Chapter 6 - Give 'im the hair of the dog that bit him
The doors swished closed behind Kirk and silence enveloped him, but his quarters did not feel like a refuge. Likely no place would. He moved on automatic, tugged off his torn uniform shirt and tossed it into the disposal. He shouldn't remain here long. He needed to be out and about on the ship, visible, a paragon of untouchable strength.
He pulled out a fresh uniform and fingered the cuff. That braid meant that there would always be something he had to do that he did not want to do. His responsibilities were larger than him. He knew that going in. He knew it now. He just had to keep accepting it for the future.
His shoulder complained bitterly when he slipped the shirt over his head. He hadn't noticed the shoulder with his hand throbbing the way it was.
The pain was welcome. He went to the monitor and flipped through the status reports left handed. He couldn't comprehend the details but the sense of the ship being safe, being slowly made whole again, began to seep into his insecurity.
There was dirt in his hair. He dampened a towel and scrubbed it until the grit was gone. Likewise he rubbed the dried blood off his face. Then he combed his hair repeatedly with this fingers.
The door buzzer sounded harshly in the quiet room. He wondered how long he'd been standing there, thinking about nothing. He reached for the switch, half expecting it would be Mitchell. A debilitating twinge of regret made him pull back. He gathered his tattered control into a tight ball and pressed the switch for the door.
Spock stepped in. He put his hands behind his back and waited, posture deferential.
"Mr. Spock," Kirk said.
"Captain." He waited, taking Kirk in. "Mr. Scott reports that restoring the station to its previous condition will require approximately sixteen hours."
"That's fine." Kirk wanted to rub his hand again, test how badly the pain would respond to touch, but resisted in front of Spock.
Kirk said, "I need to go to the bridge."
Spock accompanied him in silence. Kirk was certain that Spock's posture was different, his head bent more, his shoulders sloped more. If it were anyone else, Kirk would feel irritated at being catered to. But Spock was above patronizing. He too was responding to events and Kirk needed to let him do that, needed to accept it as part of a relationship, not something being done only for his benefit.
The bridge crew reacted to his arrival by sitting up and growing alert. Kirk took the center seat. Spock didn't take over the science console, he remained beside Kirk.
"Give me the ship's intercom."
Communications hit a few switches and nodded. Kirk let himself appreciate his bridge crew's unfazed adherence to duty.
"This is the captain. We are on a mission to explore the galaxy, both astronomical phenomenon and all forms of life. We expect to encounter dangers as part of the unknown. We expect to not always recognize them as dangers, just as we don't always expect to recognize friends without putting a bit of effort into it."
Kirk took a deep breath, making sure he sounded utterly unmoved. "It's not necessarily the unknown in front of us that will cause us the most danger. We can be enamored by what we are discovering and miss that the biggest danger is the unexplored selves within us. None of us can predict how we will perform until we are actually faced with ourselves in a wholly new situation, or even a wholly new form. That's why we send thinking beings out into space, and not just mindless probes, because it's the only way to really learn who we are. We deserve this chance to learn, and we must pay for that opportunity in risk. Risk that we will discover we are not always who we imagined we were."
He looked around the bridge crew faces peering at him.
"This mission is just beginning and we've survived this first test. There will be others. That's why we're out here. Captain out."
He signaled communications to reset the intercom. Delta Vega circled below on the viewscreen.
Spock said, "Do you have any orders for me, Captain? If not I have duties I would like to attend to."
Kirk managed a half smile, knowing the sound of it would come across in his voice. "Of course, Mr. Spock."
The lift doors swished closed. Kirk made himself sit back and forced each muscle to relax, releasing some of the panicked tension from his body.
He watched navigation and helm monitoring the ship. He would need to name a new first officer within a week. He wanted to appoint Spock, but with Spock's avowed refusal to be in the command line, he needed to talk to him first. He was certain Spock could handle it, but he'd also been certain about Gary. Maybe he needed to not be so certain of everything. In the meantime, minor reports and incidental organizational issues would be his own responsibility. He didn't mind the distraction.
Piper came to the bridge. "You're due for your post landing party exam, Captain."
"I'll get there before next shift," Kirk said. He shouldn't enjoy nursing his wounds, but he was darn well going to for a few more hours.
"I'll expect you before alpha shift, then, Captain."
The gamma shift was drifting in when Kirk left the bridge. Shift changes were a sloppier affair than expected, with each position coordinating their own handoffs. Kirk hadn't decided if he needed to put a stop to it or not. It was apparently standard for this bridge. It irked him, especially this shift change, but he knew better than to speak since it was likely his own lack of control that was really bothering him. He'd address it when his head was on straight.
He met Spock in the corridor outside his quarters.
"Come in for a minute, Spock," Kirk said.
Kirk fell into his desk chair. Spock took up a position beside the desk.
"You haven't said I told you so yet," Kirk said.
"I was not intending to do so."
Kirk rocked back and reached for a bottle. One-handed, he set that out along with two tumblers.
"Have a seat."
Kirk pushed a full tumbler toward Spock and raised his own. "To absent friends."
Spock drank the entire tumbler down and peered at it thoughtfully. "May I ask what this is?"
"Fifty year old Scotch."
"Wood was involved in the processing of this beverage?"
"Yes, about 45 years of it. Oak."
Kirk sipped at his glass again.
"Is it intended to be drunk slowly?"
"Spock." Kirk put his glass down to refill Spock's to the brim again. "You may drink it any way you like."
Kirk drank the rest of his down as well, letting the burn blot out his other aches. The heat seeped into his brain and numbed the emotions he had chased into the corners of his consciousness. Another four or so of glasses and he'd be feeling pretty good. He poured himself another half glass.
Kirk nearly spoke his immediate thoughts, but held himself back. Anything he might say would loosen his emotions and he didn't want to foist that on Spock. Spock was not a substitute for a friend of fifteen years, no matter how badly Kirk needed one at that moment.
Spock sipped his drink this time and placed the glass before him. His thoughts appeared to be elsewhere.
Kirk had to speak. Had to connect with someone at any level available.
"We are still estimated to be ready to depart at oh nine hundred and forty five?"
"Yes, sir. Everything is on schedule."
"The recovery crews haven't reported in."
"Some have. Mr. Scott and Doctor Piper have yet to file."
A cold horror seeped along Kirk's skin. He had been so worried about his ship, about putting on the right face for the crew, that he'd forgotten he needed to organize a memorial service, his first as captain, and likely not the last.
Kirk said, "Medical recovered the bodies." This was going to be question, but he made it a statement before he finished speaking.
"Yes sir. Dead for certain."
Kirk jerked his head up.
Spock said, "I felt compelled to check."
"Probably wise. Not that I don't wish it to be otherwise." Kirk took a larger sip of his drink. He was remembering.
"It wasn't him anymore." Kirk was back on the planet being treated like a toy. The voice. "Or maybe it was and I just didn't know him. Saddest part of it?" Kirk finished his glass, wishing he'd poured himself another full one. "He was human when I killed him. Otherwise I couldn't have done it."
Spock's voice was quieter than usual. "I am quite certain you did what you had to do."
"That's actually less consolation than one might hope for." Kirk looked at the bottle, but didn't pick it up. His right hand had started throbbing. He rested it in his lap and tried to ignore it. "I have to put a commendation in Dehner's file. Without her sacrifice, I wouldn't have defeated him."
Spock sat forward and took up the bottle and filled Kirk's glass.
Kirk felt his lips curl at the sight of this. "At least you don't have to carry me home."
"A fact I am well aware of, Captain."
Kirk propped his left elbow up on the desk and put his chin on his fingers, affecting an attitude of normalcy. "This is completely the wrong time to ask you this, but I'm going to anyway. Will you be my first officer?"
Spock considered him. "Are you certain you are choosing better this time?"
Kirk took a healthy swig of his drink. "No. I'm not. I'm not certain of much of anything at the moment, which is deadly for a starship captain." He breathed out audibly. The alcohol was taking full hold now. "That's not true. I'm certain of a few things. I'm certain you can handle the job. It's mostly administrative, and I notice you are already doing a lot of it, since a lot of reports you are summarizing come from sciences and engineering and those are the toughest. Anything you command someone to do, they should just do, since it's usually something I told you to tell them to do."
Kirk backed down. He was selling him hard on the idea strictly for his own sense of putting something to right.
"Don't decide now," Kirk sipped his drink. He might make it to five, although two was already deadening his sense of the immediate past.
"I would like to think about it," Spock said.
Kirk whispered dismissively. "Yes. Of course."
Kirk thought over the last few days. How clear it was in retrospect what course events were inextricably on. His hand throbbed again. Fear reared up in Kirk and he looked up sharply at Spock, who looked perfectly normal.
"Maybe you can explain something to me, Science Officer."
Spock set his glass down and sat up straighter. "If I am able."
"If you can't answer this one, I'm going to order you to find out the answer."
Kirk sat forward. He could feel his heart pounding against the edge of the desk. "Why didn't the barrier affect you? You have extra senses."
"I am a telepath, Captain, but in my case that is purely a biological phenomenon."
"Wasn't it also for Mitchell and Dehner?"
"In a sense, yes, everything about them was a biological feature of their person, but their abilities were related to tapping into something outside our usual experience of space-time. My ability is a specialized sensitivity of the nervous system to tune into another's nervous system. More a radio, if you will, than physical and temporal transposition, which is how current theory explains the ability to see the future, or the present at a distance without aid."
Kirk sat back. He felt unsteady with unneeded adrenaline coursing through him.
"You've never had your esper rating scored?"
"No, sir. Would you like me to have Doctor Piper do so?"
Kirk smiled faintly. "No. It just hit me. You were perfectly normal, and I thought nothing of it. So much for keeping tabs on my ship and crew."
"You were in a mode of reacting, Captain. There was nothing to react to with regard to my condition."
"True. Not an excuse, however." Kirk felt sobered up from the delayed panic and took another swig. "And I badly needed you as an advisor. Even though I didn't want to listen to you."
Emotions were lurking, ready to bite deep. Kirk had worried they would strike while Spock was sitting across from him, now he worried they would after he departed.
"You all right?" Kirk asked.
"I am uncertain about which aspect of my existence you are inquiring."
"Well, most immediately, whether you are uncomfortable keeping your captain company."
Spock's brows lowered slightly as he shook his head. "No, sir." He tilted his head. "You seem most concerned about my comfort. Captain Pike was correct in that I am more than capable of taking care of myself."
"Ah, Spock, that's not the issue. Most everyone can take care of themselves. The trouble comes when they have to take care of someone else."
"I see. I admit it does not usually come up."
"Well, you seem pretty good at it." Kirk tried to guess Spock's thoughts. "But I bet you'd prefer not to get more practice."
Spock picked up his glass again and stared into it like a seasoned drinker. "I was not thinking that. Precisely." He took a sip. "I was thinking that I was failing in that exact duty given that you are sitting there with not insignificant injuries."
Before Kirk could respond, Spock added, "I would not have expected you to have a penchant for self-mortification. Perhaps you are making an exception, given the personal nature of these circumstances."
"You mean I feel I need to do penance after killing my best friend?" Kirk looked away at the partition. "I probably do." He swallowed the rest of his drink and set the glass down hard. He regretted doing so immediately but gave no sign. Just sat back, waiting for his shoulder to stop complaining.
Spock studied Kirk, then held up his glass to the light, tilting it in a circle like a chemistry beaker. "Interesting. Alcohol appears to make it harder for me to keep my mind shielded."
"You seem a little tipsy," Kirk said.
"I am not that." Spock said. "My other faculties are unaffected. But I am sensing your pain from over here. Given the level of it, perhaps you should visit sickbay."
"Maybe you're right. Let the good doctor patch me up, then I can get some sleep."
Kirk considered standing up, then sat back. "Piper will neutralize the booze before he does anything else. It'll be wasted. If I have a bit more, I won't notice the pain and I can just sleep."
"That is illogical, Captain. You will still be injured when you wake up. More so, perhaps."
"You say that about my chess playing, but I still win. Have I mentioned I like how graceful a loser you are? It's a good quality to have."
"My father taught me chess. I had no choice but to learn grace under defeat."
Kirk stared off beyond the hull of the ship. "Must be nice. I'm getting my lessons in defeat only now. I'm not very good at it. And I don't want to be good at it."
"In the end you won, Captain."
Kirk shook his head. "Doesn't feel like it. Maybe that's what being captain is all about. You never really win anymore."
Spock poured Kirk another glass full to the brim.
"You are going to owe me a bottle of that," Kirk said, even as he gingerly pulled the glass closer. He looked up at Spock with suspicion.
Spock said, "Yes, I am getting you drunk so that I can declare you unfit for duty and then order you to sickbay."
Kirk put his hand flat down on the desk and stared at Spock. "You know. I don't think Pike knew you at all."
"He did. As another member of his crew."
"There is no way you, of all beings, could be just another member of the crew." Kirk considered drinking more, but held off. "I don't buy it."
Spock folded his hands in his lap. He appeared almost serene. "I did not wish to be more than that. It was, in fact, my goal. And it was hard-won."
"But you can be so much more than that."
"Jim, that is something I have only recognized since provisioning at Kepler-395."
Kirk felt that statement slice cleanly into him, lancing something that was threatening to fester a good long time. "You do know how to make a guy feel good about himself." He raised his glass. "Cheers to you, Spock."
"And then perhaps sickbay, while you can still walk unaided."
"But no sobering medicines," Kirk said, taking a swig.
"If you offer that as an ultimatum of your cooperation, Doctor Piper may agree to it."
Kirk pointed at him. "You are going to become a tougher chess opponent. I can see it."
Kirk stood up, leaving the rest of the tumbler for later. The door swished open, revealing the corridor dimmed for gamma shift. Kirk turned to find Spock behind him.
"You escorting me?" Kirk asked.
"I thought it wise."
Kirk made his way with Spock beside him. The curve in the corridor made him feel drunk, even though he actually wasn't quite yet.
At the lift, Kirk said, "Only the first officer is allowed to escort his drunk captain around the ship. That's a rule. I'm sure of it."
"I just had a realization, Captain."
The lift arrived, fortunately empty.
"What's that?" Kirk asked, gently twisting the lift control.
"You are playing chess constantly."
Kirk glanced at him, trying to keep from smiling. "And if I am?"
"That is grossly unfair, Captain."
Kirk laughed. "You are tipsy, Mr. Spock."
Spock crossed his arms. "It is unfair because in this game, I am going to lose myself."
Kirk pulled the lift handle to bring them to a halt and ignored his shoulder complaining about it.
"Spock," he said with feeling. He tried to clear the fog since this was going to be important. "Pike was a dependable, predictable commander. You got complacent. You shirked from the challenge. Sure, you can take on two, three extra jobs on this ship to keep yourself occupied, but are you really growing, Spock? Personally?"
Spock stared at him, deep in thought. "I do no comprehend how you do it. It is no wonder that you have so much confidence in your ability to change people."
"I can't change anyone beyond what they are actually capable of. The trick is to know what they are capable of, even if they don't. And hold that up so they can see it."
"It is working on me and it is most aggravating."
Kirk choked back a laugh and pushed the lift handle with his elbow, hiding his smile behind his hand.
"Spock. Thank you. You are doing a pretty good job of rescuing me here."
The lift doors swished open.
"That may very well be mutual, Captain."
And Spock was rewarded with that smile again, albeit a muted version, the one where Kirk had the universe at his feet.