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

Message in a Bottle
Debbie B

What a piece of work she was.

Christine Chapel pulled the sweater tightly around her shoulders, uncertain just exactly why she was out here in the October night, trudging through damp sand and over less-than-user-friendly rocks. She tugged the collar against the cold, staring out over the black waters to points unknown.

Somehow, she always found her way back to the water. The air was thick with salt. A bitter wind made a mockery of the weeks of knitting she'd forced upon herself in the name of "doing something else." Doing something else had become her battle cry, it seemed. How that battle cry turned into a massively unpretty sweater that barely kept out the cold was beyond her, but here she was.

What a piece of work.

You said that already.

And now you're talking to yourself.

She wriggled her way over the jetty, careful of the slime-covered rocks that beckoned to her ankles. It seemed each month she became more brittle, less flexible.

Older is the word you're looking for, Chris.

Yeah. Older.

He still looked good. Chapel wanted to hit herself for even having the thought. But there it was. Spock still looked damned good.

She found a place on the rock that would not be too uncomfortable. Her rear had less insulation these days, and sharp rocks made for stiff awakenings.

Damn him! Damn him, damn him, damn him, damn him! How dare he come back after all these years? How dare he just open up her door and walk into her life uninvited?

"The man always was a sadist," she whispered to the ocean. The ocean did not comment. It simply continued in a shimmering black kaleidoscope of foam and advance, foam and retreat. Chapel didn't blame the sea. It wasn't the sea's fault.

"Spock," she whispered. Over the years, that name had meant so many different things to her. It had inspired so many different emotions -- lust, sympathy, anger, frustration. Embarrassment. To this day, she thought back on her Enterprise days with a mixture of pride, nostalgia, and complete mortification.

Christine Chapel had never been one to throw herself at a man. Even now, years later, the words seemed ludicrous in her ears. She'd thrown herself at Roger Korby. She'd thrown herself at Spock. Hell, even Patrick could make a case for her throwing herself at him -- that is, had he cared enough to make the effort.

But when she looked at herself, deep in her heart and her thoughts and her day-to-day monotony, Chapel just didn't see the desperate, man-hungry woman her track record made her out to be.

It had been seven years since she and Patrick had blown up in the most glorious spectacle since the Khitomer disaster. In that seven years, she'd written two books, done a successful lecture tour across four planetary systems, even had a surgical technique named after her. She had a beautiful beach home on the Pacific coast. Her life was complete. Better than complete -- she had life to spare, as her students and peers attested at any of the numerous award banquets in her honor.

Damn him! Two minutes in his presence, and Chapel was back on the Enterprise, wearing that ridiculous miniskirt and a hairdo two feet above her head. She was clutching a padd to her bosom, trying to find anything more intelligent to say than, "Yes, Doctor."

Two minutes in his presence and her knees were like jelly again.

You're too old for a schoolgirl crush, Chris.

And Spock, in his typical Spock fashion, let it all go straight over his head. Of course, he wouldn't notice the change in her. He'd never seen her any other way. He had no idea the affect he had on her, even now. He thought it was perfectly normal her to act and speak and stutter like a complete idiot.

For the life of her, she hadn't even known why he bothered to show up at all. Out of the blue, he showed up with some story about being on Earth for a diplomatic conference, about wanting to congratulate her on the limb regeneration project, about finding her books logical and well-researched.

If he was in front of her right now, Christine would not be able to think of one reason not to slap him right across the face. Who did he think he was? Who did he think she was? She was seventy-five years old, for crying out loud!

Sure, for a Vulcan, that's barely out of short pants. But she'd done a whole lot of learning in nearly eight decades. It bothered her to...

Come on, Chris. Tell us. Just what does bother you so much about that good-looking, cold-blooded bastard?

It bothered her to know she still cared. After the blow-up with Patrick, she thought she'd put that all behind her. All for one, and I'm the one, was her new credo. And motivated selfishness had paid off. Her life, her career, everything she'd abandoned in her misguided search for love and fulfillment -- these things were now hers for the taking. And she'd earned them.

A wave broke on the rock just below her, splashing icy water against the leggings she wore. She pulled her foot up, wrapping her arms around her knee as she watched the ocean silently. Why couldn't she just stop feeling, just for a little while?

As expected, the ocean didn't have any answers.

It was getting colder. She knew she should be getting in soon. Jeremy had probably left fourteen messages for her by now. He was certain she would drown or fall and break a hip or something. "Oh, who cares," she muttered. "If I break a hip, I'll just grow a new one in the lab. It's not like I'm old or anything."

There had been such a strange look in his eyes. Stranger than normal, that is. He'd watched her, studying her like some incomprehensible sculpture in an art museum. Back on the Enterprise, she would have probably misinterpreted that long stare, used it to fuel her overactive fantasy life. She could have gotten six months worth of sexual fantasies out of that first greeting alone.

Now, it just tired her. The conversation. The polite discussion of various professional projects covering unspoken thoughts too numerous to count. What did he want of her? She'd caught him, at one point, flipping through a holo collection she kept on the piano. It was of Patrick's and her vacation to Rigel. Spock had looked so uncomfortable when he realized he'd been caught.

As if she cared anymore. She was so far beyond her old obsession with him. So far past that need to break through his thick Vulcan shell.

And finally, after refusing her offer of dinner twice, he left. One Vulcan, two hours, complete emotional chaos. At least the universe was still running on its normal course.

A splash of water hit her head on, drenching her to the bone. With a disgusted cry, Chapel shook the salty foam out of her graying chocolate hair. She shuddered like a Labrador retriever, cursing all the way. Fine! If that's how it's going to be, I'll just go home.

She picked her way through the rocks. By the time she was back on solid footing, she was freezing. There was enough moonlight to make her way back to the house, but not enough to run safely. When she pulled open the arcadia door, her teeth were chattering. She ignored the blinking message light on the panel. "Later," she said as she ran to the bathroom and turned on the hottest water shower she could bear, allotment be damned. She'd do sonic for the rest of the week.

By the time she could feel her feet again, the computer was warning her about her consumption level. With a light curse, she turned off the water and pulled a towel off the hook. Yeah, sonics for the next two weeks, she thought as she watched the allotment meter plummet. She hated sonics.

You have two new messages, Christine, her organizer informed her as she left a dripping trail of water from the bathroom to the closet. Would you like to review them?

"Not now." She patted her hair as dry as possible with the damp towel, then tossed it back into the bathroom. Pulling her pajama tops over her head, she practically tripped on herself searching for socks. "I really should organize this place."

I can prepare a schedule of reorganization sessions, broken down by category. The estimated time for completion of reorganization is as follows: closet, two hours. Bathroom, one hour forty-two minutes. Kitchen--

"Computer, didn't I have two messages?" How did she ever let Patrick talk her into this bloody talk-show host of a house?

Correct. First message, received at twenty-one-seventeen, from Jeremy Bonvillain....

"Skip."

Skipping first message. Second message, received at twenty-two-thirty-nine, from Ambassador Spock. Do you wish to review this message?

Christine felt her voice catch in her throat. What now? She put her hand on her chest. Why on Earth was her pulse racing? Heart pounding. She had half a mind to delete the message unheard.

But she heard her own voice saying, "Play back message from Ambassador Spock."

She turned to the wall monitor and there he was. Big as life. Bigger, even. His face older and paler than in her memory, hair shot through with just enough gray to make him disgustingly distinguished-looking. Eyes dark and beautiful. Damn. Her knees!

"Christine, I wished to apologize once more for my lack of consideration. Had circumstances permitted, I would have made prior arrangements to meet you, rather than simply ... showing up."

She smiled at his use of the colloquialism, smiled even more at the touch of discomfort in his face as he used it. Of course, once she realized she was smiling, once she realized that her stomach was tightening in anticipation of the next word he spoke, her smile dripped off like a candle that had seen better days.

"I regret we do not have more time to spend together. My duties on Earth are over; I will be returning to Vulcan in the morning."

If you truly regretted it, you'd take a later flight, she thought, then mentally kicked herself for even thinking it.

"In our rush to ... catch up, as you put it, I fear I never said what I came to say."

She felt her stomach clench and Chapel sat hard on the bed. What he came to say? For a Vulcan, he certainly had a flair for the dramatic.

Spock looked off to the side, almost as if to make sure he was not overheard. "Christine, I..." Again, a look around him. If possible, his expression grew even more serious than before. "Dr. Chapel, this may be my last visit to Earth for some time. I wish ... I wanted to thank you for being my friend."

And with that, the message ended.

"Computer, continue message."

Message complete. Would you like to see the message again?

"No." Chapel lay down on her side, pulling her knees up to her chest. He wanted to thank her? For being his friend? She squeezed her eyes shut. The man had never made a bit of sense, not since the day she met him.

* * *

Good morning, Christine. You have no messages. There are sixteen reports in today's newsserve. Do you wish to review them?

Chapel balanced a cup of coffee on her plate as she carefully folded herself into the recliner. "Yeah, standard sort."

Biomedical updates: None. Sport Update: The New Orleans Devils defeated San Francisco, six to three, in the FHL playoffs. Would you like a more detailed version of this report?

"Save for later review. Why do I keep betting on San Francisco," she muttered as she bit into her toast. "Next."

Interstellar Update: Vulcan Embassy reports the disappearance of Ambassador Spock. Would you like a more detailed version of this report?

Chapel yelped as a splash of hot coffee hit her thigh. "Yeah ... yes, display full version, audio-visual on main monitor."

A dark-eyed woman of Icelandic descent appeared on the screen. "Sources at the Vulcan Embassy have reported that Ambassador Spock, who was scheduled to leave for Vulcan at approximately three p.m., planetary standard time, failed to appear at Belgian transport station this afternoon. While the Embassy has yet to make an official statement, insiders are saying there is no sign of foul play. Spock, who served as first officer aboard the Enterprise during its legendary first five year mission, also played a strong role in negotiating the Khitomer Accord as well as the Babel III Interspecies Relations Pact. We will be transmitting updates on this situation as it unfolds. For more biographical information on Ambassador Spock, please activate the archive command: SpockBio. For historical information on the Enterprise, the planet Vulcan, or--"

"Computer, discontinue report."

Discontinuing report. Do you wish to save this report?

"Save. Contact LM2, direct line."

Connecting with communications settings LM2. The destination terminal is requesting identification verification.

"Tell them it's Chapel and if I'm on hold for more than thirty seconds I'll beam over and bang on the door myself."

Transmitting identification verification. Verification accepted. Please hold.

It was twenty-one seconds before Leonard McCoy's face appeared on the screen. She counted.

"Christine, don't you have any sense of decency? You gonna rouse a man my age out of his bed this early in the morning?"

"It's three hours later in Georgia, so stop complaining," she said. Much as she loved him, this was no time for his old country doctor routine. "Did you hear the report?"

"On Spock?" he asked, as if she would be calling about anything else. "Yeah, I heard it."

"You don't sound too concerned."

McCoy laughed, a hacking wheeze that ended up more a cough than a laugh. "You know how that green-blooded Vulcan is, Christine. He's got more lives than a family of cats. Must be those pointed ears."

"I don't like it, Leonard. He came to my house last night. To 'chat.' Then he left me a message, saying he wouldn't be back on Earth for some time."

It was McCoy's turn to frown. "He did? Funny, he showed up at my house day before yesterday. Same thing -- said he wouldn't be back for some time. Like he didn't expect to see me again."

Chapel shook her head. "Something is going on here, Len. Something very strange."

* * *

Chapel tried to focus on the sheet music. She had mastered the art of limb regeneration, but Mozart eluded her on the best of days. Today was not the best of days.

Her fingers were poised above the keys, ready to attack the third movement, when a scratching sound disturbed her train of thought. "George," she muttered, not taking her eyes off the notes. "Off the piano."

Her command was greeted by a soft "mrowrr," then a brown pair of eyes peeped over the music. "Mrowrr."

"Son. Off." Chapel wondered how on Earth so much utter disregard could be packed into a six-pound furry body. Scooping him up in one arm, she groaned slightly. "Is it possible you could ever do what I say?" She turned his bean-bag form until he stared her straight in the eye. "No, of course not. Whatever could I have been thinking?"

"Mrowr."

She shook her head, kissed him behind the ears, and deposited him on the floor next to the piano bench. "Mommy is trying to learn some of the most beautiful music in the world. Now, please go away so I can get it over with." Chapel had barely settled on to the bench when the chocolate-covered tom scrambled onto the piano by way of the corner table and the book shelf. "George!"

Startled by the vehemence of her voice, the cat bounded off the polished surface, knocking the holo-album with him. Christine drew in a deep breath, knowing that any kind of discipline would be irrelevant at this point. She leaned over, picking up the album. She sat back down on the bench, idly activating the first hologram. A tiny image of her and Patrick appeared in her palm. She stared at the couple, hair blown and sun-drenched. They seemed so happy.

"Amazing what a picture can do," she grumbled. She was about to toss the album back on the piano when something caught her eye. She flipped through the album until she found it -- a tiny disk inserted between the last two pages. "What the hell?"

* * *

"It is safe to assume that by the time you view this message, I will be gone."

Christine sat down at the desk with a hard thud. She had been dealing with Spock's disappearance for two months. The whole Federation had been dealing with it for two months. And here he was, on her office viewscreen, calmly predicting that he would vanish into thin air. "Spock," she whispered. "You son of a bitch. You planned this entire thing."

If Spock's image had any problem with her disrespectful comment, it never let on. "Logically, it is possible there will be political ramifications to my absence..."

"Gee, I don't know. Half the Federation accusing the other half of foul play, a media circus bigger than the Lindbergh baby and the Ravin' Mad Lew scandal combined..."

"But it was necessary." Spock calmly ignored her rambling. Of course, even if this had not been a pre-recorded message, he probably would have ignored her rambling. "I cannot tell you where I am going. For your safety as well as mine, that information must remain..." He paused, and for a moment his facade wavered. "Confidential. But, Christine--"

"Pause." His use of her first name startled her. Granted he had called her Christine before, usually when he was about to break her heart or go into some alien-induced fit of madness, but there was a precedence. But under normal circumstances, he preferred good old-fashioned Dr. Chapel to anything less ... official.

Chapel studied the face on the screen for a long moment. Something was different. He had a familiar air about him, something she'd seen before but couldn't quite place. Something in the way he spoke, in the way he held himself.

A sick feeling started in the bottom of her stomach, roiling upwards until she felt positively nauseous. She recognized the look. She had seen it dozens of times on the faces of terminally ill patients, the ones who knew there was no way in hell they were going to live out the week, or even the day.

"Computer, resume," she said hoarsely.

"But Christine, I felt it necessary to communicate with you this one last time. I know that your feelings toward me are not as they once were, but it is still evident that you care for me. Of my human friends, I know you and McCoy will worry most. It is almost certain that I will never see you again. This is regrettable, but necessary. What I seek to accomplish is of such importance that my personal preferences are irrelevant." His expression softened slightly. "Christine, whatever happens to me, I will always think of you fondly. I hope you will remember me in the same manner."

The message ended there. Chapel felt it rising in her chest, starting at the base of her ribcage and pushing upwards until she could barely breathe. She placed her hand over her open mouth, staring blankly at the viewscreen for a long while. She couldn't even begin to comprehend what Spock had said in this message. She could barely believe the message existed in the first place. And her shaking hands and shallow breathing weren't helping matters.

She reset the message, watching it several more times, sentence by sentence, word by word in some cases. She searched for meaning, clues in that face she'd memorized so many decades earlier. Some kind of sense to be found in the Vulcan Ambassador's sudden and mysterious departure. When she was convinced she'd seen every nuance, every tiny gesture and undertone, and still couldn't find the missing pieces, she turned the message off.

"Computer, get me Jeremy Bonvillain on the line." As the computer established the connection, Chapel muttered to herself, "Looks like I'm going to need a house-sitter."

* * *

Chapel pressed her temples as the ship came out of warp. It had been almost seventeen years since her last interstellar flight and that time she hadn't been traveling with a hangover. She tried not to think about the throbbing in her head and stomach as her fellow passengers strolled through the main lounge. Two days in Savannah with Leonard and that damn non-synthetic alcohol he insisted on serving, and she could practically feel the brain cells dying off. But did she remember to pack detox pills? No, of course not.

A voice came over the speakers, way too perky for this time of day. "This is Captain Asaadi on the bridge. We've just come out of warp in the 40 Eridani system and are making our final approach into Vulcan space. It'll take a few moments to establish orbit around the planet, so please sit back and relax. We will begin transport of passengers 150 through 200 in, oh, approximately ten minutes, and work our way backwards all the way to passenger number one. Please wait until the announcement is given before making your way to the main transporter bay."

Chapel looked at her ticket. Number seventeen. Might as well relax. She leaned back in the mostly-comfortable chair, counting her inward and outward breaths in a half-baked attempt at relaxation. It didn't work...

"The local time in ShiKahr is fourteen-twenty three, and the temperature is a blistering forty-four degrees Celsius. Hope you brought your sunscreen, because there won't be a cloud in the Vulcan sky for another seven months. Before making your way to the transporter bay, please check around your seat to make sure you haven't forgotten anything. We'll begin beam-down in just a few minutes. We hope you enjoy your stay on Vulcan. The crew and I know you have a choice in interstellar carriers, and as always we thank you for choosing TransWarp. Captain out."

God, she hated commercial travel.

* * *

Amanda Grayson was almost indistinguishable from the few, albeit terrifying, Vulcan matriarchs Chapel had come into contact with over her long career. Her face wizened almost beyond recognition, the folds of sheer orange cloth wrapped in traditional (read: incomprehensible) Vulcan fashion, even her eyebrows seemed a bit pointed. There was no official record of her age, but Christine surmised she had to be almost 130. Considering she'd spent most of that time on a planet that defied even the most vigorous moisturizing regimen, Chapel thought she looked darned good.

Thanking the younger human woman who escorted her to the terrarium, Chapel started to cross the short distance between them when Amanda stopped her. "Dr. Chapel. Sit. I'll come to you."

"That isn't--"

"I've been on this planet for longer than you've been alive," she said as she hobbled slowly towards Chapel. "Even in this protected area, it is too hot for you. At least, not until you get accustomed." In the time it took for her to state her argument, Amanda had already closed the gap. She drew in a deep breath, then sat on the smooth rock bench next to the desert garden that provided the centerpiece for the entire terrarium. Taking Chapel's hand in her almost translucent fingers, she gripped them with surprising strength. "Christine. It is so good to see you again."

"It's good to see you as well, Dr. Grayson," she said, meaning it.

Amanda pulled her hand gently. When Chapel sat next to her, she said, "Christine, I've known you how long?" She didn't let the younger woman answer. "Long enough to dispense with the Dr. Grayson. I'm Amanda to you."

Chapel couldn't help but smile. Spock's mother might look Vulcan, but she was still the same vibrant human woman who'd stood guard with Chapel over Sarek and Spock all those years ago on the journey to Babel.

"Well, are you going to tell me why you left Earth to visit our lovely little furnace?" Again, she answered her own question. "It's about Spock, isn't it? Of course, it's about Spock. You would not believe the people who've shown up in the last two months. Reporters, Starfleet investigators..." She winked at Chapel. "Can you imagine the fuss they've made about one person?"

"Well, Amanda, Spock is hardly just ... anybody. A lot of people ... care."

A smile carved its way into Amanda's faded skin. "You care, dear. They're just looking for controversy. Oh, don't look so shocked. I've been a political wife long enough to know that most people are simply marking time until the next scandal."

Chapel frowned. "How are you and Sarek doing?" she asked earnestly.

"Sweetie, in his career, Spock has been dead so many times I can't even count it, missing in action even more still. I'm too old to worry about him now. He'll either come back, or he'll stay away. Worrying wouldn't be logical." There was a moment of silence, and then, "Did I really say that?"

"You did."

"Must be the heat. Why don't we go in and have some tea?"

She started to get up, but Chapel stopped her. "Amanda, I didn't just come here to visit. I have something I need to talk to you about. But, I need to discuss it with you in private."

The older woman smiled. "Intriguing. I suppose the tea can wait a few minutes. What did you want to discuss?"

Chapel steeled herself. "Spock. I think he planned this whole disappearance."

* * *

Chapel took a long sip of her iced tea and pulled the damp hair from the back of her neck as she pored over the padd Amanda had provided.

Sarek watched her intently across the patio as she activated the next volume of journal entries. "Dr. Chapel, I fail to see the logic in this activity. The authorities have already examined Spock's journals, as have my wife and I." Even though both Amanda and Sarek had studied the messages Spock left for her and McCoy, neither could decipher anything other than the surface message: Good-bye, and thanks for everything. So to speak.

She stifled a quick, nasty glare. Now was not the time for logic; logic had turned up nothing but zeroes. She had the intense urge to roll her eyes. Instead, however, she simply shrugged. "Maybe a fresh pair of eyes..."

"Don't let him discourage you, Christine," Amanda said as she passed from the house through the climate-control terminal into the atrium. "You look as long as you want."

"My wife, attend," Sarek said, his hand raised in the traditional Vulcan greeting. But he himself rose and quickly crossed the distance between them before helping his wife to her seat.

Chapel couldn't help notice the difference between them. Back on the Enterprise, they had seemed contemporaries. Now, a mere four decades later, Amanda looked positively ancient next to the Vulcan male. That would have been you and Spock, if you'd gotten together, a tiny voice murmured in her head. Now where the heck had that come from?

She shook her head, deactivating the log as she did so. "No, he's right, Amanda. There's nothing here to find. I'd just hoped--"

"Of course you did, dear."

Maybe it was the godawful heat. Maybe it was the frustration of two days reading Vulcan logs. But something in Amanda's placating tone went straight to Chapel's spine. "I don't know why I'm here," she sighed. "Perhaps it would have been better if I'd just brought the messages straight to the authorities."

Sarek's eyebrows raised. "I wondered why you did not do that in the first place, Dr. Chapel," he said dryly.

"Sarek!" Amanda hissed at her husband.

"It was not logical for her to travel this distance when she could have transmitted them more efficiently--"

"Sarek, don't you have a meeting?"

The Vulcan opened his mouth to speak, then almost immediately closed it. "No. But, I shall retire to my study until evening meal." He nodded to Chapel, who sat wilting over a glass full of watered-down tea. "Until then, Doctor," he said, then left the atrium.

Chapel let out a heavy sigh. "He's right. It was foolish of me to come here."

"Don't mind Sarek. When he's worried, the first thing to go are his manners." Amanda smiled. "I think you were right to come here, Christine."

Again, that sweetly knowing, barely condescending tone. Straight to the spine. "No, it was dumb. How could I find anything the authorities couldn't find? His own parents, for that sake?" She knew she sounded for all the world like an adolescent, and her own self-deprecating tone merely frustrated her more.

"Christine." Amanda's frosted blue eyes burned into her, seeing things Chapel realized she'd rather not have seen. "Had it been Sarek, no force on Earth would have kept me from investigating."

She pursed her lips tightly. "That assumes a right that is not there, Lady Amanda." She was surprised at her own sharp statement.

Apparently, so was Amanda. "Would you be so harsh with anyone besides yourself, Christine?" she asked softly.

"I don't understand."

The older woman smiled. "You are here because you care about him. Because, of all the people, he communicated with you. Not his parents, not the authorities. You."

An uneasy nerve resonated with Amanda's last syllable. "McCoy also received a message."

"McCoy isn't here," Amanda stated simply. "You are."

"I--"

"You are here because you are supposed to be here." Her eyes bore into the younger woman, who tried not to squirm. "Maybe you won't find him. But perhaps that's not what he wanted."

"What he wanted?" It was Chapel's turn to stare.

Amanda smiled. "My son was many things, among them a very good judge of character. Don't you think he knew how you'd react to his message? Do you really think he would have expected you not to do something?" At Chapel's shrug, Amanda continued. "It is illogical to assume you would have acted any way other than the way you did. So let's just try to figure out what he wanted you to figure out."

"Why me?" Chapel let the question slip that had been haunting her ever since she first found the message. Why had Spock come to her home that night? Why had he left that cryptic message?

"Perhaps because you could ask the questions no one else would think to ask."

Chapel stared at the older woman, as the early morning heat burned the words into her mind.

* * *

She was hot. She hated feeling hot, especially when she knew intellectually that the temperature was just fine. Christine kicked the covers off her feet, hoping to allow a bit of cool air to circulate around her legs and torso.

"This is ridiculous." She sat up in bed, pulling her feet up into a modified lotus position and bending her chest forward into a deep stretch. A strand of hair tumbled over her shoulders, tickling her nose. She sneezed.

What the hell was she doing on Vulcan?

Chapel straightened into a seated position, struggling and achieving the full lotus. Closing her eyes, she watched her breathing as it started in the pit of her stomach, rose through her body and made its way to freedom. A yawn escaped her, and she followed it. What am I doing on Vulcan, she asked silently. The question floated like a lily on the currents of her breathing. What am I doing on Vulcan?

She breathed into the question. At another point in her life, it would have been an accusatory dagger intent on nailing her for some real or imagined transgression. But tonight, it was just another bit of flotsam in the current. What am I doing on Vulcan?

Perhaps you ask the questions no one else would think to ask.

She followed the question. The new question. What are the questions no one else would ask? No answer appeared. Christine raised her arms slowly to the side, feeling the pull against her muscles as she did so. What are the questions no one else would ask?

Why did he do this? What does he hope to accomplish?

What are the questions no one else would ask?

Is he okay? Is he afraid? Is he insane?

What are the questions no one else would ask?

A deep calm settled over Christine as she continued her breathing. She imagined she could feel a cool breeze winding its way through the room Sarek and Amanda had provided. Of course, there wouldn't be a cool breeze or anything remotely like it on Vulcan for at least three months.

Another deep breath, and the thought floated on to join the others. What are the questions no one else would ask?

* * *

She didn't know she was sleeping until she sat bolt upright in bed. "Sixty percent illumination." The computer silently complied and filled the room with a rich, ambient light. "What time is it?"

It is two hundred sixteen hours.

"How long till daylight?"

Sunrise for ShiKahr estimated at five hundred forty-three hours.

Christine grabbed for her robe and pulled a pair of slippers out from where they'd been kicked under the bed. Within moments, she was out of the bedroom and headed for the living area.

* * *

Amanda had shown her this room in the initial tour of the complex, but Chapel had never explored it fully. Now, with the rest of the house asleep, she wandered randomly through the banks of darkened computer terminals. The walls were covered with Vulcan hieroglyphs, each representative of a specific tenet of Surak's teachings. Over each workstation, a different hieroglyph hung as a reminder. Balance. Consistency. Diversity. She knew them well. In an earlier life time, her obsession with Spock had led her to study as much as she could of Vulcan art and history. She could read the language, speak a few words, even croak out a verse or two of T'Maya's Vulcan Rose.

Her eyes searched the walls, looking for something that made sense, something that explained why she was wide awake in the middle of the night. This had been Spock's schoolroom after the incident at the Genesis planet. Here, in this room, he had relearned how to be a Vulcan. And according to Amanda, it was here he still came for peace and relaxation. A huge grin spread across her lips as she came to the hieroglyph for logic. Here.

She sat at the terminal. "Computer on."

Working.

Now what?

"Show me a list of all activity for user name Spock in the last, um, six weeks."

Displaying activity log for user name Spock.

The information began to flash across the screen at an alarming rate. Too fast and too much. "Computer, modify listing to include only..." she paused, then smiled. "To include only recreational activity."

Displaying modified activity log for user name Spock.

An extensive, but more manageable list appeared on the screen. "Bingo," Chapel whispered as a pattern emerged. "Computer, what is Sereda's Broom?"

Sereda's Broom is a game of strategy, designed by the former first officer of the Enterprise.

"Which first officer?"

The first officer known as Number One. Do you wish biographical data on the game's designer?

"No, just confirm designer's identification as first officer to Christopher Pike."

Confirmed.

Chapel stared silently at the screen. According to this log, Spock had played the game at least three times a day, every day, for a month prior to his disappearance. A game?

"Computer, please describe the game Sereda's Broom."

The object of the game is to navigate a series of increasingly difficult mazes in order to reach "freedom." As the player achieves higher levels, random hazards are introduced into play.

"Oooohkay....." Chapel leaned onto the heel of her palm, staring blankly. Now what? "Computer, begin game."

User name Spock is restricted. Do you wish to create a new user name?

Chapel smirked. "Sure. Why not?"

Please state your name.

"Christine Chapel."

The user name Christine Chapel requires password verification. Please provide the correct password to continue.

Chapel stared at the computer for a very long moment. "Are you telling me that there is already a user profile for Christine Chapel?"

Affirmative. Please provide the correct password to continue.

Well. This was certainly taking a turn for the weird. Christine put aside the questions racing through her mind, such as why did Spock create a user profile in her name. Instead, she focused on trying to figure out the password. She had a gut feeling that Spock had wanted her to find this, that he would have created a password only she would know.

"Roger Korby," she said.

"That password is incorrect. Please provide the correct password to continue.

Okay. Something else. "Enterprise."

"That password is incorrect. Please provide the correct password to continue.

"McCoy? Sulu? Green-blooded Vulcan?"

"That password is incorrect. Please provide the correct password to continue.

This was nuts. Why the hell had she let Spock lead her on this crazy game? She should be back on Earth, walking on the beach and beating her neighbor at gin rummy, not trying to crack some stupid code in order to play a game she'd never heard of before.

Did Spock think she was some kind of idiot?

A burst of inspiration struck Chapel, followed by a huge grin. "The password is plomeek soup."

Password verified. Performing voice recognition scan. Voice verification complete. Please wait while I download the files, Dr. Chapel.

Chapel shook her head. She was never going to live down that damned plomeek soup incident, was she--

The whir of the computer distracted her, and she noticed the enormous amount of information being loaded. Something wasn't right here. That was way too much for a simple--

Spock's face appeared on the screen, a bemused half-smile on his lips. "Congratulations, Dr. Chapel. You have broken the code. I commend you on your tenacity."

* * *

She had to shut her eyes as the flow of information began to make her nauseous. His cryptic message delivered, Spock's image had once again faded into the steady stream of files. "Computer, what is this?"

Please wait while the files are being downloaded.

Chapel shook her head. This was getting completely out of hand. "I'd better get Sarek," she mumbled, starting to rise.

Files accessed are for Dr. Chapel's eyes only. Preparing to abort download.

"No!" Chapel settled down into the chair. "Continue download." I'll be a good girl and wait, she thought.

This had better be damned good, Spock.

* * *

Download complete.

Chapel groaned, stretching her shoulders to get just another moment of sleep out of the desktop. "Computer…" she started, but wasn't sure what command she'd planned to give. "Computahhhhhh…" A huge yawn escaped her as she pulled back into a gargantuan stretch. "What are these files?"

There is a priority readme file from Ambassador Spock. Do you wish to review this file?

This time she did roll her eyes. "No, computer. I just sat here for the better part of three hours while you downloaded the entire Andorian library so that I could delete the readme file."

Are you certain you wish to delete the readme file, Dr. Chapel? If you answer yes, this action cannot be undone.

"Computer, is there a food synthesizer in this room?"

A food synthesizer is located in the northwest corner of the classroom. Do you wish to replicate something?

"Coffee. Black, strong, and hot." She paused for a moment. "And a toasted spinach bagel. Don't skimp on the cream cheese." Well, if she was going to face Ambassador Spock's notorious readme file, she couldn't very well do it on an empty stomach.

* * *

"Dr. Chapel. Thank you for coming to Vulcan. It would be illogical for me to protest, as it is your nature to do such things." Spock gazed at her from the empty void of the computer screen, his invisible smile speaking volumes to Chapel's sleep-deprived ego.

"As you have guessed, my disappearance is of my own doing. It was necessary to resort to such ... theatrics ... in order to further my research." He paused, taking a deep breath. "Dr. Chapel, a chance encounter on the Enterprise decades ago led to an event which forever changed my life. It is only recently that I was able to acquire information which could, if used correctly, alter the course of history."

"By opening this file, you are entering into an agreement with me. I require your silence, your complete discretion, if my work is to continue. If you feel you cannot bear the burden of this alone, please end this file now." He nodded slightly. "I will not hold it against you."

"Pause." Chapel stared at the image for a long while. Wasn't it just like Spock to throw something like this at her? Nothing like a bagel and altering the course of history to start off the day. Sighing loudly, she said, "Computer, continue message."

* * *

God, she loved Vulcans. Chapel tossed her travel bag into the storage compartment and took a seat. At least they weren't big on goodbyes. When she'd told them she was leaving, Sarek and Amanda had merely nodded, thanked her for her efforts, and extended a courtesy invitation towards future visits. She'd seen a glint of concern in Amanda's eyes, but true to form, the older woman just smiled and let her go.

"Why couldn't I have just fallen for a Tellarite," she asked herself. "A little farm, a couple of kids, okay, maybe a feud now or then--"

The Vulcan seated next to her could hardly control his stare. Chapel realized she'd been talking aloud. Casting him a glance that could freeze ShiKahr in ten seconds, she said, "Excuse me, do you mind?"

He lifted his eyebrow uncomfortably -- for a Vulcan, that is -- and returned to his reading.

Vulcans. The world was mocking her with Vulcans.

"This is Captain T'Naya of the TransWarp vessel Starqen. We have just been cleared for warp by space traffic control. Please observe all safety regulations as described in your passenger handbook. Our arrival at FreeHaven is estimated at seven hours, two minutes. Captain out."

FreeHaven. Not Earth. Not home. Not Kitty George, who had probably shred her entire bedroom by now. FreeHaven. Why? Because that's where she'd find a ship.

She hated Vulcans.

* * *

Nyota Uhura looked fabulous. As usual. Wrapped in the colors of the rainbow and sparkling like Orion's Belt, she greeted Chapel with an enormous diva hug and pulled her into the office. "Christine! Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"

"Didn't know myself until this morning." She surveyed her surroundings with a mixture of amusement and awe. "Nice to know you're still the same old simple girl we knew and loved in Starfleet."

Uhura laughed, pointing to a seven foot holostatue of an Argevian waterfall. "Perpetual Paradise. It was a gift from Bonaventura Tartuffe."

"Isn't she the one who blows up planetoids for an encore?"

"Second highest-grossing performance artist in the Alpha Quadrant."

Chapel raised an eyebrow as she examined the sculpture. She swore she could see a teeny, tiny cliff diver plunging into the foam. "Your assistant gave me a hard time."

"New. Haven't had time to break him in, yet. You know how these Agency workers are." She gestured to an overstuffed chair just opposite her desk and waited for Chapel to sit before continuing. "So, why are you here? I've been badgering you to visit for two years, and now all of a sudden you show up out of the blue? Don't tell me you were just in the neighborhood."

"Maybe I wanted backstage passes for the Destiny4 concert on Altair."

"Maybe this has something to do with Spock's disappearance." She met Chapel's groan with a knowing look. "And before you start in on that, 'Will nobody ever let me live down that whole Spock thing?' thing, I checked with my friends in Transport. You arrived on the Starqen. That's a Vulcan flight originating on Vulcan, nonstop to good old FreeHaven."

Chapel shrugged. "Okay, so maybe I had a short layover on Vulcan--"

"Two weeks. You stayed in Ambassador Sarek's complex in ShiKahr."

There was a long silence as Chapel digested that. "You're good."

"Thank you. That's why I get the big office." Uhura leaned over the desk, placing a warm hand over Chapel's. "How are you?"

"I'm fine. I'm just ... fine." She squeezed Uhura's hand gently.

"I know this must be hard for you."

A flare of resentment shot up in Chapel's stomach. She loved Uhura. Uhura was one of her best friends ever. Still that condescending tone... "Ny, it's not what you think..."

"Of course it isn't, dear. This has been hard on all of us."

Yes, yes, yes. Hard on all of us, especially Chris, who's never gotten over her secret, all-consuming desire to be Spock's woman. Chapel opened her mouth to speak, then inspiration struck. She lowered her eyes, wobbling her lower lip dramatically. "Oh, Ny. I -- I've tried to hide it. I've tried to be strong. But--"

"I know, sugar. I know."

She rubbed her eyes, sniffing overtly. "I just -- I just need to get away. For a while. To think it all through."

"Sweetheart, my home is your home. You're welcome to stay as long as you need."

"No ... no, that's not why I came here. I need..." She choked back a sob for effect. "I need a ship."

"A ship?"

"To get away. Something small, private. Untraceable."

"Chris, I--"

She lunged for Uhura's hand, giving a performance that would knock the Sally Awards on their butts. "Oh, Nyota, I just need some privacy. Far away from the prying eyes. I know you have connections; someone who won't ask questions. Please, please, for me!"

Uhura paused, eyeing her warily. Finally, she said, "I think I know a guy who can help you out." She handed Chapel a swipe key and stood up. "This will get you into my loft. I'll be back around six with a friend. Make yourself at home."

Chapel gathered herself up into a pitiful bundle of unfettered nerves, gratefully accepting Uhura's support as she walked her to the door. "Thank you so much, Ny."

As the door shut behind her, Chapel straightened out immediately and headed for the lift. Sometimes you just had to give the public what they wanted.

* * *

Christine Chapel stretched uncomfortably in the cramped passenger cabin. Captain Leander was up front, asking no questions and ignoring her fully. That's what she wanted, of course, but it didn't keep her from being bored to distraction. She had read the downloaded synopses of Spock's research as many times as she'd been able. It had been fascinating reading the first one and a half go-throughs; but eventually even the most interesting research was still research.

She pulled a padd out of her bag and clicked it into operational mode. Much as she hated to admit it, she was getting hooked on that damned Sereda's Broom game. Opening her unfinished game exactly where she'd closed it in frustration an hour earlier, she stared at the padd in concentration. She'd tried the escape shaft in the abandoned fallout shelter, the broken window in the laundry, and even walking straight past Sereda's bedroom, but she couldn't find her way out of the dorm.

"That Number One was one seriously disturbed woman," she muttered to herself as she crouched her player into the dumbwaiter. She couldn't count how many times people had told her that she and Number One looked exactly alike. Frankly, Chapel didn't see the resemblance. Clicking the up command, she yelped as the game allowed her to reach the outside. "Yes!" She keyed in a series of commands and progressed to the otta tree.

Congratulations. You have reached the end of level one. Do you wish to begin level two play?

Before she could answer, Mr. Leander leaned back from the command section. "Better grab your gear, ma'am. We're about to establish an orbit around Gamma Sigma Two. I can establish a beam down to the outpost, but you'll need to have your papers ready." He didn't look like he wanted to stick around to deal with what few regulations the GS Outpost would require of a lone traveler. "When you get planetside, go to the mining office and as for Lequin. He's arranged for your shuttle."

"Thank you," she murmured, tucking the padd back into her small bag.

"I'm only going to be in orbit for two hours. That doesn't give you much time to change your mind." His skeptical look grated on her.

"No need. I'm not going to change my mind."

Leander shrugged. "No skin off my nose. Next transport back to FreeHaven won't be here for three weeks."

He turned back to his command console without another word. That was the last Chapel ever heard out of Mr. Leander.

* * *

Chapel stared at the shuttle in disbelief. "I'm paying you five hundred credits for this?"

Lequin twittered slightly, his azure tentacles tinkling like wind chimes. "Better for you this shuttle than for you another. Fast. Sleek. Classic."

"Classic is right. Who was the last owner, Zephram Cochrane?" She was not exactly a connoisseur of small crafts, but Chapel knew a dud when she saw one. "Don't you have another ship?"

"In the bunch this ship than others is better. Too much on looks you are thinking."

"Not looks, friend." Chapel narrowed her eyes as the Terasian trader began to ruffle and smooth his tentacles rhythmically. "Two hundred fifty credits and no dilithium usage charges."

"An insult that is even to offer. Five hundred."

"Two fifty. No usage charges. That's my top offer."

"Four hundred and no usage."

"Three hundred and no usage."

"Is my final offer three hundred-fifty and no usage."

"Deal." Chapel smiled tightly. She probably could have haggled him down to two seventy five, but she was in a hurry. "If this thing breaks down on me before I leave the system, I'm going to remove your tentacles and reattach them backwards." She winked as he handed her the command codes. "And, trust me, I know how to do it."

Lequin fluttered angrily, but said nothing.

Chapel didn't breathe freely until he scuttled out of the docking bay. And even then, she didn't breathe easily. She'd seen her share of border outposts, and knew she wouldn't be completely safe (whatever that was) until she was out of orbit.

Ignoring the curious looks of the dock workers, she grabbed her gear and headed over to the decrepit shuttle. A woman alone on a mining colony was not exactly common. A woman her age traveling alone this close to the Neutral Zone was just plain odd. She opened the hatch and ducked into the shuttle.

"Oh, my gods." Her first used hovercraft out of school had been more sophisticated than this thing. Chapel shuddered at the thought of trying to maneuver this puppy safely into the Neutral Zone. She tossed her bag into the corner and closed the hatch behind her. Taking a deep breath, she sat at the command console and did a quick inventory.

Lequin had been right about one thing. Aesthetics aside, this baby had more power than she showed. Chapel's fingers danced across the commands, getting used to the outdated configuration. The ship came alive under her touch, purring with unexpected efficiency. "Okay, maybe three-fifty wasn't too much," she admitted as she prepared for liftoff.

It was several minutes before she'd cleared the planet's atmosphere and broke orbit. Retrieving a data padd from her bag, she downloaded the coordinates into this shuttle's computer. "Please, god, let me be right about this."

If she was wrong, if Spock hadn't gone in search of the evidence he needed, she wasn't just going to be embarrassed. She could very well be dead.

* * *

Course laid in. Auto pilot activated.

Chapel took a deep breath. "Perform periodic scans for vessels. Alert me if anything bigger than a grasshopper comes within twenty parsecs of this craft."

Scanning for vessels. No vessels within specified parameters.

Perhaps it was an aesthetic bias, but the shuttle's masculine computer voice was grating on her. Too many years in Starfleet, she supposed. "Good," she added. "Continue to scan at five minute intervals."

Affirmative.

She turned to the main computer screen, which displayed the first of Spock's three planetary profiles. "Class M. Dense atmosphere, jungle vegetation. Unpopulated. Sounds lovely."

* * *

The computer voice woke her.

We are in range of the first target planet.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, struggling to focus on the information the computer was flashing. "What about the scans? Any vessels in the vicinity?"

Scans show negative.

"Great." Chapel yawned, pulling herself up into a sitting position at the comm. "Establish synchronous orbit around planet." She wasn't quite sure what the difference between a regular orbit and a synchronous orbit was, but Kirk had said it so many times she assumed it was an important distinction.

Affirmative. Establishing synchronous orbit.

"Begin scanning for life signs."

Scanning sector 1A of target planet. Scan negative. Scanning sector 2A of target planet. Scan negative…

"Any signs of wreckage? A downed vessel, some sort of ship."

No signs of space craft debris in scanned areas. Scanning sector 3A of target planet. Scan negative.

"Keep scanning. Look for anything that might indicate a vessel landing within the last three months."

Continuing scan. Scanning sector…

* * *

Several hours and two full planetary sweeps later, Chapel was convinced that Target Planet Number One was a bust. "Computer, prepare to break orbit and set course for the second target planet."

Affirmative. Breaking orbit and laying in course.

"One down, two to go," she muttered to herself, and settled back down to another game of Sereda's Broom.

* * *

Scanning sector 15C of target planet. Scan negative.

"Keep scanning," Chapel yawned. In her day, she could spend hours over the same DNA strand, probing and searching and discovering without even the slightest hint of fatigue. But this was starting to get to her. She'd figured about halfway through Target Planet Number Two why the male computer voice annoyed her. It sounded startlingly similar to her ex-lover Patrick when he had a cold.

Scanning sector 16C of target planet. Scan…

"Computer, disengage voice mode unless something is found."

Affirmative. Disengaging voice mode.

Target Planet Number Three. This was it. Her last shot. Chapel stared at the enormous red planet hovering in her viewscreen. If she didn't find him here... If she didn't find him here, she didn't know what she would do. She couldn't just say, well, too bad, and go home.

What the hell was she even doing here? Piloting a shuttle of dubious origins around an unpopulated planet in the Romulan Neutral Zone. Not exactly what she'd planned for her semi-retirement. Just because no one had seen a Romulan ship in years didn't mean they weren't out there. And just because she'd been lucky so far didn't mean her luck would continue.

And what would she do if this last planet didn't turn up Spock, or at least his ship? Spock had been very clear in his intentions. She was to tell no one about the files until a year had passed. He'd set a backup plan for the files to automatically transfer to the Vulcan Science Academy after five years had passed, but only if Chapel did not transfer control herself.

Even the copies she'd downloaded logged out automatically at the first hint of another person.

In other words, by the time Spock's self-imposed time restraints expired, it would already be too late to do him any good. She supposed she could always just tell the authorities. With no physical evidence to back it up.

"You see, Sarek, Spock suspects evidence of ancient Vulcan technology on this planet in the Neutral Zone, which would prove the common origins of the Vulcan and Romulan races. I can't prove this, and I won't be able to show you his research for another ten months, and I didn't find any physical evidence when I traveled there myself, but please launch a search party immediately because I'm afraid he might be in physical danger."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah. That'll convince them. Sarek already thinks I'm some sort of nutcase." She watched the visual scan confirmations droning across the computer screen. It was almost as dull as listening to it. "I'm beginning to think I'm some sort of nutcase." The confirmations just rolled on by. "Because, not only am I piloting a shuttle of dubious origins around an unpopulated planet in the Romulan Neutral Zone, but I'm talking to myself while I pilot a shuttle of dubious origins around an unpopulated planet in the Romulan Neutral Zone." Scan confirmations. Rolling on by…. "Yup. Nutcase. That's me. Christine Chapel, Nutc…"

Detecting ship fragments in sector 31C of target planet.

She practically jumped out of her chair. "Life signs."

Scanning. One life sign detected.

"Vulcan?"

Unable to determine.

"Get a fix on that location." She stood, turning quickly to grab the emergency medical kit on the wall. Pinning a comm link to her jacket, she said, "Maintain continual link and be ready to beam two of us back to the shuttle at any moment."

Affirmative.

Chapel steadied herself, doing a quick double-check of the medikit. She reached into her bag and retrieved the phaser she'd acquired back on FreeHaven. Just in case. "One to beam down."

* * *

Target Planet Number Three. Otherwise known as "Hell in August." Chapel brushed the hair from her mouth, squinting against the glare as she scanned visually for any sign of wreckage. A series of dunes lay to her left, and towards the east was a vast land-bound jetty. Reminded her a little bit of home, except there wasn't enough water here for a cup of tea, much less the Pacific Ocean. "Nice vacation spot, Spock," she muttered. Between the glare and the sand, she couldn't see anything remotely resembling Spock or his vessel.

She'd kill for a tricorder, but the shuttle's all-purpose scanner had to do. She held the device several centimeters away from her and began slowly turning in a 360 degree circle. The steady rhythm of the scanner quickened as she faced the rocks. When it reached a high-pitched wail, Chapel knew she'd found him.

Crossing the sand to where the signal led was harder than she'd expected, and it was several minutes before Chapel sat panting on a cluster of rocks. She took the tiniest sip of water from her decanter, knowing Spock would need it more than she did once she found him.

"Spock?" The life reading was definitely close, definitely Vulcan. "Spock, where are you?" She ran the scanner over the first cluster of rocks and found a slight opening. Quickly, she began pulling at the loose rocks above the gap, then more frantically as the gap widened to reveal a small cave. "Spock!"

He was huddled in the cave, where he'd obviously burrowed in for protection from the sun and wind. His body was in the standard Vulcan meditation position, his eyes closed. A quick scan revealed that he was severely dehydrated, but otherwise uninjured. Gods only knew how long he'd been here, waiting to die.

Her breath was coming in gasps as she struggled to widen the opening enough to get at him. "Damn it, Spock. I'm getting too old to keep rescuing you from yourself."

If he heard her, he didn't say a word.

* * *

She was lucky he had not been seriously injured. It wasn't like the shuttle was equipped with a full-service Sickbay. Chapel did what she could with the available medical supplies, made Spock as comfortable as possible, and waited. "Computer, status of security scan."

No vessels within stated parameters.

Well, that was good. She'd searched the cave where she'd found Spock, but hadn't found anything besides Spock and a half-assembled communicator. No ship. No archeological evidence. Nothing. She didn't want to leave orbit until she talked to him. But the unconscious Vulcan was not cooperating.

She pressed her hand against Spock's forehead. He was too cool. Probably in some sort of healing trance, conserving energy for as long as he could.

She looked down at him, impassive and stern, an odd sort of inevitable peace covering his features. Probably thought he was dead.

"Not on my watch, Ambassador," she whispered.

* * *

"Doctor..." Spock's rasping voice caught her in the stomach, jolting her from the medical scans and immediately to his side. "Doctor ... Christine..."

"I'm here, Spock."

"The ... the trance." He was gasping, struggling against some unseen restraint of his own creation. "You must..."

She didn't give him time to finish as she landed a fierce blow across his face. It had no apparent affect. She knew that she'd have to do better than that if she was going to snap him out of his healing trance. Bracing herself, she poured every bit of strength she had into the second blow. A third followed, and a fourth, before Spock raised his hand to grasp her hand mid-blow.

"That will be sufficient." He released her hand and brought himself slowly to a sitting position. Chapel noticed he did not try to decline her assistance. It was several moments until his breathing slowed enough for him to speak easily. "Your presence here is illogical."

Chapel dropped the wrist she was checking for a pulse. "You're welcome, Mr. Spock," she said curtly. "Hold still," she added as she checked his eyes. "No sign of concussion or internal injuries. I regret to inform you, Ambassador Spock, that your suicide mission was at least partially unsuccessful." She raised a single eyebrow in a most Spockian fashion. "You're going to live."

He simply stared at her, as if she were an utterly unexpected scenario in his internal chess game. "Your presence here is illogical."

"You said that, Mr. Spock."

He reached out, barely touching the soft angle of her right cheekbone. It occurred to Chapel quite suddenly that Spock thought he was hallucinating. She placed her hand over his, pressing his palm gently against her skin. "You're welcome, Spock," she whispered.

For a moment, Spock let his hand rest against her skin. Age had mellowed both hand and cheek, sacrificing elasticity for a more subtle softness. "Thank you."

The moment lasted just slightly longer than Chapel was comfortable with. She cleared her throat and said gently, "It's not a good idea to stay in orbit much longer. This shuttle has some small storage capacity, if you want to beam..."

"No. There is ... nothing left." The simple statement nearly broke her heart with its sheer and undeniable air of defeat.

Chapel let that sink in, then said, "Alright, then. You lie down and get some more rest. Computer, lay in a course for Gamma Sigma Two. Maintain periodic scans.

Affirmative. Course laid in.

Chapel took another quick look at Spock. He'd retreated back inside himself, back inside that defeated pride. She started to say something, then thought better of it. "Computer, break orbit."

Breaking orbit.

With a final look at her passenger, Chapel quietly scooted back to the command chair. It was going to be a long trip back to FreeHaven with Spock so distant. She wanted to ask him what had happened, what he'd found or not found, why his ship was gone. But there would be time for that later. Right now, it appeared that more than his body needed healing.

* * *

She sensed rather than heard Spock moving to her side. Chapel didn't look up from the game, though her stomach tightened slightly when he sat next to her.

"What is our ETA for Gamma Sigma Two?"

She leaned over, glancing down at the flight computer. "About seven hours, give or take."

"I see." She still wasn't making eye contact with him, but Chapel just knew he was lifting that eyebrow. "Doctor Chapel..."

"Before you chastise me for saving your life," she said quietly. "Our agreement was only that I wouldn't tell anyone about your research. Not that I wouldn't try to save you from yourself."

"The risk you entailed was too great."

She paused the game, laying the padd on her lap purposefully. "Did you really think that I would just sit there and do nothing?"

He began to speak, but hesitated. "I did not believe you would put yourself in such danger." His dark brown eyes bore into her, not accusing, not angry. Just ... trying to understand. "The probability of such an endeavor succeeding did not warrant the risk."

"Well, that's the problem, Spock." Chapel could feel the smile forming at the corners of her lips. "In the rush of everything, I forgot to calculate the odds." His quizzical expression made her self-conscious, and she changed the subject. "By the way," she teased, lifting the padd to show him. "You are responsible for this fiasco."

"I do not understand."

"Sereda's Broom. Thanks to you, I'm completely hooked on this game." She grinned as he nodded sympathetically. "Your friend Number One was twisted."

"She was a fascinating woman. You remind me of her."

"Yeah, I know," Chapel grinned. "Separated at birth. Heard it already."

He accepted the padd from her, his eyebrows shooting straight into his bangs as he noticed her score. "Level three?"

"Took me forever to figure out how to avoid the scouts to get into the transport complex." His expression puzzled her. "Spock?"

His jaw tightened. "I did not achieve level three until I had been playing for two years."

A stunned Chapel assumed a neutral expression. "Well," she offered. "Must be that separated at birth thing."

"Indeed."

The faintest hint of a smile crossed his lips, and Chapel took the opportunity to press further. "Spock, what happened?" she asked earnestly.

"I would prefer ... not to discuss the matter."

She shook her head. "I turned my life upside down and traveled half-way across the quadrant into the Romulan Neutral Zone just to find you." Her tone was even, but extraordinarily serious. "I think I deserve a better answer than that."

The Vulcan tightened almost imperceptibly, but nodded.

Chapel waited for him to offer an explanation, but he remained silent. She decided to get him started. "Did you find the evidence you needed?"

He shook his head. "The evidence was inconclusive. I did not find what I needed to convince the Vulcan Academy."

"What happened to your ship? Your data?"

"Destroyed."

The questions charged through her, but Chapel could not bring herself to ask them. His expression, his quiet admission of failure, told her a great deal more than Spock realized. The details were irrelevant at this point. "So what now?" she murmured.

"I will return to Vulcan. I will answer the questions as logically and ... cautiously as possible." He looked straight through her. "I will continue my research."

"And six months from now, a year, two years, you'll do this again. You'll keep searching for this until you get killed in the process. Is that your plan?"

"Christine, you cannot..." He turned away from her cool blue gaze. "You cannot understand what this means. The Vulcans and the Romulans must reunify. The ancient texts..."

"The ancient texts are just that. Ancient. As in history. Spock, aside from you, does anyone on either planet even want reunification?"

"Doctor Chapel, even if you are not capable of understanding the cultural reasons for unification, at least you can acknowledge the political and ethical reasons." His dispassionate response baffled her.

"Okay," she said slowly. "I'm just going to pretend you didn't say that." A single raised eyebrow was the only response she got. "So you're not going to give up on this ... reunification idea of yours."

"No."

She shrugged. "I can't stop you from trying to get yourself killed, Ambassador," she said. "But let's just get this clear. Next time, I'm not going to be the one to pull you out of the fire."

His tight response effectively ended the conversation. "I have never made that request of you, Doctor Chapel. Nor do I intend to do so now."

* * *

The whisky burned as it slid down her throat. She couldn't figure out why she always let McCoy talk her into drinking this stuff, but Chapel didn't linger on the question as she accepted another glass from her former CMO.

It was muggy in Savannah this time of year. She leaned back in the wicker chair, scooping the damp hair from her neck as a spry Leonard McCoy made himself comfortable in the chair across from her.

"So, are you just going to sit there and stare all evening?" he asked.

"What do you want me to do?" There was no sarcasm in her voice. She took another swig of the liquor as McCoy scowled impatiently.

"You run off for almost a month, traipsing across Vulcan and god knows what other places all by yourself, then bring back a stone-faced Spock and not expect me to ask questions?"

Chapel shrugged. "Not much to tell. It was pretty dull as far as adventures go." She had told him as much as her promise to Spock allowed, but not enough for either her or McCoy's satisfaction.

There was a long silence as McCoy waited for elaboration that Chapel refused to provide. Finally, the older doctor scowled. "I suppose I should just be grateful that you two didn't fall into the black hole."

"Black hole?"

"The Enterprise Curse. Christopher Pike. Jim Kirk. Scotty. People from the Enterprise just seem to disappear into thin air. Then Spock and you run off on some mysterious adventure..." He poured himself another glass of whiskey. "I'm afraid to turn off the lights at night; I might get sucked up too."

Chapel laughed in spite of herself. "Don't worry, Leonard. I don't plan on leaving Earth anytime soon."

His blue eyes bored into her. "He asked you not to say anything, didn't he?" When she couldn't meet his eyes, McCoy shook his head with a snort.

"He had his reasons."

"And you agreed with them?"

Chapel hesitated. "I ... respect them. It's not my place to judge his beliefs."

"Did he even thank you for saving his life?"

This brought a smile to her lips. "As a matter of fact, he did." At McCoy's stunned look, she added, "Of course, I had to drag it out of him."

"Vulcan." It was a two-syllable summation of years of frustration. He reached out to stroke her cheek. Chapel noticed a pronounced waver in his hands. She noticed, even more pointedly, that he made no effort to hide it. "So. If it's not violating any pact between you and Spock, can I ask you how you're doing?"

She grinned, pressing his hand against her skin. "I feel tired, Len. Tired and anxious to get home."

His gaze narrowed. "That's all?"

Chapel took in a deep breath. How could she say what she was thinking? What she was feeling? "I ... I feel like I've lived a long, long time," she said frankly.

McCoy raised his eyebrows slightly. "I know that feeling."

"When did I stop wanting things, Leonard? All my life, I felt like I was going toward something. Now..."

"Now, you just want to rest?"

She laughed. "Well, a good night's sleep wouldn't hurt. But that's not it. Things that used to seem so important to me ... well, they just don't matter as much anymore." She twirled the empty whiskey glass on its base idly. "Do you know what Amanda said when I asked her about Spock's disappearance?" Not waiting for a reply, she continued, "She said he'd either come back or he wouldn't." The glass slipped out of her grasp, and Chapel caught it just before it fell off the table. She set it back on the table with a firm thud. "Thirty years ... hell, five years ago, that answer would have shocked me. But, you know, I think I understand her. Spock is just going to keep doing things like this until he gets himself killed."

"He's never been the same since the Genesis planet. I tell, dying just doesn't agree with some people."

Chapel sat quietly, watching the sun glow red against the porch window of McCoy's home. Finally, she said, "And what surprises me the most is ... I don't care."

"About what?"

"About him. About what happens to him. I mean, I wouldn't want him to get hurt or anything, but it just doesn't seem real anymore. No matter how many times we save his life, he's going to go down this road, danger be damned. Nothing is going to change him." She ran her finger around the rim of the glass. "But it doesn't really matter, does it? Not in the long run."

McCoy eyed her. "And what brought on this renaissance of indifference?"

"I don't know. All I know is that, after all the searching and effort, finding him was almost anticlimactic. It didn't change anything. It didn't solve anything." She finally met his gaze. "As much as he means to us, as influential as he's been, it's sobering to realize that when all is said and done, Spock is just another person. He's going to die. And the universe is going to continue with or without him."

"The same can be said for all of us, Chris."

She nodded, a pensive silence overcoming them both. Streaks of purple and gold shot through the sky as the sun made its descent in the west. Finally, Chapel said, "That's the way it should be, Leonard."

McCoy said nothing, pouring them each another shot of Kentucky whiskey.

Chapel raised her glass in a toast. "To impermanence," she said.

"Here, here." McCoy touched glasses with hers, and they toasted the sunset.

* * *

Epilogue: Forty years later.

"Another basket of flowers arrived for you, Chris." Andrea swept into the room like a Florida sunrise, too early and too bright for Chapel's tastes. "This one is from the administrative staff at Earth Defense One." She placed the arrangements for Chapel to see.

At one-hundred sixteen years of age, Christine Chapel had seen enough flowers in her life. "That's nice," she said. Andrea's presence here annoyed her. She was still sharp enough to know a nurse when she saw one. And Chapel did not need a nurse.

"Where's Georgie?" she asked sharply.

"I put out a bowl of food for her. I think she was sleeping under the piano."

"Make sure she doesn't get into the plants. She'll eat herself sick on baby's breath if you let her." Chapel stood slowly. George the Third, or Georgie as she was called, had established a firm antipathy for Andrea from day one. The combination of Andrea in a house full of flowers and birthday gifts might prove too great a temptation for the pudgy tabby.

"Christine, don't bother. I'll make sure she's okay." Andrea moved to grasp her arm, but Chapel shook it away. One broken hip at her age, and everybody thought she was an invalid.

As she made her way into the house, a chime at the door surprised her. "Get that, Andrea." Chapel shuffled into the living room, where Georgie perched nonchalantly on the piano. Reaching out a hand to rub the cat's tummy, Chapel almost didn't notice when the young Starfleet officer entered the room with Andrea.

"Christine, you have a visitor."

A young man with pale skin and the strangest gold eyes walked briskly to her side, extending a hand in an almost practiced manner. "Doctor Chapel, it is an honor to meet you. I am Commander Data."

She cocked an eyebrow at him, taking his hand after a brief hesitation. "You're Noonian Soong's android, aren't you?"

He nodded without the slightest offense at her bluntness. "I was created by Dr. Soong, and I am an android. But I do not believe it appropriate to say I belong to him."

She grinned. "Point taken." She nodded to a long green couch which took up the better part of the living room. "Have a seat, please."

Data took the place offered, then assisted her as she sat next to him. Somehow, when he helped her, it didn't annoy Chapel at all. She turned to Andrea, who stood in the doorway taking this all in. "Andrea, I'll be fine. Why don't you go back to the medical center?"

"I'd be happy to..."

"No," Chapel shooed the woman away with an impatient wave of the hand. "Thank you for stopping by. Bye now."

For a moment, Chapel wasn't sure if the young woman would take the blatant hint.

Finally, Andrea smiled and turned for the door. "Well, it was nice meeting you, Commander Data. Chris, if you need anything, just tap emergency communicator. I'll be right over."

Once the nurse was finally out of the door, Chapel released a heavy sigh. "Sorry about that. I broke a hip last month, and everybody at the medical center is treating me like some invalid." She smiled at Data's curious expression. "So, Mr. Data, to what do I owe the honor of your visit?"

"I have a message ... from a mutual friend." He reached into the small case he carried and pulled out an information disk. "I cannot tell you how I received this, or where it originated, but..."

Chapel took the disk. "It's from Spock, isn't it?"

She hadn't known an android could look shocked, but there it was all over Data's face. "How did you..."

"When Spock disappeared shortly before Sarek's death, I figured he was up to something."

Data studied her, an eager curiosity that sparked a moment of nostalgia in Chapel. It passed as quickly as it came over her. She shrugged. "Is he alright?"

Something in the android's expression told Chapel that his last encounter with had been less-than-favorable. She knew the feeling. "The Ambassador was in good health when I last saw him."

"But that can change." Especially since he's probably gone back to the Neutral Zone, she added silently. This time, she noticed, apparently he hadn't come back with his would-be rescuers. She sighed. "Stubborn. At least he's consistent."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm sorry. I'm rambling." She smiled, laying the disk across her skirt as she studied the being opposite her. "Can I get you anything? Something to drink, or to eat?"

"Androids do not eat, Dr. Chapel. But I thank you for the offer." He looked around at the numerous floral arrangements decorating the room. "Allow me to offer you my best wishes on your recent birthday."

"August 30th. Virgo, but don't hold it against me," she said. "Last time I saw this many flowers it was at a funeral. And at my age, that's not exactly what I want to be reminded of, you know?" She chuckled at his confused expression. "That's old people humor, Data. Just smile and pretend you get it."

"Ah. I see."

She laughed this time. "Will you stay and visit for a while, Mr. Data? I hear you're assigned to the Enterprise. That was my first deep space assignment, you know..."

"Yes, Doctor. I studied the records of the original Enterprise crew when I was first assigned to this tour of duty. However," he said with a small shrug. "My schedule only allowed for a short visit. I am afraid I must be leaving."

"Of course," she whispered. "Always busy in Starfleet."

"That is true." He stood, bowing slightly as he offered his hand to her. She shook it warmly as he helped her to her feet.

"Thank you for bringing me the message, Mr. Data. It was a pleasure meeting you."

"It is an honor meeting you, Doctor Chapel. And many happy returns of the day."

They exchanged a few more pleasantries, then the officer was gone. Chapel watched him go, then turned back to the couch where Georgie had taken up residence in the warm recess left by her human owner. Chapel sat, fingering the infodisk as Georgie jumped into her lap.

Finally, she clicked it on and a holographic image of Spock appeared before her. He was dressed in long brown robes, mysterious in his own unique way.

"Christine, I felt it necessary to communicate with you this one last time. Of my human friends, I know you and McCoy will worry most. It is almost certain that I will never see you again. This is regrettable, but necessary. What I seek to accomplish is of such importance that my personal preferences are irrelevant." His expression softened slightly. "Christine, whatever happens to me, I will always think of you fondly. I hope you will remember me in the same manner."

And that was it. The image flickered away. Chapel stared at the spot where the holograph had been moments before. She took a long, deep breath as the cat in her lap stretched and yawned, oblivious to the latest universe-rocking scandal unfolding in her very presence.

Finally, Chapel began to laugh.

The End