James Kirk did not realize what had happened until hours afterwards as he sat staring at a half-written letter of condolence on the computer screen in his quarters. It was the middle of the ship's night, well into his usual rest cycle, but sleep had eluded him until finally he abandoned his bed for the remaining task that he hoped would bring closure to the previous day's events. Having not one message to compose, but three, he had set to work with resignation born of unfortunate experience.
"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Latimer," the letter began, "as captain of the Enterprise it is my unhappy duty to inform you...."
Latimer, Gaetano and O'Neill. Kirk had known none of them well, but nevertheless felt their loss as a personal one. He hated to lose any member of his crew and was little comforted by the fact that three of his senior officers had been aboard Galileo and might easily have fallen victim to the same horrors on Taurus II. Three senior officers...not to mention his two best friends. Kirk was too honest to deny that he had been profoundly relieved when both Spock and McCoy returned unharmed. With a twinge of guilt he sat back in his chair to consider that fact, and that was when it hit him.
"Good lord," he said, and frowned as his words appeared on the screen. "Computer, end dictation. Delete last entry." Then, closing his eyes, he forced himself to remember.
An unintelligible message from the shuttlecraft - the first sign of trouble. Sensor failure... communications failure... Galactic High Commissioner Ferris and endless reminders of a duty Kirk knew all too well. Fear churning in his stomach through the long hours of fruitless search, congealing to desperation as he gave the order to turn the ship for Makus III. And finally, Uhura's voice saying perhaps the most welcome words he had ever heard - Transporter room just beamed up five persons... alive and well - followed by a wash of relief that quite literally took his breath away and made him glad he was sitting down.
Eventually he recovered enough voice to order warp speed as they got underway in earnest. He recalled Sulu giving him an odd look a few moments later and then trading glances with the navigator; and when Kirk rose from the command chair and announced he was going to sickbay, Uhura had pointedly averted her gaze as he passed the communications station on his way to the turbolift. Kirk had noticed at the time, but curiosity being no match for his impatience to hear his first officer's report, he had simply dismissed it.
He could not dismiss it any longer. When he reluctantly opened his eyes, the letter was still there on the screen, mocking him. "Seven people went on that mission," he said aloud, appalled, "but only five came back, and I didn't ask who had died. I didn't even ask...."
He wondered what the bridge crew must have thought. Surely they knew him well enough to understand that he valued every life under his command, whether that of a radiation specialist from the ranks or of the chief engineer. He was equally certain that his friendship with both Spock and McCoy was common knowledge among the Enterprise crew. Did they suppose their captain either so callous or so eager to avoid the appearance of favoritism that he could not be bothered to ascertain his friends' status, as any man might have done? Kirk did not know.
What he did realize was that not even he had understood the truth at the time - that it was Spock's life for which he had feared above all, concern for his safety that kept Kirk on the bridge hour after hour with no thought of rest or food, the prospect of his loss that produced real nausea each time Commissioner Ferris demanded that the search be abandoned.
And in the end it was unutterable relief that had swamped the words the captain should have said because he had known, from the moment the surviving crew of Galileo was beamed aboard, that his Vulcan friend was still alive.
"Impossible," Kirk muttered. He stared at the unfinished letter for a few more seconds, then shut down his terminal with an impatient jab at the controls. The dumbfounded expression on his own face looked back at him from the darkened screen. "It's impossible," he told it again. Then he pushed out of his chair, dialed down the cabin lights, and went back to bed.
But sleep refused to come as moment by moment Kirk became more certain that something was wrong. The thought stopped him, and he frowned into the dark. Not wrong, he decided, but...what? The feeling that Spock was unharmed had been more than mere intuition, more than the sort of gut feeling on which he had learned to rely from his earliest days in Starfleet. Rather it had been a certainty Kirk did not think to question any more than he would have doubted his eyes had the Vulcan been beamed directly onto the bridge.
Kirk rolled onto his side, resolutely closing his eyes. You're too tired to think about this, he told himself. Go to sleep....
And the next memory drifted into his mind like an unbidden fragment of dream.
"I don't know, Spock. I've had some hair-raising experiences in my day, but I've always been able to put them behind me without too much trouble. I don't think I could do this job otherwise. So why should this time be different? It's been almost two weeks, for God's sake. Why can't I get over it and move on?" "Emotional trauma is hardly a topic to which I am qualified to speak, but...perhaps you saw the neural neutralizer as an unusually profound threat to your personality." "Oh, it was profound, all right. Sitting there while that damned machine sucked every last thought from my mind, feeling so alone that even the sound of Tristan Adams' miserable, lying voice was a relief." "What did Dr. McCoy have to say this morning?" "The same as he's been saying all along, that it's going to take time." "Surely he is correct. It cannot be wise to rush the healing of a wound such as this." "Yeah, well that's great, but in the meantime I can't sleep, let alone think straight any more. If this keeps up, I know McCoy's next answer will be psycho-regression therapy, and I just - I don't think I could deal with that right now. You know, there are times when I really envy you your mental discipline. A Vulcan could probably just meditate his way out of this mess."" "That is how we would deal with it, yes. But Vulcan meditative techniques can be used by anyone. If you like - if you think it would help - I would be pleased to instruct you." "Well...I don't know. It's not that I don't appreciate the offer, Spock, but I'm just so tired. I doubt I could concentrate on anything that demanding at this point." "I understand, of course. However, there may be another possibility." "Such as?" "I could mind-meld with you, as I did with Dr. Van Gelder. It should be an effective way of sharing my knowledge of meditation." "Wouldn't that be a little drastic? I mean, I thought the only reason you agreed to do it before because it was... well... an emergency." "That is true, but it was also my first experience melding with a non-Vulcan, and a stranger. I now know that I can function within the emotional environment of a human mind. Also, merely imparting specific information could be accomplished with a more superficial connection than the one I was forced to make with Dr. Van Gelder." "You're making an incredibly generous offer, my friend. I hope you're serious about this, because I'm really tempted to accept, if only for the chance to find out for myself what it feels like...."
"I don't know, Spock. I've had some hair-raising experiences in my day, but I've always been able to put them behind me without too much trouble. I don't think I could do this job otherwise. So why should this time be different? It's been almost two weeks, for God's sake. Why can't I get over it and move on?"
"Emotional trauma is hardly a topic to which I am qualified to speak, but...perhaps you saw the neural neutralizer as an unusually profound threat to your personality."
"Oh, it was profound, all right. Sitting there while that damned machine sucked every last thought from my mind, feeling so alone that even the sound of Tristan Adams' miserable, lying voice was a relief."
"What did Dr. McCoy have to say this morning?"
"The same as he's been saying all along, that it's going to take time."
"Surely he is correct. It cannot be wise to rush the healing of a wound such as this."
"Yeah, well that's great, but in the meantime I can't sleep, let alone think straight any more. If this keeps up, I know McCoy's next answer will be psycho-regression therapy, and I just - I don't think I could deal with that right now. You know, there are times when I really envy you your mental discipline. A Vulcan could probably just meditate his way out of this mess.""
"That is how we would deal with it, yes. But Vulcan meditative techniques can be used by anyone. If you like - if you think it would help - I would be pleased to instruct you."
"Well...I don't know. It's not that I don't appreciate the offer, Spock, but I'm just so tired. I doubt I could concentrate on anything that demanding at this point."
"I understand, of course. However, there may be another possibility."
"I could mind-meld with you, as I did with Dr. Van Gelder. It should be an effective way of sharing my knowledge of meditation."
"Wouldn't that be a little drastic? I mean, I thought the only reason you agreed to do it before because it was... well... an emergency."
"That is true, but it was also my first experience melding with a non-Vulcan, and a stranger. I now know that I can function within the emotional environment of a human mind. Also, merely imparting specific information could be accomplished with a more superficial connection than the one I was forced to make with Dr. Van Gelder."
"You're making an incredibly generous offer, my friend. I hope you're serious about this, because I'm really tempted to accept, if only for the chance to find out for myself what it feels like...."
Kirk sat bolt upright in bed. "Oh my god," he said. "It has to be that meld."
His first instinct - to call Spock - was blocked when the pale glow of the chronometer caught his eye as he reached for the bedside controls. Guiltily the captain aborted the movement. He supposed it was hardly the sort of emergency that required awakening his first officer at 0230 hours. Assuming, of course, that Spock was indeed asleep....
For a long, self-conscious moment Kirk held his breath as though waiting for revelation. The night voice of his ship spoke to him, nothing more, and he lay down again with a strangled laugh. His own bed, his own cabin suddenly felt strange. He found himself wondering what it was like to be someone else... to be Spock... wishing he had been able to capture more than an elusive sense of his Vulcan friend's presence during their brief meld following Kirk's ordeal at the Tantalus V penal colony. The mind-meld had been professional, impersonal (and, Kirk thought privately, rather disappointing) but the meditation techniques he learned did prove to be the turning point in his eventual recovery.
Was his sudden suspicion that the experience had changed him in some more elemental way merely the product of an overactive imagination? Kirk thought again about that moment on the bridge, about the way he felt when Uhura announced that survivors had been beamed aboard, and his conclusion was the same as before: he had known, in some bone-deep, unnamable way, that Spock was alive.
Lying there in the quiet dark, he tried to imagine how he would feel if one of the messages stored in the computer were destined for Spock's parents. He did not even know their names, Kirk realized. In fact, he knew next to nothing about his first officer's family. What he did understand, perhaps for the first time, was that life without the Vulcan would be empty indeed and that their friendship had gradually assumed a vital role in his existence. Losing Spock, he thought, would be like losing a brother...or part of himself.
With such uneasy thoughts for company, the captain of the Enterprise endured the slow crawl of minutes toward ship's morning until at last he fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed of an Iowa landscape scorched and roiling black with clouds.
When the sun cleared the horizon, it rose the color of blood.
* * * * *
Walking into the officers' mess, Kirk was pleased to find Spock seated alone at the table customarily reserved for senior staff. His pleasure evaporated when he realized that the half-eaten meal at the place opposite the Vulcan belonged to Commissioner Ferris, who was returning from the sideboard with a plate of baked Ona-fowl eggs. Kirk's jaw tightened with annoyance. Briefly he considered forgoing breakfast, but the commissioner had already caught his eye. Resigned, Kirk selected a light repast, crossed to the table, and slid into the chair next to Ferris.
"Commissioner," he muttered with a barely civil nod, but met his first officer's eyes with a smile. "Good morning, Mr. Spock."
"I've already been to the bridge, Captain," Ferris announced before the Vulcan could reply. "They assured me that we're still on course and making good time."
Kirk held his tongue until the steward had poured his coffee, then turned on their Federation guest with undisguised anger. "I would appreciate it," he said tightly, "if you refrained from bothering the bridge crew for the remainder of this trip. In fact, I prefer that you stay off my bridge altogether. I guarantee that anything that qualifies as your business will be brought to your attention."
Ferris studied the captain through narrowed eyes, then unexpectedly he smiled. "Pretty sure of yourself for someone who only yesterday very nearly ensured the death of a million people, aren't you?" Returning to his meal with obvious relish, he ate steadily for a few moments before glancing over at the silent Vulcan. "You strike me as a man of integrity, Mr. Spock. How do you reconcile Vulcan honor with a commander who demonstrates such low regard for the lives of the Federation citizens he is sworn to protect?"
Spock met the piercing blue gaze with one of utter calm. "Captain Kirk is a man of the highest personal integrity, Commissioner, and is well aware of his responsibilities. Our rendezvous at Makus III will take place as scheduled; the medical supplies for New Paris will be delivered on time. I am confident this would be the case no matter what the outcome of our recent delay."
"So you think he would have abandoned the search, left you and the others to face almost certain death while he sailed off to save the lives of strangers?"
"I believe," Spock replied, carefully not looking at Kirk, "that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Every starship commander understands this; every starship commander is trained to make difficult decisions. Captain Kirk is no exception."
With a noncommittal grunt, Ferris let his fork clatter onto his empty plate and pushed it aside. "Interesting, but that's not what I heard."
"And you heard what, exactly?" This from the captain, who was staring at his own untouched breakfast as though it harbored Klingons in disguise.
"Well, let's just say that discussions with various members of your crew left me with the distinct impression that you would do just about anything to rescue Mr. Spock, here. And your friend Dr. McCoy. And the others, of course."
Kirk's smoldering anger was palpable. "I did exactly what any self-respecting starship captain would do. I used every possible moment and every available means to search for missing members of my crew, for whose safety I am directly responsible. When continuing that effort would have jeopardized lives at New Paris, I abandoned the search. And yes, I would have returned to the Murasaki sector to resume that search as soon as our mission was complete."
The commissioner's bark of laughter turned heads all around the officers' mess. "You abandoned the search because I ordered you to! You fought me every step of the way, and you never should have sent that damned shuttlecraft out in the first place. You can't deny it!"
An unnatural hush had come over the room. From the corner of one eye Kirk noticed the quartermaster and the chief of astrometrics, who had clearly been on their way out of the mess, hesitate in the doorway and then return decisively to their table. Spock had seen it, too. Meeting his captain's glance with a raised brow, he folded his arms and calmly sat back in his chair, and in that moment Kirk knew what he had to do.
"What I can't deny is that I reacted badly to your authority," he said quietly. "I take my responsibilities very seriously, Commissioner, and I understood the situation just as you did. Had you not been aboard, I would have taken precisely the same actions, hopefully with the same results. To the extent that this is true, I believe...I owe you an apology." With a hint of color staining his cheeks, he pushed back his chair. "If you will excuse me, I have ship's business to attend to."
But a glowering Ferris was already on his feet. "You're an arrogant bastard, you know that? You can play all the games you want in the name of scientific research, but we both know you made a mistake, and I intend to file an official protest to that effect with Starfleet Command."
Kirk stood as well. "You are of course free to do so."
"You're damned right I am," Ferris said. He raised a hand as his mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. "No, Captain. By all means stay and enjoy your first officer's company." And without another word he turned and strode from the room.
A smattering of applause erupted as the doors closed in his wake. Kirk acknowledged it with a nod, but his color had risen even higher. "As you were," he said, sank back into his seat, and dropped his face into his hands. "God, I don't know why I let him get to me like that."
"Perhaps because he is something of an arrogant bastard."
Kirk's head snapped up; there was a definite glint of humor in the Vulcan's eye.
"And I'm not?"
"It is not a term I would choose to describe you, no."
"I appreciate that, Mr. Spock, but... I don't think I'll ask what you'd use instead." Shaking his head, he considered the increasingly unappetizing food on his plate.
"You should eat, Captain, if only for the sake of your officers."
Kirk glanced around the room. Conversations had resumed, but an air of surreptitious scrutiny remained.
"Business as usual?"
Kirk's smile was genuine as he reached for a hard roll, but he tore it in two with a violence that proved surprisingly satisfying. For a moment he sat very still, avoiding Spock's gaze.
"What I said to Ferris - that's what I would have done, you know. I would have taken the ship on to Makus."
"Of course. You had no other choice."
"It would have been... one of the hardest things I ever had to do. But I meant the other part, too. We would have returned afterwards."
"There would have been nothing left to find."
Kirk felt his heart contract with emotion he could not name. He longed suddenly to embrace his Vulcan friend as he would a human one - as he had hugged McCoy - to reassure himself that one he had feared dead was indeed alive. It would be unthinkable, of course, to meet with such a display the calm acceptance he found when he looked into those darkly familiar eyes.
"I'm very glad," he said finally, "that things turned out as they did."
It was Spock's turn to look away. "The outcome was not all I could have hoped for."
Finding himself on more familiar emotional ground, Kirk began to relax. "Losing lives under your command is never easy," he said gently, "but at times it's unavoidable. A good commander is determined never to let it happen, feels regret when it does, and then has the guts to go out the next day and do it all again."
"A difficult lesson, especially when highly emotional beings are involved."
"Humans, you mean." Kirk tried and failed to contain a smile. "Believe it or not, it does get easier," he said. "You'll do fine, Spock. You wouldn't still be my second-in-command if I didn't believe that."
Realizing he was hungry, Kirk spooned marmalade onto his roll and began to eat. Montgomery Scott joined them a few minutes later. The conversation turned to routine matters, and all three were on the point of leaving the officers' mess before Kirk remembered the question with which he had arrived. When they reached the corridor, Scott excused himself to head directly for Engineering; Kirk was pleased to find himself momentarily alone with the Vulcan.
"If you can spare a few minutes later today," he said before he lost his nerve, "there's something I'd like to ask you about. It's nothing urgent," I hope, "but I'd rather discuss it in private."
"Of course, Captain. I'm expected in the physics lab at 0900 hours to assist Lt. Iverson with an experiment that may last up to six hours. Would this afternoon be acceptable?"
Mentally thanking whatever gods had provided him with such a tactful first officer, Kirk nodded. "Any time is fine. I should be in my office reviewing department status reports by then, so just come by whenever it's convenient."
As they walked toward the turbolift, Spock threw the human an oblique look. "Should I assume we will dine with Commissioner Ferris as usual this evening?"
Kirk's response was a theatrical groan. "I suppose so. No sense adding inhospitality to my list of crimes. On the other hand, our esteemed guest seems to respect you, and it would hardly be my fault if I happened to be...indisposed right about then, would it? It might be just as well if you carried on without me."
"With all due respect, Captain," Spock said as they reached the lift, "that is one duty I would prefer to avoid. And it is now forty-six hours, fifty-seven minutes to Makus III."
For a moment, a startled Kirk could not find his voice. He gaped at the Vulcan, uncomfortably aware of a prickle of fear between his shoulder blades.
"How," he managed finally, "did you know I was going to ask?"
"It seemed likely under the circumstances. Humans are generally quite predictable."
Kirk recognized yet another glint of the humor Spock routinely went out of his way to deny. Except with me, he realized. The thought chilled him even more, and only with an effort was he able to respond with a shadow of his usual teasing smile.
"You mean all humans, of course."
Spock inclined his head. "Of course," he murmured, but there the conversation ended, for at that moment the lift arrived.
The car was already occupied. Secretly relieved, Kirk returned greetings as they stepped aboard, then exchanged pleasantries all the way to the bridge. There he settled into his chair, listened to the night conn officer's report and recorded the day's first entry in the ship's log before it came to him that the feeling he had taken for fear had actually been a thrill of anticipation.
He glanced up at the science station; Spock was engrossed in something on his viewer. Kirk watched him for a moment, reminding himself that it was only a matter of hours since he had faced the very real possibility of never seeing his friend again. That had been fear, he realized, and on the heels of that reflection came others. When had the Vulcan become so important to him? Had the evolution of their relationship from professional respect to genuine warmth been so pleasantly seductive that the sensation of being thoroughly and completely understood had taken root almost unnoticed? And why had one James T-for-Tomcat Kirk, in possession of a renowned eye for beauty, never before noticed it in the strikingly handsome person of his Vulcan first officer?
Kirk wrenched his gaze back to the main viewscreen, concentrating on the starfield as though his life depended on it. A flush crept up his neck; when he loosened his grip on the arms of the command chair, his palms came away moist. What the hell am I thinking? he asked himself. And why am I thinking it about Spock, of all people?
The question was so disconcerting that Kirk determined to put it out of his mind, at least while on duty. For the next hour he made a valiant attempt to keep busy, wondering all the while if anyone noticed how frequently his eyes strayed to the upper bridge. When Spock stepped into the command well to deliver a status report before leaving for the physics lab, the captain all but abandoned his pretense of business as usual. Half his attention remained focused on what the Vulcan was saying; with the other half, he studied a familiar face it seemed he had never seen before.
"Is everything all right, Captain?" Spock added when he had finished his report.
Kirk wished he knew. "Quite all right," is what he said. "I'll see you later. Enjoy your day in the lab."
Spock's look was unreadable, but he simply nodded and crossed to the turbolift. Kirk kept his eyes forward until he heard the lift doors close. Then, with a sigh, he retrieved the compu-slate balanced on the arm of his chair.
"Commissioner Ferris on intercom for you, sir," Uhura announced, and Kirk sighed again, meeting Sulu's rueful grin with one of his own.
"I'm afraid," said the captain, "that it's going to be a very long day."
* * * * *
It turned out to be even longer than he imagined. The commissioner's call - a scrupulously polite request to consult with McCoy regarding the eventual transfer of the supplies bound for New Paris, which Kirk was only too happy to grant - left him feeling both irritated and relieved. It was vital that several perishable substances among the medications be handled properly, Ferris reminded him, but of course he would not think of imposing on the chief medical officer without the captain's permission.
"Of course not," Kirk agreed, past caring if the sarcasm in his own voice very nearly equaled that of his passenger. If Ferris was willing to deal with McCoy, so much the better. Kirk mentally washed his hands of the whole matter. He spent an uneventful morning on the bridge, grabbed a sandwich on the way to his office and settled down to paperwork, determined to complete the bulk of it before Spock arrived. The Vulcan was never far from his thoughts; once or twice Kirk even caught himself pondering how best to begin their conversation when the time came. That meld may have left some sort of connection between us, he imagined himself saying, and I'm not sure yet, but I think...I like it.
Discipline aided by a desire to pass the afternoon as quickly as possible returned his wandering attention to the reports awaiting his review. And so it was that when the whistle of the intercom interrupted his concentration, Kirk glanced at the chronometer and was surprised to find that the time was nearly 1530 hours.
The face that appeared on his monitor was Spock's; in the background, Kirk recognized the records area adjacent to the main cargo transporter. His first officer as usual got right to the point.
"My apologies, Captain, but it appears that I will not be able to meet with you this afternoon as promised. Commissioner Ferris has discovered an apparent discrepancy between our cargo manifest and the list of medical supplies provided by the hospital at Starbase 7. He has asked me to investigate, which may take some time."
Kirk frowned. "Wasn't everything on the list accounted for when the supplies were beamed aboard?"
"It was, to the best of my knowledge. As per usual operating procedure," Spock added with such perfect correctness that Kirk immediately realized he was not alone.
"Well, it has to be looked into, of course. But where's McCoy? I thought he and the commissioner were double-checking the supplies and going over transfer procedures."
"Dr. McCoy was called to sickbay, but should return momentarily. He and Mr. Ferris discovered the apparent discrepancy during their review, at which point Dr. McCoy asked for my assistance. I was still occupied in the lab at the time and so arrived here only ten minutes ago."
Trusting that Ferris's strategy of avoiding the visual pickup meant that he could not see the monitor at his end, Kirk grinned, sincerely hoping the commissioner had gotten the message that his problem hardly qualified as an emergency. When Spock raised a brow in response, Kirk struggled not to laugh outright.
"Very well, Mr. Spock," he said in the most businesslike tone he could manage. "Carry on. And keep me advised of your findings."
With that he signed off, shaking his head as he resumed his interrupted task. He worked steadily for another hour, refusing to acknowledge disappointment at having to postpone his meeting with Spock. When the last status report was approved and the final comments appended, Kirk snapped off the terminal and got to his feet, stretching and rubbing his neck. His shoulders ached, he realized, as though the anxiety of the preceding days retained its grip. A glance at the chronometer told him well over an hour remained until his next scheduled confrontation with Ferris - plenty of time for a light workout. After checking in with the bridge he took himself off to the deck eight gym, where he opted for running a few easy laps followed by one of Satish Ayer's deliciously painful massages and twenty minutes in the steam room. A shower and fresh uniform completed his rejuvenation, and Kirk felt ready for almost anything as he headed for the ship's formal dining room.
Most of the senior staff were already there as was the commissioner, ensconced at the foot of the table like a monarch about to hold court. Kirk's officers rose as one when he entered; Ferris alone remained seated during the polite chorus of "Good evening, Captain."
If Kirk noticed the gesture, he chose to ignore it. "Good evening," he returned. "Let's be seated," and looked down the table to meet Ferris's penetrating gaze. "Commissioner, I trust your concerns about our manifest have been resolved to your satisfaction."
"Why yes, they have, thanks to Mr. Spock here. You have a highly efficient first officer, Kirk. He found the problem to be nothing more than a minor error on the part of one of your technicians." His smile was smug as he reached for a water goblet. "We tried to inform you some time ago, but you were not to be found."
Settling into the chair next to the commissioner, Spock caught his captain's eye. "The bridge informed me that you had left your office. I did not think it necessary to have you paged," he said quietly.
Kirk nodded. "I appreciate that, especially since I was probably in the capable hands of Mr. Ayer at the time."
From halfway down the table, Uhura groaned. "Now that's what I need: a good massage." She leaned toward Ferris with a blatantly charming smile. "Have you met our exercise therapist, Commissioner? He's quite extraordinary. You really should take advantage of his services while you're aboard."
Kirk sat back and considered the seating arrangement as the talk flowed on around him. During the five days Galactic High Commissioner Ferris had spent aboard the Enterprise, Spock had occupied the place to Kirk's left and McCoy, the one to his right whenever they dined formally; now first officer and chief medical officer had taken chairs to either side of their guest and were actively engaging him in conversation. Kirk smiled to himself; he knew a conspiracy when he saw one. He decided he was not above being grateful, especially when he was not required to exchange another word with said commissioner as the meal progressed. His mood by the time dessert was served was definitely mellow. He had all but decided to invite Spock for a game of chess and use that opportunity to speak with him alone, when Ferris set his napkin aside and got to his feet.
"That was another fine dinner, Captain," he said jovially, "but now you'll have to excuse us. There are some changes I'd like to make in the supply transfer schedule, and your first officer has once again offered to assist me." Turning to the Vulcan now standing beside him, Ferris clapped him on the back as they started for the door. "No rest for the weary, eh, Mr. Spock?"
Cringing inwardly at the thoughtless familiarity, Kirk kept his expression neutral as he also rose. "I'm glad you enjoyed the meal, Commissioner, but wouldn't you like to enjoy a leisurely evening as well? The schedule changes will keep till morning."
"Ah, but never put off until tomorrow - well, surely the saying is known to a man of action such as yourself. Shall we?" And with that he strode from the room with the Vulcan in his wake.
A few minutes later, the rest of the party began to break up. As soon as the chair next to Kirk was vacant, a grinning McCoy took coffee in hand and joined the captain.
"Well, Jim, how did you enjoy your dinner?"
"It was...pleasant, Bones. Thanks. But what was all that about changing the delivery schedule? Spock is off duty, for God's sake. Doesn't that jackass Ferris have anything better to do?"
McCoy laughed. "Apparently not. That wasn't exactly part of the plan, but I'm sure Spock doesn't mind. As long as we keep Ferris out of your hair, I wouldn't complain if I were you." Draining the last of his coffee, he pushed the cup aside. "You can look forward to a 'pleasant' day tomorrow, too; I'm taking our guest on a grand tour of the ship. And Uhura's suggestion of a massage was brilliant! Wish I'd thought of it myself. Maybe Satish knows how to induce temporary paralysis. 'Course then I'd have the jackass in my sickbay...."
Kirk's response was a noncommittal grunt followed by a frown. "I'm surprised he'd be interested in a tour of the ship. He's done enough poking around and already claims to have met half the crew."
"That may be, but I happen to know for a fact that he's missed most of the usual highlights, like the hydroponics lab and the arboretum and the shuttle bay. Hasn't even been to the main observation deck, as a matter of fact. So don't you worry. I should be able to keep him occupied for most of the day.
"Now this evening, on the other hand, I seem to be free as a bird. You interested in the Outer Rim Olympics they're broadcasting down in rec five? It's the soccer finals tonight, and I have a few credits riding on the underdogs from Correa Prime. Have to keep an eye on my investment, you know."
Kirk hesitated; a rec room overflowing with rambunctious sports fans seemed a poor substitute for the quiet heart-to-heart talk he had hoped to have with Spock. On the other hand, until a few days before he had been following the games as his schedule permitted....
"Sure, Bones, why not?" he said finally. "The fact that I'm living for the moment we complete this mission doesn't mean I shouldn't enjoy myself in the meantime."
"That's the spirit! And it's only one more day now to Makus III - well, more or less. As long as we're just cruising along and don't run into any more quasar-like phenomena, how much can go wrong in a day?"
The moment the words left his mouth, McCoy saw that it was the wrong thing to say. Kirk's face had gone white; he folded his napkin and laid it aside with exaggerated care.
"Don't joke about it," he said in a barely audible voice.
The doctor glanced around; save for a few stragglers lingering over coffee at the far end of the table, they had the room to themselves.
"You know what. Murasaki 312. The ion storm. Every scientific investigation that goes and turns into a goddamned nightmare."
"You could have died - you and Spock and everyone else on that shuttle."
"Thanks for reminding me," McCoy said dryly. Seeing that Kirk now looked almost embarrassed, he shrugged. "But you know, it didn't turn out so badly - as disasters go, I mean. I thought you knew that, the way you were teasing Spock on the bridge afterwards."
"Yeah, well...I shouldn't have done that." Kirk shook his head. "The more I think about the whole incident, the more it bothers me for some reason."
"In that case," McCoy said as he pushed back his chair, "I'd say you need to quit thinking for a while. Come on, Jim, take the night off. Enjoy yourself for a few hours, then get some sleep. Things will look better in the morning."
I bet you wouldn't say that if you knew it was Spock I can't stop wondering about, Kirk thought, half wishing he dared say it aloud. "Things will look better when the esteemed Mr. Ferris is off this ship for good," he said instead. "Maybe then we'll get back to normal around here."
Right on cue, McCoy laughed. "Since when does normal apply to life aboard this tub? Routine, maybe...."
Kirk was about to say he'd settle for that when it came over him again in an adrenaline rush, like gelatin heat filling all the chambers of his heart. He had known Spock was still alive. He had known, and something remained between them still - a connection, something - and Kirk could scarcely breathe for needing to know what it was, for wanting to experience it more, again, maybe even forever.
Certain the inner turmoil must show in his face, Kirk threw a sidelong glance at the doctor, but his friend was halfway to the door.
"You coming?" he said. "The Olympics waits for no man."
Apparently neither did McCoy. "Right behind you, Bones," Kirk sighed; but try as he might, he could not shake the feeling that his life would never be routine again.