Ling meandered along the Promenade, quietly reviewing Romulan verbs on a PADD before her scheduled rendezvous with Letant.
"Dochai- speak. Dochaikhe-do not speak."
She was starting to get flashbacks to all the xenolinguistic classes she had struggled through at the Academy, and the comparison was an unwelcome one. Frankly, she would gladly take an eighteen hour shift over verbs and nonmodal nominative cases, but here she was.
"Dochaine-spoke. Dochaiakhe-didn't speak."
She said the last one slowly as her eyes drifted from her screen to a black pair of boots that had stopped directly in front of her.
Looking up, she saw General Martok's familiar one eyed visage staring at her from under bushy brows.
"General! How are you?", Ling asked, grateful to see a friendly, or almost friendly, face. Any distraction from her language studies was a welcome one right now.
In abrupt fashion, Martok ignored Ling's question and instead volleyed one back at her.
"You are travelling to Romulus? What Starfleet p'takh decided this?"
Ling sighed. So, he had heard.
She smiled disarmingly, "The Captain, I'm afraid. Along with several Romulans more powerful than me. I can't say I'm not nervous, but I'm trying to look on the bright side of things. It's a world many humans have no access to!"
"It is a foolish endeavor! But, as long as you are going, I ask that you accept this from me."
Martok awkwardly reached for Ling's hand and pressed a small object into it. Ling examined it curiously. It was a fairly simple, metal medallion etched with the red Heart of Virtue, the symbol of the Klingon Empire.
"Should you need assistance, you need only to press the center of this device, and help will come", Martok said gruffly.
Ling stared at him, dumbfounded. She had no idea what that meant. Would it summon a Bird of Prey to Romulus itself, tantamount to an act of war? Would it simply transmit a message? It was preposterous that such power be placed in the hands of a Starfleet officer who was on an informal mission. It wouldn't bode well if the Romulans discovered she had this device. She could not accept it.
Before she could voice these concerns, Martok gripped her by both shoulders.
"Keep it safe", he said, his gaze piercing hers.
And then he was gone.
Heeding the Klingon's warning, but cursing the responsibility he had placed on her, Ling slipped the medallion into her pocket. Just in time, too, because Letant was strolling toward her, his sharp eyes tracing the receding outline of General Martok.
Hoping the Senator would ignore her interaction with the Klingon, Ling placed a gracious smile on her face to greet him.
"How are you, Letant?", she asked.
For the second time in five minutes, a question of hers went in one alien ear and out the other.
"How are your verbs coming along?", he asked.
"Well enough!", Ling said, "Although, they make me extremely grateful for the invention of the universal translator"
"I am a believer that studying language is one of the more direct ways to learn about a culture"
Ling tilted her head to the side, smiling, "I didn't realize you had developed theories on cultural learning, Letant"
Letant smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes, "Whatever theories I have developed, they certainly don't involve conversing with Klingons"
Ling's smile died. And here she had thought that Letant was learning some restraint.
"I had advised you to stay away from General Martok", Letant said shortly.
"You did. But frankly, I won't be told who I can and can't speak to", Ling said, growing annoyed.
"I'm not sure that your judgment can be trusted if you insist on communicating with that zoo animal!", Letant said, real irritation flashing in his eyes.
Ling was taken aback by Letant's sudden flare in temper. Up until now, his prejudices had been breezy and casual. He typically dismissed humans and Klingons in the same tone that one might use to order a salad. But right now, the mystery of his temper wasn't interesting to her.
Instead she threw her hands up, and let her voice raise a decibel, "Well, don't trust it then! What do I care?"
"Oh, come now, Ling! You, above others I have met of your kind, are at least capable of being reasonable. The Klingons and Romulans have an enmity that stretches back centuries. You cannot expect my kindness toward them"
Ling's temper was sparking now, and her eyes flared as she stared down Letant.
"So, I'm different than other humans? I'm capable of being reasonable?", she spat.
Letant nearly shrugged, "Yes. Isn't that what I said?"
Ling stared at him, mouth agape. The man's obtuseness was truly astounding.
"Well, then here's a lesson for you, Letant. I'm not different from others of my kind. I am not exceptional, and I'm happy with that. I'm human, and I like it"
With that, Ling stormed past the Senator letting her shoulder whack his as she passed him. Wincing, because the move hurt her more than it did him, she continued on down the Promenade.
Reina drummed her fingers anxiously against the table in front of her. She was waiting for Ling to arrive at the cafe on the Promenade that they sometimes frequented during hours that it would not be seemly to be seen drinking at Quark's. It was run by a friendly Bolian named Cras who had taken a liking to them, and, Reina suspected, their gossip about the Starfleet personnel on the station.
Naturally, he had heard about the planned expedition to Romulus, and since this was the morning of departure, he had graciously offered Reina a free pastry, one of Bajoran culinary origin. Another one, meant for Ling when she arrived, was placed on a plate across from Reina. The Bolian also offered fervent wishes of good luck, which only served to heighten Reina's anxiety.
Oh, where was Ling? The only thing making this trip remotely survivable right now was that the two of them would be suffering through it together.
Reina had thought after her virtual meeting with Ael that there was some hope for her and Vreenak to maintain the cordiality that they had built. But, the very next day Reina had arrived at his quarters for their usual meeting and been turned away by his guard. A Centurion that she hadn't recognized informed her, not unkindly, that the Senator was in virtual conferences with other Senators, and would be all day.
When Reina prodded for more details, the guard calmly informed her that he could tell her no more, but that she was welcome to contact Vreenak herself.
Having built up enough faith in their dynamic by this point, Reina shrugged off the incident and simply messaged Vreenak later that evening. She received a reply the next morning with an itinerary, and further details of the trip. But, no explanation for his cancellation, and no mention of further meetings. The following day, Reina received a message from Ael containing advice on what to pack clothing wise. She was grateful for a female perspective on this, and quickly shared the information with Ling.
All in all, Reina was feeling better prepared than she had a few days prior. But, still! Vreenak falling off the map like he had was strange. In the short time that she had gotten to know him, flakiness was not a trait he had demonstrated.
She was wondering how Ling's preparations with Letant were going when Ling herself finally arrived.
"Oh, thank God!", Reina said, "I was starting to think you'd- What's wrong?"
Ling's face was stony, and her mouth pressed together in a thin line. She didn't have much of a temper, so Reina had only seen this face once or twice before. In fact, the last time was when her flighty mother had come to visit.
"Oh no", Reina said, "What happened?"
"Letant is the galaxy's biggest, gaping asshole", Ling bit off.
Reina held back a laugh. The other sign that Ling was ragingly mad was when she cursed. And when she did, she did it well.
"What'd he do?", Reina asked, taking a bite of her pastry while settling into her chair for what was sure to be a good story.
"He scolded me like I was a child because he saw me talking with General Martok, and he doesn't like him. Ergo, I'm not ALLOWED to like him", Ling fumed.
Reina chewed her pasty thoughtfully, "It sounds like he's jealous."
Ling sighed, "He's just massively prejudiced. I know Klingons and Romulans don't get along, historically. But, they did just fight a war together! You'd think a conversation wouldn't be out of the question."
Reina snorted, "Yeah, you'd think."
"Anyway, maybe I'm really just mad because he manages to dress me down for this while insulting humanity in the process. Maybe that's what I get for not fighting back early on. If I can't change his mind, at least don't have to stand there and listen to it!"
"You were trying to be diplomatic", Reina said, "And believe me, the fighting approach doesn't always work any better"
"At least you're standing up for yourself", Ling said regretfully, "I was pulled in by Romulan charm and never quite got out from under it."
"Well, you aren't alone there. I now see why Letant and Vreenak are best buds", Reina sighed.
"I thought things were fine with Vreenak?"
"They were! Until he blew me off after I met the Proconsul the other day. I haven't seen him in days", Reina smiled tightly.
"Fuck", Ling hissed, before taking a savage bite of her pastry. Her eyes brightened a moment later.
"This is delicious, Cras!", she called back to the counter, where the Bolian was serving a Bajoran family. He gave her a grin and a wave.
She exhaled softly. Food had seemed to work its usual magic of taking the edge of things.
"It's just exhausting, Reina", she said mournfully, "I'm afraid we'll never be anything other than ridiculous humans to these men."
Reina rolled her eyes, "But you were right! About General Martok. Letant is the small minded one."
"I know. I know! But, I don't feel any better."
"Not getting sick are you, Ensign?", a male voice interrupted.
Reina and Ling turned to see that Captain Sisko had joined them, and both rose to greet him.
"At ease, Ensigns! At ease", he said, graciously, "I'm just here to wish you luck...and to remind you of the limits Starfleet is placing on you during this trip"
"No uniforms, right sir?", Reina asked with a smirk.
"And no communication with Starfleet", Sisko said.
This came as a surprise.
"At all?", Ling asked.
"No", Sisko said firmly, "I had a teleconference with Proconsul Ael this morning, and this is another agreed stipulation. You may communicate via the internal private channels of the homes you're housed in, but that's it. When it's time to leave, the Romulans will make the necessary arrangements with us."
"Can I ask why?", Reina said.
"I can't say for sure", Sisko said, "Only that I imagine it maintains the feeling that this is a simple cultural expedition for your Romulan hosts. They want to control what information gets out as much as possible."
Reina processed this a moment. She had learned a great deal about Romulus through the time she spent with Vreenak these last two weeks. And none of what she had learned suggested that initiatives taken by Romulan politicians, especially at the highest level, remained simple. T'Lar's warning was still echoing in the back of her mind. None of this, she felt, was wise to bring up to Sisko.
"Any idea who we'll be staying with, sir?", she asked instead.
Captain Sisko shook his head, "I'm afraid not. You know how it is with Romulans. They like to keep their cards as close to their chests as possible, until it is absolutely necessary to show them. But! It looks like your guides are here, and I'm sure they can tell you more"
Reina heard a small groan from Ling as they both turned to see the current banes of their existence striding toward them along with a contingent of guards. It was a real shame that they made an impressive pair. It almost made it difficult to be angry with them. Almost. Vreenak was definitely the taller of the two, and more humorless, while Letant retained a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that looked anything but innocent.
As the two pairs of Romulan eyes zeroed in on the human women sitting at the cafe table, Sisko glanced between the groups curiously. Reina wondered if the captain had considered all the possible outcomes of pairing up two young, effusive human women with attractive, distinguished men. Perhaps if the men had been human, the possibility of fraternization would have occurred to him. As it was, the thoughts of romantic tension between a Starfleet ensign and a Romulan Senator was likely unthinkable to Sisko. If only it was as unthinkable to Reina.
"Senators", Sisko greeted cheerfully, as the men reached the table, "I wish you best of luck on your journey"
Letant scoffed, "Romulans don't believe in luck."
"I can't wait to find out what Romulans do believe in", Ling said sardonically, before finishing her pastry.
Letant cocked his head, a gentle, patronizing smile growing across his face, "You've had two weeks to learn something of us, my dear."
"Two weeks that have finished with animal analogies, and a disappointing response to well wishes like that you have shown Captain Sisko. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm", Ling said, with a tight smile.
Captain Sisko looked to Vreenak, perhaps hoping for him to step in with reassurance that the trip would start more amicably. But, Vreenak was barely engaging with the present company and seemed to be especially avoiding Reina's gaze. For her part, Reina chewed on her pastry slowly as she examined Vreenak's still form.
So, the Captain offered his goodbyes and exited. The expedition was, after all, out of his hands now.
"My dear-", Letant began to say to Ling.
"Oh, no!", Ling said, standing up "One thing I am NOT, is your dear."
A low whistle and then a laugh reached their ears. From his position behind his counter, Cras was listening in on their exchange as he kneaded some dough.
"Listen, you Bolian-", Letant started.
"Uh uh", Ling said, "Leave it."
Letant shot Vreenak an indignant look, as if to express his shock at Ling's sudden backbone, but still Vreenak was studiously ignoring the confrontation raging in front of him. So his gaze moved to Reina, the question in his eyes.
"Don't look at me, Senator. You're the one who pissed her off", Reina said.
She collected her and Ling's garbage, deposited it in a receptacle near the cafe, offered Cras a good bye, and began to follow Ling who had set off for the shuttle bay. Letant and Vreenak had no option but to follow.
"That was good", Reina whispered to Ling with a grin as they sped ahead of their exchange partners.
"You think so? Because frankly, my temper is wearing off and I don't know how much longer I can keep this up." Ling said, worriedly.
Reina shrugged, "The silent treatment is a good back up."
"What happened to 'kill 'em with kindness'?", Ling asked.
"I'm letting hate win today."
"Oh, for the love of- We can hear you!", Letant called out, from a few meters behind.
Reina and Ling looked back to see an exasperated Letant, and an equally tired looking Vreenak with four guards even further behind them.
The sheer ludicrousness of the situation suddenly struck both women and they turned back to each other and laughed. The stress and recent anger of the past two weeks had taken their toll on the women, and suddenly it released itself in droves. The laughter was uncontrollable and each time they looked back at Letant and Vreenak, it crescendoed.
"Absolutely mystifying", they heard Letant say.
Soon enough they reached their assigned shuttle bay, from which they'd board the Rio Grande and be transported to a Romulan warbird, decloaked just off of Deep Space Nine. Their luggage had been pre packed that morning, and the helmsman had already arrived.
Reina and Ling wiped the tears from their eyes as they crested the last wave of their stress induced giggles.
"Are you both...well?", Letant asked.
"Are we well?", the women said as they looked at each other and fell helplessly into another round of laughter.
Letant stared at the two in confusion, while Vreenak stepped forward.
"Reina", he bit out sharply.
The laughter died instantly.
"Senator", Reina said coolly, "what is the issue?"
"If there was ever a time for you to begin to act with some decorum, it would be now. Neither I, or Senator Letant, will cosign this ridiculous behavior when we arrive on Romulus"
"Vreenak, you-", Reina fumed.
"Shut up", Vreenak snarled.
Reina's jaw snapped shut, and felt the terrible, growing immobility of embarrassment in her chest. Not just embarrassment, but despair. Vreenak had never spoken to her this way before, but now she was seeing the dangerous side of him. This was the visage of a man who had been a part of the Tal Shiar.
Ling, a braver friend than Reina could have ever asked for, jumped in, "Senator Vreenak, surely you see that I instigated-"
Vreenak's cold gaze alighted on Ling, "Oh, I'll allow Senator Letant to deal with you, Ensign. He's a far kinder man than me when it comes to handling the frivolity and uselessness of human women"
The words were a gut punch to Reina, who could only close her eyes and reflect on the last few weeks. Everything she had done with Vreenak from showing up to his quarters late at night, to dancing, to sipping his kali fal. What did he see her as if not frivolous and useless?
The romantic figure she had built Vreenak up to be was slowly slipping away. In his place was the stern, enigmatic reality. What a fool she had been.
"Ensign Hence, you will conduct yourself without reproach over the duration of this trip or you will be returned, in disgrace, to Deep Space Nine. Is that understood?"
At this, Reina finally found some steel. It had just been clarified by her captain that this mission was unofficial, and Vreenak had no business making empty threats to her career. She burned to find a chink in his armor to remind him of his people's own fallibilities.
She met his gaze before answering, "Just like Neral was returned in disgrace to Romulus?"
Vreenak's eyes flashed with anger, and with something else that Reina couldn't place. She made a note to remember that.
Vreenak had kept a few paces distance from Reina and Ling while he delivered his humiliating reprieve, ensuring that Letant and their guards would be privy to it. But now, he stepped close to Reina, almost as close as they had been when they waltzed together.
Looking alarmed, Letant followed his friend. He placed a hand on his elbow, as if to warn him not to do anything rash.
Reina stared defiantly into Vreenak's eyes as he used his height to cow her. Frankly, he was succeeding. Vreenak was terrifying in this state. Though not a physically bulky man, his height lent much to his ability to intimidate. But, it was his eyes that that did most of the work. They looked like they didn't belong to him when they were in this state. Rather like he had carved them out of ice.
"Get on board, Reina", he said in soft, deadly tones.
Furiously, Reina stormed past Vreenak into the open, circular doorway that led to the airlock, and the beginning of their long journey.
A/N: Many apologies for the long wait! I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy. Sadly, I lost my jobs due to COVID and had to do some job searching for a while. Thankfully, I found a job and now that I have something of a schedule back, I'm hoping to update a little more regularly.
Anyway! I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Feedback always appreciated :)