The invitation occupied the top right corner of Jim’s desk. It had been collecting dust for two months. Of course, Sam had sent a paper copy.
In traditional script, the invitation requested the presence of James T. Kirk and Guest for a vineyard wedding at the end of September, not far from Riverside. It was printed on thick paper that wouldn’t bend in Jim’s grasp. Aurie’s note (“We can’t wait to see you!”) was affixed to the front of the envelope, which had arrived with a long-distance Earth transport months after Jim had received their video invitation.
“It’s your brother’s wedding,” Bones said, tipping back his bourbon. He sat across Jim’s desk, the workday just ended. They passed the bottle back and forth. “It’s not optional. Besides, you already said you were going.”
Jim plucked at the collar of his shirt, loose after a day on the bridge. He hadn’t bothered to put on a clean one, since he planned to go a few rounds in the gym before dinner.
“Can’t you get me out of it? Write me a note. You’re a doctor.”
“You’re the captain of a starship, Jim. Maybe you should act like one.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do! It’s a waste of resources to take me back to Earth just for a social event.”
“I’m glad you’ve suddenly become environmentally conscious.”
“Ugh, pour me another.” Jim held out his glass, but Bones put the stopper in the bottle and shoved it out of his reach.
“You need the time off and a few good meals.” When Jim glared and made a swipe for the bottle anyway, Bones added, “Doctor’s orders. And you can do plenty of drinking on Earth.”
“You’re looking forward to this.”
“The rest will be good for you.” Bones’s face softened. Jim huffed and rolled his eyes.
“Did you pass your medical boards in addition to the captain’s test? Because the last time I checked, I’m the one with the medical degree.”
“Don’t do this right now.” Jim rubbed his temples.
“I’ll order you home if I have to, but I have faith you can recognize that you need some time on solid ground. You know I still recommend therapy.”
Jim slumped in his chair and scratched his cheek. “You realize Spock’s going to be captain while I’m gone.”
“The thought had occurred to me.”
“You’re such an asshole.” Jim yawned a laugh into his palm. “I should make you accompany me.”
“I would happily escort you if it weren’t for my duties on board your ship, Captain.”
“Nothing like going stag to a wedding.”
“Carol would’ve gone with you.”
“I’m not taking your girlfriend to my brother’s wedding.”
“There’s no one back home you can ask?”
Blurry faces swam forward, women and men he’d met on blackout nights, a few old school friends who lived not far from the farmhouse. Jim hadn’t spoken with any since leaving Riverside—did he even have their contact information?
“A couple. Doubt they’d be real keen on the idea. To be honest, I’m looking forward to sleeping in more than anything.”
“I want you to come by med bay before you leave this ship.”
“I just had a physical last week! You said yourself there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Not now,” Bones said, “but I’m going to see to it you’re up-to-date on your Terran STD vaccinations, in case you decide to do something stupid.”
The long-range transport took four days to reach Earth. Jim passed the time wading through a backlog of reports and staff reviews, mucking through them in record time since he had relatively no distractions. But the sound of the transport’s engine grated his nerves, so he hardly slept during the trip and was running on caffeine by the time he disembarked in San Francisco.
After a brief appearance and photo op at headquarters, he boarded a packed shuttle for the Riverside Shipyard. It was faster than public transportation, and the pilot allowed him to sit undisturbed in the cockpit. He slept most of the ride and stayed on-board until the recruits had disembarked, most unaware of his presence—he wasn’t in the mood to re-tell the Narada incident again.
Riverside was cool today, overcast but no breeze. Pleasant for late September. It had been two and a half years since Jim last stood on Iowa soil, but he would’ve known his surroundings by the scent of crops and nearby livestock. He filled his lungs with it.
Two steps forward and the uniformed workers and metal scaffolding blurred together. Jim slumped against the shuttle’s hull to catch his breath, its siding almost searing through his uniform shirt. His bag thudded to the dirt.
“Are you alright, sir?” An ensign with broad shoulders and a square forehead bent down so they were eye level.
“Fine.” Jim waved him off. He should’ve used one of the sleep aids Bones had sent with him. “Haven’t slept much in a few days.”
“Would you like me to carry that for you?” The ensign pointed to Jim’s bag. Logically, Jim knew the ensign was asking out of courtesy for Jim’s position within Starfleet. He was being polite, but it didn’t stop the anger that punched through him. The ensign was late forties, old enough to be Jim’s father, but lacked the panache to hold rank—a career lackey. And Jim, just twenty-nine and in command of the jewel of the fleet, couldn't handle a shuttle ride.
“I got it. Thanks.” Jim flashed the ensign an embarrassed smile and heaved the bag onto his shoulder.
Winona Kirk waited with a blue aircar just outside the gates. Jim broke into a grin and walked a step faster when he saw her. She was out of uniform—for once—in a sleeveless gray blouse and jeans with a noticeable grease stain, graying hair pulled back in a loose knot.
“Captain,” she said, raising her chin to smile in return. It crinkled the skin around her eyes and filled Jim with fondness.
“Commander.” He motioned to the car. “Did you rent this?”
“Figured it would be easier than calling a cab. Are you glad to be back on Earth?” She tossed his bag into the trunk. He put his diplomacy skills to good use and sidestepped her question.
“You look good, mom.”
“You look like hell.” She smoothed a hand over his hair.
“Nice to see you too.”
“Would you prefer a mother that lies to you?” Winona pulled him in for a brief hug. She patted his back twice and got in the car. “I hope you’re hungry. Sam’s been cooking non-stop since they got here.”
Jim’s stomach growled in anticipation of home-cooked food and the absence of his usual diet restrictions. “When did they get in?”
“Monday. It’s been a full house.”
“Sure you want a fourth? I can get a room in town.”
“We serve on ships with hundreds of crew members. I think we can both handle a few days together in one house.”
The car hummed in seeming agreement and lifted several inches off the ground. Winona guided it toward the road, complaining about the quality of recruits nowadays when they failed to get out of the way.
“I don’t know what Starfleet looks for anymore,” she muttered, checking the rearview mirror. “It’s not common sense.”
Too tired to answer, Jim simply nodded and held onto the armrest as they sped down the road.
Jim hadn’t been back to the house since his recovery, when he’d spent a couple weeks there to avoid the media clamoring for details about Khan. They wouldn’t accept “No comment,” so he’d holed up, groggy from the medication Bones had prescribed, and slept. He did little but sleep for weeks, until Starfleet declared he was physically fit for duty.
It was strange to be back. In the front hall, Winona held out a hand for his jacket. The house smelled about the same as he remembered, but with a hint of cinnamon and vanilla—evidence of Sam’s sweet tooth, no doubt.
“I gave Aurie your room,” Winona said, shutting the closet. She left her shoes on the rug and walked further into the house. “You’re in the den.”
“What, why?” Jim set his bag on a chair just inside the door and unlaced his boots. He threw them aside and followed after her into the living room, socks slipping on the hardwood floor.
“Because your brother is old fashioned. He wanted to sleep in separate rooms until the wedding.”
“They’ve lived together for three years!”
“You know how Sam is.”
“What if I’d shown up with someone?”
“Then I would’ve taken the couch, and you could’ve had my room.” Winona sighed and checked her watch. “Sam and Aurie won’t be back for a couple hours. They’re out running errands. Drink?”
“It’s not even 14:00,” Jim said flatly, but Winona cocked an eyebrow in challenge, so he shrugged. A drink would help him sleep, at least, and he was on vacation. “Why not.”
They went to the den, his favorite room in the house—lined with books. A three-cushion leather sofa faced a picture window that looked into the back yard. Jim settled onto it, groaning as he sank into the cushions. They had nothing like this on the ship.
Winona poured them both a whiskey, neat. Jim had never liked his mom’s brand, but it didn’t taste as cheap today. Maybe because he’d spent the last two years with limited access to Terran creature comforts. He rolled the smokey flavor in his mouth.
“So,” she said, settling into an arm chair.
“How’s the ship?”
He swallowed, chasing the burn down his chest. “She’s good. Came through repairs okay. Scotty keeps her running smoothly.”
“I wish your father could see you. He’d be so proud.”
Jim mulled over that with another sip. Would he have his own ship if the Kelvin had managed to escape? If he’d enlisted right out of high school, he likely would’ve been with the fleet in the Laurentian System the day of the attack on Vulcan—assuming it happened at all, or in the same way. Maybe Starfleet would’ve found a way to destroy the Narada years earlier.
And if it had attacked, Uhura might have made the connection between the transmission she’d intercepted and the attack twenty years earlier. Pike might have listened to her, if she’d been on board.
If any of them had. But Jim wouldn’t have known any of them.
He drew a sharp breath and shut his eyes, focusing on pulling air into his lungs. They were fine, all of them, his ship too. Spock was a capable acting captain, and Jim would be back with them in a couple weeks. There was no point in wondering “what if.”
“How’re you feeling?” Winona asked, leaning slightly forward. Her face bore knowing concern. Jim was immediately skeptical. He expected to be hounded with technical questions about his ship, but personal questions? He and his mother hardly talked above five times a year, yet she was holding his gaze...as though she’d been instructed to.
He and Bones were having a long, hard conversation about confidentiality once he was back on board.
“I’m okay,” he said, forcing himself to smile. “No major side effects.”
“I’m not talking about the radiation. Leonard and I spoke—”
“Oh, I knew it,” Jim muttered.
“You have me listed as your next of kin.”
“He had no right to call you.”
“When a starship captain exhibits behavior that threatens to compromise—”
“It was over a year ago!”
“—his command of the ship, the CMO must act in the best interest of the ship and its crew.”
“Look.” Jim made a fist and held it tightly against his thigh. “I’ll admit that I had trouble coping for a while, alright? But I never once lost sight of my responsibilities!”
Winona took a breath and sat back. Jim took a long drink, inhaling the fumes that had collected in the glass. They stung his nose. He felt off balance, exhausted and wrung-out. He needed to sleep, but the stillness of Earth unsettled him. He hid a yawn against the back of his wrist.
“You’re tired,” Winona said, rising. “I’ll leave you alone for a while, let you relax. When Sam and Aurie get back, I’ll call you for dinner.”
“There are clean towels in the bathroom.”
He accepted the peace offering with a fixed smile. Once the door closed and he heard her footsteps fading toward the kitchen, he pulled out his comm.
“I cannot believe you called my mother,” he hissed as soon as Bones answered.
“Well, hello to you, too,” Bones said over the hum of biobeds. “How was your trip, sunshine?”
“When did you talk to her?”
Bones sighed, a lonely sound in his ear. “A while ago.”
“A few months. When you weren’t doing so well.”
Jim clenched his fist harder. “What did you talk about? And don’t you dare tell me it’s confidential.”
“I wanted to know if she’d heard from you, Jim. She said you two don’t talk much, which is obviously true.”
“Who else did you talk to about me?”
“I needed to be sure that you had the support of the people around you, in case I had to relieve you of duty. That didn’t happen, so this is a moot point.”
“I need to know how many people think I’m two seconds from losing it.”
“Jim, nobody thinks that. What you went through, none of us have. You experienced something profound—of course there were going to be long-term effects. I’m just sorry I didn’t recognize what was going on sooner so we could’ve gotten you help.”
“Well, I’m fine now. No more nightmares. I even slept on the shuttle.”
“Jim,” Bones said, in a voice as gentle as he ever used. “If you need anything at all, you call me.”
Jim dozed off on the den’s leather sofa, which he’d be calling home for the weekend. It was narrower than his bunk on the ship, but the cushions were thick. He set down his empty glass and in two breaths, he was out.
When the ringing started, it took a few seconds to remember where he was, get his bearings, remember why he couldn’t hear the Enterprise’s engines. A bird chirped erratically outside the window.
Jim rubbed a kink in his neck with a knuckle and answered his comm.
“Jim Kirk,” he mumbled.
“Jim.” The familiar voice was somehow musical despite its stoicism. It would always conjure the image of an ice cave, the warm glow of reflected firelight. Jim immediately brightened.
“Hey! It’s been a long time.”
“Five months and twenty-two days,” Spock said.
“What’s going on? How’s the colony?”
“I am satisfied with the progress. I hope that you will have a chance to visit and see for yourself.”
“I’m sure we will. Spock will want to take Uhura to see it. Where are you?”
“I am in San Francisco.”
Jim sat up, drawing his knees to his chest so he could lean his chin on them. “No kidding! I didn’t know you were on planet. How long are you here?”
“I am visiting for the next month. When I arrived, I was told you had recently landed. I trust there is nothing wrong?”
“No, no. I’m here for Sam’s wedding. Ship’s fine. I left my first officer in charge.”
“Then the ship is in good hands,” Spock said with a chuckle. “I offer my congratulations to your brother.”
“Thanks, I’m happy for him. Don’t suppose you want to take a transport out to Iowa, be my date?”
“I would be honored to accompany you.”
Jim blinked in surprise. “Yeah?”
“I suspect you were speaking in hyperbole just now, but I do not have any standing engagements this week.”
“Man, that’d be awesome. It’ll give us a chance to catch up.”
“When is the wedding?”
“In two days, Saturday afternoon. Is that too soon?”
“I will take an evening shuttle tomorrow. Would it be possible for you to secure accommodations for me near the shipyard?”
“You can stay with us, if you don’t mind the couch.”
“I would not inconvenience your mother?”
“Not at all. You’re more than welcome.”
“Thank you, Jim.”
“No problem.” Jim rubbed the back of his neck, waiting for Spock to keep talking, but he didn’t. “So I’ll, uh. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Later.” Jim closed his comm and tipped his head back. The conversation had eased his dark mood. Yawning, he set his comm down on the coffee table and shut his eyes. Sleep came easily.
Something heavy, roughly 180 pounds of muscle and shaped like his brother, sat down on Jim’s legs. Laughing Sam tucked his shoulder-length hair behind his ears and thwacked Jim in the gut.
“You got in how many hours ago and you didn’t even message me?”
Jim grunted and tried to force Sam off of him, but he didn’t budge. “Mom said you guys were out.”
“I woulda come back sooner if I’d known you were in. How was your trip?”
“Long.” Jim rubbed his eyes with twin fists. “You got cold feet yet?”
“Toasty warm.” Sam’s grin was boyish, framed by the beginning of a mustache. His eyes, identical to Jim’s except for color, darted toward the door and back. “I’m not supposed to ask—mom thinks it’ll upset you—but how’re you doing?”
Jim flung an arm over his face. “I’m fine. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. And get off me, man. You’re fucking heavy.”
“You look good.” Sam chewed on his lip. “Better than I thought you would, I mean.”
“What’d you expect me to look like?”
“I don’t know. I saw the press releases, but I thought the photos mighta been touched up.”
“I’m not a zombie.”
“I didn’t say you were...” Sam raked a hand through his hair. “Jesus, Jim. I’m glad you’re okay. How’s that?”
“How’s the ship? You like it?” Sam asked, picking up Jim’s legs and dropping them on his lap. Jim made a face but didn’t get up.
“I love it. What about you? Still playing with bacteria?”
“Yeah, I’m mostly focused on environmental work here: water pollution, air quality. It’s okay for now. Definitely not what I want to do long-term. Don’t tell mom—she still thinks I’m going to take over the farm—but I’ve got an application in with a research facility on Deneva.”
“Deneva?” Jim frowned, trying to recall what he knew of the system. “Why?”
“Planet’s beautiful,” Sam said. “Plus, Aurie thinks it would be a good place to raise a family. Her parents don’t live on Earth, and you and mom are always out on missions, so there’s no reason for us to stay here.”
“I guess not.”
Jim groaned himself fully horizontal. Would Winona keep the house if she knew Sam and Aurie didn’t want it? It was absurd to be disappointed about a potential sale. It wasn’t like Jim had any plans to take over the farm, either, but he’d grown up here. He swung his legs off the couch and leaned forward to stretch his back.
“You never thought about living somewhere else?” Sam asked.
“I do live somewhere else.”
With a roll of his eyes, Sam said, “I mean another planet.”
The lone command—“Fire!”—echoed across a burning field. They’d burned them all to stop the fungus. He covered his stomach with a hand and forced himself to grin. He didn’t talk about that place anymore.
“Hey, I know Tarsus was no Earth Colony II, but you can’t expect a thirteen-year-old to know shit about real estate.”
Sam blanched at his mistake. “Jimmy, I’m sorry. I didn’t—you know I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I should’ve been with you.”
Jim maintained his smile, stretched thin across his face. Being on his own probably allowed him to survive the colony, but Sam would never understand that. He hadn’t been there. It wasn’t his fault. Jim had stopped trying to explain a decade ago.
“Mom said you’ve been tearing up her kitchen since you got in,” he said. “They don’t have food where you live?”
“Don’t feel up to cooking after I work a whole day,” Sam said, his tone lighter—he was obviously as glad of the shift in conversation as Jim. “I’m on vacation. You hungry?”
“Yeah. Let me grab a shower and I’ll be out. D’you want to get a drink later? Just the two of us?”
“We can go after we eat. I promised Aurie nothing big, but she can’t say no to me having drinks with my brother. The Ship?”
Jim grinned—genuinely, this time. “Not a proper trip to Riverside without it. Hey, is there anything you need me to do, by the way? Aren’t I supposed to have a list of best man duties?”
“Taken care of,” Sam said with a self-important shake of his head. “I ought to quit my job and become a wedding planner.”
Clean and dressed in civilian wear, Jim hedged the topic of Spock’s impending visit by first offering to get a room in town, but his mother wasn’t upset. On the contrary, she sounded thrilled to be meeting one of Jim’s friends, though the cryptic smile she gave made him turn tail for the kitchen.
Despite not having seen each other in three years, Jim and Aurie required just a look to catch up. Sam fussed at the stove while Aurie relaxed with both elbows on the kitchen table, dark hair pulled into a messy bun. She dunked one of Sam’s cookies into a cup of tea. Jim grabbed a beer from the fridge and smirked his way onto the adjacent chair.
“Aurelan.” He shoved a whole cookie in his mouth and grinned.
He clinked the beer bottle against her teacup. She raised an eyebrow, then broke into a grin.
“I can’t believe they let you command a starship.”
“I can’t believe what you’re about to marry,” he said once he’d swallowed.
They watched Sam dip his pinkie into a saucepan and give his creation a nod of approval. Aurie bit her lip and sighed.
“Does he know about...” Jim asked, wagging his bottle back and forth between them just long enough that she understood. She smacked his arm.
“Have you ever dated someone longer than a weekend?”
Jim thought about it with one eye open, which made her snort and wave off the question.
Sam carried a tray of fried chicken to the table and announced, “Let’s eat!” Winona popped the cork on a bottle of red table wine. They drained it over dinner and emptied a second over an apple pie Sam had made from scratch—an old Kirk family recipe. Jim scarfed down two pieces. The wine left him woozy.
He pushed back from the table and mumbled that he needed a nap before they went out.
“Since when are you a lightweight?” Sam challenged.
“I just need twenty minutes,” Jim yawned, edging toward the door, but Winona held up a finger to stop him.
“What time is your friend getting here tomorrow?”
“Uh…” He squeezed his eyes closed and tried to remember what Spock had said. “Sometime in the evening.”
“You’re bringing a date?” Sam asked. “Who?”
“He’s a friend.” Jim said, but they all looked at him with matching grins, expecting him to elaborate. He rolled his eyes. “He’s on planet, gave me a call this afternoon. I haven’t seen him in a couple years, so I figured, why not?”
Aurie had a particular gleam in her eye. “Someone from the academy?”
Jim thought for a moment. “Technically.”
Winona raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“We can talk more about it tomorrow.” Jim wasn’t sure where to begin—Spock’s presence might dredge up bad feelings, no matter how delicately Jim broke the news. He glanced to Sam. “Wake me up when you’re ready to go.”
The Shipyard was, if possible, in worse condition than the time Jim was face-down drooling on a bar table. His shoes stuck to the concrete, and the torn vinyl seats bloomed with padding, extruding like a dingy turnover. He grimaced before sitting down.
The bartender, a tall, burly man with a bald head, looked in their direction. His face opened in friendly recognition. He slung a bar towel over his shoulder and extended a thick hand across the bar.
“Glad to see you again, Captain. I trust I don’t have to worry about you getting in any more fights.”
“Not tonight,” Jim laughed. He shook the bartender’s hand—Lew, he remembered—and clapped Sam on the back. “My brother’s getting married in two days. We’re celebrating.”
“Congratulations. What can I get you?” Lew asked.
“Uh, Bud Classic and the home base fries,” Jim said. “Sam?”
“Klabnian fire tea and a shot of Jack.”
“Coming up,” said Lew and went to punch in Jim’s order.
“So.” Sam drummed both hands on the bar, then planted his fists and craned his head to look at Jim. “When were you fighting in here?”
Jim shrugged but didn’t look at him. “Couple years ago.”
“Does this have anything to do with you enlisting?”
“It was part of it. Wasn’t like I was going anywhere sticking around here.”
Lew slid them their drinks and said the fries would be up in a minute. Jim nodded his head in thanks and handed over his credit chip.
“I was worried about you back then, man,” Sam said once it was the two of them again. He took the shot of Jack first, wincing as it went down. “I wasn’t sure if you were ever gonna get your shit together.”
Jim tipped his head back and flooded his mouth with beer. “I wasn’t sure you were ever gonna settle down, you hippie.”
“Is this weird for you? Aurie told me you went out a couple times.”
“We got drunk a couple times. I’m happy for you. I swear.”
Sam looked relieved, settling into his chair and letting his shoulders round out. “So who’s this date you’ve got coming tomorrow?”
“It’s, uh...” Jim glanced around them. There were a couple people in Starfleet uniforms, but no one he recognized and no one of rank. Still, it was best to be safe. Any one of them could be a reporter. “Hang on a sec.”
He waited until his fries were up and motioned to the booths along the wall. Sam raised an eyebrow but followed Jim to a booth in the dark corner. The bench seats were torn. Jim didn’t want to think about what was stuck underneath the table, careful not to let his knees touch the underside. He propped both elbows on the edge and spoke just loudly enough for Sam to hear.
“What I’m about to tell you is classified.”
Sam licked his lips and leaned across the table. “You’re really a spy.”
“No, dick,” Jim said, chuckling. He dug into the fries with zeal and spoke with a full mouth. “You know about the Romulan ship the Kelvin encountered?”
“Of course. I was three when dad died.”
“Well, what’s not publicly known is that a couple years ago, something else came through that black hole. Another ship.”
Sam made a sour face, like he thought Jim was pranking him. “What?”
“And—I know this sounds crazy, but I’m not kidding—it was piloted by a much older version of my first officer. He followed the Romulans through and got stuck here.”
“You are full of shit.”
Jim raised his hands in innocence. “He’ll be here tomorrow, so you can quiz him all you want.”
“Uh huh. So he’s a Vulcan? You’re bringing a Vulcan to my wedding?”
“And you guys are...”
“Just friends.” When Sam gave him an incredulous look, Jim added, “Seriously. He’s a hundred years older than me.”
“Sure.” Sam’s grin said otherwise. “How did you meet him?”
“Um.” Jim wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “When Vulcan was...y’know. I was there, and. Kinda got myself marooned.”
“From a starship.”
“In my defense, it was very specific circumstances. I said some things I shouldn’t have. People weren’t thinking clearly.”
“And these same people,” Sam said with exaggerated enunciation, as though he were speaking to a small child, “they gave you a ship?”
“Shut up.” Jim laughed and kicked Sam’s shin under the table. “It was a misunderstanding. Anyway, Spock happened to be on the rock where they dropped me.”
Sam blinked a few times and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. “You realize how fucking weird this sounds.”
“I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. The ‘official’ rumor...” Jim mimed air quotes. “...is the pilot died with his ship.”
“Sure, but why’s it a big deal? The Romulans were from the future too. It’s not like time travel is some big secret.”
“Yeah, but they’re dead. Spock could be kidnapped, held for information. For his safety, as far as anybody’s concerned, he’s just another Vulcan. Alright?”
“I’m a steel trap.” Sam tapped his forehead. “Does mom know?”
“Pretty sure she does. She’s got clearance.”
“Weird, man. I’m getting another couple of these.” Sam drained his fire tea and getting up from the booth. “We’re taking a cab home.”