DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Cherpring and is copyright (c) 2004 by Cherpring. Rated PG.



Chapel pulled the soiled sheets from the biobed and rolled them into a bundle before shoving them into the biohazard-recycling chute, ignoring the dull pain of a headache at back of her eyes. Behind her, McCoy was giving Johnson last minute instructions and his standard lecture on workplace safety. As she gathered up the used instruments from the bedside tray and placed them in the autoclave she could almost feel sorry for the young ensign, if she had the emotional energy to feel much of anything this morning. When he wanted to, McCoy could put the fear of the Almighty into just about anyone. Not that Johnson didn't deserve it. He had carelessly injured himself while working with a laser torch and came into Sickbay at the top of the shift bleeding all over the place. But as callous as it might sound, Chapel was glad for the distraction. Yesterday had not exactly been a red-banner day for her. However, it had been very enlightening.

"Anyone else, Chris? Or can I get back to those reports waiting on my desk?" McCoy asked as he came up behind her and Johnson made a hasty exit.

"We have no other patients waiting at the moment, Doctor." She threw the switch that would decontaminate the biobed then made her way to the storage closet that held the clean, specialized bedding. She needed to put some distance between her and McCoy. He wasn't high on her list of favorite people right now, and if he pushed too hard or said the wrong thing, she just might lose it.

McCoy watched Chapel work, noting her cool tone of voice and the slightly stiff posture of her back. He hadn't seen her since yesterday afternoon until they came on duty this morning and it didn't take a genius to figure out he was in the doghouse and why. He followed her to the closet and cleared his throat uneasily. "Look, Chris, about yesterday..."

Chapel held the folded linens to her chest like a shield as she turned to face him, her demeanor ultra professional. Oh, yeah, he was in trouble all right. But as he really looked at her, studied her face and expression for the first time that morning, his concern shifted from himself to his chief nurse. Her eyes were slightly puffy and she looked fatigued.

"I'd rather not discuss yesterday's events, Doctor," she interrupted. "I've completed my report, which you will also find on your desk. Now if you don't need me anymore..." She started to turn away.

McCoy reached up and stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Chris, please, let's talk about this."

Chapel's cool gaze met his then she lowered her eyes to where her fingers fidgeted with the edges of the sheets. God help me, he is going to push. "There's nothing to talk about."

"Yes, there is," McCoy insisted. "I need to explain why I did what I did yesterday. After Spock beamed back from Vulcan."

There was a long silence. When Chapel finally looked up at him again, there was hurt as well as anger in her eyes. "You didn't have to dismiss me like that," she said quietly then dropped her gaze once again. "You treated me as if I had no right to be here."

McCoy sighed. "I know, and I'm sorry about that. But I also knew Spock would just clam right up with you here. And there were some questions I needed to ask."

Chapel's gaze came back up to his, eyes flashing. "And that justifies everything, right?" she shot back. "What about my questions? For days now, you have deliberately kept me in the dark concerning Spock's condition. I may not be totally objective where's he's concerned, but you should have told me something, even if it was a lie! I have just one question for you, Leonard McCoy. Am I a part of this medical team or not?"

McCoy studied her face, debating on how much he could tell her and wondering how much she might already know. "Of course you are, Chris. You're my right arm, you know that. But Spock insisted on total confidentiality. Hell, he wouldn't even tell me what was going on no matter how I threatened him. I had to piece it together, and then Jim dragged the rest out of him. All I can tell you is it's another one of those damned Vulcan quirks. Spock violated a strict Vulcan taboo telling Jim what he did, a taboo he damned near decided to die for rather than violate. And if it's any consolation, that information has also placed me in one helluva position with Starfleet," he added glumly.

Chapel made herself listen quietly to McCoy's explanation, barely holding a cap on her anger. But guilt began to creep up edging out some of her hostility toward the doctor. Truth be told, she hadn't been completely honest with McCoy either. She took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, a helluva position."

McCoy's eyebrows shot up in surprise as realization dawned. "You know?"

For the first time that morning, Chapel gave him a small, sardonic smile. "You're not the only one who can piece things together, Leonard. I do have a Ph.D. in bioresearch, remember? And after I overheard the Captain tell you he would take Spock to Vulcan regardless of the consequences to his career, I ... I took it upon myself to let Spock know. I went to his cabin to tell him."

"You what?" McCoy asked incredulously. "You have any idea how dangerous that was?" Now it was McCoy's turn to be angry. "He could have..."

"I know, I know," Chapel headed him off. "In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do. I didn't have the complete picture then, and I wasn't thinking clearly."

"Damned right you weren't!" McCoy shot back. "I ought to put your butt on report for a stupid stunt like that! If this whole thing wasn't such a complicated mess, I might seriously consider it," he threatened.

"And that's the problem, isn't it? 'Complicated mess' is an understatement," she commented dryly. "There's Starfleet and what they might interpret as a Vulcan's fitness for duty, isn't there? What's going to be in your report?" she asked, redirecting the subject matter away from herself.

"I dunno," McCoy answered glumly. "Without question, Spock's the finest First Officer in the 'Fleet, even if I'd never tell him that to his face," he added with a quick warning glance at Chapel. "On one hand, there's his right to confidentiality and cultural privacy. On the other, as the CMO I have a duty to Starfleet to report any aberrations that could endanger this ship and crew, built in biological flaw or not." Suddenly his eyes narrowed. "What else aren't you telling me, Chris? Spock didn't ... uh..."

"No, no, nothing like that. We just talked, that's all." Chapel paused and McCoy saw the hurt return to her eyes, a haunting reflection of her expression on the bridge the day before when Spock answered Uhura's question as to the identity of T'Pring. His heart did a little sympathetic lurch in his chest.

"And he still didn't tell you, did he?" McCoy guessed quietly.

"No," Chapel admitted. "Not then and not ... later." She swallowed hard and looked away from him to hide the tears that suddenly shone in her eyes.

McCoy studied her face intently and knew she was hiding more than her tears, but now wasn't the time to press it.

"Not in any way I understood at the time," Chapel continued softly. "I can't help it, Leonard. I just keep thinking ... things could have been so different if only I'd known," she almost whispered, her voice tight, tinged with pain and anger. "But I realize now he didn't even think enough of me to tell me. I think that's what hurts the most."

McCoy didn't have a ready answer for that. Chapel was justified to feel the way she did, especially if what he was beginning to suspect was true. Spock had been mighty calm for a Vulcan in the throes of pon farr when they beamed down to the planet. At least, until T'Pring showed up on the scene.

He felt his own anger rear up and quickly grabbed hold of it. Chris didn't need an irate big brother type right now. She needed a friend, someone to just listen to her. It was a damned shame she'd fallen in love with that pointy-eared overgrown elf in the first place, but he felt sure hers wasn't the only infatuation for the Vulcan on the ship. No, he corrected. Chris wasn't the type who had infatuations: Unfortunately. It was much easier to cope with an infatuation. Love was something else altogether.

What was so puzzling to McCoy about the whole thing was there didn't seem to be a logical or even a cultural reason for Spock to keep his marital status a secret. At least none that McCoy was aware of. Of course, who knew what other 'taboos' Spock was keeping hidden. But this led the doctor to suspect Spock's reasons for keeping that bit of information hidden were more emotional than logical. Otherwise, it just didn't make sense. Humph! There would be a blizzard in Hell before the Vulcan would admit to something like that. And what those emotional reasons might be, McCoy didn't have a clue.

"I'm sorry, Chris. You're right. Spock should have told you a long time ago. But you know what a private individual he is, and he doesn't think or feel like the rest of us," McCoy tried to soothe her. "I don't think he meant to intentionally hurt you."

Chapel looked directly into McCoy's eyes, still hugging the sheets defensively to her chest between them. "Sorry, Doctor, but I don't buy it," she replied tersely. "Spock knows how I feel about him. He has for a long time now. Would it really have cost him so much to let me know he was married? Or does it just amuse him to watch me make a fool out of myself? God knows it's entertained the rest of the crew long enough."

"Chris, honey, don't do this."

"Don't 'Chris honey' me! Right now I'm angry, Doctor. Really angry. And Spock isn't the only one I have a bone to pick with. There's you, Leonard McCoy! What was that all about the other day in front of the Captain? 'Oh, plomeek soup. And I bet you made it yourself,'" she mimicked him, becoming angrier with every word. "Jesus, Len! Do you have any idea how that made me feel? Do you even care? I thought you were more than my boss and superior officer. I thought you were my friend, someone I could trust. But there you were, having a little joke at my expense along with almost everyone else on this ship. God, am I really so ... so pathetic that even my friends think I'm a fool?"

On the last word Chapel's voice cracked and McCoy couldn't stand it any longer. He pulled her against him, wrapping his arms around her as she went stiff in his embrace. Swallowing past the lump of guilt in his throat, he urged her head onto his shoulder and moments later felt her sag a little, giving in to the need to be comforted.

"Oh God, I'm so very sorry," he said in a near whisper. "I was just teasing, falling into that stupid good ol' boy syndrome the way men do sometimes. Please believe I never meant to hurt you."

"But you did hurt me, Len," Chapel's muffled voice accused from the vicinity of his shoulder. "It was mean and juvenile, and I felt completely betrayed. Do you have any idea how many freaking bowls of soup, or chocolate ice cream, or whatever I've trotted down these corridors? How many noses I've wiped and pep talks I've given?"

There was no denying the tears in that voice. McCoy shifted uneasily and rubbed his palm up and down along her back, his guilt increasing with her every word. "I know."

"I've always just thought of it as part of my job. Part of caring for the crew. I mean, if we don't give each other a little TLC, who will?" Chapel paused and McCoy could hear her swallowing back a sob. "But I should have known I was treading on thin ice. That people would see it for something it wasn't. Even Spock... And then when Spock chased me out of his quarters, throwing the soup at me, dressing me down in public like that..." She stopped and swallowed against the tightness in her throat. "It still hurts, especially knowing what people must be saying."

McCoy sighed heavily. What could he say? She was right. The gossip following the 'soup incident' had been the hottest topic on the ship for the past three days, along with speculations about what had the First Officer behaving so peculiarly. And he had sunk to the lowest common denominator, acting like a little punk on a playground. He knew Chapel often made little 'housecalls' on crew who were ill or a little down in the dumps. Thinking back on it now, he didn't know what had possessed him to tease her that way. It was mean and unthinking. "You know how men are, Chris. All of us can be real jerks at one point or another. But that doesn't excuse Spock's behavior ... or mine. Do you think you can forgive me?"

Chapel was silent a few moments just resting her head against his shoulder. Finally, she pulled back to look at him. The tears he had heard in her voice slipped like liquid crystal onto her cheeks. "Only if you answer my question honestly, Len," she said, red rimmed eyes searching his. "Am I that pathetic?"

McCoy smiled and brushed a tear from her face. "No, you're not pathetic, Darlin'. Just damned unlucky in love, I'd say."

Chapel held his gaze a moment then sighed. "Thanks." She pulled away from him, brushing the errant moisture from her face with the back of one hand. "You know, I've always thought Spock was a kind and considerate man. In spite of his protests that he has no emotions, I've seen how gentle he can be. Even with me, even when..." She let the sentence trail off. "Why didn't he just tell me, Len? Why keep his marriage a secret? Surely there's no Vulcan taboo against that."

"I don't know," McCoy responded honestly. "How can anyone know why that green-blooded jackrabbit does what he does?"

"Well, I don't have relationships with married men," Chapel stated flatly. "And I'm not about to start. I don't think I've ever been so angry in my entire life. I could almost hate Spock right now!"

"Yeah, but what happens when that anger goes away?" McCoy asked, realizing Chapel didn't know the final outcome of the events that took place the day before. How could she? As she said, he had dismissed her. As far as she was concerned, Spock was still married. And it was a cinch Spock hadn't talked to her.

McCoy debated whether or not to fill her in, but decided against it. The depth of her anger surprised him a little, but she'd been badly hurt by Spock's little secret. Perhaps it was best in the long run to let her hang on to her anger for a little while, help her see what an impossible situation the whole thing was. But...

"You can't stay mad at Spock forever, you know," he began quietly. "He's your commanding officer as well as mine, not to mention the head of the science division. Sooner or later you're going to find yourself in a position where you're going to have to work with him one on one again. And I don't relish the prospect of having to bail your butt out of the brig for insubordination," he added, trying to inject a little levity into the conversation.

"I know," Chapel answered, her voice flat, defeated, completely ignoring his attempt at humor. "But don't worry. When the time comes, I'll handle it. After all, I've handled my feelings for Spock for a long time now. Anger can't be that much different from ... other feelings." Chapel paused as she stood up a little straighter. "And whether he knows it or not, Spock may have done me the biggest favor of my life. I did a lot of soul searching last night, Doctor. About how much emotional energy and time I've wasted loving men who can't love me, not the way I want to be loved. Not the way I deserve to be loved. And you know something? I realized I don't have to settle for less, that it really is my choice. I've always bought into the romantic notion that fate plays a hand in who we love, that it's something that can't be helped, can't be controlled. Well, I don't think that's true anymore."

Chapel's arms sagged a little and the sheets slid a few inches to her midriff. She sighed and shook her head. "So far, I've chosen badly. Even Roger was a bad choice. If he had loved me the way he should have, he would have married me and taken me with him to Exo III. I had the credentials, the expertise, and it was only supposed to be for a year. I could have taken a leave of absence from my position with Baylor if he'd given me half the chance. But he left me behind ... to wait, to wonder and, finally, to come after him the only way I could find. By abandoning one career and taking on another."

"You'd also be dead," McCoy pointed out.

"Yes, that's possible, but irrelevant. Roger didn't love me ... not enough. Sometimes I think the Vulcans have it right. Emotions can and do get in the way of what's best for a person. Mine have kept me from moving on and now it's time I started considering other possibilities."

McCoy frowned. "You're not entertaining the thought of leaving us, are you?"

She paused thoughtfully then gave him a small smile. "I've gone about as far as I can go in nursing and remain on active starship duty. A doctorate in nursing only carries weight planetside where I would be relegated to an administrative position, either in Starfleet or in the private sector. The same holds true for my credentials in biochemistry and research. Although I might have a little more leeway there, if I stayed in Starfleet I would still be assigned to a permanent post on a Starbase or a research colony somewhere. I don't think I'm cut out to roam the halls of academia or cool my heels on some backwater planet. I'd get too restless now that I've had a taste of what it's like being out here. I like the challenge of being in space, never knowing from one day to the next what we'll come across. And I like hands-on medicine." She paused and looked him squarely in the eyes. "What I think I really want to do, Len, is become a Starfleet physician, maybe even a CMO on my own ship someday. Like you."

McCoy blinked, not sure why he was surprised. Chapel certainly had the brilliance to become a first rate physician. More importantly, she had the compassion and innate intuition that was essential in medicine. And she had something else, something he himself sometimes lacked -- objectivity. That's what made her such a damned fine chief nurse. In a crisis, she had a talent for triage that only came with the ability to stand back and assess a situation with a cool head and calm nerves. He trusted her implicitly and he knew M'Benga did as well.

"Well?" she prompted when he didn't answer right away.

McCoy cleared his throat. "And you came to all these conclusions in one night?" he asked suspiciously.

She shrugged. "Not exactly. The idea of going on to get my MD has been brewing on the back burner for quite some time. Let's just say the events of the past few days have helped put more perspective on my situation. So, what do you think?"

"Well, part of me is enough of a selfish bastard not to want to lose a damned fine chief nurse," he admitted. "But another part tells me I would be an idiot not to encourage you. Starfleet always needs good physicians. And I have no doubt you'll be one of the best," he added with a grin.

"Thanks, Len, but you wouldn't be losing me. I have most of the basic courses under my belt, but I still have a long ways to go. Plus, there's the required internship. The way I calculate it, I'll be ready to tackle my internship about the time Enterprise completes this mission. That is, if I get a little help from my friends. I need someone to mentor me and a recommendation from you to Starfleet Medical. And one from M'Benga wouldn't hurt either."

"I'd be honored to oblige on both accounts," McCoy smiled, but it faded a moment later. "What about emotionally, Chris? Can you handle being on this ship with Spock until the end of the mission? Twenty-two months can be a long time under those circumstances."

"I thought long and hard about that last night, too, and at one point, I would have told you no, I couldn't handle it," Chapel admitted. "But then I began thinking about all I would be giving up if I left the Enterprise. Friends I love, a job that I find comfortable and would afford me the time I need to pursue my medical degree, not to mention leaving behind one of my best friends." She smiled at him, her eyes softening. "Besides, if I transferred somewhere else I'd have to break in a new boss. Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass that is?"

McCoy chuckled. "I have a pretty good idea. But you haven't exactly answered my question," he added, becoming serious again. "You're angry with Spock right now, but over time that anger is going to fade. Can you handle what will be left behind?" he probed gently, remembering his own feelings after the break-up of his marriage. It wasn't exactly the same situation, of course. But pain was pain. He had had to go into space to put his behind him and even then there was a residual of loss, a feeling of failure. He had a nearly grown daughter who barely knew him.

Chapel shrugged. "I think I can. But there's one thing I know for sure. I'm not wasting any more emotional energy on men who have nothing to give in return. And speaking of men," she suddenly brightened, "Paul DeSalle has been asking me out for the longest time. I think now's the time to give him a chance."

McCoy patted her arm affectionately. "Glad to hear that, Darlin'. But be careful of the rebound syndrome. Although you could do worse, I suppose. DeSalle's a good man. A little anal retentive maybe..." McCoy shrugged, "But a good man all the same."

Chapel gave a short, derisive laugh. "That's all right, Doctor. I specialize in anal-retentive men. Hadn't you noticed? Besides, I'm not talking about a deep relationship, more like a little male companionship. That's something I've really missed for a very long time. Something I didn't actually realize until last night." She suddenly straightened to her full height and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before she continued. "No need to worry about me, Len. I'll work this out. And if I can't, I promise you'll be the first to know. Now, I really need to get back to work before my boss has my head on a platter."

"Never, my dear," McCoy drawled.

"Are we talking about the same boss?" Chapel laughed quietly and then lowered her gaze, suddenly embarrassed. "Uh ... thanks for the shoulder. And thanks for forcing me to clear the air."

"Truce then?" McCoy gave her his famous lopsided grin as he reached to squeeze her hands reassuringly.

Chapel laughed again and nodded, clasping his hands tightly for a moment. "Truce, you charming old scoundrel. But if you ever put me on the spot like you did that day in front of the Captain or yesterday again, I swear I'll make sure I'm the one to run your next physical exam. Complete with a malfunctioning hypo and a scrotalgram."

McCoy nodded and gently released her hands. "You have my word," he promised and started to turn away, but suddenly whipped back around to stare at her quizzically. "Scrotalgram? There's no such thing, Nurse."

"Not yet there isn't, Doctor," Chapel tossed over her shoulder as she walked to the biobed and began making it up for the next patient.