The VR headset showed her a winding, forested mountain trail. Cold, pine-scented air seared her lungs; her feet pounded dirt, dodging roots and narrow places where the undergrowth threatened. Sweat soaked her clothes and trickled down her back.
Still, she couldn't outrun her thoughts.
She should have walked away when she had the chance. Love stories never ended well; it was a mistake to let her friend believe anything different. They were just caught up in the afterglow - the sex was pretty amazing, Christine had to admit - and sooner or later it would fade. On top of all that, Erica valued honesty. Christine was, at best, out of practice; at worst, entirely incapable.
She put on a burst of speed. Virtual sunlight winked in and out among the branches overhead. She thought of a pink sky, an abrasive wind driving them together, into the comfort of shared touch. She thought of Erica's warm voice, her smile, her skillful fingers -
"Dammit!" A pain in her side forced her to a walk. She flipped up the VR headset and the forest vanished; the mountain trail became a treadmill in a roomful of whirring machines. A beefy security guy she'd hooked up with a time or two - Jake, maybe? she only knew him by his pecs - pounded a virtual trail on another treadmill nearby. She considered distracting him, just to take her mind off things, but decided against it. What if he too declared his love? It didn't seem like something he would do, but she didn't want to risk it.
It was fun, having an effect on people, until it wasn't. Until they got too close.
Christine remembered being in love, really in love, sixteen years old with her eyes on the stars and her heart in the hands of a brilliant, handsome, thirty-seven-year-old professor. She was easy prey: parents preoccupied with their work, peers alienated by her sharp mind and sharper tongue, she had resigned herself to her solitude. He made her feel seen, cherished, special; he made her think she was his whole world.
Christine had never given her heart away since. She didn't know what to do with Erica's.
The door chimed at the usual hour. It was normal to meet Erica for dinner; it was something they did as friends. Christine couldn't face it. She slid the door open a fraction.
"Hey," said Erica cheerfully. "You ready?"
"I'm not feeling great, actually," Christine lied. "I'm gonna stay in."
"Okay," said Erica, and the look on her face said she knew exactly what was happening. Worse, she accepted it. "Catch you later."
The door slid shut. Christine felt like she'd just kicked a puppy.
It was late, but she couldn't sleep. Her mind was full of things she should have said, should have done, all of them contradicting one another. It was all a terrible idea; they'd only hurt each other. They would only have regrets. Already she regretted lying to her friend.
She did not regret fucking her - at least not yet, she told herself. There's time.
In frustration Christine threw off the blankets and got out of bed. She drank a glass of water. She glared at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her hair was tangled, her brow lined; dark circles shadowed her eyes.
Erica deserved better. Better than a hot mess like Christine.
Better than a friend's lies, Christine thought with a sigh. She'd made herself vulnerable, and hadn't asked anything in return. The least Christine could do was try.
"Come in," Erica called.
The door slid open. Erica lounged on the sofa in her pajamas, reading something on her pad; she sat up as Christine entered, a smile lighting her face. "Hi," she said. "Feeling better?"
"Can we talk?" said Christine.
The smile faded. "Sure."
Suddenly nervous, Christine looked around the room. As always, everything was spotlessly neat: the bed crisply made, every surface bare and shining. Medals and commendations hung on one wall, alongside an assortment of family photos. Even as a child Erica radiated impudence and humor.
Now, she sat with her shoulders hunched, watching Christine with concern.
"I'm sorry," said Christine.
"So am I," said Erica. "I shouldn't have -"
"Shut up." Tears sprang to Christine's eyes. "Stop it. You're perfect. You haven't done anything wrong."
Startled, Erica fell silent.
"People fall in love with me all the time," Christine said. "I'm used to it." She met her friend's gaze. "I'm not used to giving a shit."
Erica stared at her.
Christine looked away. "You know the kind of people I've been with," she said. "Shit gets weird, I shrug it off, I never see them again. But this is different." Her heart began to race as she plunged on. "I care about you. I don't want to fuck things up, and I have never, ever, not fucked things up. I'm scared, and it's making me act weird, and I'm sorry."
Erica swallowed. "Thank you for telling me," she said.
Christine turned away, struggling to control her tears. Her gaze settled on her friend's graduation photo. The jubilant new cadet beamed with pride, warm in the embrace of her family. Her mother, round and cheerful; her father stern, but with a twinkle in his eye; her brother, a gentle giant, towering over them. All four wore red Starfleet uniforms: engineering, security, ops.
"Starfleet's a family tradition, huh?"
Erica cleared her throat. "My great-grandmother was an engineer on the first Enterprise."
"Wow." Christine studied the smiling faces on the wall. "Where are they now?"
"Mom's still at the Kuiper Belt water station where I grew up. She's been chief engineer since forever. Franklin's head of security on the Tahoma." Erica cleared her throat again. "Dad died right before I got assigned to the Enterprise. He always said I'd fly this ship; I figure I have him to thank for it."
"I'm sorry," said Christine. The man looked so alive in his photograph, it was hard to imagine him dead.
"What about your family?" said Erica.
Christine shrugged. "My parents haven't looked up from their lab work since I was old enough to walk myself to school."
"That must be hard."
"I'm used to it." She looked over her shoulder at her friend. "You have the advantage here," she said. "You know what love is supposed to look like."
Erica's mouth quirked in a smile. "I guess I do." Her shoulders straightened; a weight seemed to lift from her. "Sit down. Let me bring you something."
Christine sank onto the sofa. Erica went to the replicator. "Dos xocolatl con tequila," she said.
"Sounds exotic," said Christine.
Erica placed a steaming mug in her hands; it smelled of chocolate and booze and a whole array of unfamiliar but enticing spices. "Just like Mom used to make," said Erica. "The cure for all things."
Christine took a tentative sip, and coughed. "Your mother made you this?"
Erica sat down beside her, grinning. "All my life."
"Wow." She took another sip. "It's fucking delicious."
"Right?" Erica sipped from her own mug and sighed. "I haven't had one in ages."
For a while they sat quietly with their drinks. Christine let her body relax and her mind drift. She let go of fear and expectations. She sank deeper into Erica's sofa. Gradually her eyes fell shut.
The all-ship comm alert jolted her awake. A yellow light flashed from the ceiling, and Pike's voice came over the speaker.
"This is the captain. Half an hour ago we received an unfamiliar distress signal. We have now arrived at what looks like the aftermath of a firefight and are taking on casualties. Yellow alert stations please."
"Shit." Erica set down her mug and headed for the computer terminal. Christine's communicator beeped.
"All hands in sickbay," she said, getting to her feet. "I gotta go."
Erica frowned at the computer. "No call for helm."
"Ensign Hsu can fly the ship in a straight line," said Christine. "You should get some sleep. They'll need you if things go sideways," she added with a smirk.
Erica smiled up at her. "See you later?"
Christine smiled back. It felt normal again. "Wouldn't miss it," she said.
Sickbay was full of aliens.
They were humanoid, if a bit on the small side, with enough commonalities to treat without too much risk of accidentally killing them. In any case most of their injuries were minor. There were a lot of them, though; even just patching up cuts and bruises would make it a long night.
"Christine," said Dr. M'Benga. "So glad you are here. There are two severe cases in isolation; I would like you to supervise their care." His eyes narrowed. "Have you been drinking this evening?"
"What, me?" Christine smirked. "Just a little."
The doctor gave her an anti-intoxicant and handed her a stack of burn cloths. "It was supposed to be a quiet night," he sighed.
"No such thing," said Christine with a smile, and she quickly got to work.
She emerged from isolation as the lighting shifted to daybreak. Her patients were stable; the others had all been treated and released. Dr. M'Benga was briefing Dr. Shen and the two duty nurses who hadn't been called in overnight. Christine looked down the rows of empty biobeds with a sigh. "You don't know what you missed," she muttered.
Dr. M'Benga clapped her on the shoulder. "Good work," he said. "Go get some rest."
"You too, okay?" she said.
M'Benga nodded wearily. "This time, you don't have to tell me twice."
Heading back to her quarters, Christine found herself instead at Erica's. She started to turn away, but stopped; after a moment's consideration, she rang the chime. There was something she needed to say.
"Come in," Erica called, and the door slid open. She sat on the edge of her bed, half dressed for the bridge: black undershirt, uniform pants, one boot in her hand and the other on her foot. Her red uniform shirt was laid out neatly beside her.
"Hey," she said with a smile. "Long night?"
"Long enough," said Christine. "Got a minute?"
"Just a minute." Erica pulled on her other boot and stood up. "Briefing at oh seven hundred."
"I'll be quick," said Christine. She watched her friend put on her shirt, meticulously adjusting every seam. "I just want to make sure we're okay."
Erica looked at her and sighed. "Christine," she said. "It's me."
Perplexed, Christine frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean it's me. I haven't turned into some fragile lovesick idiot. I'm the same person I was before."
Christine flushed; her mouth twisted in a wry smile. "When you put it like that it sounds pretty stupid."
"It is stupid. I'm fine. You're fine." She gave her a critical glance. "Actually, you look like shit. You should get some sleep."
Christine laughed. "I could definitely use some sleep."
"Then go," said Erica, flashing an impish grin. "Or stay if you want, I'm good with that."
"Yes sir, Lieutenant." She gave Erica a mock salute. "Dinner tonight?"
Erica's smile shone. "See you then."