Disclaimer: I do not own anything mentioned in the following fanfiction, except for the character of Penelope Richmond. She is of my own design.
"And here is to one final night of drunken mischief before we must resume our duties aboard the Enterprise!" Nyota declared as the group of them all raised the small shot glasses to the center in a cheer before throwing them back, Penelope making a sour face as soon as the liquid was swallowed.
They'd been at the club for over two hours now, drinking, talking, dancing, and laughing the night away. She'd forgotten how much fun it was to be young, and she'd forgotten how much she loved her friends. Dinner had been a joyous, extensive, fantastic affair. The crew had gotten to know Jake really well and they'd all taken a shining towards him, including Leo. They all caught up and Penelope was beginning to feel as if nothing had happened; as if they all hadn't just gotten back for a two week vacation from a five year mission. It was as if they were back at the Academy, except for the fact that she and James now had a kid.
The line to get into Galaxy had been ridiculously long, but Nyota had called ahead and gotten them on a list that allowed them to bypass it all, straight into the club and onto the top floor in the best booth in the house that over looked the entire club. She remembered the view as if it were a picture burned into her memory; there was no way she'd forget what it looked like standing against the balcony in front of their booth, looking down onto the dance floor. No way.
"Girl, you've got it bad," Nyota chimed from her side as she drew her eyes off the crowded dance floor beneath them, shooting her friend a curious look.
They hadn't been friends for very long, really only making a bond in the past few months of their year together at the Academy. They clicked together though, like polar opposites. Nyota was outgoing and fiercely confident where Penny was introverted and hesitant, two adjectives that she would rather not describe herself with. Her friendship with Nyota was based on her self-improvement; Nyota was going to turn Penny into a confident woman if it killed her, and if the progress with which she was growing at was any indication, it very well may.
"Don't give me that look, Penelope. You know exactly what I'm talking about," Nyota accused as the dark skinned beauty took a sip of the pink cocktail in her hand, Penny taking a swig from the water bottle in her own.
"I actually don't, Ny, so why don't you enlighten me?" Penelope replied wittingly, raising her eyebrows in expectation as Nyota shot her a surprised look before turning to face her.
"There's only one good reason why anyone who's as gorgeous as you are stands looking down at the dance floor of a club instead of being on it," Nyota said wisely as she rose her own eyebrows in expectation, Penny looking away guiltily. She knew where this was going.
A bunch of the cadets were here at the club celebrating finishing their second term of their first year finals, revelling in the freedom the Academy gave them for a few days before returning back to school for another 6 months of gruelling training and instruction. Penny had grudgingly joined them after Nyota had waltzed into her room earlier, torn the book she'd been reading from her hands and tossed a dark purple dress at her along with a pair of heels, both items accompanied with the instruction to get ready because she was going out. She could have huffed and sighed and complained, but she knew better. She'd learned a long time ago that with Nyota, resistance was futile.
So she'd gotten dressed in the, in her opinion, way too tight dark purple dress and strapped on the, in her opinion, way too high heels and surrendered herself to Nyota's capable hands. She emerged from her bathroom an hour later, her usually limp hair in bouncing curls and her usually makeup less face now all dolled up with eye shadow, mascara, bronzer and lip-gloss. She took one look in the mirror and almost gasped; for a Communications Officer in training, Nyota sure knew how to handle a curling iron. She almost didn't even recognize herself, which she didn't know whether or not was a bad thing. But when she saw the reactions of everyone they were going out with later that night, she knew it was a great thing.
He'd sent her a message shortly before they left telling her that he was running late and that he'd meet them at the bar later. Her heart was telling her that he was probably caught up with school work or something important, but her head and subconscious was telling her that he was once again banging some random chick he'd just met. She tried to drown her head out by reciting the laws of thermodynamics and listing Newton's laws in broken Klingon. She didn't speak much of the language, but she'd learned how to say the laws after quizzing Nyota for an exam a few weeks back. Needless to say, within seconds of getting his message her mind was busily preoccupied on something else, keeping herself from thinking about just what exactly James was probably up to.
So here she was now, standing on the balcony right in front of the best booth in the entire club where they were all holding court, her eye's raking the dance floor for his tell tale brassy blonde hair. Her stomach was in faint knots as she thought of all the million things he'd say to her once he saw her all dolled up. Would he like it? Would he hate it? Her heart had a sick, depraved fantasy that this make-over would make him want her, but her head chastised herself for wanting that; this look she had wasn't permanent. Tomorrow she'd go back to her normal messy waves and plain face and if that wasn't good enough for him, well then that was just too bad, she thought to herself. If only it was that easy.
"I don't understand why you even have feelings for him. He's a filthy, disgusting animal," Nyota bit to her a second later with venom, Penny breaking herself out of her revere as she looked up at the Comm trainee with slightly critical eyes.
"You don't know him like I do, Nyota," Penelope countered a second later, shaking her head once to make her point. She heard Nyota scoff almost instantly as she too shook her head, Nyota closing her eyes to rub them with her thumb and forefinger in an expression of tiredness.
"God, If I had a dime," Nyota muttered eventually, giving a harsh laugh that seemed to prick Penny the wrong way.
"I'm serious," Penny said defensively as Nyota looked up, determination in her eyes.
"So am I. If I had a dime every time a girl said that, I'd be a very rich person," Nyota replied a second later, her words punctuated and definitive.
"He's my best friend, Nyota. To you, he's just some random guy who hit on you a year ago and won't seem to stop trying to sleep with you just because he knows it gets a rise out of you. To me, he's the person that I turn to when I've had a shitty day or when everything's just going wrong. Trust me, you don't know him like I do," she explained after a few seconds of reflection, raising her eyebrows in expectation, hoping to make her point.
She watched Nyota's critical dark eyes rake themselves over Penny's features as she tried to discern the genuineness of Penelope's words. She seemed to find them worthy because a second later, she looked away.
"I don't think I'll ever understand, but regardless of it all, there is seriously no good reason for you to just be standing up here like a loser. So can you please come down to the dance floor with me and at least pretend to have a good time while you silent pine for him to get here?" Nyota whined as she grabbed Penny's forearm and started towards the stairs, the Comm trainee dragging the Engineering trainee behind her all the way down to the dance floor and to the circle of friends they came with.
She danced with them for what seemed like hours until she excused herself to grab a bottle of water to cool down, mission her way to the bar and eventually perching herself on one of the bar stools as she brought her internal temperature back down to a manageable level.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
She'd recognize that voice anywhere. She felt her stomach's knots grow tighter and her heart skip a beat as she contemplated her next move very carefully. He obviously hadn't seen her face yet or else he wouldn't have lead with that line. Or had he?
"Depends . . . ," she started as she flipped her hair over her shoulder to face him, watching his feature's pass from a gentle smile to confusion to realization.
"Still want to?" she asked a second later after he realized just who he'd been hitting on, Penny giving a meek grin.
"Penny? Is that you?" he asked as he squinted his eyes at her, his face serious. She gave a laugh and then nodded, holding her hands out the side a bit and giving them a wave in the traditional 'ta da!' sign.
"In all of Nyota's hair and make up glory. What do you think?" she asked as she slid off the stool and gave a twirl, trying not to act as awkward and self conscious as she felt dressed in the dress and wearing the heels she was wearing.
She watched his eyes drag themselves up and down her body, her own eyes catching a fleeting look of lustful hunger flash through his own as he eventually looked back up to her eyes. She didn't know whether or not she'd seen it right, but that quick look in his eyes was enough to send a shiver down her spine.
"Penny, you look . . . wow. Purple is definitely your colour, and you should wear that dress everyday for the rest of your life," he teased as he looked down and up at her again, Penny watching as he eventually shook his head and gave a low whistle, looking away.
"Stop it, you're making me blush!" she teased back as she hopped up on the stool to resume her position, finishing off her bottle of water.
"I'm serious. You're kind of a babe, Pen. If you weren't my best friend I'd totally try and sleep with you," he replied in a half humourous, half serious tone, sending her another fiercely, fleeting lustful look. She felt a shiver go down her spine as she just looked at him, a faint smile playing on her lips before looking away, shaking away the dirty thoughts that were running through her mind.
She couldn't have been looking away for very long, but when she looked back towards him a few seconds later, she found the spot vacated. Confusion passed over her for a few more seconds before her eyes swept the dance floor around her, finding him maybe ten feet down the bar chatting up a ditzy looking red head who was laughing daintily at whatever James was saying.
She felt something sink down into her stomach as she watched them flirt, the elation she'd felt just moments ago already shrinking down into nothing. It was as if she'd lost or failed in some way; seeing him with the red head just did something to her. She slipped off the stool and headed back up stairs, resuming her position of leaning against the balcony, looking down into the dancing fray below her. She didn't belong down there.
She didn't realize it then, but when she thought about that moment now, she finally understood that it was at that exact instant when her relationship with James changed. She'd been trying to woo him and entice him to her for months, but seeing him move so quickly from her onto another woman dramatically changed the dynamic of her feelings for him, turning them from active to passive. She knew she couldn't turn off how she felt about him, but she could turn off what she did with them. She was perfectly content with being in love with him; what she wasn't content with was feeling the way she'd felt when she'd seen him move on so quickly. That kind of disappointment came only when you were dedicated to something, as she'd been with being with James. But all of that changed that day.
That was the day she resided herself to 2 more years of secretly being in love with her best friend and not doing a damn thing about it.
So as she stood there amongst her best friends thinking about that moment seven years ago, she couldn't help but acknowledge how much had changed since then. She'd been so timid back in school, so scared of getting hurt. Although she still wasn't that big of a fan of putting herself out there or going out on a limb, she knew a worthy cause when she saw one. And as she looked over at James who was chatting animatedly with Bones, she couldn't help but feel as if things were different this time around.
He was a different person than the man he'd left as five years ago. Before he was reckless, arrogant, and selfish. Now he was careful, compassionate, and giving, as shown every time he was around Jake. She'd fallen in love with his lesser side eight years ago, and it was as if every second she was falling deeper in love with him now.
She was caught in a stare a few minutes later, her eyes meeting James as he turned to look at her. She snapped out of her revere and watched him cock his head ever so slightly to the side, an amused look on his face.
"Were you just checking me out?" he asked as he took a step towards her, Penelope's cheeks immediately reddening.
"No," she replied as she slipped onto one of the bar stools and looked directly in front of her, adverting her eyes. She took a sip from the bottle of water she'd ordered and stayed still, feeling him sidle up beside her a second later.
She became all too aware of his proximity to her and almost stopped breathing as he leant forward into her, Penny feeling his breath on her neck almost immediately.
"Liar," he whispered in a low, husky voice.
She closed her eyes and suppressed the shiver going down her back, her heart skipping a beat and her internal temperature rising. She'd had enough of this; all night he'd be doing things to her. Gently running his fingers along her back, looking at her with fire in his eyes, drawing incoherent patterns on her thigh during dinner. As much as she loved it, she also hated it; these little things weren't helping the fact that she was in love with a man that was leaving for god knows how long in three days.
"Stop that," she growled as she jerked her head away from him, looking over at someone to her left.
"Stop what?" he replied a second later, his fingers beginning to ghost themselves across her bare back.
That's it. She'd had enough.
"That. The touching and the looks and the suggestiveness. Just stop," she said as she moved to get out of the stool and stood facing him, her face contorted in anger as she spun on her heel and headed out, needing to get some air.
She couldn't have been outside more than three seconds before she heard the door open behind her and his familiar scent fill her nose, the smell intoxicating.
"What's wrong, Penny?" he said in his clutch careful yet knowing tone, as if he already knew what was wrong and was just waiting for her to admit it. She spun to face him, finding and equally knowing look on his face as he watched her pace back and forth in the parking lot, trying to make sense of it all.
"Nothing's wrong. I just need you to stop all that," she said definitively in response, folding her arms over her chest in defence.
"Why?" James prodded, again in his knowing tone that was beginning to irritate her.
"Because you leave in three days!" Penelope cut back, finding her blood beginning to boil as he just stood there with his hands in his pockets, watching her squirm under the pressure he was putting on her.
"And?" he pressed further, inching her closer and closer to snapping. His tone was just so annoying.
"And I don't want to get attached!" she bit as she glared at him, infuriated by how he managed to get under her skin and into her head like none other.
"Too late for that, Pen, we already have a kid" he teased a second later, giving her a quiet smile before returning to his perceptive look.
"I don't want to get attached any more than I already am," she explained slowly, narrowing her eyes threateningly. She could tell that he knew exactly where this conversation was going and it angered her that he was going through all the motions instead of just cutting to the chase.
"And how attached are you?" he asked as he took a few steps to her until he was about two feet away from her, a faint smile playing on his lips.
"God, James, what the hell do you want from me?" she exasperated a second later, tired of playing his game. Her eyes pleaded with him to just get on with it but he was having none of that, taking a few quiet seconds to examine her before speaking.
"Did you have a crush on me when we were back at the Academy?" he asked abruptly, startling her in her spot.
"Did you have feelings for me?" he repeated, her brain finally over the initial shock of his question. She stared at him blankly for a while and took in his face, acknowledging the notable lack of curiosity in his expression.
"Something tells me you already know the answer to that question," she bit back bitterly, glancing away. She felt as if she was thirteen again and standing in front of Jessie McKenzie, her grade school crush, as he called her out on her feelings for him. It was the exact same feeling; inexplicable embarrassment, cheeks burning, and her palms getting sweaty.
"I do. I knew back then that you had feelings for me, but I was young and horny, and you deserved better than what I was willing to give back then," he said as he gently raised his shoulders in a shrug, not making any attempt to make up for his past.
That was something else she both admired and loved about him; he knew exactly who he was and never tried to deny other wise. He had a faith and knowledge of himself that Penelope was just slowly beginning to develop in her self; the kind of unwavering trust in one's self that typically developed over time but James seemed to have since childhood. It was something she'd always appreciated about him, now more than ever.
"Your point?" she asked briskly, turning back to look at him as she folded her arms over her chest again, her eyes glaring.
"I guess my point is that a lot has changed since then, Penny. I've changed since then," he said as he looked down at his shoes, pulling a hand from his pocket as he scratched the back of his head in a tell tale sign of discomfort.
"I'm not following," she said, although her mind was already beginning to slowly piece things together. She came upon a conclusion that never in a million years she'd thought she'd come upon; was he really about to go where she thought he was going to go?
"About three years ago, the Enterprise was engaged by an armada of Klingon warbirds in the middle of the neutral zone. She was sustaining some pretty heavy damage, heavy enough that I was considering ordering a ship wide evacuation. I even cleared the bridge, it was that bad. And I still remember sitting there, in the Captain's chair, watching this amazing display of laser weaponry going on in front of me and all I could think about was you. The way you looked, the way you smelt, the way you made me laugh, the way you never moved an inch whenever I bunked with you at night," he said as he gave her a faint smile, her heart beginning to slowly quicken its pace.
She stayed silent as he took a few steps towards her until he was just a meter in front of her, his eyes locked on her's as he continued speaking.
"I couldn't for the life of me of me figure out why the hell in what I thought then would be my last moments, all I was thinking about was you. And then in a sudden moment of clarity, I realized that I'd been in love with you for a very, very long time. But I'd never really felt worthy of your love until that moment of realization, when I promised myself that if I got out of there alive, that I'd become someone I thought would deserve you. Would deserve your love," he said quietly as he continued to look into her eyes.
It was in that exact moment that Penny looked deep into his eyes and found his ever present guards around his soul gone; he was exposing his very core to her right now in an uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability. He'd never been good at talking about feelings and putting his heart on his sleeve and if she'd hadn't of believed his words, the fact that he was saying them would be convincing enough.
For a split second, she felt as if she were floating above the two of them watching the exchange happen from a bird's eye view. It was a completely out of body experience, standing in front of the man she'd been in love with for the better part of eight years admit to her that he'd loved her back then too but more than that, that he'd changed to become someone he thought she deserved. It was too surreal; this stuff just didn't happen in real life. This was her dream come true, in every sense. She felt as if her heart was about to explode in her chest.
Until reality set in.
There were hundreds of thousands of things she could have said in response to what he'd just admitted, but before she could even utter any of them, her hand had some things to say first.
It was swift, quick, and loud. Her hand rose and drew itself sharply across James' face, a loud smack echoing throughout the parking lot as his head jerked slightly to the side.
"Not the reaction I was going for . . . ," he muttered to himself as he slowly wheeled back to face her, bringing a hand to his face.
"How dare you!" she said in a low, quivering voice. She was shaking with rage as she stared at him, her eyes glassing over with tears of mixed emotions as she stared at him.
"Excuse me?" he asked as he lowered his hand, his face contorted in an expression of pure confusion.
"You're leaving for god knows how long in three fucking days, and you have the nerve to tell me that you love me? That you've always loved me? And knew all along that I have feelings for you? Where the hell do you get off thinking you can do something like that, James?" she asked in disbelief as the out of body feeling she'd been experiencing just minutes ago dissipating completely. She was now overwhelmed by the utter feeling of rage she was feeling at James telling her this with only three days left on Earth. Her heart was still beating fast and expanding exponentially at the news, but her head had taken control and was now ready to unleash hell at James for doing this to her.
Why would he do this to her? Her dream had just come true, but she only had three days to enjoy it. She could live with falling out of love with James after he leaves but now, knowing how he felt, it was going to make it that much harder for her to let him go. She wanted to stay with him forever now, to be with him every day, to wake up at his side, to be a real family for Jake; these were all possibilities now that they felt the same way about each other. But she wasn't going to get any of that, and that was the part that was just killing her.
"I just wanted to tell you before I left," he said slowly and quietly, obviously realizing just why Penny was so upset. His intentions had been pure and genuine, but still. What he'd said had complicated things to a whole new level.
"You shouldn't have," she replied quietly, her voice and body still shaking.
"We still have three days, Pen," he said, his words like a knife to her stomach as she closed her eyes and let the tears that had been welling there stream down her face. She opened her eyes a second later to see a pained expression on James' face as he watched the tears make tracks down her cheeks.
"No. We have three nights and two days before you zip back off in that ship of yours, probably never to be seen again!" she sniped back with intended venom, using the back of her hand to wipe away the stray tears.
"The Enterprise is scheduled to make another return to Earth in less than three years, and I don't even know if I'm going to be on it yet," he replied in a slightly raised tone, Penny watching the pain change to something mirroring faint frustration.
"Okay, this needs to end right now. James, you are getting back on the Enterprise, do you hear me? I teach Jake to always follow his heart and go after his dreams. What kind of example would you set if you don't do that? And besides, there are comm. uplinks to Earth every month at Starfleet. I'll arrange for you to talk to Jake monthly," she explained as she gestured with her hands, resting them eventually on her hips to emphasize her point.
"Stop telling me what the hell to do. I'll make that decision for myself, it's my life. God, Penny, I just spent the past three years changing myself into a good person, and this is what I get?" James blew eventually, throwing his hands up in frustration as he turned around, shaking his head in disbelief.
"I didn't ask you to change! You did that all on your own!" she shouted at him as she pointed with her finger towards him, a gesture that he mimicked a second later.
"Because of you! Because of you, Penny! I was tired of sleeping around and tired of feeling like I wasn't good enough to be with you. You are everything I've ever wanted, but I didn't want to be with you until I knew I was someone worthy. I wasn't back then, but I am now. God, is that so hard for you to understand?" he pleaded as he came back to her, standing just inches in front of her.
Once again, the weight of his words crashed down on her in their entirety. She was staring at him, looking right into his soul, as he once again let it all hang out for her. She could see into every corner of his soul just by looking into his eyes, something that she both loved and was scared of. She didn't want to enjoy the vulnerability he was showing her, because in three days, it wouldn't be there anymore.
He wouldn't be there anymore.
"I can't do this, James," she said as she turned to leave, her heart beating irregularly in her chest and her mind whirling with a thousand different thoughts, unable to process. For a ten minute conversation, eight years worth of emotions, feelings, and regrets just came pouring out in an avalanche of information that she just couldn't process at the moment.
"Just . . . do you still love me?" he called to her retreating form, halting her dead in her step.
She wheeled around slowly, her eyes glassing over again as she just looked at him for a few seconds, taking him in. She didn't need to think about it though; she'd had her answer to that question ever since he'd walked into her kitchen ten days ago.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do," she replied as she nodded her head, looking away a second later to keep the tears from falling.
"And you don't want to try?" he asked what seemed like an hour later, his words falling like bricks all over her body.
She looked back to him with a film of tears still over her eyes, taking in his pleading form as he stood with his hands in his pockets and a painful look on his face. She knew how bad her answer would probably hurt him, but the other option would hurt her even more in three days time. So, she sucked in a breath, gathered whatever courage she had left, and let it out.
((Author's Note: So I know I'm like the worst person ever for not updating sooner but my life has just been absolutely crazy these past few weeks. Regardless, I hope you all can still enjoy this chapter. It took a while, but here it is. You all mean the world to me, and much love goes out to my beta Jess for spurring me on to write. Thanks everyone, hope you like it. ))