Spock had had absolutely no intention of asking Kirk about the Enterprise posting until approximately forty two seconds before he did so.
He had had very little intention of having any discussion with Kirk at all until he received from Uhura the encrypted message signalling Kor’s surrender and directing the Klingon Bird of Prey into Spock’s custody.
He had not forgotten Kor: Organia, Ayelborne, Kor’s dismissal of him as a storekeeper and the Klingon guard who had referred contemptuously to Spock’s apprehension about his captors, which was the smokescreen he had set up to protect himself from effects of the mind-sifter. Spock sensed that Kirk had derived a certain enjoyment from sending Kor to him. And he understood perfectly the present irony of the memory of his and Kirk’s guerrilla partnership against the forces of pacificism on that long ago mission.
Immediately after the conversation on the Copernicus, the temptation would have been for Spock to have withdrawn further from Kirk – his default tactic in difficult personal situations – were it not for Kirk’s final and (to Spock) astonishing affirmation of the bond which the Vulcan had privately considered moribund. Given the extent of the damage inflicted by each of them, it had not been sufficient for true healing, to give serious consideration to any sort of future closer working partnership with Kirk. It was, however, then followed by Kirk carrying out his orders blind, Kirk seconding Leo Santini to the Seleya – both events of extraordinary significance in what they suggested as to Kirk’s frame of mind in relation both to Spock and to Vulcan. But it was Kor’s surrender which caused Spock to reconsider, coming as it did on the heels of the first time Saredin had suggested Spock go to Gol, with Spock’s thoughts already beginning to turn towards kolinahr, to a different solution and the siren calls of peace, of belonging and of separation.
What seismic shift had occurred in Kirk that he could order Kor’s surrender not to himself but to Spock? It was the very casualness which struck the Vulcan – that the message had come from Uhura, not from Kirk; that it had included no space or opportunity for the captain of the Enterprise to include any deliberate personal communication, any self-defeating underlying message of I’m doing what you wanted – even a suggestion that the action was anything out of the ordinary. The impossible had happened – Jim Kirk had accepted Spock’s independence, had acknowledged Spock’s authority. And then had sealed the matter almost immediately by publicly advertising for a permanent replacement for the Vulcan - had done so precisely at the point when Spock had started the process of committing himself irrevocably to a future without Kirk.
He had not gone to Iowa to put his name forward. He had gone to Iowa because the grace and generosity of Kirk’s capitulation and the memory of his last words in the Copernicus meant that Spock could not, in all conscience, go to Gol without telling him; and also because he was in a state of indecision unusual for Spock and he genuinely wanted the views of the person who knew him best. He could not see a way back to the Enterprise. But he thought he might need a way back to Kirk.
And so he had come to Iowa, had found Kirk absent and had stood outside Kirk’s home and looked at the snowbound hills and in an echo (had he known it) of Kirk’s almost simultaneous thoughts, reflected on the contrast between the landscape he had left behind him on Vulcan, his own parents’ home and the sheer physical and climactic manifestation of all that was different between him and the human. His relationship with Kirk had been played out in a neutral, sterile starship with a backdrop of space and stars; the splintering of that relationship had come with the clashes between their cultures and their careers; here, where reconciliation beckoned, was an even vaster gulf - where it had all started – his desert home and his sun; Kirk’s hills and Kirk’s snow.
And then, against the backdrop of the glow of the wood-burning stove inside and the blanketing snow outside, had come Kirk’s answers, given openly and easily, catapulting him back in time, forcibly reminding him of what he had almost lost and almost forgotten: the strength of Kirk’s unique empathy for him, the extraordinary understanding which had always been against all odds, given those contrasts - desert and hill, heat and cold, logic and dynamism, dark and light. And that had culminated in Kirk’s almost shocking and deceptively simple offering about the Seleya posting “More than not regretting it, I am glad.” Considering the personal cost to Kirk of that posting, Spock found himself wondering how many other individuals - if any - could in honesty have uttered those words. And he had looked at his former captain and realised the converse truth of Kirk’s words from fourteen months earlier – entirely and permanently irreplaceable - and thought, quite clearly, that a return to the Enterprise might not be a coherent career move, that it would be met with surprise and without delight in a large number of quarters and that, in fact, no one on a spectrum from Surak to Leonard McCoy could be counted upon to deem it logical - but that there were things other than the verbal expression of gratitude that he had missed in his time on the Seleya, that it might be time to find the way back before it was too late.
And then the one thing he had not expected – Kirk’s refusal. Which, given the only possible rationale behind it, finally made up Spock’s mind for him.
Kirk was standing there now, facing him, looking utterly astonished at himself.
“I can’t believe I said that,” he said, running his hands through his hair in a characteristic gesture. “And I can’t believe you asked.”
The two locked eyes. Spock recovered first and asked the question.
“May I enquire as to your reasoning, Captain?”
“You have to ask? I have just spent the last fourteen months getting my head round you taking command. And I know it was more difficult than it should have been, Spock – everything you said to me on the Copernicus was true. But I’ve got there – I hope you’ve realised that I’ve got there. You’ve served as captain for over a year now and, yes, you’ve saved the galaxy and achieved universal peace – but just as importantly, you’ve proved that you can command, that you command very well, as I always thought you would. You can’t possibly give that all up and go back to being my First. It goes against everything you wanted me to learn – that you are not my subordinate, you don’t belong to me, you are more than my equal – and I’ve learned it, and learned it, and learned it – and now this! How could I possibly let you come back?”
“Everything we have discussed, from the moment I accepted the posting on the Seleya, throughout my command and including on the Copernicus, was based on my choices and on my abilities. We have not at any point discussed my preferences. I have always made it quite clear to you that I do not wish to command. I have discovered that I have the ability to command and to a degree that discovery has been gratifying. But it does not in any way affect my preferences.”
“But it must, Spock – it must. You’ve served with extraordinary distinction, you were given the most difficult command possible under the circumstances – and I didn’t make it any easier for you,” he added, honestly. “You not only managed to unify the Seleya crew and develop a partnership between them and Starfleet, you even managed me and the Enterprise as well.” He half smiled. “What you are asking doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical.”
He had been pacing distractedly; now he ended up facing Spock across the fire, sat down and threw out his hands in a gesture reminiscent, to Spock, of a hundred heated discussions in Enterprise briefing rooms.
“All right, I’ll stop talking. Explain it to me.”
Spock was silent for a minute. Then he said.
“Captain, it was an honour to serve with you on the Enterprise.” Kirk opened his mouth to protest and Spock, in an unusual gesture, raised a hand, “Please, Captain, I say that for a reason. It was a privilege to watch from close proximity the exercise of a function for which the talents of an individual were so supremely and precisely well suited. Your command of the Enterprise will rightly be recorded to a significant degree in the annals of Starfleet history and in Starfleet training manuals because you are a unique exemplar of the role of starship captain. I am able to perform the functions of command adequately, perhaps well, but it is not my chosen field and I do not excel to the same degree.”
He paused, but Kirk said nothing, paid Spock the respect of not demurring, and he knew he had his attention. He went on:
“My abilities – such as they are - to perform in the same way that you command lie in the field of scientific exploration and perhaps, in the future, in diplomacy. I do not see any logical purpose in actively pursuing roles in other fields. This was, in part, the reason for declining the positions I could otherwise have filled or continued to fill on the Seleya and at the Vulcan Science Academy. My interest in diplomacy I have already mentioned to you. However, I am prepared to wait to develop that interest; as I indicated, there may be areas of personal development which mean that I believe I may be more suited to the role at a later point in time. The pinnacle of my achievements in scientific exploration, the best contributions I have offered and the most lasting differences I have made have been in partnership with you. Captain - all things change. I am not suggesting that it is an occupation, a stage in life or even a partnership which can or should be permanent. Nevertheless, I consider that it ended prematurely due to external political forces. If we reach a decision tonight that I should continue with my career elsewhere than the Enterprise, there will only be a very remote probability of return. It is therefore logical to give proper consideration to the possibility that we might wish to revisit the option before permanently excluding it.”
“One more journey round the stars together before we all go home?” Kirk asked softly, an almost unreadable expression on his face. He wondered if the VSA, if the Seleya, if the Romulans understood this side of Spock which he had always treasured, the somewhat incongruous wanderlust, the restless travelling where the Vulcan scientist and the human leader had met and found their shared space. “Spock,” he went on, honestly, painfully “if that’s what you want, if it’s exploration – I don’t even know how much longer I’ve got. I don’t know whether they’ll let me keep her, afterwards. I don’t really know what the future holds, right now.”
“Perhaps that comprises an additional argument for taking advantage of what time remains. You will make your choices, Captain,” he said gently, “you always do.”
The seductive possibility of having Spock at his side in that most difficult of battles – the one he was dreading, not against the Klingons or the Romulans but against his own side, against the Starfleet authorities who would hold his fate in their hands at the end of the five year mission – the very temptation shook Kirk back into the present and he said, firmly:
“But it’s just not true. You just achieved the impossible between the Seleya and the peace process. No one in the galaxy, no one in their right mind would call that anything but excelling.”
And Spock said, very slowly,
“I consider that one of the most successful aspects of my command of the Seleya was ensuring that the mission was allowed to benefit from strategies which were, in fact, devised by you.”
Kirk looked at him sharply, and was back in the briefing room on the Seleya, the day the orders had come from Starfleet: his request for a private conference with Spock; Spock’s surprising acquiescence; that dialogue across the table; the strategy which he had proposed, Spock had accepted and they had somehow delivered together, despite everything. He had thought at the time that Spock had not wanted his input, that his contribution had been hard won – but then he had got everything else wrong, as well.
It didn’t make any difference now.
“But you can’t just ignore the fact that it’s all in the past, Spock. You can’t step in the same river twice. It’s going backwards, it’s turning back the clock – it’s not real life.”
“Your reference to the teachings of Heraclitus is slightly inaccurate and what you argue is illogical. I have identified my preferred professional roles. Neither the rank which attaches to them nor the fact of previous performance is relevant to my choice. Captain – I have, indeed, appreciated that you have accepted and acknowledged my authority over recent weeks. That is somewhat at variance with your current attitude. I put it to you that the precise manner and direction of the advancement of my career is, with respect, ultimately my decision rather than yours. It is for you to decide whether or not I am competent to apply for the position on the Enterprise.”
“Oh please. I’m not even going to begin to have that conversation with you,” said Kirk, irritably, “any more than I’m going to waste my breath admitting how much I want to accept. I am sitting on both hands to stop myself doing so, and I know you know that. Spock – there is nothing, nothing, I want more than to say yes. But how can I? And, just as importantly, how can I risk going backwards, undermining everything I’ve tried to make right between us the past weeks?”
Spock said, in entire and monosyllabic refutation of Kirk’s last argument:
“Jim,” - and Kirk deliberately looked away. Spock paused and then went on,
“Seventeen point one three months ago, when I was considering the offer of the command of the Seleya, the totality of the career guidance you offered me as my commanding officer at the time comprised the words “There is nothing to discuss”. I find it illogical and not entirely helpful that you have since that time so significantly altered your approach to the professional development of your officers.”
Kirk looked up swiftly, his expression half-amused, half-quizzical.
“Did you want me to interfere last year, Spock? You must have known I wanted to. But it’s one of the few things I’ve got right recently. It had to be your choice, not mine – particularly if there was any chance of you actually listening to me. If you didn’t know how much it cost me not to say anything, my failure lay not in my silence but in your ignorance.” He looked at Spock and his face softened at what he found there – and then he shook himself a little in order to go on. “But it’s not a fair comparison and you know it. That was promotion and this is demotion. And, frankly, even if I were to agree that it is your choice alone, there’s also the question of what it looks like in the eyes of the galaxy, of the Vulcans, of the Romulans, of everyone else – how can I possibly assume command over you in your former position? It’s out of the question.”
And Spock said,
“You are making another erroneous assumption.”
Kirk merely looked puzzled, uncomprehending.
“There is no demotion where there has been no promotion.”
“I have never accepted promotion to the rank of captain,” he said. “I have officially been Acting Captain for the past thirteen point nine months.”
Kirk opened his mouth in sheer shock and closed it again.
“You mean they didn’t even offer you a permanent increase in rank?”
“It was offered, but not accepted,” he said.
“Why not?” Kirk asked, astounded, and Spock’s silence provided the only answer there could have been.
Because he had always intended to come back.
At least, that is, until Kirk had made it impossible for him to do so.
Kirk stared at the Vulcan, every assumption and every understanding of the past year unravelling, like a single thread pulled in a loose-knit garment, the whole construct collapsed in his hands.
And Spock gazed back, impassively.
Again Kirk broke the gaze, deliberately. I am not going to do this, he thought, clinging on to the determination to do the right thing, feeling like a physical thing the ache of wanting to give in and agree. He cast around for an activity, for something to break the dynamic of sitting across the fire from Spock, being drawn into the sheer magical impossibility of what Spock was suggesting. Only one place to go and he crossed back to the sideboard and picked up the bottle of brandy again, and this turned out to be the worst possible tactical error, as Spock spoke from behind him,
“Captain, may I reverse my previous decision and accept a drink?”
He turned and, in turning, was back on the Enterprise, was sitting across from Spock in his quarters, a brandy-and-chess evening, the world at bay, just Spock and him in their private world, which he had forgotten for over a year (Stage Four, Category Four). Spock looked back at him, and Kirk thought – now what do I do? – and he said, helplessly, almost automatically, out loud, almost tasting the word, the one thing he had never thought to say to Spock ever again, the word which had always been more of a term of affection than anything else and which he only realised as he said it how much he had missed saying it – and, judging from Spock’s face, how much the Vulcan had missed hearing it –
“Commander?” and that was when he knew he had lost. Or won, of course, depending on your point of view.
2300 hours that evening, and he was still sitting across the fire from Spock, but he had hunted up some pasta and salad and found Sam’s old chess board.
“Check,” said Spock, thoughtfully.
Kirk looked consternated. He said, only half his mind on the game,
“If this is a sign of things to come, it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that I’ve made the right decision. None of my plans for this year included either giving you orders or losing to you at chess.”
Spock’s eyebrow rose, predictably. Kirk watched it, secretly delighting in the predictability.
“The latter is scarcely a novelty,” he pointed out. “And nor is the former.”
Kirk smiled, then said, more seriously,
“It will be different, though.”
“Yes,” Spock agreed, offering no more than that.
Kirk said: “When I was fighting Kor, I remembered all that nonsense I came up with on the Copernicus about you being stronger than me. It made me wonder – fighting Kor, I mean – if I hadn’t become too dependent on you, on us; if you hadn’t, as well; if being apart might be healthier.”
Well, he had promised Spock more words. He was just doing what he had said, even if he wasn’t making much sense. He wished he could be sure that it was the right decision instead of a compromise – between losing Spock to Gol on the one hand and on the other holding him back in a place where in the eyes of the galaxy his human captain was exploiting his abilities and his loyalties – when this might actually be true. And he heard Sam’s words, again: Compromise. That’s when no one gets what they actually want, right? Well, not quite, not this time. And Sam was dead. He kept remembering that.
Spock merely nodded, as if hearing more than the words themselves, and said:
“I do not dispute that serving together will be different, Captain. Your reference to the doctrine of Heraclitus, encapsulated in the so-called impossibility of stepping twice into the same river, is, in that sense, relevant. Heraclitus also said that nothing is permanent except change, and I have already paraphrased that truth this evening. All beings must accept the need for adaptation. My hope would be that our experiences over the past year would render our partnership more effective rather than otherwise. You once told Saredin that it is our differences which make us stronger. You were referring to the differences between individuals and specifically those between you and me, but in this instance it could perhaps also include the differences between what we were previously and what we have since gained and learned.” He paused, and then added very quietly indeed, “Heraclitus also said that character is destiny.”
Kirk threw him a very affectionate look which Spock, with years of practice behind him, managed effortlessly not to see.
“Furthermore,” he continued, “the evidence of the past forty seven point three minutes suggests that you may not have used the previous fourteen months to any great effect in terms of improvements to proficiency at chess, and you might wish to prepare yourself for other differences in our interactions in addition to those which might affect the performance of our professional duties.”
Kirk opened his mouth to protest vigorously; his eyes fell on the chess board and he abandoned what he had intended to say. He asked, thoughtfully
“And you’re quite sure about the Heraclitus quote?”
“Quite sure, Captain,” Spock responded, letting him hear the echo of a thousand other conversations. “The study of Surak is mandatory for all Vulcan students at an early stage and requires comparative study of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers in the original Greek and Latin.”
And Kirk smiled to himself and said:
“I meant to tell you, Spock...”
Spock looked up, enquiringly, and he said,
“Mike Harding is to chess what I am to ancient Greek philosophy in the original language.”
Their eyes met, as if saying more, and Spock allowed a faint smile of acknowledgement to reach his eyes.
“Checkmate,” he said, quietly. And Kirk laughed out loud, and they moved on from the moment.
2345 hours. Outside, it had begun to snow again, Kirk had gone to the window to watch, mesmerised, waving Spock over to try to share with him the enduring miracle which never failed to entrance, especially after the years behind the climate-free bulkheads of his ship. Spock had looked at the snow and at Kirk’s face, which looked entirely different from at any time he had seen it since the last game of chess on the Enterprise, and forbore for once to explain to his former and future captain the precise molecular structure of snowflakes and the physical causes of the white precipitation.
Kirk had said,
“Come outside and be part of it.”
And Spock had said, politely,
“No, thank you.” There were limits, even for Jim Kirk, even tonight.
And Kirk had smiled, said
“All right, then, pay the forfeit. Have another drink, instead.”
And here they were, sitting in front of the fire again, Spock on the throw-over, Kirk sitting on the hearth, feeding the fire. Neither was making the slightest attempt to end the evening. Spock could have pointed out the lateness of the hour to several decimal places, but he knew that Kirk was on shore leave and knew also that there were still words to be said and to be heard before the end of the day - that the passing of the evening would somehow usher in a different chapter. Vulcans, of course, do not require emotional resolution but then neither do they require sleep.
“Did I manipulate you into this?”
“You know better than to ask that, Captain.”
“I set my mind, after the Copernicus, to show you that you were wrong about me, about us, about everything.”
“I noticed,” Spock said, drily.
Kirk smiled a little, but he still looked troubled. Spock gazed at him for a couple of beats, then said, straight-faced:
“I concluded, after the experiences of Gamma Fortuna and the Delta conflict, that a re-assignment to the Enterprise would be the most efficient means of affording you effective physical protection.”
Kirk’s eyes widened and focused incredulously on Spock’s. He almost choked on his brandy before the reasons behind Spock’s comment trooped through his brain, like children holding hands in a crocodile queue.
Spock’s familiar dry humour was putting their dialogue quite firmly back where it had been fourteen months previously; was signalling an end to the introspection, to the dialogue of doubt and blame.
And the Vulcan was bringing into the Iowa farmhouse the ghost of that conversation on the Copernicus – ensuring that, far from constituting a no-go area between them, it had held certain truths, lessons learned which the Vulcan was not prepared to let go, once enunciated. All things change.
Spock was letting him know that the future would look different - including that the passive spectator role of allowing Kirk to court unnecessary danger might not readily be included in the duties which Spock was willing to resume.
And Spock himself was remembering that brief but unenjoyable period of time when Kirk had been missing with Kor in Delta sector; when Spock’s only role had been to wait for news from a helpless distance of two sectors. It was another small part of why he had come to Iowa.
All this was in Spock’s face as the two looked at each other, as Spock waited, and as a slow smile began to gather at the corners of Kirk’s mouth.
“All right,” he said, at last, nodding to the Vulcan in acknowledgement of the silent dialogue. “All right. At least we know where we stand. I consider myself warned.”
They had resumed the old pattern so easily, he thought, watching Spock as the Vulcan turned his face towards the flames. How could something so unutterably right be the wrong thing to do? But it was. He knew that no one he consulted would agree with or approve of re-appointing Spock to his old position on the Enterprise. Except McCoy, perhaps. And then he thought of Gol, wondered how anyone as extraordinarily intelligent and gifted as Spock could make such wrong choices. And at least being his First Officer was better than being brainwashed.
Which brought him back to Saredin.
“Why does Saredin want you to go to Gol?” he asked, hoping it would not disturb the harmony of the evening. But Spock’s tranquillity was unruffled, and Kirk sensed that the Vulcan was just as affected as he by the strange, out-of-time nature of these hours in front of the fire.
“He believes that the teaching of the Masters strengthens the Vulcan tradition and philosophy,” he said, thoughtfully. “He is not wrong. He believes that I would find it particularly helpful because of my divided heritage. He may be correct about that, as well.”
Kirk looked at him.
“That means he’s going to try to change your mind when you’re back on the Seleya.”
“That would be logical,” Spock agreed. He neither offered further assurances nor sounded troubled at the prospect. Kirk said nothing – there was nothing he could say – but he felt a gut unease, remembered Saredin in the sickbays of the two ships, that fierce, uncompromising intelligence coupled with a deep understanding of the emotional lives of others which he was able to appreciate and manipulate without appearing to possess any vulnerabilities of his own. He had told Spock that Saredin would make a good captain and had not changed his mind; he thought, also, that Saredin might be quite dangerous. One more thing about which he had been very, very wrong – Saredin was no idiot. He remembered that far-off conversation when he and Spock had first spoken about Saredin, before Spock had left the Enterprise – “You might describe him as fanatical – perhaps I would not go that far.” He said, suddenly, the rest of that conversation coming back to him,
“It would be worthwhile, you going to the Seleya, if you’d achieved nothing beyond helping Saredin to understand what Starfleet could learn about Vulcan from you.” And then, giving into the need to say it, “Don’t assume the converse is true, Spock. I don’t believe there is anything you need to learn from Gol.”
Spock said, so gently that the words failed to tear any fabric in the peace of the night,
“Captain. We have already discussed at some length the issue of trust.”
Kirk nodded, slowly, hearing the warning. And then, following another strand of thought, asked “Does your father know you are here?”
“Will he mind? That you are going back to Starfleet?”
“Yes,” said Spock, without either elaborating nor sounding very interested in the question. Then he looked at Kirk and his expression softened. “My father and I have worked effectively together this year and I believe we have both found that a rewarding experience and one which allowed us to develop a stronger mutual understanding. However, my career remains my choice and not his. I do not believe that this will cause him any lasting difficulty.”
Kirk said nothing, satisfied.
“Commander T’Mala is content to serve under Saredin. At least, for the time being. I believe that next year she is intending to join her bondmate where he is stationed on Vulcan.”
“Her bondmate?” Kirk said, startled. “I thought, that is, I wondered...” He shut up, quickly, realising what he was saying. Spock gave him a long-suffering and transparently understanding look and Kirk bit back a grin.
“Spock - what I said to you just when I left the Copernicus...”
“If I recall correctly, you referred to your preference for developing a relationship with another individual who might be (to quote verbatim) “a little less hard work”.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Did you wish to retract the description?”
“God, no. You’re more hard work than most Klingons I know. No, but I’d like to retract the preference I expressed. I’ve got used to it this way, somehow. It would feel odd if it were easy.”
0145 hours. They had been silent for a few minutes and Kirk went into the kitchen, made some coffee for himself and brought some fruit juice out for Spock with a slightly odd look.
“I hope apple juice is OK. I’ll restock the ship’s supplies after shore leave,” he said, holding the glass out. For a brief second in time, Category Three guava juice meetings hovered in the air – the admission that Kirk had never made and Spock had never elicited about the stocks of guava juice in the captain’s quarters on the Enterprise - and then both decided to let it continue unarticulated.
Kirk sat down, hands cradling the hot mug of coffee with great satisfaction, and said:
“How is Leo Santini doing?”
“He is performing admirably,” Spock said. “He is learning a considerable amount from both Saredin and T’Mala.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Kirk said. “So long as he comes back and does some teaching as well as learning. How are the breakages on board?”
“All equipment on the Seleya is intact, Captain,” said Spock, in the tone of one who rises above the conversation. Kirk started to grin and then remembered suddenly Santini dropping the medical consignment on Alpha Gemma, Spock’s call from Sarek and thinking that it was an omen, that what was broken couldn’t be fixed. He brushed past the memory, asked:
“And how is my friend Sub-Commander Tal? Did you see him at the peace conference?”
“On occasion,” Spock said, straight faced. “It is possible that he might fail to recognise your description of him.”
“Enemies are just friends we haven’t made yet,” Kirk said, lightly. “I enjoyed our little encounter, although I enjoyed seeing Kor rather more.”
“I wonder, Captain, given the confrontational nature of so many episodes in your recent history, whether you might not like to consider the value of a secondment to Vulcan yourself?”
Kirk gave him a look. “It would have the merit of resolving my concerns about your proposed posting as my First Officer, but there would be other difficulties, including if I needed house calls from my personal physician. Spock – I don’t need a secondment to Vulcan and I don’t need any more generic lessons about your people. I’ll do the rest of my learning person by person. It’s the best way.” He cocked an eye at Spock in challenge and the Vulcan nodded slowly and leaned back in his seat, as though accepting the answer to a question.
0230 hours, and Spock stirred in the fireside seat.
“I must return to the Seleya,” he said.
“I was going to make you up a bed,” he said. “It’s really late, Spock – I thought you were going to stay the night, stay for longer.”
“I have only taken twenty four hours’ leave, Captain, and I spent a not inconsiderable amount of it travelling and awaiting your return this afternoon. The Seleya has received orders to assist in a new mapping exercise in the Andolian system and all personnel are recalled with effect from 1400 hours tomorrow. If I leave now, that will provide sufficient time to return to the ship.”
He stood, the rare intimacy of the evening dropping away from him and the outside world reaching to reclaim them both. As he turned towards the door, Spock felt the warmth of the fire recede and the freezing air outside waiting for him.
And Kirk, uncoiling from the hearthrug and standing to face the Vulcan, automatically began to lift his hand towards Spock’s shoulder in a trademark farewell, before the tangible memory arose between them, like a physical thing, of the last time he had attempted this gesture. Not the best way to say goodbye. And not the ta’al and not the handclasp from the last leave-taking on the Enterprise. Kirk checked and then, very deliberately, with a movement which banished every checked instinct and stifled communication of the past year – heart slightly in mouth, with Saredin and the Seleya both inescapably in mind – put himself metaphorically and literally in Spock’s hands, reached out and lightly held both Spock’s upper arms, standing almost in an embrace. He withdrew almost immediately, but not before he had felt the answering pressure of Spock’s hands on his own arms, closing the circle, like an answer, like coming home. It was enough.
He grabbed a coat and followed Spock outside. It had stopped snowing and the world was white and still again, with no trace of his earlier journey home, that last rush on seeing Spock, the clumsy tracks he had made down the slope behind the farm. Spock had left the aircar on the lower field, below the out-houses, and they walked over in silence.
“Safe journey, my Vulcan friend,” he said. “I’ll see you in four months.” And then, straight-faced: “I’ll write.”
Spock opened the door to the aircar and turned as he stepped through. He lifted his hand in the ta’al as he asked:
“Would you like me to quote you the odds against that happening, Captain?” and Kirk laughed and said “Not this time,” raising his own hand and Spock said “Goodbye, Jim,” and the door closed behind him.
Kirk walked slowly back to the farmhouse, noticing the two sets of footprints where they had walked down to the field together. And then, without warning, without the anchor of the Vulcan’s presence and the strength of his certainty, the gathering sense of unease inside him crystallised, and he thought – It’s still wrong. It’s all wrong. Spock himself must know it was wrong. And now he had gone back to the Seleya for four months – to Saredin and Saredin’s advocacy for Vulcan. For Gol.
Kirk stopped in the snow. Out of nowhere, he remembered the morning he had first heard about the Seleya – the four point two seconds it had once taken him to arrive in Spock’s quarters and say Tell me you’re not going – remembered the enormity of the sense of impending loss and how simple it had once been to speak out in its face. He spun around, wanting to retract the farewell ta’al, to say – in spite of everything – that Spock should not only come back to the Enterprise, but come back there and then that very night, get out of the aircar, ditch it in a snowdrift somewhere - anywhere, let someone else caretake the Seleya for the next mission, until Saredin could take over.
But he remembered once more the pitfall of trust. Trust without words. In any case, above the farm, the aircar had already lifted up, disturbing clouds of newly settled snow as it headed into the dark, and Spock was gone.