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Posted on Thu Jan 10th, 2019 @ 1:16am by Captain Charlotte Reynolds & Lieutenant Commander Maralen Seitha

Mission: Episode 3: Foxes and Henhouses
Location: Starbase Arcadia, Simulated Lake
Timeline: MD 1, Evening

A small light flickered across the starscape before pausing briefly. A more brilliant flash later and it disappeared. A shuttle jumping to warp, Charlotte thought.

Tonight was a very different beast than last night. She’d spent the previous evening reveling in some antics with Caroline and Michaela at the bars. However, tonight, she was enjoying the quiet.

The sounds of the commercial pier slowly faded away as she rounded the bend to the outer side of the simulated lake. The water served many purposes on Arcadia, including bolstering life support. But she enjoyed the grassy patches around them for their recreational uses.

Unshouldering the bag she’d been carrying, she opened it up to reveal an antique style telescope. The device wasn’t actually old, but it had been stylized as such. None of the fancy guiding software had been added. This one ste’d Have to aim by hand. It, of course, had modern imaging lenses. She was going for the old time feel, but she still wanted to see her target.

Setting up the trifold, she reached into her hoodie pocket and retrieved a small padd with a few sights she intended to locate. It was a little cold on this side of the lake, so she was glad to have worn the outfit she did. Her old Starfleet Academy hoodie, in dark red like she preferred, was both for warmth and practicality. The jeans and boots she wore were more a reminder of home, though they were far tamer boots than last night’s choice. Her hair was flowing freely. She’d not been bothering to tie it back since they’d docked.

Her Executive Officer had mentioned interest in joining her tonight, so she decided she’d wait to start gazing upon his arrival. Instead she settled into the grass and looked out across the lake, watching the reflected stars twinkle across its surface. The station looked serene like this’s it was hard to imagine the potential threat looming. But those concerns could wait until they had something concrete to go off.

One of the things he liked about Starfleet was that they understood the concept of their Reps having their own lives beyond their service to the Fleet. It was one of the things that he had actually liked about the Realm as well. That thought reminded him of nights when he and Lynda had sat beneath the stars, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always held in one another's arms, heads rested together. Now, as he made his silent way through the starbase to where Charlotte had said that she intended to do her stargazing, he found himself comparing this place to that one.

The starbase was all curves and functional angles but with a flair that the Realm's Training Complex buildings had not possessed. There was as much artistry to this place as their was function, and he wished that Lynda could see it. He wished Ari could see it too.

That thought brought with it a wave of sadness and a flicker of guilt, but he pushed them away, focusing on the beauty of the night and the artificial lake before him. His feet made no sound on the grass as he padded toward his captain, so he did, clearing his throat softly so that he would not sneak up on her.

He saw the tripod holding the interesting device and tilted his head. It looked... old. "Good evening, Charlotte." he said in his soft tones. "You have picked a lovely place for this." he complimented her taste in locales as he gracefully lowered himself to sit on the grass beside her but leaving a small space between them so as not to invade her personal space.

"Why thank you," she replied with a slightly exaggerated bow of her head. "I can't take full credit though. This is one of the few places far enough from the city lights to avoid light pollution. Stargazing through a starbase bubble is already difficult."

"I used to do this kind of thing with my mom all the time, back before..." She trailed off for a moment. Her face stayed stoic, but her eyes betrayed a flicker of emotion. It had been years, but the pain of that kind of loss didn't go away. It just got duller over time. "Back when I was a kid. Of course, it was on planets, not bases. We didn't have bases like this yet."

Maralen did not miss the look, and in fact, he recognized it. Pain. Loss. It was deep in her eyes, held in check by will or training. As someone with his share of losses and pain and the training to not show them, he understood. Better than many. He looked away toward the stars above them. "Yes, that would change things a bit, wouldn't it." he commented, deciding whether to comment on the rest or not.

"I never got to do this at night." he admitted. "But when I was young, before the Death Ships came to Ledara, I used to go just outside the city and lie in the grasses and listen to the forest around me. It was... almost like another world from the city." His voice had gone soft and distant, perhaps a bit nostalgic. He had decided that, perhaps giving some information would give her the freedom to share as well.

"I'm sorry that they took that from you," Charlotte said sadly. She had no idea where Ledara was. There was a good chance she'd never even come near it. But the loss felt real all the same. She adjusted the telescope, pulling a certain object into focus.

"Here come take a look at this," she said, stepping aside and gesturing toward the telescope.

Maralen smiled a soft smile, shifting to kneel in front of the telescope. "Thank you. I'm sorry you lost so much as well." he said softly, sincerely, before looking into the eyepiece as instructed. A frown slid over his features, and his tail flicked in light confusion. "I'm not sure I understand." he admitted after a moment. "All I see is a cloud of haze." He sat back and studied her for a moment curiously.

Charlotte’s face lit up in almost childish excitement. “Exactly! From here, all we see is haze. But I’ve been there! That’s a healthy young protostar now. But Arcadia won’t see its light for another 30 years. That...” she said, pointing in the direction of the star. “ cool.”

Maralen had to smile at her enthusiasm. "Yes, it is." he said with genuine agreement. "They're even more beautiful up close." He leaned forward again and looked into the telescope. "You must have some fantastic scanners in this." he said, tail tapping the side of the device gently to indicate that he was talking about the telescope.

"I do. It's a bit of a hobby of mine, strange as that may be." She kept looking at the stars, but her words were directed at her Executive Officer. "Maralen, I don't know that we'll ever be out far enough to encounter Ledara, or the Realm, or any of the things you've told us about. But...if we ever are, do you think there's a chance others of your race are still out there? And if they are, would you want to try to see them again?"

Maralen sat frozen for a moment. Even his tail stopped moving in the grass. He had not expected the question, and so it had glitched him for a moment. His life was no classified secret; he would tell her anything she wanted to know. He just had not expected it just then, at that juncture in their conversation.

After a moment of thought, he sat back from the telescope again, moving so that she could sit before it if she chose. It was, after all, hers. "Honestly? I don't know if there are any left. We did trade with other worlds, so I suppose there could have been some merchants or diplomats off world when the Death Ships came. But there is no one left on Ledara itself. I know. I was the last, there for a year before the Realm came. I searched, crawled through every rubble pile, looked in every empty unit in the Vaults. Of the world itself, I am the last survivor. But I suppose it is possible that there are some who were not home." He was rambling a bit, and he caught himself. This subject still stirred strong emotions in him, and he tried to keep them at bay.

"As to the Realm, as far as I know, they don't have outreaches in this galaxy; but I have not served them in..." he paused while he did the calculations in his head "some forty six years. So I don't know how far they've spread out now. But if you ever hear of a world or government aligning with something called The Partnership, that's them. That's what they call themselves. It makes them seem more... businesslike or perhaps mercenary than what they truly are, an authoritarian society who gather worlds under their umbrella for resources like an empire." He sighed and looked up at her then with a bit of chagrin. "I apologize. I think I rambled on a bit."

“No, no need to apologize,” Charlotte said reassuringly. “I’m sorry for springing it on you out of the blue. It’s just...If this war finally ends, we might get a chance to get out there and actually explore. I didn’t know if there was a chance that we’d find your people. I sometimes forget that much of your experience wasn’t even in this galaxy. Given how big it still feels, it’s sometimes too daunting to picture much outside of it.”

“I’m sorry if I’m dredging up emotions. The mere idea of what you’ve experienced is a bit overwhelming. And I can’t deny it saddens me to hear about what happened to your people. But it isn’t fair of me to dredge up those emotions in you to indulge my own.” She paused for a moment, composing herself. “Just know that we, Starfleet and Defiant alike, are grateful to have you with us.”

Maralen smiled, his natural warmth showing in it now. "Thank you for your compassion and your open welcome, Charlotte." he said in soft, deeply appreciative tones. "I cannot even begin to express in words how much that means to me; and I spent two years doing nothing but absorbing languages from many species." He chuckled a bit at that. The man who spoke so many different language sets had no words; the irony of it was amusing to him. "But you have not caused me pain." he assured. "Yes, it still pains me to think of it, but it was a very long time ago. There are far more... damaging memories that came after." He sighed, then his expression became one of strength. "You chose me to stand beside you through whatever comes; you should know whom and what you have so chosen. So please, ask me anything. I will answer." It was an oath, and he was as good as his word.

Charlotte took a deep breath in contemplation. How does one ask those questions? She decided it’d be best as a fair even trade. “And you’ve agreed to stand beside me. So you deserve to know who you’re following. So I’ll extend the same offer to you.”

“Ok,” she said with a sigh. “You have some level of telepathic abilities. But I don’t know that I know how strong they are. I’m not exactly looking to hide things from you, but I’m a bit curious how much of an open book I am.”

Maralen studied her for a moment, deciding how much he should reveal. It was not that he did not trust her; it was more that he did not want to make her uncomfortable with him. Finally, he shrugged. "My talent is considerable. However, I do not intrude on someone else's mind unless either I am invited or they had become... suspect as a potential threat." He shiftd to be more comfortable on the grass, his tail lazily swishing in said grass. "What I tell you now is not so much a secret as it is... something I feel may demonstrate how this may be used as a resource by you but should not necessarily become public knowledge."

He took a breath and released it. "During my time with the Realm, I was asked to assist the Executive in interrogating an enemy representative. He told me that they had tried their standard methods, and none had yielded the result they wanted, so they wanted my... innovation. In the end, she left me no choice but to pull the information from her mind. While I can do it, it is... distressing." he admitted, looking down and toying with some grass. After a moment, he looked back up at her. "They had me tear the information from her mind. I know you would never use my skills in such a way -- there are ways I could have taken the information without damaging her mind -- but I suppose you should know that I can do what is necessary to protect you, the Defiant's crew, and the Federation." Besides, there were worse things in his past than The Scan. He did hope, however, that she would not feel the need to be wary of him now.

"As to how much of an open book you are to me, that is little to do with my telepathy and more to do with the observation skills the Realm taught me. Vigilant always. Observe everything. They tested me... continuously until I noticed things the Executive missed. I read body language, eyes, even scent to evaluate someone. Telepathy only enters into it if invited or required." He smiled. "So you are no more an open book to me than anyone else is." A frown replaced the smile. "Our Ms. Wolff, on the other hand, is... inscrutable. She gives nothing away. Even her scent is... even." He shook his head a little, his tail ceasing its movement. "It is, I admit, a bit... unsettling that she can so effectively cloak her intentions from me."

Charlotte smiles, settling down on the grass for a minute herself. “Kenna certainly is an enigma.” Her face got a bit more somber. “Unfortunately, I think that was born out of pain. She went through a pretty vicious Orion attack, and it sounds her best friend was killed in front of her in a brutal fashion. I think coming away from that secretive is honestly a pretty admirable outcome, though I sometimes wish I could crack that shell.”

“But yes, thank you for your description. I honestly hope there’s never a day when you need to use your abilities like that again. It runs against a lot of things I believe in, so you won’t be getting that order from me,” Charlotte said. “Alright, your turn. Anything you need to know about me?”

The mention of someone beloved dying in front of someone made Maralen internally cringe as his mind dredged up the memory of the Singers using his own body, by way of their Song of Possession, to kill his beautiful and vibrant Arianna after torturing her for what seemed an eternity. He went silent for a moment as he struggled to push his own feelings down and raise his Shield of Calm about himself once more. His voice was soft as he said, "I can understand that, and it does explain a great deal about her. Thank you."

Her offer to answer any question he might have made him frown slightly as he sorted out the most important from the list of things he thought he should know about a new commanding officer. What came out might not have been the most important, but such was life. "You seem to care very deeply about your crew. Is there history between you and any of the others?" Actually, that was a good thing to know as it might shed light on future interactions.

“Actually, no,” Charlotte said. “I’m about as new to Defiant as you are. And I haven’t known any of them longer than that. I just...My last crew was taken from me in a sense. They’re still alive.’s a home I can’t go back to. For a variety of reasons. My transfer to Defiant was an escape of sorts. But long story short, I think it’s a captain’s role to be more than just Commander. They need to be protector, caretaker, and counselor. I might not have known Defiant for long, but they are good people and I’ve grown fond of them quite quickly.” She seemed guarded about the topic.

His senses told him that she was being guarded, and he understood that state of mind better than many. He was not certain whether it meant that she did not want to discuss it with him or just that she did not like discussing it in general. He decided to take a chance. "I do agree about the role of those in command." he began. "In The Realm, I worked under the Executive. I was his protege, but he interacted with me more as... commander than as leader." He hoped that the nuances of the differences between those two things as he understood them were not lost on her. But given the way she saw her role, he suspected that she knew the difference.

"I suppose the inability to return home is something we share, but I realize it means something different for you. May I ask -- and you can feel free to tell me it's none of my sshrralling business -- why you can't go back?" He did not want to pry into places that hurt her, but he needed to see who she was, who she truly was... if she would show him.

“Sure.” With a deep breath, the woman nodded. “Have you ever been betrayed by someone? Ever put your trust in them, thinking you knew who they were, just to have them throw everything away and leave you with the mess?”

Did the Realm count, he wondered. They had promised him that he would never be alone and that they would always protect him, and then they had let the Mind Shapers take him. But he suspected that she meant something much more... personal. "On a level, yes. But I suspect your meaning is far more... intimate than mine." he answered, compassion shifting into the warm tones as he watched her.

Charlotte looked across the lake toward the station. “I made a mistake once. I let my emotions blind me to what someone was really like, and it nearly cost me my command. In a way, it did. I just got lucky to fail upwards.”

After a moment’s pause, she decided that Maralen deserved more. “Before I gained my first command, I fell in love with a woman on my ship. Alina Soyka, our Intelligence Officer. She was incredible. Beautiful beyond description. Just the way she moved could mesmerize you. So smart you’d swear she was hardwired to the database. And witty too. It was exhilarating being with her. It felt like flying all the time. And I was a hotshot helmsman, so I don’t use that metaphor lightly.”

Charlotte’s face took on a glow as she spoke. “I was smitten from the beginning. I don’t remember who pursued who. In all likelihood, she probably made a slight move to initiate it and I was putty in her hands. Regardless, I fell head over heels for this woman. And for about two years, everything was perfect. Or...a version of perfect. I ended up in command. She, the second highest ranking officer, was my XO. And despite the potential issues that sometimes causes, everything ran flawlessly. The whole ship was like an extended family.”

Her mood darkened, the glow being replaced by some mixture of anger, sadness, and shame. “But the fairy tale wasn’t real. You see, she’d been running this little smuggling ring the whole time. For two years, as my lover and XO, she’d been trying to get rich on the side with some very seedy people, breaking a dozen Federation laws and endangering my crew. And I was clueless. I shared a bed with this woman and I hadn’t the vaguest idea.”

“But my father knew.” Her face was pure anger now. “And that was all he needed. Arrested her without warning. Humiliated me in front of my crew. And just like that, the dream was over and she was gone. I never even got to say goodbye. And the worst part was, I couldn’t even tell if I wanted to.”

While she spoke, Maralen sat perfectly still, listening. As she finished, he realized that what she had just told him did not compare to his own situation in any conceivable way. Hers was far worse, the betrayal far deeper. None of those he had loved had betrayed him. No, the betrayals had been his or those whom he had served. But this? This was heartbreaking just to hear, to say nothing of having lived through it.

For several long moments, he sat still and silent. How did one respond to that? He had studied languages for two years in the most expansive library in that particular galaxy, and yet hhe had no words for this pain and betrayal and anger he saw in her eyes. "I know the normal thing to say is that I'm sorry, but that doesn't seem to be adequate to what you've suffered." he said softly after a moment of thought. "But what you have just told me does explain a lot of what I see in you when I watch you. If I could do something that would help you, I would." he told her honestly, holding her gaze so that she could see the truth in his eyes. "The trouble is, I can't think of anything I can do," he smiled, adding the next bit to lighten her spirit, he hoped, "and I'm simply not trained for this."

Sadly, it was truth even if he was using it as humor. He was trained to be many things: assassin, interrogator, infiltrator, scout, relations representative, strategist, tactician, strike force... but not counselor or any variant thereof. And yet, he meant every word.

Charlotte felt guilty getting such sympathy from him. “Maralen, you survived a genocide. My story sucks, but it could never begin to compare.” She blinked a few times and her eyes returned to a more positive appearance, closer to her usual.

“As for what you can do? Don’t turn out to be a criminal. And if I ever loosen up enough to let someone in like I did Alina, double check that they’re not a criminal too. Like don’t be too creepy about it, but...” She trailed off. “And be mindful of my decisions if Alina comes up somehow. I don’t really know how falling out of love works. I don’t want her back, but...there are still mornings when I wake up and expect to find her. Still days when I miss her. So...I don’t know. Just...make sure I know what I’m doing.”

“And no matter what. Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever trust my father.” Charlotte looked him square in the eyes, a dead seriousness there that she usually didn’t show. “He’s a Starfleet Admiral, so that advice seems ridiculous at first. But when it comes to me, the man has grown unhinged. You need to assume any actions he takes, and information he asks for, is a threat. Because it probably is. There’s always the chance he gets better. But until that day, don’t trust a word out of his mouth. He could decide at some point to try and take me down again, and he’ll use anyone he can.” She wasn’t sure if she was overacting. He’d left her alone for months. But after what he did with Alina.

Maralen studied her, the look in her eyes, the posture she sat in, everything. He held her gaze as he responded. "I thank you for your words regarding the loss of my world, but that was not betrayal. That was not personal. It was... planetary." he took a breath and let it out. "And the few times I have had the luxury of loving someone, they did not betray me. The first was lost when the Realm surrendered me to the ThoughtSingers; and the second was lost when..."

He paused, his resolve faltering. How much should he really tell her? Where was that line where enough became too much? Hell, what of his past would she see as potentially threatening? Any and all of it was... dangerous, though not to her really. "The second was lost when I tried to save her world by betraying their interests to her, by telling her what they planned." She had shared intimate knowledge about herself with him; fair was only fair. Though the very gory details of that second loss he was not telling yet.

"As to your father, I suppose you should know... I do not generally trust random people. From my perspective, he is a stranger. And Starfleet admiral or not, I don't know him. Therefore, unless he gives me a direct order to tell him something, I will follow the order unless I perceive that doing so would bring my crew or my captain at risk. You need not fear me colluding with him or telling him anything which may be used against you. Not of my own free will." He always added that last. Having served things who could rip knowledge from your mind -- hell, he could do it -- he knew that one did not always have a choice as to what they revealed. But if he had any say in it whatsoever, he would not put her at risk.

Charlotte shifted back and forth for a moment. She wasn’t certain she wanted to ask her next question. She didn’t know if she wanted to know. And she didn’t really want to put Maralen through having to explain it. But there was a story there. The fact that she’d been able to tell on Maralen’s disciplined face also told her it was the kind of story she needed to know about. “Maralen,” she said with hesitation heavy in her voice. “What happened the second time?”

On one hand, he had almost expected the question; he had alluded to it. But another part of him had hoped that she would simply accept his rephrased statement as is and leave sleeping canines sleeping. It was not a secret, though... just painful. He sighed and looked away toward the stars for a moment, his eyes taking on a look of memory.

"I..." He looked back at her, meeting her eyes. "To explain that, I would need to explain the MindShapers to you, how they function. I will if you want me to, but I give you the choice." She should know this, know what he had done, what he'd been made to do. For one thing, as his captain, she would know what type of asset she had. But also, it would show her his willingness to be open and honest with her, his trustworthiness.

“I don’t want to push you. You’re entitled to your privacy and secrets.” Charlotte took a deep breath. The next part might not be very fun. “But I get the feeling I should know this.”

Maralen nodded, looking back to the stars as he began. "You likely should, not just so you know what's potentially out there but so that you know me better." he admitted. His tail began a slow swishing in the grass behind him, but he took no notice of it, or rather did nothing to stop it. "The creatures I call MindShapers are also known as ThoughtSingers. Their name translates in either way, depending on which language you translate it into. They are called the latter for the mental siren song they weave through the thoughts of those they... acquire." he explained, his tone taking on an edge on the last word, and his tail thumping against the ground once before resuming its swishing.

"As they weave this mental song, it weaves through your thoughts like a spider's web of compulsion. It binds you to their will, pushes you to do what they order, and is even used to punish you, by pulling the threads that weave through the pain centers of your mind. Eventually, it becomes all you can feel and hear, all-encompassing." His tone had taken on a far away quality as he described it, not pleasant but memory. And he was still staring away, not really looking at anything now. "You don't even see the trap until you're in it. And then it's too late."

He took a breath and let it out as if trying to cleanse his mind of the memory. It failed. "They drive you through the ranks, everyone going up the same rank chain. Unlike the Realm, they don't just put you where your skills best serve. Strike Force, Strike Force Command, Ultimate Force and Ultimate Force Command. Those are ship rank levels. They use us to strike ship targets or planets they want. Then come the Rep Levels." He shivered involuntarily here but pushed on. His voice now took on a haunted quality; and if she could see his eyes, that same look was in them too, as was guilt.

"Everyone goes through all of these too. Assassin, Interrogator, Infiltrator, Scout and Relations Rep. When I was an Infiltrator, I was sent to a world they wanted. The mission was to find one of the ruler's family and gain their trust, then convince them to accept the Singers when they came." He felt his gut cinch and his heart stop for a moment as he remembered her, remembered meeting her, and remembered... the rest.

"I met Arianna by accident... literally." he said with a slight chuckle. "Well, gaining someone's trust takes time; and in that time, we fell in love. They didn't stop me, and I didn't understand then why. In the end, it became painfully clear, though. Whom she loves she will trust. They let me fall for her, let me have this joy so that the loss of it would be all that much more painful... feed their sick addiction even better." His voice had taken on that edge of anger again, and his tail had followed suit, thumping the ground. But he pulled it all back in again to continue.

"I knew what they would do with her world. Shrelarr, like thousands of worlds before it, would be annexed. It's people would be used as I was. And when they finished with it, it would be left a shell." He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the here and now, on Charlotte beside him, to shut out the pain and guilt. His voice lowered to a mere whisper. "I thought I could save her, save all of them." he said softly. "I figured out a weakness in their web. Because their web relied on my brain, I could numb it. Alcohol took down my inhibitions, but it also silenced their song if I drank enough. I... thought if I told her what was coming, she could warn them, warn her father, save her people. I was... wrong." The last word came out so softly that she would have had to strain to hear it.

For a moment, he sat still, fighting his own inner battle, fighting to put it all away again. He could see her face, feel her warmth, her love. Hear her voice telling him it wasn't his fault, that she loved him and knew this wasn't him. But it had been so... He shuddered once and pushed himself on.

"I had not won, Charlotte." he said softly, not able to meet her gaze now. His eyes turned down to the grass before him. "I had instead doomed her. They woke me in the morning, forced me awake, and gave me the one command I had never expected, the one command I would never follow. They told me that I had sealed her fate. I knew what it meant. They were going to kill her. But they laughed. They said they wouldn't; I would." He felt his resolve faltering, his strength threatening to crumble. He locked it into place, pulling the Cold about him like a shield, his only defense. His tail ceased its movement, and his voice became icy. "I refused. At first, theur answer was the normal answer, pain. But I was determined. To protect her, I would let them push me off that edge of sanity before I would do as they commanded. And do you know what their answer to that was?" His eyes came up now, and they were full of anger, not guilt or the cold he had tried to use to protect himself.

Charlotte’s eyes were wide and horrified. Her usual composure had been dropped and fresh tears were running down her face. It wasn’t her story, of course. But she could envision the pain he was feeling and it was plenty. She’d already been in a delicate mood. She shook her head. “What did they do?” She asked but she was worried she knew the answer.

He studied her for a moment. He could see the effect his tale was having on her, and part of him wanted to stop, to cease causing her pain. But he could not stop now; she had asked him for this truth. He took a breath and let it out slowly. "They altered their Song. They used it to push me to the back of my own mind and yet enhance my perceptions of the world around me. Every sense became heightened, and yet, I had no control. I call it the Song of Possession."

He took a steadying breath. "And once it was complete, they used me, my body, my voice, my skills and training, to take her apart. For thirty days and nights they tortured her before they let her die." And with that admission, his cold shell shattered into so many icy shards, revealing the guilt, pain and self-torment that resided in him for this one act. "And all that time, she... she..." He looked away again, trying desperately to find his calm. "All through that, she never stopped loving me." he whispered. "She said it wasn't me and she didn't blame me." He felt hot tears burn tracks down his cheeks, dampening the fur. "But it was my hands, my skills... my training. And yet she knew, she forgave me. I... I don't understand how..."

The problem was that he had not forgiven himself. He wasn't at all sure that he ever would. And now, he wondered how this captain, so kind and good, would see him. The cold monster who could take apart a woman he loved. But he wasn't that monster! Was he?

Charlotte sat their for a long while, silent. She wanted to say something. She knew that’s what he needed. Some answer to let him begin to forgive himself. She could easily clear her throat and place herself back behind the mask of command. Say some platitudes about how it wasn’t his fault. But he didn’t need that. She was sure someone within Starfleet had already done so. No, he needed a friend right now. And that meant having something real to say.

She stirred, opening her mouth a few times, but having nothing come out. The idea of the poor woman flashed through her head. But she didn’t have any perspective on what that woman had looked like so Arianna’s face gave way to Alina’s. The mental transition startled Charlotte a bit. But it did the job. The idea of her being tortured illicited a strong emotional response, revulsion. And then she knew what she had to say.

“It’s not your fault,” Charlotte said, unimpressed with her own start. “There was quite literally nothing you could have done. They manipulated you from the start. They held all the power. At any moment, they could have used you. But they waited. Because you were a victim here too, Maralen. They could have done any number of things, but they chose to force you to watch that happen with your own hands. Because you were their victim. You were before you ever met her.”

She rose to her feet, placing a hand on his shoulder before walking past and over toward the telescope. She wanted something to tinker with while she spoke. “What you just described is one of the most traumatic things I can imagine. But she knew. She could tell it wasn’t you. That’s why, despite everything that happened, she still didn’t blame you. Because it wasn’t you. Continuing to blame yourself only serves their goals further, and disrespects the resolve she showed. You trusted her, right? Loved her? Then you need to consider the idea that she was right in that situation.”

He sat perfectly still, listening. The counselors at Starfleet had tried to tell him some of that, but it had sounded to him like Counselor Speak more than the truth as they saw it. When she said it, though, the truth of her conviction in her own words blazed through his awareness. He sighed and began to pull himself in. "I... I know you're right. I was victim as much as any of them were, but I was also Servant Tool." he admitted. "I know that. It's just... difficult sometimes not to feel... responsible." It was not the actions themselves he held himself accountable for really; she was right about those. "It's not the moment itself, Charlotte. You're right; I had no control then. But if I hadn't told her, hadn't thought I could beat them..." He let the sentence hang there unfinished; he knew she would understand what was meant to end that sentence. He did not need to say it.

He was so beyond grateful for her compassion and encouragement. They meant more to him than they likely should, but it was just so good to feel like someone saw him beneath the monster he sometimes saw himself as. He only wished he could help her as she had tried to help him.

"You're right about something else too, and I hadn't seen it that way before." he admitted, looking up at her from where he still sat in the grass. His tail had begun its lazy swishing again, and his eyes were not nearly as haunted as they had been. "I cannot disrespect her strength and conviction, her determination and love. I need to see what she saw, or try to. Thank you." The counselors had not said that to him, but they likely had not walked where Charlotte Reynolds had. It took one who had walked the Path of Thorns to help another avoid the dangers that waited there. He swore to himself then that he would do all in his power to help this kind and strong lady in any way he was able for as long as she would allow him to... or as long as she needed him to.

Pain takes time to heal. Charlotte knew that. And she suspected Maralen did too. He was substantially older than her, at least in human years. And he’d seen more horrifying things than she hoped to ever know existed. But she could still recognize familiar thoughts in his view. His captors has obviously had no interest in his mental health. Starfleet has likely tried, but couldn’t get through. Sometimes you just need to get to know someone, and sharing a sliver of their pain could help. But it didn’t do to dwell either.

Her face returned to a genuine smile. “Come on. If we hurry back fast enough, we can catch Arcadia Lounge before it closes. I’ll buy you a drink. I think you need one after all that.” She offered him a hand to get up.

Maralen smiled as he took her hand. "Thank you." he said, getting up and motioning toward the telescope. "I can carry that if you want." he offered, truly grateful for her words, her understanding -- well, as much as she could give that was -- and her offer of a drink. Woman after his own heart! "And I certainly won't refuse that drink." he added with a grin as he wound his tail around his waist, tucking its end under the coils. She was younger than him but so much wiser, it seemed. He hoped for many more talks in the future.

She laughed. “Yes, you’re definitely welcome to carry it.” And the two headed off back toward the glimmers of civilization.


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