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Leave, Taking

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All changes are more or less tinged with melancholy, for what we are leaving behind is part of ourselves. Amelia Barr

Christine Chapel rests her hands on the coarse fabric of the biobed's coverlet, staring unseeing up at the silent monitor; like most of the ship's systems, it has been powered-down since their arrival in drydock. The room around her is quiet, though she's aware that Doctor McCoy is still working, trying to look busy in his office. He's ostensibly finishing up some last-minute paperwork, but she knows he's just not willing to leave until the captain and Mister Spock do.

She's reluctant to leave the medical bay herself, oddly unwilling to face the hollow corridors with so little of the ship's crew -- her soul -- left on board. Which is a funny thought, really, and strange to so personify the Enterprise.

But then, it's been a strange five years. Which, she thinks with the bitter-apple taste of self-deprecation, she should have expected from a deep-space exploration mission. Of course, all she'd really been thinking when she'd signed up was that it was a way to find her vanished Roger -- as if "space" were a singular destination, like a shopping complex or nature preserve that he'd somehow gotten lost in.

The irony that she up and left everything she'd known and all the possibility of the life she'd expected, just as abruptly and with as little explanation, is not lost on her. She turns away from the biobed, walks across the duranium flooring to pick up the small bag she'd left next to the nurses' station. Most of her possessions have already been shipped to the surface via shuttle, to be put in place once she's been assigned quarters at the Academy, but she's kept those few things truly precious to her in the coarse-woven bag; itself a gift from Uhura. A change of clothes. A blown-glass sculpture Doctor McCoy had picked up for her on Risa, always warm on her palm, colors flowing through its gentle curves in response to her touch. The harvest knot made by Riley when he'd been trying to court her.

She feels a small twinge of sadness in her chest, that she'd been so oblivious. And, as always, the pink of embarrassment at her own behavior. Apologies and professionalism had gotten her past the need to cringe at the emotional confessions that had put Spock in such a difficult corner; now, the mystery was her own repeated willingness to give up what she could have had for someone emotionally unavailable.

She should have learned her lesson with Roger.

But she doesn't want to think about Roger, his cyborgs. The man she'd given up her earth-bound life for had died long before they found him, and what he'd wanted to do to her, to the Captain, to everyone still sends a shiver down her spine.

And easy to see, in hindsight, that he had been a safe place to put her desires, because she'd known he wouldn't, didn't, reciprocate her feelings. Safe, because she didn't have to worry about burning either of them down.

She shoulders the bag, and walks out of Medical without a backward look. She's done with being safe. Done with putting herself second when she should be pursuing what she wants. Done with watching the people around her for cues, done waiting for approval. Done hiding her strength, her potential, in favor of encouraging those around her.

She strides down the hallway to the turbolift, head high. She is done putting aside living possibilities in favor of the unattainable.

She has two weeks' shore leave, and then she'll be back at the Academy, only this time she won't be returning after the Enterprise has been retrofit, or repaired. She'll be a student again, much to her own amusement and Doctor McCoy's chagrin -- how he'd groused when she'd told him her plans! Written down, his words would have looked bitter or angry, but she'd had five years to learn how affection and apprehension hid in the timbre of his voice, all shades of warm amber. She was going to miss him, too.

She'd seen the letter of recommendation she hadn't asked him to send; she was surprised and gratified to realize he did value her skills, her calm in a crisis. It had been typically brusque and to the point, and means all the more to her for that.

"I need a head nurse, not a doctor who's going to argue with all my orders," he'd grumbled to her across his strangely barren desk, sharing one last bourbon before she'd left to pack.

"But Leonard," she'd answered, "we won't be working together when I graduate. I'll have my own nurses to boss me around."

He'd pursed his lips at her sourly, then let them slide into a slow grin, lifting his glass and his eyebrows. They'd drunk to that.

She steps out of the 'lift and heads down the hall to the transporter room.

"One to beam down, Mister Scott," she says, a little surprised to find the chief engineer still manning the post.

"Of course." He gives her an insouciant grin, brown eyes twinkling. "And you didn't think I'd leave my girl until they made me, did you?"

"No, not at all." She shakes her head, returning his grin. "I expect I'll be hearing about someone having to extract you from a Jeffries tube so they can finally decommission her."

"Well," he says, watching her step up onto the platform, "I might not go that far. So, you'll be Doctor Chapel next time I see you, I expect?"

"I certainly hope we'll see each other before then," she says, and gives him a little wave, the beam of the transporter breaking his affectionate smile into thousands of millions of tiny particles that resolve into a uniformed stranger behind another command console.

"Welcome home," the young lieutenant says, and through her automatic thank you Christine feels a pang for her lived-in, if not loved-in, quarters on the Enterprise. She steps off the platform to clear the way for whoever comes through next.

She walks outside into the cool damp San Francisco evening. It feels strange, soft and almost slippery on her skin after five years of mostly recirculated air. She can smell the salty tang of the nearby ocean, familiar but forgotten. She remembers coarse grains of sand between her toes, the chill of the water lapping over her ankles and up her calves; curious to know if reality will match, she considers walking down, baptizing herself in the Pacific.

She wonders if the shock of the water would be enough to make the planet beneath her feet feel like home.