ONE

Achernar is from The Pandora Principle. The basic friendship with Saavik and Valeris is Vonda McIntrye. The reference to Saavik quoting "Keep your friends close" is in Divergence by Khiori (you'll find it under my account too). I got this story as a very rough first draft (also Khiori); the rest is mine.

Remember this is an alternative to my Race of Cain; they do not fit together.


Lieutenant Commander Saavik resisted the human practice to count to ten. After all, ten was nowhere near the number she required, so counting to it would merely be an exercise in illogic.

Down the aisle of chairs in the passengers' lounge, Ambassador Sarek's low baritone continued. "-accomplishments are noteworthy. To achieve such distinction before your fellow classmates is an honor. Your mentor must be well pleased."

She didn't have to see Valeris' face to know that the dark eyes flicked slyly backward to see if she had heard. Saavik's jaw tightened.

Beside her in the transport, Amanda gently laid a hand on her uniform sleeve. "She is young."

Saavik nearly apologized having been caught. If it had been anyone else besides this woman – or him – she would have out of propriety. It was unnecessary here.

"And you have not been yourself since we left Vulcan." Amanda's eyes were soft in the dimmed light. "In my experience," she continued carefully, "sentient beings possess more than one way to protect themselves. Emotions can be shields as much as they can be weapons."

Saavik didn't know how to answer that. "Forgive me for disrupting your reading, T'Sai," using the Vulcan title that meant Lady and so much more.

Amanda's mouth twitched. "You have not been a disruption for some time." Saavik lifted her gaze to find the familiar mischievous glint in the other's "And even then, it was quite entertaining."

Saavik's eyebrow shot up. "You have an unsettling view of entertainment. I very nearly caused a diplomatic incident."

The glint became more pronounced. "And instead you have the Klingons praising you."

"Not necessarily a comfortable predicament."

As Amanda chuckled, Saavik's eyes found Valeris again. The cadet was practically preening under the ambassador's approval. She sighed, chiding herself for uncomplimentary thoughts towards the girl. "I am a poor friend."

Amanda frowned and slowly shook her elegant silvered head. "No," she said, her own eyes studying the younger Vulcan, "if anything, you error more the opposite." She frowned. "I do not trust that one. No matter what my son says."

Saavik quickly turned her face to the stars.

Amanda's mouth tightened and she fingered the antique binding of the book in her lap. "Now it is my turn to ask forgiveness."

Saavik found she clenched the chair arms, an appalling lack of control. She turned dark eyes to Amanda. "He is your son," she said softly.

"Saavik-" Carefully manicured fingers hovered just over her knee.

"I will not discuss it," said Saavik firmly.

Amanda pulled back, looking away, and Saavik knew a reprieve and pain that her choice stood. But I would be a fool to mistake compliance with agreement. She felt inexorably tired. I should never have come.

And her refusing to talk about it had hurt Amanda. "You would," she said quietly, "regret the knowledge."

Amanda reached out again, this time to actually catch Saavik's chin and lift it, requiring her eyes to follow. The look in the blue eyes made her breath catch. "How could I," Amanda asked gently, "when I regret nothing else of you?"

But Saavik insistently protested. "If you knew me better-"

The human's fingers gripped hard, forcing her to stop. "I would only declare it more firmly." At Saavik's open disbelief, Amanda released her chin with a sigh and leaned wearily back in her chair. Saavik realized with a shock that the human looked... old somehow. "Saavik, you have lived with us since my son's fal-tor-pan. Does that not say enough?"

Saavik's eyes watched Valeris. "I do not mistake kindness for approval."

"You should," Amanda said reprovingly. "They are the same here."

Saavik abruptly turned her face to the viewport as all thoughts of Valeris vanished against the return of memory.

I will not discuss this.

Amanda withdrew, allowing the choice she had so vehemently and finally so pleadingly argued against in the privacy of the estate's curving walls, and Saavik gave silent thanks. Ambassador Sarek was not the only diplomat in the family.

It does not, however, absolve anything. Of which we are both all too entirely aware.

Sarek's voice filled their silence. "-you will have your choice of assignment. Have you given meditation upon the possibilities?"

The dark eyes flicked back again and this time Saavik met them with her own. "Yes, Ambassador," Valeris said smoothly, "and my preference is ship duty."

Saavik's eyes narrowed. Valeris, true to her training, kept her triumph masked.

"Although," she said, drawing Sarek's gaze to Saavik, "I have been vigorously discouraged from it."

Sarek's eyebrows rose.

Damn.

Amanda's mouth started to turn down and then abruptly altered midcourse, smoothing into the flawless smile that Saavik had come firmly to believe as dangerous as any Romulan's. She stood gracefully, and, for an instant, T'Sai Amanda, wife of Sarek of Vulcan, looked down at Saavik. Her deep sapphire travelling robes and family house stones gave her already elegant air a sudden sense of latent power and reminded the onlooker that T'Pau had made her part of the female line. Very deliberately, she extended two fingers in the traditional Vulcan expression. Sarek hesitated an instant, his dark eyes carefully probing her blue ones, and Saavik brightened.

She remembered seeing that same Amanda-wary look once before on Sp-.

She sobered her back to grimness.

Sarek came softly down the aisle, his ambassadorial robes swaying barely with his motion, and touched his fingers lightly against his wife's. Her smile widened, showing perfect teeth. "My husband, it is quite late and I-" her eyes went past his broad shoulders and found Valeris, "-find myself quite human. Would you excuse me?"

Sarek almost blinked at his apparently easy escape and then inclined his head cautiously. He studied her face and then shifted slowly to Valeris before returning. "Of course, my wife."

Saavik saw her salvation and started to rise. "T'Sai, you will require an escort."

A movement of Amanda's hand halted her. "My husband, would you be so kind as to accompany me? There are matters to attend to before we arrive." Her eyes caught Valeris again. "And I am sure Lieutenant Commander Saavik can attend the child."

Valeris stiffened, her eyes becoming unreadably black.

This time, Saavik showed a sudden glint of respect in her eyes as Amanda passed, and barely managed not to shake her head.

If I will not discuss the one, apparently, I will be made to attend the other. Saavik bowed her head to Amanda's back, accepting the required exchange as she had to.

It was, after all, the proverbial lesser of two evils.

Saavik turned back to Valeris and found the smooth chin rising in icy disdain. The doors irised shut and a brittle silence filled the air between them.

She questioned if it was too late to start counting. "Would you care for a tour of the ship, Cadet? It is the latest in Vulcan design meant especially for diplomatic missions. Capable of great speed and with full defensive capability."

Valeris didn't respond and very deliberately, she turned her back.

That was a wrong move. Whatever she may or may not allow personally, Saavik refused to allow any cadet to treat a superior officer in this way. Ask questions, yes, point out what may be a deadly issue, yes. To disdainfully dismiss all around out of a sense of superiority, no. Valeris would get crewmen killed if she continued like this.

She had turned and made the deadly mistake of confusing Saavik's pause with weakness in disciplines. Her mouth held a smugly contemptuous line.

Very slowly, Saavik slipped forward like an ominous wraith until she leaned over that fading, scornful expression.

The younger woman's face became suddenly bloodless and her dark eyes were wide enough that Saavik could see her image reflected in their blackness. "Judge everyone as beneath you and you will not serve in Starfleet."

Valeris backed up. Saavik first thought she had understood the lesson. "I repeat my previous assessment of your character."

Of course. Naturally she proved incapable of it.

"Undeniably," Valeris said, feigning being gracious under dark eyelashes. "Lapses in control are to be expected from so... disadvantaged... a heritage."

Saavik made a mental note to warn the ship's doctor of the child's recuperation speeds.

"A disadvantage no doubt enhanced by such constant exposure," Valeris looked disdainfully at the closed door Amanda had gone through, "to humans."

Saavik's eyes flashed, and she moved so fast that Valeris inhaled sharply in shock as the cadet suddenly found them boot to boot. "You may disparage me and escape, but T'Sai Amanda will command your respect."

Valeris chewed on that and finally argued, "She is human. Surely, the title cannot apply to her."

"The title very much applies to her and you will pay the honor due to her as a Lady of Vulcan. Do you understand me, Cadet?"

Valeris actually flushed. "I understand, Lieutenant Commander."

Saavik leaned close enough that her words were no more than a harsh breath on Valeris' skin. "See that you do."

Valeris abruptly spun away on her heel. She began to gather the ambassador's padds, her motions tight. The silence between them grew heavy and ugly until she turned back, her black eyes piercing. "He approves of me."

Saavik took a calming breath and sat down. "So you continually remind me."

Valeris' eyes instantly sharpened. "I merely acknowledge the truth."

Saavik said nothing and Valeris tilted her head, eyeing the older woman until a crafty eyebrow slowly arched upwards. "I see."

"Do you or do you not wish a tour of the ship?"

"I threaten you."

"On the contrary, you offend me."

"Because I succeed you."

She is young. All the tension slid away and Saavik relaxed, leaning back in the seat. "I withdraw my previous statement. You entertain me." She crossed her legs casually at the ankles and draped her arms on the rests. "Explain the logic that led to this conclusion."

"You are mocking me."

"Of my options, it was the least... painful... response."

"Now you are threatening me."

"That was earlier. I am merely stating a fact."

"He would not approve of your facts."

"As you have stated he continues not to remember me, he will neither approve or disapprove." Valeris' eyes couldn't hold up under her own making Saavik's turn sharp. "Valeris, you swore to tell me if Spock's memories of me returned. Have they done so?"

Valeris gave a verbal shrug. "He has said nothing. Although I begin to notice a… reaction when your name is said."

Saavik looked away.

"I see," said Valeris, her black eyes absorbing and tilted her head in mock thoughtfulness. "Your reaction does shed some understanding on his response."

Saavik went still. "What response?"

"When I informed him of your coming arrival, he seemed... most unsettled. It was quite disconcerting." She watched Saavik's face tighten. "Was there some... incident between you?"

Unbidden, Genesis rose once more. I know what he thinks of it now. Saavik felt cold with the actual realization of her haunted dreams every night since Genesis, now plaguing her with each hour that brought her closer to Spock.

I am not ready for him.

She would not show that to Valeris; there had been a time of deep trust when she would. Now, in fact, the other's smugness under the surface made her question if this was the first time Spock had thought of her.

"It was not my intention to cause difficulty," said Valeris calmly, but her conceit rippled off her like a scent. "Are you capable of maintaining control of it? You are only half-Vulcan with a violent strain."

Saavik leaned her head back and looked down her nose. "As you are so fond of reminding me. I concede my biology."

"An excuse for failure."

Saavik considered it thoughtfully. "No, never an excuse. Have I erred at times? Yes. Due to that biology? Possibly." Because she would not admit that to Valeris either.

"And this does not trouble you?"

"Always." She eyed Valeris with interest. "Although not, obviously, as much as it troubles you."

Valeris sniffed, looking away. "You overestimate your importance to me."

"But not my use."

Valeris' head snapped back around instantly and Saavik nodded, long standing suspicions confirmed. "You still require me."

"I require nothing from you!" Valeris spat.

"My place."

Valeris went pale.

Saavik cocked her head in wry humor. "'Keep your friends close-'"

Valeris finished the quote. "'-and your enemies closer.'" The black hair caught at the corner of her mouth and she brushed it away. "We discussed this at the Academy."

"One of the times when I came to visit you and aided you in your troubles. You asked me if I had chosen which you were, friend or enemy?" Very quietly. "Do you remember my response?"

Valeris slowly dipped her head. "You stated, 'How can I? You have not yet chosen which you are.'"

Saavik rose and it made the other woman looked up. More than that, that chin came up again. "Do you remember what came next?"

"I asked you, 'And when I do?'" asked Valeris intently. Saavik nodded for the rest. "You replied, "'I will be ready.'"

"And here we are."

Valeris licked her lips. "What will you do?"

She still does not understand. Saavik watched the streaks of light out the portal behind the other Vulcan, feeling a creeping fatigue steal at her. "It remains not my decision."

Valeris' superior expression returned. "Then show me the ship."

TWO

"You didn't throw her out an airlock, did you?"

Saavik paused right in the middle of unfastening her uniform jacket. Amanda didn't know what just happened with Valeris and Saavik couldn't tell her. She redirected her response instead to what the other woman expected by giving her a reproving look. "One cannot tempt a Vulcan."

"Ha!" Amanda laughed, mocking the answer. She held out a mother's hand automatically, waiting for the jacket.

Saavik slid out of the crimson material and watched good-naturedly as Amanda shook it out and proceeded to hang it in the closet. Then she bent and began to break the seal on her boots.

"I am proud of you."

Saavik stopped. She looked up in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"

Amanda motioned her to sit on the edge of the bed and then knelt down to help remove her boots. Saavik's eyes widened and she instantly started to rise, a protest on her lips.

But Amanda caught her wrist, staying her. "It is my honor to serve."

Saavik insisted feverishly, "A lady should not-"

Amanda looked at her and Saavik's color darkened.

She heard the older woman sigh and felt her chin once more taken. After a few moments, she relaxed, and Amanda smiled gently, patting her cheek. Then she bent again to the boots.

"Airlock number four was on the engineering report today."

"Amanda!"

Amanda grinned. She slipped the first boot off and set it to the side, then she started on the other. "Admit it, she is unbearable."

"Amanda."

"Okay, okay. What does she think of the ship?"

"I have a list of her recommended improvements."

"No! Of what?"

"Security alterations mostly."

Amanda snorted. She got the other boot off and set it beside the first, then rose smoothly to head back to the closet. She peered inside as Saavik padded silently into the bathroom and began to undress fully. "Where are the rest of your clothes?"

Saavik frowned at her reflection in the mirror. "That is the sum of my apparel, why?"

"What do you sleep in?"

Saavik folded her under tunic and trousers neatly. "In my bed."

"Saavik!"

She resisted a smile. "May I assume you are referring to sleeping attire?"

A sigh drifted from the closet. "Yes!"

"In that event, no."

There was a long pause. "Why?"

"Reaction time to nocturnal alerts is substantially increased by the elimination."

"You're kidding."

"Rarely. It allows immediate uniform access and thus faster post check-in."

"You're kidding."

"Amanda, in battle every minute counts."

"Do you mean that all this time you lived in my house, where my husband lives by the way, you've slept nude?"

Saavik knew Ambassador Sarek would never violate her privacy by entering her bedroom unasked, even if that bedroom was in his own home. Therefore, the question was a nonissue. "If it would assist your comfort level, a suitable garment may be replicated."

"Good. Any particular color?"

Saavik blinked. "It is significant?"

"Not until there is someone."

Saavik flinched. She looked down at her hands and found her long fingers clenched together into fists. "Green," she said softly.

"What?"

"I would prefer it be green."

Amanda was silent a moment then went to the replicator. She punched in her order with deliberate firmness. "When do we rendezvous with the Enterprise?"

Too soon. "Twelve hours, thirty-three minutes and forty-seven point one nine five seconds. Assuming we maintain current course and speed."

And in a sudden flash, without knowing its cause except that he was always on her mind these days, Saavik was standing over Spock's body in Sickbay-his face burned horribly, its once sanguine lines like something out of hell. The bitter tang of ozone and the ugly stench of the core chamber malfunction tangled in his once perfectly combed hair. It mixed with the charring of his crimson uniform, torn and splattered with emerald blood, and seemed to fill the entire room with the acrid stench. Her eyes stared, unable to look away, at the heat warped insignia that lay twisted on his breast as a voice, a human woman's voice, from somewhere behind her said, "I'm sorry. I know what he meant to you-"

Saavik fought the urge to vomit and struggled desperately against the memory, her vision blurring and her long fingers trembling. I cannot live through this again. I will not.

Her teeth ground together, and she forced her mind forward, reciting the old lessons of calming he had taught her. As some measure of control returned, she slowly straightened, clearing her voice shakily and hoping against everything that Amanda would not catch the husky overtones she could not hide. "And barring all incidents."

But the instant the words were out of her mouth, her fine hearing caught the sharply hissed intake of Amanda's breath and she knew she'd made a terrible error. I am not the only one who lost him.

Outside, Amanda forced herself away from the bulkhead and willed the sudden white-knuckled grip on the green silk to ease. She shivered violently and struggled to clear her eyes. She needs me. I must be-

She pulled her best diplomat's wife smile on like a mask and walked with a deliberately assumed lightness to the bathroom doorway. But she did not cross over, no matter how her heart screamed at her to do so. Only the years on Vulcan kept her outside - that and the terrible agonizing knowledge that Saavik needed some dignity left. So she waited, painfully, trembling even, but waited. Then without a word, she held out the bundle of cloth.

And Saavik, without meeting her eyes, reached hesitantly out from the shadows and took it.

Amanda found she had been holding her breath and released it quietly. She stepped silently over the threshold and gently began to assist her to dress. The soft green silk slid down Saavik's body, caressing comfort like a hand against her skin. Amanda smoothed its lines with light fingertips, feeling the tension slowly start to ease.

She bent, taking the single brush from the counter, and began ever so tenderly to brush the long sable hair, knowing the steady rhythm of the strokes would say what she could not. And she knew she had succeeded when, after a while, Saavik turned ever so slightly and regarded her with intense dark eyes.

Amanda nodded once and the most quiet of sighs escaped Saavik.

"I...will see him tomorrow."

Amanda nodded again and continued brushing.

There was the longest of hesitations and then, so quietly it was almost not there, "I am..."

Amanda's eyes burned and she blinked rapidly. And just as quietly, so that it also was almost not there, "So am I."

Saavik nodded once, accepting it with the grim resignation borne of Hellguard's childhood, then her Romulan dark humor rose and she caught Amanda with a wicked glint in her eye. "But Valeris is more. I informed her on our tour that Starfleet instructed me to supervise her interactions on board the Enterprise."

Amanda laughed. "Give her to the Klingons."

"Premeditated homicide would damage my record."

She grinned. "You could take asylum on Vulcan."

"Now you are tempting me again."

"Only because I would like to keep you longer."

Saavik tilted her head in surprise. "You would?"

"Why wouldn't I?" Then she shook the brush at Saavik, "And don't you dare give me the list."

A blush colored Saavik's cheeks. Amanda resisted a smile at how becoming it made the young woman look and went back to brushing.

"I will assign her to accompany the Starfleet contingent," Saavik said quietly.

"You'll what?!" Amanda gripped Saavik's arm and forced her to turn around.

Saavik raised her head and met the blue fire in Amanda's eyes without flinching, the terrible stubbornness Amanda most feared raising again the unmovable wall between them. "As we are both well aware of your hearing levels, I see no logic in the repetition." She removed her arm briskly from Amanda's grasp and stalked out of the bathroom.

Anger flared uncontrollably in Amanda and she slammed the brush down on the counter, running after her in a whirl of robes. "You coward!"

Saavik whipped around, sending her desk chair colliding with the bulkhead. Her fair cheeks were flushed and this time there was only danger in the color. "What do you know of me?" she hissed.

Amanda felt a sudden bite of pain in her heart, but it only intensified her anger. "I know you well enough to know when you're hiding behind honor. You've done it before!"

"And I will continue doing it until it is enough!"

"It will never be enough!" Amanda snapped back.

"In your opinion."

"As a fact!"

"This discussion is closed."

"This discussion has never been opened!"

"You agreed to abide by my decision!"

"A damn lot of choice you gave me! You wouldn't have come otherwise!"

"I shouldn't have come at all!"

"YOU CAN'T LET HER HAVE HIM!"

Sudden frigid silence slammed between them, and Amanda found that she was breathing hard, her fingernails digging into the flesh of her palms. She forced her rocketing heart rate to slow and realized that there were tears in her eyes. "Please don't let her have him. She'll hurt him. Saavik, please. I know she will."

The storm died Saavik's face and her shoulders lowered. She turned away to the shadows of a corner and Amanda bit her lip hard knowing that all of Saavik's childhood survival instincts were screaming for a safe place. A place-

A place to guard her back.

Guilt filled Amanda and she found her whole body heavy with exhaustion. Which was what I was supposed to be.

Amanda wanted to weep. For Saavik, for herself, for her son. But she knew it would do nothing to help any of them. I don't know if anything can.

She thought of tomorrow. Amanda squared her shoulders determinedly and reached out hesitantly, knowing full well the barely contained rage Saavik fought, and, as lightly as a single breath, she touched the cooler skin. The contact flared instantly and before Saavik could throw her shields up, Amanda and she were falling as one. No!

But the link tangled and their minds could not tear apart. And Amanda stood on a world she had never seen, blinking against the howling of the wind that threw alien dust into her eyes and pulled like claws against her hair. She found herself on an incline, watching a golden haired man grasping her only weapon awkwardly and disappearing into the waving trees.

He will die. It should have been me.

And then a noise came from behind her, a sound that escalated piercingly into a scream above even that of the terrible wind, and Amanda felt a paralyzing fear stab through her. Her mother's soul knew that tortured voice even here.

My son! She began to turn. The wind slammed into her, whipping her flesh mercilessly, pushing her back. No!

Suddenly furious, Amanda fought back, lowering her head and forcing herself against the roar. It's my son! Spock!

And then Saavik was there, blocking her with eyes of flame, her dark hair churning wildly like a storm.

Amanda was flung out of the meld and cried out, as much in physical pain as in mental anguish. She staggered and her knees buckled, but powerful arms caught her, swept her up.

"Spock!"

She thrashed, confused, and the arms held tighter. Panicked, she fought, and brutally firm fingers pressed against her face.

Do not fight me.

But Amanda fought, rage and tears and agony rolling insanely in all directions as she struggled against what held her.

My son!

He is safe.

No, I hear-

The past. He is safe.

He needs-

Neither of us now.

And the terrible all-consuming ache behind the voice broke her heart. Instinctively, she reached out blindly and found herself being held by Saavik.

Amanda inhaled desperately as if it were her last drowning breath, and was immediately racked with uncontrollable shivering. Saavik pulled her close, dragging the softness of a blanket around her. Amanda felt the firmness of the bed beneath her back, and the room began to solidify around her. Slowly her tearing shakes eased and she gulped air weakly, trying to restore her banging heart as she unclenched the green silk.

"You are certain that Sarek is still in meditation?"

Amanda felt foggy but leaned against the bonding to her husband. He was. A part of her felt curiously angry about it. Illogical. "Yes, why?"

Saavik eyed her to ensure she wasn't hurt. "Because otherwise, I shall have to order an explanation that is sufficiently swift to appease a husband."

Amanda laid her head back and laughed tiredly. "At my age, hitting the deck plates would be worse."

"That is easy for you to say. He would not be trying to kill you."

Amanda fought a grin and rubbed her eyes. It brought memory and she grew somber. "That was the Genesis Planet, wasn't it?"

Saavik's face instantly masked and she averted her eyes, but not before Amanda saw the shame.

And very quietly, very suddenly, Amanda at last understood. Everything.

She blinked rapidly, feeling a deep sense of pride and affection for Saavik. And a terrible pain for her as well. It should not have been this way. She deserves better. She remembered that howl she heard from her son, crying to the wind of his pain and loneliness. They both do.

Amanda's hands shook again. She reached out and touched Saavik ever so gently. "It would... please me if you would stand by me tomorrow," she said softly, offering the only thing she could.

Saavik looked back suddenly intense, but then her eyes clouded over. "My place is-"

"With your family," Amanda said firmly.

But Saavik shook her head and rose. "I have no family."

THREE

The great vaulted recreation deck of the Enterprise was a prime study of controlled chaos. Starfleet officers, Federation diplomats, Klingon and Romulan representatives milled about in the large space, the mixture of languages a din hovering in the air like smoke. This was the opening reception, a chance for initial introductions, drink and some food, music and pleasant interaction before the formal presentations began. It would probably work if the talk about developing strong peace treaties wasn't doubted by so many present.

Saavik stood in crisp full dress uniform, the crimson jacket with its skirt glittering gold from its embroidered lines and officer's braids in the overhead lights. The black skirt was pressed to perfection and her boots were polished to mirror intensity. Her dark hair lay exactly about her shoulders in complete regulation length, and she stood correctly at parade rest precisely behind Amanda's right elbow. The fine angled lines of her faces were properly and utterly Vulcan, and her dark eyes showed sufficient alertness to maintain politeness. She spoke directly yet diplomatically whenever a question was put to her by one of the passing guests, and nodded fractionally at the right depth to any salutation.

And Amanda was about two seconds from kicking her.

She glanced sideways, checking Sarek.

The Ambassador was still deeply engaged in a mind numbing swirl of logistics and philosophy with one of the Romulan envoys, his rich chocolate robes lending him a grace that still caught her heart after all the years. His House jewels glinted upon his chest, their smooth surfaces enhancing his gold chain of office and the tiny IDIC pin upon his shoulder. His voice was deep and captivating, his argument flawless, and she resisted a smile. The Romulan was in trouble.

She caught her husband's eyes and signaled with the barest flick of her fingers that she had business elsewhere. Without even pausing, he gave the slightest tilt of his head, acknowledging.

Amanda gathered her wine colored robes and walked with utter casualness towards the ship's gardens, knowing without even having to look that Saavik fell into obedient step behind.

She wanted to sigh.

Of their own accord, her eyes found Valeris in the crowd back by the viewports. The cadet stood beside Spock at his right hand, spotless in her Academy uniform and far closer to him than Amanda liked. He was introducing her to one of the admirals - Cartwright, if she remembered correctly. Amanda shook her head in disgust.

He'll probably love the little -

And then Spock was looking their way, wiping away instantly every one of Amanda's other thoughts as she stopped breathing. His eyes touched Saavik and he started to step towards her-

- and Valeris caught his sleeve ever so slightly, her lips near his ear - and he turned away. The crowd shifted, walling them out.

Amanda felt a white hot fury erupt inside. I'm going to-

But a sudden, utterly immovable grip held her arm.

"Saavik," Amanda warned, her voice low and dangerous, "let go."

"I believe the correct situational response is: 'No way in hell'."

Amanda couldn't help it, her mouth twitched. She fought a smile and then gave up, shaking her head in disbelief as she realized that her anger was gone. "Who taught you how to do that?"

One eyebrow angled up. "Hellguard. Unless you were referring to the specific phrase and then I must attribute the acquisition to Captain Kirk."

Amanda had to cover her mouth with one hand to smother a laugh. "No, not the swearing. I mean who taught you to redirect emotions like that? That was a classic diplomatic-" Amanda stopped, as Saavik's face told her exactly who.

Spock.

Amanda stared at the wall of bodies, knowing that Valeris was behind there somewhere. With Spock. She scowled. "I can't believe we're losing to-" She stopped and then slowly turned around, pinning Saavik with a suddenly penetrating scrutiny. "You do not lose."

Saavik looked away.

Amanda took a deliberate step forward, feeling her anger returning. Her fingers tightened into fists and it was all she could do to keep from using them to at least shake the younger woman. "You're not fighting."

Saavik shifted, but still met the accusation in Amanda's blue eyes. Amanda gritted her teeth. "At least have the courtesy to tell me why."

"There is nothing to tell," Saavik murmured softly. "It is not my decision."

"Like hell it's not!"

Saavik shook her head, looking very tired beneath the Vulcan front. "I do not expect you to understand."

Amanda wished she had picked up one of the champagne glasses earlier. It would have given her something to throw. "Then tell me so I-"

And then she knew. The color drained out of her face, leaving her feeling sick inside. Honor. For him.

"Oh, Saavik." Amanda's shoulders sagged. How could pride and pain be so mixed together?

She felt a feather-light touch on her arm and found Saavik's fingertips resting ever so gently against her robe. She had to strain to hear the other woman's voice, lowered for privacy.

"I need to know..."

"That he wants you as much as you want him," Amanda finished softly.

Saavik's eyes widened. "No. That he still desires any contact with me."

Amanda shook her head and smiled, her eyes finding Sarek in the crowd. "I remember what it was like to hope." She looked back at Saavik and touched her hand gently. "And to be afraid to hope."

Saavik's eyes dropped for a long moment and then raised. "You are kind."

Amanda laughed. "I am truthful. Come on, let's find those roses Leonard was talking about."

From across the room, behind the press of bodies, Spock listened only dimly to the conversation going on around him. He wondered broodingly if Valeris was correct.

Saavik eyed the pristine white rose clinically. "Your roses are substantially superior."

Across from her, Amanda grinned into the smooth petals she was smelling and straightened, giving Saavik a mock shake of her finger. "You, my dear, are biased."

Saavik arched her eyebrow, dignified, making Amanda's grin widen as calculated.

But then a sudden shaft of distress slid along her heart and she bent to hide it under another bud inspection, pushing the unbidden image of him away. Yet, as she absently touched the velvet petals, she found herself searching the crowd's wall again, looking for him.

Saavik shook her head in growing self-disgust, and when she looked again, she could see Valeris.

"You still haven't told me which rose suits you best."

Saavik turned dark eyes to Amanda and wondered idly if the geneticists had yet perfected the color bl-

A single rose, so red that its edges were rippled black, brushed against her chin and slid smoothly into her hand. A warm baritone murmured in her ear, "If I may make a suggestion?"

Saavik's whole being tightened. "Mister Achernar."

The Romulan chuckled. "It has been a long time, Little Cat." He stepped back, allowing her to turn reluctantly, and swept an aristocratic bow made only the more dramatic by the swirl of his traveling cloak. He straightened, the silver overstitching of his black tunic and trousers shimmering in the light, matching his hair, and his dark eyes studied her appraisingly. A wry smile touched his lips. "You are beautiful."

Saavik wished suddenly that Amanda was elsewhere. "Since when do smugglers attend diplomatic functions?" she demanded.

He grinned, and with a brazen familiarity that made Amanda's eyebrows hit the vaulted ceiling, he took Saavik's hand and laid a lover's kiss by stroking her fingers with his thumb. "Businessmen are always prudent to watch the waters."

Saavik's eyes narrowed and she swiftly extracted her hand. "Then watch them elsewhere."

His eyes positively glinted with mischief. "But they are decidedly more... pleasurable here. Besides, there is the small matter of an old debt."

Saavik's eyes almost became slits. "Is that so?"

Beside her, Amanda frowned at both of them.

Achernar laid a mockingly shocked hand over his heart. "Would I lie to such a lovely lady as yourself?"

"Most assuredly. And I am not a Lady."

"How fortunate for me," he murmured casually, studying again the way the crimson uniform fit. Then he blinked and turned a suddenly charming smile on Amanda. "My manners must still be on board my ship. I beg your pardon-?"

Saavik could see the instinctive urge to step back crossed Amanda's face; she moved protectively closer to the small woman, but she felt a rush of irrational pride as Amanda's chin went up and the human slipped forward to stand between Achernar and Saavik.

"Amanda of Vulcan." Her smile had warning teeth in it. "I believe you've already met my son, Spock."

The Romulan was taken aback and Saavik's eyes glinted. Yes, definitely more than one diplomat in the family.

Achernar smiled, inclining his head in repentant respect, and took Amanda's hand with an artful grace. "Then I am doubly honored to meet you, T'Sai." His gaze slid over her to Saavik who processed the fact he knew the Vulcan title. "Spock is a good friend, is he not?"

Saavik narrowed her eyes at him.

Achernar's mouth twitched. "Yes, of course."

He straightened and looked about. "And what is our friend Spock up to these days?" His dark eyes shifted slyly back. "I notice he keeps... interesting company."

She stiffened instantly and then cursed herself, but it was too late. Achernar's smile grew.

And then Amanda's matched his, making Saavik go utterly still.

Amanda laughed, and slid her arm into his, neatly trapping him more completely than if she had used a phaser.

"That would be the young Valeris," Amanda said, her smile warmly disarming. "Here, allow me the honor of introducing you."

Saavik looked down at the red rose in her hand and very, very carefully kept the smile off her face as she lifted it up to smell. "Damn."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Spock moved through the periphery of the crowd like a shadow, some traitorous corner of his mind stirring with the memory of a world now gone, of dark bloody nights spent hunting. And being hunted. But the moonless memory wasn't his, it belonged to the woman who had just crossed the room with his mother, so he forced it away. A feeling of sudden loneliness tightened his chest and he hesitated, looking back for Valeris. The cadet still stood as spellbound by Cartwright as when he had slipped away. It was doubtful that she ever noticed he was gone.

But SHE would have.

Did they prove him right with Cartwright saying something about a project and "Commander Saavik appears to be an excellent person to involve." Valeris scoffed. "She would never agree. I will prove her unnecessary for your plans."

Spock nearly grimaced and pushed his way forward. It is illogical to regret what is. And Valeris was a worthy companion. But not-

And Saavik was there.

She was standing lost in thought, her long fingers turning a single perfect rose idly. Spock frowned disapprovingly at the color, shifting his eyes to probe the specimens closest. Discarding them as unlikely, his frown deepened into something suspiciously akin to worry. His eyes turned back to Saavik. She had moved further into the gardens and, without having to even consider it, he followed, knowing exactly where she would go.

Lost amid the trees, in the most secluded corner of the gardens, was a single viewport. Saavik ducked her head beneath the leaves, her dark hair catching the starlight warmly as she did, and settled back against a trunk as languidly as her namesake. Spock watched her body slowly relax, the rigid requirements of being on display in the crowds easing away. In the shadows beneath the branches, the crimson of her uniform blackened like the rose, and she leaned her head back to watch the stars, baring the white of her throat.

She is beautiful. I wish-

Spock blinked suddenly, shaking his head reproachfully at himself for the slip in discipline, and turned to go.

"Stay."

A terrible shiver ran through him and he froze, both appalled at being discovered and curiously relieved. He turned back slowly, his eyes meeting Saavik's. The glint in hers made an answering one in his. He stepped forward hesitantly. "It would appear," he cleared his throat, "that my skills of avoiding detection are sorely lacking."

Her eyes sparkled brighter. "Though how you have managed that after such exposure to me, I do not know."

They looked at each other for a long moment and Spock realized that his respiratory rate had altered. He started to refocus his biocontrol and then stopped, realizing with a sudden shock that he didn't want to. Instead, he found himself ducking under the leaves. Saavik shifted, opening a space beside her against the bark, and after only an instant's hesitation, he settled there.

A comfortable silence eased over them that he had thought impossible, and Spock found his senses expanding, unlocking things forgotten and-

-and a terrible pain as-

-bruising her flesh unmercifully, he pushed her back and-

No! I would never-

His eyes reached for the stars, trying to hold them tight like wards against the sudden images. But their light tore him and he closed his eyes hard, trying to shut out everything. Yet, like an accusing distorted shade, Genesis rose up, fragmented, burning-

-Yes! No! I was burning and-

He tried to refocus the memories as Valeris had been helping him.

-fire and pain and crimson cloth tearing and-

Spock's eyes snapped open in disbelief and horror.

Beside him, Saavik frowned and reached out to touch him. "Spock, what is it?"

Instinctively, he flinched away and slammed his shields in place. How can she stand here and know that I- Why doesn't she-

Shame opened up within him, making his mouth taste bitter, and he felt a consuming self-hatred. "I must beg your forgiveness. Through Valeris, I know we... have something to settle. You must know... Honor demands a duty-"

The sharp intake of her breath in a hiss forced him to look at her, and he recoiled at the sheer raw hurtful in her eyes. "Then duty it will be, Spock." And she was gone.

Spock waited until he had some resemblance of control once more. Then he turned and slowly went back to Valeris.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"My T'Sai, you would have made a fine Romulan."

Amanda chuckled and patted the black silk of his sleeve. "I will take that as a compliment, I think. Though why you allowed the distraction, I am curious." Very.

Achernar smiled wickedly. "The hunt entertains me."

Her eyebrows arched at the thought of anyone foolish enough to truly hunt Saavik. "She is not easy prey," she warned. She thought back to their furious argument on Vulcan. Even her friends can barely hold her.

"She is not prey at all. That is what makes it worthwhile." He tilted his head, considering. "Although, there is something to be said for a plasma rifle."

Amanda laughed. "You wouldn't dare!"

"I am Romulan, I would dare anything."

Amanda grimaced. Unfortunately, that's my problem.

"Now, tell me about this Valeris."

"The one I would distract you from Saavik with?" she asked innocently.

His mouth crooked at the corners. "The very."

Amanda took a deep breath. And I have some ocean front property on Vulcan... "She is young-"

"A quality in her favor. Pray continue."

"Pleasing to look at."

"Like Saavik?" he asked slyly.

Amanda gave him a glower. "Intelligent."

"Vulcans have that nasty habit."

Amanda gave his arm a smack. He grinned, cheerfully roguish and - she grimaced again - utterly handsome. If Spock did not show something soon... She stifled a desire to shiver. She is still a woman. And far too long alone.

Amanda eyed Achernar thoughtfully, not wanting to consider it, but still feeling a terrible need to know. "You," she swallowed and began again, "you would treat her well?"

He blinked, frowning. "Subterfuge or not, I assure you, I am quite capable of greeting your Valeris appropriately."

She looked at him, her face completely still.

"Ah," he said, understanding. "Saavik." His face softened. "I would give her anything she desired."

Amanda sighed. I did not need to hear that.

Valeris caught sight of them and did a double take. Her mouth thinned frostily arrogant at Achernar while Admiral Cartwright frowned disapprovingly at Amanda.

"Our apparent popularity is astounding," the Romulan murmured. "Would this be your Valeris?" He clucked his tongue at Amanda. "You have a rather nasty streak in you."

He eyed Valeris carefully as if he held coin rather than Amanda's arm. He shook his head dismissively. "Who would be fool enough to take that over my Little Cat?"

Amanda forced a weak smile.

His eyes went wide in disbelief. And then he laughed, and the sound made Amanda feel sick.

"Good evening, Cadet Valeris," he purred and swept an elegant bow. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saavik fled from Spock.

Sarek excused himself abruptly from the Romulan envoy and turned, moving through the crowd as quickly as decorum would allow. His dark eyes scanned the swirling press around him, rapidly searching for Amanda. She always knows how to deal with the child.

But his wife was nowhere to be found. He pursed his lips thoughtfully, considering. It would be unwise to attempt a call through their bonding; the sheer number of minds about would make the effort painful for Amanda. Sarek glanced at the chronometer. Perhaps...

The first of the talks were scheduled to begin in only twenty minutes. The child will have to wait.

Sarek started to turn away and then he caught sight of his son. He sighed, suddenly feeling old.

The corridor outside the recreation room was almost as crowded and he hesitated. Which way?

Something Amanda had mentioned once stirred in the back of his mind. He caught the first crimson uniform to cross his path, ignoring the shocked look on the young ensign's face at the breach of Vulcan propriety. "The location of the main observation deck?"

"Uh, sir, it's closed for-"

Sarek's eyes bored into him and got his answer.

He commandeered a turbolift and found himself deposited at the great doors in next to no time. He flicked a look about him and found the area satisfactorily empty. Sarek stepped forward and reached for the controls. A curious sensation of unease rippled along the back of his mind. He shook his head. Most illogical.

Yet, he squared his shoulders grimly, bracing. The doors parted. The cavernous room echoed darkness upon darkness, shadowing even the brilliance of the stars outside the viewports.

Sarek slowly scanned the room, searching the near blackness for the child's familiar form.

And found nothing. The faintest of frowns touched his mouth and then a wry memory returned.

Their number agrees with our scans. Your readings indicate otherwise?

No, Father, they do not...But there IS another.

Very quietly, Sarek lowered his mental shields, feeling out for Saavik as carefully as he would track a le'matya in Vulcan's night. There.

Sarek gathered his robes soundlessly and slipped towards the furthest alcove, resisting the logic to call for lights. Diplomacy suggested a concession. Our relationship is already less than what Amanda would call 'sterling'.

He stopped just outside, behind the protection of the corner and eyed the blackness inside, remembering uncomfortably one night long ago on a small ship flying from the Romulan Empire.

Where is the child, Spock?

Her name is Saavik, Father.

She attacked S'tvan. He has been taken to Sickbay in critical condition.

I will find her and determine her reasoning for-

Reasoning? The child has no REASONING, Spock. She is savage.

She cannot be blamed for her abandonment, Father.

Spock, I have heard enough excuses. I will have a team search the ship. She will be found and confined in isolation until we reach the station.

Father-

Return to your post.

Sarek felt the irony. Now again, it was he who found her. She perched on the alcove's lone bench, her usually bright uniform insignias dulled and insignificant in the light. The past overlapped, and Sarek remembered staring at a barbarian fury all skin and bones held together by dirt, sores, and rage. Her eyes had blazed hate from the horrifyingly small ventilation duct she had strategically wedged her starved frame in. The shard of glass from S'tvan's mirror clenched expertly like a dagger in small white knuckled fingers. Her hair, all wild tangles and impossible snarls, had fallen about her face - making her seem some wild thing belonging more to the desert than to the smooth sophisticated lines of civilization.

Sarek blinked, and the past receded. "Saavik?"

Her head snapped up and even in the dark, he could feel the heat of her eyes.

Sarek sighed and seated himself on the bench. He felt her tensing as she pulled tightly into herself. No doubt expecting a reprimand. His shoulders ached and he looked down at his hands in the shadows. He was too old for these battles. After all the... pain... I have gotten my son back. Amanda should have the daughter she chooses.

"Tell me." His upswept ears caught the sudden hiss of her breath, and a careful glance saw she had backed further into the darkness, but not out of anger.

She is...braced for rejection. Sarek's eyebrow rose in disbelief. Between the stories from Amanda and Spock, he had not thought anything could claim such a feat from this one. It made him uneasy. Oh, my son, what has happened?

And then he knew. It was not the subject, but the audience. Sarek felt a great heaviness in his side. I am failing again.

"I understand." His eyes found the cold stars outside. There is no logic then to my presence here any longer. But he could not bring himself to stir from the bench. Instead, he found the intense desire to stay, to say or do something, to...

Not repeat my son.

He felt a chill whisper along his spine, but he, with all his years of diplomacy, did not know where to begin. The memories of his son's face as he left their home on Vulcan stole his certainty.

He glanced over at her again, and his desire to break through showed her in a whole new light. Saavik was not a child anymore. She was a grown woman, had been for years, the one who won battles to be Vulcan that he never had to face, and the one who had saved his son's life more than once.

How had he not seen it? An ugly irony shifted his mouth. She lived in his home and he did not know her.

Hellguard had rent an uncrossable chasm between them from the beginning.

Sarek lowered his eyes. He could not alter what was. The softest of thoughts brushed his mind and a fierce determination glinted in his eyes. Or can I?

He remembered the biting dust that whipped the air into a choking haze that day. And how his son stood and won the impossible from her. Simply through- acceptance.

"I am Sarek of Vulcan," he said abruptly, rising to face her at last.

She eyed him, instinctively suspicious in her confusion. "I do not understand."

He fixed a challenging stare on her, knowing that she would innately respond to its force. "I am Sarek of Vulcan." His long fingers did not falter as they split in the tradition as old as Surak himself. "I stand as your equal and greet you. Live long and prosper."

The stars reflected in the sudden wideness of her eyes. "You..." She shook her head not believing, yet unable to look away.

Because you want it to be so, he realized. And the insight made his heart beat harder in his side.

He waited, not daring to move.

She waited still, completely open to his eyes in the moment, searching his face so intensely that Sarek found himself holding his breath.

"I am Saavik," she said with infinite softness into the darkness around them. And she stood and lifted her hand. "Peace and long life."

FOUR

"Come now, my friend Valeris, surely you dance?"

Cartwright snorted and excused himself. Valeris leveled an icy stare at Achernar. "Dancing is not a Vulcan pastime, not the way you refer to it." She flicked a sideways glance at Spock. "However, it is my understanding that Lieutenant Commander Saavik is well versed in the subject. Perhaps you should ask her."

Spock's head snapped up and Amanda's eyes narrowed. You little-

Achernar's smile exposed wicked teeth. "Indeed? Of course, social etiquette is the mark of a lady." His eyes met Amanda's with a merry glint. "Is that not so?"

Amanda smothered a smile. "Quite. Amongst the diplomatic corps, it is almost a requirement." She fixed Valeris with a stare. "Ambassador Sarek is an exceptional dancer."

Spock's eyebrows drew together. "I have not seen Father dance, Mother."

Amanda patted his arm affectionately. "Of course not, you're rarely at any Corps functions." Speaking of which... She frowned and looked around for her husband.

"He left," informed Valeris smoothly.

"That's right." Amanda eyed her chronometer. "The first round of negotiations is about to start."

"I believe he had a rather more private... appointment in mind."

Amanda's eyes abruptly became slits. What was she implying? "With?"

Achernar stepped closer and flashed a disarming grin. "With a most exquisite woman, my T'Sai. But have no concern," his mouth became teasing, "I am sure he shall survive the experience."

Amanda laughed. "Saavik!"

Spock shifted uncomfortably.

Valeris tilted her head craftily. "You are concerned, my teacher?"

"Valeris," Amanda warned.

"I was merely inquiring." She caught Spock's eyes. "Saavik has been... rather volatile of late."

Spock's gaze dropped, and his mother, who well knew how to read her son, saw the blame controlled behind his Vulcan disciplines.

Amanda frowned. What was going on?

"Ah, friend Valeris," smiled Achernar thinly, "that could merely be the result of the company she keeps."

Spock's gaze whipped back up, probing the Romulan's face intensely. Achernar raised his eyebrow innocently in return while Amanda scowled at them both.

Valeris caught something behind them and her expression darkened, making Amanda turn and inhale with delight.

Ambassador Sarek, in all his most regal dignity, was escorting Saavik towards them. Amanda bit her lip to keep from beaming, and didn't know how her ribcage could hold her beating heart. But she felt a pang as she realized that Spock had stiffened behind her. She greeted Saavik warmly and extended her two fingers to her husband. He touched her gently.

"What of the negotiations?" asked Valeris deliberately.

Sarek looked at Saavik, and Amanda caught the glint in his dark eyes. "They were successful, I believe."

Saavik's expression had an equal sparkle. "They were." Her eyes found Spock softly, but when he looked away, they returned to Valeris, and something new filled the look she gave the cadet. Amanda resisted the urge to laugh.

Achernar gave Saavik a noble bow. "Lady Saavik, my friend Valeris informs me that you dance."

Saavik shocked them all by nodding at Valeris. "She is correct."

The cadet swallowed uneasily. Saavik looked at Spock, but he only returned it with rigid formality. She tilted her head back at Achernar. "I assume you are also familiar of the art?"

His smile was pure Romulan mischief, and he caught her hand and bowed over it. "You may be assured that I am quite... talented in every art."

Amanda's jaw dropped as Saavik's mouth ever so slightly curved at one corner.

"Have you a preference?" he asked, the sly warmth of his tones daring Spock.

But the Vulcan remained carved in stone and Saavik felt a deep stab. I forget. I am only duty. She forced the pain back, refusing to meet the triumph in Valeris' eyes, and then drew herself up defiantly at them all. Then I accept the decision. "That would not be logical."

Achernar's lips twitched and he offered her his arm. Saavik felt curiously numb inside as she touched the black silk. Achernar's smile filled her mind and she allowed him to take her. He nodded once to the musicians along the wall and the music began. The warm sensuous sounds of the Romulan Empire rolled like a wave of fire through the crowd, promising an easy escape in pleasure, and subconsciously she felt her heartbeat quicken, wanting release.

His eyebrow climbed suggestively. "Shall we begin?"

Saavik firmed her jaw.

They danced.

Most worlds throughout the known universe preferred actual physical contact in their dances. The Romulan Star Empire did not, and Saavik always wondered at the curiosity of the difference, attributing the lack of touch to be perhaps some remnant of Vulcan amongst an easily impassioned people. A built-in distancing.

She had never been more wrong.

Her senses unlocked as naturally as if the music held a key, and she found she could not look away from the sudden intensity in his eyes. Their bodies moved together as if they were one, their ambient heat like the space between two dangerously encircling stars. She could feel his breath upon her skin, his presence hotly hovering like a lover's hand. His scent filled her nostrils and sent her blood roaring in her ears, drowning out everyone and everything except him.

She dared use him in her defiance, and it was backfiring on her.

They spun faster. He led, his body drawing hers instinctively, the electric space between them narrowing and intensifying until it seemed to overcharge the very air about them. Her skin flushed bronze, tingling with a fire she remembered somewhere in the hidden places of her mind, and her breathing went wild, urging her to defy, to-

He abruptly tore away and the music collapsed. Saavik felt a raw ripping agony and nearly staggered. She blinked furiously, forcing biocontrol over her hammering heart, and swallowed harshly, her throat metallic. She realized she was sweating and frowned, trying to reorient herself. The crowd was applauding feverishly, the Klingons roaring their approval.

But why had he left? Was there no one now?

And then the cooling presence of Ambassador Sarek was there and the music began again. But this time the smooth liquid tones of an Earth waltz rolled through the vaulted room and Saavik found herself swept gently into steady arms as easily as a babe. His dark eyes caught hers, and Saavik felt her mind focus and grow sharper, her body's storm sliding away as smoothly as the sand before Vulcan's winds.

It was different than when he was her partner as Amanda insisted Saavik learn. Then, it was learning the mechanics. Here, the two of them spun gently, drawing an almost tangible aura of calm about them, their bodies floating together in mesmerizing beauty that captured the crowd's eyes and held their breath. Time stilled and Saavik was aware of nothing but the simple delight of being held. And for the first time in her life, she felt utterly and completely safe. She felt Sarek's powerful presence wrap around her and behind it, just as unwavering, Amanda's. And then it was done.

The crowd applauded again, quieter, but this time, she realized the approval itself was somehow louder. She blinked again and straightened her shoulders.

"I am in your debt, sir." Her voice was low and quiet.

When she looked up, the softness in his eyes surprised her and her own widened as he took her arm gently. "Less so than you think, my child." Then a glint touched his gaze as his eyes found Amanda in the crowd ahead of them. "Though perhaps it might change."

Amanda was furious. She wheeled on Spock, her robes flaring, and he almost flinched. "You and I will have a discussion, Spock."

Valeris stepped defensively closer to him, but Spock's eyes flashed a surprising defiance at his mother and Valeris instinctively edged back, watching. "With all due respect, Mother, I do not require a lecture."

"You require a damn good one! What are you thinking?" She pushed herself almost against his chest and glared up at him with the hot temper that, he suddenly remembered uncomfortably, had backed down more than one enemy successfully.

But his chin rose stubbornly even as a terrible fear began to blossom inside. Amanda couldn't name what it was and had no idea that he suddenly worried about her discovering what he had done to Saavik. "Do not force me to quote the Vulcan Privacy Act, Mother."

Ironically, his answer also was the only one that kept Saavik's honor intact.

Amanda looked like she was about to explode. "Don't you dare hide behind Vulcan now! I won't have it!" She stabbed a perfectly manicured finger at his side. "You've made your preference clear, but as my son I expected you to behave at least with decency."

Decency. Again, she didn't know the word stung instantly against his soul, almost as painfully as the abrupt tears filling her eyes. But Valeris stepped close again, brushing him ever so lightly that only some far part of his mind noticed. Spock felt his throat constrict and no words came.

Amanda's chin lifted higher, fighting a losing battle against her emotions. Spock felt an insane pride at the intensity of her care for Saavik, even as he longed to ease his mother's heart. But suddenly the memories of Genesis reappeared and his body trembled at the horror of what he had done. You do not understand, I ... have... And he was brutally pushing Saavik down again, bruising her violently as she fought in dust and sweat, but he was stronger and-

Spock inhaled shakily and Valeris stepped silently back again, unnoticed.

Then duty it will be... "Mother... it is her choice."

But Amanda would have none of it and her anger snapped back. "What choice? She's alone-and shame on you for making your father do what you should have! Even a Romulan showed more responsibility."

Spock felt a flash of ripping pain. It was all he could do to keep his shoulders straight. "Mother, I-"

Amanda locked deadly eyes on Valeris. The young cadet stiffened. "You will never step foot in my house."

Valeris' head jerked back, and Amanda's trembling fury turned back on Spock, the sharp betrayal in her eyes was almost more than he could bear. "And you-!"

Spock felt his heart freeze. Once more he stood before his parents the day his Starfleet acceptance went through, and saw the wall go up in his father's eyes. Mother, don't.

"And you will not ever-!"

Her voice broke as Saavik was suddenly there, laying an unshakeable but soft hand on her shoulder. "No."

Spock had never been more grateful to Saavik in his life. It made the sudden stab of remorse and guilt uglier.

"Go with Saavik," Sarek said quietly to his wife, his unreadable eyes burning into Spock's without mercy.

He waited, utterly silent, until Saavik had led Amanda away gently and the crowd had enfolded them safely, and then he turned his piercing gaze on Valeris. "The Klingon Ambassador has informed Admiral Cartwright that Federation negotiations may prove successful at last. He believes that if two enemies may embrace in dance, then perhaps two may meet in truce. The Admiral wishes to speak with you."

FIVE

"Thank you," Amanda said, sniffing softly, and took the moist washcloth. Her gratitude ran deep, more than the words could imply. Saavik stopped her from making the biggest mistake possible with Spock. She cringed to think of what she almost did. "But if you apologize one more time, I'm still going to hurt you."

Saavik's eyebrow rose sardonically in the dim lighting of the guest quarters. "In response to your first statement, you are welcome. In response to the latter, that is doubtful, and as I am the source of the entire difficulty, how would you recommend avoiding it?"

Amanda frowned severely and dabbed angrily at her face with the cool cloth. "Easy. Go bring me that little b-"

"A lady does not use profanity," Saavik said deliberately and ducked neatly to miss the washcloth. "Or lose her temper."

Amanda couldn't help it; she gave a watery laugh. "You are an absolute beast sometimes."

"Most of the time," Saavik corrected, obviously pleased that Amanda was feeling better. It always bothered her to see the sadness in the human's blue eyes. "Would you care for something to eat now?"

"Are you cooking?" Amanda teased slyly.

"I am attempting to nourish you, not reduce your life expectancy."

"You're not that bad!" Amanda protested, trying to smother her grin.

Saavik gave her a look and headed for the room's replicator. She activated the unit and looked back over her shoulder. "Have you a preference?"

Amanda noticed the way the dimmed lighting softened Saavik's features, bringing out her beauty gently. She thought of Achernar and her son. Her sigh cut deep. "Yes, but it doesn't seem to matter."

Saavik's brow drew down in confusion. "I beg your pardon?"

Amanda grimaced. "Nothing." She made her way to the couch here in her cabin and sat down. "Choose for me. Something light, I think."

The door chimed.

Saavik very nearly scowled. She exchanged a hesitant look with Amanda, and then took a quiet breath and marched resolutely to the door. "Come."

The door slid back and this time Saavik did scowl.

"That," said the Romulan with a mischievous smirk, "is no way to greet a friend, Lady Saavik."

"Forgive me," she said dryly, drawing herself up, "you are quite correct. Pardon me while I go and fetch my knife."

Achernar clucked a reproving tongue. "What insane soul granted you possession of a sharp-edged object?"

Amanda grimaced. "It was perfectly logical at the time." She waved him in, ignoring the pointed stare Saavik threw in her direction.

He chuckled and accepted a seat on the same couch as Amanda, setting in with all the flaring grace of an aristocrat.

"Would you care to have some refreshment with us, Mister Achernar? Saavik and I were about to have some lunch."

The Romulan inclined his head. "Ever gracious, T'Sai Amanda. I would be honored." His dark eyes then grew teasing as he slid a glance to Saavik. "I trust Vulcans have the same codes as Romulans in regards to poisoning their honored guests?"

Saavik paused right in the middle of punching in the order. She fixed him with a hard stare. "Do they have the same in regards to tempting their honored hosts?"

Achernar cleared his throat abruptly. "Uh, perhaps a cup of tea only. The banquet is scheduled for this evening and I," he patted his belly and gave Amanda a grin, "would be terribly remiss if I failed to sample such a feast thoroughly."

Saavik barely contained a derisive snort and reprogrammed the synthesizer.

Amanda chewed her lip thoughtfully, eyeing Achernar. Saavik clearly had not forgiven him from walking away at the end of the dance. Still… "As you are no doubt quite aware, diplomatic social functions do require accompaniment. I would be honored if you and your companion were to take seats beside my husband and I at the banquet."

Saavik's brow wrinkled at Amanda. She obviously thought she had support in keeping the Romulan at bay and now it disappeared.

Achernar inclined his head pleasantly. "I thank you for such an offer." His dark eyes flicked to touch the smooth lines of Saavik's body that silently warned him away. "However, I am still awaiting my own companion's acceptance." She stiffened and he smiled roguishly at Amanda. "I believe I must relegate myself to one of the lower tables."

Amanda's nose wrinkled in affected disapproval. "A gentleman of your abilities should be placed appropriately. Perhaps I should speak with your lady."

Saavik blanched. She quickly collected the delicate cups of Vulcan tea and served them, concentrating on being as invisible as she had once been on Hellguard.

Amanda latched onto her as precisely as a tractor beam. "Saavik?"

She avoided meeting that blue gaze. "Yes?"

Trust me, I may be able to save this after all. "Are you attending the diplomatic banquet tonight?"

She cleared her throat, flicking a stabbing look at Achernar. He smiled innocently back. "No, my duties preclude-"

Amanda smiled. "Your captain is that charming fellow I met last night, yes?"

Saavik sounded defeated. "I take it Captain Osrev will be appealed to by a certain person. This appeal will end with my schedule cleared so I may attend the banquet." The defeat turned to determination. "However, I must point out that I do not possess appropriate attire."

Which was a lie, if anyone wanted to point it out, since other officers would be wearing dress uniforms.

It didn't matter because Achernar's grin became positively wicked. "Consider it attended to."

Amanda's mouth curved into a responding smile. "Good."

Saavik gazed pointedly at the older woman with promised retribution. It only grew worse when Amanda grinned cheerfully in the face of the sworn revenge.

She turned it on Achernar. "Do you plan to leave in the middle of this as well?"

Amanda watched him soften. "No, I promise you. I will not retreat again."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Amanda fought the desire to fidget. It took all her willpower just to keep her eyes on James Kirk, and it was a losing battle. She switched the ornate champagne glass to her other hand and kept her best smile pasted in place.

"Patience," murmured Sarek softly, just loud enough for her to hear. Then his voice took on the subtle dryness it always did when he prepared to tease her. "I am certain we will know when they arrive."

Amanda glared at him, even as a smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. She flicked a glance around the crowd. There was still talk of "the dance" going around. She smothered a grin as she caught some of the nearest conversations. Her eyes slid sideways to catch Spock, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing outright. He was listening, too. And almost scowling.

Amanda met Sarek's eyes and tilted her head ever so slightly in their son's direction. He inclined his head in calm approval.

Calm now that she had gone immediately to Spock begging forgiveness for what she almost did. Thankfully, he did forgive the unspoken words and just as thankfully, for the sake of restored peace, he hadn't noticed she didn't recant what she had said to Valeris.

She choked back her disappointment. She had so wanted to spend time with her son and her two chances so far were spoiled. First by Valeris and second by her own temper.

On her other side, Leonard McCoy ducked his head closer to rasp in a whisper, "This is going to be fun." His eyes tagged Spock and then glinted conspiratorially at Amanda. "Care to place a gentleman's bet?"

"Leonard!"

"Jim's holding the pool."

"Leonard!"

He grinned his best good ol' Southern boy grin and waggled an eyebrow.

Amanda suddenly realized to her horror that Kirk had stopped talking and opened her mouth to apologize when she got a good look at his face. Why, it's been years since I saw that- Amanda took a deep breath and spun.

They had arrived.

Leonard whistled softly. "Well, I'll be damned."

Amanda nodded mutely, wondering if anybody would notice now if she cried.

They were perfect.

Amanda swallowed hard, the glass in her hand utterly forgotten. The press of people about her seemed to inhale as eyes from two empires and a federation found themselves caught and held unmovable in something deadly close to awe.

The roguish businessman was gone and in his place stood a man so formally regal that Amanda found the nearly overwhelming, delicious urge to bow rush instantly through her. Draped in the finest Romulan gold brocaded silk she had ever seen, he stood crisply royal with a sweeping rich cloak that lay across his broad shoulders easily and was clasped at his breast by a gleaming gemmed bird of prey broach that hailed instantly of the past. A magnificent heavy House chain angled across his lean hips, canting its jeweled links to lay against his thigh. An ornate ancient naming ring graced his hand and its ruby depths where mirrored exactly in the glittering pommel of the equally historical Honor Blade, strapped precisely against the leather of his high boots. His hair was radiant silver and crowned his head as surely as if it was a circle of gold. He held his arm out in precise accompaniment of the beauty beside him as if he was escorting his Empress. And the raise of his chin and the pride of his eyes made Amanda forget to breathe. He caught her eyes from across the room and very deliberately drew them to Saavik.

Amanda inhaled.

She was beyond exquisite. Intricately gold finished emerald silk clad Saavik's fine body gently, the Vulcan design to the gown still subtly enhancing the graceful curve of breast and the swell of hip. The delicate skin of her shoulders caught the eye, the smooth line of her breastbone drawing the breath. Her dark hair was brushed exotically up, clasped artfully in gold clasps that shot rich highlights through her captured curls. A sweeping gold wrought necklace lay softly at her throat, its faceted emeralds seeming to glow against the smoothness of her skin, and met the elegant IDIC brooch holding the hunter green drape along her back. Delicate gold chains slid against her right wrist and a smooth emerald stone rested on her left hand. A single gold earring dangled quietly from her angled ear and there was a carefully controlled aloofness to her chin that granted a dangerous, but arresting, power to her gaze.

And her gaze had fallen on Spock. Who was struck where he stood.

Amanda realized that her mouth had turned to cotton, and she quickly tightened her fingers about her glass to keep from dropping it.

Sarek made a soft noise at her ear that would have sounded suspiciously like a dry chuckle in anyone other than a Vulcan. Amanda elbowed him viciously and nearly sloshed her champagne.

She gave Achernar credit. The pair of him and Saavik carefully and proudly represented each side of the Neutral Zone, but their differences complimented, instead of contradicted, each other. They personified celebrating diversity. No one could find fault with them.

Make that, no one should find fault with them.

She caught Valeris' face out of the corner of her eye. The young cadet was outright frowning her disapproval, her body posture stiff in an equally stiff Starfleet cadet dress uniform. Amanda's mouth pulled down as Valeris leaned close to Cartwright and whispered. He nodded slowly, his already scowling visage darkening, and gestured ever so slightly to a bald, fierce looking Klingon standing mostly in the shadows near the great windows. The Klingon flicked a single furtive look across the room to the Romulan ambassador. Amanda and Sarek gave each other an uneasy shared glance before Captain Kirk distracted both of them with a decidedly boyish grin.

"Does the Diplomatic Corps still use dance cards?"

Leonard snorted. "Get in line."

"Age before beauty?" Kirk teased back.

"You betcha, boy. Now excuse me, there's some responsibilities this ol' doctor's got." He made a beeline for Saavik.

Amanda's mouth twitched hard as McCoy inclined his head at Achernar, and then executed an old styled bow to Saavik before taking her hand and kissing her fingers with all the polish of Southern charm. Saavik's eyes widened at the gesture, but she smoothly regained her composure.

Sarek's eyebrow rose significantly. He turned and offered his arm to Amanda with a glint breaking his usually somber eyes. "I believe it would be only socially appropriate to properly greet them, my wife."

Amanda did her best to keep the grin off her face and slipped her arm about his. "Imminently logical, my husband."

She nearly lost to a laugh when she realized that Kirk was already making his way through the crowd to do the very same thing.

Behind her, keeping himself separate and primly formal, Spock turned away and moved further into the crowd.

Amanda swept a flawless curtsey, relishing in a flood of delight as Saavik's fine cheeks colored gracefully at the honor. Sarek bowed next, classically Vulcan, and Amanda felt another swell at the pride in the set of his shoulders.

"It is fortunate this function is not located on Vulcan," Sarek said calmly as he straightened. "You have not yet designated your House contact for... inquiry."

Saavik's usual obliviousness about her worth rose to the fore. "You are a consummate diplomat, sir. I am honored at your embellishment."

Sarek's eyebrow rose with all the sudden assumed dignity of his years. He looked at Amanda. "You will correct the child?"

Amanda smiled beautifully. "No, dear, this evening will be correction enough."

She flicked a look around the healthy and rather rapidly expanding ring of male well-wishers, noting the quiet observation of the unbonded Vulcan men about the room, and nearly turned to see Spock's face. But she was irrationally afraid of what she might see in it, and forced her back firmer and her smile brighter.

Achernar's smile was entirely over Saavik and took on a sudden, almost child's delight when she lifted her gaze and eyed him thoughtfully back.

Amanda's grip on Sarek's arm tightened. She knew, too late, what Saavik did not. Achernar learned through their dance that Saavik's body might respond, but her heart and soul remained uncaptured, and suddenly the predator wanted more than a taste of his prey. He had known it before or he wouldn't have promised to give her whatever she wanted. He desired her. All of her. He knew that, but he found it was more than caring. He could love her. Completely. He left at that moment to regain his own senses, recovering from the sudden knowledge of the depths he felt. He came back later, facing her rejection over his abandonment because he was unable to stay away, even as he risked more of himself now. That was what he meant about not retreating again.

And Amanda had handed Saavik over to his grasp.

Sarek cleared his throat, his eyes carefully on the Romulan with a father-like intensity that warmed Amanda beyond words, even as she kicked herself for forcing Saavik here. "My wife and I would be honored if you would join our places."

Achernar's eyes glinted mischievously. "At the banquet?" he asked innocently.

Amanda nearly kicked him, knowing the Romulan was playing with an old Vulcan phrase: our places, our Houses.

Saavik tilted her head, frowning softly, missing the subtle touch of an ancient way, and Amanda for once was more than glad that Saavik's studies held the incredible gaps from her 'catch-up' rush.

"You are ever the scoundrel," Amanda smiled, playing at being equally innocent.

Achernar's lips twitched and he inclined his head gracefully, casually ignoring the interested males about Saavik as if his gold about her wrists held more security than their links appeared. But Amanda caught the watchfulness of his dark eyes, so much so that he disregarded the interested gazes aimed at him, and she suppressed a knowing smile. Saavik was still elusive prey.

Achernar saw someone back in the crowd, somewhere behind Amanda, and the look that passed instantly over his face was frighteningly calculating. And victorious. Amanda fought the urge to shiver, and subconsciously drew nearer to the warm safety of Sarek before glancing along the Romulan's gaze.

Spock.

Her son's face might as well have been carved of the hardest stone. Gol would be proud, Amanda thought bitterly. But then she saw his eyes, and her fingers tightened into the fabric of Sarek's robe with a flash of hope.

Unshakably he held Achernar's gaze, and though he made no move to confront the Romulan, there was a burning blackness in his eyes that did make Amanda shiver.

She had seen that look before. She looked hurriedly to Sarek for confirmation. A new line marred her husband's forehead and he nodded once, his own gaze suddenly sharp and searching.

Amanda chewed her lip uncertainly. But it is too early! There must be some other thing we are overlook-

Valeris!

The young cadet met Amanda's gaze calmly. And stepped closer to Spock.

The soft chime for the call to dinner made everybody blink. Saavik turned calmly to Achernar, arching one eyebrow.

His mouth twitched and he nodded his head. His dark gaze lingered over Saavik's fine lines and Amanda frowned at the barely contained enjoyment in his eyes. And frowned harder when she realized that Saavik was beginning to return it.

This was not the plan. Saavik was to keep her disregard for him, and Spock was to get a jolt and get over here. After all, Achernar was Romulan and that put a barrier between him and Saavik that would be hard to bring down. Could he really be accomplishing that?

"I am fairly certain," Sarek murmured so low next to her that only she could hear, "that dragging our son across a diplomatic function by his ear would invoke significant discussion."

Amanda grimaced at him. "Are you daring me? Why are you not dealing with your protégé? You got along well enough on the cruiser."

Sarek stiffened. "That is not humorous, my wife." He took in Valeris carefully. "And I have been appraised of significant details since."

Amanda's own eyebrow rose. Saavik. They must have had some talk.

"Shall we take our places?" Sarek asked casually.

Amanda nodded. She pinned Saavik with her 'best obey me NOW' look. "Care to join us?"

Saavik eyed Amanda carefully, her innate stubbornness rising, but Amanda met her gaze immovably and they had an audience. The younger woman slowly inclined her head.

Amanda smothered the smile that threatened when she realized that Saavik kept her wary watch the entire way to the tables.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Valeris sat at Spock's right hand, directly across from Saavik, and Amanda fumed silently. That child had more connections than was naturally healthy, and her deliberate flaunting of it was making Amanda's blood boil.

It is a good thing we're in public, Amanda thought grimly as she speared her dinner. She flicked a careful look sideways and nearly choked.

Saavik had dropped her ear close to Achernar's mouth and was listening intently.

Amanda cursed her human hearing and tapped Sarek's boot under the table. He shook his head ever so slightly. Apparently even Vulcan hearing wasn't helping. Damn.

She realized she was using that word more and more. It must be Saavik's influence. She pretended interest in her dinner.

Saavik's mouth set in a line that would have made Amanda rather ill had it been directed at her. Sharp eyes brushed Admiral Cartwright down the table's length chatting companionably with the Romulan ambassador, flicked back to the deadly Klingon Amanda had noticed earlier, and then landed squarely and dangerously on Valeris. And focused.

Just what is going on?

Valeris suddenly became aware of Saavik's dark scrutiny and her lips froze over her glass. Very deliberately, she raised a mocking eyebrow.

But all the mocking was wiped right off her face when Saavik's mouth curved into a predatory line.

"You are free tonight, Cadet? Excellent," Saavik murmured, her smooth tones sending cold shivers down Amanda's spine. "I will find you." Her eyes glinted terribly. "Be available."

Beside her, Achernar merely sipped his wine casually and threw a wink at Amanda. Then, without even his knowledge it was coming, hell broke loose.

Valeris put a hand on Spock's wrist who then put down his fork. "Cadet Valeris has a prior appointment."

Saavik's eyes tapered dangerously at him. "Reschedule."

"That is not possible," he said, his eyes meeting hers head on.

"There are always possibilities. Reschedule."

He tilted his head back, recognizing his words, but not their use as her call to see what he was doing. "Unless Starfleet lines of authority have dramatically altered, I believe a superior officer takes precedence in scheduling conflicts."

Amanda winced at the frosty tones in his normally rich voice. But she nearly cringed at the utter winter of Saavik's.

"Correct. And unless Starfleet regulations have dramatically altered, I believe that superior officer is I."

"You can't be," Valeris exclaimed snidely.

Spock's spine stiffened. "Explain."

"Admiral Nogura requested that I assume responsibility for command track cadets showing potential for Fleet acceptance. Including providing in-field experiences and requiring both verbal and written evaluation reports of all progress in interactive development." She turned dark eyes on her target. "I am prepared to evaluate Cadet Valeris."

The same person who set down her glass looking poorly.

Spock's face tightened. "What will your evaluation accomplish?"

Saavik's eyes held unreadable blackness. "Fleet placement upon graduation."

"That is an inordinate level of responsibility."

Amanda's jaw dropped. Beside her, Sarek went still with surprise.

Saavik's voice went tight. "And do you, sir, find me lacking?"

Spock hesitated for a moment and Amanda felt a surge of relief. Then his eyes dropped temperature further and she felt only a helpless sense of horror. "In this aspect, I must disagree with Admiral Nogura's assessment."

Had Saavik been decades younger, Amanda was sure beyond anything that she would have thrown the fine silver dinner knife in her hand. As it was, Amanda knew the sheer level of control in Saavik doing nothing more than holding her hands in her lap. Where we can't see how tightly she does it.

She was ashamed of her son. She wanted desperately to say something, but she feared it as much, especially after what happened earlier with her losing her temper. How horrible a day when someone must take Saavik's defense against Spock of all people! And how terrible that she held herself back from doing it.

"That is unfortunate," said Sarek calmly. Amanda gave him a private look of relief. "The Federation Council and the Admiralty majority beg to differ. Lieutenant Commander Saavik's assessments have proven highly valuable and instructive." He met Spock's eyes unflinchingly. "In no count, has she allowed emotion or personal judgment to cloud her findings of character assessment."

Spock frowned blackly at his father.

Achernar chuckled softly, drawing all attention back to him. He idly swirled the wine in his glass before lifting it in mischievous salute to Saavik. "Indeed. I have found her rather painfully accurate."

Saavik looked away in awkwardness, remembering her past appraisal of him. Achernar reached over and laid a hand over hers. Her head shot back in surprise and found him grinning in full Romulan slyness. "But do not fear, Lady, I have not held it against you."

Saavik's mouth ever so slightly twitched at a corner, causing Amanda and Sarek to exchange uneasy looks. She inclined her head back at him, her eyes beginning to glint with a slow respect. "Mister Achernar, you have, since my first evaluation, proven yourself a gentleman."

"Why, thank you." He grinned wickedly suggestive. "Inform me when you prefer otherwise."

Amanda's stomach clenched. She was thankful the Romulan took any abuse of Saavik as personal, and that he was willing to support her in the face of everything. And she appreciated that he could do it without all the other tangles that she, Sarek, and Saavik were caught in. She even spared the thought that the one benefit of Spock's behavior tonight was it making Saavik put aside her prejudice in this one case.

But Amanda never counted on Saavik opening up even a small amount to the very possibilities that Achernar was hoping for and that she, Amanda, was dreading. But his support was a salve on Saavik's hurts and it started her seeing him as a man rather than a Romulan.

The benefit of putting aside prejudice was going too far.

Kirk and McCoy chuckled at the last comment. Achernar threw a wink in their direction and drank a swallow of wine. His eyes landed challengingly on Spock. "Perhaps, friend Spock, your concern rather lies elsewhere. Perhaps you are not certain of your protégée's success?"

Spock lifted his head higher. "I am certain Cadet Valeris will prove most instrumental within the Fleet."

Valeris all but preened, and Amanda frowned.

Achernar took another drink of his drink, studying Valeris as one might a curious insect. "Of that, even I have no doubt." Saavik gave him a warning glare. He pretended to ignore her. "Yet, I was not referring to your Valeris."

Saavik suddenly looked seriously uncomfortable.

Spock's eyes shifted slowly from Achernar to Saavik. This time, she did not meet his gaze. He looked back at Achernar. "I have not been the Lieutenant Commander's teacher for some time. Nor have I followed her career with sufficient attention to allow an accurate assessment."

Amanda winced, seeing the way Saavik kept her eyes firmly on her folded hands.

How could Spock?! When Saavik, who never thought herself good enough for him anyway, was made by him to feel ashamed of herself? Failing him, as well as his rejection, was always her horror. Now she was force fed both by the being in the universe that mattered most to her. And he knew those things!

Achernar's jaw rippled and his eyes became decidedly unfriendly, even as he kept his smile firmly plastered in place. "Undoubtedly you've been highly occupied. There are few willing, of their own accord, to overlook her obvious value. Your own esteemed Admiral Nogura and the Federation Council praise her. And I may personally vouch for certain aspects of my Empire who have followed her career with interest."

Amanda and Saavik grimaced. Valeris' eyes brightened, and Sarek lifted his glass to sip wearily.

Valeris jumped at this opportunity. She gave Saavik a withering stare. "You must be quite pleased. Your Empire approves of you."

Achernar throwing his head back in a big booming laugh was what stopped Saavik from answering that attack. "That's the problem! It's not her Empire, never has been! She's Starfleet. A Vulcan should see the point." He smirked at Valeris and she deflated from what she had perceived as a victory. "If she was in our Fleet, she'd be a threat to you instead of us. As it is, some want to take her on as a challenge. Others curse her and hope they never cross her path. You can see both attitudes in my people here tonight, and both ways mean one thing: they've all learned to respect her. Captain Kirk understands, he has the same kind of reputation, and he probably can name at least – ten? – ah yes, he's nodding, ten adversaries he respects even though they are still adversaries. You should hope you reach a point in your career, Cadet Valeris, where your enemies consider you formidable." He glanced over to Cartwright. "With no one to boost you where you can't go on your own."

He raised a glass to her. "Putting aside such matters. My attention, of course, has been purely personal. My gold testifies, friend Spock, that I must find exception to your... conclusion."

Saavik frowned. "Your gold?"

Achernar's smile vanished instantly, replaced by something darkly Romulan. "Spock?" he asked quietly.

Spock cleared his throat, but said nothing.

Amanda's brow wrinkled. What now?

Achernar's eyes glittered angrily and Amanda felt surprise ripple through her along with an uncomfortable feeling of fear. This man is not to be trifled with.

Saavik looked from Achernar to Spock, then back again.

"And when, friend Spock," said Achernar tightly, rising to his feet with barely controlled mounting fury that instantly sent a hush through the party, "did you actually intend to fulfill your word? Before or after your hell froze over?"

In another twist of the hellish night, who came to Spock's defense but Saavik herself, as McCoy noted in a mutter to Kirk. Her eyes became unforgiving slits at Achernar. "Explain this accusation against him."

Spock flinched.

Achernar leaned dangerously on the table, fist clenched hard. "I believe my good friend Spock is the more qualified."

Saavik looked puzzled, but expectantly, at Spock. As did now most of their table.

But he said nothing, merely reached into the pocket of his crisp dress uniform trousers and pulled out a single Romulan gold coin. Amanda couldn't believe her eyes. He carried it with him! Surely it meant something? That he wanted this touch of her, something to require him to connect with her again?

He held it out to Achernar coldly. "Take it. But you will find your arrogance in assuming her eventual acceptance to be destructive- for both of you."

No, Spock! Amanda saw what he was doing: with Achernar's bringing the matter up this way, Spock couldn't give it back to her now, so he'd try to deny Achernar the opening that was closed to him.

Achernar's eyes glinted. "How prophetic for one who cares so little for her as to admit near total ignorance of even so open a thing as her career." The Romulan snatched the coin out of Spock's hand. "You will find that it is your own assessment of character that is the faulty one. I only pray that you do not destroy what is of real value in the process."

And he whirled away from the table.

Saavik rose stiffly from her chair, bowed to Sarek and Amanda, and turned her back on Spock.

Only Amanda saw the sudden flare of pain in her son's eyes before he, too, got up and left.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saavik ducked down to peer carefully inside the darkened ship and felt the old shiver of Hellguard slide over her skin.

This place was Romulan; the way the hot interior felt somehow military against her, its faintly male spicy smell filling her nostrils, even the way it seemed to be crouching, waiting like a beast to pounce.

Instincts long sliding into dormancy tingled alive and Saavik realized wryly she had slipped naturally into the shadows, ears straining, and hand automatically grasping at empty air as if her knife were there.

Very deliberately, she made herself stop and forced her back straight. I am not hunting here.

His voice came softly from the darkest place in the belly of the small ship. "What little cat has wandered into my lair?"

Though I may be prey if I am not careful.

"You left," she returned, commanding her heart's pounding to ease.

"But not retreated. Apparently, you left too."

She nodded.

"May I inquire why?"

She tilted her head, honestly puzzled. "For you or I?"

A low chuckle came. "You."

She shrugged once, unwilling to investigate the motive that had brought her here. Instead, she stepped further into the darkness, extending her senses outward reflexively.

He was lounging in the farthest alcove on what Saavik realized was his personal bed. He swept a welcoming hand, inviting her to sit at its foot.

Saavik hesitated and then slowly joined him. The bed was surprisingly firm, and its smooth silk covering was clean and pleasant. She found herself suddenly all too aware of him and frowned. I should leave.

But she didn't move. "Tell me the meaning of your gold."

Now she felt him hesitate. Then the palm warmed coin pressed into the flesh of her hand, and reflexively, her fingers closed about the alien heaviness. She rubbed the surface gently, enjoying the raised and grooved surface curiously.

"It is said that there is no finer gold in all the galaxy than Romulan gold. It has the highest level of natural purity before refinement."

Saavik turned the coin over in her fingers, her curiosity growing. She thought over Spock's words again. "And how does this connect with me?"

Achernar gave the most soulful sigh she'd ever heard. "It is you."

Her head jerked up and she stared at his dark form. "I beg your pardon?"

"I gave Spock that coin the day I left the Enterprise years ago. He was to give it to you." His voice descended into almost shyness, and she had to concentrate to hear him breathe, "To remind you of your worth."

She was speechless. The gold in her hands suddenly felt hot.

And then he touched her, his hand gently enfolding hers and drawing her to him with all the radiant promising heat of a lover.

Her heart pounded loud in her side like a wild thing trapped, and she flushed a brilliant emerald passion. Her breath came fast and hard, and her blood sang. His skin was smooth and heating, and his hands slid over her, inviting and demanding at once, drawing her body against his.

I need to leave.

The fingers of one hand wrapped themselves in his silver hair, marveling at the sheer pleasure of the sensation, the smell of his desire. For her.

She moved slowly into his embrace, feeling the shields of her mind waver like the very air of Vulcan against the consuming heat of its sun.

Spock...

A terrible pain tore along her soul and a shudder wracked her body. Achernar caught her face in his hands, bringing her eyes to his.

Now I will be alone.

But there was no bitterness in his eyes at all, only an infinite softness that both awed and shook her. "I understand. Do you wish to stop?"

SIX

It was near ship's dawn when Valeris jolted awake in a cold sweat. She caught a hand to her throat and shuddered, still feeling the searing metal blade of Saavik's knife from her nightmare. She closed her eyes tightly, focusing until the soothing control of Vulcan discipline steadied her.

And opened them to find Saavik leaning casually against the bulkhead.

Had Valeris been anything other than Vulcan, she would have screamed. As it was, her sharp hissing intake filled the guest quarter cabin almost as loudly.

Saavik spoke wryly. "Good morning to you."

Valeris recovered, her black eyes frigid. "Your sense of privacy needs improvement."

"At the current rate, so does my sense of humor. Are you prepared to accept your evaluation?"

Valeris straightened her shoulders, trying her best to appear dignified and superior while still in her night slip. She only succeeded in looking ridiculous. "I am not afraid of you."

Saavik's brow lifted. "You are as poor a liar as you are a Vulcan. Answer."

"Get it done," Valeris spit.

Saavik inclined her head, pushed off from the bulkhead and slid into a Starfleet formal stance with a grace that even Valeris had to admire. "Cadet Valeris, it is my finding that your adherence to the basic qualifications of the Starfleet command track is, by regulation standards, without cause for censure."

"You what?"

Saavik silenced her with an officer's look. "However, I am recommending additional courses and further supervised field testing before any posting considerations are submitted." She flipped a padd on Valeris' bed. "You will find a list of directed alterations and the pertinent assists to them recorded here. I suggest you peruse them in your free time." Her eyes were controlled. "Your mentor will be quite capable of providing the development direction required." She pivoted on her boot heel to leave.

Valeris was taken aback and she felt faintly dizzy. "Wait - you are... recommending me?"

Saavik's back snapped straight and she whipped back around. Valeris flinched hard at the terrible look in her eyes, feeling her nightmare shimmer again in the back of her mind.

"Do not ever make that mistake. I give you access to pursue your desire - only because I do not block it."

"But... why? We-"

"I believe that you may yet be salvageable. And I suggest you do not disabuse me of it."

Her chin rose defiantly. "Or what? I have placement with Admiral Cartwright, and he will override any-"

In near blinding speed, Saavik was across the room and towering over her. Valeris' pupils dilated and she pressed herself as far back into her pillow as she could physically get.

"If you ever give me cause to hunt you, you will find just how flimsy a protection Admiral Cartwright really is."

Valeris swallowed convulsively. "What are your terms?"

"Do him no harm."

"You have my word."

Saavik's brutal gaze probed her eyes, seeming to reach right into the soul, and the young Vulcan found that her heart was frozen. "On your blood, I accept. Remember, Valeris, I reminded you once. Choose to be the enemy and I will be ready."

Then she spun away and was gone.

Valeris covered her throat with her hands and forced herself not to shake until the computer duty call chimed hours later.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"I didn't find you last night," Amanda said softly.

Saavik said nothing, watching the stars pass outside the transport porthole.

Amanda tried again. "I thought you might want to talk."

Saavik spoke to the vastness of space outside as if the stars were her listeners. "I needed the time."

"Alone?"

"Do you ask me a specific question?"

"Would you answer me if I did?" Amanda bit the inside of her lip and looked away. "You were right, I shouldn't have pushed you to come."

Saavik pulled her eyes off the stars and said, calmly reproving, "That is an illogical recrimination. It was necessary that I come." She saw the anxiety in the strain around Amanda's eyes and mouth. If she couldn't correct anything else from the past few days, she could mend this. A faintly mischievous glint lit her dark gaze. "And I do believe that I am more than sufficiently stubborn to prevent my being pushed into anything."

From down the aisle, Sarek paused mid-stroke at his portable terminal. "That much is certain."

Saavik gave him a stern look. "Are you not supposed to be compiling your report?"

His eyebrows lifted innocently. "Are you volunteering to assist?"

Amanda couldn't help it, she laughed. "You two are impossible!"

Saavik and Sarek exchanged a mutually satisfied look. Amanda was better.

"I prefer the term incorrigible," corrected Saavik.

"Difficult would be more accurate," said Sarek archly.

"I am told it is a typical Romulan inheritance," returned Saavik.

"The devil it is," grinned Amanda, "it's all Vulcan!"

That got two sets of suddenly dignified eyebrows up. Saavik looked at Sarek. "She is your wife."

"Excuse me!" protested Amanda.

Saavik's eyes brightened.

"Imp," accused Amanda, her mouth twitching in delight. "You know what you need? The calming influence of someone in your life. Like a betrothed." She winked at Sarek. "We did have those who inquired on your availability during this trip."

Which showed how much Amanda was at ease with her to make such a joke. Saavik outright scowled. "That would violate the Federation's humane treatment of sentient species act."

But Sarek was agreeing with his wife. "Indeed, all of them reputable males who could be a grounding force."

"Ambassador!" protested Saavik.

"However, my wife," continued Sarek, "Saavik is already spoken for."

Both she and Amanda blinked.

"Pardon?" she exclaimed incredulously, a scowl pulling at her mouth. "Who?"

"Do not be concerned, I will attend to the preparations myself," Sarek said airily and began to turn back to his terminal. "It will, of course, require some time to arrange the bonding."

Saavik all but sputtered.

Sarek's eyebrow raised loftily. "Patience, my child, is a virtue."

"He's teasing," said Amanda, eyeing him dubiously.

"Vulcans do not tease," he intoned deeply, tapping in another command to his diplomatic files. "And if I may inquire, where is our Cadet Valeris? She has been unnaturally... quiet since we left."

Saavik glowered at his deliberate redirection. "I believe she is meditating on the intricacies of her place in the universe."

"Ah," nodded Sarek casually, "a wise endeavor for the young."

"It has," Saavik growled, "been known to enhance the quality of life significantly at any age."

"Indeed," Sarek agreed.

"You are serious about this bonding," she accused.

"It has been said that I am always serious."

"Do I even know this person?"

"To some degree."

"And you have absolutely no intention of enlightening me, do you, Sarek?"

"Enlightenment, like logic, must come of its own accord."

Amanda groaned. "Please let it be in my lifetime!"

"You will be continuing your stay at our home?" inquired Sarek, not taking his eyes off his terminal screen.

Saavik's eyes narrowed. "My captain has agreed to your request for diplomatic extension. However, I am not privy to the duration allowed."

"Length is irrelevant. You will accomplish what is essential."

"Do you think I have no say? I will choose my own bondmate! If I even decide to marry!"

"Oh, you will agree when the time comes."

Saavik silently beseeched Amanda with such a perfectly frustrated Do something! look that she laughed. "Don't look at me, Saavik! He's always been this way."

Saavik's eyebrow shot up incredulously. "And you still agreed to marrying him?"

"It seemed logical at the time," Amanda said cheerfully. "It's Vulcans, I tell you. Spock is the same way." Instantly she winced at her inadvertent reminder and looked worriedly to Sarek.

Saavik's face tightened and she looked away with such grave mourning that it nearly broke Amanda's heart. "Yes," she murmured softly, "I have noted the resemblance."

She hadn't said goodbye to Spock, his words of rejection at the banquet making it clear he didn't want to speak with her. And she carefully stayed clear of Amanda's and Sarek's good-byes with him so she didn't further spoil their relationship. He was their son. She wouldn't interfere with that.

Sarek rose and joined them below the viewports. "Children are often difficult." His eyes touched Amanda's and she latched on to his calm. "But they respond to truth." He laid a gentle hand on Saavik's shoulder, letting his warmth pervade the uniform. She looked up in surprise. "And time."

Saavik lowered her eyes to her tightened fist. Inside, hot against the flesh of her palm, was the gold coin. She lifted her eyes to the stars outside, once more taking strength and comfort from their presence.

"I will wait," she said quietly.

Sarek nodded once. "And you will not wait alone. It is, perhaps, the most important thing."

Amanda smiled.

Saavik turned to the viewport, watching the stars race them home, and she felt them settle into a companionable silence.