Iowa in February. Snow, everywhere. White landscapes, crystallised buildings, hidden contours. Ironic, really, to have come home after so long away at a time when most of it was, to all intents and purposes, invisible.
It had been a good wedding – part Mike and Lisa (their story, their happiness, their reunion and the start of a new life together, planetside), but also part end-of-mission celebration, at the same time, that need the crew always had to let go, to remember that they were all still alive and had beaten the odds yet again. He hoped Lisa hadn’t minded. Harding had asked him to be best man and he had been surprised and touched. He had made a speech (with a number of references to Mike’s ineffectual approach to chess and how he hoped he’d do better at marriage), had danced with Lisa and with Uhura and had had rather too much to drink with McCoy and Harding. He had relaxed his guard, it felt like for the first time in months, and just let the evening and the atmosphere own him. He had found time to take Mike to one side and thank him for the past year – and it was true, it would have been inexpressibly worse without him. He couldn’t imagine doing what Mike was doing, though – settling down for life with one person. Maybe sometime; but he didn’t think he had it in him to make someone happy like that, and there came to him, then, the list of all those he had failed. The lead suspects- Gary Mitchell, Edith Keeler, Miramanee, Janice Lester. The less obvious ones – his mother (if he had learned anything this year, it was about writing to his mother, he would write to her now, while he was on leave, as well as making time to see her, and he would keep writing when he was back on the ship). Sam - he couldn't even remember the last time he had seen Sam before he died. Peter - he must see Peter. Spock, he thought, and shied away from the thought, like a wound which was still too raw.
I'm a starship captain, he thought. There was nothing wrong with that, but there was a price you paid. He wondered if that made him lonely. He didn't think so. He had too much to do.
After the wedding he had arranged leave for everyone, with the ship stationed in orbit for a whole three weeks while he worked through changes in personnel and while the galaxy worked through changes in the political landscape and while the next mission and the assignment of the Enterprise hung suspended, as the ship herself did, outside his home planet. What would it mean to his ship, the successful end to the peace conference, the restoration of the old Vulcan-Starfleet alliance, and what did the future look like for all of them, with the end of the five year mission now in sight?
And then he had come home, to Iowa. Originally, he had thought that the Enterprise would be in orbit around Earth for Christmas, and had planned to spend the holiday at home with his family (in part, at least, to take away the taste of Christmas the previous year, of losing Spock) but due to the war it was now weeks later and the family ranch was deserted. He had gone to see his mother in town, spent two days with her and thought that might be sufficient close confinement for both of them for the time being and set off, with some relief, for the wide open spaces of his childhood home.
The Enterprise was home now, was lover, life and limb, was all he needed for the time being, but there was no escaping the face that she was short on opportunities for solitude, and Kirk found the peace of the snowbound landscape healing after the past months. A time to take stock – literally so, as he chopped wood to pile up in the old farmhouse. He went for long walks, trudging through snow drifts, helped neighbours with ploughs, slept exhausted at night. It was a good time, restorative, regenerative.
After three days, he sent through an official request to Startfleet HR for profiles of serving senior helmsmen and science officers and downloaded the most interesting to study in the evenings. He posted an official notification of the science officer vacancy and would post the helmsman vacancy when he had spoken to Sulu, after he had returned from his own shore leave in San Francisco which was when Kirk was going to offer him the promotion to First Officer. The shape of the bridge crew would look very different. Different wasn’t necessarily worse, he reminded himself. Different was just different. He wondered about Leo Santini, how he was finding life on the Seleya, and what he thought about different.
And Spock, this recruitment process says you are not my subordinate and I do not own you and I respect where you’ve gone.
Given where Spock had, in fact, gone, he wondered whether there was a way to build a friendship with him outside the infrastructure of rank altogether. Outside Starfleet, outside the military; perhaps that would be easier. Perhaps Kirk would have to learn how to write letters. Proper letters.
A beautiful day, all blazing cold skies and blue light on snow, saw Kirk abandon (without much reluctance) three science officer resumes, pack a light lunch and depart for a long walk over the hills. It was odd how after years in space treading the walkways of his ship, his feet could still find their way along the familiar routes of the Iowa hills. Here, he and Sam had built a tree house; there, a snowman; there, they had camped out all night and set traps and fought over whose trap had been responsible for the capture of a rather elderly rabbit. It felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and he knew that it was he who had changed. Not Iowa, which never changed; not Sam, who was dead. He was not the same person who had grown up on this farm – and, come to that, he was not the same person who had last visited here, eighteen months earlier. He had never been quite so uncertain of his future, which made it an odd time to revisit his past.
He reflected that Iowa grounded him in a different way to how space grounded him – that feeling of perspective which he had always got from the stars, from the proximity to space of a solo shuttle flight. And then he thought how odd it was that the common factor was cold – the bitter freeze of the Iowa winter and the endless chill of space, and how different it must be for Spock, who had returned to the heat of the desert from which he had come. Yet one more difference between them which he had, perhaps, never fully taken into account. Perhaps that had been the essence of what he had got wrong, he thought. He had mentally adopted Spock as a kind of extension of himself, perhaps of his family, but Iowa would be utterly alien to Spock. They had complemented each other so very perfectly that he had ended up treating Spock and himself on one level as the same, had overlooked their vast differences. Yes, he would write to Spock. He had given him enough distance and silence and it was, perhaps, the right time to offer words again. If he could find the right ones.
Somewhat bemused by what they might be, he started a message to Spock in his head - and found that he had been out for hours, that the light of the day had gone and that he was a long way from the farm. He turned back and followed a route home, over the contours of the hill, enjoying the feeling of the snow compacting under his feet as he trod, visibility never quite fading as the moonlight reflected the white of the landscape. Once, he slid down a slope on his back and laughed out loud, thought Sam! - but thought it in a good way, perhaps for the first time since losing his brother.
As he neared home, he saw a shape outside the front door, dark against the snow and thought he had been out on his own thinking of the past for too long and was conjuring the image of his dead brother. Then, as it solidified, he thought it was one of the neighbours, needing more help with a plough. Or perhaps, he thought, heart sinking, it was someone from Starfleet – he wasn’t yet ready for the interruption, was enjoying his solitary interlude. And then the shape turned towards him with a characteristic movement of the head and he saw that it was Spock.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked.
He had started to run, when he realised it was Spock, and running had not been sensible, in the snow in the dark. He had ended up slithering much of his way back down to the farm and arrived breathless, damp and laughing at himself in a way which broke any awkwardness of the encounter and saved the immediate need for any explanations. He realised quickly that the Vulcan must be frozen and opened the door to take him inside, brushing past the extraordinary fact of Spock, with him at all and not only that but here in Iowa, in the scene of Kirk’s own childhood. He threw some logs on the fire, opening all the vents to wake up the flames, gestured Spock towards a fireside seat (banishing, as he did so, incongruous memories of his past on the same, battered, deep red throw-over – his mother never put things out for disposal – evenings sitting with his mother, reading a book side-by-side with his grandmother, even his first date) and then had reached for some glasses, throwing out the question as he did so.
“No, thank you,” Spock said.
Of course not, he thought to himself resignedly. Back to this again – well, it was what he had signed up for. Back to the beginning, Stage One, Category One. He ran a hand through his hair and for the briefest of moments wondered whether he wanted it this much, whether he could make the effort of rebuilding again, from the beginning. And then he thought – It’s Spock – and remembered that the Vulcan was here, that there must be a reason.
“Tell me if you’re still cold,” he said.
“I am entirely comfortable, Captain, thank you,” Spock replied.
“And tell me how the galaxy is managing without you,” he said, lightly.
“The formalities of the peace conference have now been concluded,” the Vulcan responded. “There is a considerable amount of work ahead and I expect to be involved to some degree but on a more tangential basis than previously. In essence, I have taken a short amount of leave before embarking in a new direction. That was the purpose of contacting you.”
Kirk’s heart jolted briefly and then began to beat more quickly. Skipping past Spock’s unique admission of having taken shore leave, which would in any other context have been the most startling and attention-worthy statement in any one period of twenty four Earth hours, he asked, aiming for a tone of voice somewhere between interested and casual, and suspecting that he was failing entirely,
“What’s the new direction, Spock?”
And the Vulcan turned towards him, slowly, met his eyes and said:
“I was hoping to have the opportunity to discuss possibilities with you.”
The room stilled around him, and then Kirk stood, abruptly.
“OK,” he said, “you may not want a drink, but I do.” He walked back over to the sideboard and poured himself a brandy, his mind entirely blank as he did so, unable to think of a single word to say next. He took a sip as he stood, facing the window, looking out into the darkness, and then deliberately made himself turn around and walk back to sit down in an armchair, across the room from Spock. He was not at all sure what was coming but he needed desperately both to meet Spock half way, to give him what he wanted and not to give too much. (Stage One, Category One.) He looked at the Vulcan as though hoping to find clues, signposts anywhere in his face which would help Kirk to understand what he needed, and Spock looked back with his normal impassivity but without the severity of the previous months. And Kirk relaxed, suddenly, forgot the past year and focused on giving advice to a friend.
“Tell me what the choices look like,” he said, gently.
Spock steepled his hands (another step back down memory lane for Kirk) and said:
“The VSA have offered me a post as Head of Operations.”
Kirk’s eyebrows shot up.
“Spock, that’s extraordinary!” he exclaimed, meaning it. “It’s more than extraordinary, it’s wonderful, it’s fabulous. Entirely deserved, of course, but a fantastic honour. And what an amazing acknowledgment for you – that you are what they want, that they value who you are, after everything. It’s total vindication and it’s total acceptance. I am so pleased for you. ” He was, too.
Spock looked at him a long time, as if taking in the words. Kirk had the feeling that he was listening to everything he said, weighing it up. Why? he thought. Was it a test? He had no real objection to being tested, he thought Spock had every right, but he would have liked to have known the question before he had a stab at the answer.
The Vulcan said,
“I have declined the offer.”
Kirk was stunned. Too stunned to know what to say, aware of a whole range of questions rising to his lips of which the most pressing (Why? and Then why come and tell me about the offer?) he did not feel he could ask. Still with a feeling of walking in the dark, with an unpleasant suspicion that his responses could commit either him or Spock to future courses of action which he would not otherwise have chosen, he said, very carefully,
“So, tell me about your other choices.”
Spock said, expressionlessly
“The Romulan Commander has offered me a position as head of science in the Romulan Fleet.”
Their eyes met.
Kirk, gaining confidence, and with a degree of certainty as to what he read in Spock’s face, said, risking it:
“Did she have another position to offer, of a different nature, in addition to being head of science?”
“She did,” the Vulcan confirmed.
“And I take it you have declined both of them, as well as the VSA?”
“You are correct,” Spock said.
Kirk smiled a little, feeling better. Perhaps he could think of them as being nearer Stage Two than Stage One.
“OK, three down. Tell me about your other choices.”
Spock stirred a little, and Kirk thought – those were the options he didn’t want. The conversation hasn’t been important yet, but we’re getting there.
“Saredin has asked me to remain as captain of the Seleya for a further period of some four point two months, to allow a transition before command transfers to Saredin himself.”
“Oh?” said Kirk. He thought. “Is that a given, that Saredin will be the next captain? Has that been decided? What about T’Mala?” And what about you? he thought, but didn’t say.
“Commander T’Mala is not interested in the command function,” Spock said. He met Kirk’s eyes with perfect understanding as to what Kirk was remembering and thinking, and went on, “I have approved Saredin’s promotion. Under VSA regulations, he cannot take up the post for another nineteen point three weeks, but I believe that he will perform the role to a satisfactory standard.”
“I agree,” Kirk said, slowly. He did, too. He remembered Saredin’s extraordinary admission in the sickbay of the Enterprise, the reports from Santini over the past weeks on the Seleya. “I suspect the Seleya has done rather well for herself in terms of commanding officers.” He met Spock’s eyes, daring him not to believe that he meant every word. And found nothing of challenge, no barrier there. Just the old understanding.
Then what was he doing here, on the red throw-over in front of the fire in Kirk’s farm?
He swallowed, thinking – this must be it, said as gently as he could,
“Is that the final list? Or do you have any other options remaining? If what you say is true, you must be planning to leave the Seleya in a few months.”
And Spock raised his eyes again to Kirk’s and said:
“I have been discussing with Saredin the possibility of studying for a while at Gol.”
It was not what he had been expecting at all and the feeling of being lulled back into the familiar understanding, the old empathy, vanished abruptly into shock as Kirk entirely and completely forgot every intention of providing objective advice in the best interests of his friend. He forgot all about rebuilding from the beginning, forgot Stage One and Category One, forgot Stages Two to Four and Categories Two to Four, forgot that he had decided to approve of Saredin, forgot everything except the single last syllable which had been spoken and the person sitting across the room from him and said forcefully:
Spock raised an eyebrow. It looked very much as though he understood entirely the long list of things Kirk had forgotten, though it also looked as though he was not overly disturbed by the lapse of memory, possibly even amused.
“Captain, I appreciate deeply the objective consideration and detailed analysis you are generously bringing to the function of considering my future plans.”
Spock was teasing him for the first time in a year and Kirk entirely ignored the near impossibility of this as he said:
“Spock, don’t do it. I know you are angry with me and you have every right to be angry with me. If there were anything I could do – anything – to make things better, to put things right – then I would, I hope you know I would. But if I can’t – and I have to live with that – at least find another way forward. Don’t wall yourself up in Gol. Don’t walk away from everything else. You’re worth so much more.”
And then he thought – Oh God, another judgment passed on Vulcan – more prejudice on my part, more censure. But there was no way out of this trap. And if this was the test, it wasn’t fair. He had learned the hard way not to take Vulcan virtues for granted, to look below the surface. But Gol was an ask too far.
Spock was looking as though he could read every thought in Kirk’s head (which he probably could, Kirk thought despairingly, meaning that he’d lost, anyway). He said:
“Understand, Captain, I have not been considering an application to Gol because of any hypothetical negative emotion directed at you.”
Well, that put me in my place.
At least he was considering going and had not applied. Yet. He swallowed back another outburst, and said cautiously,
“Are you going to tell me why?”
The humour left Spock’s face, making Kirk realise how animated he had been looking, how much like the Spock of the old days, the five year mission. He steepled his fingers again, looking this time away from Kirk into the fire, and said, very seriously,
“You overhead me on Gamma Fortuna explaining to the Romulan Commander that I had achieved a level of reconciliation within myself as a result of the Seleya mission.”
“Yes,” Kirk interrupted, “and I haven’t had the chance to say anything. But I have been so very glad for you.”
Vulcan eyes lifted and there it was again, that old understanding. Spock said, quietly – so quietly Kirk was unsure he had heard correctly, “I know that, Jim,” and then went on, so quickly it might never have happened but for the almost physical alert which went off in Kirk’s mind.
“I have found, though, that it has not resulted in any improved communication with those around me. Logically, it should have made it easier to pursue dialogue with both humans and Vulcans during the peace process, but this has not transpired and I admit to it having been a disappointment. Instead, I find that being the sole known Vulcan-human hybrid means that neither of the communities to whom I am genetically linked are able to recognise one half of who I am. This would not present a difficulty unless I allowed it to do so. To allow it to do so is illogical. And yet, this is what has happened.”
Kirk held his breath. Spock was talking to him – really talking to him, certainly in a way which he had not for over twelve months but more than that - probably in a way he never had. If he didn’t breathe for the rest of his life, crossed all his fingers and toes and prayed, perhaps the miracle would continue. Perhaps there would be another miracle and he would know how to respond.
“The peace process and the role I played in facilitating it have been of professional interest to me. It is possible that, at some stage in the future, I might wish to pursue a path which would involve a more significant engagement in the diplomatic function. Were I to do so – and, whether I do so or not, for optimal professional and personal development in any sphere – an important focus must be to maximise communication skills. Everything I know of psychology suggests that to achieve effective communication it is first necessary to ensure understanding from within. Despite what I may have allowed Dr McCoy to believe” (another glimmer of humour, which Kirk ignored entirely in his absolute focus on Spock’s words) “I have always known that the primary obstacle for me in relation to certain channels of communication has been inner conflict. Inner resolution once achieved, theoretically, any remaining difficulties must be due to the perception of those who surround me. However, it is neither within my gift to change those attitudes nor logical to believe it is likely to come about in the near future. Therefore, the only change which could still lie within my control is the degree of impact on me of those perceptions and attitudes. My interest in Saredin’s suggestion that I study at Gol lies in the potential to divest myself of vulnerability to that impact.”
He stopped speaking and let the silence come back into the room.
Kirk said, very quietly.
“Do I get to say anything?”
Spock turned his eyes to him, and said: “My presence here is evidence that I would welcome your views, Captain,” and said it as though it were really true.
Time for that miracle. What could he say? Last time he had tried to speak to Spock, everything he said had made it worse. Almost at random, he seized on the idea as if it were, at least, somewhere to start.
“Spock – despite what you say, some of this is my fault. Can we talk about that, at least? Every word I said, that day in the Copernicus – you have no idea how much I have regretted it, since.”
Spock lifted up his head.
“Captain, if I were keeping an account of apologies such as I used to maintain in relation to chess matches, the computation would find you ahead of me by a considerable margin. I am not proud of that conversation, either. It is true that my participation in it is another reason for pursuing a course of study with the Masters. However, that is due to my responsibility and my conduct and not yours. Perhaps it is because I am only half Vulcan that I allowed the conversation to run the course it did. I would not willingly either inflict on others or suffer myself a similar dialogue in the future. I believe that an appropriate period of study would enable me to achieve both professional and personal objectives at the same time.”
Kirk said, clumsily: “It was me, not you. You do not owe me any kind of apology.”
“That is a matter of opinion, Captain,” Spock said. “I am not unaware of alternative and potentially more appropriate courses of action which I might have adopted at significant points over the past year. I might at least,” he added, looking carefully at Kirk, as through struggling with what he was saying, “owe you some words.”
“Words?” he said, confused. And then, understanding, “No, Spock. I was wrong. Utterly, utterly wrong. I have always trusted you, will always trust you. As much – in fact, rather more than I trust myself. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you don’t say. It never did.”
“Perhaps not,” Spock said. “But there are other reasons for the deployment of words and I may have overlooked them.”
“We haven’t necessarily always been that good at words, you and I,” Kirk said, carefully, feeling his way. “And that’s a shared responsibility. Don’t go to Gol because we got it so spectacularly wrong last time we tried. You were dead right that we have never needed words in the past, but there’s nothing wrong with words; they don’t have to be ugly. The answer is not to run away from people – silence will never teach you how truly to communicate. You could have written but I could have written, too. It doesn’t stop us being here, now, talking. If the peace delegates weren’t able to understand you, that was their loss, but it didn’t stop you achieving the end result, to universal acclaim. If you encounter prejudice, it doesn’t stop you seeking out the individuals who know you for who you truly are – and there will always be such people, Spock; give us all another chance. You say change is unlikely, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes this year, and I’ve managed to think it through and learned a lot and that means change is always possible for any of us. You know – you must know that I value all of who you are, Vulcan and human. This step you’ve taken now towards understanding yourself better – don’t you think you’re jeopardising that by going to Gol – how will the Masters understand the bit of you which is human? Don’t risk what you learned about yourself the last year, Spock. I was wrong about everything about the Seleya, from first to last, from the very first conversation we ever had about her, when they offered you command, and I know that now and I admit it. Are you glad – that you took the posting, I mean? After everything?”
Spock looked at him.
“I have regrets, but I do not regret that decision, no.”
Kirk spread his hands. “Then neither do I. More than not regretting it, I am glad. Glad about what you got out of it and even what I got out of it. Despite everything.”
The Vulcan listened to the words as if they were more than what Kirk could manage to come up with mid-brandy, as if they mattered, as if they were coherent, as if they made sense. Kirk stared at him, thinking – what else, what else can I say? He opened his mouth, but Spock got there first.
“I did not say that I had reached an irrevocable decision to adopt Saredin’s suggestion, Captain,” he said, mildly.
“I merely put it forward as an option. It was Saredin’s proposal rather than mine. I admit to having given it very serious thought indeed, but in fact there is still one alternative option which might be open to me and on which it would be also helpful to me to seek your views.”
Kirk wondered whether he should get himself another drink or whether he was better off trying to stay clear headed. One more option. Thank God for that. Surely, he thought, it can’t be worse than Gol?
“Go on, then. What’s the last one?” he asked.
Spock looked straight at him.
“I understand that you are looking for a science officer,” he said. “I would be interested in your views as to whether it would be appropriate for me to apply for the role.”
And saw Kirk check in mid-drink, lower the glass, stand up, walk over to the window, stare out into the darkness for perhaps ten seconds, turn around and say, very quietly, the one thing Spock had not expected, although a nanosecond before Kirk opened his mouth, he knew what he was going to say.
“I don’t think so, Spock. I’m sorry. But no.”