Happily Ever After—or Something Like That

By Djinn

The castle dripped with gold, the strains of a waltz filling the portico. Chapel stood in front of a crystal carriage, trying to avoid being trampled by the mouse-grey horses. She rubbed her eyes while she tried to figure out where the hell she was and why she was wearing an elaborate—and damned uncomfortable—ball gown. Only a few moments ago she'd been waiting in line to board a shuttle—hadn't she? And the captain had been there, too.

"Chris?" Kirk came barreling out of the castle entryway, dressed to the nines in something vaguely akin to what she imagined a European prince of long ago would have worn.

"Sir?" She frowned. "Are we on the Pleasure Planet? Because I swear to God this is not my fantasy."

"We're not on that planet. I don't know where we are."

"This seems familiar."

"I know." He moved closer to her. "Nice shoes, Cinderella. I guess that makes me Prince Charming?"

She looked down at her feet, which were starting to really hurt. The reason was possibly the glass footwear adorning her size ten clodhoppers. "These don't breathe." She put her hand on his shoulder to steady herself as she wrestled them off. "Jeez, death by stilettos."

He smiled. "They looked good."

"Yeah. Yeah. I'm sorry, but I'm not interested in suffering for beauty." She waved over a servant who looked like he wore about her size. "Give me your boots."

"Madame?"

"Give me your damn boots." At his frown, she added, "Please."

The servant looked at Kirk. "Your highness. This is most irregular."

"Give the lady your boots, man. And be quick about it." Kirk smirked, no doubt pleased that he sounded like something out of The Three Musketeers. Big ham.

The servant gave her his boots and socks. They stunk to high heaven but she put them on.

Kirk frowned. "They don't go with that dress."

"I don't go with this dress." She followed him into the castle. "So why are you the prince?"

"Someone had to be?" He glanced back at her. "You'd have preferred Spock, maybe?"

She sighed. "I had one little slip when he came back to the ship. We were all staring death in the big V'ger face, so I think you could cut me a little slack."

"Uh huh."

"Why do you care?"

"I don't. This is me completely unconcerned that you're still carrying a useless torch."

"The only torch is the one I'm going to jam up your..." She smiled as he looked back. "Uh, nowhere. Nowhere at all."

"You lack respect, Doctor. Add a medical degree to the ones you already had and look at you." He was smiling though when he said it. The man appeared to like sass.

"I know. I'm a pain." She almost ran into him as he stopped on an ornate landing and stared down. She edged next to him and saw a huge ballroom laid out beneath them with lots of people dancing.

No one they knew, though.

"Why us?"

"Hell if I know." He made a face. "That didn't come out right."

"It's okay. I'm sure there are other people you'd rather be with right about now."

"Uh huh." His tone was halfway between distracted and annoyed. "Why a fairy tale?"

"Beats me."

"Why this fairy tale?"

She decided not to answer, just watched the people dance. "They're in perfect unison."

"Huh?" He glanced over the balustrade. "Wow, they really are, aren't they?" He started to grin. "What do you want to bet they're androids. I'm death to those babies." He suddenly looked contrite. "Unless it's Roger."

"You would have been death to him, too, if Andrea 'Where Did I Put My Real Clothes?" hadn't beaten you to it."

"Great girl." He took her hand and led her to a staircase, then down the stairs. A general hum of excitement filled the room as they came into view.

A hum that dimmed a bit when they took in Chapel's choice of footwear.

"Okay, we dance." He eased her onto the dance floor, stayed carefully in time with the other dancers.

Chapel felt like they were smelt caught in a river of dancing fish.

Kirk pulled her closer. "You're good."

"My grandmother was a dance teacher."

"Didn't know that."

"Probably a lot you don't know about me, sir."

"Probably so. And right back at you." He started adding more complicated dance steps, making her laugh as he tried to throw her off. "You're very, very good." His grin grew. "Okay, so now, let's not be quite so good. What do you suppose will happen if we crap all over the group gestalt?"

"If they spontaneously combust, this will not be anything to smile over." They were smack in the middle of the dancing group. "You sure they're androids?"

"Have to be." He stumbled—on purpose—and she followed his lead.

Nothing.

He led her directly into the path of another couple; she braced for the inevitable collision. The couple turned gracefully, other couples did the same, keeping the two of them safely in the middle.

"Ummmmmmm." Chapel stopped dancing, pulling Kirk up as she did. The couples managed to dance around them, making very small circles, waiting, it seemed, for the two of them to start dancing again. "So much for crapping."

"They're good." He led her back into the dance, their fellow dancers followed without a fuss. "But maybe not androids. They seemed a bit dismayed by your boots. Why would androids care about your choice of shoes?"

"Maybe they've got a foot fetish?"

He ignored her. "Maybe some alien we've never met before. And they don't seem hostile." He rubbed his hands together. "How fun is this?"

"Well, dancing with you is swell, but being stuck in this weird fairy tale? Not so much fun."

"But, on a scale of one to ten, with one being we're tied up and tortured and ten being Risa or the Pleasure Planet, where would you put this?" He was still grinning. "I'd give it about a five."

"Points off for unknown? You do seem to be enjoying our little waltz here."

"Haven't danced in a while. Kind of miss it. Didn't expect you to feel quite so good in my arms." He seemed fully aware of how his last statement could be taken. "I think we should look around, as much as I hate to leave this lovely dance floor."

He led her off to murmured calls of "Your Majesty" and "lovely party, Your Grace."

"Am I a King or a Prince?" He looked around, nodding at the people that were bowing and curtseying as they walked by.

"I thought Your Grace was for a Duke." She shrugged. "To be honest, my protocol classes were a long time ago. At any rate, it's safe to say you're supposed to be Prince Charming. Given the glass slipper and all."

The clock in the ballroom began to chime, and she glanced at the hands. Midnight. "Do I turn into a pumpkin when it finishes?"

"Your coach does. You just—"

With a poof her ballgown disappeared, leaving her in a rather distressed—and short outfit.

Kirk smiled. "Now that outfit is actually improved with the new boots."

"I think I'm supposed to skedaddle."

"I suggest you stay put. Consider it an order, even."

She saw looks of anticipation. The crowd had even cleared a path for her from the ballroom to the front steps. "Not moving, people."

"Are you defective?" she heard, felt a pointy object hit her on the shoulder, and then she disappeared from Kirk's side in a flash. She appeared in the kitchen of a lovely house and immediately hurried outside, intent on getting back to the castle. Which was nowhere in sight. In fact, there was open countryside for miles on all sides.

"What the f—"

"You very nearly were discovered."

Chapel turned, saw an ethereal creature floating just above the ground. She was of indeterminate age, with golden curls that looked, if Chapel were to be honest, a bit ridiculous on her. The frothy chiffon gown she was sporting only made her look more foolish. "Let me guess. Fairy Godmother?"

"But of course. And now I must be off. Do take care with your stepfamily. They will not be happy with you."

She heard a coach drive up—far too soon for anyone to have arrived from a castle that was nowhere in view, so clearly the timestream here was a bit off—and shrill voices sounded in the hall.

Two girls who might have been attractive if their expressions hadn't been so sour appeared in the doorway. An older woman—this time truly homely—pushed past them. "What did I tell you?" She loomed large over Chapel.

"Where is my captain?"

The woman seemed taken aback by the scorn in Chapel's voice. She poked a finger in her sternum. "I asked you a question. What did—"

Chapel kicked out her legs, and followed her down into a wrestling hold she'd been dying to try out since she'd learned it in self-defense class. "And I asked you, you nasty old bitch, where is my captain?"

"He's here," the ebullient tones of the Fairy Godmother sounded just as Kirk bounded in and said, "I'm here."

"Really?"

He looked very embarrassed at being forced to bound. But that might have also been due to the tights—they were more formfitting than his dress outfit had been and left very little to the imagination. Chapel had never seen quite so much of her commanding officer.

Not that she was complaining. The man had clearly been hitting the gym while stuck on Earth. Made sense, in a way. Man like him, lost his friend, lost his ship. Only thing he could control was how he looked.

And he looked so very fine.

"Chapel, you want to get up off that woman?" He sounded very proud of her.

She climbed off, but not before giving the woman's arm a little twist. "I was about to get her to tell me where you were."

"Well, no need. The fairy tale brought me to you." He looked around. "I'd have found you eventually, though."

She smiled. "So now what?"

He pulled out the glass slippers she'd abandoned. "I'm afraid you have to put these on."

"No goddamned way. Those things are lethal, provide no traction, and have terrible arch support." She moved to him, took the slippers and tossed them to the stepsisters. "Got any other ideas, because I am not wearing those torture devices?"

She realized she was standing far too close to him. But it did make it easier for him to put his arms around her, pull her in, and give her a kiss.

A rather perfunctory kiss.

Distracted and far too quick.

This was the best that Captain "T is for Tomcat" could do?

Or maybe it was the best he could do with her?

She pulled away, couldn't meet his eyes until he softly said, "Chris?" She realized everyone was bowing or curtseying, and she was once again in the ballgown, which gleamed like it was backlit.

The Fairy Godmother hovered in the corner, dabbing at her eyes and saying, "I always cry at this part."

Then the scene fell away and everything turned to black.

##

Chapel woke and squinted into the bright sunshine. Her ball gown was gone, replaced by a dirndl and white ankle socks with black mary janes. "You've got to be kidding me," she said, trying to pull the very short dress down a bit.

She heard a grumpy sounding moan and turned to see Kirk sitting up from where he'd been sleeping, a little bit down a grassy path. His tights were gone. Lederhosen had taken their place.

He met her eyes, seemed to realize she was about to laugh and frowned. He took in her dirndl and said, "Oh, please God, no..." as he looked down to check out his own ensemble.

"Oh, please God, yes, sir." She couldn't help it; she started to laugh.

He got up and strode over, holding his hand out to her and then yanking her up with more force than was necessary. "Stow it, Doctor."

She realized he wasn't kidding and tried to wipe the smirk off her face.

"This is not one of my favorite fairy tales. I had my share of hiding from a real monster when I was a kid. Hansel and Gretel have nothing on me."

She met his eyes, all amusement gone. "I didn't think of that."

"I always think of that. It's the nasty benefit of having lived through that. And not in a way that made me proud."

"You survived."

"Uh huh. That makes it all worth it." He let go of her and walked off. "If our last interaction was any indication, we have to finish the fairy tale to move on. I'm all for doing that and trying to figure out what the hell is going on and how we get out of here."

She followed him, trying not to take his eagerness to get out of here—and away from her—personally. He was right, of course. The Cinderella nonsense had seemed harmless. This...this was scarier. A lot of the Grimm's fairy tales ended badly if you read the original version. Which she had. Oh, God, why had she? They were probably taking all this stuff directly from their minds. "What if there really is a witch?"

"She wasn't. In the story, Hansel and Gretel fooled her too easily. She was just an old woman who liked to eat people. She'll probably drug any food or water she'll offer us. And don't let her touch you. Wouldn't want to bet she won't have some kind of topical tranquilizer or pheromone."

"Check. No food. No drink. No touch." She double-timed it until she caught up with him. "You have a plan beyond that?"

"I do. Throw her in the damn oven."

"But..."

He looked over at her. "But...?"

"Well, we can't just throw a potentially harmless old lady in the oven."

His sheepish smile conceded the point. "How evil does she have to be before she's fair game?"

"We have to be sure."

"Of course we have to be sure, Chris. But odds are good they're going to be following the script on this one. The first sign of evil and she's going in the oven."

She thought it was a good plan. A great one even. First sign of evil and into the oven. It was a good plan until they ran into what had to be the sweetest lady in the universe—a lady who didn't even own an oven.

"Oh, dearies, I never cook. I'm on a raw diet."

"Raw meat?" Chapel asked.

"Oh, my, no. Vegetables. Some fruits if my arthritis isn't bothering me so much I can't climb the ladder to pick it." She grinned at them both. "I have some lovely apples right now. Would you like some?"

Chapel glanced at Kirk. He was staring at the old woman with a very put-out expression. Had he wanted her to be evil?

"We just ate," she finally said when the lady shot them a puzzled look.

"Well, I'll get you one for the road. You have a long journey ahead of you." She teetered off to a basket sitting under a roughhewn table. Picking through the gleaming red fruit, she finally settled on two and brought them over. "There you are. Two of my best."

"Thanks."

"You run on now. They're waiting for you down the path a bit. Quite spun up they are." The woman winked at her, patted Kirk on the arm gently, and started working in her vegetable patch. She sang as she pruned, the song following them as they walked further down the path.

Chapel realized her mouth was watering; the apple smelled heavenly. "This really looks good. Can I eat it?"

He glared at her.

Sighing, she tossed it into the woods. He did the same.

"Disappointed she wasn't evil, sir?"

He shrugged.

"Well, on the bright side we weren't drugged."

Again the shrug.

"Captain, did I do something wrong?"

"No."

"But you seem...not happy with me." Or was it that he was not happy that she was here—when there were probably a whole lot of other crewmembers he'd rather spend time with.

When had she ever cared what he preferred? One not-so-great kiss and she was suddenly interested? God, she was a thousand kinds of pathetic. She sighed loudly.

He stopped, took a deep breath. "We're accomplishing nothing."

"Well, we don't seem to be in control right now. Maybe if we go along for now, we'll figure out how things work?"

"Or maybe we'll just be stuck on an endless loop of ever grimmer fairy tales. Not all of them end with happily ever after, you know?"

"I know." She stopped walking. "Sir, this may be my fault."

"What?"

She looked down. "Before I woke up in the carriage on my way to Cinderella's ball. I was waiting to board my shuttle."

"Yeah, I saw you. You were just ahead of me."

Another pang. He hadn't even wanted to sit with her? A long boring shuttle ride and he'd have rather been alone than come talk to her?

"Chris." His voice was very gentle. "How is this your fault?"

"I saw a friend...someone I used to be involved with. He's...he's very happy. New wife. Kids. The whole shebang."

He waited.

"I thought to myself after I left him in the bar, while I was standing in line waiting to board, that it wasn't fair. That I wanted the happy ending."

He sniffed, it was a laugh of sorts and he was shaking his head. "Quite a pair we are. I ran into a friend of mine from the Academy. He's married, stationed with his partner. They're happy. He has it all." He took a ragged breath, let it out slowly. "I was thinking about happy endings, too. And why they seem to elude me."

"And that's all it took? Us both thinking the same thing at the same time?" She met his eyes. "Well, they sure screwed up if they think they can get their happily ever after with us." She smiled, a cockeyed, "bring it on" type of smile.

He studied her, his mouth turning up gently. "Come on, Chris. Let's go see what's down this path."

##

She wasn't sure how it happened, but somehow they got separated. "Sir?"

Nothing.

"Captain Kirk?"

Still nothing. The forest creaked and groaned as if it was coming alive around her.

"Jim?" She whispered his name, a name she'd never called him before.

Nothing. She glanced down at her dirndl, which now was just a simple country dress. What fairy tale was this?

"Don't be afraid." A new voice. A man's voice. A deep, slightly sad voice.

She whirled. A very burly man stood in front of her, dressed in leather and holding a really long knife.

Her first instinct was to scream. She opted against it since he wasn't moving. "Who are you?"

He frowned. "Why, I've watched you play all your life, Princess. Surely you know me."

She shook her head.

"The Queen..." He looked down. "The Queen has given me a hard order, dearest Snow."

Oh. That fairy tale. With the magic mirror and the dwarves—err little people.

The man fell on his knees in front of her and said, "I just can't." He looked up. "Run, Princess. Run before I change my mind."

She ran. Down the path, but then she heard him coming behind her. Much as Hansel and Gretel's witch had broken tradition by not trying to capture them, this clown's sense of self preservation seemed to have overtaken his ethics.

He caught her eventually. And this time she did scream. He ignored her, his knife flashing as he lifted it high.

There was a sharp hiss by her ear and his expression changed to one of shock—possibly due to the rather large arrow sticking out of his neck. He let go of her and fell.

"You okay, kid?" A man, very short, walked out of the woods. His bow was as big as he was. Fortunately, he had massive muscles.

"Are you Sleepy? Or Grumpy maybe?"

"My name is Reginald. Who the hell names their kids Sleepy or Grumpy?" He checked the burly man's pockets, stashing away a leather sack and the knife. "There a reason this one wanted you dead?"

"If I remember the story right, it's because I'm prettier than my stepmother and she wants to be the fairest in the land. Also, there's a magic mirror."

He looked her up and down. "Not entirely buying your story. You're not bad looking, but I can't say you're the fairest in the land, toots." He nodded toward the woods. "You hungry?"

"Do you live with six other dwar—errr people?"

"My family, yeah. You have issues with our size? Cuz I can shoot an arrow through you, too, if you want to get smart with me."

She held up her hands. "No issues. It's just...some things in this story are changing."

He shrugged. "Life is change."

Great. A philosopher dwarf.

"So, is there a Prince Charming in these parts?"

"Nope."

"You sure?" She sighed. "Maybe a dashing Starship captain?"

"Oh, yeah, he's back at the house. Good looking guy, likes to flirt?"

Kirk was flirting with dwarves? Well, she supposed he'd flirt with anything if it got him closer to freedom. Or wait. Maybe in this version, the dwarves weren't all men? Maybe there was a pretty girl dwarf there. Prettier than Chapel probably.

"He said you'd be in danger."

"He didn't come himself?"

"Said it wasn't his role. I know. I didn't get it either." Reginald pointed down the path. "She look familiar?"

The old woman was back. Or her sister possibly. Her wrinkled, much more bitchy sister. Had to be the evil queen, loaded up with apples that if possible smelled even better than the first witch's stock.

"Girl, you look hungry. Here." The old woman shoved an apple at her. "Eat the hell up."

"You're not even trying to fool me." Chapel moved closer to her. "What is your programming?"

"Eh, what's that?" The woman peered at her like Chapel was insane.

"What is your goal?"

"Just eat your apple like a good girl."

Chapel handed it back. "It's poisoned."

"Of course it is. But if you don't fall asleep, then your dashing Prince can't wake you up, and you'll be stuck here with Reginald and me for all time." The woman gestured around them. "The wind's stopped. The leaves aren't moving. There is no noise but my voice. We're stuck in this moment...forever, if you don't eat that damn apple."

Chapel hesitated.

"You'd like your pretty prince to kiss you again, wouldn't you? For real, this time. A good, sweet kiss."

"That is not why I'm doing this." Chapel bit into the apple and felt like she'd taken a big gulp of cleaning fluid. Her mouth burned, and she clutched at her throat, then felt the fire continue down to her belly.

She'd just been monumentally stupid.

As she lost consciousness, she saw the old woman walk away, no sign of triumph on her face.

##

She woke slowly, moaned softly as Kirk kissed the hell out of her.

"Jesus, Chris, I thought you'd never wake up." He pulled away quickly and she tried, and failed, to not feel bad about that.

"Sorry to put you out, sir." She climbed out of the glass coffin—what was it with all this glass? Were the Grimm's voyeurs or something? Feet encased in glass, now dead people. Ugh.

He held out a hand and helped her. "Grisly thing, isn't it?"

She nodded, realized he hadn't let go of her hand and decided not to say anything. "Now what?"

"I have no idea." He looked around. "It should end. This is where this one ends."

"Maybe you're supposed to go back and knight all the dwarves."

"Well"—he smiled, a smile she decided she didn't like very much—"except for Esmeralda."

Damn. There had been a girl in the mix.

"Don't let me stop you from getting back to her."

He gave her a funny look.

"I mean it. You should not have to do anything you don't want to—fairytale ending be dammed."

"You're an idiot." He drug her behind him, toward a little house. "Esme?"

A little girl ran out. "Jim, you're okay. Uncle Ferd said you were but I wasn't sure. Who's this?" She stared up at Chapel, a look of adoration crossing her face. "Are you my mom?"

She felt Kirk squeeze her hand, then he let it go to pick the girl up. "No, she's just a silly princess I felt compelled to rescue."

"With a kiss?" the little girl asked.

"Yep. Damn good one, too. Not that our Chris is any kind of appreciative." He grinned at Chapel, who grinned back, feeling incredibly stupid.

He passed the girl to her and she melted when the child grabbed hold of her hair and leaned in. She sat down on a nearby log bench and laughed as the girl told her stories about Ferdinand and his brothers.

She met Kirk's eyes, saw a warmth in them she'd never seen before.

Then everything went black again.

##

The tower was very high. Chapel stood at the one window, looking out onto a vast vegetable garden. Her hair, which had grown monumentally since she was Snow White, was piled around her. Her head ached from the weight.

She looked for a cutting instrument, found nothing.

"So, now we know why Rapunzel didn't leave her stupid tower," she muttered to herself, walking around the tower, looking for a part of the stone wall that might be rough enough to use cut through the rather frizzy tresses.

Finally, she found one and got to work sawing at her hair. By the time she heard someone shout out, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair," she had the hair braided and ready for use as a rope.

She walked to the window and looked down. Another witch. Uglier than the first two. "Let me up, kid."

"Uh, no."

The witch didn't look happy. "Uh, yes." She crossed her arms. "Don't make me fly."

"If you could fly, why would you be climbing in the first place?" Chapel leaned against the windowsill. "I want some answers."

"No, I'm not you're real mother. Now let me up."

"I knew that, actually. You're not even my fake mother since I just got here. So...where is here?"

The woman looked at her and grinned. "You're learning." Then she turned, strode across the vegetable garden, and disappeared into the woods.

Chapel heard a whistle, saw Kirk peeking his head out from some rose bushes. She motioned him over. "Hello, sir."

"Nice haircut, Chapel. Did you do it with a buzzsaw?"

She threw the hair braid over the sill, smiled when the end beaned him. "I had to get this off my head. Hurt like a son of a bitch."

He climbed up and dusted his hands off once he was safely in the tower. She pulled the hair rope back up and turned to him. "So."

"So."

They stared at each other. Then she smiled and so did he.

"Fuck the plot." She threw the hair back over the sill and shimmied down. Which she should have done in the first place. He followed her down.

"Now what?" He looked around the garden. "Shouldn't the witch show up and, I don't know, be ticked off we escaped?"

"Well, technically, we haven't escaped very far."

"Oh. Good point. Let's get out of here." He headed off toward the side of the garden; Chapel presumed it was how he got in it in the first place.

She sighed.

"Something the matter?"

"It's just... Does any of this make sense to you?"

"I'm not sure it's supposed to make sense, Chris. Maybe it's some kind of test?"

"Are we passing?"

He glanced back at her, his look thoughtful. "Hell if I know."

"I don't need rescuing. That's abundantly clear."

"If that's true, why'd you eat the poison apple?"

"The witch told me to."

He grinned and gave her a funny look.

"What?"

"And if a witch told you to walk out an airlock, would you do it?"

She rolled her eyes. "No, I mean, she said if I didn't we'd be trapped in that moment forever. She pointed out the wind wasn't blowing and the birds weren't singing and it would just be she and I and Ferdinand, trapped like that potentially forever."

He stopped and turned. "She said that? The witch?"

"Yeah. She seemed quite intent on me getting us all out of there. She said you'd rescue me. Or she implied it. But the fact that you would be kissing me awake was pretty clear."

"Why would one of these characters care what we do?"

She met his eyes. "Unless they're not all extras."

"Maybe we're not the only ones caught in here?"

"She didn't say anything like that though, sir. She seemed...deep in her role. Just more self aware."

"Like the Hansel and Gretel woman."

She nodded.

"This is important."

A screech rang out from the tower. "Rapunzel, you ungrateful bitch, come back here!"

"Time to make haste, my lady," Kirk said with a wink as he pulled her over the fence and into a meadow that divided the witch's yard from the forest.

"So, what would Spock make of all this? We're looking at it from a human perspective, but he'd look at it from—"

"His super smart, Vulcan point of view?" Kirk sounded put out as he stomped off into the forest with no look back at her.

"Can you slow down? I'm lacking footwear this outing."

He turned and seemed to realize she was barefoot. "That won't do."

"There were no shoes in the tower. Nothing we can do about it now." She caught up with him. "I just hope there aren't any briars."

"I'll keep an eye out."

"Thanks." She winced as she stepped on a particularly pointy rock. "So, Spock would think—"

"Spock wouldn't think anything because Spock would have gotten us out of this by now. Isn't that what you're saying?"

"No, actually, it's not. What is your problem?"

"We're stuck as romantic archetypes and all you can think of is Spock."

She stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, waited until he turned to look at her. "Since when do you care?"

"Since..." He took a deep breath. "Since...I don't. All right. I don't." Then he frowned. "Actually, I don't care."

"I know you don't. You've never flirted with me a day in your life."

"But I do care. Now. I feel...jealous."

"Of somebody who's not here, and who doesn't even like me—me: a woman you aren't interested in."

"I know." He shook his head. "More mind games, I guess."

The way he said it stung. The whole conversation, truth be told, stung.

"Well, I'm glad we got that cleared up, sir."

"You never call me Jim."

"You've never told me to."

And he wasn't telling her to now, apparently, despite his observation. She took a breath, was dismayed to hear it come out far too ragged.

He didn't miss it. "What?"

"Nothing."

"No, something's wrong and it might be important. Might be more of their games and we need to know what they're doing to us."

"Fine. I feel... What you say, when you say that you don't..."

"Chris?" His tone was that of commanding officer asking her to get to the point.

"What you're saying is hurting me. That you don't want me. Even though I know you don't and that you never have and it shouldn't bother me, it still does."

He sighed. "Great. We're both emotionally iffy when we need to be on our game. That's just what I wanted to hear."

She looked down. "I'm sorry. You know me. Ever emotional. I'm surprised you let me stay aboard, frankly. When Decker left."

"I wasn't aware there was a reason to ask you to leave?"

"No? You wasted no time demoting me."

"And I'd do it again in a second. I need McCoy, you know that."

She nodded. Stung now on a personal level in addition the professional.

"It's not a slam against you, Chris. I just...I just listen to him."

She took a deep breath. "Okay."

"I mean it—"

"I said okay. Let's drop it, all right, Jim?" She said his name in a mean way. In a way that let him know she was aware he hadn't really given her permission to use it.

"Consider it dropped." He did not look happy with her.

She pushed past him. Briars be damned.

And the world went black again.

##

"Well? What are you waiting for?" Yet another witch—or was it a fairy this time? Chapel was having a hard time keeping track—sat at a spinning wheel with an impatient look on her face. "Prick yourself already."

After that last conversation with Kirk, a little nap for oh, say, a hundred years, sounded like a great plan. She looked around for a needle.

"What are you doing?"

"You said to prick myself. But...on what?"

"The spindle."

Chapel surveyed the spinning wheel. Not really sure what she should be looking for.

"You have no idea how this thing works, do you?" The witch/fairy motioned her over. "It's all in the twist see?" She bent down, pulled some raw wool out of a basket. "If you pull it this way, it's not strong. It comes right apart. To be put together, to be made stronger, the wool has to be molded and twisted. Then it can withstand so much more."

"Is there a buried message in there about the captain and me?"

The woman met her eyes. "No. You just seem ignorant on what to do." She held up a metal rod with a bulb at the end. "This is the spindle. It's normally not sharp. But I need it to be, so it is."

"What if I needed it to be dull? Would it be?"

The woman smiled and looked down. "Just keep asking those questions." She held up the spindle. "If you don't mind...?"

Chapel pushed her finger into the thing. It hurt, the room started to spin, and then everything faded to black again.

She felt hands behind her neck, warm lips on hers. She moaned softly and smiled underneath his lips. "Jim."

"Who?" The lips were gone, and she sensed someone hovering above her.

Opening her eyes, she saw a stranger standing over her. "Who the hell are you?"

"Why, I'm the one who braved briars and dragons and much, much else to find you. I'm Prince Charming."

"Well, you're the wrong Prince Charming." She pushed the covers someone had laid over her off and got up, steadying herself for a moment as dizziness rushed over her.

"Here now. You've been asleep for a hundred years, you know. Best not to hurry things. Sit down like a good girl."

"Where is my captain?"

"Good looking fellow? Likes to flirt?"

She took a deep breath and nodded.

"Well, he was all set to come up—have to say he didn't seem overly eager, though—when I told him I was Prince Charming and here to save you. He stayed back, nice chap at the end, you see. Let me do the heavy lifting."

"That's swell." She pushed past him.

"Now wait just one moment. We're to get married and live happily ever after."

She turned and gave him her best glare.

He visibly paled.

Turning back toward the nearest door, she worked her way down a hell of a lot of stairs—had someone had to carry her up to the top of this tower?

Kirk was sitting outside the tower. "You're awake."

"No thanks to you."

"I was testing things. Seeing how integral we were to this process."

She leaned against the castle wall. "Well, now we know. You never have to kiss me again, sir."

"I shouldn't have kissed you at all."

"Shoulda, coulda, woulda."

He gave her a hard look.

Prince Charming chose that moment to come bursting out of the castle, dashing cape flying behind him. "I say, my dearest. I understand the need for some fresh air after being cooped up in that dreadful place, but you could have waited for me."

"Get lost," Kirk said, not even looking at the Prince.

"What?"

"You heard me. Beat it." He got up, took Chapel by the shoulder and started to lead her away.

"Unhand her at once."

Kirk ignored him. Until a sword came thrusting through his stomach. He looked over at Chapel, then fell to the ground, clutching his gut.

"Are you insane?" she yelled at Prince Charming as she cradled Kirk to her.

"Well, you're mine. I went through the trials-fire and prickly things and a hell of lot of stairs."

"Go. Away. Now." She stared at him till he turned on his heel and left. "Sir?"

"This is not good. Next time I'll be the one to climb the stairs." He reached up, touched her cheek. "I like you in that color."

She realized her dress was a muted plum. He was right: it was pretty—and it didn't show the blood that was pooling where he was bleeding out on her. She touched her hair—the damage from when she'd been Rapunzel was all better, miraculously restored to the length it had been when she was just Christine and not some stupid princess.

So he'd be all better, too, next time.

Wouldn't he?

He had to be.

She leaned down and kissed him. He smiled and murmured, "I don't think that's how it works, Chris."

She leaned down and did it again, a good kiss, one of her best. He whispered, "That's nice," then slumped.

"No, goddamn it. No, this is not the way this will end. I won't—"

The world faded around her.

##

She woke in a room full of straw and a spinning wheel. She could see a guard outside the door, but then he moved away and Kirk strode in.

She ran to him and hugged him. "Oh, thank God." Then she realized what she was doing and pulled away. "I'm sorry. I'm just so happy to see you."

He patted where Prince Charming had skewered him. "I know. Close call. Very glad there's a reset button here." He looked around the room. "You know how to spin?"

"Nope."

"It's pretty simple. You're adding tensile strength by twisting the fibers." He smiled at her look. "What, you thought only Spock could be brainy?"

She smiled. "I don't think tensile strength is the goal if this is Rumpelstiltskin. If memory serves, I think you're going to kill me if I don't spin this straw into gold."

"Bit draconian." He moved closer. "What if I don't?"

"I don't know. Let's see what happens." They both sat down in the straw and leaned against the wall.

"Reminds me of home sort of." He was playing with the straw, put it in his mouth and closed his eyes. Then he opened them and smiled. "Except we had pigs. At least at my grandma's place. They're smart, pigs are. Get a bad rap."

"Like Tellarites?" Try as she might, she never got that comparison out of her mind when working with the aliens.

"I wouldn't go that far." He grinned, then his smile faded as the ground started to shake and suddenly a smallish man appeared in a puff of smoke.

"So...the king will kill you if—"

"Yeah," Kirk said, "sitting right here. And for what it's worth, I'm not going to kill her."

"You're not?"

"Nope." Kirk stuck the straw back in his mouth.

The small man slid into a crosslegged seat in the straw. "Well, this does present a problem." He glanced at Chapel. "I'm used to getting a first born out of this."

She nodded; it was never fun when someone changed the rules mid job. "I don't know if it helps, but you'd have waited a long time for that kid. I'm on some pretty strong contraceptives."

"And since it'd theoretically be the king's-that is: mine-I'd also have an issue with that. I've had enough of losing kids." He looked over at Chapel. "Long story."

"Some other time?"

"We'll see."

She nodded and tried not to look hurt. Turning to the small man, she said, "Besides, I know you're name is Rumpelstiltskin."

He laughed. "That's just my stage name. It's my given name that's a doozie." He watched the two of them. "I don't see you guys lasting."

"Maybe because we're not together," Chapel said before Kirk could interject something more apt and probably more painful.

"No? Then...why all this?"

"You tell us," Kirk said.

"Why ask me? I look like the cosmic mastermind around here?" Rumpelstiltskin was staring at them with unusual intensity.

"So there is one?" Chapel looked around. "Have we met him or her?"

"Beats me." He pushed himself up. "Well, if you two aren't going to play, then I'm going to take off." He lifted his arms up, muttered something impressively Latin sounding, and disappeared in another puff of smoke.

"Now what?" she asked Kirk.

He shrugged. "It'll shift up eventually. In the meantime, we talk."

"But, you're the king. We could escape."

"I tried that. Before I came down here. Got as far as the fancy gardens before I felt like I was walking through mud. This is where we're supposed to be."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"Let's start with why you're on the ship."

She knew better than to look away. "Because on the ship is where I'm supposed to be."

"But why?"

"It's the Enterprise."

"Not an answer. Not for you."

"Do you want me to leave? I can leave. Really. No skin off my nose."

"Why are you still on it even after I demoted you?"

She pushed herself up, suddenly wanting to be as far away from him as the room allowed. "Because I didn't know you wanted me off. Why the hell didn't you just say so?"

"I don't want you off."

She wanted to pace. She wanted to walk over to him and bop him a good one. She wanted to go the door and scream for the guard. She opted instead to walk back over to him, sit down, and ask, "What answer do you want me to give?"

"Are you still onboard because Spock is?"

"No."

"You sure?"

She laughed, a brittle, almost broken sound. "After V'ger, Jim, Spock came to me. Open. Questing. Horny as hell."

His eyebrows went way, way up.

"It was fun. It was very aerobic. It was also empty. He feels nothing for me. And, to my surprise, after all that time carrying a torch, I found out once I got fucking him out of my system, I was over him." She knew her voice was mean, knew her words were not right for a conversation with her C.O. She didn't care. "Did he come to you, too? Did he fuck you, too, Jim?"

"You're out of line, Lieutenant."

She laughed softly. "So, are you mad at me or mad at him?"

"Neither. What difference does it make to me?"

"I don't know. But you're the one making us talk about Spock."

He took a deep breath.

She exhaled softly, trying to find a happier, calmer space to talk about this from. "You know he's with Uhura now, right?"

"Is he?"

"After we...didn't work, he moved on." Chapel looked down. "They seem pretty happy."

"Kind of makes sense. They always seemed to get on."

"Yeah, I used to be jealous of her. I never told her though. It's not like she was trying that hard. She's just...Uhura. Exotic and talented and beautiful."

"Okay, so you're not that exotic. But you're two of those things."

"Well I'm one of those things, even if you didn't think I was talented enough to keep as CMO." She smiled at his look. "But thank you for the lie."

"You are pretty, Chris. I don't think you realize the allure you have. If you ever do, you'll be dangerous." Then he stretched out on the straw. "Wake me when they figure out what to do with us."

The world went black before she could do that.

##

She woke up on a wooded path, carrying a blanket, and wearing a red cloak. A wolf howled in the distance, then again from much closer.

"Sir?"

No Kirk. Who would he be in this? Grandma was probably out, so the woodsman maybe? But the woodsman came at the end.

"Hello, little girl."

She spun, saw a wolf in front of her. "Not a little girl, you furry twit. I'm a full grown woman."

"Doesn't make much difference." He seemed to smile. "Going to Granny's house again? My, my, what I wouldn't give to come with you."

She crossed her arms. "No."

"Your attitude could use an adjustment. What's got your lacy knickers in a twist?"

"None of your damn business."

He nodded as if her answer was expected. "All right, then. I'll just be going." He disappeared into the woods, but she had a feeling he hadn't gone far, so she just stood where she was.

Finally, he poked his head out from between two trees. "Something wrong, Red Girl?"

"Not a thing."

"Then get moving. We've got a story to tell." He pulled back and waited some more while she studied her cuticles and tried to make out cloud shapes through the trees.

"You know," he said, as he walked back to her, "this kind of behavior may fly with Silus."

"Silus?"

"He goes by Rumpelstiltskin, too. But it won't fly with me. I believe in respect for traditions. Honoring the old ways. You need to get to grandma's house. Double time. Let's go now." He tried to clap his paws together.

"No."

The wolf studied her, then slashed out with a paw, catching her with claws that while not a sharp as a cat's, still hurt like hell.

"Ow. Jeez."

The wolf got closer. "I'm not kidding here. Move!"

She thought she heard Kirk calling her from deep down the path. She turned and gave the wolf her best snotty smile. "No. Goddamn. Way."

There was a moment of sheer triumph while the wolf processed her words. Then triumph turned to terror and pain as he attacked her.

When he finished, she could barely move.

"Rules. Sometimes you should follow them." He loped off into the woods.

"Chris. God, Chris." Kirk was there, holding her up as she began to choke on the blood. "There'll be a reset. Just hold on. There'll be a reset."

She tried to talk, couldn't get words out. Everything was going black, but that wasn't because of a reset. It was because she was dying.

She heard him murmuring. "Hang on, sweetheart. Just hang on."

Sweetheart? That sounded nice.

Then she faded away just as the world went black.

##

She woke up in the water. Alive but more fishy than she'd been before the wolf. Her tail—her tail? Yes, her tail moved sinuously under the water, propelling her toward shore and the man waiting on it.

"Remember when I said you weren't exotic?" Kirk asked with a grin. "I was wrong."

She laughed as she slapped her tail down, splashing him lightly. She stopped laughing when she realized he was trying his best to not look at her chest.

Which was bare.

Of course.

"Nice look, Chris." He looked around, clearly in search of a shirt for her—or maybe a few strategically sized clamshells.

She settled for holding her hands over the especially naughty bits as she floated closer. "Sir..."

"Call me Jim. All the naked doctors on my ship do." He glanced back at her and grinned. "Well, your hands will do in a pinch, I guess."

As she came to rest in the shallows, he sat down on the shore near her.

"This story doesn't end happily ever after, Jim."

"Sure it does. You get legs; you lose your voice; you get the prince. We live happily ever after."

"That's a later version. In the original, I get legs and lose my voice, but you marry a princess, I die the night you take her to your bed."

"But that doesn't make sense. I don't have someone else." He pursed his lips. "So this is really more like my version."

"Well, whichever version it is, I need to lose this tail, become human, and—"

"And lose your voice? Bitchy as it can get, I happen to like that voice." He began to crawl toward her, into the water. "Let's try thinking outside the box, Doctor."

"Okay."

He pushed her down into the surf, moved her hands off her chest, and stared down at her. "I presume those are yours."

She laughed. "Yep, but I understand why you asked. Enhanced hair, now a tail—these babies could be better than the real thing."

"They're incredibly nice." And so was he, being very gentlemanly and skipping her chest for now even though she could tell he really wanted to play with the girls. His lips touched down on hers, his hand pulled her closer, and they moaned together as they kissed.

When he pulled away finally, she still had her tail. He kissed her gently again, little soft kisses more full of true affection than a nefarious master plan to change her to human.

She leaned back and sighed happily as he worked his way down her neck, stopping at her collarbone.

"Oh, for God's sake, Jim. You know you want to."

"You are so right." His kissed his way to her breasts. Took his time with first one, then the other.

She was writhing by the time he eased away.

"I used to dream of this. A woman to love, the surf lapping over us. A beach to walk on."

"I fail on that last part."

"That's okay." His eyes were kind—but filled with an emptiness that made her sad for him. "I don't think I'm meant to have that part anyway."

"I'd change if I could. I'd walk with you."

"I know." He kissed her tenderly. "But if you did..."

"What?"

He started to smile. "Why should you change?"

"The wolf made it pretty clear what happens when we don't try."

"There's already more than one ending. Let's give it another." He grinned, then turned to the open ocean and yelled out, "Yo, Sea Witch!"

The witch from the woods, she of the raw diet, appeared on the shore. "I'm filling in. Marina's on holiday. What do you want?"

"I happen to like this lady here. I'd like to get a chance to be with her."

"If she wishes to become human, I can make that happen. It will involve—"

"I know what it involves." He grinned at the old woman. "What do I have to pay if I want to become a merman—if I want to become like her?"

The woman thought about it. "No one ever asks for that."

"Well, I'm asking that. What's the price?"

For a moment, the woman was silent. Her eyes seemed to turn from a soft blue to something electric and dangerous. Then she smiled. "There is no price. Have fun, you two."

And suddenly Jim had a tail. A tail that did nothing to hide a rather splendid example of manliness.

"Is that really all you?"

He looked down. "Yep," he said with a proud grin on his face. "Meet Jim Junior." He tugged her hand, drew her into the water. "I want to enjoy this for as long as we can. God knows when the fade to black is gonna hit."

She followed him and when they hit the open water, he pulled her to him. Breathing underwater, swimming effortlessly in place, they made love.

Again and again and again.

The fade to black never came.

"Race you," he said with a grin as she was still trying to recover from the last orgasm he'd given her.

"Cheater." But she took off after him anyway, her tail powering her as fast as she'd seen dolphins go in the waters off Greece during a vacation. They swerved and leapt out of the water and raced until they were very far from shore and drifting softly in each other's arms, heads just breaking the surface to enjoy the warm sunshine.

"I like your ending, Jim."

He smiled. "I do, too." Letting out a long breath, he seemed to finally relax as he floated on his back, his arm looped around her, holding her close. "I never considered you. I was an idiot."

"Ditto."

He chuckled. "So, you think we'll be mer-people forever?"

"I don't know. Barring some enormous mermaid-eating shark or whalers, I can't see the downside. I mean if going home isn't an option."

"But you do want to go home?"

"To the ship? Yes, I want to go back there." Then she closed her eyes. "Except..."

"Except?"

"Except there I won't have you."

"Yeah, that's a problem."

Before she could think of what to say to that, the world faded to black.

##

She woke in a cell, dressed in her Starfleet uniform. Kirk lay next to her, his arm looped around her. He moaned when she nudged him, then opened his eyes.

"Jim?"

He took in her uniform, checked his own and said, "Well, this is different."

"Oh, good, you're awake." A floating ball of light hovered just outside the bars of their cage. "No permanent damage, I hope?"

Kirk stood up and went to the bars. "And you are?"

"None of your business." The ball of light turned into a human, middle aged, female with her hair skimmed tightly back, wearing a white coat and carrying a padd. "This persona should make you feel more comfortable." She stepped toward the bars. "I usually don't interview my test subjects but my advisor thinks it would enhance my research if I did, so...let's talk."

"Your research?" Chapel said, pushing herself to her feet.

"On anthropological archetypes as manifested through folklore: focused on species Human. I really wanted Klingon legends, but someone else got that. Even Cardassians would have been more interesting than this." She looked toward them. "So...what was it like being part of your legends?"

"What was it—you took us without asking, you plopped us down in the middle of this...this farce, and you ask us what it was like?" Jim was clearly gearing up for a good "Aliens who think they're gods are shit" speech.

The woman cut him off. "Do you ask the lab rat if it minds your experiments?"

"We don't use rats anymore. Haven't for a long time." Chapel moved next to Jim. "How can you not know that?"

The woman shrugged. "I've been doing this for a while. Centuries start to mingle when you live as long as we do. Anyway, please answer the question."

"No." Jim folded his arms over his chest.

Chapel did the same. "Don't think so."

The woman sighed. "Look, I know it was a bit strange being inserted like that into your fairy tales. I even gave you extra time at the end since you finally were enjoying yourselves. Although it seemed to be going downhill so I pulled you out earlier than I might have otherwise."

"You'll excuse us if we don't fall all over you with gratitude." Jim was at his surliest.

"No, I probably won't excuse that, but it really doesn't matter." She got a very faraway look on her face. "Oh, here's your ship now. You're going to get there ahead of schedule—see, this wasn't so bad at all, now was it?

"Quick, before I send you back. Nothing to add about the experience? This is for posterity?" The alien sighed again. "Fine."

In a flash they were standing on the bridge of the Enterprise. Spock stood up, and he looked surprised to see them. "Captain. Doctor. Where—"

"Long, oh so long story. Suffice it to say we caught the express." Jim turned to Sulu. "Get us the hell out of here."

She decided not to say that their actual position in space probably wasn't that important if the alien decided she wanted them back. Jim clearly needed to be in command again after their sojourn in make believe, and it did feel good to be speeding away from wherever they were.

Jim turned to her. "Doctor, we should have Bones give us a clean bill of health."

She nodded and followed him to the lift.

"Mr. Spock, you have the con." He smiled at a very confused looking Spock, but his smile faded as soon as the lift doors closed.

"Is this where you remind me you don't fool around with people in your command?"

He nodded.

"Well, I clearly already know that so you don't need to bother." She moved away till the wall of the lift stopped her. "I, of course, won't say anything about this. Except for what's in the report."

"Which sex won't be."

"Or kissing." She laughed, and the sound was way more bitter than she meant it to be. "Of course it's a fairy tale. Kissing is part of the genre. Maybe when they read it..."

He glared at her.

"Fine. Forget I said anything. It's not like it meant anything anyway."

"Hold lift." As the lift shuddered to a halt, he grabbed her and shook her gently. "It meant something. Do not think it didn't mean something." He looked like he was about to kiss her, but then he let her go and said, "Resume lift," as he stepped away from her.

She followed him off the lift and let him take the lead with Len, didn't offer much except when absolutely necessary. Once Jim had left, Len came up beside her. "You okay?"

She nodded.

"Christine, this is your friend asking, not your boss. Fairy tales. Just you and Jim. Maybe I can do the math."

"I'm fine." She gave him a real smile. "It's just been sort of strange, you know? Definitely not what I expected when I was waiting in line for my shuttle. Got to know the captain though. Came out alive. So win win, yes?"

He gave her a suspicious look but when her smile didn't waver, said, "Okay. Win win if you say so."

Once he'd gone back in his office, she took a deep breath and got to work.

##

She didn't see him for the rest of the day, but the next morning at breakfast, she ran into him on her way out of the mess and he gave her a sweet smile, murmured "Good morning," and headed off to get his food.

This is what it would be like. It was okay. It had to be okay. They'd been nothing to each other before. Why should one alien science experiment change that?

Even if the sex—had they even really had the sex or had it all been in their minds?—had been amazing. Real or not, it had ranked up there in best sex she'd ever had and Spock had pulled out a lot of stops on his tour of her body. Roger hadn't exactly been a shirker in the sack either.

Maybe it was just the added novelty of being fish people that had made sex with Jim—with her captain: she had to stop thinking of him as Jim—seem so goddamned good.

She worked through her shift and finally got Len off her case and chattering away about nothing in particular. She was just about off shift when Jim—the captain came in.

She turned and busied herself with nothing much, giving him privacy to talk to Len. Then she heard him come up behind her.

"Sir," she said softly.

"Chris"—his voice was pitched just for her and her alone—"can you come to my quarters when you get off shift?"

She turned to look at him, trying to gauge his mood. His expression was even, too controlled maybe? "I can. Do I want to?"

"I can make it an order if you'd prefer." His voice dipped down into an area she wasn't sure she'd ever heard from him.

"No, sir. I'll be there."

"Good." He walked over to Len, said something that made Len laugh and they went into his office. A few minutes later, Jim walked out and left without saying another word to her.

She was feeling rebellious so she waited a few minutes after her replacement showed up before she headed to his quarters. He was standing at the large viewscreen, staring out at the stars when the door opened to her chime.

"Lieutenant Chapel reporting as ordered, sir."

"Technically, I didn't make it an order. I only threatened to." He turned, studied her. "Are you all right? No lingering effects from our day as lab rats?"

"Weird dreams. Dying can do that I guess."

He gave her a tight smile. "Yeah, me, too. Being perforated wasn't much fun."

"Being ripped to shreds by a wolf probably has that beat."

"Well, it wasn't really to shreds..." He waited for her reaction then grinned. "Okay, okay, you win the award for most gruesome death." He turned back to the stars.

She waited and he didn't say anything, so finally she whispered, "If you want me to transfer off, just say so."

"That's the interesting thing. I don't." He went back to being quiet.

She went back to standing and waiting.

Finally, he turned and looked at her. "How much time, apart from purely mission reasons, and not counting our little sojourn in the fairytales, would you estimate we've spent together?"

"Are we counting crew parties?"

"No."

She thought about it. "Are we counting when we found Roger?"

"No."

She shrugged. "I've got nothing."

"Me, too." He moved closer to her. "Leaving aside having my gut perforated, I actually had...fun with you during our little test or whatever it was. You were good company."

"Before or after we fucked?"

He laughed. "Yowza, Doctor, don't pull any punches."

"I'm sorry. But I don't know where you're going with this."

"Point taken. Okay, I was having fun, before, during and after we fucked. Until we got back here and reality set in."

"I see."

"Everyone has always been off limits. But...you're really not, are you?"

"No, if I were actually interested, I would not be."

His expression changed, grew immediately wary. "I'm sorry, I just assu—"

"Oh, stow it, Jim. Of course I'm goddamned interested. But you're acting like this is some big unilateral decision you get to make, as if I'll be lucky if you choose me and should just go along, whatever you want is fine."

"That's not—"

"I get to choose, too."

"Okay. My apologies." He took a deep breath. "This is all my way of asking you if maybe you would like to have dinner with me. We might want to get to know each other a little better before we choose anything. What do you think?"

She started to smile.

He moved closer. "Okay?"

"Dinner?"

He smiled. "Conversation. Maybe a walk around the deck after we eat."

"Drinks at the rec lounge?"

"That could be arranged."

"I'd like that." She could feel a smile growing—a shy smile this time, no smart ass visible and for a moment she worried that he wouldn't like it.

But he touched her cheek and said softly, "We'll write our own damn fairy tale."

She nodded. "Once upon a time there was a gallant captain."

"And a pain-in-the-ass doctor."

She laughed. "That's how you like me. Admit it."

"I do like you like that." He offered her his arm. "The mess, my lady?"

As she took his arm, he folded his other hand over hers. "I'm not imagining how good our mer-sex was, am I?"

"Oh, God, no. It was really fabulous."

"Do you think we can repeat it as just two humans?"

She met his eyes. "I don't know." She let go of his arm as they got to the door, saw him smile in approval at her discretion. "But I'm not opposed to giving it the college try sometime. If we decide we want that. We."

He laughed. "Yes, I'm getting the bilateral aspect of this. Don't worry."

She bumped against him slightly. "I've never had a happy ending, Jim. I may not be your best choice for romance, you realize?"

"I've never had one, either. Let's just play this by ear, shall we?"

"We can make our own ending?"

"Damned straight." He grinned, that wonderful grin that used to not move her at all.

Now, it was the prettiest sight she'd seen in a long, long time.

FIN