There always seemed to be something vaguely unreal about civilian space terminals, Kirk thought as he glanced idly around the comfortable passenger lounge. Perhaps it was only the absence of the intense urgency he always associated with Starfleet? Shrugging, he dismissed the question - he wasn't really interested - and resumed his bored survey of his fellow passengers.
What the hell was he doing here, anyway? he wondered irritably - if he'd had any sense he would have taken his refit leave on Starbase 12. But no - he'd had this sudden compulsion to go tearing off to Earth, back to a planet that held nothing for him since his mother's death. And where did he finish up? Stuck here on some miserable spaceport light-years from anywhere when the liner on which he had taken passage had been forced to put in with engine trouble. A replacement ship had been promised in a few hours, but just at the moment James T. Kirk was thoroughly bored and miserable.
It wouldn't have been so bad if he'd had company, but McCoy was visiting friends and Scott (as usual) had refused to be pried loose from his beloved engines; and Spock - Spock had, with irritating smugness and at the very last moment, told him that he was needed to oversee some adaptations to the computer circuits.
Perhaps I should have asked him sooner, Kirk thought, but somehow he'd taken it for granted that Spock would go with him... and his stubborn pride would not let him admit that he was lonely, that he wanted the Vulcan's company. And just took where it's got me! he added viciously.
Kirk glanced up with idle curiosity as the lounge doors opened and a laughing, talking group swept in, surrounding the bar, ordering drinks, sending the lethargic waiters into a sudden flurry of activity. He watched, mildly amused at the commotion, wondering who they were; then suddenly an eddy of movement parted the group and he found himself staring directly into the eyes of the man at the centre of attention.
For a moment the noise of conversation faded as his memory somersaulted back through the years to the last time he had last seen those eyes, sparkling with wicked amusement as they did now, teasing Kirk with the vivid recollection of old battles.
With an abrupt movement the man started forward, shaking off the detaining hand of the girl at his side as he headed directly for Kirk, who rose at his approach.
Then they stood face to face. Kirk's hand was seized and shaken, he was being pounded enthusiastically on the back, and his grin broadened to one of surprised pleasure.
"Finnegan!" he exclaimed. "Of all the... What are you doing here?"
"Jimmy, my boy, it's grand to see you!"
With an effort Kirk brought his mind back from his days at Starfleet Academy, where Finnegan's somewhat... unusual... sense of humour had been the bane of his existence. But those memories lived only in the past; they were no longer the carefree cadets they had once been.
Speculatively, he considered the man before him. Finnegan had changed, more than he. He looked older, prosperous, with an air of impatient authority.
"I heard you'd left Starfleet," Kirk said at last. "What happened?"
"Nothing discreditable, despite all your dire predictions," Finnegan chuckled. "I had the chance to go into business, got a few lucky breaks, and things worked out very well. I own a half share of the Orion Trading Corporation - you'll have heard of it?" Kirk had, recognising the name of one of the wealthiest companies in the Federation, with interests on almost every settled planet. He eyed his old sparring partner with new respect - if Finnegan owned half of that organisation, there must be a shrewd mind behind his devil-may-care exterior.
"And you're still in Starfleet, I see," Finnegan went on. "The Enterprise, isn't it? You see, I've kept tabs on you, Jimmy-boy. You've made quite a reputation for yourself."
"Well, I have a good crew," Kirk said awkwardly; he was not accustomed to praise from this man.
"Yes, I'd heard that, too - and about your First Officer. I've got to hand it to you, Jimmy - it takes a good man to command a Vulcan. Me, I'd run a mile at the very idea."
"He's a rather unusual Vulcan," Kirk murmured.
Finnegan laughed, and drew Kirk aside to a secluded table. A waiter approached with drinks, and the two men settled, eyeing each other appraisingly.
"I'm really glad to see you, Jimmy," Finnegan said quietly. "To think - a few moments ago I was cursing that pilot of mine for being late, but if he hadn't been, I'd have missed you. I'm on a tour of inspection of our operations in this sector. As soon as the ship's ready I'll have to move on, but we've time to talk for a while. How are things with you?"
The conversation flowed easily as the two men exchanged the news and gossip of the years that had parted them, and Kirk found himself once more falling under the spell of Finnegan's exuberant personality. He had always secretly liked the man, despite their youthful rivalry. For a moment he felt tempted to tell Finnegan about the time on the shore leave planet when he had achieved at last his old ambition to flatten his nemesis, but he felt that this was not the time - he was enjoying the conversation too much to stir up old feuds.
"And would you believe it?" Finnegan said suddenly. "I'm married." He handed over a wallet of pictures. "That's Donna and the kids. They're back on Earth right now - it's not fair to drag them around with me."
"What about...?" Kirk nodded discreetly towards the girl at the bar.
"Just one of the perks of the job. There are a hundred like her. But Donna's something special, isn't she?"
"Yes, indeed," Kirk murmured appreciatively, understanding the pride in Finnegan's voice as he studied the face of the serene, beautiful woman who was his wife, posing with three children in a garden that could only exist on Earth. And he wondered, with a touch of envy, how Finnegan, being so lucky, could feel the need for the sort of expensive companion who travelled with him. He expressed nothing of that feeling, only remarking as he returned the picture, "I envy you. You're a fortunate man."
"Yes, I have everything I could want. I've had to work for it, of course, but I have as much money as I'll ever need, a wonderful family, and a home of my own at last."
"Lucky," Kirk commented again, with a faint sigh. Finnegan eyed him thoughtfully for a moment, then leaned forward.
"Jimmy, meeting you like this was a surprise, but perhaps it'll mean good luck for both of us. Have you ever thought of leaving Starfleet?"
"Leave Starfleet? No, I haven't," Kirk said.
"Well, think about it now. I'm offering you a job working with me. We'll make a good team. I can use someone I can trust completely. The competition is fierce in my line; you'd be an asset to the company, and you'd be well paid. Wouldn't you like to have a settled life, get married, raise a family of your own?"
"I don't think..." Kirk began, but Finnegan interrupted him.
"Don't refuse at once - think about it for a few days." He handed Kirk a card. "That's my personal number; it'll reach me any time, anywhere. All I ask is that you consider my proposition, and call me. It could mean a lot to both of us."
One of the hostesses approached the table. "Excuse me, Mr. Finnegan, your pilot is ready."
"Right, I'm coming. Sorry, Jimmy, I'll have to go. Don't forget now - call me."
"I will," Kirk promised.
For a moment the two men looked at each other, then rose and shook hands.
"So long, Jimmy. It's been good to see you."
"For me, too," Kirk replied. "Takes you back, doesn't it?"
"To the Academy? Were we ever that young? Well, we've both changed since those days. See you."
With a final wave Finnegan was gone, surrounded by his attentive associates, and Kirk sat down again, feeling more desolate than ever after Finnegan's lively company.
He brooded quietly, turning Finnegan's card over and over in his fingers, as though it was a form of talisman. The offer was... tempting... and he considered its implications carefully.
To leave Starfleet; to lead a normal life with a regular schedule; to have a home at last... a wife, children, all the things he could never enjoy while he remained on the Enterprise. Oh, it was possible to marry, but it was hardly fair. He'd see his family only rarely, there would be long partings.
To live on Earth again, or at least some peaceful settled planet; to have friends, knowing that they would always be there, would not be exposed to the constant danger that threatened all his relationships now; to allow himself to love without the constant fear of loss; to have a secure, settled future. Yes, it was tempting.
There would be sacrifices, of course. The change and excitement he had always loved; the subtle enjoyment of command; the Enterprise, so much his that she seemed at times an extension of his body; his companions, loved and trusted for so long; all these he would lose.
Which to choose? It was so difficult suddenly to decide. Finnegan's offer had woken something in him, something he had long thought lost, an almost unconscious homesickness. Instinctively he knew that he stood now at a crossroads in his life, for whichever path he chose there would be no turning back.
Finnegan, with the safety, the security, the settled future he offered? Or Starfleet, with all its excitement and danger? He could not have both, and at this moment he could not be sure what he really wanted.
The low murmur of conversation at the next table finally broke into his concentration, and he turned idly, seeking its source. Two of his fellow passengers were deep in discussion.
"... completely ruthless," one of them was saying. "Well within the law, of course, but I know of several people who've been forced out of business by the Orion Corporation."
"That's so," his companion agreed. "It happened to a cousin of mine. As you say, completely legal - but a business he'd spent his life building up was just taken out from under him."
"Mind you," the first speaker said after a moment, "I don't envy Finnegan for all his power and influence. It's well known his wife's on the point of leaving him - had enough of his playing around, I suppose - and it's said he can't keep a friend."
"A terrible epitaph for any man. I may not have his power, but at least I haven't ruined good men to get where I am."
There was a murmur of agreement and the talk turned to other matters, while Kirk sat mulling over what he had heard. It might have only been gossip, of course, but it made him think. Was he deceiving himself into thinking that Finnegan had changed over the years? There had always been a strong streak of egoism in the man, even in their Academy days. Oh, he had been an amusing companion, but thinking back Kirk remembered all too clearly the many indications that in a crisis Finnegan had always considered himself before others. It seemed he still did so.
That lovely woman, those fine children... yes, Finnegan could lose them by his own fault, as easily as he lost his friends.
He, Kirk, was luckier. The Enterprise was a stern mistress, but an honest one - she might take a man's life, but never his honour. She offered danger, of course, but was there not also danger in the life he contemplated? More subtle, certainly, a threat to his integrity rather than to his life, and therefore more difficult to combat - and if he succumbed he would be destroyed no less surely.
Kirk considered, more critically this time, the face of the man who had just left. Finnegan still laughed, still seemed carefree... but was there not a coldness now behind his eyes, lines of arrogance at the corners of his mouth that had not been there before?
With a sigh Kirk looked down at his clasped hands, more than ever confused. There was no denying that he was tempted. Where should he look now for guidance?
Aware of movement at his side he looked up into a familiar, impassive face, at a man who waited patiently, unwilling to interrupt his concentration.
"Spock!" he exclaimed in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
The Vulcan hesitated uncharacteristically. "The work on the computer was completed much earlier than I had anticipated," he said at last. "It was not as complex as I was led to believe. It occurred to me that perhaps, after all, I should take leave, and I decided to return to Vulcan. My ship made a brief stop here, and I learned by chance that you were delayed. I wondered..." He paused again, then continued shyly, "I wondered if you would care to visit my home instead? My parents are away, and we would be alone... Of course, if you prefer..." His voice faded.
Kirk looked up into the patient eyes; he was not deceived by those last words, knowing the truth that neither would admit openly - Spock was as lonely as he; hoping for the Human's company, this was his way of asking for it without seeking to compel agreement. Kirk felt an inner ripple of self-mockery - he had been worrying about loneliness, when all the time he had a friend as loyal as this. He rose eagerly.
"I'd be pleased to, Spock," he said calmly but sincerely, knowing that to display open enthusiasm would only embarrass his friend, but knowing also that his delight was felt and shared by the Vulcan. "Just give me a moment to change my booking."
As he turned from the table he remembered Finnegan's card, which he still held, and paused in the very act of tearing it up.
No, he thought, he would keep it; and if he ever again felt himself guilty of indulging in pointless self-doubt - well, he would only have to look at it to be reminded of this moment, and of the gentle, lonely man who asked only for his friendship.
Poor Finnegan, Kirk thought with genuine pity. Whether the talk is true or not, he has so much. But he doesn't have - Spock.
"Captain?" the Vulcan asked, puzzled by the curiously tender smile that touched his friend's mouth for a moment.
"Nothing, Spock," Kirk replied. "You could say... for a time I stood at a crossroads, and couldn't see the signpost. But I know the way now."
"Satisfactory," the Vulcan commented with - could it be? - the merest touch of complacency.