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Author's Note: Written for the Matri-thon: The Pan-Fandom Women 40 And Over Ficathon. Thanks to my betas leftarrow and calapine.
No Small Dreams
She doesn't realise she's dreaming until she sees him.
They're on the shore, the sky washed out and grey above them, dark clouds in the distance purple-green and threatening rain.
He's wearing a wool jumper over a soft brown turtleneck, and his hair is still black aside from the tiny touch of grey at the temples, and blowing in his face. The jeans and hiking boots are just the same, and she knows they're not really at the Cape, but then, he's standing and smiling down at her and that more than anything else let's her know she's still asleep in the captain's cabin aboard the Yorktown.
She remembers this. It had been the autumn of '61, and if she had a mirror she knows her own hair would still be black with only a few strands of white, wiry and sticking up from the side part. She'd never been vain enough about her appearance to colour it, and still wasn't a decade later.
"Phil says he'll loan us the dinghy, if you want to go out," he says as he sits down beside her on the rocks. The warmth of his thigh where it presses against her feels so real, tears spring to her eyes.
"No, I'm fine here," she says, her voice thick with them. "It's going to rain."
"We're not made of sugar," he says, and she bites her lip as she nods.
The sea is blue-grey, and the roar of the waves in the distance mingles with the sharp cries of gulls. She remembers that too. They'd beamed down from Enterprise separately, but then met up at Boyce's bungalow for a dinner of steamed clams, corn on the cob, and local wine. Boyce had made up the spare room for them, and they'd tumbled into bed, tired and tipsy, close to dawn after a long night of reminisces. When she woke late that morning, it had been to the smell of coffee floating up from the kitchen, and his mouth on her breast. They'd made love as quietly as they could, and then wandered down for toast with butter and marmalade and giant mugs of fresh-brewed coffee.
She remembers that even with the damp, cold rain, it had been the perfect day. Sometimes she curses her memory.
That night Cait had beamed down from the San Francisco Yards, and it had been like old times. Right down to Phil flirting with the engineer shamelessly, and Cait pretending not to care—though once or twice she'd seen Barry's hand linger on Boyce's arm as she'd asked Chris about Enterprise and how the refit was getting along with Scott in charge.
"Have you thought about it?" he asks and she blinks rapidly until the beach comes back into sharp clarity.
"The Lexington. She's a good ship."
"I don't know that I'm ready to leave Enterprise yet," she says, remembering her half of the conversation with ease.
"You mean leave me, don't you?"
"It's the same thing, isn't it?" She shrugs. "There'll be offers of other commands."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do," she says, going off script. "In three years, they'll offer me the Antares. And I'll turn it down, and we'll fight about that, too. And then you'll get bumped up to Fleet Captain, and they'll finally give me the Yorkie. It'll be just like coming home, except you won't be there."
"M'hari..." he says, turning to her and grasping her hand. "Don’t."
That's when she realises this is more than a dream. She looks down at his tanned fingers wrapped around hers, and slides them out of his grasp.
"And when the accident happens," she continues relentlessly, "I'll be patrolling the Neutral Zone. Too far away to do anything except get the Communiqué from Mendez, telling me what happened. I'll come as soon as I can, and they'll say you wouldn't see anyone. Not Phil, not Sarah and Robert. And not me."
"I didn't want you to see me... like that. I wanted you to remember me like this."
"And what about what I wanted? Did you ever think of that?" Her words hit him like a slap in the face, but they've been burning inside her for years and she can't stop the torrent now. "Did you ever think of all the people who love and care about you, and what those months were like for them? And then you were just gone. Not even a body to bury."
"I didn't want this... I'm grateful for it, but I never asked for it," he insists, and there's an edge to his voice: not defensive, but that tiny bit desperate. "They came to me in dreams, promised a life where I wouldn't be trapped in the shell of the man I used to be—and I said no. I said no a thousand times."
"And so they went to someone else, who wouldn't," she says, hating the way her lower lip trembles. "Someone whose mind they could touch. And whose unswerving loyalty suited their purpose."
"This place isn't a cage. Not any longer." He opens his hands, and then drops them as if he knows how it sounds to her. "Spock risked his life to bring me here. Mendez suspended General Order Seven, but it had to be stricken from the record. To protect Spock—his career, Jim Kirk on Enterprise. It had to be that way."
"That's why I can't hate him, or you. But it killed us, not knowing where you were, Chris. I'd been trying to get the full story out of Mendez for years, and Phil had called in every favour he could think of, went as high as he could go and then some. But we just got stonewalled. No-one knew—and if they knew, they weren't telling. The official story was you'd retired. No forwarding address. And I was just supposed to forget. Go on with my life." She turns away from him, stares out at the sea.
"We've met every year since the accident, you know. To drink and talk and remember you. It was Phil's idea—mostly for my benefit, I suspect, though he'd never admit it. Last time both the Yorkie and Enterprise were in port together was four days ago, at Jupiter Station. Enterprise is getting a complete refit—stem to stern. New engines. New systems. New captain. Command bumped Jim Kirk upstairs, and Spock's resigned his commission and going back to Vulcan to study with the Kolinahr masters. Phil beamed up from the Cape and it was just the three of us.
"Spock finally told us where you were. He said that the Talosians gave you the life you could not have. That it was your only chance. He thought he was bringing me closure. He wanted me to have peace. Peace." She can't hold back the bitter laugh. "He hadn't known about us. That's the problem with being so discreet, I suppose. People say things, and they've no idea—they don't realise how much it... They don't realise what they're doing."
She looks down to see her nails are cutting into her palms, and tries to uncurl her fists.
"Phil told him, I think, after I left. I couldn't stand the sight of him. I don't blame him. I just... it was like losing you all over again."
"What do you want me to say? I didn't want to hold you back. You finally had your own command—your own career."
"And you had your damned pride."
"You deserved a chance to be happy."
"I know exactly what I deserve," she snaps. "And I don't need you to tell me."
"I never meant to hurt you." He reaches out to touch her shoulder and she pulls away, her movements stiff and jerky with anger.
"Well, you did."
He takes another step toward her, and it feels good to push him back. The illusion of solid flesh beneath her hands is enough because it gives her someone she can hurt, and selfishly that's just what she needs right now. It's not the Starfleet unarmed combat training that was drilled into them both for years, but she still feels the sting as the sides of her fists connect with muscle and bone. If this were real, he'd have bruises and so would she. It feels real enough, in the moment. He doesn't stop her, just steps back, off balance, and lets her vent her anger and frustration on the dream of his body.
The tears that had threatened begin to fall, blinding her. He grasps her flailing fists and pulls her into a rough embrace, trapping her arms against his chest. And the worst part is that it all feels so very real. The bite of the wind, the salt tang of the air, his lips against her temple. All of it down to the last detail.
"I never got a chance to say good-bye. You arrogant, stubborn son of a bitch, you could have at least left me that."
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he murmurs into her hair, and she breathes in the scent of him, tucking her head beneath his chin just like she used to.
She tries to keep it all in, but he strokes her back, repeating the same words over and over and she cries until her cheeks are chapped and her lips burn from all the tears she never allowed herself before. Her chest aches with them, like she can hardly breathe.
"I'm not allowed to mourn you—so all I can do now is miss you." She tangles her fingers in the wool of his jumper, holding on as if she can make him stay. Make him real. "Chris, I miss you so much."
"I miss you, too." He pressed a kiss to her temple and smoothed her hair back from her brow. "Come back to the house."
"Phil will be there with Cait."
"No they won't. Not this time."
They take their time, because they know it can't last. He touches her all the ways he knows she likes to be touched, and she tries to forget that it's all a lie because it's been years and she'd resigned herself to never being able to touch him ever again. She never closes her eyes, because she's afraid when she opens them again it will be to the muted blue walls of her cabin.
Afterwards, she rests her head on his shoulder as he strokes her hair.
"Do they ever make you forget that it's not real?" she asks, her eyes roaming the darkened guestroom. It is exactly as she remembered it down to the faded sheets and loose threads on the handmade quilt. Knowing that the Talosians have taken her memories and used them to fashion this place makes her flesh creep.
"They could, if I asked. I won't." He runs his hands over her arms and back as if he's trying to commit her to memory. "In the beginning, they used to give me visions of you. I made them stop, because I knew... I knew it was just an illusion, and it hurt too much."
Her arms tighten around him, and she swallows hard before she asks the question that's been burning on the tip of her tongue since she saw him standing there on the rocky shore.
"Why wait six years? Why now?"
"They knew my mind—it was easy for them to slip inside. I was angry at first, when I realised they'd never truly let me go. They kept watching me, no matter where I was, because I'd intrigued them—or something like that. After the accident, Spock's people being natural telepaths just made it easier... You, on the other hand..." He presses a kiss to her forehead. "They could never crack you. Any time they could brush your mind, they only got surface thoughts. They couldn't maintain contact."
"Proximity and intent, near as I can tell, anyway. When you think of me... when you dream of me, that's what makes this possible."
She sucks in a breath as she thinks of all the times in the last six years where she's dreamt of him. All the mornings where she stumbles to the 'fresher to find her eyes rimmed with red and the hollows of her cheekbones too sharp, and wonders suddenly how many nights she's wasted.
They lie in each other's arms in silence while she tries not to find new regrets when she already has so many.
She reaches out to run her fingers through his hair, thumb tracing the curve of one brow. "Are you happy here?"
"Not happy, exactly. But content."
"With Vina?" she finally says, and it breaks the spell of the moment. His sigh ruffles her hair.
He takes her hand in his, thumb moving rhythmically across the knuckle of her index finger. "Yes."
"Do you love her?" she asks, almost afraid of the answer. They had never made each other promises they couldn't keep, and had parted as friends when she got her own command and he relocated to Starbase 11. But though they had each had other lovers before and since, she had never loved anyone else the way she had loved him—the way she loves him still.
"I care about her, but I don't think it's love. It's... compassion. Companionship. I can't imagine what it must have been like for her, alone for all those years." He pauses, as if he's searching for the right words. "The Talosians can't give us anything new. They can give us the illusions of places and people from our memories. But we can only eat food we've eaten before. Read books they downloaded from Enterprise's library computer. The only way we can stay sane is by staying together."
"Does she love you?"
"They picked me because she thought she could, and would." He looks tired, suddenly. As if the illusion of youth is fading with the night. "But I never knew the real Vina. I'm not sure I do, even now. She's spent over half her adult life living in dreams. I don't think she knows how to live any other way. The Talosians rescued her from the wreck of the Columbia but they put her back together... wrong. Different. I think something inside her broke then, and has never been mended. Her body is almost 70 years old, but in her mind, she's still the girl I first met. It's like she's trapped in amber."
"I'm sorry," she says, and means it. She thinks back to the desperate, angry woman she had met and how bravely she faced death as the whine of the phaser on overload had buzzed in the dry air of Talos.
He pulls her closer, tracing the curve of her spine with one warm hand, and she drops a kiss on his chest, where his heart beats beneath her cheek.
"They can't even fix their own machines—what happens when they can't fix yours?"
"Everyone dies," he says simply. "I got a second chance, but it won't last forever."
Her eyes prickle with tears, and she blinks them away impatiently. She doesn't want to fall apart again. She's never been the type.
"Will I always be able to do this? To dream of you, and it'll really be you?"
His hands still on her body and she can see the blue of his eyes even in the dimness. "Is that what you want?"
"I don't know," she admits because there's no room for lies here. "I don't know if it will make it easier or harder, knowing that I can have you, but only like this. I'm not like your Vina. I can't live in dreams," Her voice breaks, "no matter how much I want to."
"I understand," he says and this time it's his voice that's rough with unshed tears. They cling to his dark lashes, and she kisses them away before they can fall. When he kisses her mouth, she tastes the salt on her tongue, and this time when they make love it's not slow and careful.
The sky is lightening to dawn when she finally finds herself drowsy, her eyelids growing almost too heavy to stay open.
"Chris, I don't want..." she begins to say, but he stops her mouth with a kiss.
"You need to say good-bye, and let me go," he whispers in her ear, pulling the quilt closer around them.
"I never wanted to let you go."
"But you have to. Because I want you to be happy. I can bear it, here, if I know you're happy. Can you promise me that?"
She shakes her head, a tear splashing hot on her hand where it rests against his cheek. "I can't make that promise. But I can try."
"Try for me."
She closes her eyes, and when she does wake, it's to an empty bed, the subtle hum of the Yorktown's engines vibrating through her like a pulse.
Her throat is raw and tight as she steps into the 'fresher and sees her familiar reflection—more silver in her hair, more lines around her mouth and eyes.
At least she had her dreams.