Button, Button by Djinn

"Here, take a sip."

Chapel recognized the voice, the gentle timbre of command. She took a sip, only realized once the glass was at her mouth that it was some kind of juice, not water. Opening her eyes, she saw Kirk staring down at her. "Sir?"

Did she faint? Why was she on the ground?

"Stay down." His tone brooked no argument, so she didn't try to get up.

From where she was lying, she could see they were alone in the...cave? Why were they in a cave?

Why couldn't she remember anything?

Kirk paced back to her. "What were they after, Chris?"

Chris. He was the only one on the ship who called her that.

But...she wasn't on the ship anymore. Was she?

"Nurse Chapel, what were they after?" He knelt down next to her. "Chris, come on. Tell me why we're here."

She bristled, unsure exactly what he'd said to make her--

Nurse? She was a doctor.

No, she was a commander. Wasn't she?

"Who are you?" She tried to get away, scuttling backwards, as he stared down at her. "Who the hell are you?"

He vanished. Not like a transporter, more like a vid image that is suddenly turned off. A hologram? She'd heard of rooms where you could interact with them. Was this one of them?

The cave was empty. Empty and cold as she called out, "Who's there?"

Nobody answered.

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

She woke to a gentle touch, didn't open her eyes. It was Spock this time. She could tell from the heat of his skin.

"Christine," he said, far too much warmth in his voice.

"Nice goddamn try."

The touch vanished; she knew the fake Spock was gone.

She sat up, finally opening her eyes. "Where are you? Show yourself."

Nothing.

Her back ached from lying on the hard, cold ground. Her stomach growled, and she wished for the glass of juice the fake Kirk had let her taste. "Where the hell are you?"

"They don't want to hurt you."

She whirled, saw someone she didn't expect. Someone she only recognized because of all the research she'd done on Spock when she'd been so infatuated with him. "Captain Pike?"

"Call me Chris." He grinned, as if he knew that was her name, too.

But of course he knew. He wasn't real.

"What do they want if they don't want to hurt me?"

"They just want to know what you want."

"Well, being stuck in a cave isn't it." There was no way she was on Talos IV--was there?

"They know that."

"Show me your real self."

"This is my real self. That helpless lump is an illusion." He walked around her, and superimposed on his image was a man sitting motionless in a chair. "It's uncanny, you know. You could be her, only older. She never had a chance to get older. She died in the explosion that did this to me."

"Who?"

"Your double. Your clone. Or rather, your twin. You're both clones."

Suddenly a woman appeared, like her if she'd had silky black hair and been twenty-five years younger. "Who...?"

"I called her Number One. She had a name though. You know it. Reach into your memory."

"I don't know what you're talking about." She felt her heart racing, remembered the copy of Kirk that Roger had made. These caves...they looked like.

"I'm not on Exo III."

"No. You're not." Pike sat down cross legged, as if he was settling in for a while. "Interesting mission, that."

"What is it you want?"

"Just to talk." He smiled, an easy smile that the photos of him never conveyed. He'd always looked so serious.

"You're not real."

"Neither are you. Yet we're still talking."

She debated launching herself at him just to see if he was an illusion. But the holograms she'd heard about had weight and form. They weren't just images, just energy. They could...interact.

Who had those kind of holograms other than Starfleet? She'd heard the Romulans did. Maybe the Cardassians--they knew so little about them still.

"You're not paying any attention to me. I'm offended." He pushed himself to his feet and walked off.

"You're not going to just wink out?"

He looked back at her. "Why should I? There's an entrance here if you'd bother to explore."

He disappeared around a corner and she followed him, was startled to see there was an entrance. The light was bright. The breeze warm and gentle.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" He held two horses. "Care for a ride?"

"Bring back Spock," she said softly.

"A very loyal fellow. He risked everything for me."

She remembered that time, had been on the ship when it had happened. "How do you know that?" She wasn't really asking him. She was asking the sky, the earth, the breeze--all the things that she suspected were fabricated.

"I know it, Christine." His voice was gentle. "I lived it."

"Those records are sealed." Which meant that whoever had taken her had broken into secured Starfleet databases.

Or had broken a Starfleet officer before her.

"I don't like to ride," she said, backing into the cave. "Bring back Kirk."

"If you want him back, just wish it." He winked at her again. "I was trying to make it easier for you. Getting acclimated here, well...it's hard. But you're resisting and I understand. You don't realize..." He shook his head. "I'll leave you alone."

He mounted and rode off, leading the other horse. Dust trailed behind him, dust that blew back at her and made her cough.

She walked back into the cave, sat down, and refused to think about anything.

It didn't work.

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

"You're resisting. That's good." It was Kirk's voice. Kirk's hand on her shoulder, the little squeeze he used to give her when she was a doctor on his ship.

"You're not here."

"I'm here because you want me to be here. Why is that, Chris?"

"They think I want you here."

"If I help you resist, why quibble?" He sat down behind her, his back pressed to hers. "Let's play a game."

"Let's not."

"Come on. Most exciting mission ever."

"Getting the hell off this rock." Or whatever it was.

"Oh come on. I know you've been on dicier missions than this. I think mine was..." He seemed to be waiting.

"What?" she asked.

"Khan. V'ger. The whales."

"Losing Danny to the Klingons."

"David. Nice try."

"It's all in the public record."

"Not all. What about Calavis V?"

She felt him press harder against her.

"Did you tell anyone?" he asked.

"Yes." But that was a lie. She'd told no one what had happened while they'd waited for an ion storm to pass, while they'd sheltered in one of the leftover pods, right before she was due to transfer off the ship and go to Emergency Ops.

There was a damn good reason she was conjuring Kirk. He'd always meant safety. And that afternoon, he'd meant more.

"Who did you tell?"

"None of your damn business." She pulled away from him. Kirk must have told. That must be how they were getting it. Maybe he'd put it in his personal logs. Not the gory details but enough for someone to piece it all together.

"I'm going to go now. They won't let me stay long if you don't cooperate."

She turned before he could wink out. "You mean they need to regroup. Find something else to see if they can throw me enough to get me talking."

He smiled in a way she couldn't read. "Is that what I meant? Really?"

Then he was gone, and the cave seemed emptier than before.

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

"You are being remarkably stubborn. Even for a human." Spock sounded as if there was nothing unusual in them talking this way. It had been years since they'd bothered to even try to have a conversation.

"Why they keep trying with you is beyond me."

"Perhaps it is not they who are trying it. Perhaps you are reaching out any way you can."

"Perhaps you are full of shit."

He did not answer. "You are in no mood for talk. I will leave you alone."

"Spock?"

He turned.

"Do you remember that time we made love?"

"We never made love, Christine."

Damn. She'd thought maybe they'd fall for that. "Yes, we did. This just proves you aren't real. Because you don't remember."

"I would remember if we had. We have not."

"I'm offended."

"No, Christine. You are lying." He moved closer. "I was surprised to hear what Jim was saying to you. I take it the two of you did make love?"

"You were there." She started to laugh. "You and Len. Don't you remember? We had a great big orgy."

He turned and left her.

"Well, at least exaggeration gives me some peace." But no one came to answer her.

The cave was getting colder, and she thought they were doing that to make her go outside. It'd be harder to remember this was all fake when it was so beautiful and comfortable.

"You could come out, you know." The woman Pike spoke of--Chapel's double--stood at the mouth of the cave.

"What's your name?"

"I don't have one."

"You mean they don't know it."

"No, I mean I don't have one. I'm...lost." She smiled sadly. "Chris knew my name. When I had one. But I don't now. I'm nothing. No one."

"Is this supposed to get me to spill? Because all you're doing is irritating me."

"We're really not much alike, are we?" There was suddenly a phaser--an old fashioned one--in the woman's hands. "I did this when I was captured. I'd never just sit in a cave and wait for what would come."

The sound of an overloading phaser filled the cave.

"I'm not leaving this place. You all want me to, and that's reason enough to stay."

"You'll be buried in it when this goes off."

Chapel felt a flood of fear rush over her, could tell her heart was racing, felt a trickle of sweat down her forehead. But she sat. She stayed.

The phaser became more and more shrill.

Then...nothing.

The woman was gone. The overloading phaser was gone.

But somewhere, Chapel could hear a faint rhythm, like the sound of a biobed.

Then a whisper. Len's voice. "Christine. Can you hear me?"

"Nice try." She laughed. "Make me think I'm sick or dying? Not going to work."

Len's voice became fainter, then disappeared altogether.

She thought she heard a horse whinny from outside the cave. The sound of a dog barking.

She ignored them and stayed where she was.

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

"Why do you suppose I'm here?" Pike asked, striding into the cave.

"Because they know I don't know much about you. They aren't as likely to make a mistake with you. Not compared to Jim or Spock." Jim. How long had it been since she'd called him that?

"Maybe. Or maybe it's because we're really here. On this planet. For a reason. And you have to remember what you are."

"Okay, I'll bite. What am I?"

"I told you. A clone. Made for something."

"Made for what?"

"To collect information. Haven't you ever wondered why you've held so many positions, can't seem to settle? You go where you're programmed to go."

"I'm a machine?" If she slit her wrist, would she die?

"No, I mean programmed in the psychological way. You're only sort of human."

"And you're that, too, I suppose."

"I'm not. I'm human--if a damaged one." He shook his head as he stared down at her. "Aren't you hungry?"

"I am."

"Then come out and get some food. I've brought good things." He walked over, crouched down, and touched her cheek. "You look so much like her. I lost her, the real her. On that last mission. She knew so much and now it's gone."

"I'm not your Kelly." She made up a name.

"That wasn't her name."

"She didn't know her name. When she came here. She didn't know it, because you didn't tell me."

"Her name is a matter of record. It's Maura. Maura Callahan."

"Why didn't she know it?"

"She's not real. She's just a revenant."

"And you're the epitome of real?" She got up, walked farther into the cave. It was starting to feel positively icy as she moved away from the light.

"What do you think this is, Chris?"

"I think we both know what this is. And you're not going to get anything out of me."

She heard Len's voice again. "Hold on, Christine. Hold on."

"That's an especially good effect. If I were just a doctor, I might believe that I was dying. That I needed to walk out of this cave and go into the light. Or maybe fight my way back through the darkness. But I'm not just a doctor and I know too much to budge."

"You're extraordinarily stubborn."

"I'm tenacious when I have a cause. There's a difference."

"Fine. I hope your cause keeps you warm and fed."

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

She was shivering. Shivering as she lay on the ground, her legs drawn up, trying to ignore the hunger pangs that were making her feel almost nauseated.

"Here." Jim's voice, warm like the blanket he suddenly put over her.

"No," she struggled, felt the blanket being tucked around her, the cave dissolving into a black and green grid on a small room. "Where?"

She heard Len saying, "Hang on a minute." Then the sound of a hypospray, and her head was reeling. She thought she might throw up, and felt someone lifting her as she did.

"Small sips," Jim said, holding water up to her lips.

"This isn't real. This isn't--" But it was. Reality came rushing in, riding the hypospray as it unlocked the memories she'd had to barricade away to test the room.

"Why you had to do this yourself..." Jim was rearranging the blanket over her shoulders, and she realized she was shivering violently. "And for the record, you are the most stubborn woman--"

"Pike said that."

"Chris Pike?"

She nodded.

"He showed up in your simulation?"

"Yeah. Serves me right for stalking Spock. That damned woman who looked like me. She's haunted me since I saw her in the records." She decided to stop talking, focused on drinking. Then her stomach rumbled.

"Let's get you to the med ward. See about taking some readings and getting you fed." Len was easing her up, and his strength surprised her like it always did. He looked so frail and was anything but.

"Well, it worked. Didn't it?" Her little room that tested a person's breaking point.

"It worked. A bit too well." Len shook his head. "You know I don't like this."

"For the record, neither do I." Jim's voice was soft as he took her shoulders and helped her out of the room and down the hall to the ward.

"Why are you here?"

"I was in the neighborhood."

"That's a lie." She glanced at him, saw his lips quirk.

"It's not. I was. But Len was having some trouble getting you back, and he thought maybe I could..."

Len had moved on ahead, and she knew it was to get things ready for her in the ward.

"Why would he think that?"

"I may have told him something about our goodbye. When I was very morose and very drunk. Probably on a birthday." He smiled, a sad smile. "I never forgot it."

"You think I did?"

"You never mentioned it."

"I didn't think you wanted me to." She leaned into him. "Are you sure we're not still in the room?"

"We're not. I'd be much smoother in there, I'm sure." He grinned at her. "So I did put in an appearance?"

"Yes."

"And did Spock?"

"Jealous?"

"Only if he got more lines than I did."

"You're safe." Not that she could remember it all that well. "My head is killing me." She knew it wasn't just hunger. Her system was designed to pull things out of the subject's own memories. She'd always thought that the most efficient interrogator would be one of a person's own making. She wasn't sure she'd been right. She hadn't broken.

Despite it all, she hadn't broken.

"This is a nasty thing you're working on."

"It's not for everyone. It's not like the Kobayashi Maru."

"You mean I can't cheat at this?" He looked at her. "I'll have to take it, won't I?"

"Probably. After we perfect it."

"Just don't rig it so you star in my hallucinations."

"You'd object to my presence?" She'd thought he meant that--

"Yes. There. If you'd like to talk about making an occasional appearance in real life, I'm all ears."

She laughed. "I could be convinced."

"After you get debriefed?" He led her to the bed, watched as Len started to take readings. "What was it you were trying so hard to keep from them? You've been working on this right? Nothing else?"

His look was all innocence. His eyes warm and full of something she wanted to believe was interest. Desire.

Love.

"Damn you," she said, sitting up, knocking Len away.

"Chris?"

"More games and I'm not--" The med ward disappeared. The cold came back.

Her doppelganger set the phaser to overload.

Chapel didn't even bother to cover her ears.

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

"Chris?" A gentle voice. Warm hands. A blanket.

"No," she thrashed.

"It's okay. You're safe. It's okay."

She opened her eyes. The cave was gone. Her head was on fire. Her arms wouldn't move and she turned her head slowly, saw that she was in restraints, realized her legs were, too. "I won't tell you anything."

Her voice was harsh. As if she hadn't spoken. Or as if she'd been screaming.

"It's okay. You're all right."

"I don't believe in this. I don't believe in you."

His hand settled on top of hers, but he didn't let loose the restraints. "What can I do to convince you we're real? That you're safe?"

"You were there. In my head. Saying these things."

"It wasn't me. No matter how real it was, did it seem like me?"

"You didn't know much about that time we had. Details. You didn't have them."

"Details?" He began to smile, the expression a little jarring on a face so filled with worry. "From Calavis V?"

She nodded.

He leaned in. "There was a red glow from the ion storm. It lit your hair up. I told you it looked like wine." His mouth was on her ear, he was talking so low only she could hear. "You told me that making love with me felt like coming home."

"Jim?"

"It's me, Chris." He kissed her cheek, just below her ear, then pulled away. "They took you. They took you and we were sent to find you."

"They had a room. They told me I'd designed it." She started to cry, wished she could wipe her eyes. "I wouldn't. I wouldn't do that." She met his eyes. "I knew what it was. I wouldn't tell them. They sent me people to make me break but--"

"No, Chris. They didn't." He swallowed hard. "They tortured you. They didn't have a room. They had a chair. A chair from hell."

She suddenly imagined him destroying that chair in a fatal blast from his phaser. "But the room..."

"Spock tried to reach you. He said you were trapped. That you'd have to come out on your own."

She saw what he wasn't saying. "Or not. He didn't think I'd come out, did he?"

"No. He didn't." He smiled. "I knew you would."

But it was a lie. He'd hoped she would. And maybe, for him, that was the same thing.

"Why don't I hurt more if I've been tortured?"

But she could feel the floating numbness, now that she was aware it should be there. Heavy duty painkillers keeping her from knowing just how broken her body really was. She started to panic, thought maybe that's why the restraints were on, as she felt a pull in muscles obviously well used. Muscles in her arms, in her legs, muscles used to kick and hit and try to get the hell away.

"You're going to be okay." He smoothed back her hair.

"Let me out of these restraints."

He took a deep breath. "Len says not yet." He leaned down. "Just keep talking to me. Forget the restraints. Just talk to me, connect with me." With life, he meant. With herself.

"You almost lost me."

"Yes, we almost lost you." His fingers twined with hers, a soothing feeling.

"You were there, Jim. In my head. You were there."

"Tell me about it." He leaned down, kissed her cheek again, the feeling of his lips lingering on her skin.

She told him about it, praying that this time it wasn't another trick, because she had no more strength to fight.

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

She woke. In sickbay, thank God.

Len was hovering. "Thought you might like to know the restraints are off."

She realized she could move her arms and legs. Smiled. "Am I really here?"

"In the much abused flesh, darlin'." He sat down on a stool next to the bed. "You had me worried sick."

"I know."

"You had Jim worried even sicker." He sighed. "Something you forgot to tell me about your relationship with him?"

"Maybe." Giving him a sheepish smile, she tried to move a little, get comfortable. Her body screamed at the effort. "Ohhhhh."

"It's gonna hurt for a while. I can't keep you doped up forever. Just tell me when it gets too bad and I'll..."

"I know." She took a deep breath and tried to move again. It hurt a little less this time. Or else she was getting used to mind-numbing pain.

At least she felt connected to reality. An excruciating reality, but a better one than her pretend world.

"It's nice to be back." She smiled at him. "The hum of this ship." Only she'd never been on this ship. But any ship, any starship. They had a special feel.

"I think Jim's going to ask you to come back. We have an opening in medical. In life sciences, too."

She imagined for a moment what that would be like. "I'd just be running away."

"Maybe it's time to walk away?"

"Len, I can't."

"Maybe it's time to choose a quieter life. One where they don't torture you for what you know."

"If that's what I wanted, I'd retire to Risa."

"Not a bad idea." He grinned, but she could still see worry in his expression. Then he looked up. "Well, look who's here." He patted her on the shoulder and left.

She expected to see Jim. It was Spock.

"You are recovered?"

She nodded. For a moment, she was sure she was back in the room. And she waited for Spock to ask her what it was she'd been trying to keep from her captors.

"I won't tell you," she said, before she could stop herself.

"You will not tell me what?"

She swallowed hard as he sat down in the stool Len had vacated. "I'm sorry. It was a trick before. That I was safe. I keep thinking it's them. That'll it'll turn back into... That I'll break."

"You did break, Christine." His look held no judgment. "I doubt that any human could have held out against the machine they were using."

"I broke?"

He nodded.

"But I had-- There was this room."

"Yes, I know. I believe you constructed it for a purpose. To hide in. And..." He seemed reluctant to continue.

But she could finish it. "To have a place where I didn't break."

"Precisely."

"Oh, God." What had she said? What in God's name had she told them?

"It is important that we ascertain the potential damage. We apprehended some, but not all, of your inquisitors."

She stared up at him, tried to move and felt pain scream along every nerve. "You know what they took. You melded with me."

"You were in shock. Your psyche was in tatters. I could not determine what information had been lost."

"No! Not again! I'm not going back!" She began to thrash, ignoring the pain in her arms and legs, trying to hit him. "No! No! No!" She was screaming and she felt Len's hands on her, saw Spock holding her down.

Then there was the hiss of a hypospray and everything faded to black.

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

She woke to find Jim sitting by her bed. "No!" She was back in the restraints, and the numbness filled her again. Many drugs in her, doing who knew what.

"Chris, it's okay."

"This is just another game."

"No, that was Spock at his most Vulcan. He didn't stop to think what his words might do, just spoke the truth." Jim smiled in a way that showed a glint of anger. "He knows he made a mistake."

"Did you yell at him?" Jim never yelled at Spock.

"I might have raised my voice a little." He leaned in. "Command does want us to find out what was taken. But Spock can do that through a meld."

"I didn't break." They were words she was holding onto more tightly than the restraints were holding onto her.

"No, sweetie. You did break. I'm sorry." His eyes held defeat. Her defeat. But he wasn't ashamed of her. He wasn't mad at her. He seemed to be hurting for her.

"In my head, I didn't break."

"I know." He stroked back her hair. "In your head, could Spock meld with you?"

"No."

"Could the men who were running the room meld with you?"

"No."

He sighed. "Then if Spock can meld with you, will that convince you that you're safe?"

She nodded, but she knew her eyes didn't hold any faith.

He laid his mouth on her ear, whispered, "I lied for Roger. Do you remember that?"

She nodded, felt his lips moving over her ear.

"You were there when Miramanee died. You made her comfortable. You helped her."

She knew that hadn't been in the logs.

"You whispered that you loved me when you hugged me goodbye the day after the ion storm. When you transferred off. I didn't say it back."

That had hurt. And she'd never told anyone.

"I couldn't say it. Not when you were leaving."

"Did you? Love me?"

He smiled. "Do you remember that shore leave on Starbase Twenty-Seven? When we played darts and tried to drink each other under the table?"

She laughed softly, nodded.

"I can't even remember how that started. But I know how it ended. I wanted you. We had such fun together." He sighed. "It was the first of many memorable, if platonic, shore leaves."

"I always thought I was your safe woman. The one you never wanted, that you just had a good time with." Until Calavis V, when he'd proven he'd more than wanted her--and that there was more than one way to define a good time.

"What was I going to say to you, Chris? I didn't want to wreck it. You'd told me you were leaving for Command."

She nodded.

"Do you believe I'm real now?" He kissed her, his lips soft on hers.

"Yes."

"Spock'll be in soon. You tell him if it's too much. You--"

"Will you stay?"

"Yes." He nodded fiercely. "Yes, I'll stay." Then he met her eyes. "Will you stay? When this is all done? Stay with me on the ship?"

"I'll be running away."

"Then run away. To me." He got up slowly. "I'll be back with Spock. Think about it."

She nodded.

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

"You're sure about this?" Jim was swallowing any disappointment he felt, was supporting her, the way he had since she'd woken from one nightmare into this new one where she wasn't strong and she did break.

"I'm sure." She walked slowly away from him, up the transporter steps. It would take no time to beam her to Command. Would take much longer for her to travel the short distance from the transporter room to Ops.

She wanted to turn around, to walk as quickly as her abused body could take her back to Jim. She didn't want to do this.

She had to do this.

"Energize," she heard, and she met his eyes and saw him mouth something.

She knew it was "I love you."

She expected to materialize to an empty room. But Cartwright was waiting for her. So was Janice. They hurried up, each took an arm.

Shaking them off, she said, "I can walk."

"Sure, you can. But you don't have to do it alone." Cartwright looked angry and frightened and happy all at once.

As soon as they'd cleared the transporter pad and hit the corridor, she stopped, forcing them to stop. "I broke," she said between teeth clenched to keep from crying.

"We know," Jan said so softly Chapel could barely hear her. "Let's get you back to work, okay?"

"But only for an hour. Then you're going home." Cartwright looked like he'd sling her over his shoulder if she argued. "Understood?"

"Understood, sir."

She expected that her colleagues wouldn't look at her. Or would shoot her angry looks for being weak, for having given in. For breaking. But they didn't. She was met with neutral stares, small nods of support, gentle eyes.

"Any of us would have broken, Commander," Cartwright said, loudly enough for the entire room to hear.

She could feel herself turn red.

But no one looked away, and she felt a hand touching her as she walked by. It wasn't a welcome, but it was close enough.

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

Her apartment doorbell chimed and she limped over, sure it would be Jan with some kind of dinner and more of the support she'd given so freely all that first hour.

It wasn't Jan. It was Jim.

"Hi." He held up a bottle of wine. "The ship's in for some repairs while we're here. So I'm on leave for the next few days. I may have neglected to mention that earlier."

"You did." Seeing him made her feel safe, safer than she'd felt since leaving the Enterprise. "Why?"

"You had to do that on your own--return, face them. But you don't have to do the rest of the day on your own." He stopped halfway in the door. "Unless...you want to."

"I don't want to." She smiled at him, the first real smile she'd given anyone all day. "Come in." She hugged him, whispered, "I'm sorry I couldn't stay. I wish I could have stayed."

"It's probably better if you're not working for me. You were the one thinking clearly." He pulled her close, walked with her to her kitchen. "I'm saying that to make myself feel better, you realize?"

She laughed softly. "We could run into each other. I'm out and about a lot."

He nodded, his expression tender. "Just don't get captured again."

"I'll try." She shuddered, an involuntary reaction for things she could barely remember, even after the meld. Spock had shielded her. He'd been gentle and kind, and she'd realized that he did care for her, just not the way she'd ever wanted.

But that was all right. Because this man was here now. This man with the wine and the sweet smile and the concerned look. This man she'd been in love with for years, since that shore leave he'd found so memorable.

"We've missed a lot," she whispered. "We should have said something after darts that night."

"Should. A useless word." He set down the wine and pulled her close. "Let's make up for lost time."

She let a kiss be her answer.

"Where's your bedroom?" he asked. She led him down to it, and he started to undress her. "Nothing too strenuous. You're still recuperating."

"I think this is therapy," she whispered as she removed his uniform. "The best kind."

He eased her down to the bed, kissed her and held her and then was saying, "It's okay. It's okay, sweetheart," and she realized she was crying.

"They don't hate me. Why don't they hate me?"

He held her as she wept, murmuring things that might or might not be true, but that felt good.

"I broke."

"We all break, Chris. We just do it in different ways. That's why they don't hate you." He smiled gently at her, and she pulled him onto her, and let her pain and anger and fear be pushed away, or at least aside for a while, by his lips and his hands and the way he was moving over her and into her.

When they lay still, he said, "Are you all right?"

"No," she said. "But I think I will be."

With him in her life, it might even be true.

FIN