Spock woke in a room he did not know, the pale light of a yellow sun at the windows and long afternoon shadows falling across the bed. He half-expected the soft vibration of ship's engines. When he realized why the silence felt wrong, why the slanting light disoriented him, he knew that he had been dreaming again.
Earth. The Vulcan embassy in San Francisco. Sarek had brought him here, and he had been surprised by how weary he felt, how swiftly sleep had come for him. He had barely retained the presence of mind to pull up the coverlet; he still wore the regulation pants and tunic they'd given him at Fleet Headquarters. His once-white robe had been torn and stiff with seawater, and they had let him change before the debriefings began.
The day had proved a long one indeed for the crew of the Bounty. When at last they'd been granted a few hours leave, even Spock had been more than ready to accept. Sarek seemed to materialize at his side, and within moments had arranged transport for them to the Vulcan embassy; Spock did not believe he had ever been so grateful for his father's presence.
His time-sense told him that he must soon rise and dress for the reception, though he could easily have slept another six hours. In the chaos at Headquarters, he had been separated from his shipmates. He did not know what had become of Admiral Kirk, or whether he had been given leave with the rest of them. If so, Spock hoped he, too, had been able to sleep for a few hours. The admiral would not have let himself rest during that last long night on the Bounty, not with one of his crewmen missing, and they had been told in no uncertain terms that their attendance at the evening's festivities was not optional.
Aware of the minutes passing as the shadows lengthened across the floor, Spock rose at last. He shed the clothes he'd slept in and stepped into the fresher, letting its sonics rapidly clean and invigorate his hair and skin. There was some gratification to be found in its swift efficiency, and he realized to his surprise that it was a simple luxury he had missed. The bird of prey had offered precious few luxuries of any kind.
Bare-skinned, he returned to the outer room and was unsurprised to find an impeccably pressed dress uniform awaiting him in the wardrobe. His father's doing, and that of an equally efficient embassy staff, presumably.
His fingertips brushed the sleeve of the uniform he had not worn in this lifetime, closing his eyes to let the memories stir within him. He remembered standing on a marble portico while a misty rain fell and young people talked in animated voices. There had been music...Terran music. A string quartet. When? He pressed himself to recall, and at last the memory came: Saavik's graduation. He remembered, too, the scent of brandy, a scent he associated with Kirk. A formal dinner on the Enterprise. A diplomat...but he could not remember when, or who. He remembered trying to straighten his uniform, to make himself presentable, wanting his captain to remember that he had died with dignity.
Spock opened his eyes. It seemed an illogical thought, and the man who would have cared so deeply about such an unimportant detail a stranger. But in the days since they had left Vulcan, he had stopped trying to find logical explanations for his responses where Admiral Kirk was concerned. Somehow, he suspected this was not the first time he had arrived at such a decision, and that James Kirk had ever defied logical analysis.
Spock waved the lamp on and began to dress, his thoughts returning to the troubling disorientation he had felt upon waking. Vulcans did not dream, not in the way that humans dreamed, but Spock knew that he had, indeed, experienced the dreaming state in the past, if infrequently. Dreams were manifestations of the human subconscious, driven largely by emotion. Like many other aspects of his human heritage, his ability to dream had been something that had at first shamed him, but that he had grown to accept, and even learned to find useful.
All this he knew, though he could not have described what his dreams had been like before, in that other lifetime. Like so many things, the memories remained but the details were unclear, seen as if through a curtain of silk, if he could see them at all. This aspect of his humanity was something new to him, and he was not certain what it signified, that he should have begun experiencing the sudden emergence of this human trait.
This afternoon's incidence had been milder than the first, leaving him with only a vague impression of images and feelings, though probing at the memory convinced him he was fortunate to remember nothing more. The previous occurrence, during their last night on earth of the past, might well have been what humans would have called a "nightmare," and he had no wish to repeat the experience.
If he had ever been prone to nightmares in the past, he could not recall it.
He finished dressing and checked his reflection in the glass to make certain his collar and insignia were in order. Satisfied that they were, he closed the cabinet; turning, his eye was caught by a package that rested on the small table by the door.
He recognized his mother's handwriting on the wrapping. Sarek must have left it. Spock broke the adhesive seal, and the intricately folded paper fell away, revealing Amanda's teak puzzle box.
Spock knew this box well. Amanda had brought it from Earth and kept it on her desk when he was a child; he had found it in the same place a few days after his shipmates had brought him to Vulcan. She must have seen him with it. Her elegant script suggested he should keep it, with her love and good wishes.
While "good wishes" were not something in which he placed much faith, the thoughtfulness of her gesture did not fail to touch him. He turned the smooth weight over in his hand; a new memory surfaced, of finding himself fascinated by the box's intricate construction as a child, the warm smoothness of the wood pieces, the way it only allowed him to remove one piece at a time. As he removed each piece, more interlocking pieces were revealed inside, until he removed enough pieces and the remaining ones fell apart easily in his hand. It was a true memory, and for that alone he was grateful for the gift.
His memories had been like that, returning slowly, each one that came free revealing more pieces of the puzzle that made up his previous life, the first ones difficult to unlock, the later ones sliding free more easily. During the long weeks of his recovery, the box had seemed to draw him, its mathematical and aesthetic beauty reassuring in some way.
Perhaps the dreams were simply another piece of that puzzle. Perhaps they would trouble him less, in time. Perhaps they would not be filled with pain, and fear, and the taste of his own failure.
Images flashed then through his thoughts, and with them an assault of remembered feelings, sensations. There was no denying the figure at their center, the voice he struggled to hear in his dreams. Kirk was at the heart of this, too, as in so many things -- as he was the reason for the uncertainty Spock felt so much of the time.
He had been aware for some time that there was something Kirk wanted from him, something in his eyes that waited, expectant, when he looked at Spock, questions unspoken that Spock did not understand, that demanded a response Spock did not know how to give. Kirk was good at hiding those questions most of the time, but Spock had become increasingly aware of them. Perhaps more disconcerting was his own nearly overwhelming need to respond to that unspoken demand. Kirk had allowed his frustration to get the better of him only once, on the Bounty, but Spock found it impossible to forget that momentary flash of anger, masking deeper hurt that had cut Spock to the quick. You're half human. Haven't you got any goddamn feelings about that? His own hurt had been swift and unexpected, a sense of betrayal he couldn't have explained.
Half human. Half-breed.
Is that your best recommendation?
Spock found he was holding his breath. Memory danced at the edge of awareness.
Someone knocked at the door then, and the memory slipped away, eluding his grasp. "Come," Spock called, setting aside the puzzle box and smoothing his jacket. Sarek appeared in the doorway, elegant and imposing in an embroidered suit of black linen.
"Are you ready, Spock?"
"I am," he said, and followed his father out into the corridor.
Starfleet held the reception at the Academy Club, though the crowd soon spilled out into the courtyard, the auxiliary banquet rooms, and across what seemed like half the campus. Kirk caught sight of Spock and his father not long after he arrived, but it took him nearly an hour to work his way through the crowd to pay his respects. Everyone and his brother wanted to shake his hand, and he couldn't exactly protest; it was what he was there for, after all. That much had been made very clear to him. Besides, he didn't have it in him to begrudge any of them their night of celebration.
They were calling him a hero, of course. How many times had he heard that word over the years? Enough to know that it wouldn't win him any points with the Federation tribunal they'd be facing in two days. The sentiment was sincere enough, but sounded hollow after all they'd been through. Spock had been a hero, in that engine room. David had, when he'd bought the lives of Saavik and Spock with his own. Jim Kirk was no hero, he was just riding the tail end of a lucky streak that had somehow, miraculously, brought them home and in one piece.
Not all of them, though. The one he'd failed was foremost in his thoughts now, on this night of homecoming and celebration. Though he knew too well that the human heart had ways of letting a man forget, he'd been ashamed to realize that he'd barely thought of his own son in days.
Even Sarek seemed to be sharing in the spirit, sipping cognac and observing the proceedings from a comfortable chair with the closest thing to benevolent tolerance Kirk could have imagined on that hawkish visage. His eyes had been kind whenever they came to rest on Kirk, but for some reason, Kirk found that acknowledgment more difficult to bear than the praise and thanks of a dozen Starfleet admirals. By the time Kirk made it over to him, Spock had vanished into the crush, and he was glad that the noise level prohibited him from making more than a cordial greeting. Gillian appeared before long, and he was more than happy to let her take his arm and give him the full update. She, along with most of the population of Earth, was still jazzed on adrenaline; apparently she had not wasted any time since setting foot in the twenty-third century, and she had a lot to tell him.
It was nearly midnight by the time he was able to slip away from the party, leaving Gillian under McCoy's dubious guardianship. Like the probe, the Starfleet reception seemed to be running on some limitless source of power and showed no signs of winding down. He was glad for his crew. They deserved a party, if anyone did, and he was glad to see them making the most of it.
Watching Spock with his father had awakened too many responses in Kirk to sort out, the knot in his chest both glad and bittersweet. Maybe Carol was right; maybe it had been presumptuous of him to think he could have had a place in David's life. Maybe she was right to refuse his calls. Maybe he was a fool to think that they could find some kind of solace in each other, or make any kind of sense of it.
He hadn't gotten this far by taking no for an answer, though, and he wasn't about to start. He couldn't do anything about the political forces that would demand a reckoning for the fear Genesis had left in its wake, couldn't protect his friends from the consequences of the choices they'd made, couldn't keep David from dying, or bring the Enterprise back. He couldn't turn back time and force Spock to be the man he'd known, the friend who'd understood him like no one else ever had. This bitter thing between him and Carol, though -- this, he might be able to do something about.
He found a public comm station two levels up. The cool, darkened room housed four terminals, each tucked into a three-sided alcove to provide at least a measure of privacy, all currently empty. He took a seat at the one closest to the door, rubbing his hands once on his thighs as the terminal scanned his retinal pattern and logged it. "Good evening, Admiral," the computer said pleasantly. "What is the termination point of your call?"
"Delta Four," he said, and found he had to clear his throat. "Terminal code theta epsilon, three-oh-seven-seven-two." The computer thanked him, and there was the slightest hesitation as the signal was relayed.
A few moments later, the Starfleet insignia disappeared from the screen, replaced by the inquisitive face of Verai Dva-Payjh. Even insulated by light years and prepared as he was, Kirk couldn't help the flush of response he felt, her mahogany skin and amber-colored eyes as breathtaking as he remembered, his body involuntarily remembering what it was like to serve with a Deltan. Something that might have been compassion touched her expressive face when she saw him. "Welcome home, Admiral," she said in her deep, musical voice.
"Thank you, Madame Verai. Please forgive the intrusion."
"It is no intrusion. Many would forfeit a prince's ransom for the chance to speak with you today."
"And a few would be glad to feed me to the Klingons, I imagine."
She didn't return his wry smile. Her eyes were kind as she said, "She is not ready, Admiral. You must give it more time."
Something heavy came to rest in the pit of his stomach. "It's been three months."
"She has asked me to tell you to please stop calling her."
His hand clenched into a fist on the edge of the console. "Let me talk to her."
"Please, Verai." Hearing the frustration in his own voice, he pressed finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose and forced himself to get it under control. He knew he was putting her in a tough spot, but he was tired of playing the waiting game. Anything could happen at the tribunal. For all he knew, this might be the last chance he'd have to talk to Carol privately for a good long while.
He leaned forward, imploring with all the persuasive force he could muster. "I know she doesn't want to talk to me. I'm asking you as her friend to please put her on. We can help each other, if she'll just talk to me."
The Deltan woman regarded him so impassively, it was a struggle to hold her liquid gaze; at last, one pale eyebrow flickered upward, and she inclined her head. "I will see what I can do," she said, and the screen switched to a lazy, swirling pattern of color.
His heart seemed to beat too loudly as he waited, a heavy numbness settling in the rest of his body. He didn't know what he was hoping for. Carol's silence and refusal to take his calls should have made her feelings about him clear enough. If he hoped to hear her say she didn't blame him, he probably had a long wait ahead of him.
Kirk rubbed his hands over his face, seeing the Genesis planet so clearly in his mind's eye, feeling the wind whipping his hair and clothes as he knelt beside his son's body, dead leaves blowing cool against his face, like tears. For a moment, perception shifted, and everything that had happened in the past year ran together like a dream upon waking, an unbelievable tale that had happened to someone else a long time ago. He could wish for that to be true, for someone to come and tell him that it had all been a mistake, but it was all tangled together, the good and the bad, and to deny any of it was to spit in the face of Lady Luck, who had surely been with them the last few days. Could it be only this morning they'd crashed down in San Francisco Bay? Somehow, in some crazy way, everything that had happened since the training cruise had gotten them to the right place at the right time, and life on Earth went on because of it.
Better not to think about that kind of thing too much, if he wanted to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
He must have planned what he was going to say, but when the screen finally cleared and Carol appeared, it all seemed clumsy, inadequate. She'd been twenty-three when they'd met. Before she'd turned twenty-four, their friendly affair had been a memory. She hadn't told him about David until almost ten years later, and by then there had been so many turns in the road between them, there'd been no way to go back.
Her clear blue gaze hadn't changed.
"You look good," he said at last, meaning it.
The guarded set of her shoulders didn't relax, but her expression warmed a little, as if she had resigned herself to the inevitable. "You look tired."
"Been kind of a long couple of days," he admitted.
That brought the hint of a smile to her lips. "It's a rough life, saving the world. Long hours, no vacation time...."
"The pay stinks, too, don't let them fool you."
"And here I thought you military guys got all the perks."
He smiled, too, and they just looked at each other for a long moment, feeling the regrets, and the affection, and all the reasons why it would never have worked between them. The one thing, the best thing, they'd had in common was gone.
"Why wouldn't you take my calls?" he asked at last.
"What were you going to say that would do either of us any good?" she countered, not accusing, just infinitely weary.
"I just wanted to know if you're okay."
"I'm okay. It's peaceful here. Verai and Kirim have been good friends to me, and I think it helps them to have me here, too. To have someone to talk with. The feds seized all my research, of course, but so far, they're not denying me access to the data."
"Carol, I--" he began, but she shook her head.
"Don't, Jim. Don't say you're sorry." Her eyes shone unexpectedly. "Don't you think I know that?"
An ache rose in his throat, and his own eyes burned. He fought it, drawing a deep breath. "I just thought maybe it would help if we could talk." She looked down, shaking her head and smiling ironically to herself, as if he'd said something predictably obtuse. He felt it like a slap. Struggling to hold on to his temper, he persisted. "Look, I did what you asked. I stayed away, like you asked. But he was my son, too."
"Why? Because you had DNA rights?" Her eyes flashed. "Don't pretend to yourself that you know anything about what it's like to lose a child, because you know nothing about it! Not like I do."
A dangerous fury twisted deep within in him, unexpected and unforgiving. Things he hadn't known he wanted to say burned on his tongue, demanding to be said. I let him live in your world, like you wanted, and look where it got us. If I hadn't, if you and your friends hadn't tried to play God, maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe he'd be alive right now. But he couldn't say those things -- was ashamed for even thinking them. She was right, he realized. It was still too soon. If he was angry with her, how much more rage must she feel, at a world that could take the boy she'd nurtured with her own body, who'd been the biggest part of her life for a quarter of a century? Most especially, at him, for letting it happen? Despair gripped him, and the truth came home, that he'd been a fool to think there would be anything here he could fix with words.
He realized he was shaking, and Carol was angrily wiping tears away with the back of her hand. "Dammit. See why I knew this was a bad idea?"
"You were right. I shouldn't have pushed it."
"I didn't mean that. What I said."
"No, it's okay. You're right. I don't know about it, not like you do. But I did love him, Carol."
"I know you did."
His fingers were pressing against the edge of the console, so hard they ached. Painful pressure had risen in his chest. "I tried--"
She looked up then, the lines of her face sharply drawn. "Jim, I know you did. Don't say any more, okay?"
He swallowed hard. "Right."
She drew a deep breath, then let it out. "I just...I don't think I can talk to you about this. I wish I could help you. I know you should be the one person I can talk to, but I'm too angry right now, about everything."
"Maybe, one day, things will be different."
"Maybe they will." He knew what she was really saying was goodbye. In the awkward silence that followed, he tried to find something else to say; in the end, he just settled for, "Look after yourself, all right?" In another moment, she had gone, her image replaced by the fleet insignia, and he couldn't help wondering when he would have finished paying the price for the mistakes he had made with Khan so many years before. Funny thing was, it seemed as though he was never the one who ended up footing the bill, not directly; instead, it came due for the people he cared about, and they were the ones who ended up paying.
Kirk leaned forward and rubbed his hands over his face again, knowing he should get back to the party. Feeling sorry for himself wasn't going to get him anywhere, and the least he could do was put a good face on it for the others.
He checked the chronometer and was just pushing himself to his feet when he realized that he wasn't alone in the room; someone was standing in the doorway, backlit by the light from the corridor. The figure was tall, angular: Spock.
Kirk felt his face grow warm. "I didn't hear you come in."
"Forgive me, Admiral. It was not my intention to eavesdrop."
So he had heard, at least some of it. There had been a time when that wouldn't have bothered him. "No, of course it wasn't." Kirk ran his fingers along the edge of the console, glancing involuntarily at the darkened screen. "I'm sorry you had to hear that."
Spock hesitated a moment, then came into the room, stopping a few paces away. "My mother says that time heals a great many things."
Kirk looked up, unreasonably touched by the earnest attempt at comfort. Watching Spock's growing pains as he tried so hard to understand and connect with his human shipmates made him feel things he couldn't articulate, made him smile and hope and hurt all at the same time. "Your mother is a wise woman. I hope she's right."
"With remarkable frequency," Spock confessed.
Kirk found himself smiling in spite of himself. "You know, I've noticed that about her." With a sigh, he checked his chronometer. "Cartwright looking for me?"
"Affirmative. Regrettably, I suspect he wishes to introduce you to the Kendaii Council delegate and his attaché."
"You know, all those months on Vulcan, I'd forgotten how much I love Starfleet politics." Spock frowned slightly in puzzlement, and the faint, familiar ache settled in Kirk's chest again. "A little joke, Spock. I just find it ironic that tonight, Starfleet needs heroes to win them points with the Council, and we fit the bill. It'll be a different story in front of the tribunal, I bet."
"My father anticipates much the same thing," Spock admitted. "He says the Klingon delegation has threatened to end peace talks if the Genesis inquiry does not go forward immediately."
It was no more than Kirk had expected, and he found himself curiously unconnected from the thought of what it would mean. They'd made their choices, and with the Enterprise gone, it was hard to care too much whether they busted him down to ensign, or worse.
"Well, the good news is, I think we've already met and schmoozed with just about everyone who's ever seen the inside of the Council chamber. Maybe we can plead exhaustion and bow out of this party before too much longer." He straightened up and turned toward the door. "Shall we?"
He led the way back, and Spock fell into step beside him as effortlessly as breathing. Sometimes Kirk thought that the hardest things were those that hadn't changed, because they made him forget for a while. He would catch himself falling back into old patterns, thinking of this man beside him as the old Spock, until the next time he was reminded, and the breath-stealing weight returned to rest against his heart.
Back on the ground floor, he stopped abruptly in the breezeway outside the reception hall. "Listen, I haven't said anything to the crew about the tribunal. I wanted them to have one night of fun. God knows, they've earned it."
"I understand, Admiral."
It occurred to Kirk that maybe being busted right out of the fleet might have its advantages, if it meant that Spock might actually remember now and then that he had a first name. "I'm not in command at the moment," he said gently. "You could call me Jim, and the world wouldn't end."
Japanese lanterns swung gently between pillars and trees, gilding Spock's angular face in red and gold. "Jim," he conceded, the hint of a question in it.
Their eyes held, and after a moment, Kirk realized he was doing it again -- searching for something he couldn't even have named. This Spock was real and alive and at his side, and to ask for more than that miracle was ingratitude of the highest order. "You okay?" he asked impulsively, seeing faint lines of strain in his friend's face that he hadn't noticed before. "You look tired."
"I am somewhat fatigued," Spock agreed, "but well."
"They haven't been hassling you, have they?"
"The media sharks. Starfleet. Every biologist, geneticist, and medical doctor within four parsecs who'd probably kill to get their hands on you."
Spock raised an eyebrow. "Negative. The security at the Vulcan embassy is exemplary."
Relieved, Kirk nodded. "Good." He hated the thought of Spock having to deal with the piranhas after all that he'd been through. The protection of the Vulcans had insulated them more than he'd realized, and the media frenzy that had greeted him at his apartment that afternoon had come as a rude awakening.
Voices, laughter, and music washed out into the breezeway. Someone had opened the French doors to let more air into the hall.
"You would be welcome, of course," Spock said.
Momentarily distracted, Kirk didn't immediately follow. "What's that?"
"At the Vulcan embassy," Spock clarified. "My father and I would be honored to offer you a quiet refuge, should you so desire." He hesitated, then added, "I believe you would find it restful."
The offer was so unexpected, for a moment Kirk didn't know what to say. He wasn't the kind of man to let a bunch of reporters drive him into hiding, but he couldn't deny that it was tempting to take Spock up on his offer. That afternoon, his own apartment had felt alien to him, and despite his fatigue, he'd been unable to sleep there. He'd gotten used to Sarek's house and Vulcan.
More than that, in spite of the complex, bittersweet jumble of feelings this Spock awoke in him, being near him was still better than the alternative; after the confrontation with Carol, it seemed the most remarkable of kindnesses.
"Thank you," he said at last, and had to clear his throat. "I'll think about it."
Spock inclined his head. "As you wish, Admiral. The offer stands."
Feeling better than he had all night, Kirk smiled up at him and cast a glance toward the festive noise and lights. "Once more into the breach, old friend?" He didn't wait for an answer, but felt Spock at his shoulder as he led them back to the party.
The Kendar homeworld boasted a sulfurous atmosphere that most oxygen-nitrogen species found quite vile, but that was essential to the survival and well-being of its many and varied life forms. Small talk with a Kendarii was therefore not Kirk's idea of fun at the best of times, never mind at one o'clock in the morning, and by the time the Councilor and his aide at last excused themselves to go replenish their tanks, he was more than ready for the evening to end. Nothing had ever sounded better than the serene beauty and privacy of the Vulcan embassy.
He went looking for Spock, but it was McCoy who found him. "Now, what you need, my friend, is a drink." Kirk could tell the good doctor was feeling no pain by the friendly arm McCoy draped around him, and the degree of drawl in his voice.
"What I need is twelve hours sleep, a two-week vacation somewhere on a boat with sails, and a new career track."
"All true," McCoy conceded, "but a drink won't hurt. A good Irish whiskey ought to do the trick. Come on, I'm buyin'."
As usual, the doctor gave sound medical advice; Kirk did feel better with a little good whiskey warming his insides. He'd learned years ago that any party was more fun if you went with McCoy. Somehow, Bones always seemed to know the most interesting people at any given function, and Kirk was more than willing to let the doctor steer him around by the elbow for a while, introducing him to friends from his years in the relief corps, from medical school, from bars he'd once frequented -- Kirk lost track early on, and just smiled and went along for the ride. At last they spotted Spock and Gillian standing near one of the skylit reflecting pools and made their way over.
From what Kirk could see, Gillian didn't seem to be winding down in the least. She was still talking a mile a minute -- about the whales, he'd bet his right arm -- and Spock couldn't have gotten a word in edgewise if he'd tried. He seemed to be listening with interest, though, and it suddenly occurred to Kirk that after the tribunal, Spock might very well remain on Earth. It made sense, that he might want to stay and work with the scientists to help solve the immense challenge of repopulating the humpbacks. It would be right up his alley, and Kirk knew he had achieved a real rapport with Gracie in particular. The project would need someone to communicate with the whales -- and who better? Kirk had been second-guessing his decision to let Gillian come with them ever since he'd made it, but this was the first time he'd realized how much it might end up costing him.
"...what we need is some kind of surrogate, to teach George and Gracie the things that whales would learn from each other in the wild," she was saying as they came within earshot. "I don't know how we could do it, but I'll bet there's a way, with all the technology you've got. Some kind of an android, or maybe even a hologram--"
"This guy talking your ear off?" McCoy asked Gillian with an insouciant grin.
"Hey, look who's here! I was wondering what happened to you two." She kissed Kirk on the cheek, and he chuckled, pleased that she seemed happy to see him.
"Having fun, Alice?"
She grinned back. "You bet. You guys have parties like this all the time?"
"Nope, only when the new kid saves the world."
Blushing bright red, she laughed. "Oh, like I did anything!"
"Hey, Spock," said McCoy. "Grab us a couple of those glasses there, and let's have a toast. You too, don't argue with me." Spock obliged him, retrieving two glasses of champagne from a nearby tray for Kirk and McCoy, then two more, giving one to Gillian and keeping one for himself. He eyed the fizzing liquid warily.
"I am not actually required to drink this...substance, am I?"
"Shut up and toast, Spock, it won't kill you." McCoy raised his own glass, and waited for the other three to follow suit. "To the lovely Doctor Taylor," he said with a gallant flourish -- but Gillian stopped him before he could drink.
"To George and Gracie," she said. "If anyone gets credit for saving the world, they do."
She looked to Kirk, and he held her gaze as he said, "To George and Gracie." Spock and McCoy echoed him, and they all drank. Kirk could feel the champagne go straight to his head, and he knew he was running on fumes. He set the glass aside and shook his head. "Okay, kids, that's it for me. Much as I'd like to stay, I think I've had enough." He caught Spock's questioning gaze. "That offer still open, Spock?"
"It is," Spock said. "In fact, I believe I will accompany you."
Kirk kissed Gillian on the cheek and took her hand in his. "Don't turn into a pumpkin. And you," he said to McCoy, "don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"What he don't know won't hurt him," he heard Bones say sotto voce as he and Spock turned away.
Together, they found Sarek and took their leave, the elder Vulcan approving of Kirk's decision to stay with them. Uhura was dancing with a strikingly handsome civilian and waved from the dance floor when she saw them; their other comrades were nowhere in evidence, and at last they made for the door. Kirk caught one last glance of McCoy and Gillian across the room, watching them, their heads together. He smiled and waved, but was troubled by the cat-got-the-cream look on McCoy's face and the speculative look Gillian was giving them. She smiled and waved back, but...was that a wink? Had she just winked at him?
Kirk turned to Spock, frowning. "Did you see that?"
"Did I see what, Admiral?" Spock followed the line of his gaze towards the pair across the room.
"What do you think he's telling her?"
Spock considered. "I am certain I do not wish to know," he said at last.
"Sound advice, if ever I heard it," Kirk said, and put his suspicions firmly out of his mind.
Outside, a row of idling air taxis wound down the hill. They climbed into the nearest one; the moment Kirk sank into the comfortable seat, he felt exhaustion he'd held at bay for too many hours settle over him like a two-gee gravity field. He closed his eyes, letting Spock set the autopilot, grateful beyond measure that this night was finally over. For long moments he just drifted, the motion of the car's lift-off smooth and effortless.
When he felt the car reach gliding altitude, he opened his eyes and watched the bay fall away beneath them. They curved out and away from the Presidio before turning back towards the city; in a moment, San Francisco lay before them, glittering against the night. So close to being dark forever, he thought, and it really hit him how near Earth's brush with death had really been. "Sulu was right," he said quietly. "It's doesn't look that different, does it?"
Spock steepled his fingers before him, and the familiar gesture made it hard to breathe for a second. "There is something organic about the nature of cities," Spock said, "and like all living things, they continue to grow according to the patterns that shape them."
Heat closed Kirk's throat, gathering behind his eyes, and he had to take a deep, careful breath to get it under control. God, he must be tired -- he was starting to lose it. The questions he couldn't ask were a tangled knot inside of him, one he didn't dare look at too closely. "What about you, Spock?" he asked at last, still watching the lights below.
"There's no pattern for you to follow, is there? Nobody's ever gone through what you have. You're on your own, without a star chart."
The figure beside him was silent a moment, considering. "Doctor McCoy said much the same thing. Curious. Perhaps it is because I have been a unique being all of my life, in more ways than one, but I am not troubled by the idea of finding my own path."
Kirk couldn't help smiling at that. "You certainly are a unique being."
Spock met his gaze, and though he didn't smile back the way he once might have -- that subtle shift of expression Kirk had so long coveted and, at the same time, so long taken for granted -- Kirk thought maybe Spock was right, and some patterns persisted.
Yes, but he left you once before, too, he reminded himself harshly. Don't forget that.
And in a rush, he knew that he'd been even more of a fool than he'd realized, thinking that pushing things with Carol had been more than an exercise in futility. He'd been trying so hard to find something he could fix, some way to distract himself from the things he couldn't. Every day that went by made the war between hope and despair harder to bear, and the weight on his heart was his own fear, held at bay by pure force of will. He shied away from it, even that brief glimpse more than he wanted to face. Easier by far not to question, not to let himself think about anything beyond the here and now, the surface of things. Bluffing his way through had gotten him this far. If he could keep doing it long enough, maybe he'd stop feeling like the bottom was going to drop out on him any second.
The aircar began its descent, and Kirk looked out to see the ornate lines of the embassy's elegant roofline, the steep hillside falling away towards the water, and the winking lights of the grounds beyond the house. He could feel the concern, the uncertainty, in Spock's gaze. It hurt, like gravity sickness. "I can't remember the last time I was so tired," he said, keeping his voice light with effort. "I hope you don't mind if I just go straight to bed."
"As you wish, Admiral."
Silence fell between them, the soft hum of the engines the only accompaniment to Kirk's circling thoughts.
Hours after James Kirk had succumbed to the generous mercy of his own exhaustion and slipped into the deepest levels of sleep, three rooms away, Spock of Vulcan woke with a gasp. He lay awake for a full five seconds before he could remember where he was, his heart racing, eyes wide. No Vulcan should experience what had just happened to him -- what was happening to him. If anything, tonight's episode had been more intense, more disorienting, the images and sensory impressions so vivid that it was difficult to discern dream from memory.
When at last he had succeeded in bringing his respiration and heart rate under control, Spock rose from the bed and went to the meditation stone, folding his body easily into a kneeling position, seeking the quiet center of reason that would allow him to examine these experiences without emotion. He could not remember ever dreaming with such disturbing intensity.
He had just begun to achieve the necessary stillness in his thoughts when a soft breath of cool air touched the back of his neck, ruffling the fine hairs.
Meditative state broken, he looked up. The door to his room was open to the corridor, when it should not be. Of course, as on Vulcan, the rooms were not locked, but he was quite certain it had closed firmly when he had retired for the evening. Perhaps it had malfunctioned. Rising from the meditation alcove, Spock went to investigate.
As he drew near the door, he felt a stronger current of cold air from the corridor, the unexpected chill raising goose flesh on his arms. He frowned. Perhaps the malfunction was more widespread than he had suspected, and the atmospheric controls had been affected. He drew his robe more closely around his body and stepped out into the hallway.
Instantly on alert, Spock turned; Captain Kirk was striding towards him down the corridor, his expression and body language intensely focused in a way that made the fine hairs on Spock's neck stand up, though not from cold. He knew that look.
"They've done something to the life support system," Kirk said, as Spock fell into step beside him. "Some kind of a device. It's got a force field around it I can't break through." Kirk glanced sharply at him as they hurried towards the lift. "Where's your phaser?"
"I seem to have...misplaced it."
"Never mind. We've got to get to Auxiliary Control. Maybe we can reroute life support through there somehow, or rig a backup."
Kirk turned down another corridor, and then another, and Spock was troubled by the feeling that they should have reached the lift by now -- or that, impossibly, he had lost his sense of direction. He glanced down a side corridor as they passed it, but it, too, looked unfamiliar. "Captain, I--"
Kirk was ahead of him now, and widening the distance between them with each step, not seeming to notice that Spock was no longer beside him. The temperature in the corridor had dropped. Spock shivered and realized he could see his breath crystallizing. At the same moment, the lights seemed to dim, and he felt a sharp stab of apprehension about what lay in wait ahead. Kirk was almost out of sight around the curved corridor. "Captain, wait!" But he was too late; Kirk had vanished.
Sheets of ice were forming on the walls, and flashing red alert beacons sparkled in the facets as he ran down the corridor, trying each door that he came to. The cold numbed his limbs, his hands, and he realized it was not the lights that were dimming, but his vision; he was almost out of time. At last he found the right door. It was frozen shut, but he knew Kirk was on the other side of it -- knew that if he could just find a way to get through it, he could save Jim. His hands slipped on the slick surface as he fought for purchase, his vision faded almost entirely to black. The logic was utterly inescapable: if he failed, they would die. Jim would die. Therefore, failure was not an option.
"The kobayashi maru scenario frequently wreaks havoc with students and equipment," Kirk said mildly, watching him struggle to break through the door.
Spock gave up trying to force the door and put a fist through the wall with violent precision, grunting with effort and pain as he wrenched the metal back, heedless of the way it cut him. "You are unreal," he said harshly. "Physical laws simply cannot be ignored."
Kirk seemed unconcerned by Spock's accusation. "We judge reality by the response of our senses. Once we are convinced of the reality of a given situation, we abide by its rules. You taught me that, Spock."
Components and circuitry grew slick under Spock's shaking fingers, and he blinked, and blinked again, struggling to see the intricate control matrix, to make his hands obey. He was beginning to hallucinate, he realized, the pain coming now in dizzying waves. A thread of desperation wound its way into his fierce concentration. Jim, the real Jim, was somewhere on the other side of this door, in mortal danger. The hallway had closed in around him, his vision almost gone. Their time had nearly run out. "If you are real, then help me."
"They call it a no-win scenario for a reason, you know," the dream Kirk said, not unkindly.
"Please. You must help me." This time, there was no answer. He was alone, blind. The pain and the sirens rushed away from him as if down a long tunnel. Had he failed, then? Despair gripped him, an emotion so powerful he could not deny it, could only press his face, his hands, against the smooth, unyielding surface of the wall.
And then Spock sensed him, close by. Just on the other side of the wall. "Jim?" He held his breath, listening.
"The ship," Kirk said hoarsely. "Out of danger?"
Understanding spilled over him in a cold wave. "No," Spock whispered, refusing to accept it. A dream, he told himself fiercely. This is a dream. Unreal. He pressed his hands to the wall.
"Don't grieve, Spock."
Spock willed himself to wake with all the force of his denial. "No."
"Remember," Jim said, as clearly as if he were sitting beside the bed, and Spock woke, shuddering.
"Jim," he said, his voice dry as sand.
But he was quite alone, no sound save the nearly inaudible hum of the climate control and the harsh rasp of his own breathing.
Profoundly shaken, Spock rose at last and poured water from an earthenware vessel into a cup, spilling some on the floor, drinking deeply until his heart calmed somewhat and his throat no longer felt raw. How many times tonight had he believed himself awake, when he was really still dreaming? He didn't know, but it felt as though it had been going on for some time, each false awakening a betrayal, making him feel that he could no longer trust his own perceptions. He had fallen asleep only a little over an hour before, but he might easily have believed he'd been dreaming for days.
Even now, he found himself questioning the reality of his darkened rooms. In spite of his certainty that he was, in fact, awake, he could not entirely suppress the urge to go to the door and open it, the need to verify that the corridor outside was that of the Vulcan embassy, on Earth, and not that of the Enterprise. Illogical. If one could not trust the evidence of one's senses, then one could not use them for verification.
That thought was of little comfort. If dreams had been rare for him in the past, nightmares were so unusual as to constitute an aberration. To suffer multiple nightmares one after the other was unprecedented, and unsettling in the extreme.
His body still trembled faintly, his heart rate accelerated beyond his ability to bring it fully under control. Apparently, even the long meditation session he had engaged in the night before had not been sufficient to free him of whatever inner conflict his subconscious strove to resolve. Examining the experiences as a logic problem had yielded only possibilities, and no answers. Therefore, meditation having failed, logic suggested that the answer lay not with the waking mind, but with the subconscious. He must resolve it within the context of his dreams, or seek help if he could not.
Refusing to give in to his lingering unease, Spock returned to his sleeping pallet. Though his knowledge of human dream patterns was limited, he knew that disorders involving dreams were almost always related to emotional stress, and he could not deny the intensely emotional nature of his reactions. More disturbing still was his inability to maintain a clear division between dream and waking awareness. He could not dismiss the ominous possibilities that loss of control presented. One thing was certain: whatever that inner conflict might be, he had been right when he guessed that James Kirk stood at the heart of it. Other figures had appeared in several of the dreams, but Kirk was the constant.
With effort, Spock cleared his mind and at last calmed his breathing and heart rate. He closed his eyes. Deliberately, he let awareness of his surroundings fall away and opened his mind to thoughts and feelings about the man who had sacrificed so much to bring him back.
Curiously, it was not Kirk's image that came to mind first, but his mother's puzzle box. Its shape was familiar in his mind's eye, his fingertips remembering the cool, smooth surface of it, the reassurance of its mathematical and aesthetic beauty, its solid weight in his hands.
As if the image of the puzzle's interlocking shapes were itself a key, a memory surfaced then, powerful and vivid, of standing on the steps of Seleya, saying Kirk's name for the first time. He could still remember what it had felt like to experience that first true memory: just his name, its certainty like a homing beacon shining through the confusion of his mind. He had wished for that certainty more than once in the months since. Perhaps, most especially, with the admiral.
James Kirk was not unlike the puzzle box in his own right, Spock realized with a flash of insight. Humans were infinitely complex and mysterious, Jim perhaps most of all -- and it came to him with a jolt that this was what his mother had been trying to tell him with the gift. He'd had no choice but to leave Vulcan with his shipmates, but it was possible she had been right about his retraining. She'd tried to impress upon him that he, too, was human, and that the Vulcan way had never been the only path before him; he'd accepted her feelings, but had not understood what it was she asked of him.
As if the thought evoked her presence, he heard a soft footfall behind him. "What is it, Spock?"
Amanda's compassion was like a balm. "I do not understand the question, Mother," he admitted, feeling his failure sharp within him.
"You're half human," she said, as if it should be obvious. "Jim knows that."
"But the question is irrelevant," he said, perplexed, looking to her for guidance.
"Oh, Spock." She smiled gently. "Of course it isn't."
"Your mother is a wise woman, Spock." Kirk kissed Amanda on the cheek. "Hello, Mrs. Sarek."
"Always a pleasure to see you, Captain." She gave them both a fond, indulgent look. "I'll leave you two alone. I'm sure you have important matters to discuss."
She left the room -- Kirk's quarters, Spock realized now -- and Kirk turned to him. "You ready to play?"
"Chess, of course. You did come here to play chess, didn't you?"
Spock frowned slightly, unable to remember why he had come to Kirk's quarters. He looked around the room, then at the chess set on Kirk's desk, the two empty chairs on either side. He supposed that he must, indeed, have come here to play chess. "Of course, Captain."
"'Jim,' Spock," Kirk chided gently. "I thought we agreed to do away with name, rank, and serial numbers after hours." He sat down on the far side of the desk and opened the cabinet behind him, pulling out an amber decanter and two glasses. "Can I pour you a drink?" He didn't wait for an answer, but was already setting out both glasses, filling them with a generous portion of the smooth, aged brandy he favored.
Spock sat down across from him, unable to prevent himself from staring at his captain. Kirk looked young, perhaps no more than the thirty-two he had been when Spock met him, full of that vibrant, vivid energy Spock had almost forgotten. The force of his charisma felt like sunlight, and even a Vulcan was not immune. It was that as much as Kirk's appearance that drew the eye, that made it hard to look at anything else.
He was fully aware of it, too, Spock realized, as Kirk pushed the second glass across the desk and leaned back in his chair, sipping the rich liquor, watching Spock speculatively. Spock's cheeks warmed. He sipped his drink to cover it, and the brandy sank through him with a seductive heat of its own.
"You okay?" Kirk asked at last.
"Quite all right. Why do you ask?"
Kirk reached out and made the first move, king's pawn immediately claiming one of the neutral levels. "You just don't seem like yourself tonight, that's all."
Spock frowned slightly. "Indeed. Whom would you say I seem like, Jim?"
He shrugged, an eloquent gesture. "Just...not yourself. I don't know if I can explain it. Something on your mind, maybe?"
Spock met his gaze for a second, then focused on the chessboard. He was troubled by what Kirk had said, though, and found that he could not seem to choose an appropriate answering move. "Perhaps you're right," he said at last. "I fear...." He broke off, suddenly sure that if he spoke his fears aloud, they would become fact. Reality felt very fluid, his own perceptions nothing he could trust.
Kirk leaned towards him, his eyes wide, inviting. "What is it, my friend? You can tell me."
Spock bowed his head, eyes on his hands, folded in his lap. "I fear that I have disappointed you," he confessed.
Kirk chuckled softly. "You could never disappoint me."
Unable to sit still any longer, Spock got up and crossed the small room, the sense of unreality washing over him again, stronger now. "You will not always be so certain," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. "One day, you will look at me with pain in your eyes that I put there."
He heard Kirk put his drink down and come towards him. "Spock, you're not making any sense." His hand closed on Spock's shoulder, squeezing. The touch was wholly unexpected, and Spock started; Jim's grip was surprisingly warm, undermining his self-control in ways he did not begin to know how to combat. Kirk gently turned him around. Their eyes met and held. "You didn't really come here to play chess, did you?" Kirk said, his voice husky.
He was close, so close, his body almost touching Spock's, his scent spicy and masculine and enticing. He was watching Spock's eyes, and Spock knew that he had no secrets, that Jim knew the way his heart was pounding, the way his breath shortened and tingling anticipation slowly flooded his body, starting in his stomach and between his thighs. What Jim saw in Spock's eyes seemed to set him alight, his breath coming faster, his lips parting, his color rising in response. Spock made a faint sound of defeat. He moved, his hands coming up to touch Jim's face, to guide their mouths together, the kiss dissolving him into shivery tremors of hunger.
Jim moaned softly, a sound that made pleasure hum through Spock. He reached for Jim's tongue with his own and felt Jim press against him, full length, the feel of him unbearably erotic through their uniforms. Their tongues met, Jim's hands were in his hair, and for one endless moment, they held on to each other and gave in to that most intimate caress, tongues moving gently against one another, erections pressed hotly together through their clothes. Trembling fiercely, they could bear it only a few moments before they broke apart, gasping.
If Jim had been alight before, now he was incendiary, his eyes bright, lips reddened and full with arousal. "Spock?" he managed, a breathless plea, as though he were helpless in the face of his desire.
Deliberately, his own desire a force of gravity, Spock found the seam of Jim's v-neck tunic and slid his fingers down it, exposing his chest and belly. "Oh, God," Jim gasped, pressing into him, sex throbbing faintly against his. "Oh, God, Spock." Feeling Jim's readiness, his own arousal shivering through him in waves, Spock didn't waste time pulling the shirt off, just let his hands close on the bare, soft skin at Jim's waist and pulled him close, finding his mouth again.
This time they kissed deeply, tongues mating. Spock felt Jim gripping his shoulders, but couldn't spare thought for it; Jim's skin was cool satin under his hands, the muscles in his back as firm and yielding as he had imagined, his mouth soft and wet and hungry, desperate as Spock felt. Impossible to have enough of him. Spock wrapped one arm low and tight around his waist and pressed him closer still, guiding Jim's mouth to his own again and again until Jim was moaning softly with each kiss, until he was gripping Spock's hips and rocking against him, and they were both dizzy from lack of air.
"Your mouth," Jim gasped when they broke apart at last. "God, it's so hot--" Spock bent his head and pressed his mouth to Jim's throat in answer, tasting salt and sweet musk, sucking gently at the throb of his pulse. Jim shuddered in response. "Please--" His hands came up to cradle Spock's head, exerting gentle pressure downwards. Spock went willingly to his knees, closing his eyes and pressing his face to the rigid heat of Jim's arousal, fumbling with the catch of his trousers. Jim helped him, his breathing harsh in the small room, accompaniment to the soft sounds of fastenings, and fabric sliding down, and the rapid pounding of Spock's heartbeat in his ears.
Jim's flesh was urgent in Spock's hand as Spock wrapped one arm around his hips and took him deep. "Yes--" Jim gasped, his hands urging Spock on, pushing himself hard against the back of Spock's throat; Spock's own sex ached in response, the blood pulsing heavily between his legs and in his belly. "Oh, God, yes, Spock--" Jim groaned as they found their rhythm and his hips began to thrust helplessly. "Come with me," he ordered, a fine sheen of sweat breaking out on his flanks and thighs. Jim wrapped his own hand around the base of his sex, squeezing fiercely and freeing Spock to fumble with the catch to his own trousers, to shudder as he at last unfastened it and took himself in hand. Jim traced the curve of his ear, and cupped his head close. "Come with me, that's it--" He bent protectively over Spock, and it felt as though they became one being for long moments of slick, rhythmic ecstasy -- a rough, perfect union of mouth and sex and grip and friction -- until Jim cried out, staggering against him and pulsing bittersweet fluid over his tongue, and Spock remembered even as his own climax surged over him, merciless as the sea, that this was not real.
The shock of waking was not enough to stop the powerful wave of orgasm, nor the involuntary cry that escaped him; when it was over at last, and the shudders of pleasure released him, it was not enough to stop the flood of shame that followed at the evidence of sticky, cooling fluid on his hand and thighs and flanks.
Even the shame he felt at his loss of control paled next to the agitation of his thoughts. Understanding sluiced over him with startling clarity, and he was on his feet, trembling. His dreams thus far had all been deeply grounded in true memories, distorted slightly by subconscious interpretation, but true memories nonetheless. He had known that gaps existed in his recall. He had even guessed that many of those gaps might be emotional in nature, as the Vulcan masters would likely have understood little about the more human elements of his psyche. This, he had not guessed. This was --
He realized he was pacing, mind and body in turmoil. To be confronted with a gap of this magnitude in his recall shook the very foundations of his sanity, and made him question everything he had learned since his refusion, every memory, everything that had been told to him by the adepts, his parents, his well-meaning friends. Friends! Pacing again, he shrugged off his robes and threw them into the recycling chute with uncharacteristic vehemence. He found himself remembering all the moments in the past weeks when Kirk had seemed to be waiting for something from him, something Spock had not known how to give. The sadness Spock had perceived in him, but had attributed to the loss of his son, his ship. The frustration he had expressed that night on the Bounty. The pain Spock had sensed in him tonight, when Spock failed yet again to say the right thing. He has resigned himself, Spock realized, understanding at last. He has given up waiting, and resigned himself to what he believes he must.
There was no logic in the ache that bloomed within him at that thought, no logic in the imperative he felt and could not deny. He hurriedly pulled on a fresh robe and glanced at the chronometer, but it didn't matter that it was not yet sunrise. The man who held his answers was close, only a few doors down the hall, and Spock could not wait till morning.
Kirk was finding irony everywhere these days, and in the faint light before dawn, he mused on the surreality that seemed to greet him at every turn. A weapon that created life only to destroy it; an interstellar probe that delivered justice for man's own folly only to be thwarted by a renegade crew in a stolen Klingon ship; a Spock that wasn't Spock -- and now, at the heart of the old Victorian that housed the Vulcan embassy, the red sun of Vulcan artificially recreated by filters, in a city where Earth's own sun barely showed her face most days.
Not yet accustomed to San Francisco time, he'd woken well before dawn and been unable to get back to sleep, thoughts of the tribunal too much with him. Even after showering and checking his messages, he still had time to kill before the household was up for the day, and he'd found himself roaming the halls; after a few minutes, he'd come across a set of glass doors that led to a climate-controlled atrium of sand and polished granite, filters transforming natural sunlight into an approximation of Eridani's scarlet intensity. Somehow, in the months of their "Vulcan exile," as he and Bones had taken to calling it, he'd gotten used to red skies, and the cool, dry air of desert morning felt almost like home.
All this place needs is a hot spring, Kirk thought as he wandered the stone pathways, the peace and stark beauty of the place relaxing him. He did feel better with a few hours sleep, too. He'd been thinking about what Spock had said about patterns, and about the future. In a few hours, everything he'd worked for, everything he'd built his life on, would very likely be taken from him. He'd never really thought about his own patterns, and how somewhere along the line, he'd come to rely on them more than he would have guessed. His friends had grown and changed more than he had over the years -- why hadn't he ever noticed that? He couldn't imagine choosing a drastically different path, a life other than the command of a starship, but why had he never even seriously considered it? He thought of himself as a risk-taker, but the ship had been his life for so long, he'd stopped thinking about the day when he might have to choose a different way, a different future.
He caught himself idly wondering if Gillian had gone home with McCoy the night before, and if so, how he felt about that. Once, there might have been a spark there, and the man he had been would have done his level best to fan it into something more, but it would have been little more than habit -- he'd had a thing for blonde doctor-types for as long as he could remember, but had it ever been more than that, with any of them? Even habit had failed him now, his mind further from sex than it had probably ever been in his life, and it felt like a bit of a relief, he realized, to have the matter taken out of his hands. After the muck-up he'd made of it with Carol last night, maybe someone was trying to tell him something -- and if anyone deserved to get the girl after all they'd been through, it was Bones. In the light of day, he could admit that he'd been a little distant with his old friend lately. He didn't much like how it made him feel, seeing the easy rapport Spock and McCoy shared now, feeling like the third wheel. Was that how Bones had felt all those years? Or was he a better man, less prone to such petty feelings as jealousy?
He was saved from having to answer that. Behind him, the glass doors opened. He turned, and saw Spock heading toward him; one look at him, and Kirk knew something was wrong. He felt a burst of adrenaline and braced himself for bad news, the possibilities flashing through his mind. Sarek? Amanda? God forbid, one of his crew? "What is it?" he asked as soon as Spock reached him.
"I looked for you," Spock said, his voice only a fraction rougher than usual, his breathing and body language just a touch less controlled, but to Kirk, the difference was equivalent to a shout of distress. "When I couldn't find you in your room, I was concerned."
Taken aback, Kirk didn't quite know what to say. "I couldn't sleep. I didn't want to disturb anyone, so I came in here. Is that all that was worrying you?"
"Yes. No." Spock stopped, as if trying to calm himself, and now Kirk felt an entirely different kind of concern. A chill of apprehension deep in his gut, Kirk reached out and laid a hand on Spock's arm.
"Spock, are you all right?"
At his touch, Spock drew in a sharp breath and looked up, searching his face. To Kirk's surprise, he felt Spock's warm, dry hand close over his; he was even more surprised when Spock took his hand and turned it over, clasping their palms together. "Jim, please, you must forgive me. I didn't understand."
After all this time, Kirk felt the sudden, involuntary lurch of his heart as pain, and not the hope it was. He'd forbidden himself from wishing for anything more than he'd been given, from even thinking about the possibility that there might still be hope, that his Spock, the real Spock, was still reachable somehow. He'd told himself so many times that to hope for more was to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Nevertheless, a spreading heat started from the place where Spock's hand held his, sweet and painful, and he had to fight to keep his sudden breathlessness out of his voice. "Understand what, Spock?"
Dark eyes were drinking him in as if they had never seen him before, tracing the lines of his face, his mouth. Kirk's heart had started to beat very hard, and he thought Spock could probably hear it. He held still, waiting, afraid to breathe or say anything. Belatedly, he realized that Spock was still gripping his hand and could probably feel everything he was feeling, all his desperate hope. With his other hand, Spock reached up, touching his face, and for a second Kirk expected the touch of his mind and scrambled to be ready for it, to keep himself together and not drag them both down into the chaos of his emotional reactions.
What he didn't expect was the warmth of Spock's mouth on his, the gentle passion of a lover's kiss.
When it stopped, Kirk was trembling, eyes closed, lips parted, heart skipping more beats than it hit. This was going to kill him, he thought with certainty. One way or another. Jesus. The years he'd spent putting these feelings aside fell away like grains of sand, like nothing. He opened his eyes and found Spock's inches away. They were still standing in the middle of the open atrium in the middle of the Vulcan embassy. Anyone -- for God's sake, Sarek -- could walk in at any minute, but it seemed a minor detail, hardly worth mentioning. He had to say something, though. "Hell of a place for it," was what came out, so breathless he barely recognized his own voice. He realized he was grinning from ear to ear, and that he was close to tears. "But I'll give you this, you do pick your moments." It was enough, God knew it was enough, but he couldn't help searching Spock's face, trying to tell how much he remembered. He wasn't prepared for what he saw there. "Spock?" His grin faded.
"Perhaps I have -- it is possible that I have misunderstood."
He started to let go of Kirk's hand, but Kirk held on. "Hey, wait a minute. You caught me by surprise, I'll admit, but I'm not arguing, believe me. It's about damn time, don't you think?"
Spock looked pale. "We are not...we were not lovers," he said evenly.
The familiar look of confusion had drawn Spock's brows together, that little line appearing between them. The cold heaviness came to rest in the center of Kirk's breastbone. "You didn't remember." His voice sounded flat, even to his own ears.
"I have been recovering partial memories slowly, in dreams," Spock said hoarsely. "I dreamed of you. Of us. I believed it to be...more than dream." This time, it was Kirk who pulled away, and Spock let him go. "Jim--"
"Don't." Kirk held up a hand, turning away from Spock, just needing to not look at him for a minute. "Just -- give me a minute."
"I am truly sorry, Admiral--"
Kirk felt it like a blow. "Please, for God's sake, just don't -- say anything else for a minute." Carol had said the same thing, he remembered with painful clarity. Now he understood. The darkness inside of him felt bottomless, immense, but he held himself in tightly, refusing to let it win. "We weren't lovers," he said at last, the pressure in his chest like a vise. "I wanted to be -- years ago. I asked you if we could be. You said--" He drew a deep, shaky breath. "You said it wasn't time for us. You said it would put our friendship at risk, the ship...my command. You had good arguments." He closed his eyes, remembering it like it was yesterday. God, they'd been such fools, both of them. "I agreed. I said -- I said when it was time, you'd let me know."
A long silence from Spock. What could he say, after all? What was there to say? They'd worked so hard at shutting away those feelings that somewhere along the line, Kirk had made himself believe they were a thing of the past. Made the friendship be enough, and told himself it was better that way. It had been easy to believe it, until he'd felt the sparks, the tender heat of what it was like to kiss him, and glimpsed what they'd thrown away so carelessly all those years ago.
"Was I very different?" Spock asked hoarsely. "Before?"
Kirk squeezed his eyes shut, but the hot pressure behind them threatened to escape anyway. Something crested in him without warning, rage and grief he had been carrying for too long, that he had hidden even from himself. For so long, he had lived with the fear of the day when he'd have to lose Spock again. Spock would leave him, or die again, forever this time, because of Kirk's failure. Worse, because it felt the most real, the day would come that he'd be forced to accept once and for all that his Spock was gone, and this man beside him was only a pale shadow who would never know him, who would never again say his name like they were the only two people in the universe. This day. "Damn you," he whispered, his throat aching with tears he couldn't shed, had never shed. "Damn you for doing this to me now, after everything--" He broke off with effort, though it took all of his formidable will to stop the words, the hurtful words he would have said to the one person he least wanted to hurt. Wrenching himself under control, he strode away from Spock, away from his own foolish hopes.
When Spock came after him, when that iron grip closed on his upper arm, stopping him, Kirk was so tightly wound that he swung before he knew what he was doing. "Jim!" Spock blocked the blow, catching him and holding him fast. "Show me," he demanded, his body warm against Kirk's, one hand spreading lightly against his face. Kirk felt himself shaking, and he intended denial, but couldn't seem to get the words out. He was afraid, but he wanted it -- had wanted it for so long. In spite of the knot of fear and grief and rage that choked him, hope refused to die.
"Show me," Spock said again, gently, and Kirk yielded, remembering how to let Spock in only as he did it.
And it was Spock. He realized his worst fear only as it was put to rest -- that he would feel the touch of Spock's mind and not be able to recognize him, that it would confirm beyond any doubt that Spock was forever lost to him. Relief undermined his fierce control as nothing else had, and his breath caught, a soft sob escaping him. "You left me," he accused, helpless to stop the flood of rage. "You left me." The memory of the reactor chamber welled up with undeniable force. "And you told me not to grieve. How the hell was I supposed to do that?"
"It was logical," Spock said quietly.
"Don't talk to me about the needs of the many! Don't you dare quote him to me--" The irony of what he was saying made him stop, made him start to laugh, painfully. "I guess I have to choose, don't I? Either I can be mad at you for dying, or I can be mad at you for forgetting me, but I don't get it both ways, do I?"
He caught his breath, and it was Spock with him, grieving with him, knowing the rage and betrayal he'd felt when he'd seen Spock turn towards him in the reactor chamber and he'd known that there would be no miracles. not this time, the childish abandonment he'd subverted and denied and hidden from himself, but never faced, not really. The pressing weight seemed to give way inside him, and the ache in his throat became unbearable. Spock's compassion breached the gates he'd guarded so fiercely, and he couldn't defend himself against it -- the tears came, harsh and bitter with too many months of denial, with shame for the way he'd wanted to punish Spock, to hurt him for not being perfect, and immortal.
He grieved at last, but there was only pale comfort here, for the painful truth of Spock's incomplete memory lay between them, inescapable, answering the questions Kirk hadn't spoken, that he had lived with for so long. His own memories -- twenty years' worth of shared dangers and comfort, pain and private jokes -- played through his mind like music, seeking resonances and echoes in Spock's mind, finding precious few still intact. Each answering silence broke Kirk's heart a little more. A lifetime they'd had together, and as much as they had loved each other, they had never really understood the gift they had been given. If they had, they would have known better than to waste even an hour.
At last he felt Spock withdraw from the meld, the sadness like music in itself. Grief and anger spent, Kirk let himself lean into Spock's embrace. They rested their heads together, drawing strength from the communion they had both desperately needed.
"Then teach me," Spock said at last, lifting his head with a surge of determination Kirk felt in his bones. "Tell me everything you remember. Show me, in your thoughts."
"It would take twenty years," he said, though his heart lifted at the idea. "And it won't ever be the same, not really."
One eyebrow lifted -- Spock's equivalent of a shrug. "If what you say is true, we did leave some room for improvement the first time around."
Kirk couldn't laugh about it, not yet, but the truth of that made something bright surface within him, something that had been submerged for longer than he could remember. It came to him then with stark simplicity that this was Spock, as real and valuable as he had always been; that it wasn't Spock he grieved for, but what they had been together -- and that if all living things grew according to the patterns that shaped them, they could have that again someday, or something better. Hadn't he just been thinking about the need to take risks, to accept change? Twenty years wasn't forever. He planned on living a lot longer than that.
There were so many things he wanted to say, needed to say, to this man. They surged up in him, so long overdue that he hardly knew where to start. But he thought about change, and about the future, and what he said was, "Kiss me again, will you?"
And it was awkward, as it hadn't been the first time, and his face was hot with embarrassment to be kissing a man he'd called friend for almost half his lifetime, but Spock did as he asked, and his mouth was warm, his lips curiously tender as no woman's had ever been. Kirk felt the same little thrill, the same ache in his belly that he had the first time. Hope bloomed quietly within him.
His communicator chirped, and he nearly jumped. Spock looked as startled as he. They'd forgotten where they were, forgotten the time -- Kirk didn't even know how long their minds had been joined. It might have been a few seconds or an hour. He looked at his chronometer. "Dammit. The hearing."
Spock let him go, a little reluctantly. "This will wait," he said. His voice was rough, a faint flush on his cheeks and lips that Kirk found ridiculously gratifying. He'd done that -- made Spock feel that. He drank in his friend's face as if seeing it for the first time.
"I don't know when I -- they might make things difficult for me, for a while."
"It does not matter. There will be time."
The communicator chirped again. "There'd better be." Kirk answered the page, his eyes still on Spock's. "Kirk here."
"Uhura here, sir. Admiral Morrow is looking for you."
"Thanks for the heads-up. Tell him to keep his pants on, I'm on my way. And feel free to rephrase that as you see fit."
"Thank you, Admiral, I will."
"See you soon, Uhura. Kirk out." He couldn't seem to break his gaze away from Spock's. "If you change your mind about this," he said at last, "I'm going to kick your ass from here to Antares." He meant to say it lightly, but it came out deadly serious, as serious as he felt. Spock touched his face, and Kirk felt the stiffness of salt on his cheeks.
"You were the first thing I remembered," Spock said softly, his innocence tempered now by lost chances, and knowledge neither of them could unmake. "I will stand with you before the inquiry."
Kirk could only nod. He knew he should protest. The responsibility had been his, and Spock had borne no part of it. Things would be easier for them if one of them, at least, came out of this with some options. But pushing the issue would have been his old pattern, and it was time to start letting his friends choose their own paths, instead of always following his.
He cleared his throat and tried for a smile, though it felt pretty lopsided. "So, how does your schedule look for the next twenty years or so?"
"Jim." Spock's gaze was clear, certain. "Death could not part us. Do not fear."
Kirk closed his eyes and swallowed hard. His hand came up to rest against Spock's waist. He didn't care that they were standing in the middle of the Vulcan embassy, that anyone might see. "Just -- hold onto me for a while, all right?"
Spock's arms enfolded him, and Kirk held on for all he was worth.