Like a Candle
By Jin Katkin


Series: Pre-TOS Pairing: Kirk/Mitchell, Mitchell/f Rating: R for m/m, m/f Archive: Ascem, KFF. If you are not covered, ask. Feedback: It would be nice, yeah. Drooling? Who, me? Disclaimer: Paramount owns Kirk, Mitchell, Captain Wesley, and the ship. No, I don't know what ship it is, and I don't care, either. Everybody else is mine, and you can have 'em if you want 'em.

***********

LIKE A CANDLE


"I think someone should tell him," Ensign Harlan said emphatically, apropos of nothing.

Yeoman McLaughlin followed her gaze to the ship's second in command, who was plowing through his lunch break. No one had ever seen him eat alone, exactly, but some days he seemed to prefer the company of a padd to other people. He ate more quickly on those days, and this was one of them.

"Say what?" McLaughlin asked.

"About the Lieutenant and Kyoko Lowell."

"You know what I heard? From Gorman, in Personnel?"

"No, what?"

"That her real name is Libby, and she changed it to sound exotic."

"Libby Lowell." Harlan tried the name out, and decided, "I'd change it, too. And you're changing the subject."

"Not really."

Harlan slapped his arm. "Phil! You don't blame *Kyoko,* do you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Her and the Lieutenant!"

"Of course I blame Libby. Two guys get a good, stable relationship, some woman comes along and breaks it up. Perfectly normal, happens all the time." After a moment, he added, "Of course, usually the guys aren't sleeping together. But it's still normal."

Harlan rolled her eyes. "You would think that. But I know for a fact that Kyoko never made a move on him."

"I suppose she told you that?"

"As a matter of fact, she did—don't you snerk at me! Besides, I was around most of the time when he was flirting with her. And let me tell you something, Mr. Cynic."

"I'm all antennae."

"You aren't even Andorian."

He sighed. "Means I'm listening avidly. So, what are you telling me?"

"That she ignored him for a whole month before she gave up."

"Oh, come on! She flirted right back."

"Who says?"

"Gorman. Says she was shameless."

"She was just being nice. I mean, what're you gonna do, guy like the Lieutenant flirting with you like he means it? Spit at him? And a whole month, Phil! I sure wouldn't ignore the Lieutenant for that long."

"But you think somebody should tell him."

"Well, it's not like it's Kyoko's fault, Phil."

"Did I ever tell you about that incident in the medical labs?"

"No. Is it relevant?"

"Yeah, it's relevant. See, a couple of months ago, Benedict was running an experiment for the Doc, something about a new drug Doc was on the trail of. The Lieutenant was doing a routine inspection, and he startled Benedict when he asked how things were going. A couple of vials got knocked over, and there was a little explosion. Lieutenant started spraying fire retardant on it, and it must have set off something in the experiment, 'cause then there was a big explosion. So, then, at the inquiry, Benedict flared up and said the Lieutenant should have known better than to spray chemicals on chemicals without knowing what was in him. The Commander had to physically tackle the Lieutenant to keep him from going after her."

"Do you think he enjoyed it?"

"Probably. Which one?"

"Both, I guess. Didn't Benedict transfer out?"

"Wouldn't you?"

"What does Benedict have to do with Kyoko?"

"Nothing, just—forget it. Look, Jen, nobody likes to hear about these things from a third party. I mean, would you?"

She sighed. "I guess not. I just think it's a shame. And I think Lieutenant Mitchell's a bloodworm."

"I realize you're off duty, Ensign Harlan," the commander said mildly, without looking up from his padd, "but you really shouldn't call your superiors names. Not in public, anyway."

"Nossir! Sorry, sir."

"Of course," he added, fixing thoughtful eyes on them, "You really ought to be apologizing to Lt. Mitchell. But I think I'll let you off, since it's a first offence. It is a first offence?" They nodded vigorously. "Good," he smiled, rising and picking up his half-full tray. "Now, if you'll excuse me, gentles, I've got to get back to the bridge."

They watched him leave. When he had gone, McLaughlin said, "A week, tops."

She ignored that. "How much do you think he heard?"

"Everything after 'Lieutenant Mitchell,' most likely," McLaughlin sighed.

"Well," Harlan said judiciously, "after all, he's a very decorative bloodworm."

"Short lunch break?" the Captain asked.

The ship's XO shrugged, stepping down to the command deck and standing next to him. "I made some headway on the requisition list, anyway."

"What, you didn't finish it? Unlike you, Jim."

Kirk smiled crookedly. "There were some crewmen talking about me behind my back, and I thought having to do it to my face was crimping their style. So I left."

"Did you at least finish your lunch?"

"No, but I made a brilliant discovery."

"What's that?"

"The crew thinks I'm a nitwit."

The Captain blinked. "What makes you say that?"

"Just some things they said."

"Hmm. It's not good when a crew doesn't respect its commanders, Jim. If you want that promotion—"

"Oh, no, sir, they weren't showing disrespect, exactly. They weren't talking about anything professional. They just think I have the vision of a mole and the common sense of a house fly. I think I may be the only person on the whole damn ship with any sense of discretion whatever."

"I see." They pondered the starfield for a long moment, and then Captain Wesley inquired, "Mitch?"

Jim swore.

Kyoko Lowell's given name was not Libby; it was Elaine. In sixth grade she had thought that having her initials spell one of the words you used instead of her god's name was vaguely blasphemous, and had begun to get worried. Halfway through the academy she had realized that she was named for the Lady of Shallot, and gotten disgusted. She had gotten the process going straight away, and so the name on her graduation certificate was Kyoko.

This would not have been important, except that her boyfriend had somehow found out about it, and had apparently memorized Tennyson's damn poem between lunch and dinner. He had been taking great delight in harping on her 'lovely face' all evening. She wondered how many of his working hours were taken up by work.

If he didn't shut up soon she was going to start quoting the tail end of Tam Lin at him. He'd always called her Elaine; he believed in calling people by their given names. But this was ridiculous. The Commander was obviously a saint.

Which reminded her.

"Mitch?"

"Lady?"

"Cut it out, okay? I need to talk to you."

He flopped obligingly next to her on the bed, crossing his arms behind his head and blinking up at her with a show of innocence they both knew was bull. "What about?"

"About what are you going to do about Commander Kirk?"

He eyeballed her, and she wondered fleetingly what color her nose had turned. "Why should I do anything about James?"

"He has to know something. And if he doesn't, he will soon. We won't be able to just get away with us like this for much longer."

He grinned up at her. "James grew up in this tiny little town where the only way to survive was by only seeing what you're supposed to see. Don't worry about him."

"But everybody knows, Mitch," she objected. "Gorman gave me the nastiest look when I reported for duty this morning."

He laughed. "James hasn't gossiped since he was a midshipman. Besides, do you really think anybody would tell him?"

Looking down at him, she had to admit that that would be a phenomenally stupid and possibly suicidal thing to do. "You're right," she said. "That would be a phenomenally stupid and possibly suicidal thing to do. Does the Commander know that?"

He laughed again, this time affectionately. She didn't think the affection was for her. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. "He doesn't know how to think that way. The only reason he was never a boy scout is that they have no sense of humor."

Kyoko Lowell did not ordinarily work in Personnel. She was there on light duty that week, after having taken a disrupter blast to the hip on her last mission. She was technically healed, but Doc said her bones needed some time to strengthen before she started throwing herself around again like the rest of the Security goons. She would be back the next day, doing her own job. In the course of that job, she had witnessed a number of interrogations. She had also not witnessed a number of interrogations. Those were the ones where Commander Kirk took the suspect into a very small room with no monitor, closed the door, and came out again three hours later looking grim and grey. This was her cue to go into the room. Sometimes the suspect would pronounce willingness to confess. Sometimes she would have been given orders to escort the suspect to the mess and stuff them full of chicken soup, or their cultural equivalent. Regardless of their guilt or innocence, they always needed the soup. Once, the Chief of Security had gotten fed up, and asked if the Commander would please stop terrorizing the prisoners and just let her do her job. She had been told, "I do. You're a military man. I'm a cop." The Commander's inability to tell the difference between uniformed men and women, except for Mitch, was legendary. There was a joke going around that the new miniskirt uniforms HQ was considering were his fault. He explained that away, along with the rocky pattern of his speech, by saying that gendered words made him nervous, because Standard was his absolutely worst language except for English. This made the Communications officer nervous. Many things about the Commander made Kyoko nervous.

"I think you're underestimating him," she said. She said he was complacent because the Commander loved him. She didn't say what she needed to say, because that would be prying, which she had agreed not to do, and confirmation, which she didn't want. If she got it, she'd have to admit to herself that Mitch wasn't here because of *her.*

He scoffed. "Lady, I know the kid upside down. Believe me, you don't have to worry about him."

"Oh, no?"

"No. What you need to worry about is whether Doc's going to see you in the rec room five minutes from now, and how badly I'm going to beat you at j'ai alai."

"Oh, ick. J'ai alai, Mitch? Really?"

"It'll be good for your hip."

She made a face at him. "Only if you'll take a water shower with me afterwards. I have this new soap I want to try out. Jasmine."

He squnched his nose right back at her. "All right, but I have to get back to my quarters by twenty-one-hundred."

"You say that every night," she complained. "I don't see why you can't let the Commander go to sleep by himself. He's a big boy. Why don't you just stay over?"

Grey eyes widened, honestly appalled. She could tell the difference by now. "I couldn't do that!"

And that was the worst thing about it, he thought later. He'd been left to mind the ship once, while Wesley and the kid led a mission that, as usual, went haywire. One afternoon had turned into six days, over which he regretted every word of their parting quarrel one by one. When everybody came back, James had looked like he hadn't slept in at least three of those days, and everyone was walking softly around him. Wesley had told him later that the kid had woken himself and everybody else up screaming in the middle of the first night, and since then he'd simply kept the watches. All of them.

If it had been anybody else, Mitchell would have called, "Foul! Emotional blackmail!" But Kirk, although he probably did have the self-discipline to stay up for five nights to teach Mitchell a lesson, would never have considered it an option. Not under ordinary circumstances, and certainly not an a mission that had gone fubar.

And he did have nightmares, Mitchell knew he did. At the academy, no one had been willing to room with him because of them. People had tried. They had all stayed friends with him, but one of his nicknames for a while had been 'Worse Than Snores.' This name had faded out of use once Mitchell had, of necessity, bought a pair of earplugs and moved in. He had only needed them for the first week. After the second, he had thrown them away.

They had been assigned to different ships, for a while. Mitchell had asked, joking around, how the kid had survived without him. The kid, not joking at all, had gone to the shelf above his bed and tossed over a wholesale-sized bottle of really strong sleeping medication. It was empty, except for the three lonely pills rattling around on the bottom.

He had asked, once, why the nightmares never seemed to pop up around him anymore. James had thought about it for a minute. Then he had shrugged his eyebrows, and smiled, and said, "Guess I must trust you. Pretty dumb, right?" And Mitchell had laughed, and agreed, and kissed him.

When he thought about it now, he thought it worse than pretty dumb. He thought it was awful. Everything he'd told Elaine was true, but all of his nice, rational reasons were swallowed up in the greater truth. James still slept around him, therefore James still trusted him. Simple as that. Equally simple was the fact that Mitchell could not bear to break that trust.

Of course, it could be argued that he was doing that by seeing Elaine at all. But that was okay. James understood cheating; did it himself all the time. Ask the review board of his Kobayashi Maru. And they'd had periods of mutual infidelity before, although those had been agreed on in advance, and mostly occasioned by absence. But he would not understand being abandoned, and Mitchell didn't intend to teach him.

This little ritual was getting more painful every night.

It had started a few weeks ago, when the Engineering Chief had gotten his fool self killed playing around with some alien technology and there had been a resultant explosion of paperwork with a deadline attached. As long as Mitchell had known James, the kid had carried a padd under his arm so that he could work on his homework, and his paperwork, later, at odd moments, where Mitchell preferred to just sit down in the evenings and get it all out of the way. The result of this was that he often ended up staying awake later than James strictly had to. James usually waited up for him when this happened. He'd sit up at his desk, studying Xenophon and snickering over Suetonius, or reading his mail, or writing yet another mysterious something that he wouldn’t tell Mitchell about, or talking to people in the electronic Common Room, and then they'd go to bed together.

By the time of the transfer, however, Mitchell had started seeing Elaine, and in an attempt to keep his beta shifts free he'd gotten started later than usual. James had played a game of chess with himself, book in hand, and chatted in the Common Room until the stylus kept sliding from his hand, and finally slipped into bed with his book of old Roman gossip. He knew better than to offer help; knew how defensive Mitchell got about how much smaller his own workload was, and how much longer it seemed to take him. When Mitchell had looked over at him he was, judging from the thickness of the unread pages, at the part about Caligula, which usually invited suppressed hilarity, but he was only smiling a little in between yawns. He'd looked up, and seen Mitchell watching him. "Gary," he'd said, "I'm bushed. You about done over there?"

"Wish I was," he'd said with regret, bone tired and aching with it, and just wanting to curl up on one of the kid's broad shoulders. "But I've got this whole stack to get done so you and Wesley can talk it over tomorrow."

James had yawned again, and grimaced. "I'd love to tell you to do it in the morning, but Captain really does need it stat."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it. You do what needs doing. Just turn out the main light, all right?"

"Sure, kid. You okay with this?"

James had tilted his head quizzically, and taken in a few hearty nosefuls of air. "Depends. Going somewhere?"

"To the com-unit later, maybe, order some coffee."

"Then I'll be fine. Just don't take a shower when I'm in REM sleep, okay?"

He'd laughed. "Not a problem. Want my shirt?" James had grinned, and thrown a pillow at him, and said he'd outgrown make-believe years ago.

This had been, he was pretty sure, after he'd fallen out of love, since he had already been chasing Elaine. But he hadn't known it at the time, which made a difference. He was still doing the same thing, but now it was out of avoidance rather than necessity. James, who was a lot sharper than Mitchell would ever admit to giving him credit for, had picked up on this at some level. The waiting while he did his paperwork was getting grimmer, and his wit was starting to bite, and little flecks of steel kept showing up in the hazel eyes at unexpected moments. James was, Mitchell suspected, starting to exercise the discipline that had kept him up for five nights in a row. And he didn't like that at all, for more reasons than one.

He couldn't pinpoint the shift in his feelings. It wasn't James, he knew it wasn't. The kid had said nothing, done nothing, thought nothing to put him off. Maybe it was when there had started to be rumors about a possible promotion for a certain very young commander, and he had realized that he was always going to be the professional second to a farm boy several years his junior who had had, when they met, all the social graces of a mocked Vulcan. He hadn't thought it mattered at the time; he had realized it, and sighed, and thought he had accepted it. Maybe he had. Maybe it was just one of those things.

He had just started thinking things that hadn't occurred to him since Janice Lester. For example, when a landing party had left him behind again, he had thought, 'Won't it be fun to watch him gape at the mess when he gets back' instead of 'Godsdammit, two whole days,' and when it was Jim's turn to mind the ship he'd grumbled to himself, 'I bet he cleans up my side of the room again.' He had stopped trying to find out what it was James wrote at night, and what language it was written in—dismissing it, for the first time in eight years, as just one of the kid's many secrets, and none of his business. James was still the only man he'd been attracted to since he was a plebe, and still attractive, but he'd started noticing women again. Not the way James noticed animals and oceans and skyscapes, either, not as something to point out and share for aesthetic value.

It wasn't that he was less proud of James than he had been. It wasn't every ship whose exec did triple duty as helmsman and tactical officer and still found time to keep a thumb on the pulse of morale, although he'd heard that one of the Constitution-class starships had a second officer who doubled in science. James did more work than any four people he knew, but he still had time for a social life as well as time for Mitchell, time to read his old books, and time to sleep. And he still complained about being underutilized, although much less with Wesley than he had under Komack. It was just that it was… odd, when he thought about it, and he hadn't thought about it before.

He certainly didn't respect the kid any less. James knew people and power like no one else he knew, and he was *nice* about it. Even when he was seriously pissed off he never yelled at anybody or made outright threats (he was more likely to do that with a big, manic grin on his face, and those were more absurd than practical), and his occasional temper blizzards were mostly well deserved and always terrifying.

But then he'd go down to the gym, refuse all workout partners, and pound the stuffing out of some defenseless bag until his face was red and his hands were bleeding. Eventually, Mitchell had realized that he was so controlled, not because he was naturally cool, but because he had figured out, somewhere along the line, that it worked better. But apart from the occasional deep-throated snarl at bigots when they'd been at the Academy, he'd always been like that.

And that was wrong, wasn't it? He had been, and still was, too young for that kind of applied calculation. After all, they were Fleeters, not Marines.

And there had been times when the kid had mock-threatened someone and his smile looked very sharp, and his chin slid into determination, and his eyes got this calculating gleam like he'd actually thought about his imprecation and was perfectly capable of carrying it out, go ahead, make his day. And that was even scarier than the blizzards, because you never knew what was going to set it off, or even what had, most of the time. Lately Mitchell had found himself, instead of hoping that the unfortunate would push too far so they could all watch the fireworks (which they never did; in the face of a smile like that, pushing was practically an application for the Darwin award), feeling very, very nervous.

He liked James as much as ever. That wasn't even in question. They spent nearly as much time just hanging out as they ever had. Well, proportionately, anyway, when you considered that James was obviously snatching hours out of thin air. Mitchell had never been anything but glad of it. Except when he'd done something the kid considered amoral, that is.

They certainly hadn't run out of things to say. The kid was an explorer serving on an exploratory vessel, and he could turn work into personal philosophy in three seconds flat. They still made jokes about things nobody else considered amusing in the slightest.

They were still each other's best workout partners, although James had recently started advantage of the new double-gravity setting for the gym, which meant Mitchell was having to work harder to keep up with him. He was still the only one on board who could beat the kid at poker on a regular basis, and the only one who could make him work for his chess victories. And nobody, but nobody, could poke fun at old holovids as effectively as James T. Kirk. Except for one Gareth Mitchell, of course.

He even loved him as much as ever. He was fairly sure about that. There were still times when he'd look up on the bridge, catch the kid's eye, exchange smiles, think, 'What the hell does he see in me,' and have to pretend to pay very close attention to his work for a while. He'd still wake up hours before alpha shift, and look at the innocence lying next to him, and remember of the nightmares and think, fiercely, 'Not while I'm alive.' And they were still sweet together, and comforting, and everything that meant home.

It was just that—well, the attraction between them had never been feigned, but lately Mitchell felt like he had to force it. He'd look at James's face and he wouldn't see the straight nose, or the bright eyes, or the soft brows, or the high forehead, not the mouth that was really more his than the kid's, not the jaw that was fey and solid by turns as its owner felt like an Aries or a Pisces, or the eyelids that were curiously Asian for someone so obviously Occidental—or Accidental, as James would say, with that lopsided smile. He'd look at James's face and just see 'James's face,' a whole entity, a mask he couldn't see through without effort, without thinking about it. He never had that spontaneous urge to grab the kid and run away with him anymore, and when James came to him it was—different. More and more often, he would sidle up hesitantly, as though he expected to get kicked for his trouble. It was annoying as hell. Mitchell wouldn't say anything, but it did irritate him, and then James would suddenly be several feet away, as though he actually had been kicked, and Mitchell never saw him jump. This was even worse. In fact, it was becoming intolerable.

He was starting to wonder if James, with his easy way with people and his reliable hunches, wasn't a bit more of a sensitive than anyone suspected. He knew for a fact that James had barely squeaked by on a number of tests he knew damn well that the kid could have aced easily. He also knew that James had done this deliberately, to keep from getting shunted into some division other than command.

And then there was his voice. Everybody *knew* James had a voice like a toad in a tin kettledrum. Everyone except Mitchell, who had actually heard him sing, once, before he got clapped into command-cadet green. It wasn't just the voice, which was impressive enough by itself, although only in an eerie kind of way, if you knew whose throat it was coming from. There was something… convincing about it. As though James really *believed* what he was singing, and you believed because he did. This showed up when he talked, too, and let him get away with terrible cliches in his speeches.

He didn't know why James had stopped singing; whether his voice had changed, or he'd gotten tired of explaining that countertenor was not the same as castratto, thank you very much, and no, he didn't care to prove it, good day, ma'am, or whether it had something to do with that little meeting he'd had with Admiral Noguchi the day before he'd cut his braid off. But two weeks after he'd shocked a mess hall full of cadets into perfect silence (Mitchell hadn't been there for that one; he'd had a paper to do for Applied Calculus), those same cadets were saying he sang like a bhainsidhe and needed to be prevented from opening his mouth at all costs. Mitchell would still be willing to pay good money to learn how he'd pulled that off, and why. He also wondered if they weren't almost right, for the wrong reasons.

None of this was incriminating evidence, exactly. But James was disturbingly good at innocently flubbing tests and playing dumb; he had a real knack for it. Mitchell was starting to wonder if maybe he'd somehow managed to flub his psi-tests as well.

It really bothered him that one day, out of the blue, he had realized that he was taking James for granted, except when the kid was scaring the hell out of him. That was the day after he had stopped flirting with Elaine, and started actively pursuing her. Winning her over hadn't taken long. It bothered him that he seemed to be essentially monogamous, because he hadn't been able to touch James since that day. It bothered him that he couldn't be effectively monogamous as well, because what he saw right now when he looked at James bothered him more than anything else.

The kid was hunched over his book, scowling at it. It was the Xenophon; the Suetonius hadn't made an appearance in days, and Mitchell suspected that it was collecting dust. The versatile chin was definitely in Aries mode; beyond stubbornness even though it was only late evening. The eyes were somewhere between bewildered child, teenager in a snit, and traumatized POW. James had a very useful whipped-puppy look.

This wasn't it. This was the expression of a kitten whose trusted person had taken it to the vet to be declawed, of a very young tom who was going to be a long time trusting anybody again, and who was going to *hurt* someone if he could only figure out how, and who to blame.

This was not ignorable. As Mitchell saw it, he had three choices. He could try to talk it out, he could leave the room, or he could climb into bed.

He turned off his padd and started changing. James looked up warily, and when he checked the chronometer his eyes flashed wide, and then his face went frighteningly blank. His lips parted.

"Don't talk," said Gary.

***

Probably for the first time in his life, James was doing what he had been told. There were questions in his eyes, but Gary didn't have any answers for him. So he crawled into bed and opened his arms, and James just coiled up on his chest, ear to heart. He had expected James, being James, to demand to know what was going on in his head. But James, being James, had defied expectation and seemed content to just rest on him, stroking here and there, now and then.

He remembered realizing that he wanted his roommate, when the sallow cabin light had turned his braid to a heavy gold rope down his back, and he started stroking the head resting on him. The braid had been sacrificed to Starfleet years ago, and the ruddy metal of what was left of it had bleached to butter. James's hair was as naturally changeable and inconstant as the rest of him, and would probably never be exactly the same color two years in a row for the rest of his life.

"You smell good. What are you thinking about?" James asked, or maybe Gary had just picked up on something he was thinking. It was hard to tell, when they were so close. But no, he'd felt the words through his Fleet-black-boring pyjamas. Oh, well, he'd known it couldn't last.

"Your hair," he answered. "Fleet tries to make everyone cookie-cutter perfect, but you couldn't be consistent if you tried, could you?"

He felt James's lips twitch up against him. "Blame it on genetics," he said drowsily, "or my sign. Fire, masculine, cardinal."

"That's you," he agreed, and felt James feeling quiet and happy on top of him. And how disgusting, that it should take so little when the kid had been ready to kill someone only minutes ago. Gary was of a mind to go hunt down the guy whose fault it was and show them their lungs.

Except that it was probably his fault, this time. Scratch that idea, then.

This was nice, though. He tended to forget, when he wasn't making an effort, how right it could be when he did. Now, if James would only keep his mouth shut and let the moment hold…

No, of *course* not. "What's funny?"

"Just thinking."

"Now, there's a novelty." He waited. "You going to tell me, James?"

There was that facial shrug again. "That."

He sighed and James chuckled, somewhere between pleased and tired, and tightened his hold. "Okay, kid, you lost me."

"Did you know that I don't exist without you?"

Ohdamn.

James laughed outright at his sudden stillness, and flipped over to grin in his face like the infuriating little pest of a child that he was. "Christ, Gary, I didn't mean that. Good grief, the ego on this man."

He didn't think he deserved that. "What then?"

"I didn't say I couldn't live without you. How pathetic do you think I am? Besides, I've done it. —Don't say it. Since I met you, I've done it."

Oh, yeah. The sleeping pills.

James snatched his pillow from under him and whacked him over the head with it. "That had nothing to do with you! Sheesh. Besides, there's nothing wrong with sleeping pills."

"Wait, did I actually say that?"

"No."

"You cheated on your psi-tests, didn't you."

"Beg pardon?"

"Okay, fine, I'm not getting a straight answer. Again. Never mind." He replaced his pillow with folded arms. "So feed my ego, James. Tell me more about how you don't exist without me."

"Not me, exactly," James conceded, subsiding. "Just James. I'm not James with anybody else, you know."

"I'd be upset if you were, kid," he lied.

"Like hell you would," James returned mildly.

"You did cheat. I knew it!"

"I don't have to be an esper to know when you're lying, Sir Gareth the Impure. I know you. Besides, you're a rotten liar."

"Better than you."

"I," James said reasonably, "am the best liar on the ship. I've been lying to everyone for years, and even you don't know it. I'm really a half-trained shaman from Sioux Nation, specialties in clairvoyance, empathic vision, empathic art, and being a medium. That's why I'm the number-one target on this ship for alien possession. My mission: to erase the faces of Mount Rushmore from the Black Hills and make the Changeling reservations optional. And work on my shielding. And you knew me when I had my braid, too; shame on you! —What? What's so funny? I bare my innermost heart to this city kid and he laughs at me, what is this?"

Gary doubled up and fell off the bed, sputtering. "Okay," he gasped from the carpet, "you got me."

James leaned over the side and hauled him up, smirking. "But, see?" he began more seriously when Gary had gotten most of his breath back and stopped kissing him. "I'd never dream of saying anything like that to anyone but you. James minus Gary equals Jim, one more boring officer who happens to win at chess most of the time. You're my laughter, Gar," he said, in deadly earnest now, "and I think I love you for that more than anything else."

After a time, when his throat had cleared up, Gary whispered, "Foul, kid. Emotional blackmail."

James rolled his eyes, and reached over to brush Gary's hair back. "Gary, this is not blackmail in any way, shape or form. If I wanted to blackmail you, believe me, you'd know it. It's not," he said, almost to himself and with a faint shade of bitterness, "as though you don't give me the material to work with. Not blackmail, Gar," he repeated gently. "Not even a setup. I just wanted you to know."

"Now you're lying," he returned, nearly as gently.

"Maybe. I don't think so. I can't see the endgame right now."

"You know I hate it when you talk chess," Gary grumbled. "Shut up."

James's face exploded in one of its rarer, more glorious smiles; both sides of his face, for this one; and didn't even bother telling Gary to make him before he struck.

"You look boneless today, Jim," Wesley commented at lunch, over a tray of bright square things. "Feeling better?"

"I thought so last night," Jim returned judiciously. "However, on reflection, I think I feel worse. I can bear an honest bastard, but hypocrites annoy me."

"Know what you mean," Wesley confided. "Look at my plate. What do you see?"

"Technicolor geometry?"

"Right. Now look over there at Doc's plate."

"Imitation meatloaf and frozen iceberg lettuce. Although how they manage to make imitation meatloaf is beyond me."

"That makes two of us. Now, between the two of us, Doc's more overweight than I am. But is he on a diet?"

"Nope."

"Is he eating—what was it you said, colorful geometry?"

"Technicolor geometry. Nope."

"Is he eating recycled CHON gas?"

"Yes, he is, actually, it just looks better."

"And tastes better."

"Nope. You must have forgotten, being on that diet so long and all."

"Oh, really? Well, here, switch plates with me so I can remember."

"I thought you hated chicken."

"Not worse than soy squares."

Jim surveyed their plates doubtfully. "Tell you what, I'll trade you half my sandwich for the yellow and green ones."

"Done!" There was a moment of swopping and chewing, then, "You're right. This is awful."

"Coffee's not bad," Jim offered in consolation.

Wesley snorted. "It's terrible, the way you kids drown that swill. You'll end up as caffeine addicts before you hit thirty."

Jim shrugged. "Since I fully expect to get myself killed before I hit forty, what does it matter?"

"Not much, true. So, Mitch."

"Screw 'im," Jim dismissed it. "How 'bout them Yankees?"

"Why is he a hypocrite? You had a screaming fight, he apologized, and you ended up in bed, right?"

"Wrong. We skipped the first two parts, and I don't know why he opted for the third one."

"Oh. Well, maybe he's had a change of heart."

"I think the problem is that he had one quite some time ago."

Wesley choked on a blue thing. "What? Christ, Jim, you sound like you're reading a grocery list."

Jim pushed out a half-smile. "Actually, I think I could get positively rapturous over a grocery list right now. Steak," he began feelingly, "and dairy, from actual cows, no tofu or other soy-related products whatsoever, fresh fruit, *ice cream*—"

"Knock it off, Commander. You know what I mean."

"I spent a year on Vulcan right before I went to the Academy. Shanai'Kahr. My parents thought I needed to be somewhere that felt safe and calm after Tarsus."

"Did it work?"

"No. I spent the whole time catfighting--or le-matya fighting, I guess, with pointy-eared bigots. It was cathartic, though; I lost most of the time, but at least I got to hit back, and none of them were actually trying to kill me. Besides, most of them came around, eventually, when they saw I kept getting up and coming back." He grinned fiercely. "They claim that stubbornness is stupid, but I think I proved that this particular human at least is not as weak as his body. But I did pick up a few habits."

"Does Mitch know this?"

"He knows about my time Vulcan, and he knows a good three fifths of the practical jokes I've pulled. I don't think he connects the two."

"Jokes? I thought you said you fought them?"

"Well, yeah. But if I'd just used fists, all I would have proved to them is that humans are uncivilized barbarians who aren't even all that good at martial arts. However, being bound by logic, they found it difficult to be 'good Vulcans' and keep up with my runaway imagination at the same time."

"I can imagine."

"I doubt it," Jim said cheerfully, "A-10 or not. I may be only a B-1 as yet, but nobody in the explored galaxy thinks anything like me when I really get going. This is probably a good thing," he added thoughtfully.

"Probably. What do you mean, as yet?"

"Didn't I tell you? I've been studying for my A-levels when I'm off duty. Lt. Commander Lambert is going to give me the test in a couple days."

Wesley stared. "You're kidding."

"Why would I be kidding? If I get promoted, I don't want to have to be totally reliant on my science officer for information. What if he she or it decides to get close-fisted on me? I want to at least have the ability to do things myself, even if I don't actually do them."

"Commander, were you hyperactive as a boy?"

"Not that I recall. You could ask my mother; she might have a different answer. Why?"

"When do you *sleep?*"

"At night, like everybody else. Although I've been staying up later than usual, lately. Gary's been playing the weirdest avoidance games, and it makes me contrary."

"I pity your yeoman."

"Sorry?"

"I pity your yeoman. And your first officer. And your tactics officer, for that matter."

"Sir!"

"I can just see it now. There you'll be, running around doing everybody else's jobs because either your mind or your metabolism is set on hyperdrive, I'm not sure which, and when you have one of those brief periods of excitement Starfleet is famed for, you'll need them to do the paperwork they should have been doing all along. But they won't be used to it, and they'll be late, or they'll botch it, and then you'll have to reprimand them. And it won't be their fault."

"Sir, that's not fair. I've never micromanaged in my life."

"That's not what Roger says."

"Captain Komack," Kirk returned measuredly, "doesn't like me."

"Now, Jim—"

"No, I mean it. He's like my fifth-grade teacher that way."

Wesley, munching Kirk's sandwich, sat back in his chair. "I don't follow you."

"My teacher, in fifth grade. She nearly got me expelled for plagiarism because I wrote a history paper exceeding her exacting standards."

"Now you've really lost me," he said around Kirk's chicken.

"She didn't like me, but she could find no fault with my results, so she decided that my methods must have been unscrupulous. I had to show the principal all my drafts. It was embarrassing; the first few were godawful."

"Point taken. But his officers agree with him."

"Oh." Spearing a yellow triangle on his fork, he regarded it intently for a moment, then put it down. "Can't argue with that, I guess. But I'm certainly not micromanaging now."

"Jim, that's because I run you off your feet! I damn well make sure you don't have the time or energy to poke into other officers' business. And that's fine. That's my job. Roger underutilized you on the Republic, and you were bored, right?"

"I wouldn't say that."

"Because he's your superior."

Jim flashed a grin at him. "Who am I to argue with my captain?"

Wesley snorted. "You'd argue with God himself, just to see how far you could go before He smote you. But I'm trying to make a point here."

"Well, put it into real small words, and I reckon I can make it out," said Jim, all intelligent attentiveness.

"Jim, except for the odd day or week here and there, being a captain is *boring.* You sit in the chair, you stare at the viewscreen, you take care of morale and the crew, you sign fuel consumption reports. I'm heavily oversimplifying, but it's true. It's almost like being idle rich, except the food is lousy and the chair's uncomfortable. It won't be so bad for you on your first command; the *Lydia Sutherland* has a tense beat. But there will still be days when nothing is happening, and you want to prowl around your bridge sticking your nose into everything. And you can't. It's not fair, and it makes people uncomfortable. And if you get a starship, it'll be worse." He grimaced. "I should get a new Tactical officer, just to ease you into the transition."

"I wish you wouldn't," Kirk ventured.

"Meek is not a good look for you, Commander. All right. I won't take you off it cold, but I want you to stop researching strategies every available microsecond and start finding and training your replacement. Don't look so disappointed, Jim: this will be harder."

Making a face, Kirk protested, "I know that. I even know that being forced to deal with people right now is good for me, good practice, and all around good. Nor am I arguing with you. But I can't help feeling like dealing with Gary is really enough people-problems for now."

"So what are these avoidance games you said he was playing?"

Kyoko Lowell stopped at their table. "Excuse me, Captain, but the Chief isn't getting anywhere with that Altairian, and we were wondering if we could borrow the Commander."

The men exchanged glances. "Did the Chief ask nicely?" Kirk asked, with wide eyed interest.

"Oh, she doesn't know, yet. We thought--"

"Understood, Lowell. Excuse me, Captain, I have to go barge in and play Bad Cop." He stood up, and his nostrils flared briefly, and he got a very odd expression on. "Jasmine?"

"Yessir, my aunt sent me some soap. From Earth."

"I see. How… very thoughtful of her, Lowell. Captain?"

Wesley waved him away. "Oh, dismissed, go away. Lowell, have you eaten? Jim's barely touched his soy squares, and I don't feel like lunching alone."

She looked down at Kirk's plate, with its anemic crusts and torn bits of skin and sickly sallow triangles, and turned several shades paler. Wesley glanced up at Kirk to share an amused smile, but Kirk was staring at Lowell's back with narrow-eyed starkness in the brief moment before he turned and was gone.

Mitchell was not having a good day. First there had been that really strange expression on the kid's face when they woke up, and they had both missed breakfast while he tried to get James to talk about it. Once he got to the bridge, he'd found out that the night-shift navigator had plotted a course which would have taken them into a meteor shower in four hours, if both the ship and the asteroid field kept on at their current speeds. It had taken him until half past lunch to make a correction that wouldn't take them too far off course or plunge them into the gravitational fields of the planets in the system they were passing. He'd spent all afternoon trying to ignore the helmsman, who wasn't James and wanted to chat. James, apparently, was off doing something tactical or secure. He wasn't entirely sure which. The Captain had been tightlipped. Then, when he'd joined Elaine for dinner, he found out that James had been in security, not his office, because she was freaked out and itching to talk about it. "…I mean, Jesus, Mitch, he's always locked me out before when he was grilling someone and I never dreamed it would be anything like *that!*"

"Whoa, whoa, slow down, Lady—"

"Would you *cut that out!*"

"Fine, fine, okay, cutting out."

"Thank you!"

"Now, anything like what? What did he do?"

Elaine laughed, near hysterical. "What did he do? What didn't he do? He did everything you can do without touching the guy, Mitch, and he was so *cold* the whole time, and so angry; I didn't know anyone could be like that, Mitch!"

Mitchell sighed. He knew. "Then I guess you've never pissed him off. You're really bothered by this?"

"You mean you're *not?*"

Rolling his eyes, Mitchell reminded her, "I don't know what happened. I wasn't there."

She blinked at him. He didn't think she was actually in the room with him, despite the racetrack she was currently wearing into the floor. "No, you weren't, were you. You don't know."

Patience was not something Mitchell had ever had a lot of, and now he felt his hands clenching around frustration. "No, I don't. And unless you tell me, I won't. Sit down." He went to the replicator and brought her back a cup of nearly hot tea, some arcane combination of mint, chamomile, ginger, licorice, catnip, ginseng, lemongrass, and too much sugar. He didn't know if she'd like it, or if she even drank tea, but it was what he always brought James when the kid was in a lather over something or other--which was practically every day, some weeks. The kid was much more excitable than Elaine, but it seemed to calm him down, and they both liked it.

She took a huge gulp, gratefully, almost half the cup, and then screwed her face up in aversion. "That's disgusting. Who gave you the recipe for that?"

It had been the kid's grandmother, Pipesmoke, that one shore leave James had taken him to meet the dragon-queen, after Lester and before they'd moved their beds together. She had taken one long, piercing look at him, argued with James in some language like high tide for nearly fifteen minutes, and then loaded him down with instructions on how to take care of her chicklet. She had called the kid Robin in intimacy, and Skysmoke in moments of formality, and spoken of coyotes and bears and great cats and birds. She had talked with fingers and wrists, from the shoulders, and towered over everyone, all five feet of her. She had looked and moved like a girl, and her eyes and voice were older than an ancestor, and in her presence the kid was no longer a kid, and the family resemblance came out stronger than blood and deeper than bone. Mitchell had found Robin lighter and more laughing even than James, just as powerful and much more fey, and his helpless delight in his friend had melted the emerald hauteur to him before the end of the first afternoon. It had been one of the better weeks of his life, and he had spent it in a haze of sun and leaves, his usual steely cynicism tossed aside contemptuously by darting fingers and strong hands. He had never resented Starfleet more.

He didn't feel it politic to mention Pipesmoke to Elaine just now. "If you don't like it," he asked reasonably, "why do you care about the recipe? Come on, tell me what happened."

She twisted at her knuckles, and picked up the cup, putting it down again as soon as the steam reached her. "Nothing, at first. He just stood me in front of the door and sat down and stared at the guy."

"'The guy' being?"

"You remember Rory Kent, the guy who sold us rose quartz for dilithium last month?"

"While we were still looking for a new engineering chief? The skinny guy with pink hair?"

"That's him. Only it isn't pink anymore, it's all black and yellow stripes."

"Was James wearing sunglasses?"

"No, why would he wear sunglasses?"

"That explains why he got ticked off. So, what happened?"

"Like I said, nothing, at first. He'd set up the table so I could see them both. I don't know why he did that. Do you know?"

Mitchell grimaced. "Knowing our esteemed exec, probably so Kent would think he had a shot at getting away, and hate himself for not trying."

She nodded slowly. "That sounds right. They were just glaring at each other for the longest time. Then Kent started fidgeting, and suddenly he started blustering at the Commander, making threats and things like that. You know."

"What did James do?"

"Nothing! He just sat there. I couldn't even look at him. It was like he wasn't even listening, only I could tell he was. He was sitting there, taking notes, and he didn't *care.* He just let Kent run down, and then he started talking, and Mitch, it was like he was a computer."

"I know that mood. What did he say?"

"The kinds of things you're not supposed to say until your guy's on trial. List of offences, list of evidence, all chronological order, which isn't how you're supposed to do it anyway. Honest to God, Mitch, he sounded like a master detective out of a mystery novel, only he was *lying* half the time."

Mitchell's head snapped around. She had his attention now. "What?"

"He was making things up, Mitch! We have no evidence that he's traded with Romulans, certainly none that he's in collusion with them! But he really looked like he believed it, and like he believed it was the most evil thing in the world, Mitch, and he half convinced me on both counts!"

Nothing about this until now had bothered Mitchell at all, but this shook him badly. He could still hear James claiming to be the best liar on the ship, and everything that had nagged at him last night buzzed urgently around the front of his brain. He could barely think. "So, what did Kent do?"

"What do you think? He said, 'That's not true!' And the Commander gave him that look, you know, the real mild one when he's about to take you down, and said, 'Which part?' And Kent started screaming again."

"Is he still alive?"

She hesitated. "He's breathing." He stared at her, and she flapped her hands at him irritably, rigid and limp. "Oh, Mitch, they're never alive when he's done with them. He'll have stopped thinking with his lizard brain by now, and he'll be himself again by the time Starfleet's ready to sue him. Don't worry about it."

"Are you kidding? He yelled at James twice in ten minutes? I think somebody should bring him some comfort food."

"I did," she said, still irritable. "The Commander gave me standing orders to get chicken soup and extra blankets to them after he's done."

But that meant he knew what he was doing to them. Mitchell didn't want to think about that. "If all he did is stare at the guy and recite charges," he snapped, "I don't see why you're upset."

She looked at him like she'd found his fingerprints on the cookie jar, and he didn't know why, so he just narrowed his eyes at her and waited. She gave up quickly, with a shiver, and went on. "Well, it wasn't. He leaned across the table--you know, with the fisted hands, and started using *that* voice."

He raised his eyebrows. "Which one?"

"You know, the really terrible one."

And despite his suspicions, he couldn't resist. "What, he started singing Irish ballads?"

She swatted at him. "No! Come on, Mitch, this is serious. The intent one that's got a lot behind it but you don't know what."

"I usually know."

"Well, good for you," she snarled. "Half the time I thought he was vamping the guy, and the other half I thought he was going to haul off and hit him, and the rest of the time you could have scraped ice off the walls."

"Wait, wait, we're getting into higher mathematics, here."

"You're a navigator. Deal with it. And he kept switching back and forth, and there was no *pattern* to it, and he never moved, and he never *blinked,* and it was the scariest thing I've ever seen!"

"Want some chicken soup?"

*"That's not funny!* And then on his way out he turned to me, and said, 'This is the way we cops get results without violating the Geneva convention, Miss Lowell,' and I felt like he'd flayed me, Mitch. He was absolutely furious, and I'd thought it was with Kent but then I knew it was me he was mad at, and it wasn't an act, and he let me watch just so he could scare me, and Mitch, he knows. I'm sure he knows."

"Captain said you dragged him away from lunch. And if the Captain knows, he was probably being sociable. James doesn't really like it when people interrupt his playtime," he reasoned, speaking more to his suddenly clenched lungs than to her.

"But Mitch," she protested, muddy eyes wide and fixed on his, "he called me Miss. Not Mister. Not my rank. He never calls anyone Miss. If he doesn't know…"

"He called me Miss Mitchell a couple of times when I was in his class and I slacked off," he reassured her truthfully, lying through his teeth. "You probably just let him see you were scared and he wasn't impressed. And he really gets into these acts he puts on sometimes; it takes him a while to calm down. I'm sure he won't hold it against you, especially since you've just come off light duty."

"If you're sure," she said doubtfully.

"Of course I am," he said. It was the truth, since he hadn't said what he was sure of.

He went back to his quarters at twenty-one hundred, as usual. He didn't see James until alpha shift. And it was all wrong.

At lunch, he didn't even wait for a break in the kid's conversation with the Captain before he sidled up and said, "You look horrible, kid."

James looked up at him and returned, "You look hollow, Gareth."

"Everyone thinks we're fighting."

"Are we fighting?" he asked calmly, laying down his fork, the red-brown in his eyes coming out and glinting.

"Where were you last night?"

"Botanical deck."

"Sleeping?"

"Theoretically."

On the basis that a strong offensive was usually a good thing, he demanded, "What's wrong with the bed?"

James looked at him, saying nothing with his mouth, and 'you were in it' with eyes gone steely grey.

Pushing was never a good idea when James turned on the frost, but he couldn't help himself. "What's eating you?"

James took a sip of his scarlet juice, just for that dramatic pause, and informed him, glass still hovering in the air, "Jasmine smells rancid."

He narrowed his eyes right back and challenged, "You didn't think so last night."

The kid smiled slightly, and Mitchell's scalp prickled. "I changed my mind."

"I thought that was the woman's prerogative."

"I thought you liked me changeable." He set the glass down carefully, and looked back up with the expression that meant the universe was about to bend to his rules. "Don't smell like that again, Gary."

"I'm sorry," he was saying, talking with her in the hallway outside Security before dinner. "I really am. I didn't know you liked me enough to hurt me this badly."

"God, you are a bastard," she said, too weary from fighting him to shout. "I wouldn't have slept with you otherwise. And I don't think I've hurt you at all." Seeing that he had nothing to say to this, she surged on. "I guess I just don't understand, Mitch. You told me you weren't in love with him anymore. You swore it up and down. Did you lie? Because if you didn't, why are you doing this to me?"

"I didn't. I'm not. I don't think I am, anyway. But he's still in love with me. And I do love him."

"You said he'd understand."

He sighed. "I think he does. That's the problem."

"So break up with him. It would be kinder, wouldn't it?"

"Do you have," he asked, as serious as she'd ever seen him, "a bright thing in your life? I won't give him up just because that disease we call romantic love has let go in me. Have you ever been somebody else's bright thing? I don't want to see him lose me. It's been fun, Lady, but I won't do that to either of us, not even for you."

She sighed, and blinked hard. "At least give me a proper goodbye," she demanded quietly.

He took her willingly into his arms and kissed her, going through all the motions of passion and feeling none. She clung to him as long as she could bear it, then pushed him away and opened her eyes. And, seeing wide hazel eyes pulling up short behind him, she pulled him back to her and had another go, making it too sweet and promising for a farewell, until there was a flash of turning gold and a swift retreat, and then she let him go.

James was already at the mess hall when he got there. There was no food in front of him at all, not even a tray. There was a piece of paper in his hand, and he was staring at it with an expression painters would kill to render; caught between exhilaration and despair, slightly hysterical and entirely stunned, silence wrapped around him almost visibly. The captain was helping him into a chair. Once he was seated, his face calmed and firmed into steady decision. Mitchell barely recognized him. "I know what to do, now," he told the Captain quite clearly, a little high-pitched and strange. "Now I know what to do." His eyes turned unerringly to meet Mitchell's, and drew him forward towards him. "Sit, Gary," he said, in a voice that Mitchell had no thought of disobeying.

"What's up, kid?" he asked, masking nerves with flippancy.

James met his gaze, still with that bedrock stability, but Mitchell could see the flickers of nerves beneath it. "Gary, I'm about the be very selfish with you, and I hope you'll forgive me for it. You see, Starfleet has just offered me command of the *Lydia Sutherland--"*

"Good for you, kid!"

"Shut up and listen, Mitchell." There was no laughter in the words, and Mitchell, shocked, shut up as ordered. "Thank you. As I was saying, they've offered me command, and the opportunity to choose my exec. I want you for my exec, Gary, but there's a problem: I agree with the no-fraternization policy."

Mitchell was, for the second time that hour, utterly speechless.

"I'm sorry, Gary. I know I'm being a career-minded blackguard. But the fact of the matter is, I can't have you both in my bed and on my bridge, and I'm going to need you on my bridge." He waited a moment and, when Mitchell failed to speak, went on. "We're meeting up with them back at HQ in four days. I need an answer from you by then."

Gary sighed, and closed his eyes. "I'm not letting you leave without me, James."

THE END

Please click here to feedback the author. Your comments will be forwarded. Thank you.


Back to the Archive


Hosting by WebRing.