DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Joanne K. Seward and is copyright (c) 1991 by Joanne K. Seward. Originally printed in Antares #1.



Cultural Conditioning

Joanne K. Seward



"If you need anything..." Captain James T. Kirk grinned and took a backward step. He noted, though not consciously, the soft whoosh of doors sliding apart behind him. He stepped through into the corridor.

His foot encountered something soft and yielding.

A feminine voice uttered a quiet, "Oh."

Kirk wheeled.

The woman before him was tiny, scarcely reaching the insignia on the breast of his gold shirt. Straight blonde hair cascaded to well below the waist of her cream-colored jumpsuit. Balanced in her arms was a haphazard assortment of datatapes. Not one, but two tricorders swung from her shoulder. Despite this -- or because of it -- an aura of fragility clung to her, an elfin quality, accentuated by huge moss-colored eyes and delicately pointed ears.

For a moment, she seemed to sway on slender, child-size feet.

A blonde Vulcan? Kirk wondered.

"Who are you, and what are you doing in a restricted area?" he demanded, struggling to conquer astonishment even as he reached out to steady her. At his touch a tingle, an almost subliminal electric shock, seemed to run from her into his hands and up his arms.

"Science Specialist T'Risa," the woman replied in a voice that tinkled like fairy bells. Recovered, she stepped from his grasp, eyes traveling to the rows of gold braid circling his wrists then back up to meet his gaze. "Reporting for duty, Captain."

"Science Specialist T'Risa," Kirk repeated, drawing the syllables out. Directing a pointed look at the plaque that read "Engineering," he let his brows rise quizzically.

"I believe the correct idiom is, I have become twisted around, sir," she explained.

As odd as everything else about her, Kirk thought, noting what he could have sworn was just the faintest hint of defensiveness in her tone.

"Got turned around," he corrected absently and found himself smiling at the absurdity of such a thing. Spock always seemed to know exactly where he was going, even if he'd never been there before. Kirk had always assumed such navigational skills to be the Vulcan norm.

"If you were to tell me your destination..." he suggested.

"Life Sciences ... Zoology... Uh, Entomology, to be precise."

Kirk's smile broadened. A dithering Vulcan? Maybe Spock was right when he insisted there was a first time for everything!

"Well, Specialist T'Risa. I think I should be able to deliver you there without any difficulty. Here, let me help with your supplies."

* * *

"--unusual coloring."

Kirk plunked his tray down and settled into the seat the doctor had saved for him. "What has unusual coloring, Bones?"

"Not what. Who," McCoy answered thickly. He washed down a bite of fried chicken with a mouthful of iced tea before adding, "That Vulcan girl. Stationed in zoology. Studies bugs. Came aboard to do the surveys of Darien Three and Bailey's Planet. Lots of insect life there. Name's Teresa, something like that. Starts with a 't' anyway. You probably haven't met her yet."

"Her name is T'Risa," Spock said, temporarily abandoning his salad, "not Teresa."

"Sounds the same to me," McCoy grumbled.

Kirk fought a smile. "That makes you wrong on two counts, Bones. I have met her. Blonde, as I recall, with green eyes."

"Hmmph," McCoy responded then, grinning, added, "It figures."

"What figures?" Kirk started to ask, but Spock had already returned the conversation to its

original course.

"You are correct, however, in regard to her coloring, Doctor. The percentage of Vulcans with T'Risa's pigmentation is infinitesimal. It is caused by a condition similar to albinism."

Surprised, Kirk said, "Then her eyes are green because her blood is green?"

"That is essentially correct, Captain."

"Uh, Spock... T'Risa wasn't exactly forthcoming during her physical," McCoy said, and Kirk could hear him imitating Spock's pronunciation in the way he cut the "t" more abruptly, the hard, near "z" sound of the final consonant. "Think you could tell me a bit more about this condition of hers?"

Spock looked mildly uncomfortable but he complied with the request. "The condition--" He uttered a word that brought to mind a severe attack of choking. "--is similar to albinism, though not identical. It is caused by a recessive gene. The lack of pigmentation is the most obvious symptom; however, there are others -- increased sensitivity to heat and cold, rapid fatigue, small stature, stronger than usual telepathic and psionic abilities coupled with rather tenuous emotional control--"

"Bet the Vulcans love that," McCoy interjected.

That explains it, Kirk thought, recalling the frisson that had passed through him when he came into physical contact with T'Risa. He wasn't surprised when Spock ignored McCoy's comment, saying, "Since those bearing the gene are discouraged from procreation--"

"--mean they're not allowed to have children?" McCoy's expression presented an amazing similarity to an impending nova. "Why that's a direct contravention of the Articles of the Federation--"

Across the mess hall Kirk caught a glimpse of platinum hair surmounting a pair of achingly green eyes. His own eyes widened in silent invitation.

"You mistake my meaning, Doctor," Spock explained patiently. "I said discouraged, not forbidden. On Vulcan, persons such as T'Risa are at extreme risk from the environment. The Vulcan Science Acad--"

The sudden impact of Kirk's standard issue boot on Spock's bony Vulcan shin brought an immediate halt to the lecture.

"Specialist T'Risa," Kirk said, pushing himself quickly to his feet. The smile that formed on his lips felt large enough to illuminate the entire quadrant. Something about her seemed to have that effect on him. "Would you care to join us?"

"Thank you, Captain." T'Risa slid into the chair Kirk pulled out for her.

Across the table, knowing sapphire eyes met deep brown and two sets of eyebrows rose.

* * *

It had been a long and active day, a good part of which Kirk had spent in the fresh air and

sunshine of an early summer's day, Darien III-style, and he was tired. Tired, but not sleepy, though he couldn't say why. Perhaps it was a case of too much excitement upon making planet-fall or simply too much warm sunshine and fresh air. McCoy could probably supply an explanation, but Kirk had no intention of asking. Instead, he roamed the night-dimmed corridors of his ship, no onerous duty as far as he was concerned but rather a privilege and an honor.

A movement at the point where a secondary corridor intersected the one he was traveling caught his eye, just a hint of something pale and flowing as it passed beneath a lighting panel and he snapped out of his reverie. Though security was not overly tight on the Enterprise, this area did require clearance, and he could think of no reason for anyone to be present at this late hour.

"Hold it right there."

The figure moved closer, approaching silently through the gloom.

"I said hold it!" Kirk ordered.

"Captain?" a small voice inquired.

"T'Risa?" he asked, half-frowning. "What on Earth are you doing here?"

"I seem to have gotten turned around again," she replied.

Had she been Human, Kirk would have been certain that was annoyance coloring her words. Then again, T'Risa was pretty far removed from your garden variety Vulcan, so...

"It's a good thing we're not involved in any secret missions right now," he said lightly, "or I'd have to haul you to the brig on a charge of espionage."

"Espionage?" She was close enough now that he could watch the ascent of one pale eyebrow.

"You know, spying," he explained.

"Ah, yes. Coat and knife," she said in a knowing tone.

"Coat and knife!" Unable to help himself -- she looked and sounded so earnest -- Kirk burst into unrestrained laughter.

T'Risa stared up at him questioningly, her green eyes seeming to glow through the night- cycle darkness, putting him in mind of those of a cat.

"The saying is 'cloak and dagger'," he managed through his laughter.

"Of course. I have confused the idiom again," she said. "Like my poor sense of direction, it is a weakness of mine."

"I find it--" He'd been about to say endearing but thought better of it. "I find it refreshing," he amended. "A Vulcan who's not always sitting on the high horse of perfection is a wonderful change of pace."

"Perhaps," she said, sounding suddenly weary.

Kirk was silent for a moment, struck by the pain in that single word. It reminded him of the pain he knew Spock often wrestled with. For such supposedly logical people, it seemed to him that Vulcans caused an awful lot of unnecessary mental and emotional distress to those they considered less than perfect. From his dealings with Spock, he also knew sympathy would be unacceptable, so he merely smiled and said, "My gain."

"Captain?"

"If you keep getting lost," he explained, "then I have an excuse to keep rescuing you."

"Rescuing me?" she asked.

"Its an old Terran tradition," Kirk said. "One of my favorites. Rescuing damsels in distress."

"You are teasing me," she said.

"Only a little, he replied, then with a bow and a courtly gesture, added, "It's late, my lady, and you are tired. May I beg the honor of escorting you to your cabin?"

T'Risa shook her head slightly, as though uncertain how to respond, but when she spoke her manner was as mock-gracious as his. "I thank you, Captain. I would be most grateful."

* * *

The following morning, Kirk strolled along beside the entomologist, a long blade of the graygrass native to Darien III twirling between his fingers. "I wasn't aware there were butterflies on Vulcan."

Eyes never leaving the specialized tricorder in her hand, T'Risa poked a strand of flaxen hair back under the wide-brimmed hat from which it had escaped. "Technically--"

Spock's long strides brought him abreast of the pair. "Technically, there are not. There are, however, insects that fit the Terran classification lepidoptera, meaning simply 'wing scales'. They are neither as common nor as flamboyant as the butterflies with which you are familiar, Captain."

"I see, Kirk murmured, disgruntled at the interruption. The more time he spent with T'Risa, the more time he wanted to spend with her. He found her -- to borrow a favorite Spockism -- fascinating.

T'Risa inclined her head. "Commander Spock is correct." Eyes seeking Kirk's, she went on, "My first introduction to butterflies, however, was not on Vulcan, but on Earth Colony Twelve. The ship on which my family was traveling put in for emergency repairs. I was five years old and fascinated by insects larger than st'haila birds."

Lost in a different form of fascination, Kirk murmured, "Colony Twelve -- every species of butterfly and moth known on Earth and then some."

T'Risa nodded. "It was then I decided to spend my life studying lepidoptera." One blonde eyebrow slanted wryly as she added, "I was somewhat disappointed to discover the scarcity of true butterflies when we returned to my home planet."

Kirk visualized her as a tiny Vulcan elf, white-blonde bangs falling into huge jade eyes, as she made a firm resolve to study a lifeform that for all intents and purposes didn't exist on her homeworld. "I can imagine," he said dryly.

"Therefore," T'Risa concluded, "it seemed logical to widen the area of my studies to include all insects."

"Logical," Kirk echoed. He glanced at his first officer. "Spock ... I think the geology team was looking for you. Something about a suspected vein of dilithium..."

Spock's eyes widened, then one brow rose slowly. "Unlikely on a planet of this nature, Captain."

"Highly unlikely," Kirk agreed, aiming his most engagingly boyish smile at his first officer. "However..."

* * *

"Explain," Kirk snapped into the comm pick-up in the arm of his chair.

"Specialist T'Risa did not return to the beam-up coordinates at the expected time, sir," answered a disembodied voice Kirk recognized as belonging to Lieutenant Crowley, one of Spock's more favored proteges. "We've been looking for her for the past ten minutes. Request permission to widen the search."

"Permission granted. Stay in touch, Crowley."

"Ave, sir," came the expected reply, but Kirk's attention was already focused on his first officer.

"Can you distinguish her reading on sensors, Spock?"

"It should be possible," Spock replied, his head bent over the instrument in question. A tense quarter of an hour passed uninterrupted except for Crowley's request for handlights now that the sun had gone down, plunging Darien III into moonless dark.

With that lousy sense of direction of hers and the condition from which she suffers-- Kirk levered himself from the command chair and strode restlessly to the Science station. "Spock--"

"One moment, Captain."

Kirk chewed at the inside of his lip.

"I believe I have found her. The life signs are weak, however. I suggest Doctor--"

Kirk didn't allow him to finish. "Uhura, tell McCoy to get to the transporter room. Medical emergency. Tell him it's T'Risa," he added, moving rapidly to the turbolift. Spock followed half a pace behind.

Uhura nodded, her lovely voice already relaying the information to Doctor McCoy.

* * *

"Thirty meters in that direction," Spock supplied almost before the spangled haze of the transporter effect had faded.

Kirk gave a swift nod. "T'Risa!"

He waited a moment, then called again. "T'Risa..."

Nothing.

He tried again. "T'Risa!"

From a distance he could hear the original search team calling. McCoy's and Spock's shouts sounded behind him.

"T'Risa!"

The faintest of whispers met his ears.

"T'Risa? Where are you?"

"H-h-here."

Kirk looked down, startled to find that another couple of meters would have left him standing on the fallen lepidopterist. She lay hunched on the ground, pale hair tangled around a paler face, looking heartbreakingly similar to one of her own specimens that had battered itself to death in its frantic escape attempt.

"Bones, Spock! Over here!" Dropping to his knees he reached out a hand.

"Do not touch her, Captain," Spock called. "She could have internal injuries."

Kirk frowned but contented himself with taking T'Risa's cold hand in his own. The tingle he remembered from their first meeting ran through his fingers.

"What happened?" he asked softly. "Did you trip?" It seemed unlikely -- the ground on which he knelt was smooth and level, the foliage a short, curly lichen that reminded him of the pelt of a Lilliputian lamb.

"D-d-dizzy. F-f-fell."

T'Risa's teeth chattered so hard Kirk feared they would shatter. A medical scanner whirred. "Bones?" he asked, not looking up.

"I don't know yet," the doctor answered, his attention directed to the readings on his scanner. "There's nothing broken, no internal injuries. Reads like hypoglycemia." He pulled an emergency blanket from his kit to wrap around her. "But hypoglycemia just isn't something Vulcans are prone to," he added, puzzlement coloring his voice.

"You are correct, of course, Doctor." Spock bent to lift the lepidopterist from the ground, giving Kirk the oddest sense that the Vulcan was somehow trying to prevent further physical contact between him and T'Risa.

Putting the thought aside, he tuned in just in time to catch the tale end of the Vulcan's explanation.

"-causes a similar imbalance when prophylactic measures are neglected or the sufferer becomes overly fatigued."

McCoy gave a doctorly "mmm-hmm, and rummaged in his kit. "Can she deal with a vitalizer shot?"

Spock looked at the wraith-like woman in his arms and raised an eyebrow.

"Y-y-yes," T'Risa clattered and held out her arm.

* * *

"Captain," Uhura said, "landing party three reports a problem with their computerized equipment. They say things just seem to be freezing up."

"Relay it to Mister Scott, Lieutenant."

"Captain, if I may?"

Kirk faced his first officer. "Something, Mister Spock?"

"Landing party three is assigned to an area similar to that called Death Valley on Earth. Most likely the problem is heat-related--"

"Cooked then," Kirk commented, aiming a wry glance in Uhura's direction, "not frozen. And you think you're better equipped to deal with it than Scotty..."

The Vulcan nodded. "Computers are my specialty."

"Yes, they are," Kirk agreed. "And no doubt your Vulcan physiology is better suited to the local climate."

"No doubt," Spock concurred, the slightest hint of what might have been a smile softening the stern lines of his face.

Kirk grinned in response to that embryonic smile. "Very well, Mister Spock, landing party three's problems are all yours."

"I will beam down at once to ascertain the specific nature of the problem."

"Very good, Mister Spock." Kirk glanced at the navconsole. "Mister Chekov, you can take over on Spock's scanners." Turning back to his first officer, he said, "I thought you were going..."

Spock nodded solemnly. "Captain," he murmured and strode to the turbolift.

Grinning again, Kirk said, "He's been dying to get down to that hell hole ever since landing party three beamed down. If I didn't know better, I'd be half-inclined to wonder if he hadn't sabotaged the equipment."

Knowing smiles appeared on the faces of the senior bridge crew, and Kirk's grin grew even wider. He wasn't the only one who'd been aware of Spock's yearning.

* * *

After seeing Spock off in the transporter room, Kirk turned his steps in the direction of the biolab. "That was quite a scare you gave us last night," the captain addressed the entomologist while making himself comfortable on a tall lab stool. "I think you even scared Spock. He hardly let anyone get near you. Are you sure you should be working today? Maybe you should take the day off, get some rest..."

"Spock's reaction was typical of a Vulcan male," T'Risa replied. Though her hands and eyes were intent on transferring the morning's specimens to a specially designed microhabitat, her voice held a mischievous, almost laughing note. "They tend to be highly protective toward females. It is a form of cultural conditioning. As for my physical state, you can see for yourself, Captain: I am fully recovered. Doctor McCoy has given me a clean bill of health."

"Mmm," Kirk replied, though to him she appeared even frailer than when she first joined the Enterprise, her skin so transparent he could almost see the green blood flowing through her veins. "Still, Bones doesn't know much about the condition you suffer from."

T'Risa looked up from her work. Her eyes were suddenly hard, cold, like green ice. "I do not 'suffer' from anything, Captain. I manage a hereditary defect."

Kirk's brows rose at the abrupt change in demeanor, the barely concealed irritation in her voice. "Of course," he murmured. "My apologies." Searching for a way to relieve the tension, he said, "You know, even after watching you at work, I still find the idea of a Vulcan lepidopterist incredible."

Annoyance gone as quickly as it had appeared, T'Risa looked up from the fragile creature perched on her index finger. The insect, seeming to sense it had nothing to fear from the slender woman who held it so casually yet confidently, fanned its sapphire and ruby wings placidly.

"I do not see why," she answered, one silvery brow on the rise. Reaching out, she grasped his hand and allowed the butterfly to walk from her finger onto his.

He gasped, startled by the casual contact, by the odd tingle he was coming to associate with her much as he associated dangling earrings and exotic perfume with Uhura.

"Vulcans have a high appreciation for all forms of beauty," she told him. "We simply do not broadcast the fact."

Uncertain how to reply, uncertain if he could reply, Kirk's eyes remained fixed on the butterfly as it made its way up his hand like a miniature float in some imaginary parade. Then it paused, and its black, thread-like proboscis uncoiled, tickling the hairs on his wrist.

"I...I guess that's what it is," he said, drawing a ragged breath, releasing it slowly. Looking up, he found himself the object of her direct gaze. The ice was gone from her eyes, replaced by twin emerald pools, and he was sinking into them, drowning in soft greenness.

He yearned to reach out and touch the petal-softness of her cheek. Locking the fingers of his free hand around the edge of the stool, he said, "Even Spock has admitted appreciation of beauty occasionally."

T'Risa turned the microhabitat bearing the morning's specimens to face him. "And would Mister Spock find this beautiful, Captain?"

Kirk glanced at the jewel-like butterflies fiitting and fluttering through the drab foliage of Darien III then his eyes locked onto hers once more. "I'm sure--" He cleared his suddenly congested throat. "I'm sure he would."

* * *

Though he expected it, attempted to prepare himself for it, the dry heat in the first officer's quarters always came as a shock. Kirk wiped the perspiration from his upper lip, inhaled cautiously, trying to acclimate himself as he considered Spock's report.

"So you intend to go back down, stay there to play nursemaid to a bunch of computers?"

The first officer's voice was muffled, his back to Kirk as he bent to retrieve something from his dresser. "Colorfully phrased but essentially correct, Captain."

"How long do you think you'll be gone?"

"Uncertain. I have long been concerned by the possibility of this weakness in 'fleet issue equipment. These breakdowns validate that concern." The Vulcan placed several neatly folded tropical-weight tunics into a waiting duffel then turned. "Captain, I beg your pardon. Allow me to lower the temperature."

"No, no. These are your quarters -- this is the temperature you prefer. But if you don't mind, maybe I'll sit down." He wiped his lip again as he sank gratefully into a chair.

"An excellent idea," Spock replied, tucking a pair of uniform pants next to the tunics.

"What about help down there can you handle things alone?"

"I believe so," Spock said. "It would be preferable to limit the number of personnel in the area. The climate is quite severe."

Coming from the man who inhabited these quarters, Kirk took the term "severe" for an understatement. "Very well. If you need assistance--"

"I will, of course, contact the ship." Spock sealed the duffel and placed it on the floor near the door.

Kirk remained seated. "Spock--"

The Vulcan's brow rose, his narrow eyes widening in question. "Is there some way I can assist you, Captain?"

Kirk inhaled, careful not to draw the hot air too deep into his lungs, and exhaled slowly, attempting to find a way to make his question sound less personal, more a captain doing his job. "What do you know about T'Risa, Spock?"

"What you know, of course." The Vulcan's expression didn't change though Kirk could feel the dark eyes studying him intently. "T'Risa is a native of Vulcan, the youngest daughter of an influential family--"

"More influential than yours?" he asked, recalling T'Pau and her unmistakable aversion when Spock presented him and McCoy as friends.

"I do not know," Spock replied.

Kirk could sense his first officer's distaste. Toward me? he wondered. The question? Vulcan tradition?

"Beyond that," Spock continued, "T'Risa is a non-Starfleet science specialist. Her field is entomology specializing in the area of lepidoptera. She has degrees from the Vulcan Science Academy, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Proxima Centauri -- Shall I continue?"

Kirk pressed his lips tightly together before shaking his head in negative. Both men were silent for a time. Finally he leaned forward.

"Is she free?"

"Free, Captain?" One ebony brow rose ironically. "Vulcans do not engage in slavery."

"You know what I mean. Single, unattached--"

Spock drew a deep breath, drew his Vulcan-ness around him. "This is not something which

is spoken of."

Kirk stared at the point where bulkhead met deckplate. "I find myself attracted to her," he confided. "Strongly attracted."

Spock got to his feet and strode to the glowing firepot that dominated the sleeping area of his quarters. He gazed into the flame for a long time. When finally he spoke, his voice, though no louder than before, held a note of vehemence unusual for him. "You must resist the attraction, Jim. Nothing good can come of it. Nothing."

Kirk thought again of T'Pau, of Sarek's distaste when refusing to speak of his meditation "...especially with Earth-men..." He moved to stand at his first officer's side. "You give me no reason but tell me to stay away from her, Spock. I have to ask, is this my friend speaking, or typical anti-Human bigotry?"

Spock flinched, though only one who knew his reactions as well as Kirk would have noticed. Voice so low as to be almost inaudible, he said, "I am your friend."

Kirk studied the stem profile for a long moment before turning to go. "I'll keep that in mind,

Mister Spock."

* * *

"T'Risa, wait!" Kirk hurried to the scientist's side. "Let me help with your gear."

"Thank you, Captain. I can use the assistance." T'Risa slid a couple of kits from her shoulder and offered them to Kirk. "This is the first time you have beamed down in several days."

Three days, Kirk thought. For that period, he had remained aloof, confused by the strength of his reaction to the fair-haired Vulcan with her volatile shifts from cool logic to near-anger to piquant humor.

And Spock's advice, the little voice of personal honesty forced him to admit. Even now, bathed in the warmth of the late morning sun, with Spock clear on the opposite side of the planet, he had trouble putting those calm yet oddly intense words aside.

What would Spock have said, he wondered, had he been fully honest with him, had he admitted that not only was he strongly attracted to T'Risa, he found it almost impossible to stay away from her? What would Spock's reaction have been had he told him he caught himself listening with half an ear while on the bridge, hoping that T'Risa would call in, that he would have the balm of hearing her sweet voice, that he lingered in the corridors between the entomology lab and the mess hall, hoping to run into her, that he went out of his way to walk past her cabin on his way to his own quarters?

"Was there a problem on the ship?" T'Risa asked, drawing him back to the present.

"No. No problem," Kirk replied. Feeling he should offer an explanation, he added, "Surveys are more in Spock's line. He's the scientist."

"A highly respected one," T'Risa concurred. "However, I have missed our conversations. In many matters, I have found your viewpoint most intriguing. It is not one that could be found on Vulcan."

"Why, thank you." Kirk smiled, putting his first officer and his advice firmly from his thoughts. After all, he and T'Risa were both adults, both of an age to know their own minds.

"You are quite welcome," she said.

Maybe it was a trick of the sunlight, but he could have sworn he detected the suggestion of an answering smile in her eyes. "Where were you planning on setting up?" he asked, surveying the terrain.

T'Risa pointed. "There."

"There's no reason you should have to lug this stuff half-way down a mountain," Kirk chided. Flipping open his communicator with a practiced motion, he said, "Kirk to--"

A slender hand covered the audio pick-up. "I choose to 'lug' my equipment, Captain. I enjoy it."

Though she didn't actually touch him, Kirk's eyes grew wide at the sensations her closeness brought.

"In that case..." Gently removing her fingers, he said, "Uhura, Kirk here. I'd like a picnic lunch transported to the following coordinates."

"A picnic, sir?"

"You heard me, Lieutenant. A picnic for two."

"Aye, sir." The tiny speaker did nothing to hide the astonishment in her voice. "It will take a few minutes, Captain. Is there anything you require in the meantime?"

"Nothing," he replied. "Kirk out."

Clicking the communicator closed, he extended his hand. "Shall we?"

* * *

McCoy slid his tray to the dessert selector and scanned the offerings. He could have sworn the lone slice of pecan pie had his name on it. Of course, the pale pink Barson melon next to it would be a healthier choice.

"I hear the captain decided to beam down today," he commented to Lieutenant Uhura who stood next to him, waiting her chance at the desserts. "I'm glad to hear it. This recirculated stuff they call air--" He waved his fingers.

"--is perfectly adequate for the maintenance of Human beings, Doctor," Uhura replied, her lovely face bland, her level tone a near-perfect simulation of a certain Vulcan's.

"Good imitation. Next thing, I'll be checkin' your ears for points," McCoy responded with a grin. "Y'know, it's hard to believe, but I actually miss that blasted Vulcan."

"Me, too," Uhura said. "Somehow, the ship always feels different when Mister Spock's not aboard."

The intercom whistled, then the voice of Uhura's relief announced, "Communication from the surface for Doctor McCoy."

Leaving his tray where it was, McCoy went to the wallcom and hit the toggle. "McCoy here.

"Doctor," a deep voice answered.

"Hah! Speak of the devil." McCoy never could resist that particular cliche where Spock was concerned, no matter how often he'd used it before.

"I understand the captain has beamed down to the surface."

"Yeah," McCoy replied. He watched open-mouthed as Uhura snatched the pie he'd coveted. "This recirculated stuff--"

"Is perfectly adequate for the maintenance of Human beings, Doctor," Spock's voice replied.

"That's what I told him," Uhura said, coming to stand on tiptoe at McCoy's side, her warm brown eyes laughing into his. "Though personally, I thought the main attraction was the company the captain was keeping. I'm sure Doctor McCoy is correct, however. A picnic in the fresh air..."

"Whose company would that be, Lieutenant?" Spock asked in a voice that sounded suddenly strained.

"Why, T'Risa's, of course," the communications officer replied. Running a hand coquettishly down McCoy's jaw, she mouthed, "I'll save you a bite, sugar," before making off with her prize.

God, she's gorgeous, McCoy thought. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Do I sense disapproval, Mister Spock?"

Spock hesitated a moment. "It is not my place--"

"Jealousy, then? T'Risa is a beautiful woman." With the faintest hint of emphasis, McCoy added, "A beautiful Vulcan woman."

"Your assessment of T'Risa's attractions is correct. However--"

"Better watch it," McCoy interjected. "Your Human half is showing." But the teasing fit poorly with the sudden tension in his gut. Spock wouldn't be motivated by jealousy. Five thousand years in the past, yes, but not here. Not now.

If not jealousy, then what was it that was bothering the Vulcan? Was Jim violating some unwritten Vulcan taboo by having a picnic with T'Risa? And what if there was more to it than a picnic, what if his affections were truly engaged? McCoy could see no positive outcome from such a relationship. Forgetting Vulcan opinions and taboos for the moment, he'd seen how difficult it was for Sarek and Amanda to maintain a stable relationship. How much harder would it be for Jim and T'Risa, his command always shoving a monkey wrench in the works, her "differentness" always making her stand out?

The old saying about immovable objects and irresistible forces insinuated itself into his thoughts. "Ah, hell," he muttered. "I've gotta go, Spock. I'll talk to you later." Retrieving his tray, McCoy tossed the untouched meal in the disposal unit and strode from the mess hall.

* * *

"--not dissimilar to the 'dragon-faced' moth of Andor," T'Risa explained as she examined her equipment through critical eyes.

"Uh-huh," Kirk said, but his attention was centered more on the woman than her words.

It was as though there was some special link between her and the insects she studied, he thought, a link which went far beyond mere Vulcan respect for all life forms. Outwardly as fragile as her butterflies, she radiated a determination that he suspected originated at the very core of her being. Even more than her beauty, he knew it was that enormous life-force that attracted him, like a honeybee to sweet clover.

The day was warm with just enough breeze to relieve the sun's burning heat, though it must have felt cool to T'Risa for twice Kirk had spotted the faintest hint of goosebumps on her pale skin.

He stretched his arms to the sky and inhaled deeply, imagining the sun-warmed air traveling through his nostrils and down, down until it reached his toes, stirring every cell into wakefulness.

He inhaled again, envisioning blue sky and puffy clouds being drawn into his lungs. A smile tickled his lips as he contemplated T'Risa's response should he describe the process. Then again, from what he'd seen, he had no real idea what her reaction would be.

Suddenly, though, he yearned to find out. Like tweaking the tail of a sleeping cat, the urge to disturb T'Risa's facade of Vulcan calm was irresistible.

Throwing caution to the winds, he caught hold of her hand. "Come on," he urged. "Let's run!"

"Captain!" Surprise sounded in her voice as she did a quick-step to catch up. "Captain, my research -- the survey--"

Kirk whirled to face her. "You weren't planning on chasing the butterflies with a net, were you?"

"No." T'Risa's right eyebrow rose, a faint white-gold shadow. "Why should I employ such antiquated methods? The universal pheromone traps will be sufficient for many types. For others, there are a variety of methods, nectars, audio traps, visual stim--"

"Then let's seize the day," Kirk said. He felt as though he'd been suffused with sunlight and pleasure. "Race you to that tree!"

He pushed off, muscular legs pumping. T'Risa hesitated only an instant then she was running at his side. Her hat dangled from its ribbon straps, jouncing against her back with each stride.

Down the hill they went. Reaching level ground they pounded across the natural amphitheater and up the opposite side. Two sets of fingers touched the designated tree.

"Tie," Kirk puffed. He flopped onto the messy soil to stare up at azure sky peeking through leafy boughs. "That felt good."

"Indeed," T'Risa replied, looking down at him, hands on her slim waist. Somehow, he knew she was laughing, though there was no alteration of her delicate features.

Impulsively, he reached up and pulled her to his side. Choking on his own laughter, he remarked, "That doesn't sound like a proper Vulcan response."

"There are those who do not consider me a 'proper' Vulcan," she said. Kirk heard the pain in her voice, could almost feel it, then the laughter returned as she added, "I perceive, however, that you wish me to use a certain word. Very well then... It would be illogical to deny a fact, Captain, just as it would be illogical to deny the contribution of exercise to good health. Running is an excellent form of aerobic exercise--"

He tuned out the rhetoric, paying attention instead to the way she rested against him. Her breath was coming ever so slightly faster than normal, her breasts rising with each inhalation. Whether from exertion or the intimacy of their position, he didn't know, couldn't tell. He did know he enjoyed the sensation of those small, firm mounds pressing into his ribs. And he enjoyed the tingle that ran through him whenever he came into physical contact with her. It was running through him now, subtle, so subtle, yet almost overwhelming, intoxicating.

"T'Risa..." He cupped her slender neck in his hand, drawing her to him. Their lips met for an instant, and he was aware of her scent, astringent yet pleasant, reminding him at once of fresh lemons and the ocean, her taste of honey fresh from the comb.

He yearned to deepen the kiss, to plunge his tongue into her mouth, to taste her more fully. Vulcans don't kiss, he reminded himself, then again, Vulcans just don't. All the same, he moved his lips to the vein in her throat, pale jade contrasting with softest willow. "T'Risa."

"Captain," she whispered.

"Jim," he corrected.

"Jim," another voice called, a voice tinged with a Georgia lilt.

Kirk sat up with a jerk. "Bones!"

"Heard you were having a picnic," McCoy said as he reached the top of the hill. "Thought I'd come down and join you. Let you know Spock called in."

"Problems?" Kirk asked, knowing the answer would be negative. There were channels for problems.

"None that I'm aware of," McCoy answered. "Should there be?"

Kirk just frowned.

* * *

He stepped from the turbolift in time to catch a glimpse of silken hair streaming down a slender back. Even if he hadn't seen her, though, Kirk knew he would have sensed her presence.

Making his voice as soft as that platinum tide, he called, "T'Risa..."

She paused, turned to face him. "Captain."

"Have dinner with me." It was less than a command, more than a request.

"I have a meeting--"

"Urgent?"

"No; however--"

"Cancel it." He smiled. "I'll square it for you. I'm reputed to have some influence..."

Moss-colored eyes met his, and he noticed the emerald flecks that made them seem to sparkle like jewels. "Very well, Captain."

Kirk felt the way he had the first time he'd experienced vacuum. He swallowed hard. "My quarters, then. 2000."

T'Risa nodded and continued on her way.

* * *

T'Risa pushed back her chair. "That was lovely, Captain."

"Jim," he reminded her.

"Jim," she said with that enchanting near-smile. "The Enterprise is the first ship I have encountered with such a wide selection of Vulcan foods available."

"The credit goes to McCoy," Kirk said. Getting to his feet, he took a bottle and two glasses from a storage compartment. "Spock isn't much on eating, and Bones thought having an array of familiar foods might tempt him."

"And does it?" she asked.

Kirk's mouth quirked upward. "Not really, but it's given me a chance to acquire a taste for Vulcan foods." He held up the glasses he'd filled. "And beverages..."

T'Risa accepted one, sniffed delicately. "Ch'heela? I thought intoxicants were frowned upon by Starfleet."

"They are. But Ch'heela isn't an intoxicant," Kirk said, pulling her to her feet.

"Not to Vulcans--"

He pressed a finger to her lips. "Starfleet doesn't have to know everything." He raised his glass. "To you, T'Risa. May you find life as beautiful as the wings of your butterflies."

T'Risa's eyes met his. "I do not know how to respond--"

"You don't have to," he assured her. "All you do is raise your glass and touch it to mine." Their glasses met with the faintest of clinks. Even when not touching her, Kirk realized he could feel her, sense her psychic "vibration."

"Now take a sip." He demonstrated then waited as T'Risa followed his lead. Her lips gleamed wetly with the golden liquid, inflaming his soul.

Leaning down, he drew her into his arms. The tingle grew, echoed, multiplied into a dull roar.

"T'Risa..." He smothered her mouth with kisses, pressing her lips apart, probing swiftly with his tongue then withdrawing. For an instant she responded and he could taste her -- Ch'heela and spice, lemons and lavender and sunflowers smiling in a field. His heart was pounding, and he could feel hers pounding, too. "T'Risa, stay with me."

She froze for an instant then pulled away from him. "I cannot."

Resisting the impulse to pull her more closely into his embrace, Kirk took a step back, forced his arms to drop. He wouldn't constrain her, but-- "Why not?"

"I cannot," she repeated in a whisper. "I -- Excuse me."

"Wait!" Kirk exclaimed. "Please wait. If I've offended you--"

T'Risa bowed her head. "It is nothing you have done. The error is mine. I thought -- I find -- I cannot! Excuse me, please. I must go." She took a step away from him, then another, never meeting his eyes.

T'Risa," Kirk implored, confused by the welter of unfinished sentences.

The door slid between them, its computerized gizmos heedless of Human pain.

* * *

Kirk prepared for bed, his emotions rolling. Had he violated Vulcan taboos? Spock had warned him away from T'Risa but had given no reason, no explanation. And T'Risa's response to his kisses had seemed eager if inexperienced. He'd sensed her desire, her yearnings, and they were as great as his. Then she'd pulled away, and the withdrawal had caused an almost physical pain, an ache somewhere in his gut and his heart.

Head resting on the uncomfortably hard bolster supplied by Starfleet, Kirk tossed and turned for an unmeasurable length of time. Finally, unable to remain, he got up and tugged on a uniform to go in search of her.

* * *

He paused just inside the door of the entomology lab. "Can we talk?"

"Logically, it would seem that we must," T'Risa replied, reminding him of Spock when he went double-Vulcan. She stood on the far side of the lab table, the specimen collector and micro-habitats into which she'd been transferring the last insects collected on Darien III -- tomorrow they would move on to Bailey's Planet -- forming a barrier between them. Her hair, that exquisite cataract of platinum silk had been pulled severely back into a makeshift ponytail.

"Different cultures have different ways," he began. "You once referred to it as cultural conditioning. What I did--" He broke off, took a breath, started again. "What I did would be considered acceptable in most Human cultures. I know Vulcans have different rules, however. I should have heeded that knowledge. I apologize that my actions caused you distress, and I ask your forgiveness."

There, he'd gotten the words out. If not precisely in the Vulcan mode, at least she would know that he was trying.

"Distress," T'Risa repeated slowly. Her hands trembled, and she clasped them beneath her breasts. "No, your actions did not cause me distress. On the contrary... On the contrary, I believe you might say that I enjoyed them too much."

"T'Risa," Kirk said softly, heartened by her words. He moved closer to the table. "Men and women were created to bring each other pleasure. I don't believe it's possible for us to enjoy each other too much. On the planet, you told me you're not a proper Vulcan. Can you accept that, live with it, accept your feelings for me, accept my feelings for you? Can you give in to your feelings?"

"I have feelings," T'Risa admitted, turning half-away from him, "but I cannot give in to them. I must put them behind me as you must yours."

"Why?" he demanded circling to the far side of the table to confront her. "Why should we put them behind us? We've done nothing wrong."

Needing to see her face, to search the limpid green pools of her eyes, Kirk reached for her. The edge of his sleeve brushed against the specimen collector, knocking it over. Green-and-black striped insects swarmed out. One landed on his arm, and Kirk felt a stinging prick. He inhaled sharply.

"Oh!" T'Risa exclaimed. "Are you injured?"

"It's nothing," he replied, brushing the insect away.

"Let me see," she said and it seemed as though her voice came from the far side of the Aldebaran colonies. A great rushing sound filled his head.

"T'Risa," he gasped. His arm felt huge, bloated, unwieldy. His pulse throbbed like a kettle drum, his breath whistled like a banshee. "Get Bones -- Doctor McCoy--"

"Get McCoy," he gasped again. His throat was closing; speech would soon be beyond him. Around him, objects whirled madly like something out of a child's book -- Alice or The Wizard of Oz. Kirk felt himself join the swirling mass. From some odd, distant point he watched himself go down -- down, down, and around, like a bubble caught in some monumental whirlpool.

"Hold on, Jim," T'Risa's voice begged. "Please, hold on."

An echoing hiss sounded, and a faint but stinging warmth permeated his shoulder. His throat closed tight, breath refused to pass. Beautiful colored splotches danced before his eyes.

"T'Risa," he whispered/thought, trying to reach her through the noise of the swirling maelstrom.

Then he was in a quiet place, a place of warmth and darkness and solitude. But he wasn't alone. T'Risa was with him; he could feel her, sense her, hear her in his mind.

Hold on, Jim. I am with you. Help is on the way. Just hold on.

* * *

Still dressed in the ultra-light uniform he'd worn on Darien III, Spock strode through the Sickbay doors and directly to the diagnostic bed where Jim Kirk lay unconscious, a transparent mask covering his mouth and nose. T'Risa lay in the next bed, also unconscious though breathing unassisted.

"What happened?" he demanded, resisting the urge to swallow the lump that had lodged in his throat the moment he received McCoy's terse message.

"Insect sting," McCoy said, positioning himself at the foot of Kirk's bed. "There were a bunch of them loose in the entomology lab when the medics got there. Apparently, Jim had a reaction, went into anaphylaxis. According to my scans, T'Risa injected him with a universal anti-sting kit. It worked; he wouldn't be alive if it hadn't, but something's wrong, Spock, and I don't know what it is. He should've been conscious by now--"

Spock nodded curtly, eyes roaming the overhead panel, digesting the information displayed there. Heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, all were within the normal Human range.

No -- wait! There was something amiss, something subtle. He scanned the readings again. "The levels are within the normal range, but they are lower than normal for the captain. Consistently lower, though not by much..."

"Thought you'd spot it," McCoy affirmed. "Each and every one of Jim's readings is ever so slightly on the low side, almost as though they were somehow being suppressed. And take a look at this--" He turned, activating the panel over T'Risa's head.

"T'Risa was stung as well?"

"That's what's so strange," McCoy said. "They were both unconscious, the empty hypo on the floor, but T'Risa shows no signs whatsoever of having been stung. And look here." Moving between the two beds, he flipped a switch on Kirk's monitor and another indicator lit up. He activated the corresponding indicator on T'Risa's monitor. "These are their hyperencephalograms."

Spock considered the readings carefully. Something in the pit of his stomach tightened. "Yes," he murmured. "Yes, of course."

"I'm damned if I don't assume she attempted a meld," McCoy commented, but Spock caught the questioning note in his voice.

He moved to the other bed to more closely examine the readings over T'Risa's head. "Not a meld, Doctor."

McCoy's voice rose. "Allowing for the differences in Vulcan and Human HEGs, Spock, those readings are an exact match; they're in perfect synch--"

"Not a meld," Spock repeated, struggling to remain calm, to shield McCoy from the true depths of his concern. "A mental contact but not a meld. Not in the proper sense."

"Well, what, then?" McCoy demanded. "Look, I can't treat him if I don't know what's wrong with him. I've injected him with an antihistamine, the mask assures he's getting sufficient oxygen; but if there's something else wrong, I'm damned if I know what it is. As for T'Risa, her readings tell me absolutely zilch. Nada. Nothing. They're a little low maybe, nothing more. So why is she unconscious?"

Spock studied the readings over the two beds for an instant longer. Reaching a decision, he placed his fingers lightly on Kirk's face, allowing himself to absorb the surface impulses of Kirk's active mind.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?!!!" McCoy squawked.

Spock shook his head impatiently. "Quiet please, Doctor." After a minute he removed his hand with a sigh.

"Well," McCoy prompted.

"It is as I surmised. T'Risa did not intentionally attempt a mental contact. Rather, her erratic psionic and telepathic controls permitted a link to form."

"Now, wait a minute," McCoy huffed. "What the hell is this link you're talking about?"

Hands clasped behind him, Spock turned his back, locked his eyes on a non-existent point.

He kept his tone rigidly even as he said, "Just as Humans form bonds - bonds of familial affection, romantic love, friendship -- so do Vulcans. As with Human bonds, these are of various sorts and degrees. Unlike Human bonds, however, Vulcan bonds are telepathic in nature, creating psionic links between the psyches of those so joined. The earliest bond we experience is with our parents. Later, we form other bonds with siblings, teachers--"

His gaze dropped for a moment to Kirk's still features. " -- friends, mates, children."

McCoy drew an audible breath. "Mates?" he asked. "As in spouses?"

"Affirmative." Spock had been certain McCoy would pick up on the point he would have most preferred to gloss over. The doctor hadn't disappointed him.

"I remember," McCoy hissed, brows lifted, eyes narrowed. "You said you and TPring were joined, that you'd touched each other's minds. But no, Spock! It's not possible. Jim is Human. He has no telepathic abilities. His psi tests--"

Spock drew a breath. "Jim is a telepathic receptor, Doctor. You've seen it yourself. His hunches, his ability to judge character, his strong empathy with even those who look far different from himself -- all are clear indications of his ability. Given T'Risa's erratic control ..."

"A receptor," McCoy muttered, pacing out the length of the Sickbay ward. "That would explain a lot of things now, wouldn't it?"

"It would."

"So what do we do?" McCoy whirled to face him. "Wait for them to come around then get them to the nearest starbase to make it official?"

"Negative," Spock replied, drawing into himself in preparation for the reaction he knew would come. "The link must be severed."

"Severed! Why? And how?"

Spock handed a communications printout to the physician. He'd received the it only minutes before beaming back to the Enterprise, had almost forgotten he still held it crumpled in his hand.

"Bonded," McCoy exclaimed, reading the words on the flimsy paper. "Did you tell J -- No,

of course not. This is today's stardate..."

"T'Risa is joined to Sethet by the first bond, the childhood bond," Spock said, expanding on the terse statement on the flimsy. "Shortly before joining the Enterprise, she made a formal request that the bond be dissolved. Her request was denied. It was suggested that she go away for a time to meditate."

"In other words, take a vacation."

"Indeed," Spock replied tonelessly.

"Trust Vulcans to give you a logical response when what you require is emotional support,"

McCoy snorted. "What I don't get is how T'Risa formed a link with Jim when she's already bonded to someone else."

Thinking of TPring, Spock again turned his back to McCoy. "Recall, Doctor, that I said the link was unintentional. Most likely T'Risa touched Jim while administering the anti-sting injection."

"That's all it takes?" McCoy asked. "An inadvertent touch while administering an injection?"

The words were like a knife, and Spock flinched as he remembered the day of his first bonding to TPring. For them it had not been easy at all. It had been difficult, had required all of T'Pau's skill to bring their youthful minds together. And then T'Pring had ended it, had willfully formed a link with Stonn. She had made a conscious decision, had purposefully bent logic to her own ends.

Resolutely, Spock put personal memories aside.

"Yes," he answered. "At that time, in that instant of intense concern, T'Risa's already shaky mental shields would be lowered, her concentration centered on Jim. Given his attraction to her, her equally obvious attraction to him, her desire to be loosed of the existing bond, yes, under those circumstances a touch was all that was required. It would have been remarkable had a bond not formed."

"I see."

Spock had the same expression he often wore, the same one that McCoy saw more than one would have wished.

"There may have been more to it," McCoy continued slowly. "They've been spending a lot of time together. I interrupted them today. They were ... um ... involved. Physically. If I'd known--"

"Most likely you could have done nothing." Spock glanced at the printout the doctor still clutched. "I, however, was aware of the dangers. Had I made my inquiries sooner, perhaps I could have prevented this."

"Maybe. Maybe not," McCoy said and Spock knew he was trying to offer solace. "Jim is nothing if not determined in matters of romance."

Spock sighed. Directing his gaze at the diagnostic panel, he said, "One can only hope he is as determined in other areas."

"The readings are lower," McCoy exclaimed.

"The link is unstable, even now pulling both of them, and, in consequence, Sethet toward death," Spock told the physician. He brought his fingertips together, flexed them slightly. "The readings will drop lower still until and unless the link is ended. I propose to end it now."

McCoy opened his mouth, shut it again without uttering a single objection. Satisfied, Spock moved a chair between the two beds, lowered himself to its seat.

"I suggest you rest, Doctor. This could take some time, and your services may be required when it is over."

"Leave you here alone? Are you out of your Vulcan mind?"

"As you please," Spock said. As he drew farther into himself, readying himself for what was certain to be a volatile encounter, he sensed, rather than saw, McCoy seat himself at Kirk's other side.

He nodded, then, placing his fingers on the meld points, began. "My mind to your mind."

* * *

Jim Kirk was swimming, swimming through something thick, thick as the semi-gelatinous seas of Pelarchos VI, and someone was calling him.

He swam harder, struggling to reach the voice, struggling to reach the surface.

"Jim..."

He fought his way free at last and forced heavy eyelids apart. For a moment his surroundings were blurry; then a blue-clad figure moved into view, and he knew where he was.

"How do you feel?" McCoy's eyes flicked to the overhead monitor then back to Kirk.

"That guy with the sledgehammer is pounding on my head again."

"Be thankful he's not digging your grave," McCoy grunted.

Kirk frowned, closed his eyes for a moment, blinked them back open. "I hate to ask, but what happened?"

"A little bitty green and black bug decided to see if you were good to eat," McCoy told him.

"And its conclusion was?"

"Tasty but tough," McCoy answered with a smile. "'Course that's no surprise to me."

Putting more oomph into his actions than he was feeling, Kirk threw off the lightweight thermal blanket and said, "Well, if that's all that's wrong with me, I think I'll be getting up now--"

McCoy pressed him back onto the pillows with one hand. "You'll do no such thing, Jim, and I mean it. We could have been writing your epitaph. You went into anaphylactic shock, gave me a hell of a fright."

Kirk opened his mouth, but McCoy beat him to the punch-line. "Give me twelve hours in that bed, twelve hours and I'll okay you for light duty. Fight me, and I'll double it."

Truthfully, Kirk felt like hell; his head was hollow yet heavy, his arm weighed at least a ton, and he kept thinking there was something he should remember but couldn't. He was damned if he would let McCoy know that, though. "Twelve hours, Bones. Then I'm out of here."

"Twelve hours," McCoy repeated with another glance at the monitor. "Why don't you try to get some sleep. It'll help ease that headache you don't have."

Kirk laughed and immediately regretted it when pain blew the top of his skull off. Come to think of it, though, the explosion in his cranium didn't hurt as much as the dull ache in his heart and belly. McCoy didn't seem worried, though... Keeping his voice low to avoid further fireworks, he said, "I don't know why I bother trying to hide things from you, Doctor."

"Me either," McCoy answered. "But I've decided it's a waste of energy to keep trying to break you of the habit. Instead, I just deal with it on a case-to-case basis. Less stressful for both of us."

Kirk fiddled with the blanket for a moment before looking up to meet McCoy's deep blue eyes. "Thanks, Bones."

"You're welcome, Jim. Now get some sleep before Spock comes busting in here to find out how you're doing and upsets everything."

"Where is he?" Kirk asked, suddenly realizing what was missing.

"Staying out from under foot if he knows what's good for him. Once I knew you were going to be okay, I threw him out. Told him to stop cluttering up my Sickbay. Why, if I tripped over him once, I must have done it a dozen times."

Something in McCoy's voice caught at Kirk's attention; but when he looked up, the doctor was smiling. "Now, close your eyes, Jim, and get some sleep. I'll send Christine in with something for the headache."

He was missing something, Kirk was sure of it -- something that would explain Spock's absence and the empty, ravaged pain in the center of his gut -- but his head was pounding as though the entire Federation Philharmonic had taken up residence in his skull and was practicing an off key "Anvil Chorus" over and over again. In unmitigated defiance of that pulsating misery, his eyelids insisted on drifting downward.

Suddenly too weary to resist, he simply murmured, "Thanks, Bones," a second time and surrendered to the inevitable.

He would just have to think about the missing "something" tomorrow.

* * *

"Come!" Kirk barked, digging in his dresser drawer for a fresh uniform tunic. He still felt like tribble-droppings, but he'd managed to hide his discomfort long enough to escape McCoy's concerned clutches in time to spend the night in his own bed.

Spock entered the captain's quarters and took up a position just beyond the range of the door sensor. He looked pale, and Kirk felt an added twinge of guilt. The Vulcan had gone from babysitting landing party three's cantankerous equipment to temporary command with no break.

"I have the reports on the initial surveys of Bailey's Planet, both orbital and on-site," Spock said softly. Noting Kirk's half-dressed state and unmade bunk, he added, "I can return later if you prefer."

"It's okay, Spock." Kirk jabbed his head through the neck of his tunic, made his voice businesslike. "I had a bad night. Weird dreams. Guess I got too much sleep while McCoy had me incarcerated in Sickbay. Not your fault. Let's see the reports."

For the next twenty minutes, Kirk was busy scanning reports and asking questions. Finally, he asked, "So, you believe we've accomplished as much as we can in the preliminary survey?"

"That is correct, Captain. Whereas Darien Three is a typical class M planet, ideal for agricultural colonies, Bailey's Planet is fascinatingly complex, both in its variety of wildlife and geological formations. We have observed large deposits of crystalline and metallic ores including high grade dilithium. In my opinion, an in-depth study should be performed. The list contains the names of those best suited to conduct such a project."

Kirk grunted and scrolled through the list. He paused as he came to a name. "Sorry, Spock. I'm not about to lose you to an extended planetary survey."

"I expected as much," the Vulcan said equably. "DeNoria would be an acceptable replacement."

"That'll be fine," Kirk replied, turning his attention back to the list. Another name caught his eye. "T'Risa!"

"She came to me early this morning and requested to be placed on the roster," Spock explained. "It is not unusual to have non-Starfieet specialists take part in this sort of survey."

Kirk wasn't listening though. He was remembering, sorting through confused images and impressions. "It happened, didn't it? It wasn't just weird dreams; it really happened."

"It did happen," Spock said gravely, "although I was uncertain if you would remember the details."

As though he hadn't heard, Kirk said, "T'Risa and I were--" He searched his mind for the correct term. " -- linked? Yes, linked." Delayed pain surged through him. It was as though someone

had slashed his skin, torn out his internal organs. He half-wondered if he could survive it. "You severed the link."

"Yes," his first officer responded simply.

About to demand an explanation, Kirk remembered something. "There was someone else, too. Set...Seth..."

"Sethet," Spock supplied. "T'Risa's bondmate."

"Her bondmate," Kirk repeated, knowing the word contained Spock's explanation.

The first officer held out a piece of heavy paper folded so the corners met in the center, pinwheel-style. "T'Risa requested I give you this."

"Thanks," Kirk said faintly. Moving as though his joints had turned to rust, he took the paper from Spock's hand. He broke the seal and scanned the delicate but angular writing.

"Jim, I had thought I could put my Vulcan heritage behind me, but now I know that is not possible. I will complete the survey then return to Vulcan to take my place as wife to the one with whom I was bonded as a child. I regret the pain my actions have caused you."

A series of words followed, Vulcan, but written in standard script, then a glyph that Kirk knew must be her name, the traditional Vulcan way of signing a formal document. Next to the glyph was an eloquent sketch of a butterfly, its wings drooping. Silently, Kirk returned the paper to Spock.

The first officer's eyes rested on it for only a second. "The computer can translate this, Captain."

Kirk raised his hand. "It's okay. Just ... just tell me what it says."

"Very well." Spock studied the writing for a moment. "It is an excerpt from a poem," he said, and paused, searching for a way to transpose Vulcan verse to Standard prose.

"I thought I could take flight, flutter from blossom to blossom, soar through endless skies, but I am duty-bound. I fall to the ground, wings broken. Destiny beckons. Commands. Logic demands. My place is at my mate's side, and I go to it. Forever Infinity."

Kirk stood, his back to his first officer, unwilling to let even Spock witness the naked grief he knew was visible on his face. "I loved her. I thought she loved me..."

"I believe she did," Spock answered. For once, he didn't deny the existence of Vulcan emotions. It would have been in vain; his own pain on Kirk's behalf was audible. He continued, "When two Vulcans are joined in this manner, Jim, there is no choice, no place for any other."

Kirk thought fleetingly of Spock's former bondmate, TPring. Though linked to Spock, she had chosen, she had found a place for Stonn. Then again, if there were any two people in the entire universe more diametrically opposed than the calculating T'Pring and the gentle T'Risa, he couldn't imagine them.

"I regret--" Spock began.

"No." Kirk shook his head. "You tried to warn me, Spock. I wouldn't listen."

"All the same, I am sorry."

Kirk nodded, battling for composure. "Is T'Risa okay?"

"I believe she will be," Spock replied. "From what I could sense, Sethet does care for her."

Kirk knew the reassurance would not have been offered to another Vulcan. "That's good."

Spock was speaking again in a quiet voice. "Jim, despite the tremendous force of being that attracted you, T'Risa is quite fragile. She will require the support that only another Vulcan can supply."

Kirk couldn't deal with that right now, so he put it aside. But Spock's words had reminded him once again of the strain the Vulcan must have endured in the meld. Now he knew why Spock had been absent when he awoke in Sickbay, what the off-note in McCoy's voice and Spock's pallor had betokened.

"What about you?" he asked.

"I am unharmed, Captain."

Several minutes passed before Kirk spoke again. "Think you feel up to doing me another favor, Mister Spock?"

"Of course, Captain."

"Take care of the Enterprise for a couple of hours. I think -- I think I could use some time alone."

Spock nodded. He took a step toward the door then turned back at the sound of Kirk's voice.

"Cultural conditioning she called it..."

"I beg your pardon?"

Kirk smiled sadly. "Remember the night when T'Risa collapsed on Darien Three?"

"Of course," Spock repeated.

"The following day I mentioned that I thought even you had been frightened. T'Risa brushed it off. 'Cultural conditioning' she called it. Said you were simply trying to protect her -- a typical Vulcan male reaction, she said."

"Indeed," Spock said. "Perhaps, unconsciously, I was."

Kirk realized the inverse might have been equally true -- he might have been the one Spock was protecting. But all he said was, "I guess this is a case of cultural conditioning, too. It doesn't make it hurt any less."

"Tradition is often far more powerful than we give it credit for being," Spock agreed.

Kirk nodded. The two men stood, separated by the width of Kirk's quarters, two beings, outwardly similar, their cultures separated by a chasm as broad as the lightyears of space. Spock moved, narrowing the gap, to place T'Risa's note carefully in the center of the desk.

"If you require anything, Captain..."

Kirk merely nodded and waved him out the door.

THE END