Legal Disclaimer: Other people own Trek. I'm just playing in their universe. Djinn gets credit for Sekhmet, the wonderful restaurant from her story "Blood Ties". This is a sequel to my story, No Future, No Past.

You're Always Welcome at Sekhmet
by DebbieB

There's only here, there's only this
Forget regret or life is yours to miss
No other road, no other way
No day but today.

Jonathan Larson, Rent

She picked her way down the dark, slippery stairs until a warmth greeted her. It was freezing, rainy and cold and beautiful in a way only San Francisco could be. But the atmosphere at Sekhmet warmed her like 40 Eridani on a spring day.

"Commander, will you be joining others, or would you like a table right away?" The waiter, a slender Vulcan who looked younger than several pairs of boots Shayla owned, waited politely for her answer before leading her to a discreet booth in a darker corner of the restaurant.

Leave it to the Vulcans. Nice secluded booth, away from the swarm of Academy-types who normally frequented this place on weekends. Away from the questioning glances that still greeted a woman dining alone. Very polite.

She chose a seat that faced away from the crowd. Once upon a time, she'd shared the common fear most humans had of putting their backs to a room. That was before she'd spent fourteen years in the Sheiranna's alternate dimension.

After that, a little paranoid thing like wanting your back to the wall seemed utterly ridiculous.

"I'd like the rose hip tea, no sugar or lemon, please." Number One, Shayla, Commander Ross, whatever it was she was calling herself these days, took the menu from the server without further comment. Sekhmet hadn't changed all that much in the twenty or so years since she'd last eaten here. Still the same modest, perfectly-Vulcan décor. Still the same overachieving cadets carrying on earnest, intense conversations over vegetarian cuisine. It was almost as if no time had passed. Only this time, Shayla was not a student. She wasn't sure what she was anymore, except confused.

So much had happened in the last month. Her world, once so full of promise, now seemed vague and detached.

She didn't have to be alone tonight. If she'd wanted to, she could have taken Admiral Beckman up on her offer of dinner. She could have looked up former shipmates, many now stationed on Earth after a good run in deep space.

But how many times could a person explain away fourteen years of suspended animation before it became a tired song? "Yes, I know you thought I was dead. No, I wasn't killed in that rift. I was sucked into an alternate dimension and kept alive by creatures called the Sheiranna. Yup, fourteen years is quite a long time. No, I don't look a day older than I did back on the Enterprise, thanks for saying so."

No. I don't look a day older. Even though my captain is dead, Phil Boyce, my best friend and mentor, lived only long enough to see my face before dying of a rare blood disorder, my baby sister now looks like my twin, and my career is three feet below the gutter. But thanks for asking.

She heard the waiter several steps before he reached the table. As quiet as Sekhmet was by human standards, a decade and a half among the Sheiranna made her extremely sensitive to sound. It was how they communicated. It was how they'd kept her alive. Lulled to sleep by the magnificence of their energy, a sweetly-intoxicating music that still echoed through her mind.

A stab of homesickness hit her as she took the tea with a bland smile. Homesickness for what? For the Sheiranna's realm? For the past? For the future which seemed suddenly so far away?

Shayla didn't know. She sipped her tea, and wordlessly indicated her order. He didn't seem to mind. And she knew that at this moment, she couldn't bear the sound of her own voice.

* * *

Lt. Christine Chapel
USS Enterprise
UFPS Mail Drop Alpha 6

Christine:

Your letter arrived in yesterday's mail. Thank you again for the help in setting up the old house. Despite the years of disuse, I was able to make it livable in a very short time.

I looked up Dr. Maxwell as you requested, and relayed your message. She said she anticipates your return and looks forward to seeing you again. She will be forwarding several administrative packets for you to fill out before your admission into Starfleet Medical School can be officially approved, but she assures me it is only a formality.

My own studies are progressing as well as can be expected. Admiral Beckman has been enormously helpful in cutting through the Starfleet red tape. I suspect it is because her cousin served under me while I was first officer on the Enterprise. I'm ashamed to admit I don't recognize his name, but if it gets me out of the classroom and back into space quicker, I'm not above using the connection to my advantage.

As I mentioned briefly in my last message, bureaucracy is still the order of business in academia. While my degree and commission are still technically valid, it seems the curriculum has expanded since I graduated. In order to reinstate my commission, I will have to be certified by the current curriculum, not the one I had twenty years ago. In essence, I am a cadet again.

Fortunately, the admiral has arranged for me to study at my own pace for most of the time. Unfortunately, there are some classes which simply cannot be replaced by independent study. So, in three days, I will find myself surrounded by fresh-faced, hopeful little over-achievers. I always feared my precocious youth would come back to haunt me someday.

But, as Mother always said, "No one ever became a Ross woman by being a wuss." So, onward I go, into that academic quagmire. Don't laugh, sister of mine. You'll be there soon enough.

Please give my regards to Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, as well as your captain.

Until your return, I remain,

Your sister,

Shayla

* * *

"Tell me you're making this up." A forkful of rigatoni hung motionless, suspended in midair as Uhura stared blankly at Chapel. "Oh, please, Chris. Please. Tell me you're making this up."

Chapel swallowed another bite of her shiitake burger. "Sorry, Ny. I don't have that much imagination." She cocked her head to one side, considering for a moment. "I don't think Leonardo da Vinci had that much imagination."

Uhura choked back the laughter, dropping the uneaten pasta back to the plate. "He really said that to you??"

"Yup."

"And he was serious?"

"And I quote: 'Nurse Chapel, we have been hiding our feelings for each other for too many years. I know you are leaving at the end of the month. I think it's time we put aside our veneer of indifference and explore the passions that God intended for man and woman to enjoy.' End quote."

Uhura raised her eyebrows. "Pretty heady stuff, Chris. You gonna take him up on that offer?"

"Ensign P'mair and I spoke once, exactly once, at Lt. Bryson's engagement party two years ago. I commented on the food. He muttered something about stellar cartography and knocked over a tray of bite-sized sandwiches."

"It's always the quiet ones, Chris."

Chapel shook her head, biting furiously into her burger. "Thif entaar zhip if…."

"Could you swallow first, please?"

She gulped and continued without missing a beat. "This entire ship is going completely nuts."

"Senioritis." Uhura laughed at Chapel's disgusted look. "It's only a few months until the whole damn mission is over, and everybody has got a case of the itchies. Even you are spending more time on your med school entrance forms than…"

"Hey, I do my job."

"More often than you do your color, I take it."

Chapel smoothed her hair. Granted, in the last few years it had seen its share of tints, but this muddy brown look was the worst. "I'm letting it go back to its natural color."

"Honey, that color doesn't occur in nature." She ducked as the head nurse flung a cold french fry across the plate. It landed, harmlessly, on the table.

Chapel was tempted to instigate a full-fledged food fight when Uhura's warning glance stilled her next attack.

"Three o'clock," the communications officer nodded towards the door where Spock had just entered the mostly-deserted mess hall. "Coming straight for us, Lieutenant. Wanna bail? Abandon ship? Mayday, mayday…"

"Shhh…." Chapel rolled her eyes, regaining her composure just as Spock approached their table.

"Miss Uhura. Miss Chapel," he said in that utterly unflappable, yet thoroughly delightful tone.

Uhura grinned. "Why, Mr. Spock! You're out late tonight."

"As are you."

She gestured to an empty chair, ignoring the missile-like glare Chapel shot her way. "Please join us. We were just discussing….nature," she added with a wink at her friend.

"Actually, I had hoped to speak with Miss Chapel privately. I can come back later if I am disturbing your meal."

Uhura's eyes sparkled as she practically leapt to her feet. "Oh, Mr. Spock, nothing could be more disturbing than this rigatoni. Please, go ahead. I'll see you in the morning, Chris." She was gone before Chapel quite knew what was happening.

Spock sat at the chair Uhura had just vacated. "I apologize for interrupting your meal, Miss Chapel."

"Oh, that's okay. It had pretty much degenerated into a gossip session anyway. What can I do for you, sir?" She gave herself a mental pat on the back for that extraordinarily cool come-back. It's not like she was still hung up on the man, but reputations had a way of lingering on the ship. Didn't hurt to remind him that she could be professional, too. Of course, that french fry dangling precariously at the edge of the table reminded her that she still had a way to go in the maturity department.

"I wished to thank you for relaying Commander Ross's last message. I did not have much opportunity to speak with her during her last visit."

"What with the investigation and people dropping dead all over the place?" She smiled at his uplifted eyebrow. "She understood, Spock. She speaks well of you."

"And her progress with her reinstatement?"

Chapel hesitated. Spock and Shayla went way back. Part of her knew his curiosity was well-intentioned, but she was unsure of how much information Shay considered publicly available. Their own relationship was still too tenuous at this point for Chapel to risk breaching an unknown confidence. "She doesn't talk too much about it. Only that she's working on it." Good. Nice and vague.

Spock nodded. Apparently nice and vague was acceptable for the purposes of this conversation. "Has she adjusted well to living on Earth again?"

"Well, she's already got three stray cats skulking around the place looking for handouts, so I guess she's doing something right." Chapel laughed, ignoring the silly sense of pleasure she got from just casually chatting with Spock like this. Like they were old friends or something.

"From what I am told about Terran cats, they are most meticulous about the people with whom they associate. The fact that three have accepted her is a positive sign."

"Oh, definitely." She smiled again. "She'd love to hear from you, Spock. I can give you the address…."

"I do not think that would be appropriate." As quickly as it appeared, the mood of comfortable companionship evaporated. Spock looked positively…embarrassed.

Maybe it was the shiitake burgers. Maybe it was senioritis. But for some unfathomable reason, Chapel found herself saying, "Mr. Spock, what is going on with you? I can tell you want to make contact with her, but you stop yourself. That's not like you."

"Miss Chapel," he said. "The only difference between your sister and myself is…."

In the years that followed, the words the Vulcan spoke next would take on a legendary, even mythic quality in her life. Sometimes, when she would think back on the conversation, she'd doubt seriously it had ever happened.

"She never was callous enough to throw a bowl of plomeek soup at me."

Without another word, he nodded to the stunned woman and left the mess hall.

* * *

Commander Shayla Ross
Davenport, California, Earth
Mail Drop NA/CA/DAV2377

Shay,

Thanks for the last letter. Things here on the ship are getting pretty crazy. I'll be glad to finally get back on Earth and meet Styx, MC, and Bonaventura.

I gave Spock the files you sent. He seemed amused; that is, as amused as a Vulcan can be. I did a little snooping. He's been playing Sereda's Broom at least twice a week since you left. I think he's busting for a rematch.

Leonard sends his best. Actually, Leonard would like to send Leonard, but like all of us, he's been swamped with crew assignments, exit interviews, record transfers. I swear, I never thought I'd see the day I'd wish for the boredom of deep space, but this is insane. I lost two nurses and an aide to the Yorktown last week. She's heading out for the Neutral Zone and needed to beef up the medical crew. Like Leonard isn't hard enough with a full staff!

Thanks for sharing the story about Professor Patel. I can only imagine the look on her face when her former first officer showed up as a student in her class! I'm sure you made her feel very comfortable.

Please try to remember to do little indulgent things for yourself while you're hip deep in academia. Like eating and sleeping. I'm going to be busy enough when I get back without having to nurse you back to health.

As always,

Yours,

Chris

* * *

The hangover was the least of her concern at this point. Shayla knew she'd had too much to drink the night before. She knew she'd refused at least two offers of detox pills. She knew she'd eaten nothing since lunch the day before.

Sekhmet just wasn't cutting it these days.

Now, if only she could figure out exactly whose dorm room this was, she could find her clothes and make it back out of there with at least some dignity in tact.

The night before was a blur. An awful, pathetic blur. It had started off simply enough. A kid, some stupid, first year, fresh-faced, full of enthusiasm kid, had asked her for directions to one of the labs. She'd pointed him in the right direction. He'd said, thanks, professor.

That was it. The moment the day started going south. From the moment that tow-headed, freckle-faced cadet mistook her for someone who actually had a life, she could feel her patience wearing thin. It frayed as "Professor" Patel again used her as an example in the cartography lab. It withered as she walked through the quad and passed children who had not even been conceived the first time she'd gone through this.

But when she'd gotten to Sekhmet, the sight of all those bright, over-achieving young things made her want nothing more than to slap every single one of them repeatedly.

That's how she'd found her way to Joe's. Located on the Castro, Joe's had a long and illustrious history. It had been huge back in pre-first contact days when the area had been a mecca for gays, lesbians, transgender, and bisexuals. Over the centuries, though, as the Castro district became more and more of an "alien ghetto," Joe's had modernized to fit the clientele.

To her knowledge, Joe's was the only place in the Greater Bay Area where one could acquire the notorious Vulcan Blow Job. And she'd downed at least six of them before the night even got started.

Shayla pulled the thin blanket from her host's bunk and wrapped it around her naked body. The sun was peeping up over the hills, cutting through the light fog as if to let her know she'd been busted.

She dug through the discarded uniforms, hoping against hope that one of them would be hers. Whoever this was was going to have hell getting this room in shape before inspection.

Her hand brushed against a Velurtzi bracing mask. Shayla's eyes shot open as suddenly the events of the previous night came back with blinding clarity. Velurtzi twins, one male, one female. Joined psychically at birth, unable to perform sexually except as a pair.

"Oh, no," she muttered, redoubling her efforts to locate her uniform. As she finally found the proper tunic, a door opened from the other room in the suite.

A female Velurtzi sputtered into the room, obviously as hung-over and confused as Shayla. "You're still here?"

"I was just leaving."

"My brother will show you the way out. It is important that you are not seen leaving. You understand."

Suddenly, Shayla felt a million years old. "Yeah. I understand."

* * *

"You know what, Chris?" McCoy's breath was heavily tinged with Kentucky bourbon as he draped an arm around her shoulder. "I always thought of you as a kid sister. Not just a nurse."

Chapel smiled, blinking against her own slight intoxication. "Thanks, Doctor. That means a lot to me."

"No, no, I mean it, Chris. You take other people. Other people go through life and just work and bide their time till they can do what they really want."

Chapel knew he was going somewhere with this. He'd started on that path three times already as the crowd thinned into the night. Her goodbye party had been one hell of a blow-out, and McCoy's sudden philosophical bent could claim inebriation and generalized nostalgia as legal parents.

"People just never take the time to care, Chris. But not you. You're different. You have a soul, Chris Chapel. An old soul. And you aren't afraid to show it."

"That's really nice of you to say, Leonard." His arm was getting heavy. But at this point, they were alone in the recreation deck, surrounded by crepe streamers, empty glasses, and the ghosts of crewman laughing too hard to hide their own insecurities about the future. It didn't matter if he got maudlin. It didn't matter if she let him. It didn't matter if neither of them remembered this conversation in the morning. She rested her head on his shoulder, listening to the soft southern drawl she'd come to know so well.

"I want you to take care of yourself, kiddo. I know you. You're always off in every direction, doing every thing for everybody but yourself. You need to be selfish. You need to let the world be generous to you once in a while."

"I will."

"Now don't say 'I will' like you actually plan on doing it. Because I know you well enough to know better. And that bothers me. I want you to be happy. I don't want you to look back on your life with regrets, wondering where all the years went and why you have nothing to show for it but a handful of degrees and an empty bottle of whisky."

She lifted her head slowly, grinning into his face. "Just who are we talking about, Leonard McCoy?"

He met her grin. "Don't you get smart with me, Missy. I'm still your boss until the morning."

She kissed him softly on the cheek. "Yes, sir."

Their eyes met, and for the longest time both forgot to speak. Then Chapel shook herself, pulling out of the embrace with much more briskness than she actually had. "This place is a mess."

"Now, that's just what I meant," McCoy said, a little too loudly and jokingly. "The guest of honor should not even be thinking of cleaning up after her own party."

"Now who said anything about cleaning up?"

They both laughed. The moment passed. And she was absurdly relieved to see it go.

* * *

Biabani! It hurts. Biabani, make it stop hurting. Please, make it stop hurting.

The music forced its way into her mind, choking in its intensity. Biabani. She whimpered. Where was he? Where was her Biabani? How could he abandon her? What would become of her?

Shayla slammed her hand down on the alarm. Her mother had never bother to modernize the house to include automated wake-up calls, an oversight Chris obviously had felt no need to correct. The alarm clock, as it was quaintly referred to, blared music at the most horrendous times of day. It horrified her, but Shayla knew people had actually woken up this way for decades before automation.

She brushed the hair out of her face. Her mouth tasted raw, a heady combination of oversleeping and too much drink. Stretching, she was relieved to find her companion of the evening already gone. Tellarites were fun, but they had the worst morning breath.

Like she had room to talk.

"Time," she grumbled in the general direction of the alarm.

"The time is 0842 hours, Thursday."

"Good." Shayla punched the pillow once, then rolled over onto her side. MC yelped. He had decided to snooze in the small of her back and was too fat and lazy to escape her weight as it came down upon him. "Jeeze, cat. Get out of my bed."

She had just settled back into a good half-sleeping fantasy about the waterfalls on Risa when it hit her. "Thursday! Damn!"

She pushed the covers off the bed, ignoring MC's even angrier yowl as he was buried in cloth. She was late. She knew she should have set the alarm earlier. She shouldn't have gone to Joe's on the night before on-campus classes. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn….

* * *

Lenora Beckman sat in her office, wishing the term were already over. Thirty-five years as an educator qualified her to claim complete exhaustion. Thirty-one years in Starfleet gave her claim to burnout.

And three tardies by Commander Shayla Ross just emphasized the other two.

She didn't know what to do with Ross. It was not exactly a cut-and-dry situation. The woman has a spotless record. She was smarter, stronger, and more experienced than ninety-nine percent of the student body. She was also technically on the verge of expulsion.

Beckman wanted to help out a fellow officer. She knew from Elliott the caliber of person she was dealing with here. But she also knew that the Academy ran on strict rules. Such as showing up to class on time. Such as not sneaking out of the freshmen dorms at 0600 still half-drunk and only partially dressed.

She stared at the profile on the screen. Medal of valor. Three commendations for scientific merit. It was a shame to watch Shayla throw it all away. There were only so many courtesies she could extend, and Ross was fast running out of her share.

The tone caught her by surprise. She supposed she just didn't want to hear it. "Yes, Yusef?"

"Commander Ross is here to see you, Admiral."

Beckman took a deep breath. Better now than later, she figured. "Send her in."

* * *

Spock stood in the shadows, watching the milling crowd. Joe's sparkled with the fury of a thousand stars, and pulsed with the heart beat of thousand planets. Or so its brochure claimed. To him, it seemed yet another example of the lowest common denominator.

He had located her through several discretely placed questions. He needn't have bothered. Commander Ross apparently felt no need for such discretion. He saw her in the center of the dance floor, undulating wildly to the Parsinian chants being piped through the speakers. Her hair hung around her face, glittered and primal in the colored lights. On each side of her danced a drunken Andorian, each vying for her attentions.

She seemed pleased with the controversy, for she flirted first with one, then the other, playing them against each other, toying with them.

He should leave. This had been an ill-conceived idea from the start. He could return to his hotel room and be off-planet before she had slept off the hangover.

But he didn't move. Too many years had passed, too many questions remained unanswered. He could fool others, but he was unable to fool himself. He wanted to find out the truth.

Else why would he come here, to Earth, under such flimsy pretext? Why do it knowing full well he would be here and gone before Christine Chapel had a chance to arrive on the transport vessel? Why spend so short a leave in such a place as this, watching a woman he'd thought long dead lose herself in alien music?

Unless he still desired her. Unless there was a part of him who still hoped, underneath the logic and the discipline and the years of hard training, that she could desire him. His mind flashed to Christine Chapel, her kindness and grace in the wake of such utter indifference as he'd shown to her through the years. He felt unreasonably guilty.

The rhythms had changed subtly, the only indication that one song had ended and another begun. He lost her in the throng of bodies. It was surely a sign. Leave, now. While you still have the opportunity. Spock was ready to turn and make his way to the exit when he felt a hand at his elbow.

It was Number One.

She smiled darkly, pulling him to her by the arm. "So are you just going to stare all night? Or are you going to dance with me?"

She was intoxicated. Heavily intoxicated. Spock hesitated, unsure how to handle the situation, when Number One made the decision for him by pulling him onto the dance floor.

She wrapped his arms around her waist. It was only then he'd noticed the sheerness of her outfit, the flimsy material only barely concealing her charms. Before he could even register the image consciously, she'd pressed against him, slowly rocking to the beat of the deafening music. Her long fingers played in his hair, her feline grin pressed into the fabric of his shirt.

Spock felt the blood rushing through his body. He pulled away. "I believe…this is an unwise decision."

She shot him a lopsided smile. "You're absolutely right. Time for me to go home." She wrapped her arm around his waist and started to leave the dance floor.

"Commander, you are in no condition to…"

"That's why you're gonna take me home, Spock?"

He lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing. She was safer with him than she was here, or out on the streets in this condition.

As he led her to the door, he overheard a Tellarite woman saying, "Damn. How in hell did she get a Vulcan to leave with her?"

He chose not to consider the question as they stepped into the brisk night air.

* * *

He wasn't sure what passed for tidy among most human residences, but Spock was fairly certain this wasn't it. He fumbled through the dim light to the kitchen, nearly tripping over a heavy tabby who lay in the doorway. The kitchen, once fully illuminated, was no better than the entryway. Cups and plates were scattered on the table and counters, and the floor looked like it hadn't been cleaned in years.

"What are you doing, Spock?" she called from the other room.

"I am looking for a replicator."

Her laugh was less than encouraging. He stepped to the door, almost running into her as she entered the kitchen. "This isn't a starship, Commander. This place runs on good, old-fashioned supply-request boards."

"I see."

"Are you hungry? I'm sure I can…"

"No." It was better to keep this short. Professional. "I am trying to find detox medication for you."

"Ohhhhh. That." She wagged her eyebrows at him. "Mr. Spock wants to keep Commander Ross from making any more of a fool of herself than she already has."

"I would not have put it in those terms, Number One."

She laughed again, pressing herself against him enticingly. "Number One is dead," she whispered as she slowly licked his ear. "And Shayla is a whore."

"Do not say that," he said. In earnest. Her behavior was most disconcerting.

"Why?" she purred. "What's wrong with being a whore?" She traced the fingers of a single hand down the front of his shirt to grasp the bulge in his trousers. "Don't you like the sound of it, Mr. Spock? Whore." She began stroking his privates, chanting the word in his ear as she did so. "Whore. Whore. Whore."

"You are…" He gasped as her hands did wondrous things to him. "You are not…a whore."

"Why are you here, Spock?" Her voice was like liquid fire in his mind. "To tell me how professional I am? To discuss computers?"

"No. I am…"

"Or to find out if I'd changed my mind about your little offer all those years ago?" She'd replaced her probing hand with her own pelvis, pressing her body flat against his as both her hands wrapped around him to stroke his buttocks. "Or have you forgotten all that? Maybe it's not me you want anymore? Maybe it's my baby sister?"

He tried to control his response to her words, but her sharp eyes caught it immediately.

"It's not very hard to tap into the rumor mill, Mr. Spock. It's no secret Chris had a thing for you. Did you let her off easy? Or did you string her along, vicariously reliving your little fantasies about me through her."

"I did no such thing. Nurse Chapel is a Starfleet officer and…"

"Or maybe you had something else in mind, little man. Maybe you want to have your cake and eat it too. Sweet little Christine, so full of misplaced love and affection. And Shayla, the prodigal sister, just looking for a hot time. The angel and the devil. Is that what you want, Spock? Both of us? Boy, I bet your Daddy would love that."

She was laughing right until the moment he performed the neck pinch and rendered her unconscious. Spock caught her limp body and carried her to the nearest bedroom. As he placed her on the unmade bed, a momentary image cut through his thoughts. Christine Chapel. Number One. Pleasuring him. Together. With a burst of anger, he forced the rigid discipline of his home world onto his thoughts.

He ordered a bottle of detox pills for morning delivery, then left her to sleep it off. As he stepped through the door, he could almost hear the plomeek soup crashing against the wall.

* * *

Chapel flipped open the communicator with her free hand as she struggled with the front door lock. "Trans-Galactic Customer Service? Yeah, this is Lt. Chapel, calling about my luggage." She stumbled into the house, tossing her carry-on in the general vicinity. "Chapel. C-H-A-P-E-L. Like a church. Yes, I'll hold."

She was almost too tired to notice what a wreck the house was. Almost. She looked around what had once been a cozy little foyer with weary exasperation. Boxes were stacked along the hallway, still nowhere nearer to being unpacked than when she'd shipped them a week ago. Not that she'd expected Shayla to unpack them, but…

"Yes, yes, I'm still here. That's Chapel. C-H-A…right. Like a church. My luggage was supposed to be on the commuter flight from Starbase Six to Earth. Flight 6023." She paused by the armoire to cringe at her reflection in the mirror. She looked like hell. She'd always hated commercial travel. "So how long will it be to get it rerouted from Alpha Centauri?" She pushed her hair away from her face. Damn, there were circles under her eyes. "Three days? You must be joking. No. Of course, you never joke, do you? Yes. I have the claim code. If it comes in any sooner, please contact me immediately. Yes. Thank you."

"Great," she muttered to the empty hallway. Heading to the kitchen, she cursed whatever bureaucrat decided that it would be less expensive to have her take a commercial flight rather than Starfleet transport on the last leg home. She found nothing but a half-eaten bag of commercially-made viigi tarts and some cat food waiting for her. Great. Just great.

She thought of going out, but couldn't bear the trip back into town. "Delivery it is," she said as she punched the code for her favorite pizza joint into the supply-request board. She was just getting around to the extra portabello mushrooms when she heard a noise in the foyer.

"Excuse me," she said as she saw two young women, both squeaky clean and looking to be about twenty years old, heading for the front door. "I know this may sound a bit rude, but who are you and why are you in my house?"

The taller of the two, an olive-skin beauty with hair just below her waist, turned with a startled laugh. "Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone was here. I'm Tawny. I'm from Des Moines."

Chapel smiled flatly. "Hello, Tawny. You didn't answer my question."

"We're friends of Zh'landa's," the other girl said. "She's Tawny, like she said, and I'm Amber. We didn't realize Zh'landa had a house-mate."

"Zh'landa?" Chapel repeated.

Amber pointed a slender finger towards the master bedroom door.

"Would you girls just wait a moment, please?" She turned and crossed the distance to the bedroom in a few, precise steps. Poking her head in, she saw "Zh'landa" in all her emerald-green glory, passed out on the bed. "Breathe, Chris," she whispered as she headed back to the sweet young things. "I'm sorry, girls. It looks like…Zh'landa…will be indisposed for the day. And I just had a long trip and need to get some rest. So if you don't mind, I think it would be best for you to head back to Dubuque…"

"Des Moines…"

"Whatever. It's been lovely meeting you. Have a nice day."

Tawny and Amber let her herd them to the door without protest. But before she had them safely out of the house, Amber stopped. "Hey, are you the Starfleet officer who rescued Zh'landa?"

"Excuse me?"

"Ohmigosh!" Tawny said. "She told us all about how you rescued her from a life of erotic servitude. You must be a remarkable woman."

"Uh…yeah." Chapel's headache had become a throbbing timpani drum just behind her eyes. "Yeah, it was an inspiring story. But you have to go now. Buh-bye."

She didn't give them a chance to respond as she pushed them physically through the door.

"I'm going to kill her."

She threw open the bedroom door. Shayla didn't even stir an inch. She lay sprawled horizontally across the center of the bed. The considerable portion of her body that wasn't covered by the bunched up sheet had been dyed a deep emerald green. Several empty bottles of liquor, of the legal and not so legal variety, were scattered around the room. She shook her head. The woman had spent fourteen years in abject isolation; she'd earned a bit of wildness. At least, that was the story Chapel was going with until she saw the woys'rn pipe on the bed stand.

"Jeezh, is she insane? This stuff'll stop a Gorn in its tracks." She pushed at her sister. "Wake up."

Shayla groaned and buried her face deeper in the pillows.

"Wake…Up…" Chapel pulled the pillow out from under her, but to no avail. Big Sister was down for the count.

The headache had added several cymbals and a snare drum to its repertoire. She shut the door behind her and headed to the living room. Shayla's school stuff lay scattered across the sofa. She pushed it to one side with a groan. A schedule fell out of the stack of padds. Chapel looked at it. Shayla was supposed to be in class.

"Damn." She ought to let her fry. The woman was an adult. She was responsible. She should just let her take the consequences of her action. Well, that what she should have done. Chapel cursed her misplaced maternal instincts as she pulled out her communicator again.

"Admiral Beckman's office, please. Yes. This is Lt. Christine Chapel. I'm Shayla Ross's sister. Yes. I'll hold." She leaned over and hooked the communicator into the desk unit. This enabled visual, which she hoped would stress how tired she was.

A hearty black woman of about sixty appeared on the monitor. "Lt. Chapel. Thank you for calling. I'm Admiral Beckman. How can I help you?"

"Yes, Admiral." Chapel wondered briefly if she had it in her to lie to an Admiral's face. She was about to find out. "You may have been informed that my sister, Commander Ross is not present for today's scheduled class. I wanted to let you know that she is quite ill today and will definitely be in tomorrow." Wow. Did that really sound as lame as she thought it did?

Admiral Beckman smiled. "You mean she's hung-over, I presume." At Chapel's stunned look, the admiral said, "I think you and I need to talk."

* * *

"She did what?" Leonard McCoy sat hard on the stone bench overlooking the bay.

"You heard me right, Len. I got home a week ago to find my sister had turned in her Starfleet resignation to Admiral Beckman." She sat next to him, squinting against the setting sun. "The admiral had called her in to discuss her performance, and before she could say a word, Shayla handed in her notice."

"I can't believe it."

"That's the bad news."

He cocked an eyebrow. "Ya mean there's good news?"

"Well, I said she handed in her resignation. I never said the admiral processed it." Chapel grinned ruefully. "She put her on extended medical leave. I don't think Shayla even knows it. The house has been like a war camp ever since I got home."

"Trouble in paradise?"

"Well, let's just say I had a problem with the family home being used as a flop house for delinquent aliens." She sighed. "We haven't spoken for four days. Unless you include screaming at the top of our lungs."

"That sounds like fun."

"Yeah, especially after I swiped her ID and transaction badges."

McCoy dropped his head backwards for a moment. He wiped his eyes, shook his head and said, "I know I'm gonna regret asking this, but why did you steal her ID and transaction badges?"

"She's grounded." Chapel shot him a defiant look. "Hey, if she's gonna act like a teenager, I might as well treat her like one. And she can't get around without ID, and she can't get drunk without her transaction badge."

"I hate to tell you this, Chris, but a resourceful woman doesn't need ID or transaction badges if she wants to get drunk and 'around.'"

"Thanks. That takes a load off my mind." Rolling her eyes, she added, "I never asked to be the designated grown-up in this family."

He placed a hand over hers. "She's been through a lot, sweetheart. Give her time."

"Oh, she's got time to spare. According to Admiral Beckman, she's accrued almost a year's worth of sick, personal, and vacation time. Not that it will do her any good if she winds up dead or in a civilian jail."

"That bad?"

"That bad." She stared him straight in the eyes. "Which is why I asked you here."

"Uh-oh. I do not like the sound of that."

"Starfleet has been taking continual medical readings on her since she returned." At his quizzical look, she explained, "Sub-dermal perscan devises. They're beta-ing the technology with this new class of cadets."

"Nice to know Big Brother is still doing his job."

"Yeah. I read Shay's files. The stuff they have would curl your hair."

"And how does this involve me?"

Chapel shifted on the bench, focusing suddenly on the golden light "I've filed for temporary medical power of attorney. I don't feel she's capable of taking care of herself right now."

"And?"

"Well, medically, I have all the evidence I need. But we need to do a psychological evaluation on her."

"No, Chris…"

"I'd do it myself, but I'm not exactly impartial."

"And your sister doesn't even know about this."

"Leonard."

"And if she did, she'd never sit still for a psych evaluation to determine her competency."

"It's just temporary, so that we can make sure she gets the psychiatric treatment she needs."

McCoy scowled, angry, truly angry with Chapel for the first time in a long time. "And you want good ol' McCoy to stop by, chat up your sister, and help you take away her freedom."

"That's not…"

"No, deal, Lieutenant." He stood, firmly committed to the idea of leaving her there in the middle of Golden Gate Park. She stopped him with a hand on the elbow.

"Doctor, it's serious. I wouldn't ask for your help if it wasn't. Just take a look at her medical records. Please. As a favor to me." Something in her tone, something in the way she carried herself, calmed him enough to consider her position.

Finally, with an angry nod, he said, "I ain't making no promises."

* * *

Shayla paced the house like a caged tiger. She'd gone from one prison to another. But this… This was worse. Christine…her own sister…had reset the security system while she slept. Nothing except the basic necessities responded to her commands. She could eat. She could get water and juice. She could relieve herself. But that was it.

She had spent the better part of the morning fighting with the front door security recognition unit. It lay in nine parts on the floor, testament to her sister's unexpected cleverness. She'd removed the voice matrix.

In other words, the door could only be unlocked manually. And guess who had the key?

In a calmer moment, she might have seen Christine's side of this. The fight they had last night had been a corker, what with the fire and the cops and all. But there was no need to treat her like a prisoner in her own home. She kicked a piece of the recognition unit, sending it skittering across the floor. Every door, every window, every possible exit from this place was controlled through that unit.

There had to be an emergency exit. What if there were a fire? Yeah, Chris would just feel great if she came back to the ashes of this place to find her charred bones just inside what used to be a locked door.

If it weren't for this hangover, she might be able to figure out a way around the security system. But right now, all she wanted to do was smash the door down with her bare hands.

She flopped onto the sofa. Damn, she wanted a drink. She wanted to get laid. She wanted to dance and shut this damned silence out of her skull with as much noise as the law allowed. Maybe more.

Leaning over onto her side, she grabbed a pillow. Squinting against a hated tear, she tried to hum Biabani's song to herself.

It wasn't the same.

* * *

The office Admiral Beckman had provided them was small, but serviceable. Chapel called Shayla's file up on the computer, narrowing the stream of data to include only the last three weeks. "Hope you have a strong stomach," she muttered as she relinquished the chair to McCoy.

The doctor gave a low whistle as he scanned the list. "She's not a happy camper, is she?"

"And you went to medical school for that?" Chapel pulled a chair up next to him. "Check this out." She pointed at the adrenaline levels for several nights in a row. "Fortunately, the perscan devices also function as tracking devices. By comparing the times of these adrenaline rushes to the locational functionality of the device, we were able to figure out where she was going."

"I am so glad I'm retiring. The last thing I would want is Starfleet following me out on a night on the town."

"Leonard, this is serious. There are large residual amounts of alcohol and nicotine in her system, as well trace elements of at least three hallucinogenic substances. Not to mention I found a woys'rn pipe in her bedroom. "

His face turned grim. "Oh, dear."

"I was able to convince the manager of the nightclub to give me access to the security records." Chapel entered a series of commands into the computer and a video feed appeared showing a crowded dance floor. "Here…." She pointed to a shadowy figure writhing on the dance floor. "It's certainly an eyeful."

They sat like voyeurs, watching the edited footage of Number One over the course of several nights. Each clip was more desperate and frenzied than the previous. Each night, her choice of companion less savory than the previous.

McCoy was mesmerized, horrified and intrigued simultaneously. "I can understand your concern, Chris, but I don't think there's anything here…" A face on the screen stopped his words. "Oh…my…god…." He turned to Chapel, who looked as emotionless as any Vulcan ever dreamed of. "Is that who I think it is?"

"Yes, and no, it doesn't matter."

He watched as Shayla pressed against the stoic Vulcan, her erotic dance growing more daring and provocative with each beat of the music. Then he watched as the couple left the dance floor and then the club. "Um, Chris…"

"No, Doctor, it doesn't matter," she repeated fiercely.

He eyed her with a piercing gaze. "So the fact that Shayla may or may not have slept with Spock has no bearing whatsoever on your decision to get medical power of attorney?"

"This isn't some fucking soap opera, Leonard. She's resigned her commission, has been experimenting with dangerous and illegal drugs, and is keeping all sorts of unsavory company, any one of which is equally capable of slitting her throat during a drug or alcohol-induced stupor."

"So the fact that Shayla may or may not have slept with Spock has no bearing whatsoever on your decision to get medical power of attorney?"

Chapel glared at him. "I knew I shouldn't have shown you this. Whatever feelings I might have had for Spock in the past are irrelevant. How can you possibly question my decision, based on that? You're a doctor. You've seen the evidence. Read her profile, read her logs from the old Enterprise records. This is not a woman prone to such self-destructive behavior." She drew in a deep, hard breath, forcing a calm into her voice. "Look, I know it looks bad. I know it looks like I have ulterior motives. But she's my sister. I've lost everyone I ever cared about in my family. I can't lose her, too."

"You're right," Leonard said softly. "You are not impartial in this matter."

She rested her arms on the desk, leaning her chin against a hand. "No. I'm not," she agreed.

"I'll admit, this doesn't really look like the behavior of a starship first officer. But she's been through a lot…"

"Exactly. Fourteen years with energy-based aliens who kept her alive by altering her brain patterns." She pulled the perscan records back onto the screen. "Look at this."

McCoy took another look at the adrenaline peaks. "And?"

"Look closely at her brain wave patterns. Do you see it?"

A closer look, and McCoy frowned. Just beyond the brainwave pattern was a similar, parallel pattern, barely visible but unmistakably real. "That wasn’t there when we examined her on the Enterprise."

"And it only appears when she's intoxicated. The louder the noise, the more intoxicated, the stronger the echo pattern appears."

"And each time she goes into the pattern, it gets stronger."

"Like an addiction." Chapel waited for his response.

McCoy nodded. "But drugs and alcohol don't cause that type of pattern, Chris."

"So the question is, what is she addicted to?"

* * *

He didn't bother knocking. The music was so loud that she probably wouldn't have heard him anyway. McCoy swiped the manual key through the slot, almost tripping over the two cats who immediately swept past him as he opened the door. Another blast of music hit him like a shock wave. Bracing himself against the noise, he walked into the house.

He found her in the living room, dancing wildly to a twenty-year-old dance tune by Bonaventura Tartuffe. She didn't see him as he crossed the room to the audio transmitter she'd attached to the outdated computer. He shut the sound off, leaving a cavern of silence in its wake.

Shayla stopped, mid-gyration, and whirled towards him. "What the hell?" She caught herself, obviously startled by the fact that it was Leonard McCoy standing before her. "I thought you were my sister," she said roughly.

"We look nothing alike." McCoy gestured to the transmitter. "You know, you can go deaf from this stuff."

"Did my sister send you here to ask me to turn down the music?" With an indolent stare, she plopped down on the sofa.

"No, not really. Actually, when she told me how she'd managed to keep you home, I figured it would be safer all around if I came alone."

"Smart man." She stared straight ahead as McCoy sat next to her on the sofa. Neither said a word. Eventually, a black-and-white cat slunk out of the kitchen and jumped into Shayla's lap. She began stroking its ears absently.

"Is that Styx, MC, or Bonaventura?" McCoy asked.

She paused, but resumed stroking the cat. "MC, if it matters."

"Cats."

"Yeah."

"Gotta love 'em."

"Yup."

McCoy drew in a deep breath, then stretched his arm out on the back of the sofa. "So, you like Bonaventura Tartuffe?"

"What?"

He pointed to the computer. "You were playing Bonaventura Tartuffe. I like her earlier stuff--before she became famous."

Shayla shrugged. "It's the only thing I could find loud enough."

"Well, she certainly is loud." McCoy crossed his right foot onto his left knee. "So."

"So."

"Aren't you curious as to why I'm here?"

"I assume my sister sent you here to talk me out of killing her."

"You'd never do a thing like that, would you?"

"Oh, no. I'd never even think about wrapping my bare hands around her throat and squeezing until her lifeless body tumbled into a pile of goo at my feet. What makes you ask?"

McCoy nodded warily. "Well, good. Glad to know you're not angry."

"Now why on Earth would I be angry?" At this point, she was petting the cat vigorously. The cat, who'd had quite enough love, thank you, bounded off her lap and into the master bedroom.

"Oh, I dunno. Maybe because your entire life has shattered before your eyes, your career is shot to hell, you're dabbling in all sorts of nasty substances, and you have a thing for alien sex."

She didn't even bat an eye. "And what's wrong with that?"

"Nothing," McCoy said innocently. "Nothing at all."

They sat again in silence for a moment.

"Why are you here, Dr. McCoy," she finally asked.

"To give you a psychiatric evaluation."

This was not met with the violent reaction he'd expected. Shayla just nodded tiredly. "I expected as much from her."

"She's worried about you."

"She doesn't need to worry about me. I'm not her responsibility."

"Like it or not, Commander, she cares." McCoy turned to face her. "Shayla, you've been through something none of us can ever begin to understand. You're going through something…"

"No one can ever begin to understand. I know. I'm not an idiot."

"No, you're just acting like one."

That comment was met with dead silence. Shayla locked her eyes on the far wall, ignoring him completely. McCoy pulled a padd from his satchel and opened up a document. He handed the padd to her. "Do you recognize this?"

Shayla spared only a second to glance at the padd before handing it back to him. "It's a brain wave. Who cares?"

"It's your brain wave." He magnified the affected section. "As for who cares, you should. There are some unusual readings here I think you should be aware of. Readings that might be causing your current behavior."

"There's nothing causing my current behavior. I'm causing my current behavior. Look, if Chris wants me to move out, that's fine. I've made it on my own until now just fine."

"You aren't listening to me." He shoved the padd back into her hand. "Look at it, damn it. Not the main pattern, the lighter one highlighted in blue. Do you see that?"

"Yeah," she said sullenly.

"Does it look familiar to you?"

"Look, if you're just going to shove readings at me, why don't you just say I'm crazy and call it a day? I'd like to get back to my music, if you don't mind."

McCoy sighed. This was going to be harder than he thought. He didn't like what he saw, and she certainly wasn't helping her case. All she wanted to do was listen to that damned music.

A thought struck McCoy so hard he almost gasped out loud. Inspiration drove him to say, "Well, okay, then. I'll turn the music back on."

He stepped over to the audio transmitter, and plugged the padd into the input slot. Setting a continuous loop, he began transmitting the echo pattern through the audio transmitter at top volume.

A bizarrely entrancing musical pattern filled the room. Shayla sat bolt upright, then pulled her feet tightly into her. McCoy was at her side by the time her breathing neared hyperventilation. "What is it, Shayla? Do you recognize it?"

She nodded, tears filling her eyes.

"This is what your brain hears every time you get loaded, Shay. This is what's making you do all these things."

"It's Biabani. It's his song."

* * *

Chapel sat in the uncomfortable chair, stretching as much as she could. She hated this. She firmly believed one of the real reasons she'd gone into medicine was so that she'd never have to sit in a hospital waiting room again. She watched the people, gray shadows of their true selves, drinking coffee, pacing, walking back and forth from the desk to ask about whoever.

She was half-dozing when McCoy came out.

"Well," she prompted.

"They've finished this round of tests. She's sleeping." He put a hand around her shoulder and led her into one of the private rooms reserved for doctor-family consultations. "Chris, she's going to need some time. There's no real physical damage to her neurological system, but it is affecting her behavior."

"I want to look at the results."

"Chris, you're not objective about this. I think the best thing is to let her stay here overnight, and you go home and get some rest."

"No."

McCoy took both her hands in his. "She'll be fine. I'll stay here, make sure she gets everything she needs, and you can stop by on your way to Starfleet Medical in the morning."

Chapel shook her head. "I'm not going to Starfleet Medical in the morning."

"What are you talking about?"

"I talked to Dr. Maxwell. Got her to delay the start of my enrollment for a month so that I can care for Shayla."

"No." The vehemence in his voice startled her. "No, Chris, this is just what I was talking about back on the ship. You can't go on putting your life on hold for other people."

"She's my sister."

"She's got medical care. Me. And how many people can say they are their doctor's only patient?" His fierce rebuttal of her statement matched the look in his eyes. "You would be redundant."

"Leonard, I know what you're trying to do for me…."

"And for Shayla. She doesn't need to bear the guilt for your never becoming a doctor after all this."

"I'm just delaying it, not quitting."

"Until the next crisis. Christine, you are so damned willing to throw away your happiness to help others. Stop it. Stop it right now."

She looked down at the floor. His words cut, but only because they had the ring of truth. She'd changed her major from medicine to research after her mother's death. She'd given up a promising career in bioresearch to search for Roger. And she'd stayed on the Enterprise much longer than necessary.

"For once, sweetheart, let somebody else be the noble one." McCoy brushed the hair from her eyes, reminding her with the very simple gesture that she probably looked a mess. "Let me help you."

She was so tired. She nodded blankly, and rested her head against his shoulder.

Tomorrow, she would go to Starfleet Medicine. And try to start her life.

* * *

To say he was her doctor was accurate, but hardly all-encompassing. Shayla watched as Leonard twirled a string of tiny bells just above Bonaventura's nose, driving the feline practically wild with glee.

She stretched lazily on the sofa. The treatments were helping, but she was tired. McCoy explained she was suffering from a mild case of sleep deprivation. Even though she slept, she wasn't experiencing REM sleep in the same way other people did. She was experiencing Biabani…or at least an echo of him and the Sheiranna who had kept her alive for so long.

McCoy jerked the string of bells upward quickly, and Bona nearly leapt over his head to swipe at it.

"She's not declawed, you know," Shayla murmured from her vantage point on the couch. "Don't let her get too close to your face."

"Now you just worry about your meditation, girl. The McCoys have been cat people for decades. We have a bond"

"Yeah, well, I don't have a portable dermal regenerator, so be careful anyway."

In the moment of distraction, the cat managed to rend the prize from McCoy's hands. She scampered off towards the foyer, hoarding her treasure against future attack from her human adversary.

McCoy grinned. "Not a problem, my dear. So how is the meditation going?"

"I'm not the metaphysical type," she said dryly as she pulled herself into a sitting position, feet crossed underneath her. "Ohm."

"Goof." McCoy laughed, but joined her. "Listen, you have to keep trying. It's the effort, not the victory."

"Thank you, Mahatma Ghandi, for that esoteric wisdom." But she smiled, warmly, without provocation or embarrassment. "I'm just tired."

He turned her so her back was to him, and began to massage her shoulders. She was tense, but began to relax under the warmth of his hands. "You're doing great, Shayla."

"I've been thinking about Biabani's song. The whole time since I came back, I've been trying to remember what it sounded like. When you played that wave pattern to me, it was so close. But not exactly. I've been trying to figure out what was wrong." She moaned as McCoy pressed at a knot in her back. "Oh, that feels good."

"Have you figured it out yet?"

"Hmm?"

"The song? Have you figured out what was wrong?"

She leaned into the massage, letting the question go unanswered. She was glad he didn't push her, since she didn't really have an answer. As she closed her eyes to enjoy the massage, she heard the tinkle of bells, then a small crash, in the foyer.

She started to laugh.

* * *

Spock sat in the hotel room. It was unpleasant traveling commercially, but until his new assignment came through, he was basically on his own. His call to Kirk had gotten only an away message. His parents were also unavailable.

He'd even tried McCoy's home in Georgia, out of desperation, but was informed the doctor had not been home for several weeks.

For the first time in a long time, Spock found himself completely alone. It was not a situation he relished, for his mind lacked the sense of control he'd once prided himself on having. So many years living among humans had made him lax.

That had to be the reason for the feelings he tried not to have. Feelings of confusion. Anger. Bewilderment. Guilt. Faces and voices, competing for supremacy in the confines of his mind, Kirk, McCoy, Chapel, Number One, each persistent and demanding and gnawing at his self-control.

Searching for distraction, he turned on the holovid and began flipping through the available programming. A face caught his attention and he sat up in bed.

"Welcome, gentle beings, to The Derek James Show. I'm Derek James, and with me tonight is Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation starship Enterprise."

Spock watched in silence as the siren of celebrity stole his last hope for understanding. Kirk looked very comfortable in the spotlight, in the well of applause that surrounded him.

He turned off the holovid. A padd lay on the night stand next to the bed. He had placed it there earlier, unable to continue the reading he'd begun. Now he picked it up and began reading the ancient Vulcan script with renewed determination.

"The ritual of Kohlinar should not be attempted lightly…"

* * *

Christine Chapel was worn out, but in a good way. Every day was a stretch. A challenge. And she found it exhilarating and intimidating and exciting all in one big lump emotion. Leonard had been right about med school. It was the best and worst experience of her life, and she was so glad she hadn't postponed it even for one minute.

She stepped over Styx, who eyed her lazily from his vantage point in the foyer. "And hello to you, Mr. Cat," she winked at the tabby.

"Mrrowwwr," was his only response.

"Back at ya," she said, heading towards the kitchen. Of course, there was nothing cooking. Her "housemates" were the two least domestic people in the galaxy. She pulled a package of noodles from the cabinet and set them to cook. Where were they anyway? "Shay? Where are you?" she called.

The sound of footsteps preceded her sister into the kitchen. "Oh, you're home. Great. You have to come see this. It's amazing. I've figured it out." Without another word, Shayla ran out of the kitchen back into the office.

"Figured what out?" Chapel set the cooker on automatic and followed her into the office.

"The song. I couldn't understand why it sounded wrong. Then it hit me last night. I had been listening to a continuous loop of a single strand of music. Even though it wasn't exactly monotonous, it was still static. Biabani's music was a language, not a song. That's what was wrong. There was no spontaneity, no movement other than a repetition of a single phrase." She smiled from behind the computer, which had enough extensions plugged into it to resemble a man-made squid. "Isn't that great?"

Chapel smiled in complete confusion. "Sure. That's just great. Where is Leonard?"

"I sent him out to the beach. He was getting in my way. Check this out." She flipped several switches. "I took the original pattern of the song and put it into a simple compositional program. Then I began to fiddle with it, alter certain wavelengths, change rhythms, add counter-rhythms. Building a phrase library, things I can remember hearing in the Sheiranna realm. Of course, it's probably all gibberish, but it's as close as I can get. Now, listen." She flipped another switch, and a low hum began to emanate from the speakers. With her hands, she manipulated the extensions like old-fashioned computer mice, inserting and shifting and shuffling the synthetic Sheiranna phrases. It was eerie and beautiful all at the same time.

"Wow," Christine whispered.

"That's what I heard, Chris. It's how they kept me alive." She shrugged. "Or at least, as close as I'll probably ever get."

"It's magnificent."

A light glimmered in Shayla's eyes as she continued to make her other-worldly music. "Yeah. It is, isn't it?"

* * *

Shayla watched as the moon played on the Pacific Ocean. Davenport was beautiful, cliffs and sand and the magic of Poseidon around every turn. She sat by the campfire, smiling at McCoy as he cleaned the rest of the marshmallow off the skewer.

Her sister joked that he was never going to leave, clean bill of health or not. Shayla laughed, but inwardly she appreciated Leonard's consistency. With Chris in school and her own medical leave only half completed, it was nice having him around. He made her laugh. He treated her well.

She saw him watching her watch him and turned back to the ocean. If he left, the cats would go into mourning.

Polite conversation was a thing of the past. She and Leonard no longer needed it. The silences between them were just as comfortable as any words could ever be. So they sat together in the moonlight, in the firelight, in the lap of the Pacific Ocean, enjoying the silent communication only friendship could create.

McCoy pulled another marshmallow from the bag and put it on a skewer. He held it over the fire at just the right level, for just the right length of time, producing a perfectly golden crust that always eluded her. He leaned over, and handed her the marshmallow. She picked it off the skewer, bouncing it between palms to cool before eating it. "Mmmmm…"

"It's all in the wrists, honey," he said, motioning to the skewer.

"Uh-huh."

She lay back on the blanket. There were about a zillion stars out tonight. Of course, with the city lights so near, she could only see about half-a-zillion, but that would have to do. Leonard wrapped the skewer in a napkin, and lay on his back next to her.

"Pretty, isn't it?"

"Mmmmhmmmm." Not only had polite conversation gone the way of the dodo bird, but apparently intelligent conversation wasn't far behind. She looked over to see him watching her. A smile played across her lips as she turned back to the half-a-zillion stars.

Leonard rolled onto his side, resting his head on his right hand. Still staring into her face, he said, "Very pretty."

She grinned. "Leonard…"

She never finished her sentence as he covered her lips with his own, gently saying without words what neither had wanted to admit was happening. She caught her breath, returning the kiss as her fingers trailed through his hair.

She hadn't done this sober in a long, long time. A knot of nerves formed in her stomach, forcing her to pull away from his embrace. She sat up, suddenly very shy. "I think the tide's coming in…."

"Six-thirty am. Weather report." He brushed the hair from her neck, placing small kisses on the warm flesh just beneath. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

He stroked her cheek. "Don’t lie to me," he whispered.

Slowly, her gaze lowered. "I'm not…" she hesitated, then said softly. "I'm not Christine."

"What?" This got his attention. "Of course you're not Christine. Why on Earth would I think you're Christine?"

She shrugged. "It's stupid. But we look a lot alike, and I just didn't want to play some role for you. You know, forbidden fruit and all that."

"Shayla, I care very much for your sister. But you don't have to look for any hidden motivations here." He kissed her again. "You see, as far as women go, Christine will make a great kid sister." Another kiss, this time longer. "You, on the other hand, don't strike me as the kid sister type."

"No?" she whispered through his repeated kisses.

"Not at all."

This time, when they lay back on the blanket, neither protested the inevitable.

* * *

Chapel and McCoy sat in the dimly-lit restaurant. It was packed with both cadets and regular Starfleet personnel. The smell of curry was strong, but Chapel resisted the urge. The last thing she needed with her nerves was curry. "I'll take a caesar salad," she handed the menu back to the server, who took their orders to the kitchen. Turning to McCoy, she said, "Are you as nervous as I am?"

"Not at all." He downed his entire cup of tea in one gulp. "What makes you think so?"

"Oh, maybe because you hate tea." She looked at the makeshift stage. "And because Shayla is about to give her first live performance. Not that that's any reason to be nervous."

"She'll do fine," he muttered, pouring another cup of tea and downing it.

A subtle tone sounded, announcing the start of the show. A tall blonde Vulcan named Sendar took the stage. "Good evening, gentle beings. And welcome to Sekhmet. It is our honor to host the premier performance of a new composition. Without further ado, I give you Starfleet Commander Shayla Ross."

Shayla took the stage, dressed not in her uniform but in a simple black gown. Her computers and extensions spread out, much neater and more precise than their predecessors. She nodded to the announcer, then to the audience as the lights dimmed to a single spot.

"Gentle beings, many of you are planning careers in Starfleet. It is a noble, and exciting, adventure that you undertake. One of the most thrilling and dangerous missions a Starfleet officer can experience is first contact, the first official meeting with a new race of aliens.

Almost fifteen years ago, I made first contact with a race of aliens called the Sheiranna. Unfortunately, due to physical difference, we are not able to cohabit. But the Sheiranna are a magnificent race and my experiences with them changed me forever. Tonight, I would like to perform a piece I wrote as I tried to reconstruct the Sheiranna language. They communicate through a series of musical phrases far more complex and haunting than any human could ever imagine. My offering is but a humble attempt to recreate that magnificence. With your indulgence, gentle beings, I give you First Contact: The Song of Biabani.

She sat behind the computers and began manipulating the extensions. The room hushed as a haunting melody captured the air and changed it. Chapel realized she was holding her breath. No human music had ever come near this. Only Shayla could find this song. Only Shayla could make it real.

* * *

Epilogue: Eleven Months Later

Shayla pressed her big toe through the slatted boards of the deck, letting the sun warm her skin as the long muscles of her thigh stretched easily. The boards were synthetic, of course. It had been centuries since anyone used real wood to build houses on Earth. But it felt just as she imagined wood might feel. One could even get a splinter from it, if they tried hard enough.

She smothered a yawn, enjoying the luxury of a real holiday. It had surprised her more than anybody else when, after all those years of searching for her destiny in deep space, she'd found peace and fulfillment as a desk jockey on Earth. Maybe it was the fourteen years she'd been trapped in the Sheiranna vortex. After that, adventure seemed vastly overrated.

Steady days, standard two-hour lunches, and government holidays, on the other hand, were a welcome change from the life of a deep space first officer. She tried to remember the last time she'd worked a double shift, but couldn't.

Gods, she'd gotten lazy. And she couldn't be happier.

She gasped as a hand pressed itself into the golden skin of her inner thigh. "I thought you were asleep," she grumbled.

"Just resting my eyes, darlin'." Leonard McCoy stretched out like a barnyard tomcat, wriggling until his right arm lay spread across Shayla's exposed waist. He kissed her shoulder sleepily. "You getting' hungry?"

She rolled on her side to face him, wrapping herself in his arms. "Not really. Too hot to eat." She kissed him lightly. "I could use another Saurian brandy, if you're making."

He didn't answer. McCoy busied himself instead with the elaborate ties of her sundress.

"Len." She knew if she let him get started, they'd never get anything accomplished. Not that accomplishment was high on her list of priorities, but somebody had to….

No, nobody had to do anything. She grinned, burying her face in his neck as she allowed him easier access. She grazed his hot skin lightly with her teeth, laughing as he groaned.

She heard him muttering something about "damn stupid dress" and laughed some more. Finally, he gave up on unfastening the dress and just slipped his hand under the fabric of her bodice. His hand was rough against her bare breast, and she yelped as he pinched the soft flesh.

"Ow," she pouted.

"Mmmm…" He started to say something when the sound of the French doors opening startled them both.

"Oh, for crying out loud. Do you two have to do that out here?" An exhausted Chapel stood on the patio doorway, barely concealing a look of bored sibling disgust.

Shayla was up in a flash, straightening her bodice as McCoy stumbled to his feet. "Chris, you're home," she said weakly.

"Happy Federation Day," McCoy offered.

But the newly-minted medical officer was not going for it. She started to say something, then just stopped, obviously too tired to formulate a suitable response. "Forget it. I'm going to bed."

Shayla caught an impish gleam in McCoy's eyes as he opened his arms in a broad gesture of welcome. "Aw, Chris. You act like you're not happy to see me!"

Chapel shot him a dirty look. "Who wouldn't be happy to come home after a double shift to find her ex-boss groping her sister on the deck of the family home?" But somewhere in the exhaustion, there was a hint of humor. She stared at the couple for a moment, then shook her head. "I'm going to bed. If there's any deity in the universe, I won't wake up for two weeks. If anybody calls, I'm dead."

"Got it." Shayla reached out to stop McCoy's next round of teasing. When her sister was safely inside, she pulled him into her arms. "Be nice to her. She's been working like a dog trying to get ready for the Enterprise's shakedown cruise."

"That Will Decker is a slave driver," he laughed, returning his attentions to the beginning of a tan on Shayla's shoulders.

"Oh, I heard you had your Simon LeGris moments as well, Dr. McCoy…."

"Me? I was a kitten to work for. Ask anybody." He pulled at a single tie with his teeth. "Let's go swimming. I want to see you naked."

"I thought you wanted to eat."

"I want to eat and see you naked." He grinned. "Hey, now there's an interesting thought… Damn, I love retirement."

The laughter pulsed through them both as they indulged in another deep kiss. "You never answered the question I asked you earlier," she murmured in to his shoulders.

"Sorry, hon. Yes, I will marry you."

She laughed again. "You know what I'm talking about. What happened between you and Jim Kirk? You've been avoiding the issue ever since you got here."

His eyes darkened, the only sign on his face that her words had any affect on him. "That's old business, sweetheart. Jim is doing what he thinks is right for him, and that's his affair. Me, I'm just an old country doct…"

"'Doctor. All you need is a patient and your two bare hands.'"

He scowled but only in jest. "You know, if you don't treat me nice, it's going to put quite a damper on the fun when I carry you off to my plantation home in the fair state of Georgia."

"Leonard…" she warned.

"I know, I know. Stop with the carrying you off talk. A commitment phobia can be treated, Commander. First, though, you have to admit you have a problem."

"You had a fight with Kirk. You stormed off. Spock disappeared somewhere on Vulcan. Stop evading the issue. Stop acting like nothing's wrong." Her tone was light enough, but she meant every word.

"Look," he avoided her eyes for a moment. "Look, Shayla, yeah. We had a fight. It ain't the first time that's happened. Jim and I need to cool off."

"Want to tell me what the fight was about?"

"Well, all you have to do is look at his pips to know what the fight is about. I mean, the man was born for command. Taking a desk job kill him."

"It didn't kill me," she said softly.

"No. No, it didn't. But you've walked a completely different road than Jim. And psychologically…"

"He's a big boy. There has to come a time when even you have to back off and let him make his own mistakes."

He sat on that thought for a long time before speaking. "You're right, of course. I can't live his life for him. I just…I just hate that it's all over." There was a catch in his voice. "It's been so much a part of my life. I hate seeing it die."

"Everything changes," she whispered, placing a tender kiss on his jaw. "You can't stop time." Her lips brushed his skin. "You need a shave," she murmured.

"I was thinking of letting it grow in. A beard is just what a good country doctor needs."

"But what about in the meantime? There's nothing more annoying than kissing a man with half a beard."

"You'll love it."

"They take forever to grow."

He kissed her deeply. "That's okay. We've got all the time in the world. There is no force on Earth that's gonna pull me away from you now."

V'ger glided through the vast expanses of space, cognizant but unconcerned with the distances it traveled. Time was irrelevant. V'ger was timeless.

V'ger sought the Creator. V'ger sought the Creator's homeworld.

The third planet.

The End