Embers by Djinn

Kirk sits, staring at the campfire, watching as the flickering light plays on Spock's face. His friend, lost to him forever just a few short months ago. Now restored. Reborn. His friend--still a bit off--but growing more into the man he knew with each passing day.

Kirk despaired of that at first, didn't think his friend would ever reappear out of the cold husk of a Vulcan who walked away from the Fal-tor- pan.

McCoy coughs gently to his side, and Kirk turns to look at him. His other best friend looks healthy again. Back in control. It only struck Kirk when McCoy seemed to be losing that control how much like Spock he was in that respect. All his seeming passion, his volatility, his fervent outbursts were carefully measured. More than anyone guessed.

Passion. Kirk sighs. McCoy and Kirk share something--someone. Her. Christine. He almost laughs as he sneaks a look at Spock. They all have had her. Have loved her, to some extent or other.

McCoy hands him the marshmallows, and he pushes one onto his stick. The trick is to hold it close enough to the fire to brown it but not so close that it burns. He almost laughs again. Love is like that. Hard to find the place where the flames have died down enough to leave powerful glowing coals. So easy to pick the wrong place and watch the fire die or be consumed by the flames.

Maybe the best that could be hoped for was some momentary warmth? Maybe to turn one marshmallow the perfect golden brown was enough? Maybe it was greedy to hope to use the fire to toast them all?

"You're awfully quiet, Jim." McCoy shifts on the ground, moves closer to the fire. He gets cold so much faster now. Getting older. They all are.

"Just thinking." Kirk smiles, deflects, redirects. McCoy will know not to press, will recognize the tone.

But McCoy doesn't take the hint. "What about?"

"Hmm?" Two stalls--the message will be unmistakable. Let it go, Bones. For both their sakes, but especially for McCoy's. Kirk doesn't think his friend will like the territory Kirk is passing through on his mental walkabout.

Not when McCoy loves her too.

Of the three of them, probably only Spock is unmoved by thoughts of Christine. Ironic, really. He may be the only one she really loves.

Kirk looks at him, tries to imagine Spock and her together. Tries and fails. It is easier to see her with McCoy. Using him as a way to escape the hold Spock had over her all those years. Christine told him she and McCoy used to have sex on shore leave. McCoy has never said a word about it. All these years, and never shared that.

Kirk feels a momentary pang of guilt for having walked into this mess. But he squashes the feeling down. What he has--had with Christine is his alone. He didn't know he was interfering with his friend's love life, and, in fact, Christine doesn't consider that he was. She told Kirk how she came to McCoy at night during those shoreleaves, how she never let him see her, kept the room dark. They had rules or she did. Pressing the truth out of her wasn't easy. It took several nights of comfort and sex and slow sharing before she admitted that she wished sometimes that she could love Len. That she knew he did love her, had always loved her.

But it was a love buried in obsession, and she was smart enough to know that it wasn't that different than what she felt for Spock. "Len's a good man. And I've hurt him," she said as she settled into Kirk's arms. "I used him to forget."

"Just like you do with me?" he asked. The neediness in his voice bothered him.

She stared at him, then her hand came up to stroke his cheek, her lips touched his softly. As she pulled away, she whispered, "You I could love."

He pulled her back to him, kissed her, made love to her. He thought he could love her too. Spock was dead, McCoy going mad, and he thought he could love Christine. Life made little sense sometimes.

It makes slightly more sense now, or at least is more familiar. Spock is at his side, McCoy is sane again if slightly dented by the experience. And Kirk could still love Christine. But she is not here.

She wasn't part of it when he lost them, and she isn't part of it now. But it is not wholly her fault. He ran out on her when Sarek realized McCoy's role in saving his son's katra. Kirk took the Vulcan's advice and did not tell Christine what he had planned. She was fleet, part of Command--far more than he was. No one could know what he intended to do. And she wasn't part of it.

It sounded weak to him then, after all they shared. It still sounds weak to him. He could have told her. Should have told her.

But he didn't. And now she is lost to him.

He hoped that she'd come to him on Vulcan. Once Spock was reborn. Once it was clear that Kirk couldn't come to her. They were all there waiting for her. All of her lovers. But she did not come.

Yet, she was the one who called Sarek, asked him to return to Earth to plead their case. That seemed hopeful to Kirk. He expected her to be happier to see him when he came back the hero with the whales, when he was again welcome on his home planet. And she smiled at him after the hearing. She was pleasant. Didn't cut him down in front of their friends. But her smile was a distant one that kept him far from her arms.

Kirk sighs. Maybe that is just her way. He wonders if she ever told McCoy that she could love him.

"Jim, for God's sake, you look like your best friend died." McCoy winks at Spock. "We know that's not true."

"Or not permanent, in any case," Spock says, concern on his face.

Kirk knows Spock is still smarting from the way he reacted to Spock's siding with Sybok. Knows his friend is surprised, hurt even.

Kirk stares into Spock's dark eyes, wonders how much is hidden there that he cannot see. If it were not the three of them, he might ask Spock what he felt for him. Just as if it were not the three of them, he might ask McCoy about Christine.

But they are all there and so he does not ask.

"I know the last few months have been a strain, Jim." McCoy touches his arm.

Kirk nods tightly, see Spock's eyes narrow. His friend is making too much progress too fast. A few weeks ago, he wouldn't have known Kirk was trying to hide something. But he knows now, shoots Kirk the same concerned expression he used to. Before he died.

"Jim?" Spock's voice is low and even less gravelly than before. The voice of the man he loves.

Love. What the hell is love anyway? And why does he always do so badly at it? Kirk has spent too many hours analyzing his failures. He doesn't want to do so now. Not when his marshmallow is almost done. He does not want to be too bitter to enjoy it. Does not want the toasty sweetness ruined by the bad taste in his mouth that love leaves.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were coming off a major break up." McCoy's smile is tenuous. He knows how touchy this subject can get.

Spock ventures in cautiously. "Doctor Taylor seemed quite fond of you." When Kirk waves that idea away, Spock says, "And you and Doctor Marcus did seem to be repairing your relationship."

They both listened to him go on about Carol over the years. They knew what being kept away from her and from David did to him. He and Carol had something good once, something real. They made a child.

A child who is lost forever now. Kirk feels the terrible pain that has never left him since Saavik told him David was dead. The pain that starts in his gut and ends somewhere in his throat, making it difficult to swallow.

He pulls the marshmallow from the fire, lets it drop into the dirt. So much wasted effort in his life. What does he have to show for it?

Both Spock and McCoy are staring at the marshmallow. The side that is not covered with sandy dirt is a perfect even gold.

Kirk pushes himself to his feet. "I'm going for a walk."

"Now? Alone? In the middle of the night?" McCoy stands up too. "Are you out of your ever-lovin' mind?"

Spock seems about to add his voice to the mix when his attention is diverted. "Commander?"

Kirk feels his heart jump when he hears Christine say, "Don't leave on my account, Jim." Her tone is somewhere between the steel she showed him on McCoy's roof garden and the whispering hush she used to sooth him to sleep.

"This is a pleasant surprise, Christine," McCoy says; his voice is full of undashed hope.

Kirk wonders if he would sound the same were he to speak.

She walks out of the woods, turning off a small hand lantern. He wonders how she found them. Uhura probably. If his communications chief could be pulled away from Scotty long enough to find the coordinates. But, if anyone could get her to do it, he knows it would be Christine. Knows how persistent she is from personal experience.

Admires how persistent she is. Is hurt that he doesn't seem to be something she wants to be persistent about.

"Commander Chapel, how nice of you to drop in." His voice is distant, as distant as her hello the last time he saw her at Command. "You can keep them company while I walk."

"I'd rather talk to you."

"I'd rather you didn't." His voice is angry, harsh. He sees McCoy react. Realizes he has just given everything away. "Bones..."

Christine looks at McCoy, her expression not apologetic but still full of regret. Kirk knows she cares for this man she wishes she could love but never will.

McCoy rallies, his tone more jovial than Kirk could ever muster if the situation were reversed. "Christine and I are just old friends, Jim."

She does not torture him with asking if he is sure. Just nods tightly, as if commending him on his composure, then turns to Spock. "Any reason I should stay here?"

Their eyes meet and a look of perfect understanding seems to pass between them. Spock says gently, "None of which I am aware."

She smiles slightly, looks more like a cat about to pounce than anything else as she says, "Any reason Jim should?"

Kirk's temper boils over. She is not going to do this. Not here. Not now.

Before he can snap at her, Spock shakes his head. "You should walk with him, Christine. The two of you appear to have unresolved issues."

Spock can be the master of understatement.

She walks by McCoy, lays her hand on his shoulder. McCoy reaches up, holding his hand over hers for a moment. Then he lets go. "Go on then."

Kirk feels a sense of wonder that his friend can be so generous to either of them. Full of guilt, he turns and walks away from the campfire. He can hear her footsteps behind him. "You picked a fine time to finally show up," he says, without turning to look at her.

"I picked the only time I could show up."

He turns, can barely see the woods around him, let alone her face. She pulls out the hand lantern, turns it on. She looks under the brush and he realizes she is checking for snakes. Then she slowly sinks to the ground.

"The snakes here are probably more afraid of you than you are of them," he says.

"That's what they used to say where I went to school."

He realizes he doesn't know where that is. Sees by her face that she is aware he doesn't know.

"North Carolina," she says softly. "They have water moccasins."

He nods; he's seen the vicious dark serpents on the ramps that lead to the brackish water they seem to love. They lie in wait, their blackness blending into the night. They don't rattle, only the slight rush of movement as they strike tells you of danger. Tells you far too late.

He realizes she and Len share that. Similar geography, shared hazards.

What does Kirk share with her, other than pain?

"You left without a word," she says, staring fixedly at the lantern. "Without warning."

"Sarek thought it best." He is amazed that he gives her such a cowardly response.

"Oh." She does look at him then, and her expression tells him what she thinks of his answer.

"I'm sorry."

"I trusted you."

That is news to him. He thought that he was the only one doing the trusting. "It was a chance, the only chance we had. I had to take it."

"And you didn't trust me. Didn't trust that I wouldn't tell Command?"

"There wasn't time to think, Christine. I had to get McCoy away. For his sake, for Spock's."

She looks away.

"I thought you'd come to me on Vulcan." He smiles, tries to charm her. "If only to give me a piece of your mind."

She is not charmed. "Someone had to stay here and look out for you old fools."

He smiles, this time a real reaction not an attempt to cajole her out of anger. "Thank you for that."

She nods tightly.

"Why did you come now?"

"To say goodbye." She does not meet his eyes.

He remembers the Christine who cornered him on McCoy's roof, the one with the unrelenting stare. The one who never looked away when she was making a point. "Bull."

She looks up, a hint of surprise and maybe even relief in her eyes. Then anger fills them. "You just left." She swallows hard.

He realizes she is letting him see her pain, knows it is more her style to hide it, to deny it.

But she shared her pain with him before. Was the only one who could force him to deal with his own.

"I haven't stopped thinking about you," he says.

She shoots him a disbelieving glance. "Yes, I'm sure you mentioned me often to Gillian."

"She was a friend, an ally. Nothing more." He smiles. "I saw you sitting with her during the hearing. I imagine you already know this."

It is her turn to smile. "It's possible. She's quite fond of you, you know."

"And I'm quite fond of her, in much the same way that you're fond of McCoy, I imagine."

Her look changes, becomes wary.

He sighs. "How long do we have to dance around this?"

"I can go as long as you can."

He stares at her, and she stares back. Moments pass and he realizes that for the first time in his life his opponent will not be the first one to blink. He feels a momentary surge of contrariness, is willing to keep this up until he wins or they at least draw.

Then he remembers what is at stake. "Fine," he says. "I love you."

The words are odd, seem to hang in the air for far too long. She doesn't tell him that she loves him, and he wonders if she has ever said that to anyone other than Spock.

"We weren't together very long," she says, but her expression softens. "A few nights..."

He senses a chink in her armor. "I know but it makes no difference. I still love you."

She exhales loudly. He wonders what she is letting go of.

"I love you," he says again.

"I love you too," she finally replies.

They stare at each other. The words are so full of promise, and yet he feels a reluctance to reach for her. As if she will disappear if he does, or change her mind and take the words back.

She starts to smile, it is a slow, wary expression. One that pokes fun at both of them.

"I think this is the part where we get to kiss," he says, deciding he's tired of being afraid of this...afraid of her.

She crawls over to him slowly. Stops midway and waits.

He smiles. She is so far removed from the Christine he first knew. The one who would have covered the whole distance without a thought.

He is glad she is different.

"I love you," he says as he closes the gap between them, as his arms come up around her and he pulls her to him.

Her lips are strong and firm. They taste like home to him.

They kiss for a long time. He wants to do more but one of his best friends is just out of earshot, a best friend who still loves her, who is worth a little patience, a little care.

She seems to be of the same mind. Standing, she holds her hand out to him.

He lets her pull him up.

"That was a perfect marshmallow you let go, you know? Those don't come around every day."

"I can do another," he says. He's found the safe spot, the spot that warms but doesn't burn. He wants to show it to her. "Marshmallows are easy, Christine."

"And love is hard?"

He decides to stop being surprised that she is always on the same wavelength. "Yes. Love is hard." He makes a face. "And I've had little luck with it, honestly."

"Neither have I."

"Yet, we're both still willing to try. I find that remarkable."

She laughs, a soft, almost hesitant sound. As if she's had too little to laugh over in her life.

He wants to make her laugh everyday. "When is your assignment up?"

She doesn't ask him where he's going with the question. Just says, "Three months."

"How do you feel about "Been there, done that'?"

"The Enterprise?"

He nods.

She shrugs, but the smile she gives him is an honest one, a happy one. "What the hell? I can always transfer off if things don't work out."

"We'll make them work out."

"I like to have an escape hatch handy, Jim. Part of my new philosophy."

He nods. "I'll try to never give you a reason to want to use it."

"I believe you."

They stare at each other for a long time. Suddenly she seems to let down her guard. Her shoulders slump, and the wary expression drops. He realizes that she is tired. Dead tired.

"Emergency ops getting to you?" he asks softly.

She nods. "I'm burnt out."

"I've never really thought of the Enterprise as a place to rest, but I can see how she might seem that way to you."

Christine smiles. "I'd love to just be a doctor again."

"Even if it means working for Bones again? Given how he feels..."

"I've done it before. It was messy during our first five-year mission, but after V'ger, we found some sort of equilibrium. We can do it again. Find a new set point."

He feels his stomach do a strange little leap. She'll be with him.

"Come on. Let me make you a perfect marshmallow."

"And then I've got to go. Len doesn't need me sleeping over." She leans in, kisses him tenderly. "And I know no matter how far away I start, I'll end up next to you."

He smiles. Then he remembers the look she shared with Spock. "Or next to a certain Vulcan?"

She laughs. "Somehow, I doubt that." Her look turns serious. "There's nothing between him and me."

"There's something between you. I saw that look."

"History. Compassion. A reluctance to hurt." She smiles. "I guess Spock and I are friends now. Of a sort. An odd sort." Her smile turns wry.

Friends. He can live with that.

She picks up the lantern, leads them back to the fire. She drops his hand before they hit the clearing, and he likes that she doesn't want to do any more harm to McCoy than the situation will do on its own.

He supposes her kindness now is scant consolation to his friend. He wishes his own happiness doesn't come at the expense of McCoy's peace of mind. But his friend has lived with this for years. And no matter how many times he had her, she was never his.

Christine looks back at Kirk, smiles tentatively and he smiles back. They'll make it work. He knows they can.

If they just try.

And if they can avoid the flames.