"So what are you doing way the hell out here?" Joanna asks around a mouthful of pizza.
Jim raises an eyebrow at her. "You kiss your dad with that mouth?"
"You oughta hear the way he talks if you think I'm bad."
"Believe me, I've heard. The difference is that he's a grown man whose job involves prodding annoying sick people, including me. And you're an eleven year old girl."
"And you're stalling," McCoy pipes up in between picking onions off his slice, apparently unconcerned with his daughter's language.
He's right and Jim knows it. He settles on the simplest explanation. "I asked for leave so I could go visit family."
"We're not your family," Joanna points out.
Jim presses a fist to his chest, trying for a pained expression. "You wound me, Jo. What happened to 'Uncle Jim,' huh?"
She rolls her eyes outrageously, and Jim grins at the miniature female version of the gesture. He's used to seeing it on McCoy. "Okay fine, but we're not blood related."
"Most of my family isn't blood related."
McCoy spears him with a glare that tells him how exactly much of his bullshit is getting past him. "You visit your mom?" he asks pointedly. Jim shrugs, answering the question by shoving another bite of pizza in his mouth. McCoy rolls his eyes, unconsciously mimicking his daughter. "Thought not."
"She's busy," Jim attempts a weak rebuttal.
"She's retired, you idiot."
"Doesn't mean she's not busy."
"With what, the ladies' home gardening club and afternoon tea?"
Jim snorts. "Does my mom seem like the type for afternoon tea?"
"How the hell would I know, Jim? I've never met the woman."
Before Jim can tell him how grateful he should be for that, Joanna jumps in again. "Hey, I thought you were all busy and important with that Admiral stuff."
"Even Admirals get leave, you know."
"To screw around on a deserted farm in the middle of Georgia?"
"What can I say? Some bigwigs like going on blowout vacations or visiting the pleasure planets." And he stops that description there before McCoy eviscerates him with his eyes. "And this bigwig likes visiting his favorite not biologically related niece." And he scruffs at her short brown hair again, his wince not entirely theatrical when she slugs him in the shoulder. "Damn, Jo, be gentle with me. I'm just a Cap- Admiral," he corrects himself, "I'm fragile."
"Man up, you Sally," she retorts cheerfully.
"Quit pissin' off Uncle Jim and eat your dinner," McCoy orders gruffly, but he scruffs at her hair too and Joanna doesn't even pretend to fight him off, giving him a lopsided grin and doing as she's told.
It's a quiet evening, but that doesn't surprise Jim. McCoy does the dishes while Joanna drags Jim toward the den, setting him up with a gaming simulator involving cartoon characters in little speeder shuttles and proceeding to kick his ass five times in a row while McCoy sniggers at them. He gets a rib-crushing hug and a peck on the cheek from her when she's finally told to get ready for bed, and he spends almost a half hour of silence out on the porch while McCoy herds her to her room and asks all the right fatherly questions about making sure her homework is done and her teeth are brushed.
McCoy returns with a bottle of bourbon and a pair of mismatched tumblers, and Jim recognizes the signs of an interrogation when he sees them; Bones only breaks out the bourbon when he's determined to cut through Jim's bullshit. He takes the tumbler without argument, closing his eyes and resting his head against the chair without sampling his drink yet.
"Haven't known you yet to run away from something, Admiral," McCoy begins, purposefully needling him.
"Who says I'm running now?"
"You're supposed to be at Starfleet training up to be their golden boy again. Instead you're dicking around at my house and crashing on my sofa."
"Look, if you don't have room-"
He doesn't know why he tries to dodge bullets around McCoy. Probably just the sport of the thing, even though he almost always loses. It's a challenge, and he loves a challenge. "I'm not running," is the defense he finally settles on. "I was granted leave."
"Admirals don't get granted leave. Not during the promotional process. You told me that when I asked you to come see us."
"Yeah, I did."
"So what, you're such a big goddamn hero that Starfleet lets you off the hook whenever you start whining?" McCoy takes a heavy swig from his glass, refills it. "Cashing in on your fame?"
Jim snorts humorlessly. "So in the year and a half that I haven't seen you, suddenly you've decided I'm just another Starfleet blowhard with more rank than brains?"
"Maybe you are," McCoy grumbles, but there's less vitriol in his voice now, and his eyes speak of some measure of guilt for having attacked out of turn.
It's an unspoken language Jim knows well, and he shrugs it off. "Maybe I am," he agrees.
Silence, a few quiet sips, the creak of the old porch chairs. "You gonna talk about it?" McCoy finally asks.
"Yeah," Jim says, setting his glass on the arm of his chair and rubbing his face, gathering his thoughts. "And it's Captain, by the way."
McCoy raises an eyebrow, and it reminds Jim rather sharply of someone else. "They haven't promoted you yet?"
"I haven't even started yet," he admits quietly, taking a long swallow of his drink so he can explain himself.
Eighteen months ago:
He hasn't even managed to make it to his quarters yet, his communicator having gone ballistic during his shuttle ride back to the Academy. He's in Pike's office, wondering what could have prompted the man to send him an emergency wave like that. "You wanted to see me, Admiral?"
"Hi Jim!" comes an overly perky voice from the desk. Gaila's sitting on top if it with that big, brain-melting grin on her face, and it doesn't matter how long she's been taking her hormone suppressants, he still can't believe anyone can resist that smile.
"Uh, hi Gaila," he returns, giving Pike the sternest glare he can get away with given he's trying to look disapproving of a superior officer. "Sir? Why is there an Orion sitting on your desk?"
"Let me introduce you to my administrative assistant," Pike returns with a mysterious little smile, and Jim wonders if Number One knows about this.
"That's a mighty big word for secretary," Gaila chirps, uncrossing and recrossing her legs just because it forces her skirt to hike up another inch. "Besides, you don't let me do any of the fun secretarial stuff." She pouts at Jim. "Says he's married so he won't have sex with me. As if that stops most humans."
Which means yes, Number One does know about this. Jim grins. "All right then. So you just waved me here to meet your secretary? Because believe me, we've met before."
"He means we slept together," Gaila informs Pike in a stage whisper.
"I know what he means, Gaila," Pike returns, then addresses Jim. "Sit. Let's talk about this Admiral business."
"With all due respect, sir, it's already past the talking stage." But he pulls up a chair as ordered. "I sent in my acceptance just before I hit spacedock."
"Luckily it was intercepted before the other Admirals could open it."
"Sir, you can't intercept PADD data. Not legally, anyway. And it takes a computer technician with an outrageous amount of skill to-" Gaila is twirling a curl of red hair around her finger looking smug. "... Oh," Jim finishes stupidly.
"Mhm," Pike murmurs, looking almost as smug as his assistant. "I didn't request her just because she can charm the pants off of every ranking Starfleet officer who steps foot in my office."
"And the skirts, too," she adds cheerfully.
"Gaila is one of the most highly commended computer techs to ever come out of the Engineering division."
"So I take it you never got in trouble for the Kobayashi Maru incident," Jim says, trying to get his bearings back. This is not exactly the conversation he had envisioned when Pike summoned him here.
"Well, Commander Spock was pretty furious when he figured out where the code came from," she admits, and Jim wills himself not to react to the name. "But he was impressed that I figured out how the code worked before he did and he let me off the hook when I had it fixed within a few hours of discovering it. Actually, the fix went into my dossier and it's apparently a big part of why Pike hired me when I didn't want to get on another starship." Not that Jim can blame her. Her rehabilitation process took months after Starfleet rescue crews discovered her on a fortuitously sealed piece of wreckage near the empty space where Vulcan used to be. She can walk again, but it was a close thing. "So hey, thanks for cheating," she finishes, still grinning at him.
"It wasn't cheating, it was creative thinking," Jim mutters like he always does when this comes up.
Pike steps in before Gaila can tease him further. "I have important business to discuss with the Captain," he reminds her. "Why don't you lock down the office and go get something to eat, sweetheart?"
She hops off of his desk and smooths her skirt back down to borderline regulation length. "Want me to bring back your usual?"
"Bring two in case I haven't finished with Jim here."
"Can do." She leans in and pecks Pike on the cheek, pecks Jim too as she passes him, then flounces out of the office. There's a low mechanical chirp as the door slides shut indicating a command lock has been set in place.
"... Sweetheart?" Jim teases when they're alone again.
Pike shrugs. "Number One won't let me call her that, and Gaila doesn't mind." He keeps going before Jim can jump in and give him any shit over it. "But I didn't call you here to discuss my wife or my assistant. I brought you here to talk about your last PADD wave before you left the Enterprise."
Jim attempts a joke. "What, did I misspell something on my book report?"
"No, but your acceptance form left a lot to be desired," Pike fires back. "Most candidates send back at least a few hundred words about what an honor it is to be chosen for the promotional process and what they intend to do as an Admiral."
"The acceptance was a last minute decision," Jim admits, knowing that it doesn't reflect well on him. "I didn't have time to compose a twenty page essay dedicated to ass-kissing the Admirals on the board."
"Fair enough." Pike is long used to Jim's flippancy. "Then why don't you tell me what you plan on doing with your new rank?"
He doesn't know, he realizes with a start. It was simply something to do after his crew went their separate ways, the next logical step to take when he couldn't be Captain of the Enterprise once the five year mission was complete. He tries to come up with an answer that won't sound weak.
He doesn't manage it before Pike jumps in again. "Admirals wield enormous power in Starfleet. They make the big decisions, they command a lot of respect, and I can see the appeal in being the youngest one on board. But at the heart of the matter they're just diplomats and bureaucrats."
He tries not to wince. Those are two of the things he liked least about being a Captain, having always loved the exploration and discovery angles far better. "They're not always stuck here playing the political game," he points out. "There's a couple stationed on outlying planets."
"One near the Romulan neutral zone, one near the Klingon neutral zone, and two on developing colonies so far out in space that the Federation has to station someone there or else risk being invisible in those quadrants." He fixes Jim with a piercing stare. "Is that what you want, Jim? A tiny office stationed in a fledgling colony?"
The word 'colony' sparks a sudden idea. He tries not to look too eager. "We don't have any Starfleet officials stationed on New Vulcan. I could-"
Pike interrupts him. "New Vulcan has been declared a non-interference planet. Most of the ambassadors and other Vulcan officials have returned there and they're very insistent on keeping everyone out until they give the go-ahead."
Jim blinks. "Why? They've never minded having other races and cultures around before now. You know, 'Infinite diversity in infinite combinations,' and all that."
"That was when there were six billion of them. There are just under nine thousand now, according to the census data they've been able to compile. They're trying to rebuild their culture with as little influence from outsiders as possible. No one but material suppliers and cargo ships are allowed there and none of their staff is allowed past the supply dock. So there's no way in hell they'd allow a full blown Admiral to be stationed there, not even if that Admiral is you."
Jim sags back in his chair, feeling defeated. "It was something to do," he finally says, and Pike is the only Admiral he'd ever admit this to. "My whole crew decided to spread themselves out after the mission, and I felt like getting back on the Enterprise with a different crew just wouldn't be the same. I love that ship but a lot of my reasoning is because I love my crew. Besides, the Enterprise is due for a refit soon so it's not like we could take her out in the next year or two anyhow."
"And in a year or two, when she's ready to go out again? When your crew could be back from their separate assignments? What then? You'd be stuck in a Starfleet office with a rank badge so high that you'd never be able to set foot on any starship again, much less the Enterprise. She'll be obsolete in a few years, surely you know that. She's approaching ten years of service"
"Oh please, she's barely finished six. And with the refit she'll be able to keep her paces with almost any other ship in the fleet," he feels compelled to defend her.
"The Excelsior? The Farragut-A? The Dauntless?" Pike challenges.
"Too showy, too big, and too slow," Jim dismisses him.
"I understand Hikaru Sulu has his eye on the Excelsior."
He winces at that. "No accounting for taste," he mumbles.
Pike sighs and leans forward on his desk. "Look Jim, I understand fighting change. I understand grasping for a promotion because there's nothing better left to do." And for the first time during their meeting, Jim realizes that Pike isn't in a desk chair back there, but his wheelchair. Gaila was lucky enough to walk again. Pike wasn't. "But you're too damn young to be restricting yourself to a desk and an endless array of politicians and diplomats. You don't really want to be an Admiral. You just want something to do."
He tries to straighten up his posture, because he's slumped to the point that he looks like a sullen teenager getting a lecture from his dad. "What else is there to do? I don't want another ship - I want the Enterprise. She can't go anywhere until the refit is finished. She can't start the refit for another three months while she goes through inspections. And I can't stay here sitting on my thumbs until she's ready."
Pike grabs a PADD from one of his desk drawers and hands it over. "Gaila compiled a list of Academy positions currently open to Starfleet officers. Most of them require a rank of Commander or higher, so they should still be a challenge for you. And all of them will add commendations to your record so you'll have enough clout to pull for the Enterprise when she's available again. She may not have the exact same crew when she's ready to go again, but I'm willing to bet that a significant percentage of them will return when they hear you'll be her Captain again."
Jim blinks, a little blown away by all the work Pike and Gaila have put into this. "I ... thank you, sir," he manages, and it isn't nearly enough.
Pike waves him off. "No need. Just trying to keep you out of trouble until we can ship you off to the black again. You do a lot less damage out there than you do here."
"Not by much," Jim mutters, but he leaves Pike's office with a sense of relief and anticipation.
"Can't believe you turned down Admiral and never waved to tell me," McCoy grumps, but it's halfhearted at best. The tumblers are forgotten between them, Jim's still partially full.
"I didn't wave anybody." This is a lie, but he figures it doesn't count if the recipient never responded. "Thought I'd keep it a secret until I contacted everyone to see if they wanted back on the Enterprise."
"How long?" He sounds almost wistful, and Jim breaks into a smile. Maybe he'll get his CMO back after all.
"She should be ready to go in another ten or twelve weeks. We had a minor setback with the food synthesizers a few months ago - they're getting replaced with replicators and they're supposed to suck a lot less - but it's going smoothly again. Scotty said he had it under control so I requested leave to come see you."
McCoy looks up at the stars and Jim's smile just gets wider. Yeah, he definitely wants to come back - and that's a hell of a compliment considering how much he hates flying around in the vacuum of space. "Dunno what I'd do with Joanna."
"Turns out there's a couple of loopholes in Starfleet regulations about having kids on starships," he says casually, as if he hasn't spent the past month or so researching this. "Something about having no next of kin outside a Starfleet officer. You're all Jo's got according to the rules, and she can come aboard if you want her to."
He's winning him over, he can tell by the way McCoy suddenly changes the subject as if he can't let himself hope for the best. "Uhura?"
"Is getting replaced by a rookie Starfleet diplomat and a staff of Engineers preparing the Romulans for their relocation. Said she'd be thrilled to come back."
"Glued to the warp drive along with Keenser."
Here his face falls a bit. "He's spent the last year as First Officer on the Revenant, trying to get in some command experience so he can petition for his own ship. But I'm working on him."
McCoy snorts. "How? You know he's been drooling over the Captain's chair pretty much ever since you weaseled your ass into it."
"Yeah, well, he took Chekov with him and Chekov is a sucker for nostalgia. If I can convince Chekov to go on one last mission with us, I bet he'll bring Sulu with him." He scowls, belatedly internalizing the insults. "And I didn't weasel my way to the chair."
"If you can convince Chekov," McCoy reminds him, ignoring the sulking. "What about Spock?"
Jim sighs, reaching to drain the rest of his glass. "I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know? It's Spock. I assumed you two were sending waves back and forth like a pair of third graders."
"Well, you assumed wrong."
"Too busy to wave him?"
Jim snorts, toying with his empty glass. "Hardly. I sent him at least one a week for the first several weeks I was back. When I didn't get a response, I sent one to Sarek." McCoy lets out a low whistle, impressed. "Got a response from him, finally, but only to say that Spock was fine but too busy to attend to personal matters."
"You haven't heard from the hobgoblin in over a year?" McCoy shakes his head. "And here I thought we'd convinced him we were friends. So much for that."
Jim's mind drifts to that encounter in the transporter room, that Vulcan heat and those wide, needy eyes boring into him, that empty feeling in his chest he's been carrying ever since. "Yeah," he repeats hoarsely. "So much for that."
He spends another four days at the McCoy family home, sleeping on the sofa in the den at night and soaking up some quality time with his adopted family by day. Joanna kicks his ass at her racing simulator daily, and he retaliates by interrogating her about boys at school she likes, pestering her until she goes pink in the face and slugs him. McCoy spends a lot of time halfheartedly lecturing her about bruising her elders which Joanna cheerfully ignores.
She's Bones' daughter through and through, Jim thinks. Abusive to her superiors and apathetic about the consequences. All she needs is a hypospray in her hand and she'll be his female doppelganger.
It's finally Saturday, and they spend a lazy afternoon in the shade of one of the overburdened peach trees on the property. Jim and McCoy are stretched out with their backs against the trunk, Joanna having scurried up in the branches somewhere. The sickly-sweet smell is overpowering, but it's worth it just to feel the sun on his face, the humidity seeping into his skin.
"Hey Dad?" comes the drawling voice from the leaves overhead.
"Why's there a nun on our back porch?"
Jim and McCoy lock eyes on the distant figure clad in heavy black robes. It should look awkward and out of place, but the posture speaks of confidence and grace.
Jim's heart lodges in his throat as he scrambles to his feet. Spock!
"Well, maybe that pointy eared bastard isn't quite so busy anymore," McCoy mutters.
"It's one of our coworkers," McCoy explains to the branches. "Get back down and you can meet him."
Jim doesn't bother to stick around for the nagging that ensues about tree climbing safety and the relative integrity of Joanna's skull. He takes off toward the house, the severe expression on the figure's face slowly coming into somewhat blurry focus as he runs toward him. "Spock!" he yells when he gets closer to the house. "'Bout damn time you showed your face around here. We were-"
He shuts himself up when he takes in the severe expression on the craggy face in front of him. The Vulcan slowly removes the hood of his robe, revealing that ridiculous haircut going gray at the temples and a stoic mask set firmly in place. "Captain Kirk," he greets him evenly, giving a slight bow of his head.
Jim fights off the disappointment, tries hard not to visibly deflate and offend the man. "Ambassador Sarek."
"I apologize for trespassing upon your time with your family." He gestures toward the two figures making their way toward the house.
"Oh. No, it's- it's no problem." He mentally kicks himself for turning into an inarticulate idiot, shaking his head and getting his act together. "This is Leonard McCoy. You've met him before; he was the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Enterprise." He scruffs up Joanna's hair gently, grateful she's too distracted to slug him in front of a stranger. "And this is his daughter, Joanna. Jo, this is Ambassador Sarek."
Joanna blinks up at the impossibly tall man, then looks up at her father. "Why would you call an Ambassador a pointy eared b-"
McCoy claps a hand over her mouth and turns an interesting shade of purple, shoving her bodily into the house. "Nice to see you again, Ambassador," he mutters, snarling at her as he follows her inside.
Sarek speaks before Jim gets the opportunity to apologize for Joanna's behavior. "I am here at the request of Ambassador Selek."
And while it's nearly impossible to read a Vulcan, Jim could swear there's something in the dark narrowed eyes, some hint at a deeper understanding than Sarek lets on. "I haven't heard from him in a long time. What does he need?"
"He requests your presence on New Vulcan."
It's not at all what he expected, especially given Starfleet's hands-off approach to the colony while they get themselves settled again. "I... Ambassador, I would be honored," he stumbles through an explanation, trying to sound both grateful for the invitation and respectful of their privacy. "So long as it doesn't disrupt your progress."
"I do not anticipate that it will. We are not requesting aid as such. It is..." He seems to be struggling for words, and that sets off a red alert in the corner of Jim's mind. "It is a personal request, one that should be considered with haste."
"I accept," he says instantly. "When do I need to be there?"
"I must insist that we leave at the earliest convenience," Sarek surprises him again with the vehemence in his voice - or maybe Jim's just been translating Vulcan mannerisms so long that it seems blatantly apparent to him. "I have arranged for a transport shuttle to take us back to Starfleet where a private spacecraft is ready to depart for New Vulcan upon our arrival."
Jim blinks. He can't imagine what would be so urgent as to demand such a rush, and the only hypotheses he can generate are anything but pleasant. "I just need two minutes to grab a few things. Is that all right?"
Sarek inclines his head. "I will wait," he says simply.
Getting such a clipped answer from the Ambassador sets off another alarm in his head, and he rushes into the house with little grace. McCoy and Joanna are in the den, a small black bag already packed and waiting at Joanna's feet. "How'd you know?"
"Uh, have you looked out the front window?" Joanna gestures vaguely, and Jim realizes that he's misinterpreted Sarek's meaning. When the Ambassador said he had a transport shuttle, Jim had never imagined the man meant it was in Bones' front yard.
"Shit," he mutters, his gut reeling the way it always does when the earth is about to drop out from under him.
"Is it Spock?" McCoy asks, and under different circumstances Jim would be teasing him about the concern he's showing.
"Not our Spock. The older one." This is how he's always differentiated the two: not the older and the younger, but the older and the one that belongs to them - to him. "I don't know when I'll be back, but I'll wave you when I can to tell you what's going on."
"Go," McCoy urges him, and Jim spares just enough time to receive bruising hugs from the two of them before he's out the door again.
The transport shuttle takes only an hour to get from Georgia back to California. Rather than going through the usual transportation channels to find a starship that happens to have a flightpath in the direction they need, they're taken to the spacedock and loaded into a private spacecraft, similar in some ways to the strange, swooping ship the older Spock brought back from his own timeline. Jim takes it all in, mind reeling; either Sarek is a much more valuable Ambassador than he had realized, or there is some kind of major emergency happening on New Vulcan. Neither scenario sits particularly well with him.
"I sense your anxiety," Sarek murmurs when they are settled in a private, soundproofed area of the strange Vulcan ship. "I apologize for giving you so little explanation, but the situation demanded our hasty return to New Vulcan. If you wish to ask questions, I can provide you with answers at this time."
There are several questions he wants to ask, but keeping the elder Spock's true identity private cancels out a lot of them. He settles on what he believes to be the safest question. "Is there a reason Ambassador Selek requested me specifically?"
He waits for a beat in time before he remembers this is Sarek he is talking to. Spock used to give him clipped little answers like that, but usually he was being a smart-ass trying to goad Jim into being more specific in his line of questioning. Sarek is simply being a Vulcan, giving him the most logical answers he can. "Could you provide me with his reason?"
"I am able to do so but would prefer not to. It is a personal matter that I am sure the Ambassador would rather explain to you himself."
The answer puts an enormous obstacle between Jim and any other questions he wants to ask about the older Spock. He debates for a moment, wonders if maybe he should spend the rest of the transport in respectful silence, but in the end he can't stop himself. "How's Spock?"
A moment's hesitation, Sarek's gaze lingering for just a moment on the soundproofed door as if to ensure their privacy. "To which Spock do you refer?"
Jim's eyes go wide. "You knew?"
"I had sensed some manner of connection between my son and the Ambassador but was unaware of the specifics until four days ago."
It's like a weight has been lifted from Jim's shoulders. He now has the freedom to ask what he needs to without worrying about protecting the older Spock's identity. "How's m-" He stops himself before he can say my Spock. "How's your son?"
Sarek understands his meaning, acknowledges it with a slight nod. "He has chosen to follow an ancient Vulcan custom and has spent the last six months in an attempt to complete the ritual. He has not yet succeeded."
There are approximately a thousand more questions Jim wants to ask now, but he knows all about Vulcan ritual and privacy and secrecy, so he tries hard to behave. "Is that why he hasn't gotten in touch with any of us?"
"At present he is unable to contact his colleagues," Sarek hedges.
Which means it's only recently that Spock hasn't been able to wave anybody. Which means he could have done it before now but chose not to. An unpleasant weight in Jim's gut makes itself known and he tries not to look as pathetic as he feels. "What about the Ambassador?" he asks, thinking the answer couldn't make him feel any worse than his inquiries about the younger Spock.
It turns out he is very, very wrong.
His brain checks out somewhere during the long-winded explanation of taxing mind melds and damaged telepathic abilities, degrading mental faculties and failing organ systems. Spock - not his Spock, but Spock nonetheless - is dying.
It is unbearable to wait for the line of Vulcan healers and other visitors to file out of the small room. A series of hooded figures march past him in an eerily funereal procession. The image curls around Jim's heart and squeezes painfully, and he resists the urge to fidget. He is the only human present on New Vulcan, the first human allowed there since they declared their non-interference status with the Federation, and to fidget seems disrespectful of that high honor. Still, it's difficult to keep himself from bolting into the room the moment Sarek gestures him inside.
The figure tucked into the bed is older, more emaciated than he remembers, but the face is cherished and familiar, lighting up when he realizes who his new visitor is. "Jim," the elder Spock whispers, and the hoarseness in his voice cuts into him.
He wastes no time seating himself at the edge of the bed, their hands moving toward one another without Jim having consciously decided to touch the other man. The frail fingers cradled in his own squeeze with a kind of strength he would not have imagined Spock was capable of given his physical condition. "James," Spock says, and there's a lot more reverence in his given name than the nickname he's more familiar with.
"Spock," he returns quietly. "How are you feeling?" He wants to kick himself the moment the question leaves his mouth, but he's at a loss. He has no idea what he's supposed to say to a dying Vulcan.
"I am not in distress." The relief Jim feels is palpable, and Spock smiles - actually smiles at him. It looks good on him, looks liberating and relaxed. "The healers have assured me their medications are sufficient to keep the pain at bay without further damage to my mental faculties."
"I'm glad to hear it." He deserves that much at least. He's in a completely different timeline, cut off from those he once loved, alone in a vast universe in which he does not truly belong.
"I am not alone," Spock murmurs, and Jim starts for a moment before remembering their interlaced fingers. Spock is a touch-telepath who has entered Jim's mind before. Reading him must come as easily as breathing.
He winces mentally at that particular metaphor.
"No, you're not," Jim returns, scooting closer until he can feel the heat radiating from the older man.
Spock closes his eyes, face still set in that relaxed expression, and there's a long comfortable silence between them before he speaks again. "Did Sarek inform you why I requested your presence?"
"He told me what was happening." He has to be vague about this, doesn't want to say it out loud. "He didn't tell me your reasoning, though. Said it was private and I should hear it from you."
The smile slowly leaves Spock's face, and he seems to age another decade as he explains. "As I am sure you have already guessed, my own Jim has long since predeceased me."
He can't help the sudden rush of affection at Spock's use of the possessive in regards to the other James Kirk. It warms him to know that the two of them use similar systems to differentiate between two alike individuals. "Vulcans have a longer lifespan than humans, don't they?"
"They do. What must also be taken into account is the mortality rate of Starfleet officers, particularly those in command positions."
He's never asked what became of his counterpart: how he met his end, what adventures he had, none of it. Spock - his Spock, that is - has told him countless times that they are on a new and unique timeline, and that while certain characteristics of those timelines remain the same, many others do not. Jim prefers to write his own story rather than referring back to someone else's instruction manual all the time. Now, however, he finds himself wanting to know. "What happened?"
The fingers curled between his own twitch momentarily, and Jim understands the gesture. He lifts the ancient hand to his temple, pressing his fingers there, silently offering permission. Spock's expression goes soft and intimate, and Jim has a moment of almost crushing desire to see that same expression on his own Spock's face.
The desire is suddenly lost in a fine gray mist. The images aren't as sharp as the ones shared on Delta Vega, their importance blurred around the edges, a result of the medications working through Spock's system.
It's just a ceremonial run, Spock. Bare bones crew, Starfleet's new blood trying to prove themselves. Come with me.
I have matters to attend to here.
Well sure, so do I, but it's the Enterprise. New crew, new adventures. She needs her old family there to give her our blessing. She's not going anywhere interesting. Just a jog around the block and she'll be back.
I must conclude from your sudden insistence that Doctor McCoy refused your invitation.
Boring old bastard says if he gets back on the ship, Starfleet will just re-enlist him again. Says he's content with his mint juleps and old rocking chair.
Come on, Spock. We'll be back in a week. You can cancel your meetings and debates for that long, can't you?
Hesitation, consideration, and gentle refusal. Well wishes and admonitions to stay safe. Remembrance of all the disasters that inevitably follow in Jim's wake. Hope that it will be different this time.
Departure. Nagging hint that all is not well. Distracted during his office hours. Distracted during his diplomatic duties. Distracted that night as he tries to sleep.
Awakened from troubled dreams by the searing pain in his mind and the emptiness in his heart. T'hy'la, gone. The mind link between them a severed and gaping wound. His heart a black mass of knots. Sobbing as he has never done before in his life, until he can't see, can't breathe, can't think. No body to mourn over. No katra to protect. Nothing.
Decades of nothing, of throwing himself into his work, of becoming the most highly respected Ambassador Vulcan has ever produced. Decades of a mind reeling for its other half, of a void deep within him, of an inescapable loneliness that eases little over time.
Relief as the end of all things creeps inevitably nearer. Anticipation for what is to come. Hope. Familiarity.
A love that haunts him, calls to him. Waits for him.
They break apart slowly, the warm, wrinkled hand cradling Jim's cheek and wiping away moisture he had not been aware of up to that point. It's difficult to form words, to think, to try to wade through the immense gulf of sadness and grief that this aging Vulcan has carried with him for so many years - for almost half of his life. He's gulping in breath in between little hiccups and catches of his throat, scrubbing at his eyes so he can see again. "T'hy'la?" he manages to ask in an almost embarrassingly broken voice.
That soft, intimate expression captures Spock's face again, and Jim has to squash the sudden urge to kiss him. This is not his Spock and he doesn't have the right. "Brother, lover, soulmate," he explains quietly, and he sounds more distant now.
Jim clutches his fingers, trying to keep him anchored for awhile longer. "That's what he was to you?"
"I cannot fully explain what he was to me. T'hy'la is the simplest and most expedient way of attempting to do so."
He tries to remember the other foreign phrase lilting through the lingering mists in his mind. "Katra?"
"Perhaps the most important reason that I requested your presence." The distance in Spock's eyes fades temporarily, that razor sharp Vulcan focus slicing through him. "Vulcan belief suggests that each of us carries an essence of our being, something that can separate from the physical body and exist independently from it when the body has exhausted its resources."
That triggers a sudden memory of a conversation he had with his own Spock. "The katric ark. Spock said his parents were there when..." He cannot bear to bring this up now, not when he's still reeling from the mind link.
"Upon occasion, a dying Vulcan is asked if his katra may be stored for future generations," he continues as if Jim had not even spoken. "It is kept in a sacred place with a collection of other katras, including one believed to have been Surak's."
"And they've asked if yours could join them?"
"They have." Here he ceases with the academics and squeezes Jim's hand in his own. "I would ask a final favor of you, old friend."
Spock's voice catches on the endearment, as if he meant to say something else, and the phrase t'hy'la lilts silently between them. It isn't him, isn't his endearment to claim. It belongs to another man, another life, another James Kirk. "Whatever it is you want, Spock, I'll make sure you get it. It's the least I can do for someone who's saved my life on countless occasions."
"Stay," Spock whispers, so quietly that it's nearly inaudible. "It will not be long. I want... I must ensure that my katra is freed."
Jim can't contain his surprise. "You refused the offer?"
"I have. I do not wish to be contained here." The gnarled hand slowly ceases its grip, the muscles relaxing until Jim is cradling it rather than holding it, thumbs massaging mindless soothing circles into the heated skin. "I have lived without the presence of another's katra linked to mine for far too long. I would ask that you ensure my freedom at the end of my physical existence."
It takes him a moment to understand, and his eyes sting and threaten to spill over again. "You want to find him again."
"I will find him again," Spock corrects him.
It is such a simple request, such a heartfelt desire. Jim can't help the emotions bubbling up inside him, pressing the frail fingers against his chest and stroking through Spock's hair with his free hand. "I'll stay," he murmurs.
Spock lets out a shuddering breath as if a massive weight has been lifted from him. "I thank thee," he murmurs, syntax slipping into that strange formal tone he's only heard from his own Spock on rare occasion.
Jim isn't sure how long he stays there. He knows he spends a few hours watching him sleep, slipping in and out of full consciousness. He spends his time stroking through the soft silvery hair, committing the aged features to memory. He wonders if he will ever know the joy of being with his own Spock like this. He wonders if the timelines will allow for another bond with that kind of strength and steadfast devotion.
He wonders whether his Spock is even aware that his older counterpart is dying.
Dark eyes lock onto his own in the middle of his reverie, their intensity startling him out of his thoughts. "What do you need?" he asks softly.
"Find Spock." It's slurred and distant, but still understandable.
"I'll do my best," he tries to be assuring without telling an outright lie. "He's been avoiding me ever since he left Starfleet."
"Find him. Bring him back. He is lost."
"Lost?" Surely someone would have told him if Spock were missing. "Where did he go?"
"Where humanity cannot reach him. Do not allow him to make my mistake."
He's cut off by another surge of Vulcan strength trying to crush his fingers. "Do not allow him."
Without really understanding what he's agreeing to, he whispers, "I won't. I promise. I'll find him."
The gnarled hand loses any semblance of strength then, going limp against Jim's chest. The dark eyes shift focus from Jim to an empty corner of the room, anxious expression melting to another of peaceful, unrestrained delight. "James," he whispers, and it is both a welcome and a benediction. "I have waited so long, t'hy'la."
An incredibly selfish part of Jim isn't ready, doesn't want to let him go. There's so much he never asked this man, so much he doesn't know about him. He wants to drink in the memories of his life, bask in the warmth of Spock's coexistence with his own counterpart, revel in the kind of bond he's sure he'll never have with his Spock. He wants that connection, that joy, knows that it isn't his to claim.
So he keeps stroking the silvery hair, laces his fingers with lax gnarled ones that have lost their usual heat. "Go," he urges softly. "Go find him."
"James," Spock says again, his breathing labored, sparse, heavy. Jim listens to the ragged intakes, thrown by the way they no longer occur in any predictable rhythm. Each concerted effort to inhale squeezes around his heart, makes him both terrified and hopeful that this is the end.
Another inhale, and he ceases stroking his hair in favor of cradling the craggy, aged face, whispering something mindless and soothing at him. Another inhale, and he wonders if it is the last. Another inhale, and he wonders anew.
And then he realizes, after a protracted pause, that the room has fallen silent. There's no exhale, no low vibration of a pulse under the skin. There's no movement, no sound. There's no sense of finality to it, nothing as precise as closure, simply a quiet realization that here, in this room, he has witnessed the end of an extraordinary existence.
"Find him," he whispers again, closing the unfocused eyes. "Find him."
To be continued.