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Story Notes:

This story is mainly K&S friendship, but there are also S/Ch elements, such as Spock and Christine being engaged. Also, I need to warn readers of the following unlisted facts: the story contains some religious references, and it deals with attempted suicide. You should also know that this is the final, zine-published version, not the one on my website or posted to ASC.

Leonard McCoy had a problem. It had scarcely been four months since the end of the V'ger mission--two months into the Enterprise's second five-year mission under Kirk's command and less than three months before Christmas, with Spock still trying to adjust to all the changes wrought in him by his mind-meld with V'ger--and McCoy thought, as he sat in the dining area of the Officers' Lounge, nursing his version of an Irish coffee (with Kentucky bourbon instead of whiskey), that he would give anything not to have to bring this problem to Kirk at this point in time. But it seemed to him he could wait no longer.

 

Kirk and Spock, he knew, were now in an isolated section of the Lounge playing three-dimensional chess, and McCoy was waiting for them to finish and separate so he could talk to Kirk alone about his problem. Hopefully, they could find some solution before they were forced to tell Spock, too--for it really affected all three of them. Still, McCoy fervently hoped they could keep it from Spock.

 

It was late, the Officers' Lounge had been emptied of any other people, and the remnants of McCoy's coffee had gone cold by the time Kirk and Spock emerged from the enclosed area. As McCoy watched, Spock went across the room to stand before the viewports, while Kirk, seeing McCoy still sitting there, came to join him. "It's pretty late, Bones," Kirk commented curiously. "Waiting up for me, for some reason?"

 

McCoy nodded, glancing past him toward Spock. "Isn't it time he went to bed?" he questioned worriedly.

 

Kirk looked back across the room, briefly following McCoy's gaze. "Don't worry, I'll see that he does," he promised, turning back to McCoy. They both knew Spock still had difficulty sleeping--one of the most persistent after-effects of his mind-meld with V'ger--but Kirk was sure that that was not the present focus of McCoy's concern. "Come on, Bones--what's wrong?" he prompted finally.

 

"You'd better sit down, Jim--I have something to tell you," McCoy began hesitantly, pushing aside his coffee mug with a sigh and indicating a chair next to him.

 

Kirk obediently sat down.

 

"As you know, the Federation Medical Conference is coming up in a couple of months."

 

Kirk nodded; it was the biggest medical conference of the year.  Attending was mandatory for all practicing physicians, whether civilian or military--a directive handed down by the Surgeon General of the Federation as a requirement for maintaining and renewing medical licenses--with participation contracts signed and presentation topics issued in advance.

 

And it always managed to fall either immediately before or after the Christmas and New Year holidays.  It lasted several days, of course, to accommodate the sheer numbers of doctors who attended, with most assigned formal presentation topics on specific days and times.  McCoy had represented the Enterprise for most of the last eight years.  "I know you got your presentation assignment almost a month ago--you must be about finished with it by now," Kirk acknowledged curiously. "Are you going to let me in on it, or do I have to wait 'til the Conference to find out what it's about?"

 

McCoy lowered his eyes and fidgeted apprehensively. "I...haven't started on it, Jim. It's kind of hard to research, and I'm not even sure I could write on it if I could ever get enough research done on it."

 

Kirk was astonished. "Come on, now--you have your own years of experience, plus all the ship's computers to help you.  What could be that hard to write a paper on?"

 

"Something the computers don't cover and I don't have enough experience in to write about on my own," McCoy responded evasively.

 

When he looked back up, Kirk's whole face was a question. 

 

"Jim, I don't know how to tell you this, but...somebody on the Leadership Committee caught a second- or third-hand rumor from somebody who swears he overheard us talking about it at some party," McCoy hedged uncomfortably.  "The upshot is that this person on the Committee got the idea that I was some kind of authority on it, so...Jim, I'm supposed to give a speech on Vulcan courtship rituals!"

 

Kirk was too stunned to speak, at first.  "That's why you've been keeping it such a secret," he realized finally.

 

"And why I haven't started on it.  How can I?  You're the only one who really knows anything about it, because you're the only one Spock ever discussed it with--"

 

"--And if I discuss it in any detail with you, Spock may never trust me again," Kirk finished, his eyes meeting McCoy's in understanding.

 

"I've already tried to get out of it--tried to get them to give me a different presentation topic--but naturally, since nobody else knows anything about Vulcan courtship rituals, either, they're all set on hearing about it.  Plus, it's already in all the Conference advertising, along with everybody else's name and presentation topic: 'Dr. Leonard McCoy, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer, U.S.S. Enterprise—Vulcan Courtship and Mating Rituals'," McCoy recalled regretfully.  "They sent a copy of the announcement with my assignment."

 

Kirk considered this for a time.  "Maybe I could contact the Committee Chairman--explain to him that this is something Vulcans don't talk about and there's no way you can talk about it without violating patient-doctor confidentiality," he suggested finally.

 

"Don't you think I already mentioned both those things to him?" McCoy demanded frustratedly.  "I can't just bow out, either.  Doctors who don't attend this Conference get a medical reputation that can be a career-buster before their licenses even come up for renewal; even Starfleet's Surgeon General's put out a directive against doctors in the Service backing out of the Federation Medical Conference."

 

Kirk knew the reason why attendance had been made mandatory and had such bearing on medical licenses.  It was the one occasion each year when a time and place had been set aside for all Federation doctors to meet in a setting that was both social and professional, exchanging information with colleagues and updating their medical knowledge.  Any doctor who refused this opportunity for any reason other than illness or insurmountable distance (and, inevitably, there were always a large number with just such valid explanations) was assumed to have something to hide, and failure to attend or speak on one's assigned topic was always inevitably followed up by investigations of the doctor in question.

 

These investigations were excruciatingly detailed, and even word that an investigation was pending had set more than one civilian doctor on the fast track to professional oblivion.  As far as Kirk knew, no Starfleet doctor had ever dared refuse to participate, so there was no way of knowing that the same thing couldn't happen to McCoy.  "Until and unless one of us can think of something to avoid it, you better plan on giving the presentation," Kirk advised reluctantly.  "Go ahead and start the paper--you don't have a lot of time left."

 

"You know what that means, don't you?  I'll have to have some kind of secondary source," McCoy warned him.  "I'll have to interview somebody.  And I don't dare go to Spock with this."

 

Kirk nodded in resignation.  "It'd be pointless to try.  For now, I'll be your source--or try to--and hope to God I can keep it from Spock until I can figure out how to explain it to him," he decided, getting up.  "Let me check my schedule--I'll try to clear some time tomorrow afternoon when I'm off-duty."

 

"All right, Jim.  Be careful with Spock; don't let him get in mental contact with you," McCoy admonished, as Kirk turned to go.

 

"Don't worry, I'll do my best not to," Kirk assured him.

 

McCoy watched worriedly as Kirk went across the room to join Spock, sat down, and began to talk to him--praying silently that Spock would understand and forgive him.  He knew they would not be able to keep it from him indefinitely.

 

     

 

*****

 

 

 

A few days later, McCoy once again sent another stargram to Dr. Linden Carr, this year's Chairman of the Federation Medical Conference's Leadership Committee--this time, assisted by Kirk--again stressing his difficulty with his assigned topic and as much of the reason why as possible, again offering a list of alternative topics.  By the time they received Carr's next response, the situation had already reached a critical point for Kirk and McCoy.

 

     

 

*****

 

 

 

As it turned out, McCoy's interview with Kirk quickly became several interviews, spread over the following two weeks.  Kirk's heart was even less in it than McCoy's, of course, and getting any information out of him at all was like pulling teeth.  Unable to get the image of Spock as he had been all those years ago--when he had made his first painful revelations about pon farr to his Captain--out of his mind, Kirk vacillated, dithered and hedged, struggling to give McCoy enough information to build a presentation around without revealing any intimate details and violating Spock's trust.

 

So plagued by fear and guilt was Kirk that he could not bear to socialize with Spock off-duty, as he usually did, until he and McCoy could find some tactful, gentle way to explain to Spock what they had done.  Spock, mercifully, seemed for the most part too preoccupied with his own post-V'ger difficulties to notice Kirk's avoidance of him.

 

So it went for the next few weeks, then Kirk and McCoy again met in the Officers' Lounge, this time for a late dinner--as usual since McCoy's recent revelation, without Spock.  They had received Dr. Carr's response earlier that day--a nearly three-page response that boiled down to "Your request for a new topic assignment has again been denied.  Be prepared to fulfill your contractual obligation as instructed"--leaving McCoy with the same choices as before: speak on Vulcan courtship or risk the future of his career.  He and Kirk had just about run out of ideas.  "I'm about finished with the paper," McCoy told him quietly.  "It's vague and it's short, but it should make it clear that there are differences between Vulcan and Human courtship customs."

 

"Will it satisfy the Leadership Committee, do you think?" Kirk asked, as they sat down and began to eat.

 

"I don't know, and I'm not sure I care," McCoy returned, his voice filling with bitterness.  "This was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, Jim.  Part of me hopes they choke on it."

 

 "You think it was hard for you," Kirk countered, with unavoidable sarcasm.

 

McCoy stopped him with an upraised hand.  "I know how you feel, but don't start.  It was unavoidable--we both tried.  There was no way."

 

Kirk nodded resignedly, lowering his eyes to stare into his food.  "I just hope I can convince Spock of that," he replied softly.

 

     

 

*****

 

 

 

Spock, meanwhile, had finally begun to notice that Kirk had left him to his own devices more than usual lately.  When he realized that he had not seen Kirk outside the Bridge--and even there, he had seemed to be pointedly ignoring his First Officer--for nearly three weeks, he realized also that he had not seen McCoy for the same period of time.  Although that thought was not as troubling, what did trouble Spock were the emotions accompanying these realizations: he missed Kirk's company.  To a slightly lesser extent, he even missed McCoy.  His next thought was that he might have unknowingly done--or not done--something to offend them.  Since Spock had spent most of his last few weeks of off-duty time in meditation and quiet contemplation (which usually required solitude), the latter seemed more likely.  Perhaps his Human friends felt offended by his avoidance of them and were still complying with what they thought were his wishes--probably engaging in the emotional custom of "sulking".

 

Uncertain of where to find them and whether or not his interruption would be welcome, Spock sought out Christine Chapel.  She would probably know where McCoy was, and he knew McCoy would either be with Kirk or know where the Captain was.  "Actually, Dr. McCoy's been pretty secretive himself, lately," Christine reported, when Spock questioned her about it.  "I don't think I've seen him off-duty, either, for several weeks, now."

 

"Odd," Spock commented, knowing she and McCoy frequently ate together and always saw each other in the Officers' Lounge, even if that was the only socializing they did together.  "It has been a similar length of time since I saw the Captain outside the Bridge."

 

"They're probably together.  Every time he leaves his location with me for emergencies, it's either his cabin, the Captain's cabin or the Officers' Lounge," Christine recalled, sitting down at her desk. "I can't imagine why they'd exclude you, though."

 

"You have no idea why they would be meeting alone all the time?"

 

"Not a clue."  Christine met his eyes curiously.  "They can't be making Christmas plans--they'd certainly include you in that.  Could they be planning some kind of surprise for you?  Is your birthday coming up any time soon?"

 

Having long ago memorized the Terran equivalent of his birthday, Spock shook his head. "Months away."

 

"That can't be it, then..."

 

"I have been somewhat...preoccupied with my own difficulties, lately," Spock admitted regretfully.  "Perhaps...do you know of anything...special or unusual... that might have initiated these secret meetings?" he asked, then.

 

"No...other than Dr. McCoy getting his presentation assignment for the Federation Medical Conference not too long before they started."

 

Spock considered this for a time.  "Perhaps the Captain is helping the Doctor with his presentation," he suggested finally.  "It must be on some topic that I have little or no knowledge of, thus they did not consult me."

 

"Or me?  I certainly have more medical knowledge than the Captain; so do you, for that matter," Christine responded doubtfully.  But she could read in his eyes what he had not been able to say: he wanted to be with them, now--even if, logically, he had nothing to contribute.  "You could go and offer to help, anyway," she pointed out kindly, then.  "They should be in the Officers' Lounge tonight, according to what the Doctor told me."

 

Spock hesitated, still instinctively reluctant to intrude where he had not been invited.  "They may not wish my help," he returned uncertainly.

 

"You don't know that.  Maybe they think you're too busy or wouldn't be interested," Christine countered encouragingly.  "There's only one way to find out for sure."

 

Spock nodded in acceptance, turning finally to go.

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

When he entered the Officers' Lounge, Kirk and McCoy were still deeply involved in their discussion--having long since finished their meal.  Unable to hear them yet, Spock moved cautiously across the room toward the dining area where they sat, eager to join them, but still not certain his company would be appreciated.  Gradually, he drew within earshot.

 

Not yet noticing that they were no longer alone, McCoy pushed an electronic notepad across the table toward Kirk.  "Here it is--at least, as much of it as I've finished," he announced.

 

Kirk skimmed over the first page.  "I still can't believe you're actually doing this, much less that I helped you."

 

"I'd appreciate it if you'd look it over and let me know if you have any suggestions for additions or changes," McCoy requested, then.

 

"All right, I'll try," Kirk acceded reluctantly.  "Though I really think I've already contributed more than enough to this project."

 

McCoy stood up and stretched, then picked up his food tray.  "Well, I need to catch up on my sleep, so I guess I better turn in after I put this up," he decided.

 

Kirk stood also, likewise picking up his tray--absently leaving the notepad on the table.  "Me, too," he concurred resignedly, heading off for the food dispensers' return slot.  "But I think I'll read a little of that paper of yours first--make sure you spelled all those Vulcan terms right."

 

With curiosity threatening to consume him, McCoy's response was lost to Spock as he rushed across the last few feet between him and the table.  Would he dare to compose a dissertation on Vulcan physiology without consulting me? was his first half-indignant thought.  I must see this paper, partially-finished or not.  Surely, he would understand... He reached the table at last and picked up the electronic notepad to read it--but was stopped dead by the title:

 

     

 

A PRESENTATION TO

 

THE 45th ANNUAL FEDERATION MEDICAL CONFERENCE:

 

VULCAN COURTSHIP AND MATING RITUALS

 

BY DR. LEONARD McCOY, M.D., Ph.D.

 

     

 

As Spock slowly dragged his eyes down the page, too stunned to know how to react, McCoy and Kirk returned to the table.  They exchanged horrified looks, neither having wanted Spock to find out in such an abrupt and shocking manner; McCoy didn't dare move or speak, and Kirk quickly realized that one of them had better say something.  He moved cautiously toward Spock.

 

But when Spock looked up, it was McCoy that he focused on.  "This...is your topic for the Conference?" he demanded accusingly.

 

McCoy nodded without looking up.  "It was assigned.  I tried to get out of it, Spock.  I don't even know how the Committee found out I knew anything about it," he told Spock apologetically. "It won't do you any good to read it.  There's nothing there that you don't already know, anyway." He moved closer and reached to take the notepad from Spock.

 

But Kirk waved him away.  "Let him read it.  He has to find out what's in it sometime," he admonished quietly.

 

Both fell silent as Spock retreated across the room with the notepad and sat down, as far away from them as possible, to read it.  After some twenty minutes, Kirk followed tentatively, stopping a good distance away and sitting down as he sensed Spock's darkening mood.  At length, the Vulcan spoke without looking up: "'Vulcans refer to this state as pon farr'...'it culminates in the plak tow, or blood-fever, at which point the male must either consummate the mating urge or substitute it with a similarly violent emotional release, such as combat to the death'...McCoy could not have deduced all this on his own, and no Vulcan would ever have discussed the matter with any researcher."

 

"Which is why the Conference Committee is so anxious to have McCoy do a  presentation on it," Kirk pointed out carefully.  "Officially, medically, no one else knows anything about the subject. They're all eager to find out."  It was something that had never before come out.  The few Vulcans now serving in Starfleet served among their own kind and kept to themselves—in that, Spock was still an aberration—so it had never been necessary to discuss the details of pon farr with non-Vulcan researchers or medical personnel.  Until Spock, ever the exception to the rule, had shared the details with Kirk.  Never before nor since had any Human not directly affected by it been privy to those details.  Such was the unique nature of Spock’s situation—and of his friendship with Kirk.

 

"No doubt," Spock returned coolly, glancing sidelong at Kirk.  "So the Doctor is going to satisfy their prurient curiosity.  How?  How  did he learn so much of the causes and symptoms?  There are details mentioned here…aspects he could not have known of on his own."

 

"He knew there would be no point in interviewing you for the paper, so...he interviewed me," Kirk confessed reluctantly.

 

"You..." Spock fell silent, turning his attention back to the electronic notepad and continuing to read.  When he had finished, he reached out and offered it to Kirk, sensing him approaching again; Kirk took it silently when he was close enough to reach it.  "You told him.  Now he will tell others, and everyone will know," Spock finished tensely.

 

"I tried not to say any more than I had to," Kirk put in, trying to reassure him.

 

But Spock was in no need to accept his reassurances.  "What I told you...was meant for you alone," he answered, his voice little more than a harsh whisper.  "You gave your word that it would remain between us."

 

"Don't you think I know that?" Kirk demanded, in frustration, unthinkingly going to sit down beside Spock as he reflected on how glad he was that the three of them were alone.   "Do you think I wanted to do this?  I had to do something to help McCoy out!  You know the procedures of the Federation Medical Conference as well as I do; the presentation topics are assigned--and you also know what happens to doctors who refuse to participate because they don't like their topic."

 

Spock did know. He had heard the same horror stories as Kirk.  But for now, all that mattered was that he had shared the terrible secret of pon farr with Kirk, certain he could trust his Captain and best friend with the knowledge...and now Kirk was helping McCoy publicize it.  Spock could not help wondering what other secrets of his Kirk had revealed, even if only to McCoy.  "And why, may I ask, did the Conference Committee assign this particular topic to him?" Spock questioned coldly.  "Someone must have known that he knew--or could find out."

 

Kirk hung his head.  "They claim...somebody on the Committee knows of someone who heard a passing reference by one of us at a party.  I can't begin to imagine where or when it was...I don't remember ever discussing anything remotely related to the pon farr in public, or with anyone but McCoy," he confessed guiltily.

 

"How casual you seem to have been with my confidences," Spock observed, his tone unchanged.

 

Kirk bristled.  "You know me better than that.  I'm telling you I had no choice!" he reiterated, becoming angry as he looked up at Spock again.

 

Before Spock could decide how to respond, McCoy came quickly to join them.  "There's no point in jumping down Jim's throat.  The whole thing was my idea and my fault, Spock--I just didn't know what else to do about it," he interjected.

 

"Your motivations have been duly explained, Doctor, and I accept them because I have come to expect such things from you.  But it is different with Jim," Spock returned, trying to hide his pain behind a stiffly formal tone.  "I trusted him with something no Human--other than my mother--had ever been permitted to know of, and he promised not to speak of it."

 

"You read the paper.  Couldn't you see how few details he provided and how much extrapolation I had to do?" McCoy countered impatiently.

 

"Irrelevant--he should not have discussed pon farr at all," Spock retorted, struggling to maintain control as he turned to focus a forbidding expression on McCoy.  "This is between the Captain and myself, Doctor.  Please remove yourself from my presence and do not attempt to interfere in this matter again."

 

"With pleasure!" McCoy shot back hotly, turning and storming off toward the door.

 

When McCoy was gone, Kirk--who had remained silent during their exchange--spoke again: "Spock, surely you can't think I would deliberately--"

 

“The evidence is self-explanatory," Spock interrupted shortly, getting up to go.

 

 He carried such an aura of agony and inapproachability about him that Kirk did not try to stop him, waiting another half hour, in fact, before he left, himself.  He spent that half hour reading over McCoy's paper and eventually took it with him, still unable to reach a decision on anything he might be able to do to make amends with Spock.

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

Spock, meanwhile, went back to his quarters to try to meditate, but could not overcome his inner pain and anger enough to keep the emotions from invading and eventually disrupting his meditation.  He was still trying to adjust to the knowledge gained through V'ger, a process he had asked for and gratefully received Kirk's help with...but now he wondered if he could ever fully trust Kirk again.  And if he could not, was there any point in letting himself try to trust McCoy or Christine?

 

Perhaps not. Perhaps he could never trust anyone fully again.  But that would mean going back to the way he had been before he had met Kirk: alone in his own self-made prison, unable to reach out or let anyone else reach in, trying too hard to be too Vulcan for his own good.  A part of Spock rebelled at the idea: No.  I have come too far and learned too much to go back to that... mere existence.  Was he over-reacting?  Spock found it impossible to analyze the situation logically; his emotions were too strong.  Control, the Vulcan in him counselled.  Isolate yourself.  Give yourself time to think the matter through, with no external interference, and you will arrive at a logical solution.  Then again, that was how he had wound up wasting three years in the Gol desert, trying futilely to attain Kolinahr.

 

In the end, unable to resolve the matter, Spock went to bed without bothering to change out of his uniform and slept fitfully, his mind troubled by unpleasant dreams.

 

     

 

II

 

     

 

Days passed, becoming weeks, and there remained no resolution of the situation for anyone involved.  Spock withdrew completely from his Human friends, treating Kirk in particular with cold formality when duty forced them to be together; Kirk, feeling as hurt and angry as Spock felt betrayed, made no effort to penetrate the Vulcan mask of emotionlessness, and in fact, treated Spock much the same way as his First Officer was treating him.  And McCoy, when he was not serving as a sounding board for Kirk's frustration in dealing with Spock, was left to finish his paper without input from either of them.  Even Kirk had had enough of it.

 

To make matters worse, Christmas was nearing and everyone else was eagerly finalizing plans for their section or department Christmas parties, and the following holiday itself.  The Bridge crew, as always, would have their own party, but Kirk was hardly in a party mood; he did his best to keep his inner turmoil to himself, not wanting to ruin the anticipation for the others, and wondered whether or not Spock would deign to come.  At the moment, he wasn't even sure he wanted the Vulcan there.  McCoy likewise had no plans to attend the Medical Department's Christmas party, though he let Kirk know that if the Captain decided to go to the Bridge crew's Christmas party, he would go along for moral support.

 

After picking up clues suggesting a falling-out between Spock and his two Human friends and growing curious as to the details, Christine went to see Spock, hoping he would talk to her. Spock was not very informative, at first, but she was immediately able to see what Kirk and McCoy now could not: the degree to which his estrangement from them was affecting him physically. Although it had been only two weeks since Spock had gone to find out why Kirk and McCoy had been avoiding him, it was already obvious that he had not eaten in that time--nor had he slept, from the air of weariness about him.  For all that, he still exuded anger and pain, and Christine had not seen such controlled torment in the dark eyes since his last days on the Enterprise before his ill-fated return to Vulcan.

 

She had been in Spock's quarters for over an hour before he finally decided his need for someone to talk to about the situation was greater than his fear of trusting anyone and allowed himself to move the conversation beyond awkward small talk.  Christine had not pushed or prodded him, after all, despite her obvious concern--reminding Spock of why, at his first opportunity after returning to the Enterprise, he had asked her to marry him.  "You were wondering, I believe, about the presentation topic assigned to Dr. McCoy," Spock began, his voice tightly controlled.

 

"You found out what it was?" Christine prompted, her curiosity piqued.  McCoy, for reasons she still did not know, had never mentioned it to her or asked her to help him with it.

 

Spock nodded, finally stopping his compulsive pacing and sitting down before her on the edge of the desk.  "He was asked--told--to give a presentation on...Vulcan courtship rituals."

 

"But there's no information in the computers on that!" Christine protested, instinctively alarmed.  "The only way he could've researched that is--"

 

"Talking to the Captain, which is exactly what he did," Spock finished, bitterness touching his voice as he remembered the pain and difficulty of that first-ever pon farr discussion with Kirk, so many years ago, now, it seemed... "And the Captain gave him the information he needed.  I trusted him with something I...would never have spoken of to anyone else...something he promised to keep secret...and he betrayed that trust," he continued.

 

"So now you think you can't trust him with anything?" Christine guessed incredulously.

 

Spock answered with his eyes averted, now making no further effort to hide his hurt and resentment.  "Someone overheard him discussing pon farr with the Doctor at a party," he told her tersely.  "How can I be certain what else I have told him that he has treated so carelessly?"

 

Christine moved closer and sat down next to him, speaking with a voice that commanded him to face her again: "Spock."

 

When Spock turned back to her, his eyes bore the same lost, tormented expression that they had when she first arrived.

 

"Captain Kirk cares about you.  He values your trust.  Can't you see that there was no way out of it for him?"

 

"He could have refused McCoy's interviews," Spock countered persistently.

 

"And let him humiliate himself at the Conference--risk damaging or destroying his career?"

 

Spock hesitated, seeing Christine's point.  Kirk should not have to choose between his friendship or McCoy's career...but that was the position that he had placed himself in--or rather, that McCoy had placed him in by suggesting it to him.  And Spock could not get past the knowledge that--given this choice--Kirk had chosen to protect McCoy's professional standing; that hurt with an agony no Vulcan pain controls could affect.  "I thought...he 'valued my trust'...and my friendship," he confessed faintly. "Now I doubt either mean anything to him. Which is most unfortunate, since that...friendship...was a large factor in my decision to remain with the Enterprise after the V'ger mission."

 

Christine remembered that Spock was still persona non grata on Vulcan, after having been basically banished by his clan and disowned (in accordance with a clan edict) by Sarek after his failure to attain Kolinahr.  "You're not thinking of leaving--?"

 

"No," Spock assured her resignedly, cutting off her instinctive protest by confirming her thoughts.  "I have nowhere else to go."

 

"So what are you going to do?" Christine pressed worriedly.  "Surely you're not just going to go on treating both of them like they don't exist."

 

“I have little reason to be around them now unless my duties require it," Spock returned neutrally.  "What the Captain has done to our friendship cannot be undone.  It is possible that the Doctor might change his mind about giving his presentation as written...still, it will never be as it was between Jim and me again."

 

"That's a little harsh, isn't it?"

 

Spock straightened, standing and walking away from her toward the transparent partition. "You do not understand, Christine.  I...violated the Vulcan way time after time for him...taking lives that threatened his, supporting him when I did not understand or agree with him, speaking to him of things no Vulcan would ever discuss...because he had taught me to trust him," he explained, his voice now tinged with sadness.  "Now--ironically, in the wake of my experience with V'ger, when I most need to trust him--I cannot."

 

Christine likewise stood and followed him.  "This is obviously a bad time for you to decide you and he can't be friends any more--and not just because of V'ger," she pointed out.  "Christmas is coming.  Couldn't you just think about this for a while and save any decisions 'til afterwards?"

 

"And the Medical Conference follows shortly after the New Year Holiday," Spock reminded her.  "Whenever possible, the Captain and I have always accompanied the Doctor if it is convenient for us to take leave--for 'moral support', Jim says, though we cannot actually attend the Conference.  Under the present circumstances, I do not think I could bear that.  I must decide *now* how to deal with the situation, and I have made my decision."

 

Christine, ignoring the firmness of his voice, walked around to stand in front of him.  "All right, Spock--you didn't ask for my opinion, but here it is, anyway: this 'decision' is one you're going to regret, if you stick to it.  You're trying to hurt Captain Kirk, but it's you who's going to suffer the most from cutting yourself off from his friendship.  Remember how it was when you decided to go back to Vulcan," she told him, knowing she would not have to elaborate.

 

And she could see from the expression in his eyes that she had been right; Spock remembered all too well his last few weeks aboard the Enterprise before beginning his misguided quest to attain Kolinahr--then, too, his decision had alienated him from his friends, and only his final emotional collapse had re-united them.  But at least then, Kirk had stood by him--not betrayed him.  "I realize the timing is inconvenient," Spock stated finally, "but...I can no more change my emotions in this matter than the Captain can reverse his actions."

 

"So you're just going to go on avoiding him when you're off-duty?"

 

"Until I can devise a more satisfactory plan of action, yes."

 

Christine had wanted to ask him if he planned to go to the Bridge crew's Christmas party, but the answer to that now seemed obvious.  Spock doubtless planned to avoid any Christmas celebrations, as well--they would only be an unwanted reminder of all that he felt was lost to him. She shook her head disappointedly, turning to go, knowing that--for now--she would not be able to get Spock to change his mind.  Surely, however, he would not be able to keep this up through the whole Christmas holiday; surely he would realize, as the time for the party drew closer, that he wanted to be with Kirk and couldn't go on ignoring him and McCoy.  Until that time, she would have to keep up her gentle prodding and chiding of Spock.

 

As she reached the door, Spock spoke again: “Christine..."

 

"Yes?" she answered, not turning.

 

"...I hope you are not angry with me.  I have no wish to have to avoid you, also."

 

"You know where to find me if I'm on duty and you want to talk to me.  If I'm off...I'll be back to talk to you. This isn't finished; if I can do anything to stop it, I'm not going to let you throw away over twenty years of friendship because of something that couldn't be avoided and wasn't done with any intent to hurt you."  With that, Christine stepped through the door and was gone.

 

Spock directed a raised eyebrow after her, surprised and yet not surprised by her determination.  It had not occurred to him that his friendship with Kirk meant anything to Christine (beyond being a focal point for her periodic bouts of veiled jealousy), but apparently she understood its importance to him better than he had thought possible. Perhaps it was something she had learned gradually over the years they had known each other, during which it must have become painfully obvious that he would always feel a degree of devotion to Kirk that he never would for her--or perhaps the time she and Kirk had spent together assigned to Starfleet Central Headquarters while Spock was on Vulcan had given her new insights into why Spock valued his friendship.

 

Either way, Spock was inclined to view it as a mixed blessing; it meant that he would not have to spend this Christmas alone...but the void left in him by his loss of trust in Jim (and therefore, of his friendship) was too big for Christine to fill, a fact that would also become obvious to her and painful to both of them.  In fact, there was no one else who could fill that void.

 

Disturbed by the intensity of the emotions rising within him, Spock retreated to his bed chamber to meditate, though he did not really expect it to do much good.

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

More time passed, and Kirk found himself and McCoy reluctantly making Christmas plans that did not include Spock.  Kirk tried to see Spock a few times, but the Vulcan invariably refused to talk to him.  By a week before Christmas, decorations were up throughout the ship, most party plans were set, and Kirk's anger appeared to have burned itself out, leaving only sadness--and determination to set things right between them.

 

 After consulting once more with McCoy and Christine, who agreed that he would have to be the one to bring about any healing of the rift (Christine could continue to talk to and advise Spock, but he still would have nothing to do with McCoy, and the only person he would ultimately listen to was Kirk himself), Kirk went again to see Spock.  And this time, he made it clear he was not going to move from Spock's door until the latter let him in.

 

When Spock finally did, he led the Captain into his study, stopping before his desk and keeping his back to Kirk.  "Well, Captain, since you insist on intruding on my privacy, what is your business with me?" he demanded coolly.

 

"I wanted to invite you to the Bridge crew's Christmas party," Kirk began cautiously.  "I know you probably have no interest in it now, but I'd really like you to come."

 

Spock sat down at his desk.  "Perhaps you should have considered that when you chose to play informant to Dr. McCoy," he returned, his tone unchanged. "As the situation now stands, I... cannot go."

 

Kirk seized on the hesitation he heard in the Vulcan's voice, knowing it might indicate a weakening of Spock's resolve--some vulnerability that he could use to the advantage of both of them.  He closed the distance between them--physically, at least.  "How many times do I have to apologize?  Put yourself in my place.  What would you have done?" he asked desperately.

 

"If I had been you, with a Vulcan as a friend who had confided such a...difficult and terrible secret as I did to you...I would have respected that friend's trust and refused McCoy's interviews," Spock countered persistently, looking up at him finally.  "You yourself have told me that friendship requires trust.  If I cannot trust you now, then surely we have no friendship."

 

Kirk shook his head sadly, understanding all too well.  How many years, how much of his life had been wasted before Spock had learned to trust him--the first time he had ever truly, fully trusted anyone?  And the details of Vulcan courtship were undoubtedly the most personal and private things Spock had ever allowed himself to share with his Captain--little wonder he felt betrayed.  Now, when he knew Spock needed his aid in dealing with the inner turmoil left within him by V'ger--when he had seemed finally on the verge of being fully at peace with himself, his emotions and his Human half--he could no longer trust Kirk enough to accept his help.

 

"Spock...I never meant to hurt you like this," he confessed finally.  "I'd  thought that twenty-something years of friendship would mean enough to you for you to give me a second chance.  I thought you'd forgive me at least that much.  But if you can't, I...won't try to change your mind again."  He turned to go, speaking over his shoulder one last time.  "The only problem is, I still consider you my friend.  After all this time, I just can't stop caring about you."

 

Spock wanted to say something to stop him, but no words would come to him.  He felt a hard lump in his stomach and a burning sensation behind his eyes as he, too, began to realize what the loss of Kirk's friendship would mean to him.

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

Thus the Enterprise crew eagerly counted down the last days before Christmas, most by now aware that something was wrong between the Captain and the First Officer but unable to discover any of the details.  Eventually, they stopped paying any attention to Kirk's disinterest in and Spock's absence from their anticipatory gossip and plans--all except those who knew the reasons why and worried more and more as time passed.  McCoy and Christine watched as Kirk and Spock descended into a depression that showed every sign of lasting straight through the Christmas holiday, monitoring their conditions as well as they could, virtually abandoning their own Christmas plans.

 

McCoy came up with one last idea to try on the Conference Committee Chairman, Dr. Carr--an outright lie, telling the Chairman he couldn't attend due to illness--but Spock immediately declared this idea "illogical" and Kirk gave it a derisive "Yeah, right" comment, and McCoy realized they both had a point.  By this time, Carr had seen and heard from McCoy so often that he would have known if McCoy had appeared ill.  Faking illness had never been known to fool a doctor, and he would never buy such a pretense now, so close to time for the Conference.

 

Resignedly, McCoy returned his attention to something he still hoped could be salvaged: Kirk and Spock's friendship.  Spock particularly worried him.  In the wake of his exposure to the Kolinahr disciplines and then V'ger, Spock's psyche was in no condition to handle a depression as severe as losing Kirk's friendship was likely to bring about in him.  McCoy and Christine knew he was still not sleeping and had reduced his food intake to the barest minimum necessary to sustain his existence; though he refused to discuss the situation with Kirk, Spock was oddly cooperative about permitting Christine's medical surveillance and McCoy's periodic examinations in Sickbay. While Kirk was more stubborn, it quickly became obvious that much of his pain was empathic as he began to allow himself awareness of Spock's silent agony and refusal to permit Kirk's help.

 

Spock, meanwhile, came to another decision.  He could not continue the present charade, trying to treat Kirk with strict professional decorum as if they had never been friends, trying to close his mind off from Kirk.  Their mental bond still existed, and always would, unless prolonged distance--or death--dissolved it.  As he had told Christine, he had nowhere else to go--nowhere he would not still be tortured by memories of Kirk and their friendship, for if Kolinahr had not destroyed those memories after three years in the Vulcan desert, nothing else would.  That left Spock one option--if he could pull it off.

 

Two days before Christmas Eve, on which most of the parties (including the Bridge crew's) were to be held, Spock inexplicably offered to meet with Christine and McCoy in the Officers' Lounge for his usual meager dinner.  McCoy distanced himself from them a little to allow them some relative privacy, knowing Spock was more comfortable with Christine and curious to see what they would talk about.

 

Christine found herself paying more attention to Spock than to her own food as she waited for him to speak and explain his sudden desire for their company after weeks of self-imposed isolation.  It was clear from his haggard features that he still had not eaten or slept, and from the emptiness in his eyes, he still had found no way to reconcile with Kirk, either.  She did not understand how he could let this go on, especially over Christmas--a holiday he surely understood the significance of for the Humans around him, even if he himself saw nothing special about it.

 

Finally, Spock broke his silence.  "I appreciate your coming, Christine.  I wanted to tell you... to apologize...for the time we have lost because of my inability to accept your emotions for me," he began hesitantly.

 

"That's behind us, now.  All that's left is the bonding ceremony, then we can set a date for the wedding," Christine reminded him reassuringly, surreptitiously waving her left hand with its engagement ring-decorated finger in his general direction.

 

Spock reached out to cover her left hand with his right, meeting her eyes briefly, not willing to let her make light of or dismiss the matter so easily.  "Nonetheless, I want you to understand what your determination has meant to me, in case...something happens," he continued, now lowering his eyes.  "If I cannot...keep my promise to you for some reason...I wish you to know that it is not because your emotions are not reciprocated.  I shall always value...your kindness, your acceptance, and the persistence of your...love for me...whatever happens."

 

It seemed a strange time for one of the recurrent the-life-of-a-Starfleet-officer-is-an-uncertain-thing speeches that Spock had periodically given her, as well as Kirk (and presumably McCoy), since the completion of the V'ger mission, but Christine took it at face value--as an indication of the depth of his depression--and shook her head in silent exasperation at his pessimism, squeezing his hand encouragingly before releasing it.  Oddly, Spock seemed a little reluctant to let go of it.

 

"Oh, please.  You know good and well you're going to outlive all of us," McCoy put in crustily, from his own table a few feet away.  "But you're going to have to eat more than that to do it."  He got up with his tray and headed for the food dispenser area.  "I've got to get back to Sickbay. Christine, you stay and make sure he finishes that food--and get him to eat some more, if you can."

 

Christine waited until he had dropped off his tray and moved off out of earshot before speaking again.  "I got a lovely gown on my last shore leave for the party.  I was hoping you'd invite me...seems a shame I won't get to wear it, now," she ventured cautiously.

 

"I assume the Medical Department will have their own Christmas party.  Wear it there," Spock returned neutrally, appearing unaware of her blatant hint, though in fact, he was forcing himself to ignore it.

 

"Why?  You wouldn't see it there, either," she pointed out, turning away in resignation.

 

"You bought it specifically for *me* to see?"

 

Christine nodded silently, not looking back up at him.

 

"But that is illogical.  Someone would see it and appreciate it, if you went--and my avoidance of the party should not stop you."

 

Christine was so tired of fighting Spock on this that she barely even noticed his atypical implied suggestion that she show off her new gown to some other man. "You're my fiancé.  If you're not going, there's little point in me going," she concluded.

 

Spock found that he had no interest in arguing with her about it further, particularly under these circumstances.  He fell silent, lingering long enough to savor Christine's presence and eat enough food (which he later threw up) to satisfy her, then getting up and leaving.

 

     

 

III

 

     

 

No one saw Spock after that.  In the wee hours of Christmas Eve morning, he slipped unnoticed through Kirk's unlocked door while the latter was asleep, leaving something in a location where Kirk was not likely to immediately find it and slipping back out again, then simply disappeared--or so it seemed to everyone else.  In the hustle and bustle of last minute Christmas preparations, most of the crew never noticed he was missing, and those he was closest to were now so used to him avoiding them that they thought nothing of it when Spock went into hiding, going somewhere he was sure even Kirk would never find him until... he had done what he now knew he had to do.

 

Kirk, meanwhile, awakened that morning with a vague feeling of discomfort whose source he could not identify, something well beyond the general depression he was already dealing with; it stayed with him throughout the day--through his abbreviated duty shift on the Bridge (which, for today and Christmas Day, would be manned by a skeleton crew), through the lunch he did not really eat, and through preparations for a party he was only attending because McCoy threatened to confine him to a bed in Sickbay with intravenous feeding if he didn't.

 

"You need this to get your mind off things," McCoy explained later, for perhaps the tenth time, as he, Kirk and Christine sat off by themselves in a corner of the festively-decorated Officers' Lounge, though their clothes were the only thing festive about them.  McCoy wore a shimmery, silk-like, silver tunic over dark blue slacks, with a sash-belt of a similar blue, and Kirk was resplendent in a gold brocade-trimmed tunic of a deep red over slacks of the same red color, with gold piping down the sides.

 

They had come along with Kirk for moral and emotional support, knowing he probably wouldn't stay, otherwise--three people sharing a frustrated longing for Spock's company and clinging to each other for survival of this terrible holiday, all in a decidedly non-festive mood.  Kirk and McCoy were nursing drinks, but Kirk's was non-alcoholic; that annoying something-or-other nagging at the back of his mind was warning him not to risk getting drunk, and though Kirk wished he knew why, he followed his instincts.  Christine, in the beautiful, green-sequined gown with the silver-and-white, fur-like trim that she had meant to wear for Spock, ate and drank nothing.  

 

"So you keep saying," Kirk responded tiredly.  "But if by 'things', you mean Spock...I think it's hopeless.  Look at us--we look like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy.  It's obvious that that's all that is on our minds."

 

 "Then let's concentrate on something else," McCoy urged.  "Look around--didn't Uhura do a great job of decorating?"

 

"Yes..." Kirk looked around at the holly garland-festooned tables and bulkheads, the other members of the Bridge crew--all three shifts--and their guests, milling around or standing and talking by the Christmas tree in the center of the room.  Kirk found his eyes lingering on the tree. They had all contributed decorations for it, bought individually or in sets, and even some things that only resembled decorations--representing Earth colonies and non-Human worlds from around the Federation.  Then there were the presents beneath it, this year meant to be taken back to each recipient's quarters and opened on Christmas Day..."What do you think we should do with Spock's presents?" he asked softly, at last.  "I know for sure he has at least three under the tree--one from each of us."

 

"Maybe we should deliver them ourselves tomorrow," McCoy suggested, giving up finally on the idea of diverting Kirk's attention to something else.  Kirk was right; they were all worried about Spock.  That was why they were here, together.

 

"I guess I could take them back to my cabin, then tomorrow morning, we could meet there and take them next door," Kirk offered, then shook his head.  "Maybe Christine should take them," he decided, then.  "You're the only one of us he'll still let close to him for any length of time."

 

"Oh, Captain--surely on Christmas Day, he'd make an exception," she opined anxiously. "Especially if you brought gifts."

 

"Spock doesn't respond to bribes," Kirk reminded her dryly.  "And he didn't make an exception for this party.  I don't think the day itself would be anything special to him, either.  Not now."

 

Christine studied him intently.  "He needs you.  You have to go see him sometime."

 

"I already have--several times.  He made it clear when I tried to invite him to the party that he didn't want anything more to do with me, personally," Kirk returned, with inevitable bitterness.  "I don't need a house to fall on me.  And I'm tired of being treated this way--it's like he's back in that Kolinahr mode he was in when he first returned to us, before his mind-meld with V'ger."

 

"He may wish he was," Christine remarked quietly, remembering her conversations with the Vulcan.

 

The feeling of discomfort was getting stronger within Kirk as the conversation continued.

 

"Well, if he's fool enough to throw away your friendship, I say the hell with him," McCoy chimed in, obviously beginning to be affected by his drink, a Christmas punch that clearly contained too much "punch".  "He'll certainly never find anyone else as willing to take all the garbage you have to take from him."

 

"He may not try," Kirk replied somberly, his bitterness fading again as his anxiety grew. "Have either of you seen him lately?"

 

McCoy and Christine exchanged uncertain looks, wondering if they should give Kirk a detailed account of their last encounter with Spock.  "A couple of days ago," Christine admitted finally.  "He didn't look or act any better than he did the last time we saw him."

 

The vague discomfort now turned to a pinpoint of pain that began to pulse faintly at Kirk's temple.

 

"What's wrong, Jim?" McCoy asked, seeing Kirk move a hand to massage the spot where the pain was.  "Getting a headache?"

 

"I don't know, but something...something having to do with Spock," Kirk realized slowly.

 

"You mean, besides the fact that he's not eating or sleeping?" McCoy quipped, not realizing until the words were out of his mouth how they must sound.

 

Kirk gave him a dangerous look.  "Don't be flip, Doctor--and lay off the punch.  I think you've had enough."

 

"On the contrary, I'm annoyingly sober," McCoy countered, but pushed the drink away in frustration, anyway.

 

"Are you in mental contact with him?" Christine asked intently, leaning forward toward Kirk. Spock had told her about their mental bond shortly after the V'ger mission.

 

"No, nothing like that.  Just this...odd feeling I've had all day.  I've only just now connected it to Spock," Kirk tried to explain.  "Maybe it's just my mood since this falling-out with him, but I can't seem to shake the idea that--"

 

All conversation stopped when they saw Uhura approaching them--the first time anyone had done so since they had arrived and isolated themselves with their refreshments--since they by now understood and accepted Kirk's dark mood (as well as McCoy's and Christine's). Leave it to Nyota to insist on trying to cheer me up, Kirk thought in anticipation, as she reached their table.

 

"We've decided to sing some carols, Captain.  Will you lead us?" Uhura requested.

 

"I don't think so, Nyota.  I'm not really in the mood," Kirk declined politely, knowing she had just been humoring him, as usual, because it had long been an Enterprise tradition that the Captain led the Christmas party carol-singing; everyone on the ship knew he couldn't carry a tune in a backpack.

 

Uhura looked genuinely disappointed, but she didn't insist, turning reluctantly instead and going back to join the others.

 

Kirk, McCoy and Christine looked on and listened wistfully as the group around the tree began to sing, remembering past Christmases that they had managed to coax Spock into sharing with them.  He usually enjoyed the festivities, once Kirk had drawn him out...Kirk realized then that someone had called for "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", long one of his favorites, and one that he had taught Spock to play on his Vulcan harp.  He listened to part of the song:

 

     

 

It came upon a midnight clear,

 

that glorious song of old,

 

with angels bending near the Earth

 

to touch their harps of gold:

 

Peace on the Earth, goodwill toward men--

 

 

 

But at this point, Kirk got up from the table and headed for the door, his vision blurred by tears, unable to bear the situation any longer.  He and Spock should be together on this night, sharing the holiday; he had to see Spock one more time--and this time, he would not let himself get sent away.

 

"Jim!" McCoy called after him, standing, also.

 

"You may as well let him go, Leonard.  He's not enjoying the party, anyway," Christine interjected, stopping him with a hand laid on his arm.  "If anybody can find Spock and talk some sense into him, the Captain can."

 

McCoy sat back down reluctantly, reaching for his drink again.

 

Christine, meanwhile, got up, herself.  "He might need help looking for Spock.  I think I'll go with him," she decided abruptly, glancing back down at McCoy.  "Are you coming?"

 

McCoy considered this briefly.  "No, maybe I better stay here--he might come here looking for Jim if he comes to his senses on his own tonight."

 

She nodded, understanding.  "Maybe you should stay near a communicator, then, so I can contact you if we need you."

 

"All right.  Good luck, Christine."  As she headed off toward the door, McCoy took a couple of sips of his punch, then pushed it aside again, getting up and going back to the refreshment table. He exchanged his punch for the non-alcoholic egg nog that Kirk had been drinking, realizing he needed to stay sober enough to answer Christine's call if--when--it came.  Damn you, Spock, for putting Jim through this. It's times like this when you're more trouble than you're worth, he thought angrily.

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

Christine managed to catch up with Kirk on Deck 5, and together, they went to Spock's quarters.  They found the door unlocked and the cabin empty.  One of Spock's uniforms was laid out on the bed with his usual neatness--the only sign he might have recently been in his cabin. With the Enterprise's redesign, there were only three other places Kirk knew of that Spock might go--and one of them was presently being used for a Christmas party.  They went to each of the other two--the Recreation Deck and the ship's Botanical Gardens--and still, they did not find Spock.

 

Frustrated and increasingly alarmed, Kirk and Christine returned to his quarters to decide what to do next.  "Captain, I don't understand.  Where could he be?" Christine demanded anxiously.  "Do you think something might have happened to him?"

 

Kirk had begun to pace.  "I don't know.  I don't know, but I'm beginning to wonder about that, myself," he admitted doubtfully.  "Spock's not one to wander around socializing, especially when he's this... disturbed.  Even now, he doesn't like being out in public that much."  The nagging pinpoint pain at his temple had by now become a dull throb, and all kinds of red alerts were going off inside him.  Spock was missing, and Kirk was certain that something was very wrong.

 

"What about your mental bond?  Can you use it to locate him?" Christine asked.

 

"I'm not very good at that yet," Kirk remarked ruefully, going to sit down at the table in his study.  "I guess it wouldn't hurt to try," he decided.  As Christine watched and waited expectantly, he tried to reach out with his mind, as Spock had taught him to do in their mind-melds--focusing his thoughts on the Vulcan.  Where are you, Spock? his mind called out plaintively.

 

He was answered with a mental silence such as he had never experienced from Spock since the formation of their bond--a wall of cold nothingness as solid as any stone or cement barrier--which, with the emotional distance now between them, was much as Kirk had expected.  He shook his head, getting up slowly and resuming his pacing.  "It's no good--he's blocking me.  Obviously, he's still mad at me," he reported morosely.  "Damn him.  If it weren't for this--feeling--I have that he needs to be found, I think I'd just let him sulk."

 

"Would you really?  On Christmas Eve?" Christine questioned doubtfully.

 

"Maybe," Kirk hedged, sighing.  "I left the party to find Spock and bring him back, and that's still what I intend to do," he reminded himself firmly, strengthening his resolve.  "Although if he still insists on being stubborn--" As he passed by the doorway leading to his bathroom, he was distracted by a glint of light reflecting off something there and realized he had not seen it there before; moving closer, he recognized the items stacked in a corner near the bathroom door--and they belonged to Spock.  "What the--?"

 

"What is it?" Christine asked, coming over to join him.

 

"Look."

 

Christine followed his gaze and saw what he saw: Spock's Vulcan harp, IDIC pendant and three-dimensional chess set, along with a tape sitting on top of the chessboard.  "Why would he leave those things here?" she questioned, puzzled.

 

"I don't know.  But those are his most treasured possessions.  He wouldn't leave them here, unless--" Kirk focused on the tape, reaching for it, hoping against hope that it would provide some answers. 

 

"He did leave the IDIC pendant with you when he went back to Vulcan," Christine recalled, meaning to reassure Kirk that it might not be such an ominous sign that Spock had done so again.

 

But Kirk did not feel reassured.  "Yes, and you remember what he was like when he came back, don't you?  I don't ever want to see him that closed-off from us again," he told her, taking the tape to his desk and sticking it into the corresponding slot in the computer terminal.  "If he's done something like that this time--"

 

He stopped as Spock's face appeared on the screen of the wall viewer above his desk, and both he and Christine immediately gave the image their full attention as it began to speak: "Captain--by the time you see this, I will have removed myself from your life in the only way I know how.  I cannot leave the Enterprise, since I have nowhere else to go except back to Vulcan, which is not now an option--but neither can I bear for this situation between us to continue any longer.

 

"Since the only alternative is the termination of our friendship and the dissolution of our bond, I have tried to use what I learned from V'ger to aid me in my meditations upon how I could cope with such a...loss.  And the only conclusions I have been able to come to have been negative: I have lost the ability to trust that you taught me because I can no longer trust you, but I am still too...uncertain within myself...to continue to find my way after V'ger without your guidance.  I cannot permit your friendship with me to continue, but the only way I know of to cope without it is to return to Vulcan and try again to attain Kolinahr...yet, even if I could go back, I know now that I cannot do that, either.

 

"There is only one way out for me.  It is not what I planned when I chose to stay here after the V'ger mission, but it is the only way I will ever free myself of the memories.  I leave you with those of my belongings that I know you value as I do, in addition to such things as are stipulated in the will following this message.  You will also find...Christmas presents beneath the harp, bought before this...rift that you initiated between us.  Apologize to Christine for me...make her understand that I would never have made a worthy husband for her after this.  And please speak to my parents as soon as you can.  My mother, in particular, may be very angry when she hears the details, but talk to her, anyway.

 

"I know you will try to find me after seeing this; I will be gone by that time, but I have left instructions as to the disposition of my body in my will--it is not to be returned to Vulcan, under any circumstances.  This is my only choice now, Jim; please go on with your life, and know that, even now, I wish you only the best.  Goodbye, Jim...goodbye."

 

A recording obviously done at a different time began immediately thereafter, only to be cut short by Kirk: "I, Spock of Vulcan and Earth, being of sound mind and body, do now decree my last will--" Kirk and Christine then turned to look at each other, both now in tears.

 

"My God--that's what this 'feeling' is about!" Kirk declared, as the horrible truth sank in.  "He wants to--no, dammit, I won't let him!"

 

“I should've known.  He was talking so strangely at dinner, the last time we saw him...but we never made the connection," Christine revealed guiltily.  "All that talk about us not bonding or marrying...I never thought..."

 

"Who would?" Kirk interrupted sharply, in a voice now full of self-loathing.  "Until I opened my big mouth, he thought he had everything to look forward to.  I wrecked it all."

 

"You've done all you could to make it up to him," Christine assured him compassionately.

 

"We've got to find him.  Maybe it's not too late."

 

"Internal sensors?" Christine suggested.

 

"I'll try them, but they were still under repair, at last report," Kirk returned uncertainly, sitting back down at his desk.  "They've been down for three days.  If they're working again, I'll be able to access them here.  While I'm doing that, you go out to the nearest communicator and contact McCoy--get him down here, in case we have to search the ship ourselves."

 

Christine went down the corridor and contacted McCoy from a wall communicator, telling him to come as soon as he could, then paced back and forth in front of it as she waited for him.  When he finally arrived, she quickly recounted to him the highlights of their search so far and Spock's "goodbye" tape as they hurried back down to Kirk's quarters, Christine grateful that her gown's skirt was full enough to allow her to run.

 

"Internal sensors are still down," Kirk told them, after they entered.  "For various reasons, I don't want Security involved in this--or anyone else, as much as they'd probably want to help."

 

"No reason to ruin everybody's Christmas--or embarrass Spock any more than necessary when he's found," Christine deduced understandingly.

 

Kirk nodded. "Assuming he's in any condition to be embarrassed."

 

"But Jim--do you have any idea how big this ship is?" McCoy protested.  "It would take the three of us hours to search the whole thing ourselves!"

 

"No, I have an idea.  We can use a tricorder instead of the ship's sensors.  Both will work; Spock's the only Vulcan aboard--he should be easy to pick out."

 

"Ship's stores are secured today," Christine pointed out worriedly.  "I loaned mine to one of the nurses, and she hasn't returned it yet."

 

"Mine's in my quarters," McCoy put in quickly.  "I'll go get it."

 

"Hurry," Kirk admonished, wiping tears from his face as he began to pace again.

 

"I'll be right back," McCoy promised.

 

Kirk went into his bed chamber and walked to the viewport over his bed, drumming his fingers impatiently against the shelf surface below it, not paying any attention to the view it displayed--at first.  Then he realized how unusually bright the stars were, and looked out to find that most of the light was coming from one star--a star that he was sure had not been there the last time he had looked out, at the party--at least, not shining this brightly.  It was almost a supernova, yet its closeness had not set off any of the ship's alarms or affected it in any way that he could see.  As Kirk studied it, awestruck but not feeling the need to squint, light rays began to pulse around its outer edge, stretching and then shrinking back in various directions.  Then one shot out toward the lower portion of the ship and seemed almost to fasten itself to the hull, not moving.

 

"Christine!  Come look at this!" Kirk called, without taking his eyes from the sight.

 

He heard her approach and position herself behind him seconds later.  "Oh, my!"

 

The light beam remained steady, still touching the same spot on the hull.  "What do you make of that?" Kirk asked, pointing.

 

She followed his gaze.  "I don't know. Is there something down there that would attract light?"

 

He shook his head.

 

McCoy returned just then.  "Hey, I found it, Jim!  I thought I had a fix on him, but then the readings went all--what are you two doing in here?"

 

"Come in here and look at this, Bones," Kirk directed.

 

McCoy complied, going around to the other side of the bed.  "Wow!  How did we ever get this close to a supernova without the Bridge sensors detecting it?" he asked, stepping back in surprise.

 

"I don't know, but you don't hear any red alert alarms, do you? I'm not sure that's what it is," Kirk countered softly.

 

"But what else could be this bright?"

 

Kirk indicated the stray light beam still touching the side of the ship.  "Ever see a supernova, or any other star, produce an effect like that?" he challenged.

 

"No," McCoy admitted, puzzled.  "What do you think it is, then?"

 

Kirk had only heard of one such star before, in Christmas stories passed down to him by his mother.  It seemed impossible that this could be the same star--they were nowhere near Earth's solar system.  Still..."What about your tricorder, Bones?"

 

"Damn thing's useless now," McCoy told him disgustedly.  "It was working when I left my cabin.  I would swear that...star out there is causing some kind of interference."

 

"Hmm."  Kirk reached for his bedside communicator controls.  "Kirk to Bridge."

 

"Bridge.  Lieutenant Thompson," the officer at the con answered, rather irritably.

 

Probably they're all in a bad mood up there, having to work on Christmas Eve, Kirk reasoned, trying to sound as understanding as possible.

 

"Lieutenant, focus your main viewer aft."

 

"Aft view, Captain--" Thompson's acknowledgement was cut off by several surprised gasps.

 

"Didn't that show up on your sensors?" Kirk demanded, then.

 

"No, sir," Thompson assured him.  "We're scanning it now--no decipherable readings at all. Just gibberish.  Shall I have Watson check for sensor  malfunction?"

 

"Immediately, Mr. Thompson."

 

"Yes, sir."  There was a pause.  "None indicated."

 

"But none of the other systems are being affected?" Kirk guessed.

 

"No, Captain--just the sensors."

 

"All right.  Visually monitor that...star...and see that Watson does a full diagnostic on the sensors to be sure there was no malfunction."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Kirk out."  He turned to McCoy.  "See?  I never heard of a 'supernova' that only affects the sensors without damaging the rest of the ship.  We're not being pulled toward it--it's just sort of floating out there."

 

McCoy continued to study the star thoughtfully.  "I wonder why that one beam keeps shining on the ship like that."

 

"I don't know, but I have a hunch."

 

McCoy turned toward him in anticipation.  "About what?"

 

"Spock's location.  Grab that tricorder and come on.  You, too, Christine."

 

 

 

IV

 

 

 

Seconds later, they were in the corridor, McCoy and Christine struggling to keep up with Kirk. "Jim, where are we going?" McCoy wanted to know.

 

"That light beam was shining on the area where the cargo hold is," Kirk explained breathlessly.  "I figured...our sensors don't work, and we can't call Security...so if we have to search the ship, we may as well start at the bottom."

 

"I guess that's as good a place as any," Christine agreed, now understanding Kirk's "hunch".

 

They entered the turbolift.  "That's crazy," McCoy opined.

 

"Deck 19," Kirk said, into the voice pickup.  "It won't be if we find Spock there," he retorted to McCoy, then.

 

"And if we don't?"

 

"We look somewhere else.  Besides, I don't hear you coming up with a better idea."

 

That effectively silenced McCoy, who had no more idea where to look than Christine did.

 

Finally, they arrived at Deck 19 and ran down the short corridor to the cargo hold entrance.  It opened onto a heavily braced and railed catwalk that snaked around the top of the currently-empty hold, with one ladder on each side and an office area platform at the top of the nearest ladder.

 

Through its only viewport, overlooking the office area, the same beam of starlight that they had seen from Kirk's quarters shone down into the hold.  Kirk followed the beam's path with his eyes and found, at its nadir, a figure huddled against the opposite bulkhead.  It was unidentifiable, draped in patches of light and shadow, but Kirk knew at once that it had to be Spock.

 

He ran around the catwalk to the office area, followed closely by McCoy and Christine, and positioned himself on its ladder so that he could slide down, too anxious to reach Spock now to take the time to climb--though McCoy and Christine had no such reservations (certainly not enough to be willing to throw caution to the wind as Kirk was doing--it was nearly two hundred feet down to the cargo hold deck, after all).

 

Kirk, reaching the deck, rushed across it to Spock's side, throwing himself down before the Vulcan, under the beam of starlight.  Spock sat in a fetal curl against the bulkhead, still and unseeing, his eyes seemingly frozen in a partially-open position, and he did not respond when Kirk began shaking him and shouting in his face: "Spock!  Snap out of it!" While he waited for McCoy and Christine to catch up with him, he visually examined Spock for any sign of wounds--noting that Spock, too, was in his party attire (bought some months ago, before McCoy's presentation assignment for the Medical Conference had led to this); seeing no such evidence, he glanced back across the hold in time to see McCoy nearing them.

 

"There's not a mark on him," Kirk told McCoy, as the latter sat down.  "But he's not responding.  It looks like one of those damn trances of his."

 

McCoy took the medscanner out of his medikit and ran it over Spock briefly.  "If that's what it is, he's been in it way too long," he observed anxiously.  "Heart rate, pulse, blood pressure... they're  barely readable, Jim, and they're still dropping.  All other vitals just as low."

 

Suddenly, Kirk was hit with a sick realization of what was happening.  Spock had described it to him once--a quiet and painless method of Vulcan suicide, the sleep-trance carried to its ultimate, fatal conclusion.  "It's a death-trance, Bones.  Spock once told me that Vulcans can actually will themselves to die--that must be what he came down here to do," he told McCoy darkly.  "I've got to break his concentration before it's too late."

 

“Jim, he must've been down here for hours," McCoy warned him painfully, not wanting Kirk to get his hopes up.  "It may already be too late.  Even if a part of him is still hanging on, his will to live may not be strong enough--"

 

"I won't let him die," Kirk interrupted determinedly, focusing his attention again on Spock and shaking him once more.  "Do you hear me, Spock?  I won't let you do this!  You come out of this trance right now!"

 

Spock still did not respond, and Kirk--his eyes again full of tears--grew desperate and angry. "Don't you do this, dammit!  Don't you leave me!"

 

"Captain, try slapping him," Christine interjected suddenly.

 

Kirk took his eyes off Spock long enough to stare at her in disbelief.

 

"That brings him out of healing trances; maybe it'll work on this one, too," she explained hastily.

 

Kirk turned back to Spock, looking indecisive for a moment, then began to comply, with increasing energy and enthusiasm.

 

Up until now, all Kirk had expressed toward Spock was sadness and regret; now McCoy and Christine watched in horror and sympathy as two months of pent-up pain, guilt and resentment bubbled up and boiled over, finally allowing Kirk to fully release his anger at the Vulcan.  As his slaps grew more violent, Christine became concerned about the amount of force he was using and moved to stop him--but McCoy held her back.  "Let him get this out of his system, Christine.  He needs to let it go, and Spock needs to hear it--if he still can," he admonished softly.  "Don't worry--Jim won't hurt him."

 

Kirk, meanwhile, was still expending most of his anger physically.  "Damn you, Spock, come out of it!  Don't you do this!" he continued, through choked-off sobs.  "You're not punishing yourself, you're punishing me!  I won't let you do it any more...I won't..."

 

Spock shuddered into full consciousness with an audible gasp, his face by now bruised and slightly bloody; his eyes focused, he recognized Kirk, and he dragged himself awkwardly backward, out of Kirk's grasp.  "Leave me before you ruin everything," he hissed, averting his eyes from his Captain.

 

"I won't!" Kirk refused hotly.  "Look at me, damn you!"

 

Spock looked back at him reluctantly, startled by Kirk's lack of change in mood.

 

"I am not going to let you die, Spock," Kirk reiterated firmly.

 

"Captain, there is no other way."

 

Kirk again shook him roughly.  "Stop punishing me! You are not going to leave me behind to try to go on without you!  Don't you know I'd never find another friend like you?"

 

Spock took the time to absorb Kirk's words, the anger behind them, and his tears.  The deep shock caused by his realization that Kirk was right about who was punishing who did nothing to aid him in stabilizing his vital signs.  "I never meant...to cause you pain, but...what else can I do?" His voice was barely audible.

 

Kirk found that his anger was spent.  He took Spock's face in his hands, his tone and manner now gentler.  "Spock, listen to me.  I know how hard it was for you to trust--to learn to share yourself with anyone--until you and I became friends, and there's...no way I can ever fully express how sorry I am to have abused that trust," he began sincerely.  "But please, give me a chance to prove you can still trust me.  Isn't my friendship worth that much to you?"

 

"Yes..." Spock reached up hesitantly to touch Kirk's arms.  "...I...I still want it, but..." He lowered his eyes in shame.

 

Kirk waited, reaching to take Spock's hands in his when the Vulcan did not continue.  "You're afraid of me," he realized, in dismay, cursing himself silently.  "Afraid of my friendship..."

 

Spock nodded silently, not looking up.

 

         "But you're not afraid to touch me," Kirk noted, looking down in puzzlement at the hands still holding his.

 

"It seems...a long time since we touched," Spock admitted apologetically, his voice clearly touched by an apprehension that belied Kirk's previous observation.  "I only wanted...to see if you would still...permit me..." He suddenly collapsed into Kirk's arms.

 

"Spock!" Kirk cried, afraid at first that the Vulcan was dead--but then he felt the beating of Spock's heart faintly against his chest as he continued to hold his friend.

 

McCoy ran the small medscanner over Spock again.  "Just fainting, Jim--from physical shock," he assured Kirk.  "I'll give him a little masiform-D--it'll help him shake off the effects of this 'trance'."  He then took a hypo out of his medikit, checked its contents, and moved to inject a small amount into Spock's shoulder.

 

Minutes later, Kirk felt Spock move within his arms.  "Spock?" he prompted worriedly.

 

"Jim..." Spock murmured faintly, still appearing groggy.

 

"Just relax, Spock...I've given you a stimulant to help your vitals come back up to normal," McCoy put in softly.

 

"Thank you, Doctor..." Spock mouthed the words.  "Jim?" he questioned then, a bit louder.

 

"I'm right here," Kirk returned soothingly.

 

"You do not...object to this?"

 

"On the contrary, I think you owe me the privilege."

 

Spock slipped his arms weakly around Kirk's back as he rested his head on Kirk's shoulder, savoring the physical and emotional warmth, wishing he could hug the Human.  He sensed also the depth of Kirk's pain and anger, behind the surface affection and concern.  "Do not cry, Jim...I am sorry.  I promise I will not do this to you again," he asserted just audibly, sitting back, wanting to look Kirk in the eyes.

 

Kirk moved back a little, too, reaching up to wipe blood from the corner of Spock's mouth with the wide sleeve of his dark red tunic.  "I'm sorry I did this--I didn't mean to beat you up.  I guess I lost control."

 

"It was necessary; if you had not been so...angry with me...I would not have been able to come out of the trance," Spock returned, reaching tentatively to wipe away Kirk's remaining tears from the latter's cheeks.

 

"Are you hurt?" Kirk asked then, still worried that he might have done some long-term damage.

 

"No, Jim," Spock assured him kindly.

 

"You're dressed for the party," Kirk observed, again studying the green, artificial fur-trimmed outfit that Spock was wearing.

 

Spock lowered his eyes in embarrassment.  "A part of me...always wanted to go, but I thought my presence would prevent your enjoyment of it."  He looked up abruptly. "It must be taking place now--you left it," he realized, then.

 

"I couldn't stand being there without you.  And I wasn't the only one," Kirk told him honestly.

 

"But...how did you find me?  I shielded my mind from yours," Spock pointed out, puzzled.

 

In answer, Kirk looked up into the beam of light still shining on both of them and Spock followed his gaze, neither of them feeling the need to shield their eyes.  "You'd never believe me if I told you what I thought was responsible," Kirk replied slowly.  "Let's just say...I was led here."

 

"The light...?"  Spock looked back at him, already suspecting.  "From a star?"

 

Kirk nodded.  "As bright as a supernova, close enough to destroy the ship, if that's what it had been, but it only affects the sensors," he ventured cautiously.  "This one beam of light from it hit that viewport up there--I saw it from my cabin, just after we...watched your tape."

 

Spock raised an eyebrow, considering the matter in silence.

 

McCoy, meanwhile, had just realized what they were considering.  "Jim--you don't mean to say you think that star--?"

 

Kirk jerked his head around to face McCoy.  "Do you have a better explanation for its sudden appearance, or the way it's been acting?"

 

"No.  But that star appeared on Earth thousands of years ago.  How could this possibly be the same one?" McCoy demanded skeptically.

 

"Don't you believe in miracles, Doctor?" Christine put in.  "How else could we have found Spock?"

 

How else, indeed? Spock echoed silently, looking at her briefly before returning his eyes to Kirk.

 

"Well, until somebody comes up with a more believable explanation, I'll choose to believe it's the Christmas star.  It is Christmas Eve, after all...and we might not otherwise have found you 'til too late," Kirk decided, turning back to Spock.

 

"Talk some sense into him, Spock.  Tell him how 'illogical' that is," McCoy suggested, watching the Vulcan expectantly.

 

Spock lowered his eyes slightly.  "It does seem unlikely that the same star could appear in two such disparate places, centuries and light-years apart," he admitted slowly.  "But I would have considered it equally unlikely that anyone, even the Captain, would find me here without functional sensors."  He looked back up at Kirk finally.  "I would count it as...a possibility," he concluded, cocking an eyebrow at Kirk before glancing briefly at McCoy.

 

McCoy and Christine exchanged dubious looks.  It still sounded preposterous to him, and she was not yet fully convinced, but Kirk and Spock had a point; they would never have found Spock in time without the star.  And if it were some kind of supernatural "sign", then time and distance were irrelevant to the One who had sent it.  Not every Human of the 23rd century still believed in a Supreme Being, but McCoy--like Kirk and Christine--had seen too many wonders in the universe not to believe that at least "the One" (as Kirk had once referred to the Christian God) existed and had some hand in things.  "All right, Jim--I guess if Spock believes in it, it must be a miracle," he remarked archly.

 

"Bones, really.  Your timing--" Kirk just shook his head disapprovingly.

 

"Perhaps he is correct, Jim.  I 'believed' in nothing before I met you," Spock pointed out softly, averting his eyes again.  Not even myself, he added silently.

 

Kirk regarded him worriedly, knowing they would probably need some time alone before Spock would be ready to face the other Bridge personnel at the party.  "Bones, you and Christine go on back to the party," he directed finally.  "Spock and I'll be along in a few minutes."

 

"Not so fast, Jim," McCoy admonished crustily, running his medscanner over Kirk first, then Spock.  "If it wasn't for Christmas, I'd haul both of you back to Sickbay right now for full physicals

 

...but since it's Christmas Eve, I guess that can wait a day or so."  He knew from what his instruments were showing that Spock would probably be unable to get back up the ladder unassisted, and he doubted Spock would be up to much celebrating for a while.  "If you're going to insist on taking him back to the party, at least keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't over-exert himself."

 

Kirk nodded understandingly.

 

"All right...come on, Christine," McCoy said finally, getting up to go.

 

Christine moved closer to Spock before getting up herself, reaching out to tentatively touch his shoulder.  "Don't be too long, Spock," she requested softly.

 

Spock nodded slightly in understanding, reaching up to take and hold her hand for a moment. "Wait for me," he instructed, almost whispering.

 

“I will," she promised warmly, as he released her hand.

 

Not until McCoy and Christine were well on their way up the ladder did either Kirk or Spock speak again.  Then Spock spoke with his head bowed.  "There is such anger within you toward me

 

...why did you even bother to look for me?" he demanded, his voice full of shame and doubt.

 

“Because however angry you make me, I still consider you my friend," Kirk returned patiently.

 

“I do not deserve friendship.  I deserve whatever anger and resentment you feel toward me," Spock countered regretfully, withdrawing from him a little more.  "You explained your reasons for discussing pon farr with McCoy.  I should have been more understanding, but I felt such...pain and jealousy...that I could not comprehend anything else," he realized.  "You were correct... Christine warned me of this, but I ignored her.  I was 'punishing' you...because I thought you had put your friendship with McCoy before ours.  I...thought I was losing everything you had given me...and it felt as if I were drowning, Jim.  I thought I could suppress the emotion by avoiding you, but it only became more painful.  Then it was too late, and I could find only one way to stop it..."

 

Kirk reached out for the Vulcan's hands, determinedly drawing Spock back toward him.

 

Spock resisted without much energy--or conviction.  "How can you bear to touch me?" he asked, his voice still full of self-loathing.

 

"The same way you bear sensing my anger, I guess," Kirk teased him gently.

 

Spock gave up fighting Kirk and let the Human hold him again.  "I have hurt you," he murmured apologetically.

 

"We've hurt each other--as well as McCoy and Christine--by keeping them at arm's-length," Kirk countered carefully.

 

He felt Spock's head shake as it settled onto his shoulder again.  "You came to find me and stop me...even after the way I have treated you.  You did not try to 'punish' me," the Vulcan argued ruefully.

 

“Spock, shh--this is Christmas Eve, a time for healing and restoration.  For healing hurts of all kinds--even the kind that end friendships," Kirk soothed.

 

Spock involuntarily pulled himself closer, trying clumsily to hug Kirk as he sensed the anger draining from his Captain.  "Jim...have my actions 'ended' our friendship...or is this time also for forgiveness?" he questioned plaintively, with emotion Kirk had not heard in his voice for months.

 

"It is," Kirk assured him kindly, beginning to rub his friend's back.

 

As they held onto each other silently, Spock could not resist a brief, superficial mind-touch (the kind that he already knew Kirk would not object to), probing memories already surfacing in Kirk after the events of the last three months--and there he saw the truth of what Kirk had tried so unsuccessfully to convince him of verbally: the casual reference to pon farr at a long-ago party (and any other such accidental slips) had been made when Kirk thought he and McCoy were alone, and the memory of his more recent revelations to McCoy was drowned in the shame and anxiety of the time--anxiety that Spock might react exactly as he had.

 

It was the frustration of being forced to help preserve one friend's career at the expense of another friend's dignity and trust.  No intent or thought of "betraying" Spock had ever existed in Kirk, except as the fear that the Vulcan would take it that way; Kirk's motives were completely as he had described them--pure, honest and unimpeachable.

 

Tears of shame began to form in Spock's eyes as he realized how long it might take him to learn to trust Kirk completely again--despite this confirmation that there was no reason for him not to.  He broke the mind-touch, willing himself to remember what he had seen.  "I want so much to trust you that way again, but I am, as you say...'afraid'," he admitted faintly.  "You taught me to trust you before; do you think it might be possible...to teach me again?"

 

"I promise," Kirk replied reassuringly, pressing the dark head against his neck.  "And I promise it won't take as long, this time."

 

"It will not," Spock agreed, softly but determinedly, encouraged somehow by Kirk's words. "I...I know now that you never betrayed me.  But now there is that irrational fear within me...that one day you might."

 

"That's my fault, and I'm sorry," Kirk asserted understandingly.

 

"No--my fault.  I almost destroyed everything," Spock returned sadly.

 

“Shh--maybe together we can overcome that fear."  Kirk felt the Vulcan's tears on his shoulder and tightened his arms around Spock.  "Nothing's 'destroyed'," he continued soothingly. "It's all right, now...it's all right."

 

And Spock began to believe it was.  Their emotions for each other were clearly still intact--they were still friends--and he could still feel that invisible connection between them, so he knew their mental bond still existed.  As they continued to hold onto each other, he looked up briefly into the light again.  "Truly a miracle," he murmured distractedly, unaware he had spoken the thought aloud.  Something had allowed Kirk to find him...though it had been Jim's idea to look for him in the first place.  Spock still marvelled that the Human could still find it possible to care enough about his friendship to try so desperately to find him before Spock ended his own life.

 

He turned back to Kirk and found his Captain smiling encouragingly at him, reaching out now to wipe tears from Spock's cheeks as they finally parted--but Kirk's smile made him uncomfortable enough to lower his eyes again as Kirk stood up.  "Do you feel up to the Christmas party?" the Captain asked hopefully.

 

Spock answered with his head bowed, now sitting on his knees, feeling distinctly unworthy of his friend and Captain's smile--and the affection and forgiveness that accompanied it.  "If...you would still have me go back with you...I would like to do so," he admitted hesitantly, his voice full of contrition.

 

Kirk knew it was no coincidence that Spock appeared to be kneeling before him, almost as if praying for forgiveness from an angry god.  He reached down with one hand to help the Vulcan up; for a time, Spock indecisively regarded the hand appearing within his field of vision before slowly moving his own hand to take Kirk's, getting somewhat unsteadily to his feet.  "I want you to stop punishing yourself, as well," the Captain advised kindly, then, squeezing Spock's hand briefly before releasing it.  "Come on, McCoy and Christine are waiting.

 

At last, they left the circle of starlight and crossed through the shadows of the cargo hold, Kirk letting Spock precede him up the ladder and staying close enough behind him to help him if he seemed to be having difficulty.  After reaching the office area, they looked back down into the hold and saw the beam of starlight fading and retreating quickly back upward from the deck; when it seemed to pass out the viewport, Kirk rushed over to look out at it, followed curiously by Spock. The star was still there, but the errant light beam reaching toward the viewport was now gone.  "I guess it accomplished its purpose," Kirk opined quietly.

 

"So it would seem," Spock agreed understandingly, reaching to lightly touch Kirk's shoulder. "Let us go, Jim.  I have wasted enough of our Christmas Eve already."

 

     

 

V

 

     

 

They stopped off at Kirk's cabin, allowing both of them to wash their faces--cooling and soothing down the remaining puffiness around green- and red-rimmed eyes.  They also gathered up their presents to each other and to McCoy and Christine before leaving for the Officers' Lounge.

 

By the time they arrived, it was nearly 2330 and the party was winding down; few people were left, other than McCoy and Christine (whom, although they had returned no longer accompanied by anyone from the Bridge, as was generally required, no one had thought of banishing from the festivities)--Kirk spotted Uhura hovering near the refreshment table and Sulu and Chekov off in a corner, deeply involved in a conversation.  There were only a handful of presents left under the tree, and all that was left of the refreshments were a dozen-or-so assorted cookies and a little over half the egg nog.

 

Christine, upon catching sight of Spock, began to move surreptitiously toward the nearest sprig of mistletoe (grown in the Botanical Gardens from genetically-engineered seeds) hanging from the ceiling in the hope of positioning herself under it and getting Spock to notice.  Uhura, also noticing Kirk's and Spock's arrival, found her own sprig of mistletoe to stand under, but Sulu and Chekov looked up just long enough to acknowledge the new arrivals before returning to their own conversation.

 

Kirk tried to direct Spock to the refreshment table, but Spock had spotted Christine and wanted to greet her first, so Kirk looked for Uhura and went to see her before returning to his friends.  He wanted to stick close to Spock as much as he could, in accordance with McCoy's warning about Spock's physical condition, knowing also that the Vulcan was not yet fully at peace with himself and what had happened between them.  Spock, meanwhile, reached Christine and saw the mistletoe over her head.  She had long ago acquainted Spock with the customs regarding mistletoe, and that, combined with the present circumstances, was all the incentive Spock needed to make an awkward--if heartfelt--attempt to kiss her.

 

Christine slipped her arms around him and held him close for a time before they parted.  "You know, Spock, by rights I ought to be furious with you," she scolded him, her anger only half-serious.  "I've been feeling so selfish...I couldn't stop thinking about how I didn't seem to mean enough to you without the Captain's friendship for your life to be worth living to you..."

 

Spock lowered his eyes and remained silent, uncertain of what to say.  He had hoped, illogically, blindly, that she would understand.

 

“...but right now, all I can think of is how wonderful it feels to be able to hold you, when I wasn't sure I ever would again," Christine finished, her voice resuming its usual understanding tone.

 

Spock spoke without looking up.  "I was blinded by my own emotions to everyone's pain but my own," he ventured guiltily.  "Jim suffered the most, but you suffered almost as much...trying as you did to fill his role for me when I rejected him, advising me, only to have me reject you, who never did me any wrong.  I was...confused...but my emotions toward you never really changed--just as my emotions for Jim, at their core, remained constant; I still...love you...and I cannot imagine anyone else as my bond-mate."

 

"That's all I need to hear," Christine intoned softly.  Spock stepped back from her slightly.

 

“This is the gown you wanted so much for me to see?" he deduced, studying the green-sequined gown with the full skirt, long sleeves and off-the-shoulder collar of white artificial fur accented with silver tinsel.

 

Christine nodded.  "Do you like it?  I got it to go with your outfit."      

 

"It does match well," Spock admitted.  His own green velveteen tunic and slacks were trimmed in similar artificial fur at the edges and around the collar.  "I find it...worth the wait.  Does mine look appropriate?"

 

"Absolutely," Christine assured him, following him back over to the tree and watching him place his presents underneath it.

 

After exchanging a rather long kiss with Uhura, Kirk hurried over to join Spock and Christine, putting his own presents under the tree.  "Come on, Spock--I want you to eat something," he instructed, escorting both of them to the refreshment table.

 

McCoy met them there, looking worriedly back and forth from Kirk to Spock.  "Is he all right, Jim?"

 

Kirk looked back at Spock, uncertain about that, himself.  "Are you?" he asked bluntly.

 

Spock looked down at the table.  "I am not certain I am 'all right'...but I do feel somewhat more... secure...than I have since I read the Doctor's presentation," he replied cautiously, reaching for a gingerbread cookie.

 

McCoy decided this was a good time to broach the subject he had been discussing with Christine ever since they had left Kirk and Spock in the cargo hold.  However, for him, this called for a little liquid encouragement--not enough for him to get drunk, but enough for him to actually believe he was willing to permit what he was about to suggest to Spock.  "Well, I'd drink to that, but I'm getting tired of this non-alcoholic stuff," he began, looking at Kirk.  "You think you could come up with something a little stronger?"

 

"I don't have anything left in my cabin.  But I could go program the food synthesizers for some drinks, if you like," Kirk offered.  "Something seasonal and suited for the occasion?"

 

McCoy nodded.  "A hot buttered rum, maybe?" he requested, although he didn't really like the synthesizer's version of alcoholic drinks.

 

"Perhaps something non-alcoholic for me," Spock put in; he had never been able to stomach egg nog, even the non-alcoholic kind.

 

"Hot chocolate?" Kirk guessed.

 

"Yes, Jim.  With whipped cream, please," Spock assented, looking up at him finally.

 

"All right.  Be right back."

 

McCoy waited until Kirk had returned and handed out the drinks before speaking--after a good-sized initial swig of the rum.  "Spock, I want to ask you something.  I have reason to believe that you can use a mind-meld to remove someone's memories.  Am I right?"

 

Having never mentioned that ability to--or used it on--anyone but Kirk, Spock was somewhat taken aback.  "It is not a skill I have any reason to employ very often, but...yes, I have that ability," he admitted warily, instinctively glancing at Kirk, who looked as innocent as he this time was. Spock returned his attention to McCoy.  "I do not know how you could have found out, but why do you ask?"

 

"Because...look, I've had a lot of time to think all of this over, and it's not worth it," McCoy continued awkwardly.  "We can wipe that presentation, and you can mind-meld with me and remove any memory of the information Jim gave me about the pon farr--then maybe you two can go back to the way you were before this damn assignment for the Medical Conference nearly destroyed you and your friendship with him.  As for any damage caused to my career by showing up at the Conference without the presentation...well, let the Devil take the hindmost."  He looked away in embarrassment at the inappropriateness of the Satanic reference.

 

Spock was too stunned by the suggestion itself, fortunately, to notice.  He knew how McCoy felt about mind-melds, especially on himself; Spock had only tried once before--and McCoy's mind had been so full of terrified memories of the mind-meld forced on him by the Vulcan's Mirror Universe counterpart that they had mutually agreed not to ever risk mental contact with each other again.  "That could be dangerous, Doctor.  As you have already observed, you and I are not mentally compatible," Spock reminded him doubtfully.

 

"I know that, Spock.  But if there's a chance it would help you and Jim, I want to try it."

 

Spock and Kirk regarded each other uncertainly, communicating silently.  "We will consider your offer," he acceded quietly, touching Kirk's arm and drawing him aside.

 

While McCoy and Christine waited by the refreshment table, Spock and Kirk picked up their drinks, went across the room and sat down to talk.  "Would it hurt him?" Kirk asked, first.

 

It never hurt you, Spock thought--and wanted to say it--but he had vowed never to mention the memory fragment he had once removed from Kirk's mind.  After losing both Edith and Miramanee, it had seemed unconscionable to Spock that his friend should also have to live with Rayna's death and what he perceived as his part in it--and Spock had made the decision for Kirk, taking the memory from him gently wile the Human slept, later suggesting to McCoy, rather cryptically, that he should not be too surprised if Kirk never mentioned her again.  And McCoy was not to remind him, either.  "No, Jim--I would not permit him to be hurt," Spock assured him finally, sipping his hot chocolate.

 

"He'd also lose any memory of all of the last three months, wouldn't he?" Kirk questioned worriedly, slowly finishing off his egg nog.

 

"Perhaps not.  I may be able to focus only on his thoughts related to the Conference, or re-arrange his memories so that he thinks our...disagreement... was caused by something other than your attempt to help him with his presentation," Spock ventured hesitantly, taking another sip of hot chocolate.

 

"That sounds dishonest.  We would still know the truth," Kirk pointed out dubiously.

 

Spock drained his mug, except for the whipped cream remnants, which he sloshed around the bottom of the mug, waiting for them to melt.  "But at least part of that truth would be negated if he no longer knows that which I never meant him to know," he countered softly.  "You could never have committed any 'betrayal' of my trust because McCoy would not remember anything you had told him.  That is why he has made this offer."

 

"Spock...don't you trust him with the same information you...used to...trust me with?" Kirk challenged, awkwardly altering the wording of the instinctive question to reflect the current state of their friendship.

 

Spock appeared not to notice the mid-sentence change.  "Truthfully, no.  Some things are difficult enough to share just with you," he replied honestly, finally emptying his mug.

 

"But I'm always going to remember what I did, and so will you," Kirk reiterated.  "Are you going to remove that memory from both our minds, too?"

 

Spock knew that Kirk knew he could not perform a mind-meld on himself.  Besides--one such meld was difficult enough to justify; he would not touch Kirk's memory, either.  "You believe I should not mind-meld with him, then," he concluded, somewhat disappointedly, having expected Kirk to welcome any solution.

 

"I wouldn't go that far," Kirk returned thoughtfully. "But if the purpose of the mind-meld is to help us, I just question whether or not it really will."

 

Spock averted his eyes guiltily.  "It would help me, Jim...and I think, in the long run, it would help you, also--and our friendship," he opined faintly.

 

Kirk studied him silently for a time.  He was always uncertain about anything involving a mind-meld--but, as he had previously assured Spock, he still trusted his friend.  If this would help both Spock and McCoy (not to mention him), Kirk knew he could not bring himself to try to interfere with it.  "All right, I'll leave it up to you," he decided finally, getting up and moving close enough to squeeze Spock's shoulder.  "Do you want to do it tonight, or wait until after Christmas?"

 

"Tonight, after he goes to bed--I would rather resolve this matter before any more of the holiday is ruined by it," Spock told him.

 

By the time they rejoined McCoy and Christine, the four of them were alone in the Officers' Lounge, with only their own presents (to or from each other) under the tree.  "Doctor, are you sure you wish to do this?" Spock asked anxiously.  "Once it is done, I will in all probability not be able to reverse the process, ever.  Any memories that are lost will therefore be lost permanently."

 

McCoy nodded.  "I know.  I'll trust you to just take out the ones that're causing the problems," he acknowledged.

 

Spock silently willed himself to justify McCoy's trust.  "To bare your mind to another...and offer to sacrifice part of your memories...to preserve a  friendship.  A Vulcan would have deemed such a choice unworthy of consideration," he murmured, unaware he had spoken the thought aloud.

 

"I think we both know I'm about the furthest thing there is from a Vulcan," McCoy quipped, in response.

 

Spock quickly composed his features, pretending not to have heard him. "Very well, I accept your offer," he acceded appreciatively, though in a controlled voice.  "It will be easier for both of us if I mind-meld with you while you are asleep--but your mind must be intact, not clouded by alcohol."

 

"I haven't touched a drop since you left," McCoy assured him.

 

Spock studied him intently, trying to determine from McCoy's appearance whether or not he was telling the truth, and was eventually convinced that the Doctor was showing no signs of inebriation.

 

Christine's attention, meanwhile, was drawn toward the viewports halfway across the room from the centrally-located tree.  "Spock--Captain--look!" she cried suddenly.

 

The other three followed her gaze, then followed her as she was drawn toward the viewports. Outside, the mysterious, supernova-like star had inexplicably moved to the bow end of the ship and was now directly in front of the Lounge's viewports.  "The same star?" McCoy guessed.

 

"It must be," Kirk decided.  "Funny, I never heard anybody else around here mention it..."

 

"First, we were following it; now, it almost seems to be following us," Christine remarked incredulously.

 

They all watched it silently for a time.  "Is it just me, or does it look to anyone else like it's waiting for something?" McCoy asked, finally.

 

"I get that sense, too," Christine admitted softly.

 

"Well, I don't know what it would be 'waiting' for, but it is getting late," Kirk realized, at last. "Maybe we'd all better get our presents and turn in.  Christmas dinner for the whole crew is set for 1330 tomorrow on the Rec Deck--and I, for one, want to get there before all the food's gone."

 

They went back to the tree and divided up all the presents, each person heading for the door with an arm-load.  Spock went to McCoy's cabin immediately after dropping off his own presents, with Kirk along at his request, since the Vulcan was uncertain what condition he would be in after the mind-meld; he more than half-anticipated needing some degree of assistance in getting back to his own cabin, so it seemed logical to take Kirk with him--then, too, he had felt an intensified general emotional need for Kirk's presence ever since their reconciliation in the cargo hold (though, of course, he said nothing of this).

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

The mind-meld went smoothly, as Spock had hoped it would.  He and Kirk occupied themselves in McCoy's study until the latter was deeply enough asleep to be snoring, then Spock went to his bed chamber to perform the mind-meld as Kirk looked on from across the room.

 

Spock entered the Doctor's mind and felt no resistance as he probed gently past McCoy's more recent memories--his concern and frustration over Spock's latest self-destructive urges, covering a similar depression (and guilt) in himself as he had watched the Vulcan's friendship with Kirk deteriorate over the past weeks--finally down to the memory Spock was looking for.

 

Carefully, he removed the specific images of McCoy's talks with Kirk about pon farr, taking them into his own mind and negating their existence in his thoughts, allowing other images to fill the empty spaces left by the now-absent memory-fragments in McCoy's mind: he had decided, after all, not to write the presentation on Vulcan courtship rituals.  The Conference's Leadership Committee was wrong--he knew nothing about the subject beyond the basic biological facts he had deduced on his own.  He clearly remembered the ceremony on Vulcan, and something about "Marriage or Challenge" and "blood-fever", but not enough specifics to write a paper on.

 

Spock had told him nothing, and Kirk...no, he would not take advantage of  Spock's trust in Kirk.  He was the only person Spock had managed to learn to confide in, and if Kirk divulged what Spock had told him about this strange condition--such a deeply personal and obviously sensitive matter to a Vulcan--No...I won't take that away from you, McCoy's mental voice whispered determinedly in Spock's mind.  You need...to trust Jim, to have his friendship...

 

What will you do about the presentation? Spock's mind pressed gently, allowing the Doctor to make his own decision.

 

Write it on...why I can't write...on Vulcan courtship...

 

Spock realized the Human was too tired to hold onto the former's consciousness any longer and gently released him from the meld before getting up to rejoin Kirk, moving unsteadily until he reached the transparency dividing the two rooms.  When it opened before him and Kirk, standing just inside, reached out to take him by the arm and pull him through, Spock nearly lost his balance and fell on top of his Captain.  "He is...all right," he informed Kirk, in response to the Human's anxious gaze.

 

"But, Spock, are you all right?" Kirk asked, studying him worriedly.

 

"Just tired...and a little dizzy.  Memory-alteration melds...take a great deal of effort...more than a regular meld," Spock explained, somewhat groggily.  "We should go.  He will sleep well, now...and I must lie down."

 

     

 

*****

 

     

 

Kirk escorted the Vulcan back to his cabin, helped him change out of his party clothes, and settled him into bed, sitting down beside him.  "You haven't told me--did you succeed?" he asked, then.

 

Spock nodded wearily.  "McCoy has no memory now of having interviewed you for his presentation...or of even having discussed it with you.  He...'changed his mind', so to speak, about writing it," he elaborated faintly.

 

“What about his other memories of the last three months?"

 

"He remembers nothing of our...difficulties.  He only recalls spending so much time trying to decide how to deal with the presentation that he did not dare spend any off-duty time with us. My...alterations...will not affect any of his duty-related memories, or any other memories, only those related to the Medical Conference and his presentation."

 

Kirk nodded in satisfaction, starting to get up.  "You left your harp and a couple of other things in my cabin," he reminded Spock.  "I'll go get them for you--"

 

Spock stopped him by reaching up to grab his hand.  "That can wait until tomorrow," he interrupted, a note of entreaty touching his voice.  "Please stay, Jim...for a while, at least."

 

Kirk sat back down, squeezing his friend's hand.  "All right. I'll stay," he assured Spock kindly. As he watched the Vulcan's face, he realized a light was shining on it; he looked up and saw it was coming from the viewport above--the star, shining rather less brightly than before, but still visible, had changed locations again and again touched a viewport with a beam of starlight.  "Spock, look!" he cried wonderingly, pointing into the light.

 

Spock looked up, his face registering surprise as he realized what Kirk was calling his attention to.  "The star again...?" He returned his gaze to Kirk.  "I am beginning to share your belief that there is some supernatural force behind it."

 

Kirk was seized by what seemed an irrational idea as he belatedly met Spock's gaze. “Spock...do you suppose it has...something to do with us?" he questioned.

 

Spock regarded him in puzzlement.  "I do not see how it could," he replied.

 

“Well...think about it.  It led me to you when you were in the cargo hold.  It 'followed' us to the party.  Now, it's here," Kirk pointed out hesitantly.  "The only common denominator in all three of those places is...the two of us were there the whole time it was."

 

"I do not understand, Jim.  Beyond coincidence, what are you suggesting that it means?" Spock queried, still confused.

 

"I don't know...I don't know.  Maybe nothing," Kirk muttered frustratedly.  As he looked back up into the light again, it seemed to slightly widen the range of its illumination as the star seemed to move closer, creating another circle of starlight that encompassed both of them.  Kirk almost felt that, if he had dared to remove the plexiglass over the viewport, he could have reached out and touched the star--and in that moment, he realized its purpose.  "Spock, it is for us," he declared abruptly.  "It's a sign, just like it was twenty-three hundred years ago."

 

"A 'sign' signifying what?" Spock asked doubtfully.  It was unlikely that another Christ had been born nearby, much less that either of them had had anything to do with it.

 

"Our friendship--it means everything's going to be all right between us, and with Bones.  It means forgiveness...and trust," Kirk told him, with new conviction.

 

Spock met his eyes, sitting up slowly.  "You did say that this was a...'time for forgiveness'

 

...and 'healing'," he recalled, turning to look up at the star--which, for all its closeness, still shone with a light that illuminated without blinding them, even when they looked directly into it.  Without knowing why, he found he believed that Kirk's interpretation of the star's meaning was accurate.  A part of him still warned of its illogic, but for now, Spock felt no inclination to heed the call of his Vulcan half; logic and Vulcan philosophy had their place in his life--but that place was not here or now.  V'ger had taught him to make room for other things, too.

 

Spock believed, and let himself fully experience the gratitude and affection he felt at the idea that their friendship had been salvaged; he would not reject any help toward that end, including supernatural help.  He turned back to Kirk and reached tentatively to slip his arms around the Human, waiting then to see if Kirk would draw him closer.

 

"Spock--?" Kirk began anxiously, knowing how seldom the Vulcan tried to initiate any physical contact with him.  He drew Spock toward him uncertainly.  "You're trembling!  What's wrong?"

 

"I...I do not know.  Perhaps...the mind-meld is affecting me more than I expected," Spock murmured dubiously, unable himself to account for it, touching his bowed head to Kirk's shoulder. "I almost lost you..."

 

"I ‘almost lost' you," Kirk corrected him dryly.  "You almost threw me away with both hands. That 'death-trance' wasn't my idea, you know."

 

"I know.  And you still came to find me and brought me out of the trance," Spock recalled faintly.  "But we are together, now...and our emotions for each other are as they were before...are they not?"

 

"Yes," Kirk admitted gratefully, tightening his hold on Spock.

 

"You will still...help me with my re-evaluations?"

 

"Re-evaluations" had become a code word for Spock's ongoing attempts to reconcile what he had learned from V'ger with the Vulcan way he had tried to follow all his life--a process that continued to involve experimenting with emotional expression and withdrawing to analyze what worked and what didn't, which depended heavily on the reactions and input of his Human friends. "Yes, Spock.  I promised, didn't I?" Kirk reminded him lightly.

 

"I thought you might have...changed your mind," Spock answered uncertainly.

 

"No, my friend.  Everything's the way it was before, remember?"

 

Spock realized then that something was still missing--he seemed to have lost it with everything else when he convinced himself that Kirk had betrayed him, and it had not yet been restored.  "Not 'everything', Jim.  My...irrational anger and fear toward you has cost me one thing I cannot replace," he observed sadly.

 

"What's that?" Kirk asked, puzzled.

 

"I am no longer...you have not called me 't'hy'la' since I initiated this situation.  Even when our minds touched in the cargo hold..."

 

"Did it ever occur to you that I was just waiting for your permission before I went back to thinking of you as...being that close a friend?" Kirk questioned carefully.

 

"I would never wish to lose the...feeling...of having a bond-brother," Spock admitted hesitantly.  "It has been quite...reassuring during times of difficulty."

 

"A 'bond-brother' you still don't fully trust?" Kirk returned doubtfully, mentally kicking himself the minute the words were out of his mouth; obviously, if Spock still thought of him as t'hy'la, he must trust Kirk more than he himself realized--and such words from Kirk would only make that underlying trust harder for him to accept.

 

"My emotions for you are...still very strong," Spock replied quietly, his voice very controlled. "Our mental bond is still intact.  I wish to trust you, Jim...I am trying to.  Knowing that we are still t'hy'la...would help both of us."

 

"All I know is I still care about you and I can't get past the idea that I nearly lost my best friend, at least in part because of my own foolishness," Kirk explained apologetically.  "If you really think that term can still apply to me, of course, I'd still be honored to be your bond-brother."

 

Spock settled himself more comfortably against Kirk's shoulder, clutching at Kirk's arms with his hands, empathy and tension simultaneously apparent in his manner.  "Say the word, Jim.  I taught you how to pronounce it," he requested, somewhat plaintively.

 

"T'hy'la.  Tah-high-lah, right?  Not 'thigh-lah'," Kirk recalled slowly.

 

"Yes...you have memorized it well," Spock murmured.  "Three separate syllables...emphasis on the second..." He realized in embarrassment that he was still trembling and tried to will himself to relax; apparently, Kirk realized it, too, for Spock suddenly felt the Human rubbing his back, soothing his tremors into stillness.  "That is...most pleasant," he observed faintly.  "Could you... please continue?"

 

Kirk obliged willingly, wanting to do whatever he could to help Spock relax and feel better about himself and their friendship.  "Remember the star," he urged gently.  "We're still friends.  We always will be.  Don't be afraid...I'll be here for you."

 

Spock's trembling gradually stopped and he closed his eyes, relaxing as Kirk continued his gentle back massage.  "I am so tired, Jim...if I sleep now...would you still let me stay here?" he asked, almost inaudibly.

 

"Of course, Spock," Kirk assured him.

 

Spock contented himself with Kirk's willingness for them to continue as bond-brothers, soothed by the affection he felt through his Captain's touch as the latter continued his back-rub, and eventually drifted off into a healing sleep.

 

Kirk pulled the blue IDIC comforter (made for Spock by Christine after his return from Vulcan) off the top of the Vulcan's bed and wrapped it around both of them, making sure that Spock was completely covered.  Then, within that persistent starlight circle, they sat holding and comforting each other until Kirk, too, fell asleep, his head resting sideways against the top of Spock's.  They slept that way, illuminated by that circle, until long after the light had faded and the star had finally winked out, well into the next day.

 

     

 

VI

 

     

 

After waking up late Christmas morning, Kirk and Spock finally separated and went to shower and change, deciding to open their gifts to each other before going to dinner and wait until afterwards to open the rest.  Spock cornered both the Captain and Christine on the Recreation Deck later, before Christmas dinner began and before McCoy's arrival, advising them what to avoid in the way of behavior and words toward the Doctor so he would not become confused or suspicious about the real facts surrounding his presentation for the Medical Conference.

 

But McCoy soon made it clear that he remembered neither those, nor the mind-meld Spock had used to remove the related memory fragments; his only mention of the presentation (which Christine had hunted up in Sickbay earlier that morning, found and deleted, on Spock's advice, before McCoy could have a chance to stumble across it) to them concerned the fact that it would be finished in time for the Conference.

 

Contrary to Kirk's expectations, the mysterious star proved to be the main dinner topic when the bulk of the crew gathered there later (which they did in shifts)--especially among the Bridge crew who had been on duty when it first appeared, and who had since confirmed to everyone's (including Kirk's) satisfaction that there had been nothing wrong with the sensors before the star's appearance--and it would remain a popular discussion topic for weeks afterwards.  There was wide-spread disagreement as to whether or not it was the legendary Christmas Star--but Kirk knew of at least four people who were convinced.

 

The rest of Christmas Day was spent by the four in a corner of the Rec Deck, sitting quietly and listening to Spock play Christmas carols on his Vulcan harp, looking out the giant viewports, and reminiscing.  Occasionally, one of the Humans would get up and leave temporarily to socialize with some of the others or get more food for themselves or Spock, but they always returned to be with the Vulcan, who was still uncomfortable at large gatherings--mostly watching the stars and wondering where a Certain Star had been sent after it left them.

 

 

 

*****

 

     

 

Three weeks later, with the Enterprise on assignment, Kirk, Spock and McCoy arrived by long-range shuttle at Fantaris IV, an Earth colony that had been chosen as this year's site for the Federation Medical Conference.  McCoy had been as closed-mouthed about his paper as Spock had once been about the pon farr itself, and he was still refusing to give them any details, right up until the time the shuttle landed--insisting that he was saving it as a "surprise" for them.

 

It seemed that the Conference was being held in an open-air amphitheater, taking advantage of the planet's beautiful scenery and weather, and since its design made it extremely difficult to fully enclose and isolate the Conference, anyway, without unnecessarily draconian security measures, the participants were this time being allowed to bring guests.  Kirk and Spock would be able to watch from the outer perimeter of the amphitheater, enjoying its surrounding park-like setting while being aided by any of several large monitors (similar to the wall viewers on the ship) scattered around the area.

 

The revelation of this information only made Kirk and Spock more curious than ever, and they took full advantage of the opportunity provided by the picnic reception held on-site before the Conference began to explore the beautiful parklands with their Earth-like greenery, set off by flowers of myriad alien shapes and colors.  Kirk immediately felt at home, which helped make the setting enjoyable for Spock, too.

 

By the time McCoy had to go to the amphitheater with the other doctors, Kirk and Spock had located a monitor with no one else nearby enough to interfere with their viewing, and they settled onto a large, flat boulder before the tree trunk that the monitor was attached to--high enough to see over anyone who might sit on the ground in front of them.  Spock noticed that he and Kirk were almost the only ones within eyeshot who did not appear to be family members of the participants--all around were wives, husbands, and children of various ages; Kirk presumably sensed his discomfort without Spock having to say anything, for when the Vulcan next turned to him, Kirk was favoring him with a warm and reassuring smile.

 

As Spock had hoped and Kirk had predicted on that special Christmas Eve just a few weeks past, his full trust and affection for Kirk was quickly returning, aided by the latter's unfailing affection for and understanding of him--his willingness to initiate talks and activities that had served to rebuild Spock's lost trust with unexpected speed.  Kirk credited Spock's mind-touch in the cargo hold with allowing him a basic, underlying awareness that his Captain had never betrayed him, but Spock knew that that alone could not have been solely responsible for the speed with which their friendship was being restored to its previous strength and depth; Kirk's patience and gentleness with him--the obvious depth of his remaining emotion toward Spock, an emotion Spock could only guess and assume was still strong enough to be the "love" Kirk had once claimed to feel for him--was equally responsible.

 

It came as no real surprise to either of them to find that, as the afternoon wore on and the Conference began, McCoy's presentation was scheduled first.  As the Conference Committee Chairman, Dr. Linden Carr--"This is the one who was giving McCoy such grief about the topic assignment," Kirk intoned to Spock, as they watched him approach the podium--introduced him and McCoy took his place at the podium at center stage, Kirk and Spock forgot about their surroundings and focused their full attention on the monitor, waiting for the expectant applause to die down.

 

Finally, McCoy spoke: "My fellow medical colleagues--it's an honor to once again represent the U.S.S. Enterprise at this prestigious event.  For those of you new to the Conference, I'm Dr. Leonard McCoy, Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, and I was assigned to talk to you this afternoon about Vulcan courtship and mating rituals."  Murmurs of disapproval began rippling through the crowd at his use of the past-tense verbs--especially through the closest rows, where the Committee members were seated.

 

McCoy continued, over the steady but (so far) low noise: "Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, the Leadership Committee has made the mistake of assuming that because our First Officer is a Vulcan, I know everything there is to know about Vulcans.  But the fact is, as far as courtship rituals, I know...next to nothing.  As I tried to explain to Dr. Carr, this is something that Vulcans consider a part of their private lives, not to be discussed...especially not with nosy Human doctors.  I can tell you they have a marriage ceremony that bears little resemblance to any of ours, that it involves a type of mental bonding, and that Vulcan really is hotter than Hell's furnaces.

 

"And that's all I can tell you.  The little else I know, I was not given permission to share, and for the Committee to expect me to do so is for them to expect me to violate the sanctity of the patient-doctor relationship.  It's important to me that my patients trust me, especially within the closed community of a starship's crew complement, where they don't have a lot of choice in who treats them.  I know what the upshot of this is likely to be, and I know many of you have begged, wheedled or ignored your patients' wishes in order to be able to speak on some of these assigned topics so that your careers won't suffer.  Well, I won't condemn you, because I can't say with any certainty that I would never do the same thing in your place.  But this time, at least, I can't."

 

McCoy now focused on the first few rows of people before him.  "To the Committee, I say this: first, there's nothing you can do that would make regret not writing on the topic you assigned me this year, so if you plan to try to destroy my career, do your worst--I happen to be a Starfleet officer as well as a doctor, and I have friends with friends in high places, so I don't think you'll get too far.  Second--don't you ever again give me an assignment based on some half-baked rumor, or I'll report the lot of you to the Federation Medical Association."

 

His eyes were still flashing blue fire as he returned them to the rest of the audience.  "I'm sorry to have disappointed you all, but that's really all I have to say.  Good afternoon."

 

He picked up his electronic notepad and left the podium amid stunned silence, except for a few Committee members, who ran after him and began to demand what the hell he thought he was doing.  As McCoy ignored their questions and hurried away from the stage, a few cautious smatterings of applause erupted--to be slowly taken up and passed on across the amphitheater until at least half the audience was on its feet, applauding.  McCoy, however, had left the amphitheater, intent only on finding Kirk and Spock--the only ones whose opinions really mattered to him.

 

As he approached them, Kirk ran out to meet him, and they hugged and slapped each other on the back in understanding and appreciation.  "That was great, Bones.  I couldn't have said it better," Kirk asserted approvingly, any fear that McCoy might not be himself after Spock's mind-meld now gone.

 

"Thanks, Jim.  What did Spock think?" McCoy asked uncertainly.

 

"Let's go find out," Kirk suggested, getting behind McCoy and propelling him forward to where Spock still sat on the boulder; on the monitor beyond him, some people were still applauding as Dr. Carr returned to the podium.

 

Spock turned around as Kirk and McCoy neared him, his expression at first revealing nothing, though he was as aware as Kirk that McCoy may have just put his career at risk.  Still, his memory -altering mind-meld hadn't left the Doctor with much choice.  Spock forced himself not to think of that as McCoy studied him anxiously.

 

"Now, you see why I couldn't ever tell you--either of you--about the topic they assigned me," McCoy explained.  "I've been working on it--or trying to get out of it--for the last three months, avoiding both of you, because, frankly, I couldn't face you.  I couldn't go on trying to behave normally around you, knowing what I might have to do, wanting to tell you but knowing I didn't dare. I'm sorry it took me so long to find a solution, but...at least I managed to avoid ruining the holiday for everybody.  Spock, I thought you'd never speak to me again if I told you."

 

"Would that really have mattered to you?" Spock asked, with genuine curiosity.

 

"Hell, yes!  What's the fun of insulting you if I know at the outset that you won't respond?" McCoy retorted, with something less than his usual level of crustiness.

 

Spock got up slowly from the boulder and moved toward him.  "That has never stopped you before," he observed cautiously.

 

"I've never been afraid you'd kill me before," McCoy countered ruefully.

 

As Spock was about to respond, they heard Carr speaking from the monitor: "I apologize to everyone.  This happens sometimes, as you know...some of our participating doctors refuse to fulfill their contractual obligations to the Conference, usually to their later regret.  We'll have to straighten this out after the Conference is over, but for now, let's move on to our next speaker..."

 

The three from the Enterprise stopped listening, at this point.  "You did fine, Bones," Kirk reiterated kindly, patting McCoy on the shoulder.

 

Spock, meanwhile, continued to study McCoy with obvious concern.  "Doctor, I would not have harmed you," he assured the Human carefully.

 

“Well, I wasn't sure.  I remember a similar occasion some years ago, when I tried to discuss the matter with you, and you threatened to break my neck," McCoy recalled hesitantly, averting his eyes.

 

Spock's eyes, however, remained on what he could see of McCoy's face.  "I was...not myself...as you well know.  And much has changed since then.  I..." He trailed off, remembering guiltily that he had avoided McCoy as well as Kirk for much of the previous three months.  Had his friendship with McCoy grown deeper since the V'ger mission, as his friendship with Kirk had? Spock realized in dismay that he was none too sure that it had.  "I...appreciate your efforts to keep what 'Vulcan courtship rituals' you were aware of from becoming public knowledge," he continued cautiously, at last.  "I thank you for respecting my privacy, at the risk of your professional standing..." He lowered his eyes in discomfort, wondering why it was so hard for him to admit that sometimes--like now--he could trust McCoy because the Doctor had proven it.

 

Kirk stepped between them, putting one hand on each of his friends' shoulders.  "Which just goes to show that Bones can be your friend, too," he pointed out gently.

 

Spock couldn't deny it, but he was also unsure of what he could say.  Feeling embarrassed, he went back to the boulder and sat down, bowing his head.

 

Kirk and McCoy followed him worriedly, McCoy, of course, having no idea what could cause him such shame.  But when the two Humans looked at each other and Kirk atypically suggested with his eyes that McCoy should this time be the one to comfort Spock, the Doctor obliged sincerely, if awkwardly.  He sat down beside the Vulcan and reached out cautiously to touch Spock's shoulder.  "Spock? Hey, come on, now...you haven't done anything wrong," he told Spock, trying to make his voice sound as soothing as possible.

 

"You have no idea what I have done, and I cannot tell you," Spock argued faintly, then spoke up a little.  "Except that...I have assumed you to be less trustworthy than Jim because you express your variety of 'friendship' so differently from the way he expresses his.  I am not certain I fully deserve all the...care and consideration you obviously exercised in the composition of this presentation."

 

"Sure, you do.  You're the only Vulcan patient I have--that's deserving enough," McCoy countered, with gruff affection, squeezing Spock's shoulder gently.

 

If they had not been in such a public setting, Spock might have been tempted to try to respond in kind; as it was, he settled for looking up at McCoy in silent appreciation of the latter's sincerity and respect.

 

"Did you plan to stick around for the rest of the Conference?" Kirk asked, before McCoy could react to Spock's expression.

 

"Actually, although it's not really in keeping with the accepted protocol for these events--but then, neither was my presentation--I'd just as soon get out of here before Dr. Carr or someone else on the Committee corners me again," McCoy admitted sheepishly, glancing around at Kirk.  "I gather I've caused a bit of an uproar."

 

"Let's go, then. Come on, Spock."

 

 

 

*****

 

     

 

Once back in the shuttle and on the way back to the Enterprise, with the helm controls on auto-pilot, the three sat quietly and dozed periodically, lost in thought.  Kirk and Spock silently determined to do anything necessary to prevent McCoy's career from suffering from his decision to keep Spock's secret--a decision Spock now realized the Doctor would likely have made, anyway, without his telepathic assistance.  Although he also knew that his mind-meld with McCoy had been the right thing to do--and he silently thanked McCoy for suggesting it, since he himself would not have dared--Spock suspected that the decision to alter McCoy's memory would haunt him for some time to come.  But he would be the only one; it was clear from Kirk's expression that he was satisfied with the results.

 

It was also clear that McCoy was satisfied that his resolution of the presentation dilemma had been the right one for Kirk and Spock, preserving  their friendship (and their relationship with him). Spock himself was content with the state of that friendship, certain now that it would continue to grow and strengthen as before.

 

Underneath it all, he and Kirk shared the still-wondrous memory of Christmas Eve reconciliation and forgiveness found within a circle of starlight--a Certain Star that had been sent on that most special of nights to save their friendship and Spock's life. He remembered how, after weeks of turmoil and loneliness for both of them, a certain Human and half-Vulcan had embraced and found solace within that circle of light...and a smile grew within him, for now banishing any concerns about McCoy, touching his lips as brown eyes met hazel across the span of the helm console.  T'hy'la, their shared mental voice whispered--and Spock knew instantly that Kirk now understood the truth of it for both of them.

 

 

 

******

 

     

 

It may or may not have been a coincidence that the following year’s Federation Medical Conference was a shadow of its former self.  McCoy only knew that the Federation Medical Association somehow found out about Dr. Carr’s handling of the Conference and launched an in-depth investigation.  By the time of the next Conference, new presentation rules were in place, the Conference had been broken up into several separate events, and it was Carr and several of the doctors heading the Conference Committee before him who wound up losing their licenses—for “mismanagement of a public trust”—something McCoy thought was long overdue, since he had never agreed with all the Conference’s policies.

 

As for McCoy, he continued as the Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer with no disruptions by the FMA’s licensing board—which was, fortunately, as he expected.

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

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