She wakened two days later, her eyes opening to the sight of her Captain, PADD in hand, fast asleep in a chair next to her bed.
Or at least, she thought he was fast asleep. She had barely so much as blinked before he was sitting upright, profound relief on his face, and reaching forward to take her hands in his.
"Barbara. Are you all right?"
Aside from feeling like I've gone three rounds with a mule and lost, she thought wryly, I'm as good as ever I was.
And that's precisely what she told him.
When he finished laughing, he leaned forward to hug her close. "Oh, Barbara, my dear. I've missed you so."
For a moment she just held on to him and let the relief sweep through her. But then...
"Wait. I was mad at you. And you were mad at me. And now..."
"...we're not," finished Lynley. "Barbara, I was stupid. So were you. But I do not count myself a fool, and a fool I surely was for refusing to understand why you would take the course of action you did when I would have done precisely the same. And I..."
"...was just following orders, and in any case no self-respecting Captain could sit by when one of his crew had been kidnapped. I know. I see it, now. So in the end..."
"...it's all right, you see, because we were both wrong, and we were both right. And you wouldn't..."
"...really transfer? Never. Never, in this life or any other."
"Thank God," he said at last, holding her close, "because I think that..."
"...if you resign, I resign? Precisely."
"Barbara," he said, on half a laugh, "welcome home."
"Yeah," she said, never looking away from him. "I'm home..."
And as she looked into those eyes, so warm and welcoming with relief – the eyes of a man who had spared nothing to bring her back, who apparently hadn't left her bedside – she felt her heart trip, stumble, and fall.
She felt the impact, the shudder through body and heart and soul, as she realised that she could have died out there on that warbird – or, worse, and much more likely, that he could have been killed in her rescue – and she would have never seen him again, never played chess or Scrabble again, never fought with him again. She realised that she could have never again talked with him about anything and everything and sometimes nothing, never had that sense of comfort, of someone who knew everything she was and accepted her without reservation – and she knew.
And the knowing terrified her, right down to her very bones.
She sighed with relief when a pair of familiar brown eyes appeared on the vidscreen. "Nerys, thank God."
"What's wrong, Barbara? And I'm glad you're all right."
"Thanks – me too." She grinned briefly. "And I think..." here she had to swallow heavily. "I think I might be falling in love with my captain."
Nerys only smiled. "I know."
"Barbara, since I've known you I've watched you go from ranting about the man every chance you got, to admitting you grudgingly respect him, to telling me you've never had a better commanding officer, to telling me he knows more about you than you've ever told anyone – even me. No, don't apologise. I understand. It takes more than simple friendship to bring that out of someone, particularly someone as guarded as you are. Frankly, I think you're perfect for each other. But I'm not on that ship. I can't tell you what to do. What I can say is this – if it's real, and I think it is, don't give up, and don't let go."
Groaning, Barbara dug her thumbs into her temples. "You think?"
Light-years away, Nerys smiled. "I think. Let me know, okay?"
Wearily Barbara smiled. "Will do. Best of luck with Quark."
"Thanks. I'll need it." So saying, Nerys gave one last smile before the viewscreen went black.
"Barbara?" A knock sounded on the door.
"Come in, Captain."
"Am I interrupting?"
"No, not at all. I was just chatting with Nerys for a little. Did you need me?"
"Ah, I see. Give her my best next time you talk to her. And yes, I did. I wanted your opinion on some of these crew evaluations..."
As Lynley talked, Barbara gazed at him, gazed at the one person in the galaxy it would break her to lose, and prayed for strength. I hope you're right, Nerys. Because if I lost him, I don't think I could go on.
The days blurred into each other on the Border, punctuated by nothing more than skirmishes. The routine remained the same – comfortable, steady, familiar – but always, at the back of their minds, was the threat of full-blown war. Other ships had engaged, they heard – were told of battles lost and won, heavy losses, border worlds attacked, engagements between single ships and more than that. But Providence remained out of the main action. How, they never knew, with the reports – Starfleet had been caught unawares in the conflict, and they should have been fighting heavily and often. Barbara could only assume that it was due to the simple fact that, after her rescue, they had been shifted to a patrol area well behind the border. Putting several dozen large, nasty warships between Providence and any enemy vessels was a fairly effective way to ensure their crew remained out of the major action.
Lynley, naturally, chafed, and Barbara did her best to distract him with whatever she could find before he got even more short-tempered than he already was and alienated his entire crew.
Two years later, they'd look back on these times, and wish for them to come again.
It was just another night, really – she'd had dozens like it, would have dozens more. Every few days, Barbara joined Jackie in Shannon and Carly's quarters. The rules were simple: no talk of war, combat, or Starfleet business. This was strictly for pleasure.
Barbara was braiding Shannon's waist-length hair into a heavy golden braided crown, while Shannon's fingers were busy with Carly's curls and Jackie ran a soft brush through Barbara's own almost-shoulder-length hair, and all four were giggling.
"Love at first sight? Really, Shannon. What an absurd notion." Jackie, prosaic and practical as always, couldn't help but chortle.
"I'm not kidding!" cried Shannon. "There I was in Intro to Engineering, and in walks this gorgeous TA with the wildest hair I'd ever seen. My heart stopped beating. I swear I forgot how to breathe. It's a wonder I even passed the class."
"You think it was bad for you?" Carly asked tartly. "There I go, first time I'd ever TA'd anything, and I'm still fretting over my senior thesis, and there's this blonde imp with eyes blue enough to make me swoon. I'm surprised I didn't faint on the spot. It's a wonder anyone passed the class."
Barbara, who couldn't help but smile at the differences between Shannon and Carly's whirlwind romance and her own long, slow journey of falling in love, said nothing as she practically purred into the sensation of the brush in her hair. Times like these were rare enough – sometimes she damned her own idea of splitting the senior staff across all three shifts, as it made these girls' nights all the more dificult to arrange – and to lose herself in the pleasure of Shannon and Carly's story was a welcome relief from the ache she felt every time she laid eyes on her captain.
Enough of that, she told herself briskly. However besotted I may be with the man, he does not belong at girls' night. "Hey, Shannon," she said, partly to distract herself and partly because she never got tired of the story, "tell us how you finally got up the courage to make a move!"
"Yeah," cried Jackie from behind her, fingers busily weaving Barbara's ginger hair into a fishtail braid, "tell us!"
"All right," said Shannon mischievously, as Carly buried her face in her hands to conceal her blush. "I had just finished my final exam..."
She was cut off by the ship's intercom chiming to life. "All senior staff to the briefing room immediately," recited Yeoman Kat Frye's cool, collected voice. "I repeat, all senior staff to the briefing room immediately."
"Damn and blast," muttered Barbara, hauling herself, then Carly, to her feet. Shannon scrambled up with her usual agility, and Jackie rose from the sofa. The fishtail braid in Barbara's hair fell apart, and Shannon's hair tumbled down around her shoulders. Only Carly's hairdo stayed put – held in place, no doubt, by the engineer's corkscrew curls.
All thoughts of hairdos fled, however, when the four entered the briefing room. Though Jackie, as an associate doctor, wouldn't normally qualify as senior staff, her position as ship's counsellor earned her a place at the table – and even if it hadn't, her near-encyclopedic ability at psychological profiling would have.
Barbara settled herself at Lynley's left – he cast an amused glance at the disarray of her hair, but she pointedly ignored him – as Lafferty came in to take the captain's right, and the rest of the senior staff settled themselves around the table.
"What I have to tell you," began Lynley, "has staggering implications for the outcome of this war. Please," he said, raising his hand and stilling the murmurs, "wait. This intelligence has come to me straight from Starfleet Command. As of now, we are being recalled to Earth for refits and crew replacements. The Klingon-Federation War is over. Chancellor Gowron's aide, Martok, was replaced by a Changeling sometime in 2371. Approximately thirty-six hours ago, the Cardassian tailor Garak completed a successful plan to beam himself, Martok, and Commander Worf out of the Dominion internment camp where they had been housed. Last week Chancellor Gowron called for a cease-fire. Although hostilities resumed briefly, they have now ceased for good, and the Klingons have re-signed the Khitomer Accords."
The room was dead silent.
"Well," Barbara managed at last, "that explains a lot."
"Indeed," said Lynley, flashing her a brief, private smile. "Needless to say, ladies and gentlemen, this changes the entire shape of the war. It is safe to say that the Dominion have far more power and force at their command than we had previously believed. They have succeeded in creating war between two governments that have been allies for decades, and they have the capability to infiltrate the highest levels of government. The Obsidian Order has been obliterated. The Tal Shiar are weakened almost beyond recognition." He looked at all of them. "We are to redeploy to the Typhon Sector under Admiral Hayes until we are deemed needed elsewhere. But make no mistake." His voice was crisp. "We are in more danger now than we have ever been. What we have been through this past year was nothing more than a taster of what is to come. I will need each and every one of you. Carly."
"I need you to get to work with your engineers. Every trick you know, every ounce of power you can gain, every improvement you can make – I want it. Take what we've got and make it do the impossible. Understood?"
"Already done, sir." And though her tone was cool, there was no mistaking the fire in her eyes.
"Very good. Shannon. Barbara."
"Aye, sir!" they said as one.
"Shannon, I want every kiloton of power you can wring from these phasers and torpedoes. Have Barbara help you – there is none better. Work on the shields. I want this ship with firepower and shields as strong as you can make them. Understood?"
"Aye, sir," they said again.
"Lafferty. Contact your friends at Starfleet Medical. I want anything you can get for Sickbay. Have it shipped to Deep Space Five. Whatever you can get, get it. T'Maya. You already know what to do. Keep doing it."
Rapidly he gave out orders. Jackie went off Sickbay rotation unless she was absolutely needed – she would be acting as a counsellor full time. Shannon, Carly, and Barbara resigned themselves to twelve or eighteen-hour days for the foreseeable future, and T'Maya rather looked as if she was going to investigate just how long a Vulcan could go without sleep. Kimura Hana scheduled everything down to the minute – she would have to manage not only her nurses but her doctors as well, considering the medical propensity to push themselves until they collapsed and then just get up and keep going.
Barbara, however, had it from both ends. Not only would she be working with Shannon on the weapons systems, she would also spend hours with her captain drawing up new battle tactics – not to mention drills that would teach the crew those new battle tactics until they couldn't think straight any more.
They'd thought the border was out of the frying pan and into the fire.
They'd had no clue what they were talking about.
And Barbara, who had never quailed from combat in her life, wasn't sure she wanted to find out.