DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc and Viacom. The story contents are the creation and property of Djinn and are copyright (c) 2017 by Djinn. This story is Rated R.

Just Worn Paper Dolls

 

By Djinn

 

 

 

"I don't know how we got this far. Don't know when we became who we are. The war goes on behind these walls. You and me are just worn paper dolls."

                                                 - "Paper Dolls," Rob Thomas

 

 

 

Part 1

 

The ship lurched, and Chapel backed up against the nearest bulkhead and closed her eyes. This wasn't the Enterprise and Sulu wasn't at the helm getting them the hell out of trouble. If he had been, she'd have felt far less afraid.

 

Why the hell had she left the Enterprise? So Len and Spock and Kirk had come back? So she'd been demoted? It was the flagship. It was...safe. Or safer, anyway.

 

And her friends were on it. People she trusted. Although her best friend wasn't even returning her comms; she needed to find out from Uhura if Rand was away at training or was just ignoring her on general principle.

 

And why did she have to ask one friend what the other was doing?

 

It didn't help that she was having a hard time finding her place on this ship—being angry and pissy much of the time probably wasn't making her shipmates anxious to be her new best buds.

 

"Lieutenant?" A familiar voice, and she whirled and saw Sarek coming toward her and felt a rush of relief. He was smart and capable and not mad at her—or someone she was running away from. Not a friend, but the closest thing she had to it on this shithole of a ship. "Nurse Chapel, isn't it? We met on the Enterprise—are you all right?"

 

"I'm fine. Also a doctor now." She realized he was bleeding. "Ambassador, you're hurt."

 

"I merely stumbled at the last hit." He reached up and his hand came away green, which seemed to surprise him.

 

"Come with me." She turned, but the way back to sickbay was blocked. "Computer, status of Deck Seven?"

 

"Potential breach at junction seven delta and seven zeta. Containment measures in place."

 

Great. They were sitting in seven epsilon if she had the layout down right. Nowhere to go, but she asked anyway, "Barring the access tubes, can we get to sickbay from here?"

 

"Negative."

 

"Come on," she said, not liking how Sarek was almost swaying on his feet. "There should be an emergency station up here somewhere." Damn her new captain for getting them into a firefight before she'd memorized the layout of this ship. Damn this ship for not being laid out the way she expected.

 

She took Sarek's arm, worrying that it was the height of discourtesy, but he didn't say anything—proof, she thought, that he'd taken a harder hit than he was letting on. She hustled them down the corridor until she saw the familiar symbol for an emergency medical kit.

 

Once there, she hit the intercom. "Chapel to sickbay."

 

"Elstrom here, ma'am. Where are you?" Her deputy sounded frazzled.

 

"Cut off for now. You okay there?"

 

"Yes, ma'am."

 

"I'll be back as soon as the way is clear."

 

"Roger that." The connection went dead. She hoped it was just Elstrom's way of ending a call and not some new problem making the comms go dead before he could. She turned to Sarek, "It's not much, but it's all we've got."

 

"Understood." He waited as if there was no need for any fuss while she unstowed a folding seat from the wall, but he sat quickly and without argument, clearly feeling worse than his expression was letting on.

 

She checked through the equipment and meds, not liking what she was seeing. She would never have put up with emergency kits looking like this on the Enterprise. It was becoming more and more apparent what a cluster fuck of a situation she'd inherited from the outgoing CMO of the Danube.

 

"It's been a long time, Ambassador." She smiled at him, trying to make a show of things being okay even though he'd probably read they weren't from her brief touch. "Let me figure out where this bleeding is coming from."

 

She worked for a few minutes, then he said softly, "I had heard you were on the Enterprise with my son."

 

"Where'd you hear that?" She backed away to see his face. "And why would you care?"

 

He gave her nothing back other than a strange little shrug.

 

She went back to scanning him. He'd hit hard, that was apparent. But like many head wounds, it looked worse than it was. She grabbed the field regenerator and got to work on repairing the wound, glad she didn't need more in the way of meds or supplies since there wasn't much to work with. These little regen units did basic repairs only, but she thought it would be enough until they could get to sickbay. "You’re right: I was on the ship. I transferred off. CMO here seemed preferable to 'same old, same old' there."

 

Jesus, why was she being so honest with him? Like he cared in the first place. And he might tell Spock, who might tell Len and Kirk—Starfleet was a small place and burning bridges wasn't her style normally. But she wasn't at her best. Truth to tell, she'd been floundering since Kirk demoted her. She'd put so much energy into becoming an MD and then learning what it took to be CMO on the flagship, that the let-down afterwards had left her reeling emotionally and, given the idiot move she'd made coming to this ship, professionally. "I'm sorry. That came out wrong."

 

"I believe it came out as exactly what it was: the truth." He moved his head to the side and pointed to a spot. "This is quite painful here."

 

"Thanks." She scanned the area to make sure she wasn't missing anything, and then went back to work. The ship lurched again and she felt his hand on her arm, steadying her. For a moment, they stayed like that, then he let go of her.

 

"You must be getting a mind-ful when you read me. You are reading me, right? I mean not because you're nosy but because you're Vulcan."

 

"I am. You are under stress and as you are human, negative emotions are to be expected. I have no concerns, however, as to your proficiency at caring for me."

 

"Good to know." She touched his scalp gently. "Better?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Good." She pulled a cleansing pad out and began to wipe the blood from his skin. Once she was finished, she checked for more bleeding, but the area seemed healed. She scanned again, finding an area with some deep tissue damage that she'd have to work on once they got to sickbay.

 

As she worked, she thought about how Spock had acted when he showed up on the ship—and when she'd left. Two polar extremes—neither, she thought, the real Spock.

 

"You must have been disappointed when Spock left that place—Gol, wasn't it?" she asked softly.

 

He didn't answer, and she could feel herself blushing. This was none of her business. Even if Spock had sort of made it her business by hitting on her in the most awkward way possible after V'ger had been dealt with.

 

Hitting on her after she'd witnessed that scene in sickbay between him and the captain, when she realized she'd always come second to Kirk no matter what Spock thought he wanted after the emotional enema that was V'ger. One of the reasons she'd left to go to med school in the first place was when she'd realized Spock could and did love—just not her.

 

"I'm sorry, Ambassador. What Spock did or didn't do is none of my business."

 

He was silent for so long, she thought he agreed with her. But then he said, "I was never in favor of his choice. Gol is for those who seek mastery of existing emotional control. Not for those who merely want an escape from inconvenient emotions."

 

"I'm not sure I see the difference."

 

For a moment, she saw something that seemed to be impatience in his face. Then it was gone.

 

"It is of no importance, Doctor Chapel. I should not have spoken so. My son—logic at times escapes me."

 

"Well, that makes two of us." She laughed softly. "I may have been interested in him once upon a time." A lie, of sorts. "May have been" implied a cessation of want and she'd never had the chance to get him out of her system. Maybe she should have said yes to him. Maybe the sex would have been bad and she could have moved on?

 

But maybe it would have been good? Although she didn't think she'd ever feel sure of him, given how he clearly felt about Kirk. She'd been with a man she couldn't be sure of—Roger had loved her, but he'd never loved only her. It had been the price of being with him, of being his chosen one. His partner in work and life.

 

But not always in bed.

 

"Spock was, I think, pleased that you were on the ship." Sarek actually seemed to be fishing.

 

"He told you that?"

 

"He told his mother. I may have overheard." He studied her, his look reminding her of how Roger used to assess her when she was trying to hide something from him. "Yet, you left. Is it not illogical to leave what has been long desired?" At her look, his lip almost ticked up. "His mother may have told me you were not unmoved by him."

 

"Not unmoved. Such a nice way to say that I made a fool of myself over him." She sighed and leaned against the corridor. "He wasn't himself after the meld with V'ger. I had no faith his interest would last. But it wasn't just him I left.  I didn't want to recreate the last five-year mission, you know? I worked hard to become a doctor—to become qualified for CMO."

 

He nodded. "A double load, then, academically. Gaining your MD and learning the administrative policies and duties of being the chief medical officer."

 

She smiled. "And, like an idiot, I was doing an extra project in biochem—wanted to get it published and shut up the people who thought I slept my way to that assignment." At his look of surprise, she said, "I didn't. Decker trusted me. I don't know why; he just did. And I wanted that again. Here. As the boss. Color me ambitious, I guess."

 

"That is not a bad thing." He started to stand. "You should sit."

 

She pushed him down. "Belay that, Ambassador. You're the patient."

 

"A healed patient. Thank you for that. And you do not have to be so formal. Sarek will do."

 

She smiled. "And I'm Christine. And for the record, there's still work to do once we can get to sickbay so don't declare yourself healed just yet." She slid down the wall and sat on the floor across from him, knees pulled up—thank God for these new uniforms. The old mini-dresses would never have allowed her to sit like this and not flash someone. "What are you doing on the Danube?"

 

"Going home."

 

She smiled "Another successful mission?"

 

"No. This trip is indicative of the success I've had."

 

"Are they shooting at us because of you?"

 

"Quite possibly." He closed his eyes and leaned back again.

 

"That was a joke, right?"

 

He nodded.

 

"Did it hurt when you did that? Shaking your head, I mean, not the joke." She grinned.

 

"Ever the doctor." His lips ticked up again ever so slightly. "And no, it did not."

 

"Good. The scanner tells me a lot, but there's nothing like patient feedback." She sighed. "Who do you think is shooting at us?"

 

"I have no idea. This part of space is supposed to be quiet."

 

"Supposed to be. Three useless words." She laughed, but the sound came out a little bitter. So many things that weren't as she'd planned. Supposed to be Decker's CMO. Supposed to be a scientist. Supposed to be Roger's wife. Supposed to be fucking happy and accomplished.

 

She heard a loud beep over the intercom and smiled as she pushed herself up. "All clear, computer?"

 

"Affirmative."

 

"Sickbay awaits, Sarek. I'm not going to certify you as fit for duty until I've used a scanner I've calibrated on you." She made a face as she indicated the emergency station. "This did its job. But humor me, all right? I couldn't face Spock if I let anything happen to you."

 

"I doubt it would concern him overmuch. He and I are somewhat at odds these days."

 

"Are you ever not?" She grinned at his expression. "Seriously, Sarek. You two put the dys in dysfunctional."

 

"I make overtures."

 

"I'm not criticizing. Just stating a fact." And she had no room to judge given the nature of things with Jan.

 

"An observation, to be precise. And an accurate one."

 

She urged him out of the seat and re-stowed it. "Come on. I don't want to get stuck in here again in case our esteemed Captain Talbot finds another way to screw up our day."

 

He let out a puff of air she thought was his equivalent to a laugh.

 

"Don't like him either, huh?" she asked with a mean grin.

 

He let an eyebrow be her answer. "Are you claustrophobic? Is that why you eliminated access tubes as a means of travel?"

 

"No, and no. You were a little too wobbly to be climbing ladders." She grinned up at him and could tell he was slightly outraged that she'd lay the blame on him. "Well, maybe just an eensy bit claustrophobic. But you were wobbly."

 

His lips ticked up again and it made her smile.

 

She amused Sarek a hell of a lot more than she ever had his son.

 

##

 

Dead on her feet, Chapel stumbled into the mess, which was empty at this hour. Empty except for a certain Vulcan Ambassador. She walked over once she'd gotten some food and smiled at him. "Twice in one month? Did you do something to piss Starfleet off or do you prefer piece-of-crap ships?"

 

Len had tried to tell her not to take this posting; she'd give him credit for that. She'd been too busy following her dreams to realize they were leading her to a shithole of a billet.

 

Sarek lifted an eyebrow and said, "It is headed where I need to go." He pushed food around on a plate and looked to her eyes frankly...exhausted.

 

He had staff with him; she'd seen them with him earlier. But she got the feeling, despite the lack of company, that alone was not his preferred state.

 

"May I?" She nodded to a chair next to him.

 

"Please. I would welcome the company."

 

She studied him, and he seemed to try to pull some measure of serenity around him, but still all she saw was how tired he looked. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

 

He shook his head and pushed food around some more, finally actually eating some of it.

 

"Where's your staff?"

 

Instead of answering, he waved in the general direction of the visitor's quarters. It was astoundingly imprecise.

 

"You used to travel with your wife."

 

"Yes. I used to." He did not meet her eyes. "And occasionally still do."

 

"I don't understand. Is this a dangerous mission? Did it have to be unaccompanied?" Where the hell were they sending him that was too dangerous for a spouse and in the direction they were headed? Even given the fact that her captain had the ability to fuck up just about any meet-and-greet—she was unsure why he was still captain, although Elstrom told her he'd heard through his Command cronies that reassignment for their C.O. was imminent.

 

Even old ships deserved better treatment than the Danube was getting under their clueless leader. A clueless leader who was rarely seen in sickbay and certainly never sought her out for any kind of bonding, the way you'd expect a captain to do with the officer most likely to relieve him of duty. Not that she wanted to spend quality time with him, but it rankled the part of her that wanted to be valued—significant.

 

She'd gotten spoiled on the Enterprise, had seen a side of the fleet during her first posting that she assumed was the norm. And Kirk and Len's relationship was textbook. She might be mad as hell at her old captain for demoting her—and making Will tell her—but she understood why he did it.

 

Sarek pushed his plate away. "It is not dangerous. Amanda is...ill." He didn't meet her eyes.

 

"Ill?" She didn't want to ask any more than that. She was already tromping into his personal territory again.

 

Sarek took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, then said softly, "Cadmius Syndrome."

 

"Oh." She tried to hide the dismay she felt.

 

"I see from your expression that you know the disease. You are familiar with the prognosis?"

 

"I knew someone who had it." The father of a friend from school—he'd gone from vibrant to vegetative, but so very slowly, like the sand draining from an hourglass, leaving him and his family years to watch his health degrade before he became bedridden. And even then he'd lingered, in a half-comatose state, his eyes haunting her as she'd sat with her friend and told him about school because the doctors said he could possibly still hear them.

 

There'd be no light behind those eyes, that's what she remembered most—and then there would be, suddenly, a spark. A moment where he was back and he looked at her friend with so much love and pain it nearly broke her heart. "I'm so sorry, Sarek."

 

He nodded.

 

"Does Spock know?"

 

"No. She does not want anyone to know until it is impossible to hide. I should not have told you."

 

"I won't say anything. Not to anyone." She reached over and touched his hand, then immediately yanked it back. "I apologize. Sometimes my need to give comfort runs over my better judgment."

 

"I could tell your intentions were sincere. You are kind." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "She has periods where she is entirely normal. It makes the other times more difficult. I never know which wife I will find at any given moment. And I cannot help her when she is sick."

 

"The meld...?" Again, such personal territory but something about him seemed so lonely—and so tense. Like he'd explode if he didn't talk to someone about this.

 

"The meld is of limited utility. It can be taxing for a partner who is ill, especially one with inadequate psi abilities to fully control their participation in the joining."

 

"Like a human?"

 

"Yes. Or many other species. Even some Vulcans, if they are atypical."

 

She sat quietly and ate some of her food, willing to let him dictate where the conversation went next, whether he kept it on Amanda or moved on to less personal things.

 

"I am used to her travelling with me. I...miss her."

 

"I'm sorry. I've heard that mated pairs are...bonded. Mind and spirit or some such thing." She smiled to let him know she realized much of what she'd heard might just be so much crap. "If you can feel her, can't you send relief in the form of...a caring presence."

 

"The bond exists, but it does not work like that. It is more an...energy linking us one to the other. The closer I am to her physically, the more I feel her presence. Except when she is having a flare. Then our connection...wanes. The medicine she takes makes her sleep very deeply and I can barely detect her." He shook his head. "I am tired. Too tired to exercise proper discretion. I should not be discussing this with you."

 

"Who else do you have to talk to about this? You send your staff away because you don't want them to know, right?" At his look of surprise, she smiled gently at him. "I don't need to be talented psychically to figure out your motivations."

 

He conceded her point with a nod.

 

"I'm here, Sarek. If you need to talk."

 

He slid out of the booth and gathered his tray. "I appreciate that, Christine. I think for now, however, I will leave you to eat in peace. Thank you for the company."

 

She nodded but thought that despite his nice words, she was probably running him off. Maybe he was afraid she was going to push for more unpleasant—and highly personal—truths.

 

Jesus, would she ever learn to keep her mouth shut and dial back her compulsion to take care of people? He didn't need her adding to the burdens of his day.

 

##

 

Chapel sat with Ny and Chekov in the bar of Starbase Seven, enjoying the opportunity to take advantage of their ships' similar area of operations and hang out like old times.

 

"No Jan?" Chapel had asked as they'd all hugged each other hello.

 

"She transferred off, Christine." Ny looked at her like she should have known.

 

"She what?"

 

"A week after you left."

 

Chapel wasn't sure what to say, knew her mouth was hanging open, and tried to recover.

 

"It's not the same without you, Christine." Pavel seemed to recognize her discomfort; his eyes were very gentle, but then they turned devilish. "I enjoyed seeing if you would ever make any progress with Mister Spock." He ducked as she swatted at him from across the booth. "In all seriousness, we do miss you."

 

"We do." Ny gave her the weird grin she'd been giving her all morning. It was mostly real, but she was hiding something.

 

"What doesn't she want to tell me, Pav?"

 

"That she is seeing Mister Spock." This time he didn't duck in time and Ny's hit landed solidly. "Assault of a fellow officer is a court-martial offense, Nyota. Please, I give up."

 

"Yeah, now that the cat's out of the bag." Ny gave Chapel the most sheepish look she'd ever sported in their many years of friendship. "Are you going to kill me?"

 

"Why would I kill you? I left. And I left after..." She knew Ny would know what she meant—she didn't want Pavel knowing Spock had made overtures.

 

Unfortunately, he ran further with the idea than that. "Did you sleep with him? Was it bad? Please tell me it was bad and that every woman's crush on him is wasted."

 

Chapel said, "I didn't sleep with him" at the same time Ny said, "It isn't bad." They both laughed while Pavel rolled his eyes.

 

"Sorry, Pav. Tall, dark, handsome and unattainable wins the day every time." She studied Ny, seeing the signs of happiness she should have recognized—and normally she would have because Ny would have been telling her everything. "You can talk to me about him. It's okay."

 

"I wasn't sure. I know Jan would kill me if it was the captain."

 

"I'm not Jan. And no she wouldn't." Although how the hell did she know what Jan would do?

 

"Oh, she would. She told me she would." Ny grinned, but Chapel felt a sting—she'd talked to Jan about this but not her? "I thought she was off the ship?"

 

"I'm a comms officer, Chapel. I can talk to whoever I want." Ny wore the smug "I work on the bridge and you don't" look that had pissed off any number of their fellow junior officers back in the day.

 

"Where is she?"

 

"On Earth at Officer Candidate School. Finally." Chapel had been there when Ny had lectured Jan on following through. Now she acted as if going to OCS was her idea, not Jan's.

 

The music changed, and Ny pulled Pavel off his stool. "I love this song. Spock won't dance. Come on. Christine, you come, too." She glanced at Chapel, but it looked like she wanted to get away from her and the uncomfortable conversation about Jan.

 

Chapel stood but then saw Sarek sitting by himself in the waiting lounge. He suddenly looked a lot easier to talk to than her friends. "You dance. I'll be right back."

 

"Suit yourself." She and Pavel headed for the dance floor where others were blowing off "Been on a ship for way too long" steam.

 

Chapel headed over to Sarek. "Hello there."

 

He looked up and his expression lightened. "I saw you with your friends. I did not want to intrude."

 

She sat. "They're otherwise occupied tripping the light fantastic." And keeping who knew what other secrets from her. Would there be more revelations? God, had she really thought this would be fun?

 

"Are you all right, Christine?"

 

"Just dandy." It was what Len said when he wanted you to leave him the hell alone. She hated that she'd picked that up from him. "Traveling with us again?"

 

He nodded.

 

Tucking her feet under her, she leaned in. "It's funny how you're never on the Enterprise. Avoiding Spock?" It would explain his predilection for choosing her piece-of-shit ship over the luxury of a newly refitted flagship.

 

"I would never admit that."

 

"I think you just did. The other answer is a simple 'no.'"

 

"Your ability to be logical is, at times, inconvenient." He took a deep breath and he looked...tired.

 

"Are you all right?"

 

"Amanda has been in a great deal of pain. It comes and go—we've been told that will be the case for years probably. But I cannot help her and as I have told you, the medicines make her...distant."

 

"Yeah, they can do that. It's often the price of pain relief."

 

"I mean beyond the normal physical reactions to them. It makes her presence in the bond much weaker even when she is right next to me. I am accustomed to knowing she is there. I...rely on it."

 

"I’m sorry." She saw that Ny and Pavel were back at their stools, looking her way. She'd much rather stay with Sarek than go back to them, but she didn't want to lose the few friends she actually did still have. "I've gotta go, but we can talk more at dinner, if you want?"

 

"I do not have the energy for a crowded mess."

 

"Then we'll eat in your quarters or mine." She smiled gently and touched his hand for the briefest of moments so he could feel how much she worried about him. She thought it might be welcome—even if it was also entirely intrusive—since he was having trouble sensing the woman he was bonded to.

 

"You do not have to take care of me, Christine."

 

"I know that. But you're my friend, aren't you?"

 

He looked over at her, his eyes almost sad. "I am."

 

They held the gaze for a long time until he finally nodded and said, "I would appreciate the chance to talk."

 

"Then I'll see you later. " She stood and nearly walked into a member of his staff. "Excuse me."

 

"Indeed," was the woman's answer as she pushed past her. "Ambassador, you asked to see the balance of payments report when it came in."

 

"Yes, T'Keya. Thank you." He held his hand out for the padd she carried.

 

Chapel left them to work and walked back to the others.

 

"I never know what to say around him." Ny pretend-shuddered. "He's so...unforgiving."

 

"I don't think that's the side Christine sees." Pavel was smirking.

 

"Pavel, shut up." Chapel rolled her eyes.

 

"What? You have shown you like Vulcans." His smirk grew bigger.

 

Until Ny whapped him for Chapel. "Pavel, shut up."

 

##

 

Chapel was enjoying a rare free day in San Francisco while the ship was in for refits—and for a new captain, who she would finally get to meet tomorrow with the rest of the senior staff. She was about to go into her favorite bakery when she saw Amanda coming down the street.

 

Amanda walked as she always did, with a grace probably learned over the years on Vulcan wearing robes, even though she was dressed like any other human civilian. She smiled at Chapel as she got closer.

 

"Christine. I'm so glad to see you. Sarek has told me you've been keeping him company when he has to ride on the Danube. Let me buy you a croissant and we can catch up." She gestured toward the bakery. "You were going in there, right?"

 

"I was." Chapel worked very hard to keep any sign of "I know you're sick" from her face. When she was a nurse, she'd grown used to not reacting to crewmen who'd been to see her for some embarrassing ailment, so she considered herself quite good at this. "I'd love the company."

 

They got settled and ordered, and Amanda smiled as she seemed to study her. "You look different."

 

"I'm older."

 

"Pfff. Aren't we all?"

 

"I'm in charge."

 

"That's it. What is it they call it in the fleet? Command presence?"

 

Chapel smiled because that was exactly what they called it, and she didn't honestly think she had it yet, but she wasn't going to argue. She certainly had more of it than she would have second-stringing it under Len. "Thank you."

 

"You're very welcome, my dear. Although I do have to say that I think Spock was disappointed you left the Enterprise."

 

Chapel did her best imitation of a Vulcan, only both eyebrows insisted on going up. "I doubt that lasted long since he's with Nyota now—you don't have to protect me. I know and I'm fine with it." She started to laugh. "And does he always confide in you about his, um, feelings?"

 

"Oh, God, no. It was that V'ger meld making him into a Chatty Cathy. And it's long since worn off. I only know he's involved with Nyota because Sarek ran into them together."

 

"That must have been interesting." Chapel didn't mention Ny's uneasiness around Sarek. It seemed like gossiping and she hated that. People had gossiped about Roger and her, even before they were together. It made it easier to just go for what she wanted: everyone thought she was anyway.

 

"Well, my son missed out, Christine. I want you to know I've always been rooting for you."

 

She laughed. "Kiss of death. When does he ever do what's expected?"

 

"Well, that's certainly been the case with what Sarek wanted him to do." Her smile grew mischievous. "But I may have talked about Starfleet when he was little. In rather glowing terms." She laughed gently, an "Imagine that?" look on her face and Christine laughed with her.

 

But then her expression changed, growing more somber, and she leaned in. "I really do appreciate you taking time for Sarek. I can't—don't travel with him anymore." She didn't quite meet Chapel's eyes. "A personal issue."

 

"It's no bother. But I think he misses you. I'm a poor stand-in."

 

"You think so? He seemed quite content the last time he was on the Danube." There was something off in Amanda's voice, something wistful and hurt, and Chapel wanted more than anything to just tell her she knew she was sick.

 

But she'd promised Sarek she wouldn't. And making herself feel less awkward was not worth the price of Amanda knowing her secret had not stayed with her husband.

 

So she sat in a weird silence, feeling like that girl again who'd fallen for her professor and had to hide it.

 

Finally Amanda asked, "How long will you be you on Earth?"

 

"We leave the day after tomorrow."

 

"You should come to the embassy tomorrow night, then. A trio from Irixa is playing. Quite fantastic. You wouldn't believe how many of my friends have commed, trying to finagle an invite. " Amanda shifted in her seat as if she was suddenly uncomfortable, then she closed her eyes.

 

"Are you all right?" Anyone would ask at this point—Chapel didn't have to have any inside knowledge, and she was a doctor, for cripe's sake. "Amanda?"

 

"A back spasm. Nothing to worry about."

 

She remembered how her friend's dad would get sudden pains when the disease started, turning a normal outing into a quick trip back home.

 

Amanda took a sip of her coffee and smiled. "I'm serious. It's nothing. Now, tell me you'll come to the embassy tomorrow? Wouldn't you like a chance to get gussied up in something other than a dress uniform? A shame Spock won't be there. See what he's missing." She winked and Chapel laughed, charmed by the woman's impish humor.

 

But then she saw Amanda wince again, and her amusement died. "You're clearly in pain. Maybe I can help?"

 

"I have help." Amanda turned her wrist over and Chapel saw that she was wearing a pain patch. She looked like she was about to make light again of what was going on, but then her expression changed to defeated. "Do you know what Cadmius Syndrome is?"

 

Chapel nearly sighed in relief: they were going to talk about it. "I do. Is that what this is?"

 

For a second, Amanda looked like she might say it wasn't, that she'd only asked for information's sake. But then she slumped a little and nodded.

 

"Oh. I'm sorry." She reached over and took her hand.

 

"So, you see, there's nothing you can do to help. Except come to the embassy tomorrow and spend time with us. I don't want anyone to talk about you and Sarek spending time behind my back. This will show I approve."

 

Was someone talking about them? Chapel could feel herself reddening. "There's nothing to approve of. We're friends. And just new ones. Not really that close."

 

"Sweetheart, I know. But there are always people who get pleasure in causing trouble. I simply have no time for that. Especially not when I will be less and less able to accompany my husband. It's ironic, but he's always had an easier time talking to me, a human woman, than the Vulcans that surround him. I'm sure the same is true of his ease with you. So, be that ear for him. It's what I want."

 

"Does he know there's gossip?"

 

"It's hard to keep a secret from a Vulcan you're bonded to when you're angry—and I was angry when I got wind of this." Her expression changed. "Oh, not at you, darling. I'm mad at people who can't resist sticking their nose in where it doesn't belong."

 

"Maybe I shouldn't come. I don't want to make this worse."

 

"Oh, shush. The best way to meet anything is head on." She smiled, a game smile, the smile of a human woman who'd had to face down probably every Vulcan she met when she and Sarek first started. "I'll tell Sarek I told you I was ill. It will be good for him to be able to talk about it to you." She finished her coffee quickly and pushed the barely touched croissant away. "I'm afraid I have to go. I have stronger medicine at home."

 

She motioned for the server, but Chapel murmured, "Amanda, I've got this."

 

"Thank you, dearest. Now, I'll see you tomorrow, yes? Nine o'clock." She stood and waved Chapel back into her chair when she started to get up, then pulled out a small personal communicator and hit a combo of keys. "A flitter is on its way. Enjoy the rest of the day." She walked off as if she hadn't a care in the world, as if each step wasn't painful.

 

Chapel felt a rush of admiration for her as well as a huge sense of relief that she didn't have to feign ignorance anymore.

 

But if she found out who'd decided she and Sarek were doing anything improper, she was going to rip them a new one.

 

##

 

The Irixan trio was amazing. Chapel smiled as she closed her eyes and let the music almost carry her away. It reminded her of a trip to Buenos Aires she and Roger had taken just before he'd left Earth. They'd eaten too much and had too much wine and danced the tango, even though neither of them knew how, but they didn't care.

 

She didn't think she'd ever feel that way again. Not because Roger had ruined her for anyone else, but because she'd changed too much looking for him. The girl who could throw herself into that relationship, who would uproot everything to go look for her man, was gone.

 

Also, that was their last trip before she found out he was sleeping with other women and was unapologetic about the fact. It was hard to try to replicate that level of closeness when she knew she was sharing the man she loved with whoever he fancied at the moment—even if he tired of them quickly. Even if he didn't tire of her.

 

It made her sad, at least while the music played, and she could remember how it felt to be young and in love—and betrayed but unwilling to leave. She'd made a trade. Fidelity could go as long as she benefitted. His wife, his collaborator and co-author, and someday, she had hoped, the mother of his children.

 

Feeling emotional, afraid she was about to cry, she eased away from the others, her silk dress swishing pleasingly. She'd bought it on Risa and never had a chance to wear it since. It was modest but flattering, managing to be forgiving of problem areas but still enhancing the bits that should be highlighted. Amanda had been right: it felt good to get dressed up.

 

She walked into a courtyard, and then realized someone was standing behind her. Turning, she saw Sarek.

 

"You left the room quite precipitously. Are you all right?"

 

She smiled and blinked a few times. "The music is evocative."

 

"Yes, it is." He inhaled slowly, as if in meditation, and she wondered what emotions it had stirred up in him, what memories of his life with Amanda. "My wife told you she was sick."

 

She nodded. "But I didn't tell her that you'd told me. I didn't think you'd want me to."

 

"Thank you." He turned and she thought he was watching Amanda, who was smiling and doing a fabulous job of appearing to not be anything but perfectly healthy.

 

"She's remarkable, Sarek."

 

"Yes, she is."

 

The music changed, became sadder and deeper, and she could tell it was affecting Sarek. "Are you all right?"

 

"If I were not, I would be indulging emotions in a way unbefitting a Vulcan and doing no honor to my role as her husband. I must be strong."

 

"Maybe you shouldn't have invited Irixans to play, if that's the case."

 

He nodded, a small sigh escaping him. "I will remember that the next time my staff suggests booking them."

 

"Good plan." From what she could see, the rest of the Vulcans seemed to merely be appreciating the music as they would any other. None seemed particularly emotional.

 

How isolated was this man? Surrounded by fellow Vulcans who knew nothing of his pain. She imagined Sarek would do anything to keep it that way.

 

She realized a Vulcan woman was watching them, and her expression was a little stonier than the others. She looked familiar. "Who is that? In the light green robe."

 

Sarek glanced casually around the room then said, his voice tight, "T'keya. She is on my staff." Something changed in his expression, his lips tightening, his color darkening—was he blushing? Or was he angry?

 

"Does she not like you—or me?"

 

"She no doubt wonders why I am talking with you alone like this. She has remarked to Amanda on my choice of ships—how frequently I choose the Danube. The suitability of such a choice."

 

Holy shit—the gossip was a Vulcan? She'd seriously suspected Pavel.

 

She decided to play dumb. "Not sure I follow. Something wrong with the Danube?"

 

He looked disappointed in her. "My wife invited you here tonight. For a very specific reason. She is attempting what she termed an end-run to cut off any speculation."

 

She sighed. "If I'm causing a problem, then I'm sorry. I can remove myself—"

 

"You can enjoy the evening as our guest, as my wife intended." He indicated she should walk further into the courtyard. "And she will show anyone who is concerned that our friendship—that any private conversation we wish to have, such as now—is no threat to her or our relationship."

 

Chapel glanced back. Amanda was at the doorway and she gave a little wave, her smile brilliant. Was it a good day for her pain wise or was she that good an actress? "Should I be worried that neither of you appear to be concerned about how I feel about all this gamesmanship?"

 

"We are doing this as much for you as for ourselves."

 

She leaned in. "I was engaged to my advisor. It was a relationship that was frowned upon. I had to lie. I had to pretend. I had to do any number of things to keep his reputation from being sullied." Her reputation, on the other hand, was never Roger's concern. "I did it because I loved him. But worrying about stupid people saying stupid things isn't something I want to deal with again." Even if plenty of people had said it about Will and her. They'd been wrong, but they'd been certain. Bad combination. And looking back, those rumors might have been why the best ships hadn't lined up for her. She should have waited, served some time as deputy under a captain no one thought she was sleeping with, then made the switch with better options to choose from.

 

He moved closer. "We did not wish to upset you."

 

"It's just...it was bad enough when the rumors were true. But I'm just..." She realized she was tearing up—what the hell was wrong with her? "I mean, we're friends, right?"

 

"Yes."

 

"But on the ship. Friends there. Here...this feels weird." She saw an exit on the far side of the courtyard, one that led to the cloakroom and the way out. "Please, tell Amanda I enjoyed the music greatly."

 

"You do not have to leave, Christine."

 

"I think I do. I really think I do." She laughed and it wasn't a pretty sound. She wanted to find her friends and talk and have them tell her she was being stupid. But Ny was with Spock, and Jan—who the hell knew what she was doing? Still not answering Chapel's comms.

 

Why didn't she have more friends? Why was she always content with just a few close ones? It worked great until they were gone.

 

Sarek turned her and said softly, "Is there something else bothering you? This seems a minor thing to become emotional over."

 

"I'm a fucking human. We're emotional." She could feel her face reddening. "I mean—"

 

"Your meaning was quite clear." He sounded amused rather than offended. "Do you think I have never heard that word before? In worse ways than how you used it?" He touched her arm, letting his hand lie on her skin. "You are unhappy. Generally, not just about this."

 

She jerked free of his stupid telepathic hands. "Leave it alone."

 

"So only I am expected to share unpleasant truths?" He cocked his head and waited.

 

She finally said, "I don't like my job."

 

"Your posting, you mean? You seem to enjoy practicing medicine. And the posting will improve. Captain Talbot is being replaced by Captain Carson, is he not? "

 

"A man who, when introduced to me, called me a 'another refugee from the Enterprise' and then proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the 'get to know your new captain' meeting. I'm his goddamned CMO and he completely snubbed me." She closed her eyes. "Stupidest thing I did was flee the Enterprise."

 

"I disagree. I believe it was the wisest choice you could make given the circumstances. Carson will learn you are a fine officer and a person he can trust. Just as Captain Decker did. Just as I did." Sarek's voice was very gentle. "Give him a chance to surprise you."

 

"Surprise? A Vulcan advocating surprise?"

 

"It is unexpected, but also excellent advice, do you not agree?"

 

She nodded grudgingly.

 

"Go rest. I also sensed you are very tired."

 

"I am." She tried to give him a game smile. "It's making me stupidly emotional. I'm sorry."

 

"Do not be. Go. Rest. So you can be the competent officer we both know you are." With a last, gentle look, he turned and walked away.

 

She got her wrap from the young Vulcan manning the cloakroom and left, then pulled out her personal communicator and commed Jan. She just wanted to catch up, maybe get a drink and relax a little with someone who knew her from before—and wasn't dating her old crush.

 

"The person you have called is not available. Please leave a message."

 

She didn't.

 

##

 

Chapel was just finishing up some reports when she sensed someone in her doorway. Turning, she saw Sarek. "Long time, stranger. Avoiding me?"

 

"I thought it prudent to give you...space."

 

She laughed at the pun, if that's what he meant it as. "You didn't need to. I'm sorry I got upset at your party." She waved him into her office. "Take a load off."

 

He looked...tired. Haggard, even, for a Vulcan.

 

"Bad spell for Amanda?"

 

He nodded but seemed unwilling to go into it further than that.

 

"I'm sorry."

 

Again the nod.

 

"Are you mad at me?"

 

"Anger is an emotion." His voice lacked conviction, and even he seemed to realize it because he looked contrite. "I...I have missed talking to you."

 

She imagined he had. Who else could he talk to about what was going on with his wife? Chapel had provided a release and now it was gone, and he was probably feeling irritated. "I'm sorry."

 

He closed his eyes for a moment—a great concession to how comfortable he felt with her, she thought—and let his breath out in what was almost a sigh.

 

"I really am sorry, Sarek. I didn't mean you had to find a new ship to ride on. Or that you couldn't talk to me."

 

He didn't open his eyes, just gave her an almost defeated nod. Then he seemed to pull himself together, becoming the Vulcan ambassador before her eyes, the steely expression, the straight posture. She smiled gently to let him know she understood, that she appreciated his strength—or his ability to simulate it during a bad time.

 

"Has your relationship with Carson improved?" he finally asked.

 

"No. And I found out he's got his own person he wants in this slot and has been looking for a way to gracefully remove me. In a moment of startling synchronicity, Starfleet Medical wants me back—to teach a special course in emergency medicine to non-medical personnel—so I can conveniently save him the trouble of a 'Run Chapel out of town' campaign. They seem to think my experience as both nurse and doctor makes me uniquely qualified to teach average Joes how to patch up their comrades when they're parsecs from a med unit." Her voice held a trace of rancor she didn't mean to be there, but wasn't going to apologize for.

 

"I imagine it will be an excellent opportunity."

 

She cocked her head and gave him her best "Don't bullshit me" look.

 

"Or Carson may have a friend in Starfleet Medical who engineered this."

 

"Far more likely." She laughed, the sound just an angry puff of air. "I really should have stayed on the Enterprise." Except what would that have been like? Watching Spock and Ny happy? Working for McCoy...again.

 

Sarek met her eyes. "We are both unhappy, then."

 

"Seems like." Then she realized how selfish she was being. He was losing his wife to a long-term illness. She was just in a career slump. "But I'll be okay. Will you?"

 

"I am Vulcan. It is in my DNA to be...okay." He lifted an eyebrow, and it showed how little he believed the party line.

 

"You can always talk to me, you know. I'll be easy to find. May even have my own office."

 

He nodded, his eyes gentle. "It is a kind offer. I have appreciated your willingness to let me speak of personal matters.""

 

There was something final in the way he said it. Like he appreciated it but wasn't going to take advantage of her friendly ear anymore.

 

Maybe it was easier to unload secrets in space, where his wife was far away, to a woman he wouldn't happen to run into on Earth. He could vent and forget it until the next time he needed to unload.

 

She nodded her understanding.

 

But it still stung.

 

##

 

It was strange being on Earth after so many months on the Danube. Strange but good. She enjoyed the solid feel of her home planet under her feet and didn't miss the constant vibrations of the ship or the not-quite-fresh tang of recycled air. And she sure as hell didn't miss the captain or crew.

 

Which she knew was as much her fault as anyone else's. There were no doubt some very nice people on board, people who would have made fine friends, but she'd been of no mind to seek them out. Maybe she'd always sensed the job wasn't going to be one she should get too comfortable in.

 

She felt the same way about the course Starfleet had asked her to teach, it already had the feel of "been there, done that" to her.

 

And truth to tell, she missed seeing Sarek—or perhaps more accurately missed the time alone she'd had with him. He'd become a friend—an important one. He might think she'd been the one helping him, but he'd done a lot to keep her sane while she was on the ship. She saw him in the corridors of Starfleet Command frequently enough, and he always gave her a gentle nod, even stopped a few times to see if she prospered. But then they moved on and life went back to normal.

 

Sharing time was over. At least no one would be gossiping about them anymore.

 

She was heading back to Starfleet Medical after grabbing lunch in one of the auxiliary cafeterias, when she saw blonde hair and the familiar walk of her friend. "Jan?"

 

Jan didn't turn around, but Chapel was sure she saw her almost jerk, so she hurried past people and said, "Hey. Wait."

 

Jan slowed but didn't look at her, but from the side her jaw was tight. "I've got to get back. They don't give us long for lunch."

 

"OCS they? The place you didn't tell me you'd transferred to."

 

She turned and her expression, if anything, got colder. "Yeah. I'm in it. Finally." She seemed to put on speed.

 

"Jan, Jesus, wait. I haven't seen you for how long?"

 

"Well, now you have." The bite in Jan's voice gave the Arctic a run for frigidity.

 

A vague sense of panic filled her, a sense of being alone while surrounded by hundreds of people hurrying off to do important and difficult things. And she was teaching people how to fucking use a regenerator in zero-G? Her voice was way more pathetic than she wanted it to be when she said, "I thought you'd be happy I was back."

 

Jan's expression finally opened up a little. "I am. It's just...OCS is hard, you know. Takes up a lot of time."

 

She knew a bullshit excuse when she heard it. Jan could make time for her if she wanted to—she was one of the quickest studies she knew. "Right. I'm sure you're doing nothing but cramming for OCS finals." She turned, and was surprised at the way Jan grabbed her, the almost painful tightness of her grip as she pulled them out of the main traffic pattern and into a side corridor.

 

"You're the one who spent all the quality hours in school, Christine. You know how much work it is. Or is OCS not quite the same thing as your gazillion PhDs?" There was a note of something other than professional hurt under her voice. A note Chapel didn't understand.

 

"Why are you mad at me? What did I do?"

 

"I saw you with him."

 

"With who? With Spock?" Is that what had Jan up in arms—that she'd seen Chapel leaving Spock's quarters the night he'd wanted her to stay? She hadn't stayed—she'd left the ship instead. And she'd told Jan she was going to. What would piss Jan off about that?

 

"Not Spock." Jan's expression tightened. "Besides, Ny's with Spock. Happy with him, in point of fact."

 

If it was meant to hurt, it did. Chapel looked away. "Then who the hell are you talking about?"

 

"Who the hell do you think I am?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "The captain."

 

"If this is about Will—"

 

"My captain, Christine. James T. Kirk.  I waited for you to tell me and you never did. You transferred off, bitching the whole time about Spock as if I believed that was the reason."

 

"What?" Jan was talking about Kirk? What the hell?

 

"You were walking out of a bar with him. You were arm and arm—looked extra special cozy."

 

Chapel thought back. "Oh, shit, Jan. He'd taken me to meet Decker. He was pissed off at life in general and his wife in particular and got really drunk. He thought he had antitox with him but didn't—and neither did we. Will asked me to make sure he got home okay."

 

"So you tucked him in and made him warm antitox milk with a sex chaser?" The sarcasm oozing from Jan's voice wasn't something Chapel was accustomed to being on the receiving end of.

 

"No, I left him with his goddamned doorman and went home. You thought I was sleeping with Jim Kirk and all this time you never said anything?"

 

Jan finally seemed to drop some of her attitude, possibly at the sheer bewilderment Chapel knew had to be on her face.

 

In what universe would she sleep with James "T. is for 'Tonight's the Night'" Kirk?

 

"You really didn't?"

 

Chapel shook her head. "Why didn't you just ask me?"

 

"You were distant, Christine.  From the moment Decker picked you.  It was like suddenly you were in some new strata—one that didn't include me. And then Decker was dead and you were leaving the ship, so I thought Kirk was enforcing his 'Not in the Nest' policy and that's why you were fleeing. The whole thing with Spock coming on to you and you deciding he'd never love you enough...?  The Christine I knew would have made him love her.  So...what the hell was I supposed to think?"

 

So...this was her fault? Chapel rubbed her forehead, suddenly way too tired to deal with this. "I fled because of Spock, but not just because of him." And she hadn't stopped fleeing. Was teaching going to be any better than the Danube? Not that she'd had a lot of choice—Carson would have gotten her off his ship one way or another.

 

"Did you leave because Ny wanted Spock?  Any fool could see she was into him." There was still a trace of acid in Jan's voice, like jabbing ugly truths into Chapel was a goal.

 

"Because a guy is the only reason to leave? Oh wait, that's why you just left the ship, right? Again?" Something broke inside her, something dark and lonely and angry as hell. "The man you can't get. But a man I bet would break his rule in a second for the right woman." She stopped herself just short of saying for a smarter one.

 

But Jan seemed to know it. "I'm late." She turned and hurried off.

 

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Chapel leaned against the wall and held her hand up; she was shaking.

 

What the hell was wrong with her?

 

And who the hell was she going to talk to about it?

 

She closed her eyes and breathed in and out slowly, the way she used to when something had happened in the lab with Roger, when she'd had no one but him to talk to. When she'd been simultaneously in love and isolated—all her friends left behind by the lying and her precipitous rise.

 

She closed her eyes. Her rise. She was used to climbing high and fast. Was it so impossible for Jan to realize that Chapel was ambitious? That she probably would have had tenure at a university by now? That she could have been someone in the community that came first in her heart: science.

 

But she'd traded that community in for this one. For Starfleet. She'd risen once—Will had put her on the fast track—and she'd do it again. She'd be the best damn teacher Starfleet Medical had ever had and keep her eyes open for other opportunities, better ones, ones that would get her what she wanted: rank, significance, and the ability to make a difference.

 

And this time she wouldn't do it riding on the coattails of a man.

 

 

 

 

Part 2

 

 

Chapel surveyed the room full of Marines, Security, and Emergency Ops personnel,. Her class for the average Joe had turned into a serious seminar for people who often found themselves in the deepest shit, and she loved how many bizarre, but real-life, scenarios they presented her with.

 

In the back of the room, two doctors were learning the ropes. Not the medical part—any decent doctor with a specialty in emergency and trauma could teach this. It was how to deal with officers who were...well, high energy might be a kind way to put it. Wild. Out there. Gung ho.

 

Crazy. Most of them were some bit of crazy. But Chapel loved them and she suspected she had some crazy in her she'd never realized. It was probably why she'd stayed on the Enterprise as long as she had rather than going back to academia.

 

There was someone else in the back. Admiral Cartwright had a huge grin on his face as she taught what was her penultimate seminar. It had been his idea to tailor the generic class to one that would suit his people and other first responders, his doing she suspected that she'd gotten her lieutenant commander bars faster than she ever expected, and now he was pulling her into Ops itself.

 

She was terrified. And excited.

 

This was what she wanted. To matter. To make a difference. To live an exciting life. To have some fucking fun before she was too old to really enjoy it.

 

And not because some man wanted to sleep with her. Cartwright had never hit on her—had never even looked at her in a way that made her think he was interested in that. He was her champion because he liked her brain, not her boobs or legs or ass.

 

It was amazing. It was like working with Roger had been when they were just focusing on the science. Pure collaboration as they built this course together into something so far from a "Get this woman off my ship" excuse it was practically unrecognizable.

 

That it would take two officers to replace her made her warm inside. Excelling was good for the soul.

 

One of the doctors traded places with her, teaching this segment for the first time and seeming to get energy from the give and take with the students. Chapel didn't think the other doctor would find it as energizing. She tended to be more "by the book," and in the back of beyond, the book was often nowhere to be found.

 

Sort of like her best friends. She and Ny had lunch occasionally, and the hugs they opened and closed the occasion with never felt fake, but there was a Vulcan between them and Chapel thought they both knew it. It was just easier to keep some distance and preserve what they had to what extent they could.

 

The longer she taught this course, the more Chapel thought distance with Ny was the way to go. It was pragmatic. And left Ny's relationship with Spock not something she could resent overmuch.

 

But Jan... Sometimes Ny pulled all three of them together for a girls' night out, but if she left the table, an uncomfortable silence would fall almost immediately. They'd never found their way back to anything resembling normal, and Chapel wasn't sure why. If Jan still thought she'd slept with Kirk, then there was nothing she could do to convince her otherwise. But it hurt. That she wouldn't talk to her about it. Chapel had tried, at first, but she'd been too unhappy in general when she'd first gotten back to Earth to spend that much energy on Jan.

 

On anyone, really.

 

She'd avoided Sarek and Amanda as much as she could, too. Amanda was easier since she was rarely on the compound, but Sarek did cross her path from time to time.

 

They were more than cordial. Chapel always felt a flutter of warmth when she saw him, and she missed the closeness they'd forged on the Danube, but she had a feeling it had been situational and letting it go gracefully was her best bet.

 

It was the grown-up thing to do, and she was trying to be one of those. She'd let Roger run her life instead of making choices for herself, and then once he was gone, she'd derailed her entire life to find him.

 

How different would her life have been if she'd just let him stay lost? What might she be accomplishing? He'd left her behind when she could easily have been included on his mission, and if she'd been the woman she was now, she'd have given him back his ring and moved on.

 

So many things she'd do differently. But not worth dwelling on. This was her path now.

 

And it looked like a good one.

 

##

 

Her terminal was blowing up with shit that wasn't even an emergency. After a year of this, she no longer panicked when messages came in this fast. She took a deep breath and went through her queue the way she used to do triage during a crisis on the Enterprise. Critical, do now; critical, but can wait a bit; medium priority; admin shit she couldn't ignore but would have a good excuse to put off; and bullshit she could erase.

 

"Look at you go." A warm voice, one she thought she wouldn't hear anymore at Command.

 

"Admiral?" She turned and grinned at Kirk. "You can take the boy out of Starfleet but you can't take Starfleet out of the boy."

 

"Hardly a boy, Chris. And for God's sake, call me Jim. I'm retired." He looked good. Tanned and rested. "I was surprised when Matt told me you were working in Ops. Crazy is born here, you do realize that?"

 

She laughed. "Well, since you're hanging around here, I could say to go look in the mirror."

 

"I'm just taking your fearless leader out for his birthday."

 

"Crap. It's his birthday?"

 

He nodded. "He keeps it as under wraps as I try to do with mine. If, though, you wanted to surprise him in a way that would make him happy and not annoyed, a bottle of Balvenie would go a long way."

 

She leaned over the bank of terminals. "Hastings. You want a break?"

 

Hastings nodded with a grin that said he knew where he was probably headed. He always managed to sweet talk his way into a discount at the local mom and pop store. Well, actually it was a pop and pop store, and one of the pops had a wicked crush on him.

 

"Use what you have to get what you need." One of the many Ops mottos.

 

She tossed him the "Sunshine Fund" credit bar and pulled up his queue in case anything needed covering. Then she looked back at Kirk. "Any particular Balvenie?"

 

"I doubt you can afford the thirty, but they make a lovely twelve that won't push you all over your individual limits on what you can buy a direct supervisor and still be within regs." He winked.

 

Hastings laughed. "Got it, sir." And he was off.

 

She laughed as she watched him go—oh to be young and beautiful again.

 

"You love it here, don't you?" Kirk took in the room. "I wouldn't have figured you for the pace."

 

"I know. But I'm finding I get bored easily. Way more than I used to. This job, it's always something new."

 

His expression changed. "New is good."

 

She wondered if it was possible he was already bored with retirement—and the gorgeous woman he'd retired for. Chapel hadn't met Antonia, but she'd seen her: the face that launched a thousand ships—and grounded one man.

 

He seemed to throw off whatever he was feeling and grinned again, the megawatt smile she was used to. "So Matt can't say enough good things about you."

 

"After the Danube, I will never take being tight with the boss for granted again."

 

"That was a crap posting with Talbot. And Carson, well, he's known for bringing his own with him. They're known as the Carsonites."

 

She laughed but wondered if anyone had a name for Kirk's inner circle. The Kirkettes, maybe?

 

"Listen, Antonia and I are throwing a party at our house in the mountains next weekend. You should come. Matt'll be there."

 

"He and I aren't...you know. I mean I know I was involved with Roger, but that's not me anymore."

 

He rolled his eyes. "I just meant you'd know someone other than me if you came."

 

"What about the old Enterprise gang. I'll know them."

 

"The old gang will be on a training cruise." He looked wistful. "And Antonia wants to have the party now, not reschedule."

 

Chapel wondered whether Antonia had checked to make sure the Enterprise would be away before she chose this weekend. Keep her man free from the people most likely to make him nostalgic for his old life? If she was smart—and Chapel couldn't imagine Kirk staying long with a dumb woman—she would.

 

And it wasn't like Chapel minded them being gone. She didn't begrudge Ny and Spock the happiness they seemed to have found, but that didn't mean she wanted to watch it close up.

 

"I'd love to come."

 

"Great. Now try using my first name." He leaned over and programmed something into her personal comm unit. "The address and our number. People will probably be showing up around noon."

 

"I'll be there. Jim."

 

"That's better." He nodded to someone behind her. "Be right there, Matt." As he turned, he whispered, "Remember I never told you about his birthday."

 

"Got it."

 

As he moved away, she went back to screening the comms and acting on the ones that were time sensitive. By the time Hastings got back—with a bottle of the thirty-year-old; she didn't want to know how much flirting it had taken to get that—his queue was sorted the way he liked.

 

She sent a quick all-hands text—excluding Cartwright, of course—about the birthday, and that it was a secret how they knew today was the day, and heard snickers around the bay.

 

"You're a god," she said to Hastings as she stashed the bottle in her desk drawer.

 

"You're a goddess," he said as he checked out his queue.

 

Then they both went back to work. The one constant in this job: queues never stayed clear for long.

 

##

 

"Chapel, get in here." Cartwright could be heard throughout the bay.

 

She finished pouring her coffee, then winked at Hastings and said, "Ah, I love the dulcet tones of our lord and commander when he bellows," before double-timing it into Cartwright's office.

 

"You ready to up your game?"

 

"Meaning?"

 

"Quit being a computer jock and hit the field?"

 

She didn't even try to hide a very excited smile as she said, "Absolutely, sir."

 

"You're going to be working with diplomatic. It's not our preference, but often what happens."

 

She rolled her eyes at the crap diplomats often piled onto the already heavy emergency load.

 

"Gonna be with Ambassador Sarek."

 

She tried to hide her surprise. "Oh."

 

"He asked for you specifically. He's picky about which of my folks he includes on his missions. Something I should know, Christine?"

 

She laughed and rolled his eyes. "Yes, we're having a mad, passionate affair and he wants me near him. Jesus, Matt, he's a Vulcan. He considers me competent—I take that as a very great compliment."

 

"Easy, tiger. I didn't realize you knew him is what I meant."

 

"He rode the Danube a lot."

 

"Why in God's name would he do that?"

 

She didn't think Sarek would appreciate her airing his and Spock's dirty laundry, so she just said, "He had his reasons."

 

"And I can see I'm getting nothing more out of you." He leaned back and his look changed. "That was damn good Scotch, you all gave me."

 

"You finish it yet?"

 

"I'm savoring it. Taking my time. Did Jim tell you it was my birthday?"

 

She shrugged.

 

"He also knows my favorite scotch."

 

"So do other people, sir."

 

"So you're sirring me now, huh? Had to be Jim." He sighed. "I'm worried about him. He seemed manic to me—did he seem that way to you? Like he was trying to convince himself he was happy doing nothing."

 

"Well, he doesn't need to do nothing. Retirement doesn't mean not making a difference."

 

"Agreed. But a man like him needs to be in the stars. I give him a few more months and then we'll see a memo that Admiral Kirk is back."

 

She laughed. "I wouldn't bet against it." Not because Kirk had looked bored, but because Antonia reminded Chapel of someone trying desperately to hold on to someone or something they were sure they were going to lose. Which was sad because Antonia was a sweetheart and it was clear Kirk really cared for her.

 

But space was probably something he loved more. And always would be.

 

Well, Antonia would have to learn to share. Plenty of people made it work with half of a couple on terra firma and the other roaming the stars.

 

No reason Kirk couldn't be happy. In fact, Chapel thought he more than deserved it.

 

##

 

Chapel looked around the briefing room on the Celestia. She almost laughed at how the Ops personnel stood out, just from the way they stood, the way they never quite relaxed. She imagined with all the sitting around negotiation tables the diplomatic folks did, relaxing became a survival technique.

 

Sarek ended the meeting and as the others filed out, said, "Commander. A word?"

 

She waited for everyone to exit and the doors to close before she said, "Just one word?"

 

"Sit."

 

"That's the word?" She laughed as she pulled out the chair next to him out and sat. "Long time since we've had any alone time."

 

"Indeed."

 

"Cartwright said you asked for me by name. Color me surprised."

 

"Did he wish to know why?"

 

She nodded. "I told him you admired my competency."

 

"That is true." He seemed to relax. "But I have also missed you."

 

She dropped the 'tude. "And you're willing to admit it? How much has the Cadmius progressed?"

 

"Extensively. And not." He didn't appear to want to correct such imprecision, but she didn't need him to. She could remember how it went with her friend's father.

 

"I'm really sorry." She reached out and took his hand, not caring how beyond appropriate it was.

 

He didn't pull away. In fact, he laid his other hand over hers, pushing down and closing his eyes as if taking comfort in the contact. They stayed like that for a long moment, then he let her go. "You are happy."

 

He didn't phrase it as a question probably because he'd read it straight from her. Despite her sympathy for him and for Amanda, she was generally happy these days. She didn't feel the need to elaborate, though—not when his life wasn't heading in the most positive of directions—so she just nodded and gave him the gentlest smile she was capable of.

 

"I wished that for you. That you would find a place that would give you the satisfaction you deserve."

 

"Thank you."

 

"It was self-indulgent of me to request you."

 

"I don't care. I've missed you, too."

 

His lips almost ticked up.

 

"I wish to apologize, Christine. I...used you, as a sounding board, a giver of sympathy. Your name—your reputation—could have been sullied by the choices I continued to make simply because your company brought me comfort. I was weak."

 

"We were both alone, Sarek. Alone but with people in our lives who normally would have served those functions, no?"

 

He nodded.

 

 "Aren't you worried it will happen again?"

 

"T'Keya is no longer on my staff." He said it with as bitter a tone as she'd ever heard from him.

 

"And she was the sole problem? No one else will draw unwelcome conclusions if you seek me out?"

 

He let out a puff of air and she stared at him in surprise. There was nothing else for the sound to have been but a laugh—and a wry one at that.

 

"What's funny?"

 

"Ironic, to be accurate. T'Keya is T'Pring's sister. After what happened, there were harsh feelings between Amanda and T'Pring's mother T'Danra. I thought that I could help by bringing T'Keya onto my staff, by showing we wished the family no ill. She was always the more brilliant of the two—the more dutiful also. She was an exemplary member of my staff, a high performer."

 

"And she betrayed you."

 

"I do not know that she did." He met her eyes, his own dark, as if he was still struggling with this. "I have never been able to ascertain her motives. If she was protecting my wife from what she saw her sister do to Spock. Or if she was punishing her for T'Pring's fate. To be Stonn's property."

 

"As I understand it, T'Pring's fate was of her own choosing."

 

"That is so. But Stonn chose another to wed. As was expected by everyone but T'Pring apparently. She took her case to whomever would listen. But tradition stood."

 

"I feel for her. She loved another and paid the price."

 

"Yes. But she should have married Spock and taken Stonn as a lover if she wanted to keep her status. Having Stonn as her husband was never an option."

 

"A fact I find repugnant."

 

He looked taken aback.

 

"Sarek, some of your ways are barbaric. For all of your logic. I'm sorry. I call it as I see it. She became property because she didn't want to marry someone chosen for her when she was a child. That's horrible." She leaned in. "And frankly, we might not admit a culture that treated its women that way into the Federation, so I guess it's a good thing Vulcan was one of the founders."

 

He sat very still, his eyes hard.

 

She didn't look away, even though she really wanted to.

 

Then he closed his eyes. "That thought has occurred to me, as well, Christine."

 

It seemed a monumental admission. One that hung between them for a long time. Then he waved his hand, as if he could wipe the conversation away. "As if I am a typical Vulcan? With my human wife and sons—son I cannot control."

 

"You said sons. Plural."

 

"You misheard."

 

"Bullshit." She didn't know why she was pushing at him this way. About T'Pring. About anything. Was she mad at him for leaving her alone for so long when they had been so comfortable talking openly? "I'm sorry. Never mind." She got up quickly. "I'll see you tomorrow. 0800, right?"

 

"Sit down."

 

She didn't.

 

"I have another son. His name is Sybok. He chose to freely embrace his emotions and was exiled from Vulcan. He is not spoken of—by me, our family, anyone."

 

She sat back down. "You and Amanda had two sons, then?"

 

"No. I was bonded to a Vulcan woman before Amanda."

 

"You divorced?"

 

"No. She died." He met her eyes. "She did not approve of our son's behavior. Saw it as his way to reach out to Amanda. To her humanity. To show he did not disapprove of my relationship with her."

 

"Wait, you were with Amanda...?"

 

"My Vulcan wife and I could not divorce with a bond in place, but we could choose to live apart. And who we lived with once we separated was no longer the other's concern. Except of course every..."

 

"Seven years," they said together.

 

"Spock knew him?"

 

"Idolized him. Until he went too far. Spock was attempting to conform with Vulcan expectations, to not be judged for his humanity, and his full-Vulcan brother was mocking convention." He met her eyes. "I should not be telling you this. Do you understand that? This is not spoken of."

 

"You never said anything." She reached out for his hand, holding tightly, this time wanting him to read her sincerity—her ability to keep a secret. "What other son? What other wife? I have no idea what you're talking about." 

 

"Thank you." He gently extricated his hand. "I am hungry. Perhaps you could accompany me to the mess hall? We could speak of less weighty matters. For example, you could explain how teaching a class you were not sure you'd enjoy at Starfleet Medical led to a position in Emergency Operations."

 

"I could do that. Before we go, though, if I've offended you, I'm sorry. These days I speak my mind, and I'm not sure I always care if it hurts people."

 

"You did not hurt me. I did not expect to speak of most of the things we have discussed, but it was not your fault that we did. It was no doubt an emotional break on my part. I am not at my best without my wife."

 

"I know." She waited to see if he wanted to say any more, but he simply shook his head gently before indicating she should lead them to the mess hall.

 

As they walked, she heard him say very softly, "I am grateful you are here."

 

"So am I."

 

##

 

"Chapel?" Cartwright's voice boomed out and just once she wished he'd opt for a text. Her head was killing her from too much drinking at an impromptu Ops happy hour that had turned into an Ops all-nighter. The antitox she hadn't remember to take until this morning had gotten rid of most of the hangover but the headache didn't want to give up.

 

"Sir?" she said as she walked into his office, then realized someone was sitting at the small table in his room.

 

"Got a new member of the team, starting next week. Figured you'd want to train her up personally."

 

"Commander Chapel," Jan said, her formality masking hostility that apparently Cartwright wasn't seeing.

 

"Lieutenant Rand."

 

"Oh, cut it out, you two. I know you go way back. She's on comms for now. But I expect her to get the full cross training, yeah?"

 

"Yes, sir." Chapel looked at Jan and gave her the best smile she could muster. "You'll like it here." She wasn't actually sure that was true. "It's a great place to work." That, she believed.

 

"I'm looking forward to it." She stood. "Sir, I have a meeting to get to."

 

"Bet you won't be sorry to leave those behind. See you on Monday, Janice."

 

"Thank you, sir." She nodded—a bit warily it seemed to Chapel. "Christine."

 

"Jan."  She watched her friend leave, trying to figure out how she felt about this enforced closeness they'd be enduring.

 

Cartwright seemed unaware of the dynamic. "She does well here and she'll be a lieutenant commander before she knows it." He looked up at her. "Did you happen to glance at the promotion list?"

 

"It's not out yet."

 

"Oh, that's right. It's not out yet." He pulled her in to look at his screen. "Congratulations, Commander. Maybe now you can afford decent antitox." He waved her out of his space. " Christ on a crutch, woman, you look like shit today. I thought finding out you'd be serving with a friend would perk you up some. Guess not. Go get some lunch before you fall down."

 

"Yes, sir." But she didn't leave, just stared at his terminal.

 

"It's for real, Christine. Full commander is one of the big ones. Most people don't get that high."

 

She smiled, a real smile. "I know, Matt. I'm thrilled, really. But...shocked, too. I mean I hoped but..."

 

"Well, now you know. List will be released tomorrow morning."

 

"Thanks." She turned and hurried back to her station, finishing up a few things and then sending the queue to her back-up.

 

Fortunately Ops was near the cafeteria, and she got her food and sat, wishing she'd opted for a power nap over food, when she heard a soft cough behind her. She turned and saw Sarek standing behind her. He wasn't holding a tray.

 

"If you wish to be alone...?"

 

"Sit." She smiled as he sat across from her in the booth.

 

"Are you all right?"

 

"Oh, late night." Then she started to laugh. "And, uh, I just found out I've made Commander."

 

His eyes shone; he seemed sincerely pleased for her. "Congratulations."

 

"Thanks. So, what's the occasion? Another mission you want me on?" There had been several more since the last one.

 

"Undoubtedly there will be, but that is not what I wanted to say. Amanda's health has improved under a new therapeutic regime, one that is best continued on Vulcan."

 

"That's excellent." She knew she was beaming—both for him and for Amanda.

 

"We will be gone for some time. I wished...I wished to say goodbye."

 

"For now." At his look, she laughed. "Goodbye for now. You're coming back, right?"

 

"Yes. Eventually. But..." He looked down and seemed to be searching for the right words. "I did not want you to think that this was like the last time. When I let our friendship lapse with no explanation."

 

"Thank you, but you don't have to tell me that. This is wonderful for you. I hope she responds well to the new treatment."

 

"As do I. I...I love my wife, Christine."

 

"I know that." Although she thought it was indicative of his state of mind that he would speak of love so easily. He needed this—his wife back. Strong and healthy. "Safe travels, my dear friend."

 

He met her eyes and held them for a long time, then seemed to have to force himself to look away and get up. He seemed to be searching for some alternative to goodbye.

 

"The French say it best, Sarek. Au revoir."

 

"Until I see you again."

 

"Just exactly. Godspeed. And give Amanda my love." She wanted to pull him in for a hug but settled for a huge grin instead, and watched him until he disappeared into the corridors of Command.

 

##

 

"Hey, stranger." Chapel embraced Kirk then let him pull her into line in the cafeteria.

 

"You got time to sit?"

 

"Sure." They grabbed some food and as they found a booth to settle into, she said, "Wow, look at you, back in uniform. How's Antonia feel about that?"

 

His expression changed and she instantly felt bad. "Oh, shit, Jim. No. I really liked her."

 

"I did, too." He sighed. "She didn't want to share me with space. I'm not sure why I have this impeccable ability to find women who can't share me with the stars."

 

"I'm not, either. And I'm sorry. I really am."

 

"I don't want to talk about it. I do want to talk about a certain promotion."

 

She mock squealed. "Have I got them snookered or what?"

 

"I'm so proud of you, Chris."

 

"Thanks. I'm pretty proud of myself, too." She focused on eating for a bit, but studied him. He seemed down, despite the rah-rahs for her. "Do you need distracting? I have funny things the Matt's said about the Klingons."

 

Kirk laughed. "I'm all right. Or I will be. Spock's letting me tag along on the next training cruise. It'll be right after my birthday. Fifty." He sighed in a dramatic way.

 

"Hey, older is better than the alternative." She laughed at his expression. "The stars will make it better."

 

"They always do." He reached out and squeezed her hand. "I'm glad you're happy, Chris. I never felt good about demoting you. You'd worked so hard and I thought when I did it, that it was temporary, you know? We would beat the big threat and then Decker would get the ship back."

 

"I was mad; I won't lie. But I'm over it."

 

"I can tell." He gave her hand another squeeze, then let go. "So you seeing anyone? Please tell me one of us is happy in love."

 

"Nope. I'm trying a new path. Getting to know me. Who I am. What I want. What I'm capable of, you know?"

 

"All good things. But they won't keep you warm at night."

 

She laughed. "I have a comforter that does that just fine. And if I want some physical release, there are always temporary solutions for that."

 

"Yeah. I think that's what I'm going to be focusing on. I kind of thought I was in for the long haul with Antonia, but joke's on me."

 

"Well your girl will be very happy to have you back." At his look, she rolled her eyes. "The Enterprise, dimwit."

 

"Oh, right. I hope she is. I've tried to stop thinking of her that way. Tried to let her go. Hope she's not mad at me for it."

 

"She'll love you forever. Duranium is very faithful."

 

His laugh rang out and she looked around to see who was near them. She was met with very hostile eyes from across the room. Jan, sitting with Ny, glaring at her.

 

"Fuck," she said under her breath.

 

"Excuse me."

 

"Nothing." Nothing except a whole lot more bitchiness to look forward to. Ny looked upset, too, but Chapel had no idea why. Maybe Spock had forgotten an anniversary.

 

She turned her attention fully back to Kirk. "So, does this mean you have to give up that beautiful house in the mountains?"

 

His expression was mournful as he nodded. "And Butler."

 

"The great dane? That's not right."

 

"He's better off with her." A statement that made him laugh bitterly, in a way Chapel didn't completely understand. "Story of my life."

 

"You lose a lot of dogs?"

 

"Something like that." His comm unit buzzed. "Shit. Morrow wants me." He took a last bite of his sandwich, then got up. "It was great seeing you."

 

"Same here. Oh, and happy early birthday."

 

"Yeah"—he stuck out his tongue at her—"thanks."

 

She wolfed down the rest of her meal, put her tray in the recycler, then walked over to Jan and Ny. "Hi."

 

Jan's "Hi," was full of hostility but Ny's just sounded lost.

 

Chapel crouched down. "What's wrong?"

 

"She and Spock broke up. Not that you'd care."

 

"Jan, please." Ny moved over so Chapel could slide into the booth. "It was so nice at the start, you know? And then, things fell apart. Or not fell, exactly. They sort of slid, gently. We're still friends. There's no drama."

 

"I hate it when there's no drama. I want to be able to hate someone with a clear conscience." Jan was staring right at Chapel as she said it.

 

Chapel decided to ignore the jab. "I'm sorry, Ny. For what it's worth, I thought you two were really good together."

 

"Yes, because you spent so much time with them."

 

"Jan, what's your fucking problem?" Chapel pitched her voice low, so it would stay in their booth. "Is it because I was having lunch with a man you can't let go of? Because if that's the case, get over it. I got over Spock, you can get over Kirk."

 

"Does that mean you're with him?" Ny sounded confused.

 

"No, I'm not with him. I've never been with him. Why in the hell would I be with him?"

 

"I don't know." Ny held a hand up. "I never thought you were."

 

Chapel leaned in. "Jan, for the last time, nothing is going on. He was in the cafeteria when I walked in. We didn't have prior plans to meet—it was just spontaneous." She didn't see Jan's expression giving any quarter. "Jan, please? I don't want to fight. We work together. If we can't be close like we used to, can we just find a way to get along?"

 

She finally saw Jan give a hard swallow, the kind you do when you're upset, or scared even. She moved while she had the opening. "I don't want to lose you." Which wasn't entirely true. But if it made Jan ease off the animosity, she'd put her whole being into trying to make it sound earnest.

 

"I'm sorry. You two just seemed so at ease. I...I lost it." Jan sighed and Chapel thought she heard a world of negativity being let go with the sound. "I'm sorry, Christine. I really am. You keep so much stuff to yourself, these days. I feel—excluded.  Even working with you, I feel like I don't know you."

 

"There's nothing to exclude you from. There's work. That's pretty much it right now." She saw them both nod. "For all of us, I guess."

 

Ny looked up, with the "fuck this" expression in her eyes that Chapel had seen so often during their first voyage. "I say we all go out. Dress up. Find some boys. Use them till they cry. And move on."

 

"Can we skip the crying part," Chapel muttered and heard Jan laugh—she felt a stunning amount of relief at the sound.

 

"Fine. But we're definitely picking up some boys." Ny glared at them both like they were going to argue with her. "This weekend. Before I ship out and am stuck taking orders from the man I used to make love to." She looked like she might lose it for a moment, then put her chin up. "Well, fuck him, too. Or not. Not ever. He's losing out. Kiss all this goodbye, Spock." 

 

"That's the spirit, Ny. We'll show all those stupid guys," Jan said, and smiled at Chapel.

 

For once, they seemed in perfect accord.

 

##

 

Chapel sat stunned, unsure what she was seeing in the private comm from Ny. In a week of bizarre and heartbreaking moments, this was the strangest: Spock was alive again, and Ny was exiled with Kirk and the rest of the crew on Vulcan—with a stolen bird-of-prey in place of an Enterprise that Kirk had apparently destroyed while resurrecting Spock.

 

She walked into Cartwright's office and showed him her comm unit. "Does any of this make sense to you? I know you were just up with the CINC."

 

"He's done it now," Cartwright said as he paced the room. "Goddamn it, what was he thinking? They'll want his head on a pike."

 

She realized he was looking at her. "Who will? Starfleet?"

 

"The Klingons. Who the hell else? They were already spun up after Khan set off Genesis. Now this?" He stopped and stared at her. "He needs a champion."

 

"Okay."

 

"A respected ambassador comes to mind."

 

"Sarek's been through enough."

 

"You can get him back here."

 

"I can? What's that supposed to mean?"

 

"Christine, he always asks for you. Clearly, he feels comfortable with you. I don't know why and I don't care to know. Just...use it. Get him here to testify on Jim's behalf." He leaned in. "All the council is hearing right now is from the so-called injured parties. What's going to happen if no one speaks for him? Do you have any idea what a Klingon prison is like? There's no justice there, just barbarism and survival of the fittest. Is that where you want your friends to go?" He did something to his terminal then stood. "Private channel—and I do mean 'private.' I'll give you the room. Call him. Please?"

 

"Okay." She took his place at the terminal, waited for him to leave, then located Sarek's number via Spock's emergency contact information in the Starfleet Medical directory and commed him.

 

Amanda answered. "Christine?"

 

"I need to speak to Sarek. About a mutual friend who is in deep trouble."

 

"Hold on, dear." The screen went blank for a moment, then Sarek's face filled it.

 

"You know how much trouble a certain admiral is in?"

 

"I do. I feel partly responsible. I asked him to bring Spock's katra home."

 

"I have no idea what that is, and you can explain it later if you think I should know, but we need you here. From what I understand, the conversations in the council are, shall we say, one-sided and calling for blood. He needs an advocate. A respected one."

 

"I am not objective. He just returned my son to me."

 

"You are Sarek of Vulcan. You are renowned for putting the greater good over the needs of any one person. They will listen to you. You will make them listen to you."

 

"I did not realize you and Kirk were close."

 

"We're not really. But...he's been good to me. And a very long time ago, I let him down." She hated thinking about all the things she could have done differently in those caverns when they found Roger. "I owe him this. I'm not asking for much. Over and back. I know it's inconvenient, but Amanda looks really good so I think you can leave her, yes?"

 

His expression changed.

 

"What?"

 

"She has stopped responding to the treatments. They are trying new combinations to see if they can maintain effectiveness. For now she is well but..." He looked away. "But yes, for now I can leave her. I will be there as soon as I can."

 

"Thank you."

 

She punched the button that opened the door and Cartwright turned. "He's coming." She got up and swayed a little.

 

How could Spock be alive? She'd cried, alone, in her apartment. Then used a regenerator so Jan wouldn't see she'd mourned.

 

Why the hell did she have to hide it from her friend? Because she'd said she'd moved on, and she had, but still—he died.

 

Cartwright was at her side. "You okay?"

 

"I don't understand anything. I'm not part of this." If there was ever a time it was clear she was not a member of the inner sanctum, this was it.

 

And yet it was she who would bring Kirk's advocate to Vulcan. What had Sarek been going to do? Stay on Vulcan and leave the man who saved his son to twist in the wind?

 

"Why don't you go home? You don't look good."

 

"No. Home is the last place I need to be." She walked to her station, sat, and began going through her queue.

 

The whole quadrant was going to shit.

 

But Sarek was on her way. If anyone could make sense of it, it was him.

 

##

 

She walked past the post-whale-probe clean-up efforts and found Sarek about to enter the council chamber. His look was gentle as he greeted her.

 

"I almost got you killed. I'm sorry."

 

"You did not mean to."

 

She laughed. "You're right." She could feel a yawn starting, tried to stop it, and failed.

 

"When did you last rest?"

 

"I have no idea. I'm so tired. I'll sleep tonight, though."

 

A chime sounded and the doors to the chamber opened. They followed others in, and Chapel stuck close to him and Gillian, the stowaway who was apparently going to be on a science vessel. Chapel wasn't sure what to make of that.

 

And then Spock joined them. Alive. Off, somehow. Stiffer than she remembered. But there. Maybe...?

 

He met her eyes and nodded pleasantly, but there was a hint of wariness in his eyes. Apparently, resurrection did not make the heart grow fonder.

 

It was almost a relief to let it go. The wanting. The love. All of it. He was never going to be hers.

 

Another chime, and people began to take their seats. Sarek murmured, "Are you all right?" to her and she nodded, then went to sit by Jan who gave her a game smile. They were trying to make their friendship stronger. It was work, when before hanging around together had been the easiest of things to do, but at least they were trying.

 

The hearing didn't go how she expected, much to her delight. Once it was done, she hurried down to Ny and hugged her tightly. "I'm so glad you're okay."

 

"So much to tell you." But given the sad way she looked at Spock, Chapel didn't think it was that they'd gotten back together. "Gotta see this new ship first, though."

 

Chapel nodded and left the chamber, heading off to a rarely used corridor where she knew she could be alone and just sit in the quiet.

 

She'd nearly died. They'd all nearly died, and there would have been no handy-dandy Vulcan resurrection ritual to bring them back once the whale-probe got done with them.

 

Sarek had nearly died because of her. She'd asked him to leave Amanda and what if he'd never gone home? Who would have taken care of her?

 

"You seem pensive."

 

She didn't even question that he'd found her here. "Big thoughts rattling around in my tired head."

 

He sat, and his robes gave off a subtle scent of incense, one that she enjoyed—that made her feel safe. "You were happy to see my son." He met her eyes.

 

She didn't look away. "He couldn't have cared less that I was happy to see him. I think—I think that was the stake in the heart that this stupid crush needed. Nothing's ever going to happen between him and me."

 

His eyes seemed unusually intense. "I am unsure what to say."

 

She laughed. "You could forget about Spock and give me a rash of shit over nearly getting you killed."

 

"I could. But I do not wish to." He leaned back. "I am tired, too, Christine."

 

She studied him, trying to be a doctor, not just his friend. "So the treatments—she's not better?"

 

"Better than when we left for Vulcan, but less well than she was a week ago. The improvements stopped precipitously. The doctors are unsure if the disease mutated or if the formula they used was bound to have limited effectiveness once the body developed a tolerance for it."

 

"But they'll tinker with it. Until they get it right. It's often frustrating, but they'll figure it out."

 

"It is kind of you to try to lessen my concern. It is futile, however. I do not foresee a miracle cure for my wife." He sounded forlorn as he said the brutal truth. Then he turned to her, his eyes hard and demanding. "Do you?"

 

"No, but Vulcans are brilliant. They will surely find the right mixture—"

 

"She is human, Christine. How much time do you think they will spend attempting to create a cure for a disease to which Vulcans have natural immunity? A cure that will benefit one woman and the small percentage of others who develop it on Earth."

 

"The needs of the many...?"

 

He nodded. "I have not told her this. I tell her they make progress. I cannot tell if she knows I am lying or not."

 

"Sometimes lying is the kindest thing to do."

 

"It is all I do with her these days. You and I speak truth so often. I would have that back with my wife." He rubbed his eyes.

 

"Sarek, go to the embassy and get some sleep. Despair and exhaustion go hand in hand." Another Emergency Ops truism, but one she could get behind as a doctor.

 

"I will go if you also go home."

 

"Not how it works. I'll leave soon. I just can't leave now. But you can. So go."

 

He stood and walked away but then turned abruptly. "I want you to know that I value your friendship greatly."

 

She gave him as brilliant a smile as she could muster. "I feel the same way."

 

##

 

Chapel sat with Ny and Jan in a club that she really hadn't wanted to come to, but they were making strides the three of them, looking more like the solid pack they used to be and less like people who just worked together, and she didn't want to do anything to get in the way of that.

 

She'd missed them.

 

"Dance?" a man asked who'd sidled up next to her at the bar and already asked if he could buy her a drink. She'd held up her nearly full one as an answer but he was definitely not in the hint-taking department.

 

"No thanks," she said.

 

It wasn't that he wasn't a nice looking man or that he smelled bad. She just was tired and not in the mood for someone new.

 

"Could you be any more of a bitch to them?" Jan shook her head. "And you wonder why I think you have someone on the side you're not telling us about?"

 

"If I had someone on the side I wasn't telling you about, I'd be dancing with whoever asked." It was what she'd done when she was with Roger. She glanced at Ny, who was watching the dancers with a look dark enough to scare away potential suitors. "What's her story?"

 

"She and Spock had a long talk. A not good long talk."

 

"Ugh." But Chapel felt a surge of annoyance. Why did Ny always tell Jan this kind of stuff and not her?

 

"Also, she had a fling with Scotty under the influence of Spock's brother's woo woo. And how did I miss he had a brother? Did you know?"

 

"I'd have told you." Which was partially true. During their first mission, she would have. "And Scotty?"

 

"She's a little sensitive about it. Also about some wacky fan dance she did. Naked. Don't ask unless you want to be seared by her crazy laser-beam eyes."

 

"I can hear every word you're saying," Ny said, not turning away from the dance floor.

 

The peril of spending a life picking meaningful signal out of tons of noise was probably that you heard everything whether you wanted to or not.

 

She finally turned and stared hard at Chapel. "If you say anything to anyone about any of this, I will hunt you down and kill you." She looked entirely serious so Chapel held up her hands in surrender. "And Scotty was nice. He...he gave me warmth when I needed it. When Spock was so cold, and then when he wasn't but still didn't want me back." She looked at both of them. "How am I supposed to work with him?"

 

"Transfer off," they said as one.

 

But Chapel knew she wouldn't. She was part of the club, and she didn't want to start over somewhere else being an outsider. Also, truth to tell, she'd homesteaded so long with Kirk, people had probably stopped considering her. She'd need to make the first move, possibly take a less appealing job, just to show she was serious about trying new things.

 

"What if you and Roger had broken up, Christine?" Ny shook her head. "You had projects in common, right? It would have been hard to leave?"

 

"What project do you and Spock have in common?" Jan rolled her eyes.

 

Ny looked hurt. "Years of missions."

 

"Those are memories, not projects." Jan looked at the door and her expression changed. "Jesus, can we never be free of them?"

 

Chapel followed her gaze and saw Kirk and Len. They smiled when they saw them, maneuvered through the crowd, and she could tell Kirk was going to ask her to dance so as subtly as she could she shook her head and nodded toward Jan.

 

He didn't ask why or even react, just smoothly adjusted his route in a way she didn't think Jan would notice, and asked her to dance.

 

To say she was pleased was an understatement.

 

Len, ever the southern gentleman, didn't ask Ny or her, no doubt because he didn't want to leave the other one alone. But also because he seemed to want to drink: bourbon and a generous portion.

 

"Celebrating or mourning?" she asked.

 

"A little of both, I suppose."

 

"Where's the final member of the trinity?"

 

"The dour one?" Len grinned. "No idea. Probably meditating somewhere." He smiled at Ny gently. "Certainly not where he should be."

 

"Thanks, Leonard."

 

"Just speaking my mind. Man's an idiot." He turned to Chapel. "And what about you? You boycotting serious relationships or something?"

 

"Asks the king of them?" Saying that to him was mean; even this many years later, he was still touchy about his divorce.

 

"Either you need more of whatever you're drinking or you need to be cut off—not sure where you are on the 'alcohol makes me mean and then nice and then mean again' train."

 

She laughed; he knew her too well. "I'm at the start. The first mean section of the track."

 

He motioned the bartender over. "Another of those for the lady. Suck that down, Christine." He was far gentler with Ny as he took her empty glass. "And she'll have another, too."

 

"No, I've had enough." Ny slid off the stool. "I've got something I've got to do. Go dance with Christine, Leonard." She gave them both quick hugs. "Tell Jan I'll talk to her later."

 

Len leaned against the bar and said, "Something she's gotta do? In a pig's eye. Someone, is more like it. I feel for Scotty. He's crazy about her, and she's using him to forget Spock."

 

"Isn't that what any of us do, though? I mean in general. Use people?"

 

He looked disappointed in her. "Yeah, we probably do. But not our friends, Christine. Not our goddamned friends."

 

##

 

Chapel followed an attendant into the sitting room of what must be Sarek and Amanda's private quarters in the embassy. Amanda was sitting in a wingback chair, her skin pale—she looked like she'd lost weight since the last time Chapel had seen her, and she was tiny to begin with.

 

"Amanda. What can I do?" She hurried over.

 

"I need your help."

 

"Anything. Do you need stronger meds—" She stopped talking as several more attendants came out with luggage.

 

"Take them to the flitter. I'll be there shortly," Amanda said, her voice little more than a whisper, and Chapel had the feeling she was trying not to cry.

 

"Let me go get Sarek for you. Where is he?"

 

"Sarek is the last thing I need right now." She closed her eyes. "Or more aptly, I might need him, but he's the worst thing I could have."

 

"Madame?" A Vulcan woman in gorgeous robes stood in the doorway. She was beautiful—but what Vulcan woman wasn't?

 

"Christine, T'Rua," she waved off the rest of an introduction. "Christine, T'Rua is a priestess from Vulcan. She's here for Sarek. For the burning. Do you understand me or must I speak more plainly?"

 

Chapel stared at the the priestess who met her eyes with a bland expression. She wasn't young; Chapel could see where make-up hid lines, hair coloring probably masked gray. There was little she probably hadn't seen in her years of...service.

 

"I don't understand, Amanda. Where will you be?"

 

"Far from here. If I tell you, you might tell him."

 

"Why would I tell him?"

 

"Because he trusts you. Because you are, I believe, the person he trusts most right now. And because if he can't find me and he suspects that you know where I have gone, he may meld with you and force the information from you. I don't want you hurt and I don't want to be found."

 

"But you're bonded... Won't he have to? With you, I mean." She shot an apologetic glance at the priestess.

 

T'Rua helped Amanda out of the chair, then let her go. "It is not uncommon for a bondmate to be unavailable whether due to professional commitments or physical constraints. Sarek will shift his focus away from her once he realizes has no other choice."

 

"How far along is he?"

 

"A day, maybe two," Amanda said. "I would suggest if you have leave, you take it."

 

"Off world, you mean?"

 

"It will save you an awkward conversation with him, if nothing else. Do you really want to be the one who tells him I ran from him?"

 

"Why didn't you plan this together?"

 

Amanda's look was annoyed. "We did. But logic departs when the Pon Farr takes over. And the signs were clear so I called for T'Rua, and now I will leave. As he and I planned—do you really think I wouldn't talk to him about this?" Again the look, this time flat-out angry.

 

She had to be feeling the burning, too. Not as much, being human and perhaps gaining distance from the meds. But to some extent the Pon Farr would affect her and leaving Sarek would feel wrong. Hence the anger.

 

"Do you think you know him better than I do?" This time she sounded more like Jan being jealous than suffering from guilt-induced anger.

 

"Amanda, of course not."

 

"Get off the planet, Christine. He will be angry with you for helping me. You don't have to experience what he's like when he's unhappy." Amanda turned away, holding out a hand to the priestess. "I'm ready to go. Please, if you would, the stairs."

 

"Of course." T'Rua nodded to Chapel, then helped Amanda navigate the stairs.

 

Chapel waited until they were safely out, took a last look around this room Amanda had been in such a rush to leave, then took the stairs in as unhurried a manner as she could and left the embassy Once she was well clear of the building, she pulled out her comm unit and called Cartwright.

 

"It's quiet this week, right? No killer machines or our friends facing Klingon justice?"

 

He laughed softly. "It is. You finally hit the wall?"

 

"Something like that, yeah. I think I'll take some time off. If that's okay?"

 

"I've been telling you to. Take a week. And rest up because I plan on taking two weeks very soon and you're going to be in charge." He smiled gently. "Going somewhere nice?"

 

"Yeah. Just not sure where yet."

 

"Splurge. You've got the credits, Commander."

 

She smiled, loving the way he said it, the way he managed to make it sound different than when she'd been a lieutenant commander. "Roger that, sir."

 

##

 

Chapel sat back in the leather chaise she'd bought when she'd graduated from med school, sipped some wine she'd been saving, and enjoyed being just quiet in her own place. She'd considered leaving, finding some exotic place to go visit, but she couldn't get Amanda's words out of her mind. It would be easy to chalk up anything she'd said to Pon Farr agitation, but she'd seemed so determined to make Chapel want to leave.

 

And to make her afraid of Sarek.

 

As if he would ever hurt her? If Amanda thought that, then she didn't understand the kind of friendship he and Chapel had.

 

Besides, he might not even show up here. It wasn't as if he'd ever been over. And she wasn't waiting for him. She was still in her pajamas for cripe's sake in the middle of the afternoon. Taking it easy. Relaxing.

 

She'd more than earned the time off, and she had this great place with a stellar view and she was never in it. Not awake anyway.

 

Although it was hard to stay awake with the sun shining in on her and the wine—and too many hours on duty—making her sleepy. She closed her eyes and drifted, strange fragments of thoughts merging with dreams.

 

Until the repeated sound of her door chime woke her up.

 

She called out "Come" as she was getting up, saw the look on Sarek's face as he walked in, and realized maybe Amanda had been right.

 

Maybe she didn't know him as well as she thought.

 

"Where is she?" He was clearly furious.

 

"I don't know." She tried the voice she'd used as a nurse, the one that calmed down even the most panicked patient. "Sarek, listen to me. This is not where you need to be."

 

"You think I am not aware of that." He advanced, the movement predatory, and she stepped back, until she was brought up short by the wall that separated her bedroom from the main space. She tried to move, but he grabbed her by the throat.

 

But he didn't squeeze, and his grip was...gentle. "Where is my wife, Christine?"

 

"I don't know, Sarek." She tried to ease away, but he only grabbed her shoulder with his left hand, his right still around her throat but not choking her—she didn't think he'd even leave finger marks he was holding so carefully. "She told me you'd come to me, Sarek. She told me you'd be looking for her. She said you might even meld with me to find out. It's why she wouldn't tell me where she was going."

 

"She left me."

 

"She wasn't strong enough. Her illness." She tried to ease away but he shook his head. "She told me to tell you to go to the priestess that's come for you. I'm to remind you she's waiting. T'Rua. She expects you."

 

He closed his eyes. "The priestess. Yes."

 

She waited for him to let go. Waited for him to turn and leave her for the stranger that he and Amanda had decided was the answer to this.

 

He opened his eyes and stared at her in a way he never had before. "She pleases me not at all."

 

"I'm sorry."

 

He seemed to realize how he was holding her and let go of her throat, sliding his hand up to her face, stroking her cheek. Tenderly.

 

She closed her eyes and bit back a moan.

 

"Christine, why are you here? At your apartment instead of at Starfleet Command."

 

"I'm on vacation. For the week. But...Amanda told me to go away, another planet, far from you. That you would be angry with me. She implied..." She stopped talking as he let go of her shoulder and ran his fingers through her hair.

 

"What did she imply?"

 

"That you might hurt me. To get the information you need." She grabbed his hand and pushed it more firmly against her head. "I was going to go. Far, far away. But...I'm not afraid of you."

 

"No, you are not afraid." His lips ticked up, into the barest of smiles. "And you did not wish to go. You are angry at her. But not at me."

 

"You're my friend."

 

"Am I not more than that?" He studied her, and she suddenly felt very exposed in her tank top and pajama bottoms. "I came here. You should have been at work, but I came here." He looked down, his expression thoughtful. "I knew you were here."

 

He met her eyes and she didn't look away. Finally, she whispered, "And I knew you'd come. Even if I tried to tell myself I wasn't waiting for you."

 

"I am gratified you waited." His pupils were dilated as he pressed against her slowly. "I burn for thee."

 

"The priestess."

 

"The priestess has nothing that I want. I do not care for her." He found the meld points and pressed gently. "As I do for you. Shall I show you?"

 

She knew this was the moment. That if she told him no, he'd leave and go to T'Rua.

 

She should tell him to go. But instead she whispered, "Yes. Show me."

 

For a moment he kept himself under control, and she saw her interactions with him playing quickly, the things he noticed about her, he liked her eyes; he loved her smile.

 

And then the rush of heat came, the burning, and she thought she should be afraid, but he murmured, "I will not hurt you. I will never hurt you." And she saw how he felt about other parts of her, how he wanted to touch her breasts, the back of her neck, the small of her back.

 

She gave herself over to the fire as he lifted her and carried her to the bedroom, and she ripped his robe off him before he pushed her onto the bed and took her, shifting clothing out of his way rather than removing it completely.

 

He never let up on the meld, making it stronger, deeper, and for just a moment she felt the sting of an observer.

 

He slowed his thrusting, seemed to come back to himself, and they both breathed hard as he continued to take her, as Amanda's presence faded out, no doubt as her pain meds kicked in.

 

"Sarek, I know you felt her, too. If you want the priestess...?"

 

"We will not speak of the priestess—or my wife—again. Until the burning is over."

 

He hadn't let go of the meld and she tried to assess what he was feeling. There was guilt, but less than she expected.

 

There was something else, too. Love. He loved her.

 

"I love you, too," she said as she wrapped her legs more tightly around him and urged him to take her hard and fast—to claim satisfaction in a way Amanda could no longer give him.

 

His cry of pleasure as he buried himself in her echoed in her mind—she wondered if it reached all the way to wherever Amanda had gone.

 

And then he deepened the meld even more and she stopped thinking about anything but pleasing and being pleased by him.

 

##

 

She woke up, naked and half lying on him, a sheet wrapped around their legs, the rest of the covers kicked all over the room. He was watching her with an expression she couldn't read, but his eyes were gentle.

 

"Do you have any idea what day it is?" she asked, a grin starting as he shook his head. "Should I be sorry you're here?"

 

"I cannot tell you how to feel."

 

"How do you feel?"

 

"Do you mean is the burning over? Yes, it is. Do you wonder if I feel guilty for not returning to the priestess? Yes, I do. Do you want to know if I still desire you now that the Pon Farr is over?" He touched her face, then pulled her close and kissed her fiercely. "Does that answer your question?"

 

"Very thoroughly, Ambassador."

 

"I am known for my thoroughness." He reached for her hand and guided it down his chest, then lower, to where she could feel him growing under her touch. "This is what you do to me, with no burning to urge me on."

 

"Is it wise to tell me this? You have a wife you love. That I assume you do not plan on leaving."

 

"Both are true. And yet, I do not want you to think I used you only because you were available. That it was only the burning that made me desire you. I wanted you. I still do."

 

"I see."  She tried to process what to do with this information, then remembered the weird sense of sharing him for a moment. "Amanda was there briefly, wasn't she? With us—between us."

 

"Yes."

 

"Did she know it was me?"

 

"I believe she did. The emotion driving me would have been absent with any other partner, barring her, of course."

 

"Fuuuuuuuuuuck." She let go of him and closed her eyes. "It's why she wanted me to leave. She must have known, must have sensed your interest?" She met his eyes; he nodded slowly. "She's going to hate me. Or she already does."

 

She realized she was starting to tear up and blinked furiously. She was not going to cry. "I didn't set out to hurt her."

 

"I know. She, too, will know that." His voice was so sweet, so careful of her.

 

She leaned in and kissed him. Not the enflamed kisses of the burning, but a gentler touch. One of love. "I still want you."

 

"And I you." But he didn't reach out, didn't pull her to him, and she loved him for it. She loved him because he was a good man.

 

He wasn't Roger with his bedmate of the week.

 

She eased away from him and checked her comm unit. "Three days in bed." She realized there were crumbs in the bed and empty water containers on the floor. They'd apparently kept hydrated and eaten. Not that she could remember it; her memories were of the many ways he'd taken her, the things he'd asked her to do to him, the pleasure he'd given her.

 

"Normally it is two days. For me, I mean. Each individual is different."

 

"You've had to deny your desires, right? Because she's ill? It makes sense you might have more frustration to get out once you were free to let go."

 

"Logical. And no doubt correct."

 

He eased himself up so he was leaning back against the headboard, and she settled in next to him, her arm against his. "I want to stay in this bed, Christine. I want to take you with no biological drive forcing my hand. You must know that. But...I cannot."

 

"I know." She felt him easing away and said, "Please tell me we'll still be friends."

 

"What you are to me—it is no longer something I can decide to be or not be with you. It is. We are. I will always want to spend time with you. In all ways, not just like this." He twined his fingers with hers for a moment, holding tightly, then he let go and got up. "I must go."

 

"You must shower. Then you should go." She grinned, trying to get them back somehow to when it was easy and fun and not something he might run from. The thought of him running nearly broke her. "Let me get you a clean towel."

 

"Thank you." By the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes, she could tell he was thanking her for much more than just a towel.

 

##

 

Chapel was once again following an attendant into Amanda's sitting room. This time there was no priestess to overhear, no bags being prepared.

 

Amanda tilted her head and studied her, her expression impossible to read.

 

“You knew he’d come to me. What I can't figure out is if you wanted me to be there for him—or if you wanted me very far away.”

 

“I understand you better than you think, my dear. You're not unlike my son in that respect. Tell you to go right, you go left."

 

Chapel stared at her. Who was this woman? "Meaning?"

 

"Meaning I...hoped Sarek would come to you, and I knew you'd be there if he did.”

 

“Hoped? Hoped?”

 

“Oh, Christine, please. Save the outrage. Do you think I couldn't see what’s been happening between the two of you? This is more than simply lust on his part for a younger woman. He trusts you. He likes you.” She stopped and Chapel wondered if it was because she'd been about to say, "He loves you."

 

“I never meant for this—”

 

“You think I don't know that?" Amanda took her hand, the gentle grip shocking when Chapel expected anger. "I’m not mad at you. He’s...satisfied. For the first time in months. I want that for him.” Her grip tightened and her expression grew almost scarily grim. “Do you love him?”

 

“I'm not having this conversation with you.” Chapel jerked her hand away and started to get up.

 

“Sit down.” Amanda’s voice was like a whip, and Chapel found herself minding. “Sarek is a Vulcan in his prime. I'm sick. We're bonded. What about this doesn’t compute for you?”

 

“Don’t you think he’s capable of being faithful?”

 

Amanda leaned back and laughed—a horribly bitter sound. “You're so smart usually. Of course I know he is. That's the problem. I feel it. Every time I come back from a bad spell, the bond springs back to life and his sexual need...batters me.” She swallowed visibly. “He can’t get to me when I take my pain meds. They turn off the connection. I take them more often than I should just to get some peace from everything he wants from me.”

 

She took a ragged breath. “Do you have any idea what it was like to feel that need...go away. Oh, there was guilt built in—I could feel it from him. And it hurt, to be part of what he feels for you—and what you feel for him. Did you think I could be bonded to him and not know?”

 

Christine looked down.

 

“No, don't do that. I told you. I’m not mad. This isn't my preference, clearly. I'd rather be there for him myself. But I can't and right now, well, it feels good. All that desire gone, poured into something that wasn’t me.” She took Chapel’s hand again. “Someone that wasn’t me. You. Someone I actually like. Someone who can replace me eventually.”

 

“I think the disease and the meds are keeping you from thinking straight, Amanda.” She knew it was a harsh thing to say but didn’t care.

 

“No, darling, I see things so clearly. You're the one who's in denial.”

 

“He won’t come back to me. It was a temporary fix.” Chapel closed her eyes, wishing she’d just stayed on the Enterprise when Spock wanted to give it a whirl. Worrying about whether or not he wanted Kirk would have been a walk in the park compared to this. She again pulled her hand free.

 

“He'll come back to you. Because I’m going to tell him what I just told you. Only in less strident terms, perhaps. He'll be doing me a favor and getting what he wants. The needs of the many...”

 

“Don’t. Don’t pervert that.”

 

“As if you wouldn't like having him? Who are we hurting with an arrangement like this? My story’s outcome is inevitable. Just the timing is uncertain. You love with such consistency, Christine. It's why I always wanted you with my son. And now you're ideal for my husband because I know you can wait to be his wife. But you won’t have to wait to become his lover.” Amanda closed her eyes, her mouth tightening, and Chapel knew she was in pain but offered no help.

 

“You're mad at me, aren’t you, child?” Amanda laughed. “I had to wait for him. Did you know that?” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a hypo, pushing it into her skin and sighing. “He was married when we met. Bonded. We were lovers while he was tied to her. So I fully understand what kind of life I’m asking you to live. And...he’s worth it.”

 

She wanted to tell Amanda she knew, she wanted to hurt her, let her know the trust Sarek had put in her, telling her about Sybok, about so many things. But he did trust her—to be discreet. So she stayed silent, biting back the hurtful things.

 

Amanda stood slowly. “He’ll probably be by tonight or tomorrow. Whenever I tell him. He’ll need time to think but ironically he tends to do his best thinking, when it comes to matters of the heart, by talking to the woman he loves.”

 

“You’re the woman he loves.”

 

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be, too.” She leaned down and let her lips linger on Chapel’s cheek. “And we both know you already are. I’m sorry, darling, that I can't dress this up in rainbows and kittens for you. But I have to take care of myself.” She pressed her lips hard against Chapel's skin: a cruel benediction. Then she left, her grace not at all affected by the pain or the meds or what she'd just set in motion.

 

##

 

Chapel didn't see Sarek for the next several weeks. He was on a mission the first week, and then she was filling in for Cartwright for the next two, and working until she dropped seemed a prudent way to not focus on how fucked up her life might be.

 

Sleeping in one of the cots they kept in a sleep room in the back of Ops also ensured Sarek couldn't get to her, not now, when she was exhausted and stressed and still so damned angry at Amanda.

 

But then Cartwright came back, took one look at her, and pointed to the door. "Forty-eight hours away from here." At her protest, he said, "I'll comm if I need you."

 

She nodded, relieved he was back, grateful to drop the act and let herself collapse—but not too yet. She still had to walk home.

 

"Oh, and Sarek's out there. He said he wanted to talk to you about an upcoming mission." Cartwright narrowed his eyes. "You really are his favorite."

 

She just laughed, a short bitter puff of air. "What can I say? Years serving with Spock taught me how to deal with Vulcans." Cartwright didn't know her pathetic history with Spock or that excuse would never have flown. "Gonna leave before I fall down, boss."

 

"Git." He waved her off with a grin.

 

She saw Sarek and knew her smile was a real one, if only half strength because she was so tired. She could feel an energy between them even with no meld.

 

"I left you alone."

 

"I appreciate that."

 

"But now we need to talk. And you are exhausted."

 

"Got that right."

 

He actually took her arm and steered her toward the VIP entrance. "I brought a flitter."

 

"You usually walk."

 

"I could sense you were tired."

 

"How? We're not bonded."

 

He opened the door of the flitter and let her go first. "Some combination of sympathy and intuition. I do not know, truthfully." He gave the flitter her address and then leaned back.

 

She curled her legs under her, and was surprised when he put his arm around her and pulled her in. "Are you sure?"

 

"Be still." If any other man had said it, she'd have whapped him. But there was such tenderness in Sarek's voice, as if her question was incredibly stupid.

 

When wasn't he sure? When didn't he know his mind? After three weeks—and he hadn't involved her, which showed just how much Amanda knew about some things—he probably more than knew what he wanted.

 

While Chapel had avoided the hell out of thinking about it whenever possible.

 

She gave in and cuddled against him, dozing off on the short ride, only half awake as they entered her building, took the lift, and she palmed them into her apartment.

 

"You are too tired to talk about this now."

 

She was about to protest when she realized he'd led her to the bedroom, was gently taking her clothes off, folding them neatly, then pulled the covers back. She got into bed, wondering if he was going to kiss her on the head and read her a story, too, but he stripped off his clothes and got in next to her.

 

"Your wife is home."

 

"My wife is heavily sedated and uninterested in discussing this further with me."

 

"I hate this, Sarek. She's taken something innocent and turned it ugly."

 

"A possible perspective. But may I offer another?"

 

She nodded and curled into him, snaking her arm over his chest.

 

"She took something she had no part in creating, something that is strong and good but threatens her in ways she does not want to admit, and is trying to control it."

 

"I like your version better."

 

"I thought that you might."  He kissed the top of her head, letting his lips linger. 

 

"I want to make love to you. But I'm beat."

 

"We will make love in the morning, before you report to work." He didn't stumble over the words "make love." She loved how easily he said them.

 

"I have two whole days off."

 

"Then we will make love for two days. I have nothing scheduled." At her laugh, he kissed her, a chaste kiss to start with, but she opened her mouth and he wasn't shy about turning it into a demonstration of how much he wanted her.

 

And then he stopped, easing away, finding the best way for them to put legs and arms—getting comfortable was never easy with a new partner—and she was out.

 

When she woke up, she was alone in bed, but she could hear someone in the kitchen, and unless Cartwright had sent in a special breakfast-serving service, she was pretty sure it was Sarek.

 

"Who's in my kitchen?" she called out, faking being grumpy.

 

He called back, "It is I. Is that a problem?"

 

"Only if you can't cook."

 

"I am making coffee, not cooking."

 

"Close enough." Her kitchen was criminally underused for how nice it was. "Ah," she said as he carried in two mugs. They'd served on enough missions that he knew how she liked her coffee, and he'd made it perfectly this time. "Sweet nectar of the gods."

 

They leaned against the headboard, arms pressed against each other just as the first time, but the moment didn't feel fraught. Not that it was in any way certain what lay ahead.

 

"Sarek, what are we going to do?"

 

"We have many options. I will admit that hearing from my wife that my presence—the very desire I hold for her—is a burden to her...hurt me."

 

"I can't imagine saying that."

 

"I have often wondered if at times she has sought oblivion—temporary at any rate—in the medicines. And she admitted she has."

 

She pushed harder against him but wasn't sure what to say.

 

"You are insightful, Christine. What do you think?"

 

"I think she's made it so that cheating on her will be an altruistic gesture on her part. I think, for the record, that it's obscene. On the other hand, I...I love you. So I want to believe that it's win, win, win. That I wouldn't be some standard mistress, stealing you away from a longsuffering spouse and then finding myself alone on holidays, sitting by the comm unit waiting for some window of opportunity to open up so you could dash over here, fuck me, and leave again." She met his eyes. "Sorry, my language sucks when I speak plainly."

 

"I do not mind."

 

"After Roger, I swore I'd never sneak around again. And I haven't. But even if we're open with her, the rest of the world is not going to get it. I'll be in the shadows. Loving you from the goddamned shadows."

 

"Yes. You you will. As will I have to care for you discreetly. There will be times, I am sure, where I will want to be with you instead of her, but will not be able to come."

 

She sighed and he put his coffee down, then put hers on the nightstand, and wrapped his arms around her.

 

"If you were anyone else, I'd say no." She was whispering but she knew he could hear her easily. "But when I'm with you, I feel...whole. I don't let people in much anymore. Men, especially. Maybe for a night or two, but that's it. But with you...I want so much more. I want to be with you. Any way that I can. No matter what it costs." She pulled him down for a kiss. "Because I know I'm not just your mistress. I'm her successor."

 

There it was said, and it was horrible, banking on her death in the somewhat near future, but it was also true, and there was no point in lying to this man. She didn't want to start their relationship that way.

 

But he was very quiet and she thought maybe the truth had been overstepping. "Did I misspeak?"

 

"No. They were just hard words to hear." He pushed her down. "But also reassuring. That you love me enough to feel that way. To want to wait to have all of me."

 

"I think it's important to say this, too: what we're on the brink of doing...it's wrong. At some level, it is. Our friends and family will certainly think so. We can't delude ourselves into thinking this is the norm. Vulcans bond for life. They don't have younger, waiting in the wings, mistresses. Do they?"

 

"Not as a rule.  But it is unlikely I would be in this situation were I married to a Vulcan." He pushed back her hair, holding it tightly, as if he could read her better with nothing hiding her features. "You speak truth, though. I understand. This does us no credit and yet, I want this."

 

"I want this, too." She could feel him hard against her, and she reached down, making him moan and groan, until she finally crawled on top of him and rode him until he cried out, clutching her. "Hold still," she said, as she moved carefully on him, still semi-ready for her, as she found the sweet spot for herself, and let go.

 

Sex without the burning was oh so much better.

 

He was watching her, a tick of his lips showing how much he'd enjoyed watching her come. "You are free. Open. I enjoy it greatly."

 

She suddenly wondered if Amanda was a bit of a prude, if she denied him things. But no—she couldn't make her villain. It was the natural thing to do, cognitive dissonance at its most powerful. Chapel was screwing over someone she knew and liked, and her brain couldn't balance that action and the belief that she was herself a good person. So it would change the parameters. Turn the person being screwed over into a bad person.

 

She couldn't lose sight of the fact that Amanda was the victim here. Of the disease. Of the bond—and all the psychic linkages it brought that a human would normally never have to deal with.

 

She had to remember that Amanda wasn't the enemy.

 

No one was.

 

 

 

Part 3

 

Chapel saw that Sarek's meeting was over and hurried to transfer her queue to her back-up and get to the cafeteria. He'd be gone for a week and she wanted to spend a little bit of time with him. Lately he'd been on back-to-back missions and they hadn't been the kind he'd need Emergency Ops there for.

 

"You're in a rush," Jan said as Chapel stood. Their terminals were close to each other now, something Chapel had thought would be good for their friendship and it had been.  It felt like old times, whispering back and forth, laughing at funny things.

 

It also made it easier for Jan to know way too much of her business.

 

"I have lunch plans."

 

"Who with?" Her tone was innocent, the glint in her eyes wasn't. "Well, at least I know it's not with the captain since he's somewhere out there." She gestured in the general direction of up.

 

"Just a friend." Her comm unit chimed, a succession of tones that were Sarek's alone, and she opened the message and saw he'd been called into another meeting. That he'd see her when he got back in a week. "A friend who had to cancel." She met Jan's eyes. "You free for lunch?"

 

"Wow, don't I feel special, Chapel.  Geez." But Jan was closing down her queue and transferring it, and walked in companionable silence with her, but just before they got to the cafeteria, Jan pulled her out a side door, into the sunshine and the fresh air. "I know, in the past, I've let things fester and been a rather large bitch. You've tried and I've tried and we've done well lately. I think, anyway?" She suddenly sounded tentative.

 

"We have. Jan, we have."

 

Jan drew her down the hill, to a bench that faced away from Command, meant to enjoy the view but Chapel knew it was also a spot not very well covered by Starfleet surveillance.

 

"Ever since you were on your impromptu vacation, you've been different. You've been...I'm not even sure what. Happy, I guess, but then not. Distant sometimes. Lying. By omission anyway—or at least I think so. But I've never asked you. I didn't want to be lied to again. Our friendship can't take it."

 

Chapel took a deep breath, ready to come up with some twisting of the truth so she wouldn't have to lie, but Jan put her hand over her mouth and said, "Don't. I mean it. Don't. I don't want to go back to hating you." She let go of her.

 

"It's not Kirk."

 

"I know. It's Sarek. We Rand women have very sensitive noses and his incense is distinctive. It's probably lovely to fuck to. But he's married. What the hell are you doing?"

 

Chapel just stared at her.

 

"What? You think I can't be insightful?"

 

"I'm not saying you're right. Okay? I'm not saying that, but if you were right, it wouldn't be so...straightforward. So...tawdry."

 

"So you're not his mistress?"

 

She met Jan's eyes and wanted to lie, wanted to say she wasn't. Wanted to make herself look better. But she was sick of hiding shit from her best friend. They'd both worked so hard to get back on track and she was not going to let a man get between them again.  She took a deep breath and swallowed the lie.

 

When she didn't answer, Jan smiled gently. "Thank you. For not lying." She sighed. "This isn't you."

 

"I snuck around with Roger."

 

"Because he was your boss, not because he was someone else's husband." She frowned. "He wasn't someone else's husband, was he?"

 

"No." She was unsure how much she should say, knowing Sarek would want her to be discreet. But he wasn't here. And Jan was. Caring. Noticing. "Do you think anyone else knows?"

 

"Sweetie, he's a Vulcan. Hell, he's the Vulcan as far as some folks are concerned. And everyone knows Vulcans mate for life. Unbreakable psychic bonds. Above reproach. Moral compasses made of steel. Yadda yadda yadda. They don't know you like I do. So, no. I don't think anyone else suspects—except maybe his wife?"

 

"She knows."

 

"You say that so easily."

 

"I don't actually. Because she... This started in a way that really isn't my fault—or Sarek's. But then, the choice to keep going, she helped make it."

 

"Wait. Are you with both of them."

 

"Jan, no, Jesus."

 

She held up her hands. "Sorry. It's just...that's the simplest solution, scarily enough."

 

"No." She leaned in. "Promise me. Ops swear. Ny hears none of this. No one hears any of this."

 

"Ops swear."

 

"She's sick. No, it's worse—she's dying. Slowly. But the bond doesn't die, as you said. Everyone fantasizes about the emotion a bond could carry, the desire. Sounds great, right? But what if you're sick?  How would that feel, the constant...barrage?"

 

"Oh." Jan got it quickly, her eyes widening. She always did get things quickly. "She can't turn it off? No mute button for the bond?"

 

Chapel knew she wasn't really joking. The bond was highly misunderstood—and glamorized. "No. Except, yes, she has pain meds. Strong ones. They...they act like static. Interfere with the connection."

 

"He must feel emotionally stranded when that happens."

 

Chapel smiled, grateful at Jan's ability to take complex info and gist it to its most basic point. It was why she was excelling in Ops. "Exactly."

 

"So he has her on her good days and you on her bad days. She, if I understand this right, has him unless she chooses to escape." At Chapel's nod, she took her hand and squeezed it gently. "And what, my friend, do you have? Is it more than cancelled lunch plans and occasional sex?" There was no acid in her voice, no sarcasm. This was the Jan Chapel remembered from their first mission. The friend she loved, who loved her, too.

 

"Some of the time, yeah. Some of the time, it's really great." She didn't want to say when those times were. That Amanda had longer and longer periods of absence. That the farther Sarek was from her physically the less he felt her even on good days. The missions Chapel went on with him were times that went on the good side of her "life with Sarek" ledger, no matter how crappy the actual purpose of the mission.

 

"So you're not going to stop seeing him? Even if I told you that you could go for Kirk instead?"

 

Chapel laughed. "You must really be concerned for me if you're willing to let me have him."

 

"I am. This...it's just I know how you love. How much of yourself you throw into what you want. How long will this work? I get that it's still sort of new but eventually...?"

 

"Well, you'll be here to monitor me." She laughed, feeling safe, feeling protected. It was a feeling she'd never been sure she'd get back with Jan.

 

"Actually, I won't be. It's why I'm talking about this now. Sulu got Excelsior. It's not public knowledge yet. But, he wants me on the ship and I'm going. He wanted me to see if you'd be interested in CMO. Christine, come with us. This thing with Sarek won't work long term and you know it. And you've been in Ops too long. The pace will kill you eventually."

 

Chapel closed her eyes. "It's so nice of Hikaru to want me but...I'm on the short list for Matt's deputy." Actually Cartwright wanted her and he generally got whatever he set his mind on, but it sounded better to say the posting was still being decided. "That's not public knowledge, either."

 

"That's a captain's billet." Jan's eyes opened wide. "Wow. Oh, okay. Not much travelling in that job, then." Again, she found the root problem in a sea of information. "Your trips with Sarek must be nice—and offer rare access."

 

"They do. I'll miss them. We'll miss them."

 

She saw pity in Jan's eyes. Like she wasn't sure how much Sarek would care.

 

But it wasn't like that. He loved her.

 

Just because every "other woman" probably said that, didn't make it any less true.

 

##

 

The sun shone in through the filmy curtains, light pooling on the floor near the bed. Chapel moved so she could feel the sweet breeze better and kissed Sarek's chest. "How did you manage this?" Alone, on this gorgeous planet, no work, just them.

 

"This was my last opportunity to do so, in all likelihood. Your new role as deputy will limit our opportunities to travel together." He eased her up so he could kiss her, his lips demanding, and she laughed as he pushed her to her back and eased into her.

 

"You're insatiable."

 

"I have missed you. There is a difference."

 

"Yes, there is." It was the difference that kept her sane some days.

 

Then she gave up thinking. They'd been together long enough to know what the other liked, and how they liked it. Not that they didn't try new things—Sarek seemed to love to come up with interesting positions to try. She didn't know if he was making things up during boring meetings or if there was a Vulcan Kama Sutra she wasn't aware of.

 

At any rate, it kept things interesting—and gave her a reason to hit the gym just to stay limber enough to keep up with him.

 

She didn't know what Amanda was doing or what she thought of this. Generally, Sarek didn't stay over. Generally, he was the model of the Vulcan ideal spouse. He was there for his wife when the day was over, working late into the night in his study in the embassy. Those first few nights he'd spent with Chapel after the Pon Farr had been an aberration not the norm.

 

She'd often wished she'd never had them, because having been with him in such a normal way made her want more of that. Made the rest of the time difficult.

 

Like now might. Lying close like this, bodies sweaty but there was no rush for him to hit the shower. No need for her to skip over conversational topics since there wasn't time for them to talk about most things. She had him—really had him—for an entire day.

 

And then...?

 

"You are pensive."

 

"Things are changing." Jan was gone. Now this. "I love our joint missions."

 

He nodded.

 

She forced herself to focus on the good. On this soft bed and his warm skin. On the way he kissed her, as if he'd never tire of it. Of the sound of surf and birds. "Thank you for this."

 

"I know our situation is not optimal. I care for you. I want you to be happy."

 

"Happy. Such an emotional term." She grinned, showing him she was teasing.

 

He didn't respond and seemed unusually serious. "You are human. Emotions are critical to your well-being. Happiness is critical."

 

"No one is happy all the time. Happy moments may be the best we hope for. Contentment or satisfaction that one is making a difference fills the rest of the time, if you're lucky."

 

"Happiness is no longer a goal for you?" He was studying her carefully.

 

"I think I gave it up as a goal after Roger, after I got what I set out to get and found out it wasn't perfect, that it actually hurt."

 

He nodded; she'd told him of Roger's fidelity issues.

 

"I think I realized the kind of mindless happiness I'd been seeking was an unrealistic goal. Love, though. Love isn't." She touched his cheek. "And I love you so much. It's what gets me through the times I'm not with you."

 

"That you love me? Not that I love you?" His eyebrow went up.

 

"Weird, huh. But I think so much of how we feel, how we react, is based on what we bring to the table. If I didn't think loving you was worth it, if loving you didn't make me happy, you loving me would be irrelevant."

 

"Fascinating."

 

She laughed. Then she leaned in to kiss him. "Humans have a concept of soul mates. I'm sure Amanda's talked of it."

 

"Once or twice."

 

"Humans aspire to that. The twin to our souls. The one with whom we are complete."

 

He nodded thoughtfully. "Parted from me and never parted."

 

She knew he didn't mean it to hurt, the words he must have said to Amanda, but it did.

 

"I am sorry. That was thoughtless."

 

"No. That was just the truth. Is that what the bond is? A mating of souls—do Vulcans even have souls?"

 

"Not as such—we have katras."

 

She remembered him using the word when Spock died. "What is a katra?"

 

"It is our essence, our knowledge and experiences."

 

"Emotions?"

 

"Not usually." He studied her and seemed perplexed when she grinned. "What?"

 

"It's like a computer, then. Output. Results. Data collected."

 

He didn't seem insulted. "Very much so, yes. When a Vulcan experiences physical death, another Vulcan is there to capture the katra through a meld. The katra is brought back to Vulcan, and added to the stored knowledge of our people."

 

"Like downloading a data disk." She looked away. "So will you capture Amanda's katra?"

 

"I will try. But it has not been done before. Human death appears to be a different experience than Vulcan."

 

"Or at least the way the biological computer that is our mind experiences death is different."

 

"Far more accurate." He touched her nose with his, an amazingly sweet gesture he did when he felt particularly close to her. "Your mind, the way you process information, it...arouses me. And comforts me."

 

"Is that an overly wordy—and highly personalized—way of saying I could be Vulcan?"

 

He actually laughed, a short bark that didn't last long but made her chuckle. "Yes."

 

"Is Amanda your soul mate? I mean if Vulcans had soul mates?"

 

He didn't answer right away, then met her eyes. "If you had asked me that only a few years ago, I would have said yes. But now...now I am not sure."

 

"You don't have to say that. I know you love me. If it's not as much as you love her, that's all right. You have years with her, and a child—memories and history."

 

"This goes back, I think, to what you said earlier. What makes this different is not the way I love you or her. It is how you process the fact that I do love you. You believe it. I read frustration from you, yes, with our situation, but I never read doubt. You understand—and trust—the depth of my feelings."

 

She nodded.

 

"I do not know that Amanda has always trusted them. At times, she doubts."

 

"Even with the bond?"

 

"The bond is not a panacea. It can make relations worse, not better. We do not read each other's thoughts. We get...impressions. Emotional resonance. Fear, pain, happiness, sadness."

 

"Things that Vulcans traditionally do not value—given their absence in your death ritual with the katra." She leaned back and studied the ceiling. "And things Vulcans are uncomfortable experiencing, right? And sharing. At least some of the more negative ones. You don't seem stingy with lust or affection." She looked over at him and he nodded.

 

She shook her head. "It's so simple. To appropriately analyze Vulcan emotion one must do it from a stance of...stoicism. You can't be inside them—or if you are, you have to be able to separate."

 

"You are, at heart, a scientist, Christine. It is your nature to reserve a portion of yourself to observe."

 

"Yes." For some reason, she felt tears welling up. "I'm sad. That makes me sad, Sarek, and I'm not sure why. And I'm not sure if it's for me or for her."

 

"I do not wish you to be sad." He pulled her back to him and kissed her gently with soft, fleeting touches of his lips on hers, on her cheek, her throat, and then down. She thought he'd keep going past her chest, but instead he reached up for the meld points, easing in, opening up in a way he normally did not.

 

"I want you to feel this, not analyze it." She wasn't sure if he'd spoken or thought the words, he was taking them so deep.

 

It was like swimming in body-temperature water, in one of the sensory deprivation tanks, only here there was more than her own thoughts buffeting her.

 

Not just positive emotions. Sadness—he hated that she was taking this new job even if he was very proud of her accomplishments in attaining it and her new rank. Guilt, at how he could not give her more, at how he had to betray his wife to give her anything.

 

He was sharing, no filters, and she tried to let him know how much she treasured his openness. The transparency wouldn't last, couldn't last, but he was giving her a rare gift and she loved it.

 

He let them rise to a less intense meld, and then he made love to her. They called for room service so they wouldn't have to leave each other until the next day came and forced them to abandon the fantasy.

 

But she had it. The memory of the day. The memory of the meld. The love she felt whenever she was near him.

 

She had it. Some people spent a lifetime searching for it and never found it, not even with a long-term mate.

 

It was a rationalization. But she'd run with it as far as she could.

 

##

 

Chapel felt massively uncomfortable as she made her way through the crowd at the embassy. Amanda was enjoying a good period health wise and had thrown a party for Saavik, who was being assigned as first officer to the Manchester. Chapel had been surprised to get an invitation. Sarek had been equally surprised she'd been included in the guest list.

 

Not displeased—or at least she didn't think so. But surprised.

 

The invitation had said casual, so she'd slipped on a cotton dress she knew Sarek liked and then thrown a jacket over it in case casual meant something different when the Vulcan ambassador's wife wrote the invite.

 

She'd put less thought into her first dates with Roger than she did this. It was ridiculous. Especially since she and Amanda hadn't spoken much since she'd confronted her at the Pon Farr.

 

"Christine. So nice of you to join us." Amanda's voice dripped syrup. She looked good, if frail, and managed to stand very close to Sarek. She even touched his arm gently. "Aren't we glad to see her, my husband."

 

"Indeed." He shot her what looked like an apology and then nodded toward the side of the room. "Your former crewmates are here."

 

"Well, let me go say hello to them. It's a beautiful evening. Saavik must be so pleased."

 

"She's on the fast track. Our girl." Again she touched Sarek's arm. "I imagine she'll make lieutenant commander quite soon."

 

"Rapid rise."

 

"Well, you rose quickly, too, no?" There was something under the words, some veiled insult, but Chapel chose to ignore it. "Congratulations, by the way, on your promotion and new position. I imagine you won't travel very often in this job." Her look was pure innocence, the neutrality of the polite question for everyone who didn't know the real situation.

 

Sarek looked pained, even for a Vulcan. "My wife, we have other guests."

 

"We do." She leaned in and pulled Christine down to her in, making her feel awkward, and Amanda's lips grazed her cheek as she whispered, "I'm not dead yet, dear. Enjoy the party."

 

As she let her go, her expression was the same serene one she always wore, but Chapel could feel the malice—as if war had been declared.

 

And she felt something in her respond to the declaration, make her put her back up and say, "I will. Thank you," in as sweetly false a voice. She didn't look at Sarek as he pulled Amanda away.

 

"I am unsure why my mother invited you when it is clear she does not like you." Spock's voice was pitched low, and she realized he was leaning into her, his chest to her back, as if they were intimate friends.

 

She decided to go a route he might not expect. "I was surprised to be invited as well, Spock. But she's a human woman and we're unpredictable. You should know that by now."

 

He turned her away from her old crewmates, practically dragging her—in a totally understated way—to a corridor off the main area. "I have heard that you often travel with my father."

 

"I often travel with many people, Spock. It was the nature of my previous posting."

 

"But he asked for you by name. I have been dividing my time between the ship and diplomatic tasks. I have access to old missions. Who was requested, who was simply randomly assigned."

 

"Aren't you the detective?" She kept her voice even, her face as stoic as a Vulcan.

 

"I do not know if you are aware, but my mother was your champion for years. She wanted me to consider you as a romantic partner."

 

"That was kind of her."

 

His face changed; she thought she saw pure anger. "And yet you betray her."

 

"You have no idea what is going on, Spock. I admire your mother. I know how much she and your father care for each other. I would never hurt her."

 

"That is a lie."

 

"Sometimes an observer can see details in an experiment without understanding the overall landscape. They can make assumptions that are not valid. I would ask you not to do that in this case."

 

"But you admit that there is an experiment."

 

"I admit nothing."

 

His lips actually ticked up. "His influence on you is clear. I almost feel as if I am debating him."

 

She thought he'd chosen the word "feel" on purpose.

 

"Feel this." She put her hand on his wrist, where his robe didn't cover the skin, and waited.

 

He met her eyes, confusion clear in his. She swallowed hard, and knew that one thing he'd be reading was some measure of regret that lingered that she'd chosen this path and not the one he'd offered so long ago.

 

"The experiment is very complicated, Spock. Please do not assume I am the enemy."

 

She thought he would jerk away from her hand, but he didn't. Confusion was replaced with...pity? He felt sorry for her?

 

He eased away and said, "I will let you talk to our friends. Be sure to introduce yourself to Saavik. Good evening, Christine." All was gently said, but she had the feeling he couldn't wait to get away from her—and the utter mess of emotions she'd laid on him.

 

She saw him glance at his parents, and move away, toward Saavik, whose eyes lit up as she saw him.

 

Uncomplicated, the feelings Chapel saw on the younger woman's face. Admiration, regard, ease. She loved Spock, and from the look of it, he loved her back in some fashion.

 

She saw Sarek glance over at her. The way he dipped his head was a clear question: "Are you all right? Did he upset you?"

 

She smiled, trying to make it a genuine expression, and turned to go say hello to her friends.

 

##

 

Chapel realized someone was standing at her door, studying her, and looked up to see Kirk. "Hello."

 

"Hello, Captain."

 

It felt so strange coming from him. "I know. I know. I didn't earn it. But thanks."

 

He frowned as he came in and sat down. "Plenty of Fleeters make the rank without ever having captained a ship. You work here, doing this hellacious job. Meaning people like me never have to. So thank you. I'd give you two promotions if I could." He grinned in a way that told her she meant it. "Don't ever say that again. Starfleet promoted you. Enjoy it."

 

"They also promoted Styles to admiral."

 

"Yes, but they took his ship away and gave it to Sulu. And assigned Styles to run a backwater Starbase where he'll probably be till he retires. You, my dear, are sitting in the heart of Command. Many people know your name. Not that there aren't many who know his, but yours they know in a good way."

 

She laughed. "Okay, okay, geez. And thanks. I will never say I didn't earn it again."

 

"Good."

 

"So what's the occasion, Jim?" It was still so strange to use his name, to think of him as a friend and not just the captain who'd been so good to her.

 

"Well, it's strange. Spock thought I should take you out to celebrate your promotion."

 

"Spock thought that?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"You mean like a bunch of you taking me out?"

 

"Nope. Just me. You didn't happen to tell him you're madly in love with me while you were having your little heart-to-heart at Saavik's party, did you? Because that's not what it looked like to me. But earlier today he spent a good portion of our breakfast conversation pointing out how you are—and I'm not sure why it took him to make me realize this—exactly my type. And I'm yours. Sort of." He looked embarrassed at the last bit, as if he was assuming too much.

 

"Are you asking me out?"

 

"Maybe." He leaned back. "But I also want to know why, after all these years, he suddenly thinks I should."

 

"I have no idea." But she did, of course. Did Spock think he was saving her—or was he protecting his mother? Or did he think he was doing both: win, win. Win, win, win if his friend also found happiness in the process.

 

"We're heading back out tomorrow night."

 

"Oh. Did you mean tonight?"

 

He started to laugh. "You know, Chapel, I used to think I was good at this. But wow, I'm certainly not living up to my rep, am I? Yeah, I meant tonight, which I know is very short notice, so just tell me you're busy and we'll do it another night." He seemed to be studying her. "Or you can forget I ever asked."

 

"Can we have steak?"

 

"We can have steak in Buenos Aires, if you want. I'm a man with many credits."

 

"I’m on call," she said, laughing at his grin, his openness, and the idea of being out in public with someone who wanted her company. "So I have to stay in the city."

 

"Martino's, then? They're very hard to get into and have amazing beef."

 

"Perfect. I get off around seven usually."

 

"I'll pick you up at seven forty-five."

 

"Shouldn't you see if they have a table for us first?"

 

"Oh, ye of little faith." His grin was infectious as he pulled out his comm unit. "Bennie, buon giorno, my friend. I have a lady I'd like to impress. What are the odds for tonight? Say, eight or so." He stuck his tongue out at her. "You can? Oh, you're my hero. I may happen to have some of those Dixren cigars you like so much. You bet. Thanks." He cut the connection. "I wish we'd had a bet on that. Would have been like taking candy from a baby. Wear something you can dance in."

 

"Oh, we're dancing, are we?"

 

He stood up and shrugged. At the door, he turned and said, "Play your cards right, toots. You never know."

 

She pretended to throw something at him. He pretended to duck and mouthed, "Missed me."

 

Then he was gone.

 

She actually left work a little earlier than seven and took her time getting ready, nice make-up, pretty hair, fancy dress. Shoes that were comfortable enough to dance in but still looked nice.

 

All things she never bothered with for Sarek anymore. He came, he undressed her, they screwed and then lay around in bed talking, maybe called out for dinner, and he left.

 

Jim rang the door on time and whistled as she gave a little spin. "The lady cleans up oh so nicely."

 

"So does the gentleman."

 

He took her arm and led her down to a waiting flitter. The ride to the restaurant was short, they got drinks at the bar, talked easily as they waited for their table, and she enjoyed the hell out of being a carnivore with no judgment from her partner.

 

The tables were placed around a dance floor that was empty, but a band filed in and started to set up. How long had it been since she danced? She realized Kirk was studying her. "What?"

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"What do you mean what's wrong? I'm with a handsome man, I've had an amazing meal, and I'm going to dance soon, right?"

 

"In all the years I've known Spock, he's pushed a woman on me exactly once. I got the feeling you were in some kind of trouble."

 

"I just got promoted."

 

"In your personal life, Chris."

 

"I don't have a personal life, Jim. Why do you think I'm having so much fun with you?" She realized that could be taken as an insult, like there was such a low bar anyone would do. "Let me rephrase that."

 

He laughed. "Yes. Please."

 

"I work. I go home. I go to work. I go home. You see a pattern?" It wasn't a lie. She was just leaving out that sometimes Sarek was at her apartment. Besides, having sex didn't equal having a social life. "Ny's with you, Jan's with Sulu, and I'm apparently really shitty at making new friends. The kind you spend time with outside of an Ops happy hour, anyway. I have lots of those kinds of friends."

 

"This doesn't add up. I mean okay, what you say squares with what I hear from Matt. But Spock usually—"

 

"Spock was probably afraid I was desperate enough to go after him again." She stood. "I'm going to go powder my nose. Please find a new theme by the time I get back, okay?"

 

"Okay." He didn't look any more convinced than before, but she had the feeling he'd drop it.

 

For now.

 

The band was playing by the time she got back, and he led her out to the dance floor. It took a moment for them to find their rhythm—it really had been ages since she'd danced—but they did eventually, and then it was just nice. And simple. Music, two people, floating across the dance floor, his skin on hers, his lips on her neck.

 

She didn't move and was afraid to look at him because she'd want to kiss him—or let him kiss her. He eased away and asked softly, "Did I overstep?"

 

"No. But for now, can we just dance?" She didn't want the moment to end, didn't want to go back to her apartment.

 

"Yes, we can."  He let them dance in silence for a bit, then said, "Chris, I know you're not all right. You can tell me anything, okay?"

 

She was surprised Spock hadn't told him. But maybe he was counting on Jim's sweet concern being the jolt she needed to get the hell out of his parents' life. Concern that was all the more effective for being intuitive rather than pre-briefed.

 

"Just dance, Jim." She moved closer and he sighed but let it go.

 

On the ride back to her apartment, he held her hand. He let the flitter go at her apartment, and at her look said, "It's a nice night. I'll walk back to Command."

 

She should have let him do just that but instead murmured, "Nightcap?"

 

"Okay." He took her hand and led her into the building. In the lift, he was quiet, and followed her to her door. Once inside, he went immediately to the balcony and just stood.

 

"Hell of a view, isn't it? Even for someone who prefers the starstream at warp out his windows."

 

"It's gorgeous." He pulled her to him. "I really like you. We've known each other for years, circled around, never got here."

 

She nodded.

 

"I like it here."

 

"I do, too."

 

He leaned in slowly, and she knew he was taking his time so she could stop him. So she could move away and not let his lips touch down on hers, not open her mouth to his, not moan as he let his hands roam.

 

Sarek had never kissed her on this balcony. It wasn't terribly private. Someone might see. Discretion and all that.

 

Kirk pulled away. Then he frowned and wiped away a tear she didn't realize she'd shed. "Who is he?"

 

"I can't. Jim, I can't."

 

He let her go and moved into the living room. She followed him, shutting the door, locking the beautiful night away.

 

"Here's my problem, Chris. If I think too hard about this, there's only one man that Spock would actively try to keep you away from. If it's that man, then this isn't a good road you're on, and he's right: you're in trouble. More importantly, you deserve better."

 

"I can't talk about this." Her voice was barely a whisper. "I trust you. I do. I wish I could tell you everything. But I can't." She saw him react, as if he thought she was being forced. "Not can't—I won't. I choose not to. I don't want to. I love him." There, it was out. No names, no details, but she loved someone else and had gone out with him anyway.

 

He moved closer and took her by the shoulders. "You don't have to tell me. But if you ever need my help, you know where I am."

 

She nodded and pulled him into a hug, holding onto him almost frantically. "I wish..." So many things to wish. So many goddamn things. And she would tell him none of them.

 

He waited, then he let her go. "I wish, too." With a sad smile, he left her alone.

 

##

 

She lay half under Sarek, feeling a little—owned. He'd been fierce, pounding her in a way that wasn't normal.

 

"I'm not sure I like this new you." She tried to squirm free, but he leaned harder on her. "What's with the he-man routine?" No way it was the Pon Farr again.

 

"Can I not take you as I wish?"

 

"Not if it makes me feel like you're just doing to me what you can't do to Amanda any longer. I like to feel primary, not proxy—at least for the moments we're in bed."

 

"Primary. Is that why you were with another man?"

 

"With?"

 

"My son told me of your evening with Kirk."

 

"He did, did he? You and Spock never talk and suddenly he's telling you about my evening with his friend? Oh for God's sake, Sarek, he's figured out we're together. And he doesn't like it. This is...this is interference. Nothing more."

 

"So you are saying he was lying? You were not with Kirk?"

 

"I was. But it was nothing. It was just dinner."

 

"And dancing afterward, is that not so?"

 

Jesus, Spock sure was a gabber; she wondered how Jim had felt about getting the third degree. Or had Spock followed them? Had he watched to see if his big plan would work?

 

Could this get any more fucked up?

 

"Did you dance with him, Christine? It is a simple question."

 

"I did. It was innocent. I like to dance and so does he. You don't. You don't dance with me even when we're here alone."

 

"Vulcans do not dance."

 

"I know. I'm fine with it. But I was with him and we were having fun and there was dancing. So fucking what?"

 

"Dancing is a prelude to sex."

 

"Is that Spock talking or you?" She wrenched herself free and scurried out of the bed, not willing to have this conversation from beneath him. "And I'm sorry but do you or do you not sleep with another woman every fucking night? Do you eat with her and travel with her and do, well, every little thing you want to with her? It was one fucking meal. And some dancing. Get over it. I have the right to have a social life if you can't give me one."

 

"Did he kiss you?"

 

"Do you kiss her?"

 

For the first time, she saw pure rage on Sarek's face. "So that is a yes?"

 

"Gosh, it's too bad we're not bonded. Then you'd just know." She stood, shaking with anger she'd held in for too long. She wanted to say more; she wanted to unload, but it suddenly occurred to her that Amanda would be feeling his rage—and would know it was at her. That if she hurt him, Amanda would know that, too.

 

Did nothing between her and Sarek belong just to them? Did his wife have to be privy to every goddamn thing?

 

"I think you should go." She backed up until she felt the wall at her back and slid, sitting naked on the floor with her knees drawn up, her arms clasped around them. "Just go."

 

He seemed to realize how shaken she was. "Christine." He was out of bed and to her quickly, kneeling next to her, pulling her to him. "I am sorry."

 

"He did kiss me. I didn't kiss him back, not the way I would have if I wasn't in love with you. He knew my heart wasn't in it. He backed off because he's a good man. I just let him go." She met his eyes. "He'd be there for me. He'd find a way to get me on his ship, I know he would. We'd have a life, not just stolen moments. Why did I let him go?" She tried to hold back the tears; they were useless. This was what it was.

 

He pulled her closer, until she was on his lap, legs wrapped around him, and he held her as she cried. "Perhaps you should find him, tell him the truth—or some portion of it. See if...see if he is what you want."

 

She could tell it cost him to say it; there was no meld but she felt his pain nevertheless. "I don't want him. I want you."

 

They sat that way for a long time; she wasn't sure he'd ever held her more tightly. He finally pushed her up, made her get into bed, and pulled the covers over her gently. He stared down at her, his look open and hurting. "I wish that I could give you up."

 

A nod was the only answer she could give him—what more was there to say? She didn't want to leave him and he didn't want to let her go.

 

He leaned down and kissed her, tenderly, possessively, his hands roaming in a way that said, "Mine, mine, mine."

 

Then he walked away and once she heard the door close, she turned on her side and cried herself to sleep.

 

##

 

The sun beat down on her and she heard Jan laughing at something Sulu was doing. Then they both came running to the towels, dripping water all over her.

 

"I'm gonna get us some refills," he said and hopped up and headed toward the bar.

 

Jan was watching him go in an entirely different way than she ever had before.

 

"Janice Rand, are you with him?"

 

A grin was her only answer.

 

"Is that why you included me on this oh so nice weekend at the beach?  So I could witness true happiness?" She mock slugged her.

 

"No. I mean yes, I'm with Hikaru, but no, that's not why you're here." Jan's smile faded. "I ran into a certain captain we both know. He said you were missing me. Are you and he...?" She sounded hopeful, not mad.

 

Chapel just shook her head. "Spock tried to set us up."

 

"I think that's going to be a really long story that requires way more alcohol than Hikaru will be carrying back here."

 

Chapel laughed, feeling herself relax: Jan knew. She knew and she liked her anyway.

 

Jan studied her.  "Are you still with...?"

 

Chapel nodded.

 

"Gotta tell ya. I don't get the whole Vulcan thing when you could have James T. Kirk." She rolled her eyes and made the "you're crazy" finger-whirl.

 

Chapel laughed again. "I guess that's why Ny commed the other night and made plans for the next time the Enterprise is back. He must have told her the same thing.  He's worried about me."

 

"I'm worried about you. You don't seem happy anymore, Christine. Not even a little."

 

"It's bad right now. I won't lie. I mean even the hottest relationship cools off over time. But you replace that with other things you share. This situation isn't conducive to shared things."

 

"Which is an excellent reason to get out of it."

 

She nodded, but slipped on her sunglasses so Jan couldn't see her eyes.

 

"Okay, enough of that. I brought you with us to have some fun, Chapel."

 

"Didn't Sulu wonder why I was coming along?"

 

"Nope. He understands how important friends are. Besides, he still wants you on the ship." She winked. "I'm surprised he hasn't tried to recruit you yet."'

 

"Thank you for caring."

 

"All part of being a friend." Jan laughed and handed her the sunblock. "Now you can repay me. Do my back. I never can reach."

 

"I'm surprised your boy didn't do it for you."

 

"He was going to, but he got distracted." Jan shot her an innocent look, then busted up laughing. "God, I'm so happy with him I'm giddy."

 

"I'm thrilled for you, Jan. I really am. One of us needs to be giddy."

 

"I'm happy to volunteer." She gently pulled the sunglasses from Chapel's face. "And don't hide your feelings. You know I hate that."

 

##

 

Chapel was hurrying to get home. Sarek was going to try to stop by and she’d been held up by a last minute personnel crisis—real crises she could deal, with but two people who couldn’t put their beefs aside long enough to deal with an emergency were a waste of her time. She'd spent the last hour writing up the disciplinary reports for the two officers and one of them—if not both—were getting transferred out of Ops as soon as she had a moment to spare for reassignments. In the meantime, she’d told their team leads to make sure they weren’t scheduled on the same shifts.

 

The problem with Ops, with the pace and the constant need to be "on" or other people might die, was that normally competent officers didn't always thrive in the environment. Stupid, petty shit like this happened as stress increased. That said, it didn't surprise her that both officers had been “suggested acquisitions.” Meaning neither had been picked up on their own merits but had someone in the brass pulling for them.

 

She hated that. She could say “No” if she really felt strongly but the amount of goodwill she’d lose was often not worth it. Her ability to take no prisoners—and speak her mind to whomever she wanted to—required a solid base of admirals who had her back. That required compromise sometimes.

 

And compromise led to crap like this.

 

“Captain Chapel.” A woman’s voice. Not one she recognized. She turned and saw a young Vulcan woman standing with Spock. “Lieutenant Valeris, ma’am.”

 

She expected a glare from Spock, but he merely nodded and said, “Valeris, the captain is clearly in a hurry. We should be going.”

 

“Nonsense, Spock.” Valeris moved closer. “Admiral Cartwright speaks highly of you.”

 

This girl knew Matthew? What did she want? A commendation? “That’s nice.”

 

“I mean, he considers you a kindred intellect.” She seemed to be waiting for something.

 

“And I consider him a mentor. What’s your point, Lieutenant?” Damn it all. She was going to miss Sarek at this rate. How long would he wait in her apartment? Amanda was more and more demanding of his time.

 

She glanced at Spock. Why had he brought this woman to her?

 

He made a gesture that conveyed he was as mystified as she at Valeris's interest in her.

 

“Spock was right, lieutenant. I'm on my way out."

 

Valeris back away, a puzzled look on her face, as if she'd made some kind of mistake. "I apologize for keeping you. Please, have a pleasant evening." She turned and walked away.

 

"Nice girl. Little intense.”

 

"She is normally quite adept with humans." He met Chapel's gaze frankly. "I can imagine why you are hurrying."

 

"I'm sure you can. I don't care."

 

His lips tightened.

 

"I know you tried. I know you care." Although possibly not about her, but she was trying to get him to go, so a fight didn't seem the best route. "It means the world. Now, let me by."

 

He moved aside without another word.

 

Once she was outside, she commed Sarek, hoping he was still at her place.

 

“Where are you?” He sounded impatient enough that she knew his time would be short again.

 

“On my way. Just...just don’t go before I get there. Okay?” God, she was so sick of always rushing to see him and then never getting enough time. Just once she’d like to go to dinner or hell, have a pizza delivered and shoot the shit with no constraint on their time together.

 

She wanted to go to bed with him and wake up to morning sex and breakfast and the knowledge that he was hers.

 

She took a deep breath. She couldn't let Spock rattle her. This was what it was. It was up to her to enjoy the time she had with Sarek. No matter how short.

 

She hailed a flitter and told it to hurry, which was stupid. They maintained a speed appropriate to the conditions and amount of traffic. She couldn’t make the elevator in her building go any faster, either. And by the time she hit her floor, she was peeved enough that she took her time.

 

And this was the other thing that happened. She wanted to see him so badly that sometimes she was a bitch when she finally did. She stopped and took a few seconds to breathe deeply and employ the relaxation techniques she'd been taught when she'd first joined Ops.

 

They sort of worked.

 

Sarek was on the balcony when she walked in. It was a beautiful night; she’d barely noticed in her rush to get home.

 

He looked up and his expression changed to a tender one. He held his hand out and she took it, and he pulled her to him, holding her in a way that anyone watching would be able to see was way more than collegial.

 

"We're not really in private." But she cuddled into him, holding tightly, relishing the feeling of his lips on her neck. Then discretion overruled neediness, and she eased away, pulling him back into the apartment and closing the door and blinds.

 

“I cannot stay long,” he murmured as he followed her into the bedroom.

 

“When can you?” she wanted to say, but didn’t.

 

##

 

Chapel felt like she was playing hooky from school. It was four in the afternoon and she'd left Ops early and was in her favorite wine shop, looking for something special for tonight.

 

How many times did a girl turn fifty? And Sarek was coming over. He'd cleared his schedule for her.

 

Earlier, the team in Ops had brought in cake with black icing and served a nearly black dessert wine someone had picked up on a mission and known would be perfect for the occasion.

 

It made her feel special. That they cared.

 

She turned down a corner, looking at the sparkling wines, when she heard, "May I help you find something?"

 

It was the clerk she liked best. Perfect. "Andrew, hello. I need something really nice. It's my fiftieth birthday and I'm celebrating with someone special."

 

"Ah, well, let's see what we can find." He grinned at her and started making suggestions. "So, is this a romantic someone special?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Vixen." He winked at her as he handed her a bottle. "I suggest this one. It's often overlooked but the taste is sublime."

 

"Perfect."

 

"And we have the Vermouth you like back in."

 

"This day couldn't be better." She headed to the aisle where the fortified wines were.

 

And ran right into Amanda, who was standing very straight, wearing a smile that had to be fake. "Fiftieth? That's a special one. A milestone one."

 

She could feel herself bristling but forced herself to smile. She hadn't missed that Amanda was not wishing her happy birthday.

 

"How are you feeling?" she said.

 

Amanda's expression changed, the pretend smile fading. "Not terribly well but I've had worse days. Does that make you feel good, dear? Reminding me that I'm sick and you're not?"

 

"I was just asking how you were." Or not. Why pretend anymore? Why pretend that they liked each other?

 

Maybe once they did. But now, this woman's husband stood between them both.

 

"I'll let you shop," Chapel said and turned away, walking briskly to the counter, making small talk with Andrew but not talking about her evening, not now that Amanda could hear every word.

 

When she turned to go, Amanda was gone.

 

She felt regret; she hated that things were ugly now. She hated most everything about being with Sarek except actually being with Sarek.

 

But tonight was her night and she'd get him for a while and they'd celebrate the hell out of her turning fifty—or at least she would—and everything would be okay. Amanda had him the rest of the time.

 

She walked home leisurely, picking up flowers from a vendor, stopping to get some of Sarek's favorite cheese.

 

She took a long bath, and spent time on her hair and make-up. A new dress he'd never seen finished her preparations. It was a lovely wine color and flattered without trying too hard.

 

And then she waited.

 

And waited.

 

And waited.

 

The more she paced, the angrier she got. When Sarek finally palmed himself in, she turned and stared at him.

 

“I am sorry. Amanda need—”

 

“Amanda knows it’s my fucking birthday. So tell me, what could she possibly have needed? I saw her in the wine shop today. It’s a good period. She’s walking, talking—picking fights.”

 

He closed his eyes and nodded. He looked immeasurably weary—and angry, too. But not at her, she could tell. But did it matter? It was her fucking birthday and this was what she was getting: recriminations and anger and another night where she'd be watching the clock, triaging things she wanted to tell him by criticality—what could wait, what needed to be said.

 

"You look beautiful," he said, clearly trying to get them to safer ground. Ever the fucking diplomat.

 

"I should. I took off early. I primped and everything. I should look like a goddamn beauty queen. And then I waited. For three fucking hours."

 

He took a deep breath.

 

Chapel imagined the satisfaction Amanda must be feeling if any of Sarek's emotions were leaking through the bond.

 

“She wanted to keep you away. She set this whole fucking affair up and now she wants to keep you away.”

 

"She is jealous. It is a natural human reaction."

 

"Oh, so she gets cut slack? What about me? I'm human, too, Sarek. I have emotions too, or have you goddamn forgotten?" She moved closer to him, and he actually took a step back, which just made her madder. "You know, I'd forgotten how much I hate this. The hiding. The waiting—with no recourse this time unlike when I could at least comm Roger and pretend there was an issue in the lab."

 

"I agree it's not optimal."

 

"Stop saying that. Like we're a machine not performing to its highest potential. We're not machines. We're people and we feel and at this point, I'm just reacting. Your wife is calling the goddamn shots in this." This was light years worse than hiding the relationship had been with Roger. Mistresses weren’t allowed to call. Were expected to just sit and wait.

 

But for how long? For fucking ever? Until a woman she used to like and admire finally died?

 

She was living her life waiting for someone to die.

 

“I can’t do this,” she said into the silence. She turned to look at Sarek and saw no hint of surprise. “I love you—more than I have every loved anyone—but I can’t do this anymore.”

 

He nodded as he took a step toward her.

 

“There are positions far away. Not on ships, where we’ll cross paths. But on worlds that don’t need diplomatic assistance. I could to go back to helping people. Be a doctor. Stop living this life.” She waved her hand around the apartment, trying to let him know she meant more than just him: she meant Ops and the hours and the interminable crises and the deaths and having to live with nothing but uncertainty.

 

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

 

He held his arms open and she went in, not crying—what was the use? How many times would she cry over him?

 

He took a deep breath as he held her tightly. “She knows that I love you. I cannot hide it from her.”

 

“But you love her, too. She has to know that.”

 

“I believe how I feel about you matters far more to her at this stage than how I feel about her." He stroked her hair with exquisite tenderness, as if he was doing it for the last time. “I will support whatever you choose. But I will...miss you greatly if you go.”

 

“I’ll miss you, too.” She lifted her face to his and was rewarded with a sweeter kiss than she thought he’d ever given her. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Do not be. I realize this situation is untenable. That it has endured as long as it has is a testament to you.” He reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a small box. “Happy birthday.”

 

She started to laugh—somewhat hysterically—and dialed it back before she completely lost it. “Vulcans don’t celebrate birthdays.”

 

“Vulcans involved with humans tend to.” His eyes were gentle. “Also, it is more than just a birthday gift. It is, if you want it to be, a promise.”

 

She opened the box. A gorgeous ring. Nothing ostentatious. Just a band, but carved in a way that made it sparkle as if it was loaded with diamonds. “Are you asking me to wait for you?”

 

“No. Do whatever you wish. Be with whomever you wish. But, if you want me to, I will come for you once this can be more than a promise.” He sounded as if he was not sure she would want that.

 

“Yes,” she whispered. No human would have heard her, but Sarek took the ring from her and slid it onto her finger.

 

It was a perfect fit.

 

“When will you leave?” he asked, and emotion seemed to make his voice crack.

 

“Not tonight. Not for a while. There are things to arrange. I’m not fleeing, Sarek. I want to leave for a good posting, not just the first one that will get me out of here.” She wasn't going to end up with another Danube ever again.

 

“Understood.” He seemed unsure whether to stay or go. He was so unflappable normally, it touched her deeply to see him so off balance.

 

She took his hand and pulled him with her into the bedroom. As she eased his robe off, she said, “We have time. To say proper goodbyes. Many of them, even.”

 

“I am grateful for that.”

 

She thought he would take her hard, the way he did when he wanted to claim her. But he was tender and gentle—and expressive. So many things he told her, so many things to hold onto.

 

He was a master diplomat—he would know what she wanted to hear. He would know what might keep her waiting.

 

Even if all of it was true—and she believed it was—she knew that. He would play her to the end to keep her.

 

But she didn't care. It was nice hearing him so open, so free with how he would feel once she was gone.

 

She knew he wouldn't take another lover. Somewhere, deep in her soul, she knew that.

 

He turned the lights off and pulled the covers over them.

 

“Don’t you have to go?” she whispered, not wanting to ask but also not wanting to wake up and find him gone.

 

“Yes, but I do not care. You are leaving me.”

 

He woke her when the sun began to come up. She was late reporting for duty. So was he.

 

He spent every night with her as she made plans to transition out, was with her when she located a promising billet on a lovely world far from Earth—and Vulcan. A medical center, but not a medical billet—she'd be running the place.

 

He seemed very proud of her, told her so frequently, as he lay in her bed, his breath tickling her ear.

 

She thought he was defying Amanda to spend so much time with her—although he was still discreet. They stayed in, and she tried not to think of her apartment as a prison, especially not with him in it with her. She loved that he was willing to risk something—even if it was just his wife's good will—to be with her.

 

She let herself enjoy having so much of him—even if the reason behind this sudden access was a sad one.

 

She didn’t say goodbye to Amanda before she shipped out. What would have been the point? The woman had won.

 

For now.

 

 

 

 

Part 4

 

The medical center on Dalutia was busier than she'd expected. She'd thought that leaving Ops would be an adjustment. That she'd have to get used to a much slower—possibly boring—pace. But the center was a hub for newly developed tech and procedures, and it served as the trauma unit for a large portion of the quadrant. She spent her first week just trying to learn the acronyms used by the staff—like any place, the center had its own lingo.

 

She spent her second catching up on all the things she'd fallen behind on when she was learning the lingo.

 

She spent the third week observing in each of the departments. It was amazing to feel the thrill that came from helping people. Not that Ops didn't help—it was the place's raison d'etre, after all—but the assistance was on a larger scale. This was about individuals. These were the stories that touched people's hearts, that non-profits used to garner more funding for further research into bigger and brighter tech to make more stirring stories of healing.

 

In her fourth week, during a lunch wolfed down at her desk between meetings, Sarek commed.

 

She could have ignored the call—probably should have—but she picked it up.

 

His face filled her terminal, and she couldn't hold back a smile she knew was luminous. She'd missed him. So much.

 

But she'd also left him. "You do realize this is counter to the 'I can't do this anymore' concept, right?"

 

He actually frowned. "I cannot comm you?"

 

"Of course you can. If it's important. But I don't want to trade never seeing you except for sex to never seeing you except for on a terminal."

 

He nodded, his mouth tight.

 

"Sarek, cut me some slack here. I'm trying to make a life. I miss you, but this"—she pointed to his face on her terminal—"only makes not having you worse."

 

His jaw eased and his look changed to one of satisfaction. She realized he was staring at her hand. "You wear my ring."

 

"It's beautiful. Of course I wear it."

 

"You did not wear a ring before."

 

"You're familiar with the concept of a ring avulsion, yes? Jewelry and emergencies rarely go well together."

 

He shook his head. "Even after. When you were not travelling. You wore no rings." His look dared her to find a counter for that.

 

"Fine. I'm wearing your ring." She leaned in. "Are you all right?"

 

"I miss you."

 

She smiled gently. "I'm sorry." She traced his face on the screen. "I really am serious. You can't be calling me just to shoot the shit."

 

"I have lost more than a sexual partner with your absence, Christine. I have lost a very dear friend."

 

It was sweet of him to couch it in such human terms. It was also possibly very manipulative because he knew she'd respond to it. "I'm sorry for that. But that's not my worry. You get that, right?"

 

At the look of annoyance that flashed across his face, she knew he'd been trying to reel her back in using whatever means necessary. "You are resolved to remain separate?"

 

"Yes. That was the whole point of moving very far away. You were fine with it."

 

"I was not fine with it. I was attempting to behave in a mature way."

 

"And I appreciate that. So keep doing it. I haven't abandoned you. But I can't live like we were and keep my sanity. You expect me to wait for you; I expect you to give me space while I do."

 

"I don’t expect anything of you. You are a free agent." Something in his face changed and she realized he was fishing.

 

"I am a free agent. Thank you for realizing that." She'd be damned if she was going to explain her social life—or lack thereof—to him.

 

Not that she hadn't been invited to many dinners from her staff. But so far no one had hit her up for a date, which was fine with her.

 

She leaned in. "I love you, Sarek. If you need me, I'm here. But don't do a casual call again. Got it?"

 

He clearly did not like having terms dictated to him, but he nodded. He cut the connection without saying he loved her.

 

She didn't hold it against him. She'd outplayed the master diplomat. It was bound to sting.

 

##

 

She expected to see Len at the medical conference on Starbase Seventeen; she didn't expect to see Kirk. His smile was wary, his eyes not so warm as last time, and his hug was quick, as if he had to embrace her but would have preferred not to.

 

"You a doctor now, Jim?" She used his name almost to spite him; she wasn't sure why he was being so distant.

 

"No. Morrow wanted to see me and we were both close to this starbase. He's retiring." He said it more to Len than her. Then he met her eyes. "Matt's taking his place."

 

"Wow. I know he wanted the job, but he didn't think he'd ever get it."

 

"Well, he did." He held up his glass. "To absent friends."

 

"Especially absent friends who show up at medical conferences that would otherwise have been boring," Len said, clinking his bourbon against her wineglass. He downed the drink and said, "Listen, I hate to deprive you two of my company for even a moment, but the moderator for tomorrow's panel wants to meet with me. I'll be back in a jiffy. Don't give my seat away." He slid off his barstool and hurried out.

 

"So," Kirk said, swirling his scotch in the glass, not looking at her. "You left."

 

"I left Ops. Yes."

 

"And I guess you left other things."

 

"Other things did not come to Dalutia with me, ergo..."

 

He nodded but didn't say anything and she could tell he realized she really hadn't answered his question. The empty barstool between them seemed like a chasm.

 

"Did I do something? Other than not be as interested as you would have liked?" It was harsh, but he was pissing her off with his suddenly hands-off approach.

 

"Funny." He laughed, the fake laugh he'd used on her whenever he was trying to get out of a physical. Then his expression turned grim. "Spock just found out his mother is very sick—dying, in fact. Apparently it's a condition she's had for some time and managed to hide it from him." He held her eyes, his like lasers. "But you knew, didn't you? You're a doctor, after all."

 

She could feel a contrariness rising in her, but also hurt. Why was he attacking her? "Sarek told me. I didn't figure it out on my own." But she might have. If she'd been given to spending quality time alone with Amanda prior to becoming close to Sarek.

 

"That changes the story even more, then, doesn't it?"

 

She didn't answer. What did he want her to say?

 

"You know"—he leaned in—"I used to think T'Pring was so strategic it was terrifying. But you...you may have her beat."

 

"That's not fair, Jim. T'Pring used you and I never did." She could see he was surprised she knew what had happened. The holy trinity had shut her out of that, but did he really think Sarek wouldn't have told her what went on—why her captain had come back seemingly dead, why Spock had been so happy to see he wasn't? "What happened—it wasn't something I planned or Sarek planned."

 

She wanted to tell him if anyone planned what had happened, it was the paragon of virtue he was so intent on defending. But she didn't say that because this was none of his fucking business. "It just happened." She took a long sip of her wine and didn't look away from him, daring him to make her the villain even more, daring him to pay her back for...for what? Not fucking him? On the first goddamn date?

 

He looked at her hand, at the ring she wore—Sarek's ring. Sarek's promise. "That looks Vulcan."

 

"It was a birthday gift."

 

He just shook his head. "Are you waiting for her to die? To clear the way? Are you already engaged?"

 

"Wrong hand."

 

"That's not an answer."

 

"Maybe."

 

"Maybe?" He laughed, the sound one of disbelief. "What? Unless something better comes along?"

 

"Well, isn't that how love works? How life does? We take or we wait, and yes, we see what else comes along." Even if she was shutting down anyone who wanted to get too close. Was that bad? She knew what she wanted. She was willing to wait for it. "Why? Did you want to give seducing me another try?" She loaded as much disdain as she could into her voice.

 

He threw back the scotch and slid off the barstool. "Tell Bones I had a headache."

 

She reached out, suddenly sorry. "Jim, please, don't hate me."

 

"I don't hate you, Chris. I just...I just wish I didn't know who you really are."

 

He turned and walked away.

 

She was debating whether to stay or not when Len came back. "Where's Jim?"

 

"Headache."

 

"Hmmm."

 

"You have something to say about that?" Her tone was slightly hysterical.

 

He didn't seem to notice. "He hardly ever gets headaches. Must've seen a woman he wanted to talk to." He grinned. "More time for us to catch up. So, how's Dalutia? Your med center got the best ranking in the quadrant for trauma, did you know that?"

 

"I did know that, Len. We're trying to raise the rating even higher. We've got some amazing new tech coming on line."

 

"Oooh, I love it when you talk medical. Go on."

 

She laughed, suddenly very grateful for his easy way with her after so long not seeing each other. "I love you," she said.

 

"I love you, too, 'hon. But if a spontaneous declaration of affection is your way of keeping medical breakthroughs on the hush hush, it's not going to distract me. I've heard about a regenerator process being tested in your radiation unit that makes the one we use now look like it was developed in the Stone Age. So spill."

 

It wasn't really a secret, so she told him all about it. Glad to not have to hold back. Glad to not have to lie.

 

Glad to spend time with a friend who didn't know all her tawdry little secrets.

 

##

 

She watched as the Khitomer Peace Conference footage played out again on the med center screens.

 

“You know them?” Nurse Carter asked, her tone full of worship.

 

 “I do. Not surprised they're saving the day again.” She watched Kirk, Spock, Len, and that Vulcan girl, Valeris, who'd looked at her with such recognition—had she thought Matt had recruited Chapel, too?

 

But Chapel forgot about Valeris and her former shipmates when she saw Sarek, standing alone, and she could feel her heart beat faster.

 

She played with his ring as she watched him. She told anyone who asked about it that it was a sentimental favorite. It was sparkly enough that it might be a cocktail band, not one that meant she was taken.

 

Since she wasn’t. Not as far as anyone here knew.

 

Once she got back to her apartment, she replayed the footage over and over, watching him, even though he barely moved, laughing at his almost grudging applause for his son and Kirk. Remembering what it felt like to be touched by him.

 

Sorry that she'd had to tell him to stop calling her. He'd taken her at her word and hadn't called in the many months since.

 

She missed talking to him, his gentle wit, the tender way he looked at her—and the not so tender ways, too. But she'd been right to make him stop. She'd never have been able to move on—or at least find a sort of happiness here—if she was still thinking of him as present in her life.

 

Her chime went off and she jumped. Shit. She’d forgotten she’d said she’d go to a barbeque with one of her section chiefs.

 

She opened the door and saw Gus standing there, older than she but still handsome. His smile warm and open and very human. He was a civilian, technically part of her team but he reported to the civilian chief of staff so there was little conflict spending time with him outside of work.

 

“Hello there,” he said, his voice gentle and full of humor.

 

“Hello.” She moved to let him in.

 

“Tell me you didn't forget Landa’s shindig tonight?” He grinned in his “no harm, no foul, but go get ready” way. He wouldn't smile in quite the same way when they parted in the morning. Sex with him was fun, and she’d been clear with him that she wasn’t looking for anything serious. That she’d just extricated herself from something heavy. No details, of course.

 

But still he seemed to think he could change her mind about that. Could make her love him. Make her want to settle down.

 

“I did forget. Sorry—got all caught up in this.” She turned off the vid player.

 

“Pretty wild, huh?” He nodded toward the now blank screen. “Traitors in Starfleet working with Klingons and Romulans.”

 

“One of them was my boss.” The perfect way to explain her fixation. “And my former shipmates stopped him.” And yet another way.

 

“You travelled in interesting circles. This place must seem so dull.”

 

“Quiet doesn’t have to equal dull.” Even if, in this case, it sometimes did now that she was comfortable in her job. “Let me go get ready. I’ll just be a second.”

 

He didn’t call her on how “a second” was inaccurate or overly optimistic the way Sarek would have. He just nodded and headed for her chiller. She had his favorite beer stocked. That, at least, she could give him.

 

##

 

Chapel sat staring at the headline that ran over every news outlet. "Captain Kirk dead saving new Enterprise."

 

She hadn't seen him since the coverage of Khitomer, hadn't interacted with him since the medical conference.

 

A string of comms came into her personal unit: from Jan, Ny, Len.

 

Not from Spock. Not surprising.

 

Not from Sarek, either. He probably was wondering, though, if he should comm her, if he should make sure she was all right, now that the closest thing he'd ever had to a rival was dead.

 

She worked through the afternoon, then headed to her favorite bar.

 

The bartender nodded a welcome. "Your usual, Christine?"

 

"Do you have Balvenie?"

 

"I do."

 

"Make it a double. Neat."

 

"You got it." He followed her gaze to the vid screen where the headline about Kirk's death was now a small ticker running under the main reporting. "You served with him?"

 

"Yep." She took the glass from him. "To heroes."

 

"Salud."

 

She took a bigger sip than she meant to and was immediately reminded why she didn't drink scotch that often. Although the burn felt good, like penance of some sort.

 

Gus found her when she was well into her second drink. "So. Kirk. Was that his poison?"

 

"No, I was." She started to laugh—in a mean way that meant she was probably a little too drunk—and reached into her pocket for some antitox, but there wasn't any. She didn't drink anymore the way she had at Ops and had fallen out of the habit of always carrying it with her. Oh well, she had plenty at home and flitters were easy to get.

 

"Was he the reason you couldn't commit?"

 

"Oh, so you think I can now?" She laughed, a half amused, half mocking sound and he looked hurt. "I wasn't with him. He didn't even like me at the end."

 

Gus looked like he didn't like her very much at the moment, either.

 

"Then why did he give you this?" He grabbed her hand and tried to pull the ring off her finger.

 

"Jesus, Gus, stop it. He didn't give me this."

 

"Don't lie to me."

 

She stared at him. "I'm not. He didn't give it to me." She knew her expression was deadly serious.

 

"But someone did. Just tell me what happened to make you so gun shy?"

 

"Gun shy?" Again the laugh that seemed to shred him—and she didn't care. "Oh my God, what is it with you men? A woman doesn't want you and it's all her fault. It's never you. It's never that you're boring."

 

"You're drunk."

 

"What's that famous saying? Oh yeah, I'll be sober in the morning but I bet you won't be any more exciting."

 

He held up his hands, his face taking on the reasonable expression she knew was his way of avoiding any kind of confrontation. "Let's just stop right now. I'm going to chalk this up to grief and too much of whatever that is you're drinking"

 

"Scotch. Single malt."

 

"Yeah, let's not order that again, okay?"

 

He made it their problem. Like they'd ordered the drink together. It was his passive-aggressive way of taking control. She wanted to laugh at him again, but it didn't seem worth it.

 

Did he really think he could manipulate her after she'd been involved with Sarek? And been at the mercy of his goddamned wife?

 

"I love you. I'm sorry you're hurting." Gus hurried away, probably so he wouldn't have to hear her avoid saying she loved him back. Or maybe he didn't want her to finally say it and have it be a lie, something said while she was compromised by loss or by booze.

 

He didn't need to worry because she wasn't going to say it. He had no idea how much liquor she could hold before she said things she didn't mean.

 

##

 

She was sitting across from Gus in one of his favorite restaurants. She wasn't sure why he was still with her, especially after the way she'd treated him in the bar, months ago now and he'd never mentioned it since. She hadn't even had to say she was sorry—not that she actually was.

 

She was nothing but bad for him, and still he came back.

 

She supposed Jan might say it was just like her with Sarek. Only Sarek loved her. She'd felt it in the meld—had never had to just take his word for it as she would a human male. He might be using her, but he also had plans for them.

 

"Do you know what you're going to get?" Gus always asked it, even though she ordered the same thing every time. And he'd roll her eyes like she was the boring one.

 

Could she help it if she knew what she liked? Was it possible she was missing out on something wonderful? Yes. But it was equally likely she'd get the new dish, not like it, and spend the rest of the meal thinking how she should have ordered what she wanted in the first place.

 

Jan would probably say this was also like her relationship with Sarek. Except that Chapel had always been this way, happily sticking with the tried and true.

 

Which is probably why she was still letting Gus into her bed. Easier than finding someone she'd like less. Or someone she'd like more—possibly enough that she might actually contemplate taking Sarek's ring off.

 

She hated to think she was capable of using a man the way she was Gus. But she’d been clear. Nothing serious meant just that. If he wanted more—after all this time—then that was on him.

 

He ordered and seemed to be really upset when they were out of one of the specials. He pouted and made her go first as he pretended to peruse the rather small menu.

 

She ordered then rolled her eyes at the server when he still didn’t seem to know what he wanted. She immediately felt disloyal, but then the woman’s grin was so infectious it made her laugh, and Gus stared at her like she’d stabbed him.

 

“Oh, for God’s sake, he’ll have the Lorisan burger. Rare. No onions, extra pickles.” She waved the poor woman away. “What's your problem?”

 

“That’s not what I wanted.”

 

“They were out of what you wanted. You order the burger all the time. If you're really upset, go catch her and change it to something else. But make up your damn mind.”

 

“That’s rich. Coming from you.”

 

She didn't think making up her mind was a problem. Not doing what he wanted her to do was the problem, which would actually involve changing her mind. But she'd had a long day and didn't feel like a fight, so she didn't correct him.

 

“You know what you remind me of, Christine?”

 

“God only knows.” She made a pleading face. “It was a crappy day, Gus. Don’t make it crappier.”

 

“Right, because this is all on me. The fact that your average Vulcan is more emotionally available than you has nothing to do with it.” He sat back and stared out the window, seeming as if he’d let it go, but then he turned back to her. “I've been patient. I've been more than patient.”

 

Had he, though? Because this was an old argument and she was fucking sick of it.

 

"You know what—I'm not doing this." She waved the server over and said, "I have to go. Is it too late to cancel my order?"

 

"No. I'll take care of it." She was gone before Gus could say anything.

 

"You're the coldest woman I've ever met."

 

"Yeah. I got that with the Vulcan comment."

 

"Then do something about it."

 

"Oh, you mean change. You mean love you." The hurt in his face only made her madder. "Why do you stay? If I'm so fucking deficient? Why don't you grow a spine and leave?"

 

"Because I love you."

 

"And I will never, ever love you." She pushed her chair back and got up.

 

"We're done, Christine."

 

"No shit."

 

##

 

“Christine?” That voice. The one she heard in her dreams.

 

She turned around slowly, trying to bite back a smile but failing. Sarek stood in the doorway to her office, in a robe that was wrinkled enough she thought he’d been travelling for a while.

 

To her assistant, he probably looked like the quintessential Vulcan despite the wrinkles. To her—she saw hope in his face. Hope and so much more.

 

“You found me.” She beckoned him in, then hit the switch that would close the door.

 

“I will always find you,” he said, his voice harsh.

 

“Does that mean—is she...?”

 

He nodded.

 

“I’m sorry.” And she was.

 

And she wasn't.

 

So many feelings, but hope was winning. Hope and just a small sense of triumph. “I know losing her isn't a small or easy thing. Have you finished mourning?”

 

She could see approval in his expression—approval and affection and impatience. “I have.”

 

“This will not dishonor her—or us?”

 

“It will not.”

 

Her door suddenly opened and she heard her assistant say, "Doctor, she's with someone."

 

She and Sarek were doing nothing wrong, weren't even standing close, but Gus stared at them like he'd caught them in bed naked.

 

"Doctor, did you want something?" She let the coldness he hated permeate every word.

 

"I sent you my resignation. I have a new position on Earth. I'll be leaving immediately."

 

"Fine."

 

Gus walked over to Sarek. "I know who you are."

 

"I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage." The human sentiment came out so glibly. She imagined Sarek could phrase niceties in many ways—part of his job.

 

"Oh, I think you may have had the advantage all along." He turned and left, apparently finally realizing there was nothing he could say.

 

The door closed behind her and Sarek moved closer. "It would seem you were not alone."

 

"No, but he was." She wondered if he'd get it, all the ways she meant that.

 

He nodded. "I did not expect you to abstain."

 

She started to laugh. "But you hoped I would."

 

He pulled her to him, his fingers finding the meld points as he kissed her. She could feel him ransacking her memories of Gus and she let him.

 

His jealousy felt good. The heat of the emotion, the beating heart of his desire, how much he missed her: all were like food for her soul.

 

She could tell he was looking for more. If she still loved him—if she still wanted him.

 

"Computer, lock door," she managed to get out as she pushed him back to the couch and followed him down, kneeling over him, pulling up his robe and pushing down her uniform pants even as he deepened the meld.

 

And then...there. For a moment, she couldn't breathe, and everything he was feeling was buffeting her along with her own emotions, held so close for so long, now finally free.

 

He put his hand over her mouth as she came, amusement clear but she also felt his care for her, that he not compromise her reputation.

 

Not because they had to hide, though. This was just simple discretion.

 

He came loudly, too—or would have if he hadn't buried his face in her uniform top.

 

"I was not sure you would feel the same way about me."

 

She kissed him as tenderly as she could. "Silly man."

 

##

 

They lay in bed later that night, and she laughed as he pushed her to her back again. Someone had a lot of desire to work out. She didn't mind.

 

He thrust hard, not even trying to hold back the "Mine, mine, mine" that accompanied his movement.

 

She was his. After all this time she was fully his. Why should he try?

 

He found the meld points and pushed into her mind, and his climax rocketed through her, and then he was still, easing off her to lie close but not on her, the meld still there, his love for her echoing strongly.

 

She felt him taking the meld deeper, deeper than he'd ever gone. She moaned, enjoying the intimacy, but then felt the snap of...permanence, and grabbed his hand. "Whoa, whoa, whoa."

 

He stopped, but didn't like that he had to—she could feel that through the meld.

 

"Sarek, back away from the 'bond' button."

 

She could feel his confusion through her entire being, but he slowly let the meld fade.

 

"You do not wish to bond? But you...waited. Did you not?"

 

"I did."

 

"Yet you do not wish to make this permanent?"

 

She stroked his hair back and laughed softly at the frustration in his eyes. "My darling, you are almost certainly the love of my life. Yes, I do want to make this permanent. But...eventually. You and I—what we had—it was powerful and lovely and amazing, but it wasn't real. It was always constrained by your marriage, by our schedules, by everything that kept us apart. Time was valuable—the most precious thing we had—so we almost certainly chose to swallow things that might have bothered us about the relationship or each other."

 

"Logical. But my feelings are real. They have not changed."

 

"Nor have mine. But we don't even know if we're compatible for long periods. Having sex is not the same thing as having a relationship." She kissed his slight frown away. "I'm pretty sure we are compatible, if that makes you feel better." She let the "you big baby" stay implied, but she was pretty sure he got it.

 

And, as she expected, he rallied. "So I must work for you. Woo you?"

 

She shrugged. "If that's how you want to interpret giving us time, I'm not going to complain. Are you upset that you have to wait?"

 

He smiled—a miniscule expression compared to a human, but a smile nonetheless. "Not at all. Any good negotiator knows that things attained after much effort are more highly valued."

 

She murmured, "That's my smart boy," as she kissed her way down to thank him in a way she knew he would love.

 

##

 

"So," Jan said as she handed Chapel a glass of champagne. "Big changes."

 

Chapel looked around the room at Starfleet Command, at the friends still left from the Enterprise—Scotty was the latest to be taken, lost with all hands on the Jenolan—here to celebrate her retirement. "I feel like I should say a prayer that I'm getting out alive."

 

"I was referring more to your plus one." Jan winked at her. "Things good?"

 

Chapel beamed—she couldn't seem to wipe the stupid smile off her face these days. "Things are very good."

 

"So are you going to just follow him around the way...she did?"  Jan never seemed to know how to refer to Amanda.

 

"No, I'll be working with him. The way I used to when I was in Ops. Only now I can be seen going into his bedroom."

 

"And you'll be diplomatic." Jan put the Ops spin on the word, making diplomacy sound like an STD. "That'll be weird."

 

"Yes, out of all the stuff happening, that'll be the weirdest." She laughed at Jan's expression. "I know he and I work well together. We always have. But living together...that's been interesting."

 

Interesting, but not something they couldn't deal with. There were things she did that drove Sarek crazy and vice versa. But at the end of the day, he went to bed with her and woke up with her and they could be seen together, any time, any place.

 

"I'm happy for you. I know I wasn't his biggest fan, but I'm glad you got the dream."

 

"Me, too."

 

She saw that Spock was standing with Saavik, staring at her in a way that was somewhere between hostile and resigned.

 

"You're going to be his stepmother. I'm laughing really hard on the inside." Jan held up her glass. "To love despite the weirdness."

 

Chapel returned the toast, then walked over to Spock and Saavik. Saavik was polite, but distant. Spock on the other hand, seemed content to stay when Saavik went to talk to Ny, even though he hadn't said a single word to her.

 

"We're going to have to talk eventually, Spock."

 

"I am aware of that, Christine."

 

"I want you to know I never set out for this to happen. I didn't see a road and follow it."

 

"It found you?"

 

"More or less, yeah." She pitched her voice even lower. "Thank you for trying—sending Jim my way."

 

"I did not do it for you, Christine." His voice held a world of disapproval.

 

"Okay, sorry." She watched as Saavik and Ny talked with great animation. "You care for her?"

 

"My relationship with her is my concern."

 

"I'm just trying to find a safe topic."

 

"There may not be any. You will marry my father. I know I must...interact with you, but I do not have to enjoy it. Or seek to extend the time any more than is necessary." He nodded in a way that if anyone else did it, would be respectful but in this case came out mocking.

 

"Don't make this hard for him, Spock."

 

"I think you mean for you. My interactions with my father have always been fraught with negativity." He seemed to be studying her. "I do not see your presence changing that in any positive way."

 

"Fine. Be an asshole." She said it with a sweet smile; if anyone glanced their way, they would see two people seemingly having a nice conversation.

 

He leaned in, the way a friend would to share a confidence. "My mother was everything to him. No matter what is between you and what will be, she will always be first in his heart."

 

"Maybe so." Chapel didn't want to debate that. Amanda had borne Sarek a son, had been his constant companion for decades, had died and been mourned.

 

But she wasn't here now and that was all that mattered. Chapel resisted saying so to Spock, however. Instead, as Spock turned to go, she said, "I admired her, Spock. Nothing that happened changed that." Which was true. She'd found out you could admire and hate someone at the same time.

 

In fact, it was easy.

 

##

 

It had been a successful mission. Chapel had contributed more than she'd expected, which pleased her. She'd known she'd be of some help to Sarek but hadn't known how much he would let her in, how much he would rely on her.

 

He let her in all the way—or as far as security imperatives allowed.

 

And now they sat on her apartment balcony enjoying the view and eating things they'd picked up together after walking around the city together—just because they could.

 

He took the last strawberry and held it out for her. She shook her head and he popped it into his mouth, clearly enjoying the fruit.

 

"We're compatible."

 

He actually mumbled "Mmm hmmm" as he reached for a piece of cheese. Then he froze, hand stilled over the cheese plate. "What did you say?"

 

"Something wrong with your hearing? I said, we're compatible." She laughed as he turned to look at her. "Com-pat-i-ble."

 

"You wish to...?" He was surprised. In a good way. She'd managed to surprise him.

 

"I do." Although she was glad they'd waited; bonding when he'd first wanted to would definitely have been too soon.

 

He began to pick up dishes and stood. "We will take these in for later. We will probably not want to leave this place for some time."

 

She grabbed the wine bottle, her glass, and his bottle of water and followed him into the bedroom.

 

He put everything on the dresser, then relieved her of the bottles and glass, and pulled her to the bed.

 

She stopped him, drawing him to her, stroking his hair and rubbing against him as she said, "I love you. So much."

 

"And I you. My wife." There was so much emotion loaded into one word. He touched the ring on her hand. "The promise is fulfilled."

 

"Well, technically we need to get married for it to count."

 

"The wedding will be but a formality. The bond will unite us."

 

"It will make me yours?"

 

"And I yours." He kissed her, a heady mix of passion and tenderness filling the touch of his lips on hers.

 

She pulled off his robe and let him disrobe her quickly. Then he drew her down to the bed, to cuddle against him, and he put his leg over hers, the move so possessive she laughed and said, "I'm not going to run away."

 

"One can never be too careful." His eyes gleamed with humor as he found the meld points, as he went slowly but unrelentingly deeper and deeper.

 

She started to feel dizzy but his body pressed so tightly against hers kept her grounded.

 

"Breathe," he said gently, stopping his progress for a moment. Then he started the slide down and down and—

 

She felt as if she was split open. It was the best orgasm she'd ever had and they weren't even having sex.

 

Then she could feel him, reacting the same way to the closeness. She felt as if she might pass out from pleasure and heard his murmured, "Breathe," again.

 

She wasn't sure how long they stayed like that. As it started to fade, she sensed no surprise from him. This was normal, then. The intensity would not be like that all the time, which was probably a good thing or she'd forget to eat or drink or bathe or possibly ever get up again from this bed.

 

Other things began to supplant the pleasure he'd given her. His love for her was like a blanket on a cold day—comforting and all-encompassing. His respect for her, his affection. So many things.

 

She could feel him reading her and he was pleased.

 

"It will not always this be this strong. Explore while you can."

 

She let herself drift, not sure what she was experiencing, sometimes happiness, other times not, but all his—for her. Open to her. Holding nothing back.

 

They came up slowly, as their minds became distinct, more opaque, and he moved over her and made love to her while they could still feel each other's sensations so keenly.

 

When she looked at the chrono, she was shocked to see that hours had passed in what felt like an instant. "Food. Please." Her mouth was so dry she could barely get the words out.

 

He got up and brought their food over, then handed her the water bottle, letting her drink first before also taking a long drink.

 

"We're bonded," she said, running her fingernail down his arm, shivering as she felt the faintest echo of the feeling even with no meld in place.

 

"We are. It has been my deepest wish."

 

"Thank you for waiting."

 

"I would have waited much longer, Christine. For you." He touched the band on her finger. "This wedding we must have—a simple affair or a lavish one?"

 

"Simple. Private."

 

He nodded and she knew it was what he wanted, too, not that he was humoring her. "We will have a reception at the embassy. I wish to...show you off."

 

"You do know how to tell a girl what she wants to hear."

 

"It is no hardship to please you. To speak to you in terms perhaps more human than Vulcan. In private, at any rate."

 

He looked around her bedroom—and she laughed because they had once again destroyed the bed, covers kicked everywhere. "We should keep this place once you move into the embassy. For when we wish to be truly alone."

 

"Good idea." She suddenly loved the tiny space more than anything. Before it had been their prison, now it could be their retreat.

 

Their playground.

 

 And their sanctuary.

 

She had never felt more content. She sent a silent apology to the people she'd hurt: Amanda, Gus, even Jim.

 

She didn't want to think of them mad at her.

 

Not now, when everything was perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue:

 

 

Chapel fought for breath and tried to block out the feeling of Sarek in her mind. His time was soon, his need increasing every hour.

 

She was old. She was too old and too weak to do this again.  She hadn't been sure she'd recover from the last time.

 

“Christine?” Her caregiver, Perrin, moved quickly into the room, her moves graceful in a way Chapel had only ever hoped to be. She picked up the hypo and held it to Chapel’s neck.

 

Ah, so blissful the emptiness that filled her. She could feel a moment of Sarek’s frustration at being cut off from her by the meds and then nothing.

 

“Is there anything I can do?” Perrin took her hand.

 

So pretty, so warm, so...willing and earnest. Chapel smiled at her. “You’re a comfort, my dear.”

 

“I try to be. I don’t know if I’ve ever said thank you for taking me in. For giving me all of this.” She motioned around the room, but Chapel knew she meant Vulcan, not just the house. The girl thrived here. She loved everything about Vulcan.

 

Including its greatest son. Chapel closed her eyes for a moment as Perrin stroked her hair back. She’d never regretted hiring the girl, even if she suspected Perrin was more interested in getting close to Sarek than Chapel. She took excellent care of her no matter what her motivation.

 

“I need to leave Vulcan for a while,” she said softly.

 

“All right. I’ll get our bags ready. Where are we going?”

 

“No, my dear. Not we.” She saw the confusion on Perrin’s face—she always accompanied Chapel when she travelled. “I need to ask something of you.”

 

“Anything.”

 

“Don’t tell Sarek I’m leaving.”

 

The girl’s expression changed and Chapel knew immediately where her loyalty lay. “But I can't lie to him—he's...Sarek.”

 

“Yes. And I know you’ve noticed he’s been acting a bit erratic.”

 

Perrin looked down—no doubt she didn’t want to say anything that might be taken as critical.

 

“I also know you study all things Vulcans. Language, food, culture—biological imperatives.”

 

Perrin turned a charming shade of red.

 

For a moment, Chapel imagined Amanda standing behind the girl. Laughing at them both.

 

“I'll speak plainly, Perrin. I'm too weak to withstand the burning. Sarek will have options here: all Vulcan males do. But only once I’m out of reach. If I tell you where I’m going, he could read that from a meld and find me. I don't think I'll survive the encounter.”

 

“But you don’t know for sure. To just leave him when he needs you...”

 

Chapel closed her eyes. Fine, if this girl wanted to only think of Sarek, let the cost be framed in ways that would matter to her more than Chapel’s possible death obviously did. “If he were to hurt me—or God forbid, kill me—during the Pon Farr, he would never forgive himself. He would—well, I don’t know what he might do. Do you understand?”

 

Perrin nodded, wide eyed and a bit frantic.

 

“You will help me leave. You will find someone to go with me. And then you will tell my husband what has transpired once I am safely gone. Do you understand?”

 

Perrin nodded. By the shine in her eyes, Chapel didn’t think it would take much to push her from admirer of Sarek to lover.

 

Sarek would be drawn to her devotion. Especially once his bondmate had abandoned him.

 

Again.

 

Now you understand, Chapel imagined Amanda saying.

 

Yes, now she understood.

 

Chapel ceded Vulcan—and the love of her life—to her nurse the next day. She thought it made it worse that the surrender was a temporary one. Somehow it would be easier if she were never going to see either of them again.

 

She could feel Sarek’s need battering at her and asked her temporary caregiver for some meds. Her husband disappeared from her awareness with a hiss of a hypo.

 

When she woke later, she clenched her fists and rode out what she was feeling—what Amanda must have been feeling, too—as her husband gave himself to another.

 

She didn’t cry until she was safely in her hotel suite on Luna.

 

 

FIN