He was thoroughly sick of sneaking into Ekosian cities.
This was the fifth in the last two months, with each becoming progressively more difficult to enter thanks to added security, and all in an attempt to find some tiny scrap of intelligence that might lead them to this starship T’Pol had learned about during the whole interrogation incident that they rarely talked about. The first two cities had been utter wastes of time – their ‘information repositories’ (T’Pol’s words; Trip just called them libraries, even if that wasn’t entirely accurate either) had long since been looted and pillaged, so they were little more than burnt out husks. Number three actually turned out to be vaguely useful, which led to the fourth city where they had almost run afoul of Tandos Alliance troops conducting a house-to-house search for squatters.
Which led them to number five.
As alien locales went, it wasn’t particularly impressive and honestly looked like any number of European cities that Trip had seen over the years. There was a really tall fortress-like construction at the very center, with dozens of outlying buildings crouching in its shadow like sullen children. The farther away a house or shop was from the fortress, the newer it appeared to be and the more haphazard the street layout was. At least seven different rail tracks converged within, although only three of them really appeared to be used very frequently. And while the Alliance military was ostensibly guarding entrances of the city, its sheer size made gaining entrance almost ridiculously easy.
Unfortunately, they hadn’t quite planned for the almost xenophobic mindset of the locals. Almost from the moment they stepped onto one of the cobblestone roads, there were furtive eyes watching them, studying them, taking note of where they went or what they did. This scrutiny only intensified the closer they got to the information repository – Trip wondered if T’Pol thought of laxatives every time she thought of the name like he did, although for some reason, he doubted it – as did the sheer number of armed guards, who appeared to be checking the papers of anyone this deep in the city. Papers that Trip and T’Pol didn’t have.
And that had led them to their current location: the roof of a building overlooking the main thoroughfare that passed in front of the Ekosian library some twenty or thirty meters from them.
It took Trip nearly ten minutes to figure out why the ‘information repository’ looked so familiar – if he didn’t know better, he’d think he was looking at the Hall of Justice from some of the old Superman comics he’d read as a kid. Unfortunately, once that mental image came to mind, he couldn’t shake it no matter how hard he tried which led to a chuckle every time he looked in its direction. T’Pol gave him sidelong glances the first few times before simply rolling her eyes and utterly ignoring him.
With her keeping a look-out and trying to determine their best plan of action, Trip let his attention wander and gave the city – which he honestly didn’t know the name of – another, more in depth look. Up close, the buildings had a slightly more Middle Eastern flair to them, with domed rooftops and arched doorways. It was some sort of strange juxtaposition of Europe and the Middle-East that just didn’t make any sense but still managed to send a surge of homesickness through him.
“You aren’t paying attention,” T’Pol said flatly. Her attention hadn’t wavered from the – he snickered – hall of justice, but Trip gave her a quick look nonetheless.
“Guilty,” he admitted softly. “That … thing,” he said, gesturing toward the library, “reminds me of something that it really shouldn’t.”
“I see,” T’Pol declared, even though Trip could tell that she really didn’t get it. He exhaled and tried again to focus on the … dammit … the hall of justice.
“Do we have a plan?” he asked. T’Pol’s expression tightened.
“Not as of yet,” she said. “I would appreciate your input.” It was on the tip of Trip’s tongue to make a smart-ass comment about how her asking for his advice was a nice change of pace when he suddenly realized that he could feel her annoyance and frustration and worry. Her feet hurt too and, contrary to what she had told him earlier, she was hungry.
These sorts of moments were starting to be more common as he became more comfortable with this … bond thing. At first, Trip had been terrified that this psychic connection was going to mean a permanent end to his privacy, but he was relieved to discover it wasn’t that obtrusive. T’Pol remained as mystifyingly obtuse as ever, even if he suddenly developed a slightly keener understanding of how her brain functioned at times. More than anything else, though, it had been a monumental relief to learn that she shared every single one of his fears. Most of the time, he barely noticed the bond – there was a slight, low-level … buzz (for lack of a better word) at the back of his brain he’d learned to associate with his Vulcan companion (Trip still wasn’t comfortable using the word ‘mate’), and occasionally he had flashes of insight into her – but it was impossible for him to simply pretend nothing was different.
What continued to surprise him, though, was how things really hadn’t changed since their discussion almost three months ago. Sure, T’Pol was more open to him than ever before, tolerated his unconscious touches without ever once complaining, and even instigated her own Vulcan displays of affection from time to time. There was never any question about their sleeping arrangements now – Trip would retire long before she did, but would always wake up with the Vulcan snuggled against him or draped over him like a living blanket. At the moment, though, it didn’t go beyond that.
And Trip was honestly okay with their current status.
In between reeling from the revelation that he’d been blatantly wrong about the nature of T’Pol’s relationship with the captain (and how stupid did that make him, Trip wondered, since he’d labored for well over a year under that delusion), Tucker was also coming to grips that T’Pol cared deeply for him, perhaps even loved him in her own way. Yes, he was positively giddy that his attraction was reciprocated, but the more logical part that she had spent so much time nurturing questioned whether their mutual feelings were enough to get past the species difference. The things he thought most important in a relationship – affection, love, sincerity, desire – were all deeply rooted in emotion, and ranked far lower on T’Pol’s list (if she even had a list.) And then, halfway between city number two and three, she’d given him a matter-of-fact dissertation about her race’s mating cycles and how she doubted they would be forced to endure a pon farr since he wasn’t Vulcan, which had finally hammered home the fact that, despite the similarity in physical appearance, T’Pol was not human.
It had been an eye-opening moment, one that continued to make him second guess everything about himself and where they were going as a couple (if that was actually the right way to describe them.) From the moment he’d met her, Trip had been treating T’Pol like he would a human woman and it was long past the moment when he started respecting her own culture and traditions instead of trying to shove his own down her throat. In retrospect, her clear hesitation to enter a relationship with him actually made perfect sense from a purely logical standpoint, especially since she had to know he was going to be devastated when the Pa’nar eventually killed her (and if there was any justice in the world, he’d get a chance to run into Tolaris and rip that sonuvabitch into pieces.)
So he’d put the ball firmly in her court, and told her point-blank that the decision about where they went from here was entirely up to her. He would support and respect her call, even if it wasn’t what he wanted. As his dad had always said, if you loved something, you had to let it go. Of course, he’d been talking about the snakes that Trip wanted to keep in the house so he could screw with Lisa and Lizzie, but the point remained the same.
Besides the one time he’d hinted at a desire to kiss T’Pol, she’d shot him down by calming reciting just how unhygienic the human mouth was. Who knew that Porthos’ mouth had fewer bacteria than his?
“It looks like this place is gonna be lit up like a Christmas tree when night falls,” Trip mused. “But I still don’t see what the big deal is. We’ve snuck into more heavily guarded places than this.”
“Look more closely,” T’Pol suggested, her tone slipping into Taskmaster mode. Tucker blew out a slightly frustrated breath – honestly, did she ever just let it rest? – noting at once how she flinched almost imperceptibly at the same time. That was another thing he’d started to notice over the last couple of weeks: his mood directly affected hers. Whenever he was angry or just really, really annoyed, T’Pol acted as if she were experiencing mild pain. Even his more positive emotions – amusement or happiness, for example – seemed to make her uncomfortable. Trip wasn’t sure if it was because of the bond thing or the Pa’nar or just her, but he’d started making an effort to control himself more. Meditation actually did help, even if he hated every damned second of it, but as long as he remained centered, T’Pol wasn’t in discomfort.
And that was all that really mattered, right?
Blinking away the errant thoughts, he obeyed her politely worded instruction. At first, he didn’t see what it was she was trying to point out, but after a few seconds, he finally noticed how jumpy the local soldiers were. They were crisscrossing the square in front of the information repository, double-checking everything and even stopping to polish the occasional metal statue – all of stinking bears, he realized darkly.
“A VIP is coming to town,” he guessed. “Very Important Person,” he clarified at her quick glance. Trip wasn’t sure if she knew the acronym or not, but figured it was better safe than sorry. He began searching the other rooftops for signs of snipers. “Should we pull back?” he asked.
“It is too late for that,” T’Pol replied, nodding in the direction of an approaching convoy of vehicles. Most were the usual sort – three-wheeled ATVs and troop transports, four-wheeled off-road vehicles – but the centermost vehicle was something they’d not seen before. Long and wide, it was pretty obviously the Ekosian equivalent of a limousine and Trip theorized the car had six or eight wheels. It slowed to a stop in front of the information repository and was promptly surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. The gullwing door opened and a familiar-looking Ekosian staff-adjutant crawled out.
A white-hot flash of hate and fury coursed through him, and Trip rocked back on his heels, momentarily stunned by their overwhelming intensity. It took him long seconds to realize that he’d just felt T’Pol’s emotions, not his own, and he quickly looked at her with concern. The muscles in her jaw quivered tightly but she did not turn her eyes away from the Ekosian who now stood on the steps of the fortified library, conversing with another uniformed man. T’Pol tilted her head.
“Can you hear them?” Trip asked softly.
“Yes,” she replied simply. She glanced quickly at Trip. “Do you trust me?” she inquired. Trip gave her an incredulous look. What kind of stupid question was that?
“With my life,” he replied automatically. T’Pol’s lips twitched upward.
“I wish to … try something,” she said, her eyes seeking his. Trip nodded his permission. To his surprise, T’Pol’s hand came up slowly and touched the side of his face.
For a moment, nothing happened, but then suddenly, the ambient noises around him seemed to spike in volume. A thousand sounds assailed him at once, merging together in an incomprehensible cacophony, but an invisible … force swooped in and cushioned him against the worst of it, channeling his attention in a specific direction. It reminded him of the one time he’d played around with one of his brother’s directional microphones.
“-did not come to witness an overthrow celebration, Field-Lancer,” an Ekosian voice was saying. Trip’s eyes widened as he stared down at where the two men were talking.
“No, of course you did not,” the other man replied. He looked and sounded nervous. “I simply thought that …”
“That I thought this place worthy of my time?” Ferran interrupted. “You overstep yourself.”
“Forgive me! I-”
“I have need of this hovel until daybreak,” the staff-adjutant continued, gesturing toward his entire convoy. “You will see that my baggage is stored upon the southbound railcar before then,” he added. “I mean to depart with the sun.”
“South?” the field-lancer – what was that? Lieutenant? – glanced in the named direction and, even from this distance, Trip could tell he was confused. “The only thing south is…”
“Yes, field-lancer,” Ferran said in a mocking tone. “I mean to see the salt reaches and the facility there.” He took a step away before pausing and swing back to face the younger man. “And if they are told of my approach, I will be displeased.”
“Surprise inspection,” Trip mumbled. T’Pol nodded as she pulled her hand away, her eyes on the retreating staff-adjutant as he disappeared into the hall of justice. Trip wasn’t prepared for how abruptly the sounds changed back to normal and winced. “Is that how it is for you all the time?” he asked softly.
“One adapts,” T’Pol answered. “The salt flats,” she repeated slowly, one of her eyebrows climbing. “Ferran made mention of salt during my interrogation,” she revealed. “He said they threw the Orions down in the salt. At the time, I thought he was using a local idiom I was simply unfamiliar with, but perhaps…”
“Perhaps it actually was in the salt,” Trip finished. He frowned. “Getting on that train isn’t gonna be easy, T’Pol.”
“No,” she replied. “I suspect it will not be.” Her eyebrow went back up. “But together,” she said, “I am positive we can develop an effective plan of action.”
“As long as it doesn’t include getting shot,” Trip muttered. “Or captured.” Once again, T’Pol’s lips twitched.
“I believe,” she said smoothly, “that it is your turn to do both.” Trip scoffed.
“Did you forget the bear?” he asked flatly before pointing to where the scars were hidden underneath his clothes. “I think getting mauled trumps your itty bitty bullet wound.”
“No,” T’Pol said, her voice thick and very, very soft. When Trip looked up, she was watching him. “I could never forget the bear,” she added. Her eyes darted quickly away, but not before he saw open pain on her face. “We should get moving,” she said before scrambling toward the ladder they had used to reach the roof.
And without a word, he followed her.