DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of JM Lane and is copyright (c) 2000 by JM Lane. This story is Rated PG.


JM Lane


In an hour, we reach Omicron Ceti III and beam down to investigate the three-year silence of the 150 colonists there. That's not so bad; I can live with that. It's knowing that Spock is in the landing party that has me in such a stew. I swear, the man's going to drive me crazy!

Nothing I do or say gets through to him. It's all I can do to act professionally around him any more, so I'm determined that we're going to talk this out once and for all once we get back, whatever I have to do to make him listen. For the time being, however, duty calls..."

Christine Chapel, Head Nurse and temporary Senior Medical Officer of the starship Enterprise, saved the latest entry to her Personal Log on her personal tricorder and leaned back in her desk chair to get the kinks out of her back, standing up to complete the job before heading to her bathroom to shower and change into her duty uniform.

For the next few minutes, at least, her mind was too occupied with preparations for work to be overly concerned with personal problems. As she was putting the finishing touches on her hair, her intercom buzzed. She hastily pushed the last pin into place and went to answer it.

"Chapel here."

"Miss Chapel, we are preparing to beam down," came the impassive voice of the Vulcan First Officer.

"I'm on my way, Mr. Spock." Her formal tone matched his.

"Very well," he returned. "Spock out."

She sighed in exasperation and closed the intercom. "Chapel out." She picked up her medical tricorder and medikit, then left her quarters, the door automatically locking behind her as she left.

* * *

She had been told that Berthold rays, which dissolved the bodies of Humanoid and animal life within seven days, were bombarding Omicron Ceti III and had for the better part of two years, so she (having been sent in place of McCoy, who had been too backed up with "paperwork" and decided to send her instead) was as stunned as the others in the landing party -- even Spock, she was pleased to note ... when Elias Sandoval, head of the colonists, greeted them.

"It is -- gratifying to see you," the Vulcan made himself say. "But we were given to understand that you were in distress. After all, there have been no communications from you for three years."

"Hardly that, Mr. Spock," Sandoval returned with a smile far too euphoric for either the Science Officer or Head Nurse's taste. "We're in no danger here; we have simply found the way to happiness and true belonging." Sandoval's voice was so flat and toneless as to be almost mechanical, his smile almost mindless. But Christine knew that he would deny anything was wrong with him if she called it to his attention, so she decided to humor him for the moment, asking permission to give the colonists physicals.

Sandoval nodded, his smile never wavering. "If you like," he replied pleasantly. "Although we're all as healthy as the proverbial horse here, thank you."

"I'd like to verify that, if you don't mind," Christine told him.

"Not at all," Sandoval answered.

Christine was glad he was being so cooperative, but was dubious as to how long it would last, particularly once he was told that he and the rest of the colonists would need to be evacuated off the planet because of the Berthold rays. It had taken a year for the colonists to travel from Earth to Omicron Ceti III, but by rights, there should be no colony at all -- no buildings, no one left alive. But *something* had obviously saved them ... Neither Spock nor Christine had any idea what, but both vowed to find out before the mission ended.

* * *

Spock and the other landing party members split up in order to cover as much ground as possible and try to see if any of them could discover the cause of the colonists' almost mindless euphoria and inexplicable survival. Christine stayed behind to give the aforementioned physicals, discovering all the colonists to be in absolutely perfect health, as Sandoval had told her.

She had no way of explaining this and doubted she ever would, unless Spock or one of the others found something to explain it. She knew that whatever was protecting the colonists hadn't affected her -- at least not yet -- since she had also checked herself and found (as expected) that her tonsils and appendix were gone, having been removed when she was nine and fourteen years of age respectively.

The first person she had checked was Sandoval himself, stunned to find that the scars on his lungs from the lobar penumonia he had suffered as a child of ten and the appendectomy he had undergone at age thirteen were gone. It was as if they had never happened. The appendix had even grown back! Medically impossible, by all the standards she knew.

As soon as she finished the last physical, Christine decided to hunt up Spock. He had to know what she had discovered. Maybe together, they could come up with a plausible explanation for both the colonists' mindless euphoria and perfect health in the face of such deadly radiation.

* * *

It took Christine half an hour to find the Vulcan, and when she did, he wasn't at all as she had left him -- and it surprised him as much as it did her ... though she later admitted (at least to herself) that what had happened between them was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her. She could only hope that Spock had felt the same after it was over, or at least admitted -- if only to himself -- that the experience had been pleasurable for him. Of course, that was unlikely, but stranger things had happened.

* * *

As Spock walked through the colony's property holdings, he had kept his tricorder whirring along, aiming it in every conceivable direction and recording his findings, but discovered precious little in the way of answers until he came to the crest of a hill and spied some tall plants with large, pink flowers and a large pod in the center of the flower a few feet down the other side. He carefully made his way down to them and prepared to take tricorder readings. It was at this point that the flower pod nearest him burst open and showered him with pinkish-white spores.

A short time later, he cried out softly and dropped to his knees, the tricorder falling to the ground as the Vulcan put both arms around himself, sharp pain shooting through his mid-section for a few minutes ... then a strange euphoria similar to that of the Omicron Ceti colonists descended over him, an atypical smile crossing his lips.

Now he understood why the colonists enjoyed it here so much. It was beautiful -- blue sky, green grass and trees, perfumed air surrounding him. The existence of the Berthold rays and their deadly effect no longer seemed important to him. In fact, Spock was now immune to their effects, although he didn't know that yet.

Indeed, if he had been himself, he would have taken samples of both plant and spores back to the ship for analysis ... but as it was, doing that was the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, he was fully occupied with matters which would not have concerned him even ten minutes earlier -- things which he had never allowed himself to be concerned with until now.

He retrieved his tricorder, but otherwise was totally divorced from his true purpose for being planetside. All that mattered to him was here and now ... the enjoyment of his surroundings, which the spores had allowed him to appreciate in a way he could not have appreciated them before. He removed his boots and socks, the soft grass and warm ground feeling good under his bare feet. After that, he removed his blue uniform shirt, leaving on his black undershirt.

He stretched out on his back in the grass, extending his arms and legs, bending and straightening them several times. The Vulcan laughed as he never could before, with pure, unadulterated enjoyment -- the enjoyment of a child, the child he had never truly been because of his choice at age seven to follow the Vulcan Way.

All this was forgotten as the First Officer expressed his emotions as he had always wished he could, finally folding his arms behind his head, cradling the latter in his hands and bending his knees while resting one foot on the ground, his other leg crossing the first and the foot dangling in midair.

It was at this point that Christine neared Spock's location, unable to believe her ears upon hearing laughter as she neared it ... laughter from someone she had never expected to hear it from. Was that actually Spock? She listened for a moment, then heard it again.

My God, how could it be possible? She hesitated to call out to him for fear of disturbing his rare moment of relaxation. He allowed this release so seldom -- but at the same time, she would give anything to have been enjoying it *with* him. She had to take the chance; who could say when (or if) this opportunity might come again?

"Spock?" she called out softly. "Spock, is that you? Are you all right?"

"Christine?" he called back, his voice lighter and more relaxed than she had ever known it to be. "Come, join me." He stood up and held out a hand to her, the smile on his lips warmer than any she had ever seen directed to her. Within five minutes, she was at his side, looking him up and down. His blue uniform shirt was lying at his feet, as was his equipment, boots and socks. His uniform trousers were rolled up and she saw grass in his hair, which was tousled; he looked about ten years old.

"Are you feeling all right?" she asked, both concerned and pleased at the same time.

"I've never felt better in my life," Spock returned, giving Christine another heart-stopping smile. "And I want to share it with you." He sat down on the ground and again held out a hand to her; she gingerly sat down next to him, setting her own equipment down next to her. "Is this not ... enjoyable?" he asked, his hand clasping her nearest one.

"Yes ... " The nurse had to force herself to speak, her heart pounding hard and fast in spite of herself at his nearness.

A moment later, the Vulcan reached to stroke his companion's cheek with the fingertips of his other hand.

Christine couldn't avoid blushing, especially at the way he was making her feel. If she did what she wanted to do, however, would she ever be able to live it down if he remembered what they had done later on and berated her for not controlling herself?

"Is something wrong, Christine?" Her companion's voice was laced with concern. "Are you uncomfortable?"

"A little," she had to confess. "This has rarely happened between us. But at the same time, there's no place I'd rather be." She smiled as she had rarely allowed herself to do when he could see.

He returned it, then said, "Why don't you relax, Christine? Take your boots off, let your hair down?"

There was nothing she wanted to do more, but hesitated to do so -- until he encouraged her further. "Don't be afraid, Christine. I would never harm you."

"I know," she replied, daringly lifting his hand to her cheek and holding it there for a moment before raising it to her lips and kissing it. "I wish this never had to end. Unfortunately, we'll have to get back to the ship soon, since the Captain's going to want a report."

"The ship's not going anywhere," he reminded her. "Besides, do you really want to leave?"

She shook her head even as he reached to take the pins from her hair; part of it fell to her shoulders. A short time later, it was all down, and he raised it to his lips to kiss it before pulling her head close with one hand, then buried his face in it and inhaled its fragrance. "Lovely ... so beautiful..."

If these actions stunned Christine, Spock's subsequent actions thoroughly flabbergasted her. His one hand lifted her chin; her heart raced as she saw a kiss in his beautiful, sable-brown eyes. She closed her eyes as their lips touched, one arm going around his neck and the fingers of that hand stroking the back of it as the kiss deepened and his arms went around her, his embrace gentle but secure.

Christine knew she was lost the moment he touched her, the feel of him close to her so natural and right. She knew she'd probably feel guilty later, but right now all that mattered was the sweetness of Spock's lips on hers and the gentle strength of his arms around her, the warm solidity of his body ...

*Spock, my love,* her mind projected even as his lips reluctantly moved from hers to find the rapidly pounding pulse in her throat below her right ear.

His breath was warm as he whispered, "Christine ... you are so sweet, so beautiful. Much more than I deserve -- but I ... need you. Will you -- stay with me?"

By this time, both her arms were around his neck and their lips less than an eighth of an inch apart. In fact, his breath feathered her lips as he spoke, as did hers on his lips as she replied. "Yes, beloved. *Yes*. I'll stay for as long as you want me." Her whole heart was in her voice.

"I'll always want you," he assured her, his voice a husky purr even as he pulled her down beside him and drew her close again -- then the only thing either of them were aware of was the nearness of the other.

* * *

The insistent beeping of Spock's communicator brought the pair reluctantly back to reality. Upon realizing what it was, Christine reached for it even as Spock murmured a Pre-Reform Vulcan oath under his breath while stroking her hair as her head lay on his shoulder and his lips brushed her temple; the couple lay side-by-side in the tall grass.

"It must be the Captain," she informed him. "You'd better answer it."

"I suppose so," the First Officer sighed, though she could tell he didn't want to -- nor did he release her, even as Christine opened the communicator and held it up so Spock could speak into it. "Yes, Captain, what did you want?" The Vulcan's voice was a lazy drawl, his strong arms gently squeezing Christine while kissing her hair before moving to nuzzle her cheek.

"Spock, is that you?" Kirk sounded incredulous, even disbelieving.

"Yes," Spock assured him -- but the moment the Captain heard the atypical response, he knew something was wrong. "What did you want?"

"Did you find anything?" Kirk asked. When there was no response, the Captain demanded, "Spock, dammit, *answer* me! Did you find anything?"

The Vulcan sighed exasperatedly. "Yes," he said reluctantly.

"Well, what is it? Does it have anything to do with why the colonists act as they do?"

"I believe so," Spock made himself say, though all he really wanted to do was kiss his companion again.

"You *believe* so. Don't you *know*? Spock, just where the hell are you?" Kirk wondered.

The Science Officer smiled as he held Christine close, pressing her cheek against his own before kissing it again. "I don't believe I want to tell you."

"Spock, I don't know what you think you're doing, but we can't wait much longer. We've got to get the colonists evacuated up to the ship, and Sandoval's being difficult, so I'm going to need your help to get the ball rolling."

"I don't think so," Spock returned casually.

"You don't think so, *what*?" the Captain threw back, beginning to become angry as well as concerned. Spock didn't sound at all like himself. Something must have happened -- and Kirk intended to find out what, whatever he had to do.

"I don't think so, *sir*."

Christine was hard-pressed to keep from laughing. It was a cinch the Captain would never believe what Spock was doing, much less who he was doing it with ... provided he even believed the Vulcan capable of it at all. There was also likely to be a confrontation between Kirk and Spock later on because of this incident, which might or might not involve her -- but for the time being, she intended to enjoy what time had been granted to her to spend with the man she loved.

It was probably wrong to take advantage of him like this, but he *had* invited her to join him and she had never been able to say "no" to him, God help her ... and even if they got in trouble later, it would be worth it to have a beautiful memory to cherish.

"Spock, I want you back at the colonist settlement to discuss evacuation plans. On the double, Mister, or I'll have you on report!"

But Spock wasn't listening; he had tuned Kirk out. The communicator soon dropped to the ground from Christine's nerveless fingers as the First Officer once again pulled the Head Nurse close and resumed kissing her.

"Spock, are you there? ... Spock? *Spock*!" The Captain's voice was insistent, but seemed far away to Christine; all she knew (or cared to know) was the feel of her beloved's lips, arms and body pressed sweetly close to hers. Heaven had truly come to earth for herself and Spock, if only temporarily. If she could ease his loneliness, bring him happiness -- if only for a moment -- it would give her the strength she needed to endure whatever might come afterward ... because she would know his true feelings for her, and nothing he might say or do in denial would ever fool her again.

* * *

Before the day was out, the entire crew had defected and beamed down to join the colony, including McCoy. Nothing Kirk did or said could win *him* back, either -- and Uhura had sabotaged the comm system so that he could not contact Starfleet, only the planet's surface. Neither had Spock ever told him just what he had found and what had happened to make the crew commit mutiny, so he had tried once again to convince Sandoval to evacuate the planet because of the danger from the Berthold rays ... again, to no avail.

Christine had joined them as well, having allowed herself to be sprayed by the spores in order that she also become immune to the Berthold rays and thus able to safely remain with Spock. The Captain was angry and frustrated at having to try to do things alone. There had to be a way to beat the spores and get his errant crew back -- but what was it? He didn't know, but did know that he would need help in order to accomplish it ... and getting Spock back was the first step.

* * *

It wasn't until Kirk had gotten sprayed by the spores himself, from a plant which had been beamed up to the ship, that he managed to think of a way to get Spock back. Normal Vulcan strength was half again that of Humans, and provoking him could be dangerous, but the Captain couldn't think of anything else to do which would accomplish his purpose. Besides, Spock, the ship, and crew were worth any risk to himself.

He was all ready to join the others, having packed his things and gone to the Transporter Room to place his suitcase on the pad, when he realized he couldn't leave, and not only because no one would be able to return to the ship if he left. He pounded a fist on the console. "No!" he declared. "I ... can't ... leave!" The euphoria seemed to drop from him like a discarded shirt at that moment, and it was then that he realized that strong emotions -- strong *negative* emotions -- had negated the effects of the spores and he was back to himself.

The spores were gentle and benevolent for the most part, but had a tendency to take over their hosts, preventing them from doing their chosen work, even if they did protect them from Berthold rays and help them free their emotions. For that reason, he appreciated what the spores had done for Spock, but now it was necessary to get the Vulcan back to normal. Kirk very much regretted having to take away his friend's first real taste of happiness, but especially distasteful was what he had to do to bring Spock back to himself. Christine probably wouldn't be too pleased with him, either -- at least not initially -- but Kirk was sure she would learn to live with it.

After all, Christine had kept her distance from Spock for years in deference to him, forcing her own feelings into the background in favor of his. She patiently endured his aloof attitude toward her time and again, willingly tolerating every brush-off he dished out, but the nurse told herself that she would rather share Spock with Kirk and/or McCoy than another woman. That was still true, and intellectually she knew he didn't mean to push her away; he was simply protecting himself emotionally the only way he knew how.

Unfortunately, that didn't make the rebuffs hurt any less, so it was understandable that when the opportunity arose, that Christine would react to Spock as she did on the planet and want to stay there with him because of how long she'd waited to be able to show her feelings to him without his objecting to them. All she had done for him had been done without expecting anything in return; rather, she had simply asked to be allowed to demonstrate her love on occasion, caring more for *him* than herself, whatever the cost.

It was that more than anything that made Spock privately appreciate Christine's devotion to him, even if he could not do so publicly. However difficult it may have been for him to express his feelings, he knew he had to try, and soon -- if only for Christine's sake. But knowing how inept he was, the Vulcan knew he would need help ... and who better than Jim? That is, once his Human friend forgave him -- and healed from the beating he had inadvertently invited at Spock's hands.

* * *

Spock and Christine were lounging together, her hand stroking his silky dark hair as his head rested on her lap. He looked up at her and smiled at her touch, reaching up a hand to stroke her cheek. Her whole heart was in her corresponding smile as he did so. He was all prepared to kiss her again when his communicator, which lay next to him, again beeped insistently. He sighed in impatience and took it as Christine handed it to him, already flipped open. The Vulcan raised it to his lips, having no intention of moving out of his comfortable position unless absolutely necessary.

"Spock here. What is it now?"

"It's me, Spock. I've joined you." Kirk's voice came from the small device, his sincerity obvious. "I understand now."

Spock and Christine looked at each other and smiled with pure joy -- then laughed. "That's wonderful, Jim. When will you beam down?"

"I've been repacking some things and realized I'm going to need help with some equipment we should have at the settlement. But I'm constrained to point out that once the last of us has left the ship, no one can go back aboard."

"Acknowledged. Would you like me to beam up a party?"

"No, I think you and I can handle it. Why don't you beam up now?"

Spock reluctantly sat up, sending a tender yet apologetic smile in Christine's direction. "Jim needs me to help him. I shouldn't be long." He pulled her to her feet with him, then leaned over to kiss her goodbye.

She momentarily tightened her grip on his hand, then released it and put a finger on his lips, which he promptly kissed. "Hurry back, love."

"I will," he assured her, then moved a short distance away and flipped the communicator open again. "I'm ready, Jim."

"Energizing," Kirk returned, voice deceptively quiet.

Christine watched as Spock dematerialized, then re-seated herself beneath a nearby tree to wait for him and the Captain to return.

* * *

Kirk was waiting for Spock in the Transporter Room when the latter materialized, holding a transparent aluminum club in his hands. The unsuspecting Vulcan stepped off the platform, smiling a greeting, which wasn't returned. In fact, there was a dangerous look in the Captain's eyes -- which Spock was unfortunately too euphoric to either notice or act upon.

"Now," the Captain said through clenched teeth. "You mutinous, disloyal, computerized half-breed. We'll *see* about you deserting my ship!"

Spock stared, surprised but unflustered. "Your use of the term 'half-breed' is applicable, but 'computerized' is inaccurate. A machine can be computerized, but not a man."

Kirk sneered. "What makes you think you're a man? You're nothing but an overgrown jackrabbit -- an elf with an hyperactive thyroid!"

The First Officer shook his head, bewildered. "Jim, I don't understand. I thought you needed help with some equipment ... " His voice trailed off.

"Of course not," Kirk retorted coldly. "You don't have the brains to understand. All you have is printed circuits!"

Spock frowned and took a step back as he sensed the Human's hostility, unable to think of a reply before Kirk spoke again.

"But what else can you expect from a simpering, devil-eared freak whose father was a computer and his mother an encyclopedia?"

"My mother is a teacher, my father an Ambassador," Spock returned quietly.

"Your father is a computer like his son! An Ambassador from a race of computers! The Vulcan never lived who had an ounce of integrity!" The words fairly dripped with contempt.

"Jim, please don't ... " Spock's voice was a plea as the Captain's voice filled with venom.

"You're a traitor from a race of traitors! Disloyal to the core -- rotten, like the rest of your sub-Human race! Then you've got the *gall* to make love to Miss Chapel ... that beautiful, wonderful woman who loves you -- though I'm sure I don't know why! How could any woman in her right mind ever fall for you?"

Kirk's voice was laced with ice. "Does she know what she's getting, Spock? A carcass full of memory banks who should be squatting on a mushroom instead of passing himself off as a man? You belong in the circus, Spock, not a starship ... right next to the dog-faced boy!"

"That's enough." Spock's voice was a warning as anger and hurt showed plainly in his words. He had finally had all he could take -- and acted accordingly. Kirk managed to stay out of the angry Vulcan's reach only briefly as Spock's full fury was unleashed upon him. If the Human wasn't backhanded across the room, he was thrown against the bulkhead multiple times. Once, Spock's fist barely missed the Captain's head; if the blow had connected, it could have easily crushed the Human's skull.

Kirk finally found himself flat on the deck with Spock standing over him, his face a mask of murderous rage as he held a heavy phaser rack over his head, preparing to throw it down onto his helpless victim (who had long ago lost his weapon) and crush him -- but just as he was about to do so, the volcanic anger possessing the Vulcan drained out of his body and he dropped the rack, jarring the deck beneath them.

Kirk breathed a sigh of relief, so sore, bruised and tired that he could hardly move, having expected the moment just past to be the last moment of his life. Instead, Spock was helping him up and over to sit on the steps near the transporter platform.

"Are you all right, Jim?" the Vulcan asked, voice laced with concern. "I fear that I ... inadvertently lost control of my emotions and attacked you. I -- hope I did not injure you too severely."

"Just a bruise here and there," the Captain assured him, even though every bone and muscle in his body hurt ... and would for the next several weeks.

"Are you sure?" Spock asked skeptically. "I would advise your seeing Dr. McCoy at the earliest opportunity, for I am certain that--"

Despite his aches and pains, Kirk was pleased to note that Spock was back to his usual formality ... no contractions and impeccable Standard with no colloquialisms or slang, which must mean that the spores had been destroyed and his alien friend was back to himself. His plan had succeeded, and it was worth aching for a month to have that knowledge. The Captain held up a hand.

"I don't blame you, my friend. After all, I provoked you."

"Deliberately," Spock returned, his tone a mixture of anger, sadness and question. "Jim, why did you do it? You knew what a risk you were taking, considering my greater strength."

Kirk grinned ruefully. "I never realized what it took to get under that thick hide of yours. Just the same, it isn't every First Officer who gets to belt his Captain -- several times." Kirk winced as he felt his tender jaw, tentatively moving it to make sure it wasn't broken.

"Please do not do that ever again," Spock admonished, gently but firmly. "You might not be so fortunate as to survive a second encounter."

"Believe me, I don't intend to, Spock," the Human assured his Vulcan friend. "Once was painful enough -- in more ways than one." Kirk gingerly maneuvered himself to face Spock. "*Now* will you tell me what you found?"

"Gladly, Jim," came the matter-of-fact reply. "The spores are benevolent and peaceful, gently bringing their hosts the ultimate in health and happiness, as well as a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, they also tend to dominate the minds of their hosts and prevent them from accomplishing their designated tasks."

"I surmised that," Kirk agreed. "And I'm sorry that I had to provoke you, but it was necessary to make you angry enough to shake off their influence. That must be the answer, Spock."

"You may be correct, Jim, but I must remind you that the entire Enterprise crew as well as the colonists have been influenced by the spores, just as I was. It would not be logical to initiate a brawl with nearly five hundred people. There must be another, non-violent means of doing so."

"No doubt," Kirk concurred. "Perhaps a certain subsonic frequency -- "

Spock smoothly interrupted. "I know what you mean. There is a frequency which causes sonic irritation in Humanoid species, which could be broadcast over the communicators via the Communications station."

"Let's get to it, then," Kirk replied, attempting to get up but unable to do so without help.

"Allow me to assist you, Jim. After all, it is my fault you are in such a condition." The First Officer's tone made it an order, albeit a gentle one ... and for once, the Enterprise Captain didn't mind being ordered around by a subordinate -- especially since the subordinate was also his closest friend.

Once the two neared the doors of the Transporter Room, Spock lifted his head to meet Kirk's eyes. "I assume you recall that striking a superior officer is a court-martial offense."

"Well, if you're in the Brig, who's going to build the subsonic transmitter?" Kirk returned with a smile.

"You have a point," the Vulcan had to admit. "Very well. Let us get down to business."

With that, the pair left the Transporter Room to head for the Bridge and their appointed task.

* * *

After an hour, Christine began to wonder what was keeping Spock and the Captain. Surely it couldn't take this long to move a few pieces of equipment. Something must have happened. She had no idea what, but had every intention of finding out. She reached for her communicator and flipped it open.

"Chapel to Enterprise."

"Spock here," came the self-contained, almost-too-quiet reply, so distant that for all anyone knew, he and Christine had never been more than colleagues, if that.

"May I beam up?" she asked carefully. "I need to talk to you, if you don't mind."

"Very well," the First Officer returned, knowing she would expect an explanation as to why he had not returned as promised. His voice was placid and unemotional, betraying no trace of the feelings just hearing her voice brought out in him. "Please stand by."

"Standing by," Christine said, her voice deceptively calm. "Chapel out."

She left her communicator frequency open until Spock said, "Energizing."

* * *

When the Vulcan turned to head for the Bridge turbolift doors, Kirk called after him. "I know that Miss Chapel is your concern, Spock, but do you really think you should try to talk to her while she's still being affected by the spores?"

"I will return shortly, Jim," Spock returned, voice barely audible.

"Spock?" Kirk called again, his voice apologetic. "I'm sorry I had to do what I did, and take away your first taste of happiness."

"I know," the First Officer returned. "I do not hold you responsible. It was necessary." He stepped into the turbolift and the doors closed behind him as he said, "Transporter Room."

Kirk found reassurance in Spock's words despite the uncharacteristic (even for him) aloofness in his voice and manner, relaxing in his chair and settling back to wait for his friend to return.

* * *

Christine stood on the transporter platform when Spock arrived, looking him over as she had earlier on the planet. It was obvious that he had changed; what alarmed her was that the change had been so sudden and total. What had happened to change him so quickly?

"Spock, would you mind explaining why you didn't bother to return? I know something's happened to you, I can tell that simply by looking at you, but the least you could have done was explain yourself." She stepped off the platform and headed for him, not stopping until they stood face-to-face.

"I ... never meant to deceive you," he assured her. "I -- have simply been ... busy."

"Doing what?" she demanded softly.

"Seeking a means of returning the crew and colonists to normal. I am sure you realize how illogical the situation here is. We cannot remain; we all have duties to consider. It is also necessary to evacuate the colonists to a place of safety once the spores wear off."

"I think I know what changed you," she threw back, unable to keep bitterness out of her voice. "It was the Captain, wasn't it?" *When isn't it?* the Head Nurse thought with a sharp pain in her heart.

"The Captain deduced a method of freeing us from the spores, yes," Spock confessed.

"Then you don't remember what happened between us," she surmised, hurt but not surprised that he would not acknowledge their romantic afternoon together.

"Something happened between us?" The Vulcan sounded incredulous, as though he didn't remember anything of what had happened.

"I came upon you shortly after you discovered the spores. They were already affecting you. In fact, you even ... " Christine's voice remained as casual as she could muster as she explained how Spock had acted.

"I find that highly unlikely. I would not be that emotional. It is more likely that you are exaggerating what truly occurred and indulging in the Human predilection for 'wishful thinking'."

"I don't lie about something like that, Spock. Especially not where you're concerned," the nurse retorted, her voice laced with pain and anger.

"I did not mean to imply that you did, Miss Chapel," he returned blandly.

"Oh, no? Certainly sounds like it to me," she threw back. "But then, it doesn't surprise me. You've been in serious denial regarding me from day one, and why I ever thought you'd changed, I'll never know. A leopard never changes its spots. I should have known better; it was simply a result of the spores.

"You've never given a damn about me or Dr. McCoy, and you never will. The Captain's the only one you give more than the time of day to. Never mind that Leonard and I care just as much. Well, you don't have to worry about my being underfoot any more. I intend to transfer out of here at the first opportunity; I've had it once and for all with you and your touch-me-not attitude. Why must I suffer any longer because of you? I've got better things to do."

Christine tried to control her heartbreak and resentment, but failed. "So you think you don't need me, and deny that anything ever happened between us? Fine. If you won't admit to what happened, I don't need *you*, either. I'll find someone who appreciates me. That shouldn't bother you one bit. After all, you've got the one *you* want as a friend, so to Hell with the rest of us.

"It's obvious that neither I nor Dr. McCoy are worthy of your notice, no matter how much *we* care about you. Well, let me say one last thing: You'll be sorry you neglected us one day when something happens to the Captain and you don't have anyone else to turn to because you'll have pushed us away and shunted us aside just once too often."

She went to the Transporter Room doors and opened them, then turned back to him to give this parting shot: "I wish you every happiness in your *exclusive* friendship. Goodbye, and good riddance!" Her voice was laced with equal parts sarcasm and pain, her voice nearly breaking on the last word.

She was gone before Spock could open his mouth to protest or reply. Part of the Vulcan told him to call her back and try to explain; another part said it would be pointless -- after the way he had treated her, especially now, she'd never believe him ... and even if she did, he didn't have the words to make her understand.

But he had to admit that she was correct on at least one point: he had consistently brushed her and McCoy's affection aside in favor of Kirk. Not that he had ever *meant* to, at least not consciously -- but it had happened, nonetheless. Regrettably, the past could not be changed; he and the others could only live with the consequences.

The fact was, Christine and McCoy *did* matter to him ... it was simply that he found it very difficult to express himself emotionally after having been taught to suppress his emotions his entire life. It had taken him years just to learn to allow *Jim* close to him, much less anyone else. He was truly sorry that she felt as she did, believed as she did -- but it was unVulcan to allow himself to be overly concerned. At least that's what he told himself ... but even if he did attempt to make amends, he couldn't do it alone.

* * *

Spock began his campaign once they had gotten the entirely understandably apologetic and contrite crew back to work after Kirk had assured them they would not be disciplined ... this time. But if it ever happened again, it would be another story, he warned them in his sternest voice. The signal generated from the ship had been felt almost immediately; within a few minutes, fights had broken out between the Enterprise crew and the colonists, but were short-lived as the strong negative emotions canceled out the effects of the spores.

Shortly after the last crewmembers had come aboard, the colonists and their effects were loaded onto the ship, the plants all disposed of except one, which was housed for study in the Botany Lab. Spock could not help smiling inwardly as McCoy told Kirk what he had done to Sandoval when the latter had told him his medical services would no longer be needed. The Doctor had snapped back, "Oh yeah? Would you like to see just how fast I can put you in the hospital?" and decked him. But the fight was over almost as soon as it had begun, and McCoy apologized. "Sorry, Sandoval. I don't know what made me do that."

Shortly after both were freed of the spores' effects, Sandoval changed his tune, claiming he would be willing to evacuate his people off the planet and have the Enterprise ferry them to Starbase 27 as originally intended, then relocate to a new planet if they so wished. Once they were on their way, the three friends gathered at Kirk's chair on the Bridge, watching Omicron Ceti III dwindle on the viewscreen.

"Well, that's the second time man's been thrown out of Paradise," McCoy observed.

"Not this time, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we don't belong in Paradise, and are instead, meant to fight, struggle and claw every inch of the way."

"Illogical," said Spock in response to the "Paradise" reference.

The Captain looked at his Vulcan friend with concern at the unusual note in his voice. "Is anything wrong, Spock? We haven't heard much from you about Omicron Ceti III."

"I have little to say about it," the Vulcan returned, again with the unusual note in his voice, something Kirk vowed to ask him about the first time they had the opportunity to speak privately. "Except that -- for the first time in my life ... I was happy."

When both his friends looked at him, the First Officer seemed to be as they had always known him -- but the Captain and Doctor knew how much of an artist spock was at disguising his feelings. When they saw the Vulcan's eyes, they belied his serene face. They seemed haunted and sad ... as if concealing profound sorrow or regret. But now wasn't the time to inquire further -- at least not until they were off-duty. Even then, Spock might not be willing to talk, but they (or at least Kirk) would have to take that chance.

* * *

It was at this point that Christine decided to contact Uhura and tell her her experiences both during and after the Omicron Ceti III mission. The Bantu had yet to discover what had happened, but wouldn't be surprised if it involved Spock in some way. It usually took Christine a while to relax enough to open up these days, a legacy of her time with Roger Korby, the last time she had truly opened up to anyone -- and ended up regretting it.

Ever since, she had always been cautious about baring her soul to anyone unless she knew them well and was certain they would understand and not criticize her for feeling as she did about Spock. In other words, be as much a confidante to Christine as Kirk (and sometimes McCoy) were to Spock. But all that mattered to the angry, heartbroken woman at the moment was being able to get her pain off her chest. And once Nyota was off-duty, she would do just that. She had to do something about her problematical relationship (or lack thereof) with Spock, or climb the proverbial wall!

* * *

She awoke to the door buzzer sounding, then Uhura's voice called out to her, sounding concerned ... even worried. "Chris, are you all right? I came as soon as I could. Please let me in if you're there and all right."

Christine heard the call, reluctantly turning over from where she'd been lying on her stomach with her face buried in her pillow, which she just realized was damp, to press the button to open her door. She must have been crying; had, in fact, cried herself to sleep, as she had (unfortunately) done more often than she cared to remember since falling in love with Spock. Surely no man, even -- *especially* -- a Vulcan, was worth such heartbreak, so many tears ... Had Spock's mother Amanda gone through this same agony before managing to win Sarek?

Christine prayed not; she preferred to think that Amanda was the one who had been in control of that relationship. She hadn't been so lucky. In fact, the nurse considered herself fortunate if Spock deigned to give her the time of day. Also, she seriously doubted it would matter to Spock *where* she went, *what* she did, as long as she didn't bother him. As far as she could tell, anyway.

*It would likely be the happiest day of his life,* she thought cynically. *If the Captain needed help, he wouldn't hesitate a moment. He'd go across the Galaxy for him ... but wouldn't go across the room for me! He's proved that time and again. Why do I bother with him? He never notices anything I do; nothing matters.

*Why knock myself out for someone who treats me like a piece of Sickbay furniture? I've *had* it, I tell you -- had it up to here!* she told herself, getting up as she heard the doors of her quarters open, nearing the doorway of her sleeping alcove as Uhura stepped inside and the doors closed behind her.

"Chris, where are you? Are you all right? Answer me, please!"

A few steps more put Christine within sight of her Bantu friend. "Calm down, Nyota. I'm right here, and I'm fine."

Uhura raised one delicate eyebrow in a Spock-like manner, looking the other woman up and down, frowning skeptically. "I've been so worried! How have you been sleeping and eating?"

Christine returned the frown. "What are you, my mother? My appetite is just fine, thank you, and I haven't had to resort to Dr. McCoy's 'little red pills' to sleep yet, so things are all right in that department," she assured her friend.

"Oh, really? Then why are your eyes all red?" The dark woman leaned closer. "Uh-huh, I thought so. You've been crying, haven't you?"

Christine lowered her eyes at the pointed question, wishing she could deny it, but knowing she couldn't. "I'm afraid you've got me there," she confessed reluctantly.

"Spock?" was Uhura's one-word question.

"Who else?" came the answer. "I swear, Ny, he's going to drive me up a tree! I don't know how much longer I can take it. Didn't his mother ever tell him the proper way to treat a woman?"

"She probably wasn't allowed to," Uhura deadpanned, then grinned. "By the way, what happened on Omicron Ceti III with Spock? Were you the one who got him sprayed with the spores?"

"No, of course not." The nurse gave her friend a hard look. "What do you think I am? I'm not that desperate!" Christine declared. *At least, not yet,* he finished in her mind, then sighed.

Uhura seemed stunned speechless, for she never said a word while the other woman talked. She simply sat on Christine's bed and listened as her friend related her incredible yet bittersweet story. In the next moment, the nurse noted that Uhura looked as flabbergasted at this action as Christine herself had been at the time, smiling absently as she recalled what had happened.

"Chris? ... *Chris*!" Uhura's sharp voice brought the daydreaming nurse back to reality.

"Oh, sorry, Ny," Christine apologized. "Got carried away. Well, to continue -- we were still together when the Captain called, saying he wanted to evacuate the colonists. I can't help thinking that there were times Spock just plain wasn't listening to him, since he either kissed me or nuzzled my ear or cheek. At the end, he seemed to totally tune him out. All that mattered was the fact of my nearness ... at the time, at least," she finished wistfully. "Now he won't admit anything ever happened between us. He's in total denial, and nothing I do or say has moved him."

She became very quiet, and Uhura was certain she detected fresh tears in the other woman's smoky blue eyes, threatening to overflow. "I don't know what to do, Nyota. He was so warm and tender on the planet, but now he won't get near me unless absolutely necessary. It's very hard to deal with such an abrupt emotional withdrawal."

"Of course it is, honey," Uhura crooned, trying to soothe her. "And it's because you love him." The dark woman affectionately squeezed Christine's hands.

"I think I know why he's doing it, but that doesn't make it any easier to endure," Christine said so quietly that Uhura could barely hear her.

The latter felt sure that if Chris allowed herself to speak normally, she would burst into tears again and never stop. Uhura also suspected that the reasons for Spock's abrupt withdrawal not only had something to do with his loss of control on Omicron Ceti III, but from the resulting feelings the incident must have engendered in him -- feelings likely to be as deep as Christine's own, but feelings the Vulcan was neither willing nor ready to acknowledge, much less ex-press ... and until he was (or had the help and encouragement of certain friends), he was going to stay in "double Vulcan" mode.

If only for Christine's sake, Spock had to be snapped out of it somehow -- whatever she, Kirk and McCoy had to do. She would have to have a talk with them on the subject at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, it was necessary to help make Chris feel better -- if only temporarily. The Bantu gathered her friend into her arms and stroked her golden hair soothingly.

"I'll try to think of something, honey. Perhaps even talk with the Captain and Dr. McCoy. Between us, we're bound to come up with something."

"I need all the help I can get. I'm about at the end of my rope," Christine murmured, clinging to the smaller woman like she was a life-line.

"We'll beat this problem, Chris. You can bank on it," Uhura declared. "Come Hell or high water, we'll *beat* this thing!"

"If you say so, Nyota." For obvious reasons, Christine didn't sound hopeful.

"Chris, for every immovable object, there's an irresistible force. In Spock's case, you're going to be that irresistible force -- with my help and that of the Captain and Doctor." The dark woman squeezed Christine encouragingly, then released her.

"I *want* to believe you, Nyota. More than anything," Christine said quietly. "It's just that Spock is so godawful stubborn."

"So are we," Uhura returned with a determined air. "We're going to show that pigheaded Vulcan that not even the stubbornest of his kind can stand against Humans." She looked at Christine again and smiled.

Christine managed a small smile in return. "Thanks, Ny. I appreciate the gesture."

"What are friends for? Now stop worrying and just let your old friend Nyota handle things. I've got to go now and see if I can arrange an audience with the Captain and Dr. McCoy. See you later. I'll let you know what happens." The two women embraced warmly one last time, then Uhura departed.

Christine's spirits had definitely been lifted by Nyota's infectious optimism, especially when she said she'd get Kirk and McCoy to help her. She only hoped they would be willing, and could pull it off without too much trouble or too many problems on either side. Spock might not appreciate even well-meaning interference in his private life, but if that was what it took to snap him out of "double Vulcan" mode, so be it. In spite of herself, the nurse laughed as she headed back to bed.

*Spock's not going to know what hit him,* she thought with a chuckle as she got back into bed, for once actually able to compose herself for a good night's sleep -- her first in God knew how long. *I can hardly wait to see what happens.*

* * *

After the three got off-duty, Uhura contacted Kirk and McCoy, telling them that they had to come to her quarters right away because she had something important to discuss with them. Both men knew Uhura well enough to know that she wouldn't call them unless it really was important, but neither could figure out exactly what it was she wanted to discuss with them. Kirk had a pretty good idea, though. It was the only way he could explain Spock's current behavior, behavior which had become progressively more stiff and formal with the passage of time.

He was aware that Spock had had a brief interlude with Christine while planetside, under the influence of the spores; he only went into "double Vulcan" mode if he was feeling the strain of the strong emotions inherited from both parents and the equally strong desire to conceal them ... neither of which seemed to be doing him an ounce of good, particularly since his afternoon with the Head Nurse, which had strongly stimulated those same emotions -- emotions he usually denied, emotions which he was now fighting every bit as strongly. Could he actually have fallen in love with her? It still seemed far-fetched to the Captain, but since Omicron Ceti III, far more plausible than before.

McCoy had noticed a similar phenomenon in his Head Nurse, and nothing he did or said could get anything out of her. She just plain wouldn't talk to him. The most she had ever said was that it was her business and that she could handle it. He was sure she was wrong, but had no idea how to help her since she denied there was any problem ... and got mad if he pressed too hard for an explanation. He had seen her upset about a lot of things, but never this much and for this long -- so for this reason, he was convinced that it had something to do with Spock. She was either sad and angry, even alternately bitter and pleasantly preoccupied, episodes which she usually came out of with a silly grin and dreamy expression on her face.

He never knew what to expect of her from one day to the next. It hadn't affected her work -- yet -- but it would if it kept up much longer. If this meeting with Uhura was about what he thought it was, he just might be able to get enough answers to his questions to actually be able to help her. He and Kirk met on the way to the Communications Officer's quarters, falling into step and sharing their observations about their two friends' behavior since leaving Omicron Ceti III while en route.

"Bones, what do you think Uhura wants to talk to us about?" Kirk wondered, beginning the short conversation.

"I don't know, Jim, but if it's what I think it is, it'll do both Spock and Chris a world of good." The way the Doctor phrased his statement made the Captain give him a strange look, then a knowing smile. Neither knew exactly what had happened between their two friends, but knew them well enough to make a pretty accurate guess. Christine and Spock must have once again gotten into uncomfortably close proximity (the Psi 2000 incident being only the first example), which could explain why both acted like they had something to hide and were doing their best to conceal it -- but not succeeding. Of course, there usually wasn't anything to hide. Unfortunately, both Kirk and McCoy were convinced that this time, there was.

"What about Spock?" the Doctor asked carefully. Even though both Kirk and McCoy were his friends, the Vulcan was usually far more comfortable confiding personal matters to Kirk, since the Captain was more subtle and gentle about drawing him out. McCoy tended to use the "sledgehammer" approach, although he never consciously meant to hurt or badger Spock into admitting his emotions. The Doctor's problem was that he was frankly too impatient, wanting too much too soon, and Spock was simply incapable of showing his feelings that quickly after a lifetime of conditioning to do the opposite.

Intellectually, both Kirk and Spock knew that McCoy meant well, but it rarely came out that way, which was the main reason Kirk was so fiercely protective of Spock's feelings, so much that he was equally certain that he had to have inadvertently hurt McCoy's many times in the process. Kirk regretted that, but didn't see that he had any choice in the matter. In situations like that, one often had to play one against the other, sacrifice one's feelings to spare the other's. Maybe the three of them were too alike -- or was it too different -- to truly understand each other? Kirk couldn't decide.

The Captain had tried many times to explain why one acted as he did to the other, but neither ever seemed to retain the information, and the times that McCoy and Spock fought (occasionally, almost to the point of physical violence), Kirk was very tempted to give up trying to bring them together. At other times, when either Spock or McCoy demonstrated genuine caring and concern for the other, Kirk couldn't help thinking that perhaps -- just perhaps -- there was hope for them after all. He eventually came to the conclusion that the alternating fights and demonstrations of affection (usually unconscious, but seemingly instinctive) concealed a "love-hate" relationship between the First Officer and CMO.

He planned to take them on extended leave at the first opportunity, possibly to Iowa ... perhaps even have Christine join them -- a perfect time for resolving the problems between them. But there wouldn't be an opportunity for that for at least a month. Until then, they'd have to muddle through as best they could. Still, Kirk knew that Spock was extremely sensitive to any and all teasing on McCoy's part ... and not even his explanations that it was one way the Doctor showed affection changed the Vulcan's wary attitude one bit: nor did his attempts to explain why Bones tended to conceal his feelings behind anger, especially those of pain, frustration or jealousy.

These actions stemmed from the pain McCoy had endured during his divorce and extended estrangement from his daughter Joanna, his only child, whom Kirk knew that McCoy worshiped and agonized over because of their unwanted but enforced separation. His unresolved conflicts with her spilled over into his life and personal relationships aboard the Enterprise; as a result, Spock (who had a tendency to take everything people said literally and personally), was extremely cautious, if not wary, around the CMO ... particularly if Kirk wasn't around to mediate any arguments the other two deeply opinionated and highly sensitive men might get into.

Kirk himself understood that each was simply protecting himself emotionally the best way he knew how, but no matter what he did, there seemed no way to get this fact through either of his friends' heads about the other. In the meantime, however, both he and McCoy had other concerns to occupy their minds -- concerns which came to the forefront as they realized they had reached Uhura's quarters.

"Well, we're here. Are you ready?" Kirk asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be," the Doctor returned.

"Then let's get it over with. That's the most logical thing to do, as Spock would say," Kirk said, reaching for the door buzzer as he spoke and pressing it.

McCoy smiled, then chuckled as he nodded in agreement.

"Come on in; the door's open," Uhura's voice came back as the pair took a step forward. A moment later, the door slid open and they entered the dark woman's quarters -- then, as they stepped forward again, the door slid closed behind them. The two men looked at each other. This was it ... the time that would determine the course of all their lives for months, if not years, to come, depending on what they decided to do about their current problem.

* * *

Upon entering, the men saw Uhura standing in the doorway to her living area, her ebony-black hair down around her shoulders. She was wearing a red-and-gold print caftan and matching slippers, along with her favorite exotic perfume. "Welcome, Captain, Doctor. Won't you please have a seat?" She gestured to the nearby table with three chairs; her two guests sat down and made themselves comfortable. "Would you like a drink?" she asked.

"Altair water," was the almost simultaneous reply.

Uhura brought back a tray of drinks, accompanied by a small container of ice, along with the bottle of Altair water, similar to Terran mineral water, taken from her own refrigerator; there were three glasses filled with ice and drink on the tray. "Would either of you like anything to eat?" she inquired, the consummate hostess.

Both Kirk and McCoy politely declined; Uhura nodded in acknowledgment. "Then let's get down to business," she said, seating herself in the third chair at the table and resting her hands around her glass, looking up at her companions and sighing deeply before speaking again. "I assume you know why I called you here," she told them. "I'm worried about Chris ... and Spock, too. They've both acted very strangely since our return from Omicron Ceti III. I also can't help noting that they're the only ones who are doing it. Since the entire crew was affected, it seems most unusual that at least two other people *besides* them aren't acting the same way. They can't be the only ones aboard ship who are fighting an attraction to each other."

"Perhaps not, though it may be that their feelings are the strongest," Kirk suggested. "But both are normally so reticent that it would take something like the spores to get them to relax their inhibitions."

"You're probably right, Jim," McCoy agreed. "It's a cinch that I can't get a thing out of Chris about what happened, and I'm usually pretty good at drawing her out."

"In most things, maybe -- but this concerns Spock, Doctor, and as far as I know, the only one she confides in regarding him is me," Uhura informed him.

"But we *all* know how she feels about him," McCoy threw back after taking a generous swig of his drink.

"Agreed, but how many of us know how Spock feels about *her*?" Kirk interjected. "I think I know him pretty well, and even *I'm* not sure. For that reason, I feel safe in assuming that only Spock really knows the answer to that." The Captain took a swallow of his own drink.

"Has he talked to you about it at all?" McCoy wondered, knowing that if there was anyone with whom Spock would discuss personal matters, it would be Kirk. The only way the Doctor became privy to anything regarding the Vulcan's feelings was if Kirk decided to tell him ... and even then, in deference to Spock, he didn't tell McCoy everything: only the things he believed the Doctor was entitled to know.

"No. At least not yet," Kirk had to confess. "That's why it's so strange. It's just not like him not to confide in me."

"Probably still trying to sort out his feelings -- in between fighting and/or denying them," McCoy suggested.

"Possibly," Kirk reluctantly conceded. "Uhura, has Christine told you anything about what happened between her and Spock on Omicron Ceti III?" The Captain's voice was so gentle that Uhura found herself replying despite her instinctive reluctance to betray Christine's confidence, even if her friend remained unaware of the fact. The point was that *she* would know it.

Uhura told them everything, from Christine's explanation as to how she found Spock and her reaction upon discovering him, as well as the changes the spores had manifested in him ... to the last kiss they had shared before Spock beamed up to meet Kirk: and both her concern when he didn't return and his explanation to her when they saw each other again. For a long time, both Kirk and McCoy were too stunned at the Vulcan's atypical behavior under the spore influence to speak -- but once they had a chance to think about it, the Doctor chuckled.

"Oh, would I have loved to see that ... Spock acting like a lovesick puppy."

"Bones, so help me, if you say one word to him -- " Kirk's voice was low and ominous, almost threatening. "This is probably the only time in his life that Spock's ever been truly happy and free to express his emotions, and I won't have you spoiling it for your own amusement."

McCoy stared back at him with a mixture of horror and pain. "Good God, Jim, what do you think I am? Of all people, you ought to know me better than that by now. I could no more knowingly hurt Spock than you could -- and you should know that whatever else I am, I would never tell anyone about his emotional episodes or ever intentionally use his emotions against him."

"All right, Bones, I'm sorry," Kirk returned apologetically. "Maybe I was a tad out of line, but you were implying that you intended to confront Spock with your knowledge and use it to embarrass him if he didn't do as you wanted. I won't stand for that."

"Aw, Jim-boy, you must know I don't mean it. If you want me to keep quiet about it, I will. It won't be easy, especially if Spock gets me riled up again, but I'll do it." The Doctor sounded so sincere that even the skeptical Kirk had to believe him.

"That goes for you too, Uhura," the Captain said gently, but with a stern note in his voice, aware of how outspoken she could be.

"Captain, I would no more use this knowledge against Mr. Spock than I would against Chris. You may be assured of that. Give me credit for empathy, if nothing else." Uhura's reply was an amalgam of annoyance and hurt.

"Very well. Just so everybody knows what they're supposed to do," Kirk returned. "Now, has anyone got any ideas on how to get Spock and Christine together again? They can't go on the way they have been much longer."

"That's for sure. Chris is about ready to climb the proverbial wall," McCoy observed.

"Amen," Uhura concurred. "But you know how stubborn Mr. Spock is ... not to mention Chris. How are we going to pull off this minor miracle?"

"A little arm-twisting may be necessary. I may even have to pull rank at some point," Kirk said, frowning in distaste. "I don't like to do that, but if it's the only way to get Spock to open up..." His voice trailed off. "God knows I've tried every *other* way I can think of, and it hasn't budged him."

Short of locking them in a room together until they resolve this dilemma between them -- and if things don't improve, I may have to do just that, the Captain sighed exasperatedly. Of course, if it comes to that, we may never see them again. I've never seen anyone so stubborn ... or should I say pigheaded? ... as those two. In the name of logic and nobility, they're putting themselves through an emotional wringer. If I thought it would do any good, I'd even knock their thick heads together -- then *order* them to talk to each other, Kirk told himself. If not by themselves, with Uhura and myself as referees.

The Captain wasn't sure if either Spock or Christine would feel comfortable with McCoy there as well, unless at least one of them (most likely Christine) specifically requested his presence. Kirk had intended for their long talk to wait until they could go on leave, but things were coming to a head so fast that he didn't think any of them could last the necessary month before leaves were likely to be granted -- and how in the universe would they ever be able to get the First Officer and Head Nurse into the same room together long enough to straighten things out between them?

"Both of you are hereby authorized to use any means necessary, short of blackmail or bribery, to get Spock and Christine to meet with us in Briefing Room Five at 1700 hours on stardate 3417.9. Also, make it clear that refusal to comply will get them both put on report for insubordination," Kirk told Uhura and McCoy. "Now, we'd better go. There's no time to lose. You have your orders. Dismissed."

With that, all three got up and left Uhura's quarters, immediately proceeding to follow their designated orders: find their friends and do whatever they had to do to get the Vulcan and Christine to Briefing Room Five at the designated time on the designated stardate, then do whatever they had to do to help them resolve their differences.

* * *

At first, neither of the two concerned suspected anything when asked to meet their friends in the Briefing Room at 1700 hours six days later, after dropping the remaining colonists off at Starbase 27 -- shortly after leaving orbit -- but once they realized what they'd been called there for, both were ready to make a break for the door. However, both Kirk and Uhura gave their friends hard looks and said, "Don't even think it. We're going to resolve this mess between you once and for all."

"I do not know what you mean," Spock claimed. "There is no 'mess' to resolve."

Christine whirled to face him. "The hell there isn't! I'm tired of your consistent denials that nothing happened between us on Omicron Ceti III. You should know that I would never lie about a thing like that!"

"As I said earlier, I never said you had lied, Miss Chapel ... simply -- exaggerated," the Vulcan reiterated coolly, though for once, coolness came hard.

"Yes, you have ... with every word you've said, every action you've taken regarding me since then," she threw back. "I don't expect anything of you other the simple acknowledgment that we did share an afternoon together. Is that so much to ask? Would it be such a sin to admit that you actually have feelings? Would it truly make you any less Vulcan?" Her eyes bored right through him, and Spock had to fight to keep from squirming under her intense scrutiny.

"Not a 'sin'," he finally admitted reluctantly. "Simply not the Vulcan way. A logical lifestyle does not allow for emotional displays."

"Is that why you won't acknowledge what happened between us -- not even to our closest friends?" Her voice was a mixture of pain and incredulity. "Even though it would never leave this room? Is the knowledge that for a few short hours, you actually expressed the deep feelings you normally hide ... Vulcan as well as Human feelings ... or simply the fact that we all know about it -- too humiliating for you to bear?"

Spock hung his head, not wanting to admit that she was right, but equally unable to refute her allegation.

Christine had begun to reach out to him, but dropped her hand as tears misted her eyes. "I suppose it doesn't matter to you that those few hours we spent together were the happiest of my life, that feeling your touch, your kiss, was the most wonderful experience I'd ever known. Worst of all, I was actually foolish enough to believe that you felt the same way. Well, live and learn." Sorrow and bitterness permeated her voice. "But despite that, only death can stop me from loving you ... my death." After a stunned silence on the part of the others, she continued, "Oh, don't worry. I don't intend to do away with myself. I've had rejections before. I'm not so weak that I'd fall apart after another one -- even if that one is from you, the one man I love most in all the Galaxy, even the Universe.

"Just the same, it won't be easy to live with ... but give me time. I'll find a way. Goodbye, Spock. Live long and prosper. May you find fulfillment in the life you have chosen. I only wish you had considered me worthy of sharing that life." She moved to gently caress his cheek, then lips, with her fingertips. He looked down at her; her whole heart was in her eyes and sad but tender smile. "But wherever I go, whatever I do, I'll always love you." Christine raised his hand to her lips to gently kiss it before departing.

"Christine! ... Chris! ... Miss Chapel!" The other three called after her, to no avail. (Spock was too shocked and remorseful to speak.) It seemed that she was more willing to risk punishment for insubordination than the painful knowledge that the one man she loved most would acknowledge neither her feelings nor the hours they had spent together on Omicron Ceti III.

"Well, you've done it now, Spock. The only woman who ever truly loved you for yourself -- all of you -- and you let her walk away," the Captain pointed out upon the doors' closing behind the Head Nurse. "By your own actions, or lack thereof, you've alienated her for all time."

Neither McCoy nor Uhura wanted to admit that Kirk was right, but finally had to. It seemed, too, that Spock actually regretted her leaving ... if only for that moment. But then, he stiffened his back and spoke again. "It is -- quite possible. In which case, I ... must learn to accept her loss." His voice was tightly controlled.

The Doctor broke in, his tone angry and disbelieving. "Spock, aren't you even going to try to win her back?"

"What can I do, Doctor? She has already made up her mind." The Vulcan's dark eyes blackened with the intensity of his control.

"'Do'? Plenty," Kirk retorted before McCoy could formulate a reply. "Beginning with telling her how you truly feel. You owe her that much, I think -- even if you don't tell anyone else."

There was another long silence as Spock considered these words, then nodded. "Perhaps. Perhaps ... I should try."

"Damn right you should. Not only that, you must, if only for Christine's sake. Go now, Spock. Go to her. You have no time to lose."

The Vulcan started for the door, then stopped and turned around to meet the eyes of his three companions, as if to ask permission. All three smiled and nodded in agreement -- then the First Officer turned once again and left. This time, there was no thought of stopping him in anyone's mind.

"Do you think he'll actually do it?" Kirk wondered worriedly.

"If he's smart, he will," the Doctor returned.

Uhura had to agree, but could only hope that Spock would see both the wisdom and logic in what they were attempting to do by bringing himself and Christine together, forcing each of them to acknowledge the feelings engendered by their private time together on Omicron Ceti III. It wouldn't be easy for either of them, but if they could manage to deal with those feelings, perhaps there was a chance for them to make a future together.

Until then, all they (and the others) could do was wait and pray for the successful resolution of their problem ... and most importantly, for Spock and Christine to express their growing love for one another, as well as take steps to formalize that love at the proper time. Perhaps even during the upcoming shore leave -- and both would go, even if Kirk had to pull rank and order them to go ... and McCoy deemed the vacation time therapeutic. With Uhura adding her voice, there was no way in Hell the couple could fight all three of them.

But after the way he had acted and what he'd said, Spock was understandably apprehensive about approaching Christine. At the best of times, it was difficult enough for him to deal with T'Pring, much less a woman who was in love with him, such as Christine. The main reason Spock acted so standoffish with the latter was because he was protesting himself emotionally the only way he knew how. However, it also seemed that he was alienating the very person he wanted to get close to -- even if she frightened him ... so he had to at least make the effort to help her see that he had never intended her to feel rejected or shunted aside.

Not that he had very much confidence in his ability to do this, but if he did nothing, she would be lost to him, possibly for all time -- and however difficult it was to let his guard down, Spock had to try -- for Christine's sake, if not his own. He also considered it "the logical thing to do", but that didn't make it any easier to contemplate, much less actually do. Then again, nothing worth obtaining was easy to get, as far as he could tell ... especially someone special with whom to share one's life and love.

Spock had not been so desperate since the "Galileo Seven" incident, the necessity of which had prompted him to do the most illogical thing he'd ever done (at least from a Vulcan's point of view) ... but as he had already surmised, this situation was no different. It was logical for him, of course, besides being one of the few things which might convince Christine of his sincerity. He could not, would not, let her go. This had to work!

* * *

Christine had just gotten out of the shower, her hair wrapped turban-style in a rose-print towel, her slender body in a matching terrycloth cover-up, when her buzzer sounded. At first she thought it might be Spock coming to apologize, but dismissed it almost as soon as she thought it. Someone like that wasn't about to go chasing after a woman, particularly not if he believed his actions correct and logical, however hurtful they may have been ... or so it seemed to her at the time.

It was more likely to be Nyota stopping by for some reason, though Christine wished with all her heart that it could have been Spock. Unfortunately, that was about as likely as tribbles learning to like Klingons (or vice versa), so she forced it from her mind and went to see who her unexpected caller was. Once she realized who was there, she experienced two emotions: stunned surprise and acute embarrassment. Her cheeks flamed crimson, especially when she saw the way he was looking at her -- like a hungry cat at a mouse.

"Oh ... Spock. I wasn't expecting you. I just -- took a shower, and was going to slip on a ... nightgown, then settle into bed with a good book and my favorite music."

"I -- did not mean to startle you, Miss ... Christine. I simply came to apologize for my treatment of you, and my -- denial of our interlude on Omicron Ceti III. It was ... wrong of me to accuse you of subterfuge, but -- up to this point, I have ... never engaged in any kind of -- romantic activity with a member of the opposite sex, so I ... found your story very -- difficult to believe."

"I suppose I can understand that, but it happened, nonetheless," she declared quietly. "By the way, you'd better come in if you don't want anyone to see you."

The Vulcan raised a quizzical eyebrow, then nodded with a half-smile. "Very well," he said, stepping through and away from the door so it closed behind him. He fought against a feeling of entrapment. Illogical, since he had come here of his own free will ... albeit at his friends' urging.

"Would you mind my dressing before we talk? I don't generally receive a male caller looking like this." In reality, she simply had to get away from him for a while, the situation -- and his proximity -- were entirely too tempting for her. (Well, it was at least part of the reason.)

"I quite understand. It would be most ... distracting for him."

Her eyes widened before she turned to go. "What did you say?"

"A simple statement of fact," he assured her. "Now, go ahead and dress. I will wait." Her rose-scented perfume permeating the air around her, coupled with her womanly scent, made it very difficult for Spock to keep from getting up and following her. It would not do to act like the pon farr was affecting him. He must control his libido until the proper time, and that time had not come yet.

He did his best to be patient, but after half an hour, she still had not returned, and Spock became more restless and uncomfortable with every passing moment. The Vulcan had not believed himself capable of such strong desires for a woman, especially not one he was not bonded or married to -- but he could no more deny his desires than he could deny his own existence ... or the feelings he had fought for the past week. It had done no good; in fact, they had only intensified with every passing day -- and now had come to a head.

He got up and started for her sleeping alcove, unable to help wondering if his father had felt (or still felt) this way about his mother. He considered asking her at the first opportunity. In the meantime, what he was most concerned with were his own feelings, his intense desire to be one with Christine -- not only physically but mentally.

"Christine?" he called out softly. "Where are you?"

"Spock?" She sounded surprised at first, then said, "In here." He followed her voice into the bedroom. When he reached her, she had turned to face him. "Is something wrong?"

"I ... cannot wait any longer," he found himself saying, aware of his statement's double meaning, but unable to stop himself.

"Do you need to leave?" she asked, also aware but afraid to voice it, choosing instead a neutral question as a reply.

"No," he returned, voice silky, almost a purr. "What I need -- is you."

There was stunned silence for a moment, then she spoke again. "Spock..."

"I am sorry, but this is the only way I can demonstrate to you how I have -- come to feel toward you." He moved closer to her as both of them seated themselves on her bed.

"I know, my love. There are some things which can only be said without words." Now it was her voice which had become a purr. It was she, in fact, who moved closer to him and lifted his head to face her, leaning over to kiss him warmly, lingeringly, on the lips. "I've wanted to do that for so long, Spock -- but never dreamed that you would ever want it ... or me."

His eyes glowed as she had never seen them glow before, with a mixture of love and desire which he had never dreamed himself capable of, even allowing for his Human half. Spock was both happy and incredulous, both at her having forgiven him and explained the feelings he had been unable to put a name to. "Still ..."

"What are you trying to say, Spock?" she asked quietly.

"That I -- wish to bond with you," came the equally quiet reply as the apprehensive yet captivated Vulcan made himself speak. He made himself tell her about T'Pring and his former duty bond. Upon finishing, Spock clasped his hands tightly in his lap, unsure of what his companion was thinking -- much less feeling. He wasn't even aware that he had been holding his breath until she spoke again.

"I'm ... glad you told me, Spock. I only wish you could have told me sooner. Still, after enduring something like that, it's understandable that you would want to keep women at arms' length."

"Unfortunately, that did not make it any easier for you to endure," he returned gently, stroking her cheek with a fingertip. "But it has been -- several weeks now, and I feel a need to replace the emptiness inside me with the ... mental presence of a woman who truly -- loves me, not one who simply bonded with me out of duty, because of what I could ... bring to the marriage -- not for ... myself." He sighed. "I would not blame you if you chose not to -- accept me, after the way I have ... treated you. But I cannot -- endure this ... void any longer; it must be -- filled, and I am ... asking you to fill it. That is, if I have not managed to -- destroy whatever ... feelings of love you have -- felt for me."

He could see her answer in her eyes, feel her love flowing over him through her touch, yet still needed to hear her say it. "Spock ... I would be honored -- and will do all in my power to make you happy."

"Just as I will do everything in mine to make amends for the pain I have caused you," he assured her, eyes soft as they looked deeply into hers and raised her hands to his lips. "I now wish to perform the bonding ceremony so that we may be one, for now and all time." He lifted a hand to her face and positioned it accordingly; within moments Christine felt both the warmth of his love and the heat of his desire. He made sure to be careful due to the absence of the traditional t'hy'r kalah, or "bond-witness," usually a family member or close friend ... which, in Spock's case, would be Kirk, who was familiar with his mind, more than anyone else he knew.

It was for this reason that he was hesitant at first -- but with her loving encouragement and help, Spock managed to deepen the meld between them until his feelings were hers ... and vice versa. Upon completion some twenty minutes later, he lowered his head and once again looked deeply into her eyes. When he tried to speak again, she raised a finger and pressed it to his lips to silence him.

"Beloved, you consistently give too much thought to what is real and what is not. What is real is this moment, here and now -- and our feelings for each other. What is unreal is the fear we each harbor. Do not fear for us, my love. Our love could never be wrong. I realize it's your way to question things, but just this once, accept things as they are. Forego your control, your discipline..." Her hands brought his to the closure of her floral robe and helped him undo it upon the couple's once again rising to their feet. Upon sliding the robe off her shoulders, the sight of her nude beauty was almost too much for the Vulcan/Human hybrid's heart to stand.

"Christine ... " he whispered, sounding breathless, his heart pounding almost double at her nearness. In fact, he felt light-headed, almost drunk.

"Don't fight it, my love. Just once, let yourself go -- and take me with you." With that, she daringly reached to open his shirt and slip it off his shoulders. A moment later he lifted her chin and found the sweetness of her lips with his, holding her lower body tightly against him with both hands for an interminable moment before sweeping her off her feet and into his arms to turn toward her bed and place her on it, still holding the kiss. He seemed famished for her, as though he had been starved all these years ... and so he had been, for the love of a woman who truly loved him for the person he was, Human half and all.

Soon all the lovers were aware of was the touch, scent and nearness of the other -- and so it was, all through the next several hours, in the warm, humid darkness of the Head Nurse's quarters ... and each other's arms.

* * *

As it turned out, it was not necessary for Kirk to pull rank or order the parties involved to talk to each other; they ended up doing it on their own, and quite satisfactorily, too ... but none of the couple's friends were to learn any details as to why there had been such an abrupt change of heart of the part of the Vulcan until at least another week had gone by -- and by this time, they were well into making plans to spend a week in Iowa on Kirk's family farm with his widowed mother, then the other week camping at Yosemite National Park in California.

In the midst of packing (he also helped Spock and advised him regarding the best things to take with him), ordering tickets, reserving a cabin large enough for them all to share at Yosemite -- and a generous supply of groceries, not to mention an aircar in both places, Kirk surmised ... as did the other two ... that it had taken that long for Spock and Christine to sort out their thoughts and feelings so that they would be able to explain themselves -- at the proper time.

It would be late fall in both California and Iowa, but only in Iowa would it be likely to get cold enough to freeze, possibly even snow, if the humidity was high enough. Perhaps they could go ice-skating, sledding or even sleigh riding. If it snowed enough, he and the others would then introduce Spock to snowball fights and "snow angels" ... not to mention new Terran foods, such as vegetarian burgers and pizza. Kirk, especially, wanted to see Spock's reaction when the food was set before him, even though it had originally been Bones' idea that he buy it.

He knew the Vulcan didn't ordinarily care for Italian food because of its high meat content, but the Captain had learned of a spot in his home town of Riverside (his mother had told him it had only recently opened) that featured such vegetarian foods on its menu. Because of this, Kirk had decided he would have to take everyone there at least once while they were on leave. If nothing else, he would see if the outfit had take-out orders, since Spock might refuse to go if there was any chance he might smell meat, since even the smell nauseated him and therefore all but negated his minimal appetite.

He had also suggested that the others bring swimsuits because there would be a jacuzzi in the cabin; that might be the only way to get Spock to wear one since he wasn't a good swimmer, for obvious reasons, and just sitting in the jacuzzi didn't require any knowledge of how to swim. There were also some hot springs at Yosemite where swimsuits were optional, but Kirk doubted that even he could get the Vulcan to agree to visit them. Maybe if it was just himself and Spock, or perhaps Christine. He couldn't be sure if he could get Spock to stay if the Doctor was present, even with himself and Christine as insurance, so he would have to ensure that Bones was on his best behavior should situations like that come up during their leave.

* * *

The next couple of weeks passed so quickly that it seemed to Kirk and the others that it had gone by in fast-forward; the next thing they knew, however, the Enterprise was in drydock for routine maintenance, which included refueling as well as upgrading the engines and computer system. Kirk was aware that Spock would likely have preferred to assist with at least the latter, if not the former as well -- but even if Christine and McCoy couldn't tell that Spock needed R&R, the Captain certainly could, and preferably away from the ship, away from his work. The Vulcan was a classic example of the old Terran term for a person obsessed with or addicted to work: "workaholic." Well, he wasn't going to allow it ... not this time.

* * *

They arrived at the spaceport an hour early to put their luggage aboard the shuttle which would take them to the shuttleport in Des Moines, the closest major one to the Captain's family farm. They couldn't all sit together, but fortunately were near enough so they could carry on a conversation if they wished. Kirk, Spock and McCoy were on one side of the aisle, the Vulcan at the window seat, since he wanted to look out the window (he hadn't seen much of North America, especially not Iowa, and didn't want to miss the opportunity to take it all in).

Kirk was in the middle, the Doctor on the outside in the aisle seat. Christine was in the opposite aisle seat, with Uhura in the center. She was disappointed that she wouldn't be able to speak to Spock or touch his hand periodically -- not unless he and McCoy switched seats, and on a commercial flight, seats were usually assigned and switching was frowned upon without specific, previous permission. In that case, she would simply have to make the best of it. Oh , well, at least she could smile at him once in a while -- provided he turned his head in her direction, that is ... and if he didn't, she would have to wait until they reached Des Moines for her chance.

Of course, if Spock took it into his head to avoid her and spend time with Kirk, McCoy and the Captain's mother instead, she would be left with only Uhura as companion ... and that really wasn't what she had come along for. She spent most of her time either working or with Uhura as it was, so she was frankly hoping to have at least some time alone with Spock during the leave. If he was so determined to avoid her, all she could do was be equally determined to stay near him. If she played her cards right, he would soon seek her out. They weren't on the ship now, so he wouldn't be able to get away from her that easily. She wouldn't allow it.

* * *

It was when they arrived at the Des Moines shuttleport and picked up the rented aircar after retrieving their luggage that Christine saw her chance. She helped Kirk and Spock load the storage compartment; at one point their eyes met and locked for a split second. She smiled hesitantly; for a long moment, Spock did not react, then took one slow step over to her, favoring her with a half-smile and a brief but firm squeeze of her hand. But however brief the contact was, it was enough to renew Christine's courage and strength to face whatever lay ahead in their future, not simply for the duration of their leave -- though both of the couple deemed it best to take matters one day at a time. Upon finishing the loading, they got into the car and took off.

* * *

Still, it didn't help her that once in the aircar, the Vulcan's attention was monopolized by Kirk. Spock merely allowed her touch on his hand, never squeezing it back even when she did it, seemingly oblivious to her presence for the half-hour flight to Kirk's family farm. McCoy and Uhura were asleep in the back seat, since the group had arrived shortly after midnight. They had been traveling ever since leaving the ship and everyone was exhausted.

Once again, the Head Nurse helped her two superior officers unload the aircar; once Uhura and McCoy had been sufficiently roused, they took their own luggage inside. Kirk's mother, the early-to-bed type, had retired several hours ago -- but the Captain knew the door code, so she had left a note on the door for her son, telling him to simply come in and make himself and his friends comfortable; she would see all of them in the morning.

The Captain got everyone inside and out of the cold wind, then designated the two women to share the sofa bed in the living room, the Doctor what was once his brother Sam's room, which adjoined what was once his own room. He and Spock would share that room and the twin beds therein. Within an hour, the new arrivals had been settled into bed, most of them too tired to fully undress. A shower and change of clothes would come in the morning, then they would all go to meet Kirk's mother together.

* * *

Kirk checked on his friends when he awakened at 0900 the following morning, hours later than he ordinarily did when aboard ship. He noted that Spock was lying in the twin bed opposite him, hands clasped on his chest, eyes open but not speaking. The Captain surmised that his Vulcan friend was purposely being quiet so as not to disturb him until he knew for certain whether or not the Human was awake.

Spock didn't speak as the Captain got up and put on his robe and slippers over his socks and Fleet-issue undergarments; it wasn't until he was headed for the door and preparing to leave that Spock broke his silence.

"Where are you going, Jim?"

"I want to check and see if any of the others are awake, then have a shower and maybe hunt up Mom. It's been her habit to rise at 0600 ever since I can remember, so I'm pretty sure she's up -- probably in the kitchen starting breakfast. If that's the case, I'll let everybody know and we can greet her as a group. She'd probably have a heart attack from the shock if one of you came upon her with no explanation. I should be back in a little while, probably twenty minutes to half an hour. Meanwhile, there's a bathroom Sam and I used to share just off this room, so you're welcome to use it while you're waiting ... at least until I return to shower and dress. See you later." With that, Kirk opened his bedroom door, then stepped out and was gone.

Spock got up and picked out the clothes he planned to wear that day, including undergarments, from his travel bag and looked around for the bathroom. He located the door a short distance down an adjoining hallway and made his way to it. Once inside, he was pleased to see that there was a choice between water and sonics; he chose the latter and stepped inside the shower stall after shedding the clothing he had slept in, the shower brief but thorough, his movements efficient and methodical. After getting out, he dried off and dressed in the fresh clothing. Kirk had still not returned by the time Spock came out, roughly twenty minutes later, so the First Officer decided to sit on his bed and meditate in order to get himself into the right frame of mind to face the day and whatever it held in store.

* * *

After leaving his room and Spock behind temporarily, Kirk went next door and knocked softly on McCoy's door (formerly his brother's room). "Bones?" he called quietly. For a long moment, there was silence, then he caught the sound of the doctor's snoring. He smiled and decided to let McCoy sleep since the Chief Surgeon rarely had the chance to get a full night's sleep without some kind of medical emergency. Kirk knew sleepless nights often came with the territory in McCoy's line of work (although being a starship Captain entailed quite a few as well; Kirk could testify to that).

Forty-six was hardly old, but the Doctor was considerably older than Kirk -- over ten years -- and most of the rest of the crew were anywhere from their early twenties to late thirties in age, with the exception of Scotty, who was roughly the same age as McCoy. Because of this, it was becoming progressively more difficult for the Doctor to continuously keep such late hours and deny himself rest and nourishment in the name of duty.

Of course, Kirk had done these same things himself, but he was younger and could get away with it -- at least for the time being. The Captain decided to come back after checking on the others, including his mother. She was expecting him, and he was sure she would love the extra company (once she knew they were here and had met them, that is). Just the same, he decided it was logical [Kirk smiled at the thought of Spock's pet word] to give her some warning as to just how many had accompanied him.

She probably expected at least three, because Kirk had kept her informed of his friendships with Spock and McCoy via stargrams; it would be the two women he would need to explain. She might swallow his claim that Christine was Spock's "significant other" and that Uhura was her closest friend, who had decided to accompany them since their leave had become available at too short notice for her to have been able to contact her family in time for them to prepare for her arrival ... but then again, she might not, since Anna Marie Kirk was well aware of her younger son's penchant for beautiful women. It was lucky that there was sufficient room for everyone, and the company would give Anna Kirk the chance to indulge a rarely-enjoyed passion: entertaining.

When her husband, George Samuel Kirk, Sr., was alive and their boys were growing up, the week never went by that there wasn't some large social event at the Kirk farm ... but since the senior Kirk's death and the departure of her two sons -- now grown men -- one into a career as a research biologist, the other as a starship commander -- the get-togethers were few and far between, only occurring if James Kirk was able to get home for a rare visit and bring his friends Spock and McCoy. This was the first time Spock had been here, but McCoy had been here once before.

Kirk recalled how the doctor had just completed his residency at Starfleet Medical; he had contacted Bones to invite him to go on his first home leave since joining the crew of the Farragut. McCoy was pleased and flattered at the invitation, but didn't want to intrude, so he politely declined. Kirk wouldn't take "No" for an answer, putting his friend at ease right away with reassuring words.

"Nothing to worry about, Bones. As I told you, Mom loves company ... the more, the better, especially if they're my friends. And the last time I checked, you were my friend. Am I right?"

McCoy sighed and nodded. "You're right, Jim."

"Great. Then you'll come with me?"

"I'll come."

* * *

After leaving McCoy's room, Kirk tiptoed downstairs, carefully peeking into the living room, where Christine and Uhura lay in the sofa bed. He noted that Christine seemed to be stirring, while Uhura was still deeply asleep. They looked like young girls again in sleep, the professional masks they wore on duty discarded, their hair loose and tousled, falling over their pillows like twin silken, golden and ebony waterfalls. He appreciated Christine's attractiveness, but it was Uhura's exotic beauty which made his heart skip a beat in spite of his determination to control his reaction to her. Forcing himself to turn away, he moved quietly toward the kitchen, where he believed his mother was.

He knew she liked doing as much as possible for herself, even though age and illness had slowed her down some months back -- a virulent strain of Rigellian fever having weakened her, coupled with arthritis in her hands and knees. Only recently had Anna Kirk been able to rise from her bed, where she had been confined for the better part of three months ... and even then, against her doctor's better judgment -- but she had absolutely refused to remain in bed any longer.

Even now, she could not be on her feet for more than half an hour at a time. The rest of the time, she was aided by a walker or airchair, modeled after an old-time wheelchair but equipped with a device which held it just off the floor on a cushion of air. At the moment, she was sitting in a chair at the table, her walker in front of her and a pillow beneath her.

Kirk stood at the doorway to the kitchen, peeking through a crack in the door at the diminutive woman with grey-brown hair up in two long braids wound around her small head. He quietly slipped inside the kitchen and called to her when she seemed not to notice him. "Mom?"

The seventyish woman didn't react at first, then slowly raised her head and spotted him. "Jimmy? My darling, precious boy! Is it really you, or am I dreaming?"

He smiled at the glowing happiness in her eyes and on her face. "I'm really here, Mom." He moved to her side and knelt in front of her after moving her walker aside.

"Hold me, Jimmy. Hold me so that I may believe it's really you." She held out her arms to him; he moved into them, then slid his own arms around her fragile body to gently squeeze her. Once in his mother's arms, James Kirk ceased to be a starship Captain and became simply a young man who loved his mother and wished to demonstrate that love after a long separation.

Anna Marie rested her grey-brown head on his chest for a time, listening to the beat of her son's heart, before lifting her careworn but still beautiful face to his younger one. "My boy, darling boy! I've missed you so. It's been far too long between visits."

"I've missed you too, Mom." Kirk smiled and raised her delicate hands to his lips and kissed them. "Unfortunately, the life of a starship captain doesn't allow much time for family leave."

She seemed to close her eyes in pain at the reference, then opened them again to stare at him questioningly. "If you're here, then you must be on leave now. Where are your friends?"

"Most of them are still asleep. Spock is the only one awake besides us."

Anna frowned thoughtfully. "Spock. He's the Vulcan, your First Officer, who's half-Human, right?"

"Right," Kirk confirmed.

"Which reminds me. Did your other friend Leonard McCoy, the doctor, also come? He seemed like a lovely person when we met the last time he was here, but he seemed somewhat evasive when I asked him how you two had come to be in Starfleet together."

"He's here, Mom," Kirk assured his mother. "As for his evasiveness, the reason behind his joining Starfleet is a very painful thing for him, so he doesn't talk much about it, not even to me. So many times I wish he would ... The look on his face sometimes -- It's got to be tearing him apart."

"Perhaps between all of us, we can draw him out while you're here. Meanwhile, may I ask who else came with you?"

I hope so, Kirk thought, but out loud, he said, "My Head Nurse and Communications Officer, Christine Chapel and Nyota Uhura respectively. Christine and Spock have an 'understanding', and Uhura didn't have anyone who could take her in at such short notice, so I invited her along with the rest of us. I didn't think you'd mind, since we have plenty of room and you love company."

"Certainly not," came her reassuring reply. "They're all more than welcome. I can hardly wait to meet them."

"Want me to go get them? I think the others may be awake by now. I put Bones in Sam's old room and the women on the sofa bed in the living room."

"That's fine. Yes, by all means, go get them. I'll be right here." Anna looked pale and tired, which prompted her son to frown with concern.

"Are you feeling all right, Mom? Maybe I could have Bones or Christine check you over while we're here. Remember, you do have a tendency to overwork yourself -- and spent three months in bed not too long ago."

"I've had enough mollycoddling from Dr. Grey, thank you," Anna dismissed. "Now, go on, son. Don't keep me waiting any longer."

"If you say so, Mom," Kirk sighed. He had never been able to win an argument with his mother and now was no exception. As he left the kitchen, he noted that Christine and Uhura were just getting up. The rose-decorated clock on the mantlepiece read 1030 hours. No sense letting Bones sleep the day away, not when his hostess was so anxious to see him again -- and meet the rest of his shipmates and friends.

"Christine, Uhura, get showered and dressed, then wait for me here," he called to them as the pair noticed his presence and smiled in greeting. "I'll be back down as soon as I collect Spock and Bones."

The women smiled again and nodded as Kirk continued on upstairs.

This time, when he got to McCoy's door, a simple knock got a response. A rather drowsy response, but a response, nonetheless. "Jim, is that you?"came McCoy's voice, muffled through the door.

"Yes, Bones. Get showered and dressed; my mother's waiting in the kitchen."

The Captain didn't mention how ill his mother had looked; Bones would be able to tell that for himself. Perhaps he could then find out how she really felt physically, since she was as good at hiding physical distress as he, but nothing could hide from McCoy's scanner. Kirk also happened to know that the Chief Surgeon had brought his medikit and various medical paraphernalia, while Christine had simply brought her medikit.

"Right away, Jim. Be out in a few minutes," the doctor called back.

"Go down and wait in the living room with Christine and Uhura. I have to shower and change; Spock and I will join you -- then we'll all go to meet Mom."

It was a good thing that McCoy couldn't see Kirk's worried face; as it was, he sensed something was wrong -- something that Jim wasn't telling him. "Problem, Jim?"

"Yes, but I can't talk about it now. I'll see you soon. Now get cracking." With that, Kirk continued on back to his room, where Spock was waiting, having just come out of his meditative state.

"You were considerably longer than half an hour, Jim," the Vulcan gently admonished when his Human friend entered.

"I know, but Mom and I got to talking ... then I got Bones and the girls in gear. You might as well go down and wait in the living room with them. I'll be a while."

The Vulcan looked hesitant.

"Don't worry; you'll go almost directly into the living room upon going downstairs. The door will be open and is on the right; you'll see it right away. And I'm sure Christine will be happy to see you."

"No doubt," the First Officer murmured under his breath. "Very well," he conceded. "I will see you shortly, Jim."

"Later, Spock." With a smile and wave, Kirk disappeared into the bathroom after getting some fresh clothes from his travel bag.

Spock allowed himself a smile in his friend's direction before heading for the bedroom door and going downstairs to the living room to wait for the Captain with the others.

He found it every bit as easily as Jim had promised, both Christine and Uhura turned their heads and nodded in greeting as he entered. The Head Nurse added a warm smile to hers; Spock allowed himself a smile in return. They talked a few minutes, then McCoy entered, smiling and greeting everyone with a cheery, "Good moring, everybody."

He got a response, too -- even from Spock. "Good morning, Doctor."

"Where's Jim?" McCoy asked.

"He is showering. He will be down shortly, then we will all go to meet his mother together; he has informed her of our presence and she wishes to meet us as soon as possible." That was the most the Vulcan intended to say until Kirk joined them, which he did roughly twenty minutes later.

"Is everybody ready?" the Captain added as he entered. "No time to waste. Mom's waiting in the kitchen. Follow me." He turned and left again; the other four trailed after him and all soon reached the kitchen door. "Mom?" Kirk called.

"Come in," her voice came back. McCoy's eyes met Kirk's. "She doesn't sound too good. Would you mind if I checked her over at some point?" This time the doctor frowned with concern.

"I'd appreciate it, Bones," the Captain returned. "Now let's go meet Mom." With that, he pushed open the kitchen door and they all filed in.

"Mom, we're here," Kirk said.

Anna, who had been dozing in her chair at the table, was somewhat startled as she looked up and saw her son standing in front of her, surrounded by his friends and top officers -- Spock and McCoy on his right and left respectively; Uhura and Christine were behind them. The older woman's face became thoughtful as she examined each face, her eyes finally coming back to rest affectionately on the handsome countenance of her younger son.

"Let me introduce everyone," the latter finally said, but before he could speak further, Anna broke in.

"Why not let your friends introduce themselves?" she suggested.

Kirk frowned thoughtfully, then nodded and smiled. "Why not, indeed? Who wants to go first? Spock? Bones?"

The Vulcan looked decidedly uncomfortable with the whole thing, but had resigned himself to going along with the idea.

"I will, since we've met before," the Doctor said with a smile. "A pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Kirk." He picked up her frail hand and raised it to his lips, surreptitiously checking her pulse as he did so. It was slow and erratic, almost dangerously so -- only about 45 beats per minute, as opposed to the normal 70. She also seemed unusually pale and her flesh was cold, indicating bad circulation.

She could easily have a serious heart condition because of her lengthy illness as well as her age and hypertension, not to mention arthritis. He surmised that her illness had weakened her heart, much as rheumatic fever had done to many thousands of Terrans centuries ago. She would be unable to take any shocks or too much excitement. However, this was no time for him to talk medically about Jim's mother in front of everyone. This was supposed to be a vacation, not a medical evaluation.

"It's good to see you too, Leonard," Anna smiled, settling her free hand back into her lap once McCoy had released it; the other held that of her son. "I hope we'll get the chance to have a good long talk before your leave is over."

McCoy smiled. "I hope so, too. I would appreciate such a talk ... especially if you'd allow Jim and Spock to sit in with us." This was a marked contrast to when Kirk and Spock usually got together -- for the most part, the Doctor was usually excluded. Not so much because of dislike on Spock's part, simply the fact that he was more comfortable when alone with Kirk (or Christine, for that matter) as opposed to showing any feelings in McCoy's presence, since the Doctor rarely missed a chance to pounce on any emotional display from Spock.

The Vulcan knew McCoy cared about him and meant well when he did this, but that didn't make the First Officer feel any more at ease, nor did it help the Doctor in any way. Hopefully, this action on McCoy's part would make them think twice about including him the next time they got together. Unlikely, but one could hope.

Anna squeezed her son's hand and smiled up at him -- then at Spock beside him. "Of course, Leonard. It'll be fun to tell you all about Jimmy's childhood."

The Captain lowered his head and flushed pink with embarrassment. "Mom, please ... "

"Hush, Jimmy. They'll love it," she assured him with a conspiratorial wink in the Doctor's direction; at this point, the fact of Christine and Uhura's presence was belatedly recalled. "The ladies are also welcome to join us. That is, after we're properly introduced. Come here, my dears," she beckoned to the Head Nurse and Communications Officer, who were immediately put at ease by her warm smile and inviting manner. They stepped forward and shook the elderly woman's hand in greeting after returning her welcoming smile: a smile identical to the Captain's, as was her hair (at least it must have been when she was young) and hazel eyes. The rest of Kirk's face must have come from his late father.

Like McCoy, Christine had surreptitiously checked Anna Kirk's vital signs, discovering the same things he had and vowing to discuss it with him and examine her at a later date, preferably together. Meanwhile, it was time for them to start enjoying their leave.

"We would be honored, Mrs. K -- Anna," Christine returned sincerely, changing names in mid-sentence after the old woman's steely gaze stabbed through her (again, a gaze identical to that of her son). "My name is Christine Chapel. I'm Head Nurse of the Enterprise. This is my friend, Nyota Uhura, Communications Officer. We have served aboard ship for the past two years," the nurse explained.

"What are your relationships with my son, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy?" came the next question, so suddenly that Christine barely had time to prepare herself.

"With the Captain, I am merely his Head Nurse. I care for him when he is ill or injured. It is the same with Mr. Spock ... that is, until recently. We have been -- keeping company, seeing one another socially, for the past several weeks." This was as much as she dared say about her relationship with Spock without his approval, knowing how highly Vulcans regarded their privacy, especially when it came to their personal lives and innermost feelings.

She turned her head to meet his eyes; he nodded back approvingly, then she returned to resume her explanation to Anna Kirk as to her relationships with the Captain, First Officer and CMO.

"As for Dr. McCoy, he's a dear friend, father figure and colleague -- pretty much in that order." This time she turned her head in McCoy's direction and smiled warmly at him to emphasize her affectionate words.

The doctor's eyebrows shot up in surprise and pleasure as he returned her smile. The head nurse was almost as tight-lipped as Spock about her personal life and private feelings, so McCoy had had no idea how she regarded him until now.

"Thank you for your candor, Christine -- may I call you Christine? -- I hope we can talk privately at some point as well ... and you may bring your friend Nyota with you, too; don't worry." The older woman gave the younger another reassuring smile.

"Thank you. We appreciate that." Both of the younger women nodded appreciatively in the older woman's direction.

"Well, I think it's about time we all had breakfast," Anna observed. "It's not getting any earlier." She got up slowly, leaning heavily on her walker; Kirk helped his mother, but Christine was on her other side. Spock was further touched by this new evidence of her caring and gentleness.

"Thank you, my dear," she told Christine as she headed for the stove, where covered pots were cooking, a savory smell coming from them.

"May Nyota and I help you?" the latter offered.

"I'd appreciate that," she smiled. "Now let's get to work. It's going to take some time to fix enough food to feed all of you."

"I am a vegetarian," Spock put in helpfully.

"Then we'll have to see that you get non-meat items," Anna replied graciously, the warmth of her smile upon the Vulcan almost tangible as he was once again strongly reminded of his closest friend: especially when she treated him so non-judgmentally ... and best of all, as an equal, without prejudice or disapproval. "And thank you for being a friend to my son. It isn't often that a Vulcan and Human become so close."

"He was more of a friend to me first," Spock quietly confessed, a tint of green in his cheeks as he spoke so only Anna Kirk could hear.

"My Jimmy always was quite friendly and outgoing ... " Her voice trailed off, then began again. " ... but also quite stubborn and -- tenacious."

Spock couldn't help thinking that it had sounded like she wanted to say something else instead ... but since no one commented on it, he decided that it was prudent that he not do so, either. For my sake, I am glad he was, the First Officer thought. I am indeed fortunate to have such an extraordinary friend. Out loud, he merely said, "Indeed," and remained silent after that until some time after the meal.

The two younger women stayed behind with Anna Kirk to help prepare the meal after assuring the Captain they would look out for his porcelain-frail mother, make sure she didn't overtax herself, exhaust her limited physical resources, since both knew she would never agree to sit and wait with the others. Instead, she would insist on being "in the thick of things," as it were -- and the other two saw no point in arguing with her.

It would only upset her and that could be fatal to someone in her questionable condition; the last thing either wanted was to aggravate it in any way. Besides, they each understood how much Anna needed to feel useful, and weren't about to take that away from her. The menfolk left, gathering in the living room to socialize and wait to be called for breakfast. Christine promised to call them as soon as it was ready; with that, cooking and food preparation (including table-setting) began in earnest. Discussing any future plans for their leave could wait until after they'd eaten.

* * *

In the meantime, however, everyone's minds were occupied with matters more related to having a good time on their two-week leave than anything else. It became increasingly obvious from the time the five arrived at Kirk's family farm -- but particularly for Spock, especially when the morning meal had been eaten and the dishes washed, then everyone had moved into the living room.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy were discussing what else to do during the week's leave allotted to them in Iowa with the three women, including Anna Kirk, when a medium-sized Siamese cat jumped into the elderly woman's lap. Anna automatically began stroking and crooning to the animal as the latter snuggled into her mistress's lap, the former somehow never missing a beat during the conversation. "Just talking with my son and his friends, darling," she assured her loudly purring feline companion. "You just relax and sleep."

Anna knew the questions the others must have, deciding to address her son first. "I got the cat about a year ago from a friend who was moving to Rigel V and couldn't take her with them. She -- the cat -- is about three years old."

"She's beautiful," Kirk opined, reaching to stroke the cat briefly, noting a sky-blue, jeweled collar around the cat's neck, as well as a flea collar. "What's her name?"

Anna's answer stunned everyone, especially Spock. "Her name is Amanda."

The Vulcan had noted the cat's deep blue eyes, eyes reminiscent of his Human mother, but never dreamed the two also shared a name. Both the First Officer and Head Nurse tentatively reached to pet the cat as well, Spock's hand lingering a few seconds longer than Christine's. She, as well as Kirk, had noticed Spock's reaction to the cat's name, but since both knew Spock's mother's name, neither were at all surprised. Meanwhile, they wanted to finish their conversation, so they shelved further questions for the time being. Only McCoy and Uhura were too far away to stroke the cat without getting up and walking over to where Anna was, though they intended to do so at the first opportunity.

"Well, what do you think we should do tomorrow?" McCoy asked.

"Maybe I could show you all around Riverside, take you to my old hangouts -- that is, if any of them are still around," Kirk suggested.

"That's an idea," the doctor agreed. "Any other ideas, anyone?" He looked around at everyone else.

"The state capitol in Des Moines, perhaps?" Spock put in tentatively. "Jim has spoken often about how beautiful it is."

"A possibility for tomorrow, maybe," the Captain conceded. "In the meantime, we still have to get through the rest of today." When the silence dragged on for several minutes, Kirk said, "Come on, people, surely somebody can think of something."

"Well ... " Christine began. "I was thinking -- "

"Thinking what?" Kirk returned.

"It's too bad it hasn't snowed. Otherwise, we could introduce Spock to the joys of 'snow angels' and snowball fights, if not making a snowman," she continued. "It's been years, but I used to love to do all that in winter where I grew up in Cleveland."

"If nothing else, we could tell him about them," Kirk remarked.

"It wouldn't be the same," Christine opined, sounding disappointed.

"I know, but if it doesn't snow, we won't have much choice," the Captain pointed out.

"Not unless you took pictures of when it did snow," she finished.

Kirk brightened. "You may have something there. Mom, do you still have the old holograph albums from when I was a kid?"

"Of course," Anna said, absently stroking the cat in her lap. "They're in my old hope chest in the attic."

"Great," Kirk said, grinning from ear to ear. "Come on, Spock, Christine. There are a lot of them, so I'm going to need help in bringing them down. Follow me." He got up and headed for the stairs, taking the Vulcan and Head Nurse with him in order to give McCoy and Uhura the opportunity to make their acquaintance with Anna Kirk's cat without having their weakness put on display in front of the others.

When the Doctor and Uhura did approach and pet the cat, Anna asked, "Did you ever have a cat, Leonard?"

"My Grandma -- Mama's side -- had an old calico named Sassy. I always loved to pet her when I went to visit. There were even times that Sassy fell asleep in my lap ... or she would be curled up next to me on my bed sometimes." The doctor seemed almost wistful. "After Grandma died, I intended to get a cat, but got interested in other things, like girls and getting into med school. By the time I thought of it again, I was in my first year of med school, figuring there was no sense in getting a pet when I'd be gone all the time ... though I'd have loved to have one, so many times, after the--" The doctor broke off in mid-sentence.

"'After the -- ' what?" Anna gently pressed.

"Nothing," McCoy said quickly. "Forget I said that."

"You've got to talk about it sooner or later," she persisted, eyes pleading with him.

"Not now," McCoy insisted, hearing noises which told him that Jim, Spock and Christine were returning. "Later, okay?"

"All right," Anna returned. "For now." Her voice was mild, but the doctor saw a determined look in the elderly woman's eyes -- a look he'd seen all too often in James Kirk's eyes -- and sensed that he had better deliver on his promise within the not-too-distant future, so he vowed to be as ready as possible when the time came. A few minutes later, the other three re-appeared, the two men carrying an old maplewood chest between them while Christine carried about six fairly thick albums in her arms.

"Here they are," Kirk grunted. "But I'll have you know, this thing is heavy! Even with Spock's help, I can barely move it. Why did you have to take so damn ... *grunt* ... many pictures?"

Anna motioned them to set the chest on her coffee table; Kirk sat down in his former position, breathing heavily and wiping perspiration from his forehead. Spock sat next to him, still looking as fresh the proverbial daisy. Christine set the other albums down on the coffee table next to the chest and went to sit down beside the other two. "Well, everybody gather around and let me regale you with the incredible exploits of the Kirk family -- including my little Jimmy and his big brother Sam," Anna Kirk announced grandly. Within moments, all had gathered around, and Anna began to tell the life stories of her husband and herself, how they met and married, before moving on to the lives of her two sons ... the research biologist and the starship Captain.

* * *

Naturally Anna's stories provoked many questions, and what Jim Kirk couldn't (or wouldn't) answer, Anna Kirk did. Sometimes the revelations proved embarrassing to the Captain, even though he intellectually knew that his mother wouldn't knowingly do that to him. Particularly not concerning the time when he was caught naked with a girl at age twelve in his upstairs bedroom. His father had whipped them both with a willow switch upon discovering them and informed the girl's father what had happened. As a result, both of them were grounded for the rest of the month, not allowed to see each other except during school hours, and then only with a group of other students and at least one teacher around. (The girl had been his girlfriend at the time, the daughter of one of George, Sr.'s closest friends.)

Kirk knew simply from the looks on his friends' faces that they would expect a more detailed account of the incident at some point, but intended to put them off, at least for the duration of their leave. Until then, he intended to make sure their minds were too occupied to bother him with too many questions about an incident that, even though it had happened over twenty years ago, still had the power to make him blush as nothing else did.

He came back to reality upon hearing Uhura's triumphant cry. "We found them!" He turned his head to see the fourth album Christine had brought down halfway open and Uhura holding up a holograph of a child approximately five years of age playing in the snow. He was covered with it, but grinning a huge, gap-toothed smile through it all. As the others looked closely, they realized that it was James Kirk as a child. The caption read: Jimmy after first snowball fight with Sam ... December 15, 2238.

"Oh, how cute!" Uhura exclaimed. "I don't get to see something like this very often."

"Adorable," Anna agreed.

The other simply nodded in agreement, though Spock allowed himself a smile. Jim had indeed been "cute" as a child.

"Hey, here's another!" Uhura announced gleefully. This time it showed both boys grinning and covered with snow, standing next to a large snowdrift, so high that the top could not be seen in the picture. This time the caption read: Sam and Jimmy next to the big snowdrift, 7 feet, 6 inches ... January 4, 2240.

"Too bad we can't do it this time. It's obviously not cold or humid enough to snow," Kirk informed them apologetically.

"That is not your fault, Jim," Spock reminded him.

"I know, but I can't help wishing that Christine and I could show you how to have fun in the snow," the Captain returned.

"Another time, perhaps," Spock attempted to reassure his friend, choosing not to mention his apprehension at the idea of being outside in cold and snow, even if it meant being with his friends, since he usually felt chilled, even in temperatures which Humans found comfortable. He didn't want to think what the temperature must have to be for it to snow.

The large chest was filled with fat photo albums, and the group sat well into the night going through them. Only the rumbling of Kirk's stomach got them to stop even briefly to feed themselves -- and even then, they sent out for it, to the new Italian restaurant Anna had told her son about after going through the take-out menu and choosing meals for everyone. Certainly it would be a long time before anyone forgot Spock's reaction to the meatless (though it looked otherwise) meal set before him once it arrived. He looked at Kirk with a dubious eyebrow raised; the Captain smiled reassuringly.

"Go ahead, Spock. Try it. There's no meat in it."

The Vulcan still looked skeptical, but cut off a small piece with his fork and carefully ate it. For a seeming eternity, all held their collective breaths, waiting for Spock's answer. All present released their breaths gratefully, with relief, when the Vulcan looked up at Kirk and nodded with a half-smile. "Most palatable," Spock pronounced. "May I finish it?"

"Of course," Kirk assured him. "But give credit where credit is due. It was Bones' idea that I buy it."

Spock looked up to meet the Doctor's eyes. "Your idea, Doctor?"

"I just suggested it, Spock. It was Jim's decision whether or not to buy it." McCoy tried to downplay his role in bringing about the present event.

There was silence for so long that all present were sure they must have done some thing wrong -- until Spock once again gave a half-smile and said, "One of your better ideas, Doctor. Now may I finish the meal before it gets cold?"

"Go ahead. We're not stopping you," Kirk said. "Now let's all eat." With that, the rest of the food was distributed, and everyone sat down and dug in.

The Doctor was too stunned at Spock's rare compliment to speak again until the end of the meal. "Was I hearing things, or did Spock actually compliment me?" the Chief Surgeon wondered. "Don't make it sound so incredible, Bones," Kirk chided him. "He's done it before."

"Not in my hearing, he hasn't," McCoy retorted. "Though I am glad to hear that I've finally managed to do something right in his eyes. Thank you, Spock." The Doctor returned to finish his meal.

This time it was Spock's turn to be stunned, but he simply nodded and closed his eyes, then opened them again in tacit acknowledgment of his second-best friend's expression of gratitude before finishing his own meal. The others made no outward reaction, though Kirk and the two Enterprise women smiled inwardly. The older woman finished her meal, putting her plate and eating utensils in the sink to be washed, then told everyone she was going to bed. They could finish going through the photo albums in the morning -- then decide what they were going to do for the rest of the day.

"Do you need help, Anna?" Christine asked.

"I would appreciate it. Thank you, my dear."

The nurse put her own eating implements in the sink and went to join the elderly woman. "I'll be back shortly," Christine told the others, ostensibly addressing them all, but focusing on Spock. The rest nodded and smiled, except Spock, who merely nodded in acknowledgment. She smiled at everyone, then left the room with Anna.

* * *

Upon getting Anna settled into bed and admonishing her to call either herself or McCoy if she needed medical help -- they would leave their monitor lines open (she had installed a two-line system between Anna's room and that of herself and McCoy respectively) so they could hear her -- Christine returned to the others.

"You were gone a considerable length of time," Spock noted upon seeing Christine re-appear in the doorway to the living room.

Christine bit back what she wanted to say and said simply, "I needed to bathe her before getting her ready for bed," she explained. "One of her two regular nurses, the one who usually bathes her, isn't due until tomorrow. She didn't feel up to doing it herself, though she was taught to do it in bed if she needs it and there's no one around to do it for her. Other than this, the most she can do for herself is go to the bathroom."

Spock nodded in acceptance and picked up his glass to finish his drink.

Kirk said, "Thank you for looking after Mom, Christine. I appreciate it as much as she does."

"Glad to help," the nurse smiled. "She should be all right, but I intend to leave my monitor line open so that I may listen for her and go to her if she needs help."

"Did you leave mine open, too?" McCoy asked.

"Of course," Christine assured him. The two Medical Officers customarily packed a portable two-line monitor system if they were going on leave off the ship and there was a patient in precarious health on the other end. It could easily be installed in a patient's room and those of the Medical Officers and had saved lives on several occasions.

Anna had told Christine she had two home health care nurses come by three times a week as prescribed by her doctor, the cost of which was covered by her health insurance. The doctor himself visited at least once a week, and the nurses reported their findings to him regularly. How ever, neither the doctor nor nurses were due to come by for at least another day, so Kirk was grateful for the presence of Bones and Christine in the absence of his mother's regular caregivers.

Meanwhile, all were too keyed up to sleep, so each decided to stay up and talk for a while longer, including Uhura. They had already agreed to finish looking at the photo albums, so they debated on whether to take a tour of Riverside, where Kirk would show them around -- provided it hadn't changed so much that he no longer recognized it ... or at least one of his old hangouts was gone. Otherwise, they would plan an excursion into Des Moines, where Kirk would again show them around -- again, provided it hadn't changed too much for him to recognize it.

They had also expected the cat to go with her mistress, but to everyone's surprise, she jumped onto the sofa and situated herself in Spock's lap, promptly beginning to purr loudly. Once he got over the initial shock, he began to alternately stroke her or scratch behind her ears. "Seems like you've made a friend, Spock," Kirk remarked with a smile.

"Indeed," the Vulcan returned neutrally, recalling that his sehlat, I-Chaya, had been the size of a grizzly bear and that his fur had been brown and wiry, whereas the small creature in his lap sported silky fur of either a dark brown or cream color. But however different the two animals were in size, they shared the common trait of gentleness.

The cat remained on Spock's lap until the group separated to go to bed two hours after Anna had retired. The Vulcan carried the cat upstairs, but had Christine take her into Anna's room, since she and McCoy needed to check on the older woman, anyway. They all said their goodnights at Anna's door, and Uhura promised to have Christine's things ready so she could change and get into bed quickly. The nurse thanked her friend and promised to be down as soon as possible.

Both the Doctor and Christine were pleased to see that Anna's vital signs were stable, and though her heartbeat was still erratic -- almost dangerously so -- it had improved somewhat, to 50 beats per minute. Christine had placed the cat on the bed first thing, and by the time she and McCoy left the room, the female Siamese was curled up at her mistress's side, next to her left hand.

"See you in the morning, Chris," McCoy said, turning to head down the hall where his room was.

"See you then, Leonard. Good night."

She waited until the Doctor had gone into his room before heading for the stairs. She had nearly reached them when a quiet voice called her name.


She turned to find Spock at her elbow. "Spock, you startled me. I thought you'd already gone to bed."

"I wished to bid you good-night first," he explained.

"Oh. Okay," she smiled, startled but pleased when he reached for her hand and brought it to his cheek for a time, then his lips, and kissed it. They looked deeply into each other's eyes for a timeless moment, then Spock released her hand and dropped his own.

"Sleep well, Christine," he almost whispered. "I will see you in the morning."

I hope that we may find some time to be alone while we're here, the nurse couldn't help thinking.

Spock picked up her thought as he began to head back to the room he shared with Kirk. We shall try, he told her mentally, hoping she would pick it up. Her smile told him that she had, and he allowed himself a smile at the thought of her as he continued on his way. She didn't realize she was smiling until she got downstairs, where Uhura was sitting up in bed, reading.

"Well, don't you look like the cat that got the canary," the Bantu remarked with a knowing smile. "What happened?"

"What makes you think anything happened? Spock simply said good-night to me before I came back downstairs, that's all."

"What else?" the other woman asked skeptically.

"Nothing, I swear," Christine protested, mildly annoyed. "Now will you let me get ready for bed?"

"Go ahead," Uhura returned mildly, though Chris knew her too well to believe that Nyota would give up so easily. She vowed to prepare herself as well as possible for her friend's inevitable questions, praying that she would have satisfactory answers. When she returned after showering and brushing her teeth, Christine was pleased to note that the other woman was asleep -- or pretending to be.

Hoping it was the former, the nurse slid into bed, turned out the light and settled into the softness beneath her, closing her eyes and smiling at the memory of the warm gentleness of Spock's touch and his kiss on her hand, as well as his putting her hand on his cheek. As she fell asleep and drifted off into pleasant dreams, Christine hoped the day which she and Spock would share alone would be the following one ... and that the Vulcan's dreams would be as pleasant as hers.

* * *

It was more likely than either of them ever suspected -- and Christine would have been surprised as well as pleased at the theme of the conversation which took place between Spock and Kirk before they finally retired. The Captain knew there was something on his Vulcan friend's mind, and also knew that Spock needed to talk about it, however reluctant he may have been to do so.

"Something on your mind, Spock?" Kirk asked gently.

"What makes you think that?" the Vulcan replied neutrally.

"The way you're acting, for one thing. All you said you were going to do was tell Christine good-night."

"And that was what exactly what I did." Spock raised a quizzical eyebrow at Kirk's skeptical tone.

"Are you sure?" the Captain returned persistently.

The First Officer sighed. He never could hide anything from Jim, even as much as he sometimes found himself wishing he could. "Very well. I -- found myself wanting to stay with her, wanting to ... share physical love with her again." His voice was barely audible, and his cheeks held a greenish tint.

"I see. How long has this been going on?"

"For almost two weeks now," Spock confessed.

"And you'd like to ... do it again while we're here," Kirk guessed. "Does she know?"

The Vulcan blushed but nodded, unable to deny it. "I -- believe so, but am not certain."

"Well, I'll try to arrange some time alone with Christine for you if you like, but the rest is up to you," Kirk told his alien friend.

"I ... would appreciate that, Jim. Thank you." Spock smiled shyly.

"Meanwhile, I think it's best we get to bed. It's quite late. Good night, Spock." Kirk went into the bathroom to shower and change into his sleeping-clothes before retiring.

"Good night, Jim." The Vulcan allowed himself a smile in the direction of the bathroom before changing into his own sleeping-clothes, telling himself to shower upon getting up as he laid out his clothes for the following day. He was in his normal sleep-trance when Kirk came out. The Captain gave his Vulcan friend an affectionate glance before getting into bed and turning out the light, making a mental note to arrange the promised time alone with Christine for Spock at the first opportunity.

* * *

It was understandable, therefore, that Christine would be surprised when the Captain knocked on her door late that night and asked to speak to her. "May I come in?" he asked hesitantly.

"Of course," she said, turning to head back to her bed, wrapping her robe about her and tying the belt securely around her slender waist. "What did you want to talk about?"

"It's rather personal, I'm afraid," Kirk returned gently. "It concerns Spock."

"I suppose he wants you to tell me to leave him alone once and for all," she returned morosely.

"No, by no means. In fact, he asked me to arrange some time for the two of you to be alone together -- if you're willing."

If I'm willing! Christine wanted to shout, having been unsure of Spock (or more specifically, his feelings for her ever since their one and only time of intimacy, now over two weeks in the past. She hoped he wanted to be with her again as much as she wanted to be with him, but despite their bonding, he had neither done nor said anything which indicated his wishes up to this point -- until now, that is -- which was why she was so surprised to hear what Kirk had to say.

"Of course I'm willing," she made herself say. "I just didn't think he was."

"It's never been easy for Spock to express himself, especially when it comes to women, but I got the impression that he does ... want you -- yet finds it too difficult to approach you and tell you so."

"He did all right the first time," she pointed out. "What makes this time so difficult?"

"I'm not sure, but I think it's the fact that he's experiencing feelings for a woman which have come naturally to him instead of having been induced ... and they're so strong that they're scaring the bejesus out of him. He feels better going through an intermediary, at least for right now. Even for us Humans, falling in love takes getting used to, so for a Vulcan, who's trained to sup- press such feelings, it's got to be ten times harder. For that reason alone, I'd say that it's a good, if not excellent, sign that he has progressed in his emotional development to such an extent that he's even able to ask--"

Christine held up a hand to stop Kirk. "Captain, you don't have to sell me on Spock. I was sold months ago. So ... when does he want to -- be alone with me?"

"As soon as possible," the Captain returned, his tone reflecting relief not only for his friend but for himself, that he had been able to convince Christine that Spock really did want her, and of his own free will. "How about this weekend, since we're going to the Botanical Gardens in Des Moines tomorrow? I think we'll all enjoy that, even Mom ... though I'd have to carry her to the car and rent her an airchair once we get there."

"Is she up to it?" Christine wondered, concerned for the older woman's fragile health.

"I think so, especially as long as either you or Bones are close by in the event of an emergency." He then told her what the Botanical Gardens were like.

"All right," the Head Nurse returned. "Sounds like fun. Now, what about Spock and me? Do we go anywhere special, or just somewhere on your farm?"

"It's both -- sort of. There's a small pond surrounded by trees at the extreme west end of the property. Plenty of privacy, and a spot to have a picnic or go swimming if you like. In fact, my brother Sam and I used to call it 'the ol' swimmin' hole'."

"Sounds good. Have you told Spock yet?"

"I thought it might have more impact if you did it," Kirk remarked with a knowing smile.

"Not too much, I hope. I don't want to scare him off." She sounded deeply concerned at that prospect, almost worried. "Just asking you to do this has got to be difficult enough for him."

"Then we've got to make it our business to make things as easy as possible for him after this."

"Aye, sir." She gave him a mock salute. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Well, what do you want to do? Do you tell him you're willing to be alone with him, or do I?"

"I think I can find a way to break it to him gently," Christine chuckled. "Good night, Captain."

Kirk moved to the door and stood there a moment before speaking again. "Good night, Christine." With that, the Captain slipped out the door and was gone.

Christine smiled after him, then took off her robe and slippers, reaching to touch the base of the bedside lamp to turn it off. She lay in the darkness for a time while waiting for Uhura to join her (the latter was showering), speculating on how the next two days were likely to go -- especially the day that she and Spock were going to spend alone at the secluded pond on the western border of the Kirk family farm.

She could imagine what Leonard and Nyota would think once they found out; would probably never let either her nor Spock hear the end of it. Hopefully, the Captain would be able to keep them in line, however, if only during their leave, and at least part of the time. She put her arms around her pillow, burying her face in it as a sly smile crossed her lips before she fell asleep.

They went to the Botanical Gardens the following morning and spent the entire day there. Everyone had a different favorite spot; some even had two, like Spock. With him, it was a toss-up between the Herb, Succulent and Cactus exhibit and the exhibit where beautifully colored birds and flowers lived together. Christine would never forget how Spock had bought her a t'lerya flower and placed it in her upswept hair in the proper spot to indicate that she was spoken for ... a custom in the state of Hawaii, which she had told him about.

The Orchid Wall was Anna Kirk's favorite; she even recalled how her late husband had given her an orchid on every special occasion, starting with their wedding day and every special occasion thereafter until his death. After hearing this, Kirk bought an orchid for his mother; she smiled at her son with tears of happiness and gratitude brimming in her old but sparkling eyes. "Thank you, my son."

Their companions smiled at this; Kirk's eyes lowered and his cheeks turned pink, knowing Bones and Uhura would milk this incident for all it was worth once they got back to the ship. Meanwhile, however, Uhura was diverted (at least temporarily) by a flowering plant native to Kenya, her native country in the United States of Africa. She bought it before anyone could talk her out of it, planning to keep it in her shipboard quarters to remind her of her Earthly home. Kirk bought a holovid detailing the attributes of the Botanical Gardens, while Christine secretly bought a tape of soothing natural sounds set to music from several planets, including Vulcan. Spock will especially like that, she thought with a smile. McCoy got a colorful book all about the Gardens, which even came equipped with "scratch 'n' sniff" squares on each page featuring flowered plants with scents -- even bird calls on a small computer disk included with the book.

They went to the Gardens' cafe for a late lunch around 1400. It featured soups, salads and sandwiches. They sat outside in deference to Spock, so he wouldn't be bothered by meat smells, though Kirk made sure his mother stayed bundled up. The Vulcan ordered a Gardenburger (vegetarian hamburger) with alfalfa sprouts and onions; Christine and Uhura shared a large chef's salad; Anna had a cold half ham-on-rye sandwich and a cup of chicken noodle soup. Kirk ordered a large bowl of cream of chicken soup with a small Caesar salad and garlic bread, and McCoy got a large bowl of vegetable beef soup and another order of garlic bread. Everyone got orange juice as the universal drink, since it was one of the drinks everyone liked.

The meal was barely finished when Kirk noticed his mother nodding off, so he suggested they all leave and return home. Everyone made sure they didn't forget anything, and once they were situated in the aircar, the Captain ran the rented airchair back and they were off.

Upon arrival home, the two Medical Officers got Anna settled into bed. Chris left McCoy and Kirk to look after her, saying she needed to speak privately with Spock. It was still early (around 1500) so she asked him to walk with her after she put her things away, including her secret purchase, only taking a few toiletries -- lip gloss, a small mirror, bottle of perfume and comb. Uhura planned to watch Kirk's video, which lasted 1-1/2 hours, while waiting for them. Hopefully she and Spock would have returned by then, but there was no guarantee of that.

"Did the Captain tell you when and where he's arranged for us to go to be alone?" she asked after a moment.

"No," came the reply. "When and where will we be going?"

"Tomorrow, at 0800 hours. There is a secluded, wooded area on the west edge of his property here; he'll take us there and pick us up. I also thought I'd fix us a picnic lunch, and perhaps we could also go swimming -- if the weather isn't too cold, considering how late in the year it is." She tried to forestall any possible objections on Spock's part.

"It sounds ... most pleasant," he finally pronounced, quietly but with unusual warmth.

"I'm sure it will be." She also planned to have sleeping bags on hand in the event they decided to spend the night there. Spock would also have his communicator to reach Kirk and let him know when to pick them up. On the way back, the two discussed what to put in the picnic lunch ... then, upon reaching the gate which led to the house, the Vulcan reached for her hand and raised it to his lips to kiss it.

"I will be looking forward to our outing tomorrow," he told her, allowing himself a smile.

"As will I," she returned. "Please be ready at 0800 tomorrow morning."

"I will," he assured her. "We had best get inside now," he told her softly. "It is becoming quite cold."

Christine hardly noticed, still infused with the warmth of his touch, but outwardly agreed, so they went inside, the pair separating after he left her at her door. She spent the next few hours planning the menu for tomorrow, fixing it before going to bed. Uhura helped her pack it, but Chris wanted to do as much as possible herself. She also planned what to wear and tucked the new tape in with her portable player and a few other instrumental music tapes she had brought along. Lastly, she showered and washed her hair, intending to perfume herself upon rising and dressing.

* * *

They left the house shortly after 0800, packing the rear seat with their gear. Each wore a jacket and fairly heavy clothing, but still had swimsuits on hand in the event it got warm enough. It was close to the time of year commonly referred to as "Indian summer", the time between fall and winter when the weather temporarily turned unseasonably warm.

Kirk helped them with the gear when they arrived; he showed them just where to go, where the pond was and where to stash their things safely, yet near at hand. He then watched as they laid out their sleeping bags, then told them how to make a fire when it got dark. He wasn't sure if either had absorbed his instructions, but hoped at least one of them had, or else they'd not get through the night. He assumed too that Christine could cook over the fire if necessary, hoping he wasn't wrong in that assumption.

"What are you going to tell the others when they realize we are gone?" the Vulcan inquired.

Kirk smiled knowingly but with understanding. "Simply that you two need some time alone and not to ask questions."

"That is unlikely to satisfy Dr. McCoy's curiosity," Spock pointed out.

"Nor Nyota's," Christine added.

"Then I'll tell -- no, *order* -- them not to ask questions until we're back on the ship," the Captain informed them.

"I seriously doubt that either Leonard or Nyota are going to be able to keep their mouths shut for a week," the Head Nurse remarked dubiously.

"They will if they know what's good for them." Kirk's voice was ominously quiet. "I'd betetr go now. Good luck, you two. I hope this time alone helps." He smiled again at each of them. "You know what to do if you need help. Barring any unforeseen problems, I'll see you both at this time tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Christine said.

"Thank you for your help, Jim," Spock returned, dark eyes deep pools of gratitude and affection.

"That's what friends are for," Kirk replied. "See you two tomorrow." The couple watched as he disappeared through the trees, then the aircar's engine started -- soon fading off into the distance.

There was an awkward silence for a time, when neither could think of anything to say ... then Christine forced a smile. "I brought some instrumental tapes. Would you like to hear them?"

Spock lifted his head and gave his companion a tentative smile. "Yes. That would be -- most agreeable."

Christine busied herself rummaging through her tapes, than chose a handful (including the new one) and arranged them in the order she wanted them played, programming the deck so it would play continously.

"Would you like something to eat? I fixed several of your favorite foods as you requested, including Gardenburgers with onions and your favorite Terran drink and dessert -- hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls."

"That sounds ... most appetizing, Christine," the Vulcan agreed. The two began to eat once everything had been dished out (Chris had even brought a bag of nacho cheese chips to have with the main course, which Spock seemed to enjoy as much as she did).

"If you're still hungry after you finish that, I've got some cream of broccoli soup -- the next best thing to plomeek," she told him, trying not to sound apologetic.

"I am not ... displeased, Christine," he assured her. "Although it is not often that I am in a situation such as this."

"What kind of situation is that?" she couldn't help asking.

"Alone with an -- attractive woman, planetside, eating outdoors..." His voice trailed off.

"I was given to understand that you had *requested* this," came her bewildered reply.

"I did," Spock confirmed. "Do not concern yourself, Christine. You have done nothing wrong. I am simply -- not used to this."

"It's a new thing for me too," Christine reminded him. "Especially being here with you."

After that, the couple concentrated on their meal, the soft music and fresh air, along with the lapping of the water against the shore ... anything but the disturbing nearness of the other. The looks Spock was giving her made Christine both uncomfortable and excited, but she didn't think it would be right -- at least not yet -- for her to let Spock know this.

This was something the nurse had experienced only in her dreams and fantasies; it had only truly happened once between them, and since then Spock had kept her at arms' length. Until now. She thought she knew why, but in the end discovered that she had been only half right. Spock *had* been protecting himself emotionally, but had also been dredging up the courage to tell (or show) her how he felt about her.

Meanwhile, he finished the Gardenburger and chips, requesting a serving of the cream of broccoli soup. She smiled and served it to him, along with the cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate, once he had finished that as well ... the most she had seen him eat in a long time. However, at one point she discovered that she had gotten icing from the cinnamon rolls on her fingers and was about to lick it off when Spock surprised her by saying, "Allow me, Christine."

She was stunned speechless even as she allowed him to bring her fingers to his lips, the wet warmth of his tongue on her fingers, licking off every vestige of the sweet whiteness, started her heart pounding double-time. She kept her eyes closed to keep him from seeing in her eyes how his actions were affecting her, but she couldn't fool him for long -- although he let her think she had.

After lunch, Christine suggested they have a swim, since it had warmed up sufficiently (into the mid-80s) that it would be comfortable for them to do so. Upon the couple's changing into their swimsuits, she turned toward the water and held out her hand. Spock took it and tentatively stepped into the water with her. After a moment he felt comfortable enough to go out a little deeper ... at least to just above his knees. On Christine, the water was halfway up her thighs, since she came to his shoulder.

"We do not have to -- swim, do we?" he asked softly. "I am not ... an -- experienced swimmer."

"Of course not. I like just doing this, feeling you near me."

She hesitantly slid her arms around her companion's slender waist, loving the feel of his warm bare skin under her hands. She finally, tentatively rested her cheek on his furry chest, the mat of hair there soft but wiry compared with his silky head of hair.

Only at this point did the Vulcan hesitantly slide his own arms around Christine's waist, then entwined his long fingers to gently rest them on the small of her back. Christine sighed happily and moved to place a hand on the Vulcan's upper abdomen where his heart was, a heart which he knew must be pounding ... and unseen by him, Christine smiled as she felt its hard, rapid beat under her hand.

What surprised her, however, was Spock's own arms tightening around her, then his gentle kiss on the top of her head before resting his cheek on the silky cap of her hair. He couldn't help thinking how warm, soft and sweet-smelling she was, and even though he had rarely been this close to a woman with such little clothing between them, he simply held her as they stood in the cool water.

He wore royal blue swim trunks with the Enterprise insignia embroidered in gold on them, while she wore a modest yet clingy swimsuit of the same color with the insignia embroidered near the left leg opening. After a time, he felt her release him, then reach up to lightly stroke the back of his neck, then down his back to his waist with her fingers. He shivered, but forced back any further reaction for the time being.

A short time later he suggested, "Let us sit down in the water -- closer to shore."

Christine was reluctant to move, but finally did. They were about five feet from shore when they sat down in the water and he took her in his arms again. Her head fell back when his lips found her throat and neck, feeling the pounding of her heart, which equaled her own. He then lifted her head up to find her lips with his own ... a kiss so sweet and gentle, yet passionate, that it was more like a caress. The couple eventually lowered themselves to the sand and just lay there, seemingly unable to stop kissing.

The lovers were in their own wordless Heaven, unable to believe that they could feel as they did and still be on Earth. After a while they lost all track of time, aware only of each other's nearness and the touch and kiss of the other. Spock knew that he had never been so tempted to throw all logic and control to the winds as he was now, and was certain that Christine felt the same way.

They had waited an eternity for this; if only this unbelievable happiness he felt, this incredible moment, would never end. Love was here and now, his only desire at present to remain close to Christine, in her arms, feeling her body move beneath him and her lips cling to his as she whispered to him of her love for him.

Both were pleasantly exhausted by the time reality manifested itself again, in the form of Spock's reacting to the now-cold air and even colder water. "Are you cold?" he finally asked as they reluctantly moved apart, feeling her shivering as the air hit their bare skin.

She nodded, and he ruffled her hair affectionately. "Then it is logical that we get into our sleeping bags before we become chilled."

"Sleeping *bags*?" Christine sounded disappointed at his use of the plural term after their blissful interlude.

Spock raised one upswept eyebrow, then allowed himself a smile. "I assume you wish to put them together, then?"

She nodded determinedly.

"Very well. I believe two individual bags zipped together are large enough for two."

The couple maneuvered themselves into the double bag, then a comfortable position in each other's arms. The taped music had played the entire time the couple had engaged in love play, and now became a lullaby, singing them to sleep with the sounds of nature. Before allowing himself to fall asleep, however, Spock remembered that it was necessary to make a fire, so he reluctantly slipped out of the bag and did just that.

After making sure it would burn continuously, he rejoined his companion in the sleeping bag. Spock was nearly asleep, Christine's head on his shoulder, when he recognized the natural sounds of his home planet. His eyes snapped open and he called out to her urgently.


"What?" she asked sleepily, unwilling to open her eyes.

"What tape is that?" he asked pointedly.

"It's a tape of natural sounds from different Federation planets with a soft, instrumental background. I got it at the Botanical Gardens' souvenir shop. I thought you'd like the Vulcan sounds. Does that answer your question?" She yawned deeply at the end of her explanation.

"I do. It was just ... such a surprise. Thank you." He rested his cheek on the top of her head again.

"You're very welcome, my love. Good night now." She snuggled closer, wrapping her arms around him and promptly falling asleep.

"Good night, Christine. Sleep well." With that, the Vulcan put himself into a deep sleep-trance, all the while hoping they wouldn't be discovered like this, even by Jim -- and the couple slept deeply the rest of the night.

* * *

Kirk, Spock and Christine joined Uhura in watching over Anna Kirk as she slept. Amanda, the Siamese cat, who had been curled up next to her elderly mistress, transferred herself to Spock's lap upon realizing he was there. The cat purred loudly under his absent scratching or stroking, not budging until he decided to retire for the night, hoping for some time alone to gather his thoughts, away from the distracting presences of Jim and Christine.

The former surely had questions about what had happened between him and Christine; the Vulcan couldn't blame his friend for being curious. Spock could only hope that he would have some concrete answers once Jim started asking his inevitable questions. Kirk looked up and met Spock's eyes as the other man stood at the door.

"I'll turn in in about an hour or so," the Captain told his alien friend.

"Very well. I will see you there. Good night, Christine," he called to her.

"Good night, Spock. I'll see you in the morning," the Head Nurse replied -- somewhat absently, the Vulcan noted, but wasn't too concerned, since it only meant that she was preoccupied with the Captain's mother, her and Dr. McCoy's temporary patient.

Anna seemed stable, but at the same time, didn't seem to be getting any better, either -- and when someone was in as precarious a condition as Anna Kirk was, that wasn't an encouraging sign. She might even have to be re-admitted to the hospital, if only for observation, if her regular doctor and nurse agreed with McCoy and Christine's findings. For his friend's sake, Spock hoped that didn't happen ... at least not before their departure.

Jim dwelt too much on the mortality of those around him as it was. If something happened to his mother -- whom he rarely saw because of his Starfleet duties, but with whom he kept in touch via stargram -- his Human friend would immerse himself in guilt for not having done more for her ... or in the Human vernacular, "take a heavy guilt trip", which would take both himself and McCoy to bring their friend out of.

In the meantime, the First Officer had his own concerns, eventually deciding he would try to meditate after taking a shower and changing into sleeping-clothes. He was still trying to do so when Kirk came in. The Vulcan had made the attempt several times, but couldn't get into the right frame of mind; tantalizing visions of his interlude with Christine kept intruding.

He hoped he could get his emotions under control soon because there was still a week left to go on their leave, and Spock was sure Christine and Jim would try to talk him into bathing in the hot springs at Yosemite, if not McCoy and Uhura as well. In his present condition, the Vulcan would be unable to refuse any of them ... even the Doctor.

"Meditating?" the Captain asked upon entering the room he and Spock shared, kicking off his shoes upon reaching his bed, then grabbing his sleeping-clothes off his pillow and heading for the bathroom to shower and change.

"Making the attempt," Spock returned, his tone almost frustrated.

"And not succeeding," Kirk guessed, standing at the bathroom door. "Care to talk about it?"

"Your concern is appreciated, my friend, but I prefer not to discuss it right now."

Kirk sighed, knowing enough not to pressure his friend."Suit yourself -- but when you're ready, you know where to find me."

"Thank you, Jim. I believe I will retire now. Good night."

"Good night, Spock."

By the time the Captain came back out, he noticed that Spock seemed to be asleep, but the First Officer was very good at pretending, so Kirk laid even odds that that was what his alien friend was doing now. Even so, he would not force the issue. Spock would seek him out when he was ready to talk.

* * *

When it came time for the group to leave, Anna Kirk's condition had worsened, though only a medical expert or someone who knew her well could have detected any change. Kirk hated to leave his mother in her questionable condition, but both her doctor and nurses had insisted that she was stable ... at least for the moment. Just the same, he left the number where he and the others could be reached in the event of an emergency. He kissed and gently hugged his mother when it came time for parting. "I hate to leave you, Mom, but we've got reservations for Yosemite for this evening and have to get there today or we'll lose them. Take care and try to conserve your strength as much as possible."

You worry too much, Jimmy." She patted his hand, which lay over the other one of hers, then the Captain withdrew his own. "I'll be fine. It's been wonderful having you and your friends here; I only wish we'd had more of a chance to sit and talk."

"Your health was more important," McCoy insisted, exchanging a glance with Christine, who confirmed his statement with a nod of agreement.

"Indeed," Spock concurred, reaching to pet the cat one last time. The animal was curled up in her mistress's lap; Christine and the others followed suit.

"I've told the Doctor where he can reach me if necessary -- so if you need me, just tell him and he'll contact me," Kirk told his mother.

"Jimmy..." Anna's tone precluded too many more remarks on the subject.

"I simply want to be here for you if you need me, Mom," Kirk returned defensively, reaching to put a hand on his mother's cheek.

"I know, son, and it's appreciated, but you'd better go now. Your friends are waiting." Anna put her hand over her son's, then released it after gently squeezing it for a moment.

The aircar was packed, sitting in the drivway, waiting, needing only to be filled with passengers and transport them to the spaceport in Des Moines, some two hundred eighty miles northwest of their present position. The others had indeed waited, but not very patiently, until Spock noted their restlessness and communicated with Kirk through their fraternal bond that their shuttle's departure time was only a little over an hour away.

Finally the Captain said, "Okay, people, say goodbye to Mom and let's go."

The others all kissed Anna on the cheek or squeezed her hand, even Spock, thanking her for her hospitality.

"Nonsense; I loved having you all. Go on, now," she gently dismissed.

All were reluctant to leave, since they might never see Anna Kirk alive again -- particularly her son, the Captain ... but there was no way around it. They had to leave, and right away.

* * *

They arrived at the spaceport with barely enough time to drop off the aircar and their luggage for loading, much less board the shuttle for Yosemite and claim their seats. This time it was McCoy who sat next to Uhura on the opposite side of the aisle. She was reading a recent novel Christine had loaned her, and McCoy his book on the Botanical Gardens.

Christine had seen to it that she had a seat next to Spock this time. Kirk had the window seat, and was looking out of it with one part of him wishing he could stay while another part was looking forward to the upcoming week at Yosemite. Perhaps he would even be able to get Spock to unburden himself while they were there ...

The faraway look on his friend's face prompted Spock to reach for and put a gentle hand on Kirk's shoulder. The Human looked up briefly and smiled. "I'll be all right, Spock." He then turned back to the window and resumed his faraway look.

The Vulcan frowned with concern but didn't disturb his Human friend further. Instead, he devoted himself to conversation with Christine during the remainder of the 90-minute trip, holding her hand but sternly disciplining himself to do no more than that -- at least not while in public.

He had been illogical enough already without making it worse by allowing himself further intimacy with Christine such as they had shared the previous day. However difficult it might be for them, he would have to be strong and keep a respectful distance from her after this until their official marriage. Of course, that was going to be easier said than done, especially considering what had already happened between them ... and what was yet to come.

* * *

They arrived at the Yosemite shuttleport at 1830 hours that evening, picked up the aircar and packed it, then headed for their reserved cabin a short distance from both El Capitan and the famous hot springs. Even with the jacuzzi in the cabin, the Humans hoped they would be able to get the Vulcan to try the hot springs at least once -- perhaps even the following day. Meanwhile, they had to get settled into their cabin.

The same arrangements prevailed as at the Kirk family home ... at least for the men. The girls had their own room this time. Kirk considered them lucky to have been able to reserve this three-bedroom cabin, the last one available in the entire park -- especially since he hadn't been able to reserve it three months in advance as was normally done. He had had to pay an extra fee because of that, and in the event they were unable to stay the entire week, the extra fee would be forfeited.

Fortunately, they would also be refunded the cost of the days they didn't use the cabin should they have to leave early. Still, anything could happen in a week, so the Captain and others intended to make the most of this rare extended leave.

* * *

After settling in, Kirk called the Des Moines hospital to ask the doctor if his mother was there yet. After a ten-minute wait while they paged the doctor, Grey came on the line to discuss the possibility of hospitalizing the porcelain-frail Anna Kirk. "She's stable -- for now. If anything changes, however, I assure you that she'll be slapped into a hospital bed so fast it'll make her head swim. I've already told her this in no uncertain terms. She may not like what I say, but knows good and well when I'm right and doesn't argue with me."

"That's good," the Captain smiled. "I'd better let you get back to your work now so I can get back to enjoying my leave. Talk to you later."

"Later," Grey replied.

Kirk noted a smile on the older man's face, and it prompted the younger to chuckle as he broke the connection.

"Any news?" McCoy asked as he passed Kirk on the way to his room after leaving the kitchen, where he'd fixed himself a roast beef sandwich and coffee, noting that Kirk had just gotten off the vidphone.

"No. Mom's still stable ... for the moment. If anything changes, though, Dr. Grey says he'll put her in the hospital and notify me immediately."

"Glad to hear it," the Doctor noted approvingly. "But I'll be glad to go with you back to Iowa if necessary, Jim -- if only for moral support."

Kirk smiled as he sensed his friend's sincerity. "Thanks, Bones. I appreciate it." Then the Captain fell silent for so long that the Doctor found it necessary to reassure him.

"Don't worry your head, Jim. I'm sure Spock'll be there, too ... not to mention the others. Wild horses couldn't keep him away if he thought you needed him."

*Even if it means leaving Christine behind?* the Captain couldn't help thinking. *For both their sakes, I hope not. That would probably set their relationship back to square one ... and it's taken long enough for them to get to this point as it is without a medical emergency involving me taking him away from her at a crucial time. Of course, there's nothing to stop her from *accompanying* him if she so chooses -- but there's no guarantee that she would exercise that option or even think of it, especially in the heat of the moment.*

"I just hope that it doesn't set back his relationship with Christine, should he decide to go ... particularly if she's left behind and it affects something they'd planned to do." Kirk sounded deeply apologetic. "I've come between them enough as it is."

"Come on, Jim. I think Christine knows that you wouldn't manufacture something like that simply to keep Spock at your side, away from her. After all, she knows the condition your mother is in, and besides, you'd do well to keep in mind that *you* arranged their last time alone -- and at Spock's request, no less." McCoy placed a comforting hand on Kirk's shoulder, hoping his words had the desired effect.

Kirk reached up and patted McCoy's hand. "I know, Bones, but after what happened on Omicron Ceti III, what I did there ... "

The Doctor held up his hand. "Enough, Jim. You sound like you're ready to take one of Spock's heavy guilt trips, if not some of his 'frequent-flyer miles'."

"Say what?" Kirk frowned uncomprehendingly.

"That's what I call Spock's penchant for blaming himself even when things aren't his fault." McCoy gave his friend and superior a penetrating look. "Just as you're doing now."

Kirk sighed. "Okay, Bones. Message received. Good night now."

"Good night, Jim. See you in the morning."

As soon as the door closed behind McCoy, Kirk headed for the bedroom he shared with Spock, meeting the Vulcan coming back from Christine and Uhura's room. "Saying good night to Christine?" the Captain asked with a knowing smile.

Spock fought off a blush even as he nodded. "Have you decided what we are going to do while we are here?"

"Other than my possibly climbing El Capitan, our doing some hiking, camping out or bathing in the hot springs, no. Why? Have *you* thought of something?"

"At least one thing," came the reply.

"Such as?" Kirk prompted.

"Spending time in the jacuzzi. It is approximately the same temperature as the hot springs, not to mention considerably more private. As I recall, you said the hot springs are out in the open."

"I take it you'd be more comfortable in the jacuzzi," Kirk surmised.

Spock nodded.

"Well, we'll see. It depends on what Bones and the girls say. We'd better go to bed soon. I want to go hiking tomorrow, and we'd all get off to a better start with a good night's sleep."

"I see. Do you wish me to accompany you on the hike?"

"I'd prefer that we all go, but it's not mandatory. I can have Bones and Uhura accompany me if you'd rather stay behind and do something with Christine."

Spock's turnaround was a little too quick for Kirk's comfort, but the Captain didn't question his alien friend about it because he believed he knew why the Vulcan had done such an abrupt about-face.

"No, Jim; she and I have recently spent several hours alone. I would prefer to accompany you. Christine and the others may also come if they wish."

Kirk's brows rose in astonishment. "Most generous of you, Spock. You usually prefer us to be alone while on leave."

"There would be little for them to do with our being absent all day. In addition, I do not wish to cause Christine or any of the others distress, wondering what could be happening to us."

Kirk grinned wryly. "I should have known you'd have a logical reason for asking them along. But be warned -- if we get anywhere near the hot springs, somebody's bound to suggest going there." By this time, the two had reached the door of their room. "In which case, it would be logical to prepare for that possibility."

"Very well," the Vulcan conceded.

"Do you want to shower and change first?"

"If you do not object."

"Of course not. I need to ask Bones and the girls their preferences as to what to do tomorrow, anyway. See you later -- or in the morning if I don't get back before you go to sleep."

"Good night then, Jim."

"'Night, Spock." With that, the friends separated to accomplish their designated tasks.

* * *

Spock had retired by the time Kirk returned to the bedroom, having put himself into a sleep-trance upon realizing that his Human friend wasn't going to return immediately. McCoy hadn't been too thrilled at the prospect of a 10K hike, but agreed when he considered all the hours he and the girls would be alone, wondering what was going on with the other two, if he and the women remained behind. It was much the same with Uhura, while Christine agreed to go mainly since it meant being near, if not with, Spock. Kirk told them when to get up, then left the girls' room, noting on the nearby hall chrono that almost an hour had passed.

Only then did Kirk's weariness seem to descend over him like a cloak. Even so, the Captain made himself shower, then fell into bed, deeply asleep and snoring almost immediately after donning a fresh pair of undergarments.

Everyone somehow managed to wake up and get ready in record time, though it took some time for them to decide just what route to take, since most of them wanted to be at least heading home by the time it started getting dark. They finally agreed to hike on the path which had not only had places to rest periodically, but vidphone stations so Kirk could call (or be called), even if away from the cabin, in case something happened to his mother. The Captain's portable vidphone also had a function which "beeped" him if there was an urgent incoming call.

Best of all, there was a breathtaking view of not only El Capitan, but the hot springs and two of the approximately two dozen waterfalls in the park, only a bare fraction of the over 1,200 points of interest in Yosemite. They decided on a six-hour hike, with quarter-hour breaks every two hours -- if not to rest and refresh themselves or take pictures, to go to the bathroom. Restrooms were also strategically placed. They came within view of El Capitan first.

Kirk spent the first 15-minute break simply sitting on a rock facing the immense monolith, gazing longingly at it as he drank coffee from a large thermos. The others sat on the grass near him after taking off their backpacks; Christine put on sunscreen, as did McCoy, while Uhura took a few swigs of her drink before refreshing her lip balm with sunscreen in it. The Medical Officers also took a number of drinks from their water bottles while waiting.

"Okay, let's go, people," Kirk said, reluctantly getting up and putting on his backpack again. "Next stop, Bridal Veil Falls, at 1015 hours."

Christine forced herself not to look up at Spock, walking with Kirk a short distance ahead, while she and Uhura flanked McCoy. However, she did allow herself to visualize how a potential shipboard wedding to Spock might go -- and how everyone would look. Damn, how she wished the Captain hadn't mentioned the name of the waterfall. Now she wouldn't be able to get it out of her head for the rest of the day! Once she got there, of course, she would have to busy herself taking pictures and such. If she didn't, she would probably be bombarded with embarrassing questions from not only Nyota and Leonard, but the Captain and perhaps even Spock as well.

* * *

She did just that upon their arrival at the falls shortly after 1015 hours. Kirk and McCoy availed themselves of the nearby men's room, while Uhura went to the ladies' to check whether or not she was beginning her period, since she'd been feeling the telltale symptoms for the last day or so. Once Christine finished taking pictures, Spock came up behind her.

"What are you thinking about, Christine?"

She bit back her first reaction to his question and said, "How beautiful the falls are. They really remind you of a bridal veil." She smiled at the Vulcan's raised eyebrows as she turned around to face him. "Well, maybe not *you* so much. People in general," she explained, stunned at his reply.

"I believe you would look ... very beautiful in a bridal veil, Christine." Spock moved to slide his arms around her from behind as she faced the falls, then nuzzled her throat and ear as he gently tightened his embrace and cautiously pressed closer to her.

Christine sighed happily at Spock's unexpected but most welcome actions, having begun to wonder if he were going to pay any attention to her at all on this hike. "Thank you, Spock. I'm glad you think so." Her hands moved to cover his clasped ones.

Unknown to the couple, their friends had finished their business and were returning. Kirk noted what was transpiring and put a finger to his lips to quiet Bones' and Uhura's questions as they joined him. They kept out of view behind a large boulder not far away from the couple, only stealing occasional looks at them. McCoy found it hard to believe that Spock would actually put his arms around Christine in public (any- thing not behind closed doors was considered "public" to the Vulcan, but he had obviously made an exception in this case). But however atypical his actions may have been, what mattered was that he was doing it.

By the time the trio dared to look again, Spock was kissing Christine's hand -- then she put her hand on his cheek and he held it there a moment before the two helped each other put their backpacks on again. Their friends waited until this point before rejoining the couple; both fought back blushes at the knowledge of what they had done while waiting for their friends to return, remaining silent while the others prepared to leave.

Ten minutes later, they were on their way again. Uhura pointed out the hot springs off to their left and down about eighty feet -- even suggesting (as Kirk had predicted) that they all bathe there some time in the next few days. By the time lunch-time arrived, all were feeling hunger pangs ... even the Vulcan, to a certain extent. Everyone was glad that their next stop two hours from now would include a lunch break. After lunch, they would start back to the cabin -- and with luck, reach it by 1800 or shortly thereafter.

* * *

The girls carried the food in their backpacks, while the two younger men (Kirk and Spock) had the drinks. The lunch area where they had stopped had a barbecue apparatus near the table and bench seats. Christine cooked veggie pizza for Spock on it, as well as regular hamburgers and hot dogs for the others. They also had baked beans with brown sugar sauce and ridged potato chips, both plain and barbecue flavors. There was also macaroni salad, and both lemonade and fruit juice (white grape with peach).

Condiments were also passed around, and everyone fixed their food to their own taste. By the time two hours passed, the group were all pleasantly full and rested, even Spock. Uhura and McCoy had sat on one side, while Christine, Spock and Kirk faced them on the other. When it came time to go, there were comments from several on how much they had enjoyed their afternoon together and wished it could happen more often.

About halfway back, Uhura again mentioned bathing in the hot springs. Spock threw Kirk a dubious look; the Captain took a quick voice vote as to who wanted to go w here. The hot springs won by 2-to-1. Kirk looked back at his Vulcan friend apologetically and thought to him, *Sorry, Spock. Majority rules. Perhaps we can use the jacuzzi day after tomorrow.*

The Vulcan reluctantly acquiesced after declaring that he would wear his swimsuit in the hot springs, even if the others didn't. For Spock's sake, Christine also intended to keep hers on -- though she didn't know what the others intended to do, since they had never said one way or the other. Of course, it wouldn't surprise her if both the Captain and Nyota decided to skinny-dip ... but Leonard, like Spock, was the modest type when it came to undressing in public, though it didn't bother him to see his patients undressed -- at least not in his professional capacity. (His own disrobing was an entirely different matter.)

At this point, none were aware of what would happen over the next 24 hours and thus negate the remainder of their leaves, so all assumed they would have an uneventful day tomorrow and an enjoyable overall leave.

* * *

All had awakened by ten-hundred hours, and the other three were preparing to leave when an urgent call came in for Kirk. Spock and Christine had been ready first, so the Captain had sent them on ahead to the hot springs, a twenty-minute walk from the cabin -- that he and the others should catch up to them within the hour.

Kirk rushed to his vidphone and opened the line. His mother's physician, Thaddeus Grey, was on the line. The doctor's fiftyish face looked tired and worn, as if he'd been up all night ... as was indeed the case, as Kirk later discovered. "Doctor, you look exhausted. What's happened?"

"Captain Kirk, you must return to Iowa immediately. Your mother has had a massive heart attack and is in the hospital. She is asking for you -- and I don't expect her to last the night. Can you get a shuttle out tonight?"

Kirk looked at McCoy, who seemed as stunned as he was (Uhura had left the room to get something and didn't hear this). "I see, Doctor. I'll check at the shuttleport and see when the next shuttle to Des Moines is leaving, then meet you at the hospital after getting an aircab from the shuttleport there. How will that be?"

"Fine. Oh, incidentally, please bring your friend Dr. McCoy along. I would appreciate consulting with him. I want to know whatever he can tell me about Anna since looking after her between the times my nurses and I were at her home during your stay there last week."

Kirk looked up at his Chief Surgeon, who smiled and nodded. "I'll be glad to help any way I can, Dr. Grey."

"Great. I'll see you both as soon as you can get here. The cardiac wing is on the third floor of Des Moines General. Grey out."

"Thank you, Doctor. Kirk out."

He hung up, then told McCoy to tell Uhura what had happened while he called the Yosemite shuttleport and the Park Administration Office to cancel the rest of the reservation, effective at 0800 the following morning. The Doctor met Uhura coming out of her room, sunscreen in hand.

"Uhura, Jim and I have to return to Iowa right away. His mother's in the hospital. Massive heart attack; happened just a few hours ago. She's not expected to last the night, and is asking for him. Her doctor wants to discuss my findings on her with me. You'll have to tell Spock and Christine; there's no time for either of us to do it. Jim's also canceling our reservation here as of 0800 tomorrow -- so you guys can join us then if you like ... but Jim saw no sense in spoiling your outing today. Can you do that?"

"Of course, Doctor. When are you and the Captain leaving?"

"As soon as we find out when the next shuttle's leaving. I also assume that you want us to leave the rented aircar here?"

"Might be a good idea, especially if we decide to join you," the dark woman replied.

"Have y'all got enough credits for return fare?" the Doctor asked.

"I think so," Uhura assured him. "Though you can have the Captain leave some extra for us, if it'll make you feel better. Will that leave *you* with enough, though?" she wondered, concerned.

"I've got plenty, so that shouldn't be a problem -- even if we have to call an aircab to take us to the shuttleport."

"Okay. I'll go tell Chris and Spock as soon as the two of you leave."

McCoy smiled and nodded in acknowledgment. "I'd better get back to the living room and see what Jim's been up to. See you later." McCoy nodded in her direction again and departed. Uhura discreetly followed and listened from just around the corner leading to the living room. She learned that the next shuttle to Des Moines was leaving in an hour, and that Kirk had called for an aircab, leaving the keys to the aircar on the kitchen counter, next to a card for 100 extra credits of Federation currency.

"How long until the aircab gets here?" she heard McCoy ask.

"Twenty minutes to half an hour. Thank God the shuttleport's only about ten minutes' flight away. That gives us twenty minutes to grab our tickets, check in our luggage, then board the shuttle." Kirk sighed. "Bones, what if we don't get there in time? She's asked for me; I'll never forgive myself if she dies and I'm not with her." The Captain hung his head, dejected. "I at least want to be there to hold her hand."

"We'll get there, Jim. Don't worry. I've seen cases like your mother's; the vast majority linger *at least* six to twelve hours. Plenty of time to get to Des Moines and the hospital." The Doctor tried to comfort his friend. "Now let's finish getting ready."

* * *

They were ready and waiting by the time the aircab arrived. When the horn honked, the two grabbed their things and headed for the door. Kirk stopped halfway through. "Has Uhura gone to tell Spock and Christine yet?"

"I'll call to make sure. Uhura, you still here?" the Doctor called. "We're going out the door right now. The aircab's here."

The dark woman came into view, carrying her beach bag. "Just leaving," she announced.

"We're leaving now, Uhura. Please be sure to tell the others what's happened. I've left the keys to the aircar and some extra money in case you need it, so that the three of you may rejoin us later if you wish."

"Thank you, sir," she smiled. "And I'll pray for your mother."

"Thank you, Uhura," Kirk smiled with a mixture of sadness and gratitude. "Goodbye."

"Goodbye, sir, Doctor. Have a safe trip."

She watched from the door of the cabin as the luggage was loaded into the aircab; Kirk and McCoy got in and sat down -- then they were gone. Uhura finally decided she'd better get moving, too. It would take twenty minutes to make it to the springs, and she was half an hour late as it was. There would be enough questions to answer without adding to them. She locked the cabin door, then bounded down the steps and took to her heels, running full-tilt down the path in front of the cabin, not slowing down for at least the next five minutes.

* * *

Meanwhile, Christine was still trying to coax Spock into the hot springs. They had arrived almost half an hour ago, and the best she'd been able to do was get him to change into his swimsuit, though he still wore his Fleet-issue slip-on sandals the same color as the bathing suit.

"Spock, I'm sure they're on their way here by now. Please get into the water; it'll relax you."

Spock was not to be dissuaded. "I sense distress ... Jim's distress. Something is wrong. He may need my help."

"At least sit down and wait a few more minutes. If no one else comes in the next fifteen minutes, we'll head back, okay?"

Spock finally, reluctantly, sat down on the blanket Christine had spread on the grass near the shoreline; five feet of sand lay between the end of the grass and the water's edge. She sat beside him, legs half-tucked under her. The Vulcan's chin rested on his knees and his arms were around his legs. She was glad to see that he had at least slipped off his sandals ... one step in the right direction.

"What kind of distress do you think the Captain is in?" she ventured carefully after a long silence.

Spock turned his head to look at her, eyes as hard and black as obsidian, seeming to look right through her -- then he spoke. "Emotional distress," he elaborated.

"Do you think something happened to his mother?"

"It is possible," he conceded. "But I cannot be certain."

"Which is why you'd like to go back -- to find out just what's wrong and help if you can." Christine sighed. "I can understand that, but you relax so seldom. Shore leave is a time for relaxation. If you don't relax, you might as well go back to the ship."

Her caring was so obvious that Spock's gaze softened. "I ... appreciate your concern for me, Christine, but cannot simply put aside my -- concern for Jim. He is my friend."

"I know, and I'm not asking you to ... just to think of your own welfare once in a while. I'm sure he wouldn't mind your doing that occasionally, and I know he wants you healthy, relaxed and happy: either on leave or off." Her voice was purposely lower at this point, hoping he hadn't heard her last words.

He didn't reply, simply reached down to squeeze his companion's nearest hand and favor her with a half-smile ... then turned back to face the water, resuming his former position. After another five minutes of silence, Christine had almost gotten enough nerve to suggest that she rub the Vulcan's tension-taut shoulders when she heard Uhura's voice calling them repeatedly.

"Chris, Spock! Chris, Spock!" She sounded almost anxious; Christine called back.

"Here, Nyota!"

A few minutes later, Uhura burst into the clearing near the springs; she was breathless from running.

"Nyota, what's wrong? Why are you running, and why are you late?"

Uhura didn't answer until her breathing had calmed down. "The Captain ... and Dr. McCoy -- they're gone."

Spock shot to his feet; Christine was a few seconds behind. "Gone? What has happened?" he demanded to know.

"Anna Kirk's doctor called just as we were getting ready to leave. She's in the hospital in Des Moines; had a massive heart attack. She's not expected to last the night. He wanted the Captain and Dr. McCoy to come right away. There was no time to inform you before now. They're already on their way to the shuttleport. We have the cabin until 0800 tomorrow morning; the aircar and extra money is available should we want to rejoin them at that time."

Uhura took a breath after her lengthy explanation. "Of course, I'm sure that the Captain also meant for us to have a good time today, make the most of what leave time we have left, since we don't often have this chance." She looked pointedly at Spock.

"Why was the Doctor's presence required?" asked the Vulcan.

"Dr. Grey wanted to consult with him on what he'd done for her while we were there."

"The Captain did not wish me to be with him?" Spock sounded almost hurt.

"Oh, I'm sure he did, but as I said, there was no time to tell you before they had to leave." The comm officer sighed as she began to prepare to go into the springs. "I'm so worked up that I'll need to sit and soak in the springs for a while to relax." Uhura then caught a dirty look from Christine out of the corner of her eye at this comment, changing her mind in mid-stream. "On second thought, I haven't had the chance to use the jacuzzi. I'd better use it while I can. See you guys when you get back." She repacked her bag and was gone almost as quickly as she'd come.

"Well, that settles that," Christine declared. *I'm* going to make the most of these hot springs. If you want to join me, fine. If you don't, fine. I'm not going to argue with you. Go ahead and sit there on the blanket; only keep me company -- especially since Nyota's gone back to the cabin. Keep in mind, too, that if you go back to the cabin, that she's there alone ... and will probably stick close to the phone once she gets out of the jacuzzi."

With that, the nurse kicked off her sandals, then tied up her hair and slipped off her lacy cover-up, once again revealing her slender, well-proportioned body, clad in the brief but fairly modest Fleet-issue swimsuit. Spock watched as she carefully, slowly, eased herself down into the water, finally able to immerse her body up to just below her shoulders.

With a part of her, Christine felt guilty about sending Nyota back without giving her a chance to relax after having run most of the way here to inform them of the Captain and Dr. McCoy's departure. Still, Ny was in good shape, and the walk back to the cabin was fairly short. The soak in the jacuzzi should offset the worst of any muscle cramps she might develop as a result.

Because of the fact that this was one of the few times she'd ever been able to get Spock alone, a chance which might never come again, Christine felt justified in sending the other woman away. Even at that, her conscience would probably make her make it up to her friend later, even if it meant daily leg rubs to loosen the painful muscles and giving her shots of painkiller.

Spock was unable to get the sadly bitter tone of her voice out of his mind ... a tone he should never have heard half as often as he did. She loved him, asking nothing more than to be able to show it once in a while, as well as have him call her by her first name occasionally. He was not a cruel person, never consciously meaning to hurt her or be thoughtless of her feelings.

Unfortunately it had happened, whether he had intended it or not -- and it was going to take him the rest of his life to make it up to her as it was without his compounding the problem by being so stubborn about joining her, his concern for Jim notwithstanding ... or not explain-ing his actions more fully upon their leaving Omicron Ceti III following their interlude and the crew's return to the ship: among other things. It was for these reasons that he finally decided to join her, but was so quiet that he had settled into the water at chest level about five feet away from her before she noticed him.

"So good of you to honor me and these hot springs with your presence, Spock," she smiled upon looking up and seeing him. "Now, doesn't the water relax you, as I said?"

"I have not been in it long enough to make an accurate determination, Christine," he returned evenly. "But I *have* noticed how relaxed *you* are."

After a while, the nurse decided to ask a question which had been at the back of her mind for years. "Spock, have you ever heard of skinny-dipping?"

His usual eyebrow raised, but he replied, "I have heard references to it -- most recently, from Jim and the Doctor -- but did not get the chance to ask what the term meant."

"Basically, people go swimming without bathing suits on. Usually it's just friends or family members who do it, in private, where they can be alone without others being likely to see them ... " Her voice trailed off. " ... and Nyota is at the cabin."

"Christine, are you implying that *we* should 'skinny-dip'?" The Vulcan sounded almost scandalized. "I assure you, it is difficult enough for me, as a Vulcan, simply doing this alone with a woman with- out ... inviting trouble by allowing myself to indulge in such a reckless pastime."

"But the water would hide our bodies," she entreated. "No one else would see anything."

"A most intriguing thought, Christine, but here is not an -- appropriate place for that," Spock returned.

"I've heard that some Humans have done it," she told him. "My parents did, in fact. Mama even told me that that was where I was concieved, in a hot spring."

"Indeed," Spock returned neutrally. "If *you* wish to indulge, Christine, you have my leave to do so ... but *I* choose to refrain." His tone was such that she knew it would do no good to pressure him further -- but as long as he gave *her* permission, she wasn't about to waste the opportunity.

"Thanks a lot," she replied wryly. "But it won't be as much fun."

He noted her movements over the next several minutes and surmised that she had removed her bathing suit. She then sighed happily and stretched.

"Nothing like hot water swirling over one's bare skin."

"I am ... glad it pleases you, Christine," the Vulcan remarked softly, also noting that she had moved closer to him. Believing he knew her intent, he also knew he had to (even as much as he disliked doing it) warn her off. "But not here. Besides, Vulcans do not 'skinny-dip'."

"All right, have it your way." She turned around and abruptly swam off into deeper water, disappearing behind a half-submerged boulder.

Spock soon heard soft sobbing, hating himself for hurting her yet again -- but knew if he'd allowed her any nearer, he could not have resisted her, especially since he knew that she was covered only by the hot, swirling water. *I cannot. I *must* not,* he scolded himself. *I have gone too far as it is, the times that we have been either ... close or -- intimate.*

Unfortunately tantalizing visions of himself with Christine plagued the Vulcan, running through his mind with appalling frequency and attention to detail. The next moment found him doing what he'd repeatedly told Christine (and himself) that he would *never* do. The sensation of the hot water on totally naked skin was like nothing he'd ever felt before ...

He finally called out to her, hoping she would hear and come back -- but most of all, hoping she would forgive him for hurting her while attempting to defend his own most disquieting weakness where she was concerned.

"Christine? Christine, please come back. I am sorry; I never meant to hurt you."

For a long time, there was an ominous silence, then she suddenly appeared before him. "Spock? I'm here -- and I forgive you."

He reached up to touch her cheek. "I have ... changed my mind ... about what we discussed shortly before you left."

"You mean -- ?" Her eyes widened, then she smiled. "Spock, you have no idea how long I've waited to hear that. I promise I'll do my utmost to please you and not try to make you do anything against your will."

"Christine, I ... am willing to do whatever makes you happy. Within reason, of course," he amended.

"Then you've already -- ?"

"I have," he returned quietly, hoping this incident would never go any further than the two of them ... or their friends, as long as each was sworn to secrecy. "I -- also wish ... to assure you that I will never deny our -- intimacy again after this."

"Thank you, Spock," Christine returned, voice laced with tender passion as she moved into his arms. "That's all I wanted to hear." The couple then kissed deeply -- and soon, everything but the nearness of the other was forgotten.

* * *

The lovers awakened four hours later to find it dark. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees since the sun had set, but it was still in the mid-60s. Both lay half on their sides and half against each other on shore, on the blanket, pleasantly exhausted from their passionate interlude. Christine's arms held her bondmate close, one arm around his slender waist, the other holding his silky dark head over her heart. His arms were locked around her waist even as her cheek rested on top of his head.

Christine smiled, savoring the nearness of her beloved's body even as he breathed in the combination of her perfume and womanly scent. Love threatened to overwhelm her as she gazed at the man in her arms as he continued to sleep. His breath was warm and sweet on her skin, his arms strong but gentle around her. She lay beside him, mentally reliving their interlude, imprinting it on her mind to be certain its reality replaced her former fantasies. When Spock stirred, Christine tightened her embrace, wanting to feel him close to her as long as possible. They had had such a wonderful few hours together ...

"Christine," she heard his soft voice close to her ear.

"My love," she whispered as her lips caressed his. "Are you still tired?"

"Indeed. We had a most ... spirited interlude," he concurred.

"That's the understatement of the year, if not the century," she laughed, ruffling his hair playfully. "You've totally worn me out!"

"Then I assume you wish to remain here?"

She sighed. "I wish ... but we've got to be out of the cabin by 0800 tomorrow. We'd better get back, even if we have to hold each other up."

"Unnecessary, Christine ... but I am willing to carry you back to the cabin," Spock offered, sensing her reluctance, yet also aware of how worn out (however pleasantly) she was -- that they both were. Finally, it was best that they return to the cabin so Uhura didn't come looking for them in the morning, as well as to pack their things, then turn in the keys to the cabin and aircar at the proper time.

It was twenty-hundred hours (8 p.m.) when they got back to the cabin, both thankful that Uhura was showering at the moment and thus unaware of precisely what time it was. Spock left Christine at her door, then went to his own room to shower and pack, reminding himself to turn in the keys, notify the park officials of their departure, then head for the shuttleport and find out when the next shuttle to Des Moines was leaving. He surmised that Jim and the Doctor would be carrying on a vigil at Anna Kirk's bedsside, so they knew just where to go and would not have to search all over Creation for their friends -- then once they found them, find out the latest news about Jim's mother.

* * *

They kept expecting Uhura to ask pointed questions about why they'd been so late getting back from the hot springs, but she never did. Perhaps the Captain had ordered her not to, at least not until they returned to the ship, but they still found it hard to believe that the outspoken Communications Officer could keep her mouth shut that long. They could only imagine what her thoughts must have been when she discovered Christine already in bed asleep by the time she got out of the shower ... much less speculate on what Spock was doing.

* * *

The Vulcan rose at 0600, then took his and Christine's belongings out to the aircar and packed them (along with most of the groceries). He was sure she would get Uhura in gear in time for them to leave on schedule. He had the keys to the cabin and aircar in his pants pocket, the extra funds Jim had left in his right jacket pocket, in his small but functional billfold.

Christine rose at 0700 as Spock was having a breakfast of imitation scrambled eggs with onions as the main course, along with blueberry muffins spread with margarine and strawberry preserves, along with orange juice and milk as beverages. She was still yawning, though fully dressed, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder to let him know she was there. He reached up to gently squeeze her hand as an acknowledgment of her presence.

"I'm glad to see you eating so well, Spock. We're going to have a busy day today, so it's best to have as much energy as possible."

He lifted her hand to his lips. "In that case, it is logical that you also eat a good breakfast as well, Christine. Where is Miss Uhura?"

"Dressing. She'll be out soon. Which reminds me, I'd better fix her something as well ... though I'm going to cook some bacon and sausage for us, so you might want to wait outside. We'll be out as soon as we're ready to go."

"Very well; I will be waiting in the aircar." He smiled and touched her cheek, then departed.

Christine smiled after him for a moment, then cleared the table and proceeded to cook her and Uhura's breakfast. She knew that the door to their room was open, so when the breakfast was ready, she called, "Come and eat, Nyota! Breakfast is on the table."

Uhura appeared a few moments later. "Good morning, Chris. Lord, am I hungry!" She sat down and dug in; Christine joined her and they ate heartily. Upon washing the dishes and setting them aside to drain, the dark woman asked, "Where's Spock?"

"In the aircar waiting for us. He got up at 0600, packed it, then came back and had breakfast. I came upon him around 0700, and once he finished, I warned him to leave so he wouldn't smell the meat I was going to cook for our breakfast."

When the chrono chimed the hour, the women looked at each oher and the nurse said, "Time to go, Ny. Grab your things."

"My plant, too," Uhura amended.

Once everything was in hand, Christine did a quick run-through of the cabin to make sure nothing had been left behind, then they locked the front door and alerted Spock to their presence. He placed the rest of the luggage (and Uhura's plant, in its special container)in the rear compartment, then the girls situated themselves beside him in the wide front seat and they were off to the shuttleport after one brief stop to drop off the keys to the cabin and the remainder of the groceries as a food donation.

Ten minutes later, they arrived at the shuttleport; Spock returned the aircar after unloading it. While he was gone, a luggage carrier was brought up to the women, a luggage handler accompanying it. He loaded the baggage onto it and even offered to check on when the next shuttle to Des Moines was leaving. The women smiled and thanked him even though it technically wasn't necessary, then he disappeared. Spock found them a short time later; they told him what had happened and what the handler had offered to do. The three settled back to wait, but Spock had barely sat down before the handler was back again.

They were told that the next shuttle to Des Moines, Flight 3223, was leaving at 0930 hours -- just under an hour away. They would wait in the Departure Lounge nearby until time to leave after getting their one-way tickets. With that, the handler took their luggage to be loaded onto the shuttle.

"We had best not expect the Captain or Doctor to meet us, simply obtain an aircab upon arrival in Des Moines and go directly to the hospital, leaving our luggage in the lobby near the Admissions Desk for safekeeping. I believe that is the most logical course of action," Spock told his female companions. "Now it is logical that we obtain our tickets, then report to the Departure Lounge."

They obtained their tickets within fifteen minutes, then it took them another ten to reach the Lounge. The shuttle was five minutes late, so it was at least half an hour before they were called to board and claim their seats. Spock was more quiet than usual, even for him, and Christine believed she knew why. Once they had boarded and were in their seats, she squeezed his hand reassuringly. "We'll be there in a couple of hours, Spock. Don't worry."

The Vulcan raised an eyebrow at the reference, then returned her squeeze with a half-smile. "I know. It is simply that I cannot ... help but be -- concerned for Jim."

"That's natural, since the two of you are so close," she returned understandingly. *They're almost like twins, the way they act sometimes, since the one can often sense what the other is feeling or thinking and act accordingly,* Christine thought to herself before speaking out loud again (just so Spock could hear). "You'll be with him again, very soon. Just relax, now."

Since Uhura was looking out the window, she turned his face to hers and touched his cheek, then smiled after a brief, gentle kiss. He returned her smile, then sighed, sat back and settled into his seat.

* * *

By the time they arrived, Christine looked over at her two companions; both were asleep. She wasn't surprised that Nyota was, since they had had to get up early (she had even dozed off herself for about half an hour or so) -- but Spock ... he'd have to be totally exhausted to have allowed himself to fall asleep.

How much had he slept since their leave began? It didn't seem like much, not if he could so easily fall asleep on a relatively short flight like this. For that reason, she doubted that anyone could abuse him -- either physically or emotionally -- any worse than he did himself: a classic case of someone being his own worst enemy.

Not even the shuttle touching down awakened him, but it did Uhura. She lifted her head, looked at the sleeping Vulcan and met Christine's eyes; her own were wide as saucers. The nurse smiled and put a finger to her lips. She would let him sleep until they were nearly to the terminal; he would probably need all the sleep he could get, especially if the Captain's mother died and Spock felt obligated to sit with him so he could sleep. However, just as she was about to reach to wake him, Spock lifted his head and met her eyes, wide awake ... at least for the moment.

"We have arrived?"

"Yes. The shuttle just stopped at the terminal," she explained.

"Very good," he opined.

They stood up when everyone else did, filing out with the other passengers off the shuttle and into the terminal building. Since they'd been here before, Spock took it upon himself to get their luggage, then flag down an aircab. He considered it logical that he do the honors, since he could perform the tasks most rapidly and thus make it to the hospital faster. It took a few minutes to load the aircab (Spock helped the cabbie do it) ... then everyone piled in and were off after the cabbie asked, "Where to, sir?"

"Des Moines General Hospital," the Vulcan told him.

"No problem. It's just fifteen minutes' flight away. The fare will be one credit per minute."

"Very well. Do I pay in advance?"

"Upon arrival," the cabbie said upon noting Spock reaching into his jacket pocket for his billfold.

The Vulcan nodded and sat back, folding his hands in his lap, as did the two women. They were back in Iowa again -- but not for pleasure this time; instead, it was for moral and emotional support to their Captain in a time of crisis. They could only hope to make it in time to see him through it.

* * *

Meanwhile, at the hospital, James Kirk yawned deeply, thoroughly exhausted from his all-night vigil at his mother's bedside, but unwilling to leave or sleep for fear she would die while he was gone or asleep. Nothing McCoy did or said could move him; the most he could do for his friend was rub his neck and shoulders, then get him a cup of strong coffee, along with a chicken sandwich from the hospital Commissary.

The doctors had each refused to give him any stimulants other than caffeine. McCoy was especially adamant, reminded of the incident where the all-Vulcan ship Intrepid had been lost with all hands because of a continent-sized space amoeba which drained the energy of anything or anyone that got near it.

It had been necessary for the Chief Surgeon to keep the crew going with stimulants, but he knew how dangerous it was to get dependent on them because of what they did to certain body parts, particularly the heart. Jim was under enough stress as it was without adding to it by giving him chemical stimulants, which would make his heart work even harder.

Anna Kirk was on an EKG machine and respirator, which monitored her heart action and helped her breathe, along with a drug which artificially kept her heartbeat steady. An IV was in her left arm, giving her nutrients every few minutes. However, her heart had been so weakened by the massive attack that it wouldn't take much for it to stop. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness since her son and McCoy had arrived 36 hours before.

In some of her lucid moments, Anna told her son where her will was located and that she had designated her lawyer and himself as co-executors. Her wishes were all spelled out in detail in the body of the will, including the disposition of her beloved Siamese cat, Amanda. In the next lucid moment -- roughly two hours later -- she said she wanted the cat to go to Spock. Both Kirk and McCoy were surprised at this, but probably no more than Spock himself would be when he found out.

But that was the last lucid moment the dying woman would have. This had been at 0500; it was now 1145 hours. McCoy recalled how Jim had reminisced about his mother on the shuttle coming here -- that his first memory of her was her smile and voice singing him to sleep as a young, preschool age child. The Doctor even talked some about his own mother, Jo-Ellen Wilkins McCoy.

He even said that his daughter Joanna had been named partly for his mother, her paternal grandmother, and his ex, whose middle name was Anne. The only change was in the last letter of the middle name from "e" to "a" in naming the child. Even so, the Doctor sensed that even as much as Jim needed and appreciated his presence and support, it wasn't enough. Kirk needed more; he needed his closest friend. He needed Spock.

*Lord, how I wish you were here, Spock,* the Captain couldn't help thinking.

He could have sworn he'd gotten an answer but couldn't be sure since he wanted so much for it to be real that he could have imagined it. *I am coming, my friend. We will be together again, very soon.*

Kirk had no idea where Spock and the others were at the moment -- hopefully on their way here from the shuttleport -- but couldn't be sure of that. "Where do you think Spock and the others are now, Bones?" Kirk wondered, his voice so quiet that at first the Doctor couldn't be sure his friend had spoken.

"Hopefully, on their way here from the shuttleport, or at least getting ready to come here from there," McCoy replied, almost whispering, since he agreed with Dr. Grey that absolute quiet was the best thing for a heart patient who had suffered such a massive attack as Anna Kirk.

"I appreciate your being here with me, Bones, more than I can say -- but I miss Spock. I need *him*, too."

"I know, Jim. I'm sure he'll be here as soon as he can." McCoy tried to soothe his friend by pulling him into his arms. Kirk was surprised and yet not surprised, not minding as long as he was able to retain hold of his mother's hand. However, in the midst of the embrace, Anna began to go to cardiac arrest. The EKG machine beeped loudly in warning. "Oh, my God ... cardiac arrest!" McCoy exclaimed, releasing Kirk and leaping for the intercom to summon Dr. Grey.

The nurse was there in the next moment, carrying the small, portable electronic "paddle" units designed to shock the heart into beating again if CPR proved unsuccessful, which it was. McCoy hesitated to do it at first, since her regular physician was not present, but this was Jim's mother, for God's sake ... her life was hanging in the balance!

He took it upon himself to order the nurse to apply the "paddles" to the elderly woman's chest and turn on the power -- but even after numerous attempts, the line on the EKG screen remained obstinately flat after a couple of small jumps near the beginning. Finally, a devastated McCoy and equally devastated Nurse Janine Murray had to give Anna Kirk's son the bad news -- his mother was dead. A short time later, Grey rushed in.

"She's gone," McCoy explained softly while holding his sobbing friend in his arms. "Sudden cardiac arrest. We did all we could." Grey met the nurse's eyes; she nodded silently.

"Then I guess all we can do is make out the death certificate." After obtaining all necessary information from McCoy and the nurse, Grey left to make out the death certificate once he had checked his now-deceased patient to confirm her passing.

Fifteen minutes later, the door to Anna Kirk's room opened; Spock, Christine and Uhura entered. Normally no more than three visitors were allowed in a cardiac patient's room, but knowing James Kirk's emotional condition, Janine decided to bend the rules a little, for his sake. McCoy's eyes widened upon seeing Spock; the Vulcan put a finger to his lips, then held out his arms to receive his grieving friend. For a while, Kirk seemed unaware of the transfer, simply continuing to cry softly.

"Doctor, Jim's mother ... she is dead?" Spock inquired quietly.

"It happened suddenly, just a few minutes ago," McCoy explained. "There was nothing we could do."

Christine moved to speak to him. "Where's her regular doctor?"

"He's been here; he confirmed her death, then went to make out the death certificate."

The Enterprise nurse stood at the other side of the deathbed. "I'll miss her. She was a lovely lady."

"Amen," McCoy concurred; Uhura softly echoed his comment.

At this point, the Captain became aware again. He moved back from Spock to look up at his Vulcan friend through tear-filled eyes. "Spock, when did you get here?"

"That is irrelevant. What matters is that I am here to be with you in your time of sorrow," the latter said, voice infinitely gentle.

"S-she's gone, Spock ... w-went so f-fast ... " Kirk began stammering, moving back into his friend's arms to resume his quiet sobbing.

"I know, my friend. Simply allow yourself to cry now. I will hold you."

Kirk did so, unable to do anything else. While the First Officer held his Captain and friend in strong, loving arms, McCoy put one arm around each of the women, as they did him, and all quietly grieved. The other nurse slipped out a moment later, only allowing herself to cry when she was alone, having become very attached to Anna Kirk in the time she had known her ... attached in a way that few others could have been on such short acquaintance. After composing herself, Janine went to check on Grey's progress with the certificate, then resumed her regular duties.

* * *

It was late evening before the group managed to get away from the hospital. Still in shock, Kirk (with his two closest friends at his side) gave his consent to his mother's body being cremated, per her wishes, and learned that she wanted him to give her wedding and engagement rings to Sam's son Peter when he turned 18. He would hang onto them until then. Dr. Grey gave the order for the cremation to go ahead and was the one to give the Captain the rings ... after allowing him some private time alone -- as it were -- with his mother's body.

Uhura and Christine stepped out for that brief time, since the Captain needed his two closest *male* friends with him to help him regain a measure of control over his grief. The disposition of the Kirk family farm was left to the Captain's discretion, as was everything in the house or on the property. His mother's long-time lawyer, D. Thomas Randall, had talked with him in the hospital lobby and informed him of all this.

Between them, Spock and McCoy managed to get Kirk to eat. They went to dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Des Moines, in the Court Avenue District, called the Spaghetti Works ... then they went to the foremost hotel in town, which was also an historical landmark -- the Hotel Fort Des Moines -- registering in a suite of rooms for the men and a double room across the hall for the women.

Christine was somewhat disappointed that Spock had apparently forgotten to say good-night to her as promised, but tried to understand his need to be there for his friend in an emotional crisis. After all, she would expect *him* to understand if it was Uhura who needed help and she felt a need to be there for *her* friend ... She also told herself that she'd better learn to live with it -- and that he didn't consciously mean to neglect her. At least not now, she hoped.

The later it got, the less likely it was that he would come, though she made every excuse in the book not to go to bed -- which, naturally, Uhura saw through. "Chris, I think he's going to stay all night with the Captain, from the looks of things. It's best that we get some sleep in that case, since the lawyer said that the memorial service is going to be taking place at the time of the cremation, about 1030 hours. I'm sure Spock wouldn't begrudge you the sleep, and understand if you couldn't wait up for him." By this time, it was 0030 hours.

Christine sighed. "I suppose you're right, Ny, but he promised ... " Her voice trailed off.

"At times like this, I wouldn't hold him to any promises made to others, particularly if he believes it necessary for the Captain's well-being to stay with him instead -- though I *do* believe he'll make it up to you at the earliest opportunity."

*I hope so,* the nurse thought with a sad but resigned sigh. "I think I'll read for a while, though, Nyota. I'm pretty keyed up. We've had a hectic day."

Uhura gave her friend a suspicious look, then sighed and shrugged. "Suit yourself ... but don't stay up all night."

"Yes, Mother," Christine quipped. "Good night, Nyota."

"Good night, Chris. See you in the morning." Uhura disappeared through the bedroom door and handed out Christine's things to her before closing it behind her.

Christine then sat down to read in the overstuffed chair with an old-fashioned Tiffany lamp hanging over it, tucking her feet beneath her upon changing into her nightgown, robe and slippers, combing her hair, then brushing her teeth. Nearly two hours passed before she reluctantly closed her now-finished book. It was nearly 0230 and still no Spock, so she surmised that Nyota was most likely right. If he hadn't come by now, she assumed that he wasn't going to ... that he had decided to stay with the Captain and make sure he slept. Never mind that Leonard was equally capable. I mean, how long could it take to say good night?

She got up and headed for the bedroom after placing the book on top of her folded street clothes in preparation for returning them to her travel bag; just then, she heard a soft knock and a beloved yet most unexpected voice. "Christine, are you still awake?"

She put down the items and went to answer the door, very glad that she had waited. Spock stood in the dimly lit hallway, wearing a robe, slippers and sleeping-clothes, as well as an apologetic look on his face. "I did not mean to come so late. I merely wished to make sure that Jim would remain asleep. He told me he has not slept for over 24 hours. I assure you, I did not forget my promise to you. I never had any intention of doing so ... though it might seem otherwise to you -- nor do I break my word if I can help it."

"You don't have to justify your actions to me, Spock. Don't apologize for caring about the Captain, especially at a time like this. He's your closest friend, after all. I'd do the same for Uhura. I also think you'd better come in if you have anything more to say."

Christine would have sworn Spock looked sheepish, but he did as she suggested before softly asking, "Miss Uhura ... she is asleep?"

"Over two hours ago. She tried to get me to go to bed, but I said I was too keyed up, so I read for a while."

"Though you are obviously prepared to go to bed," he noted.

"I didn't think it would hurt," she returned.

"But you were no longer expecting me to come, were you?" His eyes seemed to look right through her, right into her soul.

Christine found herself unable to lie. "Not really. I'd just finished my book and was headed for the bedroom when I heard you knock."

"I am glad you ... decided to answer the door, Christine. You could have -- ignored the knock and gone straight to bed. I would not have blamed you, considering the way I have treated you until recently."

"I would never 'stand you up', Spock," she smiled, gesturing toward the single chair in the room. "Would you like to sit down?"

"There is only one chair. Where will *you* sit?"

"Well ... " she began. "I was thinking, either at your feet with my head on your knees, or even in your lap, your -- arms around me and my head on your shoulder. Whichever is most comfortable for you. Maybe even on the arm of the chair, if nothing else."

The Vulcan was silent for so long that Christine was sure he'd decided to turn her down and return to his suite across the hall without saying good-night to her after all. When she least expected it, however, he headed for the chair and sat down -- then beckoned to her. She approached cautiously, unsure of what he wanted her to do.

Deciding to err on the side of caution, Christine perched on the arm of the chair. Spock gave her a half-smile, then patted his lap. She moved a little, then fell backwards into his lap, her long legs hanging over the chair arm. He caught her before she struck her head on the nearby wall.

Christine looked up and smiled. "Thank you for catching me, Spock."

"I could not allow you to injure yourself," he returned, voice neutral but his eyes soft.

They simply looked deeply into each other's eyes for a time, then she put a hand to his cheek. He reached up one hand to cover it. "Do you have Dr. McCoy looking after the Captain?"

"Yes," the First Cfficer confirmed.

"Good. Then they shouldn't miss you for a while." With that, she put both arms around his neck and pulled his head down so their lips met -- tentatively at first, then it deepened as his own arms tightened around her. How any kiss could be so sweet, yet so passionate, neither had any idea, and never wanted it to end -- because both were making up for a lot of lost time. If it wasn't for Uhura and the others ...

Both were flushed upon reluctantly separating. "Thank you, my love. That was beautiful. I know I'll sleep well."

"My pleasure," came the unexpectedly husky reply. Spock still held her securely.

"Do you realize we've been ... occupied for almost the last hour?" she pointed out, noting the chrono's reading: 0315. "And do you know what Humans call what we just did?"

"No. What is it called?"

"Necking," she said.

"'Necking'?" he returned, both brows raised. "Those were not the parts of our anatomy engaged in our -- latest activity."

*How well I know,* Christine thought with a sly smile. "I forget just why they call it that, though."

"It would be far less ... enjoyable if necks were actually used," the Vulcan remarked.

"Tell me about it," she replied, laughing softly as she pictured what he suggested. "It's a ... lot more -- fun when lips are used."

"Indeed," he concurred as he pressed her head against his chest, resting his cheek on top of her head. She rested her left hand over his heart, located in his upper right abdomen. They sat there quietly for another ten minutes or so, then Spock reluctantly whispered that he had to get up and return to his suite. She didn't try to stop him, though she was very reluctant to see him go. They lingered at the door upon reaching it.

"Sleep well, Spock." She raised a hand to his cheek again.

"I shall try, Christine. Good night." He lifted a hand to cover hers, then dropped it a few seconds later. He then opened the room door and stepped out.

It was all she could do not to blow him a kiss before closing and locking it. She was in bed five minutes later after setting the alarm for 0900 to give everyone time for breakfast before the memorial service at 1030 and then the reading of the will in the lawyer's office at 1300. It was a cinch Nyota would never believe what had transpired after she'd gone to bed ... Christine chuckled softly into her pillow as she positioned herself for sleep, soon drifting off into beautifully romantic dreams.

* * *

To Kirk's surprise, a memorial service for Anna had been arranged in one of the meeting rooms in the Fort Des Moines Hotel. All were stunned, then enchanted, upon arrival there after breakfast. Everywhere they looked, there were pictures of Anna at various ages, examples of her craft work (watercolor painting, crocheting, knitting, embroidery and needlepoint) as well as all the friends who could make it to the service. Best of all, Kirk found that his nephew Peter had actually made it from Deneva, where he had been living with friends of his parents, in time for his grandmother's memorial service.

"Uncle Jim!" cried a boyish voice, accompanied by a hug that nearly took the Captain's breath away. Peter was now almost as tall as Kirk himself, though still not quite twelve years old.

"Peter," the Captain acknowledged as he returned the hug. "It's so good to see you again."

"It's great to see you, too," the boy returned. "Sorry I couldn't get here sooner, but my guardians wouldn't let me go until yesterday."

"And this is our last day here," Kirk replied, indicating his four companions. "We have to be back to the ship by this time tomorrow." He looked around at everything, all the pictures and crafts, most of which depicted farm life, baby animals, nature scenes or inspirational sayings, smiling at the memories that seeing them had provoked. He fingered an embroidered pillow.

"I can still see her doing these things. Used to bug the hell out of my father; he thought she spent far too much time doing them -- that she was neglecting him and us boys. She just looked up at him and gave the best comeback I think anyone ever has: 'I'll be glad to turn everything over to you, George. Just say the word.' He was so stunned that he never complained again."

The Captain laughed at the memory, then introduced his crew to his mother's friends -- but spent the majority of his time with the former and Peter. He was expecially pleased to note that the color scheme was red and denim blue, his mother's favorite colors. The placecards on the table were even shaped and colored like a red shirt and blue jeans.

All the foods were homemade, his mother's favorites -- macaroni and cheese, strawberry jello with fruit cocktail in it, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, tossed salad with hard-boiled eggs, onions, bacon bits and croutons, topped off with garlic ranch dressing -- and English toffee ice cream, along with flavored iced tea for a beverage.

Kirk and his crew couldn't stay, since they were all still full from their large breakfast, and besides, it was almost time for the reading of his mother's will in Randall's office: 1230 hours. He bade everyone goodbye and left with his crew and Peter in the very same aircab Spock had flagged down at the shuttleport. The Vulcan had paid the cabbie sufficiently so that the latter and his cab were essentially at their disposal for the foreseeable future.

They arrived at Randall's office with ten minutes to spare, talking until Randall's secretary called them into his presence, getting everyone either coffee, tea or soft drinks. All were relaxed and ready by the time Randall opened his briefcase and took out a sheaf of legal, official-looking papers.

"Is everyone ready?" he asked; the group all nodded or murmured affirmatively. "Very well; I'll get started."

Much of the will held no surprises, so Randall skimmed over that, since he and Kirk had already made arrangments to conduct the rest of their business via stargram and holovid once the Captain had returned to the ship. The main surprise came when Randall came the provision regarding the cat, Amanda.

" -- and all the necessary care and attention of my beloved Siamese cat, Amanda, I leave to my son James' closest friend, the Vulcan, Mr. Spock."

Uhura was stunned speechless, as was Spock himself. Christine was surprised at first, then smiled. By the time Spock regained his voice, everyone's eyes were on him, waiting to see if he would accept the responsibility.

"She ... left the cat -- to *me*?" the Vulcan asked, incredulous.

"Yes," Randall confirmed.

"I am -- honored, of course, but pets are not ... allowed aboard ship," Spock pointed out.

Kirk spoke up. "I think I can bend the rules, at least for now, until you figure out what's best for her," he returned with a smile. "You can keep her in your quarters until then. Besides, she's really taken to you -- and Mom said that the cat doesn't take to just anybody ... so it's 'the logical thing to do' at this juncture. You can have the food and litter either replicated or shipped from Earth or the nearest Starbase via freighter. We just have to allow for the time factor."

Spock sighed, all major objections forestalled, and turned back to face the lawyer. "Very well; I accept the responsibility."

The rest of the group clapped, including Peter. The Vulcan was told that the cat and her belongings would be beamed aboard the ship before the Enterprise departed Earth. Spock nodded in acknowledgment. "I shall be expecting her." Still, he knew it wouldn't be easy for him once the cat was aboard, especially if he was seen with her. He considered asking whichever of his friends was available at the time to accompany him to the Transporter Room if necessary.

They had lunch at the Chat Noir Cafe, in the French Quarter of Des Moines, in the Sherman Hills area, then Kirk sent his nephew back to the shuttleport after picking up his belongings at his lodgings, deciding to wait to tell him how his grandmother had willed him her wedding and engagement rings when he turned 18. Peter and his uncle said their farewells at the door of the aircab just prior to the Enterprise group returning to their rooms.

"Keep in touch," the Captain admonished after a final hug.

"You too," the boy replied. "Take care, Uncle Jim. Your friends, too. I've got to get going now."

"Goodbye, Peter."

The youth situated himself in the aircab, which would take him back to the shuttleport and the ship which served as an intergalactic "school bus" for students of Deneva's largest and best middle school, Sunshine Acres, located in Deneva's capital city, New Sacramento. Peter had been allowed only a weekend away from his studies by his parents' closest friends and his legal guardians (Richard and Jessica Barham, who also had a son named Jason, with whom he was close friends), so it was necessary for him to return to Deneva at least a day in advance to allow him time to get a good night's sleep and thus be ready to resume classes Monday morning.

Once the aircab was out of sight, the group all went to the suite, the women staying with the men until bedtime, having food sent up from Room Service from the Gotham Club, the finest restaurant in the hotel. (They had already doubled back to the hospital to pick up the luggage left near the Admissions Desk.)

* * *

They checked out of the hotel at 0900, its regular check-out time, paying their bill and taking off to the shuttleport. Upon arrival, they dismissed the cabbie after thanking him for his generosity, then upon finding a momentarily deserted Departure Lounge, Kirk took out his communicator and contacted the ship. He wasn't sure if they were going to reply for a while, but finally Scotty's welcome voice answered.

"Scott here. Hope ye all ha' a bonnie trip," he returned pleasantly.

"We did," Kirk replied quietly.

"Indeed we did," Christine said softly, reaching to squeeze Spock's hand. Only the Vulcan and McCoy heard her, both sets of eye- brows shooting up before each smiled at the woman they both cared for, albeit in different ways.

"How's Palmer doing?" Uhura asked. "Is my comm station still in one piece?"

"She's done jus' fine, Lieutenant -- but ye c'n check it out f'r y'rself once y're back aboard," Scott assured her.

"I will. Count on it," Uhura threw back. She had been leery of leaving Palmer, her relief, in charge of the Communications station, mainly because Palmer tended to do things to it without informing Uhura. For that reason, Uhura was never sure in just what condition she would find it upon returning to the ship after having been on leave.

Kirk looked around are everyone, the group surrounded by their luggage. "Set transporter to wide-beam, Scotty -- then energize."

"Done, sir."

Kirk kept his comm channel open until he felt himself begin to dematerialize, quickly flipping it shut and holding it until they finished re-materializing aboard ship.

To Spock's amazement and embarrassment, he noted a pet carrier with the cat inside, surrounded by her belongings. "When did the -- cat arrive, Mr. Scott?" the Vulcan inquired.

"'bout fifteen minutes ago, Mr. Spock," the Chief Engineer told him. "May I ask why it's here, though? Pets aren't usually allowed aboard ship."

Kirk rescued his friend by answering for him. "It was a bequest from my mother. She died a few days ago, and wanted Mr. Spock to have her cat -- so I'm allowing its presence temporarily." The Captain gave the engineer a look which precluded his asking any further questions ... either of Spock, himself or any of the group -- unless they volunteered the information.

"Very well, sir," Scott conceded.

"I will need help in transporting the cat and her belongings," the First Officer pointed out.

"I think we can all help," Kirk offered with a smile. "Maybe if each takes something ... " He looked around, taking in Scott's presence. "Scotty, go get a large anti-grav unit. We'll wait here."

"Aye, sir." Upon his return, Scott picked up the cat carrier, the Doctor took the litter box, Uhura the bag of toys -- which included the food and water dishes (among other things), Kirk the container of scoopable litter, Christine the large bag of cat food, to place on the anti-grav carrier. [They left their luggage in the Transporter Room temporarily.]

It must have been a sight for every crewmember who passed them, but Kirk's implacable face checked whatever comments they might have had regarding the unusual scene. Even though he hid behind a granite wall of control, Spock still found it difficult to maintain in the face of such astonishment as he saw in the eyes of other crewmembers. He would be immensely grateful to reach his quarters and get away from them, if only for a short time. He only dared to relax when they stepped into the turbolift which would take them to Deck Five, steeling himself to run the gauntlet between the turbolift and his private quarters in Officers' Country.

* * *

As glad as the others were to help, they were just as grateful to reach Spock's quarters as he was. Upon arrival, Spock placed his luggage in his sleeping alcove after retrieving it from the anti-grav unit, then returned to his too-generous friends and everyone helped unload it. First, the cat in her carrier and the litter box, followed by the bags of toys and food -- then lastly, the duraplastic container of litter.

"Thank you ... all for your help," he told them upon returning from his last trip into the sleeping alcove. Now he would have to figure out how to accommodate his new pet, integrate her into his life aboard ship. He had never had to concern himself with this with his *sehlat*, I-Chaya, but then the latter had been far too large to keep indoors -- particularly on a ship -- even if he had been alive at this time, which he wasn't.

This animal, a Terran domestic cat, weighed only about 17.6 kilograms (eight pounds) -- and he would have to ask his friends for advice on how to care for her ... though his emotional bond had already been established during the stay at the Kirk farm, and could only grow stronger with the passage of time. He also intended to read up on the psychological aspects of pet ownership, particularly those which regarded pet and owner relationships.

He had heard, however, that cats usually "chose" their next owner, not vice versa. The cat had most definitely "chosen" him, but it would be a novelty -- to put it mildly (at least for a while) to have her curl up next to him on his bed or even get on his lap while he was on his personal computer.

From now on, he would have to check whenever he wanted to sit or lie down, much less walk anywhere in his quarters, because he had also heard that cats liked to sleep in odd places, and finally that they were easy to care for ... once one learned how. He would also need to inquire as to whether any of the doctors aboard ship had veterinary training and experience. (Another thing he would eventually learn was to make sure that the cat was nowhere near the door when he or others entered or left.)

"Would you like any of us to return to see how you're doing with your new acquisition?" Kirk asked.

"Perhaps later. Contact me first so that I may ascertain my new ... pet's whereabouts."

"No problem," the Captain said. "Let's go, everybody."

The others followed him to the door, though Christine met the Vulcan's eyes, silently pleading for permission to return, which she received via his softened gaze and half-smile upon her. She smiled, then the group left. After he was alone, Spock debated on where to place the litter box upon releasing the cat from her carrier and making sure the box was clean and fresh. As he did so, the cat rubbed against his legs, then entwined herself around and through them, purring loudly for attention. He reached down to scratch behind her ears, then stroke her back before straightening again.

"I am here, little one. Do not worry."

He finally decided to put the litter box just inside the bathroom door, near the enclosed shower, making sure it wouldn't be in the way. The cat followed him around the whole time as he placed her things as logically as possible, the combined food and water dishes went on the other side of the door, near the sink. Again, the Vulcan made sure it would not interfere with his (or Jim's) regular activities. He filled her water dish, then set it aside and went to retrieve the food.

After he filled the food dish and set it down, the cat began to eat happily, not seeming to notice his departure while he went for the other items. He put the bag of toys and other things under the sink, since there was room there for most of (if not all) the items. He put the large container of litter in the bathroom closet next to the shower, then got out a couple of cat toys -- a catnip mouse and a ball with a bell in it, taking them out into the living area and tossing them onto the carpeted floor, letting them lay where they landed.

He then unpacked, either putting his clothing back in the drawers, the small built-in sonic washer/dryer unit to be cleaned or hanging the items up in the closet. The cat was drinking when he returned his toiletries to the bathroom, jumping onto the counter and nuzzling his hand upon finishing. He stroked her a moment, then gently admonished, "You must stay off certain things when I am not present, little one. I will instruct you as to which ones at the earliest opportunity."

He went to get his favorite robe and heaviest socks, since he would no longer be able to keep the temperature exclusively at Vulcan normal when he was alone (and would therefore need extra clothing). Gravity, too ... at least for the moment. Upon his return, he noted the cat using her litter box, so he prepared to shower while allowing his new pet her privacy. Once the cat finished, he gently shooed her out the door and closed it; she began meowing in protest.

"I must shower now, little one. I will rejoin you soon," he assured her, his throaty baritone holding almost a crooning quality. Once he came out after showering, then programming the bathroom door sensors so his new pet could get in and out, he found the cat curled up on his bed, asleep -- or so he thought. As he approached, she lifted her head and kept him in sight as he moved around the room.

He retrieved his mother's latest stargram from his desk and reclined on his right side on the bed, placing his pillow for maximum comfort before proceeding to read the letter again. Just wait until he told her about his new pet ... especially her name! The cat maneuvered herself onto his side and stretched out there, once again purring loudly. So far, matters were progressing nicely; Spock could only hope that state of affairs would continue.

Both owner and pet were nearly asleep when the door buzzer sounded. It almost had to be Christine; Jim usually came through the adjoining bathroom which connected their quarters. The Captain usually only pressed the buzzer if he had left his quarters and was returning with news for him or something. Spock held the cat with one hand while unlocking his door with the other. "Come," he said.

A moment later Christine stepped in. She had obviously showered and changed as well, rosy-musk perfume in a scented cloud around her and her hair loose around her shoulders. She wore a pale blue, rose-print caftan-like garment with white sandals, smiling as she stood in the doorway to his sleeping alcove, observing the Vulcan and the cat together.

"Well, how's your new pet settling in?" she asked conversationally.

"Most satisfactorily, so far," he reported. "But it remains to be seen how rapidly she will adjust to life aboard a starship."

"I'm told she was an indoor cat, so that shouldn't be too big a concern."

"It will also take an adjustment for me," the Vulcan confessed. "I have not had a pet -- particularly not aboard ship -- for a considerable length of time."

"Not surprising," Christine returned. "May I come in? I wanted to discuss the dual weddings we're supposed to have."

Spock merely nodded; Christine entered and seated herself at the foot of the bed, then they began. After about half an hour, the cat moved to investigate the newcomer; Christine reached to stroke the cat's back upon answering questions from Spock regarding the location of, color, motif, and the kind of music and flowers she would like to have for the shipboard wedding. She then asked him questions about the Vulcan wedding, such as when it was supposed to be held.

"Hello, baby. How are you?" she crooned. To the nurse's surprise, the cat began purring in response, then nuzzled her hand. "She seems to like me."

"Of course," Spock assured her. "She knows you like her."

"Yeah, for now," Christine returned dryly. "But how do you think she'd react if I ... tried to -- kiss you or something? Some animals don't take well to competition for their owners' attention."

"I ... have no idea," Spock replied quietly. "Do you wish to make the attempt? The cat would be unable to injure you severely, even if she did attempt to attack you, since she has been de-clawed."

"Then all I've got to worry about is her teeth."

"I still do not think she would attack you," the Vulcan tried to reassure his visitor.

"I haven't tried it yet, either," she reminded him.

"Then you still wish to try?" he inquired, situating himself beside her.

"You really need to ask?" Christine returned with a provocative smile, reaching to put her arms around her bondmate's neck and stroking the back of it with her fingertips. The Vulcan shivered and bent his head to find her lips, tentatively sliding his arms around her to hold her gently. His lips tasted like warm honey, and Christine gently pressed closer to him as the kiss deepened; he followed suit. Just then, both felt a sudden weight and heard a protesting meow.

"I believe you were correct -- at least to a degree," Spock admitted as he reluctantly released Christine.

"Can't blame her, really," Christine remarked. "Still, you may have to close her in the bathroom occasionally if we decide to rendezvous here and don't want to be interrupted."

Spock frowned but nodded. "You are probably correct."

"Of course, if we met in *my* quarters, we wouldn't have to worry about that," she pointed out.

"There is that, too," he conceded.

"Incidentally, I didn't mean to come without calling you beforehand, but I'd left my quarters and was halfway here before I remembered," the nurse apologized.

"It is all right this time, but please endeavor to remember after this," Spock gently admonished. "At least in time to contact me first."

"I will," Christine promised, then got up and headed for the door; he followed her. "I have to get up early, or else I would seriously consider staying," she groused.

"I know," he returned softly. "And it *will* happen again -- but not tonight."

"Good night, Spock." She brought his hand to her lips.

"Good night, Christine. Sleep well."

"I can only try," she threw back. "See you later."

The Vulcan allowed himself a smile as he touched her cheek, then she departed after returning the smile. He went back to his bed to lie down again; the cat resumed her previous position on his side for a time, then curled up beside him. He spoke gently to her as he stroked the silky fur. "I can understand your -- fear, little one, but I ... care for Christine. There will be times I will wish to be with her and not have you -- interfere, but that does not mean I ... care any less for you." Again, his voice was almost a croon.

* * *

Spock had no idea when he'd fallen asleep, but when he awakened, he was in a semi-fetal position, one hand under his head to supplement the pillow, nose almost in the crook of his elbow. The cat was curled up in a tight ball, gently pressed against his belly, deeply asleep. Spock knew he had to get up and prepare to go on duty, but was loathe to disturb the cat, who looked so peaceful. He moved backward carefully, then turned over and got up.

He hoped he hadn't disturbed her and was pleased to note that she was still curled up when he began to dress. He didn't ordinarily lock his door, but would probably have to learn to do so, for obvious reasons -- so he'd better start now. Upon completing the voice command locking sequence, he left his quarters and went on duty.

They left Earth at 1100 hours that morning; by 1500, they were light-years away, en route to Starbase 11 to pick up some new crewmembers. It would take at least another day, if not two, to arrive there.

"How's your new roommate, Spock?" Kirk gently teased, making sure no one else could hear him as he stood by his friend's chair at the Science station.

"She is ... doing well at the moment. I hope it -- continues. I am not ... experienced with small animals."

"You seemed to do all right with Gary Seven's cat," the Captain reminded him.

"Isis was a shape-shifter," Spock pointed out. "This cat -- Amanda -- is not." His tone was stern.

"All right, you've made your point," Kirk conceded. "Now, what can you tell me about the Malurian system? Have you any idea what destroyed it?"

* * *

The rest of the shift was uneventful. Since Spock got off earlier than Kirk did today, the Vulcan was able to obtain permission to go through the Captain's quarters and the connecting door between them, finding the cat sitting at his closed quarters door, meowing plaintively. "It is all right, little one. I have returned."

The cat followed him into the bedroom and rubbed against him as he removed his boots, then his uniform shirt. He sat down at his personal computer, allowing himself a smile at the holo of his parents, particularly his mother, and logged on, intending to send her a stargram about his new pet. "Computer on," he said -- then felt the cat jump into his lap and nudge him for attention. "Do not disturb me now, little one. I am going to write a stargram to my mother, with whom you share a name ... and tell her about you."

But the cat didn't listen; finally Spock was obliged to carry her around and speak soothingly to her in between dictating the stargram. Once he finished, he said, "Computer, transmit the stargram to Lady Amanda on planet Vulcan, then log off." Spock heard the computer click off the minute after the soft humming which indicated stargram transmission. "You are a most ... insistent female," he told the cat. "Even Christine is not as demanding as you." He moved to the sleeping alcove and selected the Fantasia holovid to view; the cat curled up on his belly and stayed there the entire time it was on. Fortunately, he didn't have to get up again right away. Shortly after the holovid ended, the intership intercom beeped. He opened it to find McCoy on the other end.

"Hope I didn't disturb you, Spock. Just wanted to tell you something."

"Like what, Doctor?"

"I found a doctor aboard ship with a veterinary background for your new cat. His name is Pruitt -- David Pruitt. It might be a good idea to get her checked out as soon as possible. When can you bring her in?"

"I am off-duty right now, Doctor, but would prefer that ... either you, Jim or Christine take her. I have no wish to elaborate on how I -- acquired her at the moment. It is enough that you, Jim, Christine and Miss Uhura know." His voice was tightly controlled.

"I don't think any of us would object; it's only that ... "

"Only that -- what?"

"He already knows ... but I warned him not to make any tactless remarks, or else he'd not only have the Captain to deal with, but one very put out CMO and Head Nurse."

"Thank you, Doctor, but I would -- still prefer that one of you take her, at least for the time being." His voice held such pleading that McCoy found himself giving in.

"All right, Spock, if you insist. I'm not doing anything right now. Just get her into her carrier. McCoy out."

Spock did so; within fifteen minutes the Doctor was at the door and pressing the buzzer. "Come," Spock said; the door swished open.

"Is the cat ready?" McCoy asked.

"Here she is," the Vulcan replied, handing over the occupied carrier. "Let me know the results -- and what the doctor's hours are -- when you return."

"Will do. See you later."

* * *

McCoy returned with the cat just over half an hour later, handing her back without a word.

"How is she?" Spock asked.

"Pruitt says she's fine, but he requires her medical history. Do you have it?"

"I will have to check. I am not certain."

"Let him -- or one of us -- know when you are. Gotta go now." McCoy turned for the door.

"Wait, Doctor. What are Dr. Pruitt's business hours?"

"Oh, sorry, Spock. Forgot. He's on call around the clock, but his regular hours are 0800 to 1630."

"Thank you. You may go."

With that, McCoy departed and the Vulcan released his pet from the carrier again; she rubbed against his legs as he placed it on the top shelf of his closet. He also got out his Vulcan harp and situated himself on his bed with it, carefully adjusting the tone before beginning to play, speaking softly to the cat as he did so. "I hope you were a ... good girl at the veterinarian's office. I shall be -- very disappointed in you otherwise, little one."

He decided to check the bag with the cat's belongings upon finishing his harp-playing, one soothing song for his new pet's benefit. He was pleased to find a detailed medical history for Amanda the cat almost from birth, including a spaying two years ago and a de-clawing just over six months ago. He set it inside his top right desk drawer, then called McCoy to tell him.

"Great. I'll have Christine pick it up and take it to the vet on her lunch hour tomorrow."

"Very well. It will be ready."

Just as the Vulcan was about to sign off, the Doctor spoke up one last time. "Spock, may I give you a piece of friendly advice?"

Spock raised a skeptical eyebrow, but McCoy's smile remained. "I can understand your not wanting the whole crew to know about the cat right away, but sooner or later they're going to find out. I hope you realize that. I don't think too many would bother you about it, though, at least not after their initial curiosity ... especially since Jim, Chris and I intend to warn anyone who mentions the cat in our hearing that they'll be in big trouble if it reaches us that they've been harassing you over it.

"Besides, with all due respect, you've always been good at freezing people out with a well-chosen gesture or statement. I would think all you'd need to do is simply say, 'That is not your concern,' or 'That question invades my personal life,' to anyone besides Jim, Christine, Uhura or I who asks nosy questions."

"Thank you, Doctor. I will keep it in mind. I must go now. Spock out."

"Hope it helps, Spock. McCoy out."

* * *

Those were pretty much how the first days with the cat went, though more interesting happenings were bound to occur at some point, Spock was convinced of that -- but as long as he had his friends to help and advise him, he should be able to handle having a new (and Terran) pet. They arrived at Starbase 11 at 1200 hours the following day, contacting them to inform them of their arrival and to pick up the new crewmembers. Kirk and Spock were there to greet them -- three men, two in red and one in blue, and three women, two in blue and one in red. Both men recognized one of the women in blue: Janine Murray! After greeting and dismissing the others, they approached her.

"Janine ... Nurse ... Lieutenant, what are you doing here?" Kirk wondered. "When did you join Starfleet?"

"A few weeks ago," she told him. "I was waiting for the paperwork to clear, and my temp assignments to finish. I've been meaning to do it for some time, though. You just gave me the perfect excuse. Your mother was always rhapsodizing so much about you, your life in Starfleet as the Captain of the finest starship in the fleet, that I had to find out what all the shouting was about." Her voice lowered. "I also wanted a chance to get to know you. We never had the opportunity to get properly acquainted."

"I was ... too preoccupied with Mom -- but now that you're here, perhaps we can ... " The Captain's voice trailed off. "I've got to get back to work now. I'll see you later. See Head Nurse Chapel or Dr. McCoy for assignment. Mr. Spock, please escort Lieutenant Murray to her quarters."

"Yes, sir." Both watched Kirk leave, head bowed and voice tightly controlled.

"Did I say something wrong?" Janine gave Spock a hurt and bewildered look.

The Vulcan's reply was gentle. "I do not believe so. It is simply your presence; it reminds the Captain of his mother's death. Remember, it has only been a short time since her passing."

"I'm sorry; I never meant to re-open the wound. It was just that I've been -- attracted to him since we met, and was ... hoping to get to know him better."

"I am sure he wishes the same -- eventually ... but in the meantime, I would ask you not to pressure him. Just do your job, and he should seek you out when he is ready."

"If you say so, Mr. Spock. Can we go to my quarters now?"

"Of course, Lieutenant." With that, he picked up her small suitcase and she adjusted the strap on her shoulder bag before following him out of the Transporter Room.

* * *

Over time, Spock realized that Lieutenant Murray's attraction to Jim was much the same caliber as Christine's to himself, only that the Human couple hadn't needed the Omicron Ceti III spores in order to express their emotions, as he had. It had taken the spores to get him to truly appreciate Christine ... not to mention her and their friends telling him off in order to snap him out of "double Vulcan" mode and his stubborn insistence on denying his feelings for her. Thankfully, there would be no more of that after this -- not where Christine was concerned, at any rate. Spock may have needed the spores at first, but never would again.

He may not have been able to publicly show his feelings in any other way than finger-crossing, but eventually sensed that the private ones were what mattered most to Christine, as they did to him. So, even if only for that reason, Spock was now able to freely admit that he not only could but *did* love Christine ... and always would. They were simply bondmates now, but would marry as soon as their duties allowed. Best of all, they would *remain* bonded mates -- for now and as long as they both lived.