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She was beat after a night of the kid doing the rumba on her bladder; the runabout smelled of too many people crammed into a too-small space. Scotty was just getting warm, telling Bart Faulwell the one about the Jenolen -- "though it was Franklin who came up with the notion of locking the system in a continuous diagnostic" -- and all Lense wanted was to crawl into a nice ice-box somewhere far, far away and catch sixty winks.
That, and maybe her job back.
Hunh. Lense let go of a long, slow sigh. That is so not going to happen.
Eight months pregnant and she was gonzo. Hasta la vista, babee, and turn off the lights on your way out, sweetheart, that's a love. Starfleet regs were very specific about the billets that would allow an officer to raise a newborn child, and Sabre-class vessels weren't on the list. She could keep the kid or keep the job, but not both.
Hell, Gold hadn't even waited until she was gone-gone. And she had trusted him. That little heart-toheart, his damn therapy, all that talk about family: You're not alone. You're part of a family here. Gold had known just how to manipulate her. And yet...
And yet, for a time, Lense had actually been happy. Not merely content. Happy. Part of the family, a little. That had meant a lot. After Saad, Lense hadn't been sure she'd ever be happy again.
A lump pushed in her throat as she thought about that last hour onboard, when Gold steered her into the mess hall, crammed with the da Vinci's crew: a surprise going-away party before she left for Starbase 375 with Faulwell and Scotty.
The sight of all those people absolutely floored her and she'd gotten teary, embarrassing herself, but she'd just been so bowled over between her anxiety for Faulwell and then surprise that she hadn't really seen the party for what it was.
She was gone. This was good-bye.
Actually, there was more to it than that. Ironically, just as she was leaving, she also got a promotion. Gold did it himself, removing the hollow pip and replacing it with a full one to match the other two. Commander Elizabeth Lense.
And she couldn't delude herself about it any longer now that Faulwell didn't need her full attention. A sly sideways glance at Faulwell -- wan, twenty kilos lighter, hollow-eyed -- and she knew that whatever healing happened now was out of her hands. Faulwell had come a millimeter away from death before she -- and, okay, Sarjenka, She of the Amazing Fame, Gold's new Golden Girl -- beat it back.
But there were wounds of the body and those of the soul. Lense suspected Faulwell's healing was a long time coming.
The baby twisted and flipped. She was absolutely certain that if she pulled up her tunic, her stomach would look like two Vulcan sehlats fighting in a gunny sack. One thing was for sure: The kid was as completely pissed off about having to take the slow boat as she was.
Well, don't beat me up; it's your fault, you little squirt.
Under any other circumstance, she'd have been happy to beam down to Earth, except she couldn't. The baby's father, Saad, had been unique, his cells antigenically neutral. While this made him the perfect candidate for Idit Kahayn's experiments, this also had allowed her system to adapt well to the fetus, something that couldn't always be counted on with an interspecies pregnancy.
Yet the baby's mixed antigenic status and the sheer amount of its unique DNA circulating in her blood meant that, theoretically, the transporter's pattern buffers would have difficulty resolving the two matter streams. Julian Bashir had confirmed her suspicions: use the transporter, and the fetus's transporter pattern might easily "bleed" into Lense's own, killing them both. She'd risked it a couple of times earlier on, but once she got into the final trimester, she couldn't chance it.
So now after this good long ride on a runabout as Scotty held forth, she couldn't even hope for a quick escape once they came into the Sol system. They had to go through the entire nonsense of landing...
So what now? The da Vinci was no longer home, not with The Amazing Sarjenka loitering about and she'd be damned if she was going to let that Kewpie doll deliver her kid.
Actually, she had been tempted not to go ahead with the pregnancy. Did she really need a child to complicate her life even more?
Then she kept remembering what Julian said: But above all, be...happy. Because this is rare, and very precious. It's like something out of the ashes. Maybe you won't want it in the end. But maybe you will, because it's a gift of things past and a possible future. It's a gift.
She was appalled when her eyes stung with sudden tears.
For crying out loud, stop this. One disaster at a time, okay? Just what I need, a hormonally induced crying jag...
She told herself to relax. The little snot had been pretty active most of the night, deciding that a little after two A.M. was a great time to roust Mom for a game of belly ball. Lense had tolerated it for about ten minutes and then, groaning, she'd thrown in the towel, called for lights and then lay propped on pillows, her hands lightly on her belly, watching the kid's bum skim the underside of her skin. There'd been a moment when he -- okay, it was habit; she just thought of the little squirt as a boy -- pushed and her skin tented with the outline of the heel one little foot.
It was hard to be angry after that. Damn it.
* * *
They were Earth-bound: Scotty finally back to Starfleet Command after joining in the hunt for Rod Portlyn and the mission to Ardana; Faulwell for R&R after being impaled by an Ardanan trap; and she to...well, because she had to.
So now what? Working the kinks in her neck, she blew a frizzle of hair from her eyes. While she had to choose a new assignment that fit Starfleet regs, her record and reputation meant she could have her pick of the ones that did. Julian had nudged her, gently, about considering DS9. She'd been tempted. Yes, they were close friends; after what they'd gone through together, maybe more than that. But best not to push it. Not. Right. Now.
One step by one step...
So, Earth. The kid in a month or so (depending; due dates were tough with interspecies pregnancies). Figure out what the hell to do next. Maybe get assigned to a Galaxy-class vessel? Not wild about that. She could use the support a starship offered, but she really felt a holodeck was no way for a kid to learn about a sun and sky, what grass felt like underfoot, how the sea churned in a storm.
All right, so maybe Earth? She couldn't see herself leaving Starfleet. That was her only family, really; a stab at one anyway. Or...
"And then Franklin," Scotty said, "know what he said?"
"I can't imagine." Faulwell's drawn features pulled into an expression Lense read as half-catatonia, halfinterest. Not terribly surprising: Nothing like a little near-death experience to take the wind out of your sails.
Faulwell's hand absently drifted to a spot over his abdomen, a little left of center where Lense knew the spike had first pierced then skewered Faulwell to the cavern wall. "What did he say?" Faulwell asked.
Scotty either didn't notice Faulwell's fatigue, or chose to ignore it. Or maybe he'd decided that his mission en route was, in Scotty-speak, to buck up the lad and lass. "He said, 'Scott, ya idchit, you're worried about how old you're gonna be before they haul your ass out of the pattern buffer? Didcha fergit the laws a physics?'"
The kid picked that instant for a really swift kick to the bladder -- and Lense flinched, put a hand to her bulging belly, and let out a little "hah" of surprise before she remembered that she really didn't need any more attention than she'd gotten already.
"Here now, lass." All concern now, Scotty leaned forward. His teeth showed in a wide smile and his eyes were -- yes -- twinkling. This was something Lense would've thought physiologically impossible except she'd caught that look in just about everyone's eyes right around her fifth month, when she really started to show.
That, and absolute strangers seemed to think that she was their private Buddha, giving her belly a little pat-pat. (And the outright gawking from species for whom a pregnancy like hers was worth a quick picture...gah.) One of the few good things Lense would admit to saying about Sarjenka was that the little twit actually respected her privacy and her pregnancy.
Scotty threw her a quick wink. "Acting up now? Showing you who's boss?"
"Mmmm." It was something she'd never quite gotten used to, how people seemed to, well, change around her. What was it about a pregnant woman that made normally level-headed people go a little gooey? She scooted back in her seat, both to resettle her weight (hoping like hell she could float the kid off her bladder) and move out of range just in case Scotty was seized with the same impulse to rub her tummy for good luck. "You'd think the little parasite would have more respect."
Laughing, Scotty slapped his thigh. "You think things are bad now, just wait until he's bawling his lungs out at all hours, wanting something to eat and only his mum will do. Then you'll know who's really in charge."
"Gee, Scotty, I can't wait." She felt her belly gather and bunch as the kid balled and then flexed and did a back flip. She managed a grin. "I guess it's a good thing they're cute."
* * *
And later, as the runabout rolled and began its approach decel, Scotty asked, "So, lass, I hear your mother's gonna be on hand to meet you. Quite a woman, that."
"Ah." Lense swallowed, as much to forestall further conversation as concentrate on keeping her breakfast where it belonged. Funny how being pregnant changed a lot of things. Decels used to be a snap. Not that they were falling like a stone, but the blur of stars smudging into atmosphere was nauseating. "Didn't know you knew her."
"Och, everyone ever had anythin' to do with the Tholians has heard of Jennifer Almieri." To Faulwell: "The Peckman, the Nobel, and the Voltak." Ticking the prizes off on his fingers. "Maybe two, three more."
"Yeah?" Across the aisle, Faulwell pulled out of his slouch, sudden interest lighting his wan features. "Your mom is Jennifer Almieri? You never said anything about that."
Yeah, because she'd never said anything about her family, period.
"She and I aren't exactly close." An understatement. Like the reply message she'd received when she sent word ahead that she was returning to Earth: Message received. Will be on hand but must leave in forty-eight.
Probably to flit back to whatever dig she had going. Typical Jennifer.
"Really?" Scotty's eyebrows crawled for his hairline. "When was the last time you two saw each other?"
Lense debated a half second. The kid bunched, like he was waiting, too.
She looked Scott square in the eye. "About fifteen years."
That pretty much killed the conversation the rest of the way down.
* * *
Making their way toward the waiting area at the shuttle dock in San Francisco, Lense halfheartedly searched for Jennifer. Never occurred to her that they might not recognize each other. One thing Jennifer Almieri was not: vain. Give her the same dusty pair of jeans, work boots, and plaid shirt, and Jennifer was set.
"Is she here?" Faulwell asked. He didn't seem to be looking for anyone.
"Mmm-mmm," she murmured. Odd. She'd assumed Anthony Mark would be on hand, but a quick glance around didn't reveal a single blondhaired, blue-eyed Adonis in sight.
On the other hand, a knot of Starfleet personnel standing along the wall to the extreme left did snag her attention. From their uniforms, she counted two security guards; a doe-eyed, slight man in blue she pegged as a Betazoid, and three humans, two men and a woman.
The woman and one of the men were older. The woman was handsome, mid-fifties, with bronze hair. Seemed familiar.
The older man had blond hair now going white and sun-weathered skin. He was lanky, maybe two meters and change. Good-looking.
The younger one leapt out at her right away: lantern jaw, a ski-slope of a nose, a brow wrinkled as he scanned faces...she dredged up the name: Gordon Plath. Two years ahead of her at Starfleet Medical Academy. Nice enough guy.
Plath spotted her just about the time she recognized him because his knit brows smoothed. He turned to say something to the others. The Betazoid glanced her way, dropped his eyes to a padd he carried in his left hand, then murmured something to Plath.
Okay, that was weird. A pin of disquiet pricked her chest, and her endocrine system obliged with a squirt of adrenaline. (A second later, the kid knotted. It was like having an onboard computer double-checking her systems: Was that a surge of epinephrine? Thump! Roger that.) And what was with the security detail?
Instinctively, she slowed and then stumbled as Faulwell, following close behind, plowed into her. Faulwell's hand flashed to grab her right arm and steady her. "Whoa," he said. "Sorry. I wasn't..." Then he saw her face. "What is it?"
Before she could respond, Plath, the Betazoid, and the others formed a wedge, with the security personnel cleaving a path through the clot of disembarking passengers from a tourist shuttle. As the security people got closer, Lense saw the insignia on their uniforms -- an old-fashioned spyglass bisecting a Starfleet arrowhead.
What the hell is SCIS doing here?
Lense had to fight an impulse to cringe back. Even the kid had stopped moving.
Out of nowhere, Scotty appeared on her left. "Something wrong?" he asked Faulwell, who still had Lense's arm.
Before Faulwell could answer, Plath was there. "Dr. Lense." His tone was serious, and his blue-gray eyes grave. "I'm Captain Plath, Deputy Commander, Starfleet Medical, and this is Counselor Duren."
"I remember you, Captain," Lense said, automatically taking the hand he proffered. Plath's grip was strong but brief. Duren didn't offer his hand. Lense flicked a glance to the security personnel hovering several meters behind Plath and then to the last two, the older man and woman. Now that she saw them close up, she was sure she knew the woman.... She looked up at Plath. "What's going on?"
"We'd like to discuss this somewhere else, if you don't mind," Plath said.
"Discuss what?" A pointed glance at the man and woman. "Do I know you?"
The woman's eyes were moss-brown and serious. "It's been a long time, Lizzie. More than, what, twenty years?"
Lizzie...No one called her that except family, but this woman wasn't...The name came to her then. "You're Dr. Darly. You work with my mo -- with Jennifer."
"On the Tholian Drura Sextus Dig, yes -- and it's Livilla, please," Darly said in a throaty alto. Her eyes skipped to Lense's stomach and then back. "Let's see, the last time I saw you, you had just turned, what, fifteen? Sixteen? Do you remember?...No? Well, I expect you had other things on your mind. I'll bet you don't remember Dr. Strong either, do you?" She gestured toward the older man who, Lense saw now, was very good-looking, with muscular shoulders and a torso that tapered to narrow hips.
"Preston." His grip was forceful, his hands thick and work-roughened. He exuded an aura of unabashed sexuality, an insinuating and seductive charm.
"I...I'm sorry." Lense was blushing, she knew; she could feel the heat crawling up her neck. And she was totally bewildered now. "I don't understand. Where is Jennifer?"
Plath gave a tight smile. "We wanted to be sure to meet you first. We just..." He glanced at the Betazoid.
Duren took up the slack. "We should go somewhere private, Doctor."
"To talk about what?" Then, a sudden premonition. "Oh my God, nothing's happened to Ju -- Dr. Bashir? On DS9?"
"DS9?" Confusion clouded Plath's features for an instant. "No, nothing like that. We just thought it best..."
"Thought best about what?" She shot a pointed glance at the security personnel. "Am I in trouble for something?" She felt Faulwell and Scotty move in to flank her, and she was -- oddly -- grateful.
"No, no, hold on." Visibly flustered, Plath held up both hands, palms out. "Hold on, it's not what you think."
Scotty puffed out his chest. "Then what are a couple of special agents -- "
"I'm not a special agent -- "
"All the more reason why we should be asking what anyone from Starfleet Criminal Investigative Service would be wanting with one of ours."
"I..." Plath's gaze bounced from Scotty to the counselor, who only shrugged. Sighing, Plath dropped his hands. "I'm sorry, Dr. Lense. I'd hoped we could discuss this somewhere private."
"Oh, for God's sake, Plath," Lense said. "Just say it."
But it was Darly who answered.
"Oh, Lizzie, dear," she said, gently. "Your mother is dead."
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