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Part of USS Endeavour: Interlude I

Burning When You Breathe

Sickbay, USS Endeavour
May 2399
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‘I’m fine, Doctor -’

‘Actually, you’ve got a cracked rib.’ Her dress uniform collar loosened now they were back on Endeavour, Sadek gently pushed Kharth in place on the sickbay biobed. ‘So quit moving, and then it’ll stop burning when you breathe.’

‘You should worry about Cortez,’ grumbled Kharth. ‘She got stabbed.’

‘Lightly!’ protested Cortez on the next biobed. ‘Lightly stabbed!’

‘How about,’ said Rourke in a low, flat voice, ‘everyone submits to medical attention, however light their injuries were, because we’re not in a combat zone and there’s plenty of time for Doctor Sadek to see to bloody well everyone?’

‘I agree.’ Valance’s voice, if possible, was even flatter.

‘Look at that,’ mused Sadek. ‘Everyone in this room who can tell you two clowns what to do is in agreement.’

‘Hey,’ said Cortez, ‘we just saved the Crown Prince of Kendikar from being murdered by Remidian dissidents who wanted to restart the war. Doesn’t that make us heroes?’

‘It means,’ said Valance, arms folded across her chest, ‘you should have stayed with Remidian security after raising the alarm.’

‘Then how would I have thrillingly saved Saeihr in the nick of time?’

‘You could have brought them with you when you raced after her.’

‘In my defence, I thought they were right behind me instead of getting a couple extra folks. Or I might not have tackled a guy with a knife, armed only with my cutting wit.’

‘Then why didn’t you let them go first?’

‘Christ, enough!’ Rourke snapped, hands raised. ‘The situation got wild, we were on the back foot by not running security, Laurivir clearly had some folks on the inside and that’s the Remidians’ problem. You saved the day, gold star for you both.’

‘Like, the medal -’

‘I mean like a sticker I’ll put on a PADD with your personal report on it.’ He blew out his cheeks. ‘The Crown Prince and the President signed the treaty ten minutes ago in a private room. The war is over. Security breaches are internal problems now. That’s it, Starfleet’s done here, mission complete.’

‘I think,’ said Sadek, running the osteogenic stimulator over Kharth’s midriff, ‘you’ve all done very well and are all the prettiest princesses. Command should be happy. Maybe actual medals.’ She straightened and snapped the stimulator shut, then reached for a hypospray. ‘That’s the ribs seen to. I’m giving you a mild painkiller, Lieutenant, and 24 hours off active duty. I recommend no fights for your life or gentle bending in that time.’

‘You’re cutting out my favourite hobbies. Thanks, Doctor.’ Kharth gingerly got to her feet, but her gaze was sincere as she turned to Rourke. ‘I’m sorry that was a mess in there.’

He frowned. ‘I’m joshing with you, Lieutenant. You did damn fine work. Both of you.’ But his glance to Cortez was followed by a glance at Valance, and he shrugged towards the door. ‘We’ll let Commander Cortez get patched up. I should report in anyway.’

‘Yeah.’ Kharth half-turned to Cortez as they headed to the door. ‘Thanks for the save, Isa.’

‘I’d say “any time,”’ groaned Cortez as Sadek examined her wounded shoulder, ‘but did you hear I got stabbed? You get stabbed next time.’

‘I’ll try. Just for you.’

Valance’s expression remained level even when Kharth and Rourke were gone, and she looked to Sadek. ‘What’s the prognosis, doctor?’

‘Terrible,’ said Sadek. ‘That’s why I let her lie here while seeing to Lieutenant Kharth; just too bad to be worth spending time on.’

‘Yeah,’ said Cortez. ‘I think this arm’s gonna drop off on its own, Doc, so you should give it a good yank, just get it over with.’

Valance ground her teeth. ‘You’re both hilarious.’

Sadek gave Cortez a look. ‘I possibly shouldn’t discuss your serious medical prognosis in public. Examination room?’

‘Could be severe, yeah.’ But Cortez gave an apologetic grin after a heartbeat. ‘Nah, come on, Doc.’

Sadek scoffed. ‘Denying me my fun.’ But she straightened and switched off the dermal regenerator. ‘Commander Cortez is fine. As she said, “lightly stabbed.” Another case of repairing the damage, applying a painkiller, and recommending a day’s rest.’ She looked between them, and rolled her eyes. ‘You can go. If I can’t mock you, I don’t want to be part of this any more.’

‘Come on.’ Cortez hopped to her feet and gave Valance a sunny smile. ‘You can tell me off as you walk me back to my quarters.’

Valance folded her arms across her chest. ‘I’m doing that, am I?’

‘Ooh, this’ll be fun, I can play bingo with myself.’ Cortez headed out the door and, despite herself, Valance fell into step beside her. ‘Come on, we’ve had “I should have waited for security,” what’s your next?’

‘My next? You were stabbed, I’m not just going to lambast you -’

‘You already did,’ said Cortez, smile turning lopsided. ‘But really you should open up with thanking me for getting stabbed, so you didn’t have to talk more to Sir Stravick.’

Valance’s expression turned pained as they reached the turbolift. ‘He’s been… politely attentive over the last few weeks.’

‘He’s been salivating over you and I’m not gonna miss it. Now don’t pretend you thought he was alright just ‘cos you’re pissed at me.’

‘Am I?’

‘I mean, the captain told us to both shut up an’ then bailed with Saeihr away from us, and Doctor Sadek just joined in winding you up, so clearly I’m not imagining things.’ But the turbolift doors slid open to eject them onto their quarters’ deck, and Valance had to watch Cortez saunter out with a languid air.

‘I agree that you and Lieutenant Kharth deserve accolades for stopping an attempted assassination,’ said Valance, forcing her voice to be level as she followed. ‘I agree that Sir Stravick was… that I won’t miss him when we leave.’

‘Accolades, huh? Gonna throw a party in my honour?’

‘I was going to let Captain Rourke write a glowing report.’

They stopped as Cortez reached her quarters, but her grin was gentler as she opened the doors and turned back. ‘You should stop in,’ she said. ‘And once we’re away from anyone who might think you’ve gone soft, you can tell me how worried you were.’

Valance followed, eyebrow raised. ‘You seem to think you know me better than I know myself right now.’

‘I reckon I do, actually.’ Cortez switched on the lights and sloped to her sofa, ginger as she shrugged out of the ripped shirt layer of her uniform, the vest beneath showing skin pink and bright where she’d been slashed. It would take a little time to fade.

‘Let me help you with that, you shouldn’t twist your shoulder,’ said Valance, quickly going to assist.

Cortez gave a light laugh. ‘Even with that you gotta scold me?’ She turned, hand sliding up Valance’s arm, touch gentle. ‘You can relax, you know. You don’t gotta stay full defensive.’

Valance worked her jaw. ‘I didn’t realise I was being defensive.’ She hesitated. ‘I was worried. All I saw from twenty metres away was you tackling a man twice your size and all hell broke loose.’

‘I’m not gonna pretend that was my brightest moment.’ Cortez’s hand slid up to Valance’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry for scaring you.’

Valance let out a slow, deep breath, one which banished with it tension she hadn’t realised had settled into her back. ‘I wasn’t being critical because I didn’t want to look soft in front of the crew.’

‘Okay, okay,’ said Cortez soothingly. ‘You didn’t want to look soft in front of me? Nah, that’s not right. You didn’t want to look soft in front of you?’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Valance, but when she stepped away it was to head for the replicator. ‘But arguing about this sounds like it’s against the doctor’s orders.’

Cortez’s nose wrinkled. ‘Hey, you can’t use that to get out of -’

‘So I should help you kick back with good drink and good food, and you can tell me how dramatically heroic you were covering Kharth’s ass.’

There was a moment it looked like Cortez wouldn’t take the bait. But either she didn’t have the energy to push her point, or Valance had successfully lured her into compliance with two of her favourite personal indulgences. ‘Okay, fine,’ said Cortez, going to flop on the sofa. ‘But make it the fried pork tamales, not steamed, the replicator doesn’t get it tender enough.’

* *

‘So the Kendikar send their personal thanks to you, Lieutenant Kharth,’ Rourke read from his ready room’s console. ‘And you’re apparently up for consideration for one of their honorary civilian awards of bravery. Suppose saving a Crown Prince will do that.’

‘Appreciate that,’ said Kharth, but she sounded bored.

‘We’ve orders to proceed to Starbase 27, Commander,’ he pressed on to Valance. ‘Local raids in the area suspected of being the Hunters of D’Ghor. So, time to hunt some Klingons.’

‘The Empire would be kind to consider them relics,’ came her wry reply.

‘I’ll take Klingon troublemakers who won’t be as manipulative as the House of Mo’Kai. Admiral Beckett’s at the starbase and he’s asked for us directly.’ Rourke shrugged. ‘It’s not that surprising, I know the region pretty well. Once we get a full briefing package I’ll be sending word to Torkath, that was our stomping grounds for a year or so.’

Valance sighed. ‘I suppose that’s our exploration and diplomatic work at an end.’

‘We’re still flying a bloody big gun.’

Kharth shifted her weight. ‘Was that all, sir?’

‘Oh, no.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘I think this made Beckett get off his arse and push through my request for an officer to lead the Hazard Team. We’ll be rendezvousing with the Hotspur en route for Lieutenant Adamant Rhade to come aboard as our new Officer of the Watch and HT leader. So I’d like you to prepare to bring him up to speed.’

She frowned. ‘I hadn’t realised you were looking for a new leader.’

‘It can’t be you, Lieutenant.’ He blinked. ‘There are significant burdens on the Hazard Team leader with training and unit cohesion, not to mention there’ll be combat scenarios where I need you at Tactical when they’re deployed.’

‘We’ve done perfectly well -’

‘You’ve been pulling an inordinate number of training shifts,’ Rourke said flatly. ‘Then there’s the additional burden on Chief Kowalski picking up the slack. Policy encourages a junior officer in the position of Hazard Team Leader. This isn’t a reflection on you, Lieutenant.’

Her jaw tightened. ‘It rather seems that way, sir, if you’re bringing in an officer to take on an element of ship’s security I’ve been responsible for so far.’

‘As a stop-gap measure. Lieutenant Rhade is a seasoned combat leader and experienced Hazard Team officer. This better distributes responsibility and lets you focus on the whole ship where he can focus on the team.’ Rourke paused in consideration. ‘I had wanted you both here to discuss who’d act as Training Officer going forward, as that’s been Commander Valance’s job while you’ve shared leadership with Chief Kowalski. But perhaps that’s a topic to leave a day or so.’

Kharth’s expression snapped shut. ‘Whatever you decide, sir.’

He scowled. ‘I’d rather we have a back and forth. But we can pick this up tomorrow. Dismissed, Lieutenant.’ He watched her go, then raised his eyebrows at Valance. ‘I didn’t expect that.’

‘Lieutenant Kharth is… prickly.’

‘You two still on bad terms?’

‘I wouldn’t say our terms are bad,’ said Valance. ‘But I wouldn’t call them good, either. She’s always been hotheaded and I think she likes being in the thick of the action. Also, I’m a little worried about the black marks in her record.’

‘She’s been no more than blunt with us before, not insubordinate.’

‘That’s what worries me. Either those records are misleading, or there’s something we’ve not yet seen,’ Valance pointed out.

He sighed, glancing out the window at the stars streaming by. They had left the Remidian system that morning, and he wasn’t sorry to see the back of it. But their destination was no better, and perhaps it had been insensitive of him to drop an encounter with Beckett on Kharth before suggesting she was surplus to requirement. He scrubbed his face with his hands. ‘We’ve got a few days; let’s leave Rhade for later.’ But now he’d reached the next topic, and winced. ‘Got something else to talk with you about.’

Valance quirked an eyebrow. ‘Sir?’

He fiddled with the stylus for his console, and immediately dropped it. ‘This is awkward. So for the record, I hate bringing this up and would rather leave your private life just that – private.’

‘But?’

‘But I’m going to have to bite the bullet after yesterday.’ He winced. ‘Do I need to put it on record that you and Commander Cortez are in a relationship?’

‘Ah.’ Valance flushed. ‘I’m sorry if I was inappropriate -’

‘You were worried,’ Rourke pointed out, also colouring a bit. ‘There was nothing wrong with your conduct on the surface or in Sickbay. But it’s not a secret you two have been seeing each other, and that’s fine, it’s not against regs, but the way we keep it fine is open discussion.’

‘We’re perfectly capable of being professional.’

‘I know,’ he said, firm. ‘This isn’t a criticism, Commander, you don’t have to be defensive. But we keep the lines between personal and professional clear by recognising them. By following the book, we make sure there’s no way anyone can be accused of impropriety and the right support mechanisms are in place for you. Like counselling with Carraway to help you navigate it, and risk assessments for both you and me for assignments where she’s your direct subordinate.’ He picked up the stylus again to have something to do with his hands. ‘I don’t need the messy details, Commander. I know this can be a bit invasive; I’ve been through it myself.’

Her shoulders did relax at that. ‘Of course. I’m sorry, Captain. We’ve been taking things… slowly. I suppose this is the first time I’ve considered how serious it is.’

Rourke didn’t believe in the slightest that Valance didn’t overthink her relationship at least three times before breakfast, but did her the courtesy of pretending. ‘Then I’ll flag it in your records and make sure Carraway talks to you both.’ He relaxed and blew out his cheeks. ‘Sorry for having to bring this up. Just figured it’d be better I talk to you than go to Cortez, as with her history she’s got more reason to be wary.’

His heart leapt into his throat as Valance frowned. ‘History?’ And then he remembered Valance hadn’t been on the Caliburn when Meyers made a comment about Cortez’s background that had him checking up on his senior staff.

‘I…’ The unflappable Captain Rourke, who’d faced down crime bosses and corrupt admirals, flapped. And then tried to find polite words. And then flapped again. ‘Piss.’

‘Captain -’

‘See, this is why your relationship needs to be on file,’ he said quickly. ‘So I remember to not say stupid shit.’

Sir.’

‘There is nothing in Commander Cortez’s history that is inappropriate or you need to worry about,’ Rourke said quickly. ‘Or I wouldn’t have let it get this far, and I wouldn’t have recommended her for promotion after the Wild Hunt. But I had reason to think it’d be better to approach you instead of her to first discuss this situation. Now.’ He leaned back and switched his desk console to a new report. ‘I have to update myself on the situation in the Archanis Sector. You should relieve Commander Airex.’

Valance was glaring daggers at him as she stood. ‘I’ll remember this, sir.’

At least, he reflected as she left, he didn’t now feel awkward about asking her to label her relationship with his Chief Engineer. Just awkwardly wondering if he’d thrown a live grenade into it.