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The United Federation of Planets’ secure conference center on the neutral planetoid known as Alpha-Y40B stands in the middle of a vast, nearly featureless sand plain. The sprawling structure’s outer perimeter of floor-to-ceiling duraplast windows affords an excellent view of the surrounding desert and its backdrop of dull ochre sky, though James Kirk cannot help wishing for a more appealing landscape.

“It sort of reminds me of Rigel XII,” he says. “Harry Mudd and his blasted Venus drug and feeling as though I’d swallowed at least a bucketful of grit.” Outside the wind rises as if on cue, obscuring the plain behind a curtain of swirling sand. “Are you sure we’re protected inside this place?”

Beside him, Spock clasps his hands behind his back as he considers their earlier briefing. “Quite sure. The atmosphere is neither corrosive nor biologically harmful, merely uncomfortable for most humanoid species. Simple climate control appears to have been the architect’s main objective in designing the conference center. As for Rigel XII, this planetoid’s similarities are superficial only. In fact the composition of the rock here appears to be quite different, and the winds are decidedly more variable, rarely achieving the intensity of—”

“All right,” Kirk breaks in, “so it doesn’t blow a gale twenty-four – no, wait. How many hours in a day here?”

“Seventeen point two eight six Standard.”

“Right. So here maybe it doesn’t blow seventeen point…whatever hours a day. It’s still windy and there’s one hell of a lot of sand out there.” He glances sideways at the Vulcan. “Am I right, Science Officer?”

Spock straightens with apparent indignation, but a hint of a smile shows in his eyes. “Your comments are imprecise and largely subjective, but of course I entirely agree…Captain.”

Laughing, Kirk turns and strolls away, trailing his fingers along the smooth inner surface of the duraplast. “I’m really more interested in the security features. An uninhabited planetoid, impenetrable force fields, access only by beaming on a frequency designated by the conference participants.” He stops and leans against the window. “In other words, complete isolation.”

The Vulcan nods. “Indeed.”

“And once the negotiations begin, they can be expected to last….”

“Perhaps four days.”

“Ah, yes. Four times seventeen point…however many hours. An eternity in the life of an overworked starship captain.” He smiles. “And how long has it been since you and I have had more than a couple of hours to ourselves?”

Spock knows – to the fraction of a minute – but resists the obvious quote. Instead he crosses the room to stand within arm’s length of his bondmate.

“Too long,” he says.

Kirk’s eyes darken to the color of wet sand. “Now I entirely agree. And here we are, all alone with nothing to do but stand by in the highly unlikely event of an emergency.”

“We will hardly be alone. The Kessubite and Wl’lre’ln delegations number twelve persons each. Once they beam down—”

“They will immediately enter the inner sanctum, seal themselves in, and become immersed in thorny and engrossing treaty negotiations. Which means, my dear Mister Spock, that for all intents and purposes you and I will in fact be quite alone.”

Spock inclines his head. “Perhaps you are right. At the same time, I would not want to overlook the obvious facts.”

“Oh, come on,” Kirk says with a hint of irritation. “They’ll literally be sealed in the negotiating chambers and their own suites of living quarters, won’t they? If even one of them decides to come out before they either reach an agreement or call off the talks, enough alarms will go off to wake the dead. And surely our quarters in the outer ring are also equipped with privacy—”

Spock unclasps his hands and silences the human by laying a finger across his lips. “I was not referring to those facts.”

Kirk goes very still. “Which ones, then?”

“The fact that until our passengers beam down, you and I are the only beings on this entire planetoid.”

For a breathless moment they simply look at one another, Kirk leaning into the touch that draws him like gravity.

“For how long?” he asks finally.

Spock’s expression is rueful. “Not long enough.”

Kirk jerks his head away. “Then you shouldn’t be touching me like that. God, Spock, do you have any idea how much I want to make love to you right now?”

Spock’s hand falls to his side, fingers curling in on themselves. “Yes, as badly as I wish to kiss you.”

Torn between common sense and desire, Kirk hesitates, resisting an impulse to glance around to make sure they are unobserved. “All right, but no hands. Just your mouth, the way you did it that time on the observation deck.”

Spock’s only reply is a dark look, but he replaces both hands behind his back before leaning in to capture the human’s mouth with his own.

The kiss takes Kirk’s breath away. He surrenders to overwhelming pleasure, at the same time fighting the instinct to wrap both arms around the Vulcan and pull their bodies together. The no hands rule applies to him as well, and the memory of the last time they played such a game is enough to hold him still. He remembers the Enterprise observation deck awash in starlight, and Spock’s mouth everywhere on his body – an insistent exploration calculated to inflame precisely because both of them had remained fully clothed. I know your body beneath these garments, the touches had seemed to say, and the power of suggestion had Kirk hard and ready so that he came at the first press of lips to his captive penis. He remembered breaking the silence with a wordless cry, which also broke the spell as they went to the floor in a tangled embrace, where Spock had unsealed his own trousers and pressed his erection into his captain’s hand….

With a shudder, Kirk shakes free of the compelling memory. Their present circumstances permit no such loss of control, and he returns the kiss with a sigh of regret.

“We can’t do this here,” he says when Spock pauses to breathe, but whatever reply his partner might have made is forestalled by a sudden beeping noise. Startled, the two men jerk apart, and Kirk pulls the communicator from his belt with a crooked smile. “Serves us right,” he mutters before he flips it open, but his eyes warm even as he turns from indulgence to duty and becomes the captain again. “Kirk here.”

“Uhura, sir,” comes the filtered reply. “The Ceremony of Concordance has just concluded, and both delegations are now being escorted to their respective transporter rooms. Beam-down should commence in a few minutes.”

“Excellent. Any problems, Lieutenant?”

“None that I could see. I was a little worried about what might happen once the two groups came face to face in the same room, but the formality of the ceremony seemed to diffuse the tension. It went off without a hitch as far as I could tell.” A wry note creeps into Uhura’s voice. “All seven hours of it.”

Kirk laughs, and the Vulcan’s raised brow only adds to his good humor. Now, he thinks, all they have to do is see the Kessubites and Wl’lre’ln safely into the negotiating chambers, and he and Spock can start enjoying four blissful days of uninterrupted privacy.

“You have my sympathy,” he says aloud, “and my congratulations. Your arrangements must have been perfect. I knew you were the right person for the job.”

“Thank you, sir,” Uhura replies. “It was an interesting challenge. For populations with a shared heritage, these two groups sure don’t seem to have much in common except for being hard to please. I’m just relieved that the ceremony didn’t turn into a brawl over the intensity of the lighting or the arrangement of the ceremonial goblets.”

Kirk can’t help but grin. “Amen to that. Take the rest of the day off. You deserve it. And tell the transporter chief to beam down our guests whenever they’re ready. Kirk out.”

“A note of commendation in Lieutenant Uhura’s service record may be in order,” Spock suggests as Kirk stows his communicator. “As I recall, the Federation representative who proposed this journey was none too certain that the two groups actually could be brought to the negotiating table.”

Kirk nods. “Good idea. And whether she knows it or not, Uhura also gets an additional, very personal commendation from me.” At his first officer’s questioning look, Kirk shrugs. “Our time together is courtesy of these negotiations, and believe me, I intend to make the most of it.”

“I see. Then may I suggest that we begin to enjoy our privacy by picking up where we left off a few moments ago?”

“Another excellent suggestion. No wonder I keep you around.” Giving in to the need to touch, Kirk reaches out and briefly clasps his Vulcan’s hand. “But right now we’d better get out there before I forget we still have official duties to perform.”

With that he turns and leads the way from the conference center’s outer ring to its wide interior corridor. Near the entrance to the central suite of negotiating rooms, the corridor opens into a spacious reception area furnished with groupings of comfortable chairs in muted pastel colors. So large is the area that it appears neither crowded nor cluttered despite having a seating capacity of at least one hundred humanoids. In fact, Kirk thinks as he and Spock make their way to an open space in front of the doors to the central suite, the overall effect is reminiscent of a garden in an old-Earth Impressionist painting.

“The Wl’lre’ln are going to love this place,” he says as they take up positions near the doors, “but I’m not so sure about the Kessubites.”

The Vulcan considers that for a moment. “I assume you are referring to the decor. The Kessubites do indeed have a noticeably flamboyant style. I have wondered if the Wl’lre’ln will find themselves overmatched once the talks begin.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t count on it. Sometimes a quiet exterior conceals the most passion.” Kirk’s lips quirk in a smile. “You know what they say about still waters.”

Before Spock can decide how to respond to such gentle teasing, a transporter whine announces the arrival of the first members of the delegations. In less than a minute, all twenty-four Enterprise passengers are present and expectantly watching the two Starfleet officers. Kirk clears his throat and steps forward to deliver a prescribed and carefully rehearsed speech.

“On behalf of Starfleet Command and the United Federation of Planets, welcome to the Alpha-Y40B Conference Center. Delegates from the Kessubite Union, delegates from Wl’lre’ln-che: having completed in good faith a binding Ceremony of Concordance, you are here enjoined to begin negotiations for the purpose of establishing just and equitable peace in the Zeta Rho planetary system.” He pauses while Spock turns to a nearby control panel and keys in an access code. As the double doors swing open, Kirk makes eye contact with the leader of each delegation. “Be assured that this facility is secure and that you are free to devote yourselves entirely to the negotiations at hand. Enter now, and emerge only when accord has been reached.”

Feeling slightly silly, Kirk next bows toward each group in turn as he has been instructed. The delegates, however, appear delighted.

“Very well spoken, Captain!” exclaims Carina Enfor, the chief negotiator for the Kessubites. With a flourish she adjusts the turquoise veils trailing from her headdress of scarlet feathers, while all around her a vigorous nodding of heads sets up a motion not unlike a dozen multi-colored flags.

Her Wl’lre’ln counterpart nods as well, but solemnly, the gesture of a man whose every movement is carefully considered. “Indeed, Captain,” Benner el-Zoren murmurs. “Well said.”

Repressing a smile, Kirk steps aside and indicates the open doors. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please.”

Without further ado, the delegates begin to file into the inner chambers, the Kessubites noisily through the left-hand door and the Wl’lre’ln silently through the right. The two groups certainly are a study in contrast, Kirk thinks. Next to the flamboyant Kessubites, the bare-headed Wl’lre’ln in their modest clothing of gray and brown and soft blue look for all the world like members of a monastic order. Their differences are all the more striking given the fact that both peoples are of the same humanoid species, which originated on the fourth planet of the Zeta Rho system. When inter-planetary space flight was developed and Zeta Rho V was discovered to be habitable, nearly a quarter of the population eventually left their homes to colonize the neighboring world. Calling themselves Wl’lre’ln – Winds of Freedom – they took with them memories of long-term political strife with the Kessubite ruling class, and distrust of the homeworld grew even as their own society prospered.

Now, some three hundred years later, the Kessubites face severe shortages of a number of industrial raw materials, most of which are abundant on Zeta Rho V. The Kessubites claim unrestricted mining rights anywhere in the planetary system; the Wl’lre’ln, declaring themselves autonomous rulers of their own world, insist that their resources can be collected only with their permission. The disagreement that began as a war of words quickly escalated until the two planets teetered on the verge of armed conflict. Though neither belongs to the United Federation of Planets, cooler heads in both governments recognized the devastation that full-scale war might unleash and eventually convinced their leaders to ask for Federation assistance.

That request had been made nearly two years earlier, and the road to negotiation has been a thorny one. Disagreement after disagreement over logistics threatened to derail the entire process. In the meantime, both governments continued to develop planetary defense systems, and the fragile peace has been threatened by frequent skirmishes between Kessubite and Wl’lre’ln patrol ships. Faced with insurmountable obstacles of protocol and strenuous objections to every proposed mediator, the Federation representative finally turned to an in-depth study of Kessubite history in an attempt to understand the complex social dynamics of the two groups. His efforts bore fruit when he played a hunch and suggested that negotiations be conducted sans mediator at a neutral site, with both sides pledged to observe ancient ceremony and rules of dispute resolution. The ritual-loving Kessubites and Wl’lre’ln readily embraced the idea of reviving traditions that predated their modern civilization, the Federation envoy was hailed as a visionary, and the delicate business of arranging the details began.

“History in the making,” Kirk murmurs as the last of the delegates passes into the inner chambers. He glances at Spock, who is already keying in the code to close and seal the doors. When every security telltale on the panel glows green, Kirk breathes a sigh of relief. Without another word he turns and sets an unhurried pace across the reception area and along the corridor to their quarters in the outer ring. Their rooms are comfortable, if somewhat utilitarian, but Kirk’s only thought as they step into the combined living and dining area is for their welcome privacy and the ample double bed in the sleeping area behind the next door.

“Alone at last,” he says, smiling at the Vulcan’s somber expression. “The food synthesizers appear to be programmed with the usual Federation selections. Could I interest you in a glass of Corian wine?”

Spock inclines his head, pleased that Kirk remembers the beverage they discovered during their last shore leave. “White, please.”

Kirk’s smile widens. “How did I know you were going to say that?” He goes to the tiny galley and studies the synthesizer controls. After a moment he punches in a code and watches as two stemmed glasses brimming with pale golden liquid appear in the dispenser. He picks one up and sips, nodding with satisfaction at the delicate flavor, and is reaching for the second glass when he senses a warm presence at his back.

“Spock?” he says without turning. The only reply is a kiss pressed against his neck, then another behind his ear. Kirk closes his eyes, does not open them even when cool wine sloshes over his fingers. “We won’t be drinking this if you keep it up, you know,” he manages and is not surprised to feel the glass removed from his hand.

“Perhaps later would be better,” the Vulcan says.

With a slow pulse of arousal already heavy in his limbs, Kirk couldn’t agree more. “Later,” he murmurs. “But I’m afraid I spilled some.”

Spock says nothing for a moment, then Kirk feels himself being turned and his hand captured and lifted between them. Their eyes meet before the Vulcan bends over his hand to lick at the sweet sheen of moisture.

“Oh god,” Kirk moans. When the warm tongue reaches the tender place between his fingers, his resolve to hold himself still evaporates. “I need to kiss you,” he says, and in a heartbeat they are locked in a desperate embrace.

With the mingled taste of wine and Vulcan spice filling his mouth, Kirk surrenders to the erotic sensation of the body pressed against his own. Again and again they kiss, breathing together in unconscious rhythm, so perfectly attuned that Kirk’s hands are sliding under his bondmate’s shirt at the very moment that Spock’s fingers begin to grip his ass.

When the first alarm sounds, it takes several seconds for Kirk to realize that the noise is external and not the frenzied rush of his own blood. Dizzily he pulls back, finds shocked realization mirrored in the Vulcan’s eyes.

“Flaming son of a—” Kirk shakes his head; his mouth feels stuffed with cotton. He licks his lips and tries again. “Is that what I think it is?”

“The doors to the negotiating chambers have been opened,” Spock confirms, his own voice none too steady. Even as he speaks, a second alarm joins the first, followed by the shrill, intermittent note of a third. “Or breached. Jim….”

But Kirk already is moving, grabbing the phasers they had laid ready on a table just inside the door and tossing one to Spock. The Vulcan scoops up his tricorder as well and then they are back in the corridor, running this time, Kirk praying that command training combined with a large dose of adrenaline will be enough to quell his raging arousal. Spock is having similar thoughts about Vulcan discipline, and by the time they burst into the reception area, they’re breathless and somewhat disheveled, but more or less in control.

Both men pull up short, scanning the room for signs of an intruder. Next they look for evidence that the two Zeta Rho factions have already come to blows; but though the inner doors are indeed standing open and the delegates milling excitedly about, nothing else appears to be amiss.

Kirk’s brows draw together in a scowl. “What the hell,” he says tightly.

Beside him, Spock has lowered his phaser. “May I suggest that a conversation with Benner el-Zoren and Carina Enfor might be in order?”

Kirk merely grunts in reply before setting off at a jog toward the two leaders who, having caught sight of the Starfleet officers, are beckoning with frantic gestures. With the Vulcan at his heels, Kirk crosses the reception area, deftly negotiating the obstacle course of furniture and finally skidding to a halt before the wide-eyed Zeta Rho leaders.

“It’s quite dreadful, Captain!” cries Carina Enfor before Kirk can even open his mouth. “The talks cannot possibly take place under such conditions.”

Beside her, Benner el-Zoren is wringing his hands. “I am forced to agree with my esteemed opponent. The conditions are dreadful.”

“Conditions?” Kirk snaps. “What conditions? Did something happen? Why did you leave the negotiating chambers?”

“Nothing happened,” Carina Enfor replies, but words seem to fail her at that point. Clapping one hand over her mouth, she shakes her head with a great waving of veils and feathers. “You had better go see for yourselves. By all the fires of Zeta, it’s really quite dreadful!”

“Quite dreadful,” echoes Benner el-Zoren. “We absolutely will not return to the negotiating table until something is done.”

Thoroughly puzzled, Kirk crosses looks with his first officer, but receives only the Vulcan equivalent of a shrug in return. Still unwilling to rule out some sort of attack, he tightens his grip on his phaser and motions toward the far side of the reception area.

“Get your people over there, away from the doors,” he barks in a tone that says he expects to be obeyed. Once the delegates have begun to move, he turns to Spock again, his expression grim. “Phasers on stun. Assume a hostile intruder until we confirm otherwise.”

Spock nods and they take up defensive positions to either side of the open doors. The captain mouths on three, and after a silent count they slip inside, dropping to a crouch and sweeping the anteroom with drawn weapons. Finding nothing, they execute the same maneuver at the door to the negotiating chamber itself, and thirty seconds later are standing in the large but quite obviously unoccupied room.

“Tricorder,” Kirk whispers, still holding his own phaser at the ready. “Scan for alien life forms, aberrant energy readings, toxins – anything unusual.”

The Vulcan is stowing his phaser even as Kirk speaks. The tense silence is broken by his tricorder’s warbling note, and for almost a minute he studies the readout, turning in a slow circle as the device cycles through its usual catalog of possible dangers. After that, Spock makes several manual adjustments as he completes a second painstaking sweep. When he straightens and began to pace around the room apparently at random, Kirk begins to relax.

“Nothing, right?”

Spock meets his eyes from across the massive circular table that dominates the chamber. “Indeed. There is no indication of anomalous readings of any kind.”

Despite a growing suspicion that they are being had, Kirk grits his teeth and orders the logical next move. “Let’s check the living quarters.”

But after a fruitless search through bedrooms, sanitary facilities, and common areas, Kirk throws up his hands in disgust. “There’s nothing here! Nothing and no one.”

“That appears to be the case,” Spock agrees. “Certainly there is no indication of any dangerous substance, and given the security systems protecting this facility, very few known life forms would have been able to escape so quickly and without a trace. Of course, the possibility always exists of a previously unknown entity with unusual powers of cellular transformation or space-time manipulation.”

Entity, my foot, Kirk thinks, but keeps his opinion to himself as he replaces his phaser at his hip. “Call the ship. Fill them in and have them scan the area. Hell, have them scan the entire planetoid! I’m going to have a word with our honored guests.”

Spock’s acknowledgement barely registers as Kirk turns on his heel and stalks through the living area, across the negotiation chamber, through the anteroom, and out into the reception area. There he finds the warring delegations, having followed his instructions to the letter, huddled as far as possible from the doors. Sighing, he makes his way across the vast room, reminding himself with every step that civility remains the order of the day, at least until he learns who or what is responsible for disrupting what had promised to be a long-overdue romantic interlude. He is also bracing himself for another mob scene, but neither the Kessubites nor the Wl’lre’ln make any move as he approaches. Even the two leaders hold their ground, whether from fear of the perceived threat or from respect for one potentially bad-tempered starship captain, Kirk does not know.

“Did you see it?” Carina Enfor demands when Kirk halts a polite distance from the two groups. “Isn’t it simply dreadful?”

Her tone sends Kirk’s respect theory out the window and sets his teeth on edge. “Forgive me,” he replies as calmly as possible, “but we saw nothing. In fact, we found nothing at all wrong. I’m afraid you’re going to have to—“

“Nothing wrong? How can you say nothing is wrong?” Livid with indignation, the Kessubinte leader rounds on her Wl’lre’ln counterpart. “Tell him, Mister el-Zoren. You saw it, too. Tell him!”

Plucking up his courage, Benner el-Zoren takes a decisive step forward. “Of course I saw it. Everyone in our delegation did. Really, Captain, we were led to believe that you people were experienced in the efficient operation of a facility such as this.”

“I can’t speak for those who run this conference center,” Kirk retorts, “but Mister Spock is my science officer, and I can assure you—“

“We don’t need your assurances,” Carina Enfor snaps. “We need you to do something!”

Kirk takes a deep breath, counts to three. “I am most anxious to help,” he says, spreading his hands in what he hopes they will recognize as a conciliatory gesture, “but I’m afraid you’re going to have to tell me plainly what the problem is. What exactly is it that you saw in there?”

Both leaders blink, look at each other with obvious surprise, then stare at Kirk as though he has sprouted an extra head.

“Why…dust,” Benner el-Zoren says, finding his voluble adversary apparently rendered speechless. “It’s everywhere. Surely you and Mister Spock must have seen it.”

A long silence follows while Kirk looks from Benner el-Zoren to Carina Enfor to the earnest faces of their twenty-two followers. The Wl’lre’ln look stricken; the Kessubites, irate; and Kirk feels his carefully orchestrated working vacation beginning to dissolve into a surreal and hopeless muddle.

“Dust. You’re telling me the problem is dust. In the negotiating chamber?”

Every head nods while Carina Enfor apparently recovers her voice from sheer relief. “Exactly,” she says. “It’s everywhere – on the table, the chairs, the floor. The living areas no doubt are contaminated as well, though of course we did not venture beyond the negotiating chamber.”

“Of course not,” Kirk agrees, thinking furiously. Though the Federation representative ultimately is responsible for the Zeta Rho negotiations as a whole and Uhura had been charged with arranging the Ceremony of Concordance aboard ship, Kirk himself had read through the documented specifications in some detail after their orders arrived from Starfleet Command. He remembers being impressed by the complexity of the ancient ceremonies and rules of etiquette, but does not recall mention of anything quite so mundane as dust.

“I would not presume to question what you saw,” he says, “but I am also quite certain that the guidelines we received did not specify a sterile environment for these talks.”

The Kessubite leader bristles. “Sterile! How utterly ridiculous. No one said the environment needs to be sterile, but we certainly require the rooms to be clean.”

“They are clean!” Kirk all but shouts. “This entire facility was serviced yesterday. I saw the report myself before we made orbit.”

Carina Enfor’s veils billow as she leans forward, points a finger at Starfleet’s finest, and delivers her final blow. “That may be, Captain, but whoever did the cleaning overlooked a great deal of dust!”

Utterly flabbergasted, Kirk holds his tongue as he counts – to ten, this time. He considers pointing out that they are standing on a planetoid consisting largely of dust, decides against it, and concludes that he faces a situation in which discretion might indeed be the better part of valor. “As you say, madam. I will contact Starbase 409 immediately and have their contractor service the facility again. In the meantime, you are all welcome to return to the Enterprise.” When an uneasy murmur greets his words, Kirk throws up his hands. “Now what?”

Benner el-Zoren’s reply is solemn. “Are you suggesting we terminate the negotiations?”

“What? No, of course not. The Federation is—”

“But the Ceremony of Concordance has been completed. Neutral ground has been occupied, and the agreed-upon participants are in place. The introduction of even one additional person would result in the immediate termination of these proceedings. You also must understand that time is of the essence. A brief recess is permitted, but unless the prescribed ritual resumes within eleven cycles, all our work to this point will be forfeit. We would have no choice but to return to our respective worlds and begin the process again.” He spares the Kessubite delegation an indignant glance. “That is, assuming our opponents do not welcome this disruption as yet another means of avoiding the concessions we all know must result should the talks be completed.”

The Kessubite reaction is predictably noisy, and Kirk can only watch with horrified fascination until the shouting begins to die down. Whether thanks to his command persona or to his stricken expression Kirk does not know, but when finally he raises a hand for quiet, both groups mercifully fall silent.

“Eleven cycles,” he says to no one in particular. “And that would be…?”

Benner el-Zoren looks to one of his aides, who screws up his face for a few moments of intense concentration before pronouncing: “Approximately two of your standard hours.”

“I see. Two hours.” Kirk straightens, hoping he does not appear as disgusted as he feels. “I’ll take care of it. Please stay here and make yourselves comfortable in the meantime.”

“We shall wait here,” Carina Enfor replies, “but as for making ourselves comfortable….”  She glances around with obvious disdain. “We’ll stand, thank you.”

Kirk shrugs and turns without another word, once again weaving his way across the reception area, careful not to touch any of the furniture with its noxious coating of dust. In the negotiating chamber, he finds his first officer frowning over the readings on his tricorder.

“The Enterprise is standing by,” the Vulcan reports. “The initial scans of the conference center itself were negative, and Ensign Chekov has begun a detailed study of the surrounding area. Preliminary results should be available in—”

“Never mind,” Kirk says, waving in the general direction of Spock’s tricorder, “and you can put that thing away. I know what the problem is, and neither you nor Chekov has a snowball’s chance in hell of finding it.”

Spock’s brow soars as his captain begins stalking around the chamber, stopping every few feet to bend this way and that as he peers at the furnishings.

“Of all the….” Kirk mutters, followed by, “This has to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Finally he halts and once again faces the Vulcan across the conference table. “Care to hazard a guess as to what we’re up against?”

Spock straightens with ill-concealed distaste. “I think not.”

Nodding, the human resumes his circuit of the table, trailing a fingertip along its polished surface. “Quite right. Inefficient business that, guessing.” When he reaches the spot where Spock stands waiting, he stops and presented his finger for inspection. “This is the problem.”

Spock hesitates, for the hazel eyes are alight with either humor or a degree of anger that any sane being would do well to respect. As Kirk is waiting for him to say something, Spock opts for the obvious. “Your finger?”

Kirk’s scowl returns as he thrusts the digit in question nearly under the Vulcan’s nose. “Dust, Spock. Both delegations consider the central suite unusable because they say it’s contaminated by dust!”


“That’s what I said.”


Grunting, Kirk lowers his arm and fists both hands on his hips. “Not exactly the term I would use. I’ve been informed that they can wait two hours for the problem to be fixed, but any longer delay would invalidate the Ceremony of Concordance.”

“Which in turn would mean the negotiations could not continue. If that should happen, would the ceremony simply need to be repeated aboard ship?” Spock asks hopefully.

“Hardly. They say they’d all have to go home and then start the whole process over again.” Kirk’s lips draw into a grim line. “We can’t let that happen. They’re dangerously close to outright conflict, plus we simply can’t allow the Federation’s investment of time and effort – never mind money – to go to waste.”

Spock nods, and now he is looking around the room as though sizing up an enemy. “And when you say ‘we,’ you mean the two of us, correct? No additional persons are permitted to enter this facility because the negotiation ritual already has begun?”

“I think,” Kirk replies, “that you’re starting to get the picture.”

Resisting an urge to sigh, Spock once again deploys his tricorder, which makes Kirk frown.

“What are you doing?”

“Scanning for the chemicals most commonly used in cleaning products. Since we now have one point nine two hours remaining in which to remove all traces of dust from these rooms, time is of the essence and this is the most expedient way to locate the necessary supplies.”

Kirk rolls his eyes, but nevertheless is impressed when Spock steps to an apparently blank section of wall and presses a stud that causes a panel to slide aside, revealing a closet stocked with cleaning supplies.

“Very efficient,” he says grudgingly. “Shall I start on the conference table and the chairs while you deal with the sideboards and the walls?”

“As you wish,” Spock says. “I suggest removing our uniform tunics and perhaps our boots as well so they remain unsoiled and we may appear presentable when rejoining the delegates.”

“For pity’s sake,” Kirk snaps, but peels off his gold tunic and yanks off his boots. “Just don’t go handing me any damn apron.”

“A what?”

“An apron. I’m a starship captain, damn it, not a charwoman!”

Spock withholds comment as he collects their discarded clothing and carries it to the anteroom, placing it carefully on a chair. He takes a moment to call the ship and apprise Chekov of the situation, and is quite sure that he hears muffled laughter in the background as the ensign signs off. This suggests McCoy’s likely reaction upon learning of their predicament, which makes resisting the urge to sigh even more difficult.

By the time he returns to the negotiating room, Kirk has pulled several chairs away from the table and is on hands and knees near its center with a bottle of furniture polish and an oversized cloth. “No other way to reach the middle of this thing,” he mutters, wielding the cloth with vigorous swipes and then bending down until one cheek nearly touches the table top as he squints along its surface.

The position is achingly familiar and this time Spock does sigh – only once and very quietly indeed – before returning to the supply closet for a long-handled mop suitable for use on the walls. A control panel catches his eye: Robo-Vac. When he switches it on, a half dozen squat stainless steel units with blinking amber lights emerge from the baseboard around the room, humming quietly as they begin systematic coverage of the wall-to-wall carpeting. A separate control indicates the anteroom, and Spock deploys those units as well.

“Watch your step,” he tells Kirk. “I have activated the automated vacuuming system.”

Kirk grunts in reply as he slides sideways to reach a new area of table top, then suddenly raises his head. “Is there any chance we’re overlooking a mechanized solution to this whole mess? Could we maybe use the transporter to beam all the dust out?”

Spock gives him a disbelieving look. “The transporter is designed to lock onto defined objects or, in the hands of an exceptionally skilled operator, onto all matter within a defined area. It is not designed to lock onto a diffuse and poorly-defined substance over a wide area.”

“All right, then what about modifying the facility’s HVAC system to exert reverse pressure? Create a sort of vacuum to suck the dust out.”

“Even if it were possible to make such modifications, I doubt it could be accomplished in the available time, nor could such a process be implemented without first securing all loose objects in the central suite and then replacing them afterward.”

“Well,” Kirk sighs, “let me know if you come up with a better idea. In the meantime, I guess we go on doing this the hard way.”

Spock only nods on his way to a far corner where he commences a methodical ceiling-to-floor sweeping of the walls, grateful that the interior designer apparently decided against hanging any artwork that might distract the room’s occupants from the task at hand.

They work for a time in silence. Having polished the center of the table, Kirk continues the process around its perimeter before crawling underneath to tackle the legs and supporting braces. Then he starts on the twenty-four chairs. Spock, meanwhile, finishes with the walls and moves on to the four large sideboards, two furnished with water dispensers and servitors programmed for refreshments, and two apparently for other general use. Once satisfied that all are dust-free, he helps Kirk with the last few chairs, and finally they both stop and look around the room and then at each other.

“This looks good,” Kirk says. “How much time do we have left?”

“Twenty-six point three minutes.”

“In that case we’d better go over the anteroom, too.”

“I believe an inspection of the adjacent washrooms also is in order.”

“Good idea. They’re all yours.”

Some ten minutes later, Spock is wiping down the last of the obvious surfaces in the third of four washrooms when Kirk pokes his head in the door.

“The anteroom is done,” he says. “Nothing there but a few side tables and a bunch of chairs, and I stuck most of those in a storage closet. The Robo-Vac is about finished with the floor. Do you need help in here?”

Spock shakes his head. “No, but you could go get our bags. After checking the last washroom, I will require a few minutes to reprogram the locking mechanism of the doors to the central suite. I trust you realize we will need to remain inside for the duration of the talks.”

“Damn,” Kirk says, “I was trying not to think about that. There’s no choice, is there?”


“And no doubt that our guests will expect us to be punctual.”


Kirk sighs, but returns to the anteroom and puts his tunic and boots back on before setting off at a trot, careful not to make eye contact with any of the Kessubites or Wl’lre’ln as he emerges from the central suite and crosses the reception area toward the center’s outer ring. In their quarters he retrieves two Starfleet-issue carryalls, sparing another sigh for their two untouched glasses of wine. Irritation dogs his heels as he jogs back to the central suite where he finds his first officer, also fully uniformed once more, tapping commands into the door control panel.

“Time left?” he asks, trying not to appear breathless.

“Five point eight minutes,” Spock replies without looking up.

“Wonderful. I’ll go find us a room. Be right back.”

He heads for a service corridor they had discovered earlier, which leads from the anteroom to a simply-furnished common area surrounded by a dozen small and equally Spartan sleeping rooms. It’s clearly designed for use by support staff, with its own kitchen and sanitary facilities and direct access to both the anteroom and the delegates’ living quarters. Kirk allows that its one desirable feature is privacy, though he wonders if they’ll be able to take advantage of it. The third room he checks has a double bed; he drops their bags just inside and hurries back to the reception area, where he finds Spock looking as composed as though he’d spent the last two hours in meditation. Across the room, the Zeta Rho delegations appear nervous as a herd of sheep poised to bolt.

“I hate to bring this up, but what if they object to us being in the central suite with them?” Kirk says quietly.

Spock lifts a brow. “We would counter their objection with a pledge not to occupy the same room with any of them at any time, and with the fact that our presence within the suite will have no more effect on the talks than would have our presence without. Their protocol for the talks is quite rigid. They are expected to remain in the immediate area of the negotiating chamber for the duration of each session; and once they vacate the chamber, no one is permitted to return until the entire group reassembles for the next session. Our having access to whichever area is unoccupied should pose no problem.”

“Logical,’ Kirk says, nodding, “though I submit that we have seldom met beings less disposed to logic.”

“Granted. Should we be unable to persuade them, our exertions will have been in vain.”

Since this does not bear thinking of, Kirk declines to answer, instead stepping forward into the space before the doors with the most authoritative air he can manage. He offers the delegates a strained smile and a sweeping gesture of invitation, and pitches his voice to carry across the expanse of carpeted floor.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you please.”

Carina Enfor and Benner el-Zoren trade a glance, clearly torn between maintaining their status as warring parties and presenting a united front against the more immediate threat of Federation incompetence. After a brief hesitation, the two leaders start forward with their respective delegations trailing behind. Once they are arrayed before the open doors, predictably it is Carina Enfor who speaks for them all.

“Your allotted time has very nearly expired,” she says with only a slight agitation of veils. “I trust the problem with the facility is now resolved.”

Kirk offers a small bow, hoping his clenched jaw is not too obvious. “It is, madam. We used the entire eleven cycles in order to do the most thorough job possible. I trust everything will meet with your approval.”

“Well,” she says, “we shall see.”

“Indeed,” Benner el-Zoren puts in. “Naturally we must see the rooms for ourselves. Tell me, were the sleeping rooms as badly contaminated as the negotiating chamber?”

“I would say their condition was about the same,” Kirk replies. “Rest assured that Mister Spock and I will tend to the rest of the central suite during your initial negotiating session. By the time you’re finished for the day, the living areas will be ready.”

A murmur runs through the delegations at this, and Benner el-Zoren looks alarmed. “Are you saying that only the negotiating chamber has been cleaned?”

Kirk considers counting to ten again. “And the anteroom,” he says, keeping his voice level. “And of course all the sanitary facilities adjacent to the negotiating chamber.” He forces a smile, but nothing can forestall the impending explosion from Carina Enfor.

“More to the point,” she all but shouts, “are you saying that you will be in the central suite during the negotiations? Really, Captain, this is highly irregular!”

“It is necessary,” Spock says before Kirk launches an explosion of his own. “Surely you understand that daily maintenance is necessary to achieve the degree of cleanliness you require. We will clean your living quarters during each day’s negotiating session. Once you retire to quarters, we will redo the negotiating chamber and environs. Provided that everyone adheres to the established schedule, at no time will Captain Kirk or I occupy the same room as any of you.”

Carina Enfor gapes at him, clearly affronted. “Of course we will adhere to the schedule. That is of paramount importance!”

“Of course,” Spock agrees, “and therefore our presence within the central suite will have no more effect on the negotiations that would our presence in the conference center but outside the suite.”

“Well….” Carina Enfor looks from Spock to Kirk to Benner el-Zoren. “Does my esteemed opponent find this acceptable?”

Bener el-Zoren nods. “I, too, consider it irregular, but acceptable under the circumstances. Captain Kirk and his crew have proved trustworthy up until now; I see no reason to doubt that he and Mister Spock will act as promised.”

Kirk claps his hands together, earning him startled looks from the Zeta Rhoans. “Then we’re all agreed. Excellent! And now may I suggest that further delay would be both illogical and unproductive?” Once again he stands aside with a gesture toward the open doors. “After you.”

He all but holds his breath as the delegates file inside, crossing the anteroom and disappearing into the negotiating chamber. Spock keys the final access control, and they both step into the anteroom ahead of the closing doors. There they stand listening for a long minute, hearing nothing but a subdued murmur of voices from the next room.

“Thank god,” Kirk whispers finally. “It must be all right if they haven’t run screaming out of there by now.” He gives his bondmate a triumphant if weary look. “We did it!”

Spock merely nods and sets off for the service corridor. Kirk follows all the way to the support staff common room before stopping the Vulcan with a touch to his arm.

“Hey,” he says, “you must feel some satisfaction. I mean, it’s way above and beyond our usual call of duty – or maybe beneath it – but it’s still important, right? The talks, I mean. And you know I couldn’t have done it alone.”

Again Spock nods. “I understand. And I agree. I simply thought it advisable to exit the anteroom before indulging in any sort of celebration.”

“Aha,” Kirk says, and his eyes twinkle. “So you do want to celebrate.” His fingers tighten on Spock’s forearm. “Couldn’t we spare an hour or so to do it properly? I found us a room with a double bed.”

Spock actually looks tempted. “Your suggestion has a certain appeal,” he says quietly, “but as your first officer, I must point out that the delay has shortened today’s scheduled negotiating session to seven hours. If my count from our initial inspection of the living quarters is accurate, we now are tasked with cleaning a total of twenty-one bedrooms, a separate kitchen for each delegation, two common areas for each delegation, and an as-yet-undetermined number of sanitary facilities.”

Kirk’s mood has been deflating during this speech, along with his barely-formed erection. “Damn. We really don’t have time, do we?”

“No, I fear not.”

“Well, in that case….” Kirk lets his hand fall, shakes his head. “I guess we’d better get to it. I’m taking a minute to change out of this uniform, though.”

“A reasonable suggestion.”

Kirk grins at him. “Come on, our room’s this way.”

By way of self-preservation, Kirk uses their bathroom to change into a set of comfortable sweats in which he had envisioned lounging with his bondmate before a roaring fire, or whatever turned out to be the Alpha-Y40B equivalent. He returns to the bedroom in time to see Spock pulling a sweatshirt over his own head. It’s Earth-sky blue with IOWA emblazoned in sunshine yellow on the front above a row of tiny green appliquéd corn plants – a souvenir of the only trip to Earth they have managed together – and Kirk has to laugh.

“I can’t believe you brought that with you.”

“It is warm and it reminds me of you.”

“Huh,” Kirk says. “If this assignment had worked out the way it was supposed to, you wouldn’t have needed any reminder. I guess it’s a good thing you brought it, though, since it looks as though we won’t be seeing all that much of each other.”

“A fact I sincerely regret,” Spock says, surprising Kirk by pulling him close for a lingering kiss.

When it ends, Kirk is a little breathless. “I’ll consider that a rain check. And I know you know what that means, so don’t give me that look.” He claims another kiss, a brief one this time that nevertheless makes stepping back out of his Vulcan’s personal space an exercise in self control. “Duty calls, Commander. Time to go save the galaxy one dust mote at a time.”

A raised brow is eloquent of Spock’s opinion of such hyperbole, but then he says, “Jim, wait,” and lifts one hand to Kirk’s face with practiced ease. His eyes smile into Kirk’s as the subliminal hum of their bond flares into life.

//It will be most efficient for each of us to focus on the living space allotted to one of the delegations.//

Though reluctant, Kirk’s agreement is immediate. //Yes.//

//While this means we will be separated physically much of the time, we need not be out of contact.//

Kirk’s eyes now are very bright. //No.//

With that Spock removes his hand, but the connection between them remains as they move quietly to the door leading directly to the delegates’ living quarters.

In the end they decide that Spock will clean the rooms assigned to the Wl’lre’ln, while Kirk will tend to those used by the Kessubites. This decision is based largely on the captain’s assertion that in the event of an unexpected encounter with any of the delegates, Spock would seem less threatening to the demur Wl’lre’ln; while if Kirk were to lose his temper as a result of such a meeting, the damage would more likely be reparable if his ire were directed at Carina Enfor or one of her fellows.

“You will not lose your temper,” Spock tells him, and Kirk grins.

“No. But by god, I’d like to!”

The rest of the morning passes in unstinting physical effort, and by early afternoon local time when Spock insists that they pause for a meal while the Robo-Vac scours the sleeping rooms, Kirk is more than ready to agree.

“Oh man,” he groans, rubbing the vicinity of his sacroiliac, “I thought I was in pretty good shape, but my back is killing me.”

“A result of unaccustomed repetitive motion,” Spock says.

“I guess working out doesn’t exactly prepare you for this.” Kirk sends the Vulcan a wry glance. “Who would think a little bending over would be such an issue?”

Bringing their plates to the table, Spock declines to rise to the bait. “A massage might be beneficial.”

“If that’s an offer, it sounds wonderful, but maybe later. If I lie down right now, I doubt I’d ever get back up.”

At least the food synthesizers in their kitchen are programmed with the same offerings as those designed for the center’s guests, and Kirk’s ham sandwich isn’t half bad. While the coffee leaves something to be desired, it does the trick, and two cups later Kirk is ready to have at it again. Spock has eaten something green and unpronounceable that looks like a cross between creamed corn and the stuff they flush from the impulse coolant tanks, but he too declares himself refreshed and ready to resume work.

They part reluctantly at the door to the small communications center that serves as unofficial neutral ground between the living areas assigned to the two Zeta Rho delegations. While it’s unclear if either group will make use of it, Spock is about to embark on the task of ridding its electronic devices of their inevitable traces of dust. (“Dust magnets” Kirk calls them, privately resolving never again to chastise his yeoman about the terminal in his quarters aboard ship.) Kirk is heading for his common areas and their collections of tables and chairs and abundant shelving – a prospect more appealing only by comparison.

Spock comes to find him some three hours later. With a mere thirteen minutes to go, they finish off the final washroom and give the bedroom apparently assigned to Carina Enfor a hasty second going-over, retreating to the service corridor just as an electronic tone announces the conclusion of the negotiating session. Back in their own living area, they set about unpacking, listening all the while for an alarm that means the delegates have fled the central suite again. When all remains quiet, Kirk finally relaxes enough to wonder whether the evening might be salvaged after all.

“What would you think of having that glass of wine now?” he says. “Then maybe dinner? Then….”

“Dinner most certainly is in order,” Spock replies, his tone dashing Kirk’s hopes. “However, I am constrained to point out that the Zeta Rho delegations agreed to structure their negotiations according to the local diurnal cycle. Tomorrow’s negotiating session therefore begins seven hours from now. I propose that after we eat, you go to bed while I—“

“What? You’re not doing it all by yourself. We’ll divide the work the way we did this morning, and it only took two hours, right? That leaves plenty of time for a little…recreation.”

“Jim,” Spock says gently, “wishful thinking does not change the fact that you require rest. Bear in mind that this morning we worked with extraordinary haste, and that tomorrow we must repeat the activities of today. You will not be able to function adequately having had only two or three hours of sleep.”

Kirk’s mouth is set in a stubborn line. “Sure I will.”

“No, t’hy’la, you will not. There is no logic in becoming exhausted and possibly ill when a means of prevention is at hand."

“And I suppose you can go without any sleep at all?”

Spock blinks. “I can. However, I did hope to spend a short time in meditation in order to regulate certain metabolic processes, which will make it easier for me to function at full capacity during an extended period without sleep.”

Kirk moves in close enough to slide both arms around the Vulcan’s waist. “There’s one metabolic process I could help you regulate right now.”


Sighing, Kirk settles for a single half-hearted kiss. “All right, but after we eat I’ll at least help you get the cleaning started. Why don’t you go meditate while I program up some dinner?”

Corian wine did pair well with a respectable vegetarian lasagna, Kirk thinks later, though he can’t help grousing about the ambience.

“Not a candle in the entire place,” he tells Spock from his perch on top of the negotiating table. “Believe me, I looked everywhere.”

Spock, who has had occasion to become familiar with the significance humans attach to candlelight, represses a smile. “There will be other dinners.”

“You’ve got that right.” Kirk is laying about with his cloth as though the polished tabletop were a mortal enemy. “Heck, my mother’s kitchen in Iowa was a damn sight more romantic than this!”

Spock’s face heats at the reminder of what they did in that kitchen one memorable evening when Winona was absent. Deliberately he turns back to dusting a sideboard, acknowledging Kirk’s amusement across their bond with a fleeting pulse that could only be called a mental caress.

By the time Kirk has finished the table and a few of the chairs, he admits defeat and says he’s going to bed. Spock walks with him through the anteroom to the door to the service corridor, where they share a good-night kiss that becomes two, then three. Their desire is muted, though, partly because of Kirk’s fatigue and partly because Spock, in meditation, took steps to mitigate his own. Still they linger, and Spock is about to mention the illogic of delaying the inevitable when Kirk straightens and steps back a little, only to trip over the quietly humming Robo-Vac that has moved in unnoticed around their feet.

“Son of a—“ Kirk says, flailing for balance. Saved when Spock catches him by the arm, he sighs. “All right, I’m going while I can still walk. I’ll check in with the ship before I go to bed. In the morning you’ll wake me in plenty of time to be ready when the delegates have gone back to the negotiating room, right?”

Spock grips the arm beneath his hand, then releases it. “I shall. Sleep well.”

Kirk’s smile is weary, but he leans in for a final kiss. “And you,” he murmurs against Spock’s lips, “don’t work too hard.”

He fishes out his communicator as he walks back to their room, flipping it open as he flops into a chair. He finds Montgomery Scott still on duty. The chief engineer reports normal ship’s status, but when he inquires after their situation planetside, his tone becomes so stilted that Kirk suspects he’s trying desperately not to laugh. Since the captain is finding said situation less amusing by the moment, he replies with a brusque update that concludes with an order to have the shipboard quarters assigned to the delegates cleaned to within an inch of their lives in advance of the parties’ return to the Enterprise. Scotty takes the hint; his acknowledgement is militarily correct and he sounds apologetic when he interrupts as Kirk is preparing to sign off.

“Uh, Captain…I’m sorry, but I have strict orders from Doctor McCoy to let him know when you called in.”

Kirk has kicked off his shoes; with a sigh he slouches even further into the chair and closes his eyes. “All right,” he says. “Go ahead and patch me through.”

When his CMO comes on the line, he makes no attempt to contain his mirth. “So,” McCoy crows, “how’s your little vacation love nest?”

“How do you think? It’s a disaster in more ways than I care to mention. When word of this hits the Starfleet grapevine, I’ll be a laughingstock from one end of the galaxy to the other!”

“Just you? What about Spock?”

“Forget it. If anyone so much as smiles at him, they’ll have me to answer to.”

“Mm. So how’s he taking all this?”

Kirk groans. “Logically, of course. No loss of dignity in doing whatever is necessary to preserve a chance for peace in the Zeta Rho system, etc, etc. I know he’s right, but….”

“You’re a starship captain, not a janitor?”

“Now that you mention it, I did tell him something to that effect.”

McCoy laughs. “I’ll just bet you did. Look at it this way, Jim. If they do manage to conclude a peace treaty, probably both you and Spock will get another medal pinned to your chests.” When there is stony silence in reply, the doctor chuckles again. “So how come they didn’t object to their quarters up here?”

“Damned if I know. Something to do with the ship’s superior ventilating system? Our superior cleaning crew? Or maybe with not being located on a ball of freaking dust?”  Kirk takes a deep breath. “Maybe it’s an issue down here only because of the shared ceremonial aspect. Or maybe we just got lucky. I don’t know and believe me, I’m not about to ask.”

“You’re the captain,” McCoy says in a slightly strangled voice. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t keep you. I’m sure you have things to do.”

“Very funny. I’m about to get some beauty sleep, as a matter of fact. I’m beat, and Spock insists he can pull the night shifts on his own.”

“I’m sure he can. Really comes in handy, doesn’t it? That Vulcan stamina.”

“Bones…shut up,” Kirk says and cuts the connection before the doctor can reply.

After a quick shower he climbs into bed, wondering if despite being tired, he’s too keyed up to sleep. A tentative probe of their bond relieves that particular concern; Spock replies with a current of affection and calm that has Kirk’s eyes drifting closed almost before his smile fades.

He is awakened the next morning by a warm hand rubbing his back – a very good way to start the day, he thinks, even when he remembers what that day will entail. For a few moments he indulges in the uncommon luxury of drifting in that nebulous state between wakefulness and sleep, then rolls over to blink up at the Vulcan sitting beside him on the bed. Spock is wearing a brown sweater that matches his eyes and his hair looks slightly damp.

“Good morning,” Kirk says. “Everything okay?”

“Indeed. I finished with time enough for a shower and another brief period of meditation, and I have prepared a light breakfast. The delegates should return to the negotiating room thirty minutes from now.”

“Great.” Kirk stretches, then his eyes widen and he sits up abruptly. “Is that real coffee I smell?”

Spock reaches to the bedside table behind him and presents Kirk with a steaming mug. “I took the liberty of bringing along a small quantity from your personal supply.”

“Ah,” Kirk says, wrapping both hands around the fragrant warmth. “That was no liberty. In fact, I’d call it further evidence that you have become absolutely indispensable to me – as though I needed any.”

Spock’s eyes soften and he touches Kirk’s arm briefly before standing and moving to the door, leaving his bondmate with a bemused expression and a morning erection that they have tacitly agreed to ignore.

As expected, the day turns out to be a replay of the one previous, though mercifully without the drama. They dust and wipe and polish, their efforts hampered somewhat by the personal effects in evidence now that the rooms are occupied. At least the Kessubites seem quite tidy, which Kirk supposes is not altogether surprising, and Spock confirms that the Wl’lre’ln are as well. Kirk keeps expecting some delegate to appear in search of a forgotten item or a change of clothing or even a few moments of privacy, but Zeta Rhoan commitment to established form keeps them in the negotiating room and its anteroom for the entire nine hours of the session.

Not until mid-afternoon of the third day do they have a close call. Kirk is wiping tables in the dining area adjacent to the Kessubite’s kitchen when he hears footsteps and a rasping cough from the hallway leading to the negotiating room. Retreating into the kitchen seems the obvious move; only an archway separates it from the eating area, so he ducks into a narrow space between a cupboard and the cooling unit. The coughing is getting nearer – a female’s voice from the sound of it – and a sudden sinking feeling has Kirk wishing he could rethink his choice. He imagines the cooling unit stocked with favored beverages brought from home – just the thing to sooth a throat irritated by hours of argument.

Peeking from his hiding place, he sees a young Kessubite woman enter the far side of the eating area. She wears a scarf nearly as colorful as the headdresses of the first day and she looks miserable, holding both hands to her face as she tries to stifle her coughs. Kirk holds his breath, but she crosses to the sitting area beyond, apparently heading for her bedroom. Once she’s out of sight, Kirk makes a run for it, skidding into a hallway from which he can access the support staff area if necessary. Some five minutes later he sees the woman reappear, clutching a small green vial and coughing only slightly, clearly on her way back to the negotiating room. Once everything is quiet he heaves a sigh of relief, and then is startled to see Spock appear from around a corner of the hall.

“I sensed your distress,” the Vulcan says quietly.

Kirk shakes his head. “It’s all right. For a minute there I thought the jig was up, though. One of the delegates came through, apparently to get some medicine from her room. I was in the kitchen; if she’d gone in there, she would have had me cornered.”

“A fortunate outcome, then,” Spock says, and they stand listening for a minute even though the danger of detection clearly has passed.

“Well,” Kirk says finally, to which Spock replies, “Indeed,” and rather somberly they return to their respective labors.

That evening Kirk’s communicator sounds as they’re sitting down to dinner. The captain frowns because he has just spent twenty minutes speaking with the Federation representative via subspace from Zeta Rho IV, reassuring him that the situation remains under control and the negotiations continue. And because Kirk by now has accepted that even the briefest of intimate interludes with his bondmate is out of the question, he savors the hasty meals that have provided their only real time together. Watching with resignation as Spock removes their food to a warmer, he flips open his communicator.

This time it’s Uhura on the line, and she sounds both businesslike and apologetic.

“Starfleet Command calling for you, sir. Vice Admiral Epping is standing by.”

“Wonderful,” Kirk mutters, though in truth he’s been expecting this. Franklin Epping is Starfleet’s recently-appointed sector commander who, though he has not been directly involved in the Federation’s efforts to broker peace in the Zeta Rho system, seems to feel that his personal reputation depends on the Enterprise’s successful handling of the mission.

“What the hell is going on out there?” he barks after Uhura patches him through. ”The last two reports I received were conspicuously lacking in detail. HQ wants facts, Kirk, and at this point I have precious few to give them.”

“I understand, Admiral,” Kirk says with patience that has begun to feel natural after so much practice, “but there really is nothing new to report. There have been no further interruptions to the negotiations, which apparently means that both delegations are satisfied with the condition of the conference center. And we always expected a waiting game, after all. Even without the current complications, we knew the delegates would remain incommunicado until they reached an agreement one way or another.”

Epping’s scowl is almost audible. “An agreement to start blasting each other’s ships out of the sky wouldn’t be much of a solution.”

“Agreed, but that’s a risk inherent in the process. From what I’ve heard, both sides – and of course the Federation – truly want a reasonable outcome that will benefit everyone involved.”

“Reasonable,” Epping repeats. “Speaking of which, do you actually believe this cockamamie story about dust?”

Spock’s eyes meet his across the table, and Kirk smiles. “I admit it was pretty hard to swallow at first, but yes, it appears their concern is genuine. The Zeta Rhoans are…an interesting bunch.”

“Interesting!” the admiral says, and actually laughs. “Either you’re as nutty as they are or you have one hell of a talent for understatement. Based on your reputation, I’m going to assume the latter. Just keep a grip on this, Captain. I wouldn’t take kindly to being made to look like a fool because I picked the wrong ship for the job.”

Kirk’s good humor evaporates and he does some glaring of his own. “My crew has performed extraordinarily well so far,” he points out, “and you can rest assured that Commander Spock and I will continue to do everything in our power to insure that the talks conclude successfully.”

“You’d better. Starfleet out.”

Uncomfortable silence follows until Spock says “Never underestimate the bureaucratic mentality” in a tone so dry that Kirk has to laugh.

“No concerns about the ability of the Enterprise to conclude this mission successfully, Mister Spock?”

“None whatsoever.”

Kirk gets up and walks around the table to where Spock has been standing behind his own chair. He closes a hand over the Vulcan’s shoulder. “Sit,” he says. “We’re having dinner, right?” He retrieves their plates and, after setting Spock’s in front of him, cannot resist bending to press a kiss into the cool silk of hair that smells like everything he knows of home.

Spock departs for his night shift as soon as they have finished their meal, leaving Kirk to toss their dishes into the cleaning unit and then log into the ship’s database to spend an hour or so catching up on paperwork. The evidence of routine functioning of ship and crew while their command team is trapped in this unusually clean version of hell is both comforting and more than a bit irritating, and he is restless by the time he approves the last of the daily department reports. He hesitates only a moment before logging off and heading into the service corridor.

The anteroom is empty save for the inevitable Robo-Vac, which he gives a wide berth on his way to the inner rooms. “Screw you,” he tells it cheerfully and feels better by the time he finds Spock in one of the bathrooms, up to his elbows in soapy water.

“What’s this?” Kirk says. “Wiping not good enough?”

“I decided that a more thorough cleaning would be a wise precaution, given that the talks may be nearing their conclusion. I should not care to cause the abandonment of a nearly-completed agreement by giving any delegate reason to find fault with the condition of the facilities.”

Kirk nods, deciding not to mention that he thinks the Vulcan is starting to look tired. “I suppose you’ve got a point. I’m helping for a while, by the way. Since you’re spending extra time in here, I’ll try to get a good start on the negotiating chamber before I pack it in for the night.”

It’s not a question, and for once Spock does not argue. Kirk retreats to the negotiating chamber for a few hours of dusting, polishing, and shoving chairs around. McCoy would say the bending and stretching is good exercise, he reminds himself – not that he believes a word of it, but at least he’s merely fatigued and not completely exhausted by the time he realizes that he’d better quit if he wants to manage five hours of sleep.

He does manage it and even wakes before the arrival of his personal alarm clock, rolling out of bed with surprising energy and a vague notion of brewing his coffee himself for a change. Spock has beaten him to it, though, and they sit talking over breakfast until the inevitable tone announces the start of another day’s negotiations.

By lunchtime Kirk has cleaned all but two of the Kessubites’ bedrooms and is about to start on another when a sudden commotion sends him running for their common area. By the time he gets there, it’s loud with excited talk and laughter as the delegates file in from the negotiating chamber. He has only a moment to wonder if this means good news or disaster, for Carina Enfor has caught sight of him and is bearing down on him like a heat-seeking missile.

“We have an agreement!” she says. “Isn’t it marvelous? We have decided on an autonomous commission to oversee the allocation of mineral resources throughout our solar system. We shall enlist our foremost scientific minds, who will be tasked with ensuring that both planets maintain a comparable standard of living while also maintaining the highest standards of safety and environmental stewardship.” The Kessubite head covering of the day is a sort of turban with multicolored tassels, and Carina Enfor’s bounce and sway in time with her enthusiasm. “Marvelous!”

Kirk cannot help but agree. “It certainly is,” he says. “On behalf of the United Federation of Planets—“

“Yes, yes,” Carina Enfor puts in, ‘but we have had quite enough of speeches. This is a moment for celebration!” Her eyes narrow suddenly and she tilts her head to one side. “Why, Captain, I do believe you are out of uniform.”

In fact he is wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that has seen better days, and does his best not to bristle. “Under the circumstances, I hardly think—“

“You humans do seem to take a casual approach to even the most momentous of occasions, but I suppose that is your way.”

Resisting the temptation to point out that the lady has never before had occasion to observe human behavior, Kirk changes the subject. “May I assume that you intend to return to the Enterprise immediately?”

“Yes, of course. We’ll be ready to depart as soon as we have packed our things.”  She stops, peering around. “Where is Commander Spock? I assume that a Vulcan would not be so undignified as to make an appearance out of uniform.”

“He has been working in the Wl’lre’ln areas, and as a matter of fact—“

“Well, the behavior of your crew of course is your own affair, isn’t it, just as the behavior of our delegates is mine.” One of said delegates is circulating with a tray of stemmed glasses, trailed by another bearing a carafe of a pale blue beverage, and Carina Enfor turns away with an unapologetic smile. “And now you must excuse me, Captain, for I am expected to propose a toast.”

“I’m sure you are,” Kirk mutters and beats a retreat before anyone else can corner him and insist that he partake.

He finds Spock waiting in the communications center no-man’s-land, and they share a look of relief. “I take it you got the word,” Kirk says, and the Vulcan nods.

“I look forward to learning about the agreement in greater detail, but Benner el-Zoren seems pleased. He is convinced that it will yield positive results for both parties.”

“Let’s hope so,” Kirk says. “So are they having a wild celebration? And did you get scolded for being out of uniform?”

Spock supplies the expected raised brow. “A celebration of sorts is in progress, though I would hardly call it ‘wild.’ And no, my attire did not elicit comment.”

“Of course it didn’t.” Kirk shakes his head. “Mine managed to scandalize Carina Enfor, so we’d better take a minute to change.”

They take five minutes, plus a few more to alert the Enterprise that the negotiations are complete and their guests are preparing to return to the ship. The anteroom is deserted when Spock keys in the code to open the doors to the reception area, but eventually the members of the Wl’lre’ln delegation appear by twos and threes, looking tired but happy. The Kessubites arrive with considerably more fanfare, and only when all delegates are present does Carina Enfor give the captain a regal nod that means beam-up can begin.

Transport of the two groups, each to a different transporter room, is accomplished with precise coordination that indicates it was carefully rehearsed. When the last of the delegates has dematerialized, Kirk looks at his bondmate with a heartfelt sigh.

“Thank god that’s over,” he says. Mindful that the conference center’s public spaces are subject to security monitoring, he lets his fingers just brush the back of Spock’s hand. “Just think, if our plans hadn’t completely fallen apart, we’d be finishing up a blissful interlude of almost four days. And if my back hurt, it wouldn’t be from making beds!”

“Jim,” Spock says, managing to appear both admonishing and amused, and Kirk has to laugh.

“All right, that’s one ‘vacation’ for the history books, and one I hope never to repeat. Shall we get back to our more usual round of duties, Mister Spock?”

“Gladly,” the Vulcan replies, and Kirk is grinning as he flips open his communicator and gives the order to energize.

They materialize in the transporter room used by the Wl’lre’ln and are surprised to find Benner el-Zoren and two of his aids still standing with their escort beside the console, apparently waiting for them.

“Welcome back to the Enterprise,” Kirk says as he steps down from the pad. “Everything is all right, I hope.”

“Quite all right,” Benner el-Zoren says. “I simply wish to confirm that preparations for the Time of Reflection are in place.”

Blinking, Kirk looks first at the clearly befuddled redshirt and then at Spock, who raises a noncommittal brow in reply. “The Time of Reflection,” Kirk repeats slowly. “Forgive me, sir, but I’m afraid I don’t recall that term from our mission briefing.”

“Hardly surprising,” Benner el-Zoren allows, though it’s unclear whether he’s expressing apology for the complexity of Zeta Rhoan protocol or disappointment with Federation ineptitude. “Perhaps Mister Spock is better informed.”

“I regret that I am not,” Spock says. “Perhaps you might elucidate.”

Benner el-Zoren and his aides trade a look that says their suspicions have been confirmed. “I refer,” he says with exaggerated patience, “to the prescribed period of recovery and solitude that follows any formal negotiation. Since we will remain in our quarters for the full two hundred cycles, during which time we maintain a strict code of silence, I wanted to insure that your crew understands we are not to be disturbed, and also that meals will be delivered at appropriate intervals.”

“Yes, of course,” Kirk says, having no idea what he’s agreeing to. “I’m sure everything is arranged, but please rest assured that I will confirm with Lieutenant Uhura.”

“A delightful woman,” Benner el-Zoren says, “and also apparently quite competent. Our concern is allayed knowing she is in charge. Thank you again, Captain, and now you must please excuse us.” With that he turns to their escort, who steps smartly to the door and bows his three charges through as it opens.

Kirk holds his tongue until they have gone, but he’s slapping the communications panel even as the door hisses closed.

“Bridge,” he snaps. “Lieutenant Uhura.”

“Lieutenant Palmer here, Captain,” a voice replies after a moment. “Lieutenant Uhura is off duty.”

“Not any more she’s not. Deck three conference room in twenty minutes. Tell her I need complete details on a Zeta Rhoan practice called the Time of Reflection, and that means whether it was included in the mission briefing or not. If necessary, she’s authorized to comm the Federation representative currently on Zeta Rho IV.”

“Aye-aye,” Palmer says. “I’m on it.”

Kirk cuts the connection without bothering to acknowledge and is positively scowling as he turns to his first officer. “Why are we in the dark about this, whatever it is?”

“Unknown. With your permission, I shall initiate research of my own in case it is needed to supplement the lieutenant’s information.”

“All right,” Kirk says as they step into the corridor. “I’ll see you in the briefing room. I’m going to find something for a headache.”

Spock decides against voicing his opinion that the only remedy for this particular headache will be the departure of twenty-four Enterprise passengers, and he and the captain part ways at the nearest turbolift. Spock continues along the corridor to the designated conference room, where he spends nearly fifteen minutes in a fruitless search for information before Uhura arrives, looking more than a little flustered.

“I found it, Mister Spock,” she says breathlessly, dropping into a chair and shoving a data chip in his general direction. “It’s in a footnote to the rules covering the conclusion of ritual negotiation. I was focused on the Ceremony of Concordance and didn’t really study the information about the actual talks.” She watches as the first officer inserts the chip into his terminal and begins to read the section she has flagged. “I think we should be able to cover the lapse pretty easily, so I hope no real harm has been done. Carolyn said Captain Kirk sounded pretty upset.”

Spock merely grunts in reply as he continues to read. After a minute he looks up, apparently satisfied. “I believe you are correct. We should yet be able to prevent irreparable harm. As for the captain….”

At that moment Kirk strides through the door with security chief Giotto in tow.

“He wants good news for a change,” Kirk says, looking a challenge at Uhura as he and Giotto take seats. “What about it, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir,” Uhura says, sounding calmer than she feels. “The mission briefing does mention the Time of Reflection, but only as a footnote in the section about the conclusion of a round of negotiations. It was not called out in the summary provided by the Federation envoy, and I’m afraid I simply didn’t see it.”

“You were not alone,” Spock points out. “Apparently no other Enterprise personnel who read the briefing noticed it either; and if the information was missing from the mission summary, we may speculate that the Federation representative also failed to see it, or at least failed to grasp its importance.”

Uhura looks relieved, but Kirk’s frown has deepened. “So just how important is it?”

“To the Zeta Rhoans?” Spock asks, and Kirk throws up his hands.

“All right, point taken. Every damn thing apparently is a matter of life and death with them. I guess a better question would be: have we embarrassed ourselves beyond redemption this time?”

“I think not. The practice is as described by Benner el-Zoren: a period of isolation during which the delegates rest and reflect on the negotiations just concluded. Since our guests already have been shown to quarters, we need only insure that no crew members intrude, although it seems the delivery of food is allowed.”

“So if they find dust in their cabins, what then? A cleaning crew can’t go in?”

Uhura suddenly needs to retrieve a stylus she has dropped on the floor and Giotto’s chin has started to quiver, but Spock merely raises a regal brow. “I assume not,” he says. “Let us hope that dust has ceased to be a matter of great importance.”

That does it: Giotto barks a laugh, then claps a hand over his mouth. “Sorry, Captain,” he says in a strangled voice. “It’s just that….” Seeing Kirk’s dark expression, he clears his throat and straightens in his chair. “That is, I just wanted to say that we can reroute crew traffic away from that entire section for the duration. I’ll see to posting a couple of guards as a precaution.”

“And I’ll notify the galley about the meal deliveries,” Uhura offers, though she now seems to be looking at the ceiling instead of at her commanding officers. “I can make sure they understand the protocol.”

Screwing his eyes shut, Kirk pinches the bridge of his nose. “Very well. See to it.” Dropping his hand, he looks back to Spock. “Benner el-Zoren said two hundred of their cycles, right?”

“Correct. I shall confirm the exact value of a Zeta Rhoan cycle, but based on the approximation provided at the beginning of the negotiations, the Time of Reflection should last just over thirty-six standard hours.”

“And our trip out here from Zeta Rho took…what? About half a day?”

“Ten hours, forty-eight minutes.”

Kirk’s face goes blank as his weary brain processes the math, and then he looks aghast. “Are you telling me that once we arrive at Zeta Rho IV, we’ll have to cool our heels in orbit for a whole day before the delegates will be willing to disembark?”

“Also correct. However….”

“However what?” Kirk snaps, but something in the depths of his bondmate’s eyes gives him pause. “You two have your assignments,” he says suddenly, without looking around. “Dismissed.”

Giotto and Uhura scramble out of their chairs, and only when the door has closed behind them does Kirk relax.

“However what?” he asks more gently.

“I simply wished to point out that the ship’s location during the Time of Reflection is of no concern to the delegates. We possibly could use the extra time to complete an interim assignment of modest scope, should such present itself within range of our designated route.” With studied indifference, Spock ejects Uhura’s data chip from his terminal before tapping in the command to shut it down. “Or we could delay our departure for the Zeta Rho system and pass the extra time in orbit here.”

Kirk stares for a moment, and then a smile crinkles around his eyes. “I happen to know that the Alpha-Y40B Conference Center is impeccably clean and ready to receive guests. And since it was booked for up to eight days due to the indeterminate length of the Zeta Rho talks….”

“Indeed. I believe it easily could accommodate one or two persons for the better part of a standard day.”

Kirk wants to vault over the table and do something that would be utterly unseemly in a shipboard conference room. Instead he leans forward, extending one arm until Spock meets him halfway and their fingers brush.

“Have our bags been brought back aboard yet?” Kirk asks.

“I do not believe so. I shall see to it that they are not.”

“I should report in to Starfleet Command, and I’ll have to inform Scotty and tell him he’s got command for another day.”


“Do you need any time to make arrangements in the Science Department?”

“Checking in with the section chiefs might be advisable.”

Kirk nods once and sits back. “All right, then I’ll meet you in transporter room two in thirty minutes.”

He arrives in just over twenty. Spock is not far behind; but as they step onto the platform, the Vulcan suddenly halts.

“Your pardon,” he murmurs for Kirk’s ears only. “I need a few moments to retrieve something.”

“You’re kidding,” Kirk says. His entire body is wound tight with anticipation, and having Vulcan heat within reach is making his fingers itch, never mind what it’s doing to his cock. “Can’t it wait?”

Spock nearly smiles. “A few minutes only,” he says and leaves Kirk standing there in awkward silence while the transporter technician busies herself checking the console settings for the fourth time in as many minutes.

True to his word, Spock returns before Kirk has been obliged to make more than a minimal amount of small talk with the technician. Spock is now wearing a jacket that Kirk has seen before, of dark brown fleece with a high collar, voluminous sleeves, and ample pockets.

“Is that what you went back for? Are you cold?”

“No,” Spock says. Standing close to Kirk with his back carefully to the console, he pulls open a pocket, and Kirk sees that it contains candles – perhaps a half dozen, all creamy white.

Kirk blinks, and then he smiles. He takes a step backward with an expansive gesture toward the transporter platform. “After you, Mister Spock.” When they are in position, the Vulcan in his customary pose with hands clasped behind his back, Kirk grins at the waiting technician.

“Energize,” he says.

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