DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Juanita Salicrup and is copyright (c) by Juanita Salicrup. This story is Rated PG.



CROSSROADS

Juanita Salicrup



"Well, Bones?" Kirk's face was tight with the same worry that tautened his voice. He glared at the exhausted physician, impatient and fearful, as McCoy nearly fell into his office chair, propping his head up with one hand.

The other man whispered rustily, "He's going to make it, Jim -- though God alone knows how. He ought to be dead, messily, totally dead. But he's not. Must be that Vulcan cussedness."

"Thank God!" Kirk's relief attacked him in the legs and he sank down in the chair opposite, rubbing his eyes to hide the mist of grateful tears that had clouded them. His fear gone, he was able at last to pay some attention to the doctor. McCoy was grey with fatigue, the lines in his face cavernous, eyes sunken and pale.

"Are you all right, Bones?"

"Huh?" McCoy roused from his near-stupor. "Oh, yeah, Jim. Just beat."

"Tell me about him ... about Spock."

"Well, his injuries were severe, but we've repaired everything -- the wounds, burns and broken bones. Now he needs healing time, lots of it. In fact, I think he'd be best off on leave, after the initial convalescence period is over."

"Why? Why not here on board?"

"Jim," McCoy heaved himself around wearily to face the Captain. "You and I both know that Spock makes as lousy a patient as you do. He won't rest unless he's strapped down or doped into unconsciousness, and the minute he's ambulatory he sneaks off to his computer and spends hours over it diddling away at whatever complex problem that agile brain can think up.

"Put him in the ward with a yellow alert screaming around his head and you're asking for an escape. He doesn't need that. He needs lots of sun and rest, a good diet, intelligently dispensed physical therapy later on -- all the things he could best get on a rest leave off this ship."

"All right, Bones. I see your point and concede. What do you suggest?"

"A period of acute care is vital. He won't even be able to lift his head without help for maybe three days. Then, maybe two weeks here in sickbay. After that, we'll see, but he was in typically perfect physical condition before this happened, so I ought to be able to let him go on medical leave. With the proper attention, he could be back on duty a month after that. Say, seven weeks in all."

"That much?" Kirk was surprised. Even though he couldn't erase the memory of his First Officer lying broken and blood-covered in the ruins of Auxiliary Control after the Romulan attack, he hadn't thought how long it would take him to mend -- if it were possible that he would mend at all.

Spock had pulled three junior officers out of Auxiliary when the bulkhead was threatened with breaching by disruptor fire and was making his own escape when a tangential hit had literally brought the place down around his ears. McCoy and his team had spent hours over the torn and broken body, closing gashes, knitting bones and swabbing burns.

"You objecting to the time frame, Captain?" McCoy asked testily. He wasn't too tired to fight, if necessary.

Kirk held up a hand and gave a weary grin. "Whoa! Peace, Bones. I wasn't questioning your medical judgment. I'm glad he's alive. I guess I didn't realize how long it might take before he'd be well again."

The doctor subsided visibly.

Kirk went on. "Er -- can I see him now?"

"Yeah, sure, Jim. He's sedated, but you can look in on him, at least." When he would have risen to accompany the Captain, Kirk gently pushed him back into his chair. "Sit, Doctor. I'll be back in a minute. Then you and I will have a nightcap and head for some sleep. You look as if you could use some rest yourself."

McCoy smiled and sat back, closing his eyes gratefully against the weariness.

Kirk stepped into the intensive care unit, where Spock was the only patient. Other injuries incurred in the battle had been minor enough to confine the wounded to the regular ward, and Kirk had stopped in earlier to see them, passing a few light comments along with his commendations and exiting quickly enough to allow them to get back to their banter.

The ICU was quiet and dim, except for the circle of light around the one bed. The diagnostic panel pulsed softly, and Kirk could see Christine Chapel's blonde head in the circle of light where she sat beside the bed, shepherding its occupant. He nodded to her and she gave him a small smile in return before her eyes drew back to the face of her patient.

Spock lay sleeping with apparent peacefulness, a heated air coverlet over him. Beneath its soft drapery, he was apparently naked, and Kirk could see the white edging of the plastidressings that swathed much of his lean, hard body. A thermal body pad, its indicator glowing, served as a mattress. Between coverlet and pad, he was kept comfortable and safe from the danger of a chill. A small white patch of plastibandage was fastened above the slant of one eyebrow.

Kirk's eyes were fixed on the peaceful lines of the hawklike face, searching for traces of suffering. Blessedly, there were none. Christine's soft, husky voice interrupted his thoughts.

"He's resting comfortably, Captain. There is no pain now."

He nodded and glanced at the nurse, noticing the concern beneath her professional mask. Not for the first time, he was aware of her feelings for his alien friend. Unlike many of the junior crew who thought the nurse's affection for Spock laughable in the face of the First Officer's continued aloofness, Kirk saw nothing funny in unrequited love. He smiled gently at her. "I'm not worried about him, Chris. I know he's in the best of hands."

She smiled in return, a slightly tremulous and warm response that made her look oddly appealing and unaccustomedly attractive. "Thank you, sir," she said softly.

He nodded to her, gave a last grateful glance at Spock and went out the way he had come. In his office, McCoy sat dozing in the chair where Kirk had left him. The Captain tapped him on the shoulder, rousing him gently. "Come on, Bones. Beddy-bye." It was a sign of McCoy's weariness that he offered no protest as Kirk led him away.

* * *

Early next morning, just before going on duty, Kirk made a bee-line back to Sickbay. To his surprise, McCoy, looking surprisingly fresh, was already there. As Kirk entered, the doctor turned from giving orders to one of the nurses.

"Morning, Jim."

"I thought I left you at your door last night. Didn't you sleep at all?"

"Got plenty of sleep. And you?"

"Fine, fine. I came to see if I could look in on Spock."

"Your timing's perfect. He just woke up, and I think he'll be glad to see you. Go on in."

Kirk nodded and walked into Intensive Care, half-expecting to see Christine on duty. Instead, a slender, dark-haired nurse was in her place. She was adjusting the diagnostic panel above the bed when Kirk walked in. She smiled and exited as he came to stand next to the bed.

"Spock?"

"Captain!" The deep voice was only a hoarse whisper and the dark eyes were still drug-clouded, but vitality shone beneath.

"How are you feeling, my friend?"

"I am better, sir. As usual, Dr. McCoy's noxious potions are doing their job." It was a weak joke at best, and the effort of speech had cost the Vulcan.

Kirk's hand fell gently on his shoulder. "Don't speak. Just rest. The most important thing now is that you get well, so no matter what McCoy does to you, let him -- *let* him."

"Yes, sir," Spock replied softly. "How are the men I pulled out of Auxiliary?"

"They seem to be doing just fine. They're in the regular ward, along with a couple from Phaser Control who got banged up a bit. You're the most serious injury." His voice changed a little. "We almost lost you, you know."

"I know. It was not by choice, Jim, I assure you."

"I realize that. It just would have been ... hard to take."

McCoy bustled in. "I hate to break up this little dialogue of yours, gentlemen."

"I'll just bet you do," Kirk muttered.

Ignoring him, McCoy went on. "But my patient needs rest, not talk -- and I believe you're due on duty, Captain."

"Bones, did anyone ever tell you you make a lousy mother?" Kirk shot back at him before winking at Spock and leaving, chortling over the Vulcan's whispered protest, "I do *not* need another sedative, Doctor!"

* * *

Three days later, Kirk received a message summoning him to McCoy's office -- no hurry -- and he'd waited until the end of his shift to pay the doctor a call. When he walked in, he found the physician sitting over a pile of reports on the injuries from the Romulan scuffle.

"You called, Bones. What's up?"

"Jim, I think I'd like Spock to take his medical leave on Vulcan." McCoy leaned back in his chair, regarding Kirk closely.

The Captain frowned. "Why Vulcan in particular?"

"Psychology, Jim. Spock is past the worst of his injuries and healing nicely, but not only needs the extended rest, he could use the break in his routine that a home leave would provide. It's almost the end of the five-year mission, decision time, a lot of conflicting options and choices. We ought to let him go and recuperate fully before he has to come back here and make his decision for the next five-year duty post. His mind will be clearer and he'll be better able to cope with whatever pressures arise out of whatever choice he makes."

Kirk looked at him sharply. "Don't you think he'll choose to continue with the Enterprise?"

"As a matter of fact, Jim, I think he'll carefully consider all the alternatives and do just that -- put in for five more years with the ship. But I think the choice ought to be made with a clear head. You know as well as I do that he's got enough leave accumulated to spread around to six other officers. He may be a Vulcan, and I know their ideas of R&R are different from ours, but take my word for it, it won't hurt him to be away from the Enterprise for a while."

"'Absence makes the heart grow fonder', is that it, Bones?"

"Something like that."

"You have a devious mind, Doctor. Okay, what do you want me to do?"

McCoy grinned at him. "Come with me while I give him my considered medical opinion, and when he starts to argue about it, make it a Captain's order. He'll take that from you, even if he doesn't like it."

"All right," Kirk agreed.

When McCoy rose, satisfied, to start toward the door, the Captain put a hand on the doctor's arm. "You think he's well enough to go alone?"

The corners of McCoy's eyes crinkled. "Well, I think he could use a watchdog, considering his tendency to overdo everything except compliance with my orders ... but I wouldn't appoint you to the task, even if you *could* get away right now."

Kirk straightened, surprised. "Why not?"

"Because you two are like a pair of mischievous kids when you get together. What trouble one can't think up, the other will. Besides, when he wants to be, Spock can be his own brand of charmingly persuasive. And if he wants to get up before he should, he'll just 'logic' you into a corner so you'll let him. No. I want somebody who'll treat him just the way I would: ignore all his intelligent reasoning and bully him into submitting to care."

Kirk laughed. "And who might that be?"

McCoy arched a brow at him. "Lieutenant Christine Chapel, my Head Nurse, that's who."

Kirk stopped dead, his jaw dropping. "Bones," he said after a moment, "don't you think that's going to be awfully hard on both of them?"

"Nope. Be good for 'em."

"Why, Doctor," Kirk said with mock sternness. "I had no idea you were in the matchmaking business on the side."

"I'm not. Or up front, either ... but they've both been living under an untenable strain for the better part of five years. Oh, they handle themselves like officers and gentlebeings, but the fact is that it can't continue like this for another five years or it will tear them both apart -- and maybe the ship along with it.

"It wouldn't hurt either one of them to have to think about the situation without any other distractions for a while. Perhaps they'll come to some resolution or another. Now do you see why I want to assign Christine to the case? She's not only the most competent officer for the job in terms of skill, she's uniquely fitted to it for emotional reasons. And precisely because she *does* care so much for Spock, she'll take far better care of him than anyone else could."

Kirk thought about it for a moment, and finally had to acknowledge the truth of McCoy's statement. "You're right, of course, Bones. I might have known you'd have sound -- and compassionate -- reasons for what you're doing. All right. What now?"

"Come on, let's go see Spock. I want to get this over with as quickly as possible."

* * *

McCoy's hope for haste was somewhat forestalled by the fact that Christine herself was on duty at the moment, changing dressings on the First Officer's wounds. Kirk hung back a moment, watching as she finished applying medication to the wounds in Spock's left shoulder and arm. He followed Bones over to the bed as she spread the final plastibandage over the wounds and then walked out past them to discard the soiled dressings and scrub up.

"How're you feeling, Spock?" he asked, watching as McCoy checked the analyzer panel and ran a small diagnostic scanner over Spock's chest.

"I am well, Captain," the Vulcan replied in a slightly strained voice.

"Practicin' medicine without a license again, Spock?" jibed McCoy as he put away the scanner.

The First Officer favored him with a raised eyebrow. "Hardly, Doctor. I would not deprive you of your simple joys."

McCoy snorted derisively. "I'll just bet!" For a moment, he fussed with the diagnostic panel, then turned back to Spock. Kirk waited, watchfully.

"Spock, you're a good bit off the mark when you say you're well. Fact is, you're not. Oh, you're pretty well along the road to recovery, but after these wounds are healed, you're going to need rest and recuperation time. So I'm putting you on medical leave and sending you home to Vulcan for a month -- effective in ten days."

He rolled back on his heels and waited for the reaction. It wasn't long in coming.

"I protest," Spock replied in a hoarse whisper. "I will be sufficiently well to remain on board the Enterprise. I see no reason to--"

"I'm not sayin' you couldn't stay on board. I'm sayin' you shouldn't and won't be," cut in McCoy. Before Spock could draw breath for a counter-argument, he continued, "I'm not being contrary or illogical, Spock. The fact is, you need the kind of enforced rest, sunshine and peace that you can best get at home and not on this starship. You're overdue for a regular home leave, anyway."

"Doctor, I assure you, I am capable of resting on board ship .. .and do not feel the need for home leave -- or I would have taken it," returned the Vulcan.

Kirk broke in gently. "Spock." The First Officer turned to him. Kirk saw the fatigue and lingering pain written in the nearly translucent skin pulled taut over the prominent cheekbones, sunken eyes dulled by ordeals and deep grooves stretching from nose to the corners of the too-tensed mouth. "Don't argue with Bones. He's got your best interests at heart and the authority to enforce his orders ... even over *my* head. In fact, just so he doesn't have to, I'm going to add my two credits. You're going home on leave for a month -- and that's now a Captain's order as well as a Chief Medical Officer's."

Spock sighed and lowered his eyes slightly. "Very well, sir," he replied softly. He relaxed against the pillows, all arguments forgotten in the face of the dual opposition.

"Just so you don't get any fancy ideas about what you're going to do when you get off on your own, I'm assigning someone to watch over you," McCoy announced. Before Spock could say a word, the doctor called, "Christine, will you come out here, please?"

A moment later, the nurse came in. "Yes, Doctor?"

"Mr. Spock is going to be released from the Enterprise in about two weeks and sent to Vulcan for a month's medical rest leave. I'll need someone to watch over him, enforce his rest, supply medication and some early physical therapy. I'm assigning you to the job, Christine."

For a moment, the young woman looked startled at the news, her eyes widening slightly, turning toward Spock involuntarily ... then her professionalism asserted itself. "Yes, Doctor," she replied, hiding the rest of her reactions behind her mask of duty.

"All right. Now that that's settled, you can get back to your duties. For the next two weeks, you'll be the principal one handling Spock's case, so you can be completely in touch with his condition when you accompany him to Vulcan. Turn over your extra duties to Compton and concentrate on Spock."

"Yes, sir." Christine nodded and walked away without further comment. When she was out of the room and beyond earshot, Spock turned to McCoy. "Doctor, is it absolutely necessary for you to assign Nurse Chapel to my case?"

"I think so, Spock. She's my chief nurse and the only person other than myself that I'd trust to take care of you." Before Spock could interrupt, McCoy continued in a gentler tone. "You don't think I'd trust just anyone to your case, do you, Spock? You're not only the best First Officer in the Fleet, but Jim would skin me alive if anything happened to you when I was responsible for you. Since I can't go myself, with the wrap-up work on physicals and records for the end of the mission, I'm sending the next best person I can think of."

The Vulcan looked as if he wanted to say a good deal more, but realized that, aside from the soundness of McCoy's reasoning, any argument from him could be interpreted as a condemnation of Christine Chapel's abilities. He might have been uncomfortable with her, but found her unquestionably competent. He clamped his lips closed and nodded once.

Kirk, lips twitching, touched his hand gently. "Take it easy, Spock. It won't be half as bad as you think."

The deep-set dark eyes turned wearily toward him. Spock said nothing, though in their depths there was a shading of disbelief and, perhaps, accusation.

Kirk smiled at him. "You'll see."

* * *

Two weeks later, the shuttlecraft Copernicus, piloted by Kirk and bearing the still-recovering First Officer, McCoy and Christine Chapel, took off from its place in the shuttlebay aboard the orbiting Enterprise and headed down through the heavier and heavier layers of atmosphere toward the planet Vulcan below. McCoy had insisted on using the shuttle, refusing -- noisily -- to trust a man in Spock's condition to "that pesky mechanical contraption", his kindest term for the transporter. A special bed had been jury-rigged toward the rear of the compartment and it was there that Spock lay quietly, Christine nearby, McCoy checking on him from time to time.

Since the doctor's announcement, Spock had resigned himself to the nurse's case and noted with relief that she was strictly business-like about her duties. Few words, and most of these related to his treatment, had passed between them. Now, she sat and he lay some ten feet apart, silent with their own thoughts, as the shuttlecraft settled toward the planet's red-hued surface.

For Christine, it was an opportunity to contemplate the assignment and reflect on her own turbulent feelings. She would not, could not, have refused one of McCoy's orders, but wondered painfully where all the doctor's much-vaunted humanitarianism had gone so suddenly. For her entire tour of duty with the starship, Spock had been a disturbing and tantalizing element in her life.

First, he'd been the compellingly attractive, aloof alien she'd fallen in love with, though she managed to be discreet about it. Then, and she shuddered at the memory, the crew had fallen victim to the Psi 2000 virus and under its influence, she'd oh-so-stupidly revealed the depth of her feelings to Spock himself. Ever since, he had shied away from her, apparently appalled by her emotionalism, and as cool, controlled and professional as she'd tried to be, he could never again relax in her presence.

She supposed it had been that, and the sometimes poorly disguised scorn from the rest of the crew for her now widely known love, which had matured her. It had been a maturation of pain and rejection, one she would gladly not have suffered at all. Often, when the hidden depression would overcome her in a moment of weariness, she would contemplate transferring off the ship, leaving Spock behind to live in peace while she sought consolation in some other duty somewhere apart. But she'd known that she couldn't do it. She was a prisoner of her own feelings. If she never saw him again, she would never forget him, for truly, he was in her blood.

Over the years, as she'd studied him with greater care from the increased distance he'd put between them, she'd realized that much of the reason he was content with his duties as First Officer was because the Human half of him, and perhaps the Vulcan half as well, needed Kirk's friendship and McCoy's as well as the others' -- in order to survive. A line from an old Terran poem went through her mind: "No man is an island..." No, and much though he might protest that he was a Vulcan and did not need emotions either, Spock's hunger for them had led him from his own home world to a Terran-staffed starship in the Fleet.

For a moment, she thought about the horror of the Romulan attack, the fever pitch in sickbay as the injury cases had been wheeled in, and then the horrible jolt of looking into the face of the next one brought in and realizing it was Spock. She remembered praying that he would recover -- even promising to never again bother him or yearn for him if only he were spared.

*Foolishness, of course. As long as he is around and I am near him, I will be caught up in this whirlwind of useless feeling,* she sighed. *Ah, well, mooning will get me nowhere but into another depression.* She turned her attention first to Spock, who, she saw, was resting comfortably, and then to Kirk, who was in communication with Vulcan.

"Yes, Mr. Ambassador," Kirk was saying. "He's with us, as are Dr. McCoy and Nurse Chapel. You've made the preparations he specified for Spock's care?"

Sarek's deep, precise voice seemed to fill the shuttlecraft. "Yes, Captain. Quarters have been set aside in the balcony wing off the main hall for Spock. Adjacent ones have been prepared for Lieutenant Chapel. We have also made room for the equipment Dr. McCoy specified in your first contact."

"Good, sir. Thank you."

"Captain, my wife and I would be honored to have you and the Doctor stay for dinner after you have seen to Spock's settlement here."

Kirk hesitated a moment. "Well, sir, we hadn't planned on it--" McCoy caught his eyes and nodded vigorously "--but we'd be pleased to accept your hospitality."

"Very good, Captain. You have the coordinates of our family home. When may we expect your arrival?"

Kirk consulted several dials, then replied, "Our arrival should be in 15.3 minutes, sir."

"Very well, Captain. We shall be there to meet you."

As Kirk signed off, he saw McCoy grinning at him. "What's so funny, Bones?"

"You. 'Fifteen point three minutes'! Since when did you turn Vulcan?"

Kirk chuckled. "They seem to have that effect on you, especially Sarek. It's no wonder Spock turned out the way he did." He lowered his voice. "By the way, how's he doing?"

McCoy glanced over his shoulder before replying. "He's resting comfortably, Jim. Once we get him settled at home, his progress should pick up markedly."

"That's a relief." The Captain adjusted speed and altitude controls. "Did he give you any more of an argument about the leave or Christine?"

"Nope. Apparently, he's resigned to the situation. I've got an idea he's biding his time until he sees how it goes. One thing is sure: if it *doesn't* work out to his satisfaction, we'll hear about it when he gets back to the ship."

Kirk snorted. "What about Christine?"

McCoy glanced back again. The nurse was bending over Spock's bed, checking scanner readings. "She didn't give me any static about it, either. She's too good a nurse to question an order, and I get the feeling that Spock's had an influence over her these past few years. She's become pretty good at containing her emotions."

"That's good. It'll help her get along on Vulcan if she's able to handle her feelings without letting them overwhelm her."

"I think you can count on it, Jim. She's matured quite a bit over the years, and besides, she's got her pride. She wouldn't do anything to embarrass either herself or Spock in front of his own people."

"Okay, Bones. I'm not picking on her. I know she's competent. It's just that I'm concerned for Spock."

McCoy nodded and left Kirk to his piloting duties.

* * *

Exactly as specified, the shuttlecraft settled grittily onto the red and ochre sands before the weathered, ancient stones of Spock's ancestral home just outside ShiKahr 15.3 minutes later. The old home, hewn out of the side of a mountain, gave the appearance of a fortress. The turreted, crenelated walls made of heavy dark stones had a look of being one with the natural surroundings.

A wide, tiled rotunda sheltered from the blaze of the trinary sun by a curved roof marked the entrance to the house. A fountain shot spirals of sparkling water upward, cooling the shaded air and making a subtly musical welcome to any visitor who crossed the tiled expanse to the carved double doors of ancient black wood.

A round, hollow-stone chime was chain-hung in a wooden frame next to the door, its heavy blackwood mallet hanging beside it ... but there was no need to sound its deep, melodious reverberations. Sarek and Amanda were both waiting midway between the edge of the rotunda and the doors, which stood slightly ajar.

Kirk alighted first and Sarek stepped forward, hand raised in ritual greeting. "Live long and prosper, Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy."

"Peace and long life, sir," the Captain replied, with a better then fair attempt at the salute in return.

McCoy scowled at him. *Show-off!* he thought, then nodded to Sarek.

"You are both welcome in our home," Sarek was saying.

Amanda stepped forward, extending both hands to Kirk. "How are you, Captain?" Her smile was warm.

"Fine, Amanda. But I'm sure you're far more concerned about our passenger," said Kirk, squeezing her hands. She smiled back gratefully. "I'll let Bones answer that one."

"He's coming along fine, Amanda." McCoy summoned his most reassuring smile, pleased to note that she relaxed a bit.

Kirk was asking Sarek, "May we prevail upon you for some assistance, sir? We have a medtable aboard, but Bones and I could use a little help getting it, and Spock, out of the shuttle."

"Of course, Captain." Sarek followed Kirk and McCoy into the hatchway, while Amanda went to throw the double doors wide to allow free access to the house. Inside the shuttlecraft, greetings were exchanged with Christine, and then Sarek stood looking down into the drawn, pale face of his son. There was no outward indication of feelings as they exchanged the familial greeting, palms pressed together in the Vulcan salute. But to the others, it was clear that Spock's appearance had an impact on his father. There seemed to be a barely perceptible tremor in his voice as he turned to McCoy.

"How may I help, Doctor?"

A few minutes later, with Sarek at one end and Kirk and McCoy at the other, they managed to get the gurney outside onto the marble tiles, where McCoy pushed it quickly out of the sun's strong rays under the edge of the curved rotunda roof. As he and Kirk went back to the craft to help Christine with the rest of the equipment and luggage, Amanda bent over the medtable.

"Spock?"

"Mother," he whispered, and said nothing when she took his hand. Her eyes were dark with worry as she searched his tired face. "Oh, Spock, you look so ill."

"I shall be all right, Mother. Surely you trust Dr. McCoy to know what he is doing," he answered softly, making an effort to quiet her maternal fears.

She smiled a little at that. "Yes, my son. I'm just being illogical ... and motherly."

"You will be able to indulge both fancies to your heart's content, my wife," Sarek put in with an amused glance at his son. "Spock will be with us for 31.5 standard days."

Amanda straightened, beginning to smile again, aware that he was joshing her out of her anxiety. "Couldn't you have said 'a month'?" she asked automatically. Before he could reply, she held up a hand. "I know; it wouldn't have been precise."

"Indeed," was all Sarek said, content that his ploy had worked. He and McCoy pushed the medtable into the house. After a quick, warm greeting to Christine, Amanda caught up with them, slipping her hand into Spock's as they walked toward the house. Kirk and Christine brought up the rear with the rest of the gear.

* * *

A few hours later, with Spock settled in and sleeping courtesy of a sedative, and the gracious and hospitable dinner now past, McCoy stopped by Spock's room to bid Christine farewell. He looked down at the patient, checking vital signs with the automatic gesture that had become second nature to him.

"Any last instructions, Doctor?" Christine's voice was pitched so as not to disturb the sleeping patient.

"In a way. Step outside, will you, Chris?"

Puzzled, the nurse followed McCoy into the hall. "What is it, Doctor?" He hardly ever used that short version of her name unless he was tired or upset.

McCoy pulled a small case out of his medikit and handed it to her, stalling, unsure how to handle this. "The heat on this planet can be very hard on a Human, Chris. I've prepared a series of measured dosages of tri-ox compound to get you through the month. And there are a couple of vitamin supplements to take care of your requirements. Vulcan foods and sunlight lack some of our Earth-normal nutrients. And by the way, stay out of the sun. As it is, you'll get enough of its reflected light from the walls and sand. I want Spock to get frequent dosages of it when he can go out into the garden to sit -- but you stay indoors or under heavy foliage. You don't need sun-poisoning."

"Yes, Doctor," she replied meekly, smothering a grin. He could be so damned protective. She searched the craggy face. "But that isn't all you were going to tell me, is it?"

"No, it's not," he said, biting his lip. He clasped his hands behind his back and fixed her with a sober but gentle glance. For a moment, he was silent, studying the fine-boned face with the large, sapphire eyes and soft mouth.

*Some Vulcans have all the luck ... * he thought absently, then said, "I'm sure you must've been somewhat puzzled and hurt when I assigned you to take Spock's case, Christine. I know I didn't give you too much of an explanation, beyond your own competence and my reliance on you. But I'm sure you wondered that I didn't have more sensitivity than to thrust you into the daily company of a man you love totally and despairingly, since he has kept stubbornly aloof from you for the better part of five years."

"Well, I ... "

"Christine, you're the finest nurse it's ever been my privilege to work with. You're more capable, gifted and sensitive than a good many doctors I could name, and just as qualified to act in my stead as M'Benga, Chen or any other MD on board the Enterprise. I hate to see a woman of your abilities, and the future possibilities you have, eating herself up inside with the self-torment of an unreturned love.

"I put you on this case because you're the best one for the job and because I think you need to do some serious thinking about this impossible situation that exists between you and Spock. Each of you, left to your own devices, would spend the rest of your lives avoiding a solution and each other on board ship -- and I don't think it's good for either of you. Little by little, it would destroy you, if not him ... and I think he's been paying a price as great as yours, though he doesn't show it.

"We're almost at the end of the five-year mission. Duty options are going to be coming up when you get back to the Enterprise in a month. Think about it now. Use the peace you'll find here to consider the situation as carefully as you can. You'll be with him almost constantly. Take the time to study him. If it looks like something can and will work out, then fine, come back here and make a fight for him.

"You're going to have to get under his skin somehow, if only because he's not experienced with handling women or responding to them -- even if he wants to. But if it looks, realistically, as if you and he can't make anything work together ... as if there is no chance ... then give it up, Chris. You're a beautiful, warm, responsive, intelligent woman. It would be a sin to waste all your love and dreams on something hopeless. Much as I would hate losing you, if you find that it hasn't a chance, I'll let you go -- to make a real life for yourself somewhere else."

As he'd expected, Christine's eyes were filled with tears when he finished. Soundlessly, they ran down her cheeks and spilled onto her clasped hands. After a moment she got a grip on herself and nodded, wiping them away. "Thank you, Doctor. I ... understand, and you're right. I'll try to come to some decision while I'm here," she promised softly.

McCoy smiled at her, raising her chin gently with one hand. "Good luck, Chris," he told her, and kissed her cheek. "And God bless you."

With blurred eyes, she watched him disappear around a curve in the corridor, then turned back to her own room. A few minutes later, she heard the start-up hum of the shuttlecraft, then it lifted off and a short while later, the sound of the retreating engine died away in the distance.

* * *

Christine rose early the next morning, awakened as much by the totally different feeling of being planetside as by the awareness of her duties. For a few moments, she looked out through the long windows onto the asymmetric gardens at the side of the house, watching the slant of the early sun reflected off trees and shrubs and flowering plants totally new to her and possessed of a deeply exotic beauty. Even to look upon them was to gain a certain feeling of peace.

"The peace of Vulcan," she murmured to herself musingly. Her attention was caught by a cloud of silver sparkles rising against the distant morning air, and it took her a few moments of looking, her eyes shaded against the trinary's already strong rays, to discern that they were birds. Even as she watched, they rose upward in a great winging arc, circled and flew off toward the distant, jagged, dark mountain peaks. *Why, there must be thousands of them,* she thought, aware that other silver clouds were rising and wheeling even further away against the sky.

It came to her suddenly that for all its harshness and the contrasting sharpness of black mountains against a red sky, ochre sands and weathered purple-grey stones, Vulcan was an incredibly lovely planet. *It's nothing like Earth, but so beautiful,* she thought, and it took an effort to call herself back to duty.

In a short time, she'd showered and dressed, choosing her uniform over the casual clothing she'd brought with her. *I am on duty, and Spock's people are very formal. Until I learn otherwise, I'd best stick to the uniform,* she told herself. Finished, and satisfied with her reflection in the long wall mirror in the dressing room, she stepped out into the corridor, intending to look in on her patient. As she started toward the door of Spock's room, she was halted by Amanda's cheerful, soft-voiced greeting.

"Good morning, Christine. Did you sleep well?"

The nurse turned, smiling. Spock's mother was dressed in a flowing, graceful robe in a deep wine color, and her hair was caught high on her head in a comblike affair before it cascaded down her back. She looked comfortable, gracious, and somehow elegantly informal at the same time.

"Yes. Thank you -- uh -- Mrs.--"

"Oh, please call me Amanda. It will make things much less awkward that way."

"Very well ... Amanda. Yes, I slept very well. I was about to look in on Spock."

"He's still sleeping. I peeked in before," Amanda told her. "But I don't mean to appear the interfering mother," she added hastily.

Christine smiled at her. "You're not. I expected him to be asleep. Dr. McCoy gave him a good, strong sedative last night."

"I suppose so. He does need a great deal of rest, doesn't he?" said Amanda, a ghost of worry scuttling across her face.

Impulsively, Christine took her hands and squeezed them. "Please don't worry. He'll be perfectly all right. He needs rest, care, good food -- and it won't hurt him at all to have his mother's attention."

The older woman smiled at her. "You're a very dear person to say that, Christine. I'm glad Dr. McCoy sent you along. Now, why don't you look in on him? I'll wait out here for you and take you outside for breakfast when you're finished."

When Christine returned a few minutes later with the news that Spock was still asleep and that all his life signs showed continued improvement, Amanda relaxed visibly. As the two walked toward the dining room, Amanda explained that her husband had risen earlier and was already gone from the house on business.

"So you and I are left to our own female devices. Why don't you come out to the kitchen with me, while I kick that cranky old computer into submission and force it to come up with a decent breakfast." She looked sideways at Christine. "I've been meaning to ask you whether you brought anything to wear besides your uniforms."

"As a matter of fact, I do have one casual costume, but I'm afraid it isn't any better suited to the Vulcan fashion or climate than my uniform," Christine replied. In spite of the thickness of the house's stone walls and its marble floors, she could already feel the intensely dry heat of the Vulcan day penetrating everywhere. Her uniform felt constricting and itchy and she eyed Amanda's soft robe with longing.

"Well," said the older woman, as if reading her mind, "we'll have to do something about that. You're about the same size I am, though taller. I think I have a few robes that would suit you well -- and a pair of sandals. Hmm, let's see ... your hair ... " She looked at the glossy blonde mass caught up in its rather complicated arrangement. "Do you mind?" she asked, reaching to undo it.

A bit self-consciously, Christine blushed. "No. Go right ahead."

Amanda removed the pins that held the hairstyle in place and let the mass fall down the nurse's back. "Oh, you've lovely hair, Christine! Much too pretty to wear that way..." Her slim fingers worked a few minutes in the long, thick waves. She slipped the comb-coronet from her own head, caught Christine's hair in it and a moment later stepped back to admire the changed appearance.

"Yes. That's much better!"

Christine touched her head tentatively. "Could I see it, please?"

"Yes, of course. Come with me. And we'll get you into one of the robes, too, while we're at it. You'll be so much more comfortable."

Perhaps fifteen minutes later, the transformation had been completed. A little surprised and more than a little pleased at her altered appearance, Christine stood beside Amanda in the older woman's own dressing room, taking careful assessment of herself. The robe Amanda had chosen for her was pale green, and its long, loose sleeves, the V-neck and belt were all a rich, dark green contrast. Its silky material clung and flowed over her slender body, bestowing a sensuality that the more revealing Starfleet uniform ironically did not. A pair of small heeled sandals gave her feet "a chance to breathe," as Amanda had said.

Her hair swept up to the coronet and then fell in long, rippling waves down her back. The total effect was startlingly different from her usual efficient "nurse" appearance. McCoy's advice to her -- "You're going to have to get under his skin somehow" -- flashed through her mind, and a small smile curved her mouth. She somehow sensed that the way she looked now would go a long way toward making a new impression on the ordinarily impassive Vulcan, and the thought did not displease her at all.

"That's a very special smile, Christine. Anything in particular on your mind?" Amanda asked.

Suddenly self-conscious, Christine turned toward her. It would hardly do to tell this woman that she intended to use the clothes she'd been loaned as a wedge into Spock's affections. "I was just recalling some of Dr. McCoy's mint julep and honeysuckle compliments."

Amanda cocked her head to one side in a gesture that was pure Spock. "Yes, the good Doctor can be very charming, can't he? Well, now that you're more comfortable, we'll go and have breakfast. Then I know you'll want to get back to your duties."

* * *

It was hours later, full night, when Spock finally awakened to find a greatly changed Christine sitting beside his bed. For a moment, her attention fixed on the handwritten medical log she was keeping on him, she did not notice the fact that his eyes were open. For perhaps the first time since he had known her, Spock found himself intensely aware of Christine as a woman.

The softer, easier flow of hair and the graceful Vulcan robe gave him the picture of a softer, more sensual woman, one at total variance with all his mental images of her from the past. Somehow, he found it oddly disturbing. Just then, Christine looked up to find him watching her. Startled, she had laid aside her log and bent over him.

"Spock, how do you feel?"

He thought about it a moment. "Weak, but better."

"Good. The strength will come in time. Right now, I think you need something nourishing but light to eat. I'll be back in a few minutes."

She left, the green robe swirling softly around her figure as she swept out the door. On the slight breeze the gown's drapery had stirred, Spock caught a faint trace of fragrance that somehow lingered well after she was gone. Uncomfortably, he shifted around on the bed. The discomfort -- disturbance -- that the nurse's appearance had created in his mind made him withdraw inside himself, as if he sensed that his defenses were about to be breached.

When Christine returned, she found him more impassive than usual, even for him. Her attempted pleasantries as she fed him the light meal she'd selected from the kitchen's servo-computer, all ricocheted off a wall of apparent indifference. Finally, she laid aside the tray of empty dishes and sat looking at him quizzically. He gave her back look for look but said nothing, feeling illogically wary and impatient with himself as a result.

"All right, Spock. It's obvious something is on your mind. Would you mind telling me what it is?" she asked. When he said nothing, she continued, "You appear to be doing well. You're weak, but my earlier readings of all your life-signs indicate you're improving rapidly. It shouldn't be long before you'll be able to get up for a few hours each day and then finally back on your feet permanently. Is there something troubling you?"

"Not -- precisely 'troubling', Nurse," he replied.

Christine frowned. "You aren't in pain, are you, Spock?"

"No, though ... 'discomfort' would be a better word."

Swiftly, the nurse rose and began checking out his life-signs again, comparing the readings on the portable console beside the bed with a small hand scanner. "What sort of discomfort, Spock?" she asked.

"Not physical, Nurse, I assure you."

Nonplused, Christine looked down at him. "Then what?"

"The -- situation we find ourselves in ... is discomforting, if you will," he answered, made shy by the necessity of admission.

"The -- situation..."

"Yes. The fact that you have been assigned to my care for this month. Do you not find it -- difficult?"

Christine looked down at him a moment, a small frown putting its crease between her brows. She wasn't sure she knew what he meant. Aware that he was awaiting a reaction, she said, "Well, it isn't exactly usual procedure, if that's what you mean."

"No. The unusualness of the procedure itself is not my point. Our -- assignment together is..."

Christine said nothing, stilled to silence by the directness with which he had gone to the heart of the matter. For a moment, she studied the scanner in her hand without really seeing it.

"I see what you're getting at, Spock. And -- yes, I admit the situation is not the most comfortable for me, either. But I think we can manage to get along without any ... unpleasantness coming to the surface. After all, you are still the First Officer and I am still a nurse. You can override me on anything you find objectionable, except on a matter that requires a medical decision. You know Dr. McCoy left that to me."

"I am aware of that, Nurse. I -- do not wish for there to be any necessity to 'override' you, as you put it." He was becoming more uncomfortable under her gaze as the conversation dragged on.

Christine looked at him questioningly for a moment, then comprehension -- a comprehension she didn't like at all -- came to her. "Don't worry, Spock. I won't embarrass you in front of your family or your people." There was a slight edge to her voice.

One slanted brow arched. "Are you angry, Nurse?"

For a moment, Christine said nothing, pressing her lips together, concentrating on the analyzer readings, then abruptly stopped and turned to look at him directly, a flash of blue lightning in her eyes. "Yes, Spock, I *am* angry."

"I fail to see..." he began.

"Oh, stop pretending to be the stone Vulcan with me!" she snapped. "Let us, just this once, be honest with one another, shall we? We're both uncomfortable in this situation, we've admitted that much. But you carry it a step further, withdrawing, being judgmental about what you seem sure will be my appallingly emotional behavior. You seem to forget that I have feelings just as you do."

"I assure you, Nurse, you are overreacting. I have no feelings whatsoever about--"

"Spock, only the dead or inanimate are without feelings. Even an animal has feelings, so don't try to tell me otherwise. I've known you too long to believe that. Oh, you don't show your feelings, but they're there. You are not insensitive -- unless it's about me." She looked away, breathing hard.

Spock said nothing, but there was astonishment written clearly on his face. She turned the fiery blue gaze on him again.

"You apparently made up your mind at the time of that hideous mess of Psi 2000 that I was a dangerously untrustworthy, childish female where you were concerned. Ever since, you have kept at a good distance, scuttling out of Sickbay as fast as you could whenever you had to be there. I might remind you that I was as much under the influence of a malevolent virus at the time as you were. I don't know how it affected you, but chances are you weren't any prouder of your behavior than I was."

Spock began to look distinctly uncomfortable at that, and she continued, "At least you had the luxury of not making a total fool of yourself in public. I wasn't so lucky. But ever since, you've made me pay for that -- by your actions, if not your words. Oh, I'll admit to being immature then, but you don't seem to have noticed that I've grown up since.

"Your entire response seems based on that one awful incident and you haven't re-assessed the situation, not once, since then. No. The file on me in your head has been stamped 'volatile: handle with care', and that's all there is. Tell me, are you as prone to snap judgments in your scientific experiments?"

She turned away and began putting aside log and instruments with short angry gestures that betrayed her agitation far more than either voice or face. Spock had to admit that her voice had remained low and controlled and her face quiet during her entire speech. She rose to go and he turned toward her.

"Nurse ... Christine--"

She turned back to look down at him.

"I did not realize ... until you spoke -- that I was perhaps being unfair to you. I ... " he struggled with embarrassment -- "I ask your forgiveness."

The tension slowly ran out of her face and body at his words. She could guess how difficult it had been for him, and just the fact that he'd managed to say the words made her feel hopeful. Maybe this wouldn't be such a bad assignment after all. Gravely, she nodded at him. "All right, Spock. I grant you my forgiveness. Let's forget it."

Spock visibly relaxed. "We shall speak of it no further."

"Good night, Spock. If you need me, I'll be right next door. Rest well."

"And you..."

The carved door closed softly behind her, and he was left to his own thoughts. There was much to consider. Spock reflected on the truth in her accusation. He *had* been judgmental and wary, assuming a reaction on her part, even when it wasn't there. And she had no idea how accurate her statement about the effects of the Psi 2000 virus on him was.

No, he'd not been proud of the sudden, uncontrollable welling of his carefully submerged feelings about his mother and Jim Kirk. But he *had* been fortunate, very fortunate. Only Jim had seen and then been infected himself to reveal his own aching loneliness in command. They'd shared the agonies and kept one another's secrets since, and the experience had drawn them closer to one another. While Christine...

*While Christine revealed herself before others, including me, who betrayed her trust by their reactions ever since,* he thought suddenly. For a few moments, the discomfort was worse than the remaining throb of his injuries. He recalled the wildfire spread of the story afterward.

The crewmembers who'd encountered him afterward had reacted with a non-verbal sympathy, particularly the males, a kind of comradely empathy that Spock found as hard to take as the sudden, unpremeditated outpouring of Christine's love. Even the women in rhe junior crew, more than half of whom always seemed to manage some flimsy excuse to be in his vicinity when he was off the bridge, had shown a certain laughing contempt for the nurse and a typically doe-eyed reaction to him.

Spock was nothing if not honest. In the privacy of his own mind, he had to admit that, for a Human woman of Christine's admittedly warm nature, the situation must have been extremely difficult to bear. And yet she'd borne herself with dignity and grace. Before composing himself for sleep, the Vulcan thought fleetingly of McCoy's wisdom in assigning the nurse to his case, and realized it had been deliberate. *And most necessary,* he thought to himself. A few moments later, he was asleep.

* * *

During the next several days, as Spock grew stronger and able to spend longer periods sitting up in bed visiting with his parents, there was a more comfortable relationship between himself and Christine, owing to the efforts both made at trying to understand one another and allow for one another's sensitivities.

For Spock, the time became almost enjoyable. Whether it was the conversation he shared with his people, with whom he had not spent so extended a leave since entering Starfleet, or the quiet times between spent reading, resting or responding to the nurse's quiet, competent treatment, he found himself relaxing in a way impossible to him on board the Enterprise.

The peace of Vulcan had always meant, to him, the peace of the ancestral home with its indoor and outdoor fountains, cool marble halls, the wide curving staircase to the observatory at the top of the house, the balconies that overlooked the gardens. This convalescent period had made him more aware than ever of its comforts.

Finally, the day came when he could venture forth from his bed. Christine had told both his parents and Spock himself about it the night before, specifying that it hinged entirely on favorite medical analyzer readings the next morning. When she rose the next morning and went to his room, she found his mother waiting in the hall, eyes dancing with impatient hopefulness. Christine grinned at her.

"Eager to get on with it, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am -- very. I'm sorry if I must seem a terrible fusser where Spock is concerned, but I'm afraid I won't really believe he's getting well until I see him take his first steps. He looked so weak and drawn when he first came home that, even though I can see he's made progress, I can't quite make myself believe it."

Christine took Amanda's hand through her arm. "I think I understand, Amanda. I know how I'd feel if something like this had happened to a son of mine."

Amanda smiled. "You know, until you came, I didn't realize how much I missed being able to talk frankly of my feelings with another woman -- one likely to sympathize instead of finding my emotions a scandal. Sarek is very good about indulging my occasional flights of illogic, but there is a quality in you that I find a great and warming comfort."

Surprised and pleased, Christine blushed. "Why, thank you, Amanda. You certainly make me feel welcome here."

"As indeed you are."

A link of understanding and sympathy forged between them, the two women entered the room to find Spock sitting impatiently on the edge of the bed. Christine raised an eyebrow at him when he started guiltily.

"You weren't thinking of getting started without me, were you, Spock?"

"Since I feel perfectly well, I saw no reason to remain supine," he replied, with some asperity.

"All right. Just as long as we don't start the show without the mistress of ceremonies," she returned, ignoring his quizzically-raised eyebrows to begin his examination.

A short while later, she'd pronounced him fit and helped him to his feet. For a moment, he stood, swaying slightly, becoming accustomed to the feel of his legs beneath him for the first time in weeks. Christine stood in front of him, her hands resting lightly on his slender waist, waiting until he'd settled down. "Ready?"

"Yes."

Slipping a supportive arm about him, Christine carefully began to walk with him around the room. From her place near the door, Amanda watched without comment. Her eyes were warm on the tall, slim figure of her son, aware that he was still far too thin beneath the soft, dark blue robe, but gladdened to her soul by the fact that he was finally able to walk again. It was quite true that he was leaning rather heavily on Christine, but he was up and about.

And then, as she watched, she began to see something that she had not noticed before. Spock's left arm was draped around Christine's shoulders and he was leaning on her as they moved slowly around the room. From time to time, they would exchange a word or two, and Christine would turn her head to look up into the lean, pale face.

There was nothing precisely indicative about the gestures or the conversation, but Amanda suddenly realized that this was more than patient and nurse. Spock was as self-contained as ever, and Christine quite business-like, but there was an air about them both, particularly about the nurse, that had an undeniable significance.

The impression was confirmed as Amanda drew close to the bed to watch Christine resettle Spock against his pillows at the carved headboard. There was a quality in the way the nurse touched him, a certain warmth to the glance, that said it all quite clearly. Christine was in love with her son, and there was a certain, almost invisible, responsiveness in him toward her.

Amanda smiled to herself. If she knew her son, there was no doubt in her mind that he was completely unaware of it. While Christine -- Amanda looked again at the younger woman's face -- Christine knew perfectly well the truth of her own feelings and was behaving with a dignity that was almost Vulcan. Then the older woman sighed. No matter what happened, it wasn't going to be easy on either of them.

* * *

By the end of that week, Spock's walks had increased both in frequency and duration, so that when Amanda mentioned his progress to Sarek after the third dinner they were all able to share together, the Ambassador turned to Christine. "You are to be commended for your skills where my son's health is concerned. I am confident that he would not have done so well without your attentions."

"Thank you, sir," Christine said, startled at receiving the praise from Sarek, whom she still regarded with nervous reservation.

"There is no need for thanks, Lieutenant. I rely on your judgment, not only because Dr. McCoy assigned you, but because I have reason to know of your skills personally. I well remember your efficiency and competence when I was confined to Sickbay on board the Enterprise at the time prior to the Babel Conference," returned Sarek. He eyed his son for a moment and then inquired, "However, I would ask -- do you think it would be too soon for Spock to meet with family visitors?"

Spock's eyebrow climbed in inquiry, while Christine considered the matter. Sarek waited.

"No, I don't think it would put any strain on Spock's health. In fact, it might be a very good way of re-involving him in a more normal pace of living," she replied.

"Very well. We shall make the arrangements. My wife, you will see to it."

"Of course," murmured Amanda.

"Father, may I inquire about these 'visitors'?" asked Spock, in a tone Christine recognized as expressive of burning curiosity. A small smile touched Amanda's mouth as she glanced at her son.

"You are no doubt familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Charbonneau, Spock."

"The research astrobiologist? Of course."

"He came to Vulcan 1.2 years ago to accept a position with the Vulcan Science Foundation. Six point three months ago, he married the principal research assistant on his project, one T'Rill of the Clan Ftxhln."

"Indeed? Most interesting."

"Yes. Since that time, as a natural result of the fact that there are few such Vulcan-Terran marriages, your mother and I have come to know Dr. Charbonneau and his wife quite well."

"Understandable. If my recollection of T'Rill's clan is correct, I would estimate their marriage was greeted with something less than enthusiasm."

"Your recollection is correct," said Sarek, dryly.

"And it is they whom you are inviting?"

"Yes. Dr. Charbonneau has expressed the desire to meet you. He is very much impressed with your many scientific papers, particularly the one on the phenomenon of android cloning."

"I would be honored, Father."

"Very good. I will convey as much to Dr. Charbonneau."

* * *

Paul Charbonneau, gratified by Spock's statement that he would be "honored" to know him, had accepted Sarek's invitation eagerly, and a mutually convenient arrangement was made for two evenings later. The couple who arrived for dinner just at dusk that day was a revelation to Spock and especially to Christine, who had not yet had occasion to meet any full-blooded native Vulcans other than Sarek.

Dr. Charbonneau was so unlike the scholarly researcher Spock had expected that it took him a moment to adjust to the differences. This man was short, vigorous and muscled broadly, more a soldier than a scientist in appearance. His hair, cropped in an adaptation of the Vulcan mode, was pepper and salt, with salt dominating. Eyes so grey they looked like the flash of a bright steel sword blade were set in a weathered, deeply tanned face, and there were so many laugh lines around his eyes and mouth that his good humor was obvious even in repose.

T'Rill was the typical Vulcan, tall and slender, her narrow face handsome rather than beautiful. Her quiet manner was a contrast to Charbonneau's and she was at least 15 years his junior, as well as a good three inches taller. At first glance, they seemed an oddly ill-assorted pair, yet when formal greetings were exchanged and the couple ushered into the sitting room to share a refreshing drink after their journey, the perfection of their bonding became obvious. For all his outward vigor, Paul Charbonneau had the single-mindedness and willingness to listen and learn that quickly established his brilliance.

T'Rill, whose low-pitched voice was as musical as the sound of her name, conveyed an impression of great warmth from behind her Vulcan impassivity. It was quickly apparent that the couple shared a deep and abiding affection for one another, forged out of mutual respect and shared pain. It was also apparent that they were truly partners in their scientific pursuits. When the customarily silent dinner had been enjoyed, family and guests retired to the sitting room. they'd only just seated themselves when T'Rill turned to Spock.

"I have heard that among your talents, Spock, you count a master's command of the lyrette. Though I long ago learned how to play the instrument, I am no more than a stumbling child with it. It would please my ears greatly to hear you play, if you would consider it."

"I am honored by your request. Though my father is the true master, I would be pleased to play for you," Spock replied. Before he could say another word, Sarek had removed the beautiful instrument from its rest on a low shelf at one side of the room and placed it in his son's hands.

Just before Spock began to play, Sarek explained, "This particular lyrette has been in our family for more than 800 standard years. Its wood is from the r'gol tree, one no longer found on Vulcan."

Silence fell as Spock positioned the instrument, caressed the strings lightly, and then began to play. Christine had heard him play quite often aboard ship, but the combination of the rare old instrument, a priceless treasure, the peaceful setting and the look of tenderness that came over the lean, hawklike face as he lost himself in communion with the music cast a spell unlike anything she'd ever experienced.

The music was eerily beautiful and profoundly sad, weaving crystal and smoke images of an ancient time and men of old. It was as if she could see them in their simple garb, armed with lirpas, engaging in an old and fruitless war. Then suddenly, the music changed, and she heard the call of peace and logic and the putting aside of arms. In its final phrases, the music spoke in measured, cooling tones, constructing the world of which she had seen a small and noble part.

When it was done, the hush that followed remained unbroken for many minutes, and as she glanced around, Christine realized that each of them had been touched by the same emotion that called to her. She caught Spock's eyes and was gratified, deeply touched by the warm look he gave her. After a suitable interval, Amanda made a request and Spock began to play again, a song light and so totally different that Christine knew instinctively that it was a childhood tune. Two hours passed away without anyone being aware they'd gone, so caught up in the music were they all. Then Christine began to notice a certain weary slump to Spock's shoulders and at the next interval, she held up a hand.

"My request, I'm afraid, is not musical," she said. "Much as I regret putting an end to such delight, I must ask my patient to retire to bed."

"It is not truly a request, is it, Nurse?" asked Sarek, with a deep glint of amusement in his eyes.

Christine smiled. "No, sir, not really. The visit may continue for a while, but the patient will have to conduct his part of the conversation from bed."

Sarek took the lyrette from Spock and Christine helped him to his feet. As he leaned on her and they left the room, Sarek and Paul Charbonneau excused themselves to follow. When Christine had settled Spock in his bed with the other two for company, she rejoined Amanda and T'Rill in the sitting room. It appeared they were speaking of private matters, and the nurse cleared her throat, interrupting tactfully. Both women looked up.

"I don't want to intrude ... "

Amanda shook her head. "No. Please, Chris. Join us." She extended a hand to Christine.

T'Rill's glance was surprisingly warm, *like Sarek or Spock,* thought Christine. "Indeed. You are welcome to take part in our conversation," she offered. "There was nothing private in our discussion."

Christine nodded her thanks, seating herself nearby, deciding that she would listen. There appeared to be a good chance for her to learn more of Spock's people. T'Rill seemed to sense her unspoken curiosity. "I am privileged to call Amanda my friend. Our talk was about the things of daily life that concern us both."

"To be fair, T'Rill, perhaps you would like to join Paul and Sarek in their visit with Spock. No doubt they're deeply immersed in a scientific discussion you would find interesting," Amanda offered.

"No, Amanda. I thank you, but I believe I can learn from Paul the facts of their discussion. Much as I was pleased to meet your son, I would not deprive my husband of the opportunity to speak freely with him. The fact is that, at the moment, I would prefer to be here with you. You and I have too few chances to speak with one another -- and now, with Lt. Chapel here, I have my first opportunity to speak with two Human women at once. That is a rare chance."

"Please ... call me Christine," said the nurse impulsively. She found herself liking this woman almost instinctively.

"I am honored," replied T'Rill, inclining her head in assent. She regarded Christine intently for a moment, and the nurse had the sudden insight that T'Rill was as curious about her and her life as she herself was about all things and people Vulcan. "You seem to wish to ask a question, Christine."

The nurse blushed. "Is it that obvious? I'm sorry."

"No need for apology. Proceed."

"I -- am curious. You called yourself a 'friend' to Amanda, and then said you found the chance to speak with us so compelling that you passed up the chance to involve yourself in the scientific conversation going on with your husband and the others."

"Yes."

"May I ask ... isn't that somewhat unusual? I have always had the impression that, to Vulcans, the opportunity for serious discussion was much preferable to casual talk, and that the company of Humans was -- well -- somewhat less than preferable. Please forgive me if I offend. I'm just trying to get certain concepts straight in my mind."

T'Rill almost smiled. "There is no offense to be taken. I invited your inquiry." She reflected a moment. "I suppose you might consider it unusual. Vulcans do not ordinarily associate freely with, much less marry, those of other races. My husband and I are only married a short time, whereas Sarek and Amanda have been married more than 42 standard years. But ours is only the ninth Vulcan-Human intermarriage in all of Vulcan's history, and Amanda and Sarek were first.

"I choose to spend time with Amanda and with you for a very simple reason. I would know more of my husband's people and their ways than is available from studying tapes, however enlightening they may be. For me, this chance to converse with Amanda and now with you, is as important to me as Paul's discussion with Amanda's son is to him. I have as much to learn here as he does there. Do you see?"

"Yes, I think I do. But I find myself still struggling with the idea of only nine Vulcan-Human intermarriages in all your history. I find it amazing. Can you tell me why the number should be so small?"

"I shall try. Vulcans are an intensely proud people, as I am sure you have gathered in your acquaintance with Spock and his father. As a people, they are secure in their superiority over most of the peoples of the galaxy. Because of that superiority, a factual one for the most part, they regard intermarriages as beneath consideration.

"There are -- other reasons, having to do with certain scientific factors that need not concern us here. But you are also aware that it is the basic tenet of Vulcan behavior to control one's emotions, to order one's life on logic. Humans have a far different philosophy of life. The free expression of emotion is natural to them. Under the circumstances of such diametrically opposing viewpoints, it is actually not so surprising that there have been so few intermarriages. Indeed, the greater number of Vulcans regard marriage to Humans as ... most unwelcome."

"But you obviously do not. Why not?"

"I find Humans resilient in a way that Vulcans are not -- questing, striving, reaching out, willing to fail and unashamed of the failure because they will merely try again. I believe those Vulcans who have married Humans find they have a tensile strength that my own people, in their rigidity, lack. There are many satisfactions for one who can appreciate the differences without finding them an anathema."

Amanda had been listening silently. "I think, T'Rill, I can say with some authority that there are also many satisfactions for the Human who marries a Vulcan." She smiled, half in memory, and then noticing Christine's eager curiosity, continued. "There is the comfort of complete trust, of instant understanding and union the likes of which two Humans may search for all their lives without finding ... the serenity of knowing you are truly cherished -- for all your attributes."

She seemed to consider further, then went on, almost musingly, "One of my greatest joys is the relief in being able to be totally honest. No game-playing, no pretense of fragility where there is none. And yet, I do not want for caring or protection. It has been a continuing revelation to me over the years ... " Suddenly she looked squarely into Christine's eyes and said with an almost hypnotic intensity, "Looking back, I cannot imagine myself married to anyone else."

"I am very much interested in this point you express, Amanda," T'Rill said eagerly, and soon they were enmeshed in a discussion of the cultural and psychological differences in attitudes toward marriage and relationships that Christine found fascinating. Caught up in a learning experience entirely new to her, she forgot the passage of time until the sound of the old Earth clock chiming from the entry hall penetrated her consciousness. Abruptly, she sat up.

"Pardon me, Amanda, but what time is it? Or rather, how long has it been since I left Spock with Dr. Charbonneau and the Ambassador?"

T'Rill, with the Vulcan time sense that needed no clocks, answered, "Two point six hours, Christine."

"Oh, my! Please excuse me, but I'm afraid Spock should be asleep. I'll go pry the others away from him now."

Before she could make good on her promise, Amanda and T'Rill rose. "Wait, Christine. We'll come with you. It is time we said good-night to Spock, too."

"I believe it is also time for us to call the visit to a close and be on our way," T'Rill agreed. She turned to Christine. "I have been both pleased and honored to make your acquaintance, Christine. I would hope that our paths will cross again, for I would very much like to spend more time with you."

"Oh, I hope they do! I ... would like to be able to call you 'friend', T'Rill. You have taught me much," said Christine warmly.

T'Rill bowed and gave that near-to-a-smile look in return. When the three women entered the bedroom, Christine gave Spock a careful look and saw instantly that her patient was in need of rescue.

"If you gentlemen will pardon me, I must call a halt to this discussion. My patient is overdue for his night's sleep. It isn't so long ago that he was very seriously ill and I will allow no relapses," she announced firmly.

All three men started somewhat guiltily, and Sarek rose, immediately contrite. "You are, of course, correct, Miss Chapel. My apologies. It is both a scientific and Vulcan vice to become so embroiled in a subject of interest that all sense of the outside world is forgotten," he said, bowing slightly. The nurse smiled at him, thinking that she could easily see why Sarek was the Vulcan Ambassador and wishing that his son would learn to employ a little more of his father's devastating charm.

That son was protesting somewhat lamely, "I assure you, I do not feel fatigued."

Christine fixed him with a long, blue stare. "I don't believe you, Spock."

"Well, not *very* fatigued, anyway," he mumbled, wriggling a little.

"I believe Miss Chapel ought to be allowed her medical judgments, Spock. It is the area in which she is the indisputable expert," said Sarek, his eyes glinting with humor. His son favored him with a somewhat rebellious glance but said nothing. Sarek bade him good-night and then excused himself.

"I am afraid this is really my fault, Miss Chapel," said Paul Charbonneau. "I was so intent on picking Commander Spock's brain that I completely forgot about his illness."

"It's quite all right, Dr. Charbonneau. No harm done."

T'Rill had turned to Spock. "I had no opportunity to speak with you this evening, Spock. I hope that will be remedied at some future time."

"Indeed. I would find that most gratifying."

"As Christine's judgment must prevail, I bid you good night and farewell until we meet again. Peace and long life, Spock."

"Farewell, T'Rill. Live long and prosper."

Charbonneau turned to Christine's patient. "It has been a n honor and a pleasure, Spock. I wish that we could pursue this and other matters further."

"I would be gratified if you would see fit to communicate with me by message tape, Doctor. There are many aspects to our discussion that merit further investigation."

"That would be fine, Spock -- just fine! It is very generous of you. Yes, I shall accept your kind offer. And now, if you will excuse me, I, too, will say good-night."

He nodded and turned to follow his wife, who had departed. Amanda caught his arm as he passed. "If you'll wait a moment, Paul, I will see you out." At his murmured assent, she turned back to her son, smiling down into his weary face. "Good night, my son. May peace be yours as you rest."

"And yours, Mother," Spock replied softly, and watched her go out into the hall where she joined Charbonneau, then Christine took his attention by helping him to lie down, easing him onto his pillow and checking his readings one last time, noting it in her log. Only his acute Vulcan hearing caught the low-voiced conversation between the two Humans in the corridor beyond the half-open door.

"Paul, I had no chance to visit with you tonight, but wanted to tell you how glad I was that you could come. Spock hasn't looked so animated since he was brought home," Amanda told the scientist.

For a moment, he considered her with twinkling eyes. "From what I observed tonight, Amanda, your son is well on the road to recovery. I would not be troubled by it if I were you."

She smiled gratefully, arching a brow. "Cease the maternal fussing, is that it, Paul? All right. Pretend I said nothing." She cocked her head to one side. "You know, Paul, you are looking very well these days."

Charbonneau leaned toward her with a conspiratorial grin. "I'll let you in on a little secret that I think you're uniquely capable of appreciating. It's my marriage that agrees with me so admirably. I would never have believed it if someone had told me a year ago, but I feel a sense of renewal that can only be attributed to T'Rill. She is a rare and lovely woman -- the making of my life. I am quite unusually content ... which my old Terran friends find incomprehensible!" He laughed, tickled at the idea, and thinking of her own friends from Earth, Amanda smiled warmly.

"I don't wonder they find it hard to understand, Paul. There are probably more myths told about Vulcans than about any other people in the galaxy."

"Indeed, my dear. And all false, terrible disservices to a rare and marvelous people. I have found in my marriage to T'Rill -- in that wonderful bonding that no two Humans could ever know -- a satisfaction and completion beyond anything I'd ever thought to have. It makes me, old agnostic that I am, feel quite blessed."

"Well put, Paul. I could not agree more heartily. I've had much that same feeling these years I've been privileged to share with Sarek."

"Yes, I imagine you would, Amanda. I can only hope that I am as fortunate in having as many years to spend with T'Rill as you have had with your husband."

"I wish you equal contentment, if not equal time for it, Paul. That would indeed be the blessing of which you speak."

At that moment, the two moved off down the hall out of Spock's hearing, and he was aware that Christine was speaking to him.

"Spock -- "

"Yes?"

"You *are* feeling well, aren't you?" she asked anxiously, her glance sharp. He became aware that his mind had been more on the conversation in the hall than on Christine's query.

"Oh yes, I am well. But you were quite correct to come when you did. I find that I am tired after all. Sleep will be welcome."

She smiled down at him, warmed by his willingness to give her credit for doing something right. "All right. I'm glad to hear it. Good night now -- and rest well."

"And you, Christine," he replied absently. As she turned out the bedside lamp and departed, Spock was already absorbed in consideration of the conversation between his mother and Paul Charbonneau.

All his life, aware of the condescension with which much of Vulcan had regarded his mother's Humanity, Spock had observed her heroic effort to mold herself to her husband's ways. Over the years she had become quite Vulcan in her behavior outside their home, and her household behavior had followed closely, especially once she understood her husband's insistence on setting an example for their son.

To Spock, struggling and finally succeeding at containing his own emotions, her efforts were the more poignant since she was so warm by nature. Somewhere he'd conceived the notion that Amanda had had little happiness in her years on Vulcan, but now he knew, from her own lips, that such was not the case. In fact, she had achieved a happiness beyond that she would have had married to a Human male. The thought was somewhat astonishing and left him with things to consider that he knew would likely occupy his mind for hours.

* * *

Spock was up and around on his own for an entire week before Sarek broached a subject which had been on his mind for some time. He deliberately chose to wait for Spock after his son took a quiet afternoon walk in the Garden of Meditation, knowing that under the influence of the quiet hour spent among the carefully arranged foliage, Spock's mind would be directed toward matters of timelessness and consequence.

For Sarek's son, the afternoon's meditation was a chance to draw together his thoughts of recent days. His convalescence, or rather the injuries that forced this time upon him, had brought Spock face to face with the precariousness of the life he'd chosen and the preciousness of life itself. Soon he would be well and it would be time to return to the Enterprise to make his choice about the road he would be traveling for the next five years. For a number of reasons, and in a number of senses, he had come to a crossroads in his life.

On his birth anniversary during the next month of Tasmeen, he would be 40 standard years of age. It was a time for decisions. Not only about whether to return to the Enterprise, of which Spock became more certain day by day, but also of the necessity of choosing a life companion. It was nearly five years since the pon farr had come upon him, and the one logic of his hybrid system was its totally unpredictable nature. He could be subjected to the savagery of that Time again at any time. Unbonded, the only possible result would be death, by the long, slow agony and madness of the Linger Death. Involuntarily, he shivered at the prospect.

As he turned about the final path, he saw his father waiting quietly for him at the edge of the garden. Sensing the older man's desire to speak with him, Spock cut short his meditations and took a seat on a nearby stone bench, signaling that he wished to be joined. Sarek came forward, studying his son carefully as he drew up to him. There was still not enough flesh in the fine lines of the lean face, nor yet on the long-limbed, slender frame.

"Spock, I would ask your leave to speak with you on a matter of some gravity."

His son gave him a keen look and nodded. "You are welcome to begin," he replied ritually, wondering what Sarek had in mind.

The older man sat beside him, studying the chiseled features. "It will require inquiry into matters private to you and may well cause -- discomfort."

"I grant my permission to enter upon such a discussion."

"Are you well enough to remain here? It would be best for us to have the privacy this garden affords."

"Yes, I am well enough. Begin whenever you wish, Father."

Sarek's glance was sharp at his son's use of the welcome title. "Very well. It is as your father and principal of this family that I choose to speak."

Spock gave the nodding half-bow that bade his father continue.

"Spock, you are an adult male, and your obligation to bonding requirements as chosen for you was fulfilled with the *kal-if-fee* chosen by the woman T'Pring. But 4.8 years have passed and you have not chosen another bondmate in her place. Your continued unbonded state is a matter of deep concern to the family."

"I am aware of its dangers, my father."

"Spock, it is illogical of you not to have chosen a replacement for T'Pring. Your life is in danger, and its potential loss would be a personal one for the family as well as a larger one for all Vulcan."

Spock waited, aware that Sarek was just now reaching the point of the discussion.

"T'Pau has directed me to ask you -- do you wish the family to choose suitable candidates from whom you might wish to make your choice of bondmate?"

Spock looked away, realizing that his father had deliberately chosen to wait for the end of his meditation before presenting this idea, knowing Spock's mind would be amenable to such suggestion at this time.

"I would remind you that you have a responsibility to Vulcan to sire children and leave heirs behind."

"I am aware of that, Father."

"If I have offended with this intrusion--"

"I invited you to speak, Father. You have not offended. It is merely that ... I had not given the matter extensive thought until this afternoon."

"I might ask why not, but that is your affair."

Spock nodded, glad his father would not press for his reasoning. Sarek's Vulcan sensibilities would be offended to learn that his son had deliberately avoided making a life-saving decision because of lingering emotional pain brought on by the violent *koon-ut-kal-if-fee* and the rejection by his bondmate.

"I would judge that T'Pau had a candidate to offer or you might not approach me on the subject now," Spock said, glancing sideways at Sarek's serene profile.

"It is so," the older man acknowledged. "There is a woman, T'Aryel by name. Her original bondmate was killed in an aircar accident 7.3 years ago. She is a physicist at the research station at Lo-Quer. Her family is of a suitably positioned clan, her health good, her intelligence quite high. She has much to recommend her, and T'Pau has said that she would be amenable to bonding with you and becoming your wife, if you find her satisfactory."

"I see." Spock realized he had no logical grounds on which to refuse to at least see T'Aryel, though he found the idea strangely repellent.

As if he'd read his son's thoughts, Sarek pointed out, "If you do not find a common ground with her ... an affinity -- you are under no obligation to accept the candidate."

"Yes, I know," Spock replied. Again he looked off, seeking the garden's comforting peace. Finally he turned back to Sarek. "You may tell T'Pau that I shall meet the candidate, T'Aryel ... and give the matter careful consideration."

"It is well, my son."

* * *

The meeting was arranged for the next evening, when T'Pau herself would bring the candidate T'Aryel to the house after dinner. Because the matter was a family one, neither Sarek nor Spock thought to say a word about it to Christine ... but Amanda, realizing that with what she had observed about the nurse the coming visit might come as an unpleasant shock, took it upon herself to tell the younger woman about it.

As usual, she found Christine with Spock, checking him over. "Christine, may I speak with you when you're finished?"

"Of course, Amanda." She turned back to Spock, who was shouldering into his robe. "You're as ready to begin the exercising you spoke about as you'll ever be. Your wounds are fully healed, and though you're still under your normal weight, you could begin now. By the time the Enterprise is back here in another week, you should be ready to resume your normal duties."

"Thank you, Christine," he said softly. "If you will excuse me now, I shall begin the exercises."

"All right, Spock. Just don't overdo it. I'll be by to collect you in one half hour, just to make sure."

"I assure you, it will not be necessary for you to do that," Spock protested gently.

Christine drew herself up to her full height and looked him straight in the eye. "Spock, you're forgetting that I have to make a full report to Dr. McCoy. I have no intention of shirking any part of my duty toward you."

"Very well. One half hour," he said and walked out with his customary lithe stride.

Amanda smiled at the nurse as she watched her put away her instruments. "You handled that very well, Christine. I don't believe I've ever heard Spock give in so quickly before."

Christine flashed her a smile. "I think that has more to do with the fact that Spock and I made peace with one another soon after we arrived. So far we haven't found anything much on which to disagree. Now then, what's on your mind?"

"Come out to the garden with me, Chris. I have something to tell you and think it would be best discussed in a peaceful and private atmosphere."

Christine gave her a sidelong glance but kept her silence until they were walking in the informal garden at the side of the house.

"Tomorrow evening we shall be having ... special guests after dinner. You have certainly heard of T'Pau, who is a member of the Council of Elders of all Vulcan and the -- I suppose you would call her 'matriarch' of our clan. She will be coming with another woman of Vulcan. Her name is T'Aryel."

"Yes?" Christine was puzzled. What had such a visit to do with her?

"There is a specific purpose to their visit, Christine, one neither my husband nor son would tell you, since it is a family matter. On Vulcan, such matters are never discussed with those who are not of the family." She stopped before a flowering shrub, concentrating on the blue, lily-like blooms.

"And yet *you* are telling me..."

"Yes." Amanda sighed and faced Christine. "I think you should know the situation. It would be unfair to you not to know why T'Aryel is being brought here."

Christine felt a growing anxiety, but said nothing, waiting in silence.

"Ever since Spock's divorce from T'Pring in the *kal-if-fee* nearly five years ago, the family has been very much concerned with seeing him bonded and married. But until now, there has been no opportunity to even discuss the matter with him. And after all, the choice is up to him this time, now that he is an adult. His parents cannot make that decision for him."

"Then ... this T'Aryel ... is she ... to be Spock's bondmate ... his wife?" Christine put in, her voice strained.

Somehow the world righted itself when Amanda shook her head. She became aware that the older woman had taken her hand. "No, no, Christine. T'Aryel is being presented as a candidate only! The decision is still Spock's. I believe he's seeing T'Aryel because there was no good, logical Vulcan reason to refuse, but I do not believe he will acquiesce."

"If there's no, as you say, 'logical Vulcan reason' to refuse her, how can you say he will refuse?" Christine asked, low-voiced.

Amanda felt a surge of pain for what she could read in the nurse's eyes. She had been right to tell her, but didn't want to give her unsubstantiated hope.

"I don't know, Christine, but Spock is my son as well as Sarek's and from what I've seen of him since he has been at home, I think he will give the matter long and careful consideration -- and his final answer may well not be what Sarek and T'Pau wish to hear."

Christine drew herself together with effort. She could see the concern in Amanda's face and knew the older woman had gone out of her way to prevent a shock and its accompanying pain. She realized that there could be only one reason for Amanda's confidence, and that was that Spock's mother knew how she felt about him. She summoned a small smile and squeezed Amanda's hand.

"Thank you for your kindness."

"I wish that I could be sure that my feelings in the matter were infallible, my dear, but it's only my intuition, and it could be faulty. I'm sorry."

Christine nodded. "I think I'd like to be alone for a while."

"Of course." With a tiny smile, more sad than happy, she watched Christine walk away, and Amanda's heart was heavy. She shook her head and turned back to the house.

* * *

The next evening, after the dinner hour, the family had settled itself in the comfortable sitting room off the main entry hall. In spite of Vulcan's daytime heat, the night temperatures fell low enough that the house heating system had been activated earlier. To supplement it and more for the comfort it lent psychologically than for its actual assistance against the chill, a small fire burned in the room's central grate. Outside, an aircar engine was presently heard in the distance, growing louder as the car drew nearer. Eventually its hum could be heard overhead and finally it settled to a halt outside.

Sarek, Amanda and Spock had already risen and were headed for the entry hall. Christine, unsure of her position and feeling out of place for the first time since her arrival, hung back a bit, standing in the wide circular entrance foyer. Before Sarek opened one of the double doors, Amanda turned to Spock, halting him in mid-stride with a careful hand on one arm.

"I think you'd best wait here, Spock. It wouldn't do, after all Christine's careful nursing, you caught a chill from the night air."

"Very well, Mother."

Amanda and Sarek both left to greet their arriving guests. For a long moment, in the silence of the hall, with only the loud ticking of the ancient grandfather clock for company, Christine and Spock said nothing to one another. Spock, alone with his thoughts, was unaware of the trepidation or the look in Christine's eyes. Finally, she broke the silence.

"Spock, would it be better if I were to retire for the evening?"

He turned, regarding her quizzically. "There is no reason why you should not be present, Christine. You are a welcome guest in this house, not a servant, if such were employed on Vulcan."

"All right. Thank you." She subsided, fearing to say more, certain that she would give away her tremulous feelings, those same feelings she had spent so long controlling.

Then Amanda and Sarek entered with the evening's guests and both Spock and Christine got their first view of T'Aryel. Ever afterward, Christine would remember that initial impression and the evening that followed as one of the most painful of her entire life. T'Aryel was tall and slender, with the typically Vulcan dark hair and eyes.

She carried herself like a young queen and there was an unmistakably proud set to the small head on the long neck. She was also quite beautiful, in that cool Vulcan way, with a look in her high-cheek-boned face that was almost arrogant in its contained self-confidence. Helpless to do otherwise, Christine began making comparisons between herself and the Vulcan woman, finding herself coming up short.

The impression of royalty and disdain was compounded a dozen times over in T'Pau, whom Christine had never before met. The diminutive woman was a commanding figure, possessed of the same stateliness and arrogant coolness as T'Aryel. And small though she was, an impression of contained power radiated from her. For a moment Christine fancied, watching her walk, that she could hear something very close to "Rule Brittania" in the air, and when the woman glanced at her, she felt reduced to very small girlhood -- with jam on her dress.

Sarek performed the necessary introductions, and Christine managed a dignified reply, aware that both Vulcan women were eyeing her with raised brows.

"A nurse?" asked T'Pau, turning to Sarek. "Why did thee not consult a Vulcan Healer for thy son, Sarek? It could have been arranged easily."

"My son is still a Starfleet officer, T'Pau, and his ship's physician, Dr. McCoy, thought it well to assign Lieutenant Chapel to his case. She has been most satisfactory," Sarek answered quietly.

"She has been eminently well-qualified for her post and for this assignment, T'Pau. A Healer would have been redundant," said Spock suddenly, and Christine felt a rush of warmth until she reminded herself that it was probably said as much in McCoy's and Starfleet's defense as in hers.

"Very well. It is done," replied T'Pau, and she moved ahead to the sitting room, dropping the subject.

Sarek followed, with Amanda trailing behind. Spock and T'Aryel were left together and Christine, feeling more awkward by the moment, followed the others, acutely aware of the fact that the younger pair were studying one another with frank interest. As she stepped through the archway into the sitting room, she heard Spock say, "Perhaps a visit to the household observatory would give us the opportunity for conversation."

"Yes," replied T'Aryel in a low, bell-toned voice, as the two began to mount the wide stairway, Spock in the lead. "Tell me, Spock, do you not find life difficult surrounded by Humans?"

Christine did not hear Spock's reply. Instead she felt the weight of conflicting emotions inside herself and realized that if she did not make a special effort, she would reveal herself and embarrass everyone.

In the sitting room, T'Pau had been seated comfortably before the fire, with Sarek to one side and Amanda some distance away. Christine had the impression that, even after 42 years of marriage, Amanda was still considered an outsider by this powerful woman. Suddenly feeling less alone, Christine decided to be brave and found a seat near Amanda, who turned a warm and compassionate look on her as she sat down.

*Thank goodness,* thought Christine. *Maybe she's as glad to have me here as I am to have her.* Abruptly, a sudden stubborn streak of survival instinct asserted itself inside her. *I'll be damned if I'll let either this old witch here or that young one upstairs stampede a Chapel into hiding!* She settled herself comfortably and began to listen.

* * *

In the domed observatory at the top of the house, Spock touched the controls that retracted the outside shutters which protected the dome and room from the harsh Vulcan sun during the day. At the same time, he dimmed the room's lights to a candleglow so that the starfield above could be seen without difficulty. The moonless black Vulcan night made the million-crystaled sky far more prominent than could be seen from any satellite-orbited world.

Spock remained silent, watching T'Aryel move gracefully toward the large telescope in the center of the octagonal room. There was already a prickling discomfort in him since T'Aryel's inquiry about his work among Humans in Starfleet. It had combined with the earlier, formless feelings of repugnance aroused when Sarek had brought up the subject of his bonding in the Garden of Meditation. He could not quite put his finger on it, but the total effect was disquieting.

At the scope, T'Aryel turned to face him. "Spock, you are aware that T'Pau and I had discussed the subject of a possible bonding between us quite some time ago, are you not?"

"I surmised as much," Spock replied, realizing once again that Vulcan women were completely disinclined to engage in small talk. Sometimes directness was a relief, yet Spock found himself contrarily wishing for the preliminaries with which a Human woman would have filled the conversation.

"You are not displeased that she would consider a candidate without your permission?" T'Aryel's brow arched.

"It is her right, as befits her position in the family," he answered. "Since I am not often at home, it would be logical for her to conduct a search in my stead."

"True." T'Aryel turned aside, touching the telescope lightly. "Did she speak with you of my background?"

"No, but I have a brief knowledge of it. I was told you are a physicist and that your bondmate was killed in an aircar accident."

"Yes. Steth was killed 7.3 years ago."

"You did not make other bonding arrangements after his death. May I ask why?"

"My work had reached a critical stage in experimentation. Were I to take the time to put myself forth as a candidate for bonding, I would have lost the climactic point. Years of work would have been needlessly destroyed. The situation seemed clear."

Spock nodded. "How long did you require for this work?"

"Three point seven years. When it was completed and my paper presented, I was free to put myself forward again. I did so, placing my candidacy before T'Pau herself."

In spite of himself, Spock registered surprise at that. "Indeed. Why?"

"Because I had heard that you were available for bonding. The previous year, your bondmate T'Pring had divorced you in the *kal-if-fee*. You were free and I wished to mate with you. Your family, genetic line, intelligence, position in your chosen profession, your physical resilience, were all factored highly in favor of producing prime offspring. It is a Vulcan's duty to make the best possible arrangements so as to benefit all Vulcan by the results of one's choice."

If the beautiful T'Aryel had dumped a quantity of ice cubes down the back of his robe, Spock's blood could not have run colder. He felt as if he had been hit in the stomach with the direct, unemotional words, and even as he gasped, he knew she was merely being true to her heritage.

She frowned at his reaction, surprised by the sudden downward swoop of his wingswept brows and the flash in the deep-set dark eyes. "Have I offended in some way, Spock? My words were carefully chosen."

"You do not customarily soften your words, do you, T'Aryel?" he asked, stiff-lipped as he fought for control.

The lovely brows flew upward. "For what purpose? We are here to discuss this matter. There is no point in indirection, as far as I can see."

Spock's eyes were hooded as he gave a small half-bow. "True. However, I have become accustomed to indirection as a matter of course."

The young woman cocked her head to one side, considering. "I can see that your life among Humans has had its effect upon you, Spock."

"Perhaps," he said quietly, walking around the scope. He turned back to her abruptly. "But perhaps it is just as likely that I react the way I do because my mother is Human, T'Aryel."

"Yes. I had not given that sufficient thought," the young woman returned musingly.

"You would do well to consider it." Spock's voice was low, an organ chord that rumbled deeply.

"I can see that I *have* offended. I ask thy forgiveness," T'Aryel replied, eyes downcast.

Spock took one breath, then another. "You have it."

With a nod, her face clearing at the reply even though it was not couched in the formal phraseology of her apology, T'Aryel backed off in another direction. "Spock -- the woman downstairs -- the nurse ... does she have some meaning for you?"

Spock turned away, considering how to answer the question. As the proposed candidate for bonding, T'Aryel had every right to ask and an equal right to know the answer. Yet until she'd put the question to him, Spock hadn't realized that this was the point that had been troubling him for the past few weeks since he'd been home.

From the first night when he'd been disturbed by the extremely attractive change in Christine's appearance, he'd been intensely aware of her. Their disagreement and the peace they'd made between them; his observations of his mother and father together, Paul Charbonneau and his wife, T'Rill; the inner dissonance caused by Sarek's talk with him; and now, the coldness he sensed in T'Aryel. It all added up to a pattern, and he was just beginning to realize what it meant. T'Aryel's disdain regarding Humans -- was so repugnant. He was half-Human, after all. Was she disdainful of that part of him?

In that moment, the sudden contrasting warmth he'd always known in Christine's presence overwhelmed him. Without having to consider it, Spock knew she would never say the things this woman had said to him, nor act the way T'Aryel had acted ... even if *she* were Vulcan. To have coldly, calculatingly *planned* to bond with him when she heard about his divorce--!

Yes, it was very Vulcan, and suddenly he realized that he could no more bond with such than he could fly. *McCoy would say I have been corrupted by my Human friends,* he thought suddenly, and felt a rushing warmth at the thought of the Humans in his world. Was the word 'corrupted' applicable? Or was it more a matter of finally having come to terms with his own needs?

Realizing that T'Aryel was waiting for his answer, Spock turned. "I do not wish to discuss it with you -- now or ever."

T'Aryel started visibly, eyes widening with shock. Inside, Spock found himself illogically gratified at having pierced her armor. He suddenly had a glimmer of understanding of McCoy's glee whenever his needle slipped under Spock's Vulcan shell and hit a nerve.

Realizing her uncontained response, she lowered her eyes respectfully. "As you wish, Spock. Of course."

"I have a great deal to consider, T'Aryel ... about my future. It would be best if you were to leave now," he said quietly.

Again, a look of startlement, contained by force of habit. She bowed slightly, acquiescing with downcast eyes again, following in Spock's wake as he led the way out of the observatory and back toward the staircase.

* * *

The next afternoon, following the usual medical examination and his subsequent exercise session, Spock showered quickly and took himself off to the Garden of Meditation. He had studiously avoided any extended periods of conversation with Sarek, knowing his father would likely have referred to the previous evening's truncated visit.

When Spock and T'Aryel had returned to the sitting room, it was to find Sarek and Amanda in stilted conversation with T'Pau. Christine was nowhere to be seen. With distinctly Vulcan abruptness, Spock had indicated his conversation with T'Aryel was over and the young woman had departed with T'Pau. While they were escorted outside by Sarek, Spock had asked Amanda about the nurse.

"She braved it out with T'Pau as long as she could, Spock. But you know how difficult the woman can be for a Human on the first meeting. Christine held out pretty well, and finally excused herself to retire for the night. I think she was weary of being the subject of T'Pau's unwinking scrutiny."

"I see."

Amanda searched her son's face for some hint at the conversation with T'Aryel. There was nothing, and according to Vulcan custom, she could not ask. But she took Spock's inquiry about Christine as an encouraging sign.

When Sarek returned a moment later, Spock turned toward him. "Father, Mother, I have much to which I must direct my thoughts. I ask your forgiveness for withdrawing now. Good night. May peace be yours as you rest."

With that, he'd retired to the room he'd been given for his convalescence and there had spent the night in a forced rest. Now, with the heat of the day's sun beating down on him, Spock slowly walked the paths of the Garden of Meditation. His mind was far from the peace that came from the setting and its ritually reflected patterns of thought. Instead, he concentrated on the thoughts that had come crashing in on him during his conversation of the previous evening.

All his life he'd been completely Vulcan; perhaps, he suspected, it was an attempt at being too Vulcan to compensate for his Human half. He'd chosen the Vulcan way of life and followed his father's teachings all during his youth, trying so hard to meet Sarek's exacting standards, hoping to wring an approving response from a man he deeply loved but who could be so formidable to a gentle, sensitive boy.

Hungry for love and nowhere to take the hunger -- only bury it. All the attempts to prove himself, to please, had powdered to ash when something deep inside him had directed him to choose Starfleet Academy over the Vulcan Science Academy his father had counted on him to attend.

*If being Vulcan was so all-necessary, why did I choose Starfleet?* he asked himself and knew almost before the question had taken form in his mind. He'd chosen to enter Starfleet precisely because all his efforts to follow his father's way of life could not do the one thing which seemed required if he was to be accepted by his father's people: *be* a full-blooded Vulcan.

*So long as my mother's blood runs in my veins, I am half-breed, hybrid, an emotional Earther to my father's people. Though they are intelligent, logical and committed to peace, they are also intolerant of those they regard as inferior to themselves.* Suddenly, Spock stopped dead, repeated the last few words out loud to himself in stunned shock. It was the first time in his nearly 40 years that he'd thought of Vulcans as 'they'.

His heart began to beat in agitation at the gulf that suddenly yawned at his feet. *Whither go I from this point? I am *not* Vulcan, nor am I Human...* He remembered T'Pau's challenge at the Shrine of Ages in the *kal-if-fee* when he'd pleaded for Kirk's life. And suddenly, the conflicting trains of thought, the opposing pulls toward Vulcan and that which was Human, the emotions long suppressed, came crashing in on him in a maelstrom of sensation.

For long minutes, there was such turmoil in Spock that he had to rely on old, well-learned forms to bring control on himself. A fine sweat dewed his face. Out of the silent peace that he had forced on himself, one thought became clear. *No. I am neither Vulcan nor Human. I am both -- and if, indeed, the IDIC has meaning, then it can have no greater meaning that to one who embodies 'diversity in combination'.*

It came to him that this was perhaps why he had been repelled by T'Aryel's presentation the night before. *She was not right for me. She would never have tolerated or understood. There would have been a wall between us, and she would never, could never have shared the life that I have chosen, almost instinctively, in a search for that which was right for my hybrid spirit.*

The more he thought of it, the more sense it made. *It is logical. Why then, did I not see it before?* And on reflection, he almost laughed when he realized the answer. *I did not see it because I *could* not -- for emotional reasons! I wanted so much to be only Vulcan that I would not allow myself to consider the reality. What a fool I have been!*

Caught up in the increasingly clear thoughts, Spock spent hours in the gardens reflecting on the life he'd led and what he truly valued in it. The trinary sun was lower when he finally looked up from his ruminations to see the garden around him. He had journeyed far and long that day, perhaps further than he would ever travel again.

He knew now, with certainty, that he would refuse T'Aryel. He'd thought as much, *felt* as much -- *Yes, that is correct, too, for *me* * -- But now he knew. He needed a companion for his life, one to share his struggles and his joys, to journey with him into the future.

As he slowly walked toward the edge of the garden, he looked around. *Yes, this is Vulcan, always beloved. But it is of the past, at best only a temporary haven in which to gather one's thoughts. My life is out among the stars.*

When he entered the house, he met Sarek, knowing without being told that his father had been waiting for him for the hours he'd been meditating.

"Is there something you would tell me, Spock?" The deep voice was resonant and as composed as ever.

Son faced father squarely, two adults in communication. "Yes, Father. I believe it is time for us to talk again."

Spock followed as his father led the way into his study, where he closed the carved door firmly against the possibility of either visitors or of being overheard. With a sidelong glance at Spock's straight, unmoving figure in the center of the room, Sarek took a seat at his desk. For a long moment, neither said anything as they regarded one another quietly.

Finally Spock gathered himself and began. "Father, I decline T'Aryel as candidate for either bonding or marriage."

Sarek inclined his head in acceptance, not surprised. "The afternoon's meditation was apparently helpful."

"Indeed," replied Spock, his face as unreadable as ever.

"I remind you of the dangers of remaining unbonded, Spock."

Spock nodded, his eyes drilling into Sarek's. "I wish to stipulate further that there is no necessity for anyone -- either you or T'Pau -- to seek out additional candidates for my choosing. I shall not be taking a Vulcan as mate."

This time, Sarek was surprised. "Indeed? What do you propose as an alternative?"

"I shall mate, Father. You need have no fear of that. I have no wish to suffer the Linger Death, nor do I wish to remain alone. But I have come to see that I want ... and need ... more than I can find on Vulcan."

For a moment, time telescoped backward and Sarek was forcefully reminded of another such conversation which had taken place in this very room, a conversation in which Spock had used almost the same words to tell his father that he was taking a career in Starfleet and not on Vulcan. Unlike that other time, the elder chose to hold his tongue and exhibit the patience so many thought he possessed. He would not willingly lose this son again by challenging his independent right of free choice.

"I have come to see," Spock continued, "that I desire a woman who offers more than would a Vulcan woman."

Sarek digested this slowly, wondering.

Spock interrupted, his head cocked slightly to one side, eyes twinkling. "I *am* your son, my father."

Sarek's glance came up sharply. So his first thought had been correct. "I trust you will not come to regret that ... perhaps one day when you find yourself momentarily overwhelmed by a torrent of illogic," he said dryly.

"It is a condition with which I have had a good deal of experience," replied Spock.

Sarek only added, "I expect you will communicate your desires when you are ready."

Spock gave a slight, assenting bow, and a warm silence grew between the two, to only be broken some minutes later by Amanda's summons to dinner.

* * *

At dinner, eaten in silence according to Vulcan custom, Spock watched Christine from behind his customary mask of impassivity, studying her carefully as if for the first time, which in some ways, it was. Her grace and warmth, the humor in her lovely eyes -- and Spock was not at all impervious to their appealing beauty -- kept ringing a bell in his memory that troubled him until he identified its source.

As they all joined in to clear the table, Amanda made the observation that he looked almost well. Christine turned, a bowl of fruit in her hands, and regarded Spock carefully. Bronzed by his planet's suns from his time spent in the gardens and solarium, filled out to his normal lean proportions by diet, rest and the exercise he'd been taking daily, he looked fit and ready for duty. With an almost painful lurch, Christine's heart also took notice of the darkly compelling looks, accentuated by the soft, dark blue Vulcan robe he wore with typical grace.

"Yes. He is well, if looks can be trusted," she said softly.

Amanda smiled. "Sarek was right, Christine. We have much for which we should thank you."

"Even though 'one does not thank logic'?" quoted Christine with a wry grin.

Amanda laughed delightedly and when Christine joined her, Spock was struck by the familiarity which had plagued him. He looked from his mother to Christine and suddenly realized why he'd been drawn to her. They were very much alike. He looked up to find Sarek watching him with understanding, a wordless message passing between the two.

"Then, Miss Chapel, would you say that Spock will be ready to return to the Enterprise when it returns for you both 1.5 days from now?" he asked.

She gave him a warm smile. "Undoubtedly, sir, though I will have to conduct one more physical tomorrow to make certain for the Medical Log."

He nodded, his look warm upon her in return. Christine had come to a great peace and comfort in this gracious house, had grown closer to Amanda and had come to be less insecure in Sarek's company than she had thought possible. She was returning the fruit bowl to its place in the kitchen's cool storage as comfortably as if she were indeed a family member when the depression she'd been holding off suddenly struck her. Alone for a moment, she leaned a gainst the counter, looking out into one of the gardens, this one the fruit and vegetable patches that Amanda tended with such loving care.

*This has come to feel almost like my home,* she reflected, and the thought sent a pang of suffering through her. *But it's *not* my home ... and it never will be, now that Spock--* Her thought continued wordlessly to T'Aryel. She understood nothing of Vulcan custom, had not been present when the young woman had left the house and so had no way of knowing the abruptness of the departure. She only knew that Spock had spent most of the day in meditation, deep in thought, and she had overheard Sarek discourage Amanda from approaching him whenever he should re-enter the house.

"He has much to consider, my wife," Sarek had said, and Amanda had accepted his admonition.

*Much to consider -- yes. A man contemplating marriage would have a great deal to think about,* thought Christine, and she suddenly realized that she'd been purposely avoiding awarenass of that fact all along. *But I can't ignore it any more! Oh God, why did I have to love him, and why did McCoy ever assign me here?* Her momentary misery was so deep that she missed hearing Spock's soft step behind her.

"Christine," he said softly, concerned by the slump to her slender shoulders.

She jumped, startled, and turned to look up into the gentle dark eyes. She'd been in his company long enough to have become quite good at masking her own feelings so that she only showed him a pleasant smile.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Spock. You startled me."

"My apologies," he murmured, searching her face with concern and the fund of new insight he'd so lately gained. "You seem -- troubled."

"I ... no. Well -- I guess I've been doing some thinking," she stammered.

He searched her face, looking for an answer but finding none. Puzzled, wanting to know more, he paused, and almost ... *almost* lifted a hand to reach out and touch her temple to read her thoughts. Startled at his own impulse, Spock drew himself back a bit. In Christine's frame of mind, that small withdrawal had a large and mistaken significance. It spelled a certain confirmation to her that Spock and she would be traveling necessarily separate paths thereafter.

*A man married to someone else can't very well make gestures toward a single woman that might be taken wrong by a casual observer,* she thought.

"Perhaps it would help you to walk in the Garden of Meditation," he suggested. "There is a peace and patterning to the Garden that is quite helpful to sorting out one's thoughts."

Christine felt suddenly overwhelmed by her emotions and his compelling nearness. Afraid she would lose control, she nodded. "Thank you, Spock. I -- think I'll do that," she said thickly, and before he could say anything more, she slipped past him and darted out of the house.

* * *

Vulcan's trinary sun was very low on the horizon, nearly set, when Christine made her escape into the garden. She paid it no mind, her thoughts in turmoil, beginning to pace the careful paths abstractedly.

*I've only been here a month ... and everything has changed so!* she thought miserably. She remembered McCoy's wise advice that first night, realizing that she'd been carried along through much of the month by hopes raised when she and Spock had had words with each other soon hereafter. *We seemed so close then -- and later. He was so easy in my presence, dryly humorous, the way he is with the Captain and Dr. McCoy. It all seemed so *possible*...*

Reflecting back, Christine thought now that the change in Spock was far more likely to have been caused by recovery of his health and the fact that he was home again than by anything between the two of them. She stopped walking, caught by the thought that she'd misinterpreted everything.

*Just as I've always misread everything about him, seeing him only as I want to see him -- not as he is,* she thought as she sank down onto a bench, half-hidden by a grotesquely gnarled thornwood. She looked around at the foliage and colors, so different from her own familiar Earth and yet so exotically beautiful. *Like him,* she thought, and the pain was almost too much.

*I must stop this. He isn't for me ... never will be, now -- and oh God, how that hurts!* A half-sob escaped her and she looked around hastily, wiping tears from her cheeks, hoping she wasn't seen. No; her place beneath the thornwood was a well-protected shelter. She would have been amazed to learn that, in the past Amanda had often used this same spot for a safe surrender to her emotions, and that Spock, while yet a young and storm-ridden boy, had come here to hide his unVulcan emotions from his father's stern, disapproving gaze.

*Oh, this is terrible! If it's this bad now, how am I ever going to manage being on board ship with him once he's married?* Her heart sank at the thought. *I'm not. That's what McCoy meant, why he sent me here ... to decide this very thing. And I know, if I'm honest enough to admit it, that I must get away. I'll never be able to live seeing him, talking to him, and knowing he's lost to me. And in all fairness, it wouldn't be much easier for him...*

She was lost in thought for a while, stilled by the realization that the end had come quite quickly, catching her unawares. *I suppose it was always like this. These things begin without planning and end the same way... Ah, well, they say time is a great healer. Perhaps. Though God knows I've never entirely gotten over Roger, especially after that horrible business with the android replica.* She looked down and smoothed the skirt of her borrowed robe.

*One thing is certain: there will be no replicas, duplicates or simulacrums of Spock. There is only one of him, indisputably. And maybe, once we are apart and I can't run into him every few hours, I will begin to tenant my world with other people...* She gazed off at the lengthening shadows in the garden. *But I think I'm done with this business of love. I couldn't bear trying again and failing. They say some people aren't made for it. I guess it took this to teach me that I'm one of them.*

She sighed, rising. No, it wasn't peace she'd found here. More like resignation, but it had a quieting effect nonetheless. She would be grateful for that, anyway. With careful dignity, and a last farewell to these surroundings, she walked into the house.

* * *

The next day, following the final physical she gave to Spock, Christine went with Sarek to his study to contact the Enterprise. After exchanging greetings and a summary account of Spock's progress with McCoy, she left the comm unit to Spock and went to pack. The day sped by quickly, each of them involved in their separate packing chores and occupied with separate thoughts. It wasn't until after dinner that Spock managed to speak with her. Unfamiliar with the preliminary small talk that would have been second nature to a Human male interested in a woman, he found himself at something of a loss when she turned to face him.

"It occurs to me that you have not seen the observatory," he said, searching for an opening. He was unprepared for her reaction.

"No, Spock, and I don't want to see it! Thank you very much just the same," she said with some asperity.

Caught off-balance, he couldn't think of anything else to say. "I only thought ... perhaps it would prove -- interesting to you ... and we might talk," he faltered.

"No. Thank you, Spock. I'm not much on stars. Gardens and Sickbays are more to my taste," she replied, covering her surge of emotions with flippancy. Damn him! The idea of taking her up there where he'd been with T'Aryel planning their marriage!

Retreating before the emotion he could sense, Spock took refuge in talk of duty. "Have you decided about your duty options for the coming five-year mission?" he asked.

Christine stopped walking and looked at him obliquely. "As a matter of fact, I only just came to a decision about it last evening. Your suggestion about the garden was a good one. Thank you for that."

"I am -- pleased to have been of assistance."

"Yes. I was able to get certain things straight in my mind. I know now what I'll be doing for the next five years." At his raised brow, she said, "I'll be transferring off the Enterprise, Spock. I've neglected my biological research for five years now to work on a starship. Well, it's been interesting and informative, but I miss my work in the laboratory. It's time I got back to it. As it is, I'll have to take refresher training and catch up on the latest discoveries and methods in the field, but that shouldn't be too difficult. What about you?"

To save his own life at that moment, Spock could not have managed to utter a word. He hadn't the faintest idea when he brought up the subject that this would be its outcome and found himself shaken by the news. Belatedly, he realized she'd asked a question. Faltering, he replied, "I shall return to the Enterprise."

"I rather thought you would. Well, I have some final packing to do. If you'll excuse me, I'll say good-night."

"Good night, Christine. Rest well," he replied distractedly. His thoughts an unfamiliar welter of confusion, Spock looked about for a moment, seeking a peaceful refuge. Hastily, he climbed the stairs to the darkened observatory, where a touch of the wall controls retracted the outside shutters, then he was alone with the stars.

He began by considering Christine's announcement in the light of his self-discoveries and realized that it was unreasonable to expect any other sort of reaction from her. *She does not know my thinking. Indeed, until now, I have not known my own mind -- consciously. How could I expect her to behave differently? She is an emotional person and these five years have undoubtedly been most difficult for her. Her decision seems, to her, the correct one, and if I had not learned what I have about myself, I would not see it any differently, either.* He looked up at the stars reflectively.

*But she has come to mean ... much. Blind fool that I am, I spent these years avoiding the obvious. All along, she has been there, just on the edge of my awareness, a warm, responsive creature so like Mother that I cannot believe I could not have seen it before if only I had looked. And what did I do about it? Condemned her, reviled her, insulted her at every turn. It is truly a wonder that she has continued to care!*

Mercilessly, the Vulcan heaped coals on his head, shivering with shame that he'd hurt her so much. *And McCoy calls me gentle!* he rebuked himself. The hour was a bitter one for Spock, for the Human half, so long denied, was rising slowly but with a vengeance. In his ruthlessness with himself, the soul-deep honesty forced him to face the truth and not turn from it. At its end, he looked up at the stars painfully. *Will she still have me, after what I have done to her?*

With the stars above to give no answer, there was only one way to find out and Spock knew it well, though he cringed at the prospect. Though his life-long fear of his own emotions attempted to re-assert itself, he used his iron will to quell that fear. *No! It does not matter whether or not she will have you and still less does it matter that it is difficult for you to speak! She has a right to hear you say the words. Damn your false Vulcan pride that in its selfishness would, even now, withhold justice from the one you made suffer! You will seek her out tomorrow and speak!*

* * *

As bad luck would have it, of course, the following morning gave Spock no opportunity to be alone with Christine at all. His parents, knowing he must go and wanting to spend every precious moment with him, gave him no chance to speak with her. And Christine herself, acutely aware of the tenuousness of her self-control, avoided him diligently. To complicate matters further, the Enterprise arrived early, and Spock found himself on the receiving end of one of Kirk's more impatient communiques. On the study's small viewscreen, the Captain appeared to be practically wriggling in the command chair.

"Spock, I'd like to accept your parents' generous offer of hospitality, but the truth is we just don't have the time. We've got cargo aboard due at Janus VI, which is where we'll be heading from Vulcan. After that, it's Starbase XI and the five-year rotation. You and Christine, your bags and McCoy's portable equipment will all be beamed up as quickly as you can manage to get assembled outside the house."

"Yes, sir," Spock replied quietly.

"Convey our regrets to your parents, if you will. Maybe next time."

"Yes, sir."

"All right. Step lively now, Mister. Kirk out."

The subspace comm snapped off and Spock sighed softly. From the sounds of it, he would not get an opportunity to speak with Christine for quite some time. He resigned himself to reality, and with Sarek's help, carried the luggage and equipment outside to the burning sands before the entrance rotunda. He was already in uniform, and as he waited for Christine he spent a few moments saying his last farewells to his parents.

Shortly afterward, Christine emerged from the house. As she drew up to the others, Amanda turned, extending both hands. "Christine, my dear, we are so very sorry to see you go. You were a most welcome guest and we are more grateful than words can express for your help for our son."

"It was an honor to be here, Amanda. You made me feel a part of your family. It is I who am grateful -- more than you will ever know."

Sarek raised his hand in the Vulcan salute. "May you indeed live long and prosper, Lieutenant."

Christine smiled. "Peace and long life, sir." Her imitation of the gesture was quite creditable, then she took her place beside Spock as he contacted the transporter officer. Quickly, Christine looked around, memorizing the images of the fortress-like house, the sound of the fountains and the memories of silver birds against a morning sky. Presently, the scene sparkled out of existence. For Christine, there was an added poignance in her belief that she would never see it again.

Once back on board, the hurried routines took them along their separate courses from the very first. A quick examination for Spock, actually only a formality since McCoy trusted Christine's judgment regarding the First Officer, and then he headed for the bridge. For Christine, the day was something of a burden.

She was almost painfully aware of McCoy's efforts to speak with her and had no intention of speaking to anyone about her newly made and painful decision. She used the extensive crew physicals in preparation for the end of the five-year mission to place a barrier of duty between herself and McCoy. Finally, by the end of the shift, the doctor seemed to have taken the hint and when he departed for the Officers' Mess, she gratefully hung behind.

In the sudden quiet of the evening, she straightened what was already straight, putting records and instruments aside with half an eye on the chronometer. She intended to wait until she was sure McCoy had finished dinner before heading for her own meal. With any luck, the Captain, Spock and most of the senior officers would also be finished. She could eat in relative peace and be gone to her quarters without encountering anyone.

It was in this preoccupied frame of mind that Spock found her a few minutes later. Despite the swish of the corridor doors, Christine wasn't aware of his presence until his voice broke in on her thoughts.

"Christine."

Jumping, she whirled, a little pale at being confronted by the subject of her thoughts. Spock's glance was wary. "It seems to be my fate to catch you unawares. My apologies if I startled you."

"That's all right," she murmured. "If you're looking for Dr. McCoy..."

"I am not. I have found the person for whom I was in search." It was a statement that could be taken two ways and Spock meant it both ways.

"Oh." The word was barely audible.

Spock looked around, unsure that they were safely alone. To be certain of privacy, he bade her follow him into McCoy's office and she silently complied, though her puzzlement grew. Once in the office, he did not say anything immediately. Instead, he turned restlessly around the small space, an uncharacteristic nervousness betrayed in his movements.

"Christine, I would ask you if you have yet informed Dr. McCoy of your intention to transfer off this vessel."

"No, I haven't. To be honest, Spock, I was avoiding the -- confrontation, or putting it off until tomorrow, anyway."

"I see." He turned aside. There was a d'ran plant on McCoy's desk, a gift from Sulu, the sometime botanist. It was an appropriate plant for a physician, since on the planet where it was native, it was thought to have healing properties, and certain telepathic species seemed to derive peace from touching its leaves. Spock brushed one of the red leaves with an apparently casual gesture and turned back to Christine, who was watching him with a slight frown.

"You *do* intend to transfer?"

"I told you that the ... last night on Vulcan," she said with impatience and a certain huskiness to her voice.

"Yes. You spoke of your research career." Again, he touched the plant, seeming to fix his attention on it before speaking once more. "I -- would ask you if you would consider remaining on board."

Christine's frown deepened. She saw him regarding her intently. She shook her head. "No, Spock. I told you. I'm going. My mind is made up."

"Might I ask why you find it necessary to leave? Somehow, I sense the explanation about your research career was ... perhaps only a partial one."

Christine sighed. She hadn't wanted to tell him, but-- "Very well, Spock. Perhaps it's only fair to be honest with you. You've always been honest with me." She took a deep breath, troubled by what she had to tell him, and by the fact that he seemed to be standing very close -- Spock, who ordinarily was so careful to avoid physical contact. "I ... can't bear to live on the same ship with you any more, Spock. It's too painful to me. I've tried to deny it, live with it -- and I can't. Everywhere there are crew who smile and whisper whenever they see us together. It was hard enough before, but ... oh, damn! I -- don't want to keep you from making ... other arrangements for yourself--"

Spock frowned, puzzled. "What 'arrangements'?"

"You don't have to pretend about it, Spock. Your mother told me why T'Aryel came to your home. I know she was brought to meet you because she was offered to you as a bondmate. I ... well ... as difficult as things are now for me regarding you, they'd be worse -- after you..."

"Christine, I refused T'Aryel as a candidate. I sent her away," he interrupted. In the brief silence that followed, as Christine tried to digest that news, a sudden thought occurred to him. His eyes widened in startlement that he hadn't thought of it before. "When you spoke of my being free to make 'other arrangements', did you perhaps mean that *you* wish to do so?"

"I? No, Spock. First, there was Roger Korby, and then there was you. One way or another, I lost each of you. There's an old saying -- 'once burned, twice shy'. This is twice burned, worse by far. No, Spock. I don't think I ever want to go through this again. I'll just have to learn to base my life on something besides a wistful heart's desire."

For several long moments, there was silence between them as Spock reflected on the lonely pain in her voice and thought of the loneliness with which he himself had lived for so long. It was past time to end that for them both. Since it was apparent she did still care, then it was up to him. He gathered his courage.

"Are you certain you will not stay?" Spock's voice was very subdued.

Christine's agitation increased and she fought it down. "To what end, Spock? How can I stay? I just told you, I can't bear it any longer. Please allow me the dignity of a graceful retreat."

Spock touched the leaves of the d'ran again. "I am asking you to stay, not retreat. I," he struggled with the words, "...wish you to stay."

Uncomprehending, Christine shook her head. "Why?"

"Because," he said, haltingly. "...I do not wish -- to live ... without you."

Stunned, she replied automatically. "But Spock, we don't live *with* each other."

"Correct. As things are now. That -- would be remedied." His voice was husky, and he was still concentrating on the plant.

Afraid of her dawning understanding, the nurse drew herself up with dignity. Spock could sense her mood, the coming refusal. "I do not wish crumbs, patronization or pity, Spock, especially not from you," she said stiffly.

He closed his eyes with a sigh, realizing she was going to force him to say it all. "Neither crumbs nor patronization, and the furthest thing from pity, Christine. The words do not come easily to me. After all this time, you must know that very well. Let us say my reasons are both logical and," he paused, "--emotional."

"Emotional?" She barely breathed the word, her eyes wide.

"Yes." He turned toward her, regarding her gravely, then took her slender shoulders in his hands. "Surely you know ... or must I say it even now?"

She nodded, eyes filled with wonderment at his words, even more at his actions. "Yes, Spock, you must ... or I'll never truly understand, and we've had far too many misunderstandings between us."

"Very well." He took a deep breath. Through the warm, strong hands on her shoulders, she felt him tremble slightly. "Christine, I care for you -- deeply." One hand lifted to touch her cheek gently and his dark eyes were velvet-soft and deep ... so deep. "You are a woman whose rare and special worth I did not allow myself to fully realize -- until recently. More deeply than you can possibly know or imagine do I regret the numberless times when I have hurt you, caused you pain, pushed you away."

The words became increasingly difficult to say, but Spock steeled himself, sensing that if he allowed himself to avoid this now, he would lose something far more precious than his dignity, and far more meaningful in his life than any pinnacle he might conquer alone. "To the depths of my soul, I am ashamed of all that and beg your forgiveness now. And there is one thing more which I must know ... Christine, will you consent to be my wife?"

For one long moment, and then another, Christine looked up at him, and time stood still for her. Without having to think about it, she realized that any of the responses to that question that she once might have made to this quiet, gentle man would somehow be wrong now. Instead, though it was not her first impulse, she looked up at him almost gravely. Only her eyes gave her away, lighted and brilliant with joy.

"Oh, Spock! I would be -- so honored ... and so happy!" She looked so appealing as she struggled to contain herself that Spock took pity on her. A smile crinkled the corners of his eyes and touched the gentle mouth.

"Do not be afraid of your emotions, Christine. It is not necessary for you to try to contain them. You are not Vulcan, after all. I have adjustments to make -- as have you -- but mine are the greater and the more necessary."

With an ease and skill that surprised her, he drew her close and bent his head. Their lips touched tentatively, parted, touched again, warmed and then clung. Christine's arms slid around his slender waist and she melted against him as the kiss went on and deepened. A fleeting thought -- *Home, at last!* -- swept through her mind before she lost herself in sensation.

Neither of them heard or saw McCoy come in, gape, gulp, then retreat with a grin. He stopped Kirk in the corridor.

"What's up?" asked the Captain.

"I think we'll wait out here, Jim," cautioned the Doctor with a twinkle in his eye.

Kirk looked quizzically at the grin. Puzzled but resigned, he subsided. "You *are* going to explain this to me, right?"

"Right, Jim."



THE END

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