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Breaking it Down

Posted on Mon May 9th, 2022 @ 1:27pm by Executive Officer Jake Ford & Evelyn Reynolds

Mission: Adrift
Location: Deck 6 - Converted Cargo Bays
Timeline: MD-02: 1700Hrs
5880 words - 11.8 OF Standard Post Measure

They had survived their first day. Jake was actually pretty pleased with how things were going; almost everyone seemed to have found a job to pitch in with, or at the very least something to keep them out of trouble. Pride usually came before the fall, though, so his normal optimism was tempered by an underlying pragmatic view of the next few days. Some of the conversations he'd had were helping to ground him a little more - surprisingly his conversation with Kali had drawn-out some of that weird Romulan-ness that was lurking in his psyche and he was being a bit more cautious than usual with his thinking.

He found Evelyn sitting alone again, though he wasn't sure if that was something she wanted or if it was still a case of being left out by others. He'd been too busy to notice.

He shuffled up alongside her, sitting down and deliberately giving her a little nudge. "How's the leg?" he asked, starting the conversation with a touch of compassion.

It was, at least, not a remark about her current task. Being cramped into a cargo bay, without reliable power for more than the basics, meant that there wasn't likely to be enough organisation matters to keep the crew fully occupied for much longer, let alone a wayward passenger who'd had no opportunity for formal introductions and wasn't the type to burst into a crowd and announce her presence even when she wasn't furtive and distrustful. Evelyn had found ways to keep busy, however, and now that she was done ripping and sterilising emergency bandages, she'd turned her attention to repairs. Specifically the kind that required needle and thread.

She hadn't asked, had simply wandered into the small supply depot, found what nearly counted as sewing supplies, sorted through the surplus of jackets and blankets and dragged out the ones in dubious condition. Her stitches were neat, practised, the result more of her father's influence than any old-fashioned stereotype that might have once plagued her lineage. She was a surgeon's daughter; once she was done, they wouldn't be able to see where she'd been.

Biting loose a piece of thread, Evie glanced up at her visitor and blinked at him several times whilst navigating the process of 'finishing off'. "I have two of them," she eventually replied, glibly. "Which one are you interested in?"

He acknowledged the joke with a smile. "Forget I asked then." He watched the last few stitches go through the material with practiced care. "Strange how these circumstances bring out things we stopped using, or forgot we had."

"You haven't spent Christmas with my father." Another tug of thread became another threaded needle and Evelyn spun the blanket in her lap to find another rent. "It's like sitting the entire pre-med exam all over again; not a lot of scope for forgetting." The slip of the tiny sliver of metal through the thick wool took a moment's yanking but Evelyn managed it in between several glances towards Rosie's current commanding officer. It took a few seconds but she seemed to reach a decision. "Reconstructive surgery takes what it needs from you regardless of circumstance. There is no more pain than usual, if that helps." It was a slight dishonesty but the range between moderate to 'a bit more than moderate' didn't seem to warrant differentiation.

"No more than usual, huh?" he echoed. "If you need pain meds, I'm sure we can get some from the doctors."

"I have my prescriptions, I'm just saving them for when I need to sleep." Minimising her impact on the already-strained crew had been another reason for Evelyn to hold back, as convenient as it might have seemed as an excuse. Reducing her food and water intake to just the necessity had also been an easy habit to just fall back into.

"Have you had many conversations with people? Got a general feel for the mood yet?" he asked, figuring it had only been a day but Evelyn was pretty determined when she needed to be.

The stab of the needle was followed by another minor struggle to pull it through the thickness. "Observations tell me more than conversations at this point. Constantly introducing myself in an attempt to explain why I'm here has a certain drudgery to it," she reasoned, glancing up at him pointedly. Jake wasn't exactly at fault but there had been no time between her arriving and needing to rest and the current mayhem for her to be formally introduced to anyone. "I spent a decent amount of time today boiling bandages over a hotplate in your galley. Your primary kitchen staff seem personable enough. But you have a significant amount of crew segregating themselves. At one point, there were eight people eating and every last one of them sat by themselves. What's your roster rotation like? Many itinerates?"

"I..." he took a deep breath. He hadn't thought about it. Hadn't even noticed. There was so much else going on at the moment, too many things dragging his attention around. "I don't know," he admitted. "I know better than to try to micromanage, but...delegating things like that weren't exactly a priority when we had the staff meeting yesterday." He said it dryly. "I guess I need to appoint a morale officer."

"It's early days. In a situation like this, where privacy is in short supply, there's nothing immediately problematic about people finding time alone. It's healthy, actually. But to sit during a meal, such a traditionally communal time in so many cultures, and not speak a word... It just stood out to me."

Finishing up her patch-job, Evelyn set the blanket aside to afford her friend the bulk of her attention. Keenly analytical eyes studied him, someone she did have enough prior information on to form a reasonable judgement, but whatever conclusion she drew, Evie kept to herself for the moment. "Your best bet may be to find ways to keep everyone busy and then just keep your duty shift rotations intact. See it as an opportunity to upskill, it won't hurt people to learn something outside their designation." She sighed, wincing slightly as a movement in her seat forced flexing of what was very obviously a sore and aching knee, and added, "If your medical staff have enough to do, I can always run some first aid training. Or needlepoint." Finally, Evie's expression relaxed into a smile.

"I have no doubt they'd appreciate that," he agreed. "Though...leave me out of the crafting thing. Stitching things back together has never been my thing. Breaking stuff? Way more natural," he grinned.

"I think we have enough broken things around here to last us."

It hadn't been intended as a philosophical comment but there was a momentary lapse in Evelyn's response that indicated a degree of introspection. Certainly she broke eye contact, preferring instead to scan the room full of slightly-more-familiar faces. She didn't know names, but had started to catalogue people under designations that described their most typical function. The guy that cleaned the floors. The guy that hovered near the main exit fussing about who was coming and going. The woman who constantly repaired the one light that kept flickering on and off. Under different circumstances, it would have been easier to find merit in sitting back and analysing them. Now, though she'd forced herself for Ford's sake, it had come at a cost.

The heel of her palm dug at the tendons around the top of her kneecap.

"So, which ones are actually your friends?"

"Actual friends?" Jake looked around the cargo bay. That was a difficult one to answer. He'd often called Rosie a family, but for a lot of them it felt closer to a working environment, with people you'd worked with for a long time. Would he regard them as actual friends? "Well, Reuben...he's not here..." he said, immediately wishing he was. "I suppose that also includes Jeassaho..." His friend's wife. That seemed like a lame answer. He fell silent, studying the faces all around the bay.

"Well. Damn." He scratched his beard pensively. "I guess...I don't really have that many friends..."

That earned him a pair of raised eyebrows. "Even I have friends, Jake." It was a jab at herself more than anything, an acknowledgement of her work ethic's capacity to create a shortfall of time for idle socialisation. "And I distinctly remember you being far more proficient at making them than I am. What happened?"

He thought about it. They either left, moved on, or...in one or two cases, didn't survive. "Life sometimes just gets in the way." What a lame reason, he noted. Maybe it was an age thing? There were a lot of younger members of the crew, and he felt like a generation older than some of them. Ironically he was probably closer in biological maturity to someone like Liha, but that wasn't exactly a warm relationship. "Or just that I haven't got much in common with them." He looked back at her. "You're our designated counsellor, what do you think?"

"I thought one of the perks of command was that you got to choose who you hired? You could always prioritise some recruits who do have more in common with you." The faint smile that curved Evie's lips to one side just a little was evidence enough that she was mostly teasing him. "Or purchase yourself an indoor plant. I hear they're good to talk to."

"Why do you think I invited you on this leg of our journey? Not often you get someone you already know. We're friends, aren't we, Evie?" he grinned, giving her another nudge. Friends in the sense that she had dated his brother for years. At one point he wondered if Jack would even pop the question, but then again they were both a bit too career-minded for something like that. It would have looked too much like settling down.

"Under sufferance." She didn't elaborate whose suffering, though the pursed-lipped smile on Evelyn's face made a mockery of her reply in any case. Technically, and it required going back into a messy sequence of events that wasn't always easy to unravel, she had met the younger Ford brother first. This wasn't any unusual feat, they'd been in the same year at the Academy and had eventually gravitated towards each other mostly because Jake's fish-out-of-water impression had rallied Evelyn's sympathetic side. She had met his brother entirely independently of him, however, and had taken an amusingly long time to realise the connection.

Well, it had been funny at the time. Now very little about Jack Ford really counted as humorous.

"Uh-huh." He cocked an equally mocking smile on his face. He knew better than to suspect that she hated every minute of it. "To think after all these years, seeing me again could be more painful than whatever it is that you did to your knee? I'm wounded."

Evelyn was, at the best of times, a reserved woman. Within a trusted sphere, once relaxed, she betrayed a keen and agile sense of humour and could even be accused of having a mischievous side, but her public demeanour had always erred towards the professional. It was the aspect of her personality that meshed with Jack's, the part that paraded as compatibility and made for streaks of relative harmony, until the cracks that existed deep within their foundations found a way to clash. As evidenced by her approach to integrating with the Mary Rose's crew at all, it was entirely usual for her to disappear into herself. Mid-conversation, with someone who normally got away with teasing her, it created a vacuum that left the air between them instantly chilled.

And she didn't respond, didn't have a retort for him even though she could match verbal wits with anyone. Her gaze lowered, the blanket in her lap bunched against her palm as her hand clenched to a fist, and then she turned it once more to start work on the remaining tear.

He watched her work for a second, surprised that she'd not given him her usual comeback. Had he unknowingly struck a nerve? "Is...being around me really that difficult?" he asked, a little more sensitively. "I can give you some space if you want-" he said, starting to stand.

"It's not you, Jake."

She sounded...weary. And the resignation in Evelyn's tone spoke volumes because it meant that there was something that needed confronting, even if she was being particularly Evelyn about pretending otherwise. She had sought Jake out, not that he actually understood that their meeting in Freecloud hadn't been by chance, with the general understanding that she'd eventually have to tell him certain things. Gauging whether she could trust him was only part of her hesitation; their current situation was mostly to blame. Though she pinned him for a moment with a gaze that conveyed an element of raw desperation, Evie was still visibly mustering her composure as she dropped her voice and allowed her eyes to flit towards the crowded room behind him. "It's not you," she repeated softly.

He wasn't sure what to say to that. Her normal exterior was controlled, not emotional; certainly not to this level, anyway. In the time he'd known her she'd only really been like this towards the end of her time with Jack, but they'd both been responsible for that. She'd moved on. Or at least he thought she had. He put a hand on her shoulder.

"Sorry we're in this mess," he said. "Whatever it is you have going on, this can't be helping. If you need a break or somewhere a bit quieter, I can figure something out."

Evelyn hated the lack of control, the way her shoulder hunched against her best efforts to mask the reaction to his unexpected physical contact. It took only a split second for her to force it back down but, by then, the elephant had marched back into the room and sat its backside down in a refusal to budge.

"Worry about your crew, Jake." In the light of everything else, permission to forget about her was the best Evelyn could offer. If any one of them had a plan, it wasn't this; but she had her pride, obliterated as it was, and her sense of proportion, at least what she could salvage of it. "I'll be fine."

The hand on her shoulder went down to her upper arm, deliberately and firmly pulling her to her feet. "I've been saying 'I'm fine' to just about everyone on board the last couple of days. Take it from me when I say it's a load of ryak'na." He started to pull her towards the back end of the bay.

Historically, had he attempted to subvert her instructions, Jake might have earned a swift whack to the back of his legs with the walking cane he forced her to grab at short notice, despite the fact that she moved relatively well without it. Now, as her handiwork tumbled into a crumpled heap amidst the blankets Evelyn hadn't yet got to, the only reason she followed was because of the sudden, annoyingly familiar sensation of claustrophobia. It was a function of sound distortion more than anything, as her auditory system went into overdrive and her head filled with the writhing of competing cacophony. It didn't do a lot for her balance, but then it wasn't the best to begin with.

Guiding Evie past the storage area where Nollel had been working, he eased open the door from that morning, leading into what had been supposed to be the livestock storage space. Instead, it was an empty hold with just the single crate of clothing, which hadn't been moved since they discovered it.

"Okay, so let's just stop and listen for a minute." His voice actually echoed, such was the emptiness around them. "In the last two days you've told me that you quit Starfleet, somehow injured your leg, and at the mere mention of my brother's name you go into yourself even further than I've ever seen." He put his hand on his hips, feeling in that moment a little like a parent or a headmaster giving her a dressing-down. "I know Jack has been up to some shady shit recently, but I swear, if he's done something to hurt you I'm going to hunt him down and put such a beating on him our own mother wouldn't even recognise him." He'd never really spoken with that much force before. People in the past had likened him to a bear, and in this situation he was acting like someone was threatening one of his cubs; an instance that hadn't happened in far too long a time to know.

Another thing that didn't help her sense of balance was closing her eyes, but Evelyn did it anyway if only to escape the confrontation of emotion that refused to tuck itself behind her neatly polished defenses. The strain rippled through her, an almost-sedate and measured catalogue of tics and clenched fists, before her arms settled across her stomach and her head dropped. Defeated. She had worn the exact same weariness for weeks, and though it was alien to her nature, it had almost come to feel like a relief.

"I shouldn't be here. Even without this emergency, it's selfish to bring this onto your ship. There just... Isn't anywhere else. Jack didn't know I intended to resign when I left, I'm sure he's finding out about now. My family..."

She lifted a hand to massage a pressure point on her brow.

"I don't know what's going on, Jake. I don't know what he's doing, or what he's involved in. He and I..."

With effort, Evelyn forced herself to look at the younger Ford brother, who looked just enough like his brother to make her frown.

"We tried again. It honestly wasn't too bad, at first. It might still not be too bad, for all I know, because I haven't ruled out the possibility that I'm just losing my entire goddamn mind." A slip in composure; Evelyn didn't cuss. She squeezed her eyes shut, a shaky breath making a poor effort at hiding her tension, and then forced herself to settle again. There was less she could do about the sudden brightness of her eyes, the sheen of moisture that she loathed but came far too often of late. "I don't know where to start."

He'd not seen it. At least not to this depth. Evie was always good at keeping that poker face - she'd won more than a few hands against him when they were younger.

"He's into something shady, isn't he?" Jake nodded. "I kinda guessed when he showed up out of the blue telling me things he shouldn't have known about. Weird stuff." He propped himself up on the lonely crate, remembering the whole cloned Gregnol affair and the mysterious operation that they'd uncovered - with Jack's prompting. "We all have our secrets, I suppose. But I had no idea that you and he were close again. I'm...I'm sorry if that didn't work out." He felt sorry for her, in so many ways. The first time she had broken up with Jack had been hard on everyone involved. Reopening those old wounds could not have been an easy decision for her after all this time. It was no surprise she was a mess. "Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked gently.

"Jake, I don't think you understand."

Because, of course he didn't. She'd told him nothing, had allowed him to smash up a brick wall repeatedly every time he tried to find out anything. And Evelyn still wasn't sure if she was ready to tell him, if this was the time and place for it to sit between them as a reality that couldn't be retracted, but the echo of their voices was already messing with her head and, if it continued, they'd wind up with a situation that only left him with more questions that demanded answers. Evelyn squinted through the discomfort and swallowed deeply. Keep it short. A simple explanation for an impossibly complex situation.

"We were on mission, responding to possible trace contamination of the local water supply. We were the closest ship with a disease-control unit, we drew the short straw." Closing her eyes briefly, Evelyn held up her hand and added, "Lots of science stuff, I won't bore you with it."

As her eyes opened again, they sought his, studying as if by some compulsion the nuances of his expression in search of disbelief. Distrust. That same patronising sympathy she'd been enduring for the past month.

"Of the three away teams we sent down, it was mostly a scientific detail. Minimal security because the risk ought to have been negligible."

Despite everything, there was a glimpse of old defiance to the angle of the woman's chin as she continued.

"We were attacked. I woke up in a cell, I couldn't tell you where."

He glanced at her knee. "I suppose that's what happened to your..." he motioned, not necessarily needing to finish. "Who was it? What happened?"

"This happened during extraction," Evelyn responded quietly. "Which took 16 days."

It was impossible to pass time with any meaning. Wherever they were, it was so far underground that there was no indication of night and day, and whatever shift patterns the group kept, she hadn't been able to determine any regimented duration. It became far easier to count her meals, at least at first. When she was still capable of eating. So far, she'd got to 4; the pounding of her head suggested the possibility of a full day between each, but she suspected closer to 12-hours. It was the only time she saw anyone.

"They didn't tell me anything at first. Most of the time, if I asked what they wanted, I got ignored, or stared at. After a while, I wasn't even sure they could understand me. That all changed after Day 5."

He let out a breath slowly, shaking his head. "I can't imagine...what happened next?"

"What happened? I finally got a visitor. Never told me her name, though I asked often enough. She came into the cell, injected me with enough 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate to make it hard to talk and then proceeded to ask me questions. Questions I didn't know the answer to, even if I could speak. About people and places I'd never heard of. And when she didn't get out of me what she wanted, she injected just a little bit more and walked away. Do you know what 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate does over time, Jake, if you keep the dosage? Delirium, fever, elevated heart-rate. Impaired vision. Cognitive dysfunction."

Now, time was irrelevant. Through the haze, she tried to maintain enough presence of mind to roll herself to the floor, before the stupor left her uncoordinated enough to fall anyway. Impatient hands crammed slivers of ice between her parched lips, obeying the imperative to keep her alive with barely concealed contempt. As her mind melted and took with it her eyesight, she tried once again to convince them they were wasting their time, but fear of what would happen once they came to that realisation themselves reduced the words to a whimper. She writhed and the unsympathetic hands held her down. Beneath her skin, her blood boiled.

"It happened every day until they decided they'd had enough. I don't remember everything they asked, but I know the only name I recognised was Jack's. They could have killed me, I don't know why they didn't. I guess technically they tried." The hand on her cane tightened. "A 'rescue' team dug me out of a cave-in only a couple of kilometres from where they took me. According to official reports, they found 'no evidence' of an underground facility and suddenly I'm the only member of any of the away teams reporting any attack. I had enough 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate in my system to be put on a heart monitor for several days, but let's not let facts interfere with a good cover-up!"

Hot tears stung her eyes, having finally won over Evelyn's composure. "Everyone treats me like I've lost my mind. I woke up from surgery to find they'd replaced my shattered knee joint with an artificial one, and lined up an entire entourage from Starfleet's trauma unit to assess me. And the whole time, Jack had the audacity to encourage me to just play along. To accept the 'help', to figure out why I thought I'd experienced something that clearly didn't happen." Tears that had pooled against her eyelashes dripped to Evie's cheekbones as she blinked. The haunted bleakness had returned, but this time it was joined by a pleading uncertainty. "I'm not crazy, Jake. They all want me to believe it didn't happen but they forget I can read toxicology reports. I didn't just whip up an anticholinergic out of thin air."

His hands had balled into fists by that point. Unaccustomed to rage, he didn't know what to do with it, so his hand slammed hard against the durasteel chest. The sudden bang echoed through the empty room, his teeth clenched as he fought with the injustice of her experience. He didn't feel like he could speak at first, but that was nothing compared to the trauma she was going through.

"Evie..." he started, reaching out for her. He wanted to be able to give her that comfort; she was like a sister to him, in one sense. He would have fought for her over and over, and in that moment he wanted nothing more than to jump on a shuttle to find that no good dirtbag of a brother. Telling her 'I'm sorry' probably wasn't what she wanted to hear. Or needed right now. Hell, that's the first thing the trauma teams would have said. Instead, he simply left it at her name. Letting his own tension fall by the wayside, he pushed himself away from the box and wrapped his arms around her in a big bear hug.

At that proximity, with that amount of ferocity to his clutch, it was impossible not to notice how much condition Evelyn had lost. The normally-slender woman was all shoulder-blades and angles beneath the layers she wore for extra warmth. This time, she didn't flinch at the physical contact, though to say she returned it at all would have been a stretch. As much as the emotional release resulted in uncontrollable shuddering, there was a numbness to the woman now that her situation wasn't something she could tuck behind a dubiously-effective screen. More than that, the physical ramifications of repeated exposure to a drug used to render her compliant only added to the symptoms that trauma would have offered anyway. The echo of his fist hitting the chest, which had made her recoil, continued to reverberate as a chain-reaction of noise that bounced around inside her head, amplified to a point of evoking a familiar disorientation. Dizzy, Evelyn rested her forehead against Jake's chest and left the task of keeping her upright to him.

"I don't know where to go," she confessed as a whisper. "Dad has enough contacts higher up that, by the time I get word to him, they'll have already spun their side. I'd rather not involve him anyway, or Elliot or Eloise." Part of it was stoic pride, but most of it was fear for her loved ones. At this point, going anywhere near them felt like painting targets on their foreheads. "Jack will come after me."

This was said with a dull sense of certainty. On its own, it was problematic enough, before Evelyn dealt with the fact that part of her wanted him to. She wanted to be wrong, wanted whatever Starfleet's eventual version of events was to be true, even if it meant coping with a mental break that clashed with her fierce standards. She had feigned compliance with the suggestion of a medical sabbatical to remove her from the ship for a while simply because Evelyn had felt the inevitability of capitulation if she remained. It would be easier. To just go back, admit fault, crawl into their bed and let him hold her. Things had been so much better this time...

"Stay." It wasn't spoken like a request, although it was still very gentle for a command. "Just...stay here. With us. If he wants to come, he'll have to come through me. And Reuben. And the rest. Hell, we're partnered up with Fenris Rangers; if you want to just get away, we have options. But for now, it sounds like you need a bit of safety and stability. You can get that here. At least for a little while. And, you know, when the ship isn't falling apart in the path of an ion storm." He let her just lean on him for a moment. "I'd feel a lot better if I knew you were safe too."

"All these people though." It had been part of the cyclonic nature of Evelyn's battle with Rosie's crew; that competing sensation of overwhelming distrust and anxiety and a much older urge to protect. "You know what Jack's like. And whichever side of this he falls on, whatever this is, it's big enough that Starfleet are willing to throw me under a bus." Evelyn pulled back, and despite traces of earlier moisture, was surprisingly dry-eyed. There came a point where tears took too much effort. "They're not going to think twice about your crew."

It was a shockingly harsh condemnation from a woman who, for the best part of her adult life, had been a Starfleet career officer through and through. Evie favoured her specialisation more than administrative hierarchies but it didn't change the fact that she had earned her pips still believing in the traditional values Starfleet had always espoused as their top priority. Her change of heart was monumental.

"Besides, what would I do?" Feeling useless, on top of everything else, was a nail too many in the coffin.

"What would you want to do?" he asked. He ignored her concerns about Rosie and the crew; between himself, Gregnol and the Rangers, they could figure that out. Jack's reach, whatever it was, wouldn't extend that far. Not yet, anyway. "You've got skills, and you're an experienced officer. You can do basically anything you want. Hell, you can have my job - you'd probably do it better than I would."

That made her scoff, though Evelyn managed only the faintest of weary smiles as she burst that little bubble. "Diminished capacity, I'm not sure your self-depreciation is warranted." It seemed a step too far to weigh him down with the realities of her prognosis. Her knee would eventually strengthen and her body would acclimatise to the artificial joint, and Evelyn supposed that trauma might had an end-point, though she wasn't quite so certain it would dissipate without specific intervention. It was the prolonged exposure to the anticholinergic that came with limited certainties. Her heart had suffered, her vision and perception had suffered, and mingled with the psychological baggage that was present enough in the aftermath of her experiences was the potential for cognitive impairment. Time would tell, but this far from Starfleet-grade medical intervention, her hopes were limited.

"This feels like something you should consult with the Captain first." It wasn't refusal, because Evelyn recognised a stubborn Ford when she was confronted with one, but it was a way of stalling.

"Right now, I am the Captain. But I take your point." He released her from the hug, leaving both hands on her shoulders. "That's a problem for another time. For now, you're here with us and you're safe. Relatively." He paused. "I won't hurt you like he did, Evie."

Clarity in regard to Jack's culpability struck Evelyn as the only source of true peace she could hope for. This second-guessing herself; wondering if he was an instigator or a potential victim, having no clear idea of his motives, or even if he was intentionally part of this methodical attempt to shut her down, was draining. "Well, there's a group out there looking for him either way."

And there was the guilt. How many times had Jack evoked that sense of sympathy in her, the glaring hole in her otherwise impeccable judgement that saw Evelyn swung like a pendulum between a natural tenacity for intellectual rebuttal and an absurd reoccurrence of the sensation of unreasonableness? Had she just left him in mortal peril to preserve her own sanity? She didn't have the answers, and wasn't likely to uncover them any time soon.

Somehow, amidst a thousand reasons to refuse, Evelyn succumbed to the inevitability of Jake's offer. At least, for now, she couldn't do this alone. "Recovery time has to be a priority," she conceded. "After that..." She studied him for a moment. "Well, we'll see. It's likely to be protracted in any case."

"You're welcome here as long as you like. Assuming we survive, of course." He tried to add some levity to their weighty conversation. Yet more piled on his shoulders, at least metaphorically speaking. Not that he would begrudge her that; had she not come forward he would have been more frustrated. There was just so much going on... "Recovery time it is. If you need a minute to gather yourself in peace, you can stay here a while. It's quiet, and nobody's coming through. And I'll be around if you need me, okay?"

Somewhere, dredged from as far back as he'd known her, a version of Evelyn pinned Jake with a look that sought to peel away layers. A lot had changed, she had changed, but mostly without her consent and not without a fight to ensure it wasn't permanent. And whilst now she was the feeble one, that had not always been the case. One might almost argue she'd had far more experience being the exact opposite.

She raised her eyebrows at him.

"You know that goes both ways, right? If you start treating me with kid gloves, I will staple you to the bulkhead."

"Oh I'd expect nothing less," he smirked. "I suspect you'll have plenty of willing hands backing you up, knowing the rest of this motley crew."

It forced a tired half-smile. "Then you'd better get back to work." Ultimately, practicality had to set in. Jake Ford might have been the only person in the entire galaxy prepared to take her word over all opposition but he was also up to his eyeballs in his own mess.

His hand touched her shoulder one more time. "What do you think this was?" he asked with a wink. "I'll catch up with you later?"

"I don't expect I'll be going anywhere."

 

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