But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up you were lookin' at me
—Taylor Swift, "Out of the Woods"
The pounding of her heart drives Helen Noel on. The churning in her stomach, the lingering stink of burned human flesh that makes her gag…Have to get out of these ducts…if I don't get out I'm going to go crazy…
The space is so cramped, she keeps bumping the top of her head on the ceiling that stretches a mere three feet from what serves as her floor. But finally she rounds a corner and any fear that she's lost fades at once because there's light at the end and she can just make out the garish art hanging on the walls of the room where Dr. Adams had her and Captain Kirk imprisoned.
And before she can stop herself, she starts calling. Wailing, even.
She's not flirting now. She wants him, yes, but this time she just needs to know he's all right—that the plan worked—that Adams hasn't reduced his brilliant mind to the same kind of gibbering mess that fills Dr. van Gelder's poor agonized head.
And before tears of exhaustion and terror can spring to her eyes she sees someone in Starfleet gold rush to the closed vent and start prying off the lid.
Fresh air rushes into the duct, cooling her sweaty, grimy face. Strong, gentle hands seize her arms and pull her out of the tiny passageway.
"Darling, are you all right?"
Darling. Her heart skips a beat. It's what she's wanted to hear him call her for something like four or five months since that Christmas night when he recited Old Earth poetry to her in his expressive voice on the observation deck…
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
And yet there's something wrong as she feels his strong arms wind around her, an odd light in his eyes that isn't quite real.
"Yes—" she blurts, and before she can say anything else his lips are clamped on hers and she just about can't breathe as he presses her against him and kisses her harder and deeper and something hot and fierce and pleasant burns in the center of her chest.
This is what she wants, isn't it?
No, not if it isn't real…it isn't real…I can't do this to him...
She wrenches her head free. "No, this isn't right, Captain!"
He leans forward and kisses her again but this time she doesn't let it go to her head. She grips his broad shoulders with both hands, even the one still clenching the phaser she stole from the man she killed—I killed him—and pushes him back just as long, quick footsteps enter the room.
"Dr. Adams did this to you!"
His hazel eyes look dazed for a moment and then a vertical crease appears between them and she feels the possessive passion in his arms relax. His hands move up to her elbows; he turns, and there's Mr. Spock, cocking his head to one side with a half-relieved, half-exasperated look on his Vulcan face. Helen feels all the blood rush up from her collar.
Oh Heaven help me, he just saw all of that…oh dear God, please don't let him think I asked for that…
"Dr. Adams," Captain Kirk murmurs. "Dr. Ad—"
He stops, and all the quick intelligence Helen has always admired in him rushes back into his young, handsome face as he looks at her. He remembers everything, she realizes; there's no way or reason he can't remember. Which means there's no hiding the reason why Dr. Adams was able to insert this fantasy of loving her into his head so easily…
"The treatment room. Follow me!"
He unwinds his arms from around her; Helen races after him and Mr. Spock brings up the rear, and she pushes from her head the thought that she will never, ever feel her captain's arms around her again.
By the time they reach the treatment room with Dr. McCoy, the air throbs with energy from the neural transmitter. Captain Kirk turns the switch and moves quickly around the console to the chair. Helen follows at a slower pace, not sure what he's staring at with such an expression of confused horror—until she takes one last step forward.
Dr. Adams lies dead and wide-eyed next to the chair, and she feels her heart skip another resounding, painful beat.
Dr. McCoy bends over, touches Adams' neck. "He's dead, Jim."
Captain Kirk nods. "The power came back on."
Helen shakes her head in sickened horror; she knows how this works, knows this wasn't supposed to happen. "The machine wasn't on high enough to kill!"
"But he was alone," Captain Kirk murmurs, lifting his gaze to her face. "Can you imagine the mind emptied by that thing? Without even a tormentor for company…"
She looks at him and her heart sinks. There's a pain and a battle going on in his eyes that she saw once before only an hour ago—has it only been that long?—when he staggered up from the bed in their prison. She had backed up against the wall, terrified, because he looked as if it took everything in him to keep his hands off of her and focus instead on the problem of escaping.
And she knows that there's only one way to rid him of that awful longing. He's going to have to sit in the chair again and let someone else convince him that he isn't, and never has been, in love with her.
And even though emptying his mind of that hunger for her won't harm him in the slightest, what would an entirely empty mind do to a man?
"I understand," she whispers.
Captain Kirk nods, rises to his feet, and then walks out of the room—but slowly, like he's in pain. She can't tell if it's physical or mental or emotional or perhaps a mixture of all three, but she hesitates only a moment before she decides to follow him. Neither Mr. Spock nor Dr. McCoy stop her; they're too busy getting ready to carry Dr. Adams out of the room.
He turns. He's going down the hallway, away from the stony-faced colony personnel the Enterprise security team now has in their custody, but he doesn't seem to resent her presence. He's pale and drawn, but maybe it isn't just discomfort around her.
Maybe, wonders the keen, perceptive mind cut out since girlhood for psychiatry, it's grief for Dr. Adams. Maybe Jim Kirk actually feels sorry for his tormentor.
And that thought only makes her feel like she's just been shot with a Klingon disruptor. Because he never would've been tormented if she hadn't brought up the Christmas party…if she hadn't tried to twist, in jest, what really happened into something that a chivalrous man like James Kirk would abhor.
"Oh Captain, I…I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…"
She chokes on the lump in her throat. Captain Kirk sighs, forces a weak smile.
"That's…unnecessary, Doctor. And I apologize if I forced myself on you just now—"
"It wasn't anything I didn't deserve," she says quickly, eyes on the toes of her boots—and she has to look away from that, too, because these boots kicked that security guard into the power grid. The smell still hasn't left her nose completely.
"What about it?"
Helen gulps. "You need to forget about me, sir. The chair will help…"
Her voice trails off, because when she looks up she can tell that the very idea terrifies him—that James Tiberius Kirk, the fearless, ever-cheerful captain of the Enterprise, is afraid. He would rather die than sit in that chair again, no matter how much it might legitimately help him.
As far as he's concerned now, it's the stuff of nightmares.
"I think," he says, slow and deliberate, "that my mind is still strong enough for me to fight Dr. Adam's influence on my own. I would rather fight for control and win it than…" He nods his head in the neural transmitter's direction. "Than let myself become that vulnerable again."
Helen blinks and presses her lips together. The woman in her—the part that truly loves her captain and wants to smooth and comfort everything that hurts him—cries out in protest. The psychiatrist, however, knows better. He needs the victory. He has been the victim; he needs to know he's still his own man.
The psychiatrist in her wins and says, again, "I understand."
He nods, then straightens, his eyes on something behind her. She turns, sees two of the security men taking the burden of Dr. Adams' body from Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock. Helen shivers, remembering his warm welcome after they beamed down to the colony. Had he been planning this from the very moment the Enterprise entered orbit? What would he have done with Captain Kirk if she hadn't cut power to the machine?
She whirls just as Captain Kirk takes a step forward. Instinct tells her to back up—and then she stops. He doesn't look wild or frantic this time. His hazel eyes are gentle, apologetic…and this is genuine, this is real…
"You saved my life," he says softly. "Thank you."
The color rushes into her face until she feels like someone just cranked up the temperature in this place by about twenty degrees. "I followed your orders, sir. I wouldn't have known what to do if you hadn't told me to climb into that duct."
"And I can't think of anyone else besides Lieutenant Uhura who would've crawled in there without a word of complaint."
Helen lets out a kitten-weak laugh. But then she then looks down, rubbing her hands together, because she suddenly remembers a certain beautiful, golden-haired yeoman who wouldn't have breathed a word of complaint if the captain asked her to stand on her hands.
"If you want me to transfer…" Like Janice did, she adds silently.
"I don't." His voice is firm, unyielding; he's Captain James Tiberius Kirk again, from head to toe, and there'll be no "but's" about it. "I don't want you to transfer. You're the finest psychiatrist on my ship. I need you. The crew needs you."
"But if the very sight of me makes you want to crawl up the walls—"
"It won't." He squares his broad shoulders, tilts his head back; to her surprise, his soft mouth twists at one corner in a faintly mischievous expression. "Believe me, Dr. Noel…if the sight of you ever makes me want to crawl up the walls again, it'll be because I am in love with you…not because Tristan Adams told me I am."
Helen stares at him open-mouthed; she's sure her relief shows on her face but there's no way she can conceal it. She has nothing to fear. He might fight this for days, weeks, maybe even months—but he'll never harm her, never make her feel unsafe ever again. She doesn't even allow herself to consider the fact that he has left room for the possibility that he might love her one day—if, that is, he ever lets himself, if his strict personal standards regarding his subordinate officers ever crumble a bit, or maybe even if this five-year voyage ends with them both alive and unattached…
She's nursed the hope of his returning her months-old infatuation ever since she first met him. Now it seems unimportant. All that matters is that he's letting her stay on the Enterprise—that he wants her to stay—that he still considers her an indispensable part of his crew—and that he doesn't hold what happened against her. She clasps her hands behind her back and draws in a deep, bracing breath.
"Well, then," she whispers, because for some reason she's lost her voice, "if that's the way you want it, sir—"
"—then I'll try to perform my duties to the best of my professional ability."
He smiles, and now it's not forced even though it still looks tired. "That's all I ask, Dr. Noel. And that's all I'll ever ask."