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The Ghosts of San Simeon

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"Another year gone by. Another year closer to retirement.” Dr. Veracruz nudged McCoy’s elbow a little too sharply with his own, almost spilling his champagne. It had taken McCoy several glasses to acclimate to standing in the Refectory of Hearst Castle, in his dinner jacket, amid the tumult of a few hundred of San Francisco’s most illustrious citizens.

McCoy’s preference would have been to spend this New Year’s Eve the way he’d spent the four previous, getting quietly and inoffensively drunk in his apartment, listening to Mahler and watching the fireworks twinkle above the bay. But opportunity did not come without cost; McCoy was now assistant chief of surgery, and seemed destined to replace Juan Veracruz as chief when (and if) he eventually retired. In any case, it would have been a reckless snub to Admiral Alderly not to attend his famous party. In fact, the admiral had asked him no fewer than three times if he was still planning to come--a mark of distinguishing interest, as McCoy had thought that the admiral barely knew he existed.

Admiral Alderly loved lavish displays, and he loved delighting his friends with marvelous surprises, whether they were inclined to be delighted or not. McCoy had thought the vast Mediterranean mansion might be interesting as a historical curiosity, but now that he was here he found its unrelieved ornateness almost obscene, redolent not of culture and refinement but but of the dominance of rich over poor. McCoy, thinking of his Irish farmer ancestors, had never felt less at home.

The rumbling crowd parted just far enough to release the admiral, wearing a cherry-red satin jacket that almost matched his nose and slapping shoulders as he passed. McCoy, expecting no more from his host than a handshake, prepared a short and pro forma sentence of thanks. But when the admiral saw McCoy, his round face lit up with delight.

“There you are, Dr. McCoy! I’ve been looking for you. Come on, come on—I have something wonderful to show you.” And he half-dragged the mystified McCoy through the crowded Refectory and into the chamber beyond.

It was a jewel box of a room hung with pale green damask and crammed with Italian Renaissance masterpieces. A clutch of overstuffed chairs crowded around the fireplace, their occupants’ backs to the door. Admiral Alderly piloted McCoy around to the front, the good host making introductions.

But McCoy needed no introduction. In the middle of a particularly elegant and kaleidoscopic group of guests sat Jim Kirk. McCoy felt his knees half buckle in surprise, and a chill ran through him, as if ice water had been poured down his neck. Five years had passed, five bitter and uncertain years, in which his only news of Jim had been too good, or not good enough. He supposed his face must have shown the shock that he felt, but Jim, unperturbed, raised crystal-sharp eyes to meet his own and let his mouth curve into a smile.

“Bones! Glad you could join us.” He waved to his crowd of admirers to make room. McCoy sat down gratefully on a banquette next to an Orion woman in a long gown. Jim nodded to the guests in turn, as easy and commanding as when he’d been on the bridge of his own ship. “Bones—Dr. McCoy—and I are old friends from the Academy.” The other guests registered slight acknowledgment and slighter interest, and Jim paid no more attention to McCoy than if he’d been any other vaguely remembered classmate.

“But surely, if the Talosians refuse your help, there is no moral obligation to provide it,” said an Andorian man in a high-necked tunic. “All telepathic species have to participate, or its value decreases significantly,” Kirk said, as if it were an argument he’d made a dozen times before.

McCoy had recovered himself just enough not to stare, open-mouthed, though with every other pair of eyes focused on Kirk it was hardly necessary to hide his fascination. This was indeed Jim Kirk, but not Jim as McCoy remembered him. The youthful hollows in his face and body had filled out, so that that there were sinuous curves of muscle where angular leanness used to be. His hair was sun-bleached to a bright gold, and his once fair skin had a warm, ripe-peach bloom. The small but beloved imperfections that had burned into McCoy’s memory were gone; he seemed ageless and perfect, exactly suited to be the centerpiece of this room of frozen treasures. And his eyes—they were bluer than blue, bluer than the sky of day or night, bluer than the electric blue gown of the green-skinned woman beside him.

A pink-jacketed waiter appeared without being summoned and leaned down deferentially to take Jim’s order. He spoke behind his hand, too soft to hear, but pointed to each member of the party in turn. McCoy hoped that he was ordering drinks, as he could certainly use one, but was not sure at this point if Jim even remembered he was there.

The conversation sailed by, on topics so esoteric and foreign to McCoy that he could not even muster a nod of agreement. He must not have been entirely unable to hide his sick confusion, because from time to time, the Orion woman favored him with a sympathetic smile. A tray of drinks arrived, all bizarre, none what was being served in the main hall: drinks with coronas, ink-black drinks and drinks that seems to have living things in them. In the center of the silver tray stood a large, crystal goblet with blue flames licking its sides. The waiter presented a drink to each guest in turn, until all that remained was the flaming glass. Jim lifted it and handed it to McCoy who, surprised, leaned forward to receive it, feeling an electric spark when his fingers brushed against Jim’s.

“It’s Deltan,” Jim said. “Never tried it, have you, Bones? This is probably as far as you’ve been from the city all year.”

Uncertain as to whether the remark and the drink were a sign of favor or a mockery of his provincialism, McCoy raised it to his lips quickly, eager to prove he was not unsettled by the blue flames. As it turned out, they were cool, and the drink itself was cool and sweet, watery and tinged with honey, like ripe melons. The heat had made him thirsty, and Jim had made his throat dry, so he drank more quickly than he should. It seemed to ease his pounding heart, and a feeling of calm unreality descended, as if all the bright figures around him were no more real than the figures in the tapestry above his head. In the next room someone began to play the piano with singular skill: Schubert’s German Dances, McCoy thought.

Feeling more relaxed and less self-conscious, McCoy let the conversation wash around him, floating on the wonder of seeing Jim before him, trying to commit the details to memory in case he should disappear at midnight like a phantom: the ready smile, more canny and knowing than formerly; the close-fitting, blue-black tunic, open at the throat to show a slice of pale, flawless skin; the large and rather savage-looking yellow-stoned ring on the third finger of his left hand. Staring a bit too long at the way the fire danced in its golden depths—or perhaps because of too much strong and strange drink on top of too little food—he began to feel light headed. He was reluctant to leave but confident his return would be as little remarked as his arrival, and so he rose, excused himself to no one in particular, and slipped from the room. Jim did not as much as glance in his direction.

The sound of the piano, sweet and pure, drew him into a cool, high-ceilinged gallery, lit only by candlelight, where he stood alone except for a handful of guests listening in respectful silence. “Berger,” one of them whispered to him, and he nodded vaguely before realizing it must be the pianist’s name. He withdrew far enough that he could listen without having the chords hurt his aching head, propping his elbows on the cool marble top of a console table. He closed his eyes and let the lilting music ease away the pain and confusion.

“Doctor!” hissed a voice at his shoulder; he started with surprise. It was the green-skinned woman in the blue gown. “You have to leave,” she continued urgently. “Go, now! There are transports outside that will take you back to the city. It’s not too late to go to the Embarcadero, or anywhere else, as long as you leave quickly. I’ll go with you, if you like.” She dropped her eyes, as if embarrassed by her own forwardness. McCoy, who had not had a beautiful woman try to lure him away from a party in years, looked at her in amazement.

“Who are you?” McCoy asked, his voice hoarse. “Do I know you?”

“You knew my sister, I think,” she said, seeming pained. “She is—was—on of your classmates.” Now McCoy thought he recognized her red hair and heart-shaped face. “She liked you, but she might not know you now. So I'm warning you--whatever you do, don't let him touch you!"

"Who?"

A shadow passed between them and the candelabra. “I have to go,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze and adding in a whisper, “Remember what I said!”

McCoy had lowered his gaze to where the Orion woman's hand had touched his arm, but he did not have to lift it to know Jim was standing where she had been a moment before, leaning as McCoy was leaning on the console table, head bent down as if to exchange a confidence.

“Bones!” he whispered. “Sorry about that before. Those people—well, there’s always business. I know you understand. But now—“ he slipped a long-fingered hand under McCoy’s elbow, and dropped his voice even further. “We can talk, just the two of us. There’s so much I want to tell you, so much I want to show you.” With the slightest pressure, Jim was able to peel him off the marble table and guide him, further and further away from the party, down the dark corridors of the ancient palace.

The rooms were fire and shadow. The Orion woman’s warning passed through his head like a ghost. In its place an image formed clearly: he and Jim together and alone, free at last to talk about everything that had been unsaid these past five years. They seemed to move with no effort at all, gliding up a long, wide staircase, Jim’s steps light, rapid and noiseless. When time began to move again, McCoy saw that they were in a bedroom, decorated with as much gilded richness as every other room, a huge, heavy, four-poster bed at its center. A fire crackled in the stone fireplace but seemed to give off no heat, and on the mantelpiece stood twin candelabra, their flames burning blue.

Jim drew close to him, so that he was standing only a breath away. “It’s almost midnight. Do you mind missing the admiral’s toast? And the fireworks? There’s going to be some kind of surprise—an elephant, or something.” His eyes were amused, his voice soft.

He looked so much like his own Jim that McCoy cried out, “Why did you stop talking to me? I understand—I think—why you had to leave, but why couldn’t you tell me, why couldn’t you answer my messages? I’ve had to hear it all through the news feeds like everyone else, after all we—“

But Kirk just shook his head, stopping McCoy’s flow of words. “It doesn’t matter. The point is that I’m here now,” he said, and closed the small distance between them. His hand touched McCoy’s face lightly; he could feel the rough scratch of his beard, last shaved hours ago, against Jim’s cool palm. A flash of blue caught his eye, and he turned his head to follow it; when he turned back they were standing beside the great bedstead, and Jim was pushing the dinner jacket off his shoulders.

“What—“

“Shh!” Jim said, playful, tossing the jacket away and starting on the shirt studs. They had taken McCoy a fumbling age to put in, but Jim seemed to release them with a touch. His deft hands pulled at McCoy’s tie, so that in a moment what had been bound and sealed by convention was laid bare. The air, stirred but unwarmed by the great fire, seemed to rake fingernails against his flesh and make him shiver. He had never hidden his longing for Jim, not then and not since, and if he had any secrets now Jim would know them, but there was nothing to conceal from that benign blue gaze.

He was lying on the bed, with Jim above him; the old springs heaved and groaned under their weight. His shirt gaped open like a wound, and Jim ran his long, clever fingers up his sides and chest as if measuring him. His body knew these hands, his nerves and muscles came alive in grateful recognition. So long since he’d known any touch but his own; so long since he’d wanted any.

Jim pushed the starched fabric aside so he could every inch of skin from his neck to his belly. “You look good in white,” he said conversationally, straddling McCoy’s hips and peering down at him, head cocked. “You should wear it more often, although Science blue is good for you, too. You haven’t changed, you know. Maybe a little softer here,” he said, pinching the soft flesh at McCoy’s waist, “but still so handsome. Who’s it for, Bones? Is there someone? Or were you waiting for me?”

McCoy tried to form an answer, to say there’s only ever been you, but Jim was tracing the outline of his lips, pressing his mouth open, preparing him for a kiss that never came. McCoy’s eyes lost focus and for a moment he could see only the deeply carved ceiling, where shadows chased each other among the gold leaves.

He was naked now, completely naked, with Jim still fully dressed, giving away nothing as he held McCoy pinned beneath his narrow hips with nothing more than the force of his glance, appraising but not unkind. McCoy was laid bare, exposed and judged and no doubt found wanting, for how could anyone deserve the otherworldly creature that Jim had become? But his unworthiness was twinned with desire, and shame at his desire. While McCoy lay racked between the two, Jim ran light fingertips down his thighs, catching in the fine hairs and leaving fire in their wake.

“Don’t worry. It’ll be over soon. This is the easiest way I could think of to do it.” He smiled, that heartbreaking, sun-bright smile that had saved the world five years before.

With supreme effort McCoy raised a shaking hand to touch Jim, but as he did so a dark shadow appeared beside the bed, a robed figure whose features he could not distinguish, though Jim’s face was clear and bright above him. A ghost, he thought vaguely, a monk whose spirit had been translated to San Simeon with some ancient pew or panel. But Jim looked directly at the figure and said firmly, “Not yet. I want to give him this. He deserves it, after all this time.” The monk’s response was unintelligible, but it slowly inclined its head once and glided off.

Jim’s hands clasped his hips, embracing, and he lowered his head, so that McCoy could see only dull gold as Jim's head dipped between his thighs. Oh, yes, this--and I will never want anything again, he pleaded silently, not daring to say it aloud. But his body was already speaking its longing, and Jim understood. At the warm touch of his lips where he ached for them most McCoy cried out as if it were the first human contact he’d ever known. Jim’s mouth was all moist heat, consuming him, pulling him down into soft, feathered darkness where he forgot his own name and only knew Jim’s, Jim’s hands and Jim’s tongue and Jim’s vibrant life.

McCoy had never felt such desire without urgency. It could have gone on forever; might have, as above the rushing in McCoy’s ears he could hear the distant cheers of the party guests, gathered outside to welcome in the new year. He had been with Jim forever, Jim had never left him, Jim was here and would always be here, filling the dark, empty spaces with his cool, blue fire. McCoy heard the voices begin to count out in unison, echoing through the hallways of the castle, and with a sudden shock of horrified regret, McCoy knew that it was ending, that the fall away had begun, and with a sob of despairing pleasure he came as the old year died beneath him.

There were tears on his face when he came back to himself. Looking down at him with compassion, Jim brushed them away. “Don't cry. It's almost over,” he said, trailing his fingers down McCoy's cheek. “It isn’t right that you should suffer, anyway.” McCoy had no desire left but for a kiss, but knew somehow that Jim could not give it, or else he wouldn’t have denied it before now.

Pulling his hand away from McCoy’s face, Jim gestured toward the shadows, and the figure of the monk glided forward again.

“If you’d forgotten me on your own, this wouldn’t be necessary. But you hold onto your pain, don’t you, Bones? You can heal everyone else’s, but you would have held onto me forever. And we can’t have that. It’s interfering, and nothing can be allowed to interfere.”

The monk, face shrouded by a deep hood, reached a bony hand toward him. To McCoy’s surprise he felt no fear; he was sure, had always been sure, that Jim would protect him from harm. Whatever Jim was allowing the monk to do would be for the best, and he had no wish in any case ever to leave this bed, to be parted any further from Jim than this, to feel anything but Jim’s sure hand stroking his hair, as hard, ancient fingers settled against the touch points of his face. Jim, he said with all his being, content that it should be the last thought he had in life.

Found you at last!” Dr. Veracruz thumped him on the shoulder. “I didn’t see you outside. What did you think of the admiral’s surprise? Amazing, isn't it? It’s been ages since he’s been on Earth at all, let alone at a private party.”

“Who?” McCoy asked, puzzled. He’d passed the previous hour listening to an excellent pianist and browsing the treasures of San Simeon in peace in the company of a few like-minded guests.

Spock, of course,” Dr. Veracruz said, rolling his eyes. “I swear, Leonard, you’re such an absent-minded professor, you give the rest of us a bad name.”

“Spock?” McCoy said, puzzled. “The Enterprise is out for another few months at least, isn’t she?”

“Not Captain Spock." Dr. Veracruz clapped his hand to his forehead in mock exasperation. “Ambassador Spock. He’s here and he brought Kirk. But you must have seen Kirk? You were at the Academy together, weren’t you?”

McCoy thought for a moment. His head, which had been giving him nothing but trouble through the evening, had cleared at last. He felt relaxed and easy-humored for a change, so that he could bear Dr. Veracruz’s teasing without rancor.

“Yes, we were friends, I suppose. And of course I served under him those first six months on the Enterprise.” There was no need to continue beyond that; everyone knew the story. The Ambassador, as he was generally known, had appeared from the distant future, armed with the knowledge to avert decades of suffering and disaster. There had been skepticism, at first, but then the Ambassador had discovered and destroyed an infestation of neural parasites on Theta Cygni XII, saving a dozen neighboring worlds. Soon thereafter, James Kirk had resigned his commission to help the Ambassador in his work, relocating to New Vulcan but traveling as the Ambassador traveled, throughout the known galaxy, spreading the gospel of the future. Neither had a an official title, though Kirk was often still known as 
captain. They were, as Admiral Alderly had once said, the most powerful powerless men in the galaxy, for what power could be greater than the knowledge of what was to be?

McCoy had not spoken to Kirk in years, and thought of him seldom. He and Kirk had had little enough in common to begin with, and still less now. It was the nature of such friendships to fade without daily association.

"I saw him earlier this evening," McCoy continued. "He ordered me a drink. Something Deltan, I think."

“Did he say anything to you?” Dr. Veracruz looked impressed.

“Oh, just a few words. He was surrounded by admirers, and I could barely follow the conversation.”

Dr. Veracruz chuckled. “Well, we're neither of us politicians or prophets. Should count ourselves lucky they let us out once a year. Still, that’s probably good enough to get you an introduction to the Ambassador, don’t you think? Would you mind if I tagged along?”

“Why not?” McCoy said, putting down his drink. Dr. Veracruz had, after all, been quite generous to him, and there was no reason to deny him this small pleasure. He let the doctor lead the way toward the front terrace, where the main body of the party had migrated to watch simulated fireworks (ten times more spectacular than the real ones, and much safer) under a force field canopy that kept out the evening chill and enhanced the night sky. In the densest part of the crowd McCoy glimpsed the tall, angular figure of a man in robes of almost monastic severity. This, McCoy thought, must be the Ambassador.

As they prepared to wade into the crowd, McCoy's eye caught a flash of blue silk disappearing into the palm-studded darkness beyond the lanterns.

“Juan, just a moment,” he said, touching Dr. Veracruz’s shoulder. “I’ll be right out, but I’ve just spotted someone I need to talk to.” The doctor nodded, and McCoy followed the blue dress.

“Excuse me, miss?” The Orion woman stopped and turned. “I’m sorry to bother you, but we spoke earlier. You seemed upset about something. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”

She walked back to him with slow, deliberate steps, searching his eyes with her own. “Thank you, doctor. I’m fine, I think. And you?”

“Never better,” he said with what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “I felt a little faint before. It must have been the heat. But you said something about taking a transport back to the city?” McCoy could claim little boldness around beautiful women, but there was something about the atmosphere tonight—the fantastic surroundings, the start of a new year, perhaps even some nimbus of the possible conferred by the admiral’s guest. “I was just going to introduce a friend to the Ambassador, but after that, I have no particular reason to stay. Perhaps I could see you home? Or to the Cafe Oberlau, if you'd prefer," he added impulsively. "A good cup of coffee would be just about right after all that liquor."

To his surprise, she nodded. “That’s kind of you. I’d like that.” Her eyes, McCoy thought, looked sad; in his expansive good humor, he felt an urge to find out what had made them so, and to cheer her up, if he could.

“Well!” he said, holding an arm out to her with Southern gallantry rusty from years of disuse. “Let’s meet the great man, and then be on our way.” He covered the hand she rested on his arm with his own. “But I don’t need him to tell me the future. I already know it’s going to be a wonderful year.” And with that, McCoy led the beautiful green woman out into the artificial night.