Nexus by Djinn

Sulu looked out at the ribbon of light and energy. This...thing had killed Captain Kirk, and Excelsior had been following it since it had left the Enterprise-B and Sulu's daughter behind and made its way across space--presumably back to wherever it had come from.

"It looks so harmless," Jan said as she handed him the padd she'd been studying. "These are the last readings Demora took before the Enteprise-B limped home." The look she gave him was full of sympathy--this was not the way any of them had wanted the launch to go.

"They shouldn't have called it the Enterprise, Jan."

"There've been Enterprises before ours; I think there will always be one. The name's not a curse, Hikaru." She smiled--a smile that he'd been waiting for years to turn just a little warmer, to invite him in. But if anything, she was farther away than ever.

He thought maybe she was out there...wherever Kirk had gone.

Looking down at the padd, he let her escape back to her station. He was glad she was on Excelsior; she was a wonderful first officer. And an even better friend. It wasn't her fault he'd always wanted more from her.

"Sir, we're being hailed." Carruthers looked up from the communications station, surprise in his voice as he said, "It's a private shuttle, sir. Commander Chapel wishes to come aboard."

Jan's head shot up. Her eyes met Sulu's, an emotion he couldn't read filling them. She wasn't still jealous that Chris had been with Kirk all those years ago, was she?

"I'll meet her, tell the shuttle to stand by," he said, already rising. He saw Jan getting ready to accompany him and said casually, "Commander Rand, you have the conn."

The strange emotion again flickered in Jan's eyes. He turned away. If she was jealous of Chris, there was nothing he could do about it.

Hurrying down to the transporter room, he nodded to the transporter chief to beam their guest over. A moment later, Chris materialized on the transporter pad.

She seemed tired, and her attempt at a smile only reinforced that sense of weariness. "Permission to come aboard, sir?"

"Permission granted." He smiled, warmly--as warmly as he could. She looked like she could use the welcome.

She was in uniform. He hadn't been sure what to expect since she'd arrived on a private shuttle. "No Fleet ships in the area, Commander?" he asked, trying for a breezy tone as he led her out of the transporter room and to his private office.

"I'm on leave. And I was in a hurry." She looked over at him. "They still haven't found a body."

"I know." There was no need to ask who she was talking about. "I'm not sure they ever will."

"I can't believe Jim's really gone." She followed him into the room, sitting down in one of the soft chairs set up near the viewscreen. Her sigh as she settled into the cushions was full of exhaustion.

"How long since you've slept?"

"Since I left. A day and a half ago. I wasn't traveling with the most reputable group of people."

"Fast often equals shady."

"I know that." Her expression seemed to dare him to tell her she'd been stupid to hitch a ride on what was probably a smuggler's ship.

He might have lectured her if she hadn't looked so beaten down. "You're here now," he said gently. "I can show you to guest quarters?"

"Later." She swiveled the chair around, stared out at the ribbon they were following. "Five more days?"

He nodded. Five more days and it would cross into the neutral zone and Excelsior would go back to more interesting things.

"I hate that thing."

He didn't answer, wasn't sure what to say.

"I had to come. The Enterprise was off limits, but your ship wasn't."

He frowned. Demora hadn't mentioned that the Enterprise-B was under some kind of lock down.

Chris seemed to read his look. "Off limits to me, Hikaru, not to everyone. Command doesn't trust me. And they don't know I'm here. But they will soon, if they check your communications log."

"They usually don't. Just random audits."

"Some things don't change." She sighed, turning away from the viewscreen as if she couldn't stand to see the ribbon anymore.

"Why off limits?"

"Valeris was my protege, Hikaru." Chris's face went hard. "And I was Admiral Cartwright's protege."

He looked down.

"Command was deeply interested in what I knew of the conspiracy."

"You were detained?"

"That's such a nice way of putting it." She swallowed hard, got up and walked to the far side of the room, staring down at his desk. "I'm only wearing this uniform out of stubbornness. They want me gone, but I don't feel like resigning."

"Is there a reason you should leave?"

"No. Except that I'm guilty by association." She played absently with the things on his desk.

He pushed himself up and walked over to her. Reaching out, he barely touched her before she leaned back against him. How long had it been since they'd done this? Was it really since Excelsior had been launched?

They'd been friends forever. They'd been more than friends for almost as long. More than friends but less than lovers. "Sex buddies" was the term. He'd heard some of his colleagues call it something ruder. It wasn't an uncommon arrangement for people who spent their lives away from home and hearth. It was easier than trying to make a life with someone perpetually left behind. He'd found that out the hard way.

Wrapping his arms around her, he kissed her neck. "Chris, why are you here?"

He felt the sob shake her before he heard it. "The last time I saw Jim...it was awful. I'd just been released from detention, and I ran into him in the corridors. I yelled at him, Hikaru. For not getting me out." She sobbed again. "He didn't trust me enough to get me out."

"I'm sorry." He held her tighter, let her cry.

It was hard to picture Chris and Kirk being so at odds. They'd become close during the mission after the V'ger encounter. It had surprised everyone at first that they were together, but they'd seemed so much in love that no one had begrudged them their happiness.

No one but Jan. She'd never cared if Chris slept with Sulu, but sleeping with Kirk had been another story. It had hurt Sulu a little--okay, a lot--to know that he would always rank behind Kirk with Jan. Far, far behind.

It had shocked him when Chris and Kirk had broken up after the Enterprise was transferred to the Academy as a training ship. Many from the crew had elected to join the Academy ranks--to stay together and to stay close to the Enterprise. Chris had moved on, though. To Emergency Ops, where she'd become a star. Her career was going straight up, and Sulu supposed Kirk had not been easy to live with once back on solid ground, especially not when he had seemed so miserable and Chris had seemed so happy in her new position.

"Were you still in love with him?"

She shrugged, wiping at her eyes. "What difference does it make now?"

"I don't know."

Turning, she stared up at him. "How's Jan taking it?"

"Pretty much like you'd expect." He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. He'd idolized Kirk, but he'd spent most of his life jealous of the man's hold on the woman he was crazy about.

"Have you told her how you feel?"

He nodded. He'd told her several times. Each time had been after a serious bout of alcohol. He didn't drink as a rule. Mostly because booze made him stupid enough to blurt out truths that Jan didn't want to hear.

Chris shook her head. "She's an idiot."

"No, she's not. She's just Jan." He knew his smile would be the twisted, sad one that told way too much to anyone who really knew him. And Chris really knew him.

But she let it go. Instead she leaned in and kissed him softly on the mouth. "So, if Jan's still being stupid, do you have a special friend already on board, Captain?"

He managed to give her a stern look, ignoring how her lips made him feel. "I do not."

"Want a temporary one?"

He nodded, pulling her back for a longer kiss. When he drew away, she buried her face in his neck, her arms pulling him close. She wasn't crying, but he could tell she was close to breaking down.

"I've missed you," he murmured. It wasn't a lie. They'd always been compatible. Solid, easy friends who occasionally fell into bed together.

"I've missed you too. And I needed this. It was sheer self-indulgence, and I'll get in trouble for it, and you might too, but I needed to be held."

"It's okay." He kissed her hair. "It's nice to be needed."

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

Rand walked down the corridor toward the guest quarters. She felt a strange reluctance to keep going, wanted to turn around and run back to her deck.

Christine scared her. Or maybe it was just the envy she felt that scared her. Christine had loved Kirk. Kirk had loved her. And Hikaru...

Rand sighed. What Hikaru did with Christine was his own business. Anything Hikaru did was his own business. Wasn't that what she'd been telling him for so long?

Didn't she mean it?

"Janice?" Christine's voice came from behind her, not from the door to her quarters.

Turning, she saw Christine coming down the corridor, a mess tray in her hands.

"Come in if you don't mind watching me eat," Christine said, her voice a mix of friendly and cautious.

"I didn't expect you to show up on Excelsior."

"No reason you should have." Christine's tone was sharp.

"I mean, you could have told me you were on your way. We're friends."

Christine shot her a look but didn't say anything. She set the tray down at the table and sat down, looking up at Rand.

"Eat. Before it gets cold."

"Too late for that. It was cold when I got it."

Rand realized that Christine had never fallen out of the Emergency Ops habit of ordering food that could weather a crisis, something that could be set aside without going bad or getting stale. "You can take the girl out of Emergency Ops..."

Christine shot her another sharp look. "You've still got ties. I know you know what happened to me."

"I know they questioned you."

"Questioned me? I was 'detained,' Janice. For two months."

Rand looked down. "I didn't know it was for that long." She'd never checked to see. It had never occurred to her to check. "Why so long?"

"Valeris. You were right about her."

Rand nodded. She'd never warmed up to the young Vulcan woman. But then Valeris had never wooed her the way she had Christine. Rand had never been the star in Emergency Ops that Christine had been. And Rand suspected that Valeris had made it her business to know who the stars were.

"And Matthew." Christine's face changed as she mentioned Admiral Cartwright.

He'd died while in custody. Some said suicide, others were sure that he'd been killed.

Rand decided not to bring that up. "You were always closer to him than I was."

"Some say I got where I was by being close to him. That I was pulled along on his coattails." Christine studied her, as if trying to read what was underneath the expression Rand was trying to keep bland. "Some say I got ahead by riding other parts of him."

"Did you?" The question was out before Rand could stop it. She could feel herself blushing.

"No. And if you need to ask, you don't know me very well."

"I don't mean you got ahead that way. But did you sleep with him? I mean for fun?"

"No." Christine started to eat, spearing the food with sharp, angry thrusts of the fork.

"You sleep with Hikaru for fun."

"Since when do you care what I do with Hikaru?"

"I don't." Rand looked down again.

She didn't care. She didn't care what Christine and Hikaru had done in the past. And she didn't care what they were going to do in the future--the very near future probably. Was he on his way now?

"Then you won't mind if I do it again." There was more hurt than anger in Christine's voice.

"Do what you want." Rand sighed.

Hikaru and Christine didn't need her permission to do what they wanted to do. And that they were going to do it had been clear the minute Hikaru told Rand to stay put on the bridge while he went to welcome Christine alone.

"We haven't talked about the captain," Rand said, unsure why she was in such a masochistic mood.

"Jim." Christine didn't look up.

Rand nodded. She never referred to him that way, even if she'd breathed the name in hundreds of fantasies over the years.

Christine put the fork down. "He's dead. What more is there to talk about?" She stabbed into her meal again, then just stared at the piece of cheese she'd trapped. "I wasn't with him, Janice. I haven't been with him for years."

Rand was about to turn to go, when she realized Christine's eyes had filled with tears. "Do you wish you still were?" she asked gently.

"What do you think?" The comment would have been sharp, if there hadn't been such a note of self-deprecation in Christine's voice.

Finally, her old friend was peeking out of this harder, older woman Christine had become. Rand could almost see the Christine she'd palled around with, the one who'd heard her whispered longings about Kirk, who'd shared her own fantasies about Spock. Those shared secrets had stopped the day Christine had taken up with Kirk.

The day Rand had started to hate her.

It wasn't fair; it wasn't Christine's fault. It had become painfully obvious to Rand that no matter what she did, Kirk wasn't going to fall in love with her, no matter how cute she was or how perky she acted. It just hurt that he'd turned to her friend instead. A friend she'd never thought would be a rival. If anyone had asked her, she'd have picked Uhura as the one to snag him away, not sweet little Christine.

There wasn't much that was sweet about Christine anymore.

But then there wasn't much that was cute or perky about Rand anymore either. They'd both changed. She shouldn't hold that against her.

"I'm sorry." She watched Christine.

Her friend nodded but didn't look up.

"I'll let you eat in peace."

Another nod.

Rand walked out and saw Hikaru coming down the corridor. He looked guilty as he saw her.

"You two catching up?" His eyes met hers, but slid away quickly.

"I guess you could call it that."

He looked at her, his eyes not moving away anymore but holding hers firmly. As if he was asking her to tell him not to go in. To give him a reason not to go in.

She wasn't going to do that. Turning to go, she felt his hand on her arm.

"Jan..."

"Just go in, Hikaru. She's waiting for you." She gave him the look that had turned him away all these years. The look of a friend and colleague--and nothing more.

Something in his expression changed, died. She swallowed hard, wanted to say she was sorry, but didn't know what it was she should be sorry for. So, he loved her. That was his problem.

So what if he wanted to sleep with a woman who had been her best friend once upon a time? That was old news. She'd lived through it with the man she loved, she could survive it happening with a man she only liked.

Turning, she walked away slowly. Until she rounded the corner, and then she fled.

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

Spock's private shuttle approached Excelsior, the big ship looming above him. It lacked the pleasing lines of the Enterprise--Jim's Enterprise, not Harriman's. Spock had never understood why Command had selected Harriman for the center seat. With so many other captains in the Fleet, he had seemed an odd choice.

Jim would no doubt agree.

Spock fought back the stab of pain he felt, and the stab of guilt. He should have been there. He should have been at his friend's side. Maybe Jim would have survived. Or at least not died alone.

Spock allowed himself the indulgence of a sigh. The shuttle was empty save for him; there was no one to hear him express so much with only the release of breath.

Jim dead. Valeris betraying Spock. Spock and Christine. As he piloted his shuttle, he knew that Christine was somewhere on board, drawn to this ship as surely as he was.

It was not magic. Not some new-found sympathy with her that told him. It was the calm determination he had read in her when he'd melded with her back at Command--the meld that had finally convinced them to let her go. She loved Jim still--and had a long relationship with Sulu that transcended the friendship Spock had thought had been the only thing between them

He imagined she'd wanted to look for Jim, but others had already tried and too much time had passed for even a man as determined to survive as Jim to still be alive. No, Spock's friend and Christine's lover was gone. Swallowed up by space and fire and the energy ribbon. His body no doubt pulverized by the impact or consumed by the immense power of the ribbon.

Jim was dead, and he wasn't coming back, no matter how much they wanted him to.

Again the sharp cut of emotion. Pain, guilt, love still. His best friend was dead. He'd always known he would outlive him, but he'd expected the moment of death to come later. He should have known better--Jim would not have wanted to die in bed.

But he'd died alone. Just like he said he would. All alone working to save someone else's Enterprise.

Spock closed his eyes, seeking control before shutting down the engines and opening the hatch. He was surprised to see a Vulcan waiting for him.

"Sir, it is an honor to welcome you aboard. I am Ensign Tuvok. Commander Rand sent me down. She thought you would welcome the company of another Vulcan."

Rand did not know him very well if she thought that. Especially after Valeris. "Where is Captain Sulu?" Spock knew the answer to that; Sulu was no doubt with Christine.

"I am not sure, sir. I will find him--"

Spock waved the younger man's efforts. "I will find him later. Please show me to guest quarters."

Tuvok seemed annoyed. He didn't betray it the way a human would have, but Spock could read that emotion from him nonetheless.

"Is something wrong, Ensign?"

"No, sir." He motioned for Spock to leave the shuttle bay.

"Has Commander Chapel arrived?" Spock saw Tuvok's seeming annoyance change to visible disapproval. "You have an opinion about the commander?"

Tuvok turned to study him. "She was a friend of Valeris."

Spock let an eyebrow rise and wondered what Tuvok would infer from that. "I too was a friend of Valeris, Ensign. Do you disapprove of me as well?"

"Sir, no sir. I just meant..." For a Vulcan, the young man was stumbling over his tongue like the greenest human crewman.

"Good." Spock walked past him. "If you could take me to my quarters it would be most acceptable."

Tuvok led him very quickly to a lift and rode in silence for a moment. "Sir, may I speak plainly?"

"I thought you had been, Tuvok." Spock turned to study the man. Had he really been as green as this young Vulcan?

"Sir, we all detest what Valeris did. I know you were not part of the conspiracy. But the human woman..."

"The human woman was not involved. I know this to be a fact." Spock's voice was tight. He felt an odd impatience with Tuvok, which wasn't fair. He was not the only member of Starfleet who had doubted Christine's innocence. But Spock wasn't used to being challenged. His earlier comment should have stopped this line of conversation.

"As you wish, sir." Tuvok was giving up without giving ground, and ignored the look Spock turned on him. "These are your quarters, sir. If that will be all?"

"Thank you for your assistance." He did not sound at all thankful, and he knew it.

Tuvok bowed his head, then was gone. Spock set his small bag down upon the bed, then obtained Christine's location from the computer. Walking a few doors down the corridor, he reached for the chime, ringing it once, then again when Christine did not answer.

Was she out, or was she occupied? He was about to turn away, when the door opened.

Judging from the state of Christine's hair and makeup, she and Sulu, who was sitting at her table, had not been in the middle of making love.

"Wow. It's old home week. Did you bring the rest of the gang?" Her voice was not entirely friendly.

"I am alone." Spock pushed past her gently.

"Come on in." Moving to the table, Christine picked up the remnants of what looked like her dinner and took them into the head, presumably to dispose of them in the recycler.

Sulu smiled, but there was something off in his expression. Spock guessed that he did not like being interrupted. Even by an old friend. Perhaps especially by an old friend.

"I didn't expect to have so many guests," Sulu said quietly.

Spock stared out the viewscreen at the ribbon. "I believe both Commander Chapel and I had the irrational need to view with our own eyes the phenomenon that killed Jim." He dropped his voice. "Perhaps Christine also had the need to see you again."

Sulu looked surprised. "Maybe so."

"I can speak with her later if you had...activities planned?" Spock saw Sulu's eyes widen with surprise. Had Sulu thought he'd come to speak with him?

Christine came out of the head, her eyes narrowing as Sulu pushed up from the chair and walked to the door.

"I'll be in my quarters," he told her. "I can come back when you're done...if you want."

Spock looked over at her, saw her sigh as she nodded. He wondered if she would want to see Sulu later now that he was here. He'd seen lingering attraction to himself in their meld along with all the other things he'd learned. Establishing her innocence had been the paramount thing at the time, but a meld as intense as the one he'd had to use had a wide reach. Many things were caught in the net as he delved in her memories with her own permission. Things he'd expected to see and some he hadn't.

Once Sulu was gone, Spock sat down at the table.

"Make yourself at home," she said, the sarcasm not surprising him. It was her shield, and he thought it probably had been ever since she had been detained.

He gestured to the chair opposite him. "Sit. Please."

She did so, dropping more heavily than he expected into the chair.

"You are exhausted."

She didn't argue, just nodded. "I was about to go to bed."

"Yes. I gathered that."

She sighed. "What didn't you read in that meld, Spock?"

"Very little."

She nodded, as if not surprised. "Did I say thank you for getting me out of there?"

"You did."

"Good." She rubbed her hands across her eyes, the way Jim used to. "I miss him, Spock."

He knew she was not referring to Sulu's having just left her. "I know. I too miss him."

"Neither of us was with him. Why weren't we with him?" She met his eyes and whispered, "Valeris."

"Yes. Valeris." He had gone back to Qo'noS, letting the work that needed to be done on the Klingon homeworld exorcise his anger at a woman he'd been in love with.

A woman who Christine had also been in love with.

"You haven't told anyone, have you?" She reached over, taking his hand.

It did not occur to him to stop her from touching him. He let her twine her fingers with his. "I have not."

"If she hadn't been so fanatical about privacy..." She let go of his hand. "I thought it was just because she was a Vulcan. I didn't know she was seducing you at the same time."

"She used us both."

"Yes, she did." Christine looked up at him. "And she was so good at it."

"She knew what we both wanted. A Vulcan who would want us--a full Vulcan."

Her mouth quirked up, a sardonic expression that resonated with him. "Oh, she was a master at manipulation, Spock." Her eyes met his. "And we were probably easy marks."

"We undoubtedly were." He'd had occasion to reflect on this during the months after Khitomer, as he thought about all the things he had seen in that forced meld with Valeris. Things that went far beyond just the conspiracy. He had seen her with him; he had seen her with Christine. He had felt her amusement--an un-Vulcan amusement at how easy they were to play.

She had not loved either of them. The whole time she was making love to them, she had not cared a bit.

He reached for her hand, could feel her pulse in her fingers, could sense her pain and exhaustion and grief as their skin touched. "You never suspected she was seducing me at the same time she was your lover?"

"I knew she looked up to you. But she was with me, why would I suspect? In bed she was..."

"Yes, I know."

Valeris had been focused and skillful and utterly adept at making her lover feel as if nothing else existed outside of the bed he--or she--shared with her. And she had enjoyed sex with both of them. Just as she had enjoyed the idea of it being the two of them that she was using. Spock had seen in the meld that Valeris had known that Christine had loved him. She had expected to replace him in Christine's heart, and to replace Jim too. When she had not been able to, it drove her to hate Jim.

It was not that Valeris had been in love with Christine. But she was competitive. It was what had driven her to finish first in her class at the Academy. It had carried over to her personal life. She had not liked that she had not been first in Christine's heart. Or in Spock's--Jim had been first, not as a lover but still owning most of his heart.

Valeris had nearly gotten Jim killed. She had enjoyed that too.

Valeris had been laughing at them. If a Vulcan laughed.

"Do you want me to leave so you can go to Sulu?" He did not let go of her hand.

"Do you want to leave?"

"No. I would like to talk."

She laid her other hand over his. "About Jim?"

He nodded, wondering if she'd had anyone to talk to about Jim.

Her sad smile was his answer. "That'd be nice."

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

Rand watched Hikaru as he got up and walked around the bridge, talking to each of the bridge crew as was his fashion. He didn't look like a man who'd had mind-blowing sex all night. So either Christine wasn't that good, or Spock had interrupted them. Or maybe got there before they could get started.

That idea made her feel much better.

"Sir," she said as he worked his way over to her. "Spock's requested the logs from the Enterprise-B and other ships. The search mission."

"Who am I to deny Spock what he wants?" Sulu shrugged; he seemed a little annoyed. Or maybe she just wanted to see that.

"Aye, sir." She was about to ask him how his evening was, but the lift doors opened, and Christine stepped onto the bridge.

Walking over to them, Christine turned to Hikaru. "Sorry about last night. I didn't expect him to show up." She looked over at Rand, who was trying to keep a neutral expression at the news that her friend and Hikaru had not hooked up.

"So Spock showed up here for you?" Rand asked softly.

Christine nodded. But there was no excitement--nothing that would have shown that this colder version of her old pal was still in love with Spock.

Rand wondered why it was suddenly so important to her that Christine be in love with Spock. Glancing at Hikaru, she forced that thought away. She did not care what he did. What either of them did. In bed. Together.

"So, is he staying on?" She knew her voice was way too perky at the thought.

Christine smiled, as if she knew exactly what Rand was thinking. "Until we turn back."

Rand glanced at the ribbon, saw Christine do the same. "Do you want to see our scans of it?"

Christine nodded, taking an empty station and looking at the data Rand fed her. It almost felt like the old times in Ops. Them working together again. Easy.

Once Kirk was out of the picture.

Hikaru watched them for a moment, then continued his circuit around the bridge. Rand didn't realize she was following him with her eyes, until Christine murmured, "You've got it bad, Janice."

"I don't." But she couldn't look away from him. There was no way she was in love with him. Or in lust. He was her friend. Sure, he loved her. But there was nothing between them.

He turned, as if feeling her eyes on him. His eyebrows went up, as if he was extremely puzzled by her interest in him. Finally, he turned away.

"Why didn't you tell me that?" Christine frowned at her, exasperation clear. "I'd have backed off if I knew you cared." Her frown deepened. "You haven't always cared, have you?"

Rand sighed. "No." Did she care now? Or was she just resenting Christine for other things and projecting that onto this?

"I'll stay away. But you need to do something about this." Christine touched the picture of the ribbon. "Life is short, Janice. So damned short." She blinked hard, then got up. "Can you send that to the computer in my quarters?"

Rand nodded as she reached out and laid her hand on Christine's arm. "I'm sorry. I know we couldn't talk about him, but I am sorry for the pain you're in."

Christine nodded, then hurried off the bridge.

Hikaru walked back over to her station. "Everything okay with her?" He looked like he was thinking of going to find out for himself.

Rand felt a rush of jealousy. Oh, holy crap. She was in love with him. "She's hurting. But there's nothing I can do. Or you either."

He looked down at her. "No?"

"No. Nothing." She put a lot of emphasis on that last word. "She's got Spock."

"I don't know about that."

Rand suddenly had a sinking feeling in her stomach. Was Sulu in love with Christine? "I think I'd know. He followed her clear out here. To what? Stare at the ribbon of death? I don't think so."

"You seem unusually vehement about that." His expression was one of carefully controlled hope.

"I am." Her heart was beating crazily, as if it was going to beat out of her chest. She gave him her best smile. The one she'd tried to win Kirk with and never even come close.

His expression cleared, but then a frown ruined the happiness that had taken over his face for a moment. "Why? Why now?"

She shook her head, knew her look was sheepish. "Life is short. And I'm an idiot?"

He grinned. "Well..."

She laughed softly. "Get back to work, mister." Then she looked up at him, staring at him intently. "This is the part where you ask me to dinner."

"It is?"

"Yes it is. But to speed up the process, I'm going to just pretend that you already asked. And I said yes. Stop by after shift."

"Because life is short?"

She could tell he was completely confused by her sudden about-face. "I'll give you more personal reasons at dinner...or after." One side of her mouth tipped up into a crooked smile. One she could tell he liked because he smiled too.

"Okay, then." He hurried to his chair, as if afraid she'd change her mind if he stayed there too long.

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

From deep within his meditations, Spock heard his door chime. He rose swiftly to full consciousness, pushing himself up to his feet and fighting the dizziness that always accompanied such a hasty return to reality. "Come."

Christine walked in. He could tell she had been crying.

"Are you all right?"

She nodded, then took in the mat on the floor, the small flame of the lamp. "I'm disturbing you."

"If that were the case, I would ask you to leave."

She smiled, a knowing "been there" smile. "That's true. You never had any trouble telling me to get lost in the past." She eased by him, seemed to be trying to pace the small quarters.

"Would you like to walk?"

She nodded gratefully and followed him out of the quarters and down the corridor to the lift. When it opened, Ensign Tuvok was inside with two other crew members. Spock saw his face register the same disapproval he'd shown before. Christine did not appear to notice.

They got out before Tuvok and the others, leaving the lift to them as Christine led him to the observation lounge. The ribbon swam in front of them.

"Do you think it's pretty?" she asked, choosing seats that were far away from anyone else.

"It has an inherent attractiveness. But any emotional response I have to it is one of hatred."

She looked at him in surprise.

"Vulcans can hate. We usually do not admit to it, however."

"Do you hate Valeris?"

He sighed and saw her surprise at that too. "I have tried to ease my feelings for her. Both hate and love still war inside me."

She nodded, and he supposed she might be the only other person who could understand the complicated range of emotions he felt for Valeris.

They sat in silence. Not an uneasy one, but one filled with shared sorrows and pain.

"She gave really good backrubs," Christine said after a few minutes.

"Yes. She was quite skilled."

"Oh, yeah." Christine looked over at him, and laughed softly. "This is so weird."

"Indeed."

Christine glanced around, and he followed her gaze. When it was clear that she was satisfied that they had their part of the lounge to themselves, she leaned her head against his shoulder, barely touching him. "Is that okay?"

It should not have been all right. But her touch was a comfort. "Yes."

"I saw the look that ensign gave me. It made you mad."

He was startled. Both that she noticed but also that she had been able to read him.

"I was with Valeris for two years, Spock. I got really good at translating all those versions of blank face."

"I had not considered that."

"Does that ensign think I'm guilty, somehow?"

He decided not to lie to her. "I believe so." He had softened it even so. He did not believe Tuvok suspected her; he knew it.

"He's not the only one, Spock."

"You were a victim no less than Jim or I."

"Or Gorkon." She eased away, the need for touch apparently over. Or else she was thinking of his comfort. "Do you mind if I change the subject, Spock? I don't want to think about her or what she and Matthew did."

"I do not either." It was odd being so in tune with her. It was not how things had ever been between them in the past.

"I don't want to talk about Jim either."

"I will talk about whatever you wish." He touched her hand, just long enough to let her know he was serious.

And long enough to feel her interest in him. Subtle, half-swallowed by pain and anger, but there nonetheless. He suspected something similar was growing in him.

It was entirely unexpected.

"What's next for you?" she asked softly. "A ship of your own?"

"No." The answer came quickly. Forced out by emotion he was not expecting. "Not a ship." Never a ship. Ships went with Jim. Ships were in his past.

"What then?"

Starfleet diplomatic had been making overtures for some time. Maybe it was time to switch disciplines permanently?

She waited, not pressing him for an answer. Her eyes were fixed on the ribbon.

"I am considering transferring to diplomatic."

She smiled gently. "A good fit, I think."

"And I suspect that it will please my father greatly if I do so."

"I bet you're right." Her smile grew, and he remembered that she had forged her own relationship with his father during her years in Emergency Operations. Sarek had always spoken highly of her.

"And you?" he asked. "What will you do?"

"I don't know." Her smile faded; her voice was bleak.

"You are finished with Emergency Operations?"

"They're finished with me." She looked at him, her eyes hard but filled with what he knew to be only realism about her situation. "Matthew is a black mark against me. Valeris too. And even Jim in some quarters. I make people nervous or I make them mad. I should probably resign and go into private practice. I'm still a doctor."

"Do not resign." He was surprised at how quickly he said that. How strongly he felt it. Starfleet could not afford to lose her. Her only crime was loving not wisely but too well as the old saying went.

The same could be said of him.

"What should I do then?"

"I will need a staff. You could be a part of that."

She laughed.

"I am quite serious." He felt a twinge of annoyance that she was not taking what he said with the proper amount of consideration.

"You are?" She sighed. "Pity is nice, but it will wear off and then you'll regret ever offering."

"I could list the skills you would bring, the attributes you possess that I would value in a member of my team?"

"Would you? My self-esteem could use a boost." She moved closer. She didn't lay her head on his shoulder this time, but her arm pressed against him.

He found it oddly comforting. "You are accustomed to working in a crisis environment. You have encountered and dealt with many of the eventualities that will arise. You are both a scientist and a healer, and as such should offer a unique perspective. You are dedicated, persevering, and exercise excellent judgment." He saw her smirk and let his own lips tip up slightly. "Except, perhaps, in matters of the heart."

She conceded with a nod, then she cocked her head and said, "I don't know, though. Valeris was only one out of how many good choices?"

He suddenly wondered how many lovers she'd had over the years. Certainly more than he'd had. "Come with me," he said quietly.

"You're sure?"

"Yes." Diplomatic was not aware of his plans. They might tell him to wait. On the other hand, he had a history of getting what he wanted.

"You haven't even talked to Diplomatic have you?"

"I have not."

She laughed again, and her arm pressed harder against him. "Let me know how that goes."

"Jim would want me to look out for you."

He could feel her tense, then she pulled away, but not before he sensed a rush of sadness from her. Sadness and guilt.

"I don't think he would, Spock."

He looked over at her and saw that she was crying. But she brushed the tears away, seemed to stop any more from falling by sheer force of will.

"Why would he not want that? He loved you."

"Yes. Past tense." She looked down. "He moved on. He had Antonia. And then Carol after David died."

"That did not last long."

"Long enough." She sounded angry and hurt, and he was not sure what to say to make it better.

"Spock, the things I said to him. They were hateful."

"When?"

"The last time I saw him. A few weeks before he died. I ran into him at Command after I'd been released. I was so mad at him. I yelled at him. He could have gotten me out of there. But he didn't."

"He did not know if he could trust you."

"Why didn't he know that?" But she looked down as if she understood. Valeris had warped them all.

"I believe that he loved you deeply, even if your relationship was over."

"And I believe that you're a hopeless romantic, Spock."

He let a single eyebrow show her what he thought of that statement.

She leaned closer, and he touched her hand. Soon her shoulder pressed against his again. "I feel like someone cut my heart out, Spock. And I don't know if they took all of it or just the part that Valeris and Jim owned."

He pressed against her, trying to offer some comfort. But he was not sure he could because he felt the same way. As if there was an empty space in his chest. A space that was indeed shaped like Valeris and Jim.

"You never loved me," Christine said.

"That is true." He kept his voice as gentle as he could. "But I respect your abilities. And I will try not to hurt you." There was more he was feeling, but he thought it premature to admit to it. And the feelings confused him. Better to let them lie to ripen or not as they would.

"That sounds pretty damn good about now." She looked over at him, giving him a sad smile. "If you want me to go with you, I will."

He nodded. It was a good solution. She would indeed be an asset to him in his work. And together...he was not sure what, if anything, he wanted from her. All he knew was that being with her gave him a small measure of the peace he had not found any other way since Valeris had betrayed him.

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

Sulu watched as Jan finished her meal. They'd both chosen light dinners. She'd laughed when she saw his tray--a husky, sexy laugh that he'd never heard before.

He could barely eat.

He saw Chris come in with Spock. They looked strangely right together. He saw her bump against Spock's arm when a crewwoman pushed past her. Spock reached out to steady her, and she smiled up at him. A small smile, but a real one.

Jan followed his gaze, then turned back as if trying to decide why he was so interested. "I've never asked if you're in love with her."

"No. You never have." It was mean, but she'd been rejecting him for so long that he didn't mind seeing her squirm for a moment. "I love her. In love with her? No."

"Why not?"

"I'm in love with someone else. Have been forever."

Jan smiled--in relief, he thought. "Anyone I know?"

He nodded slowly and saw her smile grow.

Turning to watch Spock and Chris, she said, "You think they're together?"

Sulu shrugged.

"They look together." Jan shook her head. "Wouldn't it be funny if after all this time, he finally fell for her?"

"I don't think it would be funny." He saw her surprise and continued before she could say anything. "I think it would be nice."

Her look was sad. "I'm not very nice sometimes, Hikaru."

"You think I don't know that?" He grinned at her. "I like you anyway." He pushed his tray away. "I just wish you'd stop resenting her for having what you wanted."

Her lips tightened. He knew he should probably let this go, but they needed to talk about it. They needed to talk about Kirk. They never did. Talking about him was taboo.

"I don't resent--"

"--Don't lie to me. I know you better than that." He kept his voice low, so only she could hear.

She glared at him a moment, and he waited her out.

"Oh, fine." She said it with such irritation that he laughed. "Can we go now?"

Apparently they still weren't going to talk about Kirk. Oh, well. Small steps.

He followed Jan to the recycler, dumping his tray. Turning, he saw Spock and Chris walking toward them.

"Captain Sulu," Spock said easily. "Commander Chapel and I will be leaving tomorrow."

"You will?" He shot a look at Chris

She smiled, a more genuine smile than he'd seen since she arrived. It would be ironic if Spock turned out to be the only person who could bring back the sweet smile he remembered from years back.

"I'm going to be working for Spock. In diplomatic." She looked as surprised at the news as Sulu was.

Spock nodded. "I am being reassigned effective immediately. The commander is as well."

Sulu nodded, admiring the way Spock seemed to always get his way with Command. Of course, it helped your case considerably to be a living legend. "It's been a pleasure hosting you. You sure you don't want to stay until the ribbon heads into the neutral zone?"

"The ribbon can go to hell," Chris said.

"I find myself in agreement with Commander Chapel. If Vulcans had a hell, I would wish the ribbon to reside there." He let an eyebrow punctuate the unexpected sentiment.

Chris turned to Spock. "I think Hikaru and Janice were just leaving." She winked at them both.

Sulu could feel himself blushing. Jan looked fine. Jan looked more than fine. He suddenly, desperately wanted out of the mess.

Amazingly, Spock seemed to get Chris's drift. "We will not keep you. Live long and prosper, Captain Sulu, Commander Rand."

"You do the same," Jan said, with a big smile for both Spock and Chris as she led Sulu out of the mess.

They were silent in the lift, walking down the hall.

"My place," she said softly.

Sulu didn't argue. There was plenty of time to try out his quarters later. Following her into her quarters, he stopped and watched her move across the room. Suddenly, he was filled with nerves. What if he wasn't any good? What if he bored her?

She looked down. "You've wanted this from me for so long. What if it wasn't worth waiting for?"

He smiled. He hadn't expected her to have the same kind of doubts as he did. He began to cross the room. "It'll be worth it."

She moved toward him. "You're sure?"

"Positive." He caught her up, pulling her close, his hands running down her back and her arms and everywhere he'd ever wanted to touch her. He heard her moan as their kiss deepened, his mouth opening. He felt his knees trembling. He'd never wanted anyone the way he wanted Jan.

He'd never loved anyone the way he loved Jan.

She pushed him to her bed, already pulling off his uniform, then her own. He'd been afraid that she'd realize this was a mistake, that she'd stop it, or even worse just go along. But she was giving him everything he'd ever wanted: passion and love and esteem earned by working side by side for so many years.

"Jan, I love you," he said as he let her push him onto the bed, as she crawled on top of him.

She started to say it back, and he stopped her. "No. Not till you know it for sure. I don't want an echo."

Her eyes were soft as she leaned in to kiss him. Her touch now was gentle and tender, and if this wasn't love then it was the next best thing.

"I do love you, Hikaru. I didn't realize it until this morning."

He frowned. "Why this morning."

"I was glad that you and Christine didn't sleep together." She moved closer to him, closer and closer and then oh, holy god...

"I think you like this," she said softly, her voice a purr of seduction.

He said something, wasn't sure that the words made sense. But Jan said, "Me too," and kissed him deeply, so he must have said something good.

Then he lost track of everything but Jan and her body welcoming him, and her tongue and lips making him moan. He gave himself up to her, felt her do the same thing. She wasn't holding back. He had her. Finally, he had her.

After the first fires were spent, they lay curled together like spoons, both staring out at the ribbon.

"We're going to be all right." The way she said it, it wasn't a question.

"Yes. We'll be fine."

She moaned happily, her hand tightening over his. They fell asleep for a while, bodies pressed close. Then they woke up and pressed their bodies even closer.

It was all right. It was all good.

It was all his.

FIN