Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of and is copyright (c) 1980 by Lynda Carraher. Originally published in Saurian Brandy Digest  #27), Sylvia Stanczyk, editor. Rated PG-13.

HOUSE OF MIRRORED FACES

Part 3

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

My husband sleeps, and the lines of his face are softened as the contours of a mountainside are softened by a blanket of snow. I move quietly as I dress, for I do not wish to wake him. In the six weeks since we have left Eos, he has been like a man possessed, driven by something he will not reveal, eating little and sleeping less, until I fear for his health.

The sedative I put in his tea this night will not harm him and it may give him some ease. I know no other comfort to give him now; he has brushed away my attempts at intimacy like a man would brush a bothersome insect away from his face, and without that strange link that comes into play when we make love, I cannot breach the wall with which he has again surrounded himself.

Now I am the one who cannot sleep, and I stand watching him with an ache inside me, an ache which seems to have gone on forever. But I know when it started. I can pinpoint it exactly. It started on the night he first beamed down to Eos; the night I tapped into the library section of the ship’s computer and called for a readout on Kyra, Matriarch of Eos. It began the moment I saw her beautiful face and sensed rather than saw the latent cruelty in those slanted amethyst eyes.

What was she to him? What is she now? Impossible to ask of him, or of anyone, lest they see this festering cancer that eats away at my vitals. Were they lovers three years ago? Did they become lovers again in their brief encounter this time? If not, why does he bear her mark so defiantly?

I look at the scar marring the line of his cheekbone – the scar he will carry to his grave – and I remember the vehemence he turned on Dr. McCoy that day in sickbay. He had transported up from Eos torn and bleeding, passing out briefly in the transporter room as Scotty called frantically for a medic. McCoy and I had reached him at the same time, but he waved me back, trusting himself instead to the ministrations of the man I thought he hated. Why?

He had watched with remote interest as McCoy went about the delicate work of repairing the tattered flesh of his arm, had made no objection to the plastiderm there or on the gouges across his ribcage. But he had stayed McCoy’s hand when he started to apply the healing scar-retardant to the deep wound on his face.

“Leave it,” he said.

“It won’t be very pretty, Spock. There’ll be a mark, even with the plastiderm. Without it--”

Spock’s uninjured hand closed on McCoy’s wrist with such force I thought surely he’d break the bones, and the spray-vial dropped from the doctor’s nerveless fingers.

“I said, leave it.”

Blue eyes met brown ones, and something passed between them in that moment, something that spoke of a past and a present that was forever closed to my understanding.

“You’re sure?”

“I am sure.” And he released McCoy’s arm.

And so he carries her mark on his body. What does he see when he looks at it? What does he remember?

I leave the room to walk the echoing corridors of the sleeping ship. What am I searching for? Are the answers to my questions held somewhere in this vast ship? I doubt it. They are buried somewhere deep in the soul of my husband, and I know of no way to reach them, except the one way he has closed off to me.

I wander to sickbay and talk for a moment with Nurse Hyland, who is on duty. Nothing important is going on there, and she is clearly puzzled by my coming in at this hour. After some conversation which goes nowhere, I leave her.

The doors of the main rec room hiss open as I approach them, and I hesitate for a moment. The room is full with crewmen and women coming off the late watch. A young couple comes out, their arms locked about each other’s waists as they move down the corridor like some two-headed, four-legged beast, and they are laughing as they go. The sound of their laughter, intimate and throaty, is like a knife in my chest. I am no longer a part of their world. Pavel opened that door for me once, but it slammed shut when he left. Or perhaps I pushed it shut myself.

I miss his company more than I care to admit. He has gone on to another phase of his training, under another captain, and I remember what he told me when we said goodbye. He was funny, in a sad kind of way, that terribly intense young man, asking my promise to call on him if I ever had the need. There was something below the level of his words, something more than the wish to express the feelings I knew he had for me and which I kept turning away with a laugh or a flippant remark. He had worked closely with Spock, and I wonder now if he had sensed something of the alienation between Spock and me.

I pass on by the rec room and consider going down to the gym to work at the barre, to push my body into a state of numbness that will also numb my mind. But the thought of returning to my room for the playback unit and my tights seems too complicated to consider. It is easier just to walk, to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, and nothing more.

Enterprise is like a small city, and as a city dweller who goes only from home to work may find hidden alleyways on a midnight ramble, so I find the hidden alleyways of the ship. I discover an observation deck above engineering, a place I had not known existed. The beating heart of the starship is open below me, her pulse throbbing in the deck beneath my feet. Behind me is a heavy plasteel viewport; I could see the stars if I turned toward it. I do not wish to see them.

Instead, I curl my fingers through the protective grille above the engineering deck and lean my forehead against it. It is cool and smooth against my skin, and it is permanent. It is not something that will dissolve just as I begin to have confidence in it.

==========

KIRK

===========

I keep telling myself that it will be all right, that it doesn’t matter, that Spock’s sudden and total withdrawal of the past weeks is really no different than the ones he has made in the past. I’ve never known him to be at ease with his Human side, the way he was before the mission to Eos, without rebounding into that physical and emotional isolation Bones calls “double Vulcan”. I decided a long time ago that it’s not some kind of hair-shirt penance he sets for himself, it’s just the way he recharges his batteries.

But the argument sounds empty this time. Something is different. It’s gone on for too long, and the quality of his isolation is somehow less a personal withdrawal than it is an outer distraction, invisible to the rest of us, but utterly compelling to him. And though it may be invisible to me, it is having its effect, both on Spock and on our relationship.

I’m not paranoid enough to think he’s angry at me in particular; even at his most Human, he’s never been subject to that kind of pettiness. Still, it’s hard not to take it personally.

It isn’t just my imagination that he disappears from the bridge as soon as his watch is over, that he hasn’t been in the mess hall or the gym at the usual times, that he responds to my inquiries about ship’s business correctly but briefly as if spending unnecessary words was painful. And it isn’t my imagination that even when he’s physically present, some part of the man I thought I knew is gone, leaving an almost hostile stranger in his place.

We’ve been friends for so long, on so many levels, that I find this extended withdrawal unnerving. It’s hard not to take it personally; not to search through recent words and actions to find one that might have crossed the border of what he finds acceptable.

It seems to have begun the night before we beamed down to Eos, when Bones clearly stepped across that boundary. I know Spock had no relish for that meeting; that it was only my insistence that took him to the Matriarch’s palace that first time. Yet he went back on his own initiative the second time, asking for a 24-hour shore leave with a manner that clearly warned me away from questioning his reasons. Beamed down and came back looking like he’d tangled with a sackful of bobcats, according to McCoy.

When I asked him about it, he shut me out with a cold stare that came as close to insubordination as I’ve ever seen him come. “Since the incident did not occur in the line of duty, Captain, it is not subject to an official report.” That was the first open rebuff. The next one came a week later, as we prepared to bid a grateful farewell to the diplomats, and a less than grateful one to Pavel Chekov.

His promotion and orders had come through on the way back from Eos, transferring him to the Potemkin for another phase of training. I’d seen him grow from a grass-green Academy graduate to a responsible young officer, and I wasn’t alone in hating to see him go.

Sulu organized a send-off party that will probably serve as an unparalleled standard for the next hundred years. It had everything but a naked lady popping out of a cake, and somehow even that wouldn’t have surprised me.

I started to point out this oversight to McCoy, but couldn’t find him. Uhura told me that he and Scotty had discovered Spock hadn’t made even a courtesy appearance, and were on their way to remedy this oversight, by force if necessary. It sounded to me like a scheme which could rapidly get out of hand, particularly considering the level of inebriation at the party. I made myself manifestly unpopular by ordering the bar closed before I left to track down one doctor and one engineer.

They were standing in the corridor in front of Spock’s firmly closed door when I found them, debating the relative merits of a cutting torch versus a magnetic lock-pick. I had each of them by one elbow when the door slid back to reveal a Vulcan who was obviously at the end of his patience and ready to take stern action. He faltered for an instant when he saw me, and then stepped back from the doorway.

“Captain,” he said evenly, “I would appreciate it if you would inform these … gentlemen … that I desire neither their liquor nor their company.” He keyed the door shut without waiting for my reply, and the chill in his words seemed to crystallize in the air of the corridor.

I steered the two wobbly party-goers to their own beds, but long after they were dead to the world, I sat in my own quarters with my hand on the intercom switch, fighting the urge to call him. Fighting the urge to demand entrance to whatever arena it was where he was doing battle against an enemy I couldn’t identify. Searching for the words to remind him he didn’t have to fight it alone.

He’s still fighting it, whatever it is, and the casualty toll is mounting. I’m not the only one having trouble coping with this stranger who wears Spock’s face. I see Lara, pale and tense as she was when she first came on board, and Bones, sunk into that grumbling surliness that tells me he’s deeply concerned. But McCoy won’t talk about it, even if he knows what’s going on, and I can’t just casually stroll up to Lara and ask if she and her husband are having a spat. In the first place, it’s none of my business; in the second place, I can’t afford to get any more emotionally involved with Lara Merritt than I already am.

I had to be crazy to let it get started in the first place. The first time I caught a glimpse of her usually hidden sensuality, flowing like a deadly undertow in a falsely serene river, I should have run like a bandit. And probably would have, if she didn’t also have the capacity to strike sparks with her fierce pride, to hold a man at arm’s length while that aching vulnerability surfaces fleetingly and then vanishes just as quickly. Seeing that leaves behind a disquieting feeling of something missed, something eminently precious but endangered, and it raises the kinds of feelings I thought I’d put away a long time ago. I’m not anybody’s shining knight, and there are no dragons left to slay.

So why can’t I let go of the feeling that I ought to be out there doing battle?

That frustration, that feeling of having missed some action I should have taken, settles down to a persistent gnawing that chews away at my consciousness and rampages through my dreams. Even now, with the quiet of ship’s night all around, that nebulous dragon stamps around in my mind, rousting all the tried and true methods for gaining sleep. It’s a restless, demanding presence, stilled only when I give up and dress.

All’s quiet, all’s orderly, on the bridge, as I knew it would be. I start for the mess, but decide the last thing in the world I need now is a cup of coffee. I decide to make one swing through engineering, just to assure myself that nothing is brewing there. There’s no point in imposing my particular wim-wams on the engineering crew, though, and I set the turbolift to deposit me on the engineering observation deck.

The doors open soundlessly, and I realize I am not the only person abroad this night; not the only one who seeks escape from private dragons.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

“Lara?”

It is Jim. I have not been alone with him since that day we climbed a mountain – the day that never happened. Nor do I wish to be alone with him now. He complicates my life, makes the unbearable incomprehensible as well, and I don’t think I have the strength to deal with that right now.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” The simple lie which is so much more palatable than the complicated truth.

“Are you sure?” He puts his hand next to mine on the grille, but makes no move to touch it. “What are you doing up here at this time of night?”

I move away from him to sit on the bench below the viewport. His nearness is threatening, yet I know the threat comes from me, not from him. He is watching me, curious, concerned, waiting for an explanation. “I couldn’t sleep,” I offer, looking at my hands. Go away, Jim. Leave me alone. Please.

“Maybe you should see a doctor.”

I look up at him sharply; he is grinning, but there is concern behind it. The weight of it is too heavy, like a smothering blanket. There is a lump in my throat as huge and sharp as a dilithium crystal, and I know I am about to commit the ultimate feminine folly – tears. I haven’t cried in … God, how long? I don’t trust my voice; I just get up wordlessly and start to walk away.

He comes after me and takes my arm, not saying anything as he guides me to the nearest turbolift and orders it to his quarters. We pass a yeoman in the corridor outside his room, and she starts to speak to us, but the words die in her throat. I look at Jim’s face – it is like an executioner’s as we pass through the door.

“Sit down,” he orders brusquely, and stands with the desk between us, watching. Waiting for me to make the first move.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he says at last.

I shake my head.

“Is somebody giving you a hard time? If they are, tell me, and I’ll see that it’s stopped.”

“No. Nobody.”

“Then what is it?” He leans across the desk, bracing himself on his palms. “Lara, let me help.”

“I can’t… This is something I have to work out for myself.” I can feel him watching me, but I don’t raise my eyes to his face. He straightens up slowly, turns away to key open a cabinet.

“I think,” he says, “it’s time for that conversation. The one I promised you on Aqinah.”

On Aqinah – on that day we have agreed didn’t happen. But he has made it happen again, so real I can feel once more the shade on my arms and his mouth on mine.

I recognize the long-necked bottle and the typical Saurian glasses, delicate as spider webs. He pushes one across the desk to me and settles himself in the other chair. “It helps to talk,” he says.

The crystal in my throat seems to be getting smaller. Perhaps the brandy will smooth the edges.

“I’ve been watching you, Lara. Every day that glass bubble has been getting smaller and smaller. If you don’t break out of it soon, it’s going to crush you.”

“I don’t think I can, now. Not … not alone.”

The silence in the room is heavy with what he is weighing in his mind. Finally he says it. “It’s Spock, isn’t it?”

I nod. The crystal is back, sharper than ever. “I can’t … I can’t reach him, Jim. I thought … for a while … but I never have. It’s like … like he’s not even there. Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the one who isn’t there.”

He looks at me, and his eyes are level as I meet his gaze. “You’re there,” he says. “Don’t ever think you’re not.”

The crystal in my throat bursts into a thousand pieces, and I have to move or it will cut through my flesh. I push away from the desk and start for the door as the tears – those damned, weakling tears – spill over. He comes around the desk like a tiger and catches my arm. “Don’t,” he says, and touches my face with his hand. His touch is soft and warm and very, very Human.

I look away, but his hand guides my face back toward his. He says my name, and there is a tone in the sound of it that I have not heard before, a tone that sets up an answering vibration somewhere deep inside. He kisses me, and there is an urgency in it that I meet with my whole self.

Then there is nothing in the universe except the two of us at the eye of a whirling void, and the only reality is that of his arms as he picks me up and carries me across the room to … what? To heaven, or to hell, but I don’t care any more, because whatever it is, it is of my own making and I am not alone any more.

>>>>> <<<<<

And so it is done, as simply as that. If there is shame in our act, I do not feel it. Does he? I cannot tell. He goes on with his work, and I with mine, and when we meet there is nothing in his voice or his actions to tell what has passed between us. It is only in his eyes, in the look that lasts a second longer than necessary, and in the answering warmth within me that says I am no longer alone, no longer incomplete.

We are seldom alone together, but it does not matter. If the times we share are few, they are doubly precious for their rareness; if they are not planned, it is because we want them so. If we allow simple circumstance to dictate our meetings, it is easier to pretend we are not guilty of a betrayal.

I cannot pinpoint the moment when I realize I am in love with him. The instant of love’s beginning is like the instant of conception. The awareness comes slowly, many tiny clues building until there is a surety long before the stirring of life within the womb becomes evident.

For a while, I was able to delude myself that the relationship was based on nothing more than sexual satiation, but that swiftly passed. I have made love without being in love, and walked away without a backward glance, but now I cannot imagine a time when he was not an essential part of me; cannot conceive of a time when he will not be there for me, or I for him.

It began, I think, on Banus V, the moment I saw him bearing the body of the infant with the kind of tenderness that was there despite the fact that tenderness or the lack of it would never again make a difference. If I had any doubts, they were banished when he covered the child’s body with his own garment.

I confess this to him once as we are lying together, and he smiles and colors in embarrassment.

“I’m afraid I’m much slower on the uptake than you are.”

The response ignites my tendency toward teasing. “You mean you didn’t moon around for months with your hopeless love? I’m disappointed.”

He pushes a lock of hair off my ear and traces its outline with his fingertips. “I didn’t say that. I think I knew that first day I followed you into your quarters. Maybe it started a long time before that … but that was the day I knew.”

“And you didn’t do anything about it?”

“I couldn’t, then. I didn’t know … how you felt. I guess I thought if I ignored it, it would go away.” His eyes, his thoughts, are far away, and I find myself wishing I could see into his mind at moments like this. As I once did with the mind of another.

It is a curious thing, but my feeling for Jim does not alter my feeling for Spock. I still love him, still look for any sign that he wishes to return my love, but the sign does not come. The emotion is like an open wound, and if it will not heal, then it must be protected. So the wall between us grows taller and broader now that there are two who build it. It attains a symmetry that makes it seem natural and eternal; it has been there time out of mind and becomes just another part of our psychic landscape, comforting in its familiarity.

He seems to be spending a great deal of time working with his staff in the science department, and there is often someone with him at his console on the bridge. He observes and tutors and points out errors, but he seems to be turning more and more of his duties over to his staff. I mention it to him one evening, in a passing remark, and he gives me a strange look; one of such quiet intensity that it makes my skin thicken with its coldness.

“It is necessary,” is all he says, and the subject is closed.

There is another thing, too, and it disturbs me though I don’t know why. He has never in the past shown much interest in the correspondence I receive from my father; now he often asks me about it. There has been a change in the tone of the tapes; my father seems distracted and I hear from him less often than I once did. He never discusses embassy business, never has, but there is a tension in his face and voice as he relays news of my mother’s family on Earth or activities of my friends from the research project.

As for Spock, he has received and sent more personal tapes in the past few months than he had in all our previous time together. He never discusses them with me; I know only that they are from Vulcan, and know that only because of something Lieutenant Uhura said to me one night in the officer’s mess. And I know that when he gets one, he seems distracted and more distant than ever for days afterwards.

He is still not eating properly, and his always lean frame has grown nearly cadaverous. The planes and hollows of his face are like something sculptured from Argelian jade, and the bones in his wrists are plainly visible. I long sometimes to touch them, to reassure myself that living flesh still covers them, but the wall is between us, solid and real.

McCoy mentions it to me one evening as he catches me in the main examination room. It is late; I am tired, and answer his query with a sharpness I had not really intended.

“He’s a grown man, Doctor,” I reply, “and well able to take care of himself.”

“My job,” McCoy says stiffly, “is to keep this crew as healthy as is humanly possible. You can tell him for me that if he doesn’t start eating, I’ll have him down here for a two-week session with an IV setup.”

“Is that an order? Or a threat?”

“Both,” he snaps. “And while we’re on the subject, I might as well tell you that you’re next on my list.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. Hyland and the rest of the night crew say you’re down here at all hours for no reason at all. Your patient load is down 20 percent, and frankly, you look like hell.”

“Thank you, Doctor. You do wonders for my ego.”

“I’m not kidding, Merritt. Get up on the table.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“No, this is an examination. You’re three weeks overdue for your quarterly physical, and every time I go by Medical Records, the computer shoots your file at me.”

He is right; I know he is. I’ve been putting off the physical just as I’ve been putting off some of my patients because it presented the path of least resistance. Now it is less difficult to yield.

It is comforting to hear the steady amplified thrum of my heartbeat on the body-function monitor. The surface of the table is cool and firm beneath me; I think I could go to sleep if McCoy would go away. The mosquito whine of the feinberg pierces through my musings; he seems to be taking a very long time. When I look at him, he is recalibrating the instrument to make a second sweep. I twist around and try to see the monitor.

“Lie still,” he snaps.

“Did you know your bedside manner is lousy?” I ask him as he makes a second scan.

“Did you know your red cell count is down so far it didn’t even register on standard calibration?” he counters.

“What?” I sit up. “Let me see that feinberg.”

“Are you questioning my diagnosis, young woman?”

“No.” I lie down again. Some things are not worth the effort.

“Had any dizzy spells?” he asks.

“No.”

“You should.”

“I’ll work on it,” I tell him.

He sits down at the medicomp and punches up my record, then busies himself at the recorder. “I’m changing your diet card,” he says. “And I want everything on your tray eaten, not dumped down the disposal chute. I’ll start you out tonight with a trigamma/B-12 compound, and I want you back in here day after tomorrow for another look. Now, what about this not sleeping?”

I shrug. “Just restless. Maybe I’m getting space-happy.”

“All right. I’m going to prescribe a mild sedative.” He takes another look at my record. I can see him backing it up to my initial physical. He frowns, hesitates, and then asks, “There’s not any chance that you’re pregnant, is there?”

“No.”

He looks back at the readout. “Are you sure? According to this, you’ve never been issued any contraceptives.”

“If you’ll look back a little further, Doctor, you’ll see that I took part in the Slattery experiments five years ago.” I am trying to keep my voice level, but I know the monitor is probably telling him as much as my words. “In fact, I was probably the prime reason the Slattery project was shut down. You see, I was the first of the subjects to exhibit the rather unfortunate side effect of his wonder drug.”

He shuts off the medicomp. “I’m sorry, Lara. I didn’t know, and I should have taken a better look at your records.” It is the first time since the epidemic that he has spoken to me with anything less than thinly veiled annoyance.

“It’s all right, really. I mean, it’s not the sort of thing you casually mention over coffee – ‘By the way, I’m sterile.’ Sort of disrupts the conversation.”

He seems about to reply when someone comes into the room.

“Don’t you people ever go home?” It is Jim, and the sight of him both surprises and disturbs me. He looks around, curious. “Don’t tell me – you ran out of patients and you’re practicing on each other just to keep from getting rusty.”

“You’re getting warm, Jim. Dr. Merritt here has been living with Spock so long she thinks she can get along without red blood cells, too.” He turns away to ready a spray hypo with the trigamma injection, and Jim gives me a questioning look. I shake my head, but I can tell his question has not been answered.

“Nothing serious, I hope,” he says as McCoy administers the shot.

“Could be, unless we get a handle on it,” McCoy replies as he hands me a synthesizer card and a small bottle of sedatives. “I’m putting you on sick call,” he says. “Go back to your quarters and go to bed. If these don’t do the job, call me, and I’ll send up something stronger. And if I find out you’ve been up wandering around, you’ll be warming a bed in sickbay.”

I sit up and swing off the examination table, and as I do, a wave of dizziness washes over me, blurring the edges of my vision. There is a firm hand suddenly under my elbow, another at my waist. A familiar hand.

“No dizzy spells, huh?” McCoy’s voice seems to be coming from far away.

Somebody’s voice is answering him; I am surprised to discover it is mine. “I told you I’d work on it, Doctor. Just following instructions.”

*************

McCOY

*************

I don’t know what to have examined first – my eyes or my head. All my instincts screamed trouble the minute I saw Lara Merritt, but this most damaging, most obvious one never occurred to me. Not until that day last week in sickbay, when it became as clear and as chilling as plague virus on a microscope screen.

It wasn’t just his movement in catching her as she fell; he would have done that for any crew member. It was in his face and in his eyes and in the sure way his hand went around her waist, as if it belonged there. If Jim and Lara are not lovers, they soon will be. Can’t she see it? My God, can’t he see it? And Spock … where does he stand?

Spock is many things, but he is not stupid. Naïve, at times, in the twisted labyrinth of Human sexuality, but not stupid. He knows. He must know, yet he does nothing to stop it. Is that what’s stuck in his Vulcan craw?

He does come by sickbay later that same day, and I chew him out about not eating, but my diatribe lacks its usual vigor. He gives me that maddening Vulcan stare and then, surprisingly, acquiesces. “It will not be necessary for you to concern yourself with my eating habits any longer, Doctor. I have been somewhat preoccupied of late, but the problem which has been concerning me has been resolved.

After he leaves, I spend a long time staring at the closed door, but the answer doesn’t appear there in letters of flame. Or in any way at all.

Eventually, Christine Chapel comes in looking for me. I can tell from her manner that she senses something is wrong. Apparently she has not seen it. Not yet. But a starship is no place to keep a secret, and when the gossip starts, she is going to be hurt by it as much as any of them.

*************

For the second time this week, Spock is back in sickbay. We are shortly due to put in at Argelius II for a supply of iridium, and Jim has authorized a three-day stopover for shore leave. Since the men and women of Argelius are notoriously free with their favors, and since some of those favors tend to have rather lingering effects, I have spent the day inoculating the better part of the crew with various exotic prophylactic compounds. Although it’s just common-sense preventive medicine, the process always makes me feel like a second-assistant procurer at some lower-class whorehouse.

In addition, I am feeling a familiar tingling in my hands that forebodes something I don’t like to think about. I am thoroughly tired and out of sorts; it is past 1900 hours and I haven’t eaten since noon. All I want is a long shower and a longer bourbon and a chance to fill the rumbling tiger my belly has become. The last thing I expect to see is Spock coming through the doors, looking definitely ill-at-ease.

“Well, what is it, Spock? Don’t tell me you’re going to explore the fleshpots of Argelius. I don’t think they make a prophylactic compound for Vulcans.”

He looks at me blankly for a moment before a distinct expression of distaste covers his face. “Certainly not,” he says. “I wish to speak with you about Dr. Merritt.”

The tiger takes a healthy bite out of my stomach. Don’t do this to me, Spock. Don’t make me be the one to put it into words. I deliberately misinterpret his remark.

“Dr. Merritt is going to be just fine, Spock. She’s responding well to treatment, and I took her off sick call this afternoon.” Let that be what he wanted to discuss.

“I am not referring to that, Dr. McCoy. It is something else which concerns me at the moment.” The tiger is chewing its way up into my throat, and I sit down as he goes on. “Would you rate her as a competent physician?”

“What?”

“I believe my question was quite clear. What is your professional opinion of her medical abilities?”

My mind is backpedaling frantically. What is he getting at? “She’s … um … adequate.”

“Only adequate?”

“Well, I … what’s your point, Spock?” Out of habit, I almost add “Other than your ears?” but stop myself just in time.

He sits down across from me and temples his fingers. That’s a sign he’s about to expound on something. “One would have to be incredibly naïve not to realize that Dr. Merritt was posted to her current assignment less for her medical background than for her marital status and the duty assignment of her husband. I merely wish to know if, after serving for nearly a year, her performance is such that it could stand on its own merit.” He frowns as he realizes he has made a spectacularly bad pun, and begins to rephrase the question. “I mean, would her performance--”

“I know what you mean.” It is difficult to say which of us is more disturbed by his lapse. He would no more consciously play word games than the library computer would. It is a measure of his mental state that he would allow himself to blunder into such a statement. “May I remind you that performance ratings are confidential?”

“You may – if I may remind you that as First Officer, I am entitled access to them.”

“But you’re not asking as First Officer, are you?”

He gives me that level Vulcan gaze that produces a condition commonly known as “the willies” in 90 percent of the Humans who’ve ever been on the receiving end of it.

“No,” he says at last. But he does not elaborate.

I take a deep breath; it comes out sounding suspiciously like a sigh. “If you’d asked me that question the first week … even the first month she was aboard, I’d have said ‘no, it isn’t’. However, right now, personal feelings aside, she’s professionally qualified for her assignment.”

“And that is your opinion."

“Mine, or that of any CMO. If she couldn’t cut it after all this time, she wouldn’t be here.”

“Thank you, Doctor McCoy.” He unfolds his lanky frame from the chair. For some reason, the furnishings in sickbay always appear a size too small for him.

The tiger has retreated from my throat and resumed its patient nibbling at my hollow stomach. I get up and walk with him toward the door. “Have you eaten yet?” I ask him.

“If you are going to resume your dietary inquisition, Doctor--”

“I’m not. I just haven’t had my dinner, and I was going to ask you to join me. I hate to eat alone.”

“I should not wish to be the cause of disturbance to your delicate digestive tract.”

“Can’t you ever just give me a straight yes or no?”

“I was endeavoring to do so when you interrupted me.”

We are still sparring when we enter the officer’s mess. As usual, at this time of night, it looks more like the main rec room. There is a poker game going on in front of the servo-port that delivers our dinner, and I look over Sulu’s shoulder to see he’s working on an inside straight. He looks up at us and calls for one card.

Spock quirks and eyebrow at him. “I wouldn’t,” he says.

“Ah, but I would, Mr. Spock,” Sulu says, but he does not pick up the card until we have left. Minutes later, I see him raking in the pot, and he gives me a broad wink. I nudge Spock and point at the grinning lieutenant.

“He was bluffing,” Spock says.

“It doesn’t make any difference, does it, if he won?”

Spock’s face is suddenly pensive. Am I getting more perceptive, or has the mask he habitually wears finally begun to grow thinner?

“No,” he says. “If he has attained his objective, his method is unimportant.”

I spear something that looks suspiciously like broccoli. I don’t like broccoli, and my synthesizer card carries that notation. “If you’re trying to con me into an argument on whether the end justifies the means, I’m not going to bite.” I bite. It is broccoli, dammit. I look suspiciously at Spock’s plate. “Have you got my tray?”

He gives me a look of mortally wounded Vulcan dignity before his attention is diverted by the captain, who is approaching the table.

“What’s the matter, Bones?” Jim says, sitting down across from us. “Is Spock proselytizing vegetarianism again?”

“I do not pursue hopeless causes, Captain,” Spock says. “The good doctor has apparently made an error in the selection buttons, and he is attempting to transfer the blame to me.”

“But that’s broccoli, dammit!”

“Then don’t eat it,” Jim says calmly, as if he were explaining some patently obvious fact to a not-very-bright child.

Something in the back of my mind is saying that we shouldn’t be able to sit here joking like this if what I think has happened has happened. I must be mistaken. The fatigue – and I refuse to consider it anything else – of the last few weeks has affected my judgment. These two men cannot possibly be involved in the intolerable situation I have dreamed up. It’s a mirage, all of it. Even the broccoli begins to look better. I have all but convinced myself when Lieutenant Uhura and Lara come into the room.

They each get a cup of coffee and approach our table. Well, why not? Wouldn’t any woman come to sit with her husband in a similar situation? They seat themselves on either side of Jim. Uhura looks at my plate.

“You’re not eating your broccoli, Doctor,” she says.

“Do you want it?” I have loaded the hateful stuff onto my salad plate and am about to give it to her. I can see myself wearing it around my neck forever, like the albatross in that ancient poem.

She gives me a wide-eyed look and is about to reach for it when Jim says, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Lieutenant.”

“Why not?”

He allows himself a moment to think up a plausible excuse, the deviltry shining in his eyes. “Well … this is just a rumor, mind you.” He looks around in an exaggerated gesture of caution and then whispers something in her ear.

She stifles a giggle. “No kidding?”

“Scout’s honor.” He holds up his hand, but his fingers are crossed. “Would I make up something like that?”

Uhura gives him a mock serious look. “Of course not.” She looks back at me. “You’d better eat it yourself,” she says. “If you’re going down to Argelius, you’ll need all your strength.” She takes a sip of her coffee and looks at the plate. “Broccoli. Who’d have thought it?”

“Now see here--” I begin, but Sulu is approaching the table. All I need is another heckler.

“Nyota,” he says, “do you remember those black roses I was telling you about? I checked on them tonight, and they’re finally blooming. Would you like to come see them?”

Uhura rolls her eyes at him. “Now there’s an approach I’ve never heard before,” she says.

“Would you rather come up to my quarters and see my Samurai suit?” he says with an exaggerated leer.

“I’ve seen your Samurai suit, mister,” Uhura says, and even Sulu joins in the laughter that follows her remark. “I think I’d rather see the roses.” She takes her coffee and leaves with him.

“Is it just my imagination,” Lara asks as they go, “or is there a decidedly libidinous air around here tonight?”

“Happens every time we get this close to Argelius II,” Jim says.

“Oh, yes. Argelius. Is it really as wicked as they say?”

“Wickeder,” Jim says with a grin.

“Oho. I can hardly wait.” She takes a careful sip of her coffee and blows into the cup. “Do you think I’m strong enough to handle it, Doctor?”

“I don’t see why not,” I reply. “Providing you take along a suitable escort to fight off the Argelian men. They’re worse than the women.” I have convinced myself by now that I was wrong. I must be getting old and imagining things. Spock will take her into that rarified atmosphere and they’ll come back looking like a bride and groom on the morning after, and everything will be back to normal. I might even beam down for a while myself.

“How about it, Spock? she asks. “Are we going?”

“I am in the midst of a project which requires my continued presence on the Enterprise,” he says, and his next words bring my careful fantasy down around my ears. “However, I see no reason why you should not go. Perhaps the Captain would accompany you. It is really not a safe place for a woman alone.”

Everybody at the table seems to stop breathing. Jim meets Spock’s gaze, and his expression slowly changes from one of amusement to one I have never seen him give Spock – a curious look, tinged with what can only be called wariness. Lara looks at Spock’s face, then follows his gaze to Jim.

Finally, she breaks the silence. “I’ll have to think about that one,” she says, and picks up her cup. She starts to get up, and as she does, an ensign with two loaded trays passes behind her chair. He bumps her arm and the still-steaming coffee slops over her hand. She lets go of the cup and Jim makes an instinctive grab for it, which results in both of them being liberally spattered. The hapless ensign realizes what he’s done, and I think for a moment he’s going to faint and add the contents of his two trays to the mess.

“It’s all right, Ensign,” Jim says, but I notice he is holding his shirt away from his hide as he says it. “If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen. Dr. Merritt?”

They leave the room together, and in a few seconds, the incident seems forgotten. But not by me. I can’t believe what I’ve heard in the last minutes, nor can I bridle my tongue any longer. “Spock,” I hiss at him, “do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

He gives me that infuriatingly level, expressionless gaze he gave Jim only moments ago. “Yes Doctor,” he says. “I know precisely what I am doing.”

*************

And yet I wonder. Does he, indeed? I am in my quarters, trying to convince myself that I could sleep if I went to bed, when my intercom beeps.

“McCoy here.”

“Doctor, could you come down to Lab Nine?” It is Christine Chapel’s voice, and it is oddly muted.

“Problems, Christine?”

“Just come down. I want to show you something.”

Christine is not given to cryptic remarks, or to shuttling people off on wild goose chases, so when she asks me to do something, I generally do it. I come into Lab Nine with a question ready for her, but she motions for silence. She takes my sleeve and pulls me past the shining rows of instruments toward the section where we keep the small experimental animals. The banks of cages rise six feet off the deck all around the perimeter of the room. Small animals from all over the galaxy move restlessly, making their soft scurrying sounds and watching the figure that stands in their midst.

It is Spock, and he stands with his back to us and his fingers curled through the fine wire that composes the cages. He doesn’t move, doesn’t make a sound; just stands there staring at the caged animals. As I stand, hypnotized and repelled somehow by the sight, until Christine moves me away from the doorway and back through the lab.

“How long has he been in there?” I ask.

“I don’t know, Doctor. I came down about 15 minutes ago to make sure Buchanan cleaned the cages like I told her to, and I found Mr. Spock in there. Just like that.”

“Did you speak to him?”

She colors uncomfortably and avoids my eyes. “No, sir. I thought … perhaps he was doing something important. I just … I watched him for a few minutes…” Her voice trails off in embarrassment. She has spent too many years watching him, waiting for a sign that never came, and at this moment I’d give my right arm – hell, I’d give both arms, clear to the shoulders – if it had come. If it had, I wouldn’t be standing here now, feeling powerless and hollow clear to my boots.

“And then you called me?”

“Not right away. But the longer he stood there, the stranger it seemed. Dr. McCoy, what’s going on? What’s wrong with him? He’s been so … well, I know you’ve noticed it.”

“Yes, Chris. I’ve noticed it. Go on to your quarters; I’ll talk to him.” She is not convinced, but she leaves anyway, and I return to the doorway. He has not moved.

“Spock--” I call softly. He jerks his head up and turns around quickly. “Are you all right?”

“Of course I am. If I were ill, I would have notified you.” He walks past me abruptly and leaves me standing alone at the doorway.

It is then that I notice the cages.

At eye level, where Spock’s hands rested, the wire mesh is twisted grotesquely, warped out of its precise alignment into a tangle of ruined metal. I doubt he even realized he was doing it, but the thought of the power in those hands, operating independent of his tightly controlled mind, shocks and disturbs me. He has damaged and tangled the mesh beyond repair … as the coming of the woman he calls his wife has damaged and tangled the straight lines and carefully calculated intersections of our own lives.

I remove the specimens from the damaged cages, slowly, because movement has suddenly become a great effort for me. The nausea is back, and the tingling in my hands and feet, and I suddenly find it hard to draw in enough air. I know the symptoms; I have had them before. Ironically, it was Spock who discovered the means for a treatment then.

Had I known what I would to on to see – to be intimately caught up in – would I have accepted the extra years he gave me? I don’t know. I only know that I cannot go on this way and retain my sanity, let alone my honor. And I know that the single course of action left open to me will be the most difficult thing I have ever had to do.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

I strip off the sodden uniform and shove it into the laundry port. My mind is still numb from the incredible suggestion Spock has just made, and my motions are those of a sleepwalker.

Jim and I did not speak as we went to our separate quarters; did not even meet each other’s eyes. I know the turmoil in his mind must match that in my own. Why? What was he saying in the words he left unspoken, and with that cool, unfaltering gaze? He was telling us he knows; of that I am certain. But what else? Was it challenge – or permission? It makes me realize how little I really know about the way his mind works.

His suggestion is unthinkable, of course. And yet … and yet. The thought of spending three days with Jim … the way long afternoon sunlight filters through drawn curtains in a quiet room somewhere. The thought of waking in his arms … the chance to lie touching, passion spent, and to say the all-important, unimportant things that are never spoken of outside those moments … it is tempting indeed. But impossible.

I seek the cold comfort of my bed and lie staring until my eyes begin to burn. I will close them, but only for a moment.

>>>>> <<<<<

I am dreaming; it is a curious sensation to know that I dream, as if my mind had splintered neatly in two so that half of it could experience and the other half analyze. I can hear the quiet movements of someone else in the room, but they do not relate to the images in the sleeping half of my mind.

I find myself again at the marriage grounds, and I hear T’Pau’s voice as she intones the words of the ceremony. But the words are not the right ones; they drift in and out of sequence with her actions. She begins to speak of ni-var, of that joining of disparate halves to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and then suddenly she is speaking of a vow. Its denial, she says, negates not only honor but heritage as well.

Now she speaks again the sacramental words from the ceremony of promise, and I echo them … “parted from me and never parted; never and always touching and touched…” But instead of Spock’s voice repeating them, I hear T’Pau again, calling him in a voice that sinks to a whisper below the level of my comprehension. Yet even without an understanding of the separate words, her tone is so compulsive that we are both drawn toward her. She lifts her arms in an abrupt gesture, and her black flowing sleeves, shot through with spangles, enfold us as she counsels us to live long and prosper.

Suddenly, without any sense of transition, we are within the temple, and I feel again as if for the first time the terrible, overwhelming intensity of Spock’s mind invading mine. But this time, I do not shrink back. I meet it with an intensity of my own, and what was in reality a mindless mating becomes the most profoundly erotic experience I have ever had.

I am at once totally myself and totally my lover. Even as I taste the faint coppery tang of his mouth, I register a vague salty-sweet impression that I somehow know is what his senses register as he kisses me; I feel the familiar muscled contours of his body and the yielding, sweat-slicked human skin he touches. This, surely, is a ni-var that goes beyond the range of description, as the I that is we feeds on its own passion, its own self-induced/other-induced perceptions. The sensations are mingled and simultaneous, until my whole body is nothing but screaming nerves and tactile signals that cannot recover quickly enough to prepare for the next assault.

I jerk awake, and my mind is one unit again, but my body continues to respond to the vivid images. My skin is a solid sheet of flame and I am gasping for air like a drowning woman. The covers on my bare skin feel like the rasping tongues of a thousand cats, and I sit up abruptly, throwing them back. My own nudity both fascinates and repels me, and I reach for a robe as though it was a stranger’s eye that observed me. My knees are shaking as I stand up, drawn by the dim light that glows at the other end of the room.

He has taken off his uniform shirt and sits stretched out in the chair at the desk with his chin resting on his hand, a long slim figure, black on black. His face is in shadow, and as I approach him like a sleepwalker, I realize that not once in my dream did I see the face of my lover.

“Spock?”

He lifts his face, and the light falls across his eyes, cruelly touching the scar high on his cheekbone. He does not speak, but those dark eyes carry a message that twists my heart and closes my throat; there is such pain in them as I have never seen.

I try to force my own thoughts into words. “Just now, Spock, did you…” My tongue will not respond. “It was like…” I simply cannot go on. He turns his face away and the shadow covers his eyes again. I can see only the line of his cheekbone. And the scar.

“I have done nothing,” he says. “Has something disturbed you?”

“It was so real. I thought, perhaps…”

“No. You must have been dreaming.”

“I was. I dreamed of the temple, and T’Pau, and us. I dreamed of what should have been … of what still can be.”

“No.” He gets up slowly and starts to walk away.

“Spock!” Don’t. Please, don’t. Then, softly – “I love you.” Is it my imagination, or is there some stiffening in the line of his back as he stops, hearing the words I have perhaps left too long unsaid? They are strange, clumsy on my tongue as I repeat them. “I love you. I’m your wife.”

He turns slowly, and the carefully-maintained control is back as he asks, “By whose standards, Lara? Not by the Terrans’--"

“Because you are not Terran!”

“--nor by the Vulcans’--"

“Because I’m not Vulcan! Does that mean we can’t find some common ground?” I approach him, reach out a hand to touch him, but somehow, without moving, he withdraws beyond my reach. “What I felt – or dreamed – or imagined – was so … vast … so far beyond comprehension that there must be some room in it for us. Together.”

Wordlessly, he shakes his head.

“But why? I don’t understand. I don’t … know you any more.” There must be some way I can get through to him. A moment ago, even though I was physically alone, the wall was gone, dissolved as though it had never been. I was within his interior fortress, but now he is not there. “Why did you – why do you want me to go away with Jim?”

That, at least, provokes a response. He tilts his head, raising one eyebrow. “You know why.”

“No. I don’t.”

“I thought it would please you.”

“Please me? Spock, it would destroy me. And him, too. Is that what you want?”

He frowns, caught up in a logic which has played him false.

“He can’t command without respect, Spock. How can he claim that respect if his crew believes he’s having an affair with the wife of his First Officer?”

Suddenly I hear my own words and know the truth in them, and what was beautiful has become ugly in the blink of an eye. I feel abruptly ill; what passed for passion a moment ago is now clammy sweat and a lurching in my stomach.

“I shall not hold that position much longer,” he says, and before I can digest this, he follows with “nor need you remain my wife.”

“What?” I must sit down before the dizziness overwhelms me. I sit on the edge of the desk and study his impassive face. “What are you saying?”

“I must go…” I can see him framing “home” in his mind; he changes it abruptly. “I must return to Vulcan.”

“But why, when your life is here?”

“That is over now. I must return to Vulcan, and I cannot take you with me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“T’Pau is dying,” he says, as though that explains everything. “And everything you and I have known is dying with her. If any of it is to be salvaged – any of it – the task falls to me and to the others like me who will work to preserve what she has built.” He sees the confusion written on my face and pulls the chair away from the desk. “Sit down,” he says. “I think perhaps these will clarify the situation for you.”

He keys open his personal locker and pulls out a stack of communication chips. He inserts one in the player, and T’Pau’s face appears on the screen. The sound of her voice brings back vividly the dream I have just experienced, but as I realize what she is saying, her message cuts through the haze of arousal like a laser scalpel cuts through flesh.

“Spock,” she begins in her hoarse, sibilant voice, “the time has come. Thee are needed here.”

>>>>> <<<<<

It is several hours before the last of the messages has been played. I am numb from the implications in them, and when Spock has filled in the blank spaces, I come to the awesome realization that he means it; he is leaving Starfleet to try to hold together with his own powerful hands the crumbling edifice which has sheltered him for so long. And it is something he cannot do from within.

Knowing what this decision has cost him, I can understand his remoteness, his intense need to be left alone in his pain. What I can’t understand is his statement that he cannot take me with him. Unless…

If Vulcan wishes to break with the Federation, diplomatic ties with Earth will no longer be necessary. He will be free of me, then; free of this marriage which was forced on him.

So it was all a sham. A temporary convenience.

“No,” he says, as though I had voiced my thoughts. Perhaps I have. “It was not a sham, Lara. Please believe that.”

“Then why can’t I go with you?”

He seems to weigh his answer carefully. Finally he says, “Vulcan will not be a pleasant place for Terrans. At some point the Council will doubtless expel all aliens.”

The impact of what he is saying finally sinks through. “Your mother?” I ask.

“My father’s influence will protect her, I think.” He looks at me for the first time since he turned on the player. “My own power will not be that great. I cannot permit you to return to Vulcan because I cannot keep you safe there.”

I hear his words, and beneath them I hear the revelation he will not otherwise make. Across the height and breadth of our mutually protective wall, he is reaching out to tell me what he cannot or will not say in any other manner.

“There are many kinds of danger, Spock. There is safety only in the grave.” He looks at me for a long moment, his face impassive, then turns away. “I want to be with you,” I tell him. “I’m your wife.”

“I can arrange to have you freed of that obligation.” He does not look at me; his voice is flat, mechanical.

“Look at me,” I say softly. “Look at me and tell me that’s what you want.” All my chips are on the line now. If he calls, all is lost.

The line of his back does not waver. Wordlessly, he goes into the sleeping area and I hear the soft sigh as the bed receives him. He has left the gaming table with the final card still to be dealt.

I need to be alone somewhere, totally alone and freed of distraction. In a few hours, the first shore leave party will beam down to Argelius II, and I intend to be with them.

>>>>> <<<<<

Though it is early morning by ship time, it is late afternoon in Randar, the spaceport capital of Argelius II. The attitude of the crowd on the streets is one of happy anticipation. Unescorted women, their clothes skin-tight and glittering, move through the shops, but their eyes seek the faces of men; the men from the Enterprise are objects of considerable interest. Their uniforms mark them for what they are – visitors looking for the fabled excitement of Randar.

My desire to be alone, to sort out my thoughts and make some plan of action, is being swept aside in the crush of bodies. An Argelian man gives me a sidelong glance as we both stand before a shop window. He moves toward me. “They are beautiful, are they not?” he says, indicating the jewels in the window with a wave of his hand. The hand comes to rest on my shoulder, traces the line of my back and comes to rest lightly on my hip, fingers trailing inches above the hem of the short uniform skirt.

“They do not interest me,” I say, moving away.

“No? That is most unfortunate,” he says, but he does not appear too disturbed. He moves away to find someone more receptive.

There is a hostel at the end of the street. I move toward it, only to find my path blocked by another Argelian.

“Ah,” he says, drawing the sound out with pleasure. “Another lovely lady from the stars. Tell me, Fleeter, have you ever seen the Argelian moon from the gardens of Randar?” I step around him without answering, but he falls into step beside me. “I have a lovely garden,” he says, “We can wait for moonrise there.”

“Beat it, chum.”

He smiles knowingly. “Ah,” he says, and again the sound is like a lover’s sigh. “I see. You have already chosen a companion for the night.”

“I do not seek a companion,” I snap at him.

He is genuinely puzzled. “What else would a Fleeter seek on Argelius?” he asks.

What else, indeed? I turn away from him, conscious of the stares. The uniform is like a sign around my neck, inviting the advances of Argelian men.

A dress in the window catches my eye. It is a long, flowing garment, loose and concealing, with wide sleeves that trail from the mannequin’s arms to the hem. It is a swirl of muted shades of blue and lavender and grey, shot with silver like a glowering sky hanging low over the surface of the sea. Not the dress of a prostitute or that of a seeker of adventure.

Even as I put it on, I am telling myself it is an outlandish purchase; as I pay for it, I ask myself where else I could possibly wear it. Yet as I walk out of the shop wearing it, my uniform tucked in a box under my arm, it feels … right. It conceals me like some magical fog, and as I move down the street toward the hostel, there are no more advances made by the impetuous Argelians.

The room is cheaply ornate; the elaborately patterned draperies, on close examination, prove to be fraying and none too clean. But they serve the purpose. They shut out the fading afternoon light and most of the noise from the street. I wonder as I close them how many assignations they have sealed off from the raucous world outside.

But I am alone, at last, with my thoughts. The solitude does not comfort me. Spock has demanded a choice of me, whether he realizes it or not, and it is a choice I am not prepared to make. Spock and Jim … they are like opposite sides of a coin; and like a coin, if split, would not the inherent value be demeaned? Yet a split seems unavoidable, and he has demanded that I choose. Or has he? To say I cannot go with him to Vulcan is not to say he wants me to go with Jim. But then why did he as much give his blessing to us? “I thought it would please you,” he said. Did he? And would it?

I did not lie to my husband. I love him; I want to be with him … and I want him with me. In every way. And yet … and yet…

Jim and Spock. Sunlight and shadow. How can I condemn myself to a life with only shadow … or to one without the ease shadow brings from relentless sun? They both have a place. Without either, there is only fog. That is a possibility. To have neither. A possibility I can choose as an option or one I could drift into without realizing it.

I am suddenly aware of how tired I am. The brief sleep of last night provided no rest, and even if it had, the emotional storm which has buffeted me since then has wrung me dry. The street sounds are muffled; the light hangs in the stuffy room like a cloud of selash smoke, soporific and narcotic. I lie down on the wide bed, and close my eyes, but only for a moment.

>>>>> <<<<<

At first I do not remember where I am; then I remember where … and why. The street noise is cacophonous now, laughter and shouting and the raucous music of curbside musicians. A howler cuts through with its own noise as a security team’s aircar speeds to the scene of some fight or accident.

My stomach rumbles alarmingly as I sit up; I am lightheaded with hunger and remember I have not eaten in 24 hours. I buzz the desk; the hostel clerk suavely advises me that there are no provisions made for delivering food to the rooms. He suggests I try the dining room or a restaurant. There are a number he would recommend…

I am sure there are, and each one willing to give him a fat kickback, no doubt, for steering the unwary into them.

It is fully dark when I pass into the streets again. A line of dancers whirls by me, but I ignore their invitations to join them. I walk quickly, purposefully, eyes front, and as usual the technique works. No one approaches me. The problem with this particular posture is that it does not give one much of an opportunity for sightseeing. Finally the demands of my stomach become too much to ignore, and I catch a particularly delicious aroma drifting into the street from an old stone building.

The interior is cool and darker than the brightly-lit streets. Somewhere within the dark reaches of the room there is a band; the gaily-dressed forms of dancers move like iridescent butterflies through the gloom. I find a table in a corner and sit down.

As I look around, it becomes evident that this place is more bar than restaurant. The tables are small and most of them hold tall, narrow glasses rather than plates. There are perhaps half a dozen people sitting at the edges of the darkness; everyone else seems to be dancing.

I have almost decided to leave when a young woman in a brief costume walks past me carrying a tray. If, from outside, the aroma was heady enough to draw me in here, then the scent of the dish from only a meter away is enough to keep me where I am. I catch her attention and order a generous sample of the steaming concoction. As I wait, trying to ignore the complaints from my empty stomach, I am startled by the touch of a hand on my shoulder – a gesture which seems to be the standard greeting on this planet.

“My friend and I were wondering--” a voice begins as I turn around in annoyance, only to be surprised at the sight of a Starfleet uniform, blue as the one I have left in my room. Penelli and I recognize each other in the same instant, and the young technician’s face turns the brilliant crimson of a Vulcan sunset.

“Dr. Merritt!” he stumbles. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I would never have – I mean, you’re not … we didn’t…”

“That’s all right, Penelli.” I note that his companion, in the red shirt of Engineering, is greatly enjoying his friend’s discomfiture. The story will be all over the ship within minutes of their return.

Penelli is still trying to regain his composure. “No, ma’am. I mean, yes, ma’am. Doctor. I mean--” He breaks off, totally demoralized, and starts to make a formal salute before he realizes that since I’m not in uniform, that too would be a faux pas.

“Penelli?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Good night. And have fun.”

“Yes, ma’am. Good night, ma’am. Doctor.” He is totally befuddled, and even when his buddy takes his arm and hauls him away, he is still painfully red. Penelli is normally such a bashful soul that he must have approached me on a bet to begin with; after his disastrous performance, I wonder if he’ll have the nerve to try it again. From what I’ve seen of the Argelians, though, all he’ll have to do is stand still for 60 seconds, and he’ll have all the action he can handle.

The waitress brings my dinner, and with it a tall pitcher or something that looks suspiciously like beer. When I ask her about it, she smiles vaguely and says “The gentleman bought it.” Poor Penelli. He must have ordered it before he realized who I was.

I turn my attention to extracting my dinner from its spiny shell, dipping the meat in the pungent red sauce that accompanies it. It is as delicious as it smells, and I am poking hopefully in the empty shell when a hand again touches my shoulder.

“Now look, Penelli,” I begin, turning around. But the face that greets me is that of a stranger, a massive Argelian whose smile for some reason sends a warning chill down my spine.

“It is customary,” he says, “to share one’s drink with the purchaser.”

==========

KIRK

===========

I look from the form in my hand to McCoy’s face across the desk from me. I still can’t put the two together in my mind.

“Why, Bones? And why right now? We’re only six months from end-of-tour.”

“I’m tired, Jim,” he says, and from the lines etched deeply in his face, I can see the truth of that. “I made my optional retirement date three months ago. I thought I could make it to end-of-tour, but I can’t.” He swivels away from me in the chair. “I have 30 days’ leave time coming, Captain. If you’ll authorize it, I’d like to beam down to Argelius and catch a commercial flight for home while the final separation papers are being processed.”

There is something else here, something being withheld, and I don’t like it. “Okay, that tells me why now, but it still doesn’t tell me why. We all get tired, Bones.” He seems about to say something, but the only sound that comes from him is suspiciously like a sigh. Tired, yes. Like all of us. And getting … older. Like … all of us. I note that his hair is sprinkled liberally with grey. It could hardly have happened overnight. When…?

I force a grin. “Look, Bones, why don’t you take shore leave, and when you get back, we’ll talk about it again. You’d be surprised what 24 hours on Argelius can do for your outlook.”

He flinches visibly at the name, and I remember the look on his face last night when Spock… No. I won’t deal with that one right now. One sucker-punch at a time. McCoy seems to be regaining his composure, and he turns back to me, the familiar wry smile on his face.

“I’ll agree that the Argelian women could change a man’s mind about a lot of things, Jim, but even they don’t have a cure for xenopolycythemia. In fact, they’d probably--”

“But you whipped that years ago,” I interrupt. “The Fabrini treatments--”

“Are just that, Jim. Treatments. Not a cure, as we first thought. They cause the disease to go into remission, that’s all. And the remissions get shorter each time.”

I can feel the sudden sweat sticky in my palms. He really means it. He’s really quitting. “How long?” The voice doesn’t sound like my own.

He shrugs. “The first remission lasted four years; the second, two. I had the last treatment just under a year ago, and the symptoms are back, stronger than ever. I’ve appended the test results to my request. Nurse Chapel has confirmed them.”

I wave him away as he reaches for the packet. “You know that’s not necessary, Bones. Not for me.”

“No, but Starfleet will have to see them. It’s a service-connected disability.” He grins, but not with his eyes. “Fattens up the retirement check considerably, you know.”

I try to imagine the Enterprise without him and fail completely. “But … what will you do?”

Again the shrug. “Go home. Drink a lot of mint juleps. See my grandson. Did you know my daughter has a baby? Christopher Leonard Miller. Hell of a name to hang on a defenseless kid, isn’t it?” This time the eyes smile, too, but there is something else behind them. “Shall we drink to Christopher Leonard Miller?”

“A little early in the morning for that, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. I guess so,” he says. He is uncomfortable now, wanting to stay, wanting to leave. “Do I get an answer, or are you going to red-tape me?”

“I wouldn’t do that to you, Bones. Not after all--”

He lunges out of the chair, anger in his movements. “Spare me the violins, Captain. Can I get off this damn ship or not?”

Our eyes lock; behind his anger is a man perilously close to the breaking point. I scrawl my name across his request and hand it to him. “If you want to hand-carry that to Lieutenant Uhura, she’ll send it out top priority. You’re a free man, Doctor.”

Something very like a cloud flickers across his eyes, and he turns away with the packet. He mutters something as he leaves, but is gone before I can respond. It is so essentially McCoy that it should be funny, but somehow it isn’t. In his last official exchange with his commanding officer, Leonard McCoy’s final words are – “In a pig’s eye.”

==========

There’s a hollow place inside; I find it hard to concentrate. I’m aware of the covert glances of the bridge crew. In less than an hour, the news of McCoy’s retirement is all over the ship. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the entire exchange repeated verbatim over coffee in the main rec room. Right down to that last cryptic parting shot. And the other thing, the thing they’re all saying to themselves, the thing making them walk on eggshells on the bridge.

How’s the captain taking it? What’s he going to do?

Right. What is he going to do? He’s going to get off the bridge, for one thing. And get something for this no-sleep, nervous-stomach headache, for another. McCoy has a pill for everything. Except … McCoy isn’t there any more. But Lara is.

Lara. I need … I need some of your calm now. Share it with me, Lara. Make me feel 25 again and ready to whip the galaxy with one hand. You always do.

“Mr. Sulu, you have the con. I’m going down to sickbay.”

“Yessir. Captain?”

“What is it, Sulu?”

“Tell him … would you ask him not to leave without saying goodbye, sir?”

“To all of us?” Uhura puts in.

“I’ll tell him.”

I stop by his quarters before I go to sickbay. He is standing in the midst of what looks like the aftermath of a direct hit by a photon torpedo, shaking his head. “I don’t understand this,” he says. “Where did all this junk come from?”

“You’ve been a long time collecting it, Bones.”

“Yeah. Maybe too long.” He slams something into a lumpy spacebag. “Ought to toss it all down a disposal chute.” He paws through the pile on his desk. “Here,” he says, tossing me something. “A souvenir.”

It looks like a spider, flying through the air at me, but as my hands touch it, I know immediately what it is – part of the ahn woon he cut off my throat nearly eight years ago on Vulcan.

“That was a low blow,” I tell him.

“If the ahn woon fits…” he says, not looking at me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know.” He is rummaging through drawers. I twist the cold leather in my hands, remembering the last time I held one. Yes, Bones. I know.

“The bridge crew,” I begin, but have to stop and start again. “They want to say goodbye in person.”

He mumbles something, still stowing things in the spacebag. “Do they know how long it would take me to say goodbye to four hundred and thirty people?” He turns his icy blue gaze on me suddenly. “Four hundred and twenty-seven,” he amends.

I read you, Doctor. Five by five. I turn and leave without another word, and I can hear him slamming drawers behind me.

Chapel is the only person in sickbay. She is packing up McCoy’s gruesome collection of skulls, and I remember for the first time in years that his fascination with them was what earned him his nickname. Christine hates the grisly collection; normally she won’t even touch it. Now she handles the ancient bones as if she didn’t realize what they were, and it is obvious that she has been crying.

“Have you seen Dr. Merritt?” I ask her.

She looks at me blankly.

“Lara. Have you seen her?”

“No, Captain. I think she went down to Argelius this morning with the first shore leave party.”

“Alone?” My voice is sharper than I intended, and she is not so preoccupied that she forgets to look properly wounded.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you check with the transport engineer?”

The transport engineer is also maddeningly vague. “I think she went with that bunch from the medical department. Hyland, Takagawa. I don’t remember who else.”

I hit the intercom with a building sense of panic that I keep trying to convince myself is unnecessary. “Uhura? See if you can raise Dr. Merritt on Argelius. I think she beamed down to--”  I check with the engineer. “--to Randar.”

Too quickly, her voice comes back. “No response, sir.”

“Keep trying. I’ll be here in the transporter room for a few minutes. Then – I’ll let you know.” As Uhura signs off, I am turning on the tech. “Pull those records, mister. I want to know who went planetside in that party, and what the exact coordinates were.”

“Yessir.” He is just slow enough to give me a chance to work up a full-blown fantasy of half a dozen impossible situations Lara could have gotten herself into. She doesn’t know … couldn’t know. An unescorted woman down there, especially in a Starfleet uniform, is an open invitation. If she gets into trouble… Spock. He must have gone with her. Of course he did. He doesn’t have the duty this watch, and he decided to go with her. The night watch cleared it and I didn’t get the message. Somebody’s butt will be on the line for this one.

“Here it is, Captain. Hyland, Takagawa, Dr. Merritt, Spindler, Holt, and Austin. They beamed down to the main plaza in Randar at 0600. Four hours ago.”

“Mr. Spock didn’t go with them?”

“No, sir. It was all women. I remember thinking--”

“Stow it, Lieutenant. You get on the horn to Uhura and have her try to raise any of them. If she makes contact, patch it to me in Mr. Spock’s quarters.”

He is very calmly tuning his lyre when I come through the doors without waiting for his permission. He looks up at me, eyebrows raised at this breach of the unspoken custom between us. I have never before entered here without express invitation. But then, I have never before been quite so angry with him as I am at this moment.

“Where is she?”

“Of whom are you speaking?” he asks calmly, ever correct.

“You know damn well. Lara. Your wife. Where is she?”

“I believe she has taken shore leave.”

“You let her go down there alone? Knowing what kind of cesspool it is?”

“The Argelians have a totally modern sanitation system, Captain. I do not believe there is a cesspool on the entire planet.”

“Goddammit, Spock, you know perfectly well what I mean!” I slam my fist onto the desktop, and for the first time realize I am still holding the strip of ahn woon McCoy threw to me.

“Here.” I toss it at him, and he catches it with a lazy grace that belies his quickness. He gets up and puts the lyre aside.

“What is this?”

“Take a good look at it, Spock. Because the next time I get one in my hands…” Jesus. What am I saying? I really am ready to take him on. Right here, bare knuckles, knowing he could wipe up the floor with me if he wanted to. Would he? I don’t know. For the first time in years, I don’t know.

He is watching me carefully. Waiting. I am making a total ass of myself, and I try to get back in control. Calm voice. Reasonable question: “Didn’t you even try to stop her?”

“No.”

“Are you crazy?” So much for calm rationality.

“I do not believe so, Captain. My most recent psychological profile did not reveal any--”

“Stop it! Stop playing games with words. You always do that. You hide behind words; you make them into something they aren’t. Just like last night. What was your game then?”

“It was no game, Jim.”

“All right. We’ll thrash that one out later. Right now, we’ve got to get down there and find her before she gets herself hurt.”

“No.”

“She’s your wife, Spock. Don’t you care about her at all?” His chin comes up at that, and he seems ready to make some reply without weighing it first. But the Vulcan in him quickly regains control.

“It is because I care about her that I must let her do this thing.”

“What thing? Get herself raped?”

“The Argelians are not prone to violence, Captain. And in any case, I believe she is capable of defending herself. She needed a time alone. Away from … away from the ship.”

“I am going to Randar. I am going to find Lara. Are you coming with me or not?”

“Is that an order?”

“Does it have to be?”

His eyes are calculating. Remote. Exactly as they were last night. He does not answer me.

“All right. If that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it is. Oddly enough, you’re in command. Go up to the bridge and relieve Lieutenant Sulu. I’ll be back when I get back.”

I leave without waiting for his response. In the transporter room, the engineer has had no luck in raising any member of the shore party. I hit the intercom again.

“Scotty? Get over to the transporter room with a security team. Issue them phasers.” Phasers? I must really be losing my grip. “Belay that. Just get over here with a team.”

“Trouble, sir?”

“Could be. We’ve lost a whole shore party. All women.”

There is a short pause as Scott considers this. “Aye, sir,” he says, and there is patient resignation in his voice. Almost every time we take liberty on Argelius, we have to round up a few stragglers.

I brief him as we take our place on the transporter platforms. “I want to know if any of our people down there have seen any of the landing party. I’m particularly interested in locating Dr. Merritt. I have a feeling she didn’t know what she was getting into.”

He gives me a curious look before he nods.

“Energize,” I order, and within seconds we are in the midst of the short Argelian twilight. “Split up. Hit every place you can think of, and keep in touch with your communicators. We’ll rendezvous back here in two hours.”

We separate, and I start to scan the faces around me with a dawning sense of hopelessness. Where am I going to start? An Argelian woman smiles at me and lifts her eyebrows in invitation. I turn away and start to push through the thickening crowds. Alone, Spock said. She wanted to be alone. A hostel?

I check a dozen with no result. No one remembers a petite brunette in Starfleet blue. It is full dark now, or would be but for the bright lights of the streets. Someone sets off a skyrocket somewhere, and the faces turned toward it are bathed in its green glow. At least their inaction makes my progress through the crowd easier. Progress toward what?

The communicator demands my attention; it is Scotty, and his voice is hesitant. “I’ve picked up Yeoman Holt,” he says. “And she’s a wee bit unhappy, Captain. She says she has three more hours before she’s due back.”

“Has she seen Dr. Merritt?”

“Negative. She says Dr. Merritt left the others as soon as they beamed down. The rest of them were together … for a while. Now they’re scattered all over the city.”

“Very well, Scotty. Carry on.”

“D’ye want me to send Yeoman Holt back to the Enterprise?”

I hesitate, realizing for the first time that Scotty and the others think we’re looking for AWOLs, when in reality I have dragooned them into an entirely personal crusade.

“Negative, Scotty.” I owe him some explanation … don’t I? “It’s mainly Dr. Merritt I’m concerned about locating. Inform the others, please.”

“Aye, sir. Scott out.”

“Kirk out.” I put the communicator back slowly, watching the continuing display of fireworks for a moment. Is Lara somewhere in this crowd, seeking the simple pleasures of sight and sound and sensation, or is she in trouble somewhere? Could her link with Spock extend across the miles that separate them now – separate them physically as well as emotionally? Would he know, this time, as he did on Banus V, if she needed help? And would he respond? Of course he would. Has any of us – myself included – ever called for his help and found him unresponsive? Never. Until this morning.

Have I been wrong to place my trust in him all these years, or has my own violation of his trust alienated him completely now? For that is what I have done. What we have done, Lara and I? There is no excuse, no provocation, no drive strong enough to justify what we have done to him. And yet … and yet … is none of the fault with Spock? If he is unwilling or unable to give her the full range of physical and emotional love she needs, can he not at least give her the kind of companionship and loyalty and love he has given me over the years?

It is as if he was determined to drive her away, ever since … ever since we got back from Eos. And Kyra. Is that it? Was the undeniable chemistry between Spock and the Eosian Matriarch so strong that he has succumbed to the purely human desire for what he cannot have, and has determined to destroy what he could have in order to try to gain the ultimate prize?

I don’t know. God help me, I don’t know. And what, in my ignorance and unthinking actions, have I done to all of us?

Lara. If I find her … when I find her … we have to sit down together, all three of us, like civilized people, and try to patch together what we once had. No more evasions, no more unspoken truths. The cracks will still show, of course. They’ll show forever, like the scar on Spock’s face, but the vessel will be whole and serviceable again.

I turn away from the bursting rockets and the mesmerized faces that watch them, and as I do, I see two Enterprise crewmen coming out of a bar.

“Penelli! Brock!” Brock turns toward the sound of my voice, but Penelli is leaning against a wall and being violently ill. Brock is grinning; a constant, cocky grin that now annoys me almost beyond bearing. I start toward them.

“Have you seen Dr. Merritt?”

Penelli groans, and Brock laughs out loud. “I’ll say we have! Penelli tried to pick her up! You should have been there--”

“Where? In here?”

“Oh, no, sir. It was down on the wharf somewhere. About half an hour ago.”

“What was the name of the place?”

Brock looks puzzled. He has obviously been in many “places” this night. “I don’t know. Hey, Penelli, what was the name of that place where we saw Dr. Merritt?”

Penelli shakes his head and stands up straight. His face is chalky. “I don’t know. Jeez, Brock, get me back to the ship. I’m sick.”

“You’re going to be a lot worse than sick, Penelli, if--” I break off suddenly. “What do you mean, you tried to pick her up? She’s an officer, mister, and shore leave or no shore leave, the regs stand.”

“We didn’t recognize her at first,” Brock puts in. “She had on this … dress.” His eyes spark as he remembers. “That was some dress. Anyway, Penelli apologized, and she wasn’t mad or anything.”

“Where … was … she?” My patience is wearing thin. It was never very thick to begin with.

“It was like a bar, you know? Down on the wharf. They had seafood.” At this reminder, Penelli groans again. “I think it started with an O,” Brock finishes triumphantly. “Yeah. Ola something.”

Terrific. Ola is the Argelian word for sea, and half the bars on the wharf are Ola something. And they all serve seafood. No matter. It is more than I had to go on a moment ago. At least she was all right when they saw her.

“Okay. Get Penelli back to the ship before he passes out on you. And tell Mr. Spock--” What? “Never mind. I’ll talk to him when I get back.”

I start for the wharf, trying to run through the milling crowd. The fireworks have ended, and the jostling throng and lines of dancers block my way like clawing tentacles of seaweed. I can smell the waters of the wharf, and the aroma of food and decaying fish mingle with the acrid tang of liquor and too many bodies. No wonder Penelli was sick. If Randar is a cesspool, then its wharf is the foulest layer.

The line of bars stretches out before me endlessly. Every other on seems to begin with Ola. I start with the nearest one.

I try four before I see the old stone building. Ola Gnarr, the sign says. Sea Treasures. There are no windows, and the dim light makes it difficult to see. The bartender is not helpful.

“Did you see a woman come in here alone about half an hour ago? About so tall. Brunette. She may have been talking to two of my crewmen.”

He waves his arm toward the room. “Take your pick, Fleeter. If she’s gone, there are plenty of others. Or maybe your friends will share.”

I resist the urge to flatten him and start deeper into the dimness. A woman’s laugh rings out from the dance floor, and I try to see who made the sound. Before I can locate her, I hear the clatter of a chair being overturned, and I see an Argelian man pull a seated woman up by the arm. She is dressed in something grey-blue and floating, and as she pulls away from him, I see her face. Lara’s face.

She looks scared, but mad, too, and she slaps the Argelian. The sound cracks sharply before it is swallowed up in the general din. I push my way to the table, ignoring the people between us.

“Having trouble, Lara?”

“Oh, Jim.” The relief is clear on her face. “Let’s get out of here, please. Take me back to the ship.”

The Argelian turns, head and shoulders above Lara’s slim figure. His face is scowling, and the expression, along with the line of bone structure and square solidity of his body, tell me this is not merely an insistent pleasure-loving Argelian. One of the dregs, then, that turns up on wharves and in spaceports all over the galaxy, looking for good liquor, bad women, and bar brawls wherever they go. And generally finding them.

“Get lost, Fleeter,” he says. “I have a bargain with this shalna, and she’s trying to back out of it.”

Shalna. Whore.

The action is almost reflexive. I hit him full in the solar plexus with all my weight behind it. He falls back, overturning the table, and comes up swinging the remains of a broken pitcher. It whistles through the air as I dodge away, and I shake off Lara’s hand.

“Don’t, Jim!”

“Get out of the way, Lara.” I move back, maneuvering for room. The patrons have left the dance floor and are watching with interest. This could be nasty.

He kicks out at me, and I grab his ankle and heave his bulk across the open space. As he scrambles to his feet, I pull the communicator from my belt and throw it to Lara. “Get Scotty, and then have yourself beamed back to the ship.” As I throw, he hits me with a tackle, and the communicator flies into the crowd. I roll under his lunge, feeling the gritty floor peeling the skin off my face, and wonder where the broken pitcher is. I kick out, connect with something, and roll to my feet as he gets up again.

He comes at me with a roundhouse swing, and I step inside it, bringing the top of my head sharply up under his chin. He grunts and steps back, and I hit him with a double-handed blow at the muscled junction of neck and shoulder, and he drops to his knees.

I step back for an instant to clear my spinning head, and something very solid connects with the back of my skull. I put my hands out to break the fall, and then there is nothing—

==========

Nothing but darkness, and something damp across my eyes. Blood? No. It’s too cold. I put my hand up to touch it, and feel the restraining touch of warm fingers.

“Feeling better?” It is Lara’s voice.

I sit up, and the cloth drops from my eyes. We are in a room somewhere. Not on the Enterprise, that’s for sure. “Where are we?” The movement, or the words, or both, have set up a simultaneous ringing in my head and lurching in my stomach.

“My room. Lie down. How’s your head?”

“Hurts like hell. What did he hit me with – a garbage scow?”

“Close. A piece of pipe.”

I look at her face in the soft light from the lamp across the room, and think it’s a face I could look at for a hundred years and never grow weary of. “Are you all right?” I ask her.

“Yes. Now.”

“Why did you bring me here?”

“You looked like you needed a doctor.” She smiles at me, a bittersweet smile. “And I didn’t have much choice. I couldn’t find the communicator, and before the bartender hit you, he’d called the law. So I caught a skimmer and brought you here. By the way, you owe me a hundred credits.”

“What for? Not that I’m ungrateful.”

“Fifty for the bartender and fifty for the skimmer driver.”

“They got to you, lady. The going rate is twenty-five.”

“I didn’t have time to haggle.” She smiles again.

Ignoring the pounding in my head, I reach for her. Her kiss has no passion, only something tender and sad. She pulls away. “Don’t, Jim.”

I look at her soft profile. “I guess I’ve really loused things up for you, haven’t I?”

“It takes two,” she says, and gives a short, bitter laugh. “Sometimes three.”

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can say to that. She gets up and crosses to the window, drawing aside one of the draperies. “It’s still going on down there. Don’t they ever stop?”

“Not on Argelius. That’s why I came looking for you.”

“Did I say thank you?”

“No.”

“Thank you. That makes twice you’ve come charging to the rescue.” I know she is thinking of Banus V, and how Spock and I searched her out in the night. Finally, without looking at me, she asks, “Is Spock – did he come with you?”

“No.” She has violated our unspoken agreement not to talk about him when we are alone together. Not since that first night have we acknowledged aloud the situation in which we find ourselves. We have ultimately come to believe in the illusion that if we didn’t put something into words, it didn’t exist.

“You didn’t tell him you were coming?” She looks at me in surprise.

“He knew.”

She considers this in silence, then leans her forehead against the window glass. There is a great weariness in the movement. “Tell me what to do.”

“I can’t.”

“I know that. But it would be such a luxury to have someone else run my life for a while. I don’t seem to be doing a very good job of it.” She moves away from the window to sit again on the edge of the bed. She takes my hand and traces the line of my knuckles with her finger.

“I love you, Jim. And I love Spock. It’s not supposed to work that way, but it did for me.” She looks at our intertwined fingers; I cannot see her face. “I think there’s got to be something wrong with a system,” she says, “that teaches its children the most important thing in the world is to care about other people, and then tells them they can only care about one at a time.”

Something in her words kicks off a memory I didn’t know I had – Spock standing in his quarters, saying “It is because I care about her…” And the peculiar deafness of anger that kept me from consciously hearing it. But I hear it now, and I think I begin to understand, dimly, what he is trying to do. But not why.

Somewhere in the city an ancient clock is chiming the hour, its sound clear over the street noises. “That’s the traditional signal, isn’t it?” she asks.

“For what?”

“For the end of the party. For the coach to turn back into a pumpkin.” She looks up at me and smiles. “Besides, I want to get back to the ship where I can really take a good look at that lump on your head.” She moves to the table and picks up a flat parcel. “I think I’d better change.”

She goes into the adjoining bathroom and closes the door, the action somehow saying as much as – or more than – her words have said. I swing off the bed and am pulling on my boots when I hear the commotion in the hallway, and rising over an unfamiliar voice are the outraged tones of Montgomery Scott.

Scotty. The rendezvous. I have forgotten it, and the determined engineer has no doubt had half the security department out tracking me down.

I open the door before the buzzer has a chance to sound. A plump Argelian is loudly protesting the decency of his establishment, while a skeptical Scotty is turning the air blue with his general denouncement of skimmer drivers and hostel clerks who work in league with the shalnas to relieve visiting Fleeters of their possessions. When he sees me, he stutters to a halt, his expression of relief mingled now with uncertainty.

“Captain Kirk!” he says. “We had the de’il’s ain time findin’ ye.”

“It’s all right, Scotty. I got … involved.”

His glance goes over my shoulder, into the room, and from his expression and those on the faces of the security squad with him, I know what they are seeing, but I turn anyway. Lara, coming into the room, smoothing the skirt of her uniform and carrying her boots and hose in the other hand, looks up. The color drains from her face as she looks from Scott to me; then the lift of her chin tells me she’s prepared to gut it out.

Scotty pulls his eyes away from her to stare at me, and the color that comes into his face now is like an old bruise. He doesn’t say a word, but the expression on his face is more eloquent than any scathing speech his Gaelic tongue could have invoked. Finally he turns to the gawking security men and herds them gruffly away from the doorway.

“Come along now, lads. We’re hardly needed here, I think.”

They leave the room in an embarrassed silence, and Lara and I look at each other across a room that now seems a hundred miles wide.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

How long we stand there, I cannot tell. Time is not linear in such moments; it coils and doubles back upon itself. It might have been moments, it might have been centuries. I have time to think on the irony of it, and to see its reflection in his eyes – that our private world should be shattered not in the peopled hive of the Enterprise, but here in a place we thought far from prying eyes and malicious tongues. A double irony at that, because this time of all times we have been together was innocent in fact if not in thought. If anyone was betrayed in this room, it was not Spock.

I am stunned out of my immobility by the insistent beep of my communicator, and when I reach for it, I find my hands are shaking and my voice is hollow as I respond. Uhura’s voice is crisp and businesslike. “Dr. Merritt, please return to the ship at once. All shore leave has been cancelled.”

Jim shoots me a look; I can respond only with a shrug. I have no more idea than he does what is going on.

He comes across the room and takes the communicator, and for an instant I am ready to snatch it back from him. Scotty is no gossip, and if he chooses to instruct his men to forget what they saw … or what they thought they saw … there is some slight chance that this damning episode might go no further. I put my hand on his arm, mouth a silent “No!” at him, but he shakes off my restraining hand.

He is wearing his starship captain’s face and he wants to know now if something has threatened his ship, heedless of what the action might mean to his future command. “Lieutenant?” he questions sharply. “This is the Captain. What’s going on?”

There is an instant’s lull, a split second that might conceal a sharply indrawn breath or a swiftly understanding female mind. Then her voice comes through, trained and flawless and revealing no question. “We’ve received a priority one distress call from the Federation embassy on Parsus II, Captain. Shore parties have 30 minutes to respond before we break orbit. Do you wish to speak to Commander Spock, sir?”

A logical question, that, yet does it hold another tone?

“Negative. Alert the transporter room to lock onto these coordinates immediately. Two to beam up. Kirk out.” He snaps the communicator shut and in an automatic gesture returns in to his belt.

“I’m sorry, Lara.” He reaches out as if to touch me, but in that moment the transporter beam catches us, and the one totally illogical thought that zips through my mind is that I have left behind the Argelian dress.

The transport engineer does not meet Jim’s eyes as we materialize on the ship. His face, turned studiously over the controls, is red, and he gives me a sly look as I step down off the platform.

Jim is out through the doors before they even stop moving, and I know he is on his way to the bridge. Some small cowardly corner of my soul admits I am glad I do not have to be there when he steps onto it and comes face to face with Spock. My own next meeting with my husband can at least be in the privacy of our quarters.

The room, when I reach it, is curiously out of kilter. It takes me a moment to identify why. It’s a simple thing, really, once pinned down. It is only that Spock’s Vulcan lyre is not in its accustomed place on the wall, but rather discarded carelessly in a chair. It is a jarring note in the otherwise severely neat room, and it speaks of some sudden interruption of his privacy; something so compelling that he put the lyre aside before the strings stopped sounding.

I pick up the instrument to return it to the wall, and as I do, I see the object on the desk. It’s a narrow strip of leather less than a meter in length and about the width of my hand. I feel I should recognize it, but I don’t. The ends are frayed, as though they had been cut, and it is stained with a faint white rime. I touch it tentatively, as if the action could tell me its history. It is curiously sinister, somehow, and I leave it where it is, placing the lyre in its proper place.

Still there is an air in the room that sets my teeth on edge, some psychic hangover with the resonance one sometimes has from walking over an old battlefield. A battlefield, yes, that’s what this room was, and is – a place where two cultures clashed head-on, and in the resulting carnage it’s impossible to determine who is victor and who is vanquished.

I cannot stay within these walls any longer. If there are to be stares and snide remarks, they must be met eventually. I have had my share of them in the last year; my armor has been built layer by layer. Perhaps I knew somehow all along that this test of its strength would eventually come. Like Spock, I have my anchor, and like his, mine is work.

Even though I am officially off-duty until tomorrow morning, I go down to sickbay. It is nearly 2100 by ship-time, and I am surprised to find both Dr. Sanchez and Nurse Chapel at work at the duty station. They look up at me, blue eyes and brown, and there is a chilling quality in Chapel’s azure gaze. It is something I have not seen for nearly a year.

“Dr. Merritt,” Sanchez greets me. “I’m glad you’re back. You and I are going to be quite busy until Dr. McCoy’s replacement arrives, I’m afraid. Nurse Chapel and I have been trying to work out an equitable duty roster.” He goes on, but his words don’t make sense to me.

“McCoy’s … replacement? But … where is he?”

Sanchez halts in mid-sentence. “Oh. I forgot. You were on … shore leave.” His dark face flushes. Among those few things in the galaxy which travel faster than the speed of light, gossip is quite possibly the fastest. “Dr. McCoy won’t be with us any longer. A great loss, I’m afraid. He was a fine surgeon.” He pushes the padd away. “If you’ll take a look at this, I’ll talk to you about it in the morning. Good night, ladies.”

He drifts away, a slight Latin shadow, a man of adequate skills, but by some quirk of personality or temperament, one who always seems on the outer fringes of any activity. A career officer, he always seems doomed to play a subordinate role, whatever the circumstances of his post. He was plainly made uncomfortable by my entrance, rather like a hostess who realizes too late that she has seated two implacable foes at the same table for dinner.

“Christine, what’s going on?” I ask when the doors have glided shut behind him.

“You tell me,” she says sharply.

“Will you stop talking in riddles and tell me where Dr. McCoy is?”

“I assume he’s on Argelius.”

“I thought all shore leave had been cancelled.”

“He isn’t on shore leave. He’s waiting for a commercial transport home.” She stumbles a little on that last word, closing her lips tightly over it as though it was a word she hadn’t intended to say. “He’s retiring. Quitting. Bailing out. And if I had my time in, I would, too.”

“But why?”

“How can you ask that?” she flares. “You, of all people!” Then her face alters; she is looking back down corridors of time, going through doorways locked to me. “I’ve served with him for almost ten years. I’ve seen him stand up and fight every kind of illness you can name, and a hundred you couldn’t, and whip every one of them. Because he wouldn’t quit. Never.” She takes a deep and shaking breath. “You ought to be very proud of yourself, Dr. Merritt. You broke him. You infected this ship with a sickness there’s no cure for. He couldn’t cure it, couldn’t stop it, and rather than stay here and watch the corpse decay, he chose to leave.” She makes a sound that could be either a laugh or a sob, or both. “He always did hate autopsies.”

I am stunned by the ferocity of her attack. Whatever uneasy truce we had achieved is shattered now. By her light, I have not only stolen her grail, I have profaned it. There is no way I can tell her, nothing I can say that will convince her of the loneliness and the frustration and the effort upon effort I made until there was no more will left and I let the current take me.

When I do not answer her, she draws her dignity around her like a cloak and leaves the room, stiff-necked under the double yoke of anger and sorrow.

>>>>> <<<<<

We are bound for Parsus II, straining at warp 8 to answer their chilling call for assistance. The planetary war brewing there for decades has erupted at last, catching in its violent net the very observers and diplomats sent there to stop it. At last report, they were trapped in a city under siege, and then, ominously, silence.

In the final hour before achieving orbit, Uhura tries unsuccessfully to raise them. Their continued radio silence is even more foreboding than their initial call for help.

I make a final check of the body function panel. It shows no discrepancies in the system of the young blonde ensign who lies on the diagnostic table. Farris was chosen to accompany the landing party, and I have a strong suspicion that his vague miasma of miscellaneous complaints has been suddenly engendered by that fact.

He has certainly shown no indication of ill health; his physiological responses are textbook perfect, and his libido is more than healthy – he keeps making meaningful remarks as I examine him. It is a problem every woman in medicine learns to sidestep early in her career, but this particular case is compounded by the fact that Farris was a member of the security squad which Scotty led on Argelius II.

“I’m certifying you fit for duty, Farris,” I tell him. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Nothing an hour alone with you wouldn’t cure,” he smirks.

I ignore him and turn away to record the results of the exam in his file. It is then that I feel his hand high on the back of my leg. “Ensign,” I tell him with frost in my voice, “if you don’t move that hand, I’m going to break it off at the wrist.”

The hand drops; I hear him swinging off the table. “What’s the matter, Doc?” he asks. “Don’t I have enough rank for you?”

I turn sharply on him; if it would not mean total loss of control, I think I would slap him. “Consider yourself on report, mister.”

He gives a short, bitter laugh. “Somehow, Dr. Merritt, that doesn’t scare me much.”

“I’m not kidding, Farris. When you get back from your mission--”

“Get back?” His fair face reddens. “We’re not coming back! Not any of us! Why do you think your friend Captain Kirk gave this mission to Mr. Spock? It would be awfully convenient for the two of you, wouldn’t it, if your husband didn’t come back?”

This time, I do slap him, and the suddenness of the blow rocks him backward on his heels. “Get out of here, Farris.”

The expression in his eyes is chilling; he is about to speak when the doors slide open and Jim comes in. Farris looks at him, then at me, and shoulders past the captain. Jim raises an eyebrow at this breach of etiquette and starts to call him down on it.

“Let it be, Jim.”

“What was that all about?”

“Nothing.” I can see he does not believe me, but he accepts it and makes no move to summon Farris back.

“I’m looking for Mr. Spock.”

“He isn’t here.”

“Obviously.” He turns to go; perversely, I call him back. I cannot believe what Farris has said, but I need a human voice to make the denial real.

“Jim – this mission. How dangerous is it?”

He comes across the room to stand within hand’s reach, and his face is grave, etched with tension. “Plenty,” he says. “We’ve been out of touch with them for nearly 36 hours. They could be anywhere on Parsus – or they could all be dead. But we’ve got to know, and get them out if they’re alive.”

“I want to go.”

“No.”

“You need a medic in the party.”

“Sanchez is going. It’s too dangerous for you.”

“But not for Spock?”

He looks at me for a moment, then at the doorway, as if Farris were still standing there. He catches my shoulders. “What did he say to you?”

His sudden anger frightens me; when I don’t answer, he gives me a shake.

“What did he say?”

“That you were … that none of them would make it back alive. That you chose Spock to go because you hoped…”

The realization shakes him, and the strength goes out of his grip. “And you believed him?”

“No!” I don’t mean to shout, yet somehow the room echoes with it. I lower my voice and try to control its tremor. “But Farris believes it. He was with Scotty at the hostel, Jim. He really believes you want Spock--” I can’t say it. No more than I could plunge a knife into his chest. The words have done as well, both those said and those unsaid.

He drops his hands from my shoulders and paces the tight confines of the room. Finally he goes to the intercom and pages Spock. The response is slow in coming, and reluctance is in Spock’s voice.

“I need to talk to you. Meet me in the main briefing room.” He cuts off the transmission before Spock responds, and when he leaves, I trail along behind him. As the doors of the turbolift slide open, he bars the entrance. “This doesn’t concern you, Lara.”

“I think it does.”

He knows the truth of that. We are bound now like some unspeakable, impossible set of conjoined triplets, and nothing that any of us does can help but pull the other two along. He relents, and we walk together into the briefing room to find Spock already there.

I don’t know what to expect from him; this is the first time I have seen him since returning from Argelius. I search his face, his posture, for some clue. It is a purely human expectation – surely there must be something there? Anger, jealousy, chagrin? Smugness, satisfaction? It was his idea, after all, that Jim and I go to Argelius together.

There is nothing there. Nothing but the air of fatigue he has worn for so long that it now seems part of his uniform. If he has slept in the past 36 hours, it was not in our quarters. He sits with his elbows on the tabletop, fingers templed, and acknowledges our presence. He does not appear to be surprised to see me here.

“I’m pulling you off the search party,” Jim says. No explanation. This particular wound is not one he wishes to expose.

“Circumstances require the presence of someone of command rank,” Spock counters. It is not a challenge. Not precisely. Yet the resonance between them is altered, charged, and even I can feel it.

“I’ll take it, then. Or Scotty.”

“Captain, we have not been able to make contact with Space Central on Parsus. Enterprise will be orbiting without clearance, and in view of the hostilities, she could well be fired upon by either side. In view of that possibility, neither you nor Mr. Scott should be absent.”

“You’ve had the con before when we were under attack.”

Spock looks at the tapering length of his fingers, then folds his hands together and lays them on the table. The symbolic flinging of the gauntlet?

“On those occasions,” he says slowly, “you were motivated by tactical considerations, or by circumstances beyond your control. This is neither. Your original assignment was the tactically correct one. Do not attempt to countermand it now. It is not worthy of you.”

I can restrain myself no longer. “Don’t you realize that half the crew thinks he’s sending you down there hoping you’ll be killed?”

He looks at me for the first time since we entered, and there is nothing in his gaze. Nothing. “Their opinions are of no importance. The captain is aware of his reasons, as am I. His initial decision was the proper one.”

“Mr. Spock, I am giving you a direct order--”

“Jim,” he says slowly, “Don’t.” His use of the name stops the captain cold. I have never heard him use it before, never heard quite that tone in his voice. Spock’s expression relaxes for the first time and there is something in his eyes almost like the ghost of a smile.

“It is unfortunate,” he says, “that Dr. McCoy did not himself see fit to leave a last set of orders.” The remark is cryptic to me, but obviously not to Jim. His head comes up, his posture relaxes slightly. His expression is not a smile, either. Not quite.

“You told me you never played that tape.”

“I believe it was Dr. McCoy who made that statement, Captain.”

It is a smile now, full and warming on Jim’s face. “All right, you stubborn Vulcan.”

“Pig-headed,” Spock amends.

“Yes.” Jim nods, remembering. “He would have.”

I am lost, shut out again by the memory they share. But whatever it is, I am thankful for it. The fog of emotion that threatened to crystallize into open conflict is gone; dissipated by the balancing force of a man who is no longer physically present, but whose understanding and compassion and love … for both of them, I suddenly realize … is still very much here.

“Just do one thing for me, Spock,” Jim says. “Get back safely.”

“I intend to.” He rises slowly, and I note that the tension is gone from his shoulders. “Will you accompany me to the transporter room? Both of you?”

They are still operating on some kind of unspoken agreement; I can feel it even if I cannot identify its details.

“Yes,” Jim says, almost to himself. “An excellent suggestion.”

I find I have been maneuvered between them as we go into the corridor. It is a rather strange sensation; stranger yet is the sudden, light pressure of Spock’s hand seeking mine, not in the Vulcan manner, but in the Human one.

There is no break in the stride of either man as we approach the doors to the turbolift, and I suddenly realize it is not an oversight. We are not going to cross the deck to the transporter sealed in the car; we are going to walk the distance in the open corridors of the Enterprise. All three of us. Together. I’m not sure I wish to be paraded through the halls this way, like some spoil of war riding the victor’s chariot.

Spock’s hand tightens imperceptibly around mine; in some way he has anticipated my hesitation and is signaling me that he will not tolerate a scene. Jim flicks his glance my way quickly, looking for some sign, and I realize that he understood Spock’s purpose long before I did.

Very well. If I am to ride the chariot, it will be with pride. I move my hand under Spock’s grip, crossing my fingers with his, looking up at him. He gives me the barest nod, some flicker of a look I could call approval glowing briefly in his eyes. He lifts our hands to the precisely correct angle and slows his pace to match my own shorter stride. Jim slows, too, to remain even with us, and our journey seems to take on some aspect of a royal progression. Heads do not turn, but I can feel the eyes of passing crewmen on us. Their unspoken thoughts are palpable in the air.

Scotty comes out of a corridor at right angles to us, and Jim speaks to him. Normally. As he would at any other time. There is just the barest hesitation in Scott’s stride, then, wordlessly, he falls in with us, next to his captain.

Surely it is only my imagination that the corridor traffic is heavier than it would normally be. Even the grapevine takes a certain amount of time to begin to function at optimum efficiency. The trip to the transporter room, 30 seconds by turbolift, stretches to ten times that length.

The rest of the landing party is already assembled there, waiting on the transporter pads. Including Farris. He really does look ill, and I have a moment of second thoughts about his physical condition. He looks at the four of us as we come through the doorway, and a dull flush creeps up from his uniform collar. He jaw muscles are working, and I half expect him to blurt out some bitter charge.

Lieutenant Kyle steps back from the console, turning it over to Engineer Scott, and hands Spock his gear. Spock removes his hand from mine to take the equipment, and I have to restrain an urge to embrace him. It would not only be in poor taste, it would embarrass him unmercifully. Still, the urge is there.

He pauses, slipping the tricorder strap over his head, and gives me a look of surprise as if the force of the thought has touched him. He mounts the transporter platform rather hastily – for him – still settling the strap across his chest and clipping the communicator to his belt. He checks the other landing party members quickly and gives Jim a brief nod. “Ready, Captain.”

Jim looks at him for a long moment, deciding something. Then he says it. “Good luck, Mr. Spock. And remember what I said.”

“I trust we shall not have to rely on luck. And I shall remember.”

Kyle shoots a questioning glance at Scotty, who responds with an almost imperceptible shrug. I dinna ken wha’ they’re talkin’ aboot half the time, the shrug says. Ye ken how it is wi’ those two.

“Energize,” Jim orders, and as the familiar whine begins, the six figures turn to sparkles of shimmering light, and then are gone.

TBC