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The 'heroic Captain' image was all very well, Kirk thought bleakly, but there were times when he wished he didn't have to maintain it before a Vulcan First Officer - Humans were so much easier to deceive.
Well, he'd been warned what to expect. Chris Pike, just before Kirk's official take-over of the Enterprise, had briefed him thoroughly on his crew.
"Spock's a brilliant First Officer," he had said. "He'll back you to the limit - if you can earn his loyalty. I've been lucky, I was never tested to the point where I failed, but I always had the feeling that if I didn't measure up, he'd transfer off. I don't think a Human could ever totally command a Vulcan - they expect so much, and if we can't deliver ... " His shrug was expressive.
And now, only a few short months later, Pike's prediction seemed likely to come true. Kirk suppressed a sigh of regret as he stole a quick glance at his impassive companion. Despite himself, he liked the man. He had been unsure at first, but he had quickly learned that Spock had a subtle humour Kirk could appreciate, and he had hoped - not altogether vainly - that the Vulcan was beginning to respond to his hesitant overtures of friendship. It would take a long time, of course, but the challenge was stimulating... and rewarding.
Then, only days ago, the Enterprise had been diverted to Veron on an extremely delicate mission. A preliminary survey had found Veron inhabited by a humanoid population, its civilisation approximating that of 19th century Earth, just entering its industrial age. They were a peaceful, cultured people who had, at an early stage of their development, overcome the problems of internal rivalry. Each nation maintained its independence, and the form of government that best suited its people, and was responsible for its own internal laws and disputes; where the interests of two nations threatened to conflict, however, they had evolved a practical solution. Each nation sent representatives to a Supreme Council, composed of the wisest and most trusted citizens; the verdict of the Council was final, and as their history showed, had always been accepted by the disputing parties, so that war had been unknown on Veron for nearly a thousand years.
The survey completed, the Federation had issued a Prime Directive order - the Veronese were not yet ready for alien contact, but it was hoped that one day they would prove valuable members of the Federation,
Unfortunately fate had taken a hand when a Federation ship, on its way to a nearby Tellerite colony, had been destroyed in an ion storm. One of its lifeboats had crashed on Veron, killing its crew and passengers, but the bodies had been recovered, and the presence of Human and Tellerite corpses had created a panic among the population, who were suddenly made aware that other races besides their own existed in the galaxy.
Starfleet's monitoring of Veron's radio broadcasts had convinced the Federation Council that official contact must be made - it was becoming clear that the people feared invasion by a powerful race of star-travelling aliens.
Kirk, commanding the nearest Starship, had been ordered to make contact with the Supreme Council of Veron and reassure them - as a Human, similar to themselves, he hoped to win their confidence, while the presence of his alien First Officer should help to persuade them that the races of the Federation lived in harmony.
At first, everything had gone well. Initial contact was by radio, and permission was given for Kirk and Spock to beam down. With an honesty Kirk came to recognise as typical of the Veronese, the spokesman for the Council told him that if he came in peace he was welcome; if he did not, there was nothing the Veronese could or would do to oppose him.
Once the initial bewilderment and suspicion had been overcome Chief Councilman Banner willingly gave permission for others of the Enterprise crew to beam down, and the Veronese gradually began to accept not only their presence, but their peaceful intentions. As each side learned more of the other it really began to seem that in this instance the two widely differing cultures could meet without harm to either.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy, as the senior officers, were the personal guests of Chief Councilman Banner at his official residence. To avoid national rivalry, the Council Headquarters were sited on an island which owed allegiance to no one nation, but to the planet as a whole. All citizens were welcome there without restriction, and its beauty and peace made it a popular resort for quiet enjoyment.
After several days of negotiation the Council declared a day of rest, and Banner offered to show his guests one of the planet's greatest attractions. Outside the Council City the island had been turned into an enormous park and nature reserve, where animals and birds from all over the planet were allowed to roam freely; only the more dangerous were confined to secure enclosures, where they could be studied by visitors, but had a degree of freedom. A large aquarium complex housed water-dwellers, and there were several large conservatories and greenhouses which exhibited plants from every zone of the planet, from the tiniest alpine flowers to the soaring trees of the tropical regions.
Kirk and Spock accepted the invitation with interest, but to his disappointment McCoy was recalled to the Enterprise, so that only the Captain and First Officer joined Banner, his family and friends on the tour. The park was crowded - unusually so, Banner explained, but many had come to see the alien visitors; being a courteous people, however, they kept a respectful distance, and their presence did not spoil the tour.
Kirk found it pleasant to relax as they followed their guides, taking a keen interest as some of the rarer animals were identified for him. One creature he studied especially, attracted by its grace and beauty. About the size of a horse, it had a long, silky coat, shading from white to palest gold; the head, delicate despite its size, was crowned by a pair of sharp, curving horns. The creatures showed no fear of the visitors, and Kirk remarked on this.
"Indeed, they have no fear," Banner confirmed. "It is many generations since they were last hunted. Once, vast herds covered our planet; their numbers are few today, alas, but those Zildan that remain are cared for. It is our hope..." He broke off, interrupted by a sharp exclamation from Spock.
On this relaxed, informal occasion the children had been included in the family parties. As he turned in response to Spock's warning, Kirk saw that a small boy, scarcely more than a toddler, had wandered away from his parents, and was advancing determinedly on a Zildan calf. A few yards away the mother looked up from grazing, and snorted uneasily; there was an air of tension about the party now, and Banner's low murmur confirmed Kirk's fears.
"It is dangerous to approach the calf. The mothers are nervous about their young, and might attack."
Strangely, none of the adults were making any move to rescue the child by driving the mother away. Kirk thought quickly - he was too far away, and even Spock, who was faster than he, could not hope to reach the child in time. Then, with a loud bellow, the mother wheeled round and charged towards the boy, who was reaching out to pet the calf.
There was no more time to think. Kirk drew his phaser, set it to stun, and fired. Barely feet from the child the Zildan stumbled and fell. There was a moment's shocked silence, then the people moved forward, some to comfort the now weeping child, most to cluster around the fallen animal. Kirk was aware of an intense expectancy in the crowd, but he was utterly taken aback by the wail of dismay that arose when Banner turned and announced in a voice heavy with grief,
"The Zildan is dead.°'
He was even more bewildered a moment later when, in response to a swift word of command, he and Spock were seized and disarmed; their communicators were taken from them, and they were led - not ungently - back to the city. No-one could, or would, explain what was happening; they were taken to a comfortable room, locked in, and left to wait with what patience they could muster.
Food was brought, and as the evening chill drew on a fire was lit at each end of the room; it seemed that they were not to be allowed to suffer discomfort, but under the watchful eyes of the guards the servants would not speak to them - even Kirk's urgent demand to see Chief Councilman Banner brought no response.
It was full dark before the door opened again to admit Banner. The man looked nervous and haggard. Kirk bit back his irritated demand for an explanation, sensing that something extremely serious had happened, though he could not understand what.
Banner gestured them both to seats, for they had risen at his entrance, and sat down himself, studying Kirk intently.
"Captain," he began at last, "a terrible situation has arisen - I scarcely know how to tell you. No harm was intended, I am sure, and yet... such a disaster... and involving such an honoured guest..."
"Perhaps you could explain, sir?" Spock broke in, his calm voice cutting through Banner's confusion.
"Yes, of course. Forgive me, I am so distressed... The Council has been in session, and... But you could not know...
"Gentlemen, I must begin by telling you that many generations ago our entire world was hit by a devastating famine. For five years in succession all our crops failed, and we did not know why. Our people would have starved but for the vast herds of Zildan, slaughtered in their thousands and hundreds of thousands to provide meat. In the sixth year the blight vanished as mysteriously as it had come, but the herds, once so plentiful, had dwindled to a few hundred animals only.
"In gratitude my people decreed that never again must a Zildan be killed. They are protected, carefully bred in an attempt to increase their numbers. Captain... I fear that you have broken one of our most stringent laws. That you meant well, we know; your weapon has been examined, and we understand that you did not mean to kill, since it was locked on a stun setting. Nevertheless, a Zildan is dead, and it may well be that her calf will die too - a mother will not readily accept a fosterling. My people have come to regard the Zildan with almost superstitious awe. It has been so long since the penalty was invoked, but you... We dare not spare you." Banner's agitation was almost painful now as he looked pleadingly at Kirk. "We will mitigate the sentence as much as we can, but... the penalty is laid down."
"Penalty?" Kirk asked. "But I saved the child..."
"We know that," Banner said gently. "Captain, it may seem harsh to you, but even the parents of that boy would sooner have seen the death of their son than the death of the Zildan. It is... our way."
Kirk nodded slowly; he had seen enough of alien ways not to condemn something simply because he did not understand it - or even because he personally disapproved of it.
Banner was speaking again. "Believe me, if there was any way we could spare you this... Captain, not all Veronese are yet convinced of your peaceful intentions. We of the Council wish to trust you, and we are gradually winning over those who doubt. You yourself have said that the Federation observes the customs of member planets - it is one of the strongest points in your favour. If you are now seen to set yourself above our strictest law, how can my people trust you?"
"I see," Kirk said thoughtfully. "I can't blame them for their doubts, Chief Councilman. What form does the punishment take?"
"A most barbaric one, I fear. After so long, how could we guess it must be invoked again?" He rose and paced the floor, as though unwilling to look at Kirk. "Captain, do you recall the lorquat trees?"
"Lorquat trees?" Kirk frowned, remembering the delicious fruit that was served as a delicacy here - even Spock, notoriously indifferent to what he ate, had pronounced them delicious. Banner had told him at the time that they were scarce, served only on important occasions, and during the tour of the botanical section of the park, he had shown the visitors why.
The lorquat trees, tall and slender, carried long, delicate fronds rather than branches; the pale green fruit grew in clusters close to the trunk. One of the attendants had demonstrated the method of gathering the fruit. First, he had reached between the fronds with a long pole, explaining that a person or animal approaching the tree would provoke the same reaction they would now see. To Kirk's amazement, as the pole neared the gently swaying fronds the tree exploded into movement, the long, whip-like branches flailing wildly, coiling around the pole and finally tearing it from the man's grip.
"The tree defends itself from predators," the attendant had explained. "Once caught by the fronds, the victim has only a few minutes to escape before pain and loss of blood produce unconsciousness and death." He moved on to another tree a few yards away. "This is how we gather the fruit."
Picking up a hose he sprayed the tree liberally, then nodded to another man who stood near wearing protective clothing. Watching the movement of the fronds carefully he made his way through them and picked the ripe fruit; the tree, though it reacted to his presence, moved only sluggishly, with little power behind the contortions of the fronds. Kirk had accepted the gift of fruit with a smile and moved on; now the memory of those lashing fronds returned vividly.
"I see that you remember," Banner nodded. "Having outlawed war, Captain, we find it impossible to compel one man to inflict pain on another. Therefore, we use the lorquats when severe punishment is decreed. Your sentence..." He swallowed nervously. "Your sentence is to walk naked through a grove of lorquat trees."
Kirk turned pale; he had not expected this. "A... trial by ordeal?" he asked, managing - somehow - to keep his voice steady.
"Not quite, for this is a punishment, not a trial. We know that you will be injured, that you will suffer, but I assure you, Captain, that death is by no means certain. If you can keep moving, keep on your feet, it is possible to survive. That is our law, Captain Kirk, and our people have observed it since the end of the famine. Will you do less?"
"Sir, may I speak?" Spock's calm voice penetrated the horror that gripped Kirk. He turned, wondering how his unemotional First Officer, to whom violence of any sort was abhorrent, would react to this pronouncement.
In response to Kirk's nod, Spock continued evenly, "Chief Councilman, I request permission to take my Captain's place. He is of greater value to the Enterprise than I; and in addition, I, as a Vulcan, have a greater tolerance of pain. If, as you say, you do not wish to cause harm, grant me this. I have a much better chance of survival than he, and my healing abilities will repair any damage much more quickly than..."
"Spock, no; I forbid it;" Kirk snapped; but Banner was already shaking his head.
"That will not be possible, Commander Spock. That such a punishment should be required at all is distressing; that it should be inflicted on one who is innocent of any wrongdoing is intolerable."
"Then may I request that our physician be permitted to attend?"
"That, too, is impossible. Medical intervention is forbidden - the victim must live or die as fate decrees. However," Banner turned to Kirk, "as soon as you have completed the walk you may return to your ship. What follows is no concern of ours."
"Thank you for that," Kirk said quietly. "When... when will the punishment take place?"
"At dawn. We would prefer to conclude this as soon as possible, but you must understand that our opponents must be given the chance to attend, so that they will be able to testify that you submitted yourself to our laws." Banner rose. "Be assured - we will do all in our power to mitigate the severity of the punishment. Now, I must leave you. The guards will come for you when it is time."
When Banner had gone Kirk sank down, trying to realise what was going to happen to him. That he could be severely injured, he knew; he could only hope that he would not disgrace himself, that he would be able to undergo the ordeal with dignity.
Something was pressed into his hands, and he automatically tasted the wine Spock held out to him; its warmth dispelled the numbness that gripped him, and after a moment he looked up.
"Spock, why did you offer to take my place?" he asked curiously.
The dark eyes wavered for a moment, then dropped. When Spock answered it was in his most neutral tone.
"As I said, it is logical, Captain. The ship can function if I am incapacitated, you are indispensable. And I can both withstand the pain and recover from it better than a Human."
"Oh, I see." Kirk felt vaguely disappointed, but he was not sure why. "Well... thanks anyway, Spock."
"Captain, may I ask a question?"
"I am - forgive me - somewhat curious as to why you agreed so quickly to submit to the punishment. You could have returned to the ship - I do not think Banner would have held you by force. He is not a vindictive man, and would have let you go. Others could have completed the negotiations."
"Um, that's a fair point." Kirk finished the wine and set down the glass. "I wonder if I can explain it to you, Spock. These are a frightened people. They shouldn't have had to face alien contact for generations yet. There's an old saying on Earth... 'actions speak louder than words.' We come here, telling them how peaceful, how altruistic we are; we promise to observe their laws, safeguard their customs, their way of life. If, at the very first test, I walk away, what will they think? Okay, they have no choice but to accept what we tell them; but if we show them we mean what we say in this, then they're much more likely to believe the rest, aren't they? Here and now, I stand for the Federation and Starfleet, and Veron will judge their sincerity by my behaviour."
There was no answer, but after a moment the Vulcan touched his shoulder lightly. "May I suggest that you try to sleep, Captain? You will need all your strength tomorrow."
Sleep! Kirk thought bitterly. How the hell does he expect me to sleep with this hanging over me? But, recognising the sense in the suggestion, he allowed Spock to settle him on the couch. Dimming the lights, the Vulcan sank into a chair opposite, and with an ease that Kirk envied, was soon asleep.
For Kirk, the night seemed endless. He dozed intermittently, to start awake at the slightest sound - the logs settling in the hearth, the sound of footsteps outside the window, the changing of the guard at the door. As the long night wore on his too-vivid imagination woke, tormenting him with images of what awaited him in the morning.
Kirk was no coward, he had faced the possibility of injury or death many times, but this... He forced himself to face the prospect squarely, hoping to lessen its horror. The lorquat fronds were strong and sharp... they would cut deep into his flesh... If he fell, became entangled, he could even die. And worst of all, worse even than death, was the thought that if one of the fronds lashed across his eyes...
With all his heart he longed for McCoy, for a Human companion now; for someone - anyone - who would understand, who would share this night of apprehension with him. How could Spock understand? To Vulcans, pain was merely a sensory input that could be controlled, sublimated. Spock was a loyal, efficient First Officer, but he certainly was not the most comforting of companions in this situation.
Still, Kirk thought, perhaps it was for the best. McCoy would have been distressed at his helplessness, filled with worry for his friend - Spock at least would not suffer any emotional disturbance. In fact, he probably considered this form of punishment a 'fascinating' cultural survival. Strange, though, how quickly he had volunteered to take his Captain's place...
With a sigh Kirk turned over and tried again to sleep. Some time later he was vaguely aware of a tall figure tending the fire; it seemed to him that Spock leaned over him for a moment, that long fingers brushed his face gently... but it must have been a dream, for he was drifting slowly, easily, into a deep and undisturbed sleep.
Kirk woke in the morning to the insistent shaking of a gentle hand; he sighed, stretched luxuriously - then he remembered, and sat up abruptly.
"Is it time?" He noted with approval that his voice was steady.
"Not quite. I thought, however, that you would prefer to compose yourself before..." Uncharacteristically the Vulcan hesitated, then continued in an even more impersonal tone than usual.
"The guards have brought hot water and towels. I was asked to request you to dress in the clothes provided. All is ready - I regret that the arrangements are so primitive."
As he spoke he indicated a screen at the far end of the room. With a nod of thanks Kirk stood up and moved to investigate. The Vulcan had arranged the few facilities to give Kirk the maximum possible privacy; as he tended to his personal needs the Human was grateful for the care that had gone into the simple arrangements - even the towels had been set to warm in front of the fire.
Feeling considerably more refreshed, Kirk picked up the clothes that had been laid out for him - a loose-fitting robe and sandals - and dressed. The reason for such garments was clear - they would be easily and quickly removed when...
Pushing the thought aside, Kirk finished his preparations. He could hear the outer door being unlocked, the clinking of metal, the low murmur of voices. When he emerged, however, Spock was alone, and he glanced enquiringly at the Vulcan.
"Breakfast," Spock said, indicating the trays of food on a low table. "I would recommend a light meal, Captain... under the circumstances."
Kirk nodded; quite frankly he doubted if his stomach would retain a heavy meal. He contented himself with some bread and fruit, noticing idly that the Vulcan also ate sparingly. Finally Spock handed him a goblet.
"This will warm you, and sustain your strength," he said quietly.
As he sipped at the spiced, heated wine Kirk felt a curious compulsion to talk, a need for some contact with his impassive companion. Gazing down into his goblet, he began hesitantly.
"Spock... this punishment... I'm no Vulcan. I'll try my best, but... I don't know if I can endure it in silence. I know that Vulcans must respect where they serve. If I fail..."
"As you said, you are Human." Spock's voice was perfectly controlled. "The Veronese understand that, and so do I. We know that you will suffer, that you cannot block the pain... But I have seen the courage with which you have accepted your punishment. Even if you are tested beyond your capacity to endure, you have already shown an integrity, an understanding of the fears of others, that must command respect."
Even as Kirk raised astonished eyes the deep notes of a gong sounded far away. Spock started visibly.
"It is time," he said gently.
Now that the moment was upon him Kirk sat feeling the numbness of fear paralyse him. Spock rose and leaned over him, taking the Human's face between his hands.
"Look at me." The deep voice held a note of command that Kirk had never heard before, and he looked up obediently.
The dark eyes held his - why had he ever thought them cold? - with a deep understanding and compassion that warmed Kirk's heart, melting the frozen fear that held him prisoner. A serene confidence flowed from the Vulcan, relaxing the Human's tense muscles as he absorbed it gratefully; the warm hands on his face were... comforting.
"Courage, my friend. You are not alone." The words were spoken so quietly that Kirk was scarcely sure he had heard them; but as the touch withdrew he found himself able to rise with an unexpected composure, conscious of Spock's supportive presence at his side.
The door opened to admit Banner and the guards. In complete silence Human and Vulcan were conducted from the room along a corridor and out into the grounds of the Council Chambers to the part of the garden where a grove of lorquat trees stood. Kirk eyed them apprehensively, remembering how quickly those graceful fronds could turn into cutting, searing lashes. He shivered.
One of the guards stepped forward, but was halted by Spock's raised hand.
"No," the Vulcan said evenly. "This is for me to do."
Turning to the Human he slid the robe from Kirk's shoulders and steadied him while he kicked off the sandals. Kirk coloured faintly, aware that besides Banner and the guards a number of Councillors were standing a few yards away. As he and Spock walked towards the trees, however, he obtained a small comfort from the realisation that the watchers were grave-faced, displaying no hostility - indeed, he had the impression that they wished him well.
Kirk was intensely aware of physical sensations : the cool damp grass under his bare feet; the delicate scent of flowers; the caressing touch of the breeze in his hair. It seemed impossible that anything so barbaric could happen in such a setting.
Banner's eyes, filled with sorrow, held his. "What we are permitted to do, we have done," he said softly. "We have chosen a small grove of young trees - their venom is not as dangerous. And Captain... my people would think shame to witness your suffering."
Banner gestured, and every person in the garden turned as one, facing away from the trees.
"May your god go with you," Banner murmured; then he too turned away.
Kirk stood at the edge of the grove, watching as the trees, sensing a presence nearby, began to stir restlessly. Panic began to rise in him. Spock had vanished... he was alone... he could not...
The calm voice echoed again in his mind. Courage, my friend. Spock had called him that... Could he keep the Vulcan's respect after this? He could only... try.
As he hesitated for a final moment an irresistable compulsion drew his gaze to the far side of the grove, Spock stood just beyond the reach of the fronds; as their eyes met the Vulcan extended his hands encouragingly and smiled - a hesitant, shy smile that transformed the austere face, softening it into a rare beauty.
At once confidence and reassurance filled the Human. Spock believed - knew - that the strength he needed was there, and now he knew it too. Keeping his gaze locked on the compelling dark eyes Kirk took a step forward, placing himself within reach of the deadly fronds.
He could feel the lashes coiling round his body and limbs, saw blood spring from the cuts, but there was no pain. The wine, then? Had it been drugged? If so, Banner had indeed been merciful. But Kirk quailed inwardly as he visualised the damage that those jagged whips would inflict on him. If he was caught, held immobilised... if one of the fronds caught his eyes... Blindness...
Then a cool serenity that flowed from no internal source took possession of his mind, and the terrifying images faded. He was aware of nothing save the dark eyes that held his so calmly, the reaching, encouraging hands that were not so very far away... He paced steadily, carefully, towards that promised safety.
Another step... and another... Then a sharp stone, unseen in the grass, turned under his bare foot and he staggered, losing concentration. His gaze was wrenched from Spock's, and he slumped to his knees as the full force of the pain ripped through him. He fought to remain upright, aware that if he fell completely he would not rise, but blood ran down his chin from his bitten lip as he struggled to regain his feet.
LOOK AT ME!
The command thundered in his mind, compelling obedience; as the dark and hazel eyes locked again it seemed that a barrier snapped into place in his mind, insulating him from the pain so that he could think calmly again. And he was safe, those eyes holding him, guiding him to safety, their brightness the only reality.
Somehow he was moving again, steadily covering the last few yards; but he was so tired, so confused... Eager hands caught him, clung, helped him beyond the reach of the flailing branches. The robe was slipped around his shoulders and he was lifted into strong arms where he lay still; he was not sure of what was happening, but it didn't seem to matter - he clung trustingly to the stranger/ friend who held him so securely.
Voices echoed around him, sounding far-away and dream-like; every inch of his body was throbbing, but in some strange way the pain did not quite touch him - it was as though he was aware of it in someone else rather than experiencing it himself.
He recognised Banner's voice, "Captain, we will keep our pledge to your people as you have kept yours to us. Commander, our physicians are waiting. We have decided to permit..."
"No," Spock's refusal was firm. "Our own doctor will tend him. You promised we might return at once to our ship."
"We will keep our word. Your communicators are here."
He felt movement as Spock accepted and opened the communicator. "Mr. Kyle - two to beam up."
Kirk was scarcely conscious when the transporter platform solidified under Spock's feet. The journey to Sickbay passed in a dream, and McCoy's anxious questions, Spock's brief explanation, were remote.
When he came fully awake he was lying in bed in Sickbay. The sense of unreality that had haunted him all morning had gone, he was fully alert - and curious.
Kirk smiled up into McCoy's anxious eyes. "How am I?" he asked.
"Better than you've any right to be!" McCoy snorted. "Some of the lashes are deep, but luckily for you they all missed your face. The pain must have been bad, Jim; the fronds contain an irritant - a bit like Terran stinging nettles, only worse. Spock had the sense to bring a sample with him, so I was able to prepare an antidote, otherwise you'd be pretty sick right now.
"It's a good job, too, that you were able to stay on your feet and keep moving - if you'd absorbed much more of the irritant, the shock could have affected your heart. As it is, you'll only be off duty long enough to allow the wounds to heal. You can thank Spock for getting you back here as fast as he did."
"Spock!" Kirk said suddenly. "Where is he?"
"Here, Captain," the tranquil voice said. "I am relieved that you have suffered no serious injury."
"It seems not. Spock, what did you do?"
An eyebrow rose as the clear eyes met his. "I did nothing, Captain. I regret that I was unable..."
"Cut it out, Spock," McCoy growled. "If there had been anything you could have done, you'd have done it, Jim knows that. Now get out of here - I want him to rest."
So like McCoy, Kirk thought. He might seize every opportunity to tease and torment the Vulcan, but he seemed to know instinctively when to hold his tongue.
"Very well, Doctor, I will be in my quarters." The veiled eyes met Kirk's briefly. "Rest well, Captain."
With an abrupt nod Spock turned to leave, and Kirk submitted with a resigned sigh to McCoy's fussing, but a frown of puzzlement crossed his face for an instant. There had been something... odd... about Spock's departure, but he couldn't quite...
Insidiously the sedative asserted control, postponing all questions.
When Kirk next awoke it was the middle of the ship's night. He felt perfectly fit, completely rested, and his mind was working clearly again. For a long time he lay remembering all that had happened on Veron, and the more he remembered the more certain he became that, despite his denial, Spock had been responsible for the fact that he had felt no pain.
With startled clarity he recalled those compassionate eyes looking deeply into his, felt again that gentle touch on his face.
His face. Surely there was something...? Kirk concentrated on his limited knowledge of Vulcans, and at last he began to understand.
The mind touch. Vulcans could... meld?... with another mind... He progressed slowly, reasoning it out step by step.
He should have felt pain, but there had been none, except for that time when he had broken eye-contact with the Vulcan. If Spock had indeed touched his mind, taken the pain... then that surely meant...?
With shocked awareness Kirk sat up as the final clue slotted into place. There had been something odd about Spock's departure - he remembered how awkwardly the Vulcan had moved, so unlike his usual grace, and how very carefully he had guarded his expression.
Such a little thing - for a Human; but that it should show at all in Spock proved that the Vulcan must have been under considerable strain. Kirk reached out and pressed the call button beside his bed. A few minutes later McCoy hurried in.
"What's the matter, Jim? Can't you sleep? Are you in pain?"
"No, nothing like that. Bones, I'm sorry to disturb you..."
"You didn't," McCoy assured him, "I sometimes take the night watch - it's only fair on my staff. Now, what can I do for you?"
"I have to see Spock."
"Jim, it's the middle of the night!"
"I know. It's just..." Kirk bit his lip thoughtfully. "It's just that I have the feeling that I must talk to him tonight."
McCoy studied his patient for a moment, then nodded. "Okay - if it's that important I'll call him."
"No, don't do that." Kirk's voice stopped him as he reached for the intercom. "I want to see him in his quarters."
"You need rest - can't it wait until morning?"
"No, it can't. Look, Bones, I promise I'll come straight back here when I've finished. Honestly, it's important."
On the verge of a refusal, McCoy hesitated. "Okay," he said at last, "but only on condition that you come back. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Kirk nodded.
Outside Spock's door Kirk hesitated, then buzzed. The door slid open and he stepped inside, his eyes taking a few moments to adjust to the dim lighting.
"Good evening, Captain." Spock rose from behind his desk. "I knew that you would come - I was waiting for you."
"Then you must also know why I'm here. What did you do down there, and how did you do it?"
The dark eyes wavered and fell. "As I said, it was logical. You are more valuable to the ship..."
"Mr. Spock, you're a liar."
"Yes, sir." The reply was almost inaudible.
Spock looked up almost timidly. "As a Vulcan, I knew I could take the pain for you. There is a form of the mind touch... I hoped you would assume that Chief Councilman Banner had drugged the wine so that you felt nothing. Only... when you stumbled... my concentration was broken, and you suffered until I could regain control of your mind. I was also able to delay the effect of the irritant. I assure you, Captain, there was no risk to... either of us; a few hours meditation will restore me. It was only... I only wanted... to help..."
"So you took the pain that should have been mine, and said nothing." Kirk's voice was very gentle. "How can I thank you, my friend?"
To his surprise, Spock's eyes fell again. "I do not think you fully understand, Captain. We are taught that Humans fear the mind touch. I knew that if I explained, you would forbid me to intervene, and so I entered your mind without your consent. I ask forgiveness for such an invasion of your privacy."
"Forgiveness?" Kirk stared blankly. "I thought I was beginning to understand you, Spock. You calmed my fears, gave me the strength to go through with it, saved me from pain... and you ask forgiveness? I am honoured that you should think me worthy of such help. It was no intrusion, but a valued gift, and I will cherish the memory."
Slowly the doubt faded from the Vulcan's eyes, and to Kirk's delight a hesitant, shy smile touched Spock's lips for an instant.
"Thank you, Captain. Will you not go and rest now?"
"I'd better, or I'll have McCoy in here looking for me," Kirk grinned, turning to the door. He looked back as the soft voice called his name.
"Jim... something you said on Veron... I remembered it. I do not know the Human ways of friendship, but... I wish to learn. If I cannot always say what I feel..."
"I know." Kirk reached out and touched the thin shoulder for a moment. "Actions speak louder than words. I'll remember that. And... because of the meld, I think the Enterprise will be a less lonely place for me from now on, my friend."
"And for me," Spock admitted quietly.
With a last smile Kirk was gone; and in the cabin behind him the echo of that smile curved the Vulcan's lips as he prepared to retire.
Many months later, on the illusion planet of the Melkotians, only Spock's ability to distinguish between reality and illusion stood between the landing party and certain death. And it was Kirk's quiet, confident acceptance of the meld that gave McCoy and Scott the ability to trust that brought them all safely through the test.