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JL | Cmdr Valeese, LtCmdr Stacker | "Yellow Brick Road"

Posted on Mon Apr 22nd, 2019 @ 11:38pm by Commander Valeese & Lieutenant Commander James Stacker

Mission: Permutations

The promenade was always bustling, loud, electric, and alive. Most of the time it hurt her ears and left her hustling through to get to wherever it was she was headed - her early morning jogs had ended after being assaulted by a drunk Bajoran - but now she had no choice but to linger. Strolling idly beside her ghost, Valeese managed to both keep a respectable distance and stay close to his side at the same time. It was after the dinner hour, the worst of the crowd dispersed, but the ever watchful eye of merchants and those who thrived off information and gossip were ever near and apparent. She sighed softly at the thought, tucking her thumbs into the belt loops at her hips to kill the desire to take and hold his hand.

There was always something there to remind her that what they had was taboo and kept hidden in the dark, supplemented with what appeared to be a professional friendship that had blossomed over him leading the team that brought her back from the black.

The man beside her appeared to be at rest and equally at ease, with a few minor irregularities. His hands were clasped behind his back. Whether this was in response to a similar urge to hold her hand was questionable. The eyes were constantly in motion, but there was no outward sign of stress. Only a trained agent would have noted the way in which the eyes lingered in certain areas. Main entries to the businesses. Nooks and corners tucked into the storefronts. The merchants who were hawking their wares in overly-loud ways that might distract.

The other considerable sign that he might be entirely at ease was the sidearm and combat knife worn at his belt. Remarkably, there had been very little attention directed his way in response to their presence. It might have had something to do with the explosion on the station just prior to the rescue mission's departure. The varied species here were getting back onto an even keel, but nerves had been rattled by the suspicious occurrence.

"I'm glad you were able to get out and about, Commander," he said by way of 'breaking the ice'. "I know you've been busy since your return, but..." here he shrugged. "Well let's face it; always nice to get out for a breath of station-recirculated air. Not to mention the smells," he added with a sniff. An odor of barbecue wafted through, coming out of the door of a new establishment that had opened just days prior. There was already a line going outside.

Valeese nodded in at least partial agreement. He'd been adamant that hiding wasn't the best of ideas, that she needed to move more than from one set of quarters to the other. Food had been another part of that driving push towards normalcy - him pointing out that she was still not back up to the weight she'd shed during her time off the station. Stress had killed her appetite and shed the pounds faster than she'd anticipated. Si'a, on the other hand, had been the smarter of the two and accepted nourishment beyond the occasional sip of water. For all of her medical knowledge and book smarts, Valeese was far too stubborn to listen to common sense at times. Stacker, however, was far too stubborn to let her get away with her continued line of 'stupidity'.

She resisted, he countered. It wasn't a so much a forced enterprise as it was him refusing to take no for an answer, knowing what was best for her when it came right down to it. She'd have protested harder, louder, longer had it not been for some little niggling voice at the back of her mind reminding her that he was the subject matter expert when it came to these sort of things. He'd been trained for this - she hadn't. End of case.

But yes... Food... The sweet, smoky, savory scent of barbecue wafted through the air in a manner most teasing. Her stomach quietly rumbled in response. A cup of tea certainly couldn't constitute as breakfast and she'd managed to skip lunch and dinner. "I could be inclined to agree." She shrugged, "Some of the smells are more friendly than others on this promenade, though. Either way, I'm happy for the company."

There was a hint of a smile teasing the corners of his mouth, for a multitude of reasons. It had taken days of slow, quiet, buildup before he had finally put his proverbial foot down and switched into 'relentless, doesn't-take-no-for-an-answer' enlisted mode. And when he had confronted her she had been stubborn as always. It hadn't come as a great surprise: she'd been through a trying ordeal, after all, and in his defense he had given it some time before opting to make this an issue. Fast-forward to the present and his small pleasure at her outward reaction. If it hadn't been for all the noise he might have even heard the rumbling of her stomach - poorer-by-comparison human hearing notwithstanding.

His hands came apart behind his back and he gestured around them, switching up his stride and dodging to avoid two alien merchants that had decided to start haggling in the middle of the walkway. "Anything catch your fancy?" It was as if he knew that she had passed on food, today. Which he might well have. It didn't take a particularly great feat of skill to access records of replicator use by one Commander Valeese for the last 24 hours, after all, if one had command code access and a valid reason for inquiry.

It took her a second to catch back up, having dodged left while he dodged right and being swallowed momentarily by a passing group of travelers streaming towards an outbound passenger liner. She could have panicked, and would have admitted to a fleeting moment of worry, had it not been for the constant knowledge that they were not alone.

Maybe that was simple paranoia budding, but she could swear that Stacker was a wee bit more comfortable than she'd have pictured and there was little doubt that he'd leave anything to chance. He wasn't the type that let things get out of hand or slide past him, and there were plenty of suggestions pointing towards him feeling... Guilty. It tugged on her heartstrings each and every time she saw those hints much the same way their propensity to stay together tugged her back to his side as if they were two halves of a rather powerful magnet.

"I could eat." Understatement of the year, "Not a clue what I want, but I could eat." She punctuated her sentence with a casual shrug.

He had to suppress a desire to tease her about this. The admission of hunger was a positive step. But on a station with over thirty restaurants on the promenade alone - with menus ranging from "new Klingon" to pub fare from the Sol system - to say one was hungry but had no idea was ... well, under any other circumstances he would have teased her about indecision. Part of his personality - the Ghost half - wanted to cross its arms and give him its best 'you must be fucking kidding me' look. Teasing in public did not go well with the persona they were trying to project to everyone else around.

As he idly thought of options his eyes flicked left, to a man standing in an archway to a back alley. Their eyes met, however briefly, before the other individual turned away and to a stack of crates nearby. His hands went to the second one down the stack and started to lift before James could look away. Reassured, his attention went back to the chief medical officer and not a moment too soon. The scent of a burger wafted through the air. Now it was time for his stomach to growl. "Pub fare? Fries and burgers?" he asked with a raised eyebrow and look cast in her direction. One accompanied by a slight head-tilt. He was unable to take any firmer action than that. He only hope she got the message that he was concerned about her. Still.

Had she been more astute, and less distracted by the flourish of feathers on a brightly colored bird... Thing... Being offered by one of the merchants, she'd likely have caught the silent discussion between Stacker and his agent. It would have brought about narrowed, accusatory eyes as she tried to defend herself, arguing that she didn't need to be babysat even though the confirmation that her suspicions were valid would have secretly warmed her heart. Valeese nodded quickly, looking away from the neon colored bird-thing long enough to catch his gaze, "Sounds fantastic, actually. Leave it to your Humans to come up with the best damn food in the galaxy."

It was true enough.

Klingon was nasty unless you were a Klingon or enjoyed a strong case of gastroenteritis following a meal - something that she'd sharply avoided after noting the sheer amount of cases she'd seen and treated all through med school. Romulans weren't talked about, their Vulcan cousins entirely too pragmatic to engage in the development of succulent cuisine. It truly had been the Terrans that had taken culinary arts to a whole new level - engaging in the creation of new dishes utilizing new ingredients from different worlds to compliment their already fascinatingly strong grasp on flavor and texture combinations. That being said, there was nothing more quintessential to their culture than the solid, hot feel of grilled seasoned ground beef with a piece of cheese slapped on it and held between two soft buns. Top it and garnish it how you will, the burger was a perfect food.

Valeese's stride perked up as they veered in the direction of the joint he'd selected. She may have been hungrier than she thought, after all.

He would have been polite and let her enter first, but ... not today. So instead of being his gentlemanly self, he found himself stepping through the open door with a hand near his phaser and alert eyes sweeping the room. There were only a few patrons here; most of them quickly averted their eyes. There were none here to move furniture, or glasses, forks, knives even. No coded signals or hidden messages. Just the overworked bartender, drying out a couple glasses behind the bar and looking their way with a raised eyebrow. James flashed him two fingers.

"Take your pick. Ruby'll be out in a moment."

A window booth, with a view outside? Tempting under any other circumstances. In the back by the exit to the service corridor and kitchen? Too many routes of egress and ingress, in too short a proximity. He led the Commander down the aisle opposite the bar, before finally selecting a corner booth tucked in the back. From here he had a view of the entry, and with a slight turn of the head could peripherally watch the kitchen entry and exit to the corridor out back. It was about the best he could hope for. He slid into the booth and waved her to the opposite seat, toggling on the privacy field with his other hand. It would prevent some of their words from being overheard. He was under no illusions that it was completely foolproof, though.

Sliding into place across from him, Valeese couldn't help but chuckle and shake her head with a sigh. "Listen," She began, settling in and resting her hands on the table and leaning across conspiratorially, "I'm pretty sure that no one is going to randomly materialize out of the shadows and carry me off... Again." Shouldn't have been as amusing as it was, but she felt the corner of her mouth quirk into a grin likely as a result of how ridiculous it sounded, "They're all dead or incarcerated. You saw that through."

The head may have tilted towards her, and the eyes may have been focused on her, but whether the message was getting through was unclear. His lips flattened for a moment as he thought, but then he caught sight of the grin in the corner of her mouth. All he could do, at that point, was sigh and shake his head as his eyes briefly closed, eyebrows moving. "Noted," came the reply as the eyes reopened. "But if anyone makes a second attempt they'll be missing half their person before I'm done with them." The latter part came out as something akin to a low growl. Clearly he was far from amused at the very idea of someone trying to grab her. Was it possessive? Quite possibly. To his credit, though, he was able to flash her something of a small smile - a far better thing than his riddling a body with phaser fire, even if it did look a little agonized.

"Breathe." Pushing back against the table, the little Vorta capped her speech short of anything else that could have bubbled up and killed the professionalism between them, "I'm not that interesting and I have zero interest in going anywhere or do anything that would result in you having to cleave someone in two." She sighed, watching as a woman approached with two glasses of water in hand, "Having to handle that autopsy wouldn't exactly be my cup of tea."

"No, I imagine not," he replied, as the woman breached the privacy field. When she rattled off the typical question of whether they needed to order he already knew what he wanted - burger, well done, side of curly fries and coleslaw, with blue cheese, tomato, and lettuce. She appeared to expert jot it down in shorthand before turning to his Vorta companion. James noted that she didn't bat an eye, for which he was thankful. Either Ruby had been on the station for a long time, or was used to aliens coming through the door on a regular basis. An interesting question for later analysis, he privately noted as he took a sip of the ice-cold water and felt it sluicing down his throat.

Sweet tea and a cheeseburger with all the fixings ordered later - and Ruby politely on her way to put their order in - Valeese circled the rim of her water glass with a finger. Their private little bubble was quiet for a long moment, both of them undoubtedly feeling the strained, awkward vibe that had settled in over them like a fog. It was unnatural. She wanted to touch him, share a warm smile - everything she simply couldn't if they were going to have this 'professional friendship' cover story fly. "So..." Her fingers stilled for a moment, "Having fun yet?"

The corners of his mouth flicked up in a hint of amusement. "Obviously. Aren't you?" There may - or may not - have been a slightly-humored note in his voice, as his eyebrows did a quick little flick. His eyes went from her face to the fingers sitting on the rim of her glass, then back to her. Had they been somewhere more private there wouldn't be distance between the hand and himself - of that he was sure. This was going to take some getting used to, he privately conceded as he shifted in his booth. It was doable ... but difficult.

"Of course." She swooned, tapping the glass, "I'm having the absolute time of my life." Her teeth caught her lower lip and her head shook, chasing away any and all thoughts of things she'd rather be doing than pretending not to give an iota of a shit about the man across from her. "I'm not sure about all of this, to be honest. It's been a minute since I've wandered around the promenade."

"Better to be seen out and about in public. Tells everyone you're not afraid of your own shadow. Certainly better for you than being cooped up in-" he almost stumbled and inserted 'my quarters', but smoothly recovered, "your quarters." Damn, how the devil had he managed to almost mix that up? The only conceivable answer he could come up with on such short notice was that she was getting to him in more ways than one. Their enforced time apart, then the time together, and now this faux-professional relationship, would have made the head of any lesser man spin. He sat back in his seat, head tilted to one side in thought. Professional thought. "You're right, though. The promenade may not be the best location."

A single dark eyebrow rose, "Truth be told, I've widely avoided the promenade since the incident with that Bajoran contractor." the admission came smooth as satin, no hesitation and no sense of guilt rose as an after taste, "It's never exactly been a place of great comfort. Most people take one look at me and either pretend they didn't see me or flash me a dirty look." She continued, choosing to leave the glass alone for the time being in favor of conversation and the security the feeling of her arms folded over her chest afforded her, "There's a lot wrong with that, trust me... I know... But it is what it is."

He grunted in thought at her admission. There was a pang of guilt deep inside which he squashed before it could become visible on the surface; of course she would have avoided the Promenade like the plague after the contractor. It wasn't as if Starfleet was particularly welcome on the rim of the Federation to begin with, but to be an alien from a species known for two devastating wars against the Federation just piled onto the problem. "Well I think we can avoid that little problem. It just involves one handy intelligence officer armed to the teeth," he said, pulling his lips back and flashing his teeth Klingon-style, just for a moment. His shoulders were shaking with a few chuckles of amusement as he stopped to take a drink of water.

She, on the other hand, was left silent and staring at him incredulously. A couple of blink-filled moments later, she finally shook her head, "You're an extremely screwed up individual, Commander Stacker, I just hope you know that." Her good humor shone through, the smile that lit up her face was one that refused containment and his chuckles proved to be completely and totally infectious.

Valeese was about to go into detail, pick at him a bit further about his need to resort to violence, when Ruby re-appeared with their order and a smile directed towards the ghost, subsequently squashing any form of giddiness the Vorta may have been feeling. The waitress was flashed both a thank you and a well veiled smarmy smile for her efforts. This game was proving more difficult than she'd given it credit to be, and steadily getting harder by the minute with Ruby not taking the hint to depart.

"Anything else I can get for you?"

Our privacy? "Nope. Pretty sure we're good." A quick glance over in Stacker's way acted as a gentle prompt for words that would hopefully send the other woman on her way and leaving Valeese to wonder when she'd suddenly become so damned territorial.

He took the hint. "We're good." It was said with a firm nod to Ruby and a slight smile before he turned back to his dining companion. The eyes went back to the woman, though, when she opened her mouth as if to add something. Something in them made her shut her mouth with an audible 'click'.' They flicked at the kitchen. Ruby left. He watched her walk away for a moment before first glancing at the small palm-sized generator, confirming it was still on, and then back to Val. "Well that was ... interesting," he observed, diplomatically. Something around his eyes seemed to say otherwise. His lips flattened as well, before his shook his head and reached for the burger that positively oozed melted cheese.

"Sure was," The Vorta agreed, cutting her massive burger in two. Sometimes she envied the man's massive hands - now she had an entirely new reason to add to the growing list of 'why'. He could heft an entire burger without it falling apart or looking completely ridiculous. Sometimes it was good to be itty bitty. Eating large, hot sandwiches was not one of those times. "I think she's sweet on you. Come here often?" The first bite was complete heaven. Melted cheese, hot beef... Heaven. Ruby was almost forgotten about in the wake of all that flavor reaching out to start satiating her hunger. Almost.

It was hard to make a sound around the mouthful of goodness, but what he did get out was definitely something negative. He shook his head, though, to reinforce what he couldn't otherwise say. Caught between a sudden desire to chew faster - what was it with people asking a question that demanded serious response, at the worst moments - and desire to enjoy, he rolled his eyes up at the ceiling as his jaw worked it over. Finally he was able to swallow properly. "No. Never been here before," he added as he reached for the water. It was only when he was putting it down again that he added to it. "I've heard good things from my staff, but haven't been. It's allegedly more popular during daytime hours. You know - the times when most of the station populace is awake." It was a tease, albeit gentle. About the closest he was willing to come to that Line He Shouldn't Cross In Public.

"Say what you will about nocturnal tendencies, Commander, but the food in these places is usually a hell of a lot fresher than during rush times." Valeese snickered between bites, "Trust me, though. She thinks you're..." Her fingers traveled to the end of their table where a bottle of tobasco hung out besides ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, and various sweeteners. Once she'd captured it, she squinted dramatically at the label, "Muoy caliente." Another bite finally silenced her, and she released the bottle back to it's weird little family. They were toeing that line, scraping and picking at it, but she couldn't help it. He was truly marvelous when he let himself smile.

He shifted in his side of the booth and raised an eyebrow at her. A few words in that language were known to him. Even if he hadn't understood them, he would have garnered an understanding very quickly given the context. Thoughtfully, he took another bite of what he held in his hands - a smaller bite, one more conducive to talking around it - and chewed. "That would be an extremely ... unwise idea," he finally said. "Very distracting and probably not conducive to my good health." The latter was said in lower tones, and without a waggling of an eyebrow that he was otherwise tempted to direct her way. The privacy field was good for blocking sound. Not so much with imagery.

Her eyebrow arched again, and the burger was temporarily sidebared for the sake of jabbing back at him. Verbal jousting was a magnificent thing - even more so when one was trying their damnedest to behave. Playing by the rules wasn't necessarily her most favorite past time, bending them... Now there was something she was at least decent at. "Who am I to say anything about that. She's not completely unfortunate, uncomplicated." She shrugged. The waitress, now serving someone else what appeared to be soup and a beer, was most definitely not a complicated creature, "You know... Low maintenance." As opposed to high maintenance requiring stations to be blown up in order to free her from the jaws of a life of sheer hell and torture. Uncomplicated low maintenance had its appeal, even Valeese had to admit that, and then there was the fact that the woman was most definitely human and wouldn't cause a stir should he stroll along the promenade with her hand in hand.

Another bite rescued her from the scowl she could feel trying to tug further at her natural pout.

"I thought you knew me better than that, Commander," James said, in a tone that was almost a gentle reprimand. One eyebrow was raised and directed her way; a counterpoint to the pout coming back at him. "I prefer interesting. Not easy. And if you think that I cut and -" He cut himself off, before he could start winding up, and took another bite of the burger in his hands. Only when he had settled down from his momentary riling - and stars only knew where that had come from! - did he trust himself to speak levelly again. "Besides, I much prefer keeping my skills sharp. One never knows when a good suit of armor might come in handy. Admittedly it's not shining, and it lacks a sword, but it gets the job done." This was definitely proving to be an interesting exercise, he reflected, if only in restraining himself from words best uttered behind closed doors.

Valeese had to admit that his response hadn't been expected. She'd known he'd fluff up a bit, but he rolled an entirely different way with the jab she'd thrown at him. Deny it all she wanted, he wanted her brand of complication and so-called high maintenance. More to the point... He wanted her. "You know..." She started, sizing up a bite of food. It really was a marvel that she could fit her mouth around that burger, "the thing about shining armor is that it means it hasn't even taken a hit. It's untested. Damaged, tarnished stuff is the sign of true success and merit." Good recovery. She stuffed her face before she could fuck it up.

"Or it just means that someone hasn't been taking good care of it. Damaged and tarnished may sound noble, but I would rather go into battle in well-maintained armor than some piece of shit that hasn't been kept ready for the day it might be needed. Yes, it means more effort in the long run, but I consider it worth it." The words may have been about one thing. The way he kept glancing at her, even as that rock-steady voice spoke and his fingers lifted a pair of fries, made clear that something else was in his mind. "Besides, I'm stubborn that way," he added after licking the ketchup off his fingers. "Never been known for being a quitter. Not about to start. Give me a good suit of armor and under the right circumstances I'd wade through hell with it. If I had something to do it for, that is." The latter was added with a nonchalant shrug. The only person fooled was the bartender.

It was her turn to return the shrug, the first half of her burger completed and the second looking more like a good idea for a quick unorthodox breakfast than anything else. She wasn't hungry any longer. A sip of her tea did little to quell the rise of giddy emotion that coursed its way through her veins and settled in the pit of her belly, "You'd move heaven and hell, huh?" The Vorta's voice was whisper soft as her eyes - filled with a decent measure of surprise and understanding - met his and refused to leave.

He leaned forward, planting his elbows on the table and eyeing her over his intertwined fingers. Not once did he retreat from that gaze. "Quite so." He continued to eyeball her as he thought. Finally he broke the look, if only to look down at his plate and his own half-eaten burger. Some thought in his mind made the corner of his mouth quirk in amusement. "Commander, I don't know about you but I'm feeling rather full. How about we call an end to this little foray onto the Promenade?" The question was an innocent one. The tightened look and throaty, almost growl, in his throat was quite another thing entirely.

The nod was curt, quick, but the message clear. A napkin ran through her fingers to rid them of imaginary grease and found itself hitting the table. "No complaints from me." It was all she could do not to explode out of that booth, dragging him along with her to somewhere where she could finally touch him and talk to him without the need for hidden furtive glances and double meanings. How she remained composed and poised, feigning extreme disinterest, was beyond her... And she deserved an Oscar.


Lt Commander James Stacker
Executive Officer

Commander Valeese
Chief Medical Officer


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