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McCoy almost rolled his eyes at the air of palpable excitement in the Mess hall. Valentine’s Day had never been one of his favorite holidays, but it was admittedly a definite source of amusement.

 He tried to keep his attention on his plate of bacon and eggs, but that was a bit difficult to do when every second brought a shriek of glee or a bout of giggles from the other occupants of the room.

Suddenly, a different sort of shriek, followed by a shouted

“CATCH IT!”

McCoy leapt to his feet, along with half the room, in time to watch the resident mad botanist helmsman in hot pursuit of a …What the hell was that thing? One of the security officers pulled out a phaser only to be shoved aside by Sulu

 “No! It’s harmless! Just scared!”

 The…thing…most definitely didn’t look harmless, with what looked like a million scarlet and green tentacles waving around in perfect chaos, and the doctor instinctively leaped for the safety of the table when it darted his way.

“What the-“

 “Watch out!”

 Kirk had entered the room just in time for the thing to dart between his legs and the pursuing lieutenant to crash right into him. Chekov, who had been right on Sulu’s heels, threw himself on top of the fleeing thing, pinning it to the ground while the lieutenant and the captain managed to untangle themselves.

 “Sorry sir!” Sulu panted, too out of breath to format a clear apology. “It..sort of..uh, got away when I.. opened the packet..”

Kirk kept a wary eye on the substance in question as he brushed himself off. The Vulcan first officer, who had been right behind the Captain, was now beside the struggling ensign, examining it.

“ A specimen of Argellian Avecanius. Extremely rare.”

Sulu joined Chekov, and together the pair managed to wrestle the struggling plant into a pot filled with bright orange soil, which instantly calmed it.

“Valentine’s gift?” Kirk asked, not bothering to keep a grin off his face.

 “Um, yes, sir” Sulu and Chekov murmured, in unison.

 “That’s supposed to be a plant?”

McCoy, who had finally judged it safe to get off the table, headed over to take a cautious look.

“Every one who has received ambulatory gifts – make sure you keep a grip on them!”

 Janice Rand responded instantly by grabbing hold of Riley. The ensuing shout of laughter took a long moment to die down. Kirk was still grinning as they headed to their regular table.

“Scotty says he’ll have the holodecks ready for business by evening”

McCoy had to admit he was far from enthusiastic about this whole ‘holodeck’ business. Holograms and sims were all well and good, but it definitely was never going to be a substitute for some good old fashioned shore leave and fresh air. Not to mention the holodeck technology owed a lot to the data they had gathered from the shore leave planet…one mission he didn’t exactly enjoy recollecting. Dying, even if you don’t remember the details, tend to be an overall unpleasant business.

 “You and Uhura got all the programs ready, right?”

 “Of course, Captain” A slight hint of distaste entered Spock’s tone as he added “Although I fail to see the value of certain…entertainment programs the lieutenant considered essential.”

 Jim chuckled. That was the exact reason he had insisted Uhura be the one who collaborated with Spock in designing the holodeck programs. They could have found better programmers aboard, but not a single one who would have been so capable of outright thwarting Vulcan decorum. He had nothing against…entertainment programs, thank you very much.

“Speaking of the holodeck, I’ve been thinking we should check it out before we open it to the crew. how about tonight? You’ve got that program with the Vulcan landmarks installed, right? The deserts and caves and everything ?”

“Yes, but the Valentine’s Day party-“

 “You aren’t going, are you?”

”Of course not, but I assumed you would want to attend.”

“Oh, I’ll just drop in for a half hour or so in the beginning, then slip off. Valentine’s Day parties aren’t any fun without a date. We can check out the holodeck while the party is on.”

 “I would be pleased to accompany you.”

McCoy spent a couple of minutes wondering whether the hobgoblin was genuinely clueless that Jim just asked him on a  Valentine’s date or whether he was maintaining plausible deniability. Who knows.  Even Jim can’t always figure out what goes on between those pointy ears.

Kirk’s expression changed to one of delighted anticipation when he saw the heaps of packages on their usual table.

 “Is that-“

 “Your Valentine cards. And gifts” Uhura, who was passing by, commented with a grin. “Would’ve taken too much manpower to haul all the anonymous gifts to the appropriate cabins, so we just left them all in the Rec room – when someone comes in, all their packages are placed on their table.”

 Spock looked slightly disapproving, but said nothing. Jim had already dived for the packages, with a kid-on-Christmas-morning grin on his face.

“Hey, Arcturan Lilies! My favorite! And sunflowers! And…wait, this one isn’t mine..”

“Only half of it is yours, sir” Uhura called from where she was seated with Scotty. “Actually, slightly less than half.”

Fortunately, Vulcans have sufficient control over involuntary body processes to prevent blushing. Jim’s eyes gleamed with impish delight, though he had deflated slightly at the realization that he had come second best to the Vulcan in the matter of Valentines, of all things.

 “And they say playing hard to get only works for girls” McCoy sighed.

 “There’re a couple of packets for you too, Doc” Uhura added.

 “A couple packets.”

 McCoy gave the two huge heaps of packages a half disgusted look. Jim had already unwrapped a dozen of his gifts, including a card that exploded in a shower of pink confetti, much to the young captain’s delight and his companions’ annoyance.

“Come on, Spock, aren’t you going to open your gifts?” 

Spock’s face was as expressionless as ever, but his eyes practically screamed ‘In the name of all that’s logical, why did I sign up on a human infested..er, human populated ship!’

“I see no reason to, since I do not participate in the celebration, and certainly do not reciprocate the interest of anyone who has gifted these items.”

 “Oh come on, Spock, you’ve already got them. would be illogical to waste stuff, right?”

“I can simply donate them to the ship’s stores.”

 “You’ll first have to see what’s what. Come on, open a few! Or shall I open some?”

Spock sighed. It was difficult to deny anything to James Kirk even under normal circumstances, but when he was this hyperactive, it was downright impossible.

 “As you wish, Captain.”

Jim, who had been about to tear open one of the nearest packages (this one wrapped in a highly unnatural shade of pink), paused. Captain ?

“Um, it isn’t an order, okay? If you don’t want to, it’s fine…”

 “I have no objection, Jim. As you said, I will have to see what the contents are before donating them.”

Pausing for a moment to make sure that he wasn’t embarrassing the Vulcan (well, not too much, at any rate), Jim again plunged into the heap of packages. The cards he left alone (though he was pretty sure he recognized the handwriting on a few, at least, and there was  a tempting one with an ode to ‘deep, nightdark eyes with starfire in them ’…)

“Minaran roses! And this is..uh, a statue of…”

“Haleen Ni’Var, the goddess of love in pre-Surakian mythology.”

“Looks hot.. Ouch! Feels hot, too!”

 “Such statuettes are traditionally carved from the flamestones, Captain. It will always retain the heat of the lava from which it originated. An interesting geological phenomenon-“

 “Chocolates!”

 Jim couldn’t restrain a rather unprofessional crow of laughter. The packet, unlike the other ones, wasn’t even wrapped.

“Who exactly thought it’d be a good idea to give chocolates as a gift to a Vulcan?”

 “Probably whoever thought it’d be a good idea to give a Vulcan Valentine gifts, in the first place” the CMO commented.

“Wow, these are Andorian made! Hey, Spock, if you’re anyway going to give these away, I’m taking this.”

“Nah, you aren’t” McCoy snatched the packet out of Jim’s hands. “You’re still on a diet, Captain.”

“Bones!”

 “No means no, Jim. And no, puppy dog eyes aren’t gonna change that, no use looking at me.”

Whatever protest the Captain may have voiced was cut short by the arrival of one of their VIP passengers.

 “Good morning, Dr Cartwright”

Kirk was instantly back in the perfect, polite Captain mode. Dr Cartwright, husband of Ambassador  Marjorie Cartwright who was being transported with her team to the trouble riddled Dominisin sector, was generally a cheerful, happy-go-lucky man. Right now, however, he looked more than a little frantic.

“Captain, can you suggest some way to get a Valentine’s gift?” his tone was almost comically urgent.

“Excuse me?”

 The plump man dropped into the nearest chair with a groan.

“I had this special gift ready for Marjorie, one of those Catalian glass sculptures, all gift wrapped, ready to give her right when she woke up today. I had it hidden at the bottom of my luggage, all wrapped up. I got it out soon as I woke up, and…”

 “Dropped it?” McCoy completed.

“Yes!”

The unfortunate husband’s expression was so pathetic that Kirk was hard put to keep from laughing

. “She’s not up yet, and I’ve got to get her something! And the ship stores don’t have anything! Says it’ll take too long to get the replicators at work for something!”

“Um, the supplies department is rather strained at the moment.” Kirk admitted, indicating the room. “As you can see, there was a high demand for gifts.”

“I’m dead” Cartwright moaned. “This is our anniversary!”  

“Tell you what, take something from this lot” McCoy suggested.

He remembered enough forgotten anniversaries with Jocelyn. Can’t ask the poor guy to go through that. Cartwright looked tempted, but still hesitant.

“Oh, I can’t…”

“You are welcome to, doctor” Spock added. “ I have no use for any of these items.”

 “Take your pick” Kirk encouraged, still trying not to laugh at the poor guy. “It’s too late to get anything good from the stores.”

Cartwright finally grabbed a couple of packages,( including the Andorian chocolates, somewhat to Jim’s disappointment), thanked them profusely again, and darted off to be ready with the presents by the time the ambassador woke up. Kirk managed to hold in his laughter till the clumsy husband was out of earshot.

 Ambassador Marjorie Cartwright was a pleasant dark haired woman who had served as the Federation representative in scores of troubled areas – and never before failed to bring the situation to a successful conclusion. It was assumed that her mission to the Dominisin sector would be crowned with equal success.

The only problem was that the lady was an almost obsessive stickler for protocol…and for ceremonies. McCoy (the only one of the trio who had actually had a normal romance and married life) could well imagine her reaction to finding that her husband was careless enough with an anniversary present as to actually break it.

………………………………..

The party was in full swing. McCoy, despite himself, was beginning to actually enjoy the food, if not the company.  Kirk had already vanished for his ‘date’, and Spock, of course, hadn’t put in an appearance to begin with. The doctor glanced around for familiar faces.

Sulu…Oh. In a liplock with Chekov.

 Uhura…Practically draped around Scotty, who’s  blushing as scarlet as his kilt. Their on-again-off-again romance (which had led to several clandestine bets placed on whether it will end in marriage or murder), was on again, at least for the moment

 Chapel won’t turn up…

M’Benga dancing with Helen Noel…

May be he should look around for Yeoman Barrows. He was pretty sure she was the one who had sent him that bouquet…

“Doctor!”

He knew that tone. In an instant, McCoy was perfectly alert, and very glad that he hadn’t gotten round to the drinks yet. Ambassador Cartwright. She was in a state of collapse, moaning in evident pain. He didn’t need the medical tricorder to tell that this wasn’t just an attack of indigestion.

“Get her to sickbay, pronto.”

……………………………

 It was useless.

By the time Kirk and Spock arrived at a run from their  aborted holodeck date, the ambassador was dead. And her husband  in the intensive care.

“Bones-“

 “Poison” McCoy said curtly. “Those damn chocolates. They were filled with hiorondin. She ate half a dozen, never had a chance. He ate only three. We can probably pull him through. Probably.”

 Kirk’s eyes narrowed. Poison.

 “I suppose there’s no chance it could have gotten into the chocolates…accidentally?”

“Not a chance in the world. This was murder, Jim. Murder which got the wrong target, but murder, all the same.”

Kirk glanced at Spock.

“ Bones. Is hiorondin fatal to Vulcans?”

“Even worse than for humans. It’s a neurotoxin. Only one of those chocolates would’ve been enough to kill a healthy Vulcan.”

…………………………………….

The hastily assembled meeting in the Briefing Room was subdued and solemn. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty and Giotto were gathered around the table. Those who had been in the party had already taken sober-up pills and were completely alert.

 “How do we track down who sent those chocolates?”

“We can’t” Uhura admitted. “There were too many anonymous presents, a large number of which were chocolates. No way to track down a specific package.”

“The stuff was injected into the chocolates” McCoy said grimly “They wouldn’t have even needed to disturb the packaging. Just use a hypo. The entire top layer was poisoned.”

“How’s Cartwright holding up, by the way?”

 “Not holding up at all. I had to give him a sedative. And no wonder. A damn anniversary present…. He’s sobbing that his clumsiness killed her,  that if he hadn’t dropped that sculpture, hadn’t chosen that box…” McCoy shook his head. “He’s going to need help.”

 Kirk sighed. And the  day had started so well…

 “It was someone aboard. That’s all we can say for certain.”

 Giotto’s expression was grim. The security chief had already set an intensive investigation in motion, but no leads had been reported yet.

 “Whoever did it was daft as a tribble” Scotty commented “I mean, chocolates…”

“Or knew very little about Vulcans in general. Which would rule out much of the crew.”

“You’re forgetting one problem” Uhura said “Captain, you were nearly the victim.”

Kirk nodded. He knew what she was suggesting.

 “Never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for diets. All the same, if I were the actual target, the culprit was assuming a lot. There were scores of presents. Could’ve been other boxes of chocolate in there.”

 “There weren’t any” Giotto interjected.”Everyone with any sense knows about Vulcans and chocolates, that’s the sort of thing used for comedy in every second rate holovid. We can safely assume that the commander was not the intended victim.”

“And Jim was.”

 Glances exchanged across the table. One of the crew. One of their people. A killer.

 “Could it be someone from the Ambassador’s party?” McCoy suggested. He really didn’t  want to believe one of their people capable of this betrayal. “They’ve been aboard a week, long enough to have ordered the chocolates, added the poison, everything.”

Kirk shook his head.

 “I’m afraid that won’t wash, Bones. We ran a background check on every single one of them. they don’t have any connection to me, no reason to wish me dead.”

 “Could’ve been a hired gun. Or maybe blackmail, Klingons or Romulans or someone got some dirt on one of them, and wants to twist it a bit.”

“That’s a possibility”

And one that he liked far better than the idea of one of his people being the killer.

“It seems that the doctor’s suggestion does have some merit” Spock commented. He had till now remained silent – murder tended to be a very illogical and emotional business, something he was not exactly qualified to comment on. “There are rumors in the diplomatic circles that the ambassador’s team had been concerned in certain…indiscretions regarding the Baltias affair.”

 Every eye turned to him.

“Indiscretions?” Kirk frowned.

 “Nothing has been conclusively proven, or  even openly accused. There was not enough proof. However, several high placed diplomats, including my father, felt that there were too many information  leakages associated with the team.”

That put an entirely different complexion on things.

“The ambassador herself is above suspicion”

 “Naturally.”

 It was an open secret that top level diplomats, especially those employed in unstable sectors, had to regularly submit themselves to a telepathic probe – even a hint of disloyalty could not be permitted in such volatile environments.

“So one of her team, potentially mixed up in espionage..”

 “I would not go so far as to call it direct espionage, captain. The information leaked out mostly related to smaller…gossip details, let us say. No serious technical or political details were involved.”

 “All the same, even indiscrete gossip could be valuable information. Depending on who has it.”

 Gossip could reveal certain weaknesses, hint at skeletons in high ranking closets, perhaps even give a clue to the type of passwords a certain individual was likely to use.

And this made their current assumption even more plausible – a team member, letting slip little, seemingly inconsequential details in exchange of a price or to please a lover, convincing themselves that what they did was too low profile to do any real harm…and only finding out how deep they had bemired themselves when it was too late to get out. prime target for blackmail.

 And when whoever was pulling the strings decided they wanted a certain starship captain out of the way and found that their little spy was bound to be in close quarters with the target…

…………………..

 The ambassador’s aides looked shaken, distressed. How much of it was grief for a strict but fair boss and how much actual guilt was something Kirk couldn’t guess.

 “No.”

 “What?”

“I am sorry, Captain, but we do not agree to submit to a computer based interrogation.”

 Kirk frowned.

“You are aware, Mr Kendall, that such a refusal may be looked on as…suspicious?” 

The aide sighed.

“Pardon me, Captain, but my point is that it would be useless.”

 “Useless?”

 “We are placed right on the frontlines. In a position where any of us could be taken captive by enemy forces. We have received sufficient training to withstand most of the regular interrogation techniques. Of course, it would be no use against something like the mind sifter, but against things like truth serum and computer based polygraph tests… Any of us can claim whatever we fancy and the computer will declare us completely honest.”

 Great. So that option is off the table.

“Alright. Then let us rely on plain interrogation.”

……………………………………………

The interrogation revealed no important information. Nothing they hadn’t known already. Till…

“It’s horrible!” the youngest aide, a pretty Andorian, exclaimed. “So awful. Poor Marjorie. And poor Dr Cartwright. He was so devoted to her, so sweet, and it was their anniversary too! He had that lovely glass sculpture  and she was planning on where to put it once they got home…”

Wait, what?

 “Ms Selen, did you say you overheard her planning where to put it? That she was aware he had purchased it as a gift for her?”

The andorian girl frowned, surprised at the turn the interrogation had taken.

 “Um, yeah… He had meant to keep it secret, but she saw him putting it away, and then of course he had to tell her. But I don’t see what-“

“What this has to do with the murder? We…will have to see. Did anyone else overhear this conversation between the Cartwrights?”

“No… I wasn’t supposed to be there either, but I had been late writing up a report, so I sort of sneaked in to place it on her table, if I had given it to her direct she’d have wanted to know why it was past the deadline…”

“Neither of them saw you.”

“Yeah…”

……………………

Cartwright’s ruddy complexion was now unhealthily livid.

“This…This is hardly proper, Captain. I…I am not well enough to bear your cross questioning…With..With my darling gone, and you…Accusing me! Me! Just to clear your damn crew…Why the hell would I want you dead, you pompous fool? “

 “You didn’t” Kirk’s voice was cold. “And you definitely are well enough to bear questioning, as I had ascertained from Dr McCoy.”

 “I had no reason to try and kill you!”

 “But you had every reason to eliminate ambassador Cartwright” Spock said calmly. “Your attempt at misdirection was not as much a success as you imagined.”

 “You are lying!”

Kirk glared at him.

“The game is up, and the sooner you realize it, the better for everyone involved. You were safe as long as no suspicion was directed at you. and why should there be, after all, when you yourself nearly died? But once an enquiry was initiated…proof was far from difficult to find.”

 The information leakages, apparently, had to do with the plump, innocent looking spouse – and a pretty ‘journalist’, who if they could track her down, would no doubt prove to have more than a trace of Romulan blood in her.

“The Ambassador was conducting her own investigations, wasn’t she? Kendall mentioned she had been vetting them with extreme care..but you would have been the last person she would suspect.”

Cartwright glared at him. No more protests of innocence were forthcoming at the moment.

“The last person she would suspect, but once she had eliminated all other possibilities, she would indeed turn towards you.. She loved you, but she was far from stupid. So you decided to forestall her.”

“Then why the hell would I have taken the poison? I’m not suicidal!”

 “Of course you aren’t… And you were aboard a starship with state-of-the-art facilities and the most efficient medical personnel the Federation had to offer. With a comparatively low dose as you took, you were all but certain to survive. As long as medical attention was immediately at hand, which was not difficult to assure, here.”

Cartwright seemed to deflate, the final alibi down.

 “Have to admit, you were pretty through about it. At first sight, a somewhat clumsy attempt to murder Commander Spock, if that was seen through, a slightly more subtle attempt on my life. The idea of the ambassador having been the actual target would never have arisen – except for an aide being late for the deadline.” 

Admittedly, a lot of things had had to fall into place.

But the man had been clever. They had all noticed how talkative the ambassador’s husband was, in contrast to his wife, how interested in all the pieces of shipboard gossip – including the close friendship of the command team, and lesser but more hilarious details such as the diet battles between the captain and the CMO. Including the difficulties of the communications and supplies departments in delivering the anonymous presents.

 M’Ress had confirmed that it was Cartwright who  suggested the idea of letting the anonymous presents be handed over in the Rec room instead of at the recipients’ personal cabins. She had passed that along as a way to spare themselves the headache of carting around the presents..and a possible source of entertainment to have everyone opening their presents in public. And timed his entry perfectly.

“If he had been half this cautious with his love affair, he’d never have been in this hole to begin with” McCoy remarked. “Damn the man. She loved him and…”

The doctor shook his head. It was one thing to find themselves pitted against an official enemy or an alien intelligence, or one of the weird caprices of deep space. Quite another when it was one of their own, a man they had chatted with, laughed with, and liked. People could be far more alarming than anything deep space could throw at them.