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Ad Astra Per Nihil

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Benedick hates press conferences. He knows others would mock him for it, considering his love of the spotlight and also his own voice, but he’s always been proud of being consistently inconsistent. Until his first promotion to Head Communications Officer on the Florentine, he had imagined he would love being famous, the object of attention. He had been expecting careful attention and a minding of his words, but that was far from the reality. He had stood on the platform with Pedro and Johnson, freshly twenty-five, staring into a billion flashing lights, and had the sinking realization that every single person there was just waiting to see him fail. So, he plastered on his most charming smile, flirted with a few of the more amenable reporters, went up into space, and spent the next eighteen months proving he belonged there. Then he did it again.

Now, however, he returns a hero. The way the holos tell the story, Clodok devised a foolproof method of divining Romulan ships even when they were cloaked, Benedick did some excellent codebreaking with regards to Romulan transmissions in the Neutral Zone and Pedro expertly commanded the ship and coordinated efforts with the fleet to stop an ambush that could have destroyed the Flagship of the Federation. The ambush involved almost the entire Romulan armada, now destroyed or scattered. The war has entirely changed tides. Now all three of them are big damn heroes.

The truth is, Benedick mostly just stumbled on some static on the border, and remembered a cypher pattern that he had discovered in his first year in the Academy. He put two and two together, came up with ambush, sprinted to Clodok, who then put Romulans and ambush together, got advanced cloaking systems, sprinted to Pedro, who put cloaking systems and ambush together, and got urgent message to the admiralty, and from there, the situation snowballed out of any of their hands. The realities of the situation aren’t glamorous, but the press want their multi-species command dream team, so the press will get it.

Now the reporters aren’t looking for flaws, they’re actively ignoring them. Benedick still doesn’t trust them, of course, he knows how quickly tides turn, but the flashing lights don't induce as much anxiety as they used to. He, Pedro, and Clodok sit on a panel and answer questions. Pedro and Benedick lay on the charm, Pedro more commanding, Benedick more rakish, and Clodok stands with Vulcan stoicism, eyebrows in full force.

“Captain, people have begun referring to you as Prince, as you are positioned to inherit the Flagship Messina due to your heroics in the war. How do you respond to those rumors?”

“I’m flattered, of course, but I’m not so sure I’m positioned to inherit anything. There are older, more experienced captains out there that would do a great job of captaining such a prestigious ship.” Pedro is a skilled diplomat, but even he can’t fully conceal how much he wants the Messina. The war has left few qualified captains in Starfleet. Pedro has more than a fighting chance at getting the ship despite his youth, especially considering his recent heroics.

“Speaking of age, Commander Clodok, you are the youngest First Officer in Starfleet history, and during your first tour, you changed the course of the war. What is it like to be the Admiralty’s darling right now?”

“I am nobody’s darling. I performed my duties as First Officer to the degree that any of my compatriots would have. Were it not for the efforts of my crewmates, none of my actions would have affected anything,” Clodok says with typical Vulcan gravitas. His eyebrows are severe and condemning. Clodok is not a media darling. He was extraordinarily Vulcan about being promoted, and extraordinarily Vulcan about being the one of the only three Vulcans in Starfleet, and extraordinarily Vulcan about saving the Federation, which is to say, he was tragically stoic and literal. When you add his species’ disposition towards stoicism to his natural and fully individual awkwardness, he’s a public relations disaster. Benedick often has to pick up the slack.

“If Clodok isn’t going to take the credit for his work, I will.” All the cameras turn to him. God, he hates press conferences. “If you would like to heap praises on me for my extraordinary luck and ability to make friends with people who actually know what they’re doing, I will accept gratitude in monetary donations.” Clodok turns to Benedick, looking grateful that Benedick has martyred himself to the flashing lights. Which mostly just looks like an eyebrow twitch.

“Of course, it wasn’t just luck, was it, Lieutenant? You managed to crack the Great Romulan Code.”

“Oh wow, is that what they’re calling it? It was a relatively simple cypher, I don’t know what the Romulans were thinking when they implemented it.” Of course, it was only relatively simple when compared to pre-warp English, or some other language that makes no sense whatsoever. In truth, the cypher was a remnant of an ancient civilization, an offshoot of the shared ancestors of Vulcans and Romulans. He had found it trying to impress a girl in Xenolinguistics Club and had spent the next six months figuring it out with her, poring over old primary texts, tracing back the roots of old Vulcan reconnaissance logs pre-Surak, and tracking down Romulan codes. He hadn’t seen it in years, but the syntax still resonated immediately.

That being said, the people who need to know about the difficulty of the cypher already know, and it’s always better to be underestimated.

“Good for us that they didn’t think that much about their code, isn’t it?” A reporter says. Benedick smiles brightly and nods. “Well then, Lieutenant, you’ve helped save the Federation, you’re returning home a hero, and you’re still very young. What’s next for you?” Benedick’s smile turns sincere and just the slightest bit manic.

“I’m going to visit Starfleet Academy. You know, really reconnect with my roots.”

Miles away, a young linguistics professor who has stopped grading papers to watch the news lets loose a psychic scream that disturbs every telepathic species on campus.

*

Benedick falls in love with the stars first. When he is very young, his mother takes him out, sits him on her lap and points out the constellations, tells him stories about the different places she’s traveled. There was a planet where it rained diamonds, and a planet where all of the water was poisonous to humans, and a planet where birds could speak. Benedick’s mother is a lieutenant on the Padua before she retires and comes back home. She doesn’t want to raise him on starship, wants him to know Earth, but even then, she knows where he will end up. You’re made for the stars, she whispers, and Benedick squeezes his eyes shut, and imagines he’s on all those planets. When he opens his eyes, his vision is blurry and hazy and the stars spin in a kaleidoscope of light and dark and he falls asleep right there, curled into his mother’s lap, eyes directed to the heavens. The stars are Benedick’s first love. Everything else comes after.

*

Benedick arrives on the campus with Pedro and Clodok to the warm welcome of Admiral Leo Nato. Nato had been one of Benedick’s most influential allies in his pursuit of Command Gold, taking notice of him on his first tour, and helping him get on Pedro’s bridge crew. Pedro was one of his later First Officers, and impressed him so much that he gave him the Florentine when he retired. Benedick has spent most of his career trying to make Nato proud, and likes to think he hasn’t failed too abysmally in that regard.

Admiral Nato has run the Academy for many years now. Many Admirals preferred to be involved directly in the war effort, but Nato believed that while the battles and strategies are important, they are nothing without cadets that can execute them. His work in San Francisco more than doubled the number of recruits per year within two years when he took the position, and since then, no Admiral has questioned a single one of his decisions.

Nato smiles brightly when he catches sight of their trio, shaking Pedro’s hand before pulling him into a hug.

“You didn’t have to come and welcome us in person,” Pedro exclaims, but Nato just shakes his head.

“It would be an insult if I let anyone else greet you. You’re the heroes of the Federation.” Benedick looks around and sees almost every cadet staring openly at their group. Benedick’s pronouncement on the holos must have made its rounds around the campus.

“Speaking of heroes, where is yours? I was sure she would be part of the welcoming party,” Benedick says. Clodok’s face doesn’t change but the tips of his ears flush green.

Nato’s daughter, Hero, a half-human half-betazoid, has been Clodok’s pen pal and secret academic crush for about a year now. It started when Hero published her first paper on pre-warp Terran military tactics. Clodok had been looking into different military strategies from a variety of cultures and planets before stumbling on her paper. He immediately contracted an intense admiration of her writing and logical structure that led him to send her a missive asking about her experimental procedure that spiraled into a beautiful, if very emotionally stilted, correspondence.

“She should be here shortly-” Nato starts, looking around, before spotting something in the distance that makes them all turn. Hero is rushing towards them, hair a mess around her face and cheeks flushed. It seems she’s actually headed past them, towards the building Nato came out of. “Oh dear, she must think we were going to meet in the Engineering building,” Nato finishes weakly.

As Hero rushes past the assembly, Nato reaches out an arm to grab her, and in a stunning display of timing and clumsiness, Hero turns, trips, stumbles and falls directly into Clodok’s awaiting arms. There is a beat of tension before they hastily pull away from each other, both attempting stoicism to varying degrees of success. Being part Betazoid means Hero is unusually empathic, but it also means she can’t hide an emotion to save her life. Clodok is better with his Vulcan-ness, but he only marginally so. Benedick rolls his eyes discreetly.

“This is your first time meeting each other face to face, isn't it?” Pedro asks.

“Yes. I see the resemblance between you and your father. You look similar,” Clodok says. Benedick is reminded that despite all of Clodok’s competence and confidence on the battlefield, he is truly hopeless when speaking to women.

“Not too similar, clearly,” Pedro says, trying to mitigate the sheer Clodokness of the situation.

“Yes, I see much of your mother’s beauty in you,” Benedick says, jumping in. Let it never be said that Benedick will not brave an awkward situation for his friends.

“Are you well acquainted with my mother’s beauty?” Hero asks, eyes wide and a little bit too innocent. Benedick looks to Pedro for help, but Pedro, that dirty coward, backs away.

“Smooth.” A cool voice behind Benedick, scathing and low. Something in Benedick shifts into place, like a gear slotting into machinery, now oiled and primed. Benedick pivots on his heels to face the voice. He’s been anticipating this for about eighteen months. The voice belongs, of course, to the youngest and possibly most qualified professor at the Academy, Beatrice Merry, consummate xenolinguist and bane of Benedick’s existence.

Beatrice looks mostly like she did when he last left, eyes bright with intelligence, and mayhem pulling at the corners of her mouth. Teaching has been good for her, giving her a certain calm confidence. She used to always be in some frenzy or other, energy crackling around her frame as she tried over and over again to prove herself to people who had never doubted her in the first place. Now she’s grown into herself more, stands like she has the right to stand. Of course, some things stay the same. Her hair is still short, her lips are still chapped and she still looks utterly unimpressed with anything Benedick could possibly say or do.

“I thought I smelled your disdain during reentry. Glad to see even that survived the war,” Benedick says. Beatrice raises one perfectly contemptuous eyebrow.

“With such a soldier like you defending it, it could never die,” Beatrice responds, and Benedick feels something like a smile creeping onto his lips.

“Oh, you appreciate my military prowess, do you?” Benedick goads. Beatrice would usually choose death over complimenting him.

“I’m more than familiar with the stories of your conquests,” Beatrice fires back, and oh, that’s a direct hit. Nobody could mistake the double meaning of conquests, and Beatrice doesn’t mean to congratulate him. That woman holds a grudge like she holds her liquor and her tongue. Badly.

“Do you teach my exploits in your Oral Histories and Traditions class? I’m glad my victories were notable enough to be made legend in your curriculum.”

“Less legend, more cautionary tale.”

“Am I such a tyrant? Don’t worry, Professor, it’s not like I settle long enough to actually rule,” Benedick says. His commitment issues are well documented across the quadrant.

“You haven’t found some patient woman with terrible taste out there in the cosmos who’ll put up with you?”

“No, and I never will. I’m a soldier, not a husband,” Benedick says. He gave up on that halcyon dream a while back.

“And womankind rejoiced. I’m actually of your mind on this issue. I’m too busy to entertain a man for the rest of my life. I have actually important things to do,” Beatrice says. Benedick feels something ugly rise in him.

“Oh, important like grading papers on Romulan prefixes and Vulcan grammar? Listening to butchered Klingon in a Standard accent? I’m glad you don’t want marriage, I’d pity the fool who married you and got a report card every week on his many failings in your estimation,” Benedick says. Beatrice’s hackles rise, and Benedick re-acquaints himself with his close friend, regret.

“Just because you’ve never met anyone’s expectations before in your life, doesn’t mean nobody can. And if you had listened to anyone’s criticism before, maybe you wouldn’t be such a waste of space today,” Beatrice says, voice sharp and cold.

“You are talking to a war hero,” Benedick says.

“I am talking to a buffoon,” Beatrice fires back. Benedick suddenly feels exhausted and miserable, like he’s just suffered a combined adrenaline and sugar crash. He forgets himself with Beatrice, forgets the man he’s proud to have become and reverts to the boy he regretted being.

“Correction, you ‘were’ talking to a buffoon,” Benedick says, before turning back to the gathering. Pedro pretends valiantly like he wasn’t listening in, which is really all Benedick can ask.

“Classic Benedick, big words and no follow through,” Beatrice says to his back, before sliding past him and standing near Admiral Nato.

Hero looks between Beatrice and Benedick with confusion in her eyes. Hero’s empath senses must be reading some strange emotions off of the pair of them. Even Benedick can’t tell exactly how he feels, now that he’s out of the planet’s orbit and into Beatrice’s. Admiral Nato is talking.

“-how long you’ll be planetside?” Benedick catches the end of the question.

“It should take a few weeks for our next assignments to arrive, and we’ll be staying in San Francisco until then,” Pedro responds. A throat clears behind all of them, and they turn to see Johnson. Benedick narrows his eyes, but otherwise holds his peace. Pedro affects a broad smile and reaches out to clasp Johnson’s arm.

“Johnson, there you are! May I introduce you to Admiral Nato, his daughter Hero, and Professor Merry. Everyone, this is Johnson, our chief engineer on the Florentine,” Pedro says.

“A pleasure,” Johnson says, nodding his head and offering a sickly smile. Johnson thought he was going to be Pedro’s first officer, and was never happy with the fact Clodok got the promotion above him. Benedick is ambitious, but never at the expense of his crewmates. He can’t say the same about Johnson and that scares him. Still, Johnson is a brilliant engineer under all his passive-aggressive jibes and general wet blanket demeanor, and, more importantly, he was one of Pedro’s best friends through the Academy. Benedick doesn’t trust Johnson as far as he can throw him, but he trusts his captain.

“The pleasure is all ours,” Admiral Nato says graciously. Hero eyes Johnson coolly, and Benedick feels a rush of vindication at the empath’s clear distrust of the man.

Nato invites them all to his office on campus, but they decline, citing a desire to stop off at their apartment and sleep for a good 48 hours. They rented in the same building, right on the edge of the campus, where many students choose to live after the first couple years in the academy dorms, so they could ease out of the codependence that builds naturally between a ship’s bridge crew. Benedick, Clodok and Pedro are sharing an apartment, and Johnson has his own place with some of his engineering crew on the same floor. They hail a hovercab and arrive within five minutes.

Benedick expects each of their trio to retreat to his own room, but Clodok follows Benedick into his, shutting the door behind him. Benedick starts changing into comfortable clothes instead of his press conference dress uniform. He doesn’t have modesty with Clodok anymore, not with the amount of times Clodok has had to perform emergency surgery on wounds in very embarrassing places after missions gone wrong. Any other Vulcan would be scandalized with Benedick’s casual stripping, but Clodok doesn’t even bat an eye, standing straight .

“What’s up kid?” Benedick asks.

“I am only three years younger than you, Lieutenant. To call me a ‘kid’ or other diminutive based on my age is highly illogical,” Clodok responds.

“First of all, our mission is over, we’re in my bedroom and I’m half-naked, Clodok, call me by my goddamn name.” Benedick has had to lodge this complaint too many times.

“Very well, Benedick,” Clodok says. “In response to your query, ‘nothing much’ is up.” Benedick takes a moment to pat himself on the back for teaching Clodok that one. It had been a rough week, but in the end, Clodok was a little less literal and logical, which was a win in Benedick’s book. Plus, Pedro had given him a week’s worth of pastry rations. “I would like to inquire as to your thoughts on Cadet Nato.” Clodok almost sounds nervous.

“My thoughts on Cadet Nato? Speaking as what? An officer of Starfleet? A Terran? A playboy determined to sleep with every single woman in the quadrant and ruin their lives and break their hearts?” So Beatrice’s words still smart, whatever.

“As my friend,” Clodok says. Benedick looks up from pulling on his pants to smile at his First Officer. Eighteen months ago, Clodok would have jumped into space without a spacesuit before saying that to anyone, and now he admits it readily.

“Well, if you’re going to invoke the friendship card, I guess I’m going to have to take you seriously, aren’t I?” Benedick asks.

“I would prefer it if you always took me seriously, Benedick.”

“Then who would pull you out of your little temper tantrums?” Benedick asks, smirking, while he searches for a shirt to wear.

“Vulcans do not have- Nevermind, you are goading me. The question, Benedick,” Clodok insists.

“Hero’s fine. She’s a nice girl. I don’t particularly like the whole empath thing, you know? I feel like it’s cheating to know what someone’s feeling when they haven't told you. The only person who needs to be in my head is me,” Benedick says. He finds a shirt that isn’t egregious.

“You are speaking to a touch-telepath,” Clodok says severely.

“Yes, and that is why our love is doomed,” Benedick says faux-seriously, pulling his shirt over his head.

“Be serious, Benedick,” Clodok implores. Benedick rolls his eyes.

“Why? What does my opinion on this one girl mean to you? She’s a good kid, she knows a lot about trench warfare. She’s not the most beautiful woman in the entire universe or anything,” Benedick says.

“I would disagree with you,” Clodok says, in a blatant display of rampant emotionalism.

“Well, you would be wrong. Beatrice is the most beautiful woman in the entire universe, and even she’s terrible. I cannot believe that you, Mr. Vulcan, pinnacle of all that is logical and emotionless, are actually smitten right now. I was so sure that you were gonna be the last bastion of bachelorhood with me, and here you are, mooning over a girl in my room like we’re in a chick flick or something,” Benedick explodes.

“Chick flick?” Clodok asks.

“It’s an old Terran thing, we’ll go over it later or something, that’s not the point. The point is, it’s a terrible idea to develop feelings for someone between missions, especially someone planetside. You’re literally awaiting assignment as we speak, and you want to get involved with someone who you won’t see for, at the very least, eighteen months at a time? What’s logical about that?” Benedick’s voice has gotten progressively louder as he speaks, so it’s not that much of a surprise when Pedro knocks on the door.

“What the hell are you guys yelling about in there?” Pedro asks. Clodok opens the door to reveal Pedro in his Starfleet issued pajamas, looking disgruntled.

“I can’t bring myself to tell you, it’s too disheartening,” Benedick says, affecting a sigh and collapsing onto his bed in a fit of pique.

“Captain, I was merely asking Benedick about a personal matter regarding Cadet Nato-” Clodok begins to explain, before Benedick leaps off the bed.

“He’s got a crush! The Vulcan! Is there nothing sacred anymore? Are there no laws of the universe we can rely on? Is there no justice?” Benedick exclaims. Pedro ignores him easily, a result of months of practice.

“Hey, that’s wonderful! I’m happy for you Clodok, she definitely feels the same,” Pedro says. Benedick is aghast. Everyone is a Judas.

“Do you believe so? I find it difficult to parse the situation as it stands, but if you believe she returns my affections, I trust you would not lead me astray,” Clodok says earnestly. Iago.

“Oh definitely, did you see her face when she fell into your arms?” Pedro says encouragingly. Delilah.

“I will admit, I was a bit distracted at the moment, but-” Benedick has had enough.

“Excuse me, are you decorated soldiers or are you teenage girls?” Benedick asks, voice an octave higher than usual.

“Why can’t we be both?” Pedro asks.

“We are very obviously not adolescent women, Benedick, is your eyesight suffering?” Clodok asks.

Benedick hates them both so very much. “I hate you both so very much.” Benedick is not known for his brain to mouth filter.

“Do you have to be so jaded all the time? Clodok has found a nice lady who likes him, and he likes her too. Anyone else would be happy for him,” Pedro says plaintively.

“I’m only happy for my friends when they do things that actually ensure their happiness. Sure, things could be peachy keen for the month that they have together here, but what happens when we get our next assignment? What happens if they decide they’re incompatible? What happens if Hero turns out to be a Romulan assassin and Clodok has to choose between his heart and his oath?” Benedick asks.

“You’re scraping the barrel there, aren’t you?” Pedro asks.

“That’s not the point. The point is, love is a dangerous game that relies way more on chance than they do on anything we mere mortals can do. You give a part of yourself to someone else, and you have to trust that they won’t step on it. It’s best to not play,” Benedick says.

“You do not love anyone?” Clodok asks, in pure scientific inquiry.

“The only women I love are my mother and the ships I’ve served on” Benedick says sincerely. Pedro rolls his eyes.

“Everyone falls in love, Benedick,” Pedro says. Benedick studiously doesn’t think about anyone in his misspent youth.

“I’m in love with the stars, Pedro. There isn't room for much else,” Benedick says, more seriously than he had intended. “The day I fall in love is the day the stars fall from the sky.”

“The probability of the stars falling from the sky is significantly lower than the probability of a Terran male experiencing romantic feelings, even a male as stubborn as you,” Clodok says in the voice that usually precedes some Vulcan mischief.

“I’ll take those odds,” Benedick says. “Now, I’m tired as hell, and I’m disappointed in both of you. Get out of my room and let me sleep.” Pedro laughs at him, and Clodok quirks an amused brow at him before they exit, heads bent together in discussion.

Benedick flops onto the bed. His comm beeps, signalling a notice of a Gala held for the returning heroes of the Florentine coming up this week. He throws the comm off the side of the bed, resolving to make Clodok deal with that later.

Exhaustion takes him quickly.

*

Benedick stares into his sixth glass of champagne before downing it in one long swallow. It’s maybe a bad idea, but Benedick couldn’t possibly care less. He hates galas even more than press conferences, somehow. He would usually just sneak out with a plate of canapés and a girl, but no, this gala was thrown for him, so his attendance is mandatory. He grabs another flute of champagne from one of the passing waiters, and downs that one too.

Pedro is speaking with Hero in a corner, wingmanning Clodok as best he can. Clodok is nowhere to be found, probably in the bathroom. Johnson and his friends are also excusing themselves to that location. Benedick huffs out of frustration, he was about to escape there and get Clodok to sneak out with him, but Benedick does his best to never interact with Johnson unless he’s forced to.

Back in his student days, when he had to attend stuffy academic functions to curry favor with professors, Beatrice would have already grabbed his arm and murmured an escape plan, involving a scaled wall, a stolen waiter’s outfit, and copious alcohol. Her plans usually went horribly awry, but unfailingly ended with them scarfing down greasy food in a hole in the wall somewhere, formal wear rumpled and stomachs aching with laughter. Thinking about it, Benedick can almost feel her hand in the crook of his elbow, her low laughter in his ear.

He grabs two flutes of champagne the next time the waiter passes by.

Admiral Nato looks promising as far as conversation goes, but he looks like he’s about to be approached by Professor Dogberry, and there’s no way in hell or Romulus that Benedick will voluntarily suffer conversation with that man. It’s really remarkable; Benedick is fluent in 25 different languages with 40 different regional variations, can hold a reasonable conversation in 30, and can ask for a drink, a bathroom, and a fight in about ten more, but he cannot understand a single word Dogberry says.

Benedick’s vision is blurry, and the canapés he ate are starting to slosh around in his stomach. He didn't realize how potent champagne was. The atmosphere changes from uncomfortable to stifling and the air feels warmer than it should.

The music changes, playing some kind of popular dance, and the noise level drastically increases. People suddenly congregate near Benedick, and the volume and the proximity of the masses make something in Benedick’s innards heave violently. He excuses himself outside quickly, making his way down a path before turning to the side and ridding himself of all that champagne in the least comfortable way possible.

Benedick has thrown up many times in his life, for all kinds of reasons, but this, this is the most humiliating of them all. He got drunk off of champagne at his own damn gala and threw up in the bushes behind the ballroom. This has to be a new low. Rock bottom. How could this possibly get worse?

“Hey, are you okay?” Beatrice says behind him. Oh, that’s just classic. “Here, let me-”

“No, don’t,” Benedick rasps out. Out of all the things he doesn’t want right now, Beatrice seeing him this weak and miserable is at the top of the list, narrowly beating out spontaneous combustion and venereal disease.

“Hey, I get it, no worries. It’s not like I haven’t been there,” Beatrice says, and her voice is friendly and amused. Benedick’s insides heave, for reasons other than his poor decisions. He hasn’t heard her sound like this in a long long time. “I mean, who among us hasn’t contracted food poisoning to get out of something terrible? I once did that for a final, actually. The teacher was sympathetic, but my best friend didn’t stop making fun of me for the next four months,” Beatrice recounts.

Benedick had been that friend. Beatrice had spent so long studying for Advanced Cryptography that she hadn’t thought to study for her basic Astrometrics 101. Instead of cramming, she found the restaurant with the lowest health and safety rating and ate her weight in seafood. It had been a terrible week for both of them, and Benedick didn’t let her live it down for a good long while.

Beatrice has no idea who he is. To Beatrice, Benedick is just some idiot throwing up in the bushes. He is a stranger to her right now.

“Are you sure you don’t want some water or something? I can go inside and get some for you,” Beatrice says, voice warm. Benedick minutely turns until he can see part of her. It’s dark, but the lights from inside cast light on her face. She’s wearing a vaguely amused and concerned expression, like she’s looking at a puppy that accidentally stepped on its own tail. Her dress looks like it was made for comfort over style, long and made of a soft clingy material with tiny reflective pieces. Standing there, in the pitch black, with the light from inside reflecting off of her, it looks like she’s wearing the night sky. Benedick turns back to the bushes.

“I’m fine. I think I just need to stay outside. The fresh air is doing more for me than the foreign dignitaries and absent-minded professors ever will,” Benedick says, voice raspy enough to be distinct from his usual tone.

“Oh absolutely. Trying to manage a conversation with Dogberry is enough to make anyone seasick,” Beatrice says, and Benedick can’t hold back his laughter. Beatrice was gifted with a biting wit, and Benedick had appreciated it back when it wasn’t directed at him.

“Is he the reason you came out too?” Benedick asks.

“Not specifically Dogberry, per se. I don’t even really know why I came to this function, I knew I would just leave at some point. Probably by leaping over the wall or something,” Beatrice muses. “If I’m being honest, I felt lonely in there, and it’s better to feel lonely when you’re alone versus when you’re in a crowd. At least then you have an excuse.” Her voice meanders at the end, becomes introspective. “I hope you don’t mind the company,” Beatrice says, and she actually sounds a little bit nervous.

“No, not at all. It’s nice to have a friendly voice around when your entire body is rebelling against you,” Benedick responds. “And, to be honest, the reason you left and the reason I turned to drink are very similar.” Beatrice huffs out a laugh.

“Then I guess we can just be alone together out here,” Beatrice says.

Back in the Academy, Benedick had taken a rudimentary physics course, and had learned of the ‘observer effect,’ often confused with the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. The ‘observer effect’ simply stated that observing an event necessarily changed it. For example, if you were to shine a light on an electron to see how it moved, the photons in the light would excite the electron, causing it to behave differently.

Benedick has only ever seen Beatrice when she knew he was there. He doesn’t know her without her battle armor on, unlike all of their mutual friends. He gets the Beatrice who reacts to him, to their shared history. Seeing her like this, open and sincere and friendly, feels like he’s subverting the laws of physics, like he’s cheating the universe. Knowing that she could be like this all the time with him if they didn’t have their history feels like the universe has cheated him.

“Hey, stranger, do you want to take your head out of the bushes or something?” Beatrice asks.

“I would, it smells terrible here, but I can’t face you knowing our initial circumstances or I will melt out of humiliation,” Benedick says. Beatrice laughs out loud.

“Well, we can’t have you melt. I’ll turn around so you can escape the odor. Honestly, I appreciate our anonymity,” Beatrice says. “There’s something a little bit liberating about talking to a completely random person.” Benedick almost feels bad about lying. Almost.

Benedick hears a rustle of fabric behind him and peers behind to see Beatrice sitting on the concrete path, back to him, head turned to the night sky. He cautiously sits too, just behind her periphery. The air is cool and clean, and there isn’t a single cloud in the sky. He stares at the back of Beatrice’s head.

“So what do you do for a living, mysterious woman?” Benedick asks.

“I’m a xenolinguistics professor at the Academy. It’s interesting, I always thought I would go into space instead of the Academy. Teaching isn’t really what I thought I was going to do with my life, but I can’t deny that it’s taught me a lot,” Beatrice says.

“Who really thinks they’re going to teach for the rest of their life?” Benedick asks, a little more scornfully than he intended.

“God, you sound like Benedick right now,” Beatrice bites out. Benedick is afraid she’ll turn and see him, but she stares resolutely at the stars, hands in fists next to her body.

“Well, this Benedick seems to have some sense,” Benedick says. Beatrice doesn’t seem to have heard him.

“Who wants to teach? I don’t know, maybe people who plan to educate an entire generation on the difference between war and peace with the Romulans, people who’s classes will determine the language of treaties and constitutions and declarations of war? These days everyone is only concerned with war and fighting, but after the weapons are put down, the universe will be determined by words, and I teach them to the people who will make history.” Her words are furious.

“The returning ‘heroes’ of the federation, the reason we’re both here, suffocating, they were taught by someone. But to hear them talk about it, the sum total of all knowledge sprang into their heads at birth, instead,” Beatrice says disdainfully.

“I’m not so sure they’re saying they knew everything without teachers, I’m sure they’re just saying they wouldn’t be teachers of their own volition,” Benedick backtracks. Beatrice relaxes minutely.

“Okay, that’s fair. Clodok and Pedro are actually very respectful about the profession. It’s just Benedick,” Beatrice says. Benedick winces. “He’s the most arrogant, infuriating, and casually contemptuous person I’ve ever met, and that’s saying something. Have you seen his interviews? He acts like he’s the hottest guy in the universe, flirting with everything that breathes, and some things that don’t, as though we should all just prostrate ourselves before him.”

“You know, that cypher he solved? I solved it with him. He found it and brought it to me during xenolinguistics club; we spent literal months working on it, both of us. I was the one who actually found the key, but no, Benedick, the hero of the Federation, breaker of the Great Romulan Code, it was ‘relatively simple’ for him, and he did it all by himself,” Beatrice explodes. “It’s not just that! He’s overrated, aggravating, and he plays comic relief for Pedro and Clodok, all the while thinking of himself as the hero of the story. It drives me insane,” Beatrice finishes.

Benedick thinks it was premature to have turned away from the bushes.

“God. I’m so sorry about dumping all of that on you, he just gets under my skin and makes me into this angry vindictive person,” Beatrice exhales. Benedick struggles to command his voice.

“It seems like you have a legitimate grievance,” Benedick finally gets out.

“Yeah, well, I bet if you ask him about me, it’d sound basically the same. I don’t act well around him,” Beatrice says.

“I’m sure no man would describe you in such a fashion,” Benedick says, teeth gritted.

“Well, you don’t know Benedick,” Beatrice says.

“And you do, clearly.” Why is Benedick still talking to her, why won’t he just leave this conversation?

“I thought I did,” Beatrice says, and there’s something in her voice that doesn’t make sense, but Benedick can barely hear anything over the rushing in his ears. She turns suddenly, as if she heard something, and Benedick puts his hands over his face. She doesn’t seem to see him at all.

“Shit, Hero is calling for me. I must away. Thanks for talking with me. I actually had a good time, something I wasn’t expecting at all tonight,” Beatrice says while standing up. She walks away without waiting for a response, and Benedick doesn’t offer one.

How could she think those things, how could she say those things, and to a veritable stranger at that? Benedick’s blood is rushing and his heart is beating. He feels beyond humiliated, like he just participated in his own public egging. His hands clench and unclench at his side. He tries to breathe deeply and calm down, but he can’t, he can’t breathe at all.

Clodok walks down the path and stops, and Benedick scrambles to his feet, desperate for some distraction.

“Hey, Clodok, walk with me,” Benedick says. Clodok wears his I do not wish to speak eyebrows, but Benedick can’t be bothered.

“Where must we walk?” Clodok asks.

“It’s not that we must walk, it’s that we should walk, and we’re walking not to something, but away from something, so let’s walk,” Benedick says.

“I confess, I would enjoy the distance from the ballroom,” Clodok says, while still standing in one place.

“Great, then let’s move our feet in a direction other than towards the ballroom,” Benedick says, but Clodok is silent, and most infuriatingly, still. “I saw Pedro talking to Hero in there,” Benedick says, partially to buoy Clodok’s spirits by the mention of Hero’s name, partly to get a reaction and make him move.

“I wish the pair well,” Clodok says, and Benedick wants to break something. How dare Clodok have a crisis? Benedick is the one who’s having the crisis right now, and Clodok’s crisis isn’t even real, this is bullshit!

“That makes sense, because if they fare well, you do too. Or do you forget your captain’s loyalty so easily?”

“Desist, Lieutenant,” Clodok says, and Benedick wants to throttle him.

“We’re back to Lieutenant now? You do know this is what I meant by temper tantrum, right?” Benedick says. Clodok stiffens further, somehow, and turns and walks back inside. Benedick watches him go. Sighs. Kicks a bush.

It’s just so ridiculous that Clodok would imagine Pedro wants anything from Hero. And even if Pedro did like Hero, she wouldn’t feel the same way. She’s all aflutter for the Vulcan wonder, they’ve been close for over a year now. If he had doubts, he could just go up and ask her, but no, that’s far too onerous for someone so emotionally stunted.

Then again, Benedick just heard what Beatrice thinks of him, and that was a horrible mistake. God, now Benedick is all angry again. That Beatrice would sit next to him and unknowingly belittle him to his face, believing it was behind his back, is a truth almost too devastating to bear.

Deep in his mind, behind all the stupid jokes, and the anger, and the war, and everything else he hides behind, there was a spark of hope that maybe, just maybe, Beatrice still cared for him. Maybe she was just acting out around him out of anger, and privately she worried about him, thought well of him. But this episode just confirmed his worst fear. Beatrice genuinely hates him. In the dark of night, when she is open and kind, even then, she disdains Benedick, spews vitriol about him to anyone who will listen. He was a fool to hope, and he was a fool to engage with her in the first place. Benedick will endure almost anything, jokes and fire and phasers, but he will not endure being made a fool.

He walks back into the ballroom, cold fury in his steps. He will make his excuses, he will away, and then, hopefully, he will sleep and forget this nightmare.

“Benedick, there you are,” Pedro says. Benedick closes his eyes. “Have you seen Clodok anywhere?”

“Yes, I’ve seen the Vulcan. I may kill the Vulcan,” Benedick says, uncharitably. Whatever, Clodok doesn’t deserve charity.

“Why?” Pedro asks.

“He’s somehow got it into his head that you’ve snaked him with Hero,” Benedick says. “I can usually handle his temper tantrums, but right now I just cannot bring myself to give a shit about it.”

“Is he serious? I’ll go clear it up with him, it’ll be fine. Why are you in such a snit?” Pedro asks.

“Beatrice.” There’s not much else he needs to say.

“Oh yeah, she’s been spitting fire about you recently. Something about you-” Benedick cuts Pedro off.

“You don’t need to tell me. I have been subject to the flames, and let me tell you, I am past my boiling point,” Benedick says. “I have never met a more virulent woman in my life, and I’ve fought women Romulans. She just cannot bring herself to hold her thrice-damned tongue, and so she sits happily in her turret, sniping poor fools who cannot be bothered to meet her exacting and impossible standards, paying no mind to general decency. I sat out there, mute and helpless and she leveled so many different attacks on me that it would take me a year to respond to all of them, only to flounce out of the garden and thank me for a good conversation. She’s so fundamentally malicious that if someone asked me to marry her, I would throw myself out of a spaceship and wait to be frozen solid or die of oxygen deprivation,” Benedick finishes.

“Well, you can say all of this to her, she’s coming up behind you,” Pedro says lightly. Sure enough, there she is, about to open her mouth, and no, Benedick has had quite enough of that for a lifetime.

“No. Absolutely not. Captain, do you have a mission on Romulus you need me to take? I’ll go unarmed without backup if necessary, just get me away from her. I would rather die in a Romulan execution than be subject to one more minute of company with this harpy. It’s incredible, I manage to survive how many tours? Only to be expected to survive my shore leave as well?”

“Nobody is asking you to survive anything Benedick, I just like to hang out with you sometimes,” Pedro says, trying his best to defuse the situation, but Benedick has been misused past any humor.

“We can hang out when she isn’t there to poison the air with her tongue,” Benedick says. He falls into parade rest, salutes his captain, and strides to the entrance of the ballroom. He doesn’t look back.

The night air is bracing when he exits the room and hails a hovercab. He looks into the night sky and sees a meteor shower. The stars are falling from the sky. Benedick thinks back to what he told Pedro and Clodok.

He scoffs, and thinks of nothing but his bed for the ride home.

*

Benedick wakes up with a hangover, which is just par for the course at this point. He groans quietly into his pillow, before pulling himself out of bed and staggering to his bathroom. His reflection looks gruesome. Memories of the previous night filter back and Benedick wonders if he could just drown himself in the sink or something. Last night was spectacularly awful.

He hears his bedroom door open for a second. He brushes his teeth quickly, and steps out into the bedroom to see what the problem was.

“I checked, he’s not in his bedroom,” Pedro says. Wait, what?

“Oh good,” Admiral Nato says. What the hell is Admiral Nato doing here? “Could you all believe the spectacle last night?” Nato asks.

“It was most distressing,” Clodok responds, and okay this is tragic, even the Vulcan is going to gossip about him behind his back.

“Especially when you consider Beatrice’s love for Benedick,” Nato says. Benedick has to stick his hand into his mouth to stop himself from yelling.

“You’re sure about that? She doesn’t seem the type to love anyone, much less Benedick,” Pedro says.

“Oh absolutely. It’s a kind of love that pisses her off, but it’s real,” Nato assures the pair. Benedick would usually believe this was an elaborate prank, but the Admiral wouldn’t involve himself in something so petty.

“Are you sure she is not simply pretending?” Clodok asks, which is kind of insulting when Benedick really thinks about it, but it’s not like he wasn’t just thinking the same thing.

“It’s difficult to fake this amount of regard. You should have seen her during his tours. If there was a mere mention of the Padua II or the Florentine on the holos, she raised the volume and made everyone shut up until she could be sure that he wasn’t a casualty. She was practically a war wife,” Nato says. Benedick stills. He had never thought of how she must have felt his first tour. “I’m sure Clodok has heard even more from Hero than I have,” Nato says.

“Ah. Yes. I have,” Clodok says. Benedick narrows his eyes at that. “Beatrice is often found writing in different languages. Occasionally, Hero will see Benedick’s name in those pages. It would appear that Beatrice is writing love letters to him in different languages,” Clodok finishes. It sounds so ludicrous, but Clodok is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don’t lie.

“Why has she never expressed herself to Benedick then?” Pedro asks.

“Well, Benedick’s disposition has often been to mock love and the affairs of the heart. This, in addition to the natural enmity that their conversations turn to, may have made Beatrice afraid of voicing these sentiments, for fear of rejection and mockery. She has told Hero she never will tell him, for that very reason,” Clodok says. Benedick winces. It makes perfect sense, especially considering how last time went.

“Which is such a shame, because Beatrice is so incredible. I mean, she’s smart, funny, beautiful. I love Benedick, but that man shouldn’t take a woman like that for granted, in my opinion. If she felt that way about me, I would have married her already,” Pedro says. Benedick feels nauseated, and it’s not just the hangover.

“Well, should one of us tell him?” Nato asks.

“Oh, absolutely not. He’d be scornful and she’d be heartbroken. Let’s just give her time, so she falls out of love with him,” Pedro says. Benedick’s heart lurches. Pedro sighs. “If only he could see what a woman she is, and put away his pride. He’s not a bad guy, you know?”

“Oh absolutely not, he’s a fine soldier,” Nato says.

“And a good friend,” Clodok says.

“But he isn’t Beatrice’s superior. I wish he would figure that out soon,” Pedro says.

Benedick sits down heavily on the bed, and doesn’t listen to any of the rest of their conversation. Beatrice loves him. Beatrice still cares about him. Despite all of their history, she still wants to be with him, and he’s been here, mocking her and love and relationships like a total jackass.

The only question is how does he feel about her. Is he in love with her? Benedick thinks for a second.

Well, of course he’s in love with her. Screw everything he told Clodok about relationships, this is Beatrice. He’ll suffer any amount of mockery for changing his mind if he gets to have her at the end of the day. He had been an idiot back when he was young but he’s older now. There are so few constants in his life, but Beatrice is the anchor, the person who has made him the man he is today. He can’t imagine a life without her, can’t imagine the man he would be without her, and he doesn’t want to. He’s never wanted to, even after he left Earth, even when all they did was fight. Of course he’s in love with her.

There’s a notification on his comm.

Lady Disdain: Apparently, it is up to me to invite you to Hero’s thesis defense tomorrow. Consider yourself invited.

You: Thank you for the invitation.

You: It’d be nice if you could explain what she’s talking about, during the presentation.

Lady Disdain: You’re of a decent intellect, I’m sure you could figure it out yourself.

You: Decent intellect is high praise from you. So, we’re sitting together?

Lady Disdain: Was that decided?

You: Wasn’t it?

There’s a longer pause than usual .

Lady Disdain: I guess I overestimated your intelligence. You clearly need someone to walk you through this.

Lady Disdain: I’ll be in the first row in the auditorium. On the left.

Benedick smiles. She definitely loves him back. The smile drops off his face.

What is he going to wear?

*

Benedick walks into the crowded auditorium, and immediately spots Beatrice. She’s sitting in the front left, and she looks good, like she dressed up for the event. She might actually be wearing makeup too. He walks up to where she’s sitting and smiles, and she smiles back too, albeit with confusion in her eyes. She saved a seat for him, so he sits down next to her. There is a moment of silence. The moment stretches. Benedick seems to have lost his vocal chords on the walk over.

“So, what’s her thesis on?” He asks, reaching for anything that would break the ice.

“Oh, right,” Beatrice says eagerly, leaping onto question like a life-saver “She wrote her thesis on the effects of pre-warp Terran military tactics on Starfleet battle tactics today, with an emphasis on trench warfare during the late 19th and 20th centuries. I was one of her thesis advisors, helping translate most of the pre-warp English. God, that language was a Germanic mess,” she says. Benedick nods in agreement. The switch to Standard was the best thing that happened to Earth, in his opinion.

Benedick sees Clodok walk into the room, followed by Pedro. They sit together near the front, and don’t make eye contact with anyone. Hero looks at Clodok and smiles, but her smile begins to fade the closer she looks. Benedick wonders what emotions she’s picking up off of him. Hero turns and catches Beatrice's eye, and her smile turns almost wicked when she spots that they’re sitting together. Benedick turns to Beatrice and sees her blushing.

Before Benedick can ask Beatrice about her blush, the hearing commences and Hero begins. Benedick tries to pay attention to what’s being said, but almost everything discussed goes over his head, and a third of it is conducted in pre-warp English, which only three people in the room can speak, other than the thesis committee.

When Hero starts listing her thesis advisors, Clodok shifts minutely and so does Pedro. Benedick doesn’t know how he notices, but he’s always pretty aware of the pair, and they’re acting off.

“And my main sponsor, other than Professor Merry, was Professor Borachio,” Hero says.

“May I ask a question,” Clodok says from the audience. The committee turns and stares at him, but the leader, gestures in permission. Benedick raises his eyebrows. Beatrice stills next to him.

“This is not allowed, why is this being allowed?” Beatrice asks under her breath.

“Hero privileges probably. Plus, Clodok is a respected academic in these halls,” Benedick whispers back, but he agrees with Beatrice. This is unprecedented and somewhat suspicious.

“You say Professor Borachio was your sponsor. What exactly did he do to aid your research?” Clodok asks. Hero looks distressed but she answers the question.

“He helped in every aspect, honestly. He helped me figure out the direction the thesis would go, he generated funding for my research, he aided in the collection of data, and helped me structure the paper,” Hero says. “Clodok, are you-”

“Would you say you could not have finished it without him?” Clodok asks, steamrolling her concern. His voice is flat.

“I guess I would, yes,” Hero answers. Clodok nods.

“Did you have much support in the faculty before Professor Borachio decided to sponsor your project?” Clodok asks.

“Not really, but I don’t see what bearing that has on-”

“So your research wouldn’t have even begun without him?” This time it’s Pedro asking the question. Benedick’s eyes narrow. Pedro and Clodok are Benedick’s close friends, and he loves them dearly, but the relationship they have is one that Benedick will never fully be part of. The bond between a Captain and their First Officer is unlike any other in the world, and Pedro and Clodok are unusually close, acting in such synchrony that Benedick has often wondered if Clodok had established a mental link between them. When they act together, in their two-pronged attacks, they are devastatingly effective.

“That’s something that can’t be fully proven-” Hero defends, but Pedro continues.

“So Professor Borachio was important not only in every step of the process along the way, but was the first to actually take interest in your project. You needed him throughout this entire endeavor, right?” Pedro says. Hero stops, brows furrowed. She projects waves of fear into the auditorium. She looks like a prey animal backed into a corner, no way out except for into the trap.

“Yes,” Hero says, voice quiet, like she knows she’s just damned herself, but can’t figure out how. Benedick feels the hair on his arms and neck stand on end. Beatrice grabs his upper arm unconsciously. There is a gathering of electricity in the air.

“Is that why you began your sexual relationship with him?” Clodok asks, and the auditorium goes silent, before exploding into sound. Hero’s eyes widen with shock.

“Why I began what?” She asks, outraged.

“Is this a usual occurrence during these?” Benedick asks Beatrice.

“No, it is not,” Beatrice says, before leaping to her feet and yelling for everyone to shut up.

“Silence,” Admiral Nato’s voice booms out over the crowd. The auditorium quiets. “Clodok, if what you say is true, Hero may be expelled, and Professor Borachio may be fired. The Academy does not take cases of academic dishonesty lightly, especially not of this nature. Allegations like these should only be made if you are entirely sure,” he says.

“I am sure. I have witnessed this myself,” Clodok replies calmly. The auditorium bursts into noise again.

“You’re lying,” Beatrice screams above the din.

“Vulcans do not lie,” Clodok replies.

“I saw it too,” Pedro says, and that’s the nail in Hero’s coffin. Hero rushes to Clodok, hands reaching for him.

“Clodok, please, you can’t think I actually-” her voice cuts off when she touches him. Her eyes go wide before she lets out a blood curdling shriek. Her eyes roll back into her head, and she collapses in front of him. Clodok steps over her to leave, and Pedro follows him. Beatrice rushes to Hero’s prone form, and Benedick follows her.

“Everyone is dismissed,” Admiral Nato shouts, and the auditorium rushes out of the doors at the top of the hall, doubtlessly spreading rumors of Hero’s now ruined career.

“Benedick, get Fri’ar,” Beatrice yells, and Benedick rushes out of the room to grab the only Nurse on duty capable of dealing with mental injuries and attacks. The journey only takes five minutes, but by the time he gets back, Beatrice is already in an argument with the Admiral.

“She didn’t do this, I know she didn’t,” Beatrice is saying. Fri’ar goes to Hero’s body on the floor, presses his fingers to her temple. Her words dissipate in the dead air of the now empty auditorium.

“How do you explain the testimony of the two biggest heroes in the Federation then?” Nato says.

“I don’t know, but they’re wrong. Hero would never have slept with a professor, she cares too much about her career, and she didn’t even need to, her work was brilliant, she was going to get funding no matter what,” Beatrice argues. Fri’ar finishes his initial examination.

“This is a result of emotional overwhelm. She was exposed to more than a lot of emotion, all of it negative. That’s enough to put someone as empathic as Hero down for a long time,” Fri’ar says. “Also, I’m inclined to agree with Beatrice on this subject. I’m reading a lot of fear and shock from her, but no guilt whatsoever,” he says.

“That’s all well and good, but I’ve spent my entire career protecting Starfleet Academy, and Hero’s actions have disgraced everything I’ve worked for. I have to do damage control. I hope for both of our sakes she doesn’t wake up soon. The last thing we need is her walking around and making more problems,” the Admiral says.

“I know Pedro and Clodok well, and they wouldn’t fabricate this from nothing, they aren’t malicious like that. That being said, they could have been deceived by someone. Someone they trusted,” Benedick says.

“You have someone in mind,” Beatrice says shrewdly.

“Lieutenant Johnson. If he’s still in the city, I’ll be surprised,” Benedick says. Admiral Nato narrows his eyes, but types something on his comm.

“The police know to look for him,” Nato says. “For now, I have damage control to do,” he finishes, and walks out of the doors. Beatrice stares at Hero on the ground, eyes wide and haunted.

“I have to fix this. I have to fix this,” Beatrice says, before running out of the room too. Benedick stares at Fri’ar for a second.

“We need to get her to a hospital,” Fri’ar says, and Benedick leaps into action. “The nearest hospital equipped to deal with her level of mental stimulation is an hour away, if you have the time,” Fri’ar continues. Benedick picks her up, before following Fri’ar out of the door and hailing a hovercab.

When Hero has been situated and stabilized in the hospital, and Benedick is in his apartment, it’s been about five hours. He collapses onto his bed. He’ll check in with Beatrice tomorrow. She’s probably going insane right now, helplessness always did drive her crazy.

It occurs to Benedick that this could theoretically count as his and Beatrice’s first date.

Benedick immediately rejects that thought and falls asleep. Some things are too horrifying to dwell on.

*

The next morning, Benedick finds himself at Beatrice’s apartment, standing in front of the closed door and waiting. He doesn’t know why he’s there, doesn’t know why she would bear to have him around. Regardless of what Clodok, Pedro and Nato were talking about, he knows the effect he usually has on Beatrice, and it’s not a calming one.

Beatrice opens the door, and all doubts fly out the window. Her hair is a rats nest, thanks to what must have been hours of running her hands through it. It’s one of her stress habits, along with compulsive fingernail biting, and lo and behold, there are the bloody cuticles. She’s on a phone call with someone behind her and her fingers are typing out messages on her comm like it's the end of the world.

When she looks up, she starts a little bit. Something in her posture relaxes slightly, which surprises Benedick a little bit. She doesn’t say anything to him, but she lets him in. He moves to her replicator and finds the routine he’s looking for.

“I know this doesn’t look good, but I fully stand behind my student in this. All of her work is her own, I’ve supervised it. At no point would she have ever even needed to seduce a teacher to get her work approved, her methods are stellar, she would have had her pick of faculty sponsors,” Beatrice says to the phone.

“Professor Merry, while your position on this will be taken into consideration, you have to understand your emotional attachment to Cadet Nato makes your claims less weighty than I would usually assume,” the man on the phone says. Beatrice’s jaw clenches. Benedick has spent many hours of his life watching how paternalism chafes Beatrice. This is no different. “Charges of academic dishonesty are already damaging as they stand, but the circumstances of the act in general cannot be borne by the Academy. It is a public humiliation, and with the war nearly over, recruitment numbers are already dropping. You need to resign yourself to the fact that this battle may well be lost.” Beatrice opens her mouth to respond, but the line goes dead before she can.

There is silence in the apartment. The replicator finishes the tube of finger salve, and Benedick steps closer to Beatrice. She looks genuinely terrible, eyes red, hair a mess, uniform disheveled. More than that, there’s a look in her eyes that Benedick has only seen a few times before, part vengeful fury, part defeat. He reaches for her hands and it’s a testament to her exhaustion that she lets him hold them.

“Biting your cuticles, Bea? Do we have to bring out the chili powder again?” They had tried to get her to quit the habit back in school by coating her fingers in chili powder to deter her from touching her mouth at all. Instead, Beatrice developed a taste for spice.

“I can’t seem to quit my bad habits,” Beatrice responds. Benedick avoids eye contact.

“How long have you been campaigning for her?” Benedick asks, and she sighs.

“Since Clodok leveled the accusations.” Benedick widens his eyes.

“Have you slept at all?” He asks, and isn’t surprised when she shakes her head. He opens the tube of salve and begins to apply it to the raw and bleeding skin of her fingers. She winces a little bit but allows him to continue. It’s been years since he’s done this for her, but he still remembers how. “I wish you would rest.”

“I don’t have time to rest. I’m the only one who’s working on this right now. Hero’s still recovering from the emotional projection, Nato is too concerned with the image of the academy to take my calls, the only person even remotely interested in helping me is Fri’ar and he wants to actually expel her or something like that. This whole situation has gone FUBAR and I’m the only one who’ll do anything and none of it even fucking matters,” her voice cracks and then breaks and she is silent.

“What can I do to help?” Benedick asks, because watching her like this kills him, makes something in his chest bend with weight. She looks like she’s fracturing apart, and all he wants to do is hold her together, or even just hold her. His fingers massage the ends of her fingertips, and she leans against the desk behind her, shoulders bowing.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know if you can actually do anything right now.”

“Just let me know, okay? I want to help,” Benedick says. Beatrice turns her tired eyes on him, and he sees a mixture of confusion and relief there. He’s just holding her hands now, but she hasn’t pulled away. She really does look terrible. Truly awful. “I love you.” Oh god, did he just say that out loud?

Beatrice’s eyes widen comically. They’re standing so close to each other, he can see her individual eyelashes. The only noise in the room is their mingled breaths.

“Strange, right?” Benedick asks, breaking the silence. A manic smile appears on Beatrice’s face.

“Pretty goddamn strange, Ben.” Ben lets out an almost hysterical giggle, and she lets one out as well. The tension doesn’t break. Her comm lets out a notification beep, and she pulls her hands out of his grasp, edging out from between Benedick and the desk. She walks to the comm, fingers rubbing the salve off onto her uniform pants. Benedick turns to lean against the desk and wonder what the hell he just did. Beatrice types something on the comm, and Benedick stares at his hands.

“I um. I’m not going to say that I love you. If you were looking for that,” Beatrice stammers. Benedick opens his mouth to say he doesn’t need to hear it, but she keeps talking. “I mean, I’m not saying I don’t love you, I just don’t want you to think that I do. It’s just that, it’s a really bad time for me right now, I’m working for Hero, and I don’t have to time to tell you that I love you, not that I don’t,” Beatrice closes her eyes and bites down hard on the inside of her cheek. Her face flames. Benedick’s own smile has been growing through her entire speech. Her words were almost hilariously incoherent, but Benedick has always been fluent in Beatrice.

Benedick walks towards her, and she backs up until she hits the edge of her couch, where she sits heavily. He kneels on the ground in front of her. Beatrice has grabbed a pillow and is holding it protectively in front of her body. She raises one of her hands to her mouth, probably to undo all of Benedick’s hard work, so he grabs it and holds it.

“So basically, you’re telling me you love me, but you don’t want to actually say it,” Benedick says with a smile.

“Great job parsing all of that,” she responds.

“Well, I am one of the most famous communications officers in the Fleet. Bea, I love you,” Benedick says, but she shakes her head.

“You can’t say that and take it back, that’s not a thing you can do,” Beatrice demands, but Benedick talks over her.

“Beatrice Merry, I’m in love with you and you’re in love with me, and anyone who wants to take that back meets the mean end of my-”

“Rapier wit?”

“Phaser.”

“Ah. I see.” Beatrice’s voice is small and shocked, but Benedick can feel her happiness, can feel it leap out of her skin. Benedick loves her so much he can barely breathe with it.

“It would be nice if you said it back, instead of all that other nonsense,” Benedick prompts.

“Well, you already beat me to the punch,” she demurs, but he squeezes her hand warningly.

“I love you too. So much. Too much sometimes,” she says, and Benedick feels his heart threaten to leap out of his chest. He leans to kiss her, and she leans in too-

The comm beeps. Beatrice’s head turns to it, and she grabs it immediately, typing a reply quickly.

“Ben, I wasn’t kidding when I said this was a bad time,” she murmurs. The flush of happiness that had appeared on her cheeks disappears, and her teeth grit almost audibly. Her unoccupied hand is still in Benedick’s, and she squeezes it in rage, possibly breaking at least three of Benedick’s smaller bones. He bears it with what he thinks is great dignity.

“God, this is miserable,” Beatrice grits out.

“If there’s anything I can do, just tell me, and I’ll do it,” Benedick says. Beatrice scoffs. “Bea, I’m serious. Anything.” Beatrice looks up at him and laughs bitterly.

“Kill Clodok,” she says, and she sounds exhausted when she says it.

“Bea, come on,” Benedick urges, and she laughs again, a bitter dry sound, before standing up.

“Your best friend just ruined an innocent girl’s life, destroyed her reputation and cost her her entire career, not to mention putting her in a coma. Why shouldn’t I wish him dead?” Beatrice asks, voice loud and mocking.

“Wishing him dead and bidding me kill him are different things, Bea. And, you don’t actually want him dead,” Benedick says.

“Oh, don’t I?” Beatrice says. She doesn’t, he know she doesn’t, but if he doesn’t choose his words correctly, she might argue her way into believing her own insanity.

“He’s a war hero-” Benedick tries.

“Oh a hero, he says. Clodok, this brutal accuser is a hero, a big strong man, protecting the Federation from the bad guys, so when he comes earthside, we excuse his every sin, sweep everything under the carpet because we can’t tarnish the pedestal we put him on-”

“Think you so little of the returning heroes?” Benedick asks.

“I think highly of my Hero. I think little of those that attack her, especially those with so much sway in the Federation that nobody is willing to challenge them,” Beatrice is incandescent with rage. Benedick clearly didn’t choose his words correctly.

Benedick thinks about Clodok, thinks about teaching him Terran colloquialisms, thinks about Clodok saving his life on away missions, refusing to leave him behind though it was the logical thing to do. He thinks about Clodok’s barely restrained smiles when he received a new missive from Hero, the tiny flush on his cheeks when he and Pedro teased him about it. Clodok has saved his life more times than he can count, and Benedick has repaid Clodok in full. They aren’t just shipmates and crewmates, they’re brothers.

“You don’t want to kill Clodok,” Benedick says, and Beatrice turns furious eyes on him.

“You keep saying that, but are you actually sure?” Beatrice asks.

“Yes. If he died, Hero wouldn’t miraculously get her career back. Killing him wouldn’t solve anything,” Benedick takes a deep breath. “You want him discredited, so his words don’t mean anything. You want him to be seen as fully emotionally compromised, so any allegation bears no weight,” Benedick continues. His voice doesn’t sound like his own.

“If you say that he’s so emotionally compromised that he can’t make sound decisions, he’ll be a pariah on Vulcan. He might be discharged from the Fleet,” Beatrice says. Her voice is shocked, but, unbearably, hopeful.

“Yes.” Benedick’s voice is hollow. He loves Clodok like his own blood. “Do you, Beatrice Merry, swear that Hero is innocent?”

“I swear to you. She is innocent.” Benedick swallows heavily. He loves Beatrice like his own soul. She’s a part of him, wrapped around his bones. She’s his North Star, the light in the sky that leads him home. She’s the voice in his head that tells him what is right and what is wrong, and she has never, ever lied to him. Benedick fell in love with the stars first. Beatrice was next.

“Then I guess I don’t really have a choice, do I?” Benedick asks. Beatrice is the truth, brutal and unquestioning. He can’t deny her.

“You always have a choice, Ben,” Beatrice says quietly.

“I’m choosing you,” Benedick says.

“You’re choosing justice. Truth.”

“No. I’m choosing you,” Benedick says finally. He walks out of her apartment. She doesn’t stop him.

*

Benedick walks into his apartment coldly furious. Clodok and Pedro are already inside, sitting casually, as if they haven’t just ruined a girl’s life. Benedick narrows his eyes.

“Hey, Benedick, where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while,” Pedro says nonchalantly.

“I wasn’t sure I could stomach the sight of you,” Benedick responds, acid coating his words.

“What, you shack up with a woman and you can’t hang out with your friends anymore?” Pedro asks.

“No, I befriend a woman and I can’t hang out with the monsters who ruined her life anymore,” Benedick says. Clodok stiffens.

“Calling us monsters implies that we were acting maliciously. We were simply conveying the facts as they stood with regard to Cadet Nato’s academic record,” Clodok says.

“Have you noticed that you only really use titles with people you know when you’re defensive or guilty? Because I have,” Benedick says. “For someone who values logic and substantiation so highly, you’re certainly quick to believe rumors from disreputable sources,” Benedick continues.

“The source wasn’t disreputable,” Pedro says, and that just confirms Benedick’s suspicions.

“Then tell me, where exactly is Johnson? Your best friend who happens to have a motive to harm Clodok and who seems to have vacated the city within the past day and a half?” Clodok is silent, but Pedro narrows his eyes.

“Watch your tone, Benedick. I may be your friend, but I am also your commanding officer,” he cautions.

“Not anymore. I’ve put in a request for a transfer. I won’t serve under morally bankrupt officers, especially ones so careless and callous,” Benedick says to Pedro, before turning to Clodok.

“I would have thought with your commitment to lack of emotion that you would have had eyes clear enough to not believe everything you’re told, but clearly, you’re as irrational as the rest of us when it comes to women. Tell me Clodok, how much of your outburst at the hearing a result of actually wanting to spread the truth, and how much of it was just you being mad at being a cuckold?” Benedick goads.

“Watch yourself, Lieutenant,” Clodok says, with a carefully restrained voice. Benedick can see his hands shake.

“There’s the title again. Must have hit a nerve. I suddenly understand why everyone believes Hero would have cheated on you like that. If you were that sensitive in the relationship, even I would have strayed,” Benedick says, stepping into Clodok’s space.

“Benedick, stop,” Pedro says, genuine concern in his voice. Clodok’s hands are balled into fists.

“What, Clodok. What are you going to do to me? Even if you killed me right now, it wouldn’t change the fact that Hero is in a coma, and you put her there thanks to the word of a liar and your own twisted insecurities,” Benedick continues. “You just don’t want to confront the fact that underneath all that pretense of logic and science, you’re just as irrational as the rest of us. You’re pathetic, Clodok. No wonder you believed Hero cheated so quickly, even you know that-” Benedick is cut off when he goes flying across the room. He hits the wall, hard.

He groans. Goddamn Vulcan strength.

“She lied to me,” Clodok rages. There isn’t even a semblance of control in his voice. “I saw it, I saw her with that Professor. I saw them both, together in his office, and I knew what I had to do. I loved her and she lied to me. Not only me, she lied to the institution, she lied to everyone, she had us all convinced that she actually possessed a measure of integrity, of sincerity. I did what I had to do,” he shouts. Benedick stands unsteadily.

“It wasn’t her. She was innocent. It wasn’t her,” he says.

“I saw her,” Clodok says.

“You think you did. You believed too quickly because you saw what you always expected to see. But she was innocent,” Benedick says quietly. “And you’re going to tell everyone that,” he continues, as he pulls a recording device from his jacket and stops it, “or I will show everyone in the Fleet that you are emotionally compromised. Everyone will know you had a cloudy vision, your allegations will lose credibility, and she will be exonerated of all charges. Or you could just rescind your remarks and remain unscathed in all of this.”

“Blackmail, Benedick? Really?” Pedro asks, voice quiet and hurt. Clodok looks gutted and scared. Benedick wants to throw up. These are his brothers.

“I didn’t want to go to these lengths. But you’ve left me no choice. A girl’s life is ruined, and you ruined it. You actually put her into a coma. I won’t let that be on your conscience, and I definitely won’t let it stay on mine.” Benedick pockets the recorder. “Fix your shit, Clodok.”

Benedick leaves the apartment. He abruptly remembers that he was meant to be living with those two for the remainder of his shore leave. He huffs out a joyless laugh. That bridge has just been napalmed.

He pulls out his comm, scrolls to Beatrice’s contact.

You: A good day for burning bridges. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be homeless.

Lady Disdain: I never wanted bridges burnt.

You: And yet.

Lady Disdain: And yet.

There’s a pause.

Lady Disdain: Is it done?

You: Getting there. I don’t really want to talk about it.

Lady Disdain: Naturally.

Another pause. Benedick lets loose a sigh. He really needs to change her contact name.

Lady Disdain: Come home, Benedick.

A smile touches his lips, small, but present. He puts his comm in his pocket. He’s going home.

*

Benedick moves in with Beatrice. It’s mostly a quiet affair. Beatrice is harried and busy more often than not, campaigning for Hero’s innocence, helping Admiral Nato manage the investigation into Johnson’s mysterious disappearance, in addition to her usual work as a professor. Benedick helps when he can, grading papers she can’t get to, adding his name and reputation to all of her claims and contentions. When Beatrice is teaching, Benedick spends his time speaking to ranking officials in Starfleet, charming and schmoozing to get his way onto a ship that won’t be a step backwards in his career. He waits for Clodok’s next move, and carefully builds his case against him, collecting evidence and asking old crewmates for proof that his actions had an emotional component to them. He doesn’t visit Hero, doesn’t feel like it’s his place.

Every night, he comes home to Beatrice. He had anticipated constant battles about sharing space, but the muscle memory of their college years makes settling into domesticity unsettlingly easy. He knows all of her bad habits, and she’s familiar with all of his. The addition of romance into their dynamic is simultaneously complex and simple. They test previously established boundaries, step on toes and apologize begrudgingly, discover the new ridges in their personalities, weathered by time and distance and miscommunication.

They’ll stay up until late hours in the night, Beatrice grading papers with her feet on Benedick’s lap, Benedick watching the news holos idly, helping Beatrice make sense of some of the worse fragments and butchered participles. They’ll go to bed together, and Beatrice will fall into fitful sleep, curled into Benedick’s side while he stares at the luminescent star stickers Beatrice arranged into constellations on the ceiling.

Benedick thinks on the single night they spent together, the night after graduation. He thinks back on how he got the assignment onto the Padua 2, and Beatrice didn’t get an assignment at all, and how he realized that if Beatrice had asked, he would have stayed on Earth with her, anchored to the dirt, eyes aimed skywards. He thinks about how he didn’t give Beatrice the opportunity to ask at all, leaving before she woke up, and spending the next month avoiding her, and the next six ignoring her increasingly desperate comms in the middle of interstellar war, before she gave up on him.

He looks down at the sleeping woman on his arm, brows knit, dissatisfied even in her dreams. He smooths her forehead with his thumb and wonders how many second chances he can get before he runs out of cosmic goodwill.

A week passes.

There is no news on Clodok’s comings and goings, though there is a strange break-in in the hospital holding Hero in the middle of the night, where nothing was stolen. The morning after, Hero’s coma breaks. As Beatrice reports, the telepathic damage done to Hero’s psyche was eased somehow, allowing Hero to wake up. Evidently the intruder had telepathic ability and cared enough about Hero to risk incarceration to aid her.

Beatrice reports the news with a raised eyebrow, but Benedick doesn’t voice his suspicions.

Unfortunately, despite waking from her coma, Hero is still emotionally incapacitated to the point of being Vulcan in temperment. Benedick finds the change from Hero’s sentimental self to Vulcan calm ironic, considering Clodok’s emotional breakdown, but refuses to mention the irony in front of Beatrice, lest she attack him for seeing humor in the situation.

Professor Dogberry is seen deep in conversation with not only Professor Borachio, but a few of Johnson’s engineering friends. Johnson remains missing in action, but the trail is not yet cold. One of Hero’s best friends at the Academy, an Orion named Maralai, also taught by Professor Borachio, drops out. Three days later, after her public breakdown, she is seen deep in conversation with Dogberry as well.

Benedick lies in bed another night, looking out of the window. He can see clouds on the horizon. The air is filled with charge, and he can feel it crackling around him. Something is going to happen soon, he’s sure of it, he can feel it in his bones. Beatrice makes a soft noise on his other side. Benedick turns back to her and throws an arm over her restless body.

They’ll deal with it tomorrow.

*

The tension breaks after another week.

Benedick and Beatrice are at home together, Benedick failing at making a palatable dinner, and Beatrice pretending to not be ordering take-out when she gets a message that makes her freeze, suddenly straightening and tensing instead of lounging on the counter and making fun of Benedick’s increasingly more desperate attempts at not burning the vegetable medley.

Benedick turns off the stove and walks to her, eyebrows quirked.

As she reads the message, her eyes widen.

“Holy shit,” she breathes. “Hero’s been exonerated. There was a plot between Commander Johnson and Professor Borachio, apparently, Borachio confessed to it. Dogberry uncovered the whole thing,” she says. “Oh my god, Hero’s free.” She looks up to Benedick, with frenzy in her eyes. “I have to go, I have to-”

“Let’s go then,” Benedick says, reaching his hand to her.

“You’re coming with me?” Beatrice asks.

“I’d follow you anywhere, Bea,” he says. She doesn’t take his hand, just plants a kiss on his lips. He barely has time to savor it before she grabs his arm and pulls him out of the apartment into the street.

*

Beatrice fills Benedick in on the situation as they grab a hovercab to the hospital. Johnson, who Benedick had correctly believed was not to be trusted, had organized a plot to ruin Clodok’s life in any way possible. He had wanted to destroy Clodok’s emotional composure and, through innocuous conversation with Pedro, had learned of Clodok’s attachment to Hero. He had paid Borachio to sleep with one of his other students, Maralai, in his office, and refer to her as Hero during the act. Then, all Johnson had to do was lead Pedro and Clodok to the room and force them to watch.

Johnson wanted Clodok to break, but he didn’t expect Clodok to lash out and take Hero with him. Maralai had been overcome with guilt after understanding what had transpired, and had confided to Professor Dogberry, her personal advisor. She had expected that nobody would ever listen to him, as nobody ever did, so when Dogberry then began to interrogate Borachio and some of Johnson’s engineering friends, they got scared and began to threaten each other, desperate to keep their secret. The scandal had spiraled out of control, and when Johnson was revealed to be missing in action, letting all of the other minions to take the fall themselves, it was only a matter of time before one of them confessed.

After Maralai dropped out of school, Borachio had broken. And Hero was exonerated.

Benedick and Beatrice sprint into Hero’s hospital room together, greeted by the sight of Hero sitting on the edge of her bed, fully dressed. She smiles when she sees the two of them, standing to hug them both.

“Hero, are you sure you should be out of bed?” Beatrice asks, arms around Hero’s shoulders.

“I’m fine. The problem was mental, not physical, and I just spent a long time in a coma recuperating from that. I’m as healthy as I’ll ever be. The doctors checked me out. I’m free to leave whenever I want.” She looks at the both of them, registering that they entered together, and are standing very close to one another. “I clearly missed a lot when I was out,” she says. Beatrice flushes.

“More than a lot,” Benedick begins. He begins to recount everything, but Hero holds up a hand .

“Dad’s been around, he filled me in on everything,” she says, and there’s no shortage of negative emotion in that one sentence.

“And how did that interaction go?” Beatrice asks.

“Are you familiar with the pre-warp concept of reparations?” Hero asks, sweetly. “I will be demanding them.” Her smile looks more like the baring of teeth than anything approximating humor. Beatrice smirks. Benedick thinks he might have underestimated the girl in front of him.

“And Clodok?” Beatrice asks. “Has he been around?” Hero’s smile disappears. Waves of anger and hurt emanate from her for a second, so strong Benedick has to step back, before they abruptly stop.

“Sorry. My control still needs a little time to recover. Although I expect that answers your question,” she says ruefully.

“He was targeted by a villain,” Benedick says in Clodok’s defense.

“He believed that villain unquestioningly. He didn’t think to ask me, he didn’t think to wonder what I would gain, he just made the assumption that I would not only sleep with a professor, but prostitute myself for grant money,” Hero says, voice furious. “His initial response wasn’t to trust me, it was to ruin me. To take away everything I ever cared about.” Hero’s voice breaks near the end there.

“We’ve known each other for years. I thought he knew me, respected me, loved me. And at the slightest provocation, he loses all faith in me,” she finishes.

“I’m on your side in this, but keep in mind that this provocation wasn’t slight. ” Benedick tries again, but Hero just shakes her head.

“He should have known better,” Hero says, before her face does something strange. Her jaw clenches, just as there is a knock on the door Beatrice and Benedick just entered through.

Clodok is standing in the doorframe, hands behind his back. He turns to Benedick and nods once, sharply. Benedick nods back, before breathing an internal sigh of relief. They’re definitely going to have to talk later, but they’re okay now. Thank god.

Hero turns to Clodok with a Vulcan blank face. Benedick winces internally. Clodok looks about as terrified as a Vulcan ever does, which translates to a slight twitch of the corner of his lips.

“May I speak to you, privately?” Clodok asks. Hero raises one contemptuous eyebrow.

“You didn’t take the pains to speak privately last time.” Benedick winces externally this time, and tries to ignore Beatrice’s vindictive smile. Clodok takes a deep breath.

“I have contacted anyone who may yet believe those rumors and retracted my statements. I should not have spoken in such a manner to you, and I will endeavor to rectify this mistake in any way you would request. You did nothing wrong, and even if you had done the things I accused you of, I should not have brought them up in such a public setting, especially allegations as damning as the ones I leveled.” Clodok’s voice is as reserved and smooth as it always is, but his words come out faster than usual, and they sound rehearsed. Clodok must have practiced this apology, must have edited and rewritten certain parts and paid attention to intonation and pacing. Beatrice comes to the same realization next to Benedick, and he sees her eyebrows crease into that concerned/pitying expression she only dons when she’s reluctantly endeared by someone’s behavior.

Hero, however, is not swayed in the slightest.

“If I need anything else from you, I’ll contact you. That will be all.” Hero’s dismissal is desert-dry. Something in Clodok’s stature collapses. He inclines his head politely, before turning towards the door of the room. Benedick supposes this is what emotional devastation looks like on a Vulcan. Slightly less than perfect posture.

Clodok in the doorway and turns around again, facing Hero and the assembled audience.

“Before I leave, may I voice something I believe needs to be clarified?” Clodok asks. Hero narrows her eyes before nodding curtly. “Vulcans are not given to emotional speeches, so I will not waste your time with a poor attempt at one. However, it comes to my attention that you may think that I was so quick to believe the allegations of your infidelity because of some shortcoming in your integrity or personality. This is false.”

“Oh?” Hero asks, jolted out of her stoicism.

“Indeed.” Clodok steps into the room and pauses for a few moments. “Vulcans do not typically engage in relationships outside of our own species. This is not a result of xenophobia so much as it is a result of the strict emotional control that all Vulcans engage in. Regardless of what sentiment we hold for others, we are not given to expression of such sentiments. Our bonds, the mental connection we have with our chosen partners, are how we can communicate. Without them, however, a romantic connection with a Vulcan can be lacking. Consequently, Vulcans are not desired as romantic partners from those that do not understand and practice that emotional control or who cannot bond with a Vulcan partner. ”

“Many find themselves intrigued by Vulcans, believing that the emotional control we practice will wear away with familiarity, only to become disillusioned by the realities of the relationship. I become tiresome easily, and many have remarked that company with me is ‘exhausting’. I am not adept at satisfying emotional needs, and you, with your Betazoid heritage are given to having many. It stood to reason that, were I not able to satisfy you, you would seek satisfaction from and with someone else. It also stood to reason that you would be able to find someone to provide that satisfaction with very little difficulty, as you are a remarkably beautiful woman, rivaled in your beauty only by your wit and intellect.”

“My mistake was in allowing my illogical emotional response to my perception of the event to cloud my reason and jeopardize your future. I behaved rashly, and for that I sincerely apologize. But know that my reaction was not borne from a fault in your character, but rather, several flaws in mine. I admire you deeply still. I find that will miss you.” The room is so silent a pin could drop on Delta 9 and they would all be able to hear it. Beatrice had brought her hands up to her face near the end of his speech, but her eyes have a thin film over them. Benedick can’t blame her. Hero looks wrecked, raw and split open.

Clodok stands in the stunned silence for a few weighted seconds before turning to walk out the door again.

“Clodok, wait.” Hero’s voice is shaky with emotion. Clodok turns around yet again, staring at Hero like he’s been marooned on a frozen planet for years, and Hero is the hum of a starship coming to bring him home, half desperate hope, half disbelief. Hero steps forwards, until she’s arms length from him. She reaches trembling hands to Clodok’s temples. “My mind to your mind, my thoughts to your thoughts,” she recites quietly. Benedick remembers the words as a precursor to a Vulcan mind-meld.

Benedick has never witnessed a mind-meld before, only knowing about the ritual because of Clodok’s many lectures about Vulcan culture. To enter one with another person is to become aware of the other’s soul, of their entire being. Clodok has chosen to allow Hero access to everything he is.

Benedick watches as Clodok’s knees buckle, and he reaches blindly to Hero’s waist to anchor himself. She presses her forehead against his, and his knuckles whiten as he grips her. Tears begin to stream out of his eyes, and Benedick moves forward to help him before Beatrice holds him back. Hero is crying as well. They both tangle together in a vice of limbs, like separating them from each other would destroy them. Beatrice is holding her breath, and Benedick realizes he is as well.

After a minute more, they let go of each other gradually, Hero stopping to brush away Clodok’s tears before she breaks contact with him completely. She doesn’t bother getting rid of hers.

“Would you like to get a coffee and discuss the ramifications of the atomic bomb in Terran warfare during the 20th century?” She asks, in a voice both wavering and strong.

“I would,” Clodok responds, though it’s clear to anyone watching that he clearly doesn’t believe this is happening. Benedick doesn’t either for that matter. Beatrice, who has grabbed his hand so hard he may bruise, probably does.

“Good, because you’re paying,” Hero says glibly, before grabbing his cloth covered elbow. “Are we on the same page?” Hero asks.

“Yes. I believe we finally are,” Clodok responds. Hero smiles widely, before waving jauntily to Beatrice and Benedick and pulling Clodok in her wake. Benedick turns to Beatrice, entirely lost for words, and sees Beatrice gaping similarly.

“Telepaths and empaths cheat,” Beatrice says, and all Benedick can really do is nod and leave with her.

*

Benedick and Beatrice go and get burgers, because what else are they supposed to do? Benedick sits across from her and stares as she devours a burger bigger than her face with nothing approximating grace or manners. She eats like a rabid wolf. She pauses her consumption to smile at him, ketchup on the corners of her mouth,

Benedick realizes, heart sinking, that he’d do anything to keep that smile on her face. He’d probably write her love poetry or something. God, he’s bad at poetry. He was always really terrible at rhyming and structure. He can write great prose, but give him a meandering meditation on love in the perspective of a river or a napkin and he’s useless. Beatrice can’t read poetry at all, though, got fed up when she was assigned any in class. It was funny, she spoke in double meanings and metaphor, but as soon as some was put on a page and rhymed, it was like - well it wasn’t like reading another language, because she was good at that. It was like theoretical physics. Beatrice was awful at physics.

“You’ve been staring at me for at least two minutes now, is there something on my face?” Beatrice asks. Benedick starts.

“No, I was just thinking,” Benedick says hastily. “Although, yeah there’s a lot of ketchup basically everywhere in that area.” Beatrice rolls her eyes, but gives her face a cursory swipe with a napkin.

“What about?”

“Poetry?”

“God, I hate poetry,” she groans, and Benedick smiles indulgently. He’s missed her.

“Me too,” Benedick says. Beatrice snags a french fry from his plate.

“They taste better stolen,” Beatrice protests when he glares. Benedick can’t maintain his glare, too pleased to be where they were before. Even better than they were before.

“Okay, I have to know,” Benedick says abruptly. Beatrice raises an eyebrow at him. “When did you fall for my masculine wiles? What chased all logic and sense from your mind that you loved me? Seriously.”

“Seriously? Hm. I was probably half in love with you all through college, but the moment I knew that it was terminal? You were in the middle of your second tour, and you sent me this text, and it basically said you had almost died. And I realized that you were actually facing death every single day up there, and all I could do was watch and wait.” She lets out a dry laugh. “I couldn’t handle it. It took me three months to stop refreshing news holos for a sign that you were alive. I ended up forging your signature on a bunch of documents that made me your next of kin, just so I would know first.”

Benedick reaches for her hand, and she lets him hold it. He uses his softest and gentlest voice when he says, “That’s a gross invasion of privacy, Bea. I’m going to have to report you to the authorities.”

“That would hold more weight if you hadn’t hacked my medical files to make sure I didn’t have any allergies the first time you made me a birthday cake,” Beatrice says quickly, and Benedick has to concede. They really were tragically codependent back then. “Turnabout is fair play Ben. When did you first fall prey to my siren-esque charms?”

“In sincerity, since I assume you meant to demand that, it was my first month in space. I had a life partner, and then suddenly I didn’t. I couldn’t handle it. It took a long long time to acclimate to you not being there with me every day, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Beatrice says, and she clearly does. “Although I will say it was exciting to not have to deal with your incessant need to beat dead jokes into the ground.”

“And it was exciting to sit in a room without hearing your off-key humming,” Benedick continues and he’s almost afraid this will devolve into where they usually go, but Beatrice starts laughing, and his fear falls away.

“Why are we so bad at romance?” She asks.

“We know each other too well,” Benedick answers. “The romance died before it ever existed.”

“Well, at least we know our bad habits won’t break us up,” Beatrice says.

“We’ve basically been in a relationship for a decade now, Beatrice. If we’re still together, we’ll literally never break up,” he says, and for all his commitment issues, he feels no hesitation about the prospect. Beatrice smiles at him again, and Benedick forgets about everything else in the universe.

 

*

 

Benedick’s parents meet when Benedick’s mother is between missions. She’s one of the best navigators in the fleet, and he is an academic with a passion for astrophysics. They are attending a conference on new technologies for mapping the star systems, and, as Benedick is told, they fall instantly and dramatically in love over a star chart of the Gamma Quadrant.

They spend years in a long distance relationship, him on Earth, her on the Padua, literally star-crossed, before one day, his mother accepts a position on Earth designing and implementing the same technologies discussed at that fateful conference. Not long after, Benedick’s parents marry, and Benedick is born.

When Benedick is around ten years old, he asks his mother why she would leave the stars if she loved them so much.

“No matter how much I loved the stars, they would never love me. Not the way your father does. They would never hold me, never take care of me, never raise a child with me. The stars were important in making me the woman that I am today, and I will always love them, but your father is the home I was looking for up there. He makes me a better woman every day. There will be times in your life when you have to choose between two things you love. Choose what makes you better.”

That night, Benedick doesn’t stay up to look at the stars. Instead he curls up with his father, and they watch stupid holos together until he falls asleep, warm and safe next to the bulk of the man who beat the stars.

*

A week after Hero and Clodok reunite, Benedick gets a summons from Pedro telling him to meet him in their apartment. He knows he was in the right when he did what he did, but he’s still afraid of the consequences. He’s been able to successfully avoid the pair for a while, but it looks like his time has run out.

Beatrice comes with him to the apartment, because they don’t leave each other’s sides anymore. He opens the door and is surprised to see not only Pedro and Clodok but also Hero.

“Started the party without us?” Benedick asks.

“Not at all, we were waiting for you,” Pedro says before beckoning them fully into the apartment. “I see you brought Beatrice as well.”

“I don’t bring Beatrice anywhere, she just goes where she wants,” Benedick says. “What’s this about?”

“Your transfer. I asked the admiralty to put a hold on it, and they granted me a week to get you to change your mind,” Pedro says. Benedick quirks his eyebrow. “Look, Benedick. The stunt you pulled was way beyond what anyone should do ever. You violated basically every unwritten rule of brotherhood. You deliberately pissed off a Vulcan, which is usually behavior that accompanies a death wish, and your threats were grounds for insubordination,” Pedro says. Benedick doesn’t stop wincing, and neither does Beatrice.

“The thing is though, you were right. You were always right about Johnson, and I should have believed you earlier. Conn Rade confessed to everything. We had our heads up our asses, and we made some terrible calls, and you held us to the standards we should have held ourselves to as Starfleet officers, and as men. You got the job done, risking life and limb for what you knew to be the right thing, and you threw away your career to stand your ground,” Pedro continues, and Benedick is beyond confused at this point.

“Which is why, I am offering you the position of my First Officer aboard the Messina,” Pedro says, and Benedick’s heart skips a beat. There are too many conflicting signals going through his head, synapses firing and misfiring, so Benedick is left gaping and stuttering.

“But, Clodok?” Benedick stammers out eloquently.

“It has come to my attention that I am in need of ‘fixing my shit’ as it were,” Clodok says. “I find that I have interests on Earth that demand my attention, and five years is a long time to neglect interests so important,” Clodok continues, holding Hero’s hand tightly. They are both smiling, Hero brightly, and Clodok with his quiet understatement.

“Five years?” Benedick asks.

“Deep space exploration. We’re going to boldly go where no man has gone before,” Pedro says. Benedick’s heart leaps into his throat. This is all he’s ever wanted. He’s been after Command Gold for as long as he could process the abstraction of Starfleet, and war was all well and good, but he was always waiting for the challenge of new cultures, new languages, new puzzles, and five years is one of the longer missions. There’s nothing he wants more than this mission, and it’s being offered to him, gift-wrapped by his best friend, and the only possible wrench in the machinery-

Is standing right next to him. Benedick has had this choice in front of him before. Beatrice on Earth, smiling through the night after graduation, kisses tinged in alcohol and laughter, versus the Padua and all the stars in the sky. He chose the stars last time. He thinks about his mother, and how she told him to choose something that loves him back.

“Beatrice,” he starts, “do you love me?”

“Oh, no,” Beatrice says, and something in Benedick’s chest seizes. “No, you are not doing this,” Beatrice continues.

“What do you mean, I’m not doing this?” Benedick asks.

“You aren’t doing this whole martyr routine where you give up the dream you’ve had for twenty years for me, that’s not happening,” Beatrice says severely.

“Dreams can change,” Benedick says.

“This one didn’t, Ben, you’re being ridiculous,” Beatrice says.

“Bea, I’m doing this for me. Look at you, you’re a mess. Ever since I left, you’ve really let things go. If I leave for five entire years, you’ll definitely go insane, and everyone would blame me. I would be court-martialed,” Benedick says.

“Well then, it’s good that Beatrice has accepted my offer to be my Head Communications Officer,” Pedro says lightly. Benedick’s eyes widen. His jaw drops as he looks between Beatrice and Pedro, and then everyone else in the room, none of whom look even remotely surprised.

“What?” Benedick asks, to Beatrice, to Pedro, to the entire room, to the universe in its entirety. Hopefully one of the above will have an answer.

“Well, initially I was very against the idea, but I remembered how miserably incompetent you are. If I didn’t go with you, you would definitely end up dead, and Pedro would have to replace you, and it would be a hassle for everyone. Really, this is a public service,” Beatrice says. Benedick’s smile grows over the course of her short speech.

 

“So, if we both accept these positions, we would be doing them for reasons totally different than anything so ludicrous as being in love or something like that,” Benedick says.

“Oh definitely. I don’t know who would even think of something so preposterous,” Beatrice says. Hero clears her throat.

“Please do not forget that I am an empath, Beatrice,” she says. Beatrice’s mouth turns downwards slightly.

“And Benedick, remember that I am a touch-telepath,” Clodok adds on.

“You aren’t even touching me,” Benedick protests.

“Yes, but you tend to project your thoughts,” Clodok returns.

“This is what I was saying,” Beatrice says. “Empaths and telepaths are cheaters.”

“Well then, our feelings betray ourselves,” Benedick says. “And it appears that we’ll be on the same ship with each other for the next five years, so we’ll have time to explore this new dynamic,” he finishes. Pedro lets out a whoop in the background.

“I’m honestly surprised that Pedro didn’t ask for me earlier,” Beatrice muses. “I am the best xenolinguist in the Fleet.”

“Excuse me, I didn’t see you break the Great Romulan Code,” Benedick says, knowing how much that will piss her off.

“Yes, you did! I found the key for you, I’m going to be angry about that for the rest of our lives, I hope you know that,” Beatrice grumbles.

“I’ll make it up to you. I’ll do something wild, like marry you or something,” Benedick sighs, like the prospect doesn’t make him the happiest man in the universe.

“Ha! Only if I don’t marry you first,” Beatrice counters, and she’s basically incapable of holding back her smile.

“Well, you can certainly try, but I have an in with captain, and other than him, the only officer who can officiate is the First Officer, who is me, so,” Benedick trails off.

“I’ll have you know that the First Officer is dangerously besotted with me, and the Captain recently propositioned me,” Beatrice jokes. The humor dies in Benedick’s face.

“He did what?” Benedick asks. Beatrice starts laughing, so Benedick feigns laughter too, but he saw how Pedro’s face paled when Beatrice said that, and they’re definitely going to have words.

“I’m just saying, five years on a ship could easily mean I sway him to my side,” Beatrice threatens. “I have feminine wiles, you know.”

“The best part about us being in love is definitely that I get to make you shut up by kissing you,” Benedick muses, before pressing his lips to hers. She kisses him back, placing one hand on his cheek, and the other on his back where-

Benedick laughs into the kiss as Beatrice taps Oh really? onto his back in Morse code. He’ll let her have the last word. He’s nice like that.