It was Mallory's last day, and Nyota couldn't say she was sorry. While it was apparent that Mallory's appreciation of Spock turned out to be entirely in line with most of the rest of the crew's (something that Nyota was still coming to terms with), it remained something of a trial to hear her enthuse all over Spock's workstation for the last couple of days, while he stood patiently behind and explained modification after modification that he had made to fine-tune spectral analysis, planetary analysis, etc. ad infinitum. Today, Nyota was ready to have Mallory out of the chair and Spock back in it, with no interruptions, for least a couple of days. With New Vulcan still a few days away, she at least stood a chance of getting her wish.

Mallory had said her goodbyes to Chekov, Sulu, and Lo on the bridge. Sulu was gracious as always, but Chekov seemed honestly sorry to say farewell.

"You vill write," he said at least twice, with such a puppy-dog expression that Nyota knew, even if Mallory's heart were made of stone (which it wasn't), she would have to send the young ensign at least one personal missive after she resumed her original assignment. From Mallory's softened looks, Nyota suspected the letter would be a long one. Hooray for ongoing communication.

Lo's farewell was considerably briefer. Not that she minded Mallory really —who could?—but Nyota was then acting as Mallory's escort, and Lo was still trying to downplay her role in bringing her Engineering buddies up to the bridge to witness Spock's grand entrance. She shook Mallory's hand and seemed genuinely contrite in Nyota's presence—but Nyota couldn't help wondering what her fellow officer said when she went down to Engineering, and Lumley and the rest of the gang were free to speak as they chose. Nyota had actually had some pretty vivid fantasies about this—and about how she would take them apart if she ever caught them actually saying what she suspected they were saying. For the first time in her relationship with Spock, she felt people were more frightened to see her come around the corner than the ship's self-contained First Officer—a fear factor Nyota intended to exploit for however long she could.

It was largely for that reason that Nyota had agreed to escort Mallory to the shuttlebay—just in case anyone started to get ideas about Spock, given that he was again on board. Now she stalked proprietarily behind the tall commander and his diminutive pupil, who was still chattering away about all the refinements she was going to make to her equipment aboard the Lao-Tse once she got back there. Spock being Spock, he'd naturally spent half the previous night studying the Lao-Tse's technical specifications, and had a good many suggestions to offer Mallory to help her accomplish her vision.

Without much to add, Nyota trailed behind the pair alongside Kirk, who had taken it upon himself to see his temporary officer off the ship. He proved to be a good companion—silent as Nyota was, but occasionally exchanging a sly smirk or a roll of the eyes with her at some particularly geeky comment made by the couple preceding them down the hall. It made the trip more bearable.

When Mallory burst into a passionate endorsement of new measurements down to the angstrom level, Nyota couldn't help murmuring to Kirk, "It kind of makes you want to redesign your own station, doesn't it?"

Kirk swallowed his chuckle.

Unfortunately, Nyota's sarcasm and a Vulcan's sense of humor were often a clean miss. Spock instantly turned to look at her. "I shall be more than pleased to make any modifications to your station that you find helpful, Lieutenant."

While the notion of Spock lying on his back under her panel for couple of days, tinkering away at her feet, was a distinctly appealing one, Nyota could think of no enhancements she could ask for him to make. "Thank you for the offer, Commander. But I need to give the matter some more thought."

Spock nodded and resumed his conversation with Mallory. Kirk gave Nyota a wicked grin that screamed Busted! all over it. Where once she might have resented his familiarity, Nyota was growing more comfortable accepting his playfulness for what it was: just silly banter intended to reduce the tension. And he hadn't once tried to seduce Mallory once during her entire tour. Surely that showed a newfound maturity in Kirk's character; Nyota felt it suited him.

The doors parted to let them into the shuttlecraft bay. Mallory's craft, the Zhang Heng, stood ready, while technicians scurried about it prepping the bay. In front of the ordered confusion stood two beaming gentleman, with gifts nestled into the crooks of their arms.

"Dr. McCoy, Mr. Scott!" Mallory cried. "How nice of you to see me off."

"I figured I owed you that, considering the way I'd welcomed you aboard." Dr. McCoy stepped forward, holding out an insulated dish. "A snack lunch to tide you over on your way back."

"That's sweet," Mallory beamed, taking the gift.

McCoy tapped the dish. "That's genuine Georgia barbecue. Replicator fresh—but I've trained it to do a fairly close approximation, which isn't half bad, if I say so myself."

"I'm sure I'll enjoy it thoroughly. In any case, it's got to be better than ship's stores!"

"You can count on that!" McCoy grinned.

"Now, Maggie," said Mr. Scott, "you're going t' need something to wash that down with. And—" He gave the captain a knowing look. "I just happened to come into possession of something that ought to do the job admirably."

Mallory took the bottle wonderingly. "Scotch whiskey?" She eyed the dust on the bottle. "This looks really old."

"Eighteen years," Scotty said with pride.

Mallory looked startled. "Are you sure you want to part with it?"

Scotty waved a hand. "Ach, it's nothing! Besides, as I said, I only recently came to own it." He gave Captain Kirk a smirk. "A wee matter of a wager."

Nyota gave Kirk a sideways glance, to see him looking rather warm. She suddenly recalled his look of chagrin (and Scotty's look of triumph) at the department meeting yesterday, but she couldn't figure out what it was about. The only topic under discussion was something Spock had brought up—about how they needed to route personnel more efficiently through the ship in case of a turbolift malfunction. She couldn't imagine why Scotty and Kirk would have been betting over that—but she supposed stranger things had happened.

Scotty took Mallory's hand and shook it warmly. "Have a bonny trip back, lass," he said, and kissed her on the cheek.

"Safe journey," said McCoy, and gave her a peck on the other one.

Flushed with delight and embarrassment, Mallory turned toward her mentor. "Thank you so much for all your help, Commander Spock. The Lao-Tse isn't going to know what hit them."

"I am sure you will execute the desired changes with your customary efficiency, Ms. Mallory—now that you have access to my detailed notes." Spock slid a superior gaze toward Kirk, who put a hand over his face. Nyota didn't know whether to laugh or cringe on his behalf. She actually felt somewhat sorry for him, being so put upon; after all, he'd meant well.

"Well, I'm certainly going to spend a lot of time poring over them, you can be sure of that!" Mallory chattered in her chirpy way. "Really, there's so much to study in them! I can't thank you enough."

"Always glad to be of assistance, Ensign Mallory," Spock rumbled. "Do not hesitate to message me if you run into additional difficulties."

"Oh, may I?" Mallory's eyes sparkled. "That's so generous of you—"

To Nyota's annoyance, Spock stood a little taller. "Not at all, Ms. Mallory."

"I mean, having access to someone of your caliber—I can't even tell you how much that will help me—in so many ways!"

Kirk leaned closer to Nyota and barely murmured, "I thought you said you'd prefer it if they ogled in person."

Nyota barely moved her lips. "Shut up."

"Captain Kirk," Mallory gushed, reclaiming his attention. Her cheeks were red with enthusiasm and pleasure. "I can't thank you enough for agreeing to take me on as one of your officers. I've learned so much! I'm sure I'll remember my assignment here my whole career."

"I think we all will, lass," Scotty grinned.

"Yes, I think we've all learned something from this rotation," Kirk said.

"Oh, aye!" Scotty looked straight at Nyota. "We've all been exposed to lots of things we'll never forget."

"Whether we want to or not," added McCoy.

"The most important thing being," Kirk continued doggedly, "that we can always count on our fellow officers when we really need them." And he glared at Scotty and McCoy to cut off any other smart remarks they might want to add—which, based on their startled expressions, they'd both been preparing to deliver.

"Well, I'm honored to have been able to help out," said Mallory.

"We're glad to have had you here," said Kirk, shaking Mallory's hand. "Good luck!"

"Thank you, Captain. Thank you, all!"

"It was our pleasure," Scotty said sincerely.

Mallory gripped Nyota's hand, shaking it warmly. "Thanks for everything!"

"You're welcome!" she responded, startled.

Mallory moved off, waving. "Goodbye!"

"Goodbye!" chorused the assembled officers.

She disappeared around the side of the shuttlecraft, and they heard the hatch lower and click shut.

Scotty shook his head, smiling. "Such a pleasant young woman!"

"And studious," said Kirk. "I bet she won't be 10 minutes into her journey before she starts poring over those detailed notes."

Nyota elbowed him in the ribs.

"Ah, yes," said McCoy. "All that studying. How long do you think it will be before she has to message the Enterprise with a follow-up question?"

"I give it three hours, Doctor," Scotty replied.

Spock looked offended. "I highly doubt it, Engineer. I was most thorough in conveying my thoughts. Besides, three hours isn't nearly enough time for her to master the material."

"It's not so much that she's interested in the material, Mr. Spock..."

Kirk clapped his hands. "Well, let's get back to work!"

Spock didn't move. "What do you mean, Mr. Scott? In my opinion, Ms. Mallory demonstrated extraordinary enthusiasm for the subject."

"For the subject of her enthusiasm, you mean," McCoy said.

Kirk waved them towards the door. "Everybody out! The air's going soon. We don't want to be blown into space!"

McCoy had opened his mouth to reply, when Chekov's voice came over the comm. "60 seconds to shuttlebay decompression. 60 seconds to launch."

The warning chime sounded, and the group finally began drifting toward the cargo bay door, technicians sprinting past them on either side.

However, Spock was unwilling to let the subject drop. "I found Ms. Mallory to be most attentive in every way, Mr. Scott."

"In every way, Mr. Spock?" asked the Scot.

"Maybe not in every way," McCoy said, giving Nyota a grin. She couldn't return it. She wished people would stop talking about the effect post-vacation Spock had had on crew... morale, as they euphemistically put it.

Spock was becoming frustrated. "I do not understand why the two of you continue to challenge my observations. I found Ms. Mallory to be a most willing subject."

At his remark, McCoy and Scotty burst into laughter. Even Kirk had a hard time keeping a straight face as he ushered the group into the hall. The cargo bay doors shut tight behind them, dimming the sound of the warning bell.

Spock frowned. "I fail to see what is so amusing."

Kirk glanced at Nyota, who was too irritated to respond, and then ran a hand through his hair. "Spock, what they're hinting about is..."

"Don't say it," Nyota growled.

Now Spock turned his gaze on her. The surprise and, yes, hurt in his eyes—over her knowing something that she wasn't sharing with him—cut her to the quick.

"You said it wouldn't affect him," Kirk reminded her softly.

"It won't!" Nyota cried. "I just..." For some reason, she didn't want to bring the subject into the open. She couldn't even explain to herself why that was so.

Spock continued to eye them, his gaze demanding an answer.

"What they're trying to say," McCoy butted in, "is that we think Mallory found you attractive."

Spock blinked slowly. "I find that unlikely."

"It's more than likely," said Scotty. "Ye might say this falls into the realm of hard fact."

"Improbable, Engineer. Humans do not find Vulcans attractive."

Everyone stared. Nyota felt her jaw going. "What?" she asked weakly.

Spock looked at her with an apologetic gaze. "With rare exceptions, of course."

Everyone continued to stare at Spock, astounded. Then Scotty asked weakly, "What led ye to this conclusion?"

"Simple observation, Mr. Scott."

Kirk looked stunned. "Your observations... led you to this conclusion?"

Scotty studied him with wonder. "And you call yourself a Science Officer."

"Maybe we can still get Mallory back," McCoy muttered.

"What observations?" Kirk asked. Nyota thought he looked badly confused—as confused as she felt.

Hating to waste time in mere conversation (Spock considered it inefficient), he began walking toward the turbolift; they all drifted along with him. "When I first relocated to Earth, I noticed a certain... strain in my interpersonal interactions. I began keeping a running summary of my encounters with humans and other non-Vulcans, in an attempt to track whether or not I could improve my style of communication."

"And it was a dead bust, wasn't it?" said McCoy.

Nyota waved him quiet.

"Over the years there has been a slight improvement, but Dr. McCoy is correct in suggesting that no substantial breakthrough has been made."

Kirk appeared fascinated. "So, what are the statistics?"

"Almost 98% of my encounters with humans seem to evoke a reaction of annoyance, irritation, or frustration."

"This comes as a surprise to you?" asked McCoy.

Nyota swatted him.

"92% involve some level of confusion in the other party," Spock continued equably, "87% produce a reaction of fear, 63% seem to provoke the emotional response of anger, 43% involve a personal insult or racial slur—"

"Ye missed the lust," Scotty interrupted.

Spock looked around. "I beg your pardon?"

"The lust. 67.2% of all your personal interactions must involve a certain level of lust, or I'm off my mark about human nature."

Spock's eyebrows drew together. "On what are you basing that figure?"

"On my observations—which I'll wager are a good deal more accurate in this regard than yours."

"I do not understand."

"That's the point we're trying to make," said McCoy.

But Kirk looked uneasy. "43% of your personal interactions involve a personal insult or slur?" He gave Nyota a look that mirrored some of her own dismay. "Is the crew of the Enterprise that insensitive?"

"No, sir. As I explained, these statistics date back to my first arrival on Earth. On the Enterprise, the percentage is slightly below 34%."

"34%." Kirk gave Nyota a troubled glance. "That's still terrible."

McCoy only grinned. "We're just trying to keep you humble, Mr. Spock."

"I see." Spock looked down his nose at him. "A noble effort, but a vain one, Doctor."

"Say again?"

"Humility is not in my nature."

Nyota smothered her laugh. Spock definitely had his own brand of humor.

But McCoy was not amused. His eyebrows snapped together. "Not in your nature, huh? Do you really want me to get started on what I think about your 'nature,' you pointy-eared, green-blooded—"

"Well, that's enough teambuilding for today!" Kirk interrupted cheerfully.

"35%," Scotty murmured to Nyota.

McCoy subsided, but he was clearly irritated. There goes another tick in the anger column, Nyota thought regretfully.

They had arrived at the turbolift, but Nyota was not looking forward to sharing the lift with Bones. McCoy and Spock had an uneasy truce at the best of times—and an agitated McCoy was not "the best of times."

Scotty must have read her mind. He said suddenly, "Why don't ye come along with me, Doctor? Technician Nelson has been asking after ye."

McCoy's expression instantly brightened. "Really?"

"Aye. And if ye know what's good for ye, ye won't keep the lady waiting." Scotty gave Nyota a parting look which managed to convey his sympathy, even as McCoy hurried to the engineer's side.

"Where is she working today?" McCoy asked.

"I've got her on the antimatter regulator..."

Their voices faded as they walked down the hall. Silently, Kirk, Spock, and Nyota stood waiting for the turbolift. After others' departure, the lull felt awkward.

"Spock, Nyota," Kirk said softly, "I'm sorry about that. Bones is... well, he's the way he is. I don't think anything I say will ever change him."

"He doesn't really mean it," Nyota said to Spock.

"To what are you referring, Lieutenant?"

Kirk answered. "All that 'pointy-eared, green-blooded' stuff."

"Interesting." Spock's face didn't change expression. "As I am, in fact, pointy-eared and green-blooded, I see little for which to chastise the doctor."

"It's the way he said it," said Nyota. "As if it were an insult."

"Indeed. I shall have to refresh the good doctor as to what constitutes an insult. As it is, I can see no grounds for taking offense at a mere statement of fact."

"Well, I can." Kirk looked determined. "Look, you don't have to take it on the chin all the time. 34% personal insults—that's ridiculous. This isn't Vulcan Toughening School. I can... raise awareness, or something."

"If my mere presence does not 'raise awareness,' I'm not certain what method you mean to employ."

The conversation was interrupted as the turbolift arrived. Solemnly, they all stepped inside. Nyota felt the need for tactile contact, but was frustrated by her self-imposed rules. As a compromise, she stood so close to Spock, she could feel the heat of his body and the touch of his uniform sleeve against her arm. As usual, he looked blandly straight ahead. He didn't seem upset—but then, he wouldn't. Kirk, on the other hand, looked as uneasy as Nyota felt.

"Bridge," Kirk said. The turbolift accelerated.

Nyota sighed, and absently stroked Spock's arm. He was so dear to her; how could other people not see his good qualities?

Kirk was still pondering the problem. "To raise awareness, I think we'd have to create a situation where people aren't interacting with you as either First Officer or a science whiz—that's probably where a lot of the fear you noticed comes from."

"Simple intimidation," said Nyota.

"No one has cause to be intimidated," said Spock. "We each have our gifts."

"That may be so," said Kirk, "but some people's gifts can be damned intimidating. I know!" He snapped his fingers. "We could have Hug a Vulcan Day."

Nyota seized Spock's arm, and felt him stiffen beneath her fingers. "Not on your life!"

Spock said coldly, "I am certain a hug is not the appropriate response to the problem."

"Maybe not. But it could help to raise your awareness as to what constitutes unrequited sexual tension in the human animal."

"Hmm, most curious." Spock furrowed his brow. "It perplexes me how Mr. Scott could come up with such an accurate figure for supposed instances of lust in my associates. One must assume he is working with, at best, a skewed sample size."

Nyota said, "I think he was making a generalization, dear."

"He only meant to convey," Kirk interjected, "that, all statistics aside, a lot of people around here think that you're... hot."

"I do have a naturally warmer body temperature—"

"Sexually attractive, I mean."

"I see no evidence of that behavior."

Nyota said gently, "I just don't think you've learned to recognize it, sugar."

"Yeah," said Kirk. "You probably put it under the 'Confused' category."

"Ah." Spock's eyes narrowed. "I do recall noticing an inordinate amount of confusion in the behavior of my shipmates a couple of days ago, when I returned from the planet."

Kirk looked at Nyota. "A breakthrough."

"May I inquire into a different subject?"

"By all means."

Spock fixed Kirk with his stare. "How long have you been calling Lieutenant Uhura 'Nyota'?"

Nyota and Kirk exchanged startled glances, then burst into laughter.

"I did to that, didn't I?" said Kirk.

"Approximately 98 seconds ago."

Nyota petted Spock's arm. "It started while you were away— I don't exactly remember the occasion."

"You had some concerns about Mallory, as I recall," Kirk said.

"It was meant to be supportive," Nyota explained.

"I see. And this conversation is also meant to be 'supportive'?"

Kirk nodded. "Yes, Spock, it is."

"That may also explain why Lieutenant Uhura is stroking my arm and calling me 'dear.'"

Nyota felt herself blush. "Yes." Hastily she dropped his arm. "Sorry, Commander."

"It's okay though, Spock, isn't it?" Kirk asked. "We can be informal if it's just us— right?"

Spock studied their faces. "I am not generally in favor of subverting protocol."

"But this is 'friend' protocol," Nyota said quickly. "It's a different set of rules."

"Indeed." Spock straightened. "Well, I shall endeavor to familiarize myself with 'friend' protocol." He hesitated. "But I would rather you didn't call me 'dear' in front of the captain."

"That's okay, Spock," Kirk said, as the turbolift slowed. "I don't need to hear that, either."

The doors opened. Quietly, Spock said, "And I would prefer that you avoided calling her 'Nyota.'"

Nyota smothered a laugh, as Kirk wasn't sure how to look.

Together, they stepped onto the bridge.


Coming soon, another installment in this series: The Benefits of Rigid Thinking. Cheers!