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The sun was warm. The breeze cut through the river valley with the softness of velvet. Spock's hair blew away from his forehead and resettled in an asymmetrical pattern against his face. He took a deep breath, inhaling the fragrance of the flowers that grew in profusion at his feet. If he noticed the disordered bangs, he gave them no attention.

"Arcadia: the name really fits, doesn't it?"

He turned to see James Kirk approach from behind, his furrowed brow eased by the beauty of the surroundings. “It does indeed, Jim.”

Kirk's gaze roamed across the verdant landscape, Spock casting him a sidelong glance as he did so. For the first time in weeks the captain seemed completely relaxed, his body language at ease, every movement fluid and unselfconscious. Throwing his head back, he tilted his face toward the sky and closed his eyes, allowing Spock the luxury of watching him directly.

The captain was tired. The mission they'd just completed was unnerving for all, but especially so for him. A large part of it had involved his working alone on an undercover assignment, negotiating a series of Federation treaties with a motley collection of corrupt, suspicious government officials on a planet unremarkable in every way but one. Its mantle was encrusted with dilithium deposits, a galactic treasure trove open to the highest bidder.

Kirk, disguised in a local costume of leather and buckskin, playing one crooked official against the other, had laughingly described the mission to a somber-faced Spock as cloak and dagger but the light-hearted banter did not disguise its dangers. Political tension on the planet was high, the government insisting that knowledge of Federation involvement be kept from an unpredictable populace. “We have troublemakers here,” they'd said, casually dismissing the vast gap between rich and poor. “You know, rabble rousers who think we're keeping all the money, not spreading it around.”

Which, as was often the case, they were, the social inequities and centuries of a near-repressive caste system providing a fertile breeding ground for dissent. The Federation knew this, of course, had dropped more than a few hints about reform, but, constrained by the Prime Directive, was powerless to do anything further. If they wanted the treaty and the dilithium, they had to accede to the government's demands of anonymity.

So Kirk had gone down alone, carrying out the negotiations without a hitch and earning himself another Starfleet citation in the bargain. He'd beamed back to the ship, nonchalant about success, not anticipating failure. Nevertheless, the assignment had been arduous. Despite his casual, all-in-a-day's-work demeanor, the captain was exhausted and Spock knew it.

Watching him arch his back, glorying in the day, he could almost see those hard muscles unwind, sense the fatigue melt away in the warmth of the sunshine. This assignment, coming on the heels of the last one, was exactly what the captain needed. An easy mission to investigate an apparently hospitable world for possible colonization.

Kirk opened his eyes. Spock glanced away, pretending to study the horizon. Just caught the perception that came into them, wondered briefly why he bothered. Around the captain he was as transparent as a sheet of glass. Always had been.

"I'm all right, Spock.” Kirk shifted to face him directly. “Just a little tired." He laid a hand on the Vulcan's arm. "You worry too much. You should learn to relax."

Spock assumed an exaggeratedly affronted expression, was pleased to hear the captain laugh aloud in response. “This planet would seem to be an ideal candidate for resettlement,” he intoned, resolutely staying in character as he refocused on the distant hillside. “Average yearly temperature of seventy-six degrees. Ample rainfall as indicated by the surrounding greenery.”

Kirk let him, returning his attention to the landscape. “Perhaps.” He took another deep breath. "The air smells like perfume. I don't think I've ever seen so many flowering plants in one place.” Plowing the ground with his boot, he uncovered soil a rich chocolate-brown. “A lovely planet, indeed. This assignment will be a pleasure. Too bad we can't drag it out a little.” Fat chance, he thought wryly, noting the location of other landing party members now scattered across the valley. The Enterprise crew was far too efficient for that. Their work would likely be done within the hour.

A wistful expression crossed his face and, seeing it, Spock found himself hoping that Kirk would get his wish, that something would happen, something to delay them and allow his friend a little more time in this peaceful valley.

Kirk shook himself out of his reverie, slapped both palms against his rib cage. "Enough daydreaming. Shall we get to work?" He pointed to the river. "You go down and run those water tests for McCoy. I'll scout up the floodplain and take soil samples from the alluvial deposits." He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the bright sunshine. "The science team is already a quarter of a mile ahead of me. I'd better hurry or there won't be anything left for me to do." He flashed Spock another smile before taking off up the valley at a run.

Spock watched him go, shaking his head. Why must he always run? Why must he always be so driven? To walk would only take a few minutes longer.

Spock sighed, knowing that the captain would always run while he walked.

Slowly, he turned and made his way carefully to the river.

**********

Gathering his last sample, Kirk looked up to see Lieutenant Peterson of Life Sciences approaching from the hillside. He rose to his feet, securing the vial in a protective case slung over one shoulder. Other members of the landing party assembled behind them as he scanned the area. "Where's Mister Oliver?"

"He went around the far side to collect another botanical specimen, sir. He'll meet us at the river."

Kirk nodded, turning toward the wide expanse of water thirty yards away. Searched for the familiar outline silhouetted against the sky but Spock was nowhere to be seen. He frowned, had looked only ten minutes before to see the Vulcan bending over, examining flora along the riverbank. Raising himself up on his toes, he looked again. Nothing.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the square form of Lieutenant Oliver emerge from the opposite side of the hill. "Oliver!"

The man turned around. "Yes, Captain?"

"Do you see Mister Spock?"

Oliver searched the area. “Negative, but there's a fairly sharp drop from where I am. It cuts off part of the view.”

Kirk felt a knot tighten in his stomach. He hadn't realized the drop was there. "Come on." He moved out ahead of the others. As he drew closer his pace increased. He was running by the time he reached the water.

Sensing his worry, Oliver broke into a run also. "Captain, what ---?"

"Where's Spock?" Kirk looked around, a cold sense of foreboding hitting him with the force of a physical blow.

Oliver turned toward the others who had raced up to join them. "I don't know, sir."

Kirk pulled out his communicator and opened a channel. “Come on.” Waited five seconds, then sent it again. “Come on. Come on.”

There was no response.

His intuition was screaming like a klaxon now as he approached the edge, saw what looked like scuff marks disappearing over the side. Realized that the wind had picked up and was blowing away from them, that had Spock called out for help it was unlikely they would have heard. "I want everyone to fan out,” he barked, his thoughts shifting to the weight of the instruments Spock carried, how quickly his clothes would become saturated or his boots fill up with water. How a fall from this height could easily have knocked the Vulcan unconscious.

Kirk's heart began to pound. “Peterson and Chou, go north, follow the current. Oliver and Tormin, I'll have the transporter get you over to the other side.” He glanced to his left. “Brydon, you go upstream just in case. If any of you see anything suspicious at all, call me immediately.”

Terse nods all around as the men moved off, Oliver and Tormin stopping a few feet away, waiting for transport.

“Kirk to Enterprise.” Readjusting the wavelength, he signaled his ship.

"Scott here."

"Scotty, Spock is missing. Oliver and Tormin are to my right. Lock in and get them over to the far bank, then run a surface scan of the river. And make it fast."

The engineer didn't waste time asking questions, just gave him a brief, "aye, sir,”and cut the channel. Almost immediately a transporter beam caught the two men, depositing them on the opposite shore.

Fighting to slow his soaring blood pressure, Kirk returned his attention to the river twenty feet below. A tranquil, lazy river without a name, stained grayish brown by the silt it carried, flowing north at four or five knots. An hour ago it had seemed a lovely thing, leaves and flower heads floating on the surface, the hypnotic sounds of waves lapping the shoreline, an occasional bird bobbing along or diving as it searched for food.

But it wasn't beautiful to him now. Now it was ugly and dirty and impossible to see through. A mud-filled morass that choked the life out of everything in it.

"Captain?" He nearly jumped at Scotty's voice, knew from his tone what his report would be. "I'm not getting any reading on him, sir, just you six. I'll recalibrate the scanners for maximum penetration but they still won't pick up anything more than forty-two feet beneath the surface. And it'll take longer."

"Go, Mister Scott. Signal with your report. And get me a tricorder. Have someone send me down a tricorder.”

Scott noted the repetition but didn't comment on it. A moment later the device materialized at Kirk's feet.

Picking it up, he swept the area directly before him. Not only was the river murky and dark, it was also deep, except for the areas flanking the shoreline, averaging sixty-eight feet. The tricorder, unlike more sensitive ship scanners, was unable to penetrate beyond twenty-one. Kirk concentrated his search efforts near the shore, praying silently that Scott would find Spock with the scanners, knowing that otherwise they would need manual probes. That could take hours.

Scott`s voice came back to him a moment later. "Nothing, Captain. All scans show negative.”

Kirk froze for an instant. "Very well, Mister Scott. Get an investigative team down here with the skimmers and probes. And run checks on the surface, look for any geographical irregularities that may not be visible from down here, anything out of the ordinary. Inform Doctor McCoy and tell him to beam down with a medical team. We'll continue to search from here."

Kirk paused and when he spoke again his voice was very low. "And check space for any evidence of a transferral beam or radiation left by a ship's engines."

"Aye, sir."

Kirk flipped the communicator lid down. His adrenaline was pumping through his system so rapidly now he felt light-headed. Took three huge breaths, forcing additional oxygen into his bloodstream, clearing his thoughts. Then, pointing his tricorder at the river, he continued to search.

**********

The small vessel skimmed along the surface, probing the river's depths as it moved back and forth from one bank to another. A dozen more were farther downstream, doing the same thing, periodically signaling Enterprise personnel that seemed to be everywhere, stretched out for nearly five miles along the water's edge, manually checking every inch of ground, the countless mounds of debris piled up along its shores. They'd been scouring the area exhaustively for over an hour now to no avail. Ship's scanners were consistently clear. There was no evidence of anything unusual on the planet's surface, no sign of any disruptions in the space surrounding it. Nothing.

The captain of the Enterprise stood in the center of a knot of people. A series of reports were given to him: rapid-fire, concise, unemotional, rendered in a detached, professional manner. Kirk listened, his face impassive, his manner businesslike.

As if on cue, the reports terminated, crew members dispersing to continue their work just as the communicator at Kirk's hip beeped. Flipping the lid, he opened a channel.

“Scott, Captain. I've just gotten those latest electromagnetic scans."

And again, he knew by the engineer's tone what his report would be.

“We've recalibrated for the full spectrum and run it through again, sir,” Scott began. “There's been no distortion of fields, no excess energy directed to within a hundred parsecs of the planet. No sign whatsoever of a transferral beam."

Unconsciously, Kirk's grip on the device tightened, didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified. "What are the chances that it was a beam our sensors couldn't register?"

"If it was totally alien I suppose it's possible they wouldn't have picked it up." Scott paused for a moment. "But I don't think that's what happened, Captain. After the time you and the others were transported away to Triskelion, Mister Spock made alterations to the entire system. A transporter beam, no matter how alien, would create distortions in the surrounding space. That was how he found you that time and he modified the program to highlight any fluctuations. He was bound and determined not to have that happen again. And you know how Mister Spock can be when he gets his mind made up..."

Scott's voice trailed off. He cleared his throat when the captain made no comment. "No, sir. He wasn't beamed away by a transporter beam. I'd stake my reputation on it."

Kirk pressed his lips together, Scott's words coming as no real surprise. He clearly recalled the long hours Spock had spent in the science labs following the Triskelion incident. And his first officer was nothing if not thorough. He wouldn't have concluded his endeavors until he was satisfied.

So it wasn't a transferral beam. There was no residual radiation from a ship's engines. They'd run tests for every type of powering drive known to Federation records and come up with absolutely nothing. Spock wasn't on the surface and there was no evidence whatsoever that he'd been removed from the planet. It was as if the earth had simply opened up and swallowed him.

"Very well, Mister Scott. Continue scanning. Let me know if you find anything. Kirk out." He cut the channel to see McCoy detach himself from a group of medical personnel and walk rapidly to his side. The doctor shook his head, his expression grim.

"Captain!" one of the men on the skimmer closest to him called out. "We've found something!"

Kirk felt his blood turn to ice. He ran to the water's edge, McCoy at his heels, and stopped, watching as the men repositioned the probe and pushed it down into the water directly below them. Other members of the investigative team gathered around, the men on nearby boats pausing to watch. No one made a sound.

The crewman who'd spoken leaned forward, studying the probe's readings. Moved it around, the splashing it made loud in the complete silence. Abruptly, he looked up. Even from thirty feet away Kirk could see the paleness of his face.

"We're getting a warm-blooded reading, sir. Large: body mass between twenty-two and twenty-five. No respiration."

Kirk's heart skipped a beat. Beside him, he could hear McCoy speak softly. "The water's cold enough, Jim. Even after an hour it may not be too late."

His attention remained locked on the skimmer. He was holding his breath although he didn't realize it.

After an endless moment one of the men straightened and met his gaze. "It's an animal, sir. An ungulate of some kind."

Kirk let the air out of his lungs in a sound resembling a gasp. McCoy visibly sagged. "Thank god," the doctor whispered under his breath.

**********

The search continued until sunset. Kirk moved from one group to another, listening to reports, conferring with various personnel. To an outside observer he would have appeared composed but McCoy knew him better than that, noted how his stride increased, his body language grew more intense as one fruitless hour was superseded by another.

"Jim." He laid a hand on the captain's shoulder, momentarily stilling his restless movements. "You've been down here for over nine hours now. Come back to the ship and get some rest."

Kirk didn't respond. The transporter hummed behind them, beaming up members of the second investigative group, sending down shift number three to take its place.

McCoy persisted. "They'll call if they learn anything." He studied Kirk's face, saw the muscles in his jaw flex. "You won't do Spock or anyone else any good if you collapse.” His grip tightened. “You need to take a break for a while, give yourself time to recoup."

"How could he simply disappear?" Soft words, Kirk's eyes focusing on something very far away. McCoy watched him, wondering if he'd heard anything of what he had just said.

"He was right here." Kirk prodded the ground at his feet, "not ten minutes before he disappeared. I saw him standing right here." Rubbed his left thumb against the palm of his right hand, an unconscious gesture of high stress that McCoy recognized immediately. "God damn it, Bones, where is he?" There was a faint but very clear tremor in the captain's voice.

McCoy felt his stomach lurch at the sound of it. Every professional instinct propelled him to attempt to offer consolation, give Kirk a few words of encouragement and hope, but, looking into those distraught eyes, he knew that there was nothing he could say. After so many hours a black feeling of futility was beginning to pervade the entire landing party. McCoy was not immune to it. Nor was the captain.

He held out his communicator. "Please, Jim.” Repeated his plea, didn't want to make it a medical order. “Come back to the ship with me... for a few hours."

Kirk stared at it in silence, knew that McCoy was right, knew also that he would make it an order if necessary.

Slowly, he took the device from him and, in a barely audible voice, signaled the ship.

**********

By the end of the third day the mood on board was funereal. People spoke in hushed tones, especially around the captain. Kirk, gray-faced from anxiety and lack of sleep, had spent the last several hours on the planet and now, having just returned, sat at Spock's library-computer console, programming in yet another scanning pattern.

Uhura cast him an oblique look. Kirk's eyes were glassy, his hands clenched. Sulu turned to catch her gaze. He shook his head, his expression filled with sorrow. Chekov stared mutely at his monitors.

Sliding a computer disk into the slot, Kirk waited a few seconds, then flicked the switch. The indifferent, metallic voice came back to him almost immediately. "Results of scan negative."

Kirk slammed a closed fist against the panel. Everyone on the bridge jumped. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, profoundly disturbed by his visible lapse. “Sorry.” Mumbled words, directed at no one in particular. Rising abruptly to his feet, he walked to the turbolift. "I'll be in sickbay, Lieutenant."

Uhura swiveled in her chair, watched him, rigid as reinforced steel, stand with his back to the bridge. An instant later the doors closed, taking him down to McCoy.

**********

The message from Admiral O'Connor, head of security in this sector, came just as Kirk crossed through the sickbay doors. He bent over McCoy's desk and opened a channel. "Captain,” O'Connor nodded his head in a terse greeting, “we have your report on the events of the past three days. Have there been any recent developments?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw McCoy gesture toward the chair behind him and sat down. "No, sir. Commander Spock is still missing."

"Captain..." The lines around O'Connor's mouth deepened. It was obvious from his expression that he didn't like what he was about to say. "This disappearance could have very serious repercussions if Commander Spock has fallen into the hands of an enemy of the Federation. If you believe that such a scenario is possible, I must know now in order to alter certain highly sensitive codes and procedures he was privy to."

McCoy planted himself behind Kirk's chair, coming into O'Connor's view for the first time. His eyes were dark with anger. "Spock would not betray his Starfleet oath, Admiral. He'd die first."

O'Connor looked over Kirk's shoulder to study McCoy's face. "He may not have that option, Doctor." His voice was very low. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but we have to prepare for the contingency that Commander Spock could divulge sensitive information..."

Kirk rose to his feet, fingers curling up into fists. O'Connor hesitated.

"Admiral,” Despite that, his words were spoken clearly and precisely, "we've run multiple tests on the atmosphere and surrounding space and have found no evidence that a vessel or transporter beam has been within a hundred parsecs of the planet."

"We've received intelligence reports for the past several months that the Klingons have been working on a method of total screening. If they've successfully accomplished it the engine's radiation trail wouldn't be visible."

"Spock would not betray his Starfleet oath."

"Captain." Painfully aware of Kirk's haggard appearance, O'Connor's gaze softened. "Jim, I'm not questioning his courage or integrity but I can't ignore these reports. It won't be the first time we've changed the codes, you know that. When Captain Hsau vanished eighteen months ago in the Altair sector we altered the pattern."

"Spock's only been missing for three days,” McCoy cut in. “Don't you think you're writing him off a bit too early?"

O'Connor didn't respond, his gaze remaining on Kirk, who stood silently before him. After a moment, he nodded his head. "Very well, Captain. Our intelligence status will remain unchanged. Inform me immediately if you learn anything. O'Connor out."

The viewscreen went dark. Slumping back into the chair, Kirk slowly turned off the monitor. His face was deathly pale, the admiral's words only serving to reinforce fears lurking at the back of his own mind. He knew of the Klingon rumors, just as O'Connor did.

"That son-of-a-bitch."

McCoy's harsh words jolted him and Kirk turned around, regarded the doctor sadly, reading the heartache behind his outburst. "By rights he should have changed the codes already and you know it." Leaning forward, he rested his head in his hands. "I've seen those intelligence reports, too." His shoulders began to sag.

"Jim, go to your quarters and lie down.”

Kirk stared at the tabletop. "This not knowing is the worst. All sorts of terrible thoughts are running through my mind. What if O'Connor is right? What if the Klingons did manage to get him out of here without leaving a trail?" Kirk closed his eyes. "Dear god, Bones, what if the Klingons have him?"

McCoy laid a compassionate hand on his shoulder, could feel the muscles, rock-hard, beneath the tunic. "Jim," he said gently, "if the Klingons had been able to do that, don't you think that they'd have gone after you instead of Spock?"

Kirk looked up, hope igniting in his eyes for an instant. Then his gaze darkened once more. "I wasn't alone like he was. I was always with someone else, probably had a half-dozen people within twenty feet of me the entire time. Besides, how would they have been able to pick out my readings from those of the other humans? Spock was the only Vulcan. He'd have been easy to isolate."

A look of great sadness came into Kirk's eyes. "He was always the different one. Humans and human-looking people seem to be everywhere but Vulcans are so rare. I often found myself wishing, when we beamed down to a planet with a humanoid population, that they would be Vulcan in appearance." His voice dropped to a whisper. “But they never were."

Kirk's emotional control was beginning to fragment. Rising rapidly to his feet, he pushed his chair back with such force it nearly toppled to the floor. “You're right. I should take a break, get off my feet for a while.” Spine ramrod-straight, he walked quickly to the door, determined to maintain that facade of control until he was safely alone. “I'll have Mister Scott take the con, will be in my quarters for the next few hours.”

At that moment the voice of Pavel Chekov paged him over the intercom. The Russian's speech was so rapid, the tone so agitated, that it heightened his accent, making the words difficult to understand.

Reacting to his excitement, Kirk ran to the intercom and slammed a hand against the switch. "Kirk here. What ---"

"Captain! I've picked up Mister Spock's body readings, sir! Right on the riverbank where you last saw him! He just appeared there out of nowhere!"

Kirk's heart seemed to stop. "Get him up, Chekov! Feed the coordinates to the Transporter Room! I'm on my way."

He raced to the door without waiting to close the channel. "Get your medical kit and meet me there, McCoy!" he yelled over one shoulder as he disappeared down the corridor.

**********

It was the sunlight reflecting off the smooth surface that first attracted Spock's attention. Glancing up from his tricorder, he saw the spark of color and, bending down, picked up a small rock lying nestled in the grass at his feet. Silver and red swirled around one another in a striking combination, mute indications of its fiery rebirth in the bowels of a volcano millions of years before.

Turning the stone in his hand, he twitched instinctively as a hidden sliver of quartz sliced into one index finger. Opening his hand, he examined the wound. The cut was smooth and shallow and he quickly dismissed the injury as irrelevant.

Taking another step forward, he suddenly felt every hair on his body begin to rise as if he'd just walked through a faint electrical charge. Looking up, he saw with a start that the river was no longer there. The blue sky overhead was now tinted a gentle shade of lavender, the air hot and sultry. Instinctively, he took a step back, the rock slipping through his fingers. The tingling sensation reoccurred, accompanied by a brief flash of disorientation. An instant later the river reappeared, shimmering like a mirage as it crystallized into its familiar pattern. Before he could organize his thoughts he was gripped by the disquieting sensation of a transporter beam. The entire incident lasted four seconds.

Five second later First Officer Spock reassembled on the platform. The first thing he saw was Transporter Chief Kyle standing ten feet before him, his jaw hanging down. The door opened and Kirk ran in, his eyes enormous, his face a deathly pale. Spock watched in utter bafflement as the captain stopped abruptly at the base of the platform with uncharacteristic hesitancy. He stared up, as if doubting the evidence of his own senses. "Spock...?"

The Vulcan moved forward, confused by Kirk's reaction, by his being on the ship in the first place. A few minutes ago, before his own peculiar experience, he had glanced up to see him kneeling on the hillside below, flanked by two of his crew.

Spock studied his face, noting the exhaustion, the disheveled look. Kirk even seemed thinner, as if he hadn't eaten in days. Spock felt a surge of that illogical, familiar fear that was as much a part of him now as breathing. He took another step forward. "Jim, what has happened? Are you all right?"

At the sound of his voice Kirk let out the breath he'd been unconsciously holding in. His pale face turned a shade whiter and for an instant Spock was certain that he was about to faint right on the transporter room floor. His own fear increased geometrically. "Jim, what ---"

At that moment Leonard McCoy raced through the door, mediscanner running madly. Brushing past Kirk, he slid to a stop directly before him. Without a word, ran the scanner rapidly along the length of his body, studying it intensively, carrying out a half-dozen tests one after another. Two nurses pushed a gurney into the room.

Spock's eyes widened. "Doctor, I assure you ---"

"Shut up, Spock, and get on the gurney."

Hearing McCoy call him by name, Kirk moved forward. "Let him walk, Bones."

McCoy flashed him a look but the captain's gaze wasn't on him. It was on Spock. An expression of pure wonderment spread across his face. For the first time in three days, he smiled.

Squaring his shoulders, he climbed the transporter steps and stopped before his first officer. “Mister Spock.” His voice was level now, too, the emotional turmoil brought once more under control, "where have you been?"

**********

Crouching behind a large rock, the child ran forward the instant the apparition disappeared. Holding her hand out before her, she swept the air where it had stood but all was still and empty now. Heart hammering wildly in her chest, she replayed the startling vision. It stood here. Wide eyes scanned the flattened grass at her feet. It came from nowhere, from the very air itself, and stood right here. The creature didn't look like her people, that was true. Its skin was smooth, its body tall and thin, hands hardly hands at all, with no claws at the fingertips. More like a visitor from hell than one from heaven.

But still it appeared exactly as the holy men of the city had described, the men in stiff robes who visited her village once a year, armed with heavy books and long sermons. They would come and, among other things, tell tales of supernatural beings who materialized from nothingness to walk among the people for a time. And, although those miracles had occurred in days long past, the stories had always filled her with a sense of awe and wonder. Despite its strange appearance this creature had come in such a way. And could not a visitor from heaven take on any form that it wished?

It had to be an angel, she reasoned, her mindless terror of a few minutes ago dissipating as the thought settled into an iron-hard certainty, a certainty spawned of childlike innocence and a firm, albeit unquestioning, religious faith.

"I've got to find something.” Voice high-pitched with excitement, she began to look around. “The grass where it stood, maybe, or the dirt. If it left a footprint in the dirt... "

The words trailed off as her gaze fell on the rock the angel held in its hand, that it had carried over from the other side. Lifting it from the ground, she studied the peculiar color staining one side. Stretched out a finger to lightly brush the emerald fluid against her skin. A relic. she thought. A sacred relic. Her heart nearly exploded with divine rapture. The blood of an angel.

Folding the priceless object carefully within the folds of her dress, she took off toward her village at a run.

**********

Spock lay on the diagnostic bed, uncomfortable as usual under McCoy's intense scrutiny.

The doctor, however, wasn't watching him. His concentration was centered on the panels above his head, scrutinizing the dials as they rose to settle into a normal Vulcan pattern.

Sensing Kirk's approach, Spock turned toward the outer doorway just as he entered the room. Walking quickly to his side, the captain smiled. "Admiral O'Connor sends his regards, Commander."

Spock nodded as he gravely studied Kirk's face. Despite his smile, the ravages of the past three days were plainly discernible to him now, the exhaustion and emotional distress, the dark smudges under both eyes, the way his tunic hung off his body a bit too loosely.

Because of me. The realization cut through him like a knife. It was all because of me. Kirk had given him a brief account of what had occurred as they'd walked to sickbay, McCoy and the medical personnel trailing a foot behind. The underlying meaning behind the words was not lost on him and, lying here now, seeing the aftereffects of those three endless days still wrapped around the captain's shoulders like a shroud, he felt deep sorrow that he had been responsible for causing his friend so much pain.

McCoy's abrupt movement interrupted his thoughts. The doctor met his gaze, rested a hand lightly on one arm. "You're fine, Spock. I don't read any changes at all. Everything's perfectly normal.”

"Then he's free to go."

"He is. Whatever happened to him down there didn't cause any damage, near as I can tell."

Spock rose to a sitting position and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, noting that both men resisted the temptation to help him. He stood up. "Captain, I would appreciate reviewing all data accumulated during my absence in an attempt to ascertain what has occurred."

Kirk nodded. "I've already had the information fed into Briefing Room A's computer outlet. We can go over it together while Chekov's getting your tricorder report ready." He glanced at McCoy. "Care to sit in, Bones?”

McCoy shook his head. "No, thank you. You'll just bore me to death with a lot of technical buzz words. You two go on ahead."

Kirk made for the door, Spock taking his familiar place at his side. In the corridor they were stopped several times by crew members welcoming back their missing first officer. Spock nodded gravely to each well-wisher in turn. The captain smiled.

Finally, the doors of the briefing room closed behind them. For the first time since Spock's abrupt arrival back on board, they were alone.

He stopped, that carefully neutral Vulcan facade falling away with the shutting of the doors. "Jim... “ He hesitated, searching for the right words. "I am sorry for the... trouble I have caused you. I realize how distressing the situation must have been." There were so many things, a thousand things, he wanted to say. What came out was hopelessly inadequate.

Kirk turned to stand directly before him, his expression gentling as he watched his awkward attempts to express his feelings. And Spock knew that the captain understood. As always. "It's over with now, my friend," he said softly. "You don't have to say anything. I'm just grateful to have you back."

Spock looked up. Words were, indeed, hopelessly inadequate. Any words. What Kirk needed, what they both needed, was something far different. Far more human.

Slowly, tentatively, he held out his hands. Kirk responded without hesitation, wrapping him in his arms and pulling him forward in a fierce embrace. Lowering his head, Spock rested it lightly on the captain's shoulder as his joy and staggering relief washed over him like a great wave.

After a moment Kirk let go and took a reluctant step backward. “You know," his voice was rough and slightly uneven, "I try to be objective with regard to my crew, try not to value one life over another. But I'm not objective, not by a long shot. Sometimes it scares the hell out of me when I realize how much I've come to depend on you, how important you are to me. Do you know what I mean?"

Of course Spock knew, thirty plus years of Vulcan training and repression notwithstanding. He might deny it on a stack of Bibles a mile high but he knew, had, in the privacy of his own thoughts at least, long since accepted how he felt for his captain. His friend. The single most important thing in his life.

Kirk was watching him intently, a look of such open affection on his face it touched his heart. Reaching up in a gesture of intimacy he wouldn't have dreamed of five minutes before, he ran his fingers across the captain's cheek, saw tears well up in his eyes. “Oh, please, Jim, do not cry for me. I could not bear to ---”

The buzzer at the door sounded. Spock abruptly pulled away and tried to strip all trace of emotion from his face. Kirk gave him a moment to compose himself before turning to face the doorway. “Come.”

Leonard McCoy walked into the room. "Thought I'd better sit in on this meeting, after all." He fixed an innocent gaze on the darkened monitor. "I see I haven't missed anything." Moving to the table, he sat himself down. "Well, are you two going to stand there all day? I have work to do, you know."

Despite his roiling emotions, Kirk couldn't repress an amused smile. He sat, Spock directly to his left. Flipped on the monitor and turned toward him, his manner reverting to the strictly professional. "I've told you what happened from our end: you simply disappeared. We ran continual tests on everything we could think of and found nothing." Pulling up reports on the past three days, he waited in silence as Spock read through the voluminous record of their search efforts. When the Vulcan finally met his gaze again, he sat back in his chair. "You said earlier that you felt a tingling sensation and then your physical environment changed?”

Spock nodded. "It felt vaguely as if I had passed through a mild electrical forcefield. When I looked up immediately thereafter the topography of my surroundings was quite different, as was the climate and the color of the sky. I was somewhat... startled and stepped back rather abruptly. The sensation reoccurred, accompanied by a brief moment of disorientation, and then the landscape resumed its natural appearance."

"That was when Chekov spotted you with the scanners and beamed you back on board." Kirk drummed his fingers lightly on the tabletop. "It sounds almost as if you passed through a physical warp of some kind." His mind was spinning as he began to ponder the potential implications of such an occurrence. If they were in fact dealing with a warp, Starfleet Command would have to be notified. There were endless possibilities for danger.

McCoy leaned forward. "If that had been the case, ship's scanners would have picked up some trace of it, wouldn't they?"

Spock shook his head. "No. From the evidence of the search efforts and my own experiences it would appear that we are dealing with a rip in the dimensional framework. The fact that the scanners detected nothing tends to support this hypothesis. According to theory, such a dimensional warp would function like an electromagnetic wave, opening on one end, the point where I stepped through, and closing behind me. This would explain why no evidence remained for the scanners to register."

"And it reopened again just as you stepped out," Kirk added.

"Precisely."

"Dear god." McCoy's voice dropped as the meaning behind their words became clear. “If you'd been a half-second off either way you'd have been standing right in the middle..."

Kirk visibly paled. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he cleared his throat. "Let's stop speculating and get some facts, shall we, gentlemen?"

Turning on the intercom, he signaled the bridge. "Mister Chekov, is that report from Mister Spock's tricorder ready yet?"

"Yes, sir. I just received it."

"Pipe it down here immediately."

Chekov acknowledged, made a few rapid adjustments as he shifted the tricorder's records from the library-science computer to their own. Data began to fill the screen.

The three men read without interruption or comment. When they were finished, Kirk looked up at his second-in-command. "It would seem that our guess was correct."

Spock's attention remained focused on the screen. "Indeed. A definite physical warp, caused by some as of yet unexplained force from the other side."

Kirk pointed to a particular set of entries. "Sentient lifeforms, indications of a relatively dense center of population a short distance to the north. Is it possible that it could have been engineered artificially?" Such a scenario, they all knew, could be a prelude to invasion.

Spock studied the report for another moment before answering. "No, I do not believe so. The data indicates a level of technological development to be Earth equivalent of approximately 1350 Current Era. Due to the low Richter cultural readings I would consider it highly improbable that the warp was the result of a deliberate act. Manipulated distortion of field densities is beyond even our science."

The captain allowed himself a subtle sigh of relief. "I agree." He gave Spock a faint smile before turning to the monitor once again. "What I don't understand, though, is why, if this was simply a dimensional warp, there'd be such a difference in perceptual time. Why would it appear to have been only a few seconds to you when it was three days to us?" Three endless days, he thought to himself.

Spock regarded him with a pained, sympathetic gaze.

When he spoke, however, he betrayed none of it in his voice. “Distortions of this nature are very poorly understood. When physical laws are,” he steepled his fingers, “'bent' as it were, there is, during the period of disruption, no parameters for reality. The two universes do not tie in together. I was physically absent from this one for three days but only present in the other for four point two seconds. There does not have to be an overlap, a correlation, because the dimensional warp circumvents the laws of physics, at least as far as our understanding of the laws of physics is concerned."

McCoy zeroed in on a minor entry, almost a footnote in the mass of information. "One of the lifeforms was only a few feet from where you were standing. Do you see it?"

Spock peered at the monitor. One eyebrow rose. A brief look of concern flashed across his face.

The look didn't escape Kirk's attention. "What can you make of it, Bones?" Despite the fact that the question was directed at McCoy, his gaze remained on Spock.

But, scanning the data on the small organism, the doctor didn't notice. “It's a child, I would say, judging by the head size relative to that of the body. Not humanoid, though, more like a reptilian form. Apparently warm blooded, given the level of infrared radiation." His eyes narrowed. “No evidence of external genitalia so probably a female.”

"It's the only sentient being within a two mile radius,” Kirk continued, attention returning to the report. “That in and of itself would indicate an accidental occurrence. If the warp had been planned, the area should have shown evidence of more inhabitants."

"That would seem a reasonable assumption."

Kirk glanced over at the Vulcan's words. "Do you have any theories as to what caused it?”

"Negative. The tricorder gives indications of molecular disruptions, magnetic flow irregularities, but it was not in operation long enough to render any significant findings. I shall need to run further tests in order to form a suitable hypothesis."

Kirk leaned forward, hands clasped before him. "Admiral O'Connor is going to want a detailed analysis of the situation, regardless. Even if the warp is naturally occurring, it could open again and pose a threat to our universe."

"Agreed. As we now have readings from the other side, it may be possible to extract information that was undetectable before. I can tie our scientific equipment in with my tricorder, recalibrate it all to highlight any similarities. Sensors will, of course,” Spock paused, “function to greater effect if they are located on the surface."

Kirk met his gaze and held it for a long moment, a dozen emotions visible in his eyes, the most obvious of which was reluctance. A very deep reluctance.

But there were larger issues involved here. The ship could possibly be endangered by the phenomenon, as could the entire galaxy. It wouldn't be the first time a dimensional warp had threatened all of existence.

And Spock was, unfortunately, the most qualified man to lead the landing party. McCoy had certified him fit. Kirk had no valid reasons for ordering him to remain on board.

Apart, that is, from the horror of the past few days.

He shut off the monitor and stood, knowing that only one decision was possible. "Very well. Get together everything you need and let me know when you're ready to beam down. I'll be on the bridge until then."

"Very well, sir." Spock rose with him.

McCoy remained seated. "Do you want me to go along, too?

Kirk shook his head. "No. Not right now. Just be ready for a call in case we need you in a hurry."

McCoy nodded and watched as the two men left the briefing room together. Just as the doors slid shut, he saw Kirk lean toward his first officer and whisper in a nearly inaudible voice, "Stay with someone at all times. Understood?"

Spock turned to face him but the doors closed before McCoy could hear the Vulcan's response.

**********

Sophisticated monitors stood like sentinels surrounding the area where Commander Spock had abruptly reentered his universe. Spock himself moved back and forth among them, studying their reports, adjusting finely-tuned settings, conferring in muted tones with the personnel manning each one. They'd been engaged in the search for nearly six hours now. So far they had turned up nothing.

Kirk approached, watched as he peered into a field density monitor. "Anything to report?" The captain's voice held the inflection of a question, although he could tell from Spock's tight expression that there was no news.

"No, Jim. Frustrating." Spock's gaze remained fixed on the screen, watching the steady, microscopic fluctuation in the planet's magnetic field. Shifting the tricorder slung over one shoulder, he held the two together, mouth turned down in a very human frown. "We would have had far more data if I'd only set this on maximum. I was careless, allowed myself to be swayed by the peacefulness of the surroundings.”

Kirk put a hand on his wrist. "We all did. None of us was paying enough attention. I'm as much to blame as you are.”

Spock did not look mollified. "But, as science officer, it was my responsibility---"

His words were cut off by the startled cry of a biochemist standing nearby. Both men spun instinctively to see the woman backpedal rapidly in their direction.

A creature stood just beyond her, its face contorted in a gesture somewhere between shock and confusion. The other dimensional landscape was visible behind it, the sky a menacing chocolate brown. Streaks of lightning sliced through the air, illuminating giant thunderheads towering thirty thousand feet into the stratosphere. For the briefest of instants, thunder rumbled across the breach.

Then the warp began to close, fading away like a bizarre after-image. Sensors whirred as a dozen scientists aimed their scanners at the center of the distortion, gathering as much data as its brief appearance allowed.

Spock's fingers flew across the tricorder as he hit several buttons in succession. His eyes flashed from the panel to the vanishing warp to the alien and back again.

Kirk's gaze remained on the creature. It stood on two hind legs, its torso and upper extremities covered in a loose-fitting, coarsely woven fabric. The clothes were dirty and tattered, hanging off its body in shreds, revealing the numerous scabs and running sores that oozed from beneath it.

The alien staggered, swaying from side to side as it scanned its suddenly unfamiliar environment. The mouth opened, a ghastly wheezing sound coming from deep within its lungs as it appeared to struggle for breath. Lips pulled back to reveal a series of sharply pointed teeth. The creature hissed.

For several seconds no one spoke, the alien's attention focused on the scientists to Kirk's right. “The one you picked up earlier,” he was the first to do so, his voice very low, “it wasn't like this, was it?”

“Negative.” Stepping forward, Spock put himself between Kirk and the creature. “Those readings were quite different, far stronger and more stable.”

At his movements the alien turned toward them directly, slitted eyes widening in an unmistakable expression of absolute horror. Stumbling backward, it began swiping wildly at the air as if fending off some unseen menace. Tilting its face toward the sky, it raised both arms, the sounds changing now, becoming almost like a chant. Taking another lurching step backward, the creature fell to its knees, chin resting against the breastbone protruding like a shield across its chest. Two heavy membranes slid down from beneath its overhanging brows to partly obscure the eyes.

Pulling out his communicator, Kirk signaled the ship. “Lieutenant,” he whispered, “get McCoy down here with sterilization gear immediately. We've found what appears to be a very sick alien."

Uhura mimicked his tone, acknowledging the order with a terse 'yes, sir.' Kirk cut the channel and, seeing those membranes retract as the creature raised its head, slowly put the communicator away and held out his hands, palms upraised in what he hoped was a universal gesture of non-aggression.

The alien attempted to rise but, apparently reaching the limits of its strength, toppled forward and lay, twitching feebly, eyes fixed in their direction, fingers digging spasmodically into the dirt.

Spock made several adjustments to his tricorder. “The readings are dropping, Jim,” he said softly. “The creature appears to be dying.”

Kirk glanced over one shoulder. “Damn it, where's ---”

As if in answer, the shimmering glow of a transporter beam appeared just off to their right: a wide beam containing McCoy, three members of his medical team, and an assorted array of equipment.

"What happened, Captain?" McCoy's mediscanner was already running at full power.

Kirk inclined his head toward the creature. "It just crossed over from the other side, must have been walking toward the warp when it opened."

McCoy studied the device before glancing up to note with relief that the breeze was blowing toward the alien, that the well-trained Enterprise crew had already shifted, were all now safely upwind. “You'd better get back a little farther, just to be on the safe side.” Readjusting the scanner, he held it out. “We don't know what we're dealing... “

A pause, and when the doctor spoke again there was a slight change in his tone that didn't escape Kirk's notice. “Doctor Stewart,” he called out to the senior member of his team, already dressed in a sterile suit, “bring monitors four and six.”

Pointedly avoiding Kirk's gaze, McCoy slipped on a suit of his own and took one of the monitors, both men cautiously approaching the alien.

Pain-filled eyes rolled around to meet them as the two men knelt at its side. McCoy ran a series of tests, then, taking the second monitor Stewart silently handed him, repeated the action, speaking softly as he did so. "We won't hurt you. We're here to help. We're not going to hurt you."

The creature stared at him without comprehension. A spasm gripped it and the wasted form shuddered, its body beginning to go into seizure. McCoy pulled out a hypo, hesitated momentarily, then injected the contents into the alien's shoulder.

The quaking stopped almost immediately, the creature fixing him with a look of stunned amazement. There was a peculiar change of expression as its lips twisted back in an open-mouthed grimace, a gesture that McCoy took to be a smile.

He smiled in return, lightly cradling gnarled fingers that reached out to him, inwardly cursing the impermeable fabric that prevented any true contact.

“I have to go.” Reluctantly, he pulled away, not at all sure the alien understood. Rose to his feet and turned toward Kirk. "I don't register any harmful bacterial or viral organisms. Can't tell for sure until we run more tests but I'll put him in one of the isolation chambers off sickbay. So long as he's in there and we wear protective gear when we're inside I don't think there'll be any danger to the crew.”

“What's wrong with him, Bones?”

McCoy knelt again, laid a reassuring hand on the creature's shoulder as his people set up a sterile field around it. "I'd rather not speculate until I've run those tests."

Kirk felt that stab of fear again, recognized an evasion when he saw one, but, respecting McCoy's reasoning, didn't push the issue.

Spock, for his part, stood at his side and said nothing.

**********

It was six hours later. Glancing over one shoulder, Kirk swiveled his chair around to face the science station. Spock sat, a finger pressed against the ear piece as he received yet another report from the main science lab. Frowning, he hit a half-dozen buttons on his panel before rising and gazing into the viewer; then sat again, listening, flipping dials, frustration etched into his face.

Kirk knew it, could read him like an expert after years of observation, resisted the urge to drum his fingertips on the console. O'Conner had sent repeated messages, the admiral no doubt pressed himself for answers. What is it? What caused it? Could it happen again and, if so, where? Anywhere? Everywhere?

Grim thoughts all, Kirk's gaze following the Vulcan's movements as he slipped what had to be the hundredth disk into his computer. Noted the way his hand abruptly stilled, hovering an inch over the panel as this latest report came back. Made several adjustment to his instruments. Played the report again, his back stiff, his movements very fast.

Kirk rose to his feet. Spock heard him, held an arm in the air. “A moment, Jim.”

Two minutes passed. Three, the bridge now in total silence.

Finally, Spock looked up, relief evident in his expression. “I believe I have ascertained the cause of the distortion."

Kirk walked rapidly to his side. "Report."

Spock came perilously close to a smile, caught himself just in time. "The warp was the result of a natural phenomenon, a unique occurrence that will not reappear."

Kirk felt the muscles in his back begin to unwind. "Explain," he said softly.

"Our sensors were able to derive much information from the alternate environment during the alien's passage through it,” Spock began. “The atmosphere on that side contained a high level of ionized beryllium atoms that computers have just confirmed was the result of the planet's encounter with a meteor shower. Arcadia has a very strong and unusually unstable magnetic field and the ionized particles coincided with an incidence of extreme disruption from within the core. The combined effect of disruptions from beneath the surface and in the atmosphere resulted in a distortion of the physical fields, creating the warp."

"But why here? Why only one?"

"The magnetic field is strongest here. As the planet rotates, its magnetic flow becomes distorted, similar to what happens on a magnitude four or five star. When the flow lines fall too far behind the rotation, they polarize, break away from the main currents and erupt at the surface."

"Solar flares."

Spock nodded. "Yes. On a gaseous planet with a fusion core the result is a flare. On a solid, iron-based body the effect is less visually dramatic but no less significant. However, the disruptions would have been contained within the mantle and undetectable on the surface were there no atmospheric charges present to draw them out."

"Like water draws out electricity," Kirk surmised.

"An appropriate choice of terms. The meteor shower impacted with the atmosphere at the exact moment the magnetic imbalance reached its height."

"And when the planet's rotation carried it past the storm after it circled the sun, the disruption happened again."

"Correct. As meteors with beryllium in the order of three hundred thousand parts per million account for four point six percent of all known to exist, the odds of such an occurrence are approximately twenty-eight billion to one. The probability of it happening again is so slight as to render it a point of theoretical interest only."

Kirk paused for a moment in thought. "Some of those scanner reports indicate over two hundred inhabitants from the other side in the immediate area of the warp," he said, bringing up a peculiarity that for some reason had been bothering him all day. "It's not really surprising, then, that our visitor crossed over, but I keep wondering what they were doing there, when only one was present when you stepped through. Strange."

He glanced up. "How much time between the two occurrences, from their point of reference?"

An eyebrow rose by a fraction. "Approximately one hundred and ninety-six days."

Kirk shook his head as if to dispel the sense of foreboding that was beginning to seize hold of him. "I don't understand why --"

The command chair's intercom buzzed, cutting off his words. He leaned over Spock's panel and flipped the switch. "Kirk here."

"Captain? McCoy. Would you come to sickbay? I have some further information for you."

Kirk and Spock exchanged glances. "We'll be right down."

"Jim..." McCoy hesitated. "I'd rather you came down alone."

Spock's brow furrowed. Kirk kept his own expression noncommittal. "On my way."

**********

Leonard McCoy was standing in the center of sickbay's main room, waiting, as Kirk crossed through the doorway, his expression as grim as the captain had ever seen it. “Let's go into my office.” He gestured toward a side room, followed Kirk inside and locked the door.

Seating himself across from the captain, he centered his gaze somewhere off in the distance.

Kirk leaned forward, McCoy's profoundly troubled demeanor sending a chill the length of his spine. "What is it, Bones? Is it the alien?"

McCoy refocused. "No, not exactly. He's been stabilized although he's extremely weak. I've listed him in critical condition. His chances of survival are poor, very poor."

He stopped speaking, the lines on his face growing deeper.

“Doctor.” Kirk mentally prepared himself, knew that what was coming would be bad. “Tell me what's going on."

A shudder seemed to pass through McCoy's body. He took a deep breath. "I've determined what's wrong with him, Jim. He has... god help us all, he has pneumonic sporaccia."

Kirk pulled back as if physically struck. Sporaccia. He knew of the disease, would never forget that name for as long as he lived. Spock had nearly died of it two years before. A rare and deadly virus resembling smallpox, he'd contracted it from a contaminated Vegan trader during a provisioning trip to the Alcor colonies. The standard inoculations had not responded to his hybrid chemistry, a lesson Starfleet learned only after the disease had nearly taken his life. McCoy's constant care and twenty-third century medicine had pulled him through the ordeal but Kirk could still recall the horrifying pain that even Vulcan controls could not overcome, the lesions that covered his body, the twitching limbs.

Without conscious thought, he turned toward the isolation chamber he couldn't even see from here. "What are you saying, Bones?" The words were little more than a whisper.

McCoy folded his hands before him, the grip so tight his fingers depressed the skin. He took another deep breath. "I'm saying that the alien is suffering from pneumonic sporracia of a type identical to the virus within Spock's system."

Kirk resisted the temptation to stand. "That virus mutated into a benign form. You told me that two years ago."

"Yes, benign for us." McCoy dropped his gaze to his tightly clenched hands and, seeing the whitened skin, pulled them apart. "I'd have given anything to have gotten a different answer. I suspected on the planet but hoped I was wrong."

"But how could Spock have affected anyone? He was only in that dimensional plane for a few seconds and had no contact with anything from the other side. Even the life form near him stayed over ten feet away. There was no host, no way for the disease to spread, not that quickly. It's impossible."

"No." McCoy sighed. "It's not. Remember the physical I gave Spock when he was beamed back on board? I told you then that he was in perfect condition and he was - with one exception. A cut, a minor cut, hardly showed up on my monitors, it was so small."

The doctor's face had faded to gray. "The cut bled. He must have been holding something, a rock maybe, that caused the injury. And he dropped it. It'd be instinctive, to drop it without thinking. The girl must have seen it fall and picked it up after he disappeared."

McCoy closed his eyes. "Lord knows what she told the people in her village, with him appearing and disappearing like that. You know how those things grow into legends in a primitive culture like this one was. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone within a twenty mile radius touched it before that first day was over."

Kirk shook his head, resisting the doctor's explanation. "No. It must be a coincidence, a similar virus ---"

"Captain," McCoy's tone was harsh, despite his anguish. "I'd never have voiced this if I wasn't certain. I've run three in-depth sub-atomic scans. The virus isn't similar, it's identical. There's no doubt as to its source."

Aware of the rapid beating of his heart, Kirk forced his voice to be level when he spoke again. "Can you estimate the speed of the contamination?"

"No, not really. Just that the alien on board ship shows a marked susceptibility to the virus, lungs extremely vulnerable to damage, little immunological protection of any kind. Apparently, there were no serious pneumonic diseases on the planet before..."

McCoy's voice trailed off and for a moment neither man spoke.

"Just like the inhabitants of Sigma Elorianus." Kirk was the first to do so, his eyes distant. "Do you recall, the accidental contamination five years ago?"

The doctor nodded. He remembered. Inadvertent infection was always a danger. True, they'd never faced a trans-dimensional pandemic before but germs were germs, pretty much wherever you went. There was no reason to believe they'd behave differently on an alternate plane, so long as their hosts were oxygen-breathing, carbon-based lifeforms. "I'm sorry, Jim."

A look of great despair filled the captain's eyes. "This will kill him, Bones."

McCoy laid a compassionate hand on one arm, reaching for that last slim ray of hope. "It might still be possible to halt the spread, to contain some of the damage. I can set up an emergency medical unit on the planet. When the warp opens again, I'll have volunteers ready to cross over with sufficient inoculates to vaccinate everyone on the planet if need be. We can still save a large ---”

"It won't open again."

McCoy drew back. "What?"

"I said it won't open again. Spock determined what was causing it. He told me just a few minutes ago that it was a unique phenomenon and won't reoccur."

"No chance?" McCoy's voice sounded pleading.

"No."

McCoy ran his fingers through his hair. Kirk rose to his feet. "I'll tell him."

The doctor's gaze followed him up. "I'll do it," he said, his tone filled with uncertainty. It was clear that he didn't relish the idea.

Swiveling on one heel, Kirk made for the door. "No. It's my place." At the doorway, he paused, shot McCoy a look of that bordered dangerously on the hopeless.

But he didn't say anything. He straightened, spine rigid as a steel beam, and left.

McCoy sat for several seconds afterward, staring at the closed door, his mind far away. He remembered the unfortunate Elorianus incident all too well. A Starfleet ensign who'd been skipped in a minor inoculation had infested an entire population with a bacterial infection. The bacteria had proliferated, mutated into a ghastly parody of its former self, and swept through the virgin population like smallpox through the native peoples of North America. Three hundred thousand inhabitants had died before the rampage was finally halted. The ensign responsible, despite assurances that he was not at fault, blamed himself. Two weeks after the deaths began he'd committed suicide.

McCoy stood, followed the captain into the outer room, but Kirk was long gone. He studied the sickbay beds, the transparency sealing off the chamber where the alien lay. It was a losing battle when all was said and done and in his heart he'd always known it. Death, in the long run, was the final reality. Death and recrimination.

Damn it. He shook himself out of such mournful, self-indulgent thoughts. The days ahead were going to be difficult ones, of that he had no doubt. He would need his faculties intact.

The intercom buzzed: one of Mister Scott's engineers with minor electrical burns, and the doctor found himself grateful for the diversion. “Send him right down,” he said, reaching for his tissue regenerator. “I'll be ready for him.”

Here, at least, was a problem he could fix. McCoy waited, his mood at rock bottom. Not much in the overall scheme of things, the deluge about to engulf them all, but it was something.

**********

The captain walked to the turbolift, his stride long and seemingly effortless. Stepped inside and stood in silence as the lift took him up. Externally he appeared calm. Inside, where no one save his empathic first officer would be able to see, he was in turmoil.

The doors opened. Of the personnel manning the bridge, only Spock turned to look at him as he exited the lift. He walked rapidly to the Vulcan's side, aware of the concerned expression on that normally expressionless face.

"Mister Spock, will you come with me, please? There's something we have to discuss."

The Vulcan nodded without question. Motioning for Chekov to take over his station, he followed him back inside. “Lieutenant,” Kirk turned to Uhura, his hand wrapped around the lift control in a death grip, "we'll be in Briefing Room A."

The doors closed before she could reply.

**********

Spock sat silently, watching the captain as he uncharacteristically searched for words. Kirk was agitated. He was trying to hide it, to maintain a mask of control, but it was a weak thing at best, the emotional emanations he was giving off slamming into Spock from all sides. His gaze followed the captain as he paced the length of the briefing room. Stopping at the far wall, he swung around to face him. "Spock... Doctor McCoy has just informed me of something..." He hesitated.

That grim aura grew stronger, took on an almost physical presence, the sight of it sending a flash of panic shooting through Spock from end to end. He rose to his feet and circled the table. "Jim, are you unwell?"

An achingly sad smile touched Kirk's mouth. He shook his head. “No. No, it had nothing to do with me."

Moving to a chair, he lowered himself down, Spock watching him intently. Despite the captain's words, he was not convinced. To his appraising eye Kirk seemed inexpressibly weary, dispirited in a way he'd never seen before, as if a huge weight was resting upon his shoulders.

Kirk glanced up, saw him still standing over him. That sorrowful smile returned and he gestured to the empty chair at his left. "Sit, please."

Spock sat down, his eyes never straying from Kirk's face.

The captain leaned forward on his elbows. "It's about the alien.”

Spock waited, sensed doom in Kirk's demeanor.

“He's... McCoy's determined what's wrong with him.”

Another pause, much longer this time.

“Jim.” Spock was truly frightened now. “Tell me what is wrong.”

“God help us both.” Kirk inhaled sharply, the veins in his neck swelling as he forced out the words. “He's got viral sporaccia.”

For an instant Spock would have sworn that his heart, quite literally, stopped beating. And, for one of the few times in his adult life, his mind went completely, totally blank.

But not for long. Those Vulcan genes simply wouldn't permit it, a deadly realization taking its place within seconds. Words, in the language of his father, describing in precise detail the alien's appearance, the running sores and wheezing lungs that suddenly had a sickening familiarity to them. The reason he'd been standing by the warp, pleading no doubt for divine aid; why two hundred of his fellow beings had been there as well, all doomed to a lingering, horrifying death. For they had no access to twenty-third century medicine, no state-of-the-art sickbay and the skill of a Doctor McCoy to come to their aid. No idea of what was killing them and quite unable to do anything about it even if they did.

The stone. Another ghastly realization. The child that had so bothered both Kirk and McCoy, lingering scarcely ten feet away, she'd seen him. How could she not have seen him, seen what he held in his hand? No doubt ran forward after he'd vanished like the heavenly apparition he must have appeared, and picked it up. Took it home to her parents, her village, to be venerated as a relic, something of wonder.

Until, of course, they all began to die.

It was then that the human half of Spock's nature kicked in, a sad, guilt-ridden legacy of his mother's people, a thousand thoughts and horrific images flooding into his mind all at once. Rotting corpses in the streets and alleyways, far too many for the hapless survivors to bury. Orphaned children, their stomachs bloated, arms like dried twigs, begging for food, for comfort. Farm animals gnawing at fence rails, crying out in anguish for their vanished caregivers as they, too, starved. A society in tatters.

And it was preventable, all of it. If he hadn't seen that rock - a hopeless wish that defied all logic but one he was totally unable to suppress - if he hadn't seen that rock, hadn't cut his finger. If he'd held on to it rather than letting it go. If he'd walked faster or slower, had taken a step to the left rather than the right...

The room was suddenly too hot, the lights far too bright. Every sound was magnified, the roar of blood deafening as it pounded against his eardrums. Acceptance versus regret. Stoicism, cold and clear, battling with a crippling, paralyzing sense of despair.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kirk stretch out his arm, fingers hanging in the air, offering consolation, unconditional and rock-solid, and he very nearly gave in to it. Came so close to reaching back. So heartbreakingly close.

No. That voice again, lecturing, harassing, refusing to keep silent. You are responsible for the death of thousands it said. Hundreds of thousands. Millions. The mind rules are your only possible hope of dealing with this. You must withdraw. Now. You will lose yourself otherwise.

Still a part of him resisted, yearned for the comfort Kirk offered. Wanted so desperately to let the captain take him in his arms just as he'd done the day before in this very same briefing room. It had felt so natural then, so right.

You cannot. You cannot give in to it. You can not!

It was too much. It was simply too much and, with an almost instinctual ease, Spock did what he always did when the world threatened to crash in on him. He crept behind those mental barriers that had been his dogged companions since childhood. A cursed prison and yet, strangely, a blessed sanctuary at the same time. There were instances, many instances, when he was certain they had saved his sanity.

The captain remained perfectly still, his hand held out, fingers extended. Hoping for what was now quite impossible.

Gritting his teeth, Spock took a deep, cleansing breath. Cordoned all the pain and remorse and missed chances into that small, dark corner of his mind, the place where memories of childhood taunting, images of Leila's smile and Kirk lying dead in the sand, were entombed. With an almost superhuman effort he willed some color to come back into his cheeks.

Thirty seconds passed before Kirk reluctantly curled his fingers into a fist and pulled his arm away. A deceptive quiet filled the room. Spock was the first to break it. "I am, of course, the source of the contamination."

"I'm so sorry."

The pain in Kirk's voice nearly tore him apart, making a mockery of his fragile control, and Spock stumbled awkwardly to his feet. Savagely twisted his hands behind his back where Kirk couldn't see them shake. "Was the doctor able to ascertain the extent of the... damage?" Internally he recoiled at the unconscious hesitation. His fingers tightened their grip until the bones threatened to crack.

Kirk regarded him sadly. "No, not really. We should learn more if the alien regains consciousness."

Spock retreated once again, folded in on himself, watching with an odd sort of objectivity as the barriers, at long last, took control. They turned from glass to wood to metal, becoming almost tangible as they formed around him, insulating him from the hurt as they had all of his life. He relaxed his grip, let his hands fall to his sides. "Thank you for telling me in private, Captain. If there is nothing else, I'll return to my station."

"I think we should talk about this."

The walls were firmly in place now, an insulating coolness rippling through his body, and for the first time since Kirk's startling revelation Spock looked him squarely in the eye. "The contamination was inadvertent. The warp is closed and no attempts at aid are possible. There is nothing to discuss. It is done."

"No, it's not. Please, Spock, talk to me."

Knowing that Kirk wouldn't let him go until he confronted the issue, he relentlessly stripped away every last scrap of emotion. "Even for a Vulcan there are inevitable psychological repercussions from such an unfortunate occurrence as this but mental disciplines will enable me to overcome them. I thank you for your concern but assure you that I shall be all right."

Kirk simply sat, watching him, trying to read something in his suddenly unreadable face. Spock inclined his head. "If you will excuse me?" He calmly waited for the captain to give his reluctant permission. When at last Kirk freed him, he turned and, with a fluid and meticulously measured stride, left the room without a backward glance.

**********

Spock was at his station when the captain stepped from the turbolift. Kirk saw him visibly stiffen as he straightened, thought for a moment that he was going to turn around.

But he didn't. He kept his attention on his board and continued to work.

With studied ease, Kirk pretended to ignore it. Walking to his command chair, he sat.

Forty-five minutes crawled by. Spock's spent the entire time in what appeared to be diligent research. Kirk, for his part, signed the few reports ensigns handed him, gazed down at the planet rotating slowly in the viewscreen. Resisted the temptation to turn toward the science station without cause. Occasionally caught himself drumming his fingers along the console, careful to keep the touch light. Behind him he knew that Spock must hear the evidence of his restlessness but that too was left unspoken.

Finally the doors opened and Montgomery Scott walked onto the bridge. Kirk swiveled around and gave his engineer a warm smile. "She's all yours, Scotty." Standing up, he strolled casually to the science station and leaned against the railing. Spock remained facing his panel.

"Mister Spock?"

Slowly, reluctantly, the Vulcan turned around. He seemed cast in concrete. Kirk inclined his head. "Shift's over. Let's go get something to eat."

"I am not hungry, Captain."

Inwardly Kirk gritted his teeth. Externally he smiled. "Then a workout in the gym. It'll help take the edge off."

"I am not on edge." A hint of annoyance entered the Vulcan’s tone. Kirk's smile faded and Spock abruptly looked away, stared at the blinking lights on the panel before him. "Please, Jim," he whispered, his voice so low Kirk had to bend forward to hear. "Allow me to deal with this in my own way."

Something in Kirk's mind rebelled. His instincts told him that Spock was dead wrong in his attempts to repress the inner turmoil he could sense beneath that stony exterior.

Spock flinched, clearly reading his thoughts. Imperceptibly, he nodded. “Very well." Rising to his feet, he walked to the turbolift, standing aside to allow Kirk to precede him inside. The doors closed.

"After you left the briefing room I sent a full report to Starfleet Command." Kirk spoke the words softly into the quiet that had fallen between them.

Spock raised an eyebrow in what, to him, seemed a pathetic gesture of normality. "Indeed? The Council will undoubtedly find details of the warp to be an interesting phenomenon."

"I'm not talking about the warp. I'm talking about the contamination."

Spock was silent.

Kirk shifted to stand directly before him. "I think we should discuss this."

“We already have, sir. It was an unavoidable occurrence. Regrettable, of course, but unavoidable. It would be illogical to hold myself responsible for something over which I had no control." Spock's expression was bland in the extreme, his tone without a trace of inflection. The words almost sounded like a recording.

Kirk watched him without replying. Spock refocused his attention on the wall. "You must remember that I am not human and should not be expected to react as one."

To this, the captain said nothing.

The turbolift arrived on Deck Ten, the doors opening directly onto the gymnasium, and for the next hour the two men engaged in an intensive workout. Spock's heart, however, wasn't in it and Kirk narrowly avoided injuring him when the Vulcan failed to defend himself.

Afterward, he stepped into the sonics chamber to strip the perspiration from his skin. When he stepped out again a moment later, Spock was gone.

**********

McCoy wearily left the isolation room and, pulling off his sterile suit, dropped it down the disposal chute. Turning around, he gasped in surprise at seeing Spock standing a scant six feet away.

"I am sorry, Doctor. I did not intend to startle you." Spock forced his attention from the chamber to meet McCoy's gaze. He stood stiffly, hands clasped behind his back.

"It's all right, Spock."

The Vulcan's gaze darted back to the air-tight room. The alien, wrapped in synthetic bandages, attached to various tubes and monitors, was clearly visible through the transparency. He stared at the unmoving form, an expression of such intense pain flickering for an instant in his eyes it sent every professional cell McCoy had into overdrive. “That's enough.” He clasped a hand firmly around Spock's arm. "Come into my office. We have to talk."

Spock's eyebrow rose in surprise but he didn't pull out of the unaccustomed grasp, allowed McCoy to guide him into an adjoining room. That alone told the doctor volumes about his psychological condition.

"Sit down."

Spock obediently sat, fixed him with a look of insufferable superiority.

It rolled right off McCoy's back as he sat himself across the table, returned the look with a cantankerous one of his own. "You might be able to pull that Vulcan routine over on Jim but it won't flush down here. You're experiencing a lot of pain over this: you have to be."

Spock's expression shifted from disdain to indifference but again McCoy wasn't fooled. His eyes narrowed. “I know you, Spock. You're a lot more human than you let on. You've infected a population with a plague for which they have a marked susceptibility. I can't tell you how many have died but I can tell you that the number must be very high. You know how these things spread as well as I do. You've read my log reports."

Spock tensed slightly at this bit of information. McCoy leaned forward. "Don't underestimate me. I know what's going on around here. When someone taps my medical files, even the first officer of the Enterprise, I make it my business to know about it. You can attempt to hide the fact that you've read those reports, access my log entries through an auxiliary computer anonymously, put on that Vulcan face of yours, but I'm telling you from a medical point of view it won't work. You're responsible, inadvertent or not, for causing an unknown number of deaths..."

Spock closed his eyes. McCoy hesitated for a second. "...and you're going to have to come to terms with what happened."

"I have come to terms with it, Doctor." Spock did not open his eyes.

"No, you haven't. You've ignored it, buried it under a ton of Vulcan rejection and denial."

"I will handle the situation. It is not your concern."

McCoy's temper flared at that. "It is my concern! The emotional well-being of this crew, especially of its command staff, is very much my concern and you know it!"

Spock opened his eyes. The disinterest was gone now, replaced by an implacable, even menacing glare.

When all else fails, eh, Spock? Well, it never really worked on me and sure as hell isn't going to now.

However, McCoy's professional expertise warned him that his flare-up of a moment ago had been a mistake, that he should ease off, should use a carrot instead of a stick.

He sat back in his chair, let his expression soften. "What would Jim say if I gave his second-in-command anything less than first class attention. He needs you, Spock, probably more than he'll ever know.”

The doctor's instincts were dead-on. The captain was Spock's weak point, always had been. He would hold himself together for Kirk's sake long after he'd given up on his own. McCoy watched as the hardness began to fade from those dark and suddenly very vulnerable eyes. "Doctor..." He seemed on the verge of stretching his hand out across the table, reaching for the understanding that was not too close. "Doctor... I..."

Suddenly a light on McCoy's desk began to flash. Damn it. An incoming patient and he was the only member of the medical staff on duty right now. “I have to go.” He stood. “Wait here. I won't be long.”

The outer sickbay doors opened just as he left the office, two crewmen stumbling inside, supporting a white-faced engineering technician between them. The man sagged at the knees, holding his right arm out before him. Blood dripped off his fingertips, spattering the floor in a grotesque pattern.

McCoy ran to his side. "What happened?" Helping him to the diagnostic bed, he eased him down.

"He was installing a conduit on Deck Six. Slipped and caught his arm on an exposed joining cable."

McCoy disinfected and sealed the wound as he listened. The technician was young, barely out of his teens. McCoy smiled. "What's your name, son."

"Ensign Holden, sir."

"Well, Ensign Holden, it looks a lot worse than it is. I'll have you back on the job in no time."

The man relaxed, some of the color returning to his face. He watched intently as McCoy finished tending the wound and, aided by his two friends, walked out of sickbay for an unplanned day's rest in his quarters.

McCoy watched him go, grateful that the wound wasn't serious. He had Spock at the point where his Vulcan shields were beginning to come down and he was anxious to get back to him before the blasted things slammed into place again.

Hurriedly washing the blood from his hands, he returned to his office. Stopped at the doorway, not really surprised at the sight that awaited him.

The room was empty. Spock was gone.

**********

It was one day later when the Enterprise received a reply from Starfleet Command. The assembled brass had studied their report in great detail and, concurring with First Officer Spock's analysis that the warp presented no danger, ordered the ship back to her previous patrol route. The colonizing survey would be terminated, the timid people requesting it having abruptly decided to remain within the safety of their home planet.

Starfleet officials had commented tersely on the Vulcan's accidental contamination, noting that the entire affair was unfortunate but, as one hygienically put it, `these things happen.' Kirk had bitten back an acerbic comment at this last statement.

Spock, standing at his side, had listened to the message without expression. After the transmission ended, Kirk searched his face, seeking the slightest betrayal of the emotion he knew lay buried beneath that icy facade, but there was none. Spock acted as if nothing whatsoever was out of the ordinary. He'd made no mention of the alien and, apart from his one visit to sickbay, had totally ignored his presence.

Leaning forward, Kirk cut the transmission and signaled the bridge. "Mister Chekov, plot us a course back to the Carraya sector. Leave orbit when ready."

Chekov hesitated before replying. "Yes, sir."

Kirk switched off the intercom. Starfleet's order had surprised his young navigator but he'd been expecting it. The Enterprise was needed on patrol. There was nothing to be gained by remaining in orbit around this empty world.

He looked over at Spock. The Vulcan stood, silent as a statue, staring straight ahead. "It is illogical," he intoned, "for the Altharians to abandon their colonizing plans over this one incident. It has already been determined that the warp will not reoccur."

Kirk regarded him sadly. "You know the Altharians. They're superstitious. They probably think the incident will bring them bad luck."

"Superstition has no place in a scientific society." Spock kept his attention fixed on the wall.

Kirk turned to face him directly, knowing that, despite what he might wish to do, Spock would not deliberately insult him by avoiding eye contact. The Vulcan's gaze flickered reluctantly downward and came to rest on his face. Kirk had never seen him so unreachable.

"If you will excuse me, Captain, I have sensor readjustments on the bridge to complete." The words were spoken with the utmost precision. Without waiting for a reply, Spock turned and made for the door.

"Mister Spock?”

He stopped, slowly glanced back. "Yes, sir."

"Are you all right?"

"Yes. I am quite well."

Kirk flinched. He'd heard Spock use those exact same words before, words that pitifully attempted to conceal an emotional state that was far from all right. He was about to speak again when the Vulcan cut him off.

"Am I performing my duties in an unsatisfactory manner?"

Kirk's instincts warned him to pull back. "No. Your performance is, as usual, flawless."

"In that case, Captain, I fail to see the cause of your concern." Spock's expression remained eerily calm. "Do I have your permission to go?"

Detecting both the Vulcan's inflexibility and a slight tinge of sarcasm in his voice, Kirk regretfully nodded his head. "Yes, of course. I'll follow you up in a few minutes."

Spock approached the doorway, then hesitated. He seemed on the verge of saying something else but apparently changed his mind. Pressing his lips together, he strode from the room.

Kirk waited until the doors closed. He'd always thought that he could reach Spock, regardless of the circumstances, but the Vulcan had walled himself up alive this time and, so long as he stayed there, the captain was powerless to help him.

Sinking into the nearest chair, he leaned forward, running his fingers wearily through his hair. He massaged his neck but the headache that had been a part of him for the better part of the day refused to go away.

**********

The bridge was quiet. Everyone worked with a practiced efficiency brought on by years of experience. The incident on the planet they had left behind eight hours before was on everyone's mind but, of course, no one mentioned it.

Kirk tilted his head to one side and glanced unobtrusively over at Spock. The Vulcan sat, as usual, working on a computer program. He seemed intently involved in his work, adjusting dials, running programs, his expression one of single-minded attention.

The intercom at the captain's arm broke the silence. Kirk saw the muscles in Spock's back tense at the sound, the only indication he gave that he'd even heard the call. Kirk turned toward the viewscreen and opened a channel. "Kirk here."

"Captain...? It's McCoy..."

Kirk straightened, sensing disaster in the doctor's voice. "Yes, Bones? What is it?"

"The alien, Captain," McCoy whispered, "he just died."

**********

The body was bathed in fluid and put into stasis. McCoy carefully adjusted the chamber, moderating the pressure as the air was slowly drawn out. He had spent the past hour treating the corpse with preservatives, preparing it for the zero gravity field, hoping as he worked that he wasn't inadvertently breaking any of the creature's cultural or religious taboos. Such beliefs meant little to him but he knew that they held great significance to many other inhabitants of this universe and probably the alternate one as well. McCoy was, above all else, a respecter of life in all its myriad forms and manifestations. He had been unable to help the alien in this one. He hoped now that he didn't cause it any further suffering in the next.

The stasis dial registered zero. The creature floated, its skin rendered impermeable by chemicals that prevented it from rupturing in the vacuum. It could stay suspended like this forever if need be, would look the same in a thousand years as it did right now.

But it wouldn't be here for a thousand years. The Enterprise would swing near the planet of the creature's birth in six month's time, and, when she did, it - he - would be buried at the exact spot where he had crossed over. An honor guard, a solemn, formal gesture that quite possibly held no meaning at all, would accompany him to his final resting place, and he would be interred in the ground that was and yet was not his home. It was as near as they could bring him, the best they could do. In the meantime, his body would be kept here, waiting.

McCoy finished his work, lowering the screens that sealed off the cubicle, grateful when the last lingering sight of the interior was cut off from view, his thoughts straying along that familiar path they'd traveled a thousand times in the past day, the past hour. Blasted Vulcan. Why won't you at least let Jim inside that private hell of yours. Stupid, stubborn...

The doctor shook his head, knew in his heart that it wasn't Spock's fault, not really. He was a victim here, too. And, not for the first time, McCoy found himself condemning the repressive Vulcan lifestyle that had forged the bars of Spock's prison. Forged them, iron-hard, impenetrable, insulating him from everything. Yeah, he thought bitterly. Everything but yourself.

Reaching up, he laid an open hand against the chamber wall. "At least it's over for you, my friend,” he whispered. For several seconds stood that way, head bowed in silent contemplation, before pulling his hand away and walking from the room.

The lights, registering the absence of life, dimmed automatically behind him and the room darkened once again.

**********

Three days passed. Leonard McCoy walked into the mess hall and scanned the room. He knew when the first officer of the Enterprise was scheduled to eat his dinner. One thing about Vulcans, he thought wryly, they're dependable. If Spock had logged in to eat at 2100 hours, he would walk through these doors at exactly 2100 hours.

McCoy himself was late due to a last minute injury requiring his attention and the chronometer on the wall read 2116 when he entered the room. He hadn't seen Spock all day and a few minutes before had almost passed off the injured crewman to someone else. But, not surprisingly, his sense of medical responsibility had won out over his worry about Spock. He was the only doctor on duty, after all, and knew that the captain was keeping a close, if subtle, eye on the silent Vulcan.

Still, Kirk wasn't a qualified medical observer and, anxious to find Spock before he disappeared for the night as was his habit of late, he'd carried out the shoulder repair with more speed than was probably wise. Mentally was already berating himself for it, silently decided to check on the injured ensign later to be sure he was all right.

But first things first, McCoy returning his attention to Spock. Raising himself up on his toes, he searched through the crowd, forehead creasing with effort as he tried to single him out amid the people bustling to and fro.

Then an opening appeared and he spotted him, sitting across from Kirk at a table in the far corner, the two men apparently deeply engaged in conversation. Their eyes were locked together but McCoy noted that it was the captain who was doing most of the talking. He hesitated, wondering if he should interrupt.

Suddenly, Spock drew back and fixed Kirk with a withering glare the likes of which he'd rarely seen and had never seen directed at the captain. Oh, boy. Instincts flying high, McCoy immediately made up his mind. Sauntering over to the table, careful to keep his step casual, he stopped before the empty chair at Spock's side. "Mind if I join you?"

Glancing up, Kirk gave him an unconvincing smile. “Sure, Bones. Have a seat.”

McCoy sat, Spock nodding his head in a terse and hardly welcoming acknowledgement of his presence. McCoy scrutinized the meager pile of vegetables on the Vulcan's plate. "Looks good." He smiled into Spock's unsmiling face.

There was no response. McCoy tried again. "What is it?"

"It is comprised of ten separate Vulcan vegetables. You would not like it." Spock stared at the food when he spoke. From his low tone of voice, it was clear that McCoy's bantering would not be well-received.

Kirk touched him lightly on the arm. "Why don't you go get yourself something to eat."

McCoy heard the unspoken warning and took the hint. Strolling to the selector, he pressed the first button on the panel, not really caring what it was. Glanced back to see Kirk lean forward and say something to Spock. The Vulcan stiffened and uttered a single word, the harsh sound of it standing out amid the jumble of voices that filled the air. Folding his hands on the table before him, he turned away, visibly struggling for control. Kirk spoke again, canting his head to one side, attempting to catch the Vulcan`s eye. McCoy scooped up his tray, suddenly aware that he was holding up the line, and hurried back to the table.

The silence that greeted him was positively deadly, neither of the two men paying him any attention whatsoever. McCoy's gaze traveled back and forth between them. You could cut the tension with a knife, he thought to himself.

Spock abruptly rose to his feet. "If you will excuse me, Captain, Doctor." He gathered up his uneaten dinner and slipped it down the disposal chute before walking rapidly from the room without looking back.

Kirk's gaze followed him until he vanished from sight. "Bones," his voice was scarcely above a whisper, "I can't get him to talk about it, about any of it. He keeps insisting that he's handling the situation. If I push him, he shuts me out completely. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he's ever raised his voice to me in anger." The captain hesitated, eyes focused on a spot in the distance. "I don't know what to do. I'm worried about him."

McCoy nodded in grim agreement. "I know. So am I."

Kirk looked over. "What are you doing about it?"

His voice was louder, had that sharp edge McCoy recognized all too well. "I'm watching him."

Kirk frowned. McCoy hastened to speak again. "It wouldn't be good for him now if I pulled rank and forced him to undergo an evaluation. You know Spock: it wouldn't accomplish anything anyway. He can fool my machines if he wants to. We both know that he can get those dials to read `normal' even if he's half out of his mind. Besides, I have no medical reason for a psychological examination. He's doing everything letter perfect, no slips, no blunders. A harsh word now and again," he gave Kirk a knowing look, "even one directed at you, hardly qualifies as sufficient reason for forcing an exam. In a way I wish he'd put his fist through a wall, scream at somebody, make a mistake, anything." McCoy sighed. " But he's gone all Vulcan on us and ---"

"Don't give me that `all Vulcan' routine, Doctor. You know he needs help in dealing with this. Is it your intention to wait until he's had a complete breakdown before you do anything? You really don't need an excuse for calling him in. You're chief medical officer of the Enterprise. Your suspicions are grounds enough." The captain glared at him, the anger in his tone unmistakable.

McCoy met it evenly. "If I forced an exam now it would only exacerbate his anxiety and drive him deeper into his shell. It'd put him on the defensive and that's the last thing we want to have happen."

Kirk's jaw tensed although he knew that the doctor was right. "So what do we do?"

"Wait, Jim. We wait."

**********

Spock stood by the observation deck railing, watching the stars spread out before him in a brilliant pattern of reds, yellows, blues. The huge window faced the heart of the galaxy now and he found his mind teased by metaphysical questions of scale. There was so much vastness. What was the fate of one tiny planet in all of this, a planet not even part of his own universe at all? And it wasn't even the fate of that planet but simply the life forces of an unknown number of creatures who'd dwelt upon it. Surely it didn't hold significance in the cosmic order of things. Such an argument was logical, was it not?

Spock almost smiled at the irony. Defending a metaphysical argument on logical grounds: an inherent contradiction in terms. Worse, using that argument to rationalize away the destruction of sentient creatures. More than a contradiction: a travesty, a corruption of beliefs he'd thought were hard-wired into his very being. The core of his moral structure

Spock lowered his head. Not true. When push came to shove it wasn't true, any of it. He was an abject failure, a grotesque parody of the ideal Vulcan. A misfit, mouthing the words like some kind of parrot, but they were no more a part of him than the clothes on his back. He felt a sob swell in his throat and savagely forced it back down. His hands clenched so tightly around the railing he felt the metal compress. The grip was painful but he didn't care. It brought a strange sort of relief and he squeezed it again. At least the pain was real.

"Spock?"

The unexpected sound so startled him that he quite literally jumped backward. Kirk was standing scarcely six feet away, concern etched into his features. "I've been looking for you,” he said gently. “I've paged your quarters every fifteen minutes for the last four hours."

Spock knew. He'd been prowling the corridors all night, was near enough to his quarters on two separate occasions to hear the soft chirp of the intercom. It didn't take telepathic powers to know who was on the other end and he'd resolutely ignored both calls. Kirk was the last person he wanted to see right now. The very last.

"I'm sorry if I startled you. I thought you'd have heard me coming."

He would have. A week ago.

But that was then and this was now.

Kirk waited, hoping for a response.

Finally, when he couldn't bear it any longer, Spock gave him one. “I was... meditating.”

A lie and they both knew it.

Silence fell, seemed to draw the air right out of the room.

And again, Spock was the first to break it, his composure beginning to rattle and creak. “I would prefer it if you would leave, sir. I require solitude."

Kirk touched him lightly on the arm, the feel of it sending shivers dancing along every nerve ending. "Don't shut me out, Spock. I'm asking you not to shut me out."

He roughly shook his hand away.

The captain flinched but didn't give up. “I only want to help you.”

Blood pounded red hot in his veins, the room suddenly growing very cold. “Then leave me alone.”

Still, Kirk persisted. “I think it's important that we talk about this.”

Would the man never give him any peace? Insufferable humans. "I said leave me alone!"

His words snapped through the air like a whip, the other occupants of the observation deck turning to stare at him in astonishment.

Spock froze, a combination of shock, humiliation and horror spreading across his face. He looked away, stared out at the stars he didn't see, couldn't see. His fingers curled around the railing, knuckles white as bone. "I need... I am in need of meditation, Captain. Please... go away."

Kirk backed off, Spock literally feeling his pain and hurt and almost desperate desire for him to turn around.

He could not. He simply could not, knew with absolute certainty that if he gave into the captain's consolation now it would send his entire defensive structure into complete free fall.

And then those ungovernable emotions that he'd fought so hard to keep in check, that churned and roiled just below the surface like some kind of noxious poison, they'd burst out into the light of day. Strip him to the bone, leave him totally lost, naked and defenseless. Why, he might even cry. Not locked away in a briefing room this time but right here, out in the open. In front of everyone. In front of the captain. He might even cry.

The thought was terrifying.

Stiffening his back, Spock released his death grip on the railing. No. He would not permit that to happen. If he had to use every ounce of strength he had left, if it burned his soul to ashes, he would not permit that to happen. He would retain the captain's respect even if it cost him his friendship.

Silence again, longer this time. Much longer. Several crew members skirted by, their eyes downcast, their expressions grim.

"I'll be in my quarters until morning." Realizing that Spock wasn't going to respond, Kirk spoke at last, his voice low and very sad.

Spock nodded, inwardly flinched at the hesitation in Kirk's step as he walked away, the realization that he stood inside the turbolift, staring at his back. That he held the door open for nearly thirty seconds before twisting the control bar.

The doors closed but it was a full five minutes before Spock dared turn around. Studiously ignoring the few crew members who remained, he made his way to one of the privacy booths, slapped on the 'occupied' light and stepped inside. He knew such solitude was considered inviolate, that, barring an emergency, no one would bother him so long as it remained on, and yet, compelled for some reason, he locked the door anyway. Sitting stiffly on the couch, he bowed his head, elbows resting on his knees, and settled in for a long night.

**********

A week went by and with each passing day Spock became more silent, more reclusive. He continued to perform his duties with typical efficiency but seldom spoke and even those crew members who didn't know him well could sense the deepening aloofness that surrounded him like a forcefield.

The chess games ended. Kirk repeatedly tried to interest him in a match but Spock always found an excuse not to play. He began doing solitary research in one of the lower science labs all night, every night, vanishing the instant his shift ended. When the captain had questioned him, he'd soberly explained that continual monitoring was needed while the computer program was in use, launched into a detailed description of the study, his monologue laced with an array of complex mathematical equations until, finally, Kirk had held up his hand and stopped the relentless flow of information. He knew of the project, one requested nearly a month before by a group of theoretical physicists at Starfleet Command Headquarters. Not high priority and Spock had deferred it, showing a rare lack of interest. Until now.

But, mindful of McCoy's warnings, he hadn't pushed him, had stood back, frustrated by his own helplessness, as Spock withdrew more and more into himself.

All of these thoughts were running through his mind as he walked the ship on this, the twelfth day since Spock's abrupt return. Dim lights gave the hallways a soft glow as they simulated night and all was quiet. If he could see a chronometer it would have read 2400 hours exactly, although the idea of a twenty-four hour day held no meaning in the eternal darkness through which the Enterprise moved.

But there was no chronometer and, in truth, the captain didn't need one. He knew what time it was. Late. Time to sleep, past time, and he quickened his pace, determined not to let his concern over Spock interfere with his command responsibilities. He was tired and needed rest, and he would go to his quarters and sleep until 0630 hours tomorrow. And will himself not to dream.

Rounding a corner, he saw his own door at the end of the hallway. Walked forward, his steps slowing as he approached the quarters next to his own. He had never, in all these years, passed it without noticing, without looking, unless Spock walked at his side.

Spock did not walk with him now. And he looked.

At that moment, a crash broke the stillness, followed by the sound of several objects hitting the floor in the Vulcan's quarters. Kirk broke into a run, slammed a fist against the call button. “Spock?”

No response.

“Spock!” He entered the command override, felt a stab of fear when he realized the door remained locked, that the program had been altered to keep it that way.

“Spock?” Lowering his voice, he buzzed again. “Can I come in?”

For ten eternal seconds he thought Spock would refuse him.

But he didn't. There was a click and the door slid open.

The instant it did he could smell the smoke. Racing into Spock's meditation chamber, he saw the firepot, shattered into a thousand pieces, lying on the floor. A yellow flame continued to burn in the tiny hearth, stretching out toward the carpet below it.

All too aware that Spock hadn't moved, but remained standing beside his desk in the outer room, Kirk slapped it out, offering a silent prayer of thanks that the alarm hadn't sounded and brought catastrophic attention down upon them both.

Willing his heart rate to slow, he pulled a bound stack of computer disks from beneath the rubble, rose to his feet and held it out. "What happened?"

Spock's breathing was coming hard and fast. "I regret,” he cleared his throat, struggling to regain some semblance of control, “I regret that I disturbed you, Captain."

Kirk drew closer. "You didn't answer my question."

The Vulcan looked away. Kirk moved immediately to his side. "Answer me. Consider that an order."

Spock centered his gaze on the wall. "I became… frustrated. I threw the disks and hit the firepot. It was not my intention to break it. I apologize for the lapse. It will not happen again."

Kirk forced himself to be dispassionate. For Spock to do such a thing was so totally out of character that he knew his emotional stability must be reaching its final, tenuous breaking point. "Spock," he hesitated, feeling his way, "you have to come to terms with this. You have to let your feelings out before they destroy you."

"I have no feelings. I am a Vulcan."

The same words. Goddammit, he'd heard those same words a thousand times, in a thousand different ways. Reaching out, he grabbed Spock by the wrist. "You can't keep---"

Dark eyes glared down at him. "I have a right to my own privacy.” Despite his fierce expression, Spock's tone was cold as ice. Pulling out of Kirk's grasp, he began to walk away. “I have not behaved irregularly while on duty."

"Please. I'm asking you as a friend. Talk to me."

The naked appeal stopped him dead in his tracks.

He didn't, however, turn around. "I repeat, sir, I am not human. I do not need to `talk to you.'”

Still, the captain kept trying. “I want to help you. I only want to help you.”

“Then kindly leave me in peace.”

Kirk watched as those long fingers curled into fists, read Spock's inflexible body language with painful clarity. "I'll have to report this to Doctor McCoy,” he said softly, regretfully. “You know that."

"Of course. Regulation Twenty-Eight clearly states that any crew member who exhibits signs of instability or unusual behavior--”

“I know what the regulation says.”

Spock made no response, kept his attention locked on the wall.

Ten seconds passed. Twenty. Thirty.

At sixty, the captain admitted defeat, at least for now. Walking to the door, he stopped as it slid open. "I'd like you to remain in your quarters until further notice."

He waited until he saw Spock nod his head in acknowledgement, then left the room, making his way quickly to the nearest intercom.

**********

It was only when the captain's footsteps had faded away completely that Spock turned around. He moved gracelessly to the door and stood, his forehead resting against the hard surface, his open hand pressed up against it. Closing his eyes as an involuntary shudder escaped him, he ran a series of mathematical formulas through his head until his blood pressure evened out somewhat. Then, stiffening his spine, he returned to the meditation alcove and knelt before what remained of his firepot. A family heirloom, one that had been passed down from father to son for nearly two thousand years.

Somehow its destruction seemed quite fitting.

Indifferent to the sharp edges that cut into his hands, Spock began picking up the pieces, dropping them down the disposal chute one by one.

**********

Gripped by an overwhelming sense of foreboding, the captain made it to sickbay in record time. McCoy hadn't answered his page, Kirk praying that he would find him here, that he wouldn't have to scour the ship or put out a system-wide call, one that Spock would surely hear, with heaven only knows what kind of consequences.

The door opened, Kirk breathing a sigh of relief to see him sitting before one of his computer outlets, intensively studying the screen. McCoy straightened. "Evening, Jim. What keeps you up so late?" His welcoming smile faded when he saw the captain's expression, recognized that familiar, haunted look Kirk reserved for one person only. “What happened?"

Kirk moved to his side. "He blew up, Bones. Threw a stack of computer disks against the wall and demolished his firepot. Damn near set off a fire alert. If I hadn't been right outside, it would have sounded and brought a dozen people charging into his quarters." He gave McCoy a pleading look. "He's reaching his limit. I can feel it. This incident was the beginning of the end. He's trying to maintain control but he's getting to the point where he can't hold out any longer. You've got to get him down here before something happens in front of the crew. That would be the last straw, if the crew saw him lose it."

McCoy paused for a moment, although he'd already decided to bring Spock in at the first overt signs of emotional distress. He'd thought that the Vulcan would reach out before letting the situation deteriorate that far. Apparently, he was wrong. "Is he still in his quarters?"

"Yes, so far as I know."

McCoy's concern grew at the captain's uncertain response. “I'll put him in one of the privacy suites, then the three of us will sit down and work this thing out if it takes all week.” He stopped by his desk to pick up a medical tricorder. “I'll make up some story for the crew so there won't be ---”

Just as he was moving away, the intercom paged him. "Recreation Room Six calling sickbay! Emergency!"

He hit the switch. "McCoy here. What's wrong?"

"Ensign Peterson, sir, he just collapsed!" The voice sounded young. It hesitated and when it spoke again the panic had faded slightly. "This is Engineering Technician Fortari, sir. Ensign Peterson has had a stroke or something. He's unconscious, no pulse or respiration."

"All right." Two nurses who'd been working in an adjacent room came to stand in the doorway. McCoy waved a signal at them and they rapidly disappeared. "All right, Ensign, is someone resuscitating?"

"Yes, Doctor." The crewman was calm now. "Lieutenant Arion is doing it and we have a backup."

"Good. Continue. I'm on my way. McCoy out." He turned to face the captain, who was already halfway out the door. "Let's go."

**********

The pain shot through his head like a white-hot laser. Kneeling before the firepot, Spock doubled over, pressing his hands against his temples, trying vainly to block it out, knowing in his heart that this time it would be hopeless. Coming at him without warning, it had hit with the force of a tidal wave, knocking down that fragile wall he'd held up for so long. "No..." A long, low moan broke free as he felt his controls shatter, showering the floor around him like so much broken glass. All rational thought fled, his mind filled with nothing but the agony of severing, the raw fear of death. He looked up at the ceiling, fists pounding into the floor. "No! No more!" Shouted, agonized cries echoing in the emptiness of his quarters as he stumbled to his feet and ran like a wild man from the room.

**********

The knot of people standing in the corridor outside Recreation Room Six parted silently to admit the captain and McCoy, the doctor kneeling at the fallen man's side to run a scanner over his body. Several members of sickbay personnel followed and came to stand alertly behind him.

McCoy studied its report with profound sadness, his professional eye having told him the instant he'd stepped through the door what he would find. Turning it off, he sat back on his heels. “He's dead, Captain. Massive brain hemorrhage."

Kirk shook his head in partial disbelief. "But Peterson was only twenty-two years old."

"An aneurysm, a weakness in a portion of a vein ruptured. Likely congenital. An autopsy will tell us for sure but in all probability it would have been impossible to diagnose and prevent." McCoy looked down at the ensign. Young and strong, his blond hair just a shade longer than regulation, his expression calm and peaceful, death coming so swiftly it had no time to register on his face. He looked almost as if he were sleeping. "Damn," McCoy muttered under his breath.

Kirk rose and motioned for the crowd to break up. Several of those nearest the door had turned to leave when they were suddenly thrust violently away as Spock ran into the room, totally oblivious to their presence. His eyes were wild and focused immediately on the dead man.

"No!" Racing forward, he brushed Kirk aside as the captain tried to stop him. Grabbing Peterson by the shoulders, he shook the limp body.

McCoy grabbed his wrist, attempted at the same time to project a sense of calm. “It's too late, Spock. He's gone."

It fell on deaf ears as Spock gave him a hard shove and nearly sent him sprawling. “No. He will not die. I will not let him die.” Splaying his fingers, he pressed them against Peterson's forehead.

"No!" This time it was the captain's shout that cut through the air. He fell to his knees at Spock's side, grasped him by the arm. "Let him go."

Spock looked up, Kirk's soul chilling at the irrationality and panic he could see in his eyes. "No. He cannot die. I cannot let him die. I could feel his pain. I sensed it... in my quarters. I could sense it. So many things he will never be able to do, all the years he has lost. The thoughts, the ideas, the people who loved him... " Spock was virtually incoherent, the final crumbling of his shields hitting with such blinding intensity it had given him no time to adjust, to compensate.

A flare of rage as he refocused on the ensign's body. "But I will not permit that to happen. Death will not come for you. One life. I can save this one life." He shuddered, a powerful jolt that seemed to come from the center of his being. "I will pull you back. You will live! I will force you to live!"

"He's dead. Stop!" Kirk put every ounce of authority he possessed into the command but Spock paid him absolutely no attention, his thoughts reaching out, initiating the fusion. The captain swore he could actually see it, like an aura sweeping around the ensign's body.

And he knew, with a certainty he couldn't explain, that if Spock, in his distraught state, succeeded in entering the empty mind of a corpse, he would go mad, totally, permanently mad.

Bringing his arm around, he slapped him hard across the face, the unexpected blow knocking his head back. Spock gasped and, in his momentary confusion, Kirk pulled his hands away. "Bones!" He held both wrists together, pressing them against the Vulcan's chest. "Get Peterson out of here!"

Spock opened his eyes and turned toward the body as McCoy and the others lifted it onto a gurney. He jerked his hands free with ease and stretched them out, following the path it took as it was pushed from the room. "No..."

Kirk caught them again but this time held them against his own chest. His heart was beating wildly, the throbbing traveling up their joined fingers like minute bursts of electricity. Spock seemed to focus on it and looked up at him. "Jim... Jim, I couldn't save him... couldn't... so much death... so much suffering." The words, so long repressed, flowed out with a will of their own. "I hear them cry in my dreams." Pressing his hands savagely against his ears, he began to sway back and forth. "The children... all the children. They cry in my dreams and I do not sleep but still they cry. On the bridge, in my quarters, everywhere I hear them cry. Murderer, they call me... murderer... murderer." Spock moaned. "I... am... so... sorry."

He sagged forward and Kirk caught him, wrapping his arms around his shoulders, feeling the unnatural thinness hidden beneath the clothes.

"I tried to find a way back." Spock turned his face into Kirk's neck and the words came out garbled. "I spent every night trying to find a way back. I never worked on the field density research. I spent every night trying to find a way back."

Kirk's grip on him tightened. He'd expected as much.

Reaching up, Spock clutched at his shirt. "But there was no way. The children... they called to me, begging me for help, but I couldn't." Kirk could feel it tear as he twisted it in his hands, digging his fingers into the fabric, shredding it unknowingly with the force of his own anguish. "I couldn't." A strangled sob escaped him and Kirk looked up, fearful that the other crew members would see Spock break down.

But the room was empty. Silently, sometime during the past minute, everyone had left and he'd been too caught up in Spock's pain to notice. A silent prayer of thanks flashed through his mind.

Spock continued to hold onto his shirt as if for dear life. He trembled, trying vainly to choke off the awesome flood of emotions about to overwhelm him. “No, no,” Kirk soothed. “It's all right. Don't hold it back any longer."

Spock raised his head. There was such misery and desolation in his eyes it nearly broke the captain's heart. "I feared I would lose your respect if you saw my weakness.”

"Grief is not a weakness.” At least not on Earth. He gave him a mournful smile. “It's a natural part of life."

Spock seemed to draw into himself somehow, still fighting that hopeless, impossible battle. “Please,” Kirk repeated his plea, “don't hold it back. No one is here to see, just me. Just me."

And finally, at long last, Spock let go. The tears began, flooding down his face as he cried out the depths of his sorrow, sobbing like a child in the captain's arms.

“It's all right,” Kirk eased his head down against his chest, realized that this was probably the first time in his life that anyone had ever held him like this, comforted him without reproach or hesitation or unvoiced criticism. Without making him feel ashamed.

And the captain cried too, cried for the unknown dead on another planet, cried for Spock and the repressive Vulcan upbringing that had created the prison in which he'd been forced to live.

But no longer. Those plague victims they had left behind were beyond his reach but Spock was not. Never again would he let him dwell alone in that empty twilight world of his. Spock had opened up to him now and he would not permit him to pull away again. Never again.

**********

It was nearing ship's dawn when Spock's sobbing gradually began to subside. He made a feeble effort to straighten but the captain held him firm. "No, no. Just lie still."

"Jim, you are uncomfortable."

Kirk's legs, bent beneath him at an unnatural angle, had been numb for hours. He smiled into the dark hair. "No, Mister Spock. I'm not."

**********

Leonard McCoy leaned on the table, studied the man sitting across from him. “So, tell me, Jim, where's this idyllic paradise of yours?"

Kirk smiled. "A small planet in the Bootes sector, called, appropriately enough, Elysium."

"And Spock's willing to accompany you on this little frolic in the Elysian fields?"

"Yes."

McCoy ran his fingers through his hair. "Well, heaven knows he could use the rest but still I'm surprised he agreed to go. All that running around on green grass and all."

"We both have a year's worth of leave time accumulated and he needs to get away."

Now that was a classic understatement, not that Spock would ever admit it on a formal report, mind you. If he could walk upright and wasn't gushing blood, he was fit for duty. True, McCoy had run every physical and psychological test in the books after his melt down, wasn't a bit surprised that he'd passed them all with flying colors. The Vulcan half of him did, anyway.

The human half, however, was another story. Spock might appear fine on the surface but there were lots of skeletons rattling around in that closet of his.

Kirk met his gaze, seemed to know what he was thinking. “It's going to be a slow process. This trip is just the first step. I only wish it hadn't taken me so long to finagle Starfleet's approval.”

“Approval? How much time are you talking about?”

"Three weeks."

McCoy's eyes widened. "Three weeks! You'll go stir-crazy."

"No, I won't. I want to be able to talk to Spock in private. We have a lot of things to say to one another."

"Well, you sure as hell can say a lot in three weeks!"

McCoy sat back in his chair, inwardly delighted at this turn of events. He'd been keeping close tabs on the captain as well, knew that Spock wasn't the only one suffering lingering effects from this nightmare. Eight days now since Peterson's death and still Kirk's weight was down by nearly six pounds, his blood pressure a shade too high, his color slightly off. He needed a break as much as Spock did. Fresh air and sun and not a computer or fuel consumption report in sight.

“Twenty-one straight days of nothing but hiking and camping and observing wildlife.” Kirk seemed to sense that, too. “I asked Starfleet not to contact us unless the universe was about to end.”

McCoy laughed. No doubt.

Kirk rose to his feet. "That transport will be here to rendezvous in four hours and I still have a thousand things to do."

McCoy waved him off. “Go. Go.” Called out as he stepped into the doorway. "Tell Spock I said..." he hesitated, searching for the right words. Kirk waited patiently. "Oh, forget it. Just take care of him. He's been through one hell of a rough time."

The captain nodded. "Don't worry about that, Bones."

**********

Commander Spock stood before the bed, trying to decide what one took on a three week camping trip. He had no idea, really, but strangely, it didn't seem to matter. He wanted to go on this trip more than he could say, sensed that it would purge him somehow, free him from the emotional baggage he'd been carrying around since childhood. Open him up to a life he'd scarcely believed possible before. He dropped a pair of pants into the carrying case.

The buzzer sounded and he turned, knew from his spike in blood pressure who stood outside. "Come."

The door opened and Kirk walked in, a large bundle under one arm. Spock nodded in greeting, his gaze on the package. Rectangular, about two feet high, covered in bright blue foil with a large gold ribbon on top. Kirk smiled as one eyebrow canted upward. "I have something for you."

A gift, then: a present, only the second one he'd ever received, and for a moment Spock just stood there, at a loss to know how to respond. Kirk's smile took on a rather melancholy cast. “It's heavy.” He held it out. “Be careful you don't drop it."

That insatiable curiosity, however, overcame his unease and Spock carried the bundle to the bed and sat down, holding it between his legs. He reached for the wrapping, then hesitated as Kirk sat beside him. "Go ahead,” the captain encouraged. “Open it."

Slowly, he did so, his face paling as the carved head of the ancient Vulcan deity appeared. Pulling the foil clear, he regarded the finely carved firepot in stunned silence.

Kirk watched him expectantly. "Well, what do you think? Do you like it?"

'Like' hardly seemed adequate. It was a work of art, elegant and polished, dating, judging by its workmanship, to the time of Surak.

“It is lovely, Jim.” Spock looked up. “Such items are very rare. Where did you get it?"

"I have a few favors I can call in when necessary." The captain made it sound easy when, in fact, it had taken hours on the comm channel and cost a king's ransom. Time and money well spent, he thought to himself as he studied the Vulcan's awed expression.

"It is much like the one I destroyed.” Spock turned it in his hand, watched as the light played along its gleaming surface. “Which, of course, you knew... "

The words trailed off. Kirk touched him on the arm, suddenly fearful that he'd opened up an old wound.

"No, Jim.” Spock sensed it. “You misunderstand. It's destruction was symbolic to me. The children, the children still call to me but I can listen to them now. I can grieve for them now. And I owe it to you." He stroked the firepot tenderly, almost lovingly. "I shall treasure this above all that I own because it was a gift from you."

His eyes filled with tears. One slipped down his cheek. Kirk reached up to brush it away.

Spock managed a weak smile. "I weep, for the lost ones, the pain that I have caused them, and you. For my selfishness, my foolishness." He shuddered, a tremor coming into his voice. The barriers were down now but dealing with the raw emotional pain behind them was still a very difficult thing for him to do.

Kirk understood. Slipping an arm around Spock's waist, he pulled him close, felt as the Vulcan reciprocated, timidly at first, then with growing intensity until his grip actually became painful.

Not that the captain minded. Quite the contrary, it was like food to a starving man.

**********

Leonard McCoy made his way quietly down the corridor. That transport was due in less than an hour and he felt compelled to see Spock one more time before he left. Dear lord, he grumbled to himself. Jim'll take care of him. He'll call if there are any problems. Don't be so worried. Like a blasted mother hen.

The words were true. He knew that and yet they had little real effect, the doctor's stride lengthening as he approached Spock's quarters and tapped the buzzer.

The door opened. McCoy stepped inside, saw his two friends sitting on Spock's bed, their arms twined around one another, molded together as if they were always meant to be like this. Spock's head rested on the captain's shoulder, his body language relaxed and serene in a way McCoy had never seen before. Kirk's free hand laid on his thigh, moving up and down in a gentle massage.

He hesitated, felt as if he'd intruded on a very personal moment, then realized that Spock's eyes remained closed. He hadn't looked up at the sensor beep, didn't seem to register McCoy's presence at all.

Kirk shifted slightly to meet his gaze. “He's sleeping,” he whispered.

McCoy raised a hand. First good one he'd gotten in nearly three weeks, more than likely. I told you, he chastised himself as he backed into the corridor. You were worried over nothing.

Shaking his head, he began to walk away. Have a good time, you two. And maybe... Pausing at the end of the corridor, he glanced over one shoulder, maybe you'll finally see what's been clear as a bell to me and half the damned crew for the past three plus years. Here's hoping...

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