Chapter Eight: The End and the Beginning

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They choose a bar close to Starfleet headquarters, one usually full of personnel coming off duty. Like most bars from time immemorial, it is dark and somewhat dank—with small cluttered tables and well-worn chairs situated around a long counter staffed by a bartender more gifted in listening than in giving advice.

Natalie would have preferred a bar at a restaurant instead—she's already hungry and the bar peanuts and soy chips set out with their drinks are a paltry meal—but both she and Chris are too eager for a drink to walk past their familiar watering hole.

It's a celebration of sorts, though Natalie thinks that anyone watching them would think they are in mourning instead. Both sit hunkered over their drinks, shifting in the uncomfortable chairs and trying to figure out how to say goodbye.

They are on their second drinks—bourbon for her, scotch for him—when Chris sighs and sits up.

"This is damned awkward," he says, and Natalie lifts her head and gives a half nod. "For the record, this isn't how this was supposed to go," Chris says.

Natalie curls her fingers around her glass and smears the condensation with her thumb.

"Yeah, well," she begins. "It's not like I didn't give you fair warning."

Chris takes another sip of his drink and leans back. That's his "let's talk" position, and despite herself, Natalie laughs. He looks so serious.

"So," he says, "when's this baby coming?"

Natalie almost chokes on her drink. She puts down her glass and looks Chris in the eye.

"You might be surprised to hear this," she says, "but it doesn't work like that. You don't resign one day and get pregnant the next. It might be awhile."

"Then why—" he says, and she continues.

"Chris," she says. "Sir," she says with exaggerated emphasis, "how many times do we have to go over this? I'm ready to move on. To start a family. To have time to have dinner with my husband once in awhile."

Chris snorts.

"To think about something other than ships and the military brass—" she continues. "You laugh, but one day you'll want to settle down—maybe have a kid or two."

Chris lets his chair rock forward so that he can lean closer.

"There's where you're wrong," he says, "and I'm surprised at you. I thought you knew me better than that."

Natalie says nothing but watches him over the rim of her glass held in her hand.

"Go on then," Chris says irritably. "Leave everything that means something to you—just leave your career and go on to whatever….but that's not what I want for me. I'm getting what I want, what I've always wanted."

Natalie nods slowly and raises her glass as if she is toasting him.

"I'm glad," she says. "You and the Enterprise belong together."

"Yeah," Chris says, still sounding annoyed, "and you should be there. I always pictured you as my XO—I need someone I know, I can trust—"

"You have other people you can trust," she says, and Chris tilts his head and looks at her intently.

"I just wish—" he says, but then stops. Natalie flushes slightly—the bourbon or the scrutiny, she thinks—and then Chris speaks softly, as if from a great distance.

"We're losing too many good people the way things are set up now. Those old multi-generation ships we used to send out—it makes more sense to let families stay together on deep-space voyages—"

Suddenly Natalie feels a flash of anger—not at Chris, or even at Starfleet, but at the situation that is forcing her to choose between her career and a family.

"Well, the Kelvin put an end to that, didn't it?" she says. She sees Chris react to her clipped tone, but she can't stop. "Starfleet's never going back," she says. "The political fallout if the Federation ever lost a ship that large—all those people, those kids—forget it. Space is for the young, sir, and I'm not getting any younger."

She drains the last of her drink and Chris raises his arm to get the attention of the waiter.

"Another," he says, though Natalie isn't sure that she wants it. She's tired of this conversation—they've had variations of it many times, and it never fails to upset her.

Chris seems to be thinking that too, and he changes tack.

"You see the news feeds today?"

Natalie shakes her head. She's spent the day organizing her files and making notes for her replacement. Technically she won't be leaving for several months—not until the Enterprise actually launches—but she submitted her official Request for Separation this afternoon…one door shutting as she makes her way forward.

"Police arrested several protest leaders in Mexico City," he says.

"At least things have been quieter here," Natalie says, brightening. The news in the week since they have returned from Amsterdam has focused on the way many of the protesters have disavowed their allegiance to the group, condemning the conference bombing and quietly disbanding. Yesterday, only a handful of placard-carrying protesters stood outside the Academy gates. Today Natalie saw none.

"Quiet doesn't mean they've gone away," Chris says.

"Some of them have," Natalie answers, but Chris shakes his head.

"They're still out there," he says, "People don't change that fast. The xenophobes are still scared. They'll be back."

"All the more reason to feel good about your first officer," Natalie says, sipping that third bourbon after all.

Chris grins and tips his glass at her.

"Thanks to you," he says, and Natalie nods. It's true, she knows. Chris wouldn't have given Commander Spock another look if she hadn't taken him on as a project of sorts. She still can't articulate exactly why she has, except that she senses that Chris will be safer with Spock at his side—that his very different way of seeing the world is what Chris needs.

She takes another sip of her drink and thinks again about Chris walking toward the armed gunman in the conference room, his hands raised as if in surrender, talking to give Spock time to circle around behind them. Her heart had been in her throat—she was sure the gunman would lose control at any moment and begin firing.

She will never tell Chris, of course, but she is glad she won't have to watch him do something as stupid again. As brave again. As necessary again.

Chris puts his empty glass down and places both his hands on the table.

"Well, this is one damn boring party," he says. "How about we go get a bite to eat? Talk about something happy maybe?"

She looks at his rugged face, the slight gray in his hair, and thinks as she always does that he has exactly the right demeanor for a starship captain. His crew will follow him anywhere, she thinks. They won't know how lucky they are.

For a moment she doesn't move—suddenly overcome by sorrow that she won't be with them. To her surprise and horror she feels her eyes tear up and she turns away so Chris won't see.

"You okay?" he says, and she sniffs and turns to look him in the eye.

"I'm good," she says, and she knows he can hear the lie in her voice.

Chris frowns and dips his head forward.

"Would you rather go on home?" he says, and she answers, "No, no. Let's go eat. Home will still be there when we finish."

She tries to sound upbeat—this is, after all, a future she is choosing. She might as well embrace it.

Or pretend to.

Chris leaves several extra credits on the table and they make their way to the door. The sun has almost set and the wind is blowing from the bay. They walk up the quay to a stretch of several restaurants that they visit from time to time, but before they stop, Chris says, "You know, it's not too late to change your mind."

Natalie pulls her jacket around her shoulders more tightly to fend off the chill. Without wanting to she sees again the armed gunman pointing his weapon at Chris and Chris standing there, vulnerable—and she gives a sad smile and says, "Yes, it is. It's too late."

At that he nods and they continue up the street, looking for a meal that will offer them a measure of joy—or at least some comfort.

X X X X X X X

The cuts on Spock's brow are almost completely healed within a week—though Nyota often pretends to need to inspect them, rubbing her thumb gently across his forehead, watching for the moment when he gives in to sensation and closes his eyes. She is shamelessly pleased when he does—surrendering his logic for an emotion she is able to evoke.

His eyes are closed now, her hand on his face, as they recline on the sofa, their dinner plates shoved aside on the end table, their glasses of tea long forgotten.

They are facing each other—Spock lying against the sofa back, Nyota perched more precariously in his arms. If she rolls backward she will fall off—and she is about to suggest that they move to the bedroom when she feels Spock's arms tighten reflexively around her, causing her to lose her breath for a moment.

She slides her hand from his face down his arm and he frees his hand to slip into hers. For a moment she simply feels his warmth—and then she senses what he is thinking—the conference again, as he often has in the past week. He has kept most of the images from her—though she has gathered enough to know how quickly everything had unfolded, how chaotic it had been.

Now he leads her to another memory—of his belief that he was going to die, and his sadness at the thought of losing her—and her heart aches with him and for him. He pulls her up tightly again, almost uncomfortably so.

"I have to tell you something," he says aloud, and this surprises her. Usually once they touch each other's minds, their spoken words feel like intrusions, like blunt instruments compared to the elegance of thought and feeling.

He opens his eyes then and cranes his neck back until he can see her face. His slight frown alarms her—and she feels her heart beating against his chest.

"At the end of this semester I am leaving the language department," he says, "and Dr. Artura's aide is graduating. If you are interested in continuing your work in the phonology lab, Dr. Artura has indicated that you would be an acceptable replacement."

Work for Dr. Artura? Nyota is stunned. She has always enjoyed the Andorian professor's company, but she isn't sure she wants to work closely with him. She isn't surprised that Spock is leaving the language department—he has functioned as an adjunct there, his real interest in the computer sciences.

"And you?" she says, and Spock confirms her suspicion.

"The instructor for the artificial intelligence course is relocating to a position with the Federation technology office in Paris," he says, "and I have been asked to assume his duties."

"Oh," Nyota says, frantically trying to envision herself working in the lab without Spock. "Well, maybe this is a good thing—"

"Indeed," Spock says. "You would no longer be under my supervision."

She does not say what she is sure he is thinking—that this makes their relationship, if not more legitimate, at least less taboo.

She sighs then at the idea that they will have to spend most of their days apart, and Spock nuzzles the top of her head with more affection than he usually shows.

"I guess I'll get used to it," she says. "At least you will have more free time this way."

And then a thought occurs to her.

"Or will you? What does that computer class involve?"

"It is only one class," he says, reaching up to brush his fingers across her cheek. "But I will be busy helping Captain Pike organize the pre-flight countdown for the Enterprise."

For a moment Nyota does not react. And then what he is saying hits her, and she takes in a breath and leans up to squeeze him around the neck.

"Captain Pike? You got the posting! Did you interview again? Why didn't you tell me?"

Spock looks at her with an upturned brow.

"When we returned from the conference, Captain Pike contacted me and offered me the position. He said the events in Amsterdam constituted a sufficient follow-up interview."

Nyota sits up then, and Spock watches her with amusement. For several minutes she quizzes him further—when will he start, what will his initial duties be—and at last she settles back, grinning.

"So," she says, "the conference actually turned out okay. Who would have guessed?"

"Need I remind you," Spock says with mock seriousness, "that we did not get to present our lab program."

Nyota laughs and says, "I don't care! This calls for a celebration."

Spock pulls her close again and says, "The word you mean is dessert. The presentation wasn't the only thing canceled at the conference."

"Is that so?" she says impishly. "And what dessert did you have in mind?"

But he's tired of words and speaking aloud, and instead, he touches her temple and she is flooded by that familiar longing and excitement that makes her own heart start to race.

Underneath the rush of his arousal she senses something else, too—a ghost of his sorrow when he had thought he was going to die in the explosion—that he was going to lose her, and be lost himself forever.

And even further down, beneath that sorrow, are other feelings—a quietude born from facing his mortality—and most surprising, a sense of wonder that he does not try to categorize.

And deepest of all, beyond the place of feelings and words, in the landscape of soundless metaphor, she sees herself as he sees her, like a star that doesn't waver, that leads him forth and brings him home.

A/N: So ends this little story. Your reviews are the only payment I want or need—so thanks for letting me hear from you!

Natalie and Pike have been great fun to spy on—I may check back with them as they get Spock and the Enterprise ready to launch. Is that a ride that interests anyone? Let me know!

Thanks to StarTrekFanWriter for her support!