by Heather F

Alternate Universe - Star Trek

Standish crawled slowly through the conduit space. He smiled half heartily. They must have found the empty cell by now. Did they really expect him to stay? The captain had to be smarter than that... .

The Security Chief crawled a few more paces in the direction of the saloon... .sometimes the best hiding places were out in the open. Besides if his career was going to be over it would not matter if he had few good single malt beverages tossed down his queasy gullet.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stared at the three members left of his senior bridge crew. Ship's security was scouring the decks searching for their chief. Larabee, like the others that sat with him, figured it to be a fruitless effort. The captain had tried having someone re-calibrate the parameters of the computer's on board system to find their missing seventh but for some reason it was not working.

It dropped the search right back into the captain's lap. He in turn was going to shovel it off onto his trusted staff. If he had his druthers... if Perkins was not demanding immediate action, Larabee would be content to let the Security Chief alone. It was not going to happen and Chris snarled at having his hand forced on his ship. He delegated the responsibility. They would search but try and narrow down the options. Larabee rubbed at his eyes and silently wished Buck was here to do the honors.

Someone down the table cleared their throat. The natives were getting restless.

It was time to start.

Normally they would have checked with the escapees closest relatives. Maude Standish was currently a few sectors away. Their next option was to list the people closest to the missing officer.

It was here that Chris paused. He waited for the others to name close acquaintances to the missing man. Vin, Josiah and Nathan shared searching looks and gazed back at the captain... no names readily came to mind.

'Who did he associate with after his shift?' again silence. Vin quietly pointed out on 'Friday nights' they all played poker together... .but other than that... The Vulcan shrugged... a decidedly human gesture.

"Well, Chris it isn't any secret you don't trust him," Josiah finally spoke up.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Larabee shot back angrily. The Captain in the next instance realized that it did indeed play a role in this dark game of hide and seek. Chris was quite certain that if he were in Standish's position it would be Vin or Buck or one of the others he would eventually seek help. He had somewhere to turn if he so chose.

"You really can't expect to advance on a galaxy class starship if you're friendly with the one person the captain's threatens to shoot on occasion," Jackson spoke quietly fiddling with the edge of the table. They others had kept him blind to their actions all through this and his gut burned with hurt. Jackson would have liked to think that Standish would turn to him if injured or hunted but now facing the truth of the situation he knew it not to be the case. The gambler and Doctor had too much opposition between them. Their faith in one another's ability was as strong as the silken strands of a spider web but unfortunately seemingly to easy to wipe a way with the swipe of a careless hand.

The Captain stared at his Navigator seeking confirmation... .Vin merely stared back... .'Mistrust by association', 'guilty by association'... it was all the same and all lead to the same place. Tanner understood it first hand. His time at the Academy was not something he thought back on with any comfort.

Chris was becoming livid, "You can't be serious?" His judgments were not the judgments for everyone else. The Maverick crew was free to make their own decisions. They were not bound to follow his every move... .unless ordered, of course.

"Well you did threaten to shoot him in front of the whole saloon," Josiah stated quietly. He had not been there but had heard the scuttlebutt. There was an old saying that one could judge the size of the ship by how fast the rumors flew from bow to stern. In that particular instance... the Maverick was no bigger than a dingy.

Larabee nailed Sanchez with a glare as if blaming the older man for the incident, "That was over a three weeks ago... ." The captain's quiet voice had rung out across the room efficiently putting an end to that line of the discussion. "Alright then... where would he go?" Why would Standish not seek out one of the senior bridge crew members? They were 'associates' as Ezra had labled them... why not go to Josiah or Vin or Nathan or even himself. Larabee paused realizing Standish would never voluntarily seek the Captain's help in such matters. The thought dropped heavily settling in the pit of his stomach. The numerous verbal barrages from Jackson effeciently closed that door... Why not Josiah or Vin or even Buck or JD? Chris found the answer exceedingly easy... Larabee held the loyalty of his crew... especially his senior officers... save one... and that twinge of mistrust was reciprocated. Chris's reverie was broken when Jackson and Sanchez spoke.

"The saloon," Nathan and Josiah answered simultaneously.

The captain had turned and faced the Vulcan. Tanner had held his tongue.

Vin sat quietly staring past Nathan's shoulder out at the stars. A few weeks back the Vulcan had found The Security Chief in the observation lounge late one day with the lights out. The man had been in a pensive, sullen mood. The ever present deck of cards had been still in his hands. Tanner remembered being slightly irritated at first... someone had found his place of solitude. He entered the room anyhow. Vin had been surprised when Standish had started to speak, "Have you ever noticed the stars Mr. Tanner?" There had been a small pause, "I mean really notice them... .seemingly packed in tight but each is actually millions of miles apart... isolated... "

Vin had stood behind the gambler a few feet back and was about to respond when his combadge had toned. It had been Chris... the holodeck program was ready... .

Tanner had always regretted when he had turned away from the pensive man obscured within the shadows.

Something had been eating at Standish... or maybe he had been simply trying to share something... or maybe reaching out. Tanner sighed. It didn't matter. He had shooed away a skitterish, wild horse... .and now was expected to go find him.

"Any ideas Vin," Chris asked.

"No," Tanner whispered out shaking his head.

With that Chris dismissed his men, sending Josiah and Vin to The Saloon and Nathan back to med Lab. Buck and JD were becoming restless.

Larabee sat quietly in the ready room alone. He had his reservations about Standish... it was common knowledge amongst the senior bridge crew... but surly not any others. The captain sat back in his chair and sighed. Damn..Damn..Damn... He had Admiral Travis rendezvousing with the ship at Perkins' request.

Chris could only assume it was a request. He could not imagine anyone telling Admiral Travis where to be and when to be there... .

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat at the bar nursing a 'beer'. He could not imagine after all these centuries that the same recipes or ingredients were still used. The stuff was bitter and left an after taste but it grew on you.

The Vulcan stared at the big man beside him. Sanchez had ordered the drinks for them. The large man sat quietly sipping at his beer not at all interested in his surroundings.

The Saloon was relatively quiet this time of 'day'. The majority of the ship's complement would be at their designated areas of expertise.

Inez worked quietly behind the bar keeping herself busy while maintaining a close eye on the two mismatched crew members that sat at the far length of her counter.

"So Senors do you want to tell me why you are sitting at my bar this time of day?" Her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

"Lookin' fer Ezra, ma'am," Josiah rumbled out.

The barmaid nodded her head. Her practiced eye scanned the near empty room and settled back down on the young Vulcan, "I could be wrong but I do not see him here." She paused a frown furrowed her brow, "Is the senor in trouble with the captain again?"

"A mite bit... " Josiah responded, speaking in only half truths. Chris was mad at the situation not the person. Convincing the others, but more importantly Larabee and Standish, was another thing.

"I see... ... and you think Senor Standish would come slinking in here... .knowing this would be the first place you would look?" she pointed out. Truth be told she had heard of the brewing storm and was surprised the security chief had not come seeking shelter in his home away from home.

"He's here Inez... .jist got ta wait'im out a bit." The matter fact tone of Tanner's voice even had Sanchez raising his eyes in question.

Standish lay curled just a few inches from the conduit opening listening to the commotion in the Saloon. He shut his eyes and dropped his head to his inner elbow. Vertigo wrestled ruthlessly with his inner ears. His eyes burned and focusing was becoming exceedingly difficult. His hearing seemingly only picked up Vin's voice and his own roaring pulse. Could nothing work in his favor?

The Saloon doors wooshed open. Admiral Travis, ret.Admiral Perkins, Captain Larabee and an entourage of armed Poplars entered the small room. Before the doors could slide closed a limping Buck Wilmington stormed through the doors looking for a drink... searching for a friend... and hoping to find a fight... .

Buck was in luck... two out of three is not bad.

Three soft exclamations were uttered from different points in the room. A sneeze exploded somewhere behind the loosened conduit cover... vertigo won the match... . there was a tremendous crash of a body falling and then shattering glass... the room erupted into a chaos of frantic movement.

The brawl that ensued would be one that Admiral Orrin Travis would always recall with a devilish gleam, Chris would forever have an embarrassed flush to his cheeks when forced to remember this little fiasco... and Vin would never fully recall the events that lead up the capture of Standish.

It started with Perkins yelling, "There he is... ." while pointing to the accelerating body abruptly falling from a hole in the wall. The three Poplars that were acting as armed escort to their leader jumped to their feet to apprehend the figure that now had disappeared behind the bar with an ear-shattering crash.

Josiah cringed in sympathy.

Buck, as was his natural tendency, jumped to the defense of a friend... though he himself was barely on his feet. The Vulcan, he knew, was close on his heels.

The first punch thrown... knocked the First Officer back a step with ears ringing and vision doubled.

Tanner, unable to let any friend get struck without some kind of retaliation, crossed the distance to the three errant Poplars and took them all on at once.

The counselor hung back... .a type of protective sweeper to keep any aggressive foe who happened to get passed the first line of defense, from reaching the bar. Occasionally a Poplar could be seen flying through the air and into the observation windows of the saloon. The Poplar's were tough and doggedly climbed to their feet and again would engage the typhoon known simply as Vin. Wilmington, never one to be easily discounted joined his young navigator. Together First officer and Navigator soundly defeated three specially trained armed escorts.

Chris wanted to join the fray or even call security. Travis stopped him with a simple shake of his head. "It's good to see your senior crew acting as a team." The admiral chuckled as yet another Poplar rebounded off the shimmering 'glass'. He nodded his head in encouragement as Wilmington parried a quick jab to Vin's unprotected side and followed with a combination of his own. "Never would have thought that damn gambler would be catalyst for anything good," The admiral shook his head, "how'd you manage it Chris? How'd you know?" Travis asked with a touch of admiration. Larabee merely shrugged, wondering what the hell the Admiral was talking about.

Standish tried to climb to his feet. He desperately attempted to untangle himself from the mess that entwined him. Somehow he could not coordinate the movement nor gain the strength to push himself to all fours.

Inez stood behind the bar resting her foot between the gambler's shoulder blades, keeping him out of sight and somewhat captive. She wiped the glass in her hand and watched the fight with mild interest.

A few minutes had passed... furniture suffered some minor and major damages... .Poplars had suffered some major and minor damages... .and the three officers swaying to maintain their feet had also retained some noteworthy structural damages.

"You should probably call your medical team up here," Travis advised sagely. The last Poplar toppled to the ground.

Tanner, Wilmington and Sanchez congratulated one another with slaps to the back and smiles. Then Wilmington buckled followed closely by Tanner, leaving Sanchez the only one standing amongst the bodies.

+ + + + + + +

Admiral Travis left the ship with Ret. Admiral Perkins... once again congratulating Perkins for his part in creating a cohesive working team out of the Maverick senior crew.

Though at first the older Admiral tried to balk against the assumed misguided praise... Travis would not hear of it. Credit should be given and duly noted to those who deserved it. Perkins had single-handily achieved what the admiralty was so worried about... ..the Maverick was manned by independent, undisciplined, loners. Yet through tireless, self sacrifice he alone had proven to Star Fleet that the Maverick was indeed crewed by a well disciplined working team.

With an enthusiastic hand shake and again profuse thanks, Perkins was sent back to his ship with his limping battered escort.

+ + + + + + +

Travis followed shortly after whispering a soft warning to a mute Larabee, "Try to control your crew better."

Captain Larabee nodded grimly and saw the admiral off ship. Finding himself once again alone in the transporter room, Captain Chris Larabee none to quietly hissed out, "I'll kill every last one of those son's of bitch's myself with my bare hands... .." he stalked out of the room leaving a shaking Transport Chief O'Toole in his wake.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah sat behind the Security Chief as Nathan and a nurse outfitted him for another 'dunking' as Buck labeled it. It was no secret that Ezra hated the 'primordial ooze' that seemed to work miracles on damaged tissue and bodies. Despite its beneficial healing capabilities the Bacta Tank was dreaded by most and feared by some.

The tense twitching of muscles betrayed Standish as he sat at the edge of the tank stripped down to only baggy shorts in which a harness had been attached. Though a cool uncaring facade masked his features, the muscles of the shoulders and back were taut with anxiety. The damaged tissue of the extremities needed attention. Buck and JD had succumbed to similar treatment. JD, as was his nature, practically slid into the jelly like substance without much ado. Wilmington showed some apprehension but with an encouraging smile and lucrative promise from the head nurse the First Officer swallowed his fear and slid into the tank.

Standish was another kettle of trouble. The man had proven before that pride could be muffled especially when he had to parade through DS9 in nothing but a table cloth due to a unfortunate turn of events at the gaming tables.

For this reason Josiah sat quietly behind the tense man waiting to offer gentle encouragement when Standish balked. Nathan and the Counselor both knew it was not a matter of IF but When... .The Security Chief would not go quietly into anything he did not deem necessary.

"Alright Commander I just need to fit this... " The nurse held up a breathing regulator. Standish eyed it suspiciously but in a show of cooperation opened his mouth. The Nurse smiled sweetly as she adjusted the lines and flow of oxygen... "Is that comfortable,Sir?"

Standish merely nodded... .Nathan and Josiah recognized the falsehood of the action but accepted it anyhow..anything to get this ordeal over quicker.

"Good," She smiled pleasantly and tried to remove the regulator, "Ahh Commander could you please relax your jaw... I need to make a few more adjustments." She tugged experimentally at the mouth piece but it remained firmly clamped between closed teeth.

"Ezra just let go of it will ya?" Jackson asked with exasperation. He checked and manipulated the Bacta... making sure he had the right concentration for the volume of liquid, the right temperature for patient and Bacta alike and more importantly double checked the time needed in the submersion.

Sanchez bit back a chuckle as the stiff neck bent hesitantly in acquiescence.

Nurse Pearlman felt the grip loosen and wedged the regulator through slightly relaxed jaws. She smiled sweetly... cursing security types.

"Doctor?" She spoke softly but a question laced her word. Jackson gazed up and peered behind Standish's back.

"Figures," Nathan muttered when he spied that the mouth piece had been bitten in half. Sanchez smiled and shrugged. It really came as no surprise.

"Ezra I'm going to give ya something to help ya relax a little ok?"

Before Standish could utter a refusal a hypospray was pressed against his neck. With the tell tale hiss of released gas the drug entered the blood stream. Almost immediately Ezra folded bonelessly to the side and into Nathan.

Josiah grabbed the younger man and gently eased him down on the platform all the while laughing softly.

"Easy Brother," Sanchez smiled down at Ezra's owl like expression. Josiah lifted Standish's head and shoulders when needed as Jackson and Pearlman went about their business. A new regulator was fitted and secured. Sanchez held Ezra's head still while Jackson peeled eye lids apart and placed protective corneal lenses in each eye. Standish attempted to raise a rebellious hand but Josiah stretched out a leg and neatly covered the arm pinning it loosely to the platform.

With sluggish assistance from Standish and gentle manipulation from Sanchez, Ezra was immersed in the vertical Bacta tank.

Vin watched quietly from his diagnostic bed and sympathized with the listlessly moving man suspended within the red ooze. Tanner despised The Tank.

Jackson with a few final adjustments joined Sanchez and Pearlman on the ground in front of the tank.

"Never would have known just by looking at him how much he didn't want to go in there," The nurse mused a smile playing across her face. The figure in the tank was merely an outline of darker shadows. Standish hung suspended upright by the harness. His arms draped to his sides, his chin hung to his chest and only a few lazy movements were illicited by his legs.

Jackson simply nodded. Standish sometimes hid too much for his own good... .no different than the quiet Vulcan behind him.

"'Ey Nathan... Ez is gonna be pissed ya drugged'im," Vin chuckled from his spot on the bed.

"If yer not careful Vin you're next... " the Chief Medical Officer responded, peering over his shoulder with a promising smile.

The Vulcan slid deeper into his bed.

+ + + + + + +

Buck dealt another round of cards. The black eye and swollen lips had responded to simple medical intervention. His ribs though fused properly still pulled and twinged if he moved to quickly.

JD carefully picked up his cards favoring his finger tips. They still tingled even after the numerous regenerating attempts. They looked a lot better than they had two days ago. The black was gone... the foul odor vanished, and unfortunately sensation was stinging it way back to the tissue.

Larabee discarded two, barely glancing at the lack of face cards in his hands but instead keeping his eyes on the men around him. Nathan for the first time in days seemed content. Well at least he did not give the impression that he would soon be removing body parts from senior officers. Chris bit the inner lining of his cheek to keep from laughing. Nathan was not a man to get riled. The easy-going Doctor could get quite volatile at times. The Captain hoped Vin recognized it. Ezra had... Larabee shook his head with resignation, one of these days he was going to have to ask Jackson to quit drugging his Security Chief and let him come back to work... as irritating as Standish was... he did have a duty to the ship after all.

Josiah held his cards refusing to discard any. Figures.

Larabee sighed... the counselor always tried to make do with the cards he received the first time around. Chris had to conceded no matter how many cards Josiah did drop he never seemed to pick the right ones. The counselor had once told Chris that he played cards because of the lesson in humility.

The captain matched the bets being made. JD refused to fold. Bucks grinned as if he held four aces... Nathan studied his cards trying to transform them into to something other than the dud hand he held. From the look on Josiah's face he just received yet another lesson.

The hands were called. JD's two Jacks lost to Nathan's three Two's, Chris's Queens and tens beat Nathan's but Buck's four Ace's swept away the pot in the middle.

With a grinning smile the mustached man raked in the meager winnings... gloating even more than the Security Chief when he won... .If that was possible.

Larabee pushed back from the table scraping together his small winnings.

"You callin' it a night Chris?" Josiah asked. The big man sipped from mug of ambrosia keeping his eyes on the captain.

"Yeah," Larabee breathed out. He had a stop to make on the way back to his quarters.

"You stopping by Med Lab?" Nathan asked. The captain had not been in to visit either officer since this whole ordeal began. Jackson could not be sure of the reason. At first he figured with all the activity going on the captain just did not have time. It had been twenty four standard hours since Perkins and Travis had come to an understanding and left the ship and still the captain seemed to avoid his two injured officers.

"Yeah," was the somewhat hesitant answer. Chris did not understand where the consternation came from. He was proud of Vin, even Ezra. They had put everything on the line to protect their fellow crew mates and friends. Chris had expected such actions from Vin... but not Standish. Chris could not pinpoint his reluctance to visit his men.

Larabee knew Tanner was ok. He could just feel it, sense it in a strange sort of way. Standish was just to obstinate to give in to anything so unexceptional as a fever and deadly hypothermia.

The others watched their captain exit the 'Saloon'. His step did not have its normal precision or purposeful gait. Though he did not scuff his feet they landed with a heaviness that matched his heart.

"What's wrong with the Captain?" JD asked once the saloon doors slid closed.

"He's got a lot on his mind JD," Jackson had a pretty good idea, those same feelings had marred him since Standish was taken to the brig.

"He did all he could... " JD peered up at the faces of the older men, "I mean he's the captain it's not like he can jist disobey orders cuz he don't like'em... ." Dunne stammered out. Ezra sure, The ensign could imagine the slippery Security Chief being told one thing and doing the exact opposite. Even Vin... the darn Vulcan gave the impression of being quiet and compliant but the unassuming navigator had an ornery side that could rival the meanest Romulan.

"Sometimes JD... it's a fine line between following orders and doin' what's right," Josiah explained softly.

Buck paused in shuffling the cards. He stared over at the counselor wondering if what he implied was true. Did Chris really blame himself for the mess Buck and JD and subsequently Ezra and Vin had gotten themselves into. If that was true then Larabee was beating a dead horse so to speak.

"Ez found us, got us out... what's the big deal?" JD pushed. He was astute enough to know answers were being avoided but young enough not realize when to let go.

Buck followed the conversation quietly. He hoped Vin could save Chris from himself.

"Chris shoulders the safety of all his crew... Perkins put him in a tight spot... ." Sanchez let his voice taper out. This was something JD would have to figure out on his own. He hoped that the young ensign never truly discovered for himself what Larabee was going through now. Follow orders and sacrifice friends... .or play the maverick and risk possibly ship... rank and even lives. Josiah silently wondered if Chris realized just how lucky he was to have an obstinate bridge crew and a Wild Card for a security officer.

+ + + + + + +

The captain strode through med lab nodding hello's to the 'night' shift personal. A young doctor met him just before he reached the area designated for patient recovery.

"Captain... " It was Murphy... If Chris remembered correctly. Graduated from the academy four years ago. Came aboard the Maverick at Jackson's request. "You're here to see Lt. Tanner?"

Chris merely nodded his head. He realized he had been remiss in his duties to his crew... again.

"You're more than welcome to go on in... Lt. Tanner is recovering nicely..Dr. Jackson will mostly likely release him tomorrow... ." Murphy paused not sure if the Captain was even listening to him. Captain Larabee had a reputation of being a tough SOB. The man was quiet... difficult to read. The young Doctor was hoping to make it through his tour without ever having to run into the hot-tempered captain.

"Commander Standish?" Chris asked quietly. The captain noticed the slightly surprised expression on the young doctor's face. Apparently the crew had their own misgivings about the Security Chief... or maybe... .they were reading his own reaction to the gambler and responding accordingly.

"Umm... Well Dr. Jackson sedated him again," Murphy answered. If the security chief would just lay still for half a day it would not be so bad. If Nathan were paying attention he should have noticed that it was the Vulcan that was egging the gambler to distraction.

Chris merely raised his eye brows in askance.

"Dr. Jackson found him re-calibrating the restraining field on his bed... and... .well then he told Nathan that he could rest just as well in his own quarters... "

Chris sighed and shook his head. A smile blossomed at the corners of his mouth. Man just refuses to learn when not to push.

"Thanks Dave," Larabee responded and disappeared into the darkened room.

Dr. Dave Murphy stared in awe at the back of the captain. 'He knew my name..'

+ + + + + + +

The room was dark except for the diagnostic readouts that blipped silently above the beds. Standish's all settled low normal, evidence of his drug induced sleep.

Vin's jumped and peaked haphazardly with every beat and every breath.

"'Ey cowboy," The Vulcan's voice called out when Chris stood beside him.

"Hey yourself," Chris stared at the sleeping face of his security chief. A nuisance of a man.

"Ain't yer fault," Tanner broke the ice, cutting through the fat.

"Shouldn't 'ave left Ezra to shoulder the responsibility... shouldn't 'ave left it to you to protect his back... " Larabee was beginning to think this was bad idea.

"It's about time Ezra figured out he could put himself on the line and git some back up... .Damn man thinks Trust is only found in Fairy Tales, " Tanner responded. "As for me... I ain't in the brig... so I figured you watched my back jist fine... "

"Yeah well you're still in here... " Larabee countered.

"Ain't yer fault some idiot took to taking swings at Buck... and well sometimes I can git a bit upset... .don't expect you to protect me from myself... and don't expect you to hold my hand when somethin' like this happens.." Tanner quiet voice carried like a stray bolt of electricity across the small space.

It hit its target.

"You wantta take blame for something... then go do somethin' wrong... but if ya feel ya need to be shoulderin' responsibility for someone else's action... don't come lookin' for me... I can handle my own fool self jist fine," Vin's words held a touch of anger.

"Speak fer yerself Mr. Tanner... ." a tired heavily accented voice slurred out quietly, "I'd be more than willing to share Dr. Jackson's ill temper with someone else... "

"Shut up Ez and go back to sleep before he hears ya," Tanner laughed.

Chris and Vin waited a few moments. The breathing on the other bed leveled out into a shallow rhythm of sleep.

"He really rewired the restraint field?"

"I ain't sure if he rewired it or not but for some reason it won't work on him... Nathan and Engineering can't figure it out... so Nathan drugged him again," Tanner answered. Vin figured he'd ask JD to check into it.

Both men stared at the blanketed lump of the Security Chief, "He's really gotta quit pissing Nathan off."

"I'd say," Chris agreed, "Git some rest Vin... I'll see you tomorrow."

"'Ey Chris... maybe you can see yer way into talking Nathan into releasing me tomorrow... I'd ask but... " Tanner looked meaningfully at Standish.

"Yeah I'll see what I can do," Chris laughed and headed for the door. Maybe stopping by was not a mistake after all.

Two Weeks later... .

Tanner slid quietly into the observation lounge. The ship was all but asleep. A skeleton crew kept her running on course while the rest of the crew slumbered peacefully.

The Vulcan easily made out the form sitting cast in the soft shadows by the windows.

The cards sat quietly in the left hand...

"'Ey Ez... " Vin spoke called out softly. The room was smothered with silence. The quiet words were almost intrusive.

"Mr. Tanner," a polite response, Vin noticed but still the shadow did not turn to face him. It had been over two weeks since Buck and JD had been pulled from the planet... almost two weeks and still nothing had changed... or been bridged. The Friday night poker games still continued. JD and Buck constantly harassed Ezra into giving away a 'trade secret' and tell how he escaped from the brig. A cocky smile was always the response.

"Been lookin' fer ya pard'." The Vulcan leaned against a piece of furniture that was adjacent to the security man but far enough away so not to crowd him... ..maintaining that elusive distance just outside of the fight or flight range.

"Is there a problem?" The voice almost sounded weary. The cards started moving effortlessly from hand to hand... the eyes never leaving the stars outside the window.

"No... ."

"Is there something I can help you with?... " The stare never deviated from the window.

"Jist thought... ..stars are a mite pretty ain't they... ..kind of makes ya feel... .."

"They're just stars Mr. Tanner," Standish stood and faced the Vulcan, "nothing more, nothing less," The soft southern tone held a hint of bitterness... .maybe more loneliness fighting to keep its grip.

With mute resignation the Vulcan watched the gambler leave the darkened room. Tanner understood the motivations of seeking comfort in solitude, no one nearby to offer help or worse yet, refuse it. Being alone was sometimes better than being abandoned.

The doors hissed closed. Tanner stood staring out at the vast emptiness of space and wondered how it compared to the hollow feeling that must rage within the gambler.

How do you reach someone who does not want to be reached?

The end

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