The Lost Years: Free Association By Djinn

"Harder!" Drake yelled at her as Christine kicked out, catching her watcher just below the hip. The blow barely knocked the other woman off balance.

Christine fell back.

"Quit thinking of me as a watcher, and think of me as a threat." Drake kicked out, caught Christine hard in the ribs, sending her flying. "Don't hold back or you'll get hurt."

Christine pulled herself to her feet slowly.

"What is wrong with you? Fight me!" Drake kicked out again.

This time, Christine blocked the kick with a stiff arm, knocking her back quickly before Drake could counter. She followed up with a fierce spinning kick. One that finally took Drake down.

Drake got up quickly. "That's better." Her frown grew as she saw Christine step back. "We're not done here, Christine."

When Christine picked up one of the towels and began to wipe her face, Drake strode toward her.

"That's hardly what I'd call a workout." She sat down on the bench that leaned against the wall in the basement of her small town home. A basement entirely fitted out for training a slayer.

"We're done," Christine said into the towel.

"We've barely begun."

Christine pulled the towel away from her face and studied the weapons that lined the walls, the workout equipment and mats that covered the floor. It was quite the set up. "Did you bring all this stuff with you?"

"The Council has a long reach. It was an easy thing to get these moved in and ready for my arrival." Drake stared at her intently, as if waiting for something.

Christine shifted, uncomfortable under the other woman's gaze. "How old are you?" she finally asked.

"Why did you run away from a man who loves you?" Drake countered.

Christine sat down on the bench, put the towel over her face and leaned back. "That's a personal question."

"As was yours."

Christine heard the sound of a water container being opened, then felt it being pressed into her hand. She pulled the towel off her face and sipped at the water as Drake opened one for herself.

"I'm thirty-two," her watcher said. "Now. Why did you run?"

"You read my files. You figure it out."

Drake leaned back, took a long draught of the water. "You have a problem with intimacy. You're afraid to commit for fear of having your heart broken. On the other hand, you have sacrificed your own identity for a man at least once already and are wary of doing that again. You seek to improve yourself, and have the means to do it, but are at times hampered by your own self-doubt and lack of confidence. You have a great deal of rage inside you that you refuse to examine and have worked out primarily by viciously killing as many vampires and demons as you could find, or by having angry sex with Spike, another vampire who for some reason decided to make you his pet self-improvement project. You are paranoid, were suicidal. I think you still are but have learned to mask these tendencies better and thus hide the fact that you have not made as much improvement as some might think. That about cover it?"

"What are you?"

"A watcher some of the time. A counselor all of the time."

Christine stood up, water splashing from her open container. "You can't be serious."

"You're at a critical point in your life, Christine. You don't even seem to realize it, but you are. I'm here to help you work things out."

"I don't need a damn counselor." She started to walk away, could feel her heart beating too fast, the rage rising inside her.

"That anger will get you killed."

Christine stopped walking.

"Or someone else. Someone you care about. Is that what you want, Christine?"

Christine turned back, could feel tears starting. "This is why Silver sent you? To get inside my head?"

"He sent me to help you."

"I don't believe that."

Drake stood up, moved slowly and carefully toward her as if Christine were an angry dog about to attack. "You're a valuable asset that he doesn't want to lose. Do you believe that?"

Christine slowly nodded. Silver was like a chess player, and she was his queen. There probably wasn't a lot he wouldn't do to preserve her capabilities.

Drake smiled. "I help those on the edge. I push them back. To where it's safe. That's all. We're not going to examine your childhood or whether you loved your mother and father."

"Why the hell not? I had a great childhood. Until I was chosen and then everything good came crashing down."

Drake nodded slowly. "Come sit. When I said we had a lot of work to do, I didn't mean sparring. You fight as well as any slayer I've ever seen. If you hadn't held back out of fear that you'd hurt me, you'd have taken me down over and over." Drake backed up to the bench, slowly sat down. Waited.

Christine could still feel her heart beating overly fast, as if she was preparing for a battle. But her anger had faded. She walked to the bench, sat down.

Drake's voice had none of its usually starchiness. "Despite all your skill, you've lately let yourself get into quite a few jams. Haven't you?"

Christine touched her neck, then pulled her hand away when she realized what she had done. It had been an accident that the vampire had nearly strangled her. If by accident you meant something that happened when you took one too many chances.

Drake was on the same wavelength. "You're reckless in your slaying, Christine. Because I don't think you care whether you survive the night."

Christine swallowed hard. "I'm going to med school. I'm trying to repair a friendship that I nearly ruined. Why would I do these things if I didn't care about my future?"

"We're all complicated creatures, my dear. With one hand, you're pulling yourself out of the canyon. With the other, you're sawing away at the rope that is your only support."

"Nice imagery. They teach that in shrink school?"

"What else do you call this terrible lack of caution you've displayed. Would you even have cared if your friend had been turned the other night and then turned you? Or would you have welcomed the chance to finally embrace the darkness that we both know is inside you?"

Christine wanted to look away, forced herself not to. "If I'm so damned dark, why do you even bother trying to help me?"

"All slayers are dark. It's not something that we talk about much. And frankly, it's not something that we have to deal with very often. Slayers die young. It's the way of things. I don't like it, but I can't change it." She touched Christine's hand gently. "You're not young, Christine. You're as old as I am. Ancient for a slayer."

Christine thought of the Kirsu slayers. Of Rosa, who had seemed ancient to her. "Old as dirt."

"I don't think I'd go that far." Drake's voice was gently chiding. "I'm here to help you. I know you don't believe that now. But in time, you might."

"So Kevin isn't really mad at you? You weren't sent here as punishment for killing the bolus demons?"

Drake laughed. "Oh, they're quite real and quite dead." She made a face. "And he's a long way from forgiving me. Why do you think I have to be your watcher too?"

"So you help slayers?"

"Mostly I help watchers. The ones left behind." Drake saw her expression and smiled grimly. "You never considered how they'd feel did you? And I don't blame you. You're a slayer, trying nightly to survive--or in your case, to want to survive." Her smile became gentler. "But the watchers, those left behind. It's hard. It's often too hard. I can't always help them."

Christine thought she saw something haunted in the watcher's expression. "What are you thinking about?"

Drake swallowed hard. "I really can't go into it."

"You want me to trust you, but you won't trust me with your own pain." Christine leaned forward. "Besides, whoever it is, they're dead, aren't they? You lost them."

"In a sense."

Christine turned away. "Look. I'll trust you, if you trust me." When Drake didn't reply, she said, "Tell me. It's obviously eating you up inside. What kind of example are you setting, if you won't share with me?"

Drake looked over at her. "You'd be quite good at this." Her half smile was amused despite the bleak mood that seemed to have descended on her. "Who listens to the listener?"

Christine smiled. "I always thought it was who watches the watchers?"

Drake smiled. "Oh, that's easy. Special ops watches the watchers, and the slayers too." Her look darkened. "It takes a different kind of person to work there.'

Christine had never heard of special ops. "Keep going."

Drake met her eyes, seemed to be assessing her, as if trying to judge if Christine was worthy of whatever it was she needed to get off her chest. Finally, she looked away. "His name was David Wharton. He was an assassin. Eminently qualified to be in special ops. No problems with conscience, no nightmares. None of the symptoms that marked a problem case for us."

Drake took another sip of her water. Christine waited, afraid that if she said something the watcher would think better of sharing.

"A little over a year ago, there was a slayer whose watcher was killed. David was in the area at the time. He filled in. We all thought it would be temporary. She was, well she was quite unskilled. His polar opposite. I think that he thought he could keep her alive. And she was a sweet girl. Young...so very young. She'd been sheltered, of all the slayers I've met, she seemed the most unlikely to have been chosen. He felt the same, and he asked to stay on as her watcher. Wanted out of special ops. It surprised us all.

"I knew David, you see. We used to train together. He liked my strength. Both on and off the mats, if you follow me."

Christine nodded. Her watcher was full of surprises.

"I went to see him. And his new slayer. Laura was sweet. He was smitten. I mean as if she was his daughter. Or some type of surrogate baby sister." Drake looked over at her, but she seemed to be lost in the past as she said, "She had the sweetest smile I've ever seen. And hair that shown red in the sunlight. Unfortunately, as a slayer, she didn't spend much time in the sunlight."

Laura. Red hair. A year ago. Christine tried hard to keep any reaction off her face.

"What?" Drake was immediately back to the present. "Did you know Laura?"

"No. I can just see where the story's going."

"No, I don't think you can." Drake looked away. "He patrolled with her. To even the odds, he liked to say. But one night, he lost her in a scuffle, was trying to find her when he heard her scream. He had to fight his way to her, but she was gone when he got there."

Taken by the Kirsu slayers after she'd died and called another. Taken to live where it was always day and no vampires could harm her. Only to die again, guts torn out on the bloody fields of Sekanik on Vega Hydra. A victim of Gotterdammerung. Christine knew the real end of the story. But Drake would expect her to make other assumptions about what happened. "They turned her?"

"No. We never found her. We waited, night after night. Ready to kill her quickly, mercifully. But she never showed up. David went after the vampires who'd been in the vicinity. He tortured them. They didn't seem to know what had happened to her.

"I tried to work with David. But he was tough and seemed to accept her loss. I thought he was all right. He went to back to special ops after that. Our relationship cooled, ended not long after." Drake got up, began to pace. "I should have seen the warning signs. I made it a habit to look over their case reports; I should have read between the lines. Seen the risks he was taking. How reckless he'd become. But I wanted to believe he was all right." She turned to Christine.

"He sought them out. A whole nest of vampires. Took them on in the dark of night. With only one stake." She looked down. "He took a lot of them with him before he fell."

"How do you know?"

"Because he got up again. And not as a human. He was hunting us, Christine. It took us a while to catch up with him. But we did. And we surprised him; we hurt him. Vampires can be hurt, you know. Badly enough that they have to retreat until they are well again. We beat him back, but at some point, he'll return. And I keep thinking that if I'd only realized what was going on with him, I could have helped him."

"You could have saved him?"

"Yes."

Christine stood up, touched her hand. "You can't save anyone, Emma. They have to want to save themselves."

"But if we'd understood...if we could have made him understand that the pain he felt was all right. That it was normal to feel the raging grief. He kept himself under such tight control." She shot Christine a knowing glance. "Just as you do."

"So you think I'm going to go get myself turned?"

"You nearly did already. I don't want that to happen to you."

"It won't. I know you'll make sure I don't come back if I ever fall." Christine shot her a grim look, then saw the guilty expression on Drake's face. "You had a chance to kill him, didn't you? And you couldn't?"

Drake pulled up her shirt. A long jagged scar ran down from her collarbone, under her bra, and disappeared into her pants.

"My god."

"He gutted me. I nearly died. This man who I..."

"Who you loved?"

Drake nodded. "Yes. Who I loved." She let her top fall back down. "I keep the scar to remind myself that I failed."

"You didn't fail. It's natural to hesitate when it's someone you care for." Christine remembered how she had done the same thing when Marcus had threatened her. Only Spock's love and faith in her had saved them all. She looked away. "I think I'm ready to talk about Spock now."

Drake wiped at her eyes almost angrily. "Good." She sat down on the mat. "Let's get started." She took a deep breath, but her voice was a long way from her normal no-nonsense tone when she asked, "Tell me how it started. You hid for so long. Why did you become a slayer again?"

"It's a long story."

Drake smiled. "We have plenty of time." She leaned back. "Start at the beginning."

Christine thought of that awful day on Alpha Nu-M when her old life had finally caught up with her. She grabbed her water from the bench, sat down on the mat opposite Drake. "Once upon a time, there lived a very tired slayer."

Drake smiled. "Make it a fairy tale if it's easier."

"No. That's okay. It started when I filled in for McCoy on a landing party to a missing colony."

Drake nodded, then reached for her own water, settling in. Christine had the impression she'd sit there forever if she had to. Christine felt suddenly very self-conscious.

"Do you think we could spar while we do this?"

Drake just laughed. "You lasted about two seconds longer than I thought you would." She took Christine's water, put it down with her own and stalked back to the mat.

As they began to circle each other, Drake said, "Okay, now, on this landing party..."

---------------------------

Uhura heard a soft cough at her doorway. She looked over, expecting to see Len, but Kirk stood in the doorway.

"Hi. So this is where they've hidden you?"

She gestured to her cramped little office. "This is it. What can I do for you?"

He stepped in, sat down in the extra chair. "I need to get hold of Chris and I'm not sure how to do that since she's in class..."

She could feel a smile starting, didn't try to stop it. "You're a terrible liar. You get a message to her the same way you do to anyone else. The system knows where she is." She laughed. "Or if the system doesn't, I do. And I know you know that. Why are you really here?"

He smiled, the grin that always made her feel better. "I can't just be curious how you're doing?"

"If that's all this was, you wouldn't have made up some story about needing Christine's comm address." She leaned in, lowering her voice. "Len misses you too, you know."

He looked down and she sighed. Two men, who'd been best friends. Both too damn stubborn to admit how much they were hurting.

"Len's in town. We're going to lunch. You could come along?"

"I don't want to intrude." He stood up.

"You wouldn't be intruding. He'd love to see you."

He shook his head tightly.

"Why are you here if you aren't even willing to try?"

He shrugged. "Just wanted to know he was okay, I guess. You'll take good care of him?"

"The best. But that doesn't mean he won't miss you. Or need you."

Kirk nodded. Then he hurried out.

Uhura sighed. Such an idiot. She knew he was lonely, knew he must feel adrift among the admirals, none of whom he counted as a close friend as far as she knew. And Len was no better, unwilling to talk to Kirk until his friend admitted he'd been wrong to give up his command. Both of them missing each other, both of them missing Spock. Neither willing to move a muscle off his position.

"Why does it matter so much?" Uhura whispered. Why couldn't either of them just let go and reach out to each other? She and Christine had managed to do it. What was wrong with these two supposedly intelligent men?

"This seat taken?" Christine came bounding into the room then stopped short when she saw Uhura's face. "What?"

"You're awfully animated."

Christine shrugged. "Maybe. Good workout yesterday." She reached into her bag, pulled out an apple. "Want half?"

"I'm going to lunch with Len as soon as he gets here. Don't want to spoil my appetite." She studied her friend. Christine really did seem happier. "So your new watcher gave you a good workout."

"In more ways than one."

Uhura felt her eyes widen.

"Not like that." Christine laughed. "My new watcher is also a counselor."

"You're kidding?"

Christine leaned back, bit deep into the apple. "Nope, I'm absolutely serious. I guess that I am officially so screwed up that the Watcher's Council sent me a counselor." She chewed thoughtfully. "At least she seems to be a competent one. It feels good to have someone to talk to."

Uhura felt a pang and looked away. "You can talk to me."

Christine's dismay was immediate. "Ny, I didn't mean like that. It's just that...well, you like me. You want me to be well, and maybe, because you're my friend, you're willing to overlook my little problems. But she isn't. She doesn't care about me. So she can be objective about this." She took Uhura's hand. "I didn't mean..."

Uhura squeezed her hand. "I know. I guess I'm still a little overly sensitive when it comes to our friendship." She laughed. "God, and I was just comparing us favorably to Len and the Captain."

Christine smiled. "Well, we are doing better than they are. Two more stubborn men were never born."

"That's true." Uhura leaned back. "So you never told me how your post- finals celebration was?"

"Well, the restaurant was still there. The pate was sublime, the mussels to die for, and the coq au vin out of this world."

"I mean how the captain was?"

Christine smiled. "He was fun. We drank a lot of wine. Walked along the beach for a long time. Talked about things, nothing important. It was nice. Easy."

"Uncomplicated."

"Exactly. Being with him, it's simple. I don't feel as if I have to prove anything. Sort of like it was with Spike, except Jim won't burst into flames if he goes outside."

"Plus you're not boinking Jim," Uhura said in what was almost a question.

Christine slapped her arm. "You have a one-track mind, Ny. God. No, I'm not boinking...what kind of word is boinking anyway?"

Uhura laughed. "A tried and true word meaning to fu--"

"--I know what it means, Ny." Christine shook her head as she stood up. "I'm going to go eat this in the sunshine, while there's still some out there."

"Good idea. You could use a tan. Make it easier to tell you from those nasty vampires." Uhura had initially been shocked at how pale Christine had become, but she'd either grown used to her friend's pallor or Christine had been getting more sunshine.

Christine's expression darkened. "It's what's inside that matters. I guess as I'm darkening my outside, I'll try to lighten my insides." She frowned. "That came out sort of icky, didn't it?"

Uhura laughed. "Go enjoy your apple."

"Will do." Christine turned to go, right as McCoy walked in. "Hey there, stranger."

McCoy grinned. "'Bout damn time I saw you, Chapel." He pulled her into a hug. "You look better than the last time I saw you. Medical school must agree with you."

She nodded. "And I've got to get back to that in an hour. So if you'll excuse me." She pulled him in for a second hug.

Uhura grinned. "You could eat with us?"

"I have studying to do. And more food in my pack." She grinned. "I'm going to sit in the warm vampire-free sunshine and concentrate on the accelerated anatomy class I was foolish enough to take."

She left with a smile for both of them.

"She looks good."

Uhura nodded. "Yeah, she does. I think it's from hanging around with Admiral Kirk." She watched McCoy's face, saw the quick reaction at the mention of his friend, then the curtain came down, leaving his expression blank.

"Do them good to spend some time together." He held out his arm. "You ready, darlin'?"

Uhura took his arm, shooting him a fondly exasperated glance. Christine was right. Two more stubborn men had never been born.

--------------------------

"Is there room on that bench for an old man?"

Christine felt her hackles rise. Silver? Here? She looked up, had to shield her eyes from the sun he'd managed not to block, and immediately wondered if he had done that deliberately to put her at a disadvantage.

"Hello, Ms. Chapel."

"Kevin." She knew he hated it when she called him that.

He almost hid the grimace as he sat down next to her. "Beautiful day."

"I doubt you came all the way to San Francisco to talk about the weather."

He ignored her. "I'm always struck by the loveliness of this city. Such unique character." He turned to look at her. "Genteel loveliness on the surface that hides a gritty determination to survive, no matter the cost."

She could feel her face tighten. "Are we talking about the city?"

"I thought I was." His smile seemed genuine.

She didn't smile, finding it hard to trust this friendly Silver. "What the hell do you want?"

He leaned back with a longsuffering sigh. "Ah, Christine. When will this enmity between us end?"

"When hell freezes over?"

He laughed. "At least I always know where I stand with you."

She studied him. His hair was much whiter than when she'd last seen him, and there was less of it; the lines around his eyes and mouth had deepened. But if anything, the changes only made him look more distinguished. The quintessential English gentleman. And her enemy. Or at least not her friend.

"Emma tells me you've agreed to work with her." It was by the emphasis he put on the word 'work' that she knew he wasn't talking about slaying.

Christine laughed bitterly. "What else did she tell you?"

"Not much, actually. She's a professional, you know. Counselor-patient confidentiality and all that."

"Yes, I'm sure she'd never let slip what a slayer might say."

He frowned. "As I'm sure she explained, Ms. Drake does not usually help slayers. Your lives are short and violent, yes, but full of purpose. Barring the few that go rogue, most slayers don't need her kind of assistance." He smiled gently. "Am I speaking too plainly, Christine? How many slayers ever reach your age? And if you'd died at seventeen, would you be carrying around the pain you feel now?"

She looked away.

"It's the watchers she worries about. The ones who've lost a slayer. All of them left alone, knowing he or she has let down the one person in the word they most needed to protect and guide. Do you have any idea how many watchers commit suicide after their charges are lost?"

"I've heard the same story from her. And to be honest, she told it better. More pathos. Much more believable." She studied him, tried to imagine what kind of watcher he would be. "Have you ever had a slayer of your own?"

He nodded. "Yes. A long time ago." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "She died, of course. I felt responsible. I still do. Every time a slayer dies, I feel responsible because I'm in charge. Do you have any idea what that's been like." He didn't seem to expect her to answer. "Emma's been quite helpful."

"So you feel guilty that you send us out to die? Good."

He didn't look at her. "I'm not inhuman, Chapel. Although, I know you think I'm some kind of monster. I do care about the girls in my charge. I take every death personally." He looked down at his hands. "I'm a father you know. I have two daughters, a little older than you. I spent their adolescence terrified they'd be called. Then I spent the next years plagued by guilt at how relieved I was that they hadn't been."

"I didn't know." She met his eyes, saw no deceit in his expression.

"Why should you? To you...to any slayer, I'm just the head of the council. The bastard who sends them into endless battle, who doesn't give a whit if they come back or not. It's how it's always been. I've accepted that. But Ms. Drake and those like her have helped me weather the times when it hasn't been that easy to accept my role."

Christine looked away.

"We have to help each other. I know that you don't like me. You know that I don't like you overmuch either. That's immaterial. You're the most experienced slayer we have. One with ties to Starfleet, ties that have already proved very useful. We need to start cooperating, not working at cross purposes. There are so many ways you can help us, so many ways we can assist you, if you'll just let us." When she didn't answer, he said softly. "You can start by telling me what you know of Kirsu?"

Christine forced away any reaction, shot him a blank look. "Is that someplace in Japan?"

He shook his head.

"Sorry. Never heard of it."

"Neither had we. Until Vega Hydra." His gentle look dropped away. "How did you find so many slayers to fight in a Gotterdammerung?"

"So many? How many?" She smiled innocently. Vampires exploded into dust and LaVelle had torched the fallen slayers. Nothing should have been left for the watcher's to count.

"You burned the bodies."

"Standard practice. Couldn't have anyone rising." She shot him a sarcastic grin. "It's a watcher approved method."

He stood up. "Damn it, Christine. I saw the images from the planet. The tracks all over that field. We took readings of the blood, of the ashes from the fires, of the footprints. We have a good idea how many there were. You had a bloody army with you, and I want to know where you got it."

She looked up at him calmly. "Did you really have any daughters? Or was that story solely to soften me up?"

He ignored her question. "My men found a native boy hiding in the woods. He'd been lost, stumbled upon the field by accident and had seen the whole thing, told my men all about the great battle. Of the women of all ages who fought the monsters. Monsters who blew up into dust when they died. He identified your picture as one of the survivors. Said you and another woman were talking about this Kirsu. Now, tell me what it means."

She gathered up her things, stood up slowly. "It's the latest sushi sensation at the cafeteria here. You should try it."

"I'll find out. Either with your help or without it."

"Don't you mean Ms. Drake will?"

His face tightened.

"She's not working for you, is she? Not the way you want her to. I guess she really is a professional, after all." Christine laughed. "I've never heard of Kirsu, Silver. If I find out what it means, I'll let you know." She turned her back on him, walked away.

"This is not over." His voice was low, dangerous as a snake.

She turned back. Her voice was even more dangerous. "And it never will be, not until you're dead."

"Or you are."

She felt a thrill of anger run through her, let her lip curl up. "Whichever. Ms. Drake tells me--and I think that she's right--that I don't happen to care all that much." She stared at him, her smile as mocking as she could make it, a cold rage showing in her eyes. "Do you?"

He looked away.

"That's what I thought." Her lip curled up even more and she walked away from him.

She heard him turn, walk the other way. Should she warn LaVelle? And if she tried to help, would Christine just end up betraying the slayers' sanctuary to the watchers?

She'd have to think on this. Maybe she would ask Jim. He'd know what to do. He was one of the best tacticians she knew.

------------------------

Kirk buzzed the chime at Christine's entryway.

"Hello?"

"It's me; I'm on my way up." He stepped over to the retina scan and waited for the system to recognize him. When the door clicked, he pulled it open and ran up the stairs.

She had her door open and was looking at him with alarm, a stake in one hand. "What's wrong?" Then she got a better look at what he was wearing. "Why are you so dressed up? You said this place was casual."

"It is. We're not going there." He brushed past her. "Tell me you have something dressy in that closet of yours." He didn't think his odds were good, given the state of her decorating, but maybe they could stop on the way and buy something.

"Okay. Whoa. What is going on?"

He took her by the shoulders. "You know I wouldn't ask this if it weren't important."

"You haven't asked me anything yet."

"Be my date." He cringed as he said it. "Admiral Richter is on Earth. Nogura's hosting a cocktail party. All the brass will be there. It's a command performance with very late notice." He saw her face. "We won't have to stay long, I promise. Please?"

"Couldn't you just go alone and then come back and get me for dinner?"

He frowned. "Is a vampire supposed to rise tonight?" He'd thought her patrol would be light.

"No. I just don't like cocktail parties. And what would I say to a bunch of admirals?"

"Whatever you want. Or nothing. Just smile and nod if you feel like it. I don't care. I promised Nogura I'd be there."

She sat down, arms across her chest. "And you've gone to a hundred of these shindigs alone. Why do you suddenly need a date?"

He sat down in the chair opposite her, felt something poke him and reached between the cushions, drawing a stake out. He shot her a look.

She shrugged. "I don't have much time to keep house. Sorry. Did it rip anything?"

"No." He put on his best 'do it for me' face. "Chris? Please?"

She just laughed. "Why tonight?"

He gave up. "One of Nogura's staffers is going to be there. She's a bit of a fan of mine. Always very admiring. After Alma left, that felt good. And this woman seemed interesting."

"Ah, so you dated her?"

"We went out a couple of times. That was enough...for me."

"But not for her, I take it?"

"No. And she's somewhat persistent."

Christine just looked amused.

"It's not funny. I think that if she sees I'm with someone, she'll get the message and back off."

Christine got up with a sigh. "Too bad you're not still 'with' someone. Alma could have turned her into cinder in no time."

If Alma hadn't left him, he wouldn't be in this mess. "Well, you could stake her."

She turned to look at him, and he laughed mockingly to show he was kidding. Kind of.

"Please?"

"I'm going to find something to wear." She shook her head, but he wasn't sure if it was at his request or at her own capitulation. "You owe me a really nice dinner tonight for this. I had planned to study."

"Anywhere you want." They'd be dressed for the best tonight. "Actually, there's a new place in New Orleans I've been wanting to try."

There was no noise from the bedroom. He got up, peeked in. "Chris?"

She came out of the bathroom wearing a midnight blue dress that fit as if she'd poured it on. She was trying to pull it away from her body.

Slaying certainly kept her in shape.

"It wasn't this tight before." She turned to the closet. "I think I have another one."

"No. That's good."

She turned to him. He smiled, allowed himself to give her a long once over.

She burst out laughing. "Oh, stop it. It's too damned tight and you know it. They'll think you rented me for the night." She frowned. "Which, in essence, you sort of have. Amazing what I'll do for a meal."

She dragged a black dress out of her closet, ducked back into the bathroom. A moment later the door opened and she tossed the blue dress at him. It landed on his head, covering his face.

"Nice perfume." He freed himself and tossed the dress on the bed. If her chrono was right, they would be just late enough to be fashionable, not so late to be rude. Stupid damn rules that he'd had to learn over the last few months. He hated this job.

She stepped out of the bathroom, a black dress falling gently around her to stop at mid thigh. "Okay?"

"Perfect."

She slipped on some shoes and then grabbed a small bag, which she proceeded to fill with a stake, a cross, a small bottle of holy water.

"Chris, we're going to a cocktail party not a war." He smiled as she pushed another stake into his jacket pocket. He could smell her perfume, the warmth of her body making it rise off of her. "You smell good."

"You said that already."

He led her out of the apartment. "No, technically, I said I liked your perfume. Since it smells differently on your skin than on your dress, I can say you smell good without being redundant."

"You sound like Spock."

It was an offhand comment. Just a little joke. Yet they both fell into an uncomfortable silence.

"God, can't we even mention his name?" she said.

He took her arm. "We can. We just have to get used to doing it," he said softly. "This feels a bit like a betrayal."

She rolled her eyes. "It's not a date, Jim."

"I know. But would he agree?"

They walked the half block to where the streets got busier. Kirk was able to hail a flitter-cab. Chris had fallen silent, sliding across the seat to make room for him without comment. As the flitter took them out of the city proper and to Nogura's house, she stared out the window.

"Chris?"

"He'd be jealous," she said softly. "The old Spock would be. What do you think the new Spock feels? Anything?"

He touched her neck, slowly squeezing out some of the tension he could feel. "I'm not sure."

"He tried to take me back with him. To Vulcan."

"Yes, you said."

She turned to look at him. "No, Jim. He tried to take me. Did the neck pinch thing. If Spike hadn't distracted him long enough for me to wake up..."

Kirk shook his head. "Spock? Did that? Maybe you misunderst--"

"Jim, you don't misunderstand a neck pinch. I said I wouldn't go, and he acted like he accepted it and then boom I was out and he would have taken me back to Vulcan." She smiled grimly. "He wouldn't have kept me there long though."

Kirk still had trouble picturing Spock doing what she said. But if he had, then it was suddenly a lot clearer why he'd run to Gol. Kirk felt as if a weight had fallen off him. She'd told him it was her fault Spock had left, but Kirk had never quite believed her. Now he did. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize."

She sighed. "I know he did it because he loved me. And sometimes I think that maybe I should have gone with him." She turned, looked out the window again. "But then I wonder what else he would have taken, how much more of my life I'd have lost control of. You know?"

He took a deep breath. "He loved you, Chris. You can't ever doubt that. We all saw it. And when you left..."

"Was it me? Was it the love he had for me? Or was it that 'his' woman was missing? Because I'm not sure anymore."

"Chris, that's insane. He loved you. And he wasn't the kind to force himself."

"But at the end. He wouldn't let go. Couldn't stop pushing. He was so sure he knew best."

"I think you're just angry at him for what he did to you. And he did it in a moment of passion, right? You'd just made love?"

She nodded.

"We both know that passion wasn't something he was accustomed to dealing with. He went over the top, but he's not used to feeling those things. I don't think you can blame him for trying to fix things. And I don't think he'd do that if the circumstances hadn't been extraordinary."

"Maybe you're right." She turned to look at him. "I miss him. I've missed him since I ran. And being with him again, it felt good. But not right. Does that make sense?"

He nodded. Began to knead her neck again.

She smiled. "That feels good."

"And right?"

Their eyes met. He stopped the neck rub.

"I meant--"

"I know what you meant." He gave a few more gentle squeezes then pulled his hand away.

"So you dated this staffer?" She smiled tightly, clearly trying to get them to less tenuous ground.

He was happy to play along. "Once."

"She pretty?"

"Very."

"Smart?"

"Yep."

Christine sighed. "And what was wrong with her again?"

He'd asked himself the very same thing. "Something was off about her. Something..." He frowned.

"What?"

"I was about to say dark."

"Well, I'm glad I brought the stakes then." She grinned at him. "Just in case."

He grinned back.

"So, umm, how friendly are we supposed to be?"

He smiled, then let his look become less friendly, more intense. Smoldering.

"That's amazing. How do you do that?" She grinned.

He was suddenly struck by how pretty she was when she smiled.

"It's an acquired art."

"So you can teach me?"

He chuckled at the thought. "You're already a slayer. Isn't that lethal enough? Let us poor non-chosen ones enjoy our small powers."

She rolled her eyes. "Small powers, my ass." She leaned across him, looked out the window at the estate gates that were slowly opening for their cab to turn in. "Wow."

"Nogura's from old money. His great-great-great-grandfather made his fortune in some sort of computer system design."

He felt a chill at the back of his neck, turned to look out the window and thought he saw a figure in a black cloak standing among the evergreens. He tensed, then blinked. There was nothing in the trees.

"What is it?"

He shook his head. The hair on his neck was still standing on end. "Do you know any sorcerers, Chris?"

She laughed. "Other than you, no." Her smile fell when she saw his face. "Why?"

"I want to know more about this so-called power I have." He resisted the urge to turn and look at the trees.

"Okay. I'll ask Emma."

"Thanks." He shot her a grateful look.

The cab slowed then stopped in front of a grand entrance. The door opened. He heard Christine gulp.

"Ready?" He stepped out of the cab, reached back and helped her out.

She took his arm, walked next to him, her body comfortably close as Kirk nodded to the butler.

"This staffer, she turns up at a lot of these get-togethers?"

He shook his head. "No. She travels with Richter some of the time. At least while he's working on Nogura's pet project. She's officially a sort of aide-de-camp, although she's an admiral herself. We all know she's Nogura's spy." He smiled and nodded to an admiral near the door.

"Does she have a name?" Chris asked as they walked into the glittering entry hall.

"Lori. Lori Ciani," Kirk said as the door closed behind them.

------------------- TBC

Christine took the drink Kirk handed her and amused herself by trying to pick his would be stalker out of the crowd. Several women were unusually pretty, but they seemed to be clearly with the men on whose every word they hung. Christine kept looking, then stopped her search when she realized that across the room another woman was staring at her.

With a smile that Christine couldn't read, the woman walked across the room, stopping to talk to one couple, hugging another woman, before reaching Christine and Kirk.

"Jim," she said. Her voice was soft and sweet, almost girlish.

Kirk turned away from the bar to face her, his expression composed, his voice casual and relaxed as he said, "Lori, I wondered if you'd be here. I see you have a drink, so I won't offer to get you one." He moved closer to Christine, his hand snaking around her waist.

Christine studied the other woman. She was small, very pretty in a gamine way, dark hair cut short, probably to better accentuate her huge brown eyes. Eyes that were staring at Christine as if Lori could read every single one of her secrets in just a glance. Christine forced herself not to look away, let some of her own slayer steel flow into her gaze.

Kirk's hand tightened on hers, and Christine wondered if he thought she was going to attack the other woman.

"I'm being rude," he said. "Have you two met?" He took a sip of his drink.

Lori smiled, as if she enjoyed the little game the three of them were playing out. "We haven't." She was watching Kirk intently.

"Lori Ciani, Christine Chapel. Chris is a very good friend of mine."

Lori's smile turned mocking, "Oh, Jim, do you really think I'll fall for that old tri--" She suddenly looked at where his hand rested on Christine's waist, stared at it as if it were a puzzle. Frowning deeply, she looked up at Christine, and as their eyes met, Lori's suddenly changed from brown to black. Her nostrils flared, as if she could smell something the others couldn't. Whatever the scent was, she didn't seem to like it.

Christine felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and she reached down, trying to open the bag that hung off her shoulder, intent on getting to the stake.

Lori was quicker; her hand fell over Christine's, keeping her from pulling the weapon out. "There's no need for that. I don't mean any harm. I was just surprised." Her eyes slowly faded back to their original color. She turned to Jim. "A slayer. I'm impressed. And somewhat mollified if that's who you're going to throw me over for."

Christine realized Lori had leaned in, was covering their interaction so that to anyone watching it would look as if they were all the closest friends, perhaps enjoying a bit of gossip.

"Let go of my hand," Christine said softly.

Lori smiled again, not bothering to hide the bite in her expression. But she pulled her hand away and backed off slightly.

Kirk said softly, "Would one of you like to tell me what's going on?"

"You really don't know, do you?" Lori laughed, the easy ripple of laughter causing several people around them to turn, grinning as if the humor was contagious.

"What are you?" Christine asked.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Lori waved to someone across the room. "You must excuse me. As exhilarating as it is being around you two, there are more mundane people I should talk to. Perhaps we'll run into each other again, Christine?"

"It's possible." But not if Christine could help it. The woman gave her the creeps.

"Jim." Lori leaned in, her cheek brushing his quickly, then she pulled away. "You look wonderful as always." She turned away, walking slowly, stopping to talk frequently as she worked her way across the room to Nogura.

Christine frowned. "Weird."

"I was right, wasn't I? Dark?"

"I'm not sure. But she's not your average girl next door." Christine realized that Kirk's hand had not moved from her waist. She looked at him. "Enjoying this, are you?"

He grinned. "It beats talking to some admiral. I'll have to bring you to all of these affairs."

She reached down, squeezed his hand. "As much as I enjoy your company, I'd rather you didn't." She gently pushed his hand away.

He moved it off her waist, let it settle on the small of her back.

"You're incorrigible."

His grin corroborated her statement.

"Don't you have some admirals to talk to so we can leave? I'm starving and you promised me a nice dinner."

He dropped his hand. "I did, didn't I?" He led her over to the French doors that led to a long patio.

A grizzled man was standing with his back to the room, staring out at the garden.

"Carl??"

The man didn't turn. "Hate these damn things, Jim. Why's Nogura always throwing me a party?"

"He likes to see you squirm. Likes to see us all squirm." Kirk turned to her, winked. "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Carl. This is Chris Chapel. Chris, Admiral Carl Richter."

The older man turned. His surly expression lightened somewhat when he saw her standing there. "Sorry, my dear. Didn't realize Jim had someone with him. He usually comes to these things alone."

She smiled wryly. "Yes, sir. I know."

"Oh, call me Carl. No sense standing on ceremony when we're all stuck here suffering together."

"Well, it's a nice place to suffer in." Christine looked around the richly appointed library. There was about three times more furniture in this one room than in her entire apartment.

Kirk seemed to be reading her mind. "Thinking of stealing one of the chairs?"

She elbowed him in the ribs, pulling the blow so it barely touched. "Funny."

Richter looked around. "I doubt he'd notice. Pick one you like and I'll carry it outside for you."

She laughed. "That's okay. It's a little late to embark on a life of crime."

Richter shrugged. "Suit yourself." He looked over at Kirk. "If I had a nice young woman on my arm, I'd be trying to get the hell out of here, not talking about stealing settees with some old man."

"You'll never be old," Kirk said with a smile. He looked over at Christine. "Staff meetings when Carl is offworld are very boring. On the other hand, I never get glared at for laughing."

Richter grinned. "That damn blowhard Nogura just likes to hear himself talk." He shook his head.

"What about Lori?" Kirk said, his voice casual. "She seems to have the old man by the..." He grinned, letting the sentence dangle.

"I don't think so, my friend. That one's a cipher that I just can't figure out. She's a damned good officer, but I don't mind saying she's got some odd ways. I'm glad she's assigned to me. But I'm not sure what else she's there for, if you get my drift?"

"Nogura's spy?"

"Oh, without a doubt." Richter threw back his drink. "But what else, my friend? What else?" He smiled at Christine. "You two sneak away now. I'll distract our good host."

"Go," Kirk said to her as soon as Richter had Nogura looking the other way.

She turned and saw that Lori was watching them leave. The other woman held her glass up, lowering her head in an odd little salute. Christine nodded slowly, saw Lori's lips turn up in a slow, strange smile.

The she blew Christine a kiss. A long, slow one.

Christine turned and hurried out after Kirk. She did not want to think about that, or the way the woman made her flesh crawl. In all sorts of ways--nasty and otherwise.

"You okay?"

She nodded slowly. "She's evil."

"You're sure." He shot her a concerned look.

"No." She pouted for a moment. "Just wishful thinking. I take it she swings in all directions?"

He shot her a startled glance. "I didn't know that."

Christine looked at him. "Oh, I'm thinking yes." The scary thing was that Christine didn't. Or she never had in the past. She shuddered. "I want to know what she is."

"I'm not sure I do." Kirk nodded to the doorman, then leaned into a flitter cab that was just letting out more guests. "We're going back to the city."

"That is acceptable," the automated voice said. "State destination."

"Transporter station twelve." He motioned for Christine to get into the cab, followed her in. As the cab started off, he smiled at her. "Thank you."

"I didn't do anything."

"You were ready to." He grinned. "Would you really have staked her in the middle of Nogura's party?"

She shrugged, could feel a sheepish smile beginning. "I wasn't thinking."

"Just ready to protect me?"

"I guess." She looked away. "As if you need it."

She felt his hand cover hers, pushing her palm gently into the seat. "I like that you care."

His touch was warm. As he squeezed her hand gently, she could almost feel the beat of his heart. So strong. So steady.

She looked over at him, smiled. "That's sweet. But you still owe me dinner."

He grinned, let go of her hand. "You are the only one I know who's immune to my wiles." He frowned. "Maybe that's the magic that Alma was talking about."

"Your power over the female sex?" She smiled. "Maybe. It would explain why no alien cutie was able to withstand your charms."

"My formidable charms." His smile faded. "I don't like that thought. If it's magic, then maybe I'm not good at all?"

She laughed. "You'll just have to find an objective party to judge."

"Don't need a party." He smiled at her, turning on the charm in what she knew was meant to be an obvious way. "Just one immune slayer."

She laughed. "I'll go find you one."

He held a hand over his heart; his face fell as if heartbroken. "You wound me. Just because you're not interested..." He grinned at her, but there was an odd look in his eyes. She felt as if she was falling into them.

She blinked and the spell was broken. "You're good." She stared at him hard. "I guess I'm not immune."

He grinned again, triumph in his voice when he said, "Clearly not."

There was a note of challenge in his tone that she just couldn't resist. She leaned in, her face close to his, and conjured up the look that had always worked with Spike. A hard look, intense, broken when she looked down, then back up at him. She opened her mouth slightly, raised her head, and let the intensity back into her gaze.

He gulped.

She grinned. "See. You're not the only one who can do that." She pushed at him playfully.

He laughed. "Devil."

"Quite possibly. Sure you want to hang around with me?"

His answer was immediate. "Positive." He leaned back and closed his eyes. "Hate those things."

She didn't say anything, just watched him for a moment. Then she reached over, began to massage his neck lightly, the way he'd done for her.

He didn't say anything, just smiled.

She felt a rush of fondness for him envelope her. He'd always been kind to her, even at times when Spock had ignored her and McCoy had taken her for granted. Jim had always had a gentle smile or time to ask her how she was. She'd thought he was the best captain in the fleet. Now he was swiftly becoming one of her best friends.

It was strange how life worked. Strange, but nice.

--------------------------

Transporter station twelve was bustling. Kirk and Christine stood in line, waiting their turn for beam out.

He watched the crowd for a moment, then turned to her. "You okay?"

She nodded. But he noticed that every time the line moved forward, her face got tighter.

"You sure?"

Her voice was low, seemed to be pitched so only he could hear it. "Jim, do you know what New Orleans is?"

"Seedy? Steamy? Genteel?" At her expression, he kept going. "Sexy? Wonderful? Atrocious?"

"I'm serious."

"Okay, Chris. Tell me what New Orleans is." The line moved and he touched her on the small of her back, gently pressing her forward. "Other than the home of this brand new restaurant that is supposed to have fabulous food." And fortunately, room for them. He'd commed them for reservations before joining the line.

"It's a no kill zone."

"What?"

She was talking so low, he had to strain to hear her. "Vampires run free there."

"I don't understand. I've been there several times. I've never seen a vampire."

She laughed; it was not a pleasant sound. "You were never with a slayer before."

"Oh." He thought of how vulnerable she might be if there were too many of them. "Oh."

"No, I don't mean they'll try to kill me. That no kill rule runs both ways. I can't slay, and they can't bite anyone. At least not lethally. They bite all the time. There are clubs there." Her mouth twisted.

"Clubs?"

She nodded. "There are people who like to be bitten, like to be...food. They pay vamps to feed off them. Others get paid by vampires who like to drink from someone who's taken recreational drugs. They get high off the blood." She saw his expression. "There are all kinds of wackos out there."

He shook his head. "I've been bitten twice. It's not fun." He looked away.

She touched his hand. "Well not the last time. But wasn't it different when Anacost drained you? There comes a point, I think, when it turns pleasurable?"

This wasn't ground he'd ever intended to cover with her. He looked at her, tried to read her mood, figure out what she'd think.

"Don't," she said softly. "Don't look at me like I won't understand. I nearly let Marcus kill me, and early on with Spike, if he could have bitten me, if he'd wanted to, I might have let him drain me. Believe me, I won't judge you."

He let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "I'd have killed you and everyone on board the Enterprise to get more blood." He looked down. "It was the sweetest thing I'd ever tasted." Even now, when it should turn his stomach, it didn't repulse him. "And the bite...at the end. Yes, it was pleasurable."

"Spike used to tell me things. What it was like to be undead, to drink, to rise, to turn. He wanted me to understand better what I was fighting. He helped me a lot. Taught me to stop underestimating what keeps them going and accept that they would fight to the death for the last bitter drop of it. Blood. "

"Blood is all." He nodded thoughtfully. "Blood was all. Now, I care about other things too." Thanks to Alma, who had kept him from running to the vampires. And thanks to Christine and LaVelle, who had sent Anacost back to hell.

She smiled. "I'm glad that we got you back."

"I am too."

They snaked closer to the front.

"So tell me more about this no kill zone."

"It was a long time ago, before First Contact. When the war was waging. Earth was a terrible place. Some vampires thrived in the chaos. Some slayers too. But most of the supernatural creatures seemed to be drawn away from it, and to the places where magic protected the cities."

"Magic?"

She nodded. "Which cities made it through the dark years relatively unscathed?"

He thought about that. It was a short list. "Venice, Rio, and..."

She nodded. "And New Orleans. And what do they all have in common?"

"Carnival? Mardi Gras?"

She nodded. "Saturnalia was its earlier name. A mighty festival, magical, sexual, wild. The people giving themselves over and over to the city that kept them safe. The city in turn taking the offerings of laughter and drunkenness and sex and turning them into something powerful. Something that protected everything and everyone within the borders so that the chaos never found its way in."

"Because of a festival of chaos?"

She nodded.

"Interesting." He frowned. "I never thought how odd it was that those three cities still stand as they had."

She laughed. "That's part of the magic. You don't think about it. You just accept it, or if you don't, your thoughts can't stay focused on it. Like deflectors. Only magical ones, not technical."

"That's what we're going into?"

"You've never felt it?"

He thought about that. Of course he'd felt it. "The moment I get there, I feel alive, as if every cell in my body has been charged."

"Magic calls to magic."

The couple ahead of them stepped onto the transporter pad.

Chris moved up, then said, "So all the vampires and demons and slayers and watchers and other supernatural things who were in the city agreed not to kill each other or anyone else living there. It's a treaty that's held. In all three cities, despite the years. I guess we all like having our own versions of Space Station K-7."

Kirk grimaced, remembering the disreputable state he'd found his crew in after that R&R brawl with the Klingons. "Not quite the same. You said no fighting."

She smiled tightly. "I said no killing. There's plenty of fighting. In fact, watchers often take new slayers to the three cities to learn how to fight vampires by actually fighting vampires. It's a great workout. And the vamps seem to enjoy it too." She shook her head. "It's a screwed up world."

"Did they take you there?" he asked, as they stepped onto the pad.

She nodded solemnly. Then she grinned. "It was a lot of fun."

He shook his head, but couldn't hide his own grin. He couldn't wait to get there. Now more than ever. "New Orleans, French Quarter," he told the transporter operator, as he put his palm down on the credit scan.

"Kirk, Admiral James T. Transaction authorized," the scanner displayed.

As they materialized at the French Quarter station, he practically leapt off the pad. There it was. The feeling...energy, enormous raw power rushing around him, going through him. Filling him. "Do you feel it, Chris?"

He looked over at her and their eyes met. Hers were dilated, he imagined his were too.

"Oh, yes," she said. Looking down at her bag, she motioned for him to follow her. She led him down a hallway into what looked like a blind alley.

"Chris?"

She reached back, took his hand, and then walked through the wall. He tried to hold back but she yanked him through too. He felt a strange tingle as he went through. When he looked back, the wall was gone. Made of magic, he realized.

A large, slimy, and he thought female creature looked up. She was watching a gossip show on the trivid and looked annoyed at the interruption. "Something to declare?"

Chris reached into his jacket and said softly, "Is that a stake in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

He laughed found himself mesmerized by the energy he could feel coursing off of her and onto him. He reached out, touched her cheek.

"Oh, for dragilon's sake, get a room," the demon said, as she held her hand out for the stake. "Slayer, eh? You know the rules? Or are you too high on magic to pay attention?"

Chris slapped her bag in the demon's other hand. "I know the rules." She didn't tear her eyes away from Kirk. "It'll wear off, this initial buzz. In about ten minutes." She ran her hand down his arm, shuddered at the tingle that she seemed to feel as much as he did.

"Damn," he murmured.

"I know." Her smile was wicked. Dark.

He loved it.

"I've had sex here every time I've visited," he realized. Out loud.

"Thanks for sharing, Romeo," the demon said. "Boy, you two really add a touch of class to the place, you know? Okay, you want a receipt or not?"

Chris held her hand out and the demon slapped down a scanner that left a small mark on the top of her hand.

"One holy water, one cross, two stakes, one purse--a nice one, I like it. Where'd you get it?"

"Offworld."

"Figures." The demon waved them off. "Enjoy your stay in New Orleans."

Kirk could feel some of the euphoria wearing off as he followed Chris through a side door and into an alley that dumped them into the heart of the French Quarter. "So does every demon stop there?"

"Nope, if it's attached they get to keep it. It's mostly warrior clans, slayers, watchers, and demon hunters that have to check in. The occasional gypsy and necromancer might stop in, if they travel armed." She looked over at him. "They're quite serious about the no kill zone. If we do get in a fight tonight, remember that."

"What happens to those that don't?"

"They get to visit the back room where there's a very large furnace."

He winced. "Let's get out of the French Quarter then. I've never managed to walk through it without getting in trouble."

"The restaurant isn't here?"

"It's in the garden district."

"They have a station."

He grinned. "I know. But this place is more exciting. Isn't it?" He touched her hand, felt the answering buzz, much less intense than it had been but still there.

She grinned. "Plus we can ride the streetcar."

"We can." It didn't run on tracks anymore or get its power from overhead wires, instead sitting on top of a large flitter, but the streetcar still looked damned atmospheric as he saw it coming down to the turnaround

"Maybe we'll get to ride in Desire," Chris said, leaning in close. Her fingers twined around his.

He tightened his on hers. "Desire was a line, not an actual car." At her look, he smiled. "You'd correct me if I were wrong."

"True. But my idea was much more romantic." She frowned then and pulled away. "New Orleans. God, it does have power, doesn't it?"

He thought she might be blushing.

"You've never come here either, have you, without getting la--"

She punched him in the ribs. This time it did hurt. "Ow."

They climbed aboard the car, took a seat near the front. An automated message told them to please sit down and refrain from putting body parts outside the car.

A voice from behind them rang out. "Ooh, a slayer. I'm so scared."

Kirk turned around. Two men, he assumed they were vampires although it was hard to tell since they were in their human face, sat in the back, smiling meanly.

"Just ignore them," she said.

He turned back around.

"Slayer whipped," the other vampire said with a laugh. "Hey, buddy, does she tell you how to do it to her?"

He was about to say something, when she grabbed his hand. "No. Leave them alone."

The energy told him to fight. "But--"

"--I'm going to distract you."

"Okay. Why?"

"Because you want to fight, and frankly, I wouldn't mind joining you. And we don't need that tonight."

"No, we don't." He smiled, finding it easier to tune the vampires out and concentrate on her than he expected. "You're already distracting me."

"Am I?"

He nodded.

"Did you sleep with her?" she asked.

"Who?"

She smiled. "You know who."

"Lori?" He shook his head.

"Why not?"

He grinned. "I didn't bring her to New Orleans?"

She laughed. Then vampires started to pretend they were Christine and Kirk, making up sappy dialogue for them. Christine started to rise, and he pulled her down.

She nodded. "Yes. Good. Distract me."

"We don't really sound like that, do we?"

She stopped shooting looks back at the vampires and concentrated on what they were saying. "No." She laughed. "And I'd never say that."

She turned red. "And I don't even know that word."

He smiled. "Why'd you blush then?"

She glared at him. "You're not helping."

"No?" He reached out, touched her hand.

"Jim?"

He kept stroking her hand, his finger feather light on her skin. A shiver ran down his spine.

"Jim. Please stop."

She leaned in. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing deep.

"Chris?"

She opened her eyes; her pupils were huge. She looked as if she were drunk. On sensation. On what he was doing. One little touch.

Their eyes locked. For a moment, all he wanted to do was lean in and kiss her, mocking vampires be damned. But he fought the feeling. It was just the magic working on them both, the lusty influence of a city enchanted by sex and raucous living. He didn't really want her. She didn't want him.

And she was his best friend's bond mate.

Former bond mate, some small part of his mind protested.

He pulled his hand away.

He thought he heard her sigh, then realized he had made the noise.

The vampires got up, making rude gestures as they walked past and off the streetcar.

"No more distracting," he said gently.

"Right." She moved closer to the window, stared out into the night. "This restaurant? Is it far?"

"Two stops away." He touched her hand. "If I was out of line..."

She turned quickly, pulling him to her and kissing him hard and fast. "There. Before I can't blame the magic anymore." Then she pushed him away, seemed to leap back against the window. Her expression was a bit wild, and she was breathing fast.

He wanted to drag her back to him, wanted to feel her lips on his again. But the magic had worn off and he couldn't blame it anymore.

He sighed again.

She looked away, seemed to shrink in on herself. "I'm sorry. That _was_ out of line."

He pulled her to him, his arm around her shoulder. "It's just the city, Chris. Making us crazy."

"Right. Just the city."

He remembered how she'd kissed him in his apartment, when she'd come to see if he was all right, when he'd told her Spock had gone. He'd blamed that kiss on pity.

This one on magic.

What would he blame the next one on?

He felt her finally relax against him; she laid her head against his shoulder.

There wouldn't be a next kiss. She was his friend. His closest friend, even though he wasn't sure how that happened.

And she was Spock's love. Spock, who used to be his closest friend.

He wasn't going to kiss her.

No matter how much he wanted to.

-------------------------------

"I found a nest. We're going slaying." Drake picked up her bag of weapons and hefted it over her shoulder. "Come along, Christine."

Christine nodded absently, rising and pulling her pack onto her back. She followed Drake silently.

"All right. What's wrong with you?" Drake looked at her suspiciously. "You never do what I say without arguing."

"Nothing," Christine said. "And never is such a strong word."

She tried to loosen up her muscles as she walked, her legs still felt tight from the shoes she'd been wearing the night before, shoes that had been too high to walk through the garden district with Jim after dinner. But the night had been warm and the jasmine that bloomed outside the converted mansion they had eaten in had been heady.

And part of the magic of New Orleans had still touched them. They'd avoided the cemetery, walking the streets slowly, admiring the lavish mansions, the beautiful gardens. At some point in the walk, he'd taken her hand, but she hadn't noticed until they were waiting for the streetcar that she was holding onto him tightly. She had tried to pull away, and he had looked down as if he hadn't realized either that he'd been holding her hand.

"This city," he'd said quietly. He'd looked up at her, and she'd thought for a moment that he was going to pull her close. But then he just smiled and turned away, dropping her hand.

"Christine?" Drake was staring at her hard. "What the devil is the matter with you?"

Christine sighed.

"Oh, for goodness sake. I'm a counselor. I've heard it all; you won't shock me. Just tell me what's wrong."

"I went to New Orleans last night."

Drake's eyebrows rose, a mischievous smile on her face. "Good for you. You need some loosening up. Did you meet someone nice?"

"I didn't go alone."

Drake's eyebrows rose even higher. "Kirk?"

Christine rolled her head back, trying to get out knots that seemed to be forming even as she talked. "Yes. With him."

"I imagine that must have been quite something. A magical city, such a handsome man, full of magic himself. Was it good?"

"Emma. God. No."

Drake's face fell. "He wasn't good. I'd have sworn he'd be great."

"I don't mean like that. We didn't. I mean...I kissed him."

"Good for you."

Christine could feel her mouth tighten.

"Tell me, Christine. Do you ever get involved with someone and actually act happy about it? Or is every relationship gloom and doom with you?"

"You don't understand. I should never have kissed him."

"Why? Didn't he like it?" Drake shook her head as if Christine were a little girl that was missing a vital point. "Is this about Spock? Because I don't see him here."

"He's not here because I drove him away."

"Hold that thought," Drake said, as she stopped in front of an unmarked building and kicked the door in.

Sunshine streamed past the door, illuminating the immediate interior. The rest was still in darkness.

"I counted nine or ten vampires when I staked this place out last night. I'll take left. Ready?" She set her bag down in the sun, pulled out several stakes and checked to make sure Christine had hers. "Let's clean house, shall we?"

"Lead on." Christine waded past the sunshine, into the darkness, sensing the vampire who waited for her before her eyes actually registered him. "Hello. I'll be your slayer today," she said, as she ducked his punch, letting his momentum carry him close enough to push the stake in quickly. She had her weapon out and was turning to the next vampire before the first one exploded into dust.

As her eyes adjusted, she saw that Drake was keeping close to the entrance. Waiting probably for a chance to loft one of the vampires into the daylight beyond the door. Christine smiled, felt her heart beat faster, stronger. She turned to her right, blocked the blow that the vampire no doubt intended to be a surprise, then threw her into another vampire that was headed toward her. She kicked back, knocking a third vampire away from her. The other two were rushing her and she ducked in low, staking one as she backhanded another. The vampire behind her kicked her in the back, throwing her into the vampire she'd just stabbed. Her momentum carried her through him as he burst into dust.

Christine turned her fall into a roll, came up and saw another vamp reaching for her. She flipped the stake in her hand, threw it at him like a dagger. It hit dead center, and he was gone. The vampire behind her roared and she threw herself to the side, letting her legs follow through to kick him hard into the wall. She was up in a flash, knocking him away from her again with a roundhouse kick, then turning to meet the blow of the remaining vampire that had attacked her.

The one she'd kicked into the wall rushed her and she grabbed his arm, spinning and launching him into the air, out the door and into the bright sunshine. He began to burn, tried to get back into the shadows and almost made it before he caught fire and was gone.

Heavy hands grabbed her by the neck, choking her.

Not again, she determined, knocking her head back hard against the vampire's face. He loosened his grip enough for her to jerk away. She turned and kick his knee, popping it and forcing him to the ground.

"Hands off the neck," she yelled as she pulled out a new stake and drove it home.

She looked over to check on Emma. Her watcher was trading punches with a large female vampire. Christine almost laughed at the obvious enjoyment Drake was getting out of the fight. She looked around for any other vampires, but the building was empty.

"So," Drake said as she parried a particularly vicious blow. "Tell me why it was wrong for you to kiss Kirk? It seems to me that you enjoy spending time with him."

"I do. He's my friend."

"And that's an excellent start to a relationship." Drake hit the vampire hard. "Being friends is important. Were you friends with Spock?"

"Of course, I was..."

"Ah. What did you do?" Drake laughed. "I mean other than sex."

"We talked, and we went to Sedona once." She could sense that Drake wanted more.

Christine frowned. Had she and Spock been friends? He'd ignored her for such a long time. Avoided her. Then, when she'd become the slayer, he'd been there for her, their relationship changing almost overnight. He had supported her, kept her grounded. They'd become lovers so fast though. Spock had been fond of saying that Kirk had a crush on her, but he had certainly become a convert to her cause awfully quickly too. Had it been when he'd seen how strong she was? When he'd realized she could be a true mate for him, one he wouldn't injure with his Vulcan strength?

Had he ever been her friend?

"Well?"

"I think the answer is no," the vampire said as she kicked Drake across the room. "Not that I care."

"We were friends." Christine's voice sounded rebellious, defensive. Even to herself.

"Like you are with the admiral?" Drake pulled herself up quickly, met the vampire midway across the room, her hands hitting hard, blocking punches just as hard.

"It's different. And he won't. I mean I can't. It's not right."

"Which is it?" the vampire asked, sounding more interested than she claimed.

"An excellent question." Drake kicked the vampire hard into the far wall. She turned to Christine. "Why don't you answer it?"

Christine looked away.

The vampire stood, was about to charge then seemed to realize Drake wasn't even looking at her. "Hey! Are we going to fight or what?"

Drake looked at her. "The latter." She threw the stake just as Christine had earlier. It hit the vampire in the chest, then disappeared as it buried itself in the skin.

The vampire looked down, tried to claw the stake out, was still trying as she turned to dust.

Christine gave an appreciative whistle. "Remind me not to make you angry."

"I doubt you could, dear." Drake walked to the door. "So, you don't like this man?"

"I do."

"But you don't want him?"

"I didn't say--"

"Christine. I want you to stop deflecting and just answer the questions." She put her stakes back into her bag and lifted it onto her shoulder. "Coffee?"

"Sure." Christine grabbed her bag and followed Drake down the street and around a corner to a small street vendor. She ordered hers, was surprised when her watcher paid for them both. "You don't have to do that."

"I know. You can get them the next time." Drake led her to a bench in the shade of some trees. "Do you want this man?"

Christine looked down. She had avoided thinking about this. "It's not that simple. What I want may not matter."

"Why not?"

"When I left...ran away from Spock and my duty, I didn't tell anyone I was going. I knew he'd probably look for me. But it didn't matter to me. I didn't think I'd be around for him to find. As I told you, I spent the first few weeks just trying to find death."

Drake nodded. "I remember."

"Jim happened to see me, when he was back on Earth. When I was with Spike, after I'd settled down some. Jim's always been a kind man--especially to me. And he felt guilty because he'd talked me into going back to my old life when all I'd wanted to do was hide again." Christine took a sip of her coffee. "He was happy for me. He even wrote me a recommendation to get into medical school. He'd never even put me down as AWOL." Christine smiled. "He believed in me. He'd marked me down for admin leave, knowing that I'd return to the Fleet at some point."

"He sounds like a good man."

"He is. But I asked him not to tell Spock where I was. And when he went back to the Enterprise, he didn't. He kept my secret." She swallowed hard. "He was Spock's best friend, Emma. And when Spock found out..."

Drake nodded. "I see. A betrayal."

"Of the highest order."

"So if Kirk were interested in you. That would be a betrayal too?"

Christine nodded.

"But didn't you tell me that Spock was going to purge his emotions? Embrace pure logic and reject all that was human?"

"That's the idea." Christine buried the hurt she felt, hurt she knew was more than a little irrational given that she had helped push Spock into this.

"You're angry with him." Drake sighed. "Are you angry with Kirk?"

"God, no. I...he..." Christine sighed. "He's just trying to do the right thing. I knew what would happen if we went to New Orleans and I didn't tell him. I told him everything but that."

"But what did happen, Christine? You kissed him. Did he kiss you back?"

Christine nodded.

"Did he seem...unhappy about the kiss? Was your evening ruined? Were you tentative and uncomfortable around each other the rest of the night?"

"At first." But then he'd made her laugh at dinner. And she'd regaled him with tales from her early days as a slayer. The kiss had faded to just a moment. Ill-conceived and impulsive, but not the end of the world. And later, on their walk, he'd been so sweet to her. And she had been content. No. She had been happy.

She closed her eyes.

"How sad your life must be, Christine, if everything is always so dark with you. Your face just now, as you were thinking about whatever it was you were thinking about. You looked so peaceful. So..."

"Happy."

"Yes. Happy." She reached over, touched Christine's hand. "Do you think you deserve happiness?"

Christine wasn't sure how to answer.

"I'm serious. Do you think you deserve it?" Drake sighed in frustration. "Christine?"

"I'm not sure." Christine looked down. "Sometimes I think I should have just stayed with Spock."

"Did he make you smile?"

"Sometimes."

Drake conceded the honesty with a half-smile. "Did you make him smile?"

Christine rolled her eyes. "He's a Vulcan."

"I know. Does Kirk smile around you?"

Christine smiled softly. Nodded.

Drake squeezed her hand. "In lives like ours, how important would you rate a smile? A laugh? The feeling you had the other night in New Orleans?" She let go of Christine's hand. "I know that you loved Spock. I can hear it in your voice, and I can see it in your eyes when you talk about him. But I also wonder how life with him would have been for you. You ran from him. You knew you could have it all back, and you ran."

"The Orb--"

"--Yes, part of it was the Orb. Part of your perpetual angst may still be the Orb. But somewhere deeper, you were afraid of something. Was it love? Was it being trapped in a commitment from which there would be no escape? Was it the fear that he would die again? Was it that you didn't love him enough? Was it that you loved him too much?" She stood up. "I want you to think about these things. I want you to examine why, even though I think you do love Spock more than you've ever loved anyone, you couldn't go back to him. Until you figure that out, I don't think you'll ever be happy."

Christine looked down.

"You take life so seriously." Drake made a chiding sound. "Spend time with your admiral. I think he's good for you. Don't kiss him if it bothers you so much." She grinned at Christine. "But let his company make you happy. Because I think you do deserve to be happy."

Christine blinked hard.

"You fought well today, Christine. I am very pleased with you." Drake chuckled. "And it irritates the hell out of you that it matters to you what I think, doesn't it?"

Christine looked up at her. Nodded. She shot Drake a wry smile.

"I'll see you tomorrow, dear."

Christine nodded, watched Drake walk down the street. Her solid figure becoming smaller and smaller.

She leaned back and closed her eyes, letting the late afternoon sunshine bathe her face in light. In her mind, she could feel Jim's hand on hers, his soft voice telling her strange little facts about architecture, facts she'd had no idea he'd known.

Happy. She'd been happy. Why was that so hard to imagine as any kind of steady state? Was Emma right? Was she always gloom and doom? Certainly her life had never leant itself to being anything but dark. She'd counted herself lucky just to have found a quiet sort of peace when she'd gone into hiding on the Enterprise.

Could she even be happy? She picked up her coffee and her pack and headed for the library. She would think on it, as Emma had suggested. But not right now. Right now, she had a future to get ready for.

A future that might or might not make her happy. But still one that she desperately wanted just for herself.

FIN