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McCoy watched Kirk's retreating back, deep lines furrowing his brow. He still could see no reason why Jim should suddenly ignore his own firmly established, self-imposed rule. The girl was no prettier, no more intelligent, no sexier, no more motherly, no more feminine in any way than all the other women who had passed under the Captain's appreciative eye. Admittedly she was neatly shaped, briskly efficient and friendly, but she cast out no lures, made no effort to attract, a good clean wholesome girl - and not Kirk's type at all. Maybe the Captain felt it was time he settled down - plenty of Starship Captains eventually got the urge to put down a few roots, even if only at second hand, and found the stability of a wife and family in the background gave them extra confidence in their professional life. All the same, this theory didn't fit with the way Kirk followed that darn girl about. Any new crew-member was always carefully assessed by the rest before shaking down into their own comfortable niche, but within hours of Ensign Eloise Frome's arrival on board he had seen Kirk carrying her tray for her in the rec room, a most unlikely courtesy for a Captain to accord a newly-appointed Ensign, who would be better off in the company of her peers.
He moved slowly off down the corridor, still deep in thought, and the next moment was brought up short by a pair of strong hands gripping his forearms. He blinked - focused.
"Why, Mr. Spock!" he grinned. "I didn't know you cared."
The austerity of the long face deepened. "If you must walk the corridors without looking where you are going, you must allow those of us with a more highly-developed drive for self-preservation to take the precautions you neglect."
McCoy's grin widened. "I'll never understand why a man of logic makes a speech when two words would be enough, Spock. Can't you simply say, 'you're welcome'?"
He turned and fell in beside the Vulcan, who lifted an eyebrow. "You were proceeding in the other direction, Doctor," he commented acidly, "or had you forgotten?"
"Now I'm going your way," McCoy answered cheerfully. "I want to talk to you, Spock."
After several paces, Spock said, "I am still here, Doctor."
"Well, I can see that."
"You said you wished to speak to me," Spock reminded him patiently.
"Oh, that! Well, I do, but privately."
"Really, Doctor, you should learn to be more specific." The patience was exaggerated this time. "I have fifteen minutes I can spare you before I go on watch; we could go to your office."
* * * * * * * *
Spock watched the Doctor's tapping fingers and suspected that he knew what it was McCoy was finding so hard to say.
"Have you noticed anything odd about Jim lately?" McCoy began at length.
"Hmm," McCoy grunted. "That means you have but you either don't want to answer or you want to make sure I mean what you mean." He surveyed the granite face with narrowed eyes. "That girl," he said abruptly.
Spock paused briefly. "It is quite normal for the Captain to take an interest in the opposite sex, Doctor," he said slowly.
"But she is so ordinary," McCoy expostulated. "So dull, so... nothing! She doesn't even strike me as being particularly intelligent, and that I would have said would be one essential that no girl of Jim's could be short on. Damn it, Spock, would you want to hang around a girl who's got no conversation?"
It was a measure of Spock's concern that he made no attempt to turn the question aside with a reference to Vulcan mores. "It is my belief that the Captain would find the perpetual company of an inferior mind unsatisfactory, Doctor," he began, "but I do not feel qualified to judge what other attractions the young lady has for him."
McCoy nodded. "There's nothing in his psychological profile to account for it," he said. "No hidden quirks that could possibly apply to Ensign Frome. I can only suggest that you and I keep a careful watch on the situation and see what develops. It may be that Jim has found the right woman for him, but I can't help but doubt it all the same."
Spock lifted an eyebrow. "Do you really believe that the Captain will not notice if we begin to take an interest in his personal affairs?"
McCoy grinned at him. "I hope he will. It might make him think twice about making a fool of himself."
"Doctor, the Captain is a grown man, capable of making decisions for himself."
"Do you think I don't know that, Spock? But his behaviour is out of the usual pattern, and as Chief Medical Officer, it is my job to keep an eye open for any behaviour out of the norm. And I am asking you, as his best friend, to help me."
Spock made no attempt to refute the suggestion - he had long since abandoned the effort to maintain a stolidly Vulcan facade before the surgeon, at least where Jim was concerned. If McCoy felt there might be a problem it was only what he, with his less experienced eye, had already been thinking.
"As long as we are discreet," he conceded, "I can see no objection to your suggestion."
"Good. When was the last time you two had a game of chess?"
"Over a month ago."
"Before Ensign Frome came aboard?" McCoy looked startled. "You mean this obsession began the moment that girl first arrived?"
"As to that, I have no information, but the Captain has not sought out my company since that time."
"Well, invite him to a game this evening. Swallow your Vulcan pride and show him you miss his company." McCoy's face became gentler. "I'm not trying to take a dig at you this time, Spock, I know I'm asking you to do something damn difficult for you, but please do it, for Jim's sake!"
The shutters were well down over the lean face, but he simply nodded. "I will do what I can, Doctor."
* * * * * * * *
Encountering Kirk on the way to the elevator, he fell in step beside him. Kirk gave him the half nod and smile of his usual greeting, but, studying him intently, Spock felt uncertain that the usual warmth lay behind that smile. He choked back a most un-Vulcan sense of deprivation and, secure in the knowledge that a life-time's training would ensure the normality of his voice, said, "We have not had a game of chess for some time now, Jim. Would you care for a game this evening?"
"Some other time, Spock," Kirk said absently. "I've got a lot on my mind at present, and I can't spare the time."
The casual tone increased the sense of loss in the Vulcan, and, fighting his in-built need for withdrawal, he put out a tentative hand and laid it on Kirk's sleeve.
The Captain jerked back instantly, rubbing his arm as though repulsed. "Don't touch me, you... half breed alien," he snarled softly. "I've had all I'll take from you, so now leave me alone, damn you, and stop pawing me."
The face did not betray the inner shock as Spock drew back, thankful that the slowing elevator brought them to their destination. He fell into his customary place at Kirk's shoulder with only the slightest of hesitations and followed the Captain onto the bridge.
Once at his station he made the regulation checks as meticulously as usual, his Vulcan blocks surrounding the screaming, questioning Human within. The hours of routine ticked by with maddening slowness until the touch of his relief's hand on his shoulder heralded end of watch. Again there was that tiniest of hesitations as he rose to follow Kirk to the elevator, but habit was strong; enough to master inward reluctance. However, since Ensign Frome's pleasantly scrubbed face greeted Kirk as the doors opened, Spock's feet paused again by Uhura's station. The doors closed, and Spock moved forward to the new car with Uhura.
The Bantu girl's eyes were watchful as the Vulcan touched the control. "She's a nice kid," she said calmly as the lift began its journey. Unperturbed by the blank face he turned to her she added, "But rather unformed, somehow."
"I have insufficient experience to be able to form a considered opinion," he managed to reply through lips that seemed strangely stiff.
"You can take it from me that she isn't his type," Uhura said softly. "The whole crew has noticed, Mr. Spock, and it's become a matter of general speculation. I thought you ought to be told."
"I see." Under those circumstances it became his duty to probe further into this strange new relationship, however much his own nature rebelled at the necessity to interfere where he was clearly no longer welcome. He stood aside to let Uhura pass. "Thank you, Lieutenant, for bringing the matter to my attention."
Uhura repressed a fleeting urge to give the ramrod figure a hard, comforting hug. So unnecessary to pretend that he wasn't alive to every move the Captain made, and yet so typical, that without the cold facade he would no longer be the man she respected so deeply. She moved down the corridor, glad to have been able to voice her worry so naturally. The situation had promised to be unbelievably embarrassing as she had pondered ways and means of raising such a subject with Spock, of all people, but the whispers were becoming so wild that the First Officer clearly had to be warned of what was happening.
Uhura's worry now lessened, Spock's increased proportionately. He went back to his quarters deep in thought. His own hurt must be ignored, would have been in any case, but he must now act where his own wish would have been to stand back. But what action could be taken? His background could provide no answer and he must use the caring impulse Kirk himself had awakened to try to solve a problem of such illogic. The implications behind that brief moment in the turbolift he would not even consider yet - the good of the ship must come before his own peace of mind - and if he was honest with himself, he was not yet ready to contemplate a life without the friendship that had transformed it.
His mind ran swiftly over the Captain's present daily routine and realised that he had time to join him and the Ensign in the rec room. He rose to his feet, forcing his reluctant steps towards the door, his mind acknowledging the dichotomy within him; his inner need to resolve this situation both for the ship's and his own sake, and his equal inner shrinking from the emotionally charged circumstances. He quickened his pace.
Having collected a cup of coffee, he turned to make his way to the table Kirk shared with the young Ensign and found McCoy behind him. The Doctor grinned.
"I thought you might need your hand held," he murmured, helping himself to coffee. They approached the table together.
"Mind if we join you?" McCoy said breezily, drawing up a chair. "Long time no see, Jim. Have you been avoiding me? It isn't quite time for your check-up yet, you know!"
"I am aware of that," Kirk said stiffly, his eyes on the lean figure behind McCoy. "Do you have to bring him too?"
McCoy hid his amazement well. "We keep bumping into each other today," he said airily, putting down his coffee and motioning Spock to the space between himself and Kirk.
The Vulcan sat down, his face as impassive as always. Kirk slid his chair a little closer to the Ensign; she gave him the tiniest of smiles. McCoy studied her covertly, still unable to see any special attraction behind that amiable exterior. Was it, he wondered, simply a case of the old complaint... I can't think what he sees in her?... or was there indeed something to worry about in all this. He launched himself into idle chatter, reviewing his day with cynical humour. Ensign Frome responded to him civilly, smiling politely at his wry commentary; Kirk was patently bored and did not attempt to make conversation. He had turned himself away from Spock and watched the Ensign's face with an intensity that was as painful to McCoy as it was embarrassing. As a social occasion it was an object lesson in how not to make the party go with a swing, McCoy thought grimly. Bad enough in ordinary society, but potentially lethal within the confines of their closed environment. He threw the odd remark Spock's way, inwardly full of praise for the valiant way the naturally anti-social Vulcan responded to his mild sallies. McCoy grinned at him affectionately, and leaned towards the Ensign.
"To hear this Vulcan talk," he said confidentially, "you would think he backed my judgement all the way; instead of that, he's a worse headache to me than all the rest of the crew put together. Why, sometimes I can't even get him to come for a medical without a direct order from the Captain. Isn't that true, Jim?"
"Uh... what?" Kirk visibly pulled himself together. "I wasn't listening, Doctor. What did you say?"
"I said that this Vulcan friend of yours is the worst patient on board this ship," McCoy explained.
Kirk did look at Spock then. One comprehensive, devastating glance, before leaning towards McCoy.
"That damned Vulcan is no friend of mine, Doctor," he said savagely, not bothering to lower his voice, "and you can oblige me by keeping him out of my hair." His chair crashed to the floor as he stood up, reaching blindly for the Ensign's hand. The room faltered into silence.
When the doors had closed behind the two of them the rec room once more broke into a hum of conversation. McCoy caught several wondering glances in their direction and searched his mind frantically for some way to normalise the situation. Spock drained his cup imperturbably and looked enquiringly at McCoy. "More coffee, Doctor?"
"No, thanks. I've not finished this." He sipped the cooling liquid slowly. "No sense in rushing out, too," he growled quietly.
"Indeed," Spock concurred. "I will have a second cup, Doctor, and it will be as well if you share one with me. The crew has been given sufficient cause for speculation already." He took their empty cups and went to the dispenser. McCoy watched him with warm approval, prepared for once to admit that Vulcan training had its advantages. As the Vulcan returned, Scott came from the other side of the room and sat down at their table.
"The whole room heard," he said quietly. "What is going on, Leonard?"
"This isn't the place to discuss it," McCoy replied.
"Mebbe you're right," the Engineer conceded. He drew Spock into a technical discussion, and the tension in the room slowly relaxed.
They left together and McCoy led them to his office.
"We can be certain of privacy here," he said grimly. "How much have you noticed, Scotty?"
"There's been a lot of talk amongst the crew," Scott said slowly. "I've not been paying attention to gossip, but I didnae realise there was any real trouble until tonight. I thought he was just fascinated by the wee lassie."
"So did I," McCoy agreed, "and I really couldn't see any good reason for it."
"Well, no. She's a nice enough lassie, but..."
"But," McCoy nodded. "I haven't noticed anyone else who has found her so magnetically attractive. I'd better run through her records and see what her background is."
"In that case I'll be leaving you and Mr. Spock alone, this isnae my province at all. But if you need any help, don't hesitate to call on me."
As the Engineer left them McCoy nodded his understanding and thanks and thumbed the computer switch. Spock came to his shoulder and viewed the data with him.
"Eloise Frome. Born von Braun's planet. Father Justin Frome, trader. Mother Eveena Gorlath, native of Mutorin, humanoid stock, half-breed. Entered Starfleet Academy..." He thumbed the switch again. "The rest of it seems straightforward enough, but where the hell is Mutorin? I've never heard of it."
"Nor I, Doctor."
The admission startled McCoy and he raised his eyes to the Vulcan's face. A heaven-sent opportunity to tease the Vulcan and he had to pass it up... why had he not noticed that stricken look in those dark eyes before?
"What's bothering you, Spock?" he asked sympathetically. "There's something wrong with Jim, I know, but we'll track it down between us. He wouldn't have spoken about you like that if he was in his right mind."
Spock nodded slowly. What he had to say was not easy, but it must be said. "That was not the first time today that Jim has spoken so," he said with difficulty. "Doctor, did you sense revulsion in him?"
"You mean you think Jim has developed some kind of xenophobia?" McCoy was surprised.
"No, Doctor. I think the prejudice is against myself. I sense total repugnance in his attitude towards me, as though he believes..."
McCoy waited patiently for the measured voice to continue. Spock turned away, unable to meet the searching blue gaze. "Doctor, I believe Jim thinks my friendship for him is... more than friendship."
McCoy's mouth opened slowly. "You think he thinks that you... Spock, you must have some logical reason for thinking that."
"He told me to stop pawing him," Spock said shortly.
"Pawing him?" McCoy sat down abruptly. "Spock, give me the full story for heaven's sake!"
"There is little enough to tell. I acted upon your suggestion and asked him if he would care for a game of chess this evening. He refused, saying he had a lot on his mind and couldn't spare the time. I thought I should try to persuade him further and laid my hand on his sleeve."
"That hardly sounds like an attempt at seduction," McCoy said calmly. "What else did he say?"
"His reaction was quite explicit. He jerked his arm away as if it had been burned, and requested me not to touch him." Spock looked across and met McCoy's eyes. "He called me a half-breed alien, said he had had all he could take from me and told me to leave him alone and stop pawing him."
The Doctor frowned. "Spock, even if Jim did think such an unlikely thing was true, he couldn't react like that. Jim is one of the most caring people I know, and if he really thought you wanted such a relationship and he didn't, he would have dealt with the situation in such a way that didn't hurt your feelings. Besides that, Jim knows you are a Vulcan, and homosexuality is unknown among your people."
"Unknown to modern Vulcans, Doctor," Spock corrected him. "The condition is known to have existed before our modern culture supervened."
"Jim knows what time of day it is," McCoy said bluntly. "Spock, what you have told me only adds fuel to our suspicion that that girl has some sort of hold on Jim's mind. Is she telepathic?" He thumbed into the computer again, studying the girl's psychological profile. "Hmm. No more so that a good many people are, but a very slight latent ability is noted. The examining board didn't think it warranted any further investigation - well, I don't know that I agree with them." He began to get up, but Spock held out a restraining hand.
"Doctor, before you made any such investigation it would be as well if we discovered more about her background. I will see what facts the library computer can give us about the inhabitants of Mutorin." He went to the door. "I will tell you my findings in the morning, Doctor. For now, I suggest a good night's rest."
"Who's the Doctor around here?" McCoy grumbled, getting to his feet. "All right, Spock, I'll leave it with you for the moment, but don't go overdoing things yourself. With Jim in this condition, you may be needed at any time."
"I am aware of that," Spock told him soberly.
* * * * * * * *
Spock reviewed the library tapes a second time. The information was sparse; little had been learned of pure-bred Mutorins since the first contact was made, for the planet had little to offer in the way of valuable mineral deposits and had expressed no desire to become members of the Federation, therefore, although their outlook was friendly enough, their desire for privacy had been respected. There was a minor trading agreement, but it had made little impact on either side. A few mixed marriages had resulted from the association, all of them Mutorin females to Human males - the only fact of any significance to their present problem. He glanced at the chronometer and, finding it to be past midnight, left the computer section for his quarters. There was little point in disturbing McCoy now and it would be as well to secure a couple of hours' sleep before he was due on watch once more. He caught back a sigh. It was always the same when Human emotions were part of a problem, it became more tiring than the simple application of logic; trebly so when his own feelings were involved; but his friendship with Jim Kirk had brought sufficient compensations for his logical mind to prefer things as they were.
A brief flash of red caught his eye as he turned the corner to the turbolift, one of the new night-watch keepers going about their duties. He lengthened his stride. The ship was always peaceful at night, the corridors empty of the chattering crowds about their day-time duties; the Vulcan himself often chose to work throughout the night, grateful for the restful atmosphere and even more disinclined for sociability than he was during the day. With the problem at present on his mind he was totally disinclined for any trivial chat that the unknown crew-woman might feel like engaging him in. He reached the solitude of his cabin and prepared himself for sleep.
Ensign Frome breathed a sigh of relief as she watched him disappear into the lift.
* * * * * * * *
As soon as his early-morning watch was over he went to McCoy's office. The surgeon greeted him sourly.
"I see your research into Mutorin hasn't achieved much," he grunted. "The place isn't even mentioned in the records." Spock's eyebrow flared and McCoy grinned wryly at him. "Human impatience, Mr. Spock. I couldn't wait for you to come off watch so I went down to the computer section to have a look for myself."
"Your technique seemed to be inadequate for even the simplest of information retrieval, Doctor. I will give you a retraining session when I have the time."
McCoy frowned. "You mean there was something on record?"
"Little enough, but there was certainly some information."
"There was nothing there this morning, Spock... and I'm not that incompetent."
"No," Spock admitted. "The situation would bear investigation." He moved to the door.
"I'll come with you."
* * * * * * * *
Spock straightened his back. "The section has been wiped," he said flatly.
"Then it must have contained something important."
"A logical deduction."
"Well, what?" McCoy danced with impatience.
Spock recounted the information he had obtained and McCoy stared at him. "But why, Spock?" he said at last. "There's nothing there we can work on."
"There is one fact of possible significance, Doctor. All the mixed marriages have been Mutorin female to Human male, which might well be accounted for by the fact that there are statistically fewer female traders."
McCoy glared at him. "Blast statistics. If that is the only fact of interest then that is the one she wanted suppressed."
"A simplistic approach, but it may be the right one."
"So we interview Ensign Frome?"
"As soon as possible."
* * * * * * * *
"Jim!" The anguished cry knifed into Kirk's mind. "Jim, tell them to leave me alone. Tell McCoy and Spock to leave me alone!"
The picture in his mind of the two men - one leeringly covering his prurience beneath the veneer of his medical status and the other... the other a bestial, slavering creature whose strong hands itched to rend the delicate femininity he abhorred - brought Kirk to his feet and out of his quarters at a run.
* * * * * * * *
Spock surveyed the silent Ensign with an interested eye. "Fascinating, Doctor. The telepathic ability has increased immeasurably. Her mind is blocked against me and I cannot break through without damage to us both."
"Then we'll need to use some other method to make her talk."
"Like hell you will!" The harsh voice behind them was well-nigh unrecognisable. "Leave her alone. I am the Captain of this ship, McCoy, and you will torture nobody... nobody without my personal order!"
"Who's being tortured?" McCoy asked reasonably. "She's quite unharmed, Jim. We only want to ask her a few questions."
"You'll leave her alone, Doctor, and that's an order!"
"Captain," McCoy spoke coldly. "You have no jurisdiction over medical matters; in this sickbay it's my orders that matter, and it is my duty to discover how Miss Frome has caused another crew-member's sickness."
"Mentally ill, Captain, through close contact with the Ensign."
"No-one comes in contact with her, she is my responsibility... my personal care. Your conduct is unprofessional, Doctor; a man of your age licking his lips over getting a young girl on one of these couches. You disgust me."
McCoy was outraged. "That is totally untrue, and you know it, Jim. How dare you make such a suggestion? The Ensign must be examined. If you would prefer it I will call Nurse Chapel to make the tests."
He turned aside to the intercom. Kirk, his face a mask of rage and hatred, rushed forward, one hand raised for a killing blow to the throat. In that split second Spock leaped, fingers going to his friend's neck.
McCoy gazed down at the still figure, shocked. "He was going to kill me, Spock," he whispered.
"The Captain is not himself," Spock said gently. While McCoy busied himself over the recumbent Captain, he turned to the Ensign whose face portrayed fear and anger in equal proportions. "Miss Frome, it is not our intention to hurt you, but we must know why you are influencing the Captain's behaviour in this way."
"He is fit to be my husband," she said sullenly.
"Fit to be..." Words failed the Doctor. "Is this the way of your mother's people?"
She glared her hatred at the Vulcan. "There is nothing to be ashamed of in my mother's culture; she taught me to be proud of it and live by it. I am proud of both sides of my heritage and wished to find a husband after the way of the Mutorin. I am not ashamed to be the daughter of a half-breed." She flung the words at him defiantly.
"Why should you be?" Spock replied, unmoved. "But before you claim a husband, is it not customary to discover whether the male wishes it or no?"
She lowered her eyes. "The strongest mind wins and rules. Any others could have had their chance with him."
"But there are no others of your race aboard," McCoy said patiently.
"Then I had the right to claim the highest-ranking for my own. I claimed his mind and he was mine, to protect me and make provision for me."
"Ensign!" Spock said sternly. "You have lived amongst Humans and know that this is not the way they manage such affairs."
"No. Human women must seek a man's favours and the mates of the prime specimens are often weak and silly creatures. Our method ensures that the strongest-willed women capture the minds of the most fitting males and so our race grows in strength while theirs weakens with each mis-matched pairing. The Captain has the strongest will aboard this ship and a position of power and influence. He is fit to be my husband."
"Nevertheless you will release your hold on his mind," Spock said firmly.
"You cannot make me."
"You will release him voluntarily once you understand the true strength of the Captain's will." Spock turned from her and bent over Kirk. "The Captain is coming round. Doctor, I suggest you take Ensign Frome to another room for a while."
McCoy nodded and hustled the protesting Ensign out of the way. Spock knelt beside Kirk and pressed his fingers to his face.
Five minutes later a relieved McCoy saw them both walk in, Spock's face as undemonstrative as ever, but the rueful grin on Kirk's displayed not only his complete recovery but also his knowledge of all that had passed.
Eloise Frome took one look at his face and gave a low cry of passionate anger and loss. Kirk shook his head at her.
"You hit below the belt that first time, Miss Frome," he said gently, "and I was caught before I could duck from under, but I'll not be caught with my guard down a second time." He thumbed the intercom. "Security team to sickbay."
"Security?" McCoy was scandalised. "Is that necessary?"
"Do you want to be the next?" Kirk asked pointedly. "Behind a brig force field we can prevent her trying it on with anyone else. Spock, you go along to see there is no trouble."
The Vulcan nodded and led the girl away. Kirk gave a sigh of relief. "It's nice to be free, Bones, even though it felt marvellous at the time to seem so god-like."
"Oh, I was every boyhood hero rolled into one. A very effective way of keeping your man." He grinned. "I could have conquered a black hole for that girl, Bones. I'm glad she never asked me to try!" He sobered again. "I owe you an apology, Bones."
"No, forget it." McCoy's tone was casual, wondering whether he should mention Spock.
"I've already apologised to Spock." Kirk answered his thought. "Poor devil, it must have been tough for him, but that young woman realised you two were the greatest threat to her hold on me, because she didn't poison my mind about anyone else. I'm glad she was right; I owe you both a lot!"
The door slid open, to admit Christine Chapel.
"Sorry to interrupt, Doctor, but you're needed in the bio-lab if you can spare..."
Her voice trailed away as she caught an unexpected gleam in the Captain's eye as it rested appreciatively on her. Kirk saw her blush and patted her hand reassuringly.
"You're the first female face I've looked at properly in a long time," he said happily and went to the door. Over his shoulder he added, "I'm going to the bridge... slowly, so that I can look at a whole lot more on the way!"
Copyright Meg Wright