End Game

written by Mary Rottler and Lynn Syck

Doctor McCoy tugged irritably at the collar of his dress uniform as he waited to be beamed down to the palace on Altair 6. They were already forty-two hours late for the ceremonies when the Enterprise had arrived from Vulcan. McCoy had been delayed even further by an accident involving a flash fire in Engineering. He still was loath to leave the two injured men, but they seemed stable for the moment, and his captain was already in deep trouble with Admiral Komack. He certainly did not want to be the cause of any more problems by failing to be present at the opening ceremonies as Komack had ordered.

"Ready, Doctor?" The ensign manning the transporter looked entirely too young and inexperienced for McCoy to trust his molecules to, but unfortunately a shuttle would have taken much too long.

"Not really, Ensign McCormick, but I seem to have been given no choice in the matter."


"Never mind. Just get on with it."

A squad of security men was waiting when he arrived. Komack's goons, he called them to himself. He had heard security was tight, but he had not realized how tight. They rushed him off, up one corridor and down the next. McCoy barely had time to take in the sumptuous trappings of his surroundings before he found himself at the open double doors of the main hall. He stood for a moment in open-mouthed astonishment. There must have been a thousand beings seated at tables which filled the room. A quick glance seemed to account for every species known to the Federation and then some. Stretching across the front of the room was the head table. As he was escorted to it, he noted representatives of the royal family of Altair, several ambassadors, and the officers of the starships which had been summoned to join in the ceremonies.

McCoy observed with relief that there was an empty chair between Kirk and Spock, near the end of the table. He attempted to slip unobtrusively into his seat while ignoring the hush that fell over the table and the glare that Komack, seated on the other side of Kirk, leaned forward to give him.

"Nice of you to join us, Doctor," Kirk said under his breath.

"Sorry," McCoy replied in the same undertone. "Did I miss anything exciting?"

Kirk shook his head and smiled slightly, but McCoy could see the tension reflected in the hazel eyes that turned away. Leaning forward, he decided to attempt some fence-mending.

"Admiral, you're looking well. It's good to see you."

Komack's ruddy face wore what McCoy would have called a pasted-on smile, while there was no mistaking the anger that flashed in his eyes. "Tell me, Doctor, does Captain Kirk train his officers to disobey commands, or does it just come naturally to you?"

McCoy was temporarily at a loss for a reply. He mentally scrambled for an answer that would not get them all even further into Komack's bad graces than they already were. Before he could speak, Kirk grasped his arm, a signal for him to remain silent.

"I assure you, Admiral, my officers are not in the habit of disobeying commands unless they are given by fools. Then I have instructed them to use their own judgment. Doctor McCoy was delayed by a medical emergency aboard the ship. I ordered him to stay aboard until he felt he could leave. If you like, I can quote the regulation which places such an emergency above any other orders, no matter who gives them." Kirk's words were deceptively calm, and his voice carried no further than Komack. McCoy, however, knew that tone and knew that Kirk was never angrier than when he used it.

Before Komack could respond, Kirk continued. "If you have a problem with that, sir, I suggest we discuss it later, in private."

Komack's anger became open, turning the leonine features into a mask of rage. "You can be sure we will, Captain."

The admiral turned to speak to the Altarian prince on his right, and McCoy leaned back in his chair with a sign. "What in the hell is going on, Jim?"

"Never mind; I'll tell you later." McCoy watched as Kirk absently rubbed his chest and shivered slightly. McCoy frowned, wishing he had had the time to check Kirk out more thoroughly after his return from Vulcan. He had complained of a headache, but then the emergency in Engineering called him away, and except for a brief exchange, he had had no further contact with the captain. McCoy was fairly certain he still had the headache.

Trying to pitch his voice for Kirk's ears, he asked, "Is that cut still bothering you?"

Kirk frowned, glancing at Spock who sat silent, staring straight ahead, apparently unaware of their conversation. "I'll be fine, Bones. Just drop it, okay?"

McCoy became aware of Spock's hands, folded on the table in front of him. Clenched tightly, the knuckles white, they trembled in a way the doctor had never seen. There was another worry. After the first rush of relief and happiness that he had not killed his captain, Spock had seemed to experience a sort of backlash. McCoy had never seen him so near the brink of--what? Not even the pon farr itself had had the effect on Spock that nearly killing Kirk had had. The doctor thought of a tightly wound spring and the devastation to be wrought if this particular tightly wound spring ever let go.

Reaching for the glass in front of him, he sipped the potent Altarian wine. The speakers seemed to drone on for hours, and McCoy, having had much experience at such functions, tuned them out and concentrated his attention on the two men. Kirk barely touched his food, and Spock not at all. After a few bites, McCoy could not say he blamed them. Altarian food was not his favorite either.

"Great," Kirk muttered under his breath, and McCoy was drawn back to focus his attention on the matter at hand. It was time for Kirk's speech. the audience was clapping wildly, and McCoy smiled to himself. It was obvious why Komack had been so upset at the delay. James Kirk was perhaps more popular than the royal family itself--a hero in every sense of the word, handsome, virile, every handmaiden's dream. Komack came in a poor second to James T. Kirk. How that must have rankled the admiral.

Kirk turned to make his way to the podium when he suddenly swayed, his face paling. Before McCoy could rise to help him, the captain caught his eye and shook his head almost imperceptibly. Straightening his shoulders, he strode up to the podium as if nothing had happened.

McCoy settled uneasily back into his seat. Something was wrong, very wrong. And as soon as this blasted dinner was over with, McCoy intended to find out what it was.

The captain began speaking, and a silence fell over the hall. McCoy watched the rapt faces as Kirk spoke of the Federation's dream of drawing all races together while celebrating their differences. The Altarian Ruler placed his hand on the woman beside him, and she did the same to her dinner partner. The gesture spread until all the Altarians were linked in this way. McCoy took it as a sign of agreement and approval.

Kirk continued on, using his own ship and crew as an example of the concept he was explaining. "My first officer, Mister Spock, is a Vulcan, and while we differ in many ways, I consider him my...I consider him the best first officer in the Fleet."

McCoy felt a chill run through him. Spock was more than Jim's first officer, and McCoy could not believe that Kirk would hesitate to call him the friend and brother he was. The doctor turned to look at Spock. The Vulcan sat just as still, but McCoy sensed a slump to the shoulders that had not been there before. Damn, what in the hell was going on?

Another burst of applause brought his attention back to Kirk. Amid the cheers, the captain slid into his seat. Dabbing beads of sweat from his face, he signed deeply.

McCoy leaned over and patted his arm. "You had them eating out of the palm of your hand. I'm impressed."

Kirk smiled grimly. "And you don't impress easily, I know." He rubbed his arms. "Is it cold in here? I'm freezing."

McCoy shook his head, studying Kirk closely. Sweating, yet cold. Automatically, he reached up and felt the captain's forehead, ignoring Kirk's irritated glance. "I'd say you're running a fever. Jim, I don't like this so soon after your injury. As your CMO, I'm recommending you come with me back to Sickbay so I can check you out. The sooner the better."

Before Kirk could respond, Komack intervened. "The captain is not free to leave until all the ceremonies are over."

"Now look, Admiral, I'm his doctor, and I say-"

Komack's face reddened in anger again. "Doctor McCoy, I am not interested in what you have to say. You may consider yourself on report. Return to your ship at once and remain there. The captain has duties here, and he will remain here until I say he can leave. Is that perfectly clear?"

Before McCoy could continue the argument, Kirk laid a restraining hand on his arm. "Bones, please, go back to the ship. If I continue to feel ill, I'll let you know. Besides, I'd feel better if you checked on those two crewmen yourself."

Something in Kirk's eyes frightened McCoy, some sense of desperation he had never seen there. Whatever was causing it, McCoy knew he could not help the situation by antagonizing Komack further.

"Very well, Captain." Throwing his napkin down on the table, McCoy rose to leave. Kirk had turned away to speak to the Altarian High Prince who had approached him. The doctor paused by Spock's chair. "Keep an eye on him, Spock. I'm worried about him. There's something wrong."

Dark eyes lifted to meet his. "I will do what I can, Doctor." The words were almost inaudible, and McCoy sensed a helplessness behind them that frightened him. He reached out and rested his hand on the Vulcan's shoulder. Fine tremors ran through the lean body, and McCoy released his hold immediately. Swallowing his fear, he murmured, "I know you will, Spock."

"Are you still here, McCoy?" Komack demanded from several feet away where he stood with a group of his men.

"Just leaving, Admiral." He defiantly reached up and opened the stiff collar. "Sickbay will be a welcome change, believe me."

Within moments after McCoy left, both officers of the Enterprise were surrounded by various dignitaries and members of the royal family. Spock could feel the thin thread of control threatening to slip away from him as many of those approaching him insisted on touching him in some manner. The emotions given off by those crowding around him were overwhelming when combined with the confusing feelings he was already experiencing. Spock searched the sea of people around him, unable to locate Kirk, and even found himself illogically missing McCoy.

It took considerable effort to maintain his normal aloof bearing while trying to extricate himself from the crush of people. Soon he was hurrying down an unfamiliar hall, searching for someplace to be alone. He needed time to reconstruct his barriers. Spock shuddered as he remembered the hands pushing at him, stray thoughts overheard and emotions...emotions that shoved all logical thought aside. Feelings of jealousy, anger, awe and excitement all fighting to take precedence. How did Humans deal with these emotions every day and still remain functional?

Finally, an open doorway led into an empty library. Spock stepped inside, allowing a sigh to escape as the door closed behind him. Moving to a large chair, he sank into it, his barriers dropping as he relaxed.

Fear. Shame. Anger. Love. Spock dropped his head into his hands as the emotions he was fighting to deny swept through him. The last few days had been some of the most difficult of his entire life. He had not anticipated feeling emotions this strongly after the heat of pon farr was over. For a moment, fear held him in its grasp, unable to quell the thought that his current inability to control was possibly not caused by the pon farr. There was so little information on the subject. Only McCoy's persistence had prevailed in securing the proper treatment from the healers on Vulcan.

Thinking of McCoy, he smiled for a moment, wondering illogically how this whole affair would have turned out if he had not had two such close friends to be by his side. With T'Pring's unprecedented challenge, he would undoubtedly be dead.

The image of Kirk, hanging limply in his arms appeared suddenly before him. As always, it was powerful enough to tear his heart anew. Spock groaned, incapable, and somehow unwilling, to escape the terror the image caused. It was never far from his thoughts, that incomprehensible moment on Vulcan, when the red haze from the plak tow had lifted and he had discovered the impossible truth. He had killed Jim Kirk.

Spock rose swiftly, pacing the room with long strides. He could not seem to keep the powerful image from rising out of nowhere and beating at the fragile barriers of his mind. At times, he felt beyond the edge of control, unable to accept the horrifying thought that he had killed his friend with his own bare hands. Spock brought his shaking hands together, and raised them over his head. It would have been so easy to smash them through the glass. Only at the last moment did he pull back. These were the times when he realized he could do harm to himself, wanting to damage the hands that had defiled his closest friend.

Spock drew a breath, forcing himself to look around and recognize his surroundings. Slowly and deliberately, he walked back to the chair, kneeling in front of it. With determination, he began a basic meditation exercise. Kirk needed his support now, and McCoy had entrusted the captain to his care. He was of no use to Kirk in this condition.

Thirty minutes later, Spock rose to his feet. Cloaking himself with a dignity and calm he did not really feel, the Vulcan returned to the ceremonial hall in search of his captain.

Kirk dragged a weary hand across his forehead, trying to ease the constant throbbing. He wished he could simply lie down in his own bed and sleep for days. Instead, he now sat in Komack's office, forcing himself not to reach across the desk and do bodily harm to his superior officer.

"Just what was the idea of humiliating my CMO that way, Admiral? You have no right--"

"Right? I have every right, Captain. And don't you talk to me about humiliation. You were ordered to bring your ship here and attend these ceremonies as a Starfleet representative. Instead, you divert the Enterprise to Vulcan, leaving me looking like a fool in front of the Altarian royal family who had specifically requested that you attend."

Kirk had an almost overwhelming urge to respond that Komack would look like a fool in any event, but he managed to swallow the words. "Circumstances dictated that we were needed elsewhere."

"Circumstances? I happen to know that these highly important circumstances were simply the rutting cycle of your first officer--hardly important enough to divert an entire starship from its appointed destination."

The sneering words caught Kirk off-guard, and for a moment he sat stunned, not knowing how to respond. Komack leaned back in his chair, a satisfied smirk on his face.

You see, Kirk, I know all about the Vulcan mating ritual, all the interesting details that would set the gossip tongues wagging from one end of this galaxy to the other."

A chill ran through Kirk, whether from illness or fear, he did not know. All he could hear was Spock confiding in him before he had diverted the ship to Vulcan. He had trusted Kirk with knowledge that even Vulcans were loathe to discuss. Now this vermin who called himself a Starfleet admiral was threatening to make a joke of the most sacred of Vulcan secrets. He had to be stopped.

He forced a calm into his voice he did not feel. "Admiral, surely you would not reveal something that could damage Vulcan-Federation relations, perhaps permanently."

"Don't be obtuse, Kirk. I would reveal nothing. Let us just say that I have ways of making sure fascinating information reaches those who would be certain to disseminate it widely."

Kirk shivered and fought down the nausea that climbed up his throat.

"What is it you want, Admiral?"

"It's really quite simple. I want your full cooperation for the next two days. I want you to attend every function as scheduled with no arguments, no whining about being ill. You made a fool of me once before the Altarians. I won't be made a fool of again. And I warn you, if you do not comply, your disobedience will not go unpunished."

"Are you threatening me, Admiral?" Kirk's hands clenched into fists in his lap.

"Not a threat, Kirk, a promise. You cooperate, or I will see to it that the real reason you diverted the Enterprise to Vulcan becomes known."

Kirk rose slowly to his feet and damned himself for the weakness that washed over him. "What are you saying?" he whispered.

"Only that your devotion to your first officer would seem to be more than mere friendship for you to jeopardize your career for him."

Kirk was across the desk and had Komack pinned to the wall before the admiral could move to defend himself. His fist shook with the effort it took not to smash the admiral's face into a bloody pulp.

"I'll keep your bargain, Komack, but let me warn you, if you ever, ever, dare to repeat the lie you have just said to me to any other living being, I will personally see to it that you never live to spread another rumor. Do I make myself clear, Admiral?"

Komack nodded slightly, and Kirk released his hold, suddenly loathe to even touch the man.

He stepped back and straightened his tunic, aware of the office door opening behind him. Turning, he saw Komack's aide standing uncertainly just inside the entrance. Before any of them could say anything further, Spock pushed past Lieutenant Perry and met Kirk as he walked around the desk. Dark Vulcan eyes questioned him. Managing a reassuring smile, Kirk had to plant his feet firmly against another wave of dizziness. He felt Spock's supportive hand on his elbow.

"Captain--" Spock broke off as Kirk gave a quick negative shake of his head.

Kirk froze as a low snicker sounded from behind him. Refusing to turn, he said, "If there's nothing else, Admiral?"

There was a long pause before Komack responded. "I expect you at the delegates' conference at 0800 in the morning."

"Yes, sir."

Spock was still holding his arm, but the grip had intensified. Kirk looked up to find the Vulcan's eyes were focused on Komack, blazing with what could only be classified as anger bordering on rage. If Spock were to lose control here, the admiral would misunderstand, perverting everything he observed.

Pulling his arm free, Kirk whispered the Vulcan's name forcefully, then started forward, relieved when he heard Spock's footsteps following him. He kept going, not looking at the aide, Lieutenant Perry, as he passed him. It was all he could do to remain on his feet, but he was determined not to give Komack the satisfaction of seeing him fall on his face.

The Vulcan fell in behind him, not speaking, and Kirk drew comfort from that quiet support.

Reaching the quarters assigned to him in the palace, Kirk finally turned to face the Vulcan.

"I want you to return to the ship."

"Captain, I do not think--"

Kirk's head felt as if it would explode. He had no strength left to be diplomatic. "I didn't ask you what you thought, mister. I gave you a direct order. Return to the ship immediately and remain there until I tell you otherwise."

Spock nodded briefly and turned to go. Kirk watched the Vulcan march out of sight, shoulders stiff and back straight. "I'm sorry, Spock," he whispered. "I had to get you out of harm's way, for both our sakes."

Entering the room, he stripped off his uniform and headed for the bathroom. The facilities were luxurious, but he hardly noticed. Stepping out of the shower to dry off, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Looking down, he almost gasped aloud at the dark purple bruises visible, one covering most of his right hip and the other surrounding the now invisible scar on his chest. He touched it tentatively, frowning. There had been nothing like this when he had changed earlier in preparation for the Altarian banquet. Kirk searched his foggy memory for any occurrence that could account for the injury to his hip, but the attempt only made his head begin to throb again.

A sudden chill shook him, sending him hurrying as fast as his exhaustion would allow to the large bed that stood in the middle of the room. He slid under the covers and tried to control the shivering that overtook him.

Teeth chattering, Kirk pulled the cover tightly around his chin with shaking fingers. The chill worsened, and for several seconds he fought against it without success. He groaned aloud, regretting that he had sent Spock away so abruptly. His muscles were beginning to cramp, sending sharp pains to torment him.

Kirk rolled onto his side, curling under the covers. In an effort to get his mind off the constant discomfort, he found himself remembering last night aboard the ship. McCoy had confined Spock to Sickbay, concerned about his unusual emotional instability. Kirk had stopped by to check on him before going to his own quarters. There was no one with Spock, who was apparently asleep. Kirk had stood looking down at the Vulcan for a few minutes, then, reassured, had decided to leave. For some reason, Spock had begun to toss restlessly, moaning and calling Kirk's name in his sleep. Kirk had leaned forward and, grasping Spock's shoulders, had shaken him gently.

"Spock? Spock, it's all right. I'm here. Everything's all right. Can you hear me?"

The Vulcan's eyes had opened slowly, and he had stared disbelievingly at Kirk for several moments. "Jim? I thought I...I killed you?"

Kirk sat next to the bed. "Can't get rid of me that easy, mister. I'm fine. Really."

Spock had closed his eyes and turned his head away, as if ashamed to face Kirk.

"Spock, look at me." The dark eyes opened. "You have to get some rest. McCoy says you're exhausted, and we arrive at Altair in less than eight hours. Would it help if I stayed here awhile, just till you get to sleep."

With the barest of nods, the Vulcan had again closed his eyes. He was quiet for several minutes, and then he grimaced, his thin frame shuddering.

"What is it, Spock? Are you in pain?" Kirk asked softly.

The Vulcan shook his head slightly. The captain watched with concern the flicker of emotions that seemed to torture the normally impassive face. Without considering his actions, Kirk reached up and rested his hand on Spock's arm, not missing the finite pause the action caused. Tentatively Kirk slid his hand down the arm and gently took Spock's hand in his own. He was relieved when the slender fingers curled around his palm, thinking with wonder how very far they had come in the past several years.

He had spent the rest of the night sitting next to Spock's bed, holding his hand as he awoke frequently, bewildered and confused. The simple touch had seemed to help more than any verbal reassurance. What a field day Komack would have with that bit of information. Kirk was relieved that no one knew except him and Spock. He had returned to his own cabin before McCoy had arrived.

Somehow the shared secret comforted Kirk. The chilling had eased, and he was finally able to drift off with only occasional tremors disturbing his sleep.

"Spock?" It was McCoy's voice.

There was a touch on his shoulder, sending jolts of quicksilver images through him. Overriding all the thoughts, however, was a feeling of concern. McCoy was worried about him.

"Spock? What's wrong?"

The Vulcan lifted his head from his hands and glanced around. Both he and the doctor were seated on the steps leading up to the Enterprise transporter platform. No one else was present.

He tried to remember coming here; the time seemed important, but there was nothing for him to grasp. Brief glimpses of the last few hours intermixed with images from the past. Disturbing images: the sands of Vulcan, T'Pau, and the sounds of bells tinkling incessantly; he could not separate them.

"Doctor," he managed to say. Another image appeared, frightening him. "I attacked him. Jim sent me away."

"You attacked who? Jim?" When Spock did not answer, McCoy grasped him by both arms, turning the Vulcan to face him. "Spock, look at me. Who did you attack?"

"I do not...I cannot remember clearly. I was angry at Admiral Komack because he was threatening Jim. I could sense the captain's anger, and he was...suffering. There was pain, throbbing, a blue flame spreading from within. I believe I attacked the admiral. I remember wanting to...but then the next thing I remember is Jim ordering me here." Spock gripped McCoy's arms. "McCoy, I am going insane."

The blue eyes were compassionate. "Spock, you're not going insane. And I doubt you really attacked Komack, or he certainly wouldn't have let you return here scot-free."

Spock felt anger flaring again, and he tightened his hold on McCoy, unable to stop even when the doctor winced in pain. "How would you know if I am losing my mind?"

The doctor's voice remained calm, both his words and tone soothing the seething emotions Spock could feel threatening to erupt. "Because what you're feeling is normal for a Vulcan after pon farr."

Spock could feel the truth of the statement through his contact with McCoy. The doctor was not just patronizing him. "You have information about this?"

McCoy nodded. "I received a reply from Vulcan Med Central while we were attending the ceremonies. I sent a message for you to return to the Enterprise as soon as possible. I take it you didn't get it."

Spock dropped his arms, shaking his head. "No."

The doctor stood. He touched Spock's slender shoulder lightly. "Let's go to Sickbay. You can review the information while I'm getting a room prepared. You're in my hands for the next twelve hours."

The Vulcan stood and followed him slowly, stopping outside the doorway. "Jim. What...what about...the captain?"

The doctor retraced his steps, tugging on Spock's arm. "You have to take care of yourself before you can help Jim. Let me worry about him. He'll be all right."

Spock joined the doctor reluctantly, analyzing the flashes of emotion McCoy was inadvertently allowing him to feel through the touch on his arm. Fear and worry seemed to be vying for the top concern. Before considering, Spock said, "You are afraid for him. Why?"

McCoy frowned, glancing up sideways at him. "What do you mean--oh." The doctor grunted in understanding, releasing the Vulcan abruptly. "Sorry. Yes, I'm...concerned. You know how Jim is, likes to pretend nothing is wrong. But they have medics available on the planet, and I know that if he gets into any real trouble, no matter how important the ceremonies are, he can get help. It's not like he's sick on a backwater planet with only primitive treatment available."

A hand shaking his shoulder pulled Kirk from the convoluted dreams he was having. Someone dressed in a Starfleet uniform stood over him, and for a moment, Kirk thought he was back aboard his ship. Then he recognized Lieutenant Perry.

"I'm sorry for intruding, Captain, but the Admiral sent me to find you. The conference starts in fifteen minutes."

"Damn." He sat up abruptly on the side of the bed, rubbing his face and trying to pull his thoughts together.

"Just give me five minutes, okay?"

Perry nodded sympathetically. "I'll wait outside, sir."

"I don't need an escort, Lieutenant."

"Admiral's orders, sir."

"Yes, of course." The young man left, and Kirk stood. Dizziness washed over him, and he nearly fell. Steadying himself with the wall, he made his way to the bathroom.

Five minutes later, he opened the door to find Perry waiting. As they made their way to the conference room, the aide said, "Doctor McCoy tried to contact you through our office this morning, sir. He seemed very anxious to talk to you."

Kirk paused and took Perry's arm. "Can you get me a communicator? It might be important."

"Sorry, sir. Admiral's--"

"Orders. Yes, I know, Lieutenant. I understand." And he did understand, more than Perry ever could. Komack was keeping him incommunicado, under his thumb. It was not a place James Kirk enjoyed being. Only one thing kept him there: the fear that Komack would make good on his threat. He had to get through these next two days, stay on his feet somehow, and then he could return to his ship and let Bones take care of him.

"All right, let's get on with it."

The young man seemed disturbed somehow. "You have to understand, Captain, the admiral has had a very difficult time keeping the negotiations going with the Altarians. He just cannot take a chance on anything going wrong now, when it's so close to being finalized."

Kirk found it hard going to feel any sympathy for Komack, so he said nothing. They had almost reached the conference room door when he stumbled. Perry reached out and caught him before he could fall.

"Are you all right, sir?"

Kirk pulled free of his grasp. "No, I'm not, but I'm not allowed to be ill. Admiral's orders, you see."

He straightened his tunic, squared his shoulders and entered the room. He ignored the malevolent glare Komack threw his way and took his place at the large table.

One of the Altarian officials began speaking in a droning voice, and Kirk was hard pressed to keep his eyes open. Someone jogged his elbow, and he looked up to find the delegates looking expectantly at him. He had no idea what was expected of him. The Starfleet captain next to him took pity on him and murmured, "They want to hear about your meeting with Balok."

Kirk nodded his thanks and, with as much energy as he could muster, launched into a vivid description of the event. He found he was able to lose himself in the story and, for a short time, forget just how badly he felt.

McCoy ran his fingers through his hair and sat back from the microscope he had been staring through for hours. He tapped another formula into the computer and waited for it to change the slide he was studying. He had been working on this ever since his return to the ship, with the exception of the time spent treating Spock.

He sighed; at least something was going right. After ten hours of complete sedation and treatment with the fluid/hormone combination recommended by the Vulcan healers, Spock should return to normal.

McCoy had spent the rest of his time reviewing all the tests he had performed on Kirk after they had beamed him back aboard from Vulcan. Something was making him ill, and McCoy meant to find out what it was.

"Minute increase in white blood cell production," he muttered.

The computer immediately responded. "Normal reaction of a Human body to an injury is for the immune system to increase white blood cell output."

McCoy could not keep from glaring at the computer. "I know that. You're as bad as having a Vulcan standing over my shoulder."

"I believe I should accept that as a compliment, if you are comparing me to the Enterprise computers," Spock's voice said behind him without inflection. It was as close to the computer's voice as the doctor ever wanted to hear.

McCoy turned, studying the Vulcan carefully as he replied. "Only you would find being compared to a computer a compliment." He paused, glancing back at his chronometer, satisfied that sufficient time had passed for Spock to be released from Sickbay. "How do you feel, Mister Spock?"

"Feel, Doctor?" Spock's eyebrow rose, his face entirely impassive. "I am functional. I believe you will find my endocrine and hematologic systems have returned to normal."

"I'll be the judge of that," McCoy growled. However he could not refute the evidence standing in front of him. Spock appeared to have regained his normal arrogant air of superiority, and McCoy already found himself getting irritated by his attitude. He had to admit that felt rather comforting.

"Doctor..." Spock straightened, placing his hands behind his back. "I...would like to thank you for your assistance. Your unfailing support has proved you are...indeed my friend."

McCoy could not seem to find the words to reply. Yesterday, this would have meant something different, but now, coming from the logical, unemotional Vulcan standing rigidly before him, the doctor was shocked.

Spock waited, seeming to expect some reply from McCoy. Finally, the doctor fumbled around, saying, "I am honored."

The Vulcan nodded his head, relaxing slightly. He turned his attention to the screen on McCoy's desk. "I have checked with the bridge. The captain, as I understand, has not checked in."

"No, he hasn't. I called earlier, trying to get them to let me talk to him. Komack's aide spoke with me, a Lieutenant Perry. He seemed truly apologetic, but the captain could not be interrupted." McCoy tapped a command into his computer. The images of cells were replaced with a view of the negotiations taking place on Altair. "I've been able to at least keep a visual eye on him. You just missed him talking about the Balok incident."

"Is he feeling better?" Spock stepped closer to McCoy's desk.

"It's hard to tell. He seems to be managing. I think he has a fever; his cheeks were flushed. I've caught glimpses of him rubbing his head, so that must still be bothering him."

The captain was replying to a question, and the scene focused directly on Kirk for a moment. Both men watched him silently, adding up the signs of illness between them.

Spock's voice was soft. "I do not believe he slept well."

McCoy nodded; the dark circles under Kirk's eyes had not gone unnoticed. He pointed at the screen. "That has me worried."

Spock leaned forward, examining the dark purple bruise appearing under the sleeve on Kirk's right upper arm.

"He could have received such a bruise any number of ways. I do not understand--"

"It's not normal. I'd almost say it looks like someone whose blood is not clotting as fast as it should. It that's true..." He tapped his desk, his mind back on the slide he had been studying.

"It is my impression that you have a theory about what is wrong with the captain."

McCoy looked up. "Yes, but it would be a lot better if I had Jim here. I'm working in the dark now, but I have a hunch that this illness is somehow connected with Vulcan. I have a sample of Jim's blood that I took right after he beamed aboard from there."

There was a flicker of pain in the dark eyes at the mention of Vulcan. "Have you found anything?"

McCoy switched the screen back to his slides. "I've found some evidence that the immune system has been altered. Right now, the symptoms are minor, but if you follow them to a logical conclusion, well--" He punched another tab on the computer.

The computer's voice said what McCoy could not. "The projected alteration in the Human immune system will escalate, reaching a crisis point in forty-eight to seventy-two hours, causing a critical high immature white blood count. The subject's systems rapidly become unstable, septicemia is probable. Infarcts are indicated in all body tissues from the high white blood count. Bleeding can occur, cerebral vascular hemorrhage the most likely source. Symptoms would be fever, pain, bleeding, bruising, esophagitis, hemoptysis, epistaxis--"

"Stop." McCoy hit the computer pad. "Like I said, I could be totally off, but I can't ignore what I'm seeing."

Spock leaned over the microscope. "Show me."

McCoy nodded, entering the commands into his computer. Spock remained hunched over the microscope, his sudden stillness sending off warning bells in the doctor's mind. Spock instructed him to change the magnification without commenting on the reason.

McCoy's impatience grew. "Well? Have you found something?"

Spock straightened and moved away from the desk as if it contained something he did not want to touch. The look on his face frightened McCoy. "Answer me, Spock! What is it?"

The Vulcan's calm was infuriating. "It is imperative that the captain return to the ship immediately."

Two hours later, the remainder of the issues were tabled until the next day, and the delegates were allowed an afternoon break before the planned festivities of the evening, which was to include another banquet complete with Altair's best performers.

Kirk stood and attempted to leave quickly. He had no stomach for dealing with Komack. Unfortunately, Perry caught up with him and escorted him to where the admiral was sitting.

He decided to try a submissive approach, for Spock's sake if nothing else. Besides, he was too sick to stand and argue with Komack for long. "I apologize for arriving late, Admiral. I didn't sleep well last night, and I guess it caught up with me."

"I always knew you were a sorry excuse for a starship captain, and you're an even sorrier excuse for a diplomat."

Kirk clenched his jaw to keep from telling Komack what he thought of admirals who resorted to blackmail to get what they wanted, then decided better of it.

The room had emptied except for Komack, Perry and himself. He decided to make an attempt to reach some semblance of reasonableness in the admiral. "I understand Doctor McCoy tried to contact me this morning. I would appreciate being allowed to return the call. It may be something important."

Komack snorted derisively. "I doubt that, Kirk. But never let it be said that I stood between a captain and his ship. Perry, give him a communicator."

The young man blushed slightly and reached under his jacket. So, he had had one all along. Kirk could not seem to find the strength to care. Walking a few steps away, Kirk flipped it open. "Kirk to Enterprise, Kirk to Enterprise."

Uhura's voice answered quickly. "Captain Kirk? Are you all right, sir?"

He ignored the question. "I understand Doctor McCoy has been trying to reach me. Will you patch me through to Sickbay?"

"Yes, sir." A moment, and then McCoy's voice.

"Jim, you sure as hell took long enough to get back to me."

"I've been tied up in a meeting all morning, Bones. The admiral just now loaned me his communicator so I could get back to you."

"Oh." There was silence, and Kirk knew that McCoy had gotten his unspoken message that he was not alone.

"How are you feeling?" McCoy asked cautiously.

"I still have a headache, but I'll make it."

"Have you eaten anything today?" Kirk blinked, suddenly realizing that he had not really eaten for two days. He shuddered, the very thought of food making him want to be violently ill. "A little," he lied.

McCoy snorted. "Yeah, right. Any chance you could come on up here and let me check you out?"

Kirk did not have to look at Komack to know the answer. "No, Bones, not till tomorrow when the final papers are signed. I can make it till then. How are your other patients?"

Another pause, and Kirk knew McCoy was considering how to give him the most information about Spock without giving anything to Komack. "Better. They could do with some emotional support from their captain, however."

"Tell them...tell them I'll be back aboard as soon as possible. Kirk out."

Spock sat across from McCoy, meeting his eyes as Kirk's voice ended the communication.

"Why is the captain refusing to seek assistance? Something is keeping him there." He paused, frowning slightly. "I do not remember much of yesterday, but I do know the captain was trying to protect me from the admiral."

"Because you weren't quite your normal self then, Spock," McCoy tried to say gently.

"That is perhaps partially true, but there was more. Komack was threatening the captain with something about me."

"It doesn't make sense; what could Komack possibly threaten Jim with that would make him react this way? The captain doesn't usually pay attention to threats."

Spock nodded. "Agreed. I...I remember being in the admiral's outer office. Lieutenant Perry was there. There were voices, angry voices. The lieutenant went to the door and stood listening for a moment. Then, he opened the door and went in. I remember hearing Jim's voice. He was...enraged. By the time I got to him, he was trembling, pale. He seemed on the verge of collapse. I took his arm to steady him. I sensed that it was all he could do to keep from killing the admiral, and that it had to do with me."

"But you don't remember exactly?"

"No. And then Jim ordered me to return to the ship."

McCoy thought all that through, then shrugged. "Well, whatever's going on, the important thing now is to find out what's making Jim ill. Tell me what you saw in his blood that upset you."

Spock reached over and keyed the computer. A picture of the slide of Kirk's blood appeared. "It is so minute, it is not being picked up by the computer. There is a virus. It has inserted itself within the immune system and become attached to the pre-T cell cursors."

McCoy looked through the microscope. "There's an abnormality there, but I didn't see it as a virus."

"It is," Spock whispered. "When you mentioned Vulcan, that is what alerted me. It is a mutant virus, created to give extra strength to Vulcans, used many centuries ago. No Vulcan today would use it."

"Yet someone did. On Jim." McCoy stared at Spock. "Are you saying it wasn't meant for Jim? It was that Stonn character, wasn't it? He was afraid of dying, losing to you! But how did Jim get it instead?"

Spock held his eyes steadily despite the obvious discomfort this was causing him. "It has an instantaneous result on Vulcans. Stonn probably treated the weapon Jim used. The increased strength is only short term, so he would need the most benefit during combat."

"Yet on a Human, it has an entirely different effect." McCoy tapped the screen. "So, how do we treat it?"

Spock dropped his gaze. "It has never been used on a Human. As I said, it has not been used for centuries. A Vulcan has natural immunities that kill the virus within hours."

"You're saying there's no treatment? You don't know how to kill the virus?" McCoy felt a cold chill of apprehension flow through him.

Spock shook his head. "I will contact Vulcan Med Central, but I am not hopeful for any help from there." His voice was calm, no trace of the horror McCoy was feeling.

"Good God, Spock! Don't you understand what you're saying? With the rapid progression of this virus, you are literally pronouncing his death sentence."

Spock nodded. "I am aware of the consequences." He stood. "I suggest you have the labs work on this problem while I contact Vulcan."

McCoy stared after him, as Spock strode out of his office. Then, realizing he was wasting precious seconds, he grabbed the slide of Kirk's blood and jumped out of his chair, yelling orders even before he entered his lab.

Kirk handed the communicator back to Perry. Komack was leaning back in his chair, a satisfied smile on his face.

"You handled that well, Kirk. I have no doubt that if I allowed you to go back to your ship, McCoy would find some excuse to keep you there on the pretense that you are too ill to continue your assignment here."

The normally silent lieutenant stepped forward. "Admiral, I don't believe Captain Kirk is pretending. I thought he had a fever earlier, and he almost fainted on the way to the meeting this morning. Maybe he should at least be seen by med-techs available here."

Komack's incredulous glare was now focused on Perry. "Don't you know a hangover when you see one? He was drunk last night."

Kirk went to the table and leaned forward on his hands until Komack was forced to pull back even further. "Dammit, Admiral, I am ill."

Komack stood and strode to the door, Perry following in his wake. "You have six hours to recover, Kirk. Then, I expect you in your place at the banquet table being your most charming self. Is that understood? And just in case, I will send Perry to your room to escort you here."

Kirk rubbed a hand over his face as the admiral left the room. He shook his head at the admiral's last words. "Be my most charming self. Right, I'll be lucky if I don't throw up all over the Altarian princess."

Kirk straightened, steadying himself on the table in front of him as waves of dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. Spots of black danced before his eyes, and the now-empty room started to fade. He was aware of falling, but it almost seemed to be happening to someone else. He could not feel anything. A strange numbness set in, insulating him from any more pain.

Kirk gave in to it for several moments, floating in the strange surrealistic world--no sharp pains stabbing into his skull, no nausea churning constantly at his throat, no aching limbs that seemed to weigh his body down with an exhaustive weariness. There was no reason to fight this. If he stayed here, gave in, then someone would realize he was ill and help him.

The room was beginning to come back into focus. The white carpet beside him was stained with drops of red. He shifted, wiping absently at the sweat on his upper lip, and discovered his nose was bleeding. Kirk stared at his hand, mesmerized by the blood smeared on it. Funny, he had felt almost the same way on Vulcan when the lirpa had cut his chest. All his limbs had felt numb, wooden as he had struggled to get air.

Kirk frowned, shoving himself into an upright position. The memories of Vulcan reminded him sharply of Komack and Spock. He was not afraid of Komack, but he was afraid for Spock. Kirk could not be sure how it would affect the Vulcan if Komack managed to follow through with his threat. Yesterday had been proof enough that Spock was not reacting normally. Kirk was certain if he had not stopped him, the Vulcan would have attacked Komack with his bare hands. And probably not had the control to stop before real harm was done. He had to protect Spock. All it meant was attending the banquet tonight and the final meeting in the morning. Kirk had suffered through more than that for the sake of duty, and this time it was for Spock.

The trip back to his room seemed to take hours. Reaching the door, he staggered inside, the room wavering before his eyes. Kirk wiped his face, noticing vaguely that his hand was again covered with blood, but he was unable to put any real significance as to why that should bother him. He was beginning to feel hot, so hot, as if he were being consumed by fire.

There was a roaring in his ears as he took the last few steps toward the bed, the room swirling madly around him. Kirk reached for the end of the bed to steady himself and missed.

McCoy was in his office when Spock found him. He could tell by the look on the Vulcan's face that he had found the answer.

"I have received the formula for the counteragent from the healers. It must be administered to the captain immediately."

"That's easier said than done, Spock. Komack has that place sewed up tighter than a drum. We can't just go in there, phasers blasting. There are delicate negotiations going on that could mean peace for a hundred years in this quadrant of the galaxy. We have to find a way to pull Jim out of there without Komack realizing it. The question is how?"

"Doctor, Jim is in great difficulty. You must believe me when I tell you that we have probably less than an hour before there will be no turning back."

McCoy could not resist asking the question. "How do you know he is in difficulty, Spock?"

Something of the emotional Vulcan still remained, not quite completely under control. "I feel his pain, McCoy, and I feel him slipping away from us toward death." He turned to face the doctor. "I will not allow him to die, not even if the price is peace in the galaxy."

A hand was shaking him again, and Kirk lifted his head, wondering what meeting he was late for now. Lieutenant Perry stood over him. Kirk managed to lift himself to one elbow.

"Easy, Captain." The lieutenant grasped his shoulders, helping him sit up.

Kirk leaned against the bed, biting his lip against the moan of pain caused by moving his agonizingly stiff muscles. He must have lain there for hours.

Perry began wiping his face with a cloth. Kirk lifted a hand to help, but was dismayed when it fell limply back to his side. Heavy exhaustion seemed to color his every move and thought.

"You've apparently had a bad nose bleed; it looks like you've been there a while. I should have checked on you earlier." Perry paused, pulling the cool cloth away to feel Kirk's forehead. He stood, tossing the blood-stained towel into the corner. "Admiral Komack seems to believe that you are trying to sabotage his negotiations by not attending the ceremonies. He continues to believe you are pretending to be ill, but he's wrong. You really are sick."

"The admiral has been wrong about a number of things," Kirk rasped, his mouth dry.

"Here, take a sip." Kirk blinked, locating a glass of water floating into his fuzzy vision. He swallowed hard, not surprised when it hurt going down his throat; everything else on his body seemed to ache or throb. He closed his eyes tight against a sudden sharp pain in his stomach, fighting against the rolling nausea that came with it.

"Captain," Perry's voice called softly. "Let me help you get back to bed, and I'll call for a doctor."

Kirk's bleary thoughts focused sharply for a moment. He reached out, his shaking fingers brushing Perry's arm, leaving traces of blood on the white uniform. "No. McCoy. Get McCoy."

Perry patted his arm. "Take it easy, sir. I'll have to go back to the office and get a communicator. I'll get Doctor McCoy for you."

"I think not, Lieutenant."

Kirk opened weary eyes to see Komack standing in the doorway. "It's a good thing I decided to check on things myself; otherwise the good captain would have fooled you for sure."

Perry moved around Kirk, interposing himself between the admiral and Kirk. "But, sir, even you can see that he's burning up with fever. I found him on the floor, unconscious. No telling how long he's been there, and this is his blood. It was probably his blood we found on your office floor."

Komack sneered. "Probably had too much to drink. It was a long afternoon, after all. You're going to have to learn not to let people take you in so easily. James Kirk is a master in deception."

Kirk slumped against the bed, not sure if he was willing or able to listen anymore. A roaring surrounded him, accompanied by a strange foreboding that chilled him to his very soul. A soft velvety blackness was closing around him, pulling him away from the physical world and all the emotional strife that came with it.

A voice penetrated his being, a sound he was close to believing he would never hear again. Kirk blinked, trying to force himself away from the spiraling tunnel he was close to entering.

"Admiral Komack," Spock was saying, "I have orders from Admiral Nogura that you are to allow Doctor McCoy access to Captain Kirk immediately."

"What are you two doing here? I left strict instructions--"

"To hell with your instructions, Admiral. Get out of my way and let me treat the captain," McCoy shouted.

Komack would not be thwarted so easily. "Perry get security in here. I'm not taking orders from Mister Spock. You will both be held until I speak to Nogura personally."

"You have to listen to us, Admiral," McCoy pleaded. "If the captain does not receive medication within the next few minutes, he will die."

"Perry, you have your orders."

Kirk was having difficulty following the words. Perry was talking to Komack, defending him. But Spock and McCoy were here, too. Except that was what he had been trying to prevent, to keep Komack from spouting his venom of Spock. He frowned, trying to concentrate on the conversation, wrapping his arms around his abdomen against the persistent nausea that was burning his stomach and throat.

Perry was still talking. "...listening when you struck your 'bargain.' I know now that he was very sick even then. He only agreed to protect Commander Spock and his people from you."

For a moment, Kirk's thoughts were very clear. The captain pushed himself up with a strength he did not feel. He heard Spock demand of Perry, "Explain."

"Admiral Komack said that if Captain Kirk did not cooperate with him in every way, that he would see to it that the whole galaxy knew about...about the Vulcan mating ritual as he put it. And..."

Kirk could see Spock's face darken in anger. He was suddenly very afraid of what would happen if Perry finished telling Spock the truth. He forced himself to stand, ignoring the pains in his stomach that were continually growing worse. He had to stop Spock, but had no breath to even say his name.

"And what, Lieutenant?" Spock demanded.

Kirk felt an arm around his waist, steadying him. McCoy had managed to slip around Komack and come to his side. The doctor was urging him toward a chair. He balked, trying to get McCoy to stop Perry, his fear of what Spock might do becoming more intense than his own pain.

"He...he as much as said that the real reason Captain Kirk risked his career for you was that you were lovers and he said he would see that information was made known as well."

Kirk watched as Spock wheeled to face Komack, saw his hands reaching for Komack's throat. The captain staggered a step forward, pulling free of McCoy's grip. "No, Spock!"

Wrenching pain tore through him. It felt as if someone were trying to tear out his insides. Gasping, he tasted something salty and looked down to see blood streaming from his mouth. The small rush of strength that had gotten him this far faded away, and he crumpled to the floor.

McCoy broke Kirk's fall, easing him gently down. He heard a dull thud and spared a glance to find Admiral Komack also lying unconscious on the floor. "Spock! We have to get Jim back to Sickbay."

Spock returned immediately to kneel on the other side of Kirk's still form. Gently pulling Kirk into his arms, he tensed at the low moan that the movement caused.

McCoy had eyes only for Kirk, watching the pale skin change almost to a translucent color, his breathing erratic. He cursed the Altarian security regulations which prevented them from carrying any equipment. Their communicators and all his medical equipment had been confiscated at the transportation area. It was also those same regulations that had prevented them from simply beaming Kirk from under Komack's nose earlier. There was a force field in place over the palace allowing the use of only one section for transporting. Now they had to waste precious time returning to the designated area.

McCoy snapped, "Let's get him back to the ship, Spock. Now!"

Perry touched McCoy's arm. "I'll take you there; I know a shortcut." He glanced quickly at Komack, and then uncertainly at Spock. "Will he be all right? Does he need medical attention?"

Spock held Kirk closer, as if to protect him from any mention of Komack. "He will be unconscious for approximately thirty minutes. He will suffer no ill effects. I would suggest disarming him. The admiral has a phaser in his possession."

"A phaser? And we weren't allowed to bring one hypo that contained the medicine needed to save Jim's life?" McCoy ranted as they headed out of the room.

They raced down the hallways, Perry, true to his word, leading them through an unfamiliar courtyard to arrive in the shield-free section of the palace. The lieutenant obtained their equipment from the security man stationed there, and then silently guided them into the room used for transportation.

Without waiting, McCoy pulled out the hypo and injected the contents into Kirk's neck. He tucked the blanket back around him as Kirk shuddered, moaning softly again.

"That will halt the virus, but controlling the symptoms is what we have to worry about now. Beaming him up is not the most advisable in his condition. It will worsen the bleeding, but we don't have a choice." McCoy was already in the act of lifting the communicator as he was speaking. Spock held his burden closer against his chest as if to protect him from the trauma of transporting, and nodded at the doctor.

"McCoy to Enterprise. Three to beam up. Medical emergency."

Spock's tunic was soaked with blood by the time they reached Sickbay. There was only a small stream coming from Kirk's mouth, but the blood was pouring from his nose as Spock laid him gently on the table. Spock watched horrified as red drops dripped and spattered to the deck, helpless to do anything but keep out of McCoy's way.

The trauma team was efficient, and with McCoy's guidance, there was not a wasted move, yet Kirk seemed to lose blood faster than McCoy could replace it. The monitor above the bed showed almost non-existent blood pressure, the heart rate rapid and very erratic. Spock scanned the low readings and closed his eyes for a brief moment. For the first time, he wished he did not have the knowledge to read them.

Suddenly, Kirk groaned, curling over on his side. Before anyone could react, he grabbed the tube that had just been inserted into his stomach and removed it from his nose. Almost, immediately, he began to heave bright red clots that splattered on the legs and feet of McCoy and the nurse as they attempted to hold him down.

"Spock! Hold him. We have to..." The rest was lost to Spock as his only reality became Kirk, who was struggling wildly to get free. Spock lifted the captain up from his side, holding him gently but firmly against his chest.

"Jim, please, be calm. Do not fight us." Spock pulled his hands back down, securing them. "We can help you. We are here with you."

The Vulcan was peripherally aware of the frantic activity surrounding him, but he forced himself to remain calm. The tubes that had been pulled loose by Kirk's unexpected actions were being replaced. McCoy was concentrating on Kirk's abdomen, studying his scanner, nodding in response to the critical results that his team was giving him.

Spock felt the body under his hands cease its struggle even as Chapel reported softly that his blood pressure was not registering. The pale eyes were closed, and it was almost as if a whisper of Kirk's soul touched his. The Vulcan knew they were losing him.

He reached for Kirk with everything he was, afraid to attempt a meld, knowing that it might send his friend on that final spiraling flight away from him. Spock continued talking, hoping that the sound of his voice would reach Kirk, reassure him.

"Jim, you are aboard the ship. Doctor McCoy is here, taking care of you." He grasped a limp hand, squeezing it. "You should know that you are held in great esteem. The Altarian royal family holds you in such high regard that they refused to continue negotiations until Doctor McCoy could assure them you would recover. You must, therefore, do so. It is your duty." He paused, helping McCoy to reposition Kirk so they could have better access to the captain.

Kirk was strapped down, preventing any further unexpected actions. Spock reluctantly stepped back to give the med-team room to work, illogically feeling as if his words might hold Kirk here until McCoy was able to stabilize his weakened body.

A hand on his arm aborted his move. McCoy's blue eyes flashed almost angrily at him. "Where do you think you're going? He's listening or we'd have lost him already. Just keep talking. Keep him here so we have a chance."

The doctor released him, and Spock returned to Kirk's side, brushing his temple lightly with the tips of his fingers. "Jim, we are here with you. Do not leave us..." On and on, he talked, not sure if Kirk could hear but knowing he had to try. He shut out what was being done to Kirk's body. They were working so hard to save the captain when all the odds were against them. It had to be enough. He would not allow himself to think for one moment it would not be.

McCoy had been forced to operate to stop the bleeding from Kirk's stomach. He had not been sure it would be successful since no matter how careful he was, the trauma from the surgery could cause even more complications. They had been lucky. His gamble had worked.

The doctor watched the two med-techs as they removed the last of the pieces of equipment and disposable items that had been tossed hastily to the side during the frantic activity of his trauma team. The young ensign paused at the bedside, resting a hand near Kirk's arm, but not touching him. She glanced up, and McCoy smiled gently, understanding her need to know Kirk was going to make it. After investing the effort that this team had, the captain owed them.

He automatically sought the life monitor over Kirk's head. The readings were stable, not fluctuating as they had been, but still remained dangerously low. They were not out of the woods yet. McCoy felt his hands trembling, and his knees were starting to shake in reaction to the crisis he had just faced. He would have to take a break soon to relax, but not just yet. His eyes fell on the figure at Kirk's side.

The two technicians departed, leaving him alone with Kirk and the Vulcan who sat so still and silent. McCoy's eyes rested on Spock. Kirk's blood stained his tunic a dark brown, the only evidence left of the battle they had just fought for Kirk's life.

"Why don't you go get cleaned up? I'll stay with him till you get back."

Spock only shook his head, never taking his eyes from Kirk.

McCoy joined him, massaging the Vulcan's stiff neck and shoulder muscles. He was pleased when Spock seemed to accept the comfort he offered.

Finally, Spock stated in a whisper, "You are not certain he will recover."

McCoy stopped the massage, keeping his hand on the slim shoulder. He wondered if Spock was daring to read him mentally again or simply responding to his nonverbal clues.

"There's my medical mind, Spock, which keeps telling me I don't know. But my heart, well, that's different. It tells me Jim's going to make it. This is just the worst part of being Human: the caring. It hurts." McCoy looked down at Kirk, noticing the Vulcan's hand lay on the bed, close beside but not touching the Human's own pale hand.

Before he could stop himself, McCoy continued in a whisper. "I'll never doubt your Human side again, Spock. I may question it, but you've given more today than any Human, and when he pulls through, it will be because of your caring more than my skill."

He squeezed the shoulder once and was gone, leaving Spock to guard the captain's life.

Hours later, McCoy finally managed some sleep on his office cot. When he woke and returned to Kirk's side to check the monitors, he found Spock had not moved. The tray he had ordered for the Vulcan sat untouched.

Kirk also had not moved, and until he regained consciousness, McCoy resigned himself to the fact that Spock would not leave him. He knew it would be the same if Spock were the one in the bed and Kirk watching at his side.

However, he had to try. "Spock."

The brown eyes flickered in his direction, but that was all the response he got.

"He's better. His fever's down. The hematologic system is working normally and is starting to produce platelets now. A few more hours, and the danger of bleeding will be past."

The only indication that Spock heard him was a slight nod. McCoy held back an exasperated sigh. "You really should try to get some rest. I'll stay with him and..."

Finally, a response. "Thank you, no, Doctor. I will remain here."

The doctor knew when he was licked. Might as well try to move a meteor as get Spock to give up his vigil. "I'll be in my office if you need me."

The first sensation Kirk had was that his mouth was filled with wads of cotton. The second sensation was total disorientation; he was unable to identify the sounds around him. He fought to open his eyes, dismayed to find his arms were restrained. Warm fingers wrapped around his hand, reassuring and calming him. When he managed to pry his eyes open, he was not at all surprised to find it was Spock who held his hand. He was also not surprised to see the small smile that the Vulcan had gifted him with occasionally.

He swallowed and tried to speak, but the cotton got in the way. Spock reached over and put a straw to his lips. He sipped the cold water greedily, but Spock pulled it away.

"Not too much at first, Jim. You must be very still and conserve your strength. You are going to recover completely, but it will take time." McCoy came into view behind Spock and added, "And patience."

So many questions crowded his mind all at once. He had to have answers. "Komack? Is he..."

Spock quirked an eyebrow. "He's being reprimanded by Starfleet and is being replaced at the demand of the Altarians."

"No. I..." Kirk shook his head, dismayed to find the room spin at the action. He had to know what happened. "Was he hurt? Did you? I saw you..." He stopped, forced to gasp for breath.

"Slow down, Jim." McCoy pressed his head down, forcing him to take several deep breaths. "Talking is not advisable just yet. Besides, I've been waiting to hear this, too. What about it, Spock? The last thing I saw was you reaching for Komack's throat."

Spock frowned up at McCoy. "The admiral had a weapon. I used a neck pinch to keep him from harming the captain. I do not understand your concern."

McCoy was busy releasing Kirk's arms from the restraints. "You weren't just the tiniest bit angry with him?"

Kirk was trying to piece together the fragmented last moments he remembered. He had thought Spock was enraged, but could that have been only his perception? The memory of the Vulcan reaching for Komack's throat to choke him was actually Spock using the Vulcan nerve pinch.

Spock frowned again. "I was angry at him for endangering the captain's life. However, my concern was for Jim, and because there was no reasoning with Admiral Komack, I logically deduced it was time for offensive action." He met Kirk's eyes. "I believe you would call it utilizing gunboat diplomacy."

Kirk gave an affirmative nod, smiling in response to Spock's gentle teasing. He whispered, "You're feeling better."

The brown eyes met his, mild amusement showing in their depths. "Yes."

McCoy jumped in: "He's back to normal, Jim; same stubborn, irritating and supercilious attitude. Personally, I can't stand more than five minutes with him. Not sure why I worked so hard to fix him."

Kirk shook his head, frowning in mock dismay at McCoy's description. The movement again sent the room spinning crazily around him. He closed his eyes, waiting until the dizziness passed.

"Jim?" McCoy asked softly.

"I'm okay. Feel sort of drunk," Kirk said from behind his eyelids. When the spinning stopped, he sought out McCoy's blue eyes, asking the question he was not sure he wanted to know. He had vague, terrified memories of the last few hours, and he knew beyond all doubt it had been Spock who had given him the strength to survive the overpowering pull to slip away into the eternal darkness. "What's wrong with me?"

He felt Spock tighten his grip on his hand and knew that he was responding to his unspoken fear.

McCoy answered, "You're recovering from a very nasty Vulcan virus that has not been seen since pre-reform times. Which reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask Spock: How did you recognize it if it hasn't been used in so long?"

"I began studying Vulcan history when I was a young child. It was described there, although I had never seen the virus until now."

McCoy narrowed his eyes. "A small child?"

Kirk lifted his other hand enough to touch McCoy's arm. "Bones," he admonished, his whisper drawing both men's attention. "I got this from Vulcan? How?"

"Interesting story, that." McCoy smiled, his blue eyes twinkling slightly. "It seems that Stonn tried to change the odds in his favor when he thought he might have to fight Spock. He put a strength enhancer on the weapons. Only you used them instead of him. In your system, this virus inserted itself into your immune system and caused it to go haywire, very nearly killed you. If Spock hadn't seen it, obtained the antiviral agent and then persuaded Nogura to countermand Komack's order, well, I don't like to think about what might have happened."

Kirk felt the warm fingers tightening around his again. Stonn, Vulcan, they kept trying to separate him from Spock, so far without luck. He frowned, remembering something McCoy had said.

"Nogura? How...did he..." He had to stop to gasp for air again.

Spock waited and then continued for him. "Why did Nogura agree to help?" At Kirk's nod, he explained, "Actually, it was T'Pau who managed it. I contacted her and told her of Stonn's treachery. As a matter of honor, she was compelled to assist me."

Kirk nodded, realizing that if he did not have two such good friends, he would have been dead twice over by now.

McCoy was holding a straw to his lips. "Take a small sip, and then it's time for you to get some rest."

Spock turned to McCoy. "Doctor, I would like a moment alone with the captain."

McCoy glanced at Kirk and then the panel above his head. "A few minutes, Spock. That's all. He needs rest. And so do you." The doctor's footsteps faded away, and the silence stretched out.

For a moment, Kirk was not certain if Spock would say anything. He was staring at something Kirk could not see, and he seemed suddenly very far away. Kirk saw the dried red blood that covered Spock's tunic and shivered. Finally, Spock drew a deep breath and returned his gaze to Kirk. "You risked your life to protect me, to protect all of Vulcan from ridicule. Why?"

Kirk smiled at the earnest question. "Wouldn't you...do the same for me, Spock?"

"Without question," came the immediate response.

"Well, there...you have...it."

"You make it seem so uncomplicated, so simple."

Kirk felt his exhaustion weighing him down, forcing his eyes to close. He fought against it, knowing that Spock would never discuss this subject with him again.

"It is simple...really, Spock. And it's something...Komack will never...understand. Or have."

At the mention of the admiral, Spock gripped Kirk's hand tighter, nearly crushing it. Kirk thought of the image of Spock reaching for Komack's throat. Maybe his perception had not been that far off.

"He must be made to pay for what he has done."

"He is."

"But not for threatening you, for almost causing your death."

"No. Unfortunately, that...can't happen."

"I do not understand."

In spite of all his years spent with Humans, Spock was still so naive about their devious nature. Kirk's eyes slid closed, and he tried to wet his dry lips before answering.

"Drink this." Spock held the straw to his lips. "I am tiring you. It is time to rest."

"No." Kirk forced his eyes open. He had to make Spock understand before he could rest. "If we try to punish...him, he will...have a forum...to respond. In trying to silence...him, we will give him...the chance to do...exactly what he threatened."

"End game," Spock said quietly.

"Yes, but not...checkmate. Someday, he will pay...for what he tried to do...to us. Of that I am certain."

Kirk looked down at their clasped hands. No, Komack would never have what they had, and for that, Kirk could almost feel sorry for the admiral.


the end

There's more Tantalus Revisited.