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Valerie Piacentini

In the dead hours of the night it is very quiet in Sickbay. Only the muffled beat of the life indicators punctuates the harsh breathing of the man on the bed. Keen blue eyes study the diagnostic panel carefully, skilled fingers needlessly counting the beats of a racing pulse - needlessly, for the wildly-fluctuating indicators give precise information - but for the Doctor it seems easier than standing by helplessly.

In the shadows the other waits, silent, brooding, eyes locked with an almost painful concentration on the flushed face on the pillow. He tastes the bitterness of utter inadequacy, for here his brilliant mind, his superb physical strength are of no avail - fear rules now, and one precious life hangs in the balance.

The deepest fears, if repeated often enough, take on a strange, dreamlike quality. How many times has this vigil been kept in the past. Will it ever be kept again? Or does it all end here?

The lure of memory beckons and the mind circles back, for the past, at least, is known; the present is too painful to endure, the future too uncertain to contemplate...

He was very young. It was easy to forget just how young, for in his physical appearance he had reached maturity; but he was Vulcan, and so, although he concealed it well, he knew all the nervousness of any young man as he stepped from the transporter pad to report for his first Starship posting as Science Officer of the USS Enterprise.

"Welcome aboard, Mr Spock."

The Vulcan inclined his head in greeting. "Captain Pike."

To the Human the impassive face, the cool reserved tones were totally Vulcan, the dark eyes shielded, expressing nothing, not even the curiosity that was one of his race's distinguishing traits.

Christopher Pike found himself at something of a loss - had his new Science Officer been the Human he had somehow automatically expected there would have been the usual greetings, a little verbal fencing, polite meaningless conversation to carry him over the first awkward moments; but this man - somehow he sensed that idle chatter would earn the disapproval of that reserved, dignified figure. He settled instead for an immediate introduction of the Vulcan to his duties, taking him on a tour of inspection of the ship, presenting him to his fellow officers.

As he expected from a study of his record, Mr Spock approached his new duties with quiet efficiency; although this was his first Starship posting he came highly qualified to his position - his graduation marks from Starfleet Academy were the highest ever recorded, and he had already earned a considerable reputation as a scientist in his own right. He would not long remain a mere Lieutenant, Pike thought. Even that first day he seemed already settled at the computer station, his precise efficiency earning him a glance of approval from the normally exacting Number One; Pike relaxed then, certain that his Science Department was in good hands.

The other officers took their cue from the Captain, treating the new arrival with the formality they had been warned a Vulcan would expect, careful not to offend by word or action; they would have felt more comfortable with a Human, of course, but alien officers were becoming less of a rarity in Starfleet, and it would be as well to adjust to new standards of behaviour.

So that first day passed with formal correctness on both sides, and if the Humans breathed a sigh of relief when their disconcerting companion bade them a courteous goodnight and left the rec room - well, they did so silently. There was a moment's pause as the door slid shut behind the tall figure, then a babble of laughter and conversation broke out, as though from children suddenly released from the stern eye of an adult; it had seemed... foolish... to engage in their usual light-hearted joking in that dignified presence.

In the corridor Spock paused for a moment as the laughing voices reached him; there was no expression on the stony face, but deep in the dark eyes something stirred for a moment, and was quickly suppressed. With even, unhurried steps the Vulcan headed for his quarters, and the door slid shut behind him.

Deliberately Spock seated himself at his desk, and began to consider his first day on the Enterprise. They had not suspected his nervousness, he realised gratefully, but had accepted the impression he gave, that of a man fully at ease, totally in control of the situation. His mind recalled the faces of his new companions as he attempted to form a first impression, but it was very difficult - Humans were very confusing creatures. There had been Humans at the Academy, of course - indeed, they formed a large majority - but even there he had not really mixed much with them. After the bitter conflict with his father he had been so determined to do well, to prove that he had chosen the best possible course for himself, that there had been little time for social activity, even had he desired it. That compulsion still shadowed him, he knew; on Vulcan he would always be on trial, never fully accepted. There would always be those who watched, judged, waited for the emotional Earthman to break through the Vulcan training. Even T'Pring... He pushed the thought away, for the memory of those beautiful eyes, hard and unyielding, the indifference in her voice as she bade him a formal farewell, chilled his heart with foreboding. To her too he must prove himself, show himself the equal of any pure-blooded Vulcan. So his days and nights were given almost exclusively to study as he pushed himself remorselessly in an attempt to prove... something.

The little relaxation he did permit himself - reluctantly, and only at the insistence of his tutors - was among his fellow Vulcans, for that was all he knew; and among them at least he was accepted, for the few Vulcans at the Academy tended to band together for companionship.

So he had little experience of his mother's people, and for a moment panic touched him as he realised that for the next five years at least he would be totally isolated among Humans - and he did not know how to make overtures of friendship to people who would expect to receive none. He had already seen how they kept their distance, fearful of giving offence; it would be up to him then to make the first approaches.

It seemed logical to begin with the Captain. Christopher Pike's reputation as an efficient commander was well-known, he was more accustomed to dealing with aliens than many of the others, and the nature of their duties would bring them together naturally.

What Spock could not know was that Chris Pike, although basically a sociable, easy-going man, possessed a strongly insensitive nature. He was direct, hearty, completely sure of himself, and this made him incapable of seeing or understanding his Science Officer's hesitant approaches. He had been told Vulcans did not make friends, and he had accepted that without question; he always assumed that anything Spock had to say must be connected with his duties, and quite without meaning to he again and again snubbed every effort Spock made to initiate a personal approach.

Puzzled, bewildered at what seemed to be constant rejection, the shy, sensitive Vulcan suffered agonies of embarrassment when, having plucked up courage to open a conversation, Pike would listen impatiently for a few moments then, with a brief "Later, Spock," turn away in search of more agreeable company; but he persevered, believing that the fault must lie in himself, wondering if perhaps today, tomorrow, might provide him with the opening he sought.

At last even his stubborn pride was forced to admit defeat. One evening he was sitting in the rec room, engrossed in playing chess with the ship's computer. By now it was agony for him to come into the rec room, where he knew that his silent presence inhibited the conversation of the others, but he knew instinctively that to remain in his quarters, as he now longed to do, would only confirm their belief that he had no desire for companionship; so with a bitter courage no-one even suspected he had made himself go where he knew he was not wanted, hoping that sometime, somehow, he could reach out and be accepted.

This evening it seemed that his chance had come at last; he had completed his game, and was resetting the board for the next couple, when he became aware of a tall figure leaning over the table, examining the chessmen curiously.

"Captain," he greeted courteously.

"Evening, Spock. Enjoy your game?" Pike enquired.

"Indeed, Captain, I find chess relaxing."

"Damned if I know how you can make head or tail of the game; always thought I'd like to learn, but I've never had the time."

Gratefully, Spock realised this was the opening he sought. He glanced up at Pike. "If you would care to learn, I would be most happy to instruct you," he offered shyly.

Had Pike looked down at that moment things might have been different; in his loneliness Spock had for once dropped his guard, his eyes were open and unshielded, almost begging for a response. But Number One entered the room just then, and Pike instantly forgot the man at his side.

"Thanks for the offer, Spock," he said carelessly, setting down the chessman he had been examining. "Too difficult for me - and I'm sure you have better things to do with your time." Then he was gone across the room to join the group of officers who sat talking in the corner.

For a long moment Spock sat perfectly still, then his hands automatically completed the setting of the board; rising, he left the room, his departure unnoticed and unacknowledged.

In the silence of his quarters he lay on his bed, acknowledging at last that he had failed, and trying to control the very un-Vulcan misery that swept over him at the realisation that he would never know Human friendship.

"They will never accept you," Sarek had warned gently, knowing that Human insensitivity would isolate his son even more effectively than Vulcan mistrust. He had refused to believe that, but now it seemed that his father had been right after all. If he had remained on Vulcan he would have proved himself in time, would have been accepted among his father's people - but he had chosen another path, and now it was too late.

Pride came to his aid then, the only thing he had left. If he was miserable, no-one would ever know; he would not admit his mistake to his fellow Vulcans. Neither would he lay himself open to rejection by his Human companions. They expected him to be Vulcan, therefore he would be Vulcan, neither seeking nor needing any Human contact. If he could not be liked, he would be respected... and perhaps it was possible to become accustomed to loneliness in time?

* * * * * * * *

Months passed, and the crew of the Enterprise grew used to their alien Science Officer. Pike found himself relying on the man more and more; he was always there, always loyal, dependable, efficient, a brilliant officer. When Number One was promoted - to a desk job since Starfleet did not have any place for women Captains - he concurred eagerly with Starfleet's suggestion that Spock should combine the duties of First Officer and Science Officer - no Human could have done so, but the Vulcan's faultless performance fully justified Pike's confidence.

Life was easier for Spock now; he had given up hoping for the Captain's friendship, and had settled instead for gaining his respect, which he had in full measure; a respect he could return, for Pike was indeed an efficient Captain to whom he was able to give all his loyalty - a gift the Human was too insensitive to notice or appreciate.

As time passed the Vulcan seemed to become more and more an extension of the Enterprise - Pike occasionally felt that she was more Spock's ship than his; and while he did not make the mistake of undervaluing his First Officer he began, almost unconsciously, to resent the Vulcan's faultless efficiency. Until the explosion in Engineering, which badly damaged the warp drive, killed the Chief Engineer - and threw Spock, a limp, crumpled body, the full height from the gantry to the main deck.

There was no immediate danger - the Engineering staff were able to contain the damage - but they were a long way from Federation space and the resources of a Starbase; with the Chief gone, only Spock knew enough to patch up the engines - if he recovered.

Pike haunted Sickbay, pacing frantically, urging the harassed Boyce to impossible risks, anything to get Spock back on his feet as quickly as possible. Boyce protested, warning Pike that it was dangerous to interfere with a healing trance, that Spock himself was the best judge of when he was fit enough to return to duty; but the Captain persisted, and at last, reluctantly, Boyce gave Spock a powerful stimulant.

"You'd better be right about the danger to the ship," he warned Pike grimly. "This'll either bring him round - or kill him." Pike made no reply, only leaned over the bed anxiously studying the pale unmoving face.

Somewhere in a dark warm void, Spock's consciousness stirred, aware of pain, a great weariness of spirit, a reluctance to respond to the voice that called so urgently. "Spock! Spock, wake up! I need you!"

Strong fingers gripped his shoulders, shaking him insistently. His Captain! He was needed... There was something...

With tremendous effort Spock forced the pain down to a manageable level, and listened intently. "Come on, Spock, wake up!"

There was... concern... in Pike's voice, a desperate urgency that reached Spock's lonely heart, compelling an answer. Pike was calling again, despairingly. The frozen anguish began, slowly, to melt - Pike must, after all, feel some concern for him to be so distressed. Slowly, the dark eyes opened, soft, responsive.

"Captain?" Spock asked hesitantly.

Hearing the reply Pike glanced away to the viewscreen on the wall to check on the situation in Engineering; and while doing so committed the greatest betrayal of his life.

"Thank God, Spock!" he snapped, all his attention on the screen. "I need you urgently - you're the only one who can repair the damage in Engineering. Sorry to bring you round so abruptly, but I want you on the job right away."

There was silence for a moment, then a low, scarcely audible sigh. When Pike looked round the dark eyes were once more shadowed by the green-tinged lids, and all trace of expression had been wiped away from the impassive face.

Within the privacy of his mind Spock was trying to adjust to the shock of realising that Pike's concern had not been for him as a person, only for his valuable knowledge. He knew that he had been deliberately wakened from the healing trance; Pike must know how dangerous it was to do so. He had dared to hope that Pike had, at this moment of crisis, come to value him as a friend, yet he had risked his life without a moment's thought of the consequences - Boyce's expression of disapproval revealed more than he knew.

So in this too Sarek had been right; there was something in him to which Humans could not respond, something which would forever set a barrier around him, leaving him a spectator looking in on the warm companionship he hungered for, but which they would never permit him to share.

Accepting the truth at last Spock forced his anguish under control; when his eyes opened again they were the cool, remote pools of darkness that would always be a Human's first chilling impression of the Vulcan. Shrugging off Boyce's supporting arm Spock swung his feet to the floor and stood up, turning to face Pike. With all the stern logic of his father's people he firmly closed the door on his treacherous Humanity and turned with the bleak courage that would always be his to face the desolate path of duty he would always walk - alone.

"I am at your service... Captain."

The carefully-contrived image was complete at last, forged in the bitter fires of rejection, to be tested in the utter isolation of his half-Human spirit; untouched, unemotional - Vulcan.

* * * * * * * *

The circle, unending, inexorable, inescapable. Memories are pain-filled, yet more tolerable than this harsh reality. A sudden choked gasping from the bed, and skilled hands work busily, gently, with a deep personal caring. In the shadows the watcher stirs restlessly, knowing his utter uselessness. Unseen, unheard, his presence fills the room, the pain-filled eyes wide with a question that as yet has no answer. Twisting delicate strands of memory, each a slender thread combining into an irresistible chain that draws back, back into the past...

... to the transporter room of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Commander Spock, First Officer and Science Officer in command, awaiting the arrival of a new Captain, for Christopher Pike has been promoted at last. James T. Kirk, youngest man ever appointed to captain a Starship; it was to be hoped that he was efficient.

Pike had been that, at least. After eleven years Spock still did not regret his decision to give the Human his loyalty, for though unappreciated it had been earned. Now the assessment must begin again, and if Kirk failed to measure up to the required standard there would also be a new First Officer for the Enterprise, for no Vulcan could serve one who was unworthy.

Across the room Lt. Commander Scott caught his eye and nodded encouragingly; Spock replied with a barely perceptible tilt of one delicate eyebrow. These two men, apparently opposites, understood each other very well, for in reality they had much in common. Despite his reputation as a hard-drinking, hell-raising womaniser on leave, in a duty situation the Engineer's devotion to his machinery equalled the Vulcan's passionate attachment to his computers; and their appreciation of each other's interests forged the first bond between them. On personal matters Scott was as close-mouthed as Spock, and his arrival as replacement for the dead Chief Engineer provided the reserved Vulcan with an understanding companion who was willing to talk on technical matters all day. For his part Scott made no demands, accepting Spock's reticence, enjoying the chance to learn from such a brilliant mind. For both the imminent arrival of a new Captain promised changes, and each understood the other's curiosity as they waited.

At last the signal was given and the reception party stiffened to attention as the shimmering column of light on the transporter platform coalesced into the figure of a stocky, fair-haired Human. As soon as the transfer was complete the bright hazel eyes were moving, taking in the room with an eager, all-embracing scrutiny before coming to meet those of his First Officer.

"Captain Kirk, welcome aboard," Spock greeted formally.

"Thank you, Commander Spock." The words and tone were equally formal, but the mobile lips curved for a moment, and the eyes sparkled with delight. For a moment the Vulcan was confused - he had felt an almost irresistible impulse to return that smile - and he hesitated uncharacteristically before custom came to his aid, and he completed the introduction of the reception committee. Then followed a tour of the ship; the Human was alert, interested, questioning eagerly with the air of a man who intended to form his own opinions. It was an attitude the Vulcan could understand, and when at last he left Kirk to settle into his quarters and returned to his own, Spock reflected that despite his youth, the new Captain would quickly make an impression on the Enterprise.

However, it would not make any personal difference to him, Spock thought as he retired that night after the formal dinner to welcome Kirk aboard. As long as Kirk functioned efficiently he would ask for no more. He had learned his lesson well eleven years ago, and would not again make the mistake of seeking any personal contact with the Human. Still, it was strange... in the transporter room some long-buried part of himself that he had almost forgotten had stirred painfully in response to that flashing smile. But it had meant nothing to Kirk, he reminded himself sternly; hadn't he learned by now that Humans considered it necessary to show pleasure when greeting strangers? Never again would he confuse politeness with interest - he had been taught the difference with brutal efficiency.

As the weeks passed, however, and Kirk took the reins of the Enterprise smoothly into his hands, Spock found his interest and curiosity deepening; the new Captain had an enthusiasm, a personal involvement with his ship, that Pike had never shown. The Human crewmembers responded to him eagerly, and even Spock found himself having to make a conscious effort not to succumb to that impulsive attraction. He and Kirk worked well together, ably assisted by Scott, who was delighted to discover a Captain who was willing to concede that the Chief Engineer might actually have a useful contribution to make to the running of the ship, apart from his responsibility for the Engineering Section.

As he had hoped, Spock found Kirk to be an efficient Captain; it pleased him, for he did not want to leave the Enterprise, as he would have had to do had Kirk proved unworthy of his loyalty; but in fact he found the man to be even better than Pike, and settled thankfully back into his preoccupation with his duties.

It remained a purely formal relationship; if Spock ever noticed that Kirk seemed inclined to linger in conversation when the necessary business had been concluded, he put it down to the Human's more extrovert nature - his defences were too well established to allow him to see that Kirk, just as he had done all those years ago, was taking the first tentative steps to get to know his enigmatic First Officer; yet was fearful, as most Humans were, of offending that aloof dignity.

One evening Spock sat at his usual table in the rec room, poring over the chess board. Some innate stubbornness had made him continue to go there even when he had given up the attempt to make friends, and over the years everyone had become accustomed to his presence - it would have seemed strange to most of them now to look up from a game of cards, or a group discussion, and not see that lean, dark figure in the corner.

On this particular evening, as Spock concentrated on a problem, he became aware of being watched and looked up to see the Captain studying the board with an almost wistful longing. As their eyes met, Kirk leaned closer.

"Enjoying the game, Mr Spock?" he asked.

A memory came sharply of Pike saying much the same thing, and probably for much the same reason; but to his surprise Kirk continued. "I learned a bit about the game at the Academy, and was considered quite good - for a Human - but I've never played with a Vulcan partner. I'd like to improve my game, if I can."

"Indeed, Captain; it is a fascinating study," Spock murmured.

At that moment, Gary Mitchell, an old friend of the Captain's who had joined the ship at about the same time as Kirk, passed, beckoning Kirk to join the group he was with. The Captain waved back, and for a moment Spock smiled inwardly - now would come the polite excuse, the withdrawal. To his surprise, Kirk turned back to him.

"I wonder," he asked hesitantly, "would you be willing to teach me, Mr Spock? I don't want to break into your free time, but if you would consider... " His voice faded hopefully.

For a moment astonishment held Spock silent; he had not expected this. "If you wish it, I would be honoured, Captain," he managed at last. The familiar charming grin lit Kirk's features.

"That's marvellous. Tomorrow evening, then? I'll look forward to it." With a last eager glance at the board, Kirk was gone, not - as Spock had expected - to join Mitchell and the others, but heading for the door. His voice floated back. "I'll be on the Bridge if you want me, Mr Spock."

"Yes, Captain," the Vulcan replied automatically.

On the following evening, when Spock entered the rec room at his usual time, the Captain was already waiting for him, examining with interest the board he had set in preparation for a game. Spock was aware of faint surprise - he thought the Captain might have forgotten - but even more disconcerting was the glow of pleasure he felt when the hazel eyes lifted to his expectantly. He subdued it sternly - he would not allow himself to expect more from this man than from any other Human. Moving with easy grace Spock took his seat across the table

"Your move, Captain," he invited calmly.

* * * * * * * *

Somehow the chess games became a routine, a pleasant interlude both men would have missed. At first they played always in the rec rooms, lingering over a drink when the game was finished while Spock analysed the Captain's tactics, pointed out his errors, and suggested ways of improving his game. By gradual degrees a personal element began to creep into the conversation, although on these occasions it was always the Human who talked, finding in the Vulcan an attentive, though unresponsive, audience. He listened though, Kirk thought with quiet satisfaction; perhaps he was making progress.

In such undemanding company Spock very slowly began to feel more at ease, a fact that mildly astonished him when he took the trouble to think about it - Kirk seemed so much the extrovert, too full of enthusiasm to take pleasure in a Vulcan's company.

One evening, at the conclusion of a particularly hectic planet landing, Kirk remarked as he left the Bridge that he had a headache and was on his way to Sickbay. Expecting a cancellation of their game that evening, Spock was experiencing a strange sense of disappointment when Kirk suddenly said, "I don't feel up to the rec room tonight, Spock; would you mind if we had our game in my quarters?"

A sudden feeling of pleasure at the Captain's obvious desire for his company swept through Spock and he replied, "I would be delighted, Captain."

Thereafter their games alternated between the rec room and Kirk's quarters; somehow it seemed more pleasant when there was just the two of them, away from the distracting chatter of the junior officers.

Spock found he wanted to make some gesture in return, and at last he tentatively invited the Human to join him in his quarters the following evening. Kirk noticed the hesitant shyness with which the offer was made, but passed no comment and accepted the invitation warmly.

He was smiling to himself as Spock turned to go - at long last he had produced some response from his stiffly-correct First Officer. That almost obsessive desire for privacy had puzzled the Human from the beginning - he knew that Spock was half Human, and had wondered why the man seemed to shy away from any personal contact.

For both men, the evening was an unexpected pleasure. Kirk frankly confessed his fascination with the Vulcan furnishings of Spock's quarters and asked eager questions, listening attentively to the explanations. With an engaging candour he told Spock to shut him up if he became too curious, but the novelty of having such an interested visitor warmed Spock, despite his resolution not to let Kirk under his guard.

The climax of the evening came when Kirk, who had asked permission, lifted down a Vulcan harp and lightly touched the strings; the discordant murmur startled him, and he passed the instrument over to Spock. "May I hear you play?" he asked shyly, with a note of longing in his voice that the Vulcan could not refuse.

Kirk sat motionless as the enchanting music came rippling from Spock's fingers; as the last notes died away he gave a faint, wistful sigh and sat for a moment in silence, his eyes still clouded with the dreams the music had evoked. At last he turned his head. "That was beautiful, Spock," he said simply.

As their eyes met Kirk caught his breath in wonder; for a shy, delighted smile lit Spock's dark eyes for a fleeting instant as the two men shared their pleasure in the music; then the eyelids dropped, abruptly shutting off that sudden insight.

But from that night something changed between them. Kirk became a regular visitor to Spock's quarters, and it seemed natural for him to lift down the harp and hold it out with a smile. On other evenings their chess games continued with Kirk improving all the time, until one night, to his utter astonishment, he won. Spock seemed to take as much pleasure in the Human's victory as Kirk did, and their games took on a new interest.

* * * * * * * *

The months passed, and brought changes. Piper retired, and was replaced by Leonard McCoy as Chief Medical Officer. For a time Kirk seemed disturbed by this new arrival, who was in his way as withdrawn as the Vulcan, but in time the taciturn doctor also fell a victim to Kirk's charm and became a valued member of the crew.

Around this time there were changes among the Bridge personnel, and the new officers quickly settled into a smoothly-co-ordinated team; much of this was due to Kirk's own influence, for without losing any of his authority he introduced a relaxation of formality which allowed the highly-trained men and women of his crew to work comfortably together. Within a very short time it seemed that Kirk had always commanded the Enterprise - Pike was almost forgotten.

Spock found himself slightly bewildered by the rapid changes. His dawning relationship with Kirk was developing slowly, gradually, almost without his being aware of it as each found more in the other to respect and admire. McCoy was more of a problem - the acid-tongued surgeon seemed to have set himself the task of provoking some Human response from the Vulcan half-breed, yet despite the barbed comments that so frequently came his way Spock could not feel that the Doctor actually disliked him, for on the rare occasions when he was compelled to Sickbay he could detect a deep personal concern that McCoy was careful to keep hidden at all other times.

The weeks and months of their mission passed quietly until the Enterprise became involved in a lengthy and detailed survey of Carlon IV. It was not a particularly attractive planet, but the extent and variety of its mineral deposits ensured the Federation's interest. Fortunately, Carlon displayed no trace of intelligent life, so the restrictions of the Prime Directive did not apply; but, as if to balance this, something in the planet's magnetic field disturbed the transporter, making it unreliable. However, Scott was able to adapt the shuttlecraft engines to counteract the interference. This meant Spock and his scientists were forced to establish a base on the planet's surface and work from there as it was too time-consuming to return regularly to the Enterprise.

Without the stimulation of his First Officer's companionship, Kirk found time hanging heavily on his hands - there was little to do, as the ship waited in orbit for the conclusion of the survey. So it was with very real pleasure that he left his quarters one morning and met Spock just emerging from his.

"You're not finished yet, are you?" he asked in surprise - the last report had indicated that several more days work lay ahead.

"Not yet, Captain. I had to return to the Enterprise to collect some equipment and took the opportunity to change. I am returning immediately."

"Hold on a minute," Kirk burst out impulsively. "I'll come with you."

The Vulcan turned, raising an enquiring eyebrow, aware of an unusual glow of pleasure at Kirk's sudden decision; and of a feeling of astonishment at the intensity of that pleasure. Kirk grinned disarmingly. "Well, there's nothing to do up here, and I might be able to help. Even if I can't, it'll be nice to breathe some fresh air and stretch my legs."

He fell naturally into step with Spock, and the two men headed for the lower deck where the duty pilot, Hazell, was already waiting beside the loaded shuttlecraft. They took their seats, discussing the discoveries Spock's team had made, and within minutes were gliding down to the surface of Carlon.

Later, they could never be sure just what had caused the malfunction. Perhaps Hazell had forgotten the modifications and allowed his attention to stray for a moment from his indicators; whatever the reason, there was a sudden sharp crack from the instrument panel, and even as Spock started to his feet to investigate there was a brilliant flash, a violent convulsion of the shuttlecraft, and the three men were thrown headlong to the floor.

Somehow Spock managed to reach the co-pilot's seat; without sparing a glance for the young pilot he wrestled with the controls, but the shuttlecraft responded only sluggishly. There was barely enough time to select the safest possible crash site, a long, narrow beach bounded on the landward side by towering sand dunes; even as he swung the Copernicus laboriously round there was a secondary explosion which left him blind and dazed as the stricken shuttlecraft ploughed deep into the sand.

His awakening was a slow, confused blur, and he lay for some moments remembering what had happened, and wondering where he was now. The last thing he remembered was trying to avoid the worst of the explosion, and the sudden pain as he was hurled against the wall of the shuttlecraft. Now he was lying at full length, his aching head pillowed against something soft and velvety; cool fingers were smoothing back his hair and an anxious voice was murmuring his name.

Without indicating that he was awake he opened his eyes slightly and looked round. He was lying on the floor of the shuttlecraft, which seemed to be canted at a steep angle, and the softness beneath his cheek was the material of Kirk's shirt as the Captain supported his head on his shoulder. A sharp wave of pain caught him unawares and he closed his eyes hurriedly, thankful that Kirk had not noticed he was awake. Confused by the pain he lay still, enjoying the sensation of comfort and protection produced by the strong arms that held him so carefully, relaxing in utter security as Kirk's voice, strangely husky, pleaded, "Spock, please wake up."

The words produced a bitter, mocking memory that set every nerve in Spock's body jangling painfully. Even so had Pike spoken when he had gambled Spock's life in rousing him too early from the healing trance.

Now, he realised bitterly, it was happening again; Kirk needed his help to escape from the wrecked shuttlecraft - that explained his show of concern. What a fool he was! It seemed he would never learn, he thought, despising himself for his weakness; how many times would he fool himself into believing that a Human could feel any concern for him? Only... Kirk's hands were... so very gentle...

Carefully, as though he had just awakened, Spock moved and tried to sit up. "I am recovered, thank you, Captain," he said stiffly. "If you will move aside I will attempt to force a way out."

"Thank God!" Kirk's voice held a note of profound relief. "I thought I'd lost you, Spock. No, lie still - there's no hurry. The communicator is working after a fashion, and I've contacted Scotty. It seems that as we crashed the shuttlecraft was buried in the sand dunes - since they can't use the transporter to get us out, they'll have to dig us clear. We're safe enough, though - there's enough air. Poor Hazell's dead, I'm afraid, killed in the crash, and for a moment I thought you were too. Just rest - you might be more badly hurt than I can see." As Kirk spoke his arms tightened, pulling the Vulcan's head back into position on his shoulder. Spock lay looking at him, bewilderment in his dark eyes.

"But surely... I thought... you needed me to effect our escape," he said at last. "You seemed... so concerned."

"Of course I was concerned - about you," Kirk replied. Looking down he saw the Vulcan's eyes clouded with doubt, and added softly, "Did you really think I'd risk letting you hurt yourself, just to get out of here a few minutes sooner?"

"But Captain Pike... " Spock bit back what he had been about to say, but Kirk caught a sharp breath in understanding. He knew Chris Pike well, and was familiar with his hearty, tactless nature. Somehow Chris had hurt this gentle, sensitive man, hurt him so badly that to avoid further pain the Vulcan had retired deep into his shell of reserve. It was perhaps unfair to take advantage of Spock's temporary confusion, but somehow Kirk knew that if he was ever to reach his First Officer, this was the moment.

Leaning closer, he said, "Tell me about Captain Pike."

"Once before... I was injured," Spock began hesitantly. "It was when the Chief was killed." Kirk nodded - he had learned of the incident from the ship's log. Spock continued. "The Captain wanted the engines repaired at once, and only I had the necessary skill. I was in a healing trance... The Doctor warned him that it would be dangerous to awaken me too soon, but he insisted. He... he gambled my life - a needless risk to take, for the damage had been contained, and could have awaited my natural awakening; had he bothered to investigate first, he would have known that. I can forgive his error... it was a Command decision, and his to make; but you see, I thought... I thought at first... that his concern was for me... but he did not even understand the risk he had taken."

For a moment Kirk made no reply; he could not. From what Spock had said - and more important, from what he had not said - he knew instinctively what Pike had done. Spock's Human half had reached out, seeking understanding and companionship, and Pike had been too insensitive to see through his shyness. *So that's why he kept me at a distance for so long!* Kirk thought. *Vulcan pride, and fear of another rejection, kept him from trying again. I must be careful - I can't fail him now.*

"Spock, listen to me." Kirk's hand absently smoothed the silky hair as he sought for words. "Perhaps I shouldn't say this, perhaps you don't want to hear it... but I want your friendship. I can't answer for Chris Pike - but I don't want to hurt you.. ever." He paused then, meeting the velvet eyes raised to his, watching in awed delight as their expression softened, melted into the shy smile he had seen only once before.

"It has been... difficult," Spock admitted. "I do not understand Humans, and they do not understand me... but with you... from the first there was something... I could not deny, could not resist. Yet I was afraid... "

"You never have to be afraid with me," Kirk said softly. Their eyes held, each feeling the friendship that had grown so subtly between them, rejoicing in the knowledge that for both the sense of isolation had been banished for ever. Then Kirk saw the fleeting shadow of pain in the Vulcan's eyes, and his own darkened in concern.

"Don't talk any more," he whispered. "Just rest. We have plenty of time now."

The Vulcan's hand lifted, brushed Kirk's cheek lightly. "Plenty of time, Jim," he echoed, then the pain claimed him totally and he fell back against Kirk's shoulder, relaxing confidently in the arms that held him so securely. As darkness crept slowly over his mind he realised that for him the years of loneliness were over; he had failed with Captain Pike, but that failure had left him ready for the far more worthwhile gift of friendship Kirk could offer. He had sensed, in that brief exchange, the Human's own loneliness, and knew that Kirk too had experienced the aching pain of reaching out in a vain search for someone who would understand. Now each of them had found what he had been seeking for so long.

As yet Spock could see only very dimly the paths down which this new relationship would lead him, but he faced the future with confidence, content that for the first time in his life whatever was to come need not be faced alone.

* * * * * * * *

Twisting, unravelling, the cord of memory winds up, returning to the present. The pain and joy of the past are forgotten, smothered in the fear and anxiety of the moment. As each danger, each crisis obliterates the one before, so now everything rests with that quietly-breathing figure on the bed. Drawn relentlessly, the watcher moves closer now as blue eyes flash to his the knowledge that soon the fever will either break or kill. The Human's tortured breathing hurts him as his own pain never could. Jim is so weak... exhausted by the long bout of fever... if only he could take the heat, the anguish into his own body!

The dark eyes turn, silently pleading, and the Doctor nods consent. The Vulcan sits down, gently lifting the fever-wracked body - so thin, he can feel the bones - into his arms, smoothing the sweat-soaked hair.

"Jim, please wake up," he whispers, uselessly; unconsciously echoing the words the other had spoken to him so long ago. There is no response, and he buries his face in the damp hair. He is too vulnerable now, too used to this man's companionship... he cannot go on alone. The forbidden temptation calls to him... a mind-meld... so easy... McCoy will know... but he cannot interfere, and who else will care?

"I will, Spock."

A featherlight touch on his hair, a voice weak but determined, whispers into one pointed ear.

He draws back than, looking with incredulous joy into the exhausted, indomitable eyes, fever-bright but soft with understanding.

No words are necessary; they remain silent, motionless, their eyes saying what their lips cannot, each rejoicing that they are together once more. Then with a faint sigh Spock releases his hold, settling the Human comfortably; their fingers touch fleetingly as Kirk's eyes close in weariness, and the Vulcan turns away.

A friend's hand takes his arm, guiding him to the next bed - McCoy, who has shared the vigil, who knows how much was almost lost here.

As sleep comes memory gently closes the opened door and he casts a last compassionate glance back at his former self. How young he was in those days, so confused, so alone... but fate has been kinder than he deserved. Starfleet or Vulcan... It had not been an easy choice. Those early days on the Enterprise had been bitter, painful, lonely - but Spock could not now regret the decision he had made so long ago.

Copyright Valerie Piacentini