Fifteen days after she and Trip joined the refugees, T’Pol lost her temper.
Her control, already weakened by the Pa’nar, grew steadily less effective as the days passed without an opportunity to properly meditate. The constant onslaught of negative emotions radiating off the terrified refugees was unrelenting, and each day was an effort in simply functioning. Had he not already been struggling with her revelation about the Pa’nar and her terminal condition, Trip might have been able to assist her, but she did not wish to burden him any further.
So she struggled on alone.
The camp itself was mobile – each morning at dawn, the refugees gathered their sparse belongings and set out, using the woods as cover from the constant aerial patrols. With so many sick and wounded among their number, they made poor time, covering no more than twenty-five kilometers a day, but Dahnel Raspos seemed less concerned about when they reached their destination than he was about all of them reaching it.
By the third day, Trip had made himself invaluable among the refugees in his capacity as a ‘fixer.’ He was seen as a ‘glorified handyman,’ according to muttered complaints when he thought no one was close enough to hear them, but he turned away no one when they came to him for assistance. Initially, T’Pol was virulently opposed to him offering his skills in such a manner, particularly since she feared that someone would bring him something that the Ekosians considered commonplace but he had never seen before. Her concerns dwindled away, however, when she realized he was actually gathering remarkable intel about their situation in the process. She had long suspected that his difficulties with languages stemmed from him over-thinking, and her observations of him as he attended to refugee weapons, or radios, or even the numerous carts being drawn by strangely-colored equines seemed to bear this theory out. While he was distracted with repairs, his comprehension of the native dialect was greatly improved.
And what he discovered in the process shifted their entire understanding of the situation. What they thought was a global conflict was, in fact, a regional one. Until approximately fifteen years earlier (not the twenty-five she had read), this continent had been disorganized and almost feudal in nature, with individual city-states ruled by the highborn nobility that constantly warred with one another. Following the popular overthrowing of these rulers – which she and Trip did know about, thanks to the obviously flawed histories she had acquired – a unified government led by tradesmen and lowborn had been formed. It lasted only a few years before petty squabbles and regional disputes caused it to break apart. The surviving highborn families then began another civil war to reclaim their old authority, but it was smashed almost before it began. On the heels of that failed conflict, a new government emerged, the Tandos Alliance, and what began as a loose confederation of city-states had slowly transformed into an oppressive regime devoted to unifying the entire continent under their banner by force.
The situation overseas was no better, with dozens of nations both great and small, warring with one another over territory and wealth and nationalistic pride. Hardly any of the refugees could name a single foreign power because of how frequently they rose and fell. The greatest accomplishment of the Ekosians seemed to be their talent for murdering one another.
It was an altogether too familiar story, one which only served to depress Trip even more.
When she was not assisting Trip with his work as was apparently expected of a ‘spouse,’ T’Pol did her best to keep a low profile, which was far from an easy task with the way Pater Undil watched her. No matter where she went, his eyes were always there and, coupled with her inability to meditate, it was further fraying her control. Trip was at least partially aware of the problem if his sporadic encounters with Undil were any indication. Twice in the first week alone, Trip very nearly assaulted the former farmer for comments that T’Pol did not hear, and on the tenth day, Tucker returned to their lean-to with blood on his knuckles.
When she saw of two of Undil’s cohorts with bruised faces and visible limps, T’Pol knew what had happened.
As these confrontations continued to build, they discussed abandoning the refugee band entirely and resuming their trek alone. Ultimately, they decided against doing so for the simple reason that Raspos’ hunting lodges seemed like the best option for an extended stay. More than anything else, T’Pol wanted a place of relative security where they could recover and she could push forward with Trip’s instruction to maximize his chances of survival once she was gone.
Today, however, things had gone from bad to progressively worse. Thanks to melting snows, Raspos’ intended path had to be revised and they were forced to cross a field that seemed to consist entirely of mud. None of the carts were capable of traveling more than a meter without getting stuck, which led to an entire day of struggling to free them and get them under cover before another aerial patrol overflew their position. The mud itself reeked so badly that T’Pol feared she would vomit. By nightfall, most of the refugees were filthy, exhausted and simply ready to collapse where they stood.
Most, but not all.
Undil waited until she and Trip were separated – Tucker had gone to get some water so they could clean most of the mud from their clothes – before approaching her, his ever-present leer fixed firmly on his florid face. T’Pol heard and smelled him long before she saw him, but she decided to ignore his presence while she continued to set up her and Trip’s tiny sleeping area. Within seconds, Undil broke the silence.
“Your spouse is a fortunate man,” he said. T’Pol gave him a single, sidelong glance without bothering to conceal her distaste for him, but did not bother to respond. The rope holding the tent up was proving to be bothersome so she walked to where her pack was stored. Undil followed, even though she made no effort to hide the knife she extracted from her gear. “You are truly a lovely woman,” he offered.
“I have no interest in a liaison with you,” T’Pol told him flatly, annoyance beginning to leak into her words. Her head was pounding and all she wanted to do was curl up alongside Trip so he could discreetly manipulate the neural nodes along her spine.
“That’s because you’ve never had me before,” Undil said with another leer. He took a step closer. “And I’ve never had a tradeswoman,” he added before reaching out with thick fingers to paw at her breasts.
It was too much.
She reacted without thought and struck blindingly fast. Grasping Undil’s hand, she twisted hard, ignoring the startled yelp ripped from his throat that drew the attention of every eye in the camp. The distinct snap of bones fracturing under her crushing grip presaged his agonized shriek, but T’Pol was lost in the sudden fury that stripped away her conscious mind and paid the sound no mind as she continued to apply pressure. Undil collapsed to his knees before her, howling in pain as broken bones were ground together under her implacable grip, and she drew her other hand back, gripping the knife tightly. The smell of feces filled her nostrils as his fear overwhelmed him and she sneered. How dare this … primate touch her with his filthy fingers? How dare he even presume to think that he was worthy of her? Her eyes darkened and her nostrils flared. She would teach him what it meant to assault a daughter of Vulcan and it was a lesson he would, unfortunately, be in no position to remember.
“T’Pol!” Trip’s voice pierced the emerald haze that had clouded her vision, and a heartbeat later, she felt his cool hand grab her forearm. Brilliant blue eyes suddenly loomed before her, wide with fear and worry, and she inhaled a familiar, steadying scent. Her blood continued to thump loudly in her ears and she looked down at the stinking creature kneeling in the muddy snow before her. Tears streaked down his face and his cries had turned to pathetic whimpers.
“He touched me,” T’Pol hissed, so lost in the blood haze that she unconsciously lapsed into her native tongue. “He fondled me,” she growled. “As if I were his chattel.” Trip’s eyes narrowed and, before she could react, his fist lashed out, smashing into Undil’s jaw with a loud crack that made her jump. Unconscious, the Ekosian fell back, limp.
“You can let him go now,” Trip murmured. “I swear, he will not touch you again.” His Vulcan was better than she recalled, although a hint of his natural accent was yet present. The effect was quite appealing in her opinion, causing his words to flow like a warm caress. Despite her efforts, T’Pol smiled softly.
And let Undil go.
The Ekosian collapsed into the muck, and T’Pol suddenly became aware of the many eyes upon her. Most were amused, some were approving and a number fearful, but all were surprised. She blinked rapidly, fighting down the tide of fear and anger and confusion beginning to thunder through her mind.
“You okay?” Trip asked. He had returned to English, but she nodded tightly. When he reached up to adjust her head shawl so it would cover more of her face, she looked up and met his eyes. “You’re flushed,” he said softly, his eyes darting. T’Pol’s breath caught, but he shook his head in reply to her unasked question. No one seemed to have noticed.
They were not stopped by anyone when Trip led her into their lean-to, and T’Pol kept her head bowed, so as to prevent the exposed skin on her face from showing. Her keen hearing allowed her to detect the mocking insults aimed in Undil’s direction now that he had been humbled by a woman half his size as well as Raspos’ quiet instructions to one of his men to attend to the unconscious man’s injuries, but she was having so much trouble clinging to the tatters of her self-control that it took long seconds for any of the words to even register. When Trip pushed her into their tent, she automatically sank into a meditative posture.
“T’Pol?” he asked hesitantly, and she flinched at the hint of fear she could hear in his voice.
“I need to meditate,” she hissed, once again lapsing into Vulcan. Her hands trembled at the effort it took to maintain control.
“How can I help?” Trip asked as he crouched before her. She grimaced and kept her eyes closed. If there was one thing she did not want him to see, it was the shame of all Vulcans, especially one as weak as she. When she did not answer, he placed a hand on her shoulder, exactly as she had done so many times in the last few months. “T’Pol?”
“I cannot concentrate,” she admitted cautiously. “There is too much noise, too many distractions … my subconscious knows I am not safe so I cannot reach the proper meditative state.”
“How about we leave the camp?” Trip wondered. “Get away from these people so you can concentrate.”
“I still will not be safe,” T’Pol retorted sharply.
“Yes,” he said softly, “you will.” The intensity in his voice caused her to glance up and Trip gave her a smile. “I’ll be there,” he pointed out, “and I’ll make sure you stay safe.” There was something in his eyes, in his posture that reached past her fractured mental defenses and caused her to relax. This man, some part of her knew, would fight to the death to keep her from harm. It was a realization that was both alarming and reassuring.
So, she nodded.
No one appeared surprised when they emerged from the lean-to carrying their framed backpacks. T’Pol surveyed the refugees, noting at once how most of them looked away from her and would not meet her eyes. She caught sight of a now conscious Undil sitting on an overturned log, biting on a strip of leather to keep from crying out as one of Raspos’ men attended to his ruined hand. As if sensing her gaze, the lowborn farmer looked up, hate and fear stamped on his face, and glared at her. It was a struggle, but T’Pol kept her face impassive.
Trip, however, did not. Instead, he visibly checked the ammunition on his rifle before pinning Undil with a look capable of igniting stone.
“I regret that this has happened,” Raspos said as he met them near the periphery of the camp once they tore down their tent and stored it. His grave expression belied the anger in his eyes when he glanced toward Undil. “Some men do not know when to stop.”
“And some do,” Trip interjected darkly, “but keep pushing anyway.” Raspos’ frown conveyed his own dismay, but he nodded in agreement.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Dahnel Raspos,” T’Pol said formally. “We came in peace and now go in peace.” The Ekosian man’s eyes widened slightly and he offered her a smile.
“And may you always find peace wherever your travels take you,” he stated, finishing the ceremonial goodbye. When she originally read the phrase, it had struck her as ironic that a culture so self-destructive would have traditions invoking peace as if it were something foreign to them. Trip had theorized that it perhaps was more of a wish, a dream for better times as opposed to the nonstop warfare they had to face.
With the sun gone from the sky, T’Pol found herself relying on Trip as he led them through the forest. His cool hand clutched hers and she focused on the rhythmic beat of his pulse to the exclusion of everything else. It was strangely hypnotic and T’Pol was startled to realize that she was easily able to slip into the first stage of her meditative trance, so when Trip drew to a halt nearly an hour later, it caught her by surprise. He frowned at the expression on her face.
“Still with me?” he asked. Another slight smile slipped past her frayed control but she could not work up any anger at herself. Trip had already seen her at her worst; what difference did another slip matter?
“Partially,” she admitted before glancing around. “Why have we stopped?”
“There’s a cave … well, not a cave, really, but more like a grotto.” He pointed, but T’Pol could not make out anything beyond the tip of his hand. “I think we can park it here for a while so you can meditate.” The shadows on his face seemed to lengthen. “Are you sure you’re gonna be okay?” he asked as he led her toward the grotto she could barely see. “You really scared me back there. I thought you were really gonna kill him.”
“I was,” T’Pol said simply. When he looked at her with surprise, she sighed. “Now you see why Vulcans must always control themselves. When our emotions are roused, they are … frightening.”
“Yeah,” Trip murmured. “I can see that.” He did not seem repulsed as he slid his backpack to the ground. “You seem better now.” T’Pol nodded and placed her own pack alongside his.
“I am better now,” she said. “But I still need to meditate.”
“Okay,” her companion said. “Let’s get the tent up and then we can get you back to normal.” T’Pol raised an eyebrow at the teasing she could hear in his voice and he smiled. “It’s simple self-preservation, darlin’,” he stated brightly. “I don’t want you to break my hand ‘cause I screwed up a neuropressure posture.”
“Yes,” T’Pol deadpanned. “That would be bad.” She opened her bag. “Who would wash our cooking utensils then?” she added. Trip laughed.
It was a wonderful sound.