Reopening Old Wounds by Djinn

Chapel walked down the corridor of the USS Pensacola, nodding to the passing cadets as she took in the bright fixtures and immaculate bulkheads and flooring. It should have felt too pristine, like it needed seasoning. But for a newly commissioned training ship, the Pensacola had a surprisingly lived-in feel.

"Commander Chapel."

She smiled. She never got tired of hearing that. Even if she'd made commander some time ago, it was still a thrill. Back in her nursing days, when she'd been a lowly ensign, she'd barely hoped to make lieutenant, much less commander.

Turning, she saw Captain Neimann watching her from an open door. "Want to see your office?" he asked.

"Are you going to give me the private tour, Ross?"

He laughed. There'd been a time when he would have locked the doors and given her an extremely private tour. But they'd fallen out of that habit over a year ago. Friendship was easier. And safer.

Besides, he'd spent the whole time he'd been with her trying to live up to the man she'd been with before him. And no one could hope to outshine James T. Kirk--or at least none of her recent lovers had seemed to think so. She hoped that she'd never given any of them that idea.

"I've got a surprise for you," he said with a laugh as he bowed her into the office.

"Good or bad?"

"I'm not sure yet." He watched her walk around. "Is this okay?"

"It's fine." It was odd to be in an office and not a sickbay. But she wasn't a doctor right now. She was here in her new capacity as a rep of emergency ops. It was heady and terrifying all at once. "Is this the surprise?"

"Nope." Ross smiled at her, an easy expression utterly lacking in pressure or recriminations. Not all of her relationships had ended this well. "I'm glad you're here."

"Me, too." Even if she and he were on different sides of the fence when it came to his "chosen" cadets.

"You know the mission, Christine. We're going out beyond the range of normal training runs. We're going to give this group something to write home about."

"Or not." Some of the training missions he'd proposed weren't the kinds of things you wrote home--or anywhere else--about.

"Or not," he said with a laugh.

"So they're that good? Your Red Squad?" she asked, loading the question with more than just curiosity.

"I know you don't approve."

"An elite group? Isn't the Academy elite enough?"

He frowned. "There's a time and place for the very best. Missions that will only work if our top men and women carry them out. Isn't it a good idea to identify the very best now?"

"Based on what? Entrance exams?"

"They're not fourth-class cadets, Christine. They're second- and first-class cadets. We've had ample time to assess their potential."

"Potential. That's a loaded word, Ross."

He moved closer. "Don't tell me you haven't benefited from people assessing your potential favorably. Or from that touch of elitism--from being part of something golden. You really think old man Cartwright would have given you your ops assignment without the luster of the Enterprise behind you? And maybe without a good word from her former captain?"

She sighed. "I never asked Jim for a rec. And the Enterprise isn't golden, Ross. She isn't everything."

"I don't know if I'd agree with that assessment," a very familiar voice said behind her.

Chapel turned, saw Jim standing in the doorway and could feel her mouth dropping. She forced it closed. "Captain Kirk."

He smiled tightly. "It's admiral. Again."

"My mistake."

"I doubt that."

"And here's my surprise, Christine." Ross waved Jim in.

"Good or bad, huh?" She pretended to glare.

Ross winked at her. "I'll leave you two to get reacquainted. We launch in an hour, and I'd like you both on the bridge. I know we're not all agreed about this mission, but we need to show at least the appearance of solidarity."

Jim nodded easily. "Wouldn't miss it, Captain."

Ross headed for the door, then turned back. "Admiral, if you'd like to take her out...?"

Jim waved the offer away. "She's your ship, Ross." As the other man walked out, Jim shot Chapel a bland look, but she sensed a question in it. Was she still Ross's woman, perhaps?

She stared blandly back. "So, you don't agree with the 'Red Squad' concept, either?"

"You know how I feel about elitism." He walked to the view port, seemed to be drinking in the stars, not just looking at them. "I'm an Iowa farm boy from all the wrong schools. Where would I have been if there'd been a Red Squad when I was at the Academy?"

"Probably leading it." Laughing softly, she joined him at the view port. She knew she didn't look as enthralled with the vista as he did.

He glanced over at her. "How long has it been?"

"I don't know, Jim. How long were you with Antonia?"

"Mrrrowww." He grinned, but then it faded. "You weren't exactly alone while I was with her, Chris."

"No, I wasn't. But you hardly have room to talk on that score--all your women. I mean before the sainted Antonia, of course. Where is she, anyway?"

"Yeah, I missed those claws." His grin turned cockeyed; his voice was less tight than she expected.

"You almost sound like you mean that."

"I almost do mean that." He sighed. "And it wasn't just before Antonia, you know. It was before you, too. You and I were exclusive--or at least I was." There was something sharp in his voice.

"I was, too. You know that."

"Do I?"

"You should."

They'd been together three years. Two wonderful, passionate, crazed years--and then one more where they'd slowly fallen apart. They'd nearly killed each other at times, nearly died in much nicer ways other times. And they'd never quite trusted each other the way they should have.

She watched him as he moved around her office. "I didn't know you were going to be here. When Ross said he had a surprise, I didn't think you'd be it."

"I didn't expect to be here. But I objected enough in principle that the brass told me to come along and observe."

"That'll teach you."

He laughed, seemed glad to be on easier ground. "It sure will."

"I was surprised to hear you'd come back to Starfleet."

He shrugged. "Space is in my blood."

She moved closer. "And Antonia wasn't?" She could see his jaw tighten. "Should I leave it alone?"

"Yes." His tone made it clear he was serious.

"So the Academy? That was a surprise, too."

"It seemed the right place." He smiled. "My ship's there."

She laughed softly. "And most of your crew."

He nodded. "You have Rand."

"Actually, she has me." At his surprised look, she elbowed him. "Not like that, you lech."

"It was a very interesting picture." He slowly lifted his eyebrows.

Laughing, she turned away. "I mean she got there first. I'm the newbie."

"I'm sure you'll do great. I didn't have anything to do with you getting the assignment, in case you were wondering. Cartwright didn't even ask me for a recommendation."

"No?"

"No." He smiled at her gently. This had been one of the things she'd always loved about him. Even when he was irritated with her, he could be so damned fair--and generous.

"But you would have given me one, if he'd asked...right?"

"Oh, absolutely."

She laughed. "Very wise answer, Admiral."

He was back at the view port. "It's Jim, Chris. We were together for too long for you to fall back on titles when it's just us."

"I wasn't sure."

He looked back at her, as if surprised that her voice lacked any sarcasm. "You should have been."

"Once in the inner circle, always in it?"

"Something like that." He grinned; it wasn't fair that the expression still made her heart stop. "You look good, Chris."

"And you know you do, too." When he shrugged, she found herself grinning back. "I can't say I'm sorry you're here. Especially not if you're on my side."

"I've always been on your side."

He was staring at her, and she found it impossible to look away from him.

"How long has it been really, Chris?"

She knew he was aware of exactly how much time had passed since they'd been together. "Three years."

"And...?"

She rolled her eyes. "And four months or so. Not that I'm counting. We broke up right before our anniversary. It's easy to remember."

He looked down, and she heard him sigh softly.

"Go ahead and ask about Ross and me, Jim."

"It's none of my business." He walked past her.

She put her hand out, stopping him. "And you want me to just volunteer the information, don't you?"

He looked over at her. "Is that so hard to understand? You left me, remember?"

"You made it impossible to stay." As his face tightened, she said softly. "I'm not with Ross anymore."

"I'm sorry. He's a good man." Jim pulled away from her. "Did you leave him, too?"

"I wasn't the bad guy."

"And I was?" He was to the door now, his feet moving fast, carrying him away from how they were cycling down to that bitter, jagged place they'd lived in at the end of their relationship.

"Jim..."

"It's a long mission, Commander. We'll have loads of time to cover old, tired ground. For now, let's quit while we're ahead, okay?" His eyes were hard; his voice was, too.

She didn't look away. Could feel the old emotions coming up. There was a reason they weren't together. In the first rush of seeing him, she'd lost sight of that. "Fine."

He nodded and walked out, but she thought she saw him hesitate for a moment. Then the door closed behind him, and the room seemed suddenly smaller and cold. Walking to the view port, Chapel stared down at the one thing Jim hadn't looked at: Earth spinning below the ship.

She could get off, get out of this mission now before things went any farther, before she and Jim had the chance to hurt each other more than they already had. Ross could get another ops person.

It was tempting. But she wasn't a coward. Or maybe she was just a fool. Maybe, despite how much hurt loomed ahead, she couldn't just walk away from Jim.

Whatever her reasons, she was staying.

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

Kirk nodded to the cadets bustling around him as they headed for other parts of the small ship. They were the best of the best, Starfleet Academy's elite. He wasn't sure why it bothered him so much that they'd been plucked out of the general ranks for this special training regimen, but it did.

"Admiral," a young man said in hushed tones as Kirk hurried past him. "That's him. That's James T. Kirk. He's a living legend," Kirk heard the cadet say to someone.

That was him, all right. A living legend. He grimaced as he turned into the office Neimann had told him was his to use for the duration. Legend implied old. And Kirk was feeling old these days. He'd be fifty in just a few weeks. It wasn't a day he was looking forward to--he'd court-martial the first person who threw him a party.

Sitting down at the desk, he turned on the terminal and hit the sequence of commands that would engage the privacy channel--a perk of being one with Command again. One of the only perks other than being able to book time in space whenever he wanted to go out on training cruises. This one had been a surprise--he'd almost had to cancel the cruise he really wanted to go on with Spock and his graduating cadets. Spock hadn't commented on Neimann's pulling his top cadets out of regular classes for this mission.

Spock generally had an opinion on everything. His silence was no doubt significant.

Kirk dialed into the Command comm system and called Cartwright's office. For a moment, he worried that it was too late, but the ops center hardly worked banker's hours.

"Jim?" Cartwright beamed at him. "Where are you?"

"On the Pensacola."

"Uh-oh." Cartwright looked like he was trying to bite back a laugh. "How the hell did that happen?"

"So you didn't know I'd be here?"

"Do you think I'd have sent Christine up there if I had?" He grinned, but it was a shaky expression.

"We're not going to fight."

"Right. Because the two of you would never fight." He shook his head.

"I'm curious, Matt. Why did you send her? She's pretty new to ops be up here as your rep."

"She is. But she has great instincts. I wouldn't have sent her otherwise." Cartwright's eyes narrowed. "But that's not what you're asking, is it? Neimann requested her specifically."

Kirk smiled tightly. "Was this before or after the last training board?" He had not been shy about kicking apart Neimann's Red Squad proposal. It was what had earned him a berth on this boat.

Cartwright started to laugh. "Ooh, boy. Ross is more devious than I gave him credit for."

"So it was after the meeting?" At the other man's nod, he shook his head. "He thinks she'll distract me."

"Well, Jimbo, since you're sitting at some terminal bumping your gums about her rather than observing his cadets doing their thing, I'd say he was right." Cartwright leaned back. "It's sort of flattering, don't you think?"

"Flattering?"

"He thinks you're powerful enough that you need distracting."

"Real flattering." Kirk sighed. "This program's that important to him?"

Cartwright nodded. "He wanted your job. Now that it's out of reach, the best he can do is make this the pet project of the training board. That way you can't shut it down before it's even had a chance."

Kirk frowned. "You believe in this?"

"I'm a cautious supporter. I like the idea of having a crew I can trust."

"Knowing you, you'd post them all on the neutral zone to wait for Klingons to rush the line."

Cartwright shrugged, no smile in sight. Klingons weren't ever a joke to him.

"I better go, Matt. As you pointed out, I have cadets to observe."

"And an ex to avoid."

Kirk smiled. He didn't intend to avoid Chris. Let Neimann think he was distracted if it would make the man happy. Using their mutual ex-girlfriend against him didn't irritate Kirk as much as Neimann's having felt the need to do it in the first place. Had he really thought Kirk wouldn't give his program a chance before he judged it?

"I don't want to know what you're thinking," Cartwright said. "But think about the avoiding part. I wasn't precisely joking."

"Matt, Chris and I..."

"Christine and you nearly ripped each other to shreds, Jimbo. I was there to pick up the pieces, remember? A lot of good scotch--my good scotch--was drunk in the cause."

"Nothing's going to happen. But there's no reason she and I can't be friends, now. We've changed. Both of us."

"Uh huh." Cartwright shook his head. "Just...think before you leap, all right?" At Kirk's look he held up a hand, as if forestalling the rest of the argument. "Godspeed and fair winds, Jim."

Kirk smiled at the ancient goodbye. "Kirk out."

He sat for a moment, tapping out the command to disengage the privacy channel. Then he got up and walked to the view port. Space--he was back. Home. Everything he loved. Well almost. He'd left one thing he loved back on Earth. Antonia and he hadn't broken up so much as just let go. She'd given up trying to compete with his other love--unlike Chris, she couldn't share him with the stars. She'd had to sit back and watch space swallow him up. But Chris...

Damn it. Neimann was no fool. He couldn't have picked a better time to bring Chris around. Kirk hoped he hadn't known that, had just been lucky figuring she would be a distraction on her own merits, which were considerable. Kirk hoped he wasn't broadcasting his discontent with life to all and sundry.

Even back in Starfleet something was missing. Something wasn't right. He felt old.

Felt. Such a safe word but not the right one. He didn't just feel old. He was old.

Sighing, he dialed down the birthday angst and turned away from the view, walking slowly to the turbolift that would take him to the bridge. Several other officers--trainers from various departments--were headed up to watch the launch, too. They nodded to him and he nodded back, the ride was too short for much more.

The bridge was a mass of controlled activity, cadets manning the senior stations calling out commands to various sections. An advisor stood near each station, close enough to act if there was trouble, not so close they'd seem to be hovering. Neimann sat in the center seat, entering something in a padd that he handed to a cadet who appeared to be his exec.

Kirk stopped in the back, watching Neimann. He heard the lift doors open behind him and sensed, rather than saw, Chris come up to stand next to him.

"It's no accident your being here," he murmured.

She moved closer. "No?"

"Your beau there thought you would distract me."

"We've been over this. He's not my beau." She smiled at him. "A distraction, huh?"

He nodded.

"Is it working?"

"Too well. Witness how our first meeting went."

Looking down, she nodded. He studied her, noting how she'd put on weight, how there were more laugh lines around her eyes, and her hair was shot with gray. It should have made her less attractive; it didn't. He felt more alive standing next to her than he had for a long time.

She looked up slowly, their eyes meeting as she smiled the slow, crooked smile that had won his heart when he'd first realized she could be more than just one of his former crew. "So what do we do?"

"We behave ourselves, that's what. While we're on duty, we'll do what we came here to do: observe his cadets. We'll be model Starfleet officers."

She dipped her head, said even more quietly, "I notice you specified while we're on duty?"

"Caught that did you?" He laughed softly.

"I don't miss much."

"No. I know you don't."

Their eyes met again and held. He could feel the old fire starting between them, pheromones flitting around them in the air. He remembered how startled he'd been to find that kind of passion with her. She'd always seemed solid and dependable. Someone he could be sure of. Not someone who, at times, he'd feel like he was burning up with because of the passion--both good and bad--in the relationship.

For a woman who appeared to be the salt of the earth, she was damned ephemeral. Like trying to capture light. Or fire. He'd been burned trying. Not that it had ever stopped him from demanding another round in the fire dance. Because when she did decide to settle and let the fire turn into simple warmth or the heat of passion, it was sheer bliss.

She seemed to wrench her eyes away, looking around at the others on the bridge as if she needed to focus on something--anything--but him. Finally, she turned back and her expression was wry. "I have to admit I'm a little annoyed. Being used to distract you is hardly flattering to me as an officer. Or to the weight my voice carries."

Kirk eased her toward the side as more officers crowded onto the bridge. "Oh, I think your voice does carry weight. Cartwright isn't fully on board. If you had reasons for not endorsing this, he'd listen to you. I bet Neimann was counting on you being too distracted to come up with those reasons."

She thought about that and started to smile. One edge of her mouth turned up first, the way it always did. He used to trace her smile.

"You always say the right thing, Admiral."

He grinned, forcing himself to forget about tracing anything. He was not going to be distracted by her. "I do my best."

Looking over at Neimann, she said, "I don't think he meant any harm. He just cares so deeply about this program."

There was a fondness for Neimann in her voice that made Kirk more than a little jealous. "I know."

The bridge grew quiet as the crew finished the pre-launch protocols and waited for Neimann to give the word. Chris swallowed whatever she was going to say and moved away a bit from Kirk, as if suddenly concerned with decorum. Neimann glanced back just as she did it, and Kirk saw him grin. He probably thought his grand plan was already working.

Not that it wasn't working to some extent--but Kirk was going to be damned if he'd let Neimann know that.

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

Chapel watched the cadets completing their surveys as the wind whipped and lashed sand at them. She'd taken temporary shelter from the biting grit between two trees, but the relief was limited. She supposed the driving sand was better than the cold rains that had drenched them all a few hours ago. Neimann swore the weather was naturally chaotic on this little planet, but she was willing to bet he had a control module that was currently set for sandstorm.

"Nice day," Jim said, pushing in next to her. "This weather has to be contrived."

"Ross says no."

"And we believe him?"

"Well, no."

Laughing, he moved closer. "Dinner tonight?"

They'd been on the ship for four days now. He'd monopolized her for dinner every single one of them.

"I thought I'd eat with the cadets," she said in the most serious tone she could muster. "Him and her and him," she said pointing out the three most attractive cadets in visual range.

He looked over at her, a frown starting, then he saw she was trying not to laugh. "Witch."

"You used to call me that under different circumstances." He'd always loved the way she could conjure life into things he'd thought dead from overuse.

"I did, didn't I?" Jim smiled at her, then took a deep breath and went back out into the storm.

She followed suit, heading off in a different direction, watching as one of the cadets assigned to the science team cataloged the native flora. Another cadet was taking readings of the soils and geology and had climbed partway up a small hillock. He was checking the strata while blinking furiously against the pelting sand. Chapel smiled. They were driven, these cadets.

The wind began to lessen, and Chapel imagined she could hear all the cadets let out a collective sigh of relief. For a moment, there was no sound as the sun beat down and dust settled around them.

Then the ground began to shake. She looked over at Ross, trying to figure if he had dialed this up, but the look on his face was one of shock. Atmospheric chaos was one thing, but seismic instability was another.

The shaking intensified.

"Emergency transport formations," he shouted to the cadets, then pulled out his communicator. "This is a code-three emergency. Beam us up according to established protocols."

She noticed he didn't tell the cadets working the transporter to make way for more seasoned officers. She was glad he had that much faith in his special cadets but wouldn't have minded if he'd switched them out.

The cadets in the immediate area began to form into beam-out patterns, the cadets at point calling up to the ship as soon as their groups were all assembled. The first group disappeared as the trembling again increased in magnitude.

Seeing that Ross was busy talking to the ship and knowing that a few of the cadets were well beyond voice range, Chapel pulled out her communicator and set it to wide alert, repeating Ross's command. A moment later, a handful of cadets began running in from all directions. She saw Jim helping to form them into beam-out groups--although they didn't need much help.

There was no panic, just focused--and probably scared--cadets doing what they'd been trained to do. Chapel had seen seasoned pros handle emergency beam-outs with less composure than Red Squad was showing.

"All cadets accounted for, sir," she heard one of the cadets on transporter duty report. "Ready to beam last party up."

Chapel hurried over to where Ross, Jim, and several other officers were assembling.

"Energize," Ross said as a really nasty temblor started.

They rematerialized on the pad a bit cockeyed, and she reached out instinctively to try to grab hold of something to steady her. Her hand met Jim's, and he winked at her as they pulled each other upright.

"Damn it," Ross said quietly. "Starfleet assured me that planet was safe. The weather's unpredictable, but they never said it was a seismic menace." He motioned to Commander Korohama, the main observer for the science department. "Have your cadets get all of their readings downloaded and analyzed. I want to know where that quake came from and if there'll be more."

"Yes, sir," Korohama said, hurrying off; the others followed him, leaving Jim and her alone with Neimann and the cadets at the transporter.

Ross looked over at Jim. "Don't say it."

"Say what?" Jim walked over to the transporter, smiling at the young men who were trying to look nonchalant at the controls. "Nice work, cadets."

"Sir, thank you, sir." A smile threatened to burst through the one who'd been doing the bulk of the beam-outs.

Ross seemed to relax.

"Everyone did well on the beam out. Very orderly." Chapel smiled at him. "Are you sure you didn't plan that?"

He glared at her. "I told you, I don't control the weather--or earthquakes, either."

She held up a hand. "Just checking."

Smiling in a way that seemed designed to dig a little, Jim said, "So that was more excitement than you planned for?"

Ross nodded, irritation plain in the tight way he moved his head. But it didn't seem to be irritation with Jim. "Back to the drawing board on the location for the 'challenging planetary survey' scenario." He looked over at Jim. "If there is a drawing board, that is?"

Jim shrugged. "A little early to tell. A few days of normal ship's operations drills, and now this, are hardly a test."

"But if you were to report today...?"

"Your cadets are good, Ross. That's not the question, and we both know it. This program may be counterproductive."

Chapel saw the cadets at the transporter console look down, their mouths tight. The ears of one turned a bright red.

Ross's ears weren't exactly pale either. "Counterproductive? If you think that then you're a blind fool not just an ol--"

She didn't think she'd ever seen Jim's expression go quite so cold.

"Would you like to finish that sentence?" he said in a voice made more dangerous by how quiet it was.

"No, sir."

Jim leaned in. "I've logged more star hours than you ever will, Ross. I've seen people under every conceivable circumstance. The good, the bad, and the truly horrible. And it's not the ones you've tagged as having the most potential that always rise to the occasion. Sometimes they're the ones who freeze...or run."

Ross looked straight ahead, his eyes unblinking, spine ramrod straight--he would have made a marine envious. "Yes, sir."

"At ease, Captain." Jim sounded frustrated now. He turned to the cadets, "If you'll excuse us for a moment?"

The more senior cadet looked at Neimann.

"That was my polite way of telling you to get out, not to ask your C.O what to do." Jim's voice fell to the low, dangerous tone again.

The cadets fled.

Turning back to Ross, Jim said, "If we have a problem, Captain, we need to air it now."

Chapel found herself standing straighter at the tone in Jim's voice.

"You've prejudged this program, sir," Ross said.

"We all prejudge things, Captain. That's called having a first impression. It doesn't mean it's the final impression."

Ross didn't look convinced.

Jim paced away, walking to the transporter and staring down at the controls as though they offered up some kind of focus for his thoughts. He touched a few, then looked up at Ross. "You believed you had to distract me with Chris. Are you so unsure of your cadets' abilities that you have to play games like this?"

"I'm completely confident in my cadets' potential."

"Their potential has never been in doubt. In any scenario, these kids will have a bright future. They're the best of the best." Jim walked back to them. "The question is whether pulling them out of the general ranks is the thing to do."

"Why should they be kept back?" Ross held out a hand, a conciliatory gesture that fell flat when Jim turned away. "You skyrocketed through the ranks, Admiral. Youngest captain ever. More commendations than you can probably remember. Hell, you stole your ship back after you defeated an invincible machine...again. What would your career have been like if they'd recognized that brilliance early on and pointed you accordingly?"

Chapel smiled. Jim would have been commanding in diapers. He shot her a look, and she wiped the smile off her face.

Turning back to Ross, he said, "We learn who we are by how we lead everyone, not just the best and brightest. We learn what we're made of by making a team out of everyone--the weak links and the others--and by developing those who need it. What kind of leadership challenge are you going to have with Red Squad other than keeping the loose cannons from bouncing off the bulkheads?"

"Is that what you think they are? Loose cannons?" Before Jim could answer, Ross said, "And I don't care if I don't have a leadership challenge when I'll have the best cadets Starfleet has to offer. I don't care if I don't have to worry about anything except keeping these young people from getting bored. In fact, I welcome it. That's the kind of challenge I crave. You can stick with trying to make the mediocre shine."

A hail rang out. "Korohama to Neimann. We have the results you wanted. Starfleet missed something vital when they did the initial survey."

"I'll be right there." Neimann smiled at Jim. "One of your less shiny, mediocre officers, maybe?" He turned and walked away, then, as he reached the door, he turned back. "I assume I'm dismissed, sir?"

"You're dismissed."

One of the cadets peeked in, and Jim gestured for him to enter. As Jim headed for the door, he motioned for Chapel to follow him. "Take your post," he said to the other cadet, who still lingered in the corridor.

"So what do you want to observe now?" Chapel asked quietly, taking in the way he had his hands clutched behind his back, the harsh snap of his steps. She could see that Ross's comment had hit hard. But she couldn't make that better. Jim needed to figure out how to deal with getting older. "Jim, let's go to the bridge."

He looked at her, and his expression cleared. "I am old, Chris."

"Well, you're older."

He smiled. "But I'm not a fool."

"No, you're not. Ross is just rattled. Today didn't go his way, and he's angry it fell apart in front of us."

"But it didn't fall apart. Those cadets were fantastic. Am I wrong? Thinking it's bad to pull them out?"

"I don't know, Jim."

He sighed. "I guess we just keep observing and find out."

She led him onto the lift. "Bridge," she said, then glanced at him. "There is another way."

He started to smile. He knew her well enough to know what it meant when her voice took on that tone, that it generally preceded something a little sneaky. "Yes?"

"Oh, yes." She leaned in closer. "You might want to get rid of the other observers?"

His grin grew bigger.

The doors opened on the bridge, and Jim nodded to the two officers observing. Chapel thought they looked like they'd welcome a break.

"We'll be here awhile. Why don't you two go grab some joe?" His smile was the solicitous one of a concerned admiral for the crew.

Chapel bit back a laugh as the other two happily left the bridge. Taking on the most casual attitude she could, she walked around the space, observing the cadets at duty. She stopped frequently, asking questions, noting the way some of the cadets stared at her challengingly, while others simply answered the questions and went back to work. Looking back at Jim, who was trying to hide a smile, she walked to the helm where the most confrontational-seeming of the cadets was working and stood to the side, watching him for a long time.

Jim stood next to her. Frowning slightly, he moved his eyebrows in the way that she knew meant, "What now?"

"It's an interesting experiment," she said to him, as if they weren't surrounded by a whole lot of lab rats who could understand every word.

He began to grin.

"Daring, even." She moved a little bit away from the cadet she had picked as her victim. As if she wanted privacy. She didn't lower her voice at all, and they were still easily in his field of vision. "But I'm not convinced it's a good idea."

The cadet stiffened.

"You have different ideas, Mister?" Jim's voice was like a whip, and again Chapel saw him trying not to grin.

"Sir, no, sir."

"You agree with me?" Chapel asked. "That's a surprise. Why are you on this ship then?" She tried to make her voice sweet and soft, the one that had lulled many a patient into letting her do something painful, or possibly humiliating, to them.

"I mean, no, I don't agree, sir." He was stammering and was probably blushing--he was lucky that his very dark skin hid the flush.

Chapel could tell that the other cadets were listening closely even as they pretended to be intent on their stations. Just like in ops...or on a ship. Dynamics were dynamics.

"Permission to speak freely, Cadet"--she glanced at his nametag--"Endoya."

He turned to her. "I think it's an honor to be here. But more than that--this challenges me. And all of us."

She saw a bunch of heads nodding.

Jim pursed his lips, moving around to the front so that the cadet could easily see him, and probably so that most of the others could, too. "I know organizational dynamics are part of the required curriculum since I'm the one who approves it." His grin seemed to make Endoya and the others relax just a little. "I want you to think in terms of Darwinian dynamics."

"Isn't that what this is, sir?" A young female cadet at navigation looked down as if embarrassed at the way she'd blurted out that comment.

Jim nodded to her. "Go on."

"We are the fittest." She met his eyes, didn't look away. "We're the best. Our grades, our test scores, the way we perform in activities. We are the top cadets."

"Alphas," Chapel said softly, remembering how Jim loved to boil things down to pack dynamics. She could see where he was going with this but didn't think that the cadets could.

He smiled. "Exactly, Commander. What we have here are alphas. This entire room is filled with them. Hell, this entire ship is." He turned back to the woman. "You may be alpha female among these other alphas, Morris." He didn't appear to even glance at the woman's nametag as he used her name like they were old pals.

Chapel had always wished she could be that smooth.

Jim moved away. "In any case, one of you is first among equals. Or maybe two of you if you buy into the true pack model where gender is a factor." He looked at Chapel, grinning. "For the record, I don't. For all we know, Morris, you may be alpha, period."

Chapel smiled. She didn't think Morris was the alpha here. It was obvious that Endoya and a young woman at tactical agreed with that. But Morris would be high ranking in this pack, even if not the top. She'd spoken her mind to an admiral. Either she was confident of her role...or she was an idiot when it came to protocol. And the best and brightest were never idiots when it came to that. They might run around protocol with abandon, but they were always aware of it.

Jim sighed as if he was thinking and had reached a rather disturbing conclusion. "It doesn't matter who's alpha here. But I want you to consider something. If you are all alpha, then odds are excellent that no matter what group you'd found yourself in at the academy, you would have been the leader." He walked over to Endoya. "I bet you were the best pilot in your class."

Endoya nodded. "Three years in a row."

Jim smiled, sharing the young man's accomplishments. "See, you were leading from an early age. Typical alpha behavior." He walked away, then he turned back so quickly that Endoya jerked a little. "What happens to the rest of them now? I assume you and the number two pilot are here?"

Endoya nodded.

"What happens to the rest? Who's the leader now?"

Chapel smiled. Now was when he'd close the trap.

"The number three person," Morris said softly.

"That's right." Jim moved to stand in front of her. "Is that a good thing?"

She considered the question, and Chapel gave her credit for not blurting out an answer. "I guess that would depend on how close in ability that person was to the two taken away."

Jim smiled. It was the right answer. "And if that person is not close? What happens to the group?"

"A group is only as strong as its weakest link, not its strongest." A new voice. The woman at tactical. Bylakov.

Jim looked up over at her. "Interesting premise. Do you believe that?"

"I said it, sir." Her eyes sparkled.

He smiled. "That's not the same thing as believing it." He walked around the bridge, catching each person's eye. "I want to posit something. Just for you to think about. Throughout the cadet ranks there are gaps now because all of you are gone. What does that do to the graduating class as a whole? I can see clearly how this experience benefits all of you. But you're already at the top. What does having you here and not with them as an example--as a catalyst for ideas and top performance--do to the teams and squads that are left in the ranks?"

Bylakov opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of what she was going to say.

"Spit it out, Cadet," Chapel said with a smile. "He loves the free exchange of ideas."

Jim smiled. "She's not wrong."

Bylakov smiled nervously. "Your bios were made available to us, sirs. The bios of all our observers and trainers were. There isn't a person among you who hasn't risen quickly, who wouldn't have been in Red Squad if it had existed when you were at the Academy."

Chapel smiled. "I think I'm safely out of that group."

Bylakov looked at her like she was a little bit stupid for saying that. Like she'd disappointed her. "Sir, at the risk of appearing to be apple polishing, you've risen faster than anyone with the exception of the admiral. A circuitous route, it's true, but if you look at the accomplishments in going from nurse to doctor to ops officer, and from ensign to commander in such a short time, it is impressive. For someone who, according to the personal notes in your file, never intended to be in Starfleet, it's quite inspiring."

Chapel stared at the woman.

Jim smiled. "I've tried to tell her that. I think you may have finally gotten it to sink in, Cadet. If so, well done." He paced around the bridge. "So, that's a good point. We all rose among our peers."

"And garnered resentment in the process, sir." Endoya was staring at Jim with an intensity that just bordered on hero worship. "I've read your memoirs. I've read the comments of your fellow officers, sir. They're jealous of you."

Morris nodded softly. "Maybe if you'd been with your own..."

Bylakov laughed, and all eyes turned to her. She stared at Jim and shook her head. "Captain Neimann is one of your own. He doesn't appear comfortable with you." It was a dangerously honest opinion to put out there. It seemed to float for a moment all alone, and Bylakov began to look embarrassed. Finally, the others nodded a little.

The door opened, and Ross walked in. All noise ceased as the cadets went quickly back to work. Taking the center chair, he looked around, then back at Jim and her with suspicion. "What's going on?"

"We're getting to know your cadets," Jim answered.

"That's great." Ross didn't sound like it was great.

"They have interesting ideas," Chapel said, and saw Bylakov flinch slightly. "I'm sure you've heard them all, though. Your cadets are bright and not afraid to share their opinions."

Jim smiled. "We'll get out of your hair, Captain."

Ross nodded tightly.

Looking around the room, Jim caught the eyes of a few of the cadets and grinned. "Ross, I have to tell you, no matter what I feel about the program, I'm not worried about the future of Starfleet. These are the finest cadets I've ever seen."

Chapel thought every cadet suddenly sat a little straighter. She also thought that every one of these kids would now follow Jim into the depths of hell if he asked.

"Most kind, sir." Ross was staring at them both, a little perplexed.

Jim walked to the lift, and as she followed him, she murmured to Ross, "Admiral Kirk's a fair man."

His soft smile made her glad she'd said it.

This wasn't a war. It was just a question of how best to position their resources for the future. Once they all started to focus on that and stopped trying to win, they'd finally begin to get the job done.

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

Kirk walked over to the view port in his quarters and stared out at the stars going by at warp. He never tired of this view, not even when the ship wasn't his or when the crew was made up of strangers--very young strangers. It was still space, still home.

His chime rang, and he walked over rather than just calling admittance. Palming open the door, he saw Chris waiting, her head down.

She looked up at him. "Hi."

Before she could continue, he said, "I know it was my idea, but would you mind if we skipped dinner tonight?"

"No."

"Thanks." As he turned away from her, she surprised him by pushing past him, walking well into the room before she turned to stare at him.

"I meant not at all. Not something else in lieu of dinner." He walked past her to the view port.

"I know what you meant. What's wrong?"

He could hear her walking toward him, could sense her bringing her hand up to touch him. He should tell her to stop, but he wanted to see if she'd touch him where he thought she would, on the back of his neck, running her fingers hard up under his hair, over his scalp. Antonia had never gotten the hang of this; Chris had never lost it--he had to stifle a moan.

Then he pulled away. "Don't."

"You used to love that." She leaned in closer, her breath warm on his ear as she said, "I can tell you still do."

"Chris, I'm feeling a little too vulnerable tonight for sexy repartee."

"You mean you're feeling a little too old." Her voice was caustic, as if she had no time for his wallowing.

"I do wish you'd get over your tendency to sugarcoat things." He turned to look at her.

She stared back, arms folded across her chest. Then she smiled and walked over to the small couch, sitting down and tucking her legs under her. "So, tell me what's eating you."

"I don't want to."

"Yes, you do. Or you'd have commed me and cancelled. You can never resist me in person. I doubt you've forgotten that."

"You think rather highly of yourself."

"No. I think rather highly of our chemistry together. On my own, I'm not that exciting." She patted the space next to her. "Come sit."

He thought of all the times they'd sat on a sofa. He couldn't remember very many that they hadn't ended up engaged in nasty activities. He could tell by her smile she was thinking the same thing, so he moved to the bed, sitting down across the room from her. "I believe I'm safer here."

She laughed, the deep, throaty, "I'd like to have sex now please" laugh he'd never forgotten. "It's slightly scary that you're safer on the bed."

"Yes, it is." He began to grin. "And no, it's not."

She leaned back. "So what's wrong? Is it just what Ross said?"

"I won't deny that's bugging me."

"You're going to be fifty, Jim. Not a hundred and fifty."

"I know." He looked down. Why the hell hadn't he commed her to cancel? Was she right? Had he wanted to have this conversation?

"Are you all right medically?"

His head shot up, "I'm perfectly capable--oh, that's not what you're asking, is it?"

She laughed softly. "No, but I'm glad to hear that all systems are in working order." She shifted a little. "Otherwise, you're feeling okay?"

"Eyes are bothering me. I wish you'd taken that grant to find an alternative to Retinax."

"Sometimes I do, too. Maybe we'd have done better if I'd been with you more?"

"Maybe so." He took a deep breath. He didn't like to talk about the year he and Chris had spent falling apart. He'd been grounded, and she'd been flitting all over the quadrant doing biochem research in support of several high-profile projects. He'd thought they were finally going to settle down, but she'd left him missing her more than he had in space.

He looked at her, saw that she was staring at him, her expression wary. That period of time was a minefield for them. Both when they'd lived it and now looking back.

"I never stopped loving you," she said.

He nodded, the motion terse, which he regretted. He tried again, but it didn't come out much better.

She smiled gamely, but he could see the buried pain in the expression. "You told me to take the position I wanted. You didn't tell me it would bother you if I was gone that much. You'd been gone and I'd been on Earth and we'd done fine. I guess I expected it to be the same if we reversed it."

"I don't do well on terra firma."

"I know that now."

"You should have known that then. You saw me before V'ger."

She swallowed hard, and he had the feeling she was biting back a retort. Narrowing his eyes, he studied her.

"Not going to fight?" he finally asked.

"No, I'm not. I'm tired, Jim. And I'm feeling pretty vulnerable right now, too." She got up and walked to the door. "I'm sorry I busted in here," she said as the door opened for her.

"Don't go." There was nothing particularly friendly in his voice; it was almost an order.

She didn't turn, but she did stop, and the door closed. "Are you sure about that?"

He moved to the couch, smiled when she turned. "See. I'm not afraid."

Her eyes were almost bleak. "Then you're a fool. We'll rip each other to shreds again."

"We haven't done it yet."

"Give us time."

"I'd like to. Wouldn't you?" He stared her down, could see by her eyes that she was fully aware of what he was saying.

"Isn't this the distraction Ross wanted?"

"No, this is real life. We just happen to be on his ship playing it out." He held his hand out. "Chris, come back to me."

His voice cracked a little, giving his words more meaning, and he almost wanted to take them back. But then she was walking toward him, a lost look on her face. She sat down next to him, her hand on his thigh--he could feel her touch in every nerve ending on his body.

He pulled her to him, drawing her closer and closer. He could feel her resisting a little, so he let go of her. "If you don't want to do this, then go away, Chris. Or go back to Ross. I'm sure he's a prince."

Her eyes narrowed; he'd made her mad. Smiling, he waited as she moved closer to him.

"What about your princess, Jim? It took you no time to find Antonia. I've always wondered--did you meet her before or after we broke up?"

"After," he said, the word coming out as a growl. "I told you I was faithful. But I can see how it might have been tough for you to know that. You weren't ever home."

Pushing away from him, she stood and stalking to the door. But she didn't go out, just turned and paced to the view port. Then across the room again and back to the view port--an endless cycle until he stood up and got in her way. She tried to move around him, but he drew her close.

"I never stopped loving you either," he said as he pulled her to him.

She didn't resist the kiss, melting into him the way she always had. Her hands roamed over his back, across his hips, up into his hair, pulling him closer. He explored her body, getting used to her fuller hips, opening her uniform so he could appreciate how other parts of her were fuller, too. She moaned as he pushed her to the bed and tugged off her uniform, then his own.

He tried to pin her, but she pushed him to his back, kissing down his chest to his belly, then to other, more sensitive, parts. If he hadn't been in full working order, her attention to his nether regions would have made sure that he was. As she kissed her way back up to him, she was smiling in the sexy "Look what I did" way he loved.

"Bad girl," he said to her, pulling her close and kissing her, his hands finding places that he knew she liked to be touched. He didn't break the kiss as he pushed her to her back and began to play in earnest. She was breathing hard by the time he finished, moaning her pleasure loudly into his mouth as he kissed her while she bucked against him.

"Jim," she said, running her fingers through his hair, pushing down the way he loved, making him close his eyes. "I never thought I'd be with you again."

"I know," he said, moving over her, the pleasure he'd given her rejuvenating him the way it always had. Their bodies joined, and it was like the years apart had never happened.

She ran her fingers down his back, causing him to shiver at the light touch. Then she ran her fingers down her own chest, stopping to linger, making him grin. She knew he was helpless when she did this. As she alternated between touching him and herself, pulling him down for frequent fleeting kisses, he could feel himself losing control.

"Chris," he breathed as he collapsed on top of her and felt her hug him close, as if he was going to try to escape. As if he could even move?

"I love you," she said, and he looked at her, surprised to see she had teared up.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked, brushing away a tear that escaped.

She shook her head, blinking furiously. "I've missed you. I've missed this. No one else is like you."

"I know." No one else was like her either; no sex was ever like this. Kissing her, he rolled off and pulled her in close to nestle against him. "Stay here tonight?"

She nodded, kissing his chest. He could hear her stomach rumbling.

"You're hungry."

"I'll survive without a meal. I'd rather be here with you."

He pushed her away gently and walked to the closet. "It doesn't have to be either/or." He pulled out one of the bars he'd brought for breakfast. Tearing one open, he took a bite, then crawled back into bed and held it out to her, smiling when she took a bite. "They're not very good. But they're very nutritious."

"They'll keep our strength up," she said, her smile almost shy. He loved this tender Chris. She tended to appear only after sex or when he'd been hurt or sick.

"That's right. We have a lot of night ahead of us." He frowned, worried suddenly that they were doing this--that soon their friends would know they were together again and would be waiting for what they would probably think was the inevitable explosion.

Chris was watching him, and he smiled with an assurance he wasn't sure he felt.

"What?" She took another bite from his bar, her fingers soft on his as she steadied his grasp.

"I want to be with you. Back together again. A couple."

She smiled, pushing the bar toward his mouth. "That's nice."

He kissed her fingers before taking a bite. "Our friends... So many expectations."

She shrugged. "Let's not tell them. It can be our secret for a while, can't it?" She snuggled against him. "I've had longer to think about what I'd do if I had this back, Jim."

"Don't bet on that."

She pulled away so that their eyes met. "You thought about me when you were with her?"

He didn't want to nod, but he did.

"I almost feel sorry for her."

"How big an almost is that?"

She held her fingers up about a centimeter apart, and he laughed, the bark of sound filling the room.

"Remember when we used to do that?" she asked. "When laughing wasn't something other people did?" She nuzzled his neck. "Remember when love didn't hurt?"

"Barely." It wasn't true. Love with Antonia hadn't hurt. Trouble was, even when he'd been happy with Antonia, he couldn't get Chris out of his mind. He'd still conjured up her face when he was alone and touching himself.

He kissed Chris, wondering if she was thinking the same thing--that love with her other men hadn't hurt the way love with him did.

Her face was troubled as she pulled away. "You think that would work? To not tell anyone for a while? Just have this for us?" Her voice was a little shaky, as if she was afraid he'd say no.

"I think it will." He held the last of the bar to her, and she took it, but then she lifted her mouth up, offering the food to him.

He bit into it gently, taking half. Their lips met for a moment, then he pulled away. Her smile was very soft as she finished eating, taking the wrapper from him and placing it on the bedside table.

"We can do this," he said as he pushed her to her back and followed her body with his lips, disappearing under the sheet in his quest for parts south.

"Yes, we can," she said. Then she bucked under his mouth and didn't say anything coherent for quite a while.

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

Chapel woke slowly, started to stretch and felt someone pull her closer. Jim. She was with Jim. She rolled over slowly, sliding under his hand. He was still asleep, was pulling her closer, his dreams perhaps interrupted by her movement.

He used to lie with her like this. A hand on her, often holding her close. She loved sleeping next to him.

Glancing at the chrono, she saw that they had plenty of time before they needed to be up, so she closed her eyes and nestled in closer. She lay in a drowsy haze, caught in some pleasant place that wasn't quite sleep.

A little while later, she felt him run his hand through her hair, heard his whispered, "Good morning."

"How do you know I'm awake?" She smiled and nuzzled his chest.

"Well, that's a good indication." He pushed her away a little bit, then kissed her.

Moving her hands down his body, she began to play.

"That's another good indication." He started to say something else, but the words turned into a moan.

"Good morning," she said, as she pulled him on top of her. The feel of him with her again was overwhelming, and she saw him watching her intently as he moved.

"Too much?" he asked with a gentle smile.

"No. Just right." She knew that neither of them was talking about the sex. Since the day she'd left him, she'd never stopped thinking about him, had never gotten over him.

She'd always wanted him back. She'd been sure she'd lost him forever when he'd left Starfleet and taken up with Antonia. But here Chapel was--in his bed, in his arms, moaning underneath him and clutching him to her as if she could pull him any closer.

"I love you," she said, capturing his ear, biting it gently then letting go.

"I never thought I'd hear you say that again." He smiled gently. "Life lacked a certain quality without you."

She wrapped her legs around him, keeping him from pulling away from her. "It was quieter, I imagine?"

"Oh, yes." Staring down at her, he sighed. "We're a little bit insane to do this again."

"I know." She didn't look away. "Want me to let you go?" She unwrapped her legs so he'd know she wasn't talking about just for the moment.

"No." He rolled off her, pulling her in close. "I missed you, Commander." Kissing her nose, he chuckled. "I was so proud of you when you got promoted."

"You weren't speaking to me."

"Doesn't mean I wasn't proud of you, Chris." He touched her cheek, his finger trailing down her neck, then down her chest. "I paid attention to what you were up to. I knew I shouldn't, but I couldn't stop."

She found it hard to meet his eyes.

"What?" he asked.

"It's bad."

He just waited.

"I rented a flitter and drove into the mountains. I saw the two of you..." She closed her eyes, trying to push back how much it had hurt to see him with Antonia. He'd been holding the petite woman close, hands running down a body that had looked luscious even from where Chapel had been sitting. "It was right after you two started."

"That couldn't have felt good."

"Hurt like hell."

Nodding, he nestled against her. "I saw you and Ross together last year. You looked happy. It damn near tore my heart out." He sighed. Loudly. "Will we do any better this time?"

"I don't know." She could feel him tense. "We can try."

"We can try."

"But we don't have to." She could feel herself tense, even as part of her whispered that it might be for the best to abandon this now, jump ship while she still owned her heart--and it was still more or less in one piece.

"Neither of us are cowards." There was something in his voice. Something unutterably sad. He turned his face away, as if he was a coward. As if he couldn't bear to look at her.

"I don't know if we'll make it this time, Jim. I don't know if we're supposed to."

He nodded tightly.

"I only know that I love you. I tried to forget you. But..."

"But..." Taking a deep breath, he turned to look at her. "I love you, too. I don't want to get any older without you."

"You're really wallowing in this getting old business, you know?" She let her fingers roam down and down until she ran into a part of him that had no time for such nonsense.

He groaned. "God. How do you do that?"

Smiling, she kissed him. "He loves me."

"He really does." He pulled her onto him. "I love you, too."

"I know." She closed her eyes, felt less need to try to make sense of it while they were this close, this connected. "When we're making love, everything seems so simple."

"When we're making love, everything is simple." His smile was easy, uncomplicated.

She had to kiss him, had to move harder, faster. Had to make his smile change, grow less dreamy, more possessive as he clutched at her. She had missed him so. Having him now was all that mattered. She didn't care if she regretted it later. She didn't care about anything except trying to squeeze as much loving into what they had left of their morning.

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

Kirk refilled his coffee, watching as Neimann and Chris sat talking over breakfast. They had an easy rapport, and he felt a surge of something that he hated to admit was jealousy. Chris was with him now. She'd always been with him in some sense, just as he'd always been with her.

Their love seemed enduring--if not terribly healthy at times.

As if she knew he was thinking something negative, Chris looked over at him, her eyebrows screwing down into a question. He smiled at her, trying to make it an easy expression. One that would mean only that he loved her. That he wanted her. That he was glad they were together again.

Neimann got up and left Chris at the table. As Kirk walked back to her, he wondered if the cadets scattered throughout the mess had any idea what kind of dynamic was running through the interactions of their advisor and his visiting officers. He wasn't sure he entirely understood all the dynamics.

Yawning, Chris reached for the mug he'd refilled for her.

"Someone didn't get enough sleep," he murmured.

"Someone didn't let me." Her smile was so sexy that he was sure everyone in the room could tell they were lovers. "You and Ross aren't friends, are you?" she asked.

He sipped his coffee, thinking about how best to answer her question. "We get on fine--or we did before he started escorting you hither and yon. But we're not friends, no."

"What do you think of him?"

"He's a fine officer, a--"

"--No. Not the party line. What do you really think of him?"

Kirk took a deep breath. This was how he first noticed her. When she'd been willing to press him, to stop him and make him regroup, rethink, redirect. She called him on things. Not many did that. It was what had gained her admittance into his inner circle. A very small circle of those he'd commanded--a slightly larger circle where his peers were concerned.

"You still care for him, Chris. Why ask me this?"

"Because I want to know."

"All right. I think he's stubborn to the point of pigheaded. This exercise is typical of the way he finds a project and turns it into a crusade. He's not above playing games to ensure his success--as we've both found out this trip. And I don't trust him. But he's good to his people, and his instincts seem right on as far as captaining a ship go."

"When he's not on a crusade, you mean?"

"When he's not on a crusade." Kirk leaned forward. "And he has great taste in women."

"Don't try to distract me." But she grinned, clearly pleased that he was bringing the personal into the discussion. "You say you don't trust him. How can he be a good captain if you can't trust him?"

"I'm not saying his people can't trust him most of the time. Just that as his peer, or slightly higher"--he smiled tightly; Endoya hadn't been wrong that those who should have been his peers resented his rapid rise--"I've seen him leave folks to twist in the wind. Especially if it was a choice between his crusade and the greater good."

She stared at him, then took a deep breath.

"You don't agree with my assessment, Chris?"

"Actually, I do. His crusades were one of the reasons I stopped seeing him. He let me twist in the wind one too many times, emotionally speaking." She looked down. "That's a nasty expression, by the way. I'm not sure he meant to leave me hanging."

He watched her as she played with some spilled salt, moving it into small little dunes. They made him think of the ones they'd made love behind on a beach west of Seattle. They'd gone north one weekend, back when they'd still run away together on a lark.

"Why do you think he cares so much about Red Squad?" She looked up at him, her blue eyes a little dull from lack of sleep.

"He was a hard charger." Neimann had been a rival squad leader back in their Academy days. He'd risen fast once he'd hit the ranks.

He'd risen fast, but Kirk had still left him in the dust.

"He is jealous of you. That was the other reason we broke up. I got tired of the competition between you. Especially when you didn't even know there was one." She met his eyes. "Although maybe, from what you said this morning, you did?"

"If I'd known he was so worried about me coming to take you back, I might have actually done it." He grinned, could feel there was a touch of bitterness in it.

She didn't seem to mind. "And I'd have come out to the pretty pines and bopped your lady love over the head."

"Kidnapping me in the process?"

She nodded. "Would you have gone with me?"

"I don't know."

The answer didn't seem to surprise her. "I know. I probably wouldn't have left Ross for you. You and I were too...raw."

"Good word for it." Raw--like their relationship had rubbed at them until their skin had torn off. Or halfway so. Leaving each other had been what had torn it all the way off.

"Do you think Bylakov was right?" she asked softly. "That my rise is something inspiring?"

"How many times have I told you that?" He hadn't been teasing the cadet. Chris never seemed to believe in her own potential. Or maybe she believed in it, but didn't think of it as potential. Just the ability to press on until she got what she wanted.

"I'd have never made Red Squad," she murmured.

He laughed softly.

"What?"

"Sweetheart, you did make Red Squad. You talked your way onto my ship."

"Oh, yeah." Her grin was the one that had made him fall in love with her. Cockeyed and sweet. Full of wry humor and promise. She had been a woman he'd known slightly for a long time. A woman he'd gotten to know well only after V'ger, before she'd left the ship again to take a position back on Earth. A woman he'd taken to his bed after a night of laughter and truths--her telling him about Roger and him telling her about Carol and his son. They'd been sitting in his temporary quarters, in front of the fire. He'd been back for meetings at Command, had run into her at Starfleet Medical, had asked her to dinner at his favorite romantic restaurant before he could think the whole thing through. When dinner was over, he'd invited her back to his room.

He hadn't intended to seduce her, and she'd told him later that she hadn't intended to seduce him. It had just happened. She'd leaned in when he'd finished telling her about David, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears, and he'd loved her at the moment. She'd moved him with her sweet sympathy and her willingness to feel the pain he had long ago locked away.

"I'm sorry," she had said.

He'd kissed her. That was all it had taken.

"Chapel to Kirk."

He looked up at her, realized he'd been moving the salt around for her. "Sorry. I was in San Francisco. The VOQ. With a certain doctor?"

Her expression grew very soft. "She liked you a lot."

"She doesn't still?"

"Oh, she does." Leaning back, she studied him. "That moment had potential."

"Potential we mined extremely well."

"But..." She looked down and to her right, the way she did when she was trying to put together a puzzle. "It's sort of what you said. Who would have ever put us together? Yet...we work."

"You're saying we're not Red Squad material?"

"I'm saying no one would have picked us for a couple." She laughed softly. "Granted, we've not proven to be the ideal couple."

"False start." He grinned. It felt good to feel this way. Happy. He was happy. They were still far from the ideal couple--but he felt like he was floating.

"I don't think I'll use us as an example with the cadets, though." She swept the salt dunes into her empty mug. Looking up at him, she smiled a bit wickedly. "Remember that beach?"

"I do."

"Those were good times, Jim. Maybe we won't lose them if we try harder this time."

"Maybe not." He stood up. "Ready to go assess cadets?"

She nodded.

Turning to her as they hit the door, he said, "Chris, we don't have to keep this a secret if you don't want to."

"I think we should." She bumped up against him as they entered the lift. "We've got enough to do without worrying about what our friends think."

"I just..." He touched her cheek. "I just don't want you to think I'm hiding this."

"And you don't want to think that I might be doing that, either?"

"You know me too well."

"No such thing," she said, leaning up against him for a moment, her warmth a reminder of every good thing they'd ever known.

Funny--now that he let himself, he could recall so many.

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

"You seem pensive." Ross tossed Chapel an apple, a green one. She was surprised he remembered she liked those.

"Just relaxing."

"No admiral in tow?"

"He's down in engineering." She studied him. "Why did you do this?"

"Do what?" Sitting down, he bit heartily into his own apple.

"Your cadets are good. All on their own. You didn't need to set me up." She bit into the fruit, enjoying the stinging tartness.

"Who said I was doing that?" Ross seemed to relax, leaning back in his chair. "And don't tell me you're not enjoying the set up. You and I might have fizzled, but I did get to know you well enough to see when you're having fun."

She smiled slowly.

"A lot of fun." He took a deep breath, looking at the cadets scattered around the mess. "They're going to make the finest officers."

"Probably so. That's not what Jim's debating with you."

"I know what he thinks. But what do you think?"

Frowning, she bit into her apple again, buying time. She met his gaze, saw the need to know which way she would go. "You didn't bring me here just to distract Jim. You thought I could influence him, didn't you?"

His grin was almost innocent. "Influence him?"

She exhaled, the sound loud with frustration. "Why are you playing these games?"

He leaned forward suddenly, the movement almost violent. "Because he always wins, Christine. Always. I needed an ace. You were it."

"Where I come from, that's called cheating."

"Where I come from, it's called covering your ass."

"He's not aiming to kick your ass, Ross. So quit covering it."

He put the apple down on a napkin, pushed it aside. "Christine, these are the finest cadets, the very best Starfleet has to offer. I intend to mold them and test them and make them even finer."

"I understand that. But what about the rest of the cadets?"

"They'll be fine. They'll get along."

"They're not all mediocre. Some of them lack direction, but they'll find it." She thought of Rand, charging so hard now. "Some of them will discover a dream and chase it for all they're worth." Sulu came to mind, with his dream of being a starship captain. "But they won't start out that way."

"I accept there are late bloomers. But they'll bloom with or without my program. This is for those who shine now."

"You should ask Jim about Gary Mitchell. He shone early. Very, very bright."

Ross looked down. "That's not a fair example. Gary would never have done what he did if he hadn't been taken over by some kind of power."

"Doctor Dehner was taken over. She fought the power. He didn't."

"So you're saying my Red Squad cadets are going to become megalomaniacs?"

"No, I'm saying that the potential exists in any cadet, but especially those for whom it comes so easily. And when you take them outside the system like this, when you give them this rarified air, you cut their ties to other officers. Normal officers."

"Now I know what your pillow talk with Jim is like. You're quite the sponge."

She laughed, the sound hard and angry. "That wasn't Jim talking. That was me. Do you know what I did on the Enterprise, Ross? I watched. I watched everything. The dynamics, especially. Jim excelled at that, you know? Bringing people together. Giving them a common cause no matter what their abilities. He molded them, taught them, inspired them. And he led by example."

"The king of the fleet." Ross smiled bitterly. "He's not a good example. Everything he touches turns to gold."

"Do you think that's without effort? Do you think he doesn't work at it?" She leaned in. "I've seen him so exhausted that he could barely stand, and yet he stayed upright, making sure his crew was all right before he collapsed."

"You worship him, Christine. You're his lover. I'd expect that."

"When did this become about him?"

Ross sat back, taking a long slow breath.

"Ross. I'm serious. What is going on?"

"This idea has merit, Christine. He opposed me in front of everyone. Didn't even give it a chance. He'd kill it on principle if I didn't have some key admirals in my corner."

"I don't think that's true."

"But you don't know for sure." Ross leaned in, almost whispering, "Has it occurred to you that a man like Jim wouldn't shine in a Red Squad? Maybe that's why he opposes it? Because he doesn't want to find out how ordinary he is when he's faced with a level playing field."

She got up slowly, shaking her head. "Ordinary?"

"Ordinary." His eyes were hard.

Chapel realized this had nothing to do with her. It was just possible her relationship with Ross had had nothing to do with her. "Why do you hate him so?"

"I don't hate him."

"You pursued me because I was once his, didn't you?"

He didn't answer her.

"Well, this is one fun voyage, Ross. Thanks for including me in it." She put her hands on the table, leaning over. "You're obsessed with him."

"I want to win. I want to beat him. That doesn't make me a bad guy."

"No? It sure puts your cadets in the middle--your cadets...and me." She turned before he could say anything else, pushing past one of the other advisors. Hurrying to the lift, she let the doors close before she said, "Engineering."

Jim looked up as she came in. "Commander, come look at this."

She smiled at the cadets as she walked up, saw their easy grins back. They were completely at ease with Jim and with her. One of them started talking again, explaining the inner workings of a new warp something-or-other.

Jim grinned at her. "Scotty would be green with envy."

"Scotty probably invented it," she murmured.

"Actually, no," the cadet said. "But Commander Tavrek did use Scott's research as a jumping-off point."

Jim followed two of the other cadets to one of the Jefferies tubes. The first cadet hung back with Chapel.

She glanced at his nametag. "Something on your mind, Fusai?"

He was watching Jim. "It's an honor having him aboard." The cadet seemed to blush. "He's always been a hero of mine."

She smiled. "Of mine, too." Leaning against the console, she watched the other cadets in engineering, all going about their business so confidently. "Tell me something, Fusai. Do you feel ordinary?"

"Ma'am?"

"Among all this excellence. Do you still feel outstanding?"

He thought about that. "Yes, ma'am. But I also feel...challenged. And when I rise to meet the challenge, I feel better about myself than ever."

"Because it's hard?"

"Because it's harder." He grinned. "I've never had to try very hard to impress anyone. Here...here I have to work at it."

She smiled. It was the answer she imagined Jim might have given her at that age. Men like him--and like Fusai--viewed things as challenges, not problems.

"You're our future leaders."

He nodded. He'd no doubt heard that plenty of times.

"Do you know what defines a leader?"

He ran through the standard list. "Integrity. Courage. Resourcefulness."

"All things within you."

"I hope so." His smile was very earnest.

"I'd like to offer another answer."

He waited.

"What if a leader isn't defined by things inside himself? What if he's defined by the willingness of others to follow him?"

Fusai frowned, obviously considering the idea. Then he looked past her, at the other cadets. "It is an interesting idea."

"Yes. Tell me, Fusai. Where are those who will follow?" She touched his arm, trying to show him there was no malice in what she was saying. "How will you know what moves them, what motivates them, if you're never with them?"

He met her eyes.

"Someone else is learning that. Back at the Academy. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does any group. Someone is learning to lead them. How will you fit into that equation when you get off this ivory tower?"

"You don't approve of us?"

"Cadet, I tested out of half my M.D. prerequisites. I left my peers far behind. I don't have to approve of you to understand you."

He swallowed. "I like it here."

"I imagine you do." She saw Jim waiting for her at the door. "Just...think about what I said. I don't expect you do anything except that."

She walked away quickly, not waiting to see what his answer to that would be.

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

Kirk watched Chris as she stood at the viewport, looking out at the stars. She was naked, the soft glow from the overheads lighting her hair and skin. He was pretty sure she thought he was asleep, that she didn't know he'd roused as she'd climbed out of bed.

She stood as still as a statue, then began to rub her arms as if trying to warm herself. Was she cold here in his bed? Was she...unhappy?

"Have you ever been obsessed with someone?" she asked, surprising him.

"Not that I know of. And how did you know I was awake?"

She turned, did not appear the least bit self-conscious about standing in front of him naked. "Your breathing changes. I always knew when you were faking sleep." She smiled.

"Always?"

"Why do you think I was such a good nurse? I listened." She sighed. "I watched. I listened."

"You did things, too." He smiled, unsure where she was going but hearing a note of something that sounded like self-pity. "You patched my sorry ass up more times than I like to think about."

"I did do that." She walked toward him, smiled as he pulled her back into bed, back into his arms.

"You okay?" He wanted to kiss her, decided it would be prudent to get the answer to his question before he did.

She just nodded, cuddling against him in a way that seemed out of character.

"Chris, what's wrong?"

"Ross is obsessed with you. With beating you." She looked up at him. He almost expected tears, but her eyes were dry. "I think that's why he was with me. To have what you had."

"It may have started out that way. But once the man slept with you, I'm sure he ended up wanting you for you." He thought about his interactions with Neimann over the years. "Do you really think that's why he did it?"

"He as much as admitted it today." She moved until she could look at him, stared at him as if he was a particularly troublesome sample. "Did you humiliate him at the board? When he presented the Red Squad concept?"

"I challenged him. I wouldn't say I humiliated him."

"He thinks you did."

Kirk sighed. "It's gotten so anything I do, anything I challenge, is a bigger deal than it has to be." He met her eyes, didn't look away. "It's worse since I came back."

"You resigned. And then--poof!--they welcome you back into the ranks. Just like that." She smiled. "What did you expect?"

"I don't know. These men and women...they were my friends. My classmates."

"Your rivals."

"I guess. I never saw them as that."

She laughed softly. "Maybe that's the problem? You never did, and they wanted that from you. To be taken seriously as rivals?"

"I didn't mean it like that. I meant that I see collaboration--"

She put a warm finger on his lips. "It's possible to be too good at what you do."

He pulled away. "I don't believe that. And neither do you."

Leaning down, she kissed him. It was a strange kiss. Devoid of passion, but still warm. "No, I don't believe it."

She nestled against him again, and he could feel her shaking. "Chris? What's wrong?"

"Being here. With you. It's wonderful."

"It is."

"And it's terrible. I'm afraid." She stopped, and he could hear her take a deep breath. "I'm afraid of us. What we'll do to each other."

"You think I'm not?"

"I'm not sure I ever got over you." She kissed him again, and this time there was passion in the mix. "I'm afraid, but I'm even more afraid that if I walk away, I'll never love anyone again. That I'll be alone till I..."

"Till you die." It wasn't a question. He'd thought the same thing himself when he left Antonia. Almost hadn't left her for just that reason.

She nodded. "Morbid?"

"Yes. But maybe realistic, too?" Pulling her closer, he kissed her hair. "We shouldn't be together just because we're afraid of being alone."

"We shouldn't not be together just because we're afraid of crashing and burning."

He started to laugh. "You can argue any side, Doctor Chapel."

"Sometimes"--her voice was barely a whisper--"I wish I didn't love you so much. It wouldn't be scary, then. It would be safe."

He thought of the Enterprise. How much he missed her. She had never been safe. "Is that what we want? Safe?" He could hear how he spit the word out, as if safe was something that twisted in his craw.

"I don't know anymore." She began to rub his leg, working her way over, and he grabbed her hand, stopping her.

"Do you trust me?" he asked.

"With my life." Her answer was too fast, too glib.

"What about with your heart?"

She pulled her hand away. "That's harder."

"I know." He rolled away from her, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, their arms the only part that touched. "I'm not sure I trust you, either."

"I guess the giddy reunion phase is over?"

He began to laugh. She amused him at the oddest times. Rolling back to her, he said, "I guess it is."

"I don't trust you," she said. "But I love you. And I'm not sure I care about the trust part. Not right now, anyway."

"I know," he said, as he pulled her on top of him, over him.

Groaning, she closed her eyes. "If we could just have sex all the time, we'd be fine."

"Yes, we would." He touched her cheek, waiting until she opened her eyes to say, "I don't want to lose you."

"I don't want you to lose me." Leaning down, she kissed him. A good kiss. The right kind of kiss. "We can be happy, can't we? We are capable of that?"

It was a question he'd pondered many a night. Was he capable of that? "If I am capable of it, I think it would be with you."

She smiled softly. "Such a good answer." Then her smile faded. "And such a sad one, Jim."

"I know." He didn't look away, let her see the truth in the statement. He didn't know anymore if he could be happy. He didn't know anymore if he would even recognize happiness. "I'm old, Chris." Even as he said it, he felt the irony of the statement. The part of him currently inside her didn't seem to be aging.

"No, you're not. You just feel old. There's a difference." She moved faster, pressing him harder. "Let me show you, Admiral."

Throwing his head back, toes curling and fingers clutching the sheets, he let her take him to a place where he felt young again.

For a moment.

But as they lay together, quiet at last, he found himself wrestling with old thoughts. Used up thoughts.

"Stop thinking, Jim."

He smiled. "How do you know I am?"

"You're sighing a lot. You do that when you wallow." She kissed his cheek. "I love you. No matter what happens, I will always love you."

"Me too," he said, pulling her close.

They were on the verge of another chance, a new life together. It should be a happy thing. So why did everything she was saying suddenly sound like goodbye?

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

"So how's it going up there?" Cartwright glanced away, nodding to someone Chapel couldn't see.

"It's going." At his look, she shrugged. "I'm not sure what I think of Red Squad."

"Well, that's clearly not an overwhelming endorsement."

"No, it's not." She took a deep breath. "I question the wisdom of pulling the best away from the others."

"Is that Jim talking?"

She shot him a sharp glance. "Did you know he was going to be here?"

"I'd have warned you if I'd known." He waited for her to answer his question.

"Jim and I are in agreement on this one, I think." She leaned in, as if she could convince Cartwright of her sincerity by moving closer on his screen. "They're missing out on too much. It's a safe environment for now. And they challenge each other. But at the end of the day, they won't be leading each other. They'll be leading the very people they've been separated from. They won't even know them. And that won't be safe at all. It'll be a recipe for disaster."

He sat back. "That's was said about prep school kids for years. That they didn't live life but some rarified version of it. That all the fine learning couldn't make up for actual living."

"Do you buy that?"

"In some cases, perhaps." He stared at her, as if he could read her mind over the distance separating them. "Would you want to serve with these cadets, Christine?"

"Serve with them? Without question." She took a deep breath. "But I'm not sure I'd want them leading me."

He nodded slowly. "Who's leading now?"

"Excuse me?" He'd lost her, and she wasn't able to read the look on his face.

"Who's in charge up there?"

"Ross is." She started to smile, seeing where he was going. "Ross and his section leaders." She saw him grin. "Maybe it's time some of the squad led?"

"Maybe so." His grin faded. "Peers work fine together, but once one gets the advantage..."

"You were Jim's peer."

He nodded.

"Ross's, too, then."

"Yep." He leaned in toward the screen. "Jim's sin is success."

"I know. Continued success."

Cartwright nodded. "You realize that if you side with Jim, Ross may say your personal relationship with him is blinding you."

"So I have to side with Ross or he cries collusion?" Shaking her head, she laughed softly. "There are only so many sides to this. If I side with Ross, couldn't it also be because of a prior personal relationship?"

Grinning, Cartwright nodded. "That's what I like about you, Commander. You do know how to play the game."

"I hate the game."

"Doesn't matter if you like it or not. Just that you're proficient."

"Then I better go play." She reached for the switch that would cut the connection.

"Christine?"

Her hand paused in mid reach.

"Go easy on Jim."

She could feel her eyebrows going up.

"He's...vulnerable right now."

"And I'm not?"

He had the grace to look sheepish. "You're a survivor."

"So is he."

"Once. I'm not sure he could survive you twice."

His words stung. A lot. "Thanks. That's flattering."

"I'm his friend. And right now, I'm just your C.O., but someday I bet I'll be your friend, too." As she started to protest, he raised his hand. "I'll shut up now, Commander. I expect a progress report soon."

She nodded, could feel her mouth set in a tight line.

"Christine, no one will be happier if you two can make this work. It's just...I'm worried about him."

"I'm not going to hurt him."

"Okay." He nodded once, very tightly, as if that was all that needed to be said. "Good luck with the assessment. Cartwright out." The screen went blank.

Her door chime went off, startling her. "Come."

Jim came in, his smile gentle as he sat down across from her. "What's wrong?"

She shook her head, unwilling to tell him that his ersatz big brother Matthew was warning her off him.

"Chris? Was that Matt you were talking to?"

She nodded, trying very hard to keep her look out of the miserable zone. Did her boss really think she'd hurt Jim?

Jim sighed. "What did he say?" Leaning forward, he took her hand in his, rubbing gently.

"He said we should solve the leadership question by having the cadets start leading each other."

"Pick alphas for the alphas?"

She nodded, not meeting his eyes.

"It's a good idea--at least it will simulate some portion of the challenges of leadership. We'll suggest it to Ross next time we see him. Now, what did Matt say about us?"

Sighing, she looked up. "He thinks I'm going to hurt you."

"I'm not sure I don't agree with him." His expression was neutral. "I may hurt you, as well."

"I know." Her tone was almost belligerent.

He laughed softly. "At ease, Chris. Neither of us cares what he thinks about our relationship. Although, we may look back on this moment and wish we'd listened to him." He let go of her hand, stood up and motioned for her to do the same.

"Is there an 'or' in that statement?" she asked as she walked around her desk.

He pulled her close. "I was getting to that." Kissing her, he held her so tightly she thought she could feel his heart beating through their uniforms. "Or he may be dead wrong and we'll live happily ever after."

"I like that version."

"Me, too." He shook his head. "So much for keeping this from our friends."

"Let's not tell anyone else for a while." She couldn't imagine what a field day Len would have with this.

"Officer thinking, Commander." He let go of her. "Let's go do our jobs and worry about this later."

"Or not at all."

"Even better." Grinning, he pushed her gently out of her quarters, the feel of his hand on her back both comforting and exciting.

"We don't have to hurt each other," she murmured as she preceded him into the lift.

"No, we don't. Let's not."

The door opened on the bridge, cutting the conversation off as she followed him out.

They didn't have to hurt each other this time. Not if they didn't want to. That was all they had to remember.

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

Kirk watched the play of emotions over Neimann's face. The man was not liking the idea of pulling out certain cadets to play captain. He probably liked it even less that they were having this conversation in Kirk's office instead of his own. It was a power play, and not a nice one, making the man come to him.

"I'm not sure I see the problem, Ross. It's done all the time in the regular training exercises." Kirk resisted adding "with our more mediocre cadets," knowing it would just inflame the other man.

"These kids have been teammates. To pull some of them out now would be to ruin the dynamic."

"How else are we going to see if they can lead?"

"You've seen them. You know they can."

"Know? I don't know anything. I might sense it. But I've thought that before and been wrong. People don't always respond in a positive manner to having leadership thrust upon them. Others take to it naturally. If it were something we could predict, we'd have a lot fewer bad leaders in the fleet." He glanced over at Chris, who seemed to be sitting this out for the moment, watching the two of them like a spectator at a tennis match. Her expression wasn't giving anything away.

Neimann looked at her. "You have nothing to say?"

"I have plenty to say. Just not yet." Her expression didn't change, and Kirk wondered when she had perfected that poker face. Was it in her last assignment? Or had it been when they'd been falling apart? Had she learned it to avoid hurt?

"Try chiming in now, Commander," Neimann said, his tone sharper than it needed to be. "I'd like you to prove you're not just his echo."

"Okay, then. I think you're afraid," she said, not reacting when both men turned to look at her. "I think you're afraid that they might not be able to lead each other. Or rather, they might not be able to follow each other."

Kirk could feel his mouth turning up and fought the smile. Damn, she had grown a pair, or grown a bigger pair--she hadn't been a shrinking violet when he'd been with her.

Neimann laughed, the sound low and scornful, but Kirk could tell he was buying time. He stared Chris down, but her expression stayed bland.

"Fine. Pick some leaders." Neimann sat back, as if he was washing his hands of the whole notion.

"No. You do it." Kirk could hear his voice tightening, as if he expected a fight. He realized he was having fun. Baiting Neimann was fun--what did that say about his current job if this was entertaining? What did it say about him?

"Why should I do it? You're the brass here."

"Because that's how it's done, Captain." Chris sighed. "Command decisions usually are made by those who know the people to some degree. And how suited they'd be for the jobs at hand."

Kirk nodded. "It usually works."

"Sure it does. Just ask Will Decker."

Kirk fought his reaction, forcing his mouth not to tighten. "I relieved Will with Nogura's full concurrence."

"He was the duly selected leader, Admiral. And you couldn't follow him." Neimann leaned in. "And you wanted your ship back. There's a time and place for all things, isn't that the saying? Your time was over; your place was back on Earth. But you wanted your ship back."

Chris leaned forward. "That was entirely different. V'Ger was a threat that Will Decker wasn't ready for. I knew Will. I knew what he was capable of. I felt better with the Admiral in charge."

"The admiral you were soon sleeping with." Neimann turned to Kirk. "I'd always heard you didn't shit in your own nest, but I guess for Christine you made an exception."

Kirk started to answer but heard Chris say, "Sir, don't." He expected her to get red, really mad the way she'd gotten at him more than once during their affair. But she surprised him. She turned to Neimann, her voice low and soft, as if she was the nurse again, offering solace. "You've gone on the attack because you're afraid. This is beyond irrelevant. Pick your damn leaders and let's get back to business."

"I don't like your tone, Commander."

"I apologize for my tone, sir. But my suggestion stands."

Kirk decided to be the peacemaker. "We know your cadets can function as a team. We've seen it. But they won't always be together, and they won't all get promoted at the same time. Some of them will have to lead. And some will have to follow." That was a dig at Neimann, and Kirk winced a little at how low it was to remind the man that he'd made admiral twice while Neimann was still a captain.

Neimann didn't seem to like it much, either. Standing, he said, "I think we've talked enough about this."

"You'll have the list of section leads to us by dinnertime?" Chris was pushing damn hard. It was probably payback for Neimann's interest in her being spurred by his competition with Kirk.

"I didn't say I was going to play along with th--"

"--Choose some leaders, Captain," Kirk said. "Make sure they're in the briefing room at twenty-one hundred hours because I want to talk to them. Is that clear?" He could hear the steel in his tone. It was rare he had to use that steel. He didn't like to use it, but he wasn't afraid to even if it felt odd--he'd grown used to having people want to do what he said. Expected people to be eager to obey. Because they trusted him. Because they respected him.

Because they liked him.

Neimann hated him. It was that simple. And when they got done with the next exercise, the cadets Neimann chose might be hated, too, by their peers.

Good. Let them get used to it. Jealousy was a reality, but the mission didn't stop just because someone else wanted what you had. Life didn't work that way.

"Is that clear?" Kirk asked again.

"Very clear, sir." Perfectly regulation, Neimann rose and pushed his chair in. Then he waited.

"Dismissed," Kirk said, hating that their dynamic was devolving this way. Once upon a time they had been almost friends. Never like he and Gary, but not so at odds. Not enemies.

As the door closed behind Neimann, Chris turned to Kirk, her eyes a bit bleak. "The line in the sand."

He nodded.

"Do you think this'll get ugly?"

"That depends on how much he wants his cadets to succeed."

"He wants to beat you. To beat you, they have to succeed." She took a deep breath. "I wouldn't want to be the one of the cadets he picks."

"Neither would I." He stood up, suddenly unable to sit another minute in his chair. "Let's go run the scenarios. I want to make sure we know every parameter of this excercise backwards and forwards."

"Aye-aye, sir," she said, the words teasing but her tone gentle.

"When did you become such a ball buster?"

"I learned it from you." She grinned at his expression. "And there were lots of marines on my last tour. They have an interesting way of dealing with things."

Laughing, he touched her arm. "Have I told you how glad I am that you're here?"

"You might have mentioned that last night. I think I indicated I wasn't displeased at your presence, either?"

"You might have." Grinning, he leaned down and kissed her, even though they were on duty. "Let's go get smarter than Ross."

By the look on her face, she was biting back a rude comment as she got up.

It was probably just as well.

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

Chapel watched as the chosen few filed into the briefing room. She was back benching in a chair to the side. Curious about what Jim was going to say to the cadets, she was content to just be an observer.

Fusai and Bylakov nodded to her. Two other cadets she'd talked to briefly on a recent landing party also acknowledged her. Glancing at the list Ross had given them, she paired their faces with their names: T'Velik and Sanchez. T'Velik was one of three Vulcans in the program, and she was different from the other two in that she carried herself with ease--like Spock had learned to only in his later years. She seemed comfortable around all these other, more emotional, species.

Jim looked at Chapel, and she laid three fingers on her thigh. He nodded ever so slightly. Of course, he'd know how many were missing. He probably knew exactly who, too. Turning back to the padd, she saw that they were waiting for Ndilia, Guttersen, and Ling.

A blonde cadet hurried in, straightening her nametag--Guttersen. "Sorry, sir. Game went over." Her face was flushed from whatever activity she'd been participating in. Probably volleyball. These cadets had resurrected the old game and played it with vicious intensity. Chapel had seen Guttersen among those trying to kill each other with the dirty white ball.

Ndilia and Ling came in together. They looked suspicious, as if they weren't sure why there were in the group. Chapel hadn't seen much of them during the inspection, but they were from parts of the ship she hadn't made much time for. "Sirs," they both murmured, taking seats at the far end of the table.

"Why are you here?" Jim asked, practically before they'd settled in.

"Because Captain Neimann told us to be," Ndilia said. His file listed him as half Andorian. His features, which had only a light blue cast, were nearly as stoic as a Vulcan's. But his abbreviated antennae quivered slightly, and Chapel realized he was nervous.

Jim nodded, staring at the young man until his light blue skin turned much darker. "Why else?"

"Because for our next exercise we need section heads." Bylakov spoke softly, but her voice was steady. She wasn't afraid of them, not after all the hours they'd spent on the bridge.

Chapel smiled. She liked the young woman, had spent time talking to her one evening when she and Jim and had been making the rounds of the cadet lounge. He'd had to remind her to move on, a quick tilt of his head telling her to leave the girl who seemed to hold Chapel in such high regard and get to know some of the other cadets.

"I want us to speak freely here." Jim turned to Ndilia. "Do you need section heads?"

"We're a team, sir. We've been doing fine as a team."

"So, you don't need section heads?"

"You want us to have section heads," Guttersen said.

"Why?" Jim turned to Sanchez. "Why would I want that, Mister Sanchez?"

"To mirror a regular ship, sir."

"Regular." Jim whirled, focusing on Ling. "Synonyms for regular, cadet?"

"Normal, sir." At Jim's look he kept going. "Ordinary."

"Run of the mill," Ndilia murmured.

"You can't think of it like that." A new voice. Fusai's.

Jim looked at him. "Why not?"

"Because they're fellow officers. And crew. We're all Starfleet."

"We're all Starfleet," Jim said, his voice dipping into the seductive tones he used when he was about to unleash a very large point. He turned to Ndilia. "You realize that by virtue of being picked by your captain for these positions, you've just became the cream of the crop?"

Ndilia looked down.

Jim glanced over at Chapel, a squint told her to say something.

She obliged him. "That makes you uncomfortable, Cadet. Why?"

There was a swishing sound as the cadets on her side of the table turned to look at her. She wondered if they'd forgotten she was there.

"They're my teammates."

"It happens all the time on regular ships," she said. "One minute you're peers, the next you're managing the same people. You have to learn to deal with that. To adapt to your new role."

"But, we've spent months working together." Bylakov looked at her, then at Jim. "Sir, like any team, we have a certain dynamic."

"Yes. Group norms, even. But you're not a normal group"--he held up a hand as seven mouths started to open--"which is entirely the point, I know. But you won't stay together. All this time being made into a team...for what?"

"For maximum efficiency," T'Velik said, but her eyes were wary. The way Spock often looked when he was defending something Vulcan that he didn't entirely agree with.

"Well, we may examine that concept again. For now...for this exercise, you're not a team player, anymore. You're the leader. I'll expect you to lead." He nodded to the padds he and Chapel had set on the table. "Take one, pull up your directory. You'll find the parts of the simulation you're in charge of."

Reaching for the padds, the cadets began to read. One of them made a little noise of protest. From where she was sitting, Chapel couldn't tell which cadet it was.

"Problem, Mister Ling?" Jim asked.

"I can't possibly do all this."

"Not alone. You'll need your own section subheads. I expect you to have them chosen by tomorrow morning." He smiled--a dangerous smile.

Sanchez frowned. "You want us to choose?"

"Yes. You have a concern?"

"Our choices could alienate some of our teammates."

"Welcome to real life." Jim sat down, leaning in, his expression his most dangerous one. The "we're all in this together" look that usually meant bad news was on the way. Or he was going to pull a fast one and needed help. "How do you choose?"

When no one answered, he said with a grin, "That wasn't a prelude to a speech. How do you choose these subheads? What are you going to look for?"

"Ability," Bylakov said.

"That's a given on this ship," Chapel said, winking at her.

"What else?" Jim's tone was very patient.

Chapel took pity on the cadets as they stared down at the padds, probably trying to think of qualities that equated to more than just proficiency. "Why do you think Neimann chose you to be the section heads?"

"I have no idea why I was tagged," Guttersen blurted out, then turned an even deeper shade of red than before. "We're all so good here."

"Well, you better figure that out...and apply it to your own choices," Jim said with a gentle smile. "I want you back in this room, with your subheads, at oh nine hundred. Any questions?"

Six heads shook; T'Velik merely stared.

"Then go to it."

All but T'Velik stood and filed out.

"You have a question."

"Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Granted."

"I am ambivalent about this program."

"I would never have guessed," Jim said, motioning for Chapel to join them at the table.

As she sat, she saw that T'Velik seemed to be struggling and said, "Cadet, you're not betraying Captain Neimann by having your own opinion."

T'Velik looked at her in what seemed almost like surprise. "It is not Captain Neimann I am concerned with. What I am about to say...it is not said to outsiders." She paused, as if considering. "This program is similar to one on my world. You may have heard of it. It is called Kohlinahr."

"We've heard of it."

T'Velik's skin flushed a slightly darker green. "Of course, you are friends of Captain Spock's." She spoke of friends with remarkable ease.

"Very good friends," Jim said, his voice gentle. "You were speaking of Gol."

She nodded. "The program separates Vulcan from Vulcan. Those who master the disciplines are..."

"Unreachable," Chapel said, remembering how Spock had been when he'd shown up on the ship to find V'Ger.

"Forever out of touch," Jim said, glancing at her. Spock hadn't been lost forever, but Chapel knew it had been close. "You don't agree with the disciplines, Cadet?"

"It is not that. The discipline is for those who are called strongly. For those who wish to separate from society. But I have studied the works of many leaders from many worlds. It is what made me choose Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy. I wished to learn how to effectively lead." She stopped, took a breath. "That is what we are for, is it not? Officers lead."

"They do." Chapel smiled. "We also do things, occasionally." She grinned at Jim. "Save the planet, stop unstoppable machines. That kind of thing."

"I am aware of the Admiral's exploits." T'Velik's almost sounded like she was teasing them. "But to separate those who must lead from those who must be led is not logical. How can we understand them?"

"That is the issue here." Jim sighed. "And it's not just understanding them. It's understanding yourself. You get that more from dealing with people who aren't like you, than with people who are."

She nodded, obviously considering that. "I am, however, constantly challenged to excel by my classmates on this ship. There is a level of excellence in this environment that would be difficult to duplicate any other way."

"And if this were a think tank--or the Vulcan Science Academy--that would be great." Jim leaned back. "But this is Starfleet. And I'm not sure it is great. I'm not sure it's teaching you what you need to know most. How to relate. How to lead. How to develop others to become leaders, too."

"You are expecting that we will make unwise choices in our selections for subheads, are you not?"

"They don't have to be unwise," Chapel said. "The mere act of choosing will change the dynamic."

"Irrevocably?"

"Probably." Jim nodded at her padd. "Do you know who you will choose?"

"Yes." There was no hesitation in T'Velik's voice. She pushed her chair out and rose slowly.

Jim waited until she was near the door, then asked, "Cadet T'Velik, do you talk about your concerns with your teammates?"

"I do not. Team morale is crucial."

Chapel could tell she was parroting Ross.

Jim only nodded. "Get to work, Cadet."

Once she was gone, he slumped a little in his chair. "They exhaust me, Chris."

She smiled in sympathy. "It's hard work, this leading."

"It's because they're so young."

"It's because you're destroying them." At his startled look, she touched his hand gently. "You're destroying their unity. And you're right to do it. This isn't a think tank."

"No, it's not." He closed his eyes. "It has merit. Bringing them together this way. But not for so long. Not to such an extent that it isolates them."

"Some kind of summer seminar, instead?"

"That's what I'm thinking. Something that builds them up without tearing down their ties to their other classmates."

"Ross won't like it."

"I don't care." He rubbed his eyes, and she saw that he really was exhausted.

"We haven't been sleeping much," she said, knowing that was his fault as much as hers.

"No, we haven't." He grinned as he dropped his hand from his eyes. "Not that I'm complaining."

"Let's go to bed--let's go to sleep." She picked up her padd. "Come on, Jim. Tomorrow's a big day."

She felt him stroke her hair, his hand lingering for a moment on her neck. It was warm and loving, and she leaned into his touch, eager for even so small a thing after so long away from him.

"She makes me miss Spock," he murmured as they headed for the lift.

"Me, too." When she'd been with Jim, she'd had a chance to get to know Spock. Not the man she'd been infatuated with, but the real Spock. The Spock who Jim had always known. And the real Spock was a man she liked very, very much. A man who had managed to stay her friend even once she and Jim had split apart.

"Let's go to bed," Jim said, as they came to his door. He pulled her inside, kissing her for a moment very passionately.

"If we start..."

"I know." Letting her go, he patted her butt softly as he aimed her in the direction of the bathroom, letting her have it first as he moved to turn down the bed.

Just like old times in their apartment on Earth. Maybe just like future times in some apartment on Earth that could again be theirs not just hers or his.

It was a nice thought.

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

The exercise wasn't a complete disaster, but then Kirk hadn't expected it to be. This was Red Squad, after all. They were bound to rise to the occasion; it was just, for the first time since he'd been observing the cadets, they didn't rise as a seamless unit.

Neimann was drumming his finger on the railing at the back of the bridge, until he realized Kirk was watching him and stopped. "They'll learn what's needed to lead. They'll learn quickly."

"I don't doubt that." Kirk wondered if Chris was seeing the same thing down in engineering. He had a feeling Fusai might have spent a little more time getting his troops prepared for this. He seemed to get it--what it took to lead, what it meant in terms of they and we.

He wondered how T'Velik was doing. Were her many studies of leaders paying off?

Roaming the bridge, he watched as Endoya took them out of warp, the cadet reaching for the controls to make the next move.

"Did I give you a new order, Cadet?" Bylakov sounded harried.

"No, sir, but--"

"--You don't know all the parameters. Wait for my order."

Kirk smiled. He'd changed the test, and he could see Neimann was fuming over it as he glanced the other man's way. In this new version of the exercise, there were some small, but at times crucial, new variables that only the section heads knew about. He or she could share some of them, but only with their subheads. Bylakov obviously had not chosen Endoya as a subhead, and Endoya seemed a bit stung.

"Your orders, sir?"

"Wait. For now." Bylakov looked over at Kirk, and he could tell she was frustrated.

Walking over to her, he murmured, "Yes, it would be easier to just tell him the situation."

"So, why can't I?"

"It's restricted information. Not everyone has access to that level."

She sighed but didn't argue. She was doing a good job. She probably didn't realize how good, but Kirk could tell that she'd be a damned fine officer. She didn't like keeping her people in the dark. That bode well for her command skills, for her ability to bind people to her through loyalty, not just the rank on her uniform.

Kirk moved back to where he'd been standing and could hear Neimann grumbling. Grinning at him, he said, "What's that? I can't hear you."

"It's not a fair test."

"You've never had orders you couldn't share, Captain?"

Neimann shut up.

The day wore on, and Kirk moved around the ship, watching the other section heads. Red Squad was technically performing well on the exercise, even with the variables. But the morale had shifted tangibly. Smiles were not in evidence, and the cockiness of the bulk of the cadets was gone. It was hard to be smug when you hadn't been picked to lead--especially when you were used to being picked first for everything.

He saw Guttersen arguing with one of her subheads. "We don't have any of those."

"Requisition them," the other cadet muttered.

"From who? We're days from an outpost, let alone a Starbase."

That was Chris's variable. Kirk loved it. Let them budget their resources. Let them learn to share. So far, sharing wasn't going all that well. They were too focused on themselves and their status to do what had come so naturally before.

It was a dose of reality. It was a day in the Starfleet life complete with ego and shortages. And bureaucracy--he couldn't wait to see their faces at the after action reports they'd have to complete.

Getting hungry, Kirk went to the mess and saw Chris eating with Korohama.

"Admiral," the other man said, getting up, his plate empty. "You've made an interesting exercise even more so."

Kirk eyed Korohama suspiciously, but the man seemed sincere. "The cadets are having some trouble with it."

"I know. It's mesmerizing to watch." The man rubbed his hands together like a mad scientist from an old vid, then left to dump his tray.

"He's very disturbed," Chris said as Kirk sat down across from her. "And having way too much fun with this."

"Are you having fun?"

She nodded. "They're doing well, Jim. Despite the problems."

"I know they are. Ross built a hell of a team here."

She smiled, as if pleased he'd give the other man that.

"Did you think I wouldn't give him his due?" He took a bite of his lasagna, then a bigger one--he was starved.

"I wasn't sure. Once you got...in the chase."

"In the chase?"

"The competition. The hunt. You do like to win, Jim."

"I don't like to lose. There's a difference."

She laughed. "There is?"

"Sure there is." He grinned at her. "Other people can win, too. It doesn't have to be a zero sum game." He let his grin grow wicked. "Kind of like sex."

"Ahhhhh." She laughed and bit into a cookie. "But given that it's you and Ross, will your 'everyone wins' scenario work?"

"I think so. But...he's still not going to like it much."

She laughed. "Because it is a zero sum game to him, you mean?"

He nodded.

"What if nobody wins?"

"I don't believe in that scenario." He'd proven it when he'd been these kids' age. But it had been risky. That commendation for original thinking could have just as easily been a notice of expulsion.

"So win-win, huh?" She sat back, watching him as he ate.

"Stop that. You know it makes me self conscious."

"I'm remembering those things."

"Did you forget them?" He was remembering things about her, too. Like how she'd choose a cookie with nuts and then pick all around them. Or how she liked her coffee roasted dark and then smothered all that rich blackness with cream and sugar.

"Some of them I did forget," she said softly. "I didn't mean to, but time took them."

"I know."

"I was all right until..." She stopped, looking up, meeting his eyes. Hers seemed terribly sad. "When you and Antonia got together. You looked so happy. And people would tell me that you were happy. As if they got pleasure in hurting me."

"I know. I had friends who told me about you and Ross."

"We never looked that happy."

"I know that, too." He grinned, knowing it wasn't the best reaction, but it was a real one.

"Do you miss her?"

He decided to be honest. "Sometimes."

"Oh." Judging by her expression, honesty might not have been the best policy.

"I miss Carol sometimes, too. It doesn't mean I want to get back together with her." He reached across, stopping Chris from ripping her napkin into shreds--something she did when she was nervous. "I never did get back with her, and I don't plan to go looking for Antonia."

"Would you have looked for me? If I hadn't been thrown in your lap?"

He wanted to lie to her. But his mouth wouldn't cooperate. "I don't know."

She swallowed hard.

"Chris, we hurt each other so spectacularly well. Even now..."

"Even now what?"

"Even now, I'm scared."

She exhaled loudly, the breath ragged. "I scare the great James T. Kirk. I'm not sure if that's flattering or not."

He didn't answer, was afraid of what might come out of his mouth if he did.

"You think I'm not scared?" she asked. "You think I don't wonder what the hell we're doing?"

They sat in silence for a moment. He finished his meal and pushed the plate aside. Without him asking, she held out her cookie--what was left of it.

He broke off a piece. "I missed you. I was cut up and down from what we did to each other, but I still missed you." He took another piece of cookie. "We weren't finished. That's what I felt the whole time I was with Antonia. That you and I weren't finished."

She wiped at her eyes. "I know. I felt the same way." Shaking her head, she laughed a little harshly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to get all mushy."

"Mushy's okay. We need to talk about this. Being with you, it was like flying blind into mined space."

"Okay, that's definitely not flattering." She looked down. "At least it wasn't dull, there's that."

"Definitely not dull." Antonia had been dull. Sweet and loving and very beautiful. But not simpatico, not make your heart beat in triple time and get you furious like Chris could. "Did you find our relationship different than what I just described? Was it a warm, safe place?"

"It could have been."

"Yes, it could have been." Touching her hand, he tried to ease the tension that had sprung up between them. "I think this time...we've both changed. Maybe enough that we won't wreck what could be."

"We are in synch now, aren't we? Not just in bed, but in the way we look at things--work things as well as others."

"We are. That's good."

"I hope so." She saw his look and sighed in what sounded like frustration. "Why are we talking about this?"

"Because we're masochists." He grinned at her. "I want you; you want me. It should be simple." He took the last of the cookie. "But it's not."

"Does that mean you want to call this off?"

He touched her hand again, rubbing gently. "No. It does not mean that." He saw her smile and felt something inside him relax. "We have cadets to observe, Commander."

"Thank god." She turned her hand over, grasped his almost convulsively. "I do love you. I don't want to hurt you."

"I don't want to hurt you, either." He gave her hand a squeeze. "I love you, too."

"We can make it," she said as they got up, and she bumped up against him a little, as if in need of assurance.

"We can make it," he said, letting her dump her tray first before walking her to the lift. She seemed as unwilling as he was to be parted, so they observed the rest of the exercise together.

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

They sat in Ross's office, Jim and she in the guest chairs in front of his desk. Chapel knew Ross had wanted it that way, since he hadn't suggested that they sit at the more egalitarian table in the corner of the room. Jim hadn't pressed it; Jim didn't need to.

"So?" Ross wasn't bothering with small talk. "What will your recommendation be?"

She already knew--they'd talked it through last night, going through all the arguments, each playing devil's advocate--but she pretended to be fascinated with what Jim might say. Ross didn't need to know how simpatico they really were on this matter.

"Your cadets are without a doubt the finest group of young people I've ever seen Starfleet put together."

Ross didn't preen. He was too smart not to see the other shoe dropping.

Jim continued, his eyes boring into Ross's. "They're too fine, in fact, to be pulled out of the ranks for a two-year program. Too fine to be isolated from those they need to learn how to lead."

"The program...could be shorter." Ross looked at her, and she knew her face must have registered her surprise. But he was fighting for his program's life. Shorter was no doubt better than terminated.

"Yes, it could be." Jim's voice was silky, the voice he'd used with so many hostile species back on their first missions together. She'd heard him talk down the most volatile aliens. Milk and honey, she'd dubbed that voice in her mind.

Ross looked away. "I mean a year, not a week."

"I mean a summer, not a week. That's my recommendation to the board. I don't want to kill Red Squad, per se. You've done a fantastic job with them, Ross." Jim seemed surprised at the look Ross shot him--did he not realize he'd stopped calling Ross by his given name? "I'm going to suggest that the Red Squad program be instituted at the Academy as a summer seminar. With you in charge."

Neimann looked confused. As if he'd expected less...and more. "And the rest of the year? I'm on my own?"

"No, I want you to apply those same skills to the rest of the Academy population. I want you to develop some teambuilding classes using the techniques you've perfected here."

"You want me to translate this for the masses?"

"I do. I want you to branch out. Show how flexible you are. How creative. Call it team-building, creative problem-solving. I don't really care. Just show me what kind of leader you really are."

"You want me to work for you?"

"I'm giving your program a chance. I'm offering you the opportunity to stay at the helm of it. But yes, you'll be working for me." He leaned back. Waiting.

Ross glanced at Chapel. She didn't look away but offered nothing, not to him and not to Jim, either.

"I can fight. I can tell the board you're prejudiced. That she is, too."

"You can. You can make this a war only one of us will win." Jim shrugged. "I'm offering a compromise that both of us should be able to live with. Barring standard reviews, you'll have complete control of the curriculum the way you've had here."

"It's a sweet deal, sir." Chapel was careful not to call Ross by name, not to trade on their association.

"I have a feeling cadets will vie for the chance to get in your classes," Jim said. "I have a feeling you'll be a very popular instructor. You have the opportunity here to change the lives of not just the best, but also those who don't quite measure up to your standards. You can make them better. Doesn't that appeal to you, even just a little?"

Ross started to smile--a slightly tired smile. A smile of defeat. "You're the devil, sir."

"I have been told that." Jim seemed to relax. "I look forward to watching the career of these cadets. I feel like I've really gotten to know a lot of them."

"They've enjoyed having the opportunity to get to know you." It was a grudging compliment, but still a real one.

Chapel could feel herself relax. This was going to be okay. Ross wasn't going to go ballistic and fight. It made her feel better about having been with him. She liked thinking that he was a reasonable man. That whatever his motive for pursuing her had been, her reasons for being with him were that he was a good, decent, if way too driven, man.

He might even view this as a challenge. Might even stretch enough to change the lives of more than just his elite cadets. Jim had thrown down that gauntlet: make the mundane better. She knew Ross would find it nearly impossible to resist picking it up and running with it. If only to show he could.

Maybe, in time, he'd do it solely because Jim asked. But for now, competition could be milked in positive ways as well as negative.

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

"Energizing," the transporter tech at Space Dock said, nodding at Kirk and Chris.

Beaming down to Earth seemed like losing part of his heart. Even though he had Chris next to him.

"You okay?" she murmured.

"Miss the stars." He gave her a sheepish grin. The one he'd perfected with Antonia, and started using with Carol.

He should have known better. He didn't need that smile with Chris.

"Get back up there, then." She looked at him like this was basic arithmetic. "If you want space back, get it back."

"Just take it?" He smiled at her confidence in him. "Take my ship?"

"You've done it before." Grinning, she bumped against him as they walked to his place.

"Well, I had an admiral in my corner, back then." But it was a nice thought. Just take his ship back. Only he'd have to take it from Spock and that didn't seem a very friendly thing to do. Not that Spock would mind. He'd probably just lift an eyebrow, surrender the conn, and ask for orders.

"What are you thinking about?"

"Stealing the Enterprise and turning it into a pirate ship." He winked at her. "Spock would make quite a dashing first mate."

"I can see him with an earring and bandanna. You could paint a big skull and crossbones on the hull."

"Nothing like a Jolly Roger to make people think twice about messing with you."

"What do you think a Klingon would make of a Jolly Roger?"

Kirk laughed. "Probably think it signified a floating restaurant. Or maybe a first aid station--they're not known for their medicine."

"They're not known for their food, either."

"True." He turned her into the walkway for his place. When she hesitated, he asked softly, "You do want to come in?"

"I do." She took his hand. "I'm afraid that if I come in, I'll never want to leave."

"Who said you have to?" He leaned in, kissing her in front of the apartment. Let the whole damn world see that they were back together.

Except Bones. He wasn't ready for that lecture, yet. But Bones' place was on the other side of town. Or in Georgia on the weekends. Far enough away in either case that his friend wouldn't see them and wouldn't feel the need to rant at how stupid they were for reopening hearts they'd nearly ripped out of each other.

"Besides," Kirk said with a grin, "I'll be on another training cruise in five days. So you won't have too much time to get tired of me."

"True."

Pulling her close, he said, "Come in." He tried to use his "don't argue with me, this is for your own good" voice.

She obeyed...for once. Wrapping her arm around his waist, she came inside with him. They let go of each other as they waited for the elevator, and Kirk saw her smile at a young girl and her boyfriend who were also waiting. They were new to the place--or maybe he'd just been away too much to get to know them. He didn't know most of his neighbors.

The kids got off before they did, and Chris snuggled close. Despite the nice way she was rubbing against him, he could feel that she was tense--they'd once lived in this place together. When he'd left Starfleet he'd rented it to another officer, keeping the apartment--he told himself--as an investment. But he wondered now if he'd always known he'd be coming back.

When they got to the door, she waited for him to open it. He turned to look at her, knew his expression was letting out a lot more emotion than he really wanted it to. "You do it."

Frowning slightly as if in confusion, she palmed the identity scanner. The door slid open soundlessly.

"You never took me off?" She looked touched, as if he'd just given her a very nice present.

He shrugged, suddenly embarrassed that he'd shown her this. "I lived in hope the first week. Then I turned your access off and on for about a month, depending on my mood. Once it was clear we were over, I should have just deleted you from the system." He swallowed. "But I couldn't." He shrugged again--a "what kind of fool am I?" shrug.

"Well, I am a doctor. That extra thirty seconds that I don't have to use my medical override might save your life someday." She grinned, taking them to lighter ground.

"Good point, Commander." Pushing her inside, he locked the door.

She walked around the front room, as if getting to know the room again. He'd changed very little. The things on the walls mostly. She'd never had much furniture, but they'd both had art--although she'd never been a fan of his weapons-as-art concept.

"Some things never change," she said as she walked to the wall of antique firearms. "The marines at my last post would be salivating."

He wondered if any of them had been allowed to salivate over her.

"New couch?"

"Re-covered." The officer who'd rented it had a bad habit of falling asleep with a glass of wine in his hand. He'd been the one who re-covered it before he moved out. Kirk wasn't fond of the new color.

"I hate the color." She closed her eyes. "I mean..."

"It's okay. I hate it, too. My renter picked it out."

"Right. When you were with her--Antonia."

"Is it hard to say her name?"

"It's hard to know she exists. She's a beautiful woman, Jim. I'm not beautiful and no matter how attractive I might be, I never will be beautiful. So I'm a little...threatened, I guess."

"She was beautiful." He took her hand. "But she didn't make my skin tingle." Which wasn't strictly true. Sex had been fine, plenty of tingle. But he thought Chris would know what he meant.

"Really?"

He nodded.

"I'm glad." Then she frowned. "I mean, I'm not but..."

"I understand." He was pushing her into the bedroom.

"Oh, do you want me to comment on the redecorating in here, too?"

"No, I want you to get out of that uniform and fu--"

"--Why, Admiral!" In typical contrary fashion, she was pulling off his uniform instead of her own. "I'm not sure that's a proper suggestion."

He let her make him naked, then yanked off her uniform, pushing--nearly shoving--her onto the bed. This had been a game they played. They both liked it a little rough. It had been one he'd played with Antonia once and once only. It had scared her--and he'd been holding back. A lot.

Chris stared up at him, moving up the bed, laughing as he grabbed her ankles, pulling her legs apart. They'd been very restrained on the Pensacola, had kept the noise down. And they'd been still too tentative with each other to trust themselves to these kinds of games. But here, in this place they used to live, on this bed they used to share, it seemed the natural thing to do.

He tightened his grip on her ankles, pulled her back down the bed, bringing the covers with her. She giggled at the impromptu bed surfing, and he found himself grinning like a fool. "God, I missed this, Chris."

Pulling him down to her, she captured his face with her hands. "Me, too."

He let go of her ankles, felt her legs wrap around his waist, pulling him down to her, no preliminaries, no niceties, just raw, elemental sex.

It was total bliss.

As they lay sated, she curled around him, her leg wrapping over his. Sighing, he turned to kiss her gently. "I only do that with you."

"Antonia would have broken."

He nodded. It seemed the safer answer than saying he'd tried to play their games with his new lover. "Did you and Ross...?"

"Uh, no." That was all she said, and even though he wanted to know more, he liked her discretion.

Sighing, she burrowed more tightly against her.

He felt her shiver. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know." She leaned up, kissed him gently. Very tenderly.

Smiling, he watched her, wondering what thoughts were making her expression so pensive. "Are you worried? About the future? Our future?"

"I don't know, Jim. I just feel on edge." She smiled, a silly smile. "We Chapel women have the sight, you know."

"I didn't know that."

"Oh, yes." She closed her eyes, made a little humming noise. Her hand was traveling lower and lower. "I know, for example, that parts of you are more awake than others."

"Wow, you really are psychic." He groaned as she left his arms, traveled down the bed to the more awake part of him. "Forget psychic, you're magical." Or her mouth was, anyway.

When she popped back up to lie against him again, she was grinning a very satisfied grin.

"You enjoy having me under your spell." He began to play with her, watching as she closed her eyes, then began to writhe. "On the other hand, I do like having you in my power, so I guess we're even."

A moment later, her strident cries told him they were very even. He was glad he'd soundproofed the place.

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

Chapel watched the comms start stacking up--medical crises and more medical crises. It was why Cartwright had hired her initially, but even in her first weeks in ops, she'd covered a lot more than just medicine and health issues. This work came naturally to her for some reason. She thought it was like triage--you had to figure out what could wait, what couldn't, and go from there.

She glanced over at Janice, saw that she was running a sim.

"Anything interesting?"

"Not yet," Jan said. "But I am going to find a link between that rash of tornadoes on Darvis V and those freak ion storms in the neighboring sectors."

"Of course you are."

Janice usually did find them. She didn't understand the science behind half of what she was looking at, but she was exceptionally good at making connections, finding linkages where others just saw random occurrences. Chapel knew it was a skill her friend would never have known she had if she hadn't come to ops.

"So, you and Jim...?" Janice asked, glancing up from her sim.

Jan could put things together about people, too. After a day of questions as to why Chapel had looked so relaxed and happy, and what Admiral Kirk was up to, Chapel had finally told her the truth. Jan had hugged her and didn't say much, but it had been more because she was distracted by work than upset. Janice had long since given up on James T. Kirk as anything but an occasional mentor.

"How's that going?" She waggled her eyebrows.

Chapel smiled the smile of a well-pleased woman.

"Harlot." But Jan was grinning. She looked away, her attention diverted to the entrance to ops. "Newbie at the main gates."

Chapel turned around and saw Cadet Bylakov scanning the room. Getting up, she walked over to her. "Lina?"

"Commander. I was hoping you'd be here." She handed her a padd.

"You're assigned here?"

Bylakov nodded, her smile huge. "Just an interim. We finished up before the other cadets. Most of the first-class have reported to their assignments, but I'm second-class. Admiral Kirk said we could start our interims early. I requested here." She grinned.

"Because you're insane and think ops will be fun?"

"Mainly because here is where you are. And I think I can learn a lot from you. And yeah, I think ops will be fun." She shrugged and grinned and lifted her eyebrows in the innocent jubilation only a twenty-year old can manage.

Chapel scanned the padd. Cartwright had signed off on this. Normally, they didn't take cadets in ops. The pace was too hectic, the stakes too high. But Bylakov was Red Squad and Cartwright knew what that meant. Plus, Chapel may have mentioned her by name.

"Well, let's introduce you to the old man."

Bylakov stifled a smile. "That's not a term you use in front of him, right?"

"Uncanny gift for the obvious." Chapel grinned to show she was teasing. "Actually, he knows we call him that. And he sort of likes it--I think, in his warped Cartwright way, he considers himself our unofficial father."

Cartwright looked up as they got to his door, which was perpetually in the open position. He hated to miss anything. "Chapel, who have you got there?"

"Found this rug rat loitering, Admiral."

"Cadet Lina Bylakov reporting for duty, sir." There wasn't a single thing about Bylakov's delivery or stance that was not perfectly regulation.

"My god, Cadet, at ease before you break something." He looked at Chapel. "Styles would have an orgasm over this one. See that she's never assigned to him, okay?"

"Roger that." Nobody liked Styles.

"Thank you, sirs," Bylakov said, sounding much too grateful not to know who they were talking about. At their looks, she said, "He was a guest speaker at our initial Red Squad lectures. He and his riding crop. He likes to hit his leg hard, and a lot. If I were Starfleet, I'd have the headshrinkers look into that."

Cartwright burst out laughing. "I like her, Chapel. I can see why you're so high on her."

Bylakov blushed a charming pink. "It's an honor to have this opportunity, sir. I appreciate your confidence in me."

"Jim Kirk spoke highly of you, too. Between the two of them..."

Chapel smiled. Trust Jim to do that.

"Let me show you around the place." Chapel decided she'd seat Bylakov in the station next to her. If she was going to be a sort of mentor, she'd need to be able to see what the young woman was doing.

She introduced her to Janice, explained how they'd met.

"So you're the tippy top of the Academy pyramid, eh?" Jan didn't sound impressed. Then again, despite her rapid rise, she was still a little intimidated by those who came out of the Academy.

"That's what they tell me, Commander." Bylakov leaned in. "I know your history almost as well as Commander Chapel's. Why did you divert to transporter chief?"

Janice looked taken aback. She blurted out, "Because I chickened out of OCS the first time," and then turned a startling shade of red.

"But you did go. The next time you could?"

Jan's flush was fading. "I went the next year, yeah."

Bylakov seemed to be processing that. Then she leaned in even more, talking to Janice with Chapel in the middle. Maybe Chapel should trade seats with one of them? "I've seen pictures from when you were a yeoman. You've changed your look."

Chapel suddenly realized that Bylakov would probably be a stunning young woman if she hadn't gone to such pains to look...pressed and controlled. Her dark red hair was skinned back, her lashes were darkened, but other makeup was missing, and her porcelain skin showed through, making her look clean cut and young. Attractive, still, but not drop-dead gorgeous.

"I had to," Janice said, appearing to take in what Chapel had missed. "You're smart to go for a more low-key look from the start."

"My first year I didn't. Back in Odessa, looks didn't matter so much. So many people in the Ukraine are attractive. When I got here, the attention I was getting wasn't the kind I wanted."

Chapel realized that she'd pared down her own beauty routine. The nurse with the extreme makeup and the elaborate blonde hairdos probably wouldn't recognize this fresh-scrubbed brunette with the sensible haircut. But she hadn't done it to get rid of attention or to get past some perceived barrier to success. She'd done it during med school, when she'd constantly run out of time and something had to give. Since studying was a lot more important than curling her hair, beauty lost.

Except...she felt prettier now. She felt more competent, more appreciated. Crewmen didn't stare at her legs anymore--hell, in these uniforms, who could tell what kind of legs you had? But there was a different type of appreciation she saw in the eyes of people she interacted with. An appreciation for the whole woman.

"Christine? Where the hell did you go?" Jan was waving her hand in front of Chapel's face. "I said we should have a beauty night. Mud packs, makeup, hair. The whole nine yards." She was clearly kidding. Janice didn't have any more time for that kind of nonsense than Chapel did.

"Why is it nine yards? Why not five or ten?" Bylakov asked.

"I don't know. Consider it a homework assignment." Chapel grinned at her. "Now, pay attention." She checked the access level at the top of the screen. Bylakov had been given access to everything but the most sensitive chatter. "The benefits of clean living," she murmured as she showed the cadet the various queues for comms coming in, and let her start reading up on the latest crises.

"You didn't tell me you'd adopted one of the puppies." Janice shot her a snotty grin, but her voice was very low, as if she was trying not to hurt Bylakov's feelings.

"I didn't adopt her. Besides, you were lapping up that adulation."

"Yeah, it was nice." Laughing, Jan leaned back. "We were that young once. Younger, even."

"Well, you were." Chapel smiled at the sound Janice made. "Some of us had already busted our humps in school before signing up."

"I think that's why the Admiral likes you so much. All that brainpower. He does like smart girls." She shrugged, then looked down at her sim. "Damn it. I was sure this version would work. Back to the drawing boa"--she glanced at the main doors with annoyance. "What is it with the visitors today?"

Chapel turned and froze. Antonia stood staring at her.

"Another new friend?" Janice asked.

"Oh, no." She was about to get up, when Antonia turned away, heading down the hallway, following a tour group. "She's touring the building? No goddamn way."

Chapel hurried out of ops until she caught up with the group and could slow, trailing behind Antonia. "What's the occasion?" she finally asked her rival.

The woman didn't turn. "I heard he was back with you."

"Good news travels fast." Chapel winced a bit at her tone. She wasn't usually this bitchy.

"So does bad." Antonia sounded a little unsure about the whole bitch thing, too.

"Well, this has been fun--the not catching up part, especially. Let's do it again sometime." Chapel turned to go.

"Ms. Chapel..."

"It's Commander Chapel."

"Sorry. I'm not Starfleet." Antonia looked down. "But then, we all know that, don't we?"

"Look, I had nothing to do with him leaving you. I'm sorry that you lost him--well, as sorry as I can be given that I wanted him back. But I'm not to blame."

"I know. That's the hell of it. I want to blame someone. Instead, I have to blame this place. This...thing." She made a gesture that somehow encompassed all of Command. All of Starfleet.

And Chapel realized that Antonia wasn't there to see her. She was there to check out her real enemy: Starfleet Command. The big, bad, seductive thing that had lured Jim away. Chapel was probably just a byproduct in her mind. She turned to go again.

"You love him, right?" Antonia's voice was so sad.

"I do." Chapel turned around, gave her the nicest smile she could muster. "I'll take good care of him."

"See that you do." She seemed like she was about to cry. "Look, now the tour guide is cross with me for not keeping up."

The lieutenant acting as tour guide was, indeed, making rather urgent hand gestures at them.

Chapel turned so he could see her rank. "Sorry, Lieutenant. We were just catching up."

He suddenly turned down the ire. "No problem, Commander."

Smiling slightly, Chapel murmured, "Rank does have its privileges."

Antonia turned to her, her expression surprised. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Enjoy your tour."

"Will I see Jim?"

"I doubt it." Although if the gods were feeling unkind...

"Oh." Again the tragic look in Antonia's eyes.

"Do you need to?"

"Yes."

She wanted to ask why. She wanted to say no. She opened her mouth to say goodbye, but said, "I'll have him meet you when the tour's over." She felt like cutting her big dumb tongue out. "You have about a half hour to go before you're done seeing this place."

Antonia didn't look like she cared about seeing any more of the place. "Why are you doing this?"

"Well, I haven't done it yet. I could be lying that I'm even going to do it."

"Why?" Antonia's eyes were sad again, and Chapel got the impression of an amazing passivity to her. As if her beauty had been enough to get her by in life. As if she'd never had to expend any energy to be lively. Or maybe not calling attention to herself was a way of shining a light on something other than how she looked?

"Well, either I'm very nice, or I'm a great big fool." Chapel turned on her heel and left Antonia to catch up to the now foot-tapping lieutenant.

"Who was that?" Jan said as Chapel took her seat back in ops.

"Antonia."

"Jim's ex Antonia?"

Chapel nodded. "Hold on a sec. Something I have to do." She commed Jim and put on her headset, speaking quietly when he answered. "Antonia is in the building."

"Is that a joke?" He sounded confused.

"Oh, I really wish it were."

"Okay. Why is she in the building?" There was more idle curiosity than interest in his question.

"She's on the tour, actually. She wants to see you. I told her you'd meet her after the tour."

"You told her that?"

"Well, I was trying to be..."

"Stupid?" He laughed.

"If you get back together with her, I will hunt you down and kill you. Slowly and very painfully."

"Okay, stupid may have been the wrong word."

"Very much the wrong word." She laughed, a nervous, too loud laugh that made Janice roll her eyes--why was Janice listening in? "Just meet her and get it over with."

"Aye-aye, sir." His tone was full of amusement--and maybe a little bit of concern. "You never fail to amaze me, Chris. Just when I think I've got you pegged..."

"I never fail to amaze--or horrify--myself, either. Chapel out." She cut the line before she could tell him to blow off the meeting with Antonia.

"Did you bump your head in space? Maybe took a spill off the bed during the wild sex and went insane?" Janice was looking at her like she was the stupidest creature on the planet.

Which she very might well be. "Oh, shut up and get back to work."

Janice glanced over at Bylakov. "Are you getting all of this?"

"Uh, yes. But I'm light on context." The cadet glanced at Chapel as if she was betraying her.

"I'll fill you in later," Janice said. "It's a great story. Starts with Christine stealing my man and goes down hill from there." She winked at Chapel. This was an old joke between them.

"I look forward to it, Commander." Bylakov caught Chapel's glare and said, "I mean, gossip is bad. Very bad."

"Both of you. Go back to work." Chapel turned up her headset and tried to forget how terrific Antonia had looked in that little formfitting dress she'd been wearing.

Could Chapel get a dress like that? Did they even make dresses like that for her shape?

She was going insane. She slowly took a deep breath. Held it, then let it out gently. Peace and tranquility were supposed to fill her.

"So, zen-girl, that working for you?" Janice was still shaking her head at Chapel's stupidity.

"No, but beating you senseless might."

Janice just laughed as she turned back to the comms. Bylakov threw Chapel a sympathetic if oblivious grin. Chapel thought beating herself senseless might be a better idea.

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

Kirk saw someone hovering at his door and said, "Yes...?"

"Do you have a minute?" Neimann walked farther into the room. Not all the way, but no longer just hovering.

Kirk had about twenty minutes before he needed to go find the tour Antonia was on. Why in the hell had Chris said he'd meet her?

"If this is a bad time...?"

"Nope. It's fine." Pushing his padd to the side, he gave the other man his full attention. Or most of it. Antonia was here? The idea of Chris and her talking, much less arranging this little get-together was so bizarre. "What can I do for you, Ross?"

Neimann seemed to be having a hard time meeting his eyes. "I wanted to say that I'm sorry. I did bring Christine up to the ship to distract you."

"I owe you for that, by the way." Kirk grinned. "Big."

Neimann looked torn--as if he was relieved he was going to get off that easy, but also a bit annoyed that Kirk was back with Chris. "It wasn't professional of me."

Kirk let them move off the personal. "No, it wasn't. You should have had more faith in your cadets."

"And in you?"

"Well, that might have been asking too much." Kirk could feel his smile tighten. "We were classmates, Ross. I used to loan you my notes in physics. Why this rivalry?"

"I don't know." Neimann sat back, getting comfortable as if he was really going to talk about this. "Maybe because I needed to borrow those notes in the first place?" He shook his head. "No matter what, I was never as good as you."

"In physics?"

"In anything. You were always the golden boy. My god, you cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test, and they commended you for it. Anyone else would have been kicked out."

"I can't help the way my life has gone."

"No, you just take it for granted that it's always going to be easy. Have you ever had to work at anything?"

Kirk looked down. "Oh, yes."

"Oh, come on. I mean really work--sweating blood and worrying about it until you think you might explode--that kind of work. At anything?"

"How does survival rate in your book?"

Neimann looked confused.

"Tarsus IV ring any damn bells, Ross?" Kirk's voice rose, and he forced it to a more restrained level. "What were you doing at thirteen? Because I was trying to avoid getting killed."

There was a silence in the room, punctuated only by the click-click of Kirk's old-fashioned chrono and the rustle of Neimann's chair as Ross moved back a little.

Kirk pushed on. "How's that for really working at something?"

"I didn't know."

"I saw people butchered. Do you know how bad carnage like that smells when bodies have sat out for days? Can you imagine hiding under them to avoid the brute squads? I did. I couldn't get the smell out of my head for weeks. I didn't eat; I could barely drink anything but water. I lost forty pounds so fast the doctors had me on special high calorie supplements."

This was more than he usually shared. He forced himself back from a memory that was turning into a slide he might never get off of.

"Jim. I didn't know."

"I thought everyone knew. I always think everyone knows. There's Kirk: the poor kid who survived Kodos." He looked at Neimann, refused to let up the stare. "You think I didn't try harder just to lose that...label? You think I didn't want to shine so I could forget when I stank with other people's blood?"

"You hid." Neimann was finally getting it. "You hid."

"I hid." Kirk could feel his eyes getting tight, the burning feeling of suppressed tears starting, and he took a deep breath. He hid--when he should have fought. When he should have done something, helped someone. "Some leader." He looked down.

"You were thirteen years old. What were you supposed to do?" Neimann blinked, and Kirk realized he did have tears in his eyes. "My god, that's why you never give up. That's why you hate to lose so much."

"They say one event, if it's traumatic enough, can inform your whole life." Kirk took a deep breath, forcing the past back where it belonged. "I don't hide anymore. I live life on my terms. That's just how I am. Maybe it's how I would have been even if I'd never set foot on Tarsus IV. Or maybe that planet shaped me into who I am. It doesn't matter."

"Knowing matters. Thank you for sharing that."

Kirk felt suddenly very uncomfortable. "I'm not sure I meant to."

"I'm not sure you meant to, either, Jim." Neimann's sympathetic smile was a real one.

Kirk laughed, but it was a feeble sounding thing. "Look, go work wonders with our cadets, all right? The past's past. Let's move forward."

"Aye-aye, sir." Neimann got up, his motion lacking the stiltedness of their previous interactions. He got to the door, then turned. "Do you play handball, Jim?"

"I do."

"How would that kind of competition strike you?"

Laughing, Kirk nodded. "Much healthier. How about when I get back from the training cruise."

"Okay. Brush up, if you can. I'm very good." Neimann shot him a smug grin and left.

Kirk waited a moment, letting his dredged-up emotions settle a bit before heading out to find Antonia. He saw the tour at the memorial area, so he bypassed that area and went to sit in the lobby where the tour ended. A few minutes later, the lieutenant leading the tour brought the visitors into the lobby, did a quick head count, then left them to leave at their own pace.

Antonia was in the back of the group, looking as beautiful as ever. Kirk analyzed his reaction to her. She didn't make his palms sweaty. She didn't make him worry he might say or do something stupid. She was...soothing. That had probably been the kiss of death for their relationship.

She saw him and walked over, a tremulous smile on her face. "Hi."

"Hi." He started to get up, but she motioned him back down.

Sitting in the chair across from him, she said, "Your Commander Chapel is a woman of her word."

"Yes, she is." He didn't debate the "his" part. Chris was his. He hadn't left Antonia with that in mind. It had just...happened, with a little help from his rival.

Maybe he could hook Ross and Antonia up?

She sighed. "I had to see this place for myself. I hate it, you know?"

"I imagine you do." This was easier than he expected. Easier to talk to her. Easier to not feel bad that he'd left her for the stars.

"It's not very pretty." Her house had been pretty. Her garden, her world. All pretty.

"It's not supposed to be." His tone was harsher than he meant it to be.

"What did I do wrong, Jim?" She was crying, crying hard, and he wondered how he'd missed her tears starting.

Moving over to sit next to her, he put his arm around her. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"I just didn't do anything right, either, did I?" She sobbed softly.

"I loved you." He had. When they were together, he'd loved her. But he'd forgotten her, and he didn't want her back even though she was so close and smelled like soft flowers and gentle rain.

"She's everything I'm not." Antonia smoothed the fabric of her red dress. "But she wanted my pretty dress, I could tell. I bought it to impress you. In case I saw you. But as soon as I got here, I knew I'd made a mistake. Everything's red here, already, and nothing's soft. If you'd wanted soft, you'd have stayed with me."

She was probably right.

She turned to look at him. "The Commander's hard."

"No, she's not." Chris was harder than she'd used to be. Certainly harder than Antonia. But hard? No. Hard was someone like Carol. Hard was the mother of your child making you choose between the job you loved and the child you wanted to love but would never get the chance.

"I'm sorry, Jim. I'm striking out because I'm hurting."

Even now, even hurting, Antonia lacked fire. And he needed fire. He needed to feel alive. Every minute of every day. That was his curse. This need to prove he was alive. That he wasn't just another dead body on that cursed plain on that blood-drenched planet.

"Jim?"

He realized he was clenching his fists and let go. "Antonia, I wish I could say that things would be different if I did this or you did that. But I can't. This is my life. And you didn't want to live it with me."

"No. I didn't." She sighed and stood up. "I was going to bring you a present, but you don't like birthdays."

"I like birthdays. I just don't like my own."

"I can't even get that right..." Leaning down, she kissed his cheek. "I'll miss you. Probably forever. But I'm not going to wait for you. You've lost me. I want to be clear on that." Then she laughed, and the sound was slightly hysterical. "I know you don't care, but I need to put that out there for my own pride's sake."

"Antonia..."

She backed away from him. "It's all right, Admiral Kirk. I can see myself out." Her back straight, she walked to the exit. And out of his life.

All he could feel was a faint nudge of sadness. And a great deal of relief.

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

Chapel watched as Kirk lay dozing, a sleepy post-sex smile on his face. He'd hustled them into bed as soon as they'd gotten to his apartment. She wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one.

"You're staring." His voice was so husky and sexy she had to lean in and kiss him.

"Am not," she said when he finally let her pull away.

"Are too." He sighed. "You smell good."

"It's the same perfume I always wear." A tropical floral--sweet, heady, a little spicy.

"I know. I love it." He frowned. "It's not soft."

"Did you want me in soft?"

"God, no."

She smiled. Antonia was soft--she guessed by his reaction that the visit with his ex hadn't spurred any reunion yearnings in Jim's heart.

"So, I haven't asked how it went."

"Are you asking now?" He grinned, knowing what a question like that did to her.

"No, not interested. At. All."

"Liar." He pulled her close, kissing her, his hand roaming in a southerly direction.

She pushed it away, eyes narrowing. "Are you trying to distract me? Because that could be seen as a bad thing."

"I'm trying to make love to you. If you get distracted, well..." He grinned again, but the grin faded. "She wanted closure."

"I know. I think that's why I helped her. I want her to have closure."

He laughed. "You're so altruistic."

"That's me. Little miss generous." She kissed him this time, her hand roaming down and down.

"What are you doing?"

"Tomorrow's your birthday. I've got the late shift, so I won't make your little fete with Spock and Len. I know you're crying buckets over that."

He started to protest, and she stopped him with a finger on his lips.

"It's okay. I'm not ready to face the McCoy rant, yet, either."

"I want to tell the world. And I don't. It's confusing. But where were you going with the birthday line?" He reached down, got her hand moving again.

"Well, I can either be late with your present or early."

"Why not be both?" He waggled his eyebrows.

"You are very bad. Very, very, very bad." She punctuated each of the 'verys' with her hand.

"Compared to you, dearest, I'm an amateur. Don't stop, by the way."

"Wasn't planning on it." She let him enjoy what she was doing, disappeared under the covers to ensure he really enjoyed it, then snuggled up against him again. "Seriously, what do you want for your birthday?"

"You. In my bed."

"That's too easy."

"Not to be fifty?"

She laughed. "That's too hard."

He seemed to think about it. "Raspberries."

"That's it?"

"A lot of them." Laughing, he began to kiss down her body. "I want to eat them in bed with you tomorrow when you do finally get home."

"Home." She smiled at the thought. Then she smiled at what he was doing to her. Then she became very noisy.

He crawled back up to her, a pleased grin on his face. "When I get back from the training cruise, I'd like you to move in."

"I thought I had."

He shook his head. "I mean for real. Get rid of your place, move your stuff in here, be with me."

"But then how will we fool Len?"

"We won't. That's the idea."

"You're sure?"

"I am." He seemed sure. But something was off.

"Jim, what happened today?"

"I'm a day away from turning fifty. I stared deep into the eyes of a woman I don't want. I revisited hell--"

"What?"

"Nothing. Chris, I'm old. I'm alone. I'm in love with you. So why the hell aren't I with you?"

"As romantic declarations go..."

"Screw romantic declarations. This is real life." He was agitated in a way she wasn't used to. But before she could say anything to calm him down, he said, "I don't want to hide, anymore. I don't want to live life halfway."

"When have you ever lived life halfway, Jim?"

He sighed. "I want us to get married."

She stared at him. "You do?"

"You don't?"

"I didn't say that." She lay back down next to him, in part to not have to look at him since he was managing to act both depressed and manic at the same time.

"Marry me, Chris."

"Ask me again. Once you've been fifty for a while and the sky hasn't fallen in. Okay?"

He shook his head.

"I promise I'll say yes. Just...ask me later. All right?"

When he finally nodded, he looked like a teenaged boy agreeing to eat his peas before dessert.

"I love you, Jim."

"Not enough to marry me." When she stuck her tongue out at him, he finally laughed. "I love you. I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too. I wish Spock would let me tag along the way Ross did."

"Spock doesn't want me distracted the way Ross did." His expression was clearing.

"True." She took a deep breath. "We don't have to have any kind of elaborate wedding, do we? Just something small, a little ceremony, just our friends."

"Just our friends." He kissed her, pulling her on top of him. One friend in particular seemed to like talk about the wedding. It was nice that it got him excited. It could have been just the opposite reaction--Roger had hated talking about weddings. Ironically, she'd loved that topic of conversation back then. But that had been a long time ago, and she'd been a different Christine Chapel.

"I love you, Chris. I want you in my life all the way." He was fierce as he helped her move, his eyes holding hers.

"I believe you." She moved faster, finding a rhythm that would send them both into bliss. "I love you," she said as she lay quietly on top of him, watching as he got very sleepy and mumbled something back. She finally crawled off him once there was no danger of any more wedding talk.

She hoped she didn't have this much angst when she turned fifty.

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

"So. Good birthday despite your bad humor?" Bones grinned at Kirk.

Kirk grinned back. Raspberries fed to you by the woman you loved tended to make any day grand.

"See. Romulan ale does wonders."

"You're a genius, Doctor." Kirk bit back a sigh. He wanted to tell Bones about his rapprochement with Chris, but he just wasn't ready for a lecture. He'd had enough lectures from McCoy to last a lifetime. And the hell of it was that Bones wasn't usually wrong when he felt the need to give a lecture.

"You didn't tell me you were integrating Red Squad into the curriculum. From naysayer to true believer?"

"It's going in as a summer seminar. And Ross will be teaching similar classes for the non-elite."

"Hmmm."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Didn't think you two got along. I mean after Christine..."

"We patched up our differences. Or he wanted to save his program at any cost. Whatever the reason, Bones, it worked out."

"Sounds like a good solution." He was suddenly diverted, and Kirk turned to see what had caught his attention.

Saavik. "She fascinates you, doesn't she?"

"It's her relationship with Spock that fascinates me, Jim. Who'd have guessed he'd end up with a daughter, even an adopted one?"

"She caught his heart." Kirk could remember the little girl Spock had rescued from Hellguard. She'd been a wild thing. Vicious and smart as a whip. Only Spock could reason with her. Only Spock had been able to tame her.

Now, she excelled. Now, she was here, already commissioned and just completing her graduate studies at the Vulcan Science Academy, back under Spock's tutelage to finish out her command training. One of the few lieutenants to take the Kobayashi Maru test. Being a lieutenant hadn't helped her on the test.

"Hello, sirs," she said, her low voice resonant.

"Lieutenant." They both murmured.

"If I were a younger man..." Bones said once she was safely out of earshot--human or Vulcan. "Don't tell me you don't find her attractive."

He wanted to tell Bones that he wasn't interested. That he had Chris now. "Bones, I--"

"Captain Kirk to the bridge. Captain Kirk to the bridge." It felt like old times hearing Uhura page him that way.

"Gotta go, Bones." Hurrying to the bridge, he felt his heart speed up. God, he loved this ship.

Spock tried to relinquish the chair, and Kirk waved him back into it. He didn't need to be in charge. He was happy just being a passenger on the Enterprise.

The bridge crew was bustling, getting ready to turn things over to the cadets. Spock turned to Kirk, his face pensive, as if he was considering whether he wanted to say something or not.

"Something on your mind?"

"I am unsure."

"You're unsure?" Kirk grinned, loving being with his old friend again. "That's got to be a first."

"I am sure of what I am referring to. I am just not sure that I should verbalize it." At Kirk's impatient look, he said, "Vulcans have an excellent sense of smell."

Kirk suddenly worried he'd forgotten to put on deodorant.

Spock looked amused, and held a hand up. "I am referring to your apartment. Unless you have taken to wearing floral scents, I believe someone is staying there with you. Someone we are both acquainted with. Someone who has missed you for some time now."

Kirk found himself grinning. "It's possible."

"Ah."

"Ah? That's all you're going to say?"

"Congratulations, Jim. I believe the two of you can be good for one another--if you concentrate."

Kirk laughed. Spock was so damn funny when he was being earnest. "We're concentrating."

"That was not a veiled reference to sex, Jim. You both hurt each other last time. Perhaps this time you will take more care to not do that."

It was a simple concept and very good advice. "You should open up a love line, Spock."

"I think not." He watched the screen for a moment, then he asked, "Have you told Doctor McCoy?"

"He won't approve."

"I am not sure that is true. He is a friend to both of you."

"I'll tell him later, Spock. Let me enjoy sneaking around for a while."

"Humans and their propensity for subterfuge..." Spock let the statement hang, the two of them silent as the ship progressed on and the cadets started to file in.

"Guess it's time to start the inspection?"

"I believe you will find all parts in working order."

"I certainly hope so." Kirk made a face, then turned it into a smile. "It's good to be here."

"It's good that you are here. I have missed you."

"Me, too. We're both on Earth. Let's take advantage of that."

Why hadn't they? Spock could become immersed in his cadets, but he'd always found time for dinner. But Kirk had been so busy obsessing over getting older and not being where he wanted to be that he'd shut himself away from his friends.

As he walked off to start the inspection, he resolved to do better.

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

Chapel rubbed her eyes. She'd been crying so much they felt permanently swollen. She'd given up on makeup. Who cared how she looked after what had happened to Spock and those poor cadets?

"Stop rubbing your eyes," Bylakov told her. She was starting to order Chapel around the same way Janice did. Like she was the older one. "Sir, please."

Chapel dropped her hands in time to see a message appear on her queue. "Be there?" was all it said.

The ship was due to dock in about half an hour. Janice had already gone up, trying to get a good spot to view the ship. Chapel had planned to stay away, afraid she'd cry again and embarrass herself and Jim.

But he wanted her there. He needed her there. And she needed to be there for him. She keyed in, "Of course," and sent it back to him.

Cartwright came over, laying his hands on her shoulders for a moment and squeezing gently. "Why don't you go up?"

"I think I will. Jim wants me to be there."

"You go, too, Cadet. It's not a sight you'll see again--the Enterprise coming home."

"It's true about the decommissioning, then?" Chapel asked.

He nodded. "Morrow's going to tell him."

"Today? He doesn't need this now."

"The news won't be any more welcome later, Christine. Now, why don't you get up there?"

She turned to Bylakov. "Let's go."

"If you prefer to go alone...?"

"Come with me. I could use the company."

They waited their turn to beam up to space dock, then Chapel pushed into the observation lounge, staying near the back where it would be easy to get out again and head to the transporter room to meet Jim.

"You knew Captain Spock, didn't you?"

"I did. He was a wonderful man."

"I never knew him. I was pulled into Red Squad, and we were off by ourselves. I was looking forward to having him as my instructor next year."

"You've missed out on learning from a master. He was the smartest man...the sweetest man." Chapel took a deep breath, getting control of herself. She wasn't sure why she was having such a hard time mastering this grief. She needed to be strong. For Jim.

"Oh, no." Bylakov's cry of dismay was only part of a larger one from everyone gathered in the lounge. The Enterprise--the damage. Bylakov looked at Chapel, her expression stricken. "They were mostly cadets. It was just a training cruise."

"I know, Lina. A lot of them didn't make it."

"Was the admiral right?" Bylakov's voice was barely a whisper. "Would it have been different if we were there? Part of that crew and not pulled out by ourselves? We were the smartest--could we have stopped some of this?"

Chapel looked over at her, saw that the cadet's eyes were filled with tears. "I don't know." She put an arm around Bylakov, pulled her close for a moment. "Even if you could have, it wasn't your doing that you weren't there. You had no say in that."

"I could have said no to Red Squad."

"You wouldn't have. No one would have." She squeezed Bylakov again, then let her go. "There was nothing you could have done to make this better."

"There still isn't anything I can do. I can't even offer comfort. I've been away from them. I don't know what they went through."

"I don't know what they went through, either. But I can offer comfort. And so can you. You just have to get out of your own head long enough to feel their pain." Her voice was a little harsh and Bylakov looked stung.

"I--I didn't mean..."

"I know what you meant. But part of being a leader is empathizing with pain you may not understand. If you see someone who was on that ship and they look like they could use a shoulder, or just a willing ear, you give them one. You don't need to have been there to listen."

"Yes, sir."

"Lina, my name is Christine. Start using it in private." She smiled at the young woman, then turned and left her to watch the ship dock as she headed for the transporter room.

She pushed through people in a way the old Christine Chapel never would have. When another commander turned around to glare at her, she just stared her down until she moved out of the way.

Morrow beamed over to the ship first, and Chapel knew that there would be some kind of ceremony. Short, probably. The crew was in no kind of shape for speeches and other formalities. She waited, leaning up against a pillar near the transporter controls.

Finally, the crew started beaming in. Young people, with haggard faces and tired eyes. She gave them encouraging smiles--they'd done their best. They'd done all they could. Too many of them had paid for that effort with their lives.

She'd seen the Enterprise's vid logs. She knew what had happened to it. She'd watched Spock die, had seen Jim with him, the barrier separating them, Jim sliding down the side as Spock did, too. One leveled by grief, the other giving his life to make sure that his friend could still experience grief. She could feel tears welling up again and fought them down.

"It's him," someone said.

She looked up, saw that Jim had beamed in. A blonde woman was with him. Scanning the crowd quickly, he saw Chapel waiting and hurried over. Seemingly uncaring of the people watching, he took her in his arms, not kissing her, just holding her.

"Jim, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." It was all she could think to say.

He pulled her with him, tucking her under his arm. No one watching would fail to know they were together. And if they did miss the message, the sweet kiss he gave her as they walked over to the blonde would have been the final clue.

"I love you, Chris," he murmured, as he stroked her hair.

"Love you," she managed to get out, feeling a lump form in her throat she didn't think she'd ever get past.

"This is Carol," he said as they reached the blonde. "Carol Marcus. Carol this is Christine Chapel."

Chapel tensed, and she felt him give her a squeeze. The message was clear--he was with her--and she forced any fear away, smiling as brilliantly as she could at the woman. "Hello."

"Hello." Carol's voice was even. If the sight of Jim holding another woman upset her, it was impossible to tell.

Jim turned to Chapel. "Something is wrong with Bones. I need to go with him. I've made arrangements for Carol to go to the VOQ, but it would be easier if you could take her."

"I will. Of course."

"Then I need you with me at the hospital. For Bones. I don't know...I don't know if he's all right."

"Physically?"

"Mentally."

"I'll come as quickly as I can."

"Okay." He followed them out, taking Carol's hand. "Everything will be all right."

"It will, Jim. You'll see." It sounded like this was a conversation they'd had before.

As Jim left them to head down to the transporter room that was reserved for casualties, Chapel studied the other woman.

"You don't have to do that." Carol sighed. "After what we've been through, I wouldn't mind getting back with Jim. But it's clear his heart is already spoken for."

Chapel smiled. "I'm sorry. He and I...it's still new. Well, not new. Old, but..." She stopped talking since words seemed to be refusing to come out in a coherent manner.

"He told me. I understand."

"Good." She wasn't sure what to say. She'd spent so long resenting this woman on Jim's behalf that it seemed odd to be making nice now, even if the circumstances were so extreme. "You two have made up?" she finally said, then wanted to kick herself for how childish it sounded.

"We have." Carol didn't act like it had been a stupid thing to say. "He had a chance to get to know his son, too. He told me you know about that. And if you know, then you no doubt dislike me for keeping David away."

The way Carol said things was so matter of fact. No judgment on Chapel for thinking badly of her. And no judgment on herself for having deprived the boy of his father for this long. No guilt--it must be an easy way to live.

"I know that look. You disapprove of what I've done."

"I just know it has hurt Jim over the years."

"We'll never agree on this, Christine."

"No, we probably won't." She led Carol to the transporter that would beam them to Earth. "Do you know what you're going to do now that your project is over?" The details had been sketchy, but she'd seen enough data in the reports coming back from the Enterprise to know what had been at stake. And that it had worked.

"It's not over. They're keeping me away from the project. I'm not sure why."

"They've closed everything down. It's a forbidden subject now."

"It's my project. Mine." Carol took a deep breath. "And it's not closed down. David's there now."

"Oh. I didn't know."

"Well, now you do." Doctor Marcus was intense, that was for sure. "I'm sorry. I'm just very disappointed and very angry that they're shutting me out of this stage. You're a scientist. Surely you can understand?"

"I can. I do. And I'm sorry."

Carol seemed to wave away the sympathy. "I'll put this behind me eventually."

Somehow Chapel doubted that she would ever put this behind her. She'd spent too many years of her life first postulating, then proving, her theory. The result of her work was out there in space, and she wasn't allowed on it. That had to be killing her.

The VOQ loomed ahead, and Chapel pointed. "That's it. Home, dull home."

"It's that bad?"

"No. It's just very...gray and military. But it's functional. And you'll only have to stay there until you secure some other place to live."

Carol nodded thoughtfully, and Chapel decided that the good Doctor Marcus would prefer her new quarters to be on the Genesis planet. Leading the woman into the VOQ, she was glad to sign her in and use Len as an excuse for fleeing.

Heaving a sigh of relief, she hurried out of the building. She wasn't sure what it was that bothered her about Carol, but it bothered her a lot.

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

Kirk was pacing when Chris came in. "How was he?"

"Not good. You know they found him in a bar trying to book passage to Genesis?"

He stared at her. It was slightly disconcerting that she could get more info between ops and her ability to pull out the doctor card, than he could as an admiral. "I didn't know that. They just said he had a relapse."

"Relapse, my ass." She poured herself a drink, then looked over at him. When he nodded, she poured him one, too. "Len's completely lucid, Jim, or he would be if he were Spock. To those who think he should be sounding like his old self, which would include the Starfleet psychiatrists working his case, he's been judged crazy."

"So much for our subtle escape plan." He took the drink and downed it. "Damn it."

Putting her glass down, she reached for him, massaging his shoulders, her thumbs digging hard into tangled muscles.

He sighed in relief. "Chris. What am I going to do?"

"What you planned. You just have to get him out of detainment first. And it has to be tonight. They plan to move him to the psychiatric facility tomorrow."

"Tonight? I'm not sure we're ready."

"You're ready. You have to be, Jim. For Len's sake."

He'd told her what he was planning. Everyone else was coming along, but he'd asked her to stay behind. To stay clear of it. He needed someone on the outside--or the inside, depending on how you looked at it.

She handed him a data recorder. "Thought you might like to know what you're up against."

Playing it, he saw where they were keeping Bones. "You didn't have to do this."

"Consider it a wedding present."

"Best one ever." He pulled her to him, suddenly desperate to have her close. "I may not come back. You know that. None of us may."

She swallowed hard. "I know."

He waited for her to ask him why he had to do it. Why this was so important. But she didn't ask, and she never would. She knew why. She'd go, too, if he'd let her.

"I love you," he said. "If anything happens to me..."

She nodded quickly. "I've never loved anyone the way I love you, Jim. I never will." Pulling him to her, she kissed him desperately.

He pulled down her pants and his own, taking her quickly, using time he didn't have to do it, but unable to leave her without making love one last time. She was crying as she came.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, then realized he'd teared up, too. So much had gone wrong. So much at stake. And he was doing it all the wrong way--and the only way he could. The only way left open to him.

Pulling their clothes back on, he pushed her hair off her face, memorizing the way her eyes sparkled, her tears turning them an even more vivid blue. "Go back to ops. You need to be seen. There can be no question that you were involved."

"I know." She touched his face, staring at him as if she too was memorizing his features. "You'll survive. I know it." She nodded, blinking so that her tears ran down her face.

He brushed them off. "Chapel women have the sight."

"We do." She kissed him gently. "Godspeed, Jim. I know you can do this."

"Go. I love you."

She touched his lips with her own and then she was gone. The apartment seemed very quiet, very still. His apartment--it might never be their apartment, not if he didn't come back.

Taking a deep breath, he murmured, "Here we go." Then he set out on what might be his final adventure.

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

Chapel sat at her station in ops, trying not to show how worried she was about Jim.

Cartwright came in from a late staff meeting and walked over. "You're working late."

"Got called away to check on McCoy. Lost time. Making it up." She was terse, but that wasn't out of the ordinary in ops.

"Anything interesting on the panel?"

She pointed to several comms that had come in from the Strivara sector. "Looks like we might have a Lorkus Plague outbreak. Too early to tell for sure." She knew Starfleet Medical was watching the situation, because she'd commed them as soon as she'd come back from being with Jim. He'd been very clear. Leave as bright a trail as she could so no one could say she'd been involved in what he was about to do.

Cartwright continued on to another station, and Chapel relaxed--until she felt a hand fall heavily on her shoulder.

"You are here," Janice said, sitting down at her station.

Chapel frowned; this was unexpected. Then she realized Bylakov had come in, too.

Janice leaned over, her voice pitched only for the three of them. "Lina said you were acting weird. Since she worships the ground you walk on and notices these kinds of things, I was inclined to listen. Especially since Ny abruptly cancelled our dinner tonight. Some kind of emergency comms thing, she pled. Does that sound right to you? Do comms officers currently between assignments have emergencies?"

Bylakov was doing something on her terminal. She looked over at Janice. "She's logged on at an auxiliary transporter room."

"Which one?" Janice asked. "And make sure you're not leaving a trail."

"I'm not leaving a trail," Bylakov said. "And it's Old City Station."

"Hmmm. A comms emergency there?" Janice smiled at Bylakov, then turned to Chapel. "Interesting, don't you think?" She turned back to her panel, whispering, "Old man on the move."

"What are you two doing here?" Cartwright handed Chapel a padd, glaring at the other two for not being where he expected them to be.

"We came to keep Christine company." Janice smiled up at him in her old yeomany way--Chapel could almost see the basket weave hair and short skirt. "We're going out to dinner later."

Cartwright looked disturbed by the warmth in that smile. "Well, carry on, then."

They worked for a while in silence, only the sound of their panels and the pings of incoming comms filling the space.

"This is interesting," Bylakov said softly. "Unauthorized access on a ship in spacedock. It's the Enterprise."

Janice turned to Chapel, her expression afraid this time. "What the hell are they doing, Christine?"

"What they have to, Jan. Please, leave this alone."

Klaxons started ringing on every monitor as the alerts notified everyone who needed to know that someone was trying to steal a ship out of spacedock. Chapel looked at the big screen, attempting to seem as confused as everyone else. But she was silently cheering as the Enterprise headed for the spacedock doors.

Doors that stayed very definitely closed. "Oh, shit," she said under her breath as she stood up, unable to tear her eyes away from the screen. She doubted anyone could look away at that moment as the distance shrank between the ship and the unmoving doors.

Bylakov moved close and murmured, "You have full access from your panel, right?"

"Yes."

"Tactical can get boring. And boredom can lead to bad habits...like playing in the system where you're really not supposed to." She reached down, her fingers flying on the pad of Chapel's panel. "You can find out the most interesting things. Such as, for instance, where the controllers for Space Dock entry and egress are kept." She hit a short sequence and eased her hand away.

The doors started to open.

Bylakov looked smug. "When you see the Admiral, tell him that was a present from Red Squad."

"Thank you." Chapel felt her eyes brimming with tears.

"Nicely done, junior," Janice said, winking at the cadet.

"Thanks, grandma."

Chapel rolled her eyes. "You two..."

"Don't make us mad, Chrissie. We're your alibi." Janice sat down. "Now, I guess we have to work a while to make this look good, eh?"

"Can we go out to dinner afterwards?" Bylakov asked. "I'm starved."

Chapel felt sick at the thought of food. "I can't eat anything--"

"--You're not going to be alone tonight, Christine. Just get used to that idea right now." Janice nodded her head firmly, as if it was all settled.

"Thank you, both of you."

"Get to work, sir. Or I'll never get to eat." Bylakov laughed. "I can't wait for the 'What I did on my Summer Vacation' presentations when classes start again." At their dual glares, she turned back to her panel. "Okay, maybe not."

Chapel felt Janice's hand on her forearm, squeezing just once. Her friend didn't look over, didn't even say anything. She didn't have to. She'd already said and done everything she needed to.

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

Kirk sat underneath the bird-of-prey, drinking heartily from a bottle of scotch.

"I told you it was the good stuff, sir." Scotty patted the other bottle he'd pulled out of a hat or something. Kirk couldn't imagine where on Vulcan he'd found single malt.

"Have you seen Spock today?" Bones sat down next to Kirk, reaching for the bottle. No one seemed to care about hygiene, they all just wanted to take a long pull off the bottle, and a quick wipe with the hand was good enough.

"He's better, I think." Uhura was trying to sound optimistic. She'd been losing her lilt though. Two weeks since Spock had been returned to them, and he was still a virtual stranger.

"He's alive. And you're not crazy, Doc. That's what's important." Sulu smiled at Kirk, and Kirk smiled back, not surprised that Hikaru would find the heart of the matter.

"I don't know. It was interesting when he was crazy." Chekov took the bottle from McCoy.

Kirk looked around the group, wishing Chris were here. She'd commed him, had told him she was on her way. But there'd been an inquiry and she'd had to stay back until it was done. She'd been cleared, although apparently there was some question about how the spacedock doors had opened. Scotty may not have been the miracle worker in that instance.

She'd been ready to come then, but Starfleet still didn't trust them, apparently. She was grounded. No flight for her unless she wanted to try to smuggle herself off the planet. Kirk thought Starfleet was doing it to punish him. They knew he needed her, so she was the last thing they'd let him have.

Turning his eyes to the fire, he remembered their last, quick time together. It only made him want her more. He needed to lose himself in her body and her love and forget that he had traded his son's life for his friend's.

"I went wrong," he kept hearing David say. His son had cheated. Used protomatter. Reprogrammed the scenario so it was possible to win.

A chip off the old block. Only he'd been punished. Kirk would have taken that punishment. He'd have taken it for both of them. Why did his son have to be dead when he sat here drinking with friends?

"It may have been interesting for you when I was crazy, but it wasn't a joy ride for me." McCoy nudged Kirk. "Or for you, either, eh, my friend?"

"Or for me, either."

The bottle passed around again, the mood sobering even as they got drunker. Scotty opened the second scotch, started it off. They all watched him tip the bottle to his lips.

"I'm getting married," Kirk said into the silence.

"That's nice, sir. Who's the lucky girl?" Uhura giggled.

"I'm not kidding around. Chris and I are getting married."

"You're back with Christine?" Bones was sort of weaving as he turned to look at Kirk. "Why didn't I know that?"

"Because I didn't want a damn lecture, Bones."

"Why would I give you a lecture on that? You should have married her the first time, you damn fool." Bones took the bottle, bypassing Kirk altogether. "To the happy couple."

Everyone chimed in with some version of "Here-here."

"You're not going to lecture me?"

"Nope." McCoy laughed. "Will they let you get married from the stockade?"

"I think so. But the sex will not be good." Uhura giggled again, and Kirk ordered the others to cut her off.

"Sir, I think this is wonderful news. Christine should be here so we can toast her." Sulu stood up, pulling out a communicator. "Let's call her now."

"We're cut off, remember?" Uhura said, proving she was back in the pass the bottle game. "We have to use Sarek's comm system." She grabbed the scotch from Chekov.

"Hey!" He made a grab for it and fell over onto the sand. Since he immediately started snoring, they let him be.

"I love her so much." Kirk knew he was getting wasted. He needed to stop drinking. Now.

Scotty pressed the bottle into his hand again. He took a deep swig then gave it to McCoy.

"I miss my boy." The declaration sat out unanswered. This was why he should have stopped drinking about a bottle ago.

Then Bones turned to him and patted his shoulder. "Jim, Saavik said David gave his life for her and Spock. We're trained to do that. He wasn't. I say he was the bravest among us." He held up the bottle and drank.

"I went wrong," Kirk heard his son say.

"The bravest of all," Kirk murmured, as he lay back, and watched the stars go by until he passed out.

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

Chapel stood in the Federation Council chambers, relief flooding her as Jim and the others were hugged and slapped on the back and generally forgiven for the sins of the past. She saw Jim glance over at her, his eyes held a promise of a night with little sleep. They'd been apart for three months. And then he'd disappeared into the past, and she hadn't been sure she'd ever see him again.

But she should have known better. He always triumphed. Always.

Getting ready to join him, she saw Gillian rush up to him, all smiles and sweet glances. Chapel liked the woman, but she was very glad that she had somewhere else to be. She wasn't precisely sure how Gillian qualified to be on a science vessel, but she did not plan on complaining.

At least Gillian kissed Jim on the cheek, not the lips. She'd seemed to get the messages Janice had been laying down rather thick about Jim being taken, while they'd all sat talking before the council was called into session.

Sighing, Chapel turned and left the two of them alone.

"Christine," Spock's voice was harsher than she remembered it. And her name sounded a little awkward, like he would much rather call her by her title but didn't think he should.

"Spock. It's good to have you back."

He nodded. "Jim has indicated that you and he are to wed."

Her eyebrows went up. "He has, has he?"

"He has. That was a question?"

She laughed. Obviously he wasn't quite back yet. "We are going to get married. Or we were till he brought the lovely Doctor Taylor back with him."

"Oh, they are not romantically involved."

"They're not? Well, that's good to know." Although she wasn't sure Spock was exactly up to speed on the subtleties of romance.

"I will not keep you." He moved aside. "I only wished to say hello." He looked slighty pleased with himself, as if that saying had been a hard one to pull out of the memory banks.

"I'm glad you did." She touched his hand, was happy he didn't pull away. "I like you much better alive."

"I prefer this state, as well."

Laughing, she left him in the chamber and found McCoy lounging against the wall, one foot propped up.

"Lying in wait?"

"Yep."

"For Jim?"

"Nope." His look was that of a disappointed uncle. "So someone's getting married?"

"I would have told you."

"Jim had to be rip roaring drunk on scotch to tell me. What was your drug of choice going to be?"

"Len, that's not fair. I didn't want a lecture."

He pushed himself off from the wall, stalking toward her. "Now, why in damnation do you and Jim think I'm going to lecture you? I've been rooting for you two idiots since you got together the first time." Pulling her into a tight hug, he whispered, "Am I that scary that you both were afraid to tell me?"

"Well, when you get a good rant going...yeah, you are." She pulled away enough to kiss his cheek.

"I better get to give you away."

"It's not going to be that formal."

"No? Well, why in hell not?"

She laughed. "God, it's good to hear you swearing again. Spock's voice in your mouth was very disturbing."

"Try having his brain inside your head. Now, that's creepy." Len nodded to Sarek as he left, then smiled as Jim and Spock walked out. "So, the conquering hero again. You dodge more bullets, my friend."

Jim smiled, then he pulled her to him. "Hello there."

She tried to get some reply to his greeting out, but it wasn't possible since he was kissing her quite thoroughly. In the middle of the corridor. Outside the Federation Council Chamber.

When he let her go, she smiled and said softly, "No more hiding?"

"No more hiding." His grin was so bright it was infectious.

Giving him a little squeeze, she said, "Let's talk about Gillian, shall we, Jim?"

He took her arm, patting it as if she was his senile old grandmother. "Spock, I told you to tell her nothing happened."

"I did tell her that, Jim. I was quite convincing, was I not, Doctor Chapel?"

Jim leaned in, not letting her answer Spock. "Nothing happened."

"I know. It's just...your exes I can deal with. But new ones..."

"Not a new one. A new friend. And not one I intended to bring with me. She stowed away."

"That she did," Len said, winking at Chapel. "She was very determined to be with her whales."

"Yes." Spock nodded solemnly.

Chapel wasn't sure how Gillian being on a science vessel qualified as being with her whales, but she decided to keep that to herself. "Okay, I believe you all." She leaned into Jim, smiled as he kissed her cheek. "I missed you." Three months without him had seemed like forever.

"I missed you, too."

As they passed ops, Janice and Bylakov were standing at the entrance.

"Congratulations, gentleman," Janice said, a broad grin on her face. She nudged Bylakov. "Ask him."

Bylakov turned red but laughed and asked, "Did you like your present from Red Squad, Admiral?"

"It's captain now," Janice said quickly.

"Captain?" At her nod, Bylakov frowned but turned back to Jim. "Captain."

"It's a long story," Jim said a little sheephishly.

"They demoted him," Len said.

"Not so long." Janice laughed, winking at Chapel.

"My present?" Jim squinted at Bylakov, as if trying to figure out what she meant. Then he smiled. "So you were behind the doors?"

"One overachiever to another?" Her voice was a little tentative.

"My recently demoted friend is taking far too much time to tell you it was much appreciated," Len said.

Bylakov smiled and followed Janice into ops.

"If I were a younger man," Len said softly.

Chapel hit him.

"What?"

"She's like a kid sister to me or something. Don't ogle."

I wasn't ogling." Len glared at her. "I don't ogle."

Jim pulled her close. "Do you have to go back to ops?"

"Your buddy Cartwright told me to take a very long lunch."

"He is such a good friend." Jim's grin was blinding. "Spock, when do we need to meet at the shuttle?"

"In two point five hours."

Jim's eyebrows went up. "It's not much but..."

"Why are we wasting it talking?"

"What about lunch?" Len waved them off. "Fine, go act like kids. See if we care."

Chapel pulled Jim after her, and then he was pulling her. She didn't think they'd ever made better time back to his apartment. He had her clothes off before she'd finished locking the door, taking her up against the wall, kissing her as if he thought he'd never see her again.

"Love you," he said, and he made her melt inside with his words and what he was doing to her.

"I was so worried about you," she said, clutching him as he sent her over the edge, then holding him up as he followed her.

They sank down to the floor, lying curled around each other, unwilling to let go, to stop kissing and touching and moaning. Their time was over much too quickly, and they got dressed and headed back to Starfleet Command.

"I'm going to be up on the ship for the next few days."

She nodded.

"Wanna sneak on board and break in my new quarters? I'm not sure what kind of quarters they'll be, but they'll need to be inaugurated."

She began to laugh. "I don't know. I hear the captain runs a pretty tight ship. You think you can sneak me on board?"

"Have your little friend do it," he said, winking.

"Bylakov is a wonder. You should think about her for your new crew."

"I may do that. I'd like to get a lot of those kids on my ship."

"Your ship. I love the sound of that."

She'd never seen him look more touched. "You do, don't you?"

"I do. It's what you were meant to do. And I want to be the wife of a starship captain."

"You will be."

She kissed him, knowing she should show some restraint in public but not really caring after so long away. He didn't seem to care, either.

"I love you." He kissed her one last time.

"I love you, too." She touched his face, making him look at her. "I'm sorry about David."

"I'm dealing with that in my own way. I'm not sure I'll want to talk about it."

"That's fine. But if you do, I'm here."

"I know you are." He turned to go, but then looked back at her. "Our friends are happy for us."

"I know. It's nice."

"We can do this."

"Yes, we can."

"Spock says to concentrate. To take care not to hurt each other."

"Spock said that? Recently?"

"Well, pre-death. But I'm sure he'll say it again someday. He's really much better."

"I'll take your word for it." She walked with him to the shuttle loading area. "Did you tell him to reassure me about Gillian?"

"I expressed some concern on that front. He volunteered. I think he feels guilty for all the times he spurned you."

She laughed. "Right."

As they turned the corner, she saw his crew waiting for him. "This is where I head back to my job. Go enjoy your new ship."

"I'll send you a message when I'm done. Tell Cartwright you need leave. You can hide out in my new quarters when we aren't touring the ship." He kissed her quickly. "I'll beam you up myself if I have to."

"I'll be on the lookout for your signal." She pushed him toward the others. "I hope it's a nice ship."

"Well, nice or not. It'll be mine." Winking, he hurried off.

She turned to go to ops and saw Ross, just rounding the corner.

He took in the assembled group at the shuttle area and asked, "So, he's back in space?" He sounded both happy and a little disappointed.

"Already bucking for his job, Ross?"

"It's possible."

"Then why do you look disappointed?"

He smiled. "I was looking forward to creaming him in handball." He walked with her to ops. "You don't play, do you?"

"No."

"Now that he's gone. Is it over for you two?"

"He's not gone. And yes, we'll stop dating." She could tell her smile was too silly for him to fall for it. "We're getting married."

"Congratulations. You deserve to be happy. Both of you do."

She stopped at the door to ops. "I thought you didn't like him?"

"I'm not sure I do. But...I understand him better. I think he'd tell you that's what matters."

Smiling, she turned to go inside. "I think you're right."

"How's my cadet working out?"

"She's the best. You know how to pick 'em."

His look was nostalgic and trained on Chapel. "I sure do. I'll see you around."

Nodding, she walked into ops. Cartwright came out of his office, smiling indulgently. "That wasn't the longest lunch ever."

"That's because I'm going to take leave. Jim said you'd approve it."

"Jim's taking advantage of me."

She refrained from telling him she hoped Jim would be taking advantage of her soon, instead.

"Fine, take leave. Your two cohorts have already reassigned your shifts, anyway."

"They have?" She was touched.

"Get to work, Chapel. While you're still on the clock."

"Aye-aye, sir."

Sitting down between her two friends, she said, "Thanks."

Janice glanced at her. "We're big fans of true love."

Bylakov nodded.

"Besides, you're going to transfer us a lot of replicator credits."

"I am?"

"You are. It'll make up for us working those long, lonely hours while you're with the living legend getting sweaty."

"Well, when you put it like that." She leaned back in her seat and sighed happily. She was going to be with Jim.

"Commander, could you put in a good word for me with the Ad--Captain?"

"I already did, Cadet Pushy." Chapel winked at Janice.

"Fusai and T'Velik would like to serve with him, too."

"I'll let him know." Then Chapel grinned--it was not a nice smile. "But it won't be the first thing I do."

"Understood, sir. It's good to know your priorities."

"First rule of leadership, Lina. First rule of leadership."

FIN

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