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A quiet, firm tap on the door. He knew immediately who it was.
"Come in, Bones."
"How did you know it was me?" demanded McCoy as he entered.
Kirk lifted both eyebrows and grinned widely. "After all this time I should know a little about my friends."
"Sheer guesswork," muttered McCoy. He lifted one hand, which held a bottle full of a pale amber liquid. "Want a little nightcap?"
Kirk set aside the piles of paperwork and took two glasses from a shelf behind him. McCoy carefully filled each one to the brim, then they raised them in a toast. A serious look came over the doctor's face.
"To the best Starship Captain I'll ever serve under - and the best friend."
Hazel eyes met startling blue ones as Kirk lifted his glass. "To the finest surgeon in Starfleet, and a friend I will never forget."
They sipped the whisky slowly, each reminded of what he owed to the other. They could never repay it, but there was no need to.
"I can't believe we're on our way home," McCoy said at last.
"It's been a long time," agreed the Captain.
Both sensed the regret which threatened to well up, and both tried to lighten the subject.
"What will you do now, Bones?"
He shrugged. "Hard to say till I get there and all the rigmarole is past. I had thought about settling down, maybe set up a practice somewhere, go in for research..."
"The good old country doctor, huh?"
"Something like that... What about you, Jim?"
Kirk sighed and sat on the edge of his desk. It was a while before he answered. "That depends on Starfleet... " He shook his head and grinned. "There's even been talk of making me an Admiral. Can you imagine it?"
"Wait till it comes," McCoy said cautiously.
"It doesn't seem too bad an idea," mused Kirk. He took another sip of the drink, frowning at the wall. "It would be hard to leave the Enterprise, though."
The doctor nodded agreement. "She's been a real home these past years. I'll be sorry to see the last of her."
A myriad emotions were contained in those two small words, and silence fell between them. Once again it was McCoy who broke it. "I guess Spock'll be made a Captain."
"He deserves it," Kirk said firmly. He stared at the cabin door, his voice distant and low. "That'll be the hardest part, Bones. After all we've been through together, the worry, the constant battles against the unknown... It's going to be lonely."
"For him or you?"
"Both...but for Spock especially, I think..."
The intercom bleeped demandingly, and Kirk glanced ruefully at McCoy as he answered it. The doctor waited while he spoke, slowly savouring the taste of the whisky in his mouth. At last Kirk finished, but he turned to his friend with an apologetic expression. "Sorry, Bones, but duty calls. Minor problem up on the bridge. Be back in a minute."
McCoy nodded, watched him as he strode purposefully out the door. How many more times would Jim Kirk hurry up to the nerve centre of the Enterprise to cope with yet another crisis?
He poured out another glassful and thought over the future. Two weeks, maybe less, and they would reach Earth - and then what? To be frank, the thought frightened him a little. Now that his cherished dream of a practice of his own was near to coming true, he felt a curious reluctance to even consider the thought of staying on Earth. Had Jim been sent out on another mission, he would likely have joined him again, but the chance of an Admiralty would be very tempting...
A deep frown creased his forehead at that point, and he gazed moodily at his glass. Much as he knew Kirk deserved such promotion, the thought disturbed him even more than his own future. Jim just would not fit in! Oh sure, he would adapt to - and perhaps even enjoy - his new life, but what would he do when the glitter wore off? Bones wondered if it would be possible to persuade his friend not to accept the promised riches.
He wearily shook off the gloomy thoughts and topped up his glass. He could see himself being hopelessly drunk before Jim got back...
* * * * * * * *
The Enterprise sped on towards her final destination without a murmur, and the crew carried on as best they could. So hard, to believe that the long exile from their homes was almost over. A tense feeling of expectancy and doubt filled the ship, and speculation ran rampant. Which - if any - of them would be promoted? Would they be split up, sent to different ships? To some it meant little; another hurdle cleared in their career, some fond memories to look back on. Others felt as if they were losing a valued family, and a few accepted the probable loss of their friends as inevitable. Friendships were hard to keep in Starfleet.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons Spock's announcement hit Kirk so hard. After the Vulcan left his office, he sat in a numb daze, scarcely able to believe his ears. Thinking back, he could not even recall how it had begun. He vaguely remembered talking about his looming promotion, what he would, do when he got back to Earth - that sort of thing - when Spock quietly dropped his bombshell.
"After we reach Earth, I intend to return to Vulcan."
He had said it reluctantly, as if he did not wish Kirk to know until the last possible moment. The Human had stared at him in disbelief, his mind racing.
"But - but why? What do you - "
"I wish to return home," Spock said quietly, his eyes not quite meeting Kirk's. The Captain smiled in relief, mentally calling himself a fool.
"Oh, for leave, you mean? For one minute I thought... "
"You thought correctly, Captain."
Silence fell like a thick blanket. That, and troubled puzzlement. Kirk felt as if a very bad nightmare had suddenly come true. Of course, he had known that their ways would part one day, but he had hoped... "Why?"
Spock sighed inwardly at the blunt question. How could he answer the unspoken plea when to do so might raise old doubts pushed away by the certainty of his decision? He had hoped to fend off this moment as long as possible, but he could not deceive Jim any longer. If only there had been some other way... He became aware of Kirk's uncompromising gaze, and tried to answer objectively, as he would have to do in the future.
"It is something I must do. When looked at, it is the - "
"Logical decision, I know," Kirk said bitterly. "Spock, are you going to deny all that's happened in the last five years? Are you going to push it all away and pretend it never happened?"
"I do not wish to."
The anguished emotion in Spock's quietly-spoken sentence dissipated the wave of anger, and Kirk looked at his friend, with troubled eyes.
"It's this age-old battle between logic and emotion again, isn't it?" he said softly. He took the Vulcan's lack of response as confirmation of his question. Instinctively his hand reached out to his friend's, but something made him stop it halfway. He gazed at the bowed dark head, wondering how many times they had talked through this one particular crisis.
"Spock, Spock, won't you ever learn? It's possible to abide both by logic and emotion. You've proved it yourself in the past! Why won't you accept it?"
A shaky sigh escaped Spock's lips at that, and he raised his head. "I cannot," he said in a strangled whisper, his eyes closing against the emotions he must soon completely deny. When he opened then again Kirk was standing, anxious to help. Spock motioned him down again, forced himself to speak evenly. "Jim... I have lived all my life in a limbo, being neither one thing nor another. I - I call myself Vulcan, yet I am not like any of my people. You have helped me discover what it is to be human, and I thank you deeply for that. But I can never be Human, no matter how hard I may try. There is nothing left but to try to return to my heritage. I must become a Vulcan within as well as without. Perhaps then the conflict will pass."
Kirk's shoulders slumped. He desperately wanted to say something, anything, that might help, but he sensed that this time nothing would change Spock's mind, and would it truly be fair of him to try? At last he spoke, and his words sounded hopelessly inadequate.
"I see... But - at the risk of sounding selfish - what about me"
"You will become an Admiral, as you deserve to," Spock said firmly. You will think of me from time to time, as I will of you, but you will continue your career. Jim, believe me, I have always valued your friendship. I love you as a brother, but... even a brother cannot help me control the emotions I should not have."
Kirk looked up from his hands to see a surprising smile on Spock's face. "Besides," the Vulcan continued, "do you honestly think I could continue in Starfleet as Captain of a Starship or something similar, knowing you are still on Earth? I have always known I am not suited for full-time command..."
The familiar eyebrows rose slightly, and a smile creased Kirk's face in response. "I'll miss you," he said softly.
"And I you."
Spock rose, and Kirk reached out to grip his outstretched hands. They said their goodbyes in the silence of their minds, then Spock turned to leave. He paused at the door, one hand raised in the ancient Vulcan sign. "In case there is no time when we arrive... Live long and prosper, Jim."
The door slid shut, leaving Kirk to the silence of his mind. The numbness finally left his body, and he felt an absurd prickling at the back of his eyelids. Slowly he sat down, one hand clenched into a tight fist.
There was a quiet hiss as the office door opened again, and measured footsteps sounded on the even floor. A concerned voice broke into his private misery.
"Jim? Jim, is anything wrong? I just passed Spock out there, and he looked like - "
"He's leaving, Bones."
McCoy frowned, refusing to believe what Kirk had so obviously meant.
"What do you mean? Leaving the ship, the service, what?"
"He's going back to Vulcan," Kirk said, finally opening his eyes. "Permanently."
McCoy let out a long breath. "That's Spock. Lets you know at the very last minute... When is he going?"
"After we reach Earth. As soon as possible after de-briefing, I suppose," Kirk replied morosely. He looked pleadingly up at McCoy. "Bones, I couldn't help him. Even after all this he's still torn apart by his heritage, and all I could think of was me! I had thought - oh, I don't know what I thought... It was so easy for me to say forget it, but... "
"Spock never did know where he was better off!" exploded McCoy, anger supplanting anguish. "After all you've done for him... to throw it back in - "
"You know that isn't true," Kirk interrupted firmly. "It's his decision, his life."
The doctor smiled half-heartedly. "Yeah. I don't suppose we ever really know what went on in that head of his. Maybe the constant struggle grew too much. If only we had known sooner... "
"Do you really think either of us could have changed his mind? He sees a life on Vulcan as his only remaining choice, and maybe he's right. I only wish - "
Sulu interrupted him then, with the news that they had almost reached Earth's solar system. Kirk thanked the helmsman and switched off the intercom. He glanced briefly at McCoy, who grinned sardonically.
"Welcome home, Jim."
Outside in the dark vacuum of space, the distant light of Earth's sun glanced off the Enterprise's hull as she slipped past Pluto.
Copyright Lorraine Goodison