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Across the moonlit garden a soft breeze brought the music faintly to the ears of a man who wandered alone by the river bank. The reception seemed endless, hot and stuffy as such affairs usually were, and he had taken the opportunity to escape in search of a breath of cool air. He was bone-weary. He had smiled, made polite, meaningless conversation until his head ached - he felt like some mechanical doll going through its set routine, but the spring had run down; he needed a respite.
He had arrived hours ago, full of hopeful anticipation, to greet old friends, distinguished colleagues, but time passed and the one face he watched for so eagerly did not appear. Nothing definite had been said, he reminded himself, but he had hoped...
Coming at last on a seat thoughtfully placed at the water's edge he sank down thankfully, enjoying the breeze on his face, the faint, haunting scent of the garden. Leaning back he studied brilliant stars with pleasure, the familiar constellations of home, of Earth. He could scarcely remember when he had last seen those stars - the night skies of Vulcan, of Capella, of Rigel, were more familiar to him than those of home.
Behind him the music swelled louder for a moment, and he frowned, remembering the reason for his presence here now. He had reached mandatory retirement age, and this reception was in his honour, Starfleet's farewell to its Commanding Admiral, James T. Kirk.
How far he had come since the day he had first stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise, a fresh-faced, enthusiastic, dedicated young Captain. Above all, how young - the youngest Captain ever appointed, he had been then.
Now he was old, and tired, and alone. Somehow there had never been time for all those things other men found so essential in life - home, a wife, children. The years had flown by so quickly, there was always tomorrow, next year... but the unheeded years in their passing had stolen the spring from his step, the sparkle from his eyes; had spirited away all his tomorrows, until all that was left was his career - a career that now too was ending, leaving him with... with what, exactly?
A case-full of medals he never wore, a family at second hand - for Sam's boy had married - a reputation held in high honour throughout the Federation and beyond. And memories. Yes, he still had those, some tender, some bitter, others he could not bear to recall. Faces. So many faces. Friends, lovers, enemies, most gone now, lost to the past, or to death.
Bones, Scotty... they at least had lived their lives to the full, were enjoying their retirement; but Sulu - gentle, laughing Sulu, who had become, long after Kirk's departure, the Captain of the Enterprise - had died with his ship, blown apart in the last desperate battle with the Romulans.
Chekov, the incurable romantic, had in his turn achieved Captaincy, as had Uhura. She was here tonight, but Chekov had years ago headed an exploratory mission beyond the galactic barrier - there had been no word since.
Kirk sighed; how long ago it all seemed now.
Wings fanned his face as a night bird, deceived by his stillness, swept past his head and out over the river.
Strange, how he had always been fond of water. 'A beach to walk on... ' He had said that long ago; he could have it now, he supposed, but where?
Where in all this wide galaxy he had once roamed so freely was a home for an aging career officer? Sometimes he wondered whether the extended Human lifespan was really a blessing. A century ago he would have been old, finished, waiting only for the slow decline into senility and death; now years of life stretched ahead of him, years which were theoretically a reward for his long and distinguished service.
By any standards he was a wealthy man. He could go where he chose, do as he wished for all the time that was left to him; but he could think of nothing that moved him to enthusiasm. He supposed, with distaste, that he would eventually settle somewhere, would turn into one of those pathetic figures he had always pitied and despised, a retired Starman, boring on endlessly with repeated tales no-one wanted to hear. He had learned tolerance since then...
It would have been better, he thought bitterly, if he had died on one of those long-ago missions, died grandly, extravagantly in the service he had loved, leaving at least a legend of the heroic Captain he had been.
Heroic! He chuckled grimly, remembering the reputation he had had in those days. If only they had known, all those wide-eyed, admiring crew, how scared, how frankly terrified he had been! Had they all been the same, those captains whose names came back to him now, April, Garrovick, Pike? Had even Kor, Koloth, known the bitter taste of fear? He would never know, for they too were gone now.
Brave enemies, those Klingons had been; a man could respect such a foe. Their successors still tested Federation strength from time to time, probing, waiting for a chance... But the Organian Peace Treaty held secure. He wondered if somewhere a young Captain matched wits with his Klingon counterpart as he had once done.
Yes, he had his memories, more than most men. He had loved - and had been loved. Yet the strongest memories were, curiously, the earliest, from the old Enterprise days.
Edith - she had been the most important to him, yet his own decision had condemned her. Miramanee - after all this time pain still cut deeply. An enchanted idyll, doomed from the beginning, for it had been founded on a dream. She had loved her god Kirok, knowing nothing of Kirk, the Human, fallible man. She had carried his child, a child who died unborn, and there had never been another, for radiation exposure had made him sterile soon afterwards.
Ruth, earliest of all his loves - he had never seen her again, except when his imagination had conjured her image on the shore leave planet...
An endless procession of nameless faces and bodies, enjoyed for a time, quickly forgotten when the stars beckoned him away.
He had been so headstrong, so impetuous in those days, always eager for change, for a new challenge; now remained only the most difficult challenge of all, learning to accept that he was useless, unwanted.
Tomorrow another would take his place. He remembered his own youthful, contemptuous dismissal of aging, desk-bound officials, and looked back with wry understanding at that insensitive young cub. You'd never have understood, Jim Kirk, but experience teaches... many things. He had grown cautious, diplomatic, and acquired patience... and perhaps a little wisdom over the years.
He had served to the best of his ability, giving his life to Starfleet, and there had been rewards, the knowledge of a job well done, the respect he had earned. Yet at the end of it all he faced the bitter knowledge that nowhere in this galaxy was he needed; there was no-one for whom he came first.
In the reception room behind him men and women had gathered to do him honour on his retirement, but tomorrow they would turn again to their busy lives, while he would go on into a suddenly bleak future. No responsibility, no decisions to be made - the years stretched ahead of him, empty and without purpose.
Where did the years go? he wondered. Age had been kind, had touched him lightly. The mirror showed lines around his eyes and mouth, his hair turned to silver, but deep within himself he felt scarcely older than that young Captain who had stepped, trying to hide his nervousness, onto the bridge of the Enterprise.
He could remember that day so clearly, the sudden realisation that he, James Kirk, was now responsible for this tremendous ship, answerable for the lives of her crew. Beneath his mask of calm he had trembled with apprehension at that responsibility, had felt his confidence waver...
... And then he had looked up to meet dark eyes that saw through his pretence, saw and understood his doubt - and denied it. The confidence and compassion in those eyes had strengthened him, and he had responded to their encouragement.
Vulcans, he had been told, were proud, reserved, did not make friends; he only knew that in this Vulcan he had found the other half of himself. With Spock at his side he had been able to face anything.
As though in response to the thought of that name a familiar, warm presence touched his mind, and he turned with calm certainty to await the man he knew was approaching unseen through the darkness as clouds veiled the moon.
"Spock!" he exclaimed in joyful welcome, and his outstretched hands were enfolded in warm, strong fingers.
"Jim, you are cold," came the reproachful reply. "You should not be out here - come back inside."
"In a minute. I want to talk to you first."
Spock sighed, and joined Kirk on the bench. For a time the two sat in silence, then the Vulcan stirred.
"I am sorry I was delayed," he said quietly. "The formalities of my resignation took longer than I had expected - but from tomorrow I am as free as you."
"I still can't believe it," Kirk confessed. "When you didn't come I thought... I thought you'd changed your mind. After all, you have many more years of service left - why give them up for me?"
"Because I promised. And because I wish it," Spock replied. Kirk's mind flashed back through the years to the day he had received his promotion to Commodore's rank.
"Come with me?" he had asked lightly, but his eyes had pleaded.
"I will always come," Spock had answered.
And he had.
Even the tradition-bound High Command had recognised the worth of that team, and had ensured that wherever Kirk was sent, Spock followed. Captain and Commander they had been when they met as young men; Commanding Admiral and Chief of Starfleet Operations they were now; but the unique friendship that had begun long ago on the bridge of the Enterprise still held, strong and true.
Over the years each had become extremely sensitive to what the other was thinking. Now Spock said quietly,
"What's wrong, Jim?"
"Nothing. I was just remembering; and wondering... what we'll do now."
The Vulcan met his eyes gravely. "We will do as we have planned for so long," he answered. It seemed to Kirk that there was a note of hesitant joy in his voice.
"There was never time enough for ourselves, to do what we wanted. Now we can go back at last, revisit all those places we longed to explore..." His tone deepened with understanding. "You have been brooding, have you not, Jim? I know you so well... You have been depressed because you think the worthwhile years are over. They are not. How often have we said, 'One day...'? Our day has come at last, and I confess I have awaited it eagerly. But perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps it has not been so for you?"
Kirk's eyes dropped before that suddenly troubled gaze. "I feel ashamed," he murmured softly. "You're right, I've been sitting here feeling sorry for myself, wanting my youth over again... I really don't know why. They were good years, but they are over.
"Spock, do you remember Edith, her reply when I asked her where she thought we belonged? She looked at you and said, 'At his side, as if you've always been there, always will be.' She was right. You've been a part of everything worthwhile I've ever done, and it won't end here. I owe you a lot."
"And I to you, Jim. You taught me long ago to value my Human blood. I would not, if I could, become again the confused, so-rigid Vulcan I was when we met at first, always trying to hide the feelings I would not admit but could not deny. I tried so hard... but you won in the end, and I have never ceased to be grateful for it."
Impulsively Kirk reached out and hugged his friend. He grinned broadly, all the old mischief dancing in his eyes.
"And I thought I was going to finish up an antiquated wreck! There's no chance of that, with you around. We learned how to serve - now we're going to learn how to enjoy ourselves. Come on, Admiral - we'd better get back to the reception. It won't look good if the guest of honour is missing for too long."
Moonlight broke through the clouds, drenching the garden in silver light, erasing the years from Spock's face so that Kirk saw for a moment the young man he had met so many years ago; only now the Vulcan's lips curved in a smile that desperately-striving man would never have revealed. They had both learned much over the years, and with gladness Kirk welcomed the years still to come, for the friendship which had ripened so gently had come at last to fulfilment.
Perhaps, after all, the best was yet to come.
Side by side, as they had always walked, they turned back towards the distant music. The laughter in Kirk's voice echoed back along the path as he said,
"You know, Spock - you never did get around to teaching me that neck pinch."