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In every life – in most of them, at least - there comes a time when it occurs to us to wonder how we have managed to arrive at who and what and where we are. I should say, in the lives of Homo sapiens. About the rest of the intelligent species we have encountered in the known galaxy, I am far less sure. Take Klingons, for example. Thirty years after the first treaty I still find I understand them hardly at all and have no idea if the warrior exists who has given a moment's thought to what else he might have become. Vulcans, on the other hand, appear to practice introspection in the womb. A gross exaggeration, my own personal Vulcan would say, but that's neither here nor there.

You see why I am not regarded as a philosophical man. My observation is less than a minute old and already I have qualified it twice. There are those, I suppose, who would call such discernment evidence of an analytical mind. The truth is, I often find myself confused by too many details. Such fame as I have enjoyed owes everything to my inborn talent for command, for making decisions and then having the guts to live with them.

That's what I told the latest group of Starfleet cadets to whom I was invited to speak. "But, sir," one of them objected, "everyone knows that James Kirk is a living legend." Everyone but me, apparently. It's hogwash, most of it, I think, but I did not say as much to them. They're young. They'll learn soon enough that I - no, all of us - were mostly trying to survive.

"I'm a doctor, not a philosopher," Bones used to say when it suited him. I imagine I should say the equivalent and leave well enough alone, if it weren't that my own life has given me so very much to wonder about.

Eventually - inevitably - they made me an admiral again. Thank God it was not the disaster the second time around that it was the first. Maybe I was finally ready for the change. Certainly I was surprised to find that I felt at home in San Francisco despite the memories, and by then I had sufficient pull to see to it that my duties included enough scheduled weeks in space to avoid ruining a good thing.

Rear Admiral in Charge of First Contact Affairs - an impressive title to go along with truly interesting work. Besides, it was what I knew. Though I had a long-range shuttle at my disposal, I hitched rides on ships of the line every chance I got. Starships, when I could, including Enterprise once or twice. That was always hard, though.  Some memories bothered me more than I liked to admit.

Of course, all that was before Eileen. It seems funny, thinking about it now.  Just when I had finally resigned myself to the belief that the woman didn't exist who was right for me to marry...there she was. She was English, terribly proper, from a terribly good family. Don't ask me what we had in common. After the first couple of years even I gave up trying to figure it out. I simply let myself enjoy it, and I was increasingly content to stay at home.

After years of worry, my mother was pleased to have me more or less grounded on Earth, and she was crazy about Eileen. "It's not just any woman who could settle down this son of mine," she used to say. "When are you two going to start a family?"

Never.  hough Eileen was young enough to make it at least theoretically possible, we agreed about that from the first: she, because the maternal instinct was not in her nature; I, because I carried too many wounds to ever want children again. It was David, of course, but it was other things, too. The Enterprise was my home and her crew my family for so long, and by forty I had already buried more than my share of her young and valorous dead.

Damn! I'm exaggerating again. Lord knows I've always had plenty of faults, but that didn't used to be one of them. Must be my advancing years. Everyone says that after eighty you can blame just about anything on age. The thing is, I don't feel old. Sometimes I think I never will. Now there's a flaw that's been on the public record for years: my delusions of immortality. I can't argue with that, but then anyone who ever made it to command rank has a twinge of demigod syndrome now and then. It's what keeps us coming back for one close call after another: an irrational and mostly unconscious conviction that death can't happen to us.

Worse than death can, though. That's David again, I suppose, and Genesis and all the rest of it. I try not to think about those weeks because they were absolutely the worst of my life. Of course that was years ago, and most of the wounds are long since healed. My son, after all, I hardly knew; certainly he never really belonged to me. Spock...I got back. That leaves the ship, and I doubt I'll get over that if I live to be a thousand.

But I was talking about Eileen and me. How did I get around to Genesis? Via the children we didn't have, I guess. What we did have was a good life together, a much better one than I thought I deserved. My wife was beautiful and she loved me. She was also, of all things, a banker. She tried very hard to impart to me some enthusiasm for inter-planetary finance, largely without success. My career she found terribly exciting.  And, if the truth be told, so did I.

Since the Starfleet grapevine runs a major branch through San Francisco HQ, I had little trouble keeping tabs on my old shipmates over the years. Those I considered friends I saw when I could. McCoy retired and moved back to Georgia, which he swore he'd never leave. Then he surprised me by signing up for a mission to research the Fabrini archives on Hedsen Prime. I hardly heard from him for four years and was newly married by the time he came home to retire for good. The look on his face when I introduced him to Eileen was priceless. Ever the perfect gentleman, he recovered in time to bow gallantly over her hand, but what he said to me later in private was, "I never thought you'd do it. Damn, but you almost gave me a coronary!" Good old Bones. I wish he didn't live so far away.

Spock taught at Starfleet Academy for quite a few years, in between tours of duty aboard the most prestigious research vessels in the fleet. His reputation as a scientist just grew and grew, and he could pretty much pick and choose what he wanted to do. They offered him the Academy directorship several times, but he kept turning it down. I always wished, for purely selfish reasons, that he'd take it. I liked having him in San Francisco, but I also understood why he was reluctant to give up travel in space. We remained close; even when one of us went offworld for any length of time, we kept in touch. Subspace is a marvelous thing, especially when it's at your beck and call and free for the asking. R.H.I.P.

Eventually he went home to Vulcan. I thought I knew why, but for once had the grace not to ask. Anyway, he took a leave of absence and stayed on in ShiKahr for a couple of years. Though we did not talk often during that time, I could tell he was not happy. It was a relief when I heard he had accepted a post at Starbase 34 on Hreldor. At the time there was a modest stellar dynamics research facility there, but a project was under way to establish a much larger one in collaboration with the local university. That, of course, turned out to be the McDowell Inter-Planetary Institute of Stellar Mechanics, and Spock was its very first dean. He still sits on the board of directors, besides serving as Starfleet's liaison and teaching a full schedule of classes. Somewhere in between he finds time for private research. He has a bondmate on Vulcan, whom I've met once or twice, and a twenty-two-year-old daughter I've never seen.

That, however, is another story - one I'd just as soon forget. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his estrangement from T'Manda is Spock's greatest sorrow. He tells me it cannot be helped, that no one is to blame, but I know better. So does he. At least she's young yet. Maybe experience will one day change her mind. Sometimes I wonder if she misses her father. I hope not. After all, she was barely two when Spock left Vulcan for Hreldor, and after that he went back to visit at most two or three times a year. So it's not as if she grew up with him around the house.

Still, I can't help thinking of Eileen. We had barely nine years together and it's been almost sixteen since she died, but to this day there are times when I miss her. Is that crazy? I mean considering everything that's happened since? I know she wouldn't think so. It was good between us. It was. If now it feels like that life happened to someone else...well, that doesn't change the way things were at the time.

Food poisoning. Of all the ridiculous things in this day and age. I had just finished lunch with Admiral Mazarin when I got the call. We were supposed to meet with a delegation from Hexar III that afternoon. Instead I beamed over to Bristol and spent the night sitting in a hospital with some damn fool doctor telling me not to worry while my wife died by inches under my hands.

I knew where she'd been, all right - to that famous restaurant she was always telling me about, the one run by the same family for almost three hundred years. They'd booked reservations for her younger sister's fiftieth birthday celebration months in advance. "You have to, you know," she'd said. "It's the only way to get in. They still do everything the old way: absolutely nothing but fresh food, all the original recipes prepared to order. It's a fabulous place, Jim. I know you'd love it. If only you were able to come along!"

Unfortunately, rank also hath its duties. "Maybe some other time," I told her. I made a mental note to look into it as a surprise for our tenth anniversary. But that, like so many other things, was not to be.

Even the doctors started to worry after a few hours. A dozen patrons of The Golden Cockerel had taken ill, they said, all after eating the mutton stew. Some sort of mutant bacteria...improperly handled meat...it was something like that. Mercifully I've forgotten most of what they told me. Though one elderly gentleman had died, other victims were responding well to standard treatment, and they could not understand why my wife did not do the same.

In the end the reason didn't make much difference. I guess I called my office back in San Francisco. I only half remember doing it. Someone there called Bones, who turned up on Eileen's sister's doorstep the evening before the funeral. He had tried to contact Spock, he said, but was told he was offworld with thirty students on a six-week research cruise. I thought it just as well. Janice Rand and Scotty and my staff right down to the last clerk attended the service. It was hard enough seeing all of them.

A message of condolence from Spock was waiting when I got home. He would be back on Hreldor within the month, it said. He would come to see me if I wished. I thought about it, realizing in the process that for the first time in years Earth was the last place in the galaxy I wanted to be - or at least San Francisco was, and the apartment every inch of which bore the stamp of my absent wife's hand. Finally I replied saying that not only was my upcoming work schedule hectic, but I also had unpleasant duties to keep me occupied for the time being. If he didn't mind, could we wait a few months until I could arrange enough time off to come out and visit him?

Of course Spock didn't mind. When did he ever, as long as he thought it was what I wanted?

A few months turned into almost seven, what with one thing and another. Then, when I could just about see my way clear to scheduling a real vacation, something even better came along. The starship Ghandi, on routine patrol in Sector J-9, ran into three potentially dangerous first contact situations in the space of ten days. The sector commander at the time was one Admiral Vassily Petrovich Svetlanov, an officer who had risen through the ranks by virtue of redoubtable administrative skills. His report to Starfleet Command included requests for top-level assessment, additional training for Ghandi's crew, and assignment of at least one specialist before the ship returned to any of the planets for in-depth surveys. And while he saw no particular need for haste, he did hope we could schedule to coincide with Ghandi's upcoming maintenance layover and R&R.

My first thought, naturally, was Starbase 34. Not only were its maintenance facilities a cut above those at Admiral Svetlanov's headquarters on Starbase 35, but it would take Ghandi less than three days' travel from her assigned patrol while saving my own staff more than a week of travel time. Besides, I assured the admiral, Hreldor offered excellent shore leave opportunities. If I failed to mention that I had never been there, I did remember to add that I would be coming along to personally lend what assistance I could. Vassily Petrovich was delighted.

So was I. The situation, having arisen in a sector usually considered too well-explored to hold many surprises, was intriguing to say the least. Besides which, the effective length of my visit with Spock had just increased by fifty per cent. I assigned two anthropologists and my most experienced behavioral exobiologist, and together we planned two weeks of intensive advanced instruction in first contact protocol. I figured I would have a fair amount of free time to spend with Spock even while the debriefing and training were going on. Once they were complete, Lieutenant Devlon would ship out with the Ghandi, the anthropologists would return to Earth...and my four weeks of leave would officially begin.

Though the session was more than three months away, I put in a call to Hreldor the minute the dates were confirmed. In my enthusiasm I forgot to check the local time. I'm sure I got Spock out of bed, but he seemed not to mind. The arrangement met with his approval, and he promised to free up his schedule so he could show me the local sights.

"One other thing, Admiral," he said then. "I learned this afternoon that the New York Philharmonic is adding a stop at Hreldor to its upcoming tour. Their two concerts here will take place during the second week of your visit. I had hoped to secure a ticket for at least one performance. Assuming I am able to do so, perhaps you would care to accompany me."

It seemed a little silly to travel several light-years to hear an ensemble, no matter how famous or venerable, that usually performed within transporter range of home. Fortunately, I stopped to consider what a rare opportunity it was for Spock. "Sure," I said, "that would be great. I might ask you to coach me on the repertoire, though. I haven't been to too many concerts since you left the Academy."

I hadn't been to any. Though Spock had a boundless interest in all kinds of Terran music and I rather enjoyed being dragged along to an eclectic variety of events, my own enthusiasm had rapidly flagged in his absence. This would be like old times, I thought. I hoped the whole trip would. I actually began to look forward to something for the first time in months.

When the time came, I piloted the long-range shuttle myself, as I always did. (That was in my contract, too.) As planned, Ghandi had been in orbit for several days and her repairs were well under way by the time we arrived at Starbase 34. It was mid-morning local time. Captain Bradley and Admiral Svetlanov reported they were ready when we were, so we beamed directly over and started reviewing tricorder transcripts and doing preliminary interviews. When we worked straight through lunch, the captain invited us to join him for an early dinner in the officers' mess. Afterwards, my staff and I beamed down to settle into guest quarters at the base.

It was early evening before I finally had a chance to think about contacting Spock. I knew his teaching schedule demanded he spend the majority of his time at the Institute, but that he also had an office on the base. Considering the time, I thought about calling his home first. But something told me where he was likely to be.

"Is the captain in by any chance?" I asked the young woman who snapped to attention behind the desk outside his office.

"Admiral Kirk, sir! Yes, sir, he is. I'll announce you."

"That's all right, Lieutenant. I'll just surprise him, if you don't mind."

I knew it would not be a surprise. Spock was at his desk, working. He switched off his terminal and stood in the same motion when I stepped into the room. I hadn't seen him in almost seven years, but he appeared to have changed hardly at all. For a few seconds we just stared at each other; then I couldn't help but grin. As he started around the desk I offered a Vulcan salute. This he simply ignored, drawing me instead into the embrace I had been afraid to hope for. I let him hold me, grateful yet again that his reluctance to touch and be touched had never extended to me.

"I'm so glad to see you," I said when he finally let me go. "It's been way too long."

"Yes," he said, and then, "Jim, I am sorry about Eileen."

"I know. So am I. I keep telling myself there's nothing I can do about it, but that doesn't seem to help much. I just...can't seem to stop missing her."

"Of course you cannot. I do not wish to push you, but you know I am willing to listen if you need to talk."

I did know that. It was one reason I had wanted to come, but just being in the same room with my dear friend had already made me feel better. "Thanks," I said lamely. "Spock, you look well. How are things at home? How are T'Kehr and T'Manda?"

"They are well. Lately I hear from them often. My daughter will soon reach seven years of age, and T'Kehr and I are trying to arrange a bonding."

"Good lord. Then she must be in school already, too. Is she as brilliant as her father?"

Spock's expression said he had all but forgotten how to deal with being teased. "It would not be appropriate for me to comment," he replied finally and firmly changed the subject. "Would you care to join me for dinner? There is an Italian restaurant not far from here that I think you would enjoy."

"Spock, I'm sorry. Today was kind of chaotic, and I already ate aboard ship. I'd be glad to go along and keep you company, though."

"In that case, let us go to the officers' dining room here on the starbase. I can see that you are tired. We shall save the restaurant for another day."

"Do you eat out a lot?" I asked when we had found a quiet table, I with a cup of coffee and Spock with a plate of Vulcan vegetable stew.

"Not often. I dine here or at the Institute when it is convenient, and occasionally go out with friends. Most of the time I cook for myself at home."

"Really? I never pictured you as the domestic type."

"Perhaps that is because I never had my own house with a real kitchen before. T'Kehr taught me quite a lot about Vulcan cuisine while I was living there, and I have since sought out recipes for vegetarian dishes from a variety of other cultures. I find I rather enjoy it." He gave me a teasing look of his own. "If you are willing to take the risk, I shall be pleased to demonstrate."

I remember laughing at that; I remember how good it felt. "Sure, I'm game. Besides, I'm anxious to see your house."

"The first evening you are free, then. And I wish you would reconsider your decision to stay here on the base. I can easily accommodate you at home."

"I know, but I think I should stay close to my staff until our assignment is complete. You'll be stuck with me for four whole weeks after that. That's plenty long enough to impose on your hospitality."

"It is not an imposition," Spock insisted quietly. I knew he meant that he had missed me every bit as much as I had missed him.

We sat there and talked for a long time. We caught each other up on the doings of former colleagues, including the old Enterprise crew, and exchanged a bit of Starfleet gossip. When we got around to the planets recently discovered in Sector J-9, I found that Spock knew at least as much about them as I did.

"There's going to be a formal dinner aboard the Ghandi tomorrow night," I said, suddenly inspired. "If I can wrangle you an invitation, would you like to come? You might find it interesting, and you could meet the specialists I brought with me." I did not add that Bradley and his officers would probably fall all over each other for a chance to meet the foremost scientist in the fleet.

"As a matter of fact, Admiral Goulet already invited me." That was the commander of Starbase 34. "I declined to accept until I spoke with you. I did not wish to intrude upon an occasion intended to welcome you and your staff."

"Ah, yes. 'Iron-Pants' Goulet. I've never met her. Is she as hard-boiled as everyone says?"

"I find her a capable officer who is quite easy to work with," Spock said primly. "Though now that I think of it, she might indeed be one woman who would not easily fall prey to your charms."

In my youth I would have considered that a challenge; at the time it only made me feel old and rather tired. "Well, I guess we'll never find out. I happen to know she's married, and I'm too much of a gentleman to make a pass at another man's wife." The joke sounded flat, even to me. "Anyway, you know damn well I want you to come to the dinner. Accept the invitation, all right?"

He did, and it was a rare pleasure the next evening to see his familiar figure among the wine-red uniforms gathered around the crystal and cutlery of the captain's table.

Spock arrived with Admiral Goulet and introduced us himself. To my surprise I found her rather charming in a reserved sort of way. "A pleasure, Admiral," she said as we shook hands. "Your reputation precedes you. I wondered how long it would be before you dropped in on our little corner of the galaxy."

"I'd like to have done it long before this, but...well, you know how it is. And I assure you the reputation is vastly overstated."

She smiled faintly at that. "I think not in this case. Spock has spoken of you often, and he is not given to exaggeration. He is, however, an unfailing source of scientific expertise - and of good counsel. I don't think I have to tell you what an asset he is to me personally."

"No," I said with a glance at the plainly discomfited Vulcan. "You don't have to do that." I let the subject drop; but later, when I found myself one-on-one with the admiral during the social mingling after dinner, she brought it up again.

"I trust," she said, "that you are not here in hopes of enticing Spock back to Earth."

I could not decide whether it was a question, a plea, or a threat. "Hardly. He's the best friend I've ever had, and it would mean a lot to me to work with him again, but he must be happy where he is. He never would have stayed this long otherwise."

She nodded without apology. For a moment we both watched Spock, deep in conversation with Ghandi's communications chief, who had once been his student at Starfleet Academy.

"I wonder about it sometimes, you know," Goulet said then. "About what keeps him here, I mean. I know he has a family on Vulcan, and he could write his own ticket back to HQ any time he had a mind to. He doesn't have to stay in an out-of-the-way place like this."

"The McDowell Institute is hardly out-of-the-way in scientific terms, and he's closer to Vulcan here than he would be on Earth. My guess is he finds both his work and the circumstances fulfilling. Besides, San Francisco isn't everything it's cracked up to be. The real work is still out here, and on ships of the line."

"That's easy for you to say. You've had both. My illustrious career in starship command got me promoted this far, but I still want more. Maybe the real work is here, but the real power resides at HQ, and that's where I want to be. I'll get there sooner or later, too. I guess most people think that sounds pretty ruthless."

"Well," I said with the most charming smile I could muster, "it never hurts to aim high." Actually, my estimate of the woman had just taken a nosedive, but I was not about to say so. I could never hear mention of ruthless ambition without being reminded of Will Decker and the way I pushed him aside to get back in the center seat. It was not a comfortable memory. Still isn't, in fact. And, if the truth be told, it's not the only one that gives my conscience a twinge now and then.

Still, there aren't many things I would change, that trip included. If I wasn't exactly in the way, it was perfectly true that the officers under my command could easily have done the job without me. That's why they worked for me, in fact. I chose no one for my staff who could not be counted on to handle the most complex situation, and handle it well. "Learn to fly by the seat of your pants," I used to tell them. "That way you won't panic the first time your engine fails." And fly they did. That time they had me looking over their shoulders, was all, and don't think I didn't enjoy it. Talking with Ghandi's crew took me back to the days when nearly every planetfall meant an encounter with previously unknown forms of life, intelligent or otherwise. That was the work I wanted as much as I ever did. Admiral Goulet could have her power, and welcome to it.

But that's not what I was talking about. I started to say that while I found myself absorbed by the information exchanged during our sessions, I was dispensable enough to stand back and let my people work. That also meant that, once the initial debriefing was complete, my time was largely my own when I chose. Which meant in turn that it was a simple matter late in the afternoon of the following day to excuse myself in time to beam down and change clothes before meeting Spock for dinner.

While ground cars were a common sight in Hreldor City, most local commuters seemed to avail themselves of a marvelously efficient underground tube system, and Spock was no exception. I had been surprised at first to learn that he had bothered to secure housing away from the starbase, though in retrospect I do not know why that was so. I, after all, had preferred civilian digs from my first days in San Francisco. If at the time Spock had chosen the rather Spartan surroundings of staff quarters, that was no reason he should not later change his mind.

I began to understand why he might have done when we emerged into a quiet residential neighborhood of small houses built of some dark, slate-like native stone. They were low, most of them, with single stories and gently sloping roofs, and nicely spaced, if set somewhat close to the street and pedestrian walkways. The one Spock approached was separated from the pavement by only a narrow strip planted with a colorful riot of blooming native shrubs. While I enjoyed the smell, he silently palmed the lock. The door swung inward, and Spock stood aside for me to enter.

"Welcome to my home," he said in that voice I was learning I had missed as much as anything else. "You must consider it yours as well."

It was standard courtesy, but for some reason his words touched me. I remember laying a hand on his arm as I went inside. After that I recall only pleasant surprise at what I found.

At least half the interior was made up of a single open room, separated by furniture groupings into functional areas. Toward the front of the house, where heavy drapes at the windows insured privacy from the street, a large, curving desk held a display screen and a variety of sophisticated computer controls.  Spock touched a switch that flooded that area with light. I saw that the desk was made of dark wood, and that the upholstered chair and the textured walls were the same russet brown as the drapes. The paradoxical result was a space as masculine and inviting as it was utterly utilitarian.

The rest of the room was lighter. The comfortable-looking furniture was modern; several chairs were fitted out with tape readers, but there were books in evidence as well. Artifacts from various worlds hung here and there on the ivory walls - a Kapellan ceremonial sash, a Lurian spirit disc, a pair of Klingon gogh'rhen'cha, even a small festival mask from Argelius - all souvenirs of a lifetime of travel. A dining table and six chairs stood close to the left-hand wall; a built-in sideboard had an opening into what appeared to be the kitchen just beyond.

"This is really nice, Spock," I said. "Very tastefully done. I heartily approve."

I'm sure he raised a brow at that, but I was already moving toward the rear wall and the most striking feature of the entire room. This was not a wall at all, but floor to ceiling windows looking onto an enclosed backyard. There was a flagstone patio just outside, and flagstone walks winding among some of the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen. I could just make out the roof of another house through the trees and over a wall at the back of the lot, but my eye returned again and again to a circular bed of azure blossoms so brilliant in the sunshine that it almost hurt to look at them.

"What are those blue ones?" I asked.

"They are called trident stars. They bloom for brief periods only twice each season, so I am pleased you are able to see them. They are quite lovely, are they not?"

"They're amazing. Everything is. Don't tell me you find time to do all this yourself."

Spock very nearly shrugged. "I find it a relaxing change of pace from my military and academic duties. Also, these are all native varieties, many of which are perennial. They actually require very little work. Over here, however, is something that demands considerably more attention."

He led the way into the kitchen, which was bright with light filtered through another wall of windows. A section of glass slid aside when he pressed a control stud, and we stepped out into the warm afternoon. Following a walk curving to the left, we came to a garden plot screened from sight of the house by a shoulder-high hedge of thorns and waxy green leaves.

"Vegetables!" I exclaimed. "I haven't seen anything like this since I left Iowa. You've got a regular truck farm here."

"Really, Jim, you exaggerate. I grow only enough for my own use, though I do like to plant from a variety of sources. These are Terran tomatoes, for instance, and over there I have plomeek and le'ec beans. This is Rigellian silverleaf lettuce. The climate here is moderate, usually with adequate rainfall, and most things do well with a little cultivation." He turned suddenly and stepped in among the rows, bending to pick something from a low, bushy plant. "Here," he said, "try this."

I grinned as I bit into the crispness of a genuine fresh-picked green bean, and I swear I didn't stop smiling for an hour.

Spock changed into a casual tunic and pants, and insisted I relax while he started dinner. "I have planned a traditional Vulcan meal," he said. "I hope you do not mind."

"Not at all, but you could at least let me help. I've been known to wield a knife now and then, you know. Eileen liked to cook, but she found a lot of chopping and peeling rather tedious. She was always recruiting me to help."

"Not this time," was the firm reply. "None of this will take long, and tonight you are my guest. Feel free to inspect the rest of the house if you like. And please bear in mind that the former owner is responsible for the decor in the bathroom."

That piqued my curiosity. I had to go look, and my resulting laughter echoed around the expanse of tiled walls and floor. The obviously costly ceramics underfoot formed a dizzying checkerboard of white and grass-green tiles; those on the walls were white with a pattern of leaves reminiscent of gigantic ivy. The fixtures, including a huge circular tub, were garishly, undeniably yellow. It was almost a relief to go back into the hallway and peek into the bedrooms at either end. Each of these contained a double bed and built-in storage, and nothing else. In fact, I had to look closely to tell which one Spock used. I could imagine his explanation: what purpose is served by adorning a room used only for sleeping?

"It certainly is cheerful," I said when I went back into the kitchen.

"Disgustingly so, if you ask me. I would like to replace the fixtures at least, but as they are quite new, the fact that they offend my sense of taste does not seem adequate justification for doing so."

"Then think of it as a conversation piece. I sure don't know anyone else with a bathroom like that."

Despite my protest that the kitchen would be fine, we sat down to eat at the table in the main room. The dinner Spock fixed was delicious. It was a good thing our friendship went back such a long way, for my repeated expressions of surprise must have approached outright rudeness at times. "So T'Kehr taught you all this?" I asked finally.

"She did. Or rather, she allowed me to observe. It was from her I learned that a pleasing and nutritious meal need not be a burden to prepare. Between her teaching career and her many other interests, she seldom has a great deal of time to spend in the kitchen."

"Other interests? Such as..."

"She is an artisan, for one thing. Her metalwork is much in demand." Spock nodded to the half dozen goblets of something like beaten copper I had noticed earlier on the sideboard. "Those are hers. She made twelve of them on the occasion of our bonding twenty years ago. When I left Vulcan this last time, she insisted I take my share along."

It seemed like the perfect opening to ask about things I had wondered at for years. "Spock, I don't mean to be nosy...."

The look I got was one of perfect comprehension. "My relationship with T'Kehr is not a conventional one, but I do not mind speaking of it with you. What do you wish to know?"

"Well, doesn't she mind the fact that you don't live with her and T'Manda on Vulcan?"

"Why would she? She understood from the beginning that my chosen work would take me offworld. It was...part of the agreement, if you will."

"And now that you have a more or less permanent assignment, she's never considered coming here to live with you?"

"Not to my knowledge. Her entire family is on Vulcan; I do not believe any of them ever travel offworld. Being with me would hardly be sufficient reason for her to leave. While I hold T'Kehr in high regard as the mother of my child, our bonding is essentially a matter of convenience and...necessity."

I knew all too well the reason for that hesitation, but I was relieved to see none of the old embarrassment in my friend's face. "Then you don't...love her?"

"Love is a human emotion, Admiral. We are compatible. We had logical reasons for joining our lives together. Many bondings are successful and rewarding on that basis alone."

I remember thinking it wasn't fair, not for Spock. His comment about emotion harked back to the days when he refused to admit he had any, to when Bones made a second career of trying to get him to open up. Still, I knew Spock had long ago learned better, and everything about him suggested he was largely at peace.  I supposed he had as much right as anyone else to make the best of an imperfect situation.

"Well," I said finally, "as long as you're happy."

We got together again the next afternoon. He took me on a brief tour of the city and gave me an inside look at the McDowell Institute. The evening after that we drove by ground car to the one attraction mentioned in every guidebook to Hreldor: the Burning River Gorge. It is pretty spectacular, if no longer exactly wild. The river has carved a deep channel through a kilometer-long deposit of erethocite; farther upstream it runs over soft beds of tanzic ore. When the water reaches the gorge, the suspended mineral causes the rock in the riverbed to fluoresce. The result, especially after dark, is amazing - almost like fireworks in the rapids where water pours over boulders and splashes up onto the canyon walls. Spock and I had dinner at a restaurant overhanging the rim. If the food was only average, the view was out of this world.

The following day began Hreldor's version of a weekend. I was scheduled to give a presentation to Ghandi's security staff, but thought I could get away early.  Since Spock had no classes to teach, he planned to spend the morning helping some advanced students set up a research project. After that, he said, he would go home, and I could join him any time I wished. He would leave it to me to decide whether I preferred a quiet evening there or a trip to one of Hreldor City's renowned museums of anthropology.

As luck would have it, a number of administrative problems came up, and it was well past mid-afternoon by the time I beamed down to Starbase 34 and then found my way by tube to Spock's house. As clearly as if it were yesterday, I remember walking along that street not suspecting a thing. It seems now that I should have known, should have sensed my entire life about to change. I know that's ridiculous. After all, it was just another nice day with a pleasant breeze and hardly a cloud in the sky.

I walked up to the house with "34881" stencilled on the door. Spock had programmed his security scan with my ID, so I let myself in. I could tell by the silence that he was not indoors. In the garden then, I thought, and went through the kitchen and out onto the flagstone path.

He was there behind the hedge, planting something in an empty strip toward the back of his vegetable patch. He was facing away from me, and for some reason I did not say anything. I stood there and watched him kneeling in the tawny dirt, scooping out handfuls of soil and patting a seedling into each resulting depression. The tiny plants were in a shallow box in the path. He would reach for one, then bend over to set it in place. He wore a sleeveless tunic, an old one, perhaps, that he used for gardening. His head was bare. In the strong sunlight his hair gleamed black and his arms looked almost white, though I knew his skin to be the color of milky jade. He would reach for a seedling, bend over, reach for another. When the row was planted within arm's reach, he carefully lifted the box into the garden and shifted himself away from the path. The hem of the tunic caught beneath his knee; he pulled it up and tucked it into his belt.

That was when it happened. For the first time in my life and with absolutely no warning, I found myself looking not at Spock, but at his body. I looked at his bare arms and wondered what the skin beneath his clothes looked like. I thought of kneeling behind my friend, untying his belt, putting my hands under his tunic while his were buried in the dirt. I thought of what he would feel like and smell like...of the things he would say.

I must have made a sound then. Spock turned around and saw me. "Jim," he said.  "How was your day?"

Now I was watching his mouth and could not utter a word.

"I am almost finished with these," he went on after a second, and then he frowned. "Is anything wrong?"

What was I supposed to say? Telling him the truth was out of the question, and I was too stunned by my own desire to think of a convincing lie. "I just...feel kind of warm all of a sudden," I muttered finally. "I think I'll go inside and get something cold to drink."

That was absolutely the best I could do. I retreated to the kitchen and fixed myself a glass of fruit juice that was mostly ice. After I gulped it, I sat at the table with my eyes closed and the sweating glass pressed against my forehead. It didn't help. I could still see that beautiful body. I remembered what it felt like when he put his arms around me in his office several days before. God help me, I wanted Spock, a shipmate with whom I had lived and worked for years, a comrade for whom I had more than once risked my life, the friend whose death and miraculous rebirth long ago defined for me both terror and joy.  I wanted him. I also knew that the right thing to do would be to get up and leave. I could have pleaded indisposition, taken a few days to indulge my impossible fantasy and bring it under control before I saw him again. I could have...but I did not.

I was still sitting there when Spock came in almost twenty minutes later. "Are you feeling any better?" was the first thing he said.

"Sure," I lied, "I'm fine. I was about to have another glass of juice. Would you like some?"

Spock washed his hands, and we sat at the kitchen table and talked for a while. I told him about my day; I asked what he was putting in the garden. I looked out the windows and at my hands and occasionally even at him. I was terrified of saying something that would give me away. When he asked if I had decided how I wished to spend the evening, I did not know how to respond.

"You choose," I told him. "Whatever you want to do is fine with me."

He frowned at that. "You still do not look well. Perhaps it would be best if we had an early dinner and I took you back to the base afterwards."

I grabbed our empty glasses and went to stick them in the 'fresher. "You don't have to take me anywhere," I snapped. "I'm not sick, just a little tired, that's all. Dinner would be fine, but I can make it back to quarters on my own." When I turned around I was surprised to find him standing right behind me, his eyes all serious with concern.

"Jim, what is the matter? Is it something I did? Something I said?"

I could not lie to that. "No, of course not. Something did happen today, but it's...personal. It's nothing for you to worry about. If you don't mind, I'd rather not discuss it, okay?" That might have been the end of it. He might have believed me and let it go at that had he not chosen that moment to touch my hand, or had I been able to keep from shying away.

For some reason it startled me, that brief contact intended to comfort. Hell, who am I kidding? It scared me to death. My face started to burn. Like a fool I stared at Spock until the silence became impossible to ignore. I was trying to read the expression in his eyes.

"I am going to take a shower before I start dinner," he said finally. "Please, would you go and lie down in the extra room? Just for a few minutes, to see if it makes you feel better?"

"Yes," I said. "Yes, all right."

I did go and stretch out on the brown linen bed cover. I lay on my back and tried to decide if I had only imagined shocked recognition in those dark Vulcan eyes. The room was at the front of the house. Light slanted in through the partly open drapes, and now and then I could hear the whine of a ground car passing in the street. The only other sound was the splash of the shower from the bathroom next door.

When the water stopped, the house was quiet for a long time. By then I was not worried and I was not exactly afraid, but I still was not sure. I waited what seemed an eternity, though it was probably not more than five minutes or so. Then I went into the hall. Light spilled under the bathroom door; the handle felt cold. When it turned under my hand, Spock was there, naked. I remember thinking, he has just taken a shower. Of course he's naked. He watched my face. I looked at his body, wanting to touch it, not knowing where to touch first. Spock did not help me. He did not move when I laid my hand against the soft skin at the side of his waist, but his lips parted, and that was when I knew we were going to make love.

By the time we got to his bed, I had most of my fingers in his mouth. I wanted his mouth more than anything. It was so hot that at first I tasted nothing when I drove my tongue inside. I'm kissing Spock, I thought. I'm going to devour him. He let me do it until I was dizzy, and then he opened my pants.

There was hand cream by the bed; he sobbed when I put it on my cock. He said something I could not understand, but I lifted his legs over my shoulders, and that was what he wanted.

"Yes," he said then. My fingers were slippery from the cream; though his opening was small, they easily slid inside. I pushed them deep, deeper, in and out, while he moaned and clawed at the sheets. He cried out again when I touched his balls. I had never heard a sound like that; I felt I would die if I could not hear it again and again and again. It was logic dying, or terrible desire being born. It welled from him like the seed flowing onto his belly, the pearly liquor staining his olive skin. I put my penis into him then, forcing his anus, not gentle at all, and then I bent down to kiss his mouth. My hands tore into his hair. I came in him so hard - so hard - that my climax burned like a shower of sparks.

Afterwards I slept for a while. When I woke, we held each other. I felt born into the world's most perfect dream. I might have been terrified of regret, but there was none, not for either of us.

"Why didn't we realize we wanted this a long time ago?" I asked, and Spock actually smiled.

"Perhaps because we did not want it before now," he said. "Perhaps it was meant only for this time and this place."

"When did you know?"

"Before, in the kitchen. I sensed you were afraid of me; I felt an overwhelming need to ease that fear. Then I realized that what I really wanted was to touch you."

I sat up and stared at him. "That's when I knew, too - I mean right before that, when I saw you in the garden. I can't explain it. I saw your body bent over, and there was dirt on your hands, and right then I wanted you. I was afraid, Spock, but not of you. Is it madness, wanting something so suddenly like that?"

"Why must it be madness? Every new experience has a moment of beginning, most of which pass unnoticed. Perhaps we merely had the good fortune to witness such a moment come into being."

For some reason his words made me sad. I found his hand and kissed it, holding it against my face. An odd light came into his eyes. I searched them for the old torments, the old defenses, the old affections. None of them were there. What I saw instead I found difficult to believe.

"I'm afraid again, Spock. I'm afraid I've changed you, made you into something you never desired to be. I swear I never meant to do that, no matter how much I want you to be what I need."

Spock was silent for a moment. "You have been changing me since the day we met," he said finally, "but you have always made me better. What you need is what I desire to be. That I knew long ago. When you offered me friendship, I gave you mine in return. Now you have showed me something deeper than life. Surely it was in me all along, waiting for you to ask for it." He drew his hand away and pressed it to my crotch. "Is it then so surprising to find that my body knows desire even as yours does? Would it shock you to know that I wish you would come in my mouth?"

It did. It shocked me so much that I came erect under his hand, and then I straddled his head and gave him his heart's desire.

The next morning I went as usual to the scheduled session aboard Ghandi, but invented an excuse to take the whole afternoon off. After that I checked out of my quarters at the base. Spock put my things in his spare room without a word; we both knew I would not use it. I made a half-hearted attempt to unpack. It was a formality, the arriving guest making order in a strange place with the careful placement of a few intimate items from home: the underwear in a drawer, the shaving kit just where he likes it to the left of the sink. Before my bag was half empty, I had had enough. I left it lying open on the bed and went into the main room.

Spock was sitting by the windows. There was a book on the table beside his chair; his hand rested on it, but he did not pick it up. He looked out at his garden, but I knew he did not see the blazing masses of trident stars. He was waiting, just as he had done in the bathroom the day before. Waiting for me. He did not say anything when I stood before him. I did not say anything. There was nothing left to say. It seemed all our words had been spoken years ago, when we were too young or too blind to understand what they meant. Command was between us then, and we lived with the kind of danger that exacts a heavy toll for inattention. We moved often in circles of pain, sometimes to glory, always surviving because I believe we knew even then that neither of us could afford the price of defeat.

Now we knew why. We knew everything. Danger was still there when I knelt and parted his legs, but it was one I had embraced all my life. If Spock was aware of it, he gave no sign. But he gave me everything else.

I took him four times that afternoon; he took me once. That was at the end, and it finished me, defeated me so that for a while I never cared to rise again. Before that I had him in every way I knew, sometimes with tenderness, more often with such force that I was sure I did him harm. I did not, but I think I tried. Once he asked for water, and I led him into his kitchen and lifted him onto the counter. He lay down on his back. I turned on the tap and slid his head into the sink. The water ran all over his face. It ran into his mouth while I fucked him.

"Do you want to drown in it?" I asked, and he said yes. "Yes!" he said. "Drown me. I can't live any more than this."

He took me finally on the living room floor. He lay down on top of me, and I did not know he was going to do it until he was already inside. There was nothing before. Not a kiss, not a probing finger. Nothing. Just the essence of what he was filling me, after all those years, giving me what I wanted at last.

It took him a long time to come. I think he did it deliberately, waiting like that. At the time I thought it incredibly erotic, but I think now that he could not bear for it to be over, and so would not permit it to begin. When it did - when he moved - it was perfect. I cannot explain this, not to Spock (though he has asked me more than once), certainly not to myself. It's always good, I tell him, but your penis in me that time was perfect. It moved in me; you moved over me. When you held me I could feel your nipples against my back. It hurt a little - not as much as I wanted it to. It was perfect.

After that I felt utterly unable to move. He carried me to the bathroom, and we lay together in his lemon-yellow porcelain tub. That was when he kissed me for the first time. He did it under the water; perhaps he thought still of drowning. Then we went to his room and slept, all night almost, our bodies close together in one bed.

The windows were pale with dawn when we woke. I, having eaten nothing since breakfast the morning before, was ravenous with hunger. Spock was simply ravenous. We drank each other dry, and then we got up and ate. He let me put a robe on him; I did it so I could take it off again later. I'm sure he knew that, but he accepted it just as he accepted everything that happened between us in those first glorious, terrible days.

For that is what it was: at once the most wonderful and the most awful experience of my life. Awe-filled, that is, in the antique, most literal sense of the word. It was hard not to be awed by the passion between us, the raw excitement I had thought lost to years of casual encounters. What I felt for Spock - what I felt from him - was wholly unlike anything I had known with any other lover. It was something so deep and so desperate that I felt its smoldering power every waking moment, an arousal constantly awaiting a glance or a touch to kindle it to flame.

I thought of pon farr. I even asked Spock about it. That was quite different, he assured me. It was, for as long as the condition lasted, an unremitting physical compulsion to copulate, with little awareness of the interval following each release and as little pleasure for either partner. He also explained why a mental connection between bondmates was so important. It was the woman, he said, who tempered the blaze, who responded to her mate's need for food and water and medical attention while he could not, who literally kept him clean and safely in seclusion until the fever ran its course. Pon farr was a thing to be endured, an experience devoid of any hint of tenderness, but the result of which was - hopefully - a child.

None of that made me feel much better. Then what if our passion should prove to be a sort of dangerous addiction, without purpose and without end? I did not say that to Spock. I did not really think it possible myself, except in that hidden place that forever expects to pay a price for happiness. Had I tried, I could have imagined the payment likely to be exacted from the two of us, but it was too soon to worry about such things. We were in the guest room while I dressed for work. Spock sat behind me, on the edge of the bed. He waited until our eyes met in the mirror; then his hand disappeared beneath his robe. With slow movements he touched himself, stirring the red brocade until his eyes darkened with pain and he slid groaning to the floor. In seconds the pressed uniform trousers I had barely donned were down to my knees, and I had rolled him onto his belly and mounted almost without thought.

I had to bathe and dress again. I was an hour late for work.

The concert for which Spock had secured tickets months in advance of my visit was scheduled for that evening. I would gladly have forgotten the whole thing, but he insisted we attend.

"You were looking forward to it," he chided, "as was I. The Philharmonic rarely tours offworld, and I see no reason for such an opportunity to go to waste."

"Spock, if it's the money you're worried about, I'll gladly pay for the tickets. I just don't know if I could enjoy myself now, when all I'd be thinking about is what we could be doing if we were here."

"Such an appalling lack of discipline for a ranking Starfleet officer," Spock observed with a glint of humor. "There are, after all, experiences of value besides those of the flesh. And the admiral might also wish to consider the benefits of delayed gratification."

"As in...what I'll get when we get home?"

"Possibly. Besides, I find I wish to be seen with you in public. I want people to look at us and wonder what we are to each other. I want someone to notice that I have changed."

Such an appalling lack of discretion, I thought. What I said was, "All right, I'm convinced." And I was.

In the end I was glad we went, for the evening was a pleasure in every way. The performance garnered rave reviews, which Spock agreed were well deserved. Personally, I could not have formulated a reliable opinion. I did not so much listen to the music as let it pour in around me, ebbing and flowing like a tide of sound. In the darkened hall, Spock took my hand. I felt like a sixteen-year-old again, necking in the holo-cinema on a Saturday night.

At the intermission we repaired to the lobby for Kafellian wine. Spock seemed to know at least half the people there. He introduced me to scientific colleagues from the Institute and from Starbase 34, to local musicians, to a politician or two, even to the grocer who ran the neighborhood store. For some reason I was taken off guard by the evidence of the life Spock had made for himself in a place he had called home for almost five years. Maybe I was even a little jealous, but the feeling soon passed. As we drifted from one conversation to another, he stood so close that our arms touched most of the time, and I remembered what he had said about wanting to be seen together. I wondered what he would do if I were to kiss him right there. (I did not find out that night, but I did later. What he does is...kiss me back.) At the time I settled for a guiding hand in the small of his back as we returned to our seats, and the look he gave me held gratitude and more than enough promise to warm my blood for the rest of the evening.

The ride home was quiet. When Spock palmed open his door, we barely made it past the threshold before I learned how right he had been about delayed gratification.

All the rest of my visit was like that, a delightful mixture of the commonplace and the outrageously erotic. The most ordinary things were a pleasure because we did them together. Whatever was extraordinary all but defied description. I could not decide which was more wonderful: being reunited with an old friend or discovering a nearly perfect lover. More than once Spock caught me staring as I thought it over. I would give him a smile or a kiss or both; once I said, "I just can't believe you're real." And that was damned close to the truth.

The training sessions aboard the Ghandi wrapped up right on schedule. Despite having kept my distance from most of the proceedings, I knew my staff had done a commendable job. Admiral Svetlanov seemed satisfied as well. Subsequent events certainly justified his cautious approach to those three planets. Anyone who has heard of the Bendavian civil wars or the paranoid culture on Zelor II will understand what I mean. As for Lieutenant Devlon, I did see him again some two years later. And after what happened on Ghayn's World, I was pleased to see him alive.

Anyway, my remaining staff took our shuttle and departed for Earth almost as soon as Ghandi left orbit. I spent half a day preparing a detailed report for Starfleet Command. Once it was transmitted, I crossed my fingers and put in a call to my office. Everything there was business as usual. I told them not to even think about contacting me for the next four weeks. When I signed off, I felt almost elated. I went straight home to wait for Spock.

Home. It was his, of course, not mine; but it was so easy to feel it was where I belonged. Spock certainly did nothing to make me think otherwise. We were long past the conventions of host and houseguest. We were simply together. As promised he took a number of days off including, at the end, a whole week, and I had the pleasure of exploring Hreldor with what amounted to a local guide. We rented a shuttle and went all the way to the North Polar Sea, where we spent two glorious days hiking the foothills of the Coral Mountains. While Spock was working, I explored the city on my own. I tried my hand at cooking, and often had dinner waiting when he came home. Occasionally we dined out. We even sampled the nightlife in the tourist quarter adjacent to the starbase, the glitter of which, I was surprised to find, had largely lost its appeal. I had all the excitement I wanted in my Vulcan's arms, and the taste of his mouth I found more intoxicating than the fermented offerings of a dozen worlds.

Especially memorable was the day we had planned an outdoor excursion of some sort, only to discover on waking that the previous evening's forecast of possible poor weather had materialized in spades. Spock stood naked at the window and studied the rain drenching his yard, the trees swaying in the wind; I lay in bed and studied him.

"We shall have to alter our plans," he said finally.

Beneath the sheet I stretched until my joints cracked. "That's all right," I said as I stifled a yawn. "What do you say we just stay here? We could...spend the whole day in bed."

I never thought he would take me up on it. And I was wrong.

That was late in the third week of my vacation. Shortly after noon, when we had already made love several times, I had the rare pleasure of watching Spock sleep. I routinely doze off following sexual release; Spock normally does not. I was used to waking with his eyes on me and often his hands as well, but that time he was dead to the world. I rolled up onto one elbow and looked my fill at the softness of the face turned toward me as he lay on his stomach, the way his back moved as he breathed. I looked, and for the first time let myself consider the day my visit would end, when I would say good-bye and board a commercial transport bound for Earth. I would return to my life at Starfleet Headquarters, but Spock's was on Hreldor. We would see each other again...when? In a year? Two years? Five? There was subspace, of course - a poor substitute for his mouth pressed against mine. The facts were as frightening as they were inevitable, which was why I had tried so hard not to think about them.

I sat up and pushed the beginnings of panic aside, reaching instead for the one thing strong enough to overcome fear and just about anything else. My hand slid between Spock's thighs; they were sticky with semen from our last encounter. For just a moment I closed my eyes, and then I bent to kiss the small of his back. I felt his body tense, then relax, then clench with renewed desire.

"Wake up," I whispered. My lips were touching his ass. "Wake up and fuck me."

And he did, because it was what I wanted, what both of us craved more than life itself. In those weeks he gave me everything I needed, including his silence. We were, as I said, together, but we never discussed the future. We pretended the transport ticket in my luggage did not exist. And so it was that on the day we finally ran out of time, I found myself completely unprepared.

I was in the spare room packing my bag, a task I had left for the morning of my departure in an attempt to make our final evening together as routine as possible. Everything got tossed in willy-nilly, and when I had shoved in the last shirt and secured the clasp, I looked up to find Spock watching from the door.

"You look very handsome," he said.

I knew he meant the uniform. Though I would be travelling via commercial carrier and was technically still on leave, I had opted for an official presence in view of the proximity of Starbase 34. Spock was in uniform as well. After seeing me off, he was returning to duty for the first time in a week. I gave him a halfhearted smile.

"You look pretty handsome yourself."

"Would you like breakfast now?"

My stomach turned over at the thought of food. "Spock, I don't think I can.  You go ahead." I could tell by his expression that he was going to argue.

"But it is ready, and you should not leave without eating something. Please, at least help me finish the melon you insisted on buying yesterday."

"Well," I said, more tempted by his company than by the food, "maybe just that and some coffee. If you insist."

"You know," Spock replied, "that I do."

We sat in the kitchen. All the movable panels in the window wall were open, and the air drifting in from the garden was fresh and fragrant with morning. I swallowed what I could, noticing that Spock ate little more than I. In the midst of my general misery, I remember feeling overcome with regret that I had failed to act on my earlier impulse to buy him a gift in gratitude for his hospitality.  I know why I had not done it. Hell, I knew even then. Whatever my intentions, it would really have been...something to remember me by. I stared at the beds of trident stars, drooping now, their petals long since withered and gone gray. I wondered when they would bloom again, but knowing I would not be there to see it, was afraid to ask.

"Spock," I said finally, not looking at his face, "you do know I don't want to go, don't you?"

"Yes, I do. And you must know that I so wish you could stay."

"But I can't. You know that. There's my job and my family, such as it is. I can't just walk away from responsibilities like that, no matter how much I'd like to."

Spock said, "Of course you cannot." He was not looking at me, either.

"Now that Eileen is gone, I really only have my mother and Peter, and I don't see either of them as often as I'd like, but still...."

Spock reached over and took my hand; his fingers were so warm. "You do not have to explain your reasons," he said quietly. "I understand."

Then at least one of us did. It seemed to me that everything I'd ever wanted was within my grasp and I was busy throwing it all away. Feeling sick, I suddenly remembered what Admiral Goulet had said about Spock writing his own ticket to San Francisco. "You could come with me," I ventured, trying not to sound too hopeful. "Starfleet would be overjoyed to have you back at the Academy or doing whatever else you wanted. And you always liked living on Earth, didn't you? We could find a place of our own...."

Spock withdrew his hand. "I also have...obligations, both here and on Vulcan. Such a decision would require a great deal of thought."

Now I was embarrassed. "I realize that. I didn't mean - well, I guess it's something we both need to think about."

He did not reply to that, but got up and began to clear the table while I sat there feeling confused and incredibly useless. After a minute it got so quiet that I turned around to see what he was doing. He was standing by the sink with his back to me, just standing there, and then I felt afraid.

"Spock?" I began, but he shook his head.

"There is something I want you to know," he said, apparently struggling for words. "I...that is...." He turned around then, and our eyes met. "Jim, I love you. I love you with all my heart."

My wits deserted me along with my voice. Spock never said anything lightly. And I? I found myself regretting the unimpaired memory that allowed me to recall every woman to whom I had ever addressed the equivalent of those words. Spock was waiting for me to say something. I got up and went to him. I asked him to hold me, but could not for the life of me bring myself to say anything else, and we clung together in silence until it was time to go.

We caught a tube to the nearest transporter station and from there beamed to an orbital docking facility. The place was decidedly utilitarian, a vast circular space with offices and ticket counters in the center and a dozen docking ports around the perimeter. An information display listed my ship as currently boarding passengers at berth six with just over an hour remaining until departure. I checked in, deciding to hang onto my single bag, and Spock and I found seats with an unobstructed view of the port.

Our attempt at conversation did not last long. "I don't want to go aboard until I absolutely have to," I told him, "but I refuse to watch the chronometer. You'll have to tell me when."

Spock's only reaction to that bit of illogic was a nod. After that we sat without speaking, oblivious to everything but each other. Around us beings of every description hurried back and forth; I saw nothing but one Vulcan face. The terminal echoed with footsteps, voices, the distant whine of transporters; I heard only the words I still could not say. I love you, I kept thinking, knowing I should say it aloud, knowing every passing second brought us closer to the moment when it would be too late.

But I held my peace. And I was afraid.

Fear does not begin to describe what I felt when finally Spock stirred. "It is time," he said simply, and then he stood up and reached for my bag.

I practically grabbed it away from him. "I'll take it," I said. "Please, I want you to stay here. I don't want you to come with me to the port."

"Then I shall wish you a pleasant journey now. And I would appreciate a call when you reach Earth so I know you have arrived safely."

"Of course," I replied, only half listening. I wanted to touch him, to kiss him, to beg him to come with me. Had we been alone, who knows what I might have done? As it was, we shared a brief and thoroughly awkward hug before I turned without another word and walked away.

At the docking port I presented my boarding pass and went through the usual security and decontamination scans. When I stepped onto the ship itself, I was greeted by a steward who offered an escort to my cabin. He called me by name, which irritated me for some reason.

"Thanks," I said, "but I'm sure I can find my own way if you'll just point me in the right direction."

He did, and I joined the throng in the passageway leading to the interior of the ship. Presently we reached a main corridor, where I turned left toward the turbolift serving the section to which I was assigned. Once I bumped into someone. I apologized and tried to pay attention to where I was going, but it happened again before I had taken a dozen steps. That being, who was less than half my height, had a florid complexion and wiry yellow hair fairly bristling with annoyance. He huffed something in a language I did not understand, and after that I slowed my pace as I negotiated what seemed the endless distance to the place where I could be alone.

Before I reached the turbolift I faltered completely to a stop. I was actually going to go through with it, I realized, and in that moment I knew the thing I was doing was wrong. Sick and alone, I stood in that crowded corridor while passengers and crew jostled past, all in a hurry, all going somewhere or away from somewhere, just as I was. A voice spoke from the muted gray walls: ten minutes to departure. I abandoned my bag - dropped it and left it where it fell - and ran back the way I had come. At the docking port I pushed my way through a thinning flow of bodies and grabbed the startled steward by the arm.

"I've forgotten something - something terribly important. I have to disembark. I should only be a few minutes."

"But, Admiral, sir, there isn't much time - "

"I know. I'm sorry, but this is urgent. Please, I - please ask them to wait." And not waiting for an answer, I ran down the ramp and into the vast, echoing vault of the terminal.

Spock was standing where I had left him a few minutes before. He looked alarmed at my sudden appearance. Breathless and shaking, I took his face in my hands, that beautiful face for which I would gladly die a thousand deaths, and made good my omission before he had a chance to speak.

"I love you," I said. "I love you more than I've ever loved anything in my life. God knows why I couldn't say it before. It was a foolish mistake, and I couldn't leave without putting it right. I couldn't bear to have you think that all I want is your body for sex. It's you I love, Spock. All of you. You're the best part of who I am. I just - I wanted you to know."

He looked at me, a little puzzled, a little sad, and only when he lifted his hands to wipe my cheeks did I realize I was crying.

"But I do know that," he said. "I have known it for years. The proof has been there at every turn. It was I who for a long time refused to acknowledge it, but not even a Vulcan could remain blind to such feeling forever. Certainly I knew on Mount Seleya. Can you imagine what it meant to me, newly reborn, to know that you loved me without reservation and without counting the cost? Even if you no longer cared for me now, it would not matter. There are some debts I can never repay."

"God, no, don't say that! I do love you.I'll always love you. Always."

I watched his eyes, waiting for him to be sure, and then I pulled his head down and kissed him, deep and long and hard enough to bruise his mouth. We kissed there in that public place with the eyes of strangers on us: some curious, some embarrassed, some approving, others shocked by our nimbus of desire. With that hard body against mine, I would not have cared had Admiral Goulet herself appeared. And neither, I believe, would Spock.

"I have to go," I gasped when we separated to breathe. "I have to, but I swear I'll be back. I promise I'll call you on subspace the minute I get home."

Spock said nothing for a moment. Then he bent toward me, gently turning my head. His mouth covered my whole ear.

"I love you, Jim," he whispered.

I pulled free and ran while I still could. I was going toward the future, I told myself, a future bright and mysterious as an undiscovered star.

That trip to Earth seemed endless. I hardly left my cabin except to eat when I got hungry enough, which wasn't often. Mostly I sat by myself, trying to figure out if I had finally lost my mind or finally found it. When I got nowhere with that, I thought about Spock. I replayed every moment we had spent together, remembering his words, the taste of his mouth, the feel of those hands on my body. It was usually enough to make me hard. More than once I lay down in the dark and let my own hand do for me what my absent lover could not.

When the ship docked, I went straight home. Once again I dumped my bag on the floor, and was requesting a subspace transmission to Hreldor almost before the door closed behind me. I reached Spock at home; much later he admitted taking the day off to wait for my call. He looked almost as miserable as I felt. I don't remember much of what we talked about. I do know that by the time we signed off I had formulated the plan that eluded me all those days aboard ship.

I scheduled an appointment with the commanding admiral. When I walked into his office two days later, it was with the absolute certainty that I was doing the right thing.

"Sir," I said when the pleasantries were over, "I have come to request the kind of favor I haven't asked for since Heihachiro Nogura sat in that chair." I paused for breath. Andrew Chelstrom looked surprised but not inclined to interrupt, so I plunged ahead. "Admiral Goulet of Starbase 34 is very interested in a promotion to 'Fleet HQ. One might even say she's...anxious to get here. To put it bluntly, Drew, the next time a suitable opening comes up, I'd like to see her get it. And when she does, I want command of Starbase 34."

"Good lord," was Chelstrom's first response. Then, "Didn't you just come back from Hreldor? Suppose you tell me what this is all about."

"I'm afraid it's...personal."

Chelstrom's look hardened into one of annoyance. "You're going to have to do better than that, Jim. Angelique Goulet has been under consideration for three promotions in the last five years, and it wouldn't be all that much out of the way to finally let her have one. The trouble is, granting your request would also mean I'd lose a damn near irreplaceable First Contact officer. Before I let that happen, I need to know why."

To be honest, I hadn't really considered that part of it at all. "Hell, Drew," I blustered, "nobody's irreplaceable, not even me. Maybe I've just been in this job too long. Maybe I need a change."

"Bull. You still have to do better than that."

"Look, when you promote Admiral Goulet, you'll have to fill her post at the starbase anyway. Why not give it to me? I'd do a good job for you. You know I would."

"I don't doubt it, but that's not the point. There are a lot more officers out there who qualify for sector command than there are who are ready to tackle the responsibilities you have now."

"So? That doesn't mean there aren't any." Chelstrom appeared unmoved; I gritted my teeth and played my trump card. "I know how this is going to sound, but the fact is I'm ready to retire from active service right now if that's what it takes. I never planned on retiring this early, but there are worse things that could happen. A lot worse. I have a hunch I'll be able to keep myself busy."

"On Hreldor? You mean you'd move out there even without a command? Jim, what in blazes does that place have that Earth doesn't?"

I didn't know how to answer that, so I looked away. I think I actually blushed. The next thing I knew, Chelstrom was sitting back in his chair with a grin on his face, answering his own question.

"I'll be damned," he said. "After all this time. It's Spock, isn't it? Why didn't you say so in the first place?"

"Well, it's...not exactly the sort of thing I'm usually called on to explain."

"So it isn't," the admiral allowed. He was still smiling. "Don't get me wrong, Jim. I'm not laughing at you. On the contrary, I'm very happy for you. It's just that back when you got married, I had an adjutant on my staff who had served aboard the Enterprise for several years while you were in command. That person, who shall remain nameless, let slip that she had always hoped you and Spock would eventually get together. Everybody knew Spock was bonded. Even so, when you announced your engagement, I think she was downright disappointed."

Like a fool I sat there racking my brains, trying to recall whom I had known in the CIC's office ten years before. I never have figured it out, and I don't quite have the guts to ask for access to the top level personnel files. Spock might know or be willing to find out, but I can't quite bring myself to ask him, either. Anyway, I don't really care who it was. What I would like to know is what she saw that neither of us did until so much later, and how many other members of my crew were speculating about a relationship we never even dreamed of at the time.

Suffice it to say, within twelve months I had what I wanted. That was one of the longest years of my life, but the wait was worth it. Spock and I talked at least once a week, and I made the run out to Hreldor a couple of times when I could scrape together enough time off. Once he even showed up at my door, and I mean literally. Unannounced. He had told me he was going on a research mission, which he did from time to time, and then I answered my door after dinner one evening, and there he was. That was...God, I can't begin to describe it. I don't know how long we stood there, just holding onto each other and not saying a word. It was like we couldn't get close enough. Later when we went to bed, even making love wasn't enough. That was the night he touched my mind for the first time. That is, it was the first time in years, and the first time it wasn't because of duty or some dire emergency.

I'm sorry - I'm sorry, but I can't talk about this any more. I thought I could, but some things...I mean, can you imagine what it's like not only to hear someone say they love you, but to actually feel it with them? It's indescribable. Indescribable! One thing I can tell you, though, is that it made the last four months we spent apart a good deal more bearable than the first eight had been. Not that I ever doubted what either of us wanted, but the absolute certainty brought with it a peace beyond anything I could have imagined.

Spock only stayed for a couple of days, but we did find time to discuss a few things that had been bothering me. He convinced me, for one thing, that I should have a talk with my mother before I left Earth. I knew that, of course, but hadn't quite been able to bring myself to do it. Mom was not at all well at the time. A couple of years before, she had finally sold the house that was the only thing left of the Kirk family farm and moved into a retirement community up in the Greater Chicago Metro. I guess she was okay with that - two of her younger brothers lived right nearby, and Peter was in Toronto - but it seemed that she had failed a little more each time I saw her. And Eileen's death hit her so hard. I just kept thinking, if only she knew Spock better. If only I had told her a long time ago how truly important he was to me. Though how I could have told my mother something I hardly knew myself, I don't know.

Anyway, I finally did go to see her. I told her...hell, I told her the truth: that I was in love again, that I was moving offworld to be with a person I felt I couldn't live without. I got the impression that she didn't really understand when I told her who it was. When Peter called a few days later to ask what was all this about me marrying a woman from Rigel, I was sure. I explained as best I could, and he seemed at least as relieved as he was surprised. To tell you the truth, though, to this day I'm not quite sure what my nephew makes of us. He keeps in touch and has been out to visit a few times, but I can tell he's not entirely comfortable. Maybe it's because of what happened at Deneva. Peter had a bad case of hero worship for Spock for a long time after that. It's always hard to find that your heroes are...only human after all.

I had also promised to pay a visit to McCoy. Flabbergasted would probably best describe the good doctor's reaction. Once he recovered from the initial shock, I recall mention of losing my mind and going off the deep end. By the time he got around to "Why couldn't that blasted Vulcan have figured this out a long time ago and saved me a lot of aggravation?" I knew he was going to be all right.

If I was apprehensive about informing those closest to me of the change in life-style I was planning, I was just plain terrified by the confrontations in store for Spock. Amanda had died suddenly some years before, and I never felt more badly about it than I did then. I remain convinced that she would have received the news of our relationship with a good deal of joy. She had, after all, a lifetime of experience with a marriage as unconventional by human standards as it was by Vulcan ones, and she understood perhaps better than anyone the inadequacy of traditional Vulcan arrangements when it came to meeting the emotional needs of her son.

The last time I saw Amanda was in San Francisco, not long after Spock and T'Kehr were bonded. Sarek was there for a UFP diplomatic conference; his wife had accompanied him as she often did. She and I had lunch, I believe, and in the course of the conversation I mentioned how happy I was for Spock. I'll never forget the look on her face.

"I wouldn't say this to another living soul," she confided, "but it breaks my heart to see him involved in another bonding strictly out of necessity. Oh, I believe that T'Kehr is sincere enough. I'm sure she will honor her commitment. But I had so hoped that my son would meet someone with whom he truly wished to share his life. A fellow Starfleet officer, perhaps. Someone who wanted him and not only his name."

I could not help thinking of T'Pring, who had wanted neither; of Christine Chapel and Leila Kalomi, who had desired both; of the Romulan commander, who would have taken his soul. "He deserves more," I agreed, not caring if I stuck my foot in my mouth. "Would it make you feel better or worse to know that he used to break hearts on planets from one end of this quadrant to the other? On the Enterprise, too. When women look at me like that, I usually give in. Spock always showed a professional restraint I rather admired."

Amanda was smiling by that time, but she was blushing, too. "It was most improper of me to have said what I did. My husband would be scandalized if he knew. And Spock - please, Jim, promise you will not mention this to him."

I promised. I kept it, too. But I know that if Amanda were alive today, she would rejoice in the knowledge that her son has found what he needed at last.

That, of course, leaves Sarek, who to my way of thinking grows more formidable with each passing year. "I could go with you," I told Spock at the time. "Maybe it would be better if he heard this from both of us." Actually I thought nothing of the kind. I just hated to think of Spock facing that particular ordeal alone.

Fortunately he saw right through me. He would deal with it himself, he said. He had already invited his father to visit Hreldor, hoping to gain a psychological advantage by making Sarek the guest and the one who would be forced to retreat should he take strenuous exception to the news Spock intended to impart almost as soon as his father arrived.

"There is no right time," he said in response to my objection. "I shall tell him at once. If he chooses to make a scene and then leave, so be it. If, however, he elects to stay, we will at least have a few days to talk things over."

Believe it or not, that's more or less what happened. Sarek heard him out, Spock told me afterwards. Then he pointed out the moral implications of transgressing a marriage bond by engaging in an "illicit sexual affair." And finally, miracle of miracles, he told his son that the way he conducts his personal life is his own concern.

Make no mistake, Sarek does not approve. I doubt he ever will. But I think he wishes he could. Despite the stormy years of Spock's early career in Starfleet, Sarek's relationship with his son has long been one of affection and mutual respect. I for one am grateful that it withstood - and continues to withstand - yet another difficult test.

Spock's bonding to T'Kehr endures as well. It's hard to explain what I feel about that. Mostly I try not to think about it. That day in San Francisco though, I was outraged when Spock told me he felt obliged to inform his bondmate of our relationship.

"She must be told," he said. "This concerns her as well."

"But you can't just go to your wife and tell her you're having an affair!"

"I can, Jim, and I must. Even if I do not, she will know soon enough. Though our bond is not profound and we are quite adept at shielding from one another, she will see everything in my mind the next time we are together. There is no way to prevent that."

"You mean you can only shield when you're far away from each other?"

Spock took my hands then; his eyes looked so sad. "No," he whispered, "that is not what I mean. There are times when the control required for mental separation is simply not possible. When next I am forced to return to Vulcan, I shall have...no control at all."

I remember feeling like I'd been kicked in the gut. "Oh, my God. You'll go to her, won't you? The next time you're in pon farr. Why, for God's sake? I'll be there for you, Spock. I'll always be there!"

"I know, but this you cannot do. T'Kehr and I are bonded; the connection will be broken only when one of us dies. The sort of divorce you witnessed between T'Pring and myself is possible only before a permanent bond is established. Once bonded, a couple has exactly two options: to live together or to live apart. T'Kehr and I chose the latter before we ever consummated our union. Except for parental responsibilities and certain legal obligations, our lives are truly our own. But during my Time, my very life depends on her willingness to help me."

By that time I was nearly in tears. I let him hold me and I tried to understand, but right then I just couldn't. All I could see was Spock in bed with a woman he didn't love, giving her his body, his mind...everything I had thought belonged to me. "Why?" I pleaded again. "Why can't you come to me instead?"

Spock hardly seemed to breathe. "Because," he admitted finally, "during pon farr it is my bondmate I will desire, not you."

It took me a very long time to understand how hard it was for him to say that. Certainly it was years before I believed it. A little more than two, to be exact, at which time I should have seen it coming. In retrospect the symptoms were plain enough, but both of us stubbornly ignored them until the day I came home from work to find Spock in a shivering heap on our bed. It was almost four days to Vulcan by shuttle. I engaged the autopilot and sat close to Spock, letting him know I was there, convinced that any minute he would demand the use of my body. He never did. I was more or less holding him up by the time we beamed down to a beautiful house in ShiKahr. The woman who came to the door was equally lovely, but all I saw was the relief on my lover's face when he went into her arms, the way his mouth unerringly found her breast.

T'Kehr stared at me over his bowed head. "He will contact you when it is over," she said. Then she closed the door.

That...was when I believed.

But it's really not as bad as I'm making it out to be. Spock's cycle runs on the high side of average, after all. That means one week out of every eight or nine years that we don't enjoy intimacy to rival that of Beylo and Givauden Roure in the Orion Ecstatic Song. Damn - I'm being glib again. I hate it when I do that; so does Spock. But sometimes I just can't help myself, I suppose because facing the truth leads to such an unfortunate sense of regret.

I know because I once put the question to Spock when I couldn't stand another day of wondering what might have been had we - as Bones put it - figured out what we wanted a long time ago. "Could you and I have bonded?" I asked. "Could it have been for us the way it is now between you and T'Kehr?"

We were in our garden watching dusk creep among the blooms, waiting for the night-violets to unfurl their luminescent petals. Though we sat close enough to touch, it was too dark to read the expression on Spock's face. I could feel his warmth beside me, though. That incredible Vulcan heat. My hands clenched to fists in my lap.

Spock's breath was quiet; he did not ask what I meant. "We could have shared everything," he said simply. Then I felt him gather himself to stand.

I stopped him with a touch. "No," I said, "don't. I love you. I love what we have. I just...needed to know."

To this day we have never spoken of it again. But later that night he came into my mind as he came into my body, showing me all the depths of his passion, his tenderness, his contentment. If in my darker moments I can still regret the years we spent merely together when we could have been one, can still envy a woman I hardly know her rightful hold on the mind I love, at least I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Spock long ago put such feelings aside. The past cannot be changed; the future cannot be known; the present is ours to enjoy. Logic can be a comfort after all.

And T'Kehr? What shall I say of her? She is, I believe, somewhat older than Spock. Certainly her beauty is a good deal more comfortable than the icy perfection that is all I remember of T'Pring. She is a loving mother to her only child; she has always been civil to me. Spock insists that she accepts his need to seek emotional fulfillment outside their bond. Finally - and this is perhaps the highest tribute I can pay - I am told that Amanda came to consider her a friend.

During the first years that Spock and I were together, T'Kehr's presence was regularly felt in our lives. She and Spock were raising a child, after all, and he continued to visit Vulcan several times a year. I did not go along. It was bad enough to answer incoming calls on our residential commlink and find T'Kehr on the other end. "Good evening, Admiral," she would say. (Or, "Good morning." She always seemed to know what time it was on Hreldor.) "I trust you are well. If you please, I find it necessary to speak with Spock."

Their conversations were in Vulcan, but Spock always filled me in later. Usually it was something about T'Manda: a decision to be made regarding a new school, a request from her future betrothed's parents for their own healer to establish the bond, once news of a mishap during a ten-kilometer relay race that resulted in a broken leg. There were family matters, too. It was T'Kehr who informed us when T'Pau died, and when the clan demanded an accounting of Spock's personal assets before they would approve Sarek's request to transfer control of certain family lands to his son.

When T'Manda was fourteen, a conversation took place I knew nothing about. The next time Spock went to Vulcan, he and T'Kehr sat down with their daughter and explained about us. They told her everything, after which T'Manda had nothing to say. She got up and walked out of the room; she has not spoken to her father since. As I said before, it remains his greatest sorrow.

Is it hard to live with that? Of course it is, sometimes. Do I blame myself? No. Spock won't let me. The thing is, I am also privy to his greatest joy. That I see every day - every time he looks at me or touches me or kisses me, every single time we make love.

It's almost fifteen years that we've been together, and when you come right down to it, I wouldn't trade a single minute of those years for anything. We still live in that wonderful little house, though it looks a bit different now than the first time I saw it. There are a number of Terran antiques in evidence for one thing, even in our bedroom. I told Spock that since sleep would never again be the most interesting thing to happen there, we might as well make that room as appealing as the others. That was one argument he made no attempt to win.

For a while the extra bedroom was jammed with things we felt could not tastefully be displayed elsewhere, including the bulk of my collection of clocks. That lasted until we had our first overnight guest: McCoy, wouldn't you know. He informed us in no uncertain terms that no sane person could sleep through so much ticking and wheezing and chiming, and that either the clocks had to go or he would. Needless to say, I shut them all down. Not long afterward, I started to sell them. I figure it was just as well. Possessions, even rare and valuable ones, don't mean nearly as much to me as they once did, and disposing of them myself was better than leaving such a disagreeable task for Spock.

Not that I'm planning on dying any time soon, mind you. I have a lot of years left. I know I do. Productive ones, too, which is why I still can't bring myself to retire. Besides, I have the luxury of not having to worry about creeping senility or missing the signs that it's time to quit. A long time ago I made Spock promise to tell me if he sees them before I do. In the meantime, I have him and I have the stars - well, more or less. It's not command of a starship, but I do enjoy a reputation that actually brings people to me for advice, and it's a rare training cruise that doesn't include a stop at Starbase 34 so the old man can address the cadets. They scare me sometimes, all those children with their whole lives ahead of them. I want to tell them, don't make the same mistakes I did. Don't give up what makes you happy without a damn good fight. But I never say that. Instead I say that the universe is essentially a mystery, and that the more we discover, the more we find how much we have to learn.

Love the truth, I tell them, but don't be afraid to look for it in unexpected places. And above all, don't ever be afraid to let it find you.

It's a good thing most days around here are nowhere near this slow; this sort of introspective nonsense on company time could get to be a habit. On the other hand, I'm the one who runs this show, and I'll more than make up for the indulgence tomorrow. Reliant is due in sometime before noon, and we expect to have our hands full. She's been limping in this general direction ever since she took a beating in an ion storm a couple of weeks back. A repair crew is already on board; they say the damage is bad. That means our maintenance facility will be working overtime for a while, but I'm sure it's nothing they can't handle.

The task of dealing with the Klingon observers from the Pan-Galactic Cultural Exchange, on the other hand, will fall squarely on me. Eight of them, I believe there are. They're aboard Reliant for a firsthand look at Starfleet's day-to-day implementation of Federation policy, including the Prime Directive; while the ship lays over here, they'll be my guests. I already told Spock to consider himself invited to every official function we have planned, and to some of the unofficial ones besides. Since he considers this such a splendid educational opportunity, he can damn well help me take advantage of it - though I'm not quite clear on who's expected to get the education, them or us. It's too bad they're not scientists so I could ship the lot of them to McDowell for the duration.

But that's not until tomorrow. This afternoon Spock is here at the starbase for staff evaluations; he'll be stopping by to pick me up when he's through. We'll go home and have dinner, and then three aficionados of the Vulcan harp are coming over for an evening of informal music-making. They're local musician friends of Spock's, and two of them play almost as well as he does. My own role of appreciative audience requires no practice at all. I'm always glad when they find time to get together, because I've learned - ah, but now you'll have to excuse me.

Spock, my love, you're early....

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