The third day of treaty negotiations between the Federation and the Klingons begins like the first and the second. It's an improvement over yesterday, actually, because no one got into a shoving match at the gagh station at the breakfast buffet. (Chancellor L'Rell's chief of staff has not apologized, but apparently spent last night getting roaring drunk with the Trill who inadvertently bumped him, which amounts to the same thing.)
Kat has yet to taste gagh. She is beginning to think she might prefer it to the posturing of the Klingon delegation and the subtle jockeying for pet concessions among certain members of her own team. She sits three seats to the left of the middle of the long conference table and wishes she could rub her eyes.
Sarek clears his throat as another round of bickering dies down. "On the matter of regularizing diplomatic relations between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire," he intones smoothly, like a man who does not find the lighting too bright or the press of the room at all uncomfortable. "Though this may seem an ambitious proposal at this stage of negotiations, a future in which formal lines of communication are open between our peoples is both necessary and much to be desired. To that end—"
"We choose the ambassador to Qo'noS." L'Rell's voice rings out from across the table, cutting through the renewed murmur from dignitaries on both sides of the room.
Sarek tilts his chin a fraction. "The nature of an interchange of representatives has not yet been established, Chancellor. There are a number of available op—"
L'Rell makes an abrupt cutting motion with her hand. "It does not matter. The Empire will not accept a weak fool into Klingon counsels."
The murmurs on the Federation side of the table grow louder, and Kat's impending headache ratchets up another notch.
L'Rell speaks over the noise. "Though we do not share ideals—"
Kat's hand freezes above the datapad she's making notes on. Her memories of that last day before the ceasefire are a blur of despair and rage, but she's watched herself interrogate L'Rell on Discovery's security footage multiple times by now. More than enough to recognize her own words.
"—in this, we are agreed. Qo'noS will speak to the Federation. We will name an ambassador whose honour is above reproach, and we will deal with this ambassador fairly. Otherwise, the words of your envoy are worthless." When L'Rell shrugs, light glints off her elaborate armour. No one has forgotten the ceremonial knife at her belt.
The Tellurite beside Kat mutters, "Like they wouldn't riot if we said that." Kat almost smiles. As abrasive as the demand is, it's a compliment of sorts. The Federation rates someone L'Rell can actually work with, which indicates she's serious about the peace process. It's miles ahead of where they were when they started.
To his credit, Sarek doesn't blink at the implied ultimatum. He gives L'Rell a considering look. "What then are your criteria?"
L'Rell looks gratified. "The coward who made false overtures of peace to the Federation attempted to murder the one you sent. This, we will not do. To demonstrate good faith, Qo'noS will again receive the last ambassador the Federation sent us."
"Seriously?" Kat's seatmate hisses.
Kat isn't listening. It takes half a heartbeat to remember that the last ambassador the Federation officially sent to the Klingons was Sarek. It's a solid choice, even if it's become more deeply ironic than most here can know. Her lip twists slightly. Sarek didn't advocate the destruction of Qo'noS out of personal animus, of course. Even if he had, his efforts towards peace will be sincere and effective, just as they have been since before Cancri IV.
Sarek's eyebrow twitches upward in mild surprise. "Though I am a logical candidate, any such proposal must be ratified by—"
L'Rell shows a hint of teeth. "No," she says. "Not you. The one who did not detour along the way. Send us Admiral Cornwell."
Kat's eyes snap to L'Rell. Her breath chokes in her throat and it takes an effort of will not to make the sort of sudden movements that make the Klingons twitch. Go back? Go to the Klingon homeworld? Several seats on the other side of Sarek, Admiral Shukar rumbles a question, but Kat can hear nothing but her heart thudding in her ears.
This is not L'Rell as she looms largest in Kat's memory, gaunt and scarred in her once-white armour. There have been no instruments of torture at this peace summit, no powerful hands slamming Kat bodily into a wall of fiery pain. Chancellor L'Rell is no more the dissident interrogator who roared in Kat's face than she is the leashed captive blustering about T'Kuvma.
This is not the Ship of the Dead. Kat's uniform is clean and crisp at her neck, and the cool air does not stink of blood and fear. She is not alone. She braces her forearms on the conference table and stares back at the Klingon across the table.
But when her eyes lock with L'Rell's, recognition jolts through her. They've sat in this room for three days with no sign that L'Rell remembers the tentative alliance they once forged, and that has no right to sting the way it does. But now L'Rell's eyes are alight with pleasure, as easy to read as her old contempt for her corrupt leaders or her joy that Kat had not died with them. She doesn't look like a proud ruler deigning to accept a foreign agent; she looks so personally delighted that Kat wonders why no one on the Federation side is staring at Kat herself with distrust.
But L'Rell is not smiling, not leaning towards Kat the way it feels like she must be. Only her eyes shine with anticipation and good-natured challenge, and only Kat has noticed.
She wonders what the rest of them see. L'Rell is a spy from a house of spies. Perhaps the link between them has always been a lie. Or perhaps a chancellor wears a mask not unlike an admiral's, and feigned disinterest all through the proceedings has paved the way for this moment.
You were never what I expected, Kat thinks.
Nearly two years of war have given her a deep distrust of so-called Klingon honour and a hair-trigger reaction to signs of threat. But they haven't obliterated the habits of a lifetime, and now more than ever she desperately wants to understand. How do the people on the other side of this table really think? What do they love and fear? Why did any of this happen?
She can't let herself believe they are mere animals, or she becomes no better than that other world that swallowed Gabriel whole. And she has met L'Rell. There must be others who are not mindless killers. Everything Starfleet in her is convinced of it.
But Cancri was an escape. Kat went because she was needed, but the truth is she would have done anything other than sit and think about what was wrong with Gabriel. If she goes to Qo'noS now... Kat swallows. Qo'noS would be walking alone into the stronghold of her torturers and the murderers of her friends.
L'Rell breaks eye contact and Kat sags in her seat. "Your committees are not my concern," L'Rell tells Shukar. The whole exchange with Kat has taken only a few seconds.
Kat's datapad is digging painfully into the palms of her hands. She loosens her bruising grip and uses the distraction to paste a calm, alert expression onto her face. She picks up her stylus on autopilot and taps it against the screen, thoughts twisting and juddering like a damaged shuttle hurtling to its doom.
Scream, L'Rell says inside her head.
The stars stretch away before her, silent pinpricks of light marching into infinity. Kat lets out a long breath and leans heavily against the viewport frame. Her back and shoulders are a mess of knots and her eyes ache. She takes another breath and tries to unclench her jaw.
She has no memory of the last half of this morning's session. Thank god there is nothing she was scheduled to present.
Here in this tiny, deserted diplomatic lounge, there is no one to care whether she keeps her face blandly pleasant and her posture open. No one to judge the Federation easy prey if she looks less than confident, or to wonder at her motivations if she speaks to the Klingons with too much enthusiasm or not enough. Nothing but starlight and the lieutenant tasked to stand guard over her solitude.
Kat shuts her eyes and leans her forehead against the cool transparent aluminum. Behind her eyes, Qo'noS explodes into fragments of charred debris, first in simulation and then all around her. She lets the guilt drag at her like Vulcan gravity, because it drowns the other storm raging through her mind—the urge to walk down the corridor and wrap her hands around some Klingon's neck, grab the dagger they all wear and smash its hilt into the alien face, over and over and over and—
Go to Qo'noS?
It's likely she doesn't have a choice. Oh, today's session ended with L'Rell's demand being referred to the Federation Council for review. No one will want to appear to be doing the Klingon chancellor's bidding. And there will be a delay, as Starfleet and the civil authorities bring out every microscope they own to scrutinize Kat's record for any sign of subversion by the enemy. Ironically, she will probably be sent to Qo'noS because she helped try to blow it up.
And she has about twenty minutes before it all begins.
As if in answer to her thoughts, there is a scuff of boots on the deck and a low exchange of voices from Lieutenant Li's position. When she turns her head, though, she doesn't see her Andorian aide or any of the rest of her staff. Instead, a tall figure wrapped in a heavy dark cloak looms over her bodyguard.
"I'm sorry," Lieutenant Li repeats firmly. "Admiral Cornwell is not to be disturbed."
"She will see me." The figure's face is hidden beneath a deep hood, but the voice is unmistakable.
Kat pushes off the wall. L'Rell attempts to shove past the lieutenant, and his hand drifts to the phaser at his hip. She stares unblinkingly down at him. "You may shoot me if I harm your admiral."
Great. Exactly what this situation needs. Kat pulls herself together—five steps to the door, two breaths, steady voice. No time to diagnose the curl of warmth in her chest just now. "It's all right, Lieutenant. Let her through."
He hesitates, clearly unsettled, and just as clearly unaware of whose path he's blocking. "You're certain, sir?"
"I'll be fine." Well, fine in all the ways Lieutenant Li is charged with. Kat takes pity on him. "Directive theta fourteen six," she says. It means she wants him out of earshot but he's free to report the incident to his superiors. What would be the point of anything else?
The door slides shut behind her would-be protector and L'Rell stalks past Kat into the lounge.
"This," L'Rell says to the field of stars, "was easier when one of us was in a cage."
It startles a short laugh out of her. "Simpler, maybe." Roles are defined when one of you is a prisoner. Goals are clear. Cooperation has known limits. Is that why L'Rell's presence makes her feel less hemmed in than a whole conference room of admirals and delegates? "It's good to see you," Kat says, to anchor herself in the present. "Peace looks good on you, Chancellor."
L'Rell turns, pushing back her hood enough that Kat can see her frown. "This is not peace."
"It will be." There is no other option. Qo'noS presses in around her thoughts again, stifling.
L'Rell's lip curls. "The Klingon unity I wished for is bound together by threats. At home, ignorant p'taQs scheme to undermine my rule. And here I sit, negotiating for what we could have taken by force."
"Good." Kat's own vehemence surprises her. "I'm glad you understand that unifying your people by force is a temporary measure." It was never a solution on its own. And it isn't her place to speak, except that Georgiou's bomb—
"Starfleet gave me this power," L'Rell says, a dangerous glint in her eye.
Concede the point? Kat dips one shoulder in acknowledgement. "Transform it." Her hands are on her hips, her eyes fixed on L'Rell. "Earn their loyalty by the manner of your rule. Build the unity you dream of. It's possible." She takes a breath. "But it will take time."
L'Rell towers over her. For a moment, Kat thinks she's gone too far. This is not some disgruntled second-year cadet with a questionable opinion—L'Rell is possibly the worst person in the galaxy she could antagonize right now.
Then L'Rell steps back. "Kahless taught this as well," she admits.
"Then Kahless was wise." Kat tries to calm her racing pulse. Where the hell did all that come from? She doesn't care about internal Klingon politics. She doesn't want to care.
That look from this morning has come back into L'Rell's eyes. It's a little harder to read this time, and from two feet away it feels far more intimate. "There are not many I can trust, Admiral," she says soberly.
Kat blinks. You trust me? She bites it back just in time. It doesn't matter how much that's what it sounded like. "How is Lieutenant Tyler?"
Something flickers in L'Rell's eyes. "He is here. He is not restricted from speaking to you."
"Oh," Kat says. If Tyler has approached Starfleet, they haven't told her. She doesn't succeed in keeping the bitterness out of her voice. "So you don't keep your pet humans in a cage."
Because she is enjoying this, she realizes. Speaking to L'Rell as an equal isn't difficult. She's young, headstrong, and very alien, but it does feel like a meeting of the minds, one that's outlasted the circumstances of their first meeting. L'Rell is right. They could work together. And that scares the shit out of her.
L'Rell tilts her head to the side, considering Kat. "You do not want to come to Qo'noS."
Kat has difficulty believing L'Rell has only thought of that now. She raises her eyebrows, annoyance outweighing wariness. "And if I don't?"
L'Rell hasn't gotten any shorter or less imposing since this morning. "You would not be a prisoner," she says, sounding mildly affronted.
"What else would I be?" L'Rell wants to do this now? Fine. Kat's not the one who made a high-handed choice and then came looking to chat. "You say I'm the only one you'll accept. I won't deny it's flattering. But if I say no, then what? We're at war again?"
If I say yes and it all goes to hell, am I trapped with you?
The black cloak over L'Rell's armour turns her into an immovable pillar of night, outlined in stars. "Who else would you choose, Admiral?"
It brings her up short. The Federation has had half a dozen names shortlisted for weeks, one of them Sarek's. Before today she would confidently have seconded any of them. But she can't imagine this conversation happening with anyone else. Not the jokes, not the raw admissions from L'Rell. Not the latitude she's given Kat for honest answers.
Kat sighs. "Why are you even here, L'Rell?"
L'Rell just looks at her. "When I was aboard the Discovery," she says, after a very long pause, "I was interrogated by two of your finest officers. Your sainted Captain Georgiou's methods were much like a Klingon's. Familiar, but not comforting. But you spoke to me with respect."
"Interesting. I called your idol a fool to your face."
L'Rell snorts. "You have always spoken to me the same way, Admiral, whether you speak for the Federation or for yourself."
Kat crosses her arms over her chest. "I wasn't chatting you up on the Ship of the Dead for my health. So I'd have to say I've always spoken to you for the Federation."
She feels like she's missed something when L'Rell smiles. "You could have fed me lies to ensure your escape. You could have begged for your life. When I was your captive, you could have lied to me that your victory was at hand." She shrugs. "And no one has forced you to argue with me."
And so L'Rell calls her courageous and honourable and demands the Federation send her to Qo'noS? It doesn't seem much to hang an interstellar alliance on.
There's that open expression on L'Rell's face again. This time it's less eager anticipation and more like it's incredibly important that Kat understand her. "As you speak in the darkness, Admiral, so you speak in the light."
Kat opens her mouth and shuts it again, swallowing against a sudden lump in her throat. She still doesn't take Klingon honour seriously. She hardly trusts herself, after what she had to do to stop them. She keeps her comission because no one else is left, because the alternative is worse.
Who is L'Rell to tell her she's trustworthy? To make her think that what she's offering could let Kat make a real difference again?
The silence stretches. L'Rell pulls her hood back over her face. "When we have peace," she says as she turns to leave, "I will grow my hair."
The transporter beam shivers through her molecules, sending a red haze in front of her eyes and a deeply disquieting thrum through her bones. The moment twists and coils through an eternity of wrongness, and then—
Kat stands on a transporter pad in a room with high baroque ceilings and a gravity her knees aren't going to thank her for.
"Welcome to Qo'noS, Admiral Cornwell." Ash Tyler—or whoever he is now—is at the controls. He seems pleased to see her.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." They're neither of them in uniform, as a matter of fact, and her communicator is only useful now as a recording device. Tucked deep in the bag over her shoulder is a powerful piece of comm equipment intended to encrypt her reports back to the Federation. Kat hopes they'll let her keep it.
"Always a rough ride at first," Tyler says as she steps off the transport pad. He glances at her bag but doesn't try to take it from her.
He also ignores the two armed guards flanking the exit, so Kat does likewise. She follows him out through a wide corridor and across a terraced assembly hall, taking visual note of everything, hoping she doesn't look like a tourist or a spy. She glances at Tyler again. He seems...well, better than the last time she saw him, but so is she.
"Does it get easier?" she asks. "The ride."
He stops with his hand on the door. "I'm not sure I can say."
And then they're standing in a courtyard, under the open sky. It's heavily overcast, a weak sun clawing its way through clouds that promise rain. But Kat stares up at it in amazement. In the hundreds of times she's imagined the Klingon homeworld, somehow she never thought about it having a sky.
Tyler clears his throat. "Come on," he says when she brings herself back to earth. He grins, jerks his chin towards the huge open gate a few metres ahead of them. "She said to tell you she hopes you like bloodwine."
Kat isn't sure whether to shudder or smile, but as rain begins to spatter the pavement, she picks up her pace.
L'Rell is waiting.