- "Even you are not rich enough, Sir Robert, to buy back your past. No man is." –

Oscar Wilde, „An Ideal Husband"

"Chris! Oh my God, I was so scared…! I thought… when they told us what had happened, I thought you were dead, and then they said you were injured, and we couldn't contact you, and…!" Looking into his sister's face, seeing the tears, the dark shadows, and the intense relief in her grey eyes, Chris sighed. As he had expected, Laurel was hysterical, but after more than three decades, he was starting to get used to her moods. She always overdid it, but in this case, it was hard to blame her. He could have been dead now. In fact, it was a miracle that he wasn't.

"I'm fine, Laurel."

"Well, you don't look 'fine' to me," Laurel sniffed. "What happened?"

Chris exchanged a quick glance with his brother in law, who was sitting at Laurel's side like a silent shadow. Balder would understand. Balder would know why he could not tell Laurel, at least not in detail. They had both made it their life's work to protect her, because that was what big brothers and husbands did. Laurel did not need to know about Nero, and the pain and the torture; she did not need to know about those hours he had spent, hoping he would die, and fighting back against it at the same time… and most of all, Laurel did not need to know about that last, shameful secret that Chris had kept from everyone so far: the fact that Nero had been successful in extracting the frequencies.

Laurel caught him looking, and frowned. "What are you not telling me?" She asked suspiciously.

"It's not… there's just some things I don't remember, and others that I cannot tell you about…"

His sister sighed, but then she suddenly turned around to look at somebody outside the picture. "Yes?" Laurel snapped. A strange voice mumbled something Chris did not quite catch. He heard his sister object, heard the other voice get more insistent, saw Balder turn and give a jerk of his head and finally heard Laurel say: "Oh, all right, calm down, I'll do it…! Geez! Chris…" – she turned back to face him – "… we'll continue this later. There seems to be a little emergency. Those idiots… oh well…" She got up and disappeared.

Chris raised his brows at his brother-in-law. "What was that all about?"

Balder shrugged. "Work. Some defect downstairs, and Laurel's on call today. It gives you a chance to talk to me without your sister overhearing and starting to fret, and I think you should use it." Balder looked at him sternly.

Chris winced. "I'm not sure if I want t to tell you about it."

"Look at it this way – do you have anybody else you could talk to?"

Chris frowned. "You are a terrible person, Balder."

"Yeah, well, I guess my brother got all the charms nature had to offer our family. Unfortunately, he got himself killed twenty years ago, so you'll have to deal with me. Also, I doubt that talking to Thore would have helped a lot. He was too much like Laurel."

"It's kind of strange, isn't it?" Chris mused. "You married my sister, who greatly resembles your brother. You think that's a coincidence? Or maybe fate?"

"I don't believe in fate. No, I just think it's nature's way of making up for certain deficiencies. You and I are both rational, thoughtful people. Our lives are stable and unexciting. But man needs a little excitement now and then, and that's why people like us need people like Laurel and Thore. Chaotic people, who cause plenty of excitement wherever they go, but their lives lack stability. So that's why Laurel and I are a good match; and for a brief time, you and my brother were, too."

Balder looked at Chris, his blue eyes kind and thoughtful. "Why is it that we always end up talking about my brother, when I wanted to talk about you?"

"Diversionary tactics, Balder. I've known you long enough."

"It's not just that. You have a problem. A serious one, I suspect. You always talk about Thore when you have a problem, because he is the very impersonation of everything problematic in your life."

Chris sighed. "You may be right. Focusing on your beautiful, charming, problematic brother helps me see things clearer."

Balder shook his head. "No. Focusing on my beautiful, idiotic, dead brother helps you avoid thinking about the actual problem. Thore is gone, Chris. Has been for a long time. How about you focus on me instead and tell me what's troubling you?"

"Apart from the fact that I might be confined to a wheelchair and unfit for duty for a considerable amount of time…?"

Once again, Balder shrugged. "You're tough. You'll deal with it. Is there a decent doctor left on your ship?"

"He's a genius," Chris assured him, "I owe that young man my life – several times over, I suspect."

"Well, do something nice for him, if you get around to it. So you're in good hands. Back to the real problem..."

"You're persistent, aren't you?"

"Have to be, when dealing with you. So?"

Chris finally gave in and told him. It did not exactly make him feel better, but he was curious to hear what Balder had to say about it.

His brother-in-law left him waiting for a long moment before replying: "I guess, you will be facing an inquest."

"Most of us are going to have to answer some questions," Chris said, "but that is not what's bothering me."

"What's bothering you is that you gave in," Balder stated.

Chris nodded. "Exactly."

"You had no choice. Talk to that doctor of yours, I'm sure that he'll explain to you that the toxin that parasite released made it impossible for you to think straight. A chemical reaction, nothing more. Sure, it's not very flattering, but you committed no mistake."

"I don't want to be exonerated. What I really want is to go back in time and change things."

"Well, that's not going to happen," Balder stated matter-of-factly, "you'll have to live with it."

"What if I can't?"

"You can, because you have to. Starfleet is in a very tight spot right now, Chris. You have a sworn duty to perform. You can't back out, because you're having doubts about your judgment."

Chris shook his head. "I wish I had your confidence."

"You have your own, so you don't need mine," Balder replied. "And now get back to bed, you look bad. I'll tell your sister that we had a nice chat and that you'll need some time to recover. Glossing over potentially unpleasant things is part of my responsibility as her husband, and I'm getting very good at it." He smirked.

Chris smiled faintly. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it. Getting you back on track also seems to be one of my responsibilities, even though I'd gladly hand it over to someone else, if you could finally take the trouble to find a replacement for my brother…" He let the sentence trail off.

Chris rolled his eyes. "You don't replace people like that, Balder. My personal life does not compare to Starfleet's duty roster."

"Twenty years is a long time, Chris."

"Well?" McCoy asked, when he entered the room, answering Chris' call, "did you placate your family?"

"More or less", Chris replied. His head was spinning and he felt nauseous. Probably a bad sign, and it had nothing to do with his conversation with Balder. "Listen, I…"

Throwing up on McCoy's feet had certainly not been part of the plan to regain his dignity, but he couldn't help it. He could not remember ever having felt this violently sick in his entire life.

McCoy swore colorfully and was at his side in an instant, never mind the shoes. He wrapped an arm around Chris' waist to steady him. "Easy," he said, his pleasant, soothing voice sounding very close to Chris' ear, "how long have you been feeling sick, and why the hell didn't you tell me? No, scratch the last part, I can easily imagine the answer to that… are you in pain?"

Was he in pain? His definition of 'pain' had changed a lot since the start of this accursed mission, and he would have neglected the fire burning in his stomach, but McCoy got really annoyed when he withheld symptoms, so… "Stomach cramps." Breathing was actually quite difficult when you were simultaneously trying to keep your entrails from leaping out to get some fresh air.

"Okay," McCoy said, "how long?" He was the only person Chris knew who could manage to make his voice sound caring and disapproving at the same time. It was really quite astonishing.

"A little while," he replied sheepishly. "But I didn't think it was anything worth mentioning."

McCoy groaned, now clearly exasperated. "Why don't you let me be the judge of that? May I remind you that of the two of us, I am the doctor and you are the patient…?"

Chris wanted to reply something, but another wretched cramp forced him to keel over. His stomach did a summersault, and spilled the rest of its contents. Indistinctly, he heard McCoy shout for assistance.

Somebody came running, and then they were lifting him back onto a biobed. Chris hadn't even noticed the change of rooms. A hypospray was pressed to his neck, and he heard the soft purr of some sort of medical instrument, a scanner, perhaps, not that it mattered much. The nausea slowly seeped away, numbed by the effects of the hypospray. Chris sent a fervent thanks to the inventor of those.

He suddenly felt cold and realized that he was shivering. McCoy, apparently, did to. A soft blanket came over him, and when Chris opened his eyes, he was once again met with that startling blue gaze.

McCoy looked worried, which was never a good sign in a doctor.

"You are not supposed to feel sick," he murmured, half to himself.

"I agree," Chris replied in a feeble attempt at humor. "So what's wrong?"

McCoy shook his head. "I don't know yet." He put a hand on Chris arm, maybe unconsciously, and stared down at him as if he expected to read the answer off his face.

"It's probably nothing," Chris commented, trying to sound unconcerned. "I suppose the environment on that Romulan ship wasn't exactly healthy, and getting poisoned by that slug must have dealt a nasty blow to my immune system."

Wait a minute, why am I trying to comfort my physician…? Shouldn't be the other way round? Chris could see the irony of the situation, but he liked McCoy better grumpy and confident than confused and worried. Besides, comforting distraught crewmembers was part of his job and despite everything that had happened, he still felt responsible for this crew. They were his people.

Yeah, try to reason your way out of the fact that you said that because you don't want him to be upset. Because you like him.

"You're right about the last part," McCoy acknowledged, "the slug did a pretty good job at wiping out your entire immune system. Now, it shouldn't matter, because this ship is clean, as is everybody on it. There shouldn't be anything that could upset your stomach – or anything else for that matter. Except for you, Jim, Spock and Mr. Scott, nobody has been outside and returned since this mission departed from Earth, and I sent the three of them through decon as soon as I could. And we took care of everything you had in your system down here. There's a faint chance that something might have escaped, since we didn't exactly follow protocol and send everybody through decon right after they got aboard, but it's not very likely."

"And you had other things to deal with," Chris added. "Minor matters such as keeping your captain alive."

McCoy, still looking down at him, suddenly smiled. It was a small smile, but God, it was beautiful. Chris tried to ascribe the brief flutter in his stomach to the cramps, but deep down he knew that the two were probably unconnected.

I wonder if I have to thank Balder for this, Chris thought ironically, talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! He'd get a good laugh out of this one; it makes me look like a complete fool. And dammit, this is the last thing I need right now, on top of everything else…!

"Are you feeling better?"

Not exactly, but that's not your fault… or rather, it is, but in a totally different way than you'd expect. And I'll be damned if I ever tell you.

"Somewhat. I feel exhausted, though."

"That's not exactly surprising." McCoy straightened up and moved to pull the privacy curtains shut. "I'll see to it that you get some rest and aren't disturbed, while we try to find out what caused this."


Go away, please. I need to think and your presence impedes my ability to do that. It's too distracting.

McCoy turned to look at him, his frown softening into an almost tender expression. "You're welcome."

Chris closed his eyes and let out the breath he had held back.

I am in so much trouble…

He was dreaming, but to his own surprise and relief, his dream was not about Leonard McCoy, but about Thore Rasmussen. Dreaming about Thore was okay. After all, they had been in a committed relationship, even though it lay many years away in the past, and Chris had loved Thore more than he had ever loved anybody else, so he felt entitled to dreaming about him. Besides, being dead, Thore was a safe choice. Safer than his living, breathing, infuriation doctor, in any case. Who by the way was not only fifteen years his junior, but also a member of his crew and quite obviously heterosexual… but back to Thore…

Thore was sitting on the lawn beneath the old cherry tree in the garden of Judge Richard C. Pike, who would certainly have disapproved of some impertinent blond boy sitting in his garden and eating his cherries; especially since Thore was having a little cherry pit spitting contest with himself.

"You should really come down and quit sulking, you know," he told Chris, his vibrant voice laced with laughter. Thore always seemed to be laughing at something or nothing at all.

"I'm not sulking," Chris protested.

"Yes, you are, sweetheart." And now, he was laughing."You are, because I'll always be young and happy, and beautiful, while you are growing old and tired and you feel that your life is empty."

"You sound like your brother," Chris said.

Thore spit a cherry pit at the nearest rosebush. "Maybe I am my brother," he pointed out. "This is your memory, after all, and it's seriously messed up. I never was that beautiful, Chris, and my eyes were a different shade of blue. You're confusing things. You're starting to forget me."

"Never," Chris heard himself whisper in shock, looking at that beloved, youthful face and frantically trying to remember what was wrong with it.

Thore shook his head impatiently and his golden curls shone in the sunlight as if lit from within. Chris felt his heart ache at the sight.

"I miss you," he whispered.

"Yeah?" Thore spit out another pit. "Well, that's because you're an idiot, Chris. I'm dead, you know."

He slowly got up, stretching his long limbs. Chris watched as he stepped closer, his bare feet very pale against the summer-green grass. Thore stopped right in front of him and held up the index finger of his right hand, pointing it at Chris. "You, my love, are my wonderfully foolish knight in shining armor, and you'll never realize that the greatest obstacle to you being happy is in here." He lightly tipped Chris' brow with his finger. And then he leant forward, touching his lips to Chris. Dream kisses rarely have anything to do with reality, but as Chris leaned closer to deepen it, he realized that something was wrong with this one. Dreams are volatile, and sometimes the people that are in them suddenly change.

It took Chris a moment to realize that he wasn't kissing Thore anymore. Aquamarine had transformed into lapis lazuli.

He looked up and into Leonard McCoy's troubled eyes.