Chapter 15 - Midnight Walk Pt. 2

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“Thank you, Tomaasz.” Starting there, it really should’ve been said earlier, he thinks. “You’re right, I had forgotten myself in favor of my pain. I hope you don’t as well, I won’t pretend to know what the war did to you and what you had to do in turn, but even so, it doesn’t define you either.” His voice was thick, not with tears, but with the weighted feeling of how cruel life could be.

He ends up slightly hunched over, with his hands gently rubbing together in a self soothing behavior. “You don’t have to talk about it, I-I know it’s a tough thing to do, but I am here for you should you ever want or need to. I’ve found that sometimes letting the ghosts out means they find elsewhere to haunt, even if for a while.” Maybe I need to take my own advice, hell, you tackled the poor man because of your own ghosts. A sigh escapes, wondering if it’ll just make Tomaasz more uncomfortable, but he’s extending the branch either way.

“I-I’ve been seeing flashes of Jem’Hadar soldiers, it’s why I can’t go to my quarters… we were ambushed, I was asleep when a party invaded our ship, I almost didn’t wake up if the commotion didn’t rouse me somewhat.” Ripping the tourniquet off for a wound that stopped bleeding years ago. Kyle keeps his voice steady, it’s not easy to talk about it, but he’s also tired of holding onto it with broken fists. Finally allowing himself to remember, even a little bit, still reacquainted him with that familiar fear when all he could see in the dark was the light eyes of the bloodthirsty soldier, how his feet got tangled in his sheets for a split second and how it allowed the Jem’hadar to get closer and closer. He closes his eyes and breathes it away, his sight returns to his friend, and hopes it’s enough. 

Tomaasz listened attentively, fully focused on his friend. “They are terrifying enough over the sights of a phaser rifle. Waking from a dead sleep to the sight of them… small wonder that memory haunts you.” He shifted on his crate, tail twitching behind him. “They’re walking nightmares to many, even with the war behind us.”

A wry smile crossed his face. “Though it isn’t really behind us, is it? Not while it’s within us.” His fingers clenched on the knees of his uniform, his ears lowering. “But you did wake, and you survived. That’s not nothing.”

Clearing his throat, he continued. “You may have looked up my war record. If so, you doubtless found it very dry and sparse reading. Just a handful of dates and places. The rest is redacted, classified to levels beyond thee or I. I could probably be court-martialed for this conversation.” The look that crossed his face showed contempt for the very idea. “Goes counter to Starfleet’s squeaky clean image.”

His ears were flat to his skull as he continued. Only the tip of his tail moved, but it thrashed back and forth viciously. “There are many names for what I and several others did. Black ops, guerilla tactics, targeted neutralization of contentious assets. But one word fits the best, and I won’t flinch from it.” His eyes, wide expanses of yellow-green with narrowed slit pupils, locked onto Kyle’s. “I was an assassin.”

Court-martial- Assassin!? Well that unfortunately makes sense when put together.. There’s a moment of silence after his confession, Kyle taking effort to keep his face neutral to not let it be misconstrued. He felt angry, the idea of being ordered to kill (war or not, justified or not, this isn’t the time) and then possibly facing repercussions for even mentioning it? He felt scared for what it implied, and for the first time found himself grateful they were so far off course, to be further away from Federation space. 

Kyle’s dark brown eyes staring into the chartruce of Tomaasz’s, it gives him the fleeting image of grassy fields and upturned dirt. “I see… I’m sorry you were given that burden, it must’ve been difficult to survive, let alone having to hide it.” Balancing a fine line, he continues “should you ever want to talk about it- no one will ever know. I’ll hide it all behind patient confidentiality, but only if you want to.” He said gently but firmly, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s hidden another’s story from prying eyes (if it came down to it).

 “Besides… that Jem’hadar soldier would’ve killed me if it wasn’t for a Security officer getting him with their phaser while we were struggling.” He remembers the blood pounding in his ears, trying to stop the Jem’hadar from strangling him, half losing and terrified when suddenly it just… stopped. He went lax and Kyle was able to push him off, he’d never been so grateful to see that yellow uniform standing in the lit hallway. He hopes Tomaasz understands what he’s trying to say. 

The Caitian took a deep breath and released it slowly. His tail stilled, then resumed a more natural sway. His ears unclenched, his pupils returning to normal size. “Thank you,” he finally said. “It’s not an easy thing to admit to a friend. Even one who already knows I’m a hunter, a predator. Many would see only the killer, always wondering when the violence would burst out, uncontrolled. Thank you for seeing beyond that.”

Another deep breath, then. “But that is not the pain I mean to share. Though I remember every life I have taken, and honor them accordingly, those are not the lives that haunt me. Each was my decision, my choice, orders or no, and I have made my peace with that.” A wry chuckle escaped him. “Well, mostly. But that is a conversation for another time. I told you of my… colorful record because I do not want that secret lying between us. I trust you, Kyle, and I could think of no better way to show that trust.”

A hint and more of fangs showed in his slow smile. “Perhaps I had one other reason for sharing that. Next time the Jem’hadar try to haunt your thoughts, tell them the Red Silence sends his regards. Even walking nightmares like them can have nightmares of their own. One of those calls you friend, and will not see you harmed.”

A soundless laugh gasps out, wondering how he’s come to a point in his life that a sentiment like this fills him with fondness; but it does. “‘The Red Silence’-I’d hate to be a broken conduit these days… Thank you Tomaasz, for trusting me when I didn’t trust myself.” Maybe he should be more concerned, but the idea never even appeared. He knows well enough to not dispute his friend’s claim of ‘predator’, it’s not wrong, but it feels too… cold. Even with the admittance of murder; Kyle’s hands didn’t make it through the war clean either, who is he to really judge? 

He almost finds it funny, he was in his early twenties when the war started and ended, and now here he is in his early fifties. The transformation of scared cadet to established officer, and how the idea of fear isn’t quite as far off as he thought it was back on Earth. Where maybe he had found ways to shelter himself that he didn’t realize; allowed himself to forget, he’s not afraid to remember, he just wasn’t as prepared it seems.

“I can only ask but what pain were you meaning to share then? I’d be remiss in not giving you a chance like you have with me.” He asked, rubbing his hands on his knees, for the first time he could feel the fabric of the uniform and the textile pressure against his skin. Another reminder of where he is, slowly allowing the conversation to lead him back from his wandering mind and into something more familiar, like being a friend. He gives a small smile, trying to be stronger than how he’s felt since he flew face first onto the floor of the Bridge. 

The Caitian let out a long breath. After, he seemed somehow smaller, as if his confidence (or was it bravado?) had drained away with the exhale. Long moments passed quietly before he spoke.

“My ghosts are not from things I did, but from things I did not do. Things I failed to do.” His ears lowered dejectedly. “Lives I failed to protect. Friends who died because of me.”

He stood and unfastened his uniform tunic. With a habitual quick fold, he draped it over a crate. His undershirt followed, leaving fur and scars bared from the waist up. In a voice that was an unnerving blend of dramatic recitation and numb monotone, he began the litany of names and deaths attached to each scar. Neither man could fairly say how long the telling took, though it felt like years.

When he reached the phaser burn through his shoulder, the numbness in his voice broke. The jagged shards clawed at his throat as he tried to continue. Tried, and reached another failure. He had already trusted his friend with a secret guarded by rules and laws. But this one was guarded by his shame, and it stilled his tongue just as strongly as Kyle’s had stilled his body.

His smile breaks, first with confusion until he remembers their first meeting and the flash he’d gotten of Tomaasz’s arm and the scars left there. Now it’s an unobstructed view and he hates how it reminds him of other comrades; until the Caitain’s voice like a cruel joke ran through a casualty report and its permanent reminder left on his own body. It almost made him feel sick with empathy, a couple of the deaths even befell friend’s of his; how indiscriminate those bastards were… 

He almost felt like each death was being inflicted on him personally with each uttered breath until it was suddenly silent. Kyle wasn’t sure what or if he should even say anything at first, his mind running in the background of just what was so terrible, so traumatic about this particular wound that made Tomaasz break. It sent a stab of remorse through him, for whoever had fallen and that now their memory was left as a painful reminder. 

He watched the clawed hand pointing at the offending wound, starting to shake, Kyle found himself reaching out to grab his friend’s hand. Gently, trying not to startle or force but comfort, he cradles the furry hand, the tips of claws a lightest pressure near his wrist but he pays no mind.

“This is a lot to hold on your shoulders all alone, that can’t be easy to deal with… What was their name?” Trying to help him finish it out, trying to make sure the ghost doesn’t stay stuck inside his friend. Is it the most recent? Gruesome? A childhood friend? Did he have a hand in it? A million questions betrayed his mind as he waited for Tomaasz’s response.  

The unexpected touch made Tomaasz blink, his eyes re-focusing from the past to his friend’s concerned face. He let his hand drop, not breaking the contact that was like a lifeline. It took several moments before his voice would serve him again.

“There were three. Three of my closest friends. Better friends than I deserved. One lived, though maimed. The other two dead. And all three my fault.” He raised his free hand to forestall Kyle’s inevitable objection. “Truly and demonstrably, it was my fault.”

Seeing that such a claim would never be accepted on face value, (and would you accept a friend trying to take on so much guilt without good reason?), he continued. “I’ve always liked to tinker, to build and improve things, long before I went into engineering. Back when I was on the Ramirez, I made an improved emitter coil for hand phasers. A high intensity cutting beam, for rescue work, that sort of thing. I sent some to the Starfleet Armory to be evaluated, maybe even put into general use. Nine coils disappeared from a ‘secure’ facility.”

He looked at his hands, one still resting in Kyle’s. “I knew how dangerous they could be in the wrong hands. So I went hunting. I found the gunrunners who had them. I would have gone after them alone, and hang the consequences to my career. But my friends wouldn’t let me. They came with me, four of us taking the law into our own hands. I should have talked them out of it, or given them the slip, or…”

A shuddering gasp racked through him. “But I didn’t. And three good people, people I… I loved, paid for my failure.” A deep breath followed, an intake of resolve to finish the account. “You would have liked them, I think. Donal Jackman, a Terran, kept telling the most horrific puns you could imagine. But somehow, the way he told them, they were always funny. Our Bajoran pilot, Lara Keren, was the queen of innuendo. When she got going, she could make a Vulcan blush. And Vaas Horthrov, the most stereotypical Tellarite engineer in the quadrant. We used to joke that he didn’t so much make repairs as argue things into working.”

A fleeting half-smile tried to cross his face, but vanished quickly. “Donal was burned through the heart from behind cover. Lara was… was cut almost in half. And Vaas… That magnificent bastard lost both legs charging the gunrunners. He got the one that killed Lara, before they took his legs. The rest broke and ran. I…” He gestured at the wound through his shoulder. “I was… lucky.” He spit out the word like a curse.

With effort, the Caitian looked into his friend’s eyes. “So there you have it. Weapons I created with my own hands did the killing and maiming. Friends who followed me into a situation they should never have been near paid the price. And I got a new shoulder and quietly filed away in obscurity. The punishment hardly seems adequate to my crimes.”

Kyle tries his best to commit their names to memory, placeholders for their untimely deaths and knowing he only knows the very last note to a beautiful song. Just how does he even try to unpack this? Survivors’ guilt feels like just a tip of the iceberg, not just guilt but seemingly regret for making it out alive, but who could blame him? Kyle doesn’t want to imagine himself in Tomaasz’s position, but instinctively he does, and it just feels like another war within himself. 

“You forget how much you’re punishing yourself, my friend. Starfleet could’ve thrown you in prison and it still wouldn’t be enough to relieve your grief.” He pauses, holding eye contact and hoping. There’s so many things he wishes to say, to grab his friend and convince him-beg him if he must, to not take the blame of murder that wasn’t his to begin with. 

“There is nothing I can say that will truly relieve it either, and I’m sorry for that Tomaasz. Losses like this always seem to stay with us… and maybe they should to a degree, if nothing else to remember how much they mattered.” And matter they did. Remembering some of his own names that’ll never leave his heart, he can’t imagine how much worse it would be to have technically built the weapons that did it.

 Kyle wanted to try and keep the conversation going, but he knew that pushing too hard would make Tomaasz close off, especially since Kyle is one hundred percent sure he had no inclination to tell him this unless he had too; like watching him having a flashback and almost running into a hatch. But he couldn’t also just let his friend believe in his… irredeemability either. “Do you still talk to Vaas?”

Tomaasz sank down onto a crate. Telling his friends’ fate had lifted some small part of the weight he bore, but had also sapped the strength from his legs. He picked up his undershirt, but instead of putting it on, twisted the black fabric absently in his hands. “Not for years now.”

His ears and tail hung slack. “I saw him in the hospital, of course. And during our physical rehabilitation as well. It was difficult seeing him there. Not just watching him struggle with the prosthetics.” His shoulder twitched in remembrance. “He was… different. Quieter. More introspective. It was as if the arguments had been cut out of him with his legs.”

A shudder rippled the Caitian’s fur. “I took that from him. We spoke a few times over the next two years. Mostly he contacted me. But it was just so… so hard to talk to him and see how much I had taken from him. Around the time I entered engineering training, I stopped answering. I couldn’t face talking to him about his passion and hearing him… not argue.” His eyes dropped to the twist of fabric clenched in his hands.

Kyle felt a lead weight inside his stomach, how he had heard semblances of this story from so many other war hardened officers. How a battle can rip everything away in more than just death: because death is a relatively simple end of a being. The afterlife is in debate, but a body isn’t. Those who survive though, end up changed in a way they can never revert back from. 

“I’m sorry to hear that Tomaasz, that… that really sucks.” Understatement of the year Hawthorne, get it together. “That isn’t the kind of situation that heals overnight, and sometimes healing means changing. And that isn’t your nor his fault either.” 

Kyle swallowed, some forgotten knot squared just in the back of his throat. He wanted to believe in the best case scenario, even against reason sometimes, but he’s also been through too much to know it’s true. 

“Has he tried to call anytime soon? Have you considered giving him and yourself another chance?” He imagined the ring of a call, does it sound different with his enhanced hearing? Waiting it out until it was finally silent, a small part of him hated how much of a pitiful sight it was to imagine for either party. Waiting for the end of the ring but in different ways. 

“It’s been nine years since he stopped trying to call. I guess he finally gave up on me the way he must think I’ve given up on him.” A shudder ran through the Caitian’s fur, leaving him looking disheveled. His voice sank to a near whisper. “That’s almost worse than the physical damage I caused. Knowing that he must feel abandoned by one of his friends. But I haven’t given up on him. I’m just too afraid.”

His tail twitched restlessly. “I’d face those gunrunners again in a heartbeat, with blood in my eyes and the hymn of retribution in my throat. But I’m terrified to make a comm call to an old friend and find out what he thinks of me after all this time. Is that irony, or just pathetic? I don’t even know.”

“For some reason it always seems easier to die than to have a conversation.” the words buzzed out of Kyle’s mouth, a grim understanding on his brow, before leaning forward.

“I can’t speak for Vaas… but maybe you shouldn’t either. You’ll never know until you try, but while we’re trying to get settled out here; you can think of what you’re going to say.” He tried to make sure it didn’t sound like an order but rather a way to go. As if he could transpose his own confidence in Tomaasz inside of the man. His eyes transfixed on the twisting of fabric between furry fingers in front of him. 

Kyle swallows down the last of his visible nerves, “besides, the only one who will understand what you went through and what you lost is him and vice versa…” 

Tomaasz’s eyes widened, the chartreuse orbs almost luminous in the dim light. He sat and stared at his friend for a long moment. “You’re right,” he murmured. “It’s as arrogant of me to assume how he must feel as it was to try to hunt those criminals alone.”

He looked at his hands again. “I owe it to Vaas to talk, really talk with him. And to really listen, not just hear my own doubts in his words. I owe it to him to see how he really feels about the results of his choice.”

Hearing the words he had just spoken, the Caitian’s ears twitched upright. Realization dawned in his eyes. “And… it was his choice, wasn’t it? He chose to go with me. He chose to charge those bastards. I may have set the situation in motion, but I didn’t force him, any of them, into what they did.” He shook his head, not in negation, but to clear it. The shake built and grew, traveling the length of his body and tail. When it passed, his fur settled back, leaving him looking more composed, less defeated.

“I’ll have to think on that. For a good long while.” The hint of a smile curled his lip. “The first thing I should tell him is to apologize for being a self-involved mess. I doubt he’d argue with that, even in his prime.”

Standing, Tomaasz offered his hand to Kyle. “Thank you, my friend. You’ve given me a lot to mull over. But I think I might be able to prowl the inner plains with clearer sight now.” When the Terran clasped his hand, he pulled him into a rib-creaking hug. Before releasing his grip, he whispered “You are in the clan of my heart. What you need I shall offer.”

“I think the greatest challenge we will ever face is the realization that other people make their own choices, just as we do and deal with consequences just the same.” He whispered it into existence as he grasped Tomassz’s hand before falling into the hug.

The weight of everything finally seemed to crumble inside of Kyle, he’s not ashamed to admit he took in the hug for all it was worth. A small slice of pride went through, both for him and Tomassz. Finally feeling a separation between him and that scared twenty-something that had older him running down hallways, (and apparently into hearts as well). Finally taking in the passage of time but allowing himself to revel in the old familiarity he’d built as well within himself, cushioning for the fear but in turn forced a few tears out. 

He grasps his shoulder, “just make sure to also get some rest my friend.” A silent moment with a small smile and a damp face, “just as I’m finally going to as well thanks to you.” A smile, and one last grip of shoulder before pulling him in for one last side hug. Letting the warmth and life of another being be the standing memory of this night, instead of the ashamed darkness he felt consuming him earlier. 

He finally let go and left the storage area, through the hallway with twinkling lights and back to the turbo lift to his own quarters. Fatigue leading the way but not fear, because deep within the recess of memory is it being rewritten, of behind Lt. Marja was also a Caitain in the same yellow uniform.