Part 24

Chapel was humming lightly to herself as she carefully rearranged the surgical trays in Sickbay. It was the first day since the confrontation with the Romulans that things had been approaching normality in Sickbay. While they still had more than the average amount of patients, they were no longer rushed off their feet.

She was enjoying the chance to relax.

"Ah, Chris, there you are!"

Chapel sighed. So much for relaxing, she muttered in the silence of her mind and turned to regard McCoy's approach with slightly raised eyebrows. "Doctor?"

He handed her the datapadd he was carrying. "I've got a hell of a report to finish for Starfleet Medical, Chris, so I need you to collect some patient readings for me."

She accepted the datapadd and looked down at the information, saw Commander Spock's name on the file. She pursed her lips and frowned at her boss. "Doctor, I was in the middle of something myself. Surely Watkins ..."

"Handling a call out in Engineering," McCoy replied cheerfully.

"Johnson ..."

"Off duty."

"Adams ..."

"Helping M'Benga prep for surgery."

Chapel stared incredulously at him. "What about--?"

"Nurse Chapel," McCoy leaned in slightly, his best Chief Medical Officer expression in full force. "Is there some reason you are incapable of handling a single patient?"

Her shoulders slumped. He was right, there wasn't any reason. Nothing professional, anyway. She sighed. She was far too good at her job to allow her personal issues to affect her work like this. She should have known better. "No, Doctor," she said, more calmly than she felt. "No reason at all."

"Good," he said and turning on his heel, strode back off to his office.

She looked at the trays for a moment, then back at the report. With a sigh, she double-checked there was nothing sharp or dangerous left lying around and then walked through Sickbay to the ICU rooms. Maybe it had been wishful thinking to hope she could escape having to deal with Spock during his stay in Sickbay. There was only a finite number of medical personnel, after all.

When she stepped into ICU 1, she noticed that Spock was lying very still and had his eyes closed. However, his bed was propped up, and his breathing did not strike her as one of his normal sleep patterns, so she suspected he was wide awake or meditating. She glanced around the room, and her lips twisted slightly. She had never known a time when Spock had meditated within Sickbay.

"Doctor McCoy asked me to take your readings," she said calmly, walking to the base of the bed to begin the task. "I won't be long."

"Doctor McCoy asked you?"

The nurse looked up from her padd to study him. He was sitting forward slightly and she noticed his face no longer held that off-green pallid expression of the past few days. His nausea must have finally gone, she concluded analytically. He also looked puzzled as he studied her. She wondered why. "Yes, sir," she clarified and dropped her gaze back to the padd.

"Are my readings still being taken every three hours?"

A little surprised by his question, she accessed his file to double-check the frequency of the readings. "Yes ..." she began, then froze. According to the file in front of her, the last readings taken for the sick Vulcan had been ten minutes ago. By Doctor McCoy himself.

"Excuse me," she muttered. "There appears to have been a mix-up," she turned to leave.

"Nurse Chapel."

She came to a full stop without even thinking about it. His command tone had that effect on the entire crew, but she still hated the fact it could work so successfully on her. Here she was, trying to escape from his room, and he was able to keep her there by the power of his voice alone. If this little game of avoidance she had been playing had any unwritten rules, then she was fairly certain he was cheating.

She turned around and gave him her best Head Nurse stare. "Commander Spock?" That was her best Head Nurse tone as well.

He resisted an illogical urge to squirm. He wondered if she was aware of how ... guilty she could make people feel when she wanted to. Even when they had done nothing wrong. He did not, however, have any intention of letting her see his sudden discomfort, so he merely arched an eyebrow at her instead. One designed to remind her of who the ranking officer in the room actually was.

Her gaze was unwavering. She really was one of the few on board he could not intimidate. He sighed audibly. "Nurse, is it normal for Doctor McCoy to make such an error?" he asked calmly.

She blinked slowly. "No," she admitted reluctantly after a moment. "Never."

"Then," the Vulcan said wryly. "I submit that Doctor McCoy concocted a spurious reason to send you in here deliberately."

Her eyes narrowed at him. Those blue orbs were beginning to glitter quite dangerously, he noticed. "That did occur," she agreed quietly.

"Do you know why?"

"I was just about to go and ask him, sir," her voice was beginning to lower the temperature in the room by several degrees.

"I suspect I already know the answer," he gestured to the seat that was next to his bed. "Sit down, Nurse."

Chapel stared at him. "Excuse me?"

He merely arched an eyebrow at her, as if he couldn't understand what was so difficult to comprehend about his statement.

"Mr Spock," she said, her tone somewhat distant. "I am on duty. I don't have time to visit with patients."

"Incorrect, Miss Chapel. By the orders of the Chief Medical Officer himself, you are required to spend the next 13.3 minutes within this room. Please be seated."

The nurse stared at him in disbelief. "I don't think that argument is entirely logical," she stated at length.

"Then by all means take the readings while we talk," he leaned forward again and this time his eyes were dark, no nonsense - his First Officer mask in full force. "Rest assured, Miss Chapel, we will talk."

She felt a slight shiver of unease slither down her spine at his tone. "Talk about what, Mr Spock?" but she found herself moving forwards, back to the base of his bed, to monitor the readings that really didn't need monitoring at all. He didn't comment on that but relaxed back against the bed, apparently satisfied that she wasn't going to bolt out the room.

"You are aware, Nurse, that part of the duty of the First Officer is to ensure the professional relationships of the crew function at optimal efficiency?"

She lifted her gaze from her padd to eye him. It was a rather clinical description, but she was fully aware of his role in that regard. She had also noticed that he was surprisingly good at it. It was surprising because he was a Vulcan who disavowed any knowledge of, or tolerance for, emotion. And yet, while the vast majority of the crew did not pretend to understand the Vulcan, they did trust him. It was an odd dynamic but one that seemed to work well for the entire ship.

Seeing that he had her attention, he continued. "It has been brought to my attention that you are having difficulties with a member of the Science Department. Were I not the First Officer, I would still have to address this matter in my purview as Science Officer. Do you understand my dilemma?"

She thought swiftly. There was only one person within Science she was having any current difficulties with and she was fairly certain there was only a very small number of people on board who were aware of that fact. She was also fairly certain that only one of them would have been likely to have spoken to Spock about it. Given his part in her problem, and his position on board the ship, she definitely could see his dilemma. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. "I have a feeling I'll need to sit down for this," she mumbled.

"That is advisable," he agreed quietly as Chapel slid into the chair she had previously resisted taking. The nurse shot him a quick look, not certain what to make of the tone of his voice, and spotted a very small twinkle of sympathy in that dark and watchful gaze.

"Doctor McCoy's put the thumbscrews on you, hasn't he, Mr Spock?"

His lips pursed. In his eyes, amusement flickered into life for a moment and then died utterly. "In fact, Nurse," he said, so quietly, she had to strain her hearing to catch the words. "I believe he has done us both a favour," he looked up sharply as she began to speak and she subsided, sensing now was not a good time to interrupt. "He addressed his concerns with me while I am removed from active duty. This is therefore not an official complaint - yet."

She swallowed, understanding. McCoy was giving them as long as Spock's medical leave lasted to resolve the issue. She had an untainted service record to date, she certainly did not want her first black mark to be an inability to work with a commanding officer just because she had less-than-professional feelings for him. And she had done so very well for two years. It was only since Platonius ... her thoughts froze. She looked up abruptly and stared at him. "This is about Platonius, isn't it?" she demanded, coming to her feet.

He tensed. "Miss Chapel, please sit down," he said softly.

"No!" Her refusal was absentminded, as if she was not aware she had spoken aloud. She turned on her heel and, for a moment, he thought she was going to march straight out of the room. Instead, she began to pace restlessly before his bed. "Look, Mr Spock. What happened down there was no-one's fault except the Platonians, wasn't it?" she didn't wait for his response but carried on, her voice agitated, her fingers alternately curling and uncurling around the datapadd she was holding. "They are to blame. Not us. We were all victims. We have nothing to apologise for. Do we? It's illogical for any of us to take the blame, isn't it?"

"Then why do you persist in blaming yourself?"

Her eyes darted up to find his stare fixed on her face, intense, unwavering. She couldn't read any emotions in gaze, she could only tell that it was implacable. His mood was ... implacable. Unable to hold his gaze, she dropped her eyes and started pacing again. "No," she objected. "That's not true. I don't blame myself anymore. I did. I couldn't believe I was forced to do ... that you were ... well, you know. But I tried to stop it and wasn't strong enough. I hate that I wasn't strong enough. I hate that you weren't strong enough - and I know you hated that too. You apologised enough for it. And I knew it was stupid and illogical for you to apologise. And if it was illogical for you to apologise, then it was illogical for me to apologise too. It's a funny thing, this logic of yours, Mr Spock. Sometimes it's actually quite helpful."

He blinked. She wasn't responding quite the way he had expected. He closed his eyes against the sight of her pacing. One of the main reasons he was still in ICU despite being conscious and stable was because his mind was still having trouble processing external stimuli. Too much visual activity had been making him light-headed, dizzy and even nauseous at times. It was as if his mind was trying to run a marathon and was not yet strong enough to complete the distance. The ICU was currently the most quiet, least stimulating location in Sickbay. Her pacing now was making his head spin.

"Nurse," he said softly. "Please stop doing that."

"Stop doing what?" She looked up, saw his eyes were closed and his face was very pale and suddenly realised what she was doing. "Oh God, I'm so sorry," she flung herself down into the seat. "I didn't realise. I didn't mean to make things worse for you," she rose again. "Mr Spock, it's not a good idea to do this now. You're not strong enough ..."

His eyes snapped opened to pierce her. "Miss Chapel," he said, his tone firm. "If I can justify my behaviour to the Captain and put up with an interrogation from Doctor McCoy, I am most certainly strong enough to complete this conversation. Sit down."

It wasn't a request.

Chapel sighed heavily and sat down. "Well ... we should try and keep it brief then," she muttered. It was mostly a professional concern. He still tired easily and she was not going to be the one responsible for allowing him to become dangerously exhausted.

"Conversations of this nature are usually best concluded quickly," he agreed and she was surprised to find that small flicker of amusement had reappeared in his eyes. Again, it didn't last. He sighed. "It is illogical to prevaricate and that is what I am doing. I will come to the point. I have one specific concern about the events on Platonius," he paused studying her face. "Given your behaviour during, and since, the debriefing, I suspect it might be the same concern you have."

During and since the debriefing? She thought back to that debriefing three months ago, trying to work out what exactly his concern could be. Then she remembered. Doctor McCoy's announcement, the look in the First Officer's eyes when it was revealed her Vulcan appearance had come out of her mind. Her face froze. Of all the things she did not want to discuss, that was the one she wanted most to avoid.

He watched her entire body tense up so completely it seemed ready to snap at the lightest pressure and knew he was on the right path. Or the wrong one, depending on point of view - he did not appreciate being the one to inflict discomfort on her, so he asked the question before he could think of a logical reason not to.

"What was in your mind that Parmen could use to make you appear Vulcan?"

Her fingers tightened around the datapadd in her hand so fiercely that they blanched white and her eyes were lowered to her lap to avoid looking at him. Her cheeks drained of all colour and then, quite suddenly, flushed scarlet. "It's personal, Mr Spock," she whispered at last, her voice barely audible even to his Vulcan hearing. "It's ... it's a private matter."

Just like McCoy, the Vulcan mused. She had evoked a Vulcan turn of phrase. McCoy had done it to encourage honesty and now she was doing it to encourage him to back off from the subject. Every Vulcan fibre of his being was telling him to do exactly that, to end the conversation, let it drop, that he had breached her privacy too much recently as it stood. With an effort of will, he ignored those hidden voices and forged on. "Is it preferable to conduct this in private with myself as your only audience, or more publicly, to have it on record, because someone made a formal complaint about your conduct?"

She flinched and her eyes shot up to stare incredulously at him. For a moment, he even saw a hint of tears in the back of her gaze and this time, he looked away. He knew why she was so shocked. It was bitterly cruel of him to have said that, almost blackmail. He thought back to that day on the Bridge when she poured all of the strength she possessed into him to keep him alive, and again, a few days later when he had regained consciousness inside her mind, and realised he was still feeding off that strength. He wondered if he was finally shaking her faith in him now.

He took a deep breath and felt his lungs twinge with the effort. Composing himself behind his rigid First Officer's mask, he returned his attention to her face and felt the mask almost shatter at what he found.

There were tears in her eyes but not a single one had fallen. Her eyes were glowing in the room's artificial light, like blood-tinted crystal shards. There was a smile on her face. It was only faint, but its existence was undeniable. There was nothing vulnerable in her expression, nothing soft. The tears were tears of rage and the smile sent a chill down his spine as though someone had dropped an ice-cube down the back of his shirt.

"That's not much of a question, is it, Mr Spock?" Her voice was a whisper but one of anger. "I don't want to have this discussion with you - and I think you know that. If it ended up on my record, you'd still know, and so would anyone else who read it. So, to answer your question honestly, sir, I don't want this discussion at all. But if you're going to end up finding out about it, I'd rather only you know than the entire galaxy."

She leaned forward, the hard glittering edge still in her expression and in her voice when she spoke. "Therefore, in the interests of keeping this conversation brief, and my answers honest, I'll be blunt. Men are attracted to the exotic in their women. There's an old joke on Earth about men preferring blondes. It's so old a joke that they've even made movies about it in the past. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', it was called. I guess that applies to Vulcans too. You do seem to have a thing for blondes, Mr Spock, but you can't seem to find a blonde in the species you really want. Parmen decided to mock us both with a single image: your perfect woman, Mr Spock - a blonde Vulcan."

Spock blinked once. He paused, turning that over in his mind and then blinked a second time. "And you dyed your hair brown because of this?"

Her smile broadened a little, hovering on the edges of a grin. "It's my natural colour, Mr Spock. I am a brunette. I wore my hair as a blonde for a few years to have fun. Not to be a canvas for someone else's secret fantasies in a public circus act." She glared angrily at him for several moments, then sat back, and folded her arms across her chest, leaving the datapadd on her lap. She seemed to be waiting for something from him, as if she had decided she already knew what his response would be and was just counting down the seconds until he proved her right.

Spock watched her in silence for several moments, trying to decide what on earth he should say. It wasn't the answer he had expected and he had infuriated her with his insistence on knowing the truth. He could understand why. It was not the sort of revelation even a Human was comfortable with making. He could sense that the driving emotion behind her rage was humiliation and reflected briefly that he must have become better than he realised at reading Human emotions over the past few years. There had been a time when he would not have understood her anger, let alone realised it had been ignited by an entirely different emotion.

Or maybe, he considered, he was not attuned to reading Humans in general, just a few specific individuals, of which she had, over time, become one.

She was not, however, quite as good at interpreting his mind as he had told Doctor McCoy and his lips twitched at the realisation. "Then despite your earlier claims of having resolved your time on Platonius through logic, you clearly do still resent me for what happened there," he stated calmly.

Chapel stared at him. "What?" He seemed to have derailed her train of thought completely.

Slowly, to avoid dizziness and fatigue, he leaned forward, eyes locked on hers. "This theory of yours is not logical. You are blaming it entirely on me and what I am looking for in a mate. Alexander made it clear to Doctor McCoy that the appearance of the women came entirely from their minds. Your appearance, Miss Chapel, is not evidence that I would appreciate a blonde Vulcan but that you think I would." Despite the situation, he could feel a tiny spark of amusement stubbornly igniting over this entire situation. "I am familiar with the title of the film you recalled. It is something my mother has mentioned enjoying in her youth. I also recall her mentioning the sequel ... 'Gentlemen Marry Brunettes', I believe was the title?"

Some of her anger had died due to sheer surprise. She was astonished that he, a Vulcan, even knew these centuries-old movies existed. "You didn't marry one," the moment she said it, the last of her anger died away. It was entirely possible that she had taken this one step too far as she noticed the hard glint that appeared in his eyes at the reference to T'Pring. Then the edge left his eyes and his lips pursed into a thin line.

"You appear to believe I rejected her. The reverse is true."

She paused, then her eyes widened slowly. Of course, she hadn't known the detail of that occasion. Very few people had. All anyone outside of the smallest inner circle had known was that Spock had beamed down to a wife on Vulcan, returned to the ship divorced and that Captain Kirk had very nearly died in some mysterious fashion. Although she knew from McCoy's confidence that the pon farr had driven Spock to nearly kill Kirk, that was the only thing she had been told - just enough to be medically relevant and very little else.

"And prior to Platonius there was only one blonde woman, one I had known for many more years than I had known you. Hardly enough of a trend on which to base a scientific theory," the Vulcan gave her a long stare, that tiny spark of amusement once more in evidence but also a hint of exasperation. "Perhaps your theory needs some work, Miss Chapel?" His eyes narrowed slightly as a sudden thought crossed his mind. "Unless what Parmen really took from your mind was your belief that had she been Vulcan, I would not have rejected Doctor Kalomi? Perhaps that is the more accurate theory?"

The breath escaped Chapel's lungs in a small explosive puff. This was the very reason she had not wanted to discuss Platonius. There were far too many personal thoughts, thoughts that should not have been discussed. Thoughts that had nothing to do with professionalism and duty, things that were not meant to be voiced. All of which were now being thrown out in the air. How was this supposed to make things right between them? The more baggage that was aired, the less likely they'd rebuild a working relationship ever again. "It doesn't really matter at the end of the day, does it, Mr Spock?" she tried to back-pedal out of the discussion as inoffensively as possible, to try and close down the subject for good. Too much had been said already. "It happened, it's in the past."

"Kaiidth?" The Vulcan resisted his amusement. "But it is not, is it? You avoid me. And ... I was so disturbed by this avoidance that the first time you were unable to escape me, I held onto your mind for three days without even knowing I was doing so - endangering your health, depriving Sickbay of its Head Nurse and aggravating the already volatile Doctor McCoy. And now ... you are avoiding me again."

"I ... I don't quite see the connection," the nurse managed at last. There was a puzzled frown on her face, as if she was trying to work out how on earth the events that had occurred after the Romulan battle were in anyway linked to Platonius.

Spock was quiet for several moments, studying the far end of the room, the door, in silence. I should have ensured the door was locked, he realised suddenly. But on straining his hearing, he could not detect anyone in the adjoining room. At last he returned his gaze to the nurse. "You have not moved on from what Parmen did to you," he said firmly. "You have tried to answer why this was done to you logically but your speculation has not been logical. I will offer you an alternative explanation. Assess its validity before you respond."

He arched an eyebrow as if awaiting her agreement. She swallowed, then nodded cautiously in response. He leaned forward slightly. "Vulcans do not tolerate suffering in others, or being done to others. Parmen knew this. As the debriefing revealed, Parmen made sure he chose women the Captain and I were close to. Parmen saw in your mind the conflicts you obviously have about what I would consider an ideal mate-choice. I suspect, ultimately, your significant concern was that a Human could never measure up to a Vulcan's standards, and he realised that. Is that true?"

She flushed and looked away.

"Miss Chapel, is that true?"

There was another flash of anger in her eyes as she returned her gaze to his. "Not quite, Mr Spock," she snapped. "I think there's a difference between your demands and your society's demands. After all, your father - a full-blooded Vulcan - took a Human mate. Clearly, Human mates are acceptable in Vulcan society. But I'm not so sure they are acceptable to you."

Spock didn't answer immediately, staring at her in silence, a hint of surprise in his eyes. She smiled grimly, knowing she had struck a nerve. Then he blinked away the emotion and carried on regardless. "That would be motivation for him to enforce a Vulcan appearance on you. Anything further in your appearance would have been as a result of other concerns, fears, or conclusions, you had drawn. Parmen gained pleasure from the torment of his victims. Your torment, Miss Chapel, was to have your thoughts and feelings about me displayed for everyone to witness - most especially, for me to witness. Parmen, having learned about Vulcan ethics from my mind, knew that to breach your privacy so completely would in turn torture me."

There was a pause as he hesitated. "It backfired on the planet. I believed your Vulcan appearance was as a result of what he found in my mind," a tiny gleam appeared in his eyes but she couldn't interpret the expression. "In fact, you yourself have just given voice to some of my own thoughts that led me to that conclusion," he watched her smile bitterly at the confirmation of her accuracy. "When I meditated later, after leaving the planet, I resolved most of those issues satisfactorily and was working on the rest. Including those issues you confidently believe you understand. A misplaced confidence, I will add."

This time he watched her jump like a startled cat. She flushed in embarrassment, then looked confused. He could tell she was trying to work out exactly what he meant by that statement. But he continued regardless. He did not plan to explain.

"It was only in the briefing room, when it was made clear that you were responsible for your appearance and not me, that the full truth of what Parmen had done became known to me. My meditations have been ... less successful since. You must understand that it is not what Parmen did to us that caused my concern but what you had done to your own mind. Worse still, was that you appeared to be continuing this self-inflicted torture because as soon as the debriefing was concluded, you changed your hair colour. You were also avoiding me, even in Sickbay and in the labs. I did not confront you, I thought your privacy had been breached enough. I now believe my decision to have been erroneous. We should have discussed Platonius much sooner than this."

Chapel stared at him in silence for a while, mulling over what he was saying and compared it to what she thought he was saying. There were some very large gaps between the two conclusions, she decided. Too large. She sighed. "Meaning what, Mr Spock?" she asked at last.

"Meaning, Nurse," he said gently. "That you do not ... how do Humans put it? 'Know my taste in women' and I did not know you had thought much about this subject at all - nor the conclusions you had come to. Knowing this, Parmen chose to torment us both by revealing your thoughts. It is entirely possible that he also realised this is not a subject we have occasion to discuss and therefore, no matter whether he got what he wanted from us on the planet, his actions would reap long-term consequences regardless."

Her face froze. "You're saying he wanted the last laugh?"

"Yes, that is the term Humans use."

She stared at him for a few moments. If she trusted Spock to be telling the truth - and he was usually very honest - then his theory was more sound than hers had been. She had only become confident about her own theories after hearing about Droxine and Zarabeth, two women who had come on the scene after Platonius, and therefore who could not have figured into Parmen's decision-making at all. She swallowed and looked away. "Guess he succeeded then," she muttered.

"Then the question becomes, does he continue to?"

The nurse blinked at him but his gaze was calm and steady. It was, in fact, almost expectant. "Well, I ..." she stopped, hesitating. "Mr Spock," she said slowly. "I don't know how to just stop ... thinking what I do. Do you? Can you stop thinking what you do overnight?"

One eyebrow arched. "I believe the correct response is: 'one step at a time'."

Chapel blinked at him. One step at a time? On this ship? How was that even possible? "What would be the first step?"

"You stop avoiding me while I am confined to Sickbay," he said simply.

"Well, I ..." she paused. His eyebrow shot up and she almost squirmed. It wasn't going to be that easy after this conversation. Still ... it was also her job, so what he was asking her to do genuinely was a small step. Do her job, just like any other day, any other patient. She could do that. She had been doing it for two years prior to Platonius, after all. Then she realised something and scowled at him. "And what's your first step, Mr Spock?"

"I understand there is logic in minimising my stupidity levels to ensure an improvement in the Head Nurse's bedside manner," he replied - almost innocently.

The nurse stared at him incredulously for a moment, not quite certain she had really heard him say that. Then, for the first time since this conversation had started, she began to laugh.

Maybe it could work, she thought. Small steps, no pressure, keep looking forward - and one day, she would look behind her and notice Platonius was no longer in sight. It sounded plausible. Logical even. Small steps. Just like the fortune cookies always said.

She looked back at the First Officer and found him watching her, a faint twinkle in his dark eyes and the tiniest hint of a curve to his lips.

Small steps, indeed, she thought. And maybe along the way, I'll get him to admit that Vulcans do laugh, after all.

FIN