Belonging (Carter #12, Excelsior #1)

by Djinn and Rabble Rouser

The starfield of space was all that showed on the viewscreen, and Spock, reassured that their journey to Beta Lambda IX was progressing as it should, looked over at his first officer. Christine had her head down, working on a padd. As if sensing his eyes on her, she looked over at him, her expression unreadable, then she looked back at her padd. He thought he saw her shoulders tense.

Getting up, he said, "I'll be in my ready room, Commander. The bridge is yours." He heard her murmur assent as he strode toward his office. Once in his ready room, he found himself unable to concentrate on his work. It was unaccountably difficult to focus on the schedule for the membership ceremonies for Beta Lambda IX. He doubted that the captains of the other two vessels that would fly in ceremonial orbit around the planet were having this much trouble with the agenda. But then Sulu and Graumann were probably not embroiled in some strange relationship with their first officers. They were also not forced to deal with some shadowy section of Star Fleet at work on their ships, a section that had its own agenda and its own dirty means for accomplishing whatever that agenda was.

Spock pushed away from his terminal, paced over to the viewscreen. The last time he had seen Sulu had been on Earth for Mister Scott's funeral. When Spock and Christine had traveled back together. When they had left Kerr behind. In his memories, Spock was standing in front of another window, Christine leaning back against him, his hands on her arms, his lips at her neck.

"No," he said with a hoarse whisper. He had to stop this. It was helping none of them, especially not him. And it was most unprofessional, most un- Vulcan to allow himself to become so enmeshed in this desire.

It had not helped to meet the alternate version of Christine. To know that in her universe, he and Kerr shared her. He did not see that as a likely alternative in this universe. Not with all that had happened between them. But he had envied her the life she seemed so impatient to return to. He wondered if his Christine had been as eager to get back to their Carter.

His chime sounded. He took a moment to try to settle, to present the implacable Vulcan that most of his crew assumed him to be. "Come."

Christine walked in, clearly expecting him to be at his desk, surprised when she turned and saw him at the viewscreen. As the door closed behind her, she stood awkwardly, not speaking.

Spock could feel the strange bond between them flare and he had to force himself not to shudder from the emotions it aroused in him. The connection between them had been broken when she was in the other universe. He had not even thought about it when it was gone, but as soon as she had returned the bond had slammed back into life, hitting him like a blow and seeming to intensify even more since then. It was curious; when she'd been lost on Taillte, he'd been able to sense her, but this time he had not. He did not know if it was the presence of the other Chapel that had prevented the link or if there were some other reason. Some reason they could use to get rid of the thing, this bond that neither of them had deliberately called up, this bond that allowed him to know too much about what she was feeling for him, that gave him cruel hope that she might still choose him, that a chance for a future together was not dead.

The bond that must carry similar emotions from him back to her. As Spock stared at her, he could sense her discomfort, but also worry and compassion and affection--too much affection for just a friend. And therein lies our problem, he thought as he walked to his desk.

"Can I help you, Commander?" He kept his voice level, the coldness that of a proper Vulcan who does not see the need for an interruption. It was unfair to their friendship, but it might be the only way he could deal with her.

She followed him, dropped into the chair in front of his desk. "So formal, Spock?" Her voice was slightly wistful, but full of understanding.

He knew she would accept it if he shut her out again. He wondered if she might even welcome it--not having to second guess her choice of Kerr on a daily basis would probably be a relief for her. At the thought, irritation filled him. Why should she get the easy way out in this? Why should he be the only one to suffer? They were dark thoughts, unworthy of him. Yet he could not stop them. He sighed and saw her eyes widen at the sound. "What would you prefer, Christine?"

When she did not answer right away, he filled in the blanks for her. She would prefer that she had never been caught in that cave-in with him. That she had never fallen in love with him. Or that he had never fallen in love with her. That they had not chosen Kerr to serve on the ship, or perhaps that she had never agreed to serve on the Carter, never participated in that team-building class that had started them on the path to where they stood now. That they had never made love in San Francisco. So many things she might regret, might wish had never happened. "Are you sorry you accepted this assignment?" he asked quietly.

"No." She shook her head to strengthen her quick answer. "I'm not sorry for any of it."

He made a small sound, his own equivalent of a bitter laugh as the air exploded in a barely perceptible sniff.

She seemed to know exactly what the sound meant. "I'm serious, Spock. I don't regret any of it."

She was suddenly sitting too close, even though she had not moved from the chair on the other side of the desk. He stood quickly, his chair rolling back hard and slamming against the low credenza. As he walked back to the viewscreen, he said, "How can you not regret what has happened, Christine? It is tearing you up inside. Do you relish this pain?"

His back was to her, but he could sense her getting up, walking toward him. He expected her to say something caring, something sweet and ineffectual recognizing that he was in pain too. He did not expect her to touch him, and her hand on his back was like an electric shock. He turned so quickly he startled her, causing her to step back in alarm. Grabbing her arm, he yanked her toward him. His voice was controlled and low, but he knew by her expression that she could hear the anger in it as he said, "By what right do you do this? You say I may not have you, then you touch me? I am beginning to think that perhaps you do enjoy the pain, you enjoy my pain."

"Spock, no." She tried to pull away.

He did not let go, grabbed her other arm and pulled her even closer. "What do you want from me?"

She was breathing hard, her eyes slightly panicked. Through the bond, he could feel fear and alarm. And, as his grip tightened on her, he could feel desire and love and pain. He leaned down, his lips close to hers. "You cannot have us both."

"I know that," she said, her voice broken. Then she whispered, "But she could. How come she could?"

"She was not you." He thought of the other Chapel, the easy way she had related to him, and to Kerr. The teasing expression she had worn as she'd told him how she hadn't had to choose just one of them. She had been attractive but light years away from the Christine that was his.

The Christine that he was pulling against him, that was not trying to fight him.

The Christine that was crying even as her lips met his. The bond flared as they touched and then she wrenched herself away from him.

"I am not her," she said, refusing to look at him and breathing hard as she took a few steps back. "I chose." Then she looked up at him, and in her expression he read something that he hadn't expected to see. Fear.

He took several steps back, would have taken another if the viewscreen against his back hadn't stopped him. "I beg forgiveness."

She looked up at him and for a moment he saw brown Vulcan eyes instead of her blue ones, he saw Valeris' skin marked from where his fingers had dug into the meld points. "I did not mean..." He turned away, unable to look at her.

He heard her sob, then she was behind him, her arms coming around his waist, her body pressed against his back, comforting him with her warmth. "You didn't hurt me, Spock. I'm sorry. It's all right."

He laid his hands over hers and they stood in silence for a long moment. Her words mocked them. It wasn't all right. It was never going to be all right.

He gently pulled her arms away, turned to face her. She was crying and he touched her face, smoothing the tears into her skin. "When did it become so dark between us, Christine? How can love twist this way?"

She shook her head.

From somewhere, he found the strength to walk away from her. "This must end. You have made your choice and we must abide by it. In a manner more befitting two adults, two professionals than we have shown up to now. This cannot be all there is between us. We have a ship to run." The ragged breath he took didn't support his words, but he persevered. "Time will perhaps heal what has gone wrong between us. In the meantime, I suggest we keep our interactions to a minimum and only for ship's business."

She nodded, wiped at her eyes and headed for the back door. "I'll take the bridge. I just need a minute to clean up."

He nodded, and not for the first time was grateful for the back hallway that joined their two offices. As he watched her walk away, he forced himself to seek control, to master the emotions that were assailing him. Emotions that came both from the bond and from his own heart.

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

Janice Rand scowled at her reflection on the mirrored walls of the Excelsior's gym. The form-fitting leotard wasn't flattering, the bright lighting unkind. She could see all too well the way her middle had thickened and that she now had curves in the wrong places--and in the right places they sagged. She sighed. Well, that's what the gym was for wasn't it? To put the curves and bumps and swells back in the right places? Actually, it was for making sure that she could keep up with the youngsters on landing parties, but it couldn't hurt right? She peered closely into the mirror, saw the lines her scowling was making and tried a smile. That didn't seem to help. She didn't have lines; she had gouges. Well, she'd be damned if she was going to imitate a Vulcan mask to smooth her face out. So absorbed was she in pondering her reflection, she was startled when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Mirror, Mirror on the--"

"Shut up, Charlene." She put her hands on her hips and glared at her friend. Janice had known the ship's chief engineer when Charlene Masters was a mere lieutenant and Janice an even lowlier yeoman on the Enterprise. She knew there were no more than a couple of years between them yet Masters looked more than a decade younger. She wasn't sure whether to attribute that to Masters' dark skin or facial structure or just plain good luck. It probably helped that Charlene had kept fit.

Just like Christine. Back when they all had first met, it was Janice whose baby face kept getting her mistaken for a teen--that had held even when she was well into her thirties. Christine was the one who had looked older, mature--with one of those ageless faces that look much the same from twenty to fifty. Unlike hers in her youth, Christine's face would never be described as cute, or pert, or beautiful. Christine had one of those faces people called handsome--but which wore well. Exasperated with her thoughts, Janice slapped the mirrored wall and gestured towards the exercise equipment. "Shall we?"

Masters grinned and to Janice's irritation began to hum a jaunty tune as they walked across the room. God, she hated morning people. Masters must have read her mind--or more likely her face--because she sobered and stopped her with a hand. "Is it the hour of the day or the prospect of getting on that treadmill that has you so cranky? Or something else?"

Janice shrugged and tried to soften the rebuff with a smile. Soon, she found she didn't have much breath for conversation and was left alone with her thoughts in a way she hadn't been for a long time. Her hours were so crowded one upon the other she hadn't been making this kind of time for herself. Masters kept up the kind of cheerful chatter in the background Janice knew was meant to keep her spirits up without requiring a response, and she nodded vaguely in the right places and hoped she'd survive the next twenty minutes with some dignity. The session left her breathless and sweaty and the pull in her muscles told her she'd pay for this tomorrow-- but it was a start. She flopped herself down dramatically on a nearby bench and grinned triumphantly at Masters as she sat beside her.

"Didn't think I'd make it, did you?"

"Not that I'm not happy to gain an exercise partner but what's up? Seeing you subject yourself to something that makes you sweat has to count as a sign of the apocalypse."

"After three years of studying gaseous anomalies, Excelsior has been deemed sufficiently shaken down to end its stretch of milk runs. No more stellar phenomena that can be safely viewed or charted from the bridge or a shuttlecraft. And as Excelsior's first officer--"

"You are not required to lead landing parties. Leave it to the kids like Thren and Tuvok. That's not what they pay you the big bucks for."

"You know the captain's not going to stay on the bridge and leave it to them. So, I'll just have to make sure I can keep up."

And as for Tuvok? Janice wished she could discuss Tuvok with Charlene. Charlene had served for several years on a largely Vulcan-crewed starship and professed at times to prefer Vulcans to humans. But if Janice knew anything about Vulcans, it was that they valued privacy and discretion above all else. So that meant that like many things this was something she could discuss only with the captain. And this wasn't one of those things where they saw eye to eye. Tuvok wanted to leave Starfleet and Janice thought if that's what he wanted they should let him go. But Sulu kept appealing to the Vulcan personal loyalty to a commander to urge Tuvok to delay. He felt that Tuvok was just going through a bad stretch and if he were allowed to resign now, he would regret it later.

Janice had felt Tuvok pull away from all of them ever since the incident with the Klingons at the Azure Nebula several months ago. At the time she had been outraged that Tuvok would openly defy the captain right on the bridge of the ship during a crisis, would question the legality of his orders. Speaking with Tuvok afterwards had been frustrating, as if they had been speaking different languages.

She knew from personal experience that Vulcans could be loyal to a fault. She remembered Spock refusing to believe her when she had accused Kirk of assaulting her. How Spock had questioned her right in Kirk's presence and backed him up to the hilt well before he had been exonerated. She could not believe Tuvok couldn't understand that they had to try to rescue Kirk and McCoy even in defiance of orders. They couldn't just leave them behind to rot on Rura Penthe. Tuvok was affronted when he tried to make an official report only to find that the entire incident had been erased from the logs. She thought that it might be that he held Dmitri Valtane's close brush with death against them. As far as she could tell, Dmitri was his closest friend. She winced when she remembered his reply to the suggestion.

"I object that you risked the entire ship for two men. I object that you would risk the peace of the quadrant for personal reasons. I object that you would defy orders and willfully doctor records and treat a starship like a personal fiefdom. That Ensign Valtane could have died--did die and would have remained dead had Doctor Vaxis not resuscitated him--is a minor issue of little consequence in comparison. Although I would note that your mission failed and that if the ensign had died it would have been for nothing."

All this was delivered with Tuvok standing up ramrod straight, eyes center, in a tone of voice that flashed her back to a certain young yeoman being dressed down by a certain first officer after a memorable shore leave. She had felt twenty-five again and had found it was not a good feeling. Her face and voice had not revealed any of that as she had coolly dismissed Tuvok from her presence if not her mind. Later that night as she had recounted the conversation to Sulu and compared Tuvok to Spock he had laughed and said, "But Jana, Vulcans are individuals. Why should Tuvok act like Spock?"

Her face had burned with embarrassment. After over thirty years in Starfleet she had thought that a lesson she had learned many times over. But if Spock and Tuvok were different, they were enough alike that she found it difficult to penetrate the young Vulcan's walls. And she had enough practice with reading the subtle Vulcan expressions and cues to be sure that Tuvok was unhappy. She thought that even over loyalty, integrity was what Tuvok valued and that he had already found the humans he served with wanting.

And Tuvok wasn't their only problem. Things had kept going wrong lately. A miscommunication with Command that caused a colony to be settled on a planet they had classified as having proto-sentients. A valuable consignment of a rare drug that had been stolen from the Excelsior as she hung in spacedock above Earth. An order that missed them causing a diplomat to be stranded, which caused an unforgivable insult to two parties who had asked for a mediator to avert a war. Their security officer, Lieutenant Thren, who Janice had often found a bit paranoid as it was, had to be held back from putting so many layers of security protocols on ship routine it would have been impossible to function. And she had to admit Thren's attitude was contagious. Or maybe it was just that after having to deal with Kirk's death and now Scotty's, it was easier to give in to speculation about conspiracy than to accept that stupidity and chance could take so much away.

Janice wiped the sweat from her eyes to see Yeoman Charma coming toward them. Watching the young woman saunter through the gym, hips swaying, was like watching a queen make her progress before her subjects. There wasn't a het male--or susceptible female--whose head didn't at least swivel toward her and several who paused to gape outright. Part of Janice was amused. Helps to be half-Orion, she thought. Part of her was sad. I used to be the one turning heads, she couldn't stop herself from thinking. She took the padd and dismissed Charma. Not even 0600 and work has already found me, she thought.

"Our new orders?" Masters asked.

"Ceremonial duty on Beta Lambda IX. Should be very pretty--three starships."

Masters rolled her eyes at the news. "Good Lord. What was that you said about no more milk runs? Please tell me I don't have to go to any of those stiff-collar affairs."

Janice laughed. She knew how much Masters hated formal dress uniform events. Sulu on the other hand would be in his element. "Oh, I dunno. I'd think you'd love the chance for some duty on the planet. After all one of the ships will be the Carter. Isn't your ex the chief engineer?"

"Which one?" Masters asked archly.

"You know very well which one!"

"You know, Janice, there's a reason he's an 'ex.' I love the man but he's impossible. Not that, being the cold-hearted bitch queen that I am, I'm a prize either."

"How long were you two married?"

"Two years and two months. Two years the first time and two months the second." Masters looked at her sidelong. "And that's not the only auld lang syne. Captain Spock and Commander Chapel too. Should be fun."

"Yeah," Janice replied in a voice that suggested anything but.

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Captain Sulu sat behind his desk in his ready room and calmly regarded Lieutenant Thren over a cup of Vulcan tea. He knew the Andorian officer would wait for him to speak first and deliberately adopted a relaxed, unhurried posture. Sulu warmed his hands on the cup and blew across the surface of the hot liquid. He could have set it at the perfect temperature to drink, but something about the way the heat dissipated through the thin china into his hands and how the fragrant steam wafted over his face as he waited for it to cool was more pleasing than employing a replicator's instant precision. The drink was Tuvok's own blend that the ensign had shared with Sulu back before, well, before things got interesting. Back when Tuvok trusted him. Back when they all trusted each other.

He saw the young man's antennae twitch back and forth in what he recognized was a sign of impatience. Thren, Sulu decided, would have to learn to settle down or he'd get on people's nerves all too quickly.

Thren had taken the place of Lt. Commander Aku, a much older, and, in Sulu's opinion, far steadier man whose judgment he had completely relied on. Aku had been badly injured in the Azure Nebula incident and it would still take months more of therapy before he would fully recover. Sulu was a fair man and realizing that on some level he held it against Thren that he was taking Aku's place, he tried to compensate.

Sulu had known it was unlikely Aku would be reassigned to the Excelsior when he became well enough to return to duty. As it was, he had allowed a very junior subordinate to act in Aku's place for months, trying to forestall a permanent replacement. Finally, Admiral Young had told him to either pick a new chief or she'd choose one for him; that the position was too important to keep an acting chief in so long. He and Rand had picked Thren themselves but Sulu felt as if his hand had been forced.

Still, Sulu had to admit Thren's record demonstrated both courage and brilliance and he couldn't fault his competence or zeal on the Excelsior in the two months he had been aboard. Yet something in him refused to warm to the man. And knowing he had no good reason he reminded himself to project an open and friendly presence. To _be_ open and friendly. "So, Lieutenant, what's on your mind?"

Thren leaned forward, his antennae now pointed forward in an attitude of respectful attention. "Sir, I've been thinking of our recent problems and how our next assignment could provide an excellent opportunity to flush out our quarry."

"Frankly, I remain unconvinced there's any quarry to flush out." Sulu raised his hand for silence as he saw Thren open his mouth to object. "On a starship you must expect the unexpected and we're not exempt from Murphy's Law. I can remember the first five-year mission on the Enterprise. Transporter malfunctions splitting a man in two and stranding others on a freezing planet..." Sulu took a sip of the sweet, hot beverage trying to stave off the cold that memory brought. "A virus wrecking havoc on the ship..." And that's one story I hope you never hear, he thought, flashing on a memory of how, playing D'Artagnan, he had chased crew through the Enterprise with his rapier. "Capricious beings with God-like powers, shapechangers, rogues, mind-altering spores, you name it. It doesn't need a conspiracy."

"No sir, but neither can you rule it out. Even Kirk's Enterprise, famous for the ferocious loyalty of its crew, had its Finney, its McGivers." Thren flashed a wistful smile and there was awe in his voice. "I don't think you realize, sir, someone my age from a Starfleet family, I grew up on those tales and we studied many of those missions at the Academy."

Sulu felt rather embarrassed by the admiration he saw in Thren's eyes and couldn't help grinning back. But the connection was fleeting and he saw the Andorian gather himself and his eyes narrow as he brought the conversation back to its focus.

"My point is that in a crew this size it would be actually surprising if you didn't have a bad...what's the Terran phrase? A bad pear?"

"A bad apple."

"Exactly." Thren nodded emphatically as if he felt Sulu finally understood. "And to me the recent...mishaps"--Thren's lips twisted as if he had a sour taste in his mouth--"don't feel like the standard weirdness. They make my antennae prickle. I see something more deliberate and planned in this."

"Maybe so, " Sulu grudgingly conceded. "What do you propose?"

"Our next assignment involves a ceremony welcoming a new Federation member into the fold. The event will attract personages throughout the Federation and beyond. I cannot imagine a better opportunity for the traitor in our midst--"

"If he exists."

"If he or she exists," Thren continued firmly, "it would be the perfect opportunity to report to whoever is controlling them. I want to put some selected officers under surveillance." Thren extended a padd and Sulu scanned the list, his eyes widening as he took in the name at the top.

"You must be out of your mind."

"I know you and Commander Rand go back many years all the way to the Enterprise. I understand you are..." Thren seemed to be struggling for the right word. "...close."

Sulu's voice was cold and forbidding. "She is my First Officer and I trust her implicitly."

"A position and trust which gives her the perfect access and puts her above suspicion. As a junior officer, she was West's aide when he had a posting under Admiral Cartwright."

"Is that what this is about? Some stupid witch hunt? If everyone who had some connection to the Khitomer conspirators is to be put under investigation, you're going to be very busy. You can start with me. I was Valeris' commander on her first deep space mission straight out of the Academy."

"There is more. I have found evidence of tampering of the logs and communications records right around the time this ship suffered its first significant casualties--exactly during the time of the Khitomer conspiracy. As both communications and first officer, no one would have better opportunity, access, and knowledge to do that."

Oh God. The irony. Janice had altered those logs under protest and now? Sulu felt stiff with cold as if he were locked in the icy grip of that subzero planet long ago. Only his eyes moved down and to the right to take in an old-fashioned flat photograph of Janice and his daughter Demora at her graduation from the Academy. He and Chekov were in the photo too and he had thought that made it safe to have it here openly on his desk, so that no one could imply any special relationship. He looked up then at Thren and saw that the young officer was swallowing nervously and licking his lips. Thren opened his mouth as if to say something and then shut it firmly his lips narrowing with the force of the words he would not say. He knows. Despite our attempts to be discrete somehow he knows.

"The logs were edited on my orders and for reasons I'm not willing to discuss. You're just going to have to accept my word it has nothing to do with the recent incidents."

Surprisingly, Thren nodded, seemed to accept that. "I hope someday you'll trust me with those reasons."

Sulu was surprised to catch himself thinking that someday he probably would. "Do you have any other reasons to suspect the Commander?"

"Only that she's resisted my suggestions to make the ship more secure and to question those officers who had access under truth detector."

"We discussed your proposals and I agreed with her they would make a bad tradeoff between efficiency and security. And I was the one who ruled out such a general investigation without specific evidence to put someone under suspicion. A starship runs on loyalty based on trust, Thren. Does that reassure you enough?"

"No, Captain, not completely. Please understand, I like and respect the commander. My understanding is that you started in the sciences. Surely you understand that when testing a hypothesis you must try to rule out many different variables? She still has the kind of access that makes me want to put her under surveillance, at least until I rule her out."

"And some of these other names. Really? Ensign Tuvok? Hardly someone senior enough to have any of the kind of access or knowledge you were saying made you suspicious."

"Commander Rand herself put him on report and relieved him of duty for defying your orders during a crisis."

"Like all the Vulcans I have known, Tuvok is a man of utmost integrity."

"Would you include Valeris among that number? Vulcans can also have a deplorable tendency to believe they know best. The kind of arrogance that more than once has caused them to commit acts of questionable legality in the name of the needs of the many."

"I would not include Tuvok among them," Sulu replied dryly. "His defiance consisted of questioning the legality of my orders. You should note my own appended notation that I believed Tuvok was not out of bounds in his objections." He looked further down the list. "Yeoman Charma?"

"I am concerned about the many gaps in her records."

"Which given her background is understandable. Her mother was a refugee after all. Really, Thren, if we're going to investigate people on evidence this nebulous, I have to wonder who we're going to set to investigate you. You also have the perfect kind of access and position and our problems started not long after you joined the ship."

Sulu saw the young officer stiffen and blotches of dark blue spread over his face. "Sir, I do not enjoy this. If I don't have your confidence, then I ask that you find another Security Officer. But if I am to stay, I ask that you let me do that job as best I know how."

For a long time Sulu and Thren stared at each other across the length of the desk. Sulu found he was gripping the smooth surface for dear life. This was exactly the kind of nightmare scenario Janice cited in arguing against their taking their relationship beyond friendship. If he didn't love her, if they weren't lovers, would he sign on to having her investigated? How, if as he suspected Kirk and Spock had such a relationship, had the captain resolved such questions? And suddenly in asking the question of himself he relaxed, at peace with his answer and loosened the grip on his desk.

No, it made no difference. The trust between them was based on much more than that. On a knowledge that went thirty years deep and seeing her in every possible mood, passion, stress, situation--the good, the bad, and the ugly. He grinned inwardly at what Janice would think of him putting it that way. Certain things were his, and his completely. Like this ship. And his trust in her. If they had never become lovers, his answer would still be the same. Just the friendship and the knowledge would be enough just as it was enough when he risked everything to try to retrieve Kirk and McCoy. He'd make the same decision today. It was who he was. He knew of no other way to be the captain of this ship.

"You have my full confidence. But so does she. So find another way. I want you to fully brief her on the situation and together come up with a plan of action ready for my approval and implementation before we leave Beta Lambda IX."

"Sir?"

"When they make you captain, you can do it your way. Meanwhile we'll do it my way." An imp of the perverse made Sulu want to order Thren to add Tuvok to his working group. Something told him those two would probably hit it off and that Tuvok would have a flair for security matters. But he decided he couldn't push his Chief of Security that far without it seeming that he truly had no confidence in his judgment. "Dismissed." Sulu then turned back to Tuvok's Vulcan tea blend, only to find it had become cold and bitter.

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Carpenter looked up to see Christine approaching her office. "Commander."

Christine smiled as she sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk. "It's a personal visit, Delynn."

"In that case, hiya, Christine." Carpenter grinned. "What brings you down to sickbay?"

Christine looked out at the main room where several doctors and nurses were in conference. She gave Carpenter a sad smile. "A need for the familiar?" There was a note in her voice that Carpenter couldn't quite identify.

"Everything okay?"

Christine seemed to rally as she said, "Sure, everything's fine," but Carpenter was getting better at reading through the practiced smile. She studied her friend. There was something lost about her. Something sad and a bit hopeless.

She leaned forward, touched Christine's hand briefly. "You know you can talk to me."

Christine gave her a wry smile. "I'm your boss."

"So?" Carpenter leaned back. "I'm still head of sickbay. I know it's sort of hard to tell with a ship this full of medicos but I believe that makes me deputy CMO?"

Christine thought about that. "Never really considered it, but I think you're right."

"So I could relieve you."

Christine raised an eyebrow and Carpenter wondered if she knew how much she looked like Spock when she did that. "Meaning what?"

"Meaning you aren't the one with all the power in this relationship, missy." Carpenter laughed. "We're friends. Getting to be closer ones, I think."

Christine nodded. "Why didn't we get to know each other better when we were both on Earth?"

"We each had our own circles. We got on when we were at work." Carpenter shrugged. "I always wanted to get to know you better. Just ran out of time, I guess."

"Same here. Well, we have plenty of time now."

Carpenter wondered if that were true. Christine seemed to have her hours pretty well filled with Kerr...and with Spock--Carpenter refused to examine that too closely. And she had a new friendship with Stephen that was taking up more of her time than she'd expected. "So what's up? Why the need for the familiar?"

"Have you ever wished you could go back to a time when life was simple?"

Carpenter laughed. "Life is never simple, Christine. Except maybe when we're kids."

"You're right. It's never simple. Never easy." Christine seemed to relax a bit, leaning back in her chair and allowing her shoulders to slouch. "You know, we spend years wanting something, wishing for it desperately, and then later, when we've completely given up on it, it shows up."

Carpenter waited, sure there would be a point.

"But it's never what we think it will be...or should be. It's different. Hard." Christine slumped farther in the chair. "Hurts." She looked as if she was lost in the past. "And then, things you wish had gone differently...you find out that what you had was even better than you ever guessed. That hurts too. He--" Christine seemed to shake herself, as if realizing what she was saying. "God, listen to me ramble." It was a good act, but the lost look was back and Christine was having little success wiping it from her face.

Carpenter leaned forward. "If you're hurting...if someone is hurting you, you can tell me. I'm here and I'm a good listener." For a moment, she thought that Christine might open up to her. Then she saw her friend's expression close down, realized the moment was over. Maybe she'd talk about it later. Or not. Maybe it wasn't something Christine could ever share with her, especially if, as Carpenter suspected, it had to do with the captain.

Christine laughed lightly. "It's been a strange few weeks, Delynn. I'm sorry I'm going on and on." She rose, smiled warmly at Carpenter. "I better get back to the bridge."

Carpenter nodded. But as she watched Christine leave, she shook her head in worry. She knew a pot ready to boil over when she saw one, and this was certainly a case of that. Christine needed to get whatever was bothering her out before that happened. Because a spill like that was, at the very least, a mess to clean up. And at the worst, could leave all concerned very, very burned.

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

Thren strode leisurely into the ship's aft lounge carrying a game of kal- toh and began setting it up. It was quiet here now in the middle of beta shift, well into ship's night with only a few groups, couples, and some more solitary souls scattered among the various tables. If necessary, he could play against the computer, but he was depending on attracting a particular player he knew was off-duty now, in fact probably the only other person on the ship who could play the game.

"You play?" said a level, well-modulated voice that nevertheless conveyed incredulity. Thren did his best not to grin and to keep his antennae still. Without looking up he could imagine Tuvok's right eyebrow lifting till it met his hairline.

"I've always found games of strategy like the human chess or the Vulcan kal- toh...limbering for the mind."

"Chess is hardly comparable in complexity."

Typical Vulcan, Thren couldn't stop himself thinking. Nothing is as challenging as their games, nobody as logical or intelligent as they are. "I assume then you know how to play?" He gestured toward a seat. "Would you mind giving me a game? I find playing against the computer rather dull. The computer can't give me any conversation."

"I would think any conversation would detract from the concentration you would need."

"I don't see the point of a game between two people without that kind of interaction. Where's the fun?" Thren did then grin at Tuvok's expression-- or rather his careful non-expression. "Consider it a challenge." And that apparently got him for at that Tuvok sat down and at Thren's nod made the opening move. Thren wouldn't necessarily play this first game to win. He almost never did in any game of strategy. This first game would be played to probe his opponent's weaknesses and strengths.

And not just as a kal-toh player. He had found that with their mind taken up partly by a game, people would often tell you things they wouldn't in a formal interrogation or interview. Thren had already found out what had happened on the bridge the day Tuvok was put on report. His conversation with the captain had convinced him he was right to think something was being covered up but not that he could let it go. It was simple from Commander Rand's report to go back and find out who had been on the bridge back then. He then went straight to the most junior officer involved, Ensign Valtane, and had found it easy to learn the entire tale. Valtane wasn't even aware it was anything he should hide. Thren found then he couldn't condemn the captain for his actions and decided to let the matter rest.

Afterwards he could hardly consider Tuvok high on his list of suspects. He had known it was not likely from what he knew anyway, but poring through service records and logs and reports of the incidents hadn't yielded much. He had been telling the captain the truth when he said he didn't enjoy having to be suspicious of his fellow officers. He wasn't happy that now for him every interaction, every conversation, left him wondering: could it be him? Could it be her? He could only do his best to get to know the people around him better and see if that would shake something loose. And regardless he found himself all the more intrigued by an officer who not two months into his first duty assignment was brave enough to protest right to the captain's face on the man's own bridge.

Tuvok's first move was interesting. One that already ruled out simpler patterns of play. He quickly countered it in a way that should keep Tuvok occupied for a while contemplating his next move.

"How do you find serving on a largely human crewed ship? Many Vulcans, I know, find the adjustment hard."

"It is difficult to navigate through human emotional complexities."

"Almost all sentient species are emotional creatures. I actually find humans rather staid compared to many. Like Andorians...or Klingons."

"But no other people seem more determined that others accept their values, adapt to their ways and customs."

"Actually I know many people who would say that applies as much or more to Vulcans. Do you truly think a human on a Vulcan ship wouldn't be expected to adjust? Wouldn't get a forbidding silence or cutting remark if they laughed or smiled too much or raised their voice?" At that Tuvok remained silent and returned his gaze to the game. Thren filled in his reply from other conversations he'd had with Vulcans. That it was different because the Vulcan way was better, the way to peace. Perhaps he was unfair. Perhaps it was to Tuvok's credit he didn't answer him that way.

"Is that why you found it hard to accept the captain's orders to rescue Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy," he asked softly, "you believed it an emotional decision?"

Tuvok's hand, which had been about to place the next kal-toh stick in position, froze. "I found it an illogical decision. What is more it was an illegal order."

"But ultimately considering what we know now the correct decision. Starship captains are given considerable autonomy because there must be flexibility as a situation develops. You do not know, could not have known, what knowledge the captain based his decision upon that you did not have access to."

"The captain's justification to me for his decision was an emotional appeal to loyalty and to the concept that those we serve with are family."

"Ah." Thren saw Tuvok's face compress in what an Andorian or human would be irritation at his reply. Of course, Thren was sure Tuvok would tell him otherwise, that perhaps it was just an expression of concentration on the game. Thren then saw Tuvok finish his interrupted move. He was impressed. In only a few moves Tuvok had narrowed his options considerably. But not, Thren thought smugly, enough, as he responded with a move of his own.

"Nor does it excuse the entire incident being erased from the logs. It should have been reported."

"How do you know it wasn't?"

Tuvok looked up in surprise, evidently the thought had never occurred to him.

Though Thren actually doubted it had been reported. "Just because it was removed from ship's records doesn't mean it wasn't reported. Perhaps it was decided by both sides that a battle between a Klingon war cruiser and Federation starship on the eve of peace was best forgotten. That would certainly be my recommendation. That it be forgotten," he said pointedly.

Tuvok nodded slowly and Thren expelled a breath he hadn't been aware he had been holding. Perhaps this Vulcan wasn't as rigid as he had assumed. And when he saw Tuvok's next move, it was his turn to be irritated. This wouldn't be as easy as he'd believed. There's no doubt he has a good mind, an ability to see patterns and develop a

strategy, Thren thought.

"You're in the sciences?" Thren asked. Tuvok nodded. "I don't suppose you've ever thought of moving to tactical or security?" Tuvok didn't grin of course, but Thren thought he caught an answering gleam in his eyes nevertheless at the implied compliment. "You play a very interesting game, Mister Tuvok. A very interesting game."

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

Spock tried and failed to shake off his dark mood as he headed for the transporter room to beam down to Beta Lambda IX. He was having trouble forgetting what had happened in his ready room with Christine. His desire for her worried him more than he would ever tell her. And the anger...he had hoped never to feel that kind of anger again, the kind that could take him back to a dark place, a dark moment in what he otherwise considered a life well lived.

Valeris. He could still feel her trying to get away from him as he pulled her closer, forcing the meld deeper and deeper. He could still hear the broken sob that had rung in his mind and on the silent bridge when he had finally pulled away and let her go. He had walked away from her, seemingly unconcerned at the state she was in, the state he had put her in. But why should he have been concerned? She had been a traitor. She'd had information that Jim and the Federation had needed; he had been the only one that could get it. It had been part of the mission, nothing more. Only it hadn't been part of the mission to tear through her mind the way he had. He knew...had always known that he had been punishing her for far more than her political betrayal. He had wanted to hurt her, had wanted to hurt her badly.

He had loved her. And he had believed she had felt the same. Love. Love and pride--he had been so proud of her. The first Vulcan to graduate at the top of her class, and she had been his protege. Pride had indeed preceded the fall. The betrayal had cut too deep, personally and professionally. His rage had nearly overwhelmed him and there had been a moment during their meld when he had held her sanity in his grasp, an instant when, if he had just exerted a bit more pressure, he would have destroyed her.

He had thought that it was a line he had not crossed. But Saavik had told him that Valeris had gone mad in prison and he had wondered ever since if he had perhaps not pulled back fast enough. If he had squeezed just a little too hard and a little too long in his zeal to extract the names of her coconspirators no matter what the price. In his need to hurt her the way she had hurt him.

He saw Admiral Young and forced his thoughts back to the present. Valeris might as well be dead. Her brilliant young mind was gone, lost at some point during her captivity. She was never coming back. He pushed all thoughts of her away and nodded pleasantly to the Young. "I trust you slept well, Admiral?"

She smiled wryly. "And woke up in the right universe. I consider that a plus, Spock."

"Indeed, Admiral. A welcome turn of events." At her smile he said, "You mentioned that you had made your decision on a replacement for Commander Troi."

She grimaced. "Hated losing that one, even if it was to a great cause. What a coup getting our own man appointed Taillte's ambassador. But it is a loss to this ship and I wanted to get you someone just as capable-- perhaps even more promising--to replace Andrew." She followed Spock to the transporter pad. "Have you met Commander Cassidy?"

"Susan Cassidy? I have heard of her. She is the youngest commander in the Fleet, is she not?"

Young nodded. "And one of the most capable officers I've ever met. She doesn't know I'm assigning her to you yet. Didn't want to distract her from organizing this shindig we'll soon be snoring at. I'll tell her as soon as the signing ceremony is done." Young shot him a look. "I assume you don't have a problem with her being assigned to you?"

Spock raised an eyebrow. "On the contrary, I am honored to have her join us."

Young nodded. "Figured you'd feel that way, Spock. You're a good man." She shot him another glance. "Unsolved murders notwithstanding. I'm still not sure how you managed to get one of your section chiefs killed during orbit around the most peaceful planet in the Federation?"

"It was not planned, Admiral." He barely kept the irritation out of his voice. Young liked to tease him the way McCoy used to do. Normally, he did not mind, but his frame of mind was not conducive to the dig.

"I'm sure it wasn't. If it had been, you'd have done a better job of covering it up." At his look, she huffed in amusement. "Oh, don't look so offended, Spock. How long have we known each other? I'm just trying to lighten you up for the ceremonies. You look like your best friend just died."

She was not far off, in fact it might have been preferable to lose Christine that way, he thought sourly, immediately regretting the idea. Before his thoughts could get any darker, he instructed the transporter tech to beam them down, and a moment later they materialized in a room that was a scene of controlled chaos. Beta Lambdan dignitaries and Federation and Star Fleet VIPs were talking in small groups, security officers were guarding the Federation President and his Beta Lambdan equivalent, and some functionaries bustled in last minute preparation for the ceremony that was about to start. Spock saw Captain Graumann from the Victory standing with Admiral Mangiello, nodded pleasantly to him, then to Sulu as his former shipmate materialized in another corner of the room.

Spock knew his role in the proceedings was nothing more than symbolic, and was grateful for the lack of responsibility. He followed the others onto the stage, tried to make out faces in the crowd but they all bled together. Somewhere out there, his crew was in attendance. Christine had stayed with the ship but Kerr was probably on the perimeter somewhere with the other security forces. His presence was not officially needed, but Spock doubted that he would be able to stay out of the action. What little action there was, Spock amended, as the first of several very long speeches began.

He took the opportunity to study his newest section chief as she stood just offstage. She looked even younger than she probably was, her black hair cut short in an extreme style. He thought she looked almost Vulcan with her dark eyes and high cheekbones, although her skin was too pale. She was attractive and no doubt used that to her advantage in her diplomatic ventures. She seemed to sense his eyes on her, turning slowly to scan the group on the dais, stopping when she realized it was he that was watching her. She shot him a surprised look and he nodded almost imperceptibly then turned his attention back to the speaker.

His mind again wandered, this time back to his ready room and the way it had felt to hold Christine, to kiss her even so briefly. It was an ironic fact of his life that now, when she was out of reach, he wanted her with such an overwhelming desire. Especially when he had avoided her for so many years. But want her he did and he couldn't quite make himself give up trying to win her back from Kerr. Even though the more noble part of him wanted to release her, wanted to let her be happy, another, stronger part of him, didn't want to let go. But he had to let go, and so did she. She wasn't blameless in this either. She had chosen Kerr but was unwilling to walk away from Spock in the way she needed to if she was going to make any kind of life with the colonel. The logical part of Spock knew that and hoped she would find the strength to pull away. The more emotional part of him only wanted to hold her close and never let go.

This had to change. He was obsessed with her. The only thing he knew to do was to avoid her and hope that time away would make him stronger, more able to resist the lure of her, the call of the strange bond between them. Time. Time would move slowly and he would have to let it, would have to live with the pain. And it was pain. It hurt him just as Jim's death still hurt and his mother's death as well. There were days he felt as if the pain was overwhelming him. Days he wished he had never felt V'Ger's call, had never abandoned the Kohlinar training. These emotions that he had not purged were drawing him into a black place, a place even he recognized wasn't healthy.

He was fortunate that there was the mission, the ability the Carter gave him to make a difference. And he had the burgeoning relationship with Pardek to give him hope that someday his dream of reunification might be within reach. And he had been thinking often of the Klingons, wondering how the Empire fared under Azetbur. He knew that he and the others who had believed in peace had already accomplished much, but he could not help but feel that it was possible for the Klingon Empire and the Federation to deepen ties even more.

A rush of applause brought him back to the ceremony and he clapped for a speech he had not heard at all. He followed the others off the stage for the final step of the ceremony, which would take place in the room they had materialized in. The Beta Lambdan Prime Minister and the Federation President signed the membership agreement, pressing their thumbs against the padds and sealing the moment in history. As the two men shook hands, Spock walked over to where Sulu stood by himself. "Captain Sulu, it is good to see you again."

"A pleasure, Captain," Sulu said with the friendly grin that Spock remembered from all those years on the Enterprise. Sulu turned back to the ceremony as the President made a joke. His laughter was subdued but sincere.

Both men clapped as the Beta Lambdan Prime Minister presented the President with a small yellow flower that grew all over the planet and signified good luck and long life according to local custom. Then the two men, flanked by their respective security contingents, left together for the reception.

Spock turned back to Sulu. "I presume you will be opening up Excelsior for tours for the Beta Lambdan VIPS?"

"Part of the service. And any of the Carter people are more than welcome. There's more than one person aboard with ties to my crew. Our engineers for one."

Spock nodded, considering what Kettering had told him about his ex-wife. Kettering and Charlene Masters did not seem like a particularly well matched pair, which, he surmised, might explain why they had divorced twice. But Kettering still spoke of her with fondness, and Spock knew she was as good an engineer--if not better--than his friend. He also knew she was a good friend of Sulu. He nodded, saying to Sulu, "And of course, your crew is welcome to beam over to the Carter. I know that Commander Kettering isn't the only one that is looking forward to renewing old ties. Chr--Commander Chapel seemed eager to see Commander Rand again." He hoped Sulu hadn't caught his lapse into informality.

But the other captain seemed preoccupied. "We've had some difficult missions lately. I know my crew will welcome the respite. I know I do."

Spock did not know any of the details of Excelsior's missions, but knew that even the smallest thing could wear on the person who had the ultimate responsibility for the well being of the ship and crew. He said softly, "And the price of being captain is to feel every one of those difficulties personally. Even for a Vulcan, it can be wearing."

But that didn't seem to be what Sulu meant. He frowned as he said, "We've been having some odd problems. Miscommunications with Command. I don't suppose you've had anything like that?"

Spock felt suddenly wary. "What kind of miscommunications?"

"Things like our having classified a planet as having proto-sentients only to find it opened for colonization. Or getting orders that found us too late to make a difference in a tense situation. I know that the definition of starship duty is to expect the unexpected but it's been unusual enough to disturb my security officer, who is now looking to see if he can find any such pattern in fleet reports."

Spock considered how much to say to Sulu. He pitched his voice lower. "We have also had some trouble with our planetary classifications being garbled by the time they got to Command." He checked to make sure that Graumann and the others were out of range. "Does your security officer have a theory on this?"

"Not what I'd call a theory. The way he put it, the incidents aboard Excelsior are more than can be ascribed to coincidence but not enough to make a pattern. He's looking at reports from other ships and asked me if I could talk to my fellow captains. And we've all heard what happened to Commander Farrell. A murder is a very unusual occurrence on a Starship."

Spock again found himself on the defensive. "Yes, that was most unexpected, and unfortunately happened at a time when there were too many strangers aboard the ship to identify the murderer. But my head of security has conducted a full investigation and found nothing. And I have the utmost confidence in Colonel Kerr."

"While I'll admit my head of security is rather young. Not unseasoned and certainly very able, but I do wonder if he's seeing what's not there out of overzealousness. So you don't think we should make anything of this?"

Spock felt himself torn. He wanted to help a man that he considered a friend, but did not want to bring up things that Sulu might know nothing about. Might be safer knowing nothing about. "There are coincidences that are accidents of fate and others that are pointers to something going on in the background. In science or in life, the difficult part is identifying exactly which type of coincidence you are dealing with."

"That's not really an answer, Spock." Sulu shot him a look that bordered on annoyance. "Which knowing you as I do, does pique my curiosity."

"I did not mean to hedge. I know only that there are some mysteries that can never be solved. One has to file them in a special section of the logs and move on." He kept his expression perfectly neutral as he waited to see if Sulu would bite at the miniscule clue he had just put out for him.

Sulu did not take the bait. "If this is a mystery, not a set of coincidences, I don't see that as much of a solution. And since when have you ever filed away a mystery as impossible to solve without even trying? Besides, I'm not convinced this is over and ready to be filed away." His tone softened as he added, "At least, my security officer isn't."

"I did not say we had not tried to solve our mysteries. But the trail does go cold. If you feel that you have cause to continue the investigation, then by all means let your security officer do his job." He saw Cassidy break away from Admiral Young and head toward them. He assumed Young had just told her of her next assignment. "I believe we should table this discussion." He nodded toward the woman and Sulu turned to see who was approaching.

"Captains," she said. "Thank you for agreeing to help out with these ceremonies. Having two of the Fleet's most modern ships in orbit is quite a coup for me." Her tone was engaging, lacking any note of boasting. She sounded sincerely grateful for their help, and Spock presumed that sincerity had helped propel her to where she was in the ranks. She smiled and it was a warm smile, full of confidence. "I'm Commander Susan Cassidy, officer in charge of this event."

"A pleasure, Commander. I am Captain Spock.

Her smile was more informal as she said quickly, "Like I wouldn't know a living legend when I saw him. I've studied your diplomatic treatises as a hobby. They've helped me immeasurably in my own work." She turned to Sulu. "And Captain Sulu. Thank you so much for coming. It's an honor to have you here."

Sulu smiled. "My pleasure. From everything I've seen, you've done a great job. Outstanding."

She inclined her head, and the movement struck Spock as very Vulcan. "Most kind, sir." Then she grinned. "The first minister is very excited about the tour of your ships. I appreciate your willingness to entertain the disruption."

"I don't see it as a disruption. Just part of our job."

She laughed. "I also appreciate that attitude. It's not always what I get when I need help on one of these events."

"I can imagine. But after three years of studying gaseous anomalies you can be sure my crew welcomes the change."

"I can relate to that. I'm ready for a change myself." She shot Spock a suddenly shy glance. "I've been given to understand that perhaps a berth is open on the Carter?"

Spock said, "If you are interested?"

Her smile became more brilliant. "If I'm interested? In serving on the first diplomatic ship in the fleet? I'd be crazy not to be. Tell me more. Admiral Young only teased me with the barest of details."

Sulu smiled at both of them, "You have a lot to discuss. If you'll excuse me, Captain, Commander?"

Cassidy said, "Of course, Captain."

Spock nodded to his colleague, then turned back to her. "I assume your enthusiasm would indicate acceptance?"

"You assume right, sir." She gestured toward the door. "Perhaps you could tell me about the position while we walk over to the reception?"

He found her eagerness compelling. And not unlike another young woman's enthusiasm. He could feel himself pulling away and forced himself not to. This woman was not Valeris, for all the small similarities he kept seeing between them. She deserved her own chance.

She was studying him, her smile fading. "Did I do something wrong, Captain?"

His voice was very gentle as he shook his head. "Not at all, Commander. You must forgive me, it has been a difficult few months. I am not at my best." The admission was unusual for a Vulcan and he could see by her expression that she recognized that. He added, "I am pleased you will be joining us, Commander."

"Not as pleased as I am, Captain." Her grin was threatening again. "Now...please...tell me about the position?"

He could feel something in him responding to her interest and lightness. His earlier dark mood started to ease and he had no difficulty indulging her curiosity about her new position on the short walk to the reception hall.

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

Tuvok had not wanted to come to the reception but his immediate supervisor, Stennix, had made it clear it was not optional. No more optional than having to check over the science officer's data and footnotes on the article for the "New Journal of Scientific Exploration" or finishing the monthly departmental report. Not that he was alone in that. Valtane also shared the work, but in regard to the extra tasks Stennix placed on them both, Valtane saw it as an opportunity to learn. Not a perspective Tuvok shared as he found the work tedious as well as being beyond the scope of their duties. As for the social obligation, Tuvok thought looking across the room to where Valtane had abandoned him to flirt with a human female, it was obvious this was not something Valtane found onerous. So absorbed was he in his thoughts, he was startled to hear a voice beside him.

"The secret of these functions is to appear to be at ease, Ensign. May I suggest that standing by the punchbowl, looking as if you are classifying your fellow celebrants as lower life-forms is not the way to do that."

Tuvok was taken aback that the sourness of his thoughts were visible on his face. "I beg pardon, Captain Spock, I was not aware I was expressing such an emotion. I find it hard to navigate my way through these human rituals and look like I am having 'fun.'"

"No one expects you to have fun, Mister Tuvok. You are, after all, Vulcan. In fact, the majority of your human colleagues will expect you to not enjoy such social interactions. But there is a difference, subtle though it may be, between not enjoying the event and appearing superior. It is a fine distinction, one that I too have struggled with for years."

Tuvok thought that feeling superior was far from his thoughts and a rather presumptuous assumption. But it occurred to him that here was a man that must have struggled through many of his questions and concerns. "Has it been worth it? The struggle to fit in with humans, non-Vulcans?" He was slightly appalled at the wistfulness in his own voice.

Curiously, Spock's expression darkened for a moment as if remembering the times it hadn't been worth it, then lightened a bit. "Yes, Ensign, it has been worth it. For every trial and difficulty there are moments of immense satisfaction. And you will find that humans are quite exceptional if you give them the chance to be."

Asking whether humans were worth it was not really what he had meant. But whether the struggle was. He feared that by the end of his Starfleet service, without other Vulcans around to remind him, he'd give ground until all his work to stay on Surak's path would be undone. He thought of the captain telling him he'd have to develop a sense of humor. Valtane telling him he had to lighten up. Commander Rand "joking" with him and expecting him to understand. Some of Stennix's sarcastic remarks he chose not to hear. "But can you remain among them, gain their respect, and stay a Vulcan?"

Spock shot him a puzzled glance. "Of course. There is no roadmap I can give you for that. No steps to take. Interactions with humans are unpredictable and you must be flexible enough to deal with them and learn from them while also retaining your Vulcan core. It is ever a balancing act. But in the end, I think, worth it."

Tuvok thought that was hardly a helpful comment. Perhaps even if Spock had once worked through the same questions, it was impossible to fully communicate the answers. "My father will think I have lost my balance indeed when he learns I am contemplating transferring out of the sciences into tactical. The Vulcan way is peace is it not? Our security chief argues that I would be helping to keep the peace and I admit I find him persuasive. Have I already lost my way?"

This was the question much on his mind at late. He was standing here with a man already considered a legend by his people. A man whose example had drawn many into Starfleet. But part of what made that palatable was that Spock, even if he had fought by Kirk's side, had started a scientist and had ended a diplomat. To specialize in Security was to specialize in at best controlled violence. Yet Tuvok could not deny he felt something akin to excitement at Thren's offer. Tactics, strategy, investigation, bringing order into chaos, this drew him as study of stellar phenomena could not. And he would be working for someone who treated him with respect, rather than--how did Spock put it--as a lower life form?

"Lost your way?" Spock answered. "If you believe the path in front of you is the right one for you, then you must follow it. You cannot let your father's disapproval be an issue in this. My father did not approve of my life choices, either. I had to decide if making my own way, my own choices outweighed that disapproval."

"It is not so much his disapproval I fear, but my own." Truly, could this man offer nothing but platitudes? Tuvok couldn't help but feel a keen disappointment in the man who had been held up to him so long as a model. Nevertheless, this man's life and accomplishments, even if not his advice, were to be honored. "Certainly not just your words, but your example gives me much to think about." He inclined his head, ready to leave, when Spock's words drew him back.

"But while you are thinking, it is prudent to remember than logic is only the beginning of wisdom. There are times when the emotions that we Vulcans are so fond of saying we do not have will surface and you must find a way to deal with them."

Tuvok thought of his hard-won struggle to put passion behind him. To put Jara behind him in his studies with the Vulcan Master and become the proper, restrained Vulcan that could be accepted back into his family and school. He had been foolish to think that this man who knew so little of his context could have much to offer him. "Yes, I have learned early what we are supposed to do in such an instance. Thank you for your words, Captain."

"Ensign Tuvok, nothing in your life up to now could possibly have prepared you for what you will face in your Starfleet career. It is not logical, but it is a fact. I wish you luck in your journey, Ensign."

"Luck, sir?" Tuvok raised an eyebrow. Even the human Valtane was fond of saying people made their own luck. A scientist, let alone a Vulcan, should above all not trust in luck.

Spock nodded. "There is such a thing as fortune. I would not have believed it either as a young man."

And neither, Tuvok thought, do I. "I will keep that in mind. Good 'luck' to you as well." It would seem he would have to find his own answers. Perhaps, in the end, that was all anyone could do.

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

Masters leaned on the bulkhead and enjoyed watching Kettering for a while unseen. She had been disappointed he hadn't come to Scotty's memorial and was pretty sure why he hadn't. Probably felt it wasn't his place, that he wasn't important enough or close enough to Scotty to belong there. Except memorials weren't for those who died. They were for those who were left behind. She knew Sulu and Rand had stuck close to the old Enterprise bridge crew at the service and afterwards. That had never really been the crowd she hung around with so she had spent her time with Scott's old engineering lads and lasses on the Excelsior project and on the eleven ships on which Scott had served, especially the Enterprise. The gathering after the memorial among them had been weepy and raucous and maudlin and hilarious and she knew would probably not have been to Kettering's liking--but Scotty would have loved it.

Suddenly she felt irritated he hadn't noticed her. "I so love a nice shiny ship. Had to come see your new toy," she said.

He straightened up slowly, but didn't turn around. "It's not really a toy, Charlie."

She produced a throaty laugh. "And you're not a little boy. Sorry. Did I irritate you?"

He turned slowly. "Irritate me? When would you ever do that?"

He was staring at her. Can't help yourself can you? she thought.

"You look good," he said.

So did he. Damn him. She favored him with a cat in cream smile, but then turned serious. She moved close to him almost touching. "I thought I did irritate you. A bit. I always know I have when you call me Charlie in that tone of voice. But I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean to diminish what you've accomplished, Ron. She's a sweet ship."

He grinned. "She is, isn't she? Not that I had much to do with the design specs, other than what we all did back when Excelsior was just a gleam in our collective eye." He ran his hand over a control panel. "She's benefited from all the research, all the hard work." He looked over at her, she could tell he was trying to keep this serious but noticed he couldn't keep his eyes off her. "All the sweat."

She felt the old irritation rising. This was not a side of Ron she found attractive. "I hate it when you do that. Put yourself down that way. You contributed a lot more back in the days of the Excelsior project than just picking the color of the paint." Without Kettering, they would have kept going down the dead end of the transwarp maze. To her mind it was just as crucial in engineering to know when not to pursue the impossible as it was to work miracles. Maybe more. Scotty himself had recognized that.

"Oh, we both know you and Scott were the brains of that operation. I learned a lot from both of you." He turned away from her. "I have to admit, it's nice to call this my own. You can learn a lot on your own too, when there's no miracle worker around to run to."

She found his Scotty idolatry exasperating. Especially when he constantly used it as the standard against which he always found himself wanting. And God knows that for all she had been genuinely fond of Scotty, he had hardly been the perfect boss. "Dammit Ron, yes, Scotty was brilliant, even a genius, especially in a crisis--but he's not the bloody patron saint of engineering. You're just as good where it counts."

"I wasn't just talking about Scotty."

"God, please tell me you don't mean to include me in that. I'm an engineer. Not a miracle worker. I'm happy to leave sainthood to others. I'm a flesh and blood woman and I like it that way."

He reached out and touched her hand, out of sight of anyone watching. It was a subtle move and he let his hand linger. "I remember the flesh part." Then he pulled away. "And don't try to distract me. I had a good whine going." He grinned at her, the smile of a man who likes the person he's talking to as opposed to just wanting them.

"Now that's where we differ. I like being distracted." She ran a finger playfully down his cheek.

"Oh, Charlie. You know this isn't smart." He seemed to be holding back a moan.

"And I'm the smart one?" she said ruefully. This was impossible. She had to know she couldn't be near him and not have all the old feelings stir up. "Sorry. I...God, is it so terrible to say I missed you? It's hard not to be reminded of you on Excelsior. We built her and every panel"--she flashed him a wicked grin--"every Jefferies tube has its memories. Some very good memories."

His answering grin was just as wicked. "Didn't we laser our initials into tube 14 F?"

She linked arms with him and leaned in to him. "I told you we made our mark on Excelsior. Just like you'll make your mark here. Show me around?"

"I'm not sure I'll make exactly the same mark here," he said laughing. "So you want the grand tour. Warp drive and all the fixings?"

"From stem to stern and beyond."

"How far beyond?"

She gave him that throaty laugh again and threw him an insinuating grin.

"I missed that laugh," he said. He led her to the main warp drive. "Well, here it is." He gave her an appraising look. "You've seen one antimatter converter, you've seen them all. What do you say we start with the 'and beyond' part?"

"I thought you said that wasn't smart," she said gently. But she didn't really want to be smart. Hoped he didn't want to be either.

"Well, I never claimed to be smart," he countered. "But if you'd rather see the manifolds and power couplings I'm good with that too." He grinned, apparently trying to take the urgency off his suggestion that they adjourn.

"I love power couplings. I live for power couplings. And Jefferies tubes. We could start there?"

He smirked just a bit. "One Jefferies tube. Coming up."

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

As she wove an amorphous red shape into an otherwise black-on-black pattern, Nako reached out with her mind, trying to find the threads of fate and destiny that she had always been so adept at reading in the past. There was nothing. If she tried to reach back in time, she could find where the threads unraveled, but the present and future were locked away from her. She could not remember a time when she had felt so helpless. Slumping in her chair, she pushed the loom away from her. The dark pattern stared back at her and she closed her eyes, unwilling to see it.

She had not left her quarters since the ship had finally broken orbit and left Taillte far behind, but unlike the last time she had sequestered herself, no one had checked on her. She had become incidental, marginalized.

No, she corrected herself. In the past, she was on the margins. Now she was squarely in the middle of the game, one of the players. There was no way to move forward with any certainty. But perhaps there was a way to go back, if things could be set right? If she was willing to do what it would take to claw her way to the sidelines, which had always been her position of power. She smiled grimly. There had never been a time when she had not been willing to do whatever it took. But the price seemed to be growing increasingly higher. If Taillte had been right, if there was someone watching beings such as her and Nako, what would they say? How would they judge Nako? Would they judge her? Or would they understand that some things were worth the price? Some actions necessary?

Nako's door chimed and she got up, moving more slowly than she normally would across the room. The door opened at her touch and she stared up at Spock. "Grandson?"

"Nako, I have not seen you since we left Taillte. Are you all right?"

She was unaccountably touched at his concern. "I am fine, Spock. Just tired. All that fresh air wore me out."

"I have never known you to be tired, Nako, much less 'worn out.'"

She smiled, trying to convey her old serenity but suspecting that the expression fell short. "I am an old woman and allowed to be fatigued." She moved away from the door. "Come in and keep me company for a few minutes?"

He stepped into the room, went immediately to the loom. Frowning slightly as he touched the rough fabric, he turned to her. "This does not look like your normal work."

She nodded, grimaced slightly. "I know. It's coarse and dark. It's what my hands and heart tell me to weave, so I do. But I don't like it."

He let his hand linger on the red. "This is jarring," he said, his tone unexpectedly harsh.

She studied him as he stood there. She could sense the pain inside him, the terrible churning of his emotions. A churning that she'd had a hand in. She closed her eyes for a moment. She was no stranger to watching her children suffer, but in this case, she had been trying to spare Spock pain, not cause him more. "Are you all right?" she said softly.

He seemed not to hear her, but then she realized that he was shaking his head ever so slightly.

"Do you wish to speak of what troubles you?"

His look darkened and his hand jerked a bit as he pulled away from the loom.

"Spock? I am here for you, you know that. Whatever you are feeling, it won't shock me. I won't judge you for having emotions."

He turned to look at her, his expression controlled and his voice even. "I am fine. There is nothing to talk about."

Nako sighed. "I know Christine's choices of late have hurt you." It was dangerous to push him when he so clearly did not want to discuss this with her. But she needed to know how much she should worry, how far she had to go to save him. To save what would be. Not that she could see what would be anymore, she thought sourly.

Spock turned away, walked to her viewport. "Christine's choices are none of your concern, Nako."

His tone cut her, arresting her in midstep as she walked toward him. "There was a time you would have trusted me with this. There was a time you confided in me, Spock."

His whole body tightened, his tone was harsh now. "It would be best if you left this alone. I do not wish to speak of it now...or ever."

Nako swallowed. She had never heard such raw emotion in his voice. Anger and pain and some even darker form of resignation colored his tone, making his words sharp enough to cut deep. She could not reach him this way.

She could not reach him at all. Would never be able to until some things were undone. She only had to figure how to do that.

"Of course, Spock. I beg forgiveness for intruding in your affairs." She sat down on the couch. "May we speak of other things? Pelria, for instance?"

Spock turned to look at her. "You are against our mission there."

"Not against it per se, Spock. How could I be against peace? I just don't understand how they could be ready for a ceasefire. It is not in the Pelrian nature to seek peace as a steady state, you know that. Have you forgotten what happened the last time a mediator was sent to the planet?"

"The peace lasted a month."

"And the Federation teams that were assigned to help peace take hold were caught in the crossfire when it broke down. Fifty people dead, countless more Pelrians with them."

He nodded thoughtfully. "I have thought of that. But is peace not worth the risk?"

"It depends on how this peace is being achieved. We both know that it is not unknown for cultures to evolve, to learn over time how to bury hatred or the lust for violence...if there is enough will to find common ground. I have seen no indication that the Pelrians have reached this stage."

"Nevertheless, we must go there to help if we can." His tone sounded final, and a bit harsh still. He seemed to realize that. "I do recognize that this is a volatile situation. I have Lieutenant Myrax working with Kerr's people in the holo-reality system to try to chart out the latest battles of the conflict. The Federation briefs are incomplete at best, even on such recent events."

"The alliances shift like quicksand on Pelria, today's allies are yesterday's foes," Nako said, remembering how chaotic the planet had seemed the last time she visited it. Granted, that had been a long time ago.

"Exactly. I have been trying to establish the alliances during each period, and how that compares to the situation we face now." He turned to look at her. "I thought Myrax might bring me further clarity with her work in the h-r system."

"Plus it gives the poor child something to do," Nako said with a grin, wondering what had possessed Myrax to accept this posting. As one of the first Maneans to graduate from the Academy, she should have been serving where she could do the most good, on a starship like Excelsior or Enterprise, not the Carter.

"There is that," he conceded.

"You may get no further clarity, Spock. Some people just prefer war. And Pelria has no history of a sustained peace. Not for two thousand years."

"The current ruler has a dream of peace, Nako. He is charismatic and has swayed many to his point of view. The tide may have turned for this planet."

Nako felt a surge of frustration. "He is no Surak, if that is what you are thinking, Spock." She could tell by his expression that it was. "Just do not fall under his spell. Things are often not what they seem." How well did she know that?

Spock nodded. "I am aware of that." He walked to the door, then he turned back. "I have not announced it yet, but Commander Troi's replacement has been named. I believe you worked with Commander Cassidy in the past, did you not?"

Nako thought of the young ensign that had so eagerly accompanied her on a trade negotiation. A good child, ambitious but with a caring soul. Nako had lost track of her after that mission. "Yes, but it was a long time ago."

"I think you will find her a pleasant addition to Diplomatic," Spock said and something in his tone gave Nako pause. Was that the answer to her own situation? Not doing whatever it took, but finding a new path, a new outlet? If Spock found happiness elsewhere, could Nako begin to gather the threads that had torn and tattered when she had tried to weave them together against their will? Would she again see the full pattern?

"It will be good to work with her again," she said neutrally as he left. She walked over to her loom, picked up her fabric knife and tried to slice through the pattern that she had just woven, but her hand shook as she set the blade against the red splotch. She bore down and the knife slipped out of her hand, clattered on the table.

She backed away from the loom, felt tears in her eyes and touched them incredulously. How many centuries had it been since she cried?

She had thought she was not capable of crying any longer. It was a shock that she could still weep. And she did not know if she cried for Spock, for herself, or for what she would have to do in the future to put it all right for both of them.

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

Janice had to admit the Carter made an impressive sight on the viewing screen. Christine, in fact all of the old Enterprise crew, had been much on her mind since Scotty's funeral. There was an unworthy part of her, Janice had to admit, that felt competitive with Christine, that felt jealous that she at the very least was on close familiar terms now with the man she had loved so passionately those many years ago while Janice had never felt comfortable even being on a first name basis with Kirk. Knowing that, Janice had been dreading seeing Christine again. Yet when she had heard the familiar voice on the comm, she felt a rising excitement and was eager to take up Christine on her invitation to visit.

After beaming aboard, she turned down the offer of a crewman to show her to Chapel's office. The newer ships like Carter and Excelsior were built on similar lines and she was sure she could make her way there, that like her office it could be found to the rear of the bridge near the captain's ready room. She felt a sense of wonder and pride as she made her way down the corridors. We made it, she thought. Both of us. She felt some of the old sharp kinship. It would be nice, she thought wistfully, to talk to someone who'll really understand. Someone I'm not responsible for or to. She grinned to see that she was right about where to find the office. She could see Christine through her open office door and poked her head in. "So, Hon, you going to show me around this fancy ship of yours?"

"Only if you show me around your fancy ship."

They hugged hard and Janice found it hard to let go. "I think I'm jealous, this ship is so new, I think I can smell the paint."

"You think you can smell it now. You should have been here when they were painting. God, it reeked."

Janice wandered over to one of the shelves. It held figurines of goddesses of various cultures and varied materials. She fingered one graceful sculpture with delicately pointed ears carved in sand colored stone. Vulcan? A gift from Spock? "I see you still collect these. I still have the one you gave me."

"The Saraswati," Christine said softly; she looked pensive.

"Penny?" Janice asked.

Chapel laughed. "Save it for later."

"Oh, I dunno. I feel like I have a whole piggy bank full. I can splurge."

"Okay then, Ms. Moneybags. I was just lost in the past. And that's all you're getting for a penny."

"Well, for friends I can be a spendthrift. Seems I don't get to spend it on you these days. Used to be I got more for my money."

Chapel nodded, again looked pensive. "Used to be. Could have been. Such sad words, Jan."

"Why sad? I don't understand, Chris."

Christine appeared to force herself back to the here and now. "Sad because all we really have is now. And aren't I a downer? Let me show off this ship and see if I can find a better mood." She still seemed to feel the need to explain. "It's been weird here lately."

"Jeez, I guess." Janice remembered Renata's death, some of the things she had observed when they'd last met. "I thought you were happy though. With this ship. And you and Spock are friends now?"

Christine looked even more pensive. "Friends." There was a long pause. "Yes, we're friends."

Janice hung undecided for a moment then went and closed the door. "Okay, we're not doing the tour. I want you to talk to me. Really talk. I mean if you want. I saw you and Spock. On Earth, at the memorial."

"Jan...Jan, it's..." She started to tear up.

Janice felt at a loss. Part of her wanted to offer physical comfort with a squeeze of a shoulder or rub on the back but something caused her to hold herself apart. "Complicated? I can believe it."

"How much did you see? At the memorial?"

"Enough to believe that what I was seeing was two people in love. Yet when you talked about Kerr..."

"You were seeing two people in love. I love him." She sighed. "But I'm not with him. I love Randall. I guess...I love him more. And it's so hard. It's tearing me up inside, Jan. And I think it's doing even worse to Spock."

"And yet you're all staying together. On the ship? Isn't that asking for pain? Forcing you to think and rethink your choices." The part of her that was the first officer rather than the friend was appalled. For her this was clear-cut. When these kinds of relationships went bad, you separated the parties. For the good of the ship if nothing else.

"How can I leave him? He needs us. Both of us." She looked down. "And...and there's this bond between us."

"A bond? A Vulcan bond? I think I can understand better than you might think. Something like what you've felt all those years for Spock. It's powerful. If I had that chance with Kirk.... Yet I can't imagine leaving Sulu for him. And yet if you have a bond, you can't walk away from this. I know that."

"But part of me wants to walk away, Jan. Part of me wants to run like hell."

"And might that not be the best thing? For all of you? For you and Kerr to leave? If you can break this bond? If, as you say, this is tearing Spock apart and you don't want to choose him. You don't? Do you? And leave Kerr? It's not as if you can have both of them."

Christine gave her an odd look. "Well, not in this universe, that's for damn sure." She was quiet for a long moment. "Being with Spock--and I have been 'with' Spock--it's everything I've ever wanted from him. But being with Randall, it's like coming home."

"Let me put it this way. Do you see any way--bond or no bond--that the three of you can stay together on this ship and not be miserable? Does Kerr know?"

"He knows. He knows everything. God, we all know everything. But that's partly my fault. I couldn't choose, and Spock wouldn't let go, and Randall...well there were some other things going on with him. I think it might get better now. If we try to pull away a bit, Spock and I. We have to try."

Janice slowly shook her head. "I think you're fooling yourself. I know that if I had a chance with Kirk dangled in front of me every day, if I'd had him once and it was everything I had ever hoped, if I stayed, sooner or later it would destroy me. It would destroy everything I have with Sulu, and if Kirk loved me back the way you say Spock loves you, I think it would eat at him too."

Chris looked down, her face wore the same expression as when they had been talking about the Saraswati. "You'd leave the ship. You'd run because you couldn't stand to see him with Spock. Not when you'd had him. Not when you'd lost him."

Janice couldn't follow where this was going. See who with Spock? Kerr? Slowly she realized Chris had to be talking about something else. Spock and Kirk. And her. The Enterprise all those years ago after V'Ger and her making up her mind she wasn't going to stay and watch it start up all over again. She felt stung by the implied criticism. She hadn't remembered Chris sticking around for that either. "Lost him? I never had him. Not Kirk. So are you saying I can't really understand what you're going through?" She had to work hard to keep the anger out of her voice. "Or just that you're so much stronger you're sure you can handle this where I couldn't?"

"Not really either of those." Chapel made a sheepish face. "I think I'm finally trying to tell you something that I'm not sure you want to hear. But I'm so damn tired of secrets, Jan. So goddamn tired."

Janice looked closely at her friend, saw the signs of the fatigue in her face and posture and her anger died. She couldn't understand why this conversation seemed to be spinning out of control. "I can see that. I was just trying to say that I think, that I thought, I can understand what you're going through, Maybe it's arrogant of me to imply I know the answer. So if there's something you have to tell me, spit it out. I'm not good at the telepathy thing."

"Do you remember why I gave you the Saraswati?"

"I remember you told me you wanted it to have a good home, but it had painful associations for you."

Christine nodded. "Every time I looked at it, I saw the man who gave it to me. A man I lost. A man I really loved." Her voice became quieter. "A man I never told you I was involved with."

Janice felt a rising irritation. "Am I supposed to play twenty questions? Who, Chris? Why all the drama and suspense? Why is this someone you didn't want to tell me about?"

"Because I was afraid that if you knew, you'd never forgive me. Because you were in love with him too."

"Jim." She felt it like a sucker punch to the stomach. What a fool she had been. "Why don't you just say it? Why, draw this out?" She laughed. "And you gave the Saraswati to me of all people. Why me, Chris? Why? Was that your idea of a joke?"

"It was never a joke. And I didn't do it to hurt you. It seems mean now, though, looking back. But I wanted someone to have it who loved him as much as I did."

Janice laughed again. Heard the ragged, hysterical edge to it and hated herself for it. "Very sweet. And why tell me this now? I mention Kirk, tell you that I think I could understand because of him, and you can't resist telling me I'm a fool to think that? You've had it all: win, place, and show. The man you loved hopelessly for years. The man I loved for years. And one you'd choose over both. Why tell me this way? What does Kirk have to do with any of it? Do you want to hurt me so much? Do you need to see someone else in pain?"

"Janice, no. That's not what I meant. I've had to lie for so long. I couldn't tell you that I understood how you felt about him. And I wanted to. But not to hurt you. Never to hurt you."

"You're very good at doing what you say you don't mean to do." Cruel, Chris. And not just to me she thought. You'd rather tell yourself Spock needs both of you and put him through agony than make a clean break? She forced those words down as she had forced down the laughter. "What do you want me to say? That I can understand how you could love him? That it's been so many years it doesn't hurt, that you shouldn't have expected it to hurt? When I told you I could understand because of what I felt for him? Still feel for him. Tell me what to say, Chris. Really, because I can't find it in me to embrace you and say it's all fine and that I understand now."

"Maybe I don't want you to tell me that. If it could only be fine when you didn't know, then maybe it was never fine between us at all." She shook her head. "Life isn't fair, Janice. You should have been there, instead of me, on Earth that day in the corridors when I ran into Jim. Then maybe we'd be having a very different conversation or not having one at all? But it wasn't you, it was me. And I just wanted you to know that. And I know it isn't easy. But it was a lie that was between us, even if you didn't know it."

"No, I guess it never was fine between us. Or at least hasn't been for years. Not if you felt you could never trust me with this. Could spend all those years holding my hand, telling me you could understand how I felt about Jim and let me believe you meant Spock." Janice could feel the sting of tears in the back of her eyes and knew she had to leave soon. She wouldn't cry in front of Christine, show her that kind of vulnerability. "This wasn't about us--or Jim. But you didn't have the guts to either deal with your pain, or tell me to my face I was stupid to think we're friends, to expect you to open up to me. So instead you lobbed a bomb into the conversation. You know, you are right about one thing. I am different than you. I don't believe in staying around to be dealt more pain. I think I've had enough. Don't bother with the tour. I can see myself out."

"Janice. Janice, please come back," said Christine.

But it was too late to come back. Janice could already feel the tears on her face.

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

Christine sat numbly, watching Rand walk out, helpless to do more than hold a hand out and say, "Janice, no. Come back."

The door opened and closed behind the woman who had been one of her closest friends.

"Damn." Christine let her hand drop. If there had been a moment when she could have called Janice back, it was gone now.

"Damn it!" She slammed her hand down on her desk and immediately regretted it. The pain caused tears, tears she tried to blink away with little success. What the hell had she been thinking telling Janice about Kirk that way? Had she been thinking?

Why had she done it? She'd hurt Janice, had realized she was doing it and couldn't stop herself.

Her door chimed and she hurriedly wiped her eyes. "Come," she said, hoping against hope that it was Janice.

Penhallon came in, several padds in his hand. "Spock asked me to arrange the VIP tour and I've got Diplomatic set up but I wasn't sure what you wanted to do with Medi--" He frowned as he saw her face. "This a bad time?"

She nodded but handed him the padd she'd prepared for the tour. "Not that it should make a difference."

As he took the padd, he gave her a wryly sympathetic smile. "You want to talk about it?" When she didn't answer, he said, "Maybe it has to do with the very angry commander I passed on the way in? You're glaring, so I must be right." He sat down. "I take it this was personal and not a difference of opinion over who sat where at yesterday's ceremony?"

"I stayed on board," she said, hoping he'd leave this alone.

"That's right, you did. Not like you to miss an opportunity to get off the ship. But you're trying to distract me and it won't work. What's going on with you?" When she didn't answer, he shook his head. "You'd rather keep this all bottled up?"

She sighed in defeat. "That's what I was trying not to do."

"I don't follow."

"The angry commander and I served together on the Enterprise. I told her about Kirk." She looked up. "I'd never told her."

He frowned. "Well, if that's the general reaction, I can understand why you kept it a secret for so long."

She sighed again, forced herself to meet his eyes. "She was in love with him. Still is." He was staring at her. "What?" she said as she realized he wasn't on her side any longer. "I didn't want there to be any more secrets."

"You needed to unburden?" He shook his head. "Don't you know by now that doing that is only good for the person getting the secret off her chest? It's usually nothing that the person you've chosen to share it with ever wanted to know."

"I wanted to clear the air between us," she said heatedly, leaning forward.

"Why? Was the air bad?"

Christine rubbed at her eyebrow in frustration; she could feel her hand shaking. "You don't understand."

"Do you?" He reached over, drew her hand away from where she was pushing it hard against her forehead. He held it for a moment, his skin warm against her own, then he set it down on top of her other hand, patted it gently and pulled away. "Christine, you're so damn impulsive. You make me look reasoned." He shook his head, eyeing her with some mixture of fondness and exasperation. "If I learned anything from Taillte--"

"--We're not on Taillte anymore, Stephen."

"But she's with us, and she always will be. That experience changed us."

"Changed you, you mean." She knew her tone was harsh, tried to temper her words. "I appreciate what you're saying."

He laughed. "No, you don't. Or you wouldn't be so angry at me."

"I'm not angry at you."

He gave her a strange look. "But you are. When I saw you the other day, you were definitely mad at me."

She closed her eyes as she realized he must have run into the Chapel from the other universe. "I wasn't mad. It was just a bad day."

"You gave me that look you used to favor me with when I first came onboard. The one that looked like you were trying to figure out what rock I had just crawled out from under."

"I wasn't myself." It wasn't a lie, exactly.

His eyes narrowed. "No, you weren't. When I ran into you, you were talking to Spock and Kerr. You were different. The way you treated them, the way you looked at Spock especially."

She put her head in her hands. "This is a nightmare."

"No, dearest, that was the Pesadii. This is something else entirely, isn't it?" He leaned forward. "It's confession time, Christine."

She looked at him. "It's in the logs."

"Why would I read the logs, Christine? Nothing's happening, we've been en route." Then his eyes widened. "I knew I saw Admiral Sylan talking to Spock. When he wasn't on board later, I thought I was going crazy." He shook his head. "I'll have to make it a point to pay closer attention to the logs."

She nodded. "It was the storm. Admiral Young and I beamed up in the middle of it. We ended up in different parallel universes."

He smiled widely. "So that wasn't you?"

She shook her head.

"Well, that makes me feel immeasurably better. I couldn't figure out why we were back to square one. Or worse."

"Worse, I think. You...the other you and the other me really didn't get along."

His eyes twinkled. "You met me? What was I like?"

"Same as you are here. Irritating, cocky--"

"--Irresistible, dependable, devastatingly attractive," he finished for her. Then he smiled gently. "And putty in your hands?"

She tried to hide her smile. "It's possible."

"Oh, I know you, Christine. I...he didn't stand a chance. Especially if he was used to being looked at the way she looked at me. He's your devoted servant...but probably not hers."

She thought of how she'd asked that Penhallon to look out for his Chapel. "We'll never know," she said noncommittally.

Penhallon was silent for a moment, then he suddenly smirked. "So about the way she was looking at your two fellas..."

"I have no comment on that, Commander."

"So, I guess I won't find that in the mission logs?"

"You guess right." She stood up, suddenly restless. She walked over to the shelf that held the T'Janra that Janice had been looking at earlier. "But I guess you could say that making a choice isn't my strong suit in any universe. Especially that one." She touched the goddess gently, wondered what Janice would do with the Saraswati now. "I'm not a very admirable person, Stephen." She could sense him coming up behind her.

"No one is perfect." He picked up a small porcelain bust of Athena. "No one is a god. Or a goddess." He put the piece back carefully. "We're just human. Some of us more so than others." He glanced at her sideways and grinned.

She found herself responding, then her smile faded as she thought of Rand's stormy expression as she'd left. "I may have lost a friend forever today. Is that so easily excused?"

"Only you can decide that. Only you can decide if you can make amends." He turned to look at her fully. "If you even want to. And she doesn't have to accept. You may never get her back."

She nodded slowly.

"Do you care?" His look was concerned.

She felt the deep weariness that she'd been fighting since they'd left Taillte rush over her again. "I care," she said, but her voice held no energy, no real conviction. Did she care? Did she care about anything?

"I feel it too," his voice was a whisper in her ear. "Like a part of me is missing. A part I wonder if I'll ever get back."

She turned to look at him. It had never occurred to her that there would be a physical effect from leaving Taillte, from losing the connection they'd had with the planet. But he was right. She hadn't noticed it because she'd attributed the lethargy she felt, the slight depression that threatened to what had been going on in her personal life. "We lost her."

"Not lost. I won't believe that. But misplaced." His smile was gentle. "I think it'll be all right in time. It has to be..." His look was worried for a moment, then he turned to her, his grin a bit forced. "In the meantime, don't unburden yourself to anyone else. Keep those secrets where they belong."

"Hidden?" Her smile was slightly bitter but she didn't try to conceal how she was feeling.

"Hidden," he agreed. "Or tell me. I doubt I can be shocked anymore." He turned to go.

She reached out, touched his arm. When he turned back, she said, "That other Chapel is a fool if she can't see what kind of friend you could be."

He touched her hand briefly, then pulled away. "Let's hope she comes to her senses. For both their sakes." He winked at her. "You're a handful, Commander. But you do keep life interesting on this ship."

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

Janice had brushed past one officer she didn't know almost as soon as she left Christine's office and, unfortunately, soon after, one she did. "Hey," Masters called out as Janice pushed quickly past her without acknowledgment.

She used her time in the turbolift to regain some composure. By the time she appeared on the Excelsior's transporter pad, all traces of tears were gone and she had recovered a brittle outward calm. Her command demeanor had cracked exactly twice on Excelsior--both ironically because of Jim Kirk and right on the bridge. The first time when she had listened as he was sentenced to a lifetime on Rura Penthe, the second when she had heard of his death over the communications channel. She was determined there wouldn't be a third time. Fortunately, this time she wasn't needed on the bridge for hours and she made her way quickly to the sanctuary of her own quarters and immediately engaged the privacy locks. Even Sulu would respect that.

Still dressed in her uniform, she threw herself onto the bed. She clawed at the pillows and then pulled them to her for comfort. Now was the time to have a good cry but the tears wouldn't come at her convenience. Instead she had felt a dull ache behind her eyes and a hollow feeling at the pit of her stomach that she'd felt for months if she was honest with herself. Whenever she was alone. Ever since her relationship with Sulu had started. She had been afraid that in gaining the lover she would lose the friend--and she had been right. She loved him, she did. More than she had ever imagined loving anyone--and this time she was loved back.

But it wasn't all or even mostly roses and candlelight. It was feeling like a teen hiding from your parents' disapproval or like the other woman in an illicit affair. It was a narrow Starfleet issue bed in his quarters you didn't dare exchange for one wider for fear it would cause talk. It was waking up in the middle of the night when a junior officer came by with a message he was sure was urgent and you hiding in the fresher rather than be seen. It was not daring to reach out for a reassuring touch in public. It was wondering if you could still function if he were personally in danger. It was acting against your best judgment and erasing the logs not because your captain ordered you, but because the man you loved asked you to.

And you couldn't discuss any of this with your best friend--because he was the cause of it all and you didn't want to hurt him, have him doubt your love for him. And in the end Masters, Uhura, just about everyone you knew since you became locked into his orbit and drifted away from others were _his_ friends more than yours. People who wouldn't appreciate being put in the middle. People who you knew that if it became a matter of you or him, you'd lose.

But Christine had been _her_ friend. Or so she had thought. She had to admit Christine was another friend that had drifted away. But she hadn't thought so far that a tug at the tether wouldn't bring her back into reach. She and Chris had been so close once. Both on the periphery, down in the lower ranks. Both young and in love with men who wouldn't or couldn't love them back and too open and naïve back then to hide it well enough. Both trying to keep their dignity when people used them to hone their wit upon.

From here she could see the dresser on which she had placed the small sandalwood statue Christine had given her. Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of Knowledge. How funny was that? Christine's words kept running in her head. "But it wasn't you, it was me. And I just wanted you to know that." It had been his. Given to Christine. An old valuable possession, an heirloom Christine had told her all those years ago. Not the kind of keepsake one gave a casual amour. She'd "had" him, and Christine had wanted her to know it. That Kirk had loved Christine, not her. She felt too lethargic, felt too heavy to get up. Otherwise she'd get up right now and smash the figurine to pieces. She closed her eyes and imagined the old wood splintering when she threw it across the room. She imagined herself grinding it into matchsticks under her heel. The thought gave her no satisfaction.

She heard the door chime and called out an impatient "come" then remembered she had engaged the privacy lock. She dragged herself to the door and palmed it open. Sulu was in the doorway. She turned away from him and sat on the bed and he wordlessly followed, sat beside her and drew her into his arms. "Jana, Charlene told me you were upset."

"Charlene has a big mouth."

"She was worried about you. What happened?" he asked gently, firmly. It was always that quality that undid her. That ability to be patient, tender but utterly implacable so you knew it was best to give in. She turned into his arms and the sobs started. Ugly, messy thing that they always were and she buried her face on his shoulder to hide herself, putting her arms around him and clutching tightly, her fingernails digging into the uniform material. She waited for it to be over then pulled away wiping her face on her sleeve.

"Christine and I, well, we're not friends anymore." She looked into his concerned eyes, knew she couldn't hurt him as she had been hurt. They didn't avoid the subject of Kirk. She had made no secret of how she felt about her old captain back when Sulu was the understanding friend she had never thought would be more. It had been Kirk's death that had been what finally made her give in, that made her realize she didn't want to be alone anymore and caused her to take whatever comfort and love Sulu would give. But if opening up meant telling him she loved Kirk still, that Christine's revelation changed the very way she saw and felt about herself, then that she couldn't do. She couldn't risk the hurt that could bring. But maybe part of the truth? She chose her words carefully, slowly, watching him closely. "She told me she and Kirk had an affair. She'd had him, and lost him, and just wanted me to know that."

She felt him stiffen and pull away. "I see."

"It's not what she told me, it's how she did it. Jim is gone, and I never had him. And I'm not such a fool as to think he had 'Property of Rand' emblazoned across his chest. That she had no right to touch him--my private property. I have so much more now. I'm not some silly little yeoman with too much hair and too short a skirt with some silly crush. But she knew how I once felt--and we weren't even discussing him. We were discussing something else and she threw it in my face. She meant it to hurt."

"I find it hard to believe Christine would deliberately hurt you and that this came out of nowhere."

"Whose side are you on?"

"Yours always." He reached out and stroked her cheek. "But I know you, Jana. Sure Kirk's name didn't even come up? Perhaps out of some discussion of old times and feelings?" She turned away and clenched her hands into fists and he captured one hand and somehow entwined his fingers with hers. "Because if she loved him too, if she had been carrying this inside for years, every time you mentioned him, mentioned your feelings for him, it must have rubbed her raw. Opened the old wounds. Did she love him?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Look at me, Jana." He turned her back to him. Cupped her chin in his other hand. "I know you love him. Present tense. I don't feel any rivalry with Kirk or expect that feeling to go away. I'll always love Susan. Always love the mother of my child. If I couldn't have shared with you what I felt when she died I think I would have gone mad. So now that we're together, am I supposed to never speak about her again? You can't hurt me by talking about Kirk or how you loved him. But if you shut me out?"

Janice felt tired, emptied of words and just looked at him shaking her head.

Sulu sighed. "Was what she said so unforgivable? You've been friends a very long time."

"Yes, I think what she said was unforgivable. Because in the end it means we haven't been friends at all, not for years. She wouldn't trust me with this--"

"And look at your reaction now that she has. Maybe she feared losing you?"

"Then why tell me now? And I wouldn't have felt this way if she had told me years ago when it happened! Not if she had come to me as a friend."

"Are you sure about that?"

"I don't know." The truth. "But I still hate her and am in no mood to be fair."

"At least you admit you're not being fair."

"Hardly." But she couldn't keep herself from grinning and then joining in Sulu's laughter. She placed her fingers on his lips and he kissed them, then leaned into her and kissed her and she couldn't hold back a moan. Just like that she needed him--needed that kind of connection and release. Soon she was tangled up with him, both of them awkward and impatient as they removed the barriers of clothing between them. She had never closed her eyes when she was with him like this. Always did it in the light. Had never let her imagination wander free. Was afraid that as her pleasure peaked she'd call out the wrong name. This time she closed her eyes and traced lines in his bare skin with her fingers, let herself relax and trusted herself to stay in the present. How sad, she thought, to grow old before you grew up.

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

Kerr looked up as Christine came into his office. "Hey there. I didn't expect to see you till later."

She smiled. "I was doing some final coordination for Medical's part of the VIP tour. Thought I'd allow myself a slight detour on the way back to the bridge."

"Slight? What's four decks among friends?" He grinned. "Not that I mind seeing you. Have a seat."

"Is it okay if I close this?" she asked, hitting the door switch before he could answer.

He watched her as she stood by the door. She seemed unusually tentative. When she realized he was scrutinizing her, she gave him a sheepish smile.

"Come here," he said softly, standing up as she walked over to him, pulling her into his arms. "You okay?"

She nodded, relaxed against him, her arms going tightly around him. She looked up, grinned. "I was lonely for you."

He was immediately worried and it must have shown in his expression because she smiled in wry amusement. "I can miss you, Randall. It doesn't have to mean anything dire."

He leaned down, kissed her. "Given our past..."

For once, she didn't stiffen at his attempt to joke about the troubles they'd been through. She just burrowed against him and said, "Given that, I know. But I just wanted to see you."

He held her for a long moment, then asked, "What's wrong?"

She kissed him again. "I'm with you. What could be wrong?"

His door chime sounded before he could answer. She pulled away quickly and sat down, he followed suit. "Come."

Collins came in, pulling up short when he saw Christine. "Sorry, sirs. Didn't mean to interrupt."

Christine rose smoothly. "I was just leaving. I assume you're ready for the tour, Major?" She smiled at him and Kerr was happy to see that the smile she got back was a genuine one.

"Yes, sir. The lounge is shipshape and Bristol fashion."

She smiled. "I don't doubt it." She turned to Kerr. "I'll see you later, Colonel. Major."

"Commander," Collins said, waiting till the door closed behind her to turn to Kerr with a wide grin. "Was I interrupting something?"

Kerr laughed. "No."

"Right, boss." His look became thoughtful. "You're really serious about this one, aren't you?"

Kerr nodded. "I am. I'm crazy about her, Jeff. Sometimes I think I'm too crazy about her." He shot his friend a 'what can you do?' look.

Collin's expression was serious as he said, "Sometimes I've worried about that too. She and the captain...they seem awfully close."

Kerr took a deep breath. He didn't actually know what to tell Collins about that because his friend was right. Christine and Spock were way too close, and he didn't see how that was going to change. They were partners on this ship; they had the weird bond that was only appearing to get stronger. And they'd already cheated on him once. He knew Christine didn't want to hurt him again. He wanted to trust her, wanted to believe that she wouldn't slip up again. But he was having a harder time believing in their future then he had let on to her.

"Randall?" Collins rarely broke protocol when he was on duty, or at all. Hearing him use Kerr's name was a shock. "I saw her with Spock. She was...it didn't look like a professional conversation."

Kerr's head shot up. "You saw them when?"

"Day before yesterday."

Kerr shook his head. That damn other Chapel. God, how he wished he'd never met her. "That wasn't anything to worry about, Jeff. I know what was going on, and it wasn't what you think." Or Kerr hoped it wasn't anything that Collins might think of. He'd never spent a more uncomfortable moment than when that Chapel had told Spock and him about her domestic arrangements. She'd been so calm, so serene about the fact that they were all lovers.

Spock had seemed as embarrassed as Kerr, but Kerr had thought he'd seen something else in his face, some kind of interest, some kind of willingness to share Christine if it meant he could have some part of her. Despite what he had told his Christine, Kerr wasn't sure that he could do the same. The story the other Chapel had told him, and that his Christine had confirmed, was about three people that were all intensely involved in the relationship. Three people apparently in love with each other. They didn't have to deal with a bond that would leave him out every time he realized that Christine was feeling something he could never experience. Or that Spock was. He didn't want to think too much about that. He just knew it would never work in this reality. There were too many lies between them, too much betrayal.

"Wow, those must be some big thoughts?" Collins smiled to take the sting out of his teasing. "She worth all that thinking?"

Kerr nodded. "She is. She's worth every second." He grinned up at his friend. "What did you come in here for anyway?"

"Heard something in the hall and thought you should know...about Troi's replacement."

Kerr shot his friend a puzzled glance. Collins knew that he didn't care much about assignments in the regular fleet sections.

"It's Cassidy."

Kerr sat up. "No chance."

"'Fraid so, my fearless leader." Collins leaned in. "You think she's forgiven you yet for dumping her?"

Kerr closed his eyes. This was not good. But it made sense. Cassidy was an up and comer in the diplomatic ranks. Years ago, when she was only a lieutenant, they'd been lovers. Wonderfully, intensely, passionately in love. Or so everyone had thought. The relationship had actually provided an excuse for them to spend all their time together as she taught him everything she knew about being a section operative.

He sighed. This was not good. She knew him so well--she'd recruited him for God's sake. It would be difficult to fool her the way he would need to if he wanted her convinced that he was still a valuable member of the section.

Collins was watching him, a strange look on his face. "I thought you'd want to know?"

Kerr nodded. "Thanks. You did right."

"For what it's worth. I never liked her." Collins grinned. "It was a red letter day for me when you left her."

Kerr forced a smile. They'd never really broken up because they'd never had anything more than a physical connection. She'd cut him loose once he was ready to operate on his own, and then, to cover their tracks, acted as if he had hurt her badly when he left. In actuality, they had parted friends.

And she'd expect them to still be friends.

Was this coincidence? Was she assigned to the Carter only because she and Kerr had worked together so well in the past? Or did his superiors suspect he wasn't a full player? Had they sent Susan because she would know best if he was lying?

Kerr suddenly had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, like he'd eaten something bad for lunch. Could his life get any more complicated?

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

Christine sat in her office, staring at the goddesses lining the walls. In the past, the little collection had always made her feel calmer, more centered. She knew that they were just a means to focus her own thoughts and emotions, but that didn't matter. If she needed peace, she thought of Kuan Yin; courage, she thought of Kali; wisdom, Athena; calmness, Bast. They all played a role, even the T'Janra, which reminded her that things change, and the small Tara that Spock had also given her that would forever remind her of what she was capable of doing in the heat of passion...and of what that passion would feel like. The Saraswati had been like that, reminding her of her passion for Jim. Reminding her to such an extent that the little goddess had seemed to be boring into her soul every time she looked at it.

Why had she given the statue to Rand? Looking back, it could only seem like a cruel gesture. Christine rose, walked over to one of the lower shelves. Found the small Kali she had bought on a long ago vacation to Calcutta. Courage. She needed it now. She was tired of the ice that was growing up between Janice and her. Had to find a way to melt it, to make things right.

Had to find a way to make things right that didn't involve saying she was sorry that she had been Kirk's lover, because she wasn't sorry about that. Seeing him again...it had only reinforced that. She shook her head, smiled sadly as she put the Kali back in her place. Strange to think, even after all these years of being entrenched in this immense passion for Spock, that Jim remained the great love of her life. A love she had lost too soon, and by her own stupidity.

But she didn't have to lose Janice. At least not without trying to get her back. She'd tried with Kirk, so long ago, but not the way she should have, she hadn't been willing to lay open her soul. Christine wasn't exactly sure what that would entail, but it felt like what she needed to try. She hoped that she'd know what to say when she was face-to-face with Janice.

She left her office in a hurry, told Kavall, "You have the bridge, Lieutenant," and hurried down to the transporter room. Before she could lose her resolve, she gave the order for beam out, appeared on Excelsior's pad.

"Welcome aboard, Commander," the transporter chief said. "Can I get you an escort?"

"No need," she said, hoping it was true, as she hurried to the nearest lift. "Bridge," she told it, and quickly found herself on the Excelsior's bridge. It was bigger than the Carter's, but then everything about Excelsior was bigger than the Carter.

The officer in charge turned to look at her and she gestured that she was just heading to Rand's office. He nodded and turned back to his padd, while she made her way to the doors that stood open, just as her own often did. She peeked in. Her friend was working, her head down as she read a report.

Christine knocked softly, said, "Jan? Do you have a minute?"

Rand looked up slowly. "Certainly, Commander." She had a pleasantly professional and very false smile plastered on her face. Her voice was neither warm nor cold, the voice of a stranger as she asked, "How can I help you?"

Chapel walked into the office and sat down, willing to brave the chilly atmosphere and the even blanker look that came over Rand's face. "I want to talk about what happened the other day. I can't apologize, because we both know that nothing I say is going to take away the hurt. But I want to try to clear the air between us."

Rand lifted an eyebrow. "An apology usually helps. Unless, of course, it's insincere."

Chapel sighed. She was trying to control her temper but something about being around Janice was making her more inclined to lose it. And she hadn't come here just to fight again. "It probably would be insincere. I'm not sorry that you know about my relationship with Jim. But I am sorry that I just blurted it out in a way that hurt you."

Rand's voice was hoarse when she answered, "I've kept running your words over and over again in my head and it's always the same thing I come back to. You said, 'It was me. Not you. I just wanted you to know that.' Why? Why did you want me to know? Why aren't you sorry I know? Why now?"

Those were all good questions and Chapel knew she could never answer them. She tried for a simpler truth, saying, "Because I was tired of it being a big festering lie between us, that's why."

Rand shook her head. "I'll tell you how it sounded. Together with those words about you not running the way I would in the same circumstances, it sounded like you were saying that you're the better woman."

Christine felt her heart sink. Of all the things she had meant, that had not been one of them. "Jan, no. I didn't mean...when I said that about running...it's because _I_ ran. I ran from having to watch Jim and Spock together." She stood up, began to pace. This was harder than she had thought it would be. "Look, I reacted...I reacted because I was mad at you, at how matter-of-factly you had summed up and analyzed and solved my situation. It was all so simple to you. I should just leave." She saw Janice was about to say something, held up her hand to stop her. "And I hated you for that. I hated you because you were right. And you're the better person because you'd do that. You'd leave. And I can't. I can't give him up." There it was: the truth--she couldn't give Spock up.

Janice's expression softened. "It did seem simple to me. From the outsider's perspective. That's the problem, isn't it? Two kinds of people can say that to you and get away with it. The complete outsider you go to with a problem, or a good friend. And we're neither right now, are we? I thought we were once." She leaned back. "But you are right in your way. This did come between us. I felt you pull back even way back then. I tried to get you to open up to me when you gave me the statue. But you couldn't, could you? Sulu" --Rand swallowed hard-- "Hikaru says that every time I mentioned Kirk to you, mentioned how I felt about him, I must have been opening up an old wound. And I couldn't resist, could I? I had to mention it. Had to make it about me." She took a deep breath, looked over at Christine. "I'm not the better woman, Christine. I have my problems too and I'm not sure if staying with Sulu is the best thing for the ship. But this time I'm not running. So it's not like I have the right to tell you what to do."

Christine grinned tearfully, felt a profound relief fill her that she and Janice were finally talking. "We're a mess."

Rand nodded back, her own eyes anything but dry.

Christine continued, "I think you're right, Jan. I think somewhere along the line--probably right when you said--we slipped away from each other. But up to then...up to then, we were friends. Please don't doubt that. You kept me sane on the Enterprise. Sometimes you were the only thing that did."

"I wondered...I wondered sometimes what you ever saw in me. You the bona fide PhD genius, then the MD. Me the mustang who came up the ranks without any education to speak of. I think I was afraid that all we ever had in common was our unrequited impossible loves. Maybe that was what I was trying to connect with when I mentioned Kirk. And then I got everything yanked away from me. Everything I thought I knew about me, you, our friendship. But in some ways, I can't be sorry you told me either." Rand got a very far away look. "Maybe it can help me let go of some things."

"Maybe we both need to do that." Christine knew she was frowning, could not hide--and didn't need to now--the immense sadness she felt. About Spock, about Kirk, about the paths in life that were now closed to her. The old saying was that when a door closed, somewhere another opened, but, in her recent experience, every time she opened a door, five others slammed shut unexpectedly. She grinned at Rand, but she knew it was a bitter expression. "Maybe we need to give up some of the fantasies. We both have the greatest guys we're ever likely to meet. Why are we still obsessing over two men who, for whatever reason, are out of our reach?"

"Because it's what we do?" Rand's grin was weak also. "Our defining characteristic. And if we let go of that we'll have to start over."

Christine nodded, thinking about that. Janice always had a way of cutting things down to the simplest level. "I don't want to just be the woman that loved Spock."

"For what it's worth, whatever drew me to you, that was never the first thing that came to mind when I thought of you. I've always admired how purposeful you are." Rand trailed off, somewhere else for a moment. Then she said, "I drift. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got where I am." She seemed to shake herself mentally, seemed to come back to life before Christine's eyes, the old Rand, the fun one. Christine couldn't tell how much of the transformation was real, how much just for her benefit, but she appreciated the effort her friend was going to. "I'm sure you'll be remembered for much more than being Spock's love." Rand shot Christine a mischievous grin. "Or Kirk's."

Christine felt a wave of relief at the way Rand had said that. She knew it had been hard, would continue to be hard, for Rand to think of Kirk and Christine together. But she was trying. Christine could take a lesson from that. "Well, right now, I should probably just concentrate on being Randall's love. And on being me." She held her hand out to Jan. "And being your old friend who misses you and would like to be your new friend."

Rand eyed her outstretched hand. "I'd like that on one condition."

"What's the condition?"

"Promise me there's nothing else you haven't told me. Like--you weren't McCoy's lover, right?" Rand shot her a wicked grin.

Chapel's thought of all those possible universes--in at least one of them, she had probably given McCoy a try too. "Not on your life, Jan."

Rand finally took her hand, squeezed it tightly, then ended the sentimental moment by asking, "Chekov?"

Christine made a face. "Janice Antoinette Rand, I'm gong to wash your mouth out with soap. He was a child."

And then she heard it. Rand's trademark shotgun giggle. It was a lovely sound. Only Rand couldn't stop laughing and Christine had to get up and walk around the desk and pat her on the back none too gently to get her to quit. The doctor in her assessed Rand's emotional state: stress, relief, fatigue. Christine knew the same thing could be said of herself. She walked back around the desk then thought of another reason for Rand's laughter. "Wait a minute. You didn't do him, did you?"

Rand's expression answered before she could. "Christine Louisa Chapel, one word. Ewww." She stood up. "Would you like a look around the ship, as long as you're on board?"

"That would be nice."

As they walked out, Rand apparently could not resist one more dig. "Scotty?"

Two can play this game, Christine thought, as she said nothing, just shot Rand a smug look.

"You're scaring me, Chapel."

Christine laughed. "Haven't you always wondered what he wore under that kilt?" As a matter of fact, Christine still wondered but she wasn't going to tell Janice that.

"No. But I always thought Uhura did."

With a laugh, they walked out to start the tour and try to rebuild a friendship.

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

Janice stood in her quarters feeling like she was forgetting something, leaving something undone. With the ceremonies, receptions, and tours over, the Excelsior would be breaking orbit soon. This was supposed to be easy duty yet she couldn't remember ever feeling more drained. But then, it had been a close thing with Christine. She could feel the moment where she could have said one more thing to goad her and drive her away or could have chosen to say nothing personal, played the courteous professional and done the same. But then she'd thought of Kirk and Scotty and had thought this at least was one loss she could spare herself.

Strange, but it was hard to think of him as Jim now. "Jim" implied a connection. That he belonged to her somehow. Janice wondered if there was any alternate universe where Kirk could have loved her and they could have been together. She walked to the dresser and picked up the figurine Christine had given her. She could date the exact time Christine had been with Kirk just from Christine's few remarks and because of when she had been given that statue. She and Christine had been close then. She could remember when Christine had begun to be evasive, had stopped sharing stories about who she was seeing. It had not been much later, right after V'Ger, when Chris had come to her in tears placing the small statue in her hands saying she wanted a friend to have it. That it was too painful to have around as a reminder. No more than a month. She was sure of it. Just as she was sure that even all these years later Christine's time with Jim Kirk still had a powerful hold on her.

So much emotion built from so little. But then arguably she'd had less. She remembered one time they had stayed up late in Chris's quarters on the old Enterprise trying to figure out why those two had such a hold on them.

"The smile," Christine had offered about Kirk.

"The pointed ears," she had said about Spock.

And then Christine had said something she had never forgotten. "Maybe because he's the first guy to have ever taken you seriously?" That hadn't changed. Kirk had been and always would be important to her. He had changed her life by demanding and expecting more of her than anyone ever had. And if there was any upside to that terrible time when he had been split into two by the transporter, it was that she knew without question that even if he didn't completely share her feelings, the attraction at least had been mutual. And that hadn't been the only moment she'd caught a look, a half- completed gesture. Janice sighed. This was getting her nowhere. What would it take to put him completely behind her?

A chime rang and she told the person at her door to enter. As she expected, it was Yeoman Charma coming to report that all crew were aboard Excelsior and to give her some last minute reports handed in before the meeting. It was only when Charma handed her the padd that she realized she was still holding the statue and held it out to Charma while she moved over to her desk to scan the reports and sign off on them. Charma cradled the statue to her, stroking the wood with a finger.

"You recognize her?" Janice asked. "I forgot you're part Hindu."

"Saraswati. Goddess of Learning and Knowledge. Yes, I was raised a Bali Hindu."

"That a distinction of place or sect?" Janice felt faintly surprised that with all that was going on that she felt genuinely interested in the answer. It occurred to her she knew Charma less well than she would have liked. It was one part of the price of her position. A gulf of years and rank made her feel apart from just about all the crew.

Charma smiled and it made her look achingly young. "Both. The roots of Bali Hinduism are in Indonesia. "Although you can't really call someone part Hindu. It's not a heritage

but a belief. Besides, I like to mix and match ideas and practices from many faiths." Her smile and expression changed to something more sheepish that seemed to apologize for offering so much about herself.

Janice looked at the girl who reminded her so much of herself, sometimes painfully, even though there wasn't much of a physical resemblance. The girl's skin was a dusky olive--olive green--like a young plant. Her long hair a silky blue black with almond shaped eyes to match. But there she was, in the position Janice had been so many years ago with her looks the first thing--or only thing--people noticed. Well, not, Janice thought amused, exactly the same position. Charma wasn't in love with her captain. At least she'd better not be.

"You are not Hindu?" Charma asked.

"It was a gift." Janice felt irritated by Charma's questioning glance, as if she expected to hear more to the story. As if something more had to connect her to it. Well, it was hers, wasn't it? Christine couldn't have had it for more than a few weeks. She'd had it for over twenty years now. For some reason she hadn't felt at home until she had placed the statue among her possessions. It had followed her off the Enterprise to many different postings before it had ended up here with her on the Excelsior.

"Will that be all?" Charma asked. Janice realized with relief Charma was just wondering if she could be dismissed, not prying for more details. Janice nodded and Charma placed the statue in front of her on the desk.

"It can be a cruel gift, knowledge," Janice said. She didn't know what made her say that. It wasn't as if Charma was someone she could confide in.

Charma nodded. "Do you see the veena--the musical instrument in her hands? Her left hand on top of the veena close to the heart shows that knowledge should be used for the good of others. Placing the right hand on the bottom shows that negative knowledge should be kept under control. It is our choice how it is used."

As Christine should have kept her knowledge tightly under control, Janice couldn't help thinking. Did she really wish that? She had told Christine that maybe knowing about this could help her let go. Let go of Kirk. She picked up the statue, held it gently. Then she laid it down and engaged the comm. "Bridge, this is Rand."

"Posner here."

"Has the Carter left orbit?"

"Not yet, m'am."

"Charma, I'd like you to run an errand for me."

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

Masters walked into Janice's office and threw herself into the chair in front of her desk. She looked at Janice trying to judge her mood. Ah, hell. After her time with Ron she felt she could take on the entire galaxy. Let alone blondie.

"You never knock," Janice said. But her voice told Masters she didn't really mind.

"I thought the point of an open door was that you can walk right in."

"Others are politer."

She grinned thinking most people on the ship were a lot more junior to Janice so that figured. "Most people haven't known you since you wore the most appalling hairdo in all creation."

"It was the style then."

"Girl, back then birds could have nested in that hair."

"So? I've seen some pictures of you back when you were at the Academy. You have no business making hairdo remarks. I mean really. Yellow and pink streaks?"

"It was--"

"--the style?"

Masters held her hands up. "Stop. I surrender. So, Hon, how are you doing?"

Janice shrugged. "I'm fine. I know you told Sulu I looked upset." Her face and voice tightened.

"And you're not okay with that? Look, I was concerned and I thought I'd let him know. I thought if anyone could help you, he could." Masters was one of the few, and as far as she knew the only one on the ship, who knew the exact nature of the relationship between Rand and Sulu. But not, she realized, necessarily by Janice's choice. It had been Sulu who had told her. She doubted he had ever thought of hiding it from her or asking Janice if she would mind. "But anything you wanted to stay between us, I'd keep between us. Sulu is an old and dear friend. But you're my friend too and just as important to me."

Masters saw Janice's eyes widen and realized that was probably news to her. Masters wasn't the sort to feel that comfortable expressing what people meant to her. Rarely said words like "I love you" wanting people to know that from her actions not what she said. Words were too easily spoken, too often insincere. Though she realized it had been one thing that had made Ron insecure in their relationship and that had driven a wedge between them.

"Christine and I had a fight. A bad one. I don't want to get into it now and we made up. Or have begun to..." Janice shrugged her shoulders. "It was awkward. When we said goodbye at the end. As if we were both wondering if it wouldn't be easier after all to just stay away from each other. It's not like either of us said 'stay in touch.' And after we cleared the air we mostly shied away from discussing anything serious. Joking can cover a lot of dangerous feelings. But in the end I can't help but feel we said a lot of things to each other that have needed to be said for a long time. A lot of unfinished business. It's strange though, it's not until I sent back something she had given me that I felt a weight lift and felt that someday it might really be right between us after all. That maybe we can be better friends to each other than we ever have been."

"Returning a gift is usually not a way to rebuild a bridge."

"This case is different. So, how was your reunion with the ex?"

Masters recognized the signal that Janice had said all she was going to for now and respected that. "I had a great time." She couldn't keep a wide grin from splitting her face and from Janice's answering laughter knew exactly how she was taking that--and she was right, damn her!

"I swear I don't get it. We're great with each other--working together, as friends--and in other things," she said grinning suggestively, "and yet every time we've tried to make it permanent it falls apart. Maybe this is the best way. Have fun together, keep it casual." She didn't want to think about how for her it had felt far from casual. She wanted to stay in the happy afterglow of them having been together--in every possible way--she thought laughing inwardly, as long as possible. She didn't want to think of the inevitable crash she'd feel at the realization they were light years apart again and that she probably wouldn't see him for a long time.

"Well," Janice said, standing up and giving a tug at her uniform, "isn't it time to meet with our fearless leader?" Janice extended a hand to help Masters up and surprised her by pulling her into a quick hug. "Isn't is amazing how you can give something away and get so much more back?"

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

Sulu worked on a report as he waited in his ready room for the department heads to arrive for their regularly scheduled meeting. Rand and Masters came in together early, both smiling. Masters took her seat then languidly stretched. Janice looked so relaxed he was startled. He hadn't taken in how haggard she'd looked for so long until noticing the contrast. "You two look happy."

Masters put her hands in back of her head and leaned back in her chair. "Just came back from catching up with an old friend. Did me a lot of good."

Janice looked straight at him still smiling. "Me too." Sulu, taking her meaning, smiled in relief. Thank God. Though there seemed more tension erased from her face than just what her estrangement from Christine had caused.

"I hope we can keep this short," Masters said. I've never understood what this kind of meeting accomplishes a few intraship messages can't do more efficiently."

"I find it valuable for everyone to understand each other's thinking and problems." His smile grew wider. "Especially now. Our next mission is to deal with a crisis among the colonies along the Alpha/Beta quadrant border."

Both of them picked up immediately why he'd be so happy at such dire news.

"So we're really out of the wilderness?" Janice asked.

They couldn't keep him from getting Excelsior--but there were still many in Command who never forgave him joining in Kirk's hijacking of the Enterprise. And they had been influential enough to keep Excelsior out far in the Beta quadrant studying stellar phenomena for three years with strict orders to make no first contacts. That had turned around when Excelsior had played an important role above Khitomer, but his lack of trust in Command had lingered and had been what caused him to order that the Azure Nebula incident be erased from the logs.

"Seems so." Sulu answered. "Even our young prophet of gloom and doom should be happy at the prospect of a real mission with real responsibility."

Masters frowned. "You mean Thren, don't you? Are you aware of how dismissively you always refer to him?"

"Really, Charlene."

"Young, very eager, overzealous, paranoid, doom and gloom. Sound familiar?"

Sulu scowled. "I'd never refer to him in a disrespectful way to his fellow officers. I'm among friends---."

"--Who also happen to be his superior officers. And you can't deny that's how you think of him and his concerns. Look, back when I wanted to rip apart the guidance and warp initiation systems on the Excelsior that idiot Styles wanted me to justify the expense and delay on about five different forms. And the hell of it was that I couldn't defend my recommendation in those terms. Everything seemed to be working just within the parameters. But it sure as hell didn't take much for Scotty to gum up the works when he needed to. You've always trusted my expertise and instincts when it comes to engineering. Why can't you trust Thren when it comes to his own area?"

"Because he's a--."

"Kid?"

"It would be nice if you'd let me complete my sentences every once in awhile. But it's undeniable he doesn't have the kind of experience Aku did."

"He's no younger than you were when you became the Enterprise's helmsman and fourth in line of command. And I can't imagine Kirk having ever called you some young kid. But then by our standards now Kirk was himself a kid when he was made captain. Viewing younger people this way is an old person's disease. Hell, I'm guilty of it.

And besides--from my interactions I don't see overzealous. I see quite the sniffer who's scarily perceptive."

Sulu nodded stiffly. Not what he wanted to hear. But maybe what he needed to hear?

He looked to Rand who'd stayed quiet during the conversation and she shook her head. "The truth," she said, "is that they all look appallingly young to me. Most people in this crew were in diapers when I was a yeoman. And it's easy to use Thren's youth as an excuse to dismiss his concerns when we don't want to hear them anyway. I hate thinking there could be a traitor among us, but after Valeris can we really say it's unthinkable? And Farrell's murder? I'll tell you this, Christine's spooked about it. Granted, we're still a little awkward around each other and that may be why she didn't want to discuss it, but there was something in the way she looked..."

Sulu nodded. "Spock too. Oh, naturally his expression, his tone of voice gives nothing away. But he was evasive, cryptic in a way I don't usually associate with him."

"So we turn Thren loose?" Janice asked Sulu.

"Have you changed your mind about his suggested procedures?"

"No way. Same objections."

"And I still feel we haven't reached the point that I want a generalized investigation of the entire crew. That can too easily turn into a witch hunt. But otherwise, any support we--"

At that Sulu saw the rest of the officers come in and raised a hand to indicate they should stop their discussion. After going around the table, discussing the problems in their various departments and the upcoming mission, Sulu was about to dismiss the meeting when Thren asked if he, Rand, and Stennix, the Science Officer, could stay behind a few minutes. Sulu had to give him credit for immediately coming to the point. "I'd like to get Mister Tuvok transferred to my department."

"Absolutely not." Stennix said hotly. "I need him where he is."

"But his talents are wasted there. I know sciences are seen as the default posting for Vulcans, but if you'd look at his record at the Academy--"

"That's not the issue--"

"What is th--"

Sulu cut them off with a gesture. "The issue is department needs and priorities, the expressed wishes of the parties involved, and yes, individual talents and skills. So his academy record, especially this early in his career, would be relevant."

"And," Janice put in, "with our mission changing, although sciences will always be important, we'll need less assigned there and more in tactical and security."

Sulu couldn't help grinning when he saw Thren's expression. The poleaxed look of someone who had been marshalling all his arguments only to find them made for him by the most unlikely of allies. But then thinking about it, Sulu sobered, wondering if they really had made it so hard on him that their support should be so astonishing. "You were saying, Mister Thren?"

"If you'll look at the information in this padd, sir, I've flagged all the relevant data. General sciences was his major. You could almost expect that. There's a strong respect for tradition on Vulcan and his mother and father have both been science officers in Starfleet. But any time he took a core subject or elective related to strategy or tactics he excelled. And look at things like his personality profile. They indicate someone whose core values are integrity, order, justice. Almost made to order. Besides, I asked if he was interested and he told me he wants to make the move. If you know anything about Vulcans in general and Tuvok in particular, you'd know that's not a decision he'd make lightly.

"Agreed. You can have him."

"Sir?" said Thren and Stennix simultaneously with almost identical looks of astonishment. Stennix knowing when he was defeated did his best to make a graceful exit and Janice left with him, no doubt seeking to salve some of the prickly man's wounded pride.

"Tell me, Thren, what made you decide to cherry pick Tuvok?"

"Cherry pick?"

"Earth idiom. For picking out the best. I thought he was on your list of suspects, not your list of who to recruit."

"I decided upon further acquaintance I was wrong. Amazing what you can learn about a man over a few games of kal-toh."

"And his insubordination no longer bothers you?"

For the first time Thren looked a bit uncomfortable. He pursed his lips and blew out a breath, speaking slowly as if he was choosing his words carefully. "I understand his actions now and he agrees it's best forgotten."

It was Sulu's turn to feel uncomfortable remembering his uncanny feeling that Thren knew about him and Janice. And now this? He felt absolutely sure now that Thren knew everything that had taken place with Tuvok on the bridge during the incident at the Azure Nebula. Thren wouldn't have asked for Tuvok otherwise. Sulu waited for an insinuating smile. For an implied threat or for a suggestion Sulu should feel grateful to him for keeping his secret. Or even an indignant accusation. But Thren did none of those things and as the officer simply stood there antennae drooping with misery, it slowly occurred to Sulu he had misjudged Thren, misjudged him badly. "Amazing this kal-toh. Think you can teach me?" He turned his sunniest grin on Thren and saw relief and a tentative smile in answer.

"Vulcans claim it takes a lifetime to master and in some ways that is so. But in other ways despite what they claim it is simpler than chess, at least the three-dimensional variety..." They left together, Thren chattering away and Sulu thinking he was damn lucky in his officers and that he very possibly had the finest crew and ship in the fleet.

Except maybe for one bad pear.

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

Kerr read the staff announcements, wasn't surprised to see that Collin's hallway intel had been right. So Susan Cassidy was being assigned to the Carter?

Kerr hit his comm switch. "Kerr to Spock."

"Spock here, Colonel."

"Sir, I need to speak with you when you have a moment."

"Is this a personal matter?" Kerr could practically see Spock's face tighten.

"No, sir. But it is sensitive. I thought perhaps you could come down here."

He knew that Spock would understand why. He'd swept Spock's office several times for bugs and it had come up clean, but for all he knew they'd been built in to the ship when it was in the shipyards. He'd given Spock a dampening device, but it would be a dead giveaway if there was a sudden loss of communication in the Captain's office. Spock knew that he should only use it in an emergency. "I'll be down shortly, Colonel."

"Very good, sir." Kerr got up and set his door to open. He felt restless, paced his office for a minute before sitting back down and resuming his reading. Movement out of the corner of his eye told him Spock was standing in the doorway. He motioned him in, did not have to remind him not to speak until he turned on the dampening shield. As soon as he was sure it was working, he turned to Spock. "I saw in the staff announcements that Commander Cassidy is joining us. She's not on board now?"

Spock frowned slightly as said, "No, she will be joining us on Pelria. She had to close out her affairs on Earth. This assignment was a surprise to her."

Bullshit, Kerr thought, but did not interrupt as Spock continued, "She seems very eager for this posting, and certainly competent, her performance evalu--"

"--She's section." Kerr did interrupt this time, leaning forward and fixing a serious look on Spock. "She's section, sir. They've obviously decided who to replace Ren with." Spock's face gave nothing away, yet Kerr sensed a great disappointment in him, and something else, something darker. "I know this will sound contradictory but for what it's worth, Suze is a fantastic officer. And a good person."

Spock's eyes narrowed at the nickname. "You have a personal relationship with her?"

"Had. She recruited me. And we were involved." Kerr didn't flinch under Spock's scrutiny. "It was a long time ago. Back when I was only a captain, and she'd just made full lieutenant." He shook his head. "She taught me most of what I know. She's one of the best operatives in the section. If they're sending her here..."

"It is because they no longer trust you?" Spock finished for him.

Kerr nodded. "Or because she has the same mission I did."

Spock's eyebrow rose. "To seduce Commander Chapel?"

Kerr's mind took a sharp detour for a moment at the unexpected joke and he said, "Well, that's an interesting thought." Then he saw Spock's expression. "Guess on Vulcan that's not the universally held male fantasy that it is on Earth?"

"So it would seem." Spock leaned back. "So you think she is going to try to seduce me?"

Kerr nodded. "And she's going to be good at it too."

Spock again seemed to travel to a dark place, his eyes went dead even as Kerr watched. "She reminded me of someone else I once knew. Someone who had a similar agenda." His eyes met Kerr's, and for the first time Kerr wondered exactly what Spock might be capable of if pushed too far. "I did not like it then, Colonel. And I do not like it now." Spock took a deep breath, as if trying to bring himself back from some cliff's edge.

"Well, the good thing is we won't be surprised. Better the devil you know, right?"

Spock suddenly looked profoundly weary. "I would prefer no devils at all, Colonel. The universe would be a pleasant place if there were no snakes in Eden."

And no Eves either? Kerr wondered, suddenly flashing on the alternate universe's Chapel, and how happy she'd said they all were together. He almost wished he could reach out to this man he respected so much. He almost wished he could love him the way Chris did. Unfortunately, almost was a long way from reality. Wherever Spock was going, whatever he was struggling with, Kerr wouldn't help him, not that way.

He felt suddenly shamed, and looked away. To watch a man standing on the brink, to know that you could make it better, and not to help--it was a harsh truth about his own character. He pushed the emotions away. It was also a perfectly understandable reaction to what had been going on between them almost since he'd arrived on board. Spock could act selfishly, take things that didn't belong to him. He wasn't the saint that so many believed him to be.

But still.... Kerr realized Spock had said something. "Sir?"

"I said that I am sorry, Randall. Sorry for a great many things." His eyes bored into Kerr's. "It is difficult to want something more than you should."

Kerr nodded slowly. "It is. Especially when you're used to getting whatever you want."

It was Spock's turn to nod. "Yes. There is that." He was silent for a long moment, then he asked, "Does she know that Cassidy is section?"

Kerr shook his head.

"Keep it that way," Spock said harshly and Kerr suddenly wondered at his motives. Did he want Christine jealous and running back to him? If so, what was the apology he'd just given all about?

Spock held up a hand as if he knew what Kerr was thinking. "She is not a very good actress when her feelings are engaged."

Kerr couldn't argue with that. He'd taken one look at her face when she'd arrived back from Scotty's memorial and known that she'd slept with Spock. "She won't like that I lied to her."

"I am ordering you, Colonel. If it ever comes out, you can tell her that." Spock rose to leave.

"Wait. They're expecting us to have a conversation." He flipped off the dampening device. "Sir. Come in, please." He paused, as if waiting for Spock to get settled. "I feel a bit silly telling you this, but I thought you should hear this from me directly."

"What is it?"

"I saw that Commander Cassidy's been assigned here. I just wanted you to know that at one time I was involved with her. It was when we were younger and there was some lingering resentment on her part that we split up. It wasn't a very pretty breakup. But we're past that now. I just didn't want you to hear about some of the things that happened and worry that it would happen again here." Kerr grinned at him and rolled his eyes.

Spock's expression lightened somewhat. "I am confident in your ability to behave like an adult."

"Thank you, sir. I appreciate that." Kerr got up. "I also asked you down here so we could show you the latest enhancement to the h-r system. We're getting some interesting results with the work we've been doing with Myrax to recreate the Pelrian conflict--or conflicts rather. They do seem to always be engaged in war."

"Yes, she has been helping me try to find a context for peace in their long history of conflict. At the moment, it is difficult to see. Nako believes a ceasefire is premature and she may be right." Spock rose. "I will be interested in seeing the program."

Kerr hit the comm. "Major Collins, can you show the Captain the h-r enhancements?" He grinned at Collins's enthusiastic 'Yes, sir.' Looking over at Spock, he said, "This is Jeff's baby. He's been working night and day to get it up to Myrax's specs. And she's one demanding customer."

Spock rose as Collins came in. "I hear you are the expert on this simulation?"

Collins smiled. "Well, Myrax is the expert on the actual conflict. We really ought to get her down here too." When Spock nodded in agreement, Collins commed the bridge and asked Myrax to join them in the h-r room. He turned back to Spock. "She's the expert on the content, but I've been learning the system inside and out and I think it can do a lot more than we initially thought..." He was still gushing as he led Spock away.

Kerr watched them leave, then turned back to his work. The next time he looked up at the chrono, his shift was over. He shut down his terminal and headed up to the bridge. Christine's office was open and she saw him as he came in. Her smile was instantaneous and welcoming. He felt his heart leap as it invariably did when she graced him with one of those increasingly rare expressions. "Hey," he said softly.

"Hey, yourself." She gestured to the door with her chin and he turned around and hit the switch that would let it close behind him.

Then he turned back to her and waggled his eyebrows at her. "Got something in mind, Commander?"

"Not what you think," she said as she held up a small box.

"Oooh, the sex toys came." He was pleased to see her grin.

"You have a one track mind, Colonel."

"That's considered a good thing in the Marines, Chapel." He walked over to her and looked into the box. It was another goddess, wooden, looked old. "Who's it from?" he asked, suddenly suspicious.

She had moved to the shelves, was moving a few of the statues around. "What are you doing?" he asked as she slid a sculpture back toward the middle of the group of goddesses. He'd never realized how Vulcan that particular statue looked. A silver multi-armed goddess followed. "Chris?"

"Sometimes, when things are too hard, we think we should run away from them. They aren't easy, and they hurt, so we push them away." She glanced at the statue in the box.

He wondered if she was talking about Spock. Or him. And he was suddenly worried. "Am I going to like the rest of this conversation, Chris?"

"Shh," she said, as she reached back and took his hand. Her grasp was warm and firm. She reached for the goddess in the box. "Other times we build things up in our hearts and memories so much that nothing can ever measure up, nothing can compete." She put the goddess on the ledge and gently ran her finger down it, tracing the graceful lines of the goddess's dress. "We don't know when we should put those memories away and move on." She turned to look at him, gave him a brilliant smile. Her eyes were bright with tears. "They get in the way. They get in the way of everything that's good and true and standing right in front of you." She turned back to the statue and pushed it back with the others she had moved.

Kerr felt very confused. He suddenly wondered if he should give her a statue.

She grinned as she looked at him and saw his expression. "Don't worry if you don't get it. It's my ritual." Her hand tightened on his. "My exorcism. Or something." She reached up with her other hand, rumpled his hair, then let her hand travel down his cheek, tracing his lips.

"Chris?" He had never loved her more, or felt more off balance.

"Shhh." She stared at him again. Then she smiled, and it was the sweetest smile she had ever given him. "It's going to be all right. We're going to be all right." As she leaned in to kiss him, she said, "I love you so much."

As kisses went, it was up there. But there was something else in the way she leaned up against him, in the way her arms were wrapped around him. It was as if she'd surrendered, let go completely and trusted that he'd catch her.

Or it was like someone wasn't between them, wasn't in the way as he and Christine tried to hang on to each other. Kerr suddenly knew who had given her the statues.

As they pulled away, she said, "Can we skip dinner tonight?"

He nodded, took her arm. He looked back at the goddesses. For a second, they all seemed to be smiling. Or maybe that was the fault of the tears he was blinking back furiously so Christine wouldn't see. But he had a feeling she already had.

Maybe it was going to be all right? Maybe it was finally going to be all right? Kerr knew it was unlikely, knew it was foolish to hope that it would be. But he suddenly had the most fervent wish to be a fool and just hope, just live as if it would be. At least until morning, he decided, he would believe that everything was going to be all right.

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

Cassidy took a last look around her office. She hadn't missed anything, but then she rarely did. She made a habit of traveling light, not loading her office up with memories as so many of her peers did. It came from being ready to go anywhere, do anything on a moment's notice. It was how the section worked. She palmed the lights off and left her office for the last time, stopping by the quartermaster's shop on her way out of the building.

"Commander Cassidy," Ensign Barstow said, getting up from her desk with a smile. "I heard you're going to the Carter?"

Cassidy smiled. She was excited about this mission, even if not quite for the reasons the ensign might think. "You heard right. My quarters and my office are ready to go."

"We'll get your things where they need to go. I'll miss working with you, Commander. You were always a pleasure to deal with."

"So were you. If we ever need a fresh hand, I'll be sure to give you a call."

Barstow beamed. "I'd love the chance to work with you again."

Cassidy smiled back. She had been working on this one for some time, was still not sure if Barstow had what it took to make it in the section. Might not know until she had a chance to work with her more closely. She did intend to bring her out to the Carter if she could find a billet that fit. "I'll keep my eye out," she said as she held out her hand. "Take care of yourself, Jenna."

Barstow looked as if she was going to cry as she shook hands with her. Overly sentimental. Definitely a mark against her, Cassidy thought. On the other hand, she was stuck in supply and most people didn't treat her as well as Cassidy did. So she'd forgive the emotionalism this time.

She pulled away with a smile, left Barstow and everyone else in Command behind without a backward glance. She didn't like to look back. And there was no need. She'd been fully briefed on her mission and the players weeks ago, when Farrell was reported as murdered. Although she hadn't been told it was a definite go until the section had heard about Ambassador Pardek's visit to Taillte--a visit that Kerr had somehow forgotten to tell them about.

Kerr. She wondered what was going on with him. First Farrell's death, no loss in her book but still not good for the section. And his report had been...odd. It had held up, but it still puzzled her. They'd had no indication of any Romulan interest in the Carter's mission, other than Pardek's interest in Spock, and the idea that a Romulan operative would kill Farrell struck her as unlikely. But Cassidy had trained Kerr herself, she knew how good he normally was at his job. Either he was telling the truth...or he had turned. She almost laughed. Turned to the forces of good as represented by Captain Spock. Spock the hero. Spock the living legend.

Spock the patsy. Or so she hoped. She wasn't exactly sure about the dynamics on the Carter. She'd read Farrell's reports, and Kerr's before his reports had become far more terse. She suspected that things were far more tangled between certain members of the command team than her superiors were fully aware. At any rate, she intended to find out. Slowly, over time. With unerring finesse. It was what she did best. That and walking away when the job was done. No nightmares for her. No recriminations in the middle of the night. No dark nights of the soul. She believed in the section. She wasn't in it for the fun, or the thrills, or the danger. She was in it because she knew that in the long run what she did would protect innocent people. Would protect a way of life that was more fragile than most of the citizens of the Federation realized.

She turned into an innocuous building, let the guard at the front desk scan her retina. He waved her in; she was on the approved list. Was probably the only person that ever came to see this particular inmate. They had served together briefly at Command. Their friendship was on record, if anyone cared to check. But no one would; the woman she'd come to see had been forgotten by time and by her own enemies.

An orderly saw Cassidy in the corridor. He stopped, said in his normal boisterous way, "Come to see our girl, Commander?" At her nod, he smiled. "She's having a good day."

She smiled at him and pushed into the room at the end of the corridor, stopping at the door to study the woman who sat on the floor playing kal- toh with little success. "Hello, Valeris."

"Susan," her voice was that of a child, happy to see her friend. She didn't remember Cassidy from their service together, only knew that she was the person that came to see her now, that taught her new things. Her mind was that of a bright Vulcan five-year-old. Nearly too young to screen out the smile, and Cassidy didn't see the point of trying to explain Surak's principles and the need to quell her emotions. Let her be a happy if atypical Vulcan child if it made the days go by more brightly. She had paid too much already to have to fight to be a proper Vulcan again. Valeris pouted at her. "I missed you, Susan. You didn't come like you normally do."

Cassidy walked over to her, kneeling and resetting the kal-toh into an easier pattern. "I was on Beta Lambda Nine, don't you remember?"

"Nine. That's the square of three." She beamed at Cassidy.

"That's right, you remembered." Cassidy ran her hand down Valeris' silky hair. It had grown since she'd last seen her. But she could remember it being even longer, before Valeris had cut it into the severe and shaved bob. Her daring had spurred Cassidy to cut her own long hair off into the severely short cut that had become a sort of signature for her.

"I remember many things," Valeris said, and for a moment Cassidy thought she heard an echo of the woman she'd once known. But when she looked at her, the blank, happy expression she wore these days was still in place.

Cassidy sighed. Valeris had once been her most promising recruit, her brightest student, her most willing protege. She'd had a limitless future ahead of her, her potential had been astounding. Until it had all gone sour at Khitomer, on the Enterprise. With Spock. Spock who'd torn her mind away even though the records said she hadn't gone mad until after. Cassidy knew that the Valeris who had come back from Khitomer had never been quite right. Her descent into madness might have been slow, but the root cause was a moment's violence on the bridge of the Fleet's flagship. Violence brought on by the man that Cassidy was assigned to get close to. The man that she was to seduce. She smiled, an expression very different than the one she used in public. It was a feral grin, closer to a snarl than a smile. Kerr used to tell her that it turned his blood cold. And he was a very brave man.

"Susan?" Valeris was looking at her, her eyes wide.

"It's nothing, sweetheart. Show me how you would solve this one." She pointed to the kal-toh. As Valeris struggled with the easy pattern, Cassidy leaned in. "I'm going to have to go away."

Valeris looked at her in alarm. "For a few days, like last time?"

Cassidy shook her head. "For a lot longer than that."

"But you'll visit?"

"I'm going to be on a ship, Valeris. I won't be able to visit." She could tell that Valeris was trying to process that, and added gently, "For a very long time."

"Not visit at all?" Tears brimmed in Valeris' eyes and she looked down at the kal-toh. "I'll be good, Susan. I'll be good and you won't have to go."

"You have been good, dearest. That's not why I have to go. I'm in Star Fleet, remember? I have to go up, up to the stars."

Valeris nodded but she wouldn't look at her.

"I'll miss you, Valeris." She pulled her close, kissed the top of her head. "I have to go now." She let go of the other woman. "Keep learning. You promise?"

Valeris nodded solemnly.

"You ask John for padds to help you with the square roots. He likes you. You're up to twenty-five now. Remember that one?"

"Five," Valeris answered after a moment's thought.

Cassidy felt the same emptiness she always did when she was reminded of all that Valeris could no longer be. The doctors had used a variety of therapies for the psychosis, but they couldn't bring back the brilliant officer. All they could give was this child, who didn't always have such a good day, wasn't always so docile. "That's right. Five." Cassidy pushed herself to her feet and walked to the door. When she turned for a last look, she saw that Valeris was staring up at her, a broken and confused expression on her face. Cassidy whispered, almost to herself, "He'll pay for this. I promise he'll pay for this."

Valeris stared at her uncomprehendingly. Cassidy walked out, this time without a backward glance. It was how it had to be.

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

The bathroom door opened slowly. Admiral Young walked back into the room, sat down on the bed. "That was close."

"Tell John to give us a little more warning next time. I barely managed to set up the board." Valeris pushed herself to her feet, brushing away the remnants of the tears she had cried for Susan and walked over to the Admiral. "So it seems all is in place?'

Young nodded. "She's on her way to the Carter." She looked back at the door that Cassidy had just walked through, frowned deeply. "She's a true believer, Valeris. We risk much by keeping her in the dark."

Valeris nodded. "There is some risk. But in the long run, I believe it will be safer this way."

"Safer for her. Or safer for us?"

"Yes," Valeris said, allowing herself to smile. She didn't try to censor her reactions during these rare moments when she could be herself because she couldn't afford to slip up later, when she was playing the insane child.

Young shook her head. Then she dug into her coat, pulled out a padd. "I thought you might like to see these."

Valeris pulled up the first image. She had to fight a shudder as Spock's image looked back at her. He had to pay. For what he had done to her. For what he had done to their cause. For all of it. And Susan was the best choice to bring him down.

Valeris scrolled through the images, saw one of Spock and a dark haired woman talking. The expression on Spock's face struck her as overly intense. "Who is this woman?"

Young pursed her lips. "Commander Chapel. His first officer."

"His lover?"

Young shrugged. "I'm not sure."

The next image showed Chapel with Kerr. Valeris frowned as Young said, "She's with Kerr, that I do know, whatever her relationship is with Spock."

Valeris' frown deepened. "We need to watch these two." She ran her finger over Chapel's face. "Especially her. She could be a problem." She knew how single-focused Spock could be in love. If he loved this Chapel woman, then Susan didn't stand a chance. "A big problem," she repeated.

"Problems have a way of going away," Young said quietly.

"Temporarily or permanently?" Valeris asked.

"Yes," Young answered, grinning.

Valeris smiled and tossed her back the padd. "How about a game of kal-toh, Candice? You can finish that story about the parallel universe that Susan so rudely interrupted." She picked up the kal-toh and set it up on the bed so that the older woman wouldn't have to sit on the floor.

As Young made her first move, she asked, "Do you think Cassidy's even his type?"

"Oh, yes," Valeris said as she remembered all the times Susan had emulated her hairstyles, her makeup, her mannerisms. She smiled, her grin a twin to the one Cassidy had worn earlier. "I think she's exactly his type."

FIN