Measureless to Man

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

-- Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Begin part 2 of 2

Christine sensed rather than saw Spock ahead of her. She had the impression he was deep in contemplation. She slowed, considered whether she should disturb him. She needed to tell him that T'Clev had not been able to help them, but was reluctant to bother him if he was meditating.

*Go to him,* Taillte whispered in her mind.

*No.* Christine started to turn away.

*He needs you. I will tell him you are here.*

Christine knew there was no point in trying to stop Taillte. She heard Spock approaching, looked up and met his gaze, then looked away quickly, unwilling to decipher the emotion she saw in his eyes.

"Did you need me?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head. "Taillte," she said, as if that were an explanation.

He seemed to accept it as such. "Ah. She has taken an interest in my well- being. I believe that she wants something of me that I cannot give."

"Are you so sure?" She followed him into the deeper woods; saw that he had put a meditation mat down near the stream.

"Am I sure that she wants something of me?"

She smiled. "Are you sure that you cannot give it?"

Their eyes met again, and this time held.

She nearly gasped at the intensity of the longing she saw in his. "Maybe I should go." She turned away.

He reached out, stopped her, dropping his hand as soon as she turned back, as if touching her had burned him. "Do not." His voice was ragged.

"This is hurting you."

He shrugged as if to say, 'What of it?'

"It's hurting me too, Spock." She looked down. "T'Clev had no answers for us. She checked the temple records. There are no solutions there." She would not tell him about T'Clev's suggestion.

"I am sorry to hear that." He swallowed hard.

"We'll just have to ignore it," she said, even as she could feel his emotion battering at her. "We can do that. I've made my choice."

"Yes," he said, his voice was harsh, strained. "I could feel it."

She stared at him in horror. "How much could you feel?"

He looked away. "Enough to know that you and the colonel have repaired your relationship...fully."

She could feel pain from him, pain and anger. And jealousy. "I'm sorry."

"I can tell that you are. It is difficult to lie with this link"--he practically spat the word at her--"between us."

"I made a choice, the hardest choice I've ever had to make. I have to honor it. I want to honor it."

His expression did not change. He stared at her as if he could hold her by the power of his eyes alone. "Then you must. If it is what you want, then by all my means, take it."

She had never heard his voice hold such a sharp edge. It cut her, shattered the icy resolve she was trying to build. "God, Spock, do you think I don't wonder what might have been? What could still be?" she asked softly.

He looked away. "I think you do when you are with me. I think you do not when the colonel is near." He sighed; the sound was morose and foreign. With a glance at her, he turned and walked to the stream. "The irony is not lost on me, Christine. I could have had you for so long, but I did not want you. Now that you are the only thing I want, I cannot have you."

She didn't say anything. Just stood, buffeted by his emotion, unsure whether to stay or to go.

He looked down at the stream. "Have you ever waded barefoot?"

Confused at the question, she said uncertainly, "Yes."

"I have too. Once. Long ago." He seemed very far away. "I used to laugh then also."

She wondered what that would have sounded like. "When you were a child?"

He nodded. "It was frowned upon, of course. I stopped eventually." He leaned over, began to pull off his sandals. "Some things are out of reach. It is the way life is. But not everything is lost. I have to believe that."

"You are in a dark mood, Spock. It is not healthy." She walked over to him, reached out to touch him.

He pulled away. "Consider what you do, Christine. If you touch me, I will not let you go. Not again."

"I can't touch you?"

"Not like this. Not here. Not now."

She let her hand drop. "Do you want me to go?"

He seemed to consider that for a very long time. Then he shook his head. "No. Stay." He stepped into the creek.

His face did not change expression, but somehow she could read surprise in it. He did not move, but she could almost see a small boy kicking water joyfully.

*Join him,* she heard Taillte say.

*I can't. You don't understand what I feel for him.*

*Neither do you,* Taillte said, and Christine could hear the teasing note in her words. *Someday, dearest. Someday you...both of you...will play here with me.* Then she was gone.

Christine thought she saw Spock shiver. "Is it cold?"

He nodded as he tentatively kicked some water onto the bank.

"Very cold?"

"Quite." He stepped quickly back onto the bank, then turned, seemed to be studying the water. "Curious. I have spent my entire life remembering the lost joy of that moment. And now, now that I can recreate it, it is not the same."

"Things rarely are as good as we remember them."

He slipped on his sandals, walked to her. "That may be true of some things. But for others, the memory is but a shadow. It can never do the reality justice." He held out his hand to her. When she hesitated, he said, "It is safe now."

She met his eyes, saw that they were calm, resigned. She laid her palm on his, and was overwhelmed with the emotions he felt towards her: desire, bitterness, anger, loss, and love.

"Will _that_ ever fade away, t'hy'la?" he asked.

She pulled her hand away abruptly, angry that he would use that endearment here, now. "You were right the first time, Spock. We shouldn't touch."

He shot her a look she couldn't quite read. "We touch all the time, Christine. Our minds, our spirits. The communion between us is there whether our flesh touches or not. Is that not the problem we have been discussing?" He turned around, began to gather his meditation things.

"I made a choice." Even to her, her voice sounded weak.

"I am well aware of that," he said as he walked past her. Then he turned. "Taillte speaks to me. Does she speak to Randall? Does she invite him to stay?"

Christine felt her expression grow hard. "That's not fair."

"Few things are," he said. "And I will not stay in any case. I just thought you should know." He turned and walked away, leaving her alone in the darkening woods.

-------------------5--------------------

Spock had just made it back to the shelter he used as an office when he heard a soft knock on the door. Go away, Christine, he thought wearily. I am in no state to continue this discussion. You have made your choice, and I am not it. I can live with that...if only you will leave me alone.

The knock came again, firmer this time. With a smothered sigh, he got up to open the door. It was not Christine. He stared at Pardek, not believing quite what he was seeing.

"You look like you've seen a ghost, Spock." Pardek smiled. "Aren't you going to invite an old friend in?"

"I...forgive me." Spock backed away from the door.

"Why, you're speechless. My erudite Vulcan friend is speechless?" Pardek laughed heartily. "What can I say, Spock? I was in the neighborhood and heard about this amazing planet. I called in some Romulan telepaths and came right over to see what all the fuss was about. Can't let the Federation have all the fun, now can I?" His expression grew serious as he leaned in. "Especially not when it might give us a chance to discuss even weightier matters. Matters that we've both had to table since our fortuitous meeting on Felstrar's Colony. I have replayed those conversations in my head many times, my brother."

Spock felt an unaccustomed rush of satisfaction. He and Pardek had indeed found common ground, wished to find even more. He did consider the man a brother...a long-lost sibling with whom he now had the chance for reconciliation. For...

"Reunification," Pardek said, as if reading his mind. "A dangerous word, my friend. Especially with all these telepaths around. Including the planet, if I understand her true nature correctly? We must be careful. But I think it was worth the risk. I have missed our talks." He leaned back, his eyes suddenly shooting Spock a warning glance as he said in a much more robust voice, "I am only here for a few days, Spock. Just long enough to assure my fellow Senators that we haven't a chance of annexing this world."

There was a knock at the door.

"Come in," Spock said, not surprised at the interruption. Like Pardek, he too had heard the footsteps.

Kerr looked in. "Excuse me, Captain. I was told that we had Romulan visitors."

Pardek laughed. "Set off the alarms, did we?"

Kerr's expression did not change. "I'm sure you appreciate the importance of security, sir."

"Being Romulan, you mean? Oh, of course I do." Pardek shot Spock an amused look, then turned back to Kerr. "I'm actually surprised it took you this long to get down here. I could have done quite a lot of damage in the meantime." Pardek stood up, walked over to Kerr. "You might want to work on that, Colonel." Pardek turned to Spock, appearing to ignore the way Kerr's expression tightened. "Will I see you for dinner then, old friend? Perhaps on my ship?"

"I shall look forward to it."

Kerr's voice was firm as he said, "Sir, security protocols strictly prohibit--"

"--He is tiresome, isn't he," Pardek said with another secret smile for Spock. "Very well, then we'll dine on your ship, or here on the planet. Whatever agrees most with your head of security? I'll wait for your instructions." Without, giving Kerr a chance to protest, Pardek pushed past him.

"I suppose you have an objection, Colonel?" Spock said, once Pardek was out of range.

"If I have to choose between the scenarios, I prefer the planet," Kerr said, apparently realizing he wasn't going to be able to talk Spock out of having dinner with his friend.

"Yes, I imagine you do." Spock stood up; saw how tightly Kerr was holding himself. "At ease, Randall." He thought of what he had said to Christine about Kerr and Taillte. "Do you like it here?"

"On Taillte?"

Spock nodded.

"Not particularly."

Spock got up, went to the open door and gestured for Kerr to walk with him. "Why not?"

Kerr seemed to think about that. "Don't feel all that welcome, I guess. And the hold it has on some of us"--they both knew he meant Christine--"has me worried."

"You aren't going to lose her to the planet." Not when you didn't lose her to me, Spock thought. With a look at Kerr's face, he realized that the colonel was thinking the same thing.

Kerr looked away.

"You appear to have resolved your differences with Christine." Spock was unsure why he could not stop pushing the man.

"We're all right."

"Yes." The word spoke volumes.

Kerr stopped walking. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Will it stop you, if I say no?" Spock said, unable to resist another barb.

"This is none of your business, Spock."

They stared at each other as Spock thought of several things that made it very much his business.

Kerr took a deep breath; his voice was pitched so low even Spock had a hard time hearing it. "I know you love her. I know she loves you. But she loves me too, enough to choose me. More than once. And I trust that if she and I can get through these last few weeks, we can weather anything. Providing, of course, that you leave her the hell alone."

Spock raised an eyebrow. "She is my first officer. And my friend. I cannot leave her the hell alone, as you put it."

"You know what I mean. I know you have this weird bond. I don't know why, and frankly, I don't want to know. I only know that I can't seem to make it go away. But I think that you aren't doing all you can to let it-- whatever it is between you--die down. I think you're still trying to get her back. Despite what you've said to me, to her, and probably to yourself. I think that deep down you're never going to stop trying."

"You are free to leave the ship." Spock was surprised to hear those words come out of his mouth. Surprised, but not entirely sorry. It was hard for him to reconcile them with how he had argued with Kerr, convinced the man to stay when Christine was gone. But perhaps that was the essence of their problem. As long as Christine stood between them, they would never be anything but rivals.

Kerr seemed to be on the same track. He didn't even try to keep his tone that of a subordinate officer. "I may do that, Spock. But not until I know she'll go too. In the meantime, you're stuck with me. And while I'm here, I'm going to do my job. And to do my job, I have to tell you that I don't trust Pardek."

"You have some information on him that you would like to share?" Spock knew that Kerr had access to information Spock might never see. Knew also that to get it, Kerr would probably have to explain why he needed it, give up Spock's interest in the Romulan as reason. It could hurt Spock; possibly end his career if Starfleet decided they didn't like his interest in befriending someone from the enemy camp. Spock wondered if Kerr would do that to him.

The answer came when Kerr looked away. "I have nothing that you don't already know."

"What I know is that the Romulan Senator is a friend of mine. You may think that you can dictate what I do with Christine, but you cannot control what I do with Pardek. And I strongly suggest you do not try." And with that, Spock turned and walked away from Kerr.

-------------------------------------

Nako caught up to Kerr as he strode angrily across the meadow. "Was that Pardek I saw?" She sounded concerned.

He nodded.

"He is staying?"

"Looks like. A few days anyway."

"You can't allow--"

Kerr held up a hand to stop her. "I've been told to stand down, Nako. Not much I can do. At least I kept Spock off the Romulan ship."

"Pardek was not supposed to be here," Nako muttered.

"Not everything runs to your timetable, Ambassador." She stared up at him and he realized that she hadn't been aware she was talking aloud. "Nako, it's not the end of the world."

She nodded slowly as if what he said was more than a figure of speech. "No, it's not. But it is a surprise. And I do not like surprises."

He smiled gently. "Then you're in the wrong line of work, aren't you? Isn't diplomacy full of surprises?"

She shook her head. "Not the way I practice it, Randall." She sighed, suddenly blurted out. "I do not like this place."

He stared at her. She seemed...off balance. He couldn't remember ever seeing her that way. "I don't like it much either, if it makes you feel better."

She laid a hand on his arm; let him lead her to the shade of the trees. "It does make me feel better. Taillte influences too many of our people."

"Is she dangerous?"

Nako considered that far longer than he would have liked.

"Nako?"

"I'm not sure yet." As he watched, she seemed to shrink in on herself. Kerr got the feeling she wasn't this unsure very often. She suddenly straightened, patted his hand gently. "I am a foolish old woman, Randall. Don't mind me." She pulled away and walked back toward the shelters.

As he watched her go, Kerr realized she hadn't called him 'grandson' once. Something was definitely wrong with her.

He turned into the trees, deciding to walk off the tension, the extra energy he felt coiling through his body. As he walked, he could hear something calling his name.

He ignored it.

The voice got louder, seemed to taunt him. He stopped, looked up at the bit of sky that showed through the top of the evergreens. Took a deep breath.

He felt something brush against him, again heard the voice. He was tired of it. "Look, Taillte, you've made it clear you don't like me. I get that. Now leave me alone."

He jumped when he suddenly heard Taillte's soft voice perfectly clear in his mind. *I do like you, Randall. But you still think it's a game. You choose sides.*

"I'm not choosing sides," he said, stubbornly holding to speech and refusing to try to form the words in his head.

*But you are. And you're choosing the wrong side.*

"How would you know?"

Her voice when it came was an eerie copy of Farrell's, *It's not a game anymore.*

Kerr felt his palms start to sweat; he wiped them on his pants.

*I have learned much since I came through the burning to this place. And I know this. It's not the _same_ game anymore. Everything has changed, and not even your 'grandmother' realizes how much.*

Kerr backed away, then felt Taillte brush against him, and for the first time the touch brought comfort, not a rush of distaste as before. "I love her," he whispered, as he thought of Christine's closeness to the planet, and the apparent understanding Spock had forged with Taillte. Despite what he had said to Spock, he wasn't at all sure he was going to be able to hold on to Christine.

*I know you love her. I don't seek to destroy that. What you feel for her is true. I can tell.* He thought he felt something like regret coming from her when she touched him again, then she was gone.

----------------------------------------

Carpenter checked the scans she had run of Penhallon one more time. She compared them to the baseline she had taken when the crew had first reported in. If she could believe the scans, he was as healthy as could be.

But the scans hadn't seen him last night. Hurrying down to the planet as if to a lover, a slightly dazed look on his face. It was as if he were in a trance, or some kind of fog caused by drugs. But the scans didn't show any foreign agents in his system. Whatever he was feeling, it was natural. She knew that he and Christine had some deep link to the planet...to the woman that they said that they spoke to and that was the planet. Carpenter wasn't real clear on how that worked, and she certainly wasn't going down to Taillte to find out.

She'd just have to ask him. "Carpenter to Penhallon."

"Penhallon here."

"Can you come to sickbay when you have a chance?"

"Is there something wrong, Doctor?"

"That's what I want to talk about, Commander," she said, trying to keep her voice casual.

"Very well, I'll be there shortly."

"Thanks." She cut the connection, leaned back, and thought of how both he and Christine had looked when they'd been beamed up from the planet, in pain and sure they were wounded. Whatever their connection was with Taillte, it was strong enough to cause them to evidence symptoms. Both Ritsuko and Kerr had said they'd seen, and felt, real blood. She shook her head. It just didn't seem healthy, whatever was going on. Christine seemed to be managing better. She spent less time on the planet, more time on the ship living her life than Penhallon was doing. The planet was his life, as far as Carpenter could see. And that was so unlike him. If she hadn't seen the DNA scans, she'd suspect they had an imposter aboard.

She saw the sickbay doors open, watched as Penhallon walked through the room, headed for her office. Several nurses tried to catch his eye. He ignored them. Carpenter had caught snatches of their conversation earlier in the day. One of them had asked, "So what's with Penhallon these days?" She wished she had stopped to ask them what they meant. But she was getting the idea just by watching his progress through sickbay.

"Well, I'm here," he said, as he walked into her office. "What's so important?"

"How are you feeling, Stephen?"

"Fine." He shot her a tired look. "You didn't call me down here to find out how I'm feeling, Doctor. So why don't you just say what you have to say, and be done with it? I have two days off coming up and a lot of work yet to finish."

"Very well, let's talk about those days off."

He exhaled loudly. "What's this about, Delynn?"

"Just curious."

"Bored and playing ship's counselor, you mean?"

"Humor me, Commander. Where are you going to spend the days off?"

"On the planet. That's where most of the crew spend their days off." He leaned forward. "But you don't, do you? Why don't you like Taillte?"

"I don't like or dislike it."

"Her," he corrected. Then he frowned. "I don't understand."

"I haven't been down there yet." She sighed. This was not going well. "I'll be honest with you. I'm worried about the connection you've got with Taillte. I'm worried about what it's...she's doing to you."

"What she's _doing_ to me?"

She nodded.

"She's not doing anything to me. I've never felt better." He shot her a confused if exasperated look.

"Really?"

"Yes."

"When was the last time you went out on a date?"

His eyes opened very wide. "A date?"

"That's what I said."

"I just haven't heard that word for a while."

"Well, whatever you want to call it when you get together with a woman for drinks or dinner or--"

"I get the picture." He sounded offended.

She couldn't imagine the Stephen Penhallon she'd seen in action being offended. "Well?"

"Doctor Carpenter, I fail to see how this is any of your business."

"You spend every off duty moment on the planet, you have some unexplained connection with said planet, a connection strong enough to make you evidence symptoms when the planet was hurt. You appear to have suffered a personality change, you aren't interested in things that you used to do, and you seem to be keeping to yourself quite a bit."

"That's not true. I spend time with Ritsuko."

"Yes, you've been very good to her. I've noticed you looking out for her. But aside from Ritsuko, who have you been spending time with?"

He didn't answer, just stared at her.

"It's not healthy, Commander."

"Prove to me that it's not."

She thought of the scans again. "I can't give you physical proof. But there are emotional disorders that don't manifest any sort of physiological symptoms."

"Let me see if I understand you, Doctor. You think I'm emotionally disturbed because I'm not sleeping with every woman I meet and because I like to explore one of the most beautiful planets I've ever seen--and I've seen a lot of fascinating planets. Is that what you're saying?"

"You're twisting my words."

"You're twisting my actions to suit your diagnosis."

"I'm not going to argue with a diplomat. I'll only lose."

He put his hands flat on her desk, leaned in. "Then why am I here?" He glared at her. "Are you going to suspend me from leisure time? Make me stay on the ship and work around the clock?"

"I doubt that Commander Chapel would let me. I just want you to take a look at what's going on. You're a valuable member of this crew, Commander. And as a section head, you set an example for others. It's important that if something's wrong, we take steps to fix it, before it becomes an even bigger problem."

He didn't say anything, just pushed himself off her desk. "I appreciate your concern, Doctor. But there's nothing to worry about."

"I hope you're right, Commander."

He smiled tightly. "Is this the point where you say that you'll be watching me?"

She nodded.

"Watch away, then. There's nothing wrong with me."

"Again, I hope you're right." She watched him walk out. The set of his shoulders let her know just how angry he was with her. She wondered momentarily if she had overstepped her authority. Then she thought of how different he was acting. While it was an improvement over the old Penhallon, it was still a significant personality shift. If it was anyone else, she'd be running to the counselors. She still could refer his case to them. She thought of his face as he'd glared down at her. He was either in deep denial, or there really wasn't a problem. Sighing, she cleared his scans off the screen. She hoped, for his sake that it was the latter.

-----------------------------------------

Troi sat near the stream, enjoying his last day of leave. He relaxed, letting the cool breeze blow over him.

*Andrew,* Taillte whispered.

He smiled. He could understand Stephen's infatuation with the planet. Taillte's touch was wonderful. Intoxicating. She'd been talking to him a lot. He found her fascinating.

*Andrew, will you stay?*

He forgot to breathe, was sure he'd misunderstood her. *Stay?* he sent to her.

*Yes, stay with me. Stay here. Be my ambassador?*

He hadn't misunderstood her. *But Stephen--*

*I will handle Stephen. Will you stay?*

Andrew realized he'd closed his eyes and opened them slowly. *Why me?*

*You will look out for me. You will look out for yourself.*

He thought about that. Thought about the way Stephen seemed to be sinking more and more into his relationship with Taillte. How nothing else seemed to matter to him. *I will stay apart?*

*Yes. Apart. You will be objective. Consider it,* she said, then he felt her presence abruptly disappear.

"My god. She's talking to you, isn't she?" Elaine Wynter did not sound pleased.

He looked up at her. She was standing over him, hands on her hips, anger causing her cheeks to redden attractively. They reddened even more as she seemed to sense his attraction.

"Why you? You're nothing. You have no skill. We're all here for her, the best telepaths in the Federation, and she picks yet another dilettante from the Carter to make her new friend?"

"Maybe she doesn't want anything to do with a bitch like you!" Stephen immediately wished he could take the words back.

Elaine stared at him, a strange expression on her face. Then she started to snicker. "That sounded so wrong coming from you, Commander."

He looked away. "It didn't feel very good either." He pulled up a clump of grass, then felt immediately bad. "Oh, I'm sorry, Taillte," he said aloud, as he tried to push the grass back into the soil. "I didn't mean it."

Elaine was standing with a faraway look on her face, then she refocused, and smiled. The expression transformed her face. Troi found he couldn't look away.

"I heard her...just now."

He smiled. "I'm glad."

She looked down at him. "You are, aren't you?"

He shrugged. "I'm stupid that way."

"Yeah, you kind of are." She sat down next to him. "You think you hurt her."

He nodded. "I didn't mean to though."

Elaine reached out, touched his arm. "She says it's okay, that she's getting used to us being here. I never thought that having us around would be painful to her. But she seems to think we're worth the price." Elaine shook herself a bit, then smiled softly. "It's so wonderful to be finally talking to her. She...she likes us. That's why she's willing to put up with the discomfort we bring. Besides, she knows you were just being dumb and thoughtless." At the end, she sounded like the old Elaine.

"You're not very nice." He moved away slightly.

She sighed. "And this is me trying to be nice."

"Really?"

She nodded.

"Maybe you should try harder?"

She glared and he turned away. Then he heard her gasp, and he looked over at her.

"She wants you to stay?" Her eyes were unfocused again. "She does. She wants you to stay. To speak for her."

He looked away again.

"Oh no." Elaine sounded truly distressed.

"What is it?"

"She wants me to stay too." She groaned. "With you."

He groaned too.

She glared at him again. "You could at least pretend to like the idea."

"Why? You aren't?"

"But I'm the rude one. I don't have to be nice."

"Lucky you." He got up, began to walk away, realized that she was following him. "What are you doing?"

"I'm staying with you."

"Well, I don't want you to."

She smiled; it was not a sweet expression. "Oh, yes you do."

"I don't like you in the least."

"Now, that I believe," she said, as she took his arm, and wrapped her hand around it. "Taillte wants us to play nice and I intend to oblige her, Commander. I want to stay here."

"You do?"

"On the planet, you dimwit. Not with you."

"Oh." He hated his disappointment.

"If I have to pretend to like you, then I'll do that."

*She does like you,* Taillte murmured.

"I do not," Elaine said aloud, then turned to him in shock. "Oh, I meant to think that."

"You're slipping," Troi said, putting his hand over hers, keeping her from pulling away. "You heard Taillte. She says you like me."

She rolled her eyes. "What does she know? She chose you."

The disbelief in her voice only reinforced the worry he was already feeling. He wondered if Taillte knew what she was doing?

Suddenly, Elaine's hand tightened on his arm. "I'm sorry. That was mean of me."

He pulled away from her. "No. It wasn't. Well, yes, maybe it was. But you're right." He backed up a few paces, putting some distance between them. "I'm nothing special. Never have been. I'm a popular guy, but never the one that people see first. I'm not someone that's actually chosen for anything this important."

She moved closer. "But Captain Spock chose you for the Carter."

"Starfleet probably suggested me and he just said fine."

She smiled then, a much more tender expression than he'd seen. "I've met the man, Andrew. And he thinks highly of you. I know he does, because it irritated me." She grinned. "He chose you. I'm sure of it."

He took a step closer, realized she'd just called him by his first name. "Is this you being nice?"

She nodded. "Is it working?"

He smiled. "Maybe." Slowly, he held his arm out to her.

She put her hand on his arm, allowed him to pull her closer. "We might be able to pull this off."

"We might," he agreed.

"Just don't get any ideas," she said, even as she moved a bit closer.

"I'll be a perfect gentleman," he teased, but he knew it was true. He'd never been anything but and it had gotten him nowhere so far.

Her fingers tightened, almost sympathetically, as if she knew what he was thinking.

He suddenly realized she probably did know what he was thinking. "Do you?" he asked. "Know what I'm thinking?"

"I wasn't aware you did think," she said, but for once her tone was more teasing than blistering. "I'm afraid I can pick up the more weighty of your emotions."

"Oh." He tried to not enjoy the feel of her fingers on his arm. Tried not to react when she tightened her grip again.

"Don't worry about it, Andrew. I know this is just for Taillte," she said in a soft voice.

And thank god for her, Andrew thought, as he said just as gently, "Of course. It's just for Taillte."

*You will stay?* the planet asked, the note of satisfaction in her voice making it clear she already knew the answer.

*_We_ will stay,* Andrew said, as he forced himself not to look over at Elaine. He wondered if Taillte was asking her the same thing.

----------------6-----------------------

Pardek poured himself another glass of wine, then leaned back against the wall of the shelter. "So this is our only night, Spock. My government has told me in no uncertain terms to come back."

Spock nodded.

"And you are very distracted. What is it?"

Spock looked up, realized what he was doing. "I beg pardon, Pardek."

"Don't beg pardon, Spock. Tell me what's bothering you?"

"It is nothing."

Pardek shot him a skeptical look. "In my experience, when it is nothing, it is either a woman or money troubles. Since I know your family is rich as sin, I'm going to assume it's a woman." Pardek frowned. "A Vulcan with woman troubles? Just a bit out of the ordinary, isn't it?"

"I am half human," Spock said, hoping to divert Pardek from his questioning.

"And you blame your troubles on that?"

Spock knew that if had to blame one side of his heritage, it should probably be the Vulcan one. It was the more likely to have spawned the troublesome link between Christine and him, certainly it was behind the Pon Farr that had started them down this road. "I did not say that I had any troubles."

"That, my friend, is an evasion." Pardek poured Spock another glass of wine. "Drink up. I'm hoping the wine will loosen your tongue so that you'll tell me what's bothering you. I hate guessing."

"I can think of more pleasant topics on which we could converse," Spock countered.

"More pleasant, and more dangerous, Spock. With all these psychics around? Your ship would have been more secure."

"Hardly that, with my chief of security dogging your every move." Spock found Pardek's sudden discretion surprising; the Romulan had been far less cautious on Felstrar's Colony.

Pardek looked up at the mention of Kerr. "He's a good man, very loyal. You need men like that."

Spock did not answer.

"You don't agree, Spock? I should think that you would value such a stalwart officer."

"I do value him." Spock tried not to imagine Kerr with Christine. "The colonel is an excellent officer."

"But?"

"There is no but. He is an excellent officer."

Pardek looked disappointed for a moment, then he leaned in and held up his glass. "To unification."

Spock frowned. Pardek was acting strangely tonight. "I thought you were concerned about being overheard?"

Pardek seemed to realize what he had said. "I'm sorry, Spock. There's a buzzing in my ear that won't go away. I noticed it when I beamed down the first time too. Do you not hear it? A high-pitched whine. Most annoying."

"I hear nothing out of the ordinary." Spock set down his wine glass. "Perhaps you should have your ears checked, it may be an infection."

"There is nothing wrong with my ears, Spock." Pardek sounded irritated. "I don't hear the noise except when I am on this planet."

*Taillte?* Spock called. *Taillte are you doing this?* There was no answer. He looked at Pardek. "Then it may be the planet that is doing it. She is most capricious."

"Don't know why she'd pick on me. Unless she has some sort of grudge against Romulans?"

"Not that I know of," Spock murmured. But then, how much did he know of Taillte? Other than what she wanted him to know? He knew that she had claimed one of his best officers as her ambassador. Spock had been surprised when Troi had told him that he wanted to stay. Starfleet Command, on the other hand, had been delighted that the planet had chosen one of its own as her mouthpiece.

Pardek suddenly stood up. "If I'm to have so little time here, I should like to see the planet. Unless that would bother your colonel?"

"I do not know why it would." Spock led Pardek out of the building. The sun was just setting and the sky was the vivid red that would have been the color of midday on Vulcan.

"Beautiful," Pardek said, as he followed Spock's gaze. "Hard to believe that you will allow the entire planet to stand empty, with this much wealth to be gained."

Spock shot him a look. "The planet will determine her own development." His voice was curter than he intended. He tried to soften his words. "It is an unusual situation. To be able to speak with her, to hear her speak back. There is no precedent for this. The settlers will have to learn as they go."

"Walk gently, Spock? I didn't realize that you were such an environmentalist." He grinned.

Spock sensed an edge to the man's words. "You, I take it, are not?"

"Oh, I admire nice scenery as much as anyone, Spock. But I'm a pragmatist. And sometimes other concerns come first. It is prudent. Even logical."

"It is not logical to destroy the very world that supports you."

"True, and it is too often the way of things. How many planets do you see that are like this?" He gestured to indicate the trees, the sky. "And how many have been laid waste? I know that you remember Praxis?"

Spock looked down. The Klingons had known that Praxis was a catastrophe waiting to happen, yet nothing had been done. Until that fateful day, when the moon had blown itself apart, leaving the Empire reeling and finally ready to discuss peace.

For a moment, his mind strayed to Valeris, then shied away. He would not think of her. She was dead to him. Spock realized that Pardek had started walking and hurried to catch up. He was beginning to dislike the ability Taillte had to distract him. He would be relieved to get off the planet. He hoped that some of his preoccupation with his own emotions and relationships would abate once he was back on the ship and out of Taillte's sphere of influence.

*No!* Taillte's voice roared through his mind, and for a moment, he thought she was reacting to his thoughts. Only he could not imagine how his simple statement could provoke the level of rage he felt from her.

*Taillte?*

*Stop it!* she screamed again. And as her voice died, the planet began to shake.

*Taillte, no!* Spock saw Penhallon running toward him. "Commander?"

"Get Kerr, sir. I think Taillte's caught something...or someone."

Spock pulled out his communicator. "Spock to Kerr."

"Kerr here."

"We have trouble down here. I am unsure of the exact circumstances." Spock started out after Penhallon, nearly forgetting about Pardek until he realized the man was following him.

"I'll be right down."

A few moments later, Kerr and Collins caught up with them. They were both well armed. Kerr took in Pardek's presence, seemed about to say something and then apparently thought better of it.

"Chris heard her scream," he said.

"From the ship?" Spock asked. At Kerr's nod, he wondered what could have enraged the planet to such an extent.

Collins, who was managing to read a tricorder while running full out, said, "Sir, this shaking. We have at least five off-duty personnel exploring the caves that are in danger.

*Taillte, you must stop the earthquake. You are endangering my crew.*

Nothing.

*Taillte, you will kill innocent people.*

The shaking stopped. Penhallon stopped running, turned to look at him. "Sir, whoever is doing this to her is in the same cave as last time."

Spock pulled out his communicator. "Spock to medical transporter room."

"Atkins here, sir."

"Do you remember the coordinates you beamed those geologists out from?"

"Yes, sir."

Spock winced as Taillte screamed again. Penhallon bent over double, clutching his stomach. Spock saw blood appear around his hands.

"They're taking so much...more than last time," Penhallon gasped.

"Beam whoever is in there directly to our coordinates."

"Aye, sir."

A moment later the miners appeared all of them holding laser drills, and one of them, apparently not realizing he was no longer in the cave, sent a long blast into the ground beneath him.

Taillte's scream was instantaneous. So was the tree branch that suddenly plunged into the man's back, impaling him against the ground. When they reached him, he was still alive...briefly.

The other miners backed away, eying the trees overhead warily.

"Major," Spock said quietly.

Collins stepped forward. "Stop right there." Once the miners were still, he pulled out his communicator and requested beam up to the brig.

"Dilithium poachers," Kerr said. "We've thrown a dozen off the planet already."

"It would appear that these slipped past your security measures," Pardek said neutrally.

Kerr nodded, his jaw set in a tight line. "But not past Taillte's." He walked over to where the miner lay impaled. "Wait a minute. I've seen this one. With the telepaths."

Spock joined him by the fallen man. "Yes, I have seen him in camp as well."

Pardek came up behind him. "Not a pretty death.".

"You are an expert on death, Senator?" Kerr asked, an odd note in his voice.

Pardek shrugged. "Most Romulans are, Colonel. We live a harsh life. If you had ever been to Romulus, you would know."

Spock looked over at the two men. He had the impression that Pardek was baiting Kerr, that he knew something more about the man than he was letting on.

Kerr, on the other hand, didn't seem much affected by Pardek's words. "Romulus is off limits, or I might come see it for myself." He walked over to Penhallon. "Are you all right, Commander?"

Spock looked over at his chief of protocol. He did seem dazed.

"She killed," Penhallon whispered.

"I'm not sure she meant to," Kerr said in encouragement.

Penhallon seemed to snap out of his fog. "She didn't mean to. They wouldn't stop, not even when she tried talking to them. And it hurt...so bad. They just kept drilling, even the shaking didn't make them stop. In the caves...in the caves it hurt so much worse than anywhere else. When he drilled again, she just reacted without thinking. Blind instinct." He turned away from them slowly, a strange look on his face.

Spock turned to see what he was looking at, realized Nako was standing at the edge of the clearing. She was staring at the body, her expression an odd mixture of satisfaction and sadness. Then she turned on her heel and disappeared into the trees.

Penhallon had the unfocused look that he and Christine wore when they were deep in conversation with Taillte.

"Commander, what is she saying?" Spock prodded gently.

He looked at Spock, his eyes clearing. "So much regret. I think she went a little mad because of the pain."

Spock considered the force that would have been necessary to pin a man to the ground. "I think you are correct, Commander."

"She feels guilty, sir. I guess that's something her new ambassador will have to work out with her." Penhallon kicked gently at the ground.

Spock wondered if he was trying to send Taillte a message. It was clear he didn't agree with the planet's choice of representation. "I was surprised that she did not choose you."

Penhallon nodded. "Me too. Guess I'm too close. Or something. I'm not real clear on that despite the fact that she's tried to explain it to me several times. Maybe I'm just not listening." He shook his head.

"I am sorry. It is painful to be denied what you want."

Penhallon looked up at him, surprise showing in his face. Then he glanced over at where Kerr was working. "I guess you do understand." He shook his head as if in bitter amusement at their folly and walked away.

Spock realized that Pardek had been listening. He turned to the Romulan. "We should continue our walk. Somewhere else."

"And let the good colonel get on with his investigation? By all means, Spock."

"Just one moment and we can proceed." Spock walked over to Kerr, motioning for Pardek to stay where he was. "I remember being introduced to this man. He represented himself as an Oldefarii."

Kerr studied the man on the ground. "He looks Oldefarii." He knelt down, began to worry at one of the small protrusions that crusted the man's head. It seemed solid. Then Kerr moved so that only he and Spock could see what he was doing. He reached down with both hands, seemed to be unsealing something at the base of the man's spine. He flicked at one of the bumps again, and it came off in his hand. He looked up at Spock. "Then again, looks can be deceiving." He examined the bump. "These would probably have held up under autopsy."

"Yet you knew exactly how to extract them. Does that mean what I think it does?"

Kerr nodded, careful with his words. "This section of skin looks familiar."

Spock considered that. "Why would they?"

Kerr shrugged. "I don't know." He reached down, pushed the protrusion back into the man's head, and did something else with his hands. Then he looked up again. "He's Oldefarii again. Safer that way."

"Safer for us?"

Kerr nodded. "And for them. We don't want them to feel threatened. I'm going to try to find out what's going on. But I'll have to do it in a way that won't attract attention. I'm going to need some time alone with the body."

Spock nodded. "Do what you must." He turned away, then turned back. "Do not involve Christine."

Kerr looked at him, clearly startled. "I hadn't planned to."

Spock tried to backtrack. "I only meant for access to the morgue. I will ensure that you have any accesses you need."

Kerr grinned. "Spock, I appreciate the help, but there aren't a lot of places on the ship that I don't have access to."

"And I should know that by now." Spock found his own mouth turning up slightly. It was hard for him to accept that he could enjoy and respect a man that he resented in nearly equal measure. "I'll leave you then to your hunting."

Kerr nodded, already turning back to the body.

---------------------------

Nako watched unseen from the woods as Kerr and his marines tried to pull the tree branch from the dead man. "Are you ever going to let go of him, Taillte? He is well and truly dead."

Nako could feel a shimmer in the air, a freshness as Taillte leaned against her, watched the man she had destroyed.

"I killed," Taillte whispered, her voice sounded as if she was in shock.

"I told you it was only a matter of time. The manner of execution was a bit extreme, but I'd say you had cause." She turned, was suddenly uncomfortable at how close Taillte was standing to her. "I'm sure that Spock will see that the story is widely disseminated throughout the Federation. You were fair game when you were helpless. But now...I doubt that many will want to take you on, given the possibly very dire consequences."

"But no one will want to stay." Taillte's voice was so full of misery that Nako almost felt sorry for her.

"Don't be foolish. More people than ever will want to stay, if they know that you can protect them." She moved aside, then stepped a few paces away, so that she had some breathing room. "Just prove that you aren't capricious, aren't dangerous. That you punish only those things that are truly an abomination. You'll need some decent laws."

"Laws." Taillte sounded dejected.

"So long as it harms none, do what ye will, has been a popular one through the ages," Nako said.

"You mock me, Ts'its'tsi'nako?"

"Of course not, Taillte. I just seek to give historical perspective. If you prefer, there is do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"Stop it. Stop the gloating. You think that now that I have killed, that I am just like you."

Nako could feel her expression harden. "You are nothing like me, little girl." She saw Taillte's expression change from one of anger to a darker one of pure hatred.

Taillte practically spat the words at her. "My day is at hand, old woman. And your day. Your day is over. You have gone too far. Played with too many lives." She turned, looked at Kerr as he was trying fruitlessly to free the body. "I will answer for this," she said to Nako. "I will answer for every single life I take."

"Answer? Answer to whom?" Nako laughed, made it a mocking, cynical sound. "You are such a child. We make our own way. If you haven't figured that out yet, then you are denser than I thought." She moved closer, unwilling to let Taillte know how much she unnerved her. "Free that body, girl. This is becoming macabre."

"Randall," Taillte whispered, and Nako saw Kerr's head shoot up. "Randall, back away. I will help you."

Kerr moved back, and then the limb began to pull back, off the ground, toward the tree.

Taillte whispered, "You will have to pull him off, Randall."

He eased the body off the limb, which then straightened the rest of the way, moving back to its original position.

"You call me macabre," Taillte whispered. "I am not the ghoul here." She grinned, a knowing, secretive grin that Nako did not understand. "But soon you will be gone."

"Yes. And I take my granddaughter with me."

Taillte turned back, smiled that smile again.

Nako felt her hackles rise.

"She may surprise you, Ts'its'tsi'nako. She may well be the hand of judgment."

Nako could not keep the scorn from showing on her face. "Judgment?"

Taillte laughed, the sound one of pure, innocent delight. Then she began to spin, slowly, in some kind of simple, joyful dance. As she spun, she became less tangible, her form slowly disappearing.

Nako waited till she was gone before heading back to the camp. As she passed Kerr covering up the body, Nako nodded in satisfaction. She might not like Taillte, but she was glad that she had learned to defend herself. She could truly become one of the watchers now. And those who watched were important. Nako had ever been one, had done much in order to preserve what she valued. And she would do it again.

She heard Taillte in her mind. Bubbling laughter that suddenly turned sinister as Taillte asked, *Have you really never considered that someone might be watching _us_?*

-----------------------------------------

Penhallon walked slowly through the camp. He had spent the day visiting his favorite spots. Now it was time to leave. Time to say goodbye. To Taillte. And to his best friend.

He didn't want to lose either of them.

Troi was waiting for him. "I don't know what to say, Stephen. I thought it would be you staying."

"That makes two of us."

Troi held out his hand.

Penhallon took it, used it to pull his friend to him for a quick hug. "Take care of yourself, Andrew." He pulled away, looked around for one last look at the camp. Saw a blond woman watching him. "Is that her?"

"Yeah, that's Elaine."

"Quite a looker. Is she nice?"

"Not very." Troi smiled somewhat sheepishly at Penhallon's expression. "But she's getting better."

"Or else you're just getting used to her?"

Troi shrugged.

Penhallon laughed. "You'll have Taillte, anyway. No matter what, she'll be there for you."

Troi nodded, and as he watched his friend's face, his expression sobered. "I'm sorry."

Penhallon just nodded. "Okay, I've got to go be unbearably sentimental. And I have to do it alone or it will ruin my reputation. Although I have it on good authority that it's already ruined." He touched Troi briefly on the arm. "I'll miss you."

Troi swallowed, tried to say something, but settled for nodding.

Penhallon turned and walked away. He closed his eyes, let Taillte guide him for the last time. I'll never belong like this again, he thought. Never feel this secure.

He walked for over an hour, finally ending up in the clearing he and Christine had first landed in when they'd been ripped from their own universe into Taillte's. The patch of raw dirt still stood out, the sandy brown ground stark against the green grass that surrounded it.

*So this is goodbye,* he sent to Taillte.

*Yes.*

*Any parting words of wisdom?* he joked.

She was not joking when she answered. *Watch out for Christine and,* her tone turned ominous, *watch out for Nako.*

*Nako?*

*Yes, Nako. Your 'grandmother' may not be all she seems. But you have always known that. If you search your heart, Stephen, you'll see that I am right.*

He didn't want to search his heart. His heart was breaking. Taillte was sending him away; she would forget him.

Her love brushed across his thoughts. *You and Christine were my first. You are special. The most special. I will not forget either of you. Ever.*

*But to find this. To find it and have it taken away...twice.* He turned away.

*You'll be back. Never fear, beloved.* She materialized in front of him, the way she had in his dream in the other universe. "You'll be back."

He had never heard her voice, really heard it with his ears not just his mind. It was beautiful. She was beautiful. He drank in the sight of her, then as she moved nearer, closed his eyes. He felt her wrap her arms around him and the feeling of love, of acceptance, was almost unbearable. He wanted to beg her not to make him go. But he didn't. Instead, when she finally pulled away, he took out his communicator and said, "Carter, one to beam up."

She smiled sadly at him, then slowly disappeared.

"Goodbye," he whispered, as the transporter took him.

The ship seemed very sterile, very cold as he headed to his quarters. He passed Troi's room, his friend's name no longer showing on the nameplate. He swallowed hard and walked a little faster. Once in his quarters, he tried to busy himself with reports and correspondence, but could not get his mind to focus.

All he wanted to do was call out to Taillte. And it was the very thing he must not do. He was moving on. He had to let go.

The door chimed and he hurried to it, thinking maybe it was Christine, torn by the same emotions at leaving the planet behind. It wasn't Christine.

"Doctor. This is a surprise. I don't believe you've ever dropped in before."

"I haven't," Carpenter said with a smile.

"Yet, here you are."

"I thought you might need some company."

"Company?"

"As in me," she said, as if to a slow child. She held up a bottle of wine. "It's the real deal."

"Dry, I hope?"

"Of course."

"Who am I to pass up the real deal?" He moved aside to let her pass. "Come on in."

She carried the wine over to the small galley area, searched the cabinets until she found the glasses. "Corkscrew?" she asked, without looking up.

"Second drawer to the left."

She found it and opened the wine expertly. He noticed that she had set something else down by the wine bottle. "What's that?"

She smiled again, this time a somewhat sheepish look. "It's an apology."

"What for?" he asked, as he walked over and took the glass she offered him.

"I was overzealous. And...harsh."

"You were a little harsh," he said, as he tasted the wine. "It's good."

She nodded. "It's my favorite Chardonnay. I thought I'd share."

"Nice of you," he said, refusing to commit more until he was sure why she was here. He looked again at the package. "So, that's an apology?"

She handed it to him. "See for yourself."

He ripped away the package; saw that it was a small holostill platform. He pushed the button on the back and suddenly a small holo-image of the iris fields sprang up. He looked up at Carpenter in question.

"I decided it wasn't fair of me to say that what you felt about the planet was wrong when I hadn't even been down there to see for myself. Holo- photography is a hobby of mine. I just dragged the camera with me out of habit. But once I got down there, I was glad I'd brought it with me."

"You liked the planet?"

She nodded. "I liked the planet." Again the sheepish smile. "And Ritsuko said to go to the iris field. That it was one of the places you two went a lot. I took quite a few of these there. When I was looking at them later, I started thinking that you might like a permanent reminder."

"It's beautiful, Delynn. I don't know what to say."

She grinned, took a sip of her wine as if she was embarrassed. "That's not the only one. Hit the button again."

He did and the scene changed to the caverns he had discovered.

"Christine told me about that place. It's amazing. There's one more."

He pushed again and a forest scene replaced the caverns. It looked so much like the place where he had just said goodbye to Taillte that he was speechless.

"I guess you like it, huh?" she said, sounding very pleased.

He nodded. Blinked a couple of times.

"So, anyway, I'm sorry. It's a beautiful planet. And if you were actually talking to it...her...whichever, then I guess that would only make it lovelier. And not scary. I shouldn't have judged without any evidence."

He nodded acceptance of her apology. "And my newly monastic tendencies? Those don't still worry you?"

"Well, I'm getting a little tired of hearing the nurses bemoan your lack of interest. But maybe I jumped to a conclusion that wasn't quite right."

He looked down. "Taillte told me to find another way."

"What does that mean?"

"I think she thought I needed to stop thinking with my gonads."

Carpenter laughed out loud.

"At least, I hope that's what she meant. I'd hate to think I'd turned over a new leaf if all she meant was I should comb my hair a different way or something similarly trite."

"It's not as if I know her, or even talked to her, but it's probably a good interpretation to think that she might have meant what you thought she meant..." she trailed off uncertainly.

"And I actually understood that sentence." He grinned at her, then turned the image back to the iris field, staring at it for a long time. "Thank you, Delynn. This is the best apology I've ever had."

Carpenter took her wine and sat down in one of the chairs in the living area. "So, your best friend just transferred off the ship. And you appear to have sworn off dating. What are you going to do with yourself, Stephen?"

"A life of contemplative study?"

She exhaled dismissively. "You'd be bored in a week."

"I could devote myself to the betterment of all species."

She shot him a skeptical look.

"Well, I guess I don't know. I suppose I'll concentrate on work for a while and see what occurs to me when I'm off duty." He chuckled, the sound just a soft escape of air. "Of course, as you've pointed out, I used to spend quite a lot of that time with Andrew or one of my female acquaintances. I guess that I'm going to have to find a new friend, Doctor."

She leaned back. "You know, I was thinking the very same thing. Christine's been awfully preoccupied lately."

He nodded knowingly.

"And Renata...well."

"Yeah."

They both looked down, uncomfortable with speaking so frivolously about the dead.

"I thought maybe you might want to..." She frowned suddenly. "Well, I don't know exactly what I meant to say there."

He laughed. "Neither do I, but I know what you probably weren't offering." He leered at her dramatically.

"Oh, not on your life."

They both busied themselves with drinking wine. When he peeked over the glass to look at her, he caught her doing the same thing. She looked away quickly. He realized that he'd never noticed what an attractive shade of red her hair was. It set off her pale skin nicely. "What color are your eyes?"

She sounded surprised at the question. "They're gray."

"Hmmm." Very pretty eyes, he decided.

"Why hmmm?"

"No reason. Just hmmm." He took another sip, decided that it was very good wine. "So you're lonely?"

"I didn't say I was lonely."

"Yes, you sort of did."

She looked away. "The opportunity to discuss medicine abounds on this ship."

"How exciting. Don't you ever play?"

She smiled. "Can you see Doctor Moorehouse playing?"

He thought about that. He really couldn't. "I suppose Doctor Redmoon's a bit busy playing with Kavall."

She nodded.

"Well, Delynn, it does sound like you could use a friend as much as I could." He held out his glass. "To friends, then?"

She leaned forward, touched his glass with hers. "To friends."

He smiled, was about to say "And more" but caught himself. He studied his wine, then looked up at her. She was watching him curiously.

"I'm glad you're here. Tonight...tonight was hard," he said.

"The old Stephen would be in Three-Forward right now. Chatting up an attractive woman or two. Or five."

"Four was my limit." He laughed. "You know, I'm actually not sure where he went."

Her eyes were gentle as she said, "Oh, I bet he's still in there. Just not in charge anymore."

"But who is?"

She smiled. "I don't know. But I think it'll be interesting to find out."

He laughed. "You may not like what you discover."

"I'll risk it. Friends don't have to like everything about each other, do they?"

"I guess not." He got up to pour more wine and asked, "So, are you hungry?"

"Starved."

"Stay for dinner?"

"I'd be delighted."

"Stay for breakfast?" he asked, glad to hear a trace of the old Stephen in his voice.

"Don't push your luck," she said with a laugh.

"Can't blame a guy for trying," he said, as he ordered up some food from the replicator. He shot a look over at her. She had kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up. She looked very relaxed curled in his chair, like she belonged there.

To his surprise, Penhallon found he wasn't uncomfortable with that idea at all.

------------------7------------------------

Spock was just leaving his quarters when his private channel commed. It was Kerr. "Sir, could you come to my office."

"I will be right there, Colonel."

"Deck nine," he told the lift, walking swiftly to Kerr's office.

Collins was just leaving his office as Spock rang for entry. "Good night, sir," he called as he headed for the lift.

"Good night, Major." Spock replied, then he heard Kerr call for him to come in.

"Jeff leaving?" Kerr asked, waiting for the door to close, then leaning down to fiddle with something under his desk.

"Yes." Spock watched him curiously.

Kerr sat back up, a satisfied smile on his face. "It's safe now. A little extra security never hurt anything."

Spock let an eyebrow go up. "Safe?"

Kerr nodded. "Safe to talk. Without being overheard." Kerr handed Spock a padd. "It's very possible that this is the only room where it is safe."

Spock looked up from the pad, startled at what Kerr was telling him. "Are you sure?"

Kerr shrugged. "I'm just saying. Lots of people had access to this ship when it was being built. It's possible." He saw Spock's look. "If it's true, I doubt anyone's listening most of the time."

"But it is a capability that might be turned on?"

"If the need so arises, yes." Kerr leaned back in his chair. "The miner is human. I've never seen him before, so I can't say for sure that he is or isn't working for the Section. But he doesn't exist on any database that I have access to."

"Fascinating."

"Perplexing is more like it, Spock. Why send a Section agent to mine on Taillte? I understand there are strategic minerals but even they can't think they can win this one. Taillte's alive."

"Could they be testing her?"

Kerr looked thoughtful. "That's an interesting question. It's possible. If they don't trust our reports of her sentience." He leaned forward. "Speaking of trust. There's something I need to know. Off the record."

Spock sighed. He did not want to discuss Christine. "Off the record," he agreed.

"Have you been checking into my record?"

Spock looked at him in surprise. "No."

"Well someone has. Someone from Admiral Mackin's office." Kerr looked down. "I thought that it might have been for you. Or I was hoping it was."

"I asked for no such information."

"Then someone else is checking into my past. And I'd like to know why."

"I think we both would, Colonel. Keep me apprised."

"Will do."

Spock was not surprised to feel a chill fall over them as soon as their business was finished. "I would enjoy another chess game."

"I wouldn't mind a rematch," Kerr said cautiously.

Spock almost sighed. "Perhaps we could play for Christine." He got up quickly. "That was a joke, Colonel."

To his surprise, Kerr did not seem irritated. "It actually came off as one." He stood up. "But the joke's on both of us, Spock, if we think this is a game. She's hurting. You must know that?"

Spock looked down, suddenly shamed. "Yes. I do know that. I suppose it is easier to focus on my own feelings."

"I'm guilty of the same thing. But I'm worried about her." Kerr looked suddenly very serious. "I'm worried about all of us, frankly."

Spock looked up at him. Nodded. "We work well together."

"Yes, we do. It would be a shame to throw that away."

"We will all have to try harder." Spock turned to go. Before he got to the door, he looked back at Kerr. "You were right."

"About what?"

"I have not stopped trying to get her back. Not entirely."

Kerr just nodded.

"I will try to do better," Spock said. "But I make no promises." Then he hurried out of Kerr's office. He got in the lift, knew he should go to the bridge, but found himself strangely unwilling. "Deck ten," he said, riding the lift one deck down and walking slowly to main engineering. He stood at the door, watching as Kettering worked at an auxiliary panel.

The engineer looked up and smiled. "Long time no see."

"Taillte has kept me busy."

Kettering turned back to the panel. "She's a pretty planet, I'll give you that."

"But?"

"But I'm ready to get moving again. Continuous orbit isn't much fun for my engines."

"Or for their engineer?"

Kettering laughed. "You know me too well, Spock."

Spock was glad that he could say that about at least one person on board.

"Something wrong?" Kettering asked.

"Life does not always go as we plan." He joined Kettering at the panel.

Handing Spock a microspanner, Kettering said, "You just have to quit making so many plans then." He nodded to the end of the panel. "If you want to get those last adjustments, I'd appreciate it."

Spock knew the engineer was humoring him, allowing him to be useful. He had seen Kettering make the same adjustments in half the time he was doing it now. Spock found himself immensely grateful for Kettering's solid presence, the support he felt from him. "It is in my nature to be prepared for anything."

"As Commander Scott used to say, 'Where's the fun in that, laddie?' Of course, he usually said that just before doing something he knew was going to land him in trouble."

"Trouble." Trouble in the form of the woman he couldn't get out of his mind. Even now. Spock finished his work and put the microspanner back into the toolbox. "I am needed on the bridge."

Kettering looked up. "The good thing about engineering is that it's very far away from the bridge. You ever need a break, you know you're always welcome here."

"A break?" Spock asked, and Kettering's look led him to believe that the engineer had observed more than Spock had been aware of. "Thank you, Ron."

"What are friends for?"

Spock pondered that question as he headed for the bridge. The lift stopped at deck four, and Christine and Kerr got on.

Kerr nodded, a polite greeting and one that gave no hint that he and Spock had just been talking. "Captain."

"Colonel." Spock turned to Christine. Noticed that she didn't seem to want to meet either of their eyes. "Commander."

"Captain," she said, still not looking at him.

The lift slowed again at deck two. Nako got on, forcing Christine to back up between Kerr and him. Christine's shoulder touched Spock's and she recoiled as if burnt.

Nako gave her an odd look, and Spock saw Kerr glance at Christine, then at him, before he stared back at the lift doors.

The tension in the lift was palpable, but for once Nako seemed oblivious. When the doors opened, she stepped out, paying no attention to Christine and Kerr, just waiting for Spock to get off before following him to his ready room.

"I take it you wish to speak with me, Nako?"

She nodded. "I have a favor to ask, Spock."

He glanced over as Christine and Kerr disappeared into her office. He hoped that they would leave soon, didn't want them lingering on the bridge. Perhaps with time and distance he could put her out of his mind. It would be good if she stayed for a while with Kerr, in the colonel's quarters, which were far from Spock's.

Far being a relative term on a starship as small as the Carter.

He watched as Nako settled herself in one of his chairs. She seemed to be in no hurry to ask him her favor. And for once she wasn't staring at him with that gaze that seemed able to read every thought, every impulse, every desire. In fact, she seemed to be turned strangely inward. "Are you all right, Nako?"

She looked up then. Gave him a tired smile. "Taillte wore me out, Spock. I'm an old woman."

"Never that," he responded distractedly.

"Well, tonight, I feel old." She glanced at the view port, where Taillte loomed large. "I'll be glad to get back to work. Do we have new orders yet?"

He nodded. "A brief stop on Denarr to pick up Admiral Young, then on to a ceremony on Beta Lambda IX to celebrate their attaining full Federation membership. After that, a ceasefire negotiation on Pelria."

"Pelria?" She looked surprised. "They aren't ready for a ceasefire."

"They apparently do not share your opinion." Spock realized he was tired, more tired than he could remember being in a long time. "You said you had a favor to ask?"

She took a deep breath before she said softly, "I'd like to ask you to stay away from Pardek."

Irritation surged through him. "Why is that any of your concern?"

She held up a hand. "I know you don't appreciate my interfering in what you probably consider your private affairs. But your actions are noticed, Spock. And Pardek isn't good for you. Not professionally. And not personally."

"What do you know of him?"

She shook her head. "I know nothing. It's just a feeling, grandson."

For the first time he did not find the name a comfort. "I am not your grandson, Nako. And you have no right to dictate my actions. Especially not based on your 'feelings'."

She seemed surprised at his reaction. "You have always listened to my counsel in the past, Spock."

He remembered how she had told him that in time he would understand Christine's role in his life. He was still waiting for that understanding. "Your counsel of late has been less than useful." He got up and walked to the door.

She sat, looking stunned.

"If you will excuse me, Nako, we are about to break orbit." He did not look back, as he waited for her. He knew he was being rude to her, would not have dismissed her words so quickly in the past. But he was tired of lectures and admonitions. He was tired of a great many things.

Nako reached out as she passed, her hand surprisingly strong on his arm. He looked down at her thin hand and wondered why he had never noticed how cold her skin was.

"I am sorry if I upset you, Spock," she said softly.

"I am a Vulcan. I am not upset." He met her eyes. They both knew it was a lie, but this time she did not call him on it.

"Of course," she said, following him out and walking toward the lift. He noticed that she did not look at Taillte as she passed the main viewscreen.

He turned to Lieutenant Carlson. "Prepare to break orbit." He looked at the navigator, didn't recognize the gamma shift ensign that sat at the station. That would have to be remedied. "Lay in a course for Denarr."

"Course laid in," the ensign answered back after a few moments.

"Take her out, Mister Carlson." Spock sat down in his chair, felt his body sag in the seat. He could not remember when he had been this tired. Tired in body and spirit. Forcing himself into a more proper pose, he watched Taillte disappear from the viewscreen as the Carter turned and headed for their next assignment.

-------------------------------------------

Nako could feel the subtle shift as the ship went into warp. She looked out the viewport; saw Taillte getting smaller and felt herself relax for the first time in weeks. She was not used to feeling this vulnerable. She was just glad Taillte had not realized how strong she was.

But it was only a matter of time.

Nako smiled, an odd one-sided smile. Taillte might be powerful, but that power was limited. She had to stay within the parameters of her world, of the planet that was her body, her lifeforce. She couldn't touch Nako out here. And Nako didn't plan to ever go back within the other's sphere of influence.

She wished she could say the same for Penhallon. She hadn't thought he would be coming with them at all this time. He seemed so thoroughly enamored of Taillte, of the life she could offer him. But he had come. He had chosen the life he liked less well.

She was not sure why he had but suspected it was because Christine needed him, and he wouldn't desert her. Even for his own good. But Nako knew that somehow he would find a way back to Taillte. He had that look. The look of the true believer.

Nako opened the ancient chest by her bed; the deer hide held together by the art and skill of the Dineh craftsman that had made it for her so long ago--an art stronger than the science of the modern world, more resistant, more resilient. She dug down into the chest, found the sealed container of sand. All the colors that mattered were mixed together. Blue and yellow and white and black and red and, of course, the natural-colored grains, all blended together to bring hozho...balance. And once spilled out, they would form the pictures, show her what she needed to see.

Or she hoped they would. Sometimes they showed her things she already knew. 'Iika'a'h were tricky that way. Few used the sandpaintings for divination anymore, preferring the gentler path of the Blessing Way. But she was schooled in methods far more ancient than those who shook out the separate colors to heal. Her sand had been blended for as long as she could remember, and it had nearly taken on a life of its own. She never knew when she shook it out if what she would see would be something profound, or merely visually appealing. But she knew it would be true.

Nako laid out the board of scraped hide, then poured the garland first, using the sand to protect the north, south, and west quadrants. She smiled as she thought of how hard it had been for her at first to find east from her perspective in space. But that was long ago. Now she knew. She always knew. She left the portion to the east open, and began to pour the sand inside the garland, letting it fall as it wanted, not trying to stop the way her hand jerked and made the colored grains go in new directions. It was all part of the pattern. She was merely drawing what already was. What would be.

What might be, she corrected herself. There were ways to change things.

She stared down at the finished painting. And frowned. Deeply.

There was no pattern. Nothing at all. No yeis with their corn and feathers and hands outstretched. No rattles or lightning, no evergreen sprigs. Not even a hoop or a triangle. Nothing. The sand had fallen in a pattern that meant nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Something had happened. Something had happened and she had missed it. And now everything she had seen during The Time was unsettled. She could not see what would be, because it was not yet clear what was. And until it was, she could not see what would come.

And if she could not see what would come, she could not change it. Did not dare to try if she did not know what the consequences might be of her actions.

She stared down at the sand again. Tried to close her eyes to half-slits, fluttered them to bring a hidden pattern into relief. There was still nothing. It was as if someone had taken a knife to her weaving, tearing it up the middle and causing it all to unravel. Taking away any pattern she had woven into it.

She could not remember the last time the sand had come up blank. And she had lived a long, long time.

She could almost hear Taillte's mocking laughter.

"You are part of this," Nako realized. She had not dreamt Taillte during The Time. It had only been in a spontaneous vision, just before Doctor Marcus brought the planet over with her device, that Nako had even known what was happening. Yes, Taillte was part of this, but a logical part if you reconnected the threads of the pattern, saw its new design. Taillte was not the surprise. But something was. Something else had happened. Something she wasn't seeing. Something that she had not given enough import to. And it had changed everything.

She carefully destroyed the working by pushing the sand to the center of the hide and pouring it back into its container. She sealed the stopper and stuffed the clay jar into the bottom of the chest, closing the lid, and retying the intricate knots.

When she stood up, she was surprised to feel her heart beating fast. It had been a long time since she had felt this level of disquiet. But she was feeling it now. The advantage was no longer hers. Not unless she figured out what had changed. And she'd better do it soon.

Before all hell broke loose.

She sat down heavily in her chair. Tried to think. What was she missing? Spock was on the path, she had made certain of that. He had been in danger when Amanda died. It had been too soon after Kirk's death. He might have been lost. She'd only taken steps to make sure he would survive, that he would still be a player to be counted on. The most important player. The king. A simple cave-in was all it took for her to give him the queen.

She'd given him the queen.

Nako felt a sick feeling begin in her stomach. She had given him the queen...but the queen hadn't stayed with him.

She had known that. She had known that and had never stopped to think what might happen if he didn't want to give Christine up. Nako had assumed he would benefit from Christine's presence, but had never realized how much of his heart he would give her. She had made the robes for them and had not fully understood the message she had woven into them. Had she been so certain that she knew how everything would turn out that she had not paid attention to what even Kerr could see? And she knew, with a sinking sensation, that she had been that certain, that sure of her own vision. That proud. She had thought that Spock would hold something back as he always had from Christine. That Christine would ground him, give him an outlet for emotion he might suppress otherwise, but that she would ultimately be nothing more than a safety valve for him, a connection to his own humanity. Nako had underestimated the woman's power over Spock. Had not realized how deeply in love with her Spock would grow, had not considered what it would mean if he wanted to keep her, but couldn't.

What would that do to someone already reeling from pain? Might it not be even worse than going through the pain alone in the first place?

The scene she'd witnessed in the lift suddenly made sense. When she'd stood there with the three of them, she'd had the fleeting impression of two male wolves, circling each other for the same mate. But wolves didn't do that, they didn't fight over the females. They mated for life.

And Spock and Christine had mated for life. Without a formal bond, but mated nonetheless. It would explain the strange connection they seemed to share these days. But she had also mated with Kerr and he'd had first claim. Spock had not been able to bond with her. Because of Kerr. But bond or no, Spock and she were mated. Mated but unable to join, unable to be together...and also unable to walk away from each other. While it would be hard on Christine to try to balance this, it would tear Spock apart.

What would it turn him into? How bitter would it make him? Was that why he wouldn't listen to Nako in his ready room? Was he already lost?

Nako bit down hard on the back of her hand, trying to make herself focus. Think, she ordered herself. She had protected Kerr. She had kept him on the Carter when he could have been sent away so easily. All it would have taken was a word in private to Spock. Or she could have disposed of him herself. He would have been just another victim of the Section. He might even have been forced to go when Christine learned the truth about him, but Nako had a feeling that Christine's time on Taillte had softened her, that Penhallon might also have had something to do with her unexpected willingness to forgive Kerr. And that Christine had taken Kerr back had been unexpected. Unforeseen. Nako should have realized then that the pattern was unraveling, that she was losing control.

Should have. Useless words. It was too late. Kerr was needed, his presence was necessary, and Christine wouldn't let him go now, in any case. And he was part of the pattern. The new pattern. The one Nako couldn't read, much less manipulate. They all were all part of this new pattern, even Nako herself. She should have been outside it but, for the first time in her memory, she was a part of what was, what would come.

And what would come was chaos. In chaos, anything could happen. Anything at all.

Nothing new for her grandchildren, they were used to life being uncertain. But it was Nako's worst nightmare. She was helpless to effect any change, unable to see any larger pattern. She was caught in the very web she had woven and she couldn't think of a single thing that she could do to escape.

FIN