DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Beth Carlson and is copyright (c) 1984 by Beth Carlson. Rated PG13.

 

Reunion

by Beth Carlson

 

Christine leaned back in the chair to rest for a moment. It occurred to her that no matter what discoveries medical science made, there were still the age-old symptoms of infectious disease. She smiled and stretched her neck. Somehow it was comforting to know there would always be the rashes, the sore throats, diarrhea, and the nausea; always remain the run-of-the-mill injuries that kept her kind in constant demand, to treat blisters, burns, cuts, and sprains. Mankind would always be plagued by headaches, backaches, gas and fatigue. Being a physician now was much the same as it had always been.

Treatments changed, diagnostics had changed, even diseases changed. She had to think for a moment to remember. Yes. Once there had been measles, mumps, heart disease, carcinomas, but those were gone now, and in their places were new diseases, the viruses, the super-bacterial infections and a whole assortment of ailments never seen before the advent of extensive space travel. It was still a neck and neck race between medicine and disease, with medicine all too often falling dangerously behind.

The differences were there, to be sure, she thought but it was the everyday aches and pains of the physical bodies of the crew that made the sickbay of the Enterprise hum most days. It certainly has hummed today, she mused, getting up and stretching. It was to end her watch, but she opted for the bed in her ante-room and lay down, feeling a little melancholy. The new watch had been briefed and it was quiet here. She closed her eyes to think. The last months had been something else. Hell, the last years, she corrected, and laid an arm across her eyes.

It was hard for her to believe, even now. Being Chief Medical Officer was not a particularly glamorous job, but it was fulfilling, challenging, and was a consuming part of her life. It was a job she did well, a culmination of many years of hard work.

Christine's career had begun with bio-medical research under the galaxy-renowned Roger Korby, gone on to independent research for Starfleet at his disappearance, and led her to four and a half years of service aboard the Enterprise as Chief Medical Assistant S.R.N. under Leonard McCoy. In the wake of his retirement and her own certification, she had acquired the Enterprise sickbay for her own.

It was a heady experience, she thought, being the only female CMO on a starship, and it gave her great pleasure. Each area of medical services, from records to research, resource development planning to the sickbay itself, was under her supervision. They ran by her orders, by her assessment of efficiency. She had worked long and hard for this, and now at last, she could submerge herself in the satisfaction of ft all. She felt sleep taking hold and opened her eyes. I really should get up and get some dinner, she told herself. Just a minute. I'll get up in a minute, really. Sickbay, she smiled. I love it that there's always something to do: ... always something ... to ... fill the holes. So much ... to ... She fell into a light sleep, her eyelids too heavy from the previous night's lack of sleep to remain open.

* * *

 

When the five year mission of the Enterprise had ended, it had seemed to Christine that everyone had plans. The ship was scheduled for several short reconnaissance missions and then due a major redesigning and refitting. The Enterprise had been through a lot, but then, who hadn't? They were all more than ready for some extended rest.

Kirk had surprised them all by accepting a flag rank position at Starfleet Headquarters, basically a desk job. McCoy had rankled against the decision, but to no avail. "He can't handle that. It'll drive him crazy," McCoy had told her, in a fit of anger. "He needs the stimulation and the challenge of a ship!" Christine had agreed, but it had made little difference. Starfleet wasn't buying it; and neither was a space-worn Jim Kirk. In the end it had been his decision; in the end, Starfleet's lure of having the power to change everything he'd seen wrong from the inside out had won.

McCoy had been hurt over Jim's refusal to listen. Angry at what he saw as Starfleet's callous manipulation of a man's idealism and fatigue for their own purposes of public relations, and more than a little tired of fighting the never-ending strings of bureaucracy that had bound up his life for so long, he had resigned. It had not been a pretty picture those last days and the strain had been almost more than any of them could bear.

Uhura had been off on a two year tour of lectures for Starfleet Academy, including a semester of teaching. Sulu had been signed for a tour of duty with another starship until the Enterprise was ready to go out again. Chekov had gone back to the Academy to study for weapons-defense command. All of them had been cleared along with a number of the rest of the crew to return to the Enterprise on her next mission once out of drydock. Family tended to stay together when there was a choice.

Scotty had planned to remain with the starship to nurse her through the refitting. It had never occurred to him that he would leave her in this time of confinement. So much was it a certainty in his mind that he had been shocked to find that a shipyard engineer had been assigned to the overseeing. The shock had been momentary, however, and within eighteen hours enough strings had been pulled from one end of Starfleet Command to the other to make the appropriate changes in orders. A man didn't spend over half his life in the fleet, Scotty had said, without knowing how to get a situation altered when it had become an absolute necessity. Christine had expected that Kirk had had rather more to do with it than he let on.

Spock had announced plans to leave Starfleet to return to Vulcan, permanently. Christine had never been entirely sure why until months later when word had circulated that he was studying with the Vulcan masters at the desert of Gol. She knew enough about Vulcan culture by now to know that at last Spock had chosen his position in life. He had elected to be totally Vulcan, completely cut off from anything that would call to his humanness, anything that would tempt him to feel. The knowledge had been unsettling.

His departure had left its mark on Christine Chapel's life. Through their years on the Enterprise, Christine had watched Spock; she had watched him, respected him, and fallen deeply in love with him. He in turn had seen her love, known of it, but seen it by his own standards to be something he could never accept or return. He had handled the situation by removing himself from her socially, what sociality there was to him. They had been brief, polite, platonic, and for the most part she had been successful at keeping herself at a distance from him as well.

At first the distance had hurt, but as time had gone on, she had realized that he was attempting to spare her pain as well as uncomfortable confrontations for himself. Even with the self-imposed guidelines for their working relationship, there had been times of hurt. A certain amount of painful honesty had been inevitable and she had always received compassion from him. She had seen him walk away from situations that would cause her pain, read regret in his expression at hurting her.

As the years went by and Christine had come to know the man inside of Spock better, she had realized that he was no stranger to fighting things that came all too naturally to him. He knew aloneness, and the inner battle that seemed to wage forever. But Spock knew how to handle it; sometimes Christine didn't. And he had known that, too. She was only human, and he had been protective of her in his own way. That thread of tenderness in Spock was something she knew that he would deny, but she had seen it, felt its touch, and it had become part of her love for him.

When Spock had left Starfleet and Christine had been left without even the comfort of being near him, it had torn her to the very core of her being. She had been hurt, angry, confused. She'd tried to hate him for leaving, for not loving her, but that had hurt her almost more than the loneliness had. And, as she had realized, that what she wanted, more than anything else, was whatever would make him happy -- or at least content within himself, she had tried another way of easing her pain; she had tried to convince herself that he would be better off in a place where his humanness would not be aroused. It hadn't always been enough.

Christine had done everything she could to rid herself of the hurt and need for his presence in her life. She had filled her life with pressure, ambition, responsibility, and a certain purely irrational determination to show Spock, if she ever saw him again -- or even if he ever heard of her -- that she could function without him.

Maybe he'd even regret, she often mused, that he'd passed up the chance to have the companionship of one of the few women he'd ever met that could stimulate him intellectually, be involved in the things that were precious to him, and know him well enough to love the super-Vulcan that he needed to be for himself to survive. Medical school had been both a joy and a struggle. Most of the actual head knowledge she had already learned from her previous doctorate and from attaining her Starfleet Registered Nurse's degree. The technological aspects had come easily as well, even the physical technique. Christine learned quickly, and McCoy had trusted her and needed her beyond her S.R.N. many times. There was very little that she had not done under duress at least once. Leonard had been the perfect teacher, both patient and demanding, reassuring and prodding.

It had been the pace she'd set for herself that had taken its toll on her. Regardless of what she knew or how well she functioned, there were still classes to be plodded through, exams to be taken, hours to fulfill, and endless papers to write. The resources officer had estimated that, given her past experience and knowledge, it would take her two years to gain enough credits and hours of experience for her S.M.D. Christine had done it in eighteen months.

She had crammed for her command training medical grade equivalency test and passed second from the top in a test entry of two hundred and eighty four, come out in the top eight percent in a psych battery where the highest achievable was a four, and had lived through the basic hand-to-hand defense training. The last had been something of a personal victory for a young woman who was exhausted, underweight, and had seen the light of day very few times in eighteen months. There would be time to work out later, to build back the health that she was sorely lacking.

Christine saw before her the goal that she had set her sights for so many months ago. Part of the goal had been simple: to remain sane, sheer self-preservation. She had reacted with a way of coping that she had learned in childhood. Her mind had always been her escape valve. When it hurts, she'd learned, think. Learn. Absorb until there is nothing left but the knowledge and the processes involved in utilizing it. When she had remembered the lesson, it was invaluable. But this time the learning had been for another purpose as well and a seed that had been planted had grown and was now coming into being as a full blossom.

It had begun in the weeks following Spock's announcement that he was leaving, and at first had been passing thought, a curiosity. But in the time that followed the idea had grown at an alarming rate. As frightening as it had seemed and as hard as she tried not to think of it, the idea that had begun its growth in her mind was invasive -- the great unattainable, the Enterprise.

Leonard was leaving and the thought of the sickbay going to anyone else sickened her. Why not? she reasoned. How hard could it be to get? She answered her own question with a tremor of fear and a deep sigh: hard as hell. There were no women Chief Medical Officers serving aboard starships in the fleet. Again she tried to put it away from her -- and failed.

By the time the Enterprise had been drydocked a week she'd known she wasn't going to be able to turn the thought away and gave in to its seduction. It didn't matter so much if it wasn't rational in her mind; it was what would get her through seeing Spock walk out of her life, what would make getting up each morning bearable. The Enterprise would get a top rate CMO, and if she was too absorbed in pursuing the goal to feel much, then all the better. Whenever the feelings did break through, they were nearly unbearable.

It had become a matter of survival. Somewhere in Christine was the blind and instinctive need to succeed. No one and nothing would push her over the edge -- not even her love for the Vulcan. The anger and fear in her of indignity became fuel, the pain endurance. She knew that she was totally alone now, and she would be the best, and she would survive. Somehow through this hell she would make something of great value come into being.

When she had first asked Jim Kirk to recommend her for the position, he had been surprised. But as the evening went on he began to take a curious fancy to Christine's dream. Seeing his growing animation, Christine wondered at the strange fascination Kirk seemed to be showing at their conversations about the Enterprise and past events. Leonard was right, she thought, flag rank wasn't working for him. But there was nothing she could say or do at that point to change the situation. Irrevocable decisions had been made and Jim Kirk had been an admiral for over a year.

They'd parted company with sadness that evening; it had been good to be together. The recommendation went into the morning communications the next day, but the thing that remained on Christine's mind over the long months ahead was the expression of Jim's face as she waved to him from the walkway to his apartment; it was the face of someone looking for something lost, and not having found it.

After she had made her application for the sickbay command, the waiting had been almost unbearable. Putting a woman in charge of the sickbay of a starship was somewhat of a political move. People either approved or were dead set against the idea. The fact that she was qualified had less to do with the decision, she suspected, than did the security of the brass. Starfleet was still male oriented, even after the upheaval of the sexes fifty years ago. That might have even been a cause of it.

Women had proven that they could achieve independently, but in the process had made what Christine felt was one of the worst errors for women's rights in history. They had damaged the symbiosis that was natural to human life, swung the pendulum too far and too fast. The fear of the male animal was great; it had been almost mortally wounded in its most vulnerable area: the instinct to protect. Christine and women like her would suffer the brunt of it for years to come.

For nine months she heard nothing. The board was undecided. When a choice had been made, she and the other applicants would be informed. After a couple of months, she no longer bothered to inquire.

She faced the waiting in the same way that she had faced everything else: she studied. This time it was Alien Physiology and Trauma. How many times had she heard McCoy lamenting the fact that he was left to texts and feeling his way by instinct in this area? Christine received her specialty in the treatment of the thirteen basic races common to Starfleet only two days before the final vote had been taken. This and Admiral Kirk's jockeying had been the deciding factor, she was to learn later.

Nine months and thirteen days after she'd filed her application she was notified by mail of Starfleet's decision. Christine Chapel, S.M.D., now thirty eight years old, with two years independent bio-medical research, twelve and one half years in service to Starfleet, a bio-medical research doctorate, and a degree in Alien Physiology and Trauma, was the first woman medical chief on a starship in the entire history of Starfleet.

The day she received her commission and her rank change to a full lieutenant commander, Christine felt as if she had been given a key. And that key opened a door marked "Freedom." She had stepped from the shell of her pain into the light of success. Spock was in the past. She could think of him now without that stifling pain. At long last, her life was her own and her commission as Medical Chief on the Enterprise could truly be the core of her life.

* * *

 

It was a bright day three months later that Christine came aboard the Enterprise. It was also weeks ahead of the scheduled date and in an emergency alert situation. Christine had been called in the middle of the night by a staff secretary from the Admiralty and was merely told that her commission was augmented to active status immediately. She had twelve hours standard to report to her sickbay. Christine had not asked questions, as she doubted whether the secretary even knew what was going on. Starfleet didn't move very quickly and on a personal level unless there was something very wrong. (Somehow, as she entered the great ship, she could not keep her mind on the vague ghost of danger that an emergency could present. She thought only of how she felt right here.)

The Enterprise was new, even smelling of her newness, and yet she was still home to Christine. She moved along to the turbolift amid the noise and bustle and gave the voice command for the seventh deck and sickbay.

As the lift door opened she surveyed the corridor before her. At first, her feet refused to serve her and her stomach tensed. The corridor was just as it had been every working morning for just under five years of her life. She felt a strange sensation of time having stood still, and she had to force her body into compliance to walk. Though it felt good to be moving down this corridor again, the sickbay was just ahead of her now and she felt a twinge of fear deep inside.

Her mind was racing as she approached the sensor range and the doors slid open. She stood there a moments people rushing busily behind her along the corridor. A slow smile began to cover her face and then took it over completely as she stepped in. The doors slid shut, isolating her from the crowd, and she was alone. It was beautiful! Everything was beautiful! It took her breath away. For a moment, the weight of responsibility crushed her, but just as abruptly a thrill of newness went through her and washed the weight away.

She was elated; she went from one object to another in wonder, reaching, touching, stroking surfaces. All of the equipment from the briefing materials were here. They had seemed so unreal as she'd read about them, as if it were all a dream, but now in the plain light of the moment she felt the reality sinking in. She walked cautiously around a tangle of maintenance equipment on the floor, noticing a wall moved here, an alcove there, There were new, more private examining cells, and ... There it was. "Oh!" It came from her lips almost silently as she saw the body scan table. She held her breath as she touched it. Starfleet could have fed a small planet with the credits this had cost. The newest, most advanced diagnostic advancement available, and it was in her sickbay. The urge to pull someone from the corridor to examine it was almost more than she could bear.

Her eyes caught a glimpse of the door to her office and she moved closer to investigate. Her name and title looked back at her in a strange moment of introduction: CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: CHRISTINE CHAPEL S.M.D.

She reached up and ran her fingers over the name, suppressing a giggle of happiness. The door was shut and she placed her hand on the light panel. It glowed a moment, and satisfied at the hand's identity, released the door.

The office had two areas, one for the desk and working area, the other a storage and sleeping area with a private bathroom. Christine sat down at her desk and spread her hands on the top. The panic began to seize her again -- and she-took a deep breath. Just then the intercom came on.

"Doctor Chapel?" It was Uhura's voice. She would know it anywhere.

"Viewer on, Uhura! How good to see you! You look great!"

"And you -- DOCTOR!" she countered. A moment later her grin faded. "I have some good news for you. Admiral Kirk is coming aboard as Captain." She waited for Christine's reaction.

Christine grinned. "That's great! Terrific!" She paused, and then quieted. "And Captain Decker?"

"A temporary grade reduction to commander; he'll be the Exec. Also," Uhura added gently, "he's asking for Dr. McCoy as temporary ship's doctor."

For a fleeting moment Christine felt a stab of disappointment, both for herself and for Will. But the ramifications of Kirk taking command at this time began to sink in. "It's okay, Uhura. Really. Just imagine. We'll all be together again!" She was aware of the flaw in her statement as she heard it come from her lips, but she pushed the thought away.

Uhura's face showed relief that her friend had not taken the news of her own temporary demotion badly. "It's good to see you again, Christine. I'll talk to you later." The image disappeared, leaving Christine to her thoughts once again.

Some of the panic was muted now. Surely things would go well now that Jim Kirk was back in the center seat. And Leonard would be coming. A wave of nostalgia threatened to unravel her, and she was glad to hear the maintenance crew returning to work.

* * *

 

At 0350 Christine closed the sickbay for the 0400 gathering an the Rec Deck. Six of her crew walked along with her: surgeon John Atherton; nurse Jenny Muldoon, and Med-techs Adams, Murphy, Janasson, and Tn'Losina.

She wondered how these three new ones were going to work out. Atherton, Murphy and Tn'Losina were among Starfleet's most promising young men and women. She'd read their psych-scans, seen their test scores, their reaction simulator runs -- even had their bio-rhythms charted looking for signs of instability. She'd interviewed them each extensively, yet still she had doubts. She'd not seen them in action under real stress. And that was what really counted -- being able to depend on them in a crisis situation.

She would have the answer soon. They were due for a briefing of the situation at hand, and rumor had it that something had destroyed a Klingon K'tinga class destroyer. Christine had heard enough to know that Starfleet wasn't exactly sure of their comparable power of the K'tinga class destroyer with their own vessels. Something that could wipe out a K'tinga class vessel might very well be capable of wiping out a starship class vessel as well, even a refitted starship like the Enterprise.

Arriving at the Rec Deck, she ushered her staff in and stood waiting in the corridor. She was not happy with Kirk's perscan readings; there was far too much tension. His blood pressure was up, his neuro-muscular reading high, and his respirations fluctuating far beyond that of normal pressure indications.

She waited to see him, wanting to make the contact, to fill that niche at his back as much as she could in this situation -- just until McCoy was here to do it. He needed to feel the support of someone who was there just for him. Even if it was not the person he really needed.

Kirk appeared in the corridor at 0401. The rec area was full, leaving the corridor almost empty as she walked to meet him. "Captain," she greeted and offered her hands. "It's good to see you again." He took her hands in his, which were cold, and she looked into his eyes and she squeezed them and then let go. It had been enough. The touch, the words, the projection of her complete trust in him seemed to ease the tension some and the tight smile turned into a brief roguish grin.

"Dr. Chapel. It's good to see you, too."

"I'm looking forward to seeing Dr. McCoy again," she assured him as they walked in. "I hear he's turned into quite a hermit."

"Yes. It will be good to see him." He smiled again, obviously thinking of McCoy.

They had come to the main entrance to the Rec Deck and could see the mass of crew inside. It was quite a sight. She gave him another smile and squeezed his forearm with her hand. "Welcome home, Captain," she said, and went to take her place on the dais.

She could see them all from here and smiled at several friends as she scanned over the faces. There was the Rigellian, the Saurian, the two Arcturians, the K'normian, Farrell, Kelowitz, Garrovick, Masters, Barrows.

Chekov was the last of the senior crew to arrive. He leaned toward Christine. "Fancy meeting you here," he teased grimly. "You planning a short career as Chief Medical Officer?"

She grinned. "Same length as yours as weapons-defense chief of security. Congratulations."

Kirk strode in, interrupting them and Chekov walked to stand nearer his main security concern. The man of the cold hands and tight smile of moments ago was now very much in control, very much the Captain of the Enterprise.

As the viewer revealed the power of their enemy and the destruction of not one but three K'tinga vessels, Christine tried to sense the feelings of the crew, tried to scan the faces of the staff, but it was impossible. Her own heart was in her throat.

It was unlike anything she'd ever seen; the ease with which the energy bolts enveloped and disintegrated the ships was sickening. Christine felt a sincere empathy for the Klingon crews. In their own ways, they died courageous deaths.

The visual presentation was over and now Kirk was speaking. The faces of the crew held fear, anger, nausea -- the whole spectrum of emotion. She saw the warriors, like Chekov nearby, with looks of courage and defiance, those unable to see encroachment without realization. They were men and women at war in their hearts with their own monsters of the unknown. It was the psychological overkill instinct: fear breeds aggression.

"Captain." Uhura was speaking. "We have an urgent subspace transmission from Epsilon Nine."

This was the outpost station which had recorded the previous images they had seen. It closer now as the energy mass passed it en route to Earth. It would give them a chance to see, close up, what they were after.

Commander Branch, the officer in charge of Epsilon Nine, was a young attractive, precise man who had an easygoing air about him. At the moment he was caught up with the tension of close proximity to the energy source. His mechanical drones showed first the outside of the station and then both the station and the energy source, and after a moment it returned visual to him to transmit further information from their scans.

One minute they were transmitting friendship linguacode on all frequencies to the alien cloud, and the next they were under attack. Christine's breath caught as she watched. The attractive young commander was plunged into desperate attempts to protect the lives on his station, and then it was too late.

The external view showed an energy bolt snake out and engulf the station. With only the drones to witness, it was lost in a fury of green light.

She looked around at the faces; the unification of the crew had come. Others had joined the warriors -- the majority of the crew. The threat was now real. Whether it was called patriotism, protectivism or survival instinct, there was war in the faces of the Enterprise crew. But it was not the angry aggression of the warriors, but the quiet and mournful steadfastness of a peaceful people backed into a corner for defense of self.

The crew began moving out now, preparing for the just-announced pre-launch in forty minutes. Kirk remained to acknowledge those wishing to greet him. He always remembered the names. The greetings took several minutes, but Christine smiled at the instinct he had for the necessity of being accessible to his crew.

Christine busied herself behind the crowd which moved quickly and purposefully. When the last person had moved into the corridor, Kirk looked up, seeming almost surprised, his eyes full. She walked beside him silently through the full corridors toward the turbolift. The assemblage parted for them and they entered a lift that did not cram to capacity, but remained respectfully uncrowded. As they arrived at the seventh level, Christine gave a nod and slight smile and left him, the quiet still between them.

* * *

 

It was almost an hour later that Leonard McCoy arrived, to stand rigidly in the doorway of the sickbay. "Permission to enter your sickbay," he stated sternly, the emphasis on 'your' obviously a statement of some sort.

Christine felt her heart jump at the sight of him. "Permission granted!" she cried and launched herself at him with an exuberance that could not be quenched and a bear hug that belayed all thoughts of feminine weakness. He was here. Leonard! Beard, boots and all. He struggled to remain stern, but lost the battle in the joy of seeing her again, and wrapped his arms around her, kissing her cheek. Before he could speak to her his attentions were tipped loose by the newness of the sickbay.

He moved away from her in astonishment, looked around at the room. Hell hath no fury as Leonard McCoy when somebodys messed with his sickbay, Christine thought. It was several moments later before the bemused woman was addressed directly, though he had spoken non-stop the entire time. "And why didn't you tell me you had put in for the sickbay? I had to hear it from Starfleet first? I didn't even know that you'd been certified. They called me to check up on you! You didn't even list me as a personal reference!"

The accusation was point blank. She had hurt him by not telling him; the blue eyes were boring a hole through her. She loathed being on the wrong side of this man and squirmed to find a way of explaining that would sound as reasonable to him as it had really been. Not finding any, she pled mercy. "Don't be angry -- the certification came so close to my application -- it all happened so fast." She touched him. "I was embarrassed. I didn't know if they'd let me have it and I didn't want to fall on my face in front of you. I couldn't have told you about the certification without telling you about the application too. You always read me far too well to hide anything from you. I'm sorry."

She searched his face for some sign that she'd gotten through to him. He cleared his throat and looked away, but not before Christine caught a glimpse of moisture forming in his eyes. Relief filled her; he was no longer offended by her secrecy. Still, she wanted to hear it said. "Are you still mad?" she asked.

He shook his head, and not being able to speak, wrapped his arms around her again and swayed her back and forth in a warm affectionate embrace. When he did find his voice it was husky. "I'm proud of you, Chris. I'm just so damn proud of you. He let her go and pinned her again with his eyes. "I'm glad it's you and not a stranger." His expression revealed a mixture of feelings.

At that moment she felt she had forged a bridge that she hoped would never be broken. "Well, here it is your first time out in your own sickbay and I butt in," he said, changing the subject. "I guess the question should be, are you mad?" He was studying her with a clinical eye.

She smiled at the professional glint. "No, just a trifle disappointed. If it was anyone but you, maybe. But I'm so relieved to see you for the Captain's sake. He's really rocky, and he needs your support. I'll take over some other time."

She showed him her log notations on Kirk and watched his face work. "You're right, Chris. This isn't like Jim to be so uptight and tense." He turned, preoccupied, and ran into a low console, its edge hitting him in the stomach and knocking some of the wind from him. "Damn fool machines! Pretty soon all you'll have to do is poke the patient in one end and retrieve him healed out the other! There's no respect for the individual any more!!" Christine suppressed a giggle. It was all the same, Leonard barking and she knowing him far too well to take most of it seriously.

The barking was a symptom, Christine knew, of his own pressure. Leonard, above all others, knew James Kirk. He knew, like a self-diagnosing physician with symptoms, all there was to be afraid of. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of Kirk's personality, he could see beyond the present and into the predictable reactions of Kirk, given a particular state of mind and a particular choice or set of choices.

It was a frightening view, considering Jim's almost three years of flag rank and the glory of taking the Enterprise to save the Earth from the "forces of evil". Christine did not envy McCoy his job, nor did she doubt his ability to steady and mold the captain into his own best form.

She could easily bear his cantankerous attitude. She had been Leonard McCoy's buffer, companion, sounding board, and right hand for a good number of years. It was a comfortable position for her and she slipped back into it easily. There was not much that she would not do for Leonard McCoy, especially now.

It took somewhere over an hour to properly update McCoy on the present physical and emotional condition of the senior staff members. The primary focus, of necessity, was Kirk. Christine had prepared not only scans from his arrival on board the Enterprise but his medical records from the last three years, his psychological profiles over the last ten years of his service, and the entire set of records of not only his outstanding achievements, but also his day-to-day decisions and recommendations as an Admiral in Starfleet services, along, with Noguras personal comments and evaluations bi-annually.

The last two items had been almost impossible to obtain. Christine had spent nearly twenty minutes on the line to Vice-Admiral LeMar from Security personnel before he had released it, and they had come hand-delivered by a courier from his own staff. McCoy's eyes narrowed as he saw the security coding on the back of the tape. He slipped the cartridge into the slot, looking at her. "Was this necessary, Chris?"

"I don't like it any better than you do, Leonard, but look at it and you'll see. It had bearing on the situation," she answered with concern. She gave him the necessary time to examine the 2 tapes there in the privacy of her office.

The tapes were self-explanatory: they showed Kirk slowly and quietly turned from a command position to one of public relations; so slowly had it been done that a weary Kirk had not noticed. "Get a load of Nogura's comments here," she said, pointing.

McCoy read, then swore. Nogura reported that Kirk had been invaluable in the previous six months and seemed to be "adjusting well" to the Admiralty as well as providing a "likeable and persuasive image to the public." Christine turned off the viewer to give her summation.

"The physical and psychological records show a matching degree of decreased physical activity, increased irritability, lack of motivation, slower reactions to stimuli, internalizing -- a marked state of psychological depression." McCoy's jaw worked and Christine continued. "The scans and what I've observed today are self-evident." They looked at one another and Christine slipped the taped copy of Kirk's records out of the machine and fed it down the disintegrator.

McCoy stood and walked to the door. "Well, I guess I'd better change and get up to the bridge." He had the look of a man going to the gallows, she thought, as she watched him leave.

* * *

 

The feeling of going into warp speed was a strange, unique feeling, something to be tuned out of the conscious mind for the most part, much like the street sounds in a city. This time, though, Christine had her mind attuned to it. It was a gentle lurch, a power surge, a throb. And she knew the look of it without being anywhere near a viewer or an observation portal. She had it set in her mind a hundred times over, and the thought of it, the sight of the stars going into blurs, never ceased to move her just a little. Now, as she was aware of the phenomenon, it was like hearing the strains of an old familiar tune, or the sight of a precious keepsake. It meant home, security, the coming to life of the Enterprise.

She smiled and reached for her coffee. The liquid was forming eddies in the center of her cup and she paused to stare at it. Something was happening -- there was too much of a throb... No, it was a shaking.

It occurred to her in almost abstract that Will Decker had said just last week that the warp engines had not been tested. He'd been excited at the thought of trying them out for the first time, at giving the order as captain of the Enterprise. A plan now foiled by -- whatever it was. But Will knew the Enterprise inside and out, and he had said that she'd not yet been tested in warp drive.

The coffee splashed and Christine considered warning her crew, especially the new members, but it was on them too quickly. The klaxon sounded and only experience kept her on her feet. She placed her shoulders against the corner near where she stood and by spreading her feet some she braced herself against the three surfaces.

She could hear the sounds of things falling and rattling in the room beyond her office. The equipment was well battened down, she reminded herself, but she was concerned for the new crew. They might not be able to keep their feet through this.

"Collision Alert! Collision Alert!" the computer announced.

Christine realigned her body against the wall and screwed up her face. What would they be on a collision course with in their own solar system? Unless... could the engine problems effect the helm enough to cause them to hit a station? Or considering the travel time, it could be Jupiter or one of her moons. Christine thought of the people living on some of the places they might hit. Would Sulu be able to maneuver them away from the colonies? My God! What a bang that would be. No, she reassured herself, it could not happen now, and could not be so useless a waste of men and machine. The jarring continued.

Suddenly she heard the familiar sound of the photon torpedoes. Well, she thought, that said something. They would not hit anything manned. So it must be space junk. But why torpedoes?

There was a great jolt that almost knocked Christine off of her feet in spite of her position, and the computer alert silenced. The chance of collision was over. But the jarring continued and Christine's body was becoming numb from the vibration. How long had it been now? Thirty seconds? A whole minute? Would it ever stop? At least they weren't going to hit anything. Now, if the ship would only calm down before she shook herself apart and them with it. As if in answer to the thought, the shaking began to lessen slowly at first, and then more rapidly.

When it was quiet, Christine tested first her breathing, then her legs. Finding both in working order, if shaky, she straightened up. She dreaded looking out over the damage to her new sickbay and crew, but she did have to report. And casualties would be pouring in at any minute. She took a deep breath, brushed the spilled coffee from her uniform, and opened the door.

Surprisingly there had been no casualties to speak of -- two scalp lacerations, a pulled shoulder, and the rest had fared well, or at least were nursing their bruises at their duty stations.

Christine was still busy with the general clean-up when McCoy returned some twenty minutes later, his appearance regulation down to his toes. The beard was gone, his hair shorter, the uniform fit perfect. Christine sighed. She kind of liked him rustic; it had suited him. Not only was he regulation, he was a perfect simulation of a loaded thundercloud as he stormed in and stalked across the sickbay to her office. Finding the door closed, he stood staring at it. "Chris," he called in a monotone and remained standing until she came and put her hand on the lighting panel. The door opened and they walked in, the door whooshing shut behind them.

I've told Maintenance to include you in my office lock; they just haven't gotten around to it yet." She motioned at the desk chair for him to be seated and sat across from him. She couldn't begin to number the times she'd sat here like this and listened -- sometimes she'd listened to grumbling, some times to laughter, sometimes to things that would be better left unsaid. Sometimes she'd just listened to the silence and seen the pain of his professional isolation. Now she waited, busying herself with looking over some crew files. Leonard simply sat, stewing and staring into space. At last she spoke. "And pray tell, where were you when the roof fell in?" Hopefully, that was a safe subject, but he came out of his shell a little.

"On the bridge -- hanging on." There was dead silence.

Christine probed her way gently, gauging him as she spoke. "What was it? The engines?"

"Yep. Scotty and Decker both tried to get him to wait another few hours to test them better, but he wouldn't do it." McCoy shook his head. "We hit a wormhole effect and then sucked in an asteroid in front of us. Damn near hit it before the torpedoes blew it out of our way."

"The phasers couldn't handle it?" she asked, still puzzled. "It was that big?"

"The designers figure we don't need phasers unless we're in warp drive," he said sarcastically.

"Yes! I remember Will saying that! He was really steamed up over it! I just assumed that they got it changed. He never mentioned it again."

McCoy looked at her. "You know Decker pretty well?"

"Do they send starship captains and ship's doctors out together that don't know each other well?"

McCoy shrugged in agreement. "He's a good kid. Jim ordered phasers and Will counter-ordered photon torpedoes because of the engine problems."

"And the captain climbed his frame for it," Christine surmised with a wince. "Poor Will."

McCoy nodded. "Later, in Jim's cabin. Decker handled himself well."

Christine smiled. "Will has the makings of a fine captain."

McCoy was silent a long while before he spoke. "I'm on a collision course with Jim myself. I'm right in the middle of it, Chris, and I wish to God I could go the other way." He sat hunched over the desk, his hands laced on the desk in front of him. He raised a finger to scratch the bridge of his nose and looked up, a perturbed expression on his face.

Christine felt sorry for him. "He called you aboard, he'll listen to you. I've got my money on his levelheadedness. It's still there somewhere just southwest of that healthy ego and that big lump of vanity."

McCoy looked at her sharply, startled by this assessment of Kirk. He almost called her on disrespect of her superior officer but was stopped by the fact that there was no malice in her comment, and by the equally impressive fact that she was right. By golly, this girl is going to be good at this, he thought.

"But," Christine added, "he is going to be a bear to handle -- I'm glad you're here to do it."

McCoy made a sour face at her. Thanks, Nurse." Christine smiled and then laughed. It was good to be home.

A knock came at the door and McCoy and Chapel both fumbled to find the new desk release. McCoy found it first and pressed it. It was Med-tech Sam Adams, a crewmember from the last mission and a friend to both Leonard and Christine. "Mr. Spock just came aboard from a long-range shuttle, Doctor. It's all over the ship. I thought you'd want to know."

"Spock?" McCoy's face reflected shock followed by delight. "Hell, yes. Thanks, Sam." The door shut and they were alone. Christine was speechless, a grey ashen look on her face.

Damn him, she thought through her shock. How dare he be here. Not now, damn him! Her heart pounded with fear and her stomach turned. Tears welled up in her eyes and tangled emotions swept over her like a tidal wave filling every crevice of her being. She tried to stop it, to fight for control over it, to be angry, hateful, blank -- anything but what she was feeling... She wanted to see him; more than anything she could ever remember wanting, she wanted to see him again.

Against McCoy's protests they left the sickbay to Adams and made their way to the bridge. Surely he would go there first, to Jim before all else. The turbolift seemed incredibly slow to her as they traveled to the bridge. The welling tears were gone and now she felt joyous, suddenly warm and alive as if she had just stepped into the sunshine for the first time in years. Spock. She was going to see that wonderful face, the dark eyes, the quiet expression. The anticipation was unbearable.

"Christine," McCoy began, trying to bring her expectations down, she knew.

"I'm fine. I'm great! Stop fussing," she grinned. It was useless.

The turbolift opened and they stepped out as Spock was rising from the console between the two bridge lifts. Christine's breath caught at the sight of him. Spock. He was impressively Vulcan, wearing a flowing black robe, his face holding that look of deep purpose and self-confidence. It was a part of him that she had always loved, that tremendous volume of power, the aura of knowledge and wisdom that radiated from him. She felt an almost crushing thrill of pride in him overcome her and she felt herself grinning. "Mr. Spock!" The words had come unbidden.

"So help me, Spock, I'm almost glad to see you!" McCoy's words tumbled over her own in greeting, holding a depth of affection that could not be misunderstood.

Spock faced them only a moment as he heard the voices, his eyes devoid of any recognition as he walked to the turbolift. Christine reeled inside. It was like being slammed against a wall, having the breath knocked from her. Spock! What's happened to you?

Uhura turned to him and looked directly into his face at close range. They had worked side by side for a long time; there had always been a special rapport between them. "It's how we all feel, Mister ..."

She was also ignored as he interrupted with "Captain, with your permission I will now discuss these fuel equations with the engineer." Kirk nodded, and Spock turned to enter the turbolift. With some amount of purpose, Kirk tried a personal comment. He welcomed Spock aboard, his voice warm and intimate. Christine could almost see the muscles across Spock's back tense. She could feel his pain even beyond her own, but he did not turn and the doors closed behind him in protective silence. Spock.

So thick had been the walls of detachment that they might as well have been machines he'd seen and not people -- men and women he'd lived with, who had risked their lives for him, and for whom he'd risked his own life.

Christine was frightened for him. But overriding her fear was a surge of embarrassment, and a totally debilitating pain. The lift behind them opened and she heard Leonard say her name quietly. She was too stunned to even cry. He had a hand on her arm, and she followed his lead without coaxing. Once the door was closed, he put an arm around her waist and she leaned against him for support.

The old familiar existence had returned. The sickness. The hollowness. The biting hurt that could not be prepared for or changed, but merely struggled through. It was like before, only worse now. Spock didn't even acknowledge her existence.

The turbolift doors opened and Christine walked purposefully ahead of McCoy as they headed down the corridor to the sickbay. She allowed herself some moments of void and numbness in which to conquer the pain. I'm getting good at this. Someday I'm going to get caught here ... stay forever, never come back ... stay blank.

Psychiatrists had names for this nothingness. Christine called it survival. She could feel McCoy's eyes on her as they walked.

...doesn't matter. Nothing matters. Not Starfleet. Not the Enterprise. Not the sickbay. Nothing! She felt McCoy's hand on her shoulder gently but firmly. The pain crumbled in on her again. Spock! Endure it, Chris. Hold on ... HOLD ON...

McCoy's voice floated through to her. "Chris, people are expecting us to be prepared." She knew he hadn't liked the hazy look on her face, knew he would rather see her react in pain like this, instead of withdrawal, but this hurt so much, too much.

Christine picked up a pharmacology supply list and stared at it blankly. So this was it, she thought. This was to be her life, locked into a non-existent relationship; a permanent bondage to a dead dream. She had tried so hard to be rid of him, but what more should she have done? She had not been free of him after all. She had only mistaken the panacea of her newly found self-esteem for freedom. How can he still hurt me so much? she asked herself. Why, dammit, why?! If they lived, he would return to Vulcan, and she would remain, ever reminded that she was still bound to the dead weight of her own fantasies of having him. She would be the perfect, rational, efficient ship's doctor, except for her own knowledge of this sickness inside of her, like a tumor that would not die.

Maybe they would not survive. Maybe the cloud will blow them all to hell and gone out of the universe, and Earth with them. For the moment, she didn't care. She knew that she should, but she didn't. Time to turn off again. That's it, slide free. Relax. The cold. Let in the cold, Chris. Deep breaths. Relax, let it happen. Hold onto the cold, Chris ... there. Supreme nothingness. Stare out of portholes. He's watching. Pretty smile for the man. "I'm all right now, Leonard."

"Like hell you are." The voice was cold and angry. He knew. He disapproved.

She didn't care. Smile pretty for the man, Chris. Gaze through portholes at the world. Play the role, Chris. She looked at the list again.

* * *

 

Over the next hour, she did her work. She was polite, she even delivered the customary welcoming to Ships Services with the right amount of smiles and with the levity due the situation. It was a courtesy act, routine and expected. Most of them would be under her authority when the Enterprise began her official mission.

McCoy continued to watch her. She drifted in and out of the haze, never fully present, and yet damningly alert and conscientious. Come on, Chris. Snap out of it! This wasn't going to be an easy voyage, cloud or no. Damn that Vulcan! Damn this situation! Why didn't I just stay at home in my lab? I don't need this. What's that yellow light? Something to do with the perscans?

Christine saw the light. She hit a switch and then two more down the panel. The screen she was looking at stayed dark and the light that had gone out when she'd touched the switches now relit. She motioned to a Med-tech to assist her and the tech began looking manually through the crew perscans beginning with the bridge crew.

McCoy saw her jaw clench and a particular fury set into her as her hand came down on the intercom. He smiled to himself. Good girl.

"Medical Maintenance! McCluskey?? Dr. Chapel here." McCoy continued to feel relieved. Let 'er rip, Chris. Get it out. Let 'em have it!

"Aye, McCluskey here."

"My F438 is still out and I need it! I've got a warning light on the panel and no readthrough to the file on the screen. That was a priority maintenance order and you've had it for almost two hours. Reason for delay and estimate on completion!"

"Doctor Chapel, I believe I have a Doctor McCoy on roster as Sickbay Officer in Charge." Christine's mouth dropped open and she looked at McCoy, who was coloring at the young man's impertinence. Christine put her hand against his chest to stop his advancing to the console. She straightened her posture, and in a stone cold voice that he had never heard from her before, laid the young man in his place.

"Mister McCluskey! The F438 will be in working order on the double or I will have your ass on the board for insubordination so fast it will make your head swim! Do you read me, Ensign?" To McCoy, the sound of her pent-up anger was like music.

"Aye, sir."

"Chapel out." She closed the line and strode up the steps to where the Med-tech worked, leaving a bemused McCoy. Yes, Chris was going to be all right. McCluskey might be smarting some, but Christine was going to go right on like a trooper. She was back in control -- normal control.

Christine was running the perscan readings still through the viewer. She stopped and ran the listing back a short way and stopped again. Her face clouded with frustration. "Jason Thorns. Asthmatic. Respiration 63 and labored." She opened a line to medical records.

"Chapel here. Sickbay."

"Just a minute, Doctor."

His breathy voice came on the line. "I'm -- okay. Self -- medicated -- and better."

"Mr. Thoms, I'm sorry I couldn't get to you sooner. We had a mechanical screw-up here. You need to come down?"

"N-no. I'm fine. Just take a minute -- to catch my breath."

"Just relax. It's okay. Don't worry, everyone gets a little tense the first time out. This hasn't been a picnic so far. We'll see you through. I'll call you later."

"Thanks. I appreciate it."

"Chapel out." She shut down the viewer as she finished, certain that there were no duplicate calls and that the remaining crewmembers were well. She turned to McCoy. "I'm sorry about McCluskey, but I needed to set some precedent. I couldn't believe him!"

"Well," McCoy laughed, "hes got his wires uncrossed to his toes by now."

Christine laughed and swallowed hard. The laugh had threatened to release with it a torrent of tears. McCoy squeezed her as the intercom came on. "McCluskey to Sickbay. F438 main circuitry operative and ready for checkout, Dr. Chapel, sir."

Christine smiled at McCoy. "Thank you, Ensign McCluskey. Our patient is fine, no harm done. Return to your work. I'll run the circuit test from here." The circuit tested clean and then Christine noticed McCoy was deep in thought. She watched him until he was aware of her and voiced his thoughts.

"You were cleared to work with Decker," he stated and thought a moment more. "If this runs through, they'll have to find a new ship for him. Jim won't want to give Enterprise up and he'll have his ticket written for whatever he wants."

"I'd thought of that," she answered, "Would you stay on? You would, wouldn't you? With Jim in command?"

McCoy was toying with an inactive dial on the machine before him. "I've been thinking of that since I first got the call." He paused. "Aw, hell, Chris. This couldn't have come at a worse time for me. Joanna and her husband have just split up, my grandson, Ashley, is only two months old. We've made plans for them to move in with me. Joanna's going to do my research with me while she gets back on her feet. We're just getting close finally. This might be my only chance to get to know her again."

The last words had been all but lost in Christine's surprise. "YOU'RE A GRANDFATHER??" she asked delightedly.

He grinned. "I have the stained shirts to prove it! He is just about the most fantastic thing that's happened to me in a long time. Looks so much like Joanna did when she was born. They're moving in--" He looked at his chronometer and sighed. "Today." He looked at her. "So. What if Jim does end up with the Enterprise? Where does that leave you?"

"They'll probably try to switch me with Decker, keep the team together," she answered.

He looked at her. And you don't like the idea."

"Oh, it's tempting enough. I love Will. He's really a special man; he's going to be one of the greats in Starfleet history. It would be a challenge and an honor to be a part of his career. But -- I love Enterprise. She's special, a part of me, like home. I don't want to leave her. I know, I know. That sounds neurotic. I'd really miss her, and not exactly just the crew, if I left." She looked at him, sure she'd see that diagnostic glint in his eye. Instead, she saw him smile.

"It's a disease, Chris. Something akin to hoof and mouth," he teased, laughing. "Seriously, I've thought about it for years," he said with that low tone of confession. "And you know, 'way back when they had sea vessels, there was that first love between a captain and a ships Only, it seemed, captains ... and rightly so when a man stayed for years with a single ship and the crew changed with every run or from port to port ... mercenaries, travelers, and such." He paused to make sure she was still with him. "Now, you take us. We live on this thing for years, and that possessiveness hits a lot of us. It's like this ship, this vast weight of tritanium, forces and circuits, is somehow psychologically filling some deep-seated need in us. Now, from my best estimations, all I can come up with is that it's a combination of things. One is the crew: there's a feeling of family and community. Two, it's home: familiarity, security of sameness, place of memories." He paused.

"And three?" she asked, sure there must be more.

He shook his head and grimaced. "Three is sorcery. It has to be! What else could give you that lump in your throat and that knot in your gut when you first see her on the screen down in Centroplex?"

Christine laughed. It was true. The lump had been there for her too, the knot, the shiver of awe at her beauty and majesty. It didn't make any sense at all to love a hunk of machinery. "They say for a captain it is sexual transference and frustration of duty. Where does that fit into your theory?" she asked,

"Poppycock! Sex had nothing to do with it!" he chided.

Christine smiled, not sure that she went along with him. Sex and power were often something very similar. "Good," she answered. "I was getting worried." She saw him grin and felt a warm camaraderie beyond any they had had before. It was one of those warm waves of esteem building satisfactions she'd fed on so deeply in those last two years.

After a few moments McCoy returned to the original subject. "So you'll fight moving from this sickbay?" he asked, a discerning eye on her.

"Down to the final count," she answered, deadly serious.

"So, say you don't get transferred with Decker, Jim keeps the Enterprise and you end up as ship's doctor with Jim as captain." His eyes narrowed. "Can you handle that? Him?"

Christine took a long moment to think. It had only been formulating in her own mind a scant few hours. "As I see it, my only hope of staying here as CMO is if the captain goes to bat for me. If he's done that, he's already lowered the wall of defenses some himself. I know he respects my abilities. He spoke well for me in his recommendation of me for this post, and in his last commendations of command." She thought for another moment. "Yes. I can handle it." There was a surety in her voice. "I'm banking on familiarity, respect, a certain amount of applied logic, and a basic knowledge of men."

McCoy smiled. Christine could indeed handle men, McCoy had seen that evidenced times in the past. Christine could get a patient to do anything necessary without a hint of anger, frustration, or even the syrupy sweetness some nurses resorted to. It was uncanny the way she knew the male animal -- better than any woman he'd ever known. Heaven only knew how many times she'd worked the kinks out of his own psyche with a word, a look, or a touch.

It could have made her very popular with the men, had she chosen to use it. But aside from her love for Spock, she'd had no real relationships since McCoy had known her. It was a gift to Christine, as much as her gift for science, or healing, and not to be used for her own devices. McCoy thought it sadly ironic that the one man she really wanted would be immune to it anyway. He respected Christine a great deal as a human being, and as a professional. And yet, he wasn't sure that she could handle Jim Kirk. Especially not now. His thoughts were brought back to the present by her voice.

"Besides," she was saying with a twinkle in her eye, "if worse comes to worse, I'll threaten him with you. That should take care of anything." McCoy grinned. "By the time I get him, you'll have him all straightened out and I'll only have the run-of-the-mill hassles. He's not always cooperative, but he's not deliberately hard to deal with, either."

That was a particular comfort to McCoy. After his run-in earlier with Jim, he'd begun to see him as some sort of ogre-opponent instead of the Jim Kirk he'd seen work through five years of crisis decisions in an admirable display of self-control and priceless intuition.

* * *

 

McCoy's surveillance of his colleague continued, and to his relief she seemed to have put Spock to the back of her mind in favor of more pressing responsibilities. The longer it was from the actual incident, the less severe the pain would seem. She'd have plenty of time to think about it later.

She worked through the routine of acquainting herself with the records of the crew, checking supplies, scheduling hours, etc. There was another call to Thomas, an occasional check on a crewman or woman that seemed particularly stressed from what she saw on the perscan readings, or were particularly vulnerable because of some past incident. McCoy was drawn by some strange kinship to her tone of reassurance with each person she talked to and he finally placed the feeling: it was pride in a pupil who had learned well.

This was the Christine Chapel that he'd seen glimpses of during all those long hours of working together, but the presence that she had now, the maturity and the sureness of self, were new. In that change he saw so many open wounds healed, wounds of the type that children grew up with in spite of the best efforts of families, and a few deep ones she'd received coming into womanhood in a world where the people she loved and trusted all too often disappeared. After today, he wondered how many of those wounds were being reopened.

She looked up at him watching her. "Something wrong?" she asked wearily.

"No," he answered.

"You're watching me."

I was just watching my successor for signs of incompetency," he grinned.

"But you're not finding any, are you?" she answered, sure of herself.

"No, I'm not. I'm quite pleased with your work, your command of your people, your manner, your knowledge of these damnable machines. Everything seems in order." He caught her gaze with his eyes and held it. "I was seeing the pain and the pressure behind your last couple of years of work, and wishing it had been easier on you." Christine smiled. Somewhere, there was the admission that it had, very honestly, been hell on her.

The door of the sickbay opened just then and an Engineering crewman came in, led by a crewwoman. "Shetler," she informed them. "Ensign Ronald." Shetler's hand was wrapped in a rag, blood spurting into the cloth and trickling down his arm. His face was white and he leaned heavily on his crewmate.

McCoy eased Shetler from her grasp and into the treatment chair. Christine scanned his record on the computer display, then filled a hypo with a heavy local anesthetic. The readout showed no contra-indications and she injected him at the site.

Med-tech Adams had a supply tray ready to begin by the time McCoy had prepared and was ready to begin. Within ten minutes, Adams was escorting Shetler to his quarters and the two doctors were cleaning up the debris.

"Like old times again, huh?" Christine commented, picking up trash from the supply tray.

"Yeah, it was," he grinned back.

Her smile left after a moment and she was serious. "I've missed it. I'm going to miss it. I love working with you, Leonard. You've taught me more than all of the teachers I've had combined."

McCoy teared over again and looked away, clearing his throat. "I've missed it, too -- missed you, Chris, And," he looked around the sickbay, changed but still the same, "I've missed her." Even for him, the Enterprise addiction was not gone.

Christine changed the subject. "You're still the best meatcutter I've seen. And I've seen a lot by now," she teased. He hated that colloquialism and she knew it. She sped ahead before he could do more than give her a glare. "I won't ever make it. I don't want to, I guess. I did pull John Atherton though. He's a gifted surgeon. Young, but quick and decisive."

McCoy was not about to let her rib go by and was not above changing his attack to whatever current subject left a way open. "--and good looking?" he probed.

Christine gave him a frustrated look. "He's only twenty-two." And then, assured by his expression that his counterpoint was indeed going to take place on this battleground, she covered her back. "Not bad, though -- a great body," and then seriously, "A little headstrong, a little too confident for what he knows, but a good cutter. I've worked E.R. with him, he's got a good mind for patchwork."

McCoy stayed with his troops and continued the assault. "Twenty-two is too young for you, huh?" he asked, devilment in his eyes.

Christine played along. McCoy was in the game to win, but two could play his tactics. "Age isn't the problem, Leonard. It's just that being a surgeon, his head is already swollen enough. You know -- the surgeon's 'God Syndrome!? The last thing he needs is a romp in the hay with a superior officer to build his ego."

McCoy reacted to the barb, and then, in a momentary weakness, laughed. It was good to be home.

Christine continued, conceding his point. "He's not my type, but as I said, he does have a great body." She grinned slyly. "I might change my mind someday."

McCoy laughed. It might have sounded crass to an outsider, but they were in the business of bodies, and it really didn't mean much to either of them. They both understood that. It was part of the jest, part of the warmth between them. It was a product of Christine's years of living with four brothers and was as natural and unaffected as rain. On her, McCoy found it rather engaging.

"Always nice to have pleasant scenery," he drawled.

"Speaking of pleasant scenery," Christine breathed to him as Atherton walked in.

"Good day, Dr. Chapel." He turned to McCoy. "And you would be Dr. Leonard McCoy!" he said, offering his hand. McCoy nodded and shook Atherton's hand.

"Doctor," he greeted politely.

"I've read your logs, Doctor. Some brilliant work you did here. Too bad you didn't have access to all of this equipment. It would have made it so much easier." Christine, was using all of her resources to keep a straight face as Atherton went on digging his own grave, completely oblivious to the danger. McCoy was observing, holding his best shot for the right moment. "The arrangement alone helps to change it from the archaic --"

At this point the veins in McCoy's neck began to stand out, always a danger sign, and Christine realized quickly the wisdom of getting Atherton out -- the sooner the better. She broke in. "Well, John. You'll have to discuss all of this with Doctor McCoy at a later date. I have some very important work for you to do for me right now." She was taking him by the arm and hustling him out of the door and away from McCoy bodily. "Now, you go to the resources room and find me all of the information you can on Triat Zellathonlan Fever and its treatments. Don't just scan it, as I want it all on a separate cassette. Oh, and all of the known treatments on the tape, too, and their chemical build-ups and dosages. Better list contra-indications, too."

McCoy couldn't help but laugh to himself. Atherton was getting the shaft, and he knew it, but he didn't know why. He was sputtering, but years of being in a position of protecting McCoy's privacy had made her very good at what she was doing and in no time at all Atherton found himself sputtering at the back of the sickbay door.

Christine returned to McCoy, grinning. He laughed out loud. "That was rotten Chris. Triat Zellathonian Fever! That'll take him hours! There's more information and theory on that than fleas on a dog! He won't even be able to give you an outline before tomorrow -- and that's if he works on it all night!"

She smiled mischievously. "I know it was rotten, but it will keep him still and involved until he's unwound some. I'll pull him in a few hours. Don't forget -- he's only twenty-two, and that this is the first really serious position he's held. He's never been on a starship before, and he's just met someone he really admires." Her voice was tense. "He's just unsteady right now, that's all."

McCoy nodded. It bothered him that she felt the need to defend her choices to him, and so stringently. Christine, mistaking his concern for judgment of her decision, was irritated.

"Leonard, I would not have called him if he could not handle it! He is a top-notch surgeon. He's good under fire. He's still a boy in some respects, granted, but his medical judgments are sound!"

McCoy resisted the urge to do battle just because he'd been challenged. The strain, even though it was covered by duty, was still heavy upon her. He nodded, purposely backing down from a confrontation, and took her arm in his, hugging it a little. "Okay, Chris. I'm not challenging your judgment. Settle down; better yet, go lie down. Please, for just a little while, just to unwind."

She pulled away from him and ran a finger down a row of lights on the machine before her. "No. I'm fine. I don't -- I can't just lie there and think. I have to stay busy." McCoy nodded. As much as he didn't like it, she was probably right.

The doors to the sickbay opened and they looked up. It was Charley Kirkpatrick, the only other crewmember on the Enterprise, or at least had been the only other, from the same neck of the woods as Leonard McCoy. Kirkpatrick was from South Carolina. The two had become fast friends, in spite of the fact that McCoy was in Medical Sciences and Kirkpatrick in Operations. They seemed to have little in common except home, but it had been enough.

"McCoy?" he called as he came through the doors. It took little time to spot McCoy, who had propelled himself from behind the machinery and toward Kirkpatrick when he had first heard the voice.

"Kirkpatrick!" They fell upon one another with great back slapping, hugging, and a multitude of oaths envisioning animals and low desperate characters, all in a deep drawling dialect. Christine grinned at the sight; it was something to behold.

When the greeting and the general mirth had died down, she heard Kirkpatrick ask, "How 'bout a cup of coffee to catch up on old times, you 'n me? Took me this long to get things together so's I could come up an' see you. Surely Chris here can mind the store for a while!"

Leonard glanced at her, and before he had a chance to decline, she had accepted for him. "Sure, Charley, it's slow here. Take him. Get him out of my hair for a while," she teased. McCoy looked at her and frowned. She made herself smile cheerfully for him. "Go!" she shooed. He complied, but not without a worried look back.

Looking around the room as he left, dread filled her. She had not realized how much she had depended on McCoy's presence for the grip she was keeping on herself. She suddenly felt very alone -- and very small. Waves of nausea washed against her insides and she began to feel the terror of losing touch with what little she still had. What if this is the time that I cannot hold it all together? Aware of every breath, she attempted to find that safe, cold space of non-existence, but it would not come. I'm on duty. I have to hold out. Relax! Oh, God! Spock. Hold on. Please ... She was cold, and shaking.

She had never in her whole career failed to be responsible, never let her personal problems affect her duty as an officer. Never ... Never felt ... Never hurt like this ... So close ... And over one lousy Vulcan. There was no malice in her thought, no anger, only the muted color of something known, something factual. Her breaking point was being reached, was soaring at her face like a giant bird of prey from which she could not shield herself.

The realization that there were tears running down her face made her turn suddenly from the room and her crew. She stole a look back. Only Adams was nearby, and he was absorbed in his viewer. Taking a deep breath, she called over her shoulder to him, "I'm putting the F438 on alarm. I'll be in my office. You're in charge, Mr. Adams." He acknowledged her and she entered the office, turning the machine on alarm.

Pain began to strike her in rolling currents, breaking into the deep inner parts of her, allowing the searing bitterness of lost dignity to settle there. The quiet of the office pulled at her sanity, stifling her breathing, and she wandered into the sleeping area, standing there fighting it a final moment. To let out the first torrent of pain would be like unleashing all of Hell, and once unleashed, would it ever grant her another lucid moment? Or is this the final act of my free will? ... Free ... There's nothing free ... ever ... nothing that doesn't hurt.

The tears came. Unbidden. Uncontrolled. From the depths of all the pain she had ever known. But instead of being her undoing, the tears were her healing. She found her way to the daybed, collapsing, clutching the pillow to her. She cried for her pain; she cried for her failure to cope; she cried for Spock.

Spock. He was not happy. He had not found the answer he'd searched for on Gol. He was more alone and hurting now than she had ever seen him. Attaining his precious Kolinahr has been killing him! She wanted to be able to touch him, to hold him, to help him fight off the self-defeat and loneliness that she knew was filling him, but instead she curled tighter into the pillow and rocked in pain, the tears flowing until at last there were no more, and a numbness set in. She lay there, exhausted, for a long while.

A knock at the door stirred her. "Chris?" McCoy called. It had been almost an hour. "Chris, let me in." She couldn't answer, and after a long moment's concentration lifted a leaden arm to press the bedside door release. He entered and the door closed behind him. I'm still sane, she thought, or this is the classic example of insanity, the man who believes he is sane. He came into the sleeping area and sat on the bed beside her, reaching out to brush the hair away from her wet face as she took a ragged breath. "Come here," he said, opening his arms to her. She came to him gratefully and he folded his arms around her. It felt good to be held and rocked and stroked.

She cried softly now. "He's hurting so much; he's so shut off. I want to help him, but he's so far away from everyone. Oh, Leonard, did you see the aging in his face? He's killing himself trying to be what he never can be."

"I know," he said softly and continued to rock her in his arms.

"How can I hurt so much, Leonard? How far does it go before it stops? Just when I thought it was gone, it's not!"

"Oh, Chris." His voice was thick as he kissed her hair. "I wish I could do something to help you."

"You are. I'm not alone. I have you here to hold me."

"Sometimes it seems like precious little," he answered.

Christine's voice caught. "It could mean so much to Spock if he could just let us."

They both knew it was true. They also knew that the Vulcan would not, even to the very depths of himself, believe it. "Yes," he answered when the silence had become too long. "Christine, I want to sedate you."

She moved away from him. "No. I'm on duty." She got up and started to the sink, but he caught her wrist and she spun on him in anger. He just looked at her for a moment, and said "And this hair-trigger of yours is better?" When she didn't answer, he continued. "Something light, just to take the edge off. I'm here. It won't be anything strong, I promise." His face was full of concern and she was too tired to argue.

"Okay. You win. I need a shower. Do you know the equipment well enough?" Her voice sounded weak with defeat.

"Sure, I'll be fine. Take your shower, I'll mind the store." He smiled and Christine ignored it.

* * *

 

After the shower and the hypo she was feeling more like herself.

"You look better," McCoy commented.

"I feel better, thank you," she answered, checking her own perscan reading; it was within normal range on all accounts. She ran a few perception quizzes and several speed accuracy puzzles in Pharmacology with the computer, remaining satisfied with her scores.

"Good," she stated to no one in particular, and McCoy smiled.

"I told you nothing strong. I'm a fair doctor once you give me half a chance," he teased. She smiled back, an exhausted smile that was less a smile than a flinch.

"Yellow alert, all decks; yellow alert, all decks... It was a loud intrusion on their conversation, and it startled them. McCoy looked at Christine and she looked to her crew, some of whom were alarmed.

Christine shrugged at a rather frightened looking tech. "Just hold on," she advised. The simplicity of her answer and her manner seemed to ease the tension.

They felt nothing for a few moments, and then there came the power surge. The throb was accompanied by a calm that was a sharp contrast to the former attempt at hyperspace. They looked at one another, each waiting for the shuddering to begin. Then, one by one, they began to hope. Another minute, they would know. It was a very long minute, but it ended with the computer voice stopping mid-word. A collective sigh of relief was released. Christine grinned and led a hearty round of applause. It was for the Enterprise, beautiful lady that she was, and for her crew. They were a good, sturdy sort and she was proud of them. They would stand the test all right, they would endure.

The intercom came alive. "Doctor McCoy. Please meet me in the officer's lounge in five minutes." It was Kirk.

"Sure, Jim," he replied, looking at Christine with dread. The intercom went silent. "I'll be back when I can " he said. Besides the dread of what was going to happen with him he didn't like leaving her.

"I'll be fine," she assured him.

He merely smirked at her. "Seems I've heard that line before," he grumbled, then left.

She watched him go, wondering whether he was heading for a battle or for a peace conference. She hoped for all of their sakes it was the latter. They needed their captain back as he had been; balanced, sensitive, and an intuitive military strategist with his whole mind and his whole heart on his duty. Again, she was glad that McCoy was here.

* * *

 

McCoy returned in short order, a mere ten minutes later. Christine looked at him. "How's he doing?" she asked.

McCoy shrugged and checked the bridge crew perscans. She did not pursue the issue, knowing better from the look on his face.

He did not tell her that it was Spock that he was thinking about at the moment. No other being had ever elicited that anger/affection/concern/frustration feeling in him that Spock did. And it irritated him to no end that there were times like these that he could not quite be sure which of those feelings was foremost in his mind.

Spock was above all else his friend, and Chris was right as she always was about him; something in there behind that hard Vulcan exterior there was a man in great pain, a pain that he could neither admit nor share. Concern and fear for him, that's what I feel. Damn you, Spock. Damn you and that Vulcan pride of yours. Why can't you just let us in? You can't be enjoying all of that pain.

 

He was jolted from his thoughts by the intercom again, this time along with the klaxon from the computer tie-in. "Red alert! Red alert! Red--" and then came the captain's voice over the suddenly muted klaxon. "All decks, this is the Captain speaking. We are being scanned. Whatever your station, you will do nothing. Repeat. You will take no action except on my express orders."

In Sickbay there would have been nothing to do, and the crew exchanged glances. The sickbay was one of the safest areas of the ship, one of the most heavily insulated from the outside. It was also an area where the crew never really knew what was going on unless someone came from another part of the ship. In a red alert, they prepared and waited, imaginations soaring, in spite of the best laid plans to control them. Somehow not knowing made it doubly hard.

The klaxon, still muted, continued as the minutes passed. Christine watched the bridge crew perscans. Med-techs filed in from their off-duty status to mingle with those on duty, and the sickbay began to buzz with activity. From somewhere came the information that they were still being scanned and were approaching the cloud boundary. They were suddenly too busy to care what was going on. There were things to prepare now that there was a chance of great numbers of people being injured.

John Atherton entered and began checking supplies at first, and then began to prepare the surgery. He was calm, methodical and in charge of himself; much apart from his earlier cockiness, he was now in his element.

McCoy stood aside to watch him work for a moment. The trays were well set, much foresight in the layout of what he might need in a massive emergency. He did it himself, needing to see it done properly, not leaving it to chance. McCoy, given an unknown emergency, and an unknown staff, would have done the same. He looked at Atherton in a different light. Christine had been right. He began to prepare his own tables. It was procedure for any collision risk, a procedure he had initiated years ago. Now it was essential. The cloud boundary might be easily penetrated; then again it might knock the hell out of them.

"All decks brace for impact!" It was Kirk's voice, the captain calling personally to his troops in the midst of battle, and the klaxon volume raised once again. Trays were covered, people latched on to immovable objects -- and they waited. McCoy slid three layers of surgical gloves, two for cover, the other beneath still clean, then held fast to the sink. As Atherton, a quick study, did the same, a look passed between them. McCoy was beginning to like Atherton.

"Incoming fire. Ahead zero mark zero," the computer warned above the klaxon blare. Somewhere on the bridge and in many vital areas of the ship faces were bathed in red battle light. Battle. Visions of the K'tinga cruisers' vain fight for life and their easy destruction, their disintegration, flooded the minds of the crew of the Enterprise along with their responsibilities.

The impact came. It came hard enough to jar the soul. Christine realized that the fact that she was aware of the severity of it was a good sign, though it would be easier to die in a blast of energy than die slowly in a badly crippled ship. Dying of suffocation with no life support was a common fear among starship crews. Christine was not above it, and yet for the moment the relief of being alive was stronger.

Her thoughts took less than a second to form, and she was aware of a distant shriek. The ship continued to rack heavily under the blow.

The light on the F438 flashed as she struggled over to the panel to make the connection with the readthrough control. A man in Engineering was dead. No time for him; nothing to be done for him. Chekov was in trouble, in severe pain. She grabbed an emergency bag and made her way to the turbolift. The rocking lessened by the time she reached it.

When the turbolift doors opened onto the bridge, Christine made her way to Chekov's station. Spock was there, speaking -- but she had only a subliminal awareness of his voice as she put all of her attention on her patient. Still, the sound of his voice was calming to her, imparting a certain security. Strange.

Chekov had been badly burned about the hand and arm. She had not expected to see the lovely Deltan navigator kneeling beside him. Lieutenant Ilia backed from him to allow Christine access to her patient. Christine smiled at Chekov. "Trying to make that short career even shorter, Pavel?" she asked quietly, pulling the shirt sleeves away from raw flesh. She sprayed a local pain reliever on the area and began to rise to help him to his feet. The Deltan laid a hand on her arm.

"May I?" she asked.

Ilia had been doing some good for him when Christine had arrived, and as the Deltan had backed away, Chekov's pain had increased. Christine, basically open-minded, was intrigued by the healing qualities of non-human races -- and she was curious. With only a moment's hesitation, she nodded and watched carefully.

Ilia touched Chekov's face and concentrated. The man's face relaxed and took on a peaceful look. Was the Deltan empathic? Christine watched her as she worked. Chekov smiled, and Christine was not entirely comfortable watching -- and then it was over. Ilia smiled at her and then at Chekov who was very relaxed and a little euphoric. "The impression of well-being should last long enough for you to treat him," she said quietly.

Christine smiled. "Thank you, Lieutenant," she answered, and they both helped lift a very calm Pavel Chekov to his feet.

A strange little smile passed between Will Decker and Christine as she moved Chekov past him. Even though she had heard things about this beautiful Deltan woman, still, she was amazed.

Deltans were few and far between in Starfleet Services, and Christine's acquaintance with them was limited to one page in a cassette text, and to Will's bittersweet memories of the time he had spent on Delta IV.

He had recounted the experience to her in the small private room used for psych-depth experiences at Headquarters. Will had had difficulty talking about it even then, even knowing that it was a part of the very necessary breaking down of defenses between them for the good of the working relationship. Even though a starship command had been the one thing he wanted more than life itself, walking away from Ilia and Delta IV had been the hardest decision of his life, one that still hurt him deeply.

The look that passed between them now was one of irony and amusement. Here they were on a suicide mission, in the middle of God only knew what -- he and the Deltan, she and the Vulcan, both of them deposed from their professional thrones. If it hadn't been so pathetic it would have been funny. The look also offered simple comfort and reaching to one another, sympathy for what each knew lay deep inside the other.

As she moved Chekov past Will, Christine wanted to have time to touch, to ask if he were all right. But there was no time and the turbolift stood open. She entered it with a Chekov who was still feeling no pain, checking his pulse and breathing as the lift sped along; both were satisfactory.

The lift opened onto the corridor to Sickbay, and Christine was leading him out when the klaxon began again. "Incoming fire, heading zero mark zero," the computer warned, She braced Chekov against the corridor wall and secured him with a shoulder block, taking a firm hold of his injured arm near the elbow and-holding it braced away from them.

"Miss Chapel, I'm quite able to take care of myself," he complained, still somewhat out of touch.

"Listen, Pavel. Consider it a chance to get to know one another better," she said, only half thinking about what she was saying, while telling her muscles to remain ready for the first impact. Surely their defenses had taken a beating from the last hit, so this one could be bad. From somewhere she recalled the figure being given in Scotty's voice over the intercom to Kirk -- thirty percent reserve power. She stilled the fear in herself and a silly thought made her smile. She had never thought to go out of this life shoulder-blocking a young Russian lieutenant. Somehow in all of her dreams she pictured herself going out fighting the great cause, standing with her last strength over her lab table and viewers. But then life was reality, not dreams.

The klaxon stopped and she looked at Chekov, who looked back at her. "See, I'm wery good at taking care of myself," he said with great forbearance.

She released him with a sigh and a grin as she brushed back a stray strand of hair from his brow. "So you are, Pavel. Let's go." Maybe she would go out fighting the great cause after all, at any rate, today had not been her time -- yet. She paused with her charge to press a wall intercom button. "Uhura, this is Chris. What can I expect in Sickbay? Have you heard anything?"

"Not much, Chris. They cut off our attack because of our linguacode. That's all anyone knows."

"Thanks." She let up on the button and maneuvered Chekov the rest of the way to Sickbay. Entering, she was met with the sight of McCoy and Atherton, each triple gloved, standing by the sink, talking amicably. Christine grinned. "I think the worst of it is over for awhile," she offered and they looked up -- their surprise melting into assistance as they eased Chekov into a chair.

"Yes," chimed in a woozy Chekov as the pain began to haunt his face again. "I think it will be quiet for a while. They listened to our message of friendship. Didn't they?"

McCoy began to treat Chekov while Atherton cornered Christine. "If I can keep my mouth shut about the sickbay around the good doctor, can I get off the Triat Zellathonia report?" he asked sheepishly.

Christine looked at him. "How are you?"

"Just fine! Why?" He was "on" again.

"I just thought I saw some green around the gills there for a while," Christine probed. There was no admission of fear from Atherton.

"Me? Nah, I'm just great."

She considered. "Okay, you're relieved. But just remember that report can be reassigned at any time." If he insisted on acting macho instead of honest and his fear exhibited itself in a cocky attitude that drove everyone mad, then he would deserve anything she could give him. He nodded with a grin and left. Christine shook her head. That ego was going to take some hard knocks on the way to real manhood.

* * *

 

Christine checked the bridge crew perscans on the F438 as McCoy escorted Chekov back to his station. All of them were in as good a condition as could be expected under the strain. Spock's body was registering a particularly high stress reading. His time on Vulcan might have done wonders for his mind, but his condition had deteriorated in comparison to the physical he had received over two years earlier. Undoubtedly there was stress related to being here again as well. She turned to the screen one last time, then turned it off.

Most of the med-techs had prepared their stations and drifted to the sickbay lounge. Christine could hear their voices droning in quiet talk, most of them seasoned veterans. Some were new, though, and very young. They almost seemed too young to her, but then time did not stand still for anyone. Even the very young were old enough and taken in hand by an experienced crewmember, would grow up very quickly in space, or would wash out.

Feelings of responsibility for this crew rested heavily on her as she watched them. If this worked out and McCoy did not soften in his decision to remain in retirement, they would continue on under her command on the Enterprise in her new mission. In deep space there would be no room for anything short of a completely reliable crew. The fact that these new crewmembers had stayed on in the obvious face of disaster said something for the quality of their character. Christine hoped that she would get the chance to get to know them.

McCoy entered, saying, "It's getting thick up there. I've never seen anything like it. Colors, shapes, patterns but nothing that looks like anything." He headed toward the F438. "How're they doing?"

"I just watched. McCoy stopped his path to the machine to listen to her. "They're doing as well as can be expected. Spock's rocky, nothing too serious -- really fluctuating, though."

"I don't doubt it. He's trying to pick up on something from them it, whatever." Their eyes met, McCoy searching her face clinically. Her shock was well covered now by her duty and the time factor had give her a chance to sort herself out. She was as normal as it was possible for anyone in her situation to be.

She saw the look and smiled. "Come into my office?" she offered with a deep bow and a sly look.

"Don't mind if I do," he answered in the same vein, with a laugh.

The coffee sent up from the galley was good, and they savored it, Christine sitting in her own chair this time, and Leonard across from her. At first they were silent and at last, Christine spoke. "Don't you miss the patients? I just can't see you holed up in your lab all day."

McCoy grinned. "Who says I'm holed up in my lab all day?"

"Rumor has it that you're a real hermit."

"Hermit, yes. Holed up, no." He sipped at the coffee. "That's the very best thing about my life now. My grant is held for as long as I bring out good information on a regular basis or show that there has been no real progress. My hours are my own. I work a few days, then take a few off. If I find something better to do, I do it. As long as the project is moving along at a fairly steady pace, my life is all mine."

Christine smiled at him. "And you don't miss the patients?" she asked again.

He leaned forward in a manner of confiding. "I drop in on the clinic from time to time, I sub every Thursday afternoon for a young G.P. so he can spend time with his family, and I have a few private patients. I do just enough poop and croup to keep the withdrawal symptoms away."

She chuckled. "From time to time" said it all. He was busy as ever with patients, only he ruled his own time. For the first time in his career, he was flying free and loving it. "Female private patients?" she asked, not about to let the Atherton tease fall by the wayside.

"That's for me to know," he said cryptically, with one of his electric suggestive smiles for her benefit. "But I can tell you, it's a hell of a lot easier to have a relationship down there than it is up here!" He was right, of course. Being doctor to everyone you know had its disadvantages. He'd once said he didn't mind, though, gave him a chance to look over the merchandise before he chose his quarry. Christine grinned as she remembered how she'd slugged him with a pillow, and how he'd laughed until he'd cried over his masterpiece of devilment and her reaction. How she loved this graying man across from her, and she tried to reflect it to him.

He chuckled, and she wondered if he was remembering the same incident. The quietness came upon them again. What was there to say? All of their lives and everything dear to them hung in the balance of this mission. It hurt to consider, to realize just what could be lost.

The whole ship seemed deadly calm, waiting -- waiting for what, no one was sure. "Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!" The computer voice came blaring over the equally disturbing klaxon, jarring their nervous systems once again, Christine and McCoy made their way into the main sickbay, where Christine lowered the sensitivity of the F438 to keep everyone's jangled bodies from tripping it. She only wanted to track injuries and severe emotional reactions. The ominous yellow light flashed on as she stood there. She touched the readthrough and left it on. Terror filled her as she saw the readout, and the terror turned to rage as she made connections in her mind. "NO!" It couldn't be. "NO!" Her own voice reverberated in her ears.

It was Spock; his whole body was going haywire.

His life signs flickered, went out, and then appeared again, only to go out once more. His life sign reading was absent a full five seconds.

He was dead.

She stared at the null reading, uncomprehending -- and yet somehow comprehending all too well. McCoy's hands were gripping her shoulders so hard that it hurt. She didn't' breathe; she might never breathe again. There was silence. Stunned, eternally blank silence.

Then suddenly his vital signs flickered again and remained on the screen. Slowly the readings stabilized and Christine and McCoy released their held breath. McCoy became aware of his crushing grip and relaxed. "Thank God," he breathed. Christine was shaking too hard to speak.

The screen split, and there, displayed beside Spock's readings were those of Lieutenant Ilia's. Her readings flickered much as Spock's had and went into failure. The readout remained null until it changed to a red printout: NO FURTHER DATA. Ilia no longer existed. Christine closed her eyes for a moment to compose herself.

"Bridge to Sickbay. Do you have a reading on Lieutenant Ilia? Uhura's voice was tremorous.

"Negative, Bridge," she replied, touching the audio button. "She is..." Christine could see Will's face in her mind's eye, all of his hope riding on her next words. "She's gone, completely." Her own voice sounded cold to. her. Unloving. Hard. There was no way to say it well. Poor Will; her heart ached for him and she leaned her shoulder against McCoy.

The klaxon was sounding again. "Emergency Alert! Negative control at helm!" She wanted to shut out the klaxon, shut out all of the sounds -- retreat to somewhere safe, somewhere quiet -- away from the horror of it all. But there was nowhere to go. She was so tired.

The sickbay was fully prepared; she saw Atherton rechecking his supplies -- more for something to do than because they needed to be checked, she suspected. McCoy began to wander, investigating for the umpteenth time, the new machinery.

"Bridge to Sickbay. New navigator on the bridge -- Chief Janet DiFalco."

"Acknowledged, Bridge." She fed "DiFalco" into the bridge crew listing. Doing so necessitated removing Ilia's name and code, and it made Christine feel ghoulish, as if she were erasing all trace of the young woman's existence. A sense or loss hung heavily on her and as she looked up, she realized that she was not alone in her feelings. It could have been any one of them. One moment a vital young woman was alive and functioning, and now she no longer existed.

The realization of imminent death was upon them. First the Klingon cruisers, then the Epsilon Nine station, and now on the Enterprise. It occurred to her that most of them hadn't even realized that a man in Engineering had been killed. Chekov's burn had covered that. But they all knew about this, and a new fear settled in each of them.

One by one they assimilated their fear. Each had known that starship duty was hazardous, but now the intellectual knowledge had become heartfelt reality. The assimilation was a personal journey displayed on each face. She was relieved to see that only one young man appeared to be having a real struggle to control his fear. McCoy had seen it also and was talking to him, taking him in hand, soothing the fear away with the quietness of his voice and the gentleness of his presence. The attention was not wasted and the young man calmed and went to join the others in the sickbay lounge.

McCoy returned, congeniality spreading on his face. "He'll be okay."

Christine looked at him and her eyes filled by the flood of love that she felt for him. "Thank you. You're always so good at reassurance. I've tried to learn that from you." Now was the time to say all of the things she'd never said to people. Now before it was too late. She mourned the loss of all of those to whom she would never have the opportunity to talk if they died here in space. There were so many things that humans -- and even a lot of the aliens -- needed to hear. Why had she not had the courage to say them before?

The ship jerked suddenly. It was a peculiarly singular jerk, unlike any other: a tractor beam. McCoy and Christine looked at one another, the knowledge weighing on them. "I'm going up," he stated when he could bear no more, and stalked out of the doors, his body wound up like a steel coil. Christine took a deep breath and tried to quell the uneasiness in her stomach. It sickened her to think of being caught like an animal and hauled against their will into someone else's space of being -- and for what?

McCoy returned a few moments later and announced quietly to Christine and the few seasoned hands standing around the F438, "It's drawing us further into the cloud." Eyes met in the shared feeling of helplessness and impotence. There was nothing to say and they dispersed quietly.

Waiting was hard, long, and quiet. There was nothing to do but think about the things they didn't want to -- and to wonder. The lounge was full; there seemed to be safety in numbers, and those who were off duty did not want the quiet solitude of their cabins. Humans, Christine reflected, herded when insecure and they were all insecure. By now even John Atherton had lost his swagger.

"Intruder Alert. Intruder Alert," came the klaxon and voice-over. "Deck Five -- officer quarters." McCoy held off for a moment and then left wordlessly.

Christine looked at her crew. They were waiting for her to comment, to impart some sort of reassurance. She had none.

"Maybe now we'll find out what we're dealing with." She paused. It didn't sound like much. "Anything has to be better than the unknown, this blind waiting." At that, faces relaxed some, and a few heads nodded. Was it really? she asked herself.

She checked the bridge crew perscan readouts. Janet DiFalco was steady now after a shaky start. The painkiller was wearing off for Chekov and she prepared another hypo. "Mekylah, see that Lieutenant Chekov gets this," she said, handing it to the tall, red-haired Med-tech, and he left.

She returned to the F438 and turned on the screen again to watch the readings on the bridge personnel investigating the intruder alert. Suddenly Kirk's reading shot high on stress. No, make that stimulation. Stimulation? Spock showed some of the same reaction for a moment, but markedly less, and only for a moment. Then it all but disappeared. Christine's face showed her puzzlement.

Punching in McCoy's perscan reading, she found him showing only signs of exertion. He was en route still, probably at a light trot. Christine watched. Kirk was adjusting to whatever he had encountered. Spock was completely back to normal. McCoy's heart and respiration jumped and he showed signs of great excitement. Christine was baffled. Excitement, stimulation -- but no fear, no anger, what is that? Had the thought been any stronger, it would have voiced itself.

She called into the lounge area. "Whatever it is, no one is being hurt or under any great stress." There was a murmur of relief and she smiled. Yes, I guess thats good, but what is it, dammit?

As she continued to watch the readouts she could tell nothing further. They were walking again, all of them. Kirk's stimulation level was soaring. McCoy's had lowered remarkably, Spock's was no level at all. She shook her head. When the sickbay doors opened, she had to smile. McCoy entered with the lovely Deltan woman in tow. Kirk and Spock walked directly behind them. Of course, the pheromones, subliminal Deltan hormonal scent. And Kirk walking behind her lovely, scantily clad form, those terrific long legs and all. The leisure robe covered little mere than the basics, and with the pheromones in the air, it probably covered nothing of the captain's imagination.

Smiling, Christine walked to them. "Lieutenant, I--"

She silenced mid-word. There was something wrong -- but what was it? Ilia was silent, cold, and there was a bizarre glowing light at her throat. Christine looked closer at it, trying to see if it were attached, but it was a part of the throat, growing from flesh.

"A probe from the alien; very ingenious, though," Leonard commented. "Let's get her up on the table." Her eyes met his and she acknowledged his frustration with her own and turned to assist him in taking the probe into the examining room.

* * *

 

McCoy's comment turned out to be understatement. The probe was more advanced than anything they were capable of, or had even theorized. It worked perfectly, down to the last fiber, as a Deltan woman.

Christine glanced at Spock for a moment, seeing that he was deep in thought. He looked up and their eyes met; she looked away quickly. The wall was not as opaque as it had been, she thought. He was visibly fatigued and she wondered at the aging in his face. The rigors of the disciplines for the Vulcan Kolinahr were renowned; she could only guess at what he had been through.

She wasn't entirely sure, for his sake, whether to be glad for this breakdown in his defenses. Part of her was and a part of her knew that whatever humanization that Spock gained here would be painfully forfeited again when he returned to Vulcan. The course that he had chosen for his life did not allow for the emotional ties that he had made which were reaching to him here. Though her mind saw reality, her heart refused to deny the joy she felt at the relaxing of his defenses. Burdened with a feeling of selfishness, she buried herself in the interpretation of the findings on the probe now on the body scan screen.

Will Decker came into the room, a look of near bewilderment on his face, and Christine stopped speaking, hurting for the rude awakening he was receiving. The probe turned its head slowly. "Deck-er," it whispered, its eyes filling. The voice was the Deltan's, but strained.

Christine heard her own voice, surprised and clinical. "Even eye moisture." Damn! When would she learn to control her comments? Certainly, eye moisture was an important addition to the compilation of facts. It was especially significant in that it was the first factor indicating that the probe was capable of reaction based in self and not dictated by programming. It also brought in the possibility that there could be some triggering that could possibly be used to their advantage. But Christine knew that her own statement had come before she had thought, and it was damningly cold, and unnecessarily personal for what Will was facing. She reached to make it better. "Will -- it's not Ilia. Not really," she said softly.

He winced and swallowed hard, his eyes still on the probe. "I know," was all he said. She thanked God that he had not walked in on it unprepared.

"Interesting," Spock commented. "Not 'Decker-unit.'" Even his voice was different. The cold control was gone, but his presence was very real as he led Kirk and Decker from the room and into the corridor. The door slipped shut behind them.

Christine's eyes gravitated back to the probe as she continued to explore the wonder of it. So many tiny pumps and multiprocessor chips should not turn out so exquisite a form so true to Ilia as this. And it was eerie to see the form of the Deltan woman so natural and yet so devoid now of the life Christine had seen on the bridge just hours ago.

She looked at McCoy. Were the pheromones still getting to him? He looked a little tense. She tried not to smile, but he looked up. "What's wrong with you?" he snapped at her.

She felt the mischievous look on her face. "Nothing," she answered, and tried to focus on her readings as she verbalized them for the computer.

With no warning, the probe sat up. McCoy made an attempt to ease her down again and was thrown against the wall by a slim arm that shot out, hitting him in the chest like an anvil. Christine switched her attention to the gasping man, finding him uninjured but thoroughly out of breath.

"I guess we let her go," he croaked, when he found the breath to speak.

The probe came to the door, having slid off of the far side of the table with all of the female grace that the real Ilia might have shown. She stared at the door, pushed it firmly, and then, before they could move to press the release, walked through it, metal ripping in howling protest as it gave way before her.

The three men in the corridor beyond looked up from their conversation in shock. The probe, unmarred by the experience, focused on the "Kirk-unit" and remarked, "I have recorded this function." It was spoken lifelessly and as she walked toward them, the "Kirk-unit" stared at her a moment before speaking.

Christine studied Spock's face as he involved himself in the situation with the probe. Her worry for him aside, she realized with an extra beat of her heart that he had aged quite attractively. The thought dealt her composure a severe blow and she purposely turned her attention to McCoy.

"Well, there goes my new sickbay." She saw McCoy react to her statement with a strange smile that she could not quite interpret.

McCoy suddenly became aware that it was indeed her sickbay. He had license to do as he pleased; he had dominion over Jim -- but she had never really relinquished the sickbay to him. And rightfully so, he thought. It wasn't intentional on her part. After all, the sickbay had been given to her; the staff was of her personal choosing, it had been Christine, not himself, that had received the briefing materials. This was a new and different sickbay. And it was hers. From the first, she had, by pure instinct, held on to that hard-earned authority. He was no longer ship's doctor -- not even now. He was captain's doctor. In a melancholy way, it hurt. And yet despite the empty feeling, he was glad for the strong, if unrealized, possessiveness over the sickbay that he saw in Christine. It was a part of the dedication he had always felt was needed for the position. Sometimes, when the going got rough and it got right down to it, all a ship's doctor had to go on was the dedication and raw nerve. He loved what he had seen in Christine today, loved it for himself -- and loved it for his sickbay.

Besides, he thought, it was clearly filling a hole in Chris' life. All narcotics were not administered to the body. God, how well he knew that. Looking at Christine as she watched Ilia and the men in the corridor he felt very close to her. And he ached with his own personal loss.

His attention returned to the scene in the corridor ahead of them. They could not hear the conversation; it was a bit too far away. But they could see Decker leaving with the probe after some fleeting resistance conveyed in the lightening flash of his eyes to Kirk's. McCoy continued to watch Spock and Jim. Spock looked almost worried and said something to Jim. He received an uncomfortable nod from Kirk and departed.

Kirk was left standing thoughtfully in the corridor. After a long moment he walked to the ragged hole in the door and touched its torn edge with one finger. It was still slightly warm. His face reflected his frustration over the gamut of things out of his control -- the damage to his ship the least of his worries. "I'll be in my quarters if you need me," he offered to McCoy.

The two physicians watched as he walked away, both of them feeling concern for their captain. Within a moment, though, they had put it to the backs of their minds where it belonged. There was nothing that they could do to relieve the stress he was under; and they were under enough stress of their own. They, of all the sciences, had the responsibility of trying to keep the crew in one piece. It was the most frustrating part of their jobs that the human bodies of the crew could not be repaired as easily as the sickbay wall could be.

Christine turned to the wall intercom and touched the button. "Medical Maintenance."

"Maintenance. McCluskey here."

"Yes, Mr. McCluskey. Doctor Chapel here. We have some structural damage here in sickbay. Can you send someone over to assess it?" A smile passed contagiously between her and McCoy.

"Yes, Doctor, right away. Could you tell me the nature of the damage, please?" His voice held all of the proper courtesy and respect due a senior officer, and no small amount of trepidation besides. "I mean, what caused the damage? Sir," he added quickly. McCoy stared at her.

Something began to move inside of them, some self-preservation instinct. They had trouble being solemn. It began to bubble, that precious pressure-incited humor. Poor McCluskey. He wasn't going to believe the truth, and who could blame him?

It wasn't funny.

But it was. McCoy and Christine were grinning now, irrepressibly. McCoy tried to contain himself and pointed to the speaker. She had to answer, but what could she say?

"Dr. Chapel? Are you still there?" The voice sounded bewildered.

Christine took a deep silent breath, the tip of her tongue at the top of her mouth. "Yes, Mr. McCluskey. The closest thing I can tell you is that a half-naked crew-woman walked through a closed door." By now she was half-dissolved in silent laughter.

"Sir?" The voice was strangled, and then quickly recovered. "Yes, sir."

Christine couldn't manage a reply and simply cut the transmission short. They had both reached a point of no return. The laughter could be contained no longer, and they both exploded with roll upon roll of chortled, gasping spasms until tears ran down their cheeks. Each in turn tried to point out that the situation was grave and was not funny. But the words either died on their lips under the weight of the laughter or were totally unintelligible. It was the therapy of the ages, and it helped.

By the time that they had gotten a grip on themselves and were able to log the findings on the probe, they were exhausted and sore, little fits of giggles slipping out from each of them from time to time, but they were oddly refreshed and calm.

* * *

 

The hours went by slowly, with nothing to be done in the sickbay, nothing to process in the labs. The equipment had been checked and rechecked. Supplies had been readied for emergency use and covered. Christine was available for patients, but there were none. She kept track of the bridge crew's perscan readings, watching the stress levels, keeping in constant hearing range of the F438's alarm.

The lounge remained full, the medical crew coming and going in twos and threes, in spite of Christine's efforts to encourage some of them to remain in their quarters to rest. There was no resting in a situation like this, and she yielded to the inevitable, watching them drifting from cabins to observation ports to the rec deck, the galley, and back.

The buzz of conversation droned, gallons of coffee were consumed, stories of other journeys were swapped, and frightening encounters retold and revamped in the same breath. The new crew members were being talked through their trauma by more experienced crew members. It was unique to the service, this mystical metamorphosis that transformed new crew into veterans, kids wet behind the ears into responsible crewmembers. Not many got as far as a starship duty unless they were truly cut out for the job. But all of them came green -- and it was the older crewmember's lot in life to initiate them into the routines and obligations of their new lives. The initiation often consisted of horror stories, jest and derision, and practical jokes. But it worked for the majority -- and those who could not take it in stride were quickly weeded out; those in Starfleet service were unflinching believers in the survival of the strongest.

Christine watched the transformation and enjoyed seeing them come together, both new crew and experienced, knowing how necessary the closeness between them would be in an emergency situation.

The ship rocked violently and there was silence. Soon murmurs could be heard, a sudden too-loud voice and laughter, then the quiet buzzing of their conversation would begin again. Christine shook her head at their reactions and looked back to her work as the ship calmed.

Leonard entered in a quiet internal bluster. As always, unable to bear not knowing what was going on, he had been all over the ship, picking up that subtle 'feel' of the crew, listening to bits and snatches of conversations, leaking at consoles, lights and readings he often didn't understand. It was amazing, Christine thought, how much he could pick up that way.

"Will's still with the probe. If Spock's right and they did duplicate more than just Ilia's physical patterns, we just might..." His voice drifted off as he spread his hands in the air before him.

Christine sighed. The chances that Ilia had more than that factual mechanical knowledge she had already exhibited -- that she might actually make contact emotionally with Will Decker was a long shot. One that she didn't place much hope in. Meanwhile, time was closing in on them. The cloud was now less than four and a half hours from Earth. Even if Will did make some contact with the personality of Ilia -- would that enable them to communicate with the cloud, or whatever intelligence was behind the cloud? She wondered if it would matter.

Not that it was the first time they had been this kind of 'down to the wire' panic situation, it had happened a number of times before, and always before -- something -- had happened. There was always a last minute salvation. But that had been the old Enterprise, the old crew, the old Jim Kirk -- and the old Spock. Maybe at last they had screwed up enough of the factors of the old Enterprise luck that it would no longer hold.

With a sudden pain in her chest, Christine realized that she had thought of Spock again. As hard as she tried, she seemed not to be able to avoid that. If they died now, Spock would have lived and died without so many of the things that were a necessity to at least a part of him. Why? Her eyes filled with tears at the thought of him never having felt love freely, nor the joy of giving and receiving it with someone that loved him.

She took a deep silent breath and blinked back the tears. All she wanted was to give that to him, to show him he was important, worthy, that he had not failed to be a special person unto himself. She wanted him to know that his specialness had nothing to do with his accomplishments, that he was worthy of respect and love and being valued just for being himself, Spock. The tears blurred her vision and blinking didn't help. Didn't every being have a need to feel worthy in himself of the respect and presence and love of at least one other being -- a being that would feel that way toward him regardless of his behavior or performance?

"Christine?" She felt hands on her shoulders and looked back to see McCoy. She had not seen him come over to her. The lack of awareness made her feel exposed, as if she had been caught in some deep breach of responsibility, and she-reacted defensively with anger. She spun in his grasp.

"Will you stop mother-henning me!" It came out louder and harsher than she had expected and his face contorted slightly with pain.

He tried again. "Chris." He touched her arm.

Hating herself, she struck out at him further. "I'm fine. Don't push me!"

He lowered his hand and his jaw dropped visibly. With a deep breath and a silent glare that she could see he was trying to soften, he turned and left the sickbay.

Christine walked into her office and waited until the door slid shut, then slumped into a chair, burying her face in her hands. Leonard McCoy was probably the best friend she had, and she had wantonly and deliberately lashed out at him for trying to care for her. She certainly had a way of messing up things.

A thought flashed in her mind: self-pity -- the sound of the words reverberated in her head. She was steeping in self-pity; literally soaking in it, and at the expense of her duty to her sickbay. She blew her nose and washed her face. This would have to stop. Poor Leonard. She had to apologize. She took a few deep breaths and emerged from her office, then called to Atherton in the lounge.

"Dr. Atherton. You're in charge. I'll be available by perscan alert if you need me." The young man nodded eagerly. "Stay in hearing distance of the F438 alarm and call if you need anything at all." He was obviously pleased to be trusted.

She fed McCoy's identity pattern into the main computer the readout showed him to be in the captain's quarters on deck five. She resisted the urge to touch the view-through button, it would be a misuse of her authority.

Leaving the sickbay, she felt a wave of nausea over facing McCoy, an ordinary physical reaction to shame and humiliation. She arrived at Kirk's door thoroughly sick to her stomach and in a mild sweat. Why did she do things she would have to face up to later?

She knocked.

"Yes?" Kirk's voice was irritated.

"It's Chapel," she forced.

"Come." To her relief, the voice had calmed.

As the door opened to admit her, Kirk sat engrossed in the screen image of Will and the probe-on the rec deck. Christine came up behind McCoy and put her hands on his shoulders, massaging them in a silent apology. He looked up at her and smiled, patting her hand, and she breathed freely again. Kirk, still watching Decker, was oblivious to what had transpired between McCoy and Chapel.

Christine sat down to watch with them. Will seemed consistently on the verge of making some sort of emotional contact with the probe, and then failing. The probe would then return to its cold mechanized self.

Christine watched the straight, handsome features of Will Decker as he led the probe around the rec deck, his hand reaching to touch her back to guide her left or right, his blue eyes trying to make contact with the woman he knew so well. Christine tensed her jaw and her stomach clenched with pain for him.

Kirk met her eyes. He knew she was close to Will. Did he see her pain? She hated him for what he was doing to Will. Hated him, but did not blame him. Did not judge him. It was his job -- and the only chance for a shipload of people, and God only knew how many galaxies, to live. An exchange she could not name flashed in the look between them and he looked away first to return his gaze to the screen.

Christine once again saw what seemed like a flicker of recognition flit across Ilia's face and then disappear. Will glanced to the floor and his eyes closed briefly before he looked up again. It hurt so badly to watch them. Christine remembered the long hours they had spent together in the joint exercises Starfleet demanded of pairs going out into deep space as Captain and CMO. Her mind raced over the hours of encounter therapy, some with a staff psychiatrist, and many, many more, privately, just the two of them in the tiny sparse room accompanied by two chairs and a tape of questions and instructions. The sessions were guaranteed to break down any barriers between them, and they had told each other things that they had never told anyone else, just the two of them, knee to knee, face to face.

Christine thought of it now, and watched him with the probe. She and Will had learned to think together, anticipate one another, and to love one another. She had learned to know him so well that he could never develop an aberration without her knowing from some sixth sense that it was there, where it came from and how to get to it to begin to heal it. And he, in turn, had come to know complete trust in her. For what? Oh, God. For what? She couldn't do a damn thing for him now. It hurt.

If only she could do something for him. Something to help him. Suddenly an idea flashed through her mind. She grabbed it and worried it until it became solid. "What if he had something more personal to work with -- say one of Ilia's belongings?" she asked, still deep in thought.

Kirk and McCoy looked up at her and broke into grins.

Kirk, struck with one of his flamboyant moods, waved a hand. "Go to it, doctors," he grinned. "That's an order!"

McCoy grabbed her hand and pulled her up. "C'mon, Chris."

* * *

 

Traveling in the turbolift and the ensuing corridors, Christine's mind remained on Will's story of him and Ilia and a loveband. Would it be in Ilia's quarters?

Will, as a young officer, had met Ilia on Delta IV and had been very attracted to her in spite of, or maybe because of how different she was, from himself, and the fact that she had been little more than a girl. As the days had passed and they had grown more infatuated, Will had bought her a gift, a head ornament. He had not known at the time that it was an object of traditional promise.

Deltans were a race very highly evolved sexually and psychically, having developed the ability to unite mentally at the moment of sexual joining, an experience which Will had been warned could kill a human being. At the very least, the human would be strongly addicted.

His giving of the band had invited sexual commitment, and Ilia's acceptance of it had signaled her acceptance of him as a mate. After a glorious evening of celebration with Ilia and friends, he had come home to his quarters to be told by his roommate what he had committed himself to. He had run, not even having the courage to face the temptation he felt for her by saying good-bye.

Surely it had been important to Ilia, but would it be in her belongings, and would the probe react to it?

They reached Ilia's cabin where Christine placed her hand on the light panel and was cleared. The door opened.

As they entered Ilia's cabin, Christine looked around. Ilia's belongings, like everyone else's, were still packed. Christine opened a travelcase and looked through it, feeling guilty.

"Looking for something special?" McCoy asked, watching.

"Yes, I am," she answered, and searched the case a second time. Nothing. The other was a small personal bag. There at the bottom was a shallow box. Christine held her breath and opened it.

"Voila!" she answered and lifted the loveband. "Leonard, how much do you know about Deltans?"

"Only the jokes and the stories. What is it?"

"An engagement ring of sorts. Will gave it to Ilia and she accepted it."

They were interrupted by Will Decker and the probe. "Captain Kirk said to meet you -- " His eyes fell on the loveband in Christine's hand; he was obviously shaken.

So she had kept it, much as he had kept her in his mind and heart. Christine could almost hear his thoughts. The moment was now suddenly much harder. The probe showed no reaction at all to the band.

Christine felt sorry for Will. She felt as if she'd betrayed a confidence. There had been no choice.

"Will," she said softly and came to him, touching him. "We thought maybe if you had something more personal to work from, it might help."

He nodded gravely, there was no choice. If Ilia's memories were there, this would arouse them.

Will looked at the probe. There was still no recognition. Christine placed the band in its hands and moved it toward the mirror. For a moment the probe looked as if she was struggling with something and then, staring at her reflection, she lifted the band toward her head. Will's hand covered hers on the loveband and settled it into place. His hands slid to her shoulders and he looked into the mirror, his head near hers. A cloud of emotion touched the face of the probe, and her eyes found his face, now also alive with memory.

"Ilia, do you remember when you first wore this loveband?" He swallowed in order to go on. "You were lovely that night."

The probe turned to him, suddenly very much Ilia, and looking very much as she had that evening. She reached up to lay her hand on his face.

"Will," she whispered softly.

He felt himself swept up with her presence. The pheromones. That boggling sense of her nearness was calling to him. It was nearly intolerable, and he fought to keep his head clear. His heart pounded and he knew he was quaking. He needed to hold her.

"Will!" It was McCoy, obviously struggling to ignore the effects of the pheromones on his own person. "This isn't Ilia! It's a probe!"

Decker seemed lost in the probe's eyes. It was so real, Christine thought. So human, not at all as it had been in the sickbay. Will pressed the hand to his face.

"Will," McCoy began again, glancing to Christine for help. Will was seemingly miles away, yet he responded to McCoy shakily, but not looking away from the probe's face.

"Doctor, I need to find out if there's anything left of Ilia in there. Maybe she can help us." It was as if he was afraid if he broke hrs gaze into her eyes that he would lose her. The probe continued to look back at him with the wonder of a very young girl fully enchanted with a first love, as he had been to her. Somewhere in there, Christine could see a grown woman who had wanted this man for a very long time. The probe was all that was Ilia.

"Decker!" McCoy countered, exasperated. "The only thing in there is an intruder!" He saw it happening, and he didn't like it. Christine touched his arm in warning, they could take no chances of breaking the spell.

"You may be right, Doctor. But that would be all right, too, wouldn't it? We must communicate with whatever is behind this."

Will was breathing visibly harder now, and Christine reached over to turn off his perscan device. McCoy shot her a glare. Surely she could not be for this -- this -- charade!

The probe stepped closer to Decker and he leaned forward, gathering the delicate-looking body into his arms. He bent and let his lips touch hers. The probe trembled in his embrace and responded.

Christine tugged at McCoy's arm and he relented, angrily following her into the corridor, the door sliding shut behind them.

"That's a damn fool thing to pull!" he snapped at her as he stalked down the corridor. Christine stalked alongside of him, keeping pace with a little effort. Was he talking about Decker's choice of intimacy with the probe or of her support of his decision? She kept her mouth shut and walked. It occurred to her inanely how many years of her life she had spent matching this man's strides. Her mind went back to Will.

She could see Decker's point. Besides, nothing else had worked. Even if it didn't work, they'd be no worse off.

Christine could see another point as well. The probe was a perfect replica; there was no reason to think it would not at the very least be an emotional and physical release for an empty and hurting Will Decker.

If there was any consciousness sharing, perhaps it would help. If not, the moments lost would not that much matter, and Will would not be hurt. It remained a long shot that was Will's to take. He had made his decision and she would support it. Months of joining and trusting could not be undone by a rank change. Will was well aware that he was risking his life. She swallowed hard, and continued to walk away from him. It was her duty to her captain, perhaps her last.

McCoy was still fuming when they reached Kirk's cabin. Kirk was no longer there.

Christine had a sinking feeling that something was wrong, though there was nothing odd about the captain not being there. Christine would not have expected him to continue surveillance on Decker and the probe. It would be natural for him to return to the bridge, and yet something inside Christine made her uncomfortable.

"I'm going back to Sickbay," she stated, and was off down. McCoy paused a moment and then followed her, taking the corridor several running steps to catch up to her.

The sickbay was orderly. Atherton gave his report, with nothing out of the ordinary, except that a crewman had passed out in one of the airlocks and a replacement had been sent. Atherton checked the man and sent him to his quarters. Christine thanked him.

As an afterthought, Atherton turned to say, "Both Commander Decker and Commander Spock's perscans are turned off." Christine nodded and he continued on toward the lounge. Something was off somewhere, but she couldn't put her finger on it. McCoy was troubled too. She'd turned off Decker's perscan herself, but Spock's? Maybe he'd changed and forgotten to reactivate it. Something was wrong.

Christine fed Spock's identity code into the computer. The screen readout stunned her and she quickly rechecked the data. The same readout appeared: Spock was not aboard the Enterprise. Christine and McCoy looked at one another. McCoy hit the intercom button.

"McCoy to bridge -- Jim?"

"Yes, Bones."

"Spock's not on the ship."

"I know. He's out there. He set the library computer to record and slipped out in a thruster suit. He's trying to make some kind of contact with the intruder."

Christine felt ill and sat down on the high stool. The airlock. The crewman. Of course, it all made sense now, even the perscan device being inactive. Oh, Spock, why? A cold chill ran through her.

McCoy was as distraught. "That thing has been crushing our messenger drones for hours. What makes Spock think he'll be treated any differently?"

Kirk's voice came back to him, full of tension. "He's still recording. So far, he's all right. He said it's a life form, a machine being, and we're inside of it... We have his heading. Bones, I'm going out after him."

Christine felt a flood of relief and then a stab of fear, almost simultaneously.

McCoy's face showed his shock and disbelief. "Jim! You're as crazy as he is! You'll both be--"

"Kirk out," he snapped. The discussion was over.

Christine was stunned. Will, then Spock, now Kirk. It was a nightmare she couldn't seem to escape.

"Damn fools! All of them. They're all crazy!" McCoy ranted.

The minutes ticked away. Kirk's perscan inactivated and the computer listed him no longer aboard the ship. He was out there; both of them were at the mercy of the giant life form. The question now was, did the machine have any sense of mercy?

The sickbay crew gathered around the two physicians. The conversation between the bridge and the sickbay had been an open one and the possibility of losing their captain and science officer hung heavily over them.

Consumed by the need to know, McCoy went to the bridge. He listened with the bridge crew to Spock's voice, their faces showing astonishment and worry as he described each thing he saw. McCoy watched them, knowing that any of them would give their lives to protect the man on the other end of the communication they heard. Just as he was out there trying to save theirs. He gave a wry half smile to no one specific at the realization that Spock's absence from their lives had changed none of their feelings toward him; they still loved him. Just like he did. As the time passed, Spock's voice spilled into the silence and into the memory of the computer banks, until it became clear that he intended to meld with what he felt was the essence of the being that enveloped him, a being that seemed to be a giant vacuum.

McCoy braced himself at the bridge rail for what he was sure would be the death of his friend. He heard Spock's scream. The sound of it wrenched into him with a force beyond belief. He had to make himself breathe again.

Uhura was still trying to make contact. "Mr. Spock. Do you read me?" She paused. "Do you read me? Spock, come in. Make a noise, Spock, anything. Do you read me?" She looked up at McCoy and kept trying.

McCoy found himself feeling grateful that both Jim and Christine had been sheltered from that sound, each in their own compartment in the nightmare unfolding. The echo of Spock's agonized scream lasted in his ears.

"Spock, come in, Spock." At long last, Uhura turned her attention to raising the captain.

The crew was stoney. They had just heard the death of a friend. Now they listened as Uhura contacted their captain.

"Captain?"

"Yes, Uhura." Their faces showed their relief amid their pain.

"Captain, we've lost contact with Mr. Spock." There was a silence and then he answered.

"What was your last word from him?"

The crew looked to Uhura, none of them envied the communications officer at that moment.

"Captain," she began gently. "Our last transmission from Mr. Spock was -- a scream, sir." There was a long silence. "Im sorry, Jim," she said quietly, her voice cracking with emotion. The silence lasted several more moments, and then a broken, shaky voice came through.

"Thank you, Uhura. Keep trying."

"Aye, sir." Tears streamed down her face, but she tried again.

The crew was totally defeated. McCoy tried to think of something to say, but could only think of Chris. He was going to have to tell her, somehow.

The turbolift opened and Decker walked out, the probe cold and mechanical behind him. He looked grey and shaky as he came to the communications console.

"Put me through to the captain."

"Aye, sir." She maneuvered the panel. "Through now."

"Jim, hold your position. Spock is being sent back to us."

"What?" Kirk's voice snapped, tired, irritable.

"Information from Vejur through the probe," Decker explained. He turned to McCoy. "Doctor, get an emergency team down to the airlock. Spock will be needing immediate attention."

McCoy thought his heart would burst. Spock was alive! He had to get to sickbay as fast as possible. He'd only have to tell Chris that Spock was injured. A lesser of two evils, certainly, but not dead!

Word of Spock's loss had preceded him somehow. Chris was pale, blank, but was continuing her surveillance of the bridge crew. Several of the techs were in tears.

"He's still alive, folks!" he called joyously. "Spock's still alive!" He came to Christine and watched as the blue eyes spilled the tears that had been welling there. "They're bringing him in. He's going to need treatment."

Christine snapped into command, facing the now exuberant crew. "Okay, Atherton, McCoy, Adams, Murphy and Janasson. Let's go. Take the Peirson and the Gaumdeck, Murphy -- cabinet 7 and the drug case under the light frame. Adams, get the stretcher -- no, make that two. Muldoon, you're in charge." They were on their way in less than a minute's time.

McCoy admired her sense of organization and her authority over her crew. He smiled as he walked. The sickbay was in good hands, he found himself thinking again. He also smiled at the fact that until now he had not realized something. It came strangely to him that she had ordered him, and that he had obeyed. He almost laughed.

They entered Airlock #4 with the equipment. A security team waited to admit the two men from the frozen outside. They could hear the outer door open and close. It seemed an interminably long wait before the inner door opened to allow them access. As the large door opened, Christine saw Kirk sitting on the floor with Spock's head and shoulders cradled in his arms. Kirk looked up at them with a tortured face. Christine felt tears sting her eyes at the sight of the two men, and at the realization of the love Kirk had for Spock. She felt an instant depth of identity with Kirk.

She made her way to them quickly and eased back Spock's helmet. His breath was incredibly shallow and rapid, his skin was cool and clammy, and his pupils didn't react to light. Kirk searched her face. She checked the oxygen from the helmet it was working. She checked Spock's airway -- it was clear. Kirk couldn't contain hiis questions any longer.

"Christine?" he asked, a plea for information.

"I can't tell yet," she answered, not taking her eyes from Spock. She eased the helmet down and raised the oxygen level, then stood.

"Get him on the stretcher. Janasson, keep his head and shoulders level."

"Watch his back," McCoy urged as they moved him to the stretcher. He reached down to take Kirk's hand.

"Let's get him to Sickbay," Christine said, standing back.

Jim took McCoy's hand and let himself pull on it heavily to stand. They all moved quickly to Sickbay.

The emergency team entered the Sickbay with Kirk and McCoy only a few steps behind them.

As they transferred Spock to the body-scan table and cut away the thruster suit, Christine continued to monitor his vital signs. His heart was erratic -- first racing and then stopping, skipping, and racing again. His blood pressure was dangerously low, even for Spock. Finally, the suit cut away to the undersuit. Christine activated the table.

McCoy stood beside her. The table reflected Spock's internal organs on the wall screen. She removed the helmet and positioned a sickbay oxygen flow over his head.

"So that's what he looks like in there," McCoy breathed quietly. Christine forced a smile.

Her eyes went over Spock's body carefully. There were signs of some tissue trauma, but nothing beyond bruising. No lacerations, no punctures, no ruptures.

"See anything abnormal?" she asked McCoy.

"No, maybe some swelling here," he said, indicating the area on the screen. "Besides that, only bruising."

"That's all I see, too." Christine began to scan his head carefully. "Here's some damage. Damn! More here. Pressure--" She felt the back of his head, finding a large contusion. "Adams, get a pack on this."

She continued to examine his head and neck. "He should be coming out of it by now. There's not enough physical damage to cause this," she remarked to McCoy, and then turned her attention back to Spock. "Don't you dare give up on us, Spock," she said to the unconscious figure. "C'mon, Spock, work at it. Wake up."

McCoy stared at the screen. "Neurological trauma -- it has to be. There's no other explanation," he said.

"Maybe so -- look here, some seepage, very little, though. Why would--" She stopped short, her inner alarm rang. Something--

A tremor ran down Spock's face, his hand twitched, and then he was in full seizure. Christine's breath caught. Kirk went white.

"Shit," she intoned in a harsh whisper. "Why?"

Her mind raced over all she knew, and she couldn't piece together why this was happening. There was so much that could go on in a brain, and so little was known about it. The convulsions should be stopping now. But they weren't.

McCoy, Kirk, Adams and Janasson flanked the sides of the table, keeping him from falling. And still the seizure went on. The stress to his body at this point, his heart, his nervous system, was too great. She had to stop it. It couldn't wait. McCoy concurred.

"Anatraxcillate?" he asked.

"No. Not with his heart this erratic," she answered. It suddenly struck her that she was totally responsible for this decision. It was hers to make, not McCoy's, hers alone -- she was the expert here.

She was certain that there were no serious physical problems, and that electrical impulses in the brain were what caused seizures. But she didn't know what else was going on in that magnificent organ, electrically, chemically, or psychically, or even if the meld had changed Spock's brain structure in some way. And she didn't know whether her treatments would help him or kill him.

Her mind drew a total blank for a second. Two seconds. She took a step back from the table. This was Spock. She loved this man, and she couldn't treat him; she could not accept this responsibility. Her mind was awash with shock.

"Chris. Relax. Take a deep breath." It was Leonard, the father, the teacher, the friend. She took the breath.

"I don't know what it's done to him. I could kill him," she said, and looked up at them. A tear rolled down her cheek and Kirk brushed it away.

"Go," he whispered. She gasped a breath and nodded, clearing her mind. The thoughts began to flow again.

"Thirty cc's of Trecarthalate." Murphy filled the hypo and she injected it. Thirty seconds passed and there was no change.

"Twenty more." This time after she injected it there was a gradual lessening of the spasms. Spock's body came to a rest, his vital signs began to stabilize.

"Fifteen cc's Biadron -- cardiac syringe." McCoy looked att her, concerned. Murphy handed her the filled syringe.

As she had feared, his vital signs began to drop again, and his respiration slowed to all but nothing. His heart stopped, beat twice, and stopped again. She looked up at McCoy, and then to the syringe in her hand.

The syringe was of a style unchanged for centuries, still the most effective way to inject the heart muscle. Christine felt the area, looked at the screen, and nodded to Atherton, who ran the sonar sterilizer over the area to disinfect it. She slid the needle into the skin and down into the muscle, between the ribs and into the heart. Murphy wiped her forehead and she realized that there was sweat rolling down her sides. She pulled the plunger back to assure positioning, and then depressed it slowly. She pulled the needle out and Atherton ran the sterilizer over the area again. They watched the screen.

The heartbeat began again, first irregularly, and then the rhythm stabilized. Spock's respiration deepened and slowed. His blood pressure raised into just above the normal range. Long moments passed.

The swelling on his head ceased. His skin began to feel right again, very warm, and normally moist for Spock. His pupils were equal and reactive. He began to show signs of normal sleep as opposed to the depth of unconsciousness he had previously shown.

Christine breathed a sigh of relief, and McCoy put an arm around her and hugged her. More sweat rolled down her sides, and she received a grin from Kirk, which she returned, despite her exhaustion.

"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," Christine said to her emergency team. "Well done." They smiled, exchanged a few words before dispersing to their own areas. The rest of Sickbay broke into quiet pandemonium at their appearance with the good news.

Kirk went to the intercom. "Uhura, he's okay."

"Thank you, sir." The relief in her voice was apparent.

Christine reached out a hand and laid it against Spock's face. It was a personal gesture more than a medical one, but she checked his pupils again to conceal it from Kirk. Her own heart began to stop pounding so and she reflected on what it would have done to her to lose him on her table.

She continued to stare at Spock. It would be her only chance now, with him unconscious. In a short while his eyes would open and the wall between them would be there again. She adjusted the hood of the undersuit to a more comfortable position under his neck. She saw McCoy drawing Kirk away to change from the thruster suit into a fresh uniform.

Alone with him, Christine wiped the sweat from Spock's forehead with her hand and wiped it on the undersuit, then stroked his cheek lovingly, noticing that her hand was trembling. Her eyes filled with tears. She was so glad he was alive. If she had nothing more than this moment, it would be enough. He was alive.

Professional instinct told her that he was about to wake, and she withdrew her hand, wiped her eyes, and took a deep breath as she saw Kirk and McCoy re-enter the room.

As he drew closer to consciousness, Spock's face maintained the restful look of semi-consciousness, and Christine became concerned again. This was not like Spock. In the past, the first signs of any consciousness were accompanied by a tensing and a re-evaluation of time and place and self; the pressures of self-discipline were always with him.

Still, he was coming around -- and remaining nearly relaxed. His eyes remained closed, but a smile formed on his lips, then a laugh bubbled from him. Christine held her breath as Kirk and McCoy came to the table. Spock's eyes opened and looking straight ahead, he laughed again, a warm, free laugh, as if he'd just thought of something funny.

Christine panicked. There was not enough trauma to cause any lack of lucidity. What was wrong? Was this Spock? Or had someone invaded his body? It had happened before. Brain damage? Loss of sanity? She was petrified, not daring to breathe.

As Kirk leaned over him, Spock seemed to register total recognition. Christine breathed again, it was a good sign.

"Jim." It was Spock. His voice was calm, relaxed, even affectionate. Christine continued to look at him with surprise and concern. Spock grasped Kirk's arm and then groped for his hand. It was a strange and emotional moment for McCoy and Christine.

Jim moved his hand to Spock's and felt Spock grasp it firmly, openly reaching for affection and reassurance. Kirk smiled at him and covered Spock's hand with his other hand. -- Yes, Spock, it's okay, I'm here. -- The words were unspoken, and yet unmistakable.

Christine was lost in the emotion of the moment. Spock was alert, lucid, and somehow free for the moment of the pressures that ruled his existence.

She heard him speaking now, his voice weak with exhaustion. She directed the oxygen flow a little closer to him.

"Vejur" was alive, he was saying, a living machine, complete and independent. It was a conscious entity, sure that only machines were true life forms, and that they, the carbon units, were pests of sorts infesting and harming the true life forms. It had all knowledge, but was searching for answers, a universe of knowledge, and yet barren.

"Logic without need is sterile," she heard him saying.

Christine saw the wonderment of discovery in his face, and felt pangs of relief and pain inside. Did he realize what he was saying? Was he really seeing the futility of life without deliberate emotional give and take?

Spock continued to speak, less labored now. His body was beginning to rest from its ordeal, his mind reassured of the acceptance of his surroundings. He tightened his grip on Kirk's hand.

"Feeling, Jim. Vejur cannot feel. No awe, no beauty, no joy. It's closed off within itself, and it's haunted by unanswered questions. It knows all and yet it knows nothing." He drifted to sleep, the exhaustion overcoming him.

"Unanswered questions? What questions?" Kirk roused him over McCoy's protests. "Spock! What questions?"

Spock opened his eyes and answered. "Is this all I am? Is there no more?"

His eyes were on Jim's face. There was a bond there, silently. There was love given and received -- open, freely, unashamed. Spock's own questions of a lifetime were just beginning to be answered. Christine smiled to herself and caught her breath quietly.

Still exhausted, Spock closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.

The intercom came on.

"Bridge to Captain." Uhura's voice was tense, but steady. Kirk reluctantly left Spock and came to the intercom console.

"Kirk here," he answered.

"Captain, now picking up Starfleet. Intruder is on their inner monitors, decelerating, cloud power field dissipating rapidly."

Kirk stood at the console. He put his hands flat on the table and hung his head for a moment in thought. Sulu's voice intruded.

"Captain."

"Yes, Sulu," he answered, his head still down.

"Starfleet reports show us seven minutes from Earth orbit."

"I'll be right there."

His head came up. The decision was made. He turned, devoid of any personal concern.

"I need Spock on the bridge," he announced flatly. It was not a request.

"Yes, sir," Christine answered quietly, matter-of-factly. There was no point in arguing. Jim didn't need that from her now.

His face showed relief as he realized her intent to comply without argument. McCoy was also silent.

The physicians knew he greatly valued this display of loyalty and professionalism and they watched as their silent support of him bouyed him up on his way to the bridge.

Christine went to the intercom and pressed the code for the Airlock Security station.

"Sickbay to Airlock Security. Have someone bring Mr. Spocks clothing to Sickbay immediately. Priority One."

Christine looked at McCoy, and said what every military doctor since the beginning of time has expressed in similar circumstances. "So we stand him up so he can fall again." McCoy looked back at her and their eyes met in a shared frustration.

She walked to the drug cabinet and prepared an injection as McCoy met the Security man bringing Spock's uniform, and laid it over the intercom console. Spock's respite had been short five minutes at most.

Christine looked at him and then at Leonard. Promise me you'll stay with him every minute. I couldn't bear to lose him now." Her eyes were filled with the tears that seemed to be her constant companion this day.

"I will, Chris, I promise." His own eyes were none too dry. Looking at Spock lying peacefully on the table, she started to touch his cloth covered arm to wake him, but did not. She placed her hand against the hollow at the side of his neck and rubbed his jaw with her thumb, not caring if McCoy saw.

"Spock," she called gently.

His eyes opened and she smiled at him. He was puzzled at her open affection, and for once she didn't care. She removed her hand.

"I'm going to have to give you a stimulant to get you on your feet. You're needed on the bridge."

He began to sit up and she eased him back into a lying position. He allowed it; he was shaking, his muscles tired.

"Let me give the injection, then wait for it to take hold before you sit up." He nodded and looked at the ceiling. Christine gave the injection. "Give it about a minute and a half."

He was still staring at the ceiling -- avoiding her face, she knew. McCoy came to the other side of the table.

"Good to have you back, Spock," said McCoy. Spock looked at him.

"I was quite sure I would not be back, Doctor. It was indeed an enigma to awaken here."

McCoy eyes him. "You expected to awaken somewhere else then?" he asked, opening a long-running theological pot of worms.

Spock surveyed McCoy calmly and replied, "I had no expectations of any type, Doctor. I merely express my surprise at waking, if I were to wake, here and not inside the Vejur orifice where I was when I lost consciousness."

McCoy began to speak, but was interrupted by Christine, grinning.

"Gentlemen, please. Mr. Spock, the stimulant is at its optimum now."

He sat up with help, but he was extremely pale. His hand went to the lump at the back of his head.

"You're going to have a headache for a while. You have some internal bruising, a very slight amount of tissue damage to the brain, mainly in the motor areas, which you may not even notice, and a little seepage in the occipital area -- you may have some blurred vision which will most likely clear. There are signs of neurological trauma, but all in all youre in remarkably good shape for what youve been through."

The rundown to Spock of his physical condition had taken only a few seconds but seemed to free him of some concern. McCoy steadied him as he came off the table and motioned him into an examining room to change.

Less than ten minutes from the time Kirk left the sickbay, McCoy and Spock entered the bridge, McCoy hanging close to the slightly gaunt dark figure. Greetings met the two and Spock inclined his head in acknowledgment of them as he settled in his seat at the library computer.

From his own seat, Kirk watched his science officer and friend ease into his seat with a relief that only those close to him would have seen. The humanness in Kirk felt guilt over having called Spock to duty when he knew the Vulcan was not up to the strain, but the man at the library computer was already all "officer" and processing information -- and the "officer" in Kirk shoved down his personal feelings and turned back to the front screen. They both had jobs to do, duties to perform; they were both dispensable cogs in the machinery of their responsibilities.

* * *

 

In the Sickbay Christine was checking the bridge crew perscan readings. They were all under stress, but all were coping fairly well. Decker's perscan device was still inactivated and she contacted him via the science station.

"Mr. Spock, will you ask Commander Decker to reactivate his perscan device?"

"Mr. Decker," she heard Spock's voice say, "Sickbay requests that your perscan device be reactivated." The readout flashed on the screen of the F438.

"Thank you, Sickbay out," she answered, and cut the line.

Decker was in poor shape. There must have been some amount of mind sharing with the probe, Christine thought. Nothing else would have accounted for the distress and misery that Will was experiencing. Had there been anything of Ilia left, or had Decker only made love to Ilia's body with Vejur's mind? And, had there been any progress in understanding? There was a sudden rocking of the ship. Evidently not.

The stress factor on the bridge was rising to an explosive level. Neuromuscular readings were all now well above normal. Spock was in no small amount of pain, she guessed, from the head injury and soreness combined with the heavy rocking of the ship.

Once again the ship shook violently. Christine had visions of something shaking the ship as if to rattle loose change from it. People were thrown, the shaking stopped, only to begin again a moment later. Whatever Vejur was, it was angry. At least the fight to stay on one's feet limited the time to be fearful. Another heave shook them, and this time the lights dimmed and flickered. Christine was thrown against the console, badly bruising her hip.

As the ship swayed to a halt, they waited for more turbulence, holding firmly to stationery objects -- but for the time being, it was quiet. Out of the stillness came the familiar tug again, and Christine lowered her head and swallowed the bitter bile taste of fear.

Almost as a blessing, damage reports took her attention in the next few moments and she sent a medical team to Deck Eight. A yeoman came in with a hand laceration. Others came in and were treated, then left. By the time her patients were cared for, the fear was under control and she reached to check on the bridge crew perscans. She was relieved to find that with the quieting of the ship, Spock was having less pain. Decker was worse, though -- uncomfortable, fatigued, groggy-headed, tense, and in pain. He was in no shape to be on duty, but she couldn't deprive him of these last hours of service.

DiFalco was doing well, so was Uhura, better in fact than some of the men. Christine enjoyed a little smile of pride. Women, as always, held up well under stress.

She was worried at Kirk's neuromuscular reading. It bordered on being grounds for pulling him, but there was no question of doing so. It was one of those times when all she could do was watch and worry. Women were good at that too, unfortunately.

"Bridge to Sickbay -- Christine?"

"Yes, Uhura."

"Doctor McCoy asked me to tell you that he, the captain, Mr. Spock, and Mr. Decker will be leaving the ship with the probe to communicate with Vejur. We're at its center now, and the probe seems willing to lead them there." She spoke softly in relaying the message.

"I'll just bet it does," Christine said in disgust. "Thanks, Uhura. Sickbay out."

Christine fought with herself for a moment and then grabbed a medical kit. After all, she was Decker's physician, and Decker needed medical attention.

"Atherton, you're in charge. I'll be on perscan alert if you need me." She fed McCoy's identity code into the computer to locate them and left.

 

* * *

 

Kirk could see pain in Decker as he walked, the probe leading on. It bothered him to know that this fine young officer was dying. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. When there was nothing else to do, you just kept going.

Chapel appeared out of nowhere, much as she had in the corridor outside of the rec deck, and she went to Decker.

"Sir," she nodded, taking the jacket he was holding from his arms.

Will smiled. Kirk knew the feeling, the knowing that a certain someone would be there for you when it got rough. Christine was that to Decker, and he was glad that Decker had her comfort.

She drew him aside as they walked, and Kirk hurried McCoy and Spock ahead, trying vainly to give them some privacy. The probe, single-minded now in its leading, was oblivious to Decker's dropping behind.

Kirk found, as hard as he tried, he could not block their conversation from his awareness.

"What happened, Will? Was there any of Ilia there?" she asked.

"Yes and no." His voice was low, but still it carried to Kirk. "Ilia's consciousness is trapped inside the probe. We began to make love and she was there, the same Ilia, but trapped -- and," his voice broke, "so scared. She was fighting it, we both were I thought we were making it, that she was breaking free, but then Vejur took control, threw me from her, and she was like -- like that."

"I'm sorry, Will. I had hoped it would be good for you. Was there anything useful from Vejur?" There was silence.

"Nothing. Not a damn thing," came Will's disgusted reply.

"I'm going to give you a couple of hypos, Will." There was a pause. "This will ease the pain some." Silence. "And this should, I hope, bring you down some, sexually. It's bad, isn't it?" Kirk heard no reply.

They reached their destination, a maintenance lift shaft. Kirk watched as Christine settled Decker on a ledge and proceeded to help him put on the jacket. The sight touched Kirk. It reminded him of a woman dressing a small child. Decker was visibly exhausted and in pain and he accepted being fussed over. He looked away. Spock and McCoy were deep in conversation as they put on their jackets and he was still forced by the close proximity of their surroundings to overhear their conversation -- to see from the corner of his vision, their actions. Christine fastened the jacket and leaned to him. "I had looked forward to serving with you, Captain." Will smiled and Kirk knew that they were both aware of the unspoken truth, that Will Decker was dying. Even if the Vejur problem was solved, Will would die.

Decker allowed himself to use Christine's strength to rise to his feet. "And I with you, Doctor." He reached a hand out and clasped the side of her head to his firmly for a moment and then released her, giving her shoulder a firm squeeze with his hand. Kirk wished with everything that was in him that he could be somewhere else. He was the intruder here. And he didn't know how to handle the things that he was feeling.

Christine felt Will's hand trail away from her shoulder and steeled herself against crushing him to her. They were officers doing a duty here. And he was a man standing beside his peers. She would not do that to him. Instead, she clenched her jaw harder, blinked back her tears, took a deep breath, and straightened her shoulders. He had so much to offer, she thought. And he'd had so little time to give it. It was such a waste.

The others were ready, now, and Decker rotated his head, trying to relieve the pain and pressure. Christine ran her scanner over him. The pain was less, but the sexual stimulation was still very high. They stepped onto the platform that was barely large enough for the four men and the probe. Christine stood her ground, her throat aching, and watched them. The probe was still mechanical, standing very near to Will in the cramped space.

Decker spoke to Christine. "Will you give Scotty a message for me? Tell him I said he's one damned fine engineer, and that I respect him greatly." She found a smile for him and he gave her a tired grin. Once again, Christine's eyes threatened to overflow. So this is what they were reduced to. To giving these silent gifts of support to one another across a gulf of space. No time to face a future of duty and friendship together; no touch; no time to realize the dreams they had held in keeping for one another; no time to stand up to the imagined trials and terrors and pitfalls that they had prepared for. Now, there was only holding together for him. His grin was given to her. Both of their duties to perform to excellence to honor one another. Damn.

She realized Spock's eyes were on her and she glanced at him, returning the solemnity of his look, but then looked back at Will, back to the last remaining moments of a relationship that experts -- and the two of them -- had intended to last the length of two careers. The tears blurring her vision, she swallowed and spoke. "Good luck." She met eyes with each of them as Kirk activated the lift and it rose and disappeared.

Christine stared at the void where they had been for a long time after hearing it mate with the airlock device above them. McCoy, Spock, Decker and Kirk were the four most important people in her life right now. Will was dying, she would never see him again. The others might die as well.

She suddenly felt very alone in the large ship. She needed to be with someone, and there was no one left to go to.

Scotty. Will's message. There was sickbay to attend, as well. But Will's message had priority in her heart. She started toward Engineering. Sickbay would have to do without her for a few more minutes. She shoved her guilt about not going straight to the sickbay to the back of her mind and continued on to Engineering.

* * *

 

Engineering was quiet. Scotty was leaning back in his chair at the main console.

"Hi, Scotty," she said as he looked up.

"Hi, yourself, Lass. What are ye doin' down 'ere?"

His expression went from surprise to concern as he rose and moved to her. "An' lookin' so lost." He ushered her to a chair beside his and sat again.

"They went to talk to Vejur."

"Aye -- I was told." He sounded as confident about the situation as she felt.

"Mind if I stay here a few minutes? We're on a self-destruct, aren't we?" she asked, though certain of the answer.

"Aye. In just about eleven more minutes. You're welcome to stay." He forced a tired grin. They were about to blow his pride and joy out of the sky, and he was smiling for her. She smiled back, then remembered Will's message.

"Will had a message for you before he left. He asked me to tell you, and I quote, Tell him he's one damn fine engineer, and I respect him greatly, end quote."

Scott's moustache snuggled down on his upper lip as he looked at the floor. Finally he looked up, concerned.

"It's no' like the lad to be so negative -- so defeated."

Christine chose her words with care. "Will had been in love with Ilia since he'd known her on Delta IV. Several hours ago, Will made love with the probe to try to make contact with either some remnant of Ilia or with Vejur itself."

Scott's eyes flew to hers, shocked. She continued. "He did reach Ilia. He said her consciousness is trapped in the probe. He was sharing consciousness with her, both of them trying to fight Vejur's dominance, when it took control, pushed him from her, and the probe became completely mechanical. It never showed any sign of Ilia again."

Scott was looking at the floor again. "Poor laddie ... poor laddie," he repeated, then looked up at her. "Then he's nae doin' so well now, aye?" Christine hurt for the look she saw in the Scotsman's face; she knew Will was like a son to Scotty.

"No," she said softly. "He's dying, deteriorating rapidly. I gave him a couple of hypos to ease him through it, but he's losing ground very quickly." Scott shook his head and looked down again.

"Such a fine young lad," he said quietly. Christine nodded.

"Kirk to Scott," Scotty jumped to answer.

"Aye, Captain."

"Move up two-zero-zero-five directive one minute. Repeat, one minute."

"Aye, Cap'n." He maneuvered the controls. "Four minutes, thirty two seconds -- mark." His voice was flat.

Christine and Scott looked at one another. She needed to go to the sickbay now, needed to be there at the end.

"Looks like we're all going," Christine smiled wryly.

"Aye." Scotty patted the panel, lovingly, and smiled. "She'll blow a hole the universe will not soon forget." There was a pride in him of his lady, even in this.

Christine rose and touched the Scotsman's shoulder.

"Aye, Scotty, tha' she will," she answered in his brogue, and headed towards the door.

The computer announced the self-destruct order in four minutes, along with the captain's recorded voice announcement. But it was Will Decker's voice; the recording had not been replaced in the sudden change of command. Christine sat heavily in a chair. Why hadn't Sulu caught it? It was his announcement to make, he must have the conn.

"This is a recorded message from your captain, Willard Decker," it began. Christine's composure gave way and the tears began trickle down her cheeks. Scotty took her hands in his; he too, was nearly overcome. Will's calm clear young voice continued over the intercom.

"The fact that you're hearing this recording means that I am somehow unable to address you personally. The Enterprise will shortly self-destruct. This is a command for which I alone take responsibility. In these few remaining moments, I would like to thank each one of you and commend you on your dedication and loyalty to your mission, to Starfleet, and to myself. May I remind you that our mission has been to seek out and promote life -- and the quality of that life -- and that our loss here will benefit and enrich that life which we leave to our survivors. Again, I thank you, and I give you my respect and admiration and commendation for your jobs well done. Have courage, my friends. Captain Decker out."

Christine was consumed with the pain of it. "Oh, Will." To have heard his voice like that was agonizing. She shook herself back to reality. Precious moments were wasting. She had to get to Sickbay for her crew, for Will. She began to rise again, and then saw Scotty's face, a portrait of grief. She reached out and hugged him briefly, knowing it was all his composure would stand.

"Scotty," she said, sharing his pain as well.

He cleared his throat and became the gallant dragon-slaying Scotsman of the ancient lore for her, and for himself.

"Ye never DID get tha' bloody Vulcan, did ye?" he accused.

Christine laughed. "No. I didn't. And you never got that rare bottle of Scotch Sulu promised you for getting out of Nyla 3 orbit."

"NAE! You're right! I dinna!" he answered. He'd forgotten. The laughter through the tears sufficed and she rose to make hasty steps to the door and Sickbay.

"Gotta git, Scotty. I love you," she called over her shoulder. She would have just enough time to be there.

"Scotty--" It was Kirk, out of breath and running. Scott whirled. Christine inadvertently froze.

"Aye, sir!" Scotty replied.

"Abort, Scotty!" Kirk gasped.

"AYE, CAPTAIN" Scotty whooped and began touching controls and flipping switches.

Christine let out a shriek of joy and ran to Scotty to grab him as he turned to her. They jumped and danced and hollered, pounding each other on the back, and Scotty turned to touch his precious control panel.

"You're safe, darlin'," he breathed, and then gave the panel a couple of slaps of joy and let out another yell, grabbing Christine up and swinging her around. The man was a conglomeration of joyous feeling.

Engineering was in pandemonium. The computer announced the news over an all-clear signal.

"Self-destruct aborted. Repeat, self-destruct aborted." The ship rocked gently and for one insane moment Christine considered that the cause might be the crew's rejoicing. She grinned at herself when she realized the idiocy of it. Still, the ship swayed like a bottle on a wave.

Scotty, the moment of joy now past, was on the line to the airlock.

"Are they in? Are they all right?" he was demanding.

"Three of them, sir," answered the airlock attendant, and Christine's heart skipped a beat. "The captain, Mr. Spock, and the doctor." A sick feeling battered at her stomach. Will's body; it was still out there. But it had to be that way, Christine told herself. Will was dead; they were alive -- it was only right. And still, her heart refused to decide its course of feeling. "The doctor and the captain passed out. Mr. Spock brought them in," the airlock attendant relayed. And Christine could smile at that. She could see it in her mind, Spock carrying them in like well-loved rag dolls. Of course, they had not been able to bring Will's body.

"They're on the way to the bridge, sir. They came to right away," he assured.

"Thank you. Scott out."

He turned to Christine, offering an arm grandly. "Shall we go up?

"Aye!" she answered and grabbed the arm. They broke into a trot at the turbolift. It wouldn't seem totally all right until Christine saw them.

As the turbolift doors opened Christine saw first Spock, McCoy and Kirk talking, and then the viewscreen. Once she had seen that screen, she could not look away. Here was the most spectacularly beautiful display of light and color she had ever seen. Colors, shapes, arcs of light moved and changed before her, and at the center of it all rose a glorious white pillar of glistening energy. It was brilliance beyond imagination.

McCoy came up behind her and Scott. "That's Will and Ilia going super-nova together," he said with the famous relaxed McCoy manner, "except that after this they won't burn out. Their consciousness will be the starting point of a sense of purpose for a planet of machine life."

Christine tore her eyes from the screen to look at him and saw the smile. He hadn't looked away from the screen.

"Oh, it was his choice. You couldn't have dragged him away," McCoy assured her. Her eyes gravitated back to the screen and McCoy continued to talk. "He's going to be the father of a planet. A trifle more exciting than a mere starship captain, wouldn't you say?" He was trying to make it sound even better for her sake, and she knew it.

But Christine was thinking of only one thing: here, Will was dead, and there he was alive. He had Ilia, and Will -- beyond his individualistic side -- was truly taken with the idea of joy of oneness and what could be accomplished. Father of a planet. Director, instigator of ideas, protector of ideals -- it was a perfect life for him, so of course he had chosen it. She had always known -- from the first day she'd met him -- that he was destined for greatness. And now he was not alone, he had Ilia.

From the corner of her eye she could see Scotty beginning to smile. Machines were almost human to him as it was, and leaving a suitable caretaker for these poor lost bairns no doubt pleased him a bit. She wondered if he wouldn't have given his best bottle of scotch to go along for a while, He too, had to be aware that it was Will's only chance to survive.

McCoy was speaking again. "You see, we found at the center an old Earth probe called Voyager 6. Voyager -- Vejur. It was lost and evidently damaged."

The screen went too brilliant to look at for a moment, and then dimmed to its prior level.

"A machine planet adopted the probe, and repaired it so that it could continue its programming, 'learn all that is learnable, and report.' Somewhere along the way over the possibly three centuries, it had gained consciousness, but had no purpose beyond its programming. That's where Will and Ilia come in. Emotion, hope, purpose -- it had knowledge, but that wasn't enough."

"Bones," Kirk called, and McCoy moved to him, leaving Christine and Scott still watching the screen.

The screen flared again and then in its place was the beautiful star pattern of a normal orbit. As if on cue, a voice sounded. "Captain, we're in normal Earth orbit, sir."

It had come from young Janet DiFalco, a few strands of her dark hair falling across her face. She could not hide the flow of self-esteem she was feeling from the realization that she had come through the fire and done her job well. Kirk picked up on her pride in herself and flashed her a flirtatious smile. He was feeling pretty good about himself, too.

"Thank you, Ensign -- and welcome aboard."

At first she looked down and blushed in embarrassment. She was just now having the opportunity to notice how very attractive her new captain was.

"Thank you, sir." A mischievous smile touched her face and then she grinned back into the hazel eyes, very much sure of herself, even in his presence. "I think."

Kirk laughed. Everyone laughed. Even Spock released one of his "almost" smiles, as Christine called them.

It had been a rough start for Janet DiFalco, in her first active duty as a starship navigator. Will would not have chosen her had she not been good, and she had surely proven that a young woman coming from a military freighter background could handle the huge and powerful starship navigation.

Christine knew Jim Kirk well enough to know that by the end of the day he would have gone to her personally and commended her on her professionalism. He also would mention her by name, and note her performance in the log records.

He was known for his lavish support of his crew when they excelled in their given area of service. He had been known to commend maintenance personnel who fixed something in his quarters if it involved some personal sacrifice of time or the quality of service was exceptional. He was just that kind of captain, that kind of man.

Will would have been that kind of captain. "Will." It still hurt. She tried to remember that he was with Ilia and that helped a bit.

"All systems normal, sir," Scotty reported from his bridge station. Kirk went to his chair and settled in.

"Free at helm," Sulu added. Spock sought the respite of his station as well. Christine eyed him with a great amount of relief and love, but very briefly, not wanting him to feel watched or embarrassed in front of the others.

"Life support systems fully operational," the officer to his rear left reported.

"All fields fully operational from here, Captain," Chekov called.

"Interrogative from Starfleet, sir," said Uhura. "They're asking for damage loss and injury reports, and complete vessel status."

He looked at her. She looked beautiful -- tired -- exhausted, even, but the look of love for this woman he had worked with and depended on for so many years was plain on his face. He smiled at her and Christine knew by the tired smile she gave back that Uhura understood it all, unsaid unashamed, unadulterated by pretense. He loved her and she loved him. And they both knew it. They had a very special friendship, a loyalty, a trusting beyond sex or rank.

"List Engineering Kugel deceased. List Lieutenant Ilia and Captain Decker -- missing. Enterprise fully operational and undamaged," Kirk replied.

Christine thought of her sickbay door. It needed to be ordered from Starfleet shipyards.

"Aye, sir," Uhura answered. "They are also requesting that you beam down with your department heads for debriefing." Kirk looked dismayed. He slid down in his chair, feet out, elbows on the consoles of the chair, his hands together, fingers laced.

Christine began to speak. There was no way she was going to let Spock off the ship in his condition, and she would fight anyone -- ANYONE -- who dared to cross her on it. She almost opened her mouth, but then saw Kirk.

An adolescent smile came to his face, heavily coated with both glee and rebellion.

"Request denied," he said, smiling at private thoughts.

"Sir?" Uhura asked, sure she had misunderstood.

"You heard me. Answer 'request denied.'" The statement came cloaked in fake irritation.

"Aye, sir," she answered, smiling.

"Have them inform Admiral Nogura that I will notify him of any plans for the next seven days and make an appointment for our debriefing within the next hour."

"Aye, Sir." She was still smiling. Only James T. Kirk at this time and in this particular situation could get away with such a maneuver, and they all knew it. Most of all, he knew it. One of these days he was going to get his tail caught in the grinder over one of these brazen calculations of his own influence in a given situation, but it wasn't going to happen today.

Uhura was going to get an earful of Starfleet's outrage but Christine doubted that she minded a bit. It was worth it for the look on Jim's face.

Christine and McCoy leaked at each other. McCoy shrugged and a smile broke across his face. This was definitely defiance -- in fact, downright insubordination but there was nothing wrong with Jim's mind or stability.

She smiled for a long time. It was good to see Kirk so relaxed, in charge, with his vanity and ego soaring. He deserved it.

Starfleet had all the logs and records; every move that had been made was on records somewhere, somehow. The danger was past; nothing would change or transpire in seven days. Starfleet needed only their personal remembrances and impressions. True, they would be stale in seven days, but it didn't seem likely that this type of thing would occur again to utilize their reactions that closely.

Christine looked at Spock. He appeared amused. 'Appeared' wasn't exactly accurate, as his face couldn't really be said to betray any such emotion, but Christine felt the amusement nevertheless. She knew Spock enjoyed Kirk in these flamboyant moods, as much or maybe even more than the rest of them did.

Kirk turned to Scotty. "Aren't we due for a shakedown, Engineer?"

Scott beamed at the idea. "Aye, that we would be, sir." He turned to Spock. "Mr. Spock, we could have you back on Vulcan in say, four days."

Christine looked at Spock. He was thoughtful, but she could read no more from his expression.

"That will not be necessary, Mr. Scott," he answered. "My task on Vulcan is completed." He continued to look to the view of normal star patterns, an occasional flare, and blackness.

Christine looked away from him immediately. Her heart pounded. He was staying! She couldn't believe it! She struggled not to smile, but it was an overpowering urge.

Kirk touched the intercom button. "This is the Captain. Due to the extraordinary circumstances and stress of the last few days, we will be, in one hour, embarking for R and R at Starbase Six. Any of you who feel the need to return to your homes at this time may report to transporter room A within the next one half hour for beam down. Department heads will be needed one week from today for debriefing. You will be notified.

"This mission was entirely successful, the result of, in no small way, the extreme efficiency in which each of you performed your duties. Many of you will be remaining on Enterprise when she is reassigned. It will be my privilege to serve with such a fine crew. Captain James Kirk out."

Jim Kirk was a man fulfilled, a man at home, never planning to leave again. He was still slouched in his command chair, fingers absently tapping together, a smile playing on his lips in response to the private screening of events in his mind.

Sulu looked uncomfortable. Christine waited to see what would happen. Finally, he spoke.

"Captain?" He turned in his chair to face Kirk, his face a study in humility. Kirk picked up the look and trod gently.

"Yes, Sulu?" Kirk asked, sitting up again.

"Sir," he began, "when the four-minute warning came, I didn't catch the computer recording; it went on before I realized it."

Kirk was serious but not severe. He knew that he had made no recording, and therefore it had been Will Decker's recording that had played.

"Then did you cut it?" he asked. Sulu lowered his eyes and spoke softly.

"No, sir. I almost did." He paused and then looked up to Kirk for some sign of understanding. "But then Cap -- Mr. Decker was saying all the right things -- things I wouldn't have had the words to say." Kirk's face stayed unchanged.

Sulu hung his head again. I'm sorry, Captain. I know it was my responsibility. I had the conn."

Kirk took a breath, thinking, then began. "Mr. Sulu, it was your responsibility. And your failure to catch the tape was neglect."

The bridge was uncomfortable, though it was common procedure -- public violation, public reprimand -- but it was hard on everyone.

Kirk was calm and controlled as he continued; Sulu was quiet, repentant , miserable. In his years of service he had made very few lecturable errors, and this might turn into his first punishable one.

"However, the situation was strained, the error involved was not in any way life threatening, there was no disobedience to a direct order, and no lingering harm occurred." Sulu looked up slowly and Kirk smiled at him. Sulu breathed more easily, as did everyone else on the bridge.

Kirk spoke again. "Next time we are in a similar situation, Mr. Sulu, I will expect you to react in a more fitting manner."

"Yes, sir, Captain," Sulu answered in a low and relieved voice and nodded. The reprimand, such as it was, was over.

The bridge was quiet again, peaceful, the crew relaxed and nostalgic.

Scott was the first to break the mood of the moment.

"Well, sir, we'll be ready when you are." He turned to the turbolift.

"In about an hour and a half, Scotty," Kirk replied, shooting a grin to Scott which was returned in appropriate order.

"Aye, laddie." A proper engineer wouldn't have said it -- and a proper captain wouldn't have stood for being called 'laddie' in front of his crew, but right now the crew was more family than crew, and Scotty had been Jim Kirk's favorite 'Dutch uncle' for a long while. He chuckled as Scott disappeared into the turbolift.

McCoy went to Uhura's station and perched himself against the edge of her console. "Get personnel on the horn and tell them I want a complete turnover of the bridge crew in ninety minutes." He turned to the Captain. "Will that be enough time to get going and effect a watch change, Jim?"

Kirk looked somewhat crestfallen. "Sure, that's fine," he answered quietly.

McCoy noticed the mood change and came to him. "Of course, Captain, you're on your own." McCoy winked at him. "Just be sure youre relaxing." He leaned close to Jim's ear and said quietly, "Tension isn't good for growing boys." Jim shot him a look and then broke into a broad grin. All was right in his world.

Christine smiled. She'd barely heard the comment, and she loved the interaction between them. They were home again, all of them, for a time.

Christine walked to Spock's station. He was sitting, engrossed in a portion of what looked like ships' blueprints, on his viewer.

"Mr. Spock," she ventured calmly. He looked up at her from the viewer with one of his purposely blank looks. She returned the look with one of professionalism. "I need you to return to Sickbay."

He said nothing, and she continued. "I can promise you a half hour or more of the most boring and seemingly-inane tests you'll ever be privileged to experience."

He raised an eyebrow, and Christine smiled, enjoying him thoroughly now that he was back to his old stubborn self.

"C'mon, I really have to do a neurological series on you. I need it for the records."

At the mention of the records, he relented and looked to Kirk for permission. Kirk nodded, and Spock followed her to the turbolift.

As they entered the turbolift and began to descend, neither spoke. The quiet bothered Christine, but Spock seemed content with it. Christine had visions of a very long, very silent examination.

The neurological exam was not as quiet as she supposed; he did have to answer her questions -- though he offered no further conversation. More than anything she enjoyed the interaction with him that was now hers as his physician. For the first time she approached him in the capacity of a peer, an equal.

Reaching the sickbay, Christine and Spock entered, still silent. Christine looked around.

"Cell three, please."

Spock hesitated for only a moment, and Christine heard herself say softly, for his ears only, and with a smile, "Would you prefer a male tech to be present?"

"Quite unnecessary, Doctor," he stated in a cool voice and entered the designated room. The light rose and the door slid shut behind them.

Christine had to swallow a smile. This was proving to be fun. He proceeded to the end of the table, but she spoke, interrupting his action. "Let's try some stuff off the table first." She indicated the center of the floor area. He complied by coming to where she had indicated.

"Stand flat footed, feet together, and look straight ahead ... good. Now both hands, palm to palm straight out ... good. Close your eyes. Right hand as far to the right at chest level as is comfortable ... good. Back..." He responded. "Fine. Now the left, the same ... good. You can open your eyes." He did, with a small, poorly disguised grimace. She just smiled.

She made a few notes for a moment and then continued. "Okay, feet together again. Eyes closed. Hands above your head, palms together. Now go to your toes, slowly." He stumbled forward and opened his eyes, looking surprised.

"That's okay. Try it again." This time he did not stumble, but only with great effort. "Fine. Sit down a minute."

She indicated a chair and began to write. He seemed relieved to sit. She smiled at him, not looking up, and continued with her notations.

"Sore, aren't you?" she stated, and then before he could answer, she went on, "It's to be expected. The soreness will last, say six to ten days for the worst of it. Another couple of weeks before it's completely gone." He said nothing.

Christine went to the wall storage and opened it, bringing down two packages and proceeded to unwrap them. One was a container and the other was a blood sample kit. Spock watched her with that look patients always had when something was coming that they had not yet seen.

"Sorry, I'm going to need some blood and urine." She came beside him and knelt, pushing up his sleeve. He held it there as she drew the blood. She was happy with its color -- it indicated good oxygen intake -- and also with the temperature of his skin and the moisture level. His arm felt like normal Spock, though a slight tremor told her that he was still a little shaky.

She rose and marked the bottle, handing the other container to Spock.

"When you're through, put this in the receptacle." She pointed out the small cupboard. "The light will go on and I'll be back in."

He nodded and she left.

Outside the cell, she congratulated herself on her relaxed professional behavior. It was so good to be with him. The light went on as she handed the vial of blood to a young med-tech, enjoying the look on the girl's face as she took Spock's greenish blood in her hand.

"Take this and the urine specimen in slidehole three to the lab and have complete work-ups done according to -- here." She reached for a board. "According to Contrast set -- 36857 -- uh, A4O-Vulcan. Also check against A41." She wrote it down and handed it to the tech, who took another look at the vial in her hand and nodded. Christine smiled as the girl walked to the slidehole, sensing her curiosity at what she'd find there.

"It's yellow, Ensign," Christine ventured, and the girl blushed furiously. Christine laughed.

Re-entering the cell, she found Spock looking as if he were contemplating his chances of getting a short nap before she returned. He looked up as the door opened, and as she smiled at him again he looked away; but it didn't bother her anymore.

So, she thought, she was free of him after all. Not free of loving him. She probably loved him more in this minute than she ever had. But she was free of the fear of rejection, She had faced it, lived through it, and been found complete. She was a whole individual, and somehow he didn't seem so formidable. Or perhaps it was that she felt more worthy in herself.

She busied herself with her notes a moment longer to think.

It would hurt her not to be close to him, she would continue to want him, physically, emotionally, intellectually, but now there was this glorious feeling of being able to interact with him in his world without fear.

She had accepted him on his own terms for a long while. Now he would have to accept her on hers as well. If that meant being smiled at, or talked to, or enjoyed, well -- he'd just have to learn to cope. She almost chuckled at the thought.

She looked up from her notes again and walked to him.

"Okay. Just a few more exercises. I need you to stand again -- okay. Put your right heel to your left knee ... now your left heel to your right knee ... good. Shrug your shoulders."

He gave her a strange look.

"C'mon, I wouldn't ask it if I didn't need to see it ... good."

He was tired, and she felt bad having him do all of this. He was probably fine, needed sleep more than anything else.

"Just a couple more and you can sit again."

"I am fine standing," he offered defensively.

"Yeah, I'm sure you are," she answered, a little frustrated. "Please do a deep knee bend, keeping your back straight and your hands forward ... good. Now, touch your toes -- easy, watch your head."

She winced as he went down slowly. "Come up slow ... okay. Sorry. Sit down now." Her words were suddenly gentle and caring. If he heard it, he gave no indication, but neither did he argue about sitting down. It was either sit down or fall down. The great Vulcan reserves had come to an end. She had trouble remembering when she'd seen him more tired.

She looked at him, feeling more and more like the enemy. She began to consciously speed up the exam.

"Now, I'm going to hand you some things, and I want you, without looking, to name and fully describe them." She handed him a stylus.

"A writing stylus, the narrow gray type, six sided, a dent affecting one edge one quarter of the way from the non-writing end."

She smiled and handed him a rubber band.

"A rubber band. Medium size," he answered.

"And this?" She took the rubber band and handed him a wrapped object.

"Candy?"

"Yes. Without looking, what kind?"

"Mint," he answered quickly.

"Good." He smelled it.

"I'm going to stand behind you and make some noises, you tell me what they are."

"Knocking -- on the counter."

"Yes..."

"Friction -- something on the wall. Your hand?"

"Uh-huh, and this?"

"Paper crinkling."

She came in front of him again.

"Very good. Any nausea?" she asked as she wrote.

"Some. When I move quickly."

"Blurred vision?"

"Negative."

"No visual abnormalities?"

"None that I have detected," he answered.

She held her hand to his right, behind him.

"When can you see my hand?"

"Now."

She moved it in front of him and to the other side behind.

"And when does it disappear?"

"Now." She nodded at his answer.

"How many fingers?"

"Two. Four. Seven."

"Good." She took a printed brochure from a drawer. "Read this for me." He read a few lines. "Good," she answered, taking it from him.

"Spell rectangle."

"R-e-c-t-a-n-g-l-e."

"Bottle."

"B-o-t-t-l-e."

"Little."

"L-i-t-t-l-e."

"Count to twenty." He did. "Now to fifty by fives." He rattled off each thing correctly for a little over five minutes.

"We're getting there. I know it's boring," she offered.

"On the contrary. It's quite interesting," he said honestly.

"Well, I'm glad someone's enjoying it," she answered.

"I didn't say that I was enjoying it," he countered. "Only that it was interesting."

She broke into a smile and put her head down to hide it, and then realized she couldn't hide it from him, looked back to him and grinned.

"It's nice to have you home, Spock."

He gave her one of his best stoic looks, and she went on with the examination, shaking her head, the smile still there.

"I need to test your gag reflex and your sense of taste."

At the mention of the gag reflex, the stoic mask flickered with a touch of dismay.

"Let's get it over with," she said, handing him a tongue depressor, half unwrapped. "You do it." He paused and she turned her back. "Let me know if you gag."

It was a long few seconds before she heard his voice.

"Affirmative." She turned and took the tongue depressor from him. His eyes were watering, the area around his eyes green.

"Good." She opened an array of swabs, each presoaked in a different basic taste.

"I'm going to touch a different area of your tongue with each of these. You define the taste."

"Salty."

"Can you taste it here?" He nodded and she changed it. He nodded again. The same was done with sweet, sour, and bitter, with proper results. She ran some water in a paper cup and handed it to him. He took a swallow of water and handed it back to her to put on the counter.

She set it aside and produced an instrument from her pocket. "This won't hurt. Give me your hand and close your eyes."

He complied. She ran the edge of the instrument along the length of his palm. "Sharp or dull?"

"Dull ... sharp ... sharp ... dull ... sharp."

"Perfect."

She let go of his hand and he opened his eyes. "Now, all that's left is a basic physical exam and then I want to cruise over you on the body scan. Then we'll be done."

She checked his pupils, pulse, respiration, reflexes, ears, throat, lungs, heart, and blood pressure. She felt along his neck and shoulders. Everything was either normal or in a state to be expected given the circumstances.

"Everything looks good here," she said at the end of the physical exam. "Neurological went well. Let's go to the scanner room."

Spock came to his feet slowly and followed her from the examination cell into the scanner room. The large hole in the outer door was now covered with a piece of sheet metal.

"Lie down, please." He got onto the table slowly, and Christine turned the machine on.

There was no further swelling anywhere that she could see, no damage that they had not seen before.

"Turn to your left, please." She touched his back to help him move and he flinched.

"Goodness!" She lifted his uniform in back to reveal some large deep bruises. "Boy, something sure hit you -- or you hit it. I would imagine the same thing that caused the head injury." She paused. "You're going to have to let me look a little further. Can you loosen your pants for me?"

He did so with no hesitancy and she lowered the back to check for further bruising. There were similar bruises on his lower back and hips. "Okay. That's all."

He fastened his clothing.

"I'm going to need you on your other side." He turned slowly and painfully. "Good. Just another minute." She studied the wall display. "Take a deep breath. Okay. We're all done. You can sit up."

Watching him rise slowly, she wanted to help him, but reasoned that he was probably too sore to touch. When he was sitting, she continued.

"Let me check the lab work." She pressed a few panels on the room's computer console, and stood reading for a moment, then turned.

"You're in good shape. I want you to rest 'til we get to 'Six. On your back, in bed rest. Two hours a day up, maximum, to clean up, to go to the galleys etc. And no climbing on this leave -- maybe a little level backpacking if you feel up to it. Let me know if anything turns up out of the ordinary. Also be alert for any changes in your sense traits -- and try reading some Vulcan, something you don't know well, and see if you have any trouble with reading, writing, or comprehension there."

She paused, thinking. "Anything I should know that I haven't asked about?"

He rubbed his hands together. "My hands and wrists are slightly numb," he answered.

"Not surprising. I would guess that's temporary. Anything else?"

He thought and shook his head carefully as he got off the table.

"Okay." He headed to the door, and she spoke. "I didn't bite, did I?"

He turned half way toward her but didn't quite meet her eyes. "Cannibalism never entered my mind, Doctor," he stated, only half seriously. Christine smiled.

"Don't die on me too often, Spock, and you should be perfectly safe."

He said nothing, but walked out the door quickly. Christine giggled a little. How good it was to see him. Feelings of love for him welled up in her and she hurt a little inside, but mostly she was just glad to be near him again, and glad that he was alright. In the end the good feelings overwhelmed the bad.

She went to the intercom. "Sickbay to Captain."

"Yes, Doctor."

"I've finished my examination of Mr. Spock. He's fine, no real damage. He'll be on quarter's rest until we reach Starbase Six."

"Thank God," he breathed.

"Captain, she ventured quickly before he could end the conversation or change the subject.

"Yes?"

"I need you to come down for a check too. Dr. McCoy will need you for only fifteen minutes or so." There was a silence and she heard McCoy's voice in the background.

"You're surrounded, Jim. Give in."

"I'll be down later, after the watch change." He sounded defeated. Christine smiled.

"Thank you, Captain."

She turned off the intercom. The room seemed very quiet. She looked down at Spock's exam notes on her board and sighed, then walked to her office to log her report on him.

Fatigue fell heavily on her as she settled into her chair. She ordered a sandwich and began the paperwork she hated.

"Chris?" She touched the switch, opening the door, and McCoy entered. It slid closed.

"Mind if I join you?" he asked. She motioned to the chair and took the sandwich out of the food slot.

"I don't mind. I'm just logging Spock's exam. Have some?"

She offered him half of the sandwich, which he accepted.

"How'd you do?" he asked, eyeing her as he took a bite. Christine smiled.

"I did great. No problem at all. I enjoyed it."

McCoy looked skeptical. She continued.

"Oh, I can take his aloofness. That's just Spock. But that horrible wall he came on with is gone." She paused to reflect. "I can accept not having him, as long as he's here and back to himself. That's enough."

McCoy looked up from his sandwich at her, his face cynical. "Is it? Really?"

"Yes. For now. If it changes for me later, I'll have to deal with it then."

McCoy made a shrugging motion, and said with part of a mouthful of sandwich, "I think the fatigue has addled your brain."

Christine smiled at him, took another bite, chewed a moment, and answered.

"Maybe. I hope that's not the only explanation, though. I hope maybe I've done some maturing."

"You love the man, Christine. How can you 'mature' yourself into being near him and not 'with' him. It'll still tear you up. I KNOW you, Chris." He glanced at her, but she was studying her sandwich. "And, you're not going to have the distance you had before; you're going to spend a lot of hours together."

She looked at him thoughtfully. "I know. Maybe part of it is having learned not to let my self-worth rely on his reactions to me. But, no intelligent being can exist apart from the output of other beings. Spock is no exception. I need to continue to reach out to him. Not romantically, but just to reach, to relate. He needs that, even if he isn't able to admit it or to reach back. That's a part of loving him, Leonard, to loving anyone -- trying to make things easier for them, supplying some of their needs."

McCoy put the last of the sandwich into his mouth and chewed carefully. Finally, he spoke. "Chris. You're walking into a pit. It's an admirable thought, but you're biting off more than you can chew. More than any woman could." His frustration was evident.

"All I know is that I feel more comfortable with him than I ever have. I can actually enjoy him. I realize that may sound silly, but it's a real breakthrough for me." She smiled. "So far, it has him puzzled. After a while, he'll chalk it up to a flaw in my character and accept it."

"I hope you're right," he said, standing. He could see arguing was not going to change her mind. "You're not getting that done," he said, motioning to her notes. "I'll be back in a half hour to relieve you."

Christine shook her head. "No, you don't. I'm going to sack out in here. You can have the next watch if you like." McCoy began to protest, and she added, "I'm too hyper to sleep. I have to touch base with my crew, and besides -- somewhere along here your jurisdiction ends and mine begins, so don't argue."

He wasn't going to win this one, either, he could tell. She always had been stubborn.

"I had a jurisdiction? I hadn't noticed," he answered sarcastically.

"I'm sorry, Leonard," Christine said softly.

He smiled. "It's okay, Chris. Jim was my jurisdiction. I knew that. I'd like to see you get some rest, though. You've been through a lot these last few days."

"Haven't we all?" she asked, and then went on. "I really love it. It stretches me, makes me use all of myself. It's exhausting, but I feel like it's what I've always been looking for."

"I mean the thing with Spock," he interjected.

She examined the crust of bread. "It was just seeing him so closed off, so far away, that tore me up." She looked up. I wasn't very professional. I'm sorry."

He smiled at her. "I'm glad I was here for you." His face became serious. "What happens the next time something comes up? I won't always be here."

Christine played with the bread crust some more. "I've lived through his leaving, through three years without seeing him, through seeing him return, through almost losing him. I should be able to handle being his friend, if he'll let me."

There was a knock at the door, and McCoy's next argument was never heard. She pressed the door release. It was Kirk.

"May I come in? Or is this a private party?" he asked, smiling.

"C'mon in," Christine offered. "Can I order you a sandwich?" she asked, indicating the food slot.

"No," he said, sitting down heavily. "I'm planning to eat a big thick juicy steak, a baked potato, a salad, and some wine. As soon as Bones here gets going on that check-up." He grinned. "And then Scotty and I are going to do some heavy tearing around." The grin was the same boyish one he'd worn on the bridge.

Christine and McCoy exchanged looks and then broke into grins, and Christine laughed.

Jim looked at them, from one to the other. "What's so funny?" he asked.

"Nothing," replied McCoy. "Let's go get it over with, Jim-boy." The drawl and the loving look were nothing short of pecan pie and hickory smoke. Christine covered her mouth with a well-placed hand to avoid any further indiscretion.

"By the way," she called as they went through the door, "I need to do a run-down on you, Leonard, when you're through there." McCoy pulled a face and Kirk smiled, properly avenged.

* * *

 

When they were gone, she sat back and stared at the notes on her board. She hated dictating notes -- with a passion. She had done so much of it when she'd worked with Roger that she'd felt like her throat should have had an on-off switch.

Deciding that sitting procrastinating wasn't getting it done, she flipped the switch and continued the recording.

"--showing no signs of inner-cranial pressure other than the afore-mentioned area of the occipital lobe. Renshaw positive. Soliz within normal range..."

The work went on for twenty-five minutes. Finally, she ended with "patient in extremely fatigued state, have ordered bed rest for several days. Am prescribing Gentranin and pitale, maximum dosage on the Gentranin, minimum therapeutic on the Ritale, for supplementation to begin within twenty-four hours of this tape. Will follow-up as indicated. Dr. Christine Chapel recording."

She entered it into permanent record, turned off the machine, and sat back. "Blah," she spat with irritation. She pushed the notes away, and then considering, took them from the board and fed them down the disintegrator.

It was quiet in her office and Christine wondered how long she would keep her job. Surely the captain would have no complaints about her performance of her duty. But then, Enterprise was probably in line for a full five year hitch again, and would he trust her enough to commit himself for such a long term? She was flooded with negative, unsettled feelings.

This had to stop. She got up and went out into the sickbay. It was virtually empty. A few med-techs sat in the lounger along with John Atherton.

As she came into the lounge, Murphy sat up guiltily from a reclining position, her dark face showing embarrassment.

"I was just--"

Christine interrupted her. "Relax. Unless we have another crisis, we're all going to work only the bare minimum around here. In fact, if any of you can get a nap, great. John, you're off duty as of right now. I'll see you in two watches. Dr. McCoy will be on the next watch, Ensign..." Suddenly the name had gone out of Christine's head, and she realized just how fuzzy-headed she was feeling.

"Tn'Losinar Ariana," the ensign offered.

Christine smiled. She was a lovely young Phodn girl, pale lavender in complexion, with peachy blonde hair in soft tufts, large, deep lavender eyes, and a strange voice that resulted from two sets of vocal cords that acted simultaneously in close pitches. It was different, but a pleasant sound.

"Ariana," Christine said. "I think you can leave too. No one in their right mind is going to be doing anything but sleeping or station-keeping. I'll find you if I need you. Report on your next-scheduled watch."

"Yes, Doctor," she smiled and bowed.

As she left, Christine noticed Atherton looking after her with much appreciation of the view. He looked up, and finding himself being observed, choked on his coffee.

Christine pounded him on the back, "Watch it, Doctor," she whispered to him. "You'll damage your image."

Embarrassed, he mumbled something about his quarters, and made a hasty exit. That left only the three med-techs, Murphy, Janasson and Adams, and herself. Where had McCoy gotten off to?

Christine fed McCoy's identity code into the computer, and found him in the galley. She paged him there and watched for him, as she sat in cell two, opposite the sickbay doors.

He came through the double doors looking irritated and found her there.

"Hoping I'd forget?" she asked with a smile.

"I'm fine," he growled back. "I'd know if I wasn't."

She stood and motioned him on the table. He paused a long moment, staring at her with those very blue eyes. She stared him down, and he hoisted himself up on the table, not waiting for her to incline it.

"This is stupid," he complained.

Chris nodded and looked into his eyes with her penlight.

"There is not a thing wrong with me," he went on scornfully.

"Probably not," she answered. "Lie down, please."

As he complied, she activated the vital signs board at the head of the bed. He arched his back to see the board, breaking contact with the table, thus invalidating the readings. She pushed his chest down firmly with the palm of her hand.

"Leonard!" she snapped impatiently. "Let me finish!"

He sighed a loud sigh and looked perturbed, but relented. It took only a few minutes to finish the exam once she had his cooperation, and she set the table on incline. The head raised, the foot lowered, and he stepped off.

"See? I'm fine," he growled.

"You're right. Fit as a fiddle," she agreed.

"Could have told you that," he muttered, and turned on her. "Maybe I should examine you!" It was a threat, but she handled herself calmly.

"I was not outside the ship. You were and you blacked out."

"So did Jim! It was simply lack of oxygen."

"And you felt the need to check Jim?" She saw the answer in his eyes. "Case closed." She kissed the rough-stubbled cheek. "Good night, Leonard."

She turned to leave and felt a sudden sting on her rump. She swung around to see his backhand retreating and the slight sparkle of almost malevolent mischief in his eyes. She stared at him, stunned.

He raised an eyebrow and crinkled his brow at her, without a smile. "Jes' don't you go gettin' too big fer them white britches, young lady!" he warned. And then he grinned. She felt herself blushing, and made her way quickly to her office. In her mind's eye, she could see him laughing. 'Leonard!' And she began to laugh herself.

When she was sure McCoy was gone, she went to the lounge to notify Adams. "Im putting the F438 on alarm in my office. You try to get some rest. Let me know if anything comes up."

She retired to her office and put on the alarm. Oh, that bed looked good. She walked into the rest area of her office. Bed. She'd never hoped to lay down again. She sat on its edge. Fatigue washed over her and she sank down, pulling the spread over her. Heaven must be like this, she thought, drifting off to sleep.

The sleep that came was restless, faces coming and going; Spock dying; losing her sickbay; Will floating in darkness, crying for help; panicky moments of treating patients for the wrong things.

She sat up suddenly, in a cold sweat. She had only been asleep an hour according to the chronometer. She was still groggy, but the sickening panic clutching at her insides made her reluctant to try again.

Standing, she stretched and washed her hands and face in cold water. Only the environmental lighting was on, keeping the room from being totally black, and there was enough light so that she could see her form in the mirror, but her face in the shadows of the darkened room looked grotesque and deformed. She activated the bathroom light panel.

Convinced that everything was as it should be, she reminded herself of Spock's health, of Will's choice to remain with Ilia on the machine planet, and of Kirk's mischievous grin. Her body began to relax and she turned off the light again.

Settling on the bed, Christine pulled the reading viewer into position from the wall. She turned it on and in its light looked for an appropriate tape, then selected an issue of Federation Research News, inserted the tape, and looked for an article to read. She found one by Alexi Dronovsky on genetic evolution in humanoids from the year 1900, old calendar. Arranging the pillow, she began to read.

* * *

 

Something awakened her with a start.

"Chris?" There was a knock at the door. The cabin lighting had reached daylight. It was, according to her chronometer, six hours later. The knock was repeated.

"Chris?" It was Leonard's voice. She turned off the viewer and pushed it back into the wall, then rolled over and pushed the door release. McCoy came in and sat at the edge of her bed.

"Sorry to wake you. You have the machine on alarm from here." She stretched, feeling good, and remained reclined, still fully dressed from her on-call status. She smiled at him.

"Did you sleep well?" she asked.

"Like a rock. And you? Were you up much?"

"Not a soul came in that I know of. I had some pretty nasty dreams and woke up once, but when I got back to sleep, I was out."

"Well, you're off. Either go back to sleep or get out of here," he teased.

She sat up and circled her knees with her arms.

"What are you going to do on Six?" she asked.

"Rent one of those cottages on Lake Aurora, do some fishing, reading, sleeping on the porch, not shave for four days," he answered, relishing it already.

"Sounds good. Some sailing, swimming." She paused and looked at him. "Care for company?"

He looked startled and Christine giggled. "Okay, I'll rent a separate cabin. I'm not propositioning you." She looked at him closely. "--or are you spending it with someone who IS propositioning you?"

"No. No one's propositioning me." He smiled. "Unfortunately."

"A definite lack of judgment on someone's part. You are one of the most attractive men I've ever known."

McCoy grinned, flattered, and enjoying it, and noticing more and more the change in Chris. The healthy sense of herself in relationships with men that came with maturity, he thought. She had a freedom about herself now that she had never had before.

It had always been easy for McCoy to be with Christine. There had been no pretensions needed with her as there was with some women. He'd always been able to be himself with her, as he'd been able to be with Jim. Maybe even more, so with Christ as there had not been that hint of primal rivalry that was natural in even the closest of male relationships. After the years together, she had surely seen his every side and every foible and loved him, perhaps even for some of those faults.

And now it was pleasing to him to see her become so sure of herself as to admit that she found him attractive, and to lovingly tease him. It didn't do his self-image any harm, either. "How can I refuse the companionship of such a wise young woman with such spectacularly good taste?"

"And a fine doctor -- don't forget that part," she added.

McCoy became gallant. "And a fine doctor, to boot," he added. She bowed her head in acceptance, and they laughed. The warm humor of their relationship was deepening by the day, drawing them ever closer.

McCoy stood to leave, and then turned to her. "What the hell, two cottages is ridiculous. We'll get a two-bedroom one. It'll be cheaper. After all, we could if you were Jim or Spock."

"Or if you were Uhura or Muldoon," she agreed.

He looked a little surprised. "Sure," he added. "There's nothing wrong with two colleagues spending a few days sharing a cottage on the lake." He paused. "There's apt to be talk, though. And you'll get the brunt of it since I'll be gone."

Christine got up and stretched, then hugged his arm quickly. "I don't mind if you don't. Let them think I have good taste. If I were looking for someone, you'd certainly be high on my list of potentials."

He grinned again, a little embarrassed, but pleased. "Okay. I'll send ahead for the reservation. Now, get going," he said, urging her to the door. She went into the outer office and turned off the alarm switch, then turned and walked to the door, stopping short to face him.

"I can't wait! I want to hear all about your research, and Joanna, and especially that grandson of yours! And I want to see a holo. Do you have any?" McCoy was making shooing gestures.

"Do I have holos?" he asked in mock seriousness. "Now, GO!"

Christine left the sickbay and headed for her cabin. When she reached the fifth level and came out of the turbolift, it occurred to her that she had spent almost no time at all in her quarters since she had boarded Enterprise a little over three days previous. She located her cabin and put her hand to the panel. It glowed and the door slid open.

Well, there it was. It reminded her of a travel room in some nameless, faceless port. She entered and the door shut.

Her travelcase was open on the bed. The shoulder bag hung from a chair. She sat in the leisure chair for a moment and thought. There wasn't .much she could do now about the starkness.

She got up and put a tape in the desk viewer, looking for a scenic title from the list. "Vermont Countryside in Fall" caught her eye. She walked over to the large wall screen and channeled in the correct number. The screen filled with a scene of a rural front yard, a rolling countryside and woods beyond it. It was like looking out the window of a country home.

Christine smiled as she began to unpack. The wall view was new and she couldn't help but wonder if, in the long run, it wouldn't merely serve to remind the crew of all they had left behind, instead of helping to cure homesickness as it was designed to do.

She found that the newly designed ship had very similar storage arrangements to the old Enterprise and it took only a few moments to put everything away and to store the travelcase and shoulder bag. The results of her labor made the room look slightly more lived-in, but not much.

As she stood there looking around, her stomach growled. "Food." That was what she needed! She re-arranged her hair some more and left her quarters for the galley.

In the short time that she had been in her quarters, the corridor outside her room had become busy. Things were getting back to normal. People passed her on her way, some that she didn't 'know, but many that had served on the Enterprise previously. She found herself enjoying the greetings from old friends and acquaintances -- hearing them call her "Doctor Chapel" and accepting the congratulations that went along with the recognition.

Christine could smell the food as she entered the galley, and her stomach growled again. The sandwich hadn't really been enough, and it had been eight hours ago. Going to the processors, she had just begun to make her selections when she saw Spock. He was sitting in a side viewer-booth, reading as he ate.

She needed to tell him about the supplement in pharmacology. It just wasn't right to send pills to a patient without telling them, and yet, she didn't want Spock to think that she was following him, or have it thought that she was hanging around him.

She picked up some silverware and condiments, thinking. McCoy's words came back to her: "You won't have the distance you had before." How true. Why hadn't she thought of the supplements at the time of the examination?

Well, there wasn't much else she could do but go talk to him. Wait! She could tell him over the intercom -- but then what if he was sleeping? This is ridiculous, she told herself. I am his doctor. If it were any other member of the crew, I'd just go over.

She resolutely set down the things she was holding and walked across the room to Spock. Her heart pounded. She gathered her words, placing them in the proper order. As she took the last steps to the table, he looked up. His color was better, and he looked more rested. A wave of relief and an overwhelming feeling of love flooded her, and she knew it showed.

"Yes, Doctor?"

Christine began. All of her best chosen words fled from her. "You look better; you have more color. Did you sleep well?"

"Yes. Very soundly," he answered, looking at her, fork in hand, waiting for her to tell him why she had come over -- knowing, she could see, that it had not been to tell him that he looked well.

"When I logged your exam, I decided to put you on some megavitamins and minerals and a cell stimulator. They will help to boost the healing process and prevent any permanent damage. I would have called you in your quarters to tell you, but I didn't want to wake you up."

He fingered the fork, looking increasingly irritated behind that wall of imperturbability. Spock was not a great one to accept medical treatment even when he really needed it -- and now that it was merely precautionary... Christine plunged on, wanting to get her reasoning in before he spoke. "I want your body to have every available opportunity to heal quickly and completely. You can't properly repair something unless you have all of the parts -- right?"

He began his argument. "That is not always correct, there..."

What little patience she had stored up in her six hours of sleep departed from her grasp and she felt her professional countenance give under the weight of frustration. She tried to relax her face and succeeded only in clenching her jaw. Spock raised an eyebrow at her and simply stared.

Damn him! Why did she let him bait her like that? And why did she rise to the challenge? Screw him and all of his pompous smart-assed superiority! She took a deep breath and recomposed herself. "Spock," she began with an unnatural calm. "I am your doctor. Will you just let me do my job?"

He reacted with an impassive look. Her own face, she could feel, was still flushed. She looked away from him for a second, and then looked back. "The supplement will do you no harm past the inconvenience of taking them. There is an outside chance that they may be beneficial. My professional opinion is that they are in order. I have logged it into the permanent record that I am prescribing them. Will you please just take them?"

"Very well, Doctor," he replied, as if there had been no altercation.

"Thank you, Commander," Christine answered with a sarcastic edge that assured that there had indeed been an altercation. "I've called pharmacology and it will be ready for you. You can pick it up on your way to your quarters or you can have it delivered."

Spock nodded and Christine returned to the food selector. She ordered ham, scrambled eggs, coffee and milk, assembling them on her plate as they came one by one in the appropriate containers. She chose a seat on the far side of the room from Spock, and began to eat, surprised at how good the eggs felt as they hit her stomach; she had been even hungrier than she'd realized. Forking another small load of scrambled eggs into her mouth, she tried to pull her morning into some semblance of order in her mind.

Irascible was a word she'd always associated with Leonard McCoy, but right now she was feeling more than a little irascible herself. Maybe, she thought, you became irascible from practicing medicine, or perhaps only potentially irascible people chose medicine. But she knew many doctors that were not irascible, so that wasn't it either. Maybe it was a deep space phenomena. Then she almost laughed out loud. More than likely, it was merely having Spock for a patient.

He'd always been a pain, medically. He wasn't fond of having anything done to him and had no real faith in anything short of a Vulcan healer.

Well, she thought, taking a bite of ham, at least now, by necessity, there was interaction between them -- and it felt good. It didn't hurt nearly so much as she thought it would. She realized that the irascible feeling was gone, and in its place there was a gentle warm feeling for Spock. She smiled to herself. Given half a chance, they'd both live through this. Her mind skipped on to another thought.

She was looking forward to her work on Enterprise with eagerness -- if she could just hold onto her sickbay. The thought of losing it wore heavily on her. She put the last bite of ham into her mouth and chewed. If she lost the Enterprise sickbay, the chances of her getting another starship sickbay were almost nil. Only the situation of having served on Enterprise, McCoy's resignation, Kirk's promotion, and Decker's youth had made her assignment possible. And it wasn't just any sickbay she wanted, anyway, it was this one, here on Enterprise. She toyed with a piece of fat on her plate and sighed.

A face looked directly into hers and she jumped. It was the captain.

"I said 'Hello, Doctor,'" he stated in a tone of obvious repetition.

"Hello, Captain. I didn't hear you." He grinned and gave her a quizzical look as he sat down across from her. "Obviously. And what's on your mind that has you so engrossed in that piece of fat?" he asked.

She changed the subject, suddenly afraid to face knowing the truth about her sickbay.

"I thought you'd be sound asleep after your big night of, how did you put it? Tearing around?"

He laughed out loud. He was relaxed and self-satisfied. She loved him like this.

"That took less time that you would think, I got a couple of hours of sleep. I was too wound up to sleep much." The grin remained, and she grinned back.

"It was fun, though, wasn't it?" she asked.

"It was. It was great!" He sat back, took a deep breath and let it out with a happy sigh. "It's good to be back in that seat," he said with heartfelt expression.

Christine couldn't keep from smiling at him. "I knew that night in San Francisco that you weren't happy where you were, that you'd have to be back out here to be really content."

He was quiet for a moment. "That night was the beginning of my undoing down there, you know." His eyes met hers.

"How so?" she asked. The hazel eyes drifted past her in thought.

"All the talk about the past mission, talking about the Enterprise being reassigned." He paused, staring over the table, then looked up at her. "I don't think until then, when we were talking that night, that I ever let myself think of her going out again with someone else at the conn, not even when I recommended Will. I never REALLY let myself think about it." A wry smile of remembrance settled on his face.

"Well, you have her back now." She was still smiling at him, her own happiness full in her chest. "I trust you are holding onto her?"

He laughed that full laugh again. "Like a mongoose to a snake, Doctor," he said melodramatically.

"I'm glad. You belong here."

He grew serious. She could see, quite well, that his thoughts were wandering back to her position, and she felt almost on the verge of throwing up with the fear that it instilled in her. It was coming, and she couldn't stop it.

"That same night," he began, "you were pretty set on getting the Enterprise sickbay." He looked to her for a reaction.

She set herself against panic and answered. "You recommended me," she reminded him quietly.

He nodded and continued. "You were appointed to that post, and Bones has told me that you wish to retain it."

He again awaited her reaction. He was every inch the captain now. Christine hated this. She'd never known anyone so Jekyll-and-Hydish as Kirk the friend turned Kirk the commanding officer. There was no middle ground to Kirk the officer. Everything was either black or white. Either for the good or for the bad of his mission, ship, and crew. She wondered on which side she'd fall.

"Yes, sir, I do," she answered, still in control. "Have you made a decision regarding that?"

His eyes rested on hers. "No, I haven't. There are things I need to discuss with you before I can come to a decision."

She took a deep breath. "Then, may we continue this conversation elsewhere?" she asked.

Kirk nodded. "If you wish, Doctor. Your office?" She nodded and picked up the tray.

The few minutes en route to her office seemed interminably long. There were greetings in the corridors, but she and the captain were silent. Christine was scared, there was so much at stake here.

At long last they entered the sickbay. McCoy was checking a list with a med-tech and nodded at them as they came in and proceeded to her office. Christine could not have felt more like a prisoner being marched to the brig had he held a phaser at her back. She placed her hand on the light panel and it glowed, dimmed, and the door opened.

Once inside he motioned her to her chair and she sat. He sat across the desk from her and began.

"At this point my decision needs to be not so much if you stay or go -- I have confidence in your abilities as a physician -- but whether or not to keep you on as Chief Medical Officer. If you do not retain that position, you would of course be welcome to remain on the sickbay staff, or to reapply for another sickbay through Starfleet Command."

Christine saw it coming up at her like a cloud of doom and she wished desperately there was some way to escape it.

"However," he continued, "if I request that you remain, it will still be in the hands of Starfleet to make the final decision."

She nodded and he went on. "At the time you were chosen for your present position, Will Decker was to have been captain of the Enterprise. You were considered psychologically compatible with him. My command therefore makes a sizeable difference."

She nodded again. "I realize that, sir," she said, her chest aching with disappointment.

Kirk sat back. "What do you see as the duties of Chief Medical Officer?"

"Book Four, Section 3648 states: 'As Chief Medical"

"No. Your own ideas of priority," he corrected. She thought for a moment, and then proceeded.

"The priority, as I see it, would be to make sure that the entire crew is in as good shape physically, mentally, and emotionally as possible so that the mission assigned can be completed with the utmost accuracy and efficiency, with the least possible loss in crew life and well being. Special attention being given to the captain and command crew, as their decisions affect the success and welfare of both mission and crew. Secondary duties would concern routine medical and emergency care, staff management and decisions, medical research supervision, and advisory consults on life forms encountered."

She wondered if her answer had been what he wanted to hear.

He nodded, deep in thought. "It looks like Spock will be staying on as First Officer. How would that affect your performance of duties as Ship's Doctor?" he asked, his eyes on her.

The question irritated her. She saw its validity, but still it angered her.

"I am a career officer, Captain. My duties take precedence over any personal situation in my life. My performance, professionally, militarily, would not be affected at all." She looked at him, annoyed. "If I felt it would, I would not be having this conversation with you."

He nodded. It was what he had expected. "Okay. I had to ask." He paused, needing more, but unsure how to bring it up.

Christine's heart pounded, partly from anger, partly from anticipation of the topic she knew was going to have to be faced somehow, before this conversation ended. The pressure and the silence between them grew. Christine wanted it over with -- all of it.

"Captain, I have a feeling that you have a question that isn't going to get answered unless you ask it." There was a short silence, and Christine threw caution to the wind. "You're wondering whether I can kick your tail as well as a man, if necessary."

Her heart pounded. Why had she put it that way? He looked at her angrily, his eyes glowing with resentment.

"This is not precisely how I would put it, Doctor," he said in acid tones.

This was it. The moment of truth. She plunged on firmly. "No, sir, but it is a question you need answered. The answer is YES. If necessary."

He was now openly hostile, defensive. She reached out and put her hand on his arm. "The operative words are 'if necessary.' I am a preventative-minded physician. If I do my job properly, there will be no necessity."

He softened a bit.

"Captain, I need to tell you some things that I think are important. May I?"

He waved a hand, still somewhat angry. "Why not?" he said, his voice surly, and sat back, his eyes staring at her.

Stilling panic, she began. "One, I don't want another sickbay. If I am replaced, I will continue here on staff under whichever physician replaces me. Enterprise is my home. I love her. She's special.

"Secondly, I enjoy men." Kirk looked at her strangely and she continued. "Given life without the companionship of either one or the other, I could give up female companionship far more easily. I was raised by a widowed father and four older brothers. I have lived and worked with men all of my life, I have enjoyed it greatly; it is natural to me.

"I feel if I have learned anything in my life, it is the stupidity of sexual competition. I am a woman. I thoroughly enjoy being so. I believe that men and woman are equal in mind and capability but I also see an inborn necessity for the human male animal to retain basic dominance for their own psychological needs. Humans do not function well in close relationships for long when the female is dominant. It runs well in theory and in practice for a limited time, but in the long run, there are psychological prices to pay for it.

"I have no compunctions about being subordinate to you, Captain; I have no motive to attack your masculinity."

Kirk looked almost interested now. His expression was unreadable.

"Sir, may I speak freely?" she asked.

He was smiling that strange, eerie half-smile that hid his thoughts. Was he still mad at her? She could not tell.

"Do I have a choice?" he asked.

"Yes. You do," she answered, and waited.

He waved her on.

"Back to preventative medicine," she began again. "As I see it, you have three basic shortcomings." He frowned again. "Now, don't go off the deep end until you've heard me out," she urged.

"Okay, go on. This isn't pleasant, you realize." There was a threat in his voice.

"One is that you work yourself too hard and expect too much of yourself. You expect perfection, total insight. This is the biggest one. It sets you up for two and three to get the best of you."

She looked at him and very cautiously said "Two and three are ego and vanity."

He flared again, and again she reached out to touch his arm. "Which you keep in check ninety percent of the time. Jim, they're a part of what makes up the Jim Kirk we love. You're a special, strong, flamboyant man. You could not command without that ego; you saw that yourself when the transporter split you that time."

He glared at her for a moment. She could see question in his face as he obviously wondered how she'd known -- and then resignation as he remembered the many times she'd been privy to more, she imagined, than he liked to think about.

"It's part of your self-esteem," she continued, "the sureness of your decisions. And the vanity? Well, I guess it's part of the ego overworking, but it's a good part of you, too. It's what, in balance, your charm is made of."

He had become reflective and she removed her hand from his arm. "Are you still with me?"

"You run a rough ride, mister," he said, his voice irritable, his face stern. "But go on."

She breathed quietly and continued. "As I said, when you go on a binge of not eating properly, when you don't get enough rest, when you expect too much of yourself and fail to produce, you set yourself up to be taken too far with the others. If you can prevent one, you cut off two and three before they grow out of proportion and become aberration." He looked at her.

And your job is to wetnurse me? Get me to bed on time? Make sure I eat right?" he asked sarcastically.

Christine's heart jumped. YOUR JOB? "No, sir. That is your responsibility, as commander of this ship," she reminded him. "My job is to be accountable to you, to be second sight when your preoccupation with the ship carries you past self-concern. My job is to know you well enough to see when you're in too deep and let you know. At that time, the responsibility returns to you, until such time as I see your competence affected."

She caught his eyes and looked directly into them. I do not foresee that happening, sir." She paused for effect. "Nor would I, if the time did come, hesitate for a moment in pulling you from duty."

He nodded. Could he have accepted less? He thought a moment, then spoke. "Bones seems to think you'd do well. But then, I'm afraid he's biased." His voice was far off, his mind working.

Christine smiled. "Yes, sir." I'm afraid you're right."

Kirk looked at her with a wry smile. "I don't know whether I've been soft-soaped or hatcheted," he said to no one in particular, his half-smile an indiscernable mixture of feelings.

"I'd say a little of both, sir," she answered.

He rubbed his face with both hands, and she felt sorry for him.

"It's a hard decision, I know. I'm sorry."

He smiled at her. "I have no doubts about your competence. Starfleet has cleared you. McCoy says you have excellent command of your crew and handle emergency situations well. We couldn't ask for better research supervision. We have thirty-two aliens aboard; there is no arguing your value there. You have experience in deep space and knowledge of the majority of the crew." He stopped. "I really need to think." He looked suddenly tired, the weight of a major decision heavy upon him.

"Yes, sir, I know. I didn't expect an immediate answer." It was quiet for a long while.

"You were close to Will Decker, weren't you?" he asked unexpectedly.

"Yes." Was he intimating something out of order? "Why?"

She could hear her defensiveness in her own voice, but he ignored it.

"Every man should have the tenderness in dying that you gave to Will Decker." He looked directly at her but she looked away.

"I've been with a good many dying people. At that point, tenderness is all there is to give," she answered, feeling somehow invaded.

"It was more than that. I was glad that you were there for him," Kirk stated, remembering seeing her alone, standing waiting in the corridor to the Rec Deck that morning, just days ago, and the warmth that had filled him at the sight.

She looked into his eyes. "Will Decker was -- for three months -- my captain, my patient -- my friend. Neither his grade reduction to commander nor his being near death changed any of those relationships." She looked away, pained, her eyes filling, taking a moment to compose herself. Kirk looked none too composed himself.

She continued, looking up. "Besides, I believe that woman's basic service to man is to comfort -- just as a man's basic service to woman is to protect." She gave him a weary smile, "Not a popular belief, but when you strip us down to our lowest common denominator , I believe it's true."

As the captain of the Enterprise sat looking at the woman across from him, he saw an honesty in her that he could not help but be drawn to. It would take a long time to gain that kind of trust and openness with someone else that they had begun to share today. He felt the factors in his decision clear and separate in his mind. Realizing that he had not spoken in several moments, he began. "Christine. I'm going to do everything I can to see that you keep the sickbay. I agree with Bones: I think you're just what we need. I can't see any reason to haul in anyone new."

He watched as she covered her forehead with a hand and looked down for a moment. She took a couple of deep breaths and looked up, blinking back tears in very bright eyes. It made him feel good. He knew he'd made the right decision. "I hope you don't plan to do that often," he teased, motioning to her slightly red eyes. He felt himself grin.

"No, sir, I don't." She laughed and sniffed, swallowing hard.

"Remember, Starfleet has the last word. But I seem to have some pull there these days." He almost laughed. Some pull -- he was going to be lucky if he didn't get his ass strung out three ways from Saturday over this last 'detour' from command 'request.' Somehow, he wasn't too worried about it. "I'll do what I can." She swallowed hard again, and he decided to leave. If he knew his women -- and he did -- this was a lady that needed some time alone, and he wasn't about to get caught in the flood. Christine could be a rock in a crisis, he knew. He'd seen her put in hours as good as he or McCoy -- or for that matter any man on board outside of Spock had. When the Nomad probe had tried to get at his medical records, Christine had been knocked unconscious trying to stop it, even after having seen Uhura's mind wiped clean by the probe, and Scotty killed. But, he had to smile to himself, she cried easily. He guessed that a tender heart wasn't the deadliest weakness in the world, but it did seem to embarrass her regularly. And she had been through a lot these last few days, between Vejur, losing Will, and almost having lost Spock. Not to mention Spock's initial reaction to them.

He thought of Spock's nearness to death and a chill came over him. He looked at Christine as they stood, and wondered which was worse -- to be totally impotent to help someone you loved, as he had been, or to be responsible for his survival, as she had been. The very memory of what had almost happened to all of them spilled bile into his throat, and he dismissed it.

"Doctor," he acknowledged and shook her hand.

"Captain." Her handshake was harder than usual, as much a gesture of thanks as a formality.

He was glad when the handshake ended -- her eyes were filling again -- and he made his escape, he was sure, just in the nick of time.

* * *

 

She was still in shock when she heard McCoy's voice at the door. She pressed the release to let him in, still in a daze.

"Well?" he demanded, the need to know defying his instinct for caution.

"I got it," she said in disbelief, and then as if hearing the words made it true, "I GOT IT! HE WANTS ME TO STAY ON!"

McCoy broke into a big grin and grabbed her. "Hallelujah!"

She fell into his arms, the floodgates opening. She alternately laughed and cried tears of joy and release. McCoy looked at her and handed her a tissue.

"You are the SOGGIEST woman these last few days!" he said to her. "Here, now blow." She blew her nose and wiped her eyes.

"No more tears, I promise," she said. "Unless Starfleet throws a wrench in it all. They wouldn't do that, would they, Leonard?" she asked, wanting reassurance that she knew he could not give.

"Who knows what Starfleet would do? Sometimes they seem to have the mentality of a lab baran. But Jim is in a pretty good bargaining position right now and I can't see them refusing him the Medical Officer of his choice."

She smiled and they sat down. "No, you're doing that. You know he'd love nothing better than to have you here -- Id like it, too," she added.

"I know, but I've been through that with Jim. I can't leave Joanna now." The emotion of it was written all over his face. "I wasn't there for her so much of her life. I can't walk out on her now, and if I did, I'd miss five years out of Ashley's life, too. I just--"

"I know, I know. It's okay. It's okay -- I didn't mean to push at you," she assured him, rising and moving to envelope him in her arms with a hug. His return hug was crushing; he too was feeling fragile.

"You always were a landlubber at heart," she accused, stepping back to see his grin.

"Doctor McCoy." The voice was accompanied by a knock.

An inhalation accident had occurred in Science Lab and an emergency tech team and responded. They were applying emergency resuscitation and were an route to the sickbay.

McCoy gathered supplies together on a tray. Christine reported Lieutenant Marginelli's vitals from the F438 and cleared his records from the medical computer.

By the time the group reached Sickbay, Lt. Marginelli was fully conscious, breathing on his own, and lucid. He was also coughing uncontrollably and vomiting. McCoy met them at the door and began to examine him in the main room of the sickbay, not waiting to get him to a cell.

"What were you working with, young man?" he asked. Marginelli began to speak but was overcome again by a spasm of coughs. McCoy increased the portable oxygen flow by his face and grasped him from behind with a towel over his arms, supporting the young man's diaphragm as he coughed.

"Silophoncylate," he choked. McCoy let go of him as the coughing eased and shook his head, coming in front of him again.

"And without a mask," McCoy guessed correctly and ran his scanner over the young man.

"I thought for sure I had my face far back enough when I heated it," he coughed.

"Heated it?" Christine said with surprise. "What for?"

"Personal research." He gasped and coughed some more. McCoy supported him again. "I'm keeping track of what I use to pay for it," the young man continued as the coughing eased again.

He looked miserable -- red faced from coughing and covered with vomit. She felt a little sorry for him, but there had been a serious infraction of safety rules. Much closer and he would have been badly injured. If this were overlooked, where might he next slip up on safety precautions?

"Lieutenant Marginelli. I should put you on report. You know that, don't you?" She spoke slowly, making the reprimand more ominous.

"Yes, sir," he said quietly, wishing for a hole to crawl into.

Christine was silent a long moment, and she noticed McCoy's eyes register that he thought it was time to let the kid off. She ignored him and continued on with the pressure treatment.

"I assume this is your first safety offense?" she asked, as if in thought. She had already decided her course of action.

"Oh, yes, sir! I've never been on report for anything before," he assured her hoarsely. The coughing was subsiding and McCoy was obviously satisfied from his readings that there was nothing seriously wrong with him.

"I'll tell you what, Lieutenant." She paused again for effect. "I won't put you on report, but I will expect you to refrain from any lab work outside of your regular work time and assigned work, for a period of two weeks, starting right now."

He looked shocked. He almost argued, but changed his mind. "Yes, sir," he answered, defeat in his voice. Looking up at McCoy, he found no trace of support for his cause.

Christine knew what she was asking of the young scientist. Two weeks was an interminably long time for a researcher to be away from a project, especially for one as involved as this young man obviously was.

"If you step into cell four when you're done, I believe we can find you something to wear back to your quarters. Doctor McCoy, your instructions for the lieutenant?" she offered, and turning, walked away, leaving McCoy to his patient.

She busied herself with reports until Marginelli was ready to leave. As he approached the door, she called to him. "Lieutenant." He looked up. "I'd be interested to know what you find from your research. Will you let me know?"

His face brightened some. "Yes, sir, I will," he answered and left.

McCoy came to her. "Weren't you a little hard on him?" he asked. Christine shrugged.

"I don't think so. It only takes one stupid mistake." He shrugged back, and she continued. "Thank you for letting me handle it as I saw fit."

"None o' mah biznes, Miz Chapel," he drawled, and bowed, backing away.

"Leonard!" she complained, but he was laughing at her reaction.

"I'm going to clean up," he laughed. "Mind the store for me?" And he was gone. (The haphazardly used towels had not done much to keep the vomit off him.) She was going to miss him so much.

* * *

 

The next twenty-seven hours went much as any other travel time. They treated the typical 'poop and croup', as McCoy so aptly described it, the run of the mill illnesses and injuries.

John Atherton had calmed down some, and he was still enjoying the crewwomen immensely, sizing up the opportunities. He and Chekov had struck up as a curious twosome. Chekov, a few years older, seemed to have just the experience and expertise that the younger man needed in this new world of Starfleet women, and Atherton's confidence in Chekov's romantic prowess and experience was a great balm to the Russian's ego in return.

They went together like cheese and crackers.

* * *

 

Christine saw little of Spock. He was by her own orders cabin-bound, but already she had begun to think of him again -- too much.

The freedom of those first hours after his return from near death was gone. In its place was the daydreaming; the longing for him had returned.

She diverted her thoughts when she noticed them, but it was a constant effort to put these thoughts of him away from her. It worried her. She could not allow herself to become dependant on him. If she could keep that freedom and see him as she saw Jim or Leonard or Uhura, she would be all right. She had to keep her feelings in perspective.

As they neared Starbase Six, Christine readied notes on the new equipment for the replacement tech who would beam up when they arrived.

Though the Enterprise was capable of keeping orbit on its own, there was by necessity a transport officer aboard at all times. It was customary to beam aboard Starfleet replacement crew at any given leave on a full starbase. In hours there would be a transporter crewman, a med-tech, a security guard, a life-support-system controller, and a general executive officer beaming aboard to man these stations.

Seldom did every crewmember on a large ship take leave, even on a starbase, but those crewmen who remained were still considered off duty for the duration of the leave. Nothing much happened on a near empty ship and it was beyond Christine's comprehension how a person could be satisfied doing replacement stints as a line of work, but there were a surprising number of both young personnel and semi-retired personnel that opted for the opportunity to even be aboard one of the 'big. twelve,' as they called the Constellation class starships.

McCoy came in, looking bored. "You ready?"

"No," she said, finishing with the instructions. "I want to check Spock over before he beams down and clear his activities -- hopefully without having to lean on him."

"He's probably not going down. You know him; he's a ship-hermit," McCoy said blandly, picking up the instructions only to put them down again.

Christine smirked to herself. "Yes, but he likes Six. There are three good Vulcan restaurants there, and the Jacaima Preserve has that rock climbing range he and Jim like."

McCoy's eyes widened at the mention of rock climbing and Christine continued, as if to herself, "But I told him no rock climbing, and he's just been on Vulcan so he's not missing the food yet." She sighed. "No matter. I have to clear him, and that's all there is to it. I can't assume that he isn't going down. I haven't seen him since yesterday at breakfast."

McCoy indicated his agreement. There wasn't any choice. "I know he's not going with Jim. Jim asked me to go with him right after he decided to go to Six. He's camping -- too primitive for me," he added. "But he didn't mention Spock.

She shrugged and pressed the control for the comm line. "Deck four, cabin eighty-six," she ordered, looking a little leery.

"Spock here."

"This is Doctor Chapel. I'd like to run a quick check on you before you beam down." Might she have asked if he were going down? He probably would have asked why she wanted to know. There was no winning here, and she knew it.

"I have no plans to leave the ship, Doctor." He was civil but curt.

Now the question was, why? She looked at McCoy and continued gingerly. "No signs of illness?"

She was pressing her luck with him, but at the same time she wasn't going to leave the ship if Spock was feeling any worse than before. She had to know.

Spock would know too, and it was going to stick in his craw that she might be staying aboard just to keep tabs on him.

When Spock's voice answered a few seconds later, Christine could sense irritation in the calm tone.

"I am quite all right, Doctor." He paused. "I am remaining aboard to assist Mr. Scott with the engine imbalance situation." There was another pause, and then the sarcasm without sarcasm. Subtlety was this man's master talent. "May I assume that it will not be beyond your prescribed physical exertion?" The barb was coated with infuriating courtesy.

"Of course not," she snapped, then was aware that she'd stepped right into the perfectly set trap.

"Then I trust I shall survive the four days of your absence adequately, Doctor." His tone reflected the satisfaction of his success.

"Yes, I'm sure you will," she answered, and then added sweetly, "And Spock, you know this reminds me of another patient I once had." She did not allow space for an interruption. "A little old lady with arthritis and bunions. She was bound and determined to be dissatisfied with anything I did. Of course, she was eighty-six. Chapel out," and she closed the line before he could reply, hitting the button with irritation. She smiled slightly at her victory -- she could almost see that damn eyebrow raise and wished on it the ill fortune of staying there indefinitely.

"And you want that?" McCoy asked, half-serious. "Why?"

She shrugged, gave him a wry smile, and sighed. "Damned if I know," she admitted, frustrated.

"Now are you through?" McCoy asked.

"Now I need to pick up a few things for my bag from pharmacology, pack it, get an itinerary from the captain, give him mine, and I'll be ready to go down and eat."

"I thought you were almost ready," he accused.

"You asked, and I said 'no,'" she answered plaintively. He smirked at her.

"For once, I'm glad it's you and not me. Red tape, check here, check there, log this, log that. Every move you make takes twice as long as it needs to. I'll meet you in the galley in--" He looked at his chronometer. "Thirty minutes. Okay?"

She just smiled at him and nodded. She watched him stomp out and wished again that he had not shaved the beard. It fit him so well.

Kirk was in his quarters when she tracked him down. He had virtually no personal effects with him, and his packing consisted of getting the ship-supplied guest kit together with a couple of extra uniforms from supplies. Of course, he would have credit at the base stores and rental areas, and he could obtain the essentials for his camping trip there.

When Christine knocked, he was on his bed reading. "Yes," he answered absently.

"It's Christine Chapel." The door slipped open and she entered. "Hello," she said to the still reclining figure. "I need a basic itinerary and to clear you medically."

He turned off the viewer and pushed it back, grinning an impish grin. "You plan to get personal? Right here in my quarters, Doctor?" he teased on mock modesty and shock.

She smiled back. "I can see you're in fine shape. Leonard just checked you." She signed the board she held. He grinned and continued to tease, holding his arms out, palms up.

"Aw, c'mon, surely there's something to check. I'm a willing patient," he cajoled.

She laughed. He was cute, she thought -- relaxed, sure of himself, silly.

"There's not a thing wrong with you. You're obviously healthy as a horse and feeling your oats, too. You don't need a doctor, you need someone to share this high with you."

Kirk put his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling for a moment, relishing the thought, and then looked back at Christine.

"You're right. Is that a prescription?" he asked.

"My prescription," she said, sitting on the foot of the bed, "is anything it takes to get you back here in four days, head clear, feet firmly on the deck, and heart into working."

He grinned at her again. "That won't take much," he said, sitting up.

"I need an itinerary, sir. I'm sorry." She hated to do this to him, but it was regulations in the event of an emergency to be able to locate him readily. He would have a communicator, but it could conceivably malfunction or be lost.

He sighed. "Locked into the harness again, huh?" he said, shaking his head. "I'll be up the Johnson Creek or in the Crestone Valley Reservoir area."

She dutifully wrote it down and then looked at him apologetically. "Thank you, sir."

He smiled. "Well, at least you're prettier than my last doctor," he teased. She blushed a little and they laughed.

"If all goes according to plans, I should be on Lake Aurora; they have cabins there. I'll have my communicator if anything comes up." She paused, thinking. "Well. That's all, if you don't have anything else you need done," she said, standing.

"No. Nothing else," he said, walking her to the door. As the door opened and she stepped into the corridor, Kirk said, "I'm glad you're going to be with Bones." She turned, somehow surprised that he knew, and Kirk continued. "He's really hurting over leaving again. He needs to sort out his feelings."

Christine was thoughtful for a few moments. "He seems really firm on his decision, though. I've talked around it and gotten nowhere."

"I know. I have, too. Being with you keeps that decision in the front of his mind. It doesn't give him time to do any needless imagining. He knows you have the sickbay and that it's in good hands. I think that's why he decided not to go with me. There would be just too much time, we'd be too close. Too many memories." He paused for a moment and then looked directly at her. "Take care of him, Christine."

She smiled at him. "I will, sir," and left quietly.

Jim should have been a psychiatrist.

She thought of McCoy. He was going to find it hard to leave now that they had all been together again. She hoped to make these days easier for him, but how? Jim was right. There was too much time to think. She felt a lump in her throat rising. She loved Leonard so much. He was her closest friend, intuitive of her needs, transparent in his own. These last days had been precious to her. Facets of their relationship had opened and blossomed in the pressure of this mission. There had been a deeper sharing than there had ever been before. Part of it was the lack of rank restriction, though that had always been lax on his part. Part of it was her M.D., part of it her maturity. They had more in common now than they ever had before. Her heart ached.

Pharmacology was her last stop before meeting with Leonard. She looked at her chronometer. She was already later than she wanted to be. She sighed and cleared herself at the door. It opened and she collected what she needed. More of that red tape Leonard hated. She sat and turned on the record switch.

"Christine Chapel S.M.D. -- SG 8436049. Three Zec ampules Contrab, 500 mg.; one bottle unmixed Phersone powder, 3 oz; four air hypos; assorted dressings; two--" She paused to inventory her supplies. "8 cc containers Biothon 28; two compression dressings with Chribicin, one with Sylithicene; a 20-count bottle of Anthalium, 500 mg.; a 10-count bottle of Dryloth, 6 gr.; and a partridge in a pear tree." She had a flash of guilt. "Delete 'and a partridge in a pear tree.'"

"Deleted. Continue," the computer voice intoned.

"As of Stardate 7417.4. Set and enter. Chapel out."

"Set and entered," the computer replied and was silent. Christine loaded her supplies and departed for the galley. The corridors were a busy hum of activity. She was starving and a full... She looked at her chronometer ... eighteen minutes late for her appointment time to meet McCoy.

"You're late," he snapped as she arrived.

"Why didn't you eat without me? Maybe you'd be in a less feisty mood," she answered absently.

He made a noise resembling a growl and they rose to select their food. The galley was busy with everyone eating before they left the ship, since it was cheaper. When they were finally settled at a table, McCoy spoke.

"It's not going to be cheaper after all. We ended up with a bungalow. Everything else is full. Sorry," he said, with a half-swallowed mouthful.

Christine reacted with dismay, then smiled with acceptance. "Oh, well, I'm glad we got something. A bungalow will be nicer anyway. How about the transportation?" She put a bite of meat into her mouth.

"All set. You ready to go? Everything done?" He was anxious to get going, as always.

"I have to grab my stuff from inside my cabin door and I'm ready."

"Good. Beam-down starts in twenty minutes."

He took another bite and Christine smiled. She was going to miss him so much, she thought. A feeling of tenderness filled her and tears came to her eyes. Leonard began to look up and she concentrated on her food, taking a bite. This was not going to help matters a bit, she thought, and disciplined herself into a different frame of mind.

Small talk continued as they ate and McCoy's mood lightened visibly. Just as they finished, the intercom sounded.

"Beam down to commence in five minutes. Transporter rooms A through D, G, I, and J," came Janice Rand's voice. McCoy grinned. "Just 'tween you an' me, Chris, I'm anxious to get on the ground again," he said, leaning toward her, his informal drawl very present. She looked at his face. Either he was serious, or he had convinced himself that he was. She wasn't sure which.

She finished the last swallow of her milk and stood. "Shall we go?"

They deposited their trays and made their way to their cabins and then on to the transporter room.

* * *

 

Beam down was uneventful, and for Senior Officers the wait had been only momentary, but on entering the base, they once again became little fish in a big stream, and there was a lengthy wait at clearance. Supplies were purchased and arrangements made to have them beamed to the transport depot at the lake.

"I'll pay for the food if you cook it. And I put the bungalow on my credit; we can settle it at the credit office when we get back." He was bargaining.

She smiled at him. "I'll go for that," she agreed. "Don't you cook at home?"

"Oh, I have a repertoire of scrambled eggs, broiled meat, instant dinners, and a great homing instinct for the nearest restaurant," he answered with a laugh, and she shook her head.

There was one more stop at a clothing outlet, and then they reported to the transportation depot. They were matched to their luggage and purchases and had to wait a few moments; it was already late afternoon.

When the transportation arrived, Christine looked wildly at McCoy and he looked elsewhere. It was a small, open, twentieth century vehicle. Civilized people hadn't used them in centuries. Christine didn't plan to start being uncivilized now. Rubber wheels and all! And they rolled!

"It's part of the flavor of the backwoods resort, Chris. You know, getting away from it all? A simpler time and all," he said, looking back to her.

Her pride refused to let her say anything and she hauled herself up into the back seat. McCoy pulled up and sat beside her. This was without a doubt the most foolish thing she had ever done. If two of these things collided, it was all over. Even if it collided with something else, life and limb would be lost. There was no protection whatsoever, and they were minute!

The driver began, seemingly quite relaxed and assured. As they sped up, scenery began first to pass quickly, and then to whip by. A tension rose in Christine's stomach and she held on tighter to the side of the vehicle and tried to relax. Her intellect told her she was going quite slowly, but her heart pounded. She looked at McCoy. He was holding on, too.

In the transit tubes, you were enclosed and it was quiet. There was no chance of overturning or ramming into anything. There was no sensation of speed. Even on Enterprise going at warp speeds, there was no sensation of hurtling along like this. Space was fairly empty, and Enterprise was one of the biggest things around. This ... this was plain insanity.

She could strangle Leonard. He'd been here before. Why hadn't he told her? Just then, they hit a large hole in the road and she grabbed McCoy's leg with a death grip. He gave her a half-hearted smile. Good, she thought. He's not enjoying it either! That knowledge made the rest of the ride more bearable.

The ride took about fifteen minutes, partly on paved road, the rest on dirt. When the vehicle pulled up in front of the bungalow, Christine was uncertain she was ready to venture out of her seat, but the driver was there, hand extended to her. She took it and stepped down, her feet tingling on the ground. McCoy climbed down after her.

"Well," she said in a whisper to him, "we made it."

His masculine pride got the better of him.

"Of course we made it," he said, far more flippantly than his face showed he was feeling. The driver was carrying the food box to the porch of the bungalow, and McCoy followed him to make the arrangements for their return.

Christine looked around. It was beautiful. The pine trees towered above them, the sky was a darkening blue with white fluffy clouds tinged with gold from the sun. The sun flickered its afternoon light through the tree tops and reflected on the water of the lake, just meters away.

The men ended their discussion, and the driver made the final trip to the porch with the luggage. McCoy opened the door with the key and walked alongside the driver back to Christine, stopping there. The driver swung up into the vehicle and turned to wave to Leonard.

"You and Mrs. McCoy have a nice stay, and I'll see you in a few days." Leonard waved back and the driver sped out in a cloud of dust that turned Christine's stomach and made her fervently happy not to still be in that infernal back seat. Her thoughts returned to the last statement the driver had made and she looked at Leonard.

"Mrs. McCoy?" she heard her own incredulous voice ask.

"Of course he thought that," he grumbled, starting back to the bungalow. "The bill is on my credit." He called over his shoulder. "Are you coming?" and hefted the food box and carried it into the bungalow.

Christine laughed and walked to the porch, picked up the rest of the luggage, and entered.

The bungalow was rustic, carpeted, but obviously 20th century decor: sliding glass doors, a fireplace, frame furniture, primitive plumbing, very quaint.

McCoy returned from the kitchen carrying her medical bag which had been laid in the food box. He toyed with its weight. "What all you got in here?" he asked and continued before she could answer, "Women! Always pack twice as much as they need."

He put it down and strolled out to the porch. Christine stood there in the main room of the bungalow for a moment, bewildered, and then decided it was not worth the argument. She wouldn't mention to him that it was the same bag she'd packed for him countless times before, which he'd found both adequate and reasonable. She'd learned to pack her bag by packing his. The medical bag, at this point, was not the issue.

When she came out onto the porch he was sitting on the railing, his back against a post, one foot up, one foot dangling. He heard her come out.

"Now you can't say this wasn't worth the ride," he challenged without looking at her. He was right. It was a beautiful sunset. She said nothing but put her hand on his shoulder. He stiffened against it and she knocked gently on the back of his head.

"Psssst," she whispered very quietly in his ear. "Is my friend Leonard in there? I haven't seen him all day. I hope he's okay."

A quiet smile touched his face and he turned to her, his eyes too shadowed to see in the fading light, but his face was full of pain. He turned back to the sunset and she put an arm around his chest, her face against the back of his shoulder, and held him for a very long time.

When at last it was too cool to remain outdoors, he patted her arm and they went in. McCoy found a light switch as the main room was lit by the old-style lights.

"Let there be light," he quipped, and smiled.

The day's dark mood had passed, and so had any chance of him opening up to her. The old Leonard was back and the evening was a joyous time of talking and dinner and laughing. Leonard showed her holographs of Ashley and Joanna. Christine told him about school and command training, and they reminisced together. All too soon it was late and they were both tired.

"First one up gets to clean the fish," McCoy called to her as they entered their rooms for the night.

She slept well that night, so well in fact, that the bed was all but made when she awoke.

She sniffed at the air. Coffee! And that must be Leonard's scrambled eggs. She dressed hurriedly and went into the kitchen. It was early yet, but Leonard was in front of the old gas stove humming and cooking, the sleeves on his old-style button shirt rolled up and the tail tucked neatly into the tight blue jeans. He fit the decor of the kitchen well.

"Good morning," he greeted her cheerfully, and poured her a cup of coffee. "Compliments of the house," he said grandly and handed it to her. The drawl could have knocked her over, had he leaned closer.

She smiled, loving him. "I thought I was supposed to do the cooking," she said, taking the cup. "Thanks."

"You are," he assured her. "Lunches and dinners. I'll do breakfasts."

"I'll let you. I'm flexible." She tasted the coffee. It was strong, of course. McCoy's law: "If you can't stand a spoon in it, it's not coffee." But it was good. She added more milk.

It was nice here, and quiet except for the noise of the birds -- real birds. McCoy was looking thoughtful as they ate.

"The eggs are good, Leonard," she commented, and he smiled at her.

She wondered how long it was to be before he would let her in on his thoughts. She held off pressing him about it, but left herself open to talking, and spent time trying to nurture him. If ever a man needed nurturing, McCoy did not. And Christine wanted very much to do that.

That afternoon after the wind had died down they paddled the sailboat back to dock. They were both burned and tired. The fishing hadn't gone well, but it had been fun.

"Tomorrow," said McCoy, "we get up before they do."

"And we hike to those reeds we saw," Christine added. "That's where they are." McCoy nodded and headed toward the bungalow.

Christine cleared the mud from her shoes on the edge of the dock. This was so reminiscent of the vacations with her dad and the boys. Her whole body was hot and sweaty and the water looked so cool. "Leonard," she called to him from the dock as she ran towards the bungalow, "I'm going to die if I don't get cooled off." She had reached him. "Come with me for a swim?"

"No. I don't think so," he answered quietly. The black mood was upon him again. She wouldn't leave him now. "You go ahead," he urged as they reached the porch and-he sank into a chair.

"I'll tell you what. You sit there and I'll make us a cold drink," she said. He reclined in the chair and leaned back with a nod to her, and a melancholy smile.

When she returned, he was sound asleep.

She sat in the chair across from him and set the tray on the rail of the porch. She wondered, as she watched him sleep, if this was fatigue or depression.

How could he leave now -- now that he and Jim and Spock were all together again? She hurt for him. She could not see how he would get through this, or how she could help him. The Enterprise and even Starfleet, loathe though he would be to admit it, had been his life, even as they were hers.

* * *

 

The evening and the following day passed and still Leonard remained closed to her in that one area. Finally, on that third night, in the darkness by the fireplace, she broached the subject.

"How long are you going to hold all of that in, Leonard?" she asked.

He stared at the fire through his brandy snifter. "What is there to say? I'm up against a wall. Either choice leaves a chunk of my life behind."

Christine stared into the fire with him. "Angry?" she asked, probing gently.

"Hell, yes, I'm angry!" he shot back, She said nothing as he glared into the fire.

Finally she said quietly, "I would be angry too."

He shook his head. "But I'm angry at all the wrong things. At Jim for calling me back, though what choice did he have? At you for the sickbay, yet knowing you'll have it has been the first peace I've had about it in three years. At Spock -- oh, on general principle, I guess -- no, 'cuz as much as I try not to worry about him, I do. That man's gonna destroy himself sooner or later out of the sheer cussedness of his own stubborn nature. None of this makes sense, Chris. Not a bit of it is rational."

"We're not rational creatures by nature, Leonard. Ask Spock," Christine said, taking his hand. McCoy smiled at the mention of Spock and squeezed her hand.

"I would say," continued Christine, looking into the fire, "that we are safe targets, Jim, Spock, and I. You can't be angry with Joanna because she's hurting right now. You can't be angry at Ashley, he's just a baby. You're angry at situations and we're safe to take it out on."

He'd be able to see it with someone else, had seen it and said it to others, and she knew he was wondering why it was so different when it was him.

"I know," he nodded. "But why can't I just accept it? That's what I want to know." His eyes were full of hurt and confusion.

She rubbed his hands between hers. "Are you sure you've made your decision?" she asked.

"Yes. I need to be with Joanna and Ashley. He needs a man around. Joanna needs my support. God only knows the times she needed me that I wasn't there."

"But Leonard. What does Leonard need?"

He looked at her a moment. "What do you mean?"

Christine continued. "You can't live your life just for others. What pros and cons are there, selfishly, for you in each choice?"

"Well, here I have camaraderie, excitement, purpose, but I'm tied down to regulations. I'm fifty-four, my work span is not as long as it could be, I'm away from Joanna and Ashley, there's the risk factor, I miss Earth. On Earth, I can help Joanna, see Ashley grow up, do my research. It's not as exciting, but I enjoy it, and I'm building something I can continue in, past the time when I could be useful on a starship. But, I'd miss Enterprise, you and Jim and Spock, and everyone." His voice was rising in frustration. "I don't know, Chris." He stopped, overloaded, misery in his voice. And then all but whispered, "It's so hard."

There was silence while the fire crackled. Christine finally spoke.

"If you look only at the relationships," she began, "in five years there, your relationships with us will be undamaged. Spend that same five years with us and you may never have the chance to be as close to Joanna and Ashley. Joanna could be re-married and Ashley have a new daddy and you'd never have a chance to get really close to him. I think you want that chance to go back and be a daddy again. To do it right and be there for them."

He looked at her. He'd never known another woman that had known him as well as Christine, never known one that could zero in on him like that and not step on his ego. Hell, what ego could there be with Chris?

She was right. The sacrifice would be too great. He wanted these months and years to develop his relationships with Joanna and Ashley. He was looking forward to diapers and babyfood. He'd enjoyed Joanna so much when she was first born, and those precious first months.

Chris. Know-it-all woman. What would he do without her? He smiled at her and she smiled back. Suddenly, he wanted to be with her, in a way he never had before. He'd felt stirrings for her, he thought. Wouldn't be human if he hadn't. But now she was so near, and so open, and so concerned for him. It was different now.

The fire crackled again and he leaned forward to her. Her eyes were serious as she lifted her mouth to his. The kiss began softly and deepened into something strong and sensual. Leonard touched the back of her neck as they broke from the kiss and she looked up at him. There was no embarrassment. They were too close for embarrassment,

Leonard rubbed the back of her neck gently and kissed her again, very lightly, not allowing himself to linger there.

"It would be so easy to make love with you right now, Chris," he whispered, his voice thick.

Christine could not think of how easy it would be for her, too. It had been a long time since she'd made love, and Leonard was so special to her. He would be gone so soon. He spoke again. "But for all the wrong reasons. It wouldn't be the answer; and neither of us could do it without a lot of other feelings getting involved. Aren't our lives complicated enough as it is?"

She smiled a sad smile. Why did being reasonable have to hurt so? She touched his face. "I want it, too, Len. Very much, right now." She paused and kissed him back gently. "But you're right -- damn you." Tears filled her eyes. "I love you, Leonard. You're so special to me. I'm going to miss you so."

He smiled and took her hand, turning it to kiss the palm. "I love you, too, Chris," he said, his own eyes glistening in the fire light.

And then he quietly rose from beside her. "Good night, Chris."

"Good night, Len," she answered, and watched him disappear into his room.

She scattered the kindling and went to bed. Sleep was a long time coming.

* * *

 

Their last morning in the bungalow was quiet, melancholy. Neither of them was ready to leave. It had been too ideal, despite the fact that they were both burned to a crisp, covered with bug bites, and Christine had poison ivy an one ankle.

They packed and took a walk, arm in arm. They were especially close now. It was almost as if they had made love the night before. And maybe, in a way, they had, There was a silence for the better part of an hour before Leonard spoke.

"I feel settled, finally -- about leaving. I'm even getting anxious to see Ashley again."

Christine smiled and hugged his arm. "I'm glad. I would have hated to see you go, the way you were."

He stopped and looked at her. "I'm still worried about you and Spock. How are you going to handle being with him day in and day out?" he asked seriously.

Christine was equally serious. "I don't know, Leonard. I only know that my life is on Enterprise. My love for Spock will have to work itself out, somehow. I'll just have to cross each bridge as I come to it. I can live and function without him if I need to. I'm not saying I don't still want him, but I'm not living solely for him, either."

He put his arms around her and squeezed. "We'd better get back. The transport officer is due in an hour and a half," he said, and they began back.

As they approached the bungalow, Christine stopped and said to him, half seriously, "You know, Leonard, I know you were right about last night. But I can't help but wonder what it would have been like, and what we missed."

He looked at her and smiled a warm smile. When he spoke, the drawl was so thick she could have cut it. "Forget it, Chris. My ears are all wrong for you."

She laughed. He was right. As always.

* * *

 

By evening they were back aboard the Enterprise, the crew all present and accounted for, and Sulu was heading the ship back towards Mother Earth at warp factor six point three.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Christine were sitting eating on the rec deck as McCoy and Kirk played a tablegame. McCoy was winning. Spock had been particularly quiet since their return. His color was good, he was moving less stiffly than before, but still bending and rising slowly. His head was probably still hurting, though it did not now show on the perscan readout as such.

"I trust you and Mr. Scott have the engine imbalance corrected?" she asked Spock, more to make conversation than anything

He nodded his answer, feigning great interest in McCoy and Kirk's game. Christine watched the game as well. McCoy was a bad person to play anything with that involved luck. He always won. Leonard McCoy had to be one of the luckiest men in the galaxy.

"Well, Jim-boy. Wanna lose again?" he offered, insufferably proud of himself.

"No, thank you," Kirk answered. "I don't know why I let you con me into it. You always win," he said, bemoaning his loss.

McCoy looked to Spock. "Spock?" he asked. Spock knew better.

"No, thank you, Doctor. I prefer a little more intellectual stimulation in my recreational pursuits."

Christine smiled and looked at her chronometer. "Well, I have a patient to check on," she said before McCoy could zero in on her. "I'll see you gentlemen later. Captain," she acknowledged politely and left. There was no patient, but she'd had McCoy to herself for four days, and now she felt a compelling need to share him.

The approximately thirty-six hours of travel time between the Six facilities and Earth went quickly. McCoy did not ask for a watch in the sickbay, and Christine did not assign him one. He was divorcing himself from all involvement with his beloved sickbay but she knew that, and also knew the pain it was causing him.

He had become a social butterfly, and was never in one place for long. He chose his meals where he could be with the largest numbers of his companions at one time.

Both Jim and Spock hung close to him. Was it protectively, or maybe selfishly? Christine only knew that it tore at her heart to see them so close together and know that the time was ticking away, that the Enterprise was hurtling through space at warp speed to end it all.

* * *

 

The final day came; they were close to entering Earth atmosphere. The department heads were readying for beamdown for debriefing, others to beam down to family and friends. Christine felt low, as she busied herself in the sickbay. In less than a day she would have to say good-bye to Leonard, most probably for at least five years. And what about Leonard? He would be fine, she told herself, and wished she felt more assured. At that instant, the door to the sickbay opened and Leonard stood there for a moment. There was a silence. No one made a sound. He was overcome by emotion for a moment and Christine came to his rescue.

"Back to work, everyone. Let's have a little more action here, and a little less standing around."

The sickbay began to hum again in a fair imitation of everyone working. It fooled no one, but the deception was easier to deal with.

He stood for a moment longer and entered, nodding to Christine and then going in turn to each of the medical crew he had served with. At last he even said a word to those he had only recently met. There was a hug for Sam Adams. Adams had been there longer than either McCoy or Christine and had served under Captain Pike and Doctor Boyce. Finally, his good-byes said, McCoy returned to Christine.

"Well, I guess that's it. Come with me to the transporter room?" he asked. Christine looked at him and her eyes filled again, a seemingly constant condition today.

"Sure," she answered and looked around. "Sam, take over here," she called, and the tech nodded.

"It won't be for a while yet," McCoy reminded her.

"I know. Let's get a cup of coffee and see who's on the rec deck," she answered with a smile, wanting this time to be with him. He was thankful for the company.

The last forty-five minutes seemed to drag by, and yet in the long run seemed all too quickly gone. People milled by the table saying their good-byes. Word quickly got around that McCoy was on the rec deck and there was a steady stream of old friends coming and going.

At last Leonard looked at his chronometer. "Well. I'd better get my things together," he said. They both felt heavy-hearted and full of the pain of separation.

"Debriefing party beam-down in five minutes," the intercom announced as if it had overheard. They stood and deposited their cups as they made their way from the rec deck.

"I don't think I'll come back aboard after the debriefing. I'll leave from there," he said absently as they walked. Christine nodded. It would be easier for them all that way, she thought as the turbolift deposited them at their destination. They reached his cabin and picked up his travelcase, then moved back toward the turbolift.

It's really happening, she realized. He's really leaving. The transporter room was full and the bustle straggled out into the corridor.

Kirk came from behind them, very impressive in his admiral's uniform and stripes. He nodded.

"Bones."

"Jim," McCoy greeted. It was simple and eloquent. They had already said all there was to say in private, earlier in the day. The crowd let them through.

As they approached they could see, there beside the transporter platform, Joanna and Ashley. Joanna was dark-haired, blue-eyed, and very obviously her father's daughter. The resemblance was striking.

"Dad!" she cried as she saw him, and they embraced. McCoy was stunned. Christine saw Kirk look to Scott with a question. Was he responsible? Scott shook his head 'no', as did Janice Rand. Spock, standing nearby, was deep in thought over something on the transporter panel. Too deep in thought, reasoned Christine, and saw Kirk arrive at the same conclusion and smile.

Leonard lifted the infant from Joanna's arms with a low crooning. The transformation in him was truly a thing of wonder. A puzzled look began to touch his face as he snuggled Ashley into that special niche in the curve of his arm against his body.

The puzzled look solidified as the undeniable truth hit him.

"Whose fool idea was it to stick my grandson through the transporter?!" he roared, ready to take on all comers.

"Mine, Dad," said Joanna, a bit too quickly. "It was all my idea. Your friends just pulled the strings for us," Joanna claimed fervently. Christine could see that McCoy didn't believe it for a moment, but what could he say? Kirk spotted a need for diversion and created some.

"Okay, clear the transporter room. Crew beamdown isn't for ten more minutes." People filtered out, patting McCoy, peeking at the baby in his arms.

The first group of department heads were ready for transport and Scotty stood beside McCoy, a lump in his throat.

"Well, Leonard, I guess it's tha' time. 'Tis a bonny wee bairn ye got there." He shifted his smile to include Joanna. "An' a bonny growed up lass, too. 'Tis a lucky man ya are, McCoy."

McCoy flashed a torn grin at Scotty. "Good bye, Scotty."

Scott cleared his throat and climbed onto the platform. Uhura, having said her good-byes earlier, kissed the doctor's cheek and took her place.

"Energize," Scotty ordered and Rand operated the controls. They shimmered out, leaving only a small group in the transporter room.

Christine looked at Leonard and Joanna. McCoy was engrossed in Ashley. As Kirk, Janice and Christine gathered close to him, Leonard prattled on, pointing out the infant's great attributes, pride glowing from him.

"I think he looks like Bones," Kirk said, touching a tiny hand tenderly. The little hand obligingly grasped his finger and he beamed. It was a sight Christine would not forget.

"I'll second that," said Janice, smiling.

Spock hung back from the group slightly and Christine motioned him to them.

"What's your opinion, Spock?" she asked.

Spock feigned reluctance, and then came closer, peering into the bundle. At that moment, Ashley began making impatient, angry noises.

"Ah, yes," said Spock. "I believe I do see the resemblance."

McCoy shot a standard look at Spock, and Christine moved in, smiling. "Good-bye, Leonard," she said and hugged him. He kissed her cheek and hugged her with his free arm."

Ashley began a full-fledged cry, and Joanna said apologetically, "He's hungry."

McCoy smirked. "I hope you like buttermilk," he mumbled to the crying child in his arms as they mounted the platform. "Cuz that's what it's gonna be."

Christine grinned at Kirk, who smiled back, as Joanna put a pacifier in the child's mouth and it instantly quieted.

"Oh, Dad," Joanna continued, "before I forget, Mr. Spock gave me this tape for you." She pulled the object from her diaper bag.

Spock returned to the controls of the transporter uncomfortably. He clearly had been hoping that it would be forgotten until a more opportune time.

McCoy took the cartridge from her and looked at Spock, puzzled. Spock held his expression of detachment, though with some amount of effort.

"From the discussion of your work we had the night before you went on leave, Doctor. I took the liberty of recording some thoughts, alternate avenues, and equations that you may find interesting to explore," he explained matter-of-factly.

McCoy looked around and cleared his throat. There was a lot of that going around, Christine thought, her own throat constricting.

"Thanks, Spock," McCoy said, looking at him again. He shifted the child in his arms and attempted a Vulcan salute. "How's that go again?" he asked, looking from his hand to Spock.

"Very nearly correct, Doctor," Spock answered, and returned the salute.

McCoy looked at Kirk a last time, but neither could speak.

"Energize," Spock commanded, and the transporter shimmer began. In a few seconds they were gone. Spock's hands lowered from the console; it was done. He was gone. They looked at one another briefly, Spock being the first to speak.

"Shall we, Captain?" he asked, motioning to the platform.

"Have we a choice?" Kirk responded wryly, and followed Spock to the platform.

Janice finished changing the coordinates. Kirk and Spock were beaming to separate coordinates, first to appear before the Admiralty. They would perhaps see McCoy, but only in joint sessions, or in passing.

Kirk glanced at Janice, and receiving a nod -- the coordinates were set -- turned and spoke to Christine.

"I'll let you know as soon as I know anything, Doctor," he assured her, and she smiled at him. "Energize." Janice had anticipated his order, and the shimmer almost coincided with his words.

They were left, the two women, standing alone in the room. Janice would be the last of the department heads to leave, and she would leave only after the general beam-down was completed.

Their eyes met, and Christine wondered if Janice Rand still had feelings for Jim Kirk.

There had been something, she knew, in those early days of her service when she'd been his yeoman. Christine had always felt a little sorry for her. Janice had been very young and pretty and constantly exposed to Kirk's flamboyant attractiveness. Not that Jim would openly flirt with her, but he was by nature charming and open, and Janice had received full exposure to him, not only in that, but in his times of fatigue, pressure, and pain as well.

It had been a hard position for her, and one that she loved. No one was surprised, except maybe for Kirk, when it became too much for her and she put in for transfer after two years.

And now, here in the transporter room, Christine wondered. Janice answered the unspoken question.

"Well. Here we go again, huh?" she said with a knowing smile. Yes, Christine thought. It was still there, at least some of it was.

"How are you doing?" Christine asked. "You signed on with Will Decker. This must be quite a shock." She motioned to the platform where Kirk had stood.

"Fine. It was indeed a shock," she admitted. "And you?"

Christine was not sure she wanted to open up about this. She looked at Janice, and then feeling a welcome kinship, answered her. "Pretty much stable now. It was hard at first."

Janice smiled again. "I hear you were brilliant when Spock came in unconscious."

"Let's just say that what I did worked. Scared me to death, though," she admitted.

"Is he all right?" Janice asked. "He looks okay."

Christine smiled ruefully. "He looks terrific. He'll be fine. No permanent damage." She changed the subject. "You planning to stay on?"

Janice was thoughtful for a moment. "Yes, I think so. I was so sure I was over this." She looked a little confused.

"But here you are and here he is, and it's all back, right?" Christine asked her.

"Just about. It's better now, though. He's still just so--"

"So 'Jim'," Christine finished for her. "I know. He's a very special man. Unique."

Janice nodded. "And you? Are you staying?" She glanced at the chronometer.

Christine smiled. She motioned to the platform again. "It all depends on how good he talks and how much more he can get away with. I'll stay on as staff. The question is whether I'll be staying on as Medical Chief."

"I hope it goes well for you. I've heard some good things about you from the crew. The sickbay crew likes you," Janice said.

"Really?" Christine asked with a smile. "I really want it, Janice. I'm just afraid he's already pushed all he can."

The chronometer moved. "Crew beam-down commencing," Janice announced over the intercom and people started to filter in. Janice smiled at her.

Christine moved closer to her at the controls. She needed to get back to the sickbay. "Keep in touch, Janice," she said, touching Rand's shoulder.

"You, too, Christine," Janice smiled, and returned to her controls.

Christine headed down the corridor against the traffic to her sickbay. It was hers, for today. All hers. There was no McCoy here. Leonard. It still hurt. She missed him already. She would have been willing, she thought, to serve under him, even to wait for him to retire to have this. He belonged here. She entered the sickbay and looked around. It was empty. She walked to the lounge and picked up a stray cup. Yes, she thought, she could have waited. But she was glad she didn't have to. She was infinitely ready for this. She was hungry for it like nothing she had ever hungered for before. She wanted the pressure, the responsibility of a command position, the stretching that it would entail. The first woman Chief Medical Officer in the fleet, a proud position. She smiled.

"Dr. Chapel."

It was Murphy, flushed, coming into the lounge area from behind her. "Dr. Chapel, one of the lab barans is missing from its cage in Lab Six."

"Did you seal off Lab Six?" Christine asked.

"Yes, sir, we did. But it's not there. Tricorder readings show only the number of animals caged, and ourselves," she answered, looking distressed.

Christine sighed and gave her a small smile. This wasn't her idea of the right way to begin her duties as ship's doctor. If Kirk failed, her one day of service would consist of 'the great lab baran hunt.'

But then, it was part of the job, and sometimes it would be an inglorious one. She went to the intercom.

"This is Doctor Chapel. All hands, Deck Seven, alert. We have a lost lab baran, last seen in the vicinity of--"

It was going to be a long day, she thought.

And it had been. But only the first of many.

THE END