Waltzing with the Muses by Djinn

----------Calliope's Wishing Well----------

Chapel fidgeted in her seat, trying to ease the pain in her rear. Epic poetry was one thing; epic poetry in German was goddamned torture. And she'd bought the ticket for this of her own free will--she had only herself to blame.

She felt someone poke her in the back and quit moving around. Damned purists--it wasn't like you needed to actually see the sadist on stage reciting his saga to get the effect.

Again the poke.

She whipped around to glare at the Finger from Hell and saw Kirk grinning back at her.

He leaned forward, his breath warm on her ear. "Good stuff, yes? I'm riveted. How about you?"

She saw her neighbor to the right glance over, his mouth set disapprovingly, so she settled for nodding.

"Want to get the hell out of here?" Kirk asked.

She let an eyebrow go up with such ease that Spock would have been proud of her. If he ever gave her that much thought. Which he didn't. And she was okay with that.

The man on stage took a breath, and she thought for a moment he might be winding down. But he threw his arms up, adding bad acting to bad rhetoric.

"Oh, God, make it stop," she said, much too loudly. Both sides of the neighborhood glared at her.

Kirk snickered and said, "See you outside." Then he left her to make her own way out of the aisle. He was leaning against the concert hall's outside wall when she hit the exit.

"Some gentleman."

"You're the Emergency specialist. You don't need me to tell you how to get out of an auditorium." He took her arm and started down the street. "Chris, it's damned good to see you." His smile was friendly. Very, very friendly.

"Are you drunk, sir?"

"It's Jim. And no. No, I'm not. I am, however, on leave."

"Lucky me. So, have you been sampling some fun drugs?"

He shook his head. "Nope."

She leaned into him. "Then why are we walking arm and arm down this Berlin street?"

"Because we're not in there listening to Beowulf."

"That wasn't Beowulf."

"Well, whatever it was." He sighed. "And because it's my fifty-first birthday and there is no old enemy after me and no one is going to die."

"Ooooo-kay."

"Then again, the night's still young. And I'm not." His voice dipped low, nudging into the bitter zone. "Isn't life great?"

She tripped a little on the uneven street, bumped up against him, and felt something distinctly flask-like jut into her thigh. She reached into his pocket, digging out the offending item.

"Commander, if you want something, you only need to ask." He grinned when she brandished the flask. "Why, how the devil did that get there?"

"I can't imagine." She opened the flash, and sampled the poison. Her eyes immediately began to water. "Mother of all that's--what the hell is this?"

"Andorian gin. It's a killer."

"I think you might be right about that," she said, then took another pull.

"Go easy, Chris. I'm in no shape to get you home."

"You said you weren't drunk."

"Yes and I was lying." He leaned in. "I do that sometimes."

"So, you're drunk because it's your birthday?"

"You only know it's my birthday because I'm drunk." He leaned in. "I wouldn't have told you how old I was, either, if I wasn't three--maybe four or five--sheets to the wind." He veered suddenly, pulling her down an alley.

"Where are we going?"

"To my favorite fountain."

"Three wishes and all that?"

"It's my birthday, Chris. I can make as many wishes as I want." He stopped and pointed. "See. Pretty."

"Very." It was a birdbath. A tall, very ornate, birdbath. But still...

"Don't humor me." He walked over to it, staring at it with unguarded affection. "When I was just a kid, it was a fountain. It was my fountain."

"You grew up here? I thought you were from Iowa?"

"Oh, Iowa's where I lived. But my grandma was here. I visited her every summer. I loved coming here." He turned to look at her. "I was about seven when she died. Trips stopped then."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "We all lose people."

"Yes, we do." She took another sip of his rock gut. "So what were you doing at the poetry reading?"

"I saw you. Followed you in."

"Points off for bad judgment."

"Yeah. I didn't read the marquee." He dipped his hand into the water, splashed some on his face. Then he did it again, with more vigor.

"That water's probably not very clean."

He laughed. "This is Germany. Everything's clean."

"Point taken." It was scarily tidy here. "Why did you follow me?"

"I don't know." He turned, studied her as the tips of his hair dripped water onto his cheeks.

She walked to the birdbath, trailed her finger through it. "So, do wishes really come with this thing?"

"I always thought so. Then again, I hadn't lived much back then."

"Not like now?"

"Weathered and beaten." He took the flask from her.

"Why does getting old bug you so much?"

"Ask me that when you turn fifty-one."

She decided not to engage anymore, walked around his little fountain, and took his arm again, leading him off.

"I'm not ready to go."

"Sure you are."

"Where are you taking me?" He leaned into her, his body warm and strong even if a bit tipsy.

"Where do you want me to take you?"

"I don't know. Where do you want to take me?"

Laughing softly at the game of verbal roulette they were playing, she steered him to the transporter station. "Home, I think."

"That sounds promising."

"Your home."

"Less so. Unless you're the kind of woman who likes to be able to make a dash once you've had enough."

"Had enough of what?" She batted her eyelashes at him.

"I am immune to your charms. Do that again." He laughed softly. "It's my birthday, dammit. I'd like some cake. Sachertorte, maybe."

"Uh huh."

"Vienna is just a hop away."

"Jim, anywhere on Earth is just a hop away by transporter."

"We could take the train."

"Yes, or we could hire a carriage."

He dug his heels in, refused to budge. "It's very bad luck to refuse to go to the Hotel Sacher with me on my birthday."

"Your fifty-first birthday."

"Right."

"I don't even like sachertorte."

"Then you, my dear, can have a Napoleon." He started walking again. "It's settled."

She gave up and let him take over. He told the transporter tech their new destination, held her elbow as they stepped up to the pad.

As they walked out into the Vienna night, she asked, "Why did you follow me, Jim?"

"I'm not drunk enough to tell you."

She handed him the flask, and he laughed loudly. A spontaneous, happy laugh that made her grin. She noticed he didn't take a drink, just shoved the flask back into his pocket.

"Why?"

"Because you're wearing the hell out of that dress."

"I thought you weren't going to tell me."

"I changed my mind."

"I've worn the hell out of dresses before. You never showed much interest."

"Were you disappointed?" His eyes were just a little dangerous and very amused.

"Not really." She smiled as she said it.

"You're honest, Chris. I like that."

"Did you even know it was me? Or was I just a bodacious dress?" It was a great dress. Cost her a month's salary--well, it had cost Todd that, if he made what she did, which he didn't. Todd could have bought her five of these dresses a day and not even blinked. It was the one thing she missed about him: living large.

"I knew it was you."

She studied his face. "Why are you alone on your birthday? Where's Len? Or Spock?"

"I'll see them tomorrow." He shrugged. "I get...weird on my birthday. Better to celebrate the next day."

They turned into the hotel, didn't have to wait for a table in the charming red and gold cafe, or for the steaming hot coffee and dessert.

"So, tell me, Chris. What would you have wished for in my fountain?"

"I don't know."

"Not true love?"

She smiled and laughed a little, knew both came off bitter. "Uh. No."

"You're not still interested in Spock, are you?"

"Even I can move on. And thanks for the vote of confidence. It was...someone else. Someone you don't know."

"He hurt you?" He touched her hand, his fingers dipping down lightly, not really coming to roost.

"Did he hurt me?" She thought about that. Todd hadn't hurt her...exactly. "He just confirmed some things."

"Bad things?"

"I don't know. Things I've had to have thumped into me, I guess. About love."

"Like that it never works?" He was nodding. "Or that love's an elusive bitch. That kind of thing?"

"Wow, isn't that depressing? You too, huh?"

He shrugged. "I thought I had someone back in my life. But...I lost her when I lost my son."

"Carol?" She'd heard the story from Ny.

"Yeah."

And then Gillian, that perky young thing from the past, had rushed off to embrace her new destiny, leaving Jim looking a little bemused on the tribunal floor. Chapel had watched from the corridor, not meaning to intrude, but Jan had wanted to wait for their captain. Jan, who'd found someone she was crazy about, finally, and was getting married. At least one of them still knew how to love.

Jim sighed. "So here I am. I see attractive women. I do nothing. I've lost my touch, Chris."

"Hey, you're stalking me into poetry readings. I'd say you've still got the knack." She gave him a hard look. "Unless you're saying I'm not attractive?"

"I'm not saying that." Again the grin. "I do like you."

She smiled, felt suddenly a little shy. "I like you, too." She lifted her cup to him. "To birthdays. Because the alternative's worse."

He thought about it for a second, then nodded. "Chin chin."

She realized he wasn't drunk at all. Just probably a little buzzed, the way she was. He sipped at his coffee, watching her over the lip of the cup, a small smile playing at his mouth.

"What?" she asked.

"I don't know. This is nice."

She leaned forward. "It's a red-velvet cafe that hasn't changed since the nineteenth century. In Vienna. With yummy chocolate and caffeine. If it weren't nice, I'd want my credits back."

"You make a good point. I think the company might have a little to do with it, though."

"Don't bet on it." But she knew she was smiling in a way that was probably much too sappy--this man was dangerous. "When is your leave over?"

"Tomorrow."

Tomorrow. She was safe, then. He'd go, and she would remember this as just a fun night. His birthday--the one she'd helped him celebrate. It would mean Andorian gin, and bird baths, and sachertorte.

If she could wish, though... But she didn't wish. She was long past wishes. Wishes had no point. And...it was safer this way.

"What are you thinking?"

She met his eyes. "Nothing."

"Liar." But he didn't press, just held out his fork to her, his last piece of sachertorte on it.

She shook her head and he pulled the fork back, and finished it himself. Their eyes met, and his were calm.

"Happy birthday to me." He looked around as she nodded, seemed to be breathing in the atmosphere of the old hotel. "I think I might get a room..."

"Good idea. Indulge yourself." She waved the waiter over, signed for the dessert, ignoring Jim when he protested. "It's your present. Happy birthday."

"You're leaving?" He didn't sound surprised.

"I am. Early shift in the morning." A lie. Same shift as ever. But he didn't know that.

She leaned down and kissed him on the cheek, lingering longer than was probably wise. "Good night, Jim. Godspeed."

She felt his hand on her back, rubbing gently, heard his soft "Good night." Then she turned and hurried out of the hotel.

Back to San Francisco. Back to reality. Boring, but safe.

----------The Song of Euterpe----------

A hand passed in front of Chapel's face as she sat at the science station in Ops. A hand holding a personal padd with two tickets on the screen. She didn't need to turn to look, could tell by Jan's surprised expression who was standing behind her.

She read the tickets. "La Traviata?"

"Box seats. In Rome. Tomorrow night. On me." Jim leaned down; his breath as he talked made her hair move. "Yes?"

"What's the occasion?"

"Payback. For having to listen to me whine about getting old." He straightened, moved into view. "Hello, Jan."

"Captain." Jan glanced at Chapel with a look that said there was going to be a lot of explaining to do. Fortunately, not a look that held any anger. It was a testament to how crazy Jan was for Paul that this did not appear to be bugging her.

"Congratulations on your wedding," Jim said, his hand falling on Chapel's shoulder as he talked.

"You are coming, right?" Jan was beaming. "You'll like him. He's a lot like you."

"He's a lucky man. And yes, if I can get back, I'm coming."

Jan smiled at them both. "Why don't you two find someplace a little more private to talk?"

"Excellent advice, Jan." He lifted his hand from Chapel's shoulder. "Shall we?"

She followed him into the corridor. "You don't have to pay me back."

"I know." Gesturing to an exit, he looked a little longingly at the bright sunshine. "It's a nice day."

"Then let's go enjoy it." For a second, she almost expected him to take her arm as he led her outside. Glancing at him, she saw him grin as he caught her looking. "What?"

"You knew I was back, of course."

"It's possible." No ship came home without them knowing it. The Enterprise was back for an upgrade to its nav system. All the ships were coming in for it. He'd be here three days tops. He'd just arrived, too. Which meant he hadn't wasted much time coming to see her. She bit back a smile, even as she told herself not to read too much into that.

"Did you think I'd come visit you?"

It had been a month since his birthday. She hadn't expected any comms from him, and he hadn't disappointed her. She'd thought Berlin was what it was. A one-time moment of connection. Sympathy over a bird bath.

She met his eyes. "No. I didn't."

"I didn't think I'd come, either." His smile was a little shaky. "Not sure why I did. Other than I keep thinking of that night."

"It was the dress." She laughed at his expression.

"It was more than the dress. A dress doesn't get me wondering." At her look, he grinned. "Well, okay, a dress does get me wondering about some things. But not to the extent I've been thinking about you."

"It's easy to make things more than what they are." She knew this from experience--was, in fact, a master of the art.

"Is that what I'm doing?" He slowed, studied her. "Should I stop?"

She felt as if he could see far too deep inside her. "What do you want to do, Jim?"

"I don't know what I want anymore. I wanted my ship back. And I have her back. And...it's not enough."

"What would be enough?"

"I don't know. But...I keep thinking of you."

"Maybe it's just some lingering post-birthday angst? Not me at all."

He grimaced, then pulled her along, to a bench set away from the building. "Who was he?"

"Who was who?"

"The man who left you so damn guarded."

She shook her head.

"Chris, come on. You know me: I can finesse any situation. Provided I understand it."

"Maybe I don't want you to finesse me."

"Help me understand, anyway."

Sighing, she looked away. "Todd Cabot."

"You were dating him?" The disgust was palpable.

"I take it you're not a fan."

"Who the hell is? Other than his bankers."

She sighed. "He was...different."

"Than what?" Making a face, he made a motion as if waving her away. "Jesus, Chris--Cabot?"

"It didn't end well." She frowned. "Why do you dislike him so?"

"He has a thing for scientists."

He wasn't wrong. She and Todd had met at a benefit. For a science foundation. She hadn't realized until much too late that he'd been trolling for new meat, not just supporting the cause. "I still don't see the connection to you."

"He dated Carol after I left." He sighed. "I'd forgotten how much I hated him. It's been so long and we don't travel in the same circles. Normally." He looked down at clenched fists. "He was there when my son was born, Chris. Playing father to David. Didn't stay very long, thank God. David was barely two when he left. Probably didn't even know he'd had a fake dad."

She took his hand, trying to pry open the tight fingers. "I'm sorry." Carol had lasted with Todd a hell of a lot longer than Chapel had. But then that had been many years ago. As far as Chapel knew, no one lasted very long with Todd anymore.

"Did he hurt you?"

"No. He just...moved on. Before I was ready for him to." She gave up on getting his fists open, just held them the way they were. "He was cold. At the end. Like Spock. Only without the wacky charm."

Jim smiled, but it faded quickly. "Were you in love with him?"

She shrugged. Then she looked up at him. "Were you in love with Carol? Or were you just trying to recapture something that might make you feel less alone?"

"Ouch." He smiled grimly. "But not inaccurate. I don't know what's wrong with me, Chris. I feel like I've missed something. Like somewhere along the line, I took a wrong step. And I ended up here." He looked over at her and unclenched his fist enough to draw her hand into his. "I don't mean right here with you. But...alone."

"We're all alone, Jim. Even when we're with someone, we're still alone in here." She tapped the side of his head very gently. "I found that out with Todd."

"I know." He met her eyes, his own penetrating. "Come with me to the opera tomorrow?"

"Do you think that's a good idea? Neither of us is in the best place emotionally."

"True. But it's Rome, Chris. And if you're very good, I'll take you to Venice. To my favorite hotel."

Her eyebrow went up.

"You can have your own room." He scooted closer, not romantically close, just near enough for comfort. "Say you'll do it."

She could feel some part of her suggesting she back away slowly. But her mouth was operating on its own. "Okay. I'll do it."

His grin was heart stopping. "I'll pick you up at your place at six. Wear something unbearably sexy." He squeezed her hand and let go, getting up. "Pack something you can roam Venice in, too."

"You're spoiling me."

"Not after Cabot, I'm not. I'm not even in his league."

She took his hand, felt the warmth, the strong pulse. "Believe me, you're well beyond it."

"You do know what to say." He stared down at her a moment, then walked away, heading around the building toward the main entrance.

She watched him until he was out of sight. Getting up with a sigh, she made her way back to ops, rolling her eyes when she saw Jan give her a predatory smile.

"Chapel, I want all the gory details when you get back from Rome."

"You think I'm going?"

"I know you're going, missy. One of us has to find out what he's like." Jan gave her a sweetly mischievous grin. "And I'm afraid it can't be me anymore. I'm very much taken."

Chapel felt a pang. She'd once felt that way, with Roger. Lucky to be in love. Lucky to be loved back. It had been a very long time since she'd felt that way. Maybe something had died in her, in those caves, when Roger was lost again. When Roger turned out to have never been there at all.

She started to send Jim a message, started to try to weasel out of their trip. But then she remembered his grin and the lonely look in his eyes.

She cancelled the message and went back to work.

------

Chapel leaned forward, enjoying how she could see the entire stage from the box Jim had gotten. She felt his hand trail down her back--her very exposed back. He had said unbearably sexy. This was the dress for it. Although she wasn't sure that at her age what was inside the dress qualified.

His hand stopped where the dress started up again, very low on her back. His fingers trailed along the edge of the fabric, then ran up again. She glanced over at him, saw that he was watching the stage intently. He didn't seem aware he was even touching her.

What this man could do with one little touch was criminal. She shivered, and he looked over, then at his hand, as if it was operating on its own initiative. But he didn't pull it away, just smiled and gave her a questioning look.

She leaned into his touch, and he smiled again, and turned his attention back to the stage. But his touch was more calculated this time, and she put her hand on his thigh, causing him to laugh softly. He looked over at her, then down at her hand, and murmured, "I dare you."

She slowly ran her hand up. He stopped her before she could edge into the danger zone. Pursing his lips a little, he nodded, as if reassessing her. "Ballsy."

"Never dare an ops person," she whispered. Then she moved her hand back down to his knee, sliding his hand with her.

He tightened his hold on her a little, his other hand making its long slow exploration of her back again. She had a hard time following the rest of the opera. Fortunately, she didn't care all that much. When it was over, he sat for a moment in the box, watching the others leave the hall.

"They're like peacocks," she murmured, taking in all the beautiful colors.

He nodded. "Or tropical fish. All heading one way."

"To the bar," she said, and he laughed. She moved closer. "I like it here."

"Do you?"

She nodded.

"I think they'll kick us out if we try to set up camp."

She pretended to pout, and he seemed mesmerized by her lips. She let them go back into a more serious expression.

"I liked your lips better the other way. For this anyway..." He kissed her, a soft, gentle--but not at all tentative--kiss.

She kissed him back the same way.

When he pulled away, his smile was a little sheepish. "You have to admit this beats the hell out of listening to me whine."

"I didn't mind listening to you whine." Letting him draw her up, she closed her eyes and shivered as he settled her wrap around her shoulders, his hands going underneath the silk and chiffon to touch her skin again.

"Venice?"

She nodded.

"Two rooms?"

She opened her eyes, studied him. Then she started to smile, her lips tilting up very slowly. "One."

His lips began the same slow ride into a smile. "One it is." He let his hand fall to the small of her back, pressing in just enough to let her know he was there.

It was very...territorial. Todd had done that, too, and she'd hated it. But when Jim did it, hate was the last thing on her mind.

The walk to the transporter station was short, or maybe it was long and she just didn't notice because his arm was around her and he was kissing her. They materialized in Venice and walked for a short bit, then she saw a shadowed alcove and pushed him into it. She felt him press against her, and his lips found hers. They kissed for a long time, gentle turning to not so gentle as water lapped against the canal bank only meters from them.

She had to come up for air, and hugged him, running her hands down his back. "Do you think they'd arrest us if we did it right here?"

"Did what?" He pressed against her again, making it clear that one part of him knew exactly what she was talking about. Nuzzling her neck, he kissed his way to her ear.

She heard music coming from a window somewhere above them, a lone violin playing a sad melody.

He let out a breath, the sound long and satisfied, as if he was letting go of much more than just air. "God, I love it here."

Taking her hand, he pulled her after him, over a bridge, down a shadowed sidewalk along another canal, then over another bridge. They ended up in front of a hotel that looked as if it had been a private palazzo. She thought it probably fronted on the Grand Canal. Jim put his arm around her as he walked with her up the stairs and into the lobby.

"Signore Kirk." An old man at the registration desk clapped his hands. "Anna Luisa, I told you he was coming back."

An old woman peeked out from the door behind the man. "James. You bad, bad boy. Where have you been?"

Jim pointed up.

"You see, Mario. I knew he'd get back up there." She winked at Chapel. "I bet my husband a good deal of money, in fact."

"Your favorite room happens to be free," Mario said, checking his computer. "You do want it?"

"Oh, yes." Jim looked at her. "You'll love it."

"I believe you."

The woman seemed to be assessing Chapel. "Who is your friend, James?"

"An old shipmate."

"Not so old," Mario said, winking at her. He signed them in, then had them run their hands in front of the scanner, keying the room for their palms. He clapped sharply and a bellboy came over with the bags they'd sent earlier that day.

"Enjoy yourselves." Anna Luisa shot them a knowing smile.

"This way," the young man said, heading for a lift set off in a corner of the lobby.

Their room was on the top floor, and the lift covered the three floors slowly, finally opening to a wide hallway, covered in gilt wallpaper. Antique-looking light blue and gold carpets led the way to the end of the hall, where the bellboy threw open the doors, revealing a very large room done in shades of gold and brown. It had floor-to-ceiling windows that did look out on the Canal.

Chapel hurried to take in the view; she heard Jim getting rid of the bellboy, saw his reflection as he turned off the lights and joined her at the window.

"Here," he said, moving her down the wall of windows, to a door she hadn't noticed. It opened onto a miniscule balcony, barely large enough for them both to stand. She stepped out, leaned against the railing as he pressed himself against her and kissed the back of her neck.

Her knees nearly buckled.

"See that place over there?" He pointed across the canal, to a building with a substantially bigger balcony than theirs. "There are two ancient men who live there. They have three white poodles. They like to sit out in the mornings, drinking their coffees, with the poodles yapping their heads off."

She laughed.

"And there"--he pointed to a building next to the first--"that one's pink, even though you can't tell it now. A young woman with long, dark hair lives there, but not all the time. When she's here, she entertains a lot. With the curtains open."

"And you watch?"

"I'm a guy. Of course I watch." He leaned in, gently pulling her back and tilting her face toward him to meet his lips. They kissed for a long time.

"Maybe she's watching us now." Chapel leaned against him with a sigh. "She's never entertained you?"

"Nope. Didn't want to spoil the voyeuristic magic." He laughed softly. "And I don't like the idea of sharing my woman."

"Ah."

"What kind of ah was that?" He pushed her into the railing, trapping her as he ran his hands down the sides of her dress, finding skin through the rather deep slits. "'Ah, you cro-magnon, you'? Or "Ah, I think I like that idea'?"

"The latter." She sighed. "I was sharing Todd at the end. I've heard he never dumps one girlfriend until he's secured the next."

"I've heard that, too. How long ago did you two break up?" He kissed her neck again, running his fingers down her throat to her collarbone, and then down to more interesting places.

She moaned.

"Quite a while?"

"Under a year. Just."

"Mmmm." He didn't let up on his attack on the nerve endings in her neck--nerve endings that seemed to be connected to other parts of her body. If he and the railing hadn't been steadying her, she wasn't sure her legs would have agreed to hold her up.

"How long for you?" she asked, knowing it was not the wisest question. What if he said, "Oh, about twelve hours ago"?

"Not quite as long as you. But not very recently, either," he whispered. "Come on." He pulled her inside and shut the door.

She turned, finding him by feel in the dark. He pulled her dress off, letting it pool around her feet. Her underthings followed. Pushing her back, he left her leaning against the window as he slipped his clothes off.

"I'm mooning the entire canal. You do realize that?" Although she didn't know how much anyone outside could really see--their room was pitch black, only the glow of the slivered moon outside and a thin strip of light from under the door broke the darkness.

He laughed and pulled her to him, then spun them around. "If you're so shy, I'll do it."

She pushed him against the glass, finding the idea that they were exposed and not exposed arousing. "I didn't realize you were such an exhibitionist."

"I'm not. Usually." He spun them around again, pushed her back, and eased her up until she wrapped her legs around him and slid down just enough--their moans were almost in harmony.

"So you've never made love like this in here before?"

"This is my place to regroup, Chris. To figure life out. I come here alone."

"You're not alone now."

"No. I'm not, am I?" He pressed his cheek against hers for a moment, then pulled away. "No more talking."

"Ever?"

"For the next little while."

She could hear the smile in his voice, could imagine how his eyes would be gleaming. His arms supporting her were a mix of sensual delight and utter safety. She shut up and kissed him as he took her hard, up against the window in their dark-as-night room over one of the most famous waterways on Earth.

Todd sure as hell couldn't top that.

----------Clio's Memories----------

Chapel woke to the bright sunshine coming in through the windows. She glanced over at Jim, saw that he was sleeping peacefully. Easing out of bed, she dug her robe out of her bag and slipped it on, then wandered out to the balcony.

Across the water, on the balcony of what she could now tell was a terracotta-colored villa, two old men sat drinking coffee. Two white poodles gamboled around them, yapping their heads off.

"You don't wake the man you spent the night taking advantage of?" Jim's breath was warm on her ear.

"You looked so peaceful. And I didn't go far."

"I know." He wrapped his arms around her, hugged her tight.

"Are you naked back there?"

"I am. So don't move or we'll give the old guard there quite the show." He made a funny sound, sort of a sigh only shorter. Sharper.

"What?"

"They lost one. Of the dogs, I mean. There were three last time."

"I didn't know you were such a fan of dogs."

"I always had a dog growing up. I had one--I left one--with Antonia. A Great Dane. Butler."

She turned carefully, keeping him modest while she maneuvered around to see his face. "I'm sorry."

"They don't live long. Great Danes. I don't even know if he's still..." He shook his head. "I couldn't take him with me. The days of having dogs on a starship are long past."

"Especially one the size of a pony."

"Especially those." He kissed her.

She started thinking about his ship, and what he'd been doing before he got it back. "You left Antonia a while ago, Jim. You were on Earth. Why didn't you take him with you then?" She saw him close his eyes, realized she was straying into deeply personal information, which might not really be meant to follow a night of sex. Great sex. But maybe just sex. "Never mind. I don't need to--"

"She wanted to keep him. 'He was ours,' she said. If I was going to throw away the relationship, then I didn't get to take him."

"But he was yours."

"No. She was right. He was ours." He let go of her--confession time apparently over--and padded toward the hall. "You want coffee?" His voice was breezy--too casual?

"Are you going to make it?"

"No, I'm going to order it."

She realized there was a terminal on the wall by the door. He punched in something that looked like a lot more than a request for just coffee.

As he worked, he said, "Chris, not that I mind strutting around like this, but can you find me my robe? I'm not sure the room service staff is ready to see me in the altogether."

"Their loss, Jim," she said, but she dug around in his bag until she found his robe. Carrying it over to him, she wrapped it around his shoulders, then headed back to take in the view. She found it hard not to glance back, see what he was doing.

Did he want her to go? Should she be feeling quite this...awkward?

"They never take long."

"Good." Her voice squeaked a little.

He shrugged into the robe, walked over to her. "Are we okay, here?"

"Yeah. Fine."

"Are you sure?"

She nodded. Then she turned to look at him. "Why did you leave her? You get a look when you talk about her."

"I loved her."

"But you left her. You could have brought her to San Francisco."

He shook his head. "Returning to Starfleet was leaving her, in her book. She wouldn't have come."

"If she said she'd come now, would you want that?"

"She won't say that, Chris. She got married last year. A nice guy. No Jim Kirk, mind you--for which she no doubt profoundly thanks God."

Chapel doubted that--could you ever forget this man once you'd had him? "You never brought her here?"

"No. I came here after we broke up, though." He pulled her close. "Why do you ask that?"

"Because I can't figure out why you brought me here."

He nodded, as if that thought had occurred to him, too. Was he regretting bringing her here?

The chime at their door spared her a painful answer. He held a finger up in what seemed like a "Hold that thought" motion as he walked to the door. Opening it, he held it for a waiter who wheeled in a sizeable cart covered with plates of fruits and pastries and lots of coffee.

She smiled at the spread.

After he signed the padd and showed the man out, Jim turned to her, staring at her from across the room. "We were very busy last night. I thought you might have worked up an appetite." He walked to the cart and pushed it closer to the small table set near the end of the row of windows. "And you ask an interesting question."

Pouring two mugs of coffee, he carried them to where she stood, handing her one and drinking happily from the other.

"I like mine black."

He gave her a stern look. "I know that. But this is caffe latte. The milk is mandatory."

She took a sip. If she ignored the milk, she could tell it was nice, strong coffee underneath. "It's good."

"It is. Now, do you want to know the answer to your question?"

She turned and stared out at the sparkling canal as she sipped her coffee. "I'm not sure."

He moved closer, maneuvered between her and the window, was staring at her. "You think I don't want you here, don't you?"

She took another sip--stalling.

"Chris?"

"I think you're the consummate gentleman, Jim. Who would never, ever, tell a woman to leave and let a good night of sex be just that."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that." He leaned back, his head tilted back against the glass. "I brought you here because it felt right. And it still feels right." He cupped her cheek, and she leaned into his touch. "Don't you think it's odd that we know so much about each other, yet we've never explored this? You've never been interested in me, have you?"

She met his eyes. "Not before Berlin."

"I know. Same here." He smiled, a sweet, soft expression that made her want to kiss him. "Yet I seem to have made a habit of keeping track of you. I came to the ceremony when you made commander."

"I know. I saw you there."

"No, Chris. I came for you. I had other friends in the ranks getting promoted that day, too. But I came to see you get promoted."

"Did you know that then?"

He seemed to think about it. "I did. But it wasn't romantic. I just...care about what happens to you."

"I do understand that. I was really happy for you when you left Starfleet and went to live with Antonia. It seemed like the right thing for you."

"For a while, it was." He sighed, then threw back his coffee. "Do you think something happened when we found Roger? That maybe the experience forged some kind of connection we just take for granted?"

"Maybe." She took another sip.

"Do you think that's why I'm drawn to you now?"

She shrugged. "It's working both ways if it is. I... Last night was..."

"Unforgettable? Earth shattering? Made you forget every other lover you've ever had--especially Cabot?" He was grinning.

"I was going to go with just okay." She felt the last of the awkwardness fall away when he laughed.

"Well, always room for improvement, then." He started to slowly untie her robe. "Finish that coffee."

"What about breakfast?"

"I'm surprised at you. I'd expect an ops woman to have noticed that there is nothing on that cart that will not keep just fine till we're ready to eat it."

She laughed. "So I guess you still want me?"

He used the robe tie to pull her with him, back to the bed. "I want to see if you're as good in the sunlight as you were in the moonlight."

"Moonlight's a lot more flattering," she said as he pushed her robe off her shoulders, taking her in, examining her.

"Sunlight's a lot more real." He pushed her down to the bed. "Get this robe off me, will you?"

She pushed it off him, pulling him down to her. His kisses felt even better in the warm, open sunlight.

"I'm glad you're here," he murmured.

"I thought we were going to explore Venice," she said, as she rolled him off her, then held him down with the judicious application of her hand to one particular part of his anatomy.

He groaned and closed his eyes. "I can think of other things I want to explore more." He pulled her up to sit on top of him, making the connection complete. "Do you have to go back today?"

She looked down at him in surprise.

"I'm on leave until tomorrow afternoon. Stay here another day. Can you?"

She had the next day off. No reason she couldn't stay. "Are you sure?"

"Did I ask or not?"

She smiled and nodded happily, then squealed as he rolled them. He ended up on top, losing the connection but reestablishing it quickly.

"My Chris," he said with a smile that was infinitely tender.

"Yours?" She kissed his neck, working her way to any part of skin she could reach.

"Do you object to that terminology?"

"No. It's just...I didn't expect this."

"I know. Neither did I. What do you say we show what fine officers we are and take advantage of this unexpected windfall?"

She laughed and proceeded to do just that.

----------Baubles from Erato's Grove----------

Chapel watched as Jan and Paul danced their first dance as man and wife. Jan's ivory dress flowed in soft folds down her body, Paul's dark suit providing stark contrast.

"They look right together," Ny said as she sat down next to Chapel.

"They do. And he's a super guy." Chapel had been the one to recruit him into Ops. She'd also been the one to introduce him to her friend. Not that Jan had needed much help after the first hello. If there was such a thing as love at first sight, this had been it.

"I'm glad. For her. For them." Ny sighed, looked a little sad.

Chapel took her hand. "I thought you were coming with Wallace?"

"So did I. But he hasn't been handling the separation very well. When he found out that this leave wasn't going to be devoted to him, he didn't like it."

"Sorry."

Ny nodded, then she looked back to where Jim was standing with Len and Hikaru. "So, I'm a little surprised you didn't give me any warning you were with our handsome captain."

"It's new. I'm not sure what it is." She glanced back at Jim; he smiled warmly at her before turning back to the others.

"Are you deliberately being a dipshit? Or can you really not see the man is 'with' you?"

Chapel took a deep breath.

"I'm serious, Christine."

"Ny, you know my past. How likely do you think I am to rush into any assumptions? I like him so much. I enjoy being with him. I'd love it if we were a couple. But I don't know that we are. We may just be friends with options." She met Ny's eyes. "And that's all right, because being that kind of friend to him beats being Todd's girl." Or anyone else's, but she was not going to tell Ny that.

Ny didn't look like she bought it, and Chapel tried to think of how to better explain it. She was saved by Jim coming up to ask her to dance.

He held her the way a lover would. Nothing nasty in how they moved together, but nothing tentative, either.

"I've missed you," he murmured into her ear, his hand running down her dress, stopping before he reached the limits of taste.

"I've missed you, too." Since Venice, he'd been very far from Earth. No more repairs or meetings to call him back. Five months of the kind of separation that Ny's beau had done so poorly with.

But not five months without contact. Chapel had received comms from Jim every few days--little missives, telling her about his day. She had a feeling he did them just before bed. She'd sent some, too. Replies to his. Others that were from her. They took turns starting the chain, the onus to keep up the contact had been on neither of them.

He'd sent her presents, too. Things he'd told her he wanted her to wear when he saw her next. One was the dress she had on now, made of a light pink fabric unlike any she'd ever seen. It was cut modestly but with extreme elegance, sewn, according to him, by priestesses of the love goddess Maphora on the planet Peridaini.

One side of her hair was held back by a long clip that was made of a rosy-gold metal, simple, unadorned except for the beautiful, tiny script that ran down it. She couldn't read it, but Jim had said it was a famous love poem from Canus V.

When Jim had picked her up for the wedding, she'd been tentative, unsure if she should show him how happy she was that he was back. Their hug had been a little awkward.

"Close your eyes," he'd said, then he fastened something around her neck. "Okay."

She walked to a mirror and admired the beautiful pearls he'd given her. Big, irregularly shaped pearls that were white with a pink luster.

"What exotic realm are these from?" she'd asked.

"The exotic realm of Tahiti. They were...they were in the window of an antique store. I saw them as I was walking here from the transporter station."

"I love them." She wanted to say she loved him. Could feel the words pushing up and bit them back. Slipping pearl studs on her ears, she smiled, then gave a little twirl. "Do I meet with your approval?"

"You more than meet." He pulled her close, kissing her. "I want you. I've been wanting you for some time."

"Me, too." She hugged him close. "If we're careful not to wrinkle anything, we could probably--"

He put one finger over her lips, shook his head. "We can wait." His smile had turned dangerous. "It'll just make it better." He'd pulled away, taken her hand, and led her out the door.

Jim turned her in the dance, smiling as he watched Jan and her husband. "She seems so happy. I'm glad."

"She is happy. And he's a wonderful man. He'll be good to her."

He took a deep breath, seemed about to say something, but didn't.

"What?"

"I caught the tail end of what you were saying to Nyota. Do you really believe we're just friends?"

"There's nothing wrong with being friends."

"Is that what I am to you?"

"I wasn't saying that. I was saying that I shouldn't make assumptions about what I am to you."

"Are you dense? Or just too well barricaded to see the truth?" He pushed his cheek against hers. "I don't, as a rule, send presents to a friend I occasionally screw."

"No?"

"No. And I don't take them to Venice. And I certainly don't nearly run down from the transporter station. Not stopping until I'm at their door."

She frowned. "Except for at the antique shop."

"What?"

She fingered the pearls. "To get these."

Another deep breath. "I didn't--they were my grandmother's."

"Birdbath grandmother's?"

He nodded.

She'd been about to drop her hand from the necklace; now she held on tight. "Why didn't you tell me that?"

"I was going to. But...it was awkward between us. And it suddenly occurred to me that the way I feel for you might not mirror what you felt for me. And that admitting I'd given you my grandmother's necklace might be very stupid."

"Oh."

"So. It wasn't stupid?" he asked softly.

"No, not stupid."

They danced slowly, hands locked in the age-old stance of the waltz, only she couldn't seem to let go of the pearls and put her hand on his shoulder.

"One of us needs to say something," he whispered.

"I'm falling in love with you."

"Well, thank God. I thought I was the only one."

She laughed, pulled him closer. "I love the pearls. And the dress. And the clip." Not because they were beautiful, valuable things, but because each one of them meant something. Nothing she'd ever gotten from Todd had signified anything except a rich man indulging his flavor of the moment.

Jim kissed her slowly, never losing the steps of the dance, leading effortlessly. When he pulled away, his smile was easy and contented. "There. Now everybody knows." He laughed softly. "Bones looks a little taken aback."

"You hadn't told him, either?"

"Nope. I wasn't certain where this was going. And when he doesn't approve, he can give a hell of a lecture. I wasn't ready for that until I was sure of you."

"You're a wise man." She rubbed his neck, then up under his hair. Then she frowned. "Does he not approve?"

"We'll find out." He laughed softly. "I'm sure he approves of you for me. I'm just not sure he'll approve of me for you."

"That's silly. I'm lucky to have you."

"Yes, you are. Tell him that, all right?"

She smiled. "Do you remember Platonius?"

"I'm never likely to forget that place, Chris."

"Do you ever wonder what would have happened if when they were mixing things up couch-wise, you'd ended up on mine?"

He smiled. "I never used to. But I've given it some thought lately."

"Does it go lurid places when you think about it?"

"Oh, my, yes."

She laughed.

"When can we get out of here?" he asked. "I'm afraid my wedding protocol is a little shaky."

"She has to cut the cake. And throw the bouquet. Then we can go."

"You going to try for that?"

"For the cake? You bet. Jan has excellent taste in sweets."

He grinned. "I meant for the bouquet."

"Oh, is that what you meant?" She studied him. "I don't think so. Marriage isn't as important to me as being happy. Being in love is what matters."

"I've been married. It's overrated."

"Well, you were married to a royal bitch. Maybe it would have been better with someone who actually appeared to like you."

"I hate the way you sugarcoat things, Chris." He shrugged. "At least it was a term marriage. No harm, no foul." He smiled suddenly. "And how do you know she was a royal bitch?"

She thought about it. They'd never interacted socially. She just...knew.

"It goes back," he said, "to what I was saying in Venice. We kept track of each other. When Decker came to me for a reference, I was thrilled to give you a glowing one. And I wasn't just speaking about our time on the ship--I knew how you were doing in med school."

"Being an admiral must have been very boring if you had time to keep up with that. But I love that you did." She leaned in, whispered, "I was glad when you and Lori didn't renew your marriage. I didn't know why at the time. Maybe, somehow, we are connected. Maybe we wanted each other even then and didn't realize it?"

"Maybe." He waltzed them toward the edge of the dance floor, led her off when the music stopped. Back to their friends. Who would meet them as a couple for the first time.

There were only smiles, although Len's eyes sparked a few times with concern. Or maybe he was just perplexed as to how this had all happened.

She wasn't entirely sure of that herself--not that she was ever going to complain.

----------Tears of Melpomene----------

Chapel sat very still, trying to breathe slowly and shallowly. Jan was rocking back and forth, a constant litany of "No, no, no," breaking the silence. Next to her, Paul lay half buried in the rocks and dirt that had trapped them in here. Three of the children they'd been trying to get out were just beyond him, buried in the rubble. The rest had been on their way toward the entrance when the cave-in started, hopefully they'd gotten free.

Chapel wanted to comfort Jan--who she'd made stop digging and using up the air when it was clear Paul was dead--but she didn't wanted to waste any more of their oxygen. But now it was getting hot and the air was getting stale and maybe she should have let Jan dig the love of her life out so she could hold him, instead of sitting by him and running her bleeding hand along his hair as she rocked and moaned.

"They'll come for us, Jan. Just hold on." Chapel sniffed, her throat and nose raw with dust. She wanted nothing more than to just collapse into a fetal position and wait for death that way. But Jan needed her sitting up. Jan needed her to be in charge. To take care of them until help came.

Or until they were both dead.

At least, as deaths went, this would be peaceful. Just lean back and close their eyes and let the heat and the closeness and the bad air lull them into their last sleep ever.

Only Chapel didn't want to die. Not now. Not when she and Jim were building something good. Something real.

Who would tell him? Would he find out in time to come to her funeral? She closed her eyes, imagining him getting the word in a private comm. From Cartwright, probably. "I regret to inform you..."

"I don't want them to come for us," Jan said, her voice low and ragged. She lay down, getting as close to Paul as she could. "I don't want to leave him."

Chapel crawled slowly over to her. She stroked her arm, trying to give something back to her friend. "He'd want you to live, Jan. Paul would want that."

"I don't care. I don't want to." And Jan started to cry, but then her crying slowed, and she cuddled closer to her dead husband.

"I'm sorry, Jan." Chapel yawned.

"I'm sorry for you. The captain loves you. I can tell." Jan yawned, too. And then she put her head on her arm and was quiet.

"I love him, too." Thank God, Chapel had told him that. And he'd told her. They never had to wonder if the other knew. She hoped he'd get the pearls back. Keep them to remind him of what might have been. But no. That was selfish. He was too good a man to mourn forever. To be alone. He needed to find someone.

She didn't want him to find someone. She wanted him to be with her. This wasn't fair.

She felt the heat pressing down, took a breath and knew it was over. She closed her eyes and surrendered to sleep's last call.

----------

Chapel felt something brush her forehead, realized someone was holding her hand. She opened her eyes, blinking rapidly at the harsh light until she gave up and closed them again.

"It's okay, Chris. Just keep them closed."

His voice. His touch. He was here.

"Jim--" It hurt to talk, all that dust had left her mouth so dry. She tried to swallow, felt water dribbled into her mouth and swallowed again, this time getting some down her throat. "How...did you get here?"

"Quit talking. You can talk later." She felt his lips on her cheek, firm and warm as he held them there. Less a kiss, she thought, and more a reassurance that she was alive, an affirmation that he'd been worried. "Matthew called me. The ship was close so I came."

She tried opening her eyes again. This time it didn't hurt as bad. "Jan?" she asked.

"She's in the next bed. She's not doing well. Physically, she's all right. But..."

Chapel nodded. "Paul's dead."

"I know."

"I made her stop digging." She could feel tears welling up.

"You did the right thing, Chris. If you hadn't, you'd have been dead when the rescuers got to you. You did the right thing."

She stared at him, trying to smile through cracked lips. But her lips were shaking and the tears started to fall freely.

"Oh, sweetheart." He moved from his chair to the side of the bed, pulled her up and hugged her close. "It's all right. You're all right."

She sounded as if he was trying to convince himself, not her.

"I love you," she whispered, wrapping bandaged hands around him. Hands she'd torn helping Jan dig Paul out. Until she'd stopped. Until she'd made Jan stop.

"I love you." He pulled back, smiling at her, but his eyes were frantic. "When I think of how close I came to losing you..."

She nodded and buried her head in his shoulder. He held her, soothing her--and himself, she thought--and she fell asleep, rocked against him, safe finally in his arms.

----------Polyhymnia's Release----------

"The doctor said I could stay home longer if I didn't feel up to this." Chapel looked over at Jim as they walked down the corridor toward Ops. "You really think two days at home was enough time to recover?"

"You used to have me on my feet and back on the bridge pretty damn quick. What was it you told me? The longer you wait, the harder it gets."

"Figures you were listening." She moved closer to him.

"Scared?"

"Were you? Ever?"

He laughed. "Sure. And it was often at times like this. When I was second-guessing myself. I've found people are a whole lot more forgiving of us than we are." He stopped her, made her turn to look at him. "But, Chris. There's nothing to forgive. You did what you had to do to keep two people alive. Paul wouldn't have been helped by your deaths."

"I know."

"Just keep reminding yourself of that."

"That's easy to do when it's just us. But every time I see Jan." Jan--who was still in the hospital. Who'd sunk into a severe depression, refusing to eat or walk around. The headshrinkers were working with her, and not making much progress. They'd talked to Chapel. For background info. But also, she thought, to make sure she was going to be okay, too.

And she was. Because she had Jim. Jan...Jan had no one now.

Jim looked down the hall, and she followed his gaze.

"I think I need to do this alone."

"I think you do, too." He smiled at her, looked proud of her.

She wanted to kiss him. "You coming here. Staying with me. It's meant more than you'll ever know."

"I love you. Of course I came."

"And fortunately it was a slow week." She smiled--the ops officer came out at the oddest times.

"Fortunately." His grin told her she wasn't wrong. "Now, go on."

She walked the rest of the way, silently intoning "I did what I had to do. I did what I had to do." She got to the doorway, walked around the front, under the big screen as ops tradition demanded of its survivors. She wanted nothing more than to skulk to her station from the back and slink into her seat. But her seat was at the front, and this was actually the more direct route.

She was halfway past the first bank of stations, when her colleagues in that bank, three rows deep of them, stood up. They didn't say anything; they didn't clap the way they would have if all of the team had come back. They just stood, in silence, every eye trained on her, some full of tears. She looked at them, and had to blink back her own tears.

Cartwright came out of his office in the back and walked to the last row, nodding at her.

She passed the next bank, and they stood, too, and she thought she would lose control, could feel her throat tightening. It was suddenly hard to breathe. Before she could get to the last bank, to her station there, her teammates stood up. She smiled, as bravely as she could. It was what was expected. And she delivered but could feel her lips trembling. Then she sat down at her station, put on her headphones, and called up the waiting queue of messages. She heard her colleagues sitting down, conversation gradually starting up again.

Lieutenant Commander Gallagher walked over, handed her a cup of coffee. "I've been covering today's queue," he said. "You're up to date. Jan's queue is, too. Do you want me to keep doing hers?"

Chapel nodded, taking the cup gratefully. "Thank you."

He put his hand on her shoulder, then walked away.

Another hand landed softly on her shoulder, and she looked up to see Jim standing with Cartwright, both of them smiling gently.

"I saw most of that," Jim said. "Didn't I tell you?"

"You told me."

Cartwright handed her a padd. It had details on Paul's funeral service. It was the next day. "Jan should be there," he said softly.

Chapel met his eyes. "I'll get her there, sir."

"Okay." He nodded and left her with Jim.

"You'll have to get tough with her, Chris. It's what Bones had to do for me after Edith."

She remembered that. Remembered how far away their captain had seemed. "I can do it," she said, not at all sure how she was going to.

"I know you can." He sighed. "Spock commed me. They need me back on the ship. I don't want to leave you but--"

She touched his hand, shaking her head. "That you came at all was wonderful. I know your responsibilities. I know what you did to get here. It means the world."

"I'd like to see it through, though. I'd like to...for once, just be there."

"You're on a ship, Jim. You have a duty, and that duty is going to take you very far from here. And I know that. I've known it since this started. You came. That's all that matters. Staying...well, that would just be a bonus."

"Someday..."

"I'm not asking for someday. All I want is now."

"Now is yours--except when it's the ship's." He shrugged helplessly.

"Go. I'll be fine. I've got a lot of support here."

"Yes, you do." He leaned down, surprising her with a sweet, quick kiss on the lips. His hand tightened on her shoulder for a moment. "I love you."

"I love you, too."

Then he was up and walking away, heading back the way they'd come. She watched him until he was gone, then she turned and got to work.

----------

"Jan, you have to get up. Paul's service is today."

Jan ignored her. Sitting in the chair by the window, staring out over the hills of San Francisco, a light blanket wrapped around her legs. She looked like an old woman. Senile. Waiting for a long-dead lover to return from an errand.

"Jan. Talk to me."

Again, just the stare. No reaction that Chapel had even said something.

Chapel stepped in front of her friend, blocking her view. Jan just leaned the other way, resting her head on the side of the chair, as she stared some more. Chapel moved again; Jan adjusted.

"Dammit, Jan." Chapel turned, and said, "Computer, one hundred percent screen on window two." The window went dark, the view of the outside cut off completely.

"Put. It. Back." Jan's voice was guttural. As if she was more wild animal than person.

Chapel felt a shiver of warning go down her spine, but she held firm. "No."

Jan's expression held something that looked like hatred. "Computer, zero percent screen on window two." The room was flooded with light.

Chapel moved away from her. "Computer, one hundred percent screen on all windows in room fifteen-beta. Lock settings. Authorization Chapel-alpha-zeta-four-four-four."

The room went dark, but light spilling out from the bathroom kept it murky instead of pitch black.

"Isn't this better, Jan?" She bent down, hands on the armrests of Jan's chair. "Isn't this what you really want? To live in some twilight world where Paul isn't dead? Where we aren't burying him today?"

Jan slapped her. Very hard. "You have no idea what I want."

Chapel didn't back off, even though her cheek was stinging hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. "Jan. You have to get dressed now. We have to go to the funeral." She pointed to the bed, where she'd packed a carryall of Jan's things. "I brought your dress uniform. And I'll help you get ready." She'd done it enough times on ship--that basket-weave hairdo Jan had loved hadn't put itself together.

"I'm not going."

"You have to. Your husband is being put into the ground and you will be there to say goodbye."

This time Jan punched her, knocking her back into the window ledge. Chapel crouched, a little dazed, and then realized Jan was getting up, a look of horror on her face as she gazed at her clenched fist, then at Chapel.

Chapel let herself cry, hoping it was the right thing to do. The right way to reach Jan.

"Oh, god, Christine. I didn't mean to." Jan hurried to her, caught her up.

Chapel realized Jan was crying, too. Racking sobs that broke Chapel's heart and made her break down for real. She hadn't cried very much with Jim after that first day. Hadn't needed to. But now, with her friend whose husband she could not save, she needed to.

She hugged Jan close, wanted to tell her it would be okay, but wasn't sure it would be. Would she want to hear that everything would be fine if she lost Jim?

"I can't go, Christine." Jan's voice was like a little girl's.

"Why not?"

Jan pulled back, looked up at Chapel. "He can't come back if I bury him." She sobbed, seemed to be struggling to catch her breath. "He won't come back if I give up."

"He's not coming back, Jan. No matter what you do or don't do." Chapel pushed back Jan's hair. "And you have a funeral to get to. I know you. You'll never forgive yourself later if you miss this. Now, it's time to get ready."

"I can't." Jan sniffed, again seeming like a little girl.

"I'll help you." She pushed Jan toward the bathroom. "Go take a shower."

Jan did what she said without protest. As if by giving in, she was giving up. No fight left in her.

Chapel buzzed for an orderly. "I need this bed stripped. And take away that blanket." She turned to the windows. "Computer, windows to fifty percent screen."

"Authorization needed."

"Chapel-beta-phi-six-two-zero."

The windows lightened halfway.

As the orderly worked, Jan's doctor walked in. He looked at the bathroom's shut door. "Is that the shower I hear?"

"Yeah."

"Wonderful." Then he looked around the room.

"Funeral's today."

"I see. And you're stripping her bed why?" His look was concerned, his hand on the communicator he wore.

Chapel faced him down. "She won't be coming back here after the service."

"I don't think that's wise, Commander Chapel."

"It's Doctor Chapel, as well. But you know that." She moved closer.

"She shouldn't be alone."

"She won't be. She'll be with me until she's ready to go back to her place."

"You can't take care of her every minute of the day."

"She and I are on the same shift at the same place. It'll work out."

"This is highly--"

"I didn't see you getting her ass out of that chair. I'm the one who got through to her. She'll talk to me. She won't talk to you, and it's utter madness to keep her here as if she will."

"I just don't think--"

The bathroom door opened. Jan stood in her robe, framed in light. Her wet blonde curls were soft and dark. "I go with her. End of story." Then she walked past him, grabbed the bag Chapel had brought, and walked back into the bathroom. She turned, looking at Chapel with an unreadable expression. Then she closed the door gently.

"You heard her. She goes with me. End of story."

"I cannot and will not--"

Chapel got in his face. "Do you want me to take this up the chain? Because I will. Do you want me to use my connections to find every single thing you've ever done wrong? Every mistake you've ever made? Every case of bad judgment? Because if you get in my way, I'll do it. This is my best friend, and she's dying in here. And I won't let that happen."

He looked afraid.

"Now, get out of my way if you aren't going to help speed the release process."

He hurried out, and she suspected it was to get the proper forms for her to sign. She sat down on the now stripped bed, felt a sob shake her as her eyes filled with tears.

The orderly stepped forward, the bundle of sheets and the blanket in his arms--she'd forgotten he was in the room. "Ma'am, I wish I had a friend like you."

His words and the sweet way he was looking at her undid her. She nodded as tears fell freely onto her dress uniform.

The orderly stepped closer. "I know some of his secrets. If you need them?"

She tried to make out his nametag through eyes gone fuzzy with tears. Collins. "Thank you, Collins."

"Call me Andy." He smiled and left her alone.

Jan walked out, hair done, uniform on. But her face was a blotchy mess. "I can't do this."

"I'll do it, hon'." And Chapel hurried over, brushing her tears away, glad for a project, something to do other than cry. Other than wonder if she knew what the hell she was doing.

Jan stood like a statue, letting Chapel make her up. Chapel kept the makeup light, did it in a way that it wouldn't make a complete mess of Jan's face if she wept.

"I heard you. With the doctor." Jan met her eyes. "You sounded like the captain."

Chapel laughed. She'd been trying to sound like him. Fiercest man she knew, next to Len on a rant. Not everyone responded to Len, but she didn't know very many people who wouldn't back down in front of a determined James T. Kirk.

"I don't have to stay with you, Christine. I know Jim's here. You don't need someone in the way."

"Jim went back to the ship, Jan. You won't be in the way."

"But--"

"Stop talking, Jan." She smiled. She'd sounded like Jim there, too.

She knew he'd be proud of her.

----------Terpsichore's Steps----------

The recreation lounge of the Enterprise was crowded. A lot of the people were on the dance floor--mostly crew but a large contingent of Emergency Ops folks, too. Chapel was sitting next to Jim at the bar, facing out, watching the goings on. He had his arm pressed against hers very tightly, making her feel warm and happy. He didn't go in for much in the way of public displays in front of his crew, but he generally touched her in ways no one would be bothered by: the press of his arm, maybe his leg against hers under a table, a hand settling on her shoulder for a moment before he moved on.

"Nice that we could team up on this mission," he said.

"Cartwright is being very indulgent these days." She looked out to where Jan was dancing with Hikaru. "I don't think it's just for us. I think he's more worried about her."

"I was surprised you brought her with you."

"He wasn't sure about it, either. But she has to get out, has to get back to work. And where better than with her family?" She looked at Jim. "She feels safe here. She's doing well."

He lifted a glass to her. "You were right. No question there. The difference in her since we started is encouraging."

"I know." She sighed. "Jim, she's having such a hard time. I'm running out of ways to help her. Maybe...maybe I brought her here not because I thought it was the best thing, but because I was desperate."

"I don't think so. Although I don't doubt you're feeling the strain."

"It's easier here with you."

"I'm glad." He broke with tradition, took her hand and just held it. "I've missed you. So much."

"I've missed you, too."

"You're all right? No lingering effects?"

"A bit claustrophobic now. I'm a little afraid of my own closet, but other than that..."

He squeezed her hand. "Good."

"I dream about it sometimes and--" She worried at her lip. He did not need to hear this.

"And...?"

"Nothing."

"Chris. Spill."

She met his eyes. "Sometimes it's not Paul who's lying trapped. It's you."

"We're both in dangerous lines of work. It's natural to have fears that manifest in our subconscious."

"Are you saying you dream about me, too?"

He nodded.

"How...?"

"You don't want to know. I've lost a lot of people in my life, Chris. The possibilities are legion." He looked out at the dance floor, sighed as he watched Jan and Hikaru dance. "You do realize Sulu's crazy about her?"

She nodded.

"Jan doesn't know, though, does she?"

"I don't think so. She considers him one of her best friends. But she's never figured out how deep his feelings go. And he's never told her."

"Women can be so dense sometimes." He grinned as she turned to him. "Present company excepted."

"She was distracted. By you. By Paul." Chapel saw Spock coming up to them, dropped the subject. "Captain Spock."

"Commander Chapel."

They stood around awkwardly until Len, who'd been watching from a few seats down, apparently took pity on them. "So, how about those playoffs?"

She wasn't sure what playoffs, or even what sport. But she turned to him, ready to hear all about them.

"Regale Spock with playoff talk, Bones. I'm going to dance with Chris."

She let him lead her off, went into his arms gratefully. "Thanks."

"You and Spock need to work on that witty repartee. Or just words. Hello. How are you? The basics."

"It's not just me. He's not easy to talk to."

"I think I'll lock you two in a room and--" He seemed to think about that. "No, I think I'll lock you two in separate rooms and make you talk via intercom."

She laughed.

"Why tempt fate? You were in love with him once."

"I'm not anymore. I love this other guy."

"Yeah?"

"Uh huh."

"Is he nice?"

"Very."

Jim winced. "Kiss of death, Commander. Nice?"

"He's also very sexy." She rested her head on his shoulder. "And warm. And caring. Powerful and strong."

"Your riff is improving."

She laughed. "And in bed--oh, mama."

"Good, huh?"

She could hear his grin. "Good does not begin to cover it."

"Hmmm. Sounds like you've made quite the catch."

"Sounds like." She took a deep breath.

"This catch wishes you were with him."

She frowned. "I am with him. That was you I was talking about." She straightened up and stared at him. "You got that, right?"

He rolled his eyes. "Yes, I got it. I meant that I wish you were with me...all the time."

She stopped dancing. He did, too. The other couples had to navigate around them.

"Doctor Tyler is leaving," he said. "Second in command in medical will open up. You've done it before, I know that. It might not be something you want to do again. But medical is...independent."

"You want me on the ship?"

"I want you on the ship more than I've wanted anything in a long time."

"Will the ship share you? Your other girl?"

"She'll share me."

She smiled, laughed a little. Then she looked over at Jan and her smile faded. "I can't right now."

"I can find her a place." He pulled her off the dance floor.

"She's a commander. You don't just find her a place. Is there a real job open? One that fits her skills?"

"No. But is she at her best? Could she handle a real job just yet?"

"No." She felt like she was betraying Jan, but it was the truth. She'd made progress, but she wasn't there yet.

"How long before she can?" He leaned in, took hold of her shoulders--she almost thought he would shake her, but he didn't. "On this ship, with us. How long?"

"I don't know."

"But she'll do better here, right? Better with us?"

"Yes." She looked down. Would Jan? Or did Chapel just want to be with Jim so bad she'd say Jan would?

"There'll be a real job by the time she's ready. Or"--he looked around, as if to make sure no one was within earshot--"when Sulu leaves, she can go with him."

"When he leaves?"

"I have it on good authority he'll get Excelsior. Not right away, because that ass Styles won't be budged until he retires. But eventually, it'll be Sulu's."

"Oh." She laughed nervously, suddenly overwhelmed. And feeling a bit caged in. "I thought I was done making career choices for a man."

He looked hurt. "Never mind, then. If that's how you look at it."

"Well, how should I look at it?"

"You'd be making a career choice for us, Chris. Not for me." He let go of her and got up, leaving her sitting as he made his way back to the bar.

Len walked over, carrying two glasses of champagne. He handed her one.

"What's the occasion?"

He handed her the other glass.

"Len?" She put the glasses down on a nearby table.

"He's breaking every rule he has for you, Christine."

"You were listening?"

"Didn't have to. He's been grilling me on Tyler's estimated departure date and would I mind working with you again. The man is about as subtle as a bull right now. And that, to me, says that he's operating on something that he's not controlling. This is the real thing, kiddo. He loves you and for once in his sorry romantic life, he can make love work for him."

"What about ops?"

"If you care more about ops than you do about him, then tell him that now and let him get free in one piece."

"That's not fair. I love him, too."

Len leaned forward. "Christine, I know you've had a hard time of it. Hell, we all have. A sadder group of brokenhearted people I'm not sure you could find unless you were watching a Tennessee Williams vidfest."

She looked down.

"You aren't the only one who's been hurt. But you are the one he's offering this to. If you love him, then you'll take it."

She sighed. The thing that usually stung the worst about a McCoy lecture was that he was so rarely wrong.

"If you can't do this, then go back to your quarters--quarters I imagine you have not seen much of this past week--and start packing."

"I'm going to have to pack eventually either way."

"You know what I mean."

She shot him a look she hoped was longsuffering. "Any other words of wisdom?"

"Nope. Just a warning. If you break his heart, I'm going to have to hurt you."

"If I break his heart?"

"Yep." He gestured to the two glasses of champagne he was holding. "Now, why don't you go toast what a great idea he's had--and what a goddamned fool you can be."

She picked up the glasses, carried them over to where Jim stood with Spock.

He looked at the glasses. "There are three of us, Chris."

Spock immediately started to back away. "I shall leave--"

Jim's hand flashed out, caught him by the sleeve. "By all means stay."

"Yes, stay. You may as well witness this." She handed Jim the glass of champagne. "A toast."

"To...?"

"Great ideas by wonderful men."

Jim didn't drink.

Spock glanced at her, then at Jim. "As toasts go, Jim, that seems most benign. Perhaps a sip."

"You're not helping, Spock." He let go of Spock's sleeve.

Spock started to back away again.

She caught his sleeve this time. "Don't move. You are helping."

Spock actually sighed.

"There's more," she said. "To great ideas by wonderful men, and to stupid women who don't know a great deal when they hear one."

"I'll drink to the second part." Jim threw back half the glass.

"Ah. This is that matter we discussed." Spock saw her face and looked down.

"You talked to him before you talked to me?" She let go of Spock's sleeve.

Spock, apparently sensing that the getting was not going to be good for much longer, fled.

"I was only seeing if he thought it was feasible."

"It would have been nice if you'd asked me if it was feasible. I am half of this equation. Or are we dividing by three?"

"Don't even..."

"You made a lot of assumptions on my behalf." She could feel her mouth tightening up, knew it was not her best look. "And Jan's."

"And that was very stupid of me." He threw back the rest of the drink, slammed it down on the bar, and stalked off into the crowd.

She looked back at McCoy. He just shook his head, his expression more disappointed than mad.

Chapel put her glass on the bar and headed for the quarters she'd had no occasion to use up to now.

----------

Her chime rang and she hurried to it. But it wasn't Jim. It was Jan.

"Jan. How are you doing?"

"You think I don't know what's going on, don't you? You think I'm so out of it, I can't hear things?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You're mad at him for not giving you a say. But you don't even ask me if I want to be on the ship?"

"Who told you?"

"No one did. I just listened. You think I'm in my own world, but I was right there on the dance floor, and you two weren't that far away." She sat down on the bed. "And then when you stormed out, I asked him. Because it was clear he was upset. How could you upset him?"

"Why? Just because he's the great James T. Kirk, I shouldn't upset him?"

Jan was looking at her like she was an idiot. "No. Because he loves you. And you love him. And he's found a way for you to be together. And you just never know when it's going to end, do you?" She was starting to cry but held up a hand when Chapel moved toward her. "You're not thinking of me. You're still protecting yourself."

"That's not true." But it probably was. Chapel looked down. "Jan, I love him. And it terrifies me how much."

"I want to come back here. I'll do it with or without you. Because it means the world to me that he'll find me a home here." She stood up, walked over to Chapel. "But right now, you're my home. When no one else thought I was going to get any better, you were there for me. And I don't want to lose that. I want us all here."

Chapel blinked, tears cascading down her cheeks. "Jan. I'm sorry."

"I know it's scary. I know love has been cruel to you, Christine. I've watched you all these years, seen you hurting and lonely. But Jim loves you, and he'll never hurt you the way Todd did. Or ignore you the way Spock did."

"I know."

"But, Christine, he may die. He takes chances, and he comes back hurt, and one of these days his luck may run out. Do you really want to have thrown away the time you could have had?" She took Chapel in her arms, comforting instead of being comforted. "I lost my Paul. But I never have to look back and ask myself why I wasted our time together. We lived every moment. Why the hell are you throwing your moments away?"

Chapel didn't have an answer to that. Not one that did her any credit.

Jan gently wiped what was no doubt smeared makeup off Chapel's cheeks. "You're my best friend. And you saved me. And now I'm going to save you. Go get him." And she turned Chapel and aimed her for the door. "Go."

Chapel hurried back to the lounge, was nearly running when she hit the doors.

He wasn't there. She did another sweep of the room, checked the balconies. Nothing.

"I believe," Spock said, sidling up to her like a stoolie in an old noir vid, "that he went down to Engineering."

"Thank you." She smiled at him, saw his eyes lighten a little. Probably the only time she'd ever raised that reaction out of him. "You're a good friend."

"I think it is time I started to be. To both of you."

"Never too late." She turned and ran to the lift, riding it down to Engineering.

Jim was there, all right, pacing around the warp engine. He turned when she walked in, as if he knew it was her somehow.

She held her hands out. "I'm an idiot."

He walked toward her. "I should have talked to you about it. I'm so used to planning things. And I thought it would be a surprise."

"It was a surprise."

"No, it was a shock. Not quite the same thing." He took her hand, tucked it into his arm, and strolled out with her to the corridor. Just as they had in Berlin, only with no hipflask this time.

"I'm scared," she said, as they headed for the lift. "What if it doesn't work? I'll be here, under foot. Talk about awkward."

"I can transfer off." He grinned.

"Your ship would kill me. And so would Len."

"Why wouldn't it work, Chris?"

"Other than the fact that you and I have never had a successful relationship?"

He started to laugh. "I really don't like thinking about it that way."

"Sorry. You know me. Honest." She sighed. "Jan wants to stay."

"I know she does. She told me." He glanced at her. "I take it she's why you came back?"

"Not because she wants to stay here. She just...put some things in perspective for me."

"Such as?"

"Such as that I'm a coward where love's concerned. This dance we're doing? The only steps I know lead right off a cliff."

He smiled. "Let's learn new ones, then."

The lift opened; they were on his deck. He palmed open his door for them, pulled her to him as soon as the door closed. "I love you. Don't put me through this again." And then he was ripping off her uniform and pushing her down to his bed.

She tried to take off his uniform. He wasn't helping, was instead kissing his way down her body, until he hit a spot that made it impossible for her to do anything more complicated than lie back, wriggle, and moan.

When she finally lay still, he eased up next to her, holding her, the rough felt of his uniform scratching her. "Unlimited access to those if you stay," he murmured.

"An orgasm bribe?"

He grinned. "You do seem to like them."

"I do, don't I?" She turned, finally could get his uniform off him. "If you still want me to stay, I'd be most pleased to accept your offer."

"Cartwright's going to kill me. He was grooming you, you know?" He began to kiss her neck.

She stopped him. "I do know--and that I'm giving that up." She let him go. "I'm choosing to give those up. My. Choice."

"Yes, dear. I will not make joint decisions alone again. I promise." He resumed his attack on her neck.

"Okay, then." She pulled him onto her.

"Why, my darling. I'd think you have a one-track mind but--oops. Now how did that get in there?"

She was laughing.

"What should I do?" But he was already doing it. Masterfully, despite the banter.

She moaned, threw her head back. "I love you, Jim."

He nuzzled her neck, moved down to her chest. "Well, you keep me on my toes, that's for sure."

She could have this all the time. Any time she wanted. Go to bed with him. Wake up with him. Have many, many orgasms with him. And she'd almost turned this down?

What the hell was wrong with her? She owed Jan a hell of a lot of drinks as payback for her intervention.

----------Temple of Thalia----------

Chapel sat next to Jan in the bar of the Saint Regis, trying to avoid being elbowed by the crowd of scientists who were enjoying the break between the conference sessions and the awards presentation. She glanced over at Jan, trying to make sure that Jan wasn't feeling as claustrophobic as she was, but her friend looked serene.

She felt something poking her in the chest, fiddled with the tiny mike the tech support guy had outfitted her with. Red light meant ready but not transmitting. Green light meant everyone in the vicinity of the conference speakers would be able to hear her. She checked to make sure it was red.

"So what award are you presenting, again?" Jan asked, sipping at her chardonnay.

"Long-term biochem project. The nominees are pretty interesting." She started to explain why, saw Jan's eyebrow go up. "Sorry. I was having a science nerd moment."

Jan just laughed, then she hit Chapel on the leg. "Check out who's here."

Down the bar, Todd Cabot was making the rounds. Buying drinks for ladies, glad-handing the men. He saw Chapel watching him, nodded slightly, but his smile was sly, like he knew she knew what he was up to.

"Trolling," Chapel murmured. "It's like his personal meat market."

"He's such a pig," Jan said.

"He really is."

Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around to see the tech guy. "We're ready for you, Commander."

Biochem was relatively early in the program. They'd told her to get backstage before the other conference goers started the press into the dining room. Once her part was over, she could join Jan at their table and enjoy what would no doubt be a mediocre meal of house salad, rolls, some kind of chicken dish with anemic-looking vegetables and rice, and dessert. All washed down with weak ice tea, and later burnt-tasking coffee. Chapel had been to too many of these things.

She followed the tech guy down the gold and green carpeted hall, into the ballroom, then out a back exit where she could either go straight for what looked like the kitchens, or left and up some stairs to the backstage area. She went left. There were a few other presenters milling around. They looked nervous, were pacing and practicing their lines.

"So. How are you Christine?" Todd's voice sent shivers down her spine. And not the good kind.

She turned, saw him standing on the stairs. "I'm great."

"I heard you were getting back into medicine. On Jim Kirk's ship."

"That's right."

"I heard Jim Kirk was getting into you." He made a nasty gesture with his hands.

She took a deep breath. "Did you want something?"

"No. I stopped wanting anything from you a while ago, dearest."

His words would have stung her before Jim. Now, they just made her feel bad for all the other women he would no doubt hurt.

"You really don't like women, do you?"

"If you weren't so great to screw, I'd have no use for you at all." He leaned in. "Do you want my personal view of females? I don't think I ever shared it with you."

She knew reaching down and hitting the mike switch was bad and wrong. But she did it anyway, then glanced down to make sure the light had gone from red to green. "Yes, please. Tell me about the Todd Cabot Personal Philosophy of Women. But first, I just need to know something. You only come to these things to find new meat, right?"

"Well, I certainly don't come for the conversation."

She thought that was a lie. But he was trying to hurt her, and so she didn't correct him. Besides, it worked better for what she hoped would be the imminent crash and burn of Lothario Todd. She could hear an echo of her question from the speaker, marveled that he couldn't. But he looked like he was just getting warmed up.

"Scientists must be so easy to hurt, aren't they, Todd?"

"They are. There's a certain...naivete to them that I enjoy."

"I bet. So your theory? You were going to share it." She could hear people filling up the dining room, but the sound was more subdued than normal. Clearly a lot of people were listening to the "Chapel Gets Her Revenge" show.

There was a sudden reverb from one of the stage mikes, and he glanced around. "What the hell...?"

"You're live at Science West, Todd. Your personal meat market. And all the lovely ladies in the audience got to hear at least part of that."

"Chapel, you're a bitch."

"I know. If only I'd been more of one when I met you, I'd have spared myself a lot of wear and tear."

Todd walked away.

"Oh and ladies, he sucks in bed." She heard a tittering go through the audience, then a chorus of boos as Todd entered the ballroom from the service door. Chapel didn't think he'd be sticking around.

A woman she'd never seen before bounded up the stairs and gave her a big hug. "Thank you. I lost four months of my life to that bastard."

The organizer of the event was right behind her. "Did you have to do that? He's been most generous."

"He still will be. He'll be trying to restore your faith in him. In fact, I bet he gets more generous." Todd hated to lose, but he just might find reforming his reputation a tough sell on any woman who'd been at this conference to hear the conversation. Then again, there were always new fish in the sea. She couldn't save them all. But this group--she could save them.

"I suggest we let biochem go first this year," the presenter said. "There's going to be a bit of fuss over you, I'm afraid." He looked so mournful, she felt bad.

Almost.

----------Urania's Home----------

Chapel finished putting her stuff away in her new office and walked out to the main part of sickbay to watch the stars stream by as the ship moved into warp. It was a subtle feeling, not one she'd noticed when she'd first signed onto the Enterprise all those years ago for that first mission. But once you knew the feel, you never forgot it. She took a deep breath, let it out, and realized that for the first time in years, she wasn't on the edge of her chair waiting for the next emergency.

It felt...good. It also felt odd as hell, and she thought her body would take awhile to lose the constant readiness status. She'd been an adrenaline junkie for too long to just adjust overnight.

"Settling in?" Len walked over, standing next to her to watch the stars. "I never thought I'd be back here, you know? After I left the ship the first time. But Jim calls and I come running. Well, the first time he had to shanghai me. But now, I come running." He smiled at her. "I haven't said this yet, but I'm so glad you're back. You're the only one who understands me."

"And yet I still like you." She leaned up against him, shoulder to shoulder, to take any sting out of the words.

But he didn't seem to mind. He just laughed, a big smile on his face. "And the only one who'll sass me."

"Sass I have aplenty." She smiled, remembering that first walk in Berlin. Had it been her sass that had attracted Jim? Or was it just their time?

"You didn't answer my question. Are you settling in?"

He hadn't really given her a chance to answer. But then, he always circled back, so she hadn't been worried he'd forget.

"I am. It feels like coming home."

"It is like coming home. We're family." He held an arm out wide. "Here among the stars."

She laughed.

"I saw Jan," he said softly, keeping this part of the conversation low, away from the ears of nurses or orderlies. "She was down in hydroponics."

"That's just one of her stops. Jim and Hikaru came up with an accelerated 'Learn the ship by Christmas' plan."

"They grooming her for something?" Len's grin told her he knew exactly what she might be being groomed for.

"One could think that."

"It'll be good for her." He shook his head. "I liked Paul so much. Was so happy for her. For it to end like it did..."

"I know."

"It's why I couldn't mind my own business with you and Jim. I want you both to be happy. Happy together--well, that's just perfect."

She laughed softly. "He's up there. On the bridge. It's such an unexpected luxury: seeing him whenever I want." She shot Len a look. "And if I follow your example, I could just loiter up there."

"I wasn't loitering. I was taking the pulse of the ship's command team. I had to know what their dynamic was, how each operated under different conditions. Otherwise, how would I ever know when something was off?"

"That makes an annoying amount of sense. Have you been talking to Spock?"

"I'm always talking to Spock, darlin'. You know that."

She smiled.

"Are you talking to him?"

"I am. We have progressed beyond pleasantries. I think we may have had a ten-sentence exchange when I reported last night. About work, but still..."

"Progress, then."

"Yep." She looked around sickbay, knew she'd need to get to know it, how it was different than their old one, how it was the same. But not right now. "I'm going down to hydroponics."

"And then up to the bridge?"

"Well, I'll need to get a feel for the dynamic, too, won't I?"

He waved her off. She walked the corridor slowly, nodding to the crewmen she passed. The pace here was so much more leisurely, although she knew that would change if an alert sounded. But for now, people were walking easily, talking to friends or coworkers.

She rode the lift down to hydroponics, walked in and saw Jan at the end of a row of what looked like vegetables. She looked happy. Busy.

At peace.

Jan didn't seem to have noticed her, so Chapel backed out, not wanting to disturb her when she looked so at ease. Jan didn't need her friend checking up on her if all was well.

Chapel turned, nearly ran into Jim. "Well, hello."

He was grinning like a mad fool.

"Coming down to check on Jan?"

"No. Coming down to find you. Bones said you'd headed down here."

"Old gossip."

He laughed. "How is she? Since you checked...?"

"She's doing fine."

"Good."

"What you've done for her, Jim. Cross training in all the sections..."

"It's not just for her. She's an excellent officer. It's for me and the ship--ultimately for the fleet."

"I love you."

He grinned and took her arm, and she realized he meant to stroll the deck. "It's so nice having you here to do this with."

"Oh? Who'd you do this with before?"

"Anyone who'd have me." His grin was brilliant.

"Well, I can see why you'd prefer to have an old standby."

He palmed open a door to an empty conference room, pulled her in, and shoved her against the wall. "You're not old. I am."

"And you're taking advantage of me in a meeting room. I'm shocked and appalled." She smiled, but she was a little surprised--and pleased--that he wanted her this much.

"I'm sure I won't need to do this once I get used to having you around." He kissed her. "Having you underfoot."

She kissed him back. "Having me in your hair." She was digging her fingers into his hair, rubbing the way he liked.

"There, too."

They kissed for a long time, and he didn't take it any further than that. Although she did have to let him run through some engineering computations before he felt presentable enough to leave the conference room and walk the halls.

"I get to you," she said, as they continued their constitutional to the lift.

"You do indeed. I imagine you always will." He squeezed her hand, then let her go. "Want to come loiter on the bridge like Bones does?"

"He says he has a reason for that."

"Of course he does." He grinned. "Come up. Just for a while."

"There is a better view of the stars up there." There was an even better view from the lounge, as far as that argument went, but she noticed Jim didn't bring that to her attention.

She exhaled slowly, realized she was happy. It was not a feeling she had very much experience with.

She'd be sure to make it very welcome: happy was a feeling she definitely wanted to get used to.

FIN

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