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Author's Note: Warning: this story contains past non-con, power play, an unreliable narrator, and graphic depictions of sex. Huge thanks to my awesome betas circ-bamboo, rubynye, boosette, and calapine.

The Quality of Mercy
by LJC

There were no such things as accidents aboard Imperial Starships.

That was one of the first lessons cadets learned in Command School, and those who took it to heart served the Empire longer than their fellows.

So when the shuttle door opened before the bay had fully pressurised, Number One knew instinctively that it was neither operator nor mechanical error. She knew, even as her chest ached and wind tore at her hair and her uniform, that it was deliberate. Her fingers scrabbled on the shuttle dock controls, and she watched the hatch start to slide closed before she was swallowed by darkness and oblivion.

She woke in the Medbay to Boyce checking her pupils with an old-fashioned penlight while he clucked his tongue.

"You're one very lucky young lady," he said as he picked up a sensor. "Another few seconds, and I'd be conducting an autopsy."

But she knew luck had nothing to do with it. Her respiratory system was more efficient than her fellow human crewmen's. Anyone else would have suffocated to death before the technician had re-pressurised the bay, and rescue teams had pulled her out of the nearly airless shuttle. A trick of biology had spared her, nothing more.

"Lucky," she repeated, her tongue feeling swollen in her mouth.

It was not her first assassination attempt. When she had been in the Imperial Academy Command school, after the first exam reports of the first quarter were posted, she was attacked by two students on a training exercise. They spouted anti-Eugenics propaganda, but she knew it was simple academic jealousy that prompted them. She was cleared of all charges in their deaths, Imperial Starfleet ruling it "self-defence", and there were no further attempts. She graduated with honours, and received a shipboard posting almost immediately.

Onboard the Dauntless, she had risen quickly through the ranks, once again making her a target. Unlike Pike, who made his policy on assassination clear, Captain Veitch believed that his officers performed better when they were always on their guard. She had survived another attempt on a Landing Party when a member of the Security detail, acting on the First Officer's orders, tried to camouflage her death as part of an altercation with the natives. Luckily, the planet's weapons were not as effective as Starfleet phasers.

She had been bartered to Fleet Captain Nogura in exchange for his First Officer, a Chalnoth who could crush a man's skull with one hand. It did not surprise her when she heard of Veitch's death barely a month later. She neither celebrated nor felt remorse. She believed the captain had reaped what he had sown.

She wondered, briefly, what seeds she had cast into the wind.

She had hoped that life aboard the Lexington might be different. However when Nogura had blatantly paraded her, assigning her to his senior staff based solely on how much he desired to have her as his captain's woman, she spent two years in hell. Not only did Nogura abuse her nightly, but his senior navigator tried to maim her twice, in order to secure her place at the conn for his own lover. In the end, she had been forced to kill him and request reassignment. Nogura'd had no intention of letting her go, but when Pike was promoted following Captain Shundresh's death and in need of both a helm officer and an Exec, Imperial Starfleet had forced Nogura to allow the transfer.

By Imperial Starfleet standards, the Yorktown was a paradise. Her field promotion to Commander had been approved nearly two months into her tenure, and no-one had challenged it or her. There were no knives drawn when she walked into the officer's mess. The ship's doctor was no sadist, but a capable man who genuinely respected and admired his captain and killed only when he had to, rather than from genuine pleasure. The integration of Vulcans into the crew had been without incident thus far, unlike other ships of the line where there had been deaths among both the predominantly human crews and aliens.

Initially, Number One had been surprised by Captain Pike's zero tolerance policy toward assassination aboard the Yorktown. She had assumed it a quirk—something to which he paid lip service only—until she had seen him enforce the policy, executing without mercy would-be assassins who attempted advancement through murder.

They had not been quick, clean deaths.

"It deprives the Empire of her trained and seasoned soldiers needlessly, selfishly," he had explained one evening when she had dared ask him about the edict. "But more than that, it makes us no better than those Klingon dogs. The Empire must strive to be better than her enemies, or we do not deserve the right to rule."

The strength of Pike's convictions, and the ruthless manner in which he enforced them, made assassination a rarity aboard the ISS Yorktown. Perhaps he was right. It was not her place to question his edicts. But it meant that anyone attempting murder to gain advancement was almost certainly doomed to a messy and painful death, if discovered.

It had given her a false sense of security, she realised now. She had allowed herself to become weak, complacent. The captain's rule aboard his ship was law, but that didn't mean that "accidents" weren't still possible. All you needed was someone who genuinely believed the rewards to be worth the risk of detection. Or someone who did not care whether they lived or died, so long as their goals were achieved.

Number One suspected the latter.

Although he displayed no concern on the bridge when she returned to take her shift despite Boyce's objections, that night in his cabin, Pike's attentions were gentle and his relief seemed heartfelt.

"I almost lost you," he whispered into her hair as he wrapped his arms around her so tightly her ribs ached.

She let him touch her, reassure himself that she was alive and real and his. She was surprised when she began to tremble in his embrace. Delayed shock, she told herself firmly. Nothing more.

She did not sleep that night.

Number One summoned Lt Spock to her quarters, and keyed in safeguards to prevent their conversation from being recorded.

"I have prepared the report you requested," Spock said without preamble, and handed her a datacard with his findings. "The hangar bay door protocols were, in fact, tampered with. I've documented the findings, including the access codes used to alter the programming."

"Thank you, Lieutenant."

He paused, quirking an eyebrow. "May I speak freely, Commander?"

"Of course."

"Why assign me to the task, when I would have been the most obvious suspect with the most to gain, had the assassination attempt been successful?"

He seemed simultaneously gravely earnest and genuinely bewildered. She barely succeeded in hiding her smile. "Because I knew, had you made the attempt, it would have been successful, Mr Spock. Therefore, logically, you were not the perpetrator."

"While I desire advancement, I have no wish to hold your position as First Officer. I am more than satisfied with my current role as Science Officer, and would prefer to remain… a less visible target. As my Human mother might say, out of sight, out of mind. And truthfully, I prefer the sciences to command, regardless of my father's hopes that I might distinguish myself in the service of the Empire."

"Mr Spock, outside of your duties as Science Officer, I do not believe I have heard you utter so complete a speech since you joined us. And certainly never one so personal. What have I done to inspire such loyalty—in a Vulcan, of all people?"

"You have done your duty to the best of your ability with cool efficiency, unswayed by emotion, setting an example I can only hope to follow in my own Starfleet career. And as I have always admired your service to this ship, her captain, and the Empire, I believe the common vernacular would be 'I am your man,' should the need arise for you to call on your supporters."

"If you are trying to ingratiate yourself to me, Mr Spock, allow me to make one thing clear. While I require your loyalty and your discretion, I have no use for a toady."

"Nor, madam, would I presume to be. As you have entrusted me with certain personal details, I felt it only necessary to give you the truth unvarnished. I continue to consider myself fortunate to have been placed aboard the Yorktown."

"Really? I would have thought a science vessel or a Vulcan ship would have been your preference."

"Due to being half-caste, there was no possibility of me serving on a Vulcan vessel. As for the possibility of a science vessel... I prefer the Yorktown. Captain Pike is a commander worthy of my respect and admiration. It is often said among humans that power corrupts. Yet I do not see the captain wilfully abusing his power as so many other Starfleet captains have. It would grieve me to see such a man struck down by one of his subordinates, and replaced with a commander of lesser integrity, courage, and skill. "

"I had no idea you felt so strongly about your posting—or the captain."

"'Felt' is of course a misnomer."

"Of course. I misspoke. No offence meant." She leaned back in the chair, wondering how in the wide strange universe she managed to acquire her own personal Vulcan. The irony was not lost on her, but the sight of the datapad on the table brought her back to why she had summoned Spock to her room and brought the science officer into her confidence in the first place.

"As to the matter at hand... If the motive were not advancement, then logically that leaves revenge."

"A sound argument," he said, nodding his head gravely. In a man so young—even a Vulcan—she found it somehow charming rather than ridiculous. "Do you wish me to continue my investigations?"

"Discreetly," she cautioned him. He saluted and exited, and she dropped the datacard into the reader.

The computer tampering had been clumsy, easy for an A4 expert to spot. Easier still for an A5 expert to trace back to its source.

Revenge. Number One rolled the word around her mind the way a connoisseur would a mouthful of wine, testing its mettle, flavour, and strength.

She understood revenge.

The deck crew chief did not last long in the agony booth. It was obvious he had no idea the hangar bay door controls had been tampered with, but for the sake of appearing strong and in control, she had to follow the usual steps. Rounding up the obvious suspects, cursory interrogations. She stopped short of execution, only because she knew it was all a sham and didn't want to earn more enemies if she could avoid it.

She watched, and waited, never daring to let down her guard. Spock's report was conclusive, but she did not act on it. She knew that she should—but she wanted—needed—to believe that her would-be murderer would accept the failure and move on.

It was not until the second attempt that Pike realised the first was deliberate.

They were having dinner in her quarters. She'd filled their glasses herself, with wine from her personal cache. When Pike remained unaffected as her throat began to close up that she realised it wasn't the wine that was poisoned, but the rim of her glass.

Fast-acting nerve toxin, she thought just as she began to convulse.

When she came to in the Medbay two hours later, Boyce calmly informed her that Pike had had the Junior Quartermaster in charge of subsistence in the booth the entire time.

The man's heart was on the verge of giving out when she prised Pike's hands from the controls.

She was still shaky on her feet, the ship's corridors spinning as she pressed down hard on the pressure points of his wrist with her thumbs while the man inside the booth screamed his throat raw. Pike had dismissed the technicians and security detail, and was alone with his prey. She had never seen him like this—not in all the time she had served under him. It both thrilled and terrified her.

"Captain, stop." She kept her voice even, her gaze steady.

She stood on a precipice, and it was a very long way down. By daring to interrupt the captain—going to far as to lay her hands on him to prevent him from punishing an innocent man—she may well have been signing her death warrant. Number One held his gaze, unflinching, until some of the wildness left his eyes and he removed his hand from the controls and let it drop to his side.

"I haven't concluded my investigation, Number One," he said as the petty officer slumped in his restraints, gulping in mouthfuls of air.

She indicated the man in the booth with a tilt of her head. "He knows nothing."

Her assertion, she suspected, would have had more weight had her legs not chosen that moment to give out. While the petty officer wept in relief, Pike caught her by the forearms and supported her weight until the room stopped spinning.

She was glad, then, that they were alone save the man in the booth, blinded by pain. Such a blatant display of weakness would have shamed her. The room nearly echoed with silence as she breathed shallowly through her nose, gripping Pike's arms until her legs could hold her once more.

His eyes narrowed. "How can you be sure?"

"Because I know who was behind the attempts. I knew from the start. And I have it under control."

"You knew?" he said, his voice low and thrumming with anger—anger she hoped was not directed at her, but she could bear if it were.

"I suspected," she admitted, her lips compressed in a tight line. "The second attack merely confirmed my suspicions."

"Who is it? I will have every inch of skin flayed from his back," he promised her, and though strangely touched by the personal nature of his murderous impulses, Number One shook her head.

"Let me handle this, Captain. Please."

Outside of their bed, she had never asked him for anything. She had never begged. Not for mercy, not for release, not for kindness or compassion. For all that being the captain's woman could have afforded her special treatment, she had never once asked for it.

Until now.

"As you wish, Commander," he said, gallantry warring with anger. "But I will be expecting your report—and results."

"You shall have them." She struck her breast with her fist and then extended her arm in a salute.

A lone figure crept through the darkness of Number One's quarters, dagger drawn. Edged by starlight, the arm holding the blade came down once in the centre of the bed with deadly force. However, the mound of pillows beneath the duvet offered little resistance.

With a cry, the would-be assassin pulled back the blankets, and then whirled in fury as the lights came up to full.

"Good evening, Yeoman Colt," Number One said from the entryway. Behind her stood Lt Spock, phaser drawn, who came forward and effortlessly disarmed the young woman, tucking her dagger into his sash.

"How?" she choked out, trembling with rage.

"The computer notified me when you used the Captain's authorisation code to access my quarters. I don't think he would look kindly upon such an abuse of power. Of course, he might be a bit more concerned with your attempts to slaughter his lover. I'd have said 'executive officer', but I think we both know this isn't about my rank and position. Well, not my official position, anyway."

Colt had visibly flinched at the word lover, and Number One felt no triumph. Just pity. It rose in her gut, twisting and writhing like a living thing.

Colt stood with her back ramrod straight, despite Spock's hands gripping her wrists. Her strawberry blonde hair tumbled down her back in winsome curls, her red uniform displaying her charms for all to see, but she remained uncowed by Number One's fierce glare. As if she was proud of what she had done.

"How did you know it was me?" she asked, a flush pinking her pale cheeks.

"I always knew it was you," Number One said with a half-shrug, as if the petty machinations of an enlisted crewman were so far beneath her notice they meant nothing. Colt meant nothing. "The shuttle bay, the nerve toxin, this. It was sloppy—sentimental. You tipped your hand with the poison. Only the captain's yeoman had access to the glasses, and samples of my DNA. We were both poisoned, but the toxin was keyed to my unique genome. Tell me, whom did you bribe to prepare it for you? Was it one of Boyce's techs? Or one of the specialists down in bioweapons research? Or have you been hiding a talent for biochemistry behind your superior filing skills?"

Colt's lip curled, but she remained silent, refusing to implicate her accomplices—if she had them. Number One had her suspects, and in the coming days she would make sure each of them had their own personal interviews. She removed Colt's agoniser form her belt, and the yeoman finally showed her first flash of fear.

"I'd hoped once your efforts proved ineffectual, you might abandon you foolish obsession, and focus once more on your duties."

Colt looked everywhere but at the agoniser in Number One's fingers.

"How could I? Did you really expect me to stand by and serve him, day in and day out, without hating you? I watched him chase after you while you toyed with him—reducing the greatest captain in the fleet to a love-sick schoolboy—and I despised you. I waited for him to get tired of you. To move on, but you had your claws sunk in too deep. I did what I had to, and I would do it again in a second."

"Are you really telling me that your actions had the captain's best interests at heart?" Number One lifted a brow. "That it was not jealousy that drove you to so stupid an action as trying to murder me in my bed?"

Number One regarded her from head to toe, keeping her face as blank as possible. Finally she looked down on the yeoman, leaning close to her to whisper nearly in her ear.

"Did you think with me dead, he'd take you back?"

"I—that had nothing to do with—" Colt sputtered.

"Don't be a fool—more of a fool. Why risk your career, you life, for this? For the chance to be his whore?"

"It wasn't like that. It wasn't! He told me that I pleased him."

"I'm sure you did. I'm sure you were willing, and able, and did whatever he wanted and more. Turned yourself inside out, trying to be exactly what he wanted."

"He did want me."

"He did—until he had you. You really don't understand the first thing about Christopher Pike, do you? You were no challenge to him. That's what he craves. In bed, in battle—it doesn't matter. He's an explorer. He has no love of ground he has already mapped. He is always looking toward the horizon."

"He told me I was beautiful."

"You are beautiful. You could have risen through the ranks on your looks alone, if you'd cared to. You could have survived this. You could have been so much more."

"Are you going to kill me?"

"It would be a waste of resources. Garrovick over on the Farragut can use a yeoman with your skills. All your skills."

"Why would you show me mercy?"

"If your feelings for him are in fact all you say they are, then it's not mercy. Truthfully, you will spend the rest of your life in service to the Empire on your knees or on your back, with no power over your own fate. All because you imagine a rivalry where none exists."

Number One set Colt's agoniser onto the table, and the yeoman's shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch.

"Do you really think I am, in the end, any different from any of his conquests? When he gets whatever he thinks he needs from me, he'll move on. I've known that from the beginning, and that's all that's kept me sane." She looked down at Colt, her mouth twisted in a parody of a smile. "You're just a foolish, naïve girl, and the truth is I pity you more than you will ever know."

"I don't want your pity," Colt spat, struggling in Spock's iron grip.

In one swift movement, Number One scooped up the agoniser and pressed it to Colt's breast. Spock stepped back as the yeoman dropped to her knees, her scream a high keening sound.

Number One removed the agoniser, and the faint purple glow that had briefly enveloped Colt faded as the yeoman whimpered and panted.

"Do you know, I envied you?" Number One said as she toyed with the agoniser. "It's true. You were free of him. And you wasted your freedom. I hated you, for that, just a little bit."

For the rest of her life, Number One would relive the moment when Colt pulled the wicked little blade from the top of her boot, and wonder why she had not seen it coming. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as light glinted off the blade.

Number One jerked herself backward, out of Colt's reach as the blade arced through the air where she had stood.

Then Spock reached out with one hand, and snapped her neck.

The yeoman collapsed to the deckplates, hazel eyes wide and unseeing. One second she had been a living, breathing being; the next, she was meat. Number One stared at the corpse, her breath coming in sharp gasps as anger burned through her veins.

She glanced up at Spock, who was also staring at the body, and before she could evaluate her action, she backhanded him across the face. She caught his cheek with the setting of her ring and a small trickle of emerald blood welled from a shallow cut at the corner of the lieutenant's mouth; he did not wipe it away.

"Why didn't you stun her?" Number One demanded. "You didn't have to kill her!"

"On the contrary. I took what I presumed to be the most logical course of action." Spock's calm only infuriated Number One, but she stayed her hand.

"Explain yourself, Lieutenant."

"By her actions and her own admission, she would continue to attempt assassination, even after transfer." Spock straightened, standing at attention. "Death was the only alternative."

Number One forced herself to breath normally, burying her emotions as best she could. After all, the Vulcan had pledged himself to her service—she should have known what that would have meant. Her stomach rolled traitorously, bile rising in her throat as she stared down at Colt's body.

"Notify Security and have them remove… the body."

"At once, Commander."

"And Spock? I trust that your report will be circumspect as to what occurred here tonight."

Spock struck a salute, and left her alone in her cabin with the corpse.

Number One picked up the knife, hypnotically watching the way the light ran down its edge like water. It wasn't long—perhaps five inches from tip to guard. Number One had a similar knife strapped to her own thigh, a common practice among female officers of the Empire. By displaying one edge openly, it allowed one to conceal a second without reproach.

When the security detail came for the body, they said nothing. Just picked up it like a discarded doll between them.

After they left, she set the knife by her bedside, where it would serve as a reminder.

Number One's fists hit the heavy bag in a steady rhythm, allowing her to block out the sounds of everyone else in the gymnasium.

Gauze and tape wrapped around her wrists and palms kept her from fracturing her metacarpals. Her long dark hair was pulled back from her forehead in a high pony tail which swung from side to side in the same rhythm as the bag spun on its chain with each blow she delivered.

She'd been working on the bag in three minute intervals for half an hour before she realised she had an audience.

Pike's blue eyes glittered dangerously as he leaned against the wall, his eyes travelling from the wispy curls plastered to her forehead and neck with sweat, to the black vest and yoga pants, down to the textured slippers on her feet.

She hadn't seen him since she had stood—stiff-backed and icy calm—in the Briefing Room and delivered her report in full. He had read it through while she stood there, asking few questions, and then signed off on it without comment. She'd avoided him since, and guessed his appearance here was no coincidence.

"I thought you preferred null-G ball?"

"Sometimes I prefer hitting something." She punctuated the statement with a side-thrust kick which sent the bag swinging widely on its chain.

"I can’t argue with that logic." He stepped away from the wall. "How about a moving target?"

A hush fell over the room, as men and women stopped what they were doing, holding their collective breath to see what would happen next.

She nodded curtly, and they stepped out onto the blue mats in the centre of the gym. They circled each other, testing with moves and feints. She was at a slight disadvantage—winded from her workout, sweat stinging her eyes. He while was fresh, he hadn't stretched, and his movements were jerky and uncoordinated.

She got in the first body blow—a low kick to his flank, spinning away before he could respond in kind. He caught her with a punch to the kidney, almost putting her off balance.

She blocked out everything but the shuffling sound of their slippers on the mats, and dull thuds of flesh hitting flesh as she blocked each of his strikes. He landed another blow, this time to her midsection. She staggered back, and caught him in the throat with the side of her hand. They spun apart again, her breathing heavy and cradling one arm against her ribs—him gagging from the throat strike.

They circled one another again, catching their breath.

"Stop holding back," he said softly, teasingly, and something within her snapped. She was not sure if it were the chains that bound her, or her sanity.

They moved faster and with more precision. She struck for the soft parts of his body with the hard parts of hers—knees, elbows, the heels of her hands. Neither of them pulled their punches. His bottom lip bled from where he'd torn it against his teeth. The knuckles of his right hand were split. She had bruised ribs and blood was running into one eye from a shallow cut across her browbone.

They weren't sparring any longer. They were fighting. She was shaking from adrenaline, trying to block the pain and the noise and focus on him and her and their dance. More than anything, she wanted to hurt him. She wasn't even sure why any longer. She just knew that somehow, today, something would end. It might be her career. It might be her life. Either way, something would change.

She knew when she started to tire that it would be over soon, but the floor coming up to meet her as he swept her legs out from under her was still a shock. She chipped a tooth, and her head rang with the force of the takedown. She tried to roll back up to her feet, but he straddled her and pinned her with his weight, forcing her wrists down to the mat on either side of her head.

She struggled, trying to find purchase with her legs, and she could hear one crewman cat-call over the roaring in her ears.

"Everybody out!" Pike ordered, eyes still locked with hers. There were snickers and hushed footfalls, and then there were just the two of them.

He spat blood onto the blue mat, wiped a combination of blood and spittle from his chin, and then smiled. It was warm, open, genuine, and absolutely infuriated her.

"The entire time we've been together, I've wanted to see you lose control."

His grip on her wrists relaxed. She could break free—finish what she'd started.

Instead she lifted her head up off the mat, and took his swollen bottom lip between her teeth, tasting the copper tang of blood as she ran her tongue over the torn skin.

He rocked back on his heels and she followed him, pulling off his vest. His torso was already darkening with what would be mottled bruises by morning. She ran her fingers over the marks and then dug her nails into them.

"Here?" he asked, blue eyes wide, bemused.

She didn't speak as she pushed him back down against the mat. Instead, she slid down his body, grasping his workout pants and drawing them down his thighs. His cock, already half-hard, bobbed as she freed it from his briefs. She took it in one still-wrapped hand, and pumped it roughly. The veins in his neck stood out as she swirled her tongue around the head before she took him as deep as she could without retching. He reached for her head, and she batted his hands away, licking the underside with the flat of her tongue before she shimmied out of her own clothes.

His blue eyes bore into hers as she straddled his hips and guided him inside her. Even with the thin coating of saliva, she wasn't wet enough. She gasped in pain as she sank down onto him, one hand braced behind her for leverage. His hands came up to grip her hips.

She worked her clit, strokes sloppy and bruising-hard, and she gulped in gasping breaths as she pushed back against him, needy and aching. Her eyes drifted closed, concentrating on their frantic fucking the same way she had the strikes to the heavy bag. It blocked out the pain and the fear and the loss until there was just this. Just two bodies on the floor, bleeding.

When he came, she slid off him wordlessly, blood and semen slicking her thighs. She picked up her clothes, and without another word walked to the empty locker room. The doors automatically closed she with a pneumatic hiss and she turned the values on one of the showers as hot as she could stand. Dragging the elastic from her hair, she relished the pain as it pulled long damp strands of hair with it to fall on the tiles next to her crumpled clothing.

She watched the water, tinged pink with blood as it circled the drain. She didn't know if it was the beginning of a concussion or a psychotic break that made her feel numb and distanced from her own body, transfixed by the water which refused to run clear no matter how long she stood beneath the nozzle.

She wasn't entirely certain she cared.

The sound of the doors sliding open was lost in the roar of rushing water, so she flinched as Pike's hands landed heavily on her shoulders, turning her to face him. Blood was beginning to clot on his split lip. Without thinking, she reached up to run her thumb over it lightly. His blue eyes were hooded, his expression impossible for her to read, even after all this time.

"Why are you punishing yourself for Colt's death?" he asked, and her vision blurred.

"Such a fucking waste." The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them, and she wondered if the hands resting on her shoulders would close around her throat.

"Colt made her choices, for good or ill," he said softly. "Just as I did. Just as you did. You can't change what she chose, any more than you can change what I chose. Stop trying."

"Is that an order from my captain? Or a request from my lover?" she asked, pulling away from him.

This time when he grabbed her by the shoulders, it was bruising hard, and she gasped when her back hit the tiles. She tried to break free, but he pinned her again with his weight, a forearm across her windpipe. Ilyrian or no, it would still only take four pounds of pressure to crush her larynx. She stilled, blinking water out of her eyes.

"She's dead. You're alive. Now you need to live."

He released her, muscles tensing as if he were unsure whether she would strike him, or flee. She just stood there, pushing her wet hair back from her face, while she looked at him—really looked.

As clouds of steam roiled between them, she could see every mark she'd left on him standing out in stark relief against his skin. Beads of moisture rolled down his broad chest, mingling with sweat and blood. His dark hair was slicked back from his face, and he watched her with a frank, open gaze. His blue eyes followed hers as she searched his face for any sign that this was just another game—another test.

All this time she'd tried to pretend she hadn't made a choice. But she had.

She could have denied Pike, that first night. It might have resulted in him forcing her anyway—but she had made the choice to come to his bed willing. She returned, night after night. She told herself he'd only offered her the illusion of choice, but she had still made it. Out of fear, out of desire, out of self-loathing—she had made that choice.

She could have put in for a transfer, to escape Pike's attentions. She hadn't. She wouldn't. because deep down, she wanted him as much as he had wanted her.

For good or ill, she had chosen to become the captain's lover. And it was time she faced up to that choice, and stopped pretending.

"Why is my losing control so important to you?"

"Because I want you to see that the universe will not come to an end if you give up control. That it doesn't make you weak. Sometimes, it can make you stronger." He reached up to caress her face with one bruised hand. "I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. Because if you did, then nothing could ever stand in your way. You would be glorious."

She was glad, then, for the wall against her back and his hand cupping her cheek. They kept her upright when all she wanted to do was slide down the tile floor to collapse.

"I ask for the truth, and you give me poetry."

"Do you think I'm weak, for loving you?" he asked her, and she swallowed.

"Yes," she admitted. "It would be safer for you if you felt nothing for me."

"Yes, it would be. But life isn't safe, and it isn't kind. And love—love is the least kind and least safe of all, sometimes."

She expected to feel pity—the same pity she had felt for Yeoman Colt. Instead her chest felt tight, as if one of her ribs had punctured a lung. She gasped for breath just as she had when the shuttle doors had opened, and she had been left in the cold, airless hangar bay to die.

"If I'd refused you—"

"But you didn’t."

"But if I had—None of this would have happened. That stupid girl would still be alive, and I… I would be…" She couldn't force the words past her lips. "If I asked you to walk away, right now. From me, from this—would you? Could you do that?"

"I don't know," he said, tangling his fingers in her wet hair as he rested his forehead against hers. "I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's the truth."

"Why?" she gasped, tears pricking her eyes and clogged her throat. "I don't understand why."

"Logic and passion rarely mix. Just ask our Lieutenant Spock."

She choked on a laugh, her ribs aching. The laugh turned into a sob, and he folded her into his arms and just held her.

She had always kept her tears hidden from anyone who might see them as an outward sign of weakness. She had hidden them from her lovers as well as her enemies. Clung to the façade of Ice Queen, and all the while wanting to become the mask she wore.

If she didn't feel, then she couldn't be hurt. She had told herself that for so long, she had come to believe it. Now all she seemed to do was hurt—an ache that went so deep she couldn't remember her life before pain.

She clung to Pike's shoulders and pressed her face into his neck while hot, salt tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, mingling with the scalding hot spray.

"You're brittle, but you're not broken," he whispered in her ear, his arms tightening around her. "You need to remember that. And if you can't—I'll remember it for you. For however long you'll let me."

"You know, a man could get awfully tired of putting the two of you back together when you do foolish things like—what did you call it? A sparring session? Sparring my ass. You've got fractured ribs, torn rotator cuff, bruised kidneys, a concussion—and I do not even want to know about the vaginal tearing. You two idiots want to have rough sex? Fine. But don't waste the CMO's time cleaning you up afterwards like I'm a goddamn intern."

Number One let Phil Boyce's tirade wash over her like water as he ran the osteo-regenerator over her ribs, only half paying attention to the words themselves. He pressed a hypo loaded with analgesics against her neck and the pain subsided almost immediately to a dull ache.

"For God's sake, woman, are you even listening to me? As Chief Medical Officer, I should declare you unfit for duty and have you confined to quarters until you see sense. Are you this bull-headed because you're hell bent on suicide? Because it sure as hell wouldn't be the first time I've wondered about you. You come in here battered and bloody, and act like it's a blasted paper cut—not to mention leaving Medbay not once but twice after serious, life-threatening attacks on your person. Do you want to die?"

"No," she said, and it was true. As much as she'd wanted to punish herself for Colt's death, the truth was—she wanted to live. If it had come down to the two of them, a simple binary choice, she would—as always—have chosen survival.

"Then take better care of yourself," Boyce snapped. "Now, drink this."

He handed her a small beaker of amber-coloured liquid.

"What is it?" She sniffed the glass, and the strong smell of spirits stung her eyes.

"Rye. Drink up."

She swallowed the measure of alcohol, and resisted the urge to cough as it burned its way down her throat.

"Now get dressed and get out," Boyce growled as he handed her a fresh uniform. "I don't want to see you in my Medbay for at least another month, you hear me? No sparring, no broken bones, no hijinks of a personal nature that result in any kind of blood loss. And I'm going to give our idiot captain the same lecture, so don't think he's getting off any easier."

The CMO jerked the privacy curtain aside and stomped back to his office.

Number One's hands were steady as she fastened the broad gold sash around her waist, and tucked her knives back into her boots. She walked back to her cabin feeling light-headed, and she was sure it was not the effects of the whiskey.

Number One lay down on her narrow bed, arms clasped over her midsection where the dermal regenerator had already erased any signs of bruises. When she door to her quarters slid open, she opened her eyes and sat halfway up in surprise.

"The Captain ordered me to come see you," Chief Engineer Caitlin Barry said, her dark auburn brows drawn together in a frown. "He's never done that before."

Number One reached for her, locking her hands around Cait's wrists.

"Promise me something."

"Anything," Cait murmured. "You know that."

"Promise me that if anything ever happens to me, you will not avenge my death."

Barry's lips parted in surprise, hazel eyes widening. "M'hari—"

"Promise me."

Barry nodded gravely, and when Number One released her wrists there were red imprints of her fingers on Barry's pale skin. She lifted one hand to her lips, pressing a chaste kiss against the abrasion.

Barry curled herself around Number One's body, lips against her temple. Number One closed her eyes, drawing in a shaky breath through her nose.

"Thank you," she said into Cait's hair, before her lips found hers.

The ship's corridors were empty this late into Gamma shift, but she was still taking a risk crossing from her quarters in nothing but a satin robe.

He was in bed, but not asleep. He sat up when the door opened, surprise flashing across his face for only a millisecond before it was replaced by wonder bordering on awe as she dropped the robe to the floor.

"I didn't expect you," he said, one hand slipping out from under the sheets and setting his phaser on the low table built into the wall as she crossed to him.

"Do you want me to leave?" she asked, and he just laughed as he reached for her.

Her dark hair fell around her face like a curtain, as she settled on his lap, bracing herself with hands on his shoulders. She had a flash of deja-vu as she mirrored her posture from the gymnasium floor, and she drowned it as best she could in the feel of his skin against hers.

"Never," he said against her throat, his tongue teasing the spot above her collarbone which never failed to make her shudder.

She buried her face in his neck as Pike rolled her onto her back, sighing against his skin.


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