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all your perfect imperfections

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Chris recognizes the engine room as soon as he walks in--How can he not? It's been in his dreams for nearly a decade now--but everything happens so quickly, he doesn't have time to do anything but what he's seen himself do ever since he reached out to the crystal. Once the first alarm sounds, there isn't any doubt or hesitation in his mind--even if he could have walked out before it all started, he wouldn't have. He does what the crystal has told him he'd do, which is, in its own way, a relief. A part of him has dreaded being put to the test and not living up to that vision, dreaded finding out that he's not the person who jumps to help no matter what, dreaded failing the kids under his watch by not being fast enough, strong enough, determined enough.

He can feel the effects of the Delta radiation blast starting to affect him even as he lunges for the last cadet. He gets her clear, but then stumbles, all the strength in his legs draining out more quickly than he could have imagined, as he tries to follow.

Oh my god, you are seriously too damn stubborn, he hears Tilly saying in his mind and it's her he's reaching for as his body shuts down and he loses consciousness.

Chapter Text

"Captain," Nicola calls from the Comms station. "I have a Priority Alpha, Eyes-Only hail from Starfleet HQ coming in," and, just like that, the serenity of alpha shift on the Enterprise's bridge is shattered, at least in Chris' eyes.

He allows himself an exasperated quirk of an eyebrow as Una turns around from the helm, wordlessly asking if it is just too much to expect a nice, quiet exploration of random space oddities, even if that's already their stated mission. Una arches an eyebrow back, which translates roughly to Oh, you sweet summer fool, which is, unfortunately, the correct and only answer these days.

"I'll take it in the ready room," Chris says, standing up. "Number One, you have the conn."

*

"Captain," Commodore Rojas says, "We have a diplomatic… situation that we need your assistance with." It's a full house looking out at Chris from the vid screen. Beyond the commodore, he counts at least three admirals, twice that many captains, and a wide range of advisors, assistants and assorted underlings packing the situation room the comm's originating from.

"Situation, as in you need someone to be the face of Starfleet, or situation, as in, we're on the edge of another war?" It's a little blunt, but the last few years have pushed a little too far to the chaotic side of the spectrum and Chris would like to have at least an inkling of an idea of what he's flying his crew into this time.

"We're leaning toward the first option, but unfortunately we can't completely rule out the second."

"Then I strongly suggest that you send an actual diplomat," Chris says, again with the blunt.

"I would strongly agree, Captain," Rojas answers, which is both a welcoming bluntness in return and a somewhat pointed reminder of his (decidedly junior) status in this situation. For Rojas, though, it's practically a compliment; her verbal shredding skills are unparalleled in the Fleet. Chris knows this better than most lowly captains because Una takes her as an inspiration. "I would absolutely be calling someone more traditionally qualified, except that the Xaheans are asking for you, by name—"

"Which means it's a non-negotiable demand," Chris fills in, wondering what in the seven fresh hells Her Serene Highness is in the middle of now.

"It does, especially when they're also making carefully non-committal comments about their dilithium incubator technology."

Chris sighs. It's been a pleasant six months: a new moon, some fascinating wavelengths that Spock couldn't quite figure out, but duty, as always trumps everything. "Please let the Xaheans know the Enterprise will be changing course."

"Maximum warp, Chris," Rojas says.

"Maximum warp," Chris agrees.

*

"Are you sure you don't want Security?" Una asks one more time as Chris steps up onto the transporter pad.

"I've already let you talk me into dragging Spock into all this," Chris answers. Spock is working the Vulcan impeturbality and has so far ignored the back-and-forth between captain and first officer. "The Xaheans are--"

"Acting oddly, for all that we have good relations with them," Una points out.

"True," Chris concedes. "But I don't want to go in with a show of force. They asked for me, they'll get me."

Una flicks her eyes to Spock, who nods briefly. Chris suppresses a sigh. "Yes, please, more non-verbal conversations about how the Old Man is being difficult is exactly what I need today."

"Grumpy," Una says. "A bold move for a diplomatic mission, sir."

"Lieutenant," Chris calls over her head to the transporter operator. "Whenever you're ready."

"Give my regards to Her Highness," Una is saying as the transporter takes Chris. He re-materializes on the steps of the palace with the thought that the affection between Po and Una is really something he should have nipped in the bud. It's probably too late now, though, so he's just going to have to figure out how to stay out of their sights a little better.

Nothing seems dangerously off as Chris and Spock are escorted to what looks to be a formal reception room, but Chris isn't getting a feeling of welcome, either. The Xaheans they pass are watching them, eyes following the Starfleet uniforms without blinking. In the reception room, a small knot of Xaheans are clustered at the end of the room, but they all melt away as the escort announces that the Starfleet personnel have arrived, leaving Po, dressed more formally than Chris is used to, standing alone and giving off a fairly regal vibe. When Chris gets closer though, he can still see the quick intelligence and utter disregard for rules and regulations dancing around her eyes.

"Your Serene Highness," Chris says, keeping everything but the formal politeness out of his voice.

"Captain!" Po answers, extending a hand for Chris to take, all very correct, except he can see where she knows everything he's not saying and is both amused and not at all dismissive about it. "Thank you for coming so quickly. Pass our official regards to Starfleet Command as well."

"Of course," Chris answers, flicking his eyes to Spock, who would also seem to agree that there is more going on than what's being presented on the surface.

"So, I know we're supposed to spend time on the social niceties, but let's just cut to the chase," Po says. She smiles at all the Xaheans clustered around; Chris counts several resigned expressions and one or two of the crowd who are unsuccessfully hiding smiles. "They'll tell you I think better while I'm moving, so let's walk."

Chris inclines his head, but doesn't say anything beyond a murmured, "Of course." Her Serene Highness, Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po thinks better than the vast majority of the galaxy even when she's asleep, so there's definitely something up. Spock arches one eyebrow fractionally, which Chris takes as agreement that whatever it is, they need to know.

"Hi Spock," she says as she lets Chris offer an arm. "Sorry, I just need the captain right now."

"Of course, Your Highness," Spock answers. "I will take my ease here and await your return." It's a pretty pointed comment for a diplomatic mission, but Spock looks unrepentant. Chris manages somehow not to sigh. His command team and their mother-henning are going to drive him insane at some point. He's sure of it.

"Yep," Po answers. "I promise to bring him back." She grins at Spock, and Chris can almost hear the check and mate hanging in the air. "You can check out the star map on the ceiling. It's old, so you can see the shift over the centuries."

"Fascinating," Spock answers politely, but everybody gets the point that Spock is also known to the queen and shouldn't be messed with.

"The captain and I are probably stopping by the science wing, too," Po says, just loudly enough for people to overhear. "I want him to see the incubator."

"I'd be honored," Chris says, falling into step with her. A squad of personal guards follow along behind them, which is hardly surprising given that Chris has hands on their queen. He's prepared with a full slate of innocuous small talk, but Po doesn't bother with any chatter, just leads Chris silently through halls with vaulted ceilings and intricate mosaics on the walls and floors until they come to a heavily carved door and the guards take up positions next to it, clearly not accompanying them further.

Once they're inside and the door is closed, Po takes his arm and lays one finger across her lips in the old sign to be quiet. Chris barely has time to wonder where exactly a Xahean picked up an old Earth gesture, when Po is dragging him through another door and an unexpected but still familiar figure with a cloud of red curls looks up from the chair where she's reading through a PADD and smiles an uncertain but also still familiar smile.

Chris stares back, looks to where Po is practically vibrating out of her formal court dress, and then back to the first woman again.

"Um, hi -- from the future...?" Sylvia Tilly says, "or, maybe that should be 'future greetings'...? Which I realize is not nearly as much fun as a time rift, but that's what we're working with, sorry." She waves awkwardly and looks like she's trying not to wring her hands, and whatever Chris had expected, however odd every communication from Xahea had been, he still hadn't even begun to see this coming, and frankly, he could really use a drink.

❦ ❦ ❦

"Did we break him?" Po's hissed question maybe comes a little too close to a very valid fear Tilly might have been harboring, but she sucks up a good attitude and scoffs back, "Admiral Cornwell's Best of Starfleet? Please."

Captain Pike obviously hears, too, shaking his head as he says, "I'm… fine, ladies. You just caught me a little flat-footed, that's all."

"Sorry for all the drama," Tilly says, giving him her best No, really, sir, I can explain / Science is awesome nod. "We just needed to be sure it was you that came, because Po says Starfleet kind of thinks that we didn't make it out of that fight with Control so that left you, and Saru's sister and L'Rell and Tyler that I could contact, and believe me, sir, when I say that you are so far in the lead of that group that it's not even like a contest."

"Thank you," Pike says, with a very dry quirk of a smile, and Tilly grins back at at him, because this whole thing might be a total clusterfuck, but he is still the best captain ever and his voice really does feel like home, however unprofessional that thought might be. "It's always nice to know my previous crew isn't running full speed in the other direction when my name comes up."

"Totally not a thing, sir," Tilly says, and then, because she does know how his brain works, and knows he's really seriously going to want answers, just plunges on in with the explanations, such as they are. "Yeah, so, everything is okay, well, I mean, obviously not totally okay, because, yeah, here I am, not so much in the future, but even that's like a failsafe so there might have been weirdnesses but Plan B totally worked and--"

"Breathe, Ensign," Pike says, and Tilly gulps in a breath and settles herself down. She's not usually so scattered these days, but, well, here she is and life is suddenly even weirder than it had been when she'd jumped nearly a millennium outside of time with the ship. Seeing Pike, still calm and in command, is maybe a little bit more of a relief than she might have been expecting.

"Sorry," she says again. "So, yeah, you got the seventh signal, right?" Pike nods, and Tilly nods along with him. "Yeah, we got there and the future is … the future; we probably shouldn't talk about that so we don't do weird things to the timeline, kind of a reverse Prime Directive--not that I really know anything much, I mean, you know me, if there's a lab, I'm in it--"

Pike is starting to get that look in his eyes that says Tilly's losing it again, so she takes another deep breath and goes on.

"Everybody's okay--I mean, I'm not here because the future blew up or anything-- We were just experimenting with fabricating a new suit, because—of reasons, and the DNA coding is trickier than we thought--we really lucked out with Michael having the genetic connection to her mom when we did the fabrication before the jump, sir, like totally, totally lucked out--so we were using my DNA, because we couldn't tell what was a solution and what was just working because of how close the other two sets were."

She stops for a second and then honesty compels her to add, "And because, well, I was completely geeking out and I think Commander Saru kinda wanted me out of his hair. You know, metaphorically speaking."

She's being a hopeless nerd again, but Pike is smiling at her like he always had, and that is just so so nice that Tilly isn't going to look too closely about why that feels so good, but just hurries along. "And one of the things we did was set a bunch of fall-back positions on the suit in the space-time-continuum, using coordinates in the mycelial network, and this was my um, third set of coordinates, and I guess there was an issue, because here I am." Just thinking about the malfunction kind of makes her nauseated. "I don't really remember much past the first jump we tried."

"The suit is pretty much gone," Po says. "And the crystal … it's dust."

"Yeah, it was kind of a wild ride," Tilly says, which is, like, the understatement of her life, and that includes getting sucked into the spore world and finding out she was a homicidal maniac as a Terran. "I was, um, really happy when I woke up here."

She'd clung to Po and had been halfway to shaking her teeth out of her head, but yeah, 'happy', covers that, too.

"All right," Captain Pike says calmly. "So, you're here, and you don't seem to be suffering any physical issues from the suit malfunction…" He ends that on an interrogatory inflection, and even though Tilly nods, he asks Po, "How much experience do your medical teams have with humans?"

"Mostly theoretical," Po answers. "But Til's readings checked out okay against the reference databases."

"I'd feel better if I got Phil down here," Pike says. "Or at least one of his scanners so he can take a look and keep up plausible deniability." He turns back to Tilly. "That would be Dr. Boyce, my CMO. I can promise his complete discretion."

Tilly doesn't care--like she's going to have an issue with somebody Captain Bold-Brave-and-Courageous trusts--and she feels fine, if a little lost and alone even with Po taking care of her, but it seems like not a terrible idea to have somebody who's used to Earth people taking a look at her read-outs. In the end, Pike decides Boyce is going to find out everything anyway, so they might as well get his opinion first-hand. He comms Spock, who arrives with barely an eyebrow arch at seeing Tilly, and then Pike sends them off to meet up with the doctor while Pike stays back to strategize with Po. It's okay, though, because Spock is doing his best Emotions are invalid, but please tell me everything about my sister Vulcan interrogation and it kinda feels like home.

❦ ❦ ❦

"Well, the main problem I'm seeing," Chris says slowly, nursing a glass of what is apparently Xahea's finest distilled liquor, of which he'd taken a single sip and known it was going to knock him on his ass if he wasn't careful, "is that your insistence on getting me here has tripped all kinds of alarms at Command, to the point that they're not sure if you're going to raise the Romulans just to align with them, so I'm going to need a damn good excuse for why it was me you needed to see."

"Oh, that's no problem," Po says, perching herself cross-legged on one of the work tables in the room. Her court dress has been discarded in favor of some practical leggings and boots and she's pulled her hair back into a long ponytail that bares the intricate markings on her neck and shoulders. "The idiot admiral who's been assigned to work with us is--" The universal translator loses its place as she spits out a long stream of aggravated clicks and hisses.

"That good, huh?" Chris sighs. He's never wanted to be anything other than Starfleet, not from the time he was old enough to understand that people could fly through the stars, but there are times when he just does not understand the politics that lead to perfectly functional inter-planetary relationships being put at risk to give some old fool a diplomatic post on his way to retirement.

"Yep," Po says. "You can tell the Federation they're at risk of losing any discussion of the incubator technology and it won't even be stretching the truth."

"I'm sorry," Chris says. "Not all of the Federation is like that."

"Yeah, well, I know that because I know Tilly and I know you," Po says. "And I'm willing to maybe talk to a team if you're involved with it, but I'm actually not sure about that right now."

"You should have contacted me earlier," Chris says seriously. "I would have tried to--"

"No, I know," Po says. "I just wanted to be sure I wasn't just being… young, and not really sure of what I was doing." Her eyes flash as she blinks. "I should have stopped talking to this team months ago, but now I'm glad, because we have a pretty good reason for you to be here."

Tilly comes back with a clean bill of health from Phil, which sends a surprising surge of relief through Chris. Of course, Chris can acknowledge that he's been more than a little… uneven, emotionally speaking, since he'd gone and gotten the time crystal they needed. Apparently, the way he's dealt with that has been to more-or-less shut down a lot of extraneous emotions, because getting good news about the health of a former crew member probably shouldn't be quite this much of a dopamine hit.

When Po tells her that Chris will be picking up liaison duties, Tilly does a fist pump that wouldn't have been out of place in one of the more testosterone-laden sections of a starship, and then spins around to give Chris a high-five.

"Perfect," Tilly is saying. "Perfect. The idiot she's been dealing with is this annoying toxic brew of xenophobia and toootal sexism. You, sir, are going to be so much better."

"Thank goodness," Chris deadpans. "I was a little concerned I wasn't going to be able to clear that bar." He manages not to smile as Tilly realizes the unintended insult and claps her hand over her mouth--but it's close.

"I mean, of course you're going to be better, that's not a surprise in any way, is it, Po?"

Po is playing along and is projecting a very good regal presence, but it's going to break down soon, so Chris takes pity on her and laughs first. "Kidding, Tilly," he says.

"Again?!" Tilly does a beautiful mock-swoon. "Sir, there really has to be some kind of regulation about teasing your junior officers. Spock will back me up on this, right?" She spins to Spock who looks faintly bemused at being included in the joke.

"One would think so," Spock says, "but unfortunately, I have yet to find such a thing."

"Probably because most captains are too caught up in how important they are," Tilly says, and Chris absolutely cannot resist running with that one.

"Also good to know I'm not important," he teases.

"You!" Tilly points at him, the picture of indignant righteousness except for how she's laughing, a bright, happy sound that invites Chris' participation, too. "You are terrible. How did I not know this before?"

"Years of practice, Ensign."

"Ugh, and here I thought we were bringing you here for wisdom, not shenanigans."

"Only for my favorites," Chris says, which fits the mood, but also, he thinks, happens to be very true. Along with being a talented, smart addition to the junior officers' corps on Discovery, Tilly had added a bright spark of warmth and compassion that's rare to find and, even with the continuing complications, Chris is surprisingly glad to see her again, all disasters notwithstanding.

"Shenanigans aside," he says, bringing his focus back to the situation at hand, "we should probably address the ramifications of your being back in this time."

❦ ❦ ❦

Tilly is kinda sad to have to stop with fun bit of teasing, but he's right--which is also why they'd contrived to drag him into all this, so she nods and says, "Well, I'm here, with a totally jacked suit, and all the schematics and designs are back on Discovery, so fire away, sir."

He seems almost apologetic as he says, "I'm not entirely sure how we can put forward your existence given the… narrative we supplied after your jump."

"Why would we need to give out a reason?" Tilly asks blankly. She's missing something big, judging from that very patient look in his eyes. "I mean, Po knows what really happened, so we're good, right?"

"That would imply your staying here," Pike says. "Permanently."

"Yeah?" Tilly answers, still not getting it. Seeing Pike and Spock must really be knocking her off her game. She turns to Po. "That's okay, right?"

"Of course," Po says, and she seems as baffled as Tilly, which is at least a little bit of a relief.

"And that's alright with you?" Pike asks, clearly in full diplomatic mode, which is kinda frustrating even if he is being his usual super-thoughtful self about the situation.

"Yes?" Tilly shakes her head. Pike starts to answer, but he's still got that patient, explaining look in his eyes, and Tilly's mouth leaps forward without, as it so often does, consulting the protocol section of her brain. "Okay, I appreciate the incredible levels of tact and diplomacy happening here, but can you just spit it out, whatever it is?"

She has no idea what the translator made of that last part, but Po covers up a laugh with a not-very convincing cough. Of course, it could be that Tilly just told a Starfleet captain she isn't impressed with his verbal skills, so she tacks on a belated, "Sir."

"Thank you," Pike says, dry and amused, which is still as fun to hear as it had been on the bridge. "I was trying to ask if you'd thought through not returning to the life you had."

"I mean, I kinda did when we jumped," Tilly says. "I made the choice to go, and just because I'm back here now doesn't mean I'm expecting to just go pick up a new assignment and pretend like nothing's happened." Actually, the more she thinks about it, the more sure she is. "The Sphere data is still vitally important--I'm not going to risk that just to get back on a ship," she says, her voice getting louder with every word. "Not to mention, trashing your career--and Spock's and Commander Robbins'-- or destabilizing L'Rell's councilorship, or, or--ugh, they'd probably yank Tyler out of Section 31 and who knows what idiot they'd put in there--

"At ease, Ensign," Pike says, and yeah, okay, Tilly had been going off a little there. She channels Michael at her most calm and logical and takes a deep cleansing breath. Pike says, "I appreciate your assessment of the situation--which is sound, as I'm sure Spock will second--" Spock's nodding when Tilly looks over at him, but then Pike says, "But I do need you to take some time with your own personal situation. This is different than going in with your crew--your family. If staying here is not going to work, we will find a way to make alternate arrangements that won't destroy careers or destabilize empires."

It's a very Pike thing to say, Tilly thinks, which also means that she should probably do exactly what he's saying and think about it a little more. The thing is, the first thing that pops into her brain is also a very Pike thing, from the day they'd jumped through the wormhole in Discovery, when Control was raining hell down on them and Tilly was running for the bridge and really, seriously not knowing if she was going to make it out of the day alive, except that there was Pike's voice on ship-to-ship comms laying out the situation and how they were going to deal with it and ending with This is Starfleet. Get it done.

For all of this weirdness, Tilly still is Starfleet and she will get it done.

"I'm good here, sir," Tilly says. "But thank you for checking in with me." She thinks she manages to say that without an embarrassing amount of hero worship, but really, she can't blame herself even if she hasn't.

"Of course, Ensign," Pike says, as if there's no other way to be. That's very Pike, too, and Tilly is just so amazingly glad they've been able to read him into this mess. Other than figuring out a way back to Discovery, this is the best resolution she could have dreamed up.

❦ ❦ ❦

Po makes a point to walk Chris and Spock back to where Enterprise's transporter can pick them up, to make sure everyone on her side knows that she, personally, hasn't given up on the negotiations yet. Since that also means there's a full complement of security, the only conversation is the most banal of small talk, at least until Spock is ready to call up and Chris makes a point to tell Po that he'll be relaying her concerns and discontent with the current negotiating team to the Federation and that he expects there to be a change once he does.

"Thank you, Captain," she says almost formally, before leaning closer to add quietly, "for everything. No big surprise, but everything looks a lot less doom-and-gloom since you arrived."

"I'll do my best," Chris promises, and steps back to let the transporter get a lock. As soon as he's back on the Enterprise, he comms Una from the transporter room so that she's waiting for him by the time he gets to the ready room with Spock.

"See?" he says as he comes in the door. "No random attacks."

"I stand corrected," she says mildly. "You do seem a little more energetic than might be expected after a just a simple meet-and-greet diplomatic mission, so please, feel free to tell me what might have brought this on."

"Well," Chris says thoughtfully, crossing the room to pour a little bourbon to chase the Xahean liquor, "we're probably going to be on diplomatic duty for the foreseeable future."

"And yet you're not grumping around the decks about it," Una answers, holding a glass out for a taste of her own. Chris pours generously, because the next part is still a little hard to process. Spock, unsurprisingly, declines, but Chris keeps some of the Vulcan fruit waters he likes stashed in the cabinet, so he's good there, too.

"I'm saving the aggravation for whoever looked at Xahea and its queen and thought they could dump some idiot on the most delicate negotiations in the galaxy. I'll try to limit any collateral damage here."

"We appreciate that, don't we, Spock," Una says.

"Indeed, Number One."

"But that's not all, is it?" She turns back to Chris. "At least, I hope you didn't have Phil beam down for tea and cakes with the queen?"

"And that's where it gets even more interesting," Chris says, not at all surprised that she's picked up on all the bits and pieces. He fills her in on Tilly's appearance and the tentative plan going forward.

"Well, that explains a lot," Una murmurs when he's done. It's that thoughtful, amused tone she sometimes takes when people are being emotional in her presence. Spock tends to miss those kind of cues, but Una, while the most logical human Chris has ever met, can read them even if she's not ever going to be taking anyone up on them.

He arches an eyebrow at her, and she arches one back, which roughly translates to her being happy to explain but only if he's braced for the blunt truth. There's also the unspoken opinion that goes along with her having said anything out loud in the first place, the one that says that she definitely thinks he needs to hear what she has to say, but that he's not so far gone as to make her actually say that part out loud, too.

"Bring it on, Number One," Chris says, because she's almost always right in these sorts of situations.

"You've been very distracted since we completed the Red Angel mission," Una says without so much as a break to take a breath. "Not so much that it's affecting your decisions on the bridge, but enough that I'd begun to have concerns that we were heading in that direction. Having a situation of high importance that also affects people you've placed under your protection dropped in your lap could be, if you'll allow it, the perfect antidote to that."

Chris likes how she gets that point in there about how he's possibly still too unaware to take advantage of a perfect solution, but she wouldn't be Number One without that little edge.

"Any concerns?"

"Po has her family and planet to watch over--for all her youth, she has good support. Ensign Tilly, on the other hand, is balancing on a very fine edge. Her determination to do the right thing is admirable, but it's still a hard path to walk without support."

"Welcome to the second reason I'm not raging around about being dropped into a diplomatic quagmire. We'll be around for Tilly."

"I was hoping you'd realized that," Una says, tossing back the rest of her bourbon in a single go and turning to shepherd Spock out and leave. "Now, go get Rojas and tell her what she needs to know."

"On it," Chris says, tapping the link to the Comms station on the bridge. "This is Captain Pike. Who do I have on Comms tonight?"

The assigned gamma shift officer is out on maternity leave; Chris probably should know her replacement but he's been slacking off on giving the duty rosters Una draws up anything beyond the most cursory review recently. He needs to get back on top of that, but for now, he's going to plead exhaustion and just ask.

"This is, um, Ensign Xi, sir."

Chris at least knows who Xi is, which makes him feel a tiny bit better about his lack of focus lately.

"All right, Xi, I'm going to need a secure transmission, Eyes Only, to Commodore Rojas at Starfleet Command, as soon as you can connect."

"Yes, sir." They sound a little wild-eyed at the thought of spinning up an Eyes Only connection, but Una knows Chris likes to get the junior officers in the thick of it as early as possible, so Chris is relying on her assessment that all will go well. And if it doesn't, well, it's only a call to Command and the next time, when it might be in the middle of an actual situation, Xi will know what not to do.

"And Xi -- she is not going to be happy about us calling her at this time of night, but that's not on you. It's on me. You just put her through to me here in the Ready Room. Understood?"

"Yes, sir, initiating the protocol now."

Rojas is, as predicted, irritated at being hauled out of bed, but mostly, her irritation is deflected to the command team who'd sent such a poorly thought out diplomatic group in the first place.

"It's a mess," Chris says bluntly. "Walking right up to a disaster." Rojas sighs. "The queen is insulted--and rightly so, it's her technology they're denigrating--and close to three-quarters of the Council is insulted on behalf of their queen."

"And the rest?"

"Insulted because the bribes your team was offering weren't high enough."

Rojas mutters under her breath in Spanish; Chris can't quite hear, but the little he does catch is down-and-dirty filthy. It's really no wonder Una holds her in such high regard.

"You're back on the Enterprise now, correct?"

"We're in orbit, but I don't want to stay much longer." Chris downs the rest of his bourbon. "Xahea has warp capabilities, but they don't have the kind of ships that can go up against a Constitution class and I don't want to be seen as a threatening presence."

Rojas sighs again. "You're sure you can get back on the surface?"

"As of now, I'd give it a strong 'probably.' Chris shrugs. "Things are a little complicated down there, but I do have a prior acquaintance with the queen, so… I can probably beam down again." He doesn't see any need to make things seem any more sure than they would be without the addition of Tilly to the mix. "I'm making no promises about opening negotiations, though."

"No, no," Rojas says. "Let's play this very carefully. If there's somewhere you can go… occupy yourself for the next few weeks, someplace within reasonable warp distance, that would be for the best. I'll begin the process to have the current team recalled and send the Federation's apologies as soon as possible and we'll call you back in when we're ready."

"I'm sure we can think of something appropriate," Chris says.

"Yes, your Commander Robbins will have an idea or two, I'm sure," Rojas says. "Thank you for your efforts, Captain. I'll be in touch."

She ends the connection before Chris can even ask about what she knows about whatever Una has bubbling along on the back burners, but that's probably for the best.

❦ ❦ ❦

So, it turns out that former test pilots turned Constitution class starship captains kinda have an ongoing affection with adrenaline-producing activities, even in their spare time. Tilly isn't sure why this comes as a surprise to her, but boy-howdy, does it ever. Less of a shock is the news that she's kinda in thrall to the devastating smile and dimples combo on her very own test pilot/captain and thus regularly finds herself in very, very, very un-Tilley situations involving some combination of speed, ridiculous heights, extreme temperatures, and the need for razor-sharp reflexes/miniscule reaction times.

Sometimes, when things are really crazy, she can check the box for All of the above.

Fortunately, she usually only has to deal with the environments and doesn't have to provide the reflexes or the reaction times, because there had been several times when she would have been splatted all over the terrain she'd been talked into exploring.

What's really shocking is that Chris keeps coming back and charming her out of Po's awesome science wing and off to see some other bit of Xahea that he's found while doing his due-diligence research on the planet and its cultures and customs. She can't really have been all that great of a companion, but every time he's on-planet—and it's a lot during those first few months when the extent of the diplomatic fuck-up was becoming clear—he has a list of things to check out and Tilly isn't really ever going to be able to tell him no. She'd like to think she'd have been a little less pathetically eager to be his adventuring buddy if she'd found a path that worked for her in this new situation, but, yeah, that hadn't happened yet, so she doesn't really have to own up to that level of personal weakness.

(Almost as surprising is how easily he turned into someone she could be informal with, not only in person, but even in her head. It had been the 'Red' nickname that had done it, Tilly knows, because even after several careful talks about how she's not in his chain of command now, and how he doesn't stand on ceremony in his personal life, Tilly almost never could actually call him Chris to his face. He'd tried calling her Sylvia, but, yeah, no, that's not ever going to be a thing, but then they'd been out on one of the crazy catamaran-like sailboats the Xaheans use and her hair had been completely out of control, whipping around in the wind and half-blinding her, and he'd started in with it then. It probably would have died, except that she'd been unable to contain her disappointment at how boring he was being. "'Red'," she'd snapped. "Seriously, Chris? Like I've never heard that one before. Some Best-of-Starfleet you are," and he, of course, hadn't shut up the entire rest of the trip. He actually doesn't call her it that often, but it's enough to remind her that this life isn't like before. She's almost to the point where she never even thinks of him as Pike or the captain, which had never occurred to her as something that might happen, even if she'd at some point made captain herself. But there she is, clipping a rock-climbing harness to a safety line and yelling back over her shoulder, "I'm telling you right now, Christopher, if I fall, I am haunting you forever," and not even tripping herself up wondering if she should be using that affectionate teasing tone or how much she likes it when he gives it right back to her with nothing more than a roll of his (still amazing) eyes.)

Because of course, what isn't shocking at all is that the perfectly normal crush she'd had on him right from the first time he'd walked onto the bridge of Discovery had blossomed straight through infatuation to something that's completely all-consuming, overwhelming and utterly hopeless. It's so much a part of her that she actually forgets about it most of the time. Like, it isn't something she broods about, because it just is and there's no way to get rid of it or see any way that it ends well, so it isn't worth worrying about. Every now and then, though, he'll turn around from where he's doing something impossibly over-the-top--like breaking through the snowpack in the high mountains, going first so Tilly can just follow in his wake and not even have to work half as hard to get to the cliff with spectacular views of the crystallized ice spires glittering and throwing rainbows and singing from the electromagnetic energy they're absorbing from Xahea's sun--and grin at her, showing her the pretty thing he's found for her, and she almost can't breathe for how much she wants him.

"It's fine," she tells Po. "Like Chris + Tilly--" She writes their initials in the air and then draws a heart around them-- " is a thing that's ever going to happen," she half-laughs. "I mean, I get to spend time with this awesome person, so who really cares whether my lady-boner-itch gets scratched. Modern technology exists to deal with just such a situation."

Po's having her own relationship issues, where she's side-stepping the council that keeps throwing appropriate and approved mates at her, so she can do her royal duty and continue the line. Since the way Xahea-the-planet works is all tied up with the continuation of the royal family, Tilly guesses she sees the reasoning behind all the panic, but putting that on top of dealing with the council members who don't trust the Federation and don't like that Po is actually on speaking terms with Chris and the new team is a complete stress-bomb on Po. Tilly does her best to keep her swoony ridiculousness about Chris to a minimum and downplays all the times when she really is aware of how totally gone on the guy she is.

❦ ❦ ❦

The signing of the preliminary agreement between Xahea and the Federation is, of course, a full diplomatic event. Chris, as the informal liaison between the two groups is, also as a matter of course, expected to be there, but since he'd been very ad hoc, he at least doesn't have to actually do anything other than show up, clap politely, and make appropriate small talk with his tablemates over the excruciatingly long dinner. Po favors him with the first dance after the ceremonial exhibitions of traditional Xahean customs, which is a mark of honor that is certainly taken note of, on both sides of the treaty groups. It's considerably less formal between the two of them on the actual dance floor, as she tries to get him to break protocol and laugh and he threatens under his breath to tell the ill-advised previous ambassador that she missed his presence and would be happy to host him as a guest.

"Tilly's so right," she mutters under cover of a not-quite diplomatic smile. "That smile hides such evil."

Chris usually hears that when he's talked Tilly into climbing or rappelling or diving or otherwise taking risks she deems as fucking insane, Christopher for all that she manages them with flying colors and an adrenaline high that sometimes surprises even Chris.

"Evil?" Chris murmurs back. "I had no idea I'd qualified for that level of affection."

"I'm pretty sure your spiffy translator is missing a few idioms," Po says sweetly, and Chris snorts, because Una has been planetside several times and figuring out nasty idioms is one of her favorite recreational activities.

Chris catches sight of the lead on the diplomatic team--who, for all his success in cleaning up the previous team's mess, has never quite approved of Chris' friendship with Po--watching them with a predictable glower. He doesn't like that Chris is only a captain, but has the queen's ear. Idly, Chris wonders what the ambassador would make of the situation with Control, where Chris had Her Serene Highness in a stolen fighter under his command, but for tonight, neither he nor Po loses their (sometimes tenuous) holds on propriety and both go back to their formal duties with refreshed attitudes.

Fortunately, Chris only has a few other duty-dances, and then he can politely make his excuses, and since Po isn't quite as lucky (SUCKS TO BE QUEEN, he can hear her moaning), he detours to the kitchens and makes sure the replicator he's had installed as a celebration gift can generate enough pistachio spumoni to deliver to Her Serene Highness in one of the coffee mugs from the Enterprise mess, one signed by as many of the crew who'd gotten a little liberty on Xahea that Number One's minions could find.

Duty and a small good deed accomplished for the day, Chris collects the last of the gifts he's brought with him, declares himself done with the things he has to do, and goes to find Tilly, which is pretty much how it always goes. He's been on Xahea at least monthly since the diplomatic emergency had become clear, and every time, he's managed to find a way to spend his down time with Tilly. Most of his official duties require him to sit for hours in the Xahean equivalent of windowless conference rooms, smoothing over the insults offered to the Xahean council--and to Po, who is far less concerned by that than her ruling council is--by the previous treaty team. It's important--he's well aware of how much of a game-changer Po's incubator is--but also tedious and aggravating every time he thinks how inexcusable the previous team's behavior had been. Once he's done with that, though, he inevitably finds himself hunting Tilly down and she always lets him to drag her out of whatever lab she's in.

Part of that, Chris knows, is because she hasn't yet found her place on Xahea and she's using him as a distraction from all the uncertainty and indecision. He's fine with that--he wants to help however he can--especially since she's as much of a distraction for him.

And because he can't remember the last time he's enjoyed himself more.

Xahea is theirs for the exploring, and Chris has always loved finding new cultures, new lifeforms--half of his drive to excel with Starfleet comes from that love. Tilly follows right along with him, even if she's not exactly as into the extreme conditions that fire Chris up. She's told him a couple of times to go on without her--and he had, once or twice, but it's never as much fun--but when he throttles back and makes sure she can hang with the plan, he's found a depth to his explorations that the high rush often misses.

The last few trips he's made, Tilly's been the one with the plans and the executables. Hey, I just ask Po and she sends me off to all these great people who do all the planning. I just pick the ones you'll like the best, genius. For all that he'd started everything, Chris isn't sure when things had gotten so easy between them, and he's finding himself unexpected satisfied that they have. And if he's also finding himself distracted in other ways, by her lovely smile and her beautiful eyes, well, he's really damn good at keeping things like that off the grid, tucked away where they won't upset the delicate balance he's achieved with his life.

Tonight, he doesn't have to look hard—despite the late hour, one loop through the science wing finds her up with the small visual telescopes, checking out the other planets of the system.

"Aren't you fancy," she says as he stands looking up at where she's standing on the platform that could be raised and lowered under the main tube. "Dress uniform, whoo!"

"I'm less excited about it," Chris answers dryly, fighting with the stiff, heavily embroidered collar that's been threatening to strangle him all night. "I brought you something, though."

"Somehow I feel like I'm violating a basic law or something." Tilly comes clattering down the steps, full of energy despite the late hour. Chris feels his own spirits rise just from her laugh. "You know, never take candy from mysterious men in dress uniforms."

"How about coffee, and I'll get rid of half of the uniform?" Chris brings the package out from behind his back, the pound of actual, Sol III coffee beans acquired through a series of ridiculous transactions in which Enterprise's quartermaster routinely engages to keep up his reputation as a master party planner.

"Holy crap," Tilly gasps, launching herself off the last few steps and snatching the package out of Chris' hands, as though she expects it to dematerialize if she doesn't claim it. Chris laughs as she clutches it to her chest like a long-lost child. "How did you--" She shakes her head. "No, don't tell me. I don't think I can give it back even if you got it from dealers on the black market." She tears her eyes away from the package and looks wildly at Chris. "You didn't do anything illegal, did you? Is Po going to have Section 31 showing up in her orbit?"

"I--" Chris starts, but she was still on a roll.

"Wait, what am I saying?" Tilly laughs. "You're Captain Christopher Pike, you just have to show up and ask nicely. Who could resist?"

"Good lord," Chris groans. "Please don't tell me you actually believe that?"

"I might," Tilly says, cracking the vacuum seal on the package and inhaling deeply. Chris had seen addicts less excited about their drug of choice, but he's happy to make her happy, and whatever else is going on in his subconscious isn't even close to important enough to put any kind of pressure on that affectionate, teasing smile. "It would explain a lot of things."

"I can definitely provide a fairly large number of witnesses to the contrary," Chris says, finally getting the heavy dress uniform tunic off and slinging it over the railing in lieu of a hanger. It's blessedly cool in the observatory, enough that he's grateful for the long-sleeved under-layer the uniform prescribes, but he still sighs with relief to at least be rid of the topmost layer.

"They're all just jealous," Tilly says, still wearing the blissed-out expression. Since her eyes are closed, Chris lets himself smile a little more personally than he usually does. "But, okay, I'll brave the truth and ask where you got this, 'cause I know you haven't been near Earth since the last time you were here."

"My quartermaster is very… talented at unofficial, non-monetary transactions," Chris says. "And very, very bad at the senior staff poker game that Number One keeps running."

Tilly gasps. "Not only a black market operation, but gambling, too? I am shocked, Captain Best-of-Starfleet." She laughs quietly, a low gurgle of delight that feels like home to Chris for all that he's playing along with her. "Shocked and disappointed."

"Enough to give back the ill-gotten gains?"

"What?" Tilly's eyes fly open. "No way, nuh-uh, no how." She clutches the package fiercely. "Nope, no take-backsies, mine, all mine."

Chris laughs. "I see where your weak point is."

"I admit to my personal failings and will think of some way to atone for them, so long as it's not giving up actual coffee."

"So young," Chris mock-sighs. "Yet so corrupted."

"All your fault," Tilly says with an airy unconcern. She settles herself on the step next to him, which at least means she doesn't notice whatever Chris can't keep off his face as his brain chooses that time to present him with a very explicit vision of just how else he could corrupt her.

"So," Tilly is saying, thankfully not noticing anything wrong with Chris, "How was the party?"

"Kinda the usual," Chris manages to say in a normal voice. "Speeches from people who have no idea what went into making the alliance. Lots of self-congratulations. Little bit of dancing."

"And did you congratulate yourself?" Tilly asks softly. "Because you're the reason it happened."

"I didn't do all that much," Chris says. Tilly snorts. "No, I just--listened, mostly."

"And made the Federation listen," Tilly says. "Don't think Po doesn't know exactly how loud you must have been yelling at them."

"It was more fast talking than yelling," Chris says.

"Oh, so I should add con man to the gambling and the black marketeering?"

"Now you're getting close to the true job description," Chris says, a little more seriously than he'd intended. "And it's only a preliminary agreement to talk about an actual treaty, so I'm not sure we can even say I'm a successful con man."

"Are you still assigned to this, the agreement to talk about a treaty?" Tilly asks, also serious.

"Probably," Chris says. "I doubt I'm getting out of this just because Po and her council agreed to start the actual talks."

Tilly is quiet long enough that Chris turns to see what's wrong.

"I'm sorry," she finally says. "I know you'd much rather be out finding new parts of the galaxy, but I'm also really, really glad you'll still be coming around."

"I'm getting at least a little bit of the exploring fix from spending time here," Chris tells her. "It's a different focus--deep, rather than wide, but it's still another planet, which is mostly all I ever wanted."

"It'll help, your still being here," Tilly says. "I mean, Po's always trusted you, but I think the reasonable part of the council is all Team!Pike, too, now."

"That's good to hear," Chris says. "Knowing I'm helping."

"You are," Tilly says quietly. She's suddenly lost all of her bubbly mood. "And I'm glad for selfish reasons, too." She smiles but it's tentative and not all that happy. "I'm--you know, the alternatives to being here all pretty much suck--"

It had taken a while for Chris to get the full story of the suit crash-landing Tilly here on Xahea--or at least what little she remembered and what little more the planet's monitoring systems could offer, but seeing the twisted remains of the suit itself had been a gut-punch.

"I mean, I'm happy to be here, but…" She shrugs a little, like she's embarrassed. "It's so much better when I know you'll be here in a month or next week or just sometime."

Her hair has fallen down to mask her face; Chris reaches out and brushes a little of it back behind her ear. It's silky and soft and the curls wind around his fingers, clinging to him gently. "I'm even more glad to know I'm helping there," Chris tells her. "I wish I could do more."

"No, it's--I'm fine, really," Tilly says. "Sometimes, I'm just-- homesick, I guess. And you're--you feel--"

Chris' brain supplies the end of that, that he feels like home, right as Tilly looks up and meets his eyes. She's always been transparent about her feelings, or at least Chris has thought that, but the things he's seeing in her eyes tonight are things he knows he hasn't seen before, not in the least because he thinks he might have been looking for them for longer than he's acknowledged even to himself.

Chris doesn't know who leans in first--which is entirely to his detriment, because he should be on top of this situation, no matter how surprised he is to be there--but they're a centimeter away from kissing when he manages to get himself under control and stop, at least long enough for his brain to kick in that he can't just do this, that Tilly's young and incredibly vulnerable at this point and that he cares about her far too much to screw this up, however sure he is about what he's feeling.

"Tilly, wait," he says, as gently as possible. She still jumps back as if he'd yelled, scrambling to her feet and stumbling down the rest of the stairs.

"Ohmygod, I'm sorry," she's saying, "I'm so so sorry." She half-trips and Chris jumps to catch her before she goes down. "Oh, god, I'm such a, such a clutz and, and, clearly, an idiot--I didn't mean to put you in that kind of a situation--"

Her face has flushed a deep red and she won't meet his eyes, not even once she's taken a deep breath and gotten herself somewhat under control, though even as she pulls away from where he's still holding her arm he can feel how she's shaking.

"Look," she says, her voice remarkably calm for all that she'd been nearly crying a few seconds before; Chris knows a flash of pride at how much she's obviously learned since he'd first met her, "this is--you don't need to let me down nicely. Let's just pretend this never happened, and you--I won't bother you when you come back for the actual treaty meetings. You don't have to worry about that, or think that I'll make it awkward--"

"I don't worry about that at all," Chris interrupts. "I only stopped us because--"

"No, really, I was serious about not needing to be let down nicely," Tilly says, dogged and determined. "It's fine; we're good, and I'll be--"

"Tilly," Chris says, before she can spiral off on a path he can see is not at all where he was intending them to go. "I stopped us because I thought there were some things we needed to talk about."

She laughs, but it's so far from her usual happy gurgle Chris has to school his face to keep from wincing. "No, trust me -- There really isn't all that much, okay?"

"I kinda have to disagr--"

"Holy crap," Tilly snaps, and at least she's looking at Chris now, meeting his eyes squarely, anger and hurt flaring in equal measures across her face, and whatever he’s done, Chris needs to fix it, pronto. "Will you just let it go? Just let this entire mortifying encounter end? Let me take the damn coffee you brought and go hide in my rooms and let it all be over? I swear on Einstein's grave that tomorrow morning we can meet for breakfast just like we always do and I will be fine."

"One question," Chris says, determined not to let this slip through his fingers, no matter how embarrassing it might prove. He's fairly certain they can sort it out between the two of them, no matter what the answer, but he needs to ask.

"You know, I've thought this before, in both good and bad situations, but hey, at least I'm not in your chain of command so I get to say it now: you are so fucking stubborn."

"I am," Chris says, as much of an apology as an agreement. "One question."

Tilly takes a deep breath and then shakes her head. "Fine. One question."

Chris takes a deep breath of his own, but then he thinks of how much he wants to be with her whenever he can, how many times he's firmly set aside the desire for more, all the emotions he'd read in her eyes tonight, and it's easy to say, "Would you be interested in a relationship beyond friendship with me?"

❦ ❦ ❦

"Would I be interested in a relationship beyond friendship with you?" Tilly hears the shrill note in her voice, but there's no way she's going to calm down now. She's never known him to be this obtuse; it's bordering on cruel and she's only barely holding onto her composure as it is. "What kind of a dumbass question is that, Christopher?"

Chris starts to say something, but Tilly is--is--she's fucking furious at being played with and really doesn't need anything more to wind her up. Whatever the reason he's asked the question--and Tilly can't see anything than it being to get her fucking embarrassing crush out in the open so he can deal with it--he doesn't need to explain anything further. She's sure he'll be polite about it, but she still isn't in the mood for laying herself quite so bare. He just won't stop pushing, though, so yes, she's not stopping now.

"Of course I'd be interested, just like I wanted my 7th birthday party to be on Mars or how I wanted a particle accelerator when I started high school—"

"Did you really want a particle accelerator—?" Chris starts to say. He's smiling like he's delighted, which is ridiculously distracting, but Tilly keeps herself focused, because this whole conversation is entirely too stressful and she needs to get it finished before she completely embarrasses herself and loses her second-best friend.

"Of course I wanted a particle accelerator. Nerd, remember?" she snaps. "The point, Chris, is that none of those things is actually possible." He starts to argue, again, holy crap, but she plows on. "No, seriously, just answer me this: in what world does Starfleet's most decorated captain—who also made that rank younger than anyone else, ever, and who looks the way you do—shut up, you know exactly how you look--in what world does he end up with an awkward, babbling—"

"Beautiful, talented, loving and generous genius, who not so incidentally earned the Federation's highest honor for her part in ending the war I got ordered to sit out," Chris interrupts in that captain's voice that still does things to her insides.

His smile is kind and open even though Tilly is staring at him like, like, a lovestruck, brainless ninny.

Which she is.

"I'm hoping it's the same world where she ignores the incredibly attractive, age-appropriate Xaheans that are swarming around her and doesn't mind the two extra decades I'm carrying around, not to mention the profession that keeps me light-years away from her most of the time."

Tilly closes her eyes and counts to five, just in case she's hallucinating and will see something different when she opens them, but, no, yeah, Chris is still there, still calm, still looking at her like--

No, she lectures herself, channeling her mother at her most draconian. You are not seeing what you think you're seeing, Sylvia Ann Tilly. *Get it together*.

"There aren't any Xaheans swarming around me," Tilly finally manages to say. She has no idea why her brain latched on to that part of the impossible things he just said, but there it is.

"Trust me," Chris says, and seriously, Tilly needs her brain to be actually working right now, not swooning over that edge of possessiveness it keeps insisting that it's hearing. "Swarming. Everywhere we go."

"That's just because we're the only humans they've ever seen and it's a whole novelty thing. Or, they know it's me--the hair gives it away every time--and I'm friends with Po and --"

"Breathe," Chris says with, Tilly has to admit, impressive patience, because boy-wow is she in total babble mode.

"I just mean, they don't actually want me for any real reason, so it doesn't matter if there's-- swarming."

"Good to know," Chris says, and now Tilly's damn brain is pointing out how there are tension lines around his eyes smoothing out, which again is just total insanity on her part.

"I--" Tilly can't look at him when she says this next part. It's cowardly, she knows, but she can't watch that nice, caring look turn flat, which is really the only rational outcome of this conversation, because she has clearly, clearly misunderstood something and asking for clarification is going to kill the pretty fantasy her brain has been spinning. "Okay," she whispers. "Say I said, 'yes, Chris, I would like a relationship beyond friendship with you.' Then what?"

"Then I'd probably ask if you wanted to actually go through with that kiss that almost happened." His voice is incredibly gentle and kind and … hopeful? All it does is make Tilly want to throw herself at him. Literally.

"And if I said 'yes,' to that, too?"

"Then I'd kiss you," Chris says, calm and matter-of-fact, like he's telling Helm to jump to warp speed or asking for clarification on a report. It's solid and rational, no matter how Tilly still can't square it with the crazy-place words he's saying in it.

It's more or less the moment of truth, though. He's either lying to her or he's not; and frankly, Tilly isn't sure which one of those options is more unlikely. She can't let it go--she can't--she'll hate herself for forever if she does, so Tilly closes her eyes and makes herself say, "Yes, Chris, I would like a relationship beyond friendship with you."

When she finally gets her eyes open, Chris is still standing right there with her, watching her with something she is entirely too cowardly to name in his eyes. He smiles at her once he sees her looking at him, and then reaches out to take her hand.

"I'm glad," he says, bringing her hand up so he can brush a kiss across her knuckles.

Tilly's lungs forget how to work, not that she's gonna get all judge-y about it. It's an entirely appropriate response, she feels.

Chris just keeps looking at her. "Would it be okay if I kissed you for real?"

"Yes," Tilly whispers.

She keeps her eyes open the whole time he's coming closer and even when he reaches out with the hand that's not still holding hers and brushes the backs of his fingers across her cheekbone. His eyes are steel blue, which she's known for forever, but never from such a close vantage point, and they're kind and serious and focused so very clearly on her. She finally loses the battle with her own eyes, letting them flutter closed right before his mouth touches hers, a slow, careful press of his lips that lights up half the nerves in her body. When he backs off a little, but then comes right back to catch her upper lip between both of his, everything else metaphorically jumps up and yells me, me, me next and Tilly's basically gone.

That's all he does, though, stepping back just enough to put (too much, in Tilly's opinion) space between them and letting his hand drop from where he'd been touching her face. When he goes to let go of her hand, though, Tilly gets her own hand twisted around enough to grab onto his and keep him close.

He's watching her carefully, like he's not really sure what to expect--which is, Tilly will admit, not an entirely unreasonable assumption given how crazy she'd been not two minutes earlier. She isn't gonna beat herself down, though, because holy-freaking-crap, is this a plot twist she hadn't seen coming.

Even so, color her totally not surprised that Chris Pike really fucking knows how to level up a relationship even if he had taken only the most baby of steps. Given everything she knows about him, she's pretty damned sure that means the ball is one hundred percent in her court and while she doesn't think she can make a wrong move here, it might not be an awful idea to stop and consider her options.

More kissing is kind of a given, natch. Or really, more like an imperative. She could just blurt that out--honesty is always best, she thinks--but it possibly might be better to think of something sliiiightly more sophisticated than her brain's current you, me, *more* please, *now*. He's still watching her, still careful, still concerned, but then his eyes drop quickly to her mouth, just for a second, so fast she would have missed it if she hadn't been watching him so carefully, and she realizes her tongue has crept out to sweep across her top lip, like she's chasing the taste of his mouth while she's considering what to say, and his eyes, when they come back up to meet hers are that much darker, his pupils that much wider, and that's really really it.

"So," Tilly says, with a determined nod, because she is not missing her shot here, "I am very much aware that I have been more than a little bonkers tonight, and you are well within your rights to want to make sure I'm not going to flip out even more over all of this--which was really very nice, I mean, just, like, so nice for a first kiss, but maybe a little … short?" She stops for a second and considers her wording. "Yeah, short; so--and please know that I am saying this with all due love and respect, Christopher--but is that really all you've got?"

She's still watching him as closely as she can so she sees the surprise--almost shock, she loves that she can catch him out like that--flash across his face and how quickly it's replaced with a slow-dawning, delighted grin that she answers with a smile of her own and a cocked eyebrow.

"Let's find out," Chris says, moving fast and taking her mouth in what Tilly's brain informs her is A Kiss, one that doesn't let up until she's half-seeing stars from needing to breathe and then only giving her enough time gasp in enough air to keep from passing out before he's coming in for more, his tongue sliding past hers and his hands holding the back of her head steady. Her own hands have gotten themselves buried in the hair at the base of his neck, which is an excellent place to be starting out.

"Better," Tilly manages to say when Chris finally lets her go.

"Thank you," Chris says, with what would be a perfect deadpan except for the tiiiniest of eye crinkles, which, Tilly realizes with a jolt of joy, she is now allowed to touch. And she doesn't miss how his breath hitches in when she does, even if his voice is steady and low when he asks, "More?"

"Yes, please," Tilly half-sings. This is also A Kiss, but slower this time, and very, very exploratory. Tilly is all for exploring--she is a scientist, after all. There's another one after that, and then, three or four--or who knows, maybe twenty or thirty--after that, all of them long and involved (except for the ones that are short and maybe a little bite-y, about which there will absolutely no complaining on Tilly's part, no sir, nuh uh) so that Tilly's head is happily floating and the rest of her is wrapped up as close as she can get to Chris when they finally come up for air.

"Okay?" Chris asks, and Tilly laughs.

"Ohmygod, how can you even ask that?"

"Just checking in," Chris answers.

"Check, check, check," Tilly laughs, which--so much for being anything but who she is. Chris is smiling down at her, though, so that's a good thing. "Also," she says in an exaggerated whisper, "I did not expect anything like this to happen, like, ever, so I miiiight be a little giddy."

"I'm a little surprised by it myself," Chris says. "It's been--a while."

There's definitely something going on behind his eyes--Tilly might be half-out-of-her-mind with glee, but she can still see that happening. She makes a mental note to pay attention (because, holy crap, that's like an okay, non-stalkery thing she can do now---aaaaand she's back to giddy, whoops.)

"So, maybe we should move this astonishing occurence somewhere that's not a public observatory?" Tilly is, hand-to-God, totally okay with not moving, but it seems like a thing that wouldn't be a bad idea, if only because Chris is actually kind of a big deal at this point, what with all the saving of the treaty he's been doing, and it would probably be A Thing if somebody walked in and they were, um, involved with each other, which Tilly would really really really like to be happening sometime in the very near future.

"Getting somewhere a little more private probably isn't a bad idea," Chris says, so Tilly unwinds her arms from around his neck and waits while he retrieves the tunic to his dress uniform before setting off for her rooms over in the modern wing of the compound. (She tries really hard not to think of it as a palace, which it technically is, because it's just too weird that she lives there. It feels like cheating somehow--she'd never been the little girl with a princess phase. She'd always had her head in the stars, and now here she is, literally in the stars, in a palace, with a queen for a best friend. And that's still not as mind-boggling as the total hotass she's been making out with for the last hour.)

At least Chris has been back to her apartment before, so it's not completely new to have him in her personal space. It's nerve-wracking enough that he's there for really personal reasons now. She'd be a complete basket-case if he hadn't ever seen her collections of stuff before.

"I know I said only one question," Chris says as soon as the door shuts behind them, ''but it's also probably not a bad idea if we talked a little about this." He leans down and kisses her, light and quick, which is almost as nice as the gorgeous smile he gifts her with. "Us."

Tilly can't help the little thrill she gets from that 'us', but then she settles down and puts forth her best arguments.

"Okay," she says, "I am totally unsurprised that you, of all people, want to talk through relationship things first, and ordinarily I would be all over that shit, but unless I'm mistaken, you only have, like, another 12 Xahean hours before you go beaming back to Enterprise, so can we do the talking part of the very adult relationship we are embarking on over comms?"

"I--suppose," Chris says, with an edge of doubt that Tilly is pretty sure means the whole Captain's Concerns thing is happening again, even if it had been him who'd taken the first step.

"Because," Tilly keeps going, because she has Things To Point Out, "talking can happen over comms, while this--" She pulls him closer, close enough that she can wrap her arms around his neck— "can't. Or, well, it can--and it probably will--I'm all for vid-sex, let me just put that out there now--but it won't happen when we're touching, and I would really—" she goes up on her toes to press a kiss to the base of his throat—"really—" another kiss— "really like to touch you and taste you."

Chris is very, very still against her--not pushing her away, but more like he's holding himself in control, so she tips her head back and looks up at him to say, "Can we do that now? Please?"

"We can," he finally says, bringing his hands up to cup her face and kissing her very, very gently. Tilly thinks about swooning, but that seems to be a poor use of her limited time so she promises herself she'll revisit the topic at a later date. "I just want to know you're sure--"

"Chris," Tilly says, going up on her toes to kiss him again, as much to swallow down her smile as to get another quick kiss in, "I know the age thing is, y'know, a thing, and I really deeply appreciate your awareness of it, but I was not living a life of solitude on Discovery. You probably didn't know this, because, well, I'm guessing you weren't in on all the gossip loops, but I am all about the fighter jocks, even if they haven't quite gotten to your rank."

Chris kisses her again, and honesty compels Tilly to add, "I mean, I had my soldier phase and the musician side path--but I'm guessing everyone has that one--but yeah, the flyboys--and girls--were my jam."

Chris blinks, like he's trying to parse her multiple clauses, which, Tilly can admit, do tend to run wild at times, but then smiles that fucking crooked half-smile that should be illegal and says, "I'm pretty sure I don't want to know."

"I'm pretty sure we have better things to do right now," Tilly says, already breathless from how his hands are sliding up her back.

"Roger that," Chris answers, and oh, yeah, Tilly thinks as he's somehow already gotten her shirt off and her pants undone and his hands ev-er-y-where, so much better things to do.

She starts to say something about how there's a bed in the other room, but he has her down on the couch before the words really even form in her brain, and if she'd thought his hands were good, his mouth is going to make her insane as he skims it over her skin, lips and tongue and teeth everywhere, along her throat and across her shoulders and then teasing along the edge of her bra before he gets that out of the way and starts paying very serious attention to her breasts. Most of the people she's been with have liked her curves, but Chris is taking it to the next level, quick flicks of his tongue teasing at her nipples, soft bites that leave her gasping, slow, sucking kisses that make her groan and arch into him for more.

"Tell me what you like," he says, as if she can think when he's rolling her nipples to hard, aching points that he can scrape his teeth over again and again. She manages to babble out a few nonsense syllables there, at least, but then he's got his hand between her legs and two fingers buried in her. And of course, he's watching her while he fucks her so he sees when he hits the exact right spot inside her and it's all she can do not to wail. "That's it," he tells her, that damn voice almost crooning at her as he fingers her again and again, perfect and relentless. "Right there, Red, show me what you look like when you come, c'mon."

"I can't," Tilly gasps, already desperate. "I've never been--"

"No rush," Chris says, not changing a thing. "We can go all night, just like this," and Tilly does wail at that, because she's never been able to come like this, but then nobody's ever promised to fuck her all night until she does. She's already shaking and strung out and it hasn't been all that long at all. It'd be embarrassing if she wasn't already so high from the endorphin rush that she can barely remember her own name.

"Please," she begs. "Just touch me, touch my--"

"Mmm," Chris says, dropping his head down to kiss her, his tongue fucking into her mouth with the same lazy rhythm his hand's keeping. "That's for the next one," he promises. "And maybe the one after that, if you're good. I'll work your clit hard then, but you have to come for me here, Red."

He's picked up the pace and he's stopped being so careful with her, and she can feel it building in her thighs and low in her belly, everything spiralling in, curling into to her cunt, to where he's curving his fingers and catching her perfectly.

"Oh, fuck," she hears herself sobbing. "Chris, fuck, there, pleaseplease."

"That's it," Chris tells her. "That's it, you're so beautiful like this, letting me see you like this," and she's soaking up every word that she never in her wildest dreams expected to hear. She's close, so close, her nipples drawing up tight and hard as he fucks her harder and harder, and then, when she can barely breathe for how desperate she is to come, he drops his head down to drag his tongue over her nipples, teasing them harder before he bites at them, quick and sharp and ruthless. She jerks and keens, the sudden shock of pleasure too intense to process, and he does it again, and then again, biting down hard enough that he can tug at them fiercely and her orgasm crashes down over her, wave after wave that threatens to swamp her, make it impossible to even breathe.

Chris keeps his promise, too-- before Tilly's brain has even started to even out, his thumb is on her clit, flicking over it lightly enough that's she's not even sure it's happened before he comes back to rub hard, again and again, and she's spiralling out fast and wild, sobbing and shaking and nearly undone.

"Tilly," Chris is murmuring, his voice uneven and breathless, and oh, but she likes hearing him like that. Tilly makes her arms work and reaches out to bring him close, close enough that she can kiss him, uncoordinated and still shaking, but determined nonetheless. "Tilly, god," he sighs into her mouth and she somehow gets him so that he's on top of her and she can wrap her legs around him.

"C'mon," she manages to say, "Chris, come fuck me for real, let me feel you inside me," and he groans and is finally, finally pressing inside her, one long glorious stroke that she arches up into and draws him in deep. "Don't stop," she tells him, dragging her hands down his back, raking at his skin with her nails. "Don't stop," and he doesn't, moving in her steady and endless.

Tilly can feel one more orgasm building, but he's way out ahead of her now, his face flushed and his eyes almost black from how dilated his pupils are. He's still focused on her, though, and he understands immediately when she lets go of him with one arm so she can work her hand between them and get that extra bit of pressure in the right spot.

"There?" Chris grits out, driving into her, and then dropping his head down to steal a fast, dirty kiss from her after she whimpers an agreement. Every time he pushes into her after that, he's grinding her fingers down on her clit and it takes no time at all for her to ramp back up to frantic and out of control. "Come on, Red," Chris says, still in that rough, almost desperate growl. "One more time; I want to feel you come on my cock."

Tilly'd already been at the point where she almost couldn't breathe for how good everything feels--Chris deep inside her, the muscles in his back flexing under her hand, the strength of the legs she has her own wrapped around--but that, the voice, the words, knowing Chris, who's always in control, is just as far gone as she is, sends her off the edge to where she's clawing at his back and grinding up into him, feeling herself tightening around where he's buried in her, hearing his voice break on a ragged growl, equal parts unbelieving and triumphant that she's dragging him with her as everything he's making her feel sweeps down uncontrollably and washes over her.

❦ ❦ ❦

Chris isn't really asleep--which is not a surprise these days even with the fading rush from the sex earlier; he barely sleeps on the best of nights and there's too much running through his brain at the unexpected ending to the evening--but he comes fully awake as soon as Tilly slips out of bed. He starts to say something but she's into the 'fresher more quickly than he expects and he hears the shower come on almost immediately. It's a little odd, but… Chris decides to let it be. For all that he knows Tilly, he doesn't know her as a lover and he doesn't want to look like he's a control freak, but when it's thirty minutes later and the water is still running, he goes and taps on the door.

"Everything okay?" he calls, keeping his voice as low and calm as he can.

"It's--I'm--" Tilly answers, and aside from how she's not actually answering, Chris also thinks she sounds like she's crying.

"Tilly? Can I come in?"

There's a long silence--though Chris is even more sure he hears crying--and then Tilly says, in a very small voice, "It's open," and Chris lets himself in.

Tilly is sitting on the floor of the shower, tucked into the corner with her head down on her knees and very definitely crying. Chris finds himself across the room and on his knees outside the shower without actually remembering how he got there.

"Are you okay?" Chris asks, which is quite possibly the stupidest thing that's come out of his mouth in decades. Of course she isn't okay, she's hiding in the shower, crying. He wants to reach out and hold her, but the hideous thought that's been lurking in his brain since she'd crept out of bed explodes across his consciousness. "Tilly, god, did I--?"

"No, no, you didn't do anything," Tilly chokes out between sobs. "You were fabulous and it was amazing being with you, really," she gasps.

"Sweetheart--" Chris is honestly at a loss.

"It's just, I was almost asleep and I thought, oh, my god, wait until I tell Jo and Key and Michael that I banged the captain--" She looks up, smiling even as her face is blotchy from the tears. "That's who you are, you know. Still. I mean, Saru insists he's still a Commander, and Lorca is... just, y'know, the asshole, but they'd know exactly who I meant if I said it that way, I banged the captain, like, who else would I be talking about? But then I remembered--" her face crumples again--"I remembered that I can't tell them, that I don't even know if they're alive and they don't know what happened to me and--"

She breaks down again and Chris literally can't stand not to reach into the shower and put his arms around her. She lets him gather her up and settle her on his lap, and he holds her while she cries and cries and cries. She clings to him, so he doesn't think she holds him responsible, but it's something that he needs to remember, that this exile she's in can be at least partially laid at his door. He doesn't know that he'd have made a different decision if he'd known this was going to happen, but that doesn't help much in the face of her misery.

So he holds her close and when her sobs quiet to the occasional hiccup, gets her back to bed and finds a cloth that he can wring out with cold water and lay over eyes. She holds onto his hand, tugging on it until he lets her pull him back down with her.

"I'm sorry," she whispers, her voice shredded from the crying.

"Don't be," he tells her. "You've dealt with everything with astonishing grace. A few tears can't take away from that."

"Oh, god, you're going to make me cry again," she sniffles. "Don't be so nice."

"I'll remember to yell a little more next time," Chris says, achieving a credibly dry tone even through the heaviness sitting on his chest. He really needs to be more in control, no matter how lovely he finds her or how amazed he is that she can somehow find her way through to the light in any given situation.

"'Kay," Tilly murmurs. "Stay with me?"

"Whatever you want, Red."

"I am going to figure out a way to tell them," Tilly mumbles.

"'I banged the captain,' really?"

"With a capital C," she slurs. "'N prob'ly a capital B, too." She squints up at him. "Yeah?"

"If I say that yes, it was a capital B-bang, it doesn't mean I endorse the message." Chris is certain that literally no one else in this--or any other--galaxy could have gotten him to carry on this conversation, but here he is--and given how more-or-less undone he'd been by the sex they're talking about, he's not even stretching the truth to play along with her. "I'm just grateful I never have to see Saru's face finding said message. Or Stamets'."

"Are you embarrassed?" A breathy little giggle dances across his skin, which is actually worth any mortification. "Oh, god, you are." She sounds delighted, which is also worth a little of Chris’ ego taking a hit even as she tips her head back and kisses all along the underside of his jaw. He's not exactly sure how she'd figured out how much he likes that as quickly as she had, but she's very focused when she wants to be.

Now is not the time to go down that path, though--she's almost shaking from exhaustion and the aftermath of the emotional storm this night has turned out to be.

"Say goodnight, Tilly," Chris murmurs, before things can get even more out of hand.

"G'night, Tilly," she giggles, and she's still laughing as she finally slides into sleep.

Chris isn't going to get much of that tonight, not after...everything, but there are pluses to being awake and able to hold her as she sleeps, not the least of which is being able to indulge his protective streak without raising any flags that things are moving too quickly between them. He still has his doubts, and he probably should have kept things at a slower pace, but he hadn't and that's what he has to work with.

All he can really do, he thinks, is to make her present as good as he can, especially since he isn't going to be able to give her much of a future.

❦ ❦ ❦

It is just her fucking life, Tilly thinks as she wakes up the next morning with eyes that feel like they've been sandpapered and the echoes from a crying-jag headache dancing between her temples, Chris still holding her. She's somehow ended up with Prince Charming in the castle and (she can hear her mother's voice so perfectly clearly in her head) she's still a mess. She doesn't even want to think about what her face must look like, not after all the ugly, ugly crying that had happened during the night.

"Good morning," Chris says in this sleep-rough, intimate voice that does incredibly unfair things to Tilly's brain.

"Hi," she answers, except her voice is just stupidly small and pathetic. She takes a deep breath and tries again, rolling over so she can see his face. "Good morning."

She sounds better on the second try, and he's smiling at her with his eyes, which emboldens her to lean in and press a kiss to his mouth. "Thank you."

"For what?" he asks, all rumbly and low.

"Lots of things," Tilly answers, kissing him again, kind of delighted by how he needs a shave and how his hair is about as crazy as hers, all things that Captain Pike never shows to the world. To be honest, she doesn't think Chris shows that much mess to the world either, but here she is, getting to comb her fingers through his hair and kiss her way across his scratchy jaw. "The sex, of course."

She nips at his ear lobe and smiles at the almost sub-vocal growl it gets. She's tempted to do it again, but the next part of what she has to say is the important part, so she stills herself and whispers, "But mostly, thanks for not only not running off when I lost it, but for wading in and making me feel better."

She's kept her head down, so she's staring at his throat and collarbone while she's talking, but he tangles his hand in her hair and tips her head back.

"Tilly," he says, kissing her mouth carefully, "if you have to thank me for that, I need to go kick some asses in my officers' corps and insist that Command start drilling in common decency a lot earlier in the Academy curriculum."

"I mean," Tilly says, a little breathless from just how thoroughly he's kissing her, her mouth and her throat, and along the top of her shoulder, "I agree, but that doesn't mean I didn't--appreciate it." She almost slips up and says didn't feel loved, but manages to keep her mouth from completely screwing her over. "Also, the sex was really, really nice--"

"Nice?" Chris asks, and Tilly shivers at the sudden challenge in his voice. "That's what you think, Red?"

"I--oh--" Tilly cries out as he drops his head and flicks his tongue over her nipples, playing with them until they're hard and aching. "Nice is not a bad thi--" She breaks off when he switches to biting at them. "Chris," she whimpers.

"I have two hours before I need to be back on the bridge," Chris tells her as he kneels up on the mattress and strips the covers off the bed, leaving Tilly naked and exposed, which probably should be freaking her out, except he's looking at her with eyes that are crazy hot-and-bothered and make it somehow possible for her to not care at all and just reach up for him. "I'm pretty sure I can do better than nice."

He lets his eyes move over her slowly, which is awesome and all, but just accepting the delay kinda feels like she's letting down the team. And she can do better than that, too.

"I'm sorry, do I look like I'm stopping you?" Tilly challenges, letting her hands smooth down over her sides and back up to play with her nipples herself. It's quite possibly the best comeback she's ever delivered in her life; it's not at all surprising that she's with Christopher-Goddamn-Pike when she does it. He really does inspire excellence. "Go for it."

"With pleasure, Red," he breathes, getting her legs over his shoulders and his mouth scraping up a path on her inner thighs that has her squirming even before he licks up into her. "With pleasure."

*

Tilly is totally taking it as a personal win that Chris beams back up to the Enterprise unshaven and unshowered, thank you very much.

And, yeah, sure, she needs a fucking nap, and her thigh muscles are seriously about to give out, but that's hardly something to complain about. Win, win, win.

Chapter Text

"Number One," Chris says as the rest of the command team is filing out of the Enterprise's ready room. He's still soliciting mission proposals for short range systems; they can open up the distance a little now since the critical time seems to have passed with the negotiations. Chris doesn't think he's going to need to be on call as much, and he wants to work out a system where they can stack missions, with Una taking command as they drop Chris off on Xahea and then loop back around to pick him up. "A word, please?"

"Of course, Captain."

He's caught a bit of a nap, but is otherwise running on years' of experience in staying on his feet with not nearly enough sleep. Well, that and a little adrenaline at finding himself thrown into an unexpected--if otherwise wholly satisfactory--situation. Since that's starting to fade, he's assuming his subconscious has decided telling Una what's going on will top it off nicely.

"At some point," he tells her after everyone else has cleared out and it's just the two of them in the ready room, "I'm going to have to cut you loose and let you get a ship of your own."

"At some point," she agrees. "It's not quite time yet."

"You let me know," Chris says.

"Oh, I will," she answers, smiling. "But that's not the only reason you wanted me to hang back and talk."

Chris shakes his head, because of course she knows that. "No," he agrees, but then isn't quite sure how to proceed. Finally, he just says, "Tilly and I--"

"Ah," Una says.

"Is that a good 'ah' or a bad one?"

"I'm not sure," Una says slowly. "You look--" She studies him, head tilted to one side. "You look as though it's a good thing. I'm happy about that."

"There's a 'but' in there," Chris says.

"It's not a straightforward situation," she says simply.

"That it isn't." Chris goes to find the bourbon, which he should have done right from the start because this was never going to be a short and easy conversation.

"You've come back from Xahea in better frame of mind than I've seen you in years." Una accepts a glass with wordless thanks. "That's worth a lot."

"But it is complicated," Chris says. "And there are entirely too many opportunities for me to fuck this up but good."

"Of course," Una says. "Which one bothers you the most?"

"Screwing over the beautiful, talented, incredibly vulnerable young woman who's all but alone because I'm--not at the top of my game."

"Got it in one," she says. "Which is good, because I'm too tired to have the discussion about how screwing up the dilithium negotiation excuse is just that, an excuse."

"That's still a concern, too," Chris points out. "And one that affects the entire galaxy."

"So don't fuck over the queen's friend and make it all awkward to have you planetside."

"Easy for you to say." Chris looks at the bourbon in his glass, turning it slowly so the light catches it differently. "You and I both know I'm not exactly sure of my judgement these days."

"Talos was a new definition of FUBAR," Una says bluntly, and so evenly that Chris knows she's covering up a world of fury. Still. "Beginning to end. No judgement needed."

"You seemed to have gotten past it," Chris points out.

"Well, I don't have to rebuild that sense of optimism that keeps you going." She shrugs. "The Talosians played with all of our brains. I had less of a sense of disappointment to work my way through so I'm a little ahead of you in my processing."

"You make me sound like a naive cadet."

"No," she says, unexpectedly gentle. "We should be able to expect basic decency; I just can't quite convince my black heart that it will always happen." She took a healthy drink from her glass. "Most of the time, I think that's for the best, but not always."

"The Talosians helped Spock," Chris says.

"Bully for them."

"They sent various projections to the ship," Chris says, hesitating for a moment before adding, "To me."

He knows she understands just by the infinitesimal narrowing of her eyes.

"And how is our little shuttle crash survivor?" Una's voice is as sweetly vicious as Chris has ever heard it.

"You sure you're further along with the processing than I am?" Chris leans back on the couch and reminding himself--not for the first time--to stay way the hell away from ever getting on Una's bad side.

"I'll concede a little backsliding, but only because it's you I'm talking to," Una answers. "But don't think I didn't notice you dodging the question."

"She's--" Chris shrugs. "She's the same."

"Still choosing the Talosian un-reality over everything else, you mean."

"She helped them help Spock," Chris says quietly. "She--"

"She absolutely could have come with us years ago," Una maintains, zeroing right in on Chris' doubt. "She chose not to. You did not abandon her." She lets that sink in for a few seconds and then adds, grudgingly, "I can understand her fears about leaving. I do. I’d plot the fastest course myself if she asked to leave now and you wanted to turn the ship around and go get her; but I draw the line at the manipulation they--and she--use as a matter of course."

"She told me that they'd made a projection of me for her."

"I'm… not even going to comment on that," Una says, and Chris isn't sure he's ever seen her show such distaste, "except to say that by comparison, there is nothing wrong with your judgement on Xahea."

"You said it was complicated yourself," Chris points out.

"I'm not saying it's not. As for your personal reservations, I'll grant you the mess on Talos IV, plus whatever happened on Boreth that you feel you can't share."

"Una--" Chris sighs. They've been over this. Extensively.

"Yes, monks, mystics, sacred duties, et cetera," Una answers with a wave of her hand and an uncharacteristic edge to her voice. "So you've said. And I know I've said how little patience I have for those sorts of things, even before I add in it affecting my captain."

"There's a comeback there involving not knowing you cared, but that would be a lie," Chris says, smiling gratefully at her. "I-- wouldn't even know where to start."

"I'm not saying you should. I just think you shouldn't pretend it isn't a complication."

"I'm trying."

"I think this is where I'm supposed to say that that's all one can ask, but I know you expect more of yourself, so I'll go with something along the lines of remembering that there's more than just you involved here, and from everything I know of Ensign Tilly, she's not going to hold it against you if you ask for a little help."

"You're right," Chris says, but it's probably without much conviction, judging from the silently arched eyebrow being aimed at him. "No, you are. I just--"

"Haven’t quite rid your subconscious of antiquated notions of partnership that are being exacerbated by the age difference in this one in particular?"

Chris winced, because no one could cut to the chase quite like his first officer. "It's more that I don't think it's fair to dump all of that on her." The eyebrow arched higher. "Okay, fine, it's a big gap."

"And now that we've actually said that out loud, allow me to point out that yes, Tilly is young, but she's survived the war and her version of it came with a commanding officer straight from hell. I'm not sure how many years that adds, but it certainly compensates for quite a few."

"I'm not sure that's how I want this to play out."

"Well," Una says, "it might not be all about what you want."

"I should probably remember that, shouldn't I?"

"Try very, very hard, and we might get out of this without blowing up the emotional minefield around us, for which I would be exceedingly grateful."

❦ ❦ ❦

"Chriiis," Tilly whines breathlessly. She wishes she could be smooth and sultry, but she’s been bent over the bed and he's been fucking her for, like, an hour and she's getting kinda desperate.

"Yeah, Red?" Chris shifts his hands where they’re holding her hips and pushes into her again with the same steady slow pace. "Something you wanted?"

"An orgasm would be awesome," Tilly answers, groaning as he goes deep, delicious pressure against the exact right spot inside her. "Before I go totally gray would be even more awesome."

"You know I’ll get you there." He shifts to short, hard thrusts, nailing her perfectly every time, like the over-achieving hero from a romance holo he is. "I know you do—you were pretty loud about it earlier.”

He's smiling when she turns to glare at him over her shoulder and grit out, "Past performance is no guarantee of future good times."

"I think I should be insulted by that." Chris doesn't look like he's taken any offense, though, not with that smirk on his face. Tilly's suddenly struck by the sheer insanity of the whole situation: who in the galaxy would have bet on her being naked and half-crazy because Chris Pike likes to drive people off the edge when he fucks them? She can't help grinning back at him just because it's so ludicrous, still, after weeks of just this happening, which does nothing to change her situation for the better. Because of course he just takes it as his due and keeps teasing her unmercifully.

Tilly drops her head back down and whimpers. Chris leans down over her, though, bracing himself on his elbows on either side of her shoulders, and that's glorious, the whole length of her back with all that skin-to-skin contact, even before he's nosing her hair aside, his mouth moving across the top of her shoulders, along her neck.

"I'll take care of you, Red," he murmurs. "I like the way it feels when you come on my cock too much to drag it out for long."

"That's a really relative term," Tilly mutters, but Chris does start moving a little more purposefully, and Tilly arches up into him, skin to skin all over everythere, his legs solid and strong between hers and she swears she could get drunk on just the feel of it all.

"I like the way it feels, too," she answers, turning her head so she can catch the side of his mouth in a messy, uncoordinated kiss. "You feel so good in me," she whispers, and he groans softly, like he can't help himself, which is like breaking the on/off switch on her mouth. "Love how you feel, everywhere, where you're touching me, where you're fucking me--" Chris pushes into her hard at that and she has to stop to catch her breath, but then her brain is off and running, not shutting up for anything. "Yeah, baby, like that, fuck me hard, do it, come on, I won't break--" She reaches back and claws at him, urging him on, "C'mon, Chris, finish it the way I know you want to--"

He's close now, but he still won't let her touch herself, which is just all kinds of frustrating, but also not a surprise at all, because he really, really likes to take care of everything, so Tilly relaxes into the rhythm and lets her mouth run wild, barely paying attention to everything that's spilling out of it, but she thinks it's when she's telling him he can fuck her anywhere he wants, use her mouth, her tits, her ass, that tips him over the edge and she finally gets what she needs: his hands working her clit, quick and rough and perfect, and she's keening into the mattress, her body tightening almost painfully around his cock as he drives into her one last time.

It takes her a long time to come down from it all; Chris has already gone and gotten a cloth to clean them both up and is back for his excellent post-sex cuddling before she can form actual words again.

"You can, you know," Tilly mumbles as she drapes herself over him and tucks her head up under his chin, his shoulder the best pillow ever. Chris hums a wordless question, his hand stroking gentle and warm along the length of her back, and she answers, not very coherently, "Do stuff."

Chris mmm's again, but Tilly's crashing hard from the come-down, all the endorphin rush fading and leaving her drained, so she decides they can talk about it in the morning and lets him lull her to sleep.

Of course, the dreams come with a vengeance that night and she’s in the suit again, only this time it’s Michael’s suit and it doesn’t recognize Tilly's DNA or her fail-safe coordinates so she's lost in time forever, her breath and heart echoing loudly in her ears, no one to find her or save her or even know that she exists, eternity staring her in the face--

Tilly jolts herself awake and manages to calm down without waking Chris up, which is, frankly, a miracle, because he doesn't sleep worth shit. She'd really like to know how long that's been going on, because usually stuff like that gets out on starships, but she also acknowledges that for all his genial openness, Chris does hold himself really private. So, his sleeping or not isn't something they talk about; he's (unsurprisingly) really good at steering any attempts at conversation around it. Tilly's tried a couple of times, but is currently in a holding pattern, trying to decide what to do about it. Tonight, she just counts her breathing in and out and tucks herself as close to him as she can. She's already freaked out on him once; she doesn't need it to become a regular habit.

It takes long enough for Tilly to get back to sleep that she's too out-of-it to bring up delicate topics when Chris' alarm goes off in the morning. It's not until after they have sleepy, lazy sex (where he gets her off twice) and she goes back to sleep for another few hours that she remembers she wanted to actually talk about them and sex, and by then, Chris is back on the Enterprise and warping off to see what they can find next.

❦ ❦ ❦

"Captain," Spock says as the two of them pick their way along a ridge high above the steely gray oceans of the exo-planet they've been in orbit around. Chris can hear skitterings in the underbrush on the other side of what he's optimistically calling a path and there are small reptilian creatures watching from the rocks. "Was there a particular reason you assigned me to this away mission?"

His gaze takes in the--admittedly scenic, but otherwise ordinary--view before it returns, pointedly, to Chris.

"Oh, no," Chris admits. "So far as we could tell from orbit, there's nothing here that requires your specific expertise."

"Then I am unsure as to why I, specifically, am here." Spock stops and looks out at the ocean. "To be perfectly frank, I am unsure why you are here either."

"Well, that would be because Number One has been having a few… concerns and decided this would be the best way to address them."

"The First Officer of the ship feels that her professional concerns would be best addressed by sending her captain and science officer on a recreational nature hike?"

"I… admit it's a bit unorthodox, but I'll let you in on a little secret, Spock," Chris says lightly. "I find that my ship runs better when I follow Number One's suggestions, so I do try to do it as often as I can."

"Except for those occasions when you do not," Spock points out.

Chris acknowledges the point with a small, half-shrug. "Except when I don't," he agrees. "And you'll notice it's generally a disaster when it happens. I try to save it for major issues that are going to be a disaster regardless."

It usually happens when Chris' optimism is running away from Una's pessimistic streak and often in what tends to be an existential and moral crisis, but that's a little deep for the current conversation, so Chris keeps that to himself.

"Which means that in this case, you are in agreement with her," Spock says stiffly.

"Possibly," Chris sighs. "I'm not sure if her judgement isn't a little compromised in this matter, but I know mine is, so I thought I'd save my not-agreeing-with-her card for something a little more cut-and-dried."

"Then this is not in reference to any specific complaint you--or she--might have about my performance as science officer," Spock says, still pretty stiff, even for a Vulcan, but possibly easing off a bit.

"Oh, no, no," Chris says. "If it were anything like that, it'd be addressed head on. Your work, as always, is exemplary. Highest standard. It's been a privilege to watch you mature as an officer."

"Thank you, sir."

"I'm guessing--because she didn't pull me aside and give me a detailed--or really any--outline of her concerns--that this has to do with our Talosian encounter last year." Chris waits for a second, but Spock unsurprisingly doesn't comment on the matter, so he sighs and continues, "Number One does not like, trust, or in any way want to tolerate anything to do with the Talosians, so I'm assuming she gave us time to discuss it on our own, but since we've not taken that opportunity, has maneuvered us down here so we could speak freely about it."

"It is a Restricted sector," Spock says. "Due to our own warnings, which makes it somewhat difficult to introduce the topic as a light conversational gambit."

"Especially since we weren't supposed to be back there in the first place."

"I could not see any other path to resolving the anomalies presented by my visions, but I admit that I might not have been thinking entirely logically at the time."

"No, I understand your thought processes, and they did, as you said, resolve much of the confusion," Chris says. "I think Number One's concerns are more that she can't bring herself to trust that the, uh, Keepers didn't exceed their bounds in assisting you."

"I am not aware of any tampering beyond the resolution of the visions," Spock says thoughtfully. "Though it is possible that they could have done so and hidden it from me."

"Yeah, that way leads down some pretty scary roads of not knowing what's actually real," Chris sighs. "I've found it best to address it as straightforwardly as possible."

Spock thinks for a moment, and then says, "It would seem that since I asked them for specific assistance there is a difference between our experiences."

"No, you're right," Chris says. "There was consent involved, at least with you."

"Yes," Spock answers, "though they used that consent to coerce Michael's agreement, which I find distasteful even now."

"You can see where Number One's basis for concern originates," Chris says.

"I do," Spock says. "And I assume that she also had a sound basis for her concerns with respect to you, as well, Captain."

It's not even a question, which shouldn't surprise Chris even as mildly as it does.

"Of course," Chris sighs. "This last trip, they … communicated with Discovery through less than standard means." Spock arches an eyebrow and Chris sighs again. "They sent projections to me; and Number One is skirting around asking me point-blank if it's triggered more of the uncertainties that followed our first expedition."

"Ah," Spock says. "Then perhaps it is I who should do the asking, sir. Has it triggered any uncertainties?"

And, oh, but Number One is smart, not that there's anything new about that. With her or Phil, Chris would have answered with an easy smile and a denial, but with one of his junior officers, Spock especially, she knows how much emphasis Chris puts on modeling mental health best practices, especially the ability to admit when something is wrong rather than pretending everything's under control. He'd seen too many disasters stemming from that inability to ask for help and has been determined to counter-program as much as possible.

So good, Chris marvels as Spock stands waiting with not quite the usual gloss of Vulcan calm. Clearly, she had seen something she'd thought Spock needed, too, and had taken care of all of it with one, boring Away team mission.

"Far fewer than I expected," Chris answers with a rueful smile. "I've had a pretty good run of random nightmares that I would deeply appreciate never seeing again, but, at least with knowing what's really in front of me, I seem to be on fairly solid ground."

Spock is silent for a while, but it's the kind of quiet Chris has learned to let play out if at all possible. Finally, he says, "I find myself drawing upon my meditation practice more frequently, even now."

"It was a rough year," Chris says. "To be honest, I'm surprised it's all been as mild as it has." He kicks free a rock, fist-sized and relatively smooth, and throws it as far as he can out into the oceans. "Maybe it's that they were very focused on relaying practical information rather than digging through my brain for what they thought might be unspoken wants they could manipulate." He watches the waves crashing at the foot of cliffs for a bit, before he adds, "Or possibly it's just that the events that followed your joining us on Discovery were so… unique that I didn't have time to wonder."

Following that thought to its logical extension brings him back around to Tilly, who is most definitely real and alive and not someone Chris had ever expected to have in his life, especially not as she is now, so it's never even crossed his mind that she could be something less than who she spectacularly is.

"Then we would appear to be in agreement that we have not been unduly affected by our second brush with Talosian projections," Spock says, clearly finished with any discussion of emotion. Chris counts the conversation as a win in both directions, so he doesn't press for more.

"It would appear so, Mr. Spock," Chris answers, even if the majority of his brain is stubbornly engaged with his relationship with Tilly and how it's nothing like he expected when he'd first started visiting Xahea. He'd been focused on supporting her through the transition back from the future, but right from the first, there'd been so much more than that between them.

"Then you would have no objections to our immediate return to the Enterprise?"

"None at all." Chris is still preoccupied with Tilly and how difficult it's proving not to throw everything he has into their deepening relationship, balanced against how he still can't see a path forward where he doesn't have to saddle her with everything that went along with the time crystal.

"Very good, sir, as I have actual analyses that I am committed to completing."

Chris comes out of his reverie at the exaggerated patience in his Science Officer's voice and marvels at how Spock's long-suffering expression so perfectly matches the tone of his voice. The best thing about being a captain, though--aside from actually commanding the ship--is getting to present that bland, boring facade to cover up any particular lapses on his own part.

"Of course, Spock, have them beam us up at your leisure."

Chris manages not to smile at the exasperation Spock is only minimally masking, but only until they get back up to the ship and Spock heads off to deal with his analyses, leaving Chris to grin all the way back to the bridge.

❦ ❦ ❦

"So," Po says, a little teasing, but mostly serious. "What's it like, being with the Captain?"

It’s just two of them in Tilly’s apartment and now that Tilly’s actually looking, Chris has all kinds of crap scattered around (which she totally loves, don’t get her wrong), so Po’s question isn’t as much of a non sequitur as it might seem.

"It's," Tilly says slowly, "different? than I expected."

"Different, good?" Po's watching with careful eyes, like she's braced for the answer to be 'no', which is really not what Tilly meant.

"I--" Tilly scrunches up her mouth and nose while she considers. "It's not bad, it's just…" She sighs. "The thing about Chris, like beyond the dimples, and the eyes, and the--

"Ass?" Po interjects, and Tilly half-shrugs, because, yeah?

"—and the whole Silver Fox thing he's working, is how, I don't know--grounded he is?" Tilly considers it for a few seconds. "Yeah, grounded--grounding. Like, you know how he is on the bridge and all hell is breaking loose and he's just doing his thing, keeping everybody from flying off the handle and flipping out…?"

"Yep," Po says. "Suuuper calm even when there are hundreds of bot-ships trying to kill him."

"Yes," Tilly agrees. "And, like, as a captain, he was always really focused on the crew and his ship and what he needed to do for everyone, and you could always go see him if you had a problem or needed somebody to be a sounding board. It was unexpectedly deep, especially after Lor--"

"The asshole," Po says. "The unbelievable asshole."

"Yeah, him," Tilly says. "And I guess, I was, I don't know, kind of expecting that in a relationship, too. That personal focus. I was even worried for a while that I wouldn't be able to deal with what I was assuming would be a crap-ton more of it for a relationship. But, you know what it's like--he gets here and we're off, and the next thing I know, I'm BASE-jumping off one of those bridges in the south or he's making friends with an entire village and getting us invited to that feast day or a million other things. And then we get someplace private and go to bed and--don't get me wrong, the sex is freaking amazing, but it's always focused on me--"

"Poor widdle Tilly," Po says dryly.

"I know, okay? I know, I have this hot, sweet, funny--"

"Hot," Po repeats.

"Hot," Tilly agrees, and continues, "amazing guy who makes me scream he's so good with his mouth, and-- "

"And?" Po prompts.

"And then he's gone," Tilly says. "I don't think I've ever gotten him off just to get him off, and we don't lay around and you know, just make out or talk or hang out or… anything that's not specific and focused and part of a plan, really. It's like we're still just running around being buddies and then we have sex, the end." She chews on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "I kinda thought him asking about more of a relationship wouldn't mean just buddyfucking, I guess."

"Okay," Po says, thoughtfully. "Again, I really have to say, 'poor you,' what with the screaming and all--but I accept the thesis that it didn't really seem like he was going for a friends-with-benefits scenario. And if we stipulate that, this doesn't really square with how our super-hot Captain Thoughtful would do a relationship, so… Possible reasons?"

This is why, Tilly thinks, that Po's such a good friend for Tilly, specifically. Most other supportive friends would be all sympathetic and the conversation would fall into a giant bitch-fest abyss, but Po's beautiful, analytical brain is already engaged and Tilly can relax and let it work with her own.

"I mean, I can maybe see how it's the age thing?" Po says. "He doesn't want you to feel like it's a big deal, so he's going way the other way to make the magic happen? Or," she mmms a little, "you were a little freaked about being back here, so he's doing his best to show you a good time?"

"I did kinda lose it after we had sex the first time," Tilly says, dropping her face into her hands in mortification. "Like, sneaking out of bed and crying in the shower losing-it."

"Yeah? How'd he take that?"

"He picked me up and let me snot all over him and cuddled me 'til I fell asleep," Tilly answers into her hands. "And then ate me out the next morning and fucked me until I almost blacked out."

"Til," Po says, laughing.

"I know," Tilly wails. "It's freaking awesome -- and all wrong, all at the same time."

"Then, I guess you've got three choices: talk, pretend it's not bothering you, break up."

"Oh, god," Tilly groans. "Talk to him? Like, say, 'Chris, you're a stud, but I need the feels,' talk to him like that?"

"You're not doing so great with the pretending, and seriously, I'm not seeing breaking up as a valid option at the moment." Po shrugs. "Talking doesn't seem so bad if you think about it that way."

"I guess," Tilly says in her best tragic voice. The thing is, she can see another reason for the distance that Po hasn't mentioned, and it's that the whole thing is a giant exercise in pity fucking, which she unfortunately can see happening with Captain I-Take-Care-Of-My-People Pike. Not when they're actually in his command, obviously, but she bets he has a metric fuck-ton of friends-with-benefits across the galaxy that he'd be glad to cheer up with a little mind-blowing sex. She's not sure if she wants to be another one, but Po's probably right and it's better to know what's going on. "The next time I see him, 'cause no way am I having this conversation over vid screens."

"As long as it's before he starts taking your clothes off," Po warns. "Your brain is mush by the time he's done with you. Not that I'm judging."

"So true," Tilly groans and lays her head down on the table. "Why is everything so complicated?"

"Life," Po says philosophically, and there's not really anything Tilly can argue with that.

❦ ❦ ❦

"Okay," Tilly is saying as Chris comes into her apartment, unbuttoning his collar and breathing a little easier just from seeing her. "Okay, I--we--I need to talk to you, so can you please not kiss me right now?"

"Okay," Chris answers cautiously. "Is there a problem?"

"No--well, yes--maybe?" Tilly remains firmly behind the couch, clearly using it as a bulwark against him. "And if you kiss me, we'll get--" She waves her hand in a vaguely explicit gesture. "Distracted."

Chris tries hard not to smile, but, yeah, they do tend to get distracted. "Point taken," he says.

"Okay," Tilly says, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. "Thank you. I just--oh, god…"

"Til?" Chris says, starting to get concerned.

"I'm just going to say this, okay?" She looks like she's going to throw up, but she blurts out, "I feel like maybe you don't really want to be with me, but you're a nice guy and don't want to make me sad so you're kinda just showing up and going through the motions because it's only once every couple of weeks--"

"Whoa," Chris barks, a little more sharply than the situation probably warrants, but a dozen alarms are--belatedly--going off in his head. "Tilly, what is going on?"

"Kinda that," she says. "What I said. I mean, we have a good time and, y'know, the sex is fantastic, but I don't know what else is going on."

"I'm--Can I come in so we can sit down?" Chris says. "I promise, no distractions, but this doesn't look to be something we're just going to solve in a couple of words."

She looks miserable, but nods, and he drops his duffel next to the door to join her on the couch.

"Okay," Chris says. "Start from the beginning, but, Red, believe me when I say I'm not sacrificing myself here, being with you." She smiles a little at the nickname, but it's nothing like the beautiful ones that never fail to remind him that life is good. "Trust me, I'm not that nice of a guy."

She doesn't smile at that one, but she doesn't throw him out, so Chris counts it a draw and makes sure he's paying attention to everything--not just what she's saying, but what she's not, and most especially to her eyes. Everything plays out there with her and Chris needs to not miss a thing.

"I guess," she says slowly, "I didn't think a relationship with you would be so… at arms' length, emotionally speaking." She looks up and meets his eyes, not hiding anything, and Chris is reminded that she really doesn't ever back down from a situation, but just attacks it head-on. "Maybe that's what you want and I've just been… assuming otherwise or maybe this whole situation is just too crazy and it's not really a good time for a relationship that goes deep."

"I--" Chris starts, but she holds up a hand and he lets her keep going, mostly because he's--inexcusably--not sure what he's going to say in the first place.

"Or, let's be real," she says. "I did completely freak out on you and if you're backing off because of that, I don't blame you--"

"No," Chris says firmly, because her blaming herself for this is completely unacceptable. "Not at all."

"Okay," she says after a few seconds, but Chris can see that she's not entirely convinced. "Or, if--if you think I need something that's larger-than-life, I really, really don't, so if this is a buddy-fuck situation for you, that's, y'know, okay, it's just that I'm really not up for being the receiving end of a pity-fuck--"

"Tilly," Chris says, "stop, please." She does, but he can tell he's not going to have much time. That's probably for the best, though, so he doesn't have time to dodge out of what he clearly needs to own up to.

"You're not wrong about the distance," he says. "But that's not you, that's me."

Tilly makes a low, hurt noise and he realizes how that sounds. "I--damn, no, not like that--"

"'Yeah, baby, it's not you, it's me,'" she says as she jolts to her feet and paces away from the couch. "I'm such an idiot; I should have just kept my stupid mouth shut--" She takes a deep breath and then says, "I meant it; I am not okay with being a pity-fuck, poor little lost Tilly, so if that's it, we can let it all go right now."

"This is not that, I swear." Chris reaches out carefully, not breathing until she meets him halfway to let him take her hand. "I'm sorry--I--There is a reason, but it doesn't have anything to do with you." He drops his gaze to where he's stroking his thumb over her knuckles softly. "I should have brought this up right from the first, but I--the truth is, I didn't want anything to get in the way of this." When he looks up, her face is so achingly open and vulnerable that he'd do anything to not have to explain. "Us."

"Chris," Tilly breathes, nothing but care and compassion in her eyes. Unsurprisingly, Una had been right to remind him that he isn't actually alone in this.

"How much interaction did you have with the time crystal?" Chris asks. "On Discovery, before it shattered here."

"Okay, subject whiplash," Tilly says, but when he can't manage a smile, she sobers quickly and answers, "None." She shakes her head. "Michael and Commander Reno were the only ones who even got near the crystal. No exceptions."

Chris nods; he'd thought he knew Burnham well enough to know she would have locked down access to that crystal, but he hadn't been sure that Tilly might not have been an exception.

"They--the crystals--don't just manipulate time, they--carry time within their matrix, is the best way I can explain it. When I went to get the crystal on Boreth, I--when I got close to it, it showed me a future that I could leave behind only if I didn't take the crystal. Which we had to have."

"I'm guessing it didn't show you anything good," Tilly whispers.

"No," Chris says, as evenly as he can. "It showed me--" He looks at her squarely, so she doesn't think he's dodging her question, but also because the only way he's going to get through this is with the strength he always sees in her eyes. "There was a radiation accident, on an old J-Class cruiser." Somehow, Tilly has both his hands in hers, and she's holding onto him for dear life. "It didn't kill me, but." Chris finds himself holding on to Tilly's hands as tightly as she had been clinging to him. "There wasn't much left."

"You," Tilly breathes. "When I was checking things, while I was setting the fail-safes for my suit in the space-time continuum, I was mainly looking up Po, so I could see if she'd be in a position to take me on if I landed on her, but, you know, it's hard not to be curious, and you--the surviving Starfleet records just said that you retired off-world in 2268."

"I--there wasn't any real indication of time," Chris manages to say. "There was--my insignia was a Fleet Captain, but--"

"Yeah," Tilly whispers. "Fleet Captain Christopher Pike, retired off-world. I--thought you probably had it out one too many times with the Admiralty and just took off."

"That's actually not a bad guess; have you been intercepting my reports?" Chris half-jokes. It's not remotely successful, given the stricken look in Tilly's eyes, but he's trying and he thinks she knows that.

"And you didn't tell me all this before now, because…?" Tilly shakes her head. "You thought I'd run the other direction?"

"No," Chris sighs. "Not at all."

"Okay, I'm really confused now."

"Tilly," Chris says. "You don't need to tie your life to that...horror. I should have told you sooner, but I'm telling you now and that still applies. You're young and you have your whole life--"

"Okay, stop," Tilly says, sharp and to-the-point. "Just--stop." She tugs her hands free and stands up to pace.

Chris does stop, but hopes she knows that doesn't change anything.

"You know," Tilly says slowly, "I'm pretty sure whether or not I want to deal with a complication in a relationship or not have the relationship at all… That's my decision to make." She meets his eyes unequivocally and he can see the first stirrings of anger there. "Also, is that really what you think of me? I should walk now so I'm not fucking you when it happens? Like that's going to make it so it wouldn't matter to me if you've taken a radiation blast head-on? Seriously?"

"No," Chris says seriously. "I don't think that about you, but if we're not… together, you wouldn't be trapped--"

"Oh, my God, shut up," Tilly snaps, and for the first time, Chris feels a flare of anger that he doesn't automatically shut down or do his best to ignore.

"No," he snarls. "Somebody has to say it, no matter how much you don't want to hear it."

"What I don't want to hear is you telling me how you know what's best for me," Tilly fires right back. "Because everything that's been said tonight is all about that, and I will cut you some slack because that--that is a fucking awful thing to be carrying around, but telling me what I need to do and feel is not your job and it wouldn't be even if you were still my captain and my mentor instead of the, the idiot I'm falling in love with."

"Tilly," Chris says, stricken, the anger draining out of him in a flood.

"Oh, like that's such a surprise," Tilly mutters, clearly still furious with him. "Please do not tell me you're that wilfully blind."

"I'm not," Chris says, with a sigh. "I think I didn't want to have this conversation and was pretending to myself that nothing had really changed."

"Well, let's be real, it's not all that big of a step from where I was to start." Tilly shakes her head. "But we're here now, and yeah, you should have told me earlier--that was really shitty decision-making, Chris--but you don't get to decide for me now, either." She stops her restless pacing to stand right in front of him. "And it's really epically shitty that you've been acting on that unilateral decision the whole time, because that's what all the holding back has been about, isn't it?"

Chris never really forgets that the bubbly enthusiasm that Tilly wears to greet the world is just the gift wrap on a keen, insightful mind, but occasionally he gets a pointed reminder of all of that and has to reevaluate his own actions by that light.

"Mostly," Chris says, and then adds,"But it's also a little that I--it's easier not to engage. At all."

He hasn't ever said that last part even to himself, but he thinks Una has been leaving hints about it for quite some time now.

"Yeah," Tilly says quietly, and when Chris looks, all of her anger has drained away, and there's a sad grayness in its place. Chris hates seeing it, more than almost anything else he can think of. "It is."

He reaches up and she lets him take her hands again. If Chris is being honest with himself, he might have reached the touch to comfort her, but that grip is maybe one of the few things that's keeping him grounded. When she pulls away, though, he lets her. He expects her to move away from him completely, but she only wraps her arms around herself.

"Except," Tilly says, almost more to herself than to Chris, "it's not. Not really."

"No," Chris agrees. Not engaging had been fine, before Tilly had crash-landed back into his life and he'd ended up trying to midwife one of the most important treaties in Federation history, not to mention the part where he hadn't been able to keep out of an actual emotional entanglement--even just the friendship they'd had was closer to someone than he'd allowed himself to get in a year. "But it's less--"

"Scary," Tilly suggests, with a tiny, but real smile. "Sorry, Starfleet officers aren't supposed to admit to that, are they?"

"No, but there are a lot of things I could change about Starfleet and its expectations."

A silence falls then and stretches out. It's not quite comfortable, but Tilly is still the one to break it.

"What do you want to do?" she asks. "About us."

Chris knows what he should be saying--to let it be, let the relationship fade--but instead hears himself saying, "I think that's something you should be answering, since you're right and I've been deciding for both of us."

It goes quiet again and Chris isn't sure what he wants less--to watch Tilly walk away or to have to put that into action himself.

"I want it," Tilly says finally. "I mean, we seriously need to talk about agency and thinking for the other person, but I started this whole conversation because I couldn't square what was going on with what I wanted. Which is everything, Chris. Everything." She sighs and bites her lip. "But that's me. I don't know about you."

"I--"

"Not what you think you should be saying," Tilly says, correctly interpreting his hesitation. "Because that's all tied up with you trying to take care of me."

"Which is something I absolutely should be doing," Chris says. "I--care about you a great deal, Til. I take care of people I care about."

"I get that," she says quietly. "I love that about you, I do, but you can't go making decisions for me." She reaches out and brushes the hair back off his face, and Chris almost can't breathe at how good it--just the casual intimacy of it all--feels. "If you don't want to--engage, for lack of a better word, because it's too much for you, then, okay, I guess. I mean, I won't like it and I don't think it's good for you, but if that's your decision, I'll deal."

It's right there, right in front of him. She's told him flat-out she'll be okay; all Chris has to do is say the words. Chris opens his mouth to say them and can't force any of them out.

"It might be better--" he starts, and then corrects himself, "no, it probably will be better to step back…"

Tilly never looks away from him and he can't make himself say it.

"I do want this," Chris says instead. It's not right, he knows that, but Tilly is smiling at him and he can't lie to her. "I want you--us--" He breaks off to catch her as she throws herself at him and lets himself pretend that how good she feels in his arms is enough of a reason to not break this off. "I'm still not--"

"I know," Tilly says. "It's not perfect, but really, what is?"

"True," Chris admits, and he does know that life with her is better than he was managing on his own.

"Okay, then," Tilly says, wrapping her arms around his neck. "I think my ban on distractions has reached its natural conclusion, so…"

"I'll get right on that," Chris says, threading his hand through her hair so he can tilt her head back to kiss her. He should have broken it off; it's all on him that he'd been too much of a coward to do what was right, but he can still do his best to make it right by Tilly before it all blows up in their face.

❦ ❦ ❦

Po's apartments in the palace are about what you'd expect if you actually know her. Everything is neat and tidy--as much because Po is pretty detail-oriented about being able to see everything she has or know exactly where everything is, but every single surface is covered with one project or another. They're the same rooms she had as a princess; technically, she'd moved into the queen's rooms after her coronation, but everyone had looked at all her stuff and cringed at the thought of carrying it across the palace grounds and she'd just never moved. Tilly is pretty sure the only time she spends in her official bedroom is when she wants to be close to the memory of her mom.

They--Tilly and Po--have dinner in her apartments as often as Po's schedule is open. Even when Chris is around, as long as he and Tilly aren't off on one of his escapades, they tend to end up hanging out there a lot of the evenings. Tilly likes that, but building her friendship with Po is really, she thinks, what's kept her sane since she's bounced back from the future and lost all of her friends.

"I've got a question for you," Po says while she's tinkering with the replicator she's never finished with modifying. It's like her engineer version of worry beads or a mantra; she plays with it whenever she needs to even out after a long day of being queenly. "It's a favor, but you should feel free to say no."

"Okay?" Tilly answers. Po has a lot of issues about people always deferring to her because she's the queen, but technically, she was Tilly's friend before she was that, so Tilly wouldn't be not turning her down because she's the queen, but because Tilly tries hard to never disappoint a friend. She sets aside the kids' grammar file she's been using to and learn to read the Xahean script; since she's gotten her brain re-set to think of it as more cuneiform than an alphabet, things have been progressing, even if it's still pretty slow.

"There's a healer, at the university across the city," Po says, and something about her voice makes Tilly look up and really pay attention. "She's extraordinary."

"Okay," Tilly says. Po never uses that word, except when she's talking about her mom.

"She--I was talking with her, about her work." Po doesn't look up from the replicator, but her hands slow and her voice is strained. "One of the bad things that happened when Xahea found out about dilithium and how valuable it is, was that people tried to use it past its effectiveness, tried to cheap out and not replace it."

Tilly has a sick feeling about where this is going, which is confirmed when Po says, very, very quietly, "There were some terrible accidents with dark matter before people understood the dangers. And," she breathes in deliberately, "it's almost never the people forcing the issue who get hurt."

"No," Tilly agrees sadly.

Po looks up with serious eyes. "Even with the incubator, the re-crystallized dilithium still has to be re-installed, and sometimes…"

"Accidents happen," Tilly says quietly.

"Yeah, accidents happen."

"So, the healer…?" Tilly prompts. "She works with the accident victims?"

"She does research, working with them and just anyone who knows anything about dark matter healing. My brother met with her and made sure she had everything she needed, and now, I do that," Po says. "And the last time we met, she talked about this one inquiry that's maybe promising, but she doesn't have much to go on, and… she says she's found some references to it as P. stellaviatori."

"The mycelial network?" Tilly asks. She puts the PADD she's using to study with down before it's impossible to hide the sudden trembling in her hands. There's no reason that she can see to suddenly be flashing back to that first horrible breath when Mae had taken her into the network, but that's where she's at, just for a fraction of a second.

"Maybe," Po says. She clearly hasn't noticed Tilly freaking out, so maybe it wasn't as bad as it'd felt. "So I thought maybe you could talk with her?"

"I--" Tilly answers, trying to stay calm, at least outwardly. "Maybe?"

"I mean, you were there, actually in it," Po's saying and that pretty much pushes Tilly right over the edge, which makes no sense, because she'd been the one to tell Po about it in the first place and nothing like this had happened, and did she mention how this just didn't make sense and she'd really appreciate some sort of consistency in her brain and its reactions?

Tilly hears Po realize there's something wrong and switch over to soothing mode, but it's all distant and indistinct, as though Tilly's underwater, but then Po's holding her hands and Tilly can feel it, like normal, and she holds onto that and manages to remember to breathe. Po counts with her, breathing in for three and out to five, and again, Til, you're doing great, and Tilly finally zooms back into Po's bedroom.

"Holy crap," Tilly gasps. "Like, what the hell is going on with my brain?"

"Well, I did just bring up the time you got kidnapped into an alternate universe against your will," Po points out.

"Years ago," Tilly answers, gulping down the rest of the mostly lukewarm tea Po's housekeeper always brings by. "And I barely freaked out this bad when it actually happened."

She puts her head down on the table and keeps on breathing.

"It's been a weird year," Po says. "Trauma recovery isn't linear."

"I guess," Tilly answers. Now that her brain isn't completely freaking out, she thinks about what Po's been saying. "I'd like to help your healer friend, but…"

"Yeah, no, you having a panic attack at the thought isn't going to really help much," Po says. "And she's not my, you know, friend. She's, just, someone the queen knows."

There's something about Po's voice that makes Tilly take notice and when she picks her head up off the table and looks, Po is paying very, very, very close attention to the replicator she's been tinkering with. Since this roughly translates to Einstein focusing completely on junior high math, Tilly says slowly, "Po? Is there something going on?"

"No," Po says. Then she sighs and says it again, but more softly and, Tilly is sure, sadly. "No. There's nothing that could go on." Tilly stays quiet and after a little while longer, Po adds, still without looking up, "Maybe if I was still the princess, but now that I'm queen…"

She shakes her head, yet another variation on 'no'.

"You said she was extraordinary," Tilly says quietly.

"She is," Po answers. "Dealing with all … this--" she gestures at the room and the tea set that Tilly knows is hundreds of years old and the coronet sitting on the edge of the table where Po had dropped it as soon as she'd come in from her afternoon reception. "It's not what she does and I don't even know how to ask her to try."

"That doesn't mean you won't ever know," Tilly tells her.

"Maybe."

"Crazier things have happened. I mean, we're talking about alternate universes and spores and--you know, Chris came and got me from there, I mean, drove the ship halfway in and sent out a rescue party, and now…" Tilly shrugs. "Anybody who told me then that I'd be here with him now would have gotten packed off to MedBay for a full psych workup."

"Like I said, it's been quite a year," Po says.

"I want to help," Tilly says. "I'll work on it and see how it goes."

"Thanks, Til," Po says and Tilly nods, because there are too many words crowding in her throat for everything that's gone on in the last year. Before it gets too heavy, though, Po sits up straight and pushes the replicator forward. "Ice cream. Now."

"No argument here," Tilly answers.

❦ ❦ ❦

Chris doesn't really have many illusions about people. He does his best to follow his own principles and doesn’t pretend they don’t exist even when he’s pissing off the powers that be by doing what he thinks is right. He’s more than a little saddened by how this is seen to be exceptional or unusual, but he’s not naïve. He knows how the galaxy works, and most of the time, he’s able to shrug it off and keep moving.

These incubator negotiations are wearing him down, though, especially once it’s clear that the major obstacle in the way of the treaty leads directly back to the corporations and governmental entities (across multiple planets) who control the dilithium mining interests and who have no desire to see their credit-generating machinery overwritten by anything, much less something from a planet only recently admitted to the Federation.

The group from Xahea that's subtly allying with them isn't helping matters much either. Chris can manage to sit quietly in the breakout rooms, as various teams work to hammer out the exact treaty language, but in the full panels, it takes every bit of self-control not to be throwing out questions about acceptable losses and making sure that everyone knows the actual human cost behind the discovery and mining and production of the dilithium chambers they're all so eager to get their hands on.

"Captain Pike," a voice echoes down the stone hall, and Chris turns to see the senator in charge of the Federation’s negotiating team walking toward him. "A moment of your time, please?"

"Of course," Chris makes himself answer. It isn't going to be the first time he's listened to complete horseshit with an expressionless face, and, sadly enough, it probably won't be the last. And yes, he tells his inner optimistic bean counter, it is going to be horseshit. There's nothing else going on by this point.

The senator lowers his voice confidentially, saying, "I know you've realized this is going nowhere."

"Well," Chris says in his blandest voice, "It hasn't seemed to be progressing to me, but then, what do I know, really. Being just Starfleet, of course."

That's probably a little too pointed, though it's nothing but a faint shadow of the attitude held toward Fleet officers by the diplomatic corps.

"I apologize for any… indiscretions you may have suffered at the hands of my team," the senator sighs, "but I believe I have treated you fairly."

Chris inclines his head, because the senator has, more-or-less, kept from insulting him to his face, but that doesn't mean he's been happy about having Chris around. Chris is under no illusions that he's only there because he knows Po (and it really chaps the senators ass that he knows Chris has been invited to address her as such, while every single other member of the delegation is still relegated to formal terms.)

"We are very nearly at an impasse," the senator continues. "I don't believe we will be able to offer anything more in return for the incubator technology and the Xahean team is not at all inclined to accept our current terms."

"Possibly because they're not stupid?" Chris can't keep from saying. At the senator's glower, he adds, "Let cut to the chase: due to pressure from the dilithium mining industry, the Federation offer is just barely above insulting and that's before we get to the part where that same industry will do its best to bury the technology if for some reason the Xaheans take the offer."

Chris takes what's frankly an unholy amount of satisfaction in the flash of surprise the senator can't hide--after all, Chris is just the captain of a ship, and one who's known to not be heavily involved in the behind the scenes maneuvering that goes on at Fleet Command; he's not supposed to be neck deep in all the political machinations, much less be able to put all the pieces together.

"Be that as it may," the senator says, recovering quickly, "the Federation has charged us with reaching an agreement about this technology--"

"With all due respect, Senator, the Federation has charged you with that." Chris knows he's walking an exceedingly fine line here, but he's apparently reached his limit on so many things. "Starfleet Command has allowed me to detour off my stated mission, in the spirit of cooperation."

It takes the senator a bit longer to recover this time, and his voice isn't quite as urbane when he does finally say, "As I said before, we are rapidly reaching an impasse that will result in no treaty at all, with no benefits to either side."

Except for the mining interests, Chris thinks, but the senator is still speaking so he keeps that to himself.

"--have escaped your notice that the queen and her chief negotiator hold Starfleet, and you in particular, in some esteem."

"We did fight a battle practically overhead," Chris points out. "You might have heard about it. We did win after all."

"Indeed, I have, Captain." The senator eyed Chris with a speculative eye that boded ill. "It's interesting that you bring this up." He pauses for a second, to see if Chris is going to react, and then continues, "I believe a personal appeal to the Xaheans from someone they find heroic might be the thing to get them to accept the terms the Federation is proposing. What do you say, Captain? Just something short, referencing the war and the sacrifices the Federation has made--"

It's probably good that Chris is seeing red, a rage blinding enough that he literally can't find the breath to speak. It gives him just enough time to rein in his fury, so that when the senator stops speaking--though Chris literally had not heard anything past the bit about Federation sacrifices--he's able to say, "Let me be sure I understand you: you would like me to invoke the memory of those I've served with, those I've fought alongside, those I've buried--" He hasn't done anything to keep the coldness from his voice, but from how the senator flinches at the word, he guesses his control is slipping more and more. It's not really something he's bothered by "--so that I can try to talk a sovereign planet, one who came to our aid against seemingly insurmountable odds, into a deal so shitty I'm ashamed to be on the offering side, all so you can claim victory in this negotiation. Did I miss anything?"

Chris keeps his gaze steady, knows his eyes are flat and dangerous, and while the senator flails in his attempt at indignance, Chris lets the thought of Kat, still and calm in the split-second before the torpedo exploded play across his mind. He thinks of Pippa, bleeding out from T'Kuvma's blade while Burnham fought to get to her; of Ariam, eaten away from within but still fighting to the end; of Gabe, lost to a world so hellish the best they could hope for was that he died quickly; and when the senator is finished, he answers, "My answer, in case you hadn't already guessed, is 'no.'" He doesn't bother veiling the contempt in his eyes. "You'll excuse me, Senator. I have other places to be."

❦ ❦ ❦

Tilly's never seen Chris in such a seething rage. If she's being honest, she didn't think he could actually get as angry as he is now. He hasn't settled in one spot for even a second, just paced the length of her apartment and back again, over and over and over. No, he'd answered when she'd asked if there was anything she could do; and, No, again to whether she should give him some space. Tilly had gotten pretty good at keeping herself small and unobtrusive in school and (especially) with Lorca, and it's kind of depressing how easily that all comes back to her, but at least she can honestly tell herself it's not because she doesn't want attention drawn to her. It just seems like the best way to be at the moment, especially since she's almost to the point of actually reading a (children's) book in Xahean and she really wants to get in there and get it done.

Chris is still pacing an hour later when she does finish and, having forgotten about the need for nothing-to-see-here, hisses, "YES," and throws her arms up in glee. Her timing is, as usual, impeccable: right as Chris turns the corner into the living area so that he jumps at her sudden movement, looking at her as though he'd forgotten she'd been there.

"Fuck, Red," Chris snaps. "Did you forget brief me about you and Stamets working on invisibility at any time?"

"That would be really cool," Tilly says, which probably isn't the best answer, but her mouth is always running its own show, so, oh well? "Sadly, though my answer is no. We just focused on Stamets' beloved spores and I occasionally got to play with asteroids."

Chris looks at her like he can't believe what she just said. She looks back at him evenly, because, yes, she did deliberately not take offense at him yelling like that, so the ball is in his court. He (happily enough) doesn't break her faith in him, just shakes his head and says, "Sorry for the attitude. It's nothing to do with you and I shouldn't have dragged it in here."

"Okay," Tilly says. "Apology accepted, but I would like to point out that people who are involved like we are, they're allowed to be in crappy moods. Sometimes, they can even talk to each other about it."

"I would really rather leave all of this somewhere that doesn't drag the negative energy into us," Chris says, which is hardly a surprise, but is disappointing nonetheless. Things between them have been better since The Talk (Tilly does still capitalize it in her thoughts), but there are still times when Tilly feels like she's there for fun, not for anything serious. Then again, she definitely hadn't realized how very close Chris holds himself before they started all this, and she knows she's in a lot further than almost everyone else in his life. She'd for sure like to be all in, as deep as they can go, but to be fair, she's not quite ready to let him all the way in her psyche either.

"I know," she says. "I'm just saying it'd be okay with me if you change your mind."

"Duly noted," Chris answers and she thinks he even means it. "But tell me what had you throwing victory arms."

"Nice diversion," Tilly says dryly. "I will allow it, though, because I read my first book in Xahean, and I am feeling very celebratory about it."

"Excellent," Chris says, smiling the smile that still does amazingly crazy things to Tilly's insides.

"Well, I mean, it's a kids' book and it took me all day--" The rest of her disclaimers are lost when Chris leans in and, threading his hand through her hair, pulls her close for a hard, deep kiss.

"You." He kisses her again. "Read." Another kiss, even more intense this time, and Tilly is starting to get a little dizzy. "A book in Xahean," he says, very firm and captain-y. "None of the idiots I'm working with have done that, I'm sure." The next kiss is long and lush and Tilly is maybe whimpering long before Chris is done with her. "And even if they have, it takes nothing away from your accomplishments."

It's really not fair how he barely sounds breathless at times like these, while Tilly can only halfway figure out which way is up. She's maybe getting a little less swept-off-her-feet, though, because she can manage to get her hand up to cup his jaw and let her thumb trace over his cheekbone, which is seriously his kryptonite (which also makes it hers, because there is nothing she doesn’t love about watching his eyes soften and go vulnerable and wanting.)

"You spoil me," she tells him. "Not that I’m going to turn down celebration kisses, but if I’m getting all this goodness for a kids’ book, what's on tap for something actually relevant?"

"I guess you'll just have to do the work and find out," Chris teases. He turns his head so he can press a kiss into her palm, and her heart does a little stutter that makes it hard to breathe. "But you’re the one who’s doing the spoiling, letting me drag all this negative energy down on top of you."

"It's not like you," Tilly says. "At least, it’s not in my experience, but I’m still figuring out what's you-you rather than what's the Captain-you." She touches his face again.

"Sometimes, I wonder about that myself," Chris says, which feels like a big admission to Tilly, but he doesn’t say anything more and she has to be content with just that. Someday, she's going to figure out how to be someone he can dump stuff on, but it's looking like a long process.

❦ ❦ ❦

Rojas is actually less livid than Chris expects her to be when they put through the comm for her to ream him out.

"For the love of God, Captain, try not to insult Federation senators while you're in uniform."

"I'd apologize," Chris says, "but we're all lucky I didn't throw a punch, Code of Conduct or not."

Rojas sighs. "Between the two of us, I agree." Her expression sharpens. "While did not say precisely that in response, my meaning was made perfectly clear to the senator in question--" Chris masks a wince; usually the diplomatic corps sends their underlings when they want to make their displeasure known. He's lucky Rojas is the one who took the complaint; she stands on no ceremony with the Federation.

"But, that being said, Captain," Rojas continues, "I expect better of the officers I send out, ill-mannered and disrespectful comments notwithstanding."

Chris expects better of himself, too, so he resolves to keep his mouth shut and take whatever else Rojas needs to get off her chest. As it turns out, she's more worried about him than she is interested in any reaming out.

"This is most unlike you, Chris. I've seen you side-step the most appalling of insults with a smile."

"Oh, believe me, anything you've seen is a snarl, not a smile."

"I'm aware," Rojas answers dryly. "This wasn't even a snarl."

"I--" Chris thinks about the last year and all its losses and unwelcome revelations; when he adds to that the unthinking disrespect shown to everything to which he's dedicated his life, he has to breathe through the spike of anger one more time. He knows Rojas is seeing it and it can't be anything to his credit, but he's still legitimately in white-hot fury range over it all. Finally, he gets his voice under control and says, "It's been a long few years, Ana. I could have laughed off any insult to me, personally, but to ask me to use the memories of--"

"Yes."

"Do you want me to resign this position?"

"They did not ask for that," Rojas says, "which leads me to believe that their negotiation stance is tenuous in the extreme and they do not want to do anything that might upset the queen in the slightest."

"I can't recommend that deal," Chris says. "I can't. If the Federation gets hold of that technology and the mining interests bury it, it's as good as lost." He isn't saying anything Rojas doesn't know, but he wants it all out there, crisp and clear. "You and I both know how much time and energy and blood finding new sources of dilithium costs the Federation and Starfleet. If there's the slightest chance I don't have to deliver another condolence message to one of my crew's families because they were lost while we were looking for another deposit, I will do my best to see it through."

Rojas is silent for a good ten seconds, which is an eternity for her to be thinking through the situation. She's legendary in her ability to make the right snap decision. Chris feels a little less like an over-emotional ensign for losing his temper if even Ana Rojas isn't sure which way to jump.

Finally, she sighs and says, "I believe our position--ours--" and Chris understands that she's talking about Starfleet "--would be best served if you remained with the negotiations. Even if they fall apart, we'll still have your conduit to Her Serene Highness, which we could possibly call upon in the future." Her gaze sharpens, and even over a middling video connection, Chris can feel the weight of it. "To that end, if I could prevail upon you to maintain a professional, working relationship with the Federation team, I would be most appreciative."

"Of course," Chris answers. He's frankly surprised there isn't an order to apologize formally to the senator; Rojas must be as stratospherically furious as Chris is himself. Then again, insulting the memories of those lost in battle is never a good idea. At some point, the politicians in the Federation have to figure that out. "We're scheduled to return to Xahea in two weeks; I'll play it as professional as you like."

"I know you will," Rojas says and signs off, leaving Chris to work through exactly how he's going to keep up a good front when he's tasked with sitting in with people who hold all that he stands for in minimal respect.

"Get it done, Pike," he says to himself. "Just get it done."

❦ ❦ ❦

"Holy fucking shit," Tilly gasps as she hits the ground hard, her legs giving out on her and sending her crumpling to her knees. "Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit." She's shaking so hard she can barely breathe and her vision is starting to tunnel in.

"Tilly," Chris says, somehow right in front of her, but she can't make her arms work even well enough to grab him. "Tilly, breathe, sweetheart; it's okay. You're on the ground; you're safe. You made it down; it's okay."

"I can't--" Tilly gasps. "Chris, I, that was--how am I not dead, Chris?"

"It's okay, Red," Chris is saying as he's unclipping her safety harness and unzipping her out of her climbing rig. "It's okay; you lost a couple of pitons, but you did everything right, and you're down and safe."

He strips the last bit of gear off her and pulls her into a hug. She clings to him, the shaking really kicking in as her brain catches up with everything that had happened in the last few--minutes? Seconds? It seems like hours, but really, she thinks it's probably only been maybe a minute from where the piton in the canyon wall had broken free and she'd started falling. She thinks the force of her fall pulled out four or five more before one had held, which at least meant she wasn't free-falling straight to the canyon floor but the momentum from the distance she had fallen had sent her slamming into the wall. She's not at all sure how she got to the ground, but here she is, so hey, go her.

"How did you--?" Tilly gasps into Chris' neck as her brain ricochets back to the present. "You were--"

He'd been on a separate line, free climbing next to her, and the last she'd seen him he'd been a good fifteen meters higher than she'd been.

"I rappelled down as soon as I saw that first piton give way," Chris says, still holding her and rubbing her back. "Did a fast rope that'd make any of the deployment teams jealous."

Tilly shakes her head a little--she's still burrowed into him--and manages to say, "They already think you're awesome; you really don't need to up your street cred with those crazies."

"That's just a bonus extra to getting down here with you," Chris says, finally setting her back on her heels and looking her up and down. She's still a little shaky, but at least she doesn't fall over. "You hang here for a couple of minutes and I'll get our stuff pulled together."

"No," Tilly protests. "I know you were gunning for the peak; I can just stay here and--"

"No," Chris says.

"But--"

"Red." Chris shakes his head, his hands on his hips. "That's not happening and I'm going to start asking for names here, so I can go and have words with whoever made you think it should."

"Start with my mom," Tilly mumbles, staring at the dusty, dry ground. When she finally looks up, Chris strokes the back of his fingers along her cheekbones, and Tilly has to blink back a couple of humiliating tears. "I'm okay," she says.

"All right," Chris says, not making a big deal out of it. "Take it easy; this won't take long."

Tilly nods, focusing on her breathing while Chris packs up all the climbing gear he'd arrived with for this most recent side trip away from the on-going (and in Tilly's opinion, never-going-to-be-ending) negotiations. By the time he's done, she's not in danger of hyperventilating, which is at least a start. The adrenaline rush is fading, too, which helps with the how jumpy she is.

"C'mon, let's get you back so you can soak out those shakes in the hot springs." Chris holds out an arm to haul her to her feet, but when she grabs his hand, he can't quite hide a flinch.

"Holy crap," Tilly says, turning his hand over and seeing a long, ugly groove across his palm where the rope had burned straight through his glove and into his skin. "Chris!"

"I told you I came down fast," he says, shrugging. "Here--" He holds out his other hand. "Take this one; it didn't get it quite so bad."

She'd protest more, but she recognizes the tension and energy still practically thrumming through him and knows he's not going to settle any time soon. There are times when she wonders if he's always been like this, or if the war or everything that had happened with Discovery and the Red Angel hunt had amped things up. She's a little too off-balance to really think about it right now, though.

Getting to the shuttle sounds like a great idea, but Tilly's legs take their own sweet time in being ready to take her weight so the walk back to their shuttle takes a stupid amount of time. They finally make it, though, and she falls into the seat with a groan.

"Belt in," Chris says, leaning over to drop a kiss on her hair as he fires up the engines and gets ready for lift off. "I don't want to lose you now, not after you made the recovery of the year back on the canyon wall."

"Belting in," Tilly confirms. "I'm equally invested in not getting lost. Also, you promised hot springs."

"I did," Chris says. "Private hot springs and whatever you want after."

"You say the most fabulous things," Tilly sighs. Adrenaline-fueled sex--which had definitely been on the agenda once they'd summitted, there's no use pretending otherwise--probably isn't happening, not with how wobbly she still feels, but even when he's hyped, Chris is not averse to cuddling, which sounds amazing to Tilly right about now.

"I try, Red," he says, and lets her loop her pinkie through his all through the flight to the small posting house they'd been planning to use as a base camp, where there is indeed a private hot spring and some excellent cuddling waiting for her.

"We should go back so you can get regen for your hands," Tilly murmurs from where Chris has got her wrapped up in his arms and the water is gently bubbling from the mineral rich vents deep beneath the ledge they're sitting on. She sounds a little dreamy, but what's not to be dreamy about in the here-and-now? Sure, she still doesn't know what she's doing with her life and she's getting distressingly familiar with how to talk herself out of a panic attack, but the immediate surroundings are excellent. She can compartmentalize like a champ.

"It's fine," Chris says. "I'll catch up back on Enterprise. It'll give Phil a chance to grump at me."

"Yeah, but they have to hurt," Tilly says, the dreaminess giving way to a minor distraction as she's maybe rethinking the sex part of the evening; he's right there and so is she and nobody's wearing much of anything and between the hot water and Chris' arms around her, she's feeling very, very okay and mellow. She barely has to move to get her mouth on his throat, right exactly where he likes it.

"Proof of life, Red," Chris sighs out, tipping his head back so she can have a little more room to work. "Proof of life."

That starts a quiet chord of wrongwrongwrong through her brain and she's gathering herself to push back a little on it, but then his hand's sliding under the little scrap of material she's wearing, and he knows exactly where to touch her, too, his fingers dancing along the side and top of her breast until he can start playing with her nipple, not quite gentle little pinches and quick, sharp scrapes with his nails, and everything else flies out of her head.

❦ ❦ ❦

"Captain," Una calls. She's using her calmest First Officer's voice, which is, to Chris' ear, very different from a greeting in Number One's voice, and one that Chris is not in the mood to deal with today. If he's being honest, he hasn't been in the mood to deal with it for years now. He can date the expiration of his patience fairly precisely, to the months right after Talos IV, but he knows she already knows that and is ignoring it.

"Yes, Commander?" It's a petty little thing, using her rank instead of the nickname given out of love and respect, but he's apparently in a petty little mood. It's not anything to be proud of, but it's where he is these days.

"Dr. Boyce and I would like to speak with you about your planned EVA."

"Nothing to talk about," Chris says, as short as he ever has been with her. "There are a couple of microfractures in the hull and EVA is the best for the location."

"I agree," Una says, still in that damned let's-keep-everyone-calm voice. "My concern is more why the captain of the ship is putting on a suit and going out to fix it like a hull jockey."

She's definitely annoyed; she'd never use that kind of slang otherwise. Chris should feel at least a small amount of remorse for that, but today is just not that day.

"I like to keep up with all my personnel, you know that."

"I've heard some weak excuses in my day, but that's not even rising to the level of a cadet getting called out by the OOD."

"I don't actually think this is your call to make," Chris snaps. "And before you start quoting regs at me about how the CMO has authority over the captain in cases of medical need, just--don't." He turns around and meets her eyes squarely. "A captain going out to fix the hull is a little unorthodox; I'll grant you that, but it's not anything near enough to start that whole the-captain-is-mentally-incapacitated-and-needs-to-be-relieved process."

"Your proposed stunt is unnecessary and dangerous." Una bites off each word precisely and her tone is icy and not a little bit dangerous itself. "You have a duty to your ship and crew. Sir."

"I'll let you in on a little secret," Chris says, rubbing a hand over his face. "It'll be fine."

"You can't know--"

"Oh, I can," Chris interjects, smiling with the least amount of joy he's felt in a long, long while. "Monks and mystics, remember?"

"Captain," she starts, but Chris is pretty much done with the conversation.

"And even if they're wrong," he says, "my ship and crew will be in the best of hands, Number One. The best of hands."

He turns and leaves her at that. She's not wrong that it's a boneheaded move, but the thought of being outside the ship--his ship--with just himself and a few handholds to rely on is not something he's going to pass up. Not since Boreth.

❦ ❦ ❦

"What the hell was that?" Tilly demands almost before Chris even gets the door open. She's been pacing and biting her nails down to the quick ever since she got back from the air show, the one that's part of the run-up to the planetwide celebrations that commemorate Xahea--and her peoples--birth. It had been a really big deal that Chris had been invited to participate and Tilly had been half-vibrating out of her skin even before the ultra-lights everyone was flying had appeared.

"What was what?" Chris snaps back, the cocky grin fading off his face. A couple of months ago, Tilly would have been horrified that she'd caused that to happen, but now she's looking with her actual brain and she can see how it's less of a smile and more of an adrenaline mask pretending to be happiness.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," Tilly says. "But I'll spell it out so everybody's super clear." She's so mad (and scared) she's shaking. She should probably table this until she can think a little more calmly, but her brain is already plowing ahead. "What. The. Hell. were you thinking, to push that ship into a power stall, not two clicks from the town square?"

"It was fine," Chris answers through what sounds like gritted teeth. "We pulled out, no problem."

"No problem?" Tilly hisses. "A fraction of a second longer and you would have cartwheeled right over that square and everybody in it."

"The last time I checked, your qualifications didn’t include a pilot's licence, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your assessment of the situation with much weight."

Tilly can feel her jaw drop at that, but then the anger boiling along inside her doubles down and she narrows her eyes.

"I don’t need professional qualifications to know reckless behavior when I see it, especially when it’s that blatant, but if you want, I'll do the math to give you the exact margin you were playing with." Tilly fights to keep herself calm. "You and I both know you would have grounded any of your pilots for pulling a stunt like that. Hell, you would have reamed out an admiral for it."

"Well, you and I both know nothing was going to happen. Not now."

Chris drops that in and stands looking at her, his gaze uncompromising and bleak, and there’s no doubt in Tilly's mind what he means.

"That's what this is about?" Tilly says, feeling sick. "You know where and how it ends so you can push everything else to the breaking point? Is that it?"

So many things are falling into place--the free climbs on all the canyon walls and the base-jumping and the high-altitude parachute jumps and the concerns Number One has shared--and she's so terrified now she can barely breathe.

"Is it, Chris? Because—"

"We are not having this conversation," Chris says, calm and cool and in control, right before he walks out of the bedroom.

Tilly reels back as though she's been slapped and feels her way to the chair at her desk. In all the time she's known him, he's never, not even when she'd been an overeager ensign with a palpable, hopeless crush, dismissed her so thoughtlessly. She thinks about his quiet Proof of life, Red right before he'd laid her out on the rock shelf and fucked her until she barely remembered her name and all the other times he's skipped right along the surface and she's gone right along with him. She honestly doesn't know whether to follow him out and scream at him that she isn't a toy or just stay where she is and scream at herself for letting herself be just that.

She wants to tell herself that she doesn't know what to do, but that's a lie. She knows; she just doesn't want to do it. She's all alone, though, and she's not letting herself off the hook until she works it all out in her head.

❦ ❦ ❦

Chris knows he's fucked up almost before the bedroom door closes behind him, but he hadn't been kidding either: he can't have that conversation about the time crystal and his future. And he sure as hell can't have it with Tilly, the most ragingly alive person he knows.

He prowls the small living area of her apartment, pacing restlessly but unwilling to leave completely. He'll let her sleep, he decides, and in the morning, he'll apologize and make love to her and do his best to smooth over the mess he's made.

He spends the night persuading himself that will be enough, but, really, it's such a pathetic excuse for a plan that he can't be surprised when it all falls apart the second he opens the bedroom door and finds her awake, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen, as if she's been crying quietly all night.

"Tilly," Chris starts, but she holds up her hand and the words die in his throat.

"I can't," Tilly says with a disbelieving sort of a laugh. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I can't do this. Us." Her eyes are full but the tears somehow don't spill over. "I'm here, and every single person who knows me, except for you and Number One and Spock and Po, every other person in the universe thinks I'm dead. My mother, my family, my class at the Academy, all of them."

She doesn't point out that it's on him that she's in this position, but Chris can fill that part in himself.

"I'm super-grateful to have a place I can be, but it's not Starfleet, it's not what I've wanted to do all my life, it's not who I was a year ago, and I'm barely managing to deal with that. I can't--I can't deal with you and how you're not dealing with that future the crystal says is coming for you, too."

Chris stiffens and starts to argue, starts to tell her that it's not that big of a deal, starts to tell her all the things he tells himself all the time, but she's not done with him yet.

"I love you, I swear I do--god, I've loved you before I even understood what that means--but I can't, can't play the--the game you're playing with it, pretending like it's not a thing, that everything is super-cool until it's not and you shut down."

The tears spill over then, one after the other streaking down her face. She doesn't wipe them away or even acknowledge them, just stands there and looks at Chris.

"You're the bravest person I know and the most honorable and, and the most stubborn, and I can't imagine how hard it must be to try to deal with that, but you're not dealing and I can't play that game with you. It'll drag me down and I'll drag you down and we'll lose everything."

Chris stands in the doorway, but there's nothing he can say. It had probably been stupid and naive to have even tried for this, the two of them, but they had and now Chris needs to get his ass out before he does any more damage, even if that's only to tell her that he'd known this couldn't work and he'd tried to tell her months ago.

That's a level of petty that Chris is ashamed of even entertaining, so he makes himself pick up the bag he'd dropped as he'd come in the door and picked her up so he could fuck her against the wall. It's not even been two days since, but he's known all his life that things can change in an instant. He doesn't see why he and Tilly should be any different, no matter how much he might have wanted it to be.

"Tilly," he says, because he can't just leave. "You will figure your life out. You will. You were an exemplary officer and I have full faith that you'll take that with you into something new."

"Swear to me you'll take care of yourself," she says from where she's still standing across the room from him. "Please."

"I will--try," Chris answers, and she lets him go even though he's certain she knows it for the lie it mostly is.

❦ ❦ ❦

"Til?" Po calls softly, and Tilly rouses herself from where she's been sitting since Chris left--since she sent Chris away. It's dark outside of the windows and the lights in her rooms are only on in the dim, shaded level that's automatic once the motion detectors send out their all-clear signal. She doesn't know how long it's been, but then, what does it really matter?

"I'm here," she answers Po. "I'm--not very okay, but I guess I'm not not-okay either."

"I saw Chris on his way back up to the ship," Po says. "I'm so sorry."

"I just--couldn't," Tilly whispers. And he didn’t even try to address it, a little voice in her head says, which is just not what she needs to hear right now.

"It's not a crime," Po says. "Knowing when you've hit your limits is important. You have to take care of yourself."

"Then why does it hurt so much?" Tilly hasn't cried since before Chris left; she thinks it might help, but it's not happening.

"Because it's something you wanted a lot," Po answers.

"I did," Tilly sighs. "I wanted him--us--so much and I just couldn't figure out how to make it work."

Po comes and sits next to Tilly and lets her lean on her. "I know you tried."

"I have to get my shit together," Tilly says. "I have to figure out this life I have now, because this is pathetic."

"You will," Po tells her. "This year, it's been… a lot, I know, but you'll find a path." The arm she has looped around Tilly's shoulders tightens. "And whatever I can do, you tell me."

"You're the queen, Po," Tilly says. "You have better things to do than kick my butt out of the mopes."

"'Better' is such a subjective definition," Po says. "And you know how I feel about non-objective criteria." Tilly half-laughs. "There's always stuff going on, but if I can't care about my first real friend, how is that good for the queen stuff I'm supposed to be taking care of? Besides, you listen to me bitch about all the so-called 'important' stuff, so you're helping to save the queen's sanity. There's probably a medal around somewhere for that."

"Okay," Tilly says, with a little--but still real, and it feels important to note that--laugh. "I'll yell when I figure something out you can help with. Operation: Who Am I Without Starfleet… it's a go."

"Good," Po says, her hand gentle as she strokes it through Tilly's hair. "Maybe just take a little bit to breathe, though, okay? You're allowed to be sad about all this."

"I don't think that's going to be a problem," Tilly says, but she still doesn't cry.