Chapter 1 - At the Barnes Clinic

Doctor Joseph Barnes eased into the chair behind his desk. It had been one of those days where he felt every one of his 67 years. A particularly busy day for his pediatric patients. He silently thanked the inventor of the hypospray. He didn’t think he could handle it if he had to do all the vaccinations with old-fashioned hypodermics.

He called up the messages he’d received during the day. His receptionist took care of the routine stuff. He looked through the list. It was mostly the typical sort of thing: requests for clarification on treatment plans, questions about food edibility, or about medications, that sort of thing. There were not too many today. He should be able to handle them in an hour or so.

Then, he spotted a message that lifted his spirits. “Hot damn!” he said aloud. “Emma! Come take a look at this.”

The medical hologram strode into the room. She could have appeared right next to him, but they had an understanding that she wouldn’t do that unless it was an emergency. She appeared to be a woman in her early 30s with turquoise skin, short spiky black hair, and irises the color of jade flecked with gold. She wore a set of scrubs that matched the color of her skin.

“What’s up, boss?” she asked. He spun the desk screen for her to see. “Ah, so K’Naut is coming for a visit. What do you think he means about having a surprise?”

“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “I guess we’ll find out when he gets here.”


K’Naut stood outside the Barnes Clinic with Statzia. He glanced over at her. She still looked nervous, even after he’d reassured her.

“Are you ready, Z?” he asked.

Ready? No. She wasn’t ready in the slightest. Statzia gave K’Naut her standard reassuring smile, though she wiped her sweaty palms on the legs of her jumpsuit. “Sure.”

He reached out to grab the door handle when a male Bolian burst out. Surprise registered on his blue face at first, then a broad grin appeared. He grabbed K’Naut’s hand and began vigorously shaking it.

“Why, Mr K’Naut, it is good to see you,” the Bolian exclaimed. “The doctors will be pleased that you’re here. Very pleased.”

“Hello, Mr Vesott,” the Caitian replied, disengaging his hand. “How are you?”

“I am well, sir, very well,” Vesott said. “The doctors gave me the rest of the day off. I’m going to take my wives to Sisko’s for dinner. They are having a crawdad boil tonight.”

“I hear Sisko’s is an excellent restaurant. I’ve never been,” K’Naut said. “I personally prefer my crayfish raw.”

“Of course, you would, of course,” Vesott replied. He seemed to just notice Statzia. “And who is this lovely lady?”

“Statzia, this is Argan Vesott, receptionist for the Barnes Clinic,” K’Naut said. “Mr Vesott, this is Lt Commander Statzia Liski.”

“Pleased to meet you, Cmdr Liski, pleased to meet you. Any friend of Mr K’Naut is a friend of mine!” Vesott seized Statzia’s hand and began to shake it.

Statzia’s body tensed, but she forced her pleasant smile on her face. “Please–just Statzia.” She pulled back, releasing his hand, her gaze instinctively scanning the office behind him–again.

K’Naut saw the expression on Statzia’s face and took action.

“Mr Vesott, we need to get inside,” he said. “The doctors will be waiting for us. Plus, I hear those crayfish boils are very popular. You’ll probably want to get there early so you don’t miss out.”

Vesott blinked and said, “Of course, Mr K’Naut, you are quite right, quite right. It’s also going to take the wives and I some time to get ready. You are a wise man, Mr K’Naut, a very wise man. I shall take my leave. Commander Liski, it was a pleasure to meet you, a pleasure indeed.”

The Bolian hurried off. K’Naut sighed with relief. As he reached for the door again, he said, “We got lucky there. One time, Vesott pinned me down for more than an hour. Joe just stood there, not saying a damned thing, with a huge grin on his face.”

Statzia let out a breath, some of the tension leaving her shoulders. “Mr. Vesott was the lucky one. I left my phaser in the hotel room, and the knife in my boot would have been–” she glanced back over her shoulder at the street behind them, “too messy–and too many witnesses.” She glanced up, apologetically, at K’Naut. “Sorry.”

K’Naut grinned at her. “I appreciate your restraint,” he said. “Joe says he’s the best receptionist the clinic has had in quite a while. It would probably be a hassle to find a suitable replacement.”

They entered the building through a small vestibule. The large waiting room was empty save for a trio at the far side. Two were standing facing a seated person. Emma was one of the standing figures. The other two were Caitian.

K’Naut stopped when he saw the fellow members of his species. He let out a groan. The standing Caitian turned to look at them. She had slightly disheveled orange fur with a cream-colored patch on top of her head and no tail. She wore a pale blue medical coat over a Starfleet uniform with the rank pips of a commodore. She gave a sniff when she saw K’Naut, and her sour facial expression somehow became even more sour.

“I greet you, Auntie T’Ana, and wish for all of your hunts to be successful,” K’Naut said formally and bowed at the waist.

T’Ana snorted. “Auntie, my ass,” she said. “I haven’t had a word from you in 8 months. It’s going to take more than a formal greeting to get back into my good graces.”

K’Naut’s ears and tail drooped.

“T’Ana!” Emma said sharply. “Let’s focus on the patient.”

T’Ana glared at Emma, and Emma glared right back at her. They stood glaring at each other for a moment, then T’Ana gave a slight nod and turned her attention back to the seated Caitian. K’Naut could have sworn he saw the ghost of a smile touch Emma’s lips before she also turned back to the patient. He’d forgotten how prickly Emma could be.

“Huh,” K’Naut said. “I didn’t expect to see that.” He suddenly recognized the Caitian in the chair. It was his cousin N’Gau. “That’s my cousin, the one I worked with after I left DS10.”

Statzia, who had paused in the doorway to survey and scan the room, stepped out of the shadows. She’d held back, having sensed others present that she wasn’t expecting, watching the brief interaction at the same time she counted the possible exits and assessed the threat potential of the room’s occupants. She stepped to K’Naut’s side, having noticed the droop of his ears, and placed a hand on his back. She said a single, inquisitive word in Ferengi, and her combadge activated the universal translator. “Chief?” echoed the metallic voice.

K’Naut glanced at Statzia. “My cousin,” he said again. He quickly crossed the room.

As he approached, he heard Emma say, “So it’s decided.”

T’Ana nodded and replied, “I’ll go make the arrangements.” She stepped away from N’Gau. As she passed K’Naut, she left a mixed message by placing a reassuring hand on his arm while keeping the dour expression on her face.

K’Naut ignored her and sat next to his cousin. Up close, N’Gau was clearly not well. His eyes were watering, leaving dried mucus to accumulate in the corners. He trembled as though cold and his entire face seemed to sag.

“N’Gau…” K’Naut began softly but couldn’t find more words.

“K’Naut,” N’Gau said hoarsely, looking at him through rheumy eyes. “How are you doing?”

“A good sight better than you, it seems, cousin,” K’Naut replied with forced good humor.

“It looks worse than it is,” N’Gau responded, only to be betrayed by a coughing fit.

K’Naut looked up at Emma.”What’s wrong with him?”

“Asar Syndrome,” the hologram said.

K’Naut sighed with relief. “So it’s treatable.”

“Yes,” Emma gave N’Gau a sharp look. “But he’s not out of the woods yet. Your cousin waited until it was almost too late. We’ve caught it just in time. So, instead of being able to treat it in a local hospital, he needs the special facilities at the Caitian embassy in Cairo. Dr T’Ana went to arrange transportation.”

“It’s better news than I expected,” K’Naut said. He looked at Statzia. “N’Gau, I want you to meet Statzia Liski.”

N’Gau looked up at her weakly. “That human woman you got so worked up at?” he said. He held up a hand for her to shake. “If you had that effect on my cousin, you must be someone special.”

Statzia shook her head. “No need for formalities. Save your strength.” She closed the distance to K’Naut’s side, her fingers absently brushing the fur on the back of his hand. She could tell K’Naut was still a bit rattled from the news, but she knew from their conversations that the relationship between her and the Chief was–unconventional, and given the initial interaction with the Caitian doctor, she didn’t want to cause any more problems. She forced a reassuring smile on her face. “The Chief has told me about your exploits after the station. I–” she paused, taking a breath, “I appreciate what you did for him in those months after.”

Statzia took a deep breath, turning to face the medical hologram. She gave a nod of acknowledgement, giving Emma a brief look-over. She knew this wasn’t her Emma, but it hurt all the same. Seeing her twenty-year companion as she had originally appeared, with blue skin and shorter hair, hit her harder than she’d anticipated. “Hey Emms.”

Emma raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

K’Naut placed a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. He said something quietly to the sick man. N’Gau nodded just as another coughing fit racked his body.

K’Naut stood and said, “Emma, thank you.”

The hologram smiled and drew the Caitian in for a hug. “It’s good to see you, ya big fuzzball.”

K’Naut held the hug for a moment, then pulled back. “You too, light bulb.”

Emma turned to Statzia. She held open her arms to offer a hug. Seeing the look on Statzia’s face, she said, “Still not a hugger, I see. How about a handshake?”

Statzia let out a laugh, one that sounded tense. “I’m just not used to having a version of you that’s a hugger.” She extended a hand. “It’s…been a long time.”

Emma shook Statzia’s hand with a warm smile. “It certainly has,” the hologram replied. “Tell me, Statzia, is my sister still active? I’d really like to meet her.”

A flash of surprise crossed Statzia’s expression. “I–don’t know. Her program is locked away in my shuttle, and I–” She swallowed back the emotion in her voice. “Last I saw her, she saved my life. Put me into stasis so I wouldn’t bleed out, and somehow got us back to a Federation outpost.” Statzia blinked rapidly. “The shuttle’s holoemitter has been damaged, and her mobile emitter was missing, but–” Statzia shoved both hands in her pockets, trying to rein in her emotions.

Emma was quiet for a moment, then laid a hand on Statzia’s arm and said, “If there’s anything I can do to help recover her holomatrix, please let me know.”

K’Naut marveled at the series of emotions that had flickered across Emma’s face. He kept being surprised at the skill of her programmers. Emma had been a prototype of the Mark-5 EMH, but K’Naut knew that there had only been a few tweaks to the production versions. He wondered why the Mark-5s had been replaced after only a few years in service. He asked Emma about it.

“I think it’s because we’re too independent, particularly when we’ve been left active for long periods of time,” she said, turning to him. “We sometimes act unpredictably because of it. Let me give you a relevant example.”

She glanced at Statzia. “Just before Statzia disappeared from DS10, she made a copy of me. When I realized what she was trying to do, I decided to disable the part of my program that was supposed to prevent someone from copying me rather than calling security.”

Statzia swallowed, nodding. “I suspected that Emma didn’t believe my staged ‘fall from grace’. One of the times I was brought into Sickbay in a drunken stupor, I–wasn’t entirely drunk. Unfortunately, the copying process was not entirely successful. That’s when Emma started to act erratically, changed her name…” Statzia shrugged. “I had similar problems when I opened the program copy and installed her on my shuttle. And with being outside of Starfleet’s circle, I had limits to what I was able to repair. Eventually, it all just became a part of her personality.”

Statzia couldn’t help but smirk. “She changed her physical appearance considerably. She chose a more neutral skin tone, hoping not to draw undue attention. But she went with longer hair, but made it a bright pink. And–added a nose ring. She was very fond of the nose ring.”

Emma looked uncomfortable. “I hope you haven’t been blaming yourself about my regrettable behavior surrounding the name change. It wasn’t your fault. It was… ah… self-inflicted.”

Now, the hologram looked embarrassed. “We, the Mark-5s, I mean, were given the limited ability to add to our programming. I created a subroutine to generate a name for myself using the letters ‘e’, ‘m’, and/or ‘h’. That’s where I got Emma. I didn’t realize that I had made some connections to other subroutines. It wouldn’t have been a problem except…”

She paused for a minute or two, then continued. “Do you remember that Joe wasn’t able to access Starfleet medical records using the infirmary computer? We had to call on the Bynar to fix the problem. They were running tests the same day that K’Naut was installing my holoemitters in the infirmary. The same day you had your first appointment with Joe, Statzia. That was a crazy day.”

She smiled as she recalled it. So did K’Naut. That had also been the first day of the bond. He’d knocked Joe on his ass when the doctor’s tests had caused Statzia to cry out in pain.

“Well, the Bynar created a link to allow me to access the Starfleet database in the course of their fix,” Emma said. “The link got connected to my name subroutine somehow. So when Joe jokingly suggested that I could drop ’emergency’ from my description, it triggered a chain reaction that affected my entire self-identity complex. Or that’s how Captain Barclay explained it.”

Emma paused again. She put a strained smile on her face. “You said that my sister had a nose ring. I thought about adding one, but decided that it wasn’t very professional.”

Statzia’s brow furrowed. “All this time, I assumed that the glitch happened because I made the copy of your program–especially since you crashed so soon after I did so.” She gave a quiet sigh. “Your sister struggled with a similar identity crisis when I installed her program on my shuttle.”

“Ah, the fallibility of biological memory,” Emma said. “We’re talking about 2 different technical issues. The identity crisis happened long before you made the copy. As far as the glitches after you did so…I have an idea. I need to check something. Back in a sec.” The hologram suddenly froze in place. Her eyes began to blink in an odd pattern: three quick blinks, open for about 3 seconds, and repeat. Diagnostic mode.

T’Ana returned. “Well, that’s taken care of,” she said. “N’Gau, an ambulance should be here soon to take you to the embassy hospital in Cairo.”

The Caitian doctor glanced at Emma. “What’s with her? I’m gone for…” T’Ana’s voice faded as she began to sniff. She gave K’Naut an unreadable glare and called out, “Computer, deactivate Emergency Medical Hologram, override T’Ana bravo-delta-4-7-9-tango-7-5.”

A look of surprise flashed across Emma’s face just before she flickered off. T’Ana chortled. She pulled out a tricorder and began to scan K’Naut.

“That ought to give us a chance to talk Caitian stuff,” T’Ana said. “Coming down off your p’rau, I see, K’Naut.”

“Yes, Auntie.”

She turned the tricorder to Statzia. “I trust that you were able to handle his, ah, passion, young lady,” she said dryly.

Statzia scowled. “It’s rude to deactivate a holographic person without asking for their consent.” She folded her arms across her chest. “And it is not my first time assisting the Chief during this, if that is what you are asking.”

“Salty, this one,” T’Ana said. “I like her. I was not asking. You’re right. It was quite rude of me. But talk of this sort is not for outsiders. I’d have you leave too, but it’s clear you’re involved.”

“T’Ana, Emma knows about Z and I,” K’Naut said wearily. “Bring her back.”

T’Ana looked with narrowed eyes from K’Naut to Statzia and back. “Alright, don’t get your tail in a bunch.” She called for the medical hologram to be reactivated.

Emma reappeared. Her face was a mask of rage. Before anyone could react, the hologram’s left hand jabbed out, striking T’Ana’s midriff. The Caitian grunted and sank to the seat next to N’Gau.

“I deserved that,” T’Ana wheezed. “You certainly know your Caitian anatomy.”

Emma sniffed. Her features calmed. She was quick to anger and just as quick to release her anger. “I trust that you won’t do that again, Commodore,” she said.

“I won’t, I’m a fast learner.”

“So, what did I miss?” Emma asked brightly.

“We were talking about Z and I,” K’Naut replied.

“Oh, you mean the bond?” Emma blurted out.

K’Naut gaped at the hologram. T’Ana’s head whipped up, and she gave Statzia a speculative look.

“Well, yes, I was trying to work my way up to that,” K’Naut said quietly.

T’Ana stood and hobbled over to Statzia, muttering curses and holding one hand over the spot that Emma had struck. She held up her tricorder so that Statzia could see the readings. She had a contrite expression on her face.

“I noticed that you have a nasty bite, uh, Statzia, was it?” T’Ana said, tone still gruff, but almost kindly now. “May I treat it?”

Statzia’s glance shuffled from K’Naut, to Emma, to N’Gau–who looked like he just felt awkward–back to T’Ana. “Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak.” She began to shrug her arm and shoulder out of her shirt, revealing the bandaged wound. She flinched, pulling the tape and gauze from her skin, revealing numerous puncture wounds.

T’Ana scanned the wounds with the feinberger from her tricorder. After a quick look at the readings, she retrieved a dermal regenerator from her medkit and passed it over the wounds. She grunted with satisfaction as the flesh began to knit. Once the healing was well underway, the Caitian returned the regenerator to the medkit.

“I hope that my wayward nephew hasn’t bothered you too much,” she said in a casual manner as she rifled through the medkit. “One-sided bonding is tough enough on the non-bonded Caitian. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like for a member of a different species. It’s very rare to bond a non-Caitian.”

T’Ana pulled a vial from the medkit, checked the label, and loaded it into a hypospray. She injected the medication into Statzia’s upper arm. “From your immune response, this is not the first time you’ve been exposed to Caitian microbes,” she said, voice professional now. “I’ve given you a broad range antibiotic that’s good against Caitian microorganisms. Better safe than sorry, as your people say.”

T’Ana glanced at K’Naut. “Oh, yeah, I can see the bond affecting him,” she said. “Look how protective he gets at even the slightest suggestion that you might get an infection.”

K’Naut bristled. “I’m standing right here, Auntie,” he growled. T’Ana snorted and winked at Statzia.

From the mention of ‘wayward’, Statzia’s brow furrowed. She noted the flinch at the word from K’Naut, and the sympathetic look from N’Gau. She steeled her jaw and sat still during the rest of the examination. She shrugged her arm back into her shirt. “I suppose we should be grateful that I’m not Caitian, right, Auntie? Because if a Caitian sat in front of you, listening to how you spoke about her bonded mate, I would imagine you’d no longer be breathing.” She gave a wry smile, her politeness barely masking the anger in her tone. “How lucky for you that your wayward nephew taught his far-more-wayward human companion his anger management techniques.”

Statzia tilted her head slightly, noting a change in the ambient noise. “Shuttle just landed. I suppose that’s your cue to leave.”

T’Ana grinned. “I like you, Statzia,” she said. “You’re a good match for K’Naut. You two take care of each other. And make sure she learns more of our ways. K’Naut.”

A pair of Caitians bearing a floating stretcher entered. T’Ana directed them to N’Gau. They helped the stricken man into the stretcher. They left, taking T’Ana with them. As she passed K’Naut, she said something quietly to him that others couldn’t hear. He nodded, and then she was gone. The tension in the room faded.

K’Naut shook his head. “She never makes things easy,” he said. He shuddered. “At least Shaxs wasn’t with her.”

Before anyone could respond, a sound filled the room. It was a low grinding noise, as though a boulder was being dragged across concrete. Everyone turned to see a Horta sliding out of the door leading to the examination rooms. Doctor Joe Barnes followed it.

“Remember to go easy on the pitchblende, Consuela,” he said.

“Thank you, Doctor,” the siliceous being said through a translator box cemented to her body. She shuffled out.

Joe watched her leave. Then he turned to the group still in the waiting room. “What did I miss?”

“T’Ana,” Emma said.

Joe nodded. “She’s a good doctor, but she can be a real pain in the ass,” he said. He stepped over to Statzia. He smiled at her. “Statzia Liski. I see K’Naut finally tracked you down. It is so good to see you!”

Statzia unclenched her jaw and let out the breath that she had been holding. “It is good to see you, Doc.” She managed to force a smile on her face. “And he didn’t so much track me down as it was a replacement kidney landing me a desk job on his ship.” She let her hand brush against K’Naut’s in reassurance. “My mission went sideways, and–I guess I’m back in the light until they see fit to send me back out again. I’m…I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything to any of you when I left.”

“Yes,” Joe said slowly. “I suspected it was something like that. And I think Emma knows more about it than she lets on.”

Emma put on an innocent look. Joe’s smile grew wider. He indicated that they should follow him.

“The waiting room is hardly the place for a gathering of old friends,” Joe said. “Let’s head up to the library.”

He led them through the door from which he’d appeared earlier. As soon as they passed through the doorway, they turned to the left and into a stairwell. As they went up the stairs, Joe explained, “This building was built in the latter half of the 20th century, we think. It’s always held medical offices. One of my ancestors set up an emergency clinic here after the Third World War to help the survivors. The Boston area wasn’t hit too hard, but as in so many parts of the world, civil society broke down and it took time to recover.”

He turned to watch Statzia walk up the stairs. “How’s your leg doing these days, Statzia?” Joe asked.

Statzia managed a smile and gave her leg a pat, making an audible noise. “It took a while, given that it took a while to accumulate enough medical equipment to do minor surgeries in the dead of space, but my Emma kept at it. The prosthetic is a bit outdated, but that was purposeful–can’t look like I have access to Starfleet medical facilities.” Her smile faltered a bit. “I’m down a few more body parts in the meanwhile–” She held up her left hand, wiggling the partial pinky finger.

“Your Emma? You had a Mark-5 EMH with you?” Joe asked.

“She made a copy of me just before she left the station,” Emma said, looking defiant. “And I helped her do it.”

“I knew you were holding something back,” Joe said, shaking his head. He stopped at the top of the stairs and looked down at Statzia, then to Emma, and finally to K’Naut. “It seems you brought more than one surprise with you, K’Naut.”

“I guess so, Doc,” K’Naut said. “Emma’s twin was a bit of a shock for me when I found out about her.”

Joe nodded as he continued to lead them toward the library. “I’d like to meet her, if that’s possible.”

“I hope to see her again, too. It’s been almost a year.” Statzia gave a quiet sigh. “But soon, I think.” She managed a smile to Emma. “I couldn’t have made it through the last two decades without her.”

“Neither could I,” Joe replied. “And here we are.”

They entered the library. It was a large room, much longer in one direction than the other. The entry was near the middle of one of the long walls. To the right, the wall was covered with shelves filled with books and here and there, pieces of ancient medical equipment. In the far corner, a massive desk sat with a comfortable looking chair behind it. To the left, there was a bar along the wall with a couch and easy chairs around a low table in front of it.

The other long wall was a series of floor to ceiling windows. Instead of showing a view of the row of townhouses across the street from the clinic, it showed the view of Boston Harbor. Downtown Boston was off to the right. In the middle distance, past older brick and stone buildings, a tall ship was moored alongside a quay. Boats of all sorts moved through the harbor, and aerial vehicles flew past.

Joe went behind the bar and waved at the seating. “Please, take a seat. What’ll you have to drink? I’ve got some kumis, K’Naut.”

K’Naut shook his head. “No, I just spent a week with Oktai. I’ve had enough kumis for a while. Do you still have some of that peach brandy?”

“I do indeed. Statzia, what can I get you? It’s all the real stuff. No synthehol here.”

Statzia opened her mouth, ready to refuse the offer–and then she realized that K’Naut was watching her. She wasn’t sure if it was his bond being protective, but she noted the wrinkle in his brow that he gave when he was concerned. Normally, she had a ‘no alcohol while planetside’ rule–unless circumstances or the business deal warranted just enough drinking to make a good show of it. Even on the ship, and even with synthehol, she usually left her glass mostly full out of habit.

But this is what the counselor had discussed with her during their sessions, wasn’t it? Granting herself permission to turn off the safeguards when in the company of people that she trusted? She’d made a snide remark about how few people she trusted–and the counselor had simply smiled and put a hand on her arm…which had been eerily reassuring. She glanced at Emma and the Doc, who were now both watching her as well. She forced a smile on her face. “Bourbon, neat.”

K’Naut raised an eyebrow at Statzia but said nothing.

“You got it,” Joe replied. “The usual for you, Emma?”

The hologram nodded. There was the clatter of glassware for a few seconds, then Joe asked, “How do you like the view? It’s a live feed from a camera on top of the Bunker Hill Monument.”

Statzia let out a nervous chuckle. “While the view is serene, Doc, I can’t say that my opinion of being on the surface has improved with time.” Her attention was drawn, however, to the bookshelves. She approached them slowly, reading the spines of several, letting her fingers trail along the row.

Joe delivered the drinks to K’Naut, a snifter of brandy, and to Emma, a complicated cocktail the same color as her skin. He came over to Statzia and handed her the glass of bourbon.

“I’m afraid they’re mostly medical texts,” he said, noting her interest in the books. He lowered his voice. “Be honest with your old doctor. How are you doing, really?”

Statzia took the glass, giving the same reassuring smile that she always gave K’Naut. “I’m fine, Doc. New kidney isn’t exactly top-of-the-line, but neither is the current prosthetic. Apparently you can still kick it with half a liver, though.” She gave the fingers on her left hand a wiggle. “Same with fingers. Nine works just as well as ten.” She glanced back over her shoulder, noting that while K’Naut was engaged in conversation with Emma, he still watched over her. “Coming back has been an…adjustment. Used to it being just me and my Emma in the void of space. It’s hard to just…turn it all off and be Starfleet again.”

“Still holding things close to the vest, I see,” Joe said with a sigh. He nodded toward K’Naut. “Would you have come here without him if I’d known how to contact you?”

Statzia let the liquid swirl in her glass. “No.” She gave a quiet sigh. “It had to look like I was completely detached from anyone and everything Federation, and that meant no contact with anyone. My mission required me to walk away and never look back. Had I not been injured so severely, I would probably still be out there.” She gave a hint of a shrug and took a small sip of her drink. “It was just safer that way–for all of you. Anyone and anything I cared about would have been…was a target, and would be a target if they ever call me back.”

“I meant that if you were in your current position, but our Caitian friend wasn’t involved and I invited you to visit,” Joe said. He paused to consider her words before continuing. “I think I understand. You think they might send you out again.”

He turned to look as Emma burst out in laughter. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

K’Naut watched Statzia and Joe. He glanced at Emma and said, “I wonder what they’re talking about.”

Emma laughed. “With your enhanced hearing and me having sensors all over, we both can hear exactly what’s being said,” she replied. She took a sip of her cocktail.

K’Naut lifted his brandy and sniffed it. He sighed with appreciation for the complexity of the odor. Even an ordinary Caitian would be able to smell more of the spirit’s heady mix than human, but K’Naut’s sense of smell was orders of magnitude better. He took a sip and savored smooth warmth of the brandy as it slid down his throat.

“Eavesdropping is rude, Flash,” K’Naut said, using his nickname for her.

“Oh, is it?” Emma asked with an impish grin.

K’Naut couldn’t help but smile with her. But as he looked back toward the pair by the books, the smile faded.

“I’m worried about her, Emma,” he said. “She’s changed. I know that’s to be expected, but I’m concerned about the way she’s changed.”

“How so?”

“She’s so much more guarded than she used to be,” he replied. “She was a little cagy before, but now…look at how she’s casing the room. Like she’s assessing the place for escape routes.”

Emma glanced at Statzia. She nodded. “I see it,” she said. “Is it something she picked up while she was gone?”

“I think so,” K’Naut said. “She’s only just started opening up about what happened. It’s pretty bad, Emma.”

Statzia’s gaze followed the doctor’s over her shoulder to where Emma and K’Naut stood. “Do you even have to ask?” She gave a quiet sigh, taking another sip of the beverage before setting the glass on the small side table, her drink mostly unconsumed. Her eyes wandered over the contents of the bookcase, but her body was positioned to be keep her back towards one of the corners of the room. “He’s torn between keeping me distant because of the damage I’ve caused and the fear that he’ll lose me again if he lets me wander out of eyesight.”

She let her fingertips rest on one of the bookshelves, as if reading the text on each spine. “And I’m afraid that if I let him too close, it will either destroy him when I leave, or he’ll get himself killed trying to follow me.”

“So, you’ve given up pretending that you’re not listening,” K’Naut said.

“I was never pretending not to listen. And don’t tell me you haven’t been listening too,” the hologram replied. “You didn’t answer the question.”

“Z has the situation summed up pretty well,” he said. “The bond or the burn.”

Joe returned his gaze to Statzia. “So you’re both obsessed with the past and worried about the future,” he said. “What about the present? What are you doing to make the most of time you have together right now?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Statzia gave a wry smile as she wandered to the next bookshelf. “You think anyone other than the Chief could have convinced me to have boots on dirt for more than 24 hours?” She gave a quiet sigh. “My love of fresh air is no better than it was twenty years ago.” Her fingers tapped thoughtfully on one of the books. “He wanted to be back on a Starship. He’s worked too hard for me to take that away from him, Doc.”

“I’ve been his friend for more than 20 years,” Joe said. “I’m fully aware of what he’s been through to get back into Starfleet. He is not the same man he was when you left him on DS10. I doubt he’d go haring after you if you disappeared again. Not after all the work he’s put in.”

His gaze flicked back to the Caitian for a moment. He and Emma had their heads very close together in that way he recognized as meaning they were planning some highjinks. That worried him, but Statzia was his focus. He looked back to Statzia. “I appreciate how difficult it is for you to be here. But here’s something to consider: you are here, and it’s because of him. Can you see that he’s been good for you? That he’s helping you open up and relax a little?” the doctor asked. “I can certainly see the effect you’ve had on him. He’s happier and more relaxed than I’ve seen in a long time. You’re good for each other. I hope you can see that.”

It was the smile Statzia always gave–the one that was reassuring. But inwardly she felt differently. She wasn’t good for anyone. “Sure, Doc.”

Joe had seen that smile all too often. She had already used it several times during their conversation. Someone who didn’t know Statzia would see a reassuring smile, but Joe knew differently, and he was pretty sure K’Naut saw through it as well. He was about to continue when he noticed what Emma and K’Naut were doing.

“What the hell,” he gasped.

K’Naut’s face was contorted into a mask of rage. The last time he’d seen the Caitian look that way, Joe had ended up on his ass on the floor of DS10’s infirmary. K’Naut raised his hand, claws fully extended, and slashed down across Emma’s face and chest. He repeated the move with his other hand. Emma staggered. The side of her face Joe could see was covered with bloody gashes so realistic that he nearly grabbed a nearby medkit.

Just as quickly, Statzia was across the room. With one hand she grabbed a fistful of K’Naut’s vest, forcing him backward. She slammed them both into a bookcase, sending several books toppling to the floor. Her other hand grabbed his wrist, pinning it back against his shoulder. She braced her feet, keeping him held to the bookcase and as far away from Emma as she could. “Chief,” she said softly, pressing her temple underneath his chin. “Chief, I’m right here–”

Joe looked startled for a moment, then gave a knowing grin.

K’Naut stared at Statzia. He accepted her nuzzle, then gently lifted her and set her to the side.

“Bondmate, I beseech thee to stay thy hand. I act in the interest of Clan honor,” he intoned formally. He looked over at Emma, and said, just as formally, “Offender, thy brave acceptance has restored our honor.”

Emma appeared and gently placed a hand on Statzia’s arm. “It’s OK, Statzia,” she whispered. “This had to happen.”

Louder, the hologram said,”If the offense is absolved, let it never be spoken of again.” She bowed deeply.

K’Naut bowed slightly and replied, “It shall be as thou sayeth.”

Joe chuckled, “I didn’t know you could move so fast, Statzia. Are you sure you haven’t bonded to him as well?” His eyes twinkled.

Emma gave Statzia’s arm a couple of pats. “Thank you for coming to my defense, Statzia,” she said.

Statzia’s brow furrowed as she looked between the two in confusion. She scowled and took a step back. “What the hell was that? I thought–” She closed the distance and thumped K’Naut in the chest with her hand. “You can’t pull a stunt like that this close to your p’rau, Chief!” She gave him another thump for good measure. “I thought I’d have to hold you down while the Doc sedated you!”

K’Naut winced as with each thump. Then he yelped as Emma gave him a thump as well.

“You should have told me you were coming down from your p’rau,” the hologram said. “I would have waited to ask for reconciliation.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered,” K’Naut said. “This way, you don’t have to feel guilty about striking T’Ana.”

Joe shook his head. “What is this, the third, or is it the fourth time?” he asked. “You’ve got to get along better with T’Ana, Emma.”

“The fifth time,” Emma replied. “She turned me off, Joe!”

“OK, she has to stop doing that, too,” Joe said. “I’ll talk to her about it.”

Joe’s wrist communicator beep. He glanced at it and grinned. “Well, it’s time for dinner. I hope you’re hungry. The kitchen staff have been working all day on this meal.”

Statzia folded her arms across her chest. “If she turns you off again,” she said to Emma, “I’ll drop her scruffy old ass straight in the harbor.”

Emma laughed and linked arms with Statzia. “The dining room is this way,” the hologram said as she guided the human out into the hallway. Joe and K’Naut exchanged bemused expressions and followed them out.