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He was still thinking of it as Nancy, and wasn't that just the damnedest thing. The brain's capacity for self-delusion was boundless, he of all people should know that, and yet...

He'd seen it change, dammit, had seen the creature sucking the life out of Jim while he’d stood by, open-mouthed and frozen, clutching the phaser in his hand like a useless chunk of scrap metal. Hopeless romantic that he was, he’d thought he was reconnecting with Nancy - might even have had a second chance with her, impetuous as that now seemed. But there'd been no “her” left to connect with. Nancy Crater had been dead for years. It had been the alien all along. So why did he keep feeling like her death was on him?

McCoy blinked at the screen, struggling to focus on the autopsy report, but the words kept swimming across his vision. Laughter from the next room made him glance back up.

Jim. Chatting up Nurse Chapel, from the sound of it, his words triggering an answering chuckle in Christine. McCoy couldn’t hear what was said, but he could hear the easy camaraderie between them: a captain and a crewman, sharing a moment after a rough day. That thought brought with it a whole different kind of guilt. As chief surgeon, he should be mingling with his people, offering reassurance. Especially after they’d just lost two crewmen. But he hadn’t been able to face Christine, or any of them… after. Add that to all the ways in which he’d messed up.

A third voice - was that Spock? - dragged him out of his bout of self-pity. If Jim and Spock were both here, this wasn’t just a social call. McCoy ran a hand through his hair in a half-hearted gesture, wondering just how haggard he looked. By the time he’d gotten up and made it to the door, he’d almost managed to convince himself it couldn’t be too bad.

“Bones. You look like something the cat dragged in.” Jim’s tone was light, conversational, but McCoy knew him well enough to catch the undertone of concern. “You sure it’s me who needs that physical?”

McCoy flinched. Jim’s physical. Of course. In all his wallowing over those reports, it had completely slipped his mind. Jim had seemed all right after Nanc… the alien attacked, but McCoy had wanted him in for another checkup. He’d half expected Jim to be the one to forget. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But maybe that’s where Spock came in. If a Vulcan could be said to be ‘hovering’, Spock was: standing practically at attention at Jim’s shoulder, blocking his only exit route.

“Why, Mr. Spock,” McCoy said, struggling to sound professional. He almost pulled it off. “Is it you I have to thank for getting the Captain to sickbay so promptly? I’d say that’s a first.”

“Spock insisted on coming with me. I think he’s still expecting me to cut and run.” Jim shrugged, mouth quirking in a self-deprecating grin that did a lousy job hiding the weariness underneath.

Spock lifted an eyebrow, looking unimpressed. “As Dr. McCoy mentioned on several occasions, you are notorious for ‘forgetting’ your physicals, Captain. I felt it my duty to ensure that would not be the case now.”

“See, Bones? Besieged on two fronts. What have we come to, when a captain can’t depend on his crew not to start conspiring against him?” Jim was kidding, of course, trying to keep things light, though probably more for McCoy’s sake than his own. McCoy swallowed down his annoyance. What was he, some poor traumatized sod who had to be coddled to keep him from going off the rails? His irritation must have shone through in his face, because Jim’s expression sobered abruptly. “Let’s go, Bones. Spock.” Jim led the way into McCoy’s office. Spock followed without comment, leaving the doctor no choice but to trail along in their wake.

Once inside, McCoy crossed his arms. “All right. Let’s start with a blood sample. I want to make sure there’s no permanent damage we missed. Then we can -”

“Bones.” Jim didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t have to; involuntarily, McCoy found himself snapping to attention. “Enough about me for a moment. How are you holding up?”

McCoy blinked. “I’m...” Fine, he was about to say, but what came out was, “I’m not sure.” He flinched, then added faintly, “Sir.”

He watched Jim prop one hip against the desk, pausing to nudge at some of the paperwork. “I see.” He was paler than usual, McCoy thought. Of course, it could just be his brain grasping at straws to distract itself from his own misery, but he didn’t think so. The creature’s attack had affected Jim. It was a good thing it hadn’t lasted any longer, or the ship’s morgue might be holding three crewmen instead of two. McCoy clenched his teeth, remembering his finger trembling on the trigger before he’d found the strength to do what had to be done. Not too late, thank God. But not a moment too soon either.

The breath that escaped him sounded embarrassingly like something else. “I messed up, Jim.” He started to cross the room, realizing only when he was halfway there that he’d been going for the cabinet and the bottle of brandy locked inside it. No. He might still reach that point later tonight, but not yet. Trailing to a stop, he stared down at his own booted feet. “The worst thing is, I don’t see what I could have done differently. If I’d fired that phaser any sooner, I have spent the rest of my life wondering if it was the right choice. If we couldn’t have found some way to save her.” He corrected himself. “Save it. If I’d waited just a few seconds longer…”

“But you didn’t.” Kirk’s voice could have cut steel. “Instead you made a choice, a hard one, to pull that trigger. It wasn’t pretty, and I wish there’d been another way, but it had to be done and you did it.” He paused, the silence stretching on for long enough that McCoy couldn’t help but look up. Kirk looked tired but unwavering, his eyes alight with a strange intensity; McCoy was struck by the sudden, bone-deep conviction that here was a man he’d follow through hell, if need be. “Now tell me, Bones,” Jim finished gently. “In what universe does that count as ‘messing up’?”

It was the gentleness that did him in. A stern talking-to he could have taken - might even have welcomed, given that he knew he deserved it - but not this soft, overwhelming sympathy, which he hadn’t done a goddamned thing to earn. Something burned behind his eyelids and he blinked, fighting a sudden sick panic that he was going to have to sit down before he fell down, or started hyperventilating, or worse. He weaved his way past Jim towards his office chair and sat abruptly.

“I hadn’t seen her in ten years.” The words spilled out without any conscious decision on his part. “The irony is, if you’d told me a week ago she’d died on some alien planet, I might have gone through a night of paralyzing nostalgia, got drunk out of my skull and cried over how I should never have let her go, and then moved on, like I ought to. Now… I don’t know if I can. Even though it was never Nancy we saw, I feel like I lost her all over again. And I don’t know how I can ever forgive myself for her death. It might not have been Nancy I killed, but it damn well felt like it.”

When Jim spoke, it was still with that same maddening patience. “I’m not a doctor, Bones. But you are. Tell me, what would you say to a patient who told you everything you just told us?”

McCoy shrugged. “That it’s a perfectly normal psychological reaction. That the guilt is natural, if unproductive. That it’s healthy to go through a mourning process, even if what happened is such a damned mess that you can’t even be sure of who or what it is you’re mourning.” It was easy to say the words because they didn’t apply to him. They applied to patients. But he was a doctor, chief medical officer of the Enterprise ; he was supposed to be above all this, wasn’t he?

“Then why are you so much harder on yourself?” Jim sounded genuinely curious, as if he didn’t know the answer already.

“Because it’s not just about me,” McCoy snapped. “Don’t you see? In my fixation with her, I almost got you and Spock killed. Two crewmen did get killed. I couldn’t see who or what she was up until the point where she attacked you… and even then, I hesitated. I just… I'm sorry." He didn’t even know if he was apologizing for letting Jim get hurt, or for falling apart on him now. Plenty to be sorry for either way.

Kirk frowned, looking briefly surprised. Then he sighed. "Bones… You took a life, in order to save mine. Something like that isn’t easy. If you ask me, it's not supposed to be easy. I hope the day never comes that I’ll stop second-guessing myself after I’ve been forced to kill, whatever the reason, because then I'd have lost a piece of my soul. I’m not willing to pay that price. I don’t think you are either.”

"It’s different for you. You were…” Born for this life, he almost said, but stopped himself. “Trained for this. You both are.” He swung his arm wide, including Spock in the gesture. “But me… I’m a doctor, not a soldier. I’ve been a doctor all my adult life. The part where I’m also a Starfleet officer is a novelty in comparison. Maybe Starfleet isn’t the right place for me. Maybe... I just don’t have what it takes.”

To his surprise it was Spock who answered, not Jim. “My people are pacifists, Doctor,” he said calmly. “Vulcan has known a thousand years of peace. And yet I have taken lives on several occasions. In defense of a crewmate, or to prevent a worse outcome, or simply because my own life was threatened. Even as a Vulcan, such events affect me; I have had to come to terms with them. In most cases, I concluded my actions were justified in defense of a greater good. Other times... I have been less certain.”

McCoy realized he was staring only when Spock lowered his eyes. The bloody Vulcan still looked perfectly composed, standing in a kind of parade rest with his hands clasped behind his back. Nothing to betray that he’d just revealed something deeply personal. To… comfort him? It was too unlikely for words. But it had happened, and McCoy struggled to let it sink in. “How do you do it, then, Spock? How do you live with those times where you can’t be sure?”

“You just live, Bones.” That was Jim. “And you make sure you don’t forget. Then, in time, you may find that all the old doubts and fears and memories have become... maybe not bearable, but familiar.”

“Familiar,” McCoy echoed. There was a fragility in Jim’s face that made him pause. Jim, too, had things in his past that he might prefer to forget. He’d read the captain’s psych file; he knew about Kodos and the two hundred deaths on the Farragut, even if he didn’t know all the details. Spock’s file hadn’t been nearly as colorful as Jim’s, but that didn’t mean it had been smooth sailing for him.

Jim nodded again. “Sometimes you can’t vanquish your demons. Striking a truce with them may be the best you can hope for.”

“Demons, pitchforks, and pointed ears, huh?” McCoy said. He raised an eyebrow at Spock, realizing again how little he knew about the man. “I wonder, with everything that’s in store for us, all the tough calls and the mistakes we may end up making… Will conversations like these become familiar too?” If they did, it might just make this a little less hard.

Jim laughed. “God, I hope not.” But the warmth behind the words said something else.


*


“To harebrained rescues and happy endings.” Kirk raised a glass in salute to his chief surgeon and first officer, seated across from him with matching glasses in their hands. Saurian brandy, of course, of a very good year. “And to one tough Vulcan, who pulled through despite incredible odds.”

“Hear, hear,” McCoy said, and tossed back his drink.

Spock, perched on the one real chair in Kirk’s quarters - Bones and himself occupying either side of the bed - was contemplating his brandy with measured interest. Kirk still wasn’t convinced he intended to drink it. Spock could nurse a drink ad infinitum , but at least he’d accepted the glass when it was offered. It meant he was sharing in the spirit of celebration, if maybe not the means, and if that was good enough for Spock, it was good enough for him.

Kirk took a long gulp of his own, rolling the liquid around in his mouth before swallowing. It burned going down, in a way that should have been pleasant but wasn’t. Just like his toast, fittingly. Drinking to happy endings, hours after he’d all but condemned Spock to death, left a faintly acrid aftertaste. He’d resolved not to brood over the decision, especially since Spock was alive and well, but despite the relaxed atmosphere - or was it because of it? - he was finding that easier said than done.

“The Intrepid ,” Spock said abruptly. The apparent non sequitur, along with the near-absence of inflection, left Kirk struggling for a moment to process the words. “Begging your pardon, Captain. The outcome for us has indeed been positive, but the Intrepid’s crew was far less fortunate. If we are to engage in the custom of ‘toasting’, it would be fitting to honor their memory as well.”

Kirk nodded, the vague tightness in his gut congealing into something more solid. In itself, it was a perfectly logical request, except he’d seen Spock’s reaction to the Vulcan ship’s destruction. He still couldn’t quite grasp that Spock had felt those people die, at a time where the rest of them hadn’t even been aware of the other ship’s distress. But there was no doubt its effect on Spock had been debilitating. And yet, for a little while, Kirk had managed to forget. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the Intrepid ; only that its death had been invisible and quick, and in the warm afterglow of his own ship’s survival, his brain had conveniently filed away the Vulcans’ fate.

A human failing? He supposed so, but it was also what helped him get from one tough call to another without snapping. He felt a brief stab of jealousy at Spock for not needing that particular coping mechanism, but that was hardly fair. Being half-human held plenty of challenges of its own.

“You’re quite right, Mr. Spock.” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

The sharp tilt of Spock’s head conveyed surprise. “No apology necessary, Captain. I did not mean to place blame. I merely felt the desire to… correct an oversight.”

That was about as close as Spock ever came to admitting emotion, and Kirk knew enough about his friend’s need for privacy to stop himself from commenting on it. “Then let’s remedy it right now,” he agreed. He held up his half-empty glass again, his gesture mirrored by the others. “To the crew of the U.S.S. Intrepid: their spirit of exploration, and the dignity with which they met the challenges in their path… including the final one.” He met Spock’s eyes in tacit query, relaxing when his friend nodded approval. They drank in silence, this time with Spock joining them. Glass empty, Kirk fought the temptation to stand up and pace. “That said, call it a self-centered human reaction... but I’m very glad we didn’t end up losing you too, Spock.”

McCoy coughed. “Might have thought of that before putting him on that shuttle.”

There was no venom in the statement; knowing Bones, it had been reflex more than anything, so there was no reason for it to sting as badly as it did. No reason to start defending himself, either, but dammit, he wasn’t in the mood for just letting that pass.

“Bones, we’ve been over this,” Kirk snapped. “To save the Enterprise, we needed to destroy that organism, and that meant sending someone out there regardless of the risk. I know you wanted to be the one to go, but I can’t say I regret not picking you over Spock. Spock made it back in one piece; there’s no guarantee you would have done the same.” That came out sharper than he’d intended. To take the edge off, he shot Bones a quick grin. “Then again, maybe I should have gone myself and saved us all the trouble. ‘Don’t do unto others’, hm?” Of course he meant it as a joke, even if it also held a grain of truth… but it seemed Spock wasn’t about to let things pass either.

“Captain, I disagree. As commanding officer of this vessel, you are hardly dispensable.”

Kirk shrugged. “No one’s indispensable, Spock. Some would argue a captain’s more dispensable than most.” A beat. “And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seriously consider it. They say a captain should go down with the ship. So what do they say about a captain sending crewmen to their death while he himself stays safely behind?”

“The ship was no more safe…” Spock began, with a faintly disturbed expression, but McCoy harrumphed and pushed himself up from his sprawl on Kirk’s bed.

“Jim, boy.” He wagged a mock-chastising finger. “Are you blaming yourself for a command decision that turned out - as much as I hate to admit it - being the right call?”

Kirk smiled thinly. “Maybe I am. Or maybe I really need that shore leave. How about it, Bones, would that do as an excuse?” But it was a fair question, and they both knew it. He’d never have been given command of a starship if he didn’t have it in him to make the tough calls. Even when they involved people close to him. It was why Starfleet had rules against relationships on board; rules that Kirk agreed with, for the most part. But rules and regulations made it all sound so easy. Of course you ended up caring about people; maybe some captains could make themselves an island, but not him. The line he had to walk was not letting it affect his judgment. He wondered if, this time, it had.

Bones gave him a piercing look, the kind that meant he’d seen right through him. “No one claims you need an excuse, Jim. But I can see from miles away you’re brooding about something. As your doctor, I’d recommend to get it off your chest. As your friend, I’d say: listen to your doctor.”

Kirk suppressed a none-too-dignified snort. “Point taken, Bones.” He grinned, then sobered. “What about you, Spock? You think it’s wise for starship captains to suddenly start second-guessing themselves?”

Spock steepled his hands, as if weighing his answer. “For once, I agree with the doctor. You are not ‘a starship captain’. You are Jim Kirk, captain of the Enterprise , and your feelings and reasons are your own.”

Kirk sagged briefly, more touched somehow by that simple statement than he’d have been by any outright declaration of faith. “All right.” He rubbed his neck, pulling back his shoulder blades until they crackled. “Objectively, I made the right call. That doesn’t mean it was made for the right reasons. I said I considered flying a shuttle into the organism myself, and I meant that, but I wasn’t being heroic. If anything, it would have been selfish. I didn’t want to choose which one of you to send, because frankly... I don’t know what I’d do without either of you by my side.” Kirk trailed off into uneasy silence, far too aware of his pulse pounding in his ears.

“So…” McCoy said, eyes twinkling. “Did you pick Spock because you thought you’d miss him least ? Or the opposite, ‘cause you wanted to prove to yourself that that wasn’t a factor in your decision?”

Spock’s eyebrows shot up, but Kirk didn’t leave him a chance to reply. Laughter was bubbling up inside him, filling him with such giddy relief that he didn’t even try to fight it. He laughed, and went on laughing, and then, just when he was starting to wonder how long it would go on, it stopped.

Breathless, Kirk found that his sobriety had returned. Damn, but McCoy could read his mind, could he? Now how the hell was he supposed to answer that?

“If you figure it out, Bones, let me know, because I haven't,” he said, ignoring the doctor’s ear-to-ear grin. “But I’ll tell you one thing. There was a moment where we thought we’d lost Spock, but the ship was going to pull through. And throughout it I kept thinking: ‘This isn’t right. Either we all live, or we should all die.’ I know I wasn’t thinking straight, and I’d never have stopped fighting for our survival, but if Spock hadn’t made it back…” He swallowed thickly. “I don’t know if I could have lived with the decision.”

Was he imagining it, or was there actually an answering glimmer in Spock’s eyes? It was impossible to tell; the moment he became aware of it, it was already gone.

“Then perhaps it is I who was in error,” Spock said. “Perhaps next time, rather than calling on you to decide, I ought not to wait for your permission. It would have spared you the dilemma. Better to ask forgiveness, I believe the saying goes?”

Had that been a joke? It had to be. He couldn’t imagine Spock, of all people, being serious about insubordination, least of all when it came to a suicide mission… And why? To save their captain from making the kinds of decisions the crew would be counting on him to make? But, God help him, Spock actually looked like he meant it.

“Spock, no. Just… Don’t even think of going there.” Somehow that came out more like a plea than an order, which was several kinds of wrong; Kirk straightened and set his jaw. “I’ll say this only once. I know you two - yes, you as well, Bones - tend to liberally interpret your orders when it comes to saving lives. Mine and each other’s, in particular.” McCoy was already opening his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut again at the look on Kirk’s face. “And by some miracle, so far that’s turned out well. But in the end it’s still my call, my responsibility. So I’ll make it an order if I have to…” Kirk trailed off, struck by the sheer absurdity of having to give the order not to disobey orders, which, to anyone keen on disobeying them in the first place, would be… But no. Once he started to think like that, he’d truly be lost. He shook it off, giving Spock a long look. “No sparing me moral dilemmas by sacrificing yourself, Mr. Spock. If a sacrifice is necessary, then I’ll give the order, and it’ll be on my head. Is that clear?”

“Quite clear, Captain.” This time there was no mistaking Spock’s sincerity - except, perhaps, the slightest flicker of an expression that was half wry amusement, half something else. “As you said, everyone is dispensable. But I am glad we managed to avoid an outcome where that theory would have been put to the test.”

“Now that I’ll drink to,” McCoy said, and reached for the bottle again.


*

“Spock. Should we come back later?” Jim’s muttered query was discreet enough, but Spock still had to suppress a very human impulse to flinch. Romulans, like Vulcans, had excellent hearing, and he hoped one particular Romulan had not overheard the remark.  

Spock shook his head. “That won’t be necessary, Captain.” He’d known this was the Commander’s set lunch time - meals in the mess hall, rather than her quarters, being one of the courtesies Jim had allowed her. And indeed she was already here, consuming a sandwich with stone-faced concentration while two security guards stood a short distance away.

Until now, Spock had been avoiding her. Being on this ship and in their custody must be reminder enough of his deception, without his presence to add to it. But when Jim had suggested lunch this morning, it had not occurred to him to object.

“You sure, Spock?” McCoy whispered at his other shoulder. “I’d prefer not to be anywhere near this lady if she’s as pissed off as rumor has it she is with you.”

“I trust she will be able to restrain herself, Doctor.” Spock kept his tone carefully free of inflection. No doubt it would only encourage further needling if he allowed his annoyance to show through. “As for these rumors you mention, perhaps you should take them up with her.”

“Touché, Bones.” Jim’s snort of amusement was loud enough to turn heads; although that had not been Spock’s goal, it broke the tension well enough. Extricating himself from the conversation, he went to line up for salad and Plomeek soup. By the time they were sitting down with their food, the Commander had already gone.

Jim cleared his throat, picking distractedly at a plate of stew. “Speaking of our guest, I went to talk to her this morning. All rumors aside, she’s quite a woman. I feel almost bad for setting her up.”

Spock raised an eyebrow in surprise. That was the first time he’d heard Jim express a personal opinion about their mission to steal the cloaking device. “Indeed, Captain. May I ask why?”

If Jim had heard the eagerness in his voice, he didn’t show it. Instead, he started to tick off points on his fingers. “Let’s see. She has a level head on her shoulders, she’s honorable, she commands respect in her crew… I’d rather face her in battle than most of the other Romulans we’ve met. Not because she’d go easy on us - she wouldn’t - but because I think she’d fight fair. Which can’t be said of our own tactics in this. I could even see her as a future ally, except we probably burned that bridge to the ground.” He paused and stabbed at a piece of carrot. “That, and I like her. A gut feeling, if you will.”

“A gut feeling? Oh, I bet!” McCoy reacted before Spock could, waving his fork in punctuation. “Jim, boy, you better be careful. There’s no telling what that lady could do.”

Even knowing the doctor’s idiosyncratic sense of humor, it took Spock a few seconds to understand. Jim, of course, needed far less than that.

“Oh, I don’t think I’d stand a chance, Bones. It’s pretty clear where her interests lie.” Those last few words were steeped in meaning; with a mounting sense of inevitability, Spock watched Jim turn to look at him. “I admit I’m curious, Mr. Spock. The lady seems to hold you in high regard, yet she refused my offer to let her talk to you - emphatically, I must say. I know she blames us for stealing the cloaking device, and you for being the instrument of that... but I got the sense this is more personal. What exactly did you do to convince her you were serious about defecting?”

Ah. There it was, then, the real question; the one Spock stood little chance at answering because he was still wondering the same thing himself.

The easy answer, of course, would be ‘nothing’. From a certain perspective it might even be true: ironically, it was her fascination with him that had blinded her to his intentions. He would have failed if that hadn’t been the case. And she had been surprisingly easy to convince… yet it would be doing her an injustice not to admit that he also had been swept along. The original parameters of his mission were simple - obtain the location of the cloaking device, then stall for long enough that Jim could beam in to get it - but in the end he had gone far beyond them. He had only intended to steal military secrets, not to walk away with their owner’s heart.

Jim, who must have mistaken his silence for reluctance, ostensibly started to turn back to his meal. Spock stopped him with a shake of his head. “I do not have a definite answer, Captain. I believe that, at first, she only wanted the Enterprise , and I was a means to deliver it. Yet as time passed, we forged... a connection. She came to desire not just a strategic victory, but to win my allegiance as well. Her faith in me proved her undoing.”

“It don’t believe it.” McCoy’s voice dripped with triumph. “You damn son of a - a Vulcan. You’re actually beating yourself up about this, aren’t you? About stringing her along?” His eyes practically twinkled as they flicked back towards Jim. “Hell, forget what I said about the most outrageous development of the year being you two agreeing to this mission, knowing Starfleet’d cut you loose if you failed. This beats that hands down. I changed my mind; I wanna meet this woman. She must be spectacular, to bring that out in you.”

Spock bowed his head, digesting McCoy’s analysis - for analysis it was, regardless of the sharp edges to its packaging - and weighing it against his own perception. The doctor was not wrong. This mission had unsettled Spock from the start, even as he’d conceded its necessity. Deceit was not in his nature, yet his capacity for it had turned out to be the linchpin of their plan. In retrospect, the ease with which he’d managed it was more than slightly shocking.

The one comfort, if it could be called that, was that the rapport he had built with the Commander was real. Even the physical touch had not been unwelcome; had he faked it, she would have known. In the end, he’d only managed to mislead her because of his own conflicted feelings. And if he had, in fact, not actively pursued seduction, it was only because he’d been too preoccupied by being seduced.

But none of that excused him.

What he’d told her remained true, however. His duty was to the Enterprise and Starfleet, and he would do whatever was necessary to carry it out. Surely McCoy knew that too, despite his eagerness to focus on Spock’s failings.

“My feelings on the matter are irrelevant, Doctor. We were given an order and followed it.” Spock glanced down into his cooling bowl of soup. “That said, I do wish the outcome had been different. My goal was to buy the Captain time, and in so trying, I took the deception farther than I should have. Objectively I do not regret my actions… but that doesn’t mean I am comfortable reliving them.”

That McCoy had let him finish was a minor miracle, as was the fact he had yet to launch a retort. In fact, the doctor was looking almost contemplative. “There’s one thing I don’t get, Spock. The woman commands a goddamn fleet . She’s one of the most powerful players in the Romulan military. Romulan intelligence practices being what they are, she’s got to be dealing with espionage and trickery all the time. So how could she have made that kind of error in judgment?”

“I see several explanations.” That, at least, Spock felt equipped to answer; it was always easier to be objective when the fault discussed was not one’s own. “She wanted the Enterprise , badly, and her fascination with Vulcans made her think she understood how the Vulcan mind worked. Part of her error was overconfidence, but not all.” He steepled his fingers, briefly conflicted about what to reveal. “As you say, Doctor, she is accustomed to command. The impression she left on me was one of strength, integrity, rigorous discipline... and a profound loneliness. The Romulan chain of command is strict, Romulan laws and customs unbending. It would be unthinkable for her to become involved with one of her crew, so she longed to find a confidante elsewhere. I recognized that need, and simply… played along with it. After all, I...”

Spock cut himself off. Could the others tell what he’d been about to say next? The reason he had recognized the Commander’s loneliness was that he knew it, intimately. Even if he was not in command, and though he no longer felt shame about feelings of friendship, he still could not allow them to grow into something else. There was always a line he could not cross, carved by Starfleet rules and regulations. And what he couldn’t tell Jim, or the doctor: for the most fleeting of moments, while on the Romulan ship... he had wondered what it would be like to be free of those.

“You recognized it...” Jim muttered, “the same way I would, didn’t you? Because we live with it.”

Spock bowed his head. The odd tightness in his chest might have been relief or regret, but it felt like something far more complicated than either.

“Spock…” Jim made a sudden gesture as if to grip Spock’s arm. But he wouldn’t; not here, and certainly not now. That in itself confirmed Spock’s unmade point, and he suspected Jim knew exactly what had been left unspoken. “I’m sorry,” Jim said softly. Whether it meant I'm sorry you had to go through that , or I'm sorry I can’t cross that line either , or perhaps both, Spock couldn’t tell.

“It’s all right, Jim,” he said, very deliberately using the name, not the title. “Starfleet sets high standards for us, and the price we pay to meet them is equally high. But it was, and always will be, my honor to serve.” He didn’t specify whether he was talking about this mission, or the things he had given up for a Starfleet career. Or perhaps he was trying to have both conversations at once.

To his surprise, it was McCoy who touched his arm. “Spock… Are you regretting paying that price?” The doctor’s eyes held only sympathy, and Spock grappled with that for a brief moment before his resistance melted down.

He took a deep breath, forcing himself to consider his answer. “I do not. But even a price paid willingly may, in the end, turn out to be steep.” He squared his shoulders, feeling as if some weight had lifted from them. Perhaps it had. “In any case, the Commander paid the highest price. She lost the cloaking device, and the Romulan military is unforgiving of failure. We may well have taken her life from her. That much I do regret. As she herself said earlier, we are not the injured party here.”

Kirk smiled faintly. “No. But we’re committed, whether we want to or not.” Spock wondered if he’d deliberately left it open if he meant the Romulan situation, or their personal one. “Given what we went through to get to this point, we’d better make sure it was worth it.”

“Agreed,” Spock said. “Though I submit that may prove to be a lifelong exercise.”

“I’m sure it will, Spock.” Kirk’s smile deepened. “But let’s start with just the Romulans for now.”


*


“Sonofa…” McCoy swallowed a curse when the door hissed open, all of five seconds after he’d put up his feet.

It was called the Officers’ Lounge for a reason, but he could have guessed there’d be no real privacy here. That was why he’d come in the first place - well, that and the couches and halfway decent coffee, which in his quarters he wouldn’t be able to get. Everything else about the room he disliked, from the oversized windows to the sweeping view of the nacelles. He preferred his starships cozy, thank you very much. The Enterprise had been cozy, before the refit. All of this was just showing off, some gung-ho engineer who’d thrown in a statement that technology was all that kept them alive out here. As if he needed the reminder.

But of course Spock - because it was Spock who’d entered, he could tell by those long Vulcan strides - would be the last person to agree with him on that.

McCoy straightened and, with a grunt, took his feet off the coffee table. “If it isn’t our new science officer.” He gestured towards the seat next to him, not really surprised when Spock remained standing. “So… It’s been awhile, eh, Spock?”

The raised eyebrow looked utterly unironic. “Has it, Doctor? We interacted several times during the V’Ger mission…”

“Yes, yes, all right.” McCoy waved his hand, as much to mask his own discomfiture as to stop Spock from hammering home his point. The old Spock, he knew, would have meant it as a joke, a way to get under his skin. But this was a new Spock - one who’d been to Vulcan and Gol and tried to reach Kolinahr and whatnot - and McCoy didn’t for the life of him know how he meant it. “I wasn’t talking about the past few days. After our five-year-mission… we didn’t exactly stay in touch.”

Most people would start to debate that out of sheer politeness, but this was Spock they were talking about. Still, McCoy had expected him to react, or at least come up with some logical excuse. The lack of argument left him vaguely unsettled. “I suppose you are right.” Spock half-turned towards him, one eyebrow climbing up again in a way that was almost reassuring. “Then... I believe it is customary for me to remark on how little you’ve changed since we last met.”

McCoy felt his cheeks flush, not with flattery but with suspicion. “Well... have I?” he asked, frowning. “Changed?”

For a moment, Spock looked like he had to think that over - or maybe he was just pulling McCoy’s leg. “Yes,” he said, after a few seconds. “Though not, I would say, adversely so.”

Was he dreaming, or had Spock just paid him a compliment, half-assed as it was? “Oh?” he said innocently. “By all means, Spock, elaborate.”

Spock gave him an odd, sidelong glance, but turned back to the window before McCoy could interpret it. “Your motivations, for one thing, seem to have shifted. At our last meeting, your disinterest in remaining with Starfleet was clear, as you expressed to me and Jim quite candidly.” That had to be an understatement; McCoy vaguely recalled himself yelling at them both to stop them from trying to change his mind. “It appears you had...” Long pause. “... a change of heart.”

“Look who’s calling the kettle black,” McCoy reacted. “At least my heart isn’t where my liver should be.” But he was grinning now, and he thought he saw a muscle twitch underneath those Vulcan cheekbones too. Maybe the old Spock wasn’t that far gone after all. “But, um… I see your point. My exit from Starfleet wasn’t exactly graceful. Neither was my return, to be fair. Did Jim tell you he had Nogura pull me from retirement?”

“He did not.” Spock sounded surprised. “I had assumed you returned of your own free will.”

McCoy shook his head. “No... I think. I don’t know.” He threw up his hands. “Hell, maybe I was just waiting for an excuse.”

“Starfleet always considered you a valued officer; why would you need an excuse to return?” The look Spock was giving him didn’t have a shred of insincerity in it, which made it all the more disorienting. “The reason you gave us for retiring was that you did not feel comfortable with the chain of command. That you would be more useful working elsewhere. What has changed?”

McCoy sagged deeper into the pillows, wishing for a futile moment he could disappear in them altogether. “I’m sure I believed all that when I said it.” He rubbed his temple, trying fruitlessly to ease out the tension. “Now... I don’t know. I’ll never have the faith in Starfleet that Jim does - or you do. I never even went to the Academy. I just wanted to get the hell away from Earth and Jocelyn, and joining Starfleet was the fastest way to do it. Five years was enough time to spend running from an old life, or so I tried to tell myself. But I still kept on running, just... from something else.” He swallowed. “Seems I’m a coward anywhere in the universe.”

To someone who didn’t know him, Spock would have seemed intently focused on the view of the nacelles. But McCoy caught a whiff of some inner struggle, something in the conversation that had gotten to him. “I beg to disagree, Doctor. In what way would it be cowardly to choose to return home?”

McCoy craned his head, trying to focus on Spock without having to look at the starscape beyond; just knowing it was there was making his skin crawl. When he opened his mouth, it was with the sinking feeling he might regret it the second the words were out.

“Did you ever leave a place because you thought the best years were behind you? That you got lucky once, but it’s all bound to be downhill from there, so you’d better get out while you’re ahead?” He dragged a hand along the armrest, wishing fervently for a drink. To have this conversation with Spock, of all people... But now that he’d started, he found he didn’t want to stop. “I ended up divorced by thinking that. They say only a fool makes the same mistake twice, but - when Jim was promoted, I got scared. After the Enterprise , I didn’t think I could settle for less. So I left, and didn’t look back.”

Spock’s forehead wrinkled. “I, too, attempted not to ‘look back’. It seems we were both unsuccessful.”

“We’ve finally got something in common, then.” Somehow, that thought struck him as less funny than it should have been. Dammit, if they were really talking about this, he wasn’t going to make it through without a drink. Ignoring Spock’s questioning look, McCoy stood up and headed for the bar. “Except you came around on your own, whereas Jim practically had to drag me back up here. But... I did miss it. Not hurtling through space, or getting my atoms scrambled during transport, but... this.” He gestured vaguely at the bulkhead, thinking about all the other rooms and decks and corridors beyond, filled with people just as clueless and fragile as him. “I don’t know how I was ever stupid enough to leave.”

“It is hardly a flaw of character to strive for self-fulfillment, Doctor. Even when one ends up taking the long way around.” Spock had torn himself away from the window; the play of light on his face made him look strangely vulnerable. “Do you wish to know why I failed at Gol?”

“Failed?” McCoy paused in his inspection of a bottle of what might or might not be Earth bourbon. “You mean this... Kolinahr? I thought you chose not to go through with it.”

“No. It was the High Master who stopped me. Not, I think, because I would not have been able to purge all emotion, but because she sensed that, deep down... I did not truly want to.”

McCoy clucked his tongue. “Must’ve been a hard pill to swallow.”

Spock blinked once, slowly, but didn’t refuse the offered sympathy. “I, too, thought I had wasted time. But is it a waste to be looking for one’s place in life? I never found perfect harmony in Starfleet. I felt torn between it and my world, and rather than dealing with those emotions, I sought to purge them, like a Vulcan would. But I am no Vulcan.”

In a pig’s eye. McCoy watched Spock cross the space between them, still as outwardly unshakable as your average rock. But he knew what Spock meant, just as he knew that the facade, as real as it seemed, was just that. “You’re you , Spock. Vulcan or human, does it really make a difference?”

“Perhaps not,” Spock agreed. “And lately I have found myself thinking … if there is no such thing as perfect harmony, perhaps the imperfect kind will do as well.”

McCoy nodded, feeling some of the knots loosen in his own chest. He’d never believed in perfection; in fact, that was one of his problems right there, but maybe Spock was on the right track.

It hit him just when he finished pouring his drink. “You didn’t just re-apply to Starfleet. You came back to the Enterprise , right after they gave her back to Jim. And don’t give me the old ‘I just came here to meet the alien’ speech.” He felt his mouth pulling into a grin. “You missed Jim too, didn’t you?”

“My... sentiment is not limited to the Admiral,” Spock said, eyes firmly locked on the glass in McCoy’s hand. “But yes. Of course.”

“I don’t believe it! Are you admitt-”

The door behind them slid open, cutting McCoy off mid-word.

“Ah… gentlemen?” At least Jim had the good grace to realize he was interrupting, although the damage was already done. “I didn’t realize… Is this a bad time?”

McCoy exchanged a look with Spock that was halfway between frustration and amusement. “What’s the matter, Jim?” he said. “Ears burning?”

Jim looked so puzzled that McCoy almost took pity on him; almost, but not quite. “Bones, don’t tell me you two were talking about me.”

McCoy picked up a glass and sniffed it with relish. “C’mon, Jim. It’s me and Spock. We’ve got about as much in common as a dragonfly and a goldfish; what else could we possibly be talking about?”

If Spock had heard the lie, he didn’t call him on it. McCoy could take a fair guess why.


*


“I never thought I’d say it, but I’ll miss that lil’ Klingon ship.” McCoy’s drawl was thicker than ever, a sign of his gradually darkening mood. It was one of many small things Spock had once known about him, and had only recently begun to relearn.

“She may still be salvageable, Bones,” Jim said. At some point, Spock had started to think of him as ‘Jim’ again, though he could not recall exactly when. “Who knows, tomorrow we may all be kicked out of Starfleet, reduced to hauling garbage on some backwater trade route. I could think of worse ships for the job.”

Jim’s voice was gravelly with humor, but Spock could hardly miss its brittle edge. Surely their location contributed to that. Not strictly the same as detention, it seemed the ‘protective custody’ Jim was being kept in was not, in practice, very different. Perhaps the accommodations were a bit more luxurious, but their present surroundings still bore less resemblance to a mess hall than to a holding cell: it held a table and chairs, but little else. At least Spock and the doctor, as yet free to move around, had been allowed to keep Jim company.

“I talked to Sarek,” Jim went on. “Well, no. Actually he talked to me. Said he’d speak in our defense at the court-martial tomorrow. He didn’t mention his reasons, but I can take a fair guess, seeing as it was him who asked us to bring back Spock’s body.”

“My... father?” Spock said. Of course he’d talked to Sarek during his time on Vulcan, but the memory of those conversations was jumbled at best. Still, he did not think Sarek had mentioned this; nor his mother, provided that she knew. “I wasn’t aware he made that request.” It seemed... excessive, somehow. Of course Spock cared for his father - although he knew it had not always been so - and Sarek, in turn, had shown him both concern and respect. But to ask his shipmates for such a sacrifice… “What exactly did he ask?”

Jim and the doctor exchanged a look that Spock had come to translate as ‘Oh, boy’ , whatever that might mean in this context. Spock looked down at his hands, allowing himself a private moment of frustration. It wasn’t that he felt excluded, per se; neither Jim nor the doctor were treating him with special caution... but perhaps that accounted for part of his trouble. Though he felt more like himself with each passing day, there were still gaps in his memory, certain subtleties of meaning that remained out of his grasp.

Jim spread his hands in a gesture of innocence. “Your father came to me in San Francisco, after we docked. He wanted to learn about your death… in a very specific way. He asked to share my mind.”

“He melded with you?” Spock said, perplexed. It was a little-known fact, even on his homeworld, that he and Sarek had never shared a meld. He’d thought it a consequence of his father’s need for privacy - as Ambassador, of course, much of his knowledge was classified - as well as perhaps their temporary estrangement, but for Sarek to willingly meld with Jim Kirk…

“I was as surprised as you are, let me tell you.” Jim blinked, his eyes briefly losing focus. “Funny thing is, he didn’t even say outright what he was looking for. Not until he searched and couldn’t find it.”

Comprehension dawned. "My katra. He thought I had passed it on to you. As my...” Friend, and shipmate, Sarek would have thought. And wouldn’t have been wrong, though those words were barely adequate to express all the things Jim was to him. But there was an error in Sarek’s logic: Jim was not his only friend on the Enterprise . The doctor had been an obvious second choice, and there was Uhura, and Mr. Scott… “But you did not have it.” Spock could only begin to imagine how difficult such a meld must have been for Jim. “Admiral, forgive my father. When possessed by an idea, he has been known to be quite… single-minded.”

“Talk about the apple and the tree.” That was the doctor, grumbling under his breath.

Jim’s expression flickered, sliding from earnest to amused back into melancholy, all in a matter of seconds. “It’s all right, Spock. It wasn’t an experience I’d care to repeat, but it did send us looking in the right direction. I try not to imagine the outcome if we hadn’t watched those tapes and found out about McCoy.”

“The symptoms of a Vulcan mind-meld.” McCoy was shaking his head in - real or feigned? - disbelief. “Who’d have thought? I’m telling you, Spock, it’s a good thing you weren’t there to see it - not there there, anyway, ‘cause to me you were pretty much always around - or you’d have thought the old doctor had lost his marbles. Ask Jim, ‘cause it had even him spooked.”

“Not spooked, Bones. But it was unsettling. I’ll never forget the sight of you at that science station, reading out those scans like you’d been born to it.” Jim folded his hands across the tabletop, briefly resting his forehead against them. “That said…” He raised his head, his gaze coming to rest first on the doctor, then on Spock. “No matter the verdict tomorrow, I’m glad we got you back. Both of you. Whatever price they tell me to pay, I’ll pay it. I intend to take full responsibility; I want you both to know that.”

“Jim.” Something had been gnawing at Spock during this whole exchange, and Jim’s last statement finally drove it home. “You are not responsible for this. I am.” He knew the truth of it the moment he said it; a truth he had somehow failed to consider during those long, painstaking weeks of recovery. They had presented it to him as plain facts: he had died, his body had been lost and then retrieved, to be reunited with his katra. No one had spoken of culpability, and therefore Spock - the blank slate that he had been - had assumed none. But as he’d started to feel more like himself, certain details about his death had begun to re-crystallize. Jim’s words brought it all flooding back, and Spock had to reach down, into the quiet center of his being where objectivity prevailed and logic was his anchor, before he was able to steady himself.

“Spock, you were on Genesis when we took the Enterprise .” Jim, to his credit, sounded almost affronted. “How could you influence a decision you didn’t even get a vote in?”

“Through me, he could’ve,” McCoy said. “But he didn’t.” Then, at Spock’s puzzled look, “You were right here, Spock, remember?” He tapped the side of his head with two fingers. “And I remember lots of things, many of them disturbing, but that you somehow urged us to go back for you… well, that’s just poppycock! It was your father’s call, and Jim’s, and mine. With you , it was just ‘Mount Seleya, Mount Seleya’ until it practically drove me nuts, but that had nothing to do with our going to Genesis.”

Spock blinked, shaken less by the vulgarity of the doctor’s expletives than by the passion radiating from his words. “I disagree, Doctor. There would have been no need to return to Genesis, risking your lives and careers in the process, had I not transferred my katra to you. Furthermore-”

“There’d have been no need ‘cause you’d have been dead, dammit!” McCoy was practically fuming. “Twice over! You’d have died a second time when the Genesis planet blew up! Is that what you’d have preferred?”

“My ‘preferences’ should not have been relevant. In fact, they are what led you all into peril. The fact that you survived does not, retroactively, validate my decision.” Spock spread both hands above the table, realizing only as he did so that he was mimicking Jim’s earlier gesture. “I also apologize to you personally, Doctor. Through our meld, I endangered both your sanity and your life. Among Vulcans, permission for such a meld is assumed to be implicit. But you are not Vulcan.” To his own surprise, he felt his lips twitch slightly. “At least you were not. At this point, some might argue otherwise.”

If McCoy had been about to protest, the moment was lost in the sudden scraping of a chair. Jim, who’d gotten to his feet to lean across the table. “You were about to die, Spock,” he said, voice rough. “It’s only natural that you’d try to save some part of yourself. To preserve your essence for your people - and I’m counting ourselves among them, no matter that we’re not Vulcan and may never see your Hall of Ancient Thought...”

“I did not intend…” Spock began, then stopped before his own voice could waver. He could not have picked a worse time for this conversation - and yet, who was to say what would happen tomorrow, or if they would ever have another chance at it. “My meld with the doctor was not a rational act. I do not recall being frightened of death - although I remember apprehension about the pain that would precede it - so much as a fear of... being lost. Becoming... irrelevant. My acting on such fears was unquestionably selfish.”

“Spock.” That was Jim again, face as white now as his knuckles pressing against the tabletop. “I’ve known plenty of people who didn’t fear death, and I’ll tell you the thing they all had in common: they felt like they had nothing to lose.” His voice caught, then dropped to a whisper. “ Damn , Spock. You sacrificed yourself. And now you’re ashamed because your instincts told you to keep fighting? No one expected you to just… ‘go off quietly into the night’.”

“Perhaps not,” Spock conceded, recognizing the literary reference even though he could not recall its source. “Nevertheless, I regret my presumption. I should have asked permission –”

“There was no time, Spock,” McCoy cut him off. He no longer looked angry now, merely tired; as if he’d aged a decade over the past few hours. “And suppose you did ask permission, and I told you no because I didn’t understand. Then where would we be? Vulcan or not, I’m glad you assumed my permission was implicit, because you can bet it damn well was!”

Spock found himself gazing into the doctor’s strikingly blue eyes, finding no trace of irony there. Part of him - the part that had been lost and put together again on Vulcan - was amazed, astonished even, at the depth of affection those eyes seemed to hold. The rest of him felt like he’d finally come home.

“You did the right thing, Spock,” Jim said. “You followed your gut, even if you didn’t realize at the time. Didn’t you once tell me that sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission? Well, you’ve got ours. Not that you’ve ever needed it, in my opinion. As for coming for you on Genesis, that one’s on me… and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Spock nodded, accepting what he knew was both comfort and compromise. The meaning behind Jim’s words was slowly seeping in, filling a void in him that he hadn’t known was there, and had little to do with missing memories. “Then I will stand with you tomorrow, at the trial.”

For a moment Jim looked tempted to argue. Then he sighed and, with a bump, sagged back into his chair. The smile that crept across his face was wan but genuine. “That’ll mean a great deal to the crew, Mr. Spock. But, fair warning: history may remember you as part of this mutiny, just for facing the charges along with us. If you stand with us, you might get burned with us too.”

“Believe me, Admiral.” Spock fought an irrational impulse to smile back. “I would not have it any other way.”

*

“I wish you could make it,” Kirk said, for what felt like the fiftieth time, as he looked down at the split viewscreen that held the faces of his friends. “I mean, I’m grateful to have Pavel and Scotty there, but…”

“But you need a babysitter,” McCoy said brightly. Behind him, Kirk could make out a decidedly Spartan office, one window opening up into a sharp-angled courtyard. “In case the excitement gets too much and you have to be sedated. I’m sure you’ll be all right, Jim. Captain Harriman picked a fine chief medical officer, even though I can’t seem to remember her name just now...”

“Marcus,” Spock said, out of the blue. Then, when both Kirk and McCoy gave him blank stares: “Doctor Marcus, chief surgeon of the Enterprise-B . No family relation, I believe.” He gave Kirk a measured look. “I’ve been spending some time reviewing the Enterprise ’s personnel files. Captain Harriman seems to have assembled a capable crew. Unfortunately I cannot join you for the christening; I have business here on Vulcan that requires my presence.”

“Same for me, Jim,” McCoy cut in. “We’re in a critical stage of testing this new vaccine. There’s no way I can squeeze in a quick trip to Earth, but you can tell me all about it when I get back.”

“Yes, I know, Bones,” Kirk said. He felt foolish now. Of course Spock and McCoy couldn’t abandon their projects for the sake of their old captain and his preflight jitters. "It was just… wishful thinking. Seems I’m the only one of us who can be spared, hm?”

“Is that what this is about?” The screen only showed McCoy’s face, but Kirk imagined him crossing his arms in front of the terminal, bouncing on his feet. “You’re peeved that they asked you for the christening because it implies you’ve got nothing better to do?”

“Of course not,” Kirk blurted, but the defensiveness in his tone made that sound less than convincing. Dammit, why did Bones have to know him so well? “It’s just... well, I have got nothing better to do. That’s what makes all this so damn confrontational. This retirement… I’m not sure it’s working for me.”

“Then the launch of the new Enterprise should be a unique opportunity for you to reconnect with Starfleet.” Spock made that sound perfectly reasonable - the reason being that, of course, it was. So why did Kirk’s gut say something different?

“They just want me there for publicity, Spock. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate being invited, but I can’t help but think the whole media circus is going to be awkward.” Kirk struggled against the impulse to wring his hands. “I met Harriman once; he didn’t stop saying how he read all our mission reports, used to know every single one of them by heart. I’m betting he’ll repeat all of that, except now there will be cameras so I’m going to have to nod and smile and…”

“... and pretend you don’t want to strangle the man out of sheer envy.” McCoy’s grin was broad enough to knock planets out of their orbits. “Surely you’ve got enough self-control, Jim. It would be bad for the press.”

Kirk found himself chuckling despite his best effort not to. “I’m sure things won’t escalate, Bones.” But McCoy was right. He did feel envy, as much as he knew it wasn’t justified. It was different for the others: there was no age limit to practicing medicine, and Spock was still in the prime of his Vulcan life. But Kirk was neither a doctor nor a Vulcan. He was a starship captain, and starships were in short enough supply that sooner or later, the time came to pass on the torch. He’d thought he could do so gracefully, but it seemed he was having more trouble than expected. “I’m not being very charitable towards the new generation, am I?” he muttered. “All joking aside, jealousy’s an ugly thing.”

McCoy shrugged. “It’s also a human thing. No real harm in a little envy, as long as you don’t let it get out of hand.”

Kirk sighed. “I don’t know, Bones. Ever since they invited me, I’ve been feeling like a kid with my hand caught in the cookie jar. I’ve fantasized about being back in that chair. At times, I almost find myself hoping something will go wrong during the shakedown, just so I can step in and fix it. What does that say about me?” Kirk winced, suddenly disgusted with himself. What made it worse was that it had already happened once, at the start of the V’Ger mission. Fate had put him back in the captain’s chair then, but what satisfaction he’d derived from that - inappropriate as it might have been - had gained a bitter aftertaste considering Will Decker’s sacrifice. He had no excuse for slipping into that kind of fantasy, no matter how harmless it was.

“You are a man of the moment, Jim,” Spock disrupted his train of thought. “You may find occasional comfort in fantasy, but I cannot imagine you clinging to it. I have no doubt, once you step onto the bridge, you will embrace that reality along with your place in it.”

“As long as you don’t think of committing sabotage yourself, to get your moment of glory. You and your damn hero complex.” McCoy huffed, mock-scolding, but the undertone was affectionate. “I’ll tell you what - when the whole media circus is over, you fly over here and I’ll put you to work. Altair’s a lovely system. On the third planet, there’s a lake that freezes over each night, and all the fish in it are luminescent so it looks like goddamn Christmas. I could think of worse places to share a bourbon and a story. After a good day’s work, of course.”

“I may just take you up on that, Bones.” Kirk smiled, relieved to feel his mood lightening. “How about you, Spock? You feel like catching up with an old friend?”

Spock raised an eyebrow in that inimitable fashion, as clear a sign of affection as McCoy’s teasing. “Have we not been ‘catching up’ just now? However, if you are referring to a physical meeting, I trust something can be arranged. I, for one, have never been to Altair III.”

“That’s settled, then.” Kirk suppressed a yawn; he’d lost far too much sleep last night brooding on thoughts his friends had managed to dispel in a matter of minutes. No wonder he missed them so badly. “Then I’ll just have to get through this ceremonial cruise, preferably with my own dignity and Harriman’s intact.”

“The love you bear the Enterprise is hardly a secret, nor is your affinity for command.” Spock sounded pensive, but his gaze was mellow. “And it is said that no love is truly selfless… nor, possibly, should it be. I believe your dignity shall be fine, Jim.”

Kirk stifled a smirk. “So now I’m being lectured by a Vulcan on the nature of love?”

“Or, if you will, by a friend.” Spock inclined his head, the warmth in his eyes so near the surface he might as well have been smiling. “Allow me to wish you an uneventful journey, Captain. We will meet again soon, I trust.”

“I’m sure it’ll all go smoothly, Jim.” McCoy gave him a brilliant grin that was almost convincing. “Just be yourself, and you’ll do fine.”

“I’ll try to make the best of it, Bones.” Kirk reached for the screen to cut the connection, pausing for one more long look at his friends. “Who knows…” He smiled, willing himself to believe it. “It might even be fun.”

*