Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by CBC and Netflix.
Thanks to: Andraste, finding time to beta despite great business.
Spoilers: For the entire first season.
When her mother gave her a bat'leth and told her to cleave her heart in two, L'Rell thought she knew what this meant: that she would have to make a choice between allegiance to her mother's clan, the House of Mókai, and her father's, the House of T'Kuvma. Between the way of shadows and schemes, and the way of open battle. She was accustomed to venerating her mother, who was the most clever person she knew, her father included, but this time, she rebelled, and instead decided to become a bridge between both paths and both houses alike. It was a dark time for the Empire, her mother had often admitted as much, as most of the twenty four great Houses were busy with blood feuds against each other instead of strategizing and making allegiances. Why divide themselves even further?
They did not talk about this until many years later, shortly before her mother entered Sto-vo-kor. L'Rell spoke of the past, of that moment that had served to separate the child she had been from the woman she was to become, and her mother sighed and shook her head. Sounding affectionate and slightly contempteous at the same time, her mother said: „Ah, L'Rell, this was not what I had meant at all. If you haven't understood even now, I fear you never will."
She had not been present when T'Kuvma and the human Captain, Philippa Georgiou, had died. Voq had been, but not L'Rell, and thus she did not encounter the human who killed T'Kuvma, Michael Burnham, until nearly a year later. Not in person, at any rate. She had learned about Burnham from various sources, Voq's shattered, grieving report first of all, then through whatever reports reached them while the Ship of the Dead was drifting in debris for months and the war continued without them. L'Rell had not given Burnham much thought, though; the importance lay in T'Kuvma's death as such, its consequences: the promise of unity, barely tasted, gone again, or perverted by Kol's rise to power. Not in the woman who had brought this about by avenging her Captain.
When choosing Discovery as the Federaton ship Voq was to infiltrate, L'Rell had no idea that this was where Michael Burnham now served. By the time the human woman came to visit her cell, L'Rell's plans had all, it seemed, come to ruin. Voq's sacrifice of his Klingon self had been for nothing. She tried to cling to the fact that the Empire was winning the war against the humans anyway, but even that knowledge tasted bitter in her mouth, given that this victory would be carried out by the likes of Kol and his ilk, selfish leaders not interested in anyone but themselves. The one person she'd witnessed showing courage and honor in recent months had been the human admiral, Katrina Cornwell, and L'Rell tried very hard not to follow that thought to its logical conclusion, that if T'Kuvma had been wrong about the human capacity for bravery, he might have been wrong in other areas, too.
The arrival of Michael Burnham proved a welcome distraction. Burnham identified herself to L'Rell, who had recognized her as the woman who'd been with Cornwell and Tyler in the chamber full of dead bodies, murdered by Kol, but not as T'Kuvma's killer, not until Burnham gave her name. That was when L'Rell for the first time took interest. If Burnham hadn't killed T'Kuvma, this would have been a very different war, led by her uncle, uniting the Klingons, reforming the Empire from within, not just expanding territory.
„I want to know what exactly you did with Tyler", Burnham said. „With Voq. Who is he now?"
The Kelpian and various human doctors had asked L'Rell this before. She didn't intend to provide any more details than the vague generalities she'd previously told. If humans learned how to do what her cousins of the House of Mókai had done, they'd use it against the Empire. There would be humans disguised as Klingons in no time flat, especially now that they were desperate. T'Kuvma's nightmare of humans absorbing Klingons, changing them into themselves, would become true in a terrible way.
L'Rell crossed her arms and remained silent. In contrast to Katrina Cornwell, who'd displayed her emotions vividly, Burnham's face showed an almost Vulcan like reserve, but there was something glinting in her dark eyes.
„You owe me your life", Burnham said . „This is how you pay your debt."
„I don't owe you anything", L'Rell retorted, more surprised than indignant. „If anyone owes a debt, it is you, for T'Kuvma was my blood."
She expected Burnham to argue that T'Kuvma had died paying a blood debt himself, for Philippa Georgiou, but no. Instead, Burnham stated: „You would not be on this vessel if it weren't for me, L'Rell. Kol had meant to kill you. You would have died if I hadn't come that day."
That was true, but before L'Rell could point out that Burnham had not intended her rescue, that L'Rell had rescued herself by latching onto the humans as they were about to be transported off the ship, Burnham continued: „And I fought Kol when you could not."
In truth, L'Rell had hated no one, and certainly no human, as much as she hated Kol. Not just for ursurping T'Kuvma's place and making a mockery out of his legacy, for destroying Voq's barely gained honor, for ridiculing her ambition. No, Kol had killed any Klingon who disagreed with him, not through open challenge but through secret murder, he'd shown by example to his followers that honor did not matter, and had corrupted the very heart of what it meant to be Klingon. That was a worse treason than if he'd defected to the Federation.
Kol was dead now, she'd known he was, as the ship he'd stolen and turned into a garish mockery of what it had been to House T'Kuvma had been destroyed by Discovery. But she hadn't known that he'd been defeated by Michael Burnham before. If Burnham didn't lie, if she'd faced Kol in combat and lived, then she must have defeated him. Kol, that p'tagh, defeated by a human female. That was sweet knowledge indeed.
L'Rell had been trained in interrogation by her mother and her aunts. In most cases, she knew when someone was lying.
„I owe you," L'Rell conceded. „But I will not pay my debt by giving the Federation tactical knowledge they can use against my people."
Until now, Michael Burnham had clasped her hands behind her back, which L'Rell had learned was what Federation personnel refered to as „standing to attention". Now, she made a small frustrated movement with her right hand, just a brief wave before catching herself.
„This is not what I – you don't need to give me the medical details. What I need to know is whether the person currently on this ship is Voq, or Tyler. And who he was before you did whatever you did."
It still pained her to think of it, now more than ever, because now she had to live with the knowledge that it had all been in vain. He'd been so brave. She'd told him what he would face, down to the most gruesome details, for anything less would have been a betrayal; to trick him into the procedure would have been unforgivable. She'd told him that he would have to spend an unknown amount of time truly believing himself to be human before she could rescue him by returning his true memories.
„He was the best man I ever knew", L'Rell said bitterly.
What he'd first impressed her with hadn't just been his capacity for faith; he had believed in a way she had not, for her own attachment to T'Kuvma had , despite her sincere admiration for his ideas, always had an element of calculation in it. She'd seen her uncle as her way to gain influence. Voq, on the other hand, had burned with belief, but had this been all, L'Rell would have kept her distance. No, what had truly attracted her was that he'd been an outsider, the son of no one, with no House and no connections whatsoever, and yet he had not accepted this as his destiny. He had not simply seen the world as it was, he'd seen what could be and asked „why not?" And the price he'd been willing to pay had been not others, but himself.
„Then how could you do this to him? Torture him? Or was that a false memory as well?"
The placid, Vulcan-like facade had melted into something raw and wounded, something L'Rell recognized. She blinked, unsure what to do with this realisation. Whether it hurt her or whether it was something she could use. Whether she would even want to.
„What happened to Captain Lorca?" she asked slowly.
Burnham looked startled, visibly thrown by the sudden change of topic.
„He died", she said shortly. „Saru is in command of Discovery now. I had assumed you were told."
„I was", L'Rell confirmed. „But that is not what I have asked. When I last heard his voice, he was telling everyone on this ship that we were in another universe, and that you were all to assume another identity, and behave differently from your Federation rules. Even the uniforms of the guards changed for a while."
„This has nothing to do with Tyler", Burnham said coldly. „You did not answer my question."
„You did not answer mine, Michael Burnham. You did what he asked, your Captain, didn't you? Pretend to be someone else? Did he do this, too? Was that how he died?"
The human woman took a step closer. She had withdrawn into her calm facade again.
„However he died is none of your concern. If you want to imply there is an equivalence between us assuming different identities in a hostile environment to save our lives and you brainwashing and torturing a man you claim to respect in order to spy on us, there isn't."
The interrogator in L'Rell saw an opening now, and she couldn't not take it. It was better than thinking about Voq, anyway. You're never truly without weapons, her mother had taught her. Even imprisoned. Always, always try to slip under your enemy's armor, and freedom might be yours again.
„So you did do it", L'Rell said. „You tortured a man you claimed to respect, so that your ruse might remain undetected."
The flinch in Burnham was minute, but she could see it. It had been guess work, but then most spying was, and interrogating, too. L'Rell waited for Burnham to further protest that it hadn't been the same, or that it had been Lorca's idea in the first place. Which it must have been; L'Rell remembered that ship wide announcement too well. And then, as far as she could tell from the signs, he, Burnham and Voq had left the ship for a while. Voq returned only to die in her arms, leaving his memories behind in the Tyler shell that had never been meant to become real but had, Burnham returned, or she wouldn't be standing here right now, and Lorca didn't return at all. However he died, though, L'Rell didn't believe it had been because of torture. She'd tortured him herself in order to make his „escape" from her ship more convincing when needing him to bring Tyler on board his ship. One thing had been immediately evident to her was that this was a man familiar with physical pain to a Klingon-like degree. Then again, she hadn't tried to break him on that occasion, just to convince him she was exactly who Tyler claimed she was.
Going against L'Rell's expectations again, Burnham did not blame Lorca for whatever had happened, nor did she insist on the moral difference between her actions and L'Rell's. Instead, she took a breath, then said: „Yes."
No further defenses or qualifications. L'Rell looked at her, and felt something oddly like the respect she'd sensed when Katrina Cornwell had joined her roar.
„I never knew the first Ash Tyler", L'Rell said, for she thought that it was now Burnham's turn to receive an honest reply. „He was a prisoner of House Mókai when Voq and I were still on the Ship of the Dead, after the Battle of the Binary Stars. He died a prisoner, too, and then Voq was given his shape and memories. He was to remain Voq, with Tyler a disguise like those other uniforms you wore for a while. Something discarded once its purpose was accomplished, so that the true self can return. But this is not what has happened. Understand that nothing like this has ever been tried before. Voq was the first. And so is Tyler – the second one. I do not know how it has happened, but I know there were two of them in one mind, and both dying, until I sent one of them to Sto-vo-kor."
At least, she hoped that was where Voq was now. The thought of him trapped between worlds on the Barge of the Dead hurt. But no, this could not be. He owned no debts. He'd paid more than enough.
„Why did you not kill Tyler?" Burnham demanded, and her voice was no longer even. „If you could do this, if you could make that choice, why not keep Voq alive and kill Tyler? Voq was the one you -"
L'Rell could not bear to hear her say it out loud, so she interrupted: „So he should live a prisoner, trapped in a body he detested, knowing all he'd sacrificed had been in vain? For Tyler, there might still be a future. There could have been none for Voq."
It was then she understood what her mother had asked her to do, all those years ago. To take her bat'leth and cleave her heart in two. It did not mean divided loyalties, or even to choose one over the other. A choice, yes, but a different one. L'Rell had once dreamed of glorious victory for the Empire accomplished through her plan and Voq's determination, of a life that would allow her to use all her mind and heart without having to disguise it because Voq valued both. When she had performed the procedure, she had to concede, in a way she would never be able to take back, that all she'd managed to accomplish was to destroy the one person she'd come to love, and who'd loved her, while the Empire continued to rot from within.
To face this truth: there could be no greater bitterness. And yet not to face it, to let Voq continue to suffer for her sins, that would have been cowardly and cruel.
Michael Burnham, the woman who had changed L'Rell's world not once but twice, both times without meaning to, looked at her, searchingly. She had, L'Rell thought, a quality of stillness which was not that of a quiet soul but rather that of a blade raised but not yet met with any other; the sound of a clash was a possibility in the air, unheard, but so was withdrawal and the embrace of a sheath.
Burnham then nodded and left. L'Rell did not see her again until Burnham returned with the semblance of a dead woman, who was not nearly as skilled an interrogator as Burnham had proved herself to be, and accomplished nothing but a few kicks that reminded L'Rell of being trained by House Mókai. The pain in Burnham's eyes while the woman not Georgiou kept doing this, though, that was new. L'Rell guessed it was aimed at the Georgiou doppelganger, as if Burnham could not bear to watch someone she loved behave in a way that proved, with every moment, that this was indeed another person, and the loved one gone. Oh Michael Burnham, L'Rell thought, it seems we are not done with another. We are still cursed to parallels.
L'Rell's father loved opera, dabbled a bit in composing as well, and once started a minor feud by holding forth on his argument as to which version of Kahless and Lukara was superior. It used to disconcert him that L'Rell's own enthusiasm for music remained in dutiful limits, and that she showed no interest in learning to play an instrument. Nethertheless, he was responsible for her ability to recall the plots of at least three dozen operas.
None of them had been as implausible as Michael Burnham, with Earth threatened by conquest and the rest of the Federation to fall soon after, handing her a device that enabled its carrier to destroy Qo'noS.
A few months ago, L'Rell would have been sure this was a human scheme, an attempt to trick her into betraying tactical information, or even into making her the Federation's dupe, the one to destroy her own planet in the very attempt to prevent it. She would not have doubted this for a second. But while the idea still had occured to her, she could no longer cling to it. There was another part in L'Rell, one that had been seeded when Katrina Cornwell had roared back at her, watered when Saru the Kelpian had proven himself strong and wise in a way she had not been prepared for, and grown when Michael Burnham had offered her questions and answers. That part wanted to believe the human meant just what she had said.
A third part, wary, weary and calculating alike, pointed out that maybe it did not matter what Burnham thought she was doing, as long as it was something that returned L'Rell's freedom to her and gave her a chance to right at least some of what had gone wrong with the Empire. For the man who, it seemed, was neither Tyler nor Voq now but someone new was right. It was time to step out of the shadows, or shadows would be all that was left.
Still, before contacting her cousins in House Mókai, she drew Burnham aside. „If you had let your second Georgiou finish her work, the Federation would have triumphed", L'Rell said. „It would have saved your people without the shadow of a doubt. And yet, you throw this certainty away for gambling on an enemy's honor. What if, once the twenty four have accepted me as their new leader, I simply continue our path to Earth?"
Michael Burnham looked at her, and unbelievably, there was a slight smile tugging at her lips, though her eyes were veiled in sadness.
„You will not. Because you have seen what I have seen."
There had been lessons about victory in L'Rell's childhood and youth, and lessons about defeat. Lessons about how loss did not have to be eternal, that the mark of a true warrior was not never to surrender, but to plan ahead of how to rise from the ashes if defeat had truly been inevitable. But none of the lessons had prepared L'Rell for what she had learned this last year: that watching your side win could be horrifying instead of glorious if that victory came with them abandoning what they should treasure most. That your own deeds, actions you thought completely justified by what you intended, could result instead in destroying the person you held most dear. That watching those you thought heroes turn disgrace themselves was not even the worst, not if you thought of your own plunge into dishonor.
L'Rell knew then, without the shadow of a doubt, that Burnham was not lying to her. And she understood. The human did not do this to save Qo'noS. She did it to save her Federation as she believed it needed to be.
„Yes," L'Rell said, leaving it at this one confirmation, just as Burnham had done when they had talked of torture, guises and truths.
Burnham nodded. For L'Rell, who had lived on space ships for the last few years, this was, oddly enough, the moment when it really sunk into her that the air she was breathing, full of smoke, perfumes and the wind of early morning was not only the first non-artificial atmosphere surrounding her since eons, but the one that would have been burning if Burnham had been other than who she was. As would its people. Maybe not all, but many, oh, so many.
She sank to her knees, not caring whether the human would think her weak for it. They were beyond such games now. L'Rell dug up earth to feel it in her hand, earth, not ashes, unburned.
Then she rose again. She would have to make the twenty four believe she was ready to do just this, after all, to burn her own people, if she wanted to achieve what Burnham had just done: to save them from themselves. It would only be a matter of time before they would realize she would never do such a thing, and by then, her authority would have to stand on other, different ground. But for now, she needed to appear as invulnerable and deadly.
How not to become the mask, if she wore it all the time; that would be as great a challenge. Her eyes went to the one who had been Voq. It still hurt to talk to him, but not as much as it had done; whoever he was now, it seemed Voq's determination to bring their people into a different age still lived in him. Again, she turned to Burnham.
„I wish you success on your future path", L'Rell said formally, for she did not consider it likely that she would see Burnham again, no matter whether she finished this day as the new Chancellor or as a dead woman. For a moment, as Burnham was about to reply, L'Rell wondered whether the human would tell her to „be good", as she had her second Georgiou, and steeled herself to prevent the sneer this admonishment would otherwise provoke, as it was all too close to that Federation greeting T'Kuvma had singled out symbolizing their entire patronizing mentality, „we come in peace".
But instead, Burnham spoke, not human standard, not Vulcan, and she did not use the universal translator humans were so fond of, either. „Quapla'!", she said, pronouncing the Klingon word correctly, which made it not just a wish but a mission, something the person it was spoken to was not allowed to fail at. „Success" really was not the same thing.
It didn't surprise L'Rell any longer that Michael Burnham should be able to understand this. After all, Burnham, too, had been given a bat' leth, and had used it to cleave her heart in two.