Thar She Blows!

Chapel leaned back in her chair, waiting for the review board to pass on whatever words of condemnation they had for her.

"Thank you, Commander. That will be all." The head of the board began gathering up his padds.

"Excuse me, sir?"

He looked up, smiled tightly. "Under normal circumstances, we'd put a reprimand in your file for going outside proper chain of command the way you did. But since we aren't censuring Kirk for his various escapades, I can hardly do any less to you. And you seem under no illusions that appealing to Ambassador Sarek to speak for your former crewmates was irregular at best."

She did not look away. Her friends hadn't been there to speak for themselves. And the Klingons had been pressing their case. Sarek had been the only logical choice. She repressed a smile. But it had been irregular. Damned so. And Sarek would never have come if she had not commed him.

She had met the Ambassador at the transporter pad, greeted him as the old friend he was. In all the time she'd chased after Spock, she'd never even come close to being his friend, much less his lover. But she had never lost touch with his parents, not since the Babel Conference. It had been Amanda who had kept in contact initially, first by comms, then, once Chapel was back on Earth for medical school, by inviting her to the residence when she and Sarek were on Earth. Over the years, Chapel had begun to understand Sarek, and developed a great respect and affection for him. And she adored Amanda. She didn't think Spock ever realized how close she was to his parents. Suspected he would be horrified if he knew.

And it was a closeness that she was not afraid to exploit. The Vulcan Embassy had put her comm through to where Sarek was in retreat despite his orders not to be disturbed. She wondered if she was on some private list of people that were allowed access, although it might have just been her being head of Starfleet Emergency Operations that had added weight to her claim that her call was extremely urgent.

Sarek had come to Earth immediately. He had stepped off the transporter pad, all business, already reaching for the padd she held out. He read as they walked quickly to the hearing chamber. He nodded several times, put the padd in the pocket of his robe and said, "You realize that you could be reprimanded for this act?"

She grinned at him.

He shook his head slightly, as if in dismay over her bravado. But there was no real reproach in his expression. He never seemed to expect her to be anything other than human, and she loved him for that.

She shrugged. "What are they going to do to me? And can it be any worse than what the Klingons would do to my friends?"

He nodded, a concession to her whenever she exercised logic.

She grinned wider, then her smile fell. They'd posted guards at the chamber door.

His eyebrow rose slightly. "Your recommendation, Commander?"

She thought of Kirk, how he could bullshit himself out of the tightest situation. She looked at Sarek, said softly. "Let's just see how far I can push this Emergency Ops thing, shall we?"

"A bluff?"

"Damned straight." She forced her face into its most stern expression. The one she used when she didn't have time for someone's crap. The one that said, "Just do it, damn it."

The guards took one look at her and scraped out a bit more height, standing rigidly at attention. They did not take their hands off their holsters however.

She moved in front of the higher ranking guard, fixed him with her most piercing stare and said, "Ambassador Sarek is here to address the council."

"We have no such orders, ma'am."

"You do know who I am?"

He nodded.

She noticed he was swallowing convulsively.

"Well, ensign"--she demoted him by two ranks and he swallowed even harder-- "if I say that Sarek is needed, don't you think I must have orders to that effect? Orders that for reasons I don't understand but that I suspect have to do with the competency of your unit, perhaps even of yourself, did not get relayed."

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am." His hand dropped from the phaser.

She noticed the other guard relaxing as well. He obviously didn't want to get busted down to enlisted, even just for the moment.

"Sir, if you please." She indicated that Sarek should enter.

With a nod to her, a nod that did not conceal a slight amusement at her antics, he'd swept into the chambers. She had watched for a while, then had gone back to her office to wait for Starfleet to catch up with her.

But events had intervened. The whale probe had arrived, nearly destroying Earth in the process. And Kirk and company had been the ones who saved them. They had not needed Sarek to speak for them once they got back from their whale watching adventure in the past.

She looked at the review board head. "It was irregular, sir."

Not that she was sorry. She could tell by the way he narrowed his eyes that her omission of an apology was not lost on him.

"I think you've spent a little too much time around Captain Kirk." He smiled tightly again. "His bad habits seem to have rubbed off on you."

His good habits too, or she wouldn't be in the position she was now. Wouldn't be fighting exhaustion after nonstop hours trying to do something, anything to stop that damn probe. If she ever heard that singsong beacon again, she'd scream.

"You're dismissed, Commander."

She rose, turned carefully and walked out, her back straight, her stride firm and unyielding. The door opened and she dropped the formality, turning down the hall to go back to Ops. When she got there, the place was bustling with continued clean-up efforts. Moisture in the monitors and circuits had still been playing havoc with the systems when she'd left for the review board.

"Status?" she asked Lieutenant Commander Roellian.

"Main systems at ninety percent, ma'am. In a few more moments, we'll have these babies dried out and singing at full performance." Her deputy handed her a padd. "This is what we're dealing with."

Plague on Gamma Epsilon, brawl at the Starbase Fourteen rec facility, a shuttle that scraped the wall at spacedock, a small pissing contest out at the neutral zone--no shots fired fortunately--and the Klingons had broken bones of anyone stupid enough to get in their way as they had stormed out of the council chamber. Business as usual.

But this was new. San Francisco Harbor was clogged with boats full of people who wanted to commune with Kirk's whales. At least twenty-five people had jumped in with them. One had apparently forgotten he couldn't swim, so overcome with emotion at seeing his saviors he'd thrown himself off the boat before he could think better of it. He'd been pulled out of the water before he drowned. The whales, probably tired of all the noise and confusion, had dove under the mass of vessels and swum away. The boats had tried to follow. Many collisions ensued and more people ended up in the bay. Idiots.

She handed the padd back. "Another day in Emergency Ops."

Roellian smiled. "Ma'am, you've been on duty forever. Why not let me handle it from here."

She nodded. "Good idea. Call me if you need me." As if he wouldn't, and hadn't, numerous times already. It was the nature of the job. She was on call. Anytime. All the time. No matter what she was doing. And she'd been doing some very fun things in the past when Roellian or one of her staff had called. There was nothing more maddening than getting commed right in the middle of great sex.

She took a quick walk around Operations. Everything seemed all right, no reason to stick around, not when she was dead on her feet. She headed home, but on her way passed the Officer's Club and decided to grab a drink first. She needed to unwind, not just sit at home too keyed up to sleep. Besides Mike might be at the club.

Or Ron. Or Keith. Or Charlie.

She grinned. One of the better side perks of being head of emergency ops was all the interesting men she met. Very, very interesting men.

She walked into the club, scanned the crowd quickly. No one she knew. Then she looked again, her attention caught by a man sitting near the windows staring out at the harbor. His dark brown hair, and the way he brought his drink up to his lips then paused before taking a sip looked familiar.

She walked over to his table. "Hi. Is this seat taken or can only whale lovers sit here?"

Kirk looked up at her, a slow smile crossing his face. "Whale lovers are out there, Commander." He gestured at the boats.

There were garlands of roses floating on the water.

"I think you started a new religion."

"It's very possible. The First Church of George and Gracie." His smile faded a bit.

"You don't seem very happy for a man who just saved the planet and beat all the charges against him. Rather serious charges, too, Captain. Command was buzzing with what you'd done."

The waiter came over and she ordered a beer. "Can I get you another?" she asked Kirk.

He looked down at his drink, didn't seem to realize he'd finished it.

She smiled. "Another for my friend too. Single malt, if I'm not mistaken."

He started to protest, and she waved the waiter away. "You would not believe the premium hours I've ranked up on this job. A few good scotches aren't going to break me."

He grinned, almost apologetically. "I keep thinking of you as a simple doctor."

She leaned back, took a moment to just relax. "There are days I wish I still was that. But today isn't one of them." She waited as the server put their glasses down, then held hers out to Kirk. "I beat a review board too. Let's celebrate."

He clicked his glass against hers softly. "That's right. I heard I have you to thank for Sarek speaking for us?"

She nodded. "Least I could do. It was your recommendation that got me into med school."

He shook his head, seemed embarrassed. "No, it was your ability."

She laughed. "Actually, it was Spock's side note, begging them to take his stalker away."

He didn't laugh. "I don't think he ever thought of you that way."

She grinned. "Well, I did." She leaned back again, slid her feet onto the chair to her side and realized Kirk had done the same thing when her foot touched his. "Sorry."

He smiled. "We can share it. Just don't let the waiters catch us getting footprints on their nice upholstery."

She thought of some of the parties she'd been to in this lounge. "Oh, I think they've had to get far worse than that out of this fabric."

He smiled, a wicked smile. Obviously he'd been to a few of those parties too.

"What made you call Sarek?" he asked.

"Well, he got you into this mess. Seemed the least he could do to get you out."

He looked at her startled.

She smiled. "He and Amanda are friends of mine. I spent time with them after Spock died. I know Sarek came to you. How much hope he pinned on Spock's katra being with you. And he told me you were taking McCoy and going to find Spock's body. He told me off the record, of course." She smiled slowly. "Didn't you ever wonder why those spacedock doors opened when they did?"

"I thought Scotty did that."

"That's what you were supposed to think. How else could I get away with it? And maybe Mister Scott would have gotten those doors open." She laughed. "But he did have his hands full with the sabotage of Style's ship. Ooh, now there was one pissed off captain. He was spitting nails when he beamed over. Nearly tripped over his stupid riding crop. What an ass." She laughed, then shrugged innocently. "Amazing what functions you can access from emergency ops. It truly is the nerve center of the place." She grinned at him.

He grinned back, a look of admiration in his eyes. "You're full of surprises."

"Oh, you have no idea."

"I'm getting that." His grin widened. He took a sip of his drink, looked out the window again. "I hope the probe doesn't come back. A few generations and they'll be gone again and we'll be in the same boat." He chuckled as he watched the chaos out on the bay. "No pun intended."

She nodded, surprised he understood genetic diversity that well. "Oh I think Starfleet will find a way to go back and rescue a few more. Or screw with their chromosomes and make more." The latter was more likely, in her estimation; Command was squirrelly about time travel. At his look, she made a zipping motion over her lips. "You did not hear that from me."

He smiled. "You're just a wealth of information, Christine."

She smiled knowing at him. "Charm will not work any other secrets loose from me, Captain."

He leaned forward. "Call me Jim."

She laughed. "You are so full of it."

He grinned. "And you are very different than I remember."

She nodded. "My current position is challenging. I've grown a lot in it." She tried not to crack a leering grin. It wouldn't do to tell him that she'd had really good sex for the first time in her life. Nothing like excelling at work and having a mind-blowing orgasm or twenty to give a girl some confidence.

He laughed, his grin leaving no doubt that she was completely unsuccessful in keeping what she was thinking off her face. "I'd say you've gained some experience in other areas," he said carefully, his eyes sparkling.

She let a cat-in-the-cream smile tilt her lips up. "It's possible."

He nodded approvingly. "Good for you." He leaned back. "It's been a while for me."

She was surprised at his admission. "Just how many of those scotches have you had?"

He looked at her startled, then turned an amazing shade of red. "I didn't say that out loud, did I?"

She nodded. "I'm afraid so." She laughed, gently, with him, not at him as he took a quick sip of scotch. "I thought Gillian and you..."

He shot her a look. "Yeah, well, I kind of thought so too." He exhaled loudly, the sound almost a frustrated harrumph. "But she shipped out."

Chapel couldn't help it. She laughed. Hard. "Oh my god. She kissed and ran? Left you?"

He nodded morosely. "I'm getting old. Carol did the same thing." He reached over to the table behind them, grabbing the bowl of snacks and setting it between them. "Used to be they'd do a lot more than kiss."

"And you were the one that ran." She smiled, dug into the food eagerly. She hadn't eaten in hours and the beer was going to her head.

"It wasn't running. Exactly. I had a duty, to the ship. To all of you. I was the captain."

She nodded. And he didn't crap in his nest. It was something she always kept in mind whenever Roellian looked too appealing after happy hours. "Yeah, I get that now. Not sure I would have before I was in charge."

"It's a lonely life, sometimes. Although, you don't seem particularly lonely."

"I'm not on a ship. Plenty of people here to entertain me, people who aren't off limits."

"True." He dug through the bowl, picking out the cashews. At her look, he said, "Life is uncertain. Why not take what you want? At least from the snack bowl." The morose look was back.

She shook her head, took the cashews from the handful she'd grabbed. "Here." She dribbled them into his hand.

"That's sweet."

She grinned. "No it's not. I don't like them."

He shrugged, popped one into his mouth. "They taste good either way." Then he held out his hand. "What do you like?"

She picked the almonds out. "Thanks."

"I'd have pictured you for the sesame sticks."

"Nope. Almonds." She studied him. "You do seem the cashew type. I'd have picked that." She grinned.

He grinned back. "Define the cashew type."

"Commanding, used to being at the top, deserving of the best." She laughed at his expression. "Okay, how's this? Brilliant, sensual, courageous, caring."

He nodded. "I like that better."

"They both might be true."

He laughed. "Or you could have pulled them out of your ass."

"True. I've gotten really good at doing that. Sometimes it's not what you answer, but how fast."

"God, if that isn't the truth. It's what I hated about being an admiral at a desk. Say whatever you have to, even if it's not right, but never look like you're anything but totally in command of your section."

She nodded. "For what it's worth, I like to be right. I'm not afraid to say that I'll have to get back to someone. I just say it really fast."

He laughed.

She was struck by how handsome he still was. It was never something she'd noticed in the past. Actually, it was never something she'd allowed herself to notice in the past. Men like Kirk were out of her league. Or had been.

"So what are your plans?" she asked.

"For my future?"

"I was thinking for the evening, but you can tell me about your future too."

He laughed again. "You are one hell of a smart-ass, Chapel. I never knew."

"What happened to Christine, Captain?"

"It's Jim. I told you that. And I doubt you forget a damn thing, so quit calling me 'captain.'"

She grinned. "I forget things. Stuff that doesn't matter." She smiled. Tried his name out for the first time. "Jim."

He grinned back. "I'm really hungry. And these nuts are not cutting it."

"Me too."

"Do you cook?" he asked with a grin.

"No."

"Well, I do. Do you have a kitchen?"

She rolled her eyes. "Of course. But it has no food in it."

"Scandalous." He shook his head. "Want to take a walk then. See what looks good? It's been a while since I've done that. Just wandered."

"Aimlessly?"

He nodded.

It had been a long time since she'd done that too. "Sounds good."

As she got up, she saw that Mike had come in. He was watching her from the bar. He smiled, lifted his drink.

"Friend of yours?" Kirk asked.

"Yep."

"And a good one, if his look is any indication. If you'd rather stay here, I can go on."

She looked at him. Would she rather stay here? She was having an awfully good time with him. "What do you want to do?"

He shrugged, gave her the quirky grin she'd seem him use whenever he was joking around. He'd never used it with her before. "I'd like to find out just how much of a smart-ass you really are. Christine."

"Call me, Chris. Christine is for those who don't know me well. Or anyone attached to the Vulcan Embassy." She grinned.

"Okay. Chris." He held out his arm. It seemed a fairly territorial thing to do, given that he knew Mike was watching them.

She smiled knowingly. "Testosterone must be a real bitch."

He laughed so loud that half the lounge turned to look. "Not as much as you are," he said softly, so that only she could hear.

She smiled, took his arm. "I haven't even begun to yank your chain."

"I'm counting on that." He made the yanking of chains sound very appealing.

She laughed softly. "You are evil. Or very horny. Or just plain drunk."

"Possibly, definitely, and not yet. But mostly, I'm hungry. Come on." He drew her out of the club, into the night.

They walked for a few moments, then he turned them toward the park.

"Tired of watching your whales?"

He nodded. "And they're not my whales. They're nobody's whales."

She glanced over at the harbor. "Oh, I'm afraid they are everybody's whales. Is it true that Gracie is pregnant?"

"It's true."

"So how do whales do it? Chocolates and flowers seem out."

He laughed. "You'd have to ask Spock. He's the one who melded with her."

"He melded with Gracie? Now I understand. I just wasn't his type."

He grinned. "Not sure what his type is."

"Blonde, I think."

He looked at her in confusion.

"Len told me about Zarabeth. There was that Droxine woman. And Doctor Kalomi."

He frowned. "I never thought of that." He brightened. "But T'Pring was brunette."

"She was his fiancée, not his type."

"Good point. And I don't think anyone would describe their relationship as warm and fuzzy."

"No. I don't think so." She looked over at him. "In fact, there's really only one person who seems to have that kind of relationship with him."

He looked questioningly at her.

"You."

She wasn't sure what his reaction would be but she didn't expect him to laugh. "Not you too?"

"Well, he is awfully fond of you."

"He and McCoy are my best friends. How's he supposed to feel?" He shook his head. "I think those rumors will die and then..."

"Well, breaking every rule in Starfleet and blowing up your ship for him was probably not the best way to put those rumors to rest." She smiled, was relieved to see him smile back. "Just a thought."

"I'll try to remember that the next time something like this comes up." He was suddenly distracted. "It's still here." He dragged her over to a small service window, rang a bell, grinning. "Just like in the antiques shop. I'd forgotten that."

Before she could ask what he was talking about, a person appeared and Kirk was ordering something from him. He looked over at her quickly. "You eat meat?"

She nodded.

"Good." He handed her a hot dog.

"These do not qualify as meat."

"Shut up and eat it." He grinned, nodded toward a row of bottles. "Fixin's are there."

It had been years since she'd had a hot dog. She put some condiments on it, moved aside to give him access to the bottles.

Once he'd finished, he led her off again. "The only thing better than wandering aimlessly, is wandering aimlessly with junk food."

She nodded, her mouth full of hot dog. It tasted delicious.

He saw her look of surprise. "The guy who owns the place is originally from New York. Best hot dogs on this or any world." He grinned again as he took a big bite.

"You do everything with gusto, I'll give you that."

He finished chewing then said, "What's the point otherwise? We both know that life is short."

She thought of Spock. How hard his death had hit her, even if she had given up on him long ago. How much harder had it hit this man, who was his best friend? "Yes. We do."

They walked into the park, walking through quiet paths, talking softly, before coming upon an open-air concert. In the back, behind the last row, people were dancing.

"I never dance anymore," he said.

"I don't either."

He held out his hand to her. "Let's see if you're as quick on those feet as you are with that mouth."

She took his hand, let him pull her toward the crowd. "I'm not. Dancing isn't my forte."

"What is?" he asked with a twinkle.

"Many other things," she said, smiling.

It took them a few moments to find a rhythm, then he pulled her in a bit closer, his hand tightening on hers. She followed his lead, surprised to see that they were nearly the same height. He'd always seemed so tall to her. Of heroic proportions.

"What are you thinking about?"

"How different reality can be from memory."

He smiled. "Care to elaborate?"

She tried to think of how to explain, decided it was too complicated. "Not really. What are you thinking about?"

"That I never really knew you."

"No reason you should have."

"We served together for years, Chris." He spun her, a little move that made her grin. He laughed. "This is one of my fortes."

"What are the others?"

He shrugged noncommittally.

She laughed. "Two can play that game, huh?"

"Most definitely." He pulled her closer, until there was no space between them. "Although, I'm not sure I'd call it a game anymore."

"No?"

He shook his head, smiling gently but there was an intensity in his eyes that unnerved her.

In both good ways and bad.

"I lost my buzz from the scotch a long time ago." He smiled at her look. "I say that so there's no misunderstanding later."

"Later?"

"I don't want you to wonder why I did this." He leaned in, kissed her.

His lips were amazingly soft against hers. Soft and unquestionably in charge. She suddenly understood why all those alien babes had been so sorry to see him leave.

He pulled away. "Kissing is definitely one of your fortes."

"Yours as well." She leaned in, wanting to feel his lips on hers again.

The kiss this time was not quite so soft. A lot more open. She held back a moan.

"We're in uniform," she whispered.

He nodded. "We shouldn't be doing this."

"Or we should. Just not here. I have music at my place."

"Music but no food?" He smiled as he teased her, all the time running his hand up and down her back slowly, his fingers causing shivers.

"I have food. Just nothing you can cook."

"So we won't starve? I'm very, very hungry." He pulled her closer, which she didn't think was possible.

She couldn't help but notice that he was indeed very hungry.

He started to pull away. "Let's go."

"Admiral Kirk?" A high-pitched squeal followed the question. A young woman grabbed his arm. "You're my hero. You saved us all."

He patted her hand gently, careful not to turn. "Just doing my job, ma'am."

"Oh, sir, just one dance. It would make my day."

Chapel looked down. She didn't think he should chance it unless he wanted to make this woman's day, week, month, and possibly year.

He seemed at a loss as to how to get out of the dance. Chapel realized he didn't want to hurt the woman's feelings. Liked him better than ever for that.

She reached down, hit the communicator she always carried, pressing two small buttons in combination. A low alarm sounded. "Oh. Crap. Jim, that's us." She turned to the woman. "Emergency situation. He's needed. You understand?"

The woman turned adoring eyes on Kirk. "Of course, sir."

He smiled, let Chapel pull him away from the crowd. "You are quick on your feet."

"Told you."

"How are you off of them?"

"Well, quick isn't always the mode you want." She grinned at him.

"I am fully aware of that." He pulled her off the path, behind a large tree. Pushing her up against the trunk, he kissed her.

There was nothing soft about this kiss. She did moan.

So did he.

Then her communicator went off. She suddenly hated emergency ops with a passion.

Kirk backed away, let her answer the comm.

"Chapel here."

"I figured you'd still be up." Roellian sounded awfully chipper for someone who had just interrupted the best kiss ever.

"Something wrong, Commander?"

"Not a thing. In fact, systems are back to one hundred percent. I just heard that your early meeting was cancelled. I thought you might want to sleep in. You've been on duty without a break."

Kirk grinned. She found herself grinning too.

"Thanks, Steve."

"No problem. See you when you get in. Roellian out."

She put the communicator back. "He's the best deputy ever."

Kirk nodded. "I agree. Where we were?" He pulled her back to him.

They kissed for a very long time.

"We're still in uniform," he said as they pulled away.

"We have to remedy that."

"Yes, we do."

They walked a lot faster back to her apartment than they had to the park. As they passed Starfleet command, Spock stepped out of the main entrance.

"Captain. This is fortuitous. I would like you to look over my report of our mission. I believe there are some nuances of twentieth century behavior that I have not fully understood." He seemed to suddenly realize she was there. "Oh, Miss Chapel."

"Commander Chapel," Kirk corrected gently. He moved closer to her.

"Of course. Commander." Spock frowned slightly. Looked slightly uncomfortable. "My memories are still not fully integrated."

"It's okay, Spock," she said.

"My father wanted me to tell you that he and my mother will be on Earth again next week. He invited you to dinner. I was not aware that you were friends with my father."

"There's probably a lot about Christine you don't know, Spock." Kirk grinned at his friend.

She barely managed to suppress a chuckle.

Spock frowned. He seemed to take in how close they were standing, the way Kirk was leaning toward her. "Are you intoxicated?"

"Nope," Chapel answered for them both. Unless it was possible to be drunk on lust? Or on one of Kirk's kisses.

"Can I look at your report in the morn--afternoon, Spock?"

"Of course, Captain." Spock seemed utterly confused by the way both of them were looking at him. "I will go now."

"Fine. Have a good night." Kirk pushed her forward. He turned back. "Go watch the whales or something."

"I will meditate."

"You do that, Spock," Kirk muttered under his breath. His grip on her arm tightened. Once they were out of earshot, he said, "I plan to do something much less esoteric."

She grinned at him. "Oh, didn't you know? I practice tantra. There is much yoga and centering and chanting before we begin."

"Tantra's overrated," he said, the twinkle back in his eyes. "How much farther is your apartment?"

"Not far."

He suddenly slowed down, let go of her arm.

She turned to him. "What?"

"I'll be gone in a few days. They're giving me a new ship. Probably something slow and small, maybe even rusted."

She knew what they were giving him. Had no intention of spoiling the surprise. "You'll be lucky if it can get to warp."

He nodded mournfully.

"And your point?"

"I can't promise you anything?"

She took his hand. "Have I asked you to?"

He shook his head.

"Then what's the problem, Jim?"

He began to smile. "I guess there isn't one."

"I guess not."

He clasped her hand tightly, let her lead him down the street. "I just don't want you to think that this doesn't mean any--"

"--I've known you for how long? I was there when Miramanee died, remember? I saw you after Spock died. I know that you lost your son and that there is a deep sadness still inside you because of that."

She glanced over at him, saw a flicker of pain in his eyes and knew she was right. "I know that you are not a man of shallow feelings, even if this is the first time I've ever gotten to know you for myself. If this is all there ever is between us, it won't be meaningless. I just don't think that's possible for you."

They were at her building and she quit talking, accessed the door quickly and led him to the elevator. As soon as the doors closed, she pushed him against the wall, kissed him hard. He kissed her back harder, his worries apparently assuaged.

The doors opened and he pulled her out then stopped. "Which way?"

She laughed, pointed down the right-hand hall. "503."

He practically dragged her to her door, waited impatiently as she palmed open the lock. As the doors closed, he pushed her against them, kissed her ferociously. "Get out of that uniform."

"Yes, sir." She pretended to take it off, acting as if she had no idea how the fasteners worked.

He pushed her hands away, tore at them himself. "Smart-ass to the end."

"Always." She was already unfastening his uniform.

He pulled her to him, his skin hot on hers. "Chris." He smoothed back her hair. "An unexpected pleasure."

She smiled.

This time when he kissed her, it was slow and sweet. When he pulled away from her, he stared at her for a long moment.

She could feel her heart beating fast. This man was dangerous. One night, and he was already hurdling all her defenses. "Jim."

He nodded. "I know." He stroked her hair. "I think you learned that smart-ass routine from Bones. It's a good way to hide the part of you that you don't want anyone to see. A good way to seem like you can't be hurt." He kissed her again. "But she's still in there, isn't she? The soft Christine Chapel? The one who cares?"

She nodded. "Don't tell anyone?"

He smiled. The sweetest, most loving smile she'd ever seen. "I won't. It'll be our secret." He took her hand. "Where's the damn bedroom?"

She grinned, grateful that he could get them back to light so easily. "Follow me."

"To hell and back."

She smiled at him. "Brave words."

"Not at all. I've already done it. For the people I care about." He pushed her down onto the bed. "I'm afraid you're in that group now."

"Woe is me." She kissed him again. Marveled that he could make a moment so hot also so tender.

But never boring. As he moved over her and she moved over him and they cried out loudly for the umpteenth time, she knew that she was on the other side of the galaxy from boring.

Dawn came far too quickly, faded into late morning, then early afternoon.

"You could call in sick," he suggested as he held her in his arms.

"What about Spock's report?" She smiled, began to move down his body, stopped and concentrated on one particular spot.

"Spock's report doesn't do that," he said. Then he didn't say anything for a while, until he pulled her back into his arms and whispered, "Another forte confirmed."

She laughed. Again. She'd always known James T. Kirk was a hero. She'd had no idea how delightful he was when he was just being Jim. She looked away, feeling a sudden pang that she wouldn't get to see more of just Jim.

"So..." He waited until she looked back at him. "What are you doing tonight?"

"You don't have to--"

He kissed her, shutting up her protest. "I asked what you were doing tonight. Whether I have to ask that is not up for debate." He touched her cheek, dragging his fingers lightly down to her chin.

She shivered.

"If you have other plans, then just tell me that."

She grinned. "I don't have other plans."

He grinned back. "Would you care to spend the evening with me?"

She nodded.

His smile was very tender. "Good."

"It's not like you won't be back to Earth. I mean in your garbage scow."

He laughed. "That's right. I'll be back, if you want to see me."

She nodded again.

"I think I might like that too." His touch on her was different. Firmer, more possessive. She liked it.

He smiled. "I'd like to dance with you again."

"Is that what you call this?"

He grinned. "You know what I mean. There's a little club in Berkeley. They have the best dance floor. It's dark and intimate."

"I like intimate."

"I know." He kissed her, then looked at the chrono. "It's getting late. I think we have to get up."

She nodded. Pulled away from him and got out of bed. They showered quickly and dressed, and she made them coffee and gave him a breakfast bar. They sat on her balcony, watching the even larger cluster of boats harassing George and Gracie out on the bay.

He reached over to touch her hand. She looked at him, saw the sheer affection in his expression and suddenly found it hard to swallow her food. She took a swift sip of coffee to wash the bar down.

"Unexpected, isn't it?" he asked.

She nodded. "But nice."

"Very nice." He leaned over, kissed her when she met him halfway. "Very, very nice."

"Very, very, very," she said with a grin.

"Have to have the last word, eh?" He kissed her again.

She nodded.

He got up. "Come on. I'll walk you to work." He smiled at her tenderly, then his smile turned into a grin, something wicked hidden in his expression.

She wasn't sure what was happening between them. Or where it would all lead. But she knew one thing. It would be interesting. Very, very, very interesting.

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

"Commander Chapel?" Lieutenant Patel called out.

"Yep?" Chapel didn't look up from the status report Roellian had brought up on his screen. The medical team that had been sent to Gamma Epsilon was having less luck than they'd initially projected in fighting the plague ravaging the planet.

"Call for you, ma'am. On your private line."

"I'll take it in my office." She tapped several lines of text on the monitor, shaking her head. The normal anti-virals weren't working. So it stood to reason that what they were dealing with wasn't viral. She forced herself to stop trying to diagnose the problem, said to Roellian, "Send this to Dietrich." She started to walk away, then turned back. "Add a note that they should consider bacterial. Some forms of meningeal disease are difficult to tell apart in their viral and bacterial forms, and this has all the earmarks of Darlevian meningitis." She grinned. "Dietrich hates it when I do this."

Roellian nodded, began to key in the message. "But you just can't help it, can you?"

She laughed. "I really can't." And with that many lives in the balance, better safe--and insulting--than sorry. Admiral Dietrich would get over it. Eventually. And it wasn't like the woman could dislike Chapel much more than she already did. Fortunately the head of Starfleet Medical needed her more than Chapel needed the Admiral at this juncture.

Position was often more important than rank. And a person in Chapel's position knew just about everything that was going on in the Fleet and the Federation. If it was a problem, she'd hear about it either directly or at the early meeting. She'd hear about good things too.

She walked into her office, saw that the waiting comm was from the captain of the Enterprise and smiled. She hit the button. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Jim."

He looked up from the padd he was holding. He had old-fashioned half- glasses on. She decided he looked unbearably sexy in them. "I like the look. Very twentieth century."

He smiled. "Older than that. Or at least the first pair was. But I traded them for bus fair." At her look he laughed. "Keep forgetting you weren't there with us. In the past."

She smiled. "Nope. I was here, holding down the fort...or not, depending on your point of view." She sat down, leaned back. "So they gave you the Enterprise?"

He nodded, a happy grin crossing his face. "Did you know?"

"Yep."

"And you didn't say a damn thing. Didn't even let on."

She shrugged. "I hear lots of things in this job, most of which I can't talk about. Besides, this was a good thing. No way I was going to spoil that for you."

"I appreciate that," he said with a smile so open and warm that she felt a pang that he was about to leave.

"So how does it feel?"

His smile turned into an open grin, filled with childlike joy. "Great."

His happiness was infectious. She was grinning like a fool too. "I knew you'd be thrilled."

He nodded, stared at her, seemed to sigh softly. "I'm going to miss you."

Again the pang. "Same here. Lots." They had spent every minute they could together before he'd had to report full time to prepare for the launch.

But it hadn't been much time. And even if it had, she suspected it wouldn't have been enough.

"I'll be back in three weeks. They want to analyze the logs from the shakedown cruise before we get too far from spacedock."

"I know." She smiled, could feel herself blushing.

"You have access to all the flight logs." He smiled. "And you cared enough to check."

She nodded, a silly smile on her face. "Do you mind having a stalker?"

"Nope." His look turned serious. "I know you see other people."

She could feel her smile fading.

"Chris, don't look at me like that. I'm not asking you to stop. I just think...it can't be this thing we don't acknowledge."

"You've got your alien babes." She could feel the sass coming back into her voice, knew it was her form of defense. Knew he knew it too. She looked away.

"And you've got whoever you've got down there. I'm not saying that's wrong." He took a deep breath. "I'm not actually sure what I'm trying to say." He looked away, but not before shooting her a glance of frustration.

She smiled. "We're both so good at protecting ourselves, aren't we?"

He nodded.

She leaned forward, touched the screen. Smiled when he brought his fingers up, trying to match hers. "There have been men in my bed lately, quite a few of them. But not one of them has wormed his way into my heart. Not until now."

His smile was instantaneous. "That's good to hear."

She grinned. "I thought you might think so."

"I'll see you in three weeks." It wasn't a question.

She smiled. "I'm counting on it."

He nodded. "No emergencies while I'm back. I want you all to myself."

"Hey, you're the one with the big ship. You make sure there are no problems that I have to deal with."

He laughed. "Roger that, Command."

She smiled. "Best speed, Jim."

"I'll see you soon, Chris."

She nodded, cut the connection. Leaned back for a moment, content to stay in the warm and--god help her--fuzzy place he so easily created around them every time they interacted. A call from Patel drew her out of her pleasant fog.

"Incoming message from Dietrich."

Chapel laughed. That hadn't taken long. "I'll take it in here." She pushed the warm fuzziness away, to somewhere safe where she could drag it out later and indulge herself. In the meantime, she had a job to do. She reached for the comm switch, trading a fond captain for an irritated admiral.

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

The lounge was busy, noisy and boisterous; it took Christine a moment to realize that someone was talking to her.

"Hi," Mike said, smiling down at her.

"Hi."

She gestured at the empty chair across from her. He sat.

"Did you hear?" he asked.

"Did I hear what?"

"The Enterprise's shakedown cruise was nearly a shake apart cruise." He laughed.

She nodded. She'd read the reports as they'd come in. Could imagine Jim was fuming at how poorly his ship had performed. Her heart did a little flip at the thought that he'd be back on Earth by morning, then she tried to push the feeling away. He'd be in one hell of a mood, and there'd be reports to fill out and Admirals to see. She needed to be patient.

"I saw Kirk in the corridors just before lunch. I guess if he's back, you'll be unavailable for the duration?"

Jim was here already? She tried to push a sinking feeling away. He didn't owe her a call right away, after all.

Hell, he didn't owe her anything.

She tried not to dwell on the fact that he hadn't even called from spacedock.

A pain she hadn't felt for a long time reared up, but she pushed it away. She needed to keep it light. Jim Kirk would call when and if he wanted to. He owed her nothing.

And she didn't owe him anything.

Mike started to get up and she put her hand over his. "Stay."

He smiled the smile that meant he'd rather go.

She stood up slowly. "My place or yours?"

"Yours is closer."

"Mine it is." She felt a rush of something, identified it as guilt. A surge of anger replaced the emotion. Jim didn't own her. They'd agreed that they were free agents.

Especially if he wasn't even calling. What they had was fun. She shouldn't give it more importance than it had. Mustn't let her heart rule her this way. That was how she used to live. Back when everything hurt and she was never happy.

She relentlessly pushed Kirk from her mind and forced herself to pay attention to Mike. It wasn't hard; she was soon caught up in one of his funny stories.

As they walked into her apartment, she checked the message indicator. No calls. Her heart sank and she hated that hope could hurt so much.

"Everything all right?" Mike moved behind her, kissed her neck.

She shivered at his touch. "Sure."

She let him pull her into the bedroom, lost herself in the carefree lust that he was so good at arousing. After a while, they lay quietly, talking about whatever crossed their minds, light things, nothing of the heart.

"I'm hungry, is it too much to hope that there's food here?"

She nodded, took pity on him and ordered takeout. "They'll be here in ten minutes, just hold on."

He clutched his stomach as if he were dying, making her laugh.

When the chime went off, she got up, wrapping a bathrobe around her. She opened the door, smiling, prepared to take the bag of food from one of the usual delivery boys.

Her smile died.

Kirk stood at her door. He took in her bathrobe. "Now that's a look I could get used to." Then he saw her face. "Chris?"

"Christine, let me pay for it this time," Mike said, as he came out of the bedroom, uniform pants on but otherwise unclothed.

Kirk's smile died.

"Oh. Hi." Mike looked at Kirk, then at her, the back at Kirk. He turned without a word and fled into the bedroom.

Kirk took a deep breath. "Sorry. Didn't realize you weren't alone." He didn't sound sorry at all. He sounded furious. And hurt.

She swallowed hard. "Jim, you should have called." She wasn't sure if she meant before he came over or when he arrived at spacedock. Felt a lump of guilt warring with a more ancient hurt as she watched his face. "I would have--"

He held up a hand. "I'm going to go."

"Look, I'm sorry you saw that. But we talked about this."

"Seeing it is different than talking about it." He sighed. "I thought I could do this. But I can't."

"Jim, come on. Why don't we talk about this tomorrow?" She wanted more than anything to pull him in and tell Mike to get out, but didn't see how she could do that.

He shot her a hard look. Then he smiled, a strange, twisted smile. "Do you even change the sheets in between?"

She could feel her cheeks turn red, as if he'd slapped her across the face. "That's not fair."

He looked down. "No, it's not. You're right. I said I could do this." He sighed, raised his head and held her in his burning gaze. "But you said I was in your heart. Guess maybe that wasn't worth as much as I thought?"

"You show up unannounced and this is my fault?" She could feel the frustration rising inside her. Frustration that was warring with guilt and sadness--terrible sadness that this man was about to walk away.

She took a deep breath.

"Chris." He exhaled and much of his energy seemed to go out with the breath. "I wanted to surprise you."

"Well, you did." She tried for a sheepish tone, but the words came out too harsh.

He closed down even more. "I have leave. I better go get to it."

"Jim. Don't. We can still--"

"--No, Chris. We can't. I'm going to find Spock and McCoy. There's a campsite in Yosemite with our name on it. And that's where I belong. With my friends."

He was leaving. Stop him, a little voice inside her cried frantically.

Another part of her said to let him go. So he couldn't handle that she saw other people? Was she expected to wait, to pine for him? To go back to that life she'd hated. Waiting, always waiting.

She had left that life behind.

"Yosemite is beautiful this time of year," she said, as if the relationship they had forged wasn't being smashed apart. As if they were just acquaintances--colleagues, nothing more.

"Yes. It's lovely." He seemed to be as determined to wring courtesy out of the situation. His words were careful, not sharp anymore.

But his eyes were haunted. And lost.

"Well, take care." He turned and walked out of her life.

The door closed and she felt as if someone had sucker punched her in the stomach. She clutched her middle, bending over a bit, trying not to cry.

It wouldn't have worked anyway. It just wouldn't have worked.

It was an unconvincing mantra.

"Christine?" Mike came out, fully dressed this time. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she said, even as she realized she was shaking her head in the way that meant 'no.'

He rubbed her back, the touch comforting. "I'm sorry."

She nodded.

"I should go."

She nodded again, straightened slowly.

He kissed her cheek, hurried out.

She took a deep breath. Unsure what to do.

The door chimed again.

She hurried to it, hoping against hope that Jim had come back.

The delivery boy smiled up at her. She took the food, stuck it in the chiller without even opening it. Then she went back to the bedroom, lay down in her suddenly empty bed. She stared at the ceiling, willing the tears away and waiting for sleep.

It was a very, very long night.

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

Chapel sat in the officer's lounge, staring out at the boats that chased after Kirk's whales. There were enough vessels to make up a small fleet, all of them seemingly headed in different directions. She took a sip of her beer, heard footsteps coming up behind her and turned quickly.

It wasn't until she felt her stomach drop back down to its rightful place that she realized she had been hoping it was Kirk. He was back. The Enterprise had returned to spacedock to finish the repairs that the crisis on Nimbus III had interrupted.

He was back but not coming anywhere near her.

"Hi," Mike said, as he sat down next to her. "You've been avoiding me?"

"Not at all."

"Christine, I know when someone's avoiding me. And you"--he smiled, as if to take away any censure--"are avoiding me."

She took another sip of her beer. "Okay. Maybe I am." She sighed.

"Did I do something wrong? I mean other than be there that night?"

She shook her head. Mike hadn't done anything wrong. Neither had any of the other men she'd spent time with in the days after the blow up with Jim. Men she had also been avoiding.

"Do you want to talk about this someplace more private?"

She turned to look at him. He smiled, all affable good-nature and a complete lack of strings. She was suddenly, utterly tired of no-strings relationships.

"I can't. I have to get home. Alone." She tried to smile, could feel the expression falling far short of her normal easy way with him.

He nodded, got up. "Okay. If you need company, you know where to find me."

"I do." She didn't watch him walk away, just sat alone, staring out at the harbor, at the fools that were ready to chase anything that seemed to give their lives meaning.

She put her beer down, got up quickly and headed for the door. She slowed as she realized Kirk was sitting at a table near the door, watching her.

He got up as she approached, stared hard at her. "Chris."

"Jim. How long have you been here?"

"Long enough to see you aren't going home with anyone."

"Funny." She walked past him.

He followed her out.

"What are you doing, Jim?"

He smiled tightly, his expression unreadable. "Walking you home."

"I don't need you to walk me home."

"Look, I've fallen off a mountain, been beaten up by Spock's long-lost brother, had some wanna-be god try to fry me, and been nearly incinerated by a photon torpedo. I don't need you to yank my chain."

"You used to like it when I yanked your chain." She laughed, realized it was a mocking, bitter sound. Did not try to temper it. She suddenly realized what he said. "You fell off a mountain?"

He nodded. "A big one. You owe Spock."

"I owe him? You owe him. It's your life." She hugged her arms around herself.

"Nervous?"

"Should I be?"

He shrugged. "I don't know, should you be?"

She refused to answer and they walked in silence for a while. Then she said. "Spock has a brother?"

"Half-brother."

"Oh." She didn't press for more clarity since he seemed disinclined to explain.

She took in his outfit. "Rustic."

"I was camping."

"Doing a lot of that?" She realized he still smelled of bonfires and the outdoors.

"Not so much on this end. One day was enough. Gave me time to think about things."

"Things?"

"Actions. Ugly things that happened." His voice was matter of fact.

She didn't answer, was relieved when her building came in sight. "This is me."

"Yes." He stopped when they reached the door, didn't move, just stood staring at her.

She stared back helplessly, felt as if her will was being sucked out of her. His expression was as stoic as Spock's had ever been, and she couldn't tell what he wanted from her.

"Do you want to come up?" she heard herself asking.

"Yes. You sure you want me to come up?"

She tried for a saucy smile, saw his mouth tighten and dropped the act. "I'm not sure."

"First honest thing you've said all night."

"Damn it, Jim..." She wasn't sure what more she wanted to say to him, so she turned and pulled the door open, looking at him through the glass as it shut behind her.

He didn't move.

She pushed the door back open. "I suppose you want to talk?"

"I think we should."

She felt trapped, could feel her pulse speed up. "I'm really very tired."

"You're also a damn coward."

She clamped her teeth down to keep from spitting something mean back at him, something that would sting, settled for gritting out, "Fine. Come in then."

He followed her in and up to her floor.

She opened the door to her apartment, tried to compose her thoughts. Motioning vaguely toward the living room, she did not try to put any welcome in her words as she said, "Sit down."

"Are you sure?"

She felt a surge of frustration, again resisted the urge to lash out with a smart-ass comment. "Yes. Please, sit down, Jim."

He settled into one of the arm chairs across from the sofa. Crossing one leg over his knee, he leaned back, studying her as if she was a bug under a microscope.

"Can I get you a drink?"

He shook his head. "I'm fine. But if you need another one, by all means go ahead."

"If you're just going to be nasty..." She sat down, couldn't look at him.

"Nasty? You think this is nasty, you should have seen me after the last time I was here." He laughed, the sound was brittle. "You know, I was so caught up in my hurt and disappointment that I lost sight of one very important fact that night." He dropped his leg off his knee, leaned forward. "If there was anyone in Starfleet who would have known that the Enterprise was coming back early, that person was you."

She looked up and met his gaze, wasn't sure what to say.

"You knew I'd show up here. And you invited him over." He stared hard at her. "You sabotaged us? Why?"

She got up, walked to the window and looked out at the glimmering city. "It's not what I set out to do. I didn't know you'd just show up here with no notice."

"But I bet you had a good idea." He sighed. "Chris? Why?"

"We didn't make any promises, Jim."

"We didn't have time. You chopped us off at the knees. Or maybe you were aiming a bit higher."

She tried not to flinch, didn't want to show him how much his words and tone hurt. "If you dislike me so much, why are you even here?"

"I didn't say I disliked you. But I damn well don't like what you're doing." He took a deep breath, as if he were fighting for control. "Chris, I don't want to play games. Just tell me why you did it."

A million smart answers came to her mind. All of them to some extent true. And all of them lies too. She knew Jim wanted the real truth--but she hated it, hated what it made her. A coward, just as he'd said. Pathetic, fearful. No different than the stupid nurse she'd tried to leave behind.

"Because I felt--I feel too much for you." She could see his reflection in the glass. Saw him lean back in his chair again, but couldn't make out his expression, so she turned to get a better look.

His eyes were narrowed and he was staring at her as if that was the last answer he expected. "Too much?"

"Maybe I will have that drink." She walked to the kitchen, reached for a glass, heard him come up behind her.

He turned her to face him. "Too much?" Pulling her to him, shook her slightly. "You let me stand in that hallway and see your lover of the moment because you felt too much? Do you have any idea how excited I was to see you, how happy? Do you know what it felt like to see him here? Like I'd been kicked in the stomach. And all because you felt too much?" He let go of her, laughed his brittle, terrible laugh again. "My god, Chris. What kind of sick game are you playing?"

"What about you? It never occurred to you to call first? That I might not be alone? You thought I'd just be waiting around for you to decide to call? That I'd keep doing that? Just wait...wait years for you? I've been there, I've done that. It's lonely." She pushed him away from her. "What were you looking for anyway? What was it about the 'soft Christine' you were so hungry for? Was it that pathetic abject devotion I displayed all those years ago for your best friend? Would that have felt good to you?" She turned back to the cupboard, took out a glass. "You think I want to go back to that?"

She grabbed a bottle of chardonnay from the chiller, slammed it down harder than she meant to on the counter. Her hands were shaking as she tried to open it.

"Let me." His voice was calmer now, and he pushed her out of the way, opening the wine easily. He poured it, handing her the glass with a gentle, "Here."

"Why are you being nice?' She didn't want to turn, didn't want him to see how shaken she was. She reached for the glass but her hand was still trembling and he pulled the wine back, setting it down and taking her in his arms.

"I want to be nice, Chris. Believe it or not, that's how relationships are supposed to be. Nice."

"You haven't been in any of mine." She pushed her head against his chest, tried to block out the light. "Sex is nice, Jim. Relationships? Not so much."

"And you don't think ours would be nice? What makes you think that we can't make it work?"

She shrugged.

"Did I do something?"

"No. It's nothing you did."

"Then explain this to me. You're upset. Tell me why." He kissed her neck. "I don't understand you. It was good and you threw it all away."

"I know." The words came out as a sob. She had thrown it all away. And he was wrong. It hadn't been just good, it had been great.

"Why?"

She nestled closer to him, didn't answer.

"Why, Chris?"

She pulled away, wanted to see his face. "You scare me."

He didn't answer right away, just met her stare, sighed heavily. She swallowed, trying to think of a way to explain it.

"Why?" he finally asked, apparently thinking she wasn't going to say more. "Why do I scare you?"

He reached for the glass he'd tried to hand her, took a sip, then put it back on the counter. He watched her for a moment, then leaned in and kissed her, his hands sliding around her sides, settling on the small of her back, pushing her against him so that there was no space between them.

She moaned, lost in the feeling.

He pulled away, moved his hands to her face, keeping her close as he studied her. "Is this what you're afraid of?"

She tried to kiss him again.

"No, Chris. Answer me. What are you so goddamned afraid of?"

"You. This. Everything." She pulled away, turned and walked back to the window. She could feel the tears beginning. Tears that she hadn't cried in a very long time.

"Chris."

She didn't turn around. "I was in love with Roger for years. And Spock for too long. They were a lot alike. Did you know that?"

He moved behind her, put his hand on her waist.

"I can't talk about this if you touch me."

"Okay." He backed off a bit, but didn't go too far. "How were they alike?"

"You mean other than being emotionless scientists?" She laughed; it was her turn to sound bitter. "They didn't love. Or at least not me. Not the way I wanted to be loved. Not the way I dreamed of being loved. They never came through. But like an idiot, I kept on hoping."

"The Roger Korby I saw did love you."

"Probably more than the real one ever did, Jim. I should have known it wasn't Roger from the start. That android was too warm to be the man I knew." She sighed. "And Spock. God, talk about wasted years." She finally turned to face him.

He seemed surprised to see she was crying.

"I gave up on ever really being loved. And that was okay. I found out that there is a lot of fun to be had when you just don't care anymore." She laughed, the laugh turned into a sob. "The ironic thing is that I was modeling myself on you, I think. A girl in every port."

"I didn't have one in _every_ port."

"I know." She smiled sadly at him, was relieved when he pulled her back into his arms. She wrapped her arms around him tightly. "I don't want to fall in love and end up with a broken heart again."

"So you break mine instead. Interesting approach, Doctor." His tone was gentle as he whispered in her ear. "Whatever happened to 'First, do no harm'?"

He kissed her neck, worked his way down her cheek to her lips. She gave herself over to him, let him set the pace.

But she still tried to keep some small part of herself separate enough to run for safety.

He seemed to realize it, pulled away from her, asking, "Why do you think I'll break your heart?"

"That's how it works."

He smiled gently, laughed so softly it was barely a sound. "I haven't had the best luck either, you know. But at least I still believe in it...the happy ending." He sighed. "So you hurt me to avoid being hurt?"

She nodded. "Only I don't think it was that calculated. I was just scared. When I saw you were coming back, I was so happy. I hadn't felt that way in so long. And it made me feel shaky. Like I was back there, at their mercy again. Waiting for a smile."

"I've given you a lot more than a smile, lady." He ran his hands up and down her arms, as if he could put some warmth back into her by will and friction alone.

"If I'd known that it would hurt you as much as it did, I wouldn't have done it. I really didn't think you'd care that much."

"Then you weren't paying attention."

"Maybe I just didn't recognize something good?" She pulled away from him. "I'm not much of a catch, Jim. I'm not even sure I know how to love." She wiped her eyes. "I'm just one screwed up woman."

"No, you're not. You've been hurt, and you're gun shy. I should have realized..." He moved toward her again.

"I should have told you what I was feeling." She looked down. "But in the past nobody's really cared what I was feeling."

"Well, I do. You can talk to me, Chris." He touched her chin, made her look up at him. "I still don't understand why I scare you."

She forced herself not to look away. "Because I'm terrified that I'm going to fall in love with you."

"It's very likely. I am irresistible." His grin was teasing, then it faded somewhat. "Just ask Carol and Gillian."

"They're idiots. I'm an idiot."

"We're all idiots. I nearly killed myself camping, trying to get high enough that you couldn't touch me anymore."

"The mountain?"

He nodded. "Damn fool stunt. Climbing El Capitan alone at my age. Thank god for Spock."

"If anything had happened to you...I'd have been devastated."

"As you should be." He pulled her over to the couch, drew her down next to him. "My death would have put a real crimp in our making up."

She felt a grin, a real one, starting. "Is that what we're doing?"

"You tell me."

She looked down. "After that night, with Mike, when you were here. I was so mad. At you. But mostly at me. I didn't want to deal with how guilty I felt. So I sublimated and kept busy. Very busy, if you get my drift."

"I do hope this has a happy ending." He looked at her sternly.

"The more I did it, the more hollow I felt. And the emptier my life seemed." She reached out touched his face. "I didn't want it to be just for fun anymore. I wanted you. And that made me feel sick inside." She saw his expression. "Let me rephrase that."

"Please."

She smiled. "I wanted you and I'd blown it. And I didn't think you were ever going to come back. And I felt sick because I knew I'd lost you. You seemed quite serious when you said you couldn't see me under those terms."

He nodded. "I was. I am. I don't want to share you."

"I know." She looked away.

"You're throwing away love, and I don't think you've ever even known what it feels like."

"You're probably right."

"Then don't do it. Give it a chance. Give me a chance." He kissed her. "Give us a chance." He smiled, brushed her hair off her face. "Don't you think I'm scared too? You know what keeps running through my mind?"

She shook her head.

His smile faded completely. "That there's no fool like an old fool."

"You're not old. You'll never be old." She smiled wryly. "And you're not that much older than I am."

"Well, I wasn't going to say that." He pushed her back against the cushions, kissed her soundly.

"I can't think when you do that."

He laughed. "Then I'll have to do it some more."

He leaned in but she pushed him off gently. "What do you want from me?"

"What do you want to give me?"

"Well that's the problem isn't it? We end up right back where I was all those years ago."

"How so?"

She shook her head. "Me wanting to give everything and you--"

He put a finger over her lips. "Everything sounds nice. Does it include your heart?" He began to run the finger lightly over her mouth. He gave her a grin, one that seemed to say, 'Aren't we silly?' and she felt as if a weight had been lifted off her.

"I'm afraid it does include my heart."

"Good." He leaned in, his look very serious. "Does it include fidelity?"

"Alien babes too?" She smiled to take some of the sting out.

"I'll forego if you will."

"Well, alien babes don't really turn me on."

He smiled. "Can I trust that the return of the sassy Commander Chapel is a good thing?"

She nodded.

"Because I don't want to think that you are just hiding again."

"Not hiding. It's just nice when it's light."

"Yes, it is. But that doesn't mean that's where we live. Or where you have to keep it to hang on to me." He shook his head. "Or where I have to keep it to get you to stick around."

"You said you were afraid too?"

He smiled. "Oh, you caught that part?"

She nodded. "Why?"

He looked down. "You know, earlier, when you were yelling at me and said I wanted the devotion, you were right to a certain extent. I think I was looking for someone who'd love me in a way I could be sure of." He smiled, shook his head, as if laughing at his own foolishness. "But that's not what love is, Chris. Or life. There are no sure things."

"Those hot dogs seem to be. I've been back twice."

He laughed. "You're right. Those hot dogs may be the one constant of the universe. But nothing else is. I've been lonely, Chris. Seeing Carol again, I thought we had a chance, she and I. But she left. Then I lost David. "

"And Gillian?"

He shook his head. "Gillian was just salt in the wound." He sighed. "Then I ran into you, and my god but you were fun. Sassy and sexy and I wanted you more than I could remember wanting anyone in a long time. But maybe, somewhere, deep down, part of me was saying, 'She'll love you forever.' Maybe I had defined you as devotion personified? I don't know anymore."

"Well, I think I've established that I'm far from that."

He nodded ruefully. "So here we are. And you know what? It's scary and the ground's not very secure. And I know that I'm falling in love with a woman who may rip my heart to shreds." He smiled. "And I don't care. Maybe I'm crazy, but I'll risk it."

She blinked hard. "You are crazy. I'm not sure I'm worth it."

"And I am worth it?"

She nodded. "I know you are. I was empty when I thought you were gone. I haven't felt empty in a long time. I haven't felt much of anything in a long time."

He kissed her, his lips lingering gently on hers as he said, "I promise I won't hurt you."

"You can't promise that, Jim. The most you can promise is that you'll try not to."

"Then I promise that. Do you?"

She nodded.

"Words, Chris. I don't trust a headshake." He grinned.

"I promise."

"I'm not Spock. And I'm not Roger. I want this. I want it all. And I'll give everything I have to make it work. But we still have a problem. I'll be out on the ship. I'm not going to give that up."

"I know. And I wouldn't ask you to." She'd seen him a few times when he'd been deskbound. It hadn't been pretty.

"My point is that I won't be around much."

She looked down, smiled knowingly. "Nice way to get out of that everything bit."

"That's not what I meant. I'm quite capable of saving up. Are you?"

"You asked me this already."

"No, Chris. I'm telling you that if you can't do this, you should just say so now."

"Sounds like that's what you want me to say." She pulled herself out of his arms, went into the kitchen and took a big sip of his wine. Her hand shook as she put the wine down and she sighed in frustration.

"Round and round and round we go," he said.

She didn't smile. "And where it stops--"

"--It stops here. Drop the damn act. I'm not asking you to go five years without seeing me like you did Roger. I'm not asking you to moon after me the way you did for Spock."

"Flattering image, Jim. Thanks." She took another drink.

"You're head of emergency ops. You can hop a damn ship now and then and go see one of these emergencies--preferably one close to the Enterprise--for yourself. And I'll be back here on leave, or for refits. Or close enough to see you if you wanted to take leave--when was the last time you did that?" He got up, walked to the counter and leaned on it. "Give me a damn drink."

She poured him a glass of wine.

They drank in silence for a while. He kept shooting exasperated looks at her and she finally started to smile.

"So you think this can work?" she asked.

"I think this can. I'm not going to disappear."

"And this is exclusive?"

"Yes." He took a long sip. Clearly that was not up for debate.

"And you want me why?"

"I'm beginning to wonder," he said, his old twinkle slowly coming back. "Maybe you could remind me."

She stared at him. Unsure that it was wise to let him charm her, but already falling under his spell as he grinned at her. She put the wine down, walked past him and turned on some music. "Dance, Captain Kirk?"

"Why, Commander Chapel. I thought you'd never ask." He pulled her to him, his hands far from gentle.

"Frustrated?" she asked, as he captured her hand in his, as she settled her other hand on his shoulder.

"Beyond belief. For a number of reasons. Not the least of which is I'd rather be loving you than fighting with you."

"Then let's not fight."

"You sure?"

She kissed him, tightening her grasp on his hand. He kissed her back, moving his hand off her back so that he could stroke her hair. She looked up at him; his sweet smile moved her more than she could ever tell him.

"I'm sorry I hurt you."

He smiled. "And I should have called first. I knew the risks."

"Ah. Now the truth comes out."

He smiled sheepishly. "I didn't want to share you. I wanted to believe you'd be home alone."

"We'd agreed that I didn't have to be."

"Agreed is such a strong term."

She laughed. "You think you can handle having me all to yourself?"

"Handle not sharing you, without a doubt. Handle you? No way in hell."

"Oh, I don't know. You seem to be doing just fine tonight."

"Well, I want this to work. I want that an awful lot. And I usually get what I want."

"I've noticed that."

He grinned. "I've very persuasive." He spun her around, making her laugh. "And very, very talented."

"That you are, Jim. That you are."

He dipped her then pulled her back up. She careened into his chest.

"Are we tangoing?" she asked after she stopped laughing.

"Well, I am. I have no earthly idea what you're doing." He laughed too, and the sound was happy and open again.

"I told you. Dancing isn't one of my fortes."

"Not vertical dancing, anyway."

She laughed. "Oh, I can dance vertically." She pushed him up against the wall.

"I was hoping you'd say that."

She began to pull off his clothes. "We're too old for this, Jim."

"Don't I know it? But I'll have some lovely memories to keep me warm when I'm back out in space."

"Back in cold"--she ran a finger down his chest--"lonely space."

"Yes." He pulled her sweater off. Made short work of the rest of her clothes. "Very cold. Very lonely."

"I feel so bad for you." She kissed him. "Oh, wait. No, I don't. It'll be cold and lonely here too."

"Shut up and dance," he ordered.

So she did. They danced for a long time. In many different rooms.

When they finally ran out of moves and lay quietly together on the bed, he said softly, "It won't be so cold and lonely if I know you're here. And that I'm welcome."

"You're very welcome." She kissed him, felt the strange tug somewhere deep inside her that being with him caused. Love, she supposed. It felt good, in a tingly, about to drop off a cliff kind of way.

She'd chance it.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked.

"Faith. I'm going to have some."

"Very glad to hear it." He pulled her closer, wrapped his arms around her.

She relaxed, let her guard down. Felt safe. Warm. Protected. "I could get used to this."

"Do that." He kissed her. "We still haven't been to that club in Berkeley."

"Will they let us dance like we just did?"

"No." He kissed her again.

"Spoilsports."

"We'd only make them jealous." He chuckled.

She saw that his eyes were drooping, that he was fighting to stay awake. "Go to sleep, Jim. You've had a rough few weeks."

"Yeah. This damn woman I'm crazy about. She's running me through the wringer."

"Dump her sorry ass."

He smiled sleepily. "Not on your life."

Chapel watched him drift off. His arms were warm around her; she cuddled closer, memorizing his face as he slept. She kissed him gently, decided to try something out and whispered, "I love you."

He grinned in triumph.

"You big faker," she said as she slugged him on the arm.

He laughed, pulling her closer so she couldn't hit him again. "I knew you'd say it first." Then he tickled her until she squealed for mercy.

"Damn you," she said, trying to catch her breath from laughing.

"I know you were just seeing how it sounded."

"That's right." She looked away, as if mortally offended.

"It's okay. I won't hold you to it."

She turned, gave him a perfect Spock eyebrow. "You aren't going to try it out?"

"I'm not the one with intimacy issues."

"Issues?"

He nodded, then he kissed her. For a very long time.

"Well, you may be getting over those issues," he said when they came back up for air.

She kissed him back, very thoroughly.

He lay back. Smiled a silly smile. "I love you, Chris."

"You can't say it after a kiss like that. You'd say anything after a kiss like that."

She slugged him again and he laughed.

"You're not wrong." He smiled up at her. "Kiss me again like that and I'll offer you my ship."

"No, you won't." But she did kiss him again like that.

When they finally pulled away from each other, he smiled tenderly at her. "If I didn't love you, I wouldn't care who else you were with. You know that?"

She nodded.

"But it's going to take time before we really know what love means between us. I can feel the intensity now, and the tenderness. But this is nothing compared to what it can be, if we let it." He stared at her hard, as if he was trying to will her to believe in them.

"I do believe that, Jim." She felt something that had been frozen inside of her for far too long finally melt. "We'll let it grow." She let her gaze travel south. "Or umm catch up?"

He laughed. "You have a one track mind. Not that I mind."

"Me? I'm just observing the symptoms like any good doctor would."

"Have you no compassion?" He flipped her over and pinned her. "Forget compassion, enthusiasm is good."

She proceeded to display a great deal of enthusiasm until they finally lay sated. This time it was her eyes that were drooping, and Kirk who whispered, "I love you, Chris."

She smiled, mumbled, "I'm counting on it." Then let go and drifted away, secure that he'd do his damnedest to keep her safe and resolved that she'd be there to return the favor. Even if it was the scariest thing she'd ever done.

FIN