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There is Joy in Repetition (But Sometimes You Have to Break Routine)

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The bridge automatically patches the away team's distress call to sickbay, but it isn't much – just Sulu's garbled call for help and a few coordinates for the transporter before the signal breaks up.

Mbenga swears when Sulu's voice fades to static before he can ask about the away team's injuries.

"Sounds like the usual," Chapel sighs.

"Yup. Number of wounded unknown," Nurse Martinez adds.

"Nature of injuries uncertain," Nurse Whittaker finishes. By now, it's become routine.

They dash out the door, pre-prepared medkits in hand, the second Uhura finishes calling for the trauma team to report to transporter room two. They are a picture perfect, highly professional, Starfleet regulation medical team, after all.

Except for the betting ring.

"Martinez," Chapel says, sidling beside her fellow nurse, "I'll bet you ten credits that Kirk has been trapped in the claws of a radioactive monster."

Martinez studies her with narrowed eyes.

"Two weeks ago, I never would've taken that bet."

"Two weeks ago," Chapel retorts, "you didn't take that bet."

Of course, Kirk had been trapped in the claws of radioactive monster, and Martinez had lost ten credits and two good bottles of Andorian rum.

Nurse Whittaker catches up to them both, flashing a credit chit in her hand.

"Nobody, not even James T. Kirk, gets attacked by pincer-wielding radioactive monsters twice in two weeks. I say it's Spock this time. He probably threw himself in front of enemy fire to save the captain's life."

Chapel laughs.

"And they say I have a crush on Spock!"

Mbenga turns around, looking fierce, and the three of them go silent until he breaks into a grin.

"I'll bet you twenty-five credits it's McCoy this time," he says. "You know he has to be just as much of an adrenaline junkie as the rest of them."

Chapel smiles, picturing McCoy charging toward an alien monster, Kirk following in hot pursuit because he couldn't stand to be outdone by his best friend. It was, she had to admit, a beautiful vision, even if it was a bit unlikely.

"Okay," Whittaker says, "I got it. Kirk pisses off some kind of cave beast, and McCoy runs to save him with some half-baked plan, and they both end up dangling by their fingertips off the edge of a cliff."

Here, all four of them nod; they've all treated Kirk for injuries sustained while dangling from improbably tall objects.

"And then," Whittaker continues, voice growing more emphatic, "it's only logical for Spock to step in and save them, and he does, but he gets wounded in the process. Fifty credits say they all beam up covered with blood and unable to stand."

They've just finished shaking on it when the first glittering blue shimmers appear on the transporter pad. And then they go silent.

Sulu arrives first, knees buckling under McCoy's dead weight. At the front of the pad, Kirk falls to the ground as soon as the beam releases him. Chapel runs toward him as soon as the safety light switches to green, but his head thuds against the polished black floor seconds before she reaches him. She leans forward, tricorder extended, before a spatter of something green catches her eye. Spock lies prone on the edge of the transporter pad, hands outstretched, leaking green blood onto the floor.

Behind her, the transporter tech is calling the bridge in a quivering voice, and even Sulu's normally calm eyes are wide with worry.  But Chapel's hands are steady, and so is Mbenga's voice when he snaps, "What the hell happened here?"
"Romulan ambush," Sulu answers tersely.  "Kirk took an indirect disruptor hit, and then McCoy went in to save him."
His voice trails off.
"I didn't even see what happened to Spock."
"Romulans? On a routine exploratory mission?" the transporter tech asks, but by that point, Chapel is no longer listening.  She and the med team administer hypos for pain, apply emergency regen patches to the worst of the wounds, load the injured men on stretchers, and carry them straight to the waiting surgical suites.  She barely even registers the yellow alert sirens; she and the other nurses too busy setting up surgical trays, placing sterile drapes, and finally, passing instruments into the surgeons' gloved hands.
And then, when the surgeries are over, there is nothing to do. The yellow alert lights are flashing, casting dull amber light over the sickbay. Normally, Chapel would be stocking emergency carts and treatment bays, watching technicians load instrument trays, and calling engineers to run last-minute diagnostics on the biobeds.  But the other nurses have done that for her while she assisted with Kirk's surgery. Probably she should find out why they are on alert, but she can't quite bring herself to care. This is a routine now too, and it's not hard to guess that the Romulans who wounded Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are fast on their heels.

She turns toward Mbenga and the two other trauma surgeons, both of whom are swaying on their feet.

"You should get some sleep," she says softly. "You'll need it if we end up on red alert."

It's the soft, gentle voice she uses on McCoy in situations like this. Sweetness isn't really her character, but she'd figured out a few months ago that McCoy couldn't argue (too much) with women who sounded too nice.

With Mbenga, her tactic works a little too well; he agrees immediately and takes the two junior surgeons with him, leaving her standing in the middle of sickbay with more adrenaline than she knows what to do with. McCoy would have argued, at least a little bit, and she misses their banter. She hadn't known before now how much she relied on it for release. Sickbay really was too quiet without him around to curse at Romulan pursuers and foolhardy captains who couldn't quite believe in their own mortality.

With nothing else to do, Chapel flits around the corners of sickbay, checking the batteries in tricorders and re-checking the contents of hyposprays that had been labeled in big, bold letters long before they ever reached the Enterprise. She cannot find even a single instrument out of place, yet the feeling that something is amiss will not leave her. Over and over again, she wanders back to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to tuck in the corners of their sheets and read their vital signs. She should feel self-conscious, but as soon as she leaves them, some other nurse appears to do the same thing. Finally, when her eyes fix on the empty chairs by their beds, she realizes what's wrong. McCoy had been injured before, and Kirk had always sat beside him, charming the nurses into letting him stay. Kirk, of course, was a near-constant patient, and McCoy stuck stubbornly by his bedside, glowering so hard that no one dared speak to him, much less suggest that he go get some sleep. Spock was frequently injured too, usually, as Nurse Whittaker had suggested, doing something brave, self-sacrificing, and on closer inspection, slightly illogical. Uhura always sat beside him with a serene face and worried eyes, and no one ever had the heart to tell her to leave. Now Uhura is at her station on the bridge, exactly where she's needed -- and where Spock would want her -- when the ship is on alert.

Slowly, Chapel drags one of the bedside chairs across the floor. The sound of its feet rasping across the tile echoes in sickbay's silence, and she knows everyone is watching her position it at the foot of Kirk's bed, where she has an equally good view of each of the injured men. It's unnecessary, she knows; they're on monitors, and their nurses are excellent. But everyone in sickbay seems to want her there. Martinez brings her a blanket, even though it's not cold, and Whittaker clasps her shoulder each time she passes by. No one tells her to move, and she stays exactly where she is until the yellow alert lights suddenly flash red.

Then she bolts out of her chair, automatically pushing it out of the flow of traffic. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy momentarily forgotten, she stands in front of the comm station to watch Sulu's announcement. He looks so comfortable and confident in the captain's chair that she almost forgets he doesn't sit there every day.

"This is Acting Captain Sulu. As most of you know by now, Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, and Dr. McCoy were wounded in a Romulan ambush on the surface of Corinthias III. Battle stations and photon torpedoes have been prepared in case of Romulan pursuit, and we are traveling to Starbase 21 at maximum warp."

He pauses just for a moment to let the words sink in, and Chapel thinks, to let the rest of the crew watch him looking calm and confident in the face of disaster.

"We now have reason to believe that Romulan intruders may have beamed aboard the ship before shields were raised. Security teams are searching all decks. Until the search is concluded, all personnel must exercise extreme caution and report any suspicious activity to the bridge immediately."

Chapel expects the broadcast to conclude then, but instead Sulu's face darkens, suddenly looking both fierce and purposeful.

"Romulan intruders, if you are on our ship, we will find you. Surrender yourselves now, or there will be no mercy."

The screen goes dark for just a second before a private call comes through. Chapel presses the button, and Sulu's face appears again. He seems surprised to see her.

"Where's Mbenga?" he asks.

Chapel surveys the medical team assembled behind her, wondering if the senior doctor had appeared during the announcement. He hadn't, and for that matter, neither had the other two surgeons.

"I don't know," she says slowly. "He should have come back as soon as the red alert sounded."

"I can't raise him on his private communicator, sir," Uhura says in the background, and Chapel instantly pictures him lying in a corridor, injured or dead, after an encounter with Romulan intruders. She hopes that she is being paranoid, but Sulu seems to be thinking the same thing.

"Listen, Chapel," he says, speaking more urgently than before. "We've noticed some unusual power fluctuations around sickbay. If there are intruders on the ship, they'll be coming for the captain. We're sending a security team to you immediately."

The lights flicker, and Sulu's image is replaced by static. Chapel presses the comm switch again and again, but there is no answer. Then sickbay goes dark.

The emergency power indicators for each of the biobeds blink green immediately, and Chapel lets out a small, relieved breath. Silently, she counts to ten, waiting for the ship's emergency generator to engage. Nothing happens. The only illumination comes from the pale, battery-operated emergency lights that lead to the emergency evac pods.

Then she hears it, a faint scraping and scratching, as if someone were crawling across the ceiling. She wants to believe it is just her imagination, but when she looks around, she sees that everyone is still, staring up at the ceiling.

"You hear that?" Nurse Whittaker whispers, but Chapel silences her with a gesture of the hand. The sounds are growing more distinct now, faint scrapes and clinks, and occasionally, a whisper of a language she cannot identify.

"The jeffries tubes," she whispers. She recognizes the sounds from lonely gamma shifts in sickbay when the engineering crews scrabbled along the ceiling, repairing frayed wires and coolant leaks.

"Security coming for us?" Nurse Martinez asks, but Chapel shakes her head, narrowly suppressing a derisive snort.

"Security would be at the door, not in the jeffries tubes," she says and startles herself with the authority in her voice. The others look startled too; everyone had been whispering since the power went out. But silence only makes her more scared, so she refuses to quiet her voice.

"You heard Sulu," she continues, speaking slowly and simply to quiet her own nerves as much as everyone else's. "Mbenga is missing. There are Romulan intruders on the ship. Now they are coming for the captain. Since the power is out, they'll have to use the manual overrides to open the hatch and get out of the jeffries tube. That gives us a little time to organize."

With one hand, she flips open her communicator, but she is not surprised to find that it doesn't work. It's all right though; somehow she had expected to do this alone.

She turns to Rawlings and Viswany, the two largest members of her nursing staff.

"You two guard the patients. Get in front of their beds." She holds their eyes until they nod an acknowledgment of her order.

"We need to get help," she continues. It's not an order yet, or even a plan, but hearing her words ring out in the silence helps her believe she can turn her jumbled thoughts into something that will save them.

"If the power's out, we'll have to use the manual override to get the doors open. Martinez, I saw you lift McCoy by yourself, so you'll be strong enough to open the door."

She watches with satisfaction as the young nurse's expression changes from fear to determination when he receives the order. She can't let him wander into a potentially dangerous situation all by himself though, so she'll have to be willing to give up at least one more of her crew. But who? Whittaker, usually so steady, looks pale beneath her dark skin. She might not be able to offer much support to Martinez in her current emotional state, but if she keeps Whittaker here, then she'll have to surrender another nurse who might actually be able to defend her patients. How can she choose?

She looks from face to face. Each of them are staring at her expectantly, awaiting her order. If she stalls much longer, they'll start to lose faith.

She steps toward Whittaker, laying an arm on her shoulder.

"Bridge, I need you to go with Martinez."

Just for a second, she is sure that she doesn't know what else to say or do to give the woman a little more confidence. But she looks at Kirk lying on the biobed in the distance, his chest rising and falling slowly. His eyes are closed, of course, but she can picture them wide open, blue, and sincere. How many times had those eyes been turned on her, steadying her until she believed that she could do the job? She can do what he did; she knows it. Almost instinctively, she lets Whittaker follow her eyes toward Kirk's biobed, quietly reminding her who they were fighting for.

"Bridge," she says again, and her voice was stronger than she could ever remember hearing it, "you and I are going to save our captain."

She pauses for a moment, making eye contact with the rest of her staff one by one.

"We are all going to save our captain."

Her eyes move to Spock and McCoy, sleeping on either side of the captain.

"We're going to save all our patients. Bridget, that means you are going to go out with Martinez, get to the security station as fast as you can, and tell them we think intruders are hiding in the jeffries tubes. Are we clear?"

She doesn't even wait for an acknowledgment this time because it's not really a question; Nurse Whittaker has no choice in whether she is clear on her orders or not.

"The rest of you, take up positions around the perimeter of sickbay. Partner up and stay low. I'll be around with phasers as fast I can."

They all look up toward the ceiling one last time. The scrabbling noises are getting louder now, drawing closer to the access panel in the ceiling. She plans to be underneath it when it opens. She nods one last time at her crew.

"Go! Whoever they are, they're coming fast!"

She runs toward the cabinet where the phasers are kept. She can't even remember when it had been opened last, and the latch catches, forcing her to tug on it with all her might. When it finally springs open, she staggers backward, nearly falling to the floor. She turns around, struggling to regain her balance, just in time to see a bolt of yellow light racing toward her. She has just a split second to register pain, and then the world goes black.




Chapel wakes reluctantly. Pulses of electricity ricochet between her ears, blocking her thoughts with their buzzing. The world -- what little she can see of it through her barely open eyelids -- is white and fuzzy, and the ringing in her ears is so loud she feels dizzy.

I have been shot, she thinks dimly. Then, a passage from an old medical textbook: disruptors function by disrupting electrical patterns in the brain, causing instantaneous death. Except that she is not dead, even though she is certain that whoever shot her was aiming to kill.

Automatically, she tries to get up, but a strange thought tugs at the edge of her consciousness. She can't say why, but she knows she shouldn't move. It's just as well; now that she is awake, she is conscious of pain radiating from her hip through her belly and heart, all the way to her head, as if every nerve is a live electric wire. Slowly -- not that she would be capable of moving quickly anyway -- her fingers scrabble toward the center of the pain. They find the tricorder she keeps in a case on her hip, its corner singed and melted. That explained it then; the tricorder had absorbed some of the energy, just enough to protect her life. But why had she been shot?

She recalls another line from her trauma textbook: disruptions to the brain's electrical signals often result in the loss of memories from the moments proceeding injury. No wonder she remembers nothing except the vague thought of danger and urgency. She needs to figure out what was happening, and soon. But try as she might, she cannot focus; squinting at the world through the narrow opening in her eyelids only makes the stabbing pain in her head worse, and the voices in the room ebb and flow as if an ocean were constantly carrying them nearer and farther away.

If she couldn't see or hear, then what does she know? Her fingers seem to have been spared the pain that radiated through her body, blocking out all other sensations, and she brushes them tentatively across the floor. The ridged, non-skid tiles beneath her fingers must belong to sickbay, but that information wasn't very reassuring. If she was in sickbay but not receiving treatment, the danger must not have passed. In fact, the whole staff must be in grave danger if no one had come to treat her.

Think, Christine, she orders herself, focusing on the slow, steady beeping above her in spite of the nauseating waves of pain it sends through her head. That sound could only come from a heart monitor, which means she has patients, and whoever they are, they're still alive. If she has been shot protecting them, she can't give up now. Carefully, she cracks her eyes open again. Now that she knows what she's looking for, she can tell that the smooth white curves rising above her belong to a biobed. A heavy weight lays across her ankles, and she looks down into Rawlings' wide-open, glassy eyes. She concentrates, hoping to feel his breath on her ankle, but there is nothing. He's dead.

Suddenly, her memories snap into focus. Rawlings was dead because she had ordered him to guard the captain. She was a nurse; protecting people was her job, but she had ordered a man -- a man with a wife and two children -- to his death. It had been stupid of her to send someone to guard Kirk simply because he was large; she ought to have asked who was the best shot or who had been in combat, something -- anything -- to make sure the person risking his life was really qualified to protect himself.

She listens to the heart monitor beating above her, trying to steady her thoughts before she loses her head completely. That heart monitor belongs to Kirk, who is still her patient and still needs her protection. Kirk lost men and women in battle and had to go on; she would have to do the same.

Ignoring the stabbing pain in her head, she focuses on the center of the room. Martinez, Whittaker, and the rest of her nursing staff are sitting on their knees, hands crossed over the back of their heads. As if they are about to be executed. She has to think of something, fast.

A voice drifts across the room, and she follows it to the edge of sickbay. A man is silhouetted in the glowing light of a single operational console. A small device juts from an access panel, and when he presses the button, pages of text flash across the screen. He begins speaking in Romulan, addressing a woman at the center of the room who is holding the living members of the nursing staff hostage. Chapel has exactly six seconds to regret not taking that Linguistics for Counter-intelligence elective before the computer's crisp voice rings out across sickbay, echoing the Romulan's words in Standard.

"Commander, the only transmission sent in the last six hours indicated that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were wounded by Romulan assailants during an away mission. It appears that the final member of the away team did not see the device. No mention of it was made in the transmission, and so long as the remaining members of the away team are killed before they regain consciousness, Starfleet will remain unaware of its existence. With the crew distracted by the death of Kirk and his Vulcan, the ship will be vulnerable to attack by the Romulan fleet before it reaches Starbase 21."

The Romulans freeze, staring at the console, and Chapel feels a small surge of triumph. McCoy hated the automatic universal translation system, but Chapel had won the battle to enable it on months ago; they could not afford to lose precious seconds during a medical emergency to turn on the translation program. Now, because of it, she knows that the Romulans intend to kill Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and she knows why -- and so does everyone else in sickbay. If just one of them survives, they can carry word back to Starfleet...which, she realizes, is exactly why none of them will survive. Except her. The Romulans already think that she is dead. If she just keeps pretending, she can live to tell Starfleet about this device before it's too late. If she can bear to watch her friends and colleagues die, that is.

She watches the Romulans stare at each other over the heads of their hostages. They are communicating with their eyes now, and she realizes that she is the only person in the room who can see both their faces. The man at the console glances toward Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, but the commander gestures toward the hostages with the butt of her gun. It is obvious what she means: kill the hostages first.

The Romulan man raises his weapon. Chapel studies her crew's faces one by one: Whittaker with her eyes closed and shoulders shaking, Martinez staring into the barrel of the disruptor. She wants to close her eyes. She doesn't want to know who they kill first; she doesn't think she can bear for her last memory of her crew to be the expressions on their faces as they die. But she doesn't give in. Thirty minutes ago, she had been a better commander than she ever imagined she could be; she won't spoil that triumph by looking away from her comrades' last seconds in the universe.

More words drift through her head, left over from one of Pike's lectures at the Academy.

"There will be a day in each of your careers where choosing to live will be the hardest thing you ever do. It's easy to die in a blaze of glory, but the safety of our world might depend on you protecting your life at any cost. It's what soldiers do, and there is no one in this room who is not a soldier."

The Romulan's finger twitches on the trigger. Chapel is not a soldier. She flings her arm into the air, upsetting a metal tray by the side of Kirk's bed. Hyposprays and medical instruments clatter onto the floor around her, and the Romulans turn to stare. She lays on the floor, spent by her one small gesture. She can't even say what she had intended by it, just that she didn't want to watch her friends die.

The Romulan commander glances toward her lazily, as if she knows Chapel isn't a real threat. When she speaks her voice is silky and slow, like she's savoring every syllable.

"Let these Starfleet pigs see what happens to people who try to stand in the way of the Empire."

The other Romulan moves toward her. She waits for her life to flash before her eyes. It doesn't. Instead, she watches the Romulan coming, feels the small vibrations his black boots make as they cross the floor. It's not fair, she thinks. She'll die alone if she has to, but not like this, not staring at her killer's boots and counting down the last seconds of her life. She wants a memory, a good memory. Her mother, maybe, or her very best orgasm. Gaila would be proud of her if she died thinking of sex. But she cannot bear to tear herself away from the present, and her eyes will not look away from those shiny black boots crossing the floor. Or the oblong, silver object right in front of them. A hypospray.

She clenches her fingers around it, willing her eyes to focus on the tiny print on the side. Epinephrine, it says. The horse sized dose they keep by the captain's bed in case of allergic reaction. She has no idea what it will do to a Romulan, but it's worth a chance.

The Romulan stops in front of her and points his disruptor in her face.

"I want you to look me in the eye when you kill me," she says. Her voice is weaker than she wants it to be. He smiles, condescending.

"Brave. For a human. Who am I to deny a dying woman's last request?"

He kneels on the floor, staring into her eyes. She jabs the hypo into his neck.

Instantly, his body stiffens and his eyes widen in surprise. How human, she thinks. We are all the same after all. He falls on top of her, convulsing wildly. Chapel can see one more arc of yellow light through her half-closed lids, and then the world goes black again.


One week and six days later, Chapel limps to a podium, smiles for a holocam, and lets Jim Kirk pin a medal on her chest. The rest of the crew departs for shore leave, but she totters back to her quarters, where she flings her dress uniform -- complete with medal -- into a heap on the floor. The others, she thinks, deserve their medals. They had overcome the Romulan commander, diverted her disruptor fire away from Chapel, and delivered her bound and gagged to security interrogation forces. Most importantly, they had not given any orders that led to a colleague's death.

Feeling faintly guilty, she switches off her communicator, ignoring the six messages flashing on the screen. There will be time for friends later, but what she wants to do now, she can only do alone. With one hand, she stows her pain medication in a drawer; she'll need a clear head for what she's planning. Then she picks up a padd and stylus and settles herself gingerly on the bed. A small photo of Rawlings' wife and daughter glow in the corner of the screen. Kirk hadn't allowed her to personally inform the family of his death, but she thinks she owes them a letter at least.

Not that the words are easy to come by. Instead, she logs into the memorial page his friends had made on the ship's networking site and scrolls through photographs. She hadn't known him well. He hadn't been part of her betting ring with Martinez and Whittaker, and since he had a wife at home, he wasn't much for wild nights on the town with the other single nurses. But the pictures were familiar -- birthday parties, graduations, his first official Starfleet portrait. Replace the face, and the pictures could so easily have been hers. He could have received a medal today, and her coffin could be speeding toward earth.

The door chimes, and she winces. Thanks to the disruptor blast, sounds still rattle around in her head. More importantly, she had wanted to spend this one day without being congratulated on her so-called heroics. Maybe if she ignores the chime, the person on the other side will go away?

No such luck. The door beeps again, maybe a little more shrilly this time, and she thumbs the comm switch and shouts, "give me five minutes!" without bothering to ask who's there. She could just open it from the control panel by her bed and spare herself the pain of trying to walk from the door, but that would mean letting whoever-it-is see her sitting on the bed in pajamas, flicking through pictures of fallen comrades. Instead, she seizes a pony tail holder and a tube of lip gloss from the bedside table and sweeps a pile of wadded tissues into the trash can. When she thinks she looks a little more presentable, she heaves herself out of bed, keeping her right hand pressed against the painful spot on her hip. Nerve regeneration really is a bitch, she thinks, and that is the first thing she's going to say to whoever's at the door, followed by a few choice words about the audacity of disrupting a hero's convalescence.

The door chimes again half a second before she gets there, so she slams her hand against the comm panel and snaps, "I'm coming!" but refuses to actually open the door -- half to punish whoever's on the other side, and half because she needs a minute to catch her breath and remember how to stand up straight.

When the door chimes again, she finally presses the button to open it, and curse words die on her lips when she sees the captain standing on the other side.

"Sir," she stammers, trying to pull herself up to attention, but she can't manage without a wince.

He walks in without an invitation and claps her on the shoulder, rather more gently than she's seen him slap Spock and McCoy.

"It's Jim today, Chris," he says, and she wants to tell him that no one calls her Chris; that's a boy's name, and she quite likes going by her last name anyway, thank you, but she knows how much good arguments like that have done McCoy, so instead she just watches him go inside. There's a cardboard box under his arm, and it clinks a little when he sits it on her table. He pulls out a chair and looks at her expectantly, but she ignores it and limps over to peer into the box.

Her eyebrows rise.

"Are we having a frat party, sir? Jim?"

"Only if you want to, Chris."

He begins removing the bottles from the box, setting them on the table in a neat line. With a little wink, he pulls out the last bottle, which is filled with something bright blue and poisonous-looking.

"Romulan ale, Chris," he says, blue eyes twinkling. "You have no idea what I had to do to get -- "

But Chapel is in no mood for banter, or drinking Romulan ale to celebrate her triumph over Romulan captors. She cuts him off.

"Sir, with all due respect, why are you here?"

His face goes serious instantly, the sparkle fading from his eyes.

"You really don't know?" he asks, looking genuinely pained.

Actually, she's pretty sure she does know: it's his captainly duty to stop her from weeping alone in her quarters. She doesn't think she can say that without sounding more derisive than she means to though, so instead she just shakes her head.

"Because you're here, Christine." It should sound like a terrible pick-up line, and no doubt he's used it that way before, but the matter-of-fact way he says it, and the way he stares at her with open blue eyes, makes her think that he really means it.

She sits down slowly, shaking her head. Her fingers trace the gold lettering on a bottle of wine, and she studies him from the corner of her eye. He is leaning forward now, showing her that he is listening. She wonders if he learned that posture from a command class.

"How did you know I was here?" she asks.

"Because I was looking for you. Everyone else is out on shore leave, having a good time. But you never showed up at the airlock."

"What?" she says, trying to make her tone light and joking. "You really keep track of everyone who gets off the ship?"

But she realizes instantly that he does. Every other time she has left the ship, he has been there in the airlock or the shuttle bay or the transporter room, shaking hands and clapping people on the back, wishing them a good time on their hours or days of vacation. He must always be the last person to leave the ship.

He smiles at her, not the big, wide-open grin she's used to, but a smaller, quieter one.

"Yeah, I do," he says, and she hears the unspoken words behind it: and I really love doing it.

"Thanks," she answers. It's all she can think to say.

"It's not a problem," he says. His voice is so firm that she knows he means every word, and she wants to thank him for that too, but he doesn't give her a chance to respond.

"Chris, you saved my life, and Spock's and McCoy's. Maybe even the whole ship's. Why are you alone in your quarters?"

She fidgets under the intensity of his gaze, unable to look him in the eye. She can't refuse to answer, not when he's given up part of his shore leave to be with her.

"Because I screwed up, all right?" she says, the words coming out more angrily than she had meant. But she cannot help but be angry; she knew that she had made mistakes, but to be forced to admit them to her captain when the wounds were so raw was more than she could bear.

She expects him to argue with her. Good captains make their crew feel better, after all. There's probably even a class for that in command school too.

Instead he looks at her with a challenge in his eye.

"Okay. Tell me how your screwed up. Tell me what you would have done differently."

The first question is easy; Rawlings had died because of her orders. The second answer won't come. She had been pondering it ever since she had awakened in sickbay days earlier, but she still cannot imagine how to save Rawlings' life. In a way, that was the worst part; if she truly had any talent for command, she would be able to say what she could do better next time.

The longer their silence stretches, the more smug Kirk looks. When she finally shakes her head to admit that she doesn't know the answer, he looks positively triumphant.

"Look, Chris, you can't answer the question because you didn't do anything wrong. You were alone. You were unarmed. And you were up against a very powerful Romulan agent, who, by the way, is in Federation custody because of you."

He leans in a little closer.

"Look at me, Chris."

He won't continue until she meets his eyes.

"You weren't just good; you were amazing. And the fact that you care about your crew so much that you're torturing yourself in the dark just proves it more. "

If he had spoken less emphatically, or if he hadn't made her look at him, she might have believed that he was feeding her pat phrases from the Academy. But she can see that he's not. There is no guile in his eyes, and he's not looking at her with any expectation of an answer. She sees that he'll let her stay quiet for as long as she wants, but also that he won't leave until she believes in herself as much as he does.

"Does it ever get any easier?" she bursts out, hating herself a little for the tinge of desperation in her voice.

"No, and if it ever does, I'm resigning my commission. Believe me, Chris, I can remember every face, every name, every call I've ever made to families back home... But I wouldn't have it any other way, and neither should you."

She lets out a slow, shaky breath. She had never before heard the captain admit to anything less than complete invincibility. His honesty reassured her more than anything else tonight.

"So what do you do?" she asks.

He shrugs his shoulders, looking as tired and bewildered as she feels, though only for a second.

"Try to cut myself some slack once in awhile. Take a night off to mourn the dead and celebrate being alive."

He glances at the line of bottles on the table.

"Usually, I have a drink with a friend."

He pauses just long enough to make her think he really is afraid that she'll turn him down.

"I'd really like it if you'd do that with me tonight, Chris."

"Okay," she says softly, and fills their glasses.

"To life," he says.

"To life," she echoes, raising her glass.