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And All The Stars Burned Bright

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(early 2371)

“Please, Admiral, tell me you’re joking.”

Admiral Alynna Nechayev could do nothing but take a deep breath and dig her thumbs into her temples in an attempt to stave off the oncoming headache. It couldn’t be far now, not with Commander Barbara Havers glaring holes into the wall.

“I am not joking, Commander. I do not joke about assignments. The Providence lost her first officer two weeks ago on an away mission gone wrong. Lieutenant Commander Nkata has been filling the gap admirably, but he’s not ready to be an XO, and he knows it. Captain Lynley needs someone willing to challenge him, and no one fits that description better than you.”

Defeated, Havers sank into the chair opposite Nechayev’s desk. “Alynna. I can’t stand the man. He’s so smug, so superior. I’ll be busted for insubordination within a week.”

“He’s also complacent and a little too convinced of his own brilliance. Barbara, I’ve known you since you were a scrappy fresher at the Academy. And to tell the truth, I don’t know if you can handle this; I only know that if you can’t, no one else can.”

Havers snorted out a laugh at that. Nechayev’s brutal honesty had always suited her; perhaps that was how the then-Captain had found herself mentoring a smart-mouthed East Ender who had clawed her way up from nothing to earn a full ride to the Academy. “Well, when you put it that way... I suppose I don’t have any choice.”

Well, that was one headache averted, at least. “You leave for Deep Space Nine tomorrow, where you’ll rendezvous with the Providence. Do try not to start an interstellar incident while you’re there, won’t you?”

For the first time all afternoon, Havers smiled. “I make no promises. And Admiral – if I am busted, please do your best to prevent me from getting stuck on a cargo transport. Again.”

For a brief moment, a ghost of a smile touched Alynna’s mouth. “I make no promises.”

~*~

The journey to Deep Space Nine took two weeks.

Barbara spent most of those two weeks writing a long list of letters to Admiral Nechayev in which she expressed her sincere regret that she no longer thought space was for her, and couldn’t they find someone else for the position?

She sent none of them.

When she wasn’t doing that, she was losing herself in trashy romance novels or formulaic thrillers of the type sold in spacedock ship-side bookstores everywhere – the kind published on cheap plastic PADDs designed to be thrown away within a month. Her sarcastic side mocked the novels endlessly; the part of her that delighted in cheesy, overblown marriage proposals or near-constant explosions enjoyed them with a relative lack of self-consciousness.

When her tiny transport docked at last, she picked up her bag in one hand, her cat’s carrier in the other, and headed for the section of the station reserved for Starfleet personnel travelling between assignments. Settling cat and baggage comfortably – or as comfortably as her pudgy grey feline would allow – she went in search of refreshment.

And by ‘refreshment’, she meant ‘alcohol’.

Ten minutes later found her at the entrance to Quark’s, and although she immediately detested the odious Ferengi, the drinks looked surprisingly good and the food looked even better.

“Stardrifter, double strong,” she said, and settled on a stool to wait.

“Make that two,” said a husky voice behind her. Barbara turned around to see a woman with close-cropped hair as red as her uniform, the characteristic nose ridges of a Bajoran, and a pair of warm, velvet brown eyes regarding her kindly. “I like your taste in drinks. Major Kira Nerys of the Bajoran militia, first officer on Deep Space Nine, at your service.”

Despite her gloom, Barbara couldn’t help but smile. “Commander Barbara Havers, Starfleet, about to become first officer of the USS Providence, at yours. I like your taste in footwear.”

“They are rather lovely, aren’t they?” remarked Major Kira, admiring the chunky black boots as she settled herself on the nearest stool. “And not for looks – they're comfortable. And make excellent weapons.”

“I can appreciate that,” said Barbara with a grin, and Kira chuckled.

“So, Commander Havers, what brings you to Deep Space Nine?”

“Please. I’m so sick of formalities I could scream. It’s Barbara. And I’m waiting on the Providence to dock. I only got in about half an hour ago. Admiral Nechayev assigned me to the most condescending, superior captain in – I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not Starfleet, I have no reason to spill your secrets. And that’s Kira, to you. I’d make it my given name, but –“

“ –Bajorans are much more private about that sort of thing than Terrans, got it.”

“Exactly.” Those brown eyes lit with relief. “So, you were saying...”

“Yeah. I’m supposed to work with a man who was raised thinking that everyone who didn’t grow up calling all of Starfleet Command ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ was hardly worth calling an officer. Since you couldn’t find any of my family going ten generations back who’d so much as dare to peek inside a starship, I’m already in a bad place. I don’t want to imagine how bad it’s going to be once he learns the word ‘tact’ is completely foreign to me.”

“You are not alone.” Kira grinned, and the smile made her look ten years younger. “If it can’t be said directly, it shouldn’t be said at all.”

“My sentiments exactly. I’m afraid he won’t share them, though – in a family like that, you learn diplomacy at the same time you learn to talk. I did make Admiral Nechayev promise to make sure I don’t get stuck on a cargo transport again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was busted to laundry five days in.”

“A cargo transport? Prophets, Barbara, what did you do to get stuck on one of those?”

For the first time in months, Barbara giggled. “Well...

By the time they finished their drinks, Kira was laughing uproariously and Barbara had to hold her stomach for fear of quite literally busting a gut.

“On top of the fountain?”

“Stark naked and bellowing ‘Banned From Argo’ at the top of his lungs, that’s right.”

“Oh my.” Kira wiped the tears from her eyes. “That’s a Trill for you. Most of them are brilliant, but when they party, they party hard.”

Barbara grinned. “He never lived it down. Every so often when he walked by, someone would start humming ‘Banned From Argo’, and he’d turn beet red and hide in the loo. He graduated at the top of his class, and just as he was winding up his speech –“

“ –you all started singing ‘Banned From Argo’?”

“Got it in one. My last year on campus they banned the song outright, the professors were so sick of it.”

“If I didn’t know Jadzia Dax, I’d be surprised any Starfleet officer could have a sense of humour.”

“Oh, Kira, if you only knew – oh, God, is that the time? My cat is going to kill me for missing her dinner.”

“And I am due on shift in half an hour. Listen, I don’t know if I’ll catch you again before you go, but – let me know how it goes, all right?”

“Yeah.” Barbara smiled softly. “Yeah, I definitely will.”

When she beamed aboard the Providence the next morning, she was still smiling.

That lasted all of twenty seconds. Then he walked in the room.

~*~

Thomas Lynley’s eyebrow crawled into his hairline.

That had been happening rather a lot; the dossier on his new First Officer was a hodgepodge of contradictions. Top of her class, at least three formal reprimands for speaking out of turn or contradicting orders, an excellent Kobayashi Maru performance, secondary emphasis on flight control and piloting, spent six months working on a cargo transport as a scolding for – Oh, my. His eyebrow climbed even higher, if that was possible. So I’m getting a brilliant officer, he thought to himself, assuming I don’t wind up killing her first.

No sooner had he finished scanning the file than his comm chimed, and Engineering reported ready to beam his new exec aboard. He gave the order, then made his way to the transporter dock.

The familiar shower of sparkles lit the air, then materialised into the form of Commander Barbara Havers.

His eyes met her own wide green ones, and -

He nearly fell over as a bone-deep shock of something jolted through him.

Even years later, he wouldn’t call it love at first sight. But he would never, could never, deny that the moment his eyes met hers, he felt the deep, aching jolt of destiny, and a sort of fundamental recognition, if you will, of something he hadn’t even known his life was missing.

He saw the same shock, the same knowing, bloom in her own eyes, and, swiftly following that, a fury directed not at him – or not entirely – but at what she had just felt. And he remembered something else he had read in her file – she was the first in her family to enter the service, and apparently had a significant problem with captains or superiors whose families had a long Starfleet tradition.

I.E., him.

He himself, he knew only too well, absolutely hated being challenged – and Barbara Havers was all challenge.

Well, damn. This is going to be trouble.

~*~

Never in her life would she forget the instant her eyes met his – the impact of it had nearly knocked her off her feet.

Barbara, said something deep inside her, you’ve just met your destiny. And with that, hard on its heels, came the sensation that some part of her life she had never known was empty had just been filled.

That arrogant ponce? she railed, even as she saw the same, undeniable knowing light his own eyes. That milk-fed golden boy with a stick so far up his arse you can see it when he opens his mouth? Oh, hell no!

As they stood there, spellbound, for a few seconds more, she almost swore she heard a faint, gleeful cackle of Oh, hell yes.

~*~

It seemed like hours, but really it was only moments before they were shaking off the shock of that first glance to observe the niceties. Even Barbara, as much as she disliked Lynley – or thought she did – was a thoroughgoing professional, and if her tone was a little cool as they greeted each other, it did not cross over into bad manners.

Yet.

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” said Lynley, his voice deep and velvety. She bristled a little at his accent – the reality of his Oxford education was plain to the ears in his aristocratic tones – but even she couldn’t deny that his voice was quite lovely.

“My pleasure, Captain,” she replied crisply; her own voice was a clear, slightly husky mezzo with the accent of the East End, touched with a slight Celtic lilt – Midlothian Scots, perhaps? he thought – and a surprisingly soft musicality, for all the tension he could see in her.

They both used the meeting to size each other up. Looking at her new Captain, Barbara saw a tall, rugged brunet with warm brown eyes and every hair in place, and with his uniform crisply pressed. But the calluses on his palm belied her image of him as soft, pampered aristocrat, and in spite of herself she could feel her prejudices beginning to crack. God help her, she wanted to like this man – but memories of schoolyard taunts and Academy harassment had her bristling and throwing her walls back up. No, she told herself firmly. You have no proof he’s not just like them, Linty girl. No use opening yourself up to that again. But despite everything, the flint in her eyes began to soften.

For his part, Lynley found himself looking at a trim, sturdy woman of about five foot four with short, rather frazzled ginger hair and a heart-shaped, pert-nosed face, wearing serviceable Command red. As he looked yet again into the eyes that had startled him so, he saw something that eased his mind just a bit; behind the hardness in her eyes was a genuine warmth and obvious passion for her work. Whatever it was she had against him – and however annoyed he already knew he would frequently be with her – at least he knew that she would put duty over personal feelings.

He could work with that.

“One of the yeomen,” he continued, “has already sent your things to your quarters. She has a cat herself, so she set your Shadow up quite nicely; we try to take care of the animals on board Providence.”

Barbara blinked. Okay, so the man cared about animals. It didn’t mean anything. At any rate, Shadow was a safe topic – she could go with that. “Thank you, Captain – she’s been with me a long time.”

He smiled slightly. “She’s a lovely animal – I was there when she came aboard. In any case, we’re not unused to pets, so she should be just fine. Shall I introduce you to the senior staff?”

Oh God. More people. She just barely suppressed a shudder. Cool it, Linty, warned a voice that sounded remarkably like her mother’s. You’re a professional. Act like it. “Of course, Captain.”

The briefing room wasn’t far from the transporter pad, and she entered to a group of about half a dozen men and women in all three department colours. “Captain entering!” cried a pretty blonde wearing gold, and they snapped to attention, but none of them looked frightened. That was something, at least – she’d met more than one captain in her career who terrified his crew, and that was never a good sign.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Lynley as they came through the door, “Commander Barbara Havers, executive officer. It might be nice,” he continued dryly, “if you introduce yourselves before you terrify her out of her wits.”

Barbara blinked – again. Was he joking with his crew? He had to be, since the senior staff grinned and formed something resembling an orderly queue in an order that vaguely suggested seniority.

“Lieutenant Commander Winston Nkata, Ops officer, at your service,” said the first in line. Winston Nkata was a dark-skinned Brit with a cheerful smile and an alarming number of dreadlocks, and his smile immediately put her at ease.

The woman behind him – the blonde who had announced Lynley’s entrance – was next. “Lieutenant Commander Shannon Reed, Tactical,” she said with a bright, beaming grin. “Call me Shannon. I hear you’re rather a wizard at the Tac console, ma’am, I’m looking forward to having you aboard.”

What?

Lynley merely raised an eyebrow. If you think I didn’t tell them something about the newest half of their command team, the look seemed to say, you are clearly far less intelligent than I had presumed.

Shaking her head, she looked around, and found herself greeting a willowy, dark-blonde woman with the most unruly batch of curls Barbara had ever seen and a smile slightly more subdued – but no less friendly – than Shannon’s had been. “Lieutenant Carly Doherty, Engineering,” she said, shaking Barbara’s hand firmly. “It really is a pleasure to have you aboard – Shannon has been singing your praises ever since you got the assignment. And I’ll never say no to another woman on the senior staff.”

“Easy, Carly,” remarked an incredibly handsome, dark-haired man, “you’ll make Shannon jealous. Welcome aboard, Commander. Lieutenant Stephen Woodrow, ma’am, Conn officer. I’ll never say no to another pretty woman on the senior staff, either!” The group around them snickered, and Lynley once again raised an eyebrow.

“Flirt with your superior officer while on duty again,” remarked the captain pleasantly, “and you’ll be pulling double shifts for a month. Just because you’ll sleep with anything alive and sentient doesn’t mean she wants to take you up on it – assuming she lacked the good sense to refrain from indulging in such activities with someone under her command.” The staff snickered louder at that, and Woodrow sent them all an outrageously wounded look before stepping aside to let two women and a man in science blue step through.

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” The soft, pleasant voice came from a tall, elegant Vulcan woman. “I am Lieutenant Commander T’Maya cha’Soral, the Chief Science Officer. I do not think we shall see as much of each other as you will of the rest of the senior staff, as much of my time is spent in the science laboratories, but I look forward to furthering our acquaintance. My bondmate, Sonak cha’Salok, is an associate doctor on this vessel; he is attending a medical conference and requests that I convey his welcome.”

Barbara grinned; a Vulcan she could handle. “Live long and prosper, T’Maya. I, too, look forward to furthering our acquaintance. Please inform Dr Sonak that I look forward to making his acquaintance, as well.” T’Maya’s lips twitched upward – the Vulcan equivalent of a full-blown smile – and she stepped back as the last two came up.

“Welcome aboard, Commander,” said the man in a rich Irish brogue. “Lieutenant Commander Stuart Lafferty, Chief Medical Officer, at your service. I sincerely hope I see you in Sickbay as little as possible.” Barbara grinned again – she seemed to be doing that rather a lot.

“Not as much as I do, Commander!” she replied cheerfully.

“Well, Himself might not want to see you, but I think I’d like to see you – just not to have to do my job!” said a pretty, oval-faced woman with long, loose brown hair. “I’m Jackie Kelley, associate doctor and ship’s counsellor. Lieutenant Kimura Hana, our head nurse, sends her greetings – she has a couple of crewmen down with the flu in sickbay, or she’d be here herself – you’ll meet her later on, I’m sure, and T’Maya already told you about Dr Sonak. I hope you’re settling in all right?”

“I don’t know about me – I just got here – but I’m told my cat is settling in quite nicely!”

Jackie grinned and nodded at her. “Captain,” she called reprovingly, “let the poor woman settle in for an hour. You can overwork her later.”

Lynley didn’t smile, but his eyes had a distinct twinkle. “As you will, Dr Kelley,” he shot back, and snapped off a cheeky salute in her direction. Raising his voice, he called over the crowd. “I’ll see you all at 0800 for Alpha shifts, everyone. And no, you may not come bother Commander Havers tonight. I have quite a lot we need to go over. You’ll see her in the morning.”

A chorus of “Yes, sir!” and “Aye, Captain!” followed them out the door.

“Your quarters are on the deck right below the bridge,” he told her, “right next to mine. We have the deck to ourselves – the rest of the senior staff are on the deck directly below us, except for Dr Lafferty, Dr Kelley, Dr Sonak and T’Maya, and Nurse Kimura – their quarters are adjacent to Sickbay, of course. I know you’ve served on heavy cruisers in the past, but this is your first Nebula-class, correct?”

She nodded.

“It’s a similar layout to most cruiser ships,” he continued, “with one small difference – the officers’ lounge is on a large balcony overlooking the conservatory and hydroponics bay, so we call it the Mezzanine – that’s on Deck Ten, the Conservatory is on Deck Eleven. Holodecks are on that deck as well, Science labs and Sickbay are on Deck Twelve. I presume you’re familiar with the general layout of Engineering and the stardrive?”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, “I did some research on DS9 – it gave me the general layout, but I didn’t have time to run down specifics. I assume the senior staff will take it upon themselves to show me every inch of the ship?”

He shot her a considering look. “Well spotted, Commander. They’re a friendly bunch, but don’t let that fool you. You’re joining one of the tightest, most well-oiled crews in Starfleet. They’ve all been serving on this ship longer than I have, and I got here about two years ago. I think they’re eager to bring you into the fold – our last exec was,” he paused, “not well-regarded, and he didn’t mesh with them. It looks like you will, which pleases me more than I can say.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “I think I’ll enjoy working with them, too,” she said at last. “The crew on my last assignment were friendly enough, but...” She coughed to hide the lump in her throat – thinking of the accident that had sent her to Earth and an Academy teaching position still hurt, even if she had never been truly accepted into the crew. “...it looks like they think well of me,” she said at last. “I hope to keep it that way.”

He hadn’t missed the pain in her voice. “Listen, Commander. All they ask is that you do your best for them, and that you will, I have no doubt. I believe you’ll find yourself more welcome than you think.”

We both know we’ll have our disagreements, his eyes seemed to say, but I think you’ll fit here.

“Thank you, Captain,” she told him eventually. I still think he’s a pompous arse, she thought as they exited the turbolift, but even if he stays that way, I could put up with a lot for a crew that accepts me. Maybe – maybe this won’t be so terrible, after all.

“Here we are,” he told her as the doors opened. “Your quarters are through the door on the right. Will two hours be enough time for you to settle in?”

She hadn’t brought much aboard with her – two hours would be more than enough. Maybe she could lie down for an hour, at least.

“Two hours will be fine, sir,” she answered.

“Very well. In that case, meet me in the ready room at 1900 hours.”

“Yes, sir,” she said again, and answered his nod with one of her own as he disappeared through the door to his own quarters.

Her door slid open, and she grinned in delight at the space. The living room and workstation were all Starfleet tidy, but that was fine. Her attention was on the bedroom, and the lovely, queen-sized bed in the centre.

“Hello, Shadow,” she greeted her purring cat. “Welcome to the biggest perk of this job!” She flopped backward to land on the bed next to her purring cat and sprawled out deliciously. “You know,” she told the cat now curled on her stomach, “I think I can live with an arrogant prick of a captain after all.”

And, after setting the alarm for 1830, she promptly fell asleep.

~*~

Two hours later found her settled in the Captain’s ready room, facing Captain Lynley over his desk and trying not to scream in frustration.

“Commander,” said Lynley patiently, “there is a reason ‘senior staff’ are called just that. You and I both know war is coming. We are not going to survive this if we don’t have the best of the best working together, and inexperienced personnel on the bridge are going to throw everyone off. We don’t have time to handhold them.”

“Then we’ve got to make the time, sir,” she told him tightly. “What if one of the senior staff are incapacitated – or, God forbid, killed? Do you really want untrained, inexperienced personnel on that bridge in the middle of a battle? It’s a recipe for disaster, and you know it!”

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” he told her with such a look of superiority she barely squashed the urge to punch him. “The heads of department are excellent at what they do. They wouldn’t be on my senior staff if they weren’t. Anyone else simply will not be up to scratch.”

We need the redundancy!” she cried, and a hot, painful memory flashed in her eyes. “We cannot afford the risks of having only one person experienced in working with that senior staff. We cannot afford the risk of putting an inexperienced officer on the bridge in battle conditions, especially when the senior staff have no idea how they work! Flexibility is the key to survivability in battle. I know. I was there, I’ve seen what can happen if you don’t! Just because you don’t trust them to do their jobs properly – ”

She didn’t miss the guilt that flashed in his eyes.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” she whispered softly. “You don’t trust them.”

“That’s not true! I...”

“You don’t,” she continued relentlessly. “Well you had better start, sir, or you’re going to get us all killed. Is that really what you want?”

They stared each other down for a long moment, and she could almost see the battle going on behind his eyes. Give up the security of a familiar bridge crew seven days a week in exchange for greater crew flexibility? Disrupt the stable pattern to give them all a better chance of survival? Or stick with the known and the familiar and be assured consistent success that could be snatched away at the first incapacitating injury?

“All right,” he capitulated finally. “We’ll try it your way, at least for now.”

“Very good, sir,” she said, and managed not to gloat. “I’ll draw up the new shift schedules right away.”

The tension crackled between them, as if they both knew that this clash would only be the first of many.

Considering that, in the hour and a half that comprised the rest of their first meeting, she wound up calling him an arrogant pompous pillock and similar at least three times and he told her she was more stubborn and irredeemably hardheaded than a Dales pony at least that many times in return, the sentiment wasn’t exactly inaccurate.

And yet, somehow, they came out of that meeting with a plan they were at least content with, if not precisely happy about.

It left him feeling as though he’d been trying to hold fire without getting scorched for two hours, and the fact that she clearly had quite a brain under the attitude and prickliness left him wishing he could have washed his hands of her altogether, as he could have if she’d been just an officer with an attitude.

And though he never would have expected it, he wasn't alone.

~*~

“So? How did it go?”

Really, thought Barbara, she's taking an unholy glee in my misfortunes.

From the vidscreen, Kira's brown eyes twinkled out at her, amusement written all over her features. She looked like nothing so much as a child waiting for a particularly gruesome bedtime story.

“He's... not unbearable,” Barbara said at last. “I almost wish he was. It would be easier to hate him that way.”

Kira almost choked on her raktajino. “Well,” she managed after an extended bout of coughing, “that's quite a change from yesterday.”

“He has – honour, I guess,” said Barbara, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation. “He wants to do the right thing, even if he's spectacularly bad at it sometimes. And he's obviously not just a pretty boy, or a legacy. He's got a real mind under all that perfect hair – oh, Kira, he's talented, really talented. He's spoiling all my lovely prejudices, and it's not fair! I want to hate him, and I can't. I want to walk away, and I can't, because just there, at the end, I started to think that we could be good together – maybe even great. And I'm first officer on a combat-capable heavy cruiser. I'd be an idiot to walk away from this. But God, it's going to be hard, and - stop laughing!”

Kira just waved her hands helplessly in the air and continued to cackle.

“Well, if that's how you feel about it,” Barbara huffed, and reached for the vidcomm switch.

“Oh, Barbara, don't go,” said Kira, now relatively contrite. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh at you. And I do understand your frustration – you should have seen me when Commander Sisko first arrived! But I think you need to give yourself more credit. It sounds like you're going to manage just fine.”

Mollified, Barbara gave her newfound friend a genuine smile, even if it was slightly self-pitying. “I'm glad you think so, at least,” she grumbled, but it was obvious her heart wasn't in it.

“Of course you will. You do have excellent taste in drinks, after all,” said Kira cheekily, and this time Barbara really did smile full out.

“That I do. Now listen, you have to hear about the rest of the senior staff. I could work with the stupidest captain in Starfleet to have a crew like this one...”

~*~

Some time later she was asleep in bed – in her very lovely, very big bed, with Shadow purring at her side – when her comm system started wailing. After her very long, very trying first day she was not in the mood to be disturbed, and barked “Havers here!” with perhaps a bit more force than strictly necessary.

It only added insult to injury when the cat leapt off the bed and stalked out the door.

She left off the visual component, but Captain Lynley’s voice was sleep-weary as he informed her, “Priority One message from Starfleet Command. My ready room, five minutes.”

Thoroughly annoyed, she wrestled herself into her uniform and made tracks for the bridge. Avoiding the main bridge itself, she took the curving passage behind it to Lynley’s ready room and sank onto the very comfortable couch off to the side of his desk. If he’s going to be late, she’s damn well going to nap.

He strode through the door two minutes later, disgustingly impeccable with not a strand of hair out of place. She snapped to attention, and he waved her out of it with an absent “at ease, Commander” as he called up his terminal and Admiral Jeri Taylor’s concerned face flickered into life on the screen.

“Yes, Admiral, what is it?” If Lynley noticed Havers’ surprised blink at his informal tone, he gave no sign of it.

Taylor’s eyes were shadowed as she relayed the news. “The USS Voyager was sent to the Badlands two months ago to track down a Maquis ship. They have not been heard from since their launch, nor has anyone in the area seen any trace of them in that time. I want the Providence to go find me some answers.”

Captain Lynley’s face went chalk white. “Katey’s missing?” he whispered hoarsely.

Barbara shot him a sharp look. “Katey?”

Still stunned, he sat down next to her, staring into the distance. “Kathryn Janeway, Voyager’s captain. We grew up knowing each other – the Janeways and the Lynleys both go way back in Starfleet. She’s been the next thing to family since before I can remember.”

“Snap out of it, Lynley,” Taylor ordered crisply. “I know how close you are to her, but right now, she needs you.”

“All due respect, Admiral, but this is really something a ship like the Enterprise should be handling. I just got my new First Officer today; we’ve barely had time to get acquainted, let alone settle into an effective command team.”

As much as Barbara hated to admit it, Lynley was right. They were supposed to be mapping star clusters for the next two weeks. On the other hand, he’d just questioned the orders of Starfleet Command. Dear God, Alynna was right. I’m going to have my work cut out for me. The man needs some serious shaking up.

“Captain Lynley, I don’t have anyone else I can spare. You’re the closest ship in range. Half the fleet is patrolling the Romulan Neutral Zone, the Enterprise is investigating a deadly spatial phenomenon and the Cardassian situation is getting worse by the hour. You’re not a rookie, Lynley. You have your orders: find that crew.”

To his credit, Lynley knew where to draw the line. “Yes, ma’am.” Eyes infinitely weary, he turned to his exec. “Commander, get Lieutenant Woodrow and Lieutenant Commander Nkata up here, and then do us both a favour and go back to bed. At cruising speed it’ll be another twelve hours before we reach the target coordinates, and there’s nothing any of us can do in the meantime. Yeoman Frye can surely organise the logistics as well as you can. You’re off duty until we reach the Badlands.” His voice was haunted, and for the first time she felt a surge of sympathy for the man. He had family on that ship.

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Listen, Commander. You don’t like me. That’s perfectly clear. And from what I’ve been told, you’ve every reason to feel that way. All I ask is that you give me a chance. I have my faults, I know, but you counterbalance those quite nicely. From the little I’ve seen, I think we’ll make a remarkably effective team.” A shadow of a smile flickered across his face at the blank astonishment written on hers. “I don’t like the sound of this. It’s not like Katey, not at all. Whatever stopped her from communicating with Starfleet Command, it’s going to be nasty. I’m going to need you out there. Can I trust you to have my back?”

Unwillingly, she felt her heart begin to soften. He didn't wear his heart on his sleeve, but the way he reacted to the news – and the way he'd just admitted how much he needs her – had told her more than a week of stellar mapping. He was worried, and he wanted to do the job right.

Grudgingly, she admitted to herself that maybe Thomas Lynley wasn’t such a tremendous arse after all.

Well, if he could bend, then so could she. Squaring her shoulders, she snapped off a crisply perfect regulation salute and looked him straight in the eye. “Yes, sir. Yes, you most certainly can.”

For the first time, she saw him truly smile, and she was struck by just how astoundingly handsome her Captain really was. Next to him, with her wrinkled uniform and untidy hair, she felt scrubby and unkempt. But he was gazing at her with a mixture of hope and admiration, and she couldn’t help but return his smile with one of her own.

“Very good, Commander. Now go back to bed. I’ll need you at your best come morning.”

“Aye, sir.”

As her head hit the pillow, all she could do was pray. Please, God, let us do this right. Let us make this work.

~*~

They reached the Badlands right on time, twelve hours later. The new shift schedule had been postponed until they figured out what they were dealing with – a move with which not even Barbara could argue – and the senior staff meeting that day was sombre and dejected, a stark contrast to the day before. T’Maya’s science department went straight to work scanning the surrounding space as Shannon drew up a systematic grid-screening pattern that began at Voyager’s last known coordinates and swept outward from there. Carly, meanwhile, fretted with her engines, chafing at the relative uselessness of her department.

Over the next few weeks, Barbara came to know the senior staff very well. Shannon was as bright and bubbly as she had seemed on their first meeting; quieter, steadier Carly was clearly a point of stability for the flighty, if brilliant, Tactical officer, while Shannon broke down some of Carly’s reserve. The three women soon became fast friends, Barbara and Shannon talking tactics and weaponry with absolute glee while Carly looked on with amusement.

Winston Nkata proved to be as genial as he appeared, and managed to make Barbara laugh in a way she hadn’t in months. Woodrow, too, was always good for a laugh, and flirted so indiscriminately it was never anything other than endearing. Though she never once looked at them in that fashion, she couldn’t help but flirt back, at least a little.

Though she spent little time in Sickbay, she enjoyed Lafferty’s gruff attempts at pretending not to care (he was spectacularly bad at it) and the way Kimura Hana ruled Sickbay with a velvet touch – she could tell any member of the medical team, nurses and doctors alike, to do something and make them think it had been their own idea to begin with. She was subtle, discreet, and very good at what she did, and earned Barbara’s enduring respect a thousand times over because of it.

Jackie Kelley, too, was proving to be a very good friend, with her solid, no-nonsense mothering of everyone aboard ship – she was rarely ruffled by anything and accepted excuses from nobody, up to and including the captain himself.

It would have annoyed Barbara rather a lot to be managed that way if Jackie wasn’t so good-natured about it all.

And through it all, always, there was Captain Lynley. Despite their still frequent arguments, which had very decidedly not lessened with the passage of time, she could feel the jagged corners between them wearing away as they settled into a command team that was both effective and very, very good, and along with that came a respect and trust that left them both startled, sometimes, at how easy it could be when they forgot their differences and slipped into a kind of seamless teamwork that showcased just how well they fit together. Despite the arguments, there was a kind of unqualified joy in the way they were, as though something that had always been just slightly out of joint had slipped into place at last.

He discovered that he was more sure and confident in his decisions when he had Barbara at his side, playing devil’s advocate from every possible angle, because he knew and trusted that whatever he hadn’t thought of, she had. And she discovered that, as she came to trust him more and more, her stress levels lowered considerably when she told him exactly what she thought and then left the final decision in his hands. The realisation shocked her, at first – she had never bowed to anyone, though Alynna Nechayev managed her better than most – but she eventually realised that the foundation of that trust was the fact that he respected her, and her opinions, as an equal. The decisions might be his, in the end, but he made no secret of the fact that he needed her to be exactly who she was, and that he needed her there to tell him exactly why this plan was wrong, that plan was stupid, and what on earth made him think this other thing would be a good idea?

Respect. It all came down to respect. She had never had it before, and now that she did, she found the strength to follow him, not just challenge him – although she did challenge him, often and ferociously. And the fact that he expected her to challenge him – that he wanted her to challenge him – allowed her to follow him, when she never could have truly followed anyone else.

Slowly, but ever so surely, the jagged edges between them were wearing away, and with every discussion, every argument and every decision, working together got just that much easier.

But despite all of that, a pall still hung over the entire staff. A missing ship in the middle of a war boded well for nothing, and there was a palpable urgency to their search, even as Barbara settled into both her new duties and her new life on board Providence.

And in the first real crisis, her newfound confidence would be tested to its limit.

 

Chapter Text

(mid 2371)

The storm came on them out of nowhere.

They’d been skating the outer edges of a J-class planet at the heart of the Badlands, looking for remnants of starship titanium in the rings. While neither Lynley nor Barbara were willing to concede defeat, they knew they had to explore all the avenues if they were going to bring Kathryn Janeway and her crew home safely.

With Lynley holed up in his ready room, it was Barbara in command of the bridge when T’Maya appeared, forehead pinched and eyes slightly narrowed.

Translation: she was scared out of her mind.

“What is it?” Barbara asked in a tone that somewhat resembled calm, although her heart was hammering in her ribcage. Vulcans don’t get scared, her brain babbled helpfully. Vulcans don’t ever get scared, and most certainly Vulcans with T’Maya’s level of deep space experience do not get scared. So whatever it is that has her looking like that, we are in deep shit.

“A Type 8 plasma storm, Commander,” replied the Science officer. “Its trajectory suggests that it will pin us directly between the planet and its oncoming edge.”

Type 8, her ever-so-helpful brain rambled coolly. Violent and turbulent and more than capable of shearing the nacelles off a Galaxy-class starship. Interaction with the atmosphere and the planetary rings is going to make it worse. If there were a way to avoid this sucker, T’Maya would have mentioned it right off.

“How soon?” Barbara’s voice was taut.

“Approximate time until impact is ten minutes, forty-seven seconds.”

She didn’t think twice. “Captain!

He popped his head out of the ready room, opened his mouth to speak, caught sight of T’Maya’s face, and shut it again. Barbara rose and moved to the exec’s chair, relinquishing command to him without a word.

“Report,” he barked, and T’Maya rattled off her information again as Lynley’s face went carefully blank. “Senior staff report to bridge. Code orange, repeat, this is code orange. Shields up, red alert. Commander Doherty?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Grey mode, beginning now. Deflector shields, inertial damping, structural integrity and life support systems need to remain at full power, but everything else is grey mode.”

“Yes, sir!” she said again, and cut off communication as she and her engineering team went to work shutting down every non-essential system they could find. Replicators, holodecks, and recreational consoles all went dark as Doherty and her team shunted every possible spare circuit of power to Providence’s shields and structural maintenance systems.

By that time, Nkata and Reed had arrived and manned stations, and the junior officers – save for the sick Woodrow’s replacement, Ensign Sherrill, who was looking rather sick himself – had departed for battle stations. Lynley conferred with his staff briefly as Barbara crunched numbers and winced; their odds were not good.

“T-minus five minutes,” whispered Shannon, and Lynley turned to Barbara as everyone on the ship braced themselves.

“How bad?”

She flinched a little. “That we’ll make it through this without needing Fleet Yard repairs? One percent.”

“And that we’ll make it through at all?”

“Less than ten.” Her voice was soft. “Sir –“ she wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the chance to work with him, even if they’d had a handful of weeks and she still wanted to strangle him more often than not, but she didn’t.

“I know, Havers,” he said, and his eyes went soft for a minute as he looked at her. “I know. When we’ve ridden this out, you can try to say that again. Until then – “

“Sir!” she said urgently, because oh, God, he is a genius, she could bloody well kiss him. “That’s it. Ride it out. I think I can – it was only theoretical, it was my senior thesis and the models gave it a sixty percent chance, you have to know it’ll be so much lower in reality, but if we manage this we could come out of it with only minimal damage, so much less than if we’d tried to ride it out, and – “

“Havers, what are you babbling about?”

“Riding the storm, sir. If we gear the engines to one-sixteenth impulse power, I think I can surf the currents of the storm enough to get us out of here.”

He stared at her. “You want to gear up impulse engines in the middle of a plasma storm?

She looked at him, eyes pleading. “I know how it sounds. And if we had a better chance, just riding it out, you know I wouldn't ask. But we're caught in something we have almost no chance of surviving. This storm could tear us apart in seconds if we're so much as facing the wrong way, you know that, and even if we survive...” She trailed off, the implications clear. “I really think this is our best chance. It’s a matter of balancing the energy we give the storm with – everything else. Sir, please let me do this!”

“Your secondary emphasis was piloting and flight control,” he said softly, and she nodded. “How good are you?”

Her face was expressionless. “Admiral Sulu said I was one of the best she’d ever trained. Said I could give Tom Paris a run for his money. And then told me I’d make a much better conn officer than tac officer and chewed me out for wanting to shoot things instead of fly starships.”

“Admiral Sulu. As in, Admiral Demora Sulu, helmsman of the Enterprise-B, daughter of Hikaru Sulu who flew with James T. Kirk, best pilot the Federation has ever seen save for her father.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Havers, is there anything at which you are not unexpectedly brilliant?”

“Diplomacy. Engineering. Botany. Controlling my temper. Languages. Cooking. Everything besides tactical and flight control. Computer programming...”

She halted when he held up his hand. “All right, Havers, I get the picture.” But there was a smile at the corner of his mouth. And then his eyes met hers, and the world fell away. “Commander, are you sure you can pull this off?”

She didn’t flinch. “No, sir. But I’ll be damned if I give anything less than my very best to get us all out of here alive.”

He was more pleased with her answer than he knew how to say, but that didn’t change the fact that she was asking to go against two hundred years of deep-space experience for a probably unworkable idea that she’d so far tried only in theory. And yet... as difficult and sometimes unconventional as she was, one thing he knew for sure about Commander Barbara Havers was that she put her duty to her crew, her ship, and her captain above everything else in her life. If she was proposing this, she was doing it because she honestly believed her foolhardy gamble was their best chance.

So he caught her eyes with his, and, without words, she told him everything he needed to know.

She could do this. And, God help him, he trusted her with his Lady as he’d never trusted anyone. If it had been anyone else, his response would have been an unyielding ‘no.’ But she... she loved his ship and his crew enough to tell him when he was wrong – and, far more tellingly, back down when he was right. If there was one pair of hands besides his in which his Lady was safe, they were hers.

And so it came down to the final question.

Could he trust her with this?

Those wide eyes gave him his answer, and his anchor... and, at last, the faith to let go.

She knew his decision before he opened his mouth, and her eyes lit with fierce joy and fiercer promise as she rose from the chair at his side and he began giving orders. “All right. Sherrill, you’re relieved. Havers, take the conn.” The junior officer scampered away, and Barbara slid into the chair at flight control. “Havers.” Her eyes met his again, and a thousand things passed unspoken between them. “It all rides on you now. Get us out of here.”

She nodded, firmly, and bent to work. “Impulse engines, one-sixteenth!”

Her touch on the sensor pad was as delicate and sure as a spider’s web, weaving between the controls with a dancer’s grace as she piloted the starship – so sturdy and strong, and yet, out here in the depths of space, so fragile and small – up and around the dips and curves and lines of the plasma storm that was tossing them about like a rowboat in the middle of the rough seas of the Atlantic. Providence responded almost to her every thought, and though the ship shuddered and groaned at the demands being placed on her, somehow, she held.

Thomas Lynley held his breath.

“One-twentieth impulse!” Barbara sang out, and the engines quietened almost imperceptibly as they bottomed out at the trough of one of the storm’s violent waves, and then flew upward again – “one-twelfth!” she cried, giving them the thrust needed to make it up the next wave, and – was that blackness he saw at the horizon? “Cut engines!” came the order as they sailed down into the next trough, and then up and over again – the smallest mistake would tear them apart, but she was charting their path through the storm, and God help him, they just might make it.

The entire ship shuddered and bucked, and Barbara yelped, “No!” with a wild sort of panic as his heart lodged itself in his throat. “Don’t you dare!” she was cursing now, her fingers flying too fast to see clearly, “So help me God you will not come apart on me now. Don’t. You. Dare!” And she jabbed a button with another muffled curse as the shudders eased and she miraculously guided them back on course with a precision that left even him gaping in awe.

And that was how it went, for three long hours that stretched into eternity. The storm was thousands of kilometres wide; and yet she never looked up, never flinched, just kept her eyes on her console as she worked and muttered to herself with every shudder and every buck.

When they finally sailed free – as soon as Barbara had given the order, unthinking, for full impulse, barking, “Get us out of here, Doherty, and do it now!” – she slumped in her chair, shoulders shaking, knuckles white.

Carly burst through the turbolift doors a handful of seconds later, and Shannon threw herself into her partner’s arms with a glad cry as they held each other tight.

For one brief, irrational minute, Lynley wished he could hold Barbara – and when had she become Barbara? – that way.

But he didn’t. Instead he went to her side and placed a hand on her still-shaking shoulder, and breathed, “Oh, Havers. Well done. Well done!” in a tone of pure wonder and pride that left her glowing from the inside out. She didn’t say a word, but she reached up to cover his hand on her shoulder with hers, and when he turned his hand over and interlaced their fingers, she squeezed his hand tight, once, and didn’t make him let go.

When she looked at him her eyes were wide and disbelieving, but he saw, burning fiercely, something that looked like triumph.

~*~

Oh, sometimes she hated him.

“Strike Delta,” Lynley ordered. “Then retreat, hide behind that planetoid at mark 47. Got it?”

“Sir!” said Woodrow crisply, and bent over his console.

Barbara, however, was having none of it. Yanking Lynley into his ready room, she ordered the door shut and turned to face him, eyes snapping. “They’re attack fighters, sir! We have more weaponry in one weapons bay than the Maquis do in an entire ship, and there’s only half a dozen of them! Let’s blow them out of space and be done with it!”

“And you honestly think they’d sit still long enough to let us?” he barked back. “The crews of those ships are largely ex-Starfleet – or if they’re not, they’ve spent a lifetime studying Starfleet tactics, because the first thing any rebel force does is learn the playbook of their enemy. They know our weaknesses, and they know just how to dodge our fire. Their base is just minutes away, guaranteed. That is what we need to find, and if we destroy them, we won’t, because they will relocate. If we retreat – if we let them think we’re leaving – they will turn and head for their base, and we can tail them. T’Maya will mask our warp trail, lose it in the phenomena of the Badlands. I have fought these people before, Havers, and we must destroy the source, because otherwise they will just keep coming. Your thought is a good one, but you have no experience out here, and I do.”

He stared her down, eyes burning, and though she met his with her own defiant gaze, she was the first to look away.

“You’re right, sir,” she said, though she had to fight for every word. “If you say it works, I believe you. Let’s go.”

The shock was followed swiftly by joy, and the knowledge that his plan must be sound, if the defiant Commander Havers was willing to admit he was right – and so he just beamed and signalled the door to slide open. “Are you with me, Commander?” he asked, but he already knew.

And so did she. Mutely she nodded – the yes was clear as day in her eyes – and followed him out the door.

Everything blurred together after that, their conversation falling into a pattern of finishing each other’s thoughts as she took over Tactical – to Shannon’s delight at watching Commander Barbara Havers work her magic, and the delight of the entire bridge crew as their captain and exec seemed to share their very thoughts.

“Havers, can you –“

“Well, yes, of course, sir, but don’t you think it would be better if we – “

“Oh, yes, that’s brilliant, so do you want to – “

“Absolutely. Are we – “

“Just another minute there, take her just a little – “

“That way, yes, good, Woodrow! I’m getting ready to – “

“Good thought, Havers! And can you – “

“Already done, sir. Status?”

“T’Maya signals ready. That’s the base up ahead. Whenever you’re ready, Commander. Go!”

They took out the Maquis base in one pass.

Fire bloomed from far below, and as Shannon, Woodrow, and Nkata stared in awe, Barbara and Lynley turned to each other, bright and beaming, and chorused, “Well done!”

Woodrow just shook his head. “You two really are a double act, aren’t you!”

The Captain and the Commander just grinned innocent smiles.

Who, us? those smiles seemed to say. Of course we are.

~*~

But for all the ways they fit, for all the ways it seemed he had known her all his life, she was still, in many ways, a mystery. And so, when she began snarling at all and sundry for no reason at all and avoided even the senior staff unless she had to be on duty, he had no clue as to why – but he was determined to find out.

He found her on The Mez, scowling darkly into her Stardrifter and tapping away on her PADD.

She never had been good at dealing with misery.

“What did the drink do to you?” he asked her, sinking down into the chair on the other side of the table.

“Let you get within ten feet of me,” she muttered under her breath, still tip-tapping away.

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh, don’t mind me, sir,” she sighed, “I’m just cross today, is all.”

“I see.”

“In case you didn’t notice, that was your cue to go away. You can’t need me for something, or you’d have called me to the bridge and not hunted me down here. And I am off duty. Which means I don’t have to listen to you annoy me. Why are you here, again?”

“Pleasure of your company.” Teasing her really was entirely too much fun.

Or, at least, it was until she looked up, her eyes snapping sparks. “What part of ‘go away’ did you not understand?” she bit out, harsh and defensive. She wanted to lash out, wanted to make him hurt as badly as she was hurting, wanted to make him understand, and she hated herself for it. “I want to be alone.”

If she had bothered to look in his eyes, she would have seen something that was almost pain lingering there.

“Very well,” he said quietly, and walked away, not quite able to mask the hurt.

“Oh, bugger,” she whispered, and downed the rest of her drink in one swallow.

~*~

She found him on the observation deck at ship’s bow, gazing out on a pink-and-gold nebula that swirled around the nearby star systems with an unearthly light. But the beauty of space was lost on her tonight; her heart was ice in her chest, and she felt absolutely sick at the idea that she had shoved away the one person who had tried to reach her despite her absolutely foul mood for the past week and more.

She sat beside him without saying a word, not even sure he knew she was there.

She didn’t know if she wanted him to know, or not. Because if she gave him this – if she gave in and talked about it after so long – she wouldn’t be able to hide from the pain any longer.

As opposed to what? asked a nasty voice in her head. Drinking yourself into a stupor for a month out of every year? You’re lucky alcohol reversal agents exist these days, you know.

Talk to him? demanded another part of her. Three months ago the idea of serving under him had you considering resignation!

So what? asked a third part of her – and wasn’t this giving her a headache! He may be clueless sometimes, but at least he’s tried. At least he sees you, not the image you project. Can you say that about anyone else?

Whimpering, she buried her face against her knees.

“Are you going to bite me again?” asked a quiet voice from somewhere to her left.

“I don’t think so, sir.”

Well, at least she was honest.

“You know, Havers, I’m not going to think any less of you if you feel something that isn’t anger.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

He sighed. “I’m not going to think you’re weak if you’re happy, or sad, or if there’s something wrong. I want to help.”

“Pardon me, sir, if I have a little trouble believing you.”

He turned to face her fully, stunned for the first time in a very long while. “Why on earth would I not want to help you if I could?”

“Why would you? I have no social skills. I’ve challenged you at every turn. I’ve done everything I can possibly think of to make you hate me, and you’re still here. What on earth is wrong with you?”

He’d thought she couldn’t shock him any more. It was a night for surprises, it seemed.

“You think there’s something wrong with me because I haven’t abandoned you?”

“Well, yes.” And the way she said it, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, simply broke his heart.

“Someday, Havers,” he bit out, seething anger in his voice, “I am going to track down every bastard who ever made you feel worthless, and I am going to hurt them. Badly.”

“Oh my God, you really are insane.”

“You listen to me, Commander,” he told her fiercely. “I won’t tell you that you’re not frequently infuriating, that I don’t often want to shake you, or that you don’t drive me up the wall at least once a week, because you would know I was lying, and I refuse to do that to you. But I also know that you are the best first officer I have ever been honoured to serve with, and that I consider you my friend – one of the very few true friends I have, and the only one who I know will speak her mind without reservation in any and all circumstances, without caring that I’m a fourth-generation officer or that I have considered most of Starfleet Command the next thing to family since I was a child. You’re not using me to climb the ranks and you don’t give a damn what I could do for you professionally. I value that more than you can possibly know. You have never once failed me, and I don’t think you ever could. I won’t say that nothing you tell me could shock me, or that you’ll never make me angry; you shock me regularly and make me angry even more frequently. But I see you, Barbara, your heart and your compassion and your drive. I know you lash out when you’re hurting, and I know you push everyone away because you’re too afraid to trust, but don’t you believe for one minute that I could ever think you less than one of the finest officers – and finest human beings – I have ever known.”

Blindsided, overcome, she turned her face away, and she was more than half afraid he’d misunderstand – but she just couldn’t bear the way he was looking at her. In that moment she knew, as she had never known anything before, that she would, without hesitation, follow this man into the depths of Hell itself and, yes, she would die for him without fear or regret, because this man was worth dying for. He was one in a trillion – no, one and only, singular in the universe, as bright and brilliant as a star.

And maybe he did see her after all, because he only told her softly, “When you’re ready, I’ll be here.”

And he stood and walked away.

She sat there in the starlight, pink and gold dancing in the blackness and ghosting over her skin, and tried to cope with how her world had, once again, been turned upside down and shaken loose from its moorings.

I told you so, murmured a quiet voice in her mind.

Oh, shut the hell up, she snapped, and allowed herself to smile for the first time in two weeks.

~*~

It was three days before she got up the courage to seek him out.

“I guess I owe you an explanation, huh?” she said, scuffing her boots against the carpet of his ready room.

“You owe me nothing, Barbara,” he told her, eyes intense. “Until it begins affecting your performance on the job, you owe me nothing. As your Captain, I have no right to pry. As your friend... as your friend, I hope I have the right to ask.”

“It’s nothing you can help, sir,” she said quietly, staring at the floor. “My, ah, my little brother? He died twenty-five years ago yesterday. He had cancer, you see, leukemia, and they didn’t catch it in time to stop it.” Her tone was bland, emotionless, but he knew her too well to think she felt nothing. Wordlessly he pushed back from his desk, moving to the sofa instead, and she followed his lead almost blindly.

“I was away, at school,” she went on, still unable to look at him. “I never – I never got to say goodbye. And after that, everything fell apart. I was fifteen when he died, and St Andrews was already offering me scholarships. They told me that if I kept my grades up, did well on my A-levels, I’d be all but guaranteed a full ride. That was – that was important, for us. We were comfortable, but a private university was out of the question without scholarships. And then Terry got sick.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, and he ached to reach out and touch her, but he didn’t dare. “He went so fast. I was planning to come see him over Christmas, I was at Starfleet’s London prep academy, but by the end of October he was gone.”

She wasn’t crying, wasn’t sobbing. It might have been easier for him if she had been. He didn’t know how to reach her like this, how to soothe, and all he could do was listen as she continued. “I came home that break and enrolled in the local comp school. I didn’t have a choice. My dad lost his job – he was a robotics supervisor at a manufacturing plant of some kind – when he started drinking, and my mum – well, on top of Terry’s death, that broke her, I think. I finished my A-levels, did well on them, too, but I had to turn down St Andrews. My mum got worse, you see, and by the time I was seventeen I couldn’t leave the house without taking her with me, she was so irrational. I got my Bachelor’s – astrophysics and military tactics – from the University of East London at twenty and my Master’s a year later. I did it all through virtual correspondence – and you know how St Andrews is, they’re like Oxford and Cambridge, they still insist on the traditional schooling methods, meeting in person and such, and I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t leave my mum like that, and my dad...”

Her voice was raw, now, with old grief, old wounds that had never quite healed. “My dad drank himself to death three months before I got my Master’s. Mum followed within a month – she overdosed on painkillers. They couldn’t handle the grief, or the guilt.” She swallowed heavily. “I went straight into the Academy after that – I had done well enough that along with the usual full tuition, they paid for everything else, too – books, residence fees, uniforms, everything. They’re things you never think about, not in today’s world – I can only imagine how bad it would have been two, three hundred years ago. Anyway, I made it through the Academy, somehow – if I’d stayed in the prep academy, if I’d gone to St Andrews, it would have been so much easier. I worked myself almost sick those four years, just trying to keep up. I may have had a Master’s degree but next to everyone else, I was a featherweight. I don’t know how I made it, but I did, and I was good at it. And if I worked enough, got tired enough, I didn’t have to think about...”

She flinched when he put a hand on her shoulder, but then she curled into the touch just a little, and his grip tightened as she got out the rest. “Losing Terry killed my family. It’s been twenty-five years, and I still resent that he died. I miss him. I loved him – he was my brother, bright and cheeky and brilliant, and I can’t resent him, but – I do resent that my parents didn’t catch it. Couldn’t they see that he was more tired? That he didn’t have an appetite? That he was paler than normal, that he bruised so easily? They didn’t see, and if they had, he might still be alive. And they tore themselves apart with it, and me, too, in the end.”

He had to wipe the tears from his own cheeks when she spat out, so bitter he could hardly bear it, “I wasn’t enough to keep them going. I never was.”

He wanted to think something profound, something meaningful and compassionate, but all his brain could come up with was, Well, that explains a lot. Her isolation, her wariness to trust – her own parents had abandoned her, how could she expect to trust anyone else?

Some part of himself he barely knew took over then, and he reached out to take both her hands in his, trying to convey with the touch of hands and the pressure of his grip what he still couldn’t quite find the words to say. “Listen to me, Barbara,” he told her firmly. “I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through – I was on my first posting out of the Academy when my father died, and we hadn’t been close for years. But I will say this; you are far stronger than you know, and I am amazed at what you have accomplished. It would have been remarkable for anyone, but for someone who faced what you did, it is nothing short of astounding. I respect you, Barbara, more than anyone I have ever known. And know this, too: I am not going anywhere. Not after finding this. I would be a fool to let you go. I am here, Barbara, always.”

She looked at him, trembling, that face of hers, oh, those eyes, so expressive, so eloquent, and said, “I believe you.”

There wasn’t anything else to say after that – what could be said? And so they merely sat in a silence more poignant than any words, and a comfort more profound than they had ever known.

~*~

Things changed between them, after that, and yet they didn’t. She still called him a horse’s arse on a regular basis, and he fired back with a number of creative metaphors for her stubbornness that would have made a Napoleonic sailor blanch. But she also started showing up in his ready room at the close of every shift to play him in chess – that she was good at it was not surprising, given her gifts for military strategy – or to lose spectacularly to him in Scrabble, at which she merely sniffed and declared that anything that could be said in two syllables didn’t need to be said in five, and certainly not in words last used by Shakespeare. (It didn’t surprise him in the least that when they confined their game to insults, she won by light-years.)

And she started sharing things with him, things she never would have shared before – stories from her time at the Academy, memories of her brother from when they were young, worries about the Dominion threat, her fears for Kira Nerys, stationed on the very front lines. He responded in kind, telling her of his mother and sister, of how he had always feared himself a disappointment to his father because he had no wish to be a bureaucrat (“Who in their right mind would give up deep space for more paperwork?” she snarked, and he almost blurted out “Where have you been all my life?” before he remembered the answer and thanked his lucky stars he’d kept his mouth shut).

“You told me your father died,” she asked him one day over a drink and chess, “but you – ah, you never said how. And if you want to talk...”

His smile was wistful, sad. “He died of cancer, too,” he murmured, “although it lingered – almost three years between diagnosis and his death. I was a second-year cadet when they found out. They still can’t cure stomach cancer, you know – and even if they could, there’d be no erasing the internal damage. My mother was devastated, of course, but – I couldn’t seem to feel anything. It was easier that way. My brother, Peter – he had a bad heroin addiction, at the time, and my father turned a blind eye. I still don’t know why he did – Peter was his son, no matter what. I learned then that even those we love the most fail us, and since then, I...”

“I know,” she said quietly, with a gentleness he had rarely seen before, and covered his hand with hers. “But it’s different now, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Barbara,” he answered softly. “It’s different now.”

It was easy, and yet it wasn’t – but easy or not, it was as vital as breathing now to both of them, and just as natural to turn to each other when before they would have turned to no one at all, even in their darkest hours.

 

Chapter Text

(early 2372)

He should never have heard the noise.

Captains’ quarters, after all, were soundproofed. Not that he should have needed soundproofing, since his quarters shared a deck with his First Officer only, and Barbara, for all the noise she could make, was a remarkably quiet sleeper. So when Lt. Commander Doherty decided, six months into the Voyager mission, that an overhaul of the electrical systems was absolutely imperative, he didn’t exactly have grounds to say no, even though the soundproofing had to come down. (Doherty, he often thought, should never be allowed within ten light years of Montgomery Scott, lest the ship explode.) And when he woke up to a faint cry in the dark, it didn’t take much guesswork to figure out where those cries were coming from.

He paused at the door, debating with himself. Yes, they trusted each other without reservation. He was closer to her than he had ever been to anyone, and he knew – how could he doubt it? – that the same was true for her. On a starship, however, even one as large as a Nebula-class, privacy was in short supply, and treasured all the more because of that. Would she appreciate his intrusion on her private space – or her private nightmares?

The next, strangled cry decided him.

He whispered the override to the door and poked his head inside. She had roughly three-quarters the floor space he did, but not even a tenth the personal possessions; save for a few family photographs and a couple of ship models – the NX-01, the NCC-1701, the Phoenix – her quarters were almost bare.

But he didn’t have time to ponder this incongruity, because the cries had stopped, only to be replaced with harsh, gasping breaths. “Who’s there?” Her panicked voice echoed through the door; had he seen her face, he would have seen eyes huge and wild with fright.

“It’s Captain Lynley. I heard – never mind. Would you like me to go?”

The silence seemed to stretch on for decades.

“No,” he heard at last. “I could use – if you’re willing to listen, sir, I don’t really want to be alone right now.”

“I’m always willing to listen.” So saying, he settled himself on the sofa in her living room.

She emerged a few minutes later, face scrubbed clean, wrapped in an oversized brown sweater over tartan flannel pyjamas. Settling herself beside him, she drew her knees up to her chest; the position, combined with the oversized sweater, made her look impossibly vulnerable and young.

“Did they ever tell you,” she asked eventually, “where my last posting was?”

“No,” he said, confused by the non sequitur.

Taking a deep breath, she let the next words out in a rush. “The USS Odyssey.”

He sucked in a sharp breath before he could stop himself, and choked back nausea as the lack of personal effects in her quarters began to make horrible, sickening sense.

“I had been assigned to the Venture for a month, on temporary assignment to help test upgrades to their weapons systems and teach the tac officers how to use them effectively. They didn’t like me – not a shock – but by God they learned how to use those weapons and use them well, and that was all I cared about. At the end of it, of my month there, we were set to rendezvous with Odyssey at Deep Space Nine. Venture was a hundred thousand klicks out – had them on the viewscreen and everything, the Odyssey and the station – when the Jem’Hadar destroyed her. I was on the bridge, going over some last details with Venture's captain, when Odyssey went up. They told me later I fainted clean away. I woke up in sickbay and spent the next two weeks walking around like – like a zombie, I suppose, trying to convince myself that it was all a bad dream. But it wasn’t. They sent me to San Francisco and had me teaching at the Academy while they ran me through psych testing. I hated every minute, but for three months I couldn’t even think about going back into space. The mental film of that moment haunted my dreams. It still does. I wouldn’t have come back at all, except Alynna – Admiral Nechayev, she mentored me when I was a cadet – turned up at my flat and told me I was too good an officer to go around sulking, and that if Keogh could have seen me he’d have told me the same thing. When I heard about the Dominion threat, I told her I’d accept whatever she offered me as long as it got me out there fighting. I needed to know that when the time came, I could... pay them back, for what they’d done to-”

And here she broke off with a gasping cry. Soft, unsure, he laid his hand over hers – and very nearly jumped when she seized it and clung as though he was the only thing anchoring her to reality. When her breath started to hitch he drew her towards him, and she buried her face in his shoulder and finally let go with a flood of sobs too long denied. Through it all she clung to his hand in hers, her other hand fisted in his shirt, shaking against him as he held her, and she was so obviously touch-starved the realisation of it all but punched him in the gut. Her reaction was almost catlike, the way she arched into the touch, and he held her just a little tighter as she clung to him, so desperate, holding on like she was dying for it, like she couldn’t let go if she wanted to.

He didn’t want her to.

God, was all he could think. Only a little over a year ago she watched her entire ship go up with all hands. And now here she is, First Officer on a starship guaranteed to be at the heart of the fighting when war comes, knowing it could very well happen again, and she might not be as lucky this time. How many people have underestimated her? How many people never bothered to see past the hard shell? How many people never cared to look beyond what she wanted them to see? And how many people have no clue just how strong she really is?

Helpless, navigating by instinct alone, he rubbed soothing circles on her back. Searching for something, anything he could do, he racked his brain – and remembered something his mother had told him, many years ago, right after his father died. ‘Sometimes,’ she had said, ‘all we need is something to hold on to. Tears aren’t always a bad thing – but they’re much easier to bear when you have a friendly hand holding yours in the dark.

She cried herself out in the end, exhausted by the tears and the nightmares. Through hiccupping sobs she asked him how she was supposed to bear the grief; he held her hand tighter and told her about Wolf 359, about how he had watched his crew die around him as he fired shot after desperate shot until the destruction finally ceased. He told her about the nightmares that invaded his sleep, even now, and how, with time, the hurt and the guilt are easier to bear. He told her of the crippling guilt after he was one of the scant few to leave the wreckage of the tiny Washington alive, and the sleepless nights as the horrible reality of those hellish minutes finally set in. Then he murmured in her ear that he’d gladly share her burden, and buried his lips against her hair when she agreed – but only, she said, if she could share his. Memories bound them now, memories and duty and shared grief at the loss of too many comrades-in-arms.

And at last, her tears stopped flowing.

When they had, she looked up, tears streaking her face, eyes bloodshot, such gratitude in her expression he had to struggle not to cry himself, and leaned back against the sofa.

“Thank you,” she said, quietly, almost inaudible. “I don’t know anyone else who would have-”

“I did,” he responded, his voice as soft as hers. “I would. I will. You’re a strong woman, Barbara, stronger than you give yourself credit for. And I can’t tell you how grateful I am you decided to accept this assignment. Working with you – I am a far better captain for it, and for you. It has not always been easy, but it has always been right. And I wouldn’t give you up for anything in the galaxy.”

“You made coming back out here worth it, you know. I couldn’t have asked for a better captain. And -” she paused to take a deep breath, “I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.”

The sudden pressure that squeezed his heart at her soft, whispered confession astounded him, and he let his feelings for her shudder through him – feelings so intense they almost frightened him. For somehow, in a scant ten months she had become so central to his life that he could not remember how he had captained a ship before her – could not even imagine how he had lived his life without her. Far from tearing them apart, their frequent arguments were as much a cornerstone of their relationship as their constant, seamless rapport. They could and did hurt each other, yes, but where they could hurt they could heal, and heal stronger than before – and that was something he had never known. Oh, he’d been friends with his fellow officers before – but nothing had ever been like this.

He knew friendships formed out in the black were the fiercest and the most durable. The isolation, the total dependency on each other, the forced proximity, all combined to forge bonds so strong they were seldom broken. He had never expected it, never before experienced it beyond the normal tight-knit loyalty of a starship crew; and yet somehow, with Barbara Havers curled in his arms, his world felt as though it had suddenly righted itself. With Barbara he couldn’t help but sense, right from their first meeting, that a power far beyond his control was at work, and now he felt that this was only the beginning of a relationship he could scarcely comprehend.

His eyes met hers then; his own feelings were again echoed in those wide green eyes, and the simple knowledge that he wasn’t alone had him shuddering in absolute relief. He used his free hand to smooth a wayward strand of hair back from her face, and in that moment something unknown – something impossibly powerful, something they dared not name, not yet – surged between them.

When ship’s dawn broke they left that private interlude behind them, becoming once more the captain and first officer of one of Starfleet’s most powerful starships. The crew never thought to ask why their command team worked even more seamlessly together than ever before, why they could speak volumes with a single glance or why they were now rarely apart. But every time they fell into that perfect, flawless unity, the command team in question shared a small, secret smile. They knew.

 

Chapter Text

(early 2372)

“Nkata, take the conn. Havers, ready room. Now.”

She had all but jumped out of her chair when he spoke; half an hour ago he had shut himself in his ready room with Admiral Taylor on the vidcomm, leaving her to command the bridge. Bored out of her mind, she had busied herself with crew evaluations and shift schedules as the science department ran yet another scan for any trace of Voyager’s warp trail, and had nearly completed them before he had startled her. Now, alarmed by the urgency in his voice, she threw her PADD on her seat and bolted.

“Captain?”

“Sit down, Barbara.”

Oh God. Either he was gearing up to tell her something he knew would lead to a row, or – no, she didn’t want to think about it. She’d much rather it be the former.

No such luck; when he spoke she was, indeed, very glad to be sitting down.

“The Klingons have withdrawn from the Khitomer Accords.”

Well, fuck.

“The Accords?” She could barely formulate words, she was so flabbergasted. “The Accords have held for eighty years! The Dominion is gaining a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant! What the hell possessed Gowron to do such a thing??”

“That, Commander, is an excellent question.” Admiral Taylor’s normally serene blue-grey eyes gazed out of the screen, and Barbara nodded in deference to her commanding officer. “As best we can determine, Chancellor Gowron was displeased by our condemnation of the Klingon invasion of Cardassia. He expressed his displeasure by withdrawing from the Accords. Needless to say, Starfleet Command is preparing to do some rather rapid redeployment. Captain Lynley, starting immediately you are hereby ordered to the Klingon border. We need combat-class starships over there. We’ll have a science vessel take over the search for Voyager – probably the Cochrane. The honeymoon’s over, you two. I hope you’re ready to command in combat. It doesn’t need saying that the Klingon knowledge of Federation tactics and armaments is unparalleled. If it comes down to a fight...”

“Do you think it will, Admiral?” Lynley, subdued, spoke with his hands resting on his exec’s shoulders, standing behind her chair.

Taylor let out a long breath. “I can’t be sure. Are you confident in your crew, Lynley? Because I’d rather keep you out here on the Voyager mission than send you to the border and lose a combat-capable starship because its command team hadn’t yet ironed out the wrinkles, not when I don’t have to.”

His hands tightened on her shoulders. “I have no doubt that Commander Havers and I are more than ready for whatever the Klingons – or anyone else – may care to throw at us. If we go down, it won’t be due to a crack in Providence’s command team. We disagree fairly often, of course, but it only makes us both consider other options, and we’re always better for it. I’ve never been more confident in my exec – or in the strength of a command team – in my career, Admiral, and I don’t say that lightly.”

On the vidscreen the Admiral’s eyes sharpened. She surveyed them for long minutes, and what she saw there gave her at last a glimmer of hope that Starfleet might come out of this in one piece. Providence’s command team had found its stride, and now that they had, not even the combined forces of the Klingons, Cardassians and Dominion could tear them apart.

“Commander? Your opinion?”

“We’re ready, ma’am, and more ready with every passing day. Captain Lynley is right. If we go down, it won’t be to a crack in Providence’s command team.”

Crisply, Taylor nodded. “Very well. The Cochrane will be here in three days, maybe four. As soon as they arrive, you’re to head for the border. Godspeed, Providence.” And the transmission ended.

When the screen went black, Lynley moved to the front of Barbara’s chair, then extended a hand to help her to her feet. “All right, Commander. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, I’m afraid.”

Despite the severity of the situation, she couldn’t stop the smile. “As long as I burn with you, Captain, I’ll do it and gladly.”

He returned her bright grin with one of his own. “Isn’t it convenient, then, that I feel the same way?”

And with one more potent glance, they broke apart. “All right, Commander. Let’s move. We need to call the senior staff.”

“Yes, sir!”

And so the first act ended, and the second began.

 

Chapter Text

(late 2372)

The USS Cochrane, a tiny Oberth-class science and exploration vessel, warped into the Badlands two and a half days later, and her captain beamed aboard immediately. As the last sparkle disappeared, Lynley strode forward to scoop the woman into a fierce, hard hug.

Barbara simply gaped until they broke apart.

“My apologies,” muttered Lynley, now considerably redder in the face. “Captain Smith, my exec, Commander Barbara Havers. Barbara, Captain Sarah Jane Smith.”

“Sarah Jane will do, Barbara,” said the other woman, extending a hand. Sparkling brown eyes twinkled out at her from a face still smooth and largely untouched by time. Although she was clearly a captain of many years’ experience – maybe twenty years older than Barbara herself – she had aged as gracefully as a dream.

Which still did not answer the very pertinent questions of ‘who the hell is she?’ and ‘why did he hug her like that??’

“You’ll have to excuse Captain Lynley, Barbara,” Sarah Jane went on. “I’ve been Auntie Sarah Jane to him for most of his life. I assure you this isn’t common behaviour.”

“Captain Smith – Sarah Jane – I never thought it was. I was surprised, that’s all.”

“Yes, I’d imagine you were. Tommy, do go make yourself useful and get us some tea, would you? Barbara dear, why don’t you show me where the ready room is?”

Blinking in confusion – never had she heard anyone order Captain Lynley about as though he were a teenager – she obeyed.

Sarah Jane had two cups of steaming tea out of the replicator before Barbara could blink, and then they settled on the sofa.

“So,” Barbara ventured, “why did you send him off for tea, then?”

Sarah Jane grinned, a bright, open, sparkling grin that erased decades from her face. “I didn’t. Since he was a child ‘go fetch some tea’ has been code for ‘make yourself scarce until I say otherwise’ – his parents often held meetings of Command at their house, and they couldn’t risk a child overhearing. I wanted to talk to you, so I sent him off. He’s probably in his quarters sulking right now.”

“You... wanted to talk to me?”

“After the way he talks about you? Of course I did. I have never liked beating around the bush, so let me ask you now – what are your feelings about him?”

“He’s amazing.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and she went bright red. “I mean – I’m very glad to be working with him. I couldn’t have wished for a better commanding officer, or a better friend.” And her voice trailed off, helpless. Maybe it was the look of understanding in Sarah Jane’s eyes, or her motherly air; whatever the reason, Barbara pressed a hand to her mouth and fought not to cry.

“It’s all right,” Sarah Jane murmured softly, wrapping an arm around Barbara’s shoulders. “It’s all right. I love him, too. It’s all right.”

“I don’t know how to – I can’t put it into words, how I feel about him.”

“Thank God,” said Sarah Jane, and the words were unexpected enough to have Barbara gaping again. “Do you know how long he’s been waiting for you? For someone who can love him exactly as he is, who will tell him when he’s wrong and reassure him when he’s right and always, always stand behind him, no matter the cost? The day he got the Voyager mission he commed me to say that he’d finally met the one officer in all of Starfleet who could push him beyond ‘great’ into ‘phenomenal’, assuming he didn’t kill her first. And he was absolutely right, wasn’t he? I never thought he’d do it, but he’s finally done it, and he’ll know it, as sure as the Earth keeps turning. You – you’d follow him into Hell, I can see it in your eyes, into Hell or to the farthest edge of the galaxy. So I’m asking you now – will you wait for him, Barbara?”

“As long as it takes.” She didn’t have to think about it.

“Thank you,” said Sarah Jane, quietly, simply, all the relief in the universe in her eyes. “Thank you for sticking with him. He’s not easy, but-“

“-if he was, I’d have quit two weeks in. Sarah Jane, if you really think he’ll see –“

“I don’t think,” Sarah Jane told her quietly, fiercely. “I know. And so does he, subconsciously. And so do you, or you’d have never said a word.”

“Then I’ll wait till the last star burns out,” was Barbara’s reply, and she’d never meant anything more.

“I am so glad,” Sarah Jane said at last, “that I was right about you.”

And they shared a smile, linked by understanding – and by the brilliant, fierce, passionate man they both love.

“Tommy,” remarked Sarah Jane then, tapping her communicator, “did you go to China for that tea?”

~*~

Providence left for the Klingon border just two hours later. The routine was much the same, in some ways, as it had been in the Badlands – patrol, scan space, patrol, scan space, find nothing.

In other words – boring.

But boring was infinitely preferable to the alternative...

~*~

She woke in a haze of pain. Two of her fingers stuck out at odd angles, and her back felt like one giant bruise. Everything was blurry, but she was Starfleet, and she knew this architecture as well as she knew her own name.

Klingon.

Well, crap, was all she could think as it came back in a rush – how she had been hunting for something, she couldn't remember what, in one of the cargo bays, when the world had dissolved around her.

Damn cloaking technology. If Providence's shields had been up, this never would have happened.

“Tell Captain Lynley to surrender Providence at once,” said a gruff voice near her ear, “or I will break two more of your fingers.”

“Don't you dare, Captain!” she bellowed. “Don't you dare get anyone killed for me!”

“Don't be ridiculous, Barbara,” said a crisp voice over the comm channel. “And hold on. We're coming to get you.”

“Sir, I said don't- “

The air dissolved around her.

“-you idiot!” she shrieked. “You don't do that!”

She continued to berate him even as Lafferty bustled over to her biobed and began checking her vital signs. “-how dare you risk this ship! What would Starfleet Command say?? It goes against every rule there is, you
arse,
you could have gotten them kille - “

“Shut up, Barbara.”

Her mouth closed with a snap.

“I was going to rescue you. That was non-negotiable. What I want to know is why you thought for one second you could tell me what to do?”

“Why you arrogant prick! I was the one in that cell, not you! You didn't have the right to - “

“Get out,” interjected Lafferty's voice. “Now, Captain. My patient needs as little stress as possible, and you are not helping. Out.”

Barbara opened her mouth to protest, only to collapse in a heap as the sedative hissed.

Out,” repeated Lafferty, and Lynley turned and left the room, still seething. High-handed over-noble little... I could kill her myself!

Sometimes, he really wanted to smack Barbara Lynne Havers.

~*~

“Sickbay to Captain. Get down here. Now. It’s Barbara.” Dr Stuart Lafferty could not have chosen more precisely the nine words in Federation Standard most guaranteed to bring Captain Thomas Lynley running.

Get down here. It’s Barbara.

He burst through the sickbay doors, only to stop dead at the sight of a wailing monitor and an army of medical staff surrounding his exec’s bed. And those lines on the monitor – what looked like scribbles –

Ventricular fibrillation. Oh, God, no...

“She’s crashing! I need epinephrine and shock paddles! Clear!” Her body arched off the bed, convulsed with three hundred joules of electricity jolting through her.

Nothing was happening. Why wasn’t anything happening??

“Captain.” In the midst of the insanity, Kimura Hana’s voice was a welcome isle of calm. “Go. She needs you.”

He didn’t dare take her hand, but he knelt next to her pillow and fought not to break. He couldn’t lose her, not after all this, not after everything they’d been through and everything they’d become, not after he’d just got her back. He wouldn’t let her die, he just wouldn’t.

And what if she’s supposed to? asked a nasty voice in his head. Not even you can defy Death.

Very calmly, with a deadly, icy fire, he told that voice to go do something unspeakably rude to itself, because the voice was wrong. Losing her was not an option, and he could damn well defy Death if he pleased. For her, he could, and for her, he would. Any other outcome was unacceptable.

“Barbara, please. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I should have listened. I couldn’t have expected anything less from you. How could I, when you only did what I would have done in your place? It was stupid and foolish and so, so brave, Barbara, and so true to who you are, I’m so proud of you, I’m so sorry, just please don’t leave me!”

“Three-fifty, go again! Clear!”

Nothing. Down to business, then.

“Again! Four hundred! Clear!

“Commander Barbara Havers, you listen to me. I am sorry, terribly sorry. And I am proud of you. But I am also your Captain, and you swore yourself to me with tears and sweat and blood, as I swore myself to you. As your Captain, I am ordering you to come back to me. As your friend, I am ordering you to come back to me. You can fight with me later, you can argue with me later, but you will obey me and you will come back. You will. For me, Barbara, for everything I am to you – come back to me!”

At the steady beeping of the monitor, at the sight of those blessedly regular peaks and valleys on the cardiac tracing, Thomas Lynley shuddered and fought to breathe.

“We got her. Thank God, we got her back.” Lafferty’s voice was steady, but his professional facade was beginning to crack. Lynley couldn’t blame him. They had been so close, so close to losing her for good...

But she was breathing steady, and her heartbeat was regular, and thank God, they had a chance.

He only noticed the doctor by his side when Lafferty put a hand on his arm. “No, Captain, don’t get up. She’s going to need you. You can see her vitals are normalizing at last. But she’s still in a coma – she’s not responding to any of our reflex tests. It could last two hours, it could last two weeks – or she might never come out of it –“

What?”

“Captain, please. I think she’ll come out of it, and soon enough. Her body’s been put through the wringer, it was only a matter of time before the shock hit her – although I didn’t expect her to crash. I estimate a day, maybe two, before she’s awake again. I presume you’ll want to stay with her?”

“You presume correctly. Between Commander Nkata and Yeoman Frye, I should be able to manage the ship from here, assuming nothing untoward happens. To put it succinctly, Doctor, nothing short of a red alert will take me from her side until she’s awake and stable.”

Lafferty deftly concealed his long-suffering, gusted sigh.

~*~

She wakened two days later, her eyes opening to the sight of her Captain, PADD in hand, fast asleep in a chair next to her bed.

Or at least, she thought he was fast asleep. She had barely so much as blinked before he was sitting upright, profound relief on his face, and reaching forward to take her hands in his.

“Barbara. Are you all right?”

Aside from feeling like I’ve gone three rounds with a mule and lost, she thought wryly, I’m as good as ever I was.

And that’s precisely what she told him.

When he finished laughing, he leaned forward to hug her close. “Oh, Barbara, my dear. I’ve missed you so.”

For a moment she just held on to him and let the relief sweep through her. But then...

“Wait. I was mad at you. And you were mad at me. And now...”

“...we’re not,” finished Lynley. “Barbara, I was stupid. So were you. But I do not count myself a fool, and a fool I surely was for refusing to understand why you would take the course of action you did when I would have done precisely the same. And I...”

“...was just following orders, and in any case no self-respecting Captain could sit by when one of his crew had been kidnapped. I know. I see it, now. So in the end...”

“...it’s all right, you see, because we were both wrong, and we were both right. And you wouldn’t...”

“...really transfer? Never. Never, in this life or any other.”

“Thank God,” he said at last, holding her close, “because I think that...”

“...if you resign, I resign? Precisely.”

“Barbara,” he said, on half a laugh, “welcome home.”

“Yeah,” she said, never looking away from him. “I’m home...”

And as she looked into those eyes, so warm and welcoming with relief – the eyes of a man who had spared nothing to bring her back, who apparently hadn't left her bedside – she felt her heart trip, stumble, and fall.

She felt the impact, the shudder through body and heart and soul, as she realised that she could have died out there on that warbird – or, worse, and much more likely, that he could have been killed in her rescue – and she would have never seen him again, never played chess or Scrabble again, never fought with him again. She realised that she could have never again talked with him about anything and everything and sometimes nothing, never had that sense of comfort, of someone who knew everything she was and accepted her without reservation – and she knew.

And the knowing terrified her, right down to her very bones.

~*~

She sighed with relief when a pair of familiar brown eyes appeared on the vidscreen. “Nerys, thank God.”

“What’s wrong, Barbara? And I'm glad you're all right.”

“Thanks – me too.” She grinned briefly. “And I think...” here she had to swallow heavily. “I think I might be falling in love with my captain.”

Nerys only smiled. “I know.”

What?”

“Barbara, since I’ve known you I’ve watched you go from ranting about the man every chance you got, to admitting you grudgingly respect him, to telling me you’ve never had a better commanding officer, to telling me he knows more about you than you’ve ever told anyone – even me. No, don’t apologise. I understand. It takes more than simple friendship to bring that out of someone, particularly someone as guarded as you are. Frankly, I think you’re perfect for each other. But I’m not on that ship. I can’t tell you what to do. What I can say is this – if it’s real, and I think it is, don’t give up, and don’t let go.”

Groaning, Barbara dug her thumbs into her temples. “You think?”

Light-years away, Nerys smiled. “I think. Let me know, okay?”

Wearily Barbara smiled. “Will do. Best of luck with Quark.”

“Thanks. I’ll need it.” So saying, Nerys gave one last smile before the viewscreen went black.

“Barbara?” A knock sounded on the door.

“Come in, Captain.”

“Am I interrupting?”

“No, not at all. I was just chatting with Nerys for a little. Did you need me?”

“Ah, I see. Give her my best next time you talk to her. And yes, I did. I wanted your opinion on some of these crew evaluations...”

As Lynley talked, Barbara gazed at him, gazed at the one person in the galaxy it would break her to lose, and prayed for strength. I hope you’re right, Nerys. Because if I lost him, I don’t think I could go on.

~*~

The days blurred into each other on the Border, punctuated by nothing more than skirmishes. The routine remained the same – comfortable, steady, familiar – but always, at the back of their minds, was the threat of full-blown war. Other ships had engaged, they heard – were told of battles lost and won, heavy losses, border worlds attacked, engagements between single ships and more than that. But Providence remained out of the main action. How, they never knew, with the reports – Starfleet had been caught unawares in the conflict, and they should have been fighting heavily and often. Barbara could only assume that it was due to the simple fact that, after her rescue, they had been shifted to a patrol area well behind the border. Putting several dozen large, nasty warships between Providence and any enemy vessels was a fairly effective way to ensure their crew remained out of the major action.

Lynley, naturally, chafed, and Barbara did her best to distract him with whatever she could find before he got even more short-tempered than he already was and alienated his entire crew.

Two years later, they'd look back on these times, and wish for them to come again.

It was just another night, really – she'd had dozens like it, would have dozens more. Every few days, Barbara joined Jackie in Shannon and Carly's quarters. The rules were simple: no talk of war, combat, or Starfleet business. This was strictly for pleasure.

Barbara was braiding Shannon's waist-length hair into a heavy golden braided crown, while Shannon's fingers were busy with Carly's curls and Jackie ran a soft brush through Barbara's own almost-shoulder-length hair, and all four were giggling.

“Love at first sight? Really, Shannon. What an absurd notion.” Jackie, prosaic and practical as always, couldn't help but chortle.

“I'm not kidding!” cried Shannon. “There I was in Intro to Engineering, and in walks this gorgeous TA with the wildest hair I'd ever seen. My heart stopped beating. I swear I forgot how to breathe. It's a wonder I even passed the class.”

“You think it was bad for you?” Carly asked tartly. “There I go, first time I'd ever TA'd anything, and I'm still fretting over my senior thesis, and there's this blonde imp with eyes blue enough to make me swoon. I'm surprised I didn't faint on the spot. It's a wonder anyone passed the class.”

Barbara, who couldn't help but smile at the differences between Shannon and Carly's whirlwind romance and her own long, slow journey of falling in love, said nothing as she practically purred into the sensation of the brush in her hair. Times like these were rare enough – sometimes she damned her own idea of splitting the senior staff across all three shifts, as it made these girls' nights all the more dificult to arrange – and to lose herself in the pleasure of Shannon and Carly's story was a welcome relief from the ache she felt every time she laid eyes on her captain.

Enough of that, she told herself briskly. However besotted I may be with the man, he does not belong at girls' night. “Hey, Shannon,” she said, partly to distract herself and partly because she never got tired of the story, “tell us how you finally got up the courage to make a move!”

“Yeah,” cried Jackie from behind her, fingers busily weaving Barbara's ginger hair into a fishtail braid, “tell us!”

“All right,” said Shannon mischievously, as Carly buried her face in her hands to conceal her blush. “I had just finished my final exam...”

She was cut off by the ship's intercom chiming to life. “All senior staff to the briefing room immediately,” recited Yeoman Kat Frye's cool, collected voice. “I repeat, all senior staff to the briefing room immediately.”

“Damn and blast,” muttered Barbara, hauling herself, then Carly, to her feet. Shannon scrambled up with her usual agility, and Jackie rose from the sofa. The fishtail braid in Barbara's hair fell apart, and Shannon's hair tumbled down around her shoulders. Only Carly's hairdo stayed put – held in place, no doubt, by the engineer's corkscrew curls.

All thoughts of hairdos fled, however, when the four entered the briefing room. Though Jackie, as an associate doctor, wouldn't normally qualify as senior staff, her position as ship's counsellor earned her a place at the table – and even if it hadn't, her near-encyclopedic ability at psychological profiling would have.

Barbara settled herself at Lynley's left – he cast an amused glance at the disarray of her hair, but she pointedly ignored him – as Lafferty came in to take the captain's right, and the rest of the senior staff settled themselves around the table.

“What I have to tell you,” began Lynley, “has staggering implications for the outcome of this war. Please,” he said, raising his hand and stilling the murmurs, “wait. This intelligence has come to me straight from Starfleet Command. As of now, we are being recalled to Earth for refits and crew replacements. The Klingon-Federation War is over. Chancellor Gowron's aide, Martok, was replaced by a Changeling sometime in 2371. Approximately thirty-six hours ago, the Cardassian tailor Garak completed a successful plan to beam himself, Martok, and Commander Worf out of the Dominion internment camp where they had been housed. Last week Chancellor Gowron called for a cease-fire. Although hostilities resumed briefly, they have now ceased for good, and the Klingons have re-signed the Khitomer Accords.”

The room was dead silent.

“Well,” Barbara managed at last, “that explains a lot.”

“Indeed,” said Lynley, flashing her a brief, private smile. “Needless to say, ladies and gentlemen, this changes the entire shape of the war. It is safe to say that the Dominion have far more power and force at their command than we had previously believed. They have succeeded in creating war between two governments that have been allies for decades, and they have the capability to infiltrate the highest levels of government. The Obsidian Order has been obliterated. The Tal Shiar are weakened almost beyond recognition.” He looked at all of them. “We are to redeploy to the Typhon Sector under Admiral Hayes until we are deemed needed elsewhere. But make no mistake.” His voice was crisp. “We are in more danger now than we have ever been. What we have been through this past year was nothing more than a taster of what is to come. I will need each and every one of you. Carly.”

“Yes, sir!”

“I need you to get to work with your engineers. Every trick you know, every ounce of power you can gain, every improvement you can make – I want it. Take what we've got and make it do the impossible. Understood?”

“Already done, sir.” And though her tone was cool, there was no mistaking the fire in her eyes.

“Very good. Shannon. Barbara.”

“Aye, sir!” they said as one.

“Shannon, I want every kiloton of power you can wring from these phasers and torpedoes. Have Barbara help you – there is none better. Work on the shields. I want this ship with firepower and shields as strong as you can make them. Understood?”

“Aye, sir,” they said again.

“Lafferty. Contact your friends at Starfleet Medical. I want anything you can get for Sickbay. Have it shipped to Deep Space Five. Whatever you can get, get it. T'Maya. You already know what to do. Keep doing it.”

Rapidly he gave out orders. Jackie went off Sickbay rotation unless she was absolutely needed – she would be acting as a counsellor full time. Shannon, Carly, and Barbara resigned themselves to twelve or eighteen-hour days for the foreseeable future, and T'Maya rather looked as if she was going to investigate just how long a Vulcan could go without sleep. Kimura Hana scheduled everything down to the minute – she would have to manage not only her nurses but her doctors as well, considering the medical propensity to push themselves until they collapsed and then just get up and keep going.

Barbara, however, had it from both ends. Not only would she be working with Shannon on the weapons systems, she would also spend hours with her captain drawing up new battle tactics – not to mention drills that would teach the crew those new battle tactics until they couldn't think straight any more.

They'd thought the border was out of the frying pan and into the fire.

They'd had no clue what they were talking about.

And Barbara, who had never quailed from combat in her life, wasn't sure she wanted to find out.

 

Chapter Text

(mid 2373)

“Fuss and feathers,” muttered a cranky Barbara to herself as she adjusted her tartan sash over her right shoulder, “positively make my blood run cold.” So saying, she examined herself one last time in the mirror.

Hate fuss and feathers she might, but not even Barbara Havers could manage to look terrible in Highland Dress uniform. The tartan skirts picked up the Command red and gold piping of her uniform dress jacket rather nicely, and she briefly blessed her Murray ancestors for having the good sense to hail from Tullibardine and therefore grant her a tartan that didn’t clash terribly with Starfleet colours. The fact that her Scottish ancestry meant she was all but required to wear Highland Dress – and therefore skirts – in the first place, of course, was another matter, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to be entirely angry when the complete outfit made her look this good.

Somewhere, she knew, Margery Louise Murray Havers was smiling. Little Linty, she could hear her mother’s voice saying, I’m so proud you remember where you came from. She had to laugh a little at the nickname that hadn’t been used in years – a name that played on her middle name of Lynne and the small, sweet-sounding Highland songbird called a linnet, or linty. As much as she’d grumbled, some small part of her had been glad to have that connection to her mother’s people – as a part of her was glad, now, to be wearing her mother’s tartan.

The knock on her door startled her out of her reverie, and she called an absent “Come!” as she brushed the last of her now shoulder-length hair into place and eyed herself critically; the French twist, she thought, would have been too severe were it not for the sideswept fringe that brushed her forehead.

“Is everything ready, Cap- sir, are you all right?” She turned around as she spoke, noticing that Lynley hadn’t moved – had, in fact, stopped dead in the doorway, arrested in place at the sight of his exec in full Highland dress.

All he could do was stand there gaping at the sight of her. He had never considered her unattractive by any means – those dreamy eyes of hers could make a monk look twice – but her idea of dressing up was running a brush through her hair, or, now that it had grown longer, braiding it instead of scraping it into her normal ponytail. Not that he cared, particularly, considering what she was to him – but it was her personality that sparkled in his mind when he thought of her, not her looks. He’d noticed her eyes right off the bat, not to mention that pert little nose and the near-perfect heart shape of her face, but he’d been rather busy keeping himself from falling over at the jolt of destiny and home he’d felt the first time he looked in her eyes to consider her relative attractiveness, and when he’d bothered to consider that he’d thought her reasonably pretty but known he’d seen far more beautiful women in his life.

Or at least, he had until he saw Barbara Lynne Havers with her hair twisted up in some complicated knot, strawberry gold brushing her forehead, dress jacket with gold piping absolutely immaculate, and the Murray tartan skirts blossoming out from her hips and falling softly to the floor. Even the nervousness on her face – nervousness that he saw as terribly endearing – and the awkward clutch of her hand in her skirts couldn’t make him think her anything less than the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

Oh, he thought with bemusement. She really is impossibly gorgeous, along with being the most important person in my life. It is entirely possible that I am thoroughly screwed. Because even if her hair went back to its normal tousled glory the next day, he would never forget the sight of her in formal dress, looking like beauty incarnate.

“Barbara, you look –“

“-like I actually made an effort? I didn’t have a choice. Damn diplomats. I –”

He cut her off at the pass. “You’re beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”

She blushed bright red. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not.” He strode forward to take her chin in his hand, then looked her square in the eye. “Barbara Lynne Havers, it will be nothing but a privilege to have you on my arm tonight.”

“I. Um.” He should have been offended by her stammered disbelief, but he knew her too well. One of these days, he thought to himself in exasperation, I shall teach the woman to take a compliment.

For now, however, he merely rescued her from her own self-consciousness, saying simply, “Shall we meet up with the others?”

She smiled in relief, and they made their way to the ready room where the rest of the senior staff was waiting. He calls me beautiful, she thought a little crossly, when I’m in the same room as the likes of Shannon and Carly!

The women in question were seated on the sofa, laughing at something-or-other, and Barbara couldn’t help but smile as an obviously besotted Shannon pressed a kiss to her partner’s wildly unruly curls. Carly herself was wearing skirts – hers in standard black – and had left her hair loose, allowing it to rain down around her shoulders. The ever-practical Shannon had opted for trousers instead, her own long blonde hair braided and coiled to keep it out of her way. Barbara grinned at the pretty picture they made, then crossed the room to sit beside them and gossip about the upcoming “fuss and feathers” – Shannon, at least, hated the idea as much as Barbara did, and they complained loudly and melodramatically as a laughing Carly tried to convince them that “It won’t be that bad, really!”

Just then T’Maya swept in, regal in the Vulcan formal dress she wore as a representative of the Vulcan Science Academy. Apparently, not all the crew were going as Starfleet to this whatever-it-was. (When Barbara had rather tartly asked her captain why Starfleet Command was throwing a diplomatic thingy-ma-jig in the middle of a war, he had simply thrown back his head and laughed for five minutes straight. She decided ignorance was bliss and didn’t ask again, although she was later informed – not by Lynley – that it was an affirmation of the renewed Federation-Klingon alliance, which Barbara grudgingly admitted was far from the worst excuse for a party she’d ever heard.)

Sonak entered, dressed like his bondmate in Vulcan formals, and extended two fingers to T’Maya. She brushed her fingers over his, gently, familiarly, her eyes as soft as Barbara had ever seen them.

For a moment, she was almost jealous – but then she remembered the way Lynley had looked at her, and life seemed just a little less lonely.

Stephen followed close behind, and she blushed tomato red as he stumbled to a halt, clutching the doorframe, at the sight of her.

“Too much to drink, Woodrow?” she called, unable to resist teasing him a little.

“Not enough, Commander!” he shot back. “It should be illegal for you to look that good.”

“Shut up, you!” she retorted in turn, but she was grinning fit to burst.

Okay, maybe she could get used to this whole ‘dressing up’ thing.

They left a few minutes later, leaving a relieved Nkata in command, and soon the banquet hall at Starbase Seven swirled into life around them.

They were greeted by Admiral Nechayev, who immediately yanked Barbara into a hug so tight she squeaked. But she held on just as tightly; for over two decades, Alynna had been the mother Barbara had sorely needed, and seeing her now was a breath of fresh air.

When Alynna finally let go, Barbara turned with a beaming smile to greet the curly-haired woman standing next to her. “Aunt Katie!” she said in a breathy, girlish voice she hadn’t used in years, and leaned in to kiss the older woman’s cheek as they gripped hands with perhaps a bit more intensity than usual.

Katherine Pulaski put her hands on Barbara’s shoulders, saying briskly, “Let me look at you, girl. And what have I told you about using that name?”

“Not to do it, Aunt Katie,” she responded impishly.

“You always were a disobedient chit,” Pulaski told Barbara tartly. “God knows what I see in you, considering your absolute lack of manners. Or were you planning to introduce me to the poor fellows unlucky enough to be stuck with you?”

Barbara’s shoulders straightened at once. “I beg your pardon, Doctor. Admiral Nechayev, Dr Pulaski, may I present Captain Thomas Lynley of the USS Providence. Captain, Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Starfleet Command, and her partner Dr Katherine Pulaski, Head of Starfleet Medical.”

“A pleasure as always, Admiral,” said Lynley, shaking Alynna’s hand.

“And you, Lynley,” the admiral replied. “Have you met Katherine?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure, no.”

“Well, I’d like the pleasure,” said Pulaski, who had a wicked smile on her face. “I’d like to meet the man who taught our Barbara manners.” And the doctor ignored the deadly glare Barbara was sending her way.

“Commander Havers has been nothing but a pleasure to work with...” Nechayev and Pulaski snorted in unison, and Lynley coughed. “That is to say, the Commander is an exceptionally capable officer with definite opinions, and I am incredibly glad to have her on board.”

Alynna and Katherine grinned identical evil smiles, and Barbara cut in before this humiliation could go much further. “Admiral, Doctor, may I present some of Providence’s senior staff? Lieutenant Commander Carly Doherty of Engineering, her partner Lieutenant Commander Shannon Reed of Tactical, Lieutenant Stephen Woodrow of Operations, Lieutenant Commander T’Maya cha’Soral of the Vulcan Science Academy, and her bondmate Dr Sonak cha’Salok, also of the Vulcan Science Academy.”

“A pleasure to meet all of you,” Nechayev told them, as she and Pulaski shook hands with the human officers and saluted the Vulcans in the traditional style.

They were interrupted then by a tall redhead in science blue, who tapped Katherine on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Kate,” she said in a musical voice, “may I borrow you for a moment?”

“Of course, Beverly,” Katherine replied. “Barbara, Captain Lynley, this is Doctor Beverly Crusher of –”

“– the Enterprise,” sighed Barbara, Shannon, and Carly in unison.

Beverly smiled, clearly amused, as the trio swooned over the new, state-of-the-art Sovereign-class flagship, and Katherine grinned. “Beverly, Captain Thomas Lynley and Commander Barbara Havers of the Providence, and their senior staff – including Carly Doherty of Engineering and Shannon Reed of Tactical.”

Beverly’s eyes lit in recognition. “You three can bombard Data and Geordi with questions later, I promise. You’ll have to remind me to introduce you later. For now, though, Alynna, I have to steal your date.”

“Of course, Beverly. Give Jean-Luc my best.”

“Will do.” And with that, the two doctors vanished into the crowd.

Barbara found herself swept away by Shannon, who dragged her over to a group of Shannon's Academy classmates. The dozen or so men and women plied her with questions despite her laughing protests, and she found herself lost in conversation as she forgot everything but the pleasure of strategy and tactics.

It was some time later, then, when she looked up to see Lynley, with a look of absolute panic in his eyes, conversing with a dark-haired woman in civilian dress and a man in the same. He caught her eyes from across the room, and they pleaded one thing – get me out of here!

“Excuse me,” she said to the officers around her, and crossed the room.

“Sir,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder, “Admiral Nechayev would like your opinion on a battle plan she and Admiral Hayes are discussing, shall I tell her you're otherwise engaged?”

“No, of course not. One should never refuse a superior officer, Commander,” he informed her with a definite twinkle in his eye, and she resisted the urge to smack him. “Helen, Rhys, please excuse me.”

“Of course, Tommy,” the woman – Helen? - said, and the man nodded his agreement.

Tommy? Barbara couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at that – if she knew him that well, why did he want to escape so badly?

But of course, she didn't have to wait long to find out.

“Thank you for the rescue,” he said gratefully when they were some distance away. “I wasn't sure if my message would get through all right.”

“Oh, it got through,” she grumped, more for form's sake than anything else. “It almost burst my eardrum – if looks could burst an eardrum, anyway. The point is, you looked like you were facing three hours of paperwork. How could I not help? It was pathetic.”

“I felt pathetic. I'm a Starfleet Captain, one woman should not make me feel like a fourteen-year-old schoolboy.”

“Feel free to tell me to mind my own business, sir,” she said, “but who was she?”

He sighed, then looked around for an empty corner and tugged her over to a conversation nook that was hidden from the main ballroom.

“That is Helen Davies-Jones, née Clyde. We were...” He let out a long breath and continued. “She was my fiancée, back at the Academy. She was in medical school, I was at the Academy – it worked, for awhile. But she couldn't take it, the long separations. I came back from my first deployment to find she'd married another man – Rhys, the man I was talking to.”

“Oh, God,” she whispered, eyes wide.

“I did love her,” he went on, “and she did love me, but – it wasn't enough. I found that if I'd had to choose between her and space – and I would have had to choose – I would have chosen space. I did choose space.”

“But you shouldn't have had to choose,” said Barbara, voice hard. “No one who really love- loved you would make you choose. Not when space is part of who you are. How could she claim to love you, and not see that?”

Some peculiar note was in her voice, he noticed. A little too much indignation, a hint of obscure pain he couldn't identify. She was -

She was angry, he realised, angry with Helen for not understanding him – no defence, no insistence that it would have been too much to ask for a woman to let her husband risk his life in the depths of space. Just a plain statement that anyone who truly loved him would let him take the risk, understanding him the way no one else ever had, except perhaps Katey who was as much his sister as Judith...

Oh, hell, he thought suddenly, as he met those fervent eyes again, Barbara's eyes. Barbara who understood him, Barbara who challenged him, Barbara who stood beside him with trust and respect and affection, Barbara who was his comfort and his strength and his dearest friend.

Barbara, who could be all that and more – how had he been so blind?

He was in love with his first officer, had been in love with her since the Badlands.

And, he realised as his heart broke, it was impossible, because even if she would consider a relationship with a superior officer – why him? They screamed at each other as often as anything else. When she had Woodrow and Nkata – who plainly adored her – right there, who were her friends, who didn't make her huff and stalk out of the room, who she didn't call ten kinds of idiot every day – why would she want him?

No, it was impossible. But that was all right. This – what they had – it was more than he'd ever expected. If this was all he'd have, he'd take what he could get.

“Sir,” said Barbara – how long had he been thinking, anyway? Was it minutes? Seconds? Hours? - “are you all right?”

“I'm fine, Barbara,” he said, and smiled. “But I think it's time I headed back. Do you want to stay?”

“No,” she said fervently, shaking her head. “I am all partied out, sir. Let's go see what Nkata's done with the ship, shall we?”

“Perish the thought,” he muttered, and she laughed.

Together they walked over to Helen and Rhys, who were conversing quietly, leaning against a wall.

“Helen,” he said, “I'm afraid I must be off.”

“Oh,” she said, and looked genuinely disappointed. “Will you at least introduce me to your companion?”

“Of course. Helen, my first officer, Commander Havers. Barbara, Dr Helen Rhys-Davies, civilian advisor to Starfleet Medical.”

“Pleasure,” said Barbara, and even managed not to sound rude.

“To meet you as well,” said Helen, and turned to Lynley. “Are you sure you won't stay, Tommy?” she asked, half pleading. “It's been ages since we've had a chance to catch up.”

“I'm sorry, Helen,” he said, and he even sounded regretful. “Duty calls.”

“Of course,” she said, and her smile was just a little wistful. “Stay safe.”

“I will,” he said, and looked at her one last time.

He looked at the dark-haired woman whom he had loved as a young man – he had wanted to be her champion, her knight in shining armour. She had given him support and friendship, dared him to dream of the stars. But she couldn’t take the uncertainty that came with marriage to a Starfleet officer bound for captaincy; nor could she understand why his ship would always be his lady.

Looking at her now, he realised that he would always be grateful to her for what she had given him during university and during the Academy. She had given him something worth fighting for, and for that he would always remember her. But now, that time was gone, and it was never coming back.

With a sigh, he let Helen Davies-Jones, née Clyde, go at last.

Then he looked at the ginger-haired woman by his side. She had taught him to trust, taught him to delegate, made him consider all the options. She had stood by him whatever the cost, and told him precisely what she thought whether she agreed with him or not; she had never failed him when he put his trust in her, and without her unflagging support, her unflagging trust and devotion, he knew he would have never survived the past two years. She considered herself bound by duty as much as he, and never apologised for it; she never looked askance when he put his duty first, and, in fact, would lend him a hand without so much as a by-your-leave, somehow knowing just what he needed her to do. Barbara was her own champion; she wielded her own sword and fought her own battles, and allowed him to champion her only when she could champion him in turn.

He looked at the ginger-haired woman by his side, the woman he now knew he loved beyond reason – who he would love for the rest of his life, who he wanted so badly he could taste it – and smiled.

She may not feel what he does – but he knew without a doubt she felt something, something that has led her to trust him in a way she has never trusted before.

It’s enough. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was enough, and more than enough.

She was enough.

“Goodbye, Helen,” he said, and walked into the crowd, Barbara at his side.

~*~

Just days later, the red alert siren blared. Barbara spilled onto the bridge with her toothbrush in one hand and her toothpaste in the other, but as soon as she heard the report, she threw them both in the recycler and swallowed hard.

“The Borg have invaded Federation space! All ships within response range, please rendezvous in the Typhon Sector immediately! I repeat, the Borg have invaded Federation Space! Please rendezvous in the Typhon Sector immediately!”

“Oh, shit,” she whispered, and landed hard in the exec's chair.

“I couldn't have said it better myself,” said Lynley grimly, and sat next to her.

The next few hours were a confused jumble of reports and bad news.

“Main power is offline!”

“Weapons Bay 3 is destroyed!”

“Consoles exploding in Engineering!”

“We're on a pursuit course to Earth! All available ships, please respond!”

“We need reinforcements!”

“Admiral Hayes' ship has been destroyed! No reports on survivors!”

“The Defiant is losing life support! Appalachia, Endeavour, Budapest, Madison, and Thunderchild are out of the action! Prepare for-”

“Sir,” blurted Nkata from Ops, “another ship is approaching. It's... sir, it's the Enterprise!!”

They were saved.

“The Enterprise,” whispered Lynley, and gripped Barbara's hand hard as the enormous Sovereign-class flagship swooped in like an avenging angel. “Oh, thank God!”

And then the comm chimed, and a familiar voice sounded in clear over the tac channel.

“This is Captain Picard of the Enterprise,” said that famous voice. “I am taking command of the fleet. Target all of your weapons onto the following coordinates. Fire at my command.”

“Standing by,” said Nkata, breathless. “Shannon, you've got it?”

“Got it!” she called, eyes bright.

“Fire,” whispered Picard's voice.

The remainder of the fleet loosed their weapons in concert. At first, they seemed to do nothing, but then -


-- boom.

They saw the Enterprise tear off in hot pursuit of something that had been launched from the ship before it exploded, but frankly, they didn't really care. The Enterprise crew, fresh and whole, could deal with it. For Providence, all that was left was the mopping-up.

~*~

She was going to kill Admiral Taylor.

She was going to kill Admiral Taylor very, very dead, and then bring her back to clean up the mess.

“We can't tell you where he's going, Barbara. Only that his chances aren't good. But we don't have anyone else who can do what he can do.”

“You can't tell me,” she said sceptically. “Why not?”

“Because it's Section 31 business,” said Lynley heavily from beside her.

She flinched as if she'd been struck. “You're Section 31?” she whispered in disbelief.

“Not any more,” he said, still tired. “I used to work with them, when I was fresh out of the Academy. But younger, fresher talent came along, and I left. But there is no leaving. If they need you, they'll call you. And they're calling. I have to go, Barbara. I have to go. I can't ask why, and neither can you. I need you,” he said firmly, looking in her eyes, “to trust me as you have never trusted me before. I will come home, Barbara.”

“You had better,” was all she could say, and walked to her room.

She didn’t normally listen to Broadway, and especially not Broadway nearly three centuries old. But now, facing the end of the first time she’d ever truly been happy, she had to reach for the music.

Nothing is so good it lasts eternally
Perfect situations must go wrong
But this has never yet prevented me
Wanting far too much for far too long...

Oh, God, it hurt. She’d never even had him, and now she was losing him.

No one in your life is with you constantly
No one is completely on your side
And though I moved my world to be with him
Still the gap between us is too wide...

Looking back I could have played it differently
Learned about the man before I fell
But I was ever so much younger then
Now at least I know I know him well...

Even now, she couldn’t let the tears come. How stupid had she been, to let herself feel this way? Feel this way for the man who would take a suicide mission because it was his duty, and because the thought of saying no would never cross his mind? How stupid had she been, to fall in love with her captain – the one man she could never, ever have? And how stupid had she been, to fall in love in the middle of a war, when she could least afford it?

Stupid, Barbara. So, so stupid...

Shaking, she curled tighter into herself, and faced her worst nightmare.

...isn’t it madness, he won’t be mine?
Didn’t I know how it would go?
If I knew from the start
Why am I falling apart?
Wasn’t it good? Wasn’t he fine?
Isn’t it madness, he won’t be mine?

But in the end he needs a little bit more than me
More security; he needs his fantasy and freedom
I know him so well...

Stupid man, with that thrice-damned hero complex! She should be grateful, she knew, that she had known him at all – but she couldn’t be gracious, couldn’t be noble, not tonight. Tonight she wanted to be selfish, to grieve for what she was losing and for what could, now, never happen – it had been impossible before, but at least there had been the fantasy. Now, though –

How was she supposed to face this?

And worst of all, she loved him all the more for going. Three years ago she never would have understood why, and now – now the thought of him doing anything else was inconceivable.

Damn the man.

If she lost him – and losing him was all but certain – it would break her. Not kill her, certainly – oh, no, life could not be that kind. She would survive and she would do her duty, and she would do it because to do anything else would be an insult to his memory.

But it would break her.

And if she asked him to stay, she would never be able to face him again.

It took time to understand him
I know him so well...

The pain that came was sharp, unbearable, lancing through her, and it hurt to breathe.

Floating from the half-forgotten memory of her childhood and days in the local comprehensive, a fragment of a poem floated back to her. ‘What will they find,’ she thought in despair, ‘when I am ripped apart? ‘I love you, Captain, written on my heart.’’

Oh, God.

Finally, unbidden, unwanted, the scant few tears she could find the strength to muster fell at last.

~*~

“You had better come back.”

“I promised, didn't I?”

“Well pardon me,” she said tartly, “if I'd like proof of that for myself!”

“What is it, Barbara?” he asked softly. “You've been distant ever since I got the assignment. I don't want to part from you on bad terms, certainly not with the risks. Are you angry at me for going?”

“No! Yes, I... Yes, I am, but that's not it.”

“Then what is it?” he pressed. “Why is this affecting you so much? I'm your captain, yes, but you know how duty is. You know that. So why has all that gone out the window this time?”

She couldn't take it any more. She exploded.

“Because I’m in love with you, you bloody idiot!” She whirled, about to stalk off, when she felt a firm hand on her shoulder bringing her back around to face him.

“I’m sorry, Commander. Could you...”

“Ugh. You are impossible! I said I’m in love with you. Head-over-heels, arse-over-teakettle, helplessly, irrevocably, and very-much-against-my-will in love with you! As if I could be anything else, you stupid, thick-headed, oblivious man, with your compassion and your perfect hair and your ridiculous smile and the way you won’t sleep or eat until you know your crew is safe! I hated you, hated you and everything you stood for, and then I met you and fell in love with you, and damned if you’re not the one man I could stand to spend the rest of my life with, because damn it all but I want you so much I can’t breathe. After everything we’ve shared, after all we’ve become to each other, how could I not, no matter how impossible it is? I’d give you everything, damn you, never mind whether or not you felt the same, for as long as I could serve with you! And here I am, your First Officer, waiting for you to go off and get yourself killed, and God knows I couldn’t keep it to myself! No! And now you’re going to go and come back safe, aren’t you, just to be stubborn, and you’ll refuse to forget I said anything at all! And of course the thought of you dying without knowing still hurts worse than every other what-if scenario I can think up! If you think I’m happy about this, you’re dreaming!

He blinked. “Oh,” he said, as if that explained everything – which it did, really.

And then it sank in.

Barbara loved him.

Barbara loved him.

Barbara loved him.

And, from the sound of it, she had loved him for quite some time.

He should have seen it before. Should have seen it in the way she trusted him, in the way she looked at him, in the way she followed him. All the signs were there; he just hadn’t been able to read them, because he had been too afraid to believe she could possibly love him in the way he loved her.

Until now.

I am, he thought as he reached out to yank her into his arms, an idiot of the highest degree.

But behind the chagrin of time lost, and the feeling of a puzzle locking together at last, was a crashing wave of jubilation that left him almost afraid to breathe. There was no music, or there shouldn’t have been, but somewhere inside his heart, a choir of a thousand voices was trumpeting the Hallelujah Chorus – or was it Nessun Dorma? Whatever it was – he really didn’t give a flying fuck at this point about anything except kissing the breath from her lungs as soon as humanly possible – it was soaring out, a thundering anthem, symphonic and joyous and triumphant. He was convinced, quite suddenly, that joy this intense couldn’t possibly be survivable, and then he noticed his hands – his whole body, actually – shaking like a runabout in an ion storm. He honestly thought he might shake to pieces if he didn’t get his mouth on hers right this very instant.

“And if you think I’m going to –“

“Barbara? Do shut up.”

“Did you just tell me to - mmmph!”

All right, he managed to think before he got so completely drunk on the taste of her he couldn’t see straight, I am never shutting her up any other way ever again.

She stiffened for a moment, startled to the point of incoherence – couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe – and then it sank in that Thomas Lynley was kissing her, oh holy Jesus fuck, and she made a shocked little noise in the back of her throat before throwing her arms around his neck and unabashedly melting into the thrill of his mouth ravishing hers. She could have sworn she was out, unprotected, in the middle of a lighting storm. Every nerve she had was ablaze with want, and holy Mother, if he stopped this she was going to kill him. Never mind that this was Bad, Very Bad – oh, God, she might as well have been asking for more grief and heartbreak, now that she knew he felt the same – she didn’t give a damn. She’d take the pain if it meant she could have this memory too.

And he didn’t seem inclined to stop – not at all, not ever. Any pretence at dignity had long since fled. He had hauled her into his arms and was kissing her like he’d never get a second chance, and she abandoned any attempt she might have made to convince herself – and him – that she hadn’t been wanting this, waiting for this, for years. From the way he was plundering her mouth she almost began to hope that the feeling was mutual; his fingers were tangling in her hair, he had one arm hooked under the curve of her arse, and her feet had long since left the floor, leaving her dangling helplessly in his grip – not that she was much inclined to break away. Her mouth opened under his with an urgent, keening cry, and for the first time in her life she gave herself up in complete surrender to her own overwhelming desire.

She barely noticed when he hoisted her even higher, lifting her as though she weighed nothing at all, and she instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist as one hand came down to support her and – oh, that was his hand on her rear – she keened low in her throat. The next thing she knew he had her pinned up against the wall, grinding his hips into hers, and something deep inside her uncoiled as he demanded control, demanded trust; she took a deep breath and let herself go as he dominated her completely, and the relief of giving herself up to him was immeasurable. Any attempt at control, of the kiss or of herself, had long since fled – she didn’t care, couldn’t care, about anything else when she was in his arms this way – and so she kissed him back with everything in her and just held on. He was shaking under her hands, shaking as badly as she was, and though nothing else could have convinced her of the undeniable reality of this moment, that did it.

He felt it the minute she gave herself up to him, and the feel of her – soft, sweet, warm in his arms and kissing him like she was dying for every touch and starving for every stuttered breath – left him shocked to the core, out of his mind with what she was giving him after so long, and what he couldn’t help but give her in return.

He honestly believed his world would end if he stopped kissing her for even a moment.

And he honestly believed that if he kept kissing her, his world would end anyway.

I should have known, he thought dazedly, that she would be as passionate in this as she is in everything she does. She never could love by halves...

He knew, in that moment, that he would come back to her alive, because no Dominion, no Cardassia, and no damn suicide mission was going to stand in the way of him loving her until the end of the universe.

Then he felt her clutch reflexively at his shirt, felt her pull away to breathe only to come right back in for more like she just couldn’t bear to stop, and all thought fled as he held her impossibly closer and simply drowned in her.

When he finally pulled back from kissing her into a weak-kneed puddle of goo, she’d been reduced to incoherent babbling and could only stand there, dazed, panting for breath, gazing dreamily into his eyes and feeling like nothing so much as a love-struck schoolgirl. She barely even noticed when he braced both hands on her shoulders.

“Down to business, Commander. Number one: you are not under any circumstances requesting a transfer. Number two: if you think I’m going to forget about this, you’re dead wrong – I’ve been waiting for this for months, if not longer. And number three: I am not deranged, and I have not taken leave of my senses. I-“

Wait.

This wasn’t going at all according to the script. He had been supposed to politely explain that he saw her as nothing more than a friend, no matter how close they might have become. He was not supposed to systematically shut down every escape route she could come up with, although why she wanted to escape this she couldn’t really remember. And he most certainly was not supposed to kiss her like he’d been waiting for it his entire life.

Because that kiss couldn’t be mistaken for anything but what it was, and not even she, as pessimistic, cynical and unsure of herself as she was, could convince herself that he hadn’t meant that kiss and those words with everything in him.

After all, she thought, half laughing at herself for stating the obvious, we could never have come to this point, this moment, this kiss, if we didn’t trust each other absolutely and without question. Command, rules, regulations – damn them all. If he wants me, if he really wants me, I wouldn’t say no even if I wanted to. And I really, really don’t want to...

But the joy could only last so long. Want her he might, but that didn’t erase what he was about to do. And now he’d gone and changed the rules on her – and it was that, more than anything, that brought her back to a very painful reality involving her Captain – her love, the love of her life, her everything – taking off on a hare-brained scheme he most likely would not survive.

Shaken out of her reverie, she laid a trembling finger against his lips. “No. Don’t you dare. Not now. Not like this. You come back to me, and you tell me. You tell me then. Do you hear me, Captain? You come back to me. If you’re really going to say what I’m hoping against hope you’re going to say – if you really mean it – you’ll come back to me, and you’ll look me in the eyes, and you’ll tell me then. And not a minute before.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but she shook her head once, fiercely, and he caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes, ready to spill over. It was that, more than anything else, that convinced him. He’d come back to her, just as he always had, just as he always will. And he’d tell her then.

“Barbara,” he said quietly. “When I come back – when I ask you to be mine, and make no mistake, I will ask you – I will be asking for everything you can give. If you say yes, there is no escape. Once I have you, I won’t be able to let you go. I won’t be able to walk away. This is it, Barbara. You are my forever.”

“I don’t want an escape,” she replied with surety. “Now or ever. I said yes a long time ago. I know the risks, I know the cost, and for whatever time we have, I want to be with you.”

Oh...

“You really love me.” It was a breathless question, so aching she could cry.

Her hand drifted helplessly to his face, and he turned his cheek into the contact, just a little.

Oh, God, now she really was going to cry.

“Yes,” she whispered at last, and she could give him nothing but the truth of her own heart. “God help me, yes. You are it for me. There will never be, could never be, anyone else. It’s you. It has always been you. I love you with everything I am, and with every breath I love you more.”

He kissed her palm then, soft and sweet, trembling under her hands, before he cupped her chin in a touch so tender she had to struggle not to melt. “Then, my Barbara-lynne, I will come back to you. And you will hear me say those words in return. On everything I am, on everything I’ve ever stood for, I swear that to you. Kerensa.” The old Cornish endearment slipped through, unnoticed, as he swore himself to her. “I will come back to you.”

The hell of it was, she believed him. That didn’t stop the fear, but God help her, she believed him.

“Yes you will,” she told him, her voice unflinching, the immeasurable love behind it unmistakable, and her strength a display that reminds him forcibly just why he loves this woman with everything he is. “Yes, you will, because I love you more than I have ever loved anyone, or will ever love anyone again. Because I love you more than I knew I was capable of loving anyone, ever. Because you’re you, and you can fucking well do this and come back to me alive. And because I swear to you, Thomas Alexander Lynley,” and her eyes were too-bright, fervent and glittering, “I swear to you that if you get yourself killed on this, I will kill you myself.”

“Understood,” he whispered, and his own eyes were shouting I love you too with everything in him, all the truth in the world, as they stared at each other for a time out of time.

“You’ll be with me,” he blurted suddenly, pressing a fervent, passionate kiss to her forehead before he touched his brow to hers. “You’ll be with me, every step and every heartbeat. Barbara...” And his voice trailed off as words failed him. “You will be with me.”

Closing her eyes, she breathed him in, the heady scent of evergreen and misty Cornwall moors and something that was simply him that always, always left her dizzy, and let herself postpone the inevitable for just a little while longer.

Five minutes later she exited his ready room with dry eyes and her head held high, a half step behind her captain, though she would never know how she managed it.

They didn’t speak any more than necessary in the fifteen minutes they had before the away team boarded the transporter pad. But as the transporter beam began to shimmer around him, he caught her eyes one last time.

“This isn’t over, Commander.”

She didn’t have the strength to speak.

You had better be right, Captain. You had just better be right.

 

Chapter Text

She was, to put it simply, a complete bitch for the month he was gone. Captain Lynley’s absence left her with a hot itch under her skin that wouldn’t go away, twisting and coiling and leaving her unable to sit still. She snarled at everyone, made Carly cry – cool, collected, oh-so-reliable Carly! – and found herself on the receiving end of Shannon’s fury for it, ending up banned not just from Engineering but from the stardrive itself except in a dire emergency.

She dealt with it by working herself half to death. She would be on the bridge for twenty-four hours at a stretch, then she’d catnap, off and on, for maybe four hours before she would get up and do it all over again, all on as little food as she could manage to eat and still keep going. And though some distant part of her knew that Lynley would have her hide if he knew, she just didn’t care.

I can do whatever I damn please, she snarled to herself as she ordered yet another weapons exercise, because the only thing that made her feel better these days was blowing things up. He saw fit to go off to die and leave me in charge here, so he can just go stuff himself, the bastard. And she bared her teeth in a grim mockery of a smile as yet another asteroid exploded into a shower of rubble from the force of Providence’s torpedoes.

It all came to a head three weeks in, when they received word that the team had not been heard from for three days running and was therefore considered lost with all members. No rescue would be attempted – the Federation could not afford the repercussions if word got out that this mission had even happened.

Barbara’s wrath was a terrible thing to see. She went chalk white at the report, so colourless Woodrow was afraid she would collapse on the spot, but she did no such thing. Instead she spent an hour in the ready room screaming obscenities in Admiral Taylor’s face, or a reasonable approximation thereof on the console. Fortunately Admiral Taylor was well enough acquainted with Barbara Havers to not take her diatribe personally, and she looked on with a certain amount of amazement at Barbara’s creativity while Barbara rather graphically suggested several places Starfleet Command could shove their lack of a rescue mission, most of which were not only anatomically impossible but also absolutely disgusting. She followed this up by giving the admiral a lurid and inventive account of said admiral’s probable ancestors, not a one of which seemed to belong to any sentient or even remotely attractive species in the known reaches of the galaxy. Then she stormed onto the bridge, threw herself down in the Captain’s chair, and ordered a course set, maximum warp, for the Cardassian system.

“Let me get this straight, ma’am,” said Woodrow, with not a trace of his usual flirtatiousness. “You have no idea where they are or what’s happened to them, or even if you’re heading to the right system, but you intend to throw this entire ship and its crew away, not to mention risk sparking an interstellar war when we’re already in the middle of one, just to get Captain Lynley back. Even though he’s most likely - ” and here he gulped audibly, because he still couldn’t believe it, “already gone.”

“I would tear the universe apart to save that man,” Barbara declared, her eyes throwing off sparks, but something deep within her knew it was a lie even as she said it. Oh, she would have done that and more, but duty had a hold on her she couldn’t break – not even for him. She could feel the crawling shame of Lynley’s disappointed eyes on her even as she spoke, and she knew her orders were fruitless, but oh, God, she wanted to believe she’d do it, and even more, she didn’t want to have to make the choice.

Please, save me! her mind screamed in helpless, impotent fury.

“Even though he’d kill you himself if he knew.”

Well he should have bloody thought of that before he went off to throw his thrice-damned life away, shouldn’t he!!” she bellowed with such ferocity the junior officers on the bridge cowered, and even Woodrow flinched, seeing the shattered cry for help in her desperate eyes.

“Stuart,” the helmsman said quietly, after a long moment, “it’s time.”

Lafferty arrived on the run, a hypo loaded with sedative in his hand. He hated to have this confrontation on the bridge, of all places – but only Woodrow was left, anyway, as the junior officers had tactfully retreated to the briefing room, knowing this was no place for them.

He approached her as he would a wild animal, something he was afraid to spook because he knew she’d fight if provoked. “I can’t let you do this, Barbara,” he told her quietly, friend to friend. “And I know you don’t want to do it, either. You’re exhausted and you’re grieving, you can’t bring him back and you can’t believe he’s gone. But you have to know, if he can find a way, he’ll come back to you. He always does, yeah?” His voice was gentle, soothing, as he reached out to put a tentative hand on her arm – and, miracle of miracles, she didn’t push him away, didn’t panic. “Have you been sleeping, Barbara? I hear you’re up here close to twenty hours a day. No wonder you’re so tired, love. You’ve half killed yourself since he’s been gone – don’t you think it’s time to relax?”

No!” she shrieked suddenly, throwing his hand off and shoving him so hard he tumbled to the floor. “He’s gone, they won’t save him, no one will help, don’t you see, I have to do something!!”

Woodrow moved in then, crowding her against the seats, giving her no escape. “We won’t let you, Barbara. I know how much this is hurting you and I know how furious you are that Starfleet isn’t doing anything. And I know you don’t trust anyone right now, least of all the two of us, because we’re standing in your way, standing between you and him. But trust him, Barbara. Trust him to come back to you. I’ve seen the two of you together, there’s nothing you won’t trust him with – so trust him with this. Trust him to come back to you alive. Because he will, Barbara, as long as you have faith in him.”

All the fight went out of her then; she collapsed, boneless, into Stephen’s arms, body shaking with tears she couldn’t shed. Lafferty moved, lightning fast; the hypo hissed against her neck, and thirty seconds later she was still.

She woke up eighteen hours later in Sickbay, dazed, disoriented, and close to tears.

She wished she couldn’t remember what had happened on the bridge, wished she couldn’t remember her desperate order and the subsequent fallout.

But she could.

“How long did you drug me for?” she demanded half-heartedly of Jackie Kelley, who was standing in the doorway regarding her with half-amused eyes.

“About an hour,” the counsellor told her tartly. “The rest of it was all you, Commander. You’re lucky I’m not Lafferty, by the way. He was a hair’s breadth away from suspending you and giving Woodrow command.” She raised a hand at the outraged look on Barbara’s face. “I managed to convince him you’d be fine after some sleep and a little common sense. But you’re still off duty for another six hours. And you get to have a session with me before you’re allowed to walk back onto that bridge.”

Barbara rolled over, buried her face in her pillow, and groaned. Rather loudly.

“Hey. Counsellors aren’t all bad.”

“But they want me to talk. About my feelings. I don’t want to talk about my feelings. Particularly not with a shrink. I can deal with my feelings just fine, thank you.”

“Clearly,” remarked Jackie, raising an eyebrow, “you can’t, Commander. Or you wouldn’t be here.”

Barbara glared. “Fine. But don’t expect me to be happy about it.”

“Commander,” said Jackie, “if you were happy about it, I would be asking myself who you were and what you had done with Commander Havers.”

She sulked through the rest of the week, of course. Jackie might be her friend Jackie, but she was also Counsellor Kelley, and Counsellor Kelley was entirely too perceptive for her own good. It took her ten minutes to figure out the cause of Barbara's distress, and another twenty to calm Barbara down after she burst into tears thinking about it.

But then they got the call.

“We found them,” said Admiral Taylor, face white. “Their communications had been knocked out, but they're alive – most of them, anyway. The Hillary Clinton is on her way to your coordinates as we speak.”

“Ma'am,” said Nkata, “sensors detect a ship approaching. It's a President-class!”

She couldn't say anything – just leaned back in the Captain's chair and remembered how to breathe.

And then the intercom chimed.

“Commander?” It’s Carly Doherty on the comm, her voice shaking violently. “Commander, we have them.”

The instant, vicious pressure in her chest was almost too much to bear.

“Casualties?” She could barely get the word out.

“Crewman Ericson from Security and Ensign Andrews from Tactical.”

“And the Captain?” God, why couldn’t she breathe?

“A few scratches. Nothing Dr Lafferty can’t put right.” Carly was almost crying.

All Barbara could do was gasp for air. “Pull them in, Commander. Do it now.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

It was a dead run for her all the way to the transporter pad, and she beat them by ten seconds at least. When they materialised he was right there in front, and she’d never had to work so hard to keep her knees from buckling.

“Nurse Kimura, get the crew checked out. I need to debrief Commander Havers.”

“Yes, sir!”

His eyes met hers then, and the shock of it was enough to make her heart stutter. “Havers. With me.”

The ready-room door shut behind them. All she could do was stare, helpless, disbelieving. Was he real? Was he – it was too much, much too much to take in after a month of hell. She sagged against the wall, hands fluttering, searching for words.

He reached out for her, love and longing blazing plain and clear, star-bright in his eyes, and she shuddered at his touch, gasping, waiting for the dream to end and her eyes to open.

Haltingly he tugged her forward, hands on her shoulders now, looking at her intently. His arms came around her, drawing her closer, and as she let herself rest, hesitant, against his chest, it hit her.

He smelled like smoke and dust and sweat, and underneath that, pine trees and rain and that indefinable something that was just him.

No one could fake that.

Her knees gave out, just went right out from under her, and she crumpled against him and started to shake, violent shudders racking her from head to toe. He caught her as she collapsed, strong arms catching her as always, and her hands flexed convulsively in his shirt. The next instant her arms locked around him, tight and clinging, and all she could do was hold on. He peppered her hair, her face, her cheeks, her lips with frantic kisses as his arms tightened around her and he murmured mindless, wordless endearments against her, and she – she was just as desperate, just as needy, fumbling to trace his cheekbones, the curve of his chin, the sweep of his hairline; wild to touch him, half blind with disbelief and desire, she said everything and nothing in syllables she barely understood.

“Tommy,” she breathed, his name on her lips a fervent prayer and the sweetest benediction he’d ever heard, “oh my God, you’re here, you’re here, oh my God, Tommy...”

Still shaking, she began to cry.

In sweet response he gathered her into his arms. “Oh, Barbara. Oh, my Barbara-lynne.”

She let her hands thread through his hair, still not able to let go. “You’re here. You’re safe.”

His lips brushed her brow. “I’m here. I’m safe. Barbara-lynne, look at me. You remember what I promised.” His hands stroked easily over her back, calming her trembles and trailing little flashes of fire in their wake, as he lifted his head to meet her own tearstained gaze. “Barbara, I love you. I love you. I cannot believe I am finally allowed to say it. Oh, how I missed you!”

“You bloody idiot,” she babbled helplessly, “I could fucking well kill you for putting me through a month of sheer hell, oh God, I love you so fucking much, I can’t ever go through that again, you promised, God, sweetheart, ask me, please, ask me!”

His breath came in rapid gasps. “Will you? For the love of God, Barbara, will you?

“Yes,” she burbled out, laughing and crying all at once. “Yes! Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes, you brilliant, gorgeous, impossible man!” The tears were streaming freely from her eyes now, but her voice was sure and strong and triumphant as she gave him the stars. “Yes! Yes, to everything, always.”

He just held her, then, for a moment beyond space and time.

~*~

All too soon they had to come back to reality; love was all very well, but there were still certain practicalities that needed discussing.

Head on his shoulder, she broke the silence. “You know we’ve opened quite a can of worms here. I’m your first officer – your subordinate. Isn’t that sort of thing generally frowned upon?”

Gently he stroked her hair, marvelling at the satin ginger strands that slipped through his fingers – the longer, softer style suited her so well he had to catch his breath every time he laid eyes on her. “Strictly speaking, yes. But we’re hardly the first command team to get tangled up romantically – really, Barbara, you took Starfleet History. Kirk and Spock are only the most famous example. It’s discouraged, yes, but it’s not against regulations. The only thing that would really get us in trouble is if I started prioritizing your safety over the rest of the crew, and if I tried that –“

“I’d kick your sorry arse from here to the far reaches of the Gamma Quadrant with no wormhole required, yes. I fight beside you, always. So we’re safe? We don’t have to give this up?” And her arms tightened about his neck.

He nuzzled the crown of her head, glorying in the soft warmth of her body against his. “Barbara, I’d give up Providence before I gave up you, and I wouldn’t have to think twice about it – God, sweetheart, I wouldn’t have to think once. You are my earth and sky and stars. But I am glad we don’t have to – Barbara?”

She had thought she was done crying, but apparently not. “I’m sorry, love. I still can’t quite believe –“

“Oh, darling.” He let his hand brush her cheek. “You will, sweetheart. I’m still rather staggered, myself. I’ve wanted you like this since before I can remember, although it took me quite some time to realise I was – am – in love with you.”

Trembling, she shook her head. “That long? But – I lashed out so much, I let you down so many times...”

“No, Barbara.” His tone brooked no argument. “It hurt, yes, when you pushed me away. But I was hardly better. And you have never let me down. Not once.”

“But that stunt with the Klingons, I – “

“You did what you thought you had to do. You were ready to sacrifice yourself for this ship and this crew – Barbara, that only made me respect you more, once I saw your reasons.”

“And when you were gone...” Haltingly, she told him of how she had gone half crazy after hearing he was missing – how she had nearly killed her entire crew to get him back alive. “I swore I would always put my duty first, no matter what, because it’s what you would have wanted. And at the very first test I failed you. How can you ever trust me again?” she whispered when she had finished, unable to even look him in the eye.

Gently he wicked his thumb over her damp cheekbone. “Barbara. You wouldn’t think for a minute I would have left if I didn’t trust the senior staff to at least keep you from doing something stupid? I put you in an impossible situation, something no one should ever have to endure. Frankly, I am amazed at your strength. You gave an order you knew wouldn’t be obeyed, and I don’t for a minute think you actually could have gone through with it. You are too fine an officer for that. I know that in your place, I would have been willing to blow up entire suns if that was what it took to bring you back alive. And Barbara, that is what we have senior staff for – a safeguard. I owed it to you to make sure you had a safety net. I will never trust you with anything less than everything I hold dear, Barbara. You are so much stronger than you know, and I am so proud of you.” And the touch of his hand in her hair felt like absolution.

“You have to know I’ll give you everything,” she whispered. “Anything you need me to be, I’ll – ”

“Barbara.” It was so easy. “You are already everything I could ever need. Don’t change. Not ever.”

Lifting her head from his shoulder at last, she kissed him, a long, lingering promise of a kiss that stole his breath and left them both gasping as everything changed and desire flared hot and heady between them. “Love, we can’t do this here, and we can’t do this now. I know that. But... tonight. I... I want...” she panted, hands twisting his shirt, wrecked and needy and begging as fire danced along her skin.God, I need... I can’t... oh God, you’re so... I don’t know how to... oh, please!”

Had he thought his breath stolen with her kiss? He’d known nothing. This was breath-stealing, with her in his arms looking up at him with longing and desire in her eyes, all her barriers completely destroyed, and the seismic shock of it had him half swooning.

“I want, too,” he soothed, stroking her hair and trying to breathe underneath the flood of aching desperation that threatened to drown him. “I do. My God, how I want you!” And he leaned in to take her mouth in a kiss that left them both dazed and panting. “God. Tonight, nothing short of a red alert is taking me out of your arms – or letting you escape mine.”

Her shaky breath said everything.

Neither of them had a clue how they made it through the next few hours. They sat through a long, verbose lecture by Stuart Lafferty, a litany of threats in the vein of “so help me God, if either of you leave this ship for the next six months you’re going in the brig, one of you in danger turns the other insane” from Shannon Reed, and a heartfelt plea by Winston Nkata to “please, Captain, either stay here or take her with you next time, she was unbearable.”

They didn’t hear a word of it. They nodded politely, made all the right apologetic noises, and tried not to touch each other for fear of respiratory arrest that would raise a few too many inconvenient questions. And then, when the senior staff meeting had been dismissed and their shift was over, they let his door slide shut behind them.

And all bets were off.

Devoured. It was the only word she could think of for what he was doing to her, kissing her as though he couldn’t bear to stop no matter the cost. She knew the desperation in her own kiss matched his; after so long dreaming, the reality of it was almost unbearable.

For him, having her here like this was nothing short of a revelation. Mewling and kittenish, ginger hair fanned out over the pillow, she gazed up at him, all kiss-bitten lips and dreamy cat-eyes, and it hit him all at once how innocent she looked here. Not young, but carefree, as though the weight she’d carried for so many years had slipped away and left nothing but joy. Wide, blown black rimmed in the thinnest line of green, those eyes of hers caught and held his, and he could drown in her, just drown in her; she’s addicting, intoxicating, and he couldn’t ever, ever get enough.

She was heat, and light, and stars in her eyes.

He ached for her; wanted to touch her and feel her, wanted to hear that gorgeous soprano voice cry out, wanted to keep her looking like this, beautiful and carefree and perfect, for the rest of time.

“My God, Barbara,” he whispered, low and hoarse, as her hair rained around her shoulders in a tumble of silken sunlight and left her so beautiful he ached. “You drive me mad.”

She gave herself up to it absolutely; she had surrendered herself to him long ago. He made her forget caution, forget practicality and cynicism. He made her want, made her laugh, made her lust, made her love.

And then his hands slipped under her shirt to cup her softly, and he made her forget everything else as her body thrilled to his touch and fire scorched through every nerve she possessed, including a few she was dead certain had never, ever been used before. She thrilled, too, to the unbearably erotic sound of his voice, a voice she swore could have left her trembling and gasping in release without a single touch, and to the mindless endearments he was murmuring in her ear. He had dropped out of Standard and into the language of their homeland, his voice caressing her with the elegant, round, bell-like tones of High Britannic English, and she responded to the shift with a change of her own; the glorious, lilting syllables of her mother’s native Scots Gaelic fell from her lips as she let the language of her heart tell him everything Standard could never say.

It was a blur after that, nothing but whispered promises and murmured endearments and his skin against hers in the lamplight. She heard him whisper “Oh!” against her lips as he slipped inside her; her breath hitched in shock at the feeling of him there, and although this was hardly her first time, it was the first time with him and that made it so much, so much better than she ever thought it could be, because they fit in a way she never knew two people could. It slammed her, out of nowhere, that this was it, this was the only first that would ever matter, and she had to cry out and surge up to meet him as he started to move and the world went up in flames.

She was dimly aware of his own stunned gasp – a gasp that said Yes, I feel it too, you’re what I’ve been waiting for and I love you so much and I can’t live without you and oh, thank God she’s not alone – and then his mouth captured her high, keening cry of unqualified surrender, and her life snapped finally, absolutely into place.

Beyond speech, beyond thought, the blaze consumed them both.

She was burning alive, wildfire scorching through arteries and veins, a holocaust of sensation she’d never dreamed she could feel. She was singing, body and soul,strung out on a piano wire stretched between a thousand billion realities, and in all of them, all of them she was bound to this man, this incredible, unbelievable, terribly, beautifully human man who may not have been perfect but who was perfect for her, who took her places she never conceived of going and places she never knew existed; she was singing with the music of planets and stars and galaxies uncounted roaring through her in a tidal wave of unfathomable, unearthly pleasure, and it was all, all because of him.

And he felt it too, he had to, she could feel his answering harmony in sweet counter-melody to her own song, felt his mind join with hers though they both were psi-null, as Destiny herself took them in hand and bound them to each other as she had done so many times before, and would do so many times to come, over and over in the Celestial Wheel in every reality there ever was and ever could be.

And he knew, he did know, he could feel her singing under his hands the way his own song was soaring out from under hers, a triumphant, blazing melody that became a symphony as it joined with her, a song that only she could coax from him, only she who catapulted him to heights he never thought he could reach. They may have been just two officers on just another ship waiting for just another battle in a War far bigger than either of them, but in all the vast cosmos this was right, and maybe they weren’t the centre of the universe, maybe they weren’t bound to win the war singlehandedly or save the Federation – it didn’t matter, it never had, because they were bound to and for each other, and their joining may not have been the centre of the universe, but it was the centre of their universe, as it always had been and always would be, just the two of them on a ship among the stars; and for a bright, shining moment, they were the centre of Destiny’s universe too.

Together, they shared it all.

When he remembered this first night, days, weeks, even years and decades later, he’d see snapshots of the way she looked – of the way her hair glowed with living fire, of the perfect arch of her spine as she gasped underneath him, of her eyes, enormous and liquid, of the rosy flush that stained her cheeks, of the way she went weak and melted against him, of the way she surrendered with simple, absolute, dearly-won trust. He’d remember the silk of her hair twined in his fingers, and the satin of her skin under his hands. He’d remember the taste of tea and chocolate and something just her when he took her mouth, and the salt tang of dried tears on her cheeks as he rained kisses over her face. He’d hear the gust of her breath against his ear and the way she cried his name and the way she begged and the way she swore and the way she gave. He’d remember the bite of her nails in his back and her fingers pressing unconscious bruises into his shoulders, her hand skimming his hair and the way she held on to him as though nothing else was real but them and the stars that burned so bright.

But more than all of that, he’d remember the way she made him feel – as though there was nothing he couldn’t do, no battle he couldn’t win, as long as he had her beside him.

Oh, yes. She was enough. She was everything.

At the last he said simply, “Barbara,” her name the only word he can remember, her name the only thing tying him to reality, and he buried his face in her shoulder as he drowned in her and let the ecstasy take him.

She answered him with a sigh and a stuttered “Mo chridhe,” then clung tight and followed him under.

They gave in, at long last, to Destiny and to each other, as the world splintered into piercing shards of light that tore them apart and left them bleeding love and laughter and incandescent joy, and all the world was starlight.

As time went on he’d see her in a thousand different ways: desperate and wrecked and begging, wanton and needy, teasing and playful, trusting and vulnerable. The way she responded to him, as though every kiss and every touch was her first, gave her a breathtaking sensuality, with her long lashes fluttering and her lips parted and a look on her face like she couldn’t quite believe he was real – and so, though she would never be a seductress, she could and did seduce him, simply by being herself, until he was helplessly in her thrall. And then there was one memorable night when she beat him spectacularly at checkers and found his look of dismay so adorable she yanked him to the floor – sending pieces flying everywhere – and kissed him, flushed and open-mouthed and laughing with her head thrown back and her throat bared to the lamplight, and he lost his breath over her all over again. She might have sworn herself to him, to follow him and fight beside him, with a trust that left him dizzy to think about, but he had no doubt that it was she who gave him the strength to fly, and no doubt at all that while he might command her in battle, she ruled his heart. For him, it was a seal and a promise.

And for Barbara?

For her, it was the final step on a road begun the instant she looked into his eyes. From loathing, to grudging respect, to teamwork, to friendship, to absolute trust, to unconditional love, every breath had been meant to bring her to this moment. Destiny had begun it; but love had finished it, as nothing but love could have done, and now, this was everything – the answer to every question she had never dared to ask.

Yes, her heart sighed in absolute fulfilment. Here, at his side, always, is where I want to be. Let him lead, let him command. He is mine to follow, mine to stand behind and beside, shoulder to shoulder. I want nothing else. I need nothing else.

Heart-whole at last, she slept.

Some time later, in the heart of the night, she woke tangled in him, and took a moment to realise that the strange pounding beneath her ear was his heartbeat, sure and steady. Even in sleep he held her close, and though she knew their peace couldn’t last forever, for a brief moment she allowed herself to revel in the closest she would ever come to pure heaven.

The clock read 0300. So they had a few hours, at least, before duty claimed them once more.

Completely content, she went back to sleep.

~*~

Waking with Barbara Havers in his arms was the single most incredible moment of Thomas Lynley’s life.

She was curled tightly against him, her head pillowed on his shoulder, her arm draped over his chest. Her ginger hair fanned out around her, and her face... her face was almost childlike in its innocence, as all the lines and all the furrows on her face vanished in the absence of stress or worry.

It was, he thought, the happiest he had ever been. Because this wasn’t a frantic confession on the way to almost certain death, or an even more frantic reunion after escaping the aforementioned almost certain death – this was real. She was really in his arms, his after a lifetime of looking, this incredible woman who was so perfect in her imperfections, and who was so perfect for him he could scarcely breathe for loving her.

Her eyelids fluttered open then, and she stretched, catlike, before turning those dreamy eyes on him. “Good morning, Cap – oh my God!” She sat bolt upright, eyes wild. “Are you – did we – what –“

“Barbara,” he said simply. Command was in his voice, command that compelled absolute, instinctive obedience. Taking a deep breath, she relaxed, and he cupped her chin in his hand. “Barbara, I have never in my life seen a more beautiful sight than the one I saw this morning.”

Impossible! Things like this didn’t happen to Barbara Lynne Havers. She did not, under any circumstances whatsoever, sleep with her Captain of all people, her superior officer; she did not discover that he was as wildly in love with her own rather ordinary self as she was with the man who could have been the answer to every question she’d ever asked; and she did not wake up to find that same man telling her that here, in the light of day, against all the odds, against all the known laws of the Universe itself, he wanted to spend his forever with her, never mind any dreams she might have had about the cosmos singing as Destiny bound them across every reality to exist anywhere ever – or, rather, as they discovered that they were already bound across every reality to exist anywhere ever, and then claimed that bond for their own, because the choice, in the end, had to be theirs.

The realisation hit her full in the face.

The choice, in the end, had to be theirs.

Destiny could throw them in each others’ lives time and again, in every world, in every reality – it could mandate that they find each other, even that they get to know each other well enough to see past whatever prejudices they might have had.

But not even Destiny itself could spin love out of nothing. No force that had ever existed could do that. If he had chosen her, the choice was his.

She had barely formulated the thought of But does it always end this way? before a familiar voice – the voice that had told her the instant she looked into his eyes that this man was her everything, even when she had loathed everything she thought she knew of him – had answered her with, Always. The choice is always yours, both of yours, and in the end, the choice is always the same, for both of you.

Never in her life would she have believed that she was hearing in her head a cosmic voice powerful enough to see across the multiverse, but there was no other explanation for the jolt of knowing that had coursed through her in a lightning strike the first moment she met his eyes with hers. Nothing in her life, nothing in her mind, could have produced that, not when it had taken meeting him, watching him, learning him, to bring them to this. Therefore, said the part of her that had been trained in the logic of science for over two decades, the realisation must be the work of an outside force. Therefore, the voice of Destiny really is talking in your head.

Which meant that they did find each other, and did choose each other, despite the astronomical odds against it, without fail.

Which led her back to the inescapable conclusion that she was not dreaming, and, therefore, that things like this did, in fact, happen to Barbara Lynne Havers.

“You still want this.” Her voice was dizzy, disbelieving. “It’s not just adrenalin, or...”

“Barbara,” he said, in that same command steel. “You are not ‘just’ anything. I will say this, right now, and you will not question it again, understood? I want you, in my bed, on my bridge, in my life, as my partner in this and everything else, until the stars wink out, and longer even than that. I need you by my side, your strength behind me and beside me, your hand in mine, your heart with mine. That has not changed. That will not change. So unless you have decided you don’t want me after all –“

Never!

“- then believe me when I tell you that I will never leave you, and I will never regret this. That is over, understood? No more fear. No more sorrow. No more pain. You will never endure that alone, not ever again. I will stand by you with everything I am. I will go anywhere so long as you will follow me, because I trust you even when I cannot trust myself. And I will fight for you with every breath I have, because you deserve no less. You are mine, Barbara-lynne, and so help me God I will never let you go.

Her whole body shuddered in relief as he finished, and she bowed her head and surrendered without a fight. She knew, without a doubt, that one word from her would have ended their newfound romance, had she wanted to; the absolute certainty that she didn’t want that, and never would, gave her the strength to surrender her burden to him at long last, and watch as he tossed it aside. The years of teasing and torment would leave their scars, she knew, but it didn’t matter. Tommy needed her. Tommy wanted her – Tommy trusted her. Nothing else mattered.

And though she didn’t know it, that sweet surrender gave him everything – the strength he needed to make it through this war, and to make decisions that would otherwise have left him crippled with guilt and doubt. If she believed in him – if she trusted him – that faith would see him through, because his faith in her was unshakable. In that moment, years of loneliness, of isolation, of the burden of command, vanished as if they had never been. Barbara needed him. Barbara wanted him – Barbara trusted him.

Nothing else mattered.

Boneless, she melted into his arms, head pillowed on his shoulder as it had been when he woke, and he kissed her hair. “Now, our Chief Medical Officer has given strict orders that nothing short of a red alert should have us so much as poking our noses onto the bridge for the next two days.”

Beaming, she rolled onto her elbow in the curve of his arm. “Yeah?”

“Indeed,” he said, his smile blinding.

“Well,” she said then, “I wonder what we ought to do with that?”

Quite seriously, he looked at her. “I personally believe we should go back to sleep, because I could spend a lifetime and more with you in my arms. And after that, Barbara, I am going to make love to you again, because I can’t get enough of you. How does that sound?”

“It sounds,” she said breathlessly, “like a very good start.”

~*~

It was an excellent start, to be precise. They slept, curled together, for quite a long time; and when they woke, he rolled over and kissed her, so, so sweetly, and they both discovered that they could make each other sing, body and soul, with their own kind of music, different from the first time but no less ecstatic, because it was theirs and theirs alone,and they could do it without any help from Destiny or any other cosmic meddlers who might care to take an interest, thank you very much, and do have a nice day.

And when he was drowsing in her arms – apparently, a month-long covert operation with the best black-ops in Starfleet allows for very little in the way of anything resembling rest – she stroked his short, silky black hair, and traced the rugged, not-quite-handsome planes and curves and lines of his beloved face, and she whispered, soft and heartfelt and half disbelieving – it couldn’t be real that she was permitted to say this aloud, and by some miracle she was – “I love you, Thomas Lynley. Oh, God, how I love you!”

~*~

She woke to the wail of the red alert siren. Before she could so much as think, she had snatched her robe and skidded into the turbolift, Lynley mere inches behind her. She wrapped the faded heather cotton around her, tying the knot just as the ‘lift door opened.

The sight that met her eyes had her awake instantly.

The gamma shift crew were fighting tooth and nail with seven Jem’Hadar soldiers, using everything they had on them and then some to subdue the Dominion forces.

A dozen security officers joined the fight, some taking the back passage through the ready room, and others taking the turbolift directly behind them. Lynley, next to her, had bellowed, “Report!” almost immediately, needing to ascertain ship’s status, and had been informed that the Dominion soldiers seemed to be concentrated on the bridge, obviously choosing to beam straight to the command centre instead of fighting their way through the halls of the ship. She knew Woodrow was probably already commanding the battle bridge with the rest of beta shift; alpha shift should be here right – about – now!

A furious Shannon burst through the ready room door after taking the passage, followed by a handful of her tactical officers. Someone tossed Barbara a phaser, and, with the instinct born of over a decade of service, she took aim and fired – again, and again, and again.

It was just barely enough – more Jem’Hadar were materialising every moment, and although Providence’s crew was holding its own, their time was running out.

That’s when a torpedo hit rocked the ship and sent them all staggering.

“Barbara,” barked Lynley, who had caught his own phaser from Shannon’s tac crew, as he took aim and fired at yet another Jem’Hadar, “go take command on the battle bridge. I want saucer separation. We have to keep these bastards away from the warp core. They’ve got to be coming from somewhere. Find their ship, and take it out of commission. Now.”

Wait, what?

“All due respect, sir, but Woodrow can handle that as well as I can. My place is at your side.” And she took aim and fired.

“All due respect, Commander, but your place is somewhere safe!” he bit out, and she recoiled in shock and hurt. Her eyes flew wide open, and a blind man couldn’t have missed the wounded look on her face as she stared at him.

Oh, Christ.

“Barbara, I...”

“Let me know when the stardrive can rejoin the primary hull,” she snapped, and walked away.

It took her three well-placed torpedoes to blow the Dominion vessel to bits; the Jem’Hadar attack ships were no match for a Nebula-class cruiser.

And then... all she could do was wait.

She got the call half an hour later. Lynley immediately ordered alpha and gamma shifts to take thirty-six hours off, then told beta that they’d be working four nine-hour shifts in two rotations before getting twenty-four hours off themselves, as they’d been away from the main fighting.

Nobody argued.

As soon as the bridge crew had been debriefed and she’d given her account of the destruction of the Jem’Hadar vessel, she went to her quarters, locked the door, and curled up on her bed, all the anger and hurt knotted up into a tight ball of pain in her chest.

She didn’t cry.

Why, she asked herself in despair, did I ever start to believe I could find a happy ending?

She curled in on herself some more, she had her knees up to her chin and her arms wrapped around them, and felt the knot pull even tighter.

She’d never known anything could hurt this much.

She’d half-fallen into an uneasy slumber when her door slid open. She could feel him ease himself down on the side of her bed, and she wanted more than anything else in the whole wide universe to roll over and wrap her arms around his waist and bury her face against his stomach and pretend it never happened, but she couldn’t.

He touched her hair, and she flinched; his soft gasp of pain shouldn’t have made her feel better, but it did.

“I am so sorry,” he whispered in the dark, and she squeezed her eyes shut tight.

She wished she could cry.

“After all this time,” she said hoarsely, amazed she could force words out at all, “you don’t trust me to have your back. Why? Because we’ve – slept together, I’m less of an officer now?”

“No!” he shouted, shocked and loud in the quiet, before his voice gentled to a fervent murmur. “No. God, Barbara, is that what you thought? No. No. It wasn’t you, I swear, it wasn’t. It was me, me and my foolish – God, I was so scared. I’ve just found you, and now – I couldn’t lose you, don’t you see? Not after what we – God, Barbara.” And this time, when he reached out to stroke her hair, she let him.

His first touch undid her. The smooth, firm slide of his hand down the back of her head, the way he stroked just a little firmer at the nape of her neck, as though he’d shield that most vulnerable part of her from anything and everything – somehow it untied that knot in her chest, and then she did roll over and wrap her arms around his waist and bury her face against his stomach, and she cried hot, bitter tears as he stroked her hair and swore over and over again that she was the finest officer he knew, that he’d always, always want her beside him guarding his back because he trusted her more than anyone and anything, that he was such an idiot, that he didn’t deserve her and never would, but could they please talk this out because there wasn’t a thing he wouldn’t do to keep her if she’d let him.

When she’d cried herself out and taken a painkiller for the headache, they talked, sitting on opposite ends of the sofa, like they knew that they can’t have each other until they sort this thing out. They’d thought they’d had a good handle on the whole thing, thought that it would be just the same but with sex, and it is so very much not that she’s half shocked to realise that she was more angry about not being allowed to protect him than she was about him protecting her.

“You can’t do that any more,” she said, quiet and calm. “I mean it. You can’t. We’re going to be scared for each other. We’re going to be scared for each other a lot. But think about it, Tommy. I was scared for you, too.”

“You...”

“You were up there on the bridge, and our ship wasn’t connected any more, and I didn’t know anything, couldn’t see anything, and... I just found you, too. And you can’t... I’m your first officer, and we have seven hundred and fifty people depending on us to make the decisions that keep us all alive. You can’t send me somewhere because it’s safer. We’d be split up. You know they’d split us up. The only way we can keep each other is to not... not do that. I want to protect you, too, I want to lock you up in here and make sure you never get hurt. But I’ve already made that mistake once, and it’s a mistake neither of us can afford to make again. Besides, that’s asking you to be something different than what you are. Someone besides the man I fell in love with. And as much as I want to keep you safe, even more I want you to be that man. It wouldn’t be fair of me to ask you to stay safe, and it’s not fair of you to ask me to.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right. But Barbara...”

“Listen to me. This is the life we chose. This is what brought us together. And this is us. If I tried to keep you safe, what would you tell me?”

“That you can forget it, because that’s not who I... oh.”

“Yes, oh. The only reason I went today was because I didn’t have the time to yell at you and I couldn’t be a distraction to anyone on that bridge. Would you be any less afraid for me if I were on a different ship?”

“No, of course not.”

“Would you be any less afraid for me if we broke up?”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Then my point is made. We’re just going to have to live with this. And I can tell you this right now; if you ever treat me differently because I’m your lover, I will take you to school, and if you do it again, I will ask for a transfer no matter how much I love you. And I fully expect you to do the same. We have to look out for each other on this. But Tommy, I will promise you this, right now. I will fight with everything I have to come back to you. And sweetheart, I will come back, because I have something so, so worth living for, and so worth fighting for. And it’s not going to be easy, but loving you – I’d sacrifice a thousand times as much, because I want to be your exec, and I want to be your friend, and I want to be your lover, and I...” She stopped for a minute, overcome, and cupped his face in her hands and touched her forehead to his, and it was bright and painful and real and just fucking everything that stops her breath and lets her breathe all at once.

“You are.” He leaned in, breath shuddering. “Oh, Barbara, you are. You are. And I can do no less in return. I will fight with everything I have to come back to you, and I will – I will never treat you differently. You deserve so much more than that. So very much more. The woman I fell in love with is the finest officer I’ve ever known, and... I wouldn’t want her to be anything else. Ever. I think you know, Barbara, how sorry I am.”

“I do. But there’s only – I can’t say I don’t know why you did it. And we can’t do it again, but – I know, now. And I love you so much, for so many reasons, but one of them is how much you love me, and I – I love you, too, and I’ll never stop – not even death can break this. For whatever time we have, remember?”

“For whatever time we have, Barbara,” he echoed softly. She reached out, ran a hand through his hair, and he shuddered under her touch; his voice was unsteady and wrecked as he whispered, “I’m going to make love to you now,” mouthing the words low and intent against the soft skin of her belly, and she shivered in delight and let him roll on top of her.

This was as much apology and affirmation as it was anything else. His tender, caressing touch between her thighs left her molten and liquid from the inside out, and when she reached for him with a murmur, he quietened her gently, telling her without words to lie back and let him take care of her. So she obeyed, needing this as badly as he did. He apologised with murmured words, soft kisses, and gentle caresses as he stoked the flames higher and higher, and then, when she could take it no longer, when she needed him too badly to breathe, he slipped inside her at last, and she arched into him and let the pleasure flood them both. His open adoration was just this side of too much to bear, and when release finally came, it was edged with a sharp, sweet pain that faded into profound, desperate relief. She couldn’t help the tears that flowed from her eyes as she came undone under his hands at last, and the realisation that he, too, was crying as he shattered left her weak and shaking and so, so in love she could barely comprehend it. And he – he was just as overwhelmed as she was, trembling and breathless, as he gathered her into his arms.

“Don’t ever leave me,” he whispered into her hair. “Don’t let me screw this up. Don’t let me lose you.”

She shook her head, fiercely, and pressed closer into the circle of his arm where her face was buried against his chest. “No. I promise. Nothing you could do could lose me, as long as you still loved me. I love you too much for that. But you – don’t let me lose you. Please.”

“To do so would be to part with my very heart,” he answered her, voice tight with emotion. “So long as you love me, you could never lose me. Oh, Barbara – ‘doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the Sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love!’”

Something inside her melted at the timeless phrases half a millennium old, and she reeled with a feeling that might have been absolute trust.“And I, you,” she murmured hoarsely as she pressed a kiss to his bare shoulder, a kiss that lacked any passion but held almost more tenderness than he could bear. “Tha gaol agam ort, Tommy, gràdh geal mo chridhe.

I love you, Tommy, bright love of my heart.

Clinging tight, they slipped into sleep.

~*~

She woke up panting a couple of nights later, clutching at the sheets and gasping for breath.

“Kn’sa?” Lynley mumbled sleepily beside her. “Wh’isit?”

Forcibly, she slowed her breathing. “A dream. Not – not a nightmare, exactly, but...”

He was awake in moments. “Barbara, what is it?”

His hand was on her shoulder, a solid, comforting weight, and she took a deep breath, speaking with awe and fear. “Another world. Another destiny.”

His hand tightened on her shoulder. “Another destiny?”

She struggled to speak. “Another – place, another reality. The twenty-first century, really early – the first decade, maybe. Or some version of it, in some other universe. It was London. We were – police partners. Detectives. Winston was there, and Lafferty, later on. I was – she was – oh God. She was so lonely, Tommy. So hurt and bitter and angry. There was duck white...”

He gasped, harsh and pained, beside her. “Duck white. He painted her flat duck white.”

Her face drained of colour. “How did you know that?” she whispered.

“Because I dreamt it too.”

Fumbling, confused, she shook her head. “You...”

“He painted her flat duck white,” he went on, “because he knew she’d never sell it, not with how it was. And...”

“...she was furious. She felt – patronised. Condescended to. And she raged and raged, and he – ”

“...he told her, ‘If there’s one thing you are not, it’s an inadequate human being.’”

“It was real,” Barbara whispered.

“Yes.” Lynley looked he’d just been hit with an electric shock. “So all the dreams... he married someone else, he – he married Helen! – and he hurt her, so badly, and – ”

“...he fought for her as no one ever had,” Barbara told him softly. “He believed in her. He treated her like a human being for the first time in her life. He treated her like another officer, another detective. Or he tried to, as best he knew how, with the class differences between them – and that gap was so wide, then. And she waited, while he loved someone else.”

“But that first night,” Lynley murmured, “you said, in every reality, we...”

“She waited ten years,” Barbara told him as memory washed over her, of other dreams, other universes, other lives. “She fought for him when his wife died, she fought for him when he tried to drink himself to death. Whatever came, she fought for him, even though she was convinced all along that she could never be more than just his partner. And in the end, she won him.”

“Ten years,” he whispered. “Ten bloody years. How did he... how could he go so long without...”

“Things were different then,” she told him softly. “He was the eighth Earl of Asherton, in a time when that still meant something, and she was just a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She never thought she could have him – he might as well have been a million light-years away. And that poor man – he didn’t know how to handle her, and she’d had a hard life – hard and lonely. It left her so sharp and bitter...”

“But he tried,” Lynley said at last. “And that was what made it work. He tried, and she knew it. What they had – it was broken and jagged and hard and it’s a miracle they even made it, but he tried. And so did she.”

“Yes,” Barbara told him. “He did change her, though. She didn’t want him to, but he did. He made her want to be better. He softened her. And she changed him. She became his anchor. They trusted each other when they couldn’t trust anyone else – hell, even when they couldn’t trust themselves. They stood united, no matter what.”

“We were so lucky,” mused Lynley. “We had the service, and a world where class means so much less – where it’s a fence, not a fortress. We’ve had our difficulties – and isn’t that what makes this work, how different we are? – but them! I’m surprised they managed it at all, with what stood between them. But some things, Barbara – some things are universal constants. It’s just –”

“... not the same with anybody else,” she finished with him, and had to laugh.

“We were meant to find each other,” he told her intently. “I believe that.”

“I know it,” she answered him, sure, steady and sweet. “I knew you before I even met you. And I felt it, the first instant. I recognised you.”

“I recognised you, too,” he told her. “Remember?”

“Yeah, I do,” she said, and smiled, because she felt an echo of that first staggering shock every time she looked at him. It had been as though, while they looked at each other with suspicion, the people they had been simply said, ‘Oh, there you are! I’ve finally found you again – and how I’ve missed you!’

“I wonder,” he said eventually, “why we’re remembering this, now. And why that life? From what you’ve said – from what we’ve felt – surely we’ve known each other in more realities than that!”

She shrugged. “Maybe as a warning, for what can happen if we don’t see the truth soon enough? Or a congratulations, for finding each other sooner?”

“Do you really think – Barbara, do you think that what we have is because of destiny?”

“No,” she said instantly, because she already knew. “I think – I know – that we chose this. I don’t think any force in the world is strong enough to make you do something you don’t really want to do. And I know I chose you. Destiny,” she said, lifting her chin, “is not the boss of me!”

“Barbara,” said Lynley, in a tone that was affection and blazing desire and unabashed adoration, “nothing is the boss of you.”

“You are,” she said quietly. “Duty is. And love is. You rule my heart, Tommy, because I love you.”

He couldn’t help but kiss her, and that kiss told her what she had already known and still sometimes couldn’t believe, even before he said it aloud.

“As you rule mine, kerensa. I’m sorry he – I’m sorry she had to wait for so long.”

“She’d have waited longer,” Barbara told him softly. “A hundred times, a thousand times – if she really was me, and I can’t help but believe she was, she’d have waited for all of time to have him. Even if he never saw her that way, she was important to him. The most important person in his life. And that would have been enough. Having him at all would have been enough.” Bright, intent, her eyes focused on him. “I would have waited for all of time to have you. And it would have been enough for me, too.”

“Barbara,” he groaned. “Kerensa. So would he have. So would I have. And it would have been enough for him – as it would have been enough for me.”

“But it didn’t have to be,” she whispered, and caressed his cheek.

“No,” he murmured against her mouth. “It doesn’t have to be. It won’t ever have to be. Not in this universe. Not in any universe.”

After that, talking was rendered both unnecessary and unwelcome. They had far better – and more enjoyable – ways to communicate.

~*~

Starfleet Command found out two days later.

Admiral Taylor, eyes weary, filled them in on the escalating problems with the Dominion, confirming what Kira Nerys had told Barbara just two hours earlier – Bajor, in addition to the Romulan Empire, Miradorn, and the Tholian Empire, had signed a non-aggression pact with the Dominion.

Kira’s announcement had contained a good deal more swearing, most of it directed at the provisional government, only some of which Barbara understood. Barbara couldn’t blame her friend for her fury; she was, after all, on the very front lines, and her sense of abandonment was very, very real – and, in Barbara’s opinion, thoroughly justified.

But internal Bajoran politics aside, the growing threat of the Dominion was more obvious every day; they had both known war was coming, but the reality of it still left her trembling in the night, and she could only hope they had the strength to make it through this, with their relationship still so new. If the Klingon border had been ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire,’ this was ‘out of the fire and into the supernova’ – all she could do was try to survive every hour as it came and hope it would be enough.

“You’re still too far away to be of any real use right now,” Taylor told them now, “but I want you to make your way directly to the Bajor sector regardless. We can use every phaser bank and torpedo launcher we can command. We have reason to believe a Dominion invasion is imminent –

– and Lynley reached for Barbara’s hand and held it tight.

It was a dead giveaway.

“Oh no,” Taylor whispered. “Oh no. Tell me you didn’t do what I think you did.”

He looked at Barbara; she looked back.

They didn’t need to say a word.

“You did,” Taylor said, stunned. “Oh God, Tommy. You went and fell in love with her, didn’t you.”

It wasn’t a question.

“I did,” he answered her now, unashamed and unafraid. “How could I do otherwise? And if you take her away from me, so help me God, I will resign my commission.”

“You most certainly will not,” Barbara told him flatly, whirling to glare at him. “You are a Starfleet Captain, Thomas Lynley, you will not resign over me. If anyone’s going to be doing any resigning, it’s going to be me. This war needs a Captain far more than it needs a Commander.”

“If you think I can do this without you,” he snapped back, “you are delusional. I cannot do this without you, Barbara, and I will not do this without you. I have told you, time and time again, you are the only person I want beside me on that bridge. For God’s sake, Admiral...” And he turned to look at the screen, pleading in his eyes.

Taylor just dug her thumbs into her temples.

“It’s not against regulations,” she told them grudgingly. “But I think it’s a very, very bad idea. I ought to transfer her, Lynley. You know I should transfer her. So give me one good reason why I shouldn’t.”

“Because if I do anything except my sworn duty – to her or to anyone else – she will be the first person to report it,” he told the Admiral quietly. “Because I trust her when I cannot trust myself. And because if I ever dare to put her above my ship or my duty as a captain and an officer, she will put in the transfer request herself, and she will be right to do so, because I wouldn’t deserve her if I did.”

She nodded slowly. “All right, Commander,” she said, turning to Barbara, “give me one good reason not to transfer you.”

Barbara gazed at her, meeting her eyes without fear. “Because I am a far better officer serving under him than I have ever been in my career,” she said, just as quiet as her captain, and surprisingly, uncharacteristically eloquent. “Because I swore to stand by him, no matter the cost. And because if I ever dare to put my personal feelings about him above my own sworn duty, I wouldn’t be worthy of him – not as a woman, and not as his executive officer.”

Taylor sighed. “I still don’t like it,” she told them both, “but you’re both so ridiculously noble this might just work. But,” and she fixed them with the icy, authoritative glare that made her one of the most respected admirals in Starfleet, “if you ever break the promise you just made to me and it negatively affects the outcome of this war, I will have you both up on courts-martial without thinking twice. Is that understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lynley said, quiet and low, and Barbara nodded her own agreement.

“Very well,” Taylor said, and to both their surprise, she smiled. “I am truly happy for you. I think your partnership has been very good for both of you, and I hope – I believe – you will be an even better command team for what you have together, because from what I have seen, you bring out the best in each other. I don’t have to tell you what you’re facing – you know that already. But I think that, if anyone’s relationship can survive this, yours can. Good luck to you both.” Taylor nodded sharply, then cut the transmission, and her image was replaced with the logo of the Federation.

Only then did Barbara notice he was shaking, and she turned to face him, holding his hand tight.

He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. When their eyes met his went soft as velvet, and, as always, no words were needed.

Let’s do this, they seemed to say, and all she could do was nod and squeeze his hand tighter.

Let’s, hers answered. We can do this.

Do you know, Barbara, and she could swear his very eyes were laughing, I do believe we can.

Twelve hours later, the Dominion took Deep Space Nine, and everything went straight to hell.

Chapter Text

(2374)

Their first operation was to join up with Seventh Fleet on a two-pronged attempt to both slow the relentless Dominion advance and recapture the Tyra system. A hundred and twelve starships, heavy cruisers from Ambassador-classto Sovereign-class and everything in between – and even the nimble, tiny Steamrunner-class fighters barely twenty percent the size of a Galaxy-class starship - warped off to battle.

Fourteen came home.

Later on she would barely remember the specifics of that battle. She didn’t remember much at all, actually – nothing more than the screams of her dying crew as compartments were torn open to the depths of space, and the slam of bulkheads as the ship did her best to save those she could. She remembered learning, early on, of Admiral D’Gret’s death aboard the USS North Star, the proud, Sovereign-class flagship of Seventh Fleet, and the subsequent chaos as ships fought and died with no central command structure to organise an effective attack or even an effective retreat.

Caught between three wings of Dominion fighters armed with the deadly torpedoes that made mincemeat of even a heavy cruiser’s shields, the only thing sparing Providence from the fate of ninety-eight of her sisters was her small size. Too big to be a nimble attack ship, too small to be impressive next to the Galaxy-class and Sovereign-class ships that flanked her, she was largely ignored, and it was mostly stray fire that tore through her hull, undoing three weeks of Fleet Yard repairs and killing over 250 crew in the two-hour-long engagement. Barbara’s and Shannon’s desperate attempts at return fire barely made a dent.

Smoke bloomed on the bridge as consoles exploded. Woodrow barely even looked up, piloting more by instinct than by feel. Around them – if they could spare a glance at the viewscreen – floated the detritus of nearly a quarter of their saucer section; were it not for the failsafes that shut off breached compartments almost instantly, the ship could never have kept fighting.

But the worst of it all – the very worst – was the moment when Nkata’s voice, which had been rattling off reports for the better part of two hours, suddenly went silent.

When Barbara dared to glance, she saw him, reddish liquid pooling around his body, shrapnel from his exploded console buried in his skull in three places.

Including the brain stem.

He wasn’t breathing.

She couldn’t think. She could barely breathe. And she sure as hell couldn’t tell her captain.

So she took over Ops herself, calling reports, voice steady as a rock. Lynley didn’t even flinch at the change of voices. His entire focus was on the battle in front of them – or, rather, the slaughter, as the fourteen remaining ships somehow limped back to Federation space, what refugees they could carry stowed wherever they had room.

She felt nothing.

Twenty-four thousand Starfleet members, officers and crew alike – including over two hundred and fifty of her own people – had died in the struggle. Ninety-eight Federation Alliance ships were in ruins, or scattered in their constituent atoms across the bleak battleground of the Tyra system.

Twenty-four thousand people, including a third of her crew and one of her dearest friends, would never come home, and she felt nothing.

But then Lynley rose from his chair to walk toward Ops, saying, “Barbara, is Nkata all right? ” and he stopped dead.

They hadn’t even had time to move his body.

He gasped, once, a hoarse, agonised noise, and without even thinking about it, his hand sought hers.

She didn’t think, either – just reached and clung, squeezing his hand in a crushing grip as the horrible reality began to sink in at last and the numbness began to thaw.

She felt the grief hit her, felt it rush through him too as surely as if she shared his thoughts in a Vulcan meld, and she started to shake.

His hand clamped down, hard, and the force of it steadied her, if just barely.

Through the hellish minutes that followed – as Shannon’s eyes widened and filled with tears, as Woodrow turned away and shook his head in fierce denial, as Lafferty and Jackie Kelley rushed onto the bridge with Hana hard on their heels, as Lafferty sat back and shook his head in sorrow – he never once let go, and his grip told her more than words that if he was the only one stopping her from collapsing into sobs where she stood, she was the only one holding him together, even if by the barest thread, enough to be the captain they needed while he gave the orders for cleanup – to store the bodies for the mass memorial and funeral to come, to assess the damage, to confer with the captains of the surviving ships, and to be there for their crew as they grieved their own.

No loss could ever match the grief that had torn her apart when Lynley had left for what they thought was a suicide mission without a chance of success.

But the agony of Nkata’s death came close.

Some nights she would wake up in a cold sweat and scream herself hoarse, and he would sit up and hold her close and take her hand, and she’d crush it in her own as she relearned how to breathe. And others he would thrash in a desperate fight against an enemy seen only in his dreams, and she would duck the flailing limbs and take every bruise without complaint to get to him, to hold him, and, maybe, if she could get through, to calm him. She couldn’t always, but sometimes, she did. When she could she’d soothe him as best she could, and when she couldn’t she’d just hold on, hoping against hope that her presence at least gave him a little more strength to fight.

It wasn’t just Nkata’s death that hit them hard. The battle had decimated their crew, and on Providence, crew was family.

Ensign Alicia Santara, a dark-haired, dark-eyed half-Betazoid, six weeks pregnant, died when an outer compartment of Engineering was torn open by a Dominion torpedo.

Lieutenant Matthew Woodson, one of Kimura Hana’s nurses who loved football, was lost when one of the auxiliary sickbays was vented into space by stray phaser fire.

Ensigns Robert and Aliana Garrison, married all of six months, died together in the phaser strike that destroyed Weapons Bay Two.

The list went on and on, a roll of names too long to bear.

They were living with ghosts. Sometimes she’d see Alicia’s laughing eyes as she worked her magic on the warp cores – Carly had said, with pride, that Alicia was the most promising Engineering officer she’d seen in years. Others she’d swear she saw Aliana and Bobby snogging in a shadowed corner before they reported for a duty shift.

And always, always, she turned to look for Winston, and when he wasn’t there, it was another dagger in her heart.

The senior staff were shadowed, subdued, in the aftermath. Woodrow barely talked to anyone and had ceased flirting altogether, and only Jackie Kelley could reach him. T’Maya was even more Vulcan-ish than usual, and Sonak, who had worked less with the bridge crew than his bondmate, was almost visibly distressed as she retreated ever further into the veil of logic. Lafferty became gruffer than ever, trying even Hana’s patience; only Fiona MacAllister, head of Medical Research, could stay in the same room with him for more than ten minutes. Carly and Shannon could barely be separated; Carly’s stoicism, tempered since her Academy days by her partner’s bubbly cheerfulness, reappeared with a vengeance, and Shannon’s attempts at a smile were shadows of what they had once been.

War is hell, her Academy professors had all said, over and over.

They had been right.

She knew, without a doubt, that if she had lost Lynley, she would go too. She’d fight, oh, she’d fight, to stay, because it would be what he would have wanted, but in the end, the grief would have driven her mad.

They had just twelve hours to go before they reached the welcoming arms of Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards when she found herself startled awake by his arms wrapping tight around her, squeezing so hard she was almost unable to breathe.

“Tommy?” she gasped.

“It could have been you, Barbara,” he whispered against her hair. “It could have been you. Oh, God, kerensa, I could have lost you!” And, as he so rarely did, he began to cry in earnest.

How was she supposed to answer that? Her heart knotted in her chest, and she wrapped herself around every part of him she could reach.

“I’m here, mo chridhe,” she soothed. “I’m here. I’m alive. This isn’t a dream. I’m here, I’m all right, I’m never leaving you. God, I swear, not ever. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. I’m here. I’m here.”

She repeated the litany over and over for what seemed like hours as he held onto her and shook, tears soaking the neck of her pyjamas as he sobbed unabashedly against her shoulder.

In the end she had to cry with him, for what they had lost, and for what they were still to lose, because their fight was far from over.

It was never easy. In the aftermath she could hardly bear for him to touch her, sometimes, and others she just wanted to hold on for all she was worth. They pushed each other away, so many times, only to come right back in because they needed each other too badly, and oh God, it should have felt so wrong but it was the most natural thing in the world to find him in his ready room and pull his mouth to hers and lose herself in him.

Their kisses were born not from arousal, but from a desperate need for comfort; slow, soft, and deep, his mouth on hers reaffirmed a connection they needed all too much. He could still taste the salt of tears she had fought not to shed, and her hands on his shoulders soothed his own shakes of grief as they searched desperately for a connection to life in the midst of death and loss.

The door slid open then, but he couldn’t bring himself to let go of her completely as they broke apart and turned to face T’Maya; he held tight to her hand in his, and she squeezed back, saying everything without words.

All the same, he couldn’t stop the hot flush of embarrassment that coloured his face at being caught in a compromising position with his executive officer – even if she did also happen to be the love of his life.

But T’Maya, as always, was unfazed. “Do not apologise, Captain,” she told him, before he could even open his mouth. “It is logical to take comfort in one’s bondmate in times of emotional stress. Contact with Commander Havers comforts you, as contact with you comforts her. Doctor Sonak and I have a Vulcan bond, rendering physical contact unnecessary. As you and Commander Havers lack such a connection, it is therefore logical that you connect in other ways. I am, however, sorry for interrupting a moment of intimacy between you.”

“Ah, thank you, T’Maya, and no harm done. Was – was there something you required, Commander?”

“No, Captain, but I do believe I have a solution to the gap in the senior staff created by Commander Nkata’s loss. Clearly, Lieutenant Gonzales is incapable of performing the Commander’s duties due to his medical condition, and Ensign Allen is much too inexperienced to serve on the bridge in the midst of a war. As the Science department has been, as you would say, ‘put on the back burner’ for the duration of the conflict with the Dominion, it therefore appears that the natural solution is for myself to serve at the Operations station.”

Lynley couldn’t have been more startled. “That is a generous offer, T’Maya, but that is far beyond the scope of your duties as Chief Science Officer.”

“Captain,” the Vulcan replied as tartly as a Vulcan ever could, “whether it is beyond the scope of my duties or not is beside the point. There is a need I am capable of filling; therefore, I should fill it. As I had several degrees from the Vulcan Science Academy before I entered Starfleet, I was not required to take many of the courses needed to qualify as a science officer. This left me with the opportunity to pursue a primary emphasis in ship’s operations alongside my science courses. The choice was quite logical; my duties as Science Officer require me to collate data collected from multiple sources and use it to gain a wider understanding of the universe around us, as Operations requires one to collate data from all departments of the ship to gain an understanding of how it is functioning in all departments at any given time. I have not served in that capacity for quite some time, it is true, but I believe I am, as you would say, ‘the best chance you’ve got.’”

And despite the raw grief that still ate at him, despite exhaustion and despair brought on by months of loss and unceasing war, Thomas Lynley felt an undeniable urge to leap into the air and shout “Hallelujah!”

He didn’t, of course, but he did turn to his CSO and say, “I believe you are. My gratitude, T’Maya, cannot be expressed.”

“Your gratitude, while unnecessary, is accepted in the spirit in which it was intended, Captain. With your permission...”

“Yes, of course, T’Maya. The briefing will be on your console by 20:00 hours.”

“Very good, Captain.”

And she turned and left the room.

The door slid shut behind her, and Barbara turned to face him, the faintest light of hope beginning to glow in her eyes for the first time in weeks. “I love Vulcans,” she told him fervently, eyes wide and bright, and he couldn’t help but smile.

“I am very much of the same opinion, Barbara,” he told her, and he, too, began to think that maybe the faint light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t an oncoming train after all.

When they went to bed that night, the darkness and grief felt just a little less lonely, and just a little easier to bear.

But it wasn't over yet, and as the war wore on, morale dropped lower and lower. With the utter destruction of Seventh Fleet, Providence had been redeployed to the Vulcan border to join with Fifth Fleet, and the series of skirmishes wore down even Providence's senior staff. Shannon's eyes were haggard, and she rarely smiled. Carly was absolutely stone-faced. And Barbara and Lynley just clung to each other in the night, trying to find the will to make it through the next day, never mind the next week or the next month. And they were not alone. The depression that ravaged Providence was taking its toll, and the whole ship felt as if it was about to break with the tension.

It was lucky, then, that they were asked to join in on Operation Return just two months after the Tyra disaster. At least they could
do
something.

“I know what your losses are,” said Admiral Taylor sombrely, “but we need your firepower too badly. Tell me, Captain – can you join in this offensive?”

They looked at each other, uncertain, before he made the decision.

“Yes, we can.” But his heart broke as he said it.

“Very well,” she said quietly, knowing what they were risking. “T'Maya appears to be serving well at Ops – is your Ops second back on duty?”

“No, ma'am,” said Barbara. “He's at Starfleet Medical. And Ensign Allen can't step up just yet. T'Maya is working out well. We don't want to mess with that.”

“Very well,” said Taylor. “Proceed with the rest of Fifth Fleet to Starbase 375. Godspeed, Providence.”

“Yes, ma’am. And thank you.” And the screen went black.

Barbara’s eyes were shadowed. “The wormhole,” she murmured, in wonder and fear, “and Deep Space Nine. You know we’ll be challenged.”

“Of course. We’ll be lucky to make it there at all. It’s all but a suicide run. But we have to try.”

“No, of course we do. We couldn’t do anything else. I just wish...”

“I know, kerensa,” he murmured, soft and low. And then he wrapped his arms around her and just held on, because he needed, so badly, the soft warmth of her in his arms.

It was long, aching minutes before she spoke again, but when she did, his heart nearly stopped.

“Listen, mo chridhe,” she said, “I need you to know something. I need you to know that Fate, Destiny, cosmic meddling – none of it matters. Because I’d still choose you. I’d still love you if there were no such thing as Destiny at all. I’d still want you, I’d still need you, I’d still choose to serve with you. Fate may have thrown us together but I will not go into this without telling you that – that I don’t love you because Fate tells me to. I love you because of who you are and what you bring out in me and what I bring out in you. And I’d still choose you. I just – I think you already knew that. But I had to say it.”

He closed his eyes and held her tight, and his voice was choked with tears as he said, “I did know, Barbara. But it means everything to hear you say it. And you have to know that I feel the same way. That I’d still choose you and no one else.”

“I know,” she whispered. “I’ve always known. But it means everything to hear you say it.”

“Remember,” she whispered, “for...”

“...whatever time we have,” he finished with her, and they smiled.

And after that, they didn’t need to speak at all.

They held each other in silence, for love and comfort. Burrowing into his arms, lying on the sofa with her head in his lap, her face buried against his stomach, her hands clutching his shirt, curling herself around him, she instinctively sought the security of his embrace, willing to surrender to weakness with him as with no one else. He, too, held tightly, hugging her against him and stroking her hair; here, with her beside him, he could face his fears – fears for his ship, for his crew, and for her. If he should lose her now... but no. It was not a possibility, and he would not consider it as such, because to do so would be to imply that he did not have faith she would come back to him. And if he believed in anything, he believed in her.

They would see this through, and they would do it together.

A memory of Barbara, singing for him and him alone, came to his mind, and he smiled.

This world keeps spinning faster, into a new disaster so I run to you – when it all starts coming undone, baby you’re the only one I run to, I run to you... our love’s the only truth, that’s why I run to you...

All they would ever need was each other.

T-minus two hours, give or take.

~*~

The first shot of phaser fire came two hours later, and Barbara, manning Tactical with Shannon Reed assisting her, let fly with the Nebula-class’s full complement of phasers and photon torpedoes, a battery of offensive armament heavier even than that of the proud Galaxy-class starships. Phasers raked Providence’s stardrive, but her shields held – for the moment, at least. Her position toward the rear of the fleet, by virtue of her size and armament, preserved them from the worst of the initial battery, but the reprieve could not last. In the spare few minutes they had between the first attack run and the second, they found the time for one last, quiet affirmation as Lynley twisted in his chair to catch Barbara’s eyes over the Tactical console behind him and reached out to tangle her fingers with his.

“Live for me?” His voice was almost inaudible.

She smiled and squeezed his fingers tight. “Always. And you?”

He returned the pressure, taking comfort in the simple gesture that had come to mean so much to them both in the middle of a war where time for them as lovers was scant, and the need for that time all the more imperative. “Always.”

It would have to be enough, and thank God, for them, it was; if this was a suicide run, they could both go out knowing nothing had been left unsaid. I love you went unspoken; it didn’t need to be. The touch of their hands said it all.

Woodrow at the conn blurted, “Photon torpedoes mark 43 starboard, incoming!” and then there was no time for anything else.

“Shields!” cried Barbara, and there was a flare of sapphire off the starboard bow as Shannon threw all the power she could to the site of impact. “Eighty percent power! We’re going to take the brunt of it now, sir! Charging phasers!” And once again Providence let fly; a Cardassian cruiser went up in a bloom of antimatter fire, and Barbara crowed her triumph as yet another torpedo found its target.

On either side of them were arrayed Starfleet’s ships-of-the-line: the space around the stately Galaxy- and Sovereign-class cruisers lit up like a starfield as their forward shields took the Cardassians’ fire straight on. In between them, with the solid, reliable weaponry that had served Starfleet for nearly a century, were the older ships, the Excelsior- and Ambassador-classes that had served so long and so well, and could still hold their own. And of course two dozen at least of Providence’s sister ships, the Nebula-class vessels so deceptively small for their weaponry and strength. If she had had the time, Barbara would have felt the awe due such an impressive array; now, however, her fight was the console in front of her and the Cardassian cruisers in the distance, and the skill that had made her one of the Federation’s most formidable tactical officers came again to the fore as she fired shot after shot from every phaser strip and torpedo launcher at her command. Next to her Shannon Reed concentrated on maintaining the shields, and though their strength was failing, whatever miracle Carly Doherty was working in Engineering somehow kept them above critical through hit after hit. And in the captain’s chair Lynley was bellowing orders to T'Maya and Woodrow at Ops and Conn, rotating the ship just enough to avoid having fire concentrated on one spot long enough to break the shields completely.

But it couldn’t last. “Shields failing!” cried a desperate Barbara, hauling herself up from yet another ship-rocking hit, and as she cried out twin phaser beams tore through the primary hull. Through the comm system she could hear reports streaming, reports of casualties and death. Communication with Command and other ships had long since been lost; all they could do was keep fighting and try to survive.

At that moment Thomas Lynley made a last, desperate decision.

The Providence fell back behind two Galaxy-class starships, and the brief reprieve was just enough.

“Battle bridge.”

Barbara didn’t question; she just went, piling into the turbolift that would take them to the dark, cramped command centre in the ship’s stardrive. The Captain, she knew, would have told Medical to relocate to the auxiliary sickbay near Engineering, and Barbara could only spare a moment to thank God that she had sent Shadow to Starbase 1 and Alynna Nechayev at the start of the war; the cat was one less weight on her already breaking heart as phaser fire tore through the starship’s saucer section.

She had barely made it to the tactical console when the ship was rocked with yet another blast, and she went sprawling; Lynley, who had entered right behind her, landed half on top of her. Dimly she felt some part of her ankle crack, and then there was a dull flare of pain she didn’t have time to acknowledge. Lynley hauled her to her feet, and, ignoring the ache in her undoubtedly sprained ankle, she hobbled over to the stool behind Tactical. (Someday, she swore, she was having one of those put on the primary bridge. With seatbelts.) Shannon joined her moments later; ignoring the viewscreen that showed the wreckage of dozens of Starfleet ships around them, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the same fate might befall them, she bent back to work. Providence and her crew would survive this, or her name wasn’t Barbara Havers.

They did, but only just. When the battle was over, bits of the primary hull were floating around them like so much giant snow. While most of it was intact, it was also covered with scorch marks; the main bridge had survived, as had most of the crew quarters, but two of the holodecks and The Mezzanine were gone. The starboard warp nacelle had been sheared clean away, and over two hundred crew were dead and another hundred at least seriously wounded. Barbara herself downed copious amounts of tea for the badly needed caffeine boost; when that stopped working, as it was bound to, she went to Lafferty and glared him into giving her a pocketful of stimulant hypos to apply as needed. With so many to take care of, he, Jackie, Kimura, and their nursing staff were overworked as it was; he didn’t have the time or the energy to deal with his stubborn exec. The stims did help, insofar as they kept her going, but there wasn’t yet a chemical substitute for sleep; she holed up at her console in her quarters and did her work from there to avoid inflicting her steadily worsening temper on anyone else.

They limped at half impulse to Deep Space Nine and Miles O’Brien, who made tutting noises and ordered them off the ship and to the infirmary. Doctor Bashir was no less vehement; his excellent staff of nurses and doctors was kept busy with dermal regenerators as they fixed the surviving injured crew.

Even Doctor Julian Bashir, however, couldn’t keep Barbara Havers in sickbay when she didn’t want to be, not with another hundred of Providence’ s crew still to treat. So Barbara made her escape. And that escape, naturally, took her to Quark’s. (And, it must be admitted, some desperately needed alcohol.)

“Stardrifter. Make it a double.” Wearily, she sank onto a stool, trying to find the energy to order food. She hadn’t eaten since long before the first shots were fired, and her stomach was rumbling in protest, but nothing sounded good, not with the aftermath of the battle finally starting to set in. With so much destruction she’d seen neither hide nor hair of Captain Lynley since the battle, either; they’d conferred briefly about what needed to be done, brushed hands in silent affirmation, and been about their business. They were too busy and time was too scarce to do anything else, even with the nearly thirty-six hours it had taken them to make it to the station. Barbara had catnapped for a scarce handful of hours off and on, but even stims could only take her so far, and she knew with a distant kind of certainty that she had an hour at most before she collapsed where she stood.

“You look worse than I feel,” remarked a familiar voice behind her, and Barbara whirled on her stool to see a very welcome pair of brown eyes twinkling at her from underneath a mop of hair as red as ever.

“Nerys!” she cried, and squeezed her friend’s arm briefly. “It’s good to see you.”

“And you,” replied Kira, tired but smiling. “You got through the battle all right?”

“Two hundred crew dead,” Barbara said sombrely, “and another hundred in sickbay right now. Pretty much everyone’s got some sort of injury – I had a sprained ankle before your Dr Bashir got to me – but most of us are relatively unscathed, thank God.”

“Yes, I was very glad to hear Providence survived the carnage – although I didn’t know it until Chief O’Brien stormed into Ops asking for a spare warp nacelle because ‘some bloody fool captain got theirs sheared off without blowing up his ship, the idiot’. I told him he’d have to wait till the Inaeiu got here, just like the rest of us.”

“But wait, weren’t you getting reports of the battle?”

“After Odo and I sabotaged the comm system when the Dominion took the station? Don’t be ridiculous. No one’s going to be using that thing for at least a week. We did a very good job.”

“You... sabotaged DS9’s comm system?”

“You bet we did.” And Kira’s tone was so undeniably smug she had to smile.

“Oh, Nerys.” Helplessly, she began to laugh.

She was still laughing hysterically five minutes later when Captain Lynley strode up.

“Oh, *hic* Captain! Did you hear about – “

Lynley blinked and stared at his flushed, giggling exec, who promptly fell off her stool in a heap and didn’t get up. It would have caused quite a scene, except this was Quark’s, and therefore absolutely no one else noticed.

“Looks like her last stim hypo wore off, Captain,” remarked Kira with an absolutely straight face. “You might want to get her to bed.”

“Yes,” replied Lynley tensely, realising for the first time just how hard she had been pushing herself, “I think I will at that.” And he scooped his exec – now sound asleep – into his arms and headed for guest quarters.

~*~

“Ow. Turn the sunlight off. What day is it?”

“Wednesday.”

What?” She sat bolt upright, then immediately grabbed her forehead. “Ow. Would you care to tell me why you let me sleep for two damn days??”

“I don’t know, Barbara,” he replied blandly. “Would you care to tell me how I somehow wound up getting eight solid hours of sleep on our trip here while you got three, and subsequently used so many stimulants your body simply couldn’t continue to function?

“Um.”

“I thought as much.”

“Sorry?”

Sorry??” he erupted, giving in, at last, to hours of stress and worry.Barbara, you spent forty-eight hours running a ship and fighting a battle on three hours of sleep! You used so many stims your body couldn’t process them any more! From what Dr Bashir tells me, you’re lucky you didn’t completely destroy your liver and your kidneys! And all you can say is ‘sorry’?”

“I really am.” Nervously, she twisted the blankets in her hands. “You looked so – so desperately exhausted. My part was over, except for logistics. And we needed our commanding officer. The crew trusts me, but I’m not you. A starship runs on caffeine and loyalty – loyalty to her captain. And that’s as it should be. That’s what unites us. And the crew needed her captain well and whole, or they’d have lost themselves in fear. So I locked the turbolift and screened all your comms – if anything had come through from Command I would have woken you , immediately, but it didn’t. I’m expendable – “

“Barbara Lynne Havers, shut up.” Her mouth closed with a snap. “So help me God, if I hear you refer to yourself as ‘expendable’ again, I cannot put words to what I will do. You are anything but expendable. Do you think I’d be half the captain I am without you? Do you think Providence would have survived without you?? You are not, you never have been, and you never shall be expendable. Yes, there was a complete briefing on my terminal when I woke up – and I sincerely thank you for that, by the way – but I expected that it had been done by an Ops officer who had taken over for you while you slept. I know there were at least three who had a full six hours before I closed my eyes and would have been more than capable of taking over. If I hadn’t known my crew was stable and everything was in hand, I never would have slept at all. I expected you to have similar sensibilities. But no. It takes you collapsing at my feet before I learn that you’ve been running on stimulants for two and a half days! I could strangle you for this!”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just – I couldn’t leave them. You understand? I couldn’t leave them. Not again.”

“Not a... oh, Barbara.” And he was on the bed beside her, holding her wonderfully tight. “Kerensa. It’s not the same. You know it’s not the same.”

“It feels the same.” Her voice was broken, haunted, and he pulled her closer.

“I’m still cross with you,” whispered a soft voice in her hair.

“I know.”

“I love you. So much.”

At last, a smile. “I know that, too.” She let her fingers card through his hair, letting him anchor her. “How’s our girl?”

“Chief O’Brien is a genius. He found us a spare nacelle and enough starship titanium to patch her up long enough to warp back to Earth. She will need more extensive repairs there, and we will be out of the fighting for several months, but Providence will keep flying. Command is rotating out most of Home Fleet – the least-damaged starships that survived this battle will warp back for their repairs and serve as a guard at the same time, and we get fresh crews out here. We have another three or four days here on the station, though, so if you want to go back to bed –“

“God help me, I do,” she groaned, and sank back into fluffy pillows. Sleepy, she smiled up at him. “Care to join me?”

“You know I would.” Carefully he settled himself next to her, easing himself under the blankets. Though she normally curled into him, sleeping with her head on his shoulder, this time she turned into the wall, tucking her back against his chest. He looped his arm around her waist almost at once, and sighed in contentment as his hand splayed over the soft swell of her abdomen and she sleepily covered it with hers. His other hand settled on her shoulder, and hers came up to cover his there, too, and the feel of this – feeling as though he could shield her from anything and everything – was almost unbelievable.

If he could have stood between her and the end of the galaxy, he would have.

The sheer intimacy of his hand under her shirt, against her bare stomach, was enough to blow his mind, and if he weren’t so thrice-damned tired, he’d want... he’d want... God, he’d just want, want more of her bare skin against his, more of her moving under him like she couldn’t get enough, and he shouldn’t still want her this badly; it’s been over a year, now, and he should have got used to this, got used to her, but every time, God, every bloody time he touches her it’s enough to take his breath away.

But he was exhausted, bone-deep tired, and he knew she was worse, and that, he thought, that’s the comfort of it, because he still wants her just as badly, but he could bank it, now, because they’ve got time, all the time in the world, they’ve done this before and they’ll do it again, and so if right now isn’t the time, it’s okay. She’ll be there in the morning. They’re in the middle of a war and every battle might be their last, and he’ll have to face that fear again and again, and so will she, but tomorrow – tomorrow, she’ll be there.

She’s already half asleep, and he could feel the exhaustion starting to take him, too – it was so good, now, to hold her like this, and absolute peace settled over him as his body let go of days of tension and fear. He felt her breathing even out into the steady rhythm of natural sleep, and the comfort it brought him was immeasurable. With her, it was all right to rest and close his eyes – and so he did.

Five minutes later, they were both out completely.

 

Chapter Text

(late 2374)

She probably should have expected it. After all, with the Providence in spacedock for serious repairs, it wasn’t like they didn’t have plenty of free time – free time they would likely not see again until the war was over, if then.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t completely blindside her.

They were sitting in a lovely San Francisco rose garden, the delicate blossoms hiding their secluded bench from all but the most curious of visitors, when he turned to her and said, in the same tone he would have used to suggest Italian for dinner, “You know, maybe now would be a good time to get married.”

“I’m sorry?” she managed to choke out from around the lump in her throat.

“You were planning on marrying me at some point, weren’t you, Barbara?”

“I... you’re... you’re mad! Barking mad!

God, he loved her like this, when she was looking at him with the most intoxicating mixture of hope and confusion he’d ever seen. Barbara off balance was all but irresistible. She had the most adorable mix of disbelief and desire and delight on her face, and her eyes were glowing like stars, and he had to close his eyes in self-defence as the sudden surge of need ripped through him because God, but she’d never been more beautiful. It should have left him searching for words, as her beauty so often did, but now – from someplace he had never known before, someplace beyond consciousness that was only the truth of them and how they loved, came everything he had ever tried and failed to tell her. It wasn’t Shakespeare or Marlowe, Yeats or Byron or Browning – but it was real, as real and honest as the love that was their only solid truth in a world of chaos and uncertainty.

“Barbara,” he told her, seriously, meaning every word. “We’re in the middle of a fight for the survival of the Federation. This is the last chance we’ll have until the end of the war. Our crew is here. And I love you with all my heart. You’re everything I never dared to ask for. Duty has claimed us far too often, Barbara mine, and there are days when I wish things were different – when I wish a red alert wouldn’t pull me from your arms in the early hours of the morning, or when I wish I wouldn’t have to see you in danger. But there is no one else I would want by my side on the bridge, as there is no one else I would want by my side in my life. You know the one – ‘I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honour more.’ And although I can scarcely believe it, you love me all the more for it. We don’t need this. We know how we feel, and we know our commitment is unshakable. But I want it. I want to say ‘yes’ to everything you are, and I want to promise to you that, although duty and honour might have to come first for both of us, it is for you I make that choice – because I would not be worthy of you if I did not, and because I know you would make the same decision, because it is who we are. You own me. My heart is yours. I am yours, and you... you are my everything. Barbara, please.”

Her heart in her throat, she watched, half disbelieving, as he sank to one knee on the flagstones with her hands clasped in his, and she realised with something like shock that he was begging. Captain Thomas Lynley, Federation Starfleet, scion of one of the most renowned families the service had ever seen, was begging – for her. Oh, God...

“Please, Barbara Lynne, he said, quiet and desperate and pleading, “please, will you marry me?”

She couldn’t see through the tears, but her heart – her heart was singing in incandescent, resounding joy.

“Well,” she managed at last, “how is a girl supposed to say no to that?” And she choked out a snuffling laugh. “Tommy,” she said then, and her eyes were glowing with the closest thing to angel light he’d ever seen, “yes. Yes. Yes to everything. I will. Of course I will. I love you, so much. You’re my Captain, and there’s nowhere I wouldn’t follow you. You’re my best friend, and I’ll stand behind you and beside you with every breath I have. You’re the love of my life, and I’m just yours.”

She looked at him, really looked at the man who was looking right back at her with his heart in his eyes, and spoke from her heart. “I never thought I wanted to get married. I never thought I’d want to give myself to someone that way, or any way. I thought it would mean giving up who I am and what I want. But it’s so easy now. You’re what I want, because all the rest is nothing without you. And it doesn’t scare me, not at all. I never thought that would be true, either. But now I know it is. Yes, I want to marry you.”

The full force of how deeply, how truly she loved this man swept over her as she stared at him, leaving her breathless and halfway to swooning. “Oh, God, I really, really want to marry you. I can’t say it enough. God, yes, I will.”

Oh, thank God. Thank God. He drew her to him then and held her close, with English roses scenting the air, wondering how he’d ever managed to breathe without her, because she was his heart and his salvation. And she clung back, because here in her arms was the entire purpose of her life, the reason she’d been born, the reason she’d fought and bled, the reason for every breath she took.

They had made each other, shaped and honed each other into the very essence of their best; and in so doing they had come to fit so perfectly and so seamlessly they both knew, whatever separations they might have to endure, that they would never truly be apart again.

~*~

They married a week later, in a simple ceremony on the beach as the sun set over the Bay. Although they had debated having the wedding on Providence, the starship that had brought them together, in the end they decided that, just once, space would not claim their moment. It was an essential part of who they were, but it was not all they were, and although it might be what brought them together, it was not what kept them so.

Instead they married in the sand with a gentle wind stirring the air. The light, floaty skirts of Barbara’s simple white halter dress fluttered around her legs as she walked barefoot through the sand, her hair left to fall around her shoulders. For her, the wedding was a mere confirmation of something she had known for several years, and so instead of the bridal butterflies she had expected, she felt a serene, joyous certainty that reminded her forcibly of how far they had brought each other. No longer was she the anxious, wounded, bitterly defensive tac officer she had been when she accepted Nechayev’s offer. Now at last she had found herself and her solid ground, and the change it had wrought in her was unmistakable.

He caught his first glimpse of her walking toward him, white skirts dancing in the breeze, her hair a halo of strawberry fire framing her face, and he had to step back and catch himself a little, because she simply stole his breath. She looked like something out of every fantasy he had never dared to dream, and he was staggered beyond words that they had come to this moment at last – for, in his heart of hearts, he was an old-fashioned man, and for him, marrying her was the final, ultimate seal on a love that made his world complete.

As he saw her walking across the sand, he, too, was reminded of just how far they had come – for Barbara had opened him up, not only to other options, but to trust. In her he had found, for the first time, a partner. He had been convinced beyond a doubt that he could trust no one but himself with his ship and his crew until he met the fiery, brilliant, devoted Commander, and as she had found her solid ground, so had he found his one sure thing, because he knew, as he had known since their first mission, that her values were the same as his. She was bound to her crew and her ship as surely as he was, and the kindred spirit he had found in her had freed him from a lifetime of isolation. The new perspective she had brought him had opened his horizons in a way he had never dreamed possible, and now they were so much more together than they ever could have been apart, because she was willing to say “You’re an idiot,” and “How could you not think of this?” and “Here’s the flaw in your plan,” but in the end she gave him her opinion and then she trusted him to make the right decision, and once he had, she stood beside him no matter the cost. It had stunned him beyond words when he first realised that this tempestuous, untrusting woman had sworn herself to him, had said, “Yes, wherever, whenever, I will follow you,” and it stuns him still, that he and he alone should have earned her lasting, unwavering devotion.

Much to Barbara’s disappointment, Kira Nerys was embroiled in the War and could not make it to Earth for the ceremony; with the majority of the fleet deployed along the Cardassian border and the Bajoran sector, the Starfleet members on Earth were limited to the skeleton base of Starfleet Command, the crews of the handful of ships in repair at spacedock, and those forced to ground duty on medical grounds. Even his mother and sister were on Starbase Five as medical staff and could not get away. But in the end, with their crew – their family – surrounding them on a deserted beach at sunset, it didn’t matter. Had it been just the two of them alone on that beach speaking their vows, it wouldn’t have mattered, because this was for them and for the crew who had lived their unbelievable story with them. After the War was over they would do it again, for their friends and family, in a little stone chapel lit with candles that imbued the satin of Barbara’s dress with golden light, and it would be as much as a celebration of their survival as anything else.

But this, here and now, was simply theirs alone. The golden light that lit her was the blaze of the setting sun that turned the water deep blue and played off the highlights in her hair, but that was as nothing next to the way she glowed with ecstatic joy as she walked forward to meet the one man who could make her heart sing out, and who she would love for the rest of time.

She came toward him smiling.

At last he clasped her hands, and they turned to face each other.

“Oh, my Barbara. I have so much to say to you, and so few words to say it with. And yet I believe you know that which I cannot find the words to say, because you know me absolutely. So let me say simply this; you are my partner, and you are my best friend. A very wise man once said, ‘Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.’ He was absolutely right. Being loved by you gave me the strength to trust, and loving you gave me the courage to let go when it was needed. You have made me not just a better captain, but a better person, and there is nowhere I cannot lead as long as I know that you will follow, because you are the wind beneath my wings and the star that guides me home. When I look at you I see the most giving, genuine, intelligent, compassionate, courageous woman I have ever known, and I trust you without reservation even when I cannot trust myself. You are my hero and my everything, my truth and my light and the love of my life, and you always will be.

“Barbara Lynne Havers, I take thee to be my partner in all things. I swear to stand beside you in good times and in bad, to fight for you, to live for you, and to love you, for the rest of time. To you I pledge all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I shall be, until death and after.”

“Tommy.” She couldn’t help the way her voice trembled, but she felt no fear as she made her final, unconditional surrender. “I’m not good with words. I’m better at doing than I am at saying. You know that. You’re the eloquent one, for all you claim not to be. But this is so, so important, and for you, I... for you I’ll find the words. You are everything to me. You gave me trust when I didn’t deserve it, because you saw something in me worth trusting. You gave me the chance to prove myself, not just as an officer, but as a commander and a partner and a friend. You took a chance on me in every way there was, and you believed in me so much I found it in me to answer you when I never thought I could. I am so much better because of you. I will follow you wherever you go, I’ll stand behind you and beside you with everything I am, and I’ll be yours for all time. You’re loyal, brilliant, passionate, and true, and I love you more than life.

“Thomas Alexander Lynley, I take thee to be my partner in all things. I swear to stand beside you in good times and in bad, to fight for you, to live for you, and to love you, for the rest of time. To you I pledge all that I have been, all that I am, and all that I shall be, until death and after.”

Behind them, Admiral Taylor smiled. “By the powers vested in me as an Admiral of Starfleet, I hereby pronounce you husband and wife under the laws of the Federation, and under the laws of all member worlds thereof. Captain Lynley, you may kiss your bride.”

He cupped her face in his hands and leaned in to brush her lips with his once, then twice, before her arms came around him and he lost himself in the slick, smooth slide of his lips on hers, in the feel of her silken hair tangled in his fingers and the raspberry scent of her shampoo, in the warmth of her soft, trim body in his arms, in the birdlike flutter of her heart as she kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

It was the first time all over again, all of them at once in a surge of power and feeling that nearly brought him to his knees. It was the moment her eyes first met his and he knew he had found everything he’d never known he was waiting for; it was the first night of their command together when truth had begun to eat away at both their prejudices, and it was the night so many months and years ago that she had opened herself up to share the tragedy of her past with him.

But most of all, it was the stunning, staggering moment when he’d first felt her lips on his and dared to believe it was all his dreams coming true, and their first night of loving when they came to know what they had always been and would always be. It was so many late nights at checkers or Scrabble that had ended with the pieces spilled over the floor and her laughing into his mouth as she cried for mercy; it was confessions and heartbreak borne alone too long, and the peace that came only with unconditional love and loyalty. It was passionate arguments and violent disagreements; it was tender apologies and “no, I was wrong.” It was distant stars and unexplored nebulas, the sweet taste of victory and the sting of defeat, the courage of an officer and the vulnerability of a woman’s heart, the weakness of joy and the strength of a man’s tears.

Between them, in that moment, was destiny.

“My Commander,” he whispered at last, holding her close, “my lover, my partner, my wife...”

“My everything,” she echoed, soft and sweet and so unbearably in love, and said it all.

~*~

They didn’t have a reception to speak of, only drinks and cake on the beach. Later they’d fall on their couch with pizza and a movie they had no intention of watching, and they’d kiss and laugh like teenagers until they couldn’t take any more and made love in front of the glowing fire.

But there was one tradition neither of them would give up, and so, there on a near-deserted beach with the crew that was their family around them, Thomas Lynley drew his wife into his arms and buried his face in her hair, and they danced.

I love your imperfections
I love your everything
Your broken heart, your broken wings
I love you when you hold me
And when you turn away,
I love you still, and I'm not afraid
Cause I know you feel the same way
And you'll stay

Cause when we're torn apart
Shattered and scarred
Love has the grace to save us
We're just two tarnished hearts,
But in each other's arms
We become saints and angels...

Neither of them believed in fairy tales. And why should they? Fairy tales were dreams, not truth, and they were people, not heroes. But if there was one thing they did believe in, it was each other – and who they were together. And maybe, just maybe, the song had that right.

Saints and angels, indeed.

For him, she could be.

For her, he’d try to be.

And for each other, they would be.

We’re just two tarnished hearts
But in each other’s arms
We become saints and angels...

~*~

After everything they had been through, the Battle of Cardassia was almost an afterthought.

It wasn't, of course. Kira – bless the woman! - had joined up with her hereditary enemies – how she stomached working with Cardassians, Barbara would never know, but apparently her views had changed somewhat – and had so thoroughly disrupted Dominion communications that Admiral Ross and Captain Sisko decided to invade Cardassia Prime itself.

By this point, the numb fear was nothing new. She'd been existing in that state for the last four years.

When she remembered that battle, years later, she'd remember it in snatches: Lynley barking orders, her fingers and Shannon's flying over tactical, T'Maya's cool voice calling reports, Carly cursing over the intercom, Woodrow with his dark head bent over his console.

Fire bloomed, sirens wailed, people screamed. They lost almost as many crew as they had at Tyra, and two weapons bays to enemy fire in the first hour. Barbara thought, every second, This is it. We're done for. The Alliance line nearly crumbled under the Dominion onslaught, and ships around them broke apart with all too horrible frequency.

But then the Cardassians revolted, and everything changed.

They were gearing up for one last, suicidal onslaught when the Founders' leader declared the Dominion surrender.

“It's over,” whispered Shannon, and she burst into tears.

Barbara held her friend as best she could until Carly arrived – then she fell into Lynley's arms and surrendered to her own tears as they crumpled to the floor and cried.

They cried for Nkata, who had never seen this victory, and for the hundreds of their own who had joined him in death. They cried for the millions of Cardassian civilians killed in the bombing on Lakarian City, and for the Romulan and Klingon forces that had perished in the war; and they cried for Starfleet, which had lost nearly forty percent of its ships and crew. The years they would spend rebuilding would cost them all, and cost them dearly.

But, in the end, they had done it.

The Alpha Quadrant was safe.

Woodrow had buried his face against Jackie Kelley's shoulder. Lafferty fussed over Carly, who had second-degree burns from a console explosion in Engineering. Shannon held onto her partner and thanked God they had both survived, and T'Maya was far away, deep in a meld with Sonak.

Barbara Havers and Thomas Lynley held on to each other, and dared to believe they had survived.

~*~

The aftermath felt unreal.

Shannon and Carly announced their decision to leave deep space for posts at Research & Development. They were sick of war and death, they said; they just wanted to go home and do what they loved. Woodrow accepted a promotion to first officer on one of the as-yet-unnamed Steamrunner-class ships being built to replace those lost during the war; he would ship out within six months. T'Maya and Sonak returned to the Vulcan Science Academy. Lafferty would stay, as would Kimura Hana, but Jackie Kelley would follow Stephen, earning a well-deserved promotion to CMO on the same ship.

She'd miss them, Barbara thought. She'd miss girls' nights and joking with Woodrow and chats with Jackie. But Nkata's death had left a gaping wound in the senior staff, and they all agreed that moving on would help to lessen the pain, in time.

And so, it was goodbye.

“This was said, before, by a far better captain, to a more experienced, exceptionally skilled, and now legendary crew. We are not legends, or even heroes; nor, I think, do we wish to be. But I defy even the USS Enterprise to surpass the dedication and courage you have displayed these past five years against overwhelming odds and overwhelming force. As far as Commander Havers and I are concerned, you are, as you will always be, the finest in the fleet. Well fought, Providence, and well won.”

He looked out on his crewthe senior staff gathered in the briefing room, the rest watching on consoles all around the ship. He looked at Shannon and Carly, unabashedly wrapped in each other’s arms; he looked at T’Maya and Sonak, always unflappable, touching fingertips; he looked at Woodrow and Jackie, undoubtedly holding hands under the table; he looked at Stuart Lafferty and Kimura Hana, his valiant medical command team.

They were, and would always be, his family.

And then he looked at Barbara. His right hand, his other half, his love, his strength, his heart.

We did good, her eyes glowed, plain as day.

Yes, we did, he thought, and raised his glass.

“’To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the Devil his due,’” he quoted, low and clear. “To those we have lost, and to those we were fortunate enough not to lose. And to the journey. Many of us are moving on, to well-deserved promotions, to other ships, other facilities, other friends and other lives. Change is hard, and yet, often necessary. But I know, as surely as the stars burn bright, that a part of you will always sail on the 67237, because you sail, always, in the Commander’s heart and in mine. Godspeed, Providence.”

“To absent friends,” chorused the crew in reply, Barbara’s voice resounding above them all, “and Godspeed, Providence!”

They drank in unison.

 

Chapter Text

(2390)

“I can’t believe it’s actually finished.”

“It is rather hard to believe, isn’t it, Barbara? I will say I am pleased it is being used to promote the fifteenth anniversary of the war – there are so many who need remembering, and if we can assist that, who are we to say no?”

“No, you’re right. And it wasn’t until recently we had the time to do it, either.”

As she answered him he thought back on twenty years of her by his side, of her unflagging strength and unswerving support, and marvelled again at the miracles life can provide. She is his miracle. Even after twenty years, the heat can and does still flare hot and bright and all-consuming between them. Not as often, now, of course, but it doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t trade his Barbara – his brilliant, earnest, tempestuous, unwaveringly constant Barbara – for anything or anyone else in the galaxy, not when her kiss can still take him back to the thrill of those first trembling touches in the middle of a war when they couldn’t believe they’d found each other at last, and certainly not when he is home as long as she is with him.

He smoothed his thumb over the silver bands on her left hand, the simple wedding ring slotting with the engagement claddagh he had bought her in Ireland on their honeymoon so long ago. The crown, heart and hands – loyalty, love and friendship – had spoken to them both so strongly they couldn’t refuse it. The symbolism had been too perfect to pass by – it was the entire, fundamental truth of their relationship written in silver and diamonds. She had never been one for jewellery, but her eyes had gone soft and eloquent, and he knew.

Idly her own slim finger traced the matching, wide silver band on his left hand, and he had to smile, because of course she knew what he was thinking. She was thinking it, too.

And so he asked her the question he’d wanted to ask since they beamed off Providence for the last time, years after the unremarkable cruiser had become a commodore’s flagship, allowing Barbara the promotion she deserved so much. As the captain of Fifth Fleet’s flagship, she did what she had always done so well, and what she had been born to do – acted as the second-in-command to one of the best commanders of their generation. While directing a fleet engagement was many light-years away from commanding a single vessel, what they had known for years remained true – together, they were unstoppable.

“Do you regret it? Giving up space?”

She didn’t answer for a long moment, her free hand absently stroking the silver tabby at her side. Her beloved Shadow had passed on years ago, surviving the Dominion War by a handful of weeks before succumbing to old age. The kitten purring beside her now, one of Shadow’s great-grandkittens – Luna, they had named her – would never know life on a starship, but her eyes were Shadow’s, and the solid continuity she provided was both welcome and comforting. “Yes, and no. I miss it, of course, and it’ll always be part of us. But it was time. We had our twenty years, and they were wonderful, and I never expected to have even that. Now, though – now I just want you, with no red alerts or photon torpedoes to disturb us. No Jem’Hadar or Borg, no political unrest or revolutions, no more funerals for friends lost too soon – just us, now, and peace.”

“You, and peace. Barbara, that sounds absolutely lovely.”

Completely unselfconscious, she let the smile drift across her face. That face was more careworn now, lines carved by worry and doubt and the strain of too much fighting and too many deaths. But those green eyes still glowed as brightly as ever, and when he looked at her, he saw, as always, the most beautiful woman in the galaxy, and his one sure thing.

“Shall we read, then, Tommy?” And she let her fingers trace the lines on his own face, the same carved lines writing their story in his skin. When she looked at him she saw, as she always did, her home.

“Yes, love, we shall,” he answered, soft and sweet. His fingers danced over the PADD, calling up the file. “Here we are.” His smooth baritone rolled over her and, with his heartbeat strong and steady under her ear, he began to read. “‘2371. As the Dominion began to make its presence known in the Alpha Quadrant, Starfleet scrambled to assemble combat-ready starships in order to defend the Federation. Amidst the bureaucracy and paperwork, Commander Barbara Havers accepted an assignment as executive officer aboard the USS Providence...’”

                            

 

Somewhere, Destiny smiled, and all the stars burned bright.