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"Let's get the hell out of here!"
Captain Kirk's tone was bleak. The landing party gathered around him, and each breathed a sigh of relief as the transporter pulled them back to the familiar safety of the Enterprise.
On the planet's surface the Guardian waited patiently in its city of ruins; they would return - or others like them. Eventually.
In the transporter room Kirk was once more the brisk, efficient Captain.
The guards dismissed, he turned to his anxious friends. "Uhura, Scotty - go and get some rest. Bones - sickbay. I want M'Benga to check for any after-effects from the cordrazene."
"But Jim... "
"Don't argue, Bones - just go. Mr. Spock, come with me."
Recognising the barely-controlled weariness in his voice, the Humans left with a last anxious glance; Spock followed without comment to the elevator. There are times, Kirk thought, when Vulcan reticence is very welcome.
The short journey was accomplished in silence. Only when his cabin door closed behind them did Kirk permit his weariness to show.
"Pour me a drink," he directed as he headed for the shower. Spock obeyed, handing over the glass when Kirk returned, rubbing his damp hair with a towel.
"Thanks." Kirk drained the glass, looked round for somewhere to put it, and found it taken from him. "God, I need sleep. Where did I put McCoy's pills?"
Seeing that this was no time for a discussion on the effects of combining alcohol with sleeping tablets, Spock located the bottle and shook out the prescribed dose into his Captain's hand.
Kirk sat down heavily on the bed. "Stay till I fall asleep, will you?" he asked. "I don't want to be alone... "
The Vulcan nodded and sank into a chair. After a moment,
"Why me, Captain?" he asked. "Surely Dr. McCoy... "
"Because you don't ask questions. Right now I don't want to discuss... I never thought I'd envy your emotional control, Spock." His voice was growing drowsy. Spock settled him carefully on the bed, drew the cover over him. Within moments, Kirk was asleep.
With his instinctive neatness Spock tidied the cabin, disposing of the worn clothes, the damp towels; he rinsed the glass and replaced it, then moved back into the sleeping area to look down at his Captain.
Kirk was tossing restlessly, his face tormented even in sleep. The soft whispering was almost inaudible, then one word came clearly.
There was such pain, such naked longing in his voice, that the Vulcan shivered. This could not be permitted...
He leaned forward and positioning his fingers precisely on his Captain's face, "Sleep," he commanded softly. "For tonight - forget. Sleep without dreaming." The drawn face smoothed to tranquillity, the restlessness subsided and Kirk lay at peace.
When Spock removed his hands he found his fingertips were wet; tears had slipped from the Captain's eyes. Spock brushed them away, and looked curiously at the moisture on his fingers. Resuming his seat he studied his Captain thoughtfully.
Emotion. His logical Vulcan mind recoiled from the wild turmoil of grief and self-reproach he had sensed; if unchecked, it could destroy the Human... but he was useless as a comforter, he acknowledged honestly.
Very well, then, consider it as a problem in logic. The grief? Edith was dead. That could not be - must not be - altered. Kirk had known that himself. The guilt, the self-reproach? Only forgiveness and understanding could tame that destructive emotion - but they must come from one long dead.
There was one factor that Kirk was not yet aware of, but he would soon learn, for McCoy would not be able to conceal it. Edith had known. She had seen the doctor's lunge forward, Kirk's frantic move to block his path. How could she, even if it were possible, forgive the man who had said he loved her, but who had permitted her to die?
Spock considered carefully the one possibility he could see. Was it worth the risk? His faultless memory superimposed on the peaceful, sleeping face the haunted anguish he had seen then, and his logical mind faltered before the picture.
He had never before allowed himself to consider his attitude to the Human. Kirk had proved himself a skilled, efficient Captain, a strong, self-reliant man, with a wisdom unusual in one of his race; he was someone to whom the Vulcan could pledge his loyalty without reserve - but that had been all, until now.
Loyalty was no longer enough. What was needed was something wildly illogical, dangerous, unreasonable; something that no commander had the right to ask of a subordinate - but something one friend might do for another.
Curiously serene now that he had made his decision, Spock rose - looked a moment longer at the peacefully-sleeping Kirk, then left the cabin. Ship's stores provided him with the necessary clothes, and Kyle beamed him down without protest.
A few questions to the Guardian provided necessary information, then with a firm step he passed through the time portal. The swirling mist hid him from sight, then cleared to a view of the desolate landscape beyond.
"Visitor for you, Miss Keeler." The nurse's voice carried the hushed respect of one who speaks to the dying. Edith knew she had little time left, but she was almost glad of that - she could not bear to live on, knowing that Jim might have saved her, but had not done so - had even prevented his friend from doing so. In fact, the sooner the better... then she would not have to remember those teasing eyes, the laughing mouth that had spoken lies...
For a moment the quiet words lit a flame of hope; could it be Jim? Had he come to explain the impossible?
Hope died as she recognised the tall figure. It was... the other; Spock. The dark eyes studied her with compassion, and despite her anger and despair she knew that this man wanted to help.
"Why have you come?" she asked dully.
"To explain. You are dying, Miss Keeler." She winced; no attempt to soften the words from this one. "I want you... to know why. You said once that Jim and I were... out of place here. You were correct. He has returned to our own place, but I have come so that you might understand... and perhaps forgive. Look at me."
With hands that shook slightly, Spock pulled off his cap, and her eyes widened as she saw for the first time the full sweep of the winged eyebrows, the curve of delicately pointed ears. Shock prevented her from crying out.
"Who... what are you?" she managed at last.
The dark eyes shadowed for a moment. "I am from a planet called Vulcan. Your race and mine will not meet for many years."
"He is as Human as you. We are from what will be your future."
"That explains much that puzzled me. But it does not explain why... he let me die."
"He had no choice. Listen, and I will tell you the history of your people as I know it."
Carefully, simply, Spock explained what was to him the history of the Federation and of Starfleet; Edith listened entranced to the stories of the great silver ships soaring out from the world she knew, to find and combine with other civilisations among the stars.
"You had a dream," Spock continued gently, "a dream of great beauty. It came true, as dreams so seldom do; until... Dr. McCoy sustained an accident, and became deranged; in his fear he passed through a time portal and changed our history, so that everything we knew vanished as though it had never been. Only Captain Kirk and I, with a few crewmembers, were protected from the change by our proximity to the portal. We did not know what McCoy had done; our only chance was to find him, and set right the time-line he altered. What we could not know was that you were the focal point. Jim loves you... but if you lived, thousands of millions would die; the Human race would never leave the planet of its birth. Everything we knew and loved and worked for would vanish."
"My life would make such a difference?"
"Indeed." Compassionately, but relentlessly, the Vulcan described the course of history after McCoy changed it, painting in vivid detail a proud race sinking slowly back into barbarism.
"That was the choice my Captain faced. You - or the Galaxy. His love - or the future of his people. How he chose, you know. Miss Keeler, the man you loved could have done no other."
"I... understand. But why did you come to me? Where is Jim now?"
"In his own time and place. At the moment, he believes that you were killed outright, but he will soon learn that you were not. He is desolate... but when he discovers that you knew he betrayed you, his guilt will destroy him. He is a... a good man, Miss Keeler; I would not see him hurt so. I thought, if I came... if I could make you understand... you might forgive him. To the end of his days, he will mourn you; I ask you now... let that be all he must bear."
Edith studied the slim figure quietly. It was too soon to make sense of the wonders she had learned; later, perhaps - if there was time - she might fully appreciate the immensity of the appalling choice Jim had made. Now the future spoke to her through those quiet eyes.
This was a man who never begged, she sensed dimly; but he was begging now, pleading for understanding and forgiveness for his friend. She had been uneasy in his presence, feeling that he watched her, that he resented Jim's growing love for her; now she realised that he had only been concerned for Jim, realising that Jim's growing love for her could only hurt him.
Impulsively, Edith stretched out her hand. The Vulcan hesitated, then took it -- his fingers felt strangely warm.
"Tell him that I understand," she whispered. "That I love him - I will always love him. There is no need for forgiveness... he could make no other choice. I wish him happiness in that world I will never see. Yet I am luckier than most - my death has meaning, and I know it. My dream will live one day... how few can be certain of that!"
"Is there... anything I can do?" Spock asked gently.
"If you could tell me of him?" Edith begged. "Tell me of his life, of the world you share."
Leaning forward, Spock began to speak quietly, telling her of the man she loved. He spoke of the Starship Captain, proud, commanding as he roamed a Galaxy; of the man, Human and vulnerable, who followed a dream as beautiful as hers; of the friend whose loyalty had been tested a thousand times and never found wanting.
Edith listened, loving him all the more; and as she listened, she watched the bright dark eyes - how much he was betraying of himself, this alien!
At last Spock withdrew his hand and stood up, pulling the cap over his betraying ears. "I must go," he said quietly.
"Yes, my friend - he will need you. Guard him for me - I think you care for him too."
Biting back the instinctive denial, Spock considered her words. Did he care for James Kirk? He was not sure... but somehow he thought that he must.
"I will do as best I can," he assured her, "but your understanding will help him, I think. Farewell, Miss Keeler; regret is useless, and yet... I wish... "
"I know. Now go, my friend - go to him."
The dark eyes held hers a moment longer; then he was gone, slipping through the screens around her bed. For a moment the sound of him lingered, soft footsteps in the still air, the swinging of the ward door - then he was truly gone.
Edith turned her head on the pillow, seeking the window beside her bed. In the night sky the stars burned, stars which Jim knew as flaming incandescent fires, not the cold remote points of light they were to her. It was a strange thought that because she, Edith Keeler, died here, tonight, the man she loved would one day roam those starfields - it was as though they were in a way her gift to him, for she knew now that had she lived, Jim would never have been born. It was... enough.
Far away, and far in the future, Spock, once more in uniform, stood by his Captain's bed watching the sleeping face. Now he understood just how much Jim had lost; there had been other women - there would be more - but Edith, gentle, wise beyond her years, was the only one who would hold his heart.
For a brief moment the Vulcan retired as Spock's humanity came quietly to the fore. He had recognised and appreciated Jim's overtures of friendship, but he had not thought himself capable of responding to them. Now he knew that he would - even before she knew the truth, Edith had sensed where he belonged, and her final words had been to send him to Jim's side.
The Human would not understand - not at first; he would need time to heal the first sharp pangs of grief. Yet one day Kirk would meet Spock's eyes, aware of the friendship that had grown between them - and both would remember she who had made it possible. In his own quiet way, Spock too would always mourn Edith Keeler.
Meanwhile there was a duty to be performed, a message to be given. Spock leaned forward, and shook Kirk gently.
"Jim, wake up," he whispered; the name was unfamiliar on his tongue, but he pronounced it with wistful eagerness. "Wake up, Jim - I have something to tell you."