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Story Notes:

Prequel/outtake of my story Learning Home, which was written in the early months of 2004 for Beyond Dreams 7. This piece was actually how I started writing the original version of Learning Home. I had a complete outline for a lengthy novel, and realized I'd never get it written by deadline, dammit! So here is the first two chapters of that longer story idea...it still makes a damn good prequel of sorts. Not a lot of action, per se, but...I'm rather fond of my older guys here. Hope you are, too.

Passages by sundara

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.
                                                        --Willa Cather

Come out of the circle of time and into the circle of love.

Kirk shook his head in a curiously calm manner. "It's time. Can't you feel it?"

Ensconced in a deep chair with his feet up, Leonard McCoy eyed his old friend and captain. "It's not a matter of what I feel, Jim. It's about what you feel."

"What I feel...." Kirk turned and walked over to the large transparent aluminum window running the length of the officer's lounge. Regular stars dotted the background and Luna Base slid by in slow motion as Enterprise crept toward Space Station One at sub-light speed. "Bones, I feel like I've given everything I have to Starfleet and the Federation. Now it's time for me."

"To do what?"

A slow grin blossomed. "Anything I want."

McCoy looked skeptical. "Well, Jim, after hoppin' galaxies and savin' it from V'ger and the alien whale probe and then the coup at Khitomer and god knows what all else over the years, being grounded's gonna be just a tad dull, don't you think?"

Kirk shook his head. "I've already got a thousand and one different offers, from Starfleet and the Federation, to corporations and planetary governments I've never even heard of." He shot a wry, humorous glance at McCoy. "Boredom is just one choice among many. No," he shook his head again, "this time, Bones, it really is time."

McCoy appraised him. "You really mean that."

Kirk walked back to the couch and sank down next to McCoy with a small grunt. "Yeah, I do." He smiled at McCoy. "I'm okay, Bones. Really. I think I've finally wrung everything I want out of this uniform."

"Well, I sure as hell couldn't argue with that." McCoy sighed. "I'm looking forward to a little less excitement. Joanna's invited me to come and stay with her and the girls for a while."

"Really? That's great. I'm glad to hear it."

McCoy grinned. "Yeah. I've got my sights set on loungin' on the porch for a while, listening to nothing more important than happy chatter from those three. Did you know that Sally's gettin' ready to attend med school?"

Kirk's eyes widened. "Med school? That little scamp? My god. If that doesn't bring home the reality of time passing, I don't know what does."

"Yup. Time to kick back, Jimmy-boy. There's no empty place on your chest for more medals, anyway."

Kirk sighed. "I hope your retirement to Georgia doesn't mean every time I talk to you, I'm going to get an earful of southern, folksy wisdom."

"Why Jim-boy-"

The comm chirped. "Spock to Capt. Kirk."

"-what's the matter with a little bit a' Georgia charm?"

Kirk sent him a sour look while answering the hail. "Kirk here."

"Captain, ETA for Space Dock approach is 3.6 minutes."

"On my way." Kirk heaved himself up from the low-slung seat and turned to look at McCoy with a faint smile. "Last time heading in. You coming?"

McCoy pushed himself upright. "Have I ever missed an important occasion on the bridge?"

The doors slid back as Kirk approached. "I can think of plenty of times I wished you had."

"Hey, now, there's no need for insults." McCoy peered at him suspiciously. "Why do I have the sudden feeling it was you who tabled my suggestion to Command years back, recommending fully equipped emergency med techs on all starship bridges?"

Kirk shook his head. "One of the few times I was damn glad for my position in the Admiralty." The turboshaft doors closed behind them. "Bridge. Bones, the last thing we need is more bodies cluttering up the bridge. We've got twice as many crew stationed there now than we had twenty years ago."

"I swear, I think if you could have put all the bridge personnel somewhere else on the ship, you'd have been quite happy half the time being alone up there, makin' love to your grand lady. Well, I suppose you'd want Spock there, too."

Kirk shot McCoy a look of mild amusement. "I think your libido needs permanent shore leave-it's coming out in strange ways."

McCoy huffed. "You know what I mean."

The turbo doors opened and they stepped out on the bridge, effectively ending the conversation.

"Keptain, ve're currently holding position around Luna Base. Space Station One vould like us to notify them prior to our arrival on final approach."

Kirk's attention automatically shifted to business, and he smiled as he settled into the center seat Chekov vacated for him. With slow care, he curled his hands over the armrests, soaking up the feel of the conn, of the bridge. Home, for so many years of his adult life. The entire alpha crew manned their positions, even though most had nominal work to do on this standard approach. Non-alpha personnel bustled about, aiming for busy and inconspicuous, but managing mostly curious and excited. No one wanted to leave the bridge, as Starfleet obviously planned on turning the last docking of the Enterprise A with her current CO and XO into a huge media-grabbing event.

The last time. He gripped the chair and swiveled slowly about. Not quite his beloved silver lady, no...not quite the same. Different lines, sleeker, more sophisticated. Not the simpler, cleaner look of his first love. But this lady was just as good. And most of all, she was his. For just a little while longer.

He twisted around further and met Spock's studious gaze. "Everything ready?"

"Enterprise is ready, Captain." Spock lifted his eyebrows significantly.

"So is her CO, Spock." Kirk said softly and smiled. He lingered over the familiar, comforting sight of the Vulcan at the science station controls before swiveling back to the front. "Commander Uhura, notify Space Station One that Enterprise is on approach. Commander Chekov, take us in."

"Aye, sir. Accelerating to one-quarter impulse."

"Captain." Smiling, Uhura turned to Kirk and gestured to the viewer.

The view on the screen shifted.

"Oh my," Kirk murmured, and a slow smile blossomed.

The view screen glistened with lights. It seemed as if every ship in the vicinity had gathered to welcome Enterprise home.

"No vonder they vanted to know ve vere coming," Chekov waved a hand at the screen. "All those civilian ships...eet's an accident vaiting to happen."

"Now, now, Commander," Kirk clucked his tongue, "I would hope Space Central has everything well in hand. It wouldn't do to have their PR event turn into a major debacle, after all."

"Still, Keptain..." Chekov sounded pained, "I'd rather we monitor from here than rely solely on Space Central." Chekov swiveled to Kirk. "Unless you object, sir."

"Not at all, Commander," Kirk acceded, still amused, "far be it from me to override your wise precautions. Truthfully, I have more faith in your navigational abilities than in some anonymous personnel."

Chekov grinned at him, satisfied, and turned back to his controls.

Kirk took a deep breath and slowly looked around the bridge. All was in readiness. The seasoned alpha crew went about their duties with easy leisure, a sharp contrast to the handful of younger officers and techs whose posture and movements betrayed their excitement.

It seemed so long ago now, stationed on the bridge of his first assignment, but he could remember the feelings clearly: the tension, the buzz of adrenaline flowing through his veins. Space had called to him, and for the first time, he could answer it. Come to me, it had said, and everything within him had cried out, yes! He had heeded the call to explore, and over the years, the wonder of space had revealed to him a great many things, some terrible, some awesome, some beautiful beyond all description. His experiences had taken him along the gamut of emotions from ecstasy to utter despair, but always, always underlying everything had been the satisfied siren lure of being out there, of flying through the farthest reaches of the unknown, and seducing from the ofttimes reluctant depths its endless mysteries.

"Space Dock in two minutes," Chekov announced.

Uhura pulled the monitor from her ear. "Admiral N'warra sends her regards. She and Admiral Mendez are awaiting our arrival, Captain."

"Acknowledge that, Commander," Kirk said, his eyes still on the viewscreen. "And Uhura, would you split the view for me? Fore and aft."

"Aye, sir."

The screen flickered, and earth swelled large on one side, while the other showed nothing but the twinkle of stars. He had maintained a passionate love affair with that great unknown for well over thirty years, far outlasting the average relationship. It had fulfilled him, uplifted him, breathed energy into him when his own had waned, and when he had not been surrounded by his ship and the brilliant, black deep, he had foundered, a fish out of water, struggling to find meaning in less-than-fulfilling surroundings.

It had been both awful and glorious, and up until now, he couldn't imagine any other life. But the end of this long-traveled road neared, and decisions awaited as to which direction to take at its ending. All the myriad personal desires he'd shunted to the side over the years and sacrificed to duty for the vague promise of "one day" now gathered to the fore, demanding attention. At the moment, Kirk didn't have a clue where it would lead him, but neither had he known where his yearning for the big black would land him when he'd started out. Thinking back over the years, he smiled to himself and conceded that ignorance, in many cases, could be a good thing.

"Mr. Chekov-" Spock broke the silence, his voice a sharp warning.

"I've got it, Mr. Spock. Wessel bearing 270 mark 3."

"Hailing vessel...no response, Captain," Uhura offered.

Kirk leaned forward and frowned at the action playing out on the screen. "Space lanes are too crowded. Chekov...." He debated their response quickly. "Better not wait for Space Central. Bring the tractor beam online." Kirk sat forward, a little unexpected spurt of adrenaline zinging through his system. "Lock onto vessel. Spock?"

"It appears to be a small private yacht, Captain... possibly with a malfunctioning drive pod. Identified as the La Grande Profondeur, owned by an earth-based corporation, Claude-Mattis Ltd.. I detect three life forms aboard." Spock glanced up from the computer. "A private business vessel, undoubtedly exactly what it appears. Space Station One has their current flight plan listed."

"Still no reply, Captain," Uhura informed. "Their comsys may be down, also."

"Then we act. Mr. Chekov, activate beam."

"Tractor actiwated...adjusting beam density...wessel is under our control, Keptain."

Kirk relaxed back again. "Uhura, notify Space Dock we're bringing home an orphan."

McCoy stirred at Kirk's shoulder. "How's their life support?"

Spock bent over his viewer. "Unlike their comm system, it appears functional. Life signs are stable."

"Sir," Uhura interrupted, "Admiral N'warra on visual."

"On screen."

The screen blazed into color, and the Admiral smiled amid a background of laughter from her staff. The silver sheen of her hair only emphasized the exotic nature of her coffee-dark eyes and dusky skin. Kirk conceded she was a striking woman, but even so, fondly thought that she couldn't hold a candle to Uhura. Spunk and guts were much more attractive than calculated political ambition.

"Jim, tell me you staged that."

"Me? I'm innocent." Kirk protested, smiling a little, playing the game one last time. "I can't help it if they throw themselves in front us just to get rescued by the Enterprise. Anyway, weren't you the one who wanted a PR event?" He spread his hands wide. "We always aim to please."

N'warra shook her head, laughing out loud. "Try not to uncover any major catastrophe that needs your intervention in the next thirty seconds 'till docking, would you, Jim? I've got what most likely is the entire Federation press corps waiting here, and I need you to entertain them after handing over Enterprise. N'warra out."

Grimacing at that revelation, Kirk nodded and sketched a wave as Uhura closed down the visual feed.

"You're never gonna live it down, Captain," McCoy leaned into his chair with a stage whisper. "Can't even dock your ship one last time without a little drama. The media hounds are gonna eat it up."

Kirk turned around to glance at Spock. He, too, only cocked his head and raised his eyebrows, obviously in agreement with the doctor. Sighing, Kirk said, "I don't suppose we could slip out the side door and skip the media."

Spock looked dubious. "I doubt that action would endear you to the Admiral. And since you are still on active duty, she could choose to make your life extremely unpleasant."

"In other words, not a chance in hell, is that what you're saying?" Kirk exhaled loudly and faced forward again. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, let's get this show on the road. I've got an appointment to keep."

For the next minute, they flew forward to Space Dock amid a coruscating sky filled with all manner of vessels. It shouldn't effect him-he understood very well what drove public opinion and the media after his many years in the public eye-but some part of him was still amazed and confounded that the crew of the Enterprise could loom so large in the eyes of so many. Heroes, they had been called on more than one occasion. Impossible to reconcile that with his own view, filled as it was with an intimate, bleak knowledge of his own personal faults, bad decisions and the ghosts of those under his command who had not made it back.

"Outer approach limit, Captain," Chekov alerted.

"Uhura?" Kirk glanced at her.

Uhura nodded and swiveled to her board. "Approach control, this is Enterprise. Ready for docking maneuver."

"Ready for transfer of La Grande Profondeur," Chekov affirmed.

"Disengage tractor beam," Kirk ordered.

"Disengaged...Space Dock has confirmed control."

"Lock on approach control." As he spoke, Kirk remembered the other times Enterprise had come home, especially his silver lady's last time: limping home scarred and broken, surviving only due to a terrible sacrifice. And beneath a blanketing numbness, he had been in much the same shape.

"Systems locked," Chekov acknowledged.

"Space Dock, this is Enterprise. You have control," Kirk acknowledged.

"Affirmative, Enterprise. Welcome home."

They'd welcomed the Enterprise home then, too, but he'd felt separate, distanced from the relief of the surviving cadets and crew, too aware of what was missing.

His fists curled around the edges of the seat's arms, feeling its corners sharply crease his palms. Why was he reliving one of the worst moments of his life, when upon docking and turning over the Enterprise for the last time, half the Federation waited to speak to him? Those events of the past no longer mattered. For years, he had been surrounded by his friends, his ship. Life had been good.

Taking a deep breath, Kirk looked around the bridge, firmly grounding himself in the present.
Footsteps came down onto the command deck behind him, and a presence took up stance just behind his right shoulder. A familiar, radiant heat warmed the exposed skin of his neck. "Jim," Spock spoke softly, a deep rumble pitched only for his ears. "Is all...well?"

Turning slightly in the chair, Kirk tilted his head and looked at the being who was his best friend. Here was reality-a living, breathing, confounding reality. A warm smile blossomed slowly. "Yes, Spock, it is. It wasn't always, but right now it's fine."

He watched a slight frown draw down the infamous eyebrows and crease pale olive skin in parallel lines between the Vulcan's brows as Spock puzzled over his answer. Dark eyes inspected him slowly; Kirk could practically narrate the Vulcan's thought processes as he watched familiar body language.

McCoy spoke from behind his other shoulder. "Have no fear, Jim. We'll be right behind you, facing the media barracudas. I sure hope they have drinks at this shindig. I'll need 'em to get through it." He snorted derisively. "N'warra won't even give us some breathing space before throwing us to the wolves."

Kirk settled more deeply in his chair as the huge space doors parted automatically and the Enterprise flew stately home through the gap. "If the Admiral tells me to stand on my head for them, so be it. It's the price I paid for getting this last extended tour. And you know, Bones," he stroked the chair arms, "it was worth it."

"Speak for yourself, Captain," McCoy grumbled, though without heat. "When I think of the pound of flesh they'll probably take in the coming week, I have to wonder."

Kirk chuckled. "All in a day's work, Bones. Just keep remembering that the day's nearly over. That should help."

A satisfied grin flashed on McCoy's usually dour face. "It does."

The conversation halted as approach control notified they had docked and were secure, and bridge personnel locked down each command station. Kirk thumbed the comm one last time.

"This is the Captain. As we wait for the maintenance crew to board, I'd like to say once again what an honor it has been serving aboard Enterprise with the best crew in the 'Fleet. And I'll see every one of you tonight at the stand-down party. Kirk out." He stood and looked around at the waiting faces turned his way. "Commander Uhura, Commander Chekov, Captain Scott, Spock, the Admiral's waiting. The rest of you, you're dismissed as soon as the maintenance crew arrive. Don't forget tonight." He hesitated and looked around the entire bridge, turning three hundred sixty degrees, his hand affectionately upon the conn, before turning decisively to the lift.

No one had much to say on the ride down, and it seemed only seconds before Kirk stood on the transporter pad, with Ensign Lladro waiting for everyone to assemble and for the order to energize. All eyes would be upon them, once off ship, and Kirk felt a fleeting yearning for privacy, for time to walk the Enterprise's empty corridors and say a leisurely good-bye. He knew there would be time to take that walk later after the cart-and-pony show. Now was time to sing for his supper.

More than forty years of his life. He'd thought himself more than ready to let go, but obviously he was not, not a hundred percent as he'd previously assumed. He could feel keenly the discerning eyes of Spock and McCoy, of Scotty and Uhura and Chekov upon him as he stood mute upon the pad, paused in the moment between echoes from the past and the as-yet-undefined future awaiting him. He knew his friends would appreciate the irony that their presence at his back kept him from turning around to leave, much more than the knowledge of Admiral Mendez and Admiral N'warra awaiting him.

It was time. With a deep breath and a decisive yank on his uniform jacket, Kirk nodded at the ensign on duty. "Energize." The soothing grey walls of the Enterprise dissolved and a similar version reappeared as Space Dock's transporter room solidified around him. With purpose, he stepped forward off the pad, following the waiting Admiral's aide out of the room and into the chaos of lights and vidcams and the curious faces of a hundred milling bodies.


Despite it being well before midnight, the elevator and hallways outside Kirk's apartment were deserted and silent. All Kirk could hear was the quiet whisper of material and the even fainter padding of footsteps on heavy carpeting as he and Spock made their way to his door. He waited for it to close behind them before breathing in deeply and wearily releasing some of the tension knotting his shoulders.

"Spock, I've got to tell you, these past two weeks have made me look back on our weeks of Klingon negotiations with a great deal more fondness," Kirk said wearily. "I didn't think the process would ever end. I finally realize something...it wasn't fear of life after retirement that makes so many of our peers hang on. It's sheer horror at contemplating everything Starfleet puts us through to get here." Kirk slowly shrugged out of his uniform jacket and tossed it on a bench just inside his front door.

The tall Vulcan followed him further into the apartment. "I, too, am quite relieved that both the bureaucratic and social processes are complete. You do understand, if they could have found a way, Starfleet would have obligated us to even more "socializing."" Spock loosened his jacket flap only, preferring to keep it on and buttoned against the relatively cool night air.

"Drink?" At Spock's nod, Kirk turned and poured the cognac. "Glorified poster boys. After well over a hundred combined years in service, that's what we are to them. I'd say we got out at just the right time." He handed Spock his snifter and clinked glasses before sipping.

"To timing," Spock toasted, then sipped. "They have used us thus previously," he added.

"Yes, they have." Kirk knelt to light the tinder he'd stacked around the logs in the fireplace just that morning. "And I had a pretty large consolation prize back then, also. Which they no longer can use to appease me." Gratefully, he turned and sank down into a chair, staring mindlessly into the flames, letting the remainder of two weeks' worth of tension from public display and top secret brain-picking begin to dissipate.

Spock sat down next to him, and they sipped and watched the fire in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Spock shifted slightly.

"Our schedule since arrival on earth has precluded much quiet time such as this."

"If it wasn't a debriefing, it was personnel with more bureaucratic nonsense. If it wasn't personnel, it was one of the million parties, fêtes and media gatherings we had to attend." Kirk didn't bother to hide his amazement. "Sometimes I look back and wonder how I ever managed to survive my time here in the Admiralty."

Spock glanced at Kirk, amusement evident in the light of his eyes. "Obviously it was not by speaking your mind as you did this past week, for which I have not yet taken time to thank you."

Kirk felt remnants of last week's anger amid his sheepishness. "Yes, well, the ignorant stupidity of those who should know better finally got to me." He adroitly avoided Spock's gaze and felt a faint heat in his face.

"It was very...pleasant, experiencing your concern in such a manner. You were quite impressive. Sarek complimented me upon my choice of friend for the second time."

Kirk winced. "Sarek? Why would my loss of temper impress him? And how did he hear about it anyway?" he snapped irritably, more embarrassed as he thought about it.

Spock did nothing to contain his amusement. "Jim, I imagine there are few in Starfleet or Federation headquarters who haven't heard the story by now of how you stood nose to nose with Admiral Morrow and proceeded to tell him exactly what you thought of his skills and abilities regarding his comprehension of non-humans and their needs. From which you then segued into a rather heated monologue calling into question his overall ability as Commander, Starfleet. Sarek heard of it a mere one point five hours later from Septhis, his assistant."

Kirk's temper surged. "How was I to know the side room I was in was a witness chamber with an active monitor, broadcasting the entire confrontation back into the main room? I thought we were private! The man had run us ragged with endless panels and debriefings. You hadn't had an opportunity to meditate decently in three days, were constantly surrounded by personnel, and then he ordered a deep psyche scan be performed on both of us. On you! A deep psyche scan!" Kirk stopped and took a deep breath, working to calm himself. "Don't get me started again. McCoy already had a little talk with me about my blood pressure. After I apologized to the panel for unknowingly subjecting them to a scene."

"It was noted that your apology to Morrow himself was rather...lacking."

Kirk growled and nearly bared his teeth. "I wasn't in the mood."

Spock merely nodded. "In any event, it was a rather opportune mistake, as it turns out. Your, say we say, passion so impressed Sarek that he later discussed the matter with the Federation Council President-"

"What?" Kirk sat up abruptly.

Spock nodded. "Sarek is of the opinion that, the situation being what it is, a completely independent advisor to Starfleet is an excellent idea. Someone to overlook its policies, actions and rulings and how they concern non-humans, to advise the Admiralty and Commander-in-Chief on such subjects, and to interface with the Council on Starfleet interspecies concerns. You will remember that the Vulcan Council was very disturbed to learn of Admiral Morrow's cavalier dismissal of your request to reacquire my body from Genesis, and to transfer McCoy to Vulcan for treatment. They are very concerned-and I must add that I concur with their stance-that the human-dominated Starfleet is not successfully enacting a full, inclusionary policy regarding non-humans. It is very probable that this gap will only become more noticeable and a greater source of internal strife as the Federation expands to include more and more alien cultures, if not addressed immediately."

Kirk turned the glass around and around in his hands, watching the fire reflect off the crystal in multi-color sparks. "I couldn't agree more with the Vulcan assessment. God knows, you and I have certainly seen our share of ignorance in action. But Spock...correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm getting the impression that Sarek has someone specifically in mind for the job."

Spock nodded, watching Kirk closely. "He did, of course, put forth your name as an ideal candidate for such a position. And Jim, before you chastise me for colluding in such a plan, let me say that I only learned of it from Sarek this evening, at the reception. I...." Spock faltered for a moment, a frown briefly lowering his brows. "I have no wish to call my friendship with you into question a second time by participating behind your back in decisions that involve your life."

"Spock." Kirk met the liquid brown gaze of his friend and impulsively reached out to grasp Spock's arm. "I was being an utter bastard when I said that." He made a noise of disgust. "I let anger and grief poison me. You were right to call my thinking into question. Back in the old days, McCoy would've had me on mandatory leave so fast, my head would've spun. Then again, back then," he sighed, "I don't think I would have let my hatred become so entrenched. Please... forgive me, my friend," he added simply.

Spock twisted his hand and grasped Kirk's forearm in return. "You have forgiven me my own unique faults. It is the Vulcan way-all is silence within the family. And you are a part of mine. We shall speak of it no more."

Kirk's fingers tightened on Spock's arm as understanding and acceptance flowed between them. They had reconciled during the Klingon affair, but not with a specific request for forgiveness. Speaking of it directly this evening satisfied something needy in Kirk, and he sighed in unconscious relief. Eventually, he released the warmth of Spock's arm and sat back, sipping his cognac.

"All my life, Spock, I lusted after command. For years, it was the single most driving force in my life, and I swore to myself that nothing, nothing would threaten it, especially not something I did. Whatever I had to do or give up, whatever I had to confront or change or become, and maintain my integrity, it was all worth it to keep my command, to be the best starship commander I could possibly be. It was everything to me."

Kirk propped his feet on the edge of the table. "That's why it's time to move on. A commander should never find himself irreversibly distracted by personal things-feelings, thoughts, needs. I find myself-" He stopped abruptly and an ironic smile crept out as he waved his glass, his tone slightly self-mocking. "I find myself replete with all of the above. Maybe because in my single-mindedness, I shoved them aside for so long. Who knows?" He shrugged. "There's plenty of young hotshots chomping at the bit for the center seat. It's their turn to grab for the brass ring."

A silence settled between them as Spock tilted his head thoughtfully. His dark eyes glittered in the firelight as he contemplated Kirk for a moment. "Have you then determined what you wish to do after your retirement? Which," he added with a small smile, "if you are interested, officially starts in eight point three minutes."

"Ah. Say when, and we'll raise a glass to freedom and the future. As for that future...." With his left foot, Kirk pried off his right boot, then reversed the process with his left. They fell to the floor with a clunk, and he wriggled his sock-covered toes. "I don't know, Spock. But I know what I don't want to do-jump into another high-profile, high-stress job. I've done a lot of things over the course of the last forty years. I don't know...there's an entire universe out there, and a lot of things I haven't done, things that just beg to be experienced. Swimming the aqua forests of Aquius II, climbing the peaks of the Himalayas, soaring from the heights on Eccipal IV." He looked at Spock out of the corner of his eye. "Undergoing the adult version of the kahs-wan on Vulcan."

Spock's eyebrows went up in a predictable manner. "Where did you learn of the kaunshaya kali-tor?"

Kirk didn't hide his smug look. "I've got my sources. I hear it's grueling."

Spock's eyes were thoughtful as he considered the human. "In current times, the kaunshaya kali-tor, the mastery challenge, is undertaken by only a relatively small number on our planet. Its original purposes are no longer as relevant to modern Vulcan society as are the uses and intents of the kahs-wan, whose main purpose today serves as a practical initiation for Vulcan youth into shaula, mastery-of-self." Spock paused, his gaze still thoughtful. "What exactly were you told about the kaunshaya kali-tor that interested you?"

Pushing farther back into his seat and propping his feet on the low table in front of the chairs, Kirk stretched luxuriously. "That it's a real test of one's mettle, of teamwork and synergy. It sounded, I don't know, intense. Challenging."

"Threatening is also an appropriate descriptive." Spock gave a short nod at Kirk's mild surprise. "The numerous safety features which are in place for the kahs-wan do not exist in the kaunshaya kali-tor. For an emergency, participants rely solely upon a single communication device-which, given the largely inhospitable environment, may malfunction at inconvenient times."

"Well, it can't be all bad," Kirk argued. "At least they allow communicators. Bet the original participants had no such luck...it was either sink or swim."

"Since life in general at that time on Vulcan was "sink or swim"," Spock said dryly, "the participants were much more prepared for such a drastic ordeal."

"I don't know, Spock..." Kirk stared into the fire with half-closed eyes, letting the undulating flames lull him to a more deep relaxation. "It sounds intriguing to me. And it can't be any worse than what we've dealt with over the years in the line of duty."

"One point seven minutes to midnight," Spock reminded. "Give me your glass."

Kirk passed over his nearly empty glass and sank lower in the chair as Spock stood to refill it. With his eyes closed, he could hear the sound of liquid splashing faintly into the glasses. "You've got, what, Spock...another week?"

"Four weeks, five days."

"Really? How'd they rope you into the extra time?" Warm glass nudged against his hands, and he gathered it to him without opening suddenly heavy eyelids. It felt good to lie there, a warm fire at his feet, best friend by his side, nowhere in particular he had to be. He couldn't even remember the last time such a circumstance had occurred.

The chair next to him sighed, and material rustled as Spock made himself comfortable once again. "I agreed to participate in a joint research project with Starfleet and Stanford University, and estimate it will take that long for completion of my portion of the project. I shall spend most of that time on site at Stanford's labs. Jim, it is time."

Kirk roused himself and sat up just as one of his working antique clocks began to softly chime. Taking a deep breath, he touched his glass to Spock's and said rather more wistfully than he intended, "To the passing of an era."

Spock pulled back his glass slightly as he corrected, "I prefer...to the future and to new discoveries."

Kirk looked into familiar eyes and felt a wealth of emotion. "Yes...the future and new discoveries," he repeated, tapped his glass to Spock's and sipped the excellent cognac. It slid down his throat like liquid fire, a surge of warmth that blossomed within. "Spock, after the project...have you decided?"

"Not at this time. There are.... I am leaving my options open."

Kirk sighed. "Bet you've had a thousand reminders how logical it would be to join the VSA staff."

"That would be a gross exaggeration," Spock denied. "Perhaps only a mere six hundred forty-two."

Kirk chuckled. "Close enough."

The logs shifted slightly, crackling and sparking in a furious burst of color. Kirk welcomed the absence of chattering voices and the prying questions of the curious and the press. The retirement party thrown for him earlier that evening had truthfully dragged on past the point of enjoyment. He was ready for this new period in his life, ready to let go of the past, and yet the actual evolution of its passing had brought forth unplumbed feelings that buzzed around like annoying insects.

"I bet Amanda and Sarek are already looking forward to having you back on Vulcan again."

"A safe bet for my mother, I should think, although I doubt that my father would admit to such anticipation."

Kirk snorted. "Don't kid yourself, Spock. You've never had a clear image of your father. He's so proud of you, he could bust. He's just...." Kirk shrugged apologetically, "...Vulcan."

Spock raised a droll eyebrow. "Bust? Really, Jim. A singularly unappealing image."

"Ah, Spock, you do have it good." At Spock's enquiring look, Kirk explained, "I know everything with your family hasn't been a bed of roses in the past, but you've reconciled with them, and you have a home to go back to if you choose."

Spock frowned. "Do you not still own the farm in Iowa?"

"Sure, it's still there." Light fractured off of Kirk's glass as he mesmerized himself with the dazzle. "The farmland's been leased out for years, and the house's been kept up for Peter and me to use on our visits back to earth. But that's not what I mean, Spock." He thrust the glass away from him, depositing it on the table, then rested his head back on the chair and looked fully at the Vulcan. "I mean you've got a family, a personal place among a whole group of people. Peter's all that's left of mine, other than a few scattered cousins I never knew. And my nephew seems to have inherited the family wanderlust."

Unhelpful emotions buzzed around again. Kirk took a deep breath and swatted them away. "Maybe I'll surprise Peter with a visit. He's helping design the new colony dome on Aquius II."

"You have said Peter continually asks you to visit him at his various work sites. This would be an ideal time," Spock acknowledged.

A double chime sounded, and Spock raised a brow.

Kirk sighed. "I forgot to set the comm on DND. Maybe it's Bones." With a slight weariness in his movements, Kirk pushed himself up and walked over to the comm board. He couldn't contain his reaction as he read the screen. "It's Aubeline Mattis."

"You sound surprised. I am not," Spock noted, "having been awake and cognizant during this evening's party."

"Well, then," Kirk turned and shot him a look half annoyed, half amused. "You won't mind me answering it."

"By all means. It would not do to keep the lady waiting."

Kirk snorted and turned back to the comm, keying the call. A woman leaned forward toward the screen, a glass of wine in one hand, her other fingers drumming impatiently. Her features were interesting, very short dark hair emphasizing an angular jaw line and a lush mouth. She still had on the glittery outfit she'd worn to his party earlier in the evening.

"Aubeline. This is a pleasant surprise."

"Jim." Aubeline's dark eyes creased at the corners as she smiled, evidence of age she had not had erased by the laser. He found it oddly refreshing. "I hope I'm not calling too late, but you disappeared before I had a chance to talk further with you. Tsk, tsk," she waggled a playful finger at him, "skipping out on your own party. How gauche," she paused, then grinned. "Unless it is me who is gauche, and I'm now interrupting..." she trailed off questioningly.

"Just Spock and me and a bottle of brandy," Kirk admitted.

"But, yes," she nodded sagely. "And much desired peace and quiet, which I am disturbing-"

"That's alright-"

She waved her hand in apology. "-so I will go to the point. How about breakfast tomorrow? Or perhaps it should be lunch? I have a proposition for you."

"Oh, a proposition." Kirk leaned back in the chair. "Dangle the bait, then make him wait, is that the plan?"

Her laughter was appreciative. "Non, non, it is your fault. You would know all by now if you had not left before I could talk to you about it. And now it is late, and I have never much liked discussing personal business by electronic proxy."

"Well, then, I guess I have no choice but to come to lunch tomorrow, do I?" He grinned.

"Not if you want to assuage that curiosity I'm sure is running rampant right now. I'll send a car for you at one o'clock. Bon soir, Jim."


He was still grinning as he keyed off the comm and belatedly changed the status to 'do not disturb'. Only the noisy throat-clearing from the other side of the room brought him out of his reverie.

"Yes, Spock," he said absently.

"Jim," Spock said.

Kirk continued to sit, worrying his bottom lip with a forefinger as he pondered what the attractive co-owner of Claude-Mattis, Ltd. had tucked up her sleeve.

"Jim," Spock said slightly louder.

"Hmm?" he hummed in reply.

"Perhaps it would be wise if I departed at this time and allowed you and your highly active imagination to retire to the bedroom for a pleasurable interlude."

Spock's dry words penetrated Kirk's musing like a rock through glass. He blinked and focused on the Vulcan ensconced comfortably before the fireplace. "What?" he said, rather stupidly, he thought.

"I said-"

"I know what you said," Kirk interrupted quickly, "I just...." He stared in bemusement.

"Could not believe your ears?"

Even as he laughed, Kirk could feel heat in his face, and pushed himself up from his chair. "That about sums it up."

"There is no need to be embarrassed, Jim. Certainly the years we've spent living closely would dictate that few secrets remain between us."

Few secrets? He stopped and stared further at Spock, seeing not the friend he knew, but a suddenly disconcerting stranger of whom he knew way too little, and who knew about him, it seemed, much more than he'd ever realized. All the many years of their living in close quarters, all the uncounted times he'd relieved a little tension by himself, if a willing partner wasn't available. All the sounds he had a tendency to make.

"Spock," he shook his head, "forgive me, but...I hadn't ever thought about it. Like that." Stymied, he grimaced and rubbed a hand over his face. "I'm not sure I want to think about it."

"I believe you once told me not to be embarrassed because even the birds and the bees do it."

"Not that way, they don't," Kirk said meaningfully. And not with a highly proper Vulcan audience. He took a deep breath and unconsciously straightened his spine. "Spock, the last time-the only time-we had a personal discussion about sex, if you could call it that, you could barely talk about it, even with your life at stake. In all the intervening years, you've never again brought the subject up, in any shape or form. I've honored that, and followed your lead. So you'll have to allow me to be a little disconcerted by your, uh, comment."

Spock shifted in his seat, cradling his nearly empty glass and tilting his head toward him. "Lack of data does not automatically signify a null range."

What the hell did that mean? Kirk glared at the Vulcan's opaque expression. There was a quirking at the corners of Spock's mouth. "Look, Spock-"

"Jim, it is late." Spock unfolded his length from the fireside chair and stood before him. "Today marked the end of two very busy weeks. Perhaps it would be best if we retired for some rest."

Kirk stopped short, frustration warring with contrition at the reminder of Spock's debriefing experiences. "You're right, we both could use some rest. I-just...." He stuttered to a stop in unaccustomed confusion.

Spock stood looking down at him-Kirk had never really noticed how much taller his friend was-with a strange look in his eyes. "Jim. We have known one another for over twenty-five years. In all that time, you have been not only my friend, but my superior officer. But as of thirty seven minutes ago, that stipulation no longer exists." Spock turned and took his used glass into the kitchen.

Kirk took a deep breath and for the first time, felt a sputter of actual anger. He didn't want to target Spock in his frustration, nor be the recipient of Spock's irritation. The past two weeks had been difficult, and they were both tired. They were smack in the middle of a significant sea change, with all the accompanying tidal fluctuations. He welcomed the change and looked forward to whatever lay ahead of him, but a part of him demanded something remain recognizable in his life in the midst of the upheaval, and inevitably, Kirk depended heavily upon his best friend to fill that role.

Spock emerged from the kitchen and, without pausing, walked toward the door.

"Spock, wait." Kirk took a few steps toward him as, easily, obligingly, the Vulcan stopped and turned around, an open expression on his face. "Spock." Kirk reached out and grasped the Vulcan's shoulder, feeling the alien heat even through the heavy layers of shirt and jacket. He looked at the face as well known to him as his own, feeling a peace radiate through him automatically, and smiled softly. "Spock. I don't know what happened here this evening, but let's not let it happen again. I need you, my friend. I need you in my life the way you've always been, even more so now as everything else changes. Our friendship is my ballast in storm-tossed seas," he added wistfully, amused at his own verbal fancy.

Spock looked down as he removed Kirk's hand from his shoulder and twisted it within his heated grasp, clasping them together in a tight grip. Silence sat between them comfortably as Kirk smiled at Spock's lowered head, the firelight leaping with red highlights in his mirror-like hair. It no longer shone quite as dark as it once had, and this evidence of time's toll upon the Vulcan brought a great sense of tenderness surging in Kirk's chest. They'd been through so much over the years.

"Jim." Spock lowered their hands and raised his face to look directly in Kirk's eyes. "I am honored by your sentiment. But perhaps you should prepare your ship for the possibility of taking on water, because your ballast is shifting."

A tension seized Kirk's gut. "What?" he whispered, clutching instinctively at the hand in his. "What do you mean?"

A slight smile softened the austere lines of Spock's face. "Even within a steady state, Jim, a change in one direction necessitates balance be maintained by a change in another. It is inevitable that all things must change."

A surge of objection rose from Kirk's depths. Before he could utter a word in reply, Spock reached out with his other hand and took Kirk's face in his long fingers. The gesture surprised Kirk into silence. The heated touch stroked softly over his temple, and an inchoate yearning crept through him.

"Spock?" Kirk whispered.

"All things must change," the Vulcan murmured again. Abruptly, he withdrew his hands, leaving Kirk feeling suddenly cold and bereft along with his confusion, and turned toward the entrance. Silently, Kirk watched with knotted chest as, without another word, the Vulcan strode through the open door.

Change, the Vulcan had said. An all-too-possible future rose suddenly before Kirk-why had he not thought of this before?-with his best friend settled down domestically on his home world, surrounded by a highly approving family, his wife and children...and his all-too-human friend looking in from the outside. Certainly, a family was what the Vulcan needed, both psychologically and biologically, for his well-being and his very survival. He knew that. It seemed an inevitable situation, especially now that he'd resigned from Starfleet.

And yet Kirk, upholder of integrity and honor, couldn't stop himself from detesting every single image of it.


Chapter End Notes:

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