Title: Human Souls
Characters: Spock, Kirk, Peter Kirk, McCoy, various
Warnings: Mentions of minor character death, etc.
Word Count: 3264
Summary: In the wake of Operation Annihilate, the three people most affected by the Denevan parasites come together over a familiar game with less familiar metaphors. Unsure exactly where this stems from, other than my irritation with the episode for leaving so many loose ends, and my own personal frustration with my life at the moment.
A/Ns: 1. Originally was going to be the last one of six for an LJ friend's prompt of "Five times Spock lost a chess match to a human unintentionally and one time he may have let the human win" but got way too long to be part of a five-and-one.
2. Not a part of my Aftermath series.
3. OA didn't tell us how old Peter Kirk is, so I picked a younger number and will go with the tall-for-his-age theory.
4. Title refers both to the obvious meaning as well as Kirk's words about Spock in ST:TWOK.
Disclaimer: If I owned them, TOS would still be running new seasons.
It is almost 0800 hours; the Captain's shift was over three hours ago but the last few days he's found it easier to work as much and as hard as he can so that he doesn't have to listen to Aurelan screaming inside his head every time he's alone, or see Spock stumbling blindly into tables every time he closes his eyes.
But he is tired – so terribly tired – that he's only half-irritated when the comm squawks near his restlessly tapping fingers. "McCoy to Bridge."
Snap. "Kirk here. What is it, Bones?"
"Jim…You need to see this."
He sits up straighter in the chair, aware both of his rapidly disappearing calm composure and the fact that every eye on the Bridge is regarding him warily, as if waiting for an explosion. "Bones –"
"It's nothing life-threatening, Jim," is the welcome answer, and he slumps back with a creak of leather. "But I want you down here to see it. I'll make it an order if I have to, Captain."
"That won't be necessary, Doctor." He stands, gestures to the Tactical officer on duty. "Mr. DeSalle, you have the conn; I'll be in Sickbay if I'm needed."
"Aye, aye, Captain," he hears just as the lift doors hiss close, and he wonders if that was relief in the crewman's voice. He's not been the most patient of commanders of late; grief or no that is no excuse, and it must be rectified before long.
At least now he knows that Spock is fine, and his nephew and the other colonists back on Deneva will recover with no side-effects from the radiation; he should be grateful, but all he can feel is guilt and grief at the moment. And the question remains – what to do with Peter. The boy will stay on board for another three days, until they can drop him at the nearest Starbase to catch a transport back to Earth. And he still has no idea how to help the child deal with the grief and loss – he is not even dealing with it well himself, so how can he possibly aid a small boy?
He barely notices the wary looks he receives as he hurries down the corridor to Sickbay, entering just as Nurse Chapel is seeing off a young ensign from Engineering, warning him to not experiment with the food processors again.
"In here, Jim," comes McCoy's quiet voice, and a head pokes round the corner of the Recovery Ward.
He moves toward the door, barely noticing the encouraging look from Chapel, and stops beside his CMO, looking through the open doors.
"I thought you'd want to see this, Jim," the physician is saying, with a soft sort of smile, and points through the doorway at the occupants of the room.
He peers inside, and feels a responsive smile come to his face for the first time since he found Spock had regained his eyesight two days ago; for the Vulcan is seated across a small table from his nephew, a chess board between them, and is guiding the child to make his next move with a patience far exceeding any human he's ever seen.
"They've been at that for four and a half hours, Jim, ever since Spock got off shift," McCoy says in quiet satisfaction. "And the boy's actually been talking to him in the last two hours, more than he'd talked all week to Chapel or me."
"Sam didn't play chess," he hears himself murmuring, his lips curving gently as Peter stands up, straining on tiptoe, to place a knight on the top level of the board. "Spock must have taught him the game today."
"That's not all he's taught him in the last two hours, Jim," McCoy adds softly, glancing over at his bemused expression.
"I've never seen anything like it," the physician continues, shaking his head in admiration. "Jim, he's used that game as a metaphor to teach the kid how to deal with his losses – and how to turn them into strengths. He's shown the kid about sacrifices, gambits, true winning and losing being in the process rather than the result, and maturity in how each is handled being more important than the eventuality… it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life. Don't ever tell him I said so," he adds with a smirk, though there is not a shred of malice in the tone, only wonder.
He looks at the doctor for a moment, and sees only compassion in the blue eyes looking calmly back at him. Inside the room, he watches Peter reach for a rook; Spock clears his throat pointedly, raising an eyebrow in the boy's direction. The child grins outright, and picks up a bishop instead, to a favorable nod.
"Very good, Mr. Kirk," he hears the deeper voice of his First Officer, approving the move, and the captain's grin is genuine, if slightly watery, at the formality.
His nephew's freckled face scrunches up endearingly. "I tol' you you can call me Peter, Mr. Spock," the boy says with a scowl.
"Indeed you did," his friend replies calmly.
"Why don't you then?" the child demands, moving a pawn to the second level.
"I am distracting you from your game, child," is the pointed reply, accompanied by a swift move of the queen. "Check."
"That's not fair!" the boy practically wails, and Kirk automatically starts forward, only to be held back by McCoy's strong hand.
"Wait, Jim…just watch for a second," the doctor murmurs.
"No, it is not fair," the Vulcan agrees calmly, moving the board slightly to the left so as to have an unobstructed view of the child's pale face. "But life rarely is fair, Peter. It is not pleasant, but it is true."
The child's eyes – so blue, just like Sam's had been – widen and well up with tears, and something clenches inside Kirk's stomach, curling it into a cold, hard knot.
"What happened to Mom and Dad wasn't fair," the boy whispers, as if in agreement, and the Vulcan nods silently, only his eyes betraying the sadness carefully dealt with and controlled inside.
"It isn't fair…it – it just isn't!" the child repeats, his small voice breaking as one tear escapes, and then another, down the small face which is lined with more care than any child should deal with in only nine years.
"Thank heaven," McCoy breathes next to him, slumping against a wall for a moment. "I thought the boy was never gonna cry, Jim – it's been almost a week and he hasn't even twitched…"
His eyes are on his nephew, who slumps forward now to sob bitterly into his arms, crossing them across the tabletop and hiding his face in them. Bumped by the sudden movement, a chess piece teeters, falls to the floor and rolls, but neither occupant of the room moves after it.
Kirk watches, unconsciously biting his lip, as his friend moves his chair closer to the weeping child, settles beside rather than across the boy. Then he is shocked to see the Vulcan hesitantly raise a hand and place it on the child's tousled head.
"Tushah nash-veh k'du, Peter-kam," Spock says quietly, remaining in that position as the child cries softly.
His ears are buzzing strangely, but above the noise he hears McCoy's puzzled but curious "What'd he say?" from his left.
"It's Vulcan, Bones," he whispers, watching as his nephew's sobs grow quieter under whatever influence Spock is having over him. "'I grieve with thee'," he explains shakily. "It's an honor, Bones…and he's taking the time to give it to a nine-year-old human child…"
"That child is also your nephew, Jim," McCoy replies gently. "He's probably doing it because he cares about you. And you've been keepin' to yourself this last week a sight more than is healthy. Maybe you should let him help you too."
And then something inside him snaps suddenly, and he's leaning against a wall he can't see properly, with a strong hand settling comfortingly on his shoulder and not letting go until he's more in control of himself.
Somehow, sometime, Bones's hand moves from his shoulder to his back, and rubs it gently as if he were nine years old himself, and he sees anew how good a father McCoy could have been if properly given the chance. He coughs wetly, and looks up, blinking his eyes clear to see an understanding, and relieved, smile of reassurance.
"And if you think those Vulcan ears of his didn't pick your voice out as soon as you walked into Sickbay, you're stupider than your last brainwave signature said you are," McCoy whispers in his ear.
His eyes widen, for he had totally forgotten and is properly horrified, but Bones only claps him on the shoulder with a cheeky grin and strides into the next ward to check on an unfortunate botanist who had gotten hold of one of Sulu's experimental-breeding plants, one with extremely dangerous self-defense mechanisms.
He goes back the room, standing silent in the doorway, and Spock finally looks up at him with what seems to be hesitation, as if worried that he will disapprove of his First's attentions to his nephew.
"Hey," he mumbles in lieu of anything more intelligent to say, and the Vulcan relaxes visibly.
"Peter," Spock says gently to the limp child, who is sniffling quietly against the table, "your uncle is here to see you, young one. It is time to put these things behind you, for now."
That being said, the First Officer rises to leave and give them familial privacy, but Kirk is quick to raise a hand in unspoken request. He relapses into his chair, and watches silently as his commanding officer pulls up another one, keeping the child between them.
Peter, to Kirk's surprise, actually gulps a deep breath and sits up at Spock's gentle admonition, looking red-eyed at the Vulcan and mumbling a slightly-coherent "Yes, sir," before dragging a sleeve across his eyes and glancing over at the silent captain with an attitude of fierce indignation for his intrusion without warning.
"It's okay," he says softly, putting a hand on the child's sleeve. "It's good for us all to cry, Peter."
"Indeed it is," Spock adds from across the table, and something in his tone causes Kirk to look up quickly. "Every man must, at some point," the Vulcan adds with patient earnestness, and the tone is directed straight at him and they both know it.
He flushes, drops his shamed gaze to the small arm beneath his hand. "Mr. Spock is a very wise man, Peter," he finds himself telling the child quietly. "His advice is always worthy of being followed, even if some people are too stubborn to do so."
"I'm tryin' to," the boy answers earnestly, casting a look of mild childish awe at the austere figure beside him. "He taught me how to play chess today, Uncle Jim."
"I see that," he smiles, on surer ground now that the child's attention has apparently switched topics, the catharsis of grief being released having done wonders for the boy's pinched, haunted look. "And have you beaten him yet?"
Spock's eyebrows brush his hairline, and the tension melts into the background for a moment. "I did offer to play without my queen, Captain, so as to handicap myself sufficiently to give the young man a chance, but he refused. He is quite stubborn; a familial trait, I take it?"
"Ouch," he admits that the barb hit home in his heart, and grins outright at his First while pulling the board back toward the center of the table.
"If I'm gonna win I wanna do it fair and square," Peter growls muffledly, accompanied by a wet sniff, from where he is rummaging under the table for the knight that had fallen off the board earlier.
Kirk smiles crookedly at his friend's inquiring features, and pulls the child onto his lap after a momentary hesitation. "Well then, nephew of mine, let's see how well you do against my Vulcan friend," he says into the boy's ear as the piece is replaced on the board to Spock's direction. "He's a genius, you know. You have to be very, very devious to beat that kind of logic."
"What's…devious mean?" Peter asks, as Spock moves a pawn into a non-threatening position.
"It means, Peter," the Vulcan replies regally, "that you use any method possible within the rules, and bend those existing rules at times, to so distract your opponent that sheer illogic wins out over superior intelligence."
Unoffended, the captain scowls good-naturedly; but the child's blue eyes are wide as saucers. "Huh?"
Kirk chuckles, and nudges the nearest bishop. "Queen's level three," he whispers in a highly conspiratorial tone.
"Captain, helping the young man constitutes cheating," comes the expected response, though delivered with a slight twinkle in the dark eyes that he meets over the child's head.
"Why, Mr. Spock!" he gasps in mock horror. "I wasn't helping him – I was giving him a bit of advice."
"Yeah," the boy adds with unmitigated glee, moving the requisite piece to the proper spot. "You can play on my team, Uncle Jim," he adds generously, beaming up at the man.
"Well, now, don't you think that's a little unfair to Mr. Spock, to outmatch him so badly?" he asks, smiling into the freckled face, upturned in earnestness.
"Nope," comes the definitive reply, causing him to hide a laugh in the boy's mussed hair. "He beat me six times t'day, Uncle."
Kirk makes a tsk-ing sound in the back of his throat, shaking his head. "Well we can't have that, now can we?"
Spock eyes him over the board, and he would swear, if the idea weren't so positively absurd, that his First actually just winked at him before making an obviously bad move, placing his queen in peril.
"Ooh, you shouldn't oughtta have done that, Mr. Spock!" Peter exclaims before he can even think of pointing out the error, and the child grabs a rook and sweeps it down the board to place both the queen and a bishop in double check.
He raises an eyebrow in surprise, and the expression on Spock's face is far too smug. "I do not believe young Mr. Kirk will require your assistance, Captain," is the completely deadpan, but entirely mischievous, response. "He appears to be learning the game far more rapidly than I had supposed."
Fifteen moves later, and Spock is at a serious disadvantage; the child is concentrating on the board, frowning darkly and the gears in his head almost whirring so loudly they can be heard by the man sitting behind him. Kirk has kept silent throughout, holding the boy close and becoming increasingly grateful for the Vulcan's apparently indomitable patience.
Finally, with a squeal of delight that brings McCoy and two nurses running in mild alarm, Peter moves the final knight into place and jumps off Kirk's knees in glee, hollering "Checkmate!" at the top of his lungs.
"Walllll, what do we have here?" McCoy drawls from the doorway, where he is grinning wider than the proverbial Cheshire cat. "Don't tell me you beat that walking computer, Peter?"
"I did! Didn't I, Uncle Jim?" the child whoops, bounding over to the physician and dragging him by the hand toward the board.
Kirk hasn't taken his eyes off Spock, who only raises an eyebrow and gives him one of those not-quite-smiles. "He did, Doctor," the Vulcan answers calmly. "The boy shows great potential."
Peter is hopping up and down with glee, and the devoutly thankful look McCoy casts them over the child's head is almost heartbreaking, as is the mouthed word of thanks before he bundles the youngster off to bed, promising chocolate milk from the selector and a story before sleeping.
After the goodnights are said, and the physician leaves the room to take the child to a private nook in the observation ward (just in case of nightmares, Kirk knows without having to ask), he is left with his friend, looking across a nearly-empty chess board.
"Thank you, Mr. Spock," he murmurs after a long, comfortable silence. "You did something tonight that I couldn't do…and I appreciate it very much."
"I was not doing it only for your nephew, Jim," is the quiet reply, filled with a sense of helplessness. "Children are far more resilient than adults in these matters…and they are also easier to reach; they have fewer self-defenses set in place."
He doesn't want Spock to see that he's again on the verge of tears; but not the painful, angry ones of earlier in the week when he'd fallen apart, alone in his quarters. These are healthy tears, good for the soul as Bones would say – and yet he shies away from displaying them so publicly. Standing unsteadily to his feet, he paces across the room and looks at the wall for a moment before coming back to the table.
"I've been awful to everyone lately," he admits in a low tone, toying with the white king, which his nephew had well-protected in his match against Spock's black.
"I believe you have an excuse to do so…" Spock agrees quietly from behind him. After a moment's hesitation, he finishes the thought, "…but not indefinitely, Jim."
He stiffens momentarily, for somehow this supposedly unemotional Vulcan always knows exactly what to say and when, to push the buttons controlling his emotional composure. He is not certain if it's instinct, or careful logical deduction, or if Spock is really far more feeling than he lets on to people – but whatever the cause, this one man in the world knows exactly what chinks are in his armor and the location of each.
He hangs his head for a moment. "You helped me too tonight, you know, Spock," he whispers. "I wish I'd been here for the rest of it."
"I do as well, Captain." Spock is standing now, moving to settle beside him, just within his slightly-blurred peripheral vision. "You must also begin to heal, as your nephew has done tonight."
His hand clenches around the chess piece, fighting to maintain the cool control façade that has carried him through a week of hellish proportions.
"Jim…despite my Vulcan upbringing with regards to controlling emotion – or possibly because of it – I can help you," the earnest voice fairly pleads from his side. "But…I cannot, unless you permit it."
"I want to," he manages through a clenched jaw. "But..." He takes a deep breath, and as a stab of pain flashes through his hand he looks down; he has clutched the piece so hard the king's ivory crown has left an angry, red imprint on his palm.
Thin fingers gently remove the piece from his hand, replacing it on the table, and he looks up at Spock, blinking back the reflexive grief that has threatened to overcome his composure.
The next words take his breath away, for the last time he heard them was not long ago, his own voice telling a woman brilliant beyond her time about how the phrase will mean more to the world someday than any other. The sudden flood of memories will be his undoing, and he knows it – more importantly, Spock knows it, that must be why he said it.
"Let me help, Jim. Please."
Through hazy vision, he reaches out one unsteady finger and topples the white king onto its side.