling of the scenario.”

Now he smiled minutely, employing an expression simultaneously compelling and a little predatory. 

“Indeed,” Mantovanni conceded. "To a certain extent, I like how you responded when he laid into you. You maintained a level head—other than that flash of anger you controlled rather well."

She flushed. It was annoying to know someone could read you so easily.

"But this isn't a courtroom, Lieutenant," he continued. "Many young attorneys—and some older ones, to be sure—have an unfortunate tendency to think their perspective is always right… and can usually provide either Socratic method or sophistry, whatever serves at the moment, to justify their belief."

She stopped and rounded on him.

"I do not, and have never, employed sophistry… and don't appreciate having it implied I do. I'm devoted to the truth… as any Starfleet officer should be."

He seemed unmoved.

"I didn't imply it. You inferred it. I also mentioned Socratic method, if you recall.

So he had. She'd walked… practically waltzed… into a logical trap.

Then, he kicked her while she was down.

"What did Emerson say? 'The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons'?"

Serutian gaped at his insinuation, and nearly said the first thing that came to mind—something about respecting his heritage by employing Mafia-style bullying tactics—but then took a good look at his face.

His expression was appraising…

…but his eyes were smiling.

She laughed aloud… and the grin touched his features.

"You almost got me, sir."

"And so did Price."

Hale lifted a shoulder. “What good would losing my temper have done? 

"If I may say so, sir, I believe that what upset Commander Price the most was not that he was incorrect or that his mistakes had been noticed, but that they were pointed out by a lower-ranking officer.”

“That may indeed be the case, Lieutenant…

"…but you're still assuming he was totally in the wrong. He wasn't.

"Captain Sorak is observant, as you well know… but, unlike some instructors, who feel they're shepherding officers into new roles, or many who are rather… obvious in their method, he takes opportunity to pressure those students under his tutelage… and then quietly evaluates. 

"Just because Price was in the center seat doesn't mean you weren't on the hot seat."

Despite what Captain Mantovanni had said only minutes ago about her enthusiasm for accolades clouding her judgment, Serutian's thoughts briefly turned to her class standing before she chided herself and focused on more important matters.

"What do you mean?"

"Let's just say I found it extremely interesting that the comm system failed only moments after your beam-in when you in particular were in charge of the away mission."

It wasn't hard to follow his reasoning.

"You think Captain Sorak set me up to ignore Commander Price's instructions and strike off on my own."

"No," he replied. "He didn't set you up. He gave you rope… 

"…and you hung yourself quite readily."

She could see it all clearly now.

"Damn it! That's not fair, and it's not right. Price's decisions were…"

Mantovanni finished, "…whether you like them or not, those of your commanding officer."

She couldn't quite let it go… but her tone, in a single sentence, migrated from vehement to almost desperate. 

"He should have listened to me!"

Her companion wouldn't even grant her that.

"I imagine he's muttering the same thing right about now—with more justification than you have."

Only an hour before, Serutian Hale had felt on top of the world, on top of her game, and on top of just about every situation with which she'd recently been presented.

Now….

"Why are you telling me all this, sir? You and Sorak are friends. Isn't this a little…? I don't know…"

His expression changed momentarily, infinitesimally, and she wasn't certain what she'd seen therein. While this man had the type of careful prepossession that seemed to make his every facial cast and gesture an understatement, the statement itself seemed always to be there—if you were an avid reader, that is.

"I'm your classmate, Lieutenant, not your instructor. I have every right to make observations to whomever I deem might benefit from them—so long as I betray no confidences."

She'd almost managed to find some balance again, when he added a final observation that chilled her.

"I suggest you forget about class valedictorian, Lieutenant.

"Right now, I think you're even money just to pass the course."

Abruptly, he stopped… and Hale belatedly realized she was standing outside Decker Hall, where her next class had probably already commenced.

He pulled open the old-fashioned door, and held it for her.

Despite everything she'd just heard and already knew, again Serutian suddenly found herself thinking of him not as a sage counselor or an infuriatingly incisive observer, but simply as a man. With a tremendous effort, she smothered a smile, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

Determinedly, she suppressed a snicker at her next thought.

He's a pace behind. I wonder if he's looking at my ass?

God knows, I've looked at his often enough over the last month, when chance afforded.

She turned, hoping to catch his gaze violating the Neutral Zone, but he either hadn't been, or altered its course too quickly for her.

Serutian decided to be brash.

After all, I can't get in any more trouble than I am.

Her lips curled into a smile that was at once amused and suggestive.

"Are you walking me to class, sir?"

"In a manner of speaking."

Again he slipped past her… but this time, instead of holding the door open, he passed through it and didn't look back.

Momentarily thrown, Hale followed… but before she could inquire, he'd already begun working his way down into the amphitheatre. Lieutenant Commander Brackett was, strangely enough, seated instead of running the class.

A few seconds later, she understood why.

"Good afternoon. I'm Captain Mantovanni; your teacher has requested I address you concerning the events of Stardates 11452.1-3.9—what's become known as the First Galorndon Core Incident."

He paused, and Serutian realized he—and, thus, everyone else—was waiting for her to choose a seat. Face flushing enough to give her auburn hair a run for its money, Hale gave up on her own customary spot, and slipped into the nearest chair…

…wishing instead it were a Trill-sized hole.

***

When she headed straight for him three hours later, Mantovanni wasn't particularly surprised.

Round two. Gloves up, Captain. Stick and move.

For a few moments, other students surrounded him, and he was bracketed with questions concerning those long-ago days that had changed his life forever. Hale hovered on the periphery, though, moving closer each time another student departed, and caught his eye whenever she could.

She's looking for a weapons lock.

Even as he answered the questions asked on autopilot, Mantovanni took in her appearance, allowing himself the brief luxury of examining her as a woman, rather than a student or fellow officer. Serutian Hale was tall and slender, and it was apparent that beneath her uniform was the well-trimmed body of an athlete. She certainly carried herself as such. Her dark auburn hair hung just past her shoulders and framed her face, subtly emphasizing the telltale brown spots of her Trill heritage. 

He wondered briefly if she were joined.

Some unwelcome part of him asked, Why? Would it bother you?

Where the hell did that come from?

It took only an instant to realize what had prompted all three questions. The leap wasn't a difficult one: Serutian Hale was attractive, she was forward and she was a Trill—just like Saren.

Saren.

While she, like Galorndon Core, was a subject he had no desire to revisit, in this case the choice was his…

…and he made it readily.

He heard one of her classmates—not Price, thank goodness—joke, "Teacher's pet," as she approached him… but the slight smile and faint flush the comment elicited told him its author was a friend.

For some reason, this time he endeavored to take control of the conversation at its outset.

“I understand that you left the JAG Corps back in June.”

Hale nodded, clearly nonplused, and a bit vexed, at the turn he'd taken, but momentarily setting aside whatever she'd wanted to say so as to better respond. 

“Yes, sir,” she replied. “I served there two years before coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t where I belonged. I’m much better suited for security work.” 

Something about the way she said it had Mantovanni scrutinizing the lieutenant again. She wasn’t looking at him any longer, and on instinct he knew that there was more to the story than she was telling. He considered asking her to explain further but then thought better of it.

It wasn't as if he, too, didn't have subjects he preferred not to discuss.

The brief delay gave her the opening she'd needed.

"Sir… I wanted to say that I don't entirely agree with your assessment of my performance, or its motivations, in the holo-scenario."

Proud and stubborn, Mantovanni thought. 

He knew the type.

Lord, he knew the type.

"And just when did you come to this conclusion, Lieutenant? In the minutes since we finished with Commander Brackett's class, or in the three hours you should have been paying attention to my lecture, tedious though it may have been?"

This time, she understood, and laughed.

"Are you sure you're not an ex-attorney, sir?"

"Worse," he acknowledged. "I had relentless instruction from the only Vulcan Jesuit in the galaxy."

The walkway split near a small planting of Berengarian snapdragons. It was clear their paths were diverging along with their opinions.

Each stopped.

She seemed very much at ease with him now.

For some reason, that annoyed him… and, unthinkingly, he acted on the emotion.

"I'm going to recommend you and Commander Price be assigned as lab partners, Lieutenant… and that the two of you undergo a scenario designed specifically to address your individual weaknesses.

"Further, both of you will have to pass… 

"…or both of you will fail the course."

She gaped at him… stepped, almost stumbled, back a few paces…

…and practically fled up the garden path.

Mantovanni shook his head—whether at her or himself even he wasn't sure.

Someone else, though, was.

"Well… I can see you haven't changed much."

The old man's brow was covered with sweat, and his hands buried in soil, sifting the dirt for some purpose only he knew.

Even knowing how much this person loved what he did, Mantovanni wondered if it wasn't simply a secret caress for Mother Earth.

"That hardly sounds like a compliment, Boothby."

The wizened gardener snorted a derisive, "You get entirely too many of those, Mr. 'Living Legend.'"

The comment hadn't distracted him, though.

"Something about the girl you don't like…

"…or something you do?"

Mantovanni arched a brow, but the gesture was deflected with a discerning frown.

"Don't try that distantly superior crap with me, Captain Big Shot."

The younger man grinned slightly.

"You know, I have one just like you at home."

"No… the one you have at home has a lot more patience for your dissembling than I do. Now help me up."

He took Boothby's arm, and with little assistance, the other levered himself to his feet.

"You didn't answer the question."

"I'm framing my response carefully," Mantovanni answered, after a moment.

"Always the tactician. Knew another cadet who had to consider every damned thing that came out of his mouth, as if even his friends would desert him if he took one misstep. Wouldn't mind seeing a meeting between you and Jean-Luc Picard—assuming we could find a room to fit both the two of you and your pretensions."

Relentlessly, Boothby added, "I'm still waiting."

"I do like her. She's full of ideas and sass… but she's still just a kid."

"Generally speaking, Cicero, you don't look at kids in the way I saw you looking at her—unless you're interested in spending a few years at a penal colony being reeducated away from pedophilic leanings."

"And they say I have an acerbic wit."

The rose bushes on the South Lawn beckoned next, and Boothby immediately set to work, his eyes and hands never at rest.

"Now's about the time you usually give an allegorical speech."

He grunted, and did just that.

"Cadets are like these roses to me—lovely and delicate petals, strong and fragile stems, and thorns… plenty of thorns."

"Might I point out that Lieutenant Hale is not a cadet?"

"True," Boothby agreed.

"But we all need proper handling, at one point or another, to prosper… to retain our bloom, if you like." Having completed his brief survey of the bed, he again reached for Mantovanni, and was once more assisted to stand.

When the younger man would have released him, though, Boothby maintained his grip… then leaned to whisper.

"And who said I'm talking about Hale?"

***

Serutian was so distracted—and, to be honest, dismayed—by the conversations with Captain Mantovanni that she found herself unable to concentrate through the remainder of her day. The afternoon lowlight was earning the worst score of her career on the phaser range—even including the four years she’d spent at the Academy.

The safest place on the damned field was wherever I aimed.

Her instructor's post-class comments only served to worsen Hale's mood.

"Well, Lieutenant… that's the cleanest scorecard I've seen in quite some time. Now I know I didn't give your target a personal force field, so… care to explain this rather lackluster performance?"

Lieutenant Commander Tallis was a Betazoid, and perfectly capable of discerning Serutian's reasons herself, if she so desired. Fortunately, though, she possessed a Starfleet officer's restraint… or, at the very least, one's sense of decorum, since no telling observations were forthcoming.

"No explanation, ma'am. No excuse."

Which I suppose is marginally better than saying, "None of your damned business."

Tallis, to Serutian's relief, accepted this with a "Don't let it happen again" expression, and the young Trill was able to escape without further interaction. Her last thought before slinking back towards the dorms was one with which many a harried worker and student would be familiar.

Thank God it's Friday.

***

While nearly all sentient species understand the necessity of recreation and downtime, few indulge it so systematically, determinedly and enthusiastically as do humans. Soon after arriving from off world, cadet plebes at Starfleet Academy are encountering, often for the first time, the concepts behind the terms "weekend" and "vacation"... 

...and are just as quickly exposed to the accompanying... rituals.

Most of them don't quite know what to make of it. 

Some immediately fill their "free" time with supplementary study, believing such frequent, indulgent frivolity only underscores the relative immaturity of the human animal. Vulcans and Bolians tend to lead this particular group—usually with arched brows and upturned bifurcated noses, respectively.

Others embrace the culture (and, some puritanical cynics would say, just about anything else that happens by), and become a related species of animal—that is, the party animal. Members of this group, generally, more often fall victim to academic attrition (or honors violations)—though there have been a number of infamous exceptions: Ktarians and Risans, for example, often leave Earth convinced humans are their long-lost kin.

The last group employs IDIC (even while usually failing to appreciate how seldom the inventors of the concept do so) and follows the human lead, working or wallowing as dictated by those longtime traditional foes, necessity and desire.

When these two come into direct conflict, though….

***

Hale thought, I do not need this.

The communiqué had come at 0745 hours Saturday morning. While she was an early riser, and would probably have been on her feet within a few minutes anyway, both the caller and the message were less than welcome.

She’d thrown off her grogginess and thrown on a robe, then run her fingers through what she’d hoped—in vain, the mirror told her afterward—wasn’t a horrendous case of bed-head.

Captain Sorak’s expression, typically Vulcan, had managed to convey both equanimity and irritation at having been kept waiting. Of course, he was impeccably coiffed and completely composed—also typically, annoyingly Vulcan.

Lieutenant… report to my office at 0900 hours. Wear a standard duty uniform, and clear your schedule for the remainder of the day—unless it is your desire to participate in religious services before we begin.”

Her first thoughts in response had been, Either he’s telling me to say my prayers

or he doesn’t want me going to my fate unshriven.

She replied with, “No, sir. I’ll be there… on time.”

He’d nodded minutely and cut the channel.

Damn it.

Serutian had really, really wanted the weekend to regroup. If the call had come only an hour later she would have been ambling through the Smithsonian or the Louvre—sans communicator, of course, since, unlike cadets, student officers didn't have to remain accessible during their time off.

No such luck.

Now, as she stood before his desk, the idea of Sorak’s anticipatory telepathy became simultaneously more plausible… and more unsettling.

“I have reviewed your record, Lieutenant. 

"The quality described by you as 'initiative,' and Commander Price as 'willfulness,' is the one at issue. Throughout your career you have demonstrated an inclination to… 'go it alone,' I believe the human phrase is. That, of course, stood you in good stead as an attorney, where necessarily one must possess an almost monomaniacal belief in the rightness of the cause or case you espouse.

"Now, though, you wish to become a security officer…

"…and some of the habits which once benefited you have become a detriment."

Hale held her bearing only with difficulty.

"Sir… permission to speak freely."

"Permission granted."

"I believe I've been unfairly singled out for criticism, sir. My grades are excellent; my performance, despite the problem in the simulator yesterday, has been exemplary."

Sorak, as one would expect, was unmoved.

"To say you have been 'singled out' is inaccurate, Lieutenant, since Commander Price, for other reasons, had also been placed under scrutiny. That issue, however, has been resolved—at least for now."

Serutian frowned.

"What do you mean?"

"Mister Price has withdrawn from the course for…" His hesitation was brief, but noticeable. "…personal reasons."

After processing that for a few seconds, her eyes narrowed. It was apparent to anyone who gave it but brief consideration that her rival, fearing for his grade, had taken the easy path and backed out—probably citing some ready-made, entirely plausible, all-too-convenient excuse. Sorak, exemplary member of a race that seldom prevaricated, had no doubt accepted this without argument or qualm.

Price, you coward. Mantovanni was right.

After a moment's more thought, she started, and immediately appended, About you, that is.

Which leaves my ass hanging in the wind.

The Vulcan's gaze intensified, from inquisitive to probing. 

"Do you wish to withdraw, as well?"

Then again, perhaps Sorak had seen right through the deception after all.

Serutian Hale considered all she'd learned about the prudence of a tactical retreat, discretion being the better part of valor and fighting only on ground of your own choosing. Despite herself, she leaned forward, and answered with more force than she'd intended.

"No, sirI do not."

There was, of course, no visible reaction to her choice—other than an infuriatingly arched brow that had her fantasizing about just how satisfying it would be to reply with a… gesture… of her own.

She restrained herself.

"Very well, then. Your simulator exercise requires a second participant. Since Commander Price is no longer available, I have arranged for another to assist." An instant later, he added, "You may enter."

She heard the old-style latch click as it slid free, the knob turn… and felt a thrill of dread as her new "partner" entered, nodded and stood at what she would have called "arrogant ease"—that is, if she'd been able to speak.

Luciano Mantovanni had, for all intents and purposes, gotten her into this.

It remained to be seen whether he'd be help or hindrance in getting back out again.

***

When they were finished—six exhausting, terrifying hours later—she still wasn't sure.

The chamber of horrors abruptly transformed itself once again into a deceptively innocuous, grid-etched cubicle. Sweat-soaked and trembling, Hale almost lost her feet in the aftershock of that transition.

For an instant, she was thankful for the sure, strong arm that steadied her… then remembered to whom that certain grasp belonged, and angrily shrugged it off.

Before Mantovanni could react to that, the holodeck door parted for Captain Sorak, who stepped in and regarded their grime-caked uniforms with a distance that seemed to Serutian, for a paranoid moment, more like disdain.

He dispelled that with a matter-of-fact, "Lieutenant… you have successfully completed the scenario. Congratulations."

Hale drew a few deep breaths, pulled herself into an approximation of attention, and replied, "Thank you, sir." The smile she summoned was slight, but sincere. It lasted all of a second; then, she pivoted to face the man with whom she'd run this particular gauntlet.

"Well, are you satisfied? Or will I have to do this again the next time we have a difference of opinion?" After a moment, she added a resentfully conceded, "Sir."

Sorak seemed about to speak, but Mantovanni stopped him with a brief warding-off gesture.

"To answer both your questions: One, for the most part; and two, I suppose that depends on the nature of our disagreement. Don't ask for my involvement if you're not interested in having it, Lieutenant. I was quite happy in the back of the room. You wanted my opinion… and you got it."

He stepped back, and gave them an encompassing nod.

"I have a date with a sonic shower and a cooperative replicator. If you'll excuse me, Captain… Lieutenant." And with that, he withdrew: Calling it retreat would have been inaccurate, because she doubted he ever retreated from anything.

She longed to go after him, to tell him precisely what she thought of him—his arrogance, his interference in her life and future—but Sorak served as an admirable abettor to Mantovanni's escape by beginning an immediate debriefing. 

It lasted for long moments, but abruptly ended when the Vulcan announced, "My apologies, Lieutenant. You are clearly exhausted. Please attend to your personal needs and we shall conclude this discussion in my office Monday afternoon following class."

She would have preferred if he'd realized that 15 minutes before.

***

This time, Serutian didn't even make it halfway to the dorm before she was accosted. A gruff, "Hey, Red" stopped Hale in her tracks.

Only one person called her that; she smiled, and turned.

Boothby tossed her an artfully prepared arrangement. "Flowers for the conquering heroine." 

They were Kaferian apple blossoms wreathed in baby's breath—her favorite. Supposedly they wouldn't grow on Earth; yet these were obviously not replicated, and since they bloomed only for an hour or two after cutting… well, the old man had done the impossible yet again.

How he'd known about the particulars of her examination was a question she knew well enough to leave unasked: The groundskeeper's powers were beyond mortal comprehension—well, at least her mortal comprehension.

Another thought occurred, though, and she cocked an eye at him.

"But what if I'd failed?"

He grunted, and continued plying his most recent reclamation project, a cluster of Vulcan forge flowers, with a rather antiquated-looking atomizer that dispensed a mist so fine Serutian couldn't even see it.

"No charge for lilies, either," the old man informed her. Before she could counter, he added, "So… how's Mantovanni as a partner?"

In swift succession, Serutian gaped, blushed… and then realized she'd inferred something Boothby hadn't implied. Even after everything that had happened, her mind was still running along a very dangerous track.

"Don't be embarrassed. Even I was young once."

She nearly clenched her fists, but remembered his fragile gift and instead forced herself to relax.

"I don't understand it… or him. He's the one who forced the evaluation; then, he goes into the simulator with me and helps me get through it. Why would he do that?"

Boothby produced a small pair of clippers from one of his coveralls' innumerable pockets, snipped away a withered bulb and applied his sprayer again.

"I thought you were going into Security, Ms. Hale. Isn't Investigations a subset of that?"

Serutian knew better than to bother pursuing the subject further: When Boothby stopped answering questions the conversation was essentially over.

"Thanks for the flowers."

An offhand, "Anytime, Red" let her know she'd already been relegated to past and future: The present consisted solely of gardening. Of course, she didn't blame him. 

Serutian had some digging around of her own to do.

***

Luciano Mantovanni sat in his quarters and sourly contemplated a universe that had done its damnedest to leave him behind... and had perhaps succeeded.

At first, he'd almost been lulled into thinking life was much the same as it'd been in his era. The starship that had appeared to lead Intrepid home after her temporal jaunt, USS Hood, had been an old-style Excelsior-class commanded by an old school captain. The man had striven to put the new arrival at ease—to connect with him. It was in large part as a result of Robert DeSoto's empathy and compassion that they'd formed a tentative friendship; and the newfound attachment had slightly eased Mantovanni's lingering shock at being told he'd spent the last 70 years slipping into the realm of legend.

Even so, the differences between 23rd and 24th centuries had been more than a little startling.

Civilians serving on starships, Klingons as allies… 

What's that old song… "The World Turned Upside Down"?

And it wasn't just circumstances that had changed.

In the time Mantovanni had spent in his host's company, the man had received at least four communiqués from Starfleet Command, on matters his guest had considered low-priority at best, trivial at worst. Upper echelons had clearly become more hands-on in the seven decades he'd been missing, and that didn't sit well with him—at all.

Looking over your shoulder is one thing. Holding your hand is quite another.

He sighed, and glanced around for the thousandth time at his "home away from home." Except for the few touches he himself had added, the décor in Mantovanni's room, and most of the others he'd seen, was blandly cheery—a reflection, he was beginning to think, of the perhaps not-so-brave new world in which he'd found himself months ago.

That wasn't entirely fair, he knew. Starfleet was still the bulwark of the Federation; it just seemed as if it had forgotten that true strength lay not only in preparation, but in presentation, as well. History had proven that over and again, but his fellow citizens and servicemen seemed to have forgotten it once more. He'd spent some time aboard the fleet's flagship class during one of Hood's innumerable rendezvous en route to Earth. The USS Odyssey had reminded him of a luxury liner, and the glorified pantsuit uniforms to which he'd not yet reconciled himself had only added to the sense of illicit ease that had seemed to him entirely inappropriate for a ship-of-the-line.

His displeasure had become clear to Starfleet when, during Mantovanni's debriefing, some stuffed shirt whose name now escaped him had asked his impression of the Galaxy-class. The response had been tactless, but no less true for that.

"She's rounded, unwieldy and absurdly comfortable—that is, everything a capital starship shouldn't be. You might as well have painted a happy face on the damned thing."

That, of course, had gone over very well.

His prospects hadn't improved when the Chief of Personnel, soon-to-retire Vice Admiral Montrose, had inquired, during a supposedly informal interview, what he'd planned on doing now that he'd returned to the here and now.

Mantovanni had arched a brow.

"I assume I'll be given a starship eventually."

Montrose had smiled sadly, and the object of his faux affection had realized in that moment he'd been the only one who'd made that assumption.

"I'm sorry, Captain. You're no longer qualified to sit in the center seat. You're 70 years out of touch with the latest technological advancements; nor are you familiar with the current political climate. Putting you in the command chair would be…" He paused.

Mantovanni had known precisely what the man was thinking: "…like giving a child a charged phaser."

The older man had finished with, "…inappropriate." Then, an instant later, he'd added, "But I'm sure Starfleet will find productive duty for you, Luciano."

It had been all too clear that this man was taking not a little pleasure in bearing such tidings.

"What about Intrepid?" Mantovanni tried. "She's pristine, even if not state-of-the-art. She and I can evolve together."

"That wouldn't solve your gap in historical awareness… and, to be frank, I'm sure Starfleet has other plans for your old ship—especially since there's a new Intrepid-class out there. No doubt she'll become a training vessel, a museum… or simply be sold to the Magna Romans."

He'd let that last lie, astonishing though the idea was.

"I'll simply re-qualify, then."

"You're welcome to try, of course…" 

Montrose's smile had been sincere, but not exactly encouraging; in a moment, its motivation became clearer, and the unpleasant undertone of the discussion positively discordant. 

"…but, having glanced at your records, I daresay you might find some of the technicalities of modern starship command a little… complex. No offense intended, Captain; I'm just relying on your Academy transcripts, here."

It hadn't been since his youth on Vulcan that Mantovanni's intelligence had been so disparaged. Even though he hadn't been a particularly good student—hell, he'd been a shitty student, unless motivated—the comment had been obliquely vicious and completely inappropriate.

Mantovanni had thought, Rank hath its privileges.

Then, again, so doth notoriety.

He'd then used his.

"Well, sir, this has certainly been an education."

Montrose was no idiot; he'd noted the particular word-use with a frown.

"I hear you're retiring," the younger man had continued as he rose. "I'm hoping you'll reconsider… because I'm already imagining that affronted little grimace you'll wear when writing the orders for my next starship." 

He'd then turned for the door.

Montrose had sputtered a shocked, "I haven't dismissed you, Captain."

"No, you haven't," Mantovanni had immediately agreed… and it hadn't slowed him for an instant. "Fortunately, you're the one who'd called this 'an unofficial little chat.' 

"Well, I'm through chatting, Admiral."

And with that departure, he'd dismissed Montrose—figuratively speaking, at any rate.

For the last few months, thus, he'd been a uniquely inspired pupil… but he was neither scientist nor technician, and the strain was beginning to tell. Pride had prevented Mantovanni from sitting in class like a common cadet… but, of course, that meant he had only himself to rely upon, and self-reliance was, in this case, highly overrated. His weeks-ago choice to audit Advanced Tactical Training had been motivated by a need for a breath of fresh air and friendly faces—the better to forget for a time, each day, the sea of numbers and equations that threatened to drown, or at least ground, his career.

Wearily, he turned back to the PADD containing the course on temporal mechanics, noted with flagging amusement the irony of having lived through something he'd probably never fully comprehend…

…and gave a start as his quarters' chime sounded.

***

Hale glanced into Mantovanni’s chambers hesitantly, nervousness increasing exponentially. Nearly bolting at the sight of him, her inner voice screamed, What am I doing here?!

When she stepped across the threshold and the door slid shut behind her, though, something inside clicked off… or on: Serutian wasn't sure which. 

She was sure, however, that there was no turning back. 

“Lieutenant Hale, this is unexpected. What may I do for you?”

Wildly, she thought, Well, since you asked so nicely

He was close enough that she reached him in three long strides. Feeling as if her body were out of control, Hale reached up and took his head in her hands, bringing his mouth down onto hers for a crushing kiss. 

Mantovanni was so stunned that it took a split second for his brain to catch up with what was happening; and before it did, he found himself responding.

It was, after all, one hell of a kiss.

When it finally registered, though, restraint, common sense and protocol overrode instinct, and the powerful grip he'd taken of her shoulders served well to set his fervent guest back on her heels. Evidently Hale, in that instant, recovered a modicum of awareness and decorum, too, because she then stumbled away and backed towards the exit, her expression seeming to him very much like one she'd wear if he'd started all this—as if he'd kissed her.

She gasped when he snapped, "Computer, lock the door," and turned back, seemingly against her will, to face him. Her lower lip trembled for an instant, and he noted with dismay that it took a tremendous effort not to simply throw caution to the wind and let events proceed as they would.

He summoned up the best façade of detachment manageable under the circumstances, drew a somewhat ragged breath, and declared, "That should not have happened."

She joined him out on that declarative limb with, “I know.”

He arched a brow. "I'm waiting."

Hale seemed to be scrambling for an answer, and what she finally gave him was, "Uh… welcome to the 24th century?"

It broke the ice, or at least cracked it.

Mantovanni granted her a brief smile and replied, "Well, I'll concede that the welcoming committee does a damned thorough job."

She colored.

"Serutian…." The gentle beginning gave way to a generous dose of his natural acidity. "Pardon my presumption, but I'm going to proceed with the idea that it's acceptable to call you Serutian… or, better yet, Dr. Hale, after that impromptu tonsillectomy."

Her blush darkened, but she managed, "Serutian is fine… C–Cicero."

He nodded at the usage, a "fair enough" expression displacing the irritation and curiosity written there… but only for a moment.

When it returned, along with his customary raised eyebrow, Hale smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

“Because I had to do it. I thought maybe it would help me get you out of my system.”

"Out of my system"? he thought. What the hell…?

Evidently he'd made far more of an impression on Serutian Hale than he'd thought.

***

For a long moment, Mantovanni waited for his guest to elaborate, but there was no explanation immediately forthcoming.

She seems to have lost her tongue. He then considered the moments-ago kiss, and wryly amended, Well, linguistically speaking, at any rate.

All right… let's both of us regroup.

"I have to use the little captain's room, Serutian. While I'm occupied, you may want to consider precisely what it is you want, or need, to say."

He then left Hale to compose her thoughts and a response.


Options, Seru… options, she thought, glancing about the room for them—for anything.

I could try to override the door lock and leave—like a tactical retreat. That is what all this training is for, isn't it?

She sighed. No. That just delays the inevitable disaster.

A more amusing thought then occurred. 

I could try to subdue my "captor." She imagined herself either putting up her dukes… or pulling off her uniform. Considering how events had transpired thus far, though, Hale doubted whether she'd be successful trying either method.

Abruptly, the stress of the last few days took a firmer hold than it yet had, and she felt a need to sit down before she fell over. Mostly because it was the nearest piece of furniture and she didn't feel like taking even one more step, Serutian flopped onto the antique black leather couch she guessed Mantovanni had been seated upon before her noteworthy entrance. Hale shut her eyes, and closed out the universe for a few cherished seconds. The momentary relief, though, abated when she remembered that her problems—and one in particular—were still out there.

She opened her eyes… and they strayed to the collection of PADDs strewn on the coffee table. Seizing on anything to distract her from the moment, Serutian leaned forward, picked one up and examined the series of equations displayed.

Hmm... Intermediate Principles of Temporal Mechanics. This is pretty rudimentary stuff.

A second PADD, which she retrieved a moment after realizing its purpose, contained a series of workbook questions, and to their right, what she assumed were Mantovanni's responses.

Hale couldn't help making a face as she read through them.

Ugh… good thing this stuff isn't being graded.

Except… I bet it is being graded. Oh, dear….

Serutian heard Mantovanni washing his hands and decided that she didn't want him to see her poring over his studies—such as they were. She replaced the PADDs in precisely the places from which she'd taken them, stood, and moved to sit in one of the more generic Starfleet-issue chairs facing the sofa.

He strode to almost precisely where she'd been a moment before, but instead of sitting, regarded her with an expression he'd no doubt used on everyone from fellow poker players to opposing commanders.

"Did you enjoy your look at my homework?"

"I, uh… how…?"

"Well, you're not a cow by any means, Serutian, but that shapely tush of yours does leave a rather attractive little concave impression in the sofa after you've been perched on it nosing through my stuff."

Whoops. And I'm supposed to be a security specialist—with an eye for detail, even.

Hah.

Fortunately, Mantovanni seemed to decide it was an attempt to distract him from the more pertinent matters at hand. He remained standing—almost looming. If the stance was an attempt to impress or intimidate, it was certainly having an effect.

Now… why do you need to get me 'out of your system,' as it were?”

Well, I don't suppose he's going to be surprised, considering the last few minutes. It's not as if you haven't already thrown caution to the wind, Serutian… 

and then phasered a few holes in it.

Boldly, she announced, “I’m sure you’re aware that you’re a virile, strapping lad. More than one woman’s told you that in your lifetime, no doubt.”

It seemed to her that Mantovanni fought back a grin—only just. “Not in so many words, but… yes,” he conceded. "Some do it with a kiss."

Hale’s cheeks flushed crimson and, for an instant, she looked away.

"So… were you hoping that I'd demonstrate my virility… or take a strap to you? Either seems a viable option, Miss Hale."

A series of half-thoughts stampeded through her mind: Option Three: Call security… you're supposed to be security… he's going to spank me… mmm, that might not be so bad… as long as I get the virility after the strap

Her face must have shifted through a cavalcade of expressions in just a few seconds.

Instead of reacting to any of them, he brought a hand to his lips, in mock dismay, and then did smile—minutely.

"Relax. I'm joking. As the old song says, 'A kiss is just a kiss.' What people do, or don't do, behind closed doors is their business… but I think, for the most part, that side of our business is concluded." He finished with a reassuring, "No harm done."

She repeated the phrase in her mind: "No harm done"…

…and felt her tension and nervousness drain away. Her shoulders unlocked and she relaxed, feeling at that moment as if coming here had been precisely the right thing to do, even if it hadn't worked out quite as she'd expected… or probably, on some level, had hoped. Serutian was surprised but also pleased—pleased that she hadn’t made a fool of herself.

Well, not a complete fool, anyway.


Mantovanni had observed as she'd digested that, and probably noted when she'd slumped back into the chair, relieved beyond measure.

"Well," he said, with only a hint of his usual aridity, "let's steer this in the direction it would take were we two normal people having a conversation." He then stopped, as if seeming to consider what a "normal" person would actually say in this situation. Finally, he asked, "Would you like something to drink?”

“I would, thank you. Spearmint tea, hot, lightly sweetened.”

Walking over to the replicator for a fresh cup of cocoa and the tea she’d requested, Mantovanni said over his shoulder, “Just so you know, not all of my female friends are ones who’ve been attracted to me.”

“Of course not,” Hale replied, and then grinned rather impishly. “There must be plenty of women out there who think you look like a targ.”

An image of the nasty-looking, nastier-tempered beast loped through his mind. Whenever he saw one, Mantovanni recalled the German word schweinhund. He shook his head at her candor, again forcing back a smile.

"When I said we could drop ranks, Serutian, I didn't mean off the side of a cliff. A little respect, if you would."

She chuckled, "Sorry, sir," and accepted the tea gratefully.

"I wanted to ask: Doesn't anyone call you 'Luciano'?"

"No."

"Well, that sure sounded like, 'Not if I can help it.' You don’t go by your first name?” she asked, perhaps too innocently.

A frown briefly creased Mantovanni’s brow as he took a drink of cocoa. Considering his expression, Hale concluded it was the question rather than the confection leaving the bad taste in his mouth. 

“No,” he told her. “I’m not particularly fond of it.”

He showed no intention of elaborating.

Hale smiled knowingly. “Then we have something else in common. I don’t care for mine overmuch, either.”

“I’d wondered about that,” he noted. “I’ve known a number of Trills in my time, and your name struck me as rather unusual.”

“A lot of people say that about it. Serutian is a combination of my two grandmothers’ names, Seru and Tian,” Hale explained. “Though I’m honored to be named for them and I love them both dearly, putting their names together created something altogether different that I’ve just never really liked.”

"I think it's a matter of pronunciation."

She frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, when you say it, your dislike is evident… and people take their cue from you. SUH-roo-shin—like you're trying to get the word over with. It sounds like a stereotypical Japanese attempting to pronounce 'solution.'

"Why not emphasize the second syllable, and stretch it from three to four?"

Hale wondered whether he'd spent time in Italy, because he adopted the accent easily before proceeding.

He said it once: "Say-RUH-shee-ahn."

She blinked.

"Do that again."

"Say-RUH-shee-ahn."

"You make it sound like a caress."

He smiled, easily this time, and she felt her heart skip a beat.

"Shouldn't it? It seems like a perfect name for an elegant… "

The grin mutated from provocative to devilish.

"…mouthy, impudent redhead."

Hale snatched a throw pillow from behind her back and whipped it at him—to no avail. He rather easily caught the makeshift missile out of the air and set it aside. The martial artist in her noted, Damn, he's really fast.

"My friends call me Seru… or Ru for short."

"'Ru'?"

A wry grin formed on her lips and a faraway look came into her eyes. “Mostly because it’s part of my name. My older brother Delis, however, calls me that for a different reason.”

He crooked a finger at her—an indication to continue.

“Well, I don’t remember it, but apparently I was rather energetic as a child. I’ve been told I preferred hopping around to walking, and because of that, Delis took to referring to me as an Earth marsupial.”

"Which one?" Mantovanni asked. "Koala? Wallabee? Ah, must be Tasmanian Devil, if your recent behavior's any indication."

Hale made a face, and countered, primly, "You know very well which one I mean." After a moment, she added, "Didn't anyone ever teach you to be nice to your company—even the uninvited kind?"

"While I could point out the ironies inherent in protocol lessons from 'The Kissing Bandit,' I'll simply take that as it was intended… Ru."

She wasn't sure if that was meant teasingly, or as a subtle indication that perhaps they, too, could be friends.

Anyway,” Hale went on, ignoring the counter jibe, “the nickname got shortened as I got older, though Delis still likes to call me 'Kangaroo' on occasion.”

The man had an amazing ability to keep her almost constantly blushing: With that ghost of a grin she'd already come to recognize, he dryly observed, "Perhaps it's because of your tendency to jump people."

Serutian sighed, and smiled through the embarrassment. "I'm never going to live this down, am I? You know, I'm really not that kind of a woman—well, not usually."

She immediately decided on a return to safer conversational paths.

“Delis is a doctor. He’s in Starfleet, actually, stationed at one of the outposts on Trill so that he can go through the Initiate training."

“Have you gone through it?" Mantovanni asked… in a tone that seemed to her suddenly, carefully neutral.

Hale’s eyes narrowed. 

Now that's interesting. File for near-future reference, she thought.

“No,” she answered. “Contrary to the desires of the Symbiosis Commission, I’ve decided against seeking to become joined. They don’t want me; they want my intellect. They’re hoping that it will be a benefit to future hosts. 

"Personally, I believe any Trill that wants to become a host has an immortality complex.”

There are other reasons, too, but… 

…I don't know you that well, Captain.


Mantovanni regarded Hale in silence, sensing that they'd begun dancing around what might well have brought them together. Most of the Trills he’d known, with perhaps one exception, clamored for the chance to carry a slu–… a symbiont. He knew the Symbiosis Commission regulated the process with strict qualifications and the claim that there weren’t enough symbionts to accommodate potential hosts. The initiates were known to be cutthroat, even vicious, in their competition because of this. 

Yet Hale didn’t want a symbiont… and didn’t seem to care that the Commission knew it. A person with her extraordinary intelligence would be actively pursued for hosting, and Mantovanni could just imagine how vexing it was to the Commission’s Evaluation Committee that her answer had been "No." He envisioned a group of arrogant, smugly self-important Trills milling about, goggle-eyed and affronted at her refusal.

Good for you, Serutian. Be your own woman—literally.

"So… according to you, your brother 'has an immortality complex.'"

Hale shook her head.

"You should have been an attorney, Cicero.

“With the people I’m close to I try to reserve judgment. Anyone I know that wishes to pursue it I offer my full support to. It’s just not a choice I’ll make for myself. My mother and father subscribe to the school of thought that it’s this great honor to become a host. Of course, they're both joined, so… I'm not exactly certain their perspective's unbiased. Delis told me that he’s doing it so that Trills in the future will better understand people like me—people who don't want to be Joined."

Somehow I seriously doubt that's his primary motivation, Mantovanni thought. From Hale's expression, she did, too, but wasn't about to admit it.

"A lot of the Trills I know believe a record of their achievements isn’t going to be good enough, that they have to actually be there, even though vicariously via a symbiont. They’re of the mindset that it’s the only way future generations will get a full appreciation of what they’ve done, and joining allows them to do that.

“You’d think such questionable ideals would disqualify a hopeful host, but they slip through the cracks all the time.”

Mantovanni observed, "The promise and possibility of eternal life is something most species pursue relentlessly. The Trills seem to have found a way to make it happen. You're in the minority."

She didn't quite realize he was simply baiting her, and answered with an assertive, "So?

“I once read that we're immortalized by what others remember about us.

“Trills who are joined imprint their entire memory into the symbiont in order to pass on their life’s experiences, making the creature into nothing more than a glorified storage unit. I have no problem being remembered as a really smart person who may or may not have done something worthwhile with her life, but what I don’t want is some stranger I’ll never meet being able to analyze me and pick me apart a hundred years from now. I’m just not comfortable with the fact that anyone who comes after me will have free access to my most personal thoughts and feelings… and some things just aren’t meant to be shared.”

He almost found himself responding at length, but then settled for, “I understand that, better than you know.”


Another interesting, enigmatic comment. I'm not letting it slide this time, Captain.

For a moment, they sat in companionable silence… but, gradually, she grew restless.

"Well?"

"'Well,' what?"

Finally Hale set her empty mug on an end table and, tilting her head in a contemplative manner, said, “Now tell me something about you.”

"Quid pro quo, eh?" he asked. At her nod, he said, "I'm not sure that's necessary, or fair: People already know too much about me. More than half my life is public record… and I’m constantly badgered for details on the rest—that is, when reporters and biographers can get close enough.” 

"How about friends?" she tried.

For all that seemed to move him, she might as well have been trying to breach a fortress with her fist.

OK. You're not the only person who can regurgitate someone's words for use against them, Captain.

"All right. Just a minute ago you said, 'I understand that, more than you know.' I didn't get the impression you were sympathizing. It seemed more like empathy—like you were reliving something unpleasant. And you know a lot more about Trills than the average layman, or even a man who's been friends with a few in his time.

"I’m a trained investigator, and from what I've been able to learn from talking to you here and poking through various sources—some reliable, some not so… and a few unquestionably accurate—I have a working hypothesis, Cicero."

At last, she concluded, "You have a bigger problem with joined Trills than I do... and it's personal—very personal."

Serutian Hale leaned forward and whispered, "I want to know about that… 

"…and I think a part of you wants to tell me."

Well, I’m about to get thrown out

or let in—really let in.

She had no idea which it would be.

A second later, she had her answer.

An hour later, she had his.

***

He stood with her, and walked her to the door.

"Thanks for talking. I'm sorry about all this," Hale muttered, gesturing vaguely to indicate the entire evening.

Mantovanni at last gave her an undiluted smile… and she decided that it had been worth the risk.

"Thanks for listening. Sometimes you just have to have faith that things happen for a reason.

"Oh, and there's just one more thing before we put this opening chapter of our friendship behind us."

"What's th–… mmmf…!"

It was precisely then that Serutian Hale, pulled helplessly into his embrace, learned a lesson she never forgot: Kissing Luciano Mantovanni and being kissed by him were two entirely different things.

Her arms fluttered in protest for all of an instant before coming to rest between them, palms flush to his chest. If she'd intended to push him away, the effort never came. Instead, her fingers curled almost possessively, nails digging into the hard muscle they'd found there. Her mouth opened readily under the pressure of his, and the moan that built in her throat was pleasure-filled, and more than a little desperately longing.

Her mouth had followed after his as he withdrew, like a bird anxious for more sustenance. He'd pressed her back against the wall and now she was thankful for its support: Her body was flushed, her knees were rubbery, and Serutian Hale knew, for that moment, she'd do whatever Luciano Mantovanni commanded—for as long as he wanted.

And she was more than ready, willing and eager to receive his orders.

None came, though… and gradually she began to recover her senses, and her common sense.

She panted, "Wha–… why…?"

His expression was thrilling, terrifying… and infuriatingly amused. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear, an intimacy that actually elicited another gasp.

"I can't have you totally comfortable around me, now can I?"

***

Luciano Mantovanni had thought the "riposte baiser" a particularly appropriate bit of revenge—though he'd felt like something of a cad when Serutian Hale had, afterwards, stared glassy-eyed at him, mumbled "Good night," and practically staggered off towards her dorm room.

When his quarters' entrance chime rang again about a half-hour later, he nearly decided to ignore it: Mantovanni knew that if his newfound friend threw herself at him again it was possible he might, in a moment of lust and weakness, decide to catch her this time. And while that set of events would make for an extremely pleasant evening or two, it would, in the long-term, hurt them both incalculably. Dreading either an impassioned plea or worse, another passionate embrace, he nevertheless rose, moved to the door and opened it.

It was, indeed, a woman… but not the right (or, rather, the wrong) woman.

This one, instead of stepping into his arms, stepped past him into his quarters, without a word—there to sit down on his sofa and begin examining and organizing the dozen or so PADDs he'd been poring over in near despair.

He thought of nothing better to say than, "May I help you?"

"The reverse, actually, sir. 

“Sit down," she offered, then patted the sofa next to her rather off-handedly. "From what I am able to determine from a cursory examination of the material, we have a great deal of ground to cover."

Mantovanni arched a brow. Since she wasn't looking at him, though, the gesture was wasted, and probably wouldn't have had much of an effect anyway, considering that his new guest was of Vulcan descent.

"Who are you?"

That earned him an interested, interesting look: She was one of those women with what could have been regarded as severe features, but a thoughtful regard that gentled them, and even made them pretty.

"Lieutenant Sera MacLeod, sir. I am Serutian Hale's friend… and, thus, yours by association. She tells me your work in temporal mechanics is, I believe she said, 'Beyond pathetic—almost disgraceful.'

Before he could reply, she appended with a kindly, "I do not believe it is quite so serious as all that."

Nice to know you’re not hopeless.

Well, not completely hopeless.

MacLeod then tossed him the PADD she herself had been carrying. On it was a note from Serutian Hale—who seemed to have recovered her brash and provocative wit before writing it.

It read:























An almost furtive glance at Sera MacLeod informed him that she’d probably been privy to the letter—assuming the sly elfin grin was a reliable indication, that is.

At last, Mantovanni exhaled, and declared with a sigh, “I don’t deserve this.”

His prospective new tutor replied easily with, “Are you referring to the abuse… or the assistance?”

Considering the question carefully, Mantovanni sat down beside MacLeod, took the PADD she offered, and matched her amused expression with one of his own.

Finally, he answered. 

Both.”


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