“I heard he was getting promoted.”
“I heard he was getting demoted.”
“Why would they demote Admiral Kirk, numbskull?”
“Well, they already did it once.”
A laugh interrupts the bickering of the two students. They spin around and simultaneously pale when they spot the source of the sound. “Admiral Kirk!” one cries.
Rear-Admiral Kirk grins down at his dismayed pupils. “Cadet Thalin, Cadet Mabozi.” Thalin's blue antennae are waving in distress. “Now, did I hear you gossiping?”
“No, Sir!” Squawks Thalin.
“No, Sir!” Agrees Mabozi. “Only we were wondering, Sir, if – ow!”
Kirk looks pointedly skyward, grinning a little as Mabozi shoots her friend a betrayed look. They have a brief kicking exchange. He clears his throat pointedly after a few seconds, and the two seem to recall his presence.”
“Sir,” says Mabozi emphatically, “It's just, we know the promotion lists came out last week, and you've been acting a little strange since then.”
“So, naturally, you just assumed I was... depressed because I'd been promoted?”
“Or demoted,” Thalin interjects. Now Mabozi's the one to kick him.
“Or demoted,” Kirk amends, grinning wider. “Mustn't forget that possibility. Well, I'm sorry to shatter your hopes, but neither has occurred.”
“Are you alright, Sir?” Mabozi presses.
Kirk's laughing eyes soften. “Oh, I'm quit fine – I've just heard some interesting news. I expect you'll know of it soon enough. But, enough of my business. Shouldn't you both be getting to class? Professor J'nor, yes?”
“He's right!” Thalin yelps. “Bye-professor-talk-to-you-later!”
Kirk watches the pair scatter across the campus green. Passing cadets and faculty glance at him without curiosity and then move on. He is an established part of the scenery, and the thought has never been quite so bitter.
It is somehow not surprising when he sees Spock walking across the grounds to meet him. Somewhat pettily, he stays where he is, allowing the Vulcan to be the one to come to his position.
“Admiral,” Spock acknowledges when he reaches Kirk.
Spock assesses him for a long moment. “I do not assume that role for another two months,” is what he at last decides to use as a response.
“I thought congratulations would be in order.” Kirk pauses for a moment, plainly groping. “ - So. Congratulations.”
Spock shifts his weight, tilting back his chin. “You are displeased with my decision,” he announces.
“I said no such thing.”
“You do not have to say something for it to be so.”
“Don't play games, Mister.”
“I fail to see why you would feign emotions you do not feel - “
“Just accept the congratulations - “
“Our relationship has always been based on honesty - “
“Damn it, Spock, I'm happy for you!” Kirk snaps. “Quit making this harder than it needs to be!”
Spock looks back at Kirk calmly. Normally, Kirk has no problem meeting that Vulcan stare. He is easily able to discern the genuine warmth behind his friend's eyes. Today, though, he averts his gaze for another reason entirely.
Spock has always been able to read him far too easily.
After a beat, Kirk tugs at the cuff of his uniform and turns away. “You're lucky you're a Vulcan,” he says. “It's too hot out here. Let's go get something to eat.”
Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Kirk can't help himself.
“Will you be working with Sarek?”
“Not closely,” Spock answers. “Some intersection is inevitable, but as you know his recent health - “
“Yes, I was sorry to hear about that.” McCoy was the one to let it slip to him that Sarek's health is starting to falter – but as a Vulcan he should still have a few relatively healthy decades left.
He's wondering how to best offer consolation when Spock says, abruptly, “Many of my first diplomatic assignments are scheduled to put me among the envoys to newly-contacted or newly-discovered worlds.”
“It seemed...” Spock searches his face. Pauses.
After a moment, the Vulcan reaches down and picks up his spoon. He takes a sip of his soup.
“I'm sure it will be fascinating,” says Kirk, for lack of anything better to say. He does not comment on Spock's unusual falter.
Spock is toying with his fork. “Humans don't live very long,” he says, apropos of nothing.
“That we don't.”
Kirk wonders tiredly is this is just the start to a philosophical discussion – which is usually enjoyable – or a Vulcan version of an existential crisis – which is decidedly not.
“I am certain I will find my work fulfilling,” Spock tells Kirk, now sounding like he is trying to convince himself.
Kirk eyes him. “You're taking this post so you can... Work with people who with a similar lifespan?” he hazards. That issue has never bothered Spock before.
And, dammit, Kirk can be resigned to losing Spock if the Vulcan really wants to leave, but if he actually doesn't -
Spock looks uncomfortable. “That is overly simplistic,” he says.
“Then talk to me plainly, Spock. You know I don't like riddles.”
“On the contrary, you enjoy riddles very much.”
“I enjoy riddles as a game. I enjoy bluffing Klingons over the wrong end of a phaser and trying to figure out what the damn Tholians are talking about through that mess the Universal Translator gives us for their language. When you're being cryptic, Spock, it feels like the stakes are much higher. And that terrifies me.”
In the next booth, a Caitian child peers over at them with dark umber eyes. Her ears flatten briefly against her head. Then a word from her parents distracts her, and she turns away, tail twitching, and their strange tableau is forgotten.
Spock stirs after a moment, not quite meeting the admiral's eyes. “Have you seen Commodore Leightley lately?”
More non-sequiturs. “Yes, yes, Sharon, what does she have to do with anything?
“Have you seen her?” Spock presses.
“Just last week. We went to the opera.” Kirk leans back and folds his arms, clearly exasperated. “Now that I've answered one useless question, do I get to ask a real one? Is that how this works?”
But Spock is moving around, efficiently clearing things away and pulling on his jacket. He signals for the waiter. “I believe I need to be going, Admiral.”
“You're not going,” Kirk protests. “You haven't explained anything!”
“Perhaps it is best I did not, Jim. Good-bye.”
Alone in his apartment later that night, Kirk reflects on that discussion with obsessive intensity. Nothing Spock ever says is unimportant – not to him, anyway – but he's certain that he missed something, that there was some all-important subtext in the background of their conversation. For the life of him he can't figure it out.
For awhile he considers calling up Bones for advice – tag-teaming Spock usually proves to be a good tactic for getting the Vulcan to spill his secrets – but eventually he dismisses the notion. Somehow this feels personal.
Odd, that Spock's choice of career feels personal.
...No. He remains convinced that Spock doesn't really want to take the ambassadorial role, and that means Kirk needs to find out what's really going on.
The shrill chirping of his communications system interrupts his musings. Standing up and padding over to see the caller, Kirk sighs in disappointment to see the name 'Sharon Leightley' flashing on the system's yellow screen.
He answers it.
“Jim! We haven't talked in so long. Work been piling up?”
“Swamped,” he replies vaguely. His last two classes were canceled due to a special guest-lecturer and inclement weather, respectively. “How are you?”
“Oh, same old, same old. Anyway, I called to ask if you'd like to join me at the exhibition on Saturday – I mentioned it a few weeks ago? You're free, right?”
He is. All day, in fact, and it's probably one of his last such days for awhile; a Rear-Admiral has more to do than just grade papers, despite what his students might think.
Another thought occurs to him.
“You know, Sharon, I'm sorry, but something unexpected has come up. I'm afraid I'm all booked.”
“Oh. Well, alright,” she says with good grace. “Another time, then.”
“Sure,” he agrees, and wonders why the thought isn't at all tempting.
Maybe it's time to end things with Sharon?
Spock reacts to being dragged out of the Academy on Saturday with mute resignation, as though he's expected nothing less and is resolved to be thoroughly miserable without ever saying the word.
Kirk isn't bothered. He's familiar with this particular game of cat-and-mouse.
They go to a park and Kirk takes off his restraining, standard issue boots, grinning as he shifts his toes against the dirt.
Spock gazes at the sky as though it has personally wronged him.
“Now, isn't this a lovely day?” Kirk asks cheerfully. “You won't see nature like this in space.”
Spock gives him such a deeply skeptical look that Kirk actually feels heat rise to his cheeks. Yes. Okay. Perhaps he is not really the person to make an argument against starship-travel, then.
Spock could at least have the decency to let him pretend.
He changes tactics. “What do you hope to get out of this assignment?” he asks.
“I expect to serve the Federation to my fullest abilities. As always.”
Well, this is clearly worse than he thought. “I remember we always hated visiting ambassadors on the Enterprise.”
“That typically had less to do with their occupation, and more to do with the customary arrogance and preposterous demands of diplomats.”
Well, point. “And you think you'll be an immune to their faults?” Kirk teases.
“I believe there are many exceptions to the stereotype. It is simply unfortunate that power is so easy to abuse.”
Kirk hums noncommittally. “You never struck me as the type to want power.”
They walk past a flock of birds that startle at their passing. Spock side-eyes him. “There is no need to be rude.”
Kirk persists. “You always said you had no intention of becoming an ambassador; was that a lie?”
“It was not.”
“I know Vulcans can lie, of course,” he continues blithely. “ - It makes me wonder how many times you've lied to me.”
“You are being unkind.”
For Spock this is a harsh accusation.
Kirk ignores it.
“You might have lied about, oh, all sorts of things. Maybe your name isn't Spock! Maybe you're not a scientist. Maybe you aren't my friend - “
“Maybe you never were,” he adds, just to be cruel.
The hunted pain in Spock's eyes makes Kirk pause. He softens. “When are you going to stop running?” he asks lowly. Spock's sharp intake of breath tells him that he's found a mark, blindly, though he's just groping in the dark. “I thought that stopped after V'ger.”
For a long moment, silence rests between them. Then Spock says, “So did I.”
For all that this is the first real admission Spock has made, it doesn't feel like a victory. Grass crunches under their feet as they walk. Kirk waits.
“It took a long while for all my memories to return after Genesis,” says Spock at last. “Longer, still, for meaning to be restored to what I recalled. I knew that certain things – certain people – were important to me. If asked I could not have explained why.”
You've never been good at that,” Kirk says. “The explaining.”
“No. Perhaps not.”
They wind around the fractured remnants of a broken tree and weave into a grove of young saplings.
“I came back to you after V'ger because I failed the trials at Gol. Because I could no longer deny myself.”
“I was glad for that. I would never ask you to turn away from your heritage, but to deny everything - “
“I am leaving for those same feelings I once spoke of,” Spock interrupts. “As I did years ago. Because I stayed and it was not enough. I will not go to Gol again – but you can not be so cruel as to ask me to stay.
Kirk stops walking. His friend continues for a few more paces, falters, and then turns around. His eyes are piercing.
“Do you understand?”
Finally, Kirk does.
“What if I did ask you to stay?”
Spock's face is inscrutable. He starts to turn away.
Kirk reaches out and catches his wrist.
“What if I asked you to stay, and there was – and there was never a Sharon, or a Ruth or a Leslie or a Beth of anyone else. Ever again. Just...” He takes a breath. “Just you and me.”
Spock stares at him.
Kirk steps forward and leans his forehead against Spock's; the Vulcan doesn't stop him. “You're really bad at explaining things,” he says again. “...Tell me.”
For a moment, all he can hear is the wind and the sounds of distant laughter. Slowly, arms reach up to draw him close.
He breathes in the fragrant scents of summer. A voice speaks directly in his ear:
“I will stay.”