A desert heat, barbed under her skin.
Normally, she turns her thermostat up higher than most others aboard the Shenzhou might: not quite the torridity of Vulcan, but a temperature like a human who was raised in tropical climes might prefer to ease their sleep. Today, she cools her quarters until the ship’s system sends her questioning pings. The icy air brings her no relief.
Through the artificial night, she tosses and turns, comforted only by the hum of their ship. Her breath comes short, and her heart drums against the hand on her chest.
In the morning, she replicates a second cup of tea and swallows it, sour-mouthed, before she heads to the bridge.
“Good morning, Commander,” Philippa greets her, swiveling in her chair with a pleasant, playful smile. “You’re exactly one minute and thirty seconds late.”
“Thirty-two, if one were to be pedantic,” Saru adds pointedly.
Michael takes a deep breath, regrets it, and settles for a nod instead. Settling at her station, she massages her temples to no avail. Tension builds inside her. The journal article on the sleep cycles of Denobulans blurs before her eyes, and at last, she sinks her head into her hands and gives up altogether.
“Commander? Commander! Michael.” Philippa’s hand on her shoulder would ground her any other day. The tingle down her spine is not so unusual, but the flint-strike of passion alarms Michael. “You don’t look well.”
“I...do not feel well,” Michael admits.
Philippa holds the back of her hand to Michael’s forehead, and Michael has to curl her fingertips into her desk not to jerk away from the touch. “You’re burning up.” Her forehead knits. “A visit to the sickbay, I think.”
Illogical to refuse medical care, but some inner instinct resists, screaming at her that she should not be examined. She draws herself upright and then to her feet. “Yes, Captain.” With eyes on her back, Michael walks deliberately to the turbolift and then right back into her quarters. Cross-legged on her bed, she tries another breathing exercise to calm the fever rising up her body. Dizzy, sick, dripping with sweat. This is impossible, and yet it is happening. She needs help. She needs help.
She retrieves her tablet, fingers shaking, and patches in a call home.
“Michael.” Her mother’s eyes crinkle at the corners in a smile of greeting, but as soon as she takes in her daughter’s state, concern shadows her face instead. Time on Vulcan has rendered her mother more expressive, not less.
“Am I--interrupting, Mother.” She notices abandoned glasses and a three-dimensional chess set.
“Your father had to leave our date early,” she says ruefully. “Important duties, or so he tells me. But Michael, never mind that. Look at you, my darling, you look terrible. What’s wrong?”
Michael’s hands tremble. “I--I do not know.” She amends, “I have a theory, but the facts do not bear out.”
Her fingertips touch the tablet, imploring, as if she could reach out and soothe her hurts across the great gap of stars. “What facts, Michael?”
“My vitals.” Michael swallows. “My hormones. It is...a blood fever.”
Only a moment, and she understands, gasps sharp. ”Plak tow.”
“Not--not so tight in its grip, not yet, but essentially...essentially, yes.” Her hands curl into her knees, and she shudders. “I do not understand. I am not male--I am not even Vulcan--” The familiar swoop of vertigo at voicing that barely registers right now.
“You are Vulcan,” her mother says swiftly. “You’re Vulcan, and you’re human. If you’re right, you’re in terrible danger.”
“But--but how, Mother, this isn’t, it’s not possible,” Michael argues. “It can’t be.” A drive to mate or perish only has one outcome for Michael, and she is not ready to fight for her life.
Her eyes soften in sympathy. “There are more things in heaven and earth--”
“Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Michael finishes for her. That’s definitive, then.
Her mother nods and adjusts the tablet, intent. ”As of now, we have to treat this as a possibility. Have you been to the ship’s sickbay?” She speaks as rapidly as she thinks. “They might be able to stabilize you. Or treat anything else this could be.”
Michael gives a tight shake of her head. “No sickbay,” she rasps. “No.”
She nods again, as if she thought that would be her answer. “Then you have to come to Vulcan.”
As soon as she suspected, she did the calculations, but she mentally checks them again with increasing desperation before she answers, “The Shenzhou’s antimatter reactor has malfunctioned on its last two uses. We are en route to a station for maintenance. Going into warp could be a deadly mistake.”
Her mother’s lips flatten into a thin line. “How deadly?”
“A sixty-six point four percent chance that the entire ship will be destroyed upon entry into subspace.”
“Take the chance,” her mother says right away.
“No, Mother. I will not.”
“Consider what’s at stake, Michael,” she pleads.
“I have.” Michael’s shoulders straighten. “The lives of my captain and my crew.” Her mother opens her mouth to retort, but Michael preempts her. “Even if I were to reach Vulcan in time, against all odds, there would be nothing for me there. No mate. No ritual. Only death.”
No. She spoke too harshly. Her mother’s eyes gloss over with tears. ”Michael!” She shakes her head. “Michael, no, you can beat this.” Swiping furiously at her eyes, she touches her fingertips to the edge of the tablet. “You can beat this. There are ways.”
“Some have survived pon farr by meditation.” Michael adjusts her stance. “At this point, that is my only option.” Really, she knew that before she called her mother at all. “Mother, I want you to know that I…” Her breath sticks in her throat. “That I appreciate all you have done for me. You have treated me like a daughter.”
“You are my daughter. I am your mother.” Her voice is fierce with love. “You will beat this, Michael, because you are my daughter. I love you.”
“I must go now.” While her resolve is strong. She has fought before to cling to life. She will fight now. “I have to begin meditation. If I enter a trance state--”
“Yes.” Her mother sniffs and wipes at her eyes. “Yes, go now, Michael.” She spreads her fingers in a shaky salute. “I love you.”
Michael terminates the call, then takes in a long, deep breath to center herself. And begins.
“Commander Burnham? The captain sent me to check on you after she failed to hear from sickbay.”
Her eyes snap open. In the open door to her quarters stands a lanky-framed stranger.
He has snapped her out of her meditative state. She has lost her last chance. In this hour of need, Surak’s teachings have nothing left to offer her.
He advances forward out of the shadow. “My goodness, Commander…” Spindly fingers reach towards her shoulder.
Before he can make contact, she grabs his wrist and twists so hard he cries out. With his guard down, his exceptional reflexes do not activate in enough time to stop her from slamming him against the wall hard enough his teeth rattle, her hand around his throat.
“Commander, stop this at once.” Voice reedy with panic, he slaps the pager on the wall. “Saru to bridge, Saru--”
“Saru?” she repeats hoarsely. Straightening, she loosens her palm, cold horror dousing her head to foot. She can hardly recognize him. She can hardly recognize herself. “Saru, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.”
The second Michael releases him, Saru flees, dusting himself off and shaking his head. As he whips around the corner, his threat ganglia flicker at his nape like a strange flower.
Michael stares down at her shaking hands and curls them into fists, trying to hold onto what remains of herself. Just as she is debating calling her mother one last time, her captain storms in the door. She bows her head in shame.
Closing the door behind herself and striding up to her, Philippa asks evenly, “What is the matter with you, Michael?”
“Stay back,” Michael warns hurriedly. She holds up her hands and backs up a step.
“You need help.” Philippa will have faith in her to the bitter end.
“This is beyond help, Captain.” Her hands twist together, and she backs up again.
“Right now, you’re a danger to yourself and to my crew.” Firm but not ungentle. “I need answers, Michael.”
“I have none to give you.”
Philippa’s eyes flash, the first real hint of anger. “Commander Burnham, whatever you know, I need at least the bare minimum.”
After a long moment of staring at the wall, she says, “It is a septennial occasion for Vulcans.” Curiously, she is more than seven years past the age of her sexual maturity. There must be a factor here that she does not understand.
To her surprise, Philippa exhales a small sound of comprehension. “You aren’t--”
“Vulcan, I know.” Michael’s jaw works.
Philippa fixes her with a gimlet eye. “I was going to say ‘male.’”
“How do you know about this?” Michael can’t help but ask. “The time is...shrouded in mystery.” Hurting Saru injected clarity into her system, but because she thankfully did not take his life, the crimson fog will not clear outright. They are wasting precious time. Philippa is at risk. She crosses her arms across her middle.
Wryly, Philippa says, “I was not born yesterday.”
Michael breathes out, looking down at the floor. Something to process later. If she makes it that far.
“Now. We must get you to Vulcan.”
“With the warp drive--”
“Fixed,” Philippa tells her. “We can go now.”
“Even if we go, there is no…” Her tongue stumbles over the word. “No mate for me on that planet.”
Philippa considers her for a long moment.
Michael’s breathing grows more and more labored. Philippa’s eyes, deep and brown and knowing. The subtle wave of her hair and the iron strength in her shoulders and arms. Under the strict lines and gold stripes of her uniform, the swell of her breasts. How her thighs look with her feet so precisely apart. That mouth, given to laughter, given to giving. Michael can only imagine how she tastes. Her very scent, sharp prickles of fresh sweat left uncovered by the chemical bitter of standard-issue deodorant. Michael’s nostrils flare.
“I can’t let you die,” Philippa says decisively. “I won’t lose my first officer or my friend without a fight.” Her hand comes to grip Michael’s biceps. “So I’ll ask you this. And you’ll answer with yes or no.”
A lava flow of heat crashes into her. Pressing together parched lips, she can only nod.
“Starfleet has reiterated the necessity of the intel, Captain,” reports Detmer.
Philippa looks up from her comm to the robe-draped, doe-eyed priest standing before her. They
have beamed down the standard landing party of two to try to coax the planet to cooperate in a Federation-level investigation. Starfleet keeps the details fuzzy even as they use the Shenzhou as a tool. “What do you ask for in return, Your Holiness?”
“You ask for a truth from us,” the priest says slowly, “so in return, we would ask for a truth from you.” Although they stand in an open circle outside the temple, her voice booms as though from the bottom of a cavern. If this were an occasion of less gravity and urgency, Michael might appreciate the chance to study their socioreligious structure.
Philippa’s eyes flick to Michael, then back to the priest. “A truth?” she repeats, wary.
“We give you this information at deep cost to us. We ask for fair compensation.” Matter-of-fact, she holds out a beaten-metal dish filled with a thin layer of liquid. The breeze blowing over the lowlands ruffles the liquid’s surface, and Michael glimpses in it a reflection of the priest’s furred face. “It would also demonstrate reliably to you that our device works.”
When Philippa looks to Michael again, Michael answers her questioning glance with one controlled nod.
Before Philippa can take more than a step forward, however, Michael thrusts out her hand in front of her. “Captain, anything you reveal could be a potential security threat.”
Brow knitted consideringly, Philippa shakes her head. “I cannot ask this of you, Commander.”
“You are not asking. I am offering.” Michael sounds more testy than she intends, but it must be her burden to bear. She will not let the captain eviscerate herself to this end. Not when Michael holds a secret boiling her up from the inside with its wrongness.
“If this is what you wish,” Philippa concedes finally. “Thank you.”
In answer, Michael faces forward, chin held high. Her palms lower, almost touching the liquid. “Captain, please,” she says without turning, quiet but urgent, “Your comm.” Only after Philippa clicks her comm closed behind her does Michael press her palms into the dish.
“What truth will you speak?” asks the priest, her fingers encircling Michael’s wrists.
Michael closes her eyes and speaks the only truth that matters.
What follows is a flash of luminescence, the confirmation of her veracity by the priest’s powers. To think she or Philippa needed it after the words left her lips would be naive.
The negotiations, the priest stepping up to the device, the glitter of the transporter all blur into a hot, wet haze, Michael’s hands clenched into white behind her back.
Philippa’s hand slides down her arm, inch by fatal inch. Voice low, she asks, “Is there a mate for you here?”
In the next breath, Michael crushes their lips together.
This must be the delirium descended for good, this must be plak tow, because she can feel Philippa responding in kind, grabbing at her shoulders and her hair and filling her mouth with tongue.
She drives her backwards, pawing at the front of her uniform, gasping against her lips. She shoves, and she falls onto the bed.
With a winded sound, she reaches for her, hand skating under her shirt.
She snarls. Lips curling back, she shoves her wrists above her head. Her tendons flex under her tough grip, the muscles of her arms clenched. She can feel the strength of her mate, her will and resolve, and the hunger rises inside her.
But her mate does not fight the hold. Her mate lets out a long, slow breath and lifts her chin, exposing the glowing skin of her throat.
Her nails tear at the bedding as she bends to bite at her neck. She sucks her skin, imprints her teeth along the fine bone of her jaw. Although she can feel the vibration of her words and hear the lilt of her voice, she cannot make out her words. This close, when she inhales, her lungs fill with salt. Turning her head, she bites her plump lips.
Fingers raking through her short hair, her mate arches under her, thrusting the heat between her thighs against her abdomen.
So her hand dives her down and cups her there, and she’s rewarded by a hiss of pleasure from between her mate’s teeth. Her fingertips massage into the layers of cloth, and she feels the slick of her. In the grip of her other hand, her mate’s wrists twist free, and she allows it. This time, when a sweaty palm skims up the skin of her back, she does not resist. Rearing up on her knees, she rips open the fabric covering her torso, then dives back down to kiss her mate. She slakes her greed for her mouth, biting her lower lip, swiping her tongue over her teeth.
Strong hands drag down her sides, fingers in so firm they bump over her ribs. Her mate’s hands are fine enough for delicate work, but her calluses show that she would be a fighter, too. Those hands squeeze around her hips, guide her to grind deliciously against her mate’s raised thigh while eyes gone heavy-lidded watch her.
Teeth gritted, she rides against her, sensation muffled by their clothing. It does not sate her. She needs her skin. Too easily do her hands rend the flimsy coverings, fabric giving way, threads popping and snapping while her mate writhes under her, helping her push it away to expose her skin.
Her mate lifts her leg again, letting her grab her ankle, and she moans, shaky and pitchy, at the first strike of tongue.
Burying her face in her mate, she takes her at last. Her folds part under the flat of her tongue. She tastes rich as the ancient seas. The tip of her tongue flicks at her firm clit, and above her, her mate inhales sharp through her nose. Licking at her clit, she dives down deeper into her, breathing her musk. She is her mate. She is hers.
Both of her mate’s hands come to cradle her head. Everything from her lips is amorphous, mellifluous. Her fingertips dig into the warm density of her hair, grip and yank.
The pinpoints of pain only spur her on--she closes her lips around her clit. From the corner of her eye, she sees her mate’s toes curl. With a squeeze of the ankle in her grasp, she licks faster and wetter. Slick drips down her jaw, and she laps it away, panting hot against her.
She says something over and over, gasping and moaning it. Her hair balloons from her tie and sticks to her face as she throws back her head, back arching off the bed. Nails dig into her scalp.
Her tongue sweeps off her folds, then flicks over her clit, over and over, rubbing against the side of it.
When she releases her ankle, both of her mate’s legs drop heavy around her neck and hook her head in closer-tighter.
Feverish with desire, she smashes her mouth into her and sucks at her clit until she thrashes above her, around her. The grip tightens to near-strangling intensity, her mate’s body bent in half, and still she does not relent, licking hard-fast-deep.
The thick muscles of her thighs spasm. With a hoarse cry, her mate climaxes.
She herself aches between the thighs, a sweet ache the sweeter for going unfulfilled. She licks her through every drop, every shudder of breath, until the heel of a palm pushes at her head. Chastened, she ducks and nibbles kisses into the insides of her trembling thighs, hands smoothing down to her calves. When she looks up, her mate meets her gaze, eyes heavy-lidded and mouth curled.
Then she reaches down to pull her up her body, grasping above her elbows, entreating with her expression. Her chest still rises and falls fast under a high flush and a sheen of exertion. She is so beautiful.
How could she refuse her? She goes willingly, stealing a lick of the pooled sweat on her stomach, a half-bite to her heaving shoulder before she loses herself once again in her kiss. She shares her taste, breathes her breath. They belong to each other, now and always.
Long fingers cup her face, and eyes search hers. After a moment, another smile, though she cannot tell if her mate found what she sought. Murmuring soothingly, her mate draws her head down to pillow on her chest.
Glutted on her pleasure for the moment, safe in her arms, she slides sidelong into sleep.
Before the doors can close, Philippa steps in beside her. The rattle of the turbolift fills the silence between them until Philippa ventures, soft and private, “Michael, we can talk about this.”
”I am in love."
Her tender tone slips like a knife between Michael’s ribs.
”I am in love with Philippa Georgiou.”
Fighting not to let her voice crack, she steps out a floor early with an even, “I’ll have the mission report to you by alpha shift, Captain.”
Exhaling at the ceiling, Philippa runs her fingertips down the curve of Michael’s spine. She winces at the sharp scratches she’s left along her back.
Every round has taken so much out of Michael, both psychologically and physically, and now she dozes again on Philippa’s chest. Their frenzied fucking, Michael’s tongue and hands all over her, inside her, has worn her out, too. Muscles she hasn’t been aware of in a good few years twinge pleasurably, and there’s a sweet, persistent throb in her cunt. When she shifts, her thighs slip wetly between her, and she bites back a noise.
For her, it hasn’t all been pleasure, of course. She’s ever mindful that Michael’s life could hang in the balance. Whenever Michael’s zeal abates for long enough, Philippa takes her pulse, listens for her breathing. The black-eyed intensity of the first time has given way to a quieter eagerness, more willing to draw out Philippa’s pleasure, map her body under her palms, kiss her ears and her knees and hold her close while her fingers worked inside her.
Philippa had bluffed about the extent of her pon farr knowledge. She had understood it as an uncontrollable to fuck or fight or perish in the pursuit, but she hadn’t yet comprehended it as such a powerful urge to mate, to lavish love on one’s partner. Were Michael in a more scientific state of mind, Philippa was sure she would explain to her how powerful a social glue such a drive could be. Sighing, Philippa nuzzles her cheek against Michael’s head, where humidity has curled her hair at the ends.
Luckily, besides having a long string of the best orgasms of her life (each subsequent one replaced the last), Philippa has remained clean-headed. As soon as she could soothe Michael that she was not going anywhere and was not calling anyone else to her quarters, Michael let her page Saru and inform him that the two of them would be indisposed for a few days. Saru had attempted to ask a dozen questions, and no doubt Philippa would have to field a hundred more when this was all over. For now, though, her immediate concern was making sure Michael had what she needed. Philippa managed to get some replicated food and plenty of water into both of them, though Michael resisted a shower and bowled her right back into the sheets again.
Lost in thought, Philippa snaps back to attention when Michael shifts against her chest. The second she lifts her head, Philippa knows that something has changed. The worst is over.
“Philippa?” Michael rasps, and her name always sounds lovely in her voice, but it has never sounded more intimate. “What--?”
“How are you feeling?” Philippa raises a hand to cup her face, and that’s when Michael seems to register their location, their position, their nakedness.
Jerking away from her, Michael shakes her head. “Captain, Captain, what did I do? I’m so sorry, I’ll turn myself into the authorities at the space station--”
Philippa levers herself up after her and grasps her below the elbows. “What, and rob me of the best first officer in Starfleet?” She squeezes her arms. “Michael, I agreed to this. I wanted to help you.”
Michael’s eyes shutter, and Philippa’s stomach drops like a pit. “I. I am relieved to hear that, Captain.” She thinks to herself for a long time, and her microexpressions morph as the memories of their hours together return to her. “It was...highly inappropriate on my part, but I appreciate your--assistance. You are...a commendable captain, and I asked more from you than I ever should.”
In an instant, Philippa has gone from losing her one way to losing her another. She swallows. If she loses her now-- “It was more than duty for me, Michael.”
Michael stares at her, eyes harsh and shiny, in disbelief or incomprehension, she can’t tell.
If the outcome of their intel mission and these febrile hours in all their generosity have taught her anything, it’s that for all Philippa’s lectures to Michael about letting herself be human, Michael has proven herself far more expressive in words and in actions than Philippa has. She has to show her that they can have this.
If she loses her now--she loses more than she ever knew she could have. After their clash when they were first introduced, Philippa had decided she liked her already. Under Michael's cool overconfidence, she could sense so much more, and over these seven years, Michael has proven herself to be the best of humans, the best of Vulcans. Clear reason tempered by empathy. Radical ideas, wry humor. Serious brows giving way to a smile so bright it startles, that head-tilt before acts of ferocious, selfless bravery. A lonely heart, a sharp mind, a hot hand. Michael made Philippa fall for her so slow and sure that she can see no beginning and no end. The answer was always easy. She cannot lose her.
Running down her arm, Philippa’s hands find Michael’s wrist. As she brings their hands up to eye-level, Michael’s eyes flick, frantic, between Philippa’s fingers and her eyes. Lips curved, she touches her with two fingertips.
Michael’s lips part, breath stuttering, fingers twitching.
Resolve strengthened, Philippa traces around her long, elegant fingers and caresses an old scar on her palm.
Michael surges forward and with a sound like a sob caught in her throat, kisses her mouth.
Her arm winds around Michael’s waist and pulls her so they press together, skin-to-skin, two becoming one becoming more, at last, at last. Then she folds their fingers together and holds on tight. Vulcan. Human.
What is a lie? A twig on the bonfire of what Michael has done.
Stamets asks her to tell him something she’s never told anyone.
Leaning forward, she whispers, “I’ve never been in love before.”