Living in Ashes

For one heat, all know, doth drive out another. One passion doth expel another still.
- George Chapman, "Monsieur d'Olive"

"We're being hailed by Rigel VIII, sir."

Kirk looked up from the padd he was studying. "On screen, Uhura."

The screen changed from the familiar starfield to the office of the Starfleet attaché on Rigel VIII. "Captain Kirk? I'm Commander Lewis." The man looked nervous. "You're here to pick up the shipment for Lotavia, of course." He cleared his throat.

"Is there a problem, Commander?"

Lewis cleared his throat again. "Uh, yes, there's a small problem."

Kirk gave him his best 'I'm waiting' look.

"Not all of the shipment has arrived yet. But we expect that the last shuttle will be here in a few hours. I apologize for the delay."

"Shuttle? What exactly is this shipment we're carrying?"

"You mean you don't know?"

"Starfleet Command was a little sketchy on the details." Kirk shot a look at Spock.

The Vulcan raised an eyebrow, clearly no better informed than his captain.

"Well, women of course."

Kirk could feel his own eyebrows lifting. "Women?"

"Brides or um prospective brides. One hundred and three of them to be exact."

"We're carrying 103 women to Lotavia so they can get married? The Enterprise is? The flagship of the fleet?"

"Well, that is quite a lot of women. And the Enterprise is a very large ship. And fast. And in the neighborhood." Commander Lewis was clearly not enjoying the conversation.

Kirk walked over to Spock. Under his breath, he asked, "Why?"

Spock was already scanning the database, talking quickly as he read. "Major dilithium deposits on Lotavia. Of quite a pure grade. The planet was deserted until miners from the nearby Noroth system arrived and laid claim. The ore deposits were expected to run out last year but they proved to be far more extensive than predicted. A group of miners have announced their intention to settle the planet. The population of the planet up to now has been primarily male, sir."

"Hence the need for women. And let me guess, they're still debating Federation membership?"

"That is correct."

"Nothing like a shipload of prospective Federation brides to sweeten the pot." Kirk turned back to Lewis, who was watching him nervously. "Well, Commander, we can at least begin beaming up some of these women."

"Would you mind sending down a physician to certify the health information we have to provide the Lotavians? It's just a formality, all the women are perfectly healthy, of course."

"I think I can round up a doctor for you. We'll beam down shortly."

"Thank you, sir. I am sorry for the delay."

"Understood. Kirk out."

The screen shifted back to starfield, as Uhura cut the connection. Kirk turned and said, "Ferrying a shipload of women is not precisely what I envisioned for our first mission. Fortunately, it's a short trip to Lotavia. I'd hate to have to find berths for all of them." He grinned at her. "I imagine stacking them in the cargo bay just wouldn't do."

She grinned. "I imagine not, sir. But the rec lounge should hold that many."

"Good idea. Have ships services set up some extra chairs, make it comfortable. I'm going to round up some medical personnel."

"Aye."

He turned to Spock. "This is the thanks we get for stopping V-ger? We're a taxi service?" He shook his head. "Someone's punishing me, I know it. Maybe it's Will, reaching out from whatever plane he's on now to get revenge on me for stealing the ship?" He grinned at Spock.

"That is highly unlikely, Captain."

Kirk chuckled. "You're probably right. You have the conn, Mr. Spock."

"Aye, sir."

Kirk took the lift down, nodding to McCoy as he entered sickbay.

"Something I can do for you, Jim?"

Kirk turned to him. "Just looking for Chris."

McCoy seemed disappointed as he turned back to the display he'd been looking at.

Chris looked up as he walked in to her office. "This is a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect to see you until later."

"Me either. You feel like getting off the ship?"

"Now?" She looked confused.

"We've got a bevy--that is the scientific term I believe--of women to transport to Lotavia. Their health information needs to be certified before they beam up."

"How many women?"

"Well, 103 of them."

"I think that's is a bit more than a bevy, more like a...pageant."

He laughed.

She pointed to where McCoy was working. "You know, Len should really be the one to go. He is your CMO." Her expression darkened somewhat.

"And you've been so good up to now about not giving me grief over that decision." He touched her hand gently to take any sting out of the words. Once she smiled, he said, "Wouldn't these women be more comfortable with a female doctor?"

"Very good point." Her smile twisted, became playful. "You're such a sensitive man, always thinking about others."

"Always." He grinned at her. "Besides, it's captain's prerogative...I'd like to spend some time with you."

"Off the ship."

He nodded. "Off the ship."

"I'll grab my gear. And a few nurses. I'll need help with that many patients."

As he followed her out, Kirk saw McCoy look up and give them both an odd look, before walking past them into his office. Kirk walked over to his doorway. "Everything all right?"

"Of course, Jim. Why wouldn't it be?" McCoy called up some scans and began to annotate them. "You two going down to the planet?"

Kirk nodded, turned to see if Chris was ready.

"Just you two?"

He turned back to McCoy. "And some nurses too. Why?"

"Just curious." McCoy went back to his scans.

"I'm ready," Chris called.

"Bye," Kirk said somewhat uncertainly to McCoy.

"See ya round, Jim." The doctor's manner was hearty and his voice sounded normal, but Kirk got the distinct impression something was wrong.

As he followed Chris into the hall, he saw that the nurses were out of earshot, so he asked her, "Has McCoy been acting oddly?"

"For him, you mean?" She grinned.

"I'm serious, Chris. He seemed irritated with me."

Her smile faded. "He's irritated with me too. For some reason, he's not in favor of our relationship."

Kirk frowned, not wanting to explore it further, but unable to stop himself from asking, "Why should he care?"

She was very quiet.

"Chris, what has he said?"

She stopped just before they walked into the transporter room, waited until they were alone in the corridor. "He thinks I'm going to get hurt."

"By me?"

"By you...when you go back to Spock."

"He said that to you?"

"Pretty much." She held out a hand. "Don't be mad at him. He's not the only one that thinks that, Jim. I think it's going to take a while before some people believe that we're going to last."

He moved closer to her, as close as protocol allowed. "Are you one of those people?"

She smiled, an open, honest smile that immediately put him at ease. "I might have been. But I'm getting to know you pretty well. And you want us to work out and, from what I've seen, you tend to get what you want. I know that you would never deliberately hurt me. I'm going to trust you." Her voice became a bit more uncertain at the end.

"You can trust me. I love you."

She smiled sweetly. "This is usually the point where we'd start kissing."

"I'm well aware of that, as are some other parts of my body."

She looked down.

"Don't do that."

She laughed and said, "Do you want me to walk in front of you? These uniforms don't hide much."

"Just hold on a minute."

"Hold on to what?"

He glared at her. "You are not helping."

She became serious. "I'll behave."

"Good." He forced himself to ignore her. In his mind, he called up the montage of images and smells that over the years he had perfected for just such an occasion. It never failed him, even if it often left him slightly nauseous. He gave her his most professional look. "Let's go, Doctor."

She looked down again. "That's really impressive. Force of will like I have never seen."

"Stop looking at me like that or you'll undo all the good I've done."

She laughed and turned away from him, walking through the transporter room doors. He followed her, saw the nurses waiting for them. Rand was at the transporter controls.

"Ready to beam down, Chief."

"Aye sir," she said, the voice of professionalism. But he didn't miss the cold look she shot Chris.

He sighed. When Chris looked at him in question, he shook his head

"Energizing now, sir."

They materialized on the transporter pad. Lewis was waiting for them. "This way, sir." He nodded at Chris. "I'm Commander Lewis, Doctor..."

"Chapel. And this is Nurse Ramsey and Estoval."

"Pleasure to meet you all. We've got a special room set up for you, ma'am."

"Sir," she said.

Both Lewis and Kirk turned to look at her. She smiled at them. "I think I prefer 'sir,' if it's all the same to you."

"Fine with me," Kirk said, shooting her a glance. "Something you want to tell me?" he whispered once Lewis had turned back around.

She smiled and shrugged. "Ma'am just suddenly rubbed me the wrong way."

"Your call." He smiled. "You know, they use 'sir' for everyone in the marines."

"Well, there you go. When we get a contingent of marines onboard, I'll be ahead of the game."

He laughed at her whimsy. "Yes, they'll love you."

They turned the corner and he saw her smile fade as she took in the sight. "A hell of a lot of brides," she muttered.

"Jealous?" he teased.

She shot him a look. "Yeah. Green with envy."

He swallowed his laughter as he turned to look in the room that Lewis had led them to. Females of all ages, shapes, and planets of origin filled the room to capacity. Kirk wondered if some of them would even be biologically compatible with the miners. "It always amazes me that anyone would want to go to the back of beyond to get married to someone who's essentially a stranger."

Lewis answered quickly, "They'll be very rich, Captain. The miners are making a great deal off the dilithium. And they'll be the founders of the community."

"Our very own Mercer Girls." Chapel said. When both men looked at her, she said, "Back when Seattle was founded it was mainly populated by lumbermen. Plus a few fishermen and farmers. Very few women. An enterprising"--she smiled at her pun--"man sailed a ship full of women to Seattle as prospective brides. I guess things don't change."

"Well, they'll get there faster now," Lewis said with a smile. He pointed to a side room. "Your team can work in there, Doctor."

She nodded at the nurses. "Let's get set up."

Kirk pulled out his communicator. "Kirk to Rand."

"Rand here, sir."

"We're going to be beaming in our guests."

"Yes, sir. Uhura's briefed me. I have security here to escort them to the rec lounge."

"Good. We'll signal you when we're ready. Kirk out." He strode into the main room. "May I have your attention please?"

The room gradually became quiet.

"I'm Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise."

"Our hero," one of the women said.

"You aren't looking for a wife are you, Captain?" another yelled out.

He glanced back at Chris. She shook her head at him, a grin playing around her mouth.

"I'm not. But I appreciate the offer." He motioned for Chris to join him. "This is Doctor Chapel. She'll be certifying that your health documentation is in order. We'll be transporting you up in groups of six, once your papers are in order." He turned to Chapel. "Your show, Doctor."

"Thank you, sir." She stepped forward. "All right, you six in front, please come with me." She led the women to the small room Lewis had indicated. Kirk watched as she and the nurses processed them. It took them longer to certify the documentation than it did to do the examinations. She looked up, saw that he was watching her and returned his smile before turning back to the certifications.

"How many women are on the last shuttle?" he asked Lewis.

"Fifteen. If you don't need me sir?"

Kirk waved him off.

"Captain?"

He turned. A very tall, very slender woman stood in front of him. He had to look up at her as she asked, "Have you been to Lotavia?"

"I haven't. I'm sorry."

"We saw some holos, it looked rather desolate."

"I guess we'll find out when we beam down. Why are you going there?"

She shrugged. "To start over? To have an adventure? I'm not sure." She looked down. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"I'm sure it will be," he encouraged her.

"I hope so." She wandered back into the room with the others.

Chris came out. "Another marriage proposal?"

"No such luck. You're stuck with me."

She smiled. "Good. Can you take this group to the transporter room?" As he motioned for the first group to follow him, Chris gathered six women near the door for the next group. "Please come with me."

Kirk smiled at the six women facing him. "This way, ladies."

"How long will it take to get to Lotavia?" one of the women asked him.

"About five hours," he said. "It would be a much longer trip in a freighter."

He watched the women beam up, then went back to wait for the next group. He walked into the room, interested in these women who were choosing the unknown. He saw an Andorian sitting by herself in the back of the room. She looked up as he approached. "Captain Kirk?"

"You have me at an advantage."

"Talyndra. I'm afraid you couldn't pronounce the rest of it."

"I believe you. You're a long way from Andor."

"I am." She smiled as she saw his expression. "You're wondering why I'm going?"

He nodded.

"My family was disgraced. It's hard to explain the true significance of that to an outworlder. Our family arrangements are rather complicated."

"So I've heard."

She nodded. "I have nowhere else to go."

"And you want to marry one of the miners?"

She grinned, leaned in. "Don't tell the others, but I intend to dig dilithium. Make enough to buy my respectability back."

He laughed softly. "Have you ever mined before, Talyndra?"

She made a face as if that were of little concern. "I can do anything I have to, Captain."

"I don't doubt it." He looked up, saw that Chris was waiting for him with another group. "Excuse, me," he said as he headed back to the hallway.

An attractive blonde woman stepped in front of him. "My name is Angela."

"A pleasure." He tried to get around her.

She put a hand out. "I've never talked to a starship captain before. Your job sounds so interesting. I'd love to hear more about it...when we get back on board. I bet you live a lonely life. Go to bed alone, wake up alone. So sad."

He gave her a tight smile. "You have no idea. If you'll excuse me." This time he managed to get around her. He was propositioned a few more times before he made it out of the room.

Lewis was waiting for him when he got back from the transporter room. "The shuttle will be here in twenty minutes."

"Thank you."

He walked into the small room. As Chris looked up, he said, "The rest will be here in twenty minutes."

"I should be done with the rest by then." She turned back to the exams.

He sat down at one of the small tables in the hallway and waited for the next group to be escorted. He was glad that he had something to do; sitting around watching his people work would have left him feeling useless. Lewis brought the last women over from the shuttle dock, and Kirk ran through his welcome speech again. By the time he was done, Chris was finished with the original group. She completed the new group, and Kirk took them to the transporter room. He passed the nurses on his way back to the room.

Chris was putting her things away, when he walked into the little room. "No more proposals?" she asked.

"Nope. But I was propositioned a few times." At her raised eyebrow, he laughed. "I turned them down."

"I should hope so." She picked up her bag. "I was propositioned too. Pretty blonde human."

"Name of Angela?"

"She hit on you too?" At his nod, she laughed. "She was pretty aggressive. I have a feeling the miner that ends up with her won't know what hit him."

Kirk leaned in. "Women like that are all talk. It's the quiet ones you have to watch out for."

"I'm not that quiet."

"Not at certain times, no," he said, and was charmed to see her blush. "And I like it." He might have gone on but he saw Lewis heading for them and straightened up.

"All is in order, Doctor?" the attaché asked.

She nodded. "Perfectly."

"Then I won't keep you. Good journey, sirs."

Kirk smiled at the man's memory. "Thank you, Lewis."

They walked with him for a short distance, then separated as he headed for his office.

"They have some interesting stories, don't they?" Chris asked.

"They do. Mercer Girls, huh?"

She nodded, as they climbed up on the pad. "It was a piece of Seattle history. We all learned about it in school."

Kirk nodded at the transporter tech. The next thing he saw was Rand's face, her smile for him was warm. "Welcome back, sir." She ignored Chris.

He turned to Chris. "I'll see you later."

She shot him a look, shook her head slightly. He knew she didn't want him to make things worse for her with her friend, but he didn't care.

"Chris, I'll see you later."

She left.

He turned to Rand. "You're happy here, aren't you, Chief? This assignment's working out the way you want it to?"

Rand's smile was genuine. "Oh yes, sir."

"That's good. It's damn good to see you again, great to see you moving on to new challenges. I've always believed there was limitless potential in you."

"Thank you, Captain."

"You've always been a person I could count on."

"I try, sir."

He smiled, then let his face go blank. "You're not trying very hard now, are you, Rand?"

"Sir?"

"With Doctor Chapel? Your disrespect when we beamed in was inexcusable. I can't dictate how you treat her in your off duty hours. I'd prefer that you behave like an adult, but that's your call. But act like this again while you are wearing that uniform, and I'll put you on report. Do you understand?"

She had pulled herself to attention, stood very straight. "Yes, sir."

"Janice, don't make me doubt my faith in you."

She swallowed hard.

"At ease, Chief," he said as he walked out of the room.

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

Chapel headed to the rec lounge to make sure all the women had settled in. She didn't want to think about what Jim was saying to Rand, or how much worse it was going to make things between her and her friend. Fortunately she had 103 other women to take her mind off Rand.

The would-be brides appeared to be doing fine, making liberal use of the synthesizers and finding places to sit out the short journey to Lotavia. She stood in the doorway watching them for a moment, then turned around to head back to sickbay, jumping as she realized that Uhura was standing behind her. They stared at each other, until Chapel said, "This is just stupid, Ny." For a moment, she thought she'd offended her friend, thought Uhura was going to close down, then she smiled slightly.

"It is pretty stupid, isn't it?" Uhura leaned back against the bulkhead. "I'm not entirely sure why we're fighting."

"Starts with a 'k,' ends with a 'k'." Chapel smiled tentatively.

"I knew that, I was just being polite." Uhura took a deep breath. "Why didn't you tell me, Christine?"

"I don't know." Chapel shrugged. "I wasn't thinking."

Uhura suddenly laughed. "Of all the things you could have said, that I'll buy." She walked over to Chapel, leaned in conspiratorially, the way she used to when she had some choice dirt to pass on. "So, you were having too much fun to think straight, huh?"

Chapel could feel herself blushing, looked down, desperately trying to keep the smirk off her face.

"Silence means assent, Christine. And by the look of it...well, maybe now I'm mad all over again." When Chapel looked up, Uhura laughed. "Mad that I wasn't the one stuck on Earth."

"Bad luck that," Chapel agreed, with a relieved smile. "I would have told you, Ny, when you called me after Will announced that I'd taken the CMO slot. I would have told you then, except Jim and I weren't exactly together."

"But I thought you were seeing him just before you came up here?"

"I was. But you weren't the only one that I didn't tell something important to. Jim didn't know I was even considering the assignment until I told him I had been selected." Chapel swallowed. She still didn't like to think about how he had shut down on her, how cold his face had been as he'd told her to get out of his home...of his life. She didn't like to consider what her life would have been like on the ship if they weren't together, if he were still that angry with her.

"It was bad?" Uhura's voice was soft; with the first real concern Chapel had heard from her since the party.

"It was terrible." Chapel looked away, blinked hard.

"You really love him, don't you?"

Chapel nodded. "I do."

Uhura nodded, as if finally understanding. "I think I thought this was just a lark for you. A diversion, something different. I had no idea."

"Believe me, I had no idea when this all started that I would feel like this. Maybe that's why I didn't say anything. I guess I didn't think it would last. I'm not used to being happy, not like this." She reached out, touched Uhura's hand. "I'm so sorry. And if I said anything mean the night of the party, I'm sorry for that too."

Uhura shook her head. "Let's just agree to forget what we said that night?"

"That works for me." Chapel frowned. "Can we be friends again?"

Uhura nodded, but it seemed a tentative gesture.

"You're not exactly jumping up and down at the prospect, Ny."

"It's just..." Uhura seemed to be searching for the right words. "Awkward. It's awkward now. You're sleeping with my supervisor. That's awkward."

"Does it have to be? How long have we been friends?"

"A long time. Maybe long enough to weather this."

"But you're not sure?" Chapel asked.

Suddenly Uhura reached out and grabbed her hand, gave it a gentle squeeze. "I want it to work. I want us to all be friends again. The way we were. Just don't push, okay?"

Chapel nodded.

Uhura let go of her. "I'd better go make sure they're all right in there." She walked past Chapel, into the rec lounge.

Chapel looked up. Saw Kirk watching her from the far end of the corridor. She smiled at him, walked down the hall to him.

"You okay?"

She nodded.

"I was going to check on them. But I guess I don't have to?"

She shook her head. "We've got it under control."

"Was that a rapprochement?"

"I think so."

"You're not sure?" He grinned at her, his eyes showing amused concern.

"I'm really not."

He laughed then. "Come on, Doctor. I'll walk you to the turbolift."

As she turned, she felt his hand touch her lower back, linger there for the briefest second as he followed her. Just that small amount of contact made her feel better. As they entered the empty lift, she said softly, "I love you."

"Damned glad to hear it, Chris." He was standing very close to her.

"This is worth fighting for," she said, trying to sound positive but not managing it very well.

"Of course it is." He shook his head at her, smiled at her foolishness.

As the lift slowed to a stop and the doors opened, she said, "This is my stop."

He nodded. "I'll see you later?"

"Of course."

She stepped out, turning at the last moment to watch him. She caught a flash of his grin as the doors closed.

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

Kirk watched as the last group of women climbed onto the transporter platform. "Energize," he told Rand.

"Aye, sir." She was at her most professional, her manner impassive and focused. "Your turn, sir."

"Guess there's no point in postponing the inevitable." He turned to Spock. "Ready?"

Spock nodded and stepped onto the platform.

Kirk took a deep breath and held it. Then he let it out silently. "I hate these things," he muttered, remembering how he'd said the same thing to Chris the night before they'd arrived at Rigel VIII.

"But you're so good at them," she'd said, as she'd curled herself around him in his bed.

"I didn't get this ship back just to sit at a feast and make nice."

She had laughed. "You'd rather be in the middle of a firefight, perhaps?"

He had given her a stern look. "Given the choice..."

"Given the choice, I think you'd rather be making first contact, exploring and seeing things no one else has ever seen. Like we did back in the old days."

"The good old days," he said softly, echoing what he'd said to her.

"Captain?" Spock asked.

"Nothing, Commander." He smiled tightly. "Just being nostalgic." He nodded at Rand.

"Energizing, sir."

They beamed into an open-air enclosure. Festive decorations had been hung but were being blown about by the strong winds that came in, bringing sand from the desert that surrounded them.

"Fascinating," Spock murmured, his gaze turning to the other people in the area.

The Lotavian miners were all standing on one side of the enclosure; the women the Enterprise had just delivered were clustered at the other end. The two groups looked at each other, their expressions full of wary embarrassment. All except Angela, who seemed to be making a beeline for one of the more richly dressed miners standing on the edge of the group.

Another miner separated himself from the others, joining Kirk and Spock. "You must be Captain Kirk," he said, smiling broadly. "How good it was of you to come down so that we could thank you in person."

"This is my first officer, Commander Spock," Kirk said. "And thanks aren't needed. The Enterprise was close by. It was our pleasure."

"But to take time out to help us when you are just setting out on your shakedown run is more appreciated than I think you are aware."

"It was no trouble, Mister...?"

"Karelin." The miner held out his hand. "I've been elected First Minister of Lotavia. Primarily, I think, because I spent some time in the Norothian political arena before I gave it up and came here to make my fortune." He looked over at his fellow miners, several of them looked at him helplessly. "Mingle, you idiots," he said, gesturing toward the women with his head.

The men slowly began to move toward the women.

Karelin shook his head. "If any of them manage to talk to a woman, much less someday interest her in marriage, it will be a miracle."

As Kirk watched the awkward introductions taking place, he had to agree with Karelin's assessment.

"Ah well, they're on their own with this project. I may be willing to sit up late thinking of ways to improve our mining techniques, but wooing one of those woman is not something I have to worry about."

"Are you not also looking for a compatible mate?" Spock asked.

"He better not be," a woman said as she walked up to them.

"Gentlemen, my wife, Nadrat."

"Ma'am," Kirk said.

"A pleasure, Captain." She turned to her husband. "We need to form the chorus, Karelin."

"Chorus?" Spock asked.

Karelin beamed. "We've put together a little musical entertainment. To impress our new residents"--he looked over at the group of women with a satisfied grin--"and to thank and honor you for bringing them to us." He looked at his wife. "But I was hoping to give them a tour beforehand."

"Maybe later," she said as she pulled him away.

"Music," Kirk said, smiling tightly. He'd grown sick of such entertainments in his last job. He was not in the mood, could feel the muscles in his neck tightening and reached up to rub the pain away. He wished Chris were here, her hands were amazing, able to work out the toughest knots. He sat down on a nearby bench. "I guess the tour is off."

"So it would seem." Spock took the seat next to him, sitting slightly closer than was necessary. At Kirk's glance, he moved away a bit. "A pity. I was interested in seeing the mining operation."

Kirk smiled. "You've never lost that, have you? Your curiosity, your thirst for knowledge?"

"Neither have you, Jim."

Kirk sighed. "I lost a lot of things sitting at that desk on Earth. My curiosity was the least of it." He turned to look at Spock. "It was a mistake to accept the promotion."

"I believe Doctor McCoy told you that when you were considering it."

"Don't rub it in, Spock. So he was right." He sighed. "It wouldn't have been so bad...if you hadn't left."

Spock looked down. "I have never explained why I left."

"No, you haven't."

"It is difficult, t'hy'la."

Kirk glanced at Spock sharply. "I asked you not to call me that."

"How else can I get your attention, Jim? It seems to me that you do not want to hear my explanation...my reasons for leaving you. I feel as if you cannot see me...will not see me anymore."

Kirk looked away, debating how far he wanted this conversation to go. "I see you just fine, Spock."

"Then why will you not let me back in?"

"Exactly how far back in do you want to go?"

"As far as you will let me."

Kirk sighed. "That's what I thought. And we've been over this. You left. I suffered. I got over it. I'm with Chris now. End of story."

"A story such as ours is never over, Jim," Spock said matter-of-factly.

"Well then think of it as a new chapter."

Spock started to reply, then fell silent as Karelin approached them again.

"Captain, Commander, if you'd care to take a seat in the enclosure?"

Kirk stood up, didn't have to turn to see if Spock was following him, could feel him behind him, just as he always could. It was comforting, this familiar feeling of safety, of friendship, of regard. He glanced back at Spock. The Vulcan was looking at him intently. The grin he had been about to shoot his friend died, and he could tell the Vulcan realized it.

Get over it, Spock, he thought, suddenly furious. Just get the hell over it. I did. You didn't give me any choice, as I remember.

"Are you hungry, Captain?" Nadrat asked him. She gestured to a table that was almost sagging with the amount of food that had been laid out on it.

"I couldn't..." he tried to say, his stomach was roiling and the thought of food was offensive.

"We'll be very insulted if you don't try some," Nadrat said with a frown.

"Well, in that case," Kirk said in what he hoped was a sincere tone. Then he looked over at Spock and said meanly, "We're both very eager to sample the local cuisine."

Spock looked distinctly uncomfortable. That made Kirk unreasonably happy.

"Come on, Mister Spock. Let's try some of this delicious-looking food." He forced himself to focus on the mission and smiled at Nadrat. "Did you make this yourself?"

She nodded. "Grew most of it too."

Kirk looked out at the barren landscape. "Hard to imagine anything growing here."

"It's not easy. We have to lavish a lot of resources on the small plots we've managed to coax into producing for us. But it's worth it." She smiled then. "Of course, soon we will be able to afford whatever we want to import."

"You will abandon your own farming efforts then," Spock asked.

"I wouldn't call it farming, and if you could see the size of our plots, neither would you." She grinned. "I don't plan to stop altogether. I enjoy the challenge. But I can't picture some of these women happily working in a garden, can you?"

Kirk saw the tall slender woman he'd first talked to on Rigel VIII, tried to imagine her working the land and failed. But he thought that Talyndra could do anything she had to.

Spock seemed to be studying Nadrat, who looked up and met his eyes curiously. "You do realize that the dynamic here will change?" he asked her. "Before you were one of few, now you will be one of many."

"And grateful that I won't have to be friend, sister, nurse, and mother- confessor to every one of these miners," she said. "And I'm still first lady of this place, at least as long as the miners want my husband to serve as First Minister. I think I'll be fine, Commander." She looked over at the women again. "I worry about them, though. This planet is a hard place to thrive. I don't know how they will cope."

Spock considered that. "Each according to the strengths and weaknesses within them. There is no predicting who will stay, and who will run." He looked at Kirk for a moment.

"Sometimes it's the last person you would have predicted that runs," Kirk said tightly. "I think I'll try some of that food now." He moved over to the table, found himself behind the Andorian woman. She was being shadowed by three Lotavian miners. "Sure you still want to dig dilithium, Talyndra?" he murmured as he leaned past her to scoop some fruit onto his plate.

Her low giggle made him smile. "There may be more to this world than I initially thought, Captain." She leaned in. "But men such as these will only make my free time more interesting. I intend to get rich and get out...quickly. This climate is horrendous."

A gust of wind blew more sand into the enclosure. As Kirk tried to protect his food from the gritty residue, he said softly, "I'm with you on that."

"Somehow, I thought you would be." She brushed sand off one of her antenna and the three miners followed her movements avidly. "These guys are a little bit scary," she muttered as she walked away from Kirk. The three Lotavians followed her.

"An interesting woman," Spock said.

Kirk had not realized he had come up. "She is."

"I am sorry if I pushed," Spock said so softly that Kirk barely heard him.

"Let's not talk about it," Kirk said just as quietly, as he tried to scrape sand off the bread he'd sliced.

"But if we never talk--"

"I said drop it," Kirk interrupted, his voice rising a bit, but not enough to attract attention from those around him.

He bit into the bread and his teeth crunched into sandy grit, then into a clump of flour that hadn't been mixed well enough. He swallowed quickly. "Delicious," he said between clenched teeth. "Let's hope the Lotavians sing better than they cook.

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

"Going to dinner?"

Chapel turned, saw Sulu hurrying to catch up with her. "I am."

"Need company?" he asked with a grin.

"I'd love some."

The mess hall was crowded. They got their trays, looked around for a place to sit. She saw Uhura and Rand sitting at a large table. The crewmen that had been sitting across from them were just getting up.

Sulu saw where she was looking. "Fortune favors the brave," he said under his breath. When she laughed, he continued, "Isn't that what the captain says?"

"I think it was 'Fortune favors the foolish' the last time I heard him use it."

Sulu shrugged. "Brave, foolish. Not much difference sometimes."

"True." She took an overly-dramatic deep breath. "Okay, I'm going in. Cover me?" she asked, feeling her grin fade as she forced herself to walk toward the table. She could hear Sulu coming up behind her as she asked, "These seats open?"

Rand looked up. Her eyes were cold as she stared at Chapel. She didn't answer, just turned back to her food.

"Lost your voice, Janice, or just your hearing?" Sulu asked gently, but with a warning in his tone.

Rand looked up at him in surprise, as if she hadn't realized he was with Chapel. "They're both fine, Hikaru."

"What about you, Nyota?" he asked Uhura.

"What about me? And since when did you two have to ask to join us? Sit."

'Thanks," he said, ignoring Janice's glare. "Sit," he said to Chapel.

She shot him a look.

"Sit, Chris." He didn't look like he wanted to hear any arguments.

She sat.

They all ate in silence for a few minutes, then Sulu said, "I wonder how the landing party's doing?"

"No trouble calls," Uhura offered.

Rand shot Chapel another look, then asked, "So who was on the landing party?"

Chapel met her eyes. She knew Rand had probably beamed them down herself. She saved Sulu the trouble of answering. "Jim and Spock."

Rand's lower lip curled up slightly. "Cozy."

Chapel was about to let Rand have it when she felt a hand on her leg, then a slight pinch. She turned to look at Sulu.

He shook his head, said loudly enough for the other two to hear him. "Let it go."

Rand sat back, stared at him. "Whose side are you on?"

"Nobody's. Everybody's. Why is there even a side?"

Rand turned away.

"I'm serious, Janice," he continued. "What's wrong with you? You three were best friends. Now you barely talk to each other. Why?"

Chapel studied her plate.

He sounded increasingly exasperated. "I mean it. Why?" He turned to Uhura. "Why do you care what she does in her off hours. Shouldn't you be pleased that she's happy?"

Chapel looked up, met Rand's cold eyes, turned to Uhura's more welcoming ones, then forced herself to look back at Janice. "I should have told you."

Rand didn't look away. "Yes, you should have."

"I'm sorry. It was...it was complicated."

"That's such a cop out," Rand said.

Sulu turned to her. "Maybe it's not. Maybe it was complicated." Rand started to say something but he cut her off. "You're jealous. We all know it. Just say it. You're pissed as hell that Chris got something you've always wanted. Just...just get over it. If you were meant to be with him, you'd be with him."

"This is none of your business, Hikaru."

His expression, normally so controlled, was angry. "We were all friends. You three and Chekov and I. We hung around and went on shore leaves and played jokes on each other. There was never a time I couldn't count on all of you if I needed help. I think back to some of the best times on our missions and they revolve around what we did as a group. So don't tell me it isn't any of my business that the three of you are acting like idiots and throwing it all away."

"I'm not sure we're the one's throwing it away. Christine's not exactly hanging around with us anymore, is she?" Uhura observed, shooting Chapel a slightly apologetic look.

"Is that what's bothering you? You miss her and wish she was around more?" Sulu looked at her, then over at Rand. "Or is it that Chris spends her personal time with the Captain and you don't? Are you lonely for her or jealous of what she has and you don't?"

Uhura looked down. Rand wouldn't meet Chapel's eyes. Sulu suddenly stood up, picked up his tray. "Come on, Chris. I see another table opening up."

Chapel looked at him in surprise. She heard Uhura say, "Sit down, Hikaru. Please?"

He looked over at Rand. "What do you want me to do, Janice?"

Chapel watched as their eyes locked, was surprised to see Rand's fill with angry tears as she stared at him. Chapel glanced at Sulu. His expression softened, became tender. He's in love with Jan, Chapel realized, and immediately wondered why she hadn't seen it before. At this moment, it was so obvious. Then she wondered if it was obvious to Janice.

Rand finally looked down. "We're all still friends," she mumbled so softly that Chapel could barely hear her. Then she looked up, met Chapel's eyes. "We're not okay. You and I. Be clear on that. But you're as much a part of this group as I am. And I don't want to fight about this anymore."

"But we're not okay?" Chapel was confused.

"No." Rand took a deep breath, shot another glance at Sulu as he sat back down. Her last bit of resistance seemed to fade as she looked at him. "But maybe we will be. If you give me time."

"Or if the captain and I break up."

"That'd be nice," Rand joked, or at least Chapel hoped it was a joke. "Are you happy with him?" It seemed to take a lot of effort for Janice to ask the question.

Chapel nodded.

Rand looked down again. "Well, that's all that matters, right?"

Chapel had a feeling that it wasn't. And they both knew it. But she'd take any olive branch that her friend held up. Even one as stripped and flimsy as this. "Maybe it is," she agreed tentatively.

Sulu smiled encouragingly at her, then turned his attention to his lunch, leaving her to sink or swim on her own. Chapel took a bite to buy time, then asked softly, "Where is Chekov?"

Uhura pointed off to a corner where Chekov sat having lunch with a young woman.

"Who is that?" Chapel asked, trying to tell from the back.

"Ensign Oksana Karimazov," Sulu offered.

"Russian?" Chapel guessed, wondering how many stories they were trading about the glorious accomplishments of Mother Russia.

"Ukrainian," Uhura corrected. "She's very pretty."

Chapel took her word for it; it was impossible to tell from her vantage point.

"He's smitten," Rand offered.

"He likes her," Sulu corrected.

"Oh, come on. You've seen how he looks at her," Rand argued.

Sulu grinned at her. "How does he look at her?"

"Like this." Rand proceeded to make a goofy love-struck face at him, somehow managing to convey a strong sense of Chekov in the imitation.

They all burst out laughing. Chapel had forgotten what a good mimic Rand was.

"He's looking this way," Uhura muttered and they fell to their lunches.

"Oh yeah, that was subtle," Chapel said, and heard Rand snicker. "He's not getting up, is he?"

"He's gonna kill us, if he does." Sulu was trying to watch Chekov as he spooned his soup. "Okay, danger over. He's talking to her again."

They all laughed again, only this time much more quietly so that Chekov wouldn't notice.

Chapel looked over at Sulu, felt a surge of gratitude toward him. This was almost like old times. Maybe as close as they were ever going to get again.

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

"You're sure you must return to your ship," Karelin said with disappointment. "We have several lovely entertainments planned for the rest of the evening. Our way of saying thank you for what you've done for us. And there's still so much food left."

Kirk's neck was killing him and he could feel an ache starting low in his jaw from clenching his teeth. "I'm positive, First Minister."

He looked over at Spock. The Vulcan looked equally relieved to be escaping the vocal stylings of the Lotavian chorus. "As Commander Spock was explaining, we're on a tight timetable."

Karelin inclined his head in reluctant acceptance. "Of course, we must come second to the schedule of the flagship of the Fleet."

"I knew you'd understand." Kirk already had his communicator out. "Enterprise, two to beam up."

He didn't know when he'd been so glad to see the transporter chamber. "Thank god that's over with," he muttered, rubbing his neck as he hurried off the pad. "When I was sitting a desk, I had enough of these dog and pony shows to last me a lifetime."

"Part of the job of captain _is_ representational," Spock offered.

"Listening to that caterwauling was over and above any representational duties Starfleet could possibly assign."

"It was somewhat discordant."

Kirk grinned. "Discordant implies intent, Spock. I wasn't entirely sure they were all performing the same song."

"Nor was I, Jim."

Kirk laughed silently, his grin disappearing as he realized how drained he felt. He rubbed his neck again and thought of Chris. He had a strong need to see her, hold her.

He realized Spock was looking at him as if he knew what Kirk was thinking. Their eyes locked for a moment. "You will want to see Doctor Chapel," Spock said quietly.

"Yes," Kirk said not looking away. "I do want to see her." He stared at Spock, felt as if some challenge had been issued. "I want to see her as soon as possible. I missed her."

"Of course. She no doubt missed you as well." Spock turned away.

Kirk took a deep breath, fought the growing tension he felt.

"I have some work to check on in the science lab. I will see you in the morning." Spock seemed as relieved to go, as Kirk was to see him leave.

Sighing, Kirk called for the lift and rode it to deck five. He stopped at his quarters first, scanning the messages that had piled up for him, answering the few that required immediate attention. Starfleet Command had sent the schedule for their next few missions, and Kirk called the Bridge, ordering the commander on duty to set course for D'Ahlhal, their first stop, now two days away. Then, not even bothering to change, he hurried down the corridor to Chapel's quarters. She didn't answer his chime, so he palmed the door open.

The room was dark except for a pool of light spilling from a desk that had been set up in the main room. She had fallen asleep working at it, her arms crossed on the desktop, a mess of padds around her. He walked over and picked up one of them. "Ligamentary Tolerances in Cybernetic Prosthetics," he read aloud softly. He picked up another: "Implant Rejection in Artificial Fascial Systems." He smiled as he put the padds down, "A little light reading, Chris?" he asked, remembering how excited she had been about the technology she had seen in the Ilia probe.

"Wake up, sleepyhead." He leaned down, rested his hand on her shoulder. As she stirred, he whispered in her ear, "I rush over here and this is the welcome I get?" Then he eased away from her.

"You're back?" Her voice was scratchy with sleep as she sat up, turned in her chair. She smiled happily. "You are back."

"I am back." He grinned at her.

"I fell asleep," she said as she stood up, moved to him.

"I see." He pulled her close, kissing her gently. As her arms went around him, he sighed. "It's nice to have someone to come back to."

"It's nice to be the someone you're coming back to." She hugged him tightly.

As he held her close, he moved her backwards, toward her desk. "This is new, isn't it?" he asked with a smile.

She grinned wickedly as she pushed herself up to sit on it. "I think the quartermaster wondered why I was so particular about the dimensions."

"Or one of them, anyway. And I think you did very well, Doctor. This desk is the perfect height."

"Yes, for studying," she said, suddenly all innocence.

He shook his head and began to undo the fasteners on her shirt.

"For eating?" she asked with a grin, pushing herself up slightly so he could pull off her pants.

"Well..."

She laughed and began to undo his uniform. "Well?" She pushed it off him.

"Well, you never know." As he kissed her again, he felt her reach for him, her hand firm and warm. His moan was loud in the darkened room. "God, Chris, I've missed you."

"It's only been a few hours," she said.

"I know. I didn't say it made sense." He kissed her again. "But I think you should know that I missed you very much, Doctor Chapel."

"I can see that, Captain Kirk." She pulled him against her, guided him.

He found it difficult to control himself. He wanted to go slow, give her as much pleasure as he could. But the feel of her around him, her fingers digging into his arms as she urged him on, was just too much. He moved fiercely, possessively, crying out as he peaked. He felt her lips on his face, her hands stroking his hair, soothing him as he pulled her close and collapsed against her.

"You did miss me," she said softly.

"I told you." Then he muttered sheepishly, "Like a damn kid rushing through it. Didn't mean--"

"Shhh. I love that."

He pulled back to look at her. "You love that?"

"That you couldn't help yourself." Her smile was sweet. "You were calling my name over and over at the end. I love that."

He reached back, pulled her hair out of the clips that held most of it in place. "I love you," he said, as he pulled her to him.

"I'm beginning to get that." She kissed him with a fierce passion. "I love you, Jim. I missed you too."

"I know." He reached back for the chair they'd kicked away, pulled it to him and sat down. Grinning up at her, he said, "Maybe there's something I can do for you? I think this chair is the perfect height as well."

"And if not, it's adjustable. Another specification I had for the quartermaster." She laughed as he pulled her hips closer to him and leaned in. She was soon making other noises. He heard one of the padds fall, then another as she arched back; bucking against him until with a rather loud and sustained cry she relaxed.

"I hope the neighbors weren't trying to sleep." He could feel a silly grin on his face.

"You are too good at that," she said breathlessly, as he stood up and pulled her into his arms. "Too damn good."

"I aim to please." He kissed her and she relaxed against him. As he felt her arms go around him, he realized how tired he was.

"Do you want to go to sleep?" she asked, as if reading his mind.

"Does it make me an old man if I say yes?"

She pulled away and pushed him back enough to get down off the desk. "No, it makes you a tired man if you say yes."

"Then yes."

"Good. Me too." She led him into the bedroom, pulled him down into the bed with her. As the soft covers settled over him and she nestled into his arms, he sighed.

"I'm glad you're back," she said sleepily.

"I'm glad you're here," he whispered even as his eyes closed.

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

Chapel woke, felt Kirk's arms around her and smiled, remembering the night before. Her mind flashed back to the desk. Best damn piece of furniture in the fleet, she thought. She shifted so she could look up at Jim's face, and felt a strange tightening in her chest as she watched him sleep. It was frightening to feel this strongly about someone, even scarier to think that he was feeling something similar for her. She'd never known anyone like him; the men she was used to were cold, unemotional. Spock was a perfect example, but Roger hadn't been much warmer. He'd actually been more animated as an android than as the formal scientist who'd proposed so properly to her. She had a feeling Roger would have been scandalized if she had ever suggested they put a desk to the use she and Kirk had made of it. She wondered what Spock would have thought of what they'd done. She imagined that maybe, after years with Jim, he wouldn't be surprised by much of anything.

She found herself wondering again why he had left Kirk, _how_ he could have left him. If she'd been in his position, she would never have left Jim behind. But she wasn't Vulcan, or half-Vulcan. She supposed that she would never know why Spock had left. It was enough to know that he regretted it, that he wanted Jim back.

She smiled, cuddled closer to Kirk. She didn't intend to give him up. Or obsess over what was going on between the two of them, or worry about what they might have talked about while they were on the planet. It would be easy to, and in the past she might have, but not this new Christine, the one that was learning to trust in this warm and generous man. If she wanted to stay with Jim, she knew she was going to have to trust him unreservedly. And she did want to stay with him.

"What are you thinking about?" He was awake and looking at her curiously.

"You."

"Should I be nervous? You look awfully serious."

She shook her head. "I trust you."

"You do, do you?"

She nodded and pulled his head toward her. As she reached up to kiss him, she saw him wince. "Does that hurt?"

He nodded.

"Roll over."

He shook his head. "It's okay, Chris. Just a crick."

"Don't think of me as Chris. Think of me as your deputy CMO. Now roll over."

He did as she said. She pulled herself up to her knees and began to gently explore his neck and shoulder muscles, using her thumbs to push in gently until he made a sound of protest.

"Right there?"

He nodded.

She began to work on the area, and he slowly relaxed as she massaged the knot out of his muscle.

"Have I mentioned that I love you?" he said with a low moan as she moved to his other shoulder.

"A good masseuse never believes that."

"Oh but it's true. I'd love you even if you didn't have those wonderful hands."

She laughed. "Uh huh." She leaned down and kissed his neck.

"Is that part of the normal service?"

"And if it is?"

"Then you and I are going to have to have a little talk."

She began to push harder, kneading deep into the tissues to force out the last of his tension. "Oh we are, are we?"

His answer was muffled somewhat by the pillow. "We are. But later. When you finish. Please god, don't ever finish."

She smiled and moved her hand lower, working his spine slightly. "You know the problem with being good at this, don't you?"

"Hmm?"

"You never get one in return. No one cares that you're under stress and all tense." She reached his lower spine and stopped the massage, began to run her hand very lightly over the skin on his lower back, then moved up his spine, keeping her touches feather light. She felt him shiver and smiled.

He turned his head and looked at her. Then he rolled over and said, "Lie down, on your stomach." When she didn't move, he said with more force, "Lie down."

She shot him a questioning look, then did as he said. She felt him kneel astride her, his knees supporting him on either side of her body, as he leaned back lightly.

"Let me try to show you what it feels like when you touch me." He stroked her neck lightly, slowly rubbing his fingers at the base of her skull, then lightly moving through her hair and up to the scalp.

"Ohhh," she moaned, lost in the sensations he was creating. She remembered as a child how good it had felt when her mother had played with her hair. It had been years since anyone had touched her like this. So innocent...and so sensual.

"It's nice, isn't it?" When she nodded in agreement, he moved his other hand to follow the first on its path through her hair. "Grooming behavior. All primates do it."

"I'm so glad I'm a primate," she said.

"I am too." He leaned down and kissed her. "Such a simple thing...touch."

"Not simple at all. Do you know how many nerve endings are involved, how many synapses have to fire and cells react just so you can feel what you touch and I can experience the touch. Miraculous symmetry and split-second precision as you first decide to touch, then carry out the desire. Instant reaction in my body as your fingers touch down and my skin reacts, as my brain determines whether what you are doing to me feels good or not." She moaned as he touched her again.

"Have I ever told you how sexy smart women are?"

As he climbed off her, she rolled over, pulled him down to her. Their bodies joined effortlessly. "I don't think you have."

"God, Chris, the brain, the brain is the ultimate sex organ."

She noticed he was making a lot of progress with his other one. "So the bookworm is sexier than the femme fatale?"

He moved deliberately against her, causing her to moan. "Depends which book," he smiled. "I like books. And femme fatales tend to be so..."

"Fatal?" she asked with a grin.

"Something like that." He kissed her slowly, his tongue tickling her upper lip.

"So you don't like your women dangerous?" she asked, as she thrust her hips up hard against him.

He closed his eyes. "I didn't say that." As she did it again, he moaned, then he smiled. "Just not fatal."

"Fatal is bad. I want you alive and kicking...or thrusting."

He laughed and obliged her. Then he slowed, stared at her for a moment.

"What?"

He smoothed her hair back, kissed her cheek, then her neck. "I like this so much." He moved against her again, faster this time. "I like you so much."

She realized what he was saying. As she clutched at him, unable to do more than cry out, he too began to lose control. When he finally lay still against her, she moved her hands to his neck and began to run them through his hair the way he had done to her.

"Oh, god, yes."

"I like you too," she said softly. "It's..." she trailed off, afraid what she was going to say would sound trite.

"Nice?"

She nodded. "Nice."

He rolled off her, pulled her against him. "Nice is highly underrated." He kissed her nose. "So is sweet."

"And playful."

"Exactly. Why should everything be so serious all the time?"

"I don't think it is, in here anyway." She smiled. "I think we just had a discussion and had sex at the same time."

"Yes, we did." He pulled her closer, began to move his fingers over her skin lightly the way she had done to him.

She had to close her eyes at the intense feelings he was inducing as his fingers danced over her skin, touching down in spots that she couldn't predict.

His voice was soft as he said, "It's almost as good as sex. This closeness."

She opened her eyes, looked up at him. "In some ways it's better. Sex can be so intense and hot and fevered that it is easy to forget if you even like the person...because you enjoy how they make you feel. But this, this touching and lying close and being quiet with each other, it's warm and full of intent. I don't think you can fake this part."

His smile faded.

"Did I say something wrong?"

He seemed about to tell her it was nothing, then his expression changed, became more open, unguarded in the sadness that came over him. "Carol." He took a deep breath. "At the end, when we were falling apart, she wouldn't let me hold her, would always have a reason to get out of bed after we had sex." He seemed a million miles away, then he focused on her again. "You're right. You can't fake this part."

"She was a fool."

He shrugged. "Maybe we just changed. Too much. In the wrong directions. I don't know."

"But David..."

"Let it go, Chris." His eyes were gentler than his words. "I made a promise."

She nodded. "It's just hard to imagine wanting to let you go."

He laughed, gave her a funny look.

"Was that funny?"

"Well, yeah. Coming from you."

She shot him a confused glance.

"Chris, did you ever...even once...think about me that way when we served together before?"

"Well...it's not like that...I mean, it's not a fair question..."

"You didn't. Admit it." When she looked away, he gently pulled her back to face him. "You only saw Spock."

"That's not entirely true."

"You're just saying that to make me feel better." He grinned at her.

"After we found Roger...you were so kind to me. And you kept checking up on me. I really appreciated that. I think that...I think that I wished then that we were friends. I remember the mission when I was called down to help you and your wife...Miramanee, when you had to watch her die. How you comforted her, touched her. I remember thinking then, this is a man that isn't afraid to feel." She looked down, suddenly uncomfortable.

"Roger didn't feel anything?"

She laughed shortly. "Oh, he had passion for his work. But for me? I was more...convenient?"

He shot her a dismayed look. "Sex with you was convenient?"

"I think so. It was a necessary if bothersome need; I was a useful assistant and an outlet for his tension. He used to tell me he loved me...but I'm not sure I ever believed it. Or if I did, I had no idea what love should feel like." She quit talking long enough to kiss him, a kiss that went on for a long time. "God knows I never had sex with him that moved me like what we have together. And I don't just mean the logistics of it...I mean the way you and I connect. I always felt...lonely after he and I made love."

"That's terrible."

She looked away. "I think that's part of why I fell for Spock. I liked thinking that there was a fiery core under that cool exterior. It was exciting to contemplate, to imagine what it would be like to be with him, to be his. Especially with the mind melds and bonds and all the Vulcan trappings that went with him. It all seemed so deep, so full of understanding and empathy."

Kirk nodded understanding.

"Plus he was safe. I didn't have to worry that he was going to be a complication."

"You deserved better than that. There were probably quite a few nice young officers that would have been happy to keep you warm at night. Keep you from being lonely."

"Would you have been interested?"

He thought about that. "No. For me, the essence of attraction is what you get back when you look at someone, the answering sparkle in their eyes, the teasing curve of their smile when they laugh. You were dead to me because you seemed immune to me." He shrugged. "I can't explain it any better than that."

"I get it. And you're right. I was dead to most everything."

"Well, you're not dead now."

"Or immune." She kissed him. "I'm glad we met in that hallway that day at Starfleet Command."

"I'm glad we went to that bar."

She grinned. "I'm glad you spilled your drink."

"Splashed not spilled."

"Whatever." She reached for his hand, pulled it to her mouth, and began to suck on one of his fingers.

"You realize that's a direct line to certain other parts of my body."

She laughed. "It's those synapses again."

"And nerve endings. Don't forget those."

"Never." She looked up at the chrono and groaned when she saw what time it was.

"Time to get up?"

She nodded. "Duty calls." She tried to roll away from him but he held her fast.

"Duty can wait a while longer," he said as he kissed her again.

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

Kirk grinned as he ordered the lift to the bridge. It had been a long time since he was anything but early for a shift. A long time since he felt this happy. To have the ship and have Chris...it was heady, this feeling of completeness. As the doors opened, he saw Spock look up at him. If only, Kirk thought, as he nodded back to his first officer.

If only what? If only Spock hadn't come back? If only Spock could accept Chris' role in his life? The latter definitely. The former never. Kirk had missed more than just his lover when Spock had gone to Gol. He'd missed his friend, the man that had been at his back so many times, who had seen him through the worst of times, helped him celebrate the good ones. His best friend.

"Status, Mr. Spock?"

"We are enroute to D'Ahlhal, per your orders, Captain."

"Very good."

"Mister Scott," Kirk said, as he settled into his chair.

"Scott here, sir."

"I'd like to test the engines. Any reason we shouldn't let her run?"

He could tell the engineer was smiling when he said, "None whatsoever, sir. She can take whatever you dish out."

"Thank you, Mister Scott. Mister Sulu, how would you like to open her up a bit?" Kirk knew the helmsman was smiling as he nodded. "Let's try a run through the warps to seven point five. Then let her run."

"Warp seven point five, aye." Sulu made some adjustments and confirmed their new velocity as he said, "Warp two...three...four...five...six...seven...seven point five, sir. Holding steady."

"Any problems?"

"None, sir."

Kirk sat back, watched his bridge crew work. Then he swiveled to face Spock at the science station. "What do we have on D'Ahlhal?"

"Not much, Captain. The D'Ahlhali are a xenophobic race. They have denied Federation landing parties access to their world for the last twenty years." Spock looked up from his monitor. "We will be the first to visit there, Captain."

"Why now?" Kirk got up, walked over to the science station. "The Klingons?"

Spock nodded. "So it would seem. There have been a number of Klingon incursions into D'Ahlhali space."

Kirk sighed. "How recently?"

"Twice in the last month. I am not sure what it is that D'Ahlhal offers that they find so tempting."

"But I'm sure we'll find out." Kirk had to stop himself from rubbing his hands together.

"This is the part you enjoy," Spock said softly as he studied the readouts. "The mystery." He looked up, half-smiled. "I told you your curiosity was not gone."

"Or my need for adventure." Kirk turned to study the viewscreen. "I'm not a diplomat, Spock. That kind of thing bores me."

"Yet you have more first contacts to your credit than any other starship captain."

"First contacts, don't count, Spock. They could go either way. Nobody would call the early explorers diplomats--Cook, Cortes, Magellan, Pizarro, Lewis and Clark. Who knew what they would find? El Dorado? A new trade route? Or death."

"Indeed, those men found violence and murder in many cases, generally toward those less powerful. I find that I cannot see you in that role."

Kirk grinned; it had been discussions like this that he missed the most when Spock had gone. There had been nobody to argue with him. Not until Chris. "Well, I wasn't trying to colonize anything for a greedy ruler back home. And I'd say that Lewis and Clark did pretty well."

Spock's eyebrow rose. "As did other, non-American explorers. But I trust you to bring it back to your roots."

Kirk laughed softly. "Your roots too, Spock. Amanda was from Missouri. And St. Louis was one of the gateways to the west, to one of the largest mass migrations and explorations in Earth's history."

"Yes, I am sure the Native Americans remember it with great fondness." Spock's voice held the note of satisfaction it always did when he trumped one of Kirk's points with a statement that addressed ethical issues.

"You know I'm not going to argue that one in a million years." He thought of Miramanee, remembered how peaceful life had been during the short time they had lived happily together in the Indians' traditional ways. "They didn't ask for us to show up. On Earth or that planet."

"We did save them," Spock said, following his line of thought with ease. "And the group that the Preservers chose were drawn from the most advanced and peaceful populations. There were others that were vicious and bloodthirsty."

"Nothing is ever black and white, is it?"

"Piano keys and chess pieces." Spock raised an eyebrow.

Kirk smiled. "I know I owe you a rematch."

"Yes. I am looking forward to it." Spock looked away. "You have been very busy after hours."

Kirk sighed, could Spock not leave this alone for even one shift? His voice was sharper than he intended, when he said, "I'll let you know when I'm not. Keep looking, I want to know why the Klingons are interested in this system." He walked to the front station. "Mister Sulu, how is she performing?"

"Perfectly, sir." He looked up at Kirk, his smile happy and excited. "She's a beauty."

Kirk found himself grinning back, warmed by the uncomplicated enthusiasm of his longtime helmsman. "She is, isn't she?"

"It must have been hard giving this up?" Sulu asked unexpectedly. "To suddenly be behind a desk..." He seemed to shudder.

"Don't ever let them do that to you, Sulu. It's a death sentence for those of us with stars in our eyes."

"I'll remember that, sir."

Kirk looked up at the viewscreen. "And if you do find yourself back on solid ground, do whatever it takes to get back up here."

"Called in a few chips, did you?"

Kirk nodded slightly, a small grin playing around his mouth. "You don't want to know what I did, Hikaru. It would completely tarnish your image of me."

"Not possible, sir." When Kirk looked at him in surprise. "You may be one of my heroes, but you're also human." He shrugged. "I imagine if I were in your shoes, there's nothing I wouldn't do to get what I wanted."

"Well, let's hope you aren't ever in them." Kirk grinned. "If you get your own command, Sulu, hold onto it tightly. It's what I plan to do. They're going to have to pry my hands off the center seat this time."

"If you go, you're going kicking and screaming?" Sulu grinned.

"You bet. It will be most undignified." Kirk smiled at the thought.

"What if they use the transporter, sir?"

Kirk shot him a look. "You're thinking too hard about this, Hikaru. Just let me have my fantasy of rebellion."

Sulu was chuckling as he said, "Aye-aye, sir."

Kirk looked back at Spock. The Vulcan seemed to feel his gaze, he looked up, and their eyes met. Kirk looked away first. "Mister Spock, why don't we continue that tutorial with Mister Scott?"

"An excellent use of time, Captain." He rose and met Kirk at the lift.

The doors closed and the turbolift began to move. "Halt lift," Kirk said as he turned to Spock. "What are you doing?"

"Jim?"

"The looks? The veiled hints that I'm neglecting you? What game are you playing?"

"None that I am aware of." Spock's expression was troubled. "What game do you think I am playing?"

"Don't turn this around on me. I told you on the planet that I didn't want to rehash what happened between us. It happened, it's over. In the past."

"In the past?" Spock asked, as he took a step closer.

Kirk took a deep breath. "In the past, Spock." He held up a hand. "Don't. Whatever you're doing, don't."

"I am not doing anything."

"Then you won't mind stopping it." Kirk watched as Spock's expression darkened. "Spock, I'm sorry. I know what you want. But I can't give it to you."

"Because of her?"

"Because of you, damn it! She wasn't even there when you left. No one was. We were alone and together, you and I, finally together. And happy, or at least I thought we were. Then one day you're packing for Gol. No explanations, no apologies. You just left. Not the way to build trust, Spock."

"I have not had an opportunity to explain my reasons--"

"Reasons? What possible reason could you have for leaving? Anything you say will just be an excuse, Spock. A damn excuse. You left me. In the middle of the worst time of my life, you left me. I don't want to hear your excuses." He took a step back, felt his back meet the wall. "Resume lift."

"I'm sorry, Jim."

"So am I. Sorrier than you'll ever know." Kirk didn't wait to see if Spock was following as he charged out of the lift, and headed for engineering.

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

Chapel adjusted the resolution of the scans of the Ilia probe, then turned back to her other terminal to make some notes, nearly jumping out of her skin when she realized Spock was standing in the doorway, watching her. "I didn't know you were there," she said. Her voice was not quite steady.

"I have been here for some time."

She did not find that thought comforting. "Guess I was absorbed."

"So it would seem." He glanced at the screen. "Jim said you thought there might be applications for V'ger's technology?"

She nodded. "Possibly in the field of prosthetics."

He considered that. "A fascinating avenue of research."

"I think so."

"Research is your specialty?"

"It used to be." She pushed away from her desk. "Why the twenty questions, Spock?"

"I am simply curious."

She found that hard to believe. "Were you looking for McCoy? He should be back shortly."

"I was not looking for him."

"You're here to see me?"

He nodded.

"Why?"

"I am...unsure." He raised an eyebrow at her, as if acknowledging how out of character that was for him.

"You don't know why you're here."

"That is what I said, Doctor."

She moved her chair so that it was facing him, realized that he was effectively blocking the door, making the office feel very small, very confining. "Sit down."

"I am fine here."

She sighed. "You are also more threatening there. Is that what you want?"

After a second, he sat down. They stared at each other for several long uncomfortable moments.

"You want to talk about Jim?"

He seemed startled at her directness.

"Oh, cut the crap, Spock. You didn't come here to discuss medicine, or science, or anything else. There's only one reason you'd come to see me, and that's Jim."

"Logical."

"Process of elimination. Now, what's on your mind?"

He appeared unsure how to begin.

"Spock, I have work to do."

He seemed to choose his words carefully. "I find it curious that you and Jim would have had occasion to meet."

"We ran into each other in the halls at Starfleet headquarters. It does happen." She saw him process that, saw the question in his expression. "Or do you mean what possible reason would we have had to do more than just catch up for a minute or two and then go our separate ways? Is that what you really want to know?" She glared at him.

"Perhaps it is." He did not look away. "In the past, you never showed any interest in the captain as a possible mate."

She laughed. "No, I was too busy mooning over you."

"Which you no longer do?" His interest seemed purely academic.

"What I felt for you was like any dream, Spock. It burned up in the light of the sun. And it's very sunny around Jim."

His expression tightened. "Yes, I know."

"I like it. I plan to stay there." Again, he seemed taken aback by her forthrightness. "I grew a backbone when you weren't looking."

"I never believed that you lacked one."

She laughed. "I doubt you ever gave the matter much thought."

"You may be right," he conceded.

She wasn't sure if he intended his words to hurt her or not. "You want to know how Jim and I happened, Spock? You left. That's how."

He looked down.

"You left him and everything you two had behind and went off to purge your emotions. You left him destroyed and surrounded by rubble. And that's where I found him. Where he found me. We both loved you; it's what brought us together, but it's not what keeps us together. The rubble may be around; you may even have risen out of it, but he and I are building something strong from it, something real. Something that's just ours."

His expression tightened even more.

"You left him, Spock. Can't you get that through your head? You. Left. Him." She stopped to take a breath, realized she was breathing hard. "And he moved on."

"Left me behind?"

"Left your former relationship behind. He still loves you though...wants you in his life, to be his friend. Can't you feel that?"

"His friend."

"That isn't enough for you?"

"I allow that it may have to be."

She gave him a sharp look. "But?"

He pretended that he didn't understand the question.

"But you're not going to accept it until...until what, Spock? Until you try to get him back?"

He surprised her by sighing, then leaning back in the chair and saying, "I have been trying."

She was unsure how to respond. Now she was the one that was shocked at his honesty.

He looked at her, the expression on his face one of immense weariness. "I have been trying, but it has availed me nothing."

"What am I supposed to say to that?" she asked cautiously.

"I do not have a script for this interaction, Christine."

She realized Spock had not called her by her first name since the party where Kirk had made their relationship public. "I love him, Spock. I love him and I'm good for him. He's happy. I don't know what else to tell you."

Spock nodded. "He is happy. I don't debate that you are good for him. And he appears to love you." He sighed, stood up suddenly. "I must go."

She followed him to the door. "Do you hate me?"

He turned, then took a step back, away from her. "Hate is an emotion."

She moved around him, blocked his way to the main sickbay door. "Don't pull that on me. I was in sickbay after your meld, or don't you remember, Spock?"

He looked down.

"We both know that you have emotions when it comes to Jim. So answer the damn question. Do you hate me?"

He stared at her for a long time before saying softy, "Not yet." The air around them became charged with tension until he moved around her quickly and made his escape.

She saw McCoy standing at the main doors, watching them. "Spock," he said.

"Doctor McCoy," Spock replied as he passed him.

Chapel went back into her office. McCoy had a smirk on his face as he followed her in. "Some things never change, do they, Christine?" He turned away.

"Why do you do that?"

He shot her a 'what's eating you?' expression.

"And that." She walked the few steps that would bring her close to him, into his space. She wanted to be confrontational, was sick of tiptoeing around him. "You make these snide little comments. Drop them like a bomb and then walk away."

He held up a hand. "Christine, it was a joke."

"And you do that too! Make it my fault, overreacting again to the cute little McCoyism. You are a master of the passive-aggressive, Len. Get the dig in, then move on, and if someone actually gets mad, just claim it was a joke. Hell, you didn't mean anything by it. Everyone knows you're just a kindly southern doctor that wouldn't hurt a fly." He backed up a pace and she followed him. "Just who the hell do you think you are?"

"Your friend. A friend that's concerned about you."

She could feel her eyes go wide. "My friend?" She laughed out loud. "You think we're friends?"

"Aren't we?"

"No, Len. We're not friends. We're coworkers. You were my boss, the brilliant doctor, and I was your faithful nurse and trusty sidekick. Fun to have around but easy to dismiss."

"That's not true."

"It is too. When did we ever do anything off duty? We were both on Earth; did you call? Did we go out for drinks, have lunch, go for a walk in the city? Did we ever do a single thing that friends do?" She held up a hand as he started to protest. "Don't get me wrong. I learned a lot from you. We had some fun times working together. But that's all it ever was. A work relationship. You had your friends and I had mine, and they weren't the same group." She took another step toward him. "For the life of me, I can't figure out why you should care what I do? But I think you do care what Jim does. Maybe you don't like how little time you spend with him now because he's with me? But you can't go to him, can you? You know he wouldn't put up with this kind of treatment. Easier to work on me, the stupid nurse that always crumbled before."

He stared at her, his anger clear. For once he didn't laugh it off. "Who are you?"

"Christine Chapel, M.D. Your peer. And Jim's lover. Get used to it, Len." She turned away.

He reached out, grabbed her arm, pulled her back to face him. His strength surprised her.

"What do you think you're doing?" she asked angrily.

"You don't know the first thing about how I feel about you. You've never understood, Christine, and you apparently never will." He tightened his grip on her arm when she tried to pull away. "But you want me to stop looking out for you? You want to walk into the fire like an idiot? Then be my guest. Don't let me stop you. You go get between those two and don't come crying to me to patch up your wounds when they get done with you. When one or both of them breaks your heart again." He let go of her and stalked off to his office.

Suddenly very confused, Chapel followed him. He was sitting at his desk, his head in his hands, rubbing his temples. She closed the door and sat down in the chair opposite his desk. "What did you mean...what is it that I've never understood?"

He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. I'm sorry if I ever made you think that I don't value you, that I don't consider you a friend." He looked up at her. Again, the odd look was in his eyes.

She had a sudden flashback to the mess hall, the look that had been on Sulu's face as he stared at Rand. She inhaled sharply. "You...you have feelings for me?"

He shook his head. "You're making too much of this."

"Len? Tell me the truth."

He got up, walked to the cabinet and pulled out a decanter. At her look, he said with a bitter grin, "It's after hours, Christine. Sure I can't pour you one? Good Kentucky whisky, made the same way for 400 years." When she shook her head, he turned back around to the cabinet, kept his back to her as he said, "I've felt this way for some time. I thought...thought now that we were peers, maybe it would work...maybe something could happen. I knew Spock wouldn't be around to get in the way. He was always the only thing you cared about." He threw back the glass, still not turning around. "And now it's Jim."

"I'm sorry, Len. I didn't know."

He turned around. "Well, now you do." He didn't even try to hide the note of hope.

She just shook her head. "I love Jim."

"And what was that with Spock just now? You're going to try to tell me that you don't have feelings for him too? You sure you can't fit a third in there, Christine?" His look was mocking again.

She resisted the urge to get up and slap him. "Again the dig. It's what you're best at, Len. Hurting others. Ironic for a physician to be so skilled at that, don't you think?"

"What can cure, can kill," he said bitterly. "I strike out when I'm hurt, I guess."

"I'm sorry you've felt this way for so long and never told me. If you had, I could have told you it was hopeless. We're too different, Len."

He stared at her, then he shook his head. "It could have worked."

She looked away.

He stepped closer. "Christine, it could have worked."

"Maybe. Maybe it could have. But it's too late. I'm with someone, someone that loves me, that I love more than I thought possible." She moved to the door. "You've got to give this infatuation up. It's only hurting you. You used to tell me that about Spock all those years ago. And you know what? You were right." Without turning to see his face, she left him alone in his office.

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

Kirk was just finishing up some work in his quarters when Chris finally commed him. "Where were you? I thought we were going to have dinner together?"

"I'm sorry. Time got away from me." Her voice sounded funny.

"Chris? What's wrong?"

"I'm just tired, Jim. I think I'm just going to go to bed. Alone."

The word hung between them. "Alone?" he asked.

"I'm very tired."

"Okay. I'll see you in the morning." Kirk frowned as he cut the connection. He couldn't remember hearing her sound so down, so depressed. Had he done something? He couldn't think of a thing. He thought of her friends, the way they'd been treating her. Had something happened? He thought that he should go see if she was all right, but her tone had been quite definite. Sighing in frustration, he turned back to his padds.

As he worked, thoughts of her gnawed at his concentration. He had just decided to go down to her quarters when his door chime sounded. "Come."

Chris walked in. The expression on her face was unreadable.

"Couldn't sleep?"

She walked over to his viewport. "Didn't try."

He got up, followed her, saw her stiffen. A sudden image came to mind. How do you make love to a porcupine? Very carefully, he reminded himself.

He moved closer, one hand stealing around her waist as the other pushed her hair away from her neck. He felt her tense, but as his lips touched the back of her neck, she began to relax. She moaned softly.

"Tell me," he whispered as he gently kissed her, touched her.

She turned, kissing him passionately. Then she burrowed into his neck, holding him tightly.

"Chris, tell me." He ran his hands down her back, his touch meant to comfort not seduce. "What's happened?"

"Nothing," she mumbled.

He pulled away, lifted her chin up. She was crying silently. "Bull." He pushed her back against the viewport, kissed her hard. "Bull," he said again as he began to remove her clothes. He'd noticed that her ability to be honest sometimes went up as her clothes came off. Maybe it would work now.

She stopped him. "No." She walked away, pulling her shirt back down around her shoulders. She avoided looking at the bed, sat down at his table. "Why is this so hard?"

He sat down opposite her. "You tell me."

She took a deep breath. "Nobody is happy for us." She played with the padds on the table, pushing them into piles then sweeping them aside.

He reached out and stopped her. "Sulu seems to be happy for us. And I'm not sure Pavel or Scotty care one way or the other."

She sighed, sniffed and wiped at her eyes. "Okay, one person is happy for us, two are neutral. Three out of how many?"

He smiled. "Chris, I don't think the majority of the crew gives a rat's ass what we do in here. So who exactly are we talking about? Rand and Uhura?"

She shook her head.

"Not Rand?"

She shook her head again.

"You two made up?"

"Not really. But it's better."

He decided not to pursue what she meant. "Then who?"

She got up suddenly, pushing her chair back with such force that it fell over. She moved quickly to the door.

He caught her before she reached it. "Damn it! What the hell is wrong with you?"

She tried to pull away. "Let me go!"

He held her tight; pulling her close so that the blows she was trying to land had nowhere to go. "Chris. Stop it."

She continued to struggle. "All I want is to be happy. For once, I just want to be happy. With you. But they can't let me have that. They have to throw some stupid thing out there that I won't be able to ignore. Couldn't just shut up and let me live out my life." She pulled away with a vicious jerk, but she didn't run, just stood there glaring at him. "I can't do this."

"You just said you wanted this. Wanted to be happy."

"And I do." She looked down.

He could tell she was crying again. He sighed. "Chris. You said you were going to trust me. Trust me enough to tell me the truth."

She looked up at him and he flinched at the raw pain he saw in her eyes.

"I'm not Roger, and I'm not Spock. I can't just stand by if you're miserable. I want to know what's wrong. I want to make it better." He moved closer, stroked her cheek. "I want to see you smile. I want to hear you laugh."

"McCoy," she finally muttered. "And Spock." She turned away from him and walked back to the table, righting her chair, and sitting down heavily. "I'm not exactly sure what Spock wanted. But McCoy..." She trailed off with a sigh.

Kirk sat next to her. "McCoy what?"

"He thought...he thought that he and I..." She just shook her head, unable to finish.

But she didn't need to. Kirk had always wondered. There had been times, when McCoy had been drinking, that he'd talked about Chris in a way that had led Kirk to believe there was more emotion being buried than McCoy wanted to admit...or talk about. Even to his closest friend. And now his closest friend was with the very woman in question. "He's in love with you."

"Or something." She began to laugh. "It's so stupid. So damn stupid. It's not like I was Miss Popularity on this ship. I'm supposed to believe that he had feelings for me this whole time? Stupid."

He reached out, took her hand. "Not so stupid. I can see it."

"Don't even try to tell me it's because you felt that way too."

Kirk shook his head. "I won't tell you that. I've said before that I wasn't interested in you back then. But McCoy, well, he just might have been. But he's not exactly good at acting on his feelings for all that he has no problem speaking his mind."

"Or appears to. He hides a lot behind the humor and the sarcasm."

"Yes, he does. Is it such a stretch that feelings for you might be one of the things he would want to hide?"

She sighed. "I guess not."

"So, he told you about this when?"

She nodded. "At the end of the shift, after Spock left, when we were fighting about you. Again."

"What did you tell him?"

She sniffed again. "That I love you. That I'm sorry. Is there anything else to say?" She looked away. "But he thought...because Spock was there and we were having this intense conversation. About you, of course." She smiled, a wry expression. "He thought that I still had feelings for Spock. He was pretty mean about it."

Kirk sighed. He'd been on the receiving end of McCoy's sarcasm. "Why did Spock come to see you?"

"I'm not sure. I don't think he even knew why he had come to see me. He seemed down."

" I think Spock has been trying--"

"Trying to get you back, yes I know. He told me, Jim."

"He told you that?" The idea of Spock confessing anything to Chris seemed ludicrous.

She nodded. "You think you're surprised, imagine my shock. Quite the mess we've got here."

"I'll say."

She looked up at him, her eyes no longer dead as they had been when she'd first come in.

He took her other hand in his, pulled her over to sit on his lap, kissed her gently, then with more passion. "It is a mess, Chris. But out there"-- he gestured to the doors--"not in here. It doesn't have to be a mess in here. Not if we're honest."

"Not if we trust?" She ran her fingers through his hair.

He closed his eyes, nodded. "We have to trust." He kissed her again. "What they feel, we can't help. I don't know what's going to happen, how they'll react to us tomorrow, or the next day, or a month from now. I do know that they won't let it interfere with doing their duty."

"McCoy might. If you keep pulling me for missions that he should go on."

He smiled softly. "I'll be more careful in the future. You were right when you warned me that I was doing just that." He wiped the last trace of her tears from her face. "You often are right, Doctor."

She didn't smile, just looked down at him. As he pulled her back to kiss her, he heard her say, "I'm sorry."

"For what? You didn't stay in your quarters. You came here to work things out, whether you realized it at the time or not."

"Maybe I came to fight?"

He grinned. "Who's to say that with us that's not the same thing?" He pushed her off him, followed her up. "You knew I wouldn't let you not tell me what was bothering you. You came because you trusted me. Trusted me with your truth." He kissed her again. "The same way I trust you with mine."

She nodded.

"Now," he said as he led her to the bed. "I want you to forget about the others. They aren't in here, we are."

"I'll try."

"No. Do it." He grinned, but his eyes were firm and his tone even firmer. "Our quarters are our haven, our sanctuary. Just for us. We can forget, or at least push the others away for the time we are alone. Understood?"

"Understood." As she helped him pull her clothes off, she asked, "Can we stay in here forever?"

"No." He laughed as he kissed her, pulled her down on top of him on the bed. "But we've got all night."

"And the one after that?"

"For as long as we want them to go on, Chris. Whether we make it is up to us, not to anyone else. You have to believe that."

"I do." But her voice was less than certain.

"Then believe that I believe it."

She smiled then. "Oh I do believe that. You just don't doubt, do you?"

"Not this. Not us. And you shouldn't either. I love you."

"And I love you." There was no doubt in her voice when she said that.

"Then prove it, Doctor Chapel," he said with a grin.

"You asked for it," she said, her expression lightening, turning wicked.

She started moving on top of him, and he surrendered to the sensation of loving her. Our haven, he thought again, as he lost himself in her body. Our haven...just ours.

FIN