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"I am still looking forward to some shore leave on some lovely little...planet." Kirk passed the padd back to the young ensign and sank back against the command chair. With the giant organism dead and Spock's shuttle safely on the hangar deck, his body finally gave in. He felt the quivering of exhaustion begin in his legs and rise to his stomach, but squelched it for the moment. He was still the captain; he couldn't give in to this space effect until he knew his ship, his people were all secure.

Just for a moment, he let his eyes hang. He slipped into blackness. The waking nightmare returned with full horror. The stars were gone!

With a jolt, he snapped his head back and opened his eyes. The starfield once again drifted across the viewscreen. Kirk looked around; his officers were all focused on their stations, carefully ignoring the center seat. That included one officer Kirk had not noticed make his reappearance.

Gripping the armrests of the command chair he pushed himself up and over to the science station. Resting one hand on the rim of Spock's chair, he draped himself casually over the station, over his officer.

"Mr. Spock," he said with a calculated smile, "welcome back."

"Thank you, Captain. Coordinating damage reports now. While shuttlecraft systems will require extensive repairs, Enterprise proper is largely undamaged. No critical systems involved." Spock spun to face his dangerously close captain. Hands folded in his lap, his face betrayed nothing but consummate professional capability.

With a twinkle in his eye, Jim let him have this round. The impassivity of Spock's public demeanor gave him as much satisfaction as any wild reunion, maybe more. The Spock of their intimate moments would remain for his eyes only. It would be their secret.

"Sickbay to captain." The gruffness of McCoy's voice broke through the moment. "You're late for your appointment, Jim."

"Later, Bones," Jim answered. "We're still cleaning up here. I have things to do."

"Well frankly Captain, sir, between the effects of that dammed zone and the drugs I've had to pump into everyone, I'm a little busy myself. And number one on my list is to see to the welfare of the commanding officer before those stimulants either wear off or blow him to bits! You have five minutes to get in here or I'll send the medics up to hog tie you and carry you down. McCoy out!" The transmission cut off.

"Please go, Captain." Spock regarded him, his cool demeanor unruffled. "I have been informed that I am next on the good doctor's agenda, and I do not believe that his temperament will improve by being kept waiting."

On yellow alert, Jim asked quietly, "You all right?" His face spoke openly of the grief they had so very narrowly avoided this day in a way that his voice never would.

Jim couldn't begin to explain how the Vulcan facade shifted. Spock's face was as serene as ever, and yet Jim knew with certainty that Spock too was most acutely aware of what they had come so close to losing.

"Quite all right, Captain." Spock inclined his head. "I am not in need of medical attention, however I suspect I will find my next period of rest most agreeable."

For this he was rewarded with one of Jim's patented smiles. Was it only nineteen minutes ago that he had known with finality that he had seen it for the last time? Death was nothing, but to be parted from this man was everything. He turned back to his station before the rest of the bridge could bear witness to his loss of control and wondered if even Surak himself could have stood fast against this man.

Round II went to the captain. Jim smiled with perfect comprehension. With a gesture that could have been casual but both knew was not, Jim trailed his fingers lightly across Spock's shoulders as he turned and headed for the lift.

He made it to Sickbay hoping to reach a biobed before his overtaxed body gave out entirely. Bones stopped him at the door with a hand against his chest. "Hold on, Jim. I've got a full house in there. Have a seat at the desk." Gratefully, Jim slid in just in time.

"I don't know what you were so worried about," McCoy muttered as he passed the scanner over his patient. "You can't kill a Vulcan--only short circuit them. In fact he'll probably want to go back several more times-- run a heuristic study on the metabolic effects of the zone or some such nonsense." His voice held the usual familiar acerbity, but the hand he laid on Jim's shoulder for no particular medical reason did not.

The hypo hissed into his deltoid. Jim started to rise. His knees buckled before he made it halfway up and he crumpled back into the chair.

Bones glanced toward him out of the corner of his eye. "You know, Dr. Kirk, you might want to sit still a few minutes to let your body detoxify and adjust to the lower adrenaline levels." He tucked the hypospray away and plopped down on the edge of the desk with a heavy sigh. "But far be it from me to tell you what to do. I'm just a simple country doctor."

Jim tried to summon enough energy for a glare, but his eyelids mutinied. He lowered his head to the desk, and took the doctor's advice by necessity if not by design.

"Jim," McCoy said quietly after a minute, "it should have been me, you know."

"Hm?" Kirk mumbled. Lifting his head seemed like too much effort.

McCoy continued, "I should have gone. It was my idea, my area of specialty. It should have been me." He spoke the words gently and evenly, like a doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis. No emotional tirade, or his usual distancing rancor, just the simple, painful facts. "If he had died--"

"I thought you noticed, Doctor, no one's dead." Jim's clipped tone indicated the subject was closed. At least for him.

McCoy would not be silenced. He said very softly, "If there were no other reason, I would have gone to keep you from having to send him."

For this, Jim lifted his head. In the depths of exhaustion he pulled a small smile from somewhere. "I know. And I also know he'd never permit it. That's why I love you both."

This time Kirk did make it to his feet. The fatigue seemed less heavy somehow. Patting his old friend on the shoulder, he straightened and returned to his Bridge.

Minutes later Jim stood on the threshold surveying his domain. He took the moment to study his officers--his people. They had given them their trust, their heart, their soul, their all. It was nothing less than miraculous. How could he have ever thought anything else? How could he take any of this for granted?

Humbled, he reassumed the center seat. The central viewer was filled with the gentle rhythm of the passing stars, reassuring the Bridge that all was again as it should be. Lost in thought, he felt more than heard Spock slip around to stand behind him.

"Spock," he asked, without turning from the viewer, "do you ever stop to look at the stars?"

"Affirmative, Captain. Astronomy observations are taken routinely; I provide direct supervision at least once a day, other duties permitting."

"Not study them, Spock, just look at them. How they twinkle and shine against the cold void of space. We see them everyday, take them as something so basic, so fundamental so much a part of our daily existence, that we don't ever really look at them any more. But they are so very beautiful.

"Do you ever just stop to admire them? Or the brilliant colors of the planets as they spin and turn against the black? Or the shifting beauty of the clouds cloaking and uncovering their world?"

"I have done so once." The memory returned full force. He saw himself once again lying with his head in her lap. She stroked his hair; the spores stroked his mind. Violations of the body were standard issue for field personnel. Violation of the mind, of his Vulcan soul, now that was something else. It had taken him months to reconcile the alien influence with his concept of himself--who he was, who he would be, who he could be.

"For the first time in my life, I was happy," he had told his captain then. What he did not say, was if he would have it be also the last time. At that moment, he had not yet decided. All the teachings of Surak, all the tenets of modern day Vulcan argued against it. But he was also a scientist. The very nature of science was investigation of previously unknown quantities, was it not? Would it not be illogical to refuse to investigate these possibilities? At least that was what he told himself the day he turned his back on Vulcan and on the regiments of non-emotion forever.

"And?" Kirk probed with a quirky smile.

"While there were some redeeming features, I would not choose to repeat that exact experience," Spock said enigmatically.

"Mr. Spock, I don't think you have a romantic bone in your whole body." Jim waited for the inevitable playful rejoinder, but there was only silence.

Puzzled, he twisted around. Spock's face was unreadable, but uncharacteristically his hands rested not behind his back, but lightly on the top of the command chair. Jim searched his face and saw nothing but fierce control. Later, in private, thought Jim. Right now they had a starship to command.

Jim settled back in the seat, his shoulder pinning the fingertips, not accidentally. Lost in thought, Jim gazed at the screen, the shifting starfield, and the glorious stars that had heralded their deliverance. In all the long days and months and years that he had spent in space he had had occasion to think of them as friend, mother, challenger, jailer. In all that time he had never seen them as deliverance--until today. He had never been a religious man, not in the conventional sense. But there was something about those stars.

"Spock, through all of mans' history, the stars have been a focus of constancy.

"Ancient people considered the stars to be the home of the gods, the root source of everything important. Mariners trusted their lives to the stars--used them to steer the way to glory and adventure, then safely back home again. It's even said that a star guided the first followers across the desert to bring them to their savior.

"Can you imagine what it would be like? To cast your fate unto the stars--no turning back, all or nothing. To leave everything you have behind and to simply trust that the stars will lead you to home, life, happiness, salvation?"

"Yes," Spock replied looking straight ahead at the starfield. Or perhaps at the man centered in the foreground. "I can."
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