With her feet precariously balanced upon the black, igneous rock face below her, Mnhei'sahe Dox tucked her rear foot in hard and shifted her weight. In her hand, her black-bladed sword glistened as it reflected the haunting, red-gold glows of the flowing magma that surrounded the stone she made purchase upon. Opposite her, on a separate outcropping of ancient stone, Enalia Telvan stood. Rapier in hand, the seasoned sword mistress made a tight lunge at the middle of her subordinate.
Below them were the Firefalls of Gal'Gathong. Situated by the eastern half of the Wall of Fire in the H'aareld va Groth'Chok, the Firefalls were a natural wonder of the red-headed Romulan's homeworld of Romulus, and they were a sight she had never seen with her own eyes. But even on the holodeck, the vista was breathtaking and not just because of the steaming air that they bother were breathing in as they locked swords.
For every thrust or strike, the less-experienced but quick learning Dox parried or blocked successfully. The two women had been training like this, in increasingly distracting locations on the holodeck of the U.S.S. Hera for weeks now, and Dox was getting noticeably better. But today, her sword arm seemed slower than usual. Her focus more split than was typical of the generally studious young woman who was well accustomed to the particularly hard brand of tutelage Enalia Telvan excelled in.
In point of fact, when Dox began training in hand-to-hand contact with her mother as soon as she could walk, it was a harsh style of military discipline. It had served the young Romulan pilot well as an officer and made picking up swordplay easier than not. In truth, she took to the blade naturally, but on this day, she was clearly distracted. And distraction when faced with a blade, was a potentially fatal problem to have. And Enalia decided to reinforce that point.
Feigning an overhead swing down at the young woman, Enalia twisted her sword-arm and her glistening, silver Rapier seemed to almost bend in the air as is swept under Dox's defense, nicking the young woman's chin as she lurched back out of the way at the last second. But, as usual, the blades they trained with were real and so was the slight trickle of green across the young Romulan's chin as she scrunched her face. Not in pain, but in frustration.
"You're distracted! I could have easily killed you several times just now." With that declaration, Enalia sheathed her sword and walked away from the cliff. "Computer, table and two chairs, Trill late Renaissance. Tea set four three seven. Replicate some Daegan ashwood tea with a spot of cinnamon."
Complying with her order, the computer popped the arch up long enough to replicate a glass carafe with the tea and for her to grab it from the holodeck's replicator, then resumed the fiery backdrop. The spotted captain then poured the tea into the ornate teapot before taking a seat and pouring two cups of the aromatic and powerful tea.
"Your enemy isn't going to take the time to find out why you're so distracted, but I'm not your enemy," Enalia explained, motioning towards the open chair. "So talk to me. What's disrupting your usual single-minded devotion to combat?"
Standing on her rock for a moment, Dox's head sunk as she realized her Captain was right. Sheathing her own blade, the frustrated fighter sighed and walked over to where Enalia had set up a spot of tea as she wiped her chin on the sleeve of her black work-out top. Taking a seat, Dox fidgeted slightly with her tea, looking around the representation of where they were as she thought for a moment before replying.
"I... apologize, Captain. You're right and I don't mean to waste your time. I've just been... well, distracted is about the right word. I've been reviewing the personnel files from Sarkia for the ships that are currently in... what's the term... limbo." Dox took a sip and tried to relax as she finally looked up to meet her Captain's eyes. "Between that, continuing to train Ensign Wieaex for the assistant chief's position... which she is doing excellently at, actually... and communications with my... with the Senator and... everything else. I'm feeling a bit... stretched thin."
"Like too much jelly scraped over a piece of toast? Or however the humans put it?" Enalia grinned wryly for a moment before sipping her tea and trying to look more serious. "So what are you doing to relieve stress? What are you doing to enjoy life?"
"Humans have... strange expressions." Dox chuckled lightly. "My... adopted grandparents on Earth said things I'm still trying to figure out. But... I'll admit that relaxing.... relaxing isn't my strong suit. I tend to just go to my office and read section reports or find some other kind of work to do to try and get my mind off of stress."
"Or do something like this until I hurt myself, which isn't the safest tactic. And not one Mona prefers." the red-headed Romulan admitted with a sigh. "What about you? You have to manage everything? The ship and all of us AND the Artan fleet. What do you do?"
Enalia motioned towards the Firefalls. "This is part of it. I find this sort of thing relaxing. I also make a point of going home and spending time with my family. Maica and I do a few hobbies together. With as many close calls and near-death experiences, I've come to realize all too well that I could die at any time and I couldn't live with myself if I didn't enjoy what time I have now if something were to happen to me."
"I know that sounds odd, living with myself if I died... But as a joined Trill, trust me, it makes sense," Enalia added with a wink.
The anxious officer chuckled slightly at the joke from her Captain. Then, looking around, Dox's expression dipped slightly. "This... coming to places like this in here used to relax me. At least before. Now... now just thinking about Romulus. Well, it's part of the problem."
The young woman took a sip of her tea and looked down into the cup for a long moment. "I go home to spend time with my family, and I'm never coming back. I have Mona here and all of you. Our children on the way. I even... inexplicably... have my mother. But this... the place I wanted all my life to go to and the one day I stood on this planet was almost my last as a free woman. And yet, still... in spite of everything... I still want to come back here. Hnaev... it's not even my real home. I wasn't even born here, but it's still where my mind goes when I think of any home other than the Hera."
"And I know she's still trying to get me back. She's going about it the long way. Giving me the choice and making it a responsibility. But I know she will eventually press the point again, Captain." Dox said, looking out over the representation of one of Romulus' natural wonders. "My Grandmother."
"Well, I'm all about choice and free will. You know that." The Trill Captain paused a moment to sip at her tea before continuing on. "But there are three things I've learned growing up. One... Nothing worth doing is ever easy. You take what's handed to you without preparing for it and something is bound to either go wrong or you won't have the training for it or... There's always something. It's one of the reasons I'm in Starfleet now. Why I'm studying the Federation. So I can build the Artan Empire into the best it can be. "
"Two... You have to make sure every decision is yours. Sure, listen to advice from others and hear them out. But don't be enticed by anything. Make your own choices based on your own reasoning rather than your passions or someone else's convictions or plans for you."
"Three... And this is a big one I'm sure you've heard before... You're not alone. Starfleet, Artan fleet... Each one you have people you can trust. The more responsibility you have, the more you have to delegate. Don't take everything directly on your shoulders or it'll crush you. You have to make time to enjoy life as well as making life better for others, after all. Or at least, that's how I find it fulfilling."
"That all being said, personally I don't think you're ready to run off and be either a full-time Senator or Baroness. You need more experience and that takes hard work that you're already putting in as both a Starfleet Lieutenant Commander and Diplomat." Enalia then eyed Dox over her cup of tea as she paused a moment to let her words sink in. "But that's just an opinion so take it with a granule of sodium chloride."
"I know I'm not ready. I'm doing my best to learn as much of this all as I can as quickly as I can." Dox replied, looking back at Enalia and taking a sip of tea. "I still have no idea what I'm doing just diplomatically representing her in the reunification discussion. I'm terrified knowing every word I say can be interpreted a dozen or more ways when I talk to the Senate. They're all judging me and looking for a window to tear down what my Grandmother is trying to do. What we're trying to do."
"There's an old Romulan saying... what good is a word with only one meaning?" Dox said with a light, awkward smirk. "I... wasn't raised in that culture. I was raised knowing about it, but not immersed in it. It makes me something of a poor excuse for a Romulan in a lot of respects, and I'm still playing catch up to keep up with that level of... manipulation and wordplay."
"Take this as you will, but you make a far better human than Romulan," Enalia interjected with a hint of a grin. "Or maybe a Trill politician if you weren't so hot-blooded."
The young woman with a decidedly green cut on her chin grinned slightly and nodded as she thought about Enalia's words. In truth, Dox still hated the word 'Romulan'. It was the anglicized name that humans gave to her people, the Rihannsuin their own language, and in her mind, it represented everything she hated about her people. The duplicity and backstabbing. The lies and deceit that have come to represent who she is to the galaxy as a whole. She hated what it represented but was working to try and take the teeth out of that word as best as possible. But it was harder when she found herself embroiled in very Romulan politics.
After a second of thinking, Dox looked back and replied, smiling. "I've met enough Romulans that would agree with that assessment. And I'll take your word for it regarding Trill politics."
"As for the fleet, I have been looking over the data Baroness Sarika gave me, and I have at least the beginnings of an idea. And it's like you said... I'm not alone. I keep thinking of the Golden Ghost." Dox segued, starting to talk with her hands. "Commander Helev t'Liun has a solid crew that... well... I do trust. They have had multiple opportunities to sell us out to the Tal'Shiar and didn't take it. And I got to talk with a few of the higher-ranking officers."
"I think that she may be able to help here. I trust her and her people. I'd like to talk to her and, if possible, name her my second. She's loyal, smart and committed to reunification. If she were to recommend some of her most trusted, responsible senior officers, we could conceivably split them up among some of these ships that need both direction and leadership. With a bit of organization, that would give Commander t'Liun a small fleet to structure supply runs and help protect these colonies." Dox finished her train of thought, looking to Enalia for any reaction, up or down, to see if what she said made any sense.
Knowing that most in the Artan fleet would take her word as gospel truth, but that Dox would only take it as advice, Enalia finished off her tea and set her cup down in front of her. "If that's your decision, do it. It sounds like you have a path forward already so what's holding you back?"
"Well, It would be deferring responsibility to Helev, and I would need to talk to her about it first, of course. Not everyone is as... hot-blooded as I am when it comes to accepting a new mountain of responsibilities." Dox replied, nodding slightly. "I'm... not particularly good at... deferring to people under me. Fvadt, I'm not good at having people under me. I'm working on being better. I mean, I have an entire department under me here but I'm still bad about taking too much of the responsibilities on myself."
"And that's why I'm of the opinion you're not ready to run off and be either a Senator or a Baroness full time. Both jobs require so much delegation..." Taking a moment to pour herself a fresh cup of tea and refresh Dox's cup, Enalia continued. "But from the Mol'Krunchi mission reports on both sides it seems Doctor t'Luin is pretty good at leading her own people. It also sounds like she bristles at being called Commander. I'd love to be there to see how she takes to being called Second."
"Indeed. Somewhere out in the Bata Quadrant, I'm sure her ears are burning with me calling her that." Dox smiled and let out a more relaxed laugh, remembering t'Liun chewing out her own officers for calling her 'commander'. "I know she prefers 'Doctor' or 'Maenek', but in this case, I was erring on the side of clarity, I suppose."
Then, the young officer's head dipped again as she fell deep in thought for a moment before continuing. "But... ultimately, I don't want to run off anywhere. I... I'm happy here. I've got family. I've... I hope I have friends. I'm learning how to be better at all the things I need to be better at. I'm learning how to delegate with good people under me that I trust and that I actually like. I have a career that's actually moving forward. I'm p..."
Stopping herself from directly saying she was proud of her accomplishments, Dox course-corrected and continued, "We do... we do good work here, on the Hera. I don't want to be a senator or have a fleet. I want to be here."
The Trill woman set aside her cup of tea and reached out to rest one hand gently on one of her friend's hands and squeezed gently. "And as your captain, your queen, but most importantly as your friend... I am very proud of you and all your accomplishments. I'm proud of everyone's, but you've done more than I think anyone could reasonably expect of anyone mortal."
"Thank you, Captain. I... very much appreciate that. And... as for what I want, mortal is definitely high on that list." Dox allowed an awkward grin to crease her cheek as she thought of the other person putting responsibilities on her. The woman called Masato Rei, the embodiment of Death itself that had seemingly picked the anxious aviatrix as a possible successor.
Unfortunately, Enalia was caught sipping her tea when the realization that Dox was ALSO being pulled as the successor of the VIP guest of the Hera on deck eight Masato Rei, the literal avatar and embodiment of Death and she almost choked on said tea. Coughing and setting her tea down again, she had to clarify. "Excuse me... What? Please tell me Death isn't grooming you too..."
Leaning her head back and letting out a sigh, Dox had to chuckle a little bit at the absurdity of it. "Heh... Apparently, yes. Although with that, I have until I actually die to have to worry about it. So... like I said... I'm feeling a little stretched thin as of late."
"Well... I may have to have a talk with our guest. But I'm glad that she's made friends at least." Enalia took a moment to dab at her mouth with the corner of a napkin - a surprisingly dainty action for a Pirate Queen.
"She doesn't have many, Captain." Dox said, her innate and considerably atypical compassion for a Romulan was showing as her face lightened. "Most of the time, we just talk over a meal. Usually about my day, as she likes hearing about it. Generally, the only people she can talk to are other cosmic entities, who I'm guessing aren't the most causal conversationalists, or people that can only see her... because they're dying. It's... Impossibly isolating."
"So, we just talk. Or I feed her horse, Taxes. It's only been since after the kidnapping that I found out. And... As I understand it, it's not something she's chosen for me as much as it's something... It's hard to explain as... honestly... I don't fully understand it. But... It's something to do with me. I can open one of her books. I can touch her horse. Apparently, mortals generally can't do those things. So, it's more that I'm... qualified."
"But it's still my choice. She's not pressuring me or anything. Most of the stress I'm feeling is me being me." Dox said, awkwardly bit sincerely.
"Fair enough," Enalia replied, musing over her encounter with another such being. "If a being called the White Rabbit is like her, then I fear she may be the most personable of these cosmic entities. It also makes me wonder just how many of them there are. Either way, I suggest not worrying about it until we're both far older and putting on grey hairs."
Smirking, Dox couldn't help but chuckle lightly at the memory of her own dreamlike encounter with the same cosmic entity. "Oh, the Rabbit. I've... I've actually met her once. I thought it was a dream at the time, but... yeah... She's not the best at carrying on a lucid conversation."
"But I will try and not stress about that. Sometimes... I think I stress more for her. If that makes sense." Dox continued, becoming more serious again as she did.
The Trill woman just sighed heavily and finished off her tea in one go. "And that brings us back around to how you relieve stress. You need to find something, whether it be family, training, relaxing with a hot cup of tea with friends... And stick to it."
Thinking about Enalia's words for a moment, Dox sat back in her chair and knitted her brows slightly. "I run once a week with Commander Paris. I spar with V'Nus or S'Rina. A lot of physical stuff that... doesn't seem to help as much as it... used to."
The young Romulan woman looked up and nodded to herself. "There's something... I used to whenever I could when I was younger that... I actually haven't done it since coming on board. I had this old roll-up keyboard. I used to... well, It's... It's somewhat silly."
"You know what's silly?" Enalia asked with full seriousness. "My mother smashed my favorite plastic teacup when I was four and now I collect teacups and tea sets. I have so many of them, I own a castle in the Swiss Alps on Earth just to store the ones that don't fit in the Artan Orbital Fortress. The ones that don't fit there go in a secure facility I maintain in the frozen northern wastes of Trillius Prime. If I liquidate my assets in teacups alone, I could buy every acre of land in the Federation's founding worlds. So you tell me this..."
"Who am I to judge what's silly? Tell me about this roll-up keyboard."
At that, the anxiety in Dox's stomach released itself and she smiled warmly. Nodding, she replied as she ran her finger across the holographic teacup that the Captain had ordered up, which even as a replica was quite beautiful. "Well...I got it from a Ferengi trader we used to do business with back on the Forager, named Denog. It was maybe half a meter. Well, it still is."
Referencing her generally miserable childhood on the smuggling ship she grew up on with her mother, Dox seemed more wistful speaking about it than usual. "Mother thought it a waste of time, but I had an allowance of credits from my work on the ship and I bought it from him. I... I didn't know how to play, but I tried figuring it out on my own when I didn't have any other studies or duties. And..."
Bushing slightly, Dox grinned. "So... the Forager was a pile of shaill'hnaev and the engine knocked all the time. So... what I started to do was just... make up music. I would use the knocking of the engine as a base line and come up with songs around it. I used to do that a lot. Even when I was still on Starbase 17 before coming here. Only there, it was the rhythmic banging of the air reclamation system."
Taking a sip, Dox looked up at the sky of the simulated Romulus, but was really thinking about the Hera herself. "Of course here, Commander sh'Zorathi would never let anything actually knock, so I have no baseline to work with. But... I suppose I just let it fall to the side. I jumped headlong into my duties to the exclusion of anything that detracted from a..."
"I sound just like my mother, ugh. I looked on it as a waste of time. It didn't make me a better pilot or a better section chief in any quantifiable ways, so I put the keyboard in a box in the closet and... forgot about it. But..." Dox had a slightly wistful expression. "Maybe I need a little non-quantifiable relaxation."
"If it helps, then it helps," Enalia replied softly and encouragingly, wondering if she should start making plans to hunt down an organ or a grand piano or something like that as a present. Best she leave such things to Maica - she always goes overboard, after all. "Plus you've got a wife and three kids on the way. I'm told Miradonians are naturally musically inclined. Mona might even start singing again."
Smiling almost conspiratorily, Dox leaned in slightly. "She does. When she doesn't know if anyone else is listening, I think. But she... she hums in the shower and she sings to the children sometimes. It's... I hope she does more, too. I think it's... it's beautiful. I love it."
At that, the young Romulan mother-to-be blushed slightly but smiled broadly as she thought of her growing family. "All the girls are already thrumming like Mona. I can feel their rhythms whenever I touch her. Sometimes they match her patterns and... sorry. It's sometimes the good kind of overwhelming."
"That... Honestly, it's heartwarming." Enalia smiled softly as she stared down into her teacup for a moment before shaking herself out of her short reverie. "So... Feel any better? Ready to learn something that my mother refused to teach me?"
"Actually, I do. Thank you, Captain." Dox replied with a soft smile of her own. In spite of getting more comfortable calling the Captain by name during their recent Sojourn to Risa for Baroness Von Alcot's bachelorette party, on the Hera itself, Dox was still more comfortable differing to the Trill queen's rank appropriately. Then she raised an eyebrow at Enalia's question. "I suppose I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Excellent," Enalia replied, rising to her feet and drawing her sword. "Because I noticed that Rendal was willing to put her life on the line when fighting me... And this series of moves requires that... And something to live for, which I suspect she also has. However, she never struck two points at once."
That smug piratical grin of hers was back.
"I'm about to teach you how to strike all nine."
Rising and stepping slightly to the side of the table, Dox drew her own sword. It was a curved, black blade that was replicated by the Hera from scans of a sword kept hidden in her quarters. It was a replica of the S'harien blade, known as the legendary sword of S'task, the founder of Romulus. A possession that represented yet another responsibility thrust upon her. And while she refused to wield the real blade, this colorless replica helped her focus on her goals. And one of those goals was to make sure that Commander Dalia Rendal of the Tal'Shiar died at her own hands.
Nodding as she shook her sword arm out slightly, Dox replied a little more flatly with her focus restored and her eyes determined. "I'm ready. Show me."
"Then defend yourself and try not to die." In that moment Enalia was no longer her captain, her queen, nor her friend. She was her mortal enemy.
Death rode with her for the next lesson.