DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Mandi Schultz and Cheryl Rice and is copyright (c) 1980 by Mandi Schultz and Cheryl Rice. Rated PG13. Originally published in Alpha Continuum #4, 1980

A "Diamonds and Rust" Story

No Special Hurry

Mandi Schultz and Cheryl Rice

"She can kill with a smite, she can wound with her eyes,

she can ruin your faith with her casual ties..."

"Always a Woman to Me" (c) Billy Joel

Kirk raised the glass to his lips, then paused, peering over the rim. "I assume I got it because I was the best man for the job," he said, then realized the comment wasn't completely rhetorical. He forced a hitherto easy grin in the direction of Commodore Paul Caidan who sat opposite him. "Let me put it this way," he continued, then cleared his throat.

"Let me put it this way," Caidan countered. "What do you really think?" Finishing his wine, Caidan cast a hasty glance at his wrist chronometer, then got to his feet. "I hate to bear bad tidings and run, but the Caitan treaty delegates are waiting and they're overly fond of formalities like punctuality."

"You might tell them you got delayed cleaning up after the parade," Kirk said quietly.

Caidan's smile revealed perfectly even teeth. "And I do it extremely well, Captain. Good day."

Kirk had a sudden urge to shatter the glass he was holding. "We're not finished -- sir."

The other man sighed obviously. "That's rather a matter of opinion, don't you think?"

"Tomorrow after breakfast -- on the handball court." Kirk was incapable of restraining his command voice at that moment.

Surprisingly enough, Caidan grinned. "You won't like that."

"I picked it."

"Yes, but she's the one who taught me how to play."

Kirk smiled, rolling the slender glass between his palms, purposely not looking at the man he spoke to. "That's alright. She told me I'm the only one who ever beat her." There, he thought, top that.

Paul Caidan, who had known her longer than the starship captain had, didn't have much difficulty finding a comeback. "And you believed her?"

* * *

Six months ... six solar months, he thought. Has it been that long?

The Enterprise hung in space as though suspended in time. Indeed it was suspended, in a sense -- in drydock. Starfleet, bursting with pride over the success of the overhauled ship, had requested it be docked for inspection. The recent past had been the equivalent of a test run and now a horde of technicians crawled over every inch of machinery to take readings, check gauges, measure stress points, etc. It reminded Kirk of a physical after a transplant operation. Although his crew was pleased enough with the sudden leave they had been given, the only one who seemed to be enjoying the situation was Scotty, proudly pointing out how well everything had been working.

Ship docked, Scotty in charge, crew scattered for the next two weeks, James Kirk had taken the shuttle flight to Babel largely on impulse. An impulse, he was forced to concede when he considered it objectively, that disturbed him because he hadn't expected it. Further introspection revealed its source was a sudden desire to be alone. Odd, he thought, since the Enterprise had resumed active duty with the Vger assignment only six solar months before.

As he took the ambulatory corridor to the tower's observation deck, he wondered how that feeling had managed to return without his noticing it had been creeping up on him.

The memories that jostled his newfound peace of mind breached his defenses the same way, obviously, he thought as he settled to enjoy the view from the deck. He could remember the last time he sat there -- had it really been the same table? -- an ice-blonde with cat-eyes seated across from him, calmly sipping a very very old champagne while he wondered how she could stand the taste. They'd held hands and watched the traffic perform its peculiar ballet, ships suspended i n the docking system almost like a plaything hung over an infant's cradle. They had talked quietly, laughed gently, and planned passionately.

A servomechanism presenting him with his drink shook Kirk's mind from its reverie. He was embarrassed to admit even to himself that this was the fourth time he'd come to the deck to relive that memory. It was a high point of his former life, after all.

That was what bothered him about this trip, he realized. His unusual willingness to stroll down memory lane, as it were, even when the memories seemed to be ripping his heart out barehanded. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to go through with it even though there'd been three calls from McCoy inviting him to join the activities over on Starbase IV. No, he would stay. Instinct had told him to go to Babel for a reason and if he didn't lose his mind first, he'd figure out what it was.

Meeting Paul Caidan on the day of his arrival, and in his favorite restaurant, hadn't been the highlight of the trip, but assuming they had buried the hatchet some time before, Kirk attempted something close to congeniality. At least he'd tried. It hadn't worked. Looking at Caidan again made all the ti me in between dissolve like melting snow. The only place they had disposed of any hatchets was in each others' backs.

"I don't suppose you've heard from her," Kirk had said over the last of his meal that day. "Subspace radio between our galaxy and theirs--"

"Are you serious?" Caidan wore an expression of utter incredulity.

Kirk shrugged. "Maybe your secret intelligence agency has a better communication system than 'Fleet does. We poor slobs can't signal between galaxies yet but that's because you get a bigger budget than the military does."

Caidan looked like he knew why the sphinx smiled. "I don't suppose ... well, it was on my order that you weren't told so I might as well be the one to tell you."

Kirk felt the color draining from his face and there was that knotting sensation in the pit of his stomach again. Once he had been convinced that he was getting ulcers, and if he hadn't suddenly gotten so busy, he might have. "Don't," he said, quietly shaking his head. "I told her goodbye once and that was already once too often. She said she had to go with them. A matter of honor, she said, more important than--" He almost said " love--or me" but he had the distinct impression Caidan would laugh. Suddenly, he felt as though his skin were alive with invisible fire ants. "Where is she?"

"Precisely at the moment? Really, even she is not important enough for us to keep that close an eye on her. She's in D-quadrant gathering intelligence for us. Did you really think she'd leave our galaxy before her work was finished?"

"She said she had to leave with the Rifferi. Their lord gave us the information we wanted--" Kirk began impatiently.

"Wanted? That's a calm way to put it. We wouldn't be sitting here -- here wouldn't be here -- right now if Reisul hadn't helped the Federation." A man of peculiar loyalties, even Paul Caidan was compelled to be honest about the narrowly averted galactic disaster.

Commander Pau Caidan, the man who trained her to be the lying bitch she was, Kirk thought, the man who aided the controller of the Federation's espionage and intelligence agency. The man who called the starlord whose vital knowledge only saved the entire Federation from annihilation by his first name.

"I know that," Kirk said at last. "So why does it amuse you so much that I assume she kept this matter of honor that was so important and departed with them?"

"Simply, Captain, because the Rifferi were leaving our galaxy. You know she won't leave. She can't. With Reisul's help, we beat Yang the Unspeakable this time--"

"That's a euphemism," Kirk said. "I'd say 'crushed' is more accurate."

"But the weapon and the body were never discovered. She knows that as long as he's alive he'll try again."

"And that's her matter of honor," Kirk summed it up, knowing it was true. She'd sold her body -- and his honor -- for it often enough. To her the Federation's honor really was precious little by comparison.

"Something like that, Kirk."

"How did Reisul and his people take it?"

"She jumped ship before they reached the Rim. But you know her at least as well as I do, Kirk. Reisul might've been extremely relieved to be rid of her."

Knowing sometimes there was nothing sadder than a wish granted, Kirk chuckled softly. He remembered a feeling something like that. Part of him hated her and the rest burned for her. "Where is she, Caidan?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"The lady and I have unfinished business."

"Not according to her, surely you know she'll never see you again."

"Maybe that's what she said but I don't believe it. And maybe you're lying -- sir."

"You're a reckless man, Kirk. I always told her that, but--"

Dear lord, Kirk thought, make him say that she loved me anyway. "But..."

"But Chantal is like a man where things like that are concerned. She takes what she wants when she wants it and worries later."

Kirk suddenly realized his fists were clenched. "Where is she, Caidan? So help me, I'll--"

"You'll what, Captain? Do something worth risking that new ship for?"

That draining feeling took him again. He relaxed visibly.

"By the way, how is she?" Caidan asked of the ship as if she were alive.

Does he expect me to salivate? Kirk wondered. "The Enterprise is as she should be," he said simply. "It was worth the cut in pay," he threw in casually, referring to what he had lost resigning his admiralty appointment.

Their gazes locked and each knew what the other was thinking, that credits weren't all Kirk had given up to get where he was now which, oddly enough, was essentially back where he had been before it all started.

* * *

"And she only reveals what she wants you to see,

She cried like a child but she's always a woman to me."

"I am going with him," Chantal said, purposely avoiding his eyes.

Kirk couldn't believe her words. "Don't be silly. Neither of us has to now. You know the Rifferi need supplies for their journey across our galaxy. The Consul is making trade arrangements right now. They'll come to some sort of reasonable agreement before the day is out."

"You cannot make reasonable agreements with a zealot. Reisul is not just a holy man. He's starlord of the entire system. And he is not just the starlord, he's their holy man. Why can you not see? Either way, he has no reason to bend to the Consul's will. Reisul gave them the information and aid they needed to defeat Yang and when he did that his terms were perfectly clear. He wants one of us to continue with him on his journey. He will have you as heir apparent or me for.. Well, for his reasons ... and the bargain was matter of honor."

"Chantal ... he could have both of us," Kirk said finally and still his words surprised him.

She looked desperate. "You know you do not mean that. You cannot leave here. This is your time and place."

"And you're not one of us?"

"I never have been. I am not bound like you are."

He caught her hand, the one that wore the deathbird ring and his ring side by side. "How can you say that, even as a joke, after everything that's happened?"

"It is because of everything, Jim. Why do you refuse to understand?" She shrugged, silver-pale hair framing her finely chiseled features, then tried to walk away but he wouldn't release her. Turning to face him with a pained expression she went on. "I love you more than I love living. But the world is not the two of us. The world is waiting on us, Jim, on our decision."

"I can't let you do this."

"For once, Jim, let us think with our heads instead of our bodies. I have nothing in this life but you, and, if you go, there is nothing left here for me. But this is your place, you have people who care about you. You have something to miss. Except for you, I do not. Be reasonable."

For a second, he thought he was going to slap her. "Reasonable?" he burst. "What in hell on earth, or anywhere in this galaxy is reasonable? An ancient alien warlord comes within inches of blowing the Federation off the charts only because a starlord-turned-Moses just happened to be leading his caravan through our space at the right time with just the right information to save us all." Kirk caught his breath then went on, "Which he gave us only after he managed to extract a promise for very special payment that was made under extreme emergency conditions and wouldn't stand up in a court of law anywhere in this galaxy." The ringing in his head threatened to shatter his eardrums but he continued. "Now you're telling me that you've decided to join them to be a slave to that religious fanatic who probably wants to keep you chained to his bed, when he's not busy torturing the demons out of you -- and you're telling me to be reasonable?" He rubbed his forehead but it didn't stop the pain. "Good lord, Chantal, what's reason anymore?" In his fury he didn't realize he'd released his hold on her.

Chantal moved slightly, then spun around to face him, the small, glittering stiletto she always carried in her boot now in her hand. "Please do not worry, Jim. He will not hurt me."

His eyes widened. "Dear god, Chantal, you're not going to kill him, too?" He regretted the "too" but he couldn't erase it.

She shook her head. "I only said he would not hurt me."

Kirk took a deep breath. "Chantal, this is beginning to sound like those discussions we used to have before the holocaust on Capella. I used to fee like I was going crazy because they never made sense."

"I know," she said quietly. "I helped."

"God, no," he sighed. "You kept me going."

"Of course I did, Jim. I caused all the problems."

"Quit trying to change the subject. It won't work." He realized he felt exhaustion closing in and couldn't remember the last time he'd slept eight hours straight. "Finish dressing so we can go to the Consul meeting."

"No, Jim," she sai d, sheathing the weapon. " I am not going to the meeting. I am packing." She turned away from him.

Ice cold, he cleared his throat. "What's the matter, Chantal? Bored at last?"

She refused to be baited and failed to respond.

"At least that I can understand. I guess things have been pretty dull lately compared to before. You don't have anyone to poison me against and you've run out of lies to tell me and reasons to tell them. Or have your masters found you a bigger fish now? An admiral maybe?"

Her lank frame before him began to tremble, suddenly, uncontrollably, and she sank to her knees. "No please, no more... If you ever truly loved me, no more..."

By the time he reached her, her body was racked with immense sobs, tears streaming down the pearlike cheek. Kneeling by her, he cradled her in his arms and rocked her as though soothing a child.

"You of all people should understand," she said i n a whisper, looking up at him through lashes that glittered with tears. "It's the on ly decent thing I've done in my life."

"But you're doing it with our life, Chantal."

She clasped her arms around his neck. "I never loved before, and never will again. For whatever it is worth, you are my only love. Perhaps I can finally bring some dignity to my existence by doing this."

He wasn't sure where her trembling stopped and his started. "Chantal, stop talking nonsense like this. You're not going with them and that's final. I...I forbid it."

She rendered the faintest smile. "You fool," she said softly. "When have you ever been able to stop me from doing what I must do?" Her lower lip quivered. "Please do not forget me. I know it is not fair but don't ever forget me. No matter what happens, I will always love you."

He pulled her into his arms, covering her face with kisses. "I won't let you go," he whispered fiercely. "I won't... I can't..."

"She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you,

She can ask for the truth but she'll never believe you.

And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free,

She steals like a thief but she's always a woman to me."

Kirk didn't know how long he'd slept. He was only conscious of the silver amazon in his arms and the fact that his back was twinging because they'd fallen asleep on the floor sometime before. The skylight overhead informed him that the sun had long since set. They'd missed the meeting. The arrangements had been made and since no one had come beating on the door to drag either of them away, they were safe.

He gently kissed the top of her head, thinking of all the times he'd either cursed or blessed the powers that be for putting her into his life. He thought too of the time he first realized that he would always both love and hate her. As surely as his right arm was a part of him, so was she. On Capella, so long before, the puzzle pieces fell into place, revealing her to be a murderess, a whore, a spy, a dealer in lives, a trader in death and destruction, and a stealer of souls. Then on Babel when she stood before him and admitted it as though she were daring him to continue to retain her. Afterwards, when he'd come to his senses, he dragged her from Caidan's bed and brought her to his own. She'd struggled and cursed him. He'd slapped her when she bit him and before he could see it, her knife sung its way across his chest. But the sudden sight of his blood seemed to appall her and she'd stared wide-eyed, panting to catch her breath.

"It seems you've left your mark on me," he'd said then.

Tears like twin diamonds inched down her cheeks, silvergold hair hung about her face and streamed over her shoulders, and he thought she was the most glorious sight he had ever seen, incredibly, worth whatever the price. Glorious, that was the word for her, and for what they had together.

Chantal stirred slightly in his arms and the movement brought Kirk to the present. Craning his neck to look down, he saw that the petal-soft lips rested on the line of the scar on his flesh. The sight excited him tremendously. Groaning softly, he tightened his hold on her. She moved again, then her eyes opened suddenly.

"You all right?" he asked quietly.

She seemed to purr in reply.

"I can remember a time when I was the one who went crazy and then you had to comfort me," he chuckled, feeling a delicate finger trace the scar line. "Sure you're all right?"

"Quite," she seemed to sigh.

"I've got to leave," he remembered with a sigh. "They're probably dragging the lake for me by now."

She drew herself up catlike next to him, the glorious rain of her hair covering her like a mantle. "Will you be back tonight?" she asked, looking almost sleepy.

"Probably not, it could be very late."

"I shall wait up for you."

"You don't have to," he said, finding his clothes. "I think you need a good night's sleep as much as I do. In the morning we'll have breakfast and then wave goodbye to the Rifferi together."

She didn't reply but merely watched him in silence.

"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked again.

She nodded.

"And no more nonsense about offering yourself as sacrifice?"

Without receiving a verbal reply, he bent and kissed her hard on the mouth. "I love you, Chantal," he said intensely. "I won't ever let go of you." He broke away suddenly, strode to the door and then out of it.

Slender fingers touched lips, trembling. The six-fingered hand reached to the door while the other clenched to a fist to stifle the sound that caught in her throat. She shuddered until her head cleared, then looked at the tiny droplets of blood issuing from the teethmarks left on the hand. Shakily, she got to her feet and went to the intercom.

"She takes care of herself,

she can win if she wants,

she's ahead of her time,

she never gives out and she never gives in,

she just changes her mind"

Chantal left the bed reluctantly, but knew there was little time in which to finish packing. She had made arrangements to put most of her things in storage under another name so she was taking only the clothes and personal items she thought she would need. This assignment was going to take a little more cunning than she'd recently been practicing, but that excited her. She knew she'd gotten soft during the time she'd spent with Kirk and Alpha agents who got soft tended to die very nastily and suddenly.

Quietly, she tiptoed across the room and began to dress in the traveling clothes she'd left out of her luggage. Kirk would not be back before noon, she'd been assured of that. His room was being monitored and the minute sounds of life were detected, Caidan would keep him busy enough to give her the time she needing.

Dressed, she moved to the desk and put a blank cartridge into the console. She pressed a button to activate the unit and took a deep breath. "Please remember that I love you," she said just loud enough for the machine to hear. Retrieving the cartridge, she placed it an the desk. Then she removed the gold and diamond ring she'd worn since that night in the snow-capped mountains when Jim gave it to her, and placed it next to the tape. The ache in her heart seemed to roar in her ears, a cacophony of silence.

Standing in the doorway of the room, she looked back to the bed. He certainly was beautiful, she thought, looking at the sleeping body of the young man there. She told herself that her feelings about beauty and art really couldn't be denied, and he was classically beautiful. She'd seen holograms of ancient sculptures that he might have modeled for. Dark wavy hair against pale skin, the heroic nose and generous mouth, the lean hard body so different from what she had grown accustomed to. It was a pity that she had to leave him so soon. The time she had to spend with the Rifferi did not promise to be very entertaining. Resigned, she shouldered her totebag and called for a servomechanism to help her with the rest of her luggage, Then on impulse she changed the order for the pick-up to an hour later. She slowly walked hack to the bed, scattering clothes as she went. Slipping under the covers she started lightly kissing the young man awake. Half-drunk with sleep, he pulled her into his arms. While she could still think, she admired his beauty. He wore his glorious youth and shining innocence like a coat of silver armor. She vaguely wondered what his name was.

No matter. All she wanted was a temporary refuge from reality. She didn't love him, she would never love again. But he was young and beautiful. And two out of three wasn't bad.

"She'll promise you more than the garden of Eden,

then she'll carelessly cut you and laugh white you're bleeding"

"What do you mean, she's gone?" Kirk stared at him in utter astonishment.

"Surely you knew?"

"Caidan, if this is another of your games--"

"You can save that tone for subordinates, Kirk. You knew the arrangements. Chantal left with the Rifferi this morning."

"But the Consul--"

"The Consul had to vote on the plan, and they did it gladly, too. I think Chantal will probably even receive some kind of commendation for her services above and beyond the--"

"Dammit, has everyone lost their minds? She wasn't going with them. She told me last night that she wasn't."

"And she gave a superb performance, I'm sure," Caidan said matter-of-factly, "to an especially appreciative audience. She kept you from attending the meeting."

Kirk felt as though he'd been hit. "When did they leave orbit? If they're not out of the star system yet, there's still a chance." He went to the intercom, intending to begin arranging his pursuit.

"I'm afraid you're grounded temporarily, Captain," Caidan went on silkily."The deck won't take your call."

"I assume I'm grounded until they're far enough to go into warp?"

"Approximately that long," Caidan agreed.

"Then you'd better get ready to put me under guard because that's the only way you'll keep me here."

"That can be arranged, Captain. But before we get official, why don't you go to her room?"

Kirk knew he was being baited but he couldn't resist. He made his way to her quarters in a barely contained frenzy. The door opened and he almost collided with a dark-haired young man on his way out.

"What the devil-- Where's Chantal?"

"She's not here," the younger man said quietly, studying the other thoughtfully. "Are you ... is your name Jim?"

With a sensation not unlike sleepwalking, Kirk nodded

"She said your name," the young man said, "and then she cried."

Kirk brushed past him and entered the bedroom, knowing what he was likely to find so he refused to look at the bed. Aware of his intense jealousy, Chantal had used that tactic before when she felt she had to say something to him that words would not express. Unable to understand her needs, he had blotted the incidents from his memory.

The closets were empty and the room was conspicuously tidy since all her possessions had been removed. It was so tidy in tact that the items on the desk looked like clutter.

The ring burned in his hand when he touched it. In his other hand he held the cartridge, wondering whether to play it or destroy it immediately. He would never know which was the right choice. He slid it into the console. Hearing her voice brought a strangled incoherent cry from the depths of his being. Wrong choice. Again.

"But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be,

blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me"

He realized that it was the sound of his own cry that woke h im. He was shaking, covered with sweat. He ran a hand through his hair and tried to breathe deeply several times, then started to cough. His nightmare had taken him back into that room the day he realized she was never coming back. The insomnia had started then. When he got the Enterprise back, he was suddenly able to sleep again, but then the nightmares started.

It had been a while since he'd felt so desperate for a drink. There'd been that, too, because sometimes it did not matter how hard he tried, he could not erase the perfectly clear and crisp image of her face from his mind. And sometimes, even worse, he couldn't quite remember it.

"She is frequently kind and she's suddenly cool,

she can do as she pleases, she's nobody's fool"

The handball game ended in a tie with both men nearly exhausted as they went into the showers. The verbal fencing was more strenuous than the game they had lust played. Suddenly drained from it all, they went through the cool-down rituals and were finally in the locker room, preparing to leave. They'd done all this in almost total silence since leaving the court, except for the most perfunctory of remarks.

"So what's the bottom line?" Kirk said at last. "I know you're itching to tell me something and I've been trying to figure out exactly what. You've already made sure I realized she left me with and for a lot of lies. You've taken whatever I might have had there. What else do have that you can take?" Kirk's ears could scarcely believe the words they heard. It was exactly what he was feeling but he couldn't understand why he was exposing his most private of feelings to a man he did quite literal ly hate -- and one whom he knew returned the feeling. "Are they taking my ship again? You've convinced them it needs a younger man for the job?"

Caidan looked mildly amused. " I on ly wish I had the kind of power you seem to think I have. I'm afraid I really don't know what you expect of me. Besides, the Federation and Starfleet owe you a great deal, Captain. It was your expertise and know-how that enabled us to act with the information we got from the Rifferi to stop Yang. As for my agency," Caidan paused briefly in thought, then went on, "well, you've had our formal apology for the things that happened while you were involved with one of our agents. And you turned down the monetary remuneration our director offered you."

"Damn you, Caidan, I don't want your money! Just tell me what bomb you're going to drop on me next. Okay, so Chantal's alive and she's still in our galaxy, but she won't see me. And thank to the fact that I'm a good soldier, I've been rewarded ... rewarded," he repeated the word thoughtfully. "You did it, didn't you? 'Fleet operations kicked poor Decker out from under his braid for a reason. They knew I didn't want to be window dressing. The admiral's aboard the flagship but the captain is really in command. To make me happy, the Enterprise would have to be all mine. And as long as I've got her and cleaned up the Vger mass for you, you might as well leave me where I can do the most good because I'll love every minute of it anyway."

"And don't you, Captain?"

"Is that it, Caidan? To make sure I know that I've got the only thing that could make me happy these days and I owe it all to you?"

Caidan smiled in enigmatic silence.

Kirk looked as though he were hearing a disembodied voice. "There's more, isn't there? That's too easy... You ... when the reports of the cloud creature started coming in, 'Fleet mobilized with Decker. He'd been trained for the new Enterprise. I was an afterthought somehow. But why? You didn't need to reward me further. You'd made me an admiral. And you didn't need me either because Decker knew that ship. He was good. Oh, it's flattering to think they considered me so knowledgeable that even my rusty talents were an asset but now I'm not convinced."

Caidan looked suddenly years older and infinitely more tired. "Since I know enough of you to know you won't let this rest, I shall tell you. But perhaps you should know that it might not let you rest once you hear."

"Either way I won't so it makes little difference."

"Starfleet reinstated you despite the Capella debacle and everything else Chantal involved you in because they were grateful. You know that. If you hadn't spearheaded the attack on Sergering when you did the way you did, it's no secret that Yang would've turned its dual star into a super black hole that would be sucking us all in if that cloned army of his had missed any at us. We're a people that rewards out heroes, Captain. Starfleet suddenly had so much water under her bridge that they could easily forgive and forget the lives lost under your abandoned command on Capella, especially since there's nothing and no one on Capella to remind them anymore."

Kirk refused to twinge visibly at that remark though he bled inside. The Capella debacle was perhaps the only thing he could not forgive Chantal for involving him in. He'd heard the official story -- it was tidy and polite, a truly inspired piece of fiction. He had learned that people generally did not want to hear unpleasant truths about the internal functionings of state affairs when it concerned anything like this, but he still remembered. Sometimes holding onto the truth about things that happened since he met Chantal was monumental challenge since the official explanations were always so much simpler for one's conscience to live with.

"However, Captain," he heard Caidan continue, "you know my agency has more problems. You're not one of us and you know too much. If you'd been anyone else, it wouldn't have been difficult to neutralize, shall we say, the potential problem you represent because no one would miss you. But it's difficult to neutralize a cultural hero. We'd hoped you'd enjoy playing admiral and forget all the things you knew about our operations and they are necessary, Captain. The problem was that we didn't know exactly how much you knew, nor if you would forget it all voluntarily. The Vger mission was a calculated risk, really. You might have saved the Federation again. Or you might not have come back. Either would've been acceptable since the USS Columbia was also waiting in drydock, having been refitted and modified as the Enterprise was. If you'd lost your ship and crew, not to mention your life, we'd have had another one out with a man as well trained as Decker fast enough to do whatever could have possibly been done."

"Are you telling me you sent me out there hoping I wouldn't come back?"

"It's an interesting thought, isn't it?"

"One more question," Kirk asked, caught in the web of emotions that frothed in him now. "Why do you hate me so much? I can almost understand why your agency does, but not you personally. I don't even know you."

"Do you think you're the only man who ever loved her, Kirk? You're not. But you're the only one she ever loved in return."

"she can't be convicted, she's earned her degree,

and the most she will do is throw shadows at you

'cause she's always a woman to me"

James Kirk thought he was approaching that fine line between drunk and very drunk indeed. It that were so, he couldn't understand why he still felt so lucid and level-headed. He wondered exactly how many drinks Paul Caidan had matched him to, then decided it didn't matter.

"I think we ought to have a toast," Caidan said, "to Chantal Caberfae's alumni. We meet once a year in the Van Erhardt Stadium."

Kirk noted that was the most polite thing Caidan had said about Chantal in the last three hours. He wondered why he was getting drunk with a man who admittedly hated him and had even tried to arrange for his untimely demise. The answer announced itself in his head immediately: He's the only person you know who knows where she is.

It was nearly dawn -- of that Kirk was certain. Well, as certain, he thought, as he was capable of being about anything in the condition he might be in. He'd lost count of the drinks and finally stopped matching Caidan's. Instead, he played the attentive audience, letting the man just talk, asking carefully constructed questions now and then, but he learned nothing of any relevance and now was beginning to sober up to the point where he was dreading the hangover the apparently futile attempt had earned him.

He thought Caidan had dozed, or maybe he had. Now the other man was looking at him.

"She wasn't for a night," he said, "and that's where I made my mistake. I thought I could take her and forget her."

Kirk almost laughed, remembering a time when those were his exact sentiments.

"I found her, you know," Caidan said, "in a circus. A freak show. She did a number with a lizard that was hot enough to fry your eyeballs from the inside out."

Kirk knew the performance. In the course of his travels with Chantal, he'd had the misfortune to see her do it once. What disturbed him the most was that she had seemed oblivious to it all.

"She was sixteen when found her. I thought she had something, I told her. I think even I believed it. She looked like a scarecrow then, all bones and angles. Her hair was cut short, it took six of the best surgeons the agency could buy and three operations before she was physically able to speak a distinguishable sentence. She was so eager to learn and to please then, like a pet you could train to perform."

Kirk considered what he heard, knowing it all to be true, but it was too inconsistent with his own memories of Chantal for him to take it very seriously.

"I was right, she had something. She was the best. I had one of the most sought-after Delorian courtesans for a mistress and I gave her up, thinking one day Chantal would replace her. Then she told me she loved you."

Kirk ordered himself to feel no sympathy for the other man, then decided charity was not that costly. He knew what it felt like to lose her.

Paul Caidan suddenly looked directly at him, cold sober. "I lied to you, Kirk. I don't know where she is. We know she jumped ship before they crossed the Rim because the Rifferi told us. We haven't heard from her since she left. I could be dramatic and say she might even be dead by now but I don't believe that. I don't doubt for a minute that she's alive somewhere. That's the agony of it. You must know that. That she's alive somewhere and not here. And that she doesn't give a damn, not really, for anything but herself and maybe that insane obsession she has about destroying Yang. It's as though she believed her birthright was to save our galaxy." He stopped and draining his glass. "She can't even save herself."

Hollow inside, Kirk reckoned that he empathized totally. "There's a lot of that going around lately." He reached for the wine bottle and poured what was left into their two glasses. "Drink up, Caidan. I've got to get back to my ship."

"You might remember, Captain," he stressed the word icily, "that I am your superior."

"Only in rank, sir, only in rank." Kirk stirred the wine with his forefinger. "And while we're talking so honestly about saving the galaxy and all... You might like to remember that I did save the Earth from that piece of hardware gone crazy, and not for the first time either."

Caidan tried to interrupt but Kirk went on unheeding. "Now we both know how much pure luck was involved in that, but the Federation High Consul doesn't. Most of Starfleet doesn't, and none of the civilians on Earth do either. So I am very popular." He leaned forward intently, speaking quietly through almost clenched teeth. "Very popular. So no more games, Caidan, not with me, not with my ship. We do our job but no more suicide missions."

"Or?" Caidan took a sip of wine.

"What do you mean, or?"

"That kind of statement carries an implied threat. If we don't treat you 'properly', what will you do? Resign again? Tell your messy little saga of sex and intrigue to the news syndicates? No one would believe you, you know."

Kirk sat back in his chair and for the first time truly relaxed. "Do you know Mr. Spock, Caidan? No, I don't believe you do. Well, he never liked Chantal, you know, and it was mutual. He saw through her games and defenses, all of her lies. He knew she was working for someone else all along."

"I fail to see--"

"In the last six months we've gotten to know each other again. We've sort of met in the middle in our attitude toward life after all our problems. He's found out that a life without emotion is a desert, and I've found out that too much is a swamp."

"The point, Captain, the point."

"The point is that he knows all about you and your agency's slimy little games. He knows everything I know, and he knows it's true." Kirk stretched slightly, casually. "Now, he's as eager as I am to stay on the Enterprise and stay alive. He has some very impressive friends on Vulcan. You know about Vulcan telepaths, Caidan?" He smiled faintly. "And you know that Vulcan sense of honor. If anything were to happen to us, anything out of the ordinary, a lot of people all through the Federation will know all about your government in the shadows. I don't think your boss would like that."

Caidan swallowed convulsively at the thought of Todmeister's reaction to this time bomb if he ever found out. He wasn't called the Deathmaster for nothing. "All right, Kirk, you're safe from us. But not from yourself. You'll start playing hero again and one day--"

"One day," Kirk repeated, punctuating it with a gesture, "but you'd better hope it's a long time off."

Caidan absently watched a bubble in the wine detach itself from the side of the glass and rise to the surface, there to die. "There's none of us leaves this life alive, Kirk," he said.

The Captain smiled a smile with no humor in it. "Well, at least that's one thing I can be happy about."

Caidan's pose of indifference evaporated. "Listen, you son of a whore's sister, you've always had the devil's own luck. If I were you, I'd be grateful--"

Kirk got up abruptly, happy to find his head clear of wine fumes or ghosting memories. "But you aren't me, Caidan, sir, and that's something else I can be happy about."

He was almost out the door before Caidan spoke, wanting the last word. "She always said you were a bastard, Captain."

"Funny." Kirk stopped briefly on his way back to his once and future love, his ship, to give a final thought to a lost one, "she never talked about you at all."

And he was gone.

Caidan sat alone and wondered if Kirk had been telling the truth about anything, then, deciding that at his current stage in life, he wouldn't recognize the truth if it came in wearing golden wings, picked up his glass and let his mind wander. When the waiter arrived to clear the table he was still sitting there, lost in thought, watching the bubbles burst.

"If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so, of course, it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are one of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

Ernest Hemingway