Deep Ocean of Secrets
Saturday, 11 Dec 2523
Durance class Exeter
En route to Athens
When the crew meeting broke up and preparations began for their run to Athens, Nika was quiet and very focused on the work. She closed the door to the bridge while they were taking off, her concentration on the course and getting the ship into pulse. Once the ship was clear of all the shipping lanes and nothing showed on the sensors, well and truly en route, she left the bridge door open in indication that she was not there, and locked herself in her quarters.
As it sometimes happened on a ship, pursuing regular duties turned the clock upside-down. Rina been doing it for her entire adult life, so it didn't surprise her when they tipped over into the next calendar day while they'd worked. For the next twenty five days in the black of space day and night would exist in theory only, something that the bean counters at HQ would track for purposes of the crew's pay. That didn't mean Rina wasn't tired when she crossed the final item off her list and could seek some downtime. Far from it. Since rising the previous morning, Rina had been awake for twenty hours straight, had worked hard for most of those twenty hours, and when she crossed the threshold of her quarters she was feeling it.
One good thing you have to say for the Pax, you worked like a horse when you were under it and never felt it afterward. So said that insidious voice in her head. Yeah, and when I was under it, I would have pounded Arden through the deck like a tent peg for tearing Nika down in front of the crew. You win some, you lose some. So shut the fuck up. I wanna sleep.
She would have to take her meds soon. She could tell they were wearing off. When she closed the door and turned to see Joshua sitting up waiting for her, however, Rina knew that sleep would have to wait.
Joshua looked up when his wife finally came in and put aside the spreadsheets he was working on. Twenty five days of food, fuel, and supplies to keep their crew healthy and well-fed … well, it took some tracking. Luckily, the spreadsheets made it pretty much a plug and play sort of deal. You just have to make the time to plug and play. His thoughts drifted a moment when he'd done just that, before his wife left their bed in the morning and got on the clock, but it was just a fleeting memory, something nice to offset the fatigue he could feel coming off her in a leaden wave. An advantage of the Pax was he could pretty much tell what she was feeling and thinking from across the room these days. It also meant that he could feel pretty much what everyone felt and thought from across the room unless he made a conscious effort to block it out. And earlier at the table? They were running high.
He'd felt the dull red spike of anger from Arden when he called Nika out on her motives. Joshua knew the doctor had done it to let the crew know that Nika had personal reasons for her reluctance over their current trip. But Arden was also letting her know he didn't want to share her with Brian. There'd been unmistakable overtones of possessiveness to that spike as well, black and heavy. Arden didn't want to cause a scene but he wanted the cards out on the table. But then again, you'd have to be pretty blind not to have seen that. Thanks to his Reader abilities, he'd gotten more than a gist of all that had happened behind closed doors on the trip over from Pericles. Joshua had also caught the sour tang of guilt and remorse from Nika when she acknowledged Arden's challenge. And he'd caught Rina's white hot fury, under tight control but blazing bright nonetheless, across the table from him.
So many feelings running high this trip out. Maybe we can find a way to hook the engines up to them and get some extra mileage out of them. Do something constructive with them. Instead of drowning in them. Which was what he was catching from Nika's quarters right this minute. As XO, Joshua would normally handle the Captain. But this needs a woman's touch. And the woman for the job had just walked through the door.
Since the beginning, Joshua had competed with Mike for Rina's heart and as a result he had come to know perhaps a little more than he'd wanted about the man and how Rina felt about him. But even painful information was useful information and Joshua wasn't blind to certain parallels between Rina's past with Mike and Nika's with Brian. The parallels are pretty craptastic, actually. Meaning they're too close for comfort. Who better to tell her that? Well, no … maybe I should rephrase that. Who else could tell her that? Who else would understand? Joshua could do it himself but how he knew the parallels would quickly undo any good he hoped to accomplish by offering moral support, so that pretty much left his wife to go in there and offer it instead. Which option didn't come without its risks. He loved Rina but she wasn't the most subtle of creatures.
Then again, knowing Rina, if she knew Nika needed her for something like this, nothing could keep her from going in there anyway. So really, I'm just helping the Universe along.
"I know you're tired, but you need to see Nika." Not the Captain. Nika.
"She okay?" Rina asked but she had a feeling she already knew. Maybe it was because she and Joshua had been together long enough that they could complete each others' sentences. Or maybe he'd caught what she'd felt earlier at the crew meeting. Either way, when he used that tone, Rina knew something was up.
"On my way."
The knock on the door was one that Nika would have ignored. Generally the crew left her alone when she locked her door, though, unless it was an emergency. Instead of opening the door, though, she used the comm to ask, "What is it?" to whoever was out there. The indication that she was not going to come out unless it was a full-on emergency.
"Nika, it's me." Rina leaned in and said quietly to the comm. "Can I come in?"
Actually, she had enough tools on her to get past the locks on the door if the answer was no, but why rob her friend the chance to decide for herself? Rina had a pretty good idea why that door was locked and knew from bitter experience why she couldn't let the matter slide.
There was a long silence on the other side of the hatch. Nearly a full three minutes passed before the blond finally opened the door, remaining behind it and out of sight until Rina was all the way in and the hatch closed again. She leaned back against the door and looked at her friend, offering a pathetically faint smile that didn't sit well on her swollen, flushed features. "Wondered how long it would take for one of you to knock," she admitted quietly.
Rina said nothing but walked right over and pulled Nika into a soft embrace. The sight of her friend had cut her to the quick and she didn't trust herself to speak just that moment.
It was all Nika could do to swallow the soft sound in her throat. She wrapped her arms tight around Rina and rested her head atop the smaller woman's, taking silent comfort in the embrace. Her body was still shaking from the onslaught of tears she must have already shed to look as she does, but the faint trembles were probably the tail end of the storm.
Rina held her until the shakes subsided and then led her wordlessly to her bunk and sat them both down. Memories of Nika knocking on her door and finding her an emotional wreck came thudding back. Mike had just been taken on Beaumonde and Nika had found her keeping herself together by sheer force of will. Her self-control had nearly gone right out the airlock when Nika offered her sympathy but afterward Rina had to admit that however much she'd resented it at the time, Nika's support had been sorely needed. So that memory was fresh again in her mind as she held Nika's hand.
"I'm sorry." Rina said softly. "Don't have any booze and didn't think to check for coffee. Joshua said go and I came right over."
Wiping her hand across her face, Nika plopped down on her bunk and turned to face Rina. She couldn't help the watery chuckle that bubbled out with the explanation Rina offered. "It's okay," she said quietly. "I just.... haven't really had time to process any of it." She paused and looked at her hands. "I just... wanted to see him. That was all. I heard through the grapevine that his Recon squad was the one shipping out for Pericles and I just... " She smiled a little, her head tipping. "I just wanted to see how he was doing. Not because I thought we'd pick up where we left off, not because I expected anything from him. Just... because before I loved him, the man was my friend. And what happened to him on Miranda sucked and changed his whole life. I just... wanted to see that it was a good one, you know?"
Swallowing hard, Nika looked up. "And then he mentioned that he was sick. And gave me the briefest overview of what kind of sick, and I totally lost it, Rina." There were no more tears left in her, honestly, but her face crumpled again as if she was going to cry. "No matter whether we find anything or not... it won't be in time to help him. Arden says he only has a couple of months. I don't... even know if Brian knows that himself. Or if it would matter if he does." Her gaze sought Rina's, and she shook her head. "He wanted to talk when he got back. If we were still going to be here. I was hoping we could... find our friendship again, even if nothing else came of it."
Dear God. Rina closed her eyes, letting her pain show, and nodded. She saw again the wintry sun of Salisbury glinting off Mike's hair as he told her he didn't know how much time he had left before fate caught up with him, felt again that cold certainty that she wouldn't be there to stand by him when it did, because every instinct she had was telling her to leave. Rina had left Mike behind with the hope that she would see him again even though she knew the odds were slim to none. After all, he had crossed her path without warning and with less reason many times before. Back then, she'd trusted it would happen again, even when she hadn't any proof to support it. So she walked away and left him. And even though Nika had done something similar before, her current situation with Brian was bleaker than that. Rina had seen the evidence of the Halcyon mutations on Persephone and all the crew knew of Arden and Kiera's findings afterward. If what Brian said really was true, then chances were good he wouldn't be alive when they flew back to Highgate. All this flashed through Rina's head in a split second but it was a moment before she could gather her thoughts well enough to speak.
"It took me years to admit my mistakes with Mike and in the end, I don't think I ever really got to explain to him why I did what I did. I still don't know if he would have wanted to hear it, or even if he needed it. I just know that I wanted to say it, but never did. And now I never will." Her voice wavered and steadied. Rina squeezed Nika's hand and went on. "I don't know if you and Brian are in the same boat, but I hope that you left giving him more than I gave Mike. If you didn't, I understand, and Heaven help anyone who gives you hell for it on my watch. They'll need it."
There was no mistaking the steely resolve behind her eyes, even though her tone remained soft.
Nika turned her hand to grip Rina's tightly. "We didn't even have time to say more than hello and goodbye," she admitted. Blowing out a soft breath she looked around her quarters. "I think... I think at the very least, we're ... okay. I don't know exactly what he wanted to talk about or anything, but he said..." She trailed off, her mind going back over those few moments in minute detail. "He said that being laid up in the hospital after Reavers nearly took his arm had given him a lot of time to think. And that he really wanted to talk when he got back. It kind of... sounded like we'd be okay. We'd at least be able to be friends if we weren't anything else." Nika huffed a soft laugh. "Hell, Rina, we've been apart more years now than we were together. We're both entirely different people. Even if we wanted to try for more, we'd have to start over from scratch pretty much."
Apparently somewhere along the way, perhaps that last trip to Boros when she spent so much time with her sister?, Nika has had time to pack away all the what-ifs and the might-have-beens. But her expression held soul-deep regret. "I just wish.... that I'd known he was on Highgate sooner. Maybe we could have mended those fences sooner." She bit her lip fighting back more words, but they slipped out anyway. "I don't want to go to Athens first. It eats into the little time there is for him... and I know that it's selfish as hell, but that man's already gone through so much, Rina... I just wanted a better ending."
"I hope you get it, Nika." God knows, I didn't get mine with Mike, she didn't say. There wasn't anything she could do to change the past. Best I concentrate on what I can change. "Say the word, and I'll make our girl go as fast as she can without killing us. Just ask."
"We're already doing all we can," Nika said softly, squeezing the hand that held hers. "It's over three weeks to Athens. From there, it's at best another three weeks out to where we want to go. If we get there and find any gorram thing at all, we'll have to spend some time collecting what needs to be collected and another three weeks back." She swallowed hard. "If he's on the short side of the illness, he'll be dead before they even leave Pericles." The admission is hard. But she's coming to terms with it. "Even if we find anything, it won't be in enough time for Brian. Maybe not even for any of us. That's the reality of it. So... seeing if we can get JJ Sullivan on board to produce a cure, assuming we find anything... is the only course of action we can really take. I can't justify anything else, even to myself."
Taking her hand back from Rina, Nika starts to pull the elastic holding her hair into its braid. She untwists the strands while they sit there together. "I wish Arden hadn't just dropped my personal shit on the table that way. I was going to do the right thing -- all they had to say was that we needed the processing facilities." A faint grimace crosses her face and when her hair was finally loose around her, she tucked her hands in her lap. "Guess I'm gonna have to deal with that bullshit too," she sighed heavily.
"I wanted to kill him for what he said and especially for when he said it." Rina's tone was still quiet but given the contrast to her previous Pax-induced manic behavior, all the more menacing for it. "And while I think I understand why and I'm not asking for details—that's between you and him—I can't get behind the way he did it. You're the Captain, Nika, and he behaved as if you weren't. He undermined you in front of everyone and messed with unit cohesion doing it. I was this close," and she held her thumb and index finger a cat's whisker apart, "to putting his head through the table but I figured it wasn't my call to make. It would be yours or Joshua's. But I wanted to, Nika. God knows I wanted to."
Alarmed, Nika eyed Rina closely. "Do not kill the crew, Irina Drake," she instructed calmly. "Even if you're pissed." She rolled her eyes, looking exhausted from the crying jag. "If I can't do it, you can't either," she muttered. She looked down at her hands again, twisting the elastic band between her fingers. "I'm not sure it matters why. He swore that it wouldn't impact the job.... and to me, that sure as hell looked like impacting the job." She paused. "Not that it was necessarily the wrong call. You all had the right to know that I had a personal stake in the mission, but.... I wish he'd said something to me personally, or said something to Joshua and let HIM handle it." She wrinkled her nose. "And that is impacting my job -- because if we hadn't been sleeping together, I would have brushed it off."
Nika just closed her eyes and flumped backward on her bunk with a heavy sigh. "What the hell am I doing, Rina?" She knew even as she asked that she was probably talking to the wrong person at this moment.
It was on the tip of her tongue to snipe back with, I'm sleeping with the XO because I'm married to him. What's your excuse with the CMO? But she managed to keep it behind her teeth. One thing she'd discovered when the Pax took the brakes off her self-control, it was extremely easy to fall into the habit of feeling first and thinking later. Once formed, even medicated, it was a difficult habit to break. It took conscious effort to not to give in to her baser impulses and they were not going gently into that good night, not after having had free rein. She'd found she'd had a lot of repressed anger that needed expressing and she suspected she hadn't gotten rid of all of it.
Aloud, she merely said, "You're being human, Nika. And that's what this war is about, isn't it? The acknowledgement that we're all imperfect and we're meant to be, because the price of perfection is losing our humanity. Without it, there will be no pity, no forgiveness, no remorse, no justice, no perspective. No beauty. No love. Just existence. I don't know about you, but that's the purest definition of hell I can imagine. So being human is not without pain, but it's worth it."
Rina flopped down beside Nika and stared at the ceiling tiles.
"I can't tell you how to run your private life. That's not my call. But I will back you as my Captain and my friend and I swear to you if I ever have a problem with anything you do as either my Captain or my friend, I'll take it to you first. If I can't, I'll take it to Joshua. Either way, I won't actively undermine you as Captain or friend. I don't have many, you know," she added with a nudge of her elbow. "Decide for yourself if that's a good thing or not, but ... well, there you are."
Nika curled up on her side, pulling her knees up a bit, and faced Rina while they lay on the bed. She'd thought the tears were done, but they were welling in her eyes again. "How do you take someone to task when what they did was the right thing -- you all had a right to know. I just... don't like the idea that the only reason he did it that way was to prove a different point." A more personal one.
"No." Rina glared at the tiles though her tone was quiet. "He did the wrong thing for the maybe-right reason. And that's a vastly different thing, Nika. Did you have a personal reason for your reluctance? Yes. Did we need to know as the crew? Only if it endangered our lives. Did it? Maybe. But maybes seldom are and you cannot Captain a ship on maybes. Or manage a crew." She slid a look at Nika, keeping her tone the same. "And if Arden tells me that his decision to undercut you wasn't for personal reasons of his own, I'll call him a liar to his face. In private, of course."
"No... it was personal," Nika said quietly. "He was pissed." She sounded weary, the tears that were in her eyes dry again. She had probably spent a good hour or more full-on crying it out before Rina knocked -- Joshua is smart enough to give the storm some time to abate before sending in the reinforcements. "I just ... am having trouble separating the two in this instance too. I could say that this was why I didn't sleep with him before, but I'd be lying," she murmured. "In some ways it may have been part of it, but..." She tucked her hand under her cheek, looking about as woeful as an adult woman can get. "Regardless... it has to be dealt with. And it's my mess to clean up. So stay out of it, please."
"Yes, Ma'am." Rina understood an order when she heard it. Well, when she was listening, anyway. And she was listening, trying to catch all the cues she sucked at catching. She's cut up over the fact that Brian's dying, that Arden's being an ass about her feeling bad that Brian's dying, and he's not above getting back at her in front of others, even if it means undercutting her as Captain. Yup. A mess. And Rina wasn't so far gone in her partisan sympathy to miss the fact that she'd make things messier by getting involved. No. She'd managed to catch that clue early on. So what can you offer her, if not your help? Your trust. So give it, you fool.
"I will." Rina nodded and shifted to hug Nika, lying down though they both were. "I trust you to handle it. If you need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen without having to accommodate male egos, you know you're welcome to come find me."
Nika nodded at the acquiescence, and when Rina held her again the blond started to cry yet again. "Just when I thought life was finally taking a turn for the better, you know? I'd finally packed up all this garbage." She buried her face in Rina's shoulder and just accepted the comfort that her friend offered. It was the final spurt of the emotional battering, though -- when the tears eased this time, Nika finally murmured. "Just... gimme tonight to get my head together, okay? I'll sort things out and I'll deal with Arden in a day or two. If I do it now, it's going to get ugly." If she herself couldn't separate the two, it seemed reasonable that he'd had trouble too. And she needed to determine how to talk to him, but she was too tired to do it tonight.
"My mother used to say, 'Good news can wait. Bad news will refuse to go away. There's no point in losing sleep over either.' Come on," Rina added. "Time to follow her advice. Under the covers, you."
Rina tugged Nika off the bed long enough to flip the blankets aside, then installed her under them again. Fatigue made her waver on her feet and without a word, Rina lay on the covers beside the leggy blonde. As her own eyelids grew heavy, Rina stroked Nika's hair, running her fingers through it like stroking a cat. Soft, gentle, slow. A snatch of lullaby came to her then and though she hadn't anything near her mother's trained voice, she hummed it quietly, barely louder than the engines aft, and offered her friend what comfort she could.
Nika almost didn't get up, but Rina's gentle bullying finally moved her. Climbing into the bed she let Rina tuck her in, and just before she asked for the light to be left on Rina climbed back up. The hair-stroking movements had an instant lulling effect -- Rina learned long ago how to get Nika to ease up when it was necessary. And it was such a sisterly thing to do, something Nala has also done throughout the years, that Nika didn't feel the least bit like asking her to go. If she were able to admit it out loud she needed what was being offered. With a deep sigh, her mind still awhirl with the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens, Nika finally drifted to sleep.
Rina blinked awake some time later and checked her watch. Huh. Combat nap. Focusing on Nika, Rina saw the blonde was breathing the deep easy breaths of true sleep. The mattress was soft and oblivion beckoned, but Rina rose and carefully quit the bed. Being found together would just be too awkward and Nika already had enough on her plate. Nika stirred and murmured, her eyelids twitching, and Rina leaned in and gently stroked her hair until Nika quieted again. When Rina was sure she could move without disturbing her, she double checked the nightlight was on before she left. She had her own bed to search out and a husband waiting for her in it.