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Spice

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Amanda is humming a fragment of T’Vela’s Ki’Sarlah Nash-Veh as she works, haloed by the rich summer sunlight that tumbles like thick cream through the window. Outside, bleached by the contrast of the room’s cool shadows, the garden stretches and waves in a light breeze, the earthy scent of warm grass and early roses drifting through the open glass in a collision of sensory input that is almost soporific in its tranquil assault. Spock stands in the kitchen doorway and watches the methodical, rapid-fire movement of his mother’s hands as she works the knife with practiced ease, peeling, and slicing in time with the complex polymetric farr-dath of the central aria. Contentment washes over him like a gentle caress. In this quiet moment, with no-one to see but Amanda, he makes no effort to suppress it.

 

“You move like a cat, Spock,” says his mother without looking around. “Come and help me here a moment, will you?”

 

He crosses silently to where she stands in front of a heavy wooden butcher’s table, surrounded by the raw materials of today’s project. Pickling jars glimmer lazily in the sunlight, stacked two deep on the work surface. Arranged into careful piles in front of them are bundles of spices from her garden: long, curling chili peppers, gnarled ginger roots, bulbous garlic, pale horseradish. On the central island, suspended in brackish fluid, several flasks of skinned and glistening shallots testify to the morning’s efforts, and a pot bubbles sharp-smelling liquid on the stove.

 

She nods to a glass bowl sitting out of the sunlight a little way further down the worktop. “Bring that over here and hold it for me, please,” she says. The Ambassador’s residence comes with a modest compliment of staff, of course, but both Spock and his father have long since ceded this ground to Amanda. The garden is hers, she says, and she will manage its produce herself. It gives her pleasure, she says, and if her husband has reconciled himself to perpetual confusion in the face of his wife’s illogical proclivities, her son might secretly believe that he understands, at least a little.

 

He holds the bowl as she’s asked and she scoops the thin, translucent slices into her hand and carefully decants them inside. A cloud of pungent ginger-fumes explodes into the air between them as the oils are disturbed, and it cascades out of the canister, coloring the streaming sunlight and twisting against the sensitive olfactory receptors in his nose. She inhales deeply and pleasure lights her eyes, drawing them closed for a moment of unreserved satisfaction. Spock watches her agile face and its patina of emotion, carelessly broadcast for anyone to read. She is as changeable as the clouds that sweep the lazy azure sky beyond the window, a daughter of this planet of abundance where nothing is fixed.

 

Amanda breathes deeply and sets the jar to one side. “Are you busy, Spock?” she asks.

 

“I am currently occupied in...”

 

“Aside from helping me put chopped ginger into a bowl,” she adds with equanimity borne of long association with Vulcans.

 

“Negative. I have completed my studies for today.”

 

She sets a wide-bladed knife on a chopping board beside her, where red and green chili peppers lie, warmed by their hours in front of the window. “Then let’s keep you out of trouble,” she says.

 

He sets to the task without comment. Human idiom is like a second language to him - his mind switches effortlessly between Vulcan and Terran Standard, but the patterns of his mother’s speech occasionally require a little thought. As he carefully splits the waxy skin and pulls apart the damp, piquant flesh it conceals, the thought comes to him that her words and their unlikely implication may be her way of acknowledging that she understands him well enough to know that there is nowhere else he would rather be right now than slicing peppers by her side.

 

The morning sun is warm on his robes, settling into the fabric like tepid water and heating them to a narcotic whisper against his skin. Relaxed, the parental bond thrums peaceably between them, the way it always does when Amanda forgets to concentrate on it, and it’s like a lullaby in the centre of his brain. His hands work without conscious instruction, slicing and mincing Terran delicacies that, despite his mother’s patient exertions, refuse to thrive on his homeworld, and he feels himself settle into the first level of a meditative trance. Perhaps this is why, when she sucks in a tiny gasp and clutches her sleeve to her face, he moves without thinking.

 

“Oh!” she cries, digging the ball of her wrist against her eye socket. “Something’s in my eye...”

 

Thoughtlessly, carelessly, his hand reaches towards her face the way hers reaches instinctively for him, closing around her wrist. “Allow me to help, Mother,” he begins, but her free hand slaps his away.

 

“Spock - no!” she hisses, and turns her shoulder towards him, blocking him with her body.

 

He stiffens, realizing what he’s done, and shame floods his belly like ice water. “Forgive me, Mother,” he says quickly. “I have committed an unpardonable breach of decorum...”

 

“Spock!” she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice even though his gaze is fixed on the wall behind her head and her face is obscured by the wrist pressed into her aggrieved eye socket. “Spock, my sweet, beautiful boy. It’s not that, it’s only... Soak a corner of that tea cloth and pass it to me - soak it well, please. That’s it.” She takes the dripping cloth from his hand and swipes it over the crease where her eyelid flutters against her cheek. “You’ve been slicing peppers, Spock. The oils are on your hands, and they are very irritating to sensitive Human skin. They burn mercilessly.” She touches her hand to his face. “Don’t look so stricken, dear. You weren’t to know. These are things you must learn. In some ways, you’re my son. In other ways, you are Sarek’s. And I’m thankful for both halves.”

 

Spock is nine Terran years old. In less than a month, his father’s household will return to Vulcan, where Spock will be an oddity and an outcast, sectioned by the subtle, fundamental differences that his pale complexion and pointed ears camouflage on Earth. He belongs nowhere, but least of all where he ought to fit in and doesn’t. He touches a steady, perfumed finger to his eyeball and feels nothing but the press of skin on skin, nothing but the token protest of the sensitive mucus membrane at an unwarranted invasion. Amanda smiles, but another piece of him calcifies. Not Vulcan, and now a little bit less Human too.

Chapter Text

Kirk’s hand is tingling.

It’s something of a surprise to find that he’s aware of this small fact, buried as it is beneath the strata of chaos that have layered over the general maelstrom of his daily life. But it’s dark now and he’s alone with far too many thoughts clamoring for attention inside his aching skull, and one of them - a particularly vociferous and insistent one; the Admiral Komack of thoughts, if you will - is demanding that he pay attention to the network of nerves that stretch beneath the skin of his right hand. Because they are alive with remembered touch.

The ship is as silent as a ship at warp can ever be, which is to say that the engines thrum on the limits of hearing, vibrating through the fabric of the hull and into the bulkheads and across the air that touches them. The hint of voices carry imperfectly through the walls as assorted crew pass along the corridors outside. Things that are supposed to reassure their Human masters that they’re working efficiently periodically go beep, the air filtration system rumbles obstreperously, the replicator sighs, water sings in buried pipes, and beneath it all, outside the range of Human hearing, but available to a man who knows his ship like a father or a lover, is the hum of life living itself, minute by minute.

It’s usually comforting. Tonight, it tap-dances along the fine line between oppressively silent and shut the hell up.

His hand is tingling.

A portion of his rational mind insists that the gesture could not have been intentional. It must have been a reflex action, automatically applied and then impossible to unobtrusively correct. There is just no way that Spock deliberately reached for his Captain’s hand. Even if he was distracted by the fact that Kirk was temporarily inhabiting the body of Janice Lester, there is still no way that Spock intentionally wrapped his fingers around the wrist of an unknown woman in full view of Dr. McCoy, three security officers and someone who looked like the Captain. It just didn’t happen. It must have been an instinctive reaction, born of the fact that Kirk was trapped in a body without physical strength and four men were bearing down on them, one of whom had already demonstrated his ample capacity for violence. They’re a logical race now, but Vulcan society is founded on the principle of the warrior caste. Buried beneath that rational exterior, there must be a remnant of the inherent drive to protect the vulnerable. It was a visceral, throwback reaction - like the thousand times the First Officer has illogically thrown himself into harm’s way to protect the Captain - and there can’t be any significance to it.

So why didn’t the hand stay fixed around his lower arm? Why did it snake downwards from its initial encircling grip to close around his fingers? Why did it stay there for almost half a goddamn minute? Why didn’t it spring away from his at the first press of flesh on flesh as though Kirk’s skin burned?

Why won’t his hand stop remembering the touch of the long, cool fingers brushing against his?

He should be angrier about the whole insane day, but all he feels is heavy, sad, and confused. He should be swinging between horror and fury at what nearly happened, but instead he’s almost swamped by a rushing swell of pride when he remembers what his senior crew was prepared to do. His mind is full of should, and in fact the only really important should just now is the one that ends with be asleep, but his eyes roam restlessly over the shadowed bulkheads and he knows there’s no point in even pretending to himself that this is likely. A more realistic should involves getting started on his report to HQ, in the hope that he can sedate himself with paperwork. It’s a should with an outside chance of success. He swings his legs out of bed and calls for the lights.

It’s been in the back of his mind for weeks now – twenty-three weeks and four days, in fact - that the remainder of the mission can now be measured in months. He scarcely bothers to convert the stardate back to the Gregorian calendar anymore because every date that passes is a reminder that the next time it comes around it will find him altered: grounded at Fleet HQ, perhaps, or spirited away to another ship. Maybe he’ll still be on the Enterprise, but she won’t be his Enterprise. The faces will change, the command crew will disperse to the promotions they are long overdue, the pulse of the bridge will be different. Uhura is much too talented to waste any more time behind a communications console, Chekov needs to flex his intellectual muscles, Sulu is itching for command. Scotty is practically welded to the bulkheads, but Bones hasn’t got the heart of an explorer and he’s ready to take a planetside assignment, maybe start mending some fences with his daughter before she gets any older. And Spock...

Spock.

Kirk remembers the exact moment he realized he had fallen in love with his First Officer. It’s not the stuff of Brontean romance; it would barely make it past the first draft of a substandard romantic comedy. But it’s been his limited experience that all of the truly meaningful attachments of his life have had their genesis in similarly stupid circumstances. He asked Ruth to marry him on impulse in the moments after a ground car careened through a curbside puddle of infinite proportions as they passed on the sidewalk, because when she looked up at him, San Francisco winter street-water straggling her elegant blond hair and trailing caterpillars of mascara down her face, instead of the expected fury she burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter, and he decided that three months’ courtship was enough to know that he wanted to be with her forever. He met Carol and impregnated her with their son after a poetry reading they were both attending during a shore leave on Earth turned out to be so spectacularly dull that the only way to enjoy it was to make better use of the complimentary wine than was necessarily advisable. Gary, he kissed on a dare, before he’d even admitted to himself that gender wasn’t particularly important to him as far as attraction went. If Spock is different, it’s because it’s the first time in his life that Kirk has allowed an infatuation to simmer after he’s acknowledged it, and this not because his feelings are ambiguous. They were a long time establishing themselves, but they are nothing if not decisive. There was a day, a quiet day between missions when no-one was shooting at them, no-one was trying to invade the ship and no-one was in any imminent danger of death, when they were sitting in the officers’ mess after an ordinary dinner, and Spock suddenly sneezed. That was all it took: one single autonomic function that wordlessly and effortlessly crumbled the wall of imperious Vulcan detachment, and something incandescent ignited in Kirk’s belly. In retrospect, the embers had been smoldering for many, many months, but by the time his First Officer looked up to find the Captain’s eyes fixed on him and shining, the blaze had gone nuclear.

“Bless you,” said Kirk, and received a quirked eyebrow for his concern.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said McCoy, leaning back in his seat with an expression of enraptured delight. “How come nobody told me Vulcans sneeze?”

And that was it. The bickering started, predictable as atomic decay, and Scotty turned up to watch for a while, and afterwards everyone went about their business as if nothing had changed. And nothing did change, because what are you supposed to do? No-one has ever been so manifestly, self-evidently unattainable as his Vulcan First. It’s not only that he’s never given the Captain any reason to think that his feelings are returned, it’s that he’s actively given him reason to think that they are not. In the year and a bit since The Sneeze, there have been two women in his First Officer’s life - one of them unabashedly courted in the Captain’s presence - which is an increase of 100% over all the preceding years of the mission, and those are terrible odds.

It’s not the end of the world. It’s not even the first time he’s had to dial his needs down to friendship when his instinct pushes for more. He is certain that he can be content with this, as long as Spock is in his life. And this is guaranteed, barring accidents and general mayhem, for as long as the mission continues.

Kirk has come close to asking several times. They talk together so easily now that it’s difficult to remember the awkward, hostile silences of his first months of command, when his every effort was met with a blank wall of antipathy. These days they find an excuse to spend time together most evenings - chess in the rec rooms or their quarters; drinks with Bones or Scotty or just the two of them, settled either side of the Captain’s desk with Kirk’s stocking feet propped on the table and a poorly-concealed mask of offended sensibilities pretending to manifest itself on Spock’s face; long, Sisyphean workouts in the gym where the Captain tries to preserve some modicum of pride on behalf of the Human race and fails repeatedly; nights spent doubling as a lab assistant - to the horror of the junior members of the science team, who scatter like startled pigeons when the Captain appears - when something is particularly urgent or significant, or simply when his friend is excited about something and wants to share. Many times, companionable silence has settled around them like a comfortable coat and into the lull, Kirk has wanted to ask, so - have you given any thought to what you might want to do after the mission is over? And every time he has caught the words before they can leave his lips. It isn’t just that he knows - he knows - that Spock will answer, very logically, that he will have very little say over his next posting and that he’ll go where Starfleet puts him. It’s that he’s afraid that he won’t say this, and that Kirk will have to hear that Spock has plans for his career that don’t involve his Captain.

He’s still sitting on the edge of the bed, and he realizes that his eyes have fallen upon the bathroom door and stayed there. He sighs. It’s not the first time this has happened, and he’s very, very glad that nobody knows this but him. He can just imagine Bones’ face if he knew that sometimes Kirk lies in bed at night and watches the door to the head as if it’s the portal to a magical land where dreams come true. He knows what he’s going to do but he pretends that he doesn’t for a little while, even as he stands up and walks across the room. Right up to the point where his feet have to carry him one way to his desk or another way to the smallest room, he pretends that he’s going to settle into stultifying duty, and he is, it’s just that he’s going to go and stand in the bathroom for a while first.

By mutual consent, they’ve agreed on a median temperature halfway between Vulcan and Terran standard, which means that both of them have spent the past four years being politely uncomfortable and, to the Human nose, the head has the distinctive odor of drains in a hot country no matter what maintenance try to do. Heated air hisses into the damp cool of his bedroom as the door opens, and Kirk crosses to the john for a justificatory pee. Pride will not allow him to glance up at the second door, where a single Starfleet-issue towel is the only evidence of the room’s other occupant, but he can feel it lurking in the corners of his peripheral vision. On the other side, the temperature climbs precipitously towards a simple, single bunk, mirror of the Captain’s, on which sleeps an undreaming figure, undoubtedly in a logical manner. No declarative sound escapes the cocoon of desert warmth, though the bulkheads are narrow here and admit the noises of daily life: no rustling of bedcovers, no somnolent mutterings, no ragged in-drawn breath. It could only possibly be a Vulcan on the other side of the walls, and this is really not helpful to the Captain’s current state of mind.

A Vulcan curled his fingers over Kirk’s.

He finishes his ablutions before his little mind can make any connections between fingers and the organ they currently grip - or else he really won’t get any sleep tonight - and crosses to the small vanity to wash his hands. His eyes fall on his reflection, underneath the condensation that has gathered in the unnatural heat, and the relief in his eyes is momentarily unsettling. Presumably this too will pass, this sense of minor panic every time he approaches a reflective surface, in case the face that stares back at him has somehow morphed back into Lester’s. In the morning, Dr. McCoy will give him the once-over for Starfleet records, to certify that he’s fit for duty, but if Janice can pass the standard test used to measure psychological stability then Kirk is pretty sure he has nothing to worry about - which is actually kind of worrying, come to think of it. He runs his fingers across his chin, now reassuringly prickling with stubble, and exits the head before he can do something really humiliating like rest a wistful hand against Spock’s bedroom door.

He has spent four years carefully observing all manner of proprieties and social codes, none of which come easily to a Human, and especially not a Human with a propensity to communicate through touch. He didn’t even try to shake hands on their first meeting - not that it earned him any points or went any way towards dispersing the manifest air of you are not Christopher Pike that hovered around his First Officer like a cloud of angry wasps for at least the first six weeks of the mission. He has caught himself in the act of delivering a friendly backslap or slinging an arm around his friend’s shoulders more times than he’s slipped up, he’s certain, and he has absolutely, positively never reached for Spock’s hand. He thinks. No, he’s pretty sure about this. He’d definitely remember. And anyway, if he has, it’s been a fleeting touch, an indiscriminate brush of skin that’s vanished before either one of them has noticed. Nothing invasive, and certainly not a twenty-five second grip that deliberately closed all five fingers around their counterparts and pressed tightly into his flesh. He knows what it would mean to Spock. It must have been instinct.

Maybe he should mention it.

But he dismisses the idea before it’s even formed. For a start, what would he say? More than that, what would it even achieve? Either Spock is aware of what’s happened or he’s not, and either way he isn’t going to be exactly jumping up and down with gratitude if Kirk brings it up. The Captain has seen that elegant face lock down too many times in the face of an accidental blunder to knowingly bring on a full-scale Vulcan freeze. No-one, no-one in the galaxy does pissy like an irritated Vulcan, mostly because pissy is virtually unassailable when you deny that it exists.

Which leaves him... nowhere. Nowhere different, anyway. Exactly where he was this time yesterday, thank every beneficent deity, inhabiting a body he knows what to do with, in command of his ship and his faculties, and with plenty to occupy his restless mind. He barks a soft command to the terminal in the semi-darkness of his office area and the shadows light up as the screen comes to life in a stream of messages. Three of them are from Spock, sent earlier in the evening when Kirk was presumably in conference with Admiral Fitzpatrick, one of which bears the unpromising title, Concerns relating to the sub-optimum efficiency of the gravimetric field displacement manifold. None of them look as though they carry even a passing reference to hand-holding. The Captain lowers himself into his chair with half a sigh and issues a dictate command. Softly, although he knows that his voice will not carry as far as his friend’s sleeping quarters, and it would scarcely wake him if it did, he begins his report.

“Stardate 5928.5. Having arrived at the archaeological settlement on Camus II, the Captain was accosted by one Dr. Janice Lester, a woman of his earlier acquaintance, who had familiarized herself with the operations of the starship Enterprise. Further research is required into the nature of the technology employed to effect the life-entity transfer employed by Dr. Lester; orders to pursue said research issued to Commander Spock, First Officer and head of Sciences aboard the Enterprise...”

He stops, rubs his eyes, glances at the chronometer, immediately wishes he hadn’t.

His hand tingles.

Chapter Text

“Jim, you’re fine,” says Bones, handing a towel to his sweating Captain as he swings his legs off the biobed and sits up. It’s the second time in two days that Kirk’s had a run-in with the wall exerciser, and, if his brain doesn’t remember the last time, his body certainly does. He’d swear the Doctor was enjoying himself. “I didn’t know better, I’d say Dr. Lester took better care of your body than you do yourself.”

 

“Thank you, Doctor,” says Kirk wryly. He slings the towel around his neck and lowers himself to the ground. “Imagine the wonders she could have worked if she’d had access to it for longer than seven and a half hours,” he adds pointedly.

 

“Yeah, well, don’t forget I haven’t signed your certification papers yet, Captain,” says the Doctor.

 

“Blackmail, Bones?”

 

“You work with what you’ve got in this line of business.”

 

He scrolls through a PADD as Kirk wriggles his damp arms into his command tunic. Bones is his usual irascible self but there are lines of strain around his eyes and furrowing his brow and Kirk suspects his CMO slept about as well as the Captain did last night. He tries to remember the last time they sat down together and watched a game or a movie, or even just shared a decent bottle of bourbon and talked about something other than ship’s business. Shore leave is definitely overdue.

 

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’ll sign them now and let me get back to the bridge?” he says now, without expectation.

 

Bones laughs his Machiavellian laugh, the one he reserves for sickbay, where his autocracy is unchallenged. “Sit down, Captain,” he says.

 

But Kirk has learned a thing or two about psychological warfare and the application thereof in the thwarting of Bones’ plans. “After you, Doctor,” he says.

 

The Doctor lowers himself into the chair behind his desk, with the air of one who knows very well that the upper hand is his. He says, “Sit down, Jim, I’m not going to bite. I just want to know how you’re doing, is all.”

 

“Is that Dr. McCoy asking, or Bones?”

 

“Personal or professional interest, you mean?” He leans back in his chair and folds his arms. “Both, I guess. Call it professional interest, off the record.”

 

Kirk raises an eyebrow. The significance of the gesture is not lost on him and he hides a laugh in an ironic smile as he lowers himself into the chair opposite. “Off and on the record, Bones - I’m fine. A little shaken up, disoriented maybe, but no lingering urge to bring you and all my closest friends with me every trip to the bathroom, if that’s what you mean.”

 

Bones quirks his lips but his stare is relentless. It’s a really good stare. “Have you talked to Spock?”

 

“Spock?” Kirk’s pulse spikes but he keeps his face steady. “A little, yesterday. On the bridge. Why?”

 

“Jim,” says McCoy, and the concern in his voice is surprising. He’s seen the wall drop once or twice, mostly when Spock is injured or otherwise incapacitated and it falls to the Doctor to work out some way to hang onto him in the face of immovable Vulcan reticence. Bones has known Spock longer than Kirk has, and the Captain has never once doubted that the bickering and antagonism masks a genuine respect and grudging affection, but he’s never heard him use that tone when their First has been in no immediate danger of death. “Jim, he was prepared to stand in front of a firing squad.” A beat. “For you.”

 

As if he needs to be reminded of that. He slept restlessly last night when was able to sleep at all, and his dreams were full of phaser fire. But his voice is even when he says, “So were you, Doctor, if I recall. You and Mr. Scott.”

 

“That’s different, Jim.” And if the gaze hardens just a little, if the set of the jaw tightens almost imperceptibly, it’s only because Kirk knows him so well that he sees it at all. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, Jim. Spock did. He stood up in front of the senior officers on a charge of mutiny. Mutiny, Jim. You know how Vulcans are, their code of honor. You know what’d have happened next and so does Spock, and he stood up there and did it anyway.”

 

The Captain of the Enterprise carries out an illegal death penalty on the son of the Vulcan Ambassador to Earth, on trumped-up charges that Vulcan pride cannot ignore. Yes, Kirk knows what would have happened next. It wasn’t just his life Spock risked, once Lester’s plans became clear - it was political chaos, potentially the end of the Federation, somewhere down a long and dangerous path of recrimination and counter-recrimination. Half of Kirk’s conversation with Admiral Fitzpatrick last night was dedicated to making sure that Spock knew not to tell his dad what nearly came to pass.

 

He spreads his hands. “What do you want me to say, Bones? He won’t thank me for mentioning it. He won’t thank me for thanking him. And he certainly won’t thank me for asking if he’s all right.”

 

“Just...” Bones waves an irritable hand. “Just keep an eye on him, Jim. And yourself. Lord knows, between the two of you I’ve got more gray hair on my head than I did twenty-four hours ago. I tell you, Jim, if I make it to the end of this mission, I’m gonna hole myself up in private practice in a town so small it don’t even appear on the map. I’m gonna spend my days pulling buttons out of kids’ noses and thank the Lord I don’t live in interesting times anymore.”

 

It’s a little too close to Kirk’s wandering thoughts from the night before and he drops his eyes, before he realizes that Bones has his gaze fixed on him and will absolutely not miss the gesture. He covers it with a smile and says, “I’d better promote you before you can escape, then.”

 

“Don’t you dare, Captain.”

 

“Don’t worry, Bones.” He glances up. “I’m sure you’ve offended enough of the admiralty that they’d refuse to ratify it anyway.”

 

“Well, the life entity transfer hasn’t cured your questionable sense of humor, I see,” says the Doctor, with a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll sign your papers, Captain. Now, get yourself back up onto the bridge before the hobgoblin frets.”

 

“I’d like to see you say that to his face,” says Kirk cheerfully.

 

“I’ll have to, you hang around here much longer,” says Bones.

 

Kirk stands, tucks his chair back under the desk and rests his hands on it for a moment. He says, “Have you spoken to Dr. Coleman this morning?”

 

Bones nods. “Sure. First thing.”

 

“How’s Janice?”

 

“Sedated. Told him he’ll keep her that way, long as they’re on this ship.”

 

A flare of resentment bubbles in Kirk’s chest but he presses down hard upon it and says, “Is that really necessary?”

 

“I’d say so, Jim. We don’t have the resources to deal with a Janice Lester on the Enterprise. It’s for her good as much as anything else.”

 

“She wasn’t always so... full of anger.”

 

“Nope. I’d say she wasn’t. Shame of it is, I don’t even disagree with most of what she’s saying. But no-one’s gonna listen to her now.”

 

“No.” Kirk drums a tattoo with his fingers on the back of the chair.

 

“Something on your mind, Captain?”

 

“Plenty, Doctor.” He looks up and flashes a grin. “But I believe I’ll keep it to myself. At least until you sign off on my psych-eval.”

 

Bones heaves a sigh and reaches for his PADD and stylus. “Well, there goes my leverage,” he mutters as he scrawls a signature. “Now get, Captain.”

 

The Captain gets, but at the door he pauses and turns over his shoulder. “Bones,” he says. “Thanks. For... what nearly happened.”

 

It’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough, but the words haven’t been invented to describe that sort of gratitude and, in the absence of suitable hyperbole, Kirk has usually found that simple works best.

 

McCoy inclines his head, purses his lips. “Any time, Jim,” he says. “Make sure you thank Spock, too. And I’ll deny everything if you tell him I said so.” On cue, the ship’s whistle sings and the Doctor rolls his eyes. “Speak of the pointy-eared devil...”

 

He waves a dismissive hand at the Captain as Spock’s voice sounds over the comm.

 

“Spock to sickbay...”

 

“Yes, Mr. Spock, he’s just leaving,” says the Doctor with what he probably imagines is an air of infinite patience. As the doors close behind him, Kirk just catches a muttered, “What am I, a doctor or a chaperone?”

 

~*~

 

Kirk diverts to his quarters for a shower and sends his Yeoman up to the bridge with the news, which is cowardly, but he hasn’t spoken to his First yet this morning and he just cannot imagine how he’s going to make those their first words of the day and not blush scarlet, not after the night he’s just had. Alone, he strips off his sweat-soaked tunic and pants and throws them in the cycler, crossing naked to the head, which still smells faintly of Spock’s morning toilette. Kirk has no clear picture of Vulcan daily cleansing rituals, other than that the shower cubicle is never wet and the sonics are always set a few decibels too low for his taste, and the air is gently scented with ginger and lavender and pine when he’s done. His towel is neatly pegged to the door and darkened in patches where it has clearly been used to soak water off his skin, but there are no splashes around the sink, no fingermarks left on the highly-polished sheen of the vanity, no watery residue in the basin. There is absolutely nobody in the galaxy like a Vulcan to make a reasonably well house-trained Human male feel slovenly.

 

Reasoning that housekeeping will be in before Spock returns at the end of alpha shift, he opts for a water shower and steps inside, letting the jets pummel his skin just on the wrong side of too hot. As he scrubs, his head runs over the agenda for the day: conversations and conference calls, revised rendezvous arrangements with the Potemkin, negotiations with Starbase 2 to receive a secure medical transfer from their sickbay, and at some point he’ll have to make time to meet with Spock. No matter what McCoy says, Kirk does not plan to thank his First, for exactly the reasons he gave. He might have done, once, but this is too big for thanks, and it’s not quite that they’re not expected and not quite that they’re not necessary, but rather somewhere in between. There came a point, indefinable now, where it became obvious that this is just what they do: one of them gets into trouble and the other one fixes it. Explicit thanks imply that there was ever a chance that their recipient would have acted differently. They are simply understood.

 

If only he could stop thinking about the goddamn hand, though.

 

They used to flirt continuously, shamelessly even. On the bridge, at chess, in the mess room, on away missions, in sickbay, in the gym, on shore leave - it was like there was an invisible score board that followed them around and awarded randomly-calculated points for outrageous boundary-pushing. It was fun. Kirk flirts as easily as talking or breathing; he catches himself doing it sometimes right in the middle of a seduction he didn’t know he was planning, and sometimes it leads somewhere but most often it doesn’t. It’s not precisely about sexuality, not really; it’s more that he is attractive and he is charming, and these two things lead people to have certain expectations of him. And he’s learned how to use that.

 

Good looks are an accident of birth, just like intelligence. The only thing anyone can control is the way they use what they’ve got. It’s worked against him almost as often as it’s worked for him: all the tutors and the superior officers who saw only the face and not the brain beneath, all the times he’s lost the sympathy of a colleague or CO who decided that he’s got where he’s got on charisma alone. Admiral Komack’s antipathy is almost certainly based, at least in part, on the fact that Kirk is younger and better looking than he is, because Kirk is certain that - up until the Vulcan incident, anyway - he did nothing else to deserve it.

 

So he’s learned to use it, as a shield or as a weapon, according to circumstance. He flirts because it’s expected of him, because, mostly, people get offended if he doesn’t. It leads to sex far less often than anyone might think, usually because it can’t. That’s the intelligence kicking in. There are far more people in the galaxy with whom it would be a political nightmare to knock boots than an advantage, but flirtation is usually harmless. Often it’s useful; more often than that it’s enjoyable. The people who think he’s an empty face find him predictable and lewd and, while they’re busily confirming their opinions of him, he’s finding out what he needs to know. And the people who understand the game dance around him in a courtly two-step that demands his reciprocation.

 

He started flirting with Spock mostly just to annoy him.

 

He’s worked with difficult subordinates before, but difficult just doesn’t even begin to cover an intransigent Vulcan XO. Everything was scrupulously correct, regulations observed to the sub-section and clause, and delivered with such a tangible sense of disapproval that the Captain often wondered how the air didn’t just freeze when his First Officer looked at him. He knows that Chris Pike didn’t want the promotion that took him off the Enterprise, and he knows as well that the promotion was offered almost entirely on the basis that it freed up the flagship of the fleet for the publicity-heavy advancement of a photogenic new Captain with the sort of bio that looks good on the front page of the Sunday papers. Neither of them had any say in the matter, so he’s not sure how logical it would have been to have immolated himself on an altar of professional integrity, but he’s long since discovered that logic comes a poor second to loyalty in the Vulcan psyche. If they’d only admit that, he suspects a lot of misunderstandings would be avoided.

 

There’s very little you can do when your First Officer is engaged in a campaign of meticulous-ing you into insanity. It’s not as though you can ask him to stop being right all the time. And it’s not as if any functional Human with the social skills to exist outside of an institution with padded walls is ever going to be able to match the encyclopedic knowledge of a race with a built-in eidetic memory, so it was a given that the new Captain was going to fail the Vulcan test of regulatory observance. In the absence of a strategic alternative, and provoked to an impotent, bone-crushing rage by the delivery of one too many implacable eyebrow-raises, Kirk defaulted into a charm offensive that had the dual advantage of being both immeasurably satisfying and equally impossible to counter. It’s not the first time he’s used sexual manipulation as a tool, but it’s the first time he’s ever used it on a Vulcan. At first, all it did was make everyone uncomfortable, but that was happening anyway every time Spock or the Captain opened their mouths, and gradually - so gradually that he didn’t notice it happening until it had more or less happened - it stopped being about retaliation and started being about fun.

 

Kirk steps out of the shower, wrapping a towel around his waist before the water can puddle on the narrow floor, and crosses to his quarters. He flirts with Bones because they both enjoy it, and because Bones flirts right back and then pretends to be horrified. They’ve been doing it so long now that it’s hard to imagine how they’d interact without it, and there’s never been any kind of undercurrent of sexual tension or desire between them, so why the hell not? And that ended up being why he flirted with Spock, too: because there came a day when he realized that he couldn’t remember the last time his First had quoted some sententious little micro-codicil to explain why the Captain wasn’t allowed to cross his right leg over his left, and hot on the heels of that revelation came the sudden realization that the kind of compression thing he did with his eyes sometimes, the thing that seemed to light up his face from within, that was a smile, and it was directed at Kirk. And when the retaliatory imperative was gone, it turned out that a behavior born in antagonism was kind of exciting on its own - because it was Spock, because it transgressed every xenosociological norm in the extraordinarily detailed Starfleet book of etiquette, and because it meant that they were friends, and friends was so completely unexpected when three months earlier he would have settled for somebody I don’t spend seventeen hours of every day wanting to kill.

 

And then there was The Sneeze and the flirting... it didn’t stop, exactly, but it wasn’t innocent anymore. And while innocent has never been a prerequisite for fun in the act of flirting, this is clearly not that simple. There’s flirtatious banter, and there’s flirting with intent, and the decision to move from the former to the latter cannot be taken unilaterally. He’s not sure which of them decided to scale things back, only that they don’t really seem to do it anymore, and Kirk really, really hopes that the shift came from him. The alternative is too humiliating to contemplate.

 

He pulls on a fresh uniform, straightens his hair, steps into his boots. Friendship is good. It’s not the whisky-drinking, quasi-fraternal relationship that he has with Bones, or the low-maintenance, sexually-charged connection he had with Gary, and even after all these years he’s not absolutely certain he has a handle on what it is, but it’s good. It doesn’t need to be anything else. It’s good.

 

No, it’s good. Better than good.

 

Kirk heads to the bridge.

 

 

~*~

 

Spock is in the command chair and rises in one swift, fluid movement when the turbolift doors discharge the Captain. “Course plotted for the Beta Aurigae system, Captain,” he says formally. “Estimated arrival in sixty-two hours.” His eyes are fixed on an unremarkable spot above the engineering console and do not waver to Kirk’s.

 

The Captain represses a sigh. This again.

 

On the other hand, it does invoke some interesting precedents.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Spock,” he says. “Anything else I should know about?” He moves to the side of the chair but instead of sitting he deliberately places himself inside his First Officer’s personal space and smiles up into his face.

 

“Captain?” says Spock.

 

This again.

 

“Anomalies, incidents, extraordinary events, Mr. Spock,” says Kirk, and cannot resist adding, “Anecdotes.”

 

Nothing. Not so much as a quirked eyebrow. “Nothing to report, Captain,” says Spock, drilling a hole into a quotidian section of bulkhead with his unaltering stare.

 

Kirk gives in.

 

“Fine, thank you, Mr. Spock,” he says. He slides into his chair and takes a moment to enjoy the sensation of familiar contours pressed tightly against his skin. It’s a pleasure that has never entirely receded with familiarity, and twenty-four hours ago he wasn’t sure he’d ever know it again. When he looks up, it’s to see that Spock hasn’t moved from his position, although he has dropped his eyes.

 

“Something on your mind, Spock?” says Kirk.

 

Now it’s the floor that’s caught his interest. He says, “I merely wished to express my satisfaction at your return to the bridge, Captain.”

 

Kirk feels the smile spread like melted butter across his face. “Thank you, Mr. Spock,” he says. “I believe I share that sentiment.” Maybe it’s the warmth in his voice and maybe it’s the words, but something earns him belated eye-contact and the hard edges of the angular face soften into a clandestine smile.

 

The moment shines brightly, before being abruptly swallowed by the demands of the bridge. Kirk glances at the viewscreen, uniform black flecked with the occasional uninspiring pinprick flash of white, and says, “I’ll need you at some stage today, when you can spare a few moments.” He glances back at his First. “Admiral Fitzpatrick has some concerns he wants me to share with you.”

 

Spock inclines his head, and manages to convey with one utilitarian gesture that he has anticipated both the request and its contents, and is a tiny bit offended that the admiralty think he needs to be reminded not to start a Cold War between the two largest powers of the Federation. “I am at your disposal, Captain,” he says. “However, I had hoped to spend the remainder of alpha shift in the laboratories in preparation for our rendezvous with the Potemkin.”

 

“I thought Lieutenant Afaeaki had everything in hand?”

 

“I have asked Lieutenant Afaeaki to head the team beginning analysis on the data collected on Camus II. Given that we have limited resources from which to work...”

 

“Yes, all right,” says Kirk, with less irritation than he feels. There is no good or pressing reason to keep Spock on the bridge, apart from the fact that he clearly wants to leave and Kirk’s not sure he should get to run away like that. This happens every single time. “Very well, Mr. Spock. With any luck, we’re in for an uneventful journey. But keep your communicator on you, will you?”

 

“Captain?” says Spock, and Kirk resists the urge to close his eyes and sigh heavily. If he’s progressed to pretending not to understand idiom already, then there could be days of this ahead.

 

“Just - go on, Mr. Spock,” he says. “But keep some time aside for our meeting, please. I assume the labs can spare you for fifteen minutes at some stage?”

 

The sarcasm is heavily implied, but Spock has the upper hand, since all he has to do is start talking about the implications of the coefficient of pi on the delta-emissions of neutron radiation and the Captain will not be able to offer a rejoinder. He says, “In fact, I anticipate that the remodeling of the duotronic inhibitor circuits to the sensitivity required to separate the gravitational matrices of the binary system will require at least eight hours to complete. However,” he adds before Kirk can snap an irritable reply to the effect that he damn well better make some time in that case, “if the matter is not sufficiently urgent, perhaps we might arrange to discuss it after the conclusion of alpha shift?”

 

Kirk opens his mouth to speak and even gets as far as drawing in the first breath, but then Spock’s words catch up with his brain and he stops. His First Officer is standing calmly in front of him, waiting for the words that will allow him to run away and hide in his labs for the next few days, and the Captain could order him to delegate the jobs to someone else - Fipe Afaeaki could re-route the duotronic inhibitors with her eyes closed, which means Spock could do it in his sleep, from another starship on the other side of the galaxy and with both arms and legs immobilized - but he’d be pulling rank without much in the way of justification and they both know it.

 

But the thing is, the fact that he’s engaged at all in a battle of wills over a proposed emotional withdrawal means that the hand-holding incident has left an impression on Spock as well, because this is what always happens. Everything will be fine, warmth flowing easily between them, half-smiles traded across the bridge, finishing each other’s thoughts, and then suddenly something will happen, something more, and Kirk will wonder if maybe, possibly, conceivably there’s something else there. And Spock will disappear - into a shell of taciturn Vulcan correctness, into duty and regulation or, occasionally, physically into another part of the ship. If there was some way to be sure, some guarantee that it’s not all in Kirk’s unrequited mind, then he’d corner his friend and demand an answer. But nothing that’s happened to date is tangible enough to pin down and say, this. This is what I mean. Nothing has happened that can’t be spun into something perfectly innocent, and he won’t risk the friendship or his pride on smoke and mirrors.

 

Still, he’s pretty certain that, in the face of a full-scale Vulcan retreat, he’s just been handed largess. “Very well, Mr. Spock,” says Kirk. “I’ll be in my quarters after eight o’clock. I assume that’s suitable?”

 

Spock offers a patrician nod. “I appreciate the accommodation,” he says.

 

“Fine, fine,” says the Captain, waving a hand, but he can’t keep the smile from coursing back across his face again. “Have fun with the inhibitor circuits, Mr. Spock. I’ll see you at eight.”

 

Spock doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but neither does he feign confusion. In a complicated battle for terrain he doesn’t know, Kirk is not prepared to count it a victory, but it’s not a complete defeat either. He accepts a PADD from a Yeoman and when he looks up again, Spock is gone.

 

 

Chapter Text

It has often been Spock’s habit, when his mind is unsettled, to anesthetize his thoughts with a series of complex and detailed projects, and it is unfortunate that his prior efficiency has made it impossible on this occasion. The Camusian analysis might have offered some respite, but for the fact that Camus II and everything connected with their brief stay on the planet is the root cause of his current agitation, and this has left him with either the sensor alignment or the bridge.

 

The long-range sensor array lab is buried in the forward hull of the engineering deck, not far from the observation rooms where he often cloisters himself in meditation. The sight of the infinite depths beyond the small windows is immeasurably soothing to his scientist’s soul, stretching as it does into the incalculable distance where numbers begin to coil and dance in a way that has always twisted a tiny thrill of satisfaction in his belly, like the lazy brush of a high-summer sun through the shade of an in-du-ka in full leaf. There is also the fact that very few crewmembers have any reason to spend much time in this part of the ship, which has a lot to do with his decision to remodel today.

 

It’s not that they couldn’t have taken the required measurements with a high degree of precision using the current system, he reflects as he unrolls his tool case and sets to removing the access paneling. The Enterprise and the Potemkin are similarly equipped and it’s just a question of pooling resources for optimum efficiency, but Spock is Spock and the prospect of being set loose on a binary system - and a possible source of Berthold radiation - is the sort of thing that finds him pulling eight-day marathons in the lab before someone points out that he probably ought to sleep now. Or eat. Or at least sit down for a while. There is a part of him that he can’t help but acknowledge - but to which he’ll never openly admit - that has been looking forward to this mission since the orders came through a little over six days ago. It’s the same part that allows him to justify his absence from the bridge, but made sure he stayed long enough to see for himself that the Captain was all right.

 

Self-deception is illogical. What is left to him, therefore, is damage control.

 

There is no way to accurately determine when the change occurred. Some time between the second and third years of the mission, he believes, but it’s speculation, and speculation makes him uncomfortable. At some point, despite everything he knows and everything he’s seen, partiality crept up on him. Perhaps it was a mistake to lower his guard enough to allow their friendship to take root and grow, or perhaps nothing could have halted this explosion of emotion; either way, it’s proved remarkably impervious to exorcism and he’s had to learn to live with it. Kaiidth; there is nothing to be gained from regret. All he can control is what he does next.

 

He opens the paneling and sets it gently to one side. The cave of relay circuitry blinks and glimmers in the shadowy darkness as he eases himself into the heart of the sensory system and runs questing fingers across arcane banks of wires and readout dials, gently inspecting, surveying, cataloging. It will not take him eight hours, he decides, but he knows already that he won’t return to the bridge when he’s done – he’ll sequester himself away in one of the labs that isn’t working on Camusian hieroglyphs and find some other perfectly reasonable way to occupy himself until eight o’clock.

 

At some point, he really is going to have to spend some time meditating on what happened yesterday.

 

He knows Kirk didn’t sleep well last night because Spock spent most of the night crouched cross-legged on his mat in front of the asenoi trying to reach the preliminary stages of kohl-tor, and he heard his Captain shuffling and moving about in his quarters until well into the small hours of the morning. In the end, he gave up pretending he was going to get anywhere with meditation and simply listened to the sounds of Kirk’s proximity, settling into a warm glow of satisfaction in the knowledge that the Captain was back where he belonged. The flavor of Kirk’s mind danced in his psi-center, brushing up against the memories of the day and sending little jolts of panic thrilling through his belly at the sound of his remembered voice inside Spock’s head.

 

The Captain was diminished and alone inside that unfamiliar consciousness, hollering his First Officer’s name, and hot on the heels of the first, breathless rush of horror was a rage that almost crippled Spock’s capacity for coherent thought. It was kae'at k'lasa, perhaps not in the Vulcan definition, but a violation of the sanctity of the mind nonetheless. He knows that his controls did not completely disintegrate, by virtue of the fact that the men who tried to stop him from removing his Captain from captivity are still alive, but he remembers the fires of anger boiling in his veins and a scream of fury echoing in his skull: you shall not touch him. He remembers the overwhelming need to reach out for Kirk’s hand and reassure himself that he was there, that he was solid and alive, and to feel the buzz of the Captain’s self beneath the surface of that alien skin. With the objectivity of hindsight, Spock can catalog every action and reaction and its emotional imperative. This is not the problem. The problem is that he gave in to it.

 

He passes the morning in solitude. Close to the midday meal break, as he has been vaguely expecting, his communicator chirps and the Captain’s voice fills the electronic grotto. In another colleague, this would be irritating. In the Captain, it’s too predictable to cause any flare of annoyance.

 

“How’s the work coming along, Mr. Spock?” he wants to know.

 

“Adequately, Captain,” he says. As an answer, it has the advantage of being so non-specific as to be true at virtually any stage of the process, while offering absolutely nothing in the way of actual information. He has possibly an hour’s work ahead of him before the modifications are complete, but if Kirk finds out he’ll expect them to eat lunch together and Spock hasn’t finished collecting his thoughts yet.

 

“I’m just about to meet Bones in the officer’s mess,” says Kirk. “He’s insisting that you join us.”

 

Spock twists a dial three quarters of a degree clockwise. “Regretfully, I must decline,” he says.

 

There is a small pause. It’s possible that the Doctor is listening in. “Come on, Spock. You need to eat.”

 

“The Vulcan metabolism…”

 

“Don’t give me ‘Vulcan metabolism’, you green-blooded computer!” Well, that was predictable. “Stop hiding out in the ship’s circuitry and come and have lunch with us.”

 

“As I told the Captain, Doctor, the nature of this work is extremely delicate,” says Spock. “It requires my full attention.”

 

“Bones, leave him alone,” says Kirk. “I told you he was busy.”

 

“We can all be busy when we want to be,” mutters the Doctor. Spock considers analyzing that and then decides against it.

 

“I’ll see you later, Spock.” Kirk again. “Don’t work too hard.”

 

There are two possible replies to that. The first involves a token protest about the relative difficulty of the task in hand, and will certainly elicit some form of invective from McCoy. Spock opts for the second. “Negative, Captain,” he says. Like adequately, it is conveniently vague. “Spock out.”

 

The exchange has lasted less than three minutes, but for the devastation it has wreaked on his patchwork controls, he might as well have stayed on the bridge all morning. It is typical of his responses in the hours after he has allowed his barriers to slip. If he had known – if it had ever occurred to him to ask – he might have been able to pinch down hard upon the flowering affection before it was able to blossom into something so manifestly ungovernable, but he has spent his life striving towards the Vulcan disciplines, to the point where he’d begun to believe that his body would always follow the biological patterns of his father’s people. Even if he’d had the words to ask his mother, he’d never had any cause to think that his Human side would rear up to announce itself so violently and so unexpectedly, and this is how it came to take him so completely unawares.

 

He remembers the day of his pre-bonding ceremony and the sudden, probing invasion of another mind in his. He remembers recoiling, the tightness of his father’s hands on his shoulders, his eyes flickering upwards to meet T’Pring’s, and the look on her face that mirrored the turmoil inside his skull. There should be a sense of presence when a connection is made. There should be a manifest difference between before and after. It ought to be possible to look back and remember with crystal clarity the moment that his life became joined to another’s. If he had any inclination to imagine the Human conception of erotic love, it must have hovered vaguely around the notion of a collision of minds, of feeling the pricklings of another consciousness gently brushing up against his. No wonder Standard is so reprehensibly vague when it comes to a definition of the Human bond – there is no way to catalog it or refine it into a single fragment of time. It simply is. There must be a moment when I becomes we, but it’s lost to the vagaries of emotion and it wasn’t until it had insinuated itself irrevocably into his sense of himself that Spock was even aware that he had fallen in love. The Human way.

 

It’s a disaster.

 

~*~

 

He spends fifteen minutes trying to decide whether he should turn up for his appointment with Kirk dressed still in his uniform, or if he ought to change into his off-duty robes, and then another five being seriously unimpressed with himself for even wondering in the first place. In the end, the internal debate conveniently eats up the last minutes before the meeting and the decision is made for him, and he realizes, as he waits outside the Captain’s quarters for admittance, that it’s the right one anyway. Uniform keeps this business. He’s not sure he’s ready yet to resume their camaraderie.

 

“Come,” calls Kirk’s voice from inside, and the door slides open.

 

The Captain has taken his boots off and loosened the collar of his tunic, and he sits back in his chair with his stocking feet propped up on his desk. He looks tired but at ease, as Spock has often found him in the evenings after their shift when they’ve found time to spend in easy conversation and unexpected companionship. He smiles up at his First as he enters, and Spock schools his expression into indifference and stares at the wall behind Kirk’s head.

 

“First Officer reporting as requested, Captain,” he says. A light in Kirk’s eyes fades and the smile wilts but does not collapse. He lifts his feet down from the desk and indicates the spare chair with a wave of his hand.

 

“Have a seat, Spock,” he says as he stands – slowly, a little stiffly, perhaps – and crosses to the synthesizer. “Thanks for coming. I’m ready for a drink, how about you?”

 

It would be so easy to accept, to loosen his rigid shoulders and let his tightly-leashed affection shine from his eyes. To sit quietly and listen to his Captain tell tales about an uneventful day on the bridge, and infuse them with all the passion, all the humor, all the love of a man who has found his rightful place in the universe. Spock’s spine aches where he forces it to resist the urge to lower himself into the chair and, clasped behind his back, his hands would tremble if he didn’t hold them so tightly. He makes himself say, “Thank you, Captain, but I must decline.”

 

Kirk raises an eyebrow. These are the things that make it so difficult to hold onto his resolve. The Captain says, “You’re not going back to the lab tonight?”

 

Spock could probably find something to do, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough to keep his mind occupied. He says, “Negative, Captain, but I must spend some time in meditation tonight.”

 

“And a glass of pineapple juice is going to stop you meditating?” The words are light, but Kirk is not looking at him and there is a tension in his shoulders as he speaks. He bends to retrieve a decanter from his liquor cabinet and pours a generous measure into an ornate glass. The sharp odor of alcohol infuses the air. “Come on, Spock. Sit down and have a drink with me. I won’t keep you long.”

 

There is something about the way that James Kirk makes a request that is not quite an order and not quite a suggestion, but is simply loaded with the assumption that the world will just fall into place the way he expects it to. It is one of the many, many reasons that Spock found him close to intolerable in the first weeks of his command, and has become one of the many, many reasons for his regard. He sits. Kirk takes this as acquiescence and punches a code into the synthesizer, which responds with a tall glass of pale yellow liquid. Spock accepts it with a perfunctory nod and the Captain slides into his chair on the opposite side of the desk. His eyes do not seek Spock’s.

 

“Thanks for coming,” he says again. Spock inclines his head and the movement causes the hazel eyes, belatedly, to dart up. “Did you make much headway with the sensor arrays?”

 

“The system has been fully remodeled,” says Spock. The glass is cold in his hand and he sets it on the desk. A thin vein of condensation tracks towards the surface and he catches it with an outstretched finger, aware that the Captain is watching. “Efficiency ratings should improve by approximately thirty-eight percent.”

 

“Approximately?” says Kirk, and a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth.

 

Another evening, Spock would cheerfully join in the game, but tonight it’s as much as he can do to hold the fragments of his barriers together, so he allows a single beat to declare his disinterest and says, “37.87 percent, to be precise.”

 

The smile fades. “Excellent,” says Kirk without conviction. “It never hurts to show ‘fleet what we’ve got.” Spock says nothing and Kirk takes a savage gulp of his drink and leans forwards. Ice clinks against the sides of his glass. He says, “So, I won’t keep you from your busy evening, Spock.” The words bruise, as they are intended to do, but there’s nothing can be done about that. “The admiralty are in a panic about the political implications of yesterday’s events and they want to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. Don’t even bother, Spock,” he adds as his First opens his mouth to speak. “I know you understand and I’m not sure why you’re pretending not to.”

 

Caught in an outright prevarication, but before he’s had the opportunity to condemn himself, Spock goes for the defensive. “I was merely preparing to state my apprehension of the situation,” he says.

 

Kirk fixes him with a relentless stare that telegraphs his skepticism and holds it for a moment too long. “Good,” he says at last. “Then I don’t need to tell you that there are certain aspects of yesterday’s court martial that are going to be struck from the official record.”

 

“I had anticipated as much.”

 

“And you’ve got nothing to say about that?”

 

Spock raises an eyebrow. “It would be illogical to protest when the necessity is clear.”

 

“Spock!” Kirk’s moods are mercurial and anger is rarely sustained. His eyes furrow in concern. “They ought to give you a goddamn medal for what you did yesterday! And I can’t even put a commendation in your records! They’re going to pretend it didn’t happen.”

 

Silence hangs heavily between them. “Yes, Captain,” says Spock at last.

 

Kirk sits back heavily and raises an exasperated hand. It hangs in the air between them. “I can’t…” he begins to say, and shakes his head. “Never mind. Just… Go. Meditate. Be Vulcan. Do what you need to do.” The hand drops abruptly, like an injured bird. “Bones wants to talk to you, but I’d avoid that if I were you.”

 

“I have found that to be a sensible strategy when faced with the Doctor’s ministrations,” says Spock. Kirk peers up from beneath a hooded brow.

 

“I’ll expect you on the bridge tomorrow then.” It’s not quite a statement and not quite a question. Spock is aware that the Captain will not make it an order, not at this stage.

 

He says, “There are currently no projects in the laboratories that require my attention.” It’s not quite an answer either.

 

The evaluative gaze continues, and is abruptly concluded with a huge intake of breath. “Good,” says Kirk. “I’ll let you get on with your evening then. Lord knows, I have enough to do myself.”

 

He scrubs his hands over his face as Spock stands, and the action leaves his hair mussed at the front. For a terrible moment, it’s as much as Spock can do not to reach a hand across the desk to straighten it. The Captain looks exhausted – more than when Spock arrived. But there’s nothing he can do about that.

 

“Thank you, Captain,” he says.

 

“Get some rest, Mr. Spock,” says Kirk. He is already reaching for his terminal and does not look up as he speaks. It’s a clear dismissal and Spock is aware that he deserves it.

 

“Captain,” says Spock. He crosses to the door and pauses by the control pad. What he ought to do is walk out and across the few feet of corridor that lead to his door, and sequester himself inside until he finds either meditation or unconsciousness; some way, at least, to allow his yammering mind to sort through the emotional detritus of the past days. But the Captain is tired and bruised, and some of that is Spock’s fault. He turns back to the room.

 

“Jim,” he says. Kirk looks up, startled confusion plastered across his face. “You are fatigued. You should also rest.”

 

Kirk’s eyes are wide. He says, “I will, Spock. I have some reports to finish first.”

 

“Perhaps,” says Spock, “I could assist you tomorrow. If our schedules are free.”

 

The Captain’s face slowly unfolds into his sunshine smile, the one that seems to illuminate him from within. It eases the lines of strain from around his eyes and warms the room around him. He says, “I’d appreciate that, Spock. Goodnight.”

 

“Goodnight,” says Spock. It’s a Jim moment, but he’s already given more than he’s equal to, and he leaves it at that.

 

~*~

 

 

Chapter Text

Had the offer come from anyone else, Kirk might have questioned its sincerity. After all, it’s one of those things you often just say: you look tired, can I help with anything? But Vulcans don’t do politesse and they don’t make empty promises. Sure enough, he’s barely set foot on the bridge before his First has approached him with a list of potential spaces in their joint schedule, and they settle on a working lunch in Kirk’s quarters. And it’s a good thing too, because the Captain’s body mutinied last night and sent him to an early bed despite the protests of his hyperactive brain. He might be well-rested today – if a little groggy – but the reports aren’t going to finish themselves.

 

It’s a small moment of satisfaction, and moments of satisfaction are likely to be in short supply this shift. He holds onto it.

 

They reach Starbase 2 mid-morning. Kirk stays on the bridge long enough to exchange the diplomatic necessities, then hands over the con to Sulu for final docking procedures, and strides, quickly and silently, to the turbolift. Spock joins him there without a word, except to offer their destination as the door slides shut. The Captain half-expected as much and he nods a tight little smile as they glide through the decks, and Spock returns the nod, but it’s pointed towards the doors as though his head is frozen on its axis. Still, he’s here. He doesn’t need to be, but he’s here. Maybe he just wants to make sure Janice Lester is off the ship.

 

Silence isn’t unusual between them and it’s often difficult to determine its quality where Spock is concerned. Silence, in fact, may well be one of the arcane Vulcan arts for all Kirk knows, and as far as he can tell it can mean anything from there is no need to talk at the moment to I am considering the moral rectitude of irritation as motive for murder. He has long since stopped feeling uncomfortable in these periods of stillness, ever since he worked out that it was about Spock and not about his company, and there are times when Kirk will actively seek out his First Officer in the knowledge that conversation will not be expected. This morning is a case in point. The Captain has too much going on inside his head to be interested in making small talk, and Spock’s silent presence is a kind of tacit approval, a small indication that at least one person in the turbolift is sure Kirk is doing the right thing. Because whatever else has happened, he did love Janice once, and that part of him thinks he’s a bastard this morning.

 

They leave the lift outside the transporter room to the sound of voices drifting through the open doors and into the corridor. One of them belongs to Dr. McCoy, who wakes up cantankerous and has generally managed to spin it into full-scale dyspepsia by this point in the day, as he checks off a list of medications as though it has personally offended him. Kirk can also make out Jerry Freeman, speaking in the low tones of a man who is accustomed to being obeyed without question, and the plaintive voice of Dr. Coleman, whose interruptions Freeman is patiently ignoring. The crew snap to attention as the Captain and First Officer enter the room, and Kirk sees that Freeman has stationed another two security officers in the room. They stand silently against the near wall, hands on their phasers. Janice is strapped to a gurney, twilighted but not unconscious, and her eyes roll towards Kirk and fix on him. He holds her stare for as long as he can before he looks away.

 

Bones steps forward as they enter and places a hand on Kirk’s arm, and the Captain allows himself to be led to one side. “Jim,” says the Doctor quietly. “You don’t need to be here for this.”

 

“On the contrary,” says Kirk, in a voice loud enough to carry across the room. It’s a deliberate reproach, and Bones purses his lips as he acknowledges it. “We’re docked for the next ninety minutes, Doctor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay my courtesies to Commodore Ward. Besides,” and he offers his patented smile, which never fools McCoy, never, “there’s an old friend on the Starbase I’d like to say hello to.”

 

Bones rolls his eyes, so at least he’s playing along. “Isn’t there always?” he says.

 

Kirk glances over at the gurney. “How’s the patient this morning?”

 

“She’s been unnecessarily sedated for over thirty-six hours now!” protests Dr. Coleman. “It’s barbaric, Captain Kirk…”

 

“It’s for her own good, Doctor,” says Bones. He flashes half a sideways glance at Kirk, who is carefully keeping his eyes trained away from the cot. “Dr. Lester was showing signs of severe agitation…”

 

“Of course she was agitated!”

 

“Ship’s security is the top priority, Dr. Coleman,” says Freeman. He rarely raises his voice and he carries himself with all the quiet restraint of a stalking predator, and both of these qualities go a long way towards heading off trouble before it starts. He’ll be a Captain some day. “If that doesn’t make you happy, well, I’m not sure I particularly care. She threatened the Captain and the senior officers of this ship.”

 

“Thank you, Commander,” says Kirk quickly. To Coleman he adds, “Until such times as Dr. Lester reaches more suitable accommodation, there are just some things you’ll have to put up with, I’m afraid. In the meantime, I’m going to defer to my CMO and my Head of Security in these matters, Doctor.”

 

He glances up at the operations console, to which Spock has absented himself during the brief exchange, and from which he watches with hooded eyes and an unreadable expression. Kirk scans his face for a moment in search of some clue as to what he’s thinking, but there’s nothing there. It’s like lead in the pit of his stomach and he suddenly just wants to get out of the transporter room with its cacophony of guilt and recrimination, and to set the process in motion that will get this constant sense of castigation off his ship. He steps quickly up onto the transporter pad and Spock falls in beside him without a word.

 

“Commander Freeman, Dr. McCoy – I’ll leave the transfer arrangements with you,” says the Captain. “Mr. Spock and I will beam down initially and signal when the Starbase is ready to receive our medical party. Energize, Mr. Kyle.”

 

As the beam takes hold, Kirk notices that Dr. Coleman’s hands are bound in front of him, and something painful twists in his gut. He lifts his eyes and stares at the wall as it dissolves in front of him.

 

~*~

 

“Captain Kirk!” says a familiar voice as the whine in his ears recedes and the familiar sense of weightlessness inverted marks the reconstitution of his atoms.

 

The transporter room on Starbase 2 is four times the size of the one he’s just left, with a section cordoned off to the left for the transport of heavy freight up to the size and weight of about half a shuttle. The air crackles with leashed energy and the lighting is low by the console where the welcoming party waits. The CO steps forward, smiling widely with her hands outstretched, and Kirk fixes an answering grin across his face and steps forward to meet her.

 

“Commander Sun,” he says, taking the hands in his and leaning in to kiss her cheek.

 

“You remembered,” she says cheerfully. “I was sure I’d have to remind you it wasn’t Lieutenant anymore.”

 

“Long overdue,” he says. He extricates himself from one half of the embrace to gesture back towards the transporter pad, where Spock has found something fascinating to stare at on the ceiling. “My First Officer, Commander Spock,” says Kirk, and the dark eyes shift from the shadowed heights to focus on their Captain and his new friend. He steps forward. “Spock, this is Commander Mee-Kyong Sun, First Officer of Starbase 2. She and I were at the Academy together.”

 

“Commander Spock,” she says and releases Kirk’s other hand to make the ta’al. Spock acknowledges it with a terse nod and mirrors the gesture. “It’s a pleasure to meet you in the flesh. Your reputation precedes you.” She grins at Kirk. “Like Jim’s, of course.”

 

That earns her another nod and a stone-faced mask of purest Vulcan implacability. But she recovers well.

 

“The Commodore sends his apologies,” she says. “There was a last minute conference call from HQ – he’ll join us as soon as he can. We’re expecting a merchant party from Columbus VI in four days’ time and the admiralty are anxious we make sure they know how profitable they’d find life in the Federation.”

 

Kirk laughs. “I can’t say I’m sorry to miss that party.”

 

“Jim Kirk, you’d have them eating out of your hand in thirty seconds flat!” she scolds. Valiantly, she nods over to Spock. “I’m sure you’ve had plenty of opportunity to witness the Kirk charm in action, Commander,” she says. “James Kirk could sell snow to the Andorians!”

 

Spock inclines his head. “The Captain is an accomplished diplomat.”

 

If her smile falters for just a second, she covers it quickly, and Kirk plasters a smooth grin across his face to distract from the ice monster to his left. He says, “It’s a shame we can’t stay longer, though. It’s been too long.”

 

“And yet you haven’t changed a bit,” she says fondly. There’s a pause, and her shifting expression clearly broadcasts what’s coming next. “Jim,” she says. Kirk braces himself. “I’m sorry to hear about all this. It’s… it must be very hard for you.”

 

His smile tightens despite himself, but he says, “It’s a relief to know that she’ll be getting the treatment she needs.”

 

“I’d heard…” She stops, and then visibly realizes that she’s committed herself and plows on. “I heard Janice had a breakdown a few years back. She was never – I mean it was a shock, but she was always…”

 

“Yes,” says Kirk.

 

There’s a pause and he can see the emotions play out across her face. Mee-Kyong and Janice were briefly friends, in that vaguely hostile way that he’ll never completely understand, but towards the end of the relationship, Mee-Kyong’s presence in Kirk’s life was just one more source of their constant battles. She wasn’t the only friend advising him to leave, but she’s one of the very few women he knows who was consistently kind about Janice in the aftermath. She says, “She’ll be in good hands, Jim.”

 

“Yes,” he says again, and, because it clearly requires a little more input this time, he adds, “Thank you.” He glances towards the rest of the party. “If your team are ready, I’ll signal the ship to begin beam down.”

 

A middle-aged Saurian in science blues steps forward. “I am Commander Kozu,” he says. “Chief Medical Officer aboard the Starbase. I will be supervising Dr. Lester’s transfer to Elba. We are ready to receive the patient.”

 

“Thank you,” says Kirk. He glances up at Spock and sees that he is already reaching for his communicator. Gratitude floods the Captain’s chest.

 

“Spock to Enterprise,” says his friend, and, though he doesn’t meet Kirk’s eyes, his voice is gentle. “Prepare to initiate patient transfer.”

 

~*~

 

The Captain strides rapidly towards the door as soon as the beam releases him, and his parting words are a brusque injunction to Spock to take the con and report to him in his quarters for their lunchtime appointment. Spock briefly glances at Dr. McCoy, whose eyes are fixed on the figure disappearing down the corridor.

 

“Damn it,” says the Doctor softly. His gaze meets Spock’s. “How long til your lunch, Spock?”

 

“Fifty-seven minutes,” says Spock.

 

“Think you can be early?”

 

The idea had occurred to Spock even before they beamed back up from the Starbase, but he dismissed it uneasily. Even if he had the words, he doubts they would be welcome. Sometimes Kirk just needs to be alone.

 

He says, “I would counsel against any intrusion into the Captain’s privacy at present, Doctor.”

 

He expects an explosion of Georgian acrimony and has partially shielded against it, and so the soft puff of air comes as something of a surprise.

 

“Yup,” says McCoy slowly. “Never thought I’d see the day, but looks like I agree with you, Spock.” He steps down from the transporter pad, hands folded behind his back, and glares up at Lieutenant Kyle. “And you just remember who gives you your yearly physical before you go telling anyone I said that, Mister.”

 

It’s a problem, of course. How much of a problem it was became clear when he glanced up at the Captain as he was leaving the bridge this morning and realized how much the past few days have cost him. It’s a problem because Spock needs to keep his distance for a while in order to repair the damage done by a moment’s lapse outside Janice Lester’s room, but one look at Kirk’s tight, locked-in face was enough to cast serious doubts on the logistics of that strategy. Following Kirk into danger or adversity isn’t even a conscious decision anymore; it’s just something his body does automatically unless it’s specifically commanded otherwise, and, if they hadn’t specifically discussed Spock joining the away party, they hadn’t specifically discussed him staying on the bridge either. There was time in the turbolift for the Captain to send him back but he didn’t and, standing beside him, Spock was alarmed by the heavy waves of distress that singed the air between them. It doesn’t take a telepath to read the Captain’s thoughts at the moment, and there is simply no way he can abandon his friend to that kind of darkness. He might be uniquely ill-fitted amongst the ship’s crew to offer consolation or support, but that doesn’t erase the need for it, and the Captain’s need cannot be ignored. Even in the face of some very shaky controls.

 

The command chair is largely decorative this morning, and there is nothing to be gained from telling Sulu or Chekov their jobs during routine maneuvers. Spock occupies himself with a series of mundane tasks of the niggling variety: sifting through command communiqués about nothing urgent or important, reviewing maintenance reports, updating duty rosters for the coming weeks, and none of it is remotely sufficient to keep his mind from wandering back to the moment of rematerialization in the Starbase transporter room when a high, clear voice cut through the darkness in evident delight.

 

Vulcan and Human standards of aesthetic attraction are not identical, but they are similar enough to call Commander Sun beautiful. Her slender body was slight but powerful, her dark hair glinted in the low light, and her pale skin seemed to glow from within. Her smile stretched from one high cheekbone to another and the teeth it revealed were white and straight. None of these things alone is enough to mark a being as attractive, but they converge on a face that defines an ideal of feminine allure to which, experience tells him, the Captain is highly susceptible. And the answering joy on Kirk’s face when she offered her greeting was enough to gnaw a hollow pit of resignation in his First Officer’s belly.

 

It comes to this: the knowledge has always been there, however deeply buried, that their current situation is transitory. After an inauspicious start, the years of this mission have grown into the most contented and the most satisfactory period of Spock’s life, and the only differential factor between this assignment and the eleven years that preceded it is the presence of James Kirk on the Enterprise. In a matter of months, that fact will most likely no longer be true – men of Kirk’s caliber do not remain in low-level command for long – and, for all that Spock would gladly follow him wherever Starfleet decides he belongs, it remains the case that his Captain is a handsome, virile man approaching middle-age, and his marital status is something of an anomaly among his peers. One day, probably soon, he will make his choice and everything will change.  

 

It’s an unpleasant reality, but the fact is that neither of them can remain in stasis indefinitely. What are the chances, in any case, of Spock escaping another pon farr unattached? His Human heart will always be at war with his Vulcan body, and if he can decide, illogically, to resist the biological imperative for so long, at some point his conscious mind will cease to have any say in the matter and it’s more than likely he’d find himself on the other side of plak tow with a wife at his side and no real memory of how she got there. Logically, he knows this is not the way he wants to proceed – it’s just that it always seemed like there would be time before he had to face it. But Kirk is lonely and, when he decides to do something about that, there will be no shortage of opportunities for him. Commander Sun is simply the most immediate option right now.

 

Spock is habitually early for meetings anyway, so it’s easy to justify his arrival at Kirk’s door with ten minutes to spare. His buzz for entry is met with a reasonably cheerful, “That can only be you, Spock. Come in,” and the door slides open on the Captain seated behind his desk with a stack of data tapes in front of him, his face lit by the reflected glow of the terminal screen. He smiles up at his First Officer as the door closes behind him and the sentiment makes a noble attempt to reach his eyes, but their customary spark is missing.

 

He gestures a hand towards the empty chair. “The food’ll be another few minutes,” he says. “Have a seat. I don’t suppose there’s much to report from the bridge?”

 

“Negative, Captain,” says Spock, settling himself across the table from Kirk. “We are making adequate progress towards our rendezvous with the Potemkin, but there is no appreciable update to our ETA.”

 

“Good,” says Kirk, with another valiant effort at a convincing insouciance. “I think we’ve all had enough excitement for one week, don’t you?”

 

“Agreed,” says Spock. The Captain’s eyes meet his briefly and he is aware that he is being examined carefully, aware that Kirk is testing the current boundaries of their friendship. Spock resists the urge to shy away from the scrutiny and meets the gaze, offering what silent reassurance he can in his unpracticed expression.

 

Presently, the Captain’s face softens and he says, “I appreciate you beaming down with me today. I was glad of a friendly face.”

 

Spock’s eyebrow quirks before he can stop it. It provokes a genuine laugh from the other side of the desk. “Mee-Kyong?” says Kirk. “Yes, that’s true enough. But you know what I mean.”

 

Spock is not entirely sure that he does, so he says, carefully, “I understand your reluctance to depart from the Starbase so quickly, Captain.”

 

Kirk waves a hand dismissively. “Diplomatic niceties. There are plenty of other places I’d rather spend a shore leave, but it doesn’t do to say as much.”

 

“Nevertheless.” Spock is feeling his way slowly through unfamiliar territory, and his words are guarded. “Perhaps you might have found it beneficial to have… spent some time in Commander Sun’s company.”

 

He realizes that he’s staring at the desk and forces himself to look up at his Captain. Kirk is watching him with a strange expression on his face, and a shrill whine of discomfort sets up on the edge of Spock’s hearing.

 

The Captain opens his mouth and then closes it again. Then he says, “Spock…” He stops, purses his lips, and tries again. “Spock,” he says slowly, “Mee-Kyong’s married.”

 

There are a host of possible responses to this. He could protest the lack of any visible commitment symbol on the Commander’s left hand, which he certainly would have noticed. He could pretend not to understand Kirk’s reference, in an effort to imply that he has misconstrued the nature of Spock’s enquiries. He could draw attention to their effusive greetings and the impression they are bound to create in the casual observer. But his recalcitrant eyebrow has already quirked itself once more, and this essentially limits him to an entirely too revealing, “I see.”

 

“Her wife’s just opened a restaurant on the commercial level of the Starbase,” continues the Captain. “She makes the most wonderful truffle and parmesan ravioli; I’ll take you there some time if we ever get the chance.” A beat. “We’re old friends, Spock. That’s all.”

 

An apology is probably required, but he can’t imagine how he’s going to frame it in a way that won’t embarrass them both. He settles for, “It was not my intention to pry into your personal affairs, Captain.”

 

And that’s enough to trigger the sunshine smile. If it’s unexpected, it’s no less welcome. Kirk’s hand is lying on the desk between them, and it makes a tiny, abortive motion as though he’s tried to lift it and thought better of it. It twitches once more, and on the third movement it breaks free of its constraints and rises uncertainly to press against Spock’s lower arm where he has folded it on the table edge. Canted forward to reach his friend, Kirk smiles into his face and says warmly, “I appreciate the concern, Spock.”

 

Their faces are less than half a foot apart and Spock can just feel the gentle brush of the Captain’s breath on his skin. To pull apart now would be to destroy this fragile moment of calm and potentially to deliver an injury from which they cannot recover. And with every instant that passes, another piece of his control shatters.

 

It’s over in seconds. The Captain slides his hand away and settles back into his chair and the door buzzes to announce the arrival of a Yeoman with lunch. The ordinary business of an ordinary day rushes back into the room so suddenly and so quickly that the moment might never have been – but for the fact that Spock finally understands that he is lost.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Nekhau tuluk tu? Skilsu nash-veh.”

 

Kirk’s head is utterly immobilized by a skinny greenish arm with the consistency of tempered iron and approximately twice the strength. A bony knee is pressed delicately into the small of his back, pinning him to the gymnasium floor, and a hand splays casually between his shoulder blades as though it doesn’t have the potential to push the man beneath it several centimeters through the mat and into the deck below.

 

Kirk grins, although he knows he can’t be seen. Perhaps that has something to do with it, in fact.

 

Worla,” he chokes through a constricted windpipe.

 

Riolozhilkaik,” is his predictable answer. “Ri fakovau tu.”

 

Dungau gla-tor etek.” Spots of black are beginning to appear before his eyes.

 

Ri aitlu du dash-tor. Nekhau sanu.

 

Fa-wak shroi ri nash-veh nemut zhitlar,” says Kirk.

 

There is a sigh. “Mair-or’nai-ga tu, khart-lan,” says a voice that is just on the Vulcan side of long-suffering.

 

Ri fai-tor nash-veh...” - it is getting progressively harder to think in Standard, let alone a language he only started to learn two years ago - “ish-zhit V’tosh na’insubordination.”

 

There is a momentary hesitation. The choke-hold releases fractionally.

 

Ak’wikmun nash-veh,” says the dry voice of his First Officer. “Fai-tukh vu lo’uk se t’V’tosh.” Almost imperceptibly - except, perhaps, to one in direct receipt of the gesture - the hold tightens again. “Wi-heh, ri fai-tor tu ish-zhit na’nekhau, saudau ish-veh.”

 

If it were possible to draw air into his lungs past the minimum required for cardio-pulmonary function, Kirk might chuckle. The fact that it is not has not been lost on his amygdala, which is now controlling the show and forces his vocal chords to bypass that part of his brain that is vaguely aware that an audience of Ensigns and Lieutenants have paused in their workouts to watch their Captain get his ass handed to him. His survival instinct, if not his pride, says, “Nakhau nash-veh.”

 

There is a fractional hesitation, just long enough for Kirk to wonder if Spock is going to insist he intones the ritual surrender - which comprises a hendecasyllabic ode to the victor’s superior strength that borders on the histrionic, even by Human standards - and then the pressure on his throat is gently released and the hand that was formerly pinning him to the floor is offered to help him rise. Mindful of Vulcan etiquette even now, Kirk smiles his thanks and clambers to his feet unaided, dispersing the gathering crowd by virtue of acknowledging their presence. A dozen heads flick quickly away, suddenly intent on equipment, each other, or - if all else fails - the walls.

 

Kirk grins at his First. “It’s the klachek-mal-nef,” he says, brushing chalk-dust from his hands. “My tehnokatlar-ash’ya is never quick enough to counter you.

 

“Indeed, Captain,” says Spock. “I would be happy to provide further instruction, should you so desire.”

 

Kirk’s skin is slick with sweat, his Starfleet-issue exercise tights arrowed with dark patches of perspiration at his groin and the back of his knees. Spock has barely a hair out of place and the thick, baggy tunic and pants that he habitually uses for exercise are still sharply creased and immaculate. The Captain’s eyes sparkle. “Certain you want to challenge your odds like that?” he says.

 

“My ratio of victory to defeat currently stands at ninety-nine point seven percent, Captain,” says Spock.

 

Kirk’s eyes narrow. “I don’t recall achieving point three of a victory,” he says.

 

“I refer to the occasion on Stardate 3717.4, when Ensign Cho slipped while making use of the treadmill and I was obliged to release you from the meskaraya-shaht before you had technically submitted, in order to render him assistance.”

 

“Ah,” says Kirk. His lips twist. “I should have known, Mr. Spock.”

 

Spock inclines his head gravely. Another man might have missed the little flicker of amusement glinting behind his carefully immutable expression, but Kirk is enjoying himself far too much to believe that Spock is not equally entertained. “If you will assume the palikau-laman,” says Spock, arranging himself into the traditional opening posture of Suus-Mahna combatants.

 

It has been three weeks since they left Starbase 2, which makes it just shy of three weeks that they’ve been holed up in the Beta Aurigae system taking pictures of gravity, and Spock is pretty much the only member of the 430-strong crew who is not conspicuously over the whole thing. But there’s a powerful fascination in watching him when he’s got his teeth into a captivating project. It’s as though part of the wall crumbles and he forgets to hold himself so stiffly or to make sure he doesn’t smile when something makes him happy – as though he moves inside his own personal bubble of light – and that simple joy is contagious. Spock spends his days and nights in the labs, playing with complicated equations and occasionally calling the Captain in to gesture animatedly at something onscreen that looks remarkably like the product of an unsupervised three year old with a keyboard and a hammer. He has managed to absent himself so comprehensively from normal life that this is the first opportunity they’ve had to spend time together since the evening before they rendezvoused with the Potemkin, barring official dinners. But there’s a palpable difference between Spock disappearing into science and Spock hiding in science, and only a CO with a heart of stone and the punctilious soul of a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat would begrudge that light in the First Officer’s eyes when nothing else on the ship particularly needs his undivided attention. Somehow or other, presumably during the periods when he should be sleeping or eating, the pedestrian tasks of daily crew maintenance are being completed, and Spock doesn’t look like he’s on the verge of collapse or breakdown – if anything, he’s positively glowing – so Kirk has decided to be pleased that someone on board is enjoying their assignment and leave it at that.

 

It was a surprise to make his way out of the locker rooms with the vague idea of running a few laps to slake off the restless energy that has a tendency to accumulate in his muscles when there’s little else to do but paperwork, and find his First running through the first steps of the shidorau on the exercise mats in the far corner. It’s a Friday evening, which is their usual Suus Mahna night, but Spock has missed the past two, and the assumption that martial arts were on hold until such times as the binary system gave up its secrets in the face of the dedicated application of Vulcan tenacity had allowed their arrangements to slip Kirk’s mind entirely. He’s out of practice and unprepared, but, truthfully, neither one of those facts was ever likely to make much difference to the overall outcome, which has predictably seen him face-down in the foam padding for much of the past thirty minutes.

 

He hasn’t enjoyed himself so much in weeks.

 

Spock circles him speculatively and Kirk keeps pace, arms arranged in the arc of the urokessor-shidik, for all the good it’s likely to do him.

 

Laman vu rom se,” says Spock. “Nes’quil vu pi’ashenau hi.”

 

Kirk complies, and is rewarded with a lightning tackle that zeroes in on his newly-exposed belly, sucking the breath from his lungs before he can even remember the Vulcan word for foul play. His knees succumb to the inevitable and Spock rolls him as they hit the mat, tucking the Captain’s right arm between his back and the considerable weight of a Vulcan chest, and crushing Kirk’s ribs and face against the mat.

 

Fa-wak shroi ri tu nemut vu zhitlar,” says Spock in his ear, and Kirk almost punctures a lung trying to laugh before he remembers that he can’t.

 

Than kwul-tor savensu t’orensu?” mutters Kirk, or at least he tries to. There is a tiny shift above him, as of a miniscule Vulcan shrug.

 

Kuv’ashenau orensu t’nes’quil,” says Spock. “Nekhau tuluk tu?

 

Kirk grins. “Worla,” he says.

 

There is a heavy, exasperated sigh that brushes the fine hairs at the nape of his neck, and at that moment the ship’s whistle sounds and Uhura’s voice fills the tannoy, calling Kirk from the bridge. Unseen, the Captain smirks.

 

“Saved by the bell, Spock,” says Kirk into the mat, and makes to rise.

 

The elbow in his spine shifts fractionally, the better to pin him down. “Nekhau tuluk tu?” says Spock again. There is a short pause. “It is a question of Vulcan honor, Captain.”

 

It damn well isn’t – or, if it is, it’s a question of one very specific Vulcan’s honor – but it’s hard to argue with a steel-corded tibia pressed firmly into one’s shoulder blades. The whistle and Uhura sound again, and Kirk considers pulling rank, before realizing abruptly that he’ll be pulling rank from face-down on the gymnasium floor in front of an audience of Ensigns, and the only thing worse than being repeatedly annihilated by your First in front of your crew is surely having your crew witness you abusing your status as superior officer in order to pull an underhanded victory out of the jaws of defeat.

 

Kirk sighs. Or at least he would if he had the lung capacity. “Nakhau nash-veh,” he says. Air rushes in to fill his chest as Spock climbs off his Captain’s back and extends a hand to his prostrated CO. Kirk grins and allows himself to be roughly pulled to his feet. “Don’t think I’ll forget this, Mr. Spock,” he says.

 

“Indeed, Captain,” says Spock, but his eyes are shining.

 

~*~

 

There is a comm port on the wall beside the locker room door. Kirk grabs his towel and holds it in front of him as he crosses the gym, because Starfleet-issue exercise tights are unforgiving and, unless one’s member is completely quiescent, the options are obvious erection or obvious attempt to hide an obvious erection. He’s been rolling around on the floor with Spock for half an hour now and the results are predictable.

 

He presses the button to activate the link. “This is Kirk,” he says. Sweat trickles down his back between his shoulder blades and he’d love to throw the towel around his neck, but Spock is watching from across the mat. It wouldn’t be the first time that Kirk has sprung an inconvenient hard-on during exercise, but these circumstances are a little more compromising than he’s comfortable with.

 

“Captain, we’ve received a communication from Starfleet HQ,” says Uhura’s disembodied voice. “Encrypted for the Captain’s eyes only. Shall I send it to your quarters or would you prefer to read it on the bridge?”

 

“I’ll take it in my quarters,” says Kirk. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Kirk out.” He glances up at Spock and nods a summons, then gives up and slings the towel around his neck anyway, because what the hell: it’s not like Spock doesn’t know what he’s hiding beneath it. His First Officer crosses the floor in a maddeningly energetic stride, with his eyes trained carefully away from his Captain’s crotch. The knowledge that Spock is actively trying not to look does not do anything to invert the blood flow from the area; if anything, the implied attention makes things worse.

 

“Is there a problem, Captain?” says Spock.

 

“Mr. Spock, it looks as though you’re going to have to forgo the pleasure of humiliating your Captain any further tonight,” says Kirk cheerfully. Spock looks neither chagrined nor offended but simply inclines his head with a supercilious glint to his eye. It is both a triumphant return to form, and at the same time indicative of less horror at the notion of humiliating the Captain than the Captain would necessarily prefer. “I may need you later. Will you be in the labs?”

 

“I think not,” says Spock. Not a hair is ruffled, nor is there a crease to be found on the sweat-free fabric of his tunic. The only perceptible sign of exertion is the slightly heightened scent from his skin – sharp and vaguely piquant, like freshly-chopped chillis or ginger. “The latest gravitational simulations are running autonomously and are close to completion. I believe I will pass the evening by attending to a number of tasks that more immediately require my attention.”

 

“Spock,” says Kirk. “When was the last time you slept?”

 

“Three point seven ship’s days ago, Captain,” says Spock innocently. Kirk rolls his eyes and Spock predictably elaborates. “Vulcans do not require as much rest…”

 

“Yes, Mr. Spock,” says Kirk, with an air of infinite patience that earns him an eyebrow.

 

They wander into the locker rooms and Kirk slings his soaked towel into the cycler. If the message were urgent he would have been notified, and he’s damned if he’s going to stride through the corridors of his ship in skin-tight, sweat-stained tights and sporting an erection you could hang a flag off, not when he can shower himself decent and camouflage the worst of his arousal in a clean uniform. He turns to Spock. “I’ll leave you to your work,” he says. “It’s probably nothing, but I’ll let you know. And, Spock: try and get some rest, will you?”

 

“Captain,” says Spock, which is not an answer. But he’s too practiced at this to wait for a reply.

 

Kirk watches him leave for a moment, since the room is empty and there is no-one to bear witness to a priapic Captain and the object of his gaze. His skin is tacky and chilled in the relative cool of the tiles and shadows, and where it has been pressed against his First Officer the lingering scent of him remains. Kirk breathes deeply and his nostrils fill with the warm Vulcan flavors, always stronger and more thickly layered after their Suus Mahna, perfumed and peppery like an exotic spice.

 

~*~

 

Despite what he’s told his Captain, Spock does not go directly to his quarters but makes a series of perfunctory stops in the gravitational metrics and computer labs on the way. It’s as much of a denial as it is a reassurance because, as pressing as the urgency is, he needs to know that it can be subsumed, that it is still possible to exercise his will over his biological functions. For three weeks he has been so comprehensively submerged beneath a constant stream of discovery that he has barely noticed when he’s been hungry or fatigued, let alone the secondary imperatives. And, if he considered it at all, he imagined that the distance from Kirk, both metaphorical and actual, was enough to restore some sort of equilibrium. They have dined together at formal parties held for the senior officers of both ships, and he has spent dutiful hours away from the labs in attendance at endless social gatherings and strategy meetings and brainstorming sessions where the Captain has approached him and they’ve talked easily, as friends do. As long as there has been a continuous stream of higher math churning through 50 percent of his brain, it has been possible to believe that this is all he feels. And then tonight the computer spat out the first in the series of logarithmic formulae that he initially predicted would start to map the binary gravitational matrix, and he suddenly realized that the project was approaching its conclusion. More than that: the need for sentient input is now essentially past, and it only remains for his team to supervise the processing of results.

 

From a cushioned bubble of parabolic segments and rotational axes, he has now found himself rather unceremoniously ejected into the prosaicness of a starship that is stationary in a non-hostile, unpopulated segment of charted space. Or to put it another way, he no longer has math to hide behind and there’s basically nothing to do on the ship.

 

He knew that there was a chance, however minor, that Kirk would visit the gym this evening. The sudden burst of adrenalin at the thought of his Captain advised against the visit, and yet he knew despite all rational arguments to the contrary that he would go anyway. It was their customary hour for Suus Mahna practice, and though Spock knew that there was every chance Kirk would assume their sessions were indefinitely suspended, still his eyes swept the expanse of the gym from the locker room doors, from the suspended tracks to the recessed exercise booths, in an abortive effort to find him. Of course it was better that the Captain wasn’t there, logically, since his absence allowed Spock to focus on the shidorau without constantly diverting a portion of his concentration to the maintenance of his controls.

 

That might have been a more convincing argument had logic played any part in his decision to attend the gym.

 

The sudden flash of pleasure that twisted his belly was mirrored on his friend’s face when the Captain emerged from the locker rooms and their gazes locked across the floor, and it set in motion a process that Suus Mahna, with its series of grips and tackles and constant physical contact, was bound to exacerbate. The Captain’s manifest arousal didn’t exactly help matters either. Spock is not so disordered that he was unable to maintain his controls during their session, but there comes a point after which it is both impossible and illogical to ignore the needs of the body. The diversion through the science labs is as much for his own peace of mind as to actually check on anything, because this level of need disturbs him and he would like to know that it can be subsumed and contained by necessity. It makes him uneasy.

 

He steps into the comfortable heat of his quarters and strips off his bulky tunic, laying it carefully on the edge of his bunk as he lowers himself to the mattress. Kirk has spent so many hours in this cabin with him, curled casually into the guest chair by the desk, standing by Spock’s side at the terminal, sitting cross-legged on the floor during a few weeks’ earnest – if hopeless – effort to learn the basic techniques of Vulcan meditation. It is not difficult to conjure his image here – it can happen without Spock’s conscious decision – but it feels like an invasion of Kirk’s privacy and he won’t do it until he has to, until his mind reaches automatically for what it needs in the final stages.

 

With his controls relaxed and his mind wandering, he is hard within seconds, and the first sensation is relief. The tension leaves his shoulders and his muscles sag, and for a moment he allows the undisciplined slouch, allows his mind to replay the sensation of Kirk’s body beneath his, the scent of his skin, the warmth and the sweat and the taut, pliant muscles beneath his hands. In that instant, when he can feel the lithe figure pinned below him, he slips his hand inside his pants and firmly grips his erection around the base.

 

The feel of his hand around the sensitive flesh explodes little flash-bombs of pleasure along his spine and into his brain, and already his fingers are slick and dripping with transferred lubricant. With his free hand he eases his pants off his body, shuffling awkwardly so as not to break contact with his swollen cock, and kicks them free. He sits for a moment breathing heavily as the urgency builds. Spock clears his mind until there is nothing there but a high whine of arousal, a screaming need, and a steady throb of lust. Slowly, he strips his hand from the base of his cock to its head, trailing thick stripes of his natural lube, and a grunt escapes him. The pleasure is too intense now to restrain and he pumps his hand against the slippery shaft, eyes squeezed shut as a feverish excitement rises. It is impossible not to imagine that the friction of his hand is the gentle resistance of another body as he thrusts into it, and the only control he is able to offer is to shadow the features so that the face becomes any face, the body just a body. He will not color the eyes in hazel or flash a sunshine smile over its shoulder as the pace increases; he will not imagine the sensation of being spread out, prone, above a stocky, muscular form and burying himself deeply within it. And then from somewhere his mind trails a peal of the Captain’s laughter, the whisper of his First Officer’s name, and Spock feels his balls tighten quickly with the rapid approach of orgasm. As his blood sings in his ears and reason deserts him, a kaleidoscope of images assaults him: Kirk on the bridge turning a carefree smile towards the science console; Kirk slinging an easy arm around Spock’s shoulders; Kirk’s squat, square hands gripping a glass as he stretches his legs across the desk; Kirk’s impossibly warm skin, flushed with exercise, and the bulge of his arousal tenting the front of his pants…

 

It’s possible he mutters Jim as he comes and it’s possible that the word only explodes inside his head, but sticky semen splashes over his hand and the Captain’s name is on his lips, and the Captain’s face is etched deeply into the disordered mess of shame and relief and helpless lust that drops him backwards onto his pillow.

 

Jim, he thinks desolately as his body ceases shaking and his heart begins to slow.

 

Jim.

 

~*~

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The erection proves resilient. There's not much he can do about that.

It persists throughout his - mercifully solitary - shower and is only slightly abashed by the sudden rush of cool air as he exits the haze of perfumed steam and re-emerges into the relative arctic blast of the locker rooms, where a few assorted crewmembers have begun to change for an evening game of soccer. A couple of them offer nods and the sort of uncomfortable greetings that you get when a superior officer and his subordinates are forced to converse in an off-duty scenario without alcohol, and, although half of them will absolutely have sprung inconvenient wood for no reason at all in the gym, he has no doubt that word of the Captain's erection will make its way around the junior decks before morning. Kirk very much hopes that no-one joins the dots between aroused Captain and Suus Mahna with the First Officer. There are enough rumors about him as it is.

Scrutiny and extrapolated invective are enough to wilt his recalcitrant member at last, although the lingering sense of arousal predicts that something will have to be done about it later in the evening. He dresses quickly and glances at the chronometer: less than ten minutes have passed since the notification came through. He throws some cheerful wishes for a good game over his shoulder - might as well make them feel bad about gossiping - and leaves for his quarters.

The light on his terminal is blinking like a beacon in the dark room, and he leaves the main lights low as he crosses to his desk and retrieves the information package. The familiar crest fills the screen as he activates the security protocol that scans his retina and checks it against his voice print ID, and a tinny computer voice asks him to hold for a recorded message from Admiral Fitzpatrick. Kirk releases a breath that he doesn't remember holding; Fitzpatrick is good news on a number of levels. They are in a section of the galaxy that is under his purview, meaning that any Starfleet personnel currently on assignment within that sector are technically answerable to him, and an encrypted communication for the Captain's eyes only, while almost certainly not the most exciting document this side of the Magna Carta, is likely to be comfortingly routine.

Kirk clicks play and the screen fills with the Admiral's serious, fatherly face. "Kirk," he says without preamble, "Sorry about the late hour. I've just left a meeting with the Junior Minister for Federal Expansion, amongst others, and this can't wait. I realize that the Enterprise is stationed in Beta Aurigae for another four days, but I'm going to have to cut that short. Your new orders follow - Fitzpatrick out."

Fitzpatrick's image abruptly disappears and the room darkens for a moment as the screen blanks. And then there's another Federal crest and a new document that opens with a destination, a mission objective and a timescale before devolving into a detailed background summary.

It's the destination that gets Kirk's attention.

In the shadowed semi-darkness, his eyes widen for a moment and a smile spreads slowly across his face. He reaches for his comm port.

"Spock," he says, gaze fixed on the screen as though the words there might suddenly dissolve into something much less exciting, "Would you come in here a moment?"

 

~*~

 

Spock allows himself to stare at the ceiling in an ambivalent afterglow for 3.4 minutes before rising abruptly and crossing to the bathroom to clean himself. He is standing in an unsatisfied haze beneath the sonics when the sounds of occupation suddenly erupt behind the second door. It's a little too much of a reality check, with the warm cloud of orgasm still lingering in his groin, and he scrubs quickly and exits as quietly as he can. He is dressing himself in the loose robes he wears for meditation when his comm port buzzes.

He knows who it will be, of course. Theoretically it could be one of many people, but statistically, at this time of the evening and with the ship so secure and functional she's practically humming a jaunty tune, the odds are upwards of 98 percent that it will be the Captain. Spock is not certain he is ready to face the object of his self-reproach just yet, but he doesn't have much of a choice. He opens the channel.

"Spock." It is, of course, the same voice that propelled him into climax less than ten minutes ago. "Would you come in here a moment?"

There is a tinge of breathless excitement to Kirk's tone that piques Spock's curiosity and earns another interested twitch from his lethargic cock, which, fortunately, is still heavily invested in the refractory period and can do no more than quirk a metaphorical eyebrow at present. Nevertheless, Spock diverts a portion of his focus to stabilizing the blood flow to his groin and says, "Of course, Captain. I will join you momentarily."

They have never openly declared an embargo on using the bathroom as a thoroughfare, it's just never happened. In the early days of Kirk's captaincy, their relationship was so overtly hostile that it simply wouldn't have occurred to either one - they barely acknowledged that they even shared a bathroom, let alone that the opposite door led into the other's quarters. By the time the freeze had thawed sufficiently for them to voluntarily spend off-duty hours together, it had just become one of their established courtesies, like the median temperature setting and the observance of each others' traditions. So he lets himself out into the corridor, startling a passing Ensign whose face flashes panic and then immediately schools itself into studied innocence before she scurries out of sight. He buzzes formally at the Captain's door. "Come in, Spock," calls Kirk, and the door slides open.

It was something of a surprise to discover, in the first stages of infatuation, that it is the smallest of details that deliver the most blinding assaults on reason and emotion. When Kirk is at his ease, he absently toes his boots off his feet and leaves them scattered haphazardly around the room, canted at all angles, and pads about in his stocking feet. It is both shockingly intimate and staggeringly mundane, and yet it never fails to elicit a lightning tug of yearning from his First Officer that he suppresses only with great difficulty.

Kirk glances up and flashes him a brilliant smile. "Sorry, Spock, have I caught you in the middle of meditation?" he says.

"Negative, Captain," says Spock, mindful of the fact that his given occupation for the evening, while deliberately vague, heavily implied the processing of paperwork somewhere along the line.

Kirk absorbs the information perfunctorily and beckons Spock to his desk. "I thought you'd want to see this as soon as possible," he said.

"The communication from Starfleet Headquarters?" says Spock.

Kirk nods. "New orders. I trust we're just about wrapped up with the gravitational measurements?"

A day ago, the idea of abandoning his unfinished project would have been a source of consternation. Today, it's a manifest relief. The computer banks have stored sufficient data to allow him to process the results at his leisure, but it is no longer enough to occupy him on a full-time basis and he badly needs distraction. He says, "Affirmative. What little information remains to be gathered can be easily accomplished by the science staff aboard the Potemkin. Might I inquire as to the nature of our new assignment?"

Kirk's grin widens and he swings the terminal around to face his First Officer. "See for yourself," he says.

Spock leans carefully across the desk, close enough to allow himself to read the text on the screen but far enough away that the heat of Kirk's body only slightly intrudes into his personal space. He focuses on the document.

After a moment, he glances up.

The Captain's face is shining with delight. "I guess Finagle's Law doesn't apply on this occasion, Mr. Spock," he says. "It's not somebody else's home port this time." He nods at the guest chair. "Have a seat, Spock. I think this calls for a drink, don't you?"

Spock raises an eyebrow and lowers himself into a sitting position. Presently, he says, "This is unexpected, Captain."

"Do you think we could dispense with the formalities for this evening, Spock?" says Kirk cheerfully. His hand hovers over the replicator button. "Pineapple juice? Or tomato? Or I think Scotty said he'd programmed gespar... We're off duty. I don't think the chain of command is going to break down if you call me Jim."

Spock knows better than to trust a replicator with gespar juice. He says, "Pineapple will be satisfactory, Jim." It earns him a dazzling flash of the sunshine smile, thrown carelessly over the Captain's shoulder.

"It'll be a short stop, I'm afraid," says Kirk as he decants a generous measure of cognac into a wide-bowled glass. "Did you read the details?" The replicator beeps and the Captain retrieves a chilled glass of juice, which gives Spock the chance to answer his question with a disapproving eyebrow. "No, of course you didn't." He grins as he settles back into his seat. "We're to dock at Vulcan Space Command for no longer than six hours, but I'm personally authorizing three of those as leave for you. And when I say ‘authorizing' I mean ‘ordering'. No excuses. I can handle the diplomatic side of things for a few hours."

Spock sips from his glass. He's prevaricating, of course, because he knows what reaction his next words are going to produce. Nevertheless, he says, "Thank you, Jim, but that won't be necessary."

"That's why I made it an order, Spock," says the Captain amiably. He sets his drink on the desk and leans forward, clasping his hands in front of him. "Look - I'm not trying to make you spend time with your parents, Spock. That's not my place. All I'm saying is - when was the last time you visited your homeworld?"

Spock knows precisely how long it is since he last set foot on Vulcan. This is part of the problem. He says, "Jim, unlike Humans, Vulcans do not feel a strong emotional connection to our native soil. It is important in terms of ritual and ceremony, but I do not experience any particular longing to return."

"Then beam down and stock up on home comforts," says Kirk. "One way or another, Mr. Spock, you're leaving this ship for three hours while we're in orbit around your home planet, so you might as well find some way to justify it to yourself."

Spock privately doubts that, but extracting himself from Kirk's plans typically involves a modicum of misdirection and the appearance of acquiescence, so he offers a non-committal nod and sips from his glass.

"Besides which," says Kirk, leaning back in his chair and cradling his brandy against his chest, "your parents will know we've docked. You can explain to your mother why you haven't left the ship if you like, but you can rest assured that I won't lie to her on your behalf." He purses his lips but his eyes sparkle.

"My mother has been the wife of the Vulcan ambassador to Earth for almost forty years," says Spock calmly. "She is well aware that duty takes precedence over personal preference."

"Keep telling yourself that, Mr. Spock," says Kirk. "Perhaps you might look like you believe it one day."

"I might also point out that it is almost as long since the Enterprise was last docked over Earth, and you yourself did not avail of the opportunity to spend time on the planet's surface on that occasion."

Kirk huffs a laugh. "That's different, of course."

"I fail to see how."

"Well, for a start I'm the Captain," he says with a beatific smile that cannot disguise his manifest amusement. "There's no CO on board to order me." Spock acknowledges the truth of the statement with a quirked eyebrow and a patrician nod. "Secondly, every other crewmember aboard this ship is Terran or of Terran descent. We simply didn't have time to beam everyone down and I could hardly grant myself a privilege that I denied to my crew. Moreover, I'm not exactly starved for Terran culture aboard the Enterprise. But, really, the most important factor, Mr. Spock, is this: it's different because I've ordered you to spend some time planetside, and you lack the authority to make a similar demand of me. And don't think I don't know that you wanted to." He takes a triumphant gulp from his glass.

"I believe you'll find that it was on Dr. McCoy's advice," says Spock after a moment.

"This will be too, if I ask him," he says. "Spock - look. I know your attachment to Vulcan is ambivalent at best. But who knows how long it might be before you have the chance to visit again?" There is an unspoken question hiding behind the words, but Spock chooses not to analyze it just now. "I'll beam you down in the middle of the L-langon Mountains if you choose. But you will beam down."

For a moment, Spock debates the merits of leaving it at that, since there will be at least two days in which to consider his options. But there is something in the Captain's eyes that makes him press further. "Jim," he says slowly, "Why is this important to you?"

It's the right question. He sees that in the same instant that he realizes he won't get an answer. "Because home is important," says Kirk. His voice doesn't waver and he doesn't hesitate, but it's still not the full truth.

"The Enterprise has been my home for almost as long as I lived on Vulcan," says Spock slowly. "Longer, given the years of my childhood that were spent on Earth."

Something eases momentarily in the Captain's fixed expression, but it's gone almost before it registers and a darkness floods back in. Kirk covers it quickly with a smile and raises his glass. "To home, then," he says. "In whatever form it takes."

"To the Enterprise," says Spock, and lifts his glass in return.

Kirk barks a laugh that chases the shadows from his expression and spreads his grin more firmly across his face. "Mr. Spock," he says happily, "You're a stubborn man."

Chapter Text

 

The Veleth Hai are a humanoid race from a planet known to the Federation’s databanks as Ilion VII, although that’s almost certainly not what its inhabitants call it. The reason nobody’s entirely certain what the inhabitants call it is because their communication is exclusively by way of a neural mist that envelops the planet and functions, apparently, as a kind of telepathic conductor. This works great for them but is less than conducive to conversational repartee when a psi-null species comes calling. Therefore, the Veleth Hai were the opposite of impressed when the Human crew of the USS Merrimac made first contact a little over three Terran months ago, and it turned out that the new guests had the collective psi-ability of a damp brick. In the usual order of things, their supercilious antipathy would have earned them a limp Federal handshake and a less than heartfelt, well, let’s stay in touch, from the powers that be, except that the reason the Merrimac was in the Ilion system in the first place was because scanners show that the fourth and seventh planets are home to some of the most extensive seams of topaline, pergium and diamond detected anywhere in the galaxy. It’d be a shame to give up so easily on what could be a warm and promising friendship.

 

Negotiations, unsurprisingly, are not going well.

 

After the Veleth Hai made it abundantly clear that, as far as they could tell, the Human race was a collection of dribbling, barely-sentient knuckle-draggers whose command of warp technology was a development of questionable security for the rest of the galaxy, sole tactical authority for the Ilion project was, begrudgingly, ceded to the Vulcan High Command. Kirk thinks he has a fairly clear picture in his head of how that conversation proceeded, but anyway. Nobody in the return party was expecting balloons and home-baked cookies when they re-entered orbit around Ilion VII, but it turns out that the Veleth Hai don’t think much of the kind of company the Vulcans are keeping, and it took the best part of seventeen days’ negotiations to even get the diplomatic contingent beamed down to the planet’s surface.

 

That was a little over a week ago. The Enterprise’s new mission objective comes from Starfleet HQ, of course, and not the Federal offices, and so reading between the lines is a surprisingly illuminating experience, given the extraordinary levels of schadenfreude implicit in the summary that was appended to Fitzpatrick’s communiqué. The lengthy silence from the surface of Ilion VII was just beginning to make the admiralty twitch when it was abruptly broken by the stone-faced Vulcan attaché to the Office of Federal Expansion, who was obliged to deliver the news that, no, no arrangement has yet been forthcoming, because the Veleth Hai, being a race who communicate exclusively by thought, don’t actually have what might be colloquially termed “a language”. It did not take anyone seven days to work that out, Kirk is privately certain. He’d bet his last bottle of Saurian brandy that ninety percent of the communication black-out was devoted to the best way of phrasing the news so as not to look as though they didn’t actually do much better than the Humans.

 

Current speculation posits an emotional component to the Veleth Hai’s communication structure, says the report, and the Captain can almost read, in the stark, prosaic lines of text, the smirks hidden behind a genteel cough or twitching lips. He’s not sure how much of the background information he ought to share with Spock, who will definitely pretend not to notice the schoolboy air of one-upmanship, but will miss none of the pedantry and superiority complex buried beneath double entendre and implication. At which point he will presumably skewer the self-conscious Human aggrandisement with the simple observation, which is not lost on Kirk, that, regardless of humanity’s superior lexicon of emotional nuance, the psi-ability thing is the most pertinent factor here and all the hugs and manly tears in the universe can’t change that.

 

It’s a delicate situation. Everyone’s feeling a little bit humiliated, and everyone’s a little bit touchy as a result. The Federation thinks – quite rightly, as it turns out – that Starfleet are laughing at them behind their backs; Starfleet thinks that the Federation are treating them like the embarrassing cousin that can’t be trusted not to get drunk and ruin Christmas for everyone; the Humans think that the Vulcans are enjoying the fact that Humanity has basically been kicked off the Planet of Everlasting Riches for being too stupid; and the Vulcans think that the Humans are a little bit too happy to discover that they can’t talk to the Veleth Hai either. Nobody knows what the Veleth Hai think. That’s the problem.

 

However. In much the same way that there is a thriving academic population on earth devoted to deciphering cave drawings and Mayan hieroglyphs, there is a branch of anthropology in the Vulcan Science Academy whose singular fascination is the study of ancient Vulcan emotionality. Sorelan trensu is Professor of Morpholinguistics at the Vulcana Regar campus and is widely regarded as the leading scholar in his field. He has been hastily conscripted to the project against a backdrop of furious negotiation, threats and concessions, not least of which is, apparently, a substantial Federal funding injection directly into the Department of Morpholinguistics at Vulcana Regar that speaks of a certain reticence on the part of the professor himself. Kirk is unsure of the precise reasons that anyone wants the Enterprise to do the honors in terms of transporting Sorelan from Vulcan to Ilion VII, but it seems to be the one thing everyone actually agrees on at the moment, and the question of whether or not it actually makes sense to send a Constitution-class starship into taxi-duty is not his to ponder. They will arrive in a little under three ship’s days. It should be interesting.

 

It’s close to midnight by the time Spock returns to his quarters, and Kirk is not sure where the hours have gone, but that’s not unusual for the evenings that they spend in each other’s company. They danced necessarily through questions of protocol and logistics and staffing the professor’s sojourn aboard the ship, but when business was concluded and Spock did not immediately stand up to leave, the Captain risked a segue into softer things, things that might make his friend stay for the sake of staying. They drifted over inconsequentials: a book of rare Vulcan poetry that Spock thinks the professor might find illuminating; the quality of background music on weekend nights in the gymnasium; the qualitative difference between a Master’s degree on Earth and the tren’es from the VSA; and when the talk inevitably turned to the gravitational acrobatics of the Beta Aurigae binary, Kirk watched his First light up from within with that specific fire that shines out of his eyes when he is transcended by science, and realized – suddenly, brutally – how much he had missed these moments.

 

His quarters seem smaller now, cloistered and claustrophobic, still two shades too warm from where he surreptitiously turned up the heat a little over an hour ago. He roughly strips off his uniform and lowers himself onto the covers of his bed. Brandy swims in his brain, soothing but not quite narcotic, and he wonders idly how Spock plans to gracefully wriggle his way free of obligatory shore leave. Something sciencey is the most obvious candidate, though he’s more likely to go a little more subtle now that he knows that it matters to the Captain.

 

That may have been a tactical error. Subtle is harder to counter, and Vulcans have subtle written into their genetic code.

 

But it was a good question. Why does it mean so much to Kirk that his friend spends time on his home planet? His only answer is hazy and uneasy at best, and it’s not much of an improvement on the answer he gave Spock. Because home is important, and if it wasn’t then Spock wouldn’t have so much energy invested in trying to find where he belongs. Because he can be half-Human all he wants, but it’s only ever dragged out as a qualifier when it grants him particular debating rights in any given dispute. Because it says Vulcan under Species and Homeworld in his personnel file, and it’s how Spock thinks of himself and who he is. And because he’s different from the man Kirk knew at the beginning of the mission – as though he’s finally settling into himself – and that’s part of a process of self-acceptance that inevitably leads to laying some demons to rest on the planet of his birth. And because this tiny, irrational part of the Captain hopes that maybe, if he’s forced to do that now, he won’t feel like he needs go back again for a while. Like, for example, as soon as the current mission ends.

 

Yes. That's not the sort of thought process best shared with his First Officer.

 

From the head comes the gentle sounds of Spock preparing for sleep: a clink of metal against metal, the splash of water into the sink, a muted cough. Kirk closes his eyes.

 

~*~

 

"Tell me, Mr. Spock - what do you know about Professor Sorelan?"

 

The First Officer swings around in his chair to face the bridge. "Regrettably, Captain, I am not familiar with the professor's work," he says. "Morpholinguistics is not my field."

 

The ship is about to drop out of warp on the edge of the Eridani system, which means that Spock has known about the existence of Sorelan trensu and his Department of Morpholinguistics for a full sixty-seven hours now. Kirk waits.

 

"However, I have taken the opportunity to access the databanks of the VSA," he adds. Kirk purses his lips around a smile that Spock ignores. "His publication output is modest but intriguing. It seems likely that there is no scholar on Vulcan better suited to attempting communication with the Veleth Hai."

 

Earlier this morning, Lieutenant Afaeaki obviated a Vulcan hijack of the data processing project in Labs 1, 2 and 4 by virtue of steely-eyed determination and an innate talent for deftly charting the fine line between duty and insubordination. It seems a little too obvious to be the main thrust of Spock's offensive, though, and the Captain is on his guard.

 

"Why do you say that?" he asks lightly.

 

"Sorelan's research interests are focused mainly on tracing the evolution of body language through pre-Surakian texts," says Spock. "We know that the Veleth Hai use non-verbal visual cues during face-to-face communication - without it, the crew of the Merrimac would have been wholly unable to determine their... distaste. I believe that the professor's expertise in this area will act as a guide in interpreting their telepathic communication."

 

"Like a kind of Rosetta Stone, you mean?"

 

Spock inclines his head. This is probably not a good sign. The fact that there's not even a token protest about the Captain's use of Terran history to elucidate a point means he's almost certainly plotting something.

 

"Perhaps," he says. "As Starfleet Command have adduced, the emotionality of the Veleth Hai communication system is not easily adaptive to Vulcan telepathic norms. A code-breaker of sorts may well be required."

 

Only a Vulcan could take a neutral verb like adduced and load it so heavily with disdain and implied reproach. Decoding emotionality may require a scholar at the level of Sorelan trensu, but the general population seem to manage the encoding part pretty well all by themselves. Maybe it takes a Human to notice it, though. Kirk feels a smile twitch the corners of his lips.

 

"Dropping out of warp, sir," says Sulu from the helm.

 

"Thank you, Mr. Sulu," says Kirk. "Lieutenant Uhura, let me know when we're in hailing range of Vulcan Space Central."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

As the star streaks coalesce into Eridani's filigree backdrop and the engines scrape mournfully down the octaves from their supersonic warp-speed whine, Spock stands and crosses to stand at the right of the command chair.

 

"Full impulse, Mr. Sulu," says Kirk, turning his head to throw a smile towards his First Officer. "Welcome home, Mr. Spock."

 

Spock folds his hands behind his back and trains his eyes on the viewscreen, which is dimming by degrees as 40 Eridani A expands across the upper right quarter. Two pinprick shadows are just visible against her heavy, yellow bulk. "Thank you, Captain," he says.

 

"I trust the circumstances are a little more..." - and Kirk suddenly realizes there is no appropriate way to end that sentence. Congenial? Implies that Spock's wedding was ever anything but. Relaxing? Really? He's going to reference pon farr on the bridge? To your liking? Well, for a start, they're not, and besides, that phrase conveniently combines the very worst semantics of the previous two options. He settles for, "a little more agreeable than our last visit," and knows even before he's finished speaking that his words will earn him an imperious glance and an eyebrow arched so high it's practically disappeared off the top of Spock's head. Kirk contents himself with plastering his most ingenuous expression across his face and returning the gaze until his First looks away.

 

"Indeed, Captain," says Spock smoothly, and if Kirk wasn't 100 percent certain that his friend has a bulletproof shore leave contingency plan meticulously plotted, well. He is now.

 

"Hailing frequencies open, Captain," says Uhura. "In range in twenty seconds."

 

"Mr. Spock," says Kirk, because he can't resist. Yes, he'll pay for it eventually, but right now he can't resist. "Would you care to do the honors?"

 

The look he receives confirms the certainty of retribution at some point in the future, but Spock says, "Thank you, Captain."

 

"In range, Mr. Spock," says Uhura.

 

He straightens almost imperceptibly, so that instead of standing poker-stiff he now approaches a quantum state of collinearity. "A'fic t'Stukh T'Khasi, nash-USS Enterprise se," he says formally, and something tightens in Kirk's belly, the way it always does when his First Officer breaks into his native tongue. There's something a little bit thrilling to be forcibly reminded that this is a man born into another race from another world, a man with whom he shares virtually no common cultural referents or experience, and still, still they have managed to forge the strongest and most complete friendship that Kirk has ever known.

 

There is a momentary silence, and then a voice replies, in Terran Standard, "USS Enterprise, welcome to Vulcan. Stand by to receive orbital co-ordinates."

 

"Standing by."

 

"Co-ordinates received, sir," says Chekov from the navigation console.

 

"Thank you, Vulcan Space Central," says Kirk. "This is Captain James T Kirk. Requesting permission to make ship to surface contact with the Vulcan Science Academy."

 

Another silence, this time stretching long enough to trail a sideways glance from the Captain towards his First. Spock meets it and offers a raised eyebrow in return.

 

A hiss from the turbolift announces Bones' arrival on the bridge and Kirk turns his head to acknowledge the Doctor as he takes up a position to the left of the command chair.

 

"Home sweet home, Spock," says McCoy drily, as the continued silence segues gracefully from common courtesy into possible comm malfunction.

 

"Vulcan Space Central, do you copy?" says Kirk. He glances towards Uhura, who is watching the ceiling with a look of furious concentration on her face. She catches the Captain's gaze and offers a tiny shake of her head.

 

"Frequency still open, sir," she says.

 

Kirk opens his mouth to repeat the question and gets as far as drawing breath before the steel voice finally cuts him off. "Permission granted," it says. "Proceed through conduit 117-38/4. Interference is expected due to weather conditions in the Raal region. Proceed through conduit 117-39/7 if contact is lost."

 

"Thank you, Vulcan Sp..."

 

"Transferring to Quarantine and Border Controls for final scans. Vulcan Space Central out."

 

There is a moment of perfect, speechless quiet on the bridge.

 

"Well," says McCoy presently, "Warm and welcoming as ever."

 

Kirk darts another quick glance at Spock, who is regarding the blank viewscreen with consternation.

 

"The expedient manner would seem to go beyond formality and prudence," he says slowly.

 

The Captain sighs. "They're not happy we're here," he says. He purses his lips. "This may be a little more delicate than we were expecting. Uhura, see if you can raise the VSA on either of those conduits and patch it through to my quarters. Mr. Spock, I want you to join me for the call and on the away party when we beam-down."

 

"Captain..." he begins to say, but Kirk holds up a hand to cut him off.

 

"I realize there's some history there, Mr. Spock, but I'm afraid you'll have to set it aside for now," he says. "I need you with me for this."

 

"Captain," says Uhura, "Unable to establish a link to either conduit supplied by Vulcan Space Central. Interference is too strong."

 

Kirk curls his hand into a fist and gently strikes the arm of his chair. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Keep trying, and call Mr. Scott to the bridge. Mr. Sulu, you have the con until Mr. Scott arrives. Have him complete the final formalities with Quarantine and Borders. I'll be in my quarters." He stands, glancing a summons to his First, and adds under his breath, "Trying to work out what's going on."

 

~*~

 

"Jim," says Spock as the turbolift doors close on the bridge, "I do not believe my participation is advisable."

 

An on-duty Jim is always cause to take note of what follows, and Kirk twists his head to train an evaluative gaze on his First Officer. Spock is facing resolutely forward, hands folded tightly behind his back, and only the lines of tension in his face betray his distress. He says, gently, "I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, Spock..."

 

"It is not a question of my discomfort," says Spock, but he still won't look at the Captain. Whoever decided that Vulcans don't lie obviously didn't count prevarication under that general rubric. "However, the situation is politically sensitive. I believe that my presence will unduly complicate matters."

 

"Spock, it's been twenty years since you left Vulcan," says Kirk. "How long can the VSA hold a grudge?"

 

"Vulcans do not 'hold a grudge', Captain."

 

Kirk smothers a mutinous grin that is determined to worry its way across his face, because now is clearly not the time. The doors slide open onto Deck 5 and he says, as they step out of the lift, "But you feel that your decision to turn down your place at the Academy two decades ago is likely to exacerbate our current diplomatic difficulties?"

 

"It may contribute to a certain intransigence," says Spock.

 

"And you wouldn't call that ‘holding a grudge'?" He knows the grin is in his eyes, but there's nothing he can do about that. Spock doesn't sigh, but Kirk can tell he wants to.

 

They have reached the Captain's quarters and he opens the door. "All right, Spock," he says as they enter and cross to his desk. "I'm not sure it matters what anyone calls it. I'll play it by ear, but it strikes me that it would look very odd not to include you in these talks. Especially if there are issues of cultural sensitivity at stake." He opens his comm port. "Kirk to Communications."

 

"Communications. Uhura here, Captain."

 

"How's that conduit looking, Lieutenant?"

 

"I've got a patchy signal, sir. No visuals but the VSA are standing by on an audio-only channel."

 

"Sorelan?"

 

"No, sir. Professor Sorelan was unavailable. I have the Dean of Anthropology for you, Professor T'Pilak."

 

Kirk glances at Spock. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Stand by."

 

"Standing by, sir."

 

The Captain straightens, pressing a hand to his forehead. "Please tell me this is a question of protocol," he says.

 

"It... may be," says Spock.

 

"But you clearly don't believe it is."

 

"It is redundant to speculate, Captain."

 

"Not always, Mr. Spock," says Kirk. He didn't feel this tired fifteen minutes ago. "It's an audio-only channel," he says, scrubbing his hand over his face. "At least we can gauge the general mood before we decide whether or not to announce your presence." He sighs and lowers himself into his chair. "All right. Have Uhura patch them through."

 

Spock flicks open the port. "Spock to Communications. The Captain is ready to receive the transmission from Professor T'Pilak."

 

"Aye, sir," says Uhura, and a deafening blast of static slices through the tense air of the Captain's quarters. Kirk winces.

 

"Vulcan Science Academy, this is Captain James Kirk of the USS Enterprise," he says over the hissing white noise. "Do you read me?"

 

"Cap... K, this is ....can Sci... my..."

 

The Captain closes his eyes and takes a breath. "Say again, Vulcan Science Academy. We have a lot of interference at our end."

 

"...."

 

"Vulcan Science Academy, this is Enterprise. Do you copy?"

 

"...can..." A high-pitched feedback whine, as of a starship hull gently rending under intense atmospheric pressure. "...lak, do you..." An explosive buzz of electrical interference, another shrill protest, and sudden silence. Kirk looks at Spock, who has already quirked an eyebrow at the comm.

 

"Vulcan Science Academy, this is Enterprise, do you copy?"

 

He is not expecting a reply, and the sudden muted hum that speaks of a conduit still open against the odds is something of a surprise. The voice, when it follows, is distant and distorted, with a disconcerting split-second echo, but there is no mistaking a note of iron-willed intransigence that does not bode well for the conversation. "Enterprise, this is T'Pilak trensu of the Vulcan Science Academy. To whom am I speaking?"

 

"Dif-tor heh smusma, T'Pilak trensu," says Kirk, in case it might make any difference. Even across a blind channel and some thousand kilometers of atmosphere and planetary surface, it palpably does not. "This is Captain James T Kirk." He glances up at Spock, meets his eyes, and shakes his head. Spock nods and steeples his hands. "I trust you received a communiqué from Starfleet Command informing you of our arrival."

 

"We received a communiqué, Captain," she says. Kirk waits, but she does not elaborate.

 

"I had hoped to speak directly to Professor Sorelan," he says when it becomes clear that she's not going to add anything further.

 

"I regret that Professor Sorelan is unavailable at present, Captain."

 

"In that case, perhaps you might be able to confirm the final arrangements for his transfer to Enterprise on his behalf," says Kirk.

 

There is a long, uncomfortable pause. Then T'Pilak says, "It appears there has been a miscommunication, Captain Kirk. Professor Sorelan is unavailable for transfer to your ship at this time."

 

"Excuse me?" says Kirk before his brain can flip his vocal cords back to diplomatic.

 

"Starfleet Command have been informed," she says.

 

In the absence of the appropriate Vulcan to glare at, Kirk transfers his wide-eyed fury to Spock, who furrows his brow in the direction of the comm port and sits forward in his seat.

 

"T'Pilak trensu, this is Commander Spock," he says. "This is most irregular."

 

"Ah, Spock," she says. For a sparse, two-syllable sentence, it is so heavily inflected with censure that it convincingly refutes Spock's earlier denial of the Vulcan capacity for grudge-holding. "Dif-tor heh smusma."

 

"Sochya eh dif," he answers perfunctorily. "Nevertheless, it must be clear that we have received no transmission from Starfleet Command rescinding the order to collect Sorelan trensu and transport him to the Ilion system."

 

"I cannot speak for Starfleet Command," she says. "The communication was made earlier today. I regret that you have had a wasted journey, Captain Kirk, but the fact remains: Sorelan is unavailable at present."

 

Kirk leans forward, elbows braced on the desk, and schools his features into something approaching patience. He says, "You must appreciate, T'Pilak, that we can't simply turn the ship around on your say-so. My orders stand until such times as they are officially revoked by my commanding officers."

 

"You must do what you must do, Captain," she says blandly.

 

"And when is Sorelan likely to become available?" he says. Frustration colors his tone freely now, but there's not much he can do about that.

 

There is a small silence. Then T'Pilak says, "I cannot say."

 

"Cannot or will not?" snaps Kirk, but his eyes have sought Spock's again and he reads in them a confirmation of what he has just begun to suspect: T'Pilak wasn't expecting that last question and it was clearly the right one to ask.

 

"I see no benefit in prolonging this communication, Captain," says the professor stiffly. "I have no doubt that Starfleet will find an alternative ambassador to the Veleth Hai. Live long and prosper. T'Pilak out."

 

She is gone before he can open his mouth to respond and the sudden absence of electrical hum sucks a vacuous silence into the room that makes the Captain's ears ring. He takes a deep breath and leans back in his seat. "Well," he says. "That was unexpected."

 

"Indeed," says Spock.

 

"Analysis?"

 

"Difficult to say," says Spock slowly. He straightens his spine, and rests his hands on either side of the chair. "The level of hostility is clear. However, it is impossible to determine its cause. I do not believe my presence contributed significantly to the antipathy already manifest in Professor T'Pilak's tone." A beat. Then, "Fascinating."

 

"Is Vulcan opposed to communication with the Veleth Hai?" says Kirk.

 

"Vulcan stands to benefit in equal measure with all members of the Federation if mining rights can be established on Ilion VII. I see no logical reason to oppose this mission."

 

"Nevertheless, Space Central weren't exactly welcoming. And now the VSA has followed suit."

 

"If Vulcan High Command were to depart from Federal policy on this matter, it seems likely that the Vulcan Science Academy would comply. However, T'Pilak's hostility need not reflect an overall policy shift. The VSA is quite capable of independent opposition to the Veleth Hai project."

 

"On what grounds?"

 

"I cannot say."

 

"But you have a suspicion?"

 

"Perhaps." Spock steeples his hands. "I am reluctant to verbalize it at present, Captain, without sufficient evidence. Moreover, we are neglecting to consider one pertinent fact."

 

"Which is?"

 

Now Spock looks up, and it's not quite amusement in his eyes and not quite mischief, but there's a glint of something. "Sorelan trensu may be, in fact, simply unavailable."

 

Kirk huffs a small laugh. "Touché, Mr. Spock," he says. He crosses his hands across his chest and lets a wide smile break across his face. "You know, if I didn't know better, I might suspect you orchestrated all this yourself."

 

The eyebrow shoots up. "For what purpose, Captain?"

 

"Well," says Kirk, "It seems highly unlikely I'll be beaming you down for mandatory shore leave now."

 

~*~

Chapter Text


"They're saying four days, maybe five," says Komack irritably. "We've only managed to get that much out of them in the past ten minutes."

It's an interesting experience, facing the wrath of Admiral Komack while not being its primary target. Kirk would be better placed to enjoy it, however, if he wasn't industriously biting back on his own impotent rage, because the target is currently Spock and that's actually worse.

He says, as equitably as he can, "They're clearly stalling, sir."

"Of course they're stalling!" snaps Komack. "And I'm damned if I know what their game is, but your orders still stand, Kirk. The Federation's not going to be held to ransom by a bunch of intellectuals with a bug up their ass. Commander Spock!"

If Spock is startled by the abrupt re-focusing of the Admiral's attention, he gives no sign. Only the set of his jaw reveals his diminishing patience, and Kirk is fairly certain that Komack will miss that entirely. "Yes, sir," he says.

"I want answers, Commander," says the Admiral. "These are your people. I want to know what the hell they're playing at."

"With respect, Admiral," says Spock levelly, "These are not my people. Our only commonality is that we are of the same homeworld."

"Don't give me semantics, Spock!" growls the Admiral. "You're a damn sight better placed to find out what's going on than anyone else aboard that ship. Why the hell do you think we sent the Enterprise?"

"Sir, if you were of the opinion that my presence aboard the Enterprise might add additional leverage in any negotiation with the VSA, then I regret to inform you..."

"I don't care what it takes, get it done!" snaps Komack, and Kirk feels his temper rise with break-neck force. Unseen beneath the desk, he digs his fingernails into his hands.

"Admiral," says Kirk and pauses to reflect on his tone. It is vitally important to strip it free of the tumbling fury coiling in his belly. "Sir, I have no intention of abandoning this mission because of a rebuff from the VSA. I have submitted a formal request for a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor in ShiKahr as soon as possible. However - it wouldn't hurt to have a little diplomatic pressure exerted from HQ. I'm not certain of our standing in Vulcan political circles at present."

"Damn it, Kirk, you're a representative of Starfleet! That's your standing." And if the tone of morally-affronted outrage is understandable, it's not exactly helpful.

"Yes, sir, but the VSA is not answerable to Starfleet," says Kirk.

Komack's eyes narrow. "Watch your tone, Captain," he says. "Your job is to get Professor Sorelan out of his office and onto your ship. You let me worry about what goes on behind the scenes."

"If I might make a suggestion?" says Spock. Two pairs of Human eyes converge on him, one openly hostile, the other startled.

"Go ahead," says Komack.

"The Veleth Hai mission is not time-sensitive," says Spock. "If Professor T'Pilak has indicated that Professor Sorelan might be available to depart in four days' time, perhaps it would be wise to take her at her word."

"You think she meant it?" says Kirk.

"It makes little difference whether she meant it or whether it was simply a diversionary tactic. The words have been uttered on record. She will find it difficult to retract them now."

Sixteen light-years away, Komack leans back on his chair and trains a sceptical gaze on the Enterprise's commanding officers. He says, "I'm not buying it, Spock. Maybe the High Command knew what she was going to do in advance and maybe they didn't, but they've closed down tight behind her now. If she retracts, they'll back her."

"With respect," says Spock, "I disagree."

And if the blaze in Kirk's belly was nuclear before, it's now the heart of a bright-burning, newborn star. It's as much as he can do not to turn a wide, open smile on his First for that staggering act of rebellion, and so he fixes his gaze on his desk for as long as it takes to steady his expression and re-collect his thoughts, and then lifts his eyes to meet Komack's.

"If Commander Spock feels that way, sir, then I'm bound to support him," he says. "His assessment of the situation..."

"His assessment of the situation is not what signs off on your orders, Kirk!" barks Komack.

"Acknowledged, sir, and I have no intention of disregarding orders. I am simply suggesting that there is merit to Commander Spock's appraisal of the situation."

"You're not the only Vulcan in Starfleet, Commander," says Komack. "I haven't sought your opinion on Professor T'Pilak's reputation or word of honor. I want you to do your damn job, and your job at this minute is to move one Professor of Morpholinguistics from Vulcana Regar to the Ilion system. Now, I don't much care if you have to beam him up naked from his bedroom to accomplish that, but you've got your job to do and I've got mine. Take your meeting in ShiKahr, Kirk, but don't tell me to pin any hopes on Professor T'Pilak's pinkie-swear that Sorelan's going to be good to go by the end of the week. She doesn't want him gone and by all accounts he doesn't want to be gone. I don't need to tell you that I'm not expecting you to take no for an answer, Kirk."

Kirk digs his fingers into his palms again. "No, sir."

"Good. Komack out."

The screen blanks so abruptly that Kirk is obliged to blink a couple of times to persuade his eyes that they haven't gone blind. He lets out a long breath.

"Jim," says Spock quietly, "That may have been unwise."

"I don't believe I said anything out of order," says Kirk, more lightly than he feels.

"I am not certain that agreeing with me was a tactical advantage."

"I doubt it was agreeing with you that got Komack all hot under the collar. It was the fact that agreeing with you contradicted him."

"Indeed," says Spock, with a heavy tone of that was kind of my point.

Joy - ridiculous, unbidden, and almost completely inappropriate - bubbles in the Captain's chest and floods his head with a kind of reckless energy. He turns a huge smile on his friend, the smile that he wanted to show him a moment earlier.

"Well, Mr. Spock," he says happily, "You started it."

 

~*~


If there is one thing that Vulcan authority figures understand really well, it is the psychological power of symbolism. Spock is privately certain that the Vice-Chancellor of the Vulcan Academy of Science does not typically conduct his business in a cavernous hall that sucks the rapid-fire clip of their footfall up to the distant ceiling as he and his Captain cross the wide expanse of floor to a forbidding wood-effect desk that sits in the shadows of the furthest wall. But there is a subtle but tangible advantage to be gained by making them walk the empty meters, while Solvis and his associates watch mildly from their privileged position and radiate an air of infinite patience that manages to imply that their guests could really move a little faster.

Spock is sure that the Captain's thoughts mirror his own, and, while the feeling is uncomfortably akin to being caught out in a species-wide lie, there is also a warm sense of satisfaction curling in his chest at the unruffled, pleasant smile of greeting fixed to Kirk's face as they approach the dais where the Elders wait. In his many years of living and working alongside Humans, it has been Spock's experience that their default position around Vulcans is either manifest impatience or intimidation. The Captain is the only man he has ever known who has taken Spock's people so calmly in his stride. It's his nature to assume that the world will simply orient itself around him, and the amazing thing is that it generally does. Perhaps if he spent more time worrying about cultural observance and niceties he would be more vulnerable to their ideological bite, but Kirk has always just preferred to think of the multiplicity of galactic life as different shades of the same essential brotherhood: he treats everyone with the respect he expects for himself and his crew, and that's actually a much more powerful technique than simpering political correctness. Spock fully expects that it will be as effective as a concrete enema against the grim tenacity of the leaders of the VSA, but, really, out of every Human on planet Earth and her combined colonies, Kirk is the only one with even half a chance of success here.

They draw to a halt in front of the long desk. Spock estimates that they have walked 100 meters from the door to the dais, and decides that this room must be used for formal functions, although he cannot imagine what kind. In tandem with his Captain, he raises his hand in the ta'al. Solvis alone returns the gesture.

"Live long and prosper, Captain Kirk," he says, and his voice is deeper than Spock had expected. The empty air catches his words and twists them into the shadowy heights. He is perhaps one hundred and fifty years old, elegantly slipping into middle age and wearing his authority like the ermines of an ancient Terran king. His eyes slide economically to the right and meet Spock's. "Commander Spock," he says, and the tone is cold.

Spock feels the Captain bristle and hopes he won't allow it to show.

"Peace and long life, Solvis osu," says Kirk with a tight smile. It's... adequate. Solvis probably doesn't notice, at least.

It would be inaccurate to say that Spock hasn't pondered this very moment for many years. He does not often revisit the circumstances of his departure from Vulcan, and less so now that there is an entente of sorts between himself and his father, but - lately in particular - he has occasionally found himself indulging in idle speculation about the path along which his decision has inexorably led him. There is another life, another Spock, hovering ephemerally on the horizon of his choices - a Spock who followed Sarek's wishes and applied himself to the Vulcan disciplines and sciences. A Spock who never joined Starfleet. A Spock who has never known Kirk. There are days when that knowledge prickles bullets of cold panic along his spine, the knowledge of how close he came to never finding the means to slot together the disparate pieces of his soul into one coherent whole, and even now, with unrequited emotion tugging a hole in his belly and rending his chest inch by inch, day by day, he knows he would not have had this other life, not for anything.

"Thank you for agreeing to see us," says Kirk. His voice is deceptively light. Spock has heard that tone before, and Solvis would be very foolish to mistake it for capitulation to the semantics of big rooms and impressive desks.

"I regret the circumstances," says Solvis smoothly, and Spock suppresses a sigh. Why no-one bothers to do their homework before meeting with James Kirk is a mystery to him, but he recognizes the universal language of underestimation in the Elder's tone, and things are likely to go downhill quickly from here. Spock waits. Solvis obliges:

"Nevertheless, I fail to see what assistance my colleagues and I can render."

"That's... disappointing," says Kirk. The smile has not moved, not even fractionally. "I understand that the VSA has always enjoyed an amicable relationship with Starfleet and the Federation as a whole."

"I see no reason for that state of affairs to cease," says Solvis.

"I'm sure you're right," says Kirk. "I wonder - what percentage of the Academy's annual income is derived from Federal grants these days?"

Solvis is not exactly lacking in the arts of cordial evisceration himself, and his eyes barely narrow. "The Academy's funding is a matter of public record," he says.

Kirk turns an open, artless smile upon his First Officer. "Mr. Spock?" he says.

"38.7 percent in the last academic year," says Spock.

Kirk raises his eyebrows and turns them back to the dais. "That's rather a lot of money," he says. "I'd imagine it would be quite difficult to make ends meet if that were to suddenly dry up."

Solvis folds his hands on top of the desk. "That funding is ring-fenced by the Vulcan High Command," he says calmly. "I would appreciate if you would refrain from idle threats, Captain."

"It was my understanding, though," says Kirk, "That the Vulcan High Command supported the Veleth Hai project." He allows the comment to hang in the dry air for a moment, then adds, "An agreement was made, Solvis osu. I'm here to collect Professor Sorelan."

"Professor Sorelan," says Solvis icily, "Is unavailable."

"So Professor T'Pilak informed me," says Kirk. "I'm simply not clear as to why Professor Sorelan might have been available two Terran days ago and suddenly unavailable when the Enterprise arrives at Vulcan."

"Circumstances change. There is no mystery, Captain Kirk."

"I respectfully disagree," says Kirk. "I remain in the dark."

"Neither Professor Sorelan nor the Vulcan Science Academy is obliged to account for his private affairs. Professor T'Pilak informs me that he is unavailable. He is, therefore, unavailable. If you imagine that the Vice-Chancellor of the Academy is in the habit of interrogating our most eminent scholars, then I regret to inform you that this is not the case."

"But he may suddenly become available again in four or five days' time."

There is a short silence. "From where have you determined this information?"

The Captain is far too practiced to share a triumphant look with his First Officer, but something warms in the air between them. He says, "Professor T'Pilak indicated as much in a discussion with Starfleet Command."

The folded hands are retracted and disappear beneath the desk. "Then Professor T'Pilak spoke out of turn," says Solvis.

"Her words are on record," says Spock now, and the look that the Vice-Chancellor turns upon him is dripping with animosity.

"Commander Spock," says Solvis, and there is a slight but discernable emphasis on Commander. "We are surprised that you would support an unwarranted intrusion into matters of Vulcan privacy."

"My orders come from Starfleet Command," says Spock. "They are the same as Captain Kirk's."

"Your priorities," says Solvis, "Are regrettable."

Well, that does it. "Commander Spock's priorities are loyalty to the oath he's sworn to Starfleet and a commitment to honor his word," snaps Kirk. His anger flares brightly in the dim room and agitates the torpid air. "I'd say that, of all the priorities on display in this room, his alone are admirable, Solvis osu."

Solvis locks down like a starship entering battle. His expression barely shifts, but the shadows freeze around him. He says, "I believe that concludes our meeting, Captain. If there is nothing further?"

"The VSA made a commitment to deliver Professor Sorelan to the Enterprise for transport to Ilion VII," says Kirk. "I expect that commitment to be honored, sir. If the VSA wants to retain any credibility within the United Federation of Planets, I'd advise you to think very carefully about the consequences of breaking your word. Enterprise will be in orbit for another two hours. I'll expect your communication before we depart." A tiny pause, but loaded with the sort of tension that could warp steel. "Thank you for your time."

He turns on his heel while Solvis is in the process of nodding a glacial goodbye and strides savagely into the indistinct depths of the hall. Spock raises his hand in the ta'al and derives a small measure of satisfaction from the distaste that flashes briefly in Solvis' eyes as he's obliged to return it.

"Live long and prosper," says Spock evenly.

"Peace and long life," mutters Solvis, and Spock turns to follow his Captain.

 

~*~


Alpha shift has just concluded and the corridors are filled with crewmen easing into leisure time, passing between their stations and their quarters or on their way to various off-duty pursuits. Even after four and a half years, the sight of the Captain among them is enough to temper the atmosphere with something that's a few parts respect, a few parts awe, and a few parts open admiration. It never ceases to fascinate Spock, the easy assumption of the mantle of responsibility that straightens Kirk's back and fixes a warm smile to his face no matter how difficult an interview with the VSA he's just passed. He cannot help but be drawn to it, and the brutal reminder of his relative place on the Enterprise versus the planet of his birth does not exactly moderate the rush of affection it elicits.

They do not speak until the turbolift doors cocoon them from listening ears, and then Kirk releases a weary puff of air and sags a little and says, "I think I'd better comm Admiral Komack and tell him we'll be here a little longer than planned."

Fatigue tugs at his shoulders and drains the color from his face. Spock says, "Jim, there will be time for that later. I believe you require rest."

"I'm fine, Spock," he says, but his eyes remain closed. "Given the circumstances, it seems like Space Central might take a little persuading to allow us to remain in orbit. I'd prefer to get the ball rolling now."

The doors open onto the residential deck, and McCoy abruptly halts in the act of stepping forward. "There you are," he says. "Was just on my way down to the transporter room. How'd it go with friend Solvis?"

He falls into step alongside them as they make their way along the corridor to the Captain's quarters, and Kirk says, "It could have gone better, Bones."

"You look like you're ‘bout ready to fall over, Jim," says the Doctor. "Spock been remiss in his duties?"

That earns him a sharp glare from Kirk, and Spock quickly puts in, "My duties do not include harassing the Captain regarding his health, Doctor. I believe that falls under your remit."

"Yeah, well, my remit's telling me that you need a bite to eat and a sit-down, Jim," says Bones easily. "How ‘bout I get your Yeoman to bring us dinner in your quarters?"

Kirk turns a wry smile on his friend. "How about I get my Yeoman to bring us dinner in my quarters?" he says.

Bones is unfazed. "Fixed your diet card again anyway," he says cheerfully. "Spock - you joining us?"

The question takes Spock by surprise, and he realizes that his routine with the Captain has become so entrenched into his personal worldview that it would never have occurred to him that he wouldn't be included in the invitation. He says, "Thank you, Dr. McCoy. I believe my duties do include protecting the Captain from the over-zealous ministrations of the ship's Doctor. I shall be glad to join you for dinner."

They follow Kirk into his quarters, and the Captain busies himself in dragging an extra chair from the sleeping area and arranging it in front of the desk. McCoy sits, and Spock, after a moment's hesitation, follows suit. "Been up to the bridge yet?" says the Doctor as Kirk lowers himself into his seat and sets about tapping a meal order into the terminal.

"No," says the Captain absently. "We've only just beamed back aboard. Why?"

"Uhura took a surface-to-ship message while you were gone," says Bones. There is a glint in his eye. "For Spock."

Kirk looks up, meets Spock's gaze and raises his eyebrows. "For Spock?"

"Yup," says McCoy happily. "From the Lady Amanda." He glances sideways at the First Officer with a mischievous grin. "Don't look so panicked, Spock, it was recorded. It wasn't live."

"I do not look panicked, Dr. McCoy," says Spock, but he sounds stiff even to himself.

A slow smile spreads across Kirk's face. "I believe I told you you wouldn't be able to avoid your mother while we were docked," he says.

"I assure you, Captain, I am not seeking to avoid Amanda," says Spock, and Kirk shrugs and turns his grin back towards the terminal screen.

"Call your mom, Spock," he says amiably.

"Captain, the political sensitivities of our current mission may not permit..."

"Spock," says Kirk, "I bow to your superior knowledge of how to handle Sarek. But just... trust me on this. Amanda is expecting your call." He holds up a hand to obviate Spock's token protest that he does not handle his father. "I'm sure she knows you're busy. I have no doubt she has endless respect for your duties and obligations to Starfleet, Spock. But she's Human, and she's your mother. Trust me - you'll save yourself a world of grief if you take five minutes out of your evening to let her know you're alive and well and thinking about her. The food'll be a little while. Go and do it now."

Spock folds his hands in his lap to give himself a moment's grace. He says, "The time in ShiKahr is approaching the evening meal. It is considered a serious breach of decorum to intrude upon mealtimes. I will make the communication later tonight."

The Captain's eyes sparkle. "You'd better," he says. "I'll be checking the communications log. Now, Bones - brandy or bourbon?"

 

~*~


It doesn't matter how hard she tries - and she does try, he knows that - Amanda is never able to strip the warmth from her voice or her eyes when she addresses her family. It's something her husband has learned to live with over the years, and something that her son has slowly learned to cherish. She doesn't often send him a private communication because she knows that her tendency towards demonstrative affection makes him uncomfortable, so when she does she's inclined to allow herself a little emotional wriggle-room. As her face fills his terminal screen, the first thing he sees is the tenderness of her smile and its untroubled baptism of contentment and love. Her skin is a little paler, a little more lined in the cheek and creased around the eyes than he remembers, but her voice is unchanged.

She says, "Spock, by the time you get this, you'll be in orbit around Vulcan. Welcome home, dear. I hope you'll have a chance to spend a little time planetside, but of course duty comes first. I had hoped so much that I'd get a chance to see you before you leave, but, sadly, that won't be possible. Know that you're never far from my thoughts. I won't say the words and embarrass you, but I know you already know what's in my heart. Stay safe, dear."

The screen blanks and an insipid line of white text asks if he'd like to replay the message.

Spock is not sure.

Regardless of McCoy's needling or the Captain's declamations on the expectations of the Human matriarch, Spock knows his mother well enough to know that, in the first place, she has made her peace with Vulcan priorities and will not seek to interfere in matters of duty, and in the second place, she will actually want to see her son while he is within beaming distance of her. At the very least, he'd expected some sort of open invitation, qualified with the understanding that it was unlikely to be fulfilled.

He stares at the blinking text for a moment, then flicks open his comm port. "Spock to Communications."

"Communications, sir. Palmer here."

"Lieutenant Palmer," he says, "Earlier today Lieutenant Uhura received a personal message addressed to me from a private residence in ShiKahr." He hesitates. "I would like to return the message."

"Yes, sir," she says. "It'll take me a moment to retrieve the conduit, sir. Please stand by."

"Acknowledged," he says. He leans back in his chair and folds his hands across his chest.

Amanda has never pressed him to respond in kind to her emotional advances, nor has she ever expected any particularly Human display of filial devotion. But she will have wanted to see him, he is certain of that. She would never expect him to prioritize her over the multiplicity of conflicting demands on his time, but the fact that she has essentially precluded any possibility of a visit is... troubling.

"Communications to Commander Spock," says Palmer suddenly, shattering his thoughts. "The conduit is open, sir. I have a gentleman by the name of Taaval standing by."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he says. A subtle sonic shift indicates the transfer, and then his screen lights up with the impassive features of his father's assistant. Spock nods a greeting. "Taaval - nash-Spock se."

"Greetings," says Taaval mildly. Terran Standard is the lingua franca of Sarek's household, whether it finds itself on Earth or Vulcan.

Spock hesitates. "I had hoped to speak with the Lady Amanda."

There is a short pause, mirror of Spock's own. Then Taaval says, "I regret that the Lady Amanda is... unavailable."

If Spock were Human, he might be inclined to wonder if all of Vulcan had collectively disappeared on an impromptu vacation without leaving a forwarding address. Since he is not, he contents himself with a brief reflection on his new least favorite word in Standard.

"Then perhaps I might speak with Ambassador Sarek."

"The Ambassador is..." - and here the pause is too pronounced, too tortured, to mistake the discomfort behind it - "...also unavailable."

"That is unexpected," says Spock slowly. Taaval does not reply, but simply regards him dispassionately. It is not unusual for Sarek to be abruptly called offworld, and, wherever possible, Amanda will accompany him, but if this were the case, then Taaval would have said as much. Spock feels the first pricklings of unease. He says, "Might I ask when the Ambassador and his wife are expected to return?"

"They are not absent," says Taaval, "Merely... unavailable."

"And when might they be available once more?"

There is the tiniest, faintest intake of breath, but the momentary dip of the eyes and tightening of the shoulders that it accompanies are reminiscent of a teacher losing patience with a particularly obtuse student. Nevertheless, when Taaval speaks, his voice is level. He says, "I estimate perhaps 1.3 days." There is a short pause, during which his gaze quite deliberately locks onto Spock's and fixes him with a meaningful stare. "It is 2.87 days since both the Ambassador and his wife became unavailable."

"I see," says Spock.

And then he does see.

And a moment later something else clicks as well.

 

~*~


It's not particularly late, but it's been a trying day and there's no work outstanding - or, at least, nothing that's going to be fixed tonight - so Kirk has decided to try for an early night. His brain is firing haphazardly in a way that suggests that sleep will be elusive, but he lacks the energy to run it off in the gym and so he's sought out his battered old Melville and tossed it on the bed, and is preparing for a warm shower to try and soothe some of the restlessness away. The buzz at his door is, therefore, neither wholly welcome, nor wholly disagreeable.

Not that it matters. Part of being the Captain is that you don't get to decide when you want to actually be Captain. "Enter," he calls, and disappears into his sleeping area to pull on a robe as the door slides open.

He knows it's Spock before he turns, before his First Officer speaks. There's just something about the way he carries himself into a room, something about the way the air shifts around him. But it's still a pleasure to step into the living area and have it confirmed. He smiles. "Spock. What can I do for you?"

"Captain," says Spock, and folds his hands behind his back. Kirk waits. Then he waits a little bit more, and finally he quirks an eyebrow.

"Yes, Mr. Spock?" he prompts.

"I believe..." Spock is scouring the ceiling with his eyes, as though the words he's looking for might be scrawled on the bulkhead. He radiates discomfort, and Kirk is obliged to restrain the urge to lay a placatory hand on his friend's arm. "I believe," says Spock again, with a valiant resolve, "That I may have acquired an insight into Professor Sorelan's sudden absence."

"Oh?" says Kirk. "I thought you already had a theory - you just didn't want to share it before you had the evidence to back it up?"

"Yes, Captain," says Spock. "I had considered the possibility that the Professor may have been laboring under some form of professional embarrassment. It seemed likely that he and Professor T'Pilak had come to the conclusion that the Veleth Hai project was outside of Sorelan's field of expertise, and were unwilling to subject Vulcan pride to any further humiliation."

"But - you no longer believe this is the case?"

"It may be," says Spock. "However... another possibility has presented itself."

Kirk waits, but finds he's disinclined to let the hiatus linger this time. "Spock, you're going to have to tell me," he says.

Spock tilts his head back. The height differential means that he's really very good at avoiding the Captain's eye when he wants to. He says, "The symptoms of pon farr typically require four to five days to fully resolve."

"Oh," says Kirk. There is a moment of silence. And then a small laugh escapes him, bordering on the hysterical. "Oh!"

Spock says nothing. Kirk finds, horrifyingly, that he wants to giggle. He buries the urge with pacing. When he thinks he can trust himself, he says, carefully, "That would... seem to make sense, Mr. Spock."

"I believe so," says Spock stiffly.

"This flash of inspiration," says the Captain. "You're not... yourself...?"

It takes his First a moment to work out what he's talking about and then his eyes abruptly widen. "No, Captain!" he says.

"Good..." says Kirk absently. "I mean, I know it hasn't been seven years, but... you know... Perhaps space travel..."

"No, Captain," says Spock firmly.

"Good," says Kirk again. And then, "Excellent." He completes another circuit of the room and then says, "I'm going to have to pass this on to Admiral Komack, you know."

"Yes, Captain," says Spock.

"I just... In case you were uncomfortable... you know."

"I had anticipated the necessity."

The Captain hesitates by his desk, lifts a stylus, stares at it for a moment. He says, "Is everything all right, Spock?"

He's not looking at his First, so it's a feeling rather than an observation that alerts him to the subtle shift behind him. Kirk looks over his shoulder. Nothing about Spock's expression has visibly changed, but there is a palpable aura of distress that is quite separate from the discomfort of his revelation. Spock says, "I have nothing further to report, Captain."

"Come on, Spock," says Kirk. "I know that tone."

"It is..." says Spock, and in the fractional hesitation Kirk revises his initial assessment: this is not distress, it is closer to misery. Without thinking, he takes a step forward. "...a personal matter," finishes his First.

And the Captain wouldn't be the Captain if he didn't step forward now and close his fingers around his friend's arm, and he expects Spock to gently extricate himself and move away. It's not just a surprise when he doesn't, it's actually astounding.

"All right," he says gently. "Perhaps we'd both better get some sleep. It's been a long day."

"Yes, Captain," says Spock, and his eyes, which have been cast resolutely downwards, flicker upwards to meet Kirk's. The glance lasts a second, no longer, but it pins Kirk to the spot and freezes every muscle in his body.

There it is. There. Something... more.

Still Spock makes no effort to pull away and Kirk realizes he's holding his breath, but he can't release it now, not without calling attention to the sudden suspension of everything familiar. Something twists in the Captain's belly, long-suppressed and all but disregarded, and he's certain - he'd swear - that he just saw it mirrored in Spock's eyes.

"Thank you, Jim," says Spock quietly, and gently steps away, out of Kirk's circle of personal space. Air rushes in to fill the vacuum, cold and colorless, and the Captain lets himself breathe again. "I believe a period of meditation would be of benefit this evening."

‘Whatever you need," says Kirk, and then realizes, abruptly, how that sounds. He amends it quickly: "It's been a difficult day for you, Spock. I'm sorry."

He's at the door now, eyes still hooded, and he nods once. "Goodnight, Jim," he says. The door opens and Spock looks up, once, briefly, but for the power in that tiny glance it might be the eye of a telescope, pointed into infinity. Then he's gone, and Kirk is left in the sudden silence, standing motionless by his desk.

 

 

 

~*~


Chapter Text


Spock is eleven years old, and he knows when his mother is lying.

“It is not logical to interrupt my studies at this time,” he repeats.

“Yes, dear,” says his mother from deep inside his closet, in the voice she uses when she’s not really listening. “It’s only for a few days.”

“The duration of the interruption is of little consequence, Mother,” he says. He is supposed to be folding the robes that she has laid out on his bed, but, since the underlying enterprise is manifestly without logic, it follows that it would be illogical to expend energy that’s better diverted to explaining to Amanda why he can’t simply up and leave for a vacation of indeterminate length at his grandparents’ house. “It is the fact of the interruption itself that will be traumatic to the learning arc.” She knows this. He knows she knows this.

Amanda steps out of the closet with three tunics, assorted undergarments, and a travelling cloak slung over her arm and rolls her eyes in impatience when she sees him sitting placidly on his bed, hands folded in his lap.

“I asked you to pack these, Spock!” she says, crossing quickly to his side and decanting layers of clothing onto his mattress. They settle into a neat fabric-strata with a billowing puff of must-scented air.

“Yes, Mother,” he says, but makes no move to begin.

Amanda moves like a Terran swan – stillness and economy of motion belying a furiously-working mind and a capacity for industry entirely at odds with the face she presents to the world at large. This makes it all the more disjunctive when extreme emotion disrupts her typical air of unruffled contentment – like now, when her eyes widen and her mouth tightens into a thin line of anger.

“It was not a request, Spock!” she snaps. “You know better than to disobey me. Do it now!”

“But, Mother – ” he begins, but she cuts him off.

“No ‘buts’! You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to understand it. You just do it, Spock, do you understand me?”

He has never seen her angry. He has overheard whispered arguments with his father – generally concerning some aspect of Spock’s development and parenting requirements – and he’s seen her face glaze with the icy, frozen smile that she reserves for the parents of children who torment him, when they are foolish enough to underestimate the Human wife of the Terran Ambassador and her capacity for maternal defence. Sarek seems to spend half his life at some level of disappointment with his son, but Amanda has never lost her temper in his presence. If he didn’t know she was lying before, he’s certain of it now.

He offers a meek, “Yes, Mother,” and sets to folding his robes.

~*~


She doesn’t travel with him. Taaval takes him to the transport station, and Spock finds that his controls are faltering. He has spent enough time on Earth to understand that a full Human boy of his age might be tempted to give in to tears at this point, so it’s some kind of grim satisfaction that the Vulcan in him is dominant, even today, and that Taaval, who shares no bond with his employer’s son, cannot see the struggle that rages behind Spock’s impassive eyes.

A porter takes his trunk at the gates, and Spock turns to his companion, sucking in a breath that puffs out his chest and straightens his spine, buying him perhaps half an inch of extra height. It’s decorative rather than demonstrative, but it helps to settle his tremulous anxiety as he says, “Please let my parents know that I will communicate with them on my arrival at the house of Skon and T’Rama.”

But Taaval simply inclines his head and says, “I will be receiving all communications on your parents’ behalf, Spock. I will be glad to know of your safe arrival.”

Taaval is Sarek’s man, and even at eleven Spock has not yet decided where he sits on the complicated continuum of friend to enemy. If he has an opinion on the Ambassador’s choice of wife or his half-breed son, he’s far too clever to let it show. Spock swallows his rising agitation and says, ”Please give them my regards.”

Taaval nods again and raises his hand in the ta’al. Spock mirrors the gesture, and it takes some considerable effort to ensure that his fingers do not shake.

~*~


While Skon is occupied at the Academy in ShiKahr, T’Rama typically absents herself to their summer home outside Kir, close to the shores of the Thanar Sea. It is a modest, comfortable villa, cooled by the ocean winds and built around a pleasant, leafy courtyard in which she spends at least half of her day in pursuit of Golic meditation. After a brief interview on his arrival, Spock has found himself conscripted to a mat by her side for four hours of every day; clearly, whatever she found in the meld has convinced her that his parents are woefully remiss in their instructions in the Vulcan disciplines.

He has no logical objection. The courtyard is almost completely canopied by the heavy, spreading branches of four ancient trees, and the sunlight that streaks through their leaf-blanket is tepid, dilute, like a high summer day in San Francisco. Salt breezes sweeten the air and the sand beneath his mat is comfortably warm, like a pot that has been left in the morning sun. And his grandmother is easy company – disturbed, perhaps, by the dissolution of traditional values in the younger generation, and possessed of priorities that are not precisely consonant with Spock’s scientific leanings, but quiet and undemanding, and not noticeably inconvenienced by his company. His objection, therefore, is not logical; it is emotional.

Meditation is ointment to his troubled mind, but a true kohl-tor is impossible to achieve in his current state, and hours of silence and struggle are entirely too conducive to a runaway thought-train of panic. He made the promised call to his home immediately upon arrival, and to his grandmother’s tight-lipped disapproval, and Taaval was blandly impassive, thanking him for his trouble and assuring him that it would comfort his parents to hear of his safe arrival, while making no actual promise to convey the news. Since then, Spock has attempted to convince T’Rama on four separate occasions to allow him to try again, and she has acceded once, this morning, and then only hesitantly. Taaval thanked him again for his efforts and dodged every question about his parents’ presence, welfare and health, before nodding unctuously and signing off before Spock could reciprocate the closing salutation.

It has been five days since Spock was unceremoniously ejected from his home. Even accounting for the vagaries of Standard, he is certain that constitutes more than a few, and yet there has been no mention of making arrangements for his return. His studies are suffering and, worse, he can no longer suppress the niggling doubt that there is no home for him to return to. Why else the secrecy?

“Spock,” says T’Rama by his side, “You will never achieve s’thaupi if you continue to fidget so. Be still.”

He stomps on the billowing adrenal spike that her sudden words have startled out of his restless brain and says, “I apologize, Grandmother.”

“Apologies are unnecessary. Stillness is necessary. Be silent, and be still.”

Invisible above the tree-blanket, marine birds trace their path on soaring thermals in the rise and fall of their mournful cries. He forces his Self inside, into the quiet place of darkness and knowledge, and reaches for peace even as logic shakes its metaphorical head and whispers that peace cannot be grasped at, that it shrinks from the clutch of desperation. In this shadowed anteroom, the meditative trance is a locked door for which he has no key, but thoughts play like an ancient Terran film strip across the whitewashed walls of his mind. He sees the night that he returned from his abortive pre-kahs wan adventure, the night that he almost died, and he sees his mother’s face: white and tightly-drawn as she processes the knowledge of her almost-loss. Fear is instinct rather than pure emotion; it’s a life-sustaining state of being, and it is simply the external manifestations and their restrictive chokehold that the Vulcan way seeks to repress. He understands fear well enough, and it is fear that inscribes the bloodless wash of grey across his mother’s features that night.

It was fear he saw behind her eyes as she hurried him out the door five days ago.

Meditation spits him violently back into the lazy sunlight of the courtyard, gasping for breath, and his spine sags his neck forward, crushing his head towards his chest.

“Spock!” says T’Rama sharply, and then, more evenly, “Spock?”

For a moment he cannot speak, and he turns his head towards her and knows that he stares at her with Human eyes, in which she reads entirely too much. She stands abruptly in one easy, fluid motion and he hears the soft clip of her footsteps on flagstones as she disappears into the house. He is left alone in the shade of the in-du-ka, beating ineffectually at a hurricane of panic and confusion, belly and cheeks burning with a furious shame.

Why was she afraid? Why was she afraid?

His thoughts are spinning so riotously that he does not hear his grandmother’s return until she is almost behind him, stepping onto the sand with a brittle crunch and kneeling elegantly beside him. “Drink this,” she says, pressing an earthenware beaker into his line of sight and folding her hands neatly into her lap as he takes it from her and risks raising his head a fraction.
He doesn’t ask what it is, simply raises it to his lips and tastes cold water, sweet and freshly pumped from the villa’s underground spring. “Thank you, Grandmother,” he says.

“I wonder what your instructors are teaching you,” she says. “A simple kohl-tor ought not to be so difficult to achieve at your age.”

He expects her to make some reference to his lineage. It’s what his tutors would do at this point. But she only fixes him with an unwavering stare – a stare that has, sadly, passed unaltered to his father and has been regularly employed in lieu of words in those long, uncomfortable interviews that inevitably follow any kind of misdeed – and waits for him to speak.

He says, “I was unable to achieve the requisite level of mental clarity.”

“That much was obvious,” she says. “Is your mind troubled, Spock?”

Amanda has asked him the same question more times than he can count, and the sudden association forces another frantic wave of agitation to swirl in his belly. But he is gaining control of himself at last, and he says, “I am experiencing concern as to the welfare of my parents.”

“Your parents are well, Spock,” she says. “You must learn to trust those whose knowledge eclipses yours.”

He hesitates. “Perhaps if I might share in that knowledge…?”

“One day,” she says. “For now, you must only trust.” She stands abruptly, and when he tilts his head to follow her, her face is haloed by a shaft of molten white sunlight. “Come. There is clearly nothing to be gained by pursuing tvi-sochya this morning. We will turn to your studies for now.”

~*~


Samaris is a young woman from the coastal village of S’Sharan V’Kir-kal, the closest township to his grandparents’ villa, and she arrives in the evenings to help T’Rama with those tasks that her advancing age has complicated. Her second daughter is only months older than Spock, so she has always tended to treat him as though he were an extension of her own family, watching him with the inscrutable, all-seeing eye of Vulcan matriarchy. It ought to be cloistering and offensive, but instead it’s oddly reassuring.  She knocks on his door in the hours after dinner and says, “Your mother has arrived from ShiKahr, Spock. Your grandmother is talking to her now.”

For a moment he can’t properly process the words, and then joy spikes in his chest and lifts him from his seat before he’s aware that he’s moving. Samaris watches impassively as he scrambles to compose himself, straightening his back and folding his hands in front of him, viciously suppressing a rising tide of emotion. “Thank you,” he says. “In which room is my mother waiting?”

“They are in Madam’s study,” she says. “I am instructed to supervise your packing.”

It’s clearly an injunction against interrupting his elders, but Samaris says nothing as he strides rapidly across the room and passes her in the doorway. She swivels to follow his movement and raises a meaningful eyebrow as he hesitates in the corridor.

“I will return shortly,” he says, stripping – with effort – every interrogative inflection from his tone so that it doesn’t sound as though he’s asking permission. “I wish to greet my mother first.”

She allows her silence to register her disapproval for one long moment, and then nods. “Quickly, please. There is much to do.”

It is difficult to suppress the urge to tear haphazardly along the short corridor and down the stairs. His grandmother’s study is close to the main entrance and he sees from the lobby that the door is closed, but as he approaches and raises his hand to knock he hears T’Rama’s voice through the heavy panelling.

“You are clearly insufficiently recovered for travel, Amanda,” she says. “You ought to have rested another night.”

“I am well enough, thank you,” is her answer, and the elation that threatened to expose him a moment earlier skips painfully again against his heart. It is her. It is her. He grips his hands tightly behind his back, feeling his fingernails bite deeply into his palms, and acknowledges at last the prickling dread that had wondered if he would ever hear that voice again.

“There is nothing to be gained in risking your health,” says his grandmother now. “Spock is welcome to remain for as long as necessary.”

A small, self-deprecating laugh. It’s not likely to go over well with T’Rama. Amanda says, “I wanted to see him.”

There is a significant pause, and Spock can imagine the look on his grandmother’s face. She says, slowly, “This is more difficult for you, Amanda. The risks to your wellbeing are… immoderate. I am surprised Sarek agreed to your departure.”

Tightly: “He did not.”

“You ought not to treat these matters so lightly. Your Human physiology is not compatible with…”

“We have been married for twelve years, T’Rama. It is sufficiently compatible.”

In the loaded silence that follows, Spock is abruptly aware that he is eavesdropping. Quickly, he raises his hand and knocks on the door. The pause that follows is so pronounced he can practically feel the consternation from inside the room.

At length, T’Rama’s voice calls, “Enter.”

Amanda is seated in the occasional chair by the door, while T’Rama stands by the window, framed by the setting sun. “Spock,” she says as Amanda stands quickly and visibly suppresses the urge to run to her son and wrap her arms around him. “I sent Samaris to help you pack. Why are you not upstairs?”

“Forgive me, Grandmother,” he says. “I wished to greet my mother.”

A beatific smile splits Amanda’s face and she clasps her hands in front of her chest, manifestly as a last resort. She says, “Spock. It’s so good to see you.”

He turns towards her, and registers her appearance for the first time. Amanda has always been small, sparsely proportioned and almost bird-like against the strong, robust lines of her Vulcan contemporaries. He has always been aware of her relative fragility, and he has seen the way his father instinctively hovers close by her side, as though he can surround her with his superior strength like a forcefield. But five days’ absence has stripped the healthy glow from her skin and she stands awkwardly, as though her body is trying to bend in on itself. Her eyes are bright, but too-bright, and there is something buried behind them that she doesn’t want him to see.

The knowledge strikes him, violent and visceral as a punch: she is in pain.

“Mother…” he says, and he sees the exact moment she realizes that he knows. The smile wilts on her face.

“I’ve come to take you home, dear,” she says.

“Amanda, please sit,” says T’Rama. “Spock, you should be packing.”

His mother lowers herself back into her chair with a valiant effort at insouciance, but her movements are too practiced, too pronounced, too performative, and he does not miss the tiny grimace that escapes her before she can suppress it. Spock says, “Mother, are you unwell?”

“No, dear,” she says, and turns a smile on him that is very nearly convincing. “Just a little tired. Run along and do as your grandmother says.”

“Is my father well?” he says quickly, on the crest of a sudden wave of nameless fear.

“He’s well, dear,” she says. “He’s looking forward to seeing you.”

“Spock!” says T’Rama sharply. He glances up, and she’s using the Stare.

“Yes, Grandmother,” he says softly.

“I’ll be waiting right here,” says Amanda. “It’s so good to see you, dear.”

Spock leaves the room, closing the door quietly behind him, and waits for a moment in the corridor outside. But they have either finished speaking or else they distrust his easy acquiescence, because no sound escapes the electric silence in the room beyond.

Something is wrong; that much is clear. He turns and crosses to the stairs, but a lingering unease is worrying a hole in his belly and spreading little tendrils of doubt into his disordered thoughts. For now, there is only confusion, but in years to come, Spock will look back at this moment and realize that this is the first time he begins to understand that his parents’ marriage is a terrible mistake.

 

Chapter Text

It’s been a long evening.

They usually are, these nights that pretend to be uneventful right up until the moment you’re getting ready to fall asleep. Kirk doesn’t need to look at the chronometer to know that it’s long past midnight – the dull throb behind his eyes and the sense that ship’s gravity is trying to suck him through the floor are enough to tell him that he really doesn’t want to know what time it is.


Spock made a vague effort towards pretending that it wouldn’t be a problem for him to stay and help talk to Admiral Komack, but gave up with suspicious ease when the Captain suggested that he’d subjected himself to enough embarrassment already. It’s not like Spock to acknowledge that embarrassment even exists outside of the hypothetical, and if he’s forgetting to maintain that air of rigid Vulcan denial, then he definitely didn’t need the kind of conversation that followed for seventy minutes after Kirk delivered the news to their Operational CO.

Confirmation of their amended orders has just blinked its arrival on his terminal, and the Captain spends less than half a second wondering whether or not he ought to pull on his uniform and head up to the bridge. But it’s not the sort of news that can’t wait until morning, and he feels a small grin tugging at the edge of his mouth as he contemplates the shipwide excitement it’s unlikely to engender. He acknowledges receipt with a click, and his hand hovers over the power down command for a second, while little zig-zag lines of fatigue shoot across his straining eyes.

He definitely shouldn’t do this. It’s clear that he shouldn’t do this. Whatever that moment was earlier on, the one that he has no intention of trying to process tonight, the one that is likely to shimmy across his conscious mind every single time his brain starts to slip into unconsciousness and pull him back from the brink of sleep in a rush of adrenalin and excitable panic; whatever that was, this is not likely to expedite the kind of resolution he’s hoping it leads to.

Whatever that moment was. He knows what that moment was. He’s just not sure what to do with that knowledge. And he’s not used to being unsure at this point.

His hand settles on the desk.

“Computer,” he says, because this can still be undone, right up to the moment when it can’t. “Take a message, recorded, and deliver to Lieutenant Palmer for transmission to the house of Ambassador Sarek and his wife. Message reads: Ambassador and Lady Amanda, greetings from Captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise. It may interest you to know that we are to remain in orbit around your planet for four Vulcan days.” He hesitates. “Commander Spock has not informed me of his plans – no, wait. Strike that last sentence. Resume. Crew will be granted leave to beam down to the planet during this period. I would be delighted to offer you the hospitality of the Enterprise at any time during our stay. Live long and prosper. Message ends.”

“Transmit?” asks the computer, and of course it doesn’t have an accusatory tone – of course it doesn’t – but it’s amazing what wonders a guilty conscience can conjure. Spock will be furious, and rightly so. There is no way he ought to transmit this.

“Transmit,” he says.

And that just about kills all possibility of sleep for tonight.

~*~

 

Alone in his quarters, Spock stares at the asenoi for a full thirty seconds past the point where he accepts that it’s an exercise in futility, mostly because half of him is Human and that half got all of Amanda’s stubbornness. He’s been here before, his body recognizes the signs, and his brain has gone into full-scale rebellion. It won’t be forced into meditation at those moments when he needs it most, and he’s certain his contemporaries don’t have to deal with this sort of thing. There are days when he understands perfectly well why his parents’ DNA so fiercely resisted combination, and it’s because logical and illogical ought never to have to collide within the confines of one unfortunate skull.

He has, quite simply, no idea what to do.

All things considered, it has been a horrible evening. First there was the message from Taaval that catapulted him back into memories he seldom revisits for the crushing weight of impotent rage they engender, and the panic, and the fear. He learned the techniques for their management many years ago – much of which involves keeping well out of his father’s way – and they might not have been so disastrous to his equilibrium, were it not immediately necessary to go and have the kind of hideous conversation with his Captain that catapulted him back into another set of memories he’d really rather he never had to think of again. Why on earth Kirk might think that his friend would be in any way pleased to return to Vulcan in light of the last time he was here is something that Spock can only vaguely comprehend with reference to memories of Amanda’s wide-eyed delight every time their ship dropped out of warp on the edge of the Sol system. It just seems to be a Human thing. Long and frequently excruciating experience has taught Spock that sometimes it’s safer just to leave it at that.

And even that might not have been so bad – he’s survived that talk before, and the last time it happened it was Spock who was the subject – but for the fact that his friend reads him entirely too easily. Spock has long since given up trying to differentiate the subtle nuances of Human emotion, and McCoy just generally assumes whatever it pleases him to assume about Spock on any given day and runs with it, but Kirk has never had any difficulty in seeing through his First Officer’s carefully-polished Vulcan veneer. There are times when he is immeasurably grateful to be seen so completely and to know that, in all the universe, one person at least has taken the trouble to know him and the world didn’t end because of what he found. Mostly, though, it’s massively inconvenient to have to try to remember that whatever he thinks he’s buried beyond the ken of Man, Kirk will probably pick up a scent and worry at it until he stumbles across the truth by himself. Or until Spock just gives up and tells him.

He could have coped with the distress. It’s been a long and manifestly trying day for the First Officer, and he could have left the Captain to draw his own conclusions; they probably wouldn’t even have had to have drinks and chat aimlessly while Kirk made certain his friend was all right, since there was already a villain in place, his name was Solvis, and it was perfectly reasonable to assume that Spock’s disquiet was due in large part to the Vulcan Science Academy and their gift for verbal warfare. The Captain has an unwavering respect for the private matters of his First, so long as they don’t interfere with the running of the ship, and so long as he thinks he already knows what the private matters might be. Spock is used to being known. He could have coped with that.

It’s the look that he can’t get past.

He knows what was in his eyes when he looked up, and he knows that Kirk saw it. He also knows his Captain too well to believe that he read it as anything other than what it was. This is why meditation eludes him tonight: because there is simply no getting past this point.

That, and the fact that he’s almost 57 percent certain that he saw his own desire mirrored in his Captain’s eyes. There’s that too.

He has no idea what to do.

~*~

 

Kirk’s adrenal system shocks him awake a good forty minutes before his alarm is due to go off, with a bolt of inexplicable panic that definitively proclaims the end of the sleep cycle for this particular night. It’s too early for his brain to be happy about the situation and too late for it to be practicable to lie with his eyes shut and his pillow over his face and hope for some kind of somnolent mercy. He supposes he ought to be grateful at least that he managed a full two hours since the last burst of wakefulness. It’s been that sort of night.

A lingering odor of ginger and lavender and pine in the head tells him Spock has passed a similarly restless few hours, and he’d prefer not to think about the implications of that just now. So instead he lumbers into the shower, feeling seventy years older than he did twenty-four hours ago, and turns his face into a blast of steaming hot water in the hope that it might persuade his headache to clear. Plan B is coffee. Lots of coffee.

Spock’s not on the bridge yet, which is not that surprising, since there’s still another thirty minutes before Alpha shift officially begins, and the Captain’s presence causes the kind of muted commotion that tries desperately to pretend it’s not a commotion at all because why would it be a problem that the Captain has turned up half an hour early without warning and for no reason? Ensign Gavrikova has pulled command duty overnight and she’s done a good job, he reflects, as he scans her hastily-assembled handover report and relieves her with a request to find a Yeoman and have a carafe of hot, strong coffee sent up ASAP. They are in orbit around the peaceful homeplanet of Humanity’s oldest friends, so naturally nothing startling has happened overnight, and he turns, rather self-consciously, to the Communications report as the minutes count down and his command crew start to filter onto the bridge. There it is: 0047 hours, transmission from the Captain’s quarters to the house with a family name that Kirk avoids ever mentioning so that Spock won’t find out he can’t pronounce it. It’s done. The Captain purses his lips, and then brightens considerably as Yeoman McConnel arrives with the coffee.

There is no mention in the report of the Science Officer requesting permission to serve his shift in the labs. That is surprising.

McCoy turns up in the final press of bodies disgorged from the turbolift as the chronometer slides nonchalantly from Gamma back to Alpha. Spock peels off from the group and strides silently and purposefully towards the science station, and the Doctor ambles towards the command chair with a sideways glance towards the First and an interrogative eyebrow for the Captain.

“Good morning to you too, Spock,” he says amiably, which obliges Spock to turn back from his viewer and nod curtly towards the bridge.

“Doctor,” he says. A beat – tiny, infinitesimally tiny, and yet unquestionably a beat – and then he adds, “Captain.”

A small voice buried somewhere deep within Kirk starts singing. This again.

“What’s crawled up his green-blooded backside?” says McCoy, and Kirk cannot repress a big, glowing smile.

He shakes his head. “Command business,” he says. “I see it didn’t take you long to find the coffee, Bones.”

“Figured with the day you had yesterday, best coffee on the ship’d be on the bridge this morning,” he says, unapologetically helping himself to a cup from McConnel’s tray. “You look like hell, Jim. What did you do, work all night?”

“Not quite,” says Kirk. He grins. “Although I appreciate the vote of confidence, Doctor,” he adds.

Bones shrugs. “I’m a doctor, not a cheerleader,” he says. “Reckon you need about eight days’ solid shore leave, then you might start looking like a Human being again, Jim.”

“Funny you should mention that,” says Kirk, and, because he wouldn’t be Jim Kirk if he didn’t use an opening like that for all it was worth, he turns over his shoulder to Uhura and says, “Lieutenant, get me a shipwide frequency, please.”

“Yes, sir,” she says. “Frequency open, Captain.”

Kirk offers another smile into Bones’ open curiosity, and addresses his crew. “This is the Captain speaking,” he says. “By now you will all be aware that we have been delayed in orbit around Vulcan for approximately twelve hours longer than we had initially intended. Late last night, I received word from Starfleet HQ that we are to remain in orbit for a further four days. It is my pleasant duty to inform you that, given the lack of any pressing alternative responsibilities during this time, Starfleet Command have authorized the next four days as shore leave for all hands. Please liaise with your commanding officers regarding the appropriate paperwork and remember that you remain a representative of Starfleet at all times while planetside. On behalf of the command crew, I would like to wish you all a very safe and pleasant shore leave. Kirk out.”

There is silence on the bridge, and a palpable air of the opposite of rapturous enthusiasm.

“Shore leave on Wulcan,” says Chekov slowly. “....Thank you, sir?”

Kirk grins at the navigation console. “Don’t mention it, Ensign.”

“Well,” says McCoy after a moment. “Guess that’s you off four hundred Christmas card lists, Jim.”


~*~

 


Kirk catches up to Spock as he’s halfway down the corridor that leads to the officers’ mess, moving at that unmatchable Vulcan pace that he uses when he wants to be impressive, or when he doesn’t want to be caught. He can’t ignore a direct order from the Captain, though, so when the inadequate Human muscular system makes it clear that catching up to Spock is going to involve running after him down the corridors in full sight of the crew, Kirk settles for calling a cheerful, “Just a moment, Mr. Spock,” instead.

Spock turns as Kirk draws level with him, and deflects with a well-placed defensive opening. “Captain,” he says. “I was on my way to lunch, if you would care to join me?”

“I’d be delighted,” says Kirk, and falls into step beside him for a full two paces before adding, “I notice your name is not on the list for shore leave.”

Spock does not sigh, but Kirk can tell when he wants to. He says, “I am not in need of recreational leave at present, Captain.”

“We had an agreement,” says Kirk.

“I believe you phrased it as an order,” says Spock.

“That’s right,” says Kirk amiably, “I did.”

Another non-sigh. “The circumstances no longer obtain,” says Spock. “The new arrangements for our stay are substantially different to those under which the original orders were to be carried out.” A pause. And then, resignedly: “I am prepared to fulfill your requisite three hours planetside, should you so order, Captain.”

Kirk lets that sit for the final few yards of the corridor, but halts at the door to the mess and turns to face his friend. “I had thought,” he says, “that it might be an interesting experience to visit Mount Seleya. Would that be permitted, do you think?”

“It is… not unheard of,” says Spock slowly. “The priests do not welcome outsiders, but they are generally more accommodating to visitors who arrive in the company of Vulcans.”

“Of course,” says Kirk. “If only I knew a Vulcan who might accompany me on such a trip.”

This provokes an actual eye-roll, and it’s as much as Kirk can do to swallow his grin. He raises his eyebrows innocently.

“Very well, Captain,” says Spock. There is a fractional sag to his shoulders, as of a man who knows when he’s beaten. “I would be pleased to escort you on a trip to Mount Seleya.”

Kirk’s grin breaks free despite his best efforts. “I appreciate that, Mr. Spock,” he says.

The door glides open on a scattering of Alpha shift crew and the ship’s CMO, sitting by himself at one corner of the long table, scowling at a PADD in front of him and munching absently at a huge sandwich. Kirk greets him with a brief clasp of his shoulder and makes his way over to the replicator bank, where he slides his diet card into the slot and waits for the machine to beep. The plate that emerges is not exactly what he was expecting. Kirk notes with some dismay that the chicken that was supposed to be fried is actually grilled, the sourdough roll is absent altogether, and the potatoes that were supposed to be mashed with butter and cream are actually… salad. He glances up at Spock, who is staring into the middle distance with an expression that manifestly refuses to get involved.

“Just be glad I let you keep the chicken,” grunts Bones without looking up, as the Captain settles into the seat beside him.

Kirk is privately convinced that there is a regulation somewhere that prohibits the ship’s doctor from tampering with the Captain’s food order more than twice daily, and if there isn’t, he’s damn well going to agitate until the admiralty get behind him on this one. In the absence of any legalities upon which to charge his friend with mutiny-by-calorie-count, he settles for biting dramatically into a stick of celery and nonchalantly changing the subject.

“Shore leave plans, Bones?” he asks, nodding at the PADD.

The Doctor looks up as Spock slides into the seat to his left. “Readin’ up on the three dozen Vulcan parasites that are able to adapt to a Human host,” he says.

Spock glances at the image on the screen. “The sakasu-nalatra-neshuhk is exceptionally rare, Doctor,” he says placidly. “The Federation no longer routinely vaccinates against it.”

“Uh-huh,” says Bones. “What you wanna bet one of our boys comes back with a dose?”

“Well,” says Kirk cheerfully, “Won’t that make a pleasant change from the sort of maladies you typically see after a shore leave on Wrigley’s or Risa?”

Bones acknowledges that with a heartfelt nod. “Ain’t that the truth,” he says. He sets down his overflowing sandwich and brushes crumbs off his hands. “Guess I don’t have to ask if you’re planning a pointy-eared vacation, Jim. He talk you into it yet, Spock?”

Spock’s hand stills in the act of scooping up a spoonful of soup. “I have agreed to accompany the Captain on a trip to Mount Seleya,” he says.

Bones rolls his eyes. “Yeah, that’s how it starts,” he says. “I tell you ‘bout the time I ended up spending a three-day leave on Starbase 14 scouting old antique shops? Jim got it into his head there’s some old replica of the HMS Enterprize he just had to send home to Iowa for Captain Kirk Snr – this’d be, oh, four, five years ago, right back at the start of the mission – and for some reason yours truly has to tag along too. Never did get within so much as sniffin’ distance of a decent, honest-to-God glass of bourbon that whole weekend.”

“Never found the replica either, as I recall,” says Kirk.

“Nope,” says Bones. “That was kind of my point, Jim.”

Kirk laughs easily. “Don’t worry, Spock. I doubt there are any antique shops near where we’re going. I take it you won’t be joining us, Bones?”

“Ha!” says the Doctor. “Some chance. I’m headed for K’lan-ne with M’Benga, the hospital where he interned. Might as well see if I can’t learn a few tricks since I’m here.”

“That sounds a lot like work, Bones.”

“Sounds a lot more likely to have bourbon than Mount Seleya, too.”

“It’s shore leave, Bones,” says Kirk. “Shore leave. Vacation.”

“Uh-huh,” says McCoy. “On Vulcan.” A beat. “Don’t think the crew’s gonna let you forget this any time soon, Jim.”

Kirk grins at Spock and receives an eyebrow in return, then follows his friend’s upward glance as the Chief Engineer crosses to the table bearing a tray of something that looks disturbingly like what the Captain thought he was ordering five minutes earlier. He lowers himself into a seat with a nod to his companions. “Captain. Leonard. Spock.”

Kirk shoots a meaningful glare up at the Doctor, who blithely ignores it and turns to the Chief Engineer instead. “We’re talking shore leave plans, Scotty,” he says cheerfully. “You just about set for a wild time with Vulcan’s nightlife?”

“Aye,” says Scott with an air of Celtic affliction. “Been meanin’ tae talk tae the Cap’n ‘boot tha’.”

“What’s on your mind, Scotty?” says Kirk.

“Well, Sir,” says Scotty. “It’s just that the warp engines could dae wi’ a wee bit of a recalibration, and the anti-matter converter’s been sluggish o’ late. Wi’ yer permission, I’d like tae commute my leave tae o’ertime an’ take a look at them while we’re in orbit.”

“Commute?” says Kirk. “You mean ‘convert’?”

There is a significant pause. “If ye say so, sir,” says Scott.

~*~

 


The Enterprise during shore leave is a different creature, someone the Captain doesn’t quite know. It’s as though he’s surprised a famous actress on a trip to the grocery store in ratty old slacks and without her make-up: recognizable, still unmistakably beautiful, but missing that vaguely exotic mystique that makes her so powerfully attractive. It’s not that the corridors are quieter per se; more that the energy has changed, and Kirk has found himself swept up on the tide of restlessness that pulses through the ship.

Mindful of the way that his thoughts have been manifestly ungovernable all afternoon, he’s taken the precaution of stopping by the gym after dinner and trying to beat them into submission with a ninety-minute workout that has left his muscles aching and his skin flushed, but has only varnished over the nagging thrill of anticipation that keeps tugging his brain out of orbit. So he’s allowed his feet to carry him as far as sickbay, where Bones is just finishing a stack of paperwork and glances up as Kirk’s shadow falls across his desk.
“Let me guess,” he says, “Ship too quiet for you?”

It’ll do. It’s easier than the truth. He says, “Something like that.”

“Sit down, Captain. I got a prescription for antsy COs.” He stands as Kirk lowers himself into the spare seat, and crosses to his liquor cabinet. “Course, it’d be a damn sight more effective if the Captain called a shore leave some planet where I can get my hands on the good stuff,” he adds.

Kirk laughs. “Bones, it’s hardly my fault they were out of Kentucky bourbon on K-7.”

Bones sets a glass down on the desk in front of him and pours a generous measure of Aldebaran Old Peculiar No. 7. “Yeah, well,” he says, “I can think of half a dozen places we could’ve stopped since then, Jim.” A beat. “Funny how these things turn out.”

The Captain raises his glass. He says, “No doubt Jabilo knows a place or two in K’Lan-ne, Bones.”

“Yup,” says the Doctor. He takes a sip and purses his lips around the burn. “When are you and the hobgoblin planning on beaming down to Seleya?”

“Spock’s making the arrangements,” says Kirk, and takes a gulp from his glass to cover the adrenal spike that accompanies his words. “Tomorrow or the day after. We’ll visit the temple and then spend the night in the guest quarters on the lower slopes. Sure you won’t join us?”

“Not me,” says McCoy. “Had enough of that mystic mumbo-jumbo last time we were here. Besides” – he takes another sip – “can’t see as Spock’d want an old country doctor there. Not this time.”

The Captain hesitates. McCoy’s tone is as innocent as his face, but Kirk has the distinct impression he’s being baited. Carefully, he says, “He hardly wants to be there himself, Bones. He’s humoring me.”

“Huh,” says the Doctor. His stare is relentless.

But Kirk has known McCoy for a long time; too long to fall for a pregnant silence and an unasked question. He makes himself grin and says, “Something on your mind, Doctor?”

“No, sir,” says Bones, stretching his arms over his head and clasping his hands at the base of his skull. “Guess it’s just what the doctor ordered, Jim.”

“Just not where you thought you were ordering it?” says Kirk cheerfully.

“Actually,” says Bones, “It’s not all that much of a surprise, Captain.” A beat. “Not really.”

“Your face on the bridge this morning said otherwise.”

“Didn’t say it wasn’t a shock, Captain,” says McCoy with one of his cryptic little smiles. “Just not a surprise, is all.”

Kirk meets the stare head-on, but the blue eyes miss nothing. In the absence of anything adequate to puncture the spreading silence, the Captain drains his glass and sets it on the desk with a muted thunk that rings in the still air. He says, “Thanks for the drink, Bones. I’d better get moving.”

“Sure,” says McCoy easily. His eyes follow the Captain as he stands, grips the back of his chair, slides it neatly beneath the desk. “Just be careful, Jim,” he says quietly. “That’s all.”

Kirk laughs, but fails to inject his intended measure of insouciance. He says, “It’s Mount Seleya, Bones, not Qo’noS.”

“You know what I mean,” says McCoy.

There’s nothing to say to that. “Good night, Bones,” says Kirk, and leaves before the Doctor can reply.


~*~


Alone in his quarters, Spock sits for a moment in quiet contemplation while his terminal blinks and wonders politely if he’d like to replay the message. The still, heated air swims with words just spoken, and they conjure his mother’s face in the darkness as clearly as it smiled out of the screen towards him moments earlier.

Silently, thoughtfully, he reaches out a hand towards the power-down command. The room goes black.

 

Chapter Text

A/N - Again, translations are available as a rollover pop-up. Or you can just look at the chapter end notes - there's not too much Vulcan in this chapter.

 

 

Mount Seleya rises up from the barren sands of Vulcan’s Forge like a long, wizened hand reaching for the distant sky. The harsh yellow light of the desert sun inscribes every ancient crevice, every precipice, every shale-bathed foothill, in stark, shadow-relief against the red rock face, painting her with a raw, visceral beauty that is not entirely safe – like a bird of prey, or a predator poised to strike. She whispers softly to Kirk’s wanderer’s soul in a language against which he has no defense, a vicious magnetic pull that has always urged him inexorably upwards, onwards, away from the familiar and the known.

 


That might be a particularly vivid metaphor for the mission to date. It’s certainly uncomfortably close to allegorizing his thoughts about the next couple of days.

 

He stares at the image on his terminal and the short scrawl of words that follow. Like everything the Federation libraries have on Vulcan, its laws, its customs, its traditions, and its people, the entry for Seleya is reprehensibly vague. The Captain isn’t completely certain, in fact, that he didn’t commit a major cultural faux pas by asking to visit the temple in the first place. Kirk is reasonably confident that his First wouldn’t have agreed to anything scandalous, but he’d be happier if the databanks were able to give him a better idea of how not to offend everyone he meets while he’s planetside. The VSA is one thing, but this is supposed to be a vacation.

 

Mount Seleya: sacred mountain located in the southern province of Xial, says the screen. Home to the Hall of Ancient Thought [no entry exists]. A place of enormous cultural significance [reference required] within Vulcan history and society. 7,000m above sea level [citation required] at its highest point, Seleya is the tallest peak in a range of hills that run to the north and west across the province.

 

That’s it. Kirk counts precisely four actual facts embedded into the airy, insubstantial text, and three of them he can get from a surface scan of the planet. The Captain has visited more worlds than he can count, made contact with hundreds of civilizations from every corner of the charted galaxy and beyond, and he has never felt more like an alien than he does right now. That’s… not likely to improve in the near future.

 

He’s half-heartedly scanning the library banks for a refresher course in Golic Vulcan when the merciful workings of a benevolent universe cause his door to buzz. “Come in,” he calls, and the door slides open on the impressively innocent face of his CMO.

 

“Chief Medical Officer requesting permission to disembark,” says McCoy cheerfully, crossing the room to Kirk’s desk, where he tosses a vial of pills in his hand before plunking them down in front of the Captain.

 

“Permission granted,” says Kirk, leaning back in his chair and stretching out the knotted muscles in his neck. He nods at the bottle. “What are those?”

 

“Present from Jabilo,” says the Doctor. “You have any idea how many micro-organisms live in Vulcan mountain water, Jim? Or the pathogen load in a va’khen bite? And all that raw food they serve in the sanctuary’s fine if you grew up on Vulcan, but the human digestive system’s not designed…”

 

“All right, Bones. Thank you,” says Kirk. He grins.

 

“Yeah, well, I wanted to send you down with a hypo-kit, but our friend Dr. M’Benga thought you might not feel like sticking yourself in the neck every four hours. You can thank him for those. Make sure you take them.”

 

“I will, Bones.” He palms the vial. “Quit clucking.”

 

“Don’t see why you can’t just hole up in some hotel on the coast somewhere for two days and stop puttin’ gray hairs on my head,” mutters Bones darkly.

 

Kirk crushes a smile between his lips. “Oh, I think you’re giving me a little too much credit there,” he says. “You seem to manage that perfectly well without my help…”

 

Fortunately, the door buzzes as McCoy opens his mouth to reply and his planned invective is lost to posterity. Kirk turns his grin towards the sound and calls a cheerful, “Come in,” and so Spock is treated to the full force of a James Kirk hundred-watt smile as the door slides open.

 

“Ah, Spock,” says McCoy, “Just in time. I was just telling Jim here ‘bout all the thousand and one ways he can become an expert in Mount Seleya’s bathroom facilities.”

 

Spock quirks an eyebrow. “Dr. McCoy, Mount Seleya is a place of spiritual retreat,” he says slowly. “There are no bathrooms.”

 

The Doctor throws a meaningful glare at Kirk. “That’s kind of my point,” he says.

 

Spock turns his interrogative eyebrow on the Captain, and Kirk decides to steer them firmly away from scatological allusions to sites of Vulcan worship. “Dr. McCoy was on his way to the transporter room,” he says, getting to his feet and rounding the desk to perch on the edge. “What can I do for you, Spock?”

 

The First Officer folds his hands behind his back and fixes his gaze on the far wall. He says, stiffly, “I had hoped to find the Doctor here, Captain. This concerns him also.”

 

Bones purses his lips and lowers himself into a chair. “Sounds ominous.”

 

Kirk shoots him a sharp look and turns his attention back to his First. “Go ahead, Spock.”

 

The hands clasped at the base of his spine visibly tighten and Spock drops his eyes. He says, “Late last night, I received a communication from my mother.”

 

The Doctor’s eyebrows shoot up and Kirk finds himself leaning forward, as though proximity might be some kind of defense. A tiny, freezing jet of guilt blasts through his gut. “Is everything all right?” he asks.

 

“My father’s assistant has informed her of our extended stay in orbit around Vulcan,” says Spock, and the bit where he says my father’s assistant sends such a tidal wave of relief crashing over Kirk’s panicking brain that it takes him a moment to realize that this isn’t actually an answer to his question.

 

“Ha!” says McCoy with his customary tact. “You can’t keep secrets from your mother, Spock. Heaven only knows how they find out, but they always do.”

 

“Indeed,” says Spock, with a glare so glacial that it actually causes the Doctor to stop talking. “In any event, she has…” A pause, while his eyes scour the floor. “She has requested that the Captain, Dr. McCoy and myself enjoy the hospitality of the house of Sarek.” Another pause, so uncomfortable it’s practically scraping its metaphorical fingernails down a metaphorical blackboard. “Captain. Doctor. You are invited to visit my mother’s home.”

 

Silence settles like a thick and dusty blanket across the room. As the difficult seconds shuffle past, Kirk tries desperately to determine what’s the right thing to say. He’s never visited a world where hospitality hasn’t been a big deal, and, though he’s sure that the Federation databanks will say something trite and utterly useless like, diplomatically important, under Invitations Into a Vulcan Home, he’s equally clear that Spock is not exactly thrilled at the prospect.

 

Carefully, he says, “That’s very kind of her, Spock. What’s the customary response?”

 

Still, the eyes do not drift from their singular fascination with the deck. “I have informed her of Dr. McCoy’s prior commitment to the healers at Shi’has t’K’Lan-ne,” he says. “She sends her regards, Doctor. However, she was…” He takes a deep breath. “My mother can be quite insistent, Captain. It is not a Vulcan trait.”

 

Laughter sputters out of McCoy, and even the terrible Arctic bite of an affronted Vulcan glare can’t silence it. “So that’s where you get it from, Spock,” he says. “Jim, looks like she’s got you cornered.”

 

Kirk shoots him a scowl. To Spock, he says, “Tell Amanda I’d be delighted to accept.”

 

Spock hesitates, and then slowly nods at the floor. Comprehension dawns.

 

“Ah,” says the Captain. “I believe I’ve just been presented with a fait accompli.”

 

“She is,” says Spock miserably, “most insistent, Captain.”

 

A grin tugs its way free of Kirk’s lips. This is almost certainly karma. He says, “Very well, Mr. Spock. Perhaps you’d care to tell me the arrangements.”

 

“We are invited to join my parents tonight for the evening meal. Accommodation will be provided for an overnight stay, and in the morning we can proceed to Mount Seleya as initially arranged, Captain.” He hesitates. “I apologize for the disruption to our plans.”

 

Kirk shrugs and shakes his head. “They weren’t precisely your plans anyway, Spock,” he says. “No need to apologize. Please tell your mother I look forward to seeing her again.”

 

Spock nods, a little more convincingly this time. “Thank you, Captain,” he says. Finally, belatedly, he lifts his eyes and seeks out McCoy’s. “Enjoy your stay in K’Lan-ne, Doctor,” he says. “I understand that the healers there are particularly gifted in their instructions in the tow-kath. However, any advancement in your skills will be an improvement over your habitual bones and rattles.”

 

Kirk buries a laugh in a coughing fit and turns his head into the safety of his terminal screen as Spock leaves, and risks glancing up at Bones only when the door has safely whooshed shut. But the Doctor’s eyes are sparkling.

 

He says, “Sounds like your shore leave just got a whole lot more interesting, Jim.”

 

“I had that coming,” says Kirk, and shakes his head at McCoy’s quirked eyebrow. “Never mind. Another story for another day. You’d better get going; M’Benga will be waiting.”

 

“Yup,” says Bones easily, lifting himself out of the chair with a sigh. “Damn. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in Spock’s house tonight.”

 

“Polite conversation with the ex-Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Earth?” says Kirk. “Sounds more like your idea of Purgatory to me, Doctor.”

 

“Huh,” says Bones. “Maybe.” He crosses to the door, but turns back with his hand hovering over the release button. “Seems to me like our hobgoblin’s always full of surprises, Captain.” A nod and an enigmatic smile. “See you in a few days.”

 

The door slides shut behind him and Kirk finds himself staring into empty space. Thoughts, half-formed, swirl in his head but dart out of sight when he tries to bring them into sharper focus. He shakes his head, turns back to his sleeping quarters, and begins to re-pack.

 

~*~

 

The first thing Spock registers is the heavy perfume of roses at sundown, suspended on the still, heated air. The second is a primal thrill of recognition that buzzes in some ancient circuits of his brain: a beat that is two parts possession and one part memory. He wasn’t lying when he told the Captain that he experiences no particular emotional attachment to Vulcan, but, standing on the first soil he ever knew, he feels a primitive pull of ownership, as though the land has a claim on him that he can never completely shake.

 

Spock is aware of Kirk’s gaze and glances to his left, where the Captain, stiff and pressed and looking distinctly uncomfortable in his dress uniform, throws him a companionable smile and raises his eyebrows in the direction of the looming boundary wall that separates the streets of ShiKahr from Spock’s childhood home. A latticework gate is set into the dark, polished stone, through which the uncountable scents of Amanda’s garden spill onto the street, and, beyond it, a narrow pathway leads through the lawns and up to the house. Spock feels his throat tighten and is suddenly immeasurably grateful for his friend’s presence. He would not have chosen to return, but there’s a little comfort in the fact that he’s not alone.

 

“No time like the present,” says Kirk evenly, but his eyes don’t leave Spock’s. Reluctantly, Spock releases his gaze and steps forward to press his hand to the scanning pad to the right of the entryway. The gates snap open.

 

The Watcher – known as T’Khut this late in the year – is high in the sky and approaching her fullest phase. As the sun settles into the horizon, the vast bulk of Vulcan’s sister-world is darkening into shadows, haunting the Cimmerian sky like a ghost. Spock sees the Captain’s head craning upwards, fixing her in his vision as he moves, and cocks his head towards him, which interrogative gesture Kirk acknowledges with a wry smile.

 

“The cloud cover was too heavy last time we were here,” he says. “I couldn’t see her from the surface.” A beat, full of the breathless wonder of the explorer. “Your world is beautiful, Spock.”

 

Spock follows his friend’s upward gaze, where stars are just beginning to pierce the hazy crimson mists. Beautiful is not a word that he has ever connected with his homeworld. It is not only that his years on Earth have embedded in him a deep and abiding affection for the kaleidoscope greenery of a water-rich planet, and it is not only that his years on Vulcan have, for the most part, been difficult; it is simply that it has never occurred to him to see the aesthetics of the ragged, arid landscape as anything other than the by-product of a strong sun and a tidally-locked co-orbit. Arresting, perhaps, even magnificent in places, but utilitarian, unlovely. Only now, staring into the evening sky through the eyes of a man primed to find magic in every dark corner of a thousand uncharted worlds, does the thought present itself that perhaps anywhere is beautiful if James Kirk is there to see it.

 

The Captain lowers his gaze and his eyes find Spock’s. A slow smile spreads warmly across his face and, unexpectedly, his hand comes up to clap Spock’s shoulder. It stays there just a moment too long, warm and familiar through the starched fabric of his uniform, and Spock thinks he feels the fingers contract, as though they would extend their hold on his flesh. But at that moment the main door opens on a slight figure, silhouetted against the light from the house, and Kirk’s hand falls quickly away. The moment is gone; the man is gone, and in his place is the Captain, with his Captain’s smile and his Captain’s manners, turning the full force of his charm on the Ambassador’s wife.

 

“Captain Kirk!” says Amanda warmly. “Welcome – welcome to our home.”

 

“Mother,” says Spock, and she turns to him.

 

Moments like these, when she is unobserved by his father’s people, are when she lowers her barriers completely and allows every beat of her heart to show on her face. Love shines from her eyes as she says, “Na'shaya, ta-kam. Nuh'mau-wak.”

 

He raises his hand in the ta’al, and, unhesitating, she presses a mirror gesture against his in the el'ru'esta. She says, “It’s good to have you home, Spock.”

 

He cannot truthfully offer the standard response, so instead he says, “Thank you, Mother.” 

 

There is a pause, and he thinks for a moment that she will press the issue, but instead she clasps her hands resolutely in front of her stomach, smiles brightly, and says, “Won’t you come inside? Leave your bags by the door; Veshek will take care of them for you. Spock, I don’t think you know Veshek? It would have been Selaas when you were last here.”

 

She is moving as she speaks, that curious combination of motion and meaningless words that Humans use to segue from one situation to another, and he watches her carefully as she walks. Her spine is stiff, her footsteps slightly asynchronous, her gait too rigorously contained. From nowhere comes the illogical thought that she has never looked so small.

 

In the lobby, she turns to face them again and even this small pivot is disjointed. But there is no sign of discomfort or distress behind her easy smile as she says, “I hope you’ll forgive my husband’s absence, Captain. He’ll join us for dinner, but he must rest for now.”

 

“Of course,” says Kirk smoothly. He hesitates. “I hope the Ambassador is not ill, Ma’am?”

 

“Amanda,” she corrects amiably. “He’s been indisposed, I’m afraid, but it’s nothing to worry about. Would you care for a drink, Captain? Or would you prefer to freshen up? I know how intolerably warm the city can seem when one is not used to it.”

 

The Captain shoots a lightening glance at Spock. He says, “Perhaps I’ll take a moment or two before I join you, yes.”

 

“Of course,” she says. “And won’t you feel free to change into something a little more comfortable? I can assure you we won’t take offense, Captain. You must be stifled in your uniform.”

 

Kirk laughs and glances at Spock again. He says, “Your son protested the dress uniform too, Ma’am. I have some desert wear with me for tomorrow’s expedition – I believe I’ll take your advice.”

 

“I’m glad,” she says. “Spock, perhaps you’d show Captain Kirk to the guest quarters? Veshek has made up your old room for you.”

 

She is tired. Fatigue darkens her eyes and hangs heavily on her small frame, but her smile is bright and as stubborn as ever. She notes his small hesitation and raises an eyebrow in a gesture that is both a question and a command, and that part of him that is eternally a son acquiesces without further reference to logic. But the same part cannot refrain from asking, quietly, “Are you well, Mother?”

 

The other eyebrow joins its twin. “Quite well, thank you,” she says. Pointedly, she adds, “etek-Stariben nash fa'k'shatrisu, Spock?

 

vesh'Khart-lan na'koon-ut-kal-if-fee t'nash-veh,” says Spock. “Eh'isha... V'tosh ish-veh kup-stariben.”

 

She inclines her head towards Kirk with a sheepish smile and he meets it with a visible effort towards equanimity.

 

“Of course,” she says. “I should have realized, Captain. Forgive me.”

 

Prickles of color on his throat mark a rising flush, and Spock realizes, with a thrill of icy horror, that he has understood not only the words but their implication. But he simply nods and says, “Not at all, Ma’am. And I speak Vulcan far less well than your son would have you believe.”

 

“Amanda,” she says. “And I doubt that very much, Captain. Vulcans have no place for either hyperbole or modesty, as I’m sure you’re aware by now.”

 

A sharp bark of laughter escapes Kirk and he flashes a golden smile at his First. “I believe I’ve had occasion to notice, yes,” he says. The eyes hold Spock’s for a moment, then turn back to his mother. “We’re holding you back, Ma’am. Mr. Spock – lead the way.”

 

“Amanda, Captain,” she calls after his retreating back, and he turns his head to acknowledge the words with a nod before falling into step alongside his friend.

 

ShiKahr is limited by the encircling city walls, relic of a more dangerous time, and the suburban homes that brush up against them are necessarily less sprawling than they might otherwise be. The house of Sarek and Amanda is neither small nor particularly large, but is designed to give the illusion of depth. Spock leads his Captain up a short flight of stairs that circle off the lobby and connect with a gallery above, from which corridors lead to the right and the left. In the west wing, his parents’ quarters comprise a suite of rooms that encompass the Ambassador’s offices, Amanda’s study, and the marital bedroom where his father currently sleeps. Spock turns to the east, down a darkening corridor whose glass ceiling opens onto the sky and T’Khut, and it’s a measure both of Kirk’s curiosity and his reticence that he mentions the Watcher not at all, but waits until they are outside the doors to the guest room to ask the question that has hummed between them since they left Amanda.

 

Spock keys in the access code and the door slides open onto a spacious apartment, windowed on three sides and possessed of no furniture but a meditation mat, an asenoi, and a large bed set squarely in the middle. “These will be your quarters, Captain,” he says, but Kirk barely spares them a glance.

 

He says, “That insight you had about Professor Sorelan, Spock…”

 

Spock takes a deep breath. “Yes, Captain,” he says.

 

Kirk stares at him levelly for a moment, then nods into the bedroom. “Perhaps you’d better come inside for a moment.”

 

Spock hesitates, then steps through the door.

 

It slides softly shut behind him, and he turns to see the Captain standing on the threshold. His expression is unreadable. He says, “What is it, Spock? What’s wrong?”

 

“I believe,” says Spock, “That you have surmised the truth, Captain.”

 

“Jim,” says Kirk. “Jim, Spock. I’m asking as your friend. Is there something…?” He hesitates, then drops his eyes and paces to the center of the room. “There’s something,” he says. “It’s not… Tell me it’s not my business if you like, Spock. You’re right, of course. But I’m asking as your friend.”

 

“Jim,” says Spock, and, despite his injunction less than a minute earlier, the use of his given name causes the Captain to look up sharply. “It is… It is not for me to discuss.”

 

Kirk’s eyes have locked onto Spock’s and the brows arch gently as he speaks, reading him, as always, too easily. He takes a step forward. “I understand,” he says. “Just – please, tell me: is your mother all right, Spock?”

 

Spock hesitates. “She has said so.”

 

Another step forward, and he’s almost within the circle of Spock’s immediate space. Softly: “Then why don’t you believe her?”

 

He is standing too close; so close that Spock can smell the salt-sweet perfume of his skin, sweat drying in the chill of the bedroom. His scent flavors the air between them and Spock can taste it in the hollows of his own mouth. His eyes, dark with confusion and concern, are turned slightly upwards, pupils blown wide beneath his furrowed brows in the dusky evening light. He’s searching Spock’s face for an answer to a question he doesn’t understand; a question he doesn’t know he’s asked.

 

pock is not certain he can keep his voice steady when he replies, but the silence will become its own response in a moment, and he knows that, if Kirk should see the tiny tremors in Spock’s shoulders or the erratic threads of his tattered breathing; if he should see the longing he engenders by simply standing so close and asking this question, then all the careful, measured arguments, all the sanity and the care and the necessity, will be crumbled in the time it takes to cross one footstep of floor and succumb.

 

Hoarsely, he says, “I must believe what she tells me, Jim.”

 

The eyes hold him for a moment longer, then dip, and two soft hands rise in their place to grip Spock around his upper arms. “All right, Spock,” says Kirk gently. His fingers squeeze and he looks up again. “I won’t intrude on family business.”

 

If that were all it were… But he can’t say this. So instead he says, “Understand, Jim – if it were mine to speak of…”

 

“I understand,” says Kirk. His face creases into a smile. “Your business is your business, Spock.” His right hand drops to his side, but the left stays in place, and Spock can feel every imprint of every finger as though it pressed directly into his flesh. It’s all he can do not to shut his eyes and simply drift into the sensation, to push back into the grip and feel it tighten, to close the empty air that separates him from his Captain and feel the heat that thrums in the space between them, pressed along the length of his body.

 

He feels his breath hitch in his throat, and the sudden tension in Kirk’s arm tells him the Captain feels it too. The smile disintegrates; the eyes widen.

 

There is a long moment of silence so pure and so charged that it seems to wrap them like a cocoon and seal them outside of themselves. “Spock…” says Kirk, and it is barely a whisper. That one, breathless word pierces his belly and swirls a violent wave of desire that crashes into his defenses and, though he knows it’s an answer in itself, he drops his gaze out of the reach of the warm, hazel eyes before he can see his thoughts reflected in them.

 

abrupt movement of his arm frees it from his Captain’s grasp, and he steps backwards – less controlled than he would have preferred, but he does not stagger, he does not stumble. He keeps his eyes low and says, “I must go, Captain.”

 

thinks he hears a rapid intake of breath from his friend but he cannot risk an upward glance to confirm it. If he sees distress – worse, if he sees his own longing written into Kirk’s face – he will be undone. So he feels rather than sees Kirk’s sudden turn; feels the disturbance in the air as his body twists away from him. The Captain’s voice, when it comes, is steady. He says, “I’ll meet you downstairs, Spock. I think I can find my way from here.”

 

The words are not cold, not precisely, but they are stripped bare. The tone is all command-distance; it places a wall through the narrow space between them. It is a dismissal.

 

Spock says, “Yes, Captain,” and turns and leaves before he can slip any further from himself.

 

Chapter Text

 

Kirk releases his breath and realizes he's shaking. He lowers himself onto the bed.

The room is bathed in shadows and silent but for the thundering rush of blood in his ears. He clasps his hands together in his lap and leans his elbows against his thighs, head canted forward, eyes fixed on the floor. Arousal boils in his belly, spreading tendrils of flame across his abdomen, insistent and hopeless and throbbing a low, keening ache through his groin. The air is heavy with the scent of Spock - warm, coppery spice tones that conjure a shadow of him in the centre of the room, and Kirk can feel the hardness of his flesh beneath his fingers, memories imprinted into the nerve endings like a holovid on a three second loop.

In this disordered moment, he is certain that he has never wanted anyone the way he wanted Spock in the seconds before he broke free of Kirk's grip. The knowledge of it hollows him out, sucks at his center of gravity, skitters feverishly along the inside of his skull.

Never. Not anyone. And he pulled away.

Kirk stands unsteadily, feeling pitted and scoured, and scrubs his hands across his face. ShiKahr is a little over an hour ahead of ship's time; he shouldn't feel so tired. His hostess is waiting for him downstairs and the Captain is nothing if not scrupulously polite, but instead of moving towards the small door, tucked between the edge of one of the great enveloping windows and the interior wall, behind which, he guesses, is the bathroom, he crosses to the meditation mat, bleached yellow-white as T'Khut's reflected light competes with the last strangled breaths of Eridani A.

The window stretches from the floor to the ceiling and looks out over a complex of walled gardens, stacked geometrically into a deceptively compact space, and alive with shadowed color. It's the sort of place in which he can imagine a small boy finding shelter from a world that doesn't want him, staring upwards into the sky and dreaming of escape, and Kirk follows the imagined eyes of his vanished friend to the crimson firmament where unfamiliar stars remind him that he, too, is where he doesn't belong. He sucks an erratic breath and turns away.

~*~


He follows the sound of Amanda's voice through an arched doorway off the lobby and enters a cavernous central room that easily stretches the length of the house. As in the upstairs quarters, glass is dominant and one wall is entirely windowed, stretching from floor to ceiling and opening onto a wide courtyard beyond, where a fountain sweetens the air and irrigates a sequence of raised flowerbeds. Evening drifts through a series of French doors that seem to be fashioned from the glass itself, carrying the scent of fresh water and blossom into the close heat of the living area, where Spock and his mother sit.

Amanda's face brightens as she registers Kirk's presence. She stands awkwardly, levering herself upwards on the arm of her chair, and the Captain sees his friend stiffen. Spock is facing away from the door, staring out across the garden, but he carefully sets his glass on the table in front of him and gets to his feet, turning stiffly and keeping his eyes lowered.

"Much better, don't you agree?" says Amanda brightly, nodding at Kirk's clothes. He's wearing a loose, light-colored tunic and linen pants and, though the molten air still claws at his skin, at least now he feels as though he can breathe. Spock has changed into a heavy, embroidered robe of dark colors and abstract patterns and the effect is jarring, as though he's slipped into someone else's skin. Kirk feels his gaze linger a moment too long and trails it back to his hostess.

"Much," he says, smiling his diplomat's smile and forcing it into his eyes.

"The heat of the city can be quite challenging at first," she says. "It took me some time to adjust. You're fortunate to arrive so late into the year - wasn't it summertime when you were last here?"

The Captain glances towards his First, whose eyes have not left the floor. "I'm... not sure," he says. "I don't believe I ever asked." He hesitates. "Mr. Spock?"

"Late summer," says Spock.

There is an awkward pause while Amanda watches her son for signs that he will elaborate, but she covers it with a smile learned through long years of Ambassadorial functions. "Well," she says. "Won't you sit down and have a drink, Captain? I'm afraid we don't keep any alcohol, but we have a selection of Terran fruit juices. Or would you prefer something Vulcan?"

"I'm told that Vulcan foods don't synthesize well," he says. "Perhaps I should try the real thing while I'm here."

"Personally, I've never been able to tell the difference," she confesses. "But Spock and Sarek would certainly agree. Perhaps some iced tea? It's very refreshing."

"Wonderful."

She nods to her son. "Spock? Would you fix the Captain some iced tea, dear?"

"Of course," he says quietly, and slips past Kirk on his way to the culinary area on the west side of the room. His robes brush against the Captain as he moves and trail an involuntary shiver from the flesh beneath.

At Amanda's gesture, Kirk lowers himself onto one of the low, cushioned seats that surround the table, watching as she does likewise. Her movements are careful, deliberate, and that same prickling of unease returns. She catches his glance, and to cover it he says, "You have a fine home, Ma'am."

"Thank you," she says. "After dinner, won't you walk with me in the gardens? You won't believe what you can get roses to do in the Vulcan climate."

"You have roses? Terran roses?"

"I do. It took me several years to breed a strain hardy enough to survive the sunlight and thinner atmosphere, but now they grow almost like weeds."

She strikes him as just the sort of woman against whom Nature would throw up her hands and call it a day, and he laughs softly. "I believe your son has inherited your determination, Ma'am," he says.

A hand reaches silently into his field of vision, brandishing a glass so cold that condensation runs freely down the edges. Kirk glances up and meets Spock's eyes before he can shield them, and sees a flash of panic chased by a silent plea before they cloud over and he looks away. "Thank you, Spock," he says, and his friend nods and crosses to stand a little distance away: not far enough to be rude, but out of the circle of acquaintance.

Amanda notices, of course, and her eyes follow her son and settle on him for a moment. Then they glide smoothly back to Kirk and she says, "Captain, please, call me Amanda while you're here. I invited you as a friend of my son, not as the captain of a starship. ‘Ma'am' is so formal."

"In that case, you'd better call me Jim," he says. He glances up, and an ancient mischief makes him add, "And that goes for Spock too, of course."

There is a tiny movement to his friend's shoulders, as of a sigh swiftly suppressed. "Yes, Jim," he says.

"My wife has a habit of dispensing with formalities," says a diffident voice from the doorway, and Kirk stands quickly, turning to face Sarek as he enters. "I prefer to observe the courtesies, Captain Kirk. It is the Vulcan way."

The Captain raises the ta'al, and the Ambassador mirrors his gesture. "Live long and prosper, Ambassador," says Kirk.

Sarek inclines his head. "Peace and long life, Captain. You are welcome to our home."

His movements are slow but steady and only an aura of fatigue hints at convalescence. Otherwise he seems stronger than when they left him on Babel, recently perfused with his son's blood and McCoy's surgical skill. He crosses the room to Amanda, who has raised the index and middle fingers of her left hand for him to meet with his ozh'esta. Only then does he turn to Spock.

"Na'shaya, sa-fa th'at," he says.

Spock nods. "Father."

There is a silence so tense it's practically smoldering. Then Amanda smiles the smile of a woman for whom these moments are part of the fabric of daily life and says, "Well. Dinner, then."

~*~

"It seems," says Sarek, "Unlikely."

"You may be right, sir," says Kirk as evenly as he can. "However, that's not my decision to make."

They are seated on low, backless chairs around a table of polished stone as an elderly factotum serves balkra from a steaming urn that he carries on a thick static strap over one shoulder.

"Thank you, Veshek," says Amanda quietly. The lamps are low and the shadowy half-light from the ubiquitous windows drains the color from her face, etching lines of strain that speak of greater fatigue than she will admit.

"I do not suggest that you disobey a command, Captain," says Sarek. "I simply wonder at the wisdom of pursuing such a project. Diplomacy is often a question not simply of protocols, but of knowing when they are unlikely to achieve a satisfactory outcome."

"With respect, sir," says Kirk, "Many of Starfleet's - of the Federation's - greatest accomplishments would have been abandoned long ago had we followed that logic. The Romulan Peace Treaty would never have been negotiated. The Federation's current experimentation with time travel..."

"All causes with far more at stake than the establishment of mining rights on Ilion VII," says Sarek. "The Federation can survive on its current pergium reserves. It is illogical to expend such resources on a project with little chance of success."

"Then you don't believe Sorelan will manage to communicate with the Veleth Hai?"

Sarek regards him with a mask of Vulcan reserve. "I find it extremely unlikely," he says. He raises his glass to his lips as Kirk stabs his fork into something yellow and fragrant. "No doubt my son has expressed a similar sentiment," he adds.

Caught abruptly in the conversational spotlight, Spock stills for a moment, then clasps his hands in front of him. "I expressed some speculation as to the rationale behind the Professor's reticence," he says evenly. Kirk risks a glance in his direction and finds that the air above the table has focused into a narrow, laser-beam path between father and son. "However, upon reviewing his scholarly output, I believe that it would be unwise to discount his potential in this situation."

Spock has the singular ability to convey soul-crushing disdain without shifting his expression, and Sarek takes this opportunity to display its lineage in a spectacular battle of scrutiny that flares suddenly across the dishes. The muscles of his face do not so much as contract, but if this were a Human discussion someone would be getting their forehead repeatedly pounded against the nearest wall by now. He says, "You have concluded that Sorelan trensu has the skills necessary to make contact with a race of beings whose linguistic patterns appear to be coded in nuances of emotion?"

There is a meaningful silence. "I have," says Spock.

He damn well hasn't, or else he's kept it very quiet from his Captain, but Kirk smothers a smile and spears a yellow lump. Piquant steam curls up into his face and agitates the back of his throat, which is already struggling not to laugh and cannot cope with a chemical assault as well. He buries his sudden coughing fit in a hasty gulp of water and tries not to choke.

"So," says Amanda brightly. "Won't you tell us about your plans for tomorrow?"

She has deliberately thrown the question wide, but both she and Kirk know that Spock's not likely to answer, not in the middle of a Vulcan stare-off. Kirk wrestles his epiglottis into submission and strangles out a hoarse, "I'd asked Spock if he'd accompany me to Mount Seleya." He clears his throat and tries again. "I understand that it's a site of great spiritual and cultural significance. I'm relying on your son to keep me from causing offence." Amanda smiles. No-one else does. But, then again, they wouldn't.

"Why Seleya?" says Sarek, and Kirk resists the urge to roll his eyes.

The fact is, he doesn't have a good answer, and he's actually a little bit amazed that he's got this far without anyone asking that very question. Because I've heard of it, he thinks belligerently. Because it's the one place I can name on this whole goddamn planet of secrecy and silence. Because I'd have skydived into the mouth of Hell itself if I thought it would get me an hour in your son's company, away from the ship, away from command, away from protocol. Because I picked it at random just so I'd have somewhere to suggest when I asked him to spend time with me.

Because I'd swear on my ship that he nearly let me kiss him an hour ago.

"Call it an explorer's thirst for knowledge," he says. "I can't think of anywhere on the planet more representative of Vulcan culture and society than Mount Seleya."

Sarek inclines his head slightly. "It is not a curiosity, Captain," he says.

"Nor is it exclusive to the followers of Surak," says Spock blandly, but with suspicious speed. "The Captain is not a tourist. He is respectful of Vulcan customs. He honors Seleya with his interest."

Their eyes lock across the table again, and Kirk finds himself vaguely expecting the air to catch fire. Sarek says, without breaking the stare, "I meant no disparagement, Captain."

Kirk glances from Spock to his father. "Of course not, Ambassador," he says. "And I meant no disrespect."

"It's a difficult journey," says Amanda. "I made it twice, when I was much younger. Once shortly after Sarek and I were married, and once when Spock was a boy. Of course, a true pilgrimage begins at the mouth of Vulcan's Forge, but even Vulcans scarcely follow the full path anymore. You'll approach from the eastern landing, I suppose?"

"Yes," says Spock. "I do not anticipate proceeding past the lower sanctuary tomorrow. We must return to the ship by evening."

"How high is the sanctuary?" asks Kirk.

"It is a little over 1,000 meters above sea level. We should reach it by midday," says Spock. "Beyond it, the path becomes extremely difficult. It is... unlikely, in any case, that we would gain admittance to the Hall of Ancient Thought, Jim."

"The sanctuary is quite beautiful," says Amanda. "Many pilgrims break their journey there for several nights. If I'm not mistaken, you'll enjoy it a great deal, Captain - Jim."

"I have no doubt," says Kirk, holding up a hand to forgo a second helping of balkra from Veshek's urn; dear God, if ever there was a dinner that couldn't end soon enough, this is it. This is the one. "I look forward to it."

"We must leave before sunrise," says Spock. He glances at Amanda. "No doubt you and my father will not yet have risen."

"I shall be awake," she says mildly. "Your father will not."

Sarek looks vaguely surprised at the news - which is to say that he blinks slowly in his wife's direction - but makes no comment. Spock raises an eyebrow and half-turns his gaze on the Captain, but aborts the motion halfway through and re-directs his eyes to his empty plate.

"Well," says Amanda brightly. "I believe I promised the Captain a tour of our gardens after dinner. I imagine the heat will be almost out of the air by now, so perhaps you might find it tolerable, Jim?"

Kirk is reasonably certain he'd skip naked through the corridors of the Klingon High Council if it would get him away from this table. He smiles. "That sounds wonderful," he says.

She turns an innocent face on her son. "Spock, your father tires very quickly at the moment and he will need to meditate before he sleeps," she says. "Perhaps you'd be kind enough to join him while the Captain and I take a stroll?"

A sudden glacial freeze across the table indicates precisely what the Vulcans think of that idea. Kirk wonders if it's his presence that obviates an explicit protest, or if they really are both that stubborn, and decides that, for present retributive purposes, he doesn't really care. He presses his lips together and lowers his eyes, but Spock will not have missed the gesture and will certainly not have mistaken its significance.

"Of course, Mother," he says stiffly, and she stands and lays a hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you, dear," she says. "Don't let him continue too long, will you? He needs his rest." She glances down at Kirk, and a mischievous glint in her eye tells him that she's daring the rage of her Vulcan every bit as much as the Captain is daring the rage of his just now, and that she is doing it for her own amusement, and that she understands that they have this in common. And that she approves. She holds out her arm. "Captain?" she says.

Kirk stands quickly and crosses the table to her, crooking his elbow for her to hold. He grins down at his First. "Mr. Spock, we'll need to finalize our plans for tomorrow," he says. "Can you spare a few moments later on?"

Spock cranes his head imperiously upwards. "I believe so, Jim," he says.

"Good," says Kirk. He turns to Amanda. "Lead on, Ma'am."

~*~


They have barely crossed as far as the fountain before laughter spills from her, high and clear, and he realizes that, in all the chaos of the Babel mission, he's never had cause to hear it before. He wonders, absently, if Spock would have taken after her - if this would have been his laugh - and if she ever wonders the same thing herself.

She says, "Good Heavens, Jim, I'm sorry you had to see that. I could knock their heads together sometimes."

"I believe," he says, "That I share that sentiment."

"I haven't told either of them about your message," she says. "I thought that was for the best. Taaval won't contradict me; he's glad of the opportunity to appear omniscient."

He grins. "I appreciate that."

"Not quite as much," she says, "As I appreciate your contacting me in the first place." She hesitates and they walk a few steps in silence before she adds, "I hope your visit hasn't been too uncomfortable, Jim. At least they'll talk to each other now but... still. Not much has changed."

"They're both remarkable men," he says. "It must be difficult to be constantly measuring one's achievements against one's father or one's son."

"You are also the remarkable son of a remarkable man," she says. "Was it so difficult for you?"

He hesitates, then half-smiles. "No. No, it wasn't."

Her free hand closes around his arm and squeezes tightly. She says, "I'm so glad he has you."

~*~


"Ah, Iowa," she says. "Yes, I visited once when we were on Earth for several months. Your state flower is the wild rose, I believe? It's extremely hardy. I cross-bred it with a middle-eastern variety - let me see - ah yes, here we are. The bloom is more like the persica than the arkansana but the scent is similar - see." She grips expertly at the stem, twisting and pulling it free of the bustle of the main plant for him to sniff, and her face flares with an avid enthusiasm that he recognizes from her son. He bends to the flower, presses his nose into the scent, though in truth he could barely tell a rose from a chrysanthemum, let alone distinguish between varieties.

The garden complex snakes around the house in a complicated chain of compartments, perhaps twice as large as he'd guessed from his vigil at the guest quarters' window. It is entirely Amanda's domain, and under her patient hands it has exploded into a dizzying assault of scent and color. Favinit and waneti clamor for attention across glimmering walls; yelas and lale and kal'ta bustle in the verdant flower beds. A kitchen garden boasts birkeen and hla'meth and kh'aa and theris and a dozen other names that fall easily from her mouth as though she were naming her family. Here and there, where they can be persuaded to thrive, are flashes of the world she left behind: cilantro, basil, orchids, tomatoes, and, of course, her roses.

She says, "Tell me, Jim - do you miss Earth?"

He straightens, his head full of scent, and says, "Sometimes. Less often, perhaps, than I ought to."

"Does Spock?"

The question takes him by surprise and he almost defaults to denial, but there's a look in her eyes that tells him it's not an idle thought. He says, "He's never mentioned it, except in passing."

She smiles wryly. "That's not really surprising. I dare say he never mentions Vulcan either?"

Kirk hesitates. "Slightly more often than Earth."

"And I suppose he hasn't shared with you his plans for when the mission is complete?"

He knows he can't hide the flash of dismay that ghosts across his face at the words, the rapid swell of panic that rises quickly before it can be contained. Her gaze is impassive, but she doesn't miss it.

Carefully, he says, "We haven't discussed it."

Her hands trace idly over the blooms, agitating a wave of perfume into the night air. She says, "I see a change in him. More so even than the last time I saw him. He seems... easier in himself. It's as though he's finally found a way to look inside and see the man I always saw there, the good man - the great man - who was the very best part of two great worlds, instead of half a man on neither. I think... I think a parent always wants to see themselves in their child - it's what parenthood is about, really. It's immortality; we want our children to carry ourselves into the future, and so we want them to be just as we are. And perhaps we've made it harder for him that way. I will always want to see the Human in him, I will always want to see those parts of him that make him my son. And Sarek will always want him to be more Vulcan, and somewhere in the middle of that, Spock got lost. I think, Jim, that you're the only person who has ever truly wanted him for what he is, not changed or altered or different. I think, perhaps, that you're the only person who has ever seen how truly exceptional he is. I thought I saw it in your eyes the moment I stepped onto Enterprise when Sarek denied him to his face - I thought I saw rage there, and I swear I could have thrown my arms around you and kissed you for it. I saw someone who was prepared to fight for him and stand up for him, no matter who was set against him - do you know how long I've wanted him to find someone like that? He's different, Jim, and I think you're the reason for it. And I couldn't bear to think that he'll be thrown back out on his own when the mission ends."

She has kept her eyes on her roses as she speaks, trailing absently beside them in her stiff, arrhythmic stride, and he finds now that he can't drop his gaze, not even as she turns her head towards him and sees what's written there. Her face softens a little and she says, faintly, "Oh..." And then, "Good."

Frozen in the milky light of the Watcher, his skin tingles as though a current passes beneath it. It feels half-real. He clears his throat, a reflex action designed to rupture the dreamscape, and says, "He won't listen to me, though. When the mission ends... he'll go where the admiralty order. I wouldn't... I wouldn't want to be separated from him either, but we won't have any choice."

Suddenly, she smiles - a wide, silvery smile that lights her skin from within. She reaches out a hand and closes it over both of his where he's balled them into fists in front of him, latticing her fingers over his. "You're James Kirk," she says. "You'll have a choice." Her fingers squeeze. "For both of you, dear."

There are a thousand things he wants to say. He wants to tell her that his name is as likely to work against him as for him, that his fame will make him a prostitute, not a king. He wants to tell her that he'd freeze time if he could and have them endlessly circling the galaxy, just as they are, if it meant that they didn't have to part. He wants to tell her about the complex game of hurt and counter-hurt they've played this past year, about the women he's seduced to show Spock that he can, about the women Spock has seduced to show Kirk how little he needs him. He wants to tell her about Spock's voice inside his head and the rapturous, vertiginous joy of being known, without words or body, but simply, unequivocally, known. He wants to tell her about the times when he's looked into his friend's eyes and felt a shiver of something - a pulse, a beat of yearning - and felt it stir something inside him that he struggles to contain. He wants to tell her that he stood in the guest quarters of her home and held her son by the arm and trembled with the effort it took to wait for him to cross that final line. He wants to tell her that her son turned away from him, and that he doesn't know what to do next.

And in the event he says none of these things, because her gaze shoots suddenly upwards, over his shoulder, and the tiniest thrill of panic flashes in her eyes before she schools them back into nonchalant pleasure.

"Ah, there you are, dear," she says. "Is your father resting?"

Kirk feels the blood run screaming from his head in a dizzying exodus that leaves his skin flash-frozen and reeling. He pivots awkwardly, wide-eyed, out of her grip, just in time for his eyes to confirm what his brain was really hoping to avoid.

Spock is standing in the trellised archway that leads into the rose garden. Of course he is. And there is no way to know how long he's been there.

"He is asking for you, Mother," he says.

"Did he achieve a kohl-tor?"

"Briefly."

"Good." She reaches out a hand to Kirk's arm and pats it gently, flashing him the briefest look of apology. "I'd better go to him. Spock - you'll show the Captain anything he needs, won't you?"

Kirk's eyebrows shoot up and she ducks her head out of their glare with a look that might very well translate as, Well, there's not much you can do about it now, dear. Spock's expression is unreadable.

He says, "Of course, Mother. Good night."

"Good night, dear." Her eyes flicker up to Kirk's. "Good night, Captain."

"Good night, Ma'am," he says, and makes himself smile.

Spock steps backwards to let her pass and she shuffles past him, awkward now without the Captain's arm on which to lean. Her footfall is soft on the flagstones, the only sound in the silence, retreating through the maze of stone and scent towards the glow of the picture window, which hovers above the trailing edges of wall-climbing roses. As the sound of her footsteps retreats into the preternatural quiet of a suburb on the edge of the desert, Kirk realizes he's holding his breath.

He risks a glance at Spock, whose eyes, predictably, are on the ground. He says, "I presume you've come to discuss the arrangements for tomorrow's excursion?"

Spock hesitates. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again, and Kirk knows: whatever he's heard, he's heard something. He says, "I was considering the benefits of reacquainting myself with my mother's garden. I was fond of it as a child."

"Perhaps you'd like to finish showing me around," says Kirk. He forces a half-hearted smile. "We became somewhat distracted by the roses, I'm afraid."

"That would not..." His words falter, and he suddenly looks up. His eyes are black with misery. "That would not be wise, Jim."

"Wise?" It's out before he can catch it, harsher than he would have chosen. Dark eyes pin him to the spot. There's no way to mistake what's in them; no way to pretend this is a different conversation. "Spock," says Kirk, a low sound; a question, "Why is it unwise?"

There is a loaded pause.

"My responses are compromised," says Spock.

A short, breathless laugh escapes Kirk. "So are mine," he says.

"Understand, Jim," says Spock, and hesitates, so long that Kirk begins to wonder if it's a sentence in itself, a plea: understand, Jim. But then he says, softly, almost a whisper, "I cannot."

Frustration surges, so familiar that it's almost a relief. This is who they are, this is what they do. It's one of the reasons it's so damn hard to get him out from under Kirk's skin, out of his head. "Then don't," he says. The end of hope is something that can be assimilated; it's something he can live with. He has done it before. "It's all right, Spock. But let's stop pretending there's nothing there. It doesn't help either of us."

Seven feet separate them; seven feet of dark, desert air, in which thermals twist and billow micro-patterns in the thin film of sand that no amount of careful sweeping can ever banish from the garden. Kirk has often wondered what it must be like to read the thoughts of another sentient being, to have their private self laid bare before you to consume or ignore. No wonder Spock's people lock down their emotional response; no wonder they cultivate a façade of disinterested ennui. When there is no shelter even inside one's own head, the illusion of inscrutability is not affectation, it's necessity. And yet, even without those complex neural pathways, that evolutionary advantage so treacherous it must be shrouded in ritual and custom, Kirk can read the waves of desolation radiating from his friend across the quiet air. It's both a vindication and a defeat: no, he was not wrong, everything he thought he saw was as he thought he saw it. But the victory is Pyrrhic if Spock doesn't want to want him.

He says, "I have fought so hard, Jim."

Why? he wants to ask. It tangles in his throat and tries to force its way out. Instead, he says, "I've noticed."

It's supposed to be light-hearted provocation, but it comes from a wounded place and there's bitterness in it. Spock flinches.

"I would not..." he says. "I would not choose to be separated from you either, Jim."

The words hang in the empty air like ghosts, frail and insubstantial. Never in his life has Kirk arrived at this stage of the game and found himself so utterly uncertain. They are small words, banal - trite, even - and from any other almost-lover they would be meaningless. But Spock's most intimate confessions use words like these - when I feel friendship for you, I'm ashamed; I do want to go back to the ship, Captain - and their inconsequential language is what gives them their weight. Anyone can make a poetic declaration and rely on hyperbole to make it stick. Spock gives away much more of himself in naked idiom and lengthy silence.

Kirk has a choice. He can listen to what Spock's head is telling him, or he can listen to what Spock actually wants. And only one of those things accords with Kirk's own desires.

He takes a step forward, into the gap between them, and expects Spock to turn and stride through the archway, out of reach along the path, out of reach entirely. When he doesn't, Kirk takes another step. Any moment now, Spock will tell him to stop. In another footstep, in another stride, his hollow, shadowed eyes will flash an unmistakable command and the Captain will obey - of course he will - because it's what his officer needs. It's what his friend needs. He's been here before: close enough to see a thready pulse dance beneath the surface of Spock's throat, close enough to feel the heat rush into the empty air, close enough to smell his skin. Spice and copper and salt, tea and desert air, ginger and lavender and something else, something indefinable, something that is uniquely Spock. Dark eyes scour the contours of Kirk's face, drifting over the lines of his chin, his cheeks, his nose, and finally meeting his gaze.

There's only one way this can go now.

Slowly, carefully, Kirk reaches for Spock's right arm above the elbow, where it disappears into the ubiquitous hand-clasp behind his back. Corded-steel muscles contract at his touch and the Captain gently tugs it free, sliding his hand over the rich, soft fabric of Spock's robe, down over the crook of the elbow joint, over the radius, over the wrist. At the palm he hesitates, glances up. His breath is rapid, heavy in his throat; it tugs at his chest as his neck cranes upwards to meet Spock's eyes. Liquid shadow stares back at him, hooded and impenetrable, and only the fluttering, hummingbird breaths that twitch his shoulders and ghost across Kirk's face tell him what he needs to know. Kirk's unpracticed hands fold his two smallest fingers into his palm and pin them in place with his thumb. His middle and index fingers extend from the ball of his hand, and he presses them to Spock's.

The hummingbird breaths catch abruptly. "Jim," says Spock, a breathy rumble from the back of his throat, and his left hand rises to cup Kirk's cheek.

It's more certain than Kirk expected, more certain than he feels - but, then, Spock has done this before, while the Captain has only the barest glimpses of the ozh'esta with which to sketch an outline of how it should be performed. Spock's head moves in one fluid movement, closing the inches between them, and his hand slides down Kirk's face until only the fingertips brush his chin, tilting it gently upwards, canting his lips towards Spock's. At the very last, he hesitates, breath twisting in the fractional space that separates their mouths, skittering over the sensitized flesh until Kirk can't stand it any longer and reaches for the final millimeters. The soft skin connects, and it's like closing an electrical circuit.

For a moment they stand there, motionless, prostrated by sensation. Kirk is not entirely certain he can move; it's as though the pieces of him have flown apart and all that anchors him is the press of his fingers against Spock's and the joining of their lips. But his body moves by itself, left hand snaking over Spock's hip and sliding along his back to pull him closer, labial surfaces contracting, pressing harder, drifting over pliant skin. Spock's hand slips behind Kirk's head, carding through his hair, fixing him in place, and Kirk twists his mouth a little, parting his lips. Teeth clash as Spock responds, and that's as much as it takes.

The ozh'esta is forgotten as Kirk's hands fist in the fabric of Spock's robe, coiling and pulling, scraping him closer until their bodies collide from hip to face. Staggering to keep themselves upright, Spock's leg spirals between Kirk's, forcing his thigh against Kirk's aching cock. Kirk grunts and Spock seals his mouth firmly over the sound, lips scrabbling for purchase against lips, tongues slamming together, writhing and weaving. The Captain feels himself moving backwards - shuffling, awkward steps - until his head grazes against something solid and he feels himself pressed up against the wall by the length of Spock's body. Spock's body, long desired - no, longer still, wanted for uncounted nights, imagined in the crushing darkness with one hand fisted around himself and an agony of arousal burning in his belly. Spock's scent filling his nose, Spock's flavor filling his mouth, and it's as he knew it would be: salty, coppery, and piquant - the taste of peppers and spice, warm against his tongue, trilling against his sparking gustatory nerves. Spock's arousal digging into his hip, thrusting against him as he helplessly thrusts his own hardness against Spock's leg. Spock's hands on either side of his face, gripping his cheek and threading feverishly through his hair as all this longing, all this yearning, all this wanting pours out of them. Spock.

Fierce, impatient kisses trail from Kirk's lips and describe an arc along his chin, sucking and burying Spock's mouth against his neck. Kirk tilts his head up towards the sky, where the Watcher contemplates them impassively, feeling the tingling burn as Spock scrapes his lips lower, below the hem of his tunic, dragging his teeth over Kirk's collarbone. Kirk presses his face into the tip of a pointed ear and feels a low rumble of pleasure as his mouth makes contact, and this, even this, is how he knew it would be; the taste, the sensation, the touch of cartilage beneath his tongue. His hands comb and clutch at Spock's hair, tugging and twisting his head so that his mouth releases Kirk's throat and their lips collide again. It's intoxicating, narcotic, exhilarating, it's everything, and still he wants more. His hand snakes between their bodies, twisting between the writhing mass of flesh to where the solid bulk of Spock's erection grinds against Kirk's groin, haphazardly grazing his answering flesh in stuttering explosions of pleasure. His fingers trail the contours of it, buried beneath the heavy robes, and suddenly Spock freezes.

His hands, cupped possessively on either side of Kirk's chin, contract, but his mouth retreats so that only their foreheads are pressed together.

"Too much?" says Kirk. "I'm sorry, I won't..."

But Spock turns his face to the side and closes his eyes. It's a tiny gesture; in anyone else it would mean nothing, but in Spock... Cold dread washes Kirk's belly, dancing in his veins, smothering his desire.

"Forgive me," says Spock.

"No - wait!" says Kirk urgently. His hands shoot up to close around Spock's wrists, to hold them in place against his face, but the fingers hang loose now, flaccid against his skin, and Spock will not look at him. "Wait - Spock...!"

"Forgive me, Jim," he says hoarsely. "I cannot..."

"Wait!" he says again. But Kirk is Human, and if he ever needed a reminder of what that means in real terms when faced with a Vulcan with a different opinion, the ease with which Spock slides his wrists from the Captain's grip drives home a lesson he won't ever forget. Freed, one hand - steady but fragile - rises to press abstractedly against Spock's temple as he takes a precarious step backwards.

"Forgive me, Jim," he says again.

"Spock..." says Kirk, but he's gone, footsteps rapidly retreating up the path towards the house.

 

 

~*~

Na'shaya, sa-fa th'at - Welcome, my son.

 

 

Chapter Text

Forgive me, Jim – I cannot…

 

What does that mean?

 

Forgive me, Jim, I cannot make love to you in my mother’s garden, pressed up against the wall that separates the rosa vulcanis from the pel-tar’uk?

 

Forgive me, Jim, I cannot engage in a sexual act with my superior officer without making the requisite amendments to the command duty roster?

 

Forgive me, Jim, I cannot proceed until we’ve fully explored the possible ramifications of these actions and neither one of us is currently in a frame of mind conducive to open and frank discussion?

 

Forgive me, Jim, I cannot mate outside of pon farr?

 

With a non-Vulcan?

 

With another man?

 

With you?

 

Sleep is clearly out of the question. Even closing his eyes is challenging.

 

Years ago, soon after they realized they’d accidentally forgotten to hate each other, Spock spent a fruitless few weeks trying to teach Kirk the basic techniques of Vulcan meditation and pretending that the look he got in his eye – the one where he was manifestly working out how to dismember the Captain’s body with minimal spatter-damage to the furnishings – was Kirk’s imagination. They tried, harder than they might do now, because the friendship was so new and fragile, because it seemed important to build it some proper foundations before it crumbled, and because the unspoken fear hovered between them that if they couldn’t manage this then maybe they couldn’t manage any of the rest of it, but in the end it was either admit defeat or one of them was going out of an airlock, and so they decided to agree that, whatever other gifts the Captain might possess, the Vulcan meditative arts are not among them. It’s a good memory, even better because it could easily have gone bad and it didn’t. It’s got to be worth something.

 

Kirk slides off the bed – too hot for the thin coverlet, even halfway through the syrupy night – and crouches on the mat, the way he was taught. It’s about the last thing he managed to accomplish before the lessons rapidly deteriorated into silent Vulcan acrimony.

 

Success is contingent on retreating inside the Self, he remembers Spock saying, tones of great patience glossing a murderous frustration. Until you can balance and subdue the noise in your mind, you will not achieve the first level of the trance.

 

It had seemed like an unrealistic goal at the time. How can anyone subdue the relentless torrent of voices questioning, processing, planning, predicting, sorting, interpreting? When those voices are the very essence of the Self – when they are what feeds his sense of who he is and what makes it possible to perform James Kirk the way he understands him? He said nothing at the time, mostly because the look on Spock’s face advised against pursuing the multiple objections that immediately suggested themselves, and he did what he could, with predictably unsatisfactory results.

 

Tonight, the idea of silencing the constant, screaming thought-torrent seems conspicuously impossible. He closes his eyes and fights off the memories that rush him.

 

~*~

 

 

Seleya rises out of the desert like the fossilized claw of an ancient bird of prey, clutching at the soft skin of the Watcher as she edges along the horizon. To the west , her shattered crags cast long, undulating shadows across the Forge, but here in the glow of the early morning sun the sands are already a shimmering haze of thermals.

 

Spock has barely broken a sweat. He has also barely spoken. Neither of these things is a surprise.

 

Veshek knocked a wake-up call on the guest room door in the watery, pre-dawn gray, and Kirk was relieved to find that he’d snatched an hour or so of sleep in the end, curled into himself on the mat in front of the window. A brief spear of triumph – it had to count for something, surely? Even if it wasn’t a true meditation? – stuttered and quickly died as he called an acknowledgement and eased himself off the floor, joints creaking and protesting. Another time, he might have passed this off as an achievement just to see the look on Spock’s face, might have laughed about it with Bones and waited to see if his First would take the bait, might have prodded for the traditional charge of illogic and the exasperated eyebrow raise. Maybe he still will. Maybe nothing has changed.

 

Maybe.

 

He cleaned himself in the stultifying, dry warmth of the sonics, shucking off an evening’s heat and sweat to make space for the detritus of another day on a desert planet, pulled on his clothes – musty and crumpled and painfully infused with the scent of Spock – and made his way downstairs to the main room, where Spock waited by the great window with his mother, as promised, by his side. She was speaking to him in a low voice, face turned upwards towards him, and even in the murky half-light of the shaded lamps Kirk could see that her eyes were anxious, her face tense. Spock faced away from her into the garden, but, as she raised a hand to touch his elbow, her peripheral vision caught on the figure of the Captain in the doorway and a smile shuttered her expression.

 

“Good morning, Jim,” she said. “I hope you slept comfortably?”

 

He knows the lie must have been obvious – he knows his eyes are bloodshot and his sockets are dark with fatigue – but he managed an answering smile and said, “Like a baby, thank you.”

 

Her eyes drifted uncertainly towards her son, and he realized, abruptly, that she was following his gaze. “Spock…?” she said quietly, a reproach, and he turned at the sound of her voice: slowly, stiffly, reluctantly, but he met the Captain’s eyes, though it clearly cost him to do so.

 

He met the Captain’s eyes, and Kirk knew in that second that things were very definitely not all right.

 

Bones would make him talk it out; he’d worry and nag and cajole until Kirk mouthed some meaningless platitude to get him off his back. Spock won’t do that. Spock will bury it in silence until he’s processed what he needs to process and then he’ll either come back again or he won’t. Striding through the desert sands at an unmatchable pace, silent and fortressed, Kirk can only watch him walking, out of reach, and fight down the massing terror that whispers that he’s lost him for good. And he wants to say that he’ll go back to what they had, that he’ll throw a dust-blanket over last night and store it in the farthest edges of recall if only they can hold onto their friendship. He wants to say this so badly it’s like bile at the back of his throat, but it’s not the truth. The truth is that the memories fly at him from every direction, whispering, touching, choking him; friendship is a distant bird on the far horizon, soaring out of reach. Now he only wants.

 

“Spock, for God’s sake!” he snaps, breathless and clammy, boots full of sand and friable desert rock. “Slow down! I can’t match your speed.”

 

Ahead of him, Spock stops, robes swirling in the negligible breeze, but he doesn’t turn. Kirk slings his canteen off his shoulder and takes a long draught of water before staggering over the uneven landscape to his friend’s side. Without looking at him, Spock says, “We must maintain a brisk pace if we are to reach the sanctuary by noon.”

 

“At this point,” says Kirk, “I don’t care if it takes us until tomorrow evening and Scotty has to beam us out just before we jump to warp. If I pass out, you’ll have to carry me. Slow down.”

 

He holds out the canteen, eyes shaded against the sunlight as he stares up towards the mountain. In the barren wastes of Vulcan’s Forge, it’s the closest he can get to an olive branch. He knows even without turning his head to look that it will be refused.

 

“Thank you,” says Spock, “But I do not require refreshment at this time.”

 

It’s not designed to wound. He knows it isn’t. He knows that this is just where Spock goes, this place inside him where he can wall himself in with ice and granite. But still an aching, ugly part of him wants to spit, Take a goddamn drink of water, Spock, as though this matters, as though it’s significant. A part of him just wants to bruise Spock too.

 

He retracts his hand, screws the lid back into place, shoulders the canteen.

 

“Lead the way, Mr. Spock,” he says.

 

~*~

 

Eridani has crossed thirty degrees of sky by the time they reach the foothills, and her heat is like a full-body tourniquet, cloistering and suffocating. They stop for a moment in the shade of a craggy outcrop and Kirk drags his sleeve across his forehead, peering up towards the distant peak through dark glasses that do little more than filter out the glare. There are no clouds to lend scale to the vertiginous climb, but he thinks he sees a dusting of snow skittering along the high outline.

 

“You know,” he says to the shadow hulking on the cool sand where the rock meets the desert floor, “It’s going to be a long day. It’ll be a lot longer if we pass it in silence.”

 

In his peripheral vision, Kirk sees Spock freeze. There is a short pause, and then his First says, “I am merely attempting to conserve energy for the journey.”

 

“Bullshit,” says Kirk without looking round.

 

There is a hesitation, and he doesn’t need to see Spock’s face to know that an eyebrow scrapes his hairline. “I beg your pardon, Captain?” he says.

 

Captain. Not Jim. “That’s bull,” says Kirk. He pivots a quarter circle to face his First. “And you know it.”

 

He crosses further into the shade and hunkers down next to Spock, who is seated cross-legged on the ground. “This was clearly a mistake,” he says, and that ugly part of him flares a brief satisfaction at the naked pain that flashes in Spock’s eyes for a fraction of a second. “Seleya,” he clarifies. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that your mother made the journey, but the average Human was always going to find it a challenge. So instead of torturing me, why don’t you make fun of me instead? Insult my inferior musculature. Slander the Human race. Spock,” he says gently, and silently adds, this is what we do.

 

“If you are experiencing difficulties, perhaps we should turn back,” says Spock.

 

“And tell Bones I made it as far as the foot of the mountain before I gave up?” He shakes his head. “I’d be eating salad for a month. Besides,” he adds, “I want to see this sanctuary.”

 

He pushes up from his squat and deliberately reaches a hand down towards his First. It’s a challenge, and Spock’s hooded glance, first at the proffered fingers, then gliding up to his Captain’s face, says that he has read it as such. His hesitation says that he is calculating the merits of refusing versus accepting; his grip around Kirk’s forearm says that he has recognized that he cannot unobtrusively decline. Kirk feels the bite in his muscle as gravity wrestles briefly with the body at the other end of his arm, and it’s like an anchor, linking him back to the way things were. It’s a small victory. It’s enough, for now.

 

They follow a raised path that meanders across the lower slopes, arcing around the base to a gap in the foothills, like a valley in miniature. Spock leads them under a shadowed overhang, down a thoroughfare worn into the solid rock by the passage of innumerable feet over thousands of years. It widens into the dazzling sunlight of a craterous bowl, perhaps a quarter mile across, through which runs a deep crevasse forded by a narrow wooden bridge. Thermals rocket along the abyss, trembling the slats, and Kirk remembers hearing something about wooden structures being in short supply on Vulcan, given the scarcity of forests on the planet’s surface. He tries not to wonder how long it’s been since anyone replaced the trusses.

 

Spock slows on the approach to the bridge and stops in front of it, and Kirk could swear he’s thinking the same thing. He draws level with his First and they watch in contemplative silence for a moment as a gust of air sets the bridge bouncing and rattling in a way that is the opposite of reassuring.

 

Kirk did not become Captain of the Enterprise by scaring easily, and he’s seen much worse than this, but dying on shore leave is just plain embarrassing. Dying on Vulcan shore leave ought to be impossible, but too much else has happened in the past twelve hours that defies all reasonable expectations for that thought to be particularly comforting. He centers himself, the way he has learned to do when adrenalin spikes his heart-rate and his brain starts asking serious questions about what he thinks he’s doing, and takes a step forward, but, before his foot connects, a hand closes around his upper arm. It’s so unexpected, so startling, that it aborts his movement without any further reference to conscious thought and he staggers a little, catching his balance against the solid counterweight of his friend’s hand.

 

“I will go first,” says Spock.

 

A protest bubbles on the Captain’s lips but Spock is already moving, feet cautious but unhesitating, hands tight on the railing, eyes fixed firmly ahead. Kirk is half a footstep behind him and the bridge creaks a warning shout under their combined weight, but it’s sturdier than it looks. The restless air currents billow and buffet beneath them, smelling of empty space, of dampness and darkness and forgotten things, and Kirk resists the urge to look down. The bottom of the fissure will either be visible or it won’t, and neither one of these scenarios is particularly reassuring.

 

This ought to be comfortingly familiar. It’s become so embedded into their routine – this complicated dance of maneuver and counter-maneuver designed to keep the other one safe in the face of another brand new, unorthodox way to die – that Kirk barely even notices it anymore. It’s a reflex action, shrouded in putative logic and amended in line with rhetorical necessity, but, no matter how it’s dressed up, the imperative behind it is simple: there came a point, too long ago now to establish any specifics, when each of them independently realized how badly they didn’t want to lose the other, and adjusted their risk management accordingly. Kirk can claim command protocol and Spock can claim the prudence of preserving the Captain’s life, and neither of them would be wrong, but the fact is he’d sooner take a phaser blast than watch a phaser blast take Spock. So Spock called it first on the little bridge and calmly shouldered the Captain out of the way. So he’s waiting impassively on the other side, head cocked towards a gap in the sheer walls of their canyon, through which Kirk can just see the start of a stone staircase. It ought to be a relief; it ought to feel like a tiny fragment of normality has worried its way into the howling cloud of crazy that has descended over their friendship, and it takes Kirk a moment to work out why it just feels wrong. As he pulls level with his First and follows his line of sight towards the steps, hewn out of the iron-rich walls of the mountain itself, he realizes that the joy has leeched from the action along with all the easy camaraderie that ought to flow between them. It feels wrong because it is wrong: it’s perfunctory, it’s imperative. They can’t laugh about it, Kirk can’t gently tease him about it or wonder aloud about the logic of grand gestures. It’s been stripped of everything that made it warm and solicitous and reduced to necessity, and there’s no way to know whether that says I want to keep you safe, or regulations require me to prioritize your life over mine.

 

Whatever prompted last night’s incident, whatever Kirk thought he read in a fractured gaze or an uncertain word, whatever his friend’s body might have answered while it was lost in the moment, Spock regrets what happened. That couldn’t be clearer.

 

The first instinct is a kind of trickling, anxious sadness; the second is anger. He bites down on both, indicates the stairs, and says, “What’s the protocol? Do I follow you, or do you follow me?”

 

“I am unaware of any precedent,” says Spock. He turns his head to face Kirk, but avoids his eyes. “However, the journey to the sanctuary is traditionally undertaken barefoot.”

 

Kirk casts a glance over the rough desert sands, pocked with irregular rocks and hazy with reflected heat. “Barefoot then,” he says.

 

~*~

 

The T’Let'theiri Sanctuary is set into a sheltered plateau where the foothills meet the mountain proper, shaded from the glare of the sun by the high lip of a shattered volcanic dome that rings it on three sides. It mitigates Eridani’s assault sufficiently to allow a small spring to be coaxed from its underground retreat, and a steady stream of acolytes have channelled it into irrigation furrows that water a ragged copse of scrawny trees, through which a series of pergolas weave shade and privacy and secluded arbors. The grove abuts the spreading walls of the sanctuary building, which jut from the rockface and spill impenetrable shadow through the pillared entrance and into the brightness of late morning. Here and there, scattered, white-robed figures sit cross-legged beneath the trees or move silently across the wide, immaculate plaza that fronts the complex and culminates in an ancient altar halfway between the gardens and the top of the stairs. Kirk stands in the disregarded entryway, where huge boulders scrabble for space at the base of a forbidding, scree-scattered slope, and even here meditation mats litter the shadows and firepots choke sweet-smoking incense into the blistering heat.

 

“The journey from here to the peak typically takes 1.7 days,” says Spock. These are the first words he’s spoken since they began their climb, and they startle Kirk, who spooks and struggles to cover it. Spock gives no sign of having noticed. “This is the last shelter before the Hall of Ancient Thought. We will end our expedition here.”

 

Kirk nods at the distant figures. “Are they priests?”

 

“Perhaps,” says Spock. He is standing on the top step, half a head lower than Kirk, and he makes no move to step onto the rough stone platform beside his Captain. “It is not unusual to find adepts in residence at the Sanctuary.”

 

“It seems… peaceful. Too peaceful to disturb.”

 

“The sun is approaching the highest point in the sky,” says Spock. “Traditionally, acolytes pass the middle of the day cloistered in the meditation rooms. We will not disturb them.”

 

“They won’t wonder why you’re not joining them?”

 

“I believe,” says Spock, “That your presence will be explanation enough.”

 

“I see,” says Kirk. He stretches his shoulders back against the weight of his backpack. “Well, if you think it might be possible to find a patch of shade in which the ground temperature is below the threshold at which water boils, I’d be glad of the opportunity to get out of the sun.”

 

“Atmospheric pressure is lower on Vulcan than on Earth,” says Spock, and glances sideways. An eyebrow arcs. “Water boils at a lower temperature here.”

 

A smile spreads uncertainly across Kirk’s face, hesitant but hopeful. He says, “I’d settle for any place with shadows, Mr. Spock.”

 

“There is a shallow pool in the centre of the arboretum,” says Spock. “It is set beneath a pagoda to shield it from the sun. We can rest there.”

 

Kirk pulls his hiking boots from their bootlace-sling around his shoulder and crouches in the relative cool of the stairwell to pull them on. He’s looping a knot into the laces of his right shoe when a gong chimes from within the shadowed building across the plaza, bouncing off the high craterous walls, and he glances up.

 

“The call to meditation,” says Spock. “It is midday. We must find shade.”

 

His eyes are fixed on the diorama before him: close enough to hear the occasional sibilant snatch of conversation on the still air as figures in white move elegantly across the sand, but distant, separate, as though a screen divides them from the ranks of the devout. Kirk straightens, following his gaze, and says, “I won’t argue with that.”

 

Spock leads the way at a brisk pace, sweeping up from the stairwell in a billow of robes and silence, and the Captain falls into step behind him as they cross the wide expanse of plateau. Out of the shade of the overhanging rocks, the heat of the direct sun is like walking into a wall of fire, sucking the breath and the words from Kirk, and it occurs to him, not for the first time, to wonder what the hell he’s doing. Not just Seleya – though that’s also a good question, why a grown man would voluntarily place himself in a position in which every single breath burns the inside of his nostrils – but Spock. Their friendship is too important to throw away on lust and vague hope; it’s too important to force into a new shape just because the Captain’s desires have changed. He knows that whatever happened last night wasn’t his fault, not in the sense of having forced something on his friend against his wishes, but he’s also pretty certain that, of the two of them, he’s the one with the experience in dealing with that sort of situation, and there was definitely a line that he ought to have known better than to cross. Spock is a pace ahead of him, close enough to reach out and touch, but a distance separates them that has nothing to do with physical space, and Kirk has no idea what to do about it, and no idea if it’s fixable. Anxiety clutches at his throat, which isn’t exactly helpful, given the effort he’s already expending on breathing.

 

He says, “Spock.” A small tightening of the shoulders in front of him indicates that he’s been heard, but the head doesn’t turn. Kirk has had just about enough of this. “Spock!” he says again.

 

“Captain, it is advisable that we proceed directly to the shaded area…” says his First, but he doesn’t look at him and he doesn’t slow his pace.

 

“That’s what we’re doing,” says Kirk evenly. And then, before he can change his mind, he adds, “I want to know if you’re planning to put in for a transfer when we get back to the ship.”

 

And it’s only because he’s watching so intently that he sees the tiny stumble – too tiny to dignify it with the description, and looped smoothly into Spock’s stride as though it never happened. But Kirk sees it, and for a horrible, frozen instant his brain takes it for an answer.

 

Then Spock says, “No. No, I am not.”

 

Relief is like an assault; it punches him in the gut and catches his breath. It’s a moment before Kirk can strip it from his voice, before he can even out his words. He says, “Good. Because I wouldn’t have approved it in any case.”

 

There is a long, difficult moment of silence, punctuated only by the crunch of two sets of feet on sand and the keening, lonely cry of a circling bird of prey coasting the thermals high above them. Presently, Spock says, icily, “May I ask why not?”

 

“You’re the best First Officer in the fleet,” says Kirk. “I won’t lose you. Promotion – illness, even – that’s different. But I won’t have you running away. There’s another six months of this mission left, and I’ve lost more than enough crew as it is.”

 

They have passed from the ragged wastelands onto the sanctuary grounds, bounded by the massive stone altar on its raised dais of ochre stone. Symbols cluster along the base, shallowed by millennia of dust-laden, abrasive winds, and Kirk recognizes Golic Vulcan, although he can’t read the words. Another time he would ask for a translation, hover by Spock’s shoulder as he traced the lettering with his hand and sounded out the glottals and the fricatives, and repeat them as Spock spoke, ignoring the barely-concealed rush of exasperation as ill-adapted Human vocal chords mangled the imitation.

 

Spock barely spares it a glance. He says, “The question is academic in any case. It is my intention to remain with the ship.”

 

The sand is different here, where it is cared for: buffeted into peaks and whorls by micro-currents of desert air, but softened and flattened, filtered of shale and pebbles, so that the ground beneath Kirk’s boots has the consistency of cookie crumbs. The effect is perceptually startling, and he has a sudden, disorienting sense of temporal vertigo, as though he’s standing on a precipice and staring into the depths of countless years of devotion. Kirk says, “Whatever happens – I said I wouldn’t choose to be separated from you, Spock. That’s… not contingent on anything.”

 

As though a string has been cut, the tension sags from Spock’s shoulders, and it’s only when it’s gone that Kirk realizes how tightly his friend had been holding himself. Spock half-glances backwards towards his Captain, and, though his eyes are lowered, it looks as though he’ll say something. But the small indrawn breath catches halfway through and he turns back towards the approaching gardens.

 

As they draw closer to the copse, the air begins to alter – subtly at first, then more distinctly. The scent of water begins to seep into the arid heat: the dankness of the sanctuary halls and their underground spring, the sweetness of the shaded pool and its myriad artificial tributaries, the damp, verdant fragrance of leaves warmed by the sun. Through the gaping pillars of the entrance, it’s now possible to see, recessed into the darkness, a series of doorways lit by a stream of torches and to hear muffled, distant footsteps on stone floors and the occasional fragment of whispered conversation. Spock flickers a brief gaze towards the shadowed depths, face outlined in profile on the edge of Kirk’s vision, and then turns away.

 

Kirk follows him along a gravel path, flagged with square chunks of mountain stone, into the trees. Shade is, perhaps, optimistic: these are desert plants, designed to economize on limited resources, and their leaf-cover is patchy, sufficient only to dapple the ground in erratic, fractal patterns, but the contrast with the plaza is pronounced. The avenues are laid out on a complex grid of geometric lines, intersecting at sharp, rigid angles and interspersed with private retreats fashioned from canvas awnings spread against the trunks of adjacent trees, in which disregarded asenoi still smoke in anticipation of afternoon devotions. Spock leads them along the central thoroughfare, and it’s only when they reach the circular pool at its head that Kirk realizes that the intricate pattern of pathways forms the triangle of the IDIC.

 

Beneath the spreading canopy of the pagoda, Eridani’s heat is diluted to the comfortable, lazy warmth of an Iowan midsummer’s day. Icons punctuate the wide flagstones that surround the pool – figures both contemplative and warlike; arms outstretched in peace, or closed around lirpas – and between them are spread meditation mats of various degrees of antiquity and repair. Spock lowers himself onto one in that elegant way he has – like water pouring from a jug – and Kirk, after a moment’s hesitation, settles himself beside his friend.

 

“You require rest and sustenance,” says Spock simply.

 

Kirk’s not about to argue with that, so he pulls his canteen from his shoulder and allows himself the luxury of unreservedly slaking his violent thirst without breaking for air. When he physically can’t fit another ounce of water into his body, he runs a sleeve across his lip and, in a moment of wickedness, offers the bottle to his friend. Spock, to his credit, manages not to look completely disgusted and instead shakes his head with only the faintest air of offended dignity. “I do not require water at this time,” he says.

 

“You haven’t touched a drop all day,” says Kirk.

 

“My people evolved on a desert planet,” Spock replies. “We conserve water more efficiently than Humans.”

 

The Captain allows himself a small smile. “I should have guessed,” he says.

 

He sits back on his hands, stretches his legs in front of him, ironing out the aches and tensions in his muscles. The fragranced smoke of the firepots is weaker here, just enough to brush the desert winds with a faint perfume, and it sits easily on the cooler air. The shaded warmth, the scented breeze, the sleepless night he’s just passed, the silence; it’s intoxicating, narcotic, and he fights the urge to close his eyes.

 

Instead he says, “I owe you an apology, Mr. Spock.”

 

Spock is sitting perfectly still, legs folded in front of him, eyes closed, so it’s not possible that he freezes, but a sharp change in the atmosphere around him indicates the metaphorical equivalent. He says, “I am not aware of any offense committed against me, Captain.”

 

Captain. Still captain. It basically gives the lie to his denial. Kirk says, “I knew you didn’t want to spend time planetside this shore leave. I’m sorry I interfered in your personal business. It wasn’t my right.”

 

There is a long silence. It’s almost impossible to restrain the urge to fill it with meaningless words, but Kirk holds himself in check and waits for Spock to speak.

 

Finally, his First says, “I believe I have accustomed myself to the inevitability of Human emotional interventions, Captain.”

 

Another time, Kirk would be certain he was deliberately seeking a reaction and would happily respond in kind, but today…? “Nevertheless,” he says, “I believe my actions may have made you… uncomfortable.”

 

Spock is anything but stupid. Nor is he as emotionally inarticulate as he likes to pretend. There is no way he will miss the double meaning buried in the Captain’s carefully-chosen words, but he can choose to ignore it. If he does, it will be an answer in itself.

 

But instead he takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. They fix on the still surface of the pool and do not move. Spock says, “Your actions are not at fault, Jim.”

 

His voice is steady, impassive; only the relentless, unfocused stare suggests an air of weary defeat. Kirk says, “This… endeavor… was at my insistence. I value your friendship too highly to have any misunderstandings between us.”

 

Spock hesitates, and his eyes restlessly scour the water. “Understand, Jim,” he says slowly. “You neither insisted nor was I coerced. If there has been an error… it has been mine.”

 

“I don’t believe that,” says Kirk softly.

 

Half-seen in profile, an eyebrow arcs and immediately drops. “I see no reason to doubt it.”

 

“I was there,” says Kirk. He shifts his hips slightly so that he’s canted towards his friend. “Spock, I just wanted…” He hesitates. “Never mind. I believe you know what I wanted.”

 

Silence descends like a curtain of lead. Insects hum in the moist air above the pool and pull concentric circles from the surface as they dip to drink; it’s the only indication that time continues to flow. After a moment, Kirk risks a upwards glance and sees that Spock’s eyes have dropped so that they’re fixed on the folds of his robe in his lap, but they’re unfocused; unseeing. He says, “If it’s not what you want… I’ll respect that.” A beat; two beats. Three, and he makes himself add, “But it’s what I want.”

 

Spock says, “You do not know what it is that you ask.”

 

Kirk fights the urge to roll his eyes. “Commander, the sum total of what I don’t know about this would fill the databanks at Memory Alpha. I’m groping blindly in the dark. The least you could do is explain.”

 

“It is not…” And he hesitates, and Kirk is certain that he’s never seen his First Officer struggle for a word. Hope prickles in his chest, and scatters as Spock finishes, “…safe.”

 

Safe?” Anger flares, geysering like a pot left too long on the stove. “Don’t patronize me, Mister! I’m the Captain of a starship! I’m your superior officer, in case you’ve forgotten. My whole life is one long, calculated risk, so don’t talk to me about safe!”

 

The words are no sooner out of his mouth than he wants them back; even before the veil of ice descends again over his First, he knows that it’s too late. Spock stands quickly in one long, fluid movement, and folds his hands in front of him as Kirk scrambles to his feet.

 

“Spock…” says the Captain, but his friend’s eyes are shuttered and locked.

 

“If you are sufficiently rested, I suggest we begin our return journey,” says Spock in a tone that Kirk hasn’t heard for more than four years.

 

“And if I’m not ‘sufficiently rested’?” he says. It’s only partially a challenge – the rest is apology, and he sees the moment that Spock recognizes this when his blank expression softens slightly. It’s limestone for granite on the scale of stone-faced Vulcan obstinacy, but there’s an opening there and Kirk presses his advantage. “I slept poorly last night, Mr. Spock. I’m prepared to bet that you did too.”

 

“I spent the night in meditation,” says Spock.

 

Kirk huffs a self-deprecating laugh. “Yes,” he says, “I tried that myself, if you can believe it.”

 

There is a moment of appalled silence. “I… believe that you tried,” says Spock.

 

Kirk turns a half-smile on his friend. “And you? How far did you get?”

 

Spock hesitates. “I was unable to progress beyond the second level of the trance.”

 

“Let me guess – there was more noise than you could subdue?”

 

It’s a throwaway comment, designed to seal their entente with something like humor, and Kirk is utterly unprepared for the flash of misery that darkens Spock’s eyes for an unguarded moment. Instinctively, he reaches a hand towards his friend’s arm, but catches it mid-movement, and it hangs, uselessly, between them, a hand’s breadth from the dark fabric of Spock’s sleeve. Suddenly, from nowhere, the Captain’s brain replays his friend’s words from last night: I have fought so hard, Jim.

 

Spock says, “That has been the case for some time now.”

 

There is a beat – a heavy, frozen moment in which Kirk struggles to collect his wildly reverberating thoughts – and, in the absence of any clear idea of how to respond, his hand stretches the final inches towards Spock.

 

And Spock turns and walks away.

 

Kirk blinks. Catches his breath. Calls, “Spock – stop!”

 

It’s not an order – not quite – and they both know it. Spock stills but does not turn. He says, “Captain, we must proceed to the beam-up point. The journey will take some hours.”

 

“Spock…” says Kirk, but there’s nothing to add to that, not even when Spock starts walking again.

 

He can’t match Spock’s pace at the best of times and that’s always been a source of gentle amusement between them: Spock’s tolerant moderation of his natural advantages, both muscle-mass and stride-length, and Kirk’s awareness that he’s being humored. This is not the best of times – for a number of reasons, the most pressing of which is the fact that he’s under the direct sunlight of a planet for which only one of them has evolved, but only slightly behind that is the fact that, this time, Spock does not want to be caught.

 

Kirk refuses to run after him. He’s exhausted within moments of leaving the shelter of the trees, even before he hits the sands at twice his comfortable speed, so it’s not a practical option regardless of pride or chain of command or even common courtesy. He knows that Spock won’t disregard a direct order, and he knows that, even now, it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll pretend not to hear it, but the fact is that he doesn’t want Spock to stop because he has to. This isn’t a mission. This isn’t business; they’re not even on duty. Nothing vital depends on the maintenance of military discipline or the rigid policing of the command structure. There is no reason to exert his authority right now other than the fact that he wants to, and that’s not good enough. So he chokes down his abraded pride and he follows at the best pace he can manage while Eridani streams a blistering soup of desert heat into the silence of the sanctuary plateau.

 

He emerges, sweating and furious, into the shaded stairwell, to find his First folded into the shadows, eyes hooded and face turned away.

 

“What the hell was that?” snaps Kirk.

 

Spock does not pretend to misunderstand. He says, “I saw no benefit in prolonging the discussion.”

 

“And it didn’t occur to you that I might have a different opinion?”

 

“On the contrary,” says Spock. “I was certain that you would.”

 

Kirk rolls his eyes, pivots on his heel, turns back again. “My actions are not at fault,” he says. “That’s what you said. So why must you act as though I’m some kind of threat to you?” Spock opens his mouth to speak, but Kirk carries on. “Did you believe I’d abuse the chain of command to get what I wanted? Do you really think so little of me, even after all this time? Have I ever given you reason to think that I would do anything other than respect your heritage, or your person, or your wishes? If I haven’t done anything wrong, Spock, then how have I managed to destroy all of your trust in me?”

 

“You misunderstand me, Jim,” says Spock quietly. “It is not your responses that I do not trust.”

 

Bitter laughter chokes from Kirk’s throat. “This is ridiculous,” he says, and pushes past his First onto the stairs.

 

“Jim,” says Spock behind him. It’s enough to stall Kirk, though it’s several seconds before he turns, and it’s only then that his friend descends the seven steps to where the Captain stands, drawing level with him in the narrow passageway. He stands in front of Kirk, too close even for this constricted space, and meets his eyes.

 

Spock says, “Have I ever given you cause to think that my actions are motivated by anything but a regard for your wellbeing?”

 

It’s impossible to say who reaches for whom, but they are no more than a foot apart; it’s the work of a split second to close the distance between them, and their mouths collide violently in a kiss that is more about need than passion. There is no solicitous prelude, no gentle caress, no preliminary brush of lips on lips – just a raw collision of anger and yearning and confusion that welds them together so tightly that for long moments they can barely move. And Kirk knows when his hands fist in Spock’s robes and he slams them into the canyon wall so that he can press every inch of his body against his First – so that he can feel the sinewy lines of flesh and muscle beneath the heavy, rich fabric; feel his hardness and his desire – that it’s fleeting, transitory. That there’s an end even in the beginning and that Spock’s hands grip him so tightly and so possessively because they will release him again. He knows this even before Spock breaks the seal that joins them at their lips and digs his fingernails into the Captain’s back through the light fabric of his tunic, hard enough to bruise, and says, for the last time, “Forgive me, Jim.”

 

It would be easy to refuse. The words are almost in his mouth, bitter and vicious: a challenge – and what if I don’t? But he swallows them. He releases his hold on his friend’s robes and steps back a little to disengage their bodies, to let empty air rush in between them, and Spock turns away from him, straightens his robes, and begins to descend the stairs.

 

Kirk lets him get safely out of sight before he channels all of his fury into a vicious strike against the rock with the flat of his right hand. Pain sears up his arm, white hot and cleansing, and he feels the bite of a dozen small abrasions where the ragged surface has torn the skin, but it’s better than the impotent rage that burns in his chest, and it’s better than the creeping cold panic in his belly. He slams his fist against the rock wall again, harder, and grunts as little spots of blood appear in craters of white skin.

 

Perhaps thirty feet of sanctified ground separate him from his First Officer, but it might just as well be half the galaxy. Spock’s footsteps echo against the high mountain walls, plosive slap of sole against rock sounding cleanly in the silence and retreating into distance. His taste is in Kirk’s mouth and on the air around him, and the memory of his grip aches in bruise-points along Kirk’s shoulders, but it’s all fading, receding into the past. Spiky creases of twisted tunic fabric describe the passage of clutching fingers, and they are obliterated by a perfunctory brush of his hand, as though they never were. It’s all so easily cemented over, evidence erased, obscuring the irreparable fractures beneath a thin veneer of civility. There is nothing else to do but suck in a breath and suppress the swelling sense of loss, and follow his friend down the mountain.

 

He’s taken no more than ten steps before his communicator gives a sickly twitter. The Captain curses quietly and fishes it from his back pocket.

 

“Kirk here,” he snaps.

 

“Captain!” There is an air of relief to Scotty’s voice that does not bode well. “We’ve bin tryin’ tae hail ye for almost an oor.”

 

Kirk licks his lips in order to give himself a moment’s composure and says, more evenly, “Yes, Mr. Scott – we’re at the very south of Vulcan’s Forge. The geomagnetic fields here tend to interfere with electronic devices. What’s happened?”

 

“We’ve heard from the VSA, sir,” says Scotty.

 

A movement in his peripheral vision makes Kirk glance up in time to see Spock ascending towards him. He stops a couple of feet below the Captain and arches an eyebrow, but his face is blank. Kirk says, “Oh?”

 

“Aye, sir,” says Scotty. “The Professor’s aboard, sir.”

 

Kirk opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. “Professor Sorelan?” he says. “Are you telling me... He’s on the Enterprise? Now?”

 

“Aye, sir,” says Scotty. “We’ve bin tryin’ to hail ye. Seems like they suddenly found him, sir, and I didnae want tae risk them losin’ him agin.”

 

Spock’s eyes are dark, shrouded, and stripped of expression, and Kirk realizes, suddenly, that it’s over. Whatever this intermezzo was – or could have been – it’s finished now, and there’s no chance to fix what it has broken. A hollow pit opens up at the base of Kirk’s stomach and threatens to suck the air out of his chest. “Very good, Mr. Scott,” he says. “Do you have a lock on us now?”

 

“Aye, sir,” says Scott. “First time in an oor, sir. Are ye ready for beam-out?”

 

No. “Yes, Mr. Scott. Beam out at will. Kirk out.”

 

He lifts his eyes to meet Spock’s and opens his mouth to speak, but there’s nothing to say. And then the beam takes him and the opportunity is lost.

 

~*~

 

“Dress uniforms for all command crew, Mr. Scott,” says Kirk as he steps down from the platform.

 

If his Chief Engineer is taken aback at the utilitarian greeting, he covers it quickly. “Aye, sir, so ordered,” he says.

 

“Good work, Scotty,” says Kirk. “Where’s the Professor now?”

 

“Gettin’ settled intae his quarters,” says Scotty. “I’ve assigned Yeoman Rogers tae him, sir. He seems happy enough.”

 

Spock stands behind him and to the right – close enough that Kirk can feel him hovering on the edge of his personal space, but just out of sight. The Captain turns to Lieutenant Kyle.

 

“Lieutenant, please arrange to beam up Mr. Spock’s and my luggage and have it sent to our respective quarters,” he says. “Scotty,” he adds, as Kyle nods and sets to work, “I’m going to change and then I’ll meet you up on the bridge. Let’s get started on the disembarkation protocols in the meantime.”

 

“Aye, sir,” he says. “Bin wantin’ tae see how she handles warp since I tweaked the antimatter relay circuits, sir – give the word and I’ll have her on the road in no time.”

 

Scott crosses to the door, which swishes open on the figure of Dr. McCoy, resplendent and uncomfortable in the blue dress uniform of the Science division. They pass in the doorway with perfunctory nods, and Bones saunters into the transporter room with an impassive smile that broadens when he turns it on the Captain.

 

“Welcome home, Jim,” he says. “How was shore leave?”

 

“Fine,” says Kirk before his face can call him a liar, and turns to his First.

 

“Mr. Spock,” he says, “No doubt some members of our crew are still planetside. I’ll leave it to you to co-ordinate their immediate return to Enterprise. I’d like to depart in no more than an hour’s time.”

 

“Yes, Captain,” says Spock, and there’s nothing about his tone or his expression that screams change, nothing that might indicate that anything is different between the two of them. Only the knowledge of that lacerating embrace colors his words in darker tones. There is the smallest of hesitations – half a second, nothing more – and then he’s gone and Kirk has to fight the sensation that he’s just been slugged in the gut.

 

He turns into McCoy’s upraised eyebrow. Bones misses nothing.

 

“Fine?” says the Doctor. “That’s it? No heart-warming tales of reminiscing with the Sareks? No holos of Seleya? Just ‘fine’, huh?”

 

“I didn’t think you were interested,” says Kirk, starting towards the door. He’s not actually expecting that to put Bones off, so it’s not really a surprise when he follows.

 

“Who says I’m interested?” he says, falling into step alongside the Captain. “Just bein’ polite. K’lan-ne was ‘fine’ too, thanks for askin’. Never did catch sight of a bottle of bourbon, but Jabilo knows this place serves somethin’ called kellorica – and, damn, Jim, tastes like paint stripper and cactus sap but it sure hits the spot. So, who sneezed in the hobgoblin’s plomeek soup?”

 

The abrupt subject-change is designed to catch him off his guard, but Kirk has known the Doctor for a long time. So he makes himself smile and says, “Who do you think, Bones? It was just the two of us on a long desert trek. Are you surprised I managed to get on his nerves?”

 

“Surprised he has a nerve to get on,” says Bones cheerfully. “Lord knows, I been tryin’ to do it for years.” A beat. “You gonna tell me how you managed it, or am I just gonna have to keep guessing?”

 

The tone is light, but Kirk knows better than to underestimate the Doctor’s penchant for niggling at a mystery. As they step into the turbolift, he says, airily, “Another time, Bones. Let’s just finish this mission first. How’s the Professor?”

 

“Ha!’ says Bones, inexplicably. Then: “I think you’ll like him. God help me, Jim he’s – he’s almost fun.”

 

Despite himself, Kirk’s lips twitch. “High praise indeed, coming from you, Bones,” he says. “I meant his health. Is he fit to travel?”

 

“Bit of dehydration, nothing major,” says McCoy. “Official story from the VSA is they just suddenly rustled him up and sent him straight over to us. His story is he’s partial to a bit of alone-time in the desert, takes off now and then for a few days and just kind of… hangs out. Helps his thought processes, he says. Not much by way of a calendar out in the Fire Plains, so I hear, and he got his dates mixed up, forgot he was supposed to be beaming up to the Enterprise. I’m not kidding, Jim. I like this guy.”

 

“But why would the VSA conceal his whereabouts from Starfleet?”

 

“Your guess is as good as mine,” says Bones as the doors slide open onto Deck 5. “Don’t sound too logical to me, though, all this wandering in the desert. Kind of hard to explain to the Federation why you can’t find one of your Faculty all of a sudden, ‘specially when you’re supposed to be above that sort of thing.” They pull up outside the Captain’s quarters and Bones rocks back on his heels, clasping his hands behind his back. “Don’t mean you and the hobgoblin were wrong, of course. Just that the man’s just south of two hundred years old, and he looks mighty sprightly for an old guy who’s just gone through pon farr. But, then, I’m no expert.”

 

Kirk’s not sure whether he wants to laugh or punch a hole in something. He settles for hitting the door release button with more force than is strictly necessary, and turns to his friend. He says, “I need to get up to the bridge, Bones. I’ll catch up with you later.”

 

“Sure,” says the Doctor, but as Kirk turns to walk into the empty chill of his quarters, he says, “Everything okay, Jim?”

 

Kirk blanks his face. “Fine, Bones,” he says.

 

“Fine, huh?” says the Doctor.

 

“Fine,” says Kirk, and shuts the door.

 

 

~*~

 

There’s a psychological power to the dress uniform that’s two parts superstition to one part subconscious conditioning. Maybe it’s because it’s what he was wearing the first time he set foot aboard his ship, but it’s always felt to Kirk as though the essence of his captaincy is woven into the rich, satin threads; as though authority is a question of external manifestation as much as a state of mind. Maybe there’s something in that, but now’s not the time to pursue it, and he’s uncomfortably aware that the last time he wore these clothes everything was different, so whatever bureaucratic black magic is contained within the synthetic imitation-silk fibers, it’s lost a little of its luster today.

 

He strides out of the turbolift to Scotty’s hasty, “Captain on the bridge,” and waves a hand vaguely to seat his command crew as they start to get to their feet. His eyes drift towards the science console entirely of their own volition and the sight of his First, poker-straight and unreachable, stabs an angry little burning pain into the hollow beneath his ribs. Spock meets his gaze, and that’s worse than an evasion, because at least when he was avoiding the Captain’s scrutiny it meant that there was something there that Spock didn’t want his friend to see. Now he lets his eyes lock onto Kirk’s, and there’s the briefest flash of acknowledgement – of buried, brutalized sadness – before it’s locked firmly away in that place Spock goes to when he doesn’t want to be found. His face is blank. He’s someone Kirk doesn’t know.

 

“Thank you, Mr. Scott,” says Kirk. “At ease, everyone. Let’s keep the bridge informal unless our guest is present. Mr. Spock” – and the angry pain twists against his chest – “are all the crew aboard?”

 

“All hands accounted for, Captain,” says Spock.

 

Kirk slides into the command chair and fixes his eyes on the viewscreen, where T’Khasi sprawls lazily below them, haunted by the eternal shadow of her sister-world. “Then let’s get the hell out of here,” he says.

 

 

END OF PART I

 

Chapter Text

PART II: EARTH

 

 


 

The orders come through on Christmas Eve: ground assignment at Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, while they take his ship apart and put her back together again. They’re appended by brief word of thanks and a note advising him that he’s been recommended for promotion to the rank of Commodore. Kirk scans the page once, then reads it through from start to finish, and wonders what he’s supposed to feel.

 

It’s funny. He’s been dreading this moment for so long, and now that it’s real it’s been robbed of its horror. They’re just words, after all: no better than he’d hoped, no worse than he’d expected. The ship’s already pointed towards home so this is just another footstep in a long path that ends where it began: in the corridors of Spacedock, shaking hands and exchanging frozen smiles, with uncertain years stretching vacantly ahead. It’s actually a little bit of a relief to start to shape those empty days. Maybe it’ll be good to get a bit of sunlight and real Terran air, to eat food that’s grown in soil and rainwater, to see old friends who’ve never left Earth’s atmosphere. To climb into a ground car and crawl the dusty miles across the face of the planet to the place where he grew up; to feel the pull of gravity beneath his feet, settling his restless blood. To walk in cornfields warmed by the first sun he ever knew. To change. To grow.

 

He takes a deep breath, dictates a short, utilitarian acknowledgement, and leans back in his chair, clasping his hands across his chest. Beneath his desk, he toes off his boots, kicking them haphazardly onto the carpeted floor, and swings his legs upwards to rest on the plasticized surface, feet stretched out and away from him, muscles buzzing their unexpected freedom along the bones of his feet. Shift ended almost four hours ago, and he ought to eat something, ought to shut down his terminal and leave the constricting, silent space of his quarters; ought to change out of his uniform at least. His head and his neck ache, and he presses the balls of his fists into his straining eyes, rubbing until little kaleidoscopic stars sputter to life in the darkness.

 

Enough. He needs a drink.

 

Kirk stands, slowly, stretching his back and rolling his shoulders, easing out the tension of too much work and not enough hours, and crosses to his liquor cabinet. It’s dwindling like the days of the mission: three bottles left, none of them more than half full, and there’s not much point in replacing them now. By unspoken agreement with Bones, he’s saving the brandy for his final night on board, so he reaches for the Scotch instead and decants a generous measure into his glass, breathing deeply as the fumes billow upwards in the still air. Into the silence of his cabin drift the sounds of his ship at ease: laughter and high, excitable voices; music escaping as a door opens and quickly closes somewhere down the corridor; a mass of footsteps hurrying past. Life happening, one person at a time, oblivious and carefree, carrying echoes into the hollow chill of the Captain’s quarters. He takes a gulp of whisky and glances at the chronometer.

 

Bones is expecting him at the party. He made that clear in that way he has that’s about three quarters of a tone away from insubordination, the one he only gets away with because the chain of command gets kind of fuzzy once the doors of sickbay close behind him. There are half a dozen excellent reasons why Kirk ought to stay where he is, and maybe three times as many that are just okay but still perfectly valid - not least of which is the impressive pile of tapes sitting disregarded on his desk, which has not noticeably depreciated in size since he absented himself from the bridge shortly after lunch with the intention of putting a dent in it. But there’s also the fact that the crew can’t really relax in the presence of their commander-in-chief. There’s the fact that Bones and his medical knowledge of blood-alcohol tolerance levels can’t be trusted to pour the Captain a drink, which he will absolutely insist on doing, probably within seconds of Kirk’s arrival. There’s the fact that there’s still a ship to command, 365 days a year, no matter what the calendar might say. And on top of it all, there’s the fact that he’s really not in the mood for a party, Christmas or not.

 

“It’s not healthy, Jim,” said Bones this morning, eyeing him over a biobed. Kirk has been avoiding sickbay all week for precisely this reason, but the Doctor cornered him with a query about end-of-mission medical reports and, with a grim sense of resignation, he decided just to get it over with. “Sixteen hour days, seven day weeks – for how long now? I’ve a mind to sign you off on medical leave, Captain.”

 

“That won’t change the fact that there’s work to be done,” said Kirk. “It’ll just shift responsibility onto Spock.”

 

“Yeah, well. Haven’t seen much of him lately either.”

 

“My point exactly.”

 

“And here’s mine.” Bones has always had this ability to shift without warning from Genial Country Gentleman into Growling Wall of Menace, and he plays it so sparingly that it’s never quite lost its ability to disorient. “Comes a point where the Captain can’t function effectively if he’s only ever breaking to eat and sleep. That what you want in your records when we hit Spacedock, Jim? We got another three and a half weeks for you to hide out in your quarters. The work’ll get done without you killin’ yourself to do it. When’s the last time you spent an evenin’ in company? And I don’t mean dictatin’ reports to your Yeoman, so don’t try that one, Captain.”

 

“Uhura’s party,” he said. She’d pled the case for a small soiree to mark the occasion of setting the Enterprise’s final course-heading for Earth, and he couldn’t exactly refuse, so they’d duly filed into the officer’s mess for vol-au-vents and Chablis and reminiscence. Someone had called on the Captain to say a few words, and he stumbled his way through praise for his crew and memories of the mission, of lives lost and lives changed, of friendship and bonds and camaraderie, and he knew he was avoiding Spock’s eyes the whole time and he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. He’d looked into a small sea of faces, some creased into faint smiles, some lost in other times, some surreptitiously dabbing at their eyes, and he saw Bones watching him with an unreadable expression and remembered, out of nowhere, an old fragment of Shakespeare:

 

                        Tend me tonight;

                        May be it is the period of your duty:

                        Haply you shall not see more; or if,

                        A mangled shadow: perchance to-morrow

                        You’ll serve another master.

 

“Party?” Bones rolled his eyes. “Wake, more like. Jim, it’s Christmas. Do it for morale or do it on doctor’s orders, I don’t much care which. Rec Room Four, party starts at eight.”

 

The whisky is not a brand he particularly likes, which is why it’s lasted as long as it has, but it’s warm and restorative and he feels it easing into his knotted muscles and beginning the Sisyphean task of straightening them out. Kirk crosses into his sleeping quarters, rolling the glass against his chest as he moves, and throws open his closet, as though inspiration is waiting inside, coiled and ready to leap at him. Truth is, it all feels like dress-up; he might as well turn up in an elf costume for all he feels like himself when he’s out of uniform, but the accoutrements of command won’t get Bones off his back. He pulls out a pair of black slacks and a nondescript shirt - easy, unremarkable clothes - and tosses them onto his bunk, downing the rest of the Scotch in the same movement that shrugs his Captain’s jersey up his back and over his shoulders. Now would be the time for his terminal to bleep another siren call, for someone somewhere to need something that just can’t wait for parties, but there’s never a mission when you need it. That’s his life, right there. Always run on somebody else’s schedule.

 

Benson has pulled command chair duty tonight - voluntarily, as it turns out, since it’s somewhere in mid-autumn on his colonial homeworld and he’ll be cleared for shore leave by the time they roll around to Proxima Centauri’s winter festival - and Kirk can’t resist buzzing up to him as he fishes under the desk for his discarded boots.

 

“All quiet, sir,” he says cheerfully. The Captain can hear the smile in his voice; Benson thinks it’s what Kirk wants to hear. “Enjoy the party, sir. We’ve got it covered here.”

 

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” says Kirk smoothly and signs off before he can ask the sort of question that telegraphs his ulterior motives: no anomalies, Benson? You’re certain? Instruments functioning correctly? Perhaps I should check in, just for a moment… Enough. He knows better than to doubt Bones’ resolve, and, even if the Doctor will understand the imperative, the necessity, the constant need to be on the bridge of his ship for as long as she remains his ship, he wouldn’t be Bones if he didn’t think he always knew best.

 

He pours himself another drink without bothering to pretend that it’s anything other than a stalling tactic and stands in the center of his sterile quarters, sipping quietly from his glass. The pile of tapes scatter an irregular rainbow across his desk and it would be so easy to slide into his chair, power up his terminal, lose himself in necessity. There’s work to be done, always; hours of it. Days of it. The pull is magnetic; it’s like gravity; it’s like a black hole, sucking him closer, dragging him in until he can almost feel the press of his seat beneath him and the brief glare of the screen scouring his eyes as it flashes into life.

 

Enough.

 

He purses his lips, hollows his cheeks. Then he drains his glass and heads for the door.

 

~*~

 

“Ho ho ho,” says Santa, pushing a glass of bourbon into Kirk’s hand. At least he knows where he is with whisky; Bones’ cocktails have a tendency to get creatively combustive. “Thought you’d gotten lost, Captain. Take a wrong turn at the turbolift?”

 

“It’s only 8:30, Bones,” says Kirk, knocking back a gulp of his drink and scanning restless eyes across the room.

 

“Yeah, and you’ll be citing command protocol or fraternization regs by nine, Jim,” says Bones evenly. “There’s food. Hundred credits says you haven’t eaten anything since lunch.”

 

There’s no point in lying. Bones has spies everywhere. He says, “Starfleet regulations prohibit gambling, Doctor McCoy.”

 

“You fillin’ in for Spock now?” He glances sideways and Kirk keeps his face impassive, eyes fixed steadily on a group of Ensigns bobbing arrhythmically on the makeshift dancefloor. “Try the crab puffs. They near-as-damn-it taste of crab.”

 

There are times when it pays to pick one’s battles carefully with Bones, so he moves silently towards the buffet and accepts a plate from a young Yeoman with a smile and a muted thanks. Bones trails him like a red-suited shadow, halting by the drinks table to quietly refill his empty glass with a potent mixture poured from two suspiciously unlabelled bottles. It’s difficult to tell in the half-light, but the Captain is nearly certain that’s smoke rising faintly from the surface of the liquid.

 

“I believe that beard suits you,” says Kirk as McCoy twists it out of the way to sip from his drink.

 

“Damned inconvenient,” says the Doctor, blinking away alcohol fumes.

 

“I thought it was Uhura’s turn this year?”

 

“Owed her a favor.”

 

“I think you just like wearing it.”

 

Bones grins wryly. “Not all of us’re Ebeneezer Scrooge, Captain.”

 

“True,” says Kirk. His eyes flit sideways. “Some of us are Santa Claus.”

 

The grin widens. “Damn straight. You think of anyone else who outranks the Captain on Christmas Eve?”

 

Kirk says nothing, hiding a smile in his glass.

 

“Saw that,” says Bones cheerfully, swallowing a gulp of his volcano juice. “Hell, I’m gonna have half the crew complainin’ to me tomorrow about some mysterious case of the stomach flu, you don’t think it pays to do a little incognito intelligence-gatherin’ the night before?”

 

“I’m pretty sure they know it’s you by now, Bones.”

 

“Not all of them.”

 

“You’ve been dressed as Santa for three out of the five Christmas parties this mission.”

 

“Yup.” Another grin. “Remember the first one?”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “Not terribly well.”

 

Bones chuckles. “Yeah, it was a good one, wasn’t it?”

 

“It was instructive, certainly. I learned never to let you mix my drinks again.”

 

“You know your trouble, Captain?”

 

“I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”

 

“You don’t know how to switch off.”

 

Kirk grins. “I thought it was over-confidence? Or failure to delegate? Or - no, wait - a disinclination towards green vegetables?”

 

“Those too,” says McCoy.

 

“I can switch off, Bones,” says Kirk.

 

Bones snorts. “That so, Jim?”

 

“Case in point: I’m here.”

 

“No,” says Bones cryptically, eyes cast out over the party. “No you’re not. Not really.”

 

Kirk opens his mouth to reply but thinks better of it before the words have formed. When Bones waxes philosophical there’s often a little semantic wriggle-room, but Kirk thinks he has an idea of what his friend means. There are times - like now, as his eyes sweep lazily across the room, drinking in the sight of his crew at leisure - when he feels his life recede from him, as though it’s happening in front of him as he stands apart. His gaze drifts across a wave of familiar faces: across Sulu and Chekov seated at one of the tables that skirt the walls, Chekov gesticulating wildly, Sulu’s head thrown back in laughter; across Afeaki with her arm slung around Porter on one side and Chesnel on the other, calling something across the few feet of space that separate them from a table of science cadets that the Captain barely recognizes; across Lieutenants Kelly and Slovo by the replicator bank, cornered by their barely-coherent Scottish CO, who’s bracing himself against the wall and talking animatedly about warp core engines in between long swigs from a pint glass; across Chapel and Uhura dancing with Riley and Ngo and Rodriguez, beckoning to Moreau to join them while she hurriedly drains her drink through a ridiculously elaborate straw; across Kasinski with his arm slung loosely around Milton’s neck, Milton’s head resting on his shoulder, both of them watching their shipmates through contented, vacant eyes. This is the beating heart of his ship, this is the fabric of who he is. It’s a snapshot, a memory forming as he watches; something that, in years to come, he’ll look back on and think, this was my life.

 

The pain beneath his ribs, Kirk’s constant companion, twists viciously, and he turns away, covers it with a sip from his drink.

 

“The new orders came through,” he says quietly.

 

Bones quarter-turns towards him and levels a stare. “And?”

 

Kirk doesn’t meet his eyes, turning his gaze into his glass instead before looking up to peer into the middle distance ahead. “And… it’s largely as expected. HQ for eighteen months. Enterprise is going to dry dock for a refit.”

 

“Ship runs just fine,” says Bones flatly.

 

“She’s almost twenty years old, Bones,” says Kirk. “It’s a miracle they don’t scrap her. The engines are practically obsolete; the computer system is archaic. She hasn’t had an upgrade in nearly a decade - she’s well overdue.”

 

“But they’ll give her back to you when they’re through, right?”

 

Kirk lifts his glass to his lips, sips, holds the liquor in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. “I think…” he says slowly. “I think I’m done, Bones.” A beat. He expects the Doctor to say something, to bristle with outrage, to throw a thinly-veiled insult, and his silence is actually worse. So he fills it, unbidden: “Ninety-four men and women aren’t coming home with us. Ninety-four sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers. Lovers. We’ve lost 37 crew members in the last six months alone.” Another gulp, and he realizes there’s a fine tremor agitating the surface of the liquid as he lowers his drink. “When you can’t remember their names anymore, Bones - that’s when it’s time to quit.”

 

“Quit?” sputters McCoy.

 

“Not the service,” says Kirk. He stares at the ripples buffeting the walls of his glass: concentric circles, locked in an endless loop. “But perhaps - perhaps a ground assignment might be good for me. New challenges, new horizons. It’s not forever. There’ll be plenty of galaxy left when Enterprise is space-worthy again.”

 

“Uh-uh,” says Bones, and there’s such iron in his voice that Kirk’s head twists sideways before he can stop himself. The Doctor’s eyes are narrowed beneath the trim of his ridiculous hat, dark and combative, and it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damned unsettling. “Now, you listen here, Captain: that’s not how it works, not for you. Jim Kirk I thought I knew wouldn’t stand for that level of bullshit, not in a million years. You think I don’t feel it too? All them kids, Jim - kids, barely out of the Academy, half of them - you think I don’t see their faces at night? That’s why you keep on going, so it damn well means something. So you have something to tell the folks back home when they ask you why their kid didn’t make it back. So I don’t want to hear about how you’re done, Captain. Men like you don’t get to be done. Bout time you wrapped up this pity party of yours, you ask me, and damn well start fighting for what you want.”

 

He knocks back the remnants of his glass, still half-full, and slams it down on a nearby table as Kirk carefully twists his own drink in his hands - slowly, deliberately, buying the time he needs to leash the rage that’s tightening his chest. The Captain looks up, steel-eyed, sucking in a breath to say something uncontrolled and uncensored, and the words rise like bile, bitter on his tongue. But McCoy cuts him off.

 

“Goddamn it, Jim,” he says, softer now. “It’s not…” He hesitates, mutters a curse, and turns his head towards the room at large, away from Kirk. “You remember what I said to you on Federation Day?”

 

It’s not what? Kirk wants to ask, but he doesn’t. Instead he says, “I’m not likely to forget, Doctor.”

 

“Well,” says Bones. His voice is conciliatory, though he still doesn’t look at Kirk. He sighs. “Now, don’t let’s you and me get all bowed up, Captain,” he says. “S’posed to be a party. Lemme get you another drink.”

 

Kirk huffs a laugh. It almost comes out right. He says, “I’m pretty sure you told me once that my trouble was I never learn from past mistakes, Bones.”

 

The Doctor glances sideways and half-smiles. “That too,” he says.

 

Kirk turns his gaze from the excitable crowd, up into the Doctor’s face, and feels a grin tug at the corners of his lips. He says, “Then observe my personal growth in action, Doctor McCoy: I’ll pass on that drink.” He sets his glass on the table and offers an apologetic glance to his friend. “It’s nine o’clock. Command protocol… you know.”

 

“Yeah.” Bones twitches his eyebrows, purses his lips. “I’ll see you on the bridge tomorrow, I guess.”

 

Kirk glances out across the dancefloor, where bodies writhe in Dionysian delight. “I’d imagine you’ll have your work cut out in sickbay tomorrow,” he says.

 

“Not if they know what’s good for them,” says Bones darkly. “I feed you enough bourbon, or you goin’ back to work?”

 

Kirk smiles. “I’m not sure I’m going to answer that, Doctor,” he says. A beat, and then he reaches out, closes his hand around Bones’ shoulder and grips briefly. “Goodnight, Bones,” he says.

 

~*~

 

He doesn’t go straight back to his quarters. Out of the cloying heat and noise of the Rec Room bacchanalia, the prospect of chilly seclusion rapidly loses its appeal, and so he lets his feet take him where they will, which turns out to be the observation deck. Quiet but not silent; empty but not deserted; solitude in the company of the stars. It’s what he needs.

 

Residual anger trickles in his gut, unsettling his meditative contemplation, and he shifts uncomfortably. It’s not that Bones doesn’t understand, it’s that he understands too well sometimes. Sometimes he understands but he doesn’t know, and that’s when he’s hardest to deal with. The weeks after Vulcan, he watched the Captain like he was an unexploded bomb, like he wasn’t quite sure what would happen if he stopped watching. Like it was a little too convenient that they were plunged headlong into a long and difficult period of negotiations with the Vulcan High Command and the Veleth Hai and the Federal Bureau of Expansion; that Admiral Komack took it upon himself to personally hyperventilate them through the two inglorious weeks of conferences and diplomacy and mediations that formed an unofficial rite of passage into the Ilion system; that there was literally not a minute of his day or night for that entire fortnight that didn’t belong to Starfleet HQ. And then there was the incident with the Farragut, and the Sextus mission, and the diplomatic crisis on J’Skuut, and if he found time to eat two meals a day he counted himself lucky; if he slept more than three hours together, it was practically a vacation. And the ship doesn’t stop because there aren’t enough hours in the day; the mundane doesn’t just go away when life gets exciting. There are reports to write and requisitions to sign off and an ocean of bureaucracy to navigate, and they’re there whether you’re hanging in a dust cloud watching stars congeal or rattling through the void at Warp 9 with a Klingon armada on your tail. So, no, there was not time to fulfill Doctor McCoy’s requisite three hours per week of down time and shooting the breeze, nor was there time to reassure him that whatever he thought he saw in the transporter room that day was just some stuff, some things that needed to be worked out, and weren’t going to be worked out if certain members of the medical team insisted on interfering. So, yes, he’s tired. He’s tired of it all right now.

 

He folds his hands behind his back, peering out into the silent expanse of blackness. You remember what I said to you on Federation Day? said Bones, and of course Kirk remembers; he remembers the conversation practically verbatim, and he remembers the glacial discord that followed it too. Federation Day is bigger than Christmas on a ‘Fleet starship; it’s bigger than Thanksgiving or Diwali or Kwanzaa, because it’s the common denominator. It’s the one thing everyone has in common. Back home, people send cards and maybe have a couple of drinks, start an argument about Federal jurisdiction and planetary sovereignty, fly a couple of flags if the mood takes them, but in deep space it’s all about remembering why you’re here. And so he’s tended to encourage the crew to celebrate it, to turn a blind eye to some of the ways in which they choose to do so, to authorize shore leave whenever he can, to double up his shifts so that the junior officers don’t have to pull bridge duty when there’s fraternizing to be done. This year, there was a kind of desperation to the festivity, a restlessness that disturbed him and tugged a hole in his chest right where it hurt, and he was glad of the extra workload, glad of the ubiquity of paperwork and the necessity of command distance. He stood on the bridge and watched the star streaks dance Warp 4 around his ship and wondered what his view would be this time next year; if the day would find him on another bridge or under sky. If he’d be alone.

 

Bones buzzed up to him as Beta shift was ending and he fought to keep the tension out of his voice, because he was sure it was some kind of medical reprimand, a reminder of the perils of sixteen-hour shifts. “Kirk here,” he said, and it sounded clipped regardless, but maybe that was just fatigue.

 

“Easy, Captain,” said Bones evenly, so maybe it wasn’t just fatigue. “Got some interestin’ news, is all, thought you might wanna swing by sickbay when you get off.”

 

He was suspicious, of course, but the truth was, Bones had been at him for weeks to take a night off - to run laps at the gym, or get drunk and watch a game, or maybe just read a book that didn’t have the word Regulations in the title - and it seemed like an easy fix: go and hear what he had to say, have a drink or two, then head back to his quarters and fall asleep face down and fully clothed on top of the sheets. So he made his way to the CMO’s office as the Beta shift crowd dispersed to join in the festivities, offering Chapel a rueful smile as she rolled her eyes indulgently at a full complement of occupied biobeds, and buzzed for entry at Bones’ door.

 

McCoy glanced up from a PADD and nodded at his spare chair. “Happen to notice if McKillen’s stopped mutterin’ yet?” he asked as Kirk lowered himself into the seat. “He was cussin’ up a storm when he came in. Spock’s got him down for a disciplinary when he sobers up.”

 

Maybe this was always Bones’ habit, randomly name-dropping the First Officer and glancing up at the Captain’s face, and maybe it was just that Kirk was on his guard, but it had definitely insinuated itself firmly into their conversational patterns in recent weeks. Kirk said, placidly, “He was sleeping just now.”

 

“Bout time,” muttered Bones. “Man’s got the constitution of a rock. Thought Chapel was gonna smother him with a pillow.” He scribbled something on the PADD and pushed it to one side, standing up in the same fluid motion. “You look beat, Jim. You gonna have a drink, or you gonna fall asleep in that chair?”

 

Kirk smiled. “A drink will be fine, Bones.” As the doctor crossed to the cabinet, he added, “What’s on your mind?”

 

“You’ll like this,” said Bones cheerfully, pulling a bottle and a couple of glasses from the sideboard. He carried them over to the table, setting them in front of the Captain and unstoppering the decanter. “Got a sub-space message today from our old friend Sorelan.”

 

Bones’ old friend, Kirk felt like pointing out. There was no time on the Ilion mission for companionable chats or heart-to-hearts, even if the Captain had been feeling particularly magnanimous towards the Vulcan race at the time. But he said, “I suppose he’s back at the VSA by now.”

 

“Got back last week,” said Bones. “You know it’s a holiday today on Vulcan? Not that you’d guess, the way the hobgoblin’s been chewin’ through paperwork all day.”

 

“We’re not on Vulcan,” said Kirk levelly. “And I doubt the Professor messaged you just to tell you that.”

 

“Nope,” said McCoy, settling into his chair and cradling a glass against his chest. With his spare hand, he nudged the other drink towards Kirk. “Thought we might like to hear ‘bout what happened with the Veleth Hai.” Kirk raised an eyebrow and leaned forward for his glass. “Not too successful, as it turns out. Turns out,”  he said, warming to his story, “that what the first lot of Vulcans thought was their name, the way they kept on repeating it - V’lth ha’ia, V’lth ha’ia - oughtta’ve been translated as ‘get the hell off of our goddamn planet right now’.” He chuckled, sipped from his drink. “So we’re back to callin’ them the Ilionians, or somethin’. And they’re keepin’ their damn pergium.”

 

His grin was spread wide and expectant across his face, waiting for an answering smile, waiting for the Captain’s amusement to warm the frozen silence. Kirk forced out a hollow little laugh, nasal and inadequate, and shook his head.

 

“After all that,” he said bitterly. His shoulders felt suddenly heavy and he sat back in his chair, raising his glass to his lips and sucking in a draught of fiery Altarian brandy that seared a chemical heat over his tongue and down his throat. And then, glancing up at McCoy from hooded brows: “Is it appropriate for you to have that information, Bones?”

 

“Gonna be on the cortex in a couple days anyway,” said McCoy, with a defensive flare that marked the approach of dangerous territory. “Thought you might wanna know early. What you gonna do, court martial me for givin’ you the jump?”

 

Kirk’s head flicked up, startled. “Of course not!”

 

Bones eyes flashed fire. “Mood you been in lately, Jim, it’s kinda hard to tell.”

 

“The mood I’ve been in?” It was supposed to be a general question, an aggrieved rebuttal, but even as it left his mouth he realized that the emphasis had rearranged itself and changed the tone to something far too revealing. As the Doctor’s face softened into understanding, he tried a deflection. “We’ve been busy, Bones. That’s how it is sometimes, you know that.”

 

“Time was,” said Bones, “When you’d’ve asked for help. That’s what you’ve got a First Officer for.”

 

“We’re all busy,” said Kirk. The stare was relentless but he met it, raised an eyebrow in silent challenge.

 

Bones looked away first, casting his eyes apologetically downwards. “Hell, Jim,” he said slowly, “I wasn’t gonna say anything, figured it was your business. But the crew’s on edge, the ship’s on edge, and I wouldn’t be much of a doctor if I let it go. Wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let it go.”

 

“If anyone’s on edge, Bones, it’s because we’re overworked and approaching the end of the mission.”

 

“Yeah, and maybe that’s part of it too. But that ain’t all of it, Jim. It’s like steppin’ back in time four years every time I walk on the bridge, what with all the silence and the tension and no-one knowin’ where to look. So - you gonna tell me what’s goin’ on? Or am I gonna have to guess?”

 

A flash of dark eyes, turning away; hooded and unreachable... Kirk straightened in his chair, tightly-coiled and buzzing with cold fury. “I’ll thank you to leave my business alone.”

 

“I’ll do that.” Bones’ answering stare was unreadable. “Just as long as you don’t go makin’ it my business, Jim.”

 

Kirk snorted a humorless, abrasive puff of laughter and set his glass down heavily on the desk. Brandy splashed up the sides, pooling on the wooden surface below. “If I knew how to do that, Doctor McCoy, I’d have saved myself a world of trouble these past years.” He stood quickly, his chair scraping a fricative whine across the floor. “Now, if you’ll excuse me - I’m tired and I have work to do before I can turn in.”

 

But Bones was scrambling to his feet too, knuckling his hands on the desk in front of him. “Goddamn it, Jim, you’re one obstinate son-of-a-bitch when you put your mind to it!”

 

Kirk froze in the act of turning to leave. “You’re addressing your superior officer, Doctor!”

 

“So put me on report! Don’t change the fact that you’re so goddamned stubborn you’d rather make a martyr of yourself than admit you made a mistake! Maybe be a goddamned Human being for once!” He threw a hand up, waving towards the door. “So go back to your work, Jim. Do your penance, or hide behind the job, or whatever it is you’re doin’. And maybe it can be fixed and maybe it can’t, who knows? You’ll never know unless you try, that’s for damned sure.”

 

Kirk stared, his jaw set so tightly that his cheekbones ached. Finally, he sucked in his cheeks and said, thinly, “We’ll talk about this another time, Doctor.”

 

“Sure.” McCoy turned away. “Whatever you say, Jim.”

 

The Captain waited a moment, granite-shouldered and smoldering, and when Bones failed to turn back to the room or speak again, he pivoted on his heel and stalked out.

 

That was the last time they tried social drinks in the Doctor’s office.

 

You remember what I said to you on Federation Day? Only too well, but he’s not sure why Bones is bringing it up again now. Things get said, things get retracted. You get past them or you don’t, and if you don’t… you manage. You find your workaround, and you get on with the job. Things change, that’s just how life goes.

 

He turns from the stars and begins the trek back home.

 

~*~

 

The ship’s chronometer is cycling them down the last few minutes to midnight and his head is heavy with fatigue, dragging a wide yawn from his jaw as he darkens his living quarters and crosses to his bunk. He kicks off his boots and lowers himself onto the edge of his mattress, scrubbing a weary hand over his face in an effort to muster up the energy he needs to go to bed, and for a moment he just sits there, staring vacantly into space, wondering vaguely if he’ll remember how to sleep in a room that doesn’t constantly hum with motion. His eyes fix on the entrance to the head and a tiny prickle of sadness worries its way across his ribcage and into his throat. That’s when his cabin door buzzes.

 

It won’t be Bones. That leaves only one other person on the ship who’s likely to be banging on the Captain’s door at 0001 hours on Christmas morning, and he’s genuinely not sure he’s equipped to deal with this right now. For a long, mutinous moment he wonders if the world would really end if he just turned off the light and went to sleep - even a Vulcan is going to get the hint eventually - but that’s not how this works. Not even at midnight. Especially not at midnight.

 

He takes a deep breath and crosses his quarters, keeping the lights on low to make a point, and opens the door. “Mr. Spock,” he says, without surprise. “What can I do for you?”

 

Spock glances into the dimly-lit room and back to Kirk, who is still dressed from the party. He says, “Am I disturbing you, Captain?”

 

Kirk gives in. “Not at all. Come in.”

 

Nevertheless, there is a small hesitation before his First steps across the threshold, and a fractional flinch as the door swishes closed behind him. Kirk wonders abstractedly when they were last in his quarters, just the two of them, without Scotty or Bones or a host of departmental heads to legitimize the meeting. But he knows the answer to that question and abruptly dismisses it, crossing to stand in front of his desk as Spock makes his way to the center of the room, arms folded stiffly behind his back.

 

Kirk says, “What’s on your mind, Commander?”

 

“I have,” says Spock, and his hands disengage from their habitual clasp and swing awkwardly to his front, “A gift for you, Captain.” A beat. “As is consistent with your homeworld’s mid-winter celebrations.”

 

It’s a blunt, rectangular package, folded in a length of heavy brown cloth, and Kirk feels something twist in his gut as Spock extends it towards him. The Captain stares at the parcel for a second, then lifts his eyes to his First. Quietly, he says, “I haven’t got you anything, I’m afraid…”

 

“That is appropriate,” says Spock. “This is not a Vulcan festival.”

 

That’s never stopped them in the past, nor has the fact that Vulcans don’t typically exchange gifts as part of their traditional ceremonies, but Kirk says nothing. There’s an awkward little dance as he takes a step towards Spock and Spock takes a step towards him, then both cede passage to the other, and finally they settle on a graceless half-shuffle that meets at the mid-point between them. Spock fixes his eyes on the parcel as he presses it into Kirk’s hands, then secures his arms safely behind his back again and drops a restless gaze towards the floor while the Captain peels back the fabric to reveal the gift within.

 

It’s a picture, face down in his hands and shadowed in the half-light, but he recognizes it immediately as he turns the frame upwards. Paper and ink, perhaps, or charcoal; mounted against a dark hardwood that’s been lacquered to a high shine by hundreds of years of care, with a brass plaque inlaid into the frame inscribing a familiar name in curling calligraphy:

 

                                                            HMS Enterprize, 1705

 

Kirk feels his throat constrict. He traces a hand over the chill glass of the front pane, as though his fingers can brush the ancient timbers of a ship long lost to posterity, and looks up into the inscrutable face of his First Officer. “Thank you,” he says softly.

 

“I regret that I was unable to source the replica that you and Doctor McCoy sought,” says Spock. His eyes do not waver from their rigid contemplation of the deck. “However, the merchant assured me that this would be an adequate substitute.”

 

“It’s…” says Kirk. He clears his throat. “…more than adequate, Spock. It’s perfect.” His gaze drops back to the safety of the picture and he says again, “Thank you.”

 

In his peripheral vision, he sees Spock nod once, then turn on his heel. There’s a moment where Kirk could speak, if his brain could fix on the right words, but it’s gone in half a second, and his First is already moving towards the door. As it slides open, he hesitates on the threshold and the moment is back, buzzing in the air like a high-pitched whine. And there’s tiny hesitation, almost imperceptible, as though Spock is also searching for what to say; as though there’s anything else to say. Then it’s past, and he simply says, quietly, “Goodnight, Jim.”

 

Kirk sucks in a breath, drags his eyes upwards.  “Goodnight, Spock,” he says, but he’s already gone.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


Emotional attachment to other sentient beings is not logical, but, as a vestigial remnant of the evolutionarily advantageous herding instinct, it is inevitable - like the Human appendix or the Vulcan harr-hinektra: useful once, but now redundant. Emotional attachment to spaces and objects is unconscionable. Home is an exercise in the abstract: it is not a single, reifiable quantity. It denotes possession, not substance, not place. Home is a sentimental construct, designed to create an illusion of constancy in ill-adaptive minds. It describes a notion, not a physical, definable space. Shelter and security are necessary; home is not.

 

It is not logical to experience regret, sharp and visceral as a wire garotte, as he regards the room that has been his for almost a decade, stripped of what has made it familiar and rendered null, featureless. The sense of loss is absolutely without justification. Nevertheless, it’s a relief to feel the door slide shut behind him as he leaves for the final time, as though he’s cauterizing a wound. A violent flare of unrestrained emotion and then it’s done, and this part of his life is behind him. He takes a moment in the silence of the corridor, where a dusky shadow on the opposite wall - almost imperceptible, but remarkably resistant to three years of the maintenance crew’s most strenuous efforts - describes the passage and abrupt halt of a bowl of plomeek soup.

 

He straightens his dress tunic, brushes a fleck of lint from the hem, checks the polish of his boots.  Swallows a lungful of plasticky, recycled air, and rolls his shoulders back. He’s ready. And yet it takes him another 24.7 seconds before his legs animate sufficiently to lift his left foot into its first step along the corridor and away from the closed door behind him.

 

Spock is neither obtuse nor is he self-deluded, and he knows he is not as he was five years ago. Sometimes he compares the man he has become against the man he used to be and he can find virtually no points of continuity - it’s as though that younger Spock simply ceased to be, and if he didn’t know that it was a gentle, leisurely evolution, three quarters complete before he was aware it had started at all, then the end result might be more disturbing to his sense of himself. His younger self would not have spent 31 minutes and 14 seconds of his morning routine sitting cross-legged on the deck and committing to memory the frequency of the engine’s hum as it skitters through the metal skeleton of the ship, he’s sure of that. His younger self would not have been obliged to settle a spike of illogical fury at the thought of sleeping tonight in an unfamiliar bed in a room that is certain to be at least five degrees too cold. And his younger self would absolutely not have spent the last days of the mission ignoring the pervasive cloud of pre-emptive loneliness that hovers over every thought and every action. His younger self would have actively welcomed the prospect of solitude. He wonders if he’ll be able to reclaim a measure of his earlier self-sufficiency now that he has the opportunity to practice the art of autonomy once again, and is obliged to suppress a sudden swell of anxiety at the unwelcome thought that collegiality might be similar to a one-way valve: the decision to embrace it may well be irreversible.

 

It happened so slowly that there was no opportunity to resist until long after the damage was done. Like a micro-tear in the hull plating, trickling invisible lines of weakness that crumple only when pressure is applied to exactly the right point, so was the discovery that he’d changed. During the first, difficult weeks of Kirk’s captaincy, it was challenge enough to make it through their shared shifts with his controls in place, and there was a period during which he seriously thought about transferring to another ship. The Intrepid had been actively courting him for some time, even after his promotion to First Officer on the Enterprise, and, if there had never been sufficient cause to consider the offer in the past, the substitution of Captain Kirk for Captain Pike was almost enough to change his mind. It wasn’t that he felt any particular affection for Pike - more the fact that he was a knowable quantity: thoughtful, reserved, and self-contained. Whether the comfortable distance between them was out of courtesy or preference was hardly important: what mattered was the work and the intellectual challenge, and there was satisfaction to be found in the knowledge that his abilities were recognized and his difference was less important than his proven competence. And then Kirk exploded onto the ship with that particular arrogance that is the unconscious by-product of aesthetically-pleasing features, innate charm, and an incisive mind, and Spock’s repulsion was more than just instinct, it was self-preservation. One thing Spock has learned in this gradual segue between selves is that there is practically no corner of the psyche that is safe from the solicitous ministrations of James T Kirk. It seems strange now to think that there was a time when this idea was intolerable.

 

He halts outside the turbolift and lengthens his slackening spine, sucks in a breath. He is quietly gathering his thoughts when sudden footsteps to his right twist his head in the direction of the sound, and it’s half a second before his brain registers a voice, sotto voce and struggling to restrain its frustration. It’s another split second before recognition prickles an acid-wash of adrenaline through his chest.

 

“I know that, Bones!” hisses Kirk, in the tone that Spock has privately cataloged as Dealing With McCoy (Vexatious). “But it’s not that -”

 

The abrupt catch at the end of the sentence, as of a breath sharply drawn and aborted midway, tells Spock, who has turned his gaze deckwards and fixed on a patch of fraying carpet, that not only has he been seen, but that his presence is an unpleasant surprise. However, interpersonal protocol demands he look up, and - probably - pretend he hasn’t heard.

 

“Doctor,” says Spock. And then, “…Captain.”

 

McCoy, predictably, recovers first. “Damn it, man!” he sputters. “What d’you think you’re doin’, sneakin’ up on people like that?”

 

There is no answer to that, so Spock raises an eyebrow and folds his hands behind his back. Kirk forces a smile.

 

“Ignore him, Spock,” he says, but something in his eyes doesn’t match his tone, and they certainly don’t match his expression. “He’s just cranky because he’s going to be on the other end of a Starfleet medical tomorrow.” There is a pause, two seconds too long to be comfortable. “Are you on your way back to the bridge?”

 

It is seven forty-eight pm. They are due to dock in a little under three hours. There is certainly nowhere else on the ship that Spock is likely to be headed. He says, “Yes, Captain.”

 

“Good,” says Kirk. He opens his mouth, takes a breath, closes it again. A beat. “Good,” he says again.

 

In his peripheral vision, McCoy rolls his eyes and rocks on his heels.

 

“Captain,” says Spock.

 

A gentle whoosh announces the arrival of the turbolift, and the doors disgorge a soft puff of warm air, dancing with the scent of the ship. Spock stands back to let the Captain and the CMO enter, then steps inside and pivots on his heel to face the doors as they slide shut in front of him. Behind him, Kirk gently clears his throat, but Spock does not turn around.

 

~*~

 

The Captain strides onto the bridge at a purposeful clip, a study in focused dispassion that, once upon a time, would have fooled Spock completely. As his First hesitates on the upper tier, Kirk crosses to the command chair, where Lieutenant Palmer is waiting with a handover brief and a carefully blank expression, and Spock watches him shrug off the blanket of melancholy that hangs over the assembled company - the reverent hush of the newly-bereaved - with his trademark hundred-watt grin. It eases something in the air, loosens some metaphorical pressure valve, and hesitant smiles begin to dot the crowd: reticent and conflicted, but washed with the warmth of homecoming. McCoy slides into place beside Spock, and he can feel the Doctor’s eyes on the side of his head even as he keeps his own facing resolutely forwards; he can feel their relentless scrutiny, as though he’s being weighed and measured. And then there is a gentle sigh, and Spock knows: he’s not the only person who read the flash of quiet desolation beneath the Captain’s flawless veneer.

 

“Yup,” says McCoy softly, and there’s no response to that.

 

Kirk glances sharply up towards them, like a hound that’s caught a scent, and he raises his eyebrows in an unspoken question. McCoy offers an expansive shrug and there’s a moment when it looks as though the Captain will press the issue; certainly, his eyes don’t leave the Doctor’s as he says, curtly, “Mr. Spock, are you joining us?”

 

Spock inclines his head and casts a wistful glance towards the science console, where Afaeaki is engaged in routine scanner measurements - the sort of thing that needs to be done and doesn’t need to be done by the First Officer, and which effectively precludes his station as a point of refuge. With an air of resignation, he peels away from the turbolift and crosses to the Captain’s chair, where he folds his hands behind his back and fixes his stare on the viewscreen.

 

“Dropping out of warp, sir,” says Sulu from the helm.

 

“Jupiter station hailing, sir,” adds Uhura quietly.

 

“Very good, Lieutenant,” says Kirk briskly, and if there is the slightest hesitation before he speaks, he covers it seamlessly. “Transfer navigational co-ordinates and cross-reference. Mr. Sulu, three quarter impulse. Bring her in slowly. Let’s not get her scratched up before we have to hand over the keys.”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Sulu with a wide grin, and Spock cannot help but wonder how anyone fails to hear the fracture beneath the Captain’s easy words.

 

Kirk leans back in his chair and slings an elbow up on the arm rest. “Lieutenant Uhura, get me a shipwide frequency,” he says, and Spock glances back towards McCoy, whose brow has furrowed and whose eyes are hooded.

 

“Frequency open,” says Uhura.

 

There’s a hesitation, and for a moment Spock wonders if he has changed his mind, but no: that’s not the sort of man that James Kirk is.

 

“This is the Captain speaking,” he says lightly - same insouciant charm, same warm, smooth tones. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just passed Jupiter. We’re almost home. In a little over three hours, we’ll dock at Starfleet Orbital Headquarters and begin our disembarkation procedures. We’ll all be sleeping under the Terran sky tonight.” He pauses, ostensibly to gather his thoughts, but the break is too long, too sharp, too painful. Spock’s hands coil around themselves, fingers tightening their grip. Kirk says, “These past five years have been the proudest of all my years in Starfleet. Together, we have pushed back against the limits of Human knowledge. We have contacted new civilizations across the galaxy. We have watched history being made before our very eyes. It has been my honor and my privilege to serve with this fine and dedicated crew. No Captain ever commanded finer. Bonds of friendship have been forged aboard this ship that no span of distance or time can break.” He stops, glances down at the floor, then decisively back up again. “Let us take a moment to remember our friends and colleagues who gave their lives in search of knowledge and peace.”

 

Kirk’s gaze is steady, fixed on the viewscreen ahead, where Sol is an effervescent bubble of light in the middle of a sea of blackness, haphazardly pockmarked by the faded background glow of her distant sisters. In the heavy, cloying silence, McCoy steps quietly forward to stand on the other side of the command chair. Spock registers his presence in his peripheral vision, but does not glance sideways.

 

Kirk says, softly, “We will honor their memories by upholding the values that they lived for. These coming weeks will see us go our separate ways - some of us will transfer to new commands; some of us will be moving through the ranks to well-deserved promotions. Some of us will scatter across the galaxy and some of us will be setting down roots in our home soils. No matter what the future holds, it’s built upon our collective past, and I’m proud to have spent these years with the best crew in Starfleet. Thank you all. Kirk out.”

 

There is a moment of silence. At the navigation console, Chekov turns his head back towards the Captain and opens his mouth, drawing an uncertain breath, but Kirk cuts him off.

 

“Steady as she goes, Mr. Chekov,” he says quietly, and Chekov nods.

 

“Aye, sir,” he says.

 

~*~

 

The black miles slide past, like bolts of oiled satin. Spock is reminded of the journeys of his childhood, of the vertiginous list of the cabin as the engines clambered down the octaves to impulse and the sudden flare of delight behind his mother’s eyes; of hours spent by her side on the observation deck, watching in silent contemplation as her homeworld inched closer. He’s seen a similar reverence light the Captain’s face a hundred times before and mistaken it for the thrill of discovery - that powerful thirst for knowledge that drives him like a second heartbeat - and what Spock has never realized before now is that it’s actually driven by the very same longing he remembers in Amanda’s eyes. For Kirk, the journey is home. It’s where he belongs. The planet gliding into view in silvery grays and iridescent green - like the wings of a butterfly - is just a part of the fabric of what has made him; it has no hold on him anymore.

 

He wonders if anyone else has realized this.

 

The Captain is seated in his command chair, the central axis around which swirls a tidal pool of frenetic activity. Unobserved, Spock watches from behind the shelter of a well-placed PADD, watching the lines of his face as he scans a rapid-fire battery of reports, watching his eyes as he lifts them to greet another trickle of departmental heads as they filter in from the restless turbolift, watching the ready grin that fails to light him from within. On the viewscreen, the arid bulk of Luna has all but occluded the earthrise and, dotted around her louring, black outline, glimmer the pinprick floodlights of the orbital drydocks, Enterprise’s cradle and her cage for the next eighteen months. Spock watches him quietly as Uhura clears her throat - a small noise, unobtrusive, but enough to wash a sudden silence over the sibilant rush of voices - and so he sees the sudden flash of grief slacken the Captain’s features for half a second as she says, gently, “Captain, Centroplex is hailing us.”

 

Kirk shoots a lightening glance towards the science console, too quickly for Spock to look away. Their eyes lock and Kirk’s darken for a moment, fixing and holding his First for a second too long, and then the faintest of smiles tugs at the corner of his lips and he turns over his shoulder towards his Communications Officer. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” he says. “Open a channel.”

 

“Channel open, sir.”

 

The Captain straightens in his chair, spine lengthening, body poised as though he’s expecting a blow. “This is Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise,” he says: calmly, clearly. “Requesting permission to dock.”

 

USS Enterprise, this is Starfleet Orbital Headquarters,” says a disembodied voice, and even at this distance, her smile lights up the air. “Permission granted. Welcome home, Enterprise.”

 

At the helm, Sulu lets loose a joyful whoop, which prompts surprised laughter and an answering holler from Chekov, and suddenly the bridge is alive with applause and cheers and handshakes. “All right,” says Kirk indulgently, but he’s barely audible over the jubilation. “All right, everyone,” he says again, louder. “Let’s bring her safely into drydock before we break out the champagne.” His eyes find Spock’s again in the melee, and they linger for a moment before he slides them across to the viewscreen.

 

“Centroplex hailing again, sir,” says Uhura. A beat, then: “It’s Admiral Nogura, sir.”

 

And it’s only because Spock is watching already that he sees the Captain press his eyes shut for a second and breathe deeply before he speaks. “On screen, Lieutenant,” says Kirk.

 

“Attention, all hands,” snaps Spock, and the laughter abruptly dies as two dozen spines quickly straighten, two dozen sets of shoulders are squared, two dozen faces are wiped clean of all expression. The screen lights up.

 

 

“Kirk,” says Nogura warmly. “Welcome home. We have quite the reception for you, I’m afraid.”

 

The Captain laughs his easy laugh. “Thank you, sir,” he says. “I suspected as much.”

 

The Head of Starfleet Command has never beamed a personal greeting into the bridge of any returning starship on which Spock has previously served, but, then again, he’s never previously served on any mission quite like this.

 

“Nothing gets past you, Kirk,” says Nogura with a wide smile. His age is difficult to guess, but Spock knows he is  grandfather at least - possibly a great-grandfather - and his air of paternal camaraderie is something that Spock does not entirely trust. “I thought I’d get in ahead of the rabble.” He glances to his left, where a familiar face is glaring in the general direction of the bridge. “You know Admiral Komack, of course.” A nod towards the figures on either side of the Admiral. “And Vice-Admiral Fitzpatrick. And I believe you’ve met Vice-Admiral Ciana - you’ll be attached to her office during Enterprise’s refit. I don’t think you’ve been introduced to Admiral Bernstein - she was serving on Antares until six weeks ago. We’ll be joining you for the press conference this afternoon.”

 

“Ah,” says Kirk, with remarkable calm. “There’s going to be a press conference.”

 

Nogura smiles, all fatherly charm. “It won’t take long. An hour or so, no more. We’ll be expecting Commander Spock as well.”

 

Spock raises an eyebrow as Kirk flashes a glance in his direction, but aborts the gesture before it meets his eyes. “Sir, if you’ll forgive me, I think it would be better…”

 

“I understand, Kirk, but we’ve got an opportunity and I don’t intend to waste it.” Nogura’s eyes narrow and for a moment the politician creeps out from behind the mask. He says, “You heard about the attack on Ajilon Prime  last month? There was another on Archanis IV two days ago. We’re a little short on good publicity at the moment, Kirk.”

 

“We’ve limited the numbers to the major broadcasters only,” says Ciana smoothly. Annoyance flashes behind Nogura’s eyes for an unguarded second before he schools his features back to genial old man. She gives no sign of having noticed. “Fleet business only; no personal questions. I’ve worked with most of them before - they know how far they can push it.”

 

A smile slides across the Captain’s face. He says, “I appreciate that, ma’am.”

 

Ciana answers with a smile of her own, and its effect is transformative. She is, by Human standards, extremely attractive: petite and blonde-haired, fine-boned, with bright, intelligent eyes, but when she smiles, it’s as though a light goes on beneath her skin, bathing her in a warm, sunshine glow. It is, Spock realizes suddenly, exactly the same smile as Kirk’s.

 

“Excellent,” says Nogura now, and his own affable grin skulks in the shadows like a minor satellite. “I don’t need to tell you how important this mission has been for Starfleet - scientifically and politically. You’ve done us proud, Commodore.”

 

The Captain’s expression flash-freezes. He covers it quickly. “I wasn’t aware that had been ratified yet, sir.”

 

“Formalities.” Nogura waves an airy hand. “The kind of public adulation you’ve got right now, Kirk, I wouldn’t be surprised if the admiralty tried to give you my job. Ahahaha.”

 

“Ahahaha,” echoes Kirk, and is very nearly convincing. “I’m honored, sir.”

 

A dull thung rattles the ship’s hull and scatters itself across the skeletal network of decks and bulkheads as the vast arms of Spacedock 17 reach out and fix Enterprise in their grasp, and an illogical wisp of sadness ghosts through Spock’s belly because they have docked now, and he didn’t get to watch the final moments of their journey play out against the black canvass of space.

 

Nogura says, “The honor’s ours, Kirk. I’ll see you on the other side, eh?” And he rolls his eyes and laughs.

 

“Yes, sir,” says Kirk.

 

Nogura nods once, and the screen blanks. Kirk stares at it for a moment in silence, his face blank, his eyes unreadable. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “We’re home.”

 

~*~

 

Disembarkation follows ancient Terran naval protocol. Lieutenant Friedrikson won First Kiss, so she’s first to board the fleet of transport shuttles that swoop in from the syrupy blackness like a flock of silver birds, spiriting the crew from the belly of the ship in excitable fifties until only the senior command remains. Kirk stands in the center of his bridge, hands clasped behind his back and an amiable smile on his face as Uhura confirms the exodus with Starfleet HQ and the Captain gives the order that empties his ship. They depart formally - straight-backed salutes and handshakes, even the Doctor - and Kirk receives it as it’s offered, but, as they’re turning to leave for the transporter room, he says, “Take good care of her, Scotty.”

 

Uhura’s eyes mist abruptly, as do - Spock would swear - McCoy’s. Scotty nods solemnly and says, “Aye, sir.”

 

“Thank you,” says Kirk. “All of you.” He stops, clears his throat. “Drinks are on me, once the circus leaves town.”

 

“Huh,” says McCoy but his eyeroll lacks its customary choler. “That’ll be the day.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” says Uhura softly.

 

Sulu nods. “Thank you, sir,” he says.

 

“Thank you, sir,” says Chekov.

 

“Aye,” says Scotty. “Thank you, Captain.”

 

McCoy clears his throat and offers a final, gruff thanks. “See you planetside, Captain,” he adds. “Don’t leave it too long - ‘fore the admiralty gets wind of that bottle of Romulan Ale you never saw in my liquor cabinet.” He glances up. “Spock, you didn’t hear that.”

 

Spock raises an eyebrow and the Captain laughs, McCoy grouses, Scotty looks askance, Uhura smiles… and for a second, time seems to freeze-frame, capturing a moment like so many others. And then a soft whoosh hiss announces the turbolift’s arrival, and they file inside, and McCoy raises a hand in farewell as the door closes. And suddenly the bridge is empty but for the Captain and his First, and there’s nothing but the ponderous silence of a space that used to be full of noise.

 

After a moment Kirk glances up, raises his eyebrows and forces his mouth into a tight smile. He paces to the command chair and stands behind it, hands rested on the back of the seat, gripping a little too hard.

 

“Well,” he says.

 

It will take perhaps two minutes for the senior crew to reach the transporter room, perhaps another two or three for the observation of final protocols. Then they will beam down in reverse order of rank - perhaps ninety seconds apiece, with perhaps another twenty between individuals for calibration and buffering… with no allowances for contingency, there are ten minutes to pass on the bridge before they get their final orders to disembark. Spock is suddenly, acutely aware of the absence of anything else to do.

 

He takes a deep breath, realizes midway that he can’t think of anything to say, and settles for, “Captain.”

 

Kirk’s eyes are fixed on the viewscreen, staring out into the black expanse beyond Spacedock, lost in thought. There is a long, uncomfortable pause. “So…” he says presently. “You’ll be staying in the Residences?”

 

“Yes,” says Spock. The word disappears into the sucking silence, and he’s aware that something else is required, but he cannot work out what it might be. In desperation, he tries, “And you?”

 

“Hmm? Oh. Yes,” says Kirk vaguely. “I thought… It’s only for eighteen months. The Residences will be comfortable enough.”

 

The seconds lumber past as Spock searches the limits of his experience for a possible rejoinder. “Indeed,” he says at last.

 

“They’ve put me in the Flag Officers’ quarters,” says Kirk suddenly. “I think…” He hesitates, then waves a hand to dismiss the thought. The blanket of hush, disturbed by the sudden activity, resettles. “Never mind. It just seems… a little premature.”

 

Spock can feel the Captain’s restless energy from across the bridge; it’s the only evidence that time continues to move forward. Abruptly, Kirk breaks away from the command chair and wanders across the bridge in the direction of the engineering console. Spock watches him ascend the steps to the upper tier - slowly, as though he’s committing his progress to memory - and run a hand across the lifeless displays. “You’ll be in the Commissioned Officers’ quarters?” he says absently.

 

There’s something deeply disturbing about his manufactured composure. Spock says, “Yes, Captain,” and would elaborate if he could only work out how.

 

“We should…” says Kirk, and trails off. He tries again. “Who knows how long this will take? Perhaps we could get some dinner later. Perhaps… if it doesn’t go on too long.”

 

Spock opens his mouth to point out that it is already almost midnight, ship’s time, and that by the time the press conference is finished they will certainly be better advised to return immediately to their quarters and attempt to acclimatize themselves to Pacific Standard Time, but a tiny prickle of exasperated chagrin jabs a metaphorical finger into his windpipe before the words can form. Instead, he says, “That would be agreeable.”

 

Kirk glances up, and the naked surprise written into his expression makes it clear that he was expecting a refusal. “Oh?” he says. “Oh. Good. Well - maybe we could meet in the Presidio mess? If you’re not… if the conference isn’t too taxing.”

 

“That would be a sensible choice of venue.”

 

“Or,” says Kirk, as though his First hasn’t spoken, “Didn’t you mention a Vulcan restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf? I seem to remember…”

 

“…I believe so…”

 

“…Yes, we were talking about the Academy, once, I’m sure, and I remember you said…”

 

The words trail into silence. Kirk clears his throat again.

 

He says, “Well. Depending on how long this takes, of course.”

 

“Of course,” says Spock.

 

“We’re both likely to be tired.”

 

“Ship’s time is seven hours ahead of San Francisco,” agrees Spock.

 

Kirk huffs a humorless laugh. “No doubt the admiralty will forget that.”

 

“It may be less important than their other considerations.”

 

Another little laugh, edging close to bitterness. “That’s often the way.” He turns on his heel and paces the length of the upper tier, stopping by the viewscreen, where he pivots on his heel so that he’s facing his bridge. “Let’s see how it goes,” he says quietly.

 

“Yes, Captain,” says Spock.

 

Abruptly, he turns again, spinning 180 degrees so that he’s facing the stars. Spock sees his shoulders rise with an intake of breath, as though he’s about to speak, and at that moment the Captain’s communicator chirps. The shoulders sag again. In rear profile, Spock watches him lift a hand to his belt, unhook the device, flip it open. “Kirk here,” he says.

 

“Captain Kirk, this is Vice Admiral Fitzpatrick,” says a familiar voice. “Final disembarkation orders are given. You may leave the ship.”

 

There’s a beat, a second too long. Then Kirk says, “Acknowledged, sir. Kirk out,” and snaps his communicator shut.

 

He folds his hands behind his back but makes no immediate effort to move. Spock hesitates by the science console as his Captain stands with his back to the bridge, gazing out at the tapestry of starlight dancing in the inky depths. There is something he ought to say, he’s certain of it, but the words will not come. And then Kirk gives a little sigh and turns, and his face is blank, composed, like a man going into battle. He says, “I’ve been meaning to ask, Mr. Spock - your new orders arrived last night.”

 

Spock blinks. “Yes, Captain,” he says.

 

“I didn’t...” says Kirk. “I suppose… I could have asked, but I thought... I know you value your privacy.”

 

It takes Spock a moment to hear the question buried beneath the pleasantries and only then does he see the darkness in the hazel eyes. He says, “A teaching assignment at the Academy.” A beat. “In San Francisco.”

 

“Ah.” The expression does not change, though it’s too rigid to be natural. And the eyes are quickly dropped. “So you’ll be staying on Earth.”

 

“Yes, Captain,” says Spock again.

 

There is a long silence in which Kirk stares fixedly at a point in the far wall above the waiting turbolift. Spock centers himself so that he doesn’t have to hear the unspoken words that hover between them.

 

Kirk says, without looking up, “Good. That’s... good.” A beat. “I imagine you’ll make an excellent teacher, Mr. Spock.”

 

“I undertook a number of teaching assignments upon graduation,” says Spock.

 

“Of course. Yes,” says Kirk. Abruptly, he looks up and his face is schooled into a careful, hollow-eyed smile. “Well. Let’s get this over with.”

 

Before Spock can answer, the Captain breaks from his station and crosses the bridge at an efficient, businesslike clip. But his hand reaches out for the command chair as he passes, and he gives it one final grip.

 

 

~*~

 

 

It is after 2100 hours PST when Spock finally presses his palm to the scanner beside the door to his new lodgings, which makes it the early hours of the morning in his current diurnal cycle. There is no longer anything to be gained in attempting a period of sleep, and he plans to rifle unceremoniously through his luggage for a firepot and a meditation mat and spend the rest of the night mending his shattered equilibrium. This is likely to take several hours.

 

Spock has never previously attended a press conference. It seems to him to be a uniquely Human affair. He was alarmed, therefore, to discover that the maelstrom that welcomed them off the Enterprise, all flashing lights and walls of shouted questions, was only a prelude to the main event.

 

He allows himself a moment to wonder if the Captain has returned to his quarters yet, and the habit of five years prickles a little thrill of unease at the likelihood that he has not. Spock has witnessed James Kirk, in the heat of chaos, pull unfathomable reserves of energy out of some indefatigable store that defies the limits of Human physiology, but this is not a battle; no lives are at stake, and, in the final analysis, he suspects that the Captain finds the entire exercise more than a little frivolous. He has never been a man for holocams and vacuous smiles, and the crowds rushed him almost before they’d finished rematerializing in the executive transporter room, shouting his name and clamoring for soundbites. The Captain is a diplomat, but this was not diplomacy; this was something else, something Spock is not certain he’s able to name.

 

He is tired. More than that, he is disturbed and transplanted, and each state of mind feeds into the other.

 

Thank you, Commander, that’s all we need from you, she said, and reached for the Captain’s arm as though she’s known him for many years. Perhaps she has. I believe you’ve met Vice Admiral Ciana, said Nogura on the bridge. It feels like another life, one that is fast receding into the middle distance, insubstantial as a whisper in a dark room.

 

Thank you, Commander, that’s all we need from you. An abrupt dismissal; sudden closure, like a slamming door. An aide swooped in with an unctuous smile and a manifest disregard for Vulcan courtesies: Commander Spock, if you’ll follow me, I’ll arrange a transport to your quarters - you must be tired after your day… With a hand on his elbow, only inches separating their bodies, and Spock was obliged to step smartly out of the young man’s personal space and answer that he would find his own way, thank you.

 

The weight of the asenoi brings it easily to hand, nestled into a corner of his trunk and wedged in place with a selection of heavy books. Three of them, he notes with a lurch of distress, were gifts from Kirk: Moby Dick, translated into Vulcan; a collection essays on warp core dynamics; and a biography of Brahms, purchased as an in-joke several weeks after Holberg 917G, with an inscription in the Captain’s even, copperplate handwriting designed to dispel any lingering doubts his First might entertain about Kirk’s continuing emotional health - Because we know better, don’t we? With thanks for everything, JTK. Spock sets them carefully to one side and lights the firepot while he resumes his search for his mat.

 

Contrite smiles, endless offers of coffee, tea, fresh juice, water. Fewer than sixty-three percent of them knew better than to reach for his hand during introductions, and, in the end, he simply linked his fingers behind his back and nodded his greetings until whoever was on the other end of the extended arm got the message and withdrew. There were no apologies. No-one offered the ta’al.

 

Nogura stayed for the handshakes and the speeches. Later, there were Fitzpatrick and Bernstein and Ciana, and an endless swarm of acolytes, hovering on the edges of the room, ready to be summoned with a wave. I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity to work with Captain Kirk, said Admiral Ciana. He’ll be an invaluable addition to our department. A self-deprecating eyeroll over the heads of two reporters from somewhere on Luna while they were busily scrolling through their PADDs during a conversational lull, and there was that sunshine smile again, flashed haphazardly as though she was unaware of its effect. Enjoy it while you can, Captain, she said quietly - at least she didn’t call him Commodore. This is the most excitement we’re likely to see in Operations this side of a Klingon invasion.

 

And the Captain laughed politely: I’m very glad to hear it, ma’am. I believe I’ve seen enough excitement for two lifetimes.

 

Ha! You’ll have to tell me about it some time.

 

I’d be glad to. But I’m not much of a storyteller.

 

Somehow, I doubt that…

 

The meditation mat has insinuated itself somewhere beyond the reach of questing Vulcan fingers and he’s too tired to spend any more time searching. Spock almost makes a mental note to speak to whomever packed his luggage, before he remembers that, whoever it was, they’ve scattered between the cracks of this sprawling city, and they’re under someone else’s command by now. The floor is wood-effect boards, covered with a thin, utilitarian rug emblazoned with the Starfleet crest, and it will suffice for his current needs. He lowers himself onto the unyielding surface, feeling every nerve protest, and crosses his legs before him, resting his hands lightly on his knees and breathing deeply of unfamiliar air.

 

Home is an exercise in the abstract: it is not a single, reifiable quantity. It denotes possession, not substance, not place. Home is a sentimental construct, designed to create an illusion of constancy in ill-adaptive minds. Home is where he can find shelter; it matters not at all which stars prick the sky beyond his window, or that the room is five degrees too cold, or that it fails to vibrate a tinny hum on the very edge of hearing.

 

It is certainly not logical to hate a room for the fact that it is not on a starship, or because its bathroom has only a single door.

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 16

 

 

Kirk is inside his new quarters for all of 45 seconds before he decides to take the admiralty up on their offer of pre-assignment leave.

 

It’s well after midnight. San Francisco’s January air is heavy in his chest, thick with the scent of moisture, and cold in the way that seeps through Human skin and settles into the bones beneath. His head is muzzy with lack of sleep and Starfleet-issue bourbon, and his face aches from hours of relentless smiling. His legs are leaden and sluggish, as though he’s walking through soup, and he slumps against his door as it slides shut behind him, closing his eyes before they have time to take in the contours of his living space, bathed in the chilly white moonlight of a clear winter’s night.

 

Kirk toes off his boots and kicks them across his unfamiliar carpet. They skitter off into the shadowy depths and fail to strike an opposite wall; fail to connect with any other solid object, in fact, in a way that describes the dimensions of the room all too clearly in relation to, say, the stateroom of a Constitution-class starship. This is when he realizes he’s not getting any sleep tonight.

 

He turned his back for 30 seconds, to answer a question from Admiral Fitzpatrick, and then 30 seconds became two minutes, became five, became ten, and when he turned around again, Spock was gone. Ciana was apologetic: I guess he just seemed really uncomfortable. Seemed kind of insensitive to keep him here. It’s you they want, anyway, Captain. And he had to smile and make some self-deprecating comment, the kind of fawning politesse that he abhors, and she laughed and rolled her eyes, and he’d swear she was just a little bit disappointed that he thought she’d be impressed by ‘Fleet diplomacy. And Spock was still gone, to God knows where, and they didn’t even say goodbye.

 

Five years of friendship, and they didn’t even say goodbye. He’s not sure where that leaves them. He’s not actually sure he wants to know.

 

His overnight bag is untouched and sitting on his unfamiliar bed. Kirk grabs it and slings it over his shoulder, retrieves his discarded boots, and walks straight back out the door.

 

 

~*~

 

Iowa is the obvious choice, and he dismisses it immediately. He doesn’t want home. Home is a reminder that he’s tethered to this soil, and the thought of it tightens his chest and constricts his throat, as though the past has thrown a thick blanket over him that cuts out the light and the air. In his mind’s eye, the undulating oceans of featureless prairie telescope into infinity and he feels himself being sucked into the loamy farmlands, pinned to the cornfields and staring impotently up into the endless night sky. So instead he buys a ticket on the red-eye to Boise, jamming himself into a corner of the airtram behind an elderly woman who smells of peppermints and rosewater, and a young, bucolic couple with a sleeping toddler drooling a dark, damp patch on the woman’s shoulder. Kirk pillows his arm against the window, pulling his overcoat tightly around his dress golds to shield them from curious eyes, and manages to snatch forty-five minutes of fractured sleep.

 

It’s still dark when the tram’s sudden descent shocks him out of a twilight daze halfway between oblivion and drowsy wakefulness, and he blunders into consciousness with a sickly lurch. The moon always seems three times bigger in the Idaho sky, and it casts a milky shimmer over the thick winter snows that cover the Rockies. Like a tumbling waterfall of white, they drift down the mountains and over the city itself, hanging in the trees and on the rooftops and, this early in the day, in pristine sheaths on the sidewalks, glowing pools of orangey-yellow beneath the streetlamps.

 

The frigid air hits him like a wall of ice as the doors hiss open, and Kirk suddenly realizes that he’s scarcely dressed for a Californian mid-winter, let alone the glacial grip of Idaho in January. He burrows into his coat as the frozen wind sneaks through his cuffs and his collar, and crosses the concourse to the soundproof booths, where he flips open his communicator with fingers that have turned a worrying shade of lilac.

 

It’s 0230 hours on a Thursday morning. He’s expecting an answering service, or at the very least a lack of response. So it’s something of a shock when Admiral Ciana answers with a sleepy, “Yuh. Kirk. What can I do for you?”

 

He hesitates. “Admiral - my apologies. I was planning to leave a message.”

 

“Well, you got me. What’s on your mind, Captain?”

 

Now, there’s a question she doesn’t want an answer to. He says, “I… it seems a little foolish, now that I’m talking to you, ma’am. It could have waited until morning.”

 

“I think you’ll find it is morning,” she says, and he can hear a smile trickling through the fatigue. “Don’t worry about it, Kirk. I was awake anyway. You might as well just spit it out.”

 

“I was just… It was a courtesy call, ma’am. To let you know I’ve taken the leave you offered. I’m in Idaho now.”

 

She laughs softly. “Didn’t waste much time, huh? Did we spook you that bad?”

 

“No, ma’am,” he answers automatically. But he can’t think how to finish the sentence in a way that doesn’t contradict himself, and doesn’t mention Spock.

 

There’s a pause, during which she’s clearly waiting for him to speak. Then she says, “I think that’s a good idea, Kirk. I do. This is… it’s gonna take some getting used to, I get that.” A beat. “You know, for what it’s worth, I really am looking forward to working with you. I’ll see you Monday morning, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

 

“Thank you, ma’am.”

 

“Now, for God’s sake, go get some rest. You think I don’t know you’re running seven hours ahead of us? No - wait. Mountain Time, right? So you lost another hour. Sleep - that’s an order, Kirk.”

 

He grins. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Don’t ‘yes, ma’am’ me with a tone that says you’re planning on ignoring me,” she says, but he can hear her answering smile.

 

“No, ma’am,” he says.

 

 

~*~

 

He rents a car from an all-night place he remembers from a trip he took with Sam during Spring Break his second year at the Academy, and sprawls on the tattered leatherette seats as it carries him into the belly of the mountains. The sky above sparkles with the effervescent sheen of a frozen winter’s night, and, as he glides out of the haze of city light, it’s possible to pick out the relentless glint of industry in the dark vaults above: a beacon flash from the orbital dockyards, a silvery streak against the black depths, a sudden flare as distant metal catches the trailing starlight. Kirk trains his eyes earthwards and watches the play of shadows on snowy branches instead.

 

The farm was his uncle’s, before he moved offworld, and, when he died, it passed to Kirk’s father. Kirk remembers him only vaguely as an indistinct shock of brownish hair, an easy laugh, and a ready supply of the kind of candy that forever captures the hearts of small boys; in his mind’s eye, his uncle has become the house he left them. It’s more tangible than the man himself. When his parents are on Earth, they spend their weekends here, and, during their long absences, a woman comes up from the local village to air the place and to keep the pipes from freezing. So it’s chilled but not derelict when he opens the door: the damp scent of snow fills the cavernous main room, but there’s ashes from a recent fire in the grating, the drapes are drawn, and the environmental controls spring to life at a single, spoken command. They stutter once - it’s the middle of nowhere, after all - but bounce back online, and Kirk can feel the air begin to defrost around him, tugging the perfume of warming wood from the walls.

 

He grabs a synthesized mug of coffee in the kitchen, and hoists his bag over one shoulder as he climbs the narrow staircase. The back of his eyes has begun to hum a keening, background ache that gouges little tendrils of pain when he glances to either side, and his muscles feel stringy and elastic with fatigue. Dawn comes late in the midwinter mountains and the sun is still buried behind the looming rocky crags; he ought to take his CO’s advice and scrape a little downtime out of what’s left of the night. The cloistered air of his bedroom has heated more quickly than the open, communal spaces below and it blasts a soporific lullaby as he opens the door to find the lights on low and a lavender-scented comforter, hand-stitched and fraying with age, cast across the wide bunk.

 

Kirk switches off his communicator, kicks off his boots, and climbs, fully-clothed, beneath the sheets.

 

 

~*~

 

He doesn’t dream. At least, not that night.

 

Rather, his body plunges him into a syrupy black coma that freezes him in place until it has taken what it needs, and then it wakes him up with a grumbling stomach and an electric jolt of poorly-defined panic. Thin, white sunlight curls around the edges of the drapes - floral; he can’t imagine whose choice they might have been in a family of men headed by a matriarch with decidedly un-floral leanings - and the bedclothes are barely disturbed around him. Kirk sits up, slowly, and the creaking protest along every inch of muscle confirms his suspicion that he’s scarcely moved in - he glances at the chronometer - eleven hours. Eleven hours? It’s been a long time since he’s had the opportunity to just sleep until he’s done with sleeping. The angry ache beneath his ribs gives a violent twist.

 

He hasn’t washed in over thirty-six hours; hasn’t eaten in nearly twenty-four, aside from canapes fashioned from four parts air to one part cobweb, or ingredients of similar nutritional value. There’s no food in the kitchen, but the synthesizer’s programming is attuned to the Kirk family’s collective palate and there’s no CMO here to bellyache about red meats and saturated fats and cholesterol, so he orders up a stack of silver dollar pancakes with syrup, hash browns and bacon, and a pot of hot coffee to replace the frigid mug sitting untouched by his bedside. While the aged machine has a think about how to do that, and in what order these things ought to be produced, Kirk takes himself off to the shower and washes the memory of space out of his hair and off of his skin in a steady jet of steaming water that’s just the right side of scalding.

 

There are things that need to be done. There is a protocol for returning home after a long period of absence, punctuated by brief, infrequent calls on the shaky subspace lines reserved for personal communications. The last time he saw his parents was in the medical examiner’s office on Starbase 12, where they met the Enterprise to take custody of their grandson and the bodies of their eldest son and his wife; the last time he spoke to his mother was easily six months ago, maybe more. He’s been gone for five years, but he hasn’t disappeared from the historical record: there are friends with whom he ought to reconnect, places where he ought to show his face, familial expectations that must be met. The thought of these things sends a fresh wave of fatigue crashing through his endocrine system, and he buries it with coffee as he gazes idly out of the picture window and into the near horizon.

 

He’s not prepared for the memories that assault him from every corner of his recollection, with every footstep and every glance and every unguarded moment. He ought to be safe from them here, and yet the Human brain is subtle and recondite, and it finds prompts in the least likely cues. The shade of refracted light off a crystal decanter sparks a thought-ricochet that spirals relentlessly into a quiet evening in his quarters between missions: Bones and Kirk and a bottle of decent brandy, and the warm rush of pleasure that follows Spock’s unexpected arrival. The faintest trace of ozone on the sharp winter air and he’s suddenly back in the bowels of the Enterprise, crawling through a Jeffries tube behind an agitated Scotsman and tailed by a Vulcan whose copious intellectual gifts incorporate a savant-like ability to calculate probabilities of success and failure, and absolutely no grasp whatsoever of when it’s appropriate to communicate these things to his colleagues. Even the chatter of winter birdsong outside the windows throws him headlong into recollections of a dozen, two dozen planets where the air was similar, the plant life familiar, and the sunlight fell in the same spectrum - and yet subtly, exquisitely different, enough to keep the fires of discovery burning in his belly. His old life is everywhere, trailing him like a restless ghost. He wonders if this is how it’s going to be, now.

 

So he throws himself into physical labor in an effort to settle the uneasy shadows in his mind. There is a small pile of wood by the fireplace and a larger stack under a tarpaulin in the woodshed, but winter is long in the Rockies, and one thing that will always be necessary is firewood. And there’s an instant, gratifying catharsis in swinging an ax and shattering pieces of trees: it’s the kind of mindless, repetitive activity that shuts down exterior thought and allows him to exist only in this moment. Snow litters the ground around him, curling damp tendrils of cold through the soles of his Starfleet-issue boots and pooling a trailing seam of meltwater up the leg of his jeans, but he quickly works up enough of a sweat to throw off his jacket, then roll up his sleeves. Swing and crack - splinters of wood exploding as the ax falls, shattering the log as it strikes. Swing and crack - frustration riding a tidal wave of kinetic energy along his arms, discharging in a blaze of focused destruction. Swing and crack - a myriad poisonous little hurts erupting, fracturing, purging. Swing and crack. Swing and crack. Swing and crack.

 

When the early evening wraps fingers of nebulous gloom around the yard, Kirk tosses the ax to one side, grabs a handful of snow-scented, chilled kindling, and carries it indoors to the fireplace. His shoulders flare burning streaks of pain down his back and arms, and his hands are raw and scoured beneath his heavy gloves, but the dull weight of fatigue has settled into his skull, clouding out the turbulent buzz of disquiet. He scrapes the ashes from the grate and builds a stack of tinder and narrow shards of firewood, pinned in place with dry logs from the hearth, and leaves it to catch while he showers off the afternoon’s exertions. When he pads back into the darkened room, it’s bathed only in the warm yellow glow of the flickering firelight, shadows skulking on the edges of the den and dancing up the walls. He pours a drink from the liquor cabinet - Kirk’s penchant for fine whiskies is his father’s genetic legacy, and the decanters are always well-stocked - and carries it with him to the fireside without bothering to turn on the lights. This is one of the simple pleasures in life: to sit in front of a healthy blaze fashioned from one’s own exertions, and for a moment he allows his eyes to unfocus as they settle on the coruscating flames.

 

Spock.

 

It ambushes him out of nowhere, startling but not unexpected. Not really. The knowledge that he’s been waiting for the word to verbalize itself in the savage quiet is quickly followed by a perverse sort of relief, as though the struggle to contain it is more difficult, in the final analysis, than simply letting it happen. Unleashed, memories charge at him in a rush of words and voices: warm glances from the science console; the pleasure of an unexpected brush of long fingers against his arm; the glint of quiet triumph as his First moves his knight into the killing position against the Captain’s king. He remembers pacing in Spock’s quarters in the hours after they warped away from Neural, arguing with him about his decision to arm Tyree’s people against the men of Apella’s village and their Klingon weapons. Arguing at him, rather; Spock was still weak from his injuries and sat quietly at his desk, hands steepled in front of him, pretending he wasn’t exhausted or exasperated, while Kirk raged out his ambivalence in restless movement and unfocused anger.

 

Jim, he said at last, is this an attempt to convince me? Or yourself?

 

This was long before The Sneeze, of course. Long before that hopeless hunger had burrowed into Kirk’s gut and started the process of unravelling the rare and unanticipated intimacy between them. Long before a series of poor decisions led to precipitous actions that led to him turning over his shoulder into a sea of unfamiliar faces to scan for the one that mattered, and finding he’d left before they could say goodbye.

 

Kirk is not a man to waste time on regrets. There is so much that he would have done differently, had he only had the foresight to understand where this would inexorably lead, but self-reproach is pointless now. What he remembers instead is that those quiet words, spoken softly but with that presence Spock has when something is important to him, softened the edges of Kirk’s private register of remorse and moved them past the Captain’s impotent anger at the way things sometimes are. And they segued into gentler things, reminiscences of Lieutenant Kirk’s first sojourn amongst the hill people, and the winters there that reminded him of Idaho, a place that Spock had never visited.

 

I’ll make you a deal, Commander, said Kirk, and grinned. Keep me alive for the next three years, and I’ll show you the Rockies when we get back to Earth.

 

And of course Spock protested that he needed no vacationary incentive in order to perform his duty to the best of his ability, of course he did; it was part of the dance and part of the reason Kirk suggested it in the first place. It was an opening into that place they inhabited when the conversation flowed easily between them, and it was still a new place, and it hadn’t lost any of the sheen of novelty or the visceral thrill of amazement.

 

Kirk wonders now if he meant what he said, and suspects that he did. It’s easy to mean these things, though, when there’s never much chance of the favor ever being called, but that’s not it. Or not all of it, at least. Part of him wanted, even then, to bring his friend to this place, if only for the light that he gets in his eyes when he’s trying to pretend that Vulcans don’t waste time getting excited about aesthetic beauty. The Sneeze was when Kirk realized what he felt, but it must have been building even then.

 

The memory swims before his mind’s eye in the flickering firelight; becomes a pale face beneath a trellis of roses under the milky light of T’Khut, becomes a sudden spike of electricity in the air, then and now. It becomes the taste of copper and spice, of cool flesh pressed up against Kirk’s. Becomes fingers grabbing fistfuls of his hair and an urgent tongue twisting in his mouth, becomes an insistent hardness writhing against his own.

 

In the semi-darkness, Kirk reaches beneath his robe and curls one hand around himself, as images of Spock hover behind his closed eyes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Despite the admiralty’s jocular warnings about the unpredictability of life in Operations and Tactical Command, core hours are weekdays, 0800 to 1800, and Kirk hasn’t had a Monday-to-Friday job in… actually, he’s never had a Monday-to-Friday job. Shift patterns have occasionally fallen that way, but never on purpose. It feels… wrong, as though he’s trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.

 

His new department is housed in the Bozeman Center, which curls in a lazy arc around the shores of Horseshoe Bay, under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Mist curls from the iron-gray waters, frosting the restless waves and climbing up the gentle slopes, shimmering in the weak morning sun and tangling around the dress-uniformed legs of a Commodore-in-waiting who’s been absent just long enough to get utterly lost in the grounds of HQ. His new assignment badge is unfamiliar on his chest and keeps catching his eye unexpectedly, distracting him as he searches for his bearings, and in the end he startles a couple of passing cadets by barking an unnecessarily terse request for directions to an office that turns out to be located fifteen feet from where he’s standing.

 

Not the most auspicious of starts, but it could be worse. Half a dozen memories bubble unbidden to the surface, chased by a merciless, Do you remember the time…? and for a moment, it’s as though Spock is standing beside him; he can almost feel him there, and the sentence finishes itself: do you remember the time we made First Contact on Gliese 581g and we got lost in the ceremonial Hall of Tunnels because their welcoming party assumed we’d be able to see in the dark too? And he can see the quirked eyebrow and the gradual softening of features that signifies great amusement, tightly reigned, and he can hear the loaded, expressive, Indeed, punctuating a pause just long enough to imply a thousand censored thoughts. And he can see himself turn into that emotionally ambiguous scrutiny, grin spread wide; he can feel his chest expand with the intake of breath that carries the opening salvo in a companionable war of words, that leads to the complicated semantic dance which summons that very specific rush of joy to his chest, and the warmth, and the contentment…

 

Kirk shakes his head once, briskly, and the image fragments, scattering on the persistent breeze. He clears his throat and bends into the retinal scanner.

 

Xenorelations is a sprawling suite of offices on the first floor of the complex, centered around a large central cubicle farm in which a series of floor-to-ceiling computer screens scroll constant streams of operational updates. It’s barely 0745, but already the main room is alive with frenetic, noisy industry. Yeomen crisscross the floor carrying bundles of PADDs or speaking animatedly into communicators; comscreens buzz a squalling background chatter from all corners of the galaxy in a bewildering variety of dialects; newsholos blare from the distant corners of the room; enlisted officers and NCOs bark barely-intelligible commands into terminals; and in the center of it, in front of the leviathan screens and framed by an ethereal halo of electric light, stands Admiral Ciana, scanning a PADD with an expression of focused concentration, while three separate Lieutenant Commanders have conversations at her.

 

Even in the midst of complicated, destructive chaos, with Ensigns yelling status updates over a general calamitous rattle of panic and confusion, some corner of Kirk’s mind that was apparently designed for this specific purpose keeps - kept - a tally of who’s on his bridge. It’s an instinct, a sense that tells him who is where, what skills they have, and how quickly they can be pressed into urgent duty wherever they’re needed. It also tells him when someone else arrives, so that he can perform the complex command arithmetic that moves a newcomer to where they need to be, or, alternatively, so that he can draw his phaser and shoot before any of his crew get attacked. Ciana has at least four different centers of attention right now - and those are the ones that he can see - but when Kirk moves into the lobby and folds his hands behind his back, she glances up and nods, and holds up a hand to let him know that she’ll be with him shortly. This is when he knows that he can work with her.

 

Xenoanthropology is unquestionably a vital component of Starfleet diplomacy, says Spock’s voice out of nowhere, spiking through his memories from a half-forgotten conversation that happened six weeks into Kirk’s command, when each day was still a battle of psychological attrition. Without study, there can be no understanding, and without understanding, there can be no accord. A significant pause, during which the Captain considered the merits versus repercussions of attempting to strangle a Vulcan. It is, however, a particularly Human trait to consider everything that is not Human “alien”.

 

It stung at the time, because he was right, he knew he was right, and he knew that Kirk knew it too. And quite apart from the fact that there is a very specific and pernicious kind of sickly fury associated with the knowledge that one’s nemesis has achieved and currently holds the moral high-ground, it stung because it was indicative of the circumstances on board his ship, and it was not the way Kirk wanted things to be. Enterprise was a Federation starship staffed almost exclusively by one race, and their token nod towards galactic diversity was struggling to hold his own in the face of a tidal wave of antipathy at best, resentment at worst. So the First Officer didn’t exactly make it easy to like him. So the Captain himself wasn’t precisely the face of Human-Vulcan shipboard harmony in those early days. The fact was that nobody was bending over backwards to panic about the intercultural disconnect, nobody found it unworthy of a ship whose mission was the establishment of friendly relations between the Federation and civilizations unknown; it hadn’t even occurred to the powers that be to consider it an anomalous state of affairs. And it wasn’t the way the Captain wanted things to be.

 

Kirk glances around the room as he waits. He counts four Andorians of various ranks; several Tellarites; a handful of Rigelians; and, twisting the angry ache against his ribs again, a Vulcan Commander, who steps out of one of the ring of offices surrounding the central atrium and disappears into the morass. He wonders absently how they’ve processed the Xeno part of the department in which they work.

 

“Kirk!” says Ciana cheerfully, snapping him out of his reverie as she strides towards him with a wide, open smile. She’s small - a head shorter than Chekov, he guesses - but she moves with an assurance that camouflages her slight stature. At the press conference, she seemed to fill the space around her with a kind of luminescent energy, and the same radiance follows her now: an aura of easy confidence that knocks her relative fragility so far down the list of things that anyone is likely to notice about her that it disappears over the horizon and into the vanishing point. He’s known women like her before, and they were precisely the sort of person you don’t want to cross, because they have assimilated their disadvantages under a general rubric of ruthless self-awareness, and have generally learned at least eight different ways to separate an attacker from his favorite body parts before he notices he’s been hit.

 

He wishes he could remember where he’s supposed to have met her.

 

Kirk meets her handshake and finds it unexpectedly firm, and she reaches up with her left hand to give his shoulder a companionable slap that’s oddly disconcerting. “Welcome,” she says. “Let me show you your office. You’ll like it - it’s got a view to die for, right out over the bay.” She’s talking as she walks, words thrown back over her shoulder as she dodges the throngs of bodies with practiced ease, and he finds himself falling into step behind her before he’s aware that he’s moving. He feels rather than sees the covert glances of the displaced multitudes as he follows in her wake, like a shuttlecraft caught in a tractor beam, and he studiously ignores them. “Can’t see much on a day like this, of course, but when the fog clears, it’s something else,” she’s saying. “Guy who had the office before you used to say it’d focus his mind when he needed to get a bunch of ideas straight - just staring out at the waves, letting everything settle. Tried it myself a couple times; all I saw was a bunch of water and some boats. To each their own, I guess. But it sure does take your breath away when the light’s right. How was Idaho?”

 

He blinks, caught off-guard by the abrupt subject-change as she steps up to a door that, he cannot help but notice, has carefully omitted any mention of its occupant’s rank from the title plaque. At a press of her hand, it slides open onto the room that will be his. “Fine, thank you,” he says.

 

She gestures him inside. “You have family out that way?”

 

“No, ma’am,” he says, and smiles tightly.

 

Kirk steps through the door, into air that’s stale with several weeks’ vacancy: that particular mix of someone else’s smell, a lingering odor of cleaning products and air conditioning, and the musty scent of disuse. The lights snap on as the controls register their presence, and their glow falls on a utilitarian blend of desk, static terminal, a couple of chairs, and a small sofa. Three of the walls are painted in hardy, military grays, without ornament or personality, and the fourth is entirely windowed, facing out across the choppy waters of the bay. As Kirk’s eyes catalog the space, Ciana crosses briskly to the glass, snapping a command that causes the darkened pane to de-shade and reveal its January panorama of windswept slate and steel. The sun is low on the horizon, struggling through the clouds and casting them in watery pinks, and the wintry sky huddles close to the hazy outline of the city, threatening rain. Perhaps it will be a view worth seeing when the summer raises a yellow Californian sun above the peninsula and paints the sea in all the rich shades of azure he remembers from his Academy days, but for now all he can think about is the fact that his former office had a view, too, and it knocked seven bells out of this one.

 

He crosses to the desk and lays a hand on its surface, as still and untrembling as an object not subject to the vibrations of a ship at warp speed. It’s cold beneath his skin and utterly alien, and Kirk tries to remember if he felt similarly transplanted the first time he set foot in his Captain’s quarters. But his insubordinate brain, so quick to cast up unexpected images from his past at the faintest hint of a familiar smell or the syntax of a half-remembered conversation, refuses to supply an answer to that question. And it’s only when the door slides softly shut behind him, cocooning them in sudden silence, that he realizes that Ciana is waiting for him to speak, and that the break in conversation has lingered too long to pass off as natural.

 

She’s not stupid, nor is she obtuse. He’s practiced at hiding his thoughts behind a diplomat’s mask, but she’s played the game for many years, and reading people is part of her job. As he blanks his face and turns into her scrutiny, he realizes abruptly that she’s good enough at this that she’s not going to break the ponderous hush until he does.

 

So he strings a smile across his lower face and says, “Thank you, ma’am. It’s certainly an improvement on my last office at HQ.”

 

Ciana’s arms are folded in front of her chest and her face is drawn in quiet contemplation as she watches him. “That’d be back when you were a cadet, right?” she says.

 

He raises his eyebrows, drops them again in partial surrender. “That’s right,” he says. He tries the smile again. “I believe it was a five by eight drywall cubicle. In the library basement.”

 

“Ha,” she says. “Yeah. I remember those.”

 

A beat: perfect, expectant silence. Bones would love this woman. Kirk says, “Well. I look forward to enjoying the view over the water as the seasons change.”

 

The corners of her mouth twitch upwards into a faint smile, and he has the disarming sensation that she’s come to some sort of conclusion, and that it might be a little more accurate than he would necessarily prefer.

 

“Yeah,” she says. “Okay.” Another small pause, too brief to analyze and too long to be accidental. Then she says, “Okay, I’ll leave you to get your bearings, Captain. Introductions can wait.” She waves a hand at his desk. “There’s briefing notes on your terminal - take your time, read them through. I got meetings all morning but come see me at 1100 hours, we can talk some more.”

 

Kirk nods. “Thank you, ma’am,” he says.

 

She purses her lips, drops her eyes to the floor before lifting them abruptly to fix him with an unreadable stare. “You’re gonna be damn good at this job, Captain Kirk,” she says quietly. “I fought hard to get you. It’s not…” She trails off, takes a breath. “It’s not starship command. But it means something. It’s important, what we do here. And it’s challenging, and it’s good work.”

 

He can hear the defensiveness in her tone and realizes, belatedly, that he’s pitched his approach all wrong. Eighty percent of the admiralty would have seen the mask and left it there. He’s not used to dealing with the other twenty.

 

Kirk says, “Ma’am - if I’ve given you the impression that…”

 

“No,” she says quickly. “You haven’t. You’re old school, Kirk - you have that smile, that work ethic. That commitment. ‘Fleet comes first.” A grin suddenly blazes across her face, like the ignition of a small star in the washed out, watery morning gloom. “But mostly that smile.”

 

The grin is infectious; he can’t help but return it. But beneath it, her eyes are serious and he wonders if, maybe, she really does understand. He says, again, “Thank you, ma’am.”

 

Ciana shrugs. “I call it as I see it. You’re gonna be damn good at this, Kirk. Your insights, your experience? I have half a dozen projects sitting on my desk right now that I want to get your take on. This First Contact on 42 Draconis b, I think there are lessons to be learned from your experience with the Cheronites. And your crew has had closer contact with the Tholians than anyone else in the fleet. I can use that knowledge, Kirk. We need someone like you.”

 

She’s right. He’s been saying something similar for well over a decade now. He just didn’t think it would be him.

 

But he says, “I’ll be glad to do what I can.”

 

Her smile remains, but her eyes are sharp and they are relentless. She nods. “Good,” she says. A beat. Then she says again, “Good. Okay. I’ll leave you to read, Captain.” She nods a dismissal and turns to leave, but at the door, she hesitates.

 

“Kirk…” she says slowly, and the tone is that familiar blend of nonchalance and innocence that always precedes unwelcome news. “This is… I get that you hate these things. I do. But you had to have known there’d be publicity, right?”

 

Publicity. She means more publicity. He schools his expression and his voice, and he says, “I’d hoped to avoid it, but yes.”

 

“Brass are planning a ceremony. Kind of a welcome back for you and your crew.”

 

“A ticker tape parade,” he says flatly, and she huffs a quiet laugh.

 

“Nothing like that,” she says. “Promotions, honors, that kind of thing. Speeches. Cameras. You know, handshakes and backslaps. For everyone this time, not just you and Commander Spock.” A beat. “The whole crew.”

 

It’s never the whole crew, he knows from experience: four hundred people just don’t fit neatly onto a dais, and the public hunger isn’t for the chefs and the janitors and the warp mechanics, the people who actually make the whole damn thing logistically possible. But she’s never served on a starship. She doesn’t know how these things work.

 

So he says, “I’d recommended some of my senior staff for promotion…”

 

“Yeah, I don’t know.” She shakes her head. “That’s not my purview. But I’d be surprised if they weren’t ratified. Commander Spock…?”

 

“He doesn’t want a captaincy.”

 

“He doesn’t?” She raises her eyebrows. “Huh.”

 

The air of barely-concealed consternation irritates him suddenly, and, to cover it, he says, “I’ll be glad to take part in whatever the admiralty have planned.”

 

“I think it’ll be a good thing,” she says, and Kirk’s brain fills in the rest of the sentence: it’ll be a good way to say goodbye.

 

Unconsciously, his hand reaches up to touch his new assignment badge, and the unfamiliar contours drag him back into the moment. He says, “Any word on when it will be?”

 

“Soon,” she says. “You know, these things turn into a logistical nightmare; half the senior crew’s reassigned already, they have to get everyone back together again, not everyone can get back to HQ… Your Yeoman will schedule it for you. I just… wanted you to have a heads up.”

 

He purses his lips, flexes his hands. “I appreciate that, ma’am.”

 

“Okay.” She takes a breath. “I’ll leave you to settle in. Any problems, Lieutenant Brz’nk is the woman to ask - she knows these systems inside out.” The door swishes open and the wall of sound rushes through the gap. She grins. “Good to have you on board, Kirk.”

 

And then she’s gone. The silence closes in.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Silence, it turns out, is something you have to practice. It’s like downtime, in that respect.

 

It’s not until he finds himself with armfuls of free time that he realizes that he hasn’t had any for the past five years. Off-duty time is not the same. In point of fact, there is no “off duty” on a starship, especially not for the Captain: a stolen hour at the chessboard or sharing a drink or curled around a book is just that - stolen. It’s precious because it can be snatched back at a second’s notice, no matter where you are or what you’re in the middle of. A gamma radiation burst doesn’t wait for you to wake up before it takes the aft shields offline and irradiates the left nacelle. Romulan Birds of Prey don’t check your schedule to find out if it’s convenient to mount an attack. Hostile alien parasites can and do send 70 percent of the crew to sickbay just as you’re about to sit down to your first meal in 36 hours. There are an almost infinite number of ways to die in deep space, and, on any given day, two dozen of them will try to happen. If you’re lucky, they’ll happen when you’re looking. Mostly, they wait until you relax.

 

Nor has he been alone, not really, since he took command. He could go to his quarters and shut the door, but, as often as not, there’d be a knock on it in an hour or so: Bones making sure he wasn’t still working, Scotty with a new bottle of Scotch, Spock with some spurious query masquerading as work but transparently an effort to indulge in the science of camaraderie. Even at night, settling into sleep, there was the constant hum of the ship to remind him that she was there, the sound of voices, footsteps in corridors, continuous motion. It wasn’t so much the sensation of constant companionship - that, he suspects, might have been cloying and invasive. It was more the sense that he existed in a nexus of collegiality, that there was always someone there if someone were ever needed. He hasn’t been a stranger in a strange place for a long, long time.

 

He falls asleep the first night to the distant sounds of city life, but it’s not the same. He feels no sense of connection to the far-off voices or to the traffic hum; he has no investment in any of it. On the second night, he cracks open a bottle of some expensive, exotic liqueur with a name he can barely read, let alone pronounce, for the simple fact that these things are available on Earth, as they are not in deep space. He carries it to the spreading window of his flag officer-grade apartment - an apartment, no less, when all he needed or wanted was a room in which to exist until they give him back his ship - and cradles it against his chest as the low winter sun sinks behind the Marin Headlands. He stands like this for hours, in silence, lost in thought.

 

In the mornings, he rises in the pre-dawn gray while the city sleeps around him, and makes his way across the Bridge in the wintry gloom. Sunrise lingers on the edge of the horizon, trailing long, chilly shadows from the hills above as he arrives at the Horseshoe Bay complex, where Ciana greets him with a smile that’s a little too knowing for comfort. But the work is good; she wasn’t lying when she said that it was both important and challenging. It takes a retuning of the circuitry of his brain that, he suspects, will be many months in truly establishing itself, but it’s as close to exploring the boundaries of Federation space as he’s likely to get while he’s earthbound, and it is, after all, about time that someone was in charge of doing this right. There are, at any given moment, anywhere between fifty and two hundred likely-looking, inhabited systems in the Federal database that no-one’s visited, and there are a staggering number of things that have to be considered before targeting any one of them for First Contact. It’s very much like a game of chess - a question of moving resources into the right places to ensure that your queen advances, but that there’s always a rook to back her up. It’s about thinking twelve moves ahead; about the endgame and the most direct path through the labyrinth of maneuver and counter-maneuver. A binary system in Hydra has a pre-warp civilization that appears to be doing interesting things with temporal manipulation, if the tachyon emissions are to be believed, but it’s close enough to the Romulan Neutral Zone that now might not be the time to drop in and say hi. There’s at least one planet in 16 Cygni B that everyone’s very excited about, and another two in 55 Cancri, but the former appears to be politically unstable, and there’s reason to think that the latter system is not especially keen to welcome newcomers. It’s all about pieces on an infinite chessboard: starships patrolling the edges of charted space, worlds that may or may not be ready for new friends, resources just begging to be tapped, history waiting to be made. On his recommendation, distant ships will set their course-headings, distant Captains will plan their opening words of welcome, distant protocols will be invoked. This was always one of his favorite parts of commanding the Enterprise, it’s just that, now, he’s the one pulling the strings that make the puppet dance.

 

On the third night, he flicks idly through the stations on his holovid while the setting sun gradually draws the shadows from the walls and darkens the room around him. Skipping through the news channels, he catches his own name in a fragment of conversation and quickly switches it off, plunging the room into claustrophobic, sucking silence. Funny how, in his memory, San Francisco is always associated with the sound of birdsong. He lived here for three full years as a cadet, then on and off for over a decade; logically, there were long periods in which it wasn’t summer, so why does his brain insist of categorizing these current circumstances as wrong?

 

Funny how, when he was surrounded by a vacuum, the air seemed less empty.

 

Kirk works late on the fourth night. And on the fifth, sixth and seventh. He stops counting after that.

 

The confirmation of his Commodore’s stripes arrives on his terminal midway through his third week in Xenorelations, appended by a brief word of congratulations and a note to the effect that they’ll be presented to him at a short ceremony to commemorate the safe return of the USS Enterprise following her historic five-year mission. He stares at the screen for a moment or two and, on impulse, comms his Yeoman and asks her to pull contact details for Lieutenant Commander Decker, currently serving as First Officer on board the USS Hektor. Kirk rattles off a long-overdue communique, congratulating him on a promotion that’s already eight months old, and stutters over banalities while he tries to work out how to ask the question that’s digging claws of cold panic into his brain: How did your father convince the admiralty to let him have command of a starship after they’d promoted him to flag rank?

 

Ciana pokes her head around Kirk’s door as he’s discontentedly scanning through his seventeenth draft. This, too, is something to be assimilated into his worldview: he’s become entirely too accustomed to being the highest ranking officer in his working environment, and it’s not easy to get used to the fact that his time now belongs to someone else.

 

“Kirk,” she says, “Congratulations. I just heard.”

 

He makes himself smile. “Thank you, Admiral.”

 

“Well-deserved,” she says. “Listen, I gotta be on Luna for a few days, until this thing with the New Humans blows over, but when I get back, drinks are on me, okay?” His face must register a complete absence of enthusiasm, because she laughs and says, “This is a good thing, Kirk. It’s a promotion. It means you’re doing something they like. You know that, right?”

 

There is no way to make her understand. On the ground, there are no strings attached to advancement through the ranks. He says, “Yes, ma’am.” A beat. Something further is clearly expected. “I look forward to it.”

 

There’s a pause, just a shade too long, and when he looks up she’s watching him carefully with eyes that, as ever, miss very little. “Okay, good,” she says at last. “Maybe you can finally tell me some of those stories you don’t know how to tell.”

 

He laughs his diplomatic laugh. “I believe you’ll have to make that an order, ma’am.”

 

She laughs too, but carefully. “Maybe I will,” she says, and ducks back out into the fray.

 

 

~*~

 

 

That night, he comms his parents with the news, and is delighted to find them unavailable. Kirk leaves a message with a young Ensign in his father’s office, who is uncomfortably effusive in her approbation, then signs off and quietly sips on unpronounceable liquor until he falls asleep in his chair.

 

The following night he gives in.

 

Senior officers’ quarters are across a wide, tree-lined plaza to the back of his residential block, denuded of the ocean view afforded to the flag officers’ apartments, and accessed by a meandering lane that leads to the Presidio complex and onwards to Academy HQ. If he walks out his front door and stands in the corridor outside, he can look directly into the upper windows of the fourth and fifth blocks; he can practically see, in his mind’s eye, the view from the central courtyard that he knows from those interminable, planet-bound days before he took command. It’s scarcely any distance at all, compared to what it could have been - less than a mile at the widest point, and yet it might as well be half the galaxy for all he knows how to bridge the gap.

 

They didn’t say goodbye. Kirk has no idea what that means.

 

He rummages in his discarded uniform pants for his communicator and tosses it idly between his hands as he crosses back into the living area from the bedroom. The sun is setting again, streaking fiery crimson-orange across the bowl of the Pacific, and Luna skulks on the edges of the night sky, whispering of the worlds beyond. Kirk flips open the device and stares at it for a moment, as though it might lose patience with his procrastination and make the decision for him. He flips it shut.

 

It’s not as though you can just call someone up to ask, did I leave you, or did you leave me?, even if those words have no deeper meaning or significance. It’s not as though he has any clear idea of what to say or how to say it. It’s not as though they haven’t tried to make things right, and it just… hasn’t happened. The pain beneath his ribs twists savagely, flaring a white hot streak behind his eyes before it drops abruptly into its habitual dull, background ache.

 

Enough. He reaches for his communicator. But he dials Bones.

 

“Just so’s we’re clear,” says the gruff voice, without preamble, “I ain’t callin’ you Captain, or sir, or anythin’ similar while we’re grounded, Jim.”

 

“I think you’ll find,” says Kirk, “That it’s Commodore now, anyway, Bones.”

 

There’s a long silence. Kirk closes his eyes; this is what he needed. This reaction, right here. He needs someone else to understand.

 

“Huh,” says Bones. “That so, Jim?”

 

“You heard about this shindig they’re throwing for us all?”

 

“Heard a rumor,” he says, in a tone that says he’d been banking on it vanishing into the ether.

 

“No such luck,” says Kirk. “They’ll announce it publicly during the ceremony. But it’s effective immediately.”

 

“God damn,” snaps McCoy, with unexpected vitriol. A beat. Then: “What’s the hobgoblin got to say about all of this?”

 

“Spock?” says Kirk, unnecessarily. As if there might be another hobgoblin, let alone one who might be expected to have an opinion on Kirk’s promotion. “I don’t… Why?”

 

Why?” snaps Bones, and then there’s a sigh. “Dammit, Jim…”

 

Kirk’s not sure if he’s been caught out, and he’s not sure what, exactly, he might have been caught out at. So he says, carefully, “I could use a drink, Bones.”

 

“You and me both,” says McCoy wearily. “How ‘bout some of that liquor you never saw in my quarters?”

 

“That contraband that you’d never dream of smuggling on board my ship?”

 

“That one,” says Bones.

 

“If you’re in possession of an illegal substance, Dr. McCoy, I’m afraid I’m going to have to confiscate it.”

 

“Guess you might be needing my help with that, though.”

 

“I guess so.”

 

There’s a pause. But Bones has never been much good at his voodoo mind tricks when he can’t back them up with the stink eye, and he gives up after an abortive minute of waiting for Kirk to elaborate.

 

Instead, he says, “That mansion they got you in, Mr. Flag Officer - it got much of a view?”

 

Kirk glances out towards the shadowy spine of the Bridge, bisecting the rising moonlight on the choppy water as the Bay descends into twilight, and the louring headland beyond. “Some,” he says.

 

“Huh,” says Bones. “Can’t hardly see the opposite wall from my window. You hostin’?”

 

Kirk grins. “You bring the liquor, I’ll provide the scenery.”

 

“Guess I’ll see you in ten, then, Jim,” says Bones. “McCoy out.”

 

He’s gone. The silence rushes in again as the line closes, ringing in Kirk’s ears in the sudden absence of sound. He flips the communicator closed and tosses it onto his desk, knuckles his hands on the chill, imitation-wood surface, takes a breath, closes his eyes.

 

On the wall above his head, hiding in the shadows, a ship called Enterprize drifts in an eternal breeze.

 

Chapter Text

Spock has never liked the cold, but there is something about winter that appeals to him, and there are worse places to enjoy it than San Francisco. The air is crisp and clear when the clouds roll back: crystalline, that very specific, piercing clarity that is obscured by the heat of a desert planet. It smells clean, as though the sky itself has been scrubbed to a high shine.

 

This year’s cohort is like any other: ambitious, intelligent, and very young. There are the students whose promise is camouflaged by a crippling insecurity, and the students whose brilliance is all bluster and bravado. There are those for whom the work comes easily and those for whom each day is a patchwork of tiny victories; those who were born in the far reaches of the galaxy and those who have never left the Terran biosphere; those who are following a long line of adventurers and tacticians, and those who are following an undeniable lust for discovery. Some of them will have graduated by the time Enterprise shakes off her chains once more. He wonders if any of them will crew her.

 

He is used to being recognizable, set apart by difference or renown, and, if he’s never managed to reconcile himself to this fact, he has learned to expect it. It’s enough to erect some kind of shield against the naked staring and unwelcome familiarity that follows him like the wake of a ship. In each of his classes, there are cadets whose interest is not his knowledge, but Spock himself. Some of them are there because they want to be smarter than a man they’ve decided they know: as though the fact of his presence in the collective consciousness of the Federation irrefutably marks him as deficient; as though his current celebrity is indicative of artifice or error, and it’s their duty to demonstrate this. They are the easiest to deal with: an unblinking stare is effective in 98.7% of cases, and the remainder are generally undone by theoretical physics. More disturbing are their opposite species: those whose adulation and uninterrogated enthusiasm have led them to a kind of hero-worship that creates him as omniscient, apodictic, infallible. He has no idea what to do with these people; the stare has no noticeable effect beyond a furious blush and a lowering of the eyes. He regards them with faint horror, and thinks, if only you knew.

 

Elsewhere, he’s aware of a level of background hostility, and it is disconcerting at first, which surprises him. Hostility, after all, is nothing new: from a childhood spent between two cultures in which he does not belong, to an early adulthood spent consistently outmatching his peers in an academic institution with a long history of attracting the most gifted and the most ambitious, to a career that has described an unfailing upwards trajectory, even over men and women with several decades’ experience and game-playing on him, Spock has had ample opportunity to accustom himself to the animosity of his peers. There is nothing threatening about it - generally, their antipathy is barely even consciously considered; simply an instinctive reaction born of his gifts and his cultural disinclination to profess false modesty. But he finds himself uneasy in these first weeks of his new assignment, and it takes him a few days to understand why. The knowledge, when it comes, is not precisely welcome: it obliges a sharp, painful review of his final five years on the Enterprise, and the ferocious determination of her Captain that respect was to be mutual, all-encompassing, and indeterminate. It obliges him to reflect once more on the fact that they have been each other’s protectors for so long that Kirk’s presence, and his regard, have insinuated themselves into the fabric of Spock’s worldview, to the extent that their absence now - and the re-encroachment of the ambient antagonism that had haunted his former self - is discordant, jarring.

 

He drifts, apart, in a bubble of difference, separated from the Human faculty by a wall that used to be impermeable, and he finds, eventually, that he prefers this. He is not interested in entertaining ghosts of his old life, and the comparisons are always unfavorable. Occasionally, he will overhear fragmentary references that rattle his shields and spit him out of his comfortable detachment: a glancing comment about the Enterprise, thrown carelessly between two cadets passing in the corridor; a flash of holovid footage of their difficult arrival in the Centroplex; casual conversation in the staff canteen about Kirk, about their mission, about the Captain’s adventures in Xenorelations, about his face or his physique or his smile. On a long interstellar journey, the mind detaches during hours spent contemplating the unchanging starfield, and, starved for stimulation, any small discrepancy explodes into curiosity: a dust mote caught in the starlight; a stain on the console; a fraying thread on the cushion of the seat. So it is each time he hears the words James or Kirk: he is catapulted into vigilance, straining and hungry for information, and each time he has to hold himself back. Each time, he feels the words rise in his throat, clamoring for expression: How is he? Is he contented? Is he well?

 

It’s not hard to restrain himself, not once the initial thrill of desire has died. He does not know these people. And, in any case, this is the way it must be.

 

This is the way it must be.

 

The work is not challenging, but it is satisfactory. As a member of the Faculty of Sciences, he is automatically alloted lab space on a rolling schedule that, he quickly discovers, is not immune to the lure of celebrity when apportioning extra time to various supplicants; as a Professor of Astrometrics, he has access to the vast sensor processing array in the Marin County campus, through which scientific chatter flows from outposts and starships in every sector of the galaxy, and which, on any given day, is actually slightly more reliable than Starfleet subspace transmission protocols. His A7 classification recommends him to a series of top-level consultancy projects designed to streamline the Starfleet cortex: to corral and pacify roiling, tumbling rivers of data, to make their duotronic capacity match their ambitions. It’s not quasar-mapping or stellar gravimetrics, but it’s sufficient, and, if it’s not especially stimulating, neither is he bored. In the absence of any demands on his time beyond the pursuit and taming of knowledge, Spock decides that this is his chance to catch up on some of the more theoretical projects he’d sidelined on accepting promotion to First Officer seven years ago, and, on a good day, he is able to sublimate the discrepancy between then and now to a background haze of regret that can be easily walled away from conscious thought.

 

He thinks about the Enterprise often, but this is only to be expected.

 

In the evenings, he lights the asenoi as the sun disappears behind the horizon, and crouches, cross-legged, with his back to the window. As a younger man, he might have allowed the lengthening shadows outside his apartment to catch at his thoughts and pull them down into the twilight world of the trance, but years spent in the black wastes of space have broken the habit, and, besides: Eridanus may not be at its brightest in the Terran sky this early into the year, but he knows it’s there. So he arranges himself on the meditation mat so that his eyes fall on the blank wall of his quarters, or the flagstoned floor, or the hands folded in his lap, and he scrambles inside himself for peace.

 

This is the way it must be. Kaiidth.

 

Kaiidth.

 

This is the way it must be.

 

~*~

 

There are three other Vulcans on the Faculty: Saaral and T’Var in Warp Mechanics and Subspace Geometry respectively, and a quantum singularity physicist on secondment from the VSA. Mostly, they regard Spock with cool indifference, but faculty business occasionally creates situations from which neither party can extricate themselves without a serious breach of decorum. A joint early-morning lecture on relativistic conjunctions in warp particle transducers ought not to oblige either professor to engage in social niceties beyond greetings and parting salutations and, potentially, a request to pass the laser pointer, but serendipity has dictated that Spock’s next port of call is the Marin County observatory, while Saaral is due in the engineering bay simulator in the adjacent building. A communal airshuttle ride looms large in their joint future, and telepathic contact is not necessary to determine the precise moment that Saaral understands this; it is only fractions of a second after the realization hits Spock like a direct phaser-blast to his equilibrium.

 

He folds his hands behind his back. Saaral folds his in front. Spock realizes, with weary resignation, that the opening honors will necessarily fall to him, by virtue of the fact that he is almost certainly better at this than his counterpart. It’s either that or walk in silence to the airshuttle port, and stilted conversation is the lesser of two particularly malevolent evils. So he steels himself and goes for science; at least they have this in common.

 

“I found your application of H’Krzzk’s Dynamic Particulation theory most interesting, trensu,” he says as they fall into step together along an interminable corridor. “I believe the more promising students found your argument quite intriguing.”

 

Saaral inclines his head. “I had the opportunity to observe the formation of the matrix during an ion storm while I was aboard the Fai-tukh in Torektra T’dahsu,” he says. There is a long pause, punctuated by the soft, even fall of twin pairs of feet along the empty floor. Presently, he adds, as if as an afterthought, “Your explanation of the polarity of plasma residue in a destabilized warp field was no doubt most illuminating to those less experienced members of the group.”

 

The barb is subtle, and so smoothly delivered that Spock is not entirely certain it is intended to insult. In his mind’s eye, Kirk’s shadow bristles by his side, spits diplomatic vituperation in a lightning-flash of vicarious offense, but Spock simply acknowledges the faint praise with a nod, and says, “Our collaboration has been productive, then.”

 

They pass out of the Laikan Center, through a high, arched entryway that leads into a damp courtyard. On the other side of the heat-field, the chilled winter air envelopes them like rushing water and Saaral sinks deeper into his thermal cloak.

 

“You are cold, trensu?” says Spock.

 

Saaral regards him levelly. “Constantly,” he says.

 

Perhaps it’s the affronted shade of his Captain; perhaps it’s Amanda’s genetic legacy, which makes its presence known at the least opportune moments, but some buried mischief makes Spock stand a little taller and say, “I am given to understand that acclimatization to the Terran weather is challenging to those who are not accustomed to a cooler climate.”

 

“Indeed,” says Saaral. “I wonder that you would choose to return, trensu.”

 

“I go where I am assigned,” says Spock mildly.

 

A loaded silence twists his head to towards his companion, and he finds that Saaral has quirked a quizzical eyebrow. “It was my understanding that you were offered the opportunity to lead the gravomanipulation trials on the Delta-03 science station,” he says.

 

Spock meets the stare with equanimity and raises an eyebrow of his own. “I was not aware that it was within my capacity to influence the admiralty’s decisions in this matter,” he says.

 

“Indeed,” says Saaral, but it is a moment before he looks away.

 

Spock’s office is housed in the building to his left, up an impractical staircase that has all the traction of oil-slicked ice whenever the lightest of rainfalls dampens the soles of two dozen pairs of passing feet, and which is set into a glass atrium that sucks the limited heat out of the cavernous space on a dull February day. His dihydrogen conversion experiment is approaching completion, and Orbital Observation Station Epsilon Epsilon 74-C will achieve optimal alignment with the Megarthi system’s central antimatter singularity at 1107 hours, but the thought crosses his mind that these are, perhaps, points worth conceding in favor of escaping his colleague’s company for the immediate present.

 

So he says, “My apologies, trensu; I must return to my office momentarily.” It’s not a lie: he actually must, though it’s disingenuous to pretend that there’s anything waiting for him there that isn’t the conspicuous absence of Saaral. “I do not wish to delay your arrival at the simulation facilities.”

 

Saaral offeres a patrician nod. “Your consideration is appreciated, trensu,” he says, and Spock would almost swear that a shadow of manifest relief ghosts across his face. Spock raises a ta’al, and Saaral mirrors the gesture, before pulling his cloak a little tighter about himself and turning to leave. But he hesitates in the act of taking his first step.

 

“Ah,” he says. “I believe I have observed the source of your diversion.”

 

His diversion has an actual source? This is news to Spock. But he nods smoothly, as though he has expected some such statement from his companion, and follows his line of sight with interested eyes.

 

Ah.

 

~*~

 

McCoy has the beginnings of a beard, and it is presently stalled at that point between neglect of personal hygiene and patchy crops of bristly fuzz. Spock cannot imagine why the Doctor should choose to follow this path of personal grooming, but he has long since reconciled himself to the fact that many of McCoy’s decisions defy Vulcan comprehension, and so he elects to say nothing as his erstwhile colleague follows him along the corridor to Spock’s office, stroking unconsciously at his chin with a sound like rustling sandpaper. They have not spoken during the walk from the courtyard, beyond perfunctory greetings and McCoy’s acerbic, Got a minute?

 

Of course, said Spock, since there really weren’t many other options open to him at that point, though he suspects that this is an interview he would be better advised to avoid.

 

Spock unlocks the door and stands back to let the Doctor enter. It occurs to him that they’ve never really been alone on Spock’s territory before, and McCoy is awkward, uneasy, as though the same thought is heavy in his mind. He steps inside, eyes swooping up to take in the high ceilings; the bare desk pushed to one corner of the narrow room to allow for a meditation mat and an asenoi in the other; the rain-swept, uncurtained windows. On the back wall, Spock has hung a large IDIC that he’s had in storage for a number of years, waiting for such times as he might have space to display it again, but otherwise the room is unornamented.

 

He gestures to the single guest chair. “Please sit,” he says. He’s uncertain of the protocol, but something is clearly required. “Perhaps you would care for some tea?”

 

“Tea, huh?” says McCoy, and huffs an inexplicable laugh.

 

Perhaps not.

 

Spock moves around to his side of the desk and sits. McCoy follows his lead, pulling the spare seat back from the desk and lowering himself into it.

 

“Not gonna ask me why I’m here?” he says sourly.

 

“I assume you are preparing to tell me,” says Spock.

 

McCoy shakes his head. “Goddamn, but you’re one cold-blooded computer sometimes,” he says.

 

Even allowing for the Doctor’s typically circuitous conversational style, this seems incongruous. Spock waits a moment to see if an elaboration will be forthcoming. When it is apparent that it will not, he says, “I fail to see the connection.”

 

“I show up here outta nowhere, and you don’t even flinch,” says McCoy, with a familiar fire in his eyes. “Damn it, man, we’ve got one person in common in the whole damn universe, it doesn’t occur to you I might be here to tell you somethin’s happened to him? Maybe he’s lyin’ injured somewhere - or worse?”

 

A flash-flood of cold fear washes down Spock’s spine, but hot on its heels is the simple, illogical idea - insupportable, but no less insistent - that nothing has happened to Kirk. This is not possible. Spock would know.

 

He raises an eyebrow. “Is Captain Kirk unwell?” he says.

 

Commodore Kirk, you mean?” says McCoy. He shoots a sharp glare upwards, but turns it back down to his hands where they are folded in his lap, thumbs circling each other absently. He lets loose a long breath. “Well, that kinda depends on what you mean by ‘unwell’, doesn’t it,” he says. “Don’t know as I’ve ever seen him in this shape before, Spock.”

 

There’s a naked emotion behind the Doctor’s gruff words that Spock finds unsettling. Anger, he knows how to deal with. But this is not anger; at least, not solely anger.

 

He says, “But he is uninjured?”

 

“No, Spock, quit frettin’,” says McCoy, and Spock blinks to clear the dust from that conversational hair-pin turn. From cold-blooded computer to quit frettin’ in four sentences. This is a new record for the Doctor. “Guess you haven’t been talkin’ to him, then?” McCoy laughs humorlessly. “What am I sayin’, of course you haven’t been talkin’ to him. Two of you’ve got this whole stupid, stubborn pride goin’ on, and God forbid you should let that go, huh?”

 

Spock steeples his hands in front of him on the desk to buy himself a moment’s composure. He is certain that McCoy doesn’t know about the events on Vulcan, and he doesn’t believe that he has guessed, but the Doctor is very definitely not stupid, regardless of what Spock might imply in the course of their retaliatory verbal gymnastics. It doesn’t take a particularly incisive mind to see that Kirk has been… different… these past months, and a less gifted man than McCoy could infer that this is attributable, in some way, to Spock.

 

He says, “I am uncertain as to what you are suggesting, Doctor. Perhaps you could elaborate.”

 

McCoy sighs. “He’s… I don’t know, Spock.” A beat. “Truth is, I don’t know. Some lights, he’s the same old Jim Kirk; turn your head for a minute and… I don’t know. The heart’s gone out of him. And this goddamn promotion…”

 

They’ve put me in the Flag Officers’ quarters, says the Captain’s shadow. The words are steady but there is raw, unadulterated emotion behind the expressive eyes. At the time, Spock thinks it is sadness, but now, with the Doctor sitting, tangled in confusion and discomfort, across the desk from him, he wonders. Could it have been - fear?

 

“It has been ratified,” says Spock. It’s not a question. Neither he nor, he suspects, Kirk expected that the admiralty would fail to follow through. It’s only that… it’s a step further away from the way things used to be; a reminder that the past is a river, forever flowing out of reach.

 

“Yup,” says McCoy slowly. He hesitates. “If they take that ship away from him, Spock…”

 

Spock says, “There are precedents. As recently as Commodore Decker, Starfleet has conferred starship command on the lower flag ranks…”

 

“Yeah, and look how that turned out,” says McCoy bitterly. “Doesn’t exactly inspire you with confidence that they’re plannin’ to try it again, does it? Spock,” he says, and leans forward, “You know him ‘bout as well as any other body alive right now. You see him behind a desk for the rest of his days? What d’you think that’ll do to him?”

 

Spock can imagine all too well what it would do to Kirk, and a sharp spike of pain stabs his chest. Mercurial hazel eyes dulled by apathy, athletic mind left to stagnate, the fire of command stripped and banked and left to eat out the heart of the greatest man he knows…

 

“Spock,” says McCoy. “Our boy’s in trouble.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

The fact of the matter is that, in the days after they warped out of orbit around his homeworld, Spock wrestled with a black and pervasive misery the like of which he has never known. The taste of his Captain lingered in his mouth, the scent of him lingered in his nose, and arousal was his constant companion, boiling deep below the surface in a place that his shields could not entirely reach. Meditation eluded him completely and sleep, never a particularly Vulcan refuge in any case, was beyond contemplation. Instead, hollowed out by darkness, he walked the ship like an automaton, mechanically performing his duties as though he was controlled from afar, and every second of every day was a perpetual fight to slough off the memories that choked him.

 

You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting, he said once upon a time, in bitterness and disgust, to a man who thought he’d won something precious, and the words haunted him in those long and lonely days. Love, as it turns out, is one thing; it can be smothered and denied, sublimated to a persistent background ache, but it can be managed. Requited love, though, once abjured, is like a black hole in the center of one’s self; to turn away from love that is returned, to casually deny it and watch the flare of bewildered hurt in the eyes of the one person he would protect above all others, is an act so unnatural that for several days he believed that he might very well become lost inside himself with the effort it took to suppress the raging torrent of distress.

 

They spoke very little in those days, and every time, every single time their eyes met, he read the question in Kirk’s. Every time he was obliged to turn away, out of the glare of that sharp, burning sadness, and later, when the shadows had cleared enough to be able to function once again, Spock found that things were not as they had been. Time, perhaps, will patch over the cracks; time heals Human emotional wounds, and so, he suspects - he hopes - it will be for him. Time and distance are necessary, but the latter was unconscionable, even in those days when proximity was torture, and the former, it now appears, must be ceded as well.

 

He sits for a full four hours and 38 minutes on his meditation mat, staring resolutely into the flames of the asenoi as the city darkens behind him and Luna paints a silver-white window-square across the wall beyond, before he concedes defeat and allows his spine to slacken, his shoulders to slump forward, his head to loll towards his chest. He is worse than fatigued: he is exhausted, but the trance will not come. The firepot swirls heavy incense-smoke into the air of his narrow quarters in a manner that would certainly alarm the fire detection system, had it not been quietly reprogrammed by an A7 computer expert to ignore certain specific chemical compounds; the corridor beyond his doorway is quiet; the mat beneath his folded legs is neither too soft nor too hard; but still the trance will not come.

 

He stands and extinguishes the flames with a glass of water that hisses and pops on the superheated embers. His head aches and his muscles are tight from their hours of motionless contemplation as he crosses to the bed, lowers himself stiffly onto the comforter, and closes his eyes. It is not yet 2200 hours; perhaps sleep will find its own way to him if he lies quietly and runs through simple antimatter conversion equations. Perhaps a kohl-tor will materialize once he stops seeking it. Perhaps the darkness will soothe the ache behind his eyes.

 

V equals W cubed times C, where V equals Velocity, W equals Warp Speed and C equals the Speed of Light.

 

Energy In over Antiproton Mass equals C squared over H.

 

G equals one over the square root of one minus - parenthesis - V(E) over C - close parenthesis - squared…

 

But they’re too familiar, too banal: they’re not enough to prevent his his mind’s eye from idly sketching in a background figure in command golds, leaning carelessly against the railing that brackets off the upper tier of the bridge. A grin, two parts indulgence to one part provocation, lights his face as he prepares to make some comment about his Science Officer’s encyclopedic knowledge of warp core mechanics, and Spock turns over his shoulder into its radiant warmth, contentment coloring the air between them. The background chatter recedes, as it often does, and it’s just them in their private world of companionable badinage, hazel eyes glinting with poorly-concealed amusement and reflected pleasure. And surprise: always a little bit of surprise, because it should never have been this easy. It should never have been possible for them to find this place where they slot together like two missing pieces of a puzzle…

 

Enough. Spock opens his eyes and the image scatters into the shadows.

 

He rises, with difficulty, and crosses in darkness to his office area, where a series of earthenware tea canisters are meticulously arranged on a shelf above the synthesizer. He selects bar-kas and opens the lid, releasing tumbling clouds of sharp, sweet perfume onto the air, as the synthesizer gently announces the production of a steaming mug of hot water. This is not how it ought to be done, of course; there ought to be a fire at least, an urn buried in its depths and allowed to boil slowly over many hours, then ladled into a waiting strainer filled with freshly ground powder and served to the clan in descending order of age, but he’s one man, a long way from the planet of his birth, and he doesn’t have any of those things here. He has a synthesizer and an earthenware pot, and a fire alarm system that’s already on the lookout for any more funny business. Spock heaps a spoonful of the spice into the beaker and stirs: it’s close enough.

 

You can’t tell me you’re any damn happier than he is, said McCoy, and Spock quirked an eyebrow.

 

I do not recall making any such claim, he said.

 

You know what I mean.

 

But no, in point of fact, Spock is not sure that he does. Happiness seems to him to be a volatile quantity - a zero-sum binary that necessarily devolves into joy and not-joy. Happiness is precipitous, like a sine wave whose amplitude is always either above or below the gradient. Spock has experienced happiness only once, and its absence was like a blow to the gut once it was removed: contentment seems to be the more sensible aspiration, a steady, maintainable state of satisfaction with the world and one’s place in it. He considered explaining this to McCoy, and decided that the inevitable argument wasn’t worth the effort. The Captain would understand.

 

The Captain did understand. For the first time in my life, I was happy, said Spock as they broke orbit around Omicron Ceti 3, and Kirk was very quiet for long moments after that, thoughtful eyes fixed on his First. McCoy broke the silence in the end with an irascible comment about grinning hobgoblins that provoked the anticipated response from his CO, and business as usual resumed with a convulsive jerk, but Spock was not surprised, later that evening, when the buzzer sounded at the door to his quarters.

 

Did I do you a disservice, Mr Spock?  Kirk wanted to know. The Captain is rarely troubled by uncertainty, and he does not generally second-guess himself after a decision has been taken, but there was doubt in his eyes that night. Should I have left you as you were? What right do I have to interfere in your happiness?

 

And Spock could have pointed out that, in fact, he had every right, where that happiness threatened the safety of the ship or the integrity of the mission, but Kirk knew this, of course, and the question was redundant. It was logical to infer, therefore, that it was motivated by another concern, something unspoken. So he said, slowly, You proceed from a false assumption, Captain. A questioning eyebrow erased a little of the apprehension in Kirk’s face. You assume that ‘happiness’ is a state of mind to which I aspire.

 

Surely every sentient being seeks happiness?

 

A beat. It was important to get this right. Every sentient being seeks the absence of pain, said Spock carefully. The absence of pain is not ‘happiness’. It is simply the absence of pain.

 

A self-deprecating smile. I would hope for more than simply ‘the absence of pain’ for you, my friend. But I believe I understand.

 

There is an irony, of course, in the fact that there came a point where Kirk’s very presence was enough to banish the absence of pain from Spock’s consciousness, but this is not the Captain’s fault. Pain, it seems, is the natural byproduct of strong emotions, happiness amongst them. The happiness Spock felt on Omicron Ceti 3 was artificial and easily reversed, but it was enough to create a wave cluster on the seismograph of his life; he would not choose to repeat the experience.

 

Leila teaches now at USF and guest lectures occasionally at the Academy on Exobiology in the Mira system. He has seen her name on teaching schedules, but their paths have yet to cross, and he has found himself hoping, rather self-consciously, that this does not change. Moreover, he suspects that she shares his opinion on this matter. The recollection of her open, smiling face, the scent of her skin, the soft press of her lips on his, is enough to shoot a momentary spike of white-hot shame through his cortex, and he cannot imagine any circumstances in which their conversation will be other than excruciating. The memories that her name engenders are heavily infused with remorse, but that sentiment does not attach to her. Rather, his regrets are saved for another part of the story entirely.

 

The Vulcan never lived who had an ounce of integrity

 

He remembers puzzlement, because this was not how the Captain thought. Even when they existed in a barely-civil haze of antagonism, it was Spock that was its focus, not his collective culture.

 

You’re a traitor from a race of traitors, disloyal to the core…

 

And here he was truly confused. Disingenuous, he’d heard his people called. Slippery, even, or supercilious. But no-one had ever suggested that a Vulcan couldn’t be trusted. Loyalty was prized highly among every clan on his planet;  so deeply ingrained into the cultural psyche, in fact, that it had become an aphorism among the worlds of the Federation.

 

…rotten like the rest of your subhuman race…

 

His race had never classified itself in relation to Humanity. If anything, they rated Humanity against themselves. It made no sense to call them subhuman, because human had no relevance to the construction of Vulcanness.

 

And you’ve got the gall to make love to that girl!

 

Make love? They had not made love. They had kissed, and she had run her hands over his clothed body, stroking, caressing, trailing a tidal wave of pleasure beneath the tips of her fingers as she explored his contours. He had pressed the length of himself along the length of her, pinning her to the warm grass with his weight and tasting her unfamiliar flavors, twisting his tongue against hers and clutching her small, warm body against his. She had straddled him, rocking provocatively against his sensitized groin as her knees gripped his hips and her hands clutched at his chest, and he had thrust up against her, helpless in his need, and she had whispered, Not here. Later. And now, suddenly, snatched from the hazy clouds of illusion and transplanted into the sharp, white light of the transporter room, he realized, with an rush of ice-cold clarity, that there couldn’t be any later. He could not touch her like that. He could not make love to her; not later, not ever. Reason had slipped from his disconnected grasp, and he had forgotten the simple, biological fact of the matter. His mother’s face, stripped white with camouflaged pain, swam dizzily before his eyes, and the dream was suddenly, abruptly, over.

 

That’s enough, he said.

 

Does she know what she’s getting, Spock? A carcass full of memory banks, who should be squatting on a mushroom instead of passing himself off as a man? Ugly, poisonous words, designed to wound. Spock saw the moment that the Captain realized that he’d hit home, but he thought it was the invective that hurt him, not the sudden, horrified thrill of understanding as he realized what had almost done. You belong in a circus, Spock, not a starship - right next to the dog-faced boy…

 

He cannot do what McCoy wants him to do. This is the way it must be: for the Captain’s sake, and also for Spock’s. If it were only his own desire that must be contained, then perhaps it might be possible, but that fiction was laid to rest in a rose-scented garden under the milky light of The Watcher, and he is certain he cannot turn away a third time from the answering hunger in those eyes. He is certain of it.

 

He sips at his tea.

 

 

Chapter Text

Ciana returns from Luna in a dark mood that she contains for the duration of an interminable de-briefing session with her Chiefs of Staff, and it’s only when she glances up as they’re about to file out of her office, with a terse, “Kirk - you got a minute?” that he realizes anything is wrong.

 

He turns in the doorway, eyebrow raised in mild surprise. “Of course,” he says, and closes the door.

 

Her office hugs a curving exterior wall of the complex, stretching lazily along the perimeter in a wide, windowed arc that captures a panoramic view of the Bridge and the slate-blue waters of the Pacific beyond. Three hefty floor-to-ceiling bookshelves bracket her desk where it sits along the far wall and are, as he was delighted to note during their first briefing, healthily stocked with old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. Mostly, they are old technical manuals and collections of star charts, but he also caught a glimpse of Tacitus, Sun Tzu, Nietzsche, Caesar’s Civil Wars, and, incongruously, Pride and Prejudice. He’s planning to ask her about that some day, if he can ever work out how. In front of the window, a selection of potted plants drink the sharp, clear winter sunlight and lead towards the long briefing desk that takes up the bottom two thirds of the room, where Ciana sits amongst an impressive pile of PADDs.

 

Kirk pulls back his recently-vacated chair, but she gets to her feet as he sits, pacing abstractedly towards the window. She stops by the glass, and, without turning, she says, “Draconis is off, Kirk. I got word late last night.”

 

The Draconis project was approved months ago, while he was still on the far side of Federation space, and is well into the final stages of planning; Kirk was about forty-eight hours away from ordering the USS Pegasus to set a course-heading for the system. Even given the necessary fluidity of day-to-day policy-making in questions of fleet deployment, this is as close as anything gets to being set in stone. He was not expecting that to change.

 

He folds his hands on the table in front of him. “I see,” he says.

 

Ciana runs a hand across her eyes, takes a deep breath, releases it. “I’ve been in conference calls with the admiralty since 0430,” she says. “It just… it can’t be done.”

 

“I understood that the admiralty were enthusiastic about the project,” says Kirk. “What’s changed their minds?”

 

Now she turns back towards the room, and he can see the fatigue in her face as she crosses to the long table. She slides back into her chair and folds her hands in front of her, mirroring his gesture. “Information received from Starbase 19,” she says. “There’s been…some trouble verifying it.”

 

“In what sense?”

 

“In the sense that the Starbase is not currently responding to hails.”

 

He quirks an eyebrow. “How long since they went dark?”

 

“Luna Command received scattered com chatter around thirty-six hours ago, nothing since. It’s heavily corrupted, but it appears to be reporting a series of attacks in the sector.”

 

Attacks? By whom?”

 

“That’s an excellent question. The Alliance and the Concordat have been mobilized, but it’ll be at least seventy-two hours before they’re in visual range. And even then…” She glances up, eyes hooded. “There’s been no distress call. There’s just… silence.”

 

“Were Luna able to determine any details about the attacks from the com chatter?”

 

She shakes her head. “There was something about Androchus IX, a series of stardates, something that sounds like explosion or expulsion; the data’s almost unreadable. They mention the Draconis system specifically, but it’s impossible to make out the context. Given the circumstances, though, First Contact’s off the cards for the foreseeable future.”

 

He can’t argue with that. It’s actively disturbing to think about how close he came to ordering a science vessel with limited weapons capability, crewed by men and women with virtually no combat experience, into a potential warzone. This, this is the problem with being earthbound: there is, quite simply, no way to know what’s going on out there. He’s reliant on other people’s eyes and ears; dependent on them knowing where to look.

 

Kirk says, “The Alliance is currently stationed at Utopia Planitia?”

 

Ciana nods. “She took some damage during the skirmish in the Andromache system; she was scheduled to be out of drydock tomorrow.”

 

“I can rendezvous with her by 2200 hours if I leave right away,” he says. “I’d like to join their Tactical Ops team on the mission…”

 

But she’s already shaking her head. “No way,” she says. “I can’t authorize that, Kirk.”

 

He tries again: “Xeno ought to have a presence on this mission, ma'am…”

 

“Why?”

 

It’s a good question. He didn’t honestly expect her not to ask. But he doesn’t have an answer, beyond the fact that he needs to do something, and sitting in a series of boardrooms and talking energetically about strategy doesn’t count. He says, “Ma'am, at present we have no idea what we’re dealing with. This is potentially a First Contact scenario with a hostile species…”

 

“Exactly. A hostile species. They’re not exactly going to roll out the welcome wagon, Kirk; they’re going to shoot first and maybe hang around afterwards to see if there’s an interesting DNA signature smeared across the debris.”

 

“Nevertheless, Federation charters specify a clear command protocol in the event of…”

 

“Kirk!” she snaps, and throws her arms wide. “Believe me, if it’s who I think it is, we know these guys of old.” Abruptly, she pushes back her chair and paces across the room to her desk. He recognizes the gesture; it’s exactly what he would have done in the circumstances. She says, “You think if I thought there was even a chance that…” A beat. “I’ve been doing this job a long time, Kirk. This isn’t a new civilization showing us its teeth. I’d swear on my oath to Starfleet, this has Klingon stamped all over it.”

 

Kirk feels his eyebrows graze his hairline. “If the Klingons have waged an unprovoked attack on…”

 

“Yeah, it’s not exactly a popular theory at HQ,” she says. She lowers herself onto her desk, leaning heavily on her arms, and her shoulders droop. She sighs. “But it fits.”

 

“The Starbase is close to the Neutral Zone…”

 

“Not so close that you’d expect them to get territorial. Relations have been good - well, not bad. That counts as good, most days.”

 

Kirk twists his lips wryly. “I have some experience of the subtleties of the Federation’s relations with the Empire,” he says.

 

Ciana grins, but it’s flaccid with fatigue. “So I hear,” she says. She lifts both hands to her face, pressing the balls into the corners of her eyes, and the trace amusement fades. “This is what I know,” she says. “About six weeks ago, a party of Mallamusian traders came through the sector, docked with Starbase 19 for twenty-four hours. Commodore Hansen cleared it with HQ in advance; they came to me and wanted to know how that was likely to play on Q’onoS, given the ongoing tensions between Mallamus and the Empire. For the record, I said no, no way, not worth it. Mallamus will get over it; Q’onoS, not so much. But they were trading in high-grade iridium, there’d been a series of debris strikes on the outer hull of the Starbase, a couple of minor breaches that were going to get major in a hurry if they didn’t do something fast; they needed repairs.” She shrugs. “HQ made a call. I don’t know, maybe I would have done the same. But it had to have got back to the High Council. There’s no way they were happy about it.”

 

“You think they’re returning a political slight?”

 

She glances up. “You know Klingon psychology as well as anyone, Kirk. You tell me how pissed a Klingon has to get before they start shooting up all round them.”

 

He acknowledges the truth of that with a twitch of his eyebrows and a deep breath. “Still - to risk an open breach of the Organian treaty…”

 

She nods. “That’s what HQ are saying. I get where they’re coming from. If the Klingons up and blew a Starbase out of Federation space, unprovoked - well, that’s a nightmare nobody wants. It’s bad; it’s worse than bad. It’s war, and this time we’ve got the Organians watching, and who even knows what happens if they decide they’re getting involved again?”

 

“With all due respect, ma’am, if the Empire has attacked a Starfleet facility then the Organian treaty is null. We can’t ignore an act of war simply because it’s politically inconvenient!”

 

She purses her lips. “That’s… more or less what I said.”

 

He looks up. She half-smiles. He says, “More or less?”

 

“I may have been a little less elegant.”

 

Another time, he might have returned her smile, but he can feel a restless energy firing his bones from the inside out and it has nowhere to go. He knows she sees it; worse, he thinks she shares it, but she’s played her hand too soon, and she knows it. On the Enterprise, on the edges of charted space and sheltered by distance, there are always possibilities. But on Earth…

 

Kirk steeples his hands in front of him; stares at the points of his fingers. He’s shackled and bound, tethered and clipped, while a political danse macabre unfolds in the skies above. He says, “The com chatter mentioned Androchus and Draconis…?”

 

“Yeah.” She slides off the table, lifts a stylus, tosses it absently in her hands. “I don’t know. Maybe… maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s corrupted, maybe it’s spliced in from another transmission; it could be a goddamn stellar weather forecast for all I know. The Tajarhi was en route to a training exercise around Androchus II; there were preliminary plans to scout for a science outpost near the poles on XIV. I don’t know. The only link I can make is to the Starbase.” A beat. “But I really think I’m right about this, Kirk.”

 

The thing is, he does too. And he’s stuck on Earth making friendship bracelets and inspirational posters. He says, “I’d like to know what the Alliance and the Concordat report back, ma'am. If that’s possible.”

 

She raises an eyebrow. “Sure,” she says. “I’ll let you know as soon as I hear.”

 

Seventy-two hours. Seventy-two hours until he finds out if he very nearly sent two hundred anthropologists, linguists and diplomats onto a battlefield by accident. “Thank you, ma'am,” he says.

 

Ciana nods. “I have a meeting with Tactics and Deployment at 1300,” she says. “I’ll want you with me for that.”

 

From nowhere, Bones’ voice slices through his consciousness, heavy with Romulan Ale: Yeah, and how many meals have you skipped these past weeks, Jim? Man’s skin’s not s’posed to be that shade of gray… He says, “I had a lunchtime with Admiral Kurylenko. I can postpone it.”

 

“That the Augusta project? I’ll com him this afternoon.” She stretches her arms behind her head, closes her eyes. He wonders when she last slept. “I guess we need to start pushing 47 Aeolus C pretty hard now that Draconis is out. You got some time to talk it through this evening? I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink.” One eye opens. “And I still owe you a round, Commodore.”

 

He’d been vaguely hoping she’d forgotten about that. For a woman whose job is about eighty percent reading people, she’s proving remarkably oblivious to his ambivalent attitude towards his commodore’s stripes. And it’s hard to remember why it’s diplomatically important to establish an embassy on the southern continent of 47 Aeolus C when there’s a very real possibility that an atrocity just happened, that a couple of hundred men and women just died for no good reason. There’s no way to define the symbiosis that exists between all deep space travelers - it’s the sense of there but for the grace of God that binds them; the fact that it’s all too easy to imagine oneself in another man’s shoes - but there’s also no way to explain it to someone who’s never lived with the knowledge that they’re no more than one bad decision away from disaster. Kirk considers lying, considers prevarication, considers the possibility that either of these things will be effective. On the one hand, she is neither Spock nor Leonard McCoy, but, on the other, he’s not entirely sure how far her network of spies stretches.

 

Carefully, he tries deflective concern: “If you’re referring to my promotion, ma’am, that can wait for another time. You must be tired after your trip…”

 

Ciana sputters laughter. Of all her possible responses, amusement wasn’t high up on his list, and he’s not prepared for it.

 

“What are you, my mother, Kirk?” she says amiably.  “If you don’t want to have a drink, don’t have a drink, it’s fine. But I’ve pulled longer stretches than this before; I’m not gonna fall over in a faint.”

 

Well, there’s no way out of it now, not without admitting that, no, no, he does not want to have a drink; he does not want to have to figure out the politics of what a drink might mean, or what he wants it to mean, or why he doesn’t know the answer to that. He wants to get on his damn ship and streak Warp 7 across the sector to the hole in the sky where a starbase used to be, and, if there’s nothing there to save, then he wants to make sure that whoever did it isn’t in any kind of position to be doing it again. But she’s watching him carefully now with dancing eyes that are uncomfortably astute in their scrutiny, and in a moment the silence is going to cross the temporal line into unnatural, which gives him less than two seconds to determine his response. He’s not sure if she’s really good at the intricacies of manipulation or really bad at linguistic politics, but he suspects the former. Bones would adore this woman.

 

So he purses his lips into a smile and says, “Well, you’d have to ask my CO if I’m free, ma’am. But I dare say I could use a drink by the end of today, too.”

 

She grins. “I hear your CO’s pretty easygoing, Kirk. How’s 8:30? I know a place off Divisadero that the cadets haven’t found yet.”

 

He raises an eyebrow. “I don’t believe there’s a bar in this city that the cadets haven’t found, ma’am.”

 

Ciana laughs again, a flash-bomb of color in the gray air. “There’s three, I think. Maybe just two now,” she says. “This is one of them. Flag officers gotta show up every couple of nights to scare off any of the junior ranks that get brave or stupid; it’s kind of a civic duty. You don’t strike me as the type to shirk your duty, Kirk.”

 

“No, ma’am,” he says.

 

“That’s what I thought,” she says cheerfully. “I’ll have my Yeoman com you with the address. Meantime, we got work to do.”

 

She smacks the desk once with the flat of her hand - a decisive, conclusive gesture - using it as leverage to get her moving as she turns and strides quickly to the other side. Her terminal is idling but springs to life at a brusque command, and her eyes scroll down the screen as she says, “Yeah… Intelligence in Sector 4412 is maybe fourteen, fifteen days old; if 19 is gone, it’s a game-changer, we’ll need to revisit. Let’s start by mapping current colonial and planetary allegiances around Aeolus. I’ll get Berniere and Travis from Astrometrics, you pull your team together and meet me back here in, say, thirty minutes?” She glances up, all business once again, but her eyes sparkle. “Some time today, Kirk? I gotta be out of here for drinks at 8:30…”

 

He pushes his chair back and gets to his feet. “Yes, ma’am,” he says.

 

 

~*~

 

Across the sculpted-steel waters, the Presidio Headquarters stands as the gateway to the heavens. At this distance, the swoop and fall of airtrams above the high central complex is like the circling, billowing flight of gulls over the Bay, coasting on unpredictable winter thermals. Buried inside the tritanium-blue walls, glinting lethargically in the diffuse morning sun, the massive transporter array sucks men and women through the earth’s atmosphere; if he closes his eyes, he can feel that moment of weightlessness as the center of him dissolves, that lurch and the sensation of infinite expansion, infinite possibility. Somewhere up there, above the blanket of feathery stratocumulus, a battery of starships hover in the endless night, waiting to receive their atomized Human cargo.

 

But not him.

 

Kirk turns back to the room, barking a sharp command to the window sensors, which darken submissively. A pile of unconsidered tapes rebuke him from both sides of his desk: a myriad uncharted worlds waiting for his consideration, worlds that he will never see. There are reports that need to be written and they can’t be written until he’s scanned every file, evaluated and cross-referenced, calculated, considered and intuited his way through the data contained within that rainbow-colored mountain, but that requires a very specific sort of focus, and his brain has gone off on a tangent from which it is stubbornly resisting all his efforts at redirection. The near-miss of the Draconis mission haunts his resolution, wraps little nagging tendrils of doubt in a chokehold around his prefrontal cortex. He’s due in the Centroplex at 0900 tomorrow to meet with two Vice Admirals and another Commodore - men who think that the Luna run counts as space travel - to discuss the possibility of opening up Sector 77125-C to exploratory probes, and all he can think about is the fact that he does not, cannot, know what’s out there, establish what’s safe, decide what’s worth the risk, from behind a desk in Horseshoe Bay.

 

But what’s he supposed to do? He’s tried; he’s asked the question, he’s made the request, and it’s been denied. The pieces shift on an infinite chessboard while he watches through a telescope from a distant mountain top and tries to make sense of what he’s seeing, but what can he do? The stars are out of bounds for now. His ship is up there, a transporter ride away, but she’s hobbled like her Captain. And even if the Enterprise wasn’t currently resting in fifteen separate pieces in an orbital drydock, it’s not as though he could just swipe the keys and make off with her to the other side of the galaxy. He’s never had cause to ponder the consequences of hijacking a starship, but he’s pretty sure you don’t get to keep it when you’re finished. Subspace distortions hide a multitude of sins, but it’s slightly harder to pull off a flexible approach to the interpretation of a direct order when it’s been delivered in person, straight from the mouth of one’s Commanding Officer.

 

There’s a limit to what he’s prepared to risk. There has to be.

 

He crosses to his desk, lifts a tape, tosses it between his hands, slides it into the reader. The terminal screen sparks to life but he turns away even before it can ask its innocuous, mundane questions about what he’d like to do next, because isn’t that a good question? He’d swear sometimes that, somewhere in the bowels of the cortex, there’s a tech with a keen sense of dramatic irony busily programming pathetic fallacy into the Starfleet OS.

 

Once upon a time, he’d have been delighted with this observation, primarily because Spock would be at his side, or at least close enough to fetch in a hurry, and it would be the perfect antidote to a moment when nothing in particular was happening, everything was functioning as it should, and there was time to remember what it felt like to catch your breath. It’s exactly the sort of observation that would earn an eyebrow and a look of fabricated consternation as his First pretended not to understand that he was being baited, and the Captain pretended not to understand that he was being humored.

 

Now the First is a Professor and the Captain’s a Commodore. The ship is in pieces and Kirk’s planet-bound and feeling like he’s lost his right arm. Nothing stays the same. But it can’t, that’s not the way the universe works: stasis is the end state, it’s the ultimate by-product of entropy; life is all chaos and motion. This restless energy, this sense of powerlessness, like the world has exploded beneath his feet, this will ease in time. It’s just going to take some time, that’s all.

 

You look like you don’t know whether to scratch your watch or wind your butt, Jim, says Bones’ voice suddenly, struggling up from scattered memories of their abortive mid-week social effort, to worry its way into Kirk’s consciousness. Echo-Bones waves a bottle of something blue in front of Kirk’s mind’s eye. Lucky for you, I got a prescription for that.

 

It’s not that the evening was a failure, only that Kirk suspects it might have been a tactical error. What he needs right now is a clean break from his old life, and his friend trails far too many ghosts in his wake. Plus, the Doctor has a habit of reading between the lines, whether or not there are lines to be read between, and it was obvious before he’d even shrugged off his coat that the invitation itself had caused him to draw a few conclusions.

 

Seen much of the old place since you been back? he said as he crossed to the center of the living quarters, worrying at the stopper of the bottle.

 

Practically all the old haunts, said Kirk with a self-deprecating smile.

 

McCoy picked up his cue. Ha! he said. I bet. Library, simulation rooms and labs, huh?

 

Something like that.

 

Got you in a fancy office, I guess?

 

Fancier than Starfleet Medical Offices, put it that way.

 

A huffed laugh. That ain’t hard. A beat. Bet this is the first time you’ve left it in three weeks, too.

 

He can imagine his friend’s face if he knew about tonight’s excursion, but he suspects that he won’t tell Bones about his adventures in cadet-free drinking establishments, and he’s not entirely sure why.

 

Saw Frank Abrams last week. And Kirk’s back was up, because he knew, he knew where it was leading. But he raised an interrogative eyebrow just the same, tried to keep his face neutral. Fractured his collarbone in the zero-g spacewalk sim - damn fool’s got no business in command track, you ask me, but, hell, no-one ever does.

 

He’s a gifted engineer.

 

Don’t mean he’s fit to run an auxcom. Man’d fall over his own toes if there was nothin’ else to walk into. A beat. And then the segue: Said to give you his regards.

 

That was decent of him.

 

Funny, huh?

 

With resignation: What’s that?

 

Spend all that time with folks, feels like that’s your whole world, your whole life. Gets so’s you can’t imagine what it’ll be like when they ain’t there. And then… gone. Scattered to the winds.

 

That’s the service, Bones.

 

Yup. He grinned. ‘Cept when a man’s got a bottle of Romulan Ale in his possession. Funny how a thing like that makes an old country doctor stick out in his CO’s memory.

 

Kirk loosed a quiet laugh. That sounds about right.

 

Bones raised his glass, lifted it to his lips, swallowed a gulp. A grimace carried it down his throat, and for a moment they sat in silence, staring out into the shadows on the bay. And then, softly, he said, Guess the hobgoblin’s kinda short on illicit liquor, huh, Jim?

 

Anger flared, and Kirk felt his face tighten. I’ve been busy, he said, and he knew it wasn’t an answer.

 

Yup, said the Doctor. Another beat, heavy with words unspoken.You got a talent for that.

 

Kirk blinks away images of an evening that was unsatisfactory on a number of levels, and, with weary resignation, turns back to his terminal. When’s the last time you spoke to him? echo-Bones wants to know, and Kirk wants to say that it works both ways; that his communicator hasn’t exactly been wearing out its warranty these past weeks. That he’s not the only one who made a choice; that he’s not precisely a difficult man to find. But it’s easier, much easier, to bury it in work, to bark a command and watch through disinterested eyes as the screen scrolls rapidly through the half-dozen starcharts appended to the latest briefing from Operational Command. There’s a binary system in 12139 whose primary civilization are friends of Federal friends. There are three occupied planets in a system in Lyra, two of which are warp-capable - which rather begs the question as to what’s happened to the third, and why no-one from the other two has been tempted to crash the party with a keg or two, so to speak. There’s a quotidian Sol-type star in the Archanis sector with one solitary planet; an ice-world in Vega with a deuterium-rich moon; an orbital colony around a gas giant in Sector F-C-31. Someone with a flare for the poetic has designated the single-planet system Eremitis, the hermit, and the name intrigues him; it’s the kind of histrionics that advises against assigning first year cadets to routine starmapping. He scans the file briefly: an unremarkable world orbiting an unremarkable star, but maybe that’s what the Vulcans once said about Earth. Maybe that’s exactly the sort of place they should be targeting: a civilization that’s ready to reach out there, made hungry by mediocrity. He files it away in his Possible folder, and then, suddenly, he realizes why it caught his eye.

 

You heard about the attack on Ajilon Prime last month? says Nogura’s voice, beaming into his ship, eating up those final moments, when what he really wanted to do was sit in his chair and grip the arms as tightly as he could. There was another on Archanis IV two days ago…

 

Kirk leans forward in his seat. “Computer, call up recent files on the Archanis sector,” he says.

 

The computer balks. “Over eighteen million entries,” it says reproachfully. “Please narrow search parameters.”

 

The data’s heavily corrupted, said Ciana, but it appears to be reporting a series of attacks in the sector.

 

“Look for reports of attacks in the region of Archanis Prime,” says Kirk. “Narrow to an eight week window, ending January 12th.”

 

“Three entries found,” says the computer.

 

“On screen,” says Kirk.

 

~*~

 

 

Ciana is late arriving, but, then again, so is Kirk. Her Yeoman coms him late in the evening, startling him out of his reverie and causing him to notice, for the first time, that the sun has set long enough ago for night to have settled comfortably into his office, and it is now so dark that he can’t see anything beyond the sickly white glow of his terminal screen.

 

“She’s been delayed in DC, sir,” says Martinez. “Says to pass on her apologies and tell you she’ll be there by 2100 hours at the latest.”

 

Kirk accepts the regrets with patience and understanding, then signs off smoothly and bolts for the door.

 

It’s a small, elegant bar, most likely cadet-free by virtue of its price rather than its obscurity, but mention of Ciana’s name gets him shown to a secluded table near the piano - which is, mercifully, unoccupied at present - and the obsequious attentions of a young Andorian waiter who evidently pays too much attention to the news. Kirk orders a Scotch and makes sure the table is credited to his account; it may irritate his CO and it may not, but his ego demands it. And he got here first, after all.

 

She arrives at 2115, unruffled but apologetic. “Damn it,” she says, with a flash of that smile that lights her from the inside out, “Not much of a hostess, huh? The transporters on the Hill went offline just as I was getting ready to leave; I had to come back by airtram. Thanks for waiting.”

 

She has swapped her uniform for a simple black dress that neither clings to her figure nor ignores it, and her hair, which she habitually wears scraped into a loose knot at the back of her head, falls freely over her shoulders. He knows from her files that she’s a few years older than him, which places her in her early forties, but, relaxed and easy in herself in the soft light, smiling her thanks to the waiter as he places a drink in front of her, she looks younger.

 

“Scotch man, huh?” she says, raising her glass. Ice cubes clink in the amber liquid. “You have excellent taste, Kirk. Although I prefer Highland Park myself.” She knocks the glass against his. “Here’s to Starfleet’s newest Commodore.”

 

He tries to strip his face of expression, to fix his smile in place and return her toast. It nearly works. It would work, he’s certain, with every other CO he’s ever had. Bones would worship this woman.

 

Ciana lowers her glass and drops her eyes to the table, but he’s been working with her for a number of weeks now, and he knows better than to think that he’s in the clear. So he’s ready for her when she glances up a moment later and fixes him with a stare that dares him to look away.

 

She says, “Whatever you’re thinking, Kirk… It’s not the end. Brass aren’t stupid. They’re not going to take her away from you.”

 

The angry ache twists viciously, searing a burning pain up the back of his throat. He says, with difficulty, “I wish I had your confidence, ma’am.”

 

“Lori,” she says. He raises an eyebrow and she shakes her head. “We’re off the clock. You can go back to ‘ma’am’ tomorrow.”

 

Call me Jim, Spock... It doesn’t exactly alleviate the pain beneath his ribs. Kirk takes a gulp from his drink, buying himself the time he needs to settle the ghosts inside.

 

“Lori, then,” he says, and smiles.

 

She’s nobody’s fool, and her answering smile is qualified by wry amusement.“You’re like a tiger in a cage, Kirk,” she says.

 

“Jim.”

 

The smile flares brightly. “All right: Jim. I knew we’d never be able to keep you; a man like you doesn’t belong behind a desk. Nogura’s many things but obtuse was never one of them.” She takes a sip from her drink, inclines her head. “He needs you where you are right now, for whatever reason, but you work better for him in the air. Trust me on this. Meantime, I can use you.” A grin, and her eyes sparkle. “Though if you could try not to make it look so much like Purgatory, I’d appreciate it.”

 

He laughs and she joins in easily. “I don’t see it as Purgatory,” he says, but she shakes her head.

 

“Yeah. You do,” she says. She shrugs, leaning back in her chair. “It’s fine. Maybe I’d be the same, in your position.” Gently: “Must feel like they’re shutting out the sun.”

 

He huffs a quiet laugh, but the words settle into his soul like drifting snow. He finds that there’s no answer to that, so he looks up, meets her eye, twists the corners of his lips into a rueful smile.

 

“You just…” she says, and hesitates. “I just feel like you could use a friend, Jim.”

 

He opens his mouth to tell her that he has friends, but then he wonders. Where are they, exactly? All these people, surrogate family, people he thought were woven so completely into the fabric of his life, and it turns out they lift right out, like water from a jug. Bones’ words echo in his head - scattered to the winds - and the angry ache twists viciously, slicing against the tender skin beneath his ribs. He covers it with a smile.

 

“That’s command for you,” he says, and, if he can’t quite erase the bitterness from his tone, her soft eyes tell him that she’s understood.

 

“That’s the life we chose,” she agrees.

 

He glances up at her, and for the first time, he understands that she’s hiding a few bruises of her own. Somewhere down the line, someone’s told her to make an impossible choice, too, and she’s buried it with duty and kept moving on, because that’s what you do. It’s the life they chose.

 

He says, quietly, “You never wanted a deep space assignment?”

 

“Sure I did.” She doesn’t look away, not quite, but her eyes turn skittish. She purses her lips. “Didn’t work out that way. There’s still time, though. I won’t get a ship now, but… you know.” A beat. “There’s still time.”

 

“Where would you go? If they gave you your ship?”

 

A faint smile tugs at the edges of her mouth. “I don’t know. You tell me, Jim - you’re the expert. Where’s good, this time of year?”

 

A thousand images rush him; a hundred worlds, skies in every color of the spectrum. Trees so tall they block out the sun; crystalline lakes of frozen ammonia glinting silver in the starlight; mountains that sing in the restless evening breeze. He says, “The best places are the ones we haven’t found yet.”

 

“Spoken like a true explorer.” She takes a sudden, deep breath, as though she’s chasing shadows from her mind. “A man like that can’t be chained to the ground. Nogura knows that as well as anyone. You’ll get her back, Jim.” Ciana extends her arm, ice clinking softly against the glass in her hand, and she raises an eyebrow in open challenge. “So can we please, for the love of God, drink to your stripes now? Instead of the sackcloth and ashes?”

 

Her hair falls around her face, framing eyes soft with mischievous amusement, lips curling slowly as she waits to see how he’ll respond. Kirk watches her, feeling oddly disjointed; he’s never seen her out of uniform, never separated her from the job, from the duty, from the protocol. He’s never noticed that her skin is so smooth that light reflects off it like moonlight on marble, or that her voice is like warm honey, or that her fingers are long and graceful, that they grip her glass with the lightest, most elegant touch. He’s never noticed any of this because he’s become accustomed to standing apart, at command distance; to  the fact that he outranks everyone else on board his ship. There’s always been a wall there, surrounding him and holding him separate. And only one person has ever breached that, and look how that turned out.

 

Yes. Look how that turned out.

 

Her hand is extended across the table, drink canted towards him, light glinting off the surface of the liquid. Maybe it’s time to let go.

 

He raises his glass, tilts it towards hers, feels it connect. Crystal chimes gently against crystal; it feels like a betrayal.

 

 

~*~

 

 

It’s after midnight when he gets back to his apartment, whisky washing a comfortable river of warmth through his veins and smoothing over the stress-fractures in his soul, and he’s tired: that deep-in-the-bones fatigue that settles lead into the muscles and fog behind the eyes. The evening has been pleasant, but it has been long: a sequence of prevarications and obfuscations that have grown steadily more acrobatic as the hours ticked by, and he’s no longer certain where the boundaries lie between them. Sure, she’s Lori tonight, but tomorrow she’s his CO again; the woman whose job it is to keep him pinned and acquiescent, and three hours in his company have certainly confirmed what she must have suspected: he’s fighting a battle against himself, and she’s going to have to do what she can to contain that.

 

You know, they told me I wouldn’t be able to handle you, she said, somewhere into the third round of drinks. Neither of them was drunk; he suspects she’s as careful about that as he is, and this intrigues him. But she was softened, hazy around the edges, and so was he. When I wanted you in Xeno. That’s what they said.

 

He doesn’t know how he was supposed to react to that, but he settled for giving her his best diplomat’s smile, the one that uses all of the advantages bestowed upon him by nature. I think you’ll find my reputation is exaggerated, he said, and she laughed.

 

Damn, I hope not, she said.

 

Was it an opening? It’s hard to be certain. Take away command protocol and it’s not even a question, but the service complicates things, coats the wheels of flirtation with spines and jagged edges. If anyone has cause to know this, it’s him.

 

Kirk shucks his overcoat and lets it fall onto the squat, utilitarian chair by the door, whose sole function is to act as the receptacle for the deposit of recently-shucked overcoats; toes off his boots and kicks them out of the entryway; crosses to the window without calling for the lights. The stars glisten in the dark crystal sky, the high blue shimmer of a winter’s night, punctuated by staccato comet-trails of air-traffic crossing the thermosphere, and he watches them with unseeing eyes.

 

Does he want it to have been an opening? He’s not sure he even knows anymore.

 

He ought to go to bed. It’s been a long day and a longer night, and tomorrow it starts all over again: endlessly rolling a boulder uphill, with nothing to show for it but a path worn gradually into the rock. He ought to go to bed, but behind the fog of whisky and tiredness, his thoughts chatter restlessly and won’t be settled, and the prospect of staring at his ceiling while the sky gradually turns gray doesn’t exactly fill him with enthusiasm. So he turns from the window, back to his darkened room, back to his desk and his terminal, with the idea of report-writing his brain into submission, and this is when he notices that the screen, pointed into the moonlight, is faintly lit behind the reflected sheen.

 

He has a message.

Chapter Text

 

It’s a bright late-winter morning - crisp and clear, with pale yellow sunlight pouring unfiltered from an almost cloudless sky. Long years’ experience have taught Spock better than to think that the gray February drizzle is in retreat just yet, but there’s a whisper of spring in the sharp, cool air, like a preview of the coming attraction. It’s the sort of day that scatters the shadows in his mind.

 

It has been a singularly unproductive morning and he’s glad to leave the cloistered silence of his office, where a blank terminal screen glares at him in mute reproach. It’s early yet, even for the leisurely pace that he sets, the better to savor the feel of the cool sun on his skin and the fresh ocean scent that hangs on the chilly breeze, but there comes a certain point at which the waiting becomes bigger than the event itself, and he’d like to maintain an air of abstract neutrality if at all possible. Besides which, if he’s learned anything at all these past five years, it is this: Kirk is rarely late.

 

He falls quietly into step behind a group of cadets as they pass through the central plaza around which the Academy rises in irregular spikes and blocks, and out into the sculpted greenery of the Presidio in winter. A winding path meanders up a gentle slope towards the crest of the hill, and, as he ascends, he can see the sparkling azure of the Bay peeking through the willows and dogwoods. As he moves onto the central thoroughfare, ground transport glides quietly past him along the wide road to his left, air trams worry at the tops of ancient, towering oaks as they swim on the thermals above, and the background noise is sucked into the vacuum of the forest and scattered amongst the trees. Spock burrows a little deeper into his coat and follows the convergence of traffic into the wide quadrangle that leads up to the towering base of Starfleet’s Terran command.

 

The central atrium is alive with a thousand flowing currents of bodies, filtering carelessly through the security fields at the portico and moving with purpose towards uncountable destinations. Noise dampeners scattered liberally above the crowds keep the general din within bearable limits, but, if there is any mechanism by which personal space can be maintained while moving from point A to point B inside the continuous maelstrom of multitudes, Spock has not yet learned it. He avoids this place whenever he can.

 

They have arranged to meet in the lobby of the eastern wing, where Operational Tactics have their offices, and where Kirk has spent the morning buried in a series of meetings. Security is tighter here, and the crowds begin to thin as Spock moves further along the series of winding corridors, through bright, glass-fronted atria that open onto the Bay and onto the city, past a gaggle of excitable schoolchildren that represent half a dozen Federation planets - Starfleet children, he supposes, and remembers his own frustrating days of Terran education while his father was posted on Earth - and into the pleasant, airy foyer of the Phoenix Building. Climb high enough through the floors of this rarified ivory tower and Nogura himself can be found, when he’s on Earth, installed in a sprawling suite of offices that scrape the skies above, but Spock’s destination is the bright, bubbling fountain set into a light well in the middle of the floor, bathed in anemic sunlight, and flanked by one Commodore and his commanding officer.

 

The rush of emotion that assaults him is both unexpected and unnerving. Spock has spent some considerable time this morning attempting to prepare for this meeting, and he was certain - or, at least, as certain as he could be - that his controls were sufficient. But as Kirk, deep in conversation with Ciana, catches sight of Spock’s arrival in his peripheral vision and turns over his shoulder, as the momentary shock of recognition segues into a slow, naked smile, Spock is forced to reflect on the fact that, realistically, he was never going to be ready for this.

 

“Spock!” says Kirk warmly, and raises a hand in greeting.

 

Some lights, he’s the same old Jim Kirk, says McCoy’s voice suddenly, slicing mercilessly across the remnants of Spock’s ragged composure. Turn your head for a minute and… I don’t know. He didn’t understand it at the time, but this is not unusual, so he filed it away under McCoy: Poetic Idiom, and concentrated on meeting the Doctor’s objections. But now, as he crosses the floor to his erstwhile CO, he can see that McCoy was not wrong. Turn one way, and it’s the Captain he’s always known: luminous, lit from within by unflinching brilliance, wearing command as though it had been created specifically for him, easy in his skin. Turn the other, and he’s… different. The eyes have dulled. The sheen has rubbed off his skin. He looks tired, older. Diminished.

 

Caged. The word slides into place like a key into an obstinate lock as he closes the final footsteps between them and folds his hands safely behind his back. It’s not logical, but it fits too neatly to dislodge it from its hold.

 

“Captain,” he says.

 

“Commodore,” says Kirk, with a self-deprecating grin that lances icy shame into Spock’s belly. The first word they’ve spoken in weeks, and it’s wrong. But Kirk only quirks an eyebrow, open-faced and unabashed, and Spock understands that the correction was not a reproach, but, perhaps, a kind of exorcism. Mock it with me, says Kirk’s expression, but how can he do that?

 

He inclines his head. “Commodore,” he says and, in the depths of Kirk’s eyes, a small flame dies.

 

But he smiles. It’s not the smile he typically turns on Spock, but it’s passable. He says, “It’s good to see you, my friend.”

 

Spock is not certain that he can answer in kind. So he simply says, “Indeed,” and understands that it’s so far from adequate that he might have been better to say nothing at all.

 

Kirk’s smile wilts a little, but he buries it in formality, taking a step back and twisting his pose so that their circle accommodates his companion. “You remember Admiral Ciana?” he says.

 

Vice Admiral,” she says. Her voice is light, but her smile is unreadable. “Commodore Kirk has a habit of promoting me in introductions. We met at the press conference,” she adds, and raises a ta’al.

 

“Of course,” says Spock, and mirrors the gesture.

 

Her eyes are placid but impenetrable. She says, “I’m sorry we didn’t get more time to talk that night. I think Xeno could learn a lot from you, Commander. There’s a couple of projects on the books right now that I’d love to have you consult on.” She smiles, but her eyes dart, almost imperceptibly, towards Kirk. He doesn’t notice.

 

Spock does. He also sees the brief flash of poorly-concealed consternation that ghosts across the Commodore’s face as the Admiral’s words register.

 

“Indeed,” says Spock carefully. “I am at Starfleet’s disposal.”

 

“If you’re busy…” says Kirk, quickly, and something shifts in Ciana’s expression: a tiny note of understanding, as though he’s answered a question that she hasn’t asked. And then he visibly catches himself and schools his expression into complacency.

 

“Of course. The Torelius VII project,” he says. “Although, perhaps Commander Spock’s clearance level…”

 

“He has clearance,” says Ciana mildly. Spock’s eyebrow lifts of its own accord, but he can’t deny it: he has access to Starfleet’s central cortex. It’s possible his clearance actually exceeds Kirk’s at present. He opens his mouth to speak, and then thinks better of it: Ciana has probably drawn enough conclusions for one day, and he’s not even sure what they are.

 

She smiles pleasantly. “I gotta get back to the office,” she says. “Gentlemen. Enjoy your lunch.”

 

“Ma’am,” says Kirk, and pivots on his heel, turning to watch her leave as she gathers a PADD to her chest and steps smartly away from them. She crosses the floor at an efficient, confident clip, and disappears into the mouth of one of the network of corridors that feeds into the wide atrium.

 

Kirk releases a breath. He says, without looking around, “Let’s eat.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

Kirk has arranged for an aircar to take them into the city. “I prefer to avoid the Officer’s Mess,” he says, and the wry curl of his lips is explanation enough for Spock.

 

They walk in silence along the corridor that leads to the departure lot. Spock keeps his hands folded behind his back and Kirk, after a moment’s hesitation, follows suit. On the edge of his eyeline, Spock sees his companion shoot a lightning glance in his direction as he clears his throat.

 

“So,” says Kirk, with resolution. “How have you been?”

 

“I am well,” says Spock, and wishes he could establish safe ground on which to elaborate on those three syllables.

 

Kirk nods. “Good,” he says. Quiet footfall carries them forward another few paces. “Good.”

 

“And you?” says Spock, and hopes that the desperate grappling for words is not evident in his tone.

 

“Hmm? Oh,” says Kirk. “You know. Good. Fine.” A beat. “You know.”

 

No, in point of fact, Spock does not know, and he is positive that “fine” is not the word he would have chosen if he did. If there is a way to say this, however, without devolving them into a conversation that can only end in anger and recrimination, he has no idea what it might be.

 

They walk on.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Admiral Ciana has recommended a restaurant in The Embarcadero, on the waterfront, that serves a range of Federal cuisines. A Lieutenant in their section apparently speaks very highly of it, and he ought to know, Kirk assures him: he trained on Beta Aquillae and spent his first four years’ service on Andor. The rear balcony is open onto the ocean, but the heat shields drain the bite and the energy from the salty breeze, and the sun, now that it is no longer required to compete with the winter air, is pleasantly warm on his face as they are shown to a secluded table in the corner. Gulls whirl and swoop across the channel, riding the thermals above Yerba Buena Island and plummeting into the silvery waters, crying their mournful song on the wind, but the restaurant itself is bathed in the tranquil hush of the hour before the lunchtime rush. Spock lowers himself into his bayside seat and and concentrates on re-establishing his controls as the waiter busies himself with pouring iced water from a condensation-frosted jug.

 

Kirk leans back in his chair and folds his hands on the table in front of him. His face is impassive, but he regards Spock with an unsettling gaze, and a kind of restive energy worries at the air around him, like a tightly-wound clockwork toy waiting to be set loose.

 

He says, “I was surprised to get your message.”

 

Spock raises an eyebrow, though he was, in fact, surprised that he sent it. He says, “As I understand it, it is acceptable for former colleagues to communicate in this way.”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “Communication tends to run a little longer than two lines, even between former colleagues,” he says. And if there’s a slight emphasis on colleagues, Spock chooses not to hear it.

 

There’s no point in protesting that he’s been raised to value efficiency over eloquence, or that a two-line communique between erstwhile co-workers, on his homeworld, might well read as quite the scandalous display of emotional excess. The fact is, he’s not on his homeworld, and Kirk is not Vulcan. Spock knew that the note was unfit for purpose and he sent it anyway, for one very simple reason: he could not work out what else to write.

 

Commodore Kirk, greetings - I have received word of your promotion. I therefore request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to offer my congratulations. Regards, Commander Spock, Starfleet Academy.

 

He does not need to conjure the shade of Amanda Grayson to shake a reproachful head at the stark, clinical words in order to understand that they’re woefully inadequate. He’s reasonably certain that his acceptance to the VSA was couched in warmer phraseology.

 

“Our respective positions have changed,” he says. “I was uncertain of the protocol in addressing a personal message to a flag officer.” It’s not a complete lie. It occurred to him, in the same moment that he knew it would never occur to Kirk.

 

His companion huffs a humorless laugh that’s transparently on the wrong side of bitter. “You haven’t broken any rules, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he says.

 

“It is not,” says Spock. Across the table, an eyebrow quirks in manifest disbelief. Spock ignores it. “Nevertheless,” he says mildly, “You were surprised?”

 

“I was,” says Kirk. He sips from his glass. “The timing was a little… convenient.” A beat. He looks up, meeting Spock’s gaze from beneath hooded brows. “Did Bones put you up to it?”

 

The question is not unexpected, and Spock has spent some time considering his response. Lying is unlikely to be effective, given that Kirk is not stupid, but the unexpurgated truth is hardly appropriate either. So he says, “It is true that Doctor McCoy made the suggestion…” Kirk shakes his head with a smile that lacks even the most cursory trace of amusement. “However,” adds Spock, “The decision was mine.”

 

“I’d hardly call it a decision if it was coerced,” says Kirk.

 

“I was not coerced.”

 

“No?” Both eyebrows arc so high they’re almost vertical. “Then why now?”

 

That’s an excellent question. The truthful answer is that, before McCoy’s visit, it was possible to willfully misunderstand everything he knew about his Captain and the likelihood of his ability to settle into this new life he’s been handed. It was possible to refuse to examine too closely the heart of the man he knows as well as he knows himself, and to pretend that what he needs is the same as what Kirk needs; that the Captain will slide into his gilded cage with a philosophical smile and never glance back over his shoulder to the way things used to be. The Doctor exploded that comfortable mirage with a single, short sentence - Never known you to turn your back on him when he needed you, Spock - and the refuge was gone. All those questions that he hasn’t asked have come back to mock him, because he understands now that the reason he hasn’t asked them is because he already knew the answer.

 

But to acknowledge this is to confirm everything that Kirk has decided he knows, written fiercely into the rigid lines of anger and resentment that set his jaw and darken his eyes. Kirk has decided that Spock is here because McCoy has browbeaten him into a pity-visit, and that’s one way of looking at it, certainly, but it’s a distortion. He doesn’t think the Commodore is in the mood for semantics, however.

 

So he says, “The Doctor’s visit confirmed my resolve.” It’s nearly true. It unpicked his decision to stay away, but this was very much a decision and not a choice. “My communication with you was based both on his recommendation and my own inclination.”

 

Kirk stares at him for a long moment. “I don’t understand you, Spock,” he says softly.

 

Spock raises an eyebrow, and says, as complaisantly as he can, “Then perhaps I might suggest that very little has changed.”

 

There’s a moment where it could go either way. Anger flashes behind Kirk’s eyes and darkens his face and Spock steels himself for an explosion, but the truth is, he’s not sure himself if his words were intended to provoke or to break the tension in the air. Then, abruptly, the taut lines of fury soften, and the Commodore lets loose a small laugh. It’s hardly the poster-child for Human ebullience, but it’s a real laugh at least.

 

He says, “Perhaps you’re right.”

 

It’s possible that there’s a war behind the words; that something has had to be leashed in order to allow them to be spoken. Spock’s skills have improved, largely thanks to five years’ experience of reading the colorful emotional nuances of the man across the table, but this is a whole new level of fluency. He says, carefully, “I am here of my own volition, Jim.”

 

Kirk glances up, so abruptly that Spock believes he has inadvertently caused offense and scours his words for signs of double-meaning or transgression. But the Commodore smiles. It’s slow, hesitant, and, though it meets his eyes, it doesn’t quite warm them: an uncertain gesture with a wealth of injury behind it. But it’s a smile.

 

Kirk meets and holds Spock’s gaze, and he says, “So am I.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

They talk pleasantly over an appetizer of Rigelian vil klor, carefully picking their way around conversational potholes while the barriers slowly recede. Spock outlines his dihydrogen experiments, and Kirk remembers their infancy on board the Enterprise in a series of abandoned, half-formed hypotheses that showed early promise and then failed to develop. Kirk talks about the newfound appreciation he’s been forced to acquire for some of the more spectacularly incomprehensible mission objectives that found their way to his bridge from time to time; he spent seven hours in the Centroplex last week, he says, in meetings that redefined his understanding of the phrase circular logic. A little of the old fire creeps back into his eyes as he talks, and it takes Spock a moment to realize that it comes from the memory of stepping outside the atmosphere of his native planet.

 

“I don’t hate it,” he says as their main course arrives: vash g’ralth for Spock, klitanta s’mun for Kirk. If the Commodore’s choice of a Vulcan meal is significant, neither of them has commented on it. “It’s not what I would have chosen, but it’s not so bad. I think I’ve even gotten used to hearing my name on the holos every five minutes. Although,” he adds with a wry smile, “I won’t be sorry when they lose interest.”

 

A little over five months ago, Spock remembers hearing a rumor that Kirk was the favorite to be named as commander of the Archimedes on her launch. But the Archimedes set her first course heading for the Borgolis Nebula four weeks ago, under Captain Flaherty, and Kirk is crouched instead inside a husk of discontented frustration on the shores of San Francisco Bay. It has taken Spock some time to understand, and the knowledge was not precisely welcome when it arrived, but he thinks he can perceive the logic behind the decision: hero-worship and the cult of stardom have conspired to make Kirk too valuable a commodity to spend in the wastes of space. Starfleet needs him earthbound for now, until the novelty wears off.

 

He thinks he’s beginning to understand McCoy’s perpetual belligerence.

 

He says, “I have found the continued interest… unexpected.”

 

A gentle laugh. “Have you? I wish I could say the same. Nogura’s far too clever to let this go to waste.”

 

“I cannot concur with his logic,” says Spock.

 

The edges of Kirk’s lips curl upwards, but the gesture could hardly be called a smile. He says, “I agree, but that’s the circus for you. It worked for me, for a while, and now…” A deep breath, eyebrows arced in philosophical surrender. “Now I’m working for it.”

 

Spock inclines his head. “It is in situations such as this,” he says, “That I am reminded of the Terran cultural hegemony in matters of Starfleet Command.”

 

Kirk grins. “Let’s not start that again,” he says.

 

“My point is simply that it is illogical to overlook merit and aptitude in favor of less pertinent considerations.”

 

His friend glances down, worries with his fork at a cube of vish-hela. “I prefer not to dwell on it,” he says.

 

“As you wish,” says Spock.

 

“That’s just it,” says Kirk. The tone is pleasant, but there’s an edge to it now. “It’s not ‘as I wish’. It’s just the way things are.”

 

That was really very much Spock’s point, but there’s a momentum building again across the table; he can feel it in the air, like the static build-up that precedes a lightning strike, and he decides to let it slide.

 

So he says, “That is my understanding of the situation.”

 

Kirk rolls his eyes. “That’s a politician’s answer.”

 

An eyebrow arcs. “You would prefer a different response?”

 

Spock.” It’s a noise of exasperation, haphazardly shaped around his name. “Is it what I would have chosen? No. No, of course it’s not.” A beat. “It’s not starship command,” he says coldly. “But it’s good work. It’s good work, and I’m proud of it.”

 

“Naturally,” says Spock.

 

Kirk’s eyes narrow. “What should I have done, Spock?” he says. “Resigned? Turned my back on the only career I’ve ever known - the only career I’ve ever wanted? Walked away from any chance of ever standing on that bridge again?”

 

No, McCoy was not wrong. Another crack worries its way across Spock’s fragmenting shields; this is going to take hours of meditation tonight.

 

“Jim,” he says, “I have made no such suggestion.”

 

The anger breaks, like clouds chased by the wind, and it leaves the eyes exposed for one empty, desolate second. Then the shutters swing down and the moment is gone. Kirk shakes his head.

 

“You’re right,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

 

“There is no offense where none is taken,” says Spock, and a lopsided smile tugs on one side of his friend’s mouth.

 

Kirk says, “A likely story, Commander, but I have five years’ worth of evidence to the contrary to back me up.”

 

“I find this improbable.”

 

“I thought you might.”

 

There is no answer to that, so Spock allows one eyebrow to register his disdain and twirls pickled mashya strips around his fork. Kirk grins into his glass as he lifts it to his lips, ice cubes chittering against each other on the agitated surface of the water. In the manufactured hush of the empty balcony, the sound is amplified; unnaturally loud.

 

“So, tell me, Mr Spock,” says the Commodore cheerfully as he replaces the beaker, water glistening on his upper lip. “Are you really going to consult with Xeno on Torelius VII?”

 

“Should the order be given,” says Spock. The eyebrow arcs again. “I would remind you, Jim: you are no longer the ranking officer in my immediate environment.”

 

As conversational gambits go, this one is riskier than common sense dictates, and he can feel a corresponding tension in his shoulders while he waits for Kirk’s reaction. There was a time when this kind of casual provocation would have been de rigueur, but the man in front of Spock is several shades removed from the captain he used to know; even the name has changed. Spock finds that he cannot confidently predict the likely response, and this is… disquieting.

 

But Kirk, after a moment’s hesitation, offers a wry smile and drops his eyes to his plate as he spears a stalk of fori. “Touché,” he says. It’s possible that the air hums with dissipating tension; it’s also possible that Spock is seeking evidence of something that isn’t there. “I won’t deny we could use your help. But I believe you’ll find it quite pedestrian.”

 

Spock considers the possibility of that descriptor applying to any assignment involving James T Kirk, and privately doubts it. But he says, “Every project encompasses elements of the banal.”

 

“I wouldn’t call any of our joint ventures ‘banal’,” says Kirk cheerfully.

 

“I do not believe,” says Spock, “That you would have expressed similar sentiments at the time. As I recall…”

 

Kirk rolls his eyes, but they’re dancing. “Not the Pompelius mission again.”

 

“…On several occasions, you expressed your dissatisfaction in the strongest and most unambiguous terms…”

 

“You’ll never let me forget this, will you?”

 

“…I believe ‘stultifyingly dull’ was your precise terminology.”

 

“Every single readout in the vicinity indicated that the ionic wave would bypass the system! And it did. Six weeks in orbit around an uninhabited world, protecting a communications array that was in no danger in the first place…”

 

“I do not comment on the validity or otherwise of the mission,” says Spock.

 

The corners of Kirk’s mouth twitch. “No. Nor did you at the time, I recall.”

 

“I was able to use the opportunity to take a number of intriguing gravitational measurements.”

 

“As ever,” says Kirk, “Our definitions of ‘intriguing’ do not concur. But then…” A beat. “You’re better at this than I am, Spock. I think if they assigned you to a six-by-six metal box, you’d spend your time calculating the combined ionic charge of the oxygen molecules in the air.”

 

His eyes drop, fixing on his plate, where his fork swirls abstract patterns in the forati sauce. Spock hesitates. He is not good at this.

 

Slowly, carefully, he says, “Such a project would be eminently unlikely to occupy the full eighteen months of our ground assignment, Jim.”

 

A snort of laughter escapes the downturned face, and Kirk lifts his eyes to meet Spock’s. “You’ll have to forgive my remedial grasp of particle physics, my friend,” he says.

 

“Naturally,” says Spock, which earns him a full-blown grin. It flares brightly but quickly burns itself out, like a star in supernova.

 

“Eighteen months,” says Kirk, and purses his lips in a moue. “It sounds longer every time I say it.”

 

“This is not logi…”

 

“I know it’s not logical. Allow me a little hyperbole for effect, will you?”

 

Spock inclines his head. “If I must.”

 

Dryly: “You’re too kind.”

 

“Perhaps.”

 

That trails a chuckle out of his companion, but it disperses quickly on the air and the momentary silence that follows in its wake is skittish, frayed around the edges, difficult to read. Kirk says, “I never gave much thought to this. Before. To… how it would be.”

 

“I do not follow,” says Spock, although he’s fairly sure he does.

 

A brittle smile. “Earthbound. Grounded.” He reaches for his glass, lifts it to his mouth, but before he sips he says, “You heard about Starbase 19?”

 

“I was asked to decipher part of the original message received by Luna Command,” says Spock.

 

The grin returns abruptly, flushing momentary warmth into Kirk’s eyes. “Of course you were,” he says.

 

Spock acknowledges the gentle amusement with a patrician nod. “However,” he says, “I have also been apprised of the situation in more general terms.”

 

Kirk nods and the smile recedes, leaving him steel-eyed and serious. It’s a gesture that Spock recognizes, this ability to switch from comrade to commander in a single breath. But for the fact that they are sitting in the early spring sunshine of a pleasant late-February morning, on the edge of San Francisco Bay with the Pacific stretched out and glistening at their feet and the keening of gulls piercing the sound dampening fields of the quiet restaurant, he might be staring down a red alert on the bridge of his ship. Turn your head one way, he’s the same old Jim Kirk. Turn it another and he’s… different.

 

Slowly, he says, “I never considered what it would be like to have to listen and do nothing.” He looks up, and his eyes are locked down tight with that unflinching, dispassionate focus that has kept the Enterprise alive through more dangerous encounters than they had any right to survive. “But sitting at a desk, knowing that there’s a situation, something to do - something that needs to be done, and I…” He trails off, frustration curling at the edges of his mouth. “You know what we’d have done, Spock. We’d have found some reason we ought to be the first responders, and they’d have let us, because they’d’ve known we were right. And it wouldn’t have taken us seventy-two goddamn hours to get there.”

 

There are many, many logical - and logistical - objections to everything Kirk has just said, but Spock says nothing. It seems to be the safest course of action.

 

“To watch and not act,” says the Commodore now. “It goes against every instinct. Everything I’ve ever sworn to uphold.”

 

The voice is soft but lifeless, as though a cold fury has raged and burned itself out and his words have been raked from the ashes. With rising alarm, Spock identifies contempt in the inanimate tone: disgust for the Captain-that-was who watches, impotently, from the sidelines. Carefully, he says, “Jim…”

 

But Kirk shakes his head. “I know, I know,” he says. “It’s hubris. It’s arrogance to think that Enterprise is the only ship in the fleet; that’s there’s anything we could have done that the Concordat and the Alliance won’t do. I know,” he says again, but discontent hangs heavy in his face, dragging at the corners of his mouth and darkening his eyes. “I just… I feel useless, Spock. And it’s making me jump at shadows.”

 

A beat. Spock waits, but, no, apparently this is one of those moments in which disclosure can only be achieved with further prompting. So he says, “I do not follow.”

 

Kirk circles his hands around his glass, tilting it towards him so that the water slices a diagonal line against the canted sides, ice cubes clinking a soft protest. “A theory I had,” he says, eyes unfocused, cast towards the mobile surface of the liquid. “I think… I thought I saw a connection. I don’t know. Maybe…” But the thought breaks off in a sharp intake of breath, and he amends it to another, quiet, “I don’t know.”

 

Reticence is, perhaps, understandable, but scarcely productive. Spock resists the urge to lament the Human propensity for equivocation, and instead says, as levelly as he can, “A theory concerning the attack on Starbase 19?”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “A theory concerning the com chatter received at Luna Command.”

 

An eyebrow quirks. “The message was largely unintelligible.”

 

“I know. I listened to it.” The Commodore glances up, the ghost of a grin playing across his face. “No doubt we have you to thank for the bits that bear any kind of a passing resemblance to Standard.”

 

Spock inclines his head. “They are few,” he says.

 

“I dare say they’d be fewer still without you,” says Kirk. “Still. What little information there is, it’s almost impossible to interpret. Admiral Ciana thought they were talking about a series of attacks in the sector,” he adds, and something about the casual tone with which he references his CO tightens the muscles across Spock’s shoulders and sets his teeth. But Kirk has cast his eyes back into his water glass; he doesn’t see the the sudden tension in his companion’s posture, the constriction of his jaw, and Spock buries it before his friend can glance up. “It seems… plausible,” he says. “And I thought, attacks - like the attack on Ajillon Prime, like the one on Archanis IV. What if they were a part of the series? What if that’s what the Starbase was trying to communicate before they went dark?”

 

He meets Spock’s gaze and holds it, and his expression is scrupulously impassive, ambivalence erased behind a veneer of composure. But there’s something ever so slightly off-key about the air of scientific detachment, subtle but enough to advocate a closer look, to uncover the disquiet that peeks through the cracks. This is not idle speculation, but, rather, a confession of sorts, and Spock realizes that he has no idea how he ought to respond. It’s not that the data does not support the extrapolation, it’s only that it requires something of a semantic leap to arrive at Kirk’s hypothesis.

 

“It seems…” he says, slowly, and he searches for the right word, but several seconds of scouring his brain’s Standard databanks offers no better option than, “…tenuous.”

 

Kirk watches him thoughtfully for a long moment, eyes hooded and inscrutable, and Spock finds it impossible to determine, from that blank, taciturn stare, whether or not he’s made a tactical error. But then the Commodore huffs a quiet, rueful laugh and drops his gaze towards the table, where his hands worry at a stray thread on his napkin.

 

“Perhaps,” he says. A beat. “No. You’re right. I can’t connect the attacks to each other, let alone to a Federation Starbase. There are similarities, but why wouldn’t they be similar? Small, isolated communities in sparsely populated systems - of course they’re vulnerable to attack. It proves nothing.”

 

Kirk takes a deep breath and turns his head towards the water, staring absently over the gentle wash of white-tipped waves against the leviathan struts of the Bay Bridge. His lips tighten, but otherwise he holds himself so still that it’s possible to see the gentle pulse of his carotid artery under the straining skin of his neck. Softly, with difficulty, he says, “There’s a part of me wonders…” A sigh. He tries again: “I wonder if I simply wanted to see more than there is, and I don’t… I don’t like that idea, Spock.” Black eyes slide sideways to fix on his First with a dark, unreadable stare. “It disturbs me.”

 

Spock steeples his hands and considers the tips of his fingers as he constructs a reply. Distress radiates across the table, like heat from a dying sun, and it strikes him that the confession has been drawn out of his friend like poison from a wound.

 

Carefully, he says, “Jim. It has not been my experience that you are prone to fabrication, regardless of circumstance.”

 

Across the table, rigid eyebrows gently slope. It’s a tiny gesture, but Spock knows his friend well enough to read conflicted relief behind it.

 

Kirk says, “I’m not sure I know what to think anymore.” A beat. “I feel as though both hands are tied behind my back and I’m peering out from a crack beneath the prison door.”

 

“It is my understanding,” says Spock, “that captivity is often a question of perspective.”

 

A diffident grin. “Metaphor, Mr Spock? I believe you’re picking up bad habits on your Terran assignment.”

 

“Nevertheless,” says Spock. “These are the circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

 

Kaiidth?” says Kirk, which causes Spock’s eyebrow to quirk of its own accord. Laughter sputters out of the Commodore; it lances something malignant in the air. “One day,” he says, “It will cease to surprise you when I remember my vocab.”

 

“No doubt,” says Spock. “Perhaps that will be the day that you remember the lateral approximant on the central dipthong.”

 

“You know, you’ve mentioned approximants several times in our practice sessions, and I’m still not sure I know what it means.” He holds up a hand as Spock takes a breath to speak. “Nor am I asking,” he says amiably. “I feel sure that some things are better left unsaid.”

 

Spock inclines his head. “Kaiidth,” he says, although he’s no longer certain they’re talking about pronunciation, or even about Starfleet.

 

Kaiidth,” echoes Kirk quietly, and, in the depths of his eyes, something... fades.

 

A deep breath. Resolve drains the darkness from the Commodore’s face and he says, “Well. I guess there’s nothing to do but see what the Alliance and the Concordat report back. I’ve never been much good at waiting, though, if you recall.”

 

That’s not quite true: Spock has had several opportunities to observe the Captain engaged in an astonishingly disciplined game of political bluff-calling as circumstances dictate, but there’s a subtle difference between biding time and idling. He says, “If I may?”

 

Eyebrows arch in mild surprise. “I doubt I’m going to like this.”

 

Spock inclines his head non-committally. He says, “Whether or not there is a connection to be made between the attacks in the Ajillon and Archanis systems and the attack on Starbase 19, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which the Captain I have followed would be content to accept a judgment that did not accord with his own instinct.” He looks up, fixing his eyes on Kirk’s. “As your former First Officer, this remains my recommendation.”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “That… wasn’t quite what I was expecting.”

 

“Nevertheless…”

 

“Nevertheless,” says Kirk. “Circumstances are not quite what they were. I have no ship and no crew.”

 

Spock resists the urge to roll his eyes and tries again. “The Captain of the Enterprise…” he says, but his companion cuts him off.

 

“There is no Captain of the Enterprise,” says Kirk. The tone is gentle but inexorable. “There’s no Enterprise at all just now, in fact.”

 

Neither statement is available to challenge on any logical grounds. The Enterprise’s commander is no longer of the rank of Captain; nor is the Enterprise currently, in any meaningful sense, the Enterprise. But the voice is strained, as though the lightness of tone is subject to the kind of tension that could put a dent in the hull of a starship. As though it’s designed to mask the defeat that clouds a pair of hazel eyes that refuse to meet his companion’s.

 

Spock revises his earlier estimate: hours of meditation will not suffice. He could spend all night cross-legged on the floor and have nothing to show for it tomorrow; this is going to take days to repair.

 

“I understand,” he says slowly, “That the purpose of the refit is to prepare Enterprise for increasingly distant exploratory missions. When the modifications are complete, I believe you will find that your crew will serve below a Commodore as willingly as they served below a Captain.”

 

Kirk smiles faintly, lets loose a soft laugh, but his gaze darts, unmistakably, to the new braids on his arm.

 

“We’ll see,” he says. He glances up before Spock can reply, and his eyes spark with a kind of determined gaiety that effectively closes off any further discussion of those two words. “And you?” he says lightly. “Perhaps you’ll find this teaching assignment of yours a little too comfortable to tempt you back into the privations of deep space.”

 

“The assignment is adequately stimulating,” says Spock. And then, because the fact of the gentle provocation is a helpful sign, he quirks an eyebrow and adds, “However, I would hardly call it ‘comfortable’.”

 

Another laugh, stronger this time. “Perhaps not. But you can’t tell me that the new sensor processing array isn’t quite the incentive, Science Officer.”

 

“It is impressive,” says Spock. “Though scarcely comparable to the observational possibilities inherent in deep space.”

 

“I think I’d rather conduct your stellar antimatter analysis from the safety of a Terran terminal screen,” says Kirk, with the conviction of a man who has cause to know exactly why this state of affairs is preferable.

 

Spock acknowledges the truth of this with a sideways nod. It turns out that the data is more robust, in any case, when the sensors responsible for its collection are not in imminent danger of being sucked past an event horizon whose boundaries turned out to be slightly more difficult to predict than anyone expected. He says, “Not every natural phenomenon is suitable for observation in the field.”

 

Kirk smiles, eyes dancing with memory. “We seemed to have a talent for finding the ones that weren’t,” he says.

 

“I believe,” says Spock, “That Doctor McCoy would agree with this assessment.”

 

Kirk laughs. “Bones…” he says, but the thought goes nowhere, trailing off into silence. His smile slowly fades, dissolving like paper in water, and he turns his head out towards the Bay. He says, “How far can you see with these sensors of yours?”

 

“Data feeds from every sector in the quadrant in which Starfleet is able to maintain a presence.”

 

“It’s not quite the same, though, is it?”

 

No, it is not. But it’s possible that, once again, they’re not talking about the same thing. Spock says, “Observation is rarely as satisfactory as participation.”

 

A rapid sideways glance tells him that Kirk has read the other meaning in his words. But he twists another smile out of his recalcitrant lips and says, “Think you could smuggle a Commodore into the imaging suite some time?”

 

Spock inclines his head. “I am bound to uphold any direct order from a ranking officer.”

 

“Perhaps you could explain that to Bones some time,” says Kirk amiably. “I don’t believe he ever got that memo.”

 

This is unquestionably true, but Spock can’t bring himself to find that worthy of reproach just now. He says, “No doubt it will be critical to some element of your work that you examine sensor data from systems under your consideration.”

 

“No doubt,” says Kirk.

 

“In such instance, I see no need to ‘smuggle’, Commodore.”

 

Kirk’s brow furrows at the mention of his title, but he covers it with a smile. “Excellent,” he says. “Perhaps you’ll be good enough to make some suggestions as to which areas of the quadrant I ought to look at.”

 

“That will be at your discretion,” says Spock.

 

The smile widens and reaches Kirk’s eyes. He says, “Show me somewhere we’ve never been.”

 

“As you wish,” says Spock.

 

Kirk breathes deeply, like a man waking from a long sleep, and leans back in his chair. He lifts his glass, tilts it towards Spock. “Here’s to making the best of things,” he says. And then, softly, so quietly that a Human might strain to hear it, he adds, “Kaiidth.”

 

 

Chapter Text

They part at Command HQ at Spock’s request. An extra thirty seconds will carry them as far as the Academy, but Spock demurs - he wants to walk, he says, and there aren’t really any convincing grounds on which to argue the point, so Kirk concedes.

 

However, his pride can’t help but comment. “Afraid I’ll show you up in front of all your learned friends?” he says with genuine grin, but he’s not sure how much of the question is playful banter and how much of it is intended to bruise the flesh behind those immutable Vulcan shields. Spock, of course, does not react.

 

“On the contrary,” he says, which is one of those phrases he uses that sounds like it means something until you pick it apart and find that there’s nothing beneath the scrupulously-polished veneer. “I simply prefer to take advantage of the clement weather.”

 

“Clement?” says Kirk, whose temperature gauge read forty degrees when he left his apartment this morning.

 

A patrician nod. “Comparatively speaking.”

 

Kirk regards him levelly. “Comparatively? Compared to, say, a desert planet?”

 

“Compared to many of the winter days I passed in this city as a child,” says his companion mildly.

 

Kirk knows when he’s beaten. He grins. “Of course,” he says. “I’ll leave you to enjoy your clemency, Commander.” Spock nods and begins to get to his feet, and Kirk adds, quickly, “Let’s not leave it so long next time, though?”

 

It wasn’t supposed to be a question. That hesitant note, the tone of manifest uncertainty: that wasn’t supposed to be there. Moreover, it’s useless to think that Spock won’t notice; his hand has already frozen in the act of moving towards the door release. Damn.

 

Gently, Spock says, “Indeed.”

 

Indeed? Indeed yes or indeed no? More to the point, which one of those means, I am inclined to repeat this experience? But Kirk has already given away more than he intended, and there’s no way to ask the question now. So he simply says, “I’ve missed our talks.”

 

Spock inclines his head. “As have I.”

 

It’s not an answer. But it’s a start. Kirk smiles, considers raising the ta’al, scraps the idea before it’s half-formed, and, before he can change his mind, reaches out and closes a hand around his friend’s arm. He feels the flesh beneath his fingers freeze, muscles stiffening as though his touch is electric, as though it burns. But no fleeting ghost of distress passes across the impassive eyes; Spock makes no effort to pull himself free from the grip. He simply holds himself still until Kirk lets go.

 

“Until next time,” says Kirk.

 

“Until then,” says Spock.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Perhaps he has a point, though. It’s cooler in Horseshoe Bay than on the Presidio, but the sky is visible above the clouds for the first time in forever and the air smells fresh, like distant rain and growing things. As Kirk follows the short path down the gentle slope that leads from the arrivals lot to the Bozeman Center, he can feel the morning’s fug lifting from his soul like mist evaporating on the Bay. Until then, said Spock, and, if it wasn’t exactly committal, neither was it dismissive. Kirk has plenty of reason to recognize a brush-off from his former First, and that wasn’t it. It’s possible this is going to be all right.

 

Xeno is currently cresting the clamorous peak of one of its daily cycles of meltdown and complicated recovery, and the lobby is a tide of moving bodies and noise and information. Kirk weaves through the crossfire with practiced ease, circling quickly around an Ensign with an armful of PADDs and paper heaped in a precarious tower that stretches from her belly to her chin, and glancing absently towards the screens in case they might hold any hint as to what’s set off the current commotion. A frantic wave from the far corner draws his eye towards his Yeoman, one hand pressed to her earpiece as she carries on a conversation with persons unknown, the other fluttering insistently in the air above her head. Kirk smothers a grin and shoulders his way across the floor to her cubicle.

 

She’s nodding along with her unseen speaker, although her terminal screen is blank and non-verbal cues are unlikely to pass successfully along an audio-only line. “Uh-huh, yup,” she’s saying. A glance up. “Lieutenant Commander, can you hold for just a moment? Thank you, ma’am.” To Kirk, as she mutes the line: “Sir, the latest reports from OpTacs and Expansion are on your terminal. Commodore Kel needs to reschedule your 1500, but he says he’s about forty-eight hours away from a green light on opening up Epsilon Delta Rho, which puts Barsamin IX back on the table. Also, sir, you might want to check the feeds from Sector 44C; there’s been some chatter from the Cincinnatus indicating a possible outbreak of hostilities in 16 Cygni B. And Admiral Ciana wants to see you when you have a moment, sir - she’s with Admirals Appiah and Bell just now, but she’s due to finish at 1445.”

 

It’s always safest to wait a couple of seconds after Sanders stops speaking, just to be sure, but when nothing more is forthcoming, Kirk says, “Thank you, Yeoman.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” she says, and she’s back to the Lieutenant Commander before she’s drawn another breath, “Ma’am, thank you for holding - I can tell you that Xeno does hold the files for the settlement proposals, but I can’t give you details of the precise location… Uh-huh… Yup, I understand that…”

 

She’s not looking at him, so there’s no point in hiding the buoyant grin that’s struggling to break free across his face as he battles his way across the short space to the cool quiet of his office and lets the door slide shut on the tumult outside. He hasn’t crossed this threshold yet today and the windows are still darkened from the night before, but they lighten with a gentle command, and the powder-blue and silver of the Bay beyond rush in to fill the room. Weak, low sunlight casts a pearlescent sheen on the glass, just enough to reflect the ghost of himself back at him, shaded in washed-out, ethereal grays against the San Francisco skyline, and he wonders, vaguely, what Spock saw when he looked at him this morning. He wonders if he’s the same man that lost sight of his friend in a crowded room on a crowded night. He wonders if…

 

No. He’s not going there. That door is closed.

 

Kirk crosses to his synthesizer and punches in the code for coffee: very hot and very strong. From this angle, it’s possible to see that his terminal screen is tastefully but insistently blinking a summons, but he ignores it and turns back to the window. The work will wait for him; it’s not as though anyone’s life is dependent on Kirk’s presence behind a computer screen in the next fifteen minutes. And how often does he get the chance to simply stand quietly in the early afternoon light and rifle through his thoughts? He feels as though he hasn’t seen his native sun in too many years to count: other suns, a hundred others, but his own has been an afterthought at the very back of his head, dismissed when he considered it at all. And home is important. He said as much to Spock, once upon a time.

 

Maybe the meeting was a mistake. Damn it, there are a lot of ways in which it was definitely a mistake. For example, to pluck one particularly pertinent fact straight out of the air, there’s the fact that the first thing - the very first thing - that registered in his mind when he turned over his shoulder and found his gaze locked with his erstwhile First Officer’s, was a violent surge of attraction that clamped steel fingers around his chest like a vise. There is no getting away from this. That same buzz; the gently gnawing thrill that creates a kind of whisper inside his gut and sets his bones on edge; the kinetic disquiet that fires off little haphazard commands to all his motor receptors and forces him to vigorously repress the urge to fidget like a twelve-year-old boy outside the principal’s office; the pooling warmth in his belly and the rushing tide of desire; all of this slammed into his central cortex like a Saladin-class starship at Warp 8 in the instant it took him to process the sight of Spock standing just across the lobby.

 

It’s funny. He’d have sworn that drinks with Ciana in the Casa Lavanda was leading somewhere, but the next day they were right back to Kirk and ma’am and uniformed salutes. She’s easy with him - open, kind, accommodating - but she’s been easy with him since he started, and nothing has changed these past days. He looks at her sometimes, stolen glances in idle moments, and wonders if he’s sorry he went home alone that night. There’s no question that she’s attractive, but is he attracted to her? Shouldn’t he know if he is? They were talking this morning, half business, half pleasure, and he was watching the play of the unexpected sunlight on her skin, the way it drifted across her shifting face, the way it caught on the warmth of her smile and amplified it, and he could see that she was beautiful, but the knowledge was abstract, as though he was learning how to see it. And then he turned over his shoulder and saw a figure in science blues standing on the edge of the shadows, and there was nothing academic about it. Ciana is beautiful, but she’s just… not Spock.

 

As if on cue, his door buzzes, and he knows by the way that it opens before he has a chance to call out a response - and by the way she seems to have made some kind of arcane art out of turning up as soon as he starts thinking about her - that it will be his CO.

 

“Hey,” she says. “How was lunch?”

 

“Good,” he says. “Your recommendation was excellent, thank you. I heard about 16 Cygni B.”

 

“Ugh.” She rolls her eyes. “It’s a fiasco. How many times did you tell them? Maybe now they’ll actually start listening to the guy they put in charge of making sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen, but I guess I won’t hold my breath.”

 

Nor will Kirk. He says, “There’s a chance our presence precipitated the outbreak…”

 

But Ciana shakes her head. “It’s not an outbreak per se, more like a pissing contest got out of hand,” she says. “It’ll simmer down. The Cincinnatus is going to hang back and observe for a few days, but this is their business, Kirk. Official line is we’re staying out of it. They weren’t ready.”

 

He shrugs his eyebrows. “I believe that’s what my report said.”

 

“Yup, the one I saw sure read a lot like that.” She sighs, crosses her arms. “Talking of reports,” she says. “You won’t believe what just landed on my desk.”

 

Kirk looks up. “The Concordat?”

 

She nods - a sharp, utilitarian gesture. “You got a minute? You should really see this.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

The image on the screen looks very much like a Federation starbase might look if someone turned out all the lights and left it suspended in space, black against black in the center of the void. Searchlights caress the edges, picking out blank viewing ports and airlocks, a shuttle bay with the doors firmly closed, escape pods in a neat circle, motionless and unchanging beneath the rhythmic sweep of a starship’s unseeing eye.

 

“The grid was down for five days all in,” says Ciana. Her voice is soft in the silence of the room. “Cold as Andor, but auxiliary power kept central life support running on the command floors; I guess everyone just kind of cosied up together in there and held tight.”

 

Kirk’s eyes widen. “There were survivors?”

 

Ciana smiles faintly. “Not just ‘survivors’,” she says. “No goddamn casualties. Not so much as a grazed knee, Kirk. Everyone made it.”

 

He releases a breath, wonders where the sense of relief has gone. This ought to feel different. He says, “It… doesn’t make any sense. What happened?”

 

“Damned if anyone knows,” says his CO. She sits back in her chair, stretches her arms above her head. The action pulls her tunic tight against her chest, and he carefully keeps his eyes averted from the outline of her figure. “There was no declaration of hostilities, no attack, nothing. Just - one minute, power, the next minute - darkness.”

 

“So it was - what? A burned-out fuse?”

 

“Uh-uh.” She shakes her head. “A burned-out fuse wouldn’t make the entire central cortex just… disappear.”

 

Disappear?”

 

“It’s gone. Nothing but a whole bunch of trailing wires and a big goddamn hole in the middle of the duotronics floor. It’s why they couldn’t send out a distress beacon. They had enough power, but the subspace link was dead.”

 

“But… an operation like that takes… hours, certainly. At the very least. Someone must know who’s behind it.”

 

She shakes her head again. “They’ve got nothing. Commodore Hansen swears he saw no nearby vessels on any of the readout screens.”

 

“All that means is that the vessel that attacked them was cloaked.”

 

“Well, sure.”

 

“Which means that your theory about the Klingons…”

 

“Is just as plausible as any of maybe half a dozen other races out there, most of whom wouldn’t exactly be sorry to see Starfleet - or the Federation - take the occasional hit.”

 

Kirk gets halfway to opening his mouth to argue, but aborts the motion before he’s drawn breath. Because she’s right. The Federation exists in an uneasy equilibrium with a handful of other powers, known and half-known, and any one of them could have decided that this was the week to start re-balancing the authority equation. And there’s not one of them that can be safely accused, let alone set straight on the etiquette of galactic relations.

 

“It doesn’t fit anymore,” says Ciana now. “A retaliatory smackdown? That I can see. But this…”

 

No. It doesn’t fit. “Someone on the Starbase must have seen something,” he insists.

 

“They say no,” she says.

 

Kirk throws up his hands, paces to the center of the room. “How is it possible,” he snaps, “That the heart of a starbase can be cut out and not a single man or woman on board can say how it happened?”

 

“It was pitch black,” Ciana points out mildly. “Life support was failing. They needed to get to the bridge before Hansen had to seal the lower decks. Whoever did this knew what they were doing. This wasn’t a blood feud; this was calculated, planned.”

 

A beat. “And the com chatter?”

 

Now Ciana rolls her eyes. “You ever meet Hansen?”

 

Kirk shakes his head. “No.”

 

“I knew him at the Academy - he was an upperclassman my freshman year. Good guy to have at your side in a firefight, but…” She sighs. “Some ways, he’s dumber than a bag of hammers, other ways he’s so sharp you could cut yourself. And he knows how to play the game. He’s set to look pretty damn stupid regardless; last thing he needs is to start looking paranoid too.”

 

“He’s denying the message?”

 

“He’s denying our interpretation of it. He says they were reporting second-hand rumors, says that the word ‘attack’ was never in his original transmission. And he’s right, or he could be - you’ve heard the tapes. There’s no way to be sure.” She looks up, shakes her head. “It’s over, Kirk. We count this one as a win and move on. Nobody got hurt, nobody died. There’ll be ripples. It'll be investigated. But not by us.”

 

Kirk twists on his heel so that he’s facing out of the long, curved window. The sun scatters silver frosting on the surface of the bay, sculpted and chased by a brisk February wind. Spock will be back behind his desk at the Academy by now, buried in numbers, cocooned and oblivious and radiant with discovery. He feels closer than he has for weeks, maybe months, but Kirk needs him at his side right now. He thinks better when he’s there.

 

Slowly, he says, “Very well. You have my report.”

 

“Yeah,” she says, and he knows by her tone that she will disregard it. Not because she wants to, but because nobody died and so they count this as a win and move on.

 

“I take it this puts Draconis back on the table?”

 

She tilts her head, raises her eyebrows. “Maybe. We’ll see. Could be we’ve lost our window.”

 

“I’ll have Vasiliou pull together the original files, just in case.”

 

“Good idea.” She releases a breath, but the tone speaks of an unfinished thought. So it’s not entirely a surprise when she says, “Kirk…”

 

The trailing sentence. Never a good sign. He says, “Yes, ma’am?”

 

“That’s not the only news I got today.”

 

He blinks, sucks in a breath to cover the sudden spike of anxiety that pools deep in his belly like ice-water. An eyebrow quirks, and he says, more steadily than he feels, “No?”

 

“No.” Her brow furrows. “This welcome-home ceremony…”

 

The ceremony. The goddamn ceremony. He almost laughs out loud, so submerged is he by relief.

 

“Ah,” he says. “They haven’t forgotten.”

 

“You know brass,” she says. “They don’t let go when it’s something they want. Like a dog with a damn chew toy.”

 

He acknowledges the truth of that with a thin smile. “I take it they’ve set a date?”

 

“April 17th. Cochrane Day.” A beat. “I guess… Seems they liked the symbolism.”

 

Kirk sighs. But maybe it’s better, after all, to finally put this to rest. Cochrane Day is some seven weeks away yet, and every day he feels a little further removed from his old life. Maybe, by then, it’ll feel like it’s possible to say goodbye.

 

It also gives him an excuse to comm Spock. It could be that the ceremony has its compensations.

 

“A few hours of hand-shaking and smiling for the holocams,” he says. “I believe I’ll survive.”

 

She grins, but there’s an edge of relief to it. “I’d get you out of it if I could,” she says.

 

She would? That’s… unexpected. But he smiles and straightens his spine, and says, “Thank you, ma’am, but that won’t be necessary.”

 

Ciana’s lips curl upwards, but the look she trains on him is speculative. “Good,” she says. “Okay then. I’ll let you get back to work.”

 

Kirk nods. “Ma’am,” he says, and turns towards the door.

 

 

~*~

 

 

But he’s restless, and mundane does not come easily when his mind is animated like this. In another life, he’d have handed the conn over to Chekov or Sulu and sought out Spock for a spot of long-term strategic planning, because strategy is infinitely less tedious when it’s something you live and not just something you do. But the infinite variety of that other life was an artifact of distance and the autonomy it necessarily imposes; wired into the command network and readily available at the whim of the admiralty, it turns out that the collective inclination is to commit every tiny fluctuation of brain energy to written or verbal communication, and convention apparently dictates that every such missive requires a response, regardless of merit, relevance, or inclination. Kirk’s screen is still blinking when he lets himself back into his office, like the pointed and relentless clearing of a duotronic throat, reminding him that he has - his brow furrows - seventy-three new messages since last night. It’s amazing anything ever gets done in this place, the amount of time everyone spends sending messages to everyone else. At least seventy-two of them will be small roadblocks in the path of progress: gilded no’s or budget restrictions, or maybe just wasted time that could be spent in more productive pursuits. Maybe one of them will be a step forward, but that’s a hell of a lot of back-steps to counter.

 

His coffee stands, tepid and disregarded, on the edge of his desk, and he pushes it irritably to one side as he lowers himself into his seat, considers dialing up a fresh cup, decides against it. Resignedly, he tells the computer to scroll through his mail, flicking disinterestedly past lines of blank, impersonal text, and the opening strands of an AV monolog or two, voices flaring and dying like blaring horns or crow-calls beneath his impatient skimming. He has half an idea what he’s going to do even as he’s pretending he doesn’t, skipping irascibly from contact to contact as though each of them has personally offended him by not being from the one person he actually wants to hear from, but it’s important, for some reason, to maintain this air of reserve. And there it is, buried beneath three days’ worth of irrelevance: two lines of impersonal prose, remarkable only for the name attached and the cold rush of anxiety and elation that it shook out of his furiously scrambling brain on the night it arrived.

 

Two lines. Two lines. His eye scans them now quickly, quietly, almost against his will: Commodore Kirk, greetings - I have received word of your promotion. I therefore request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to offer my congratulations. Regards, Commander Spock, Starfleet Academy. Kirk has no idea what he was expecting when he finally found the words to snap a terse command to the computer; he had half an idea that he’d scroll through thirty-some pages of incomprehensible equations only to discover, at the bottom, that the communication had been sent to the wrong person, so anything over and above that was a bonus. Poetry was never likely. But Hello might have been nice. Maybe, How are you, Jim? Are you well? Are you content?

 

…Is your work satisfactory? Would you wish for more, or simply greater variety? Are your associates tolerable or do they incite in you that cold fury that always made me raise one eyebrow in silent disapproval? Does your brain try to feel the motion of warp speed through the floor in idle moments? Does it seem as though you are sleepwalking through your days; have you drawn a mental calendar behind your eyelids that you check off every morning as soon as your brain achieves consciousness, just so that you can convince yourself you’re twenty-four solar hours closer to release? Do you glance up from your desk after long periods of solitary industry because some part of you that wasn’t paying attention thought it heard familiar footsteps outside the door? Do you fail to glance up at the picture I gave you because every sight of it is a brand new wound cut deep into some part of you that feels as though it will never mend? Do you find yourself whispering little words in Vulcan when the strangest things remind you? Do you avoid looking at the night sky in case you remember which star is mine? Am I your constant companion, day and night; your conscience and your shadow? Am I the last face you see before you sleep?

 

Of course it said none of these things. It was from Spock. But the austere, indifferent missive - thirty blank, featureless words, words that would have been more at home on a subpoena or a planning application - was like an insult by proxy. Better to have sent nothing at all. He went to bed furious and stayed that way for almost forty-eight hours. But in the end… In the end, he guesses, he just missed his friend.

 

It was good to see him. And if nothing has changed in the weeks that they’ve been apart, if the thin flesh of his lips tingles just beneath the surface every time he remembers dark eyes canted upwards from hooded brows, cautiously distant across the table but unmistakably fixed on Kirk; if the recollection of corded muscles beneath science blues, rigid beneath a stolen touch, tugs incorrigible desire from the base of his spine to twist and pool in his groin; if the memory of his scent, unmistakable, warm, and exotic, persistently and inexorably drags his reverberating mind back to the milky light of an alien world suspended under unfamiliar skies and the press of coveted skin against skin… kaiidth. He’ll manage.

 

His communicator is halfway across the table, lying where he tossed it haphazardly on his return from lunch. There are probably a million reasons not to do this, but one of the reasons he’s the youngest flag officer in the fleet is because there’s a corner of his brain that processes the should nots and filters out the ones that it makes more sense to ignore. The jury’s still out on this particular decision, but it has the added advantage of being what he wants to do, and there’s little enough of that in his life right now. He dials.

 

The pause that follows his opening hail is neither pronounced nor dismissive, but speaks very clearly of a consternated eyebrow. “Commodore?” says that familiar voice, and Kirk, because he is unobserved, sees no reason to leash the wide, delighted grin that spreads across his face.

 

“Spock,” he says cheerfully. “How are you fixed for lunch again tomorrow? I have some news.”

 

“Ah.” Disembodied, it’s impossible not to fill in the slow, elegant nod, the slant of his brows, the expressive shift of his eyes. “No doubt you are referring to the report from the Concordat.”

 

He wasn’t, of course, but it’ll do. “How is it,” says Kirk amiably, “That I outrank you now by two full grades, and I still have the impression that you got the news ahead of me?”

 

A small hesitation, and it occurs to Kirk that this momentary silence on an audio-only line is perhaps the aural equivalent of the smiles that never cross his friend’s face. Then Spock says, “I was approached by Admiral Getz with an enquiry as to how much data might be recoverable from the Starbase’s central cortex.”

 

Kirk’s brow furrows. “But the cortex is missing.”

 

“Indeed,” says Spock.

 

“How does he expect you to recover data from a cortex that isn’t there?”

 

“This was, broadly speaking, my response to the Admiral.” A beat. “However, I believe this answer came as a surprise.”

 

Laughter surges, warm and irrepressible, from somewhere deep inside Kirk that had gotten used to being cold. He says, “So, how about it - lunch tomorrow? Your choice of venue.”

 

“Tomorrow is difficult,” says Spock. “However,” he adds, as cold reality prepares to lance a spear right through the heart of a promising until then, “I believe that Wednesday would be suitable.”

 

The smile stretches, threatens to engulf the lower half of his face. “Wednesday, then,” says Kirk, and signs off.

Chapter Text

Time passes. Weeks melt into weeks as the sun gets yellower and the sky gets bluer. Kirk finds himself walking a little taller as the gathering spring sucks the damp chill out of the earth and the pressure in his chest releases, the angry ache dulling to a low, background keening that can be subsumed beneath the minutiae of daily life. 47 Aeolus C goes nowhere, but Draconis slides back onto the tracks of diplomacy as if it had never stalled, and Eremetis - an impulse-recommendation, prompted by nothing more substantive than the pseudo-Byronic appeal of its solitary moniker on a particularly bad day - turns out to be spectacularly promising on further investigation, and earns him a number of hearty backslaps and a fleeting reputation within the middle echelons of command as a kind of First Contact savant.

 

And Spock is there. He’s there at a distance, and sometimes it’s as though a wall separates them, barriers sliding readily into place with no warning, like a ship entering combat. But sometimes it’s almost as it was before. Sometimes, they’ll be walking side by side, chatting inconsequentially like they used to do, or sitting late into the night at Spock’s desk - because they both prefer his office to Kirk’s - or rediscovering a city that both of them used to know and then forgot, and Kirk will glance over and see something in those dark eyes, something that reminds him all over again that, whatever it was, he wasn’t the only one who felt it. Kirk says nothing in these moments; just catches his breath and drops his gaze and waits for it to pass. This new entente of theirs feels… fragile. He has no desire to find out how much pressure it can take before it breaks.

 

His thirty-seventh birthday passes without incident. Bones is on Ganymede at a conference on blood disorders that he’s been grousing about for weeks, as though his irritation might be in any way convincing to someone who’s known him as long as Kirk, but he comms in the early morning with an irascible comment about the statistical likelihood of arterial plaque build-up in men approaching 40, and a somewhat contradictory promise to bring back a bottle of something highly flammable from Jovian duty-free. There is the customary communication from Kirk’s parents, an unexpected note from a distant cousin whose name he barely remembers, but who clearly watches the holos, and, to his surprise and subdued delight, messages from Uhura and Scotty. Kirk spends a preoccupied journey into his office trying to remember if he even knows when either of their birthdays might be and hoping that he hasn’t inadvertently missed one of them recently. Ciana says nothing, although she must have seen the date in his files, for which small mercy Kirk will be eternally grateful. Nor does he hear from Spock, beyond a perfunctory note wishing him increased prosperity commensurate with the completion of another year of his life and a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment consistent with Terran cultural tradition. The snort of uncontrollable laughter that escapes his former CO was, perhaps, not the note’s intent, though it’s impossible to be certain.

 

As the sun sets, he finds himself restless and wanders to his window to watch the day disappear in a blaze of coral and crimson. A year ago exactly, the only light outside his office was a smattering of silver pinpricks against an endless sea of black, and he was only one year on the wrong side of 35, with a lifetime of possibility spread before him like the open arms of the galaxy. Now he’s suddenly a man approaching 40 and the horizon has shifted, and though he knows that this is nothing more than a question of perspective - semantics at the very most - it feels… rooted. As though there’s a truth here that goes deeper than numbers.This day last year, he was cresting the top of a wave that had risen to incredible heights, but the months between have seen it break against the shore. And this was always going to happen, he’s known that from the beginning - it’s just that it feels as though it happened so soon.

 

It feels as though the past months have been a series of answers to questions that he didn’t mean to ask. Look up from the command chair and feel a hooded gaze in the moments before your eyes confirm it, and there’s possibility there; in a glance that lingers a moment too long; in the brush of long, musician’s fingers against an arm wrapped in command-gold; in a continual, low-level battle to see who can risk the most to save the other. Chip away at layers of reticence, and there’s promise there, bright and unexpected. Maybe it would have been better if it had stayed buried safely under fantasy - since he never really believed that there was a chance for anything more, surely it’s better not to know that he was right? Confirmation rubs a little of the shine off memories that might otherwise have been warm and pleasant: the touch that could mean anything at all, the friendship that might be more, the hidden meaning in words that are never careless. If the answer was always going to be no, then maybe it would be better to have left it hanging, unspoken.

 

And then he remembers cool lips pressed without hesitation against his, the scent of skin and hair and fabric warmed by the relentless desert air, the taste of copper in his mouth… It’s a good memory, and, if he thinks of it infrequently, that’s only because it has the power, every time, to send him spiralling abruptly into desire and arousal, and there are very few places in his life right now where that sort of thing is anything other than embarrassing or inconvenient or both. If it’s their only memory, then at least it’s worthy of its disproportionately-elevated importance. So it’s laced with threads of melancholy that tug a little tighter every time he stands next to his friend and thinks about what might have been. That will pass.

 

Everything passes, in the end. Including one’s thirty-sixth year, and the day that heralds its end. The world keeps turning and the sun keeps rising, and the calendar in his head keeps counting down the days. Every setting sun is another day closer, and there’s a kind of satisfaction in that.

 

Near the end of the month, Kirk’s repeated requests bear fruit, and the interim report into the attack on Starbase 19 appears in his inbox, accompanied by an ill-tempered note from the Vice Admiral in charge of the investigating committee. It’s an 8,000-word document, but so much of the material is redacted that sections of it resemble a Rorschach test, and what’s left consists largely of several hundred different ways of saying damned if we know

 

“What did you expect?” says Ciana when he voices his frustration. “They’ve got nothing to go on. And the prevailing suspicion is basically unprovable and beyond horrifying, so they’re not going to make it official.”

 

Kirk was not aware that any of the prevailing suspicions - a half-dozen races whose names are whispered sagely around the corridors of command with the horrified fascination of teenagers recounting urban legends around a campfire - were particularly plausible. But he says, “Can I ask what’s being done to verify their theory?”

 

His CO leans back in her chair, tilting her head so that she’s looking directly into his face. “Let it go, Kirk,” she says. “If this needs to come to Xeno, you better believe I’ll make sure it does. Right now, there’s nothing you or I can do.”

 

Frustration pinches his lips and he sees it register behind her eyes, even as he tries to contain it. She takes a breath, drops her eyes.

 

“I get that this doesn’t come easy to you,” she says quietly. “But, Kirk… they’re chasing ghosts.”

 

She knows him better than to think it’s enough. She has yet to underestimate him. And he knows her well enough to understand that the quiet assurance with which she’s asking him to take a step back indicates her access to more information than she’s able to share with him. In the quiet darkness of his office that night, Kirk sits with a cooling mug of coffee and scrolls through the monochrome strips of text and and fat ribbons of black, scanning for any hidden nuance, any stray phrase or implication. Appended to the opening titles, in 48-point red lettering, is a stark note reminding the reader that the document in question holds classification level three, for all the secrets he could spill in any case from a document that takes such pains to say nothing at all. The Starfleet party line, fed to the holos by an admiral whose face is 98 percent smile, is that a coil malfunction within the central generator led to a catastrophic power failure that destroyed the central cortex beyond repair. Commodore Hansen is the ‘Fleet hero who kept the residents safe until help arrived.

 

Ghosts, he thinks as he scans abstract patterns of black on white against the milky glow of his terminal screen. Smoke and mirrors. Chess. Roulette. An infinite jigsaw with no clues and no color but gray. Chinese whispers in a language he doesn’t speak.

 

Investigations are ongoing, concludes the report. Kirk takes a gulp of lukewarm coffee and scrolls back to page one.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

Vulcans, as Spock will undoubtedly remind him if Kirk’s baser nature gets the better of him and he makes the half-dozen jokes that he wants to make, do not get excited. Nor do they experience fannish awe, which is certainly illogical, and probably emotional as well. But there’s an uncommon glow to his friend’s eyes as they exit the auditorium, and a relaxation of the muscles of his face which, while only slightly like a smile, might well qualify as near-hysteria on the streets of ShiKahr. Kirk knows he’s grinning like a man with one too many Saurian brandies on board, but it’s impossible to do otherwise as the spirited monolog that has accompanied them from their front-row seats, through the sparse crowd and out into the narrow quadrangle, enters its fourteenth consecutive minute and shows no sign of stopping. He can feel the weight of the past week’s frustrations and compromises lifting from his shoulders as they walk, eased away by a relentless tide of infectious enthusiasm against which he has no defence. Kirk is certain that no-one else sees this side of Spock, and every time is a gift.

 

“However,” says Spock, with a brief glance sideways as he’s jostled by the rapid passage of a cadet who possibly didn’t think quite so highly of T’Drega’s seminar on the gluon signature of a hypothesized eleven dimensional warp bubble, “Should the Falstaff particle be observed in situ, this would open up several further avenues of investigation. It is possible, in fact, that the wormhole could be sufficiently stabilized that controlled, directed inter-dimensional travel might be achievable. Starfleet’s own acceleration experiments are in their infancy, but the initial data would appear to correlate with T’Drega’s posited mass transference field. As yet, it has only been possible to measure a seven-dimensional matrix, but if we are to believe…”

 

Starfleet’s experiments, thinks Kirk. He’d be prepared to bet his Commodore’s stripes that this is code for Spock’s Side-Project, quite possibly set in motion one quiet Saturday afternoon while he was waiting for the computer to boot.

 

The day has been bright and dry and, though dusk has almost finished its lazy segue into night, the air still smells of sun-warmed sidewalks and basking leaves, even as the chill sea breeze rushes in to claim the darkness. Kirk carries his overcoat on his arm for now, but Spock is bundled tightly into his thick duffel, sinking into the brushed wool as though it’s a forcefield to hold the cold at bay. This doesn’t exactly mitigate the warm rush of affection that is massing and clamoring in Kirk’s belly, and he has to leash the urge to reach out a comradely hand to his friend’s elbow, as if the secret to keeping warm on a water-rich planet is the hesitant touch of a conflicted flag officer. So he folds his arms beneath the fabric that drapes them, and the sentiment finds its way out of him in a widening of his grin instead.

 

A raised eyebrow brings the lengthy exposition to an end, and the evening seems a little darker for it. “You are smiling,” Spock points out.

 

“No,” says Kirk lightly, which lacks finesse, because he is, but he’s answering the covert accusation in those words, which no amount of logical reasoning will ever cause Spock to acknowledge. “Just a stray thought, Mr Spock,” he adds. “Nothing more.”

 

If Spock is feeling maligned, he will not hesitate to ask for Kirk’s own opinion on the lecture; it’s the kind of passive-aggressive logic-attack that has ever proved impervious to counter-maneuvers. That he doesn’t is, perhaps, testament to the placatory qualities of higher theoretical physics and their effect on Vulcan forbearance, which something that the Captain of a multi-planetary crew either learns early in his tenure or else lives to regret. It’s not that Kirk was averse to attending the symposium or that, left to his own devices, he might not have made his own way there - he has heard T’Drega speak before and, if her tone and inflection are something of a powerful sedative, her incisive mind and inspired theoretical conjunctions are like a scientific symphony that makes his brain buzz and raises goosebumps on his arms. It’s more that there’s a very specific kind of warm and comfortable joy to be had from the fact that Spock wants to be here, and that Kirk is doing something that brings that incandescent glow to his friend’s eyes.

 

The urge to reach out, close the narrow gap between them with a casual press of fingers on rough wool, surges again, and Kirk grips his sleeves under cover of cloth.

 

They have reached the edge of the campus, emerging onto Fulton Street alongside the towering hulk of St Ignatius, whose ruined eastern bell tower stands out as a pointed reminder of the wars that almost tore the planet apart in centuries past. It would be logical to suggest flagging down a cab, sharing the short journey back to the Residences in easy conversation or companionable silence, but Kirk finds that he’s unwilling to let the evening end just yet.

 

So he offers up an affable smile in the direction of a carefully expressionless face and says, “Plans, Mr Spock?”

 

An elegant nod. “I have none.”

 

The answer jolts a pleasant shock in the depths of Kirk’s stomach; he’d been expecting a rebuff. Hard on its heels is the realization that he hasn’t got any further than the vague idea that it might be nice to do something, and that hazy suggestion doesn’t really have anything concrete in terms of actual specifics to back it up. He glances along the street, hushed and lazy in the evening lull, and decides to come clean.

 

“Neither do I,” he says. “What say we just walk and see where it takes us?”

 

They’ve done this before, along the unfamiliar streets of countless cities on countless worlds where Federation feet have never previously passed. Where security is not a concern, it’s Kirk’s preferred means of getting a take on a new people, and Spock has long since given up on his stone-faced disapproval; it’s years since he’s even called it illogical. As Spock inclines his head, soft-featured and genial, Kirk indulges, momentarily, that stifled desire to make contact, with the briefest touch of his fingers to his friend’s elbow. It can masquerade as direction, a gentle instruction to follow his right turn and set off along the street that leads - he belatedly remembers - towards Golden Gate Park and the Botanical Gardens, where a series of Xeno domes maintain a variety of temperatures that dance around Vulcan-normal. Spock betrays no reaction beyond an alteration of his course in line with his companion, so perhaps it’s Kirk’s imagination that conjures up a frisson of non-specific energy as his skin brushes wool, like a minor electric shock in the bones of his hands and the base of his spine. A rapid, hooded glance at his friend’s face reveals nothing but imperturbable Vulcan calm. Kirk lets his hand fall away.

 

They move unhurriedly along the broad thoroughfare, and Kirk opts to shrug on his overcoat, less to counteract the cold than to allow him to fold his hands safely behind his back and out of temptation’s way. The passage of infrequent cars disturbs the air overhead, and Kirk glances up to follow their path, eyes drawn inexorably upwards towards the reticent sparkle of early stars against the indigo sky. In his peripheral vision, he sees Spock’s gaze follow and, abruptly, drop. It’s on Kirk’s lips to ask about the starfield painted across the Vulcan night, the one he stared at with unseeing eyes on an evening that they never acknowledge, but the words die before they can draw breath. There are things that can’t be said and questions that can’t be asked; it’s just the way things are now.

 

So instead he says, “You were telling me about your acceleration experiments, I believe.”

 

Spock offers the non-committal nod of a Vulcan who has realized that the mask has slipped and allowed a bright flash of unbridled enthusiasm to shine through. “I regret that they have proved unsatisfactory to date,” he says. “While the Marin County array is undoubtedly the most suitable planetside facility in this sector, Terran conditions in general are not ideal for the formation of the Falstaff matrix.”

 

“Ah.” Kirk plasters a grin he doesn’t feel across his face. “Might this be further evidence of Human inadequacy, Mr Spock?”

 

“On the contrary,” says Spock, who does not even deign to raise an eyebrow at the tone, “The gravitational discrepancies that inhibit matrical formation are directly linked to the relative youth of your planet.” A beat. “It seems… unreasonable… to hold Humanity accountable for this.”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “That’s… magnanimous of you,” he says. Quiet footsteps carry them forward a few paces before he makes himself ask, “And where might you find your ideal conditions?”

 

There is a moment’s silence. Then Spock says, “The ideal environment does not exist.”

 

It’s - possibly - an answer to the unasked question, the one that tries very hard not to wonder pointedly once again about what the hell someone like Spock is doing cooped up in academia when at least ninety-seven percent of Federation Space would be more appropriate to his aptitudes and interests. But just in case it isn’t, Kirk asks, “Presumably, some sort of offworld facility…?”

 

“It is conceivable that a deep space environment might be more suitable,” says Spock slowly. And then he adds, “However, Starfleet’s Terran facilities are immeasurably superior to those found in any field station.”

 

Genuine delight, a mixture of amusement and creeping relief, lights the Commodore’s smile. But he says, cheerfully, “I told you you’d get too comfortable in this teaching assignment of yours.”

 

“Indeed,” says Spock, which is neither a response nor an engagement with the manifest provocation embedded in the words. But it’s not a denial either.

 

They cross the road at the intersection with Stanyan and skirt the border of Golden Gate Park. It’s late for the dinner crowd and early for the theater crowd, but the thoroughfare is busy regardless: a constant stream of restless traffic that billows the cooling air and causes Spock to burrow more deeply into his coat. Kirk catches the subtle gesture in his peripheral vision and feels an inappropriate smile tug at his lips.

 

To cover it he says, lightly, “I guess we’re going to the Park, then.”

 

Spock inclines his head. “It would appear so.”

 

A beat. “Is that all right with you?”

 

“I have no objection,” says Spock mildly. Kirk glances at him, but he’s scanning the street impassively, eyes canted towards the approaching greenery. “It has been my habit to make extensive use of the grounds whenever I have had occasion to spend any length of time in San Francisco.”

 

A slow smile catches at the edge of Kirk’s mouth. Funny how, even after five unbroken years of the man’s company, it’s still possible to come across these little morsels of brand new information, buried like hidden gems beneath the strata of familiarity. He says, “I didn’t know that.”

 

“There is no reason you should,” says Spock, which sounds a lot like a barrier sliding into place. But the body language is wrong: he’s not closed off or distant; there’s nothing about his stance that indicates the violation of a hidden boundary.

 

Kirk hesitates. “Perhaps not,” he says carefully. “It just… hadn’t occurred to me.” A covert glance sideways, and he risks a sly, “You. In the great Terran outdoors.” A beat. “Voluntarily.”

 

That earns him a full-scale facial lockdown, the one that firmly, and with great dignity, implies that the recipient has demonstrated illogic that’s facile even by Human standards. Kirk thinks of it as the McCoy Glare, in honor of its usual target.

 

Spock doesn’t sigh; not quite. But he says, “I believe I have expressed my appreciation of the natural sciences on several occasions.”

 

“You have,” says Kirk. Eyebrows arc in open-faced innocence. “I just thought you preferred to exercise that appreciation on planets where the moisture content was significantly lower.”

 

Spock acknowledges the truth of that with a small nod. “Nevertheless,” he says, “I find that there are many days on which the benefits outweigh the bodily discomfort.”

 

“I see.” Kirk purses his lips around the smile that rises relentlessly from some irrepressible spring of warmth deep inside him. “You’re an example to us all, Mr Spock,” he says, and enjoys the slow nod it earns him in return, as Spock manifestly tries to work out if he’s being serious and what the appropriate response might be either way. The urge to reach out, to close the distance between them, to make some small physical connection, surges again, and Kirk twists his fingers tightly around each other, anchoring them in place. He says, lightly, “Would it surprise you to learn that I used to spend half my free time in this park myself when I was a cadet?”

 

“It would not,” says Spock.

 

Kirk’s eyebrows achieve the diagonal. “Oh?”

 

“I see no reason to find it out of keeping with your character,” says Spock. “Confinement is not your natural state.”

 

“Ah,” says Kirk, and drops his head. He watches his footfall along the pavement for a moment - steady, measured paces in civilian shoes that make his feet look like they belong to someone else. He says, “You know… I haven’t been back once since we’ve been grounded.”

 

There’s a short pause, a couple of seconds in which the absence of a response has time to become pronounced. Kirk looks up just as Spock breaks it with an even, all-purpose, “Indeed,” but he’s just in time to catch the sideways glance that accompanies it. It’s brief, covert - furtive, even - and it completely repurposes those two syllables.

 

Bones would make some acerbic comment about the proximity of public gardens to a desk in ‘Fleet Command, and the concomitant availability of the former to a man who spends every waking moment at the latter. Spock won’t say that, and not only because he has cast-iron evidence of the fact that Kirk does, in fact, leave his office these days - and on a semi-regular basis, too. But, beyond the practicalities of the situation, Spock has always been able to hear the words that Kirk doesn’t say, no matter how stridently he might protest emotional illiteracy. It makes it 100% harder to have an inconsequential conversation with him, but sometimes that’s… not a bad thing.

 

They walk a while in silence. The street is busy, but the traffic stays above the high redwoods that fringe the road on either side, like nature’s own sound-dampening field, and, through the thick brush, it’s possible to see the glow of the Xeno domes in the near distance. The air is heavy with the scent of magnolia, drifting in waves along the narrow paths that lead through the trees. They turn off at random, setting out along a lamplit avenue edged with out-of-season hebe and budding mount vernon laurel, keeping easy time with the one solitary figure far ahead, shadowed by distance, with whom they share the road. Spock casts a scientist’s eye over the foliage as they walk, and Kirk wonders if he’s scanning it with his mother’s voice in his head, or his father’s. Son of Vulcan or son of Earth; maybe neither, after all.

 

Muted sounds of distant Human life filter through the copse, but on the path there’s only the gentle clip of quiet footfall and the unseen industry of local fauna beneath the brush. Silence has never been a problem for them, but Kirk finds himself uneasy, in the absence of background noise, as though the hush presses in from all directions the longer it persists. He clears his throat experimentally, and it cuts through the oppressive quiet like a knife through cold butter. Spock glances sideways but says nothing, and Kirk finds himself wondering if his discomfort is as obvious as it feels.

 

He says, to cover it, “You know, I got another memo across my desk yesterday from Operational Command.” A beat as he slides his eyes towards his companion to find, predictably, an eyebrow raised in polite enquiry. “Wanting to know why I wasn’t recommending you for promotion.”

 

It’s almost certainly the wrong thing to say. He realizes this as the words escape, but, really, it was the memo or the weather, and he’s not that desperate yet.

 

“Indeed?” says Spock, and it’s hard to tell if that’s an Indeed, please elaborate; an Indeed, let’s get this over with since you’re evidently going to proceed whether or not I offer my explicit permission and it pleases me to pretend that I acquiesce; or possibly an Indeed, and do we really have to have this conversation again? The first interpretation suits Kirk best, so he takes it as his cue.

 

“The ceremony has them antsy,” he says with a wry smile. “I guess they think it looks strange. Most all of the senior crew are stepping up a grade. They believe it reflects poorly on Federal relations that the only non-Human member of the team isn’t adding to his stripes.”

 

There is a small pause - almost imperceptible, but Kirk has known Spock long enough to hear the equivocation buried in that slight hesitation. “I have never sought command,” says Spock.

 

He’s right, of course. He’s a scientist above all things; promotion is useful to him only inasmuch as it provides access to better computers. And for all the layers of himself that he’s gradually stripped away as friendship has grounded him more firmly in his sense of who he is, at a very fundamental level he understands neither Human nor Vulcan pack mentality. He cannot be what either people wants him to be, and he knows this, and part of him - the part that made Kirk fall in love so damn hard - has stopped trying. He should be a captain, for everything it represents, but it’s hollow ostentation; it would close off some essential part of him for the sake of a paper exercise in vainglory, and isn’t that, after all, what has Kirk tethered to a planet he’d thought he’d left behind?

 

He didn’t phrase his reply in quite those terms; ‘Fleet Command don’t tend to think in abstracts and actual people. Instead, he reiterated the results of the Captain and First Officer’s end of mission review meeting - and wasn’t that just four hours of painful reserve and excruciating conversational lulls - and restated his strong recommendation that Commander Spock be allowed to bypass the usual products of Human excitability. He hopes it will be enough.

 

“I know,” he says now. He tries a smile; it falls only slightly flat. “They’ll just have to think of some other way to venerate your efforts.”

 

Beside him, the temperature drops a couple of degrees. Kirk smothers a smile. Spock won’t go so far as to openly disapprove of the ceremony, but he’s made a couple of barbed comments about politically expedient ritual that are practically mutinous, coming from him. As they emerge from the redwood grove and circle around the Class P dome, which includes specimens from both Andor and Rigel X and therefore maintains an ambient environment that hovers in the mid-twenties and below, he says - not for the first time - “It is not logical to reward the performance of duty.”

 

Kirk huffs a quiet laugh. “You’ve been in the service long enough to know that’s not the way it works,” he says.

 

“I swore an oath to uphold Starfleet’s fundamental tenets and to abide by its regulations,” says Spock stubbornly; or, at least, what counts for “stubbornly” in a tone that labors hard to excise all emotional nuance. “I have abided by that oath to the best of my ability. It is extraneous to unduly praise the exercise of my obligation.”

 

“Obligation?” says Kirk lightly. “Mr Spock, I’ve seen ‘the exercise of obligation’ in action more times than I care to count, and it bears no relation to your performance on the Enterprise. If anything, the opposite is true.”

 

“I see no reason to cast aspersions,” says Spock, with an imperious eyebrow that might, once upon a time, have been convincing. These days, it provokes an unfailing burst of cheerful laughter that carries them around the curve of the polar dome and into an intersection of temperate Terran-normal plantation.

 

“Look,” says Kirk, as they pass through dormant flower beds in every shade of green, nestled beneath the louring wall of static that separates the high-spectrum Class M dome from the rigors of north-Californian weather, “Neither one of us is happy with the situation, but it stands. We turn up, we shake hands, we pose for pictures. That is the performance of duty: hate it but do it anyway.” He grins. “No doubt you had cause enough to reflect on that while you served on my bridge.”

 

Spock’s eyebrows arch as he considers the question. “Never to this extent,” he says at last.

 

Laughter sputters out of his companion. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” says Kirk.

 

Spock inclines his head. “As you wish.”

 

Kirk shoots him a sideways grin, which Spock studiously ignores. “‘Not quite so illogical as Starfleet Command’,” he says cheerfully. His skin tingles as the path leads them through the heat shields and into the dome. “That may be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Commander.”

 

This early into the year, the dome is at double strength and the temperature differential, as they emerge through the curtain of frustrated current - bubbling against every nerve like a shaken can of soda - is pronounced. Kirk sucks in a breath of heated air as sweat prickles uncomfortably beneath his shirt, and takes a moment to regret the impulse that made him shrug on an entirely superfluous coat. But a hooded glance towards Spock reveals a subtle relaxation of his shoulders: tension leaching from rigid muscles; a gentle easing of furrows in his brow; a small intake of breath which, in another man, might be a gesture of satisfaction. Kirk says nothing, and looks away before he can be seen.

 

The ground is uneven beneath their feet, desiccated by underground radiators that bleed the moisture from the soil and leave it cracked and friable, coated in a layer of fine, sandy dust. Paths feed into the dome from every direction, but the sculpted interior - high, louring rock formations shipped from distant worlds and fringed by irregular whorls of thick brush and straggly desert trees - locks the display ground into discrete sectors, divided by oxygen concentration, and linked by leaf-shrouded avenues that hide their occupants from sight. They strike out counter-clockwise for no other reason than that a flash of crimson glimpsed through the thick foliage to the left might be cadet reds, though it’s equally possible that they are alone inside the warm cocoon of static and vaguely-confused verdure.

 

The air is thinner than Terran-normal in this section, subtly but palpably wrong in the Human chest. Kirk is aware of a tightness beneath his ribs as his lungs refuse to be persuaded that they’re not slowly suffocating, and a gnawing buzz of muted anxiety from a disregarded section of his brain that remembers this sensation all too well. It doesn’t help that he recognizes alem-vedik and g’teth between the spreading foliage, and he doesn’t have to wonder too hard about where he might have learned the names of two desert-dwelling Vulcan plants. He clears his throat, a reflexive action designed to reset the sudden onset of inner chaos, and glances sideways at Spock. Fortunately, this gives him the opportunity to notice that, at some point along the path, the top two buttons of his companion’s overcoat have found themselves undone.

 

Kirk buries the rush of amusement in an innocent arch of his eyebrows. “Acclimatizing, Mr Spock?” he says.

 

There is a short pause, as of a man who recognizes the tone and is considering his options. Presently, he settles for, “Somewhat.”

 

A recalcitrant grin twitches one corner of the Commodore’s mouth. “I’m glad to hear that,” he says. “I was beginning to worry that our spring weather was getting the better of you.”

 

An imperious brow scrapes Spock’s hairline. “I believe it was the Terran author Mark Twain,” he says, “Who wrote, ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’.”

 

The grin breaks free. Spock is almost certainly acutely aware that Kirk’s fondness for classical literature does not extend to an encyclopedic knowledge of every word that ever fell from the pens of the authors in question, and there’s simply no point in arguing with an eidetic memory. So instead, he says, “He should have tried Iowa.”

 

Spock tilts his head, considering. “I understood the Iowan climate to be quite temperate.”

 

“Did you?” Kirk laughs. “I guess that depends on who you ask.”

 

“I have only my mother’s opinion,” says Spock, in the careless manner of a man who has no cause to know that his words are significant. “She visited several years ago.”

 

Ah, Iowa. The remembered voice sinks like stone in Kirk’s belly, slicing through the ambient heat to trail tendrils of ice across his chest and down his spine. I visited once when we were on Earth for several months…

 

But Spock was not there for that conversation; he was indoors with his father, locked in a battle of vicious politesse. He has no way of knowing that this is information that Kirk already possesses; that circumstances since have conspired to make it one of the least significant features of that evening, buried close to the surface where it drifts, disregarded but not forgotten. Or that a throwaway reference now is enough to catapult his companion back into that gnawing desire that ate at his reason for a long time - many months - and then, later, at a tender place, just below his ribs.

 

Kirk freezes his hollow smile in place, a thin veneer of composure that resists him all the way; his cheeks are already protesting the strain. But he keeps his voice light, casual, and he says, “Then I’ll bet she didn’t visit in winter.”

 

“In August, I believe.” Spock glances sideways, but it’s impossible to tell if the gesture is meaningful; if it’s a response to some nuance imperfectly ironed out of the Commodore’s tone, or if he’s simply glancing sideways. “I was studying at the time and could not accompany her.”

 

They pass through a curtain of trailing uxgarash leaves that billow a wave of lemon-mint perfume into the stifling air, curling around the sharp, unmistakable scent of birkeen, hla-meth, a subtle undercurrent of favinit dancing on the thermals. Waneti weaves through the crawling shrubbery that fringes the path, and, ahead of them, as the path curves abruptly to the right around a monolithic pillar of hishid-kov, he thinks he sees the bright flare of yelas beneath an in-du-ka. The sense of temporal disjunction couldn’t be more pronounced. All that’s missing are the damn roses.

 

Kirk is aware that he’s been silent too long even before Spock half-turns a quizzical eyebrow over his shoulder, but he wants to make damn sure that none of the images clamoring for attention against the inside of his skull bleed their way into his response. His smile, he thinks, is wilting around the edges, so he forces both corners of his lips into position, and says, as nonchalantly as he can, “Well. I guess when one is used to Vulcan weather, 90 degrees might count as ‘temperate’.”

 

It’s not enough. He didn’t really expect it would be, but he gave it his best shot. Kirk can feel Spock’s evaluative stare even without looking, and, when he makes himself glance upwards it’s to find dark eyes fixed on his, with an expression that would be unreadable if it wasn’t for the fact that Kirk is expecting exactly what he sees there.

 

“Perhaps,” says Spock carefully, though the man does everything carefully, so Kirk’s not entirely sure what he’s using as his basis for comparison. For a moment, it looks as though he’ll add to this one, tightly-drawn, reluctant word and Kirk steels himself for an acknowledgment, a recognition that everything they say right now has a shadow-meaning, words buried beneath layers of semantics and double-think, equivocal and never quite in context. The knowledge flashes behind Spock’s eyes - a fleeting moment of confession - and then it’s gone, chased to the shadows by something that’s part petition, part granite-faced obstinacy.

 

He nods, slowly, in response to a question Kirk hasn’t asked. And Kirk realizes that this is as close as he’s going to get: a tacit confirmation that Spock remembers too, that he thinks about it too, that he’s read all of the sensory cues and that he is 100 percent aligned with where Kirk’s memory has gotten itself snagged right now. And, hard on the heels of this understanding, comes the realization that everything, everything, depends on their joint ability to pretend not to know this.

 

A flash of pale skin, bleached white by the thin light of the Watcher, luminous against the creeping blackness of a desert night. He tastes of copper and pepper and heat, and the scent of him fills Kirk’s lungs with every breath. His body is lean and hard and folded tightly against him as he presses them both into the wall, where affronted flowers protest the invasion in a cloud of heady, honey-sweet perfume…

 

It’s a good memory. It’s all they’re likely to have, and so it will have to be sufficient to dampen down this spiralling need that pools in his belly and his groin, that tingles in the ends of fingers that simply want to reach forward and claim in the name of the vague sense of sadness and loss that burns the back of his throat. It’s a good memory. And it only works if Spock remains within reach; cut him out of the equation, and it becomes the story of something precious gone forever. One day, he’ll learn how to do this so well that it’ll fade into the background and they’ll simply be, without any need for repression or constraint. Not today, but one day.

 

So Kirk finds a smile from some hidden reserves of stubborn determination, and plasters it across his face. With a little bit of effort, he thinks he can make it meet his eyes. He smiles, and he turns it on Spock, and he says, “Undoubtedly, Mr Spock.” A beat, but it’s easier now that the decision has been made. “After fifteen minutes inside this dome, I think I’d find a 100-degree heatwave pleasantly refreshing by comparison.”

 

“If you are uncomfortable…” says Spock, and a prickle of something dark and malignant worries itself into the hollow beneath Kirk’s ribs.

 

But he takes a deep breath, which sears the inside of his nostrils and startles his lungs, and he says, “Perhaps a little. But it’s nothing I can’t handle.” He steps back, gestures to the path spread out before them, twisting into the shadow of rock and greenery. “Shall we?” he says.

 

 

Chapter Text

Routine is useful. The universe is routine, and, where it isn’t, there is always something to be learned. Chaos is simply a series of patterns that are not yet obvious, but it all devolves, eventually, into numeric predictability. Suns rise. Planets revolve. Fusion quietly eats out the heart of every star and electrons dance a perpetual waltz through the wastes of atomic space. It’s not quite the same thing as rising every day at seven minutes to six and setting the synthesizer to a four minute cycle that allows adequate time beneath the sonics before repairing to a stool beneath the window for a nutritionally-balanced breakfast as the chronometer chimes the hour, but the principle is the same. Routine. It’s the order beneath turmoil. It serves to iron out the glitches. It’s a scientist’s refuge. 

 

He managed three hours and forty-four minutes of sleep last night, and a meditative trance that lasted for a further one hour, fourteen. On the whole, this is better than expected, although it’s too early to tell if it’s part of a general improvement or an anomaly caused by the erosion of his mind’s resistance over the past few wakeful nights. Eventually, this will start to become a serious problem, but not yet: a certain amount of tolerance remains for now. A brief survey of his internal processes reveals sub-optimal functionality, but nothing to cause concern; he must simply endeavor to extend his afternoon meditations by approximately fifteen minutes, and this can be achieved in today’s schedule.

 

Dawn is a thin line of gray on the horizon, chasing the late stars from the sky and staining the edges of low, wispy clouds in slate and silver. Spock sips from a glass of chilled water as he scrolls through his unread messages: a request for information from the leader of a research team on Epsilon Phi Pictoris; overnight readouts from the Marin County array; seven invitations to a variety of conferences, three of whom want him as their keynote speaker; an updated agenda for Friday’s faculty meeting; and five memos marked classified, which will have to wait until he’s in the office. There’s a blanket request from a colleague to the entire department for cover for his two early seminars; a gaudy, flashing banner informing him that he could already be a winner (four lucky contestants have won the holiday of a lifetime); and two messages from Kirk, three hours apart, both sent from his office.

 

Spock steels himself, and opens the first.

 

Have you seen this? demands the text, exasperation so familiar he can almost hear the aggrieved tone clamoring for acknowledgment among the uniform black letters. Ridiculous. What on earth will they come up with next? Below it, Spock recognizes the grainy image of a spreading, orange-flowered shrub with which he has, regrettably, had the opportunity to become acquainted over the past two weeks, and which he hoped might pass Kirk by unnoticed. Exterus Aurentiacofloris Enterprisii is its newly-designated moniker; apparently, there was talk of naming it after Sulu, but the Lieutenant demurred.

 

It is ridiculous, certainly; not least because the inhabitants of the planet on which the seeds were gathered already have a name for the plant in question, and it has been studiously omitted in the scramble to confer glory in any manner possible. But it is, he supposes, no more ridiculous than the Human propensity for imposing their own designation on worlds that have been known as something entirely different to their native population for much longer than Earth has had the means to know that they existed. Possibly, his own people have something to answer for there. They ought to have insisted on T’Khasi at First Contact.

 

He voices a soft command to the computer, and Kirk’s message closes. There’s no real fire in it; more a sort of unfocused pique borne of the fact that he’s had many years’ distance separating him from the by-products of his brilliance, and cohabitation with them now does not come easily. Spock doesn’t pretend to understand this determination to reverence and worship, but his Captain’s reaction to it seems legitimate.

 

The second message was sent at 0008 hours, during the period in which Spock was, rather self-consciously, focusing on the darkness behind his eyelids in a manner that Amanda has always insisted will eventually induce sleep. Message from Ciana, it says brusquely. Torelius meeting moved up to 12th. Can no longer attend (offworld 11th and 12th). Can you send your report to her, not me, please. See you later, yes? JTK.

 

Fatigue weaves through the words like a heavy, sluggish river; it has always been Kirk’s habit, when there is nobody on hand to correct his behavior, to over-exert himself and resist his body’s rhythms, as though exhaustion were a symptom of a serious character flaw. Ciana, Spock suspects, is cut from the same cloth, and it seems likely that, together, they will inspire each other to feats of mental endurance that are entirely illogical and possibly dangerous.

 

See you later, yes? Spock sighs. Yes. Yes, because he can think of no valid reason to rescind the invitation, even if “invitation” hardly describes a throwaway comment exploded into overture and accepted with alacrity by an adventure-starved flag officer prepared to accept exploration-by-proxy as the nearest he can get to the stars right now. There are a number of very logical reasons why it’s not a good idea to host an intimate evening in the observation array tonight, not least of which is the disquiet that has haunted Spock since their park-based expedition four nights previously, but none of them can be articulated without also giving voice to a series of events that they have tacitly agreed not to discuss. Certainly, it is unwise to spend time alone with his former Captain in an environment designed to mimic, as closely as possible, the conditions that brought them together in the first place. But Spock knows his friend: his first response to any vacillation now will be why?, and there is only one possible answer to that: because if we are to continue, we cannot acknowledge what has happened. Which, essentially, acknowledges what has happened, and defeats the purpose of the exercise.

 

He steeples his hands, elbows resting on the desk, and stares at the screen for a moment as he considers his reply. Then, with a sense of resignation, he instructs the computer to take a dictation.

 

“Commander Spock to Commodore James Kirk,” he says, watching the words flare into life across the stark white screen with the familiar thrill of distress that his adrenal gland dumps into his bloodstream every time he sees that name. “Messages noted, time and date recorded, with no comment offered on the lateness of the hour at which the latter was received. It is my understanding that the shrub in question is intended for use as decoration at the ceremony, scheduled for ten solar days from this date, at which the crew of the Enterprise is to be honored in a manner consistent with Terran cultural tradition. My own opinion of same is on record, and I trust that no further observation is necessary at this time. Regarding the content of the second memorandum, I have noted the alteration to your earlier instructions and will submit my report directly to Vice Admiral Ciana as requested. Our excursion, scheduled for 2000 hours tonight, continues as agreed.” He pauses; the conclusion to Terran missives has always given him hesitation. In vocal communication, Spock out has always been sufficient; were he communicating with fellow Vulcans, there is a series of complicated closing salutations to be used dependent on rank, gender, age, and level of familiarity, but they translate poorly into Standard, and not only because there is no cultural frame of reference from which to decode them. Regards is stilted; Kindest regards, counter-intuitively, is worse. He could follow Kirk’s lead and sign off with only his initials, but the problem there is that the letter describing the opening syllable of his family name has no equivalent in any Human language, and he has long since given up on attempting to use it outside of Vulcan society. In the end, he settles for “Live long and prosper,” secure in the knowledge that it will raise a smile at least, although for reasons that he prefers not to examine too closely.

 

He re-reads the text once, then instructs the computer to send it before he can reconsider. It is done.

 

Spock sits back in his chair, reclining just far enough to align himself with the gap in the trees that points directly out over the Gulf of the Farallones. The sun is struggling behind the horizon, frosting the lower sky with a thin band of iridescent pearl, and scattered, reticent birdsong from the Presidio heralds the approach of daybreak. He doesn’t need to wonder if Kirk is awake, nor does he need the abrupt flare of light from his terminal screen, announcing the arrival of a new message, to confirm his suspicions.

 

Great. See you then. Talk throughout the day, no doubt. JTK.

 

Spock closes his eyes, sucks in a breath, and encourages the computer to file it away out of sight. When he cracks an eyelid, the message is gone.

 

Routine. Routine is useful. Routine imposes order on disorder, and this is important. He sets himself to the task of methodically filtering through his unopened mail.

 

Four of the seven conferences can be discarded immediately - three of them are far outside his field of expertise, and one of them, he thinks - hopes - is a joke. Of the remaining three, one conflicts with an existing commitment, but the other two are worthy of consideration. He makes a note to raise them at the faculty meeting. Dr Yin’s request is not unreasonable, but it requires access to a series of files that are above his clearance level, and the doctor will have to seek these permissions himself. Professor Edgar’s mail has already been answered by the Dean, in terms that will no doubt produce lengthy and bitter recriminations on Friday, and which would almost persuade Spock to volunteer his time this morning if there was any possibility that this might obviate the impending acrimony. Finally, Spock opens the readouts from Marin County, which he probably shouldn’t have, given that everybody wants them and access is strictly controlled, but, if he must endure his unwanted celebrity, then it would be illogical not to put it to functional use. He scrolls through lengthy reams of computer feedback, lists of solar activity, interplanetary movement in hundreds of systems across dozens of sectors, course-tracking data from vessels both Federal and Other, subspace anomalies, gravit… Wait.

 

Subspace anomalies. Generally of interest, but in an abstract, academic manner, and only insofar as they have any bearing on his current research. His brain is accustomed to absorbing the information at speed and prompting further investigation only if one of several keywords is detected. None of these are present, which is why it has taken him a moment to process what he’s seen.

 

Signal recorded, says the read-out. Continuous and unremitting. Source undetermined. Edit, 0332 - source confirmed: 43 Ilion Gamma. Nature of signal remains obscure.

 

Spock steeples his hands in front of his face and leans forward in his chair.

 

Fascinating.

 

~*~

 

The call comes later in the day than he expected, so perhaps there’s actually something to Kirk’s repeated assertions that, security clearance notwithstanding, Spock is better placed than his former CO to absorb the tides and eddies of information flowing through the ‘Fleet. It’s something to think about, at least.

 

“Spock here,” he says, and, on the monitor, Kirk’s face creases into a smile at the onslaught of scrupulous protocol.

 

“Yes, I can see that, Commander,” he says, a grin twisting at the corners of his mouth. “I’m looking at you right now.”

 

Spock blinks, slowly. It’s a pointed gesture, and it causes the grin to deepen.

 

“Is there something I can do for you, Commodore?” he says.

 

Kirk’s lips purse, though Spock knows from long experience that this is less to check his spreading amusement and more to give the appearance of having attempted to do so. He says, “I’m assuming you’ve had a memo from HQ by now regarding a signal received in the small hours of this morning? And the non-existence thereof?”

 

Spock folds his hands on his desk; assignment among the upper echelons of the service is beginning to impact upon Kirk’s phraseology. “I am in receipt of a memo instructing me that any further communications are to be re-directed immediately to Operational Command, yes,” he says.

 

“No doubt you informed Admiral Gant that, given that the signal has not ceased since it was first intercepted, the question of ‘further communication’ is moot?”

 

Spock says nothing. He did, in fact, draft a message to this effect.

 

The grin breaks free. “Good,” says Kirk. “I find it exhausting when I have to play along with doublethink. I’m due in a meeting at 1700 to expound upon my thoughts of what the signal might mean. I have a few ideas. But I’m interested in yours.”

 

Spock hesitates. “43 Ilion Gamma is large,” he says slowly.

 

“Come on, Spock,” says Kirk. “You don’t need me to divulge classified information to work out where the signal was coming from. There are three inhabited worlds in that entire sector. How many of them are capable of subspace communication?”

 

A slow nod. “Has Professor Sorelan been contacted?”

 

“That’s classified, I’m afraid,” says Kirk, which is as good as a confirmation. It is certainly intended to be taken as such.

 

“As I understand it,” says Spock carefully, “The circumstances under which the Federal delegation were ejected from Ilion VII were unambiguous. They want no further involvement with the Federation.”

 

The grin dies, replaced by the dark steel of command. Kirk says, “Yes, that was my understanding too. Think they’ve reconsidered?”

 

“It seems…” says Spock, “…unlikely.”

 

“It does, doesn’t it?” Kirk curls one hand into a fist and gently strikes the table. “So. Do we assume that we’ve done something else to offend them? I’m not entirely sure how, of course, but, then again I’m not sure where we went wrong the first time, either.”

 

“It is possible that they are requesting Federal aid,” says Spock.

 

Kirk glances up, eyebrow raised. “Really? It seemed to me as though they’d decided quite firmly that there was nothing we had to offer that they could possibly want.”

 

Spock acknowledges this with a nod. “True. But perhaps circumstances have left them with no alternative. The region is sparsely populated, as you say; it is conceivable that they have no other recourse to outside assistance.”

 

Kirk sucks in a breath, releases it with a gentle puff. “That’s going to be a hard sell to Command. They’re not Federal citizens. Quite explicitly not, in fact.”

 

Spock tilts his head, considering. “There are precedents.”

 

“There are.” Kirk’s eyebrows twitch laconically. “Very few of them in which the other party has told the Federation quite so unequivocally to go to hell, though.”

 

“This is true,” says Spock.

 

Kirk glances up, meets his stare, holds it for a long moment. “You think we should do it,” he says at last.

 

Spock does not look away. “I believe that the Federation has failed its own ideals if we do not,” he says.

 

The grin returns, flashing sudden warmth in his friend’s eyes. “So do I,” says Kirk. He leans back in his chair. “If that’s what they want. Maybe they just want to shout at us some more. Let’s not rule that out.”

 

“I have not,” says Spock.

 

The fisted hand unfurls, flattening out to lay palm down across Kirk’s desk. He says, “I’m not sure what value this meeting has in any case. It makes no sense to talk in possibilities, before anyone’s had a chance to consult with the one person in Federal space who might have some kind of insight.” A sly upwards glance. “Whose name is not subject to discussion.”

 

“Naturally.”

 

A wide smile. “There’s a chance I might be a little late this evening, depending on how long this goes on. Admiral Komack is flying in from Jupiter Station specifically to attend.” A pause, to allow Spock to draw his own conclusions from this particular piece of information. “If it looks like it’s going to be later than 2100, I’ll have my Yeoman com you.”

 

Spock nods, but says nothing. If Kirk picks up on the nuance of his silence, he gives no indication.

 

“Until this evening, then,” he says. “Kirk out.”

 

~*~

 

Think you could smuggle a Commodore into the imaging suite some time? It was the unspoken longing beneath those words that Spock answered, vulnerability layered over with bravado. He has been aware for some time that this impulse exists within him, but he is, as yet, only able to identify it after the fact. It is… inconvenient.

 

The movement of the sun across the Terran sky are immaterial against the vast backdrop of galactic space, and the sensor array does not typically observe planetary constants such as day and night. Spock himself has spent more than one productive evening sequestered among the computer banks, filtering through infinity in search of the next level of questions that might bring his current answers into focus. It is approaching 2045 as he makes his way through the serpentine webs of corridors that lead towards the imaging suite, but they are far from deserted: he counts six separate research groups, cloistered in doorways and talking animatedly in the energetic sotto voce of the single-minded, weaving through the technicians and the science track cadets in pursuit of academic excellence, laughing by water coolers with red-rimmed eyes that speak of too many nights spent hunting the unfamiliar. And throughout the river of science blues are dotted small islands of red and, occasionally, gold: the men and women on whose orders the wheels of Starfleet turn. Spock wonders how many of them are here because of the meeting that has delayed his friend’s arrival.

 

Kirk is waiting outside the doors to Suite 5-A, hands clasped behind his back as he considers a framed image of the Andromeda Galaxy, captured with primitive equipment in the decades before Humankind had ventured beyond their home system. He turns at the sound of Spock’s footfall and a smile lights his face, flashing warmth into eyes that are dulled by exhaustion.

 

“There you are,” he says, and, though his voice is cheerful, it’s laced with the strain of the past hours.

 

Spock draws to a halt some three feet away from him. It’s too far by Human standards of personal space, but his body makes the decision for him and there’s no way to surreptitiously correct it once it’s done.

 

“My apologies for the delay, Commodore,” he says. “I had expected to allow more time for your arrival.”

 

An arched eyebrow, directed momentarily into the gulf that separates them, takes care of Kirk’s objections to the distance. But the smile does not fade. He says, “Don’t mention it.” A brisk, utilitarian shake of the head. “I left the conference room with indecent haste as soon as I had the opportunity. I believe there are people in this organization who talk just for the sake of hearing their own voice.” Frustration ghosts across his face, darkening his eyes, but he masters it quickly. “Never mind. I’m not even sure why I’m still surprised.”

 

“The meeting was unsatisfactory?” says Spock, which is extraneous, but seems to be required.

 

It prompts a half-hearted smile and a breath of laughter. “You could say that.” Kirk gestures towards the door, ostensibly an effort to move the conversation away from the contents of a difficult evening, but tension lingers in the muscles of his arm and his face. “Shall we?”

 

Spock hesitates for the briefest moment, but it’s passable as concern over his friend’s wellbeing, and Kirk reads it as such.

 

“It’s fine, really,” he says as Spock presses his hand to the sensor pad on the wall, which blazes into life with a tinny, computerized welcome that they both ignore. The doors slide open on the sterile vacancy of an out-of-action imaging suite. “I believe Admiral Bernstein when she says that the situation is under control. It’s just that…” A sigh, and he folds his hands behind his back and paces to the center of the room, feet clipping smartly against the hard tile surface. “I thought I was there as Deputy Chief of Xenorelations. And it turns out… I was there as the former Captain of a ship that orbited Ilion VII, once upon a time.” A beat. “It was not the most productive meeting I’ve attended.”

 

Spock steps into the darkened room and allows the doors to close softly behind him, sealing them inside a cocoon of warm, stale air, heavy with the scent of repeated and unbroken use throughout the day. He has already programmed the computer protocols: a series of uninhabited systems in Sector 120 seems like a safe enough prospect. The closest Enterprise ever passed was two years before Kirk came on board, and nothing in the intervening seven has persuaded Starfleet to take a closer look; the stars do not form the sorts of patterns that inspire Human poets to magnificent feats of verbal acrobatics; and, perhaps most importantly, they are not visible in the night sky above Vulcan. One of the planets - a D class dwarf in 2 Fornacis - has an unstable elliptical orbit that, while undeniably less than fascinating to anyone whose hobbies do not include gravitational physics, provides a handy alibi in terms of excusing Spock’s choice of such a pedestrian starfield. It is eminently suitable for his purposes this evening.

 

Standing by the control panel, it is possible to hear the soft hum of banked duotronic energy whispering through the circuitry, waiting for instruction. Run simulation? wonders the text across the screen, but, instead of confirming the request, Spock crosses quietly to where Kirk stands, staring absently at the far wall.

 

He says, “It would be impolitic of me to ask what conclusions were drawn.”

 

A beat, as Kirk’s gaze abruptly refocuses and he half-turns a slow-spreading smile on his companion. The only light is from the terminal screen beside the door and the dim strip of security lighting along the high ceiling; it casts his face in watery blue-white and shadow. He says, “As would I be committing a breach of security protocol if I told you that the admiralty’s main concern, at this time, is to establish whether or not the signal denotes hostile intent.”

 

“On whose authority is this determination to be made?” asks Spock.

 

“Until our star guest arrives?” An eyebrow arches disdainfully. “Admiral Komack’s.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Yes,” says Kirk. His brow furrows in frustration and he turns his glare back towards the empty wall. “You know as well as I do, Spock: the signal can be as hostile as it likes, but the Veleth Hai aren’t spacefarers; they’re not capable of manned space flight. The Federation is in no danger from that corner, no matter what it is they’re trying to tell us.”

 

“Others do not share your opinion, however.”

 

“I proposed a diplomatic expedition to the edge of the system. I think Bernstein was in agreement but she can’t move without Komack’s support and he won’t give it. Damn it,” he hisses with unexpected vitriol. “The man’s going to start a war some day.”

 

Spock arches an eyebrow, unseen. He would prefer to have greater cause to rebut Kirk’s words, but experience advises otherwise. He opens his mouth to speak, although he’s not entirely sure what he’s planning to say, but Kirk cuts him off before he has drawn breath.

 

“There’s nothing to be done about it tonight, in any case,” he says briskly. “His hands are tied for the time being at least - thank heaven.” Kirk’s fingers fall free of their grip at the small of his back and he rolls his shoulders, slowly, as though the action is uncomfortable. “I think I’d like to think about something else for a while. How’s that simulation looking?”

 

Alarmingly inadequate, actually. The chances were always high that Kirk would recognize the equivocation behind Spock’s selection of stellar suburbia for tonight’s main attraction, but he would also recognize the impulse behind it, the necessity. It’s a negligible offense in the service of a greater good. That only works, however, given a blank slate from which to work. Set it on top of an evening of frustration and disappointment, and it becomes a kind of betrayal of trust: here, at least, Kirk ought to be able to expect friendship and have it offered without condition. Three dreary conglomerations of interstellar debris stuffed haphazardly into the gravity well of a few unremarkable stars are not what Kirk came here to see, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to pretend that Spock’s planned display is sufficient.

 

But what is the alternative? It’s not that there’s a shortage of things to look at: data feeds into the array from a couple of hundred outposts scattered across Federal space and any passing starships that happen to stumble across something interesting enough to pipe back to Command. It’s only that galactic space is inordinately huge, and randomly triangulating and hoping for the best is likely to result in a whole lot of black and nothing else. On the other hand… the computer is locked to Spock’s data patterns, and any protocols he’s run in the past twelve years are automatically accessible for as long as he’s inside the imaging suite. That amounts to one hundred and forty-seven possible co-ordinates at which there will unquestionably be something to look at. None of them, unfortunately, come anywhere close to matching Spock’s pre-established criteria for the evening.

 

Well. Kaiidth.

 

“You will recall,” he says, turning on his heel and stepping briskly across the floor to the control panel, “That, en route to Sigma Iotia II, long-range sensors picked up what appeared to be a soft gamma repeater within the as-yet uncharted nebula designated NGC 13422.”

 

It’s not a question. Once upon a time, in the earliest days of their acquaintance, it might have been framed as a challenge, heavy with the implication that, while Spock would certainly recall, Kirk unquestionably would not. As a tool of strategic one-upmanship, however, it quickly lost its edge when it became apparent that Kirk could not be depended upon to forget things.

 

“Of course,” says the Commodore now, pivoting on one heel to follow Spock’s progress across the floor. “We planned to go back for a better look, and then we were ordered to rendezvous with the Serapis before we got the chance.” His face is shrouded in shadow now, but Spock can hear the smile in his voice as he adds, “I might have known you wouldn’t let it go.”

 

“Indeed,” says Spock, and thinks he hears a soft chuckle from the darkness. “Given the resources at my disposal, and a relatively broad remit, it seemed a productive use of my time to investigate further.”

 

“And have you found your soft gamma repeater?”

 

“I regret that I have not.” Spock draws to a halt beside the terminal interface and calls up his data pocket, scrolling rapidly across a 3D thumbnail of Federation space in search of the appropriate sector. “Sensors from an outlying probe of Rho Sigma 12-D have been unable to penetrate the nebula’s inner radiation shell. However, during my research I was able to view several accessible portions of the H II region.” Questing fingers find the star cluster that he seeks, and the computer automatically locks on to the protocol associated with the region. Light flares brightly above and around them, and resolves into an ethereal pink glow as the imaging suite processes millions of exabytes of information, flowing freely along a subspace channel thousands of light years across. Spock turns to face the room, where the glow is coalescing into the gossamer threads of nebular mist, curling around the blackness. “Some of the stellar spire formations are quite beautiful.”

 

“Beautiful?” says Kirk, but his voice is hushed with a kind of reverent awe as he pivots in a slow circle, eyes trained upwards as the cloths of heaven unfold around him. “Is that your logical assessment?”

 

Spock steps forward, out of the shadow by the door and into the gently rotating nexus of light. The mind knows, academically, that this is a projection, the computer’s best approximation of a series of binary digits captured by the mechanical eye of a distant probe, but the body wants to feel the sense of vertigo, weightlessness, suspension in an endless void. The hand wants to reach out and catch the soft filaments of star dust, like cotton candy; let it run through his fingers and tangle around his flesh. The skin wants to experience a sudden dip in temperature as it plunges into the crisp clarity of freezing vacuum. The self wants to believe it has been transported from a bunker in the bowels of an old Starfleet laboratory, and transplanted into infinity.

 

He falls into place at Kirk’s side, tilting his head upwards to follow the path of his friend’s gaze, and sees the faint gleam of a birthing star inside a dense cloud of gas and debris.

 

“It is the only possible assessment,” he says quietly.

 

Kirk glances sideways and, in his peripheral vision, Spock sees his friend’s throat constrict, as though his breath has caught. A smile plays around the edges of his lips as Spock stares resolutely ahead, though he’s not looking at the stars. He’s concentrating on remaining absolutely still, on steadying the motion of his lungs, on burying the noisy turmoil thundering through his veins. His mouth is dry, his throat is dry, but he does not move.

 

Kirk says, quietly and without looking away, “Tell me what I’m looking at.”

 

Right now? He’s looking at Spock. But there is no need to acknowledge this fact; Spock has not turned his head into the glare of that sideways scrutiny. He takes a breath to speak and is obliged to clear his crackling throat before the words will come. The sound is naked, vulnerable in the hush.

 

He says, “The pink glow is caused by ionized hydrogen gas ejected by the nebula’s central star. There are three distinct protrusions of molecular cloud observable from the probe’s current position. You are currently looking at the most prolific section, in which several stars can be seen in various stages of formation.”

 

Kirk’s eyes release him at last, sliding slowly upwards towards the ceiling, where a dense pillar of gas and dust occludes the coral glow. One arm rises to trace its outline in the air. “We should have come back for this,” he says.

 

“Operational demands dictated…”

 

“I know, Spock. I was there; I remember.” Fingers splay, silhouetted against the radiance of newborn starlight, as though Kirk is trying to filter it through his hand. “I wonder… What else did we miss?”

 

Again, that vertiginous sense of echo behind every word, as though there’s another, silent sentence running behind and alongside every spoken thought. Spock says, “The galaxy is vast.”

 

It’s the opposite of profound; the kind of bland inconsequential that passes for sagacity amongst certain members of the service who talk for a living, and Spock fully expects some form of verbal retaliation. But Kirk only smiles faintly and nods.

 

To see a world in a grain of sand,” he says softly. “And heaven in a wild flower…

 

To hold infinity in the palm of your hand,” finishes Spock. A beat, and he adds, “William Blake.”

 

There is a moment of silence. Then Kirk says, “How do you do that?”

 

“I do not follow.”

 

“I can’t do that with Vulcan writers. Perhaps the occasional line of Surak’s teachings, but T’Rela? Sanvek? I can’t even name any others.”

 

“Ah.” Spock moves his hands from their clasp at the small of his back, circling them around to fold in front of his lower abdomen, and feels the brush of radiant heat from Kirk’s body as they sweep close to his hip. He swallows. “My mother has a great fondness for classic Terran literature,” he says. “Among my earliest memories is a spirited reading from Anna Karenina.”

 

Kirk’s face creases into a smile. “That,” he says, “Makes a strange kind of sense.”

 

He turns slightly, feet scraping softly on the floor as his body twists through forty-five, sixty degrees, head held uniformly upwards. Safely excluded from his companion’s line of sight, Spock allows his gaze to fall on the shadowed outline of Kirk’s back, the streaks of opal starlight shot through the fine hairs on the crown of his head, the tightly-coiled muscles in his neck that never seem to loosen. There is no question now that this evening’s enterprise has been a tactical error, but he can’t bring himself to lament his decision.

 

“There’s a trade delegation scheduled to visit Sigma Iotia II in October,” says Kirk now. His eyes do not leave the curling tendrils of stardust. “I’m going to recommend they bring with them a science team and a short-range scouting shuttle.” A beat. “I can make sure you’re on it, if you like.”

 

“That will not be necessary,” says Spock.

 

“No?”

 

How can he explain that the fires of exploration have been banked in that restless place that has propelled him into the unknown for as long as he can remember? The compulsive need to know more, to see more, to unlock the hidden truths that skirt the boundaries of sentient knowledge, this has not abated, but it is subordinate now to another, stronger need. Scientific discovery can be achieved almost anywhere in the universe; Kirk is, generally speaking, only in one place at a time.

 

He says, simply, “These facilities are sufficient for my present requirements.”

 

A beat. Then Kirk breathes a soft laugh that has nothing to do with humor. “Yes,” he says. “You’re better at this than I am.”

 

Cthia demands a level of acceptance of that which we cannot change.”

 

“I wish I had your forbearance.”

 

It’s spoken lightly, as though it was a throwaway comment, but there is an unmistakable undercurrent of… something, something unnamable, beneath it. And still Kirk does not turn around.

 

Quietly, Spock says, “You have regrets.”

 

Kirk’s turns quickly over his shoulder, pivoting on one heel to face Spock.

 

“Many,” he says simply. He hesitates, eyebrows gently sloping in open-faced confession. “You must know that.”

 

The words are innocuous, but they point into dangerous territory. Spock says, uneasily, “I see no reason for you to reproach yourself.”

 

A soft laugh. “Thank you, my friend, but we both know that’s not true.” Spock opens his mouth to speak, but Kirk silences him with a brief shake of his head. “If nothing else,” he says briskly, “I am guilty of many, many wasted opportunities.”

 

Kirk’s head arcs backwards, staring directly above him, and the starlight colors the pale skin of his throat in watery shades of rose. It’s possible to see, just below the surface, the rapid thrum of his carotid pulse, a hummingbird shadow of gray on white in the gloom. Spock hesitates. Of all the responses he has considered - anger, disappointment, sadness, betrayal - it has never occurred to him to wonder if his friend blames himself for what has happened between them. And now, faced with this new understanding, he can’t work out how he’s managed not to see it. He knows the man that Kirk is; he knows the way he reads the world. It seems suddenly very important to correct this, but he has no idea how.

 

“Jim,” he says quietly, and Kirk’s head abruptly snaps forward, eyes widening in surprise.

 

It’s the tone, Spock realizes. The tone has given him away.

 

He should have known this would happen. He did know it would happen, he understands suddenly; he knew as soon as he made the suggestion that brought them to this point. He knew when Kirk accepted with enthusiasm; he knew when they set the plans in motion, and he knew when he messaged Kirk this morning. Every tentative footstep forward has been taken in the certain knowledge that there was only one way this evening could go, and Spock knew this, beneath the layers of denial and self-delusion, and he did it anyway because he wants this.

 

That’s the truth. He wants this.

 

Kirk swallows, adam’s apple skipping against his skin. There’s a moment of perfect silence, telescoping into infinity, and every second drags them further from the place where it’s possible to claw this back. Spock knows he needs to retrieve this - he’s not so far gone that he can’t remember why he’s fought so hard - but Kirk says, softly, “Spock…”, and there’s no mistaking the vulnerability lacing that single word, and no way to answer it short of an outright lie. He won’t do that. He won’t bury this in untruth.

 

Kirk shifts his weight, twisting so that his body is angled directly towards his companion’s, and his scent fills the air between them, known and coveted; his heat is like a curtain of static against Spock’s skin. Hesitantly, skittish shadows betraying a faint tremor, Kirk reaches a hand into the space that separates them. Spock watches it rise, close the distance between them, and he knows he must move; he must do something to obviate what’s coming, but his controls are in fragments now. How many nights have these same images assaulted him, twisting and stabbing at his mind as it struggles for equilibrium? How many hours has this been the memory that pulls him back from the very brink of the trance, screaming up through the layers of consciousness to batter ineffectually against the walls of his resolve? How many dawns have found him, blood pooling solid in the flesh of his groin, aching with frustrated desire and unable to release it for fear that it will collapse the fracturing fortress of determination that he’s labored hard to build? Warm, Human fingers close tentatively around the upper sleeve of his tunic and he can feel the press of every tiny point of skin against his, energy humming across the connection. Almost without conscious instruction, Spock’s hand rises up to close over his friend’s, and he has no idea if the gesture is intended to encourage or deter. Fingers curl over fingers, tangling and deepening the join, and he feels the muscles flex beneath his friend’s skin, hears his breath catch in his throat…

 

How easy would it be to take what’s offered in that uncertain gaze, to forget the red-rimmed white of his mother’s eyes all those years ago and their unspoken injunction against what he needs? How easy would it be to just give in?

 

There is nothing he has ever wanted so badly as he wants this now. He wants it with an ache that feels dangerously ungovernable; uncountable hours of wanting distilled into a roiling torrent of desire. And so, when he finds the breath to force the word through his lips - a single, plaintive, “Jim,” - he has no idea if he’s asking for absolution or for the discipline he lacks.

 

“Jim,” he says quietly, and Kirk’s head drops towards his chest. It’s like a circuit breaking. The atmosphere shifts; something is lost.

 

So. Discipline, then. For all that it’s the right decision, it feels like a blow to the gut.

 

“I’m sorry,” says his friend, quickly and quietly. “I’m sorry. You’re right; I’m sorry.”

 

Shame clutches a fist around Spock’s chest. He wants to say the words that appropriate the blame from a man who does not deserve it; he wants to say You are not at fault, but there are no words to strip Kirk of the heavy weight of responsibility he carries with him like a mantle of stone; if there were, it would be the work of different circumstances to make them heard. So he says, simply, “No”; a tiny word that sounds smaller in the dark silence, and hopes that it will be enough.

 

“I know,” says Kirk. “I’m sorry, my friend.” A deep breath. “You have no idea how sorry.”

 

Ah - no. Too late, Spock understands that his word has been taken as a dismissal, not a refutation. Kirk has heard no and assumed it’s an injunction, an emphatic rejection of whatever it was he offered. Spock opens his mouth to correct him, but his brain is wheeling feverishly, scrambling for the way to fix this, and the shades have already dropped behind his friend’s eyes.

 

“It’s late,” says Kirk. He glances up, and he’s mastered himself again; his face is iron-hard and expressionless. “I should… I have some work to do before I turn in.” A beat. “I should go.”

 

“Computer, cease simulation,” says Spock quietly. The heavens disappear into sucking blackness.

 

There is a moment of silence. Then Kirk says, curtly, “Lights.” He blinks in the sudden onslaught of yellow-white glare, and the room is suddenly just a room again: barren, stale, and over-used.

 

The Commodore manages a tight smile. “Thank you for…” - a hand gestures vaguely at the blank air behind him - “…for this evening,” he says. He purses his lips. “I’ll comm you tomorrow.”

 

It’s possible there’s a question buried beneath the blunt words, but he’s gone before Spock can sort through the noise inside his head, nodding once and moving swiftly towards the door. It closes softly behind him, and Spock is alone. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Kirk knows before the door has closed behind him that he’s not going home. The idea is so absurd it almost chokes a bitter laugh out of his tight, painful throat: what, should he go back to an empty apartment and stare out the window at the distant stars and pretend that it’s not a mockery of the evening he’s just trampled all over? Go to bed and not replay the past five minutes in an endless loop behind his eyelids as he tries not to wonder what this means? Comm Bones for a commiserative drinking session in the hope that the first goddamn question he asks won’t revolve around the circumstances that led to the invitation? Stare at a wall? Pace the floors? Swing blindly at inanimate objects until something breaks?

 

It’s barely 2200 hours. He’s worked later than this. He comms an aircar - privilege of rank - and directs it to Horseshoe Bay.

 

Xeno doesn’t sleep, not really, but it’s a skeleton staff after core hours: one CO and three Yeomen, in possession of a strict set of protocols for who gets woken up and under what circumstances. Kirk’s name is somewhere close to the top of the list, but it’s a moot point, since, more often than not, he’s here anyway. Commander Terek has pulled overnight duty, which is just exactly what Kirk needs to see right now - a Vulcan with one single, twisted braid on his sleeve - and he rises in that familiar, sinuous way as Kirk enters the room. His face betrays no surprise, which it wouldn’t, but Kirk’s appearance is hardly extraordinary in any case.

 

He says, “Good evening, Commodore Kirk.”

 

“Commander,” answers Kirk more tersely than he means to, but it’s been a long day. “Have the Photeus reports arrived yet?”

 

“Not yet, sir,” says Terek. “Commander Willard…”

 

“Yes, please comm Commander Willard and ask her to follow up with the Antigone ASAP,” says Kirk. “The delay is becoming unacceptable. I’ll be at my desk; I don’t want to be disturbed.”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Terek, but Kirk is already moving past him, through the still, dark cavern of the central lobby, towards the sanctuary of his office. There’s a light shining from below Ciana’s door, but he files the information away under inconsequential and lets himself inside.

 

Sanders has been tidying again. Irritation prickles Kirk’s skin as he barks a command to the computer, dialing down the overhead lights as far as they will go, and finally just switching them off altogether. The pale glow of the terminal screen is sufficient; it’s more in keeping with his current mood, in any case. The windows are darkened, though they weren’t when he left the room in the late afternoon, but he supposes he’s grateful for that. His mug has been washed and set neatly on a coaster beside the terminal screen and his tapes have been filed away in alphabetical order by due date. She’s even smoothed out the bumps in the seat of the chair, which has a habit of moulding itself to the contours of Kirk’s body when he sits in it too long. Everything is quiet order - methodical and systematized, clean and comfortable - and there’s absolutely no reason for the resentment that wells in his tightening chest as he fights the urge to sweep the flat of one hand against a geometrically-stacked sheaf of files on the edge of his desk. It’s only that everything’s so damn logical, everywhere he looks, and can’t a man just mire himself in chaos every once in a while?

 

Goddamn it.

 

Goddamn it.

 

A protest from his knuckles and he glances down, distractedly, to find that he’s gripping the edge of his desk with enough force to drain the blood from his fingers. They creak their disapproval as he releases his hold, flexing them stiffly as he crosses absently to the window, where the faintest glimmer of starlight mocks him from behind the curtain of smoked glass. He leans forward until his forehead is pressed against the pane, sharply cold in the tepid air of the office, and sucks in a deep breath. Another. And then a third, as though the air in his lungs has some kind of restorative properties suitable for dampening down the fires of agitation in his belly.

 

It’s not entirely a surprise to hear the gentle hiss of his office door sliding open on the resonant hush outside, although she usually knocks first. He straightens his spine and turns on his heel as Ciana greets him with a conspiratorial twitch of her eyebrows and steps inside, leaning back against the door as it closes softly behind her. Her face is soft with fatigue and stray wisps of hair have escaped from the clasp at the back of her head, but otherwise she’s exactly as he left her a couple of hours ago. It feels like longer.

 

“I thought you went home,” she says.

 

He probably ought to dial the lights back up, but he’d really rather she didn’t decide to stay, and that might imply some form of invitation. So instead he steps smartly away from the window, crosses the short space to his desk, slides into his chair without meeting her eyes.

 

“Not exactly,” he says. He attempts a smile, but he can tell by the way his cheeks ache that it’s fallen somewhat flat. “I had a prior engagement.” A beat. “It… didn’t last as long as I expected.”

 

“So you came back here?”

 

“There are some reports I need to action.”

 

“And they can’t wait until tomorrow?” He can feel her gaze on him as he makes a show of reorienting the terminal so that it lines up with the angle of his shoulders. “Seriously, Kirk: go home. That was some quantity of bullshit you had to deal with tonight; you don’t need to be here.”

 

A humorless laugh wells up in his throat, and he smothers it with difficulty. “I prefer to finish this tonight,” he says, and turns his eyes towards the screen in the hope that she’ll give up and go away.

 

She doesn’t, of course. You’d think he’d have learned by now, especially after all those years of dealing with Bones. Instead of taking his manifest equivocation as her cue to leave, she unfolds her arms, pushes herself up off the door, and crosses the room to perch on the edge of his desk. And then she waits.

 

Kirk gives in; he’s learned something at least. He looks up from the screen, meets her eyes, considers raising an eyebrow in challenge, and then decides against it. She’s still his CO.

 

“You’re tired,” she says. “This isn’t healthy, Kirk. You need to sleep as well.”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “Ma’am,” he says, as evenly as he can, “I hesitate to point this out, but… you’re here too.”

 

She laughs softly, edging back onto his desk in a manner that makes it clear she’s getting settled in for the long haul. “Yeah, I pull the occasional all-nighter,” she says. “I outrank you, though, Mister. Vice Admiral’s prerogative. And, you know… it’s not every night. For me.”

 

He leans back in his chair. “I prefer to be here,” he says.

 

“And I prefer to have a deputy who’s had more than fifteen hours’ sleep in the past four days. Don’t even,” she says, holding up a hand as he begins to protest. “I don’t need the exact figure; I know I’m in the ballpark. You don’t ‘prefer to be here’; you just don’t want to be anywhere else. What is is, Kirk? Did something happen?”

 

He can feel his eyes darken. “We were at the same meeting, Ma’am.”

 

“Yeah, and I swear I thought you were going to quit right there and then,” she says quietly. “But here you are. So that’s not it.” She raises her eyes to his in relentless appraisal. He takes an impatient breath, but he holds her stare. “After the meeting?”

 

Despite himself, an eyebrow arches. “I believe I’m entitled to a private life,” he says.

 

She shrugs, but doesn’t drop his gaze. “Sure you are,” she says. “It’s not my place to ask.”

 

Ah. It’s a variation on the standard I don’t want to pry, one of the most disingenuous statements in the English language. And it’s largely unassailable, because it’s been mitigated up front. It’s not her place to ask, but she’s asking anyway. And, therefore, absolved from castigation, she expects an answer.

 

“Nothing happened,” he says shortly. “I was…” - and the pause is more revealing than he would like, but he genuinely can’t work out how to phrase it - “…in consultation with Commander Spock.”

 

“Commander Spock, huh?” she says. A beat. “So - who insulted whose mom?”

 

Laughter sputters out of him, unexpected and irresistible, and something eases, as though it’s lanced poison from a hidden wound. She joins him, chuckling softly and folding her arms comfortably across her chest. In another woman, it might look defensive, but her body is soft, relaxed.

 

“The Zeta Calliope report and the 5 Philippus Alpha report and then you’re out of here, okay?” she says. “I mean it. The only thing this department has going on this week is 43 Ilion Gamma, and we’re on top of that right now. Don’t burn out - I need you in fighting form on Callisto next week.”

 

He smiles. “Yes, Ma’am,” he says.

 

She releases her arms and slides off the table in one lithe, smooth movement. “And then take some leave or something,” she says as she stands, straightening, brushing down her uniform where it has ridden up against her skin. “You look like hell, Kirk.”

 

He wonders what will happen if she meets Bones at the ceremony; if they’ll annihilate each other like matter and anti-matter in a conversion chamber, or if they’ll fall into mutual orbit as two halves of one whole.

 

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he says.

 

She grins. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

 

And then she’s gone.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Things generally look better in the cold light of day. But the cold light of day creeps under the drapes before Kirk has managed to settle his unquiet mind to more than sixty minutes’ sleep at a time, and its remedial effect is somewhat dulled by the thick blanket of exhaustion fogging the inside of his skull. A quick glance at the chronometer tells him that it’s another three quarters of an hour until his alarm is due to go off, but he can tell by the sudden spike of adrenalin in his gut that there’s no point in even closing his eyes again. This is it. The day has begun, and there’s not much he can do about it. He might as well get up.

 

The sun is barely over the horizon. Kirk shuffles aimlessly, absently, around his living quarters, scratching at his bare chest and scrubbing a hand over his face. He considers slaking some of this restless energy on an early morning run, the way he used to do as a cadet when sleeplessness haunted him, but years on a starship have broken him of the habit, and running in place in a gravity-controlled gym is not the same. The few times he’s let his crowded thoughts push him out the door and onto the tree-lined paths of the Presidio, he’s stumbled back through his apartment door an hour later, breath laboring an acid-trail of raw heat along his trachea, sweat pooling in the hollow at the base of his spine, calf-muscles pulled tight as a bowstring, and his mind racing in time with his frantic pulse. There are times when he just needs to not be on his own, and it doesn’t get more solitary than a 5am jog.

 

So, instead, he makes himself walk decisively to the shower, as though it’s a positive decision and not the default option of a man who’s run out of ideas, dials the temperature just shy of scalding, and lets a tattoo of searing water purge the doubt and self-reproach in a current of steam. He stands beneath the excoriating stream for as long as his protesting flesh and skittering, superheated heart rate will allow him, and, when he’s done, he steps out of the cubicle in a billow of heat and mist, wraps a towel perfunctorily around his waist, and pads wet footprints across his apartment to his terminal screen.

 

There’s no message from Spock. He didn’t really expect that there would be. Still, frustration tightens Kirk’s chest and he straightens, turns away, paces to the window. He knows last night was a mistake; it’s really not as though he doesn’t know. He can feel it in every innervated nerve ending in his body; it’s like a cloud of static, hovering around his head and discharging irregular bursts of electricity inside the part of his brain devoted to shame. But the thing is, he’s sick of this. He’s sick of the tentative equilibrium, of the sense that everything’s just a misplaced glance or a brush of the hand away from collapsing in on itself like the heart of an unstable star. He’s sick of walking on eggshells and wanting - but never too much, and always at the very back of his conscious thoughts, in case it creeps, unbidden, into the curve of his smile or the tilt of his shoulder. He’s sick of being constantly on his guard against stray desire, of scanning the horizon for impending catastrophe, of feeling as though he’s some kind of predator on a tight leash, something to be regarded with caution and to keep at a distance. And most of all, he’s sick of the constant undercurrent of despair that colors his every word and action with the knowledge that, somewhere along the line, he’s bound to screw this up. That living without Spock is like scrambling in the darkness; it’s like trying to get by with half of himself torn away, and, somehow or other, just wanting him close by is going to be enough to push him away.

 

So he purses his lips, steels himself, turns back to the terminal and makes himself write, I guess last night got derailed. Let me make it up to you with lunch. JTK. His hand hovers over the erase key - ninety seconds, one hundred, one hundred and ten; so long that muscle fatigue kicks up a fine tremor in the bones of his fingers - and he stares at the screen until the lines of text blur into each other and two sentences of reluctant contrition congeal into a globular stain of black on white. Bones would call him a stubborn son-of-a-bitch with an over-developed martyr complex, and maybe that’s partially true, but it’s not just that. It’s more that there’s an air of desperation to apologizing for something just because he’s afraid that he’s been down this road before. And he wonders if that bleeds through those fifteen short words; if Spock will read them and hear the echo-voice behind them that whispers, I know I messed up. Please don’t leave.

 

The chirp of his communicator cuts abruptly through his reverie, and Kirk’s hovering hand strikes the table with an audible thump. Adrenalin spears his belly and he almost knocks over his chair in his unsteady haste to snatch the device from the kitchen counter where he’s stowed it until such times as he might be wearing actual clothes with a pocket or a belt on which to clip it. He knows it’s not likely to be Spock, not really - there was a time when a communicator call at 0510 was unlikely to be from anyone else, but those days are gone - but the Human brain is designed to make connections out of coincidence and hope, and for a second, an ill-considered moment, he genuinely believes that the universe works in such a way as to cause his friend to call just as Kirk prevaricates over how to make things right again.

 

So when he snaps, “Kirk here,” there’s a catch to his voice; a thready, breathy edge that’s all expectation and anxiety.

 

“Kirk, it’s Ciana,” says her disembodied voice, brisk and efficient and entirely too free of the fug of sleep to have been to bed yet. He will not acknowledge the jagged shard of disappointment that sinks out of sight in some disregarded corner of his thoughts. “Did I wake you?”

 

He clears his throat. “No, Ma’am,” he says.

 

A breath of laughter, but businesslike. “I had a feeling. Can you come in? I just this minute got some news across my desk and I need you here.”

 

“News?”

 

“Yeah.” A pause, and he can imagine the furrow of her brow while she debates how much to tell him over an unsecured line. “Not good,” she says.

 

Kirk glances towards his terminal, milk-white glow fading into gray as daylight chases the shadows from the air. “I’m on my way,” he says. “Kirk out.”

 

The communicator shuts with a snap. “Computer, send message,” says Kirk, and turns for the bedroom.

 

 

~*~

 

 

It’s a strange feeling, reading about a crisis in the hours after it has passed. Commander Jeaunais’ report is brief, perfunctory - much like the reports Kirk might once have sent himself, in fact, and maybe it’s the fact that he understands this imperative very well that makes it so easy to slip between the lines and read into the stark, emotionless prose the sense of adrenalin massing, of desperate focus, of uncertainty, and, yes, fear. The Hibernia has seen her share of action since she left Spacedock, and Kirk knows both her Captain and First Officer by reputation. They are a solid team, with more than twenty years’ command experience between them, and they don’t scare easily. Captain Corrigan is a man with a flair for diplomacy: calm, respectful and fair; Jeaunais is level-headed, intuituve and resourceful. They were a good choice for the Draconis mission, no matter what anyone decides to say now. There are plenty of worse ways this could have gone.

 

It’s late morning, and Ciana has gone home to snatch a few hours’ sleep and a change of clothes before the inevitable rounds of hand-wringing and recriminations begin, and she’s left Kirk to piece together an analysis of the situation from the Captain and First Officer’s logs, transmission records, and Xeno’s research dossier on the Draconis system. It’s not exactly difficult to see what went wrong; it’s more that it’s going to be tricky to word it in such a way as to avoid sounding as though they’re trying to abdicate responsibility for something that is, actually, genuinely not Xeno’s fault. Nor is it Corrigan’s fault, and it’s certainly not the fault of his First Officer, who, without question, saved her captain’s life. Draconis II is, by definition, located in a system outside of Federal influence; observation is utilitarian and driven by operational need. They don’t have a probe pointed at every planet on which they hope to exercise a charm offensive, and they certainly don’t have someone watching every sweep and revolution of its orbital path.

 

There was no way anyone could have known about the attack.

 

Details are a little sketchy in places, the way they usually are when an incident is less than half a day old, and the captain, who is the only person who was actually planetside for the whole debacle, is still lying unconscious on a sickbay biobed, but Jeaunais’ report outlines the facts as she understands them. They achieved orbit some eighteen hours ahead of schedule, and Corrigan took the decision to allow his Head of Sciences to conduct some additional close-range planetary scans while they awaited final authorization from HQ to make their approach to the designated authorities. It’s standard procedure; Draconis II has been warp capable for only a decade or so, as far as anyone can tell, and they haven’t developed any kind of centralized protocol for managing extra-planetary traffic. Best guess is that they haven’t actually made it past the boundary of their own solar system yet, so it’s entirely possible that the Hibernia is their first official visitor - with “official” being the operative word here. It would certainly explain the itchy trigger finger.

 

The ship has taken severe damage to the starboard nacelle, from a surprise barrage of cannon fire that erupted without warning from a city on the largest archipelago. The loss of coolant through the blast hole triggered a cascading warp malfunction in the central coil, rendering all engine systems temporarily inoperable while persons unknown on Draconis emptied their arsenal into orbit with alarming accuracy and Captain Corrigan was obliged to make a split-second decision about whether or not to launch photon torpedoes and start a war before they’d even exchanged so much as a reluctant handshake. Kirk will be the first to admit that he doesn’t know what he would have done in Corrigan’s position: it’s easy to look back on it now, with the benefit of hindsight, and congratulate or castigate, but in the heat of the moment, with his ship hanging like dead weight in the center of a firestorm and the lives of his crew in the balance, who’s to say that he might not have chosen to send a warning shot screaming over the low-lying, water-bound streets; to sacrifice a few hundred people he’ll never meet over men and women he’s sworn to protect?

 

Corrigan didn’t. As far as Kirk’s concerned, he earned his pay for the week right there, because that takes some kind of nerve: to stand in the center of a bridge under fire and repeatedly demand of empty static that it open up a line of communication with you right now, as though it’s outside the boundaries of conceivable thought anyone might continue to ignore that level of mulish obstinacy. Kirk takes a moment to wonder, uncomfortably, if it always looked so reckless when he tried that sort of thing.

 

Captain Corrigan used all available frequencies to repeatedly restate our non-hostile intent, writes Jeaunais with the diplomacy of a woman who’s been in similar situations before. It was my stated opinion that we were either misunderstood or unheard, as the attack was unrelenting, but after approximately seven minutes of sustained fire, Lieutenant Cordiner reported activity on Hailing Frequency 3L. This was our first communication with the population of Draconis II. Given our substantial disadvantage, the Captain deemed it prudent to accede to their demands that he beam down to the capitol to open up negotiations. The away party was comprised of Captain Corrigan, Lieutenant Commander Yu (Chief of Security), Ensign Bell (Sec.), Ensign Hashimoto (Sec.), Doctor Vazh (2nd Medic), and Lieutenant Cordiner (Chief of Communications). The team was planetside for no more than three minutes before I received word from Draconis II that the captain had been taken hostage.

 

Kirk has spoken to her over subspace on and off throughout the morning. She’s a tall, angular woman in her late forties, with a handsome face and a stare that you wouldn’t want to cross. She’s tired and shaken, and a fading blossom of purplish-gray across her right eye and up into her hairline speaks of an appointment with the dermal regenerator in the recent past, but she has the imperturbable constitution of a spacefarer of several decades’ experience; he would not object to her presence at his flank in a firefight. Kirk’s reasonably certain that her Captain’s going to recommend her for a commendation when he comes to, but if he doesn’t, Kirk will.

 

She’s not sure what she can add to her report, she says, but Kirk wants her impressions, and that’s not something that Starfleet tends to commit to record. It prompts a solitary eyebrow raise that’s painfully familiar, and he finds himself wondering, savagely, if this is something they’ve started teaching at basic First Officer training.

 

“My impression is that these people have been seriously frightened,” she says. “That became obvious very quickly.”

 

You see, that’s not in the report; the report talks in brittle, dry inflections about someone called the Ssar Fithosh, whose rank doesn’t translate well into Standard, but who seems to have general responsibility for civic security - possibly for the entire archipelago, possibly for the city alone, and possibly - though she doesn’t believe this is likely - for Draconis II as a whole. He - she thinks it’s a he, though she’s prepared to accept the possibility that Human gender conventions are laughably inadequate in this instance - demanded their immediate departure from Draconian space, with the Captain held as surety against the likelihood of another attack, and it took her several minutes of fraught discussion to establish that the hypothetical attack in question was expected to come from the Hibernia, not from the Draconian batteries.

 

I vehemently stated our position, says her report, that there was no question of the Hibernia’s departure without the Captain’s presence on board. I was certain, at this juncture, that their intention towards Captain Corrigan was hostile.

 

Kirk wants to know why, and at first she insists that she can’t quantify an instinct. But he presses her, and, after a moment’s reflection, she remembers the anger in the Ssar’s words; the frills on his neck would quiver and rise, like hackles, when he spoke. It was not interaction, it was overreaction, predicated on his absolute certainty that the Hibernia’s intent was to do them harm, and evidenced by no action on the part of Corrigan or his crew. This is when she began to suspect that what they were dealing with was not terror of the unknown, but, rather, terror of the known - that, somewhere in the recent past, Draconis II had learned that they had every reason to fear outworlders.

 

It was a secondary observation; useful only inasmuch as it provided a frame of reference from which to proceed. The Hibernia was still dead in the air above a demonstrably hostile planet, and the Captain was still in captivity and likely to die if he couldn’t be retrieved. But it gave her a blueprint, a way in.

 

As negotiations continued, she writes, it became clear that it was imperative that we convince the Draconian authorities that we had no knowledge of this earlier contact. I requested details and, at first, the Ssar Fithosh was unwilling to elucidate but, as I recognized that, in all likelihood, this earlier extra-planetary contact was of non-Federal origin, it seemed prudent to invite him to scan our ship for evidence that it matched their earlier visitors’. While I acknowledge the substantial risk involved in such a strategy, I was confident that it represented our best chance for success. It was at this point that they conceded their lack of direct information concerning the specifics of the earlier contact, which took the form of an unprovoked attack on an isolated mining settlement in the north of the archipelago.

 

Hathsh Sassafith is a village of approximately seven hundred people, on an outlying arm of the island chain. It’s nestled along the shores of a deep lagoon blown from the cone of a long-extinct volcano, where the flow of the ocean has created a natural well of semiheavy water that provides the local community with a constant source of gainful employment and income. The attack came by night, when the majority of the populace had retreated underwater, and the first instinct of the elders that remained on the surface - the alpha caste, whose function is primarily custodial - was to dive down to the sleep chambers to protect the young. The Alpha Prime was surfaceside longest, and the report that he presented to the Grand Chamber was unequivocal: three ships appeared out of nowhere in the clear sky above the village; one fired a shot directly at the town hall, where the lights were still burning from the alphas’ evening meal, and then all three swooped down on the distillery. This is all he saw before he retreated underside, but, when dawn trickled watery sunlight through the fathoms and he led a tentative expedition to the surface, he found the area around the processing plant in ruins and the distillation vats drained dry of nearly 5,000 gallons of deuterium-rich water destined for the capital.

 

“No one saw the attackers?” says Kirk.

 

“No,” says Jeaunais. “But they’re adamant that the ships were not Draconian.”

 

Kirk is inclined to agree. Draconian spacefaring vessels are bulky and cumbersome, weighted on either side by vast submersion tanks full of Draconian seawater. They’re constructed in orbit around the planet and never cross the mesosphere; seven million tons of water is the opposite of aerodynamic, and they would fall out of the sky like massive metal spaceships full of liquid. If three starships descended out of a clear sky and landed on Hathsh Sassafith, they didn’t come from Draconis.

 

I continued to engage the Draconian authorities in negotiations for as long as was practicable, says the report. Commander Yu and the remainder of the away party had been returned to the ship shortly after the Captain was taken hostage, and I informed him, on his arrival on the bridge, that we were at alert level Sigma Rho. As per Starfleet regulations, he understood this to mean that a covert Search and Rescue operation was to be put into effect at the earliest opportunity and removed himself to Security to plan his strategy. At 1112 hours, ship’s time, Ensign Bell indicated that Commander Yu’s task force was in position. It is my belief that diplomatic engagement may ultimately have proven successful in resolving the incident, and progress was being made; however, I judged the situation to be time-sensitive as I could not verify the current state of the Captain’s health. Given that Commander Holtz had earlier reported that warp functions were back online, albeit at a much reduced capacity, I gave the order to proceed.

 

The words are delivered with such dispassionate authority that it’s almost easy to forget that she’s talking about a life or death decision, one that was stacked fairly heavily in favor of failure either way: an impossible choice. But, faced with action or inaction, where all else is equal, it’s Human instinct to go for the former. Jeaunais is a woman of instinct, and it steered her right this time. Captain Corrigan is suffering the effects of oxygen deprivation and hypothermia, and took phaser fire to the chest and leg during the retrieval, but he’s alive. A couple of Draconian military police are not, and now it’s up to Kirk to determine if there’s any possibility of salvaging their nascent relationship with an antsy populace that have just lost two citizens to Federal firepower. He suspects that there is not.

 

“For what it’s worth, Commander,” he says, as he’s preparing to conclude the interview, “I believe you made the right call. That will be reflected in my report.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” she says. “I hope Captain Corrigan agrees with you. He… feels strongly about our responsibility to emerging warp-capable cultures.”

 

So does Kirk, though he leaves it unspoken and signs off. The medical report indicates that Corrigan is likely to be fit to give a verbal statement by tomorrow morning, ship’s time, which is around 0100 PST; too late to have any bearing on their meetings this afternoon, but maybe soon enough to turn around the Starfleet policy machine if it needs to be turned. Kirk is not likely to take any heat for this, given that it was his predecessor’s recommendation and he was only following up on ground work long since set in concrete, but Ciana might and, besides, that’s not really the point. The point is that Draconis was a safe bet and a good target for first contact; there’s no reason it ought to have gone bad, and what they should be focusing on - but won’t - is the question of why. It’s going to get buried under operational and trade concerns; can they afford to make an enemy in this sector, what are the fiscal implications if Draconis goes hostile, who will ally themselves with whom. A thousand ripples, but it’s the epicenter that interests Kirk. An isolated planet with no near neighbors and nothing particularly to recommend it beyond its potential as the site of a future Starbase; it’s neither mineral-rich nor technologically advanced, and if it was in the pirate lanes it would have been raided long before now and the Ssar Fithosh wouldn’t be as jittery as a man who’s just seen everything he thought he knew about the universe turned inside out. The point is: the timing stinks.

 

He turns to the comms recording: incoming only, and punctuated with lengthy pauses while the bridge crew, presumably, react to the man on the screen. The Ssar Fithosh is tall, sylphlike, with opaque skin through which it’s possible to see the rapid flow of ochre blood in narrow veins just below the surface. Standing to attention, he keeps his limbs folded close to his torso in clean, fluid lines, so that he seems to be carved from yellow obsidian: one smooth, sinuous shape, bent at the neck and narrowing into a serpentine head with double-lidded, suspicious eyes. He barely opens his mouth to speak, and the universal translator stutters here and there over the soft-voiced, palatal sibilants. Cordiner has flagged the most pertinent sections, though he hasn’t cross-referenced it with the corresponding footage from the bridge just yet, and Kirk skips ahead to the portion marked Attack on Hathsh Sassafith. The Ssar’s neck frills are fully extended, his eyes narrowed almost to slits, and Kirk thinks that Ciana really ought to watch this; there are probably a half-dozen non-verbals that she could identify or make sense of here that have absolutely nothing to do with Human body language cues, quite apart from the qualities that scream person under severe duress. Kirk scrolls through at 2.5 speed, translator squeaking a commentary while the spokesperson for Draconis II describes the scent that hung in the air above the village for many days, which the forensic team from the capitol could not identify, and the unusual signal picked up on long range scanners the night of the attack: three vessels shaped vaguely like sthusa shells, apparently in a geosynchronous orbit above the north of the archipelago, blinking suddenly into existence and disappearing just as rapidly, only to reappear again as blips on a radar screen two minutes later.

 

The translator has no synonym for sthusa, so Kirk runs it through the cortex and, a moment later, an image blinks to life on his screen, overlaying the righteous indignation of the Ssar Fithosh with a pencil-sketched diagram from God knows where, describing a crab-like creature housed in a kind of upside-down heart-shaped shell, rounded point facing upwards. The picture rotates through 360 degrees, exploring the soft underbelly with its alarming profusion of legs, the thin spine that crowns the apex, the jutting head… and Kirk freezes it on a frontal view, leaning in towards the screen as though proximity might suddenly make the pieces slide into shape.

 

That looks kind of like… Doesn’t it? Or is he simply seeing what he wants to see? It seems a little convenient that this sudden revelation correlates so neatly with a long-discarded idea that he filed away for lack of evidence; it reeks of confirmation bias, but… really? He needs another opinion, but his second choice is currently sleeping off an all-night teleconferencing session, and his first choice…

 

His first choice has just messaged him, actually.

 

That’s unexpected.

 

Kirk closes the image with an absent, barked command, and stares at the alert on his screen, rather unfortunately superimposed over the Ssar’s open mouth, like a speech bubble on the galaxy’s most surreal comic strip. Display message? asks the reluctant emissary from Draconis II, and there’s really only one answer to that: if he doesn’t read it now, he’s only going to wonder what it says until he gives in, ten minutes or an hour from now, and calls it up anyway, and that’s not exactly maximizing his efficiency in the interim. So he purses his lips and responds in the affirmative, and the screen switches to his inbox, where, with infuriating Vulcan economy, his friend has written two short, perfunctory, and irrefutably inauspicious sentences:

 

Lunch today will be impossible. My apologies, CDR Spock.

 

Kirk blinks, tightens his jaw. He wasn’t expecting assent, but this feels like the verbal equivalent of a lightning blow to the gut. This sounds like the opening lines of a man about to take his leave of their friendship. Anger rises with alarming speed: the kind of cold, focused fury that makes him say things he later has to take back, and he grips the edge of the desk to keep his hands from rising to the keyboard where they will certainly punch out a reply that’s designed to bruise.

 

Better to close the message, safely out of sight. It doesn’t need to be addressed right this second; he can leave it for an hour, two hours, until this evening if he needs to, until he can work out how to call his friend out on his default overreaction without making it sound defensive and pissy. But he’s reaching for the manual command, hand poised over the keystroke that will send the nine-word missive into temporary oblivion, when the screen flashes again, appending two further sentences to the bottom of the screen.

 

However, there is no need to “make it up” to me. The fault was mine.

 

Kirk’s hand hovers. Fingers flex. It hovers another moment, then drifts deliberately downwards to rest against the desk.

 

This feels uncomfortably familiar.

 

He stands up abruptly, chair scraping across the carpet tile with a noise that sounds like something being softly strangled. It’s a reflex action, and one which leaves him with very little in terms of options once his somatic nervous system has regained control of his motor functions, so, to cover it, he paces to the center of the room, turns on his heel, and stares out over the bay with unseeing eyes.

 

It’s not as though anything happened. There was a moment, sure, but that’s all it was: a fleeting, transitory rupture in this cover they’ve labored so hard to create. It went nowhere, and that’s what matters. It’s not as though… goddamn it.

 

He crosses the room in three rapid strides, ignores the computer’s polite inquiry, and taps out a response.

 

Can we talk about this at least?

 

Kirk’s hand hovers for half a second, no more. Send. It’s done.

 

But there’s no reply. He’s not really expecting one - not really - though he watches the screen like a dying man in a desert might scan the sands for water. A minute ticks by. Two. Three, and he has work to do; he flicks back to the Ssar Fithosh and allows the frill-necked indignance to wash over him for a moment. But there’s an absence humming at the back of his head: an empty space that’s full of too much nothing to be comfortable.

 

Goddamn it.

 

This has happened before.

 

 

~*~

 

 

It’s not until Bones comms him from an old ‘Fleet haunt in Fisherman’s Wharf that they used to talk about fondly over late-night brandies in sickbay that Kirk realizes how late it’s gotten. A swift glance at the chronometer while he prevaricates over an offer of beer pitchers and big-screen Federation ice hockey playoffs tells him that it’s past 2330 hours; the day has disappeared and he has no idea where it’s gone. Ciana vanished into the upper echelons immediately after the review meeting, and commed a couple of hours later to say that Kirk’s recommendation has been accepted and they would discuss it in the morning; she’s been summoned to the Centroplex to conference call with the Minister for Federal Expansion, who’s currently in Vulcana Regar and apparently not a happy woman. No-one’s happy, least of all Kirk, but there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about the way things are.

 

It’s been nearly twelve hours since he sent his message, and Spock has yet to reply.

 

“That’s a hell of a lot of silence I hear in the background,” says McCoy, barely audible over the opposite of silence behind him. “If I was a gamblin’ man, I’d bet you were still workin’, Jim.”

 

Kirk considers lying, but he’s too tired. “It’s been a long day, Bones,” he says. He tries to remember the last time he ate, and comes up blank. “I’ll pass tonight.”

 

An explosion of joyful whooping in the background presumably signals a Terran goal. “Your loss, Jim,” says the Doctor. Maybe he can hear the lassitude in Kirk’s voice - though it doesn’t seem likely, given what it’s competing against - and maybe he’s just distracted by the game, but he doesn’t press the issue. “We still on for Sunday night?”

 

“What’s Sunday night?”

 

With one voice, the bar erupts in a sound of visceral pain. “Damn, that was close,” says Bones. Then, “Sunday. Your place. Ganymede’s finest ruba grass whisky, courtesy of your friendly country doctor.”

 

Sunday, of course. He’d forgotten. “Sure,” says Kirk, and suspects Bones knows very well he’s equivocating. Spock will be halfway through his evening meditations now; there’s no chance of a reply tonight. A vicious, uncensored part of Kirk hopes the trance is fighting him every step of the way; why should he be the only one to sacrifice peace of mind? “I have work to do. I’ll comm you tomorrow.”

 

It’s true: he does, but his recalcitrant brain, having worked out that it’s supposed to be tired now, has succumbed to a tidal wash of fatigue that softens the edges of his thoughts. He leans back in his chair, scrubbing his hands over his eyes, and stares at his terminal screen as the blurred images gradually refocus, sharpening themselves into the familiar contours of the sthusa shell that he’s been staring at, on and off, for the better part of the day. Circumstances have conspired against the procurement of a second opinion, but he’s peered at it and cross-referenced and finally superimposed the two images over each other, and he’s certain now, or as certain as he can be. The similarities are too pronounced to dismiss as coincidence. The ships that attacked Hathsh Sassafith, the ones that resemble an unassuming freshwater crustacean native to the temperate shores of the Fathassathis river… they look a hell of a lot like Klingon Birds-of-Prey.

 

But why? This is where the theory falls apart. Draconis II is a long way from the Neutral Zone and, all right, that’s not exactly prima facie evidence against, but it’s a long long way from anywhere they’ve been sighted in the past. It’s not on any of their trade routes, it’s not on the way to or from any of their colonies, and it doesn’t have anything worth stealing, bar a few thousand gallons of deuterium-rich water that they can get on countless other worlds much closer to home. Starfleet wants it for a base of operations in an otherwise uninhabited sector of the galaxy; a defensible site to use as a jumping-off point for further exploration, but that’s not precisely consonant with Klingon galactic aspirations and it’s not likely to capture hearts and minds on Q’onoS as a rationale for paying a visit, Klingon-style.

 

It doesn’t make any sense. Draconis shouldn’t even be on their radar, let alone inspire a galactic odyssey across several thousand parsecs of blank space. Why attack a small, isolated settlement on the only inhabited planet in an unexceptional system, light years from anywhere interesting? Kirk rolls his head backwards on his shoulders until it’s hanging over the lip of his chair, and presses the balls of his fists into his eyes, feeling little tendrils of sleep tug at the fuzzy edges of his brain. He needs Spock for this. He just thinks better when Spock’s with him, and when he’s not… it’s as though a bulb has blown in a cavernous room; he can see enough to find his way, but it’s not quite as clear. Would the world fall apart if he commed him? But he remembers the flash of something in his friend’s eyes - knowledge, maybe, or resignation. He knew what was coming; he could see it in Kirk’s face. It’s not as though it wasn’t obvious; anyone could see where Kirk wanted it to lead, and that single word - that plaintive, proscriptive Jim - was almost worse than a litany of reproach. It’s not enough to definitively belie the mirrored desire that Kirk thought he saw, that he felt in the hesitant touch of his hand, but it effectively shuts down any possibility of pretending that something else was going on.

 

So, no, maybe the world wouldn’t fall apart if he commed his friend again now, but… some other things might.

 

He stands up, quickly and impatiently, and crosses to the darkened window. The glass is half-clouded, in deference to an effulgent early-April sunset that bounced golden glare off the bay water at an angle that was exactly consistent with Kirk’s eyeline, but the night sky is clear and he can see pinpoint stars peering through the smokey panes. He really, really ought to go home, try and grab a few hours’ sleep after the messy night he passed last night; tomorrow’s going to be more of the same as today, only possibly with more shouting, and it might be a good idea to have a rested brain that’s able to cope with the madness. But the act of getting there is more than he can contemplate just now, and so he stands by the cool glass and watches the criss-cross lines of light scouring the heavens, bursts of heat resistance as offworld traffic penetrates the thermosphere: homespun shooting stars, brighter than the distant suns that scatter the black. Somewhere out there, someone’s looking back at them: a far-off blue planet surrounding an unexceptional star, a lonely world in an otherwise lifeless system, hungry for connection. What if, when Humanity began to reach out into the void, the first faces they saw were hostile? Would they have kept on reaching? Will Draconis, now that they’ve had that sense of wonder snatched away from them, turn inwards again and close off the skies? Detached, isolated, there’s no real reason for them to keep trying to bridge the gulf that separates them from the galaxy’s abundance; the will was there, once, but what happens now?

 

Detached, says his brain, and a prickle of something insistent needles at the back of his consciousness. Isolated.

 

Kirk’s eyes widen. Attacks.

 

Attacks.

 

He crosses the room in three rapid strides, grabbing and spinning his terminal screen to face him before he’s sat down; speaking before it has fully turned.

 

“Computer,” he snaps, and it flashes to life, “Call up all files on the attacks on Ajillon Prime and Archanis IV. All right,” he adds, holding up a hand as though it might be in any way effective in stalling the tinny, mechanical protest that these aren’t exactly specific instructions. “Archanis - limit to files for January of this year. Ajillon - November, December last year, January this year.”

 

“Working,” says the computer

 

Isolated settlements. Mining communities. He’s seen this before. Goddamn it, it’s like a blueprint, a facsimile; it’s like a mirror held up to the recent past. How has he not recognized the pattern? How has he missed this?

 

Sweep in and sweep out; food, equipment, supplies all taken. They’re not Federal planets; they’re not even Federal protectorates, so there’s no question of any breach of the treaty… He lowers himself into his chair as the computer rattles out two small, image-heavy files: nothing to go on, nothing to investigate. Second-hand information that suggests discrete raiding parties on a longer foray, but run them together, and… Deuterium. Livestock. Fresh water. Rations. Weapons. Separate them and you have a whole lot of nothing extraordinary.

 

Run them together, and you could - you could - have an armada in advance.

 

“Computer,” says Kirk, and he can feel the adrenalin rising in his chest, rolling back the clouds of fatigue, blood singing in his ears, “Plot a route from Q’onoS to Ajillon Prime, through to Archanis IV.”

 

“Q’onoS to Ajillon Prime, through to Archanis IV,” says the computer, and the screen flashes to black, frosted with flecks of starlight and bisected by a heavy red line that runs from left to right through three yellow dots. It’s almost perfectly straight.

 

Kirk releases a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. His head is swimming. He says, “Pull back, plot onwards to Draconis II.”

 

“Plotting onwards to Draconis II.” The image recedes, reference points shrinking as more of the quadrant pours onto the screen. As Kirk watches, the red line turns at a 2D angle of maybe thirty degrees and the viewpoint swivels to show that it’s moved in a third dimension also, but not by much. Not enough to blow the theory apart.

 

But it’s a long way from Archanis to Draconis. If there’s a pattern… Kirk says, “Check for files on attacks along this section of the route.”

 

“Working,” says the computer. Then, “No attacks on file. Widen search parameters?”

 

Well. It was a long shot. “Widen to include systems within a radius of five light years along the route,” he says.

 

“Working.” A beat. “Files report no attacks on any systems within a radius of five light years along the route. Widen search parameters to include attacks on extra-planetary colonies?”

 

Kirk feels his eyebrows slowly reaching for his hairline. “Are there extra-planetary attacks reported within the area covered by the current search parameters?”

 

“One attack reported,” says the computer. “Stardate 6422.8. Federation Starbase, designation 19.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Kirk stares at the screen for a long moment, while several distinct strands of thought clamor for attention.

 

The first is a kind of horrified vindication, because he knew - he knew - there was more to 19 than met the eye. He knew it, and he let himself be convinced he was jumping at shadows. Hard on the heels of that is a sickly self-doubt: five light years is kind of a long way - maybe it’s too far to be significant? The Starbase is 4.5 light years off course for a ship en route to Draconis II: not exactly a major detour at warp 4 or 5, but still… It’s as far as Earth to Alpha Centauri. And, behind all of these things, there’s the abiding question of why. If this is an epic Klingon odyssey, what’s the endgame? They’re warriors, not explorers. They haven’t just blindly headed out into the black in the hope of bumping into something that takes their fancy; they’ve got plenty of scope for that closer to home. And they sure as hell haven’t just upped and stolen a Federation cortex for shits and giggles. He knows from the Enterprise’s sojourn on K-7 that there’s considerable scope for semantic wiggle-room in the application of the Organian treaty, but he’s still reasonably certain that a direct attack - even one in which nobody was injured - is more than the High Council is likely to be willing to risk unless there’s a clear rationale behind it.

 

This doesn’t exactly make him feel better.

 

They learned about Ajillon Prime and Archanis by accident - the former was a news story dug up by a New Human-affiliated holo network investigating instances of lawlessness on non-Federal planets in the years following First Contact; the latter came to light after a mission-critical mining shipment from the system was delayed and eventually cancelled, and a proposed Federal colony had to be indefinitely shelved as a result. And then there’s Draconis. They say they tracked three vessels in geosynchronous orbit around the planet, and the numbers fit with reported losses in the previous raids, but these are just the attacks they know about. What if there were more? What if the three sthusa-shaped starships were just the raiding party, broken off from the main battalion? How would anyone know?

 

He glances up at the chronometer: four minutes off midnight. Well. This can’t wait. He lifts his communicator.

 

“Kirk, this has to be you,” she says, voice thick with sleep. “It’s you, right?”

 

“Yes, Ma’am,” he says. There’s no need to bother with an apology; she won’t expect one. “I have something on the Draconis situation.”

 

“Uh-huh.” A badly-stifled yawn. “And I guess it’s urgent or you wouldn’t be waking me up to talk about it when you know I’ve had four hours sleep since Wednesday night.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“Okay.” She draws a deep breath. “You still at the office? What am I saying, of course you’re still at the office. It’s midnight on a Friday; where else would you be?”

 

Despite himself, he feels the edges of his lips curl upwards. “I guess… I got sidetracked.”

 

“I guess you did.” He can hear the answering grin in the sudden warmth of her tone. “You need me to come in or can you come to me?”

 

“I can be with you in ten minutes, Ma’am,” he says.

 

She laughs. “How about you give me fifteen, Kirk? I just woke up.”

 

“Fifteen, then,” he says, though he doubts it will take her that long to kick her brain out of sleep mode.

 

“Okay, I’ll message you the address. But let’s not make a habit of this, Kirk, huh?”

 

“No, Ma’am,” he says, and signs off.

 

 

~*~

 

 

He’s never been to her apartment and never given much thought as to where it might be or what it might look like; if he’s considered it at all, he’s assumed that she’s billeted in some slightly higher-spec version of his own quarters. But, of course, she’s not temporarily grounded between deep space missions; her life is in San Francisco and has been for many years. She has a completely different frame of reference for what “home” is supposed to look like, and it’s nothing like his.

 

He’s vaguely aware of Gough Street as an affluent, ‘Fleet-heavy neighborhood of Pacific Heights, though it’s not an area he knows well. The wide road is quiet as he exits the aircar outside her apartment block, a turn-of-the-century brownstone overlooking Lafayette Park, and the air is cool and still, heavily perfumed with the scent of freshly-mown grass. He breathes deeply as he buzzes at the main door and waits for entry; it feels like he’s been cocooned in an office half his life, and the night air smells like release.

 

Ciana’s apartment occupies a substantial portion of the fifth floor. She’s waiting for him as he steps out of the elevator, front door ajar behind her, and, through it, he can see directly into the spacious living room, where huge bay windows open on a panoramic view of the Marin Headlands and the moonlight-frosted bay.

 

“Hey,” she says. Her hair hangs freely about her shoulders, and she’s wearing a loose-fitting, filmy dress that contrives to make her look smaller than she is. Her face is drawn with tiredness, but she offers a warm smile. “You look like hell, Kirk. Come in, I’ll get you a drink.”

 

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he says, and he’s prepared for her rejoinder, delivered over her shoulder as he follows her inside.

 

“Lori,” she says. “You wake me up in the small hours of Saturday morning, you don’t get to stand on ceremony, Kirk. Jim, I guess.”

 

He smiles tightly and nods as she turns, gestures to him to take a seat in one of the large, overstuffed armchairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the windows. Kirk lowers himself into one set close to the glass, glancing around the room as she busies herself at a drinks cabinet behind him. Bookshelves cover two of the walls, filled edge to edge with neatly-stacked volumes, reaching up towards the high ceilings. A potted rubber plant of inordinate size stretches lazily in the shadows beside a replica fireplace, dormant for now, but stacked high with imitation logs and framed by a hardwood mantlepiece, on which she’s arranged a series of framed photographs. At least two of them feature Ciana herself, fresh-faced and grinning, uninhibited, into the camera: in one, she is flanked by a man and a woman who might be her parents; in the other, she’s squeezed between a young man and a teenage girl, one arm wrapped around either, while snow falls behind and around them.

 

“Scotch, right?” she says, reaching a squat tumbler into his line of sight. Ice clinks gently against the glass as he accepts it from her, and she lowers herself into a nearby chair, folding her legs beneath her and nursing her own drink against her chest.

 

“Thank you,” he says, raising the glass to her and to his lips. It’s a good quality malt, of course, but it has the effect of reminding him how long it’s been since he ate. A large, oak coffee table stretches between the nest of chairs, blanketed with a Peruvian throw and scattered with granite coasters; he leans forward with a questioning glance up at his CO, and sets his glass down when she nods.

 

“So,” she says. “Shoot. Why am I drinking Laphroaig with my deputy instead of sleeping off the week from hell?”

 

Kirk straightens, sucks in a breath. He says, “I think Q’onoS is behind the attack on Draconis.”

 

An eyebrow arches, but if she’s surprised, it’s the only sign. She says, “Huh.” A beat. “I know you have more than absent speculation, Jim. So - tell me.”

 

He turns his head, scanning the room. “It’s easier if I show you,” he says. “Where’s your terminal?”

 

“Sure.” She sets down her drink, unfolds her legs, rises to her feet in one lithe, elegant motion. “Come through to the office.”

 

He levers himself out of the enveloping cushions and follows her across the room to a door set into the wall behind his chair. It opens onto a large, well-appointed study, crowned by an expansive desk beneath a huge, framed star chart showing the constellations of Alpha Quadrant.

 

“Computer,” she says quietly, moving around the table and gesturing to the single chair behind it, “Authorize access to Kirk, James T, serial SC937…”  She, trails off, glancing up at him.

 

“0176CEC,” he finishes.

 

“…0176CEC.”

 

The screen flashes. “Access authorized.”

 

She nods again at the chair. “She’s all yours, Jim.”

 

He doesn’t need the seat, and his mother would be horrified if she saw him, but it’s easier than making a scene, and Ciana won’t appreciate the gesture in any case. He slides reluctantly into the chair and calls up his data pocket, feeling her hand close around the top of the headrest as she leans in to peer at the screen.

 

“What am I looking at?” she says.

 

His finger hovers over the surface, tracing the red stripe that cuts across the black. “It occurred to me that the attack on Draconis shares several characteristics with the attacks on Ajillon Prime and Archanis IV,” he says. “This line represents a hypothetical route from Q’onoS…”

 

“…Through Archanis.” She exhales a soft puff of air. “That’s a pretty direct route,” she says.

 

This is why he can work with her. A half-dozen other superiors would click their tongue and shower him with yes, buts; Ciana takes hold of Occam’s Razor and slices through their cautious objections.

 

“That’s what I thought,” he says.

 

“And this?” Her hand reaches over his shoulder to follow the off-shot incline that leads to Draconis, and he can feel her breath close to his ear. “Kind of spoils the effect, doesn’t it?”

 

He clears his throat. “I wondered about that,” he says. “Computer, magnify 44-1382-75; ratio 16:1.” The screen distorts, like a ship entering warp, and reforms on a distant image of Starbase 19, floodlights glistening against the void. He turns his head slightly and finds hers directly alongside, eyebrows raised, eyes widened. It’s as close as he’s ever seen her manifest shock. “It’s a detour of 4.5 light years,” says Kirk quietly. “At warp 6, a Bird of Prey could cover it in less than a day.”

 

“It’s a hell of a detour.”

 

“Not if there was something there that they needed.”

 

“Like what? Nineteen doesn’t fit the pattern, Jim; no-one died, it wasn’t raided…”

 

“Not for supplies,” he says.

 

“You think the cortex?” she says. “Jim - no. No, I know what I said, but… No. Nineteen wasn’t Q’onoS. You think we didn’t check? You think we didn’t scan that place a hundred times, looking for the faintest hint of a Klingon signature? No, we’d know. We’d know.”

 

That particular fact didn’t make it into the version of the report Kirk read. He finds this interesting.

 

“Ma’am…” he begins, and corrects himself: “Lori. Nineteen was careful. Meticulous. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make sure that the cortex disappeared with the minimum of fuss. There are plenty of races who want the information held in Federal archives, and there are plenty of races with a vested interest in not shedding Federal blood. How many fit into both categories?”

 

“Maybe more than you’d think,” she says stubbornly, but she sounds less than certain. “Okay, say you’re right. Maybe they did something we don’t know they can do. Maybe they used an agent, I don’t know. So they have a Federal cortex now. So what? Those things don’t just give up the goods to anyone that asks, Jim. I don’t think they even work outside of the Federation mainframe…”

 

Kirk shakes his head. “If it’s possible to connect a defunct cortex to the archives outside of the mainframe, I’m sure the Klingons are not the ones to make it happen,” he says. “But they have a window - a small window - where they might be able to hack into the databanks after a full-scale power shut-off.”

 

“But it would still have to be connected to the mainframe. The system would have a record…”

 

“The system is offline. It can’t transmit.”

 

“Oh…” It’s a breath, a half-word, spoken in a kind of horrified awe. “So they remove the evidence.”

 

He nods. “They would have to know exactly what they were looking for. Core support re-routes all auxiliary functions to life support after five minutes of complete power-down; it can’t be overridden. And it would have to be something recent enough to be held in the cache folders, which also means it was something with a classification level of 2 or lower.”

 

Ciana sighs, straightening, and he turns to follow her movement as she crosses to the far side of the room, leaning backwards against the wall, pillowed against her hands. “That doesn’t exactly narrow it down,” she says.

 

“No.” He takes a deep breath, raises his eyebrows in surrender. “I know.”

 

A beat. Then she says, “Damn it. Where the hell did I put my drink?”

 

She pushes off the wall and slips out the door, and he sits in the half-light for a moment, wondering if he should follow. But she’s back within a minute, glass in hand, sipping from it as she walks, and carrying his discarded tumbler, which she reaches out to Kirk as she settles on the desk beside him.

 

She stares at him for a long moment, taking a lengthy sip from her drink, wincing as the alcohol hits the back of her throat.  “Whatever they found,” she says, “It set them on course for Draconis.”

 

Kirk considers, rolling his glass against his chest. Ice jangles against the edge, loud in the quiet room. “Federation starcharts,” he says.

 

Ciana nods slowly. “I guess so,” she says. Then, “They need deuterium. What are the chances they just stumble across the only deuterium-producing planet in a seven light-year radius?”

 

“Small,” says Kirk. “But you don’t think Draconis is their endgame…?”

 

“No. Nu-uh.” She shakes her head. “But it’s somewhere we know. It’s somewhere they can only get to with our maps.”

 

“That could be…” How many hundreds, thousands of worlds? Federal expansionist policy, when you get right down to it, is not so different from Klingon; it’s only that they tend to ask permission before they start taking what they need. Half the worlds he visited with Enterprise, he was there to make sure the folks in charge signed some kind of trade agreement or mining treaty. All of the recommendations he’s made in Xeno have been based on what their new interplanetary friends can bring to the Federal table. The point is, there are a number of systems marked up in the Federal cortex that might be of interest to the Klingon Empire, and a limited window in which to narrow that down to a manageable list. “There are a lot of variables to consider,” he finishes.

 

Ciana raises her eyebrows as she lifts her glass to her lips and sips. “The attack on Draconis gives us a ballpark,” she says. A beat. “It’s not much, I get that…”

 

Kirk purses his lips. “I could work up some potential targets, based on their trajectory,” he says. “But it will be guesswork…”

 

She closes her eyes, shakes her head. “You’re right,” she says. “Jim. This is… this is a whole lot of hunch and not a hell of a lot of evidence. You know that, right?”

 

He waits until her eyes are open again; meets and holds her gaze. “It fits.”

 

“Yeah.” A deep breath. “I think it does, too.” A beat. “I’ll take it to the admiralty tomorrow. You have my word on that.”

 

Kirk nods. “I’ll get started on some possible destinations right away,” he says, and his hands are already moving, setting down his glass, reaching for his communicator, even as Ciana laughs incredulously.

 

“Jim, are you kidding me?” she says. “It’s one am. Go home, for Christ’s sakes. Sleep. We’ll look at this again tomorrow.”

 

He feels a flash-flood of irritation pool in his belly, prickling beneath his skin, and he closes his hands around the arms of the chair, tightening his fingers until his knuckles turn white.

 

“With respect,” he says carefully, “We have no idea how time-sensitive this might be.”

 

Ciana levels a stare at him, holds it. The edges of her lips curl faintly, but the laughter is gone from her eyes.

 

“You’re right,” she says at last. “But there are two things that doesn’t change. One: no matter what happens, I don’t get to wake the admiralty before 0600 hours unless there’s an actual goddamn attack taking place on Federal territory, and I’m damn sure I would have heard about that by now. And two: Jesus, Jim, when did you last sleep? You look like a reanimated corpse.”

 

Kirk purses his lips, sucks in a terse breath. “I was a starship captain for five years,” he says, and the was ties a knot in his chest that wakes up the angry ache. “This is not the first time that I’ve…”

 

“No, I guess not,” she says, shaking her head impatiently. “Maybe when you’re under attack, Jim, when the ship’s in trouble… But this? This is not that. ‘Fleet will suck the blood from your veins and the marrow from your bones if you let it, but I know you’re too smart for that. I know you know the difference between ‘Fleet urgent and urgent urgent. There’s nothing we can do tonight. So, what is it? Seriously, I’m asking. What is so important that you have to kill yourself behind a computer screen right now - not just right now, but every single goddamn night?”

 

He purses his lips, feeling his face tighten into a mask of silent anger, knowing there’s nothing he can do about it. He says, “I take my work seriously, Ma’am. I always have.”

 

“No. Uh-uh.” She shakes her head. “I want a real answer.”

 

It’s on his lips to snap that she wouldn’t understand; that the sublimation of the body’s diurnal requirements is one of the first things he learned as Captain, that it’s something he couldn’t have survived without. That command, true command, is something that only happens far away from familiar shores, where it’s one man and his crew against a thousand ways to die; that she can’t possibly know what this means. He wants to say something bruising, something to make her feel inadequate, something that will shut down the fire behind her eyes and make her retreat to that dark-faced place he goes to when the world isn’t operating the way it damn well ought to. The words rise in his throat, curl his lips, but he forces them back inside, stands instead, paces to the other side of the room.

 

She slides off the table, folds her arms across her chest, fixes her stare on him and dares him to look away.

 

She says, “I’m asking as your friend, Jim.”

 

That chokes a snort of bitter laughter out of his chest, and he half turns, facing out of her gaze, angled towards the door.

 

“What, you don’t believe me? You think I hand out Laphroaig like orange juice?”

 

His eyes slide upwards at the abrupt change of tone, and he finds that the corners of her mouth have edged upwards, coloring her stare in warmer tones.

 

“I should hope not,” he says.

 

“Damn right,” says Ciana. “You know how much that stuff costs? I save it for the people that irritate me least.” A beat. “I’m considering rescinding yours on those grounds.”

 

Laughter - minimal, but genuine - agitates his chest. He glances meaningfully at his barely-touched glass, still nestled by the terminal screen, and she grins and lifts it, extending her hand towards him so that he’s obliged to take a couple of steps forward to take it from her.

 

“Okay, I’m sorry,” she says quietly. “It’s none of my business. I just… You’re a good guy, Kirk. You’re one of the better ones. This” - a vague, circular gesture towards his face, presumably intended to indicate his air of general fatigue - “This… I don’t like this. I wish… I wish there was something I could do, is all.”

 

He drops his eyes to the ground so that he doesn’t have to see himself reflected in hers, to feel that vertiginous sense of being known far too easily. Her glass is sitting, disregarded, on the table behind her, and he leans in to retrieve it, shoulder brushing her arm and releasing the faint scent of faded perfume. When he stands upright, glass proffered, he finds that she’s watching him carefully, sadly, like a mother might watch someone else’s unhappy child. She accepts the glass from his hand, raises it to answer his gesture, clinks it gently against his. Sips.

 

“There’s no need,” he says quietly, but she grins ruefully and shakes her head.

 

“Sure,” she says. “Whatever you say, Jim.”

 

What can he say? Give me back my ship? It’s out of her control. Fix the friendship that I’ve broken? So that he can keep on destroying it? What he means, what he wants to say, is, Cut out this piece of me that will not stop wanting him; make it possible to be satisfied with never touching him, or else burn away the love until there’s nothing left but equanimity so that I can survive it if he leaves. There it is, right there: the essence of the darkness that follows him, that breaks over him in the small hours of the morning, until it’s easier just to get up and work, or run, or swing an ax at firewood, or drink unspeakable green liquor with an unpronounceable name. And he’s tired of pretending that he doesn’t know it. He’s tired of the angry ache just below his ribs, sucking the breath from his lungs with every vicious twist of the knife. He’s tired of the constant, numb fear in the pit of his belly and the sense that he’s standing on the edge of the abyss, waiting for the ground beneath him to crumble. He’s so damn tired.

 

“I just…” she says quietly, words soft as silk in the shadowed silence, “…I wish I could make it better.”

 

He looks up to find her eyes still fixed on his, and he thinks he sees, somewhere in the depths, a tiny flicker of kindred spirit. Whatever this is, he thinks, Lori knows it. She knows it because she sees herself in him: broken and badly mended, something vital cut away. Her eyes are liquid in the half-light, dark, hollow pools, and the golden glow of the lamp behind her haloes her hair, casting her face in shadow. She is beautiful. She is not Spock, but she knows him, and she wants to make things better.

 

What would happen? Would the world fall apart if he just let go? If he gave in and did what he damn well wanted to for once?

 

So he reaches up with his free hand, slowly, towards her face. Halfway through the trajectory, it’s impossible to deny where it’s going, but, though she drops her eyes to watch its ascent, she says nothing, and, when his fingers connect with the soft skin of her cheek, she exhales gently and leans into it, laying her head against his hand. Her eyes close as he twists his wrist, stroking his knuckles along the ridge of her cheekbone, down her hairline, across her jaw; her lips part as his fingertips trace the outline of the pliant flesh.

 

“Jim,” she says softly, a whisper, and it turns out that this is as much as he’s wanted: to hear his name spoken by a lover who doesn’t want him to stop.

 

It’s not like it was with Spock. There is no hesitation, no equivocation, no questioning hands or uncertain gaze. He lowers his lips to hers and she meets them with conviction, hands snaking around his shoulder and fisting in his uniform tunic, glass falling to the floor with an audible thump that makes him break away to look.

 

“Leave it,” she hisses, and closes her mouth on his.

 

They stagger backwards, striking the edge of the desk at an awkward angle, and he grips her narrow waist, lifting her onto the surface. Her body is wrong - all rounded curves and delicate flesh - but she wraps her legs around his hips and pulls him close, drawing him down on top of her, curling her fingers around his neck as he trails ungentle kisses across her throat, her collar bone, the thin fabric that covers her breasts.

 

She is not Spock. But she is beautiful, and she wants him. Maybe she can teach him how to let go.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Kirk wakes in the shadows to the sound of birdsong, and wonders if he’s ever felt so lost.

 

He has found his way, in sleep, onto the very edge of the bed, facing the dark drapes that cover a window almost as large as the wall itself, but he can feel her presence behind him, the soft, even rasp of her breath, the contours of the mattress where they dip under her weight. He doesn’t know what time it is, but he guesses from the empty ache behind his eyes that it’s still early. For a moment, he lies, disoriented, seeking his bearings in a place he doesn’t know, and then, quietly, carefully, he pushes back the sheets, slides his feet out and onto the floor. The hardwood boards are cool beneath his soles as he stands slowly and crosses, naked, to an armchair in the far corner. He doesn’t sit - there’s etiquette to be observed in someone else’s home, and it advises against pressing one’s buttocks au naturel into the cushions of their pale yellow furniture - but instead he leans his coccyx against one high arm, bending his head to his hands and scrubbing them vigorously over his face.

 

He feels hollowed out, evacuated, and it has nothing to do with exhaustion.

 

Ciana sleeps curled in on herself, knees bent halfway to her chest, spine curved, one arm thrown over her head and resting against the bedstead. Her hair is fanned out like golden thread across the pillow, sheets pulled up to her collarbone but stretched tightly across her body so that he can see every line, every camber: the arc of her hip away from her small waist; her narrow, muscular thigh; the rise of her breasts. And he remembers the taste of her skin, the touch - like satin - beneath his mobile hands, the arch of her neck, his name on her lips. He watches her sleep, and remembers, and he just wants to leave.

 

The air is cool and fresh, cycled by a conditioner that knows its job, and he can feel goosebumps pricking through his skin. He wraps his arms around his chest, exhales deeply, and it’s not a grand gesture, but it’s loud in the silence and, across the room, she stirs. A sharp intake of breath; her wide-flung hand twitches, and her legs stretch slowly beneath the sheets, spine twisting, hips flattening against the mattress. He freezes, watching and waiting, as she swallows, chin dipping as her throat contracts. For a moment, there’s silence, and then, just as he’s thinking she’s gone back to sleep, she sucks in a deep breath and her eyes slit open. The shadow of her lashes colors them dark blue, almost black, behind the glazed, vacant stare of a brain reloading after sleep. Then she blinks, slowly, and when her eyes open again they are pointing at him.

 

Her mouth curls upwards in an uncertain smile. “Hey,” she says.

 

The script dictates that he stand up, pad across the cold floor to perch on the bed beside her, lean in and press a kiss to her lips. She tastes faintly of whisky and sleep, and she kisses him back, softly, but, when he pulls away, her eyes are like stone. She reaches up a hand to brush a stray wisp of hair from his face, cupping her palm against his cheek, but there’s a strange sort of loneliness to the gesture.

 

She says, “What time is it?”

 

He offers his best smile, though it feels plastered on and he knows better than to think she won’t notice. “Early,” he says.

 

“Still couldn’t sleep, huh?” Her hand leaves his face, sweeps down his naked arm. “You’re cold, Jim. How long have you been standing there?”

 

“Not long. The room is…”

 

“Yeah.” The hand retracts, drifts to her face to pinch at the bridge of her nose. “I live here; I know.” A deep breath. “You want coffee or something? I guess you’re not coming back to bed.”

 

The thought dances in front of his eyes, and he sees himself pulling back the covers, sliding in beside her, feeling the warmth of her body stir the air beneath the sheets. He sees her rolling onto her side, twisting into his arms and nestling her head into the hollow beneath his neck, her warm breath ghosting across his chest. Maybe they make love again; maybe they simply sleep, wrapped in each other, warm and content and untroubled by the world outside this room.

 

But that’s not him. That’s someone else, someone Kirk doesn’t know, someone who’s worked out how he feels about this. He was so certain last night, so sure of his desire. And now? His commanding officer lies, stretched out and naked in the bed before him, watching him with eyes that see too much, and it’s… not simple anymore.

 

So he says, “It would look bad if we showed up at the office together.”

 

“Jesus, Jim.” She laughs, but there’s no humor in it; it’s the most bitter sound he’s ever heard her make. “Is it even light out yet?”

 

He has no idea. He’s not even sure that it matters. He says, “Lori…”

 

But they both know there’s nowhere for the sentence to go. She sits up on her elbows, shuffling herself awkwardly upright, sheet clamped to her chest as though it’s armor, and he stands up, paces to the foot of the bed. The frame is built of dark, solid wood that rises like a barricade between them, and it allows him to meet her eyes again, to hold her stare, to acknowledge what’s in it. Her mouth tightens, and, after a moment, she looks away.

 

She says, “It’s okay, Jim. It’s not me; I get that.”

 

Her knees are drawn in to her chest, her shoulders hunched around them; it makes her look smaller than she is. Kirk’s hands tighten on the bedframe, knuckles whitening under the strain.

 

He says, “What do you mean?”

 

She brings her eyes up to meet his, though they’re skittish. “It’s not me you want,” she says. A beat. “I do know.”

 

If she were anyone else, he would close the distance between them in two strides, climb onto the bed and close his mouth over hers, press her into the mattress with a wordless denial. And maybe she would allow him, but he doesn’t want to lie like that, not to her. Not when he knows she’ll read it for what it is.

 

So he answers, as honestly as he can, “It’s not that simple.”

 

Her lips curl into a rueful smile. “Seems that way to me.”

 

Kirk releases his grip, fingertips protesting the sudden rush of blood, and pivots on his heel, pacing to the center of the room. His shorts are lying where they were discarded last night, and he snatches them from the floor, shakes them out, pulls them over his legs, covering his nakedness before he turns back to her. She’s still watching him, but he knew that anyway.

 

“I saw your face, that day outside OpTacs,” she says quietly. “When you turned, and you saw him… Yeah.” A soft breath of laughter. “My parents have been married nearly fifty years, Jim. That’s the way my dad looks at my mom.” A beat. “Like nothing’s ever been so beautiful.”

 

Kirk’s breath catches in his chest and he feels his hands curl into fists, feels his brows furrow and his lips purse as his throat tightens and the angry ache lacerates his chest.

 

“It’s okay,” she says, but her voice is thready, distant. “It is what it is, Jim. There’s not a whole lot either one of us can do about it, I guess.”

 

Kirk sucks in a steadying breath, clears his throat. “I didn’t mean to….” he says, and hesitates. “…Lie to you.”

 

But Ciana shakes her head. “You didn’t lie to me,” she says. Softly, almost a whisper: “Christ, what a mess.” She looks up, eyebrows arched in rueful defeat. “I knew the way it was, Jim. This one’s on me. I guess… maybe my judgment’s not what it ought to be when it comes to you. Don’t,” she adds, holding up a hand to check his hesitant, guilt-stricken half-step forward. “Just - don’t. It’s okay. I just didn’t want you to think…” She trails off, shakes her head again, as though she’s trying to rattle free a troubling thought. “You know what? Never mind. I need to get moving; we have work to do.”

 

She throws back the sheets, swinging her legs out of the bed and onto the floor, standing and crossing briskly to the other side of the room. He watches her move, detached, aware that he ought to be aroused at the sight of her naked body moving uninhibited across his line of sight. But she disappears through a doorway for a moment, and, when she reappears, she’s shrugged on a thin robe and she’s fastening the belt in a knot at her waist, carefully and deliberately, eyes focused on the fabric as she makes her way across the empty expanse of floor. As she approaches Kirk, she folds her arms beneath her breasts, hugging them in tight against her chest, and tilts her head until her chin is pressed in against her shoulder.

 

She looks up at him and says, “This doesn’t change anything between us, okay?”

 

He nods slowly. “Agreed.”

 

“Okay. Good.” A resolute half-smile. “And… you know. If you ever work out what it is you want, Jim…” She shrugs. “I’m here.”

 

A gentle laugh, utterly devoid of humor. “What I want,” he says, “…Is complicated.”

 

Her hand unhooks itself from its defensive circle, moves up to cup his cheek. “Yeah,” she says, “That much I worked out.”

 

She rises quickly onto her toes, presses a soft kiss to his mouth. Kirk closes his eyes and drops his head to meet it, breathing in her scent and her warmth. His hands hang uselessly by his side, fingers flexing distractedly, but it feels wrong to pull her closer, to circle her waist with his arms, to push for anything more than she’s offering in this single, chaste brush of her lips.

 

It lasts no more than ten seconds: too brief to be provocative, too long to be casual. But she pulls away and rocks back on her heels, meets his eyes, and says, “You know what? You’re right. We shouldn’t turn up at the office together. I gotta take a shower.” An eyebrow arcs, and she grins, a flash-bomb of color in the gray shadows. “Think you can find your pants okay?”

 

He returns the gesture in the spirit in which it’s offered, and it feels as though it reaches his eyes. “Yes, Ma’am,” he says.

 

Her fingers find his, lock around them, squeeze once, then retract. “I’ll see you in a few hours,” she says.

 

~*~

 

The apartment is cold and dark and the air is stale with lack of use. Kirk kicks off his boots in the doorway and crosses straight to the head, stripping as he goes and letting his clothes fall on the floor at his feet. His skin smells of Ciana, of her perfume, and he dials up a torrent of hot water from the shower and lets it scrub the textures of her body from his; opens his mouth and lets it pool on his tongue, washing away the taste of whisky and regret.

 

You ever work out what it is you want, Jim…

 

But the thing is, he knows exactly what he wants. He knew it last night as well: he knew it when he kissed her, he knew it when he took her to bed, and he knew it in the empty hours afterwards as he lay in the darkness and tried to silence the ghosts inside his head. His hips are stiff and sore from folding himself into a lonely corner of the mattress all night while he pretended not to know. Kirk rests a hand against the cubicle wall and bends his head underneath the hail of tumbling water, letting it catch in his hair and spill down over his cheeks, his lips; a fraying curtain of water, cascading from his face, sealing him inside a liquid cocoon with memories he doesn’t want to see.

 

Yes, he knows what he wants. That’s the problem.

 

He twists the faucet with unnecessary force and steps onto the bathroom floor, puddles spilling onto the tiles around his feet as he pads across the narrow room and into the startling chill of the bedroom. His footsteps press irregular dark shapes into the carpet tile as he carelessly rubs himself dry, tossing the towel into a damp heap on the bed and grabbing a fresh uniform from the closet. This at least has not changed: welcome continuity in a world that’s spinning off its axis. These are the same clothes as the ones he casually shed last night in his CO’s bedroom, and these are the clothes he will wear again today. At least this much is the same.

 

He snaps a command to the computer as he steps out of the bedroom, clammy hair clinging to his head and disarrayed in abstract spikes where he’s run his hand through it to shake out the worst of the moisture, a towel slung around his shoulders to catch the runoff before it can stain his tunic. Coffee: never in history has a man been in greater need. A glance over his shoulder as he slings a cup into the synthesizer and punches in a code tells him that his terminal is slow to get started this morning, and he resists the urge to cross the room and physically impress a sense of urgency into the sluggish reboot.

 

“Computer,” he says, in a voice thick with curbed impatience, “Whenever you have a moment, please call up my latest messages.” A beat, and he can’t refrain from adding, pointedly, “Of course, there’s no rush.”

 

The synthesizer heralds the successful completion of another cycle with a tinny buzz, and Kirk retrieves his steaming mug, carrying it with him to his desk where he pointedly does not glance up at the wall or acknowledge the presence of any form of pictorial ornamentation thereon. Whether by accident or malevolent design, Starfleet’s collective knowledge of the culinary diversity of a galaxy’s worth of sentient beings still can’t replicate coffee worth a damn, and he pushes it irritably to one side as he lowers himself into his chair and waits for his terminal to remember how to find the cortex, and what to do with it when it gets there. He wonders if he could comm in a request to work from home - it is supposed to be his day off, after all - but, in the first place, the last thing he needs is more time inside his own head, and, in the second place, Ciana is really, really not that stupid. And there is surely only one thing more humiliating than having to look his superior officer in the eye the morning after a spectacularly ill-advised seduction, and that is having her know that he is too cowardly to look her in the eye at all.

 

His head aches: a ferocious pounding just behind his eyes. It feels like it’s trying to beat its way out of his skull. Kirk drums impatient fingers on his desk for the moment it takes him to realize that this is at least 100% more irritating than just sitting quietly - silently, in fact - and waiting for the computer to just do as it’s damn well told.

 

“Unread messages retrieved,” says the computer, and he’d swear there’s a note of pride to the monotone delivery, as though it wants a gold star for fulfilling the very least of its obligations.

 

“On screen,” says Kirk, and at least that command doesn’t cause the duotronic relays to cough to a consumptive halt. “Prioritize messages pertaining to the situation with Draconis II… Wait,” he adds quickly, as the computer begins to work. “Go back. Reorder the messages by time of arrival.”

 

The screen flashes and the messages reappear in chronological order. Kirk is not completely certain, but he thinks he saw… yes. 0125 hours, right when he was… Never mind.

 

At 0125 hours this morning, Spock finally replied.

 

He stares at the message for ten, fifteen seconds, while his eyes ache and his brain fills the inside of his head with hot white noise. After almost fourteen hours of silence; of waiting and very deliberately not doubling back to check every fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes; of pointedly and stoically ignoring the sucking, black loneliness that opened up in his gut every single time his mind returned to the subject of their abortive stargazing expedition and what very nearly happened there - somewhere in the small hours of the night that followed that day, Spock finally decided to reply. Goddamn it: they’ve been here before, and he just does not have the energy to do it again.

 

Kirk snaps an irritable command to the computer and the message opens, filling the screen with the expected two short lines of text.

 

My apologies: my work has demanded my full attention all day. This is likely to remain the case for some days to come. I look forward to resuming our social engagements at a mutually convenient time. Regards, LCDR Spock.

 

Kirk shuts his eyes. This again.

 

It’s not that it’s unexpected. It’s not even as though it has to be irreversible. Maybe it’s actually a good sign - Spock’s going to that place he goes to when he’s pushed himself a step too far and he needs to regroup, reassemble his shields, find a way to live with what he’s feeling. So why, why, does it feel as though there’s a wall going up, brick by brick, with every passing day? Why does it feel as though it’s waist-height already and getting taller?

 

Why does it feel as though he’s already gone?

 

Yes, Kirk knows what it is that he wants. He just doesn’t know how much longer he can keep doing this.

 

~*~

 

Xeno doesn’t sleep, nor does it particularly observe weekends. Kirk is not comfortable asking subordinates to work hours he wouldn’t work himself, so he often takes a Saturday or a Sunday shift; it turns out it’s much easier to do this when his team’s shift patterns are not controlled by a Vulcan with an encyclopedic knowledge of Human physical tolerances and an obsessive interest in the Captain’s sleeping patterns. Ciana notices, of course, but her habits are scarcely healthier than Kirk’s, and so she’s tended to hold her peace.

 

The lobby is at somewhere between thirty and fifty percent capacity as Kirk makes his way through the gentle buzz of activity and towards his office. Ciana’s door is closed, but all that means is that her door is closed; he doubts she wasted any more time than he did kicking around in an empty apartment full of silence and thoughts. Draconis occupies a substantial portion of three of the five floor-to-ceiling screens, and Kirk glances absently at them in turn as he passes, though it’s no surprise to find that the information is just new ways of phrasing data that’s already ten, twelve hours old; if there was something else to say, he’d know about it by now. Yeoman Banner, doing his best impression of Sanders after three nights without sleep, presses a PADD into Kirk’s hands as he passes, but otherwise his presence goes unremarked. There’s something satisfying in this.

 

The office is as still and quiet as if nothing has changed in the hours since he last crossed its threshold. Kirk steps inside, letting the door close quietly behind him, and sets the PADD on the desk as he crosses to the window. Ciana will either leave him for a couple of hours until a natural opportunity presents itself to require his presence, or else she will…

 

“Hey,” she says as the door slides open. She hesitates for a second before stepping inside, which is unusual, but, he supposes, normal etiquette is temporarily suspended. “Took you a whole forty-five minutes, Commodore.” She grins, and he realizes, with a heady rush of relief, that she’s going to just brazen it out. “What, did you get stuck in traffic or something?”

 

He should have guessed this was how she’d want to play it: she won’t bury it, because that does neither of them any favors, and she won’t let it fester. Instead, they’re going to skip right ahead to the part where they can laugh about it, and just keep on pretending that’s how it is until it becomes true. It’s how he’d play it, in her situation, but there was a darkness behind her eyes this morning when she woke up to find an empty bed and a lover separated from her by the length of the room, and he couldn’t be certain she’d want to fix what they’ve broken. He’s certain he’s wounded her, and not only in the obvious way: there was an echo of earlier cruelties in her face when she looked at him. But she’s going to paper over the cracks as best she can - because they have to work together, because they work together well, and because that’s just who she is.

 

In another world, he could fall in love with this woman.

 

So it’s easy to return the grin; it’s even possible that it chases away a few of the lingering cobwebs inside his skull. Kirk grins, and says, “I believe you had a head start on me, Ma’am.”

 

He thinks he sees something release, some hidden tension in her shoulders that was waiting to see if he’d meet her halfway. But if it’s there, she’s covered it well.

 

“Maybe,” she says. “But your place is closer to the airshuttle.”

 

She crosses halfway to his desk, but stops short of closing those final feet and perching on the edge, the way she might have done twenty-four hours earlier. “So - that work I told you to go home and sleep instead of doing last night?” she says. “I have a meeting with the admiralty at 0930 hours; I’ll need some kind of preliminary findings by then.”

 

“0930 hours?” he says. “That was quick.”

 

She arcs an eyebrow. “They’re with me on this,” she says. “They think you’ve got something.”

 

That’s… unexpected, but he’s not going to argue. “It will be very preliminary,” he says.

 

Ciana waves a hand. “I’ll take your ‘preliminary’ over two weeks’ research from some other ranking officers in this organization,” she says. “Whatever you’ve got in an hour’s time, send it through. And I guess… stick close to your desk, too. I don’t know if they’ll want to call you in, but it could be that they do.”

 

Well, what else would he be doing on a Saturday morning but sitting in his office in case the admiralty decide they want to have a chat? Actually… not much, if he’s honest. He can think of a few things that he’d like to be doing, but most of them are connected in some way to Starfleet. The only thing that’s changed with being grounded is that now he has the illusion of free will.

 

But he sits staring at his terminal screen for several long minutes after the door slides shut behind her. He’s fighting some rebellious urge to storm out of Bozeman and go find somewhere that beautiful, successful people hang out so that he can charm someone into his bed and convince himself that he hasn’t lost his edge completely, but, number one: it’s not even 0800 hours on a Saturday morning and the beautiful, successful people are still in bed or working, and, number two: he’s not that man and he doesn’t want to be. He came close enough last night with Ciana and that’s bad enough.

 

So he calls up his message from Spock and gives himself a moment, no more, to feel the irritation roil in his stomach and the angry ache twist against his ribs. Then he types, briskly and efficiently, Sorry to hear that. On all counts. Will await further developments, JTK. It’s deliberate ambiguity laced with an ugly, vicious subtext designed to bruise, to exchange like for like, but he hits send nevertheless and watches it disappear.

 

It doesn’t actually make him feel any better.

 

There’s no use in expecting a reply; even if Kirk’s response had been all sweetness and light and beneficent understanding, Spock has retreated out of reach again and he won’t return until he’s ready. And besides: there’s already one impossible task sitting on Kirk’s desk, and he’s eaten ten minutes into a deadline that was already insanely truncated. So he takes a breath, dials a fresh batch of strong coffee from the replicator, and calls up the Federal starchart archive. 

 

~*~

 

The problem, of course, is that space exists in three dimensions, and his terminal screen exists in only two. There’s an interactive simulation suite over in the Marin County observatory, of course, and he has the rank and authority to jump the queue, plus a contact on the faculty who knows how the damn thing works, but he can spend the next fifty minutes tied up in bureaucracy and specifics, or he can draw a straight line across his screen and try and work out what it comes near.

 

Trouble is, it comes near a hell of a lot of places. He calls up the map he used last night and instructs the computer to plot a course onwards from Draconis and watches the red stripe telescope into infinity with something of the old sense of Human insignificance that always assaulted him in his earliest days of exploration: so much space, worlds unnumbered, and mankind is like a grain of sand on an infinite beach, with no way to ever conceive of just how inconsequential they really are. They’ve barely visited a fraction of the worlds inside their section of galactic space, barely even plotted more than a few thousand cubic parsecs. Kirk’s hypothetical route blows through the metaphorical equivalent of Here Be Dragons and shoots straight out into the intergalactic medium, and the usable portion, from which he can gather data pertinent to his present task, is depressingly short. There’s a mining colony in Delta Epsilon Rho that’s poorly defended and spectacularly remote; he adds it to the list and assigns it a probability level of three. There’s an asteroid system in Faustus with a rich profusion of sideralis petraviridi, which is useful for breaking down antimatter waste, and potentially a few diamond reserves that might be easily accessible. Coronis III is no more than 0.7 lightyears off-route, and they’ve been doing some interesting things with lithium compounds that’s certainly got Federal ears pricked up and might, potentially, be of interest to Q’onoS too. And there’s about four hundred other places that all had something to recommend them to the men and women who’ve held his job in the past - resources, technology, or political allegiance - but nothing strikes him as particularly exciting from an imperial armada point of view. The Empire is large and well-stocked. They don’t need to go striking out into pastures unseen for the kind of rewards they can get closer to home.

 

About fifty-five minutes in, Kirk realizes he’s still waiting for his Eureka moment, the one where the slightest shift in perspective makes the pieces slide effortlessly into place, like an optical illusion that can only be seen from a specific angle. There’s always a Eureka moment, and its conspicuous absence this morning makes him uneasy. He’s narrowed the list down to twenty possible targets, ordered by likelihood and ranked according to accessibility, return, and probability of success, but the top candidate, Cocidius IX, has Federal embassies in two of its fourteen capital cities, and currently has ambassadors at the trade summit on Rigel V. There’s no way they were recently attacked, and there’s no way the armada hasn’t got there yet, if that’s where they were heading. Ciana comms him at 0905 and he stalls her, running his figures again, expanding his search parameters outwards, even as he shakes his head in frustration. They are already too generous. Numbers five through eleven are pushing the boundaries of probability; they’re so far off the proposed tangent that he might as well just point his finger randomly at a starmap of the sector and see where it falls, for all the logic that’s guided his selection. Ciana comms again at 0912 and he promises to have the report on her terminal by 0915; then, three minutes later, he stretches it to 0920. In the end, she has to invoke a Commodore Kirk in a tone that brooks no disagreement and he has no option but to forward what he has, with the proviso that he’s not happy with his own conclusions; that there’s something he isn’t seeing.

 

Her reply comes back almost immediately, couched in warmer tones: Understood, Commodore. I have every faith in your calculations. For what it’s worth, I’d have said Cocidius too - Ciana.

 

But it’s not Cocidius. He knows she knows that. He also knows that she’s going to have to go into the meeting now and immediately rebut a half-dozen objections that Cocidius IX seemed perfectly fine two hours ago when the latest reports came through from the Starfleet field office in Ralassa. He waits until she’s left, then stalks out into the lobby and asks Banner to pull up the last three weeks’ transmissions from the Cocidius system; nothing Kirk can’t find himself, of course, but he’s restless and pensive and he thinks better when he’s on his feet. The Yeoman obliges with a speed that might be humiliating if Kirk was prepared to think about it, but he’s distracted, wandering absently across the empty atrium as he scrolls through the PADD, and there’s nothing, not so much as a streak of lightning across the pale green Cocidian sky.

 

Kirk hands the report back to Banner with a muttered word of thanks and slinks back to his desk to find a forgotten mug of cooling coffee and a rainbow profusion of scattered tapes spread across the surface. There’s a small note at the foot of his screen to say that he has unread mail, and for a heart-stopping, hopeful moment he thinks he might have been wrong about his friend and snaps a breathless command to the computer, but it’s nothing: a communique from Communications and Marketing about the event next Sunday, a note from Lieutenant Berniere about some long-range scans from the Antigone that still haven’t arrived, a reminder from Admin Support that his weapons certification is due to expire in the next three months and he’ll need to pass a refresher course to be re-certified. It’s the fault of none of them that they are not Spock, but he feels a tidal surge of frustration wash up his throat anyway, twisting his voice into something thin and furious as he barks out the command that closes them and switches him back to his red streak on black.

 

A straight line from Q’onoS through Archanis IV. A slight adjustment, then straight ahead to Draconis II and onwards to the final piece of the puzzle, the bit that makes all of this fit. A detour to Starbase 19 where they took what they needed to make that final leg of the journey, the one that brought them into the orbital path of a lonely planet of semi-aquatic spacefarers who now, for reasons that are not entirely unfair, blame the Federation for putting them on someone else’s radar. But why Draconis? It’s the question he can’t escape, the one he keeps coming back to because there’s still no answer. They have to change their course heading at Archanis to point them in the right direction - and it’s even more obvious in 3D; it’s a significant angular adjustment - but there’s no discernible reason. There’s nothing about the deuterium on Draconis II that they couldn’t have gotten elsewhere, and there’s nothing in the blackness beyond unless they readjust their heading again, and that just doesn’t fit with the journey so far. Why follow a straight line as far as Archanis and then suddenly veer off?

 

And then it hits him. It hits him so hard upside the head that he can’t imagine why he didn’t see it before. This is why he needs Spock at his side, this right here: because his brain just works better with his friend beside him to bounce ideas off, to challenge and to quietly disapprove until a light goes on in Kirk’s head and the fuzzy outlines of something indecipherable resolve into a fully-formed idea.

 

Draconis was never the course heading after Archanis. How the hell did he convince himself that it was?

 

“Computer,” he says, and he can feel the adrenalin building; he knows he’s right. This is it: this is Eureka. “Adjust current route to ignore Draconis and terminate at Federation Starbase 19.”

 

“Adjusting route,” says the computer, and the red bar shifts again, reorienting the angle by thirty degrees.

 

It’s a straight line.

 

Draconis was the afterthought. The course heading was for Starbase 19; Ajillon Prime and Archanis IV, and who knows how many silent others were collateral damage along the way, convenient stopovers to collect supplies. A Klingon armada left Q’onoS with the express intention of targeting a Federal Starbase for information held within its cortex: navigational plans that made them readjust their route accordingly, brought them in line with Draconis II when they were starting to run low on fuel.

 

“Computer,” says Kirk now. “Plot a course from Federation Starbase 19 to Draconis II, continue on from there indefinitely.”

 

“Plotting course,” says the computer. It’s so damn obvious; how, how has he not seen this until now? The line disappears into the vanishing point and Kirk scrolls along it with impatient hands, through empty space and planetary clusters, stellar nurseries and asteroid clouds. There’s nothing out here, no outposts, no colonies, no M-class planets, but Kirk has a lingering sense of deja vu that grows as he plunges further into the black. There’s nothing out here, but sections of it have been named; it has been explored and categorized, scanned for items of interest and filed away as dead space by the stellar cartography team on the Merrimac when their path brought them out this way more than a year ago. There’s a binary system designated Mitra and Varuna, cloaked by a vast, sprawling Oort cloud; a lonely planetoid orbiting the black-hole remnants of its long-dead sun; a fifteen-planet system full of nothing but rock and exotic chemical compounds… and Kirk remembers these, because he’s been here before. He knows where he’s going because they planned to stop and take gravimetric readings close to the event horizon so that Spock could satisfy some fit of curiosity piqued by an unusual long-range scan, but they had a mission to complete first, a delegate to deliver to a hostile race whose planetary riches were worth the effort of forcing the hand of friendship.

 

Whose planet has been emitting a single, continuous signal for more than forty-eight hours now.

 

He scrabbles for his communicator amongst the detritus of prolonged and frustrated thought, and dials Ciana, once, twice, three times, before giving up and tossing it across the desk, scattering tapes onto the floor. Damn it. Her communicator is switched off, which means she’s already in her meeting with the top brass of the Starfleet admiralty, preparing to make an idiot out of herself with hopelessly inaccurate suppositions and the flimsiest of arguments as to why they need to pay attention. She knows that she doesn’t have much, and he knows he can’t rely on her to sell something she can’t get behind. This could be their only chance to make the case, and the signal has been running for two full days now. There’s no time to waste.

 

There’s a dress tunic in his cabinet. Kirk grabs it with one hand as the other is tearing off his everyday fatigues, pulling the shirt awkwardly over his head and casting it haphazardly towards his chair. He’s still fastening the front seam as he exits his office, striding briskly across the wide lobby floor and calling a brusque, “Yeoman, with me,” to Banner over his shoulder as he goes.

 

Banner catches him midway across the atrium, scurrying to keep up, and fussing over Kirk’s uniform as he moves, smoothing and straightening, pulling it into place.

 

“Keep trying Admiral Ciana,” says Kirk impatiently as they walk. “I need to speak with her immediately. Interrupt her meeting if possible. I’m on my way over to OpTacs to do the same, but I’d prefer you kept that information to yourself for the time being.”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Banner. “May I say I’m calling on your authority?”

 

“You may. But if they ask why I’m not calling directly… deflect. I’ve never tried to crash an admiralty conference before, but I doubt they’ll take kindly to it. I’d rather they didn’t have time to prepare their defense.”

 

“And if I manage to contact Admiral Ciana?”

 

They’re at the doors to Xeno now. Kirk pauses, turns and addresses his Yeoman full face. “Tell her I know where the armada is headed,” he says. “Tell her there’s no longer any doubt.”

 

~*~

 

 

If Xeno never sleeps, then OpTacs is the relentless tide of adrenalin that keeps the system moving. There is no such thing as downtime in the center of Starfleet, only the occasional pause before the next inexorable scrambling panic, and the halls of the higher echelons are awash with movement as Kirk makes his way down corridors greasy with the aura of power. He’s been in this part of the building precisely once in his life - the day he received word of his promotion to Captain - and every step is a barrage of memories from that earlier self, the man whose life’s ambitions were about to be handed to him with a canny smile and a firm handshake.

 

The dress uniform was an instinct, but it’s a good one. Fatigues are in evidence, but they’re accompanied by insignia far above Kirk’s rank; the lower flag officers are in their formal best. One does not simply wander into the offices of Heihachiro Nogura; one needs to look as though one belongs there, and Commodores who belong there are dressed accordingly.

 

The last time he was here, he was ushered into the plush, wood-paneled office by a smiling assistant whose security clearance most likely rivaled Komack’s, to be clapped on the arm by the aging head of Starfleet who was performing Genial Uncle Hei that day, to great effect. This time, he meets the stone-faced glare of a woman who gets the same old shit on a daily basis from men two grades above Kirk, and who knows where to punch so that they don’t get up again.

 

“You don’t have an appointment, Commodore,” she says, by way of an opening, and Kirk is struck by the uneasy feeling that, not only has she read his entire file, including his medical and sexual history, but she’s memorized the important parts.

 

He tries his most effective smile, though he’s privately convinced that he might as well try scratching his way through the highly-polished, oak-effect walls, for all the good it will do him. “That’s correct,” he says smoothly. “However, I work with Admiral Ciana…”

 

“I’m aware of that, Commodore Kirk,” she says, and now she’s showing off. “Vice Admiral Ciana is in a meeting with Fleet Admiral Nogura and cannot be disturbed.”

 

So much for the charm offensive. He clears the smile from his face and says, in his bridge command voice, “It is imperative that I speak with her immediately. I have information critical to her current discussions.”

 

“My instructions are to allow no interruptions…”

 

“This is more important than your instructions. Please verify with Admiral Ciana…”

 

“Commodore Kirk, if I had a dime for every time I heard those words from a visitor to this office…”

 

“Admiral Ciana has incorrect information.”

 

“Then you’re free to take a seat and convey the correct information to her once her meeting has concluded. I will not interrupt them, Commodore. Now take a seat or please leave.”

 

There’s a security guard stationed at the door to the waiting room, another by the connecting door that leads to Nogura’s office. Both are armed. There’s no way to get past them, not without using his own weapon, and he won’t even dignify that notion with his consideration, but all he needs is enough of a commotion to carry into the room beyond.

 

The assistant is half a step behind him; she catches his intent before he’s three strides across the floor, rising to her feet with a sharp, “Commodore Kirk, what do you think you’re doing?” and then, “Security, apprehend that officer!” Elsewhere in the service, his Commodore’s braid might count for a second’s hesitation; here, the replicator maintenance crew outstrips his authority, and the man by the door, whose insignia give his rank as Captain, moves swiftly to intercept him before he’s halfway there. His hand closes around Kirk’s arm with disconcerting force, bone locking onto flesh and holding him in place.

 

He glances down, impassive. “Commodore,” he says quietly. “I’d think again, sir.”

 

“Damn it!” snaps Kirk, twisting in his grip so that he’s facing back towards the assistant. “Ma’am - this cannot wait! I will take full responsibility for any repercussions, but I must insist that you let Admiral Ciana know that I’m here!”

 

“Commodore Kirk, you’re in no position to insist on anything,” she says calmly. “Captain Novak, please escort the Commodore out of this office…”

 

Novak moves like an advancing glacier; there is literally nothing else for it but to be dragged along in his wake. In the end, it’s less humiliating to fall into his sphere of gravity, to straighten his back and move of his own volition towards the door, but as he passes the assistant’s desk, Kirk snaps, “Wait. One moment - just wait.”

 

She looks up, a mask of ice-cold disdain, but one raised eyebrow buys him a moment’s grace. Novak releases his grip, and Kirk shrugs the kink out of his arm. “Will you please,” he says, “With all due urgency, inform Admiral Ciana that I was here, that I have time-sensitive and critical information, and that…”

 

“Commodore Kirk!”

 

The sound of Ciana’s voice cuts through the thickening tension, causing both Kirk and the assistant to look up abruptly. Novak immediately straightens, snapping to attention, and the assistant scrambles to her feet. Kirk wonders idly what her rank might be, that she doesn’t feel the need to attend a superior officer, but it’s a momentary aberration, quickly dismissed as he tightens his spine, squares his jaw.

 

“At ease,” says Bernstein, from somewhere towards the back of the group, and Novak relaxes into parade rest, but Kirk takes a firm stride forward.

 

“Commodore Kirk was just leaving,” says the assistant, but she sounds a little less certain now.

 

“Ma’am, I apologize for the interruption,” says Kirk. “I have information that couldn’t wait.”

 

“About Draconis?” says Ciana, as Komack opens his mouth to speak. She stands almost half a foot below him, and he outranks her by a full grade, but there’s something about Ciana’s tone when she shrugs on the mantle of authority that tends to discourage outright dissent.

 

“About the armada,” says Kirk.

 

“Kirk, we’ve just spent a highly unproductive half hour debating the existence of your armada,” says Komack irritably, and Ciana’s jaw sets in a way that tells Kirk as much as he needs to know. “I’ve spoken to both Federal ambassadors to Cocidius over the past three days and I can tell you unequivocally that there have been no attacks in that system…”

 

“It’s not Cocidius,” says Kirk, with poorly-reigned irritation. “The co-ordinates that led to Cocidius were based on a misconception. Ma’am” - he turns to Ciana - “Starbase 19 was not a detour. It was the primary target.”

 

“Commodore Kirk…” begins Komack, with choleric fury, but Bernstein cuts him off.

 

“I think we’d better discuss this in the office,” she says quietly. “Stern,” she adds to the assistant, and Kirk takes a moment to reflect on the fact that never was a woman more aptly named, “Clear Admiral Nogura’s diary for another fifteen minutes, please.” To Kirk: “Commodore. You have five.”

 

An economic gesture of her hand invites him to lead the way into Nogura’s inner sanctum. Kirk sucks in a breath and sets off in the direction of the open door, through which he can see the figure of the Fleet Admiral himself, settled at the head of a long, mahogany desk. PADDs are stacked at his left hand, though he’s bent over a screen inlaid into the table itself, scanning its contents with the air of a man who will be disturbed as and when he sees fit, and not a moment sooner. A series of huge, stuffed armchairs circle a low coffee table, where discarded mugs and a plate of untouched donuts testify to the morning’s activities, and a large, shimmering screen displays a familiar red streak across a dark starmap.

 

The Admiral looks up. “Commodore Kirk,” he says neutrally. “This is a surprise.”

 

Kirk can feel Ciana settle into place at his right shoulder; it’s something about the way the energy changes in her presence. It’s not quite the same as having Spock there, but, right now, he’ll take it.

 

“Sir,” he says, “I apologize for the interruption. But I believe the report I presented to Admiral Ciana this morning was wrong.”

 

A white eyebrow slowly arches. “All right, Commodore. I assume you have a revised conclusion, or you wouldn’t be bursting into my offices unannounced?”

 

Kirk bristles, but buries it. “Yes, sir,” he says as evenly as he can.

 

“Let’s have it, then.”

 

A brisk nod; Nogura was never a man for preliminaries. Kirk says, “Sir, the attack on Starbase 19 was not a detour.” A beat. “It was the armada’s original destination.”

 

A quiet scoff somewhere behind him pinpoints Komack’s location in the room. Bernstein, standing close to Ciana’s right, says, “Kirk, we found no evidence to suggest that the Empire was behind the attack on Starbase 19.”

 

He turns in her direction. “Ma’am, with all due respect, I’d be suspicious if we had. They cannot afford to be held responsible for an attack on Federal citizens.”

 

“Commodore Kirk has a point,” says Ciana now. “We found no recognizable DNA signature anywhere in the environs of the starbase. The official conclusion speculates that we were subject to an attack from an unknown race or lifeform. Sir, you know my objections to that conclusion. It’s too neat. It’s premeditated…”

 

“Not every sentient race in the galaxy is warlike, Admiral,” says Nogura calmly.

 

“Sir, I’m aware,” she says, and Kirk can hear the note of frustration creeping into her voice and silently wills it away. “But the attack on the starbase was purposeful, it was planned and executed with military precision. They wanted the cortex and they didn’t want anyone to know…”

 

“Must we rehash the same arguments again?” snaps Komack, and Kirk hears her sharp intake of breath. If he thought he could do it without drawing attention to himself, he’d edge a foot backwards and tread on her toes, protocol be damned. Komack is an ass, but drawing him into open battle is unwise.

 

“Sir, with respect…” she begins, which is the universal symbol for I would like to tell you where to shove your stripes but it’s important to maintain the illusion of politesse, but fortunately Nogura intervenes.

 

“Jim,” he says, and it takes Kirk a moment to remember that Komack is also James, and Nogura knows him somewhat better than he knows Kirk. “I’d like to hear this.”

 

A pace behind and to the left of Kirk, the temperature drops noticeably. “Yes, sir,” says Komack coolly.

 

Nogura nods, and couched in that simple, utilitarian gesture is the kind of effortless authority that can build and maintain an empire. His steel-eyed gaze falls on Kirk.

 

“Commodore,” he says. “Enlighten us.”

 

Kirk is not unaccustomed to the sensation of commanding the unwavering attention of the entire room, and he’s weathered it in situations where far more was at stake. So he clears his throat, an anchoring gesture, and indicates the terminal interface on the wall beside the screen. “If I may?” he says.

 

Nogura registers his assent with a brief dip of his head, and Kirk crosses quickly to the control pad. As he slides his tape into the dock and the screen flickers and rearranges itself into his revised schematic, he says, “The attack on the starbase bothered me for a long time. I was certain there was something to it that I wasn’t seeing.”

 

“So I understand,” says Nogura dryly. “Admiral Urquhart was good enough to inform me of your interest in the committee’s report.”

 

Kirk lets that one slide and turns to the screen. He says, “Admiral Ciana and I discussed the possibility that the attacks on Ajillon Prime and Archanis IV might be part of a series that included Draconis. As you see, when I plotted the progression onto our starcharts, it was immediately apparent that both systems fell along a roughly straight line along a trajectory from Q’onoS, which veers” - he adjusts the display - “on a tangent at Archanis, heading for Draconis II. This new course heading carries them at a plausible distance from Starbase 19 within a timescale consistent with the attack. However” - and the display adjusts again; he sees Bernstein’s eyebrows arch abruptly and Nogura leans forward in his chair - “If we ignore Draconis for the time being and continue along the same course trajectory from Archanis, it is immediately apparent that Starbase 19 was their initial destination.”

 

“It’s four points on a three-dimensional graph,” says Ciana quietly. “That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for doubt, sir.”

 

“Assuming that all four points are evidentially connected!” protests Komack, with the air of a man who knows he’s twisting in the wind. “I have yet to see one shred of proof that these attacks can be linked by anything substantive. It’s guesswork…”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Kirk sharply. “Because they were too damn clever to leave anything substantive behind.”

 

“Kirk…” says Ciana quietly, a warning tone. He glances at her, briefly, but her eyes are fixed on the screen. “Starbase 19 to Draconis gives us an alternative vector,” she says. “Did you plot it onwards?”

 

“Yes, Ma’am,” he says. “There’s not much along that corridor. However…”

 

“That’s a loaded ‘however’, Kirk.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am. There’s one system of interest. I believe it’s an excellent candidate.”

 

“For an entirely hypothetical advance…” says Komack, but Nogura cuts him off.

 

“Jim,” he says. “I think we’re past hypothesis now.” To Kirk, with an unreadable expression: “Go ahead, Commodore.”

 

“Sir,” says Kirk. “On a trajectory from Starbase 19 that brought them in line with Draconis, they would be heading directly towards Ilion Gamma.”

 

There is a moment of perfect, loaded silence.

 

Ciana is the first to break it. “Jesus,” she says. “The signal…”

 

“Yes, Ma’am,” says Kirk. “It’s also isolated, formerly unknown, practically defenseless, and incalculably resource-rich. We wanted them in the Federation for a reason; mining rights on either of their northern continents would have doubled our pergium yield in the first year alone. And they’ve been trying to get some kind of message through to us - the same Federation they threw off their planet not six months ago - for the past two days. That fits with the distance and the trajectory. They’re under attack, sir, and they may or may not know that we had something to do with pointing the Empire in their direction, but they sure as hell know we’re the only ones who can help them. Now, I know that the bulk of the fleet is out of immediate range, but the Invictus and the Pharsalus are both within seven days’ journey at maximum warp. It might be enough to rebalance the equation in the interim…”

 

“Now, just a minute!” snaps Komack. “You’re not suggesting that we get involved, Kirk?”

 

“Of course I’m suggesting…” says Kirk, quickly, without thinking, anger geysering up through his chest and escaping in a rush of ill-considered words that disappear into a room that has gone suddenly silent. His eyes automatically find Ciana’s, flicking back from a quick survey of Nogura, Bernstein, a red-faced, venomous Komack, and they meet his with a rush of horrified understanding.

 

They are the only two people in the room for whom Kirk’s epiphany comes as a surprise.

 

“You already knew,” says Ciana quietly. Her face is expressionless, canted on her shoulder to face Nogura. Softly, almost to herself: “Damn it. I’m an idiot. Of course you knew.”

 

“I don’t understand,” says Kirk, though he has a terrible suspicion that he does.

 

“I think we’re done here,” says Bernstein. “Admiral Nogura, thank you for your time…”

 

“The hell we’re done here!” cries Kirk with a violent rush of impotent rage. Ciana’s eyes widen in sudden shock, and she whirls on him, face tight with anger.

 

“Commodore Kirk!” she snaps, all ice-cold fury. “That’s enough. We’ll discuss this in my office…”

 

“You knew that the signal was a distress call! How long have you known, sir? How long have you known and done nothing?”

 

“Commodore Kirk!

 

“I see no reason to discuss this any further,” says Komack, but he glances at Nogura as he says it.

 

“We led Q’onoS directly to them!” cries Kirk. “We’ve given them the keys to the safe, and now we’re just going to sit back and watch them take what they want?”

 

“That’s enough, Commodore!” snaps Ciana. “Goddamn it…”

 

“We have a moral obligation to help these people!”

 

“They are not Federal citizens!” snaps Komack, and Kirk rounds on him, but Nogura interrupts before he can speak.

 

“Kirk, do you know what would happen if we were to take these people’s side against the Klingons?” he says. His voice is even and unwavering, stripped of emotion. “The Klingons with whom we have a peace treaty in effect, prohibiting any act of war by either side?”

 

Kirk huffs a bitter, humorless laugh. “No, of course not…”

 

“Neither do I,” says Nogura.

 

Kirk stares at him for a long moment, while words tangle in his throat. “This is obscene,” he says at last.

 

“Admiral Ciana, control your officer,” snaps Komack.

 

“Commodore Kirk,” she says coldly. “That’s enough, goddamn it. You will leave this room right now.”

 

“Ma’am, with all due respect…”

 

“No. No respect. Leave. Now.”

 

“We’re going to stand back and watch an atrocity happen?” Kirk is vaguely aware, behind the hazy fury, that he’s mouthing empty words to a room irretrievably lost, but they spill out of him regardless. “We’re going to wash our hands of it, even though we set it in motion? We gave them that planet. We gave them the goddamn cortex!”

 

“We gave them nothing,” says Komack. “They took what they wanted from us, and you are so far out of line, Commodore, that you’ll be lucky if your next assignment is scrubbing plasma coolant from an engine room floor…”

 

“This is not the oath that I swore to uphold,” spits Kirk. He is so angry he can barely hear himself over the thunderous roar of blood in his veins. “This is a matter of honor, sir…!”

 

“Kirk!” snaps Ciana.

 

He spins on his heel, pivoting to face her. “We have a peace treaty in effect!” he says. “Were we the aggressors? Was it Federal aggression that breached the treaty? Did we attack a Klingon outpost? Are we waging war on a peaceful planet in the name of monetary gain? What value does a peace treaty hold if it allows that kind of license? We are betraying everything we stand for if we do nothing!”

 

“And we are risking war with the Empire and war with the Organians if we act!” hisses Komack.

 

“If war is the consequence of standing behind our principles…”

 

“Do you really think this has never crossed anyone’s mind but yours, Kirk?” Komack is white with rage. “Are you really so arrogant that you would think that yours is the only voice of dissent?”

 

“Where is your voice of dissent, Admiral?” snaps Kirk, and Ciana’s eyes widen.

 

“Kirk, that’s it,” she hisses. “Get out. You’re on administrative leave, effective immediately.”

 

His eyes fix on hers, hold them. She does not look away. He says, “You cannot support this.”

 

“What I do or do not support is immaterial right now,” she says. “You are on leave, Commodore. Don’t make me have security escort you from this building.”

 

“You’ve been told, Kirk,” says Komack in a dangerous tone, but Nogura cuts across him.

 

“That’s enough, Jim,” he says, and it’s no longer clear which man he means. It could be either.

 

A bitter smile slices across Kirk’s face and he shakes his head. “This is obscene,” he says again.

 

Her eyes close. Her face is very still, but there’s a faint tremor in her shoulders that speaks of muscles under extreme duress. “Leave, Commodore,” she says. “I don’t… we’ll talk about this when you get back. That’s it. We’re done here.”

 

“Admiral Ciana,” says Nogura quietly. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to escort Commodore Kirk to the aircar bay.”

 

Her jaw tightens. “Yes, sir,” she says. To Kirk: “Let’s go. Just… let’s go, Kirk.”

 

A sharp, acid laugh chokes its way free of his throat, and he gestures, with exaggerated politesse, for her to go ahead of him. She falls into step without another glance in his direction, leading them out through the door, and he can hear Komack’s affronted rage explosion before they’re even across the threshold: “Goddamn it, the man’s always been insubordinate but that was two steps shy of mutiny…!”

 

As the door slides shut behind him, Kirk just catches Nogura’s even reply, delivered with a soft authority that brooks no argument: “Let it alone, Jim. We need more men like him…”

 

Chapter Text

The taxi leaves him at his quarters close to midnight on April 16th, travel-creased and heavy with the kind of honest fatigue that comes from a day’s exertion. Given the choice, he thinks, he’d have stayed away another week, but Ciana’s right: he doesn’t want to quit, and that’s what he’d be doing if he followed his instincts and left the Cochrane Day ceremony to other people, people for whom Starfleet isn’t a mass of contradiction and compromise. So he’s come home, though that’s not the word he’d choose to use. Given the choice.

 

She commed him on the second day of his furlough, waking him from an uneasy sleep on the spring-spiked mattress of a motel-room bed somewhere in Louisiana. He’s not entirely sure why he chose Louisiana; he’s not even certain that he did, it’s just where he found himself when the red mist receded and his brain abruptly plummeted into exhaustion so profound he could barely muster the energy to sign his name on the guest register.

 

Where are you? she wanted to know, without preamble. You didn’t go home yesterday.

 

He didn’t ask her how she knew, though a small part of him was glad that she did. He said, I’m not in San Francisco.

 

That much I gathered. A long, loaded pause. Are you coming back?

 

Hesitation. Do I have a reason?

 

You still have a job, if that’s what you’re asking. Goddamn it, Jim. That was some stupid shit you pulled yesterday.

 

He felt the fire rise in his chest, tightening his throat. I stand by everything I said.

 

I know you do, you stubborn son-of-a-bitch. And I also know you’re not obtuse. I know you understand.

 

That’s the problem: he does understand. He understands the need to weigh billions of Federal lives against the freedom of a planet that refused their allegiance, and he understands that there was only one possible decision. And he hates that he understands this.

 

Mostly, he’s just glad the choice was never his. It’s easier to let the flames of righteous indignation burn out all the trade-offs and the balancing acts in a combustive blaze of honorable fury. He’s damn sure this is not what the Organians had in mind, but where the hell are they, now? How the hell is he supposed to live with this?

 

Nogura overruled Komack’s strenuous objections, she explained; no-one will be seeking disciplinary action. Quite the contrary, she added, final words before signing off. I have a message from him sitting on my terminal right now. He says he was impressed with your passion. He says it’s vindicated his decision to promote you.

 

Kirk supposes he’s meant to be pleased, but all he can think about is how much power - real power, practical power - that promotion has stripped from him. He used to have the autonomy to act as he saw fit, within a strictly delineated set of guidelines that were flexible enough to allow for the realities of deep-space exploration. Now he has politics and a chain around his throat.

 

He slings his overnight bag onto the couch and crosses the dark room to his desk, where his terminal hums with leashed energy. For a week now, he’s deliberately avoided any kind of technological interface, messages unread hovering like a dark cloud in the ether, daring him to ignore them. A swarm of unspoken words has haunted his every waking moment, walking beside him like a restless ghost, but he has turned his back on all the things that might be said and focused on slaking his impotent rage with the mundane; with relentless motion; with the pursuit of sights unseen; and, when all else fails, with bourbon. He pours a generous measure from Bones’ birthday stash as he settles now in front of the screen, speaking a soft command to the waiting duotronic brain, which snaps to life in a flash of light and color.

 

“Display recent messages,” says Kirk, and the machine obliges, conjuring up an inbox crammed with 478 unread communications screaming for attention. He scrolls without interest through Sanders’ initial consternation that gradually segues into a kind of weary resignation; through a string of short, curt notes from Ciana that start with Goddamn it, Jim, what the hell was that? Are you out of your goddamn mind? and end, abruptly, two days ago with, As long as you’re back for the ceremony, that’s all I care about right now. Don’t be an ass about this; through operational updates and marketing mail-shots; through a cheerful epistle from Bones that opens with, Hearing rumors about a good, old-fashioned set-to over in the Ivory Tower. Tell me they’re true? And tell me what shade of purple old Komack’s face went while you’re at it… And, interspersed between them all, the name he’s been pretending he doesn’t want to see:

 

Commodore Kirk - I have been apprised in brief of the nature of your altercation with Admirals Komack, Bernstein and Nogura. I would be glad of the opportunity to discuss it further with you, should you so desire. Regards, CDR Spock.

 

Commodore Kirk - I note the unusual delay in your response, and assure you that I merely wish to ascertain your wellbeing. Regards, CDR Spock.

 

Commodore Kirk - I am unable to obtain details as to your whereabouts. I trust that you will apprise me of your situation as is appropriate and convenient to you. Regards, CDR Spock.

 

Jim - McCoy informs me that he has been likewise unable to establish contact with you. Your office has been unhelpful. This is now a source of some concern.

 

Jim - it is five days since my initial contact. I have yet to receive a response. Your earliest attention would be appreciated.

 

Jim - your communicator is inactive. I wish to determine that no accident has occurred to your person.

 

Jim - this is unprecedented and I find myself most anxious as to the nature of your prolonged lack of communication.

 

Jim - please respond. Spock.

 

~*~

 

The sun has not yet risen when his sleep cycle pronounces itself definitively over, and Spock finds himself crash-dumped into wakefulness with a sharp intake of breath and a sickening lurch of non-specific dread. He glances at the chronometer with aching, bleary eyes and finds that it is still fifteen minutes off 0500 hours, which makes it fewer than three hours since he finally fell asleep. He didn’t meditate last night either; the trance would not come, no matter how he tried.

 

He rises, slowly, and makes his way into the small living quarters, where he attempts, once again, to realign his mental and physical energies with a series of Suus Mahna maneuvers, but the floor space is insufficient for the more complex forms, and prolonged physical exhaustion has begun to take its toll on his balance. So he finds himself lying, supine, on the unforgiving carpet tiles, staring up at a stain on his ceiling that he might be able to patch over, given a free hour and a little advice on Terran home maintenance, and trying, without success, to settle the creeping unease that twists in his stomach.

 

In a little under five hours’ time, he will march onto the dais of the Grand Hall, where he last stood to receive his commission on the day of his graduation, and stand beside the man whose name hovers constantly on his lips, whose face is the last thing he sees before his infrequent periods of sleep, whose shadow is his constant companion. He will stand beside him and attempt to unlearn the lesson of the past ten days: that there is no escape from James Kirk. Absence makes it worse. To be without him is to cut away something vital, like an addict deprived of his drug. And it is eating the heart from Spock, minute by minute, hour by hour.

 

The message on his terminal is not precisely a surprise, though it is a relief. He finds it when his protesting bones and growling stomach eject him from the floor in search of food and comfort, and he carries a plate of kreyla to his desk, where he eats methodically and without interest as he scrolls through his new contacts.

 

Spock - am home. All is well, as far as possible. Thank you for your concern. See you at the ceremony, JTK.

 

It is bad enough that an emotional vacuum is tearing at his shields from the inside out; anger, on top of everything else, is unthinkable. So Spock simply closes the message, throws his scarcely eaten meal in the cycler, and retreats to his sleeping quarters to dress.

 

He is home. It is enough.

 

~*~

 

McCoy corners him almost immediately, as though he has been waiting by the door specifically to pounce as soon as Spock arrives. This may, in fact, not be wholly inaccurate. It certainly would not be outside of the Doctor’s usual MO.

 

“My God, man!” he says, by way of an opening salutation, “You look like hell on a stick. What’re they doin’ to you over in that Academy?”

 

“I am well, Doctor,” says Spock, more in hope than expectation. Even if this were not manifestly untrue, direct contradiction is largely ineffective on McCoy.

 

“‘Well’, huh?” he says irascibly. “I’ve a mind to call a mandatory medical on you, Commander, you don’t start showin’ a mite more flesh on them bones. You any idea how many Terran viruses show up undetected in the Vulcan system right up to the point where they’ve caused irreparable damage?”

 

Spock offers that comment the disdain it merits. “There are no viruses that cause the syndrome you describe, Doctor McCoy,” he says.

 

“Yeah,” says McCoy, and his eyes narrow. “Think your CO knows that?”

 

A jostle of bodies behind them puts paid to Spock’s rejoinder, and McCoy breaks away for a moment to greet a couple of ensigns whose faces Spock remembers from gamma shift on the auxiliary bridge. Barton and Martinez, he recalls, although McCoy refers to the former as Benton. She says nothing, returning his easy charm with a smile that wavers for no more than a fraction of a second, until another influx of humanity obliges them to make space in the entryway, and they drift off towards the buffet table on the far side of the room.

 

“As I was sayin’,” says the Doctor, turning back to Spock from a survey of the swelling crowd filtering into the wide, airy function room that has been co-opted into a kind of pre-ceremony holding pen, “I don’t quite know what to make of this business with Jim.”

 

Spock opens his mouth to protest that this is not what McCoy was saying, but catches himself in time. Instead, he says, “Nor I, Doctor, but this is hardly surprising. Contextual information has not been forthcoming.”

 

McCoy rolls his eyes. “Why do I always feel like I need a damn dictionary to have a conversation with you, Spock?” he mutters. “Take it that means he ain’t bin talkin’ to you about it either?”

 

Unexpectedly, Spock finds himself bristling. No, Kirk has not been talking to him about it, but, for some reason, this information feels disproportionally personal. He says, “The subject has not been open for discussion,” and hopes that McCoy does not feel the need to pursue his enquiry into the specifics of that conversational oversight: to whit, the disappearance of Commodore Kirk from the airwaves and Spock’s life for over a week.

 

The Doctor treats Spock to an appraising look, but doesn’t press the issue. “Yeah, you’re good at that. The pair of you,” he says. An extravagant sigh. “Guess that means I’ll be bendin’ his ear myself, assumin’ I can get in spittin’ distance of him, this damn fool shindig they got planned.”

 

“That may not be wise…” says Spock carefully, but the wisdom or otherwise of McCoy’s plan is abruptly prorogued by a significant bustle of activity on the other side of the oak-paneled doors to his left. The function room is off the main thoroughfare of the administrative building, but the corridor outside maintains a respectable flow of traffic; there is no reason for the sudden spike of adrenalin that catapults Spock’s heart into a punishing rhythm against his flank, or the flood of certainty that fills his belly like ice water. But he knows, even before the doors slide open on a familiar figure in the green silk of command dress, before some joker in the audience - Lieutenant Wenger, he suspects - barks, “Captain on the bridge!” and the crowd dissolves into laughter and a trickling tidal wave of applause. He knows, even as the world seems to freeze for a moment and the room dissolves like a watercolor in the rain.

 

Kirk steps inside as far as the press of bodies will allow, smiling his easy smile, shaking hands, clapping shoulders, laughing, accepting the adulation of command with all the grace of a man who has never expected to be a hero. He seems casual, at his ease, as though this is a series of steps from an old dance that he’s never fully left behind. Perhaps that’s true, in some small way. It certainly ought to be.

 

“Same old Jim Kirk,” says McCoy quietly, at Spock’s shoulder. Spock can’t tell if the remark is wistful, facetious, or ironic, or some combination of the three; it has never been possible, as far as he can tell, to determine Kirk’s mood solely from his interaction with his crew. He has to be very certain of himself to allow the veneer to drop. Maybe that’s what the Doctor means.

 

He moves through the crowd with a diplomat’s elegance, and it’s only because Spock is watching so closely that he can see the miniscule twist of his head, the hungry cant to his eyes as they scour the room. It’s buried in cheerful politesse, genuine pleasure and camaraderie, but it’s there: the restless anxiety of a fruitless search. His gaze sweeps the scattered crowds beneath the high, arched windows; the waiters bustling through the dress-uniformed masses with trays of fruit juice and hors d’oeuvres; the familiar faces and hands raised in greeting; while his body moves and circles in a slow pivot, arcing inexorably towards the place where his friends watch and wait to be seen.

 

Kirk’s eyes find Spock’s, lock and hold them. Everything stops. Kirk freezes mid-motion and his politician’s smile wilts, draining his face of expression. It hovers in uncertainty for a moment, like a slate wiped clean, and then, slowly, like the sun breaking through distant storm clouds, the edges of his lips curl upwards, trailing that familiar, 100-watt glow behind them.

 

“Yup,” says McCoy softly. “Same old Jim Kirk.”

 

A brief comment to the Ensign at his side, excusing himself with words that make her grin and nod enthusiastically, and Kirk shoulders his way through the tide of bodies. “Bones!” he says cheerfully. And then, turning directly to face him with another flash of that smile: “Spock.”

 

Spock nods. “Commodore.”

 

“Well, if it ain’t Starfleet’s golden boy himself,” says McCoy, with a grin that’s designed to provoke a reaction.

 

“I believe they’ve rescinded that title,” says Kirk smoothly, “Following recent events.”

 

“Ha!” says McCoy cheerfully. “Not last I heard. What I wouldn’t’ve given to be a fly on that wall, Jim. Damned unfair, you ask me, you disappearin’ before any of us got to bask in the glory of a well-stuffed Admiral Komack.”

 

Darkness ghosts Kirk’s eyes, but he keeps his voice light. “Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated, Bones,” he says. “I believe he won the round on points.”

 

“That ain’t the story they’re tellin’ in the commissary, I can tell you that,” says McCoy, waving over a waiter and lifting a couple of drinks from his tray. He passes them out, sniffing suspiciously at his own and wrinkling his nose. “Orange juice,” he says. “Damned morning functions…”

 

Kirk grins, swallowing a mouthful and turning to Spock. “And how’s your work going?” he asks innocently.

 

“Adequately,” says Spock.

 

Eyebrows arch, but there’s no hint of reproach behind the open expression. “I’m glad you were able to snatch a few hours away from the lab,” says Kirk.

 

Spock would protest that the invitation to the ceremony came from Nogura’s office, which is a state of affairs that renders the “invitation” part rather disingenuous. He might be on the verge of isolating the ancient alchemical formula for transmuting lead into gold and it would still be necessary for him to pack up his crucibles and present himself, dress-uniformed, in the Pacific View function room at 0945 hours to receive his mandated adulation. But there’s a lightness to the words that feels like a tentative kind of truce; an appeal to an easier time.

 

So he says, instead, “The critical period has passed.” It’s a lie only inasmuch as it fails to define the the parameters of the phrase “critical period”, or to specifically link it to his current project. “I anticipate fewer demands on my time in the coming weeks.”

 

Brightness flares behind Kirk’s eyes, colors his smile, warms the air around him. “Good,” he says. “Then perhaps…”

 

But wherever that perhaps might lead, it’s lost to the moment as a young Ensign clears his throat, nervously, at Kirk’s shoulder and says, “Commodore Kirk? Commander Spock? They’re ready for you, sirs.”

 

McCoy snorts and rolls his eyes. “Believe you were sayin’ something ‘bout how you weren’t anyone’s golden boy these days?” he says.

 

~*~

 

They are led to a small Green Room to the right of the auditorium entrance, where a coterie of public relations officials are determined to shake as many hands as possible, while the rest of Kirk’s senior officers are ushered onto the stage to a barrage of applause that is alarming even through the four solid walls that separate them from the melee. Spock keeps his hands folded firmly behind his back and offers his blankest and least approachable face, but it nevertheless requires a sharp reminder from his former CO on the niceties of Vulcan etiquette before the most persistent of their new-found entourage retracts the arm he has extended into Spock’s personal space.

 

“Perhaps you might get us a couple of glasses of water,” suggests Kirk with an affable smile and a tone that implies that it’s not a request.

 

“Of course, sir,” says the officer, who outranks Spock, but who appears to have forgotten this.

 

“Remind you of anything?” says Kirk under his breath as the young officer disappears in search of refreshments and another, older man, wearing admiral’s stripes, breaks away from a conversation on the other side of the room to take his place.

 

“Indeed,” says Spock quietly, who has been attempting, without success, not to engage with the similarities between their current situation and the press conference that marked the end of his former life. He nods to their approaching companion as Kirk plasters a smile across his face.

 

“We do seem to have a talent for attracting this kind of event lately,” says the Commodore through his teeth, and then, more loudly, “Admiral Girvan. Is it time?”

 

“Not quite yet,” says the Admiral with a genial grin. “We’ll give them a moment or two to get their pictures and ask their questions. There’s quite a crowd out there, you know.”

 

“It certainly sounds that way,” says Kirk, and Spock thinks that only a man who knew him very well would hear the hint of distaste behind the cheerful words.

 

Girvan fails to pick up on it, and looses an amiable chuckle. “You’re quite the hero, Commodore Kirk,” he says.

 

The diplomatic smile tightens, but only fractionally. “I’ve never seen it that way,” says Kirk.

 

Another hearty laugh, and the Admiral reaches out a hand to clap Kirk on the shoulder. “Good thing for Starfleet that Admiral Nogura thinks differently, eh?” he says.

 

A flash of irritation clouds Kirk’s face and he starts to say, “I wouldn’t…” - shallow, warning quakes that herald the eruption of the frustrated fury that has bubbled beneath the surface now for months, and has lately begun to force open the stress fractures that cobweb his soul. Once upon a time, it would have been cause for a low, injunctive Jim…, and this would either bank the fires of righteous indignation or pour a quart of gasoline over the smoldering coals, as the situation demanded. Many things have changed, and Spock is no longer certain that his warning would be heeded, or welcome.

 

Fortunately, a chirp from Girvan’s communicator interrupts the anger vortex before it really starts to spin. The Admiral holds up a finger to excuse himself and turns away, and Spock takes the opportunity to direct an eyebrow at his friend. It’s a fairly bulletproof gesture, in that it can be semantically reconfigured according to the manner in which it is received, but Kirk twists his lips into a wry grin that tells Spock that the danger is over.

 

Temporarily. “Gentlemen,” says Girvan, turning back into the conversation. “Would you follow me?”

 

Kirk is still looking at Spock as the words register, which is how Spock sees the flash of something like alarm behind his eyes, chased by resignation into a stoic smile. “Of course,” he says smoothly, and then, under his breath, as Girvan leads the way, “Let’s just get it over with.”

 

~*~

 

 It’s a short walk from the Green Room to the auditorium, and, through the side entrance, which looks onto the dais, it’s possible to see three rows of Spock’s erstwhile colleagues, pressed and stiff on formal chairs behind a lectern, from which the head of Starfleet’s PR department addresses a morass of bodies. The front seats of the auditorium are filled with the lower ranks - the Yeomen, the junior lieutenants, the enlisted crew - and Spock knows even without the sharp intake of breath from the man to his left that Kirk will bristle at this evidence of casual disregard. But as Admiral Chavez draws his opening salutations to a close, with a rousing, “And here they are - Starfleet’s finest command team and the heroes of the hour: Commander Spock and Commodore James Kirk!” the stalls erupt in a cacophony of cheering, three hundred and fifty men and women clambering to their feet ahead of the wave of motion that ripples upwards along the tiers of the assembly. As one, the senior crew follow suit, chairs scraping across the hardwood floor as they scramble to honor their former commanders. Chavez steps back from the lectern with a beckoning wave towards the wings, and Girvan murmurs, unnecessarily, “That’s your cue, gentlemen.”

 

Kirk sucks in a breath, tilts his head towards Spock. “Ready for this?” he asks quietly.

 

“Insofar as it is possible to adequately prepare for a venture that is, by its nature, both illogical and unpredictable,” says Spock.

 

“Neither am I,” says Kirk, and steps onto the stage.

 

The auditorium explodes into whoops and hollers and flashing lights, a litany of bellowed questions, a hundred voices shouting their names. Nogura steps forward from his position on the far left of the podium, hands raised in elegant applause as he makes his way to the lectern, where two prominent seats are waiting, empty, for the Captain and First Officer of the Enterprise. They are flanked, Spock notes with distaste, by urns filled to bursting with Exterus Aurentiacofloris Enterprisii.

 

Kirk stops in front of them and offers a salute, which Spock mirrors and Nogura returns before gesturing to the seats and turning full face to the auditorium, which remains incandescent with adulation. As the Commodore lowers himself into the farther chair, Spock thinks he sees a tension in his shoulders, in the set of his jaw, in the unfailing smile that seems to fray a little around the edges. But he sits easily enough, hands resting on his thighs, and he shoots a sideways glance at Spock that telegraphs a healthy appreciation of the ridiculousness of their situation. He cannot speak unobserved, but he nods: an eloquent, loaded gesture that communicates more than any censored sentence could say. Spock arches an eyebrow and turns back to the crowd.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” says Nogura with that quiet authority of his: confidence over volume, the simple assumption that, when he speaks, no one else will. That it has a 100% success rate goes some way towards explaining his lengthy tenure at the head of one of the most powerful organizations in the alpha quadrant. “Esteemed guests” - as the auditorium goes silent but for the sound of several hundred buttocks quietly striking their seats - “Welcome to our ceremony. Today, as we honor the memory of the man who has done more than any other to advance Humanity’s quest beyond the boundaries of our own skies, our own sun and system, we also honor the officers and crew of our flagship - the jewel in Starfleet’s crown - whose fearless pursuit of knowledge and harmony across the galaxy has brought our message of peace and friendship to countless worlds where the United Federation of Planets was never previously known. This Cochrane Day, we are gathered here to celebrate the unfailing dedication to duty, the selflessness and sacrifice, the heroism and the valor, of the USS Enterprise, and the courage of the men and women who serve aboard her.”

 

A whoop from the gods, and applause breaks free again, scattered at first but rising rapidly into a deafening crescendo. Nogura folds his hands behind his back and watches with serenity, and Spock wonders if, in fact, the original shouter is a plant; it would be extremely unlike the Admiral to be taken by surprise. Nogura allows it to rage unchecked for a moment, then raises a slender hand in an economic gesture that has the effect of dropping a silencing cloak on the crowd. To Spock’s left, Kirk’s lips purse around a censored smile.

 

“Five years ago,” continues the Admiral, “The Enterprise set her first course heading from Earth under the command of the youngest starship captain in Starfleet history. This man of extraordinary gifts had proved his talent and his devotion to duty as an Ensign aboard the USS Republic, and as Tactical Officer, and later First Officer, on the USS Farragut. He is a man of compassion and tolerance, whose diplomatic skills are informed by a thirst for knowledge and an acceptance, not only of the differences that separate us, but of the differences that bring us closer together. He is a man of great vision, and he is also that rarest of our number: a man for whom other men will lay down their lives in the service of a greater cause. As we celebrate the triumph that is the successful conclusion of this historic mission of discovery, we remember each man and woman who offered the greatest sacrifice that their service can ask, and who gave their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. We feel each loss as a wound to the heart of Starfleet. Commodore Kirk feels each loss as a wound to his commander’s soul, and it is this, as much as his comprehensive intellect, his gift for making difficult decisions, his instinct and intuition, and his honorable nature, that makes him the truly great leader that he is. And it is for this reason that it gives me such great and abiding pleasure to announce that it is the decision of Starfleet Command to promote him to the rank of Admiral, in order that his remarkable talents be allowed to find their fullest use.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests: I give you Admiral James Kirk!”

 

A wall of ecstatic noise explodes upwards from the seated congregation; bodies scrambling from their seats, feet thumping the floor, hands pounding against hands. As the tidal wave of exaltation swamps the cavernous space, Spock turns slowly, in mounting horror, to see the blood drain from Kirk’s face, eyes widening in distress, smile frozen in place as he finds his feet on legs that barely tremble. What instinct guides him across the stage to Nogura, what propels his hand forward to grip the Admiral’s, Spock cannot tell; his face is correct, his movements are correct, and yet he looks like a man approaching his own gallows. Spock folds his left hand over his right to hide the convulsive curl of his fingernails into his palm; it is the only thing that grounds him right now in a world that is falling apart.

 

As he turns to face the hollering, baying crowd, Kirk folds his hands behind his back, one over the other, and Spock sees that the gesture is a mirror of his own, knuckles white as fingernails gouge hidden crescents into the pink flesh. He sees this, and he understands what it costs his friend to accept this with the appearance of equanimity. Because the hazy, unplotted future has just been forced into sharp focus, and it turns out that he was right all along.

 

There will be no more command for James Kirk. There will be no jubilant return to the bridge that he mourns like the loss of a limb. There will be no telling half-smile playing at the corner of his lips as he gives the command that sends his ship back out into the black unknown. There will be no quiet moments in the command chair, when he believes he is unobserved and his fingers trace the arm rest with the care and devotion of a lover. There will be no more long and indolent afternoons, deep in Federation space, to glance back from the science console in response to some ancient instinct and meet a gentle, hazel gaze in eyes that crease into a smile as they meet his friend’s. There will be no more chess and arguments; no more constant gnawing anxiety as they walk together, side-by-side, on an unexplored world; no more gentle provocation or casual appropriation of skin and personal space.

 

There is one place in all the galaxy in which the worlds of James Kirk and Spock of Vulcan collide, and it has just been closed to them forever. And there is nothing either of them can do.

 

Kirk mouths some appropriate platitudes and an observer might never guess that he is breaking beneath his careful facade, but what can he do? Nogura knows his man very well. He knows that Kirk will not refuse this in front of his crew, his peers, the eyes of the Federation. He knows that Kirk does not want this, and he knows that he has him cornered. And so Spock stands with the rest of them, rising to his feet even as a sick emptiness eats away at his stomach. He stands and salutes his friend, and he understands that this is the end.

 

~*~

 

“Goddamn it, Bones, now is not the time,” snaps Kirk as he strides offstage, passing through the surge of well-wishers like a hot knife through butter. To a passing Lieutenant, as McCoy attaches himself to his friend’s wake: “Where is Admiral Ciana? I need to speak with her immediately.”

 

Corgan takes one look at his former CO’s face and his congratulations visibly wilt on his lips. “I believe I saw her making her way towards the west exit, sir,” he says.

 

“Thank you,” says Kirk, and sets off at a Vulcan pace, clearing the crowded corridor like a shark might carve a path through a shoal of mackerel. “There’s no need for either of you to accompany me,” he adds over his shoulder, which, predictably, causes McCoy to crook an eyebrow and increase his pace.

 

“Jim,” he says. “I got your psych evals; I’ll protest this at the highest level…”

 

Goddamn it, Bones!” Kirk barks. “Not now!

 

“They can’t just spring it on you like this,” says McCoy, who has never been particularly amenable to Kirk’s emotional fluctuations. “Damn it, Jim, Nogura’s wily as all hell, sure, but it flies in the face of…”

 

“Admiral Ciana!” snaps Kirk, loud enough to be considered, in some circles, a shout. McCoy, cut off mid-sentence, winces at the tone.

 

Ciana is a little way along the corridor, heading in the direction of ‘Fleet HQ, but she stops at the sound of her name, turning over her shoulder with a look that is seven parts questioning to three parts utterly unimpressed.

 

“Jim, take it easy…” says McCoy quietly, but Kirk ignores him, picking up speed to reach his CO, who has squared her shoulders and folded her hands behind her back in an unmistakably defensive gesture.

 

“Commodore Kirk,” she says, and Spock finds himself reeling with gratitude that she has thought through the ramifications of using his new title.

 

Kirk pulls to a halt in front of her, not close enough to invade her personal space - he’s not that far gone at least - but close enough to telegraph his hostility. “Did you know about this?” he demands. He’s so angry he sounds almost calm. But she’s far too smart to mistake the icy fury in his eyes.

 

“What do you want me to say, Kirk?” she says coldly. “I had an idea. You want me to tell you every time I have an idea? I guessed he might pull something like this. I make a lot of guesses. Not all of them are right.”

 

Kirk’s bitter laughter sours the air. “I’ll take your ‘guesses’ over a month’s research from other members of this organization,” he says, and Spock suspects, from the way she flinches, that this is a calculated barb, designed to wound. “You knew this was coming, Ma’am; you knew it and you threw me to the wolves…”

 

“Jim!” barks McCoy in rising alarm as the volume of Kirk’s voice approaches dangerous territory. “Take it easy. This is not the place…”

 

“Goddamn it, Bones!” shouts Kirk, pivoting on his heel. “You know what this means! You were just witness to professional blackmail at the highest level, and Admiral Ciana is complicit in…”

 

“Jim!” snaps the Doctor. “That’s enough!”

 

“Commodore,” says Spock quietly. “McCoy is correct.” A beat, while hazel eyes sweep sideways to fix him with a look that is almost entirely affronted betrayal. “Come away, sir.”

 

Kirk’s eyebrows gently arc as the fury leaves his face. He stares at Spock. “You know what this means,” he says in a low voice.

 

“Yes,” says Spock. He hesitates, hollowed out, empty, adrift. “Come away, sir,” he says again.

 

“Jim…” says McCoy softly, but he might as well be talking to the air.

 

Kirk does not hear him. Instead, he pivots on his heel and strides off along the corridor, spine straight, shoulders back, and the only sound is the clip of his feet against the tiled floor.

 

“Commander Spock,” says Ciana quietly. “Go after him.” A beat. “Now, Commander. That’s an order.”

Chapter Text

He doesn’t expect an answer, so when Kirk’s apartment door slides open on the disheveled figure of his friend, it’s a moment before Spock can compose his opening salutations. This allows Kirk to get in the first word.

 

“I don’t imagine you’d listen if I told you to go away,” he says.

 

Spock has had some twenty-five minutes since he emerged from the western exit of the conference center to see Starfleet’s newest Admiral disappearing into the back seat of an aircar, and he has used it to consider his approach. One of the first things he decided upon was that it would not be wise to mention Ciana’s instruction.

 

“Negative,” he says.

 

Eyebrows twitch against a face of stone, and Kirk steps back to clear the entrance. It’s as much of an invitation as Spock is likely to get, and he hesitates for only a moment before he steps across the threshold and into territory that he has, until now, successfully avoided.

 

Kirk stands just inside, watching quietly with pursed lips and squared shoulders as Spock draws to a halt and folds his hands behind his back for want of anything more productive to do. Restless energy hums around him like a thundercloud, and for a long, uncomfortable moment, he regards Spock with eyes that are almost hostile, as though he’s waiting for him to speak. Then, with a deep breath, he turns on one heel and sets off into the apartment at a brisk clip.

 

“I warn you,” he says over his shoulder as Spock decides that the best thing to do is follow, “call me ‘Admiral’ just once, and I may test my fist against that Vulcan jaw of yours.”

 

An eyebrow arches; though their conversation has, on occasion, been strained - and, from time to time, openly belligerent - physical threat has never previously featured. As they emerge into the living quarters, Spock sees an open bottle of bourbon on the counter and an empty glass beside it, and, for a moment, he wonders if Kirk has had time to become drunk. The thought is easily dismissed: it has been less than half an hour since his friend left Starfleet HQ, and Spock knows that there was no alcohol at the function. But he’d be happier if he could be certain that his decision is based on an assessment of elapsed time versus human metabolic capacity, and not the fact that the idea in itself is unsettling.

 

“I believe your hand would disproportionately bear the brunt of any such altercation,” he says instead, as Kirk comes to a halt next to his desk. With a sharp spike of something unnamable, Spock notes the image on the wall above him: Enterprize, drifting freely on an endless sea. He looks away.

 

“That’s at least partially the point,” says Kirk. His eyes are bright, defiant, but his face is drawn, and shadows darken the contours. For the first time, Spock has the opportunity to notice the grayish tint to his skin, the thick lines of fatigue, the quiet desperation that shrouds him. Under the weight of his companion’s scrutiny, Kirk pushes himself off his perch on the table’s edge and crosses to the counter, where he lifts the bottle and glass and glances back over his shoulder in open challenge.

 

“Disapproval, Spock?” he says as he presses the neck of the carafe to the lip of the beaker and bourbon floods the glass, spilling carelessly up the polished walls. Kirk meets his friend’s eyes and holds them as he lifts it to his lips and takes a generous gulp, wincing as it clears his throat. “I’ve lost her,” he says gruffly. “I think that’s a damned good excuse for whisky at noon.”

 

“Perhaps,” says Spock. “If it was, in fact, noon.”

 

A chuckle rumbles in the depths of Kirk’s chest, but it is difficult to determine if it has been motivated by humor. He says, “I ought to remember who I’m arguing with.”

 

It’s an argument? That in itself is disturbing. Spock has seen Kirk immolated on the fires of righteous indignation, lit from within by certainty and indignation, cast in ice and granite by stubborn self-assurance; that is how he argues. The man across from him is listless, apathetic, as though the color has been drained from him. Spock folds his hands behind his back to counter a sudden urge to cross the floor, to take the glass and the bottle from his friend and place them safely out of reach. It’s not the air of general instability, hanging around Kirk like a malignant cloud, that holds him back, but rather the proximity that the action necessitates, the risk of standing too close, of stepping into his circle of personal space with everything that entails. The thought of accidental contact - of the soft, unconscious brush of finger against finger - sends a network of cracks spiraling across Spock’s failing shields; he simply cannot take the chance.

 

But Kirk is too brittle just now to deal in ambiguities. He sees only distance and reserve, and he reads it as distaste.

 

With a bitter smile, he swallows another worrying quantity of alcohol and says, “You could at least pretend you don’t wish you were anywhere but here.”

 

In fact, the opposite is true: Spock wishes it were possible for him to be anywhere else. He wishes he could manufacture some kind of wall of indifference against the need that draws him in, time and again, so that he’s no longer certain whose summons he’s answering: Kirk’s or his own. But he says, simply, “I have expressed no such sentiment.”

 

“You don’t need to express it,” says Kirk, with withering scorn. “It’s in your face, my friend.” Another harsh laugh, discordant as the scrape of metal on metal. “‘Friend’,” he says in a low voice. “We’ll see about that now, I guess.”

 

Anger flares, bright and dangerous, before Spock can catch it and force it back inside. “Indeed?” he says, acidly. “Perhaps you are referring to your abrupt disappearance for over a week and your failure to inform your colleagues or respond to any requests for assurance as to your condition?”

 

A sharp glance up, and surprise blanks the acrimony from Kirk’s stare. “I don’t see what that has to do with…”

 

“Evidently,” snaps Spock, and he can hear the restless, relentless anxiety of the past days coloring his words in shades of fury as his controls struggle to reassert themselves. “However, I would suggest that, before you cast aspersions as to my intentions or motivations at this time, you consider in what light your own recent actions could be described as ‘friendly’.”

 

“I left in something of a hurry,” says Kirk, but the residual vitriol in his voice is clearly the result of effort, and it’s curling at the edges. “I had no idea when I would be back…”

 

“As I had no idea if you were living or dead,” says Spock, though he’s prepared to admit, even through the fog of indignation, that this is an exaggeration. However, Kirk does not know this, and that’s what’s important right now. “And yet, for reasons that I cannot presently explain, it is my disposition and my inclinations that are under attack. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to why my friendship towards you is rendered suspect by my desire to determine your wellbeing, while your cavalier - your cavalier treatment of me,” he reiterates, as Kirk begins to protest, “is completely elided?”

 

The words have tumbled out of him, almost without his conscious volition, and he finds, now they are spent, that a fine tremor agitates his shoulders, that his heart is racing and his breath is rapid, shallow in his chest. Kirk stares at him for a long moment, eyes fixed but expressionless, while a thousand thoughts dance visibly just behind them.

 

At last, he says, “You’re right.” A sigh, and a hand rises to pinch the bridge of his nose, face crumpling as though his head aches. “Spock. I’m sorry. You’re right.”

 

He lowers himself heavily into the high-backed chair in front of his desk, loose-limbed and boneless, breath escaping him in a long sigh. “I’ve been an ass,” he says. “To you, to… everyone. None of this is your fault, Spock. I’m sorry.”

 

“The question of fault is irrelevant,” says Spock, and if there’s a tightness to his voice, a lingering tension, it’s fading now. “It only remains to decide upon the next course of action.”

 

A breath of gentle, weary laughter. “I’m not sure there is any ‘next course of action’,” says his friend. “Nogura’s a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s a clever son-of-a-bitch. God damn it. I should have known.”

 

Spock’s eyebrow arches; his frustration may be dissipating on a wave of mutual regret, but it allows for only so much latitude. “It has never been your nature to refuse a challenge,” he says.

 

But Kirk shakes his head. “This is different,” he says. A swift, fluid movement carries him to his feet and he paces to the window, glass in hand, to stare out over the striking azure glow of the Bay in late morning. “You know it is.”

 

Yes. It is different, and Spock knows this. That’s the truth of the matter. He can’t define the cause beyond a deeply unsatisfactory, Because it is not the same, but Kirk is right. It’s only that he’s unaccustomed to finality in the face of insurmountable odds. Obstacles appear and recede, and sometimes they are difficult, sometimes they are formidable, sometimes it seems that they are impassable from every angle… Except that there’s always a way through, some weakness that can be exploited, a buried, hairsbreadth fracture that they find together, just because everything looks different when their ideas spark off each other like currents in a Tesla coil. It occurs to Spock that he has, illogically, been relying on Kirk to know what to do next, and he’s not sure, now, how to process the air of defeat that hangs heavily over the room without releasing all hope.

 

At the window, a sideways glance over his left shoulder throws Kirk’s profile into grayish silhouette against the sunlight, and he offers a sad smile into the space that separates them.

 

“I thought as much,” he says, and turns back to the ocean.

 

Silence descends: their oldest enemy. It rings in Spock’s ears as he scrambles for the words that make this all right. But he realizes, even as the seconds lengthen, that there is nothing to say; if he knew what those words might be, he’d have said them long before now. So he stands quietly in the still room, spine straight, hands folded at the small of his back, muscles aching with unactuated motion, and watches his friend contemplate the play of frosted sunlight on distant waves.

 

“Those things he said about me,” says Kirk softly, after a moment. “I never…. That’s not…” A sound of frustration, and he tries again. “I’m one man. I’m a better man for serving with you. But I’m not the man he described.”

 

“I cannot concur,” says Spock.

 

Gentle laughter. “I had a feeling you wouldn’t. But it’s true, nonetheless.” Slowly, reluctantly, Kirk turns back into the room, twisting the glass speculatively in front of his chest. It is empty. “Did Bones send you after me?” he asks.

 

“He did not,” says Spock.

 

A philosophical nod. “Ciana, then.” Spock says nothing, but the silence is an answer in itself, and the squared shoulders sag a little, as though the effort of holding them in place is suddenly more than Kirk can manage. “It’s not her fault. Not really,” he says. “It’s mine. I let this happen, though I’m damned if I know what else I could have done.”

 

“The admiralty’s decision is not binding,” says Spock. “Perhaps McCoy’s objections…”

 

But Kirk is shaking his head before his friend can finish the sentence. “Nogura announced it in front of a roomful of journalists,” says Kirk. “I’d call that pretty damned binding.”   

 

“Nevertheless, there is protocol…”

 

Kirk glances up, and his expression is bleak. “You know Admiral Nogura as well as I do. Do you think he would have done what he did if he couldn’t make it stick?”

 

A beat, and Spock is forced to answer, “No. I do not.”

 

Kirk nods. “No,” he agrees softly, almost a whisper. “It’s over, Spock.” A sad smile plays around the corners of his mouth. “You know what this means, of course? We’ll never serve together again.”

 

Yes, Spock knows this, but abstractly, as though it is reversible, always reversible. Indignation spikes, forcing words onto his lips that he cannot speak: I have followed you this far; I will follow you again. All it takes is a quiet nod in the right direction; a passing comment about his interest in resuming a teaching position, perhaps, and suddenly the future shifts, gravomanipulation trials on Delta-03 become a billet in San Francisco and an imaging suite across the Bay. The future is mutable, but will Kirk see it as such? Or will he see compromise and sacrifice - his own and his friend’s - and count the cost too high? That’s not even a question. Spock knows the answer before the thought is fully formed, and it’s like ice-cold lead in the pit of his stomach.

 

He says, “That is not certain…”

 

“Spock!” It’s a sound of impatience, of exasperation, and it’s not unexpected. It’s exactly as he thought it would be. “Please. Don’t patronize me. Where else in the galaxy do our worlds intersect if not on the bridge of a starship?”

 

This is, almost word for word, a replica of Spock’s own thoughts in the moments after Nogura’s casual declamation closed the doors on their former life forever. And, if he can answer, anywhere; anywhere at all, if we force it to be so, it’s only half a truth. It’s not answering the question that Kirk is asking, but rather the question Spock wants to answer.

 

Quietly, he says, “Nowhere.”

 

“Nowhere,” echoes Kirk. A beat, and then he says, softly, “I’ve lost you too.”

 

Too much has passed between them to misunderstand his meaning, and there is nowhere to hide from the words or from the unblinking scrutiny that follows them. They sink into the sudden hush, and Spock is aware of a sense of great distance rushing in to fill the space between them as he struggles to find an answer that is neither a confirmation nor a lie. He wants to deny the truth of that sentiment, but desire and desperation will not mend the rift that has been torn between them now. The fact is that, while they are together, however that may be contrived, there is hope. There is possibility. It is that sense of the unattainable, just out of reach, that sustains them both; it allows them to prevaricate and to postpone the moment where they have to confront this irresolute longing, where they have to define what it is that they are doing. It is neither safe nor judicious, but safe has never worked for either of them.

 

Safe cannot survive a separation.

 

He wants to speak, but the words escape him once more. Kirk closes his eyes, and Spock realizes that he has taken his own answer from the silence.

 

“Then can we stop pretending?” says his friend quietly. “For now, for once, can we stop lying about what this is and say the goddamn words?”

 

Spock cannot pinpoint the moment when he realized he was in love with Kirk; it feels, illogically, as though the knowledge has always been there. He cannot remember what it was to exist without this open wound in the center of his soul; it defines his sense of himself. And it’s like a riptide, dragging him down a little further with every breath and every movement.

 

In a low voice, edged with a disturbing tone of desperation, he says, “What would it profit either of us?”

 

Hazel eyes snap open, beneath brows arched in disbelief. “Does everything have to be a scientific equation with you?” snaps Kirk. The anger is almost a relief; it tears them away from a dangerous place into deep, treacherous waters where the sadness and desire can be turned into something that’s easier to handle. Spock opens his mouth to reply, but his friend is not finished.

 

“Let me make it simple for you,” says Kirk. “This is my life. My life is Starfleet. It takes, and I give, and that’s the way it will always be. You know that. You understand that. Strip everything away, and that’s what’s left: endless duty, service that will never be finished, service that will never be enough. And there were two things that made it all right: there was my ship” - a beat; a deep, resolute breath - “and there was you.”

 

The words enter the charged air with a certain sense of inevitability, like the first trickle of water through a fracturing dam wall. Spock draws in a breath as something shifts between them. It feels as though they’ve been walking a long road in darkness, stumbling down the path that leads them to this place, and, if he should have known - and he should; he could have guessed from the way his friend’s eyes scoured the room like a starving man, from the way Spock turned to track his movements, waiting to be seen - if he should have guarded more closely against this moment, if he ought to fight a little harder to turn them back while they still can… Kaiidth. It feels as though this was always coming, no matter what.

 

So he looks up now, directly into Kirk’s eyes, and he says, “Only one of those is lost, Jim.”

 

But Kirk only laughs a bitter laugh and rolls his eyes, pivoting a half-turn away from him.

 

“I lost you long before I lost my ship,” he says.

 

“You are mistaken.”

 

Another half turn, so that Kirk faces him again. “If I’m mistaken, then why aren’t you here of your own volition? Goddamn it, Spock, my CO had to order you to come. When did this become about duty?”

 

“You are mistaken,” says Spock again, and he can hear a dangerous note of intemperance clouding the edges of his words. “My reluctance to follow you was not rooted in disinterest. I believe you understand this very well.”

 

“You think I understand this?” snaps Kirk. He shakes his head with a loaded smile. “Spock, if I understood the first thing about this then I wouldn’t feel like I’ve been walking on broken glass and eggshells around you for almost a damn year. The only thing I understand is that I have to censor every word that comes out of my mouth when I’m around you, I have to police every look and every movement, in case, God forbid, I say something that makes one of us have to think about what happened on Vulcan.” A laugh that has nothing to do with humor trembles his shoulders, twists the air. “And you know what’s so ironic about that? It’s that hardly an hour goes by when I don’t think about it. And you can tell me that it’s not the same for you, but you’ll be lying and we both know that.”

 

Hardly an hour? If there has been a day when the memories have released him for as long as that, Spock cannot remember it. He can feel a network of fractures splinter the last fragments of his shields as naked resentment bubbles to the surface. It colors his voice as he answers, “And since I have given you my answer, I ask again: what would it profit either of us to acknowledge this?”

 

Spots of red flush his friend’s cheeks. “You can ask where the profit is, Spock; I’m asking you what it’s cost us to deny it? Do you want me to tell you that I understand? I don’t. I know what I want and I believe I know what you want - no, I’m sure I know what you want, Spock; you can tell me I’m wrong if you like. But I think I know you very well. I think I know you just about as well as any man living or dead. So I’m asking you to tell me that I’m wrong. Go ahead. Tell me.”

 

And so here it is. They’ve finally arrived at a place where there is no more room for prevarication and nowhere left to hide. And Spock finds he cannot regret this.

 

With a kind of detached relief, as though he is watching himself from a distance, he lengthens his spine and looks directly at his companion. And he says, “I will not.”

 

The words hang between them, red hot and treacherous. Spock can feel the rapid beat of his heart against his flank, blood pounding a hummingbird rhythm in his ears. Kirk stares at him for a moment, and the world seems to readjust itself, pieces sliding into place, a tectonic reordering of the confusion that has haunted them for many months - longer, perhaps; for as long as this dangerous potential has surrounded and blanketed them, for as long as they have known each other. Kirk starts to speak - a low, frustrated growl that sounds like, “Then why…?” but it dies in his throat as his feet suddenly animate him, forcing him across the space that divides them. Three rapid steps, no more, but it feels as though he’s crossing a galaxy; as though gravity draws them inexorably into each other’s orbit. There is no way to fight it, even if he could find the energy or the will. And so, as blunt, square fingers reach inelegantly for Spock’s cheek, as a hand rises to grip the back of his neck, to tangle in his hair and pull his head downwards, he does not hesitate. He lowers his face to Kirk’s and crushes their lips together; it’s not possible to do anything else.

 

A sound of surprise escapes his friend, buried in the hollow of his mouth as it opens to meet Spock’s. Tongues collide, tangling and coiling, drinking in the flavors that have hummed in his memories for a thousand restless nights. Iron and salt and rust; the buttery scent of Human skin and the sharp, spiced pine of Kirk’s aftershave… His body is warm beneath Spock’s hands, heat flooding through the fabric of his dress blues where Kirk’s fingers gouge his skin as he pulls him closer. Their bodies fit together like lengths of planed wood, flesh pressed close against flesh, and Spock can feel himself hardening, can feel Kirk’s arousal tight against him. For a few whited-out, hazy minutes, all he can process is the rush of sensation, the surrender, and it’s a relief, a release, as though he’s been floundering in deep water for many months and he’s finally broken the surface. For these few moments, his body is in charge, and by the time his brain catches up again, it’s far, far too late to stop.

 

Kirk’s hands are in his hair, raking the length of his spine, gripping the flesh of his buttocks to pull him closer, and his mouth is demanding: teeth clashing against teeth, scraping over Spock’s jaw as he trails ungentle lips roughly from mouth to neck to collarbone. Spock fists his hands in Kirk’s dress tunic, gripping the cloth as it resists him, slides against his skin: brushed satin was never meant to be clutched between heedless fingers. He feels rather than hears the low groan of pleasure in Kirk’s throat as their erections align, as the last vestiges of rational thought dissolve. He can feel an answering hardness grinding against his as Human hands snake down the length of his back to fasten on his hips, holding him in place as Kirk rocks against him. It’s both hesitant and utterly abandoned: as though his friend is uncertain of his welcome, but completely beyond restraint. It sends sparks of pleasure along the length of Spock’s swollen cock, and he thinks he makes a sound, though it could just as easily have come from Kirk; in any case, his companion grins around the noise as it echoes in the empty space of their joined mouths, and he thrusts forward, again and again.

 

A focused, determined pressure edges him backwards, and Spock can feel himself shifting in tiny increments, feet shuffling against the bristle of the carpet tiles. Their legs tangle, hobbling them as they move, and Spock knows where they are going, though his eyes are not open to track their progress across the room. The back of his calves connect with the cushions of Kirk’s narrow couch and they tumble together, a mess of heat and limbs and need. The fall separates them and Spock finds himself thrusting upwards, seeking contact once more, but Kirk arches his hips out of the way and presses down with his mouth instead, seeking out Spock’s with an open-eyed kiss that is almost gentle. A hand slides down between their two bodies, grazing his stomach, his hip, seeking out the iron-hard length of Spock’s cock where it’s leashed to his stomach by the tight fabric of his pants. Fingers contract, cupping the head through the cloth and Kirk pulls his head back a little, far enough that he can meet Spock’s eyes. His gaze is dark, uncertain; disordered but contained behind that familiar, granite-faced determination that has steered them through uncounted dangers.

 

The message is simple and very clear: this is the moment where Spock can end it. One word, and Kirk will disentangle them; will push himself to his feet, step back and straighten his tunic; will cross the room, arousal tenting the front of his pants, and stand by the window, breathing roughly, while Spock collects himself and slips quietly from the apartment. Spock knows he will do this, because he knows his friend. He can feel the vulnerability, the indecision, cloud the air between them, and he can feel the small tremble in the hand that rises to trace the line of his jaw, breath ghosting waves of warmth and moisture across the sensitized skin of Spock’s lips. He knows what he needs to do; there is no question of that. He needs to stop this. But the words line up in his throat and collide, and all he can think about is what it cost him, last time, to break away from this touch. Maybe Kirk is right. Maybe, in the final analysis, denial is what will tear this apart. Maybe it’s too late to turn back now.

 

Perhaps it’s involuntary, perhaps it’s just that his body knows what it wants and presses its advantage in the wake of his mind’s indecision, but Spock’s hip twitches reflexively, rolling his cock in Kirk’s grip, and the sudden wave of pleasure forces his head back against the pillows, forces his eyes shut, forces a noise that’s halfway between a sigh and a groan out from the depths of his throat. And this is all it takes to undo so many years of care, so much fear and doubt and anxiety. So many hidden looks, so much longing, so many nights in the quiet dark, hand fisted around himself, pumping a miserable release from a body that wants and can’t be made to stop wanting. So much love, so much despair, so much shame: it crumbles now like a wall of sand as they scramble to close the narrow space that separates them.

 

Spock presses upwards as Kirk bears down on him, hand crushed between their groins as he closes his mouth over Spock’s. His fingers flex against the solid flesh of Spock’s penis, but the hand retracts, gripping the sensitized skin as Kirk pulls it free, and it settles against the cushions beside Spock’s head. Kirk flattens his body against Spock’s, sliding into place, sucking in a breath as their erections grind together. He thrusts, hard, and a tiny, nasal sound of pleasure escapes him; again, and Spock arches his neck against the cushions. A third time, and there’s nothing left but instinct and a crippling, shattering need.

 

It’s clumsy, it’s uncoordinated, it’s inelegant; mounting urgency overwhelming rhythm and finesse as every stroke drags them closer to a precipice that approaches with alarming speed. Kirk’s breath is rapid, uncontrolled, small noises of arousal forcing their way out of his throat as he pulls back, nips at Spock’s lower lips with gentle teeth. His eyes are dark and hooded; they fix on Spock’s chin, his hairline, his chest, skittering away from his gaze, for which Spock is profoundly grateful. He cannot meet his friend’s stare and find him so disordered; he cannot see himself reflected in it, see the evidence of what he knows he must not do. And so he closes his eyes, bucks up into the solid line of his friend’s pubis, cocks colliding, sliding, writhing against each other, while a roar builds slowly in his ears, in his spine, in his belly. And when Kirk suddenly stiffens, lets out a fractured cry; when his left hand tightens around Spock’s arm, right hand fisting into a claw at his back, when he feels warm wetness soak through the fabric at the head of his cock, it’s as much as it takes to send Spock catapulting after him. The world whites out, and there is nothing but the crash of pleasure, shorting out his brain, sucking him out of himself and into a hazy darkness beyond.

 

This is where the fracturing begins.

 

~*~

 

 

The first thing he is aware of is the labored rasp of Kirk’s breath and a boneless pressure on his chest, as of a Human body prostrated by fatigue. Spock is not sure how long they have lain like this, though he thinks it’s no more than a few minutes; it is difficult to assimilate his thoughts into any kind of coherent order beyond the aftershocks of orgasm. They skitter around the edges of his consciousness, whispering to him, as his body floats on a wave of warmth, release and exhaustion. It would be easy to let go, to drift into sleep with his friend - his lover - pressed tight against him, arms fixed around Spock’s waist, and the scent of him - his skin, his hair, his arousal and his orgasm - filling the air, filling his head. Spock has imagined this more times than he is prepared to number; countless days and nights of wanting, of aching, of need. It would be easy to slip into uninterrogated peace and stillness now, to let the curling fibers of lethargy drag him down into unconsciousness and just sleep until he’s through with sleeping. There will be time, later, to sort through what this means, to process and to evaluate, to make sense of their new reality. It would be easy to release himself into the tidal pull of lassitude, succumb to oblivion for as long as it takes to recuperate too many nights with neither rest nor trance. It’s just that his unquiet mind will not let him go.

 

He feels… empty, in a way he can’t satisfactorily describe to himself. It’s not just the vacancy, the desolation, that follows climax; it’s more than that. It’s the sense that something fragile has finally broken. It’s the sense that part of him, part of who he is, was bound up in a fight that he’s just lost. In the blackness behind his eyes, he sees a white face, blue eyes clouded with buried pain, and a bright, brittle smile that cuts anger and confusion into a young boy’s soul. He hears a soft, clear voice, honeyed Human lies that injure where they are supposed to heal, and high whine of panic, like a faraway siren, sounds in the depths of his skull.

 

From nowhere, rushing at him like a nightmare out of the post-coital fog, it hits him: see what I have done.

 

Adrenalin spikes, a disorienting lurch that twists his guts and catches his breath in his throat. A quizzical noise rumbles in Kirk’s chest, soporific and lazy with sleep, but Spock hears it only abstractly, as though it comes from a great distance. It’s possible he responds, though he can’t say how or what form it takes; only that there is no further sound from his friend. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s lost behind the thunder of blood in his veins as Spock concentrates on settling the sudden burst of horror that spins him through layers of lethargy and into frozen vigilance.

 

See what I have done.

 

Pretense was all they had. It was the only thing that was holding them back, locking them into a place where they could manage this. What’s left when that final refuge is gone?

 

…a rapid, lightning-fire glance up from the science console, and the Captain’s eyes are on him, trailing contentment from some part of his soul that he has long since ceased to acknowledge. A stray touch, warm Human flesh like sunlight on the fabric of his uniform; gentle, generous laughter that accepts him more completely than the dictates of regulation and command impartiality. Skin the color of milk and roses, bleached by the mirror-light of T’Khut, and the certainty of love - unconditional, absolute, and profound - reflected in a face he’s wanted for longer than he can remember

 

But the image twists abruptly, fragments; the face contorts in pain; the body cowers away from him, and there is only sorrow, remorse, and loss…

 

Ah, but I withheld, says an indignant corner of his psyche. Even in the depths of abandon, I did not take more than was safe to take…

 

It’s not enough, though. It’s semantics. It’s sophistry. There is no safe. Safe is not what they do. This was the decision he took long ago, bathed in the ambiguous glory of his new-found self-knowledge: this thing, this dangerous thing, must be contained, it must be bricked up and buried where it cannot cause harm. Because Spock knows his friend: given a choice between secure contentment and reckless joy, he will not hesitate. He won’t even understand the question, but he doesn’t know what he’s asking for. One of them has to be reasonable.

 

A movement at his shoulder, and Kirk’s voice, close to his ear, whispers, fiercely, “Don’t go.”

 

Later, Spock will remember that voice and wonder if Kirk knew, even then. It’s the voice of a lover, not a commander. There is no confidence in it.

 

“Negative,” says Spock, but his voice is thin and dry. It sounds to him like the voice of a man struggling for air as a vise tightens around his chest, and he knows, suddenly, that he is lying.

 

…I’ve come to take you home, dear, she says, and she smiles but she stands awkwardly, as though her body is trying to bend in on itself, and her eyes are bright, too bright, burying something that she doesn’t want him to see…

 

No, he cannot pinpoint the hour he realized he was in love with his friend, but he can pinpoint the moment, the second, he realizes that this love will destroy them both. It’s like a chain, shackling them together, dragging them down into an ocean of darkness. It cannot be managed and it cannot be contained; it was hubris to imagine that he could make it safe for either one of them. Shame chills his stomach, spreading tendrils of self-disgust beneath a pool of cooling semen that testifies to the utter dereliction of his self-control. And it will always be this way, he understands abruptly, because without this part of him he no longer understands himself: the man that he has become is half of a shared soul. This cannot be. This cannot be. For both of their sakes, he needs to make this stop.

 

Spock makes himself open his eyes, makes himself drag his gaze from the desolate contemplation of a hairline crack that fractures the white plaster ceiling above, makes himself tilt his head, hair rasping against the fabric of the cushion as he seeks out two hazel eyes that are fixed, already, on him. Kirk’s eyebrows are arched in a gesture that Spock does not recognize, face locked and frozen into an expression that Spock cannot read. It’s an effort not to look away, but he will not allow himself that, not now.

 

I’ve come to take you home dear, she says.

 

And his shadow-self answers, Yes.

 

Kaiidth.

 

 

 

END OF PART II

 

 

 

~*~

Chapter Text

PART III: LIMBO

 

 

 

The day of their wedding is the day that Ilion VII finally falls, but they’re still an hour away from finding out when they speak the words that join them in a small, non-denominational meditation room overlooking Horseshoe Bay. They are married by an old friend of Lori’s father, and afterwards the wedding party retires to a function room on the second floor of Bozeman for orange juice and canapés before it’s time to go back to work.

 

It’s a dark, gray day in late November, and a vicious wind drives sheets of rain against the window as a string quartet makes a valiant effort to drown out the storm, and two dozen or so relatives and dignitaries mill about and try to find sufficient common ground to make polite conversation. Lori wears her dress golds, unornamented but for the unfamiliar circle of platinum on her left hand, but she moves like sunshine breaking through the clouds; Kirk is certain he could find her with his eyes closed, and, for a moment, he’s content to simply watch her glide elegantly among uniforms and Sunday best, smiling her golden smile. He stands a little way apart, as the quartet moves from Pachelbel to Bach, and tries to wrap his head around the fact that, as of twenty-five minutes ago, he has a wife.

 

He wonders how he’s supposed to feel about that. But that seems like a question for another day; today, he guesses, is for smiling and shaking hands.

 

His mother finds him in a quiet corner by the window, sipping absently from a beaker bearing the Xeno insignia and staring out over the slate gray and steel of the Bay. She slides into place beside him and raises her glass to his and, for a moment, they stand together, not speaking, watching the waves break restlessly against the cloud-frosted struts of the bridge.

 

“You know,” she says presently, “your father and I had a billet in the Residences when we were first married. Did you know that?”

 

He was an Ensign; she was a cadet. She has told him many times. “Yes,” he says.

 

“We got married in Riverside, though, of course.” A reflexive pause while she sips at her drink. “February, it was. The snow was eight inches deep; I thought your Aunt Ida was going to freeze to death. You know she never knew how to dress for the weather.”

 

“I remember,” he says.

 

“It was a nice service,” says his mother now, and it takes him a moment to realize that they’re back in the present again. “I liked the reading her sister gave. ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds…’ You know - it’s not going to win any awards for originality, but I liked it. You can’t go wrong with the classics.”

 

He smiles into his glass as he takes a sip. “We talked about having a reading in Swahili,” he says.

 

“Swahili?”

 

“An old…” He hesitates, looking for the word, and settles on, “…colleague. When she heard I was getting married - there’s a poem in her language, In Praise of Love. She couldn’t be here so she sent a tape. We talked about playing it during the ceremony.”

 

“But you decided against it?”

 

Kirk is not sure why he brought it up; his mother misses very little - much like his wife, in fact. He’s fairly certain that Lori only agreed to let the subject drop because Kirk presented her with a fait accompli, in the form of a sister and a Shakespearean sonnet.

 

“We were having an Argelian blessing,” he says. “The poem seemed like overkill.”

 

An eyebrow arches, but his mother only nods. “Well,” she says. “It was a nice ceremony.”

 

“I’m glad you could make it. I know you’re busy.”

 

She shrugs. “There are some things you don’t miss. Besides,” she adds, “I wanted to meet her. You know, I see it now, I guess. She’s nice, I like her.”

 

“You see… what now?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“What do you see now, mom?”

 

She smiles, but there’s a hint of something in her eyes that he can’t quite place. “Oh, come on, Jim,” she says. “All these years, and nothing - then you’re getting married in three weeks? I’m your mother. I know you better than that.”

 

He takes a sip from his glass to buy himself the moment he needs. Then he says, “Neither of us felt like waiting.”

 

“She’s nice, Jim,” she says, and he bristles at the note of appeasement in her voice; he’d thought he’d buried his irritation. He guesses he should know better than to try and fool his mom. “You two look good together. If she makes you happy, then great. That’s all I want for you, honey.”

 

He huffs a humorless laugh. “Well, mom, that certainly sounds like praise…”

 

His mother rolls her eyes. “I said she’s nice, Jim.”

 

“Mom, you think Des Moines is nice. You think ranch dressing is nice. I’d hoped for something a little less lukewarm about my wife.”

 

“What do you want, Jim?” she says, with an air of weary resignation. “I think she’s brilliant. I do, I think she’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I don’t keep company with fools. I think she’s kind, I think she’s beautiful, I think she understands what makes you work and I think she knows how to manage that, and, God knows, there’s not many who do. I think, of all the people you ever brought home, she’s the best fit I’ve seen. I just…” She sighs, shakes her head, peers into her glass. Then she looks up and meets his eyes. “I just - never thought it’d be a woman for you, Jim. That’s all.”

 

Kirk blinks. His mother hated Gary with a passion she didn’t bother to disguise; the two of them used to laugh about it later in bed, after Gary had worked out his frustrations in some spectacularly energetic sex. Kirk never got as far as introducing her to any of the others.

 

“I almost married Ruth,” he points out.

 

“Oh, Ruth,” says his mother dismissively. “You were barely out of your teens, Jim. You weren’t ever going to marry Ruth.” 

 

“We’d set a date,” he protests. “I flew to Albany to ask for her father’s permission.”

 

“That’s what I’m talking about,” says his mother. “Jim… You remember when you were seventeen and you wanted to sit the entrance exams for the Academy? And your father and I said, no, wait a year, you can go when you’re eighteen like everyone else?”

 

Kirk purses his lips. He’s pretty sure he knows where this is going. “And I got Commodore Mallory to sign off on my aptitude forms and sat the exam anyway,” he says. “What’s your point, mom?”

 

“My point,” she says, “is that, when it matters to you, when it’s something so important - you don’t ask permission, Jim. You just find a way to make it so that nobody has any choice but to say yes to you.” A beat, and her eyes soften. “No. You weren’t ever going to marry Ruth, honey.”

 

He remembers sitting across a breakfast table, a cooling pot of coffee like a wall between him and his fiancée, listening to her explain why she was leaving. He tries to remember how it felt, but the memory is blunted by age; he remembers thinking that he ought to be more upset, but he can’t for the life of him feel his way back there.

 

“For the record,” he says, “I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to marry Lori.”

 

She watches him for a moment, eyes narrowing: the close, evaluative scrutiny of a woman who has raised two sons with IQs in the top two percentile. Then she says, “Good. She’s a nice girl, Jim. I’m happy for you. I’m glad to see you settled - I worry about you.”

 

“I’m not Sam,” he says.

 

“No, and you never were.” She turns a warm smile on him. “I knew he was going to marry Aurelan the first time he brought her home. You were always just… looking for something else.” She sips from her glass. “Couple of times, I thought you were close to finding it, but maybe… I don’t know. I’m surprised, is all.” She smiles ruefully, turns her eyes towards him. “It’s just that it wasn’t ever a woman who broke your heart, honey.”

 

For a second, for a long second, he’s sitting on the floor by his window, staring out across the Marin headlands, spine slack, forehead pressed against the cool pane… and his throat tightens, his stomach contracts, as something unwanted tries to rise up and choke him. But he’s gotten good at this. Kirk drains his glass, twists his lips into a tight smile.

 

“No,” he says. “And I intend to keep it that way, mom.”

 

She watches him for a moment, and he can see a half dozen protests line up behind her eyes and burn themselves out. But, in the end, all she says is, “All right. Good.” And then, “We’ll be back in Iowa for a few weeks in the New Year - you should come by, show Lori the farm.”

 

“In January?”

 

“Sure. Don’t tell me she can’t handle a little snow?”

 

“Mom, she grew up in San Diego.”

 

“She’s Starfleet, sweetheart; she’s hardy. Isn’t that right, dear?” she adds with a warm smile for her approaching daughter-in-law, who accepts her outstretched hand and leans in to kiss her cheek.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” says Lori cheerfully. “I keep telling him, but he has this hero fantasy, I don’t know.”

 

“Tell him you outrank him.”

 

Lori grins. “Oh, he knows that. Ma’am - I’m sorry to interrupt, but…”

 

His mother waves a hand. “I’m drinking orange juice, dear. I know it’s a work day.” She leans in, presses a quick kiss to Kirk’s cheek. “Jim, I’m going to go talk to your father. Come find us later.”

 

“I will, mom,” he says.

 

“Admiral Kirk,” says his wife in an undertone as his mother disappears into the throng, “I believe you’re hiding.”

 

He hesitates. “Not from you.”

 

A gentle laugh. “Understood. But that’s not why I’m here.”

 

“No.”

 

She sighs. “No. Chen’s here. We need to disappear for a minute.”

 

 

~*~

 

The mission belongs to neither Xeno nor Operations, though Admiral Wallace is old enough and smart enough to know how to use both departments. He is, like Lori, a career planetsider, but he has been in the shadows of just about every important decision Starfleet has taken in the past half-century; he knows better than anyone how these things work. Better than Kirk, in fact, as he’s happy to admit: back-alley handshakes and coded whispers have never been his style. But what else is there?

 

Maybe nothing, in fact. He’s pretty sure that’s why they’re here.

 

Wallace’s offices are on the third floor of the Phoenix Building, at the end of a well-appointed corridor of blank, featureless doors where the air has the greasy consistency of constant electronic surveillance and a low level static charge spikes the fine hairs at the back of Kirk’s neck. It feels like an engine room in the seconds before a malfunctioning warp coil throws the ship offline, but, apparently, you get used to it in time. It’s done something for Admiral Wallace, anyway; the man is well into his eighties and has yet to give any indication, in Kirk’s presence, that he’s aware of this. He stands easily, with the grace of a much younger man, as they follow Chen into the private comms room off his main office, where the windows are darkened against the storm outside. A wide screen shimmers in the corner, scrolling a continuous line of text, abstract letters and numbers along the left panel, while the right displays a color-coded map of the quadrant, and, below it, a local map of a system that Kirk has cause to know very well.

 

“Admiral Kirk. Admiral Ciana,” says Wallace, reaching forward to grip their hands in turn. “I’m sorry to break up the party. Congratulations to you both, but you could have picked a better day.”

 

“There’s no such thing as a better day in Starfleet, sir,” says Lori, and he nods, though his smile is thin.

 

“That’s true,” he says. To Chen: “Commodore? I want that secure line to the Entente please. Buzz me when it’s open.”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Chen, and slips out the door. Kirk hears the soft hiss of the privacy lock sliding into place, the hum of a sound-dampener descending.

 

“The Entente?” says Lori. “We’re speaking to Admiral McGarry?”

 

Wallace lowers himself into his seat, gestures to them to take the chairs on the opposite side of his desk. “And Admiral Atuaia,” he says.

 

Kirk looses a puff of air. “Damn it,” he says quietly.

 

Wallace nods. “Yes.” He sighs. “You read this morning’s briefing?”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Lori. “Sporadic hostilities along the borders of Aleth, a planned incursion into the occupied sectors, nothing out of the ordinary. Admiral Kirk expressed some serious concerns about their advance strategy; Commodore Chen has the report.”

 

“For what it’s worth, I agree with you, Kirk,” says Wallace. “But that’s not our biggest problem. That intel was four days old.”

 

Four days?” says Kirk.

 

“Eighty-seven hours. That’s the trouble with fighting a war through intermediaries,” says the Admiral. “But even that’s not our biggest problem right now.”

 

“Something’s happened,” says Lori.

 

Wallace leans back in his chair, folds his arms across his chest. He says, “We don’t have anything concrete yet. The Entente has been hailing Hevarus IX since 1130 hours this morning. I think even they don’t know what’s going on yet. Best we can get is that they think there was some kind of subterranean explosion in eastern Vai in the small hours of this morning, local time.”

 

“That’s maybe 30,000 square miles,” says Lori. “Is there any way to be more specific, sir?”

 

“We’re working on it. Intel is maybe thirty minutes old right now.”

 

“Is there anything but tundra east of Ki’Shanah?” asks Kirk.

 

“Other than the headquarters of the central resistance cadre on the northern continent?”

 

“Yes, sir,” says Kirk. “Other than that.”

 

Wallace fixes him with a stare. “No,” he says.

 

“Well,” says Kirk quietly. “I guess we don’t need to wait for the exact coordinates.”

 

“Goddamn it,” snaps Lori. She stands quickly, one fluid movement, but there’s fury in her speed; he knows her well enough to recognize that need for motion. She crosses the length of the room, then circles back to stand behind her chair, hands gripping the back, knuckles white in the half light from the screen. “If they’ve hit the central cadre…”

 

“It’s over,” says Kirk.

 

“Goddamn it!” she says again. She looks up. “When can we expect an update, sir?”

 

“Admiral Atuaia is working through the usual channels,” says Wallace. “The trouble is…”

 

“The trouble is, if central HQ is gone, we don’t have any channels left on the planet,” she finishes. “What are the Hevarians saying?”

 

“They’re frustrated. They’re worried this opens them up to attacks on their homeworld.”

 

“We have half the fleet in Hevarus,” says Kirk. “It’s the safest system in the quadrant right now.”

 

“You tell me how much of a comfort that’s supposed to be to them right now, Admiral Kirk.” Wallace’s eyes are like stone. “They most likely just lost another two thousand men. In a fight that we asked them to take.”

 

A soft breath of humorless laughter from Lori. “With friends like the Federation, who needs enemies, huh?”

 

“Hevarus stood to gain from this too, Admiral Ciana,” says Wallace.

 

“Yes, sir,” says Kirk. “But it wasn’t their battle. We can arm them, we can advise them, but… they’ve never had the heart for this. The Federation can’t strong-arm a people into fighting a war for us.”

 

“Sure we can,” says Wallace. “We just can’t make them win it for us.”

 

He’s right. It was always a long shot. Best case scenario - best case, now - is that they haven’t led a Federal ally into a war with the Empire that they’d never have started by themselves, and which Starfleet has to pretend not to notice again. This cannot be the spirit of the Treaty… but he’s spent a lot of time thinking about that lately, and he can’t think of any good way to test that hypothesis. Nogura is right: you cast those dice, and you have no idea where they fall.

 

So you do what you can. He doesn’t like it, not one bit - it feels like the biggest kid in the playground twisting a little kid’s arm until he breaks into the principal’s office and steals the keys to the cafeteria - but if that’s all you’ve got, you do it. You take it and you go with it. You do what you can.

 

And then you run away as soon as the kid gets caught. Yeah, he needs to get an analogy that doesn’t make him wonder whose side he’s on.

 

In the heavy, loaded silence, Wallace’s terminal buzzes, and Chan’s voice says, “Sir, I have the Entente. Admiral McGarry is standing by.”

 

“Thank you, Commodore,” says Wallace. “And Admiral Atuaia?”

 

“Admiral McGarry has him on a separate line, sir. He’s going to conference him in.”

 

“All right, Commodore. Put him through.”

 

There’s a hiss of quantum static, and Wallace’s terminal screen flickers, but stays blank. “Starfleet Command, this is the USS Entente,” says McGarry’s voice, tinny with distance. “I have Admiral Atuaia on a secure line from Haven 12.”

 

“Admiral Atuaia,” says Wallace. “This is Admiral Vaughn Wallace, Starfleet Defense. Do you have an update on the situation on the ground?”

 

“Admiral Wallace, this is Atuaia,” says a second voice, twisted down the octaves by a burst of subspace distortion. “I have an update from Hevarus IX.”

 

“Thank you, Admiral,” says Wallace “What can you tell us?”

 

“The Hevarian Central Defense council has just received word from their contacts in the system,” says Atuaia. “Sir, it’s confirmed. Ilion VII has gone dark.”

 

~*~

 

It’s late evening by the time she shows up at his office. The storm has blown itself out, but the moisture hasn’t left the air; it’s just settled into a wispy, insubstantial mist and a frosting of water on his window that twists the elegant lines of Fleet Command into abstract whorls and shadows. As darkness sucks the last traces of the day from the sky, he stands by the cool glass, cradling an empty cup of coffee, and tries to find some way to be wrong about what they learned at lunchtime.

 

“Hey,” she says quietly, and he turns over her shoulder to see her stepping inside, door shutting gently behind her. She’s changed into fatigues, and he can’t blame her - he’s done the same himself - but it feels as though a little of the sheen has worn off the day. “Did you hear the news? It’s all over the commissary. The Chief of Operations got married today.”

 

Kirk feels a weary grin tug at the edges of his lips as he crosses the room to meet her halfway, feels the strength of her slim, narrow arms as they circle his waist, feels