Kirk sat silently while Chapel paced the small confines of the office he had commandeered to hold meetings in. Why the hell had Starfleet built a ship without a proper office for its captain? Once he got older and the council actually listened to him instead of just handing him ships for being a goddamned hero, he planned to suggest they make an office for their commanding officers. It wasn't as if he could do counseling in the middle of the bridge.
Although if he had, he'd at least have had the moral support of the rest of the crew instead of just the manic pacing of one silent nurse who hadn't wanted to tell Bones and wouldn't tell Kirk what the hell was going on when she was off shift.
"What happened?" He'd try the direct approach. Chapel seemed no nonsense. Why should he spend thirty words when two would do?
She didn't look offended, but she also didn't stop pacing or answer him, just shook her head, trying to hide the bruises on her wrist, bruises that extended up her arm.
"Did you fall?"
"Yes. Yes, I fell." Her tone was almost frantic. "What the hell difference does it make? I told Leonard this..."
"Is someone hurting you?"
She whirled on him, and he pulled back involuntarily, surprised at the expression on her face. Anger. Pain. And resolve. "Leave me alone."
He got up slowly, hands out as if she were an unruly dog and not the ship's head nurse. "I just want to help."
"No one's hurting me. I'm not even in a relationship. I'm just a klutz, okay? I was working out and I slipped. This is the result. Len completely overreacted."
He studied her face. She was trying to be calm, but she wasn't calm. He knew the difference, had seen it on his mother's face when she was trying to hide something his stepfather had done. He also knew the words were about as true as anything his mother had ever told him—he'd seen Chapel in the gym and she wasn't a klutz.
But he'd fought this battle and it was a losing one—if you fought it head on. "Okay, then. Just be more careful."
"Can I go?"
"By all means." He nodded at the door, then felt stupid—she didn't need him to tell her how to leave a room. Overcompensating: he was back to where he'd been as a kid. Trying to make it all right. Trying to tone things down, cool things off.
As Chapel passed him, he looked at her arm again. Finger marks. Those were goddamn finger marks. If she'd hurt herself working out, the bruises would look different.
Someone on his crew was hurting her.
As the door closed behind her, he sighed. Someone on his crew was hurting her and it was now his job to find out who.
Gaila looked at Christine's arm, saw that the bruises were turning dark. Usually Christine used a machine on them, but she'd had to take it back to sickbay for inventory, had forgotten to bring it with her the last few nights. The bruises stood out like angry recriminations, like words hanging in a room where the truth was never said. "I'm so sorry."
Christine saw what she was looking at. "Forget about it." She smiled, but the smile didn't go to her eyes.
Gaila was a master at reading expressions. She'd had to be; it had been the only way to survive her life as a slave. It was the reason she was here now; she'd found the right man to befriend, a man who'd been kind enough to set her free.
Or perhaps cruel enough. Had he known she'd founder once she was free? She was fine on the job, in engineering, where things made sense and there were rules and order. But personal time was another issue—too unstructured, too likely she'd screw up and make a bad choice.
"Maybe I should go to the counselor instead." Gaila could hear the panic in her voice, tried to keep calm. She glanced at Christine's arm again. Christine had said if she'd talked to her, that would be enough and she wouldn't have to go to the counselor. But she hadn't known Gaila would hurt her—that Gaila could hurt her. Maybe she was having second thoughts?
"No, sweetie. Counselors are crap." Christine took a deep breath, then crawled into bed. She spooned behind Gaila, the way Gaila's mother had before Gaila had been forced to leave her, to live on her own, to service customers. It had been the only time they'd had to talk. When her mother wasn't working. When Gaila wasn't watching, learning, being trained. It was their special time, when the lights were low, and their voices even more so. The only touches then were soft and gentle, full of love.
Gaila had screamed the night the men who owned her mother had come in and torn them apart. Her mother had screamed, too; her cries had rung out as Gaila was carried kicking and yelling down the hallway, but then her mother had gone silent, the transition from noise to silence so abrupt that Gaila had known a blow had been the cause.
She'd been sold that night, sent far away from the only person who'd been kind to her. She'd never seen her mother again. Would her mother be proud of her? For getting away. For making this new life, in a place where what mattered was what someone did, not what they looked like.
"Easy, Gai. Easy..."
"I was only ten years old." She grabbed onto Christine, held her arm, as if her friend could stop the pain. Christine gasped and then bit back the sound, and Gaila realized she was holding onto the bruised part of her arm. In the low light of her quarters, she could tell that her fingers were sitting exactly where they had before.
"I'm sorry," she said, forcing the memory back into the dull blackness she'd pushed all her memories of that place. "I'm so sorry."
Why did she always hurt the people she loved? And she loved so few. Even if she told every man she was with that she loved them. It was expected on Orion. The only currency she'd had. Her love equaled her body, her body equaled sex, and her sex had value. "I love you," she'd said, as they'd taken what she'd offered—as they still tended to.
Only Jim had answered back with "That is so weird." He might have been good for her—if he hadn't been using her to get access to the Kobayashi Maru databases.
He'd used her; so had hundreds of men—and a few women—before him. So what? It wasn't like she deserved better. And at least he'd told her what he'd done.
She felt Christine gasp again, realized she was clutching, too hard, too much. She didn't know moderation. Pike had told her that once when she nearly collapsed after pushing herself too hard to get ready for an engineering mock inspection.
"Pace yourself, Cadet." He'd been kind. He never looked at her like she was something he'd like to gobble up. He expected the best out of her, but he also expected her to work sanely.
He'd been her first crush. A man she, finally, couldn't have. Just thinking of him made her feel calmer, and she stroked Christine's arm.
"Maybe I should spoon you?" she asked, and Christine nodded, but her eyes were funny, as if she wondered what kind of damage Gaila might do to her hips or waist or throat. "I won't hurt you."
"I know you don't want to. Whether you do or not remains to be seen." Christine turned over though, let Gaila put her arms around her.
"You sounded like Spock."
"I didn't mean to."
Gaila sighed. Her friend had a crush on the Vulcan. Didn't she know he was head over heels in love with Nyota? How could she not know that? Gaila had known that Pike was in love with Christine's sister Number One; she'd seen them together. One look confirmed it. She'd felt a momentary sadness and then relief that she could adore him and it would never come to anything.
Something safe was a novel thing.
But Christine knew better. She'd loved, been loved—had been engaged, even. How could she be so stupid to fall for Ny's man? Chapel needed to take a lesson from Gaila's book, start thinking with her head and turn her heart off. Men never wanted hearts, only bodies.
Christine should know that.
"You like Spock." The words were out before she could bite them back. "You like him and he doesn't like you."
"He does like me, he just doesn't love me." Christine was tensing in her arms, as if she knew what was coming. "He's helping me with my dissertation."
Helping her? Christine was an idiot if she thought that was all she wanted from him.
"Besides he's a Vulcan. Very safe to like." Christine laughed softly.
"He may be Vulcan, but he can love. He's not emotionless. He loves Ny."
"I think I prefer the bruises—can we go back to those?" Christine joked whenever Gaila struck out this way. Even though Gaila could hear the hurt in her voice, she'd keep joking all night.
Gaila hated that she struck out. The first time she did it, Christine had told her it was because she felt threatened, because she felt...known. And she was right. All those men had held her body, but they'd never seen the real Gaila. It had been hard letting Christine in. She hadn't let Ny in. Bu then Ny had never wanted in, not really. Gaila wasn't completely sure why Christine wanted in. Except that there was a darkness in her, a darkness Gaila didn't understand but almost fed off of.
Christine shifted. "Do you want to talk? Because if not I have an experiment to get back to."
An experiment that Spock was helping her with, no doubt. Men were always more important than friends, and Spock had stolen both Gaila's friends away.
They weren't really her friends. Why would they be? Why would anyone be?
"Hon'?" Christine was practically whimpering, and Gaila let up on her, wanting to kiss the bruises that would show up on her other arm, wanting to make it better the only way she knew how.
Christine had never wanted that. Christine didn't want her.
No, Christine valued her as a friend and wasn't going to use her just for sex. Yes, that was it.
She had to keep telling herself that. It was all right. Even if they'd left Earth. Even if they were getting dangerously close to Orion space. Even if...
"Why do you put up with me?" she asked.
"Because you're my friend, and I want to help you." Christine rolled over so they were facing each other, eased her forehead against Gaila's. "I hurt for you."
"No, you hurt because of me." Gaila leaned down and kissed the bruises.
Christine allowed it—she'd been around long enough to know touch was the language Gaila spoke best.
Chapel left Gaila sleeping, wincing as she reached for the door controller. She hoped she had a loaded hypospray back in her quarters, but she was afraid she'd forgotten to refill her stash. She needed to remember to bring back the healing unit from sickbay—if she could find a time when Eagle-Eye McCoy wasn't watching her.
She stepped out into the corridor, saw the captain leaning against the bulkhead, one foot resting on the wall, arms crossed over his chest.
"Well, this is interesting." He gave her a tight smile. "Don't pretend you're not in pain."
She turned and headed to her quarters, ignoring him as he kept pace with her.
"It's funny. When I was with her, she never hurt me. Guess you're just special."
"Don't what? Point out the extremely poor choices you two are making?"
"Whatever we're doing, it's our business."
"Not when it has my CMO complaining that his best nurse isn't on her game. And you know what a whiny bastard he can be when he gets going." He grabbed her, shook her a little. "Slow down, goddamn it."
She winced, an involuntary gasp coming out as his fingers found budding bruises.
"Chapel. Chapel, I'm sorry."
She heard footsteps coming, pulled him into her quarters, then sat down on her bed and bit back tears. This wasn't about her. This was about her friend, who needed her, who was willing to confide in her, who might explode—or implode, more likely—if she didn't have someone she could talk to. So what if talking ended up with Chapel hurting? It was a small price to pay if she was helping Gaila.
"Is she worth it?" He sat down next to her. "I mean she's Orion and all, but..." He smiled tightly, trying to make what wasn't a joke funny.
She actually appreciated that. "We're not lovers."
"Then why...?" He lifted up her sleeve, examined the red skin that would turn purple soon if she didn't haul ass to sickbay and treat it.
"She's really screwed up."
"We have psych screenings for that. Or we're supposed to. How the hell did she get on my ship?"
His ship? He'd had it what? Four months? She met his eyes. "How'd you pass, Captain? How'd you game the screening so they didn't realize how completely screwed up you are?" She leaned in. "Might want to keep your voice down the next time you and Len play 'pass the bottle' in sickbay. I hear an awful lot from both of you. Enough to realize that neither of you is any more 'all right' than I am."
He looked surprised at her admission, then leaned in. "How'd you game it, Chapel?"
"How do you think? They never get us. Not really. We're functionally damaged, but we test well. They can't see that we're the walking wounded. Bodies of cast iron and hearts of shattered glass. They don't look for that; they can't."
"Poetic." He ran his fingers lightly over Gaila's finger marks. "But you're not cast iron."
"I'm helping her." But was she? Was she really?
"Chris, this doesn't look like help."
"Nobody calls you Chris?"
She shook her head.
"Good, it's my special name for you, then." He smiled. "And that didn't distract me. We have a counselor on board. Gaila should see her, not you, about this."
"How have you done with counselors over the years, sir? I know how I have." She met his eyes. "I'm helping her, sir."
"My name's Jim."
She could tell he was using his name to soften her up, but she thought it might soften him up, too. To hear it. To be called a name other than sir or captain. "Jim, I'm helping her."
She saw something in his eyes, something that resonated with what she was saying. Then it died.
"You can't help her, Chris. She'll suck the life out of you if you try."
"She's not your mother."
He tensed, and for a moment, she thought he might hit her. But then he relaxed, and she realized he wasn't like that, had forced himself not to be like that.
She wished her father had learned the same lesson when his daddy beat him, wished he hadn't carried the tradition on to Chapel. She wished she didn't know how it felt to tiptoe around, to watch expressions just to gauge how "safe" you were.
No one should have to wonder how safe she was in her own home.
"Gaila's life—it's been extreme, Jim. You can't imagine. She's so light and happy—but that's the face she puts on. Her life was horrible. And we talk about it. I'm the only person she has who she will talk to. Don't take that away." She leaned in. "She's doing so well in engineering. Isn't she?"
She knew Gaila was. Scotty raved about her. She was his favorite protégé.
"It's just the down time that's a problem. And we're working on that. Don't interfere, Jim." She moved closer, took his hands, pressed them, felt him press back. "Please?"
"You can't help her." But he got up and sighed, and then said, "I'll tell Bones to stop riding you. But I'll still be watching."
"Don't thank me. I doubt I've done you any favors."
Kirk took a deep breath before comming his grandmother. He loved her, probably more than anyone else in his life, but he wished he hadn't needed her so many times as a boy.
"James," his grandmother smiled at him, her eyes a bit clouded, her hands shaking as she adjusted her old-fashioned viewscreen. "How's my boy?"
Her boy. He'd always been her boy no matter how much he acted up, no matter how many stupid pranks he pulled. She'd taken him in more than once, had held him and let him cry his heart out and didn't comment on the bruises she found on him. She'd told him stories of his father, what he'd been like when he was growing up, how much she loved him.
She'd been the only safe thing in his life. Until Pike, until this new life.
"I'm good. Ship's good."
"And your friends?"
He grinned. He'd never had friends as a boy, just partners in crime. This trust he had with Bones, with Spock, with Scotty and Sulu and Uhura, it was new. It was nice. He didn't have the first idea how to manage it, but it seemed to be taking care of itself on its own. He just tried to stay out of the way. "They're great, Gram."
"I'm glad. And have you found a nice girl to settle down with?"
For a moment, he thought about Uhura. Then he forced his mind off her and was surprised to find himself thinking of blonde hair, blue eyes, bruised skin, and a terrible look of resolve.
His mother. Chapel looked like his mother. Except his mother had never been that resolved. Resolve had taken one look at Winona Kirk and run screaming from the room.
"James?" His grandmother was laughing softly, as if he seemed embarrassed or something.
"Oh, no, Gram. Just someone who reminds me of home."
Her look changed. "Home as in me? Or home as in your mother?"
"Kind of both, I think."
She looked surprised.
"Do you think if I'd known what I was doing, I could have helped Mom?"
"No, darling. She didn't want to be helped. She still doesn't."
No, she didn't want to be. She didn't want to be in Kirk's life anymore. Had skipped all the ceremonies that meant he was succeeding, not screwing up. Hadn't commed when he'd shipped out after being made captain.
She didn't care about him.
Chapel wasn't faced with that. Not according to her. Gaila wanted help. Gaila wasn't his mom, and neither was Chapel.
"You're thinking awfully hard, James."
"Sorry. Bad habit lately."
"So, get on with it and tell me what's going on. Only the interesting parts, though. I'm old and may not have much time left."
He laughed and told her about his week.
Gaila watched as Scotty demonstrated what he said was an old technique, but she thought it was probably something he'd just made up and didn't want to tell them was new and untried. He was like that, had learned his lesson, apparently, when they'd exiled him to Delta Vega. He was pretending now. Pretending to be not quite as brilliant as he was, at least until his first year was up.
He never pretended when he was alone with Gaila. He'd say, "Lass, this isn't the way they taught you at the Academy, but what do those blowhards know?" And then he'd show her something that worked twice as well and took half as long.
She worshipped Mister Scott. She'd have slept with him if he'd wanted it, but he never went there, and she wondered if it was because he didn't find her attractive, or if he did but just wouldn't do it because he was her boss. She supposed it could be that he didn't think she was pretty; some people didn't like green. But she didn't get that vibe from him. It was more that once she put on an engineer's uniform, she became part of his club. Part of the inner sanctum, one of those who got it, really got it.
She didn't just work in Engineering. She was Engineering. That's how he described it. That's how the best of them were: part of the ship.
She'd never been part of anything until Star Fleet accepted her. And even at the Academy she'd been the outsider, the green girl. The sexy, slutty, but thankfully smart girl.
But here in Engineering, she wasn't an outsider. Finally, it was only the smart part that mattered. At least to Scotty. Ensign Yates kept giving her the eye. And Parsons snuck looks at her when he thought she wasn't looking. But Scotty never did. He just met her with his direct look and weird humor and didn't look at her chest even by accident.
"Captain on deck," someone called out, and she rolled her eyes. You did that for admirals, not captains on their own ships, or you'd be doing nothing but that. Did people not pay attention during the protocol course?
"Thanks for that. Are you going to announce the queen next?" Scotty asked, the mockery almost lost in his accent as he walked over to Jim. "Captain."
"Mister Scott." Jim looked around the engine room. He nodded at her in what was clearly a professional way, then moved on.
She loved that he did that. Didn't ogle despite the fact they'd slept together. Didn't leer. He treated her like just another member of his crew.
He looked good. In control. In command. She'd been unsure of staying if he was going to be in charge. Thought it might be awkward, but he'd made it easy.
"As you were," he said as he motioned for Scotty to walk with him, his head close to Scotty's, as if they were working up a practical joke—or coming up with some new version of transwarp beaming.
Scotty listened for a moment, then he turned to her. "Ensign Gaila. Come give us the benefit of your wisdom, won't you?"
She hurried over and smiled at Jim, then looked at Scotty, trying to be the professional, not an excited girl who couldn't believe he'd singled her out in front of everyone.
"The captain has a few ideas for making our ship have greater thrust in a crisis."
"I'd like to avoid having to eject the core next time we hit a singularity," Jim said with a smile.
"Aye, I'd like to avoid that, too. My poor wee engines deserve better."
Wee? She looked around the enormous engine room and smiled. She loved how Scotty talked, even if at first she'd been completely confused by his accent and the way he said one thing and meant another.
"It's based on what you were talking about, Scotty. In the bar the other night on Delentia." He pulled out a padd. "I wrote it all down after you left with that lovely brunette."
Scotty smiled and sighed. "Aye, she was a wonder." He included Gaila in the smile, as if she was just one of the boys.
Jim held the padd out to her, let her study what he'd come up with. "What do you think, Gai?"
She met his eyes. "This is interesting. It could work."
"Can you test it without tearing apart my ship?"
She laughed. "Yes."
"Then do it."
She took the padd from him and transferred the data to her own, then handed his back. "I'll get right on it." She heard Scotty cough quietly. "After I finish what I was doing."
"After hours is fine, too," the captain said. "If you want a project to keep you busy."
"After hours would be great." Kill some of that horrible free time she never knew what to do with. Maybe give Christine a break from playing mother-shrink.
He held her gaze. "You doing all right here? Scotty treating you right?"
"Mister Scott is amazing." She saw her boss blush and laughed. "And yes, I'm very happy here, sir."
"Good. Good." He seemed to want to say more, and she waited, but he just shook his head and smiled in what looked like an uncomfortable way. "Okay, then. Carry on."
"Aye, sir." She stuck her padd into her pocket and went back to the engines. The padd pressed against her leg as if urging her to pay attention to it, not her tasks. She had to work to ignore it; she couldn't wait to get started.
Chapel saw the captain come into the rec lounge and waited until he was alone before walking over and asking, in a casual, low voice, as if she wasn't spitting mad, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Gaila and her extra credit project."
"Oh, she's not actually getting any extra credit. Did she think she was?" He gave her a tight little smile. "How's the arm?"
"You had no right to interfere."
"Actually, I did. You both work for me. You both work on this ship—a ship I need to keep running at optimum level. Gai's happy, and more importantly busy during her down time. You're getting some actual rest, and Bones has quit bitching to me about you every five minutes. Win, win, win."
McCoy had quit riding her, so she'd thought he'd quit bothering the captain with this. But apparently cutting him off at the pass was harder than she'd expected.
"Can I buy you a drink, Chris?"
"I told you my name was Jim. Use it. I'm sick of being sirred."
She followed him to the bar.
"You know, there are five kinds of women in the world."
He nodded. "Wine drinkers. Beer drinkers. Non drinkers. Fruity concoctions with umbrella drinkers. And those who appreciate good hooch."
She waited, giving him nothing.
"I think you're in the last group."
"Sorry, Jim, but I like my drinks blue with multiple parasols." She motioned the bartender over. "I'll have a scotch, neat. My friend here will have the same. Only make his a double. Oh, and it's on his tab."
"Nice. And see. I was right."
"You were right. I'd give you a gold star, but I'm fresh out so those"—she waved at the viewport, where the starstream in warp showed—"will have to do."
"They more than do." For a moment he looked still and happy, then he turned to her. "Gai's fine for the moment, Chris. You weren't fine."
"You're a doctor suddenly?"
"No. But I know when someone's not getting anywhere but is too damned stubborn to quit trying, or to take a moment to see if maybe their path needs tweaking."
"Which do I need to do?"
"I don't know. I doubt you know yet. But maybe with some time, you'll figure it out. In the meantime, Scotty tells me Gaila is constantly accosting him with ideas she's building off my modest little suggestion. She's happy."
"Yes. For now. Sometimes that's all you can ask." He sipped at his drink, but she had the feeling he'd like to have thrown it back and have another. "Do you dance?"
"Do you want to dance with me?"
"I don't know." She saw a grin start to grow; the man loved a challenge, there was no doubt of that. "Jim, you irritate me."
"I get that a lot." He smiled but there was something underneath the smile, something that went very deep.
She finished her drink in one swallow, as if Scotch was a shot of tequila. "I didn't really mean that."
"That's nice of you. But I do get it a lot." He finished his drink and took her hand, leading her out to the dance floor.
He was a good dancer. She hadn't expected that. It was a slow number and he did more than sway; he knew how to lead, how to hold her just so.
"My grandmother taught me to dance," he said, as if she'd asked the question. "It's a happy memory."
She could tell that happy memories were not the norm for him. "She was a good teacher."
"She was—is a good everything." He sighed, then pulled her closer. "Gaila will be fine, Chris. Just...just let things be for a while."
It was comfortable with him. They fit together nicely. She settled her head in the crook of his neck, smiled as he ran his hand over her upper back.
She decided she could let things be. For a while.
Gaila saw Nyota sitting alone in the mess hall and walked over. "Do you want company or is he joining you?"
She never used Spock's name, just in case there was a crewman on the ship who hadn't figured out these two were together.
"Even if he were joining me, Gai, you could still sit here."
Gaila nodded tightly as she put her tray down and sat.
"I'm serious. The captain joins us. Sulu joins us. Hell, even Chekov muscles his way in, although it's usually just to talk obscure science with Spock." She grinned. "He's really a strange kid."
Gaila laughed, feeling finally like they were roommates again, sharing secrets and having inside jokes. "He really is. But cute."
"Yeah, he's growing on me." Nyota leaned forward. "Is he growing on you?" Her eyebrows went up and down in a way that made Gaila giggle.
"On me? I'd leave the poor child scarred for life."
"No, you wouldn't. Why would you say that?" Nyota was frowning, probably because she'd never woken up with finger marks.
Not that Pavel would, either. Gaila couldn't imagine sharing her darkness with him, she'd open her mouth and the first word would get swallowed up in his sunny eagerness.
Nyota frowned. "What?"
"No, you looked funny." Nyota was leaning forward. "If you like him, I didn't mean to tease...?"
"It's not that. It's not anything. Really." She gave Nyota the brilliant smile that fooled nearly everyone. "I'm distracted. New project. Exciting."
"Yeah? Tell me everything."
For once, Gaila could.
Kirk saw Chapel sitting by herself in the rec lounge, watching Spock and Uhura as they talked with Bones. He recognized the look on her face, figured it wasn't for Uhura. Ordering a drink for her to go with the one for himself, he walked over and sat down next to her.
"Did I say you could do that?"
"I have single malt for you."
"Okay, fine, you can do that." She smiled and it was actually a nice smile. "What's the occasion?"
"To hopeless crushes." He glanced toward Spock and Uhura and then smiled gently. "I have one. You have one. Here's to getting over them."
"I'll drink to that." She clinked her glass against his. "Yours is for Nyota, right?"
He laughed. "Yes."
"Good. I'd hate to think I was competing with two of you for Spock." She grinned.
"Nope, he's all not yours." He shook his head as he surveyed the room. "They do know how to have a good time." Gaila especially. She was in a crowd of men, all eagerly hoping by the looks on their faces that she'd notice them. She was a pro, though, at giving everyone a little bit of attention and no one too much. He liked the moderation she'd started to show. "She's not sleeping with everyone who asks anymore, is she?" he asked softly.
"Nope." She sighed. "But still a lot of them."
"Well, she is Orion. Sex is sort of like breathing for them."
"I know, but her reputation is all she has."
"Well, Scotty will make sure a good bit of her reputation is for how damned smart she is." He leaned back. "Why are you helping her? I would have thought Uhura might have but how did you get involved?"
"Uhura didn't even see what was going on with Gai. No one did."
"I wouldn't say no one did."
"Oh, you're saying you did? Mister use her for the codes to the Kobayashi Maru and then dump her?"
"She told you about that?"
"Damn." He met her eyes. "Guilty as charged. But...I have an explanation."
"Of course you do."
"I didn't have to let her know I did that. I could have covered my tracks better and she wouldn't have been the wiser. But...I wanted her to be more careful who she trusted. What she was willing to do for lovers. I wanted to..."
"To teach her a lesson?"
"That sounds so harsh. But yes."
"Well, it worked. She's definitely been more circumspect on what she says about work. And I'm working on her self esteem."
"Is that before or after she crushes your arms?" He frowned. "She never seemed that strong."
"She's not. Usually. But she gets in the memory and I let her go. I let her remember, and she goes deep, and her reaction is to hold on. And I bruise easily. I always have. She just doesn't know how to hide it the way my fath—"
He waited, but she was staring resolutely down, her face going white instead of red. He could tell she hadn't meant to say that, and she was mad at herself for letting it slip, not embarrassed.
"So he beat you? My stepdad used to think it was fun to wallop the shit out of my mom and me, too." He waited, just let the statement hang there, sipped his drink and watched his crew.
He waited so long he thought she wasn't going to bite. But then she said, "Then you understand?"
"I fully understand." He turned so he was sitting more sideways, facing her, his knee up. "Tell me?"
"I don't talk about it."
"I don't, either. Maybe it's time we did."
She drained her drink. "Get me another first?"
"You've got it." He finished his, got up and secured refills, and hurried back, almost afraid she'd be gone, but she was still there. He handed her the drink then sat down, closer, so they could talk as quietly as they'd need to.
"I always thought my mother was the volatile one in my parents' relationship. But when she left, I realized she was the one who grounded my father. He was lost without her. Lost and angry." She took a sip of her drink. "Angry meant violent." She met his eyes.
"Yeah, when my dad died, my mom remarried. My stepfather was a piece of work. Especially once he realized he could never live up to the legend that was George Kirk. That's when he really lost it."
"I think my dad lost it when he realized mom was never coming back. And when my sister and I both started looking just like her. Gwen got out before he turned bad. She's older."
"She's with Admiral Pike."
"Define with." Chapel didn't smile.
"I don't think I need to, do I? At his side. In his bed. Whatever. She's clearly important to him and vice versa. She was at his side every time I went to visit him when he was recuperating."
"Yeah, that's Gwen. Pike is her life." Bitterness surrounded her words.
"She left you there."
"Yep." Chapel looked down. "I mean, she was in Star Fleet. I don't know what I thought she'd do with me, but she was living this free life that did not include being beaten."
"Did you tell her?"
"She didn't care."
"Did you tell her?" He reached over. "Listen, I understand if you didn't. My grandmother—my father's mother—she wasn't welcome at our house, but she'd find ways to see me. I didn't tell her, either. She noticed it one day when she hugged me too hard. Then she found ways to get me away."
"At least you had that." Chapel looked down. "Although I got myself away. The hard way." She laughed softly. "Spent some time in a juvenile facility. Impulse control problems. Anger management issues."
"Oh, man, have I heard those phrases in my life."
She smiled, but then her smile faded.
He leaned in, asked softly, "Did your dad...?"
She seemed to know what he was asking without him having to finish the thought. "No, he had his girlfriends for sex and me for kicking the shit out of. Only he had this one girl, Stephanie. She was sweet. So nice to me. I actually think..." She swallowed hard. "I think I sort of loved her."
"It's okay to love people."
"I'm not sure it's smart, though." She took a long sip of her drink. "Anyway, she was cooking dinner and I was setting the table. I must have been about twelve at the time. The age girls get really surly. My dad didn't like the way I was doing the job. I can't even tell you if I was doing it right or not. But he just exploded. Knocked me across the room. I hit my face on the edge of a table. Next night was a dance at school. I actually was going. Now I was going to look like crap. I came up spitting mad."
"Never good. Fighting back just makes it worse. They're like bears. You should just huddle up, protect your vitals, and play dead."
He reached out, touched the back of her neck, was happy to see she didn't flinch so he started to rub it. "Yep, that's probably the best thing to do."
She smiled at him. "How many times you do that?"
"Pretty much never."
"Figures. Me, neither. I always riled him up worse. But this time, she got in the way. She tried to talk him down. Leave her alone and all that. She's just a kid." Chris seemed very far away. "He hit her so hard. And it was the look in her eye that did it more than anything. That shock, you know? That he could hit her, too." Her eyes turned hard. "I went to the stove and I picked up the pan. Nice solid cast iron one. We were studying anatomy in school. I was a straight A student with barely passing grades, if you get my drift?"
"I completely get your drift. I was the same way." He winked.
"I knew where to hit him. I intended to end him. You know?"
"But she got in the way. She protected him. And the oil went all over her arm. And the pan hit him wrong. Still got him good, but not in the temple. He was in a coma for three days. She had second degree burns on her arm—never forgave me. I spent time in juvenile rehabilitation while they tried to figure why I did it." She laughed, the sound so sad and bitter it made his heart hurt. "So if you're planning to ask me at any point tonight why I'm not letting the counselors near Gai, that's why. My dad, he never had anything done to him. Stephanie's still with him. I'm not welcome there. Gwen is embarrassed by me. And I have a notation in my record from an Academy psychologist that says: 'Cadet Chapel may not be fleet material and I recommend her commission with reservations.'"
"How do you know that? Psyche records are sealed." He was grinning.
She shrugged. "Maybe not if you work in medical. At any rate, I can see it but I can't do anything about it. It's there." She looked down, and this time her face was red.
"Actually, it's not." He smiled as she looked up at him. "I saw that in there when I was trying to figure out what was going on with you and Gaila." At her look, he held up a hand. "Before you tear me a new one, listen to what I have to say. I've also seen you at work. I've talked to Bones about you—not about Gaila or anything else personal, about your work. I don't happen to agree with whoever wrote that footnote. So, I decided to use my powers for good this time. It's gone."
"You erased it?"
"I did. Pfffffft, it's gone. Magic." He took a sip of his drink. "Why do you think the shrink said that?"
"I was angry at Roger when I changed tracks from biochem to nursing. I didn't tell the shrink I thought I'd probably get my M.D. eventually—I have enough credits practically. Or maybe I'll do something else. I'm still searching, I think."
"So am I," he said with a grin.
She laughed. "He was concerned about my impulse control."
"What have you done that's impulsive? Other than your little crush and trying to help a friend?"
"Well, there's spilling my guts to you."
"That's not impulsive. That's shared pain. What else?" He could see she liked the way he accepted and moved on.
"I don't know. That's the thing. It's like he could not get past my early crimes. I was no saint in rehab—he could see it from the notes in my file. Some girls wither living like that, but I didn't. I was angry. I was strong. I didn't give a damn if I lived or died."
She nodded. "You can end up sort of running things if you want it bad enough—if you're willing to fight for it. Alternative management as it were. That was in my file, too. They tell you it's expunged when you reach maturity, but it's not. Because Starfleet sure could get their hands on it."
"Did your sister ever come see you?"
"In that place? Are you kidding me? She'd have died of embarrassment. You know her nickname, right? Number One. Hell, it's her name now. I think a handful of people know her real name anymore. I was the family fuck-up. Worse than dad, even. He at least kept his crimes in house."
"And that's why you're so hell bent on helping Gaila. Because no one ever helped you."
She was about to protest, but stopped, seemed to be thinking about it and he liked her for that—liked her better. He was already liking her quite a bit as it was.
"Maybe you're right. Do you think that's wrong?"
"Do you think you're helping her?"
"I do." She smiled, and it was a softly beautiful smile he didn't expect. "Your project is helping her, too. It's more than just a distraction. She's having fun and she's good at it."
"I know she is."
"You're a good man."
"Don't spread it around." He realized he was still rubbing her neck—had he been doing that the whole time? He slowly pulled his hand away. "If you ever need to talk. About anything. Even non serious things. Or you just want to drink. Or dance. Or even breathe in my vicinity. I'm very open to that."
She smiled. "I've heard you're easy."
He squinted as if she'd hurt him but then grinned to let her know she hadn't. "I'm easy to get into bed with—although less so on this ship. I'm finding it awkward to be quite so...available here. But I've never been easy to get to know and if you polled the women who've slept with me—and you have my permission to do that, by the way—you'd find they know very, very little about me. And that you already know much, much more."
"I think you'd find the same about me. Only without the easy to get into bed part."
He leaned in, let his lips linger at her ear. "That just makes it better." Then he got up. "Thank you for a very enlightening evening."
"Thank you for listening."
Gaila woke up, curled around Christine. She checked for bruises before Christine woke up, found very few and let out the breath she'd been holding. Last night had felt...different. For one, she'd spent some of the time talking about the project she was working on for Jim and Mister Scott. And then she'd been surprised when Christine had let some things slip, that her father had been mean. That she understood what it felt like to be locked up, to be not free.
Gaila had felt something tear loose inside her, but in a good way. Like the feeling of apartness, of being the only one, was gone. Maybe others weren't as perfect as they seemed? Maybe they hid their damage differently than she did.
Christine sighed softly and Gaila kissed her on the lips. She'd welcome this woman as her lover but didn't need her to be. But she liked the easy contact, appreciated that Christine was willing to give her that—the same way her mother had. "Good morning, sleepyhead."
"Christ, what time is it? I'm always awake before you."
"That's because you're usually in pain. Look, hardly any bruises."
Christine inspected her arms and gave Gaila a brilliant smile. "These won't even show if I wear my three quarter sleeves. I'm starving. Are you starving?"
Gaila nodded eagerly. Happy that Christine was in such a great mood. Normally, she was in a hurry to get away, to get cleaned up. To hide the evidence of their night.
She hit her shower while Christine went to her quarters. They met a few minutes later in the corridor and chatted easily as they walked to the mess. There was no line and Gaila saw Christine wave at someone, realized it was Jim and that Christine wanted them to go sit with him.
She grabbed her friend's elbow. "I've slept with him," she said as softly as she could.
"Actually, you had sex with him, you've slept with me," Christine murmured back.
"Well, true." Gaila pouted, a look that usually got her what she wanted. Nothing. "But you like him, and he likes you."
"Oh, shut up and be brave. We're friends, the three of us. No matter who likes whom any other way." Christine had her "Queen of the Brothel" look on, and Gaila wondered if she knew how intimidating she was when she was like that. Or how much someone like Gaila wanted to follow her when she wore it. How safe Gaila felt with her—like nothing could hurt her.
She led Gaila over to Jim's table. "Expecting an exotic alien princess or may we join you?"
"Well, I was expecting one, but she's damned late, so she's on her own. Please?"
Christine sat next to him. Gaila chose the seat across, then immediately wondered if the one next to him would have been better. No, she was here with Christine. Not with Jim—err, the captain.
"How's the project coming, Gai?" His grin was easy, still the cadet in some ways but also a bit older around the eyes. Like becoming captain had aged him even if he seemed to love it.
"Thank you so much for letting me do this, sir."
"Gai, I think you can all me Jim, when we're alone. God knows we've got the history."
And in that moment, she loved him for how easily he set to rest their past, his betrayal and the present. "Jim." She smiled. "Well, it's going great, so thank you."
Christine was beaming at her.
"And you, Chris. How is my favorite nurse today?"
"I'm the only nurse you know."
"That's not true," Gaila said. "He slept with Betty Suzanne and Mariella."
Two sets of blue eyes turned to glare at her.
She gave them her most charming smile. "Not the right thing to say?"
"Let's clear that up a little, shall we? When did I do that?" He was looking at her very intently and she tried to read what he wanted from her. Then she looked at Christine, who was also very intent.
"Ohhhh, before. Before you got the ship. At the Academy. When you were still a big man slut." She smiled at Christine. "He's not now."
Christine started to laugh. It took a moment but finally Jim started to laugh, too.
"Well, I'm glad we cleared that up." Jim started to tuck into his eggs.
Gaila pulled Christine over to her, whispered in her ear, "For what it's worth, he never came up with a special name for anyone that I know of. And you don't ever let anyone call you Chris. You told me not to."
Christine just smiled.
"What? What is she saying to you?"
"Something good. Just shut up and eat." The look Christine gave Jim was a sweet one.
Gaila smiled. She smiled even more when Nyota and Spock came in and neither Jim nor Christine seemed to even notice.
Chapel woke up to Gaila thrashing in her arms, crying out so softly she couldn't make out the words.
"Wake up, Gai. You're safe." She felt Gaila's finger's pressing down hard on her hands, then an unexpected release as her friend turned and burrowed against her, sobbing. In all the time she'd been helping Gaila, she'd never known her to cry. "Baby, baby, it's all right."
"You're so strong," Gaila said between almost hiccupping sobs. "You remind me of her so much. I know I should go to the counselor, but you remind me of her so much."
"My mother. She kept me safe. You keep me safe. I don't think you even know you do it, but you do." She went back to crying, clutching Chapel, but not hard, not hurting her at all. "I love you. And I don't mean that the way I say it to the men. And I don't mean I'm in love with you. I just mean I love you. I'm glad you're in my life. I've never really had a friend before."
"Nyota's your friend, Gaila. And Chekov and Uhura."
"No, they're my peers. And Nyota was my...pal, I guess? But they don't know me. Only you. And maybe Jim, a little. He's dark, too, isn't he?"
Chapel hesitated, but then she nodded. "Yes, he's dark, too." She imagined Leonard had his darker side, too, if she'd bother to let him in, which so far she hadn't. But she'd had a taste of being involved with her boss and wasn't eager to do it again.
Of course one could argue that her friendship—or whatever was happening with Jim—was just trading one type of boss for an even bigger one. But Jim was different. Jim was...familiar territory. Another wounded soul.
"What were you dreaming about?" she asked gently.
Gaila took a deep, shuddering breath. "My first time."
"It was bad?"
Gaila laughed, a laugh so profoundly bitter, it sent chills down Chapel's spine. "No, it's worse. It's..." She pulled away, played with Chapel's hair, something that always seemed to calm her. "We're supposed to be luscious, sensuous. They don't want us damaged. They don't want us scared. They bring the best of the best of the men, and they feed us drugs to make us pliable and aroused. And they give us pleasure. And make us ready for our lives as the whores of the galaxy." Her fingers caught in Chapel's hair.
Chapel didn't cry out, and a moment later, Gaila let go without being prompted. "When I first got here, at the Academy, I was still acting like I was a whore."
"You were free with your body. There's a difference."
"No, Christine. Now, I'm free with my body. Then...I was still that Gaila. The slave." She cuddled around Chapel. "Don't let them tell you that freedom is a mantle you assume. It's not. It's a weight, too. Just as heavy as the slave chains. Just as difficult to learn to navigate under if slavery is all you've known."
Chapel hugged her close, kissed her neck. "When I was first at the Academy, an upperclassman took a dislike to me. Made my life a living hell. I've told you a little bit about my father. How much I hate him and what he did to me. But Gaila, I wanted to attack this upperclassman. If I'd been at the rehab center, I would have gone after her—and I would have won. I went to see one of the counselors about it. Told him she was bullying me, what a hard time I was having not retaliating. He told me I needed to grow a thicker skin. Told me he was worried that I considered violence as an option. But I hadn't reached for it, didn't want to be like my dad, and the counselor didn't seem to get it."
This was the same psychologist who had put his reservations about her in her record. Reservations Jim had now expunged.
"So I understand what you're saying, Gai. We may long for what we don't have. But the way we grew up: it's inside us. It's what we are and we have to work to not let it define us."
Gaila kissed her again. "You do understand." She began to hum a song, and Chapel imagined it was a lullaby Gaila's mother must have sung to her. "Go to sleep, Christine. Dream of Jim. I think he might love you."
"He loves everyone."
"No, he doesn't. And you know it."
Kirk sat next to Spock, wondering if the discussions with the Horvathian delegation were ever going to end. Their main interlocutor had the charisma of a Rhodilian sea snail. Even Spock looked bored and Kirk had to work to hide a grin.
Finally the talk wrapped up, with neither side having come any closer to a decision on Federation use rights of the Horvathian satellites, but plenty of time had been used up to come to that state. The Horvathians seemed satisfied.
"More progress should be made tomorrow," Spock said softly as the other delegation filed out.
"Is that a prediction or a plea to some deity?"
Spock seemed too tired to try to hide the slight tick of his lips. "The former."
"Great." He leaned back, studied the conference room they'd been stuck in all day. "Supposed to be some good restaurants on this Star Base."
"So I have been told."
"Double date? You and the fair Nyota? Me and Chris?"
"You are seeing Nurse Chapel?"
"You have a problem with that, my friend?"
"On the contrary. Her command of the sciences is impressive. She is wasted in sickbay."
"Don't let Bones hear you say that." Kirk laughed. "Oh, wait, you said that to him last week."
"I did. Just after he called me a racially inappropriate name. Must he do that?"
"I could call him on the carpet if you want?"
"It is your duty as captain and leader to provide a workplace free of intolerance."
"Does this mean we're not double dating?" He held a hand up. "I'll talk to Bones. Ixnay on the green skin and pointy eared comments. Racially insensitive. You're completely correct, Spock. I've been derelict in my duties. Now, call Nyota and get her down here and I'll call Chris."
He walked far enough to give Spock privacy and pulled out his communicator. "Kirk to Chapel."
"Got dinner plans?"
"Nothing I can't jettison."
"Join me and Spock and probably Nyota down here on the Star Base?"
"That sounds scarily official."
"I know, doesn't it? I was thinking of food. And then eating it. And then who I would want to eat it with. And then you came to mind. You and no one else."
"Except Spock and Nyota."
"Well, Spock was here and he's gonna have to bring his own woman."
She laughed. "I'll be right down."
"We're in conference room thirty-nine. See you soon."
He turned, saw that Spock was still talking to Uhura. Marveled that it took a Vulcan longer to convey dinner plans to an established girlfriend than it had two humans who were still getting to know each other. Then again, he and Chris had covered a lot of ground that night in the rec lounge. Navigated a lot of minefields that would have blown up most people.
She really was right down. She smiled as she came through the door, bumped up against him easily, frowned as she looked at Spock. "Is he talking to Nyota?"
"Did he start the call way after you?"
He shook his head.
"Wow, high maintenance or what?"
He started to laugh—it was exactly what he had been thinking. A moment later, Spock cut the connection. He took a deep breath, then said, "She will be down momentarily."
"Define that," Chris murmured.
Momentarily was about ten minutes. Uhura seemed to have taken the time to change out of her uniform—Chris had not—and her hair was loose. Kirk shot Chris a look to see what she thought of all that; her expression was impossible to read.
Turning to him, Chris put her arm through his, gave him a brilliant smile, and said, "So where are we eating, Jim? I'm starved."
And just like that, all the attention was back on him, and by extension her. Nicely played. He could see this was going to be one hell of an interesting evening.
Gaila was eating lunch with Christine when Nyota came over and stood at their table, her tray held almost defensively. "Hi," Gaila said. "Sit."
Nyota turned to Christine, who shot her a puzzled looked then nodded. "Take a load off."
Something changed in Nyota's expression, but she sat, moved her tray in a little. "I just...I wanted to apologize about yesterday. I should have just come down. Not changed clothes."
"No, you were smart. You looked so much more comfortable. I should have thought of that." She leaned forward. "I mean when Jim said come now, I just...well, hurried on down."
"Well, it's still new for you."
"It's not that new."
Gaila watched in fascination. They were like two jungle cats circling, taking test swipes. She wasn't entirely sure what they were talking about—neither of them talked to her about the other; she gave them credit for that.
Christine went back to eating. Gaila wondered what Nyota would do. In the brothel, only the strong ate when threatened.
Christine looked over her sandwich at Nyota. "Something wrong?"
"I'm not sure I like you."
"Well, I'm not sure I like you, either." She glanced at Gai. "But we're both friends of Gaila. And our boys are tight. So maybe we should try to get along."
"You're not what you seem," Nyota said, leaning in, still not eating. "Everyone thinks you're this sweet nurse. I hear them saying it. Christine in sickbay is so nice. Is that you they're talking about?"
Christine shrugged. "We all wear masks. Some of us do it better than others."
"She's smart, Ny. And she's tough." Gaila touched Nyota's arm. A conciliatory stroke, the way a lesser girl would have done in the brothel, meant to bring peace, calm another down. "But she can be your friend. She's my friend. And you're my friend. You can be each other's friends, too."
"I'm not sure that's going to happen." Christine smiled gently at Gaila. "Just because we love you doesn't mean we'll love each other."
Nyota's look seemed to soften. "You speak so easily of loving her. That makes me like you. Gaila deserves loyal friends."
Gaila smiled and dug into her salad.
"Yes. She does deserve loyal friends. On that, we are agreed."
Nyota finally started to eat. She kept her eyes on Christine as she did it, but she ate.
Kirk waylaid Chris in the corridors. "Do you know what's happening tonight?"
She shook her head.
He smiled. "Absolutely nothing. No delegations. No visiting brass. No parties. Nothing. Come to my quarters?"
He nodded. "I may have food in there for us. And a nice bed. Clean sheets."
"Taking an awful lot for granted, aren't you?"
"We've waited a long time. I'm tired of waiting. Aren't you?"
"Is this a personal best for how long you've waited?"
"Oh, hell, yes."
She smiled. "Then let's go to your quarters."
He smiled and looped his arm around her shoulders. "Have I told you how much I like you?"
"Well, I'm crazy about you, too. This may, in fact, be love. But it's more than that. I like you. I want to tell you about my day when my day is over. I think about you and it makes me happy. You're not just some girl I want to be with and then leave." He squeezed her arm. "I don't think I've ever really liked a girl before."
She leaned her head against his shoulder. "Then like is good."
"Oh, like is great." He palmed his door open. "But before we eat, you need to meet someone."
He walked them over to the comm unit, kissed her quickly, and then got his grandmother on the comm.
"James." Her smile was wide. "And who's this?"
"This is Chris. I thought you'd like to meet her." He smiled at Chris. "Chris, this is my grandmother."
"You can call me Millie, dear. Or Gram, like he does."
Chris was smiling broadly, her eyes suspiciously bright. "I'd be pleased to call you Gram."
"Well, that's just fine, then. And is my boy sweet on you?"
"I guess he is."
"Well, that's even better. Don't let him take you for granted. Kirk men will do that."
"Gram, don't go filling her head with nonsense. Anyway, I'll call you tomorrow for our regular talk. I just wanted you to meet Chris. You know, see what you thought of her." He winced as Chris elbowed him.
"I think she must be a saint to put up with you, dear." She winked at Chris. "Now, go have fun, you two. I've got to go and play tile rummy with the girls next door. I love you, James."
"Love you, Gram." He cut the connection then turned to Chris. "That's my home. That's who raised me. That's who matters in my life. And I've never ever brought a girl to meet her. In person or by comm."
Chris pulled him in for a kiss. "I love you, Jim Kirk."
"I love you, too." He kissed her again, then pulled away. "Did you want to eat?"
She started to pull off his uniform. "Food can wait."
He'd picked out food that could definitely wait. "Officer thinking, Ms. Chapel."
Gaila sat at a picnic table working on the project Jim and Mister Scott had given her. She looked out where the others were playing on the beach. Nyota was in the water with Christine and Jim and Sulu, playing a game of keep away. Nyota and Christine had forged some strange kind of détente. Gaila wasn't sure they'd ever be friends, but they were trying and she knew it was for her sake and for the sake of their men. Spock was up on the ship, preferring to let others soak up shore leave sun, but Gaila knew he'd join Nyota later that night.
She saw Chekov lounging on an air mattress, his pale skin glowing a bright red. She'd told him to put on some sunscreen, but he'd just laughed and headed out for the open water.
She heard footsteps behind her, turned and saw Mister Scott. He sat next to her, asked softly, "May I?" and when she nodded, studied the padd she was working on.
A few minutes later, he looked up and a big beaming smile broke out. "Mother of God, girl. This is first rate."
"I can't wait to try this out. Do you think we can convince the captain?"
"I'll ask Christine to ask him for us."
"Oh, aye, that'll do it." He smiled happily. "Can I ask you something, Gaila?"
"Why aren't you out there having fun?"
"Why aren't you?"
He thought about that. "I don't really know how to have fun. I know how to drink. And I know how to be an engineer. Well, and I know how to love a woman, but I don't do that very often."
"Because a woman expects a man to show her some fun now and then. More now than then, to be honest. And things peter out when you can't."
She laughed. "I don't know how to have fun, either."
"I have trouble believing that."
"It's true. I was raised to give pleasure. Not fun."
He narrowed his eyes, and she could tell he was thinking about the difference.
And she realized he was the first person she'd ever said that to—other than Christine or another Orion—and this time she'd said it with no bitterness. Like it was in the past. Really in the past.
"I can see how that's a problem. Are you good at geometry?"
"Do you play pool?"
"I tried. All the men looked down my shirt and up my skirt."
He looked at her like she was very silly. "Well, that was because you used to wear such low cut shirts and short skirts. But you don't anymore."
"I notice all kinds of things about all kinds of people. I just keep most of it to myself." He grinned. "Now, you want to learn the finer points of nine ball?"
"Will it be fun?"
"I think it might." He made a face like "imagine that?"
She giggled. Then she did it again. It was a sound she hadn't made since she was a child. A real sound of amusement. Not the sound of a courtesan.
The sound of the child she never got to be.
"Let's go have fun," she said and followed Mister Scott off to what turned out to be a dark hole in the wall filled with other curmudgeons who didn't seem to care one whit that a gorgeous young Orion girl was in their midst, but were full of tips on how to hit the balls around the table.
It was the most refreshing feeling in the world.
And nine ball was fun. She beat him about half the time. She wasn't sure if he looked happier when he won or when she did.
Chapel saw Uhura sitting alone in the surf. Spock was somewhere on the ship, would be down probably later but wasn't here now. With a kiss for a drowsing Jim, she got up and walked over to the water, plopping down next to Uhura. "You looked like you could use some company."
"If you're feeling sorry for me, then—"
She held up a hand. "Look. I'm a bitch because I had a shitty childhood and an even shittier adolescence. I learned that to survive, you had to be tough. And I learned it around girls. And I brought it with me to the Academy. And girls like you, girls who are smart and pretty and have it all, you bring out the worst."
Uhura turned and stared at her.
"You think I have it all?" She laughed softly. "Why do you think I wanted to look good that night? It wasn't for Spock and Jim. It was because you were going to be there. Smart. Blonde. Mysterious past. Scary as hell unless we're talking to one of the many people who swear you're the angel of sickbay."
Chapel laughed. "My fans. Caught me on a good day, I guess."
"And Gaila loves you. In a way she never loved me. I guess...I guess I'm jealous."
"She loves me because I'm like her. Damaged." Chapel drew a series of crossed swords in the sand. "I used to have that carved into my arm. Six swords. Six girls I took down to get to the top."
"Took down. You mean...?"
"Not killed. Just...deposed. Made inconsequential."
Chapel met her eyes. "In a rehab facility. Like I said. Shitty, shitty past."
Uhura touched her arm. Touched it right where the swords used to sit, even though there was no scar left. "Who carved it in you?"
"I did." She closed her eyes. "Gaila doesn't love me more than you. She just knows I understand her better. I understand her world better because I've lived in something like it. A place where status meant everything."
"It's ironic. I've been helping her learn to let go. And yet, I can't. You're the kind of girl I'd have had to depose. But that would have happened there, and I don't live there anymore. I haven't lived there for a very long time. But the more I help Gaila the more it comes out. That old Christine. The one I didn't want to be." She turned. "So I'm sorry. No more alpha crap from me."
"I can be a bitch, too. I have this need to excel. I can't stop pushing. And when I run into someone like you, someone who'll actually give me a run for my money. I'm not sure I know what to do."
Chapel laughed. "The joke's going to be on both of us. Gaila's going to leave us in the dust."
"You're probably right."
"I do love her. I can't imagine her life. And that she came out of it so well. She's so...innocent for all that they tried to destroy that innocence."
"I know," Uhura said. "It's why I love her, too."
Chapel started to get up.
Uhura pulled her back down. "Stay. I do need company."
"Even if it's me?"
"Especially if it's you."
Uhura leaned in for a moment. "I love Spock. But he's not fun sometimes."
"Jim's fun." She looked over at the beach towel under the umbrella where he was safely sleeping in the shade. "When he's awake."
Uhura started to smile. "Do you like to shop?"
"I love to shop."
"Gaila hates to shop."
"I know. It is her one big flaw."
They shared a smile. Then rose as one, and pulled their cover-ups and some sandals on. Grabbing their bags, they headed into town, where all the lovely shops waited just for them.