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Imperial Starship captain James T. Kirk was royally pissed.

It was revealed in every line of his taut body. Revealed in the unseeing glare fixed on the computer screen. In the way the stylus threatened to break as he unconsciously pressed it between his thumbs.

It was bad enough that the Enterprise had reached Vulcan after it was all over but the shouting, then to pull this . . . well, baby-sitting assignment was the only way he could think of it to top it off.

Oh, Komack had made all the right noises. How important this routine patrol along the Klingon Neutral Zone was. How sorry he was that Kirk and his crew couldn't be part of the attack force on Vulcan. What a pity they would be unable to partake of the undoubtedly plentiful bounty, but after all it was a pitiful little insurrection and quickly dealt with. Not worth rerouting the most valuable captain and ship in Starfleet from her assigned duties. And oh, he did have one order to pass on. As part of the peace settlement, Kirk would be taking on a new crewmember. The ruler's grandson was to be held aboard the Enterprise as hostage for his planet's good behavior-indefinitely.

Kirk was quick to see the smile lurking in the man's eyes as he passed on the news. Komack knew damn well that bounty was one way a captain helped keep his crew happy and a knife out from between his ribs. Hell, that's probably what he hoped would happen. Kirk had been dealing with the man who had risen to the position of the Emperor's second-in-command for most of his life, and his first opinion had never wavered. Once a slimy bastard, always a slimy bastard. He wouldn't be surprised to learn that there was a son, legitimate or not, back on Earth somewhere with the desire to be a starship captain. Well, Daddy is working on it.

The stylus finally broke and he looked down at it. Disgusted, he tossed the pieces on the desk. It wouldn't do to give vent to anger. He'd find some way to turn this disadvantage into an advantage. He always had. A starship captaincy hadn't dropped into his lap solely because of looks, although he'd certainly learned how to use what he had.

Good humor restored by the thought, Kirk toggled the switch that would access the information Komack included. It was relatively scanty, but then he knew why. Information about Vulcans and their culture was difficult to come by. These people were reclusive to the point of paranoia.

They knew barely more about them now then they did last year when Vulcan had voluntarily joined the Empire. The trouble had started four months ago when they resisted the conscription of their youth into military service. Some drivel about being 'bred to peace', whatever that meant. Nobody ever told them that once you joined the Empire, you couldn't just pick up your chips and go home when you didn't want to play any more.

These Vulcans were strange ones all right. They didn't have emotions. Were supposedly brilliant intellectually; 'walking computers' some called them. There were some unfounded rumors about Vulcans being able to read thoughts, control minds, and of course, the usual conjectures about the size and conformation of their genitals. Kirk had heard the same rumors about half the races in the galaxy and paid little credence to them. The Vulcans had proven themselves to be surprisingly fierce fighters for people avowedly peaceful. The tide had turned in the Empire's favor when several agents, disguised as natives, had managed to infiltrate and kidnap the grandson of the planet's ruler, a tough old bird named T'Pau.

The old bitch had capitulated quickly after that. And now he was going to have that very same grandson aboard his ship as an uninvited guest. Shit! Just what he needed-to play nursemaid to some pampered prince, some mamma's boy who didn't know his ass from his elbow.

Well, he would have to set this one straight from the start. Had already begun by sending Gary to meet him in the transporter room instead of going himself.

Kirk glanced at the screen again. He could hardly keep them straight-Sepek, Storn, Selek, Sharl .... Snivel, Stifle, Sticks and Stones. Why the hell did they give their kids the same sounding names? This one wasn't any different from the others and he didn't even try the last name.

Rising, Kirk moved to an innocuous panel set into the bulkhead. The panel slid up at his touch. A few movements of the switch and he had the Tantalus Device zeroed in on the transporter room.

It seemed he was just in time. A figure was materializing on the platform. His first view of the Vulcan confirmed his worst expectations. The tall, thin, almost skinny figure that now stood on the platform was dressed in a black half-robe, half-cape arrangement worn over black, tight-fitting trousers and knee-high, black boots. The outfit easily would have cost Kirk a month's pay. He did have to admit it accentuated the youth's good looks, highlighted the slim build, and complimented the angular face and dark hair. A fading bruise marred the alien's left cheek.

His new crewmember stood quietly on the pad, looking neither right nor left. Kirk watched as dark eyes scanned the room and fastened on Gary's face as the most senior officer of those present. A small case lay at his feet. If the Vulcan noticed that the customary signs due one of his rank were conspicuously absent, he gave no outward sign. Neither did he give indication that he stepped into a roomful of enemies, but stood quietly waiting to be addressed.

Kirk begrudgingly admired the quiet self-possession. What was his name again? He glanced back at the computer screen.  Spock.  He supposed he'd have to remember it.

A slight twist of the dial to the right and the picture obligingly shifted to pick up Gary's face. He recognized the predatory look in his first officer's eyes immediately. Even if he hadn't, Kirk couldn't miss the long appraising glance that prompted knowing looks from the two security guards and Kyle behind the transporter controls. Mitchell's bisexual proclivities were well-known on board and he obviously liked what he was looking at.

Mitchell let the Vulcan dangle for a long uncomfortable moment before he began his little speech.  Kirk turned off the volume control, deciding there really was no need to hear it. The look on the exec's face said it went along the usual lines of be a good boy and you won't get hurt, and he'd heard it all before.

Whatever Gary said, it was short and sweet. Kirk switched back to see if the Vulcan would respond but he didn't. Stepping from the platform, he reached for the case and waited to be shown to his quarters.

Mitchell dismissed the guards with a wave, apparently planning to show the Vulcan the way himself. When the first officer's hand rose to touch the black-clad shoulder in an attempt to steer him toward the door, Kirk noted the young man carefully avoided the physical gesture. The movement was subtle and could have occurred by accident, but Kirk didn't think so. By the way Mitchell's eyes narrowed slightly, it was obvious Gary didn't think so either. Then he shrugged and laughed. They exited the room, Mitchell leading the way.

Kirk picked them up again on deck five. He had decided it would prevent problems with the crew to have the Vulcan quartered on the deck reserved for officers. His own cabin was down the corridor.

They paused outside the assigned cabin. The Vulcan put out a hand to open the door but Mitchell beat him to it. One long eyebrow rose inquiringly as the Vulcan's hand fell, and he stepped back. Gary smiled and said something too low for the Tantalus Device to pick up. The Vulcan answered, and Kirk watched the smile fade from his first officer's face.

Kirk chuckled. Gary was going to have a hard time with this one.

Kirk realized he hadn't heard the sound of the alien's voice. Suddenly curious, he moved to the desk and flicked a switch.

"Bridge. Lieutenant Uhura here."

"Kirk here, Lieutenant. Put me on ship-wide."

"You're on, sir."

"Mister Mitchell, this is the captain.  Please bring our new crewman to my cabin."

He watched Mitchell sigh in resignation on the screen before switching it off and lowering the concealing panel. Better luck next time, Gary, Kirk thought, with a smile.

Seated behind his desk, Kirk pretended to be absorbed in paperwork when he heard the buzz a few short moments later. He admitted his two visitors, then let them stand a moment longer in silence before looking up.

Gary's eyes met his from his position to the right and slightly behind their uninvited guest's back. A wicked leer passed across his face as the first officer stared at the Vulcan's ass then rolled gray eyes at the ceiling. It was all Kirk could do to keep from laughing. "That will be all, Mister Mitchell."

Gary left, and Kirk returned his gaze to his work, motioning the Vulcan off-handedly to the chair before the desk. "Have a seat." The tall elegant form sat gracefully and waited until the continuing silence forced Kirk to acknowledge his presence. When the captain at last looked up, he met sable brown eyes studying him intently. Close up the Vulcan looked even younger than in the transporter room. It was hard to believe anyone so young had this much self-possession. Every line of his body, from the aristocratically straight nose, to the fine arch of a sweeping black brow, to the hands held serenely folded in his lap, screamed royalty.

Kirk felt slightly unkempt in the cool light of that unblinking appraisal. His annoyance returned. This Vulcan was actually looking him over! Making judgments about him. Ever ready anger flared. It was time to remind someone just who was in a subordinate position. Set some things straight. "I am Captain James Kirk, and I'm in command. We'll have to find something to call you. People will find your last name a little cumbersome."

"Humans find clan names impossible to pronounce. You may call me Spock."

Oh, I may, may I? Arrogant bastard, aren't you? Kirk was immediately determined to learn to pronounce the tongue twisting set of consonants. "Yes. Well, Mister Spock, I realize the situation that brings you on board the Enterprise is not one either of us desires. However that may be, I have my orders, so it appears we will be spending some time together.

"As this is a military ship, it would not be appropriate for you to continue wearing civilian clothing. You'll be assigned a uniform. This is also to your benefit as there are many of my crew that don't think too highly of Vulcans right now, and the uniform will remind them they'll have to face repercussions if they harass you. Understood?"

At the slow nod, light glinted off the angular face highlighting the fading bruise. Kirk thought it must have been quite something when fresh.

"In addition," he went on, "I am empowered to grant you a commission while you're aboard my ship, so the uniform you'll be wearing will carry a lieutenant's stripe." He scanned the intent face and decided to satisfy his curiosity. "How'd you get that bruise?"

Spock's head lifted slightly, and Kirk could have sworn he saw a faint look of amusement on the placid features, though since not a muscle moved he didn't know what could have caused the impression.

"There were several of my guards who were not pleased by my escape attempt. They showed their displeasure by physical means." The alien almost sounded surprised.

Kirk turned back to the file screen on his desk. After a minute, he looked up. "It says here, you were held on Tralis after you were taken from Vulcan."

"Yes."

"According to what I know of your people, Tralis is a rather cold world for one of your physiology The mean temperature is below freezing."

The serene visage faced him. Silent. Composed. Somehow it bothered Kirk. He tried a direct question. "How large was your contingent of guards?"

"I believe they said there were thirty-five men stationed on the planet. Several scout ships remained in orbit overhead, and I was told a starship was ordered to patrol nearby. This information was given to me by the commandant of the guards, a Commander Finnigan, in order, I assume, to assure me that escape was futile."

Kirk gave a soft, low whistle. He knew Finnigan, a mean son-of-a-bitch if ever there was one. He grinned. "And still you tried it?"

"It was a matter of honor," the other said stiffly.

Kirk didn't believe that for a second. Nobody tried a damn fool stunt like that without at least some hope for success. Not against those odds. The grin widened. "How far did you get?"

"I was apprehended at the controls of one of the scout ships as I attempted to leave orbit. A slight miscalculation on my part as to the strength of the tractor beam."

Shock widened Kirk's eyes. Then he laughed. "Damn far, I d say." Boy, he would have loved to see Finnigan's face when the bastard discovered his prisoner was gone, even if it was only for a little while. A sobering thought abruptly occurred to him. Perhaps Spock did have help. Maybe the rumors of mind control weren't just hearsay. The thought of anyone messing around in his mind almost made him physically ill.

Kirk realized he had been leaning over the desk in a rather relaxed fashion. Drawing himself back in the chair, he straightened slightly. He'd be damned if he'd expose himself or his crew to that. Green eyes narrowed as he assessed the young man. "I've already prepared the crew for your arrival, but there is one thing I will not tolerate aboard my ship. If I get even a hint of you tampering with anyone's mind, I'll send you to the nerve disrupter, and your position, the fact that you're the hostage for your planet will not make one damn bit of difference. My crew calls it the agony booth, and I assure you the term is justified. I have a great deal of power, and I will not hesitate to use it. Do we understand each other?"

­One long eyebrow slowly rose to disappear under black bangs. For a moment, he didn't think the Vulcan would respond. "Perfectly, Captain."

"Yes, well, we'd better get on with this. Have you given any thought to where you'd like to be assigned? What work you'd like to do? Or shall I just assign you to Records?" He couldn't botch things up too terribly down there.

Now it was the Vulcan's turn to be surprised. The clues were subtle, but there to one who was in the habit of examining people's faces closely. Kirk was. The Vulcan was stunned down to his socks, and the captain found an odd pleasure in causing the first break in the serene demeanor.

"Do you mean . . . ? That is . . . I will have tasks to perform?"

Welcome to the real world.  "I realize this is not what you're used to. This is a military ship, not a luxury liner," he reminded. "And you, Mister Spock, have been drafted. Everyone works here, and the response to one's commanding officer is customarily followed by 'Sir'."

The ebony head bowed over clasped hands for a moment then raised to face Kirk again. When it did, dark eyes gazed at him serenely, the face closed and expressionless and under complete control once again. "I have some experience in the sciences," the low baritone voice intoned. Kirk lifted his head slightly, and the Vulcan softly added the word, "Sir."

"Very well then," Kirk nodded briskly. "I'll see that you're assigned a duty shift. You'll be reporting directly to Lieutenant Commander Foulard and indirectly to First Officer Mitchell. See that your medical records get to the chief medical officer. If there's nothing else, you're dismissed." The tone of voice indicated it most definitely was not a question.

The lean form rose, and Kirk returned to his work with relief that the interview was terminated, expecting to hear momentarily the soft whoosh of the closing door. When that didn't happen, he raised his eyes again to see the Vulcan had paused just out of sensor range, the black wall of alien back presented to him. The Vulcan looked straight ahead at the closed door.

"There's something else, Mister Spock?" Kirk didn't try to hide the impatience in his voice.

"Will I .... Am I to be permitted use of the ship's computer, sir?"

Does the kid think he is going to get access to weapons information he can pass on to the folks back home? Time to squelch that thought right now.

"The science computer only, Mister Spock."

The ebony head rose a fraction of an inch higher. "Thank you, Captain," he said softly, then moved forward through the opened door and was gone.

Kirk could have sworn there was real gratitude in the husky reply. He shook his head slowly. Well, the young man was no longer his immediate concern. He'd make sure Mitchell kept an eye on him, and would report any problems. Looking back at the screen, he rechecked the file. Spock. Not quite what he'd expected. At least he didn't think he'd have any further trouble remembering the Vulcan's name.

*****

"What a great fucking body. Or is that a body made for great fucking?" Kirk said as he caught the first officer's eyes over the table between them, and grinned. Rec Room 3 was relatively quiet, after the bustle of activity during the primary duty shift.  The Enterprise had slid into orbit around what was called in the preliminary reports, Planet T-1/M, during mid-watch. All departments had been involved in the time consuming but essential tasks of gathering what information could be obtained before the survey teams could beam down the next day.

A nice little planet, Kirk had thought, upon first seeing the blue crystalline ball from space. And uninhabited too, if the initial reports were true. He wouldn't even have to evict anyone. At least it was the first Class-M planet they had surveyed on this swing of star-mapping. The last two they had visited had been deader than a doornail, whatever the hell that had been and just as useless.

His eyes returned to the trim, red-clad figure of Ensign Lawlor as her soft giggle trilled across the room. She smiled demurely up into Chekov's beaming face. Kirk watched as the Russian bent to murmur something in her ear. she giggled again, and pushed him teasingly away. Her eyes scanned the room and saw Kirk watching. Immediately she ducked her head and looked up again at him shyly through a long gleaming mane of blond hair. A dazzling smile hit with the impact of a phaser stun. Yes, she was definitely the most promising of the new recruits they had taken on at Starbase 1. Perhaps now was a good time to make the ensign's acquaintance. Kirk started to rise.

"Yes, it certainly is," Mitchell leered back.

Kirk checked his impulse to follow his libido across the room to the young woman's side. "Huh?"

"A body made for fucking." Mitchell looked past Kirk's shoulder. "Long and lean. Just the way I like 'em." His eyes returned to meet Kirk's, as he wriggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Yum, yum."

Kirk laughed and slid his chair further around the table so he could see what Gary was finding so interesting in the far corner of the room. A dark head bowed over a computer console. The Vulcan. Kirk noticed that the few entering or leaving crewmen ignored the still figure completely. "How's he doing?"

"As Foulard says, 'He can perform simple tasks adequately,'" Mitchell replied in perfect parody of the head of the science department's stiff Gallic manner. Kirk grinned. Mitchell's voice returned to normal, as his eyes again rested on the solitary figure. "I can tell you one area in which I bet he's more than adequate."

"Oh, yeah? What's that?"

The first officer rose from the table and started across the room. "Ask me that question tomorrow morning," floated back over his shoulder.

Kirk turned back to Lawlor. A frankly puzzled look was evident in the green eyes as she flashed him another brilliant smile. He sent a nod and an answering smile in her direction. Be right there, sweetheart.  Turning his attention back, he watched as Mitchell laid a hand on the blue-clothed shoulder. The Vuican must have been deeply focused on the computer screen because he actually jumped and started to get up from his chair. Mitchell firmly pushed him back down. His hand began a wandering course over the Vulcan's chest then leisurely returned to stroke the long neck as he leaned down to whisper something into one pointed ear. Spock stiffened.

Shit, Mitch, he's just a kid, Kirk thought disgustedly. Still he didn't plan on interfering; at least that was what he told himself. Sooner or later, the kid would learn how to fend off unwanted advances. He certainly had. The Vulcan stared firmly forward as hands came off the console to rest clenched in his lap. The kid would certainly learn. Kirk watched a hint of green rise to tinge elegant ears as Mitchell's hand started its slow circuit again.

Or maybe not.

Damn. It wasn't as if he gave a shit .... if only the kid didn't have that deer-trapped-in-an-aircar's headlights look on his face. Kirk quickly scanned the room and lit on the poker game going on in the opposite comer.

"Hey, Mitch." The first officer was far too engrossed to notice. Kirk walked across to join them. Lightly tapping Gary's shoulder, he waited until the man unbent himself from an evidently fascinating pointed ear and rose to face him. "Come on, Mitch. I feel like playing some poker."

One hand still rested possessively on a thin shoulder, and Kirk could swear he noticed a hint of anger in Mitchell's normally smiling gray eyes. Kirk glanced down to the computer screen. Chess. The Vulcan had a small portable Tri-D chess set before him and was playing chess with the computer. That surprised him. He didn't know Vulcans knew how to play the relatively obscure Earth game.

When he returned his eyes to Mitchell's face the anger had gone. "Come on, Mitch." Smiling up into the first officer's face, Kirk slung one arm around his neck and faced him away from the table. "You did say you wanted the chance to get back some of those credits you said I stole from you last week." A sly smile. "I didn't, you know. It's just that you are the worst piss-poor excuse for a poker player I've ever seen."

Mitchell finally laughed and let Kirk lead him over to the noisy group in the corner.

It wasn't until two hands later that he finally allowed his glance to stray to the computer outlet. It was unoccupied, and he breathed a small sigh of relief. Then he remembered and looked for the delicious form of Lawlor. She had left, and Chekov was no longer there either.

"Shit," he swore softly.

"What's that, Jim?"

"Nothing, Mitch, nothing. Just deal the cards."

And to add insult to injury, he was losing.

* * * * *

Kirk took a deep breath of the flower-laden air, and scanned the area. They had beamed down into what Foulard and the science department had decided was a good place to begin a survey. The team spread out. He alone had nothing to do but observe for a few moments to assure himself that there were no unforeseen dangers, then give the go-ahead for the rest of the landing parties/survey teams to beam down.

They had materialized in a small clearing where a mixture of habitats flourished. From behind wafted the smell of rich forest loam from hundreds of trees, their shimmering diamond- shaped leaves spangling the sunlight into constantly shifting patterns against the ground. Directly in front lay a broad meadow, dappled with flowers colored every shade in the rainbow, their scents heavy and cloying in his nostrils. Raising a hand to shade his eyes from the twin suns' glare, a smile flicked across his face at the sight of a river meandering across the far end of the meadow. Close by was a bit of rocky land that rose in the distance to form caves and eventually into higher ground melting into snow- capped peaks of distant mountains.

Hard to believe this is what Earth must have looked like before pollution and heavy industrialization took their toll.  He'd once seen some antique holos of a place very much like this.  Colorado, he thought it had been called.

Kirk wondered what the colonists the Empire would send would call this place. He knew what he would have named it, had it been his to name. He would have called it Bountiful. He guessed it would retain its pristine beauty, at least for a while, until the inevitable over-population and mechanization. With luck it would take a long time to happen.

A feeling of loneliness suddenly rose inside, and he looked around. Not one person was looking at the view. Everyone was glued to tricorders and various other instruments. He moved swiftly across the clearing, stopping before the first crewman he came to. "Mister Spock."

The lithe form slowly unbent itself from the sampling bag half filled with rocks and looked up. Spock carefully placed a last rock in the bag, then rose to respectful attention, hands lightly clasped behind his back. "Captain."

"Come with me, please." Kirk moved back to where he had been standing and waited until the Vulcan joined him. "There. Take a look at that." He waved one arm expansively. "Isn't that beautiful?"

"Beautiful, Captain?" the solemn voice intoned. "Beautiful is rather an emotionally charged word, is it not? Aesthetically pleasing to some, perhaps but-"

Kirk turned in amazement. "Aesthetically pleasing?"

"Yes, Captain, and while I, personally favor a drier-"

They were interrupted by the approach of the head of the science department. "I have the preliminary geological report ready for you, Captain."

Kirk looked back at the meadow. "Proceed, Mister Foulard."

"We've scanned fairly all of this area, sir, and while there are some confusing readings due to trace elements in the rocks and soil, I would say that in a geological and biological sense-"

"Yes, yes, man, get on with it."

"There's nothing of value here."

Kirk drew a deep breath of the sweetly fragranced air. "Nothing of value," he said flatly. "Yes, I see. You may relay the go-ahead to the other teams. Carry on, Mister Foulard." He moved on into the sunlit meadow with long forceful strides. Immediately, Johnson, the younger of his two personal guards moved to flank him. Kirk irritably waved the blond, husky young man back. "There's not a god-damned soul on the planet but us, Johnson. I think I can manage to stay alive for the space of a half hour."

He felt the Vulcan's eyes boring into his back until he was halfway across the meadow.

* * * * *

A half hour had stretched into the whole afternoon, yet despite his exercise, Kirk found he was unable to sleep that night. After a futile hour spent tossing on his bunk, he rose and paced the cabin, finally moving to the Tantalus Device.

Languidly he scanned the upper decks of the great starship, reveling in her orderly beauty, reminding himself of the journey he had taken to finally achieve her. She completed him as no lover he had ever known, gave meaning to his life, made it all worth while. The nightly ritual, made either by roaming her decks or visually by use of the Tantalus Device, soothed and comforted him.

Lower decks now, past a quiescent engineering section, staffed only by several gamma watch personnel. On to the science labs. His hand paused abruptly. One of the labs was lit. And it shouldn't be, not at this time of ship's night. He turned the dial, the room swimming slowly into focus on his monitor. A black-haired head bowed over a computer screen, face not visible from this angle, but the tips of pointed ears readily apparent. What the hell was Spock doing down there? Had he found a way to tap into the main computer?

Concealing the screen took only a moment, then he was across the room and out the door. Farrell was on duty tonight, he saw, and with a wave of a hand he gathered the older man and they were on their way to the turbolift.

They entered Lab 4 at a run, Farrell ready with phaser already drawn.

The thin blue-clad figure turned slowly, regarding them with solemn appraisal. One long eyebrow rose until it disappeared into the fringe of sleek bangs. "Captain?"

Kirk strode across the room, but the Vulcan made no move to erase the screen. When he got close enough, he saw row after row of neat mathematical equations filling the screen and several data pads spread on the nearby desk. Work. The Vulcan was working at 0200 in the morning. Kirk took a deep breath and motioned Farrell to put away the phased "Mister Spock, do you mind telling me what the hell you're doing down here in the middle of the night?"

Spock rose from his chair, eyes flitting between his captain and the security guard. "Is there a problem, sir? I was reviewing the data we received from the sensor scans taken today on the planet The rock samples show trace elements of selenium and a naturally formed polymer which I have tentatively identified as asthenimilomide." His voice slowed and ran down. "I, . . . however, cannot be certain . . . without running further tests. Kirk had never seen the austere features so animated. Obviously, the Vulcan was excited by his discoveries.

Kirk turned to the guard, and grinned. "You can go, Farrell. I don't think I'll need you any more tonight." The older man returned the grin, and holstering his phaser turned and left.

"Don't you sleep?" Kirk asked when they were alone.

"Vulcans require far less rest than Humans, Captain, and with the lab unoccupied ...."

"Couldn't you do this work during your regular duty shift?

"I have been assigned other duties to accomplish at that time, sir."

"I see. Well, then why couldn't you work in your quarters? Wouldn't that be more comfortable? Or even the rec room?"

Spock fixed his eyes on some point over Kirk's shoulder. "My quarters have not been fitted with a computer access terminal, and as for the recreation room ...."

Too late, Kirk remembered why Spock might not want to spend time in the rec room. And no computer access. He glanced again at the neat rows of figures filling the screen. "I'll make sure you have a computer station installed in your quarters tomorrow."

He was unprepared for the look the Vulcan gave him. There was real pleasure as well as surprise on the ascetic features. "Thank you, Captain," he said simply.

"Carry on, Mister Spock." Hell, if the kid wanted to spend the whole night tucked away in the science lab it was no skin off his nose. He turned for the door.

A buzzer on the panel beeped, and began to spill out data.

Spock called out. "Captain. Wait."

When he returned to the console, Spock's fingers were flying over the panel. "Look, Captain.  There and there."  One long finger was insistently jabbing at the screen.

"I don't...."

Kirk's arm brushed the Vulcan's side as Spock turned, and deep brown eyes met his. "It was inconclusive, but the computer has confirmed my hypothesis. There, Captain. In the spectral analysis . . . there is a correlation of ninety-five point six percent."

"I still don't ...."

"Dilithium, Captain. According to the correlation factor I have hypothesized, there should be a large dilithium deposit close by where we surveyed today. I would suggest sending a team to the mountainous area directly to the south."

"You're sure?"

Something firmed on the alien's face. "It is my own correlation factor that I am using, Captain, but I would state the probability of success at eighty-seven point three percent."

The Vulcan was positive. Of his own abilities there was no shred of doubt. Well, Kirk would see that it was checked out in the morning. One thing was for certain, if there was a dilithium deposit on the planet, there would be no colonists for Bountiful. And it wouldn't be 'bountiful' for long. The Empire would strip the planet faster than skinning a Klingon.

Kirk sighed. "We'll check it out. Carry on, Mister Spock."

The thin face gave him a strange look. Kirk walked to the door, then paused to look back, absently rubbing the warm spot where the Vulcan had brushed his arm. Spock had turned back to the computer and was busily pressing several buttons at once. From what Kirk could see the young man certainly knew his way around a computer. What did Gary say Foulard reported? Adequate to perform simple tasks? What does Foulard have Spock doing? Washing test tubes? With a mind like that?  And no computer access in his cabin!

Kirk had the sudden feeling there was a campaign of harassment directed toward the Vulcan. Mitchell was certainly capable of it. A surge of some feeling he couldn't quite identify welled up. Anger, at not being aware of something going on right under his nose? Or pity? The Vulcan looked very alone standing there with his computer screen flashing data, a young man more comfortable with machines than people. Maybe he had good reason.

"Mister Spock."

"Captain?"

"Where did you learn to play chess?"

An eyebrow rose at the non-sequitur. Kirk realized it was probably a personal quirk the Vulcan was not even conscious of, and that it happened each time something unsettled or surprised him.

"Sir?"

"Chess, Mister Spock. I noticed you playing against the computer. I didn't think anyone other than Terrans knew how to play, and very few of those. It's a very old game. Where did you learn?"

A shadow seemed to cross the austere features like a curtain descending, but when it rose again a scant second later the shadow had gone, "My mother taught me the game when I was quite young, Captain."

"But how did a Vulcan woman-"

Spock returned his attention to the computer, "There is some Human blood in my genetic make­up. Now if you will excuse me, sir, there are several other tests that need to be run."

Kirk stared at the turned back. Part Human. And he had obviously touched a raw nerve. He filed the information away to be considered later, "The next time you play, you might try accessing Chess X, sub-routine 2A. It's a new response to the Prochiev Attack I entered several weeks ago. Good night, Mister Spock."

Spock's head swiveled sharply. Kirk was rewarded by the sight of a black eyebrow on the rise as he turned and left the lab for his bed.

He waited until after start of watch next morning before he had Uhura connect him with the main science lab, taking the call in his cabin.

"Science section. Lieutenant Commander Foulard, here, " A pale-complexioned face topped by close-cropped white-blond hair appeared on his screen, slate gray eyes instantly alert at the sight of his commanding officer.

"Ah yes, Foulard," Kirk replied, intentionally leaving off the man's title because he knew how much that bothered the status-conscious chief scientist. "Have you compiled the geophysical and biological scans of T-1/M? I'll need the information for my reports."

Foulard turned and scanned the lab, then drew closer to the comm station. His voice lowered conspiringly, eyes alight with suppressed excitement, "Captain, I spent last night in Science Lab 4 reviewing the preliminary scans, and using a correlation factor of my own devising, I believe I have discovered something of interest."

Kirk leaned back in his chair. The man hadn't ever had an original thought in his life, not to mention a 'correlation factor of his own devising.' Even used the Vulcan's words. It occurred to him that Spock might be the one who was lying, but he dismissed the idea immediately. He trusted his instincts. They had saved his life more than a few times, and now they reported that while Spock undoubtedly bent the truth at times like everyone else, he had a true scientist's passion concerning his work.

But how to let the bastard know he was on to him without actually coming out and saying so, and possibly making things worse for Spock? After all, as the head of Spock's department there were probably a thousand things Foulard could do to belittle or demean him. Things he would find difficult to undo, or even know about. Not that he cared particularly about Spock, he reminded himself, but there were several times his own work had been stolen back at the Academy. At the time there hadn't been a damn thing he could have done about it. It still rankled.

Ah, he had it, and it was going to be fun, too. Crossing arms over chest, he allowed a lazy smile to come to his face, "Your diligence to duty is to be commended, Mister Foulard. And what have you discovered?"

"Dilithium, Captain," the older man hissed, "Dilithium. And I'm convinced a fairly large deposit of it." He scanned some tapes before him, "To the south, I believe. Perhaps-"

"Perhaps that mountainous area?"

The gray eyes blinked, "Why yes, Captain. I would suggest we concentrate our explorations in that area today." Foulard shot him a curious look.

Kirk let the smile flower into a grin, "An excellent idea, Mister Foulard. See to it."

He waited until the precise moment the other man nodded and moved to disconnect the intercom, "Oh, by the way, Mister Foulard, when I was down in Lab 4 last night I spoke to Mister Spock. I must have just missed you. He informed me there has been an apparent oversight in his accommodations. It appears that the cabin he has been assigned lacks a computer terminal. Please see that one is installed in his quarters." He watched Foulard's pale complexion turn distinctly pasty as the insinuation registered. "I mention it to you rather than have Maintenance take care of it because knowing your diligence in such things, I knew you would wish to correct the oversight," a meaningful pause, "personally, Mister Foulard."

The pale face bobbed up and down as Foulard swallowed hastily, "Of course, Captain. I'll attend to it right away." Again, his hand moved to disconnect.

"That'll be all, Mister Foulard." Kirk made sure he disconnected first, then sat back with a satisfied grin. He couldn't just outright accuse the man of stealing Spock's work. He'd have to be careful how far he pushed. Word was the chief scientist's family was highly connected back home. Someone had paid a great deal of money to someone so René Foulard could serve on a starship, and as Spock's immediate superior, he could make the Vulcan's life even harder than he suspected it already was. Damn, but he hated the supercilious bastard.

By mid-morning the reports had been confirmed. There was dilithium on Bountiful. Tons of it. Kirk reported the news to Starfleet Command over sub-space and received an answer by end of watch. They were to maintain orbit until a survey ship diverted from Delta Quadrant arrived, due within twenty-­four hours. Kirk whistled softly when he heard that. And not only a survey ship, he'd wager, but a fleet of ore and guard ships, too.

He took a last look at the peacefully spinning blue ball beneath him and bid a silent goodbye to Bountiful.

One good result came out of it, Kirk reminded himself. The word of the discovery had spread rapidly throughout the ship. Everywhere he went he was greeted with happy and smiling crewmen. The discovery meant a nice bit of change in everyone's pocket, and perhaps he wouldn't have to worry about a knife in his ribs from some disgruntled crewman who thought his captain wasn't sharp enough and was convinced someone else could do better-at least for awhile.

The next day brought the survey ships and new orders. The Enterprise was to report to Vega to accept its yearly tribute to the Empire. Diplomatic duty. One of his least favorite things. Kirk gave the appropriate orders.

That night in his quarters, the captain was preparing for the impromptu party the crew was putting on in the main rec deck to celebrate the news of the dilithium discovery. Hell, he'd get a little drunk, finally pick up Ensign Lawlor and get laid. That should get rid of any last lingering regrets about Bountiful . . . about T-1/M, he hastily corrected.

He was just giving a last lick to his hair, when his buzzer sounded, "Come."

"Captain."

The tall lean form appeared over his shoulder in the mirror, "Yes, Mister Spock? Is there a problem?"

"If you are not otherwise occupied . . . that is . . . I thought perhaps you might care for a game,

Kirk turned to see the Vulcan clutching a small gold chess case like an armored shield across his chest. The brush went back down on the dresser. Damn. Why the hell had he said he played in the first place?

The /ulcan looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Shit. Something must have shown on his face, for the next thing he knew, Spock was back-peddling.

"Forgive the interruption, Captain. I did not notice you were preparing to go out. Of course, the crew party. I had forgotten." He turned to go.

"Mister Spock."

"Sir?"

"Will I see you at the party?"

Spock hesitated for a brief second before answering, "No." Just 'no'. No explanation, no excuses, just that quietly spoken 'no'.

"And why not?"

"I have found my presence has, shall we say, a dampening effect on Human festivities."

And I bet they let you know it, too, Kirk thought. He felt again that brief unaccustomed pang of pity. And cursed himself.

"If you will excuse me, Captain?"

"Mister Spock." The Vulcan was the cause, after all, of the discovery of the dilithium deposit. Kirk's crack science team would have missed the damn stuff, "I believe I have time for a quick game after all." One quick game. How much time would it take?

Three hours and two and a half games later Kirk looked up to discover the night had somehow gotten away from him. He'd lost the first game, stalemated the second, and was elated to discover he was winning the third. He couldn't remember the last time he'd played an actual opponent instead of the computer. The kid played brilliantly. Kirk was beginning to wonder if there was anything Spock didn't do brilliantly.

Kirk sat back in the chair while he contemplated his next move, absently rubbing his cramping shoulder.

"You are fatigued, Captain. We can continue the match at a later date."

"And you, of course, are not."

"Vulcans require far-"

"-less sleep than the rest of us mere mortals."

A wary look entered the deep set eyes.

Kirk smiled a slow smile, "Relax, Mister Spock, I was just kidding." The chair hit the deck as he leaned forward again to look at the board, and made his move, "You wouldn't be trying to weasel out of this game before I could win it, would you?"

When he looked back up, some of the wariness had left. One eyebrow rose. Kirk found himself looking forward to the gesture.

"Weasel out, Captain?"

"Weasel out, Mister Spock, after a Terran mammal known for its stealth and craftiness."

Spock scanned the board, then tipped his king, "A fascinating language, Captain. I see I have much to learn. At any rate, the game is yours."

They spent the next several minutes packing up the chess pieces in comfortable silence. Kirk walked the Vulcan to the door finding himself strangely loath to relinquish the youth's presence, and surprised to find he had enjoyed the evening immensely.

Just short of the sensor, Spock hesitated for a moment, then turned to face him, "I have re-evaluated, Captain."

"Oh, about what?" He smiled up into the serious face.

"T-1/M. It is indeed . . . beautiful."

"Not 'aesthetically pleasing?"'

Spock drew himself up. The wariness was back, "Vulcans are permitted to find pleasure in aesthetically pleasing . . . in beautiful objects."

Who is he reminding?  Kirk thought, his captain, or himself? The deck drew Kirk s attention for a moment while he thought for a last time about what the planet would look like in a year's time, "Yes. Beautiful," he said softly, "It's unfortunate it won't remain that way."

"Captain? But the mining operations should not unduly upset the ecological balance if care is taken to-"

"Care will not be taken. It's far more economical to plunder-mine the planet."

"But . . . but plunder-mining will leave the planet a useless husk. That mining technique has been shown to cause irreparable damage to an ecosystem. Surely the Empire would prefer the planet remain a viable commodity. Perhaps, colonists could be induced to emigrate. I have heard the Empire's home worlds are becoming overpopulated and ...."

For some reason, the fact that both he and Spock had conjured up the same image of happy smiling colonists for Bountiful annoyed him.

"You haven't been listening, Mister Spock. You didn't discover just any ore down there. You discovered dilithium, possibly the most valuable commodity there is. The Empire will strip Boun...I mean, T-1/M because it's quick, easy, and cheap. That's the way it's done."

"But surely your recommendation will ...."

Kirk's eyes narrowed. He wasn't used to being contradicted, "You are laboring under a misapprehension if you think I've got the power to change Empire policies all by myself even if I wished to. And I don't. We can't ail be pampered princes with our least whim catered to by an adoring family

Damn. He hadn't meant to fly off the handle like that. What was it about this young man that roused his emotions?

The lean body straightened and Spock's eyes focused on the bulkhead wall three centimeters beyond and to the right of Kirk's head, "I believe it is you who are laboring under a misapprehension, Captain," he said dryly, "My, so called . . . family . . . was as relieved to see my back as I was to depart. My removal from Vulcan was most fortuitous." Eyes that revealed nothing returned to his face. For a moment, neither said anything, then a brow slowly rose, "If there is nothing else, Captain, I will take my leave." The aristocratic head nodded slightly, then Spock turned and was gone.

Kirk was left staring at the softly closing door. The room seemed suddenly colder. Absently he turned up the heat. 'Curiouser and curiouser,' he thought. This Vulcan wasn't turning out to be anything like he'd been led to believe. He'd always thought that Vulcans had a particularly strong family structure, or so the rumors went. Was it, he wondered, the information that was faulty, or just that Spock was the oddball he was beginning to think he was?

At least he had set the Vulcan straight about Empire policies. As he undressed and headed for the shower, he mulled it over. He had done the youth a favor. Naiveté had a certain appeal, he supposed, but knowledge of how the universe really worked kept one alive longer. Yes, he definitely had done the young man a favor.

So why did he feel like there was an itch somewhere he couldn't quite scratch?

He was already in bed with the lights waved off, when he remembered the delicious Ensign. "Shit," he groaned, and thought briefly of getting up and tracking her down. To fuck or not to fuck. That was the question. Deciding it wasn't worth the effort, he turned over.

* * * * *

"Where the hell is he?" Kirk snarled at the man behind the transporter control station. He hated diplomatic duty as it was, now to be held up because his own first officer couldn't arrange to be on time for a simple beam-down. He glared at a clearly uncomfortable Kyle, and resumed pacing. The others that were to make up the landing party, Foulard, his chief assistant, a quiet brown-haired woman named Clease, and Kirk's two personal guards, Farrell and Johnson, cast oblique looks at each other and made sure to stay out of his way.

The Enterprise had assumed standard orbit around Vega three hours ago. It had only been a year since he had last been here, the occasion one he'd rather forget. The insurrection proved surprisingly hard to put down, but the results were inevitable from the start. When would these piddling little planets learn they couldn't withstand the might of the Empire? Five thousand colonists had been put to death before it had all been over, mostly killed by their own countrymen in the mad rush to escape detection and blame.

There were easier ways to commit suicide.

And now he was back. Kirk had let the planetary leaders stew for awhile in silence before he'd opened communications. The knowledge that the Empire's most powerful starship was hovering in their skies silent and unannounced, however much her arrival had been expected, had served the desired purpose.

Kirk saw the message had been clearly understood in the faintly apprehensive expressions of Planetary Administrator Zarn Pleska and the rest of the ruling council when Kirk finally deemed the time was right to open a hailing frequency.

He knew from the surface scans they'd taken after assuming orbit there were still whole sections in the major cities in ruins, probably so the annual "tribute" could be accumulated. The whole thing was distasteful.                

And now he couldn't get down there, accept it, and be on his way because Gary wasn't-

The comm panel on the transporter console flared to life. Kirk abruptly whirled and hit the stud, "Yes, Kirk here. Commander Mitchell, that'd better be you."

There was a slight pause, then the slow Southern drawl of his chief medical officer filled the silence, "Sickbay, Captain. It's McCoy."

"Yes, what is it, Doctor?"

"I have your first officer here, Captain. He informs me he's scheduled for landing party duty today I'm afraid he won't be joining you."

"Was there an accident?" Kirk's tone indicated his displeasure with the news.

"No, sir. Other than puking his guts out all over my floor, he's perfectly all right. Seems he has a touch of Rigellian flu.

"Serious?"

"Not really. I've relieved him of duty for the next two days. That should do it."

"Very well, Doctor. Kirk out." Kirk nodded to the others and they moved to take their places on the transporter platform. Glancing at the one empty pad, he suddenly had an idea. Without stopping to consider it, he bounded back off the pad and strode to the console, hitting the all-call button with the flat of his hand. "Mister Spock, to the main transporter room, on the double." Without waiting for a response, he mounted the platform and directed Kyle to signal the planet to announce their momentary beam-down. He started a silent countdown.

Within a minute and a half, the Vulcan had entered the room, appearance perfect despite the fact he must have rushed to answer the summons. Kirk was pleased to see there was a glint of anticipation on the austere features. Reading the hidden expressions on the young man's face had become sort of a game he played, "Mister Spock, exactly how many planets have you seen?" He waited for the now customary raising of a tapered brow and wasn't disappointed.

"Other than my native planet, precisely two, sir."

Kirk grinned, "Tralis, and T-1/M."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, you're about to make it three, Lieutenant. Climb aboard. Energize, Mister Kyle."

They materialized inside a small ante-room decorated in dark blue marble with high white walls that gave the room an airy open feeling despite the fact there were no windows and only one double door that Kirk could see. Arranged in front of the door were five men, dressed almost identically in light blue robes adorned with the gold badges of their office. The ruling council. And obviously dressed in their best. Kirk had specifically ordered the landing party to wear regular working shift uniforms. One more way to drive the lesson home. You have to impress me, I don't have to impress you.

Vegans were Human, descended from Humans of Earth in the first rush of colonization over a hundred years ago, although Kirk doubted if many if any present day Vegans had ever returned to see the home world from which they had sprung. Until the Empire had appeared on the scene, fewer than fifty years ago, there had been many independent colonies like them. Now there was only the Empire. Kirk waited where he was as the man in the center, the man he had placed in charge here a year ago, glanced quickly at the others, took a deep breath and stepped forward.

"Captain Kirk. We were informed of your arrival. How . . . ," he paused uncomfortably for a moment, then stiffened slightly and went on, " . . . pleasant to see you again."

I'll bet. Kirk gave him a small smile, "And to see you, Administrator Pleska. May I present the head of my science department, René Foulard, two of his assistants, Pia Clease and Spock Xtmprsqzntwlfd ...." He smiled inwardly at the Vulcan's in-drawn breath. "And Misters Farrell and Johnson." He didn't think he had to explain the function of the two hulking guards behind him. Their phasers and red uniforms made their jobs immediately identifiable.

Pleska shook hands with Hoffman and Clease, and held out his hand to Spock. The Vulcan, standing with both hands clasped behind his back, nodded but didn't offer a hand in return. Kirk found himself unaccountably pleased. For a moment, Pleska's hand hovered uncomfortably then dropped. He nodded at the two guards, then hesitantly offered his hand to Kirk, as if uncertain it, too, wouldn't be accepted. Kirk waited just a fraction of a second longer, then gripped the other's hand firmly. There, there, we're all friends now.

He smiled at the other's relieved expression. A dark haired man with broad flat features sidled up to Pleska's shoulder and was introduced as Vice-Administrator Tor, "The luncheon, Administrator."

"Ah, yes. Thank you, Eldon." He turned back to Kirk, 'We've prepared a luncheon in your honor, Captain. If you'll come this way?" With one hand on Kirk's elbow he made to guide him to the set of double doors. Kirk didn't move, but he did look down at the hand resting so familiarly on his arm. We're not that good friends. After a second the hand dropped.

He gave a slight incline of his head at the two guards, and they moved to the doors and through to scout the room. Kirk smiled lazily. Placing his hand on Pleska's elbow in exactly the same position the administrator had used, Kirk turned him to the other blue-garbed figures, "We'd be delighted, Administrator, but first may I meet the others of your ruling council?"

Introductions and small talk took up the next few moments, and when the guards had returned he caught their eyes. When they nodded approval Kirk turned back to Pleska "l believe you said something about lunch, Administrator?" He smiled charmingly, "I'm starved."

They moved through the doors into a short hallway, then through another set of doors into what appeared to be a banquet room. At their entrance the fifty or so people already present rose solemnly from their chairs set around small, well-appointed round tables. Obviously, the usual middle management bureaucrats to whom meeting the Empire's representative was deemed an honor. They showed just the proper amount of deference during the introductions that followed.

Gradually the Enterprise contingent worked their way back to a main table set before the double doors, Kirk already calculating the amount of time that could elapse before taking his leave. Surprisingly the food that was set before them looked fairly appetizing, and Kirk noted with delight the plate of kelefta. Spock, seated next to him, reached for a piece of green fruit from a plate that was passed, and was preparing to eat, when Kirk stopped him with a hand on his arm. Quickly motioning over his shoulder to where the two guards had taken their positions behind the table, he pointed to the food.

Deftly Farrell managed the decorated utensils, plucked a wing from the plate, and scanned it with a tricorder. Kirk turned to Pleska on his left and resumed their earlier conversation. The man was distinctly uneasy as he focused on Kirk but watched the suspicious guard test the kelefta and the other offerings out of the corner of his eye. Kirk was amused, and when the guard nodded, he allowed Farrell to fix him a heaping plate of the succulent dish.

It was delicious, and as the crowd saw his pleasure they resumed their conversations and their meals. The relief in the room was almost palpable.

Kirk smiled to himself. He liked keeping people off guard. When they were off guard, they weren't busy trying to kill him, "Try some of the kelefta, Mister Spock. It's quite delicious. The bird is native to this system. I hate to say it but it tastes like . . . chicken."

The Vulcan obviously was puzzled, "Why should you dislike comparing this dish to chicken, Captain? Only yesterday in the mess, I observed you ordering a chicken dish which you seemed to ingest with some relish." He placed the fruit and a thick slice of what appeared to be a purple cheese on his plate, "If you dislike chicken-"

Kirk grinned, "I love chicken." So the Vulcan watched him in the mess hall, actually paid attention to what he ate. That thought pleased him, too. In fact, many things about this strange young man pleased him. He realized he was beginning to look forward to spending time in Spock's company. The Vulcan was . . . refreshing, "I only said that because . . . well, because it's sort of an old joke to compare strange food to chicken." He counted seconds in his mind, One, two . .

Right on time, one sable eyebrow rose, and Kirk grinned again.

Spock shook his head, "I see. A joke. Humans have a decidedly. . . unique. . . sense of humor."

This time Kirk laughed outright. Diplomatic duty wasn't quite the chore today that it usually was, "You're not going to try it?"

A slice of the purple cheese halted midway to Spock's mouth, "Vulcans do not eat animal flesh, Captain." A frown crossed Kirk's face, and Spock hurried to add, "We do not, however, object to others that do so."

Kirk's expression cleared, "Oh. Sort of a 'live and let live' philosophy."

"IDIC."

"What?"

"IDIC, Captain. One of Vulcan's guiding principles. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations. The fact that our differences can combine to create meaning and beauty."

"Just what I said . . . 'live and let live'."

"Not precisely, Captain. You see-"

"Just what I said, Mister Spock," but Kirk knew his eyes were smiling.

Spock sighed, and a small quirk teased the stern lips. Kirk waited and watched as he finally popped the cheese into his mouth, chewed and swallowed with slow deliberate movements. "Just as you said, Captain. Another joke?"

A grin replaced the smile. "No, that was teasing. You really must learn to tell the difference, Mister Spock. By the way," he forked another piece of kelefta smugly, "how did I do at pronouncing your name?"

That, Captain . . . was undoubtedly . . . the worst rendition of my clan name it has ever been my misfortune to hear."

Kirk stared for a long moment, then broke into delighted laughter.

The rest of the dinner passed in a pleasant enough manner, and after dessert was served, several people, obviously scientists, came up to draw Foulard into animated conversation. Kirk listened absently, wondering when the Empire's tribute would be presented. Spock occasionally interjected something into the conversation, once even correcting the science officer on some minor point. He did it politely, with an unerring sense of dignity that belied his years, Kirk thought, and he could see the colonists listening with new-found respect. He didn't know how he could tell, for there was nothing but the blandest expression on the Vulcan's face, but Spock was enjoying himself immensely and totally engrossed in the scientific discussion, something about the irrigation system in the northern area of the planet.

Foulard was obviously displeased by the Vulcan's comments. Kirk loved it, but he knew the kid would have to learn a tactful way of dealing with the older man. Maybe he could give Spock hints on that. For some unaccountable reason, the prospect delighted the captain.

Presently, Pleska cleared his throat, the crowd quieted and Kirk thought finally they were getting down to the business at hand.

"Captain, if you and your party will step over here?" The Administrator motioned to a place behind their table. Kirk and the others complied. The large table was removed from the room, leaving them standing in plain view of everyone. A far set of double doors opened to reveal a detachment of about a dozen white uniformed guards, who marched with military precision into the room. Farrell and Johnson immediately drew their weapons nervously, and there was a moment of hushed uncertainty as Kirk analyzed the situation. There was nothing that looked like an attack and he motioned them to put away their phasers. Probably just a formal way of presenting the tribute. These people seemed to be enamored of pomp. Pleska watched him warily, and seemed relieved when Kirk nodded that the ceremony could proceed. Still, Kirk edged a step nearer the Administrator. The bulky body would provide a convenient shield to get them out of here if trouble developed.

"Captain Kirk," Pleska raised his voice so all could hear, "as the representative of the Empire that has taken Vega under its wing, we are pleased to be able today to show how grateful we are.

"One year ago, a small number of our countrymen, a very small number," he emphasized, "disrupted our lives with a rebellion that caused the Empire to send you to show us the error of our ways.  Like a wise parent chastising a much beloved child, we were set back on the course meant for us.

"Only six months ago we captured the last of those who would, by their actions, bring ruin to us all."

The contingent of guards parted and now Kirk could see what he hadn't before. In their midst were three men dressed in white, light suddenly glinting on the metal manacles that held their restrained hands. Their faces showed first bewilderment and then slowly dawning awareness.

The prisoners were led to a large clear space along one side wall of the room and suddenly Kirk knew.

" ... and so to show our beneficent father, the Empire, that we have ...."

Before Kirk could stop it, phasers appeared in the guards' hands, and were raised into firing position.

" ... seen the error of our ways, and to prove ...."

A sharply in-drawn breath next to him caused Kirk to turn. Spock was ashen-faced, shock written clearly on the usually serene features. Got to get him out of here.

" ... May all the gods have mercy on your souls .... Fire."

Too late. There was one blinding flash of light, and the three men vaporized before their eyes. Spock's hands flew up to clutch with grasping fingers at his head. "Nooo . . . " he whispered in a soft moan, and eyelids fluttering, he sagged to his knees. Before he could pass out altogether, Kirk was there to support and raise him. Peripherally aware of the startled looks, he pressed the lean body close, and hurried the barely conscious Vulcan through the double doors they had entered what seemed an inordinately long time ago, and out into the quiet of the empty corridor.

Hastily, Kirk braced the trembling body against the wall, a gleaming cap of black hair obscuring the bowed face from view. Bending to look, Kirk saw with alarm how blanched the other's face was. The Vulcan gasped for breath through a mouth opened in horror. "Spock."

At his name, the Vulcan looked up and clenched eyes opened but Kirk knew they didn't focus. Spock's eyes were wide and black with a frightening blankness. "They did not know," he whispered.

"Spock? Spock, are you all right?" Shit. Two weeks in space, and this is the first experience with an alien culture the kid's had. "Spock?"

"Captain? What. . . ?"

"Come on, I have to stick around, but you can beam-"

Just then the wall over their heads exploded outward in one cataclysmic burst of deafening sound and falling masonry. The shock wave threw both stunned figures hard into the opposite wall of the corridor to fall in crumpled heaps on the smooth marble floor.

It was that cold marble against his cheek that cleared Kirk's head enough to sit up. He knew he hadn't lost consciousness, and the equally cold part of himself that snapped into gear under dangerous situations told him, past the incessant ringing in his ears, what had happened. A bomb. Nothing else could have caused such immediate devastation. Amid the slight quavering of the floor beneath his feet, he got himself and Spock back upright. The Vulcan's face was smeared with dust and debris and the usually so immaculate hair was dusted with particles of destroyed wall. But he seemed well enough to function.

Ears still ringing, Kirk quickly moved to the door which led back into the room they had just left. Swirls of dust and upturned and destroyed furniture hindered vision. An anguished moan or two filtered through, and somewhere from what had been the rear of the room he could hear hysterical crying, but the red splattered walls left little hope that there were many left unscathed.

"An explosive device?" Spock whispered.

Kirk nodded. If he had not taken Spock into the corridor ....

The excited babble behind told of people coming, and Kirk drew Spock back into the hallway. Before he could turn and make some order out of the chaos, Spock's eyes flew up to the ceiling.

"Captain. Look out." The next thing Kirk knew, he was on the floor again with Spock's body flat on top. He just managed to see part of the supporting wall of the corridor start to fall, when Spock placed his hand roughly on his neck and forced Kirk's head into a warm shoulder.

Something landed on Spock's back and breath expelled against Kirk's cheek with a whoosh.  Blinking rapidly to clear his eyes from the shifting particles that filled the air, Kirk brought one hand up only to have something hot and wet flow against his cheek. As vision cleared, the warm and heavy weight that was Spock carefully removed itself along with chunks of heavy masonry. Looking down, he found his hand smeared with green.

Spock reached down to grasp his upper arms and helped Kirk to his feet, and he found himself standing upright staring into the Vulcan's worried face. Just then the corridor filled with people, all talking at once, and trying to reach the scene of the explosion.

A red shirt appeared through the haze, stumbling from the direction of the destroyed room.  "Captain? You all right?"

"Farrell? That you?"

"Yes, sir."

The guard was bleeding from a slight cut on the side of his head, but otherwise appeared shaken but unharmed. "We're fine. You?"

"I'm okay, sir."

"Good. Where's Johnson?"

"Here, sir," the second guard answered, fighting to get through the crowd.

"Farrell, get in there. See what you can find out. Let only medical personnel in. Johnson, guard those doors. I'll send you down some help." The sharply barked orders had their effect and both men straightened, the apprehensive looks disappearing from their faces. They turned to their posts, Spock following their departure with his eyes. As he turned, Kirk saw the tear in the shoulder of the blue uniform and the dark green spreading stain that matched his hands. Warm, hot blood. Hot body pressed close. Warm breath against his neck. "We're getting out of here."

With one hand on the Vulcan's arm Kirk led him past the increasing crowd to a relatively isolated area and had the ship beam them up.

Once aboard, he issued a multitude of orders including one sending Spock to Sickbay over the Vulcan's strenuous objection that he was quite 'functional.'

Within twenty minutes he had the preliminary reports from the two squads of security people he'd sent down. Foulard, Clease, Administrator Pleska, and forty-three others were dead, including all of the ruling council but Vice-Administrator Tor, killed outright by some sort of anti-personnel device.  Science and security teams were scouring the room now for traces to identify exactly what was used. He placed Tor, who had been slightly wounded but seemed able to remain calm, in control of the civilian population.

Then Kirk headed down to Sickbay. When he entered, Spock was sitting on the diagnostic bed stripped to the waist. McCoy was attending to a small wound in his shoulder with a laser sealer.

"You all right, Captain?" The doctor looked pointedly at Kirk's face and hands.

Only then did Kirk realize he hadn't washed off Spock's blood. The stains had darkened to black smears, and he was surprised to see that dry, it was difficult to tell the difference between red Human blood and green Vulcan blood. Vulcan  blood...hot,  green, warm and  pulsing against his face. Spock's hot blood.  Spock's hot body. He shook himself slightly. "Yes, I'm perfectly all right. How is he?"

Spock peered over his shoulder. "As I previously informed you, Captain, I am undamaged. The-"

"I didn't ask you, Lieutenant," Kirk said coldly.

Spock gazed at him for a moment, then his eyes slid away to focus on the wall straight ahead.

"It looks worse than it is. There won't be any permanent damage, but he should rest for a day or so," McCoy said, as he finished up. He handed the Vulcan's torn shirt back to him and helped him into it. "Perhaps, I should look you over." He glanced at Kirk. "Couldn't hurt."

"I said I'm fine.  Can he leave?"

McCoy shrugged. "Yes."

Kirk turned to Spock. "You're relieved of duty for forty-eight hours. I'll speak with you later."

Spock avoided looking at him. "Yes, sir," he said, voice neutral, and left.

"Let's go in your office," Kirk said when he and the doctor were alone.

As the door to the CMO's office closed, McCoy walked to his desk, opened the bottom drawer and pulled out a bottle and glass. "Drink, Captain?" he offered with a small smile.  "You look like you could use one."

Kirk eased himself into the other available chair. "No, and you're not going to have one either."

The affable grin faded. McCoy placed the bottle and glass away, and sat. "What can I do for you, Captain?"

"Exactly how sick is Mister Mitchell?"

"Exactly what I told you. Rigellian flu. I gave him something to alleviate the symptoms. He should be feeling better."

"How hard is it to . . . counterfeit those symptoms?"

McCoy blinked, then understanding lit the watery blue eyes. "Not too difficult. There are plenty of drugs that induce vomiting, and raise blood pressure and temperature slightly. But I don't think he was faking it, if that's what you mean. Looked like the real thing to me."

Kirk nodded. "I'll accept that for now. I could use him back on duty. Any problems with that?"

McCoy hesitated briefly. " . . . Not really. It'd be better if he took it easy for a day or so, but the medication I gave him should keep the symptoms under control."

Kirk inclined his head toward the closed door. "Spock tell you what happened down there?"

"About the explosion. Yes."

"Anything else? Anything before the explosion . . . or after?"

The doctor shrugged. "No. He's not exactly a fountain of information now, is he?"

"No. Before the explosion the Vegans treated us to lunch and for dessert, presented an execution a la mode. The last of the captured rebels."

"Jezus."

"I thought he was going to pass out for a minute. His hands sort of clutched at his head . . . like he was in pain, and he just . . . collapsed."

"Well, he's pretty young and inexperienced. That kind of thing would shake up anybody."

"He's no coward."

McCoy gave him a strange look. "I didn't say he was. I just said-"

Kirk rose abruptly. The memory of Spock's body pressed hot and hard against him, the protective way he had pulled Kirk's head against his shoulder, was suddenly tangible, sharp and clear as a holo. "He's no coward," he repeated harshly and gestured at the blood on his hands. "Look, do you have something to take this off?

McCoy got him a wet towel, watched while Kirk scrubbed hard at the persistent stains, then swiped at his face. Casually, the doctor perched on the corner of the desk. "Just what is it you're asking me, Captain?"

"Did you pick up anything when you did your exam?" He wiped some more at the dark smears.

McCoy shook his head. "Nothing there to pick up. At least not now. Other than the shoulder, he's fine."

Kirk handed the towel back, and sat down. Folding his hands across his chest, he looked up at the older man. "Good. Now you're going to sit down in your chair, you're going to put that computer of yours to work, and you're going to tell me everything there is to know about Vulcans."

* * * * *

Two days later they had gained some knowledge about the explosion, but none as to who was responsible. Kirk had instructed Mitchell to take charge of the investigation on the planet, and between the two of them certain things became clear. The analysis of the bomb scene revealed the explosion occurred almost directly where the landing party had been standing.

Farrell reported he had attempted to follow Kirk and Spock from the room. He assumed Johnson to be behind him. The young guard concurred with Farrell's report. They owed their lives to the fact that they were not where they had been standing only moments before.

Verifier scans were being carried out on all persons with access to the room during the last week. That had turned up exactly zero information so far, and when traces of the explosive were finally analyzed, they knew why. The explosive used was DTM, dioxide trymigulite. Only a small amount was needed, an amount a man could carry in his pocket without it being obvious. What made it perfect for this occasion, it was colorless, odorless, difficult to pick up on a tricorder scan, and could be placed and set up to a week in advance of its intended use. And detonated from a safe distance.

The only problem with it was that it was difficult to obtain the needed chemicals and hard to make.

Difficult, not impossible.

Tor was proving to be an able administrator, and cooperated fully with the investigation. He seemed eager to have the whole thing solved and Kirk and company on their way, more embarrassed by the incident than anything else. Kirk had, of course, had the man's background meticulously checked, until he felt he probably knew the vice-administrator better than the man knew himself, but no ties showed up between him and the former rebels. With the ruling council all dead, Tor was the perfect suspect, but there was nothing unfortunate in his background . . . and Kirk had looked.

Near as they could figure out, it was some faction of the former rebellion. Had to be. They were tracking down leads but so far there was nothing promising.

During the whole time that irritation at the back of Kirk's mind wouldn't stop itching, and toward the second evening of Spock's enforced relief from duty, he decided to scratch.

When the Vulcan entered his quarters in response to his summons, Kirk had him sit in front of the desk. It reminded him of their first meeting, and for just a moment, he thought about whether he knew anything more about the alien seated there now than he knew then. "'They didn't know,' you said. What did you mean by that?"

Spock didn't pretend to misunderstand. "When the prisoners were led into the banquet room, they had no idea they were to be killed. Vulcans are touch telepaths, Captain, but at the collective realization of their deaths, their psychic emanations overwhelmed me although we were not directly in physical contact. I had no opportunity to reinforce my mental barriers. It temporarily overcame me. I regret if my momentary lapse embarrassed you."

"It probably saved both our lives."

"That had occurred to me."

"I wondered why you seemed to be able to handle the aftermath of the bombing so well. By that time you had . . . 'reinforced your barriers'?"

"Affirmative, Captain."

"Then when we ... when you landed on top of me, you didn't ... You weren't ...."

"Reading your mind? No, Captain. Under usual circumstances only vague emotional states and general physical condition can be determined by casual touch. It is avoided by my people. You refer to the mind meld. A different thing entirely."

Could that be a note of wistfulness he heard in the quiet voice? The references he and McCoy reviewed together were almost purposefully vague. Kirk had a bad moment or two before he'd understood the passage. The thought that somehow Spock had read his mind when they had touched .... Not that he'd been aware of any 'odd' thoughts-that unnaturally hot body pressing against him-but to be that intimately 'known' to anyone ....

"How is it different?"

Spock looked down at the deck. "The mind meld is a deeply personal thing among my people. A lowering of mental barriers."

"That sounds uncomfortable."

When glossy cap of hair rose, Kirk looked into eyes gleaming with an intensity that fixed him to his chair like a butterfly pinned to a mounting board.

"I assure you, sir, it is not. It is a joining far more intimate than mere sexual intercourse. Among T'hy-" Spock's throat ducked up and down in a convulsive swallow. "Among those who share a congruence of minds, it allows for perfect understanding. A unity of souls. In the legends, it is even reputed that the life-force of the All can be channeled from one being to another through the meld."

A long elegant hand lifted from the Vulcan's lap, trembled for the briefest moment, then fingers spread, extended toward him.

"One touches the other ...."

Even though they were separated by several feet of space, Kirk could have sworn he felt the long fingers land with whisper softness and soothing warmth against his forehead, cheek and jaw. Phantom tingles coursed through the nerves of his face. He jerked his head away, and the sensation vanished.

At the same moment, Spock's eyes cleared back to their normal appearance. The Vulcan studied his outstretched hand as if uncertain it truly belonged to him, then fingers clenched into a fist and lowered to his lap.

Torn between anger and curiosity, Kirk wavered for a moment, but the abject yearning on Spock's face, the open vulnerability, tipped the balance and curiosity won out. "But how does it feel?"

Spock blinked. "It is not discussed, and I do not know from personal experience. Other than ritual occasions, there has been no one willing to so join with me."

The statement brought another unaccustomed pang of pity. Kirk thrust it aside. Rising abruptly he rose and began pacing the cabin. He always thought better on his feet. Spock's eyes followed his movements.

Halfway through his third trip to the door, Kirk whirled. "Why did you do it?"

"Sir?"

"Save my life down there," he accused.

Spock's head tilted slightly to one side. "I assumed you were not aware of the weakened ceiling beam, Captain, and therefore-"

"Don't tell me you just put your own life at risk to save mine for no reason. People don't do that. What did you hope to gain out of it? Promotion? Did you think with Foulard and Clease dead I'd make you head of the science department? Is that what you want?"

Spock looked up at him, eyes wide and startled. "I assure you, sir, I had no ulterior motive for my actions. I am content with my present duties."

"I pay people to protect me. That's what personal guards are for."

Folding his hands in his lap, Spock studied them intently. "Is it not also a thing one friend does for another?" he said softly.

"I have no friends." Regarding the bowed head, he added, "Look at me." When Spock raised his eyes in response, Kirk repeated, "I don't have any friends. I don't need them. I don't want them."

"But surely Mister Mitchell or Doctor McCoy-"

Kirk laughed, but it was a bitter sound. "Mitch? Mitch'd sell his sister if he had one, and as for that old sot of a doctor..." He drew a deep breath. "Look, friends mean responsibilities.  Responsibilities I don't want, and can't afford. Understand?"

Spock gazed at him serenely. "I understand perfectly, sir," he said in a flat, unemotional tone. "You also have never had a friend."

Kirk chose to ignore the personal remark. "I also don't want to be beholden to anyone. It puts me in a situation I don't have any control over." Damn. Why is the kid making this so hard? He wasn't used to feeling guilty and it made him angry.

Purposefully, he calmed himself, forcing tense muscles to relax as he sat down behind his desk. "So, I am going to promote you. That'll clear up what I owe you, and it does appear I am in need of a chief science officer at the moment. I assume you attended the VSA?" If there was anything that was known about Vulcans, it was that the Vulcan Science Academy graduated the best scientific minds in the galaxy. It was one of the major reasons the Empire wanted to absorb Vulcan. To have those brilliant minds under firm control.

If he hadn't been looking directly at him he wouldn't have noticed. There was no change of expression on the calm countenance, but something flared in sable eyes then was immediately extinguished. "No."

That surprised him. "But with your knowledge of science and computers .... Where did you learn so much?"

"I read. I studied. On my own. My grandmother did not believe it . . . suitable . . . for the heir of our clan to involve himself in other than clan business and leadership pursuits. When I came to reside under her . . . protection, my formal education ceased. She disapproved of the lenient manner in which I had previously been reared. T'Pau did not approve of my father's bonding."

And now was that a hint of bitterness he detected in the dry response? "And your parents? What did they have to say about it?"

"My . . . mother died in an aircar accident when I was eight standard years old. My father left Vulcan soon after. I have not heard from him for many seasons. The parental bond has . . . weakened over time.  I do not know if he is still alive.

Two plus two quite logically made four. "Your mother who taught you chess ... she was ...."

"Human."

"I see." And he did. Suddenly a lot of things made sense that hadn't before. Spock's remarks about his family . . . his clan, Kirk corrected. And his obvious pleasure at working with computers. It wasn't, as he'd first thought, an attempt to access the main computer for weapons information, but rather the opportunity to do something the Vulcan had always wanted, and been prevented from doing. Kirk knew what it was like to yearn for something. Something you had no possibility of getting. "But your grandmother cared for you?" He didn't know why he needed to know that, why he'd even asked.

Spock looked at him with the same question on his face. "If by that inquiry, you mean did she assume responsibility for my physical needs, the answer is 'yes'. However, I believe a half-breed child presented problems she found difficult to cope with. I believe I made her," one eyebrow rose ironically, " . . . uncomfortable . . . shall we say? We tended to avoid each other's company."

"It doesn't sound to me as if she respected your 'infinite diversity'. What'd you call it? IDIC?"

"The fault was not hers. I am the anomaly on Vulcan, Captain, not the rest of my race."

"Well, at least she saw you were taken care of. My mother dropped me at the state orphanage like a piece of discarded garbage when I was nine. I never knew my father. Hardly likely to know which of the many was your father when your mother is a whore."

Now why, in the name of hell, had he told Spock that. He hadn't consciously thought about his mother in years. Had spent time consciously not thinking about her. Was he trying to show Spock that he had a worse upbringing? Or was he trying to deny that they seemed to have more in common, despite the obvious monetary distinctions, than he wished to acknowledge? He sensed an isolation, a loneliness about the Vulcan that was all too reminiscent. That brought the memories just a little too close.

"If your mother wished to relieve herself of the responsibility for your welfare, it hardly seems likely she would have waited nine years to do so."

Spock was actually trying to . . . justify . . . his mother. To him. "You don't know anything about it." he growled. "I'd started to get into trouble by then . . . just some petty thievery, but I begged her . . . over and over again not to put me in that place. To keep me with her. Swore I'd be good." He took a deep breath. "She wouldn't listen," he whispered. "She wouldn't listen."

Very quietly, Spock asked, "What was she like?"

"She was .... She was ... very beautiful. She had this mass of blond curly hair and big blue eyes. And she was pale, very pale, with almost a . . . a luminescent quality. I remember the last time I saw her . . . when she brought me to the state orphanage. Her face was so pale, just these two spots," he gestured to his own face, "of bright rose color high on her cheekbones. She waved good-bye to me at the door. She had this white silk handkerchief she always kept with her. Pristine white silk handkerchief." He glanced at the Spock's intent face. "Funny affectation for a whore to have, don't you think? A white silk handkerchief? Like she was some kind of a . . . lady." He looked down at the desk. "I was so angry at her, I turned and walked through the doors of the orphanage, and never looked back. That was the last time I ever saw her." Kirk dragged himself up from the abyss of memory and found he had to raise his eyes to meet the ones searching his face. "I didn't even say good-bye."

"Did you ever find out what happened to her?"

"When I was old enough I tried to find her but she had disappeared. Long ago. Long before I was grown."

"I believe she might have died soon after she placed you in the institution."

"What? What the hell do you know about it?"

"I have been making a study of your Earth history. Did you not live in crowded conditions near the capital city, Captain? Among many people?"

"How the hell do you know that?"

"I have been familiarizing myself with the computer records, Captain, including those of ship's personnel." The rising anger must have been obvious on his face because the Vulcan hastily continued. "The information is not classified, sir."

Kirk nodded, but maintained the steady glare. "Yes, but ...."

"I believe that the area where you were raised would have been referred to as a 'ghetto'?"

Kirk nodded again.

"There was an old style disease, now fortunately obliterated, that arose periodically from time to time under conditions similar to those described. Tuberculosis, if memory serves correctly. Victims often looked extremely pale, with a bright flush high on the cheekbones."

"You're crazy."

"And, Captain, since one of the symptoms of the last stage involved the coughing up of blood, they often carried an article of clothing to absorb the bleeding and to avoid spreading the disease."

Kirk's mouth fell open. "A handkerchief?"

Spock inclined his head in a slight nod. "The last such occurrence of the disease on Earth was twenty-five standard years ago."

"You mean she put me in the orphanage because she knew she was dying . . . not because she didn't want me?"

"I believe it to be an alternative theory worthy of consideration."

'Worthy of consideration. ' "I see." He picked up several tapes on his desk, studying their titles with care. "I'm assigning you to second watch bridge duty, Mister Spock. You can begin your new responsibilities tomorrow." He moved the tapes out of his way, and turned on the computer. "You're dismissed."

"But-"

"You were wrong before. You'll be happy to know I did find a friend at the orphanage. An older boy named Jonathan took me under his wing." Spock stared at him intently, but remained silent.

"I was alone and scared. I trusted him. I trusted him right up until the day a week later when he raped me. Continued to do it, too, until I was big enough and strong enough to make him stop."

"Captain-"

"Actually, I owe both my mother and Jonathan quite a great deal. If it weren't for them I doubt I would be a starship captain today. I promised myself then that never again would I be so powerless. So helpless."

He tipped back his head and fixed the Vulcan with a penetrating stare. "And Mister Spock?"

"Sir?"

"I never have been. Now if there's any fucking to be done, I make sure I'm the one doing it." He looked back at the computer. "It's quite late. We both have duties to perform in the morning. You are dismissed, Mister Spock."

"Captain-"

"Dismissed."

Slowly the Vulcan rose, bewilderment obvious, and without another word, left.

Kirk shut off the blank screen. 'An alternative theory worthy of consideration.' Christ. What had he expected? Proof of some sort? There wasn't any. He knew. He had scoured the records for any word of her, but evidently the Empire didn't concern itself with the fate of common prostitutes, and he'd stopped believing in Santa Claus that night on the cold, wet floor of the orphanage shower room twenty-­five years ago.

For just a moment the strong scent of disinfectant filled the room. A cold wave of air raised goose bumps, and he wrapped his arms across his chest. Seconds later, the disturbing sensations vanished.

A sigh escaped. The kid was just trying to make him feel good. He should have known better.

Kirk shook his head in amazement. He'd almost let himself feel again. Care again. He'd exposed more of himself in the last half-hour than in years. The kid should be marked with a label . . ."Warning: This naive being could be hazardous to your mental health."

Suddenly, another thought occurred. Just how young was Spock? The medical records he'd reviewed with McCoy gave his age as twenty Vulcan seasons. That fit, but exactly how long was a Vulcan season?

"Computer."

"Working. "

Calling up Spock's personnel file, he split the screen into two parts. "Correlate this date from Vulcan to Standard: The twentieth day of the Vulcan month of Tasmeen. Year: eight thousand, eight hundred, seventy by the Vulcan calendar. How long ago was that in Standard years?"

When the answer appeared on his screen, he impatiently wiped it, asking the question again with meticulous care. The same answer came back.

Stunned, he sat back in his chair, staring at the screen in open-mouthed amazement. Then he began to laugh. Oh, he was so much older than the Vulcan. Four whole days older. There it was on the screen. No mistake. They were both thirty-four years old.

Why had he persisted in thinking Spock was just a kid? Well, there was that fact that in terms of a Vulcan's life span, he was exactly that. With two hundred and fifty years to live, thirty-four put him at the very beginning of his life. But still. . . Kirk sobered, the grin erased from his face as he contemplated the information. Christ. What a fool he d been Yes, Spock was young. And no, he wasn't that young. Thirty-four years was still thirty-four years of life, of living. No one was that innocent. That naive. Not in this universe. Not even on Vulcan. Maybe in some other time, some other place it was possible, but nobody lived for thirty-four years that unsullied, that god dammed . . . pure. Nobody.

Was he a plant? Had someone somewhere researched his psyche file so thoroughly they knew he would be susceptible to . . . what? To seeing something in Spock he vaguely recognized in himself a long time ago? And responding. And he had responded to Spock. He could admit that now. There was a quality of . . . goodness? . . . about Spock that drew him in. It had to be feigned. Didn't it?

Yes, of course. And the purpose? So that at some later time, he d react in a certain conditioned way. Do something for Spock? Something he'd never do under ordinary conditions? Something that would make himself powerless . . . helpless. Fucked.

It seemed he still believed in Santa Claus after all.

"Computer, off," Kirk said savagely.

But he'd tumbled to it. Caught it before it had gone too far.

So why did he feel so betrayed?

That night he dreamed. Thrust into some alternate reality where the night was a bright silk screen of white handkerchief against which dark splotches exploded into star-burst fireworks.

He could not tell if they were red or green.

* * * * *

Two more days were spent fruitlessly. All leads petered out in dead ends, and they were no closer to finding out who had ordered or carried out the explosion. Kirk was prepared to sit in orbit forever, but halfway through the second day he received orders, again from Komack, that the Enterprise was to proceed to an area near the Neutral Zone. It seems the Hood had run into problems with encroaching Klingons, and incurred damage to her warp engines. The Lexington and the Enterprise were being sent in relief.

Kirk informed Tor that he would be back, and there had better be some results awaiting him at his return. As he watched Vega recede into the distance, the hairs rose on the back of his neck. He'd never liked leaving mysteries unsolved, especially those that had almost cost him his life. In addition, he had the strangest feeling he'd overlooked something. Something quite obvious, if he could only remember.

Finally he chalked it up to stress and the fatigue of working nineteen hour days. Twelve hours from their appointed rendezvous with the Hood, their orders were changed again. It seemed there was less damage than had originally been thought. The Lexington would assist and take over the Hood's normal patrol route. The Enterprise was released for R & R. And not just any R & R. but R & R on Wrigley's. The answer to every tired spaceman's dream. The final results on T-1/M had just come in. Not only was there a large dilithium lode, virtually the entire planet, but two additional planets in the system were also rich with the stuff. It might turn out to be richer in the precious mineral than the whole Corridan system annexed just two years ago, and with none of the concomitant headaches as it was unpopulated. Wrigley's was deemed a just reward. Kirk agreed. Maybe shore leave would make the insistent uneasiness disappear.

* * * * *

Kirk directed the sonic beam to the back of his neck, letting the vibrations pulsate along bunched muscles, easing the tension in shoulders and upper back. Languidly, he stretched and twisted under the energy flow, willing the vague sense of melancholy to dissipate along with the aches.

Well, shore leave on Wrigley's would surely cure what ailed him. It was only that he'd been in space too long, hadn't gotten laid in too long, that was causing that undefined yearning in his gut, that hollow emptiness. And this leave he'd stay out of the whorehouses for which Wrigley's was justly famous. He was getting tired of catting around anyway.

This time, he and the desirable Lawlor would spend two whole weeks in one of The Strip's better hotels. At least that would be something different, a whole shore leave spent with one woman. They would fuck their brains out and by leave's end, he'd be ready to get back to work. Yes, Wrigley was just what he needed to set him straight.

The auction tonight, and Wrigley's tomorrow. He was looking forward to it. The auction was always fun. Traditionally, all of the new crewmembers taken on since the last leave were ‘auctioned' off, promised to spend at least the first evening with the person who bid the highest amount for the privilege. What they did after that was their own business. The credits collected went into the ship's fund for parties. It allowed the crew to blow off some steam, provided some laughs, and was good for morale. In addition, Kirk found it avoided problems with the natives, at least for the first night of leave.

Now he was glad he'd not found time to approach Lawlor before tonight. After the auction, he'd tell her his plans.  A smile stole over his face.  That small bit of indecision was good for her, kept her unbalanced. By the time the auction was over, she'd fall into his lap. Hell, what was he worried about? She'd given him enough hints over the past three weeks that she was hot for him. Or was it the braid on his uniform she was hot for?

Kirk shrugged and smiled again. Shit. What does it matter? It wasn't that he wanted her to fall for him or anything. Or that he was . . . lonely. Anyway it wasn't loneliness that caused problems, he reminded himself, it was the caring about someone that complicated one's life.  He shook his head. Thoughts like those just reminded him how badly he needed leave, how much the events on Vega had disturbed him. Some good uncomplicated fucking. The solution to all problems.

He slipped into his robe and was just entering the bedroom when he heard voices and what sounded suspiciously like sounds of a struggle in the corridor.

When he opened the cabin door, he saw several men, most in the red-shirted garb of security, gathered at the entrance to the Vulcan's room. Totally occupied by what was occurring inside, they failed to notice Kirk's approach. Peering around and past the husky bodies, Kirk managed to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

Phillips, a huge red-shirt he knew was on Mitchell's personal payroll, had one large arm wrapped around the Vulcan's neck from behind in a choke hold that looked to be strong enough to cut off Spock's air. Another man he couldn't readily identify was snapping a pair of manacles around the thin wrists. His first officer was standing, arms folded contentedly across his chest watching the scene with obvious enjoyment.

What was it with Spock? The kid . . . the man, Kirk hastily corrected himself, always seemed to be at the center of something unpleasant. "What the hell is going on here?" Kirk asked softly.

The guards blocking the door started and moved away slightly. Up and down the hall, doors began to open as several of the senior officers entered the corridor.

What had he interrupted? The beginnings of a gang bang?

"You men are dismissed," he ordered, entering the room.

The door whooshed shut behind him. Vaguely, Kirk had the impression of stepping into the warmth of a red-shadowed cave. The smell of a sweet substance, incense maybe, wafted lazily through the room, dimming the light even further.

He turned his attention back to Spock. The guards had managed to snap to attention without releasing him. The Vulcan stood between them now, hands manacled in front, hair disturbed from its sleek perfection in tousled disorder.

Spock hadn't let himself be manacled easily. Both of the beefy guards showed signs of a struggle in the disarray of their uniforms, and Phillips sported a cut lip. No, he was no coward. The thought brought an inward smile, and he was surprised to find pleasure in the sight of the red blood staining the front of Phillips' uniform.

"Gary, do you mind telling me what's going on here?"

"The auction, Captain. Mister Spock is a little reluctant to attend. We were explaining to him why his presence is . . . ah, mandatory." Cool gray eyes appraised him. "It is traditional, Captain." Something in those eyes and the lazy smile showed Kirk Mitchell hadn't forgotten or forgiven the incident in the rec room. "Or do you intend to change the rules? Sir."

Why hadn't it occurred to him? Of course, Spock as a new crewperson was expected to participate in the auction. He looked back into Spock's face. The shuttered expression gave nothing away, but it seemed Spock was studying him, gauging his response, looking for something . . .

I've paid you back. Don't owe you a thing. 'Don't want any friends. '

He turned back to his first, but the words he said were meant for Spock. "The rules stand, Mister Mitchell. Carry on."

A delighted grin spread itself over Gary's face, and he gave a nod that sent the guards and Spock out into the corridor. Mitchell started to go after them, when Kirk's arm whipped out to halt his progress. He waited until the door had closed leaving them alone. "No rough stuff, Gary. I won't stand for it," Kirk said softly.

Mitchell shot him what Kirk had come to recognize as his predator's smile. "No rough stuff, Jim. I promise. See you later?"

Kirk nodded absently, and watched as Mitchell left. Surely someone would tell Spock the auction was just in fun. Wouldn't they?

Some last minute paperwork that he wanted to clear up before leave kept the captain in his office longer than he'd anticipated, so the auction was in full swing by the time he made his way down to the large rec deck on level six.

The tables set up before the stage were already filled with happy crew, and judging by the level of noise and friendly shouting matches going on, most had already gotten a head start on the serious drinking they were going to do on their leave.

While he was scanning the crowd, a waving arm attracted his attention. The arm was attached to his first officer, and indicated Gary had saved him a seat. Since the room was rapidly filling up, Kirk figured he had better take one while he could get it.

A blushing little brown-haired ensign from maintenance was on the stage. Chief engineer Montgomery Scott was, as usual, acting as auctioneer, and was, as usual, doing a good job. The sly winks, bad puns, and double-entendres, all delivered in the broad Celtic accent Scotty dragged out especially for the occasion, had the crowd roaring with laughter.

"Laddies, I'm ashamed o' ye. Forty-five credits? That's the best ye can do? For so purty a lass as yon Ensign Doran? Why the bloom on her cheeks is worth twice that."

"Then you bid for her, Scotty." someone called out. The crowd laughed.

"Aye, and I would, too, but she's just a mite too old for me, lad." He winked at the girl, then put his hand to his mouth in a fake aside. "She wouldn't be able to keep up with me, and I'd need to purchase another one as well. So, let me hear the next bid. you there, Larson. I saw ye batting your eyes at the lass just last week. Are you going to let her get away for forty-five credits?"

The young red-shirt from security laughed. "All right, Mister Scott. If you say she's worth it . . . fifty-five credits."

"Oh, she is, lad. Rivera, yon Larson's trying to do you out of your girl. Ye going to take that sitting down, lad?" He shook his head ruefully. "Ye're not the man I thought ye were, Mister Rivera, and ye being from engineering, too. Tsk . . . tsk."

Kirk joined in the laughter.

Rivera was finally outbid by Larson, and as he went to 'claim his prize', and lead Ensign Doran off the stage and to his table, the girl was smiling, thrilled she had gone for so high a price.

A male lieutenant from sciences was next. He seemed relieved when amid much backslapping and hooting encouragement from his friends, he was 'purchased' by Uhura and a pair of men from communications.

Lawlor was next, and the cat-calls and whistles filled the room. Kirk had to admit she really was exceptionally beautiful. That mane of long blond hair set off by bright green eyes, and a captivating mouth that promised to be the answer to a man's most erotic fantasy. Kirk already had plans for that mouth, could almost feel it close around the width of his cock. Just about to bid, he was startled when a voice came from the other side of the room.

"Fifty credits."

Chekov. He sat back in his chair, and glanced at Mitchell's smiling face. "Sixty," he called out, and grinned back.

"Seventy-five." One of the young Russian's friends was pulling at his shirt, but the ensign ignored him, eyes firmly fixed on the woman on the stage.

"Eighty-five," Kirk called. Gary broke into delighted laughter as the smile faded from Kirk's face.

"One hundred."

Finally, the man who had been trying to gain Chekov's attention yanked so hard on the Russian's arm he fell back in his seat. Kirk saw the exact moment they told him who his unseen opponent was. Even from across the room, Kirk saw the color fade from his cheeks. The crowd was whooping with applause and laughter.

Damn, this isn't funny any more. Kirk turned to Gary, his first applauding with the rest of them. "He does it once more, he's going to be cleaning out the emission valves . . . from the outside of the ship . . . without an EVA suit." Kirk rose to his feet. "One hundred fifty credits."

There was a moment's hush, but Chekov flushed and looked down at the table. The crowd broke into delighted applause. "Sold!" the chief engineer called out quickly.

As he led Lawlor from the stage and back between the tables to where Gary was sitting, she pressed close, tugged his arm down and whispered in his ear, "I'm so glad you won. I was afraid I'd have to spend the first night of my first shore leave ever with that ...."

Kirk looked down.

" . . . with that . . . ensign."

He remembered how she had responded to Chekov before he'd indicated his interest in her. "And a captain is a better catch?" he said smiling.

Deep green eyes gazed up at him through lashes that couldn't possibly be that long naturally. Could they? "This one is."

When they got back to their table she sat next to Gary, Kirk taking the next chair across from his first officer.

"Tell me, Captain, was I the highest bid of the night?"

"What?"

"You know. Did any one go for a higher bid? It's quite the topic of conversation back stage." She giggled. "Sort of feeds our feminine ego." she was talking lightly but suddenly the twinkling eyes lost their twinkle and narrowed. The answer really mattered.

"I don't know. I got here late. Mitch?"

But Mitchell didn't even hear the question. His eyes were riveted on the stage, and Kirk knew he wasn't aware of the unguarded expression on his face. What the captain saw there for just a moment was a kind of . . . hunger.

Suddenly aware of how quiet the room had become, he twisted in his chair, and somehow knew before finishing the movement what he would see.

Spock.

No longer manacled, they had stripped him down to his regulation black briefs. Someone's idea of a joke Kirk supposed. A swirling tide of anger rose and was quelled so quickly, he hardly realized he had felt it at all.

If the intention was to humiliate Spock, it failed-miserably.

Kirk took in the physical details as if seeing the Vulcan for the first time, and wondered why he'd ever thought Spock was skinny. Slim, yes. Slender. But obviously clothing, at least in Spock's case, hid much more than it revealed. The body that stood before them now was perfectly proportioned. All lean muscle stretched over long, prominent bones. Sharp planes of cheek, jaw, slanted brows.

Spock blinked then his gaze fell to the floor of the stage between his feet.

The harsh overhead lights danced on the black glossy cap of the bowed head, and highlighted the faint coppery sheen of his skin. Though the Vulcan stood perfectly still, there was an air of barely suppressed movement about him, of power kept leashed under tight and awesome control. It was there in the clenched fists, the steady rise and fall of the firmly built chest.

Long striated muscles of his shoulders flowed into lithe but powerfully built upper arms, chest, belly. A dark sprinkling of black hair on his chest drew the eye down to where it thinned to a dark line and disappeared below the top of the small briefs. The briefs themselves revealed more in tantalizing curves and recesses than they covered. Slim hips, powerfully built thighs and legs, narrow feet. Clean.  Sharply defined. And quite simply the most beautiful body, male or female, Kirk had ever seen.

It was an athlete's body, a swimmer's . . . a dancer's.

Then the tightly held fists unclenched, and Spock raised his head to fix his gaze on some far point at the back of the large room. The simple movement caught Kirk's breath, for although the sharply sculpted planes of his face revealed nothing but the blandest expression, the dark depthless pools of his eyes betrayed him. What Kirk saw there he could only begin to identify. Something hot. Something dark. Something incandescent, and powerful, and passionate.

Something animal.

A line of poetry sprang unbidden to his mind: ' Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night.'

The room slowly swam back into focus, and suddenly Kirk became aware of the unnatural quiet. Glancing around, he took in the slightly gaping mouths, the fixed expressions on almost every face, and suddenly remembered what Spock had told him about strong psychic emanations. What must the Vulcan be receiving now? Lust. Lust, pure and simple. Waves and waves of it. From men and women alike. And not a friendly face among the crowd. Kirk rose slowly to his feet.

The unnatural silence lasted half a second longer, than a shaky male voice spoke from behind him, "Seventy-five credits."

That seemed to release the spell. Voices tumbled over each other, each more strident than the last. Men's voices. Women's voices. Two and three together, singly and in groups, from all parts of the room.

"One hundred credits."

"One fifty."

"Two hundred."

"Three."

Faster and faster they came. Lust darkened their faces, lit their eyes with an unholy gleam, roughened their voices.

"Three seventy-five."

"Four hundred."

It was only when Mitchell rose beside him that Kirk realized that somehow he himself was standing, feet spread, body tensed, hands clasped into fists at his side as if in preparation for battle.

"Five."

"Six fifty."

"Eight hundred."

"One thousand credits," the first officer said in a low voice that nevertheless managed to clearly be heard.

Kirk knew that was just about all the money Gary had in his account. There was no answering bid, and looking at the first officer's face, he knew why. The usually easy-going manner was gone now, replaced by something hard and dark on his face, something anyone would think twice about crossing. Mitchell's eyes finally left the still figure on the platform and switched to find Kirk's. The two men stared at each other for a long moment, Gary's gaze challenging, daring him to intervene.

Into the deafening silence came Scott's voice. "Sold!"

Kirk maintained the stare just long enough to show he wasn't intimidated. Then he unclenched his fists and forced his body to relax back down into the chair wondering why it took so much energy to do. A slow smile spread across the handsome features. "Congratulations," he said.

Mitchell moved to the stage and held out his hand to help Spock off the platform. The Vulcan didn't acknowledge his existence. With a feline grace, he leapt down, lightly landing without a sound on the balls of his feet; The tiger released. Eyes straight ahead, head up, he stalked with unhurried elegance past the first officer, past the still lustful, now resentful, faces the entire length of the silent rec room, and through the far doors which whooshed quietly shut after him.

Kirk's grin widened. Courage. Dignity. Grace forged in fire.

It was a moment before he became aware that Lawlor was talking " . . . don't see what all the fuss is about. He's the coldest man I ever met."

Kirk turned to her, realized he had forgotten the woman's presence, and watched as her pale delicate beauty faded before his eyes, cast into shadow by a burning brightness that was no longer even in the room.

* * * * *

" . . . and then the little greeb just burst into tears. We all got hysterical laughing, of course. I mean, she had been struggling with those stupid equations for three days. We were all just waiting for the dam to burst, and then he opened the door to his office. The man must have ears like a cat, don't you think, to have heard that from all the way across the room? It's creepy the way he hears things, and he moves so quietly.... He can sneak up behind you before you even know he's there. Well, anyway . . . "

Kirk was only half tuned-in to the girl's incessant babble. She'd been going on and on since they'd beamed down to Wrigley's capitol city, Desire, twenty minutes before. He hadn't really minded.  It passed the time as they walked to the restaurant.

Wrigley's was wide open and tightly controlled all at the same time. All ship-to-shore transports were handled at a few select spots scattered strategically throughout the city, enabling the planetary administrators to keep careful account of just who went where. A force field was kept in place over the rest of the area. No one was allowed to carry phasers or other weapons, but the knife hidden in the secret pocket of his boot passed the scans. He wouldn't have given it up anyway. Would have felt naked without it.

Other than those restrictions, one could do pretty much as one liked. They were places that catered to every pleasure, every perversion the flesh was heir to, including some that had to be the result of fevered dreams, and some that had to be the result of delusional fantasies. Places that made Wrigley's Pleasure Planet the premier spot for shore leave in the known galaxy.

There were areas to avoid, of course, as there were on any planet, but staying out of them presented no hardship. There were too many enticements elsewhere. The rest of the city was perfectly safe. So safe, in fact, that he'd even given his personal guards two weeks leave knowing it would pay off in increased efficiency later.

The walk to the restaurant he'd selected was a little longer than was convenient, but even though they would have probably stretched the rules for him, and beamed them directly there, Kirk hadn't asked for it. This time he wanted to fade into the background, be just any weary spacer on leave.

Besides, the route he took put them on the promenade by the beach, and it had been a long time since he'd smelled the sharp tang of ocean air. Wrigley's two moons were just making their nightly appearance over the horizon.

He turned to look at the woman by his side, arm tucked into his so that the soft swell of her breast brushed him as they walked. She looked damned appealing in a silvery-blue concoction that shimmered and flowed around her highlighting every curve. He'd chosen to wear his dress bolero, knowing the tight lamé accented his coloring and allowed enough skin to show. He was proud to be seen with her, and saw the same reflected in her eyes.

But could she talk. Of course, he'd hadn't picked her for her scintillating conversation. Not that they'd get the chance to do much more of that. Hell, they might even get to the beach. The second week.

" . . . her into the office and closed the door. Well, we all crowded around trying to hear, you know? Couldn't make out a single word. Just a low droning monotone. God, the man is boring, and then he-"

"Who?"

"Huh?"

"Who's boring?" Not that he was really interested.

"You haven't heard a word I've said," she accused him, then smiled prettily. "Why, Mister Spock, silly. Who do think I've been talking about?"

Kirk groaned. Spock. Again. The last thing, the very last thing he wanted to think about on this leave was Spock. The man kept cropping up everywhere.

Lawlor gave him a strange look.

"Do we have to talk about Mister Spock?"

"Wait. You haven't heard the rest. Well, anyway, five minutes later, out comes the greeb and-"

'Who?"

"The greeb. Ensign Sung. Like the animal from Corda Two that's scared of its own shadow? That's what we all call her, 'cause she's such a timid thing. Well, out she comes, and she's positively beaming. I think she's half-way in love with the man. Anyway, we were making jokes that the only thing that could put that smile on a woman's face was if she d gotten laid, but five minutes isn't enough time, especially for someone as repressed as he is. I'll bet it takes him five minutes just to open the seam on his pants, and-"

"Stop it."

"What?"

"Stop it, I said. Don't criticize my officers."

A pout crossed the perfect features, and suddenly Kirk noticed Lawlor's breast wasn't quite pressing into the side of his arm any more. "Look, do we have to discuss this? We're on R and R. Let's just leave ship's business behind us tonight, okay?"

The breast moved back. she smiled coquettishly up at him, and they walked on. "Poor, over­worked, captain. You really do need a rest, don't you?" she cooed.

He shot her his best seductive grin. "Sure do, but rest is the last thing on my mind."

She giggled. "He's just so annoying. Do you know he had the nerve to bawl me out? Said I was late coming back from lunch -‘I believe the work period recommences at thirteen hundred hours, Ms. Lawlor'- the man's insufferable."

"Were you?"

"Was I what?"

"Late."

"Well, . . . yeah, but only ten minutes. I mean, really-"

Kirk was saved from a reply as they were finally at the restaurant. Quickly he opened the door and ushered her inside.

And then he wanted to turn around and go right back out again. There talking quietly to the maître de was Gary. He turned to Lawlor, but it was already too late.

"Look, there's Gary. I mean, Mister Mitchell."

As Lawlor quickly joined his first officer, Kirk was left standing by the door. Gary's head bent to the lighter blond one and whispered something to her that made her laugh. They both turned to him, and Lawlor returned to reach for his hand with both of hers. She tugged him forward playfully.

"We could go somewhere else."

"Don't be silly. You told me the food's wonderful here, and Ga . . . Mister Mitchell just said the show's about to start. They have Orion dancers. I've never seen them. Come on. Please?" Green eyes glittered with promise and a strange excitement. "It'll be fun, and we won't stay long if you don't want to."

Kirk let himself be persuaded, and they followed Mitchell to one of the better tables up by the stage.

And of course there Spock sat, dressed in a deep purple veltex robe looking cool and darkly elegant, his back to the stage. Kirk nodded. Spock nodded back. Mitchell held a chair out for Lawlor, then slipped into one next to the Vulcan leaving the chair on Spock's other side for him.

Almost immediately, the houselights faded as a trio of spotlights fixed on the stage. Three portions of the floor dropped away, and when they rose again there was a living sculpture on each, tapestries of entwined flesh. Each platform held a male and female pair of dancers, only the subtle shading of various greens to show where one body left off and another began. The dancers held motionless for a long moment, then as an eerie flute like music slowly swelled and filled the silence, first hands, then arms, began to move; torsos followed, untwisted and became separate living entities. All were clad similarly in small scraps of green that barely covered the genitals and were tied with thongs rising through the crack in their buttocks to a thin band fixed around the waist. The females wore no covering on top and their large dark-green breasts were highlighted with red make-up around prominent nipples.

They began to dance.

If there were other reasons for Orion dancers besides arousing sexual appetites, Kirk didn't know what they were, and he had to admit these performers were superb at what they did. The males controlled their non-sentient females expertly with small, barely perceived motions of eye and hand, so it appeared they were responding to the males' choreographed erotic actions rather than to carefully rehearsed rote training.

What followed was every type of male-to-male, male-to female, and female-to-female coupling imaginable, all set to music that swelled and ebbed and throbbed with sexual tension.

As the music built to a climax, the stage lights began to flicker in various hues of green and yellow and hot red, casting a sulphurous shifting aura of sensuality over the scene.

Kirk glanced at Spock, but if there were some sign of embarrassment on the calm features he couldn't catch it in the rapidly changing light. Were Spock's eartips that pale green of new spring grass that he had seen in the rec room that night, or would the Vulcan finally tacitly admit to sexual experience Kirk knew the other surely must have had by his age?

Kirk shifted his gaze to Gary, immediately taking in the avid predatory gleam in the gray eyes glued to Spock's back.

When Kirk turned back to the stage, it was just in time to see the tallest Orion male give a slight hand signal to one of the females. Immediately responding, she lightly jumped from the platform, bringing a following spotlight with her.

As she approached their table, Kirk whirled to face his first officer again. This time Mitchell met his gaze head-on, a smile breaking out on the handsome features. And Kirk knew why Mitchell had been talking to the maître de.

When it was clear the Orion was headed for their table, Spock turned back-to face the others, face expressionless, eyes meeting Mitchell's. Within seconds she was there, arms entwined about Spock's neck from behind, lips nibbling at one pointed ear. A low growl of pleasure came from green-painted lips as her heavy breasts fell, one on each of Spock's shoulders. Sinuously she rubbed against him, breasts moving against a slender neck. Green against green. Dark against pale.

On the stage the show continued, the music getting louder and faster. As the five bodies drew together and meshed into one orgasmic mass, the female's tempo increased so that she perfectly matched the others' movements.

A few titters broke out among the audience, and it was obvious that now the Vulcan, as well as the show on the stage, was a center of attention. Spock appeared frozen in his seat, a statue trapped by soft flesh, until one of the female's hands reached down into his lap and closed over his genitals, rubbing and squeezing to the music's rapid throb.

On the stage, amid the strobing vary-colored lights, the music built to a crescendo.

Gently disengaging the squeezing hand, Spock slowly rose. The Orion clutched at his clothing with a soft whimper.

The dancers held motionless for one long moment then the music abruptly ceased and the stage went dark. The audience burst into appreciative yells and wild applause.

Carefully, but firmly, Spock grasped the female's arms and eased himself away. Kirk watched a barely perceptible wince cross his face at the skin-to-skin contact, yet still the brown eyes shone with compassion. Some message must have been received, for the female hung her head, let go and slipped back into the darkness. Once free, Spock a step backward, turning to Kirk as he did. "You will excuse me, Captain."

Kirk steeled himself not to interfere.

"Sit down, Spock," Mitchell growled. "The show's not over yet."

Spock ignored him, and gave Lawlor a slight bow. "Ensign."

Mitchell rose. "Sit down, I said, or perhaps a session in the agony booth will remind you to obey the orders of a senior officer."

Kirk found he was standing, fists clenched at his sides. This was not his business, he reminded himself. He was not going to interfere in this.

Spock turned and without another word headed through the still cheering throng for the exit.

The veins pulsed in Mitchell's neck as he screamed out after the retreating form, "Get back here, Mister! I'll-"

"That's enough," Kirk said in the deathly low tone that spelled trouble to anyone who knew him yet carried clearly over the stomping, yelling crowd to the others at the table.

The words brought Mitchell's eyes boring into his. For a moment Kirk thought Gary would go for him, and anticipated the other's lunge with a desire that stunned him in its intensity. Then it seemed to penetrate just to whom the first officer was talking and the stiff body relaxed. A smile broke out on Mitchell's face, but Kirk noted it never reached the gray eyes. "A joke, Jim."

"What did you tell him to get him to come down here with you?"

"You're going to love this, Jim. I said I'd have him transferred to another department. Somewhere he wouldn't have access to those computers he's so crazy about."

"I won't have the efficiency of the science department compromised, Mitch."

"Hell, I know that," Gary laughed, and turned to Lawlor with a conspiratorial smile, "but Spock doesn't."

Kirk watched Lawlor's face light with an answering smile, and suddenly realized she had somehow been let in on the joke ahead of time, perhaps in that quick moment the two had shared at the entrance of the restaurant. "I'll say this only once. Lay off. Leave him alone. It stops here, and it stops now."

Both smiles faded. Lawlor seemed to realize things had gotten out of hand. "It was just a little joke," she pouted. "Gee, anyone would think you actually liked him."

Kirk ignored her. "Am I understood, Mister Mitchell?"

"Jim, you know the knight in shining armor isn't quite your style."

"Mitchell ...."

"Hell, Jim, if I thought you swung that way, I'd have made my move a long-"

"Am l understood, Mister Mitchell?"

For a long moment neither moved. Cold gray eyes glinted hard as durosteel, then blinked and lowered. Grudgingly the first officer nodded. "Yes, sir."

Kirk started to leave, then turned back to Lawlor. "Don't bother to come." He headed for the door. So much for the shore leave he had envisioned. He didn't know who he was most furious at, Mitchell, Lawlor, Spock, or himself.

When he was outside, he looked for Spock but the tall figure was nowhere in sight. Walking to the railing that separated the raised boardwalk from the beach, Kirk braced his hands, took a deep breath of cool sea-scented night air, and spotted the lean silhouette by the water's edge. He watched for a long moment, completely unaware of the emotions wafting across his own features. Passions long sent packing from a life that could ill afford such luxury. Taking his weakening heart firmly in control, he steeled himself and lightly vaulted over the railing to walk across the intervening space to where the Vulcan sat legs outstretched in the sand. Half-way there, Spock rose and turned to await his arrival.

The two moons cast a black X on the sand with Spock at the center, and Kirk paused at the point where their twin crossed shadows intersected.

"You know you really should take off your boots if you're going to sit in the sand like that."

Spock looked down at the offending footwear, clearly confused. "I should? Why?"

"Well, for one thing you'll get sand in them."

The Vulcan looked at him uncomprehendingly. "Am I to assume this is an outcome that is to be avoided?"

The man would try the patience of a saint! Kirk took a deep breath and tried again. "Look, the sand'll get in your boots. That will itch and become uncomfortable. Besides, it feels really good to wriggle your bare toes in cool sand," he explained.

"It does?"

Gracefully Spock leaned down to remove one boot. The sock followed. Gingerly the foot was placed on the sand.

"No, not like that. Wiggle it." Kirk found himself making scrunching motions with his fingers, and felt vaguely ridiculous. "Moosh the sand around between your toes."

Tentatively the Vulcan tried it. Kirk watched as the data was analyzed, categorized, computed, assimilated, and filed. "Well?"

"It is an unusual sensation. The sand, while appearing dry in actuality contains much moisture enabling it to retain a tensile shape. In addition, one can feel a distinct difference between the topmost layer of sand and the underlying cooler layers, due no doubt to the residual effects of the-"

"Christ, haven't you ever sat in the sand before?"

Spock's eyes widened in surprise. "Of course I have. Fully two-thirds of Vulcan's surface is covered by it."

"Well then-"

"You do not understand, Captain. This is beach sand, formed by the constant pressure of the sea action upon rocks carried here by various tributaries. Sand on Vulcan is formed by wind, desert air; indeed, a variety of forces acting upon volcanic material and other minerals." Spock's eyes turned to the sea. "There are no oceans on Vulcan. When he turned back to Kirk, there was a sparkle in the deep brown eyes. "In other words Captain, Vulcan sand does not 'moosh."'

Kirk grinned, then sobered quickly. "You mean you've never seen an ocean?"

Spock's gaze returned to the water. "No," and Kirk could hear the wonder in the word. "No, there is nothing like this on my planet. I have naturally learned about oceans in the course of my studies, but I have never seen one in actuality until tonight.' A convulsive swallow. A soft sigh. "It is quite remarkable, is it not?"

Kirk looked at the ocean with new eyes, wondering how it would be never to have run along a beach, built castles in damp sand, played in crashing surf until you were breathless. When he turned back to Spock, there was another meaning to his answer. "Quite remarkable."

Spock was looking at him intently. "I have been formulating a theory, Captain."   

"Yes?" Spook looked back at the gentle surf as if he couldn't stand to have his eyes off it for long. "I have been considering the possibility that perhaps a portion of Vulcan's tradition of the non-­expression of emotion stems from the scarcity of water on the planet. A drought of the soul, so to speak."

"It must rain now and then."

"Oh, yes, fully one day in each season, a season being equivalent to one point seven times a standard Earth year. At this time all living things absorb the moisture they need to live and reproduce " The unblinking gaze returned to Kirk's face. "Vulcan life forms are quite adept at making the most of the rain when it comes.

"Before the kahswan," at the look of incomprehension on Kirk's face Spock added, "the Vulcan ritual that marks the passage between childhood and adolescence, it is quite common to see very young children playing in the rain. Once, when I was young I was allowed to do just that. It was a wonderful sensation. I actually laughed aloud. When I turned to see whether I had been observed, I saw my father at the window watching me. Of course I immediately wiped all expression from my face. I prepared myself for a lecture, but he merely smiled at me and turned back into the room. It is the only time I can recall that he did so."

The admission seemed to embarrass Spock, as if he had gotten lost in the memory and for just a moment the dark head ducked then turned back to the water. Kirk turned as well. They stood for a long moment and watched the gently rolling surf's ebb and flow.

"I'm sorry for what happened back there."

"Do not concern yourself, Captain. It is of small importance."

At that Kirk turned and found the other studying him intently. "It's not of 'small importance.' Mitchell's been hassling you since you came aboard. I've told him to lay off."

"'Lay off.' If I comprehend your meaning, you have instructed Mister Mitchell to cease his attentions to me."

"You got it."

"You should not have done so, Captain."

"You can't mean you like it when he touches you, humiliates you like he did in there?"

"No, I do not. . . like. . . it," said calmly enough but a flare of a hot something in the eyes appeared and disappeared in the space of a heartbeat, "however your intervention will only serve to arouse Mister Mitchell's ire. And now it will have two targets where formerly there was only one. In addition, it will make the cooperation necessary to insure an adequate working relationship between captain and first officer difficult. It will hamper your efficiency."

"Damn my efficiency!" Kirk tried to hold on to his rapidly rising temper. "Look, you have my permission to deck him if he starts that stuff again."

That statement was also processed.

"Vulcans do not believe in violence."

"Oh, for- You can't be as naive as you sound. It's impossible!"

Spock said nothing.

"Even if it's not Mitchell, it'll be someone else. You're just going to have to learn how to deal with that. You're a damned handsome man, Spock. It'll come up again. It always does. Just handle it like you would if it happened at home."

"This set of circumstances would not have arisen on my planet."

A certain horrible suspicion suddenly occurred to Kirk. "You do know about . . . sex?"

Spock actually looked affronted. "Of course."

He breathed a sigh of relief. Finally. Communication breakthrough.

"I assure you, Captain, my education has not been neglected in any way-"

"All right then-"

"The texts were most specific on the subject of-"

"Texts? I don't believe it. That's what you know about sex? I don't fucking believe it!"

Spock drew himself up to his full height. "As a Vulcan I am incapable of Iying-"

Suddenly he was white hot with anger, furious with Spock for lying to him, furious with himself for almost believing. There the man stood, one bare foot in the sand, one hand incongruously holding a black boot and sock telling him that truth and purity actually existed when he knew they didn't!

He would force Spock to admit the duplicity. Prove to both Spock and himself he couldn't be taken in so easily!

Kirk didn't know from where the impulse sprang, but the next thing he aware of, he had thrust one hand into the hair at the nape of the neck while the other hand found the small globes of Spock's ass. Roughly he pulled the other to him, pressed their bodies together, thrust his hips forward, grinding, grinding into Spock's groin. Forcefully brought down the dark head, shoved his tongue between startled lips.

And the response came, as he knew it would, but not from Spock.

Response came from the incredible sweetness of Spock's mouth, from a warm cavern redolent with moisture, from the slick feel of even teeth, from the heat of him.

Response came from the incredible feel of Spock's buttocks pressed against his hand, from the tightness, from the roundness, from the heat of him.

Response came from the incredible touch of Spock's lax genitals pressed against his own, from the length, from the breadth, from the heat of him.

Instantly, Kirk was more aroused than he could ever remember, his cock turgid with need. He, who had never looked upon another man with desire, desired one now. Wanted nothing more than to lay Spock's slim body down on the sand, rip and tear and rend clothing until every secret of the flesh was revealed, wanted to spread lean thighs, wanted to plunder that heat and take it for his own.

And couldn't! Wouldn't let himself be the one to take innocence as it had been taken from him.

He shoved temptation incarnate away, wiped the back of his tingling mouth with one hand, took a great, gasping breath. "Christ, you are! You are a virgin!"

Spock stood in the crossed bars of his own shadow cast by the twin moons' light, mussed hair gleaming, clothing awry, lips still slightly parted in surprise, eyes wide and startled and sending out their heat.

Inexpressibly beautiful.

Paradise denied, Kirk turned and fled, the night air cold against his face as he ran. Twenty minutes later found him in front of Euphoria, his favorite whorehouse on Wrigley's quite without knowing how he had arrived there, as if his body knew what it needed even while his mind reeled in confusion.

Cock stone-hard and aching, body throbbing with want, his mind obediently fell into line. It's just that it's been too long. You're just horny, damn it. Don't make more of it than it is.

The idea that he could be drawn to a male, to Spock of all people, was ludicrous.

As he entered, an older Andorian woman separated herself from the bar that ran the length of the tastefully decorated blue and cream colored room. Her face, only slightly more pale than the walls, creased in a welcoming grin.

"Captain Kirk, how nice to ssee you. I'd heard the Enterprisse wass in town."

He'd always liked the way most Andorians spoke Empire Standard, but now the sibilant hiss only grated on raw nerves.

"Thassa."

"I've been hoping you'd drop by. I've gotten in ssome new exoticss ssince you've last honored uss with a vissit, but firsst perhapss a drink?" Shrewd orange eyes scanned up and down his body, antennae twitching in suppressed laughter. " . . . or perhapss not. Let me introduce you to-"

"Never mind." He fished out his credit chip, no small feat as his burgeoning erection almost made the pants too tight to get a hand in a pocket, and tossed it to her. She caught it expertly on the fly.

Striding across the room, he grabbed the wrist of a girl selected at random from a group gathered at the foot of the wood staircase, and took the stairs two at a time, the girl scrambling behind to keep up.

Thassa called out, "Room 2B iss available, Captain. I know that'ss your favorite." A patronizing giggle wafted up the stairs after them.

As they entered the room, the girl moved to a small table against the wall. "Would you care for a drink? I can make you anything you wish. Thassa keeps the rooms well stocked, or-"

"Get undressed."

"Perhaps a drug to enhance your pleasure? We just received a shipment of Klingon Ion, an excellent aphrodisiac." She smiled shyly. "I believe the word translates as . . . abandon."

"Just get undressed, damn it."

The smiled faded and she shrugged. Kirk got a vague impression of small, delicate features lost in a mass of dark hair before waving off the light. They both undressed in shadow, the twin moons furnishing the only illumination as they cast pale gleams through the window.

It was more than sufficient to guide their way to the bed. Kirk didn't need more than that. The woman's small breasts under his hands, the feel, the female scent of her were a road map he'd long since learned to read. And his destination lay just ahead.

Gratefully he lifted her hips and entered with one long thrust.

Wet . . . hot . . . tight . . . heaven. This was how it should be. This felt so right. So normal. He moaned his relief. In seconds he was ready to come. Rearing up over the woman's body he cupped her face in his hands, leaned over wanting to inhale the sweet fragrance of her hair as he came. Body out of control . . . thrusting, thrusting, . . . harder, deeper, . . . frantic with need . . . wanting more . . . fondled her hair . . . the shell-like curve of pointed ears . . . suddenly wanting something more than lust sated, something that had no name, something warm and gentle, strong and pure ... something .... Pointed ears! Felt his body begin to spasm, even as he gasped out, "Spock, I love you!"

More than two million years of evolution demanded he plant the seed deep, deeper, deepest; a lifetime of ceding to demands of the flesh, agreed. Only one shocked and horrified mind wouldn't allow it.

"Nooo!"

He pulled out of the warm haven still coming, and sprayed the remainder of his issue into the cool unforgiving air and over the woman's warm belly.

Stumbling backward off the bed, he bumped into the table, heard bottles crash and fall. As the lights came on, the woman sat up in the rumpled bed, and now the delicate points of her ears peeking through the tousled dark hair were clearly visible. Romulan? Vulcan ? Doesn't matter. Have to get out! Barely heard her protestations as he hastily threw his clothes on. He tossed some credits on the dresser, glanced once at the mess of spilled liquor and added some more.

A pillow slammed against the door as he left. "Crazy Human!" she yelled, the words echoing in his head long after her strident voice faded. He was very afraid she was right.

* * * * *

The bed reeked of Saurian brandy and vomit, but it was the stink of his own body that roused him. He woke to find himself alone in a strange room, in a strange bed with no memory of how he had come to be there, an empty brandy bottle clutched as tightly to his chest as a cherished lover. But it wasn't alive. It brought no comfort. And it didn't have hot dark eyes that warmed him clear through to his soul.

No, he didn't remember how he had come to be here. But he remembered why. And who. And what he had been trying so hard to forget.

He pushed the bottle away, the small movement sending crashing waves of pain echoing back and forth inside the ripe melon that had formerly been his head. Gingerly he reached shaking hands up to keep the melon on his shoulders where it belonged, and found that movement hurt worse than the first one did.

A sick roiling in a stomach that threatened to empty itself momentarily matched the slow spinning of the room, and he carefully lowered himself back down to the surface of the bed to wait for it to stop. Tightly clenched eyes and breathing through an open mouth to avoid most of the sour smell helped some, but it was still many minutes before he dared try to move again. Thankfully the room was dark. He concluded that meant it was night. Brilliant deduction. Either that or you've finally drunk yourself into blindness, Kirk.

Wearily he staggered to the room's only window and hit the panel that made the semi-opaque glass transparent. Yes, it was night. The area looked totally unfamiliar though he guessed it to be near the old section of town. Through the misty darkness tall, blank, dun-colored buildings presented their tired backs like washed up old whores. Some sort of old factory district, interspersed here and there with a few scattered shops all closed at this hour. It looked as lonely as he felt.

With a small moan he lowered himself into the one available chair and took in the details of the shabby room by the weak streetlight that penetrated the window's grime. Jeez, Kirk, you sure know how to pick yourself some deluxe accommodations. Not quite the shore leave he had planned.

His eyes returned to the window. Night. Was it several he had spent here, or only one? One long endless night. Shit! Doesn't this fucking hellhole of a planet have any days?

By the time he was able to make it to the bathroom, he was almost prepared for what he saw when he turned on the light, and wasn't disappointed. The continual drops that fell from the rusty faucet above the sink promised only a water shower, nothing so modern as sonics here, and he turned the shower tap with a vengeance. Cold, of course. Peeling off the offensive clothing with distaste while studiously avoiding the mirror proved difficult to accomplish in the small room, especially since his head still threatened to roll off his shoulders, but he managed it.

The cold water helped a bit, and by the time he emerged he was shivering but felt ready to take on the mirror. Braced on the sink on not quite steady arms, he raised his eyes. And groaned softly. Very softly.

We//, at least how you look on the outside matches how you feel on the inside, Kirk.

He closed his eyes slowly and took a deep breath before daring to open them again, this time regarding the image disgustedly. Stupid, stupid bastard, he told himself with pity. You've committed the one capital crime in the Empire. You've fallen in.... No! Features firmed in determination. He refused to give this crazy infatuation another name. It could be fought. It would be fought!

Quickly lowering his head he gulped some water to wash the taste of raw sewage from his mouth. He would not succumb to this . . . whatever this thing was with Spock. He'd see him transferred first.

There was no place in his life for this weakness. And affection for another made one weak. He knew that. Had guarded himself against it for years. Had seen it happen to others. You let yourself care and you opened yourself to pain. Made yourself vulnerable to another, not to mention to those who would use that vulnerability against you, and the person you lo . . . cared for. A moment's hesitation, a wavering of fierce concentration, and you were dead. It was a risk he was not prepared to take. Not for himself, and certainly not for Spock.

One hand came up to touch his reflection. "Love doesn't exist," he told it. "Like God, it's an opiate for the masses. You know that!" His image didn't look convinced.

Both hands rose to the surface, turned to fists that hit the glass weakly in desperation. "You're not even capable of love."

Aha . . . finally. The face in the mirror nodded back sagely as truth stared out of mocking green eyes.

Ducking his head, he splashed more water on his face. He would find a way around this. Only not now. Not now while he couldn't think straight and while he was so blasted cold! Hastily he put on his reeking garments with disgust, but there were no other clothes to wear. As he prepared to turn off the light he returned a stony glare to the disheveled image in the mirror and reminded it of the only two certainties of life.

There were few second chances in the Empire. And there was no love. No love at all.

* * * * *

Choosing a direction at random once he hit the street, it was fully ten minutes later that he thought to check his pockets. No credits. No credit chip. No phaser. No identification. Nothing but his communicator, and since one could only transport from the government controlled beam-up points located in the main area of the city, that was useless as well.

He shoved it back into a pocket, thrust hands down after it, and hunched his shoulders against the drizzling mist. At least the cold night air drove the piercing shards of agony in his head down to a sick, dull throbbing that matched the pounding of his feet on the deserted pavement. Several times he thought he heard distant noises that sounded like following footfalls, but when he stopped, they stopped as well, and he finally decided it was the echo of his own steps he was hearing. Lost in thought, he soon ceased paying them any attention.

By the time he stopped a half hour later to check his bearings, the drizzle had progressed into a light cold rain. Pausing under one of the scarce, antiquated glow-bar street-lights, he lifted his face to the lamp and watched as the silver drops passed from the darkness into the light and back into the darkness again as they shimmered past the black metal strips holding the bars in place.

Up ahead, he thought he noticed an increasing number of lights and the slight hazy brightness that indicated a more populated area of town. At last. All he wanted now was to return to the Enterprise, take a de-tox tab-or three or four-and sleep for a week. Maybe then he could figure out what he was going to do about Spock and put this whole fucking shore leave behind him.

He moved out of the circle of light and started walking again, only to stop suddenly as running feet sounded behind him. Instinct brought him quickly back to the comforting brightness and pressed shoulders to the wall in a defensive posture. Instinct also moved his hand to a non-existent phaser.

A sigh of relief passed his lips as a running figure emerged from the darkness and was recognized as Johnson.

"I thought that was you, Captain," the guard said as a grin flashed across the broad young face.

"Damn, Johnson, don't you know any better than to sneak upon a man from the dark? If I'd had my phaser on me you'd be missing several vital organs by now." Only after he'd spoke did Kirk realize how hoarse and reedy his voice sounded. Probably haven't spoken out loud for several days.

Johnson took a step closer before he replied. "Sorry, Captain. Just . . . didn't want you to get away."

The words seemed a bit strange, but he passed it off to the lingering traces of fuzziness in his head and let it slide. Still, when the younger man indicated the dark beyond the shallow circle of light, he was careful not to turn his back.

"What the hell are you doing down in this area of town anyway?" he added slowly, careful to speak the words as distinctly as he could. Something, some sixth sense was making the hair on the back of his neck rise, a feeling he'd learned to pay close attention to over the years. "I'd have thought you would prefer the, shall we say, more 'lively' parts of the city." That came out rather well until he hiccuped and spoiled it.

Johnson laughed and took another step closer.

Even before the light glinted on the thin blade that now had magically appeared in the guard's hand, even before Kirk raised his eyes to see the grim, subtly altered expression that looked so incongruous on the fresh-faced young features, even before his muzzy brain could begin to figure out the possibilities, some part of him had put it all together.

"You. It was you."

"You're a hard man to get alone, Captain. If you'd have let me go along with you back on that planet we surveyed, Vega could have been avoided."

Kirk pressed his back more firmly against the wall and quickly scanned the immediate area. Nothing but warehouses and deserted alleyways. He doubted he could run very far in his present condition at any rate. Bluster, then. He added another hiccup and swayed slightly, trying to give the impression he was more hung over than he was, though in truth he knew he didn't have to act much.

"What about Vega, Johnson? You killed a lot of innocent people back there. People whose worse crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The guard blinked, but Kirk was quick to notice the knife never wavered. "Yes," he said slowly "I'm sorry about that but it was too good an opportunity to pass up . . . the rebels getting blamed for it and all."

"But this isn't Vega, Johnson. There'll be an investigation into my death. You'll never get away with it."

A sneer distorted the handsome features. "Here, Captain? I doubt it. You'll just be one more drunken sailor on leave who wandered into an area of town he shouldn't have, and got killed for his trouble. Unfortunate, but there it is."

"Listen to me, Johnson, I don't know who set you up for this, but put that knife away and we'll talk. Maybe I . . . underestimated your value. There's always some way I could find to reward an enterprising young man."

Kirk let a small grin appear on his lips. I'll see you in the booth for this, you son-of-a-bitch. The grin increased into a smile. He still had that small dagger hidden in his boot, didn't he? Cursing himself for failing to check, he shrugged his shoulders charmingly, and added, "Come on, I'll buy you a drink. I'll even call Farrell . . . " he reached for his communicator . . . "and the three of us will sit down and discuss it."

The knife rose abruptly. "No communicator." Slowly the blond head shook from side to side. "Can't do it, Captain." Another step closer. "But I want you to know this is just a regular business deal. You've always played straight with me. There's nothing personal in this."

I tend to take attempts on my life very personally, you disloyal bastard, Kirk thought, and smiled again. Ducking his head slightly without taking his eyes off the other man, Kirk gauged the distance to his boot. If only his head wasn't pounding so hard it made thinking difficult. "I have an idea. We'll- " As fast as he could he kicked upward with his right foot aiming for the hand that held the knife, but even as Johnson's body twisted so he hit only the side of a strong muscular thigh, he knew his aim was off.

The knife lunged for his belly, and he just managed to avoid the deadly blow knowing his reaction time was much too slow. The next jab ripped into his arm through the outer layers of his jacket, sending a sharp explosion of pain shooting up through nerve and muscle. He crouched down and threw himself at the other's knees, and this time managed to connect. Both men went down in a tangle of arms and legs and twisting bodies, but a slash of the knife caught Kirk high on the forehead. Blood dripped into his eyes making it momentarily hard to focus. By the time he wiped his eyes clear, the guard had regained his feet, breathing heavily and glaring down at Kirk still sprawled on the ground. Rain glistened silver on the rising knife. Johnson flipped it in the air, caught it expertly by the blade, and Kirk knew he was finished. In two seconds that knife was going to come flying through the air, and there was no way in hell he could move fast enough to get out of its path.

Kirk edged backward, but as the hand that held the weapon reared back to throw, a black blur moved noiselessly from out of the alley to his right and placed itself between the two men.

Johnson refocused his gaze to this new distraction, crouching into an attack posture, but before he could move, a hand shot out, fastened on the would-be assassin's wrist and gripped. The grip firmed into something that could break bones, snap them like twigs in a hurricane. Kirk watched Johnson's eyes go wide with pain, focus on the trembling hand in disbelief, watched as the tendons swelled, and expected to hear bone crack. The next thing he knew, the knife flipped out of the guard's hand and skittered to the wall.

The hand was released. Nervously, Johnson licked his lips and plowed forward. The black-clad figure nimbly stepped to one side, turning to the light as the guard stumbled past.

Spock! Kirk blinked through the smear of blood, and broke into a grin, realizing somehow he wasn't surprised, that somewhere in the back of his mind he'd expected Spock to appear when he needed him most. Then the grin faded at the look on the Vulcan's face. No, not his face . . . his eyes. Spock's eyes, dark and depthless, and burning with a flashing heat. That animal . . . thing in the Vulcan's eyes was back, and something in Kirk gloried at seeing it roused from slumber and roaring in his defense.

Johnson turned to flee but Spock wasn't having it. In two striding steps he had caught the guard by the shoulder and spun him around. Hands laced together, he struck the man where the nape of the neck met the broad shoulder, sending him crashing into the wall where the husky body hovered uncertainly for a moment then slid down and lay still.

Kirk blinked back the annoying blood from blurry eyes once again. Spock's hands on his forearms helped him to his feet and when his vision cleared he looked for the beast in the shadowed eyes already knowing he would see no sign of it. He was right. Only concern dwelt there now. Concern which warmed Kirk down to his soul.

"I'm fine. What took you so long?" he said, needing to see that long brow begin its trip up the patrician forehead, delighted when it did.

"I am not accustomed to moving rapidly in such . . . " the Vulcan glanced upward with disdain, "adverse conditions," he finished. "I slipped and fell. Ocean water and precipitation are two quite different occurrences. There are definitely times one can have too much of a good thing. I may have to revise my theory, Captain."

Kirk laughed, suddenly realizing that somehow in the past few minutes the rain had increased into a downpour, and Spock had taken on the appearance of a drowned tribble. The usually so immaculate hair was disheveled, dripping water in sharp spikes. "You were following me," he said sternly, but knew the lilt in his voice gave away the fact he was never so glad to see anybody as he had been to see Spock.

Arched brows efficiently channeled the rain down chiseled features to where it fell in ludicrous drops from a long, aquiline nose. "No, sir, I was not." The corners of the stem mouth tilted upward slightly.

"No?"

"No, sir. I was following him." A slight jerk of Spock's head backward indicated the prone figure.

"You knew it was him? That Johnson set the bomb?"

"I suspected it."

"When?"

"Since Vega. When the investigation revealed no clues, it was only logical to assume you to be a possible target, and Johnson appeared, after all, from the direction of the crowd in the hallway, not from behind us as would have been expected if he had just exited the room."

That was it! The one niggling little detail that he'd struggled to remember but couldn't. The one not-quite-insignificant detail that could have left him dead on these cold, mean streets. Would have left him dead if it hadn't been for Spock.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"It would not have been right to disparage a man's reputation purely on a conjecture, however logical. I lacked the facts necessary to bolster my case. Besides, as things stood between us, would you have believed me?"

Kirk grinned. "Probably not, but . . . Spock?"

"Sir?"

"I'd believe you now."

It was definitely the eyes. Though no hint of emotion passed across the Vulcan's face, Kirk knew he was smiling, could see it in the sparkle that even the heavy rain couldn't hide.

"Spock . . . about what happened on the beach-"

Suddenly the smile disappeared. Spock's eyes narrowed as he drew Kirk into the light to check for injuries, took in the slash in the jacket, rose to scan Kirk's face. One hand came up to gently, oh so gently, touch the bloodied forehead. "You are injured!"

"I'm all right, but I wouldn't have been if you hadn't shown up." Had anyone ever touched him with such care? It occurred to him that here they were, standing in the wet cold of a miserable rainy night, and he had never felt so warm in his life. From the look in midnight eyes. From the touch of a gentle alien hand.

As Kirk watched, the transformation happened again; a burning primitive animal heat poured from Spock's eyes, and just his head pivoted to focus on the still figure against the wall. Slowly he turned, took a step in the unconscious man's direction.

Kirk quickly moved in front. The Vulcan's hands were clenched into fists, body still as death, but as Kirk grabbed the tightly muscled arms, he felt what he'd only seen from a distance in the rec room. Anger, and a suppressed power that was stunning in its intensity. Just so quickly as that, the beast was back.

"What are you going to do?"

Spock never took his eyes off the hapless guard, and Kirk knew he didn't ever want to have the look that now filled the piercing eyes directed at him.

"He plotted your death, caused you harm. He does not deserve to live. I will break his neck."

It was difficult to turn the stiff body to the light; Spock's eyes remained glued to Johnson's body as he allowed it. "No. I'll need to question him. Find out who set this up. Somebody turned him loose, paid him a lot of money, more than I pay him. That's a lot. I want whoever it was."

Finally the ebony head turned. And in the moment the warm gaze found him again, Kirk knew that wasn't the main reason he'd stopped Spock. No one had ever valued him so much he would risk his life without a thought for gain. No one had ever touched him so gently. No one had ever been ready to throw away the beliefs of a lifetime for his sake. No one had ever, in his whole life, loved him like this.

In that moment, Kirk knew however much he'd wanted his life to remain without complications, however much he had guarded himself against the affection that would weaken him, it had stolen into his heart like a black-clad thief in the night along with Spock, and taken up permanent residence. He couldn't allow someone he cared for. All right then, damn it, someone he loved, a Vulcan 'bred to peace' to kill in the white-hot flare of anger, knowing that when the anger was once again caged, Spock would regret it. It would bring Spock pain, and it was no longer permissible for anything to do that.

And if it worked out that he didn't know the first thing about love? If he wasn't capable of it? At least he was capable of this.

A silver burst of movement behind Spock caught Kirk's eye, but it was a second before he knew what it meant. A knife. A knife whose blade glistened with moisture and caught the light.

"Spock! Behind you!"

One swiftly moving arm swept Kirk back, off his feet and out of danger as the Vulcan turned to meet Johnson's charge.

When Kirk regained his footing, it was to see Spock with a hand firmly gripping the guard's shoulder. Johnson's eyes rolled back into the blond head and he dropped to the ground like a stone.

"Did you kill him?"

"No. You did not wish it. He will be unconscious for some time however."

"I never saw anything like that. What the hell did you do to him?"

Spock shrugged. "A little known Vulcan technique, Captain. It is of no importance."

Kirk glanced back at the prone figure. "Tell me how you-"

"In my cabin at the very back of the Watcher there is a small depression-"

"What?" Kirk's eyes flew to the Vulcan's face.

"In my cabin-"

"I heard you. What are you talking about?"

"In this depression, you will find a ... a tape ...."

"Spock?" Suddenly something in the Vulcan's voice gripped Kirk's belly hard and wouldn't let go.

"This is important, Captain, please attend. The tape ... the tape is ... coded to ...."

Spock stumbled forward, swaying to keep to his feet. Kirk, eyes wide in stunned disbelief grabbed for the slim body, catching him under the arms. "Spock? What-?"

" ... coded to ... to my voice print ...."

A hot wetness flowed over Kirk's fingers. A hot wetness that was too familiar. A hot wetness he'd felt before. As he removed his hand and held it to the light he already knew he'd see confirmation in the dark smear of Vulcan blood. There on the ground lay a knife covered to the hilt with green. "No!"

"You will able to ac . . . to access it, however, with your override and-"

"Spock, it'll be all right." Kirk eased the lean body down to the pavement, all last traces of the mushiness gone instantly. Smoothly, calmly, he took the communicator from his pocket, set it on the ground nearby, and pressed the topmost red button. It started to blink. "I've sent the emergency signal. Someone'll be here in just a few minutes. It'll be all right," he repeated.

"T'hy'la ...."

A froth of green bubbled at the corner of the Vulcan's mouth.

Pierced a lung, Kirk told himself. He positioned his upper body to protect Spock from the driving rain. "Just a few minutes .... Hold on."

"Password.... T'hy'la'. You will need.... You will need...." Spock coughed. A thin spray of green covered Kirk's jacket as the lean body curled up.

"Don't try to talk." Quickly Kirk moved to support the Vulcan's upper back as he spasmed. When the tenseness eased he slumped in Kirk's arms, gasping for breath.

" . . . You will need to know . . . know the password . . "

"Yes." Anything to reassure. "Yes, I've got it. T'hy'la. Is that right?"

A solemn nod. One slender hand rose and touched Kirk's face. A touch of reverence. "Thee . . . weeps? For me?"

"It's the rain."

"No, it is not."

"No," Kirk whispered, "It's not . . . "

The hand lowered. "No one . . . has ever . . . wept for me." Such wonder in the low voice, and this time the smile made it all the way to green-spotted lips.

For a heartbeat's time, Kirk thought Spock was crying, too, until he realized it was only the cold rain filling up the dark, unblinking, devastatingly empty eyes that overflowed and ran like tears down the sides of the thin face. Cold wet tears of death.

"Spock?"

Quickly he laid Spock down, reached to check pulse and breathing. There was neither.

"No. It's not supposed to end like this." Kirk spoke directly to the sightless eyes. "There's more for us."  There was no answer, so he spoke louder. If he could just get Spock to listen to him . . .

Grabbing the lean shoulders, he shook the body that refused to answer. "You know there's more for us!"

Something in his brain clicked into place. Tearing off his sodden jacket so he could move more easily, he placed both hands on the Vulcan's chest and ripped the material down the front. Heart! Where's the heart? Yes. Down low on the side. Trying to remember everything he could from McCoy's lecture, he placed his hands over what he thought must be the spot and pressed hard three times. Drops of red fell from his forehead, impaired his vision, slid across the pale skin of Spock's belly and down Spock's side. Breathing next! Quickly he swept the mouth and throat with a finger, pinched nostrils, tilted the head, lowered his mouth and began to breathe. How many breaths? How much air to fill desert­ bred, larger-than-Human lungs? Don't know. Don't know! Damn it, Spock, breathe! Breathe!

He sat back, waited for the exhale that didn't come, fought his panic, and lacing hands together brought them slamming down on the Vulcan's side. "Breathe, you blasted son-of-a-bitch!" And again. "Breathe!"

He kept it up for minutes that felt like hours. Running feet sounded behind him, but he dared not stop. When he recognized Farrell, the thought occurred that if this guard was in on the plot too, he'd just signed his death warrant. So be it. Another slam down on the side. "Farrell, get McCoy. I don't care how drunk he is, or what whorehouse you have to pull him out of, get him!" Back to the mouth. Between breaths, he added, "Keep an eye on Johnson. He tried to kill me. And contact the governor. We're beaming up from here. I don't want to risk moving Spock. Tell him I'll blast the fucking planet to dust if they don't lift the force field!"

For a minute, as he breathed for them both, he wondered why he'd asked instinctively for McCoy knowing the past history between them, knowing the doctor would probably be too far gone in his cups to be of much use. But he still trusted McCoy more than he would a stranger.

"Breathe, you bastard! Breathe!"

When Farrell offered to relieve him, he brushed the heavier man away, not knowing why, just continuing even though he knew he couldn't go on much longer. It didn't escape his ironic notice when he began to pray to a god he had ceased to acknowledge or believe in since that long ago night on a cold, wet floor so very like this cold, wet pavement.

Please, God! Breathe!

Love and God. Opiates of the masses. And it had only taken one crazy, innocent, dark-eyed Vulcan to make him believe in both.

The next thing he knew, seconds, eons later an authoritative hand moved him back, and he sat on his rump where he'd been pushed, dizzy and gasping for air, while a sober McCoy's scanner hummed, and a hypo was pressed into Spock's side.

Details stood out with crystal clarity. The way Spock lay in a slowly spreading pool of green. The way the green combined with his red. The way the patch where the blood of two worlds mingled had turned to black. Sometime in the past few minutes the rain had stopped, and the wind had kicked up, whipping the once immaculate black hair around a lean, sharply-angled face like ruffled fur stroked the wrong way. The glow-bar creaked ominously in the wind, light dancing past the metal straps that held it, shadows careening wildly across Spock's face and bared chest like stripes. "The man is dead."

"No!" Kirk grabbed McCoy's arms as the doctor made to move away.

"I shot enough cordrazine into him for six men, Captain. There's nothing more I can do." McCoy's face filled with surprising sympathy.

Kirk looked down into the still wide open eyes. It wasn't supposed to end like this. In the cold and wet. A hard pavement for a bed. A lonely death. And so very far from the hot desert world that spawned Spock into life. This felt unfinished. Incomplete. There had to be more for them than this.

It was the only certainty that remained.

. . . The lifeforce of the All can be channeled from one being to another through the meld.

"NO!" Abruptly he grabbed one of the long-fingered hands and lifted it, laid the fingers against his face where they only had touched before in phantom memory. Pressing. Searching. When something told him he'd gotten the right placement, he knew what to do. Turned his face into the still fingers. Pressed harder ... and fell into darkness....

* * * * *

 

. . . And opened his eyes to a different landscape. A black and white world without color. Snow. Blinding white snow lay on uneven tundra. Wind-whipped shards of it stung his face like small knives. Kirk was colder than he ever remembered being. Close by a line of trees formed a long barrier against the sky. Moving toward the forest was a large tiger, its feet padding noiselessly but with purpose toward the darkness that lay within.

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words emerged to break the silence.

A terrible urgency overcame him, and he began to run. Run, as if his life depended on it, for if the beast made it to the sanctuary of the forest, somehow he knew there would be no calling him back. It was a boundary neither could cross again. The beast would pass into the darkness, leaving Kirk alone in the light. They would be forever separate. Forever alone.

As he approached, the tiger shifted, and Kirk could see what he hadn't before. A long jagged wound marred the gleaming striped fur. A death wound, bleeding green, spreading an obscene dark stain against pristine white snow.

Carefully the tiger turned, placing its body as a barrier and Kirk knew it was to prevent him from entering the forest. For a moment he gazed at the line of trees above the beast's massive head. Beyond, there was a darkness so complete that no tendril of sunshine could penetrate. A darkness that spoke of rest and a surcease to suffering. Kirk recognized it, dimly remembered it, acknowledged it, felt its lure.

The beast was weary with its wound. The long lean body sank gracefully to the snow and sprawled out beneath him. Heat from the injury rose steaming into the bitterly cold air. The tiger watched him carefully out of huge solemn brown eyes, offering the warmth of the gaping wound to warm his hands.

Again he tried to speak. Again no words would form. This was not a place for words, so he discarded them along with his fear. Moving to the beast's head, he nuzzled it with his own, kissed it with tenderness, urged it to rise.

It was tired. Kirk felt its need for rest. Ignored it. Willed the beast to get to its feet Commanded it with all the power of his lifeforce.

The great liquid eyes filed with pain, but finally it yielded, and rose haltingly. Kirk took a step back the way he had come. For the briefest moment, the tiger hesitated, looked over its shoulder with longing at the forests of the night, then turned its back to the darkness and followed.

 

* * * * *

The chronometer on the wall slipped from one number to the next, proceeding to count down the long lonely hours until morning. But the man in the desk chair drawn up to the Tantalus Device never once glanced in its direction. Hadn't looked at it since the night three days before when he'd returned to his cabin after ordering the ship's engineer from leave to take over. He'd held a hurried briefing, seen Johnson to security for questioning, ordered the thorough search of his quarters. Even had arm and forehead laser sealed by a nurse. Tasks carried out with efficiency, but here was where he wanted to be. Needed to be.

Time had ceased to have meaning. He'd fine-tuned the device to a particular sickbay bed, to the panel above it, and left it alone. There was a lot to think about. Faced with the booth, Johnson had capitulated quickly, bravado dissolving into a storm of hysteria. Named the man who through intermediaries had approached him. Kirk was right. There was a great deal of money involved. It seemed he'd been right about other things as well. The search of Johnson's quarters confirmed it. Stupidly, through inexperience, or most probably in the hope of future blackmail, the young guard had kept and secreted certain very valuable pieces of evidence. Evidence that led a trail straight through to one man. Komack.

Over the past year, Kirk had been getting some very positive press back home. People were getting fed up with the constant shortages, the increased tax levies, the glory of an Empire that never seemed to improve their standard of living. Reading about the daring exploits of a young and very handsome starship commander was starting to put ideas in certain people's heads.

What emerged from the twisting trail of tapes was one man's desire to have it all, to rise to the very top of the political heap, to perhaps even become Emperor, if he were clever and patient enough. Only before that could happen, let's lay the groundwork carefully. Let's take out what could prove to be, in the future, a rallying point for the masses.

What Komack didn't know, what nobody knew, was that Kirk had someone even higher placed than Komack to count on, or so he hoped. It had been a very long time, after all, since the man who eventually became Emperor overcame his disturbing propensity for young and very beautiful orphan boys who craved any attention they could get. Noblesse oblige mandated exposing poor wards of the state to better things, and Kirk had learned of them on a soft, scented bed rather than the cold, hard floor of an orphanage shower room. Then, as well as now, he appreciated the difference.

The sporadic, well-hidden affair had gradually petered out with Kirk's age, with the other's ascension to the Crimson Chair and his subsequent need to find a wife and beget heirs. Since there was no shared affection between them, there'd been nothing to regret.

He'd been used, yes, but by that time he'd learned enough to use back. It had been worth a place in Starfleet Academy. His fists and brains, along with the sexual lessons he'd learned got him the rest of the way. Kirk was sure there had been others for the older man, but he also had the temerity to think he might have been remembered.

Only how to get the information to the Emperor without attracting Komack's attention?

Yes, he had a lot of things to think about.

Periodically, he would fall into a fitful doze sitting up in the chair only to jerk awake after a few moments of unsettled slumber that brought neither rest nor peace. Anxiously, he would scan the diagnostic panel and only when convinced the readings had not changed, could a measure of transitory relief be found.

McCoy had reported the Vulcan had slipped into some type of self-healing trance. Whatever it was, it was doing Spock some good.

Whenever someone entered the room he tensed, hand automatically rising to hover above the destruct button on the Tantalus Device until reassured of the person's good intentions, even though Farrell and others he selected remained on guard outside.

For himself, he refused to go anywhere near the place. He'd certainly done enough damage so far, and refused to do any more.

So this is love. A thought as bitter on the mind as poison on the tongue. If it hadn't been for him, Spock wouldn't be fighting for his life. He'd been right about that as well. He'd known what would happen. Back in that crummy hotel room, he'd known.

Spock wasn't the only one who'd disregarded the convictions of a lifetime that rainy night.

So this is love.

Spock's message! If it were important enough for Spock to tell him about when the Vulcan thought he was dying, it was important enough to view.

Leaving the device turned on, he left his cabin and walked the few meters down the corridor to Spock's quarters. Voice authorization and his override got him inside. The cabin was as he remembered it, red-lit, alien, and very warm. An odor of incense lingered in the air.

The Watcher, Spock had said. What could that be? Kirk scanned the room. When his eyes lit on what could only be a fire idol he knew he'd found the answer. The thing must have been fabricated on the ship for there was no other place it could have come from. As far as Kirk knew the Vulcan hadn't received any communication or package from his home world since he'd come aboard, and he certainly hadn't brought this monstrosity with him.

It was difficult to move the heavy statue, but finally he managed it. And there, right where Spock said it would be, was a small recess in the clay that contained a tape.

Quickly he moved to the computer console and slid it in. He had a few bad moments when he couldn't remember the password Spock had given, but all he had to do was close his eyes and think back to the pinched, pale face as bloodied lips struggled to get the word out, and it surfaced.

"T'hy'la." His tongue flowed easily over the unfamiliar alien syllables.

He added the override command and his voice authorization.

What appeared on the screen was the last thing he expected to see: a death certificate for one Winona Kirk, a white female of twenty-eight years dated one month after he entered the orphanage. The profession given was prostitute. Unmarried. One child, a nine year old male: James Tiberius Kirk. Cause of death: tuberculosis.

Totally unremarkable in every way except for the hand-written note scrawled across the bottom:

To: Peter Larson - Administrator, State Asylum for Orphans and Wards of the Emperor

Pete - I agree that the new entrant looks promising. From the records you sent me, James may be someone we could use in the future if his aggressive tendencies are properly channeled. The kid looks to be smart enough. Remove this certificate from the permanent record. I want his loyalty to be to the Empire, not to some romantic vision of his dead mother. I'll be keeping tabs on the kid from here on and will require updates from you on his progress on a regular basis. - Mark Komack

So. He'd been used from the very beginning. Placed very firmly on the path others had wanted him to take. When he tried to analyze his feelings-surely there should be some anger that this had been kept from him-all he felt was astonishment that Spock had somehow managed to get his hands on this. Astonishment and relief. A sense of closure filled him, as if an old book laying open all these years had finally been firmly shut and put away. They'd set him where he was, but that didn't mean they owned or controlled him. Someday, when he was ready, they would learn that to their dismay.

Kirk carefully replaced the tape and moved the idol back to its original place. When positive the room looked exactly as it had when he entered, he returned to his quarters, eyes flicking immediately to the screen-and froze. Someone was seated on the chair by Spock's bed.

Quickly, he moved to the Tantalus Device, hand rising to the destruct button, before he recognized McCoy in the lowered-for-night-cycle lighting. Still his hand hovered. The doctor wasn't checking the diagnostic panel, wasn't administering medication, wasn't touching Spock at all. The readings remained as they were when he'd left, and the slow rise and fall of Spock's chest confirmed the Vulcan's condition unchanged, but then why was McCoy just sitting there, face pale and haggard, as if he hadn't slept in a week?

It was half a minute before the doctor began to speak, and when he did the voice was so low Kirk had to adjust the volume control to hear.

"You don't mind if I sit here a spell, do you Spock? No, 'course you don't. I can't sleep." One hand rubbed red-rimmed eyes. "I tried, you know, but I can't. You see I told the captain I thought you'd make it. You're not gonna make a liar out of me, boy, now are you?"

The only sound was the soft hums and quiet beeps of the diagnostic panel as McCoy leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest. Booted feet came up to rest on the side of the bed.

The doctor slowly shook his head. "Never thought I'd see what I saw down there. Damn miracle if you ask me. I'd have sworn you were a goner, Spock old son. No heartbeat. No pulse. No respiration. And then to see Jim Kirk . . . Jim Kirk, of all people, do that Vulcan mind thing like he'd been born to it. Never thought he'd . . . let somebody into his head like that. He's got a fear of that, you know, letting somebody get too close, and I guess that's about as close as two people can get . . . Well, except for .... Hell, maybe even closer than that .... Anyhow, never thought I'd ever see it. I guess that's two damn miracles I saw that night."

Eyes flicked up to the panel then down again. "Just keep on doin' what you're doing boy. You just keep on doin' that self-healing thing and you're gonna be all right."

Feet came down off the bed as the doctor leaned forward intently. "You hear me, Spock?"

A grin crossed the craggy features. "I'm not boring you with all this talk, am I boy?" Again the slow head shake, accompanied by a rueful smile as McCoy closed his eyes for a moment. "Damn. Must be goin' senile, talking to a man in a . . . well, whatever-the-hell you're in. Don't even know why I'm sitting here on this damn hard chair when I could be in my soft bed."

The eyes opened, and fixed with a peculiar intensity on the Vulcan's face. "Yes, I do know why I'm sitting here. I want . . . to thank you for what you did down there. The captain told us how you saved his life. I want to thank you for that. Didn't think I'd ever get the chance to repay him for what he did for me, and now by looking after you maybe I can pay something back ...." The grizzled face grew stern. "Not that I wouldn't have tried my best anyway .... Damn it, Spock, he asked for me. Actually asked for me, when there was a whole planet full of doctors to choose from. You can't know what that meant to me."

Again McCoy leaned back in the chair. "We belong to a special club, you and I, Spock, and I guess that makes us sort of friends. Not that we'll ever be buying each other birthday presents and going out to tea together, mind you.

"This here's a real select club, Spock. This here's the-people-saved-by-Jim-Kirk club. Only two members that I know of, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out there were more. Nope, wouldn't surprise me a bit."

McCoy's head leaned back on the rim of the chair, eyes focused hazily on some place only he could see. It was a minute before he began to speak again. "You know if you read the official record, it'd say how Jim Kirk assassinated Chris Pike and took over as captain of this here ship. But official records can lie, Spock. This one does. Chris was a young man so no one ever looked closer, but brain aneurysms even happen to young men. Jim was with him that night in his cabin going over some reports when it happened. Called me right away. I might even have saved his life if I hadn't been so stinkin' drunk it took me twenty minutes to answer the call. Twenty minutes. You see the rest of the medical staff was off on leave, and I had some problems that looked better from the wrong end of a bottle ...."

A tear leaked from a corner of the doctor's eye. McCoy angrily wiped it away.

"Shit! Anyway by the time the detox worked and I finally got there the man was dead. They would have put me to death for that, but that wasn't the worse part. The worse part was knowin' I let a man die when I probably could have saved him. You see, Spock, in spite of everything, I was a damn fine doctor. It was the only thing I had left, and now I didn't even have that.

"Jim Kirk saved my life that night. He slit a dead man's throat. Took the blame, or should I say, the glory, and became captain. You see what's murder for a physician is an acceptable way to promotion for a young second-in-command in this here glorious Empire we serve. I know what you're gonna to say. You're gonna to say he did it for himself. Well, don't! You didn't see his face that night. You didn't see the compassion on his face as he held a dead man in his arms.  You didn't see the compassion on his face for me!"

Slowly the doctor rose and stretched. "Actually the captain saved my life twice. Once when we covered up what really happened, and . . . later. You see I've never touched another drop since that night. Even keep a bottle in my office to remind me. The booze would have killed me a long time ago if I hadn't sworn off, if it hadn't been for Jim Kirk. He may have saved your life, Spock," the blue eyes glistened with pride, "but I was the one who kept you alive, and this time . . . this time when he needed me I was sober."

McCoy scanned the panel once more, then turned and headed for a bed close by. "Well, it's been nice talking to you, Spock old boy. You don't mind if I stretch out here, do you?  Just hang close for a little while? Keep an eye on those readings? Didn't think so. I'll just put on this little do-hickey here thatch wake me if your readings change. Funny, now that you and I have had our little chat, I might even be able to rest some."

McCoy lay down on the bed, sighed once, and instantly fell asleep. Soft, repetitive sounds issued from the doctor's open mouth and filled the silence. Kirk watched the two still figures for a few minutes more, realizing that sometime during McCoy's monologue his hand had lowered from the disintegration button.

Suddenly his own bed looked very inviting. He left the screen on, thought about turning the volume down but decided he liked the sound. Lacing hands behind his head, he stretched out, stared unblinking at the ceiling. First love, then God, and now it seemed, friendship. What other changes would one crazy Vulcan make in his life?

Hell, for all I know there's even a Santa Claus.

He fell asleep to the quiet whirring of medical scanners, and the sound of McCoy snoring.

* * * * *

And the next morning when he woke to see McCoy slapping the Vulcan's face with punishing blows that snapped the onyx head from side to side, he forced his finger from the button even before he heard the low hoarse voice pleading, "Strike me harder."

* * * * *

The corridors were strangely quiet, most of the crew still enjoying the end of their first week of leave, and the skeleton staff left aboard were all at their posts, so there was no one to distract him as he walked the decks halfway through gamma watch. That was fine with Kirk. Spock had been released from Sickbay two days ago under orders to stay in his cabin and rest. Kirk had remained away, though acutely conscious of the Vulcan's presence only meters down the corridor.

He preferred the ship like this, with only his footfalls to disturb the silence, only his hand to occasionally run itself across a bulkhead. She belonged to him most completely at these times. And he to her.

He had never before questioned the things he had done to get her, keep her. That was the way the universe was run.

Hadn't liked some of them, but never questioned them. Until he'd met a man whose life was governed by a different morality. A man to whom the concepts of duty, loyalty, and truth actually meant something other than words to be ridiculed. A man who had never had to search for personal honor because it was as deeply a part of him as the breath he drew.  Was Spock a child-like innocent or wise beyond his years? A saint or a fool? And what did that make him for loving such a man?

Kirk closed his eyes, shook his head. Now all he seemed to do was question.

His life seemed divided into two parts: The time before and since the Vulcan had come aboard his ship, had wormed his way into his life. Changed it beyond measuring. Changed him.

He wasn't sure the changes were for the good.

Johnson was a perfect example. He was still alive. Kirk found out what he needed to know. By all rights the guard should have been just a memory by now, sent to the booth under his orders for full duration. The man had tried to kill him. Had almost killed Spock. Say what you want about the booth, it certainly cut down on recidivism. He would have ordered it a year ago. Six months ago. Without a second thought. He had ordered it for others. He hadn't this time. For Spock's sake.

Now as he stood at the large port on the observation deck, he purposefully turned his eyes away from the planet whirling serenely below and fixed his gaze on the stars. They had always beckoned him from his earliest days, drawn eyes upward and away from his squalid surroundings, promised order and wonder, calm to soothe chaos. So sharp and clear against the black of space.

So clean. Like Spock.

Sometimes he imagined the stars sent their light directly to seek him out, shine only on him, a celestial shower to cleanse and purify. If he could just stay out here long enough, reach enough of them, their light could make him clean.

A fanciful thought for a man not given to fanciful thoughts. There were times when it almost brought him peace.

He knew he would have to let Spock go before the Vulcan needed cleansing as well.

When he finally stood outside Spock's door, he was ready, never even questioning that Spock would be awake and waiting.

"Come."

There the Vulcan was, standing in the middle of the room like a statue carved in granite, and dressed in a black robe with some sort of symbols in silver down the front. Vulcan letters or runes, Kirk supposed. Pale but composed, Spock looked every bit a part of the red-lit alien mystery of his surroundings. He engraved the image on his mind wanting to always remember the other like this.

"How are you?"

"I am well, and your injuries?"

"I'm fine."

For a moment the two men just looked at each other across the space between them.

"I read the tape. Thank you for that."

Spock nodded slightly, and Kirk watched the reflected light slide along his hair.

"I am pleased to have performed the service."

"How'd you get hold of that information? I've tried for years and found nothing." The thought dawned that if Spock could work that miracle, perhaps he could figure out a way to send a sub-space squirt to the Emperor without attracting attention.

Spock swallowed, and Kirk saw embarrassment in the quick movement.

"I . . . I broke into the orphanage's computer records, Captain."

"You broke into sealed records? From the ship? You can do that?"

The tall figure drew himself even taller. "It was not exceedingly difficult. Most Vulcans dislike destroying factual accounts, and I thought perhaps Humans might share the same idiosyncrasy. In any event, they kept the truth from you, and truth that matters must always be revealed."

Truth. If he'd had any lingering doubts about keeping Spock with him, they vanished into dust with the other's words. Breaking into sealed records wasn't something this man would have done a month ago, and he'd be damned if he'd let the long arm of the Empire corrupt Spock any further.

"That's twice you saved my life, Spock."

"And twice that you saved mine, Captain, according to Doctor McCoy."

"I'm going to make certain there isn't a third time. For either of us. I'm going to send you back to Vulcan. I'll have to call in some favors, but I'll arrange it. It'll take a few days though."

"You wish to send me away?"

"Don't look at me like that. Don't you want to go home?"

"I was conceived, born, and raised there, Captain, but Vulcan was never my home."

"Listen to me. This is no place for you."

Spock was silent for a moment, then he took a step closer, gracefully dropped to his knees, and sat back on his heels. For a long moment they stared into each other's eyes. Then the dark head bowed, and he clasped his hands together in his lap. "In ancient days, Vulcan warriors swore allegiance to a warlord. It was never given lightly, but once proclaimed this fealty lasted unto death. I will admit I thought it an illogical custom. Until now. I do hereby proclaim my fealty to you, and ask only that you allow me the right to stand by you, to let my body be your shield."

The lowered head rose, deep brown eyes flared out warmth. "I have found my home. Do not send me from it."

"Damn you." Kirk turned and moved away, needed the space between them to increase so he could breathe past the heaviness in his chest, the lump in his throat. "Get up," he croaked.

Abruptly, he turned back when the other had risen. "Why, Spock? Just because I saved your life."

"No. Although by doing so you have proven that logically my life must have value to you." A slow shake of the head from side to side. "I have never before been valued for who I am, only for what I am, what I represent. But that is not the sole reason. You smiled for me.  You wept for me. No one has ever...." The long throat bobbed as Spock swallowed, then determination firmed the narrow mouth. "You . . . felt for me."

"I want you, you know," Kirk said quietly, "just like Mitchell does."

"Yes, I ascertained that when we . . . touched on the beach. But you will not take what I do not offer. Mister Mitchell would."

"Damn it, Spock, take me off that pedestal you've put me on. You make a very unlikely Don Quixote. And who does that make me . . . Aldonza?"

"I am not familiar with that reference. At the termination of our conversation I will check the linguistics bank."

Kirk would have laughed if he could be sure the laughter wouldn't turn to tears. Instead he let anger fill the empty place. "You don t know anything about me! I'm not worthy of that fealty. You've picked the wrong man, Spock."

"I know what I have to know." The Vulcan's hands moved behind his back.

"You've read my records.  You know the things I've done."

"I know records can be falsified."

"Do you know that when I assumed command, my first action was to suppress the Gorlan uprising by destroying their planet?"

"So the record states. You also saw to it that the planet was evacuated before destruction. It was assumed this was an Empire directive. It was not. It was taken on your personal recognizance."

"My second action was the slaughter of five thousand colonists on Vega.

"I accessed the records of that mission when we returned from Vega, Captain. The vast majority of those deaths resulted from political infighting. Regrettable, but you were not responsible. And the deaths you did order prevented even more widespread killing."

"And Chris Pike's assassination?"

Spock's mouth turned up minutely at the corners. A smile. "Doctor McCoy is under the impression a Vulcan in healing trance is unconscious. This is not so. I could not take my attention away from healing my injuries long enough to tell him that while I found the events he related . . . fascinating, he should perhaps be more circumspect in his confidences."

"McCoy talks too much."

"He loves you . . . as do I."

Kirk's shoulders sagged under the weight of the words. They broke him as nothing else ever could, ever would. And when he could manage to speak, the lost lonely child deep inside found a voice long suppressed. Unconsciously, he held out his hands, palms open and vulnerable.  "What . . . do . . . you . . . want . . . from . . . me?" he pleaded.

Spock crossed the space between them. "Nothing but what you wish to give."

Slowly, with infinite weariness, Kirk bent down and removed the knife from his boot. Slowly, he raised it. Slowly, he took a step forward and laid the blade against Spock's throat. The Vulcan didn't move. The expression on the serene face didn't change. The compassion in the dark eyes didn't waver.

"I could kill you this minute. I could physically draw this knife across your throat and watch you bleed to death."

Spock remained silent.

Kirk threw the knife across the room, and raised his hand laying the palm flat against the other's nose. "I don't really need the knife though. They've taught me a hundred ways to kill. I could kill you without a weapon. I could break your nose with just my hand. Drive the shards of broken bone up into your brain."

Spock closed his eyes, turned his face into Kirk's palm, lifted his own hand to cover it, gently pressing Kirk's hand against his face. Laid a kiss upon the soft center. "You are frightened of what is inside you, but you will not harm me."

Kirk's hand began to tremble. "They've made a very efficient killer out of me."

Spock's eyes opened, the lashes a thick black fringe against the whiter skin, but he didn't move his head. "You will not harm me," he repeated softly.

"You don't understand. I've done some things . . . killed, and will again to keep what I have. Used people. Used myself, my body .... I'm dirty, Spock. I'll make you dirty too, if you let me."

"Allow me to cleanse you."

Kirk's hand moved to caress silken hair. "I can't love you." The other hand came up to glide hesitatingly across an upswept black brow. "I can't love you." Touched his lips to Spock's in a whisper of a kiss sweet and new as spring. "I can't love you, but God forgive me, I do."

He drew back to look into Spock's eyes. "I'm so cold." Both hands clenched into fists, pressed against his own chest, and he knew for the first time from where the cold came. "Here. Inside." Spock's arms rose to encircle him. Kirk closed his eyes, and breathed the words, "Say my name."

"James, thou art worthy of love, and I love thee."

His name on Spock's lips was a caress warmer than any touch he'd ever known.

His push to Spock's chest to separate them was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

"Meld with me. Like we did before. You'll see . . . what I am."

"Then we did join minds. I half believed it a dream. You named me . . . a tiger?"

Kirk nodded. "Yes. They're all extinct now, gone more than two hundred years ago, destroyed by man's greed, but I always thought they were the most . . . beautiful creatures that ever existed." He reached for Spock, but lowered his hand before he could touch. "Elegant. Powerful. Untamed. And so very, very beautiful."

"You wish to . . . ?" Again Spock's throat rose and fell quickly. "I would be honored to meld with you." He glanced into the sleeping quarters. "You will be more comfortable lying down.  A supine position will facilitate the joining."

Kirk firmed his features, and strode into the red-lit room. The bed was narrow, but they wouldn't need it for long. No, not long at all. Just long enough for Spock to see what was inside. Just long enough for Spock to see the ugliness . . . and turn away. Kirk fell on the bed, unleashed the demons, and gave them freedom to roam unchecked at the forefront of his mind.

Spock carefully stretched out next to him. "I doubt we will share the same vision as before. You took control of the first meld, as my barriers were nonexistent. The images we viewed came from your mind. This time you must allow me to lead.  You must relax your body, open your thoughts to me. Do you believe you can do this?"

Kirk turned, saw his own reflection in Spock's eyes. "Yes," he said sadly. "I'm ready."

The world disappeared as he closed his eyes, wanting to savor the sensation of those warm fingers on his face for what he knew would be the last time.

"My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts."

After a moment, the black of closed lids yielded to an even deeper black . . . .

* * * * *

The black of deepest space. No stars could find him here. No light could ever reach far enough to cleanse him here. That was as it should be, for this place was as familiar as his reflection in a mirror.

He was standing in the midnight of his soul. And then, Spock appeared . . . but not Spock as he had known him, the once living flesh transposed by an artist's hand to naked perfection carved in ice. Each angle of body and face was heightened to a sharply-faceted crystalline edge.

In the center of the chest of the being that was-and-was-not Spock, lay a glowing nugget of emerald green throbbing with life, a pulsating core crying for release. A trapped bird beating useless wings in a vain effort for a freedom forever out of reach.

Spock's essence. Glowing with heat, yet locked behind an impenetrable barrier. So lonely in its solitude.

And he wept for Spock.

Kirk looked down at his own body, momentarily comforted by the sight of his own warm naked flesh. But there, lodged firmly in the center of his chest lay a jewel of deepest red. A jewel to match Spock's, except this jewel was encased in ice. Beautiful in its crystal clarity. But as useless as a priceless artifact in a museum. Unknown. Untouched. Unloving and unloved.

And Spock wept for him.

When he looked back at the frozen figure, it was to see the other was attempting to move. One ice-formed arm was straining with effort, until slowly, slowly it raised, reached toward him, a closed fist opening like a flower to his sun until it extended outward in vulnerable offering.

His own hand rose to hover above Spock's.

Uncertainty lived in the space between two out-stretched hands . . .

. . . and vanished as they touched.

Time sped up, stowed down, became meaningless Somewhere, somewhen they had touched like this before. Long ago. Yet to be. Never and always.

I know you . . . have always known you . . . will always know you.

My body to comfort you ... My heat to warm you ... My love to heal you ....

Out from their clasped hands exploded an incandescent, nova-white surge of power racing back toward a body encased in ice to melt it, to a soul entrapped in ice to free it.

In wonder, in joy, Kirk began to laugh. He wanted to throw his arms around Spock, hold him so tightly that when the final melting came they would be together, would melt together, would be free together. Would be two souls joined into one beyond all separation.

He reached. . . and Spock drew away, evaded his clutching angers, and faded back into darkness.

And his singular soul screamed into the endless night . . .

* * * * *

" . . . Noooo!" Kirk opened his eyes, ears still ringing from the sound. Looked down to see he was clutching tatters of the Vulcan's ripped robe in bloodless fingers grasping so hard they hurt. Let go as if the remnants had spontaneously burst into flame.

Images filled his head . . . a desert landscape barren and awesomely beautiful in its vast silence, a lone le-matya stalking its prey under the reflected light of a huge sister-world that blotted out the stars. He knew the meaning of t'hy'la now, an alien word that was alien no longer, that meant everything he desired in his life. A word, a concept that fate in its cruelty had seen he would understand yet never achieve.

Perfection wrenched from his grasp.

Stumbling off the bed past Spock's body, Kirk knew only that he had to get out of the room before tears humiliated him further before this man who had rejected him.

"Stop! You do not understand."

He kept his eyes on the door. If he could only get out before he would have to see Spock's face again. He didn't think he could bear that. He had expected rejection; he just didn't know it would hurt this much. "What don't I understand? I offered everything I was. It wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough. I don't blame you, Spock. You finally showed some sense."

He took two more steps toward the door, and suddenly Spock was there, turning him with firm hands on his shoulders. He closed his eyes, turned his face away.

"You must listen to me."

"Let me go."

Then he was in Spock's arms, surrounded by warmth and fighting to keep the tears from falling.

"I will not let you go until you hear me. It is not what you think. Look at me. Please, James." The utter desperation in the husky voice, the trembling in the taut form finally reached him. Kirk pushed against the Vulcan's chest to gaze into eyes gone wide with his own mirrored pain.

"You must believe I wished the meld to continue. It . . . was . . . most difficult to end it. I . . .I would not have believed it ever could be as it was between us. Even the legends do not speak of an instant recognition of souls such as we experienced. However I could not let it progress to its natural conclusion. We would have bonded in a few more moments." Spock lowered his eyes. "There are things you must . . . know . . . about Vulcans before you take such an irrevocable step. Bonding, for those who would be warrior mates such as we, is . . . to death, and perhaps even to forever, James."

"Forever. Yes, I want forever.  I, too, know all I need to know."

Spock looked at him sadly. "No, you do not."

"Then tell me."

"I will, but in the event you are not able to acquiesce-"

"I want it."

"You asked what I desired from you. I find I now have a request."

A small voice in the back of Kirk's mind whispered, See? He is like all the others. Just like all the others. After all. He pushed the voice down and away.  "What is it?"

"If you do not choose the bond ... I wish ... to have something ...."

"Just say it, Spock."

"I wish you to...fuck me ...."

For the barest moment Kirk was torn between utter relief, wanting to laugh, and striding into the head for a handful of soap to wash out the Vulcan's mouth. Then he realized . . . of course, that was how Spock would have heard the crew refer to sex. How he had referred to sex . . . before Spock entered his life.

"Don't say that." Kirk took a step and placed his hand on the stem lips. "It could never be 'fucking' with you." Stroked the warm, smooth skin in a gentle caress. "It's called making love, Spock. I'm ... not even sure I know how. Fucking, yes, I know how to do that. But making love ...."

"Making love." A soft sigh. 'Will you make love to me?"

"No."

"No? But I thought...." The lean body stiffened. "Forgive me, Captain. I must have misunderst-"

"No, I won't make love to you. But I will make love with you, Spock."

Again Kirk laced fingers through the hair at the nape of the Vulcan's neck, drew them slowly together. A light brushing of their mouths sent heat cascading through Kirk's body, lightning before the storm, shower before the deluge. A promise of destruction or salvation.

"Please. Let me see you," he pleaded.

There was no fumbling in the Vulcan's fingers as they rose to undo the clasps of the robe, just the calm, unwavering gaze as he locked eyes with Kirk. When the robe fell to land in a puddle of black at his feet, he stood quietly, hands at his sides. No pride. No modesty. Just open offering.

The soft light glinted off copper-kissed skin burnished to a metallic luster.

Kirk wanted to look forever, couldn't wait a moment longer. He took a step forward, gently touched the faint friction bums he had made on Spock's chest. "You are so very beautiful."

"I also find you . . . very-"

"-Aesthetically appealing?"

Spock's lips tilted upward. Eyes shining, he swallowed once, then the soft warmth in his eyes flared to something hotter. His voice was low and husky when he spoke. "No. Beautiful. Very, very beautiful."

"God, Spock. Please." Kirk couldn't believe he was actually begging.

With reverent fingers, Spock reached for the seam of the gold bolero, opened it. Removed his clothing with a gentleness that brought tears to Kirk's eyes. When he was naked, he felt stripped of more that clothing, as if Spock's fingers had also taken a layer of skin. Felt raw, open, naked and vulnerable as never before.

"Come lie with me," Spock said.

The words set Kirk's knees shaking, and before his legs would no longer support him, he grasped Spock's hand and walked back into the fire lit alcove.

Stretching out on his side on the rumpled bed, Kirk drew Spock down. Already he was achingly hard, from one closed-mouth kiss, but it was nothing compared to the empty aching of the secret place that lived inside him, the cold, red place that yearned for Spock's heat.

For the time of a heartbeat, he held himself back, a silent scream raging in his head. Go slow.  Must go slow.   He can't feel this need as you do. Go-

Then Spock drew him into hot arms, pressed him close against a hot chest, laid hot lips against his own.

And he was lost as the storm descended.

With a groan, Kirk wrapped his arms around the lean form, clutched Spock. He ravished the Vulcan's mouth, forced it open, entered and claimed the heat. Spock accepted his strength, matched it with his own. They bruised each other in their desperation.

Kirk's hands skimmed over the Vulcan's face, brows, ears, plunging into the dark soft hair, as Spock kissed his face, neck, caressed his shoulders.

When Spock's lips fastened on a nipple and began to suck with practiced ease, Kirk grasped the Vulcan's head, drew it back so he could see into the other's face. "Those texts must really have been something," he gasped. "Is that where you learned to do that?"

Spock's eyes were velvet blackness. "No. We have been together in the meld. I . . . learned many things. Through our present physical proximity, I am learning even more. I wish but to please you."

"I'm so sorry, Spock." He shook his head. "The loss of innocence-"

"-is greatly appreciated, James. Do not be sorry." He licked the rosy nub with one long sweep of a green-tinged. pointed tongue, and Kirk shuddered. "I find the texts were woefully inadequate."

"God. Do that again. In what way were . . . uhh . . . they inadequate?"

"They did not explain how good you would taste."

Kirk's smile faded into a moan as Spock returned to his work.

When Spock slipped lower, Kirk almost pulled him back. Almost . . . until through half-closed lids he watched Spock's open mouth lower on his cock. For the briefest moment, he thought he might pass out from the searing, white-hot burst of electricity that sped through his body like a phaser stun.

Blindly, he reached for Spock's penis, fondled it, felt it grow in his hands. Looked down as his fingers found the space between twin ridges that adorned the head. Watched Spock's face, as his eyes fluttered and clenched shut. Heard the sighing moan pass lips still surrounding his aching cock.

Suddenly he pushed Spock away. Pushed him down on the bed, hands on the Vulcan's chest, reared over him. Breathless. Wanting.

"Is it time?" Spock said.

So incredibly beautiful. More than time .... Past time .... "Yes, it's time," he answered.

And turned so that he was kneeling on all fours, presented his back to Spock.

For an endless moment there was no sound behind him, no movement on the bed.

" ... James...."

"Do it, Spock. I need it. I want it."

"No. I will .... I can not bear to harm you."

"I've done it before. Gave myself for gain. Don't deny me the right to give myself for love."

"I will attempt to find something that will lubricate-"

"Damn the lubrication! Do it, Spock. Do it now."

The first touch of Spock's hesitant hand on his ass almost pushed him over the edge. He stifled a scream when gently Spock spread him. Bit his lips when Spock's hairy thighs brushed against the tender backs of his legs. But when Spock's hot tongue licked his anus using the searing moisture to prepare him, Kirk thought he would lose his mind.

Head hanging, he bucked back against Spock's strength, gripped the sheets in clenched fists, gasped out the Vulcan's name over and over again. A litany of desire.

Firmly the Vulcan grasped his waist, the thick pressure of Spock's organ poised at his opening for one eternal moment.

When Kirk looked back over his shoulder, it was to see the beast had reappeared, pouring its animal heat, sharp and bright from Spock's slitted eyes. The first thrust almost flattened him to the bed.

There was pain-great pain. He wanted it. Welcomed it. Gloried in it. Pictured in his mind the cold red jewel of his soul. With each thrust, he saw the blunt probe approach closer.

One final thrust and Spock was totally sheathed. So close. So very close. Kirk threw back his head, and keened his need in a scream that somehow ended in Spock's name. Strong arms surrounded him, and Spock's lips found his ear. "Come with me, James," the tiger growled.

The words, the tone, the hot breathy whisper, sent him tumbling over the final precipice. As they came in one body-wrenching spasm after another, the ice surrounding the red jewel shattered from Spock's scorching heat.

And Kirk was free to love and be loved at last.

* * * * *

When Kirk could breathe again, think again, it was to find himself pressed to the bed, legs spread, Spock between them. The Vulcan's head lay pillowed on his ass, arms wrapped securely around him. He tried to wriggle out from under just long enough to turn and take Spock into his embrace. A long, low half-grunt, half-growl made him think better of the idea.

He smiled into the pillow and stayed where he was.

My body for your bed.

Your body, the sanctuary for my soul.

 

* * * * *

Sometime later Kirk woke. One glance at the chronometer confirmed there were hours yet to morning watch. Carefully, he eased himself from Spock's sleeping form. This time there was no protest.

Kirk walked to the head. After relieving himself, he was about to wave off the light, and caught his reflection in the mirror. For a second he was puzzled. There was something that seemed different about the way he looked, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Then he saw, a quiet, calm heat that rose from deep inside and shone from his green eyes as golden glowing highlights. Spock's heat. Now a part of him.

Spock looked so peaceful when he returned to the bed. Long body sprawled, face serene, slightly swollen lips parted as if caught in the middle of a sigh. So very precious to him now.

Kirk wasn't aware when his features firmed, when lips tightened to a hard line, when hands clenched into fists. Somehow he'd have to find a way to protect Spock. No one could know about them. No one could find out he'd do anything, anything, to keep Spock safe.

It wouldn't be easy. Maybe he'd revive the old tradition and get a Captain's Woman to divert attention. Spock wouldn't like that. He smiled softly. Spock wouldn't like that at all.

The . . . what had Spock called it? Bonding? That would help, and he was determined to have it, despite whatever objections Spock might raise.

Kirk allowed the sadness to surface for a moment as he watched Spock's face in sleep, and thought about what the Vulcan would be like in a year's time. Hardened? Certainly different in some ways, though he suspected the inner core, the basic integrity of the man couldn't be altered. The sadness lifted and vanished with the thought. Kirk knew he would have to change as well. Had already. Would even more in the future. After all, Spock had an image of him he had to live up to.

No, it wouldn't be easy for either of them, but they and their love would survive. He'd see to that.

Slipping into bed, he watched the flickering light from the firepot cast shadowed stripes across his lover's face, his lover's body.

Wonder how you'd look with a beard?

As he eased the rumpled bedclothes from under the sleeping form to cover them both, Spock shifted slightly and reached for him. Strong arms wrapped Kirk in warmth, drew him close. Spock's head tucked into his shoulder.

Tomorrow there was a message to send, a score to settle, a dearly beloved Vulcan to warm with his heat. But just for tonight . . . just for tonight he would revel in their love and let tomorrow take care of itself. He took his soul's companion into his arms.

That night he dreamed of striding across the stars with a tiger by his side.

* * * * *

Three days later, they were apprised of new orders. The Enterprise was to explore the Great Barrier at the edge of the galaxy. Just before warping out of sub-space range they caught the last news­vid from home. Mark Komack, a highly ranked admiral in the Imperial Starfleet had mysteriously disappeared. At the present time there were no leads to his whereabouts. The Emperor expressed deep concern.

Kirk smiled, turned his face to the stars and set out to make the dream reality.

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