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This story was voted best K/S novel at the 2007 MediaWest Con













Jonah d’Ceren sat before the fire, haphazardly stirring the embers. A sprig of purple flowers sat in a porcelain vase on the mantelpiece above his head, the only reminder in this grim and untidy house of the coming spring. Sitting on his haunches, Jonah looked up at it. He'd picked the flowers scarcely an hour ago but already they were beginning to wilt.

The sight for some reason angered him. Standing up, he grasped the vase and held it tightly in one hand. For a long moment just stared at its surface, dulled now with age and neglect, crisscrossed by a dozen tiny fractures. “Useless piece of shit,” he muttered. “Don’t know why I bothered to keep it all these years. All it does is gather dust.”

Shifting the vase in his hand, he raised it above his head. Hesitation struck him for an instant but, clenching his teeth, he overcame it and with a swing of his arm heaved the vase into the hearth. Watched as it hit the fireback and shattered into a dozen pieces. Watched as the fragments fell into the fire and the tiny lamorra buds painted on the surface began to dissolve. Watched as it all merged together into nothingness.

Several minutes passed. When at last the fire faded away he searched through the ash, wishing now that he hadn’t destroyed the vase, but there was little left other than blackened fragments. No matter, he thought morosely. He had no use for keepsakes any longer. All they did was sadden him. He was better off without the damned thing.


**********


“Damn.” Leonard McCoy stared at the report on his monitor. “I don’t believe it.”

The warning light flashed silently back at him. He frowned, glanced up at the chronometer. The Enterprise would pull into spacedock in five hours, slated for a complete engine overhaul, and the crew had been given two glorious weeks off. Most everyone was going to Delta Auriga IV, a nearby planet known throughout the Federation for its pastoral beauty and peaceful people. McCoy had planned to go too, had been looking forward to fishing its rivers, poking around in flora said to be among the most vibrant in the quadrant. He’d packed his bags, cheerfully tidied up his quarters, then spent the past few hours running everyone through the scanners, a necessary but monotonous requirement prior to beamdown. Designed to prevent accidental contamination of virgin populations, Starfleet had put the order into effect years ago. The Enterprise computers had flown through the crews' histories, comparing their medical records to those of the planet to which they were going. Everyone on the ship had passed.

Everyone, that is, but him.

“Damn,” he repeated. “There goes my shore leave.”

McCoy read the report one more time but there was no doubting its results. The kurian fever he’d contracted four months ago was a distant memory to him now but it had never visited Auriga. There wasn’t a soul down there with any resistance to the virus, the vacation he'd been so looking forward to just vanishing like a proverbial puff of smoke.

Sealing his findings, he notified said lucky crew mates, all three hundred and eighty-two of them, then walked around his office for a while. Sat again to pull up the sector, although he already knew what he'd find there; apart from that little piece of paradise a singularly uninteresting area of space, not that he had much interest in going off by himself anyway. Walked some more, ran one last forlorn program. Gave serious thought to delving into that two hundred year-old bottle of Saurian Brandy he kept locked in the cabinet.

He was, however, still on duty so the good doctor restrained himself, knowing that alcohol would only exacerbate his glum mood anyhow.

Finally, a full hour later, he left sickbay, resigning himself to fourteen days of medical journals and aimless wandering on Starbase 12. Turning a corner, he nearly plowed into First Officer Spock, walking toward him from the opposite direction.

The Vulcan inclined his head. “Doctor.”

“Spock.”

Spock hesitated, noting that he was still in uniform. “The Aurigan transport will be here in twenty-one minutes. Are you not going with the others?”

“No. I’m not beaming over.”

Spock’s eyes widened. He’d heard McCoy talk of little else in the last few days. “Why not?”

A half-hearted shrug. “It’s nothing. Just thought I’d hang out at the base instead. Didn’t feel like going after all.”

Even to his own ears the excuse sounded lame. Spock just stood there in silence and McCoy could see the shifting expression on his face, realized he wouldn’t leave until he told him the truth.

So he did. “Remember that fever I had a few months back?”

“I do.”

“Well, seems it’s never been recorded on Auriga.”

The Vulcan knew what that meant.

McCoy stared intently at his feet. “It’s no big deal. I’ll find something to do. I have a million journals to go through anyway.”

Spock's perceptive gaze zeroed in, McCoy painfully aware that right about now he was as transparent as the wind. “You and Jim,” he continued, trying to change the subject, “are off to Drosina tonight? Read up on it once. Something about growing rocks?”

Spock recognized the evasion but let it pass. “Not precisely, Doctor. When an exact alignment of shifting magnetic fields coincides with a .02% wobble in the planetary axis, it produces a crystalline restructuring of certain quartzite minerals, causing them to expand their surface area geometrically.”

“Oh.”

McCoy didn’t really want to hear about it. He forced a smile and began to walk off, shoulders starting to sag. “You two go and have a good time. I’ll see you when you get back.”

Spock watched him go, the doctor's loneliness clinging to him like a second skin.

And if there was one thing Spock understood, it was loneliness. “Doctor?”

McCoy turned back.

“Would you like to come with us?”

McCoy's face brightened for a moment. Then his expression fell. He’d be about as welcome on their camping trip as a case of influenza.

“It's quite all right.” Spock took a step forward. “Come with us.”

The doctor scowled, recalling all too well Kirk's nearly giddy anticipation at the dinner table last night. “Jim’s gonna kill you.”

Spock's lips curled up ever so slightly. “I hardly think so.”

”You’d better ask him.”

“If you wish, but he won't object. I can reach you in your quarters?” Spock hesitated for a moment. “You’ll need to run a medical scan for the planet.”

McCoy blushed. He’d run the scan five minutes ago.

Spock gave him a rather severe look but the doctor could see the amusement in his eyes. “Very well. I'll contact you shortly.”

McCoy nodded, watched as he walked away. They’d had their disagreements over the years, he and Spock, but underneath it all Spock was a good and decent man. A friend. Hell, he thought, I suppose I could even say that I love you in a strange, antagonistic way.

Spock abruptly turned around to look at him. Shit! McCoy waved a friendly hand in the air. Damned telepathy would be the death of him yet.


**********


James Kirk strode down the corridor, restlessness fueling his steps. He wanted to get off the Enterprise more than he cared to admit. Two weeks. Gods, he could barely contain himself. Two whole weeks wandering around beautiful Drosina. No cares, no responsibilities. Just he and Spock, with nothing to do but watch rocks grow, lie by a lake somewhere, as naked as the day they were born. Make love for hours, Spock stretched out beneath him, that long, graceful body….

With an inward , Kirk refocused as a crew member approached from the opposite direction. Pushed the image from his mind, didn’t much relish the idea of getting an erection in the middle of the corridor. The woman smiled as she passed. Damn it, Kirk. He smiled back. Keep your mind on the job.

Their quarters lay ahead. Sanctuary. Quickening his pace, he crossed into the room.

Spock was facing the bed, fastidiously folding his clothes.

Kirk approached from behind, penis hardening at the very sight of him, and slid both arms around his waist. He wanted this shore leave so badly he could almost taste it.

Drawing away, Spock turned. There was an odd expression on his face. Kirk didn't like the looks of it one bit. “What?”

Spock sensed his anticipation, wondered if the invitation of a few minutes ago had been a mistake.

“What.” A discernible edge had entered Kirk's voice now, the word no longer a question.

For a moment Spock made no reply. Jim is an understanding man, he thought, a rare feeling of dread coming over him. He always puts the needs of the crew before his own.

Or, at least, most of the time.

Well. It was what it was and there was no logic in denying it. “I asked Doctor McCoy to come with us.”

Kirk just stood there. Spock could actually see his erection disappear. “You didn’t.”

“I did.”

“Why?” Kirk stepped back. “I thought his plans were already set. He was going to Auriga.”

“He had to cancel. The ship’s medical scanners came back positive for kurian fever.” A long, rather painful pause. “He did ask me to check with you. I can withdraw the invitation if you wish.”

Kirk stared at him in silence, trying to visualize that incredibly awkward scene.

Spock resisted the impulse to fidget. “I’m sorry. I should have spoken with you about it first.”

Yeah, you should have.

“You would have done the same thing.”

No. No, I don’t think I would.

“Jim.” Spock clearly heard the words, reached up to touch his cheek. “He had nowhere else to go. He would have been alone.”

Looking at that suddenly very human face Kirk understood, mentally kicked himself that he hadn’t seen it at once. Loneliness. Spock knew it well, too well, and couldn’t bear to see it in others. For most of his life it had been a constant companion, dogging his steps as he made his way through what often seemed a very unfriendly world. He'd become an expert at hiding it, burying it behind that massive intellect, the intimidation he could throw out with a look. But it had still been there, had became almost a part of his very cell structure.

Until the day James Kirk stepped off the transporter pad and entered his life.

Hazel eyes softened with affection. “All right.” Kirk rested both hands on Spock's shoulders. “But you really should have asked me first.” Moved them up, began to play with his ear lobes. “That was wrong of you.” Traced a path to the tip, well aware of how sensitive those ears were. Heard the breath catch in Spock's throat, saw that blissful expression spread across his face. “You’re going to have to make it up to me, you know.”

With visible effort Spock refocused. Kirk looked up at him, an expression of pure innocence on his face. One eyebrow rose. “And just how would I do that?”

Those fingers resumed their attack. “Oh, I don’t know.” Up and down they went, the touch so light it was maddening. “You’re a pretty smart guy. You’ll think of something.”

Spock rolled his head back, wondering vaguely how the captain could make thirty years of Vulcan discipline float away like smoke on the wind.

Kirk smiled. Spock was putty in his hands. Under his determined attack the Vulcan didn’t stand a chance. He knew how much fire was hidden beneath that stoical demeanor. Knew exactly how to stoke it to life.

“So,” trailing his fingers down Spock's tunic, he slipped them beneath the hem, “what do you say? Wanna mess around. Don't have much time though. Transport'll be here in... “ he glanced at the chronometer, “fifteen minutes.”

“Seventeen minutes, eleven... “

Digging into the thick chest hair that had figured so prominently in those sad, lonely dreams of earlier days, Kirk let it glide through his fingers like warm silk.

Spock took a deep breath as he endeavored to continue, rather annoyed with himself for giving in so easily, “... seconds if she is on time. Docking procedures are scheduled to commence... “

Kirk pinched a hardened nipple between thumb and forefinger.

“... at twenty-two hundred... “

Kneaded the other with his palm.

“... hours, nine...

Moved lower, following a leisurely, meandering path down Spock's abdomen. Circled his navel, the tender flesh inside.

Still, Spock struggled on, “... minutes and....”

The captain was almost feeling sorry for him now.

Almost.

But not quite.

“I'd like to be there when she docks.” Finding the hidden seam of Spock's pants, he ignored his words completely. The mark of a good starship commander, the ability to put compassion aside when the situation demanded it. “Professional courtesy, you understand. Wouldn't want to be…” Pulled it apart in one smooth motion,“... rude.”

Spock didn't respond.

Kirk wasn't surprised.

The pants fell to the floor.

Kneeling, Kirk unfastened his boots. “Step back.”

Spock stepped back, eyelids drifting down as Kirk's hands moved along his calves and thighs, brushed through the black curls at the base of his penis.

Feeling Spock tense beneath his touch, the captain glanced up, pausing for a moment just to look, to savor the utter abandon he could see reflected on Spock's face. God, but he was beautiful when he looked like that: eyes closed, lips parted, mouth slack. Lost in the physical, and Kirk found himself impatient suddenly to feel that hard body pressed up against his own, to mold himself to it, line for line, from shoulder to groin. Skin against skin. He needed it, ached for it, wondered at times if he was becoming a bit obsessed about it.

No matter. Obsessions could be good things on occasion.

Coming to his feet, he rested his hands on Spock's shoulders again. Rose up on his toes to put his lips to one pointed ear. “I thought,” he murmured, “that you were supposed to be making this up to me.”

Spock opened his eyes. Looked down. The captain was right. He owed him an apology.

That passive, almost dream-like, state vanished in a heartbeat, a deep, voracious appetite replacing it as Spock caught Kirk's face in his hands. Leaning forward, his grip just bordering on the painful, he kissed him, a long, open-mouthed kiss that seemed to knock the strength right out of Kirk's legs. There was such erotic power in Spock when he decided to release it that it quite literally stunned him, dwarfed anything he had to offer. An intense, even primeval, lust fueled by a great intelligence and a cunning knowledge of sensations, anatomy, and erogenous zones. When Spock set it free, the captain was quite defenseless.

And he was setting it free a lot lately.

Breaking off the kiss, Spock took a step back. Slowly, his movements supple and graceful and perfectly timed, he stripped off his tunic, tossing it carelessly into a corner. Watched silently as Kirk did the same. With a swing of one arm, knocked that pile of neatly folded clothes to the floor. “Lie down.”

An order the captain was more than ready to obey.

But, being a Type-A, he wasn't one to go down without a fight, either.

Kicking his clothes away, he sauntered to the bed. Laid down flat on his back, hands and feet dangling over the sides. The overhead light glinted off his muscles, his hair, slightly mussed, shining a soft golden brown. His penis stood ramrod straight before him, a single drop of fluid now leaking from the tip.

For what seemed a long time they simply stared at one another. Spock's hands curled into tight fists, eyes flashing raw heat. His body was angled forward, muscles visibly flexing. Looked for all the world like a cat about to pounce.

Well? A taunt, not a question as Kirk inched his hips up, drew that great, dark cat in again. What are you waiting for, big man? If you like what you see, then get your ass over here and take it

Spock, as intended, heard him, his breath coming faster now, chest rising and falling like a bellows. Crossing the few feet that separated them, he knelt between Kirk's legs. Resting on his elbows, he stretched his body out until they were chest to chest. His erection felt enormous, pressing like an iron bar against Kirk's stomach, the ridges, stiff with blood, flaring outward to expose delicate tissue in between. Vulcan pheromones, potent as a narcotic, filled the air, and Kirk inhaled deeply, drawing them in to coat lungs and nasal passages, filter into every cell, making him light-headed, almost crazy with need.

Spock shifted his weight, began to rock, the soft hair of his chest rubbing against Kirk's smoothness. Their penises ground against one another, granite-hard, the places where they touched burning like fire.

No. That wasn't quite right. Not just where they touched, but everywhere: his groin, legs, chest, arms. Everywhere.

Oh god. Uttering a moan that was somewhere between agony and euphoria, Kirk gave up his feeble attempts at analysis and simply let go, allowed Spock's overpowering lust to flow into him unimpeded. Impossible to describe, in any event. An almost mindless rut, carnal and primeval, and yet somehow profoundly sublime at the same time. Love with a touch telepath, sex done in the Vulcan way, and he wondered distantly how it was possible he'd once believed himself fulfilled, living within the narrow parameters of the physical, a brief coming together to kiss and orgasm and then walk away again. A joining that, at best, barely touched the surface of his soul. That he'd existed in such a half-limbo state for over two decades and actually found it satisfying, even rewarding. How was it possible?

Spock's rocking intensified, a hard, driving rhythm that meshed seamlessly with his own, and, twining his fingers in the Vulcan's hair, Kirk let that thought go, too. Pulled him down, their lips meeting again, a familiar taste coming with it. The taste of Spock, like honey and wood smoke, and he fed on it like a starving man. The room grew sultry, the lights far too bright. Their motions, in perfect synchrony, faster and faster, sweat gathering in the places where their bodies met, coating chest and abdomen, beginning to mat their hair.

Nine minutes left And yet, somehow, Kirk managed to keep track of time, the only one of them, ironically, to do so. “I hate to rush things,” he mumbled, regretfully pulling away, “but we have to finish.”

Spock straightened, rose up on his knees as he gathered himself together. Of course they did, if they wanted to meet that transport, anyway. With their hormones raging at warp ten, there was no way in hell either was going to leave this room otherwise. Even Vulcan controls would be hard-pressed to keep that one down.

Grabbing a pillow, Kirk shoved it under his hips and slung both legs over Spock's shoulders as the Vulcan carefully positioned himself. “You sure you're ready?” he asked. “I have no wish to hurt you.”

That went without saying but Kirk nodded regardless, watched avidly as those elegant fingers settled into the meld position, and that final wall within the Vulcan's mind came down, a brilliant white light flowing in from the other side. Blinding and beautiful. Spock as he knew him now, his deepest thoughts and earliest memories. Knew him as well as the Vulcan knew himself. Perhaps more.

Spock pushed his hips forward, slipping as effortlessly into Kirk's body as he had into his mind, and the captain gasped as that long penis stretched up to rub against his prostate, every feeling suddenly magnified, growing sharp as glass, heightened to an unbelievable, nearly unendurable extent. Wrapping his arms around Spock's neck, he pulled him into a crushing embrace, the force of it jarring the Vulcan's hands loose.

The sensations, however, didn't even slow down, just kept sweeping through him again and again, wave upon wave, their passion for each other a living thing now, two souls merged into one. Inseparable.

Buried to the hilt, Spock straightened to take Kirk's penis in both hands, the captain's muscles locking as those fingers worked their magic, spiraling his universe into a single point. He tried to say something, wanted suddenly to tell Spock how much he loved him, how deeply, fundamentally, Spock had changed his life, but it was hopeless and, throwing his head back, he let a strangled cry into the air as the orgasm caught them both and swept the two of them away.


**********


The wood was hard but he’d long since gotten used to it. Stretching out his legs, Jonah sat on the top step of his cabin, oiling a rifle barrel cradled on his lap. Every few moments he would glance up at the adjacent ridge paralleling his own. The Shamar was due to soon, covering the mountain with geological oddities not seen in a hundred years. When he’d made his monthly journey to Mersin for supplies the week before the merchants had talked of little else. Knots of people buzzing with excitement. Shopkeepers rubbing their avaricious hands together as they mentally counted up the money they would make on the influx of tourists and fools.

Jonah stared at the ground. The phenomenon had interested him once, a brief flare of curiosity that seemed strangely out of place within his narrow existence. But that was many years ago, how many he was no longer certain. Nor cared for that matter.

Yet, despite the haziness of the passage of time, the actual memory refused to disappear, standing as clearly in his mind as if it had happened yesterday. Another trip to Mersin for supplies. It had been a warm day, in the autumn sometime, and he could still remember how the leaves looked when they fell. For some reason his thoughts had turned to the Shamar. Everyone on Drosina knew about it, of course. It had been written upon, talked about, studied by teams of university scholars. Shamar: the rocks that grow. Famous throughout every corner of his world.

And here he was, living right beside the mountain where it all took place. Such a unique event happening practically on his doorstep. He should show some interest, he told himself. Learn more about it. A long-dormant surge of inquisitiveness came over him and, as soon as he reached the village, before he'd even purchased his supplies, he went to the library to read up on the phenomenon.

But then, sitting in the reading stall, he realized that no one in this universe cared whether he knew about the Shamar or not, that there wasn’t a living soul interested in the fact that he was interested in it. Knowledge in a vacuum. The words, the implications of them, were fatal, his burst of interest shriveling up to blow away like a handful of dust. He’d left the library at a run and fled Mersin within the hour, leaving behind some much-needed supplies in his haste. He hadn't gone back for nearly a year.

What in the hell’s the purpose of learning anyway, he thought morosely, the sting of that day still festering. Nobody to talk to about it. Useless. Ain’t no one to give a damn.

Forcing his attention back to the task at hand, Jonah turned the gun on its other side. His hands moved across the stock, but his movements were jerky now and some of the oil spilled onto his pants. It was only when his teeth began to hurt that he realized he was clenching his jaws.

A bird began to sing in a tree twenty feet in front of him, a sapphire blue bird with a silver streak running down its back and a beak as red as the setting sun. A lovely thing, mindlessly chirping out its pleasure in the warmth of the day, the promise of spring.

Jonah watched it for a moment, then put a bullet in the chamber of his rifle. Raising the weapon, he lined up the bird in his sights. The tiny creature tilted its head to look down at him. It continued to sing.

For nearly thirty seconds he sat this way, his index finger resting lightly on the trigger, the bird’s puffed out chest in the cross hairs of his gun.

But he didn’t fire. And finally, a full minute later, the bird flew away.


**********


The transport, given the unlikely name of The Elegant Swan, made a loud crack as she eased gracelessly into her mooring berth. Inside, Kirk grabbed the railing with one hand and Spock with the other as the lurch nearly knocked both men off their feet. McCoy, sitting at a nearby table, let out a yelp and grabbed at the glass that went skidding across the tabletop.

The natives of Drosina seemed unperturbed, as if smashing into spacedock was the normal way The Elegant Swan made her arrival. Hands reached for suitcases, parents called out to their children. The ship, stopping at every planet between here and the Deltan colonies, was filled to capacity. They’d picked her up at Starbase 12 three seemingly endless days ago. Now Kirk knew the real meaning of the words ‘milk run.’

McCoy rose to stand at his elbow and searched the landing bay. A huge ramp lumbered into place, obscuring part of the view as people began to file outside. “What kind of a ship did he say it was?”

“A military scout ship. He didn’t mention the design.”

McCoy glanced over. Kirk’s face was expressionless, but the words were clipped and there was a tightness around his mouth he'd long ago come to recognize. Preferential treatment. God, Kirk hated it, but it had dogged his steps like a shadow for years. The captain’s fame both within and without Starfleet didn’t make it go away any faster, either.

“You tried to keep a low profile,” he said sympathetically. “But you’re not exactly unknown, you know.”

Kirk sighed faintly in resignation. “Don’t remind me.”

A gap opened in the crowd below and Spock was the first to see it. “Jim?” He pointed to the left. “There.”

Both men turned and spotted the ship at once, a streamlined, elegant thing perched a hundred or so feet away. The red, gold and green of the Drosin ruling family were splashed liberally along her flanks, highlighting the gleaming silver, the beauty of the ship’s lines. McCoy looked back at the seedy connecting transport most everyone else was getting onto, paint peeling, rust clearly visible even from here, and felt more than a twinge of guilty relief.

Moving through the crowd, they made their way over. The ship's pilot, standing by her nose in full-dress uniform, gave them a rigid salute. “Lieutenant Sondar,” he said sharply before lowering the ramp and escorting them inside.

Kirk and Spock sat directly behind the pilot’s seat, McCoy farther to the rear. “Nice ship,” Kirk said, scanning the lustrous interior.

Spock nodded. She was, indeed. As sleek as a greyhound, as spotless as Mister Scott’s engine room, the vessel was a work of art.

Sondar heard Kirk’s words and smiled, the gesture instantly dropping years from his face. He began talking, hesitantly at first, then with increasing speed when it became apparent he had an audience. Pushing the throttle forward, he eased the ship into the air, then turned her toward the south with the speed of a photon torpedo. The flow of conversation continued: statistics, tales of the ship’s operation and performance, eventually spreading out to include most anything the Drosinian could think of.

McCoy looked out the window. Kirk bent forward, Spock moving with him, unconsciously imitating his pose. The talk continued as the terrain beneath them changed, transforming from plains to mountains to a large inland sea and finally back to land once again. Sondar's enthusiasm knew no bounds and Kirk couldn't help but smile. The man reminded him very much of himself when he was younger.

A half-hour passed. “Almost there,” the pilot said after nearly five minutes of uncharacteristic silence. “And look.” He peered out the front viewer. “The roads are already crowded - for Forlym province, that is. The Shamar's been on the news for months. Biggest event in a hundred years. Mersin’ll be a mob scene,” he warned with a grin.

Three minutes later the ship touched down on a landing strip just outside of town. Sondar powered off the engines, then hit the door release. What appeared to be a feline male was standing outside as the ramp descended. He jumped away, fur bristling across the length of his shoulders, and shouted something in a language none of them could understand. After several seconds of intense glaring he waved both hands in the air and stomped away.

“Outworlder.” Sondar seemed unfazed. “Not many people in these parts speak much in the way of foreign languages ‘cept for Standard.” He inclined his head toward the crowd beginning to gather around his ship. “Must be fifty thousand people in town, from all over the planet, from the whole quadrant for that matter. You’ve already reserved your rooms, I hope?”

Kirk stood. “No, Captain. We’re only going to stay in town long enough to get our supplies and then we’re off to the mountains for the night.”

The pilot nodded in agreement. “Good idea. Weather’s perfect for camping and Delar’s rising this month. She’ll light up the sky like a beacon.” Reaching behind him, he helped his passengers wrestle their belongings from the hold. “I’m on duty this weekend or I’d be here, too. Historical records say the phenomenon is supposed to be fascinating.”

McCoy let out a low groan. Sondar gave him a puzzled look. Kirk shrugged, taking the bag from his arms. “Thanks for the lift.” He stepped off the ship, giving McCoy a helping hand as the doctor followed him. “We’ll see you in eight days?”

Sondar throttled up his engines as Spock easily hefted two of the heaviest bags in his arms and climbed outside. “Eight days,” he shouted over the roar of the engines. “You bet! I’ll be here!”

The engines churned up a gust of wind, sending sand devils spiraling away from the ship. Sondar waved. He liked these friendly strangers. Scuttlebutt was they were VIP’s but you’d never know it by their attitude. Yesterday he was irritated by the job he’d been assigned. A hot-shot pilot shouldn’t be ferrying around diplomats, no matter how high up they were. But now he was glad he’d drawn it. He enjoyed the flight down and would be looking forward to the return trip in just over a week's time.

What the young man didn't know, however, was that it was a flight he was never going to make.


**********


The tree stood before him like a huge sentinel: sturdy, strong, awesomely impressive. One resembling the giant redwoods of Earth, this majestic specimen differed from its counterparts in that it thrived in the dry mountain climate, thrived and flourished and dominated the already imposing landscape within which it lived.

Reaching out, Jonah laid an open hand against the bark. This tree was, in fact, the reason he'd elected to settle here. The sight of it had attracted him from miles away and he'd followed its stately crown across half the valley. The tomarii: a species fabled to live for ten thousand years.

Raising his head, Jonah looked up, watched as the upper branches blew gently in air currents he couldn’t even feel from the ground. It was as if, in a way, they inhabited two entirely different worlds, he and his mighty tree.

For a full minute he stood this way, staring at the top branches, the clouds that scudded behind them. Countless birds nested in those branches. The height gave them protection, freedom, the feel of the wind against their faces. Many times he’d dreamed of what it would be like to live up there.

Another minute went by before Jonah shook himself from his reverie. The day was passing and he had things to do. Always so many things to do. Dropping his arm to his side, he picked up the shovel propped against the tree trunk and went back to his work.


**********


“Look out, moron!”

Kirk grabbed Spock by the wrist and jerked him back as the car slammed on its brakes. The driver, a reptilian female of extraterrestrial origin, leaned out the window to continue her tirade, pointing a leathery finger at Spock. “Fucking idiot!” she shrieked. “Don’t they give out brains where you come from!”

“Hey!” Kirk yelled back. “Watch your mouth!”

The creature made a blatantly obscene gesture before gunning the engine and taking off in a cloud of dust. Kirk glared at the car as it drove away. “Asshole,” he muttered under his breath.

Spock laid a hand on his arm. Kirk turned to look at him. “Sorry, but the jackass nearly ran you down.”

“It’s nothing, Jim. She wasn’t really that close.”

Like hell.

Spock ignored the unspoken comment. Reaching in his bag, he pulled out a map and opened it against a lamp post. “This is a topographical schematic of the mountain---”

The words were cut off when a passerby appeared suddenly at Spock's elbow, jostling his arm so roughly the map nearly fell from his hand.

Kirk raised his head, eyes neutral as a cobra’s.

This time the offender was a native, a teenager with a cocky expression and a swaggering walk. Ubiquitous types, even in a backwater such as this. The young man smiled challengingly and sauntered off.

Kirk’s expression hardened. Spock recognized that look and was quick to speak again. “The greatest concentration of crystalline formations is in the area marked grid 443. However, due to the crowds likely to be centered there, perhaps it would be wise to move to the south. Grid 324 has several sizable outcroppings at elevations of approximately seventeen hundred meters.”

He handed Kirk the map. The captain glanced down, banking his annoyance. “Maybe we should head up this way. Seems a lot closer, less driving.”

“Not as well-maintained a road, however, as indicated by the color.”

“Gray. That'd make it a grade two?”

“It would.”

“Gravel and dirt. Probably cancel out the shorter distance.”

“A likely possibility.”

Kirk glanced to one side. “What do you think, Bones?”

Glad to be finally included in the conversation, McCoy leaned over to study the map. Kirk pointed to what appeared to be a filament, dark blue this time, snaking aimlessly across the land. Spock noted another of the same color, also going apparently nowhere. Blue, gray, zigzagging this way and that. Contour lines, altitude markers. It was all pretty much Greek to him.

“How about this one?” Kirk indicated yet a third. “It's another grade two, but it'll take us along the ridge there and then up through the...” He squinted, trying to read the minuscule print.

“Laurentin Pass.” Spock completed the sentence for him.

Kirk didn't seem surprised. “Right, the Laurentin Pass. Would be more rugged but the scenery will be better.”

McCoy repressed a yawn. Knowing Spock, every detail of their travel had been planned well in advance, but Kirk, now that he saw the mountain before him, was all eagerness to explore every conceivable nook and cranny. A marathon session was coming on. The doctor could sense it. Ten thousand different ways to get to the mountaintop, and Spock, although he knew the best way to go, knew the way they probably would go, would still stand there and discuss it and let the captain’s excitement sweep over him like a spring tide. McCoy sighed. It was a good thing the sidewalk was crowded. Otherwise Kirk would be spreading that map out all over the ground.

Restlessly, he glanced away.

And saw what he was looking for. An escape. Professionalism be praised.

“Well, how about that,” he said, gesturing across the street. “Local hospital.”

Kirk and Spock finally tore their gaze away from the map. They looked up, following his outstretched arm.

The building on the far curb was indeed a local hospital. The words ‘Mersin Community Medical Center’ inscribed in six foot letters across the front said that clearly enough. McCoy flushed, wishing he’d come up with something a bit less idiotic to say.

But what was done was done and he decided to make the best of it. Ignore the whole thing and start again. It was, after all, the human thing to do.

“Haven’t been in one of those in a long time,” he continued cheerily. “If you two don’t mind I think I’ll go over and check it out while you’re getting organized. When you’re ready to go, just pull up to the curb and blow the horn. I’ll come right out.”

Without waiting for an answer, he crossed the street, then looked back. Kirk and Spock were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, holding the map between them, watching him go.

“How long’ll you be?” he shouted over the belching of an antiquated combustion engine gasping its way up the road.

“About half an hour,” Kirk answered. “We just have to pick up the supplies. Spock’s already ordered everything.”

No doubt. McCoy waved an arm in the air. “Yeah, okay. I’ll be waiting.”

With that, Leonard McCoy passed through the doors of Mersin County’s finest, and only, hospital, little realizing how closely his life would be connected with the building in the endless days ahead.


**********


Jonah stood on his porch, legs spread widely apart, a rifle in his arms. Dust devils spiraled up from the road before him as the car sped away, carving furrows in the dirt as it raced off at well over sixty miles an hour.

Shouting an obscenity, he fired the weapon at a back tire, but his reflexes were slow and the car already out of range. The bullet fell harmlessly to earth a hundred feet from its target.

“Filthy little swine,” he muttered, lowering it from his shoulder, the taunting of the children echoing in his mind. Leper. Freak. Imbecile. They would come to his mountain often, these children, driving in their daddies' cars, and harass him. For fun. Because they didn't have anything better to do.

Jonah waited, squinting at a spot in the distance, but the car was gone now. Overhead the birds, losing the fear brought on by the sudden disturbance, began to sing again. He bent down to lay his gun carefully against the step and saw where the dirt from his hands had smeared the stock. With the end of one sleeve, he wiped it away. Casting a last bitter look down the empty valley, he made his way back to the garden. Picking up the hoe, he knelt and straightened the tiny seedling that lay twisted beneath it.

The translucent stem was broken, pinched in the center, dooming the fragile thing to certain death. Jonah looked at it for a moment, then reached out and pulled the plant from the ground. The sight saddened him, then infuriated him. Clenching his fist, he crushed the seedling and tossed it away.


**********


The dealership was crowded. A salesman eyed them and scurried over to their side. Kirk handed him a slip of paper. The man stared at it, his expression a pained one. “I’m sorry, kind sir, but the vehicle is no longer here.”

The look that came into Kirk's eyes was disconcerting, to say the least, and he quickly gestured to the far side of the lot. “Come. I’ll show you another.” He latched a hand around Spock’s arm. Without a word, Kirk reached out and peeled it away. The native flushed. “So sorry, so sorry.” He stepped to one side. “We thought you weren’t coming. And so many people wanted to rent cars today. We gave it away a few hours ago.”

For double the price, no doubt.

The Drosinian was oblivious to Kirk's thoughts. He brightened. “But you're in luck. You're still in luck. I have one left. Come see.”

They followed him across the lot. He stopped, extended an arm. “The last car left in Mersin,” he said proudly.

Painted a ubiquitous shade of military green, the vehicle rested on four huge tires, its doors and fenders covered with scratches and dents. Apart from the windshield there were no windows, merely canvas flaps cut into each door. The seats appeared to be nothing so much as wooden slabs and Kirk had no doubt that the shock absorbers existed in name only. To say the car looked uncomfortable would have been a gross understatement.

Noting his steely expression, the salesman hurried to speak again. “It's old, I admit, but it will run, I assure you. It’s in very good condition.” He pulled open the driver’s side door. The hinges let out a ghastly creak as they moved. Kirk half-expected the whole thing to come off in his hand.

A shrug of feigned indifference. “Just needs a little oil.”

Kirk looked at the car, looked at the mountain fifty miles away. They really had no choice, in any event. He turned to Spock. There was amusement in those dark eyes. Kirk glanced inside. Saw the pedals on the floor. Gears.

“Do you want me to drive?”

“No. I’ll do it.” There was a determination in his voice that Spock had heard a thousand times before. James T. Kirk never was one to back away from a challenge. Even if the enemy was a half-ton hunk of steel.

Seeing another sale, the Drosinian swung his arm wide. “Please, take a seat. She’s a nice car, a very nice car.”

Spock gave him a resigned look and followed the captain inside.

Pressing down on what he hoped was the clutch, Kirk put the key in the ignition and gave it a twist. The screech of tortured gears seemed to echo down the entire length of the street. Everyone in the lot turned and stared. Several of them laughed.

“Wrong one,” Kirk said nonchalantly, his gaze fixed on the pavement before him. The expletive Spock heard within his own head was not so benign.

Finding the correct pedal, Kirk engaged the clutch. Once again, he tried to start the engine. This time it worked. The entire vehicle began to shudder and shake.

“On Earth they used to call this a four-wheel-drive,” Kirk shouted over the engine's roar. “It’ll go anywhere.” He shot Spock a look of pure triumph and slowly lifted his foot. The car lurched forward and stalled almost immediately. Spock began to wonder if they’d ever leave Mersin.

“We’ll make it,” Kirk mumbled, going after that key as if it was a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. “Next time it won’t stall.”

He turned it again. And he was right. It didn’t stall. Kirk nodded to the salesman as they edged their way out of the lot. One block. Two. McCoy’s hospital came within view. Kirk looked over at Spock. From the expression on his face you would have thought he'd just defeated the entire Klingon and Romulan armies. “What’d I tell you.”

Spock couldn't repress a smile. He shook his head. “I never doubted you for a minute.”


**********


The town of Mersin was a picturesque, if rather provincial place. A good spot to raise one's children, the locals would boast, and there was truth to that. She was, by and large, crime-free; the air was clean, the people friendly.

But she suffered from the curse of her own placidity, at least in the minds of her young. For them tranquility became tedium, safety a stifling monotony, and Mersin, as they entered the middle years of their adolescence, turned from a comfortable haven of peace into a confining, suffocating bore. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, the nearest city of any size nearly seventy miles away.

And, as adolescents tend to do in these situations, the growing children of Mersin turned to alcohol to find what excitement it could offer. The drinking rate among the town’s younger members was alarming and today three of Mersin’s most troubled youths, fresh from their assault on the old mountain man, were sitting in a small meadow, far from the eyes of their parents, and drinking themselves into a state of near-oblivion.

One of them, the eldest of the three, fumbled for a match.

“What’re you doing?” his companion asked, his words slurred.

“I’m cold. Gonna light a fire.”

He hiccuped. His friend grinned. “Cold! Sun’s been frying your brain since noon and now you say you’re cold!” The idea seemed to his sodden mind immensely funny and, wrapping both arms around his waist, he doubled over and laughed until tears ran down his face.

“Yeah, cold. I’m cold.” The boy swayed to one side as he struck the match. If he’d been looking at it when the flame ignited he might have had a chance to slap out the fire before it spread to the entire box.

But he wasn’t looking at the match. He was looking at his friend.

“Hey! Watch out!”

The boy flung the matchbox away, shaking his burned fingers in the air. “Shit! I burned myself!”

All three shared a laugh over his misfortune. They began to drink again. A moment later one of the others stood up. “Hey, Dorin, look what….”

The boy raised his head. The long meadow grass, dried after nearly two weeks of no rain, had caught fire almost immediately. In less than ninety seconds the flames had spread out to encompass an area ten feet square. He turned back to face his companions, eyes wide as saucers. “Put it out! Put it out!”

But they were already scrambling in the opposite direction, toward the dust-shrouded vehicle that had brought them here.

“Willum!” he screamed.

“Come on!” his friend yelled over one shoulder. “We’re getting out of here!”

He hesitated, watching in horrified fascination as flames spread to a nearby tree. Some of the lower branches began to burn, their leaves fluttered through the air, sparking new fires wherever they landed.

“Damn it, Dorin! Come on! You've got the fucking keys!”

The surge of adrenaline now coursing through his veins seemed to dispel the drunkenness and young Dorin Sellar raced to join his fleeing companions, the uppermost thought in his mind as he jumped behind the wheel being the alibi the three of them would need. “We’ll tell our parents that we were in Alriash! You got that! All day! We were in Alriash all day and just drove back now! We don’t know nothin’ about no fire!”

Frantic nods all around. “Alriash, you got it! All day!”

Slamming the car into gear, he floored the accelerator and, tires gouging holes deeply into the ground, they tore off in a cloud of blue exhaust fumes.

By the time they reached the foothills fifteen minutes later the entire meadow was in flames. And before the sun rose in the morning sky half the mountainside would be gone.


**********


The stream was lovely, clear as crystal, cold as a winter frost. A meadow spread out around it, lined with towering pines on one side and a gentle hill on the other. Kirk and Spock knelt, sorting supplies. McCoy propped himself against the jeep, watching them.

Kirk leaned forward, his hand on Spock’s knee, and smiled into the Vulcan’s eyes. McCoy swore he could feel the warmth of it from twenty feet away.

Damn. The doctor frowned. He shouldn’t have come. He was a third wheel here and knew that Spock, for one, would be self-conscious in his presence. If Kirk had his way they'd both be laying in the sun before the day was out, as bare as a baby's behind, resting in one another's arms. The captain might still be able to do it. After all, he could be pretty uninhibited sometimes.

But Spock? Rubbing one foot against the tire, McCoy scowled. Spock would rather be boiled in oil than act that way around him. Twice boiled in oil.

Abruptly, the doctor made a decision. A thought that had been forming in his mind since they’d left Mersin. It wasn’t much of a plan as brilliance goes, but then again he was never much of a strategist. Could drag it out, though, give them some hare-brained excuse on why he had to stay in town. They deserved to have the time together. It was beautiful up here. The peace and quiet would do them both a world of good.

And the last thing they needed was Leonard McCoy breathing down their necks like an old maiden aunt.

McCoy straightened, brushed the dust from his jacket, slapped his palms against the cloth. No reaction came from either man and he wondered briefly if they even remembered he was here.

He cleared his throat. This time the captain glanced over. McCoy sauntered to their side. At his approach Spock looked up, sat back on his heels.

The doctor crouched, plucked a piece of grass from the ground and began to chew on it. “You remember my mentioning Jannel Morrian?” he asked out of the blue.

Kirk nodded. Morrian was the chief physician at the medical center in Mersin. McCoy had talked about her at some length during their drive here, a tactic, Kirk suspected, in some larger scheme of his.

The doctor smiled, ignoring the perception in those eyes. “Well, she was telling me about some of the cases she was handling and one of them concerned a woman pregnant with a child of mixed blood. She’s a native but her husband’s from the fourth planet out, a trader or some such thing. Only comes by once in a blue moon. Two planets have a common ancestry but after fifteen thousand years of separation there's some genetic variation and she's had a few problems.” McCoy hesitated. Spock was watching him intently now, a most peculiar expression on his face.

“You know how these things can go,” he continued. “Morrian’s worried about it, asked me if I’d come back and take a look at her.”

Kirk and Spock exchanged glances. McCoy felt his face flush. Thirty seconds and already they were about to call his bluff. “She wasn’t due into the hospital until six,” he protested. “Morrian tried to contact her before we left but she didn’t answer.”

The captain said nothing but a decidedly hopeful look flashed across Spock's face. McCoy saw it, made a mental note to give his old nemesis a complete physical the day they got back. Even for this kindly country doctor compassion went only so far.

Still Kirk said nothing. McCoy pulled the grass from his mouth and dropped it to the ground. He'd known Jim Kirk longer than Spock, but had realized years ago that he would never be to him what the Vulcan was, knew it almost from the first day he’d seen them together. Kirk and Spock fitted together in a way that was as inexplicable as it was obvious. Even before they’d become lovers that had been true.

“So you don’t mind if I take the jeep for the night?”

Kirk’s brow furrowed. They were fairly deep in the back country to be left with no transportation. “Come on, Jim.” McCoy prodded, sensing his reservations. “You two've been twice as far out in the boondocks on routine training missions a dozen times before and it's not as if Mersin doesn't have an air rescue unit on permanent standby.”

Both true and Kirk relented. “Sure, Bones. Go ahead. Stay as long as you’re needed. We can always reach you by communicator if we need to.”

McCoy rose to his feet and took the keys from Kirk’s hand. “Great. I’ll keep in touch. Wish me luck with that baby.” He shot a quick glance at Spock. “You know what a pain in the ass it’s likely to be.”

Kirk laughed, walking him to the car. Spock went back to sorting tent pegs. McCoy pulled the door open and climbed in. “I’ll contact you as soon as I know how long I’ll be.”

The captain nodded. Shoving the key in the ignition, McCoy twisted it decisively to the right, the engine starting almost immediately. Giving Kirk a wicked grin, he eased up on the clutch. The jeep inched forward, then accelerated. McCoy steered around a limb jutting into the road before glancing into the rear-view mirror. Kirk and Spock were standing together now, shoulder-to-shoulder, watching him go. You two have a nice time, he thought. Especially you, Spock. Let your hair down and live a little. Enjoy your time together. You've both more than earned it.

The thought warmed him as he negotiated a turn and the two men passed from sight. Warmed him so much that he found himself singing an old southern melody, off-key though it was, for a good fifteen minutes, crowing out the words like a ten-year-old.

Finally he reached a paved road, could just make out the lights of Mersin in the distance. “Yesiree, Spock. You and Jim take a run through the woods, splash around in the water. Don't think about the Enterprise or duty or anything else. Just concentrate on each other.”

Grimly prophetic words as it turned out, although the doctor had no way of knowing that at the time.


**********


The fireplace was cold, the fire burned out with the first light of dawn nearly twelve hours before, but Jonah found that he didn’t have the energy or the interest to relight it.

Resting his head against the back of the chair, he listened, although there was really nothing to hear. The groaning of tree branches, an occasional animal moving through the brush. But in the house itself, nothing. There was a time when it had been different, a time when the house he’d once lived in had echoed with the sounds of childrens’ laughter, the slap of their feet against the floor, the smell of their hair, clean and damp and soft as a spring rain.

But that was long ago and death had come to still those voices. An indifferent death that took the young and the beautiful, leaving the world filled with cruel, evil men who seemed to live forever. A world where people cared for no one but themselves, who took and took and never gave anything in return. With each passing year it had only grown worse. Greed. Greed. Greed. It was enough to make him want to kill someone. Or kill himself.

Jonah stood, shaking the thought from his mind. Dwelling on such things served no purpose. Life was life and death was death and they’d all keep spinning in circles from one to the other. Little tops whirling madly. For nothing.

An evening chill began to seep through the open window and, slamming down the pane, Jonah walked into an adjoining room. A small table sat beside the bed. Opening the top drawer, he pulled out a framed photograph and stared at it in silence for a moment. The images were faded with time, faces of a woman and two small children, smiling, flushed with health and the promise of a long and fruitful life.

Running a finger along the woman’s face, his eyes filled with tears. After all these years, he thought hopelessly, why does it still hurt so much after all these years?

For well over a minute Jonah looked at the faces smiling up at him before laying the picture back in the drawer and covering it with a piece of linen. Turning, he returned to the living room to sit in his chair and stare vacantly at the fireplace.

“Got to get myself something to eat,” he said to no one. His stomach growled, but getting up was simply too much trouble. Better just to stay here and go to sleep.

Reaching behind him, he pulled a blanket from the back of the chair and wound it around his shoulders. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes.

But sleep would elude him as it had eluded him so many nights before and after an hour he rose to sit silently on the porch until the sun came up.


**********


The fire burned brightly, sending a stream of sparks into the air. The two men sat, their knees brushing against each other. They had not spoken in nearly thirty minutes.

The wind picked up, rustling the leaves overhead, imparting a chill to the air. Kirk looked over to see Spock’s bangs blow to the side. “Cold?”

Spock shook his head. “No.” He lifted his face toward the sky. “I find this most pleasurable.”

“Me, too.”

Five more minutes passed.

“Look.” Kirk pointed through the treetops. “Shooting star. Did you see it?”

Spock turned but the streak was gone now. He glanced back to see Kirk continue staring at the sky as if his very persistence would bring another meteorite into view. His face, silhouetted in starlight, looked so young, so vulnerable. Long lashes, tousled hair, a shine in his eyes that went beyond what he saw. Spock could hardly bear to look at him.

The wind became stronger and instinctively he shivered. Kirk saw it. “You sure you’re not cold?”

Again Spock shook his head, although in truth, he was cold, but somehow it didn’t bother him, was in fact a comforting sensation. Strange.

They grew quiet again. Another star fell. In the distance an owl began to call.

Kirk picked up a pebble hidden in the grass and began rolling it between his fingers. “Do you ever wonder,” he said softly, his gaze on the distant mountaintop, “about all the things that happened in the past, things that might have seemed minor at the time but for some reason or other irrevocably changed the direction of your life?”

Kirk smiled, somewhat sadly. “I remember when I heard the news about the incident on Berengeria, about the attack on Chris Pike and his men. I'd always admired Captain Pike so, of course, the report interested me. I recall,” he hesitated, deep in thought, “I recall the part about you. ‘The Vulcan science officer,’ it said, ‘was seriously injured in the incident but is reportedly in satisfactory condition and is expected to make a full recovery.’ It was worded something like that. I can’t recall exactly. I read the report and spent about five seconds wondering what you were like. I’d never met a Vulcan before. They weren’t exactly a dime a dozen in Starfleet, especially back then.”

Kirk met his gaze. “You could’ve been killed on that planet and we never would have known one another.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I can’t quite imagine what that would have been like, never having known you. And I remember when I read that, how the thought blew past me like nothing at all. It was just another injury, another valuable Starfleet officer who'd managed to live to fight another day. Dispatches were filled with them, the dead and the missing, the lucky ones who survived. They still are. I never liked to see a man die and I remember I was pleased you had survived but… that was all. You were just a name on a page. It seems so hard to believe I could ever have thought of you that way.”

He stiffened, turned his face away. The wind picked up again, blowing down the valley, bringing with it the promise of colder weather in the days ahead. Glancing over at Spock, he saw the bangs blow straight back and, rising to his feet, pulled a blanket from the tent. “Looks like we're in for a change in the weather.” Wrapping one end over Spock’s shoulders, he draped the other over his own and sat beside him. “Here.” He took Spock’s hand within his own and rubbed the chilled skin. “You are cold. Why didn’t you say something?”

Why? Spock had no idea, really. It would be illogical to deny the obvious, but then again logic didn’t mean as much to him as it once had. Subjectivity and emotion weren't such bad things after all. The captain had taught him that all too well.

Kirk watched him in silence for a moment before pulling him closer and slipping an arm around his waist. “Let me try to warm you up.”

Spock relaxed against him. He felt totally at peace. “Hey.” Putting a hand under his chin, Kirk tilted his face to the side. Leaning forward, he kissed him, a gentle kiss, a kiss from one friend to another, with no sexual overtones to it. Spock leaned into it, felt its soothing warmth spread throughout his entire body. Right now his love for James Kirk was so strong he barely knew how to deal with it.

Kirk reached out to smooth his rumpled bangs. He smiled but other than that made no reply.


**********


The cry could be heard throughout the room. The woman lay on a birthing bed, bleary eyes enormous. McCoy peeked out at her from behind his surgical gauze. “It’s a healthy girl,” he said.

She sank back in relief. McCoy stepped to one side as the baby was cleaned, her mouth and nose suctioned of amniotic fluid. The woman reached out. Lifting the infant in his arms, McCoy carried her to her mother.

“See,” he said, holding the child up. “She’s a bit of you and a bit of your husband. Has your dark hair but her face is more like her daddy’s.”

A nod as the woman studied features that seemed so strangely alien. Despite their common ancestry, Esarian facial characteristics were quite unlike those of Drosin. Almost feline. McCoy handed the child down, the woman cradling her against one breast. The infant cooed and began rooting for the nipple.

Jannel Morrian stood at McCoy’s side, both of them watching for a moment before stepping from the room. Once in the corridor, Morrian took off her mask. “Not much like sickbay on the Enterprise, I gather.”

McCoy pulled the strings loose. He hadn’t worn one of these in years. “No. Not much.”

Morrian tossed it in a recycling bin. “I want to thank you, Doctor.”

McCoy did the same. “It’s nothing. Professional courtesy.”

“No, really. When her pressure peaked earlier and that fibrillation hit, I never would have known to use hyderaplastia.”

McCoy seemed unimpressed with his own expertise. “It’s not something you see every day. Read a report on it a few years back, a doctor from the Bolean system who reported that it could be useful in cases such as this. You need a pretty tight association of factors: blood pressure, hemoglobin count, even body and fluid mass, to make its use appropriate. We just got lucky.”

Morrian laughed. Lucky. There was no such word in the medical dictionary.

McCoy rubbed his neck. “What time is it?”

She glanced at her watch. “5:30.”

“Nearly dawn.” He paused for a moment, thinking of his two friends on the distant mountaintop, knowing how surprised they’d be when he told them he’d spent the last seven hours in a hospital delivery room.

Morrian was watching him, her head tilted to one side. McCoy refocused. “You know, I think my friends thought I’d made up that little lady in there - to get myself back to town and into a warm bath.”

She laughed. McCoy yawned. “No sense in disappointing them. Guess I’ll take you up on that offer and climb into a hot tub.”

Morrian pointed to a far door. “Bathrooms are at the end of the corridor. I’ll get you what you need.”

“Thanks.” Giving the woman a weary smile, McCoy made his way down the hall.


**********


The sunrise was magnificent, although in truth he couldn’t see much of it through the treetops. Streaks of pink and salmon in the sky, ripples of cirrus clouds nearly ten miles up, air so invigorating it sent chills down his spine. The scent of spring flowers was everywhere.

Behind him, Spock knelt, bent over a cook stove. Kirk turned, watched as he rummaged around in their supplies and pulled out a packet of food. He’d stepped from the tent a few minutes before, his shirt draped over one arm, then laid it carefully on the ground. Kirk smiled. Spock had taken a liking lately to walking around their quarters in a state of partial or total nudity, had spent many a recent night in front of his computer, stone-cold naked, reading some indecipherable report or other. Would seem totally engrossed in what he was doing, could get lost that way for hours.

Leaning against a tree, Kirk crossed his arms. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for him. He'd sit at his desk, often perched uncomfortably on the seat edge as an added focusing inducement, and try to turn his thoughts away from the growl that forever ran through his groin. Attempt to do his own work but his gaze would be continually drawn back to Spock. He just looked so good sitting there, oblivious as always to the erotic picture he made. So impossibly good.

Kirk shifted his weight. It was his own damned fault. He’d been pestering Spock for months to lighten up, lower his guard, take off his clothes in the privacy of their quarters and feel the air against his skin. Well, he thought wryly, you got your wish. And it’s put you at least two weeks behind on your personal logs.

Spock lifted an arm, extending his fingers as he reached for a bowl, and Kirk's attention returned to the present. He’d always admired how Spock could work his board on the bridge, stretch out his fingers to hit a half-dozen buttons one after another. There were times, he knew, when he’d asked him to run a program for no real reason at all, just because he wanted to see those fingers move. And Spock, of course, knew it, would do the work a bit more slowly than necessary, deriving a certain pleasure at the mesmerized look in his lover's eyes.

Sunlight filtered down, highlighting the blue-black sheen of Spock’s hair, the muscles in his back. You are one handsome man. Again, unconsciously this time, Kirk shifted his weight, eyes fairly drinking him in. One handsome man.

The twitching in his groin was becoming rather difficult to ignore now. Spock rose to his feet, turned to face him and Kirk’s hormones went into overdrive at the sight of that chest. Strange that he would find such an intensely masculine thing so erotic, the thought of running his fingers through Spock's chest hair virtually irresistible.

But there was no denying that he did.

Spock gave him a knowing look. Even from twenty feet away he could see the bulge in Kirk’s pants. “I though perhaps you might want some breakfast.”

He wanted something all right, but it wasn’t breakfast.

Spock glanced down. The erection was larger. A lot larger. “I perceive that you are not hungry.”

Oh I’m hungry, my friend. Just not for bacon and eggs.

“Jim, you should eat something.”

Anything special you have in mind?

Spock gave up. Clearly the captain had no intention of being serious. At least about eating breakfast.

One eyebrow rose. Spock approached, his pace slow, his steps measured. “You should eat.” His tone was lower, too, held a hint of danger in it. “Or you could become ill.”

Kirk resisted the temptation to back up.

“And I would not like it if you became ill.”

His hormones were running at warp ten now.

Spock slipped a hand beneath his shirt, began trailing those graceful fingers against raw skin. “It would ruin my entire day.”

Blood pounded hard against his ear drums, that touch an exquisite, unbearable torment, and Kirk took a deep breathe to steady himself. Still found it hard to believe he could become this sexually aroused so quickly. His body felt like it was one enormous nerve ending, every ounce of concentration funneling directly into his groin.

Spock smiled, ran his hands down Kirk’s chest and abdomen, stopping an inch from their target. “You must learn self-control.” His voice had changed again, sounded almost dispassionate now, even a little bored.

Slipped them between his legs, the inside of his thighs. So strong and yet so delicate. The hands of an aristocrat, an artist, sparking wild sensation everywhere they went. Never in his life had another's touch affected him so profoundly and Kirk closed his eyes as he struggled for control. He knew that Spock was watching him, as cool as a block of ice, knew also that he was fighting a losing cause, that if Spock moved his hands one millimeter higher he’d come right then and there.

So, of course, Spock didn't, but rather shifted them farther away, drawing his arms around Kirk's waist to pull him close. “Concentrate,” he murmured with delicious irony, well aware that concentration was fast disappearing. Toyed with the waistband of his pants. “It is quite simple, really. Just think about something else.”

Kirk threw his head back. There was only one thing he could think about at the moment and in a part of his mind he wondered if there was something wrong with him, if his obsession for Spock, his lust for him, was a mental aberration of some kind. It had to be. He thought about him constantly. Thought about having sex with him constantly. Could hardly sit on the bridge at times, the urge was so strong.

If it is, I hope you’re never cured.

He felt like his knees would give out, Spock tightening his grip in support, their erections, full and hard, grinding against one another. Leaning down, the Vulcan kissed him, a hard kiss that knocked the breath right out of his body, sent the blood screaming red-hot through his veins. They’d only gone to sleep a scant five hours before. Was there no end to his hunger?

Not if I can help it.

That did it and Kirk let his muscles go lax, gave in to the inevitable as the kiss deepened, lengthened.

Finally, when they at last broke it off, Kirk rested his head on Spock's shoulder, legs spreading apart for balance. “What do you say,” he gasped in a voice that didn't even sound like his, “we go back into the tent?”

Another smile as warm breath ruffled his hair, Kirk half-expecting Spock to pick him up in his arms and carry him in there like a June bride.

Suddenly a loud thrashing sound came from the tree line as a deer bounded into the meadow. Skidding to a halt on seeing them, the animal reared up on its hind legs and sent a piercing cry into the air. Swiveling to one side, it took off in another direction, disappearing like a specter into the trees.

Kirk’s thoughts cleared instantly. “What the….”

He turned back. Spock lifted his head. Kirk watched him, saw a stricken look come into his eyes as he drew a deep breath. “Can you smell that?”

Kirk inhaled, but sensed nothing. “No. What is it?”

Spock ran to the tent and grabbed the tricorder, pointing it to his left. “I am picking up readings of infrared radiation ---”

Abruptly the breeze shifted and Kirk could smell it now. A scent carried on the wind, faint but unmistakable. Fire.

“How far?” he asked softly.

“At its closest point two point eight three miles to the west northwest and moving very rapidly in our direction.”

Instinctively Kirk turned toward the west. The communicator lay in the backpack at his feet. Bending down, he pulled it out and opened a channel.

The signal shot through instantly. He could hear the faint beep as it summoned McCoy. Waited.

Five times. Ten. Twenty.

At twenty-five he flipped the lid shut, his expression grim. “Where is he?”

Spock understood the question. “According to my tricorder, the fire would have been visible from Mersin. Had the doctor been returning here he would have seen it.”

“And called us,” Kirk added. “Which means he must still be in town. Sleeping maybe.”

“Perhaps.”

Spock focused inward for a moment as his brain clicked in on the layout of the land. “If we follow the Mersin road to the east it crosses over the Adiron River four point two... six miles from here. The fire is traveling in the same direction, but if we are fortunate we should reach the bridge first.”

Kirk nodded. The Adiron was a large river, roaring through the adjacent valley with as much water as the Missouri carried through Iowa. It was unlikely that the fire would be able to jump across such an expanse. The fact that it might beat them to the bridge, that they might instead find themselves trapped with a mountain of flame on one side and a hundred yard stretch of water on the other, was something he preferred not to think about.

“Here.” Kirk gathered up every canteen he could find. “You get some blankets and the signal flares. I’ll carry these.”

Hefting the canteens over one shoulder, he shoved the maps into his shirt pocket before turning in the direction of town. “I sure hope Bones isn’t caught in the middle of this.”

Spock pulled on his shirt, then stopped before him and put his hands on either side of Kirk’s face. “He is all right.” There was fear in those dark eyes, fear and a great burning love as Spock leaned forward and rested his forehead against Kirk’s. “We will be all right also. I will not let anything happen to you.”

A flock of birds appeared in the air above them, shrieking in their panic. Both men looked up to watch them pass. “Come on.” Kirk grabbed Spock’s arm. “Let's go.”


**********


Clean. There was nothing to beat a good, solid soaking. McCoy felt as if he’d just dropped ten years from his age. Slipping the shirt over his shoulders, he buttoned it, pulled on his pants, laced up his shoes. Stepped from the room.

Something was wrong. He could sense it as soon as he walked into the corridor. Nurses clustered at the window, whispers breaking the silence. Through the glass, McCoy could see Jannel Morrian standing on the curb, horror written across her face.

“What is it?” McCoy hurried to the door. “What’s going on?”

One of the nurses turned back. “There’s a fire on the mountain.”

McCoy froze. For an instant, he couldn’t think at all. “What mountain? Which one?”

The woman who'd spoken leaned out the doorway, McCoy at her heels. “Catal. It looks like it’s on Catal.” She pointed due west. McCoy felt his heart stop.

Morrian saw him, gestured him out to the sidewalk. “Dear god,” she said. “There must be ten thousand people up there. Right where the fire is.” Turning, she called out to the head nurse on duty. “Get on the phone! Call Gorham! Get hold of the hospital there. Tell them we’ve got an emergency brewing. We’re going to need anything they can give us!”

With a brief “yes, sir,” the woman disappeared inside. Three police cars came charging down the road, sirens blaring, lights flashing. People scattered out of their way. Some of the visitors were shouting, others crying, others simply looking morosely disappointed. Morrian moved to McCoy's side. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you a favor,” she said.

He waved her away. “No problem. I’ll stay as long as I’m needed.”

As one, they looked up at the mountain. Even from here the flames were plainly visible, sheets of yellow and red rippling up the landscape like heat waves. A pall of black smoke hung low in the sky, spreading on the wind, choking the life out of everything in its path. Morrian shook her head. “Your friends? Where are they?”

McCoy pointed to the heart of the fire. “There.” He could barely get the words out. “Heaven help them, they’re right there.”


**********


Jonah stood on his doorstep, watching the smoke curl up from the far side of the mountain. The wind was blowing away from him, to the southeast, driving the flames along an adjoining ridge. Some of it might spill over but the forest was greener on this side. The fire he could see in the distance was no real threat to him here.

“So much for your Shamar,” he muttered. “So much for your damned Shamar. I hope you all burn to death.”

Sitting gracelessly in his rocking chair, he tilted it back, then forward. The wood creaked beneath his feet. Old wood. Tomarii wood. He’d cut down a thousand year old tree to build his house. One tree, a young one at that, barely eighty feet tall. That’s all it took to build his entire house. One tree.

Jonah glanced to the side. Fifty thousand trees were burning over there now. Perhaps a hundred thousand. Ten millennia of life going up in the wink of an eye. Those trees had sprouted before the first man so much as set foot on this continent, struggled for a toehold on the land, enduring droughts, floods, plagues of insects. For ten thousand years. And now, before the stars came out tonight, they would be gone.

Slowly he rocked in his chair, watched as it all burned. Somehow it seemed quite fitting.


**********


“Spock! Look out!” The branch was falling, drifting through the smoke like a ghost. They’d lost their way miles ago when the fire had cut back in on them. Walking, running through the flames, the heat, the smoke. He could barely see the limb coming down, his eyes were so bloodshot.

And then it was there, looking more like a torpedo than a ghost. Two hundred pounds, falling with a peculiar silence. In five seconds it would hit, would break every bone in Spock’s body.

“Spock!”

The Vulcan looked up, tried to protect his head, but his movements, dulled by smoke inhalation, were sluggish and slow. Kirk lunged forward, knowing even as he did so that it would put him squarely in the way. The log came down, shattering smaller branches as it fell. Kirk grabbed Spock’s arm, shoving him to one side. Caught off-balance, Spock staggered and fell, pulling the captain down with him. Kirk could hear him gasp as he hit the ground. Reaching out, he covered Spock’s head with his arms.

The branch hit with a roar and if Kirk had managed to move six more inches he would have been all right, would have been out of its deadly strike zone. Six more inches. They must have run ten miles and it all came to this. Six lousy inches.

But he didn’t have that edge anymore. His own speed was slowed by the smoke and his feet simply hadn’t acted fast enough. One corner of the branch struck him just above the ankle, crushing his leg against the ground. A smaller branch angled up, slamming into his rib cage. He could feel the ribs go: two, maybe three. The force of the impact blew back the flames, but they caught again almost immediately, licking at the top of the branch, moving toward him with terrifying speed.

“Spock!” Kirk drew back his arms, pushed against the Vulcan’s shoulders. Shards of pain tore deep into his lungs, but he had to move fast, before Spock was caught in the fire with him. “Get out! Move!”

Reacting automatically to the command in his voice, Spock struggled to his knees and crawled out into the open. Leaning forward, he gasped for breath, his head hung down until it nearly touched the ground. Then, lethargically, the Vulcan looked back.

The flames, fed by the wind, were inches from their target. Kirk tried to push the branch away, his fingers scratching helplessly against the bark, the limb almost mocking him by its great weight. His pants had already begun to smoke from the heat.

Spock's mind cleared instantly. Scrambling to his feet, he leaned into the log, pushing his shoulder against it with all of his strength. For an agonizing minute the huge branch didn’t move, its far end buried inches in the ground. Then slowly it shifted, fell back into place again. Kirk gritted his teeth to keep from crying out as his pants caught fire.

Veins swelling until they seemed about to burst, Spock took a deep breath and gave the branch one final, superhuman shove, sending it rolling to one side. Falling to his knees, he slapped out the flames. “Are you burned?”

“No, not really.” Kirk lay still, his head against the ground, repressing any sign of pain, knowing it would distract Spock. Watched as the Vulcan touched him, searching out injuries he knew were there. He could actually see Spock’s face pale as a cracked rib moved beneath his touch.

Clenching his teeth to keep silent, Kirk looked away, looked up. The inferno surrounding them had slackened in a way peculiar to all forest fires, almost like the eye of a hurricane, and for an instant he could almost see the sun. A copse of green trees stood twenty yards from a cluster ablaze from trunk to treetops. It made no sense, the vagaries of the fire, but for a moment they could stop. For a moment the fire had turned its back to them.

The respite, however, wouldn’t last long. The flames would be back. Three minutes, maybe four. They would be back. And when they came he knew he would be too slow.

Spock raised his head. Kirk looked him dead-on, said what he could see reflected in those anguished eyes. “I can’t walk.” The sharp edge of command was gone now and his voice was very low. “You’ll have to go on without me.”

Spock just stared at him as if he’d totally lost his mind. Kirk grasped his sleeve. “I said I can’t walk, at least not fast enough.” His voice was louder this time. “I’ll just slow you down. Go on.”

No answer. The words were so patently impossible that for a moment Spock couldn’t react to them at all.

Kirk's grip tightened. The wind was coming back, the sun vanished behind a wall of soot. To have Spock die with him would be a pointless waste of life. “Go on, damn it! That’s an order!”

Spock reacted to that. The confusion vanished. What replaced it was something else entirely. The Vulcan shook his head. Once. “No. I will not leave you.”

Kirk glared at him. Spock glared back, the intransigence in his eyes as unshakable as the very earth beneath them. Kirk held out for ten seconds, then gave up. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “Give me a hand.”

Gently, Spock slipped an arm under his, Kirk shifting his weight as the Vulcan pulled him up. The motion sent blood surging through his lacerated ankle, pounding against his rib cage. He resisted the temptation to groan.

Spock held him as tightly as he dared. “To the left?”

Kirk nodded, although the location of the river was anyone’s guess. The tricorder, not having the advantage of adrenaline to help it through a crisis, had become fouled with ash and given up the ghost twenty minutes before. As had the communicator, its signal deflected endlessly by the heat and smoke. They were on their own now.

Spock began to move. His step was unsteady and Kirk could hear him gasp for breath. Vulcan lungs, those huge lungs that enabled him to run for miles on an arid plain, were killing him now.

Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. The fire blew back, then came closer again, sweeping around them like a living beast. A tree scarcely twenty feet away caught, exploding in a virtual ball of flame. Pine needles were ripped from its branches, falling everywhere, sounding almost like raindrops. The heat was so intense it seared Kirk’s eyes but for some reason he didn’t feel it anymore, didn’t feel anything but the arm encircling his waist, the man who walked beside him. He knew that they were going to die soon but, strangely, the only thing he could think about was that he wasn’t going to die alone. He’d always thought that he would, that he'd face his final moments as far from another’s touch as possible. Like floating in that Tholian interspace. An entire universe and he the only living creature in it. Something like that.

Kirk faltered, laid his head against Spock’s chest. He’d been wrong. All this time, all those fears, and he’d been wrong. He and Spock were destined to die together. Their lives were far too entwined now for anything else to be possible.

And funny, he thought, his mind beginning to wander. In a way he’d always known that to be true. Almost from the day he’d first met Spock, standing in the transporter room as stiff as a newly-fledged cadet, he’d known that Spock would never abandon him to such a fate, that he would never leave him.

Kirk staggered to one side, felt the Vulcan's grip tighten, hold him up. They took another few steps and then suddenly Spock did a strange thing. He stopped, right in the middle of this inferno, and a most peculiar look came into his eyes. Reaching up, he brushed back the hair dangling across Kirk's forehead. And he smiled, a sad, heartbreakingly sad smile.

Kirk swayed, leaned into the touch until even the roar of the fire seemed to disappear. So strong, he mused as elegant fingers stroked his brow. And yet so gentle. A strange dichotomy. An impossible dichotomy. But then again Spock was impossible in so many ways.

The thought lingered in his mind as the world began to slip away. Impossible. The mingling of Vulcan and human. Even now, nearly half a century later, he was still the only one. One of a kind. A freak. A miracle. An act of God.

An act of God.

The image was the last one he saw, like a reflection from a childhood dream, fading into nothingness, taking his consciousness with it.

At his side Spock straightened and, lifting him in his arms, continued on into the forest.


**********


Montgomery Scott lounged against the grass. The sun was warm against his face, the ground soft beneath him. A bottle of scotch awaited in his cabin, along with a stack of technical journals a foot high. He felt like he’d died and gone to heaven.

Uhura lay beside him. In the distance he could just make out the shape of Lieutenant Sulu. The helmsman was having the time of his life, had been cataloging botanical specimens all day long.

Scott smiled. He couldn’t understand what Sulu found so fascinating about plants, but he clearly loved them. Oh well, to each his own.

Uhura raised herself up on her elbows. “Nice place,” she whispered.

Scott nodded. It was indeed.

She rolled over on one side. “I wonder how the captain and the others are doing?”

Scott turned toward her. “I’m sure they’re having a grand old time. What could happen to them on Drosina, anyway? No Klingons, no Romulans, no Orions within a hundred light years. It’s the safest place in the Federation.”

Uhura smiled. “Yes, and you want to know something?” Scott looked over. “It feels so good not to have to worry about him,” she said almost wistfully. “Sometimes I think I’ve spent most of my adult life worrying about that man.”

Scott understood. He felt the same way, too. “Well, you can relax now, lassie. This is one time you don’t have to concern yourself. He's as safe as safe can be. They all are.”

Uhura nodded, relaxed against the grass again. “Thank goodness,” she murmured. “Thank goodness.”


**********


The river. He could smell it long before he could see it. Strange that the scent would carry through the smoke. A sweet scent, almost like honey on the wind. Forcing his legs to move, he followed it.

His muscles ached. Kirk had been unconscious for a long time now, how long Spock could no longer tell. He lay draped across his arms, cradled against his chest like a child. His head was thrown back and every few minutes Spock would stop, lift the cloth from his face, shake the ash away, and check his breathing. Shallow, irregular, but at least it was there. He took what comfort he could in that.

There was a clearing ahead and he knew the river lay just beyond it. Flames were everywhere now and he found it difficult to understand why it was they were still alive. Running, weaving through the inferno, finding one miraculous opening after another. Kirk had been unconscious through it all, a muffled groan coming from him only once, when he had stumbled and nearly fallen to his knees

Spock looked down, his eyes so bloodshot he could scarcely see. Every time he drew a breath his lungs burned as if they were filled with lye and yet somehow he'd managed to go on.

The clearing opened up. A tree crashed to the earth behind him, channeling the wind along in its wake. A deadly wind that sucked up all the oxygen with it like a tornado. Spock gasped. The air was hotter now, stoked up by the gale, blowing into his face like a gust from a blast furnace.

Another ten feet. Another twenty. Until, finally, he reached the river.

When he saw it he nearly wept. Wide and swift, dotted with whitecaps, with eddies swirling around rocks hidden beneath the surface, the Adiron had to be two hundred yards across. The fire couldn’t cross such an expanse and the trees on the other side were green and untouched. Blowing in the wind. So green, almost mocking him with their wholeness. Green and safe, mounds of tick grass gathered at their roots. The river took a sharp bend a quarter of a mile to the east. The bridge, if it still existed at all, was beyond that curve. A quarter mile. A light year. It all came out the same. An impossible distance.

He turned back but the fire was everywhere now. Burning to the water’s edge to the south, nearly to its edge to the north. Only a crescent of green where they stood still remained. Another miracle. Or perhaps simply a further torment, like a cat toying with a mouse before it killed it.

Spock pressed on. There was only one possible chance of survival. To enter the river and wait it out. Hope that the open stretch of water would funnel oxygen along its length and keep them alive. Hope that the current wouldn’t sweep them away. Hope that hypothermia wouldn’t kill them first.

He was nearly at the bank, skidding down its slope, his shoes slipping on the eel grass at his feet. Trees, huge trees, grew right up to the water, some actually grew in the river itself. Most were in flames, quaking in their death throes, reds and violets dancing on the water. So much water.

Spock stopped. Even without a tricorder he could tell that the river was cold. On land a Vulcan could tolerate extreme temperatures so long as he kept moving but water, that was something else again. Perhaps it was the dryness of his home world, perhaps just a peculiar weakness in an otherwise strong race, but low water temperature would debilitate him in minutes. Kirk could live for hours in fifty degree water. Spock would be dead in twelve minutes.

He looked down as Kirk groaned, instinctively turning his face away to bury it in the tattered folds of his shirt. Held him close for a moment, then set him down, eased off his shoes and kicked off his own. Emptied their pockets of what remained inside. There was no alternative. They would either burn or drown. And Kirk, at least, could survive the cold, would probably be able to outlast the fire.

It was a good bargain. Good enough.

Closing his eyes, Spock said a prayer to the ancient gods of Vulcan. The gods of the sand and the desert and the heat. Picked Kirk up in his arms and waded into the river.

The water was frigid, colder than he'd expected. Gritting his teeth, he pushed out into the current. The water swirled around his legs, came up to his groin. His concentration, wrapped up in the man in his arms, had little left over for himself. Already his feet were growing numb.

Somehow, even in unconsciousness, Kirk sensed the change, the tinge of death that had singled out only one of them. He began to stir. Spock turned his back to the wind skidding along the water’s surface, his hair blowing wildly across his forehead. Kirk opened his eyes. “What?” he mumbled.

Spock tried to hunch forward and still keep Kirk’s body out of the water. “We are in the river,” he said, trying desperately to stop his teeth from chattering. “If we can stay here for a time we should be safe. The fire cannot reach us here.”

Kirk shook his head, attempted to organize his thoughts. A surge in the current pushed a wave against Spock’s back. He let out an involuntary cry as the water ran down his neck.

Kirk heard it, his thoughts clearing instantly. “Put me down.”

There was little point in both of them freezing. What would it solve anyway? He'd still be in the water. Spock ignored the words.

“I said put me down.

There was no arguing with that tone. Reluctantly Spock did as he was told.

Kirk sucked in his breath as the water hit him, slapping the clothes against his skin like sheets of ice. He arched his back, took an involuntary step away, losing his balance as he put weight on his damaged foot. Instinctively Spock reached out for him, turning his body into the current. Kirk looked back, knowing Spock wouldn’t last ten minutes in this cold, wondering how in hell they’d make it to the other bank a thousand seeming miles away.

And saw it out of the corner of his eye. A limb, moving as if in slow motion and yet so fast it took his breath away. A bullet. That’s really what it looked like. A huge, black bullet barreling along just beneath the surface. Spock had turned directly into it. God, he could hardly bear to watch, knowing exactly what was going to happen, being totally unable to do anything about it. Spock was watching him, his lips tinged with purple, his eyes questioning. He didn’t see it. How was it possible he didn’t see it? Look down! In the name of God, look down! Don’t look at me! Look down! Thoughts that flashed through Kirk's mind in a tenth of a second, long before he could begin to shout a warning.

Then came the sound. If he lived to be a thousand, he’d never forget that sound. Like a rifle shot, a loud clean crack somehow undistorted by the water. The log found its target, struck Spock head-on in the abdomen. The force of the impact sent him careening backward, doubled over in pain. He hit the water once, the current pulling him back a dozen feet as he broke the surface. For a moment he kept his head above water, but the blow had been too violent, even for a Vulcan. His consciousness faded and Spock went down.

Kirk’s saw him go under. He hesitated for a split second, then dove headfirst into the water, kicking against the bottom with a foot that somehow didn’t hurt anymore. The icy cold against his face stunned him but he found he recovered almost immediately, stroking powerfully forward, looking for a shadow, a movement. Anything.

Thirty seconds later he came back up. Shaking his head to clear his vision, he wiped his eyes and scanned the surface, desperately hoping to see a hand, a body, a sign of life.

Nothing. Nothing but water and whitecaps. He blinked, swam frantically ahead, his own weakness faded into nothingness. “Spock!”

Again, nothing. His heart was in his throat. That log had to have been five inches in diameter. The blow alone could have been fatal. Holding his breath, he dove again, taking huge strokes, following the current, his heart slamming in his chest.

Then he touched something, almost didn’t see it in the murky water. A shape floating lifelessly beside him. Grabbing onto it, he pulled it back to him, made for the surface.

They broke through thirty yards from shore, snared in the current now, being drawn into deeper water. Kirk wrapped his arm around Spock’s neck, kicked his feet until he was somewhat stabilized on his side, Spock wedged against his chest. Beneath his fingers, he could feel the pulse of that massive heart, its beat erratic and weak. The chest was still. Even in all of this chaos and confusion he could tell that Spock wasn’t breathing.

Kirk held tight, made for the far shore. He’d always been a strong swimmer, had even won a medal or two in his academy days. The fact that those medals had been won when he was in the best of condition, not fighting a raging river with an unconscious man in one arm and three cracked ribs in his chest, was something that didn’t occur to James Kirk at the moment.

The bank came closer. Spock’s head was angled back, his skin a deathly shade of gray, eyes half-open and lifeless. Water flowed over them, whitecaps whipped up by the winds, washing over Spock’s face, running into his nose and mouth. Kirk turned away, kicked his feet, and swam for all he was worth.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he felt sand beneath his feet. Surging forward, he dragged them both out of the water. Laying Spock on his back, he tilted his head up, began to breathe into his mouth. First aid. Everyone knew it. Everyone had to know it. Follow the routine. Don’t think about who's beneath you. Just follow the routine.

Four breaths. Compress the heart, do its work for it. Four breaths. Again. Again.

Suddenly Spock stirred, a low gurgling sound coming from deep within his lungs. Kirk rolled him onto his stomach, pressed both hands against his ribs. “Come on,” he pleaded. “Get it out.”

Spock shuddered, choked, lay still. “Come on. Come on!” Kirk pushed again, harder this time, and again that ghastly sound came from Spock’s lungs. “Fight for me, damn it! Breathe!”

Five endless seconds passed before he sensed it coming. Lifting Spock's head off the ground, he cradled it in his lap as the Vulcan convulsed and heaved up what looked like a half-gallon of water. When the spasms finally stopped, he eased him onto his back again and felt for a pulse. The beat was stronger now, impossibly fast but regular. Carefully lowering himself to a sitting position, he rested his hand on that throbbing artery. Wondered vaguely where he found the energy to sit up at all.

Leaning forward, he tapped Spock gently on the cheek. “Hey. Wake up. Talk to me.”

There was no response. He tried again. “Come on. Open your eyes. Look at me.”

Spock groaned, turned toward him. Kirk could hear the water still moving in his lungs. Slowly, the Vulcan opened his eyes. “Talk to me. Can you breathe all right?”

A faint nod greeted his question, but it was a good thirty seconds before Spock answered. “Yes.”

His voice was raspy and hoarse but if he could talk he could breathe and Kirk was grateful for the voice, ragged though it was. “That tree branch hit you pretty hard. How badly are you hurt?”

Again a delay. “Not badly.” Spock's words were halting and weak. “The blow…the blow stunned me for a moment.”

Yeah, sure. Even for a Vulcan, that was a bit too invulnerable. But Kirk was too tired to argue. He nodded, aware only now that his chest was beginning to hurt with a vengeance. He’d been taking in huge breaths of air as he swam, searching for Spock, dragging him across the river. Resuscitating him. Filling his lungs again and again, helped along by a heartbeat in the triple digits. And through it all those broken ribs had floated and banged against raw muscle and kept their silence. Adrenaline, he thought with a bone-weary smile. Lord, it’s amazing stuff.

But now that adrenaline was fading fast, taking what remained of his strength with it, and he had to struggle to stay upright. His hand still rested on Spock’s chest, fingers unconsciously tightening around the Vulcan's shirt. A few minutes ago he’d thought Spock as good as dead, lost forever in that cold, hateful water. The relief he felt right now nearly overpowered him.

Spock knew it. Reaching up, he grasped Kirk’s arm with surprising strength and pulled him down. The captain nearly fell forward, catching himself with one hand before lowering himself against Spock’s shoulder. “I’m not hurting you, am I?” The words came out slurred, exhaustion finally dragging him away.

Spock stroked his hair. He could scarcely believe they were still alive. “No, Jim. It’s all right. You rest now.” He held him close, sensed him slip off into unconsciousness. “You rest.”


***********


“Put him over there!” McCoy shouted the words to a harried intern. The patient lying on the gurney was not in serious trouble, his swearing and fuming were evidence enough of that. The intern raced past, shoving the cart before her. “Check his stats once more!” McCoy called out. “Just to be on the safe side!”

The woman nodded as the gurney disappeared into an adjoining room, the one where the mild cases went. There was another door on the far side of the hallway, a door that always stayed closed. It was where the hopeless cases were taken. And the dead.

Morrian approached, watching as McCoy held a respirator to the mouth of a man with scorched lungs. McCoy monitored his pulse, his pupils and heart rate. A nurse came by, hesitated for a moment. Without looking up, McCoy waved her on.

At length, he motioned for someone to take the cart away. “He’s stabilized. Put him in B.”

The orderly nodded, pushed the injured man down the corridor. McCoy glanced up, saw Morrian for the first time. “How’re you doing?” the native asked.

McCoy studied her face. Poor woman looked like she’d aged ten years in the past twelve hours. McCoy found himself grateful there wasn’t a mirror nearby. No doubt he looked the same. “We’re running low on just about everything. Sterile pads, painkillers. You name it.”

Morrian stared at the floor and for an instant McCoy was certain she was about to cry. “I’ve been on the phone with Gorham, the regional governor there. He’s doing what he can but the damned bureaucracy is so slow.” Her voice was anguished. While pedantic civil servants argued among themselves in the city of Gorham, people were dying needlessly in Mersin. “I’ve even put in a call to the palace in Drosin. They gave me some double talk about getting help down to us as soon as possible. It’ll probably be a week before we see anything.”

Suddenly the emergency doors burst open. A white-faced paramedic stuck her head in. “We’ve got some more!” she shouted.

McCoy felt his heart sink. “How many?”

“Don’t know. A camping trip, a bunch of outworlders on a camping trip got caught in a backfire. They’re bringing them in now.”

Outworlders. Heaven only knew what medications they’d need. Not that it really mattered in any event. The hospital was probably out of it anyway. “Where are they from? Could you tell?”

“No. They’re humanoids, but they don’t speak any Standard, near as we can tell.” The woman stopped, looked back outside. A truck screeched to a halt in the driveway. “Here they are now.”

McCoy met Morrian's gaze, asked what had been at the back of his mind since this morning, what was eating a hole in his gut right now. “You haven’t heard anything, have you?”

Morrian shook her head. Considering the condition of some of the cases brought in today, perhaps that was something of a blessing. “No. I’m sorry. I wish I had some news for you.”

The door flew open again. A large knot of people stood outside, most of them screaming in pain. Nurses ran past, what nurses that weren’t hip-deep in patients already, and began to help the injured inside. “Damn,” McCoy muttered. “Here we go again.”

The beeper at Morrian's belt began to wail. She started to move away. “I’ve got to go. I’ll check with you later.”

McCoy hesitated as he watched her go. “You’ll let me know if you hear anything?”

“Sure,” Morrian called back. “I’ll let you know.”


**********


The air was cold now, permeated with the smell of ash and smoke, but ironically cold. The wind blew against his face with ever-increasing strength, spring flowers curling up in instinctive protection at his feet. The fire itself seemed very far away.

Spock walked, half-balancing, half-supporting Kirk at his side. For nearly three hours they'd lain on the banks of the Adiron as the fire roared two hundred yards away, the heat of its flames nearly scorching them as it bounced off the water. Kirk had slept the sleep of the dead the entire time, Spock struggling to his feet once he saw he was deeply asleep to gently probe his body, searching out the broken ribs he knew were there. Three, one of which was cracked in two places. Spock could feel them move beneath his touch but through some miracle they seemed relatively stable. If he was careful and found Kirk shelter soon, he would be all right.

At last the flames began to slacken. He’d raised his head, felt the icy chill of an approaching high-pressure system. By some hidden instinct Kirk had awoken at the first gust of arctic air, instantly reading the concern in his eyes. In their condition, a night in the open could well be a fatal mistake.

So they'd stood and walked, both unsteady. A toss-up really on who was the worse off. And walked. And walked. They’d helped each other at first but as the hours passed Kirk’s energy began to wane and Spock’s innate strength reasserted itself until now the Vulcan was virtually carrying him, suppressing the pain in his legs, in his lungs, in his abdomen.

The temperature dropped ten degrees in the next twenty minutes. Spock drew Kirk closer, biting his lip to keep his teeth from chattering. The landscape around them was no different than it had been an hour ago. Huge trees in every direction. An occasional animal. No sign of humanoid life.

At last they came to a clearing. Spock hesitated, torn between Kirk’s need to rest and their now desperate search for shelter. The captain’s head came up to rest against his shoulders. Kirk groaned, the sound low and deep in his throat. Spock made up his mind.

Glancing around, he spotted a rock, smooth and warmed by the sun. Easing Kirk over, he settled him against it. The captain arched his back, forced his eyes to open. “Thanks,” he muttered.

Spock turned away, began to unbutton his shirt.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Despite his exhaustion, Kirk’s voice was surprisingly strong.

Spock kept his attention focused downward. “You’re cold.”

“So are you.”

Silence. Two more buttons came undone.

“I’m not that cold. Leave it on.”

Hazel eyes met brown. They’d been having this argument for the past five miles. Kirk’s shirt, caught by the branch that struck him, was little more than shreds and tatters, probably letting in more cold than it kept out.

Spock tugged at one sleeve. Kirk reached out and grabbed his arm. “I’m too damned tired to fight with you about it anymore. Leave it on.

Spock hesitated, but the next words would be a command and he knew he wouldn’t have the heart to refuse it. Reluctantly he re-buttoned his shirt.

Kirk smiled, a faint smile that vanished quickly in the wind. His face was ashen and, despite the cold, Spock could see a thin sheen of perspiration coating his brow. The sight chilled him and, rising to his feet, he began to scan their surroundings. Forests and dry earth. Every now and then a meadow composed of short grass and nothing else. Peculiar vegetation. Almost no undergrowth, no natural forms of shelter of any kind. If there had been forests on Vulcan, he suspected they would have looked like this. Except for the cold.

A flock of birds flew overhead, their wings sounding like a hundred heartbeats as they passed. Spock watched them go, watched the streaks of red light up the sky as the sun set. Animals, trees, nature, a beautiful setting, really, but he would have given a year of his life to see a curl of chimney smoke, a house. Anything to get Kirk out of the approaching night air.

Nothing. Nothing but a lighter shade of green off in the distance. He tried to keep the disappointment from showing on his face. Turning, he knelt.

As he did so, a stabbing pain lanced through his groin, surprising him with its severity, dwarfing anything that had come before. Kirk grasped his arm. “What?”

There was nothing either of them could do about it at the moment and Spock shrugged it off. “It’s nothing.” Standing again, he pretended to search the horizon. “There is evidence of down-sloping to the north northwest.” He pointed, well aware that Kirk did not turn to look. “Also, what appears to be a change in the color of the vegetation. That could imply a differing flora, such as quercus on Earth, which in turn could indicate a richer soil base and therefore the possibility of a farm.”

Kirk wasn’t fooled by the long-winded response, but let it pass without comment. He glanced over to where Spock had indicated. The terrain looked the same to him and he doubted even a Vulcan could spot an oak tree at five miles.

But at least it was a direction and walking toward something was always better than walking in circles.

The sun was almost gone now and Kirk shivered, the cold like shards of glass slicing into his lungs. Twenty-four hours before they’d been sitting beside a bucolic lake, warmed by the heat of a campfire, not a care in the world. It didn’t seem possible.

Kirk leaned his head against the rock. He felt so tired, could hardly keep his eyes open but knew they couldn’t stay here. The terrain was barren, the way primeval forests are barren: huge trees with huge trunks and ground below them that hadn’t seen unobstructed sun in centuries. Soil leached rock-hard to a depth of fifty feet. Almost like a desert in a strange sort of way.

The wind picked up. He opened his eyes to see Spock tremble. Time to move before they were too chilled, before the cold sapped their strength and it became easier to sleep than to walk. Easier to lie down until the cold became heat and the hard earth soft as feathers. Hypothermia always ended that way, he’d heard. Hallucinations, no doubt, as the heartbeat slowed and the brain became starved for oxygen.

The image motivated him and he struggled to his feet. Spock caught him as he swayed to one side. “Jim, you should rest longer.”

Spock’s fingers were like ice. The downside of a higher metabolism. “No, we have to keep moving.”

Spock read that to mean you have to keep moving. His grip tightened. “A few more minutes of inactivity will do me no harm.”

Kirk knew exactly how much harm a few more minutes of inactivity would do. He might not be able to pick up on Spock’s thoughts and feelings the way the Vulcan could pick up on his, but he knew what he felt now. Could almost see that deadly chill seep into Spock’s body, drawing the life right out of him.

He gave his friend a steely look, decided to end the conversation. “ I’ll tell you what. You give in to me on this one and I won’t ask you about that cracked pelvis of yours.”

Kirk was correct. It ended the conversation, all right. For a long moment, they just stood there in silence. At last Spock glanced away and for a moment Kirk thought he would actually deny it.

But he didn’t. He nodded his head. “I can deal with the discomfort. It is already healing.”

Bullshit. Kirk could see the lie in the Vulcan’s eyes, in the way he favored his left leg. Spock might pride himself on his inscrutability, on his ability to hide his emotions, but when he told a lie, Kirk could see it as if it was written across his forehead.

The Vulcan looked back at him. Kirk’s eyes softened. It was that inherent honesty. Would make a bad liar out of the Almighty Himself. “You’ll let me know if it gets any worse?”

A gentle smile touched Spock’s mouth. “Yes.” His voice was low. Kirk could see the moisture of his breath in the air. “I will let you know.”

Together, slowly, the two men made their way to the south southeast.

 

**********


The smell was stronger. Standing on the walkway before his house, the old man looked up. Damn thing would probably burn for a week. But then the forest will come back. It always does. Life growing from the ruins of death. Death from life. Round and around we go. Where we stop…

Jonah angrily threw the broom to the ground. The rhyme had come into his head like a ghost from the past. Hateful, useless memory. They always did that, snuck up on you when you weren’t looking. He ground his teeth together. Damned thing would be with him all day now, weaving through his thoughts again and again. The voice that sang it wouldn’t be his own, though. It would be a high-pitched voice. He could hear it even now, high-pitched, almost squealing. It had been warm that day, almost hot, the roses just coming into bloom. And he could remember that she had burned in the sun.

Closing his eyes, Jonah began to count: one, two, three. Such thoughts were worse than useless. They were enemies, tormentors that baited you with what was gone, with how much better things were then than now. Perhaps the forest was right. Perhaps it would be better if everything went up in a ball of flames. The trees that grew to replace those burning now wouldn't remember. They'd grow and flourish and die and it would all mean nothing. Absolutely nothing. That was the message of it all, anyway, wasn’t it? That there was no meaning, that anyone who thought there was, was just chasing his tail, hiding out behind the opiate of illusion. There was no more purpose to Jonah’s life than there was to waves hitting a beach.

He lowered his head, mind filled with a deep and searing bitterness. He knew that now. An agonizing realization but that was the way things were and he’d long since stopped questioning any of it.

…nobody knows. Nobody knows. How true. With a faint, grim smile on his face, he picked up the broom and swept the dust from his walk, dust that would blow back on the next breeze. And he would sweep it off and it would blow back. Fitting. He hated the drudgery of this kind of work but for years sweeping had been one of his favorite chores. Sweep. Sweep. Endless, useless, futile. Perfect. A microcosm of the universe itself.


**********


It was dark. There was no moon and the trees seemed ominous, towering before him like the legs of a giant. Kirk still walked at his side, although how the captain stayed conscious was a mystery. More than once he’d given thought to the idea of putting him out with a nerve pinch and carrying him through the night. Kirk had read the look in his eyes and flat-out ordered him not to do it. Spock had obeyed the order, respected Kirk’s reasons for giving it, but it was hard. When he stumbled or sagged against him, when he groaned in pain and still stayed on his feet, it was very hard indeed.

Spock distracted himself and watched the stars, trying to keep track of their direction, but his mind was sluggish and his concentration shot. The cold was in his very bones now, ice fibers cracking in his joints as he moved, the air deathly still, sucking up whatever warmth lingered on the ground and dispersing it out into space. With every passing minute, the temperature dropped. Death, he knew, was not far off for either of them.

Still he kept going, the soles of his feet bloody and torn to shreds. Kept going because they couldn’t stop. The terrain hadn’t changed, not really, the lighter green he’d seen earlier proving to be an illusion cast by the setting sun. The ground was less barren but there was still virtually nothing with which to build a fire. And even if there was, he thought in despair, his fingers were too numb to light it.

Suddenly a shooting star cut a swath through the night sky, Spock unthinkingly turning to watch it fall. At the same moment Kirk tilted his head back, his eyes flickering open as if he sensed the meteorite’s presence. Spock looked down, distracted by Kirk’s motion, by the meteorite and the memories of yesterday it brought with it, and didn’t see the rock in the darkness. A small rock, sticking barely an inch out of the ground. If he’d had half his normal strength, he wouldn’t have tripped at all, would have caught himself with barely a ripple in his stride.

But Spock didn’t have half his strength. He had virtually none. The rock caught his foot at the arch, caught it where another rock had sliced into the sole hours earlier. He staggered, pulling Kirk to one side. The captain gasped, instinctively grabbed at his arm, throwing him further off balance. Spock tried desperately to stay on his feet, but his weakness doomed him and he was already going down. A half-second later he hit the ground.

Kirk landed an instant after he did and that cry of pain, it would be with him for the rest of his days. A terrible strangled sound, cut off in the middle. The cry something makes when it is speared through the chest. Spock had heard the sound before, from men who had fallen in battle, the aftermath of a Klingon raid. For years he’d had nightmares of hearing it come from this man. For years.

Reacting on instinct, he rose to his knees and eased Kirk's twisted body flat against the ground. The captain’s eyes were wide open but there was an emptiness in them that stilled Spock's heart. A thin stream of blood began to trickle out of one side of his mouth.

Spock forced back his rising panic. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as he thought. Perhaps they’d been lucky. Again. Carefully he pulled up Kirk’s shirt.

And saw where the rib had shifted, protruding like a tumor from the captain’s chest, its far end buried deep in a lung somewhere. Kirk arched his neck, teeth biting into his lower lip. The trickle of blood grew larger, spreading out across his collar, running down his neck.

For a horrifying instant Spock was completely immobilized, fear freezing him in his tracks. Calm yourself. Calm yourself. He sent the words spinning savagely through his head. Calm yourself. Jim’s life depends on it. Calm yourself!

Spock concentrated, lowered his racing heartbeat. There was only one possible thing to do. He spread his fingers, but his hands were so cold he could barely move them. And he knew that if he entered a trance to pull the captain back up to him they would both freeze before it was finished, locked in a no-man’s land of mental healing, while here their bodies died of hypothermia.

Kirk coughed, choked, grabbed onto his pants with one hand. Spock shook his fingers in desperation but the feeling was nearly gone. Either way it was hopeless.

That was when he sensed it. A slight change in the wind, carrying with it an odor from across half the valley. As distinctive as the smell of the forest fire itself. Wood smoke. A fireplace.

Spock felt a sob escape his throat. Kirk’s grip on his pants tightened. He looked up to meet the Vulcan’s wild eyes, but could not ask his question aloud.

Spock raised his head, drew a deep breath. The smoke was stronger now, more concentrated. “It is not far,” he whispered. “A mile, perhaps.”

A mile. It was possible. The blood flow was not that heavy and the captain still able to breathe. Possible.

Sliding his arms beneath Kirk’s shoulders and knees, Spock rose unsteadily to his feet. Kirk’s head sank back against his chest but those pain-clouded eyes remained open. “We will make it, Jim." Shifting his weight, he held the captain close. "I will not let you die. We will make it.”


**********


Jonah was used to the forest, its sounds, its silences. He heard the bleating warning cry of the deer, the snap of twigs as a moorcat moved through the underbrush. Calls of birds in a panic, the steady beat of an owl's wings.

And something else. A different sound, made by an animal not native to these woods. Rising to his feet, he moved to the window and peered outside.

Two men. Delar was rising, a brilliant white giant of a star scarcely fifty light-years away, casting eerie shadows across the land, and he could just make them out against the tree line. Two there were, one of whom was carrying the other. The man on his feet had a strange gait, unsteady, stumbling, and yet remarkably fast at the same time and, because of the way he carried his companion, Jonah had thought at first it was one person he was seeing. He'd heard the Shamar brought all kinds of creatures to the mountain. Perhaps this was one of them.

The wind picked up, the tattered remnants of their clothing fluttering in the frigid night air. In a bit of trouble, are you? Must have gotten caught in the fire. Fools. Jonah almost smiled. They likely deserved it, a couple of limp-wristed college professors out to have a little fun, rambling though the mountains on their days off to stare at a pile of useless rocks. He eyed them for a moment as they staggered toward his door, wishing he’d seen them sooner, when he’d have had time to bank his fire, put out his lights. Pretend that the house was empty and no one had lived here for a hundred years.

They were only a dozen yards from his front step now and he could see the dark-haired man clearly in the starlight. An alien, he now realized. Probably both were. Jonah ground his teeth together. Gods, but he hated aliens. They were worse than the townsfolk. He couldn’t douse his lights. They were too close. But he’d drop the bar across the door. Let them go into the woods and freeze. What did he care? Fucking aliens.

The bolt slammed home. The man looked up and Jonah, peering through a crack in the window, could tell that he knew what the sound was, what it meant. The alien's eyes grew very peculiar then, almost seemed to glow. Jonah crept away and hunkered down in his chair.

Then came the knock, followed by a voice, muted by the thickness of the wood. “Please, we are in need of your help.”

He rose and stomped to the door. He knew they wouldn’t go away. Hell, they’d probably been following his chimney smoke for half an hour. Lifting the bar, he slammed it against the wall and pulled the door open.

The stranger stood on the porch, silhouetted in starlight, his semi-conscious companion in his arms. The alien held the other one in an odd way, long arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders and legs as if he were afraid the man would break in two. There was an expression on his face Jonah hadn’t seen in a long time, but one that he recognized immediately. Fear. Naked, primeval fear.

He took a step back, opened the door a bit more. “What d’ya want?”

The alien just stood there. The answer was so obvious that, for a moment, he seemed unsure of what to say. The fingers of one hand twined through his companion's shirt, came away stained red with blood. “Please,” he said. “My friend is injured. He must have shelter.”

Jonah looked to one side. Injured? That was putting it mildly. The man didn’t look like he’d live another five minutes.

Despite himself, Jonah backed away. Hospitality was a tradition in these hills and some old habits die hard. “Bring him in.”

The stranger hurried inside. The man in his arms groaned, made a kind of gurgling sound. Jonah glanced over. He’d heard that sound before. Once, when he’d shot a deer through the lungs, it had made a sound like that.

The alien moved toward the inner door carved into a far wall, instinctively going to the center of the house where it would be the warmest. “I must put him down.” His voice was anxious, almost frantic. “The rib has shifted and there is bleeding in the lung. I must put him down.”

Jonah stood his ground. “Not in my bed, you don't. Put him here on the floor. If his lungs are bleeding, he’ll mess up the sheets.”

It was clearly the wrong thing to say. The man turned back to him, his eyes blazing. “Open the door! Now!”

Never in his life had Jonah heard such fury. It galvanized him. Running forward, he gave the door a shove and flipped on the light. The alien hurried to the bed, laid the man across it. Kneeling at his side, he whispered something in his ear, then touched him on the side of the neck. The man’s twitching stopped immediately, every bone in his body seeming to melt away. The alien waited another few seconds before pulling off what was left of his companion's shirt. Jonah could see the rib even from here, purple and swollen, the bruised skin spreading out to cover nearly a third of the man’s chest.

The alien saw it too, hesitated, then, pressing a palm against the bone, slowly eased it back into place. The other one's face grew pale as death, the blood running from his mouth brighter and heavier than before.

Abruptly the alien stood. He shook his fingers in the air to get the circulation going again, then pressed both hands savagely against his temples. For nearly thirty seconds he stood that way, his eyes tightly closed, breathing harsh and ragged. Jonah watched in fascination. Bizarre customs. Another side effect of the Shamar, bringing peculiar behavior from all over the galaxy. He had no idea what the alien was going to do next. Break the doomed creature's neck, perhaps. Put him out of his misery.

But he didn’t. Rather, he sat and leaned forward, placing his fingers against the man’s face. Taking a series of deep breaths, he closed his eyes, body swaying faintly from side to side, head bowed against his chest.

Five minutes went by. Ten. Gradually the injured one's breathing became a bit less labored, his color a bit less pale. The blood oozing from the edges of his mouth grew no larger and, after a moment, began to dry.

Thirty minutes. An hour. Jonah waited, his feet aching, but strangely unable to leave. Aside from that gentle rocking motion the alien remained still as a statue, seemed totally inner-directed. The other one rested quietly now, his expression one of peace. He was breathing almost normally. The death rattle, inexplicably, was gone.

Slowly, as time passed, the alien’s shoulders began to slump. Once he jerked back, seemed about to open his eyes, only to relax again, fingers slipping down until they rested on the pillow. He lowered his head, laying it gently against his companion's shoulder. A long, deep sigh escaped him. Finally, he straightened and glanced back, saw that Jonah was still standing in the doorway. “Thank you,” he said simply.

Jonah made no reply. The stranger's eyes were glazed, his face haggard and drawn. Probably hungry, too, he thought, shaking himself from his fascination, focusing now on the disruption these two would undoubtedly bring into his life. But it was late now and he didn’t feel like putting any food on the stove. He’d done enough by letting them in. They had no right to expect more.

Turning away, he shut the door, sat himself heavily in his easy chair. Fire had practically gone out. House was too damned drafty. “Aliens,” he muttered, tossing on another log, his mind wandering back to the scene he'd just witnessed. He had seen some strange things in his life but never anything like that. Never anything even remotely like that.

Reaching behind him, he snapped off the table lamp, but sleep did not come easily to him tonight and he sat for a long time, staring at the sliver of light coming from beneath his bedroom door.


**********


He felt like he was floating, floating on a cloud of goose down and feathers, wrapped in it, smothered in it. He didn’t even have to breathe. Everything was done for him. All he had to do was listen to the sound of his heartbeat, stretch his body out until it seemed to go on forever. Fascinating. The more he stretched the longer he got. Endless, reaching to the far ends of the universe itself.

Something touched him, like a flash of light in a fog. Diffuse. Scattered. Everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He focused his mind, pulling it back to him. The sense of eternity was intoxicating, but that touch reached him in another way, was somehow more important. He struggled to grab onto it, but it kept slipping away. Back and forth, like trying to hold on to a dream. At length, he gave up, curled back into himself. He was still too weak. He couldn’t find his direction in the light and was too tired now to care.

Then he felt something else, something far more substantial, reminding him that his body still lived, giving him the strength, the direction he needed. A pressure against his face, so gentle he could scarcely feel it, yet hanging onto him like a lead weight, sparking a thousand physical sensations one after another. It was almost as if he was in a sensory deprivation chamber except that the sensations were everywhere, touching every cell of his body. So much sensation. It was almost enough to make him weep.

The touch was gone now. Gone as suddenly as it had appeared. But strangely it didn’t matter anymore. He had no idea of where he was or what was happening to him. But he knew he wasn’t alone. And that was enough.


**********


It was nearly midday before the alien came out of the bedroom. Jonah sat on the porch, rocking his chair back and forth, watching his garden, resolutely not watching the door. Damn it. He had work to do, the thought digging into his head like an ice pick. His farm was a small one, just enough to keep him self-sufficient, but still there was always work to do.

Somehow, though, he couldn’t bring himself to leave the house.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man stop in the center of the living room. He seemed confused, as if he didn’t remember where he was. Moving to the nearest chair, he lowered himself down.

Jonah stood, stared at his garden, stared at his door, then walked back into the house. One brown eye opened, then two. The stranger made a feeble attempt to rise, but he didn’t get very far. Jonah watched in silence as the man sank back into his chair. He’d never seen such exhaustion written on a face.

He made a show of puttering around the living room, clattering pots and pans in the kitchen. Poured himself a beer, drank it, looking out the window the whole time. The alien’s gaze followed his movements but the man said nothing. At length he turned back, wiping the froth from his lips with the back of one sleeve. “The other one, how is he?”

The alien straightened. “He is sleeping now. He will recover.” He hesitated, gave Jonah a peculiar look. “I wish to apologize for my ill-mannered behavior last night. I was concerned for my friend.”

Jonah snorted. Concerned? Half out of your mind would be more like it.

He gestured toward the bedroom door, his mind replaying the scene of the night before. “What’d you do to him, anyway? I heard that death rattle. Thought no one ever came back after their lungs started making a sound like that.”

The stranger visibly paled. For several seconds he didn't reply. “Among my people,” he said at last, “it is the custom for us to help another heal an injury. With the power of our minds we can do this.”

Jonah shrugged. Last night the man didn’t look like he’d had much of a mind. “Handy trait.”

“Yes.” A hint of amusement entered the alien's voice. “A handy trait.”

Jonah moved to the chair before the fireplace and sat down. That freak arctic front of yesterday was gone now, the temperature outside nearly seventy degrees, but the cabin was still cold and he gave some thought to stoking up the embers. No. It annoyed him that he was even considering it. One didn’t light a fire in the daytime, not unless water literally froze in the wash basin. That was a maxim as old as these hills themselves. And Jonah wasn’t one to waste fuel, anyway. “You got caught in the forest fire?”

It was an obvious answer but the stranger replied nevertheless. “Yes. And I thank you for your hospitality. I will be forever in your debt.”

Jonah looked over. There was something eerie about those words, almost oppressive, like a great cloak had just settled over his house, blocking out the light. He shook it off. Lord, this outworlder was getting to him already and he’d only been here for half a day. Damned aliens. He should have given in to his first impulse last night, should have doused his lights and locked his door and buried them both in the morning.

A long silence followed, the alien staring at the ceiling, his eyes scarcely blinking, looking at nothing. Jonah kicked the mud off his shoes, surreptitiously studied the man's face: careworn, almost gaunt. And yet there was a serenity to him that was undeniable, a peace. Almost a sense of joy.

Jonah shifted his weight. Here it was nearly noon and he hadn’t done a lick’s worth of work yet. The hatchet stood on the front step, mocking him, waiting to pound away at tree roots in his garden. A thousand tree roots. A million. Enough for a lifetime.

But he didn’t move. He stayed. And spoke. “Your friend…”

The words seemed to startle the alien and he looked down sharply. Jonah asked his question, wondering why he should care. “What’s his name?”

More silence. Then, “Jim.”

Jim, Jonah thought. James. A simple name, a bit on the old-fashioned side. Probably from farming stock, like he was himself.

“Jim.” The alien whispered it again, as much to himself as his companion. Jonah glanced over to see the man watching him intently. “And you,” he asked. “May I ask your name?”

His name. Gods, he hadn’t said it aloud in years. For a moment, didn’t want to answer, as if to do so would rob him of something important. “Jonah,” he replied begrudgingly, then added the rest. “Jonah d’Ceren.”

“Jonah d’Ceren, I am forever in your debt.”

This time the words simply irritated him. He frowned, rose to his feet. He didn’t need this man’s gratitude. Didn’t want it. Didn’t want anything from him except to get him out of his house. Him and his crippled friend.

The room seemed very large as he crossed it, anxious suddenly to get outside. He pulled the door open, then stopped and looked back. The alien was still watching him, his expression open and unguarded. Not like last night, he thought, recalling the wild look in the stranger's eyes, the panic reflected there when he thought his friend was dying. There was a vulnerability in that look that Jonah recognized all too well. He’d seen it in his own eyes often enough, before he’d broken every mirror in the place.

Love. The one thing in his life that had given it any meaning and yet he hated it, for it was a bitter thing, left him vulnerable and weak. Opened him up to a lifetime of loneliness and sorrow. Poisoned him with dreams of what could have been, of what he had lost.

Looking into that alien face, Jonah saw a love as deep as his own and the sight of it angered him, enraged him. No one suffered heartache the way he did. In a strange way the old man took a peculiar pride in his inner hell, as if it showed the measure of his manhood in just being able to survive from one day to the next. Impossible for anyone to understand the depths of his pain, to appreciate the unspeakable agony of his loss. Certainly not the creature who now sat before his fireplace.

Certainly not him.


**********


It was four hours later, the sun just slipping beneath the horizon. Jonah wiped his forehead with one sleeve, made his way back to the porch.

He paused for a moment, glanced in the window. The alien was still sitting in the chair where he’d left him. His hands were folded on his lap, his head bent forward. He appeared to be asleep.

Well, we’ll see about that. Pushing a shoulder against the door, Jonah shoved it open with a bang, expecting to see the man jump clear out of his chair.

But he didn’t. He showed no reaction at all, just sat, silent as a stone. Jonah paused. There was something odd going on here. Cautiously he approached him.

Damn! Jonah stared down in partial disbelief. There was no breath coming from the stranger's lungs, no movement of his chest. His skin was pale, body wrapped in the stillness of death. The man had sat in his chair and died on him. Fucking beast. Now I’m stuck with that friend of yours. How in the hell am I going to get rid of him now?

Well, he’d have to get this one out of the house, that's for sure. It was too late to dig a grave tonight but he’d bury him in the morning. First thing. Throw him in the wheelbarrow, take him out to the woods and bury him good and deep.

Furious that this would upset his daily routine yet again, Jonah grasped an arm and pulled the alien halfway to his feet, preparing to sling the corpse over one shoulder and dump it outside in the yard.

When the man gasped it so frightened him that he shoved the alien away and backpedaled halfway across the room. “What the hell!”

The stranger fell into the chair, a groan escaping him when his head snapped back and hit the wall. After a moment his eyes opened, but they were empty, lifeless. Jonah watched as his hands tightened on the arms of the chair and he pulled himself forward. Lowering his head, he closed his eyes again.

Jonah moved toward the door. The man was a devil. A sorcerer. He’d been dead a moment before. Jonah was almost sure of it. His eyes narrowed as he watched the alien struggle toward awareness. He should get his gun, put a bullet between those eyes. Kill him for good. Witch.

The stranger seemed to sense his thoughts. He weakly raised one hand in the air. “It is all right.” His words were halting, slurred. “I was.…”

He stopped, held his breath. After a few seconds, looked up and Jonah could see rationality in his eyes now. “I was healing myself.” His words were clearer, too. “I did not mean to startle you.”

That healing thing. Jonah remembered the man had mentioned it earlier. Apparently it worked both ways.

He relaxed a bit. Made more sense than rising from the dead. And he’d seen stranger things in his life. “You scared the crap out of me. Thought you’d died or something.”

“I'm sorry if I frightened you.” The alien's head drooped. He seemed inexpressibly weary.

Jonah eyed him. “Well, are you done?” He didn’t want to get a start like that again.

The man looked up and it was clear from his expression that he wasn't.

But he didn’t say that. He nodded. “It was sufficient. I will not trouble you with it again.”

Damned right you won’t.

The alien just watched him and Jonah had the unnerving impression that he could read his mind. Scowling to cover his unease, he crossed the room and began to make himself something to eat, pointedly taking only one plate from the cabinet.

Recognizing it for the rejection it was, the stranger rose to his feet and wordlessly crossed into the bedroom, pulling the door gently closed behind him.


***********


Leonard McCoy sat at the desk, scanning the casualty lists before him. A local police official hovered at his side. “Anything, Doctor?”

McCoy shook his head. “No.”

Nearly five minutes passed, the silence broken only when he folded back another sheet of the print-out. Finally, he laid the papers down. “I’ve checked it all twice. They’re not here.”

The Drosinian frowned. Having two hundred and twenty people incinerated in the worst fire in fifty years was bad enough. Now, to learn that two of the highest ranking officers in Starfleet, guests of the premier himself no less, were lost on Catal somewhere was enough to give him a monstrous headache.

The officer rubbed his forehead. “Have you checked the morgues?” he asked, almost hopefully. “There are two in town, you know, one in the hospital and one at city hall.”

The morgues. Familiar places to McCoy now, the both of them. “Twice since this morning.”

“They're still bringing bodies in.”

McCoy didn't reply. Walking to a map hurriedly tacked on the wall earlier in the day, he pointed to an area near the center. “The fire started here and they were camping here.” His finger stabbed at a spot several inches away. “There must be ten, fifteen miles between the two. They would have known it was coming, would have had time to get away.”

Moving to his side, the official indicated a series of lines with the end of a pencil. “You see this? That’s the ridge line. The winds up there, they blow to the southeast and would have kept any smell from getting to them until the fire was practically in their lap. What’s more, that’s the leeward side of Catal. Vegetation’s a lot drier there than anywhere else. Once it hit that ridge, it would have spread like…”

He hesitated. McCoy flinched. “Yeah,” the doctor said softly. “I know. Like wildfire.”

The Drosinian shook his head. “I’ve got twelve teams up there looking.” He tried to sound optimistic. It didn’t work.

McCoy glared at the map. Catal had looked huge when he was on it, seemed even larger now. The fires still weren’t out. Estimates were that, unless they got some rain, the forest would continue to burn for a week.

“What about the river? What if they made it to the river?”

The officer looked dubious. The Adiron was nearly five miles from where the two men had camped. “They could have crossed it, I suppose. It’s pretty fast-running though. And the water’s cold. Mostly snow melt from higher in the mountains.”

Snow melt. McCoy felt his hopes plummet. Snow melt could put the water temperature as low as forty degrees Fahrenheit. Spock wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in water that cold.

The doctor felt sick. He began to walk back to the desk. Noting his ashen complexion, the official hurried to his side. “You okay?”

McCoy shook his head, sank heavily into the chair. “No. No, I’m not okay. Not by a long shot.” Leaning forward, he rested his head in his hands. If he hadn’t come here, to this infernal planet, the captain and Spock would have had the car. Most everyone on the mountain who’d had one had gotten off. Only those foolhardy enough to take a joyride in the flames had perished, those and the unlucky few who'd been caught somewhere on foot.

But then, McCoy realized, if he hadn’t come that woman and her baby would almost certainly have died. Two lives for two. Is that what it all came down to? A trade-off?

Slowly, he lifted his head. “How cold did it get up there last night?”

The officer frowned. He'd been expecting the question. And dreading it. “Low to mid-twenties. Pretty rare for this time of year. Took us all completely by surprise. Something about a freak storm over the Surhel.”

“Terrific.” If they hadn't burned to death or drowned or died from smoke inhalation, the cold would likely have killed them by now. Killed Spock anyway.

McCoy glanced at the wall clock. He had to get back to the hospital, already felt guilty enough about being away for half an hour. Walking dejectedly to the door, he paused before the map one last time. “Damn rocks,” he muttered, stepping through the doorway. “Damned stupid rocks.”


***********


The goose down was all around him still, but somehow it felt lighter, thinner. In one part of his mind he wanted to turn away, to stay in the protection of his cocoon, but in another he knew that it was different this time, that it was time to leave. Reaching out, he poked a hand into the cloud, saw it dissipate at his touch. Encouraged, he pressed on.

The cloud thinned, transformed into fog at his feet, covering his boots like a dusting of snow. He looked over one shoulder. The clouds were thicker in the distance, white and billowing to the tops of the sky. Beautiful. Seductive. “Come back,” they seemed to say. “Come back.”

He hesitated, stopped, began to turn around. For as long as he could remember he’d longed for that sense of peace. No worries. No responsibilities. Just peace and quiet. Forever. He took a step. Two. The clouds came closer, swirling around him like a million marshmallows.

Then something brushed his face, a touch so soft he couldn’t even feel it, not really. Reminded him that the peace was nothing but death disguised, that there was more on the other side. So many things that filled his life, that he lived for. That he loved.

He stretched out his hand, the touch wrapping itself around him, urging him on. A voice came right behind it, a low voice rumbling across the void like thunder. He paused and listened. God, how he loved the sound of that voice. The clouds, the hesitation, faded into nothingness. He began to walk again.

Gradually his perceptions changed. Things took on shape and substance. The mattress was the first thing he could sense clearly, firm and solid beneath his back. Then the pillow, the crunch of feathers within it. Someone was sitting beside him. He could hear the man breathe, could tell where the mattress sagged beneath his weight. Slowly, he opened his eyes.

Spock’s face was inches from his own, his face pale and lined with worry. The Vulcan’s fingers rested firmly against the side of his face, then relaxed and came away. “Jim,” he said as if from a great distance. “Lie still. You will be all right but you must lie still.”

Kirk looked up. His thoughts were clearing as traces of the healing trance faded away. Images weaving through his mind, shadowy at first, then clarifying. Smoke. He remembered it now. A branch falling. The river. That horrible, hateful river. Spock tumbling back into the water, an agonized expression on his face. Then diving, his eyes so cold he could barely keep them open. Finding him, breathing life back into his body. Being swamped with indescribable relief when he heard Spock speak to him again.

Then the walking, the endless walking. He could see himself falling, felt that searing pain in his chest, watched as his mind slowly drifted into oblivion. He’d been certain he was dying this time, his life force dissipating before his very eyes, and he recalled that his worst fear at that moment was that he would leave Spock alone, that his friend would be forced to carry his body through the forest until they were found, silently crying out his heartbreak with every step. For he knew that Spock wouldn’t have left him behind, would have carried him for days if necessary rather than leave him behind.

The thought was unbearable, horrifying.

Spock leaned down until their foreheads were practically touching. He’d heard the captain’s thoughts. “Jim,” he whispered. “It did not come to pass. Let it go.”

Kirk met his gaze. Spock was right. It didn’t happen. He turned his mind to other matters, more immediate ones.

Carefully, he studied his friend’s face. Spock betrayed nothing but Kirk knew him too well to be fooled by that. “You’re hurt. Tell me.”

Dismay flashed through those eyes. Kirk saw it. “I seem to recall that you had a broken pelvis. How badly are you hurt?”

“I am all right.” Spock's expression was closed again, the lapse of an instant ago not repeated. “I was able to initiate a healing trance for myself as well.”

Several seconds passed as they looked at one another. “I am all right,” Spock repeated, his voice barely a whisper. “Do not concern yourself about me.”

That would be a first. Kirk said nothing. Spock reached out, ran a finger along one eyebrow. “Truly, I am all right.”

Kirk wasn't convinced, knew that Spock hadn't answered his question. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you - if you weren’t all right?”

Spock smiled faintly. “Yes. I would tell you.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Kirk accepted his vague response. He raised his head, scanned the room. “Where are we?”

Spock didn't answer that question, either. “Don’t try to speak.” He laid a hand across Kirk's brow, eased him back down. “You were badly injured. You must rest.”

Rest. He was never very good at that. His mind was clear now and he needed to move, to see where he was, find out what was going on. He tried again to lift his head.

Spock’s expression tightened, the pressure of his hand growing heavier. “Jim, lie still.” Please.

Kirk heard the unspoken plea. Spock had suffered enough. He laid back down.

Suddenly the slam of a door split the air, startling both men. The few figurines on the dresser vibrated, swaying precariously on their plaster stands. Kirk turned toward the disturbance. “What was that?”

Spock didn't look away but a troubled expression came into his eyes. “Our host has returned.”

Kirk frowned. The sounds of boots clomping across the wooden boards was not a very friendly one. “Oh?”

The bedroom door opened, the light flooding in momentarily blinding him, and Kirk slammed his eyes shut. Spock rose, putting himself in the sunlight’s path. He gave the newcomer a look that could hardly be described as friendly. The man hesitated, seemed to know he was treading on dangerous ground. Turning, he went back into the living room, pulling the door shut with a loud bang.

Kirk opened his eyes. He hadn’t seen much more than a dark silhouetted. “That was our host, I take it?”

“Yes.”

Silence. Then, “He is a most unhappy man.”

There was a peculiar inflection to the words, one that Kirk recognized at once. They’d had many long talks into the night over the past few months.

“What do you know about him?” he asked, his voice low.

Spock sat down. “Virtually nothing. His name is Jonah d’Ceren and he appears to live here alone. At least I have seen no evidence of another person. He is uncommunicative, however, and has spoken very little. I believe…” Spock clasped his hands together. “I believe that when he first saw us coming he intended to deny us admittance.”

Kirk had no trouble imagining the reaction to that from his quiet, unemotional first officer.

Long fingers tapped against one another. “He apparently changed his mind.”

No doubt, Kirk thought wryly.

Spock looked away, a trace of embarrassment in his eyes. He would have kicked the door in, had been just about to kick the door when Jonah opened it to him. An emotional reaction. A violent reaction. Hardly a Vulcan thing to do. But then again there were many things about him, within him, that weren’t very logical, at least not anymore.

“Help me with this, will you?” Kirk sensed his unease and changed the subject.

Spock turned to see him struggling with the blankets. He recognized the determination in those eyes, decided it would be pointless to argue. “What do you wish?”

“To pull it down. I’m too warm.”

Spock lowered the blanket by one inch. Kirk sighed. “A little more, please.”

Two more inches. If it wouldn’t have hurt so much, he'd have laughed. Spock caught his gaze. “I perceive that I am being overly solicitous.”

A bit. Kirk shook his head. “No. I appreciate your concern.”

Sounds of restless movement came from the outer room: pots clanging, the creak of a chair leg across a floorboard, walking. Pots clanging again.

Spock studied the worn rug at his feet, then spoke. “Are you well enough to eat?”

Acute ears no doubt heard the grumbling of his stomach already, one that had started almost from his first moment of consciousness. “Yeah, I think so.”

Spock rose, moved toward the door. “I will see if I can find you some food.”

From the way he said it Kirk realized that he’d eaten nothing himself. Or at least hadn’t been offered anything by their restive host. He turned his head, noted the sunlight's angle through carefully drawn curtains. Daytime, probably around noon. “How long have I been out?”

“Thirty-seven point three two hours.”

The captain calculated. Thirty-seven point three two hours, plus nothing to eat the day before that. A fairly large output of energy fleeing the fire, then heavens only knew what reserves Spock had drawn upon for the healing trance.

And Kirk had no delusions about the trance Spock had used on himself. He would have just floated on the surface of it, ready to pull himself into awareness at any sign of his own distress. It was a wonder he was on his feet at all.

Abruptly another crash came from the room outside, followed by an expletive Kirk hadn’t heard in years. The Drosin were by and large a friendly, outgoing people but hermits and malcontents were everywhere. The very fact that the man was here probably meant he wasn’t overly fond of humanity in general. “Well,” Kirk said, wishing he didn’t have to send Spock out there alone, that he knew more about their situation. “Tell him we’ll pay for the food, if you think he’ll object.”

A sad smile crossed the Vulcan’s face. “His objections, I fear, will not be financial.”

“What do you mean?”

Spock hesitated for a moment. “He is a lonely man, Jim. I have never sensed such loneliness in another.”

Kirk lay a hand on his arm. He understood the inference. “There’s no need for it,” he said softly. “Not anymore. You know that.”

An expression of devotion filled Spock's eyes as he gently stroked the hair from Kirk's brow. “Yes,” he whispered. “I know.”


***********


It was growing dark when Jannel Morrian stepped through the hospital doorway. She gestured to the nurse behind the station. “Where is he?”

The woman inclined her head to one side. “In the doctors’ lounge.”

Morrian nodded, made for the far door. The news she had wasn’t good and she found herself hoping that McCoy wouldn’t be inside. What the doctor needed now was to see his two friends walk through that door, safe and whole, not a report of incinerated camping gear.

Morrian pushed against the door. The room was empty, the doctors and nurses only coming in when they couldn’t move another step. Rest. Recharge. Then back out into the fray. People were still dying. Only twenty minutes ago a five-year-old child, orphaned by the fire, had passed away in Morrian’s arms.

The doctor stopped, was about to leave when she saw him sitting on a couch wedged into a corner. His head was tilted back against the cushions, one arm dangling over the armrest. Leonard McCoy was sound asleep.

Morrian moved to stand over him. Poor man looked so tired, pale and wrinkled. She glanced down at the report in her hand. A patrol had found his friends' campsite, the charred remnants of a tent and cook stove. There were bones recovered about a half-mile away but initial reports said they were those of an animal. Perhaps an elk or a deer. Not humanoid. No signs of humanoids. Or humanoid remains. Just a cinder of a landscape for twenty square miles with a thousand foot cliff on one side and a raging river on the other. They’d already pulled a dozen corpses from the lake at the mouth of the Adiron and the bodies of animals were littering its shores. Hundreds by one count. Probably would be thousands in the end. The river was high now with spring melt, high and cold. A handful of unlucky people had tried to escape the fire by swimming across it. None that she knew of had made it.

Morrian read the report one more time, then, folding it in half, slipped it into her pocket. Let McCoy sleep. The news could wait until he woke up.

Turning, Morrian quietly left the room.


**********


Jonah was standing by the kitchen sink when Spock came in. The native ignored him for a moment, then turned around. “What d’ya want?”

Spock hesitated, unsure of what to say. Jonah stared at him. He took a step forward. “My friend is hungry. I wish to….”

Jonah shrugged, moved to the nearest chair and sat down. He raised the beer to his lips, drank. Lowered it again. The fingers of one hand began to drum restlessly against the tabletop.

Spock just stood there. He had no idea of what to do. Was the absence of a refusal to be taken as tacit approval? On Vulcan the food would have been offered within the first five minutes of his entry into the house.

Jonah smiled, sensing his unease. He waved an arm toward the refrigerator. “Go ahead. Hell, maybe it’ll earn me some bonus points in the fucking afterlife.”

The words made no sense and Spock didn’t dwell on them. He turned away and opened the refrigerator. Spartan but not unhealthy, raw fruits and vegetables for the most part. Gathering a few things together, he laid them on the counter top.

Jonah drained his mug. This was his second beer of the day and it was only a little after one. But what the hell, he wasn’t going anywhere. “You know,” he said, stifling a belch, “when I was a kid I really believed that stuff. Bonus points, the afterlife. The fact that there was somebody up there who gave a damn whether you were good or not.” He reached for another bottle. “When I lived in town the happiest people I knew were the crooks, the cops on the take. The bank presidents. They had the biggest houses, the fanciest cars. Wasn’t a soul in Mersin who didn’t want to kiss up to each and every one of them.”

He laughed but there was no joy in it. “The local preacher, he’s slaving away, filling the folks with all this crap about salvation and sin, and here’s this bank president charging them twenty cents on the dollar to live in their crummy little houses. And nobody questioned it! Hell, I didn’t. The truth was staring me right in the face and I didn’t even see it. These bank guys, they live to be a hundred and their kids are never the ones who get run over by the milk truck. Hell, no. That’s the poor slob who picks apples for a living.”

The third beer was gone. Spock lifted the plate in his hand, but hesitated to leave. Jonah had spoken barely a dozen words to him in over two days and now it was as if a dam had burst. He’d seen Kirk like this more than once, a thousand bottled-up emotions coming to the fore all at the same time. Jonah had lived alone, spoken to the walls for decades and now he had an audience and wanted to talk. He’d saved the captain’s life. Spock owed him this much, at least.

He stayed, the plate balanced in one hand. Jonah glared at him, then fell silent. “What in the hell is he to you anyway?” he said at last.

What answer could Spock possibly give to that? It would take a lifetime of words. Jonah studied him, misunderstanding the look in his eyes. He snorted. “You’re not alike. Even I can see that. What’s someone who looks like you doing with someone who looks like him?”

Spock raised an eyebrow, sensing a racial slur in the comment, but unsure of just which one of them Jonah was insulting. The native didn’t seem to notice. Or care. He rose to his feet, a bit unsteadily. “Don’t make no difference. Your friend, Jim, he’ll take off sooner or later. Somebody else’ll come along and he’ll drop you like you was a leper. Friendships don’t mean nothing. People using other people for whatever they can get out of them and then, brother, you’re history.”

Spock very nearly backed away, the man’s bitterness hitting him like a wave of acid.

Jonah moved to the door. “You go bring him his lunch. Enjoy yourselves. Enjoy yourselves.” He grabbed the knob, pulled it open. Paused to turn back and stare at him for several seconds. “It’s too bad.” Jonah's voice was different now. Despondent. Very soft.

The old man grew silent. Spock waited, was certain he was about to say something else.

But he didn’t. He shook himself, cinched up his pants, and was gone.


**********


A night and a day passed. Jonah spoke little, spent as much time outside as possible. Once he’d gone to the back of the house, kicked his foot against the rusting truck sitting in the sun. Wished he’d fixed that tire, kept the damned thing running. Then at least he could have gotten rid of his unwelcome guests. Kirk he rarely saw. Man spent most of the time asleep, the Vulcan sitting at his side unless compelled for some reason to leave. Always sitting. Silent as a statue. Hour after hour. Once he’d ventured out, asked Jonah for a needle and thread so he could repair their tattered clothes. Jonah took one look at the remnants of man’s shirt and tossed him some old clothes of his own. The gratitude in the alien’s eyes had left him speechless.

On the morning of the third day he'd bolted from the house at first light, began hammering away at his garden. He could hear sounds coming from inside, saw the two figures through the front window. Finally, the cripple was up. About fucking time.

A half-hour later they came onto the porch. Jonah watched as Spock eased his companion into the rocking chair and crouched at his side. They spoke to each other for several minutes before Spock rose and walked out to the garden.

“May I be of assistance?”

Jonah's answer was to gesture toward the house. “If I had a radio up there, you could call down to Mersin for help. Could be days before a rescue party gets up this far.”

Spock got the hint, but the captain was too weak to set out on foot. Picking up a hoe propped against a nearby fence, he met Jonah's level stare. “Where should I begin?”

Jonah looked at him. He might be an unfriendly man but he was not without perception. He recognized stubbornness when it stared him in the face.

He inclined his head to one side. “That row. Put in the beans.”

Spock began to work. In the distance, Jonah could hear the creak of the porch chair as it rocked back and forth. He stole a glance to one side, whacking at the weeds as he did so. “You known him for long?”

Spock didn't look over. “No. Not really.”

It was an odd answer, one that Jonah hadn't expected. “Really? How long?”

“Three point six two years.”

Jonah laughed. ‘Not really’ and then ‘three point six two years’? What kind of a creature was this? He straightened, leaned against his hoe. “You’re a strange bird,” he said.

Spock very nearly smiled. “So I’ve been told.”

Jonah’s smile held for a moment longer. Not by one of his own kind, he reckoned.

The two men went back to their weeding. Ten minutes passed, the quiet broken only by the sound of the rocking chair, an occasional call of a bird. At length Spock paused. “May I ask you a question?”

Jonah grunted. Spock took that as a yes. “How long have you lived on the mountain?”

Hesitation. It lasted so long that Spock thought he wasn’t going to answer.

But he did. “Twenty-five years this summer.”

Turning, Jonah gave Spock a look that was clearly discernible. And he, too, was a man of some perception. Bending down, he returned to his work.


***********


“What do you mean you can’t spare the planes any longer!”

The young man stood silently as McCoy paced the room. “You must have a thousand in the combined services,” he accused. “Don’t you dare tell me you don’t!”

The native had no intention of telling him any such thing. He tried not to cringe as those blue eyes seemed to bore holes clear through his head. “I’ve tried to explain. We have priorities --”

“Priorities! We’ve still got eighty-four people missing up there and you talk to me about priorities!” McCoy stepped closer until they were practically nose-to-nose. “We need all eleven planes. Hell, we need twice that number!”

The Drosinian held his ground. “We don’t have unlimited resources here. This isn’t Starfleet headquarters.”

McCoy stopped. That was the crux of the matter, after all. “Your premier doesn’t seem too interested in finding them anymore.”

“It’s not that he isn’t interested. It’s just that he… we all think…”

“What?”

Hesitation. McCoy took a huge breath. “Go on. Say it!”

“It's been too long, Doctor. We... we think they must be dead.”

There. It was out, and for a moment the native thought McCoy was going to hit him.

But he didn’t. Much as the doctor might have wanted to, it simply wasn’t in his nature. He fumed for a moment, then backed away. The government had written them off days ago. He knew that, had written off Jim and Spock and the rest of the eighty-two people still missing on Catal. ‘So sorry, but that’s the way it is and we have priorities. These things cost money and we have transports to fix and taxes to collect.’

McCoy lowered himself into the nearest chair. Objectively he understood the government’s position, had been fighting off his own feeling of depression for days now. Fifty thousand Drosinian dollars spent for every hour of the search and they hadn’t found a survivor in three days, the silence falling over the radio bands a deadly thing. Ominous and heartbreaking.

The young man took a step forward. He’d been given this job because of his compassionate nature, one better able to deflect rage than a bureaucrat who didn’t give a damn. He saw the doctor’s despair, wished there was something he could say to lighten it somehow.

“We still have three planes in the air,” he offered, “and we’ll keep them there for the next week at least.”

McCoy felt what was left of his hope plummet. Three planes for fourteen thousand square miles. With the size of the search loops they’d be forced to fly, it’d be a miracle if they saw anything. And that was assuming Jim and Spock were still within the search area, that they hadn’t been swept twenty miles downstream by the Adiron. That they hadn’t gotten a ride with someone and ended up ten miles to the north.

McCoy rose to his feet. He couldn’t think about it anymore, felt as if his brain had turned to jelly. Moving to the native’s side, he laid a hand on his arm. “I know this isn’t your doing. And I suppose that, without your help, we’d have had one plane in the air instead of three.” He signed. “Sorry I blew up. I’m tired, that’s all.”

The young man smiled sadly. No planes would have been more like it. “Of course, sir.”

“You’ll keep me informed?”

“Yes. Of course.”

McCoy nodded, walked to the door, stood for a moment gazing out the window. The air was clear now, the smoke gone, sky a brilliant turquoise blue. He saw it, knew that it was beautiful, but didn’t care, found himself resenting the people who did, who walked the sidewalks laughing, relaxing in the sun as if all was right with the world.

The doctor stiffened. He, of all people, shouldn’t fall into that trap. There was danger in it and he needed his faculties intact, still had patients to care for. So many patients still to care for.

Stepping resolutely into the sunshine, Leonard McCoy went back to work.


**********


The sun was warm, Jonah’s face streaked with sweat before midday. Straightening up, he rested the cultivator on the ground, spoke to his silent companion. “I’m going to get some lunch.”

A dozen yards away, Spock stood, turned toward the house. Jonah followed his gaze, saw the empty chair rocking slowly from its own inertia.

He glanced back. The expression on the Vulcan’s face was not a very happy one. “Looks like your friend decided to go inside.”

“Indeed.” The voice was no happier than the face. Jonah began to walk. “I heard you call him captain last night. Are you guys in the military or something?”

Spock had caught up with him and he had to increase his stride to keep up. “We are in Starfleet.”

Jonah raised an eyebrow. “Starfleet, eh. That’s pretty big stuff. I thought you just worked for the government. They have a lot of outworlder contracts.”

“No.” Spock was ahead of him now. A moment later, he strode up the steps and pushed the door open.

Kirk was in the kitchen. He waited a full ten seconds before glancing over one shoulder and giving Spock a faint smile. “I was feeling better. Thought I’d get you some lunch, make myself useful.”

Spock was obviously not placated but said nothing. Kirk turned back to the sink, continued to stir the vegetables. Jonah got himself a beer and sat in the farthest chair.

The silence that followed seemed to last forever but at length Spock gave in. At least Kirk had spent most of the morning resting on the porch. It was more than he had realistically expected.

But there was still weakness there. He could see it in the corners of Kirk’s mouth, the shadow that flashed for an instant in his eyes. “Here,” he said, reaching for the knife. “Let me do that.”

“I’m fine, Spock. Go sit down.”

Irritation was clearly discernible in the captain’s voice. Spock heard it. His hand fell to his side. Reluctantly he began to cross the room, was nearly at the table when he stopped and turned sharply back. A half-second later Jonah could see Kirk’s knees buckle as a hidden pain shot through him.

Spock was at his side instantly, had been moving toward him before he’d even started to fall. Jonah watched. How in hell did you know that was going to happen?

“Jim.” Spock's arms encircled his waist. “You are not ready yet.”

Kirk met his gaze. “I’m sorry. You’re right.” As usual, my infallible friend. As usual.

Reaching up, Spock brushed the hair from Kirk's brow and even from across the room Jonah could recognize that look in his eyes. It wasn’t just the love of one friend for another, he suddenly realized. It was something far deeper.

So, he thought. that's what's going on here.

Spock helped Kirk to the table and eased him into a chair. “I will get the food.”

Kirk’s eyes were closed. “Yeah, all right.”

The plates were duly brought. Kirk stared down. He wasn’t hungry anymore. His weakness was maddening, infuriating. He felt like picking up the plate and throwing it through the wall.

Spock understood but knew he had to press his point. “It is important that you eat.”

I don’t want to eat, damn it! Leave me alone, will you?

Seeing the sadness come into Spock's eyes, Kirk instantly regretted his harsh words. He laid a hand on the Vulcan’s arm, tilted his head until Spock looked at him. “Sorry,” he said for the second time in two minutes. “I’m frustrated, that’s all.”

There was that look again, even more obvious than before. A softening somehow as Spock seemed to open up to the man beside him. Jonah frowned. He’d heard about relationships like this but had never met one face-to-face before. Such things didn’t exist up here. People like that stayed in the cities for the most part and he didn’t much like the idea of them coming onto his mountain, into his house. “Perverts,” he muttered under his breath.

Kirk slowly turned toward him. “What did you say?”

Jonah looked away. “Nothing.”

Kirk’s glare became hard as steel. “I didn’t quite catch that. Would you repeat it.” There was no inflection at the end of the last word. It wasn’t a request.

Spock’s eyes widened. He recognized that edge to Kirk’s voice all too well. And he’d clearly heard what Jonah had said. He made a move to rise, attempting to distract the captain’s attention. “I’ll get you ---”

Kirk’s hand shot out, grabbed his arm. “Sit down,” he said, his eyes never leaving Jonah’s face. “I’ll ask you again. Repeat what you said.”

Jonah heard the warning, too, but he was a stubborn old man and refused to back down. “We don’t like that kind of behavior. We’re pretty conservative up here in these mountains.”

Conservative. Kirk hated that word. It stood for prudishness, narrow-mindedness, intolerance.

Jonah shrugged. What did he care what they did? They were behaving themselves here and they’d be gone in a few days anyway. Let them have each other. It wasn’t worth fighting over. “It’s your own business.”

“Yes it is.”

Kirk continued to glare at him, the confrontation in the air beginning to get oppressive.

Jonah shoved a piece of food in his mouth, decided to pretend the whole unpleasant exchange never happened. “Where’d you learn to cook?”

Kirk didn’t want to let it go. Bigotry was something he could not abide. He knew, for one, how much pain it had brought Spock over the years, had even seen it displayed once on his own bridge.

Underneath the table their knees brushed and, at the touch, he keenly felt Spock’s embarrassment at the direction his thoughts were taking. Let it go, Jim. Please.

All right. He sent the reply spinning back. But it really pisses me off.

Spock almost smiled at that and the mood began to lift.

“So,” Jonah said, shoving another forkful in his mouth. “Where did you learn to cook.”

“Picked it up here and there.” Kirk's words were clipped, anger still heavy in his tone. “Learned it when I was growing up.”

“Oh. Where was that?”

“Iowa. Earth.”

A blind man could have seen the change in Jonah’s expression. “Earth.” He spat out the word like it was an obscenity. “I shoulda known as much.”

Spock lowered his fork. Kirk shook his head once before turning back to Jonah. The face of bigotry reared up before them again, only this time it was directed at himself alone. “Have you ever been there?”

“No.” Jonah stabbed a piece of fruit so viciously he nearly cut it in two. Despite his words of a moment ago he didn’t really care about the sexual orientation of his two guests, not really. So long as they kept their pants on while they were in his house, he could let them be. But this was something else again. This brought such black hatred boiling to the surface it threatened to strangle him.

Silence fell. At length Jonah raised his head, saw that they were watching him. “Knew someone once who came from there.”

Silence again. “Actually,” he added, staring at his plate. “I didn’t know him…. exactly.” A pause. “It was something that happened a long time ago.”

Kirk and Spock said nothing. Jonah ate quickly, then rose to his feet. “I want my room back tonight if it’s all the same with you. That couch there pulls out so you’ll both have a bed. You two’ll have to bunk together but I guess,” he snorted, “I guess that won’t be a problem.”

Kirk stood. Jonah took one look at those eyes and left the house.


***********


Montgomery Scott paced the bridge like a caged bear. “Have they answered yet, Lieutenant?”

“No, Mr. Scott.”

“Boost her as high as she'll go and re-send it. Demand a reply.”

Uhura signaled the transport again. And again. A dozen times, one after another, slim fingers dancing across the board as she searched the spectrum from end to end.

Finally she swiveled in her chair. “I believe I'm reading them, Mr. Scott. It's faint but understandable.”

“On speakers.”

A heavily accented voice followed. “Enterprise, this is the Elegant Swan. Captain Taloc here.” The signal was filled with static and difficult to clear.

Scott hit the console's transmission key. “We’ve been calling you for the past forty-five minutes, Captain. Why haven’t you answered?”

Even over the static, Taloc could hear the irritation in his voice. "We only just received you. Our equipment is rather old, I’m afraid and ---”

Scott cut him off. “You were due to arrive at starbase nearly five hours ago. Did you have to detour?”

“No. We're making good time.”

Scott frowned. He knew there was an ion storm brewing along the Swan's projected return route, had presumed that was the reason for her delay.

Apparently not. “Then why are you late?”

“We're not. Just didn't stop at the starbase. No one wanted to get off there.”

The words sent a chill up Scott's spine. “You were supposed to have three of our crew aboard. They're not there? Last names are Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.”

Taloc turned aside, muttered a few words to a companion. “No. They were no-shows.”

“They didn't leave a message?”

More muttering. “No,” Taloc continued. “Just never showed.” A pause. “Maybe it had something to do with the fire.”

Everyone on the bridge instantly stopped what they were doing. “What fire?” Scott asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Place was buzzing about it when we docked. A huge fire where that rock thing was going on. Killed a lot of people, I hear.”

For several seconds Scott just stood there. Behind him, he could hear Uhura rise to her feet. Chekov, Sulu, and Kyle all turned to give him identical, horrified looks.

Scott pulled himself together. “Thank you, Captain. Enterprise out.” Seating himself in the command chair, he quietly addressed his navigator. “How long will it take us to get to Drosina at warp two.”

Chekov made a few rapid calculations, well aware that a leisurely shake-down was routine after a complete engine refit. Also knew that the Enterprise was the only warp-driven vessel in the immediate area. Even at that pace she'd be the fastest ship around. “Seventy-one hours, sir.”

Seventy-one hours. Unconsciously Scott tightened his hands into fists. Kirk and the others could be dying while they inched their way across the quadrant.

But there was no choice and he knew it. They all knew it. If a single calibration was off, a part installed incorrectly, and the engines went out of sync at high warp speed, it could cripple them for weeks. No choice at all.

Straightening, Scott gave the only order possible. “Uhura, send a message to Starfleet Command informing them of the situation. Tell them that we're leaving at once for Drosina. Then contact Starbase Central and have them release the space doors.”

Two interminable minutes passed before the dome lights began to flash, smaller repair vessels and transport craft darting out of the way. Scott eyed his helmsman as the Enterprise's engines came on-line with a powerful rumble. “Take her out, Mr. Sulu. And slowly.”


**********


“Three queens.” Kirk laid his cards on the table with the glee of someone who'd just won a million Federation credits. Which, in fact, he very nearly had.

“Let’s see. Now you owe me nine hundred and forty thousand.”

Spock resisted the temptation to sigh. He shot an unnecessary glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. “Jim, you should lie down for a few minutes.”

Kirk ignored him. Spock was worse than his mother. He began reshuffling the cards. “Too bad we’re not playing for real money,” he said lightly. “I’d be able to retire.”

Spock’s did sigh this time, not that he really expected the captain to lie down anyway. “That I find hard to visualize.”

Kirk laughed, then stopped when the effort brought pain, pointedly avoiding the Vulcan's narrowing eyes. Spock had warned him at the outset, after all, patiently explaining that, no matter how carefully he paved the way, humans couldn’t enter healing trances the way Vulcans could. He was recovered, but not totally, not even close to totally. For Spock’s sake he hadn’t really pushed himself, had spent the past four days cooling his heels, taking it easy, but he was starting to go more than a little stir crazy. “How long'll it take the Enterprise to get here?”

“Difficult to be precise as we're uncertain of when she left the starbase.”

Kirk looked up at him. “Make an educated guess.”

“We were due on board five hours and forty-eight minutes ago, although, as general transports frequently run behind schedule, Mr. Scott would not have become overly concerned initially.”

Kirk frowned.

“Also, the Elegant Swan's communications system is rather primitive and there was an ion storm developing in Sector Two when we left. If it continued to grow, a 72.8% probability, it could have further interfered with his attempt to make contact.”

The frown deepened.

“Coupled with the necessity of traveling here at warp two, for, as you know, after a complete overhaul higher initial speeds are inadvisable and Mr. Scott is quite diligent with regard to his engines.”

You’re doing this on purpose now.

“So I would be making a crude estimation only, you understand."

I'm gonna kill you in about five seconds.

Spock eyes lit up with amusement. “Baring any further delays, between sixty-eight and seventy-four hours.”

Three days. Gods, it seemed like an eternity. Well, Kirk resigned himself to the inevitable. It is what it is. There’s nothing to do but wait.

He returned his attention to the game, picking up the previous conversation as if there had been no interruption. “Anyway, even if we were playing for real money, I wouldn’t take the pot. I know you’re just letting me win.”

Both eyebrows rose. “I assure you ----”

Kirk waved him off. “You can’t help but cheat. I know these cards all have marks on them, creases, tears, that sort of thing. Once you see it you can’t forget, or forget what’s on the other side. You never forget anything.”

Spock made no reply.

“So to compensate you play just about the worst game of poker I’ve ever seen. Nobody plays that badly unless they’re either an imbecile, which you’re not, or trying to lose.”

He began to deal the cards again, effectively ending any further denials. “Think there’s any chance of getting Jonah to sit in on a hand?”

Spock glanced out the window. Their reluctant host sat on the porch, rocking back and forth. He’d been avoiding them all day. “Unknown. Companionship seems to irritate him.”

“Especially human companionship.”

Spock looked back. Kirk shook his head. “Some Earther must have really gotten to him once. I wonder what happened?”

At that moment the rocking stopped. Jonah rose to his feet and came into the house. He hesitated when he saw them. His confrontational words of yesterday were embarrassing to him now. They’d done nothing to deserve it and, deep down, he was not an unkind man. “I nearly fell asleep out there.”

“Nice night,” Kirk said.

“Yeah.” Jonah rubbed his chin. “Nice night. Warm. Almost like summer.” He glanced at the cards. "I seen them in the bedroom."

He had indeed. Shoved snugly into a hidden back pocket of Kirk's pants, they'd made it through the fire also, Spock having spent a fair amount of time during his first day of consciousness propping them up against window sills, sliding them into floorboard cracks, to dry. The sight of him doing so had warmed Kirk's heart in a way difficult to describe.

“They're called playing cards, and the game's poker. Why don’t you sit down for a few rounds?”

Jonah seemed uncertain. “I don’t know how.”

“It's easy. I’ll teach you. Sit down.”

Jonah just stood there, but at least he didn’t scowl and refuse. Kirk decided to press his luck. He pulled out a chair. “Come on. Sit down. We don’t bite, you know.”

Jonah met his gaze and for an instant Kirk thought he saw a smile in those glum eyes. The old man sat, his body angled to the side as if he was about to bolt any second.

Kirk pretended not to notice. He dealt the cards, explaining the rules as he did so. Spock opened with the most astonishingly stupid move of the evening. Kirk frowned in feigned annoyance. “Now, my friend, you can’t do that anymore. Jonah will think all Vulcans are idiots.”

Spock’s face betrayed nothing. Kirk turned to Jonah. “He’s trying to be nice by letting me win. He thinks I’m an ignoramus.”

“Jim, I do not think ---”

Kirk laughed. “Compared to you, I am an ignoramus.”

Spock pressed his lips together in a gesture Jonah was already recognizing as one of irritation. He leaned back in his chair, relaxed a bit. “Vulcans are smart, I hear.”

“Smart! Spock was blowing the top off the Academy achievement tests when he was only eighteen. Why, they had to redesign the whole set of them before they could even give him a grade. That was a long time ago and nobody’s ever come close to beating those scores.”

There was more than a trace of pride in the captain’s voice. Spock was actually blushing. “Jim, please…”

“Do you know,” Kirk focused his full attention on Jonah, “that once when we were called in on an unexpected mission to sort out some planetary crisis Spock learned the languages of all five warring factions in only two days. Wouldn’t use the translator because the people were mildly telepathic and would’ve sensed it. No, he learned every word himself and went down there and spoke to them in their native tongues. The people were so impressed that, once they’d resolved their differences, they voted to join the Federation.”

Spock was green. Kirk snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”

Jonah relaxed a bit more. “You’re joking.”

“No!”

“He’s exaggerating.”

Both men turned to look at Spock. He took a deep breath. “Three of those languages were from the same root stock. They had many similarities.”

“Oh, excuse me. That makes a big difference.”

Jonah couldn't suppress a grin. “You two always like this?”

Kirk studied his cards. “Actually, we’re never like this.”

Spock smiled. Jonah's gaze traveled back and forth, had realized by this time that there were always two conversations going on between these two, the one he could hear and the one he couldn't.

Shrugging it off, he turned his attention back to the game. Kirk was right, the rules easy to follow. "What’s the opening bid?”

“Ten thousand Federation credits.”

Jonah's head shot up. “Play money,” Kirk added, seeing his look of dismay. “Don’t worry about it. Besides, Starfleet frowns on gambling so we’ve both kind of gotten out of the habit.”

“Oh.” Jonah hesitated, clearly unsure of what to do. Kirk and Spock waited patiently. “Then I guess I'm in for ten thousand.”

Spock's turn. Kirk gave him a quick glance. The Vulcan sighed. Since he’d practically broadcast his entire hand on the opening salvo, there wasn’t much point in continuing. “I’m out,” he said, laying his cards on the table.

The whole scene had a surreal quality to it. “I wish McCoy could be here to see this,” Kirk mused. “He’d love it.”

Jonah shifted his cards around. “Who’s McCoy?”

“A friend of ours. He went back to Mersin before the fire. He had a medical emergency.”

.Jonah glanced over. “He's a doctor,” Kirk amended.

"A Vulcan?”

“No.” Kirk watched Jonah's face, saw the tightening around his mouth as he leaned forward to stare intently at his cards. “He’s from Earth, like me.”

Jonah slowly raised his head. The two men looked at one another for what seemed like a long time. “For an Earther,” Jonah said at last, “I guess you’re not so bad.”

“Thanks.” Thanks for nothing.

Jonah went back to staring at his cards. A moment of uneasy silence passed. Kirk and Spock exchanged glances.

“I guess I shouldn’t say that.” Jonah broke the silence, his voice husky and very low. “I only really knew one Earther.” He began to run the edge of a fingernail against the cards, snapping them restlessly against one another. “Didn’t really know him, just felt like it after looking at him for a month over a courtroom rail.”

Silence again. Interest in the game had virtually disintegrated.

The fitful snapping stopped. “He was out on a joy ride one day. Some rich kid who never did an honest day's work in his life, wandering around blowing his inheritance. Had enough liquor in his gut to last all night. My wife was on her way to the store, had just picked the girls up from school, and he rammed them head-on. His car was a lot bigger than mine. Hell, he barely got a scratch, and you want to know something?”

Neither of the two said anything. Jonah didn’t notice. His gaze was fuzzy now, lost in a memory he hadn’t spoken of in over two decades. “That bastard, he just walked away without so much as a fine. Hired himself a big, fancy lawyer and just walked away.”

He smiled bitterly, but his eyes were very dark, almost black. “They said that since the car wasn’t in great shape it wasn’t his fault. Said she should have been able to stop, if the brakes were in better shape she would have been able to stop. You should have seen the experts they got. Brake people, car people, even had some guy testify on how slippery the road was. Me, I didn’t have nothing. I was a house builder back then, didn’t have money for a lawyer of my own.”

Abruptly, Jonah rose to his feet. Twenty-five years and it still felt like yesterday. He glared at the men before him as if they were to blame for bringing it all to the surface. He didn’t know why he told them. They didn’t care. In a few days they’d be gone from his life anyway.

The thought was maddening. Turning away, he stumbled into the bedroom and slammed the door. The light went on, then was cut off by a length of towel shoved under the crack at the floor. A few seconds later something hit the ground and broke. Then another. And another.

Kirk laid his cards on the table, rubbed his forehead with one hand. “Shit,” he whispered. “Damn it all to hell.”

Spock, for his part, said nothing at all.


**********


Jonah was somber the following morning, but he stayed in the house and ate breakfast with his companions. “Heard an aircar fly over last night,” he said to no one in particular.

“It was several miles to the south,” Spock replied. “I heard it also.”

“They’re working their way up, will be here soon enough. I have a flare gun we can set off when they get close enough.”

“That could still be a few days away,” Kirk added, taking pains not to look at Spock. “I feel strong enough to walk. We could hike to the south, try to spot them from the ground.”

Well aware of the disapproving expression on the Vulcan’s face, Jonah began to chew on a piece of bread. “No. You’re used to the place now. Might as well wait here.”

He finished his bread, slurped down a cup of coffee. “Pretty good,” he said, glancing at Kirk. “You made it?”

Kirk nodded.

Jonah turned his face away, stared out the window. “James?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry about that crack I made about you... about the two of you the other day. I was out of line.”

You were way out of line, Kirk thought. If Spock hadn’t been sitting there, I would have slugged you right in the mouth. “Don’t worry about,” he said aloud.

Silence fell. At length Jonah rose and walked to the window. “You don’t have to worry about the spotters skipping this ridge. They know about my cabin. They’ll circle eventually, to see if anyone wandered in, if we need any help.”

“You sure about our staying?” Kirk asked. “We don’t want to impose.”

“Sure. Why not? Spock here can help me get in the rest of the beans. He’s got a good feel for the garden.”

“He gets that from his mother.”

Jonah turned to Spock. “Your mother gardens?”

“Yes.”

Jonah seemed confused. “I heard once that Vulcan was a pretty dry planet. Doesn’t seem like the kind of place to cater much to gardeners.”

“My mother is not native to Vulcan.”

“No?” Jonah poured himself another cup of coffee. “Where’s she from?”

“My mother is from Earth.”

Jonah’s head rose. A full minute passed in utter silence. Spock could hear the mantle clock ticking off the seconds one by one.

Then a faint smile touched Jonah's mouth. “No shit?”

Spock’s smile was a bit more pronounced. Kirk laughed. “No shit,” he said.


**********


Leonard McCoy sat in a far corner of the hospital dining hall. Jannel Morrian stepped through the door, scanned the room until she saw him. Scooping up a tray, she walked to his side. “Mind if I join you?”

McCoy didn't want company but knew it would be rude to say so. “Sure. Have a seat.”

She sat across from him. Several very long seconds passed. “So,” Morrian asked at last, “what are your plans?” Now. The unspoken end of the question.

He raised his head. “Think I’ll hang around for a while. I can still be of help.”

Morrian nodded. After ten days, the crisis was effectively over. As was the search for survivors, the three remaining planes making endless, futile loops, signaling the few cabins in the high country, coming away with nothing. “You’re welcome to stay with me if you’d like.”

McCoy's shoulders began to slump. He felt like he was a hundred years old. “Thanks.”

More silence, Morrian watching sadly as he poked at his food, wishing now that she'd sat somewhere else, that she'd left him alone to mourn in relative peace.

Across the room a young nurse came bustling in, laughing, holding a note in one hand. Several people turned to watch her. Such happiness. It was contagious. Many of them began to smile. The noise level rose markedly.

McCoy didn't noticed, just sat, glaring at his plate before pushing it roughly away. The Enterprise would arrive soon. They should have been back this morning and by now Mr. Scott would have tracked down the transport and learned they weren’t on board. Would bring the Enterprise to look for them. Scotty to the rescue. Too bad it was over a week late.

He closed his eyes, felt like pounding both fists on the tabletop. He’d bombarded the royal palace for hours on that first terrible day, pleading with them to transmit a message to Starfleet on their highest wavelength, knowing that the computers on board ship would be far superior to those down here. The message had been duly sent but on a low-range band. No doubt the premier wasn’t anxious for word to reach headquarters and he could well understand why. Losing two of her top officers was not an honor most planetary officials were eager to claim. The Enterprise would be here long before that message reached anyone.

“When do you expect your ship?”

He met Morrian's gaze, thoughts on the engine refit, the realization that the quadrant was unusually empty of other Starfleet vessels. The reason they'd had to take that glacially slow transport in the first place. “A few days. I’m not sure exactly.”

With unseemly haste, the doctor finished her meal. “Well,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’ve got to get back.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll see you in a little bit.”

Morrian managed a weak smile, then turned and left the room. McCoy watched her go. The nurse with the letter was laughing again. He heard it this time, the sound eating through his brain like a dentist’s drill. Slowly he lowered his head into his open hands, fingers digging through his hair until the knuckles were as white as the bone beneath.


**********


“No. No. Like this.” Kirk reached out, slipped an index finger into the web of thread, deftly pulled two strands through the middle. The shape miraculously changed, a rectangle into a star. He glanced up. “See. It’s simple.”

Spock just looked at him. Sub-dimensional time warp continuums were simple. This was impossible.

Noting his baffled expression, the captain laughed. Jonah, who'd been pretending he wasn't paying any attention, at length wandered over. “What’s this?”

Kirk untangled the yarn. “It’s called cat’s cradle. A game human children play on Earth.” He glanced at Spock and shrugged. He’d been playing with the thread for the past hour. “I never said I grew up.”

One eyebrow rose. Kirk grinned. Jonah sat down, his gaze shifting to Spock. “You’re not very good at it,” he said tactlessly. “What kind of games do they play on Vulcan?”

A shadow entered the captain’s smile. Jonah saw it at once. His interest perked. Spock’s face, however, betrayed nothing at all. “Games are disapproved of on my planet,” he replied. “They are viewed as a waste of time.”

That was the whole point. Jonah sensed an undercurrent here but pressed the issue nevertheless. “Well, what did you play?”

Spock was silent for a moment. Kirk disentangled the string, his attention on the tabletop. “I don’t recall ever playing a game,” Spock said last. “However, when I was a young child, my mother used to read to me. That I remember very well.”

Jonah leaned back in his chair. To his knowledge, his mother had never read a book from cover to cover in her entire life.

Spock watched as the captain wove that thread effortlessly through his fingers. “But then one night my father learned of it and forbade her to ever do so again. It was his belief that such behavior would only encourage laziness and a lack of independence.”

Kirk raised his head. Such personal reminiscences were rare for Spock, but the Vulcan wasn’t looking at him now. He was looking at Jonah. “She withdrew from me after that. I seldom saw her when she wasn’t in the company of others.”

Jonah studied his face. The indifference of a moment ago was gone, replaced by a sadness he could well understand. Even after so many years the sting of it was fresh in the alien’s eyes. He could understand that, too. “How old were you then?”

“Four.”

Four. A bitter age. Four going on five. Always going on five.

A picture formed, one that Jonah didn't want to see and yet cherished at the same time. Cara, his youngest, going off to school on that glorious spring day. Wore a yellow dress, although he only knew that because he saw it at the morgue when he went to identify her body. Hadn't noticed when she skipped out the door, his mind on the route he'd take to his first job of the day.

One month shy of her birthday it was. One month exactly.

And he'd barely even looked at her – at any of them. Didn't say good-bye. Didn't say anything near as he could remember. He was in a hurry and it could wait until later, after all.

Could always wait until later. Or so he had thought.

Jonah bit his tongue. He'd give anything to have those few minutes back again. To be able to take Cara in his arms and kiss her brow, to tell his older daughter, fussing in the bedroom, doing something with her hair, how pretty she was. To touch his wife's face one more time. Gods, he'd have given anything.

“It was not an easy life.”

There it was again, that eerie perception in Spock's eyes. And whose life did the Vulcan mean anyway? From the way he said it, Jonah couldn't tell which of them he was referring to.

Both, more than likely.

Kirk broke the ensuing silence. Clearing his throat, he held the string out before him. “Here. You try.”

Jonah felt uneasy. Kirk’s expression was open and unguarded but there was understanding there, too, understanding and sorrow. He tensed, not used to people reading his thoughts, not used to caring what was in their own minds either. There was danger here. He'd sensed it from the moment he saw these two in the darkness. He should run. Now, before it was too late. Run and run and never look back.

Kirk extended his arms a bit more. “Come on,” he coaxed. “Try it.”

Such a stupid thing. And his hands were dirty, dirty and coarse and covered with scars.

“Come on. Try it.”

Try it. Jonah shrugged. Why not? He reached out, slipped a finger into the weave, but his hands were unaccustomed to delicacy and his movements clumsy. Kirk nodded in encouragement. He tried again, draping the string around one thick index finger and pulling it through. Turned the rectangle into a star.

“Very good.” Kirk turned to Spock. “See. Nothing to it.”

Spock shook his head but the sadness was gone from his eyes now. Jonah watched him, his fingers still entangled in the string. Kirk leaned forward, pulled it free, wrapped it around his hands again. “Here. Try it one more time.”

Jonah hesitated. He’d come into the house to get a beer, but strangely didn’t want one anymore. Kirk smiled at him. Running his fingers through his hair, he reached out. Turned the rectangle into a star. The captain sat back and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Terrific.”

Unconsciously Jonah shifted his weight to face them directly, his gaze on the string in his hand. He felt absurdly proud of himself and he wondered why. Who cared, after all, if he’d succeeded or failed? And yet he felt so proud of himself, ridiculously proud of himself.

Abruptly he glanced up. Kirk was still smiling. Without thinking, he laid a hand on Spock’s arm. It was the same gesture that had so riled Jonah the other day but now, for some reason, it didn’t bother him at all. He shook the string loose, suddenly eager for the game to go on. He held it out. “Here, want to show me again?”

Kirk’s smile broadened. “Sure,” he said. “I’d love to.”


**********


It was four hours later when Jonah mentioned his family. They were sitting in the sun, resting from an hour of planting. Kirk had insisted on joining in, casting the Vulcan a warning stare, and Spock kept his mouth shut. Jonah watched with amusement as he continually looked over at Kirk as they worked, averting his eyes when he saw either of them glancing his way. Man wasn’t very good at hiding his feelings, at least where this human was concerned.

He leaned back on his elbows, sighed as the warm spring breeze brushed his face. Birds sang overhead, wildflowers uncurling along the fence line. Ceren would have loved being here. She was never happier than when she was outside, puttering around the garden, her knees brown, hair falling in her face. “My wife,” he said, “she liked to garden.”

As one, both of his companions turned sharply to look at him.

“She’d stay out here all day if she could. Would come in the house covered with dirt, as happy as a lark.”

“What was her name?” Kirk asked, his voice almost a whisper.

Jonah stared at something very far away. “Ceren. Her name was Ceren.” He refocused, looked Kirk in the eye. “Here, at least in our county, we take the name of our wives when we marry.”

Kirk nodded. “We have the same custom on Earth, except the other way around.”

Jonah grunted in reply.

The three men fell silent.

“She was a beautiful woman.” Again, Jonah was the first to speak, his gaze returning to the mountaintop. “Won a pageant once when she was still in school. Had the most beautiful red hair. Went down nearly to the floor. I used to braid it for her every night. This huge, long braid, like silk. For fourteen years. I never missed a single night.”

He cleared his throat, began to plow a foot in the dirt, then held out his hands, fingers splayed, as if searching for traces of her hair left behind.

Silence again. Jonah sighed, a deep, mournful sound. “You know,” he said, “I always wonder what my girls would have looked like. I picture them in my mind and wonder what they would have looked like. They’d be grown now. Thirty-one and twenty-six. All grown up. I wonder if their hair would have stayed red.” He closed his eyes, dropped his head down. Kirk watched as his hands clenched once into fists, then relaxed. “My Cara,” he continued, “she wanted to be a dancer, but what did she know about being a dancer? She was so young. Hell, she didn’t know nothing. Would have ruined her feet.”

Jonah rubbed his nose with the back of one sleeve. “Yes, sir,” he said, turning his face to the sun. “It would have ruined her feet.”


**********


“Scotty! I don’t believe it!” McCoy shouted the words so loudly he hardly needed a communicator. “When’d you get here?”

The Scotsman’s voice was not much lower. “Five minutes ago. We contacted the palace, got word on where you were. Should we beam you up?”

McCoy’s heart was racing. There were a surprising number of human visitors here so Kirk’s readings would be impossible to single out, but Vulcans weren't much into tourism. Spock was likely the only one within a hundred parsecs and his readings would stand out like a sore thumb. “Jim and Spock are lost in the mountains somewhere. Tell Chekov to set his scanners for vulcanoid readings, located primarily to the north and west. Also flag any other humanoids registering.” In his excitement, the words came out in one mad rush. “We’ll tie them in with the settlement locations to see if they’re supposed to be where they are. We still have eighty-two other people missing up there.”

Scott didn’t bother with details. “Aye, Doctor. We’ll get right on it. Should have a reading on Mister Spock for you within two minutes.”

Two minutes. McCoy took a deep breath, lowered his skyrocketing blood pressure. There was, of course, one other possible outcome, he reminded himself - that they wouldn’t find any readings at all. Non-living tissue, especially burned tissue, wouldn’t show up on the scanners.

Those hundred and twenty seconds were the longest in Leonard McCoy’s life but when Scott came back on he knew the answer from the very sound of his voice.

“I’ve got him, Doctor.”

McCoy let out a long, deep sigh, turning his face toward the ship he couldn’t even see, willing himself not to faint dead away. “Thank God,” he whispered. “Oh, thank God.”

“I read two others, also,” Scotty added. “Humanoid but the readings are very similar. I can't tell if one of them is the captain. Should I use a wide beam and bring them all up together?”

McCoy frowned. If that third person was injured the transporter might be dangerous. Same could be true of Kirk and Spock, for that matter. “No. No, you'd better not until I can take a closer look. Lock onto me... “ He hesitated, saw Jannel Morrian watching him through the window. “Hold on that, Scotty.” After nearly two weeks another few minutes would do no harm. “I'll signal you shortly. I have someone I need to talk to here first.”

He waited for the acknowledgement, then closed the channel. Morrian's eyes grew somber, no doubt aware that once McCoy left her world, he would probably never be back. Old friendships called out to him, but new ones did, too.

Turning, Leonard McCoy stepped through the doors of the Mersin Community Medical Center one last time to say his good-byes.


**********


Spock was the first one to spot him. Standing in a clearing a hundred feet away, Leonard McCoy looked ready to jump right out of his skin.

He rose to his feet. “Jim?”

The captain glanced up. McCoy’s voice, when he finally saw them, was deafening, a greeting cry so loud it echoed down half the valley. “Jim!”

Kirk stood, his heart in his throat. He raised an arm in the air. “Bones!”

Jonah stood with him, glumly eyeing the newcomer. He’d been expecting this for days. “It’s our friend,” Kirk said, moving forward, Jonah lagging one step behind.

McCoy began to run, and only then did Kirk see the men behind him: Scotty, Chekov, a few security guards, a doctor and a nurse. He broke into a trot, caught the doctor in a bear hug that threatened both their ribs. McCoy nearly slapped his back, then caught himself and pulled away, his demeanor suddenly very professional. “Hold on that for a minute while I check you out.”

His medical scanner was already in hand, whirring madly. McCoy frowned when he read its report, but said nothing, just shot Kirk a quick glance before moving on to Spock, already under the scrutiny of the other medical personnel. “Damned readings,” he mumbled, trying to make sense of what they told him. Broken bones, healing trances, perforated lungs, evidence of a near drowning. Lord Almighty.

Jonah lingered in the background. The newcomers had barely even acknowledged his presence. Who cares, he thought morosely. Let them have each other. I’m better off free of them.

He turned away. Kirk’s voice stopped him before he’d taken more than a half-dozen steps. “Jonah?”

He looked back. “Bones, come here.” Kirk was walking toward him now, McCoy hurrying to his side, attention still locked on the tricorder. “I want you to meet a friend of ours, Leonard McCoy. He’s the one we’ve been talking about.”

The newcomer looked up and grinned, his expression a peculiar combination of joy, concern and plain bafflement. He held out his hand. For a moment, Jonah nearly didn’t take it. “Pleased to meet you,” the doctor said, ignoring his hesitation. “I guess I owe you my thanks.”

Not again. Jonah scowled. “Was nothing.”

McCoy’s smile didn't falter. “Well, anything I can do for you, you just let me know.”

Get off my mountain. You can do that.

It didn’t take a telepath to read those thoughts and McCoy gave Kirk a questioning look. The captain inclined his head and McCoy stepped away, began to run his scanner over Spock again.

“So you’re going now.” Jonah waited until the doctor was out of earshot. Going. Going. Gone. “Good,” he mumbled, wishing, not for the first time, that these two had never entered his life. The emptiness they’d leave behind, lord, he didn’t know if he could bear it. “Be glad to get my life back together again.”

Kirk laid a hand on his arm. “Have you ever seen a starship?”

The words surprised Jonah somehow. He shook his head. He’d never even been across the Inland Sea.

“You want to come up and see the Enterprise?”

Enterprise. Nice name. Old-fashioned, too. Figures. But again Jonah shook his head. “No.” His two visitors would be surrounded by a feeling of belonging there. Hundreds of people clustered around, smiling and laughing. Welcoming them home. He couldn’t possibly witness that.

“So, what are you going to do?”

From the way he phrased the question, it was clear that Kirk knew staying here would be difficult for him now. The tide had turned and he could no more turn it back than he could resurrect his murdered family.

But being a stubborn old man Jonah wouldn't admit that, not even to himself. “I’m gonna finish putting in the beans, do what I always do.”

The grip on his arm tightened. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Spock disentangle himself from the hovering doctor and walk to stand beside them. Jonah shook his head. These two belonged together but he was an outsider, had been for nearly a quarter of a century. Even before, Ceren had been the only one who really loved him, Ceren and the children.

“If you don’t want to stay here, on the mountain, the Federation can help you.”

The words seemed to come from a long way off. Jonah refocused. Kirk’s expression was sad, so sad, as if he’d done him a great harm. “Not a reward, really,” the captain added, “but they’ll feel they owe you a debt because of the way you helped us.”

Jonah made no response. What did the man mean? Money? To buy what? Friendship in a land of strangers?

Kirk’s hand was still on his arm, although, strangely, he hadn’t noticed it for several moments. “You like dogs?” the captain asked out of the blue.

Dogs? Jonah frowned, wondering what he was getting at. “I guess.”

“I know someone in the Federation who’s got a special project, establishing breeding centers for dogs, companions for older people, handicapped children, that sort of thing.”

Jonah looked less than enthused, but Kirk ignored it. “He’s been seeding them everywhere he goes and I don’t think there’s one on Drosina. He could set you up just outside of town, a few acres with lots of runs. Think you’d be interested?”

Dogs. Jonah chewed his lip, not thinking that the Federation would hardly be needed to organize such a thing. Stupid animals, really, he mused. All tongues and tails, dying for an affectionate touch, a kind word.

“What do you say?”

Jonah shrugged. Why not? Dogs at least minded their place, kept their mouths shut. And he could always come back up here if it didn't work out. “I guess.”

Kirk’s smile lit up his entire face. “Great. I’ll get in touch with him right away. Should have an answer for you in a few days.”

Jonah nodded, the idea suddenly intriguing him. He’d had a dog once when he was a boy, a yellow dog named Sunflower, of all things. Gods, how he’d adored that dog.

McCoy was hovering in the background, anxious to get his friends up to the Enterprise and a thorough medical exam. “Come up to the ship with us.” Kirk pretended not to notice. “You can stay for a day or so.”

Jonah shook his head. “No.” I’ll sleep in my own bed if it’s all the same with you. It’s been keeping me warm for twenty-five years.

Kirk just looked at him and he began to fidget under the man’s scrutiny. McCoy made a slight gesture, his exasperation clear from twenty feet away. Kirk waved the doctor off. “We’ve got to go.”

He knew. “Go.” Go.

“Then at least come and have dinner with us.” Kirk pressed his communicator into one hand. “I’ll contact you in the morning.”

Jonah took the thing, closed his fist around it. “Sure,” he said, realizing Kirk wouldn’t leave until he gave in on something. “Why not.”

“Good.” Reaching out, Kirk took Jonah's hand in his own, shook it, held it for a long time. “Thank you.”

Spock moved forward and bowed his head. “And I thank you also, Jonah d’Ceren.”

A brief smile touched Jonah’s mouth. The name had stung the first time Spock said it. But for some reason it didn’t sting now.

Kirk gave him one final pat on the arm before walking to McCoy’s side, Spock falling into step beside him. They joined the others, formed themselves into a pattern. “Tomorrow then?” He called out as McCoy whispered something into his communicator.

Jonah stretched out his arm and waved. “Sure. Tomorrow.”

The captain nodded, the gesture disappearing in a wave of shimmering light that enveloped the group an instant later. Tingling sounds filled the air and then Jonah was alone.

For a long time he watched the spot where they'd disappeared. A bird flew into the tree overhead, a tiny blue bird, perhaps the same one he’d nearly killed two weeks before. They did that, the snowbirds, stuck around the same tree year after year.

Jonah glanced up, studied the tiny creature as it sang mindlessly in the sunshine. He’d come so close to blasting that bird to atoms. Looking at it now, he couldn’t imagine what would have made him want to do such a thing.

Turning, he cast a single, lingering look at his house, then, taking nothing at all with him but the captain’s communicator, he made his way down the trail and back to the town of Mersin.









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