"I would prefer being alone."
Charvanek's smile mocked Saavik's statement. "Always the best time for company." She slid into the booth and gave an imperious flick of her hand to the servitor.
He approached nervously, his bald, gray striped head with its typical Genall blunted features glistened with a sheen of sweat. His colorless appearance fit the drab bar perfectly. He glanced between the two women, taking in pointed ears and Charvanek's smile. "Romulan Ale, my lady?"
She turned her smile on him, changing it so he knew he had said something wrong. "Ale is a children's drink. Do you see any children here? "
He shook his head, almost spraying her with sweat droplets. She moved out of range.
"Ch'topen wine," she commanded and sent him scurrying. She leaned forward, wrinkling her nose at Saavik's glass. "It works better if you try something stronger than water." She noticed the place setting in front of the other woman. "And please tell me you weren't going to actually eat anything here."
The servitor reappeared nervously with a fresh glass and a bottle of brilliant purple, Romulan wine. She took both and told him to remove the place setting. He picked up Saavik's empty plate, but ran off when she gestured him away.
"Allow me," Charvanek said and calmly tossed the contents of Saavik's glass on the floor. She poured a liberal amount of the vibrant liquid, and then filled up her own glass. "What brings a notable Starfleet commander to a place like this?"
Saavik's eyebrow lifted. "What brings a notable Romulan commander to a place like this?"
Charvanek grinned. "He would not approve, you know." She lifted her drink and tasted it thoughtfully. "Or is that why you're here?"
A very slight, soft flush colored Saavik's cheeks, but it was banished quickly. "I am on shore leave."
The answering chuckle made little of that.
Perhaps that's why Saavik said with some emphasis, "I am honored the head of the Empire's Fleet spares time at my table."
Charvanek shrugged this off: "It's a neutral world along the border, so there's no danger in aggravating the situation Dralath started over Narendra III. And I was nearby already when I found out you were here."
Saavik accepted this. They both looked like two crewmen off a cargo ship set to return to the Empire. Or at least Charvanek did, and who would think of a Romulan and a Starfleet officer at a table together?
"And how many of your security officers are 'nearby' in this room?" Saavik asked.
"You think I'm ambushing you?"
"No. However, a person of your position will have her officers with her."
Charvanek conceded the point. "Not that many. I'm sure you have enough to counter balance it."
Saavik dismissed that. "I have none. Am I in need of them?"
"I already said, this isn't an ambush." She leaned back, settling in comfortably, and studied Saavik. "You look better, compared to the last time I saw you."
"I am certainly no longer dying."
Charvanek's smile reappeared, ready to make her first gambit. "You lived, but you may have heard about someone else who died. Lady Evaste?"
"Indeed." Saavik drawled the word out slightly, clearly wondering where this led.
She should. Charvanek didn't keep her waiting, only paused long enough to pick up her glass and look over it at the other. She said deliberately, "I found Hasmonak."
It was the way the expression drained from Saavik's face, going from Vulcan calm to stone, that signaled the words hit deep. That and the subtle tension in her body, like her muscles poised for action, dependent on Charvanek's next words.
Supposedly, a Vulcan wouldn't tense at all, even subtly. On the other hand, Charvanek noted, a Romulan's eyes would snap a warning at her, and the jaw would clench.
She waited, forcing the other to make the next move, and got her first surprise of the evening when Saavik said, "I owe him a great deal."
Charvanek answered evenly, "He did let you live."
But Saavik shook her head. "We both know I could have killed him. However, his treatment of me gave me much more than you suggest."
"Because of him, I can sit across from you, or anyone like you, and not place the blame for Hellguard on your shoulders."
"I can see where that's important." She thought that over seriously for a moment. "Is that something we should avoid?"
Now that was interesting: Saavik didn't react to the planet's name. Charvanek expected a lot more fire, and then had to change her mind again when steel edged every one of the woman's next words.
"Did you know?"
She set her glass down and met that loaded question with the attention it deserved. "What was going on there? No, not really. Not everyone did. I heard vague rumors about a genetic project that later sounded like a weapons project. I never was interested in joining it, so I never delved into the details. In the end, I heard the nightmares about the whole thing. Even some of the most rational people still talk about the planet like it's cursed." She hesitated before saying the next part. "Supposedly, no one survived. That was until you surfaced and showed the lie of that."
Saavik didn't seem to care about proving the lie wrong. "If you had known, would you have stopped it?"
Charvanek thought back to the young woman she had been then, so naive and eager in her career. Seeing the dark side of her Empire, but believing everyone was going to clean it up, that everything was going to be done for the best. Those bright days untouched by bitterness and cynicism.
"I can't give you the right answer because I don't know. Things seemed so different then." Her voice trailed off as she thought about that totally other person she had been. "I probably would have thought I didn't need to. That if I knew, somebody else did, the people in power, and they'd clean it up."
All the cynicism Charvanek had ever learned was reflected in Saavik's answer. No, worse, because Saavik's was learned at birth, while Charvanek's formative years were played happily with friends and family.
Charvanek was not going to flinch from that harsh truth. "Yes, they did."
"They did not stop it."
"No, not the way they should have."
What dark days they had been, and long before the Federation actually saw a Romulan face. By the time Enterprise, NCC-1701, got the first, historic glimpse of what Romulans looked like, Saavik and others like her had suffered on Hellguard for years.
No wonder people said that the Commander of that same fateful mission against Kirk was already sadly embittered over what his Empire was becoming.
Saavik's gaze continued to bore into her, stronger than any phaser strike, until she sat back, leaving Charvanek to wonder if she had some glimpse of these thoughts. "Perhaps we should avoid this topic."
"I think you're right." Charvanek took a deep breath. "Except for the point where it started. Hasmonak."
That warning of poised muscles again as Saavik went back to carefully watching her. "Yes."
"He really changed your mind?"
"He has made me rethink my position, yes. I am still doing so. Hasmonak has every reason to curse the Empire that left his wounds unhealed and discarded him after such loyal service. And yet, he does the opposite, and therefore is an example of the best of you."
Charvanek calmly nodded. "I thought so. Which is why I gave him an Honor Blade."
The readiness never left those muscles, but Saavik relaxed, now knowing Hasmonak was all right. With that, the tension that Hellguard put between them eased. "A suitable reward for his actions."
"Did you really think I'd hurt him?"
Saavik's head cocked to the side as she considered that. Finally, she answered, "You as yourself, no. You in your official position, possibly. After all, Hasmonak did not know Evaste was going to Narendra III, and you do not know what was said that night. The official position may have been he set free a potential threat to the then-Praetor."
Charvanek leaned her head on one hand. "Quite true. And if I had killed him for official reasons, you'd still hold it against me."
"Want to tell me what you two said that night?"
Charvanek grinned even wider. "My congratulations on your marriage."
Saavik's eyes narrowed, weighing that, but she didn't look surprised at the change in topic. "Thank you. You may wish to know Commander Ruanek is well. And my congratulations on your success in the Empire."
Charvanek dipped her head in acknowledgment. She swirled the liquid in her glass. "I hear you've been offered the command of your own ship." Saavik said nothing. "I hear it is the new Vulcan ship." Her smooth forward creased in mock thought. "What is its name? The Logic?"
"The Intrepid," Saavik corrected, sounding almost bored. "As you undoubtedly are quite aware."
The Romulan smiled. "Ah, yes, the brave Intrepid." She stretched her legs out. "Of course, I understand your hesitation to take such a ship. After the first one was destroyed with all hands."
"I do not believe in superstition."
"And I do not believe in losing. We both must learn to make concessions."
Boredom left Saavik's expression, replaced by piqued interest. "We come to your real purpose for being here."
Charvanek pretended interest in her drink. "And you find it amusing?"
"He is not a prize."
"So you say." She leaned forward suddenly, resting her chin in her hand. "And what if I should prove otherwise?"
Saavik lifted her glass and took a drink. "You are welcome to attempt it." She set it back down. "Of course, Romulans by nature do not take well to defeat."
"Meaning me or you?"
Saavik only waved that aside. "Naturally meaning you as I am not Romulan. Do not lower yourself to such an effortless comment as to my being a hybrid. If you think so highly of Spock, you may want to emulate his attitude in such matters, even though by its nature, it is foreign to you."
Charvanek scoffed at that. "Is this a talk about Spock's human side?"
"I am not the best qualified for such a discussion. Nor am I the best qualified to discuss his Vulcan side." Charvanek didn't get a chance to comment on that surprise announcement before the next words were said with a gleam. "I am, however, the best qualified to discuss the hybrid Spock, and, after all, that is the only Spock that exists."
"That was arrogant. Even smug."
Again, that raising and lowering the eyebrows like a shrug. "Perhaps. It is also the truth."
"So what's that? You're saying I don't know him as well as I think I do?"
"I cannot contradict something you believe is truth when you have never stated it to me."
Charvanek's eyes narrowed and then she laughed. This attack and parry was living up to her expectations. "I like you."
Saavik deadpanned, "The thought is refreshing."
Charvanek laughed again, and leaned back in the booth. "We are very much alike."
"Insulting me will not substantially improve the odds of your success."
"We have the same strength, the same intelligence in battle--" the Romulan's eyes grew cunning, "--the same Spock."
Saavik's eyes held and drilled into her from across the table. "You are attempting to provoke me."
"The truth can be that way sometimes."
"I do not believe you."
Charvanek smiled. She drained her glass and refilled it. "Do you remember how the first cloaking device fell into the hands of your Federation?"
Saavik went still. "That mission is still classified."
"Is that uncertainty in your voice?"
"That mission is still classified."
Charvanek swirled the liquid in her drink, eyes not leaving Saavik's face. "He was ordered to get the device through any means necessary." She smiled. "I am sure you know just how... persuasive he can be."
Saavik's fair skin darkened. "I do not care for your implications."
Charvanek's eyes widened with sudden innocence. "You mean to tell me he has never mentioned his... involvement in the details of the mission?"
Saavik watched her. "I am aware," she said, "that he managed to capture both you and the cloaking device."
Charvanek's eyes grew dangerous. "And you don't care how he managed such a feat?"
Charvanek looked smugly triumphant. "And here I thought Vulcans lacked passion. You're angry."
"Deception under the oath of duty is not worthy of such an emotion."
Charvanek's eyes flared. "I was no deception!" she spat out. People at neighboring tables, even though they weren't within reach, skittered their seats even further away.
Saavik, on the other hand, was quite calm again. "Nor do I give any thought to the appearance of one of his previous lovers. The past is the past."
Good move. Charvanek applauded the tactic. Dismissing her into the lump of former bed partners, it was a move only a secure woman -- and wife -- could make.
But Saavik gave her no time. "Had he desired you, he would have accepted your... invitation in the capitol."
Charvanek's head snapped back as if struck. The glass in her hand groaned under the pressure of her fist.
Those eyes caught that, of course, and then flicked back up to her own gaze and penetrated her. "You did not think he would tell me."
She forced a smile.
Saavik studied the liquid in her glass quietly a long moment before talking again in that ceaseless even tone. "I knew the possibilities when he sent me away."
Charvanek frowned. "And you went anyway?"
Saavik shrugged slightly.
She can't be serious. "Why?"
"I preferred he live."
Charvanek leaned back slowly. She took a long drink out of her glass. "And had he accepted my... invitation?"
Saavik studied her. "It is no dishonor to lose to a more worthy opponent."
As if she was about to make just another offhand comment, Saavik straightened the utensils left at her place setting. "If he gave me reasons to be jealous, he would not be my husband. If I had the capacity for jealousy, I would not be his wife."
No, she wouldn't be. But still... leave him with another woman when you knew--
"However," Saavik continued, "that differs slightly from my earlier point. If he prefers another who prefers him, I would not begrudge him his choice. Conversely, if I am his preference, and the other who desires him is aware of it, with the intention of pursuing him despite it..."
Unbelievable! The eyebrows raised and a warmth suffused Saavik's face like she was enjoying herself, even as her inflection remained the same. "That I would take as a Challenge." The eyebrows lifted higher as she laid her hand down on the table. "With the far more ancient and dangerous meaning of the word."
Charvanek's eyes fell on how Saavik's spread thumb and index finger framed the hilt of a knife on the table. She looked back up and smiled the smile Saavik didn't allow. "You made it clear." Her smile widened with real respect. "Nicely done."
The other nodded.
"But you didn't need to say it."
"You came here to see if I would."
"Maybe." Charvanek paused, and then shook her head, still amazed at the thought. "You really left knowing that I--"
"I put him first, before anything else. My own life, the Federation--"
"Stop there! You expect me to believe that? That you'd sacrifice the Federation for him? You're too good an officer to ever do that. And remember, I knew you risked his life when you left without him to go to Narendra III."
Hardened eyes and the skin around them growing tight were Charvanek's only indications of how painful it had been for Saavik to leave Spock behind in danger. "I thought I had explained that point already. However, for clarity, I did my duty towards Narendra III with the thought being, in the worst case scenario, you would take care of Spock's life." She stared into her wine, reflected light from the glass cutting across her closed off expression. In a quiet voice, she repeated, "I put him first."
Charvanek swore softly to herself, and had to drop her eyes away from this image of Spock's wife. She sighed. "I see why he chose you."
Saavik snapped out of her thoughts and her eyes grew curious. "May I ask why?"
The Romulan smiled. "You would not understand if I told you."
Saavik looked back at her like she was mulling that over. But she instead said, "You are everything he has told me."
One surprise after another. Of course, Charvanek instantly wanted to know what Spock had said about her, but her smile never faded. "Don't be disappointed that I don't take that bait."
Saavik watched her for a moment. "As I have disappointed you this evening? I did not give you the reactions you expected."
Charvanek laughed. "You are annoying in that way."
Saavik swirled the last bit of wine in her glass, watching it play in the light. "So many have said. However, my statement still holds true. You are everything he said."
"I'm still not taking that bait."
"As you wish. Perhaps you would not understand it even if I told you."
Charvanek glared, and then melted it into a shake of her head. "If our positions were reversed, I wonder if I could sit across from you."
She waited, and then realized Saavik didn't need to make the point. What perverse thing is making me say it for her? "Because he turned me down. He put you first."
Saavik only nodded.
"It does come down to that." Charvanek lifted her glass in salute. "To losing with honor." She drained the glass and stood. "I will bid you a good evening now."
A musical trio began setting up in the far corner. Why a place like this even bothered at faking such niceties escaped her. Unless it meant the band was so bad, it could only play at dumps like this.
Saavik said to her, "You will miss the entertainment."
She chuckled. "I enjoyed the entertainment I came for."
Saavik inclined her head just once, and Charvanek had a sudden thought. Had Saavik known that she was in the area? Information from Intelligence Divisions worked both ways. And once she found out the Romulan was near, did Saavik deliberately come out in the open, knowing Charvanek couldn't resist the temptation?
She stared at the half-Romulan woman and wondered. Some answering light showed in the other's eyes. She found herself smiling again. "You're going to tell him, aren't you?"
"I see no reason for secrecy."
"And you look forward to his reaction."
Chuckling, Charvanek turned to go and then suddenly turned back. "I hear there is a new movement amongst the shadows of the Empire. If it has its way, he and I will cross paths again." A very Romulan smile twisted her lips into a predatory grin. "I do not believe in losing."
She got two steps away when she heard the answering shot.
"If possible, please give my respects to your husband, if I may be so bold as to address Praetor Narviat."
She felt the weight of her marriage bracelet, engraved with her mate's personal symbol entwined with her own. Engraved by his own hands... for her.
She didn't turn around, but she laughed privately under her breath. Her only audible response was tossed over her shoulder. "You get to pay the bill."
Saavik watched her disappear. Some of the shadows separated themselves from the room's dark places and followed their Commander out. Saavik sat still for a little bit longer in the booth and then rose, draining her glass in one swallow. She set it down carefully and straightened her shoulders with a long breath.
Then her lips gave the shadow of a curve.
She pulled the communicator from her belt and snapped it open. "Lieutenant Andreas, prepare a link to Vulcan. I am returning to the ship immediately."
Without waiting for a response, she snapped it close. Her gaze fell on the half empty bottle of Romulan wine on the booth's table and her eyes narrowed. The words "I do not believe in losing" echoed in her ears.
She murmured to the air where the other woman once was. "Neither do I."