The head of Spock’s section at Bletchley Park is at least nine inches shorter than Spock himself. As he speaks, he seems unable to raise his gaze to Spock’s face, instead fiddling with the blotter on his desk so that Spock is afforded an uninspiring view of the balding crown of his head.
“Your work here has been most exemplary, Spock,” he says. It’s the third time this sentiment has been expressed and Spock sincerely hopes that he will come to the point of this meeting soon or else allow Spock to return to his work. “Yes, most exemplary,” Portman mutters.
“However, I – that is to say, we – do not feel that your prodigious talents are best served here at Bletchley.”
There’s a snide emphasis on prodigious that turns Spock’s instinctive reaction of blank shock to an anger that he will not show. He says blandly, “May I enquire as to your reasoning, sir?”
“My reasoning?” Portman’s fingers tighten convulsively on the blotter. “We, ah, thought that—there’s a new branch of Special Operations, you see. Make use of your background—a more active role in the war effort, you know. Would have thought you’d welcome a change. Can’t be much fun shut up in a tin can all day crunching numbers, haha.”
“I do not find my work unpleasant, sir,” Spock says.
“No, well, hah, not my idea of a good time, but de gustibus non est disputatum and all that. But come now, Spock, this job’s right up your street. Someone mentioned you had French citizenship…?”
Spock can make no sense of this last remark, but he says, “My father does. I do not, although I spent some time there as a child.”
Portman beams at his desk. “Splendid. Tu parles le français, bien sûr?”
Portman’s assumption of familiarity irritates Spock, as it has from their first meeting. Rather than respond in kind, he says shortly, “Yes.”
“Excellent, excellent. I think you’ll fit right in. Well, I’ll wire General Hardison this afternoon and tell him to expect you for interview tomorrow morning. Don’t let me detain you, now. I’m sure you’ll want to say goodbye to your colleagues and pack and…” He waves a hand vaguely. “Suchlike.” The blotter is relinquished and he takes Spock’s hand in a slightly sweaty grip, which Spock endures in silence. “I’m sure you will make an invaluable addition to SOE, Spock,” he says, finally looking him in the eye.
Spock discerns traces of relief that this interview is over as well as smug satisfaction that Portman has got his way. He wants to say On reflection, I would prefer to remain here, just to see Portman’s comfortable superiority crumble, but this is an illogical impulse. Bletchley Park has become stifling of late, the conversations with his colleagues as formulaic as the work.
“Thank you, sir,” he says. The door shuts behind him with a decisive click.
David Fellows finds him while Spock is packing the last of his shirts. He stands in uncomfortable silence just outside the door until Spock invites him in.
“I heard Portman’s given you the sack.”.
“I am assured my new position will make optimal use of my talents,” Spock says.
“But you’re still leaving, aren’t you? Well,” he gestures to the suitcase, “obviously you’re going, but Portman’s making you, isn’t he?”
“That would be an accurate assessment.”
Spock looks closely at Fellows. A leaking pen has left a trail of blue splatters down his starched white shirt and he hasn’t even tried to scrub them out, which is, in itself, unusual. Furthermore, his flushed face denotes some agitation. Then there is the fact that he is in Spock’s room at all. In the entirety of their acquaintance, Spock has visited Fellows’ room only twice and the reverse has never occurred.
Fellows kicks nervously at one ankle. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?”
“I am uncertain--” How you reached that conclusion, is what Spock intends to say, but Fellows interrupts.
“It’s alright if you blame me – I blame myself.”
“I do not bear you any ill will,” Spock tells him firmly. “Portman’s decision is based entirely on his own caprices, not on any wrong-doing on my part or yours.”
“He doesn’t know?” Fellows looks up quickly, unabashed relief breaking out across his face.
“Not as far as I am aware.”
“That is a personal matter between myself and Mr Portman.” Spock realises one hand is toying with the clasp of his suitcase and stills it.
There’s a silence of a few moments while Fellows makes the necessary leaps of deduction – he is, after all, the most perceptive of Spock’s colleagues. Then, “The bastard.”
This, while factually inaccurate, seems a fair assessment. As Fellows calls Portman every disgusting epithet he can think of, Spock stands impassively by his bed. There is something cathartic about seeing Fellows give free rein to the emotions Spock would like to express.
“He can’t get away with this! You should report him.”
Fellows’ unshakeable conviction that justice can be reached through the proper authorities is both endearing and exasperating. Spock shakes his head.
“It would serve no purpose. Portman is almost certainly perceived as vital to the war effort--” Fellows snorts viciously at this, “—and any accusation against him would only be stalled until forgotten about.” Besides which, my father would never forgive such a smear upon the family’s honour.
“So you’re really going?” Fellows looks a little lost at the prospect, which Spock finds disquieting. He is not used to forming attachments, has no idea how to react to the probable severance of this one.
“I am,” he says.
“If it’s any consolation, I’ll miss you like hell,” Fellows says with an awkward shrug of the left shoulder. “Only intelligent conversation I’ve had in months. And, you know.”
“I, too, found your company diverting.”
“Thank you. I try. Well…” He offers a hand for Spock to shake, then retreats from the room. Spock watches him go and considers that so-called ‘human interaction’ is considerably more complex than its prevalence would suggest.
As the train to London heaves and sways its way out of the station, Spock edges his way through the press of people in the corridor until he reaches a compartment with only two other occupants: a pair of young men engaged in a heated discussion about – as best he can tell – golf. Spock doesn’t think they will take much notice of him, and so it proves. He slides his suitcase into the overhead rack and takes the seat nearest the window. One man spares him a distracted nod; the other is too caught up in the argument even for that.
Spock is ejected into the bustle of Waterloo station seven minutes after midday and makes his way on foot to the Pall Mall club where he is to meet his potential employer.
In the vestibule, an impeccably dressed footman relieves him of his hat and overcoat and intimates in a conspiratorial murmur that General Hardison will be out as soon as no more affairs of State demand his presence.
Hardison, when he emerges, is a heavyset, balding man, whose suit cannot disguise a military bearing. He greets Spock from halfway down the hall, a hoarse bellow that causes the footman to look round in some alarm. He comes to a halt in front of Spock in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a train pulling into a station and shakes Spock’s hand in a brisk, businesslike fashion.
“Good to meet you, Mr Spock, good to meet you. Portman’s told us all about you.”
He pauses expectantly and Spock realises that he’s waiting for some sort of response. “That is most gratifying to hear,” he says, and Hardison nods, as though confirming something to himself.
“If you’ll come with me…” He ushers Spock down a side passage and into a small room with a single dining table. “These things are so much more civilised over a bite to eat. Here.”
The menu he hands Spock is tastefully printed on a single side of postcard-sized paper. When Spock orders leek and potato soup as a main dish, Hardison eyes him doubtfully, but as Spock has learnt, a useful talent can make up for a great deal of eccentricity, and Hardison says nothing.
He continues to say nothing until four and a half minutes after the food has arrived, at which point he puts down his cutlery and, looking Spock in the eye, says, “Do you love your country?”
Spock considers the question. “To which country do you refer?”
Hardison smiles. “They said you were a clever one. Either would do, I suppose.”
Spock hesitates, knowing that the truth is perhaps not what this man wants to hear, but feeling compelled to tell it anyway. “I do not know. I know I do not feel the sentimental attachment to fields and country churches advocated by government propaganda.”
Hardison is watching him with some amusement; Spock fights the urge to look down at his soup and continues: “What I do think is that England stands as the best available check to the ambitions of the Third Reich, and to that end, I offer my wholehearted support.”
Hardison’s cool grey gaze doesn’t shift from Spock’s face. Spock meets his eyes, half-defiant. By his standards, the speech he’s just given was long and overly personal, but now he is beginning to regret not being more effusive. Finally, Hardison looks down at his wineglass, swirls its contents ruminatively.
“You seem a practical man, Mr Spock.” The wine in the glass makes five rotations as Spock waits for him to continue, unsure if he is being complimented or not. “Portman says you speak fluent French?”
“And you picked it up from you mother?”
“Yes, though my father engaged a tutor for the purpose of teaching grammar and literature.”
“I see. And how long since you were last in France?”
Spock does not have to think hard: the summer before his mother died. “Eight years.”
“Any relatives there that you know of?”
“In theory my mother’s parents, though I have never met them and they may no longer be living.”
Hardison leans forward and says in a confidential tone, “Well, I’m sure I don’t need to tell a Bletchley man how to keep secrets, but if you do come and work for us, you’ll be forbidden to tell anyone, even family, what you’re up to.”
Spock thinks of broken-off telephone calls and letters left unanswered. “That will not be a problem,” he tells Hardison.
Hardison beams and attacks his lamb chops with renewed vigour. “Excellent, excellent. Well, provided the psych boys okay you, we’ll be packing you off for training by the end of the week, and very glad to have you. Don’t know what Portman was thinking of, letting you go, but Bletchley’s loss is our gain and all that. Now, you’ll be staying in London for the next few days, correct?”
Spock commits all Hardison’s instructions to memory. Once the meal is over, the footman returns his hat and coat and guides him to a waiting car, suggesting in hushed tones that the Grenville Hotel is very nice.
Spock is not entirely surprised to find, upon arrival, that a room has already been reserved for him under a false name.
SOE’s psychologist is a smooth-faced man of indeterminate age who finds it hard to conceal his irritation as Spock patiently tells him that yes, the inkblots he is being shown really do look like inkblots.
“Perhaps if you were to relax a bit, Mr Spock?” he suggests. “It’s not a test, you know.”
It is, but Spock forbears to point this out.
Once he has exhausted his inkblots, the psychologist moves on to questions about Spock’s childhood (satisfactory), his relationship with his father (distant by mutual consent), his education (again, satisfactory), and his reaction to his mother’s death. This last occasions a pause as Spock searches for words that aren’t well rehearsed and impersonal. To his dismay, he can’t find any. Perhaps the efforts of the last eight years to bury such thoughts have been more successful than he’d supposed, he thinks bitterly.
The psychologist notes his lack of response with a gleam of triumph. “So you loved you mother more than your father?”
Spock says yes, because ‘love’ is not a word he has ever associated with Sarek. “What relevance does this have?”
The psychologist gives a tiny smile. “We like to know these things, Mr Spock. Now, on the subject of personal relationships…”
Spock is careful. He does not lie, but he leaves enough unsaid that the psychologist makes his own assumptions: a casual affaire de coeur at Bletchley, not allowed to interfere with his work, broken off to both parties’ relief. The psychologist nods and offers meaningless sympathy and writes it all down.
Shortly after this, Spock is released into the slightly damp, dirty air of London in the spring. Six minutes’ walk takes him to Embankment where he watches the Thames flow sluggishly by, a lacklustre brown. If he heads north, he could reach his father’s house in less than half an hour, though at this time in the morning, Sarek is most likely to be lecturing at the University. As far as Spock knows, his father’s routine has not varied in the slightest since he arrived in London sixteen years ago.
In any case, Spock has no reason to return to the house in Russell Square; he has not lived there for three years, two months and twenty-six days, when he accepted the job at Bletchley Park. He has not considered it home in eight years, not since he returned from school at Christmas to find his mother had died in November and no one had thought to write to him. (After several hours spent struggling just to commit to paper his desire to join GC&CS, Spock can understand the difficulty involved. He does not consider this a valid excuse.)
He doesn’t notice that it has begun to rain until he feels the drops start to trickle down his neck. The pavements are already dappled with dark spots, turning slicker underfoot as he makes his way back to the Grenville. From out towards the mouth of the river comes a dull rumble of thunder.
Through the train’s rain-streaked window, Spock watches as the neat rows of London’s brownstone terraces recede into the distance. Up ahead, the houses inch further away from the tracks until there’s a clear band of green on either side. Further out, the line dwindles to a single track and the stations they pass become little more than strips of paving with grass growing through the cracks, nameless and deserted.
The station at Beaulieu at least looks like it might have seen human life in the last month. Two women and a man, all in their early twenties, alight along with Spock. They’re herded towards a covered van by a soldier even younger than them – a private, not long joined up and not yet seen active service, judging by the state of his uniform. Spock takes this in, as well as the fact that one of the women is cheating on the clothing coupons – her skirt is newly made, with more pleats than government guidelines allow. He does not say anything; to be an observer requires distance.
In the van, he shuts his eyes against the dim, canvas-filtered light and the tentative conversation of his companions, and quietly tries to compile a map of the route the van takes. Country roads, he discovers, are harder to distinguish than the jumble of cobbles, asphalt and tarmac he was accustomed to in London.
Sixteen minutes and what Spock estimates as six miles later, the van rolls to a halt on a gravel driveway. He is the only one getting off here, and once the other three have given the house a cursory glance, they return to their conversation until the van moves off again. Spock picks up his suitcase and turns towards the house.
It’s a solid, turn-of-the-century production in redbrick. Ivy is making a half-hearted attempt to colonise the front wall, though it hasn’t been planted long enough to have fully taken hold. The hanging baskets on either side of the front door look badly in need of water. Spock supposes that since the house has been requisitioned, SOE has had better things to do than tend to the plants. He can picture his mother’s reaction to such neglect; with a practised effort, he forces the image from his mind.
Spock has just time to put his suitcase on the bed – he’s in the middle of undoing the catches when the orderly knocks – before he’s hustled down into the former drawing room to meet the man whom Spock supposes is now his commanding officer.
Colonel Christopher Pike rises to shake Spock’s hand, but most of his weight rests on the other hand, clamped on the edge of the desk. This done, he subsides back into his chair with a quickly-hidden grimace. Spock is not very good at reading other people’s emotions (if he concentrates, he can usually read the clues in their body language; intuitive interpretation is another matter entirely), but he thinks he sees self-disgust there and surmises a man unwillingly relegated to this desk job.
But Pike’s smile is friendly and his eyes shrewd. Spock has the feeling he’s just been scanned and catalogued. He doesn’t want to admit that it’s a little unnerving to be on the receiving end for once.
The conversation proceeds in an amiable fashion: Pike welcomes Spock to Beaulieu, enquires politely after his journey down here, asks a few general questions about life at Bletchley Park. Spock relaxes his guard somewhat.
“Working with Turing, I guess you’re pretty hot stuff with codes and ciphers and all?”
“I have a certain proficiency.”
“You wouldn’t mind helping us out, would you? We’re short one coding instructor.” He sees Spock’s slight frown and hastens to add: “It’s just a couple of hours a week, and there’s no sense in getting some amateur in to teach you it all over again, right?”
“It would seem the logical course of action,” Spock admits. Privately, he is nothing like so sure that it is; he has never taught anyone anything, suspects he will not be good at it.
But Pike is smiling. “Thank you, Mr Spock. We appreciate it.” And Spock is, oddly, reassured.
Pike winds up the meeting a few minutes later with a, “Well, mustn’t be keeping you.” Spock’s halfway to the door before he adds, “The rest of the group’s arriving this afternoon.”
“The…rest of the group?”
“Big house, Mr Spock. Got to make use of it. They’re Americans too.”
Spock shuts the door behind him feeling slightly uneasy. Pike should not know that. Sarek left Boston years before Spock was born, Spock has no legal ties to America, and he has fourteen years of private education to thank for erasing any trace of an accent. Pike should not know that, and Spock does not like to think what other information SOE may be keeping in his file.
Spock is alerted to the arrival of ‘the rest of the group’ by the crunch of gravel as the same van as before pulls into the driveway and two men get out. His bedroom window offers a view of the pair as they make their way to the door. He can hear them conversing in low tones.
He returns his attention to his newspaper; if they are to undergo training together, there will be adequate time for introductions later. Unfortunately, it appears the new arrivals are not of the same mind. Spock has barely read past the headlines when a clatter of footsteps in the corridor outside announces the approach of his… team-mates. The door handle rattles and there’s a thump as though someone has fallen against the door, then a voice with a pronounced Atlantan drawl says, “Normal people knock, Jim.”
Spock gets up and crosses the room to open the door, feeling that it is better to meet these men on his own terms.
The scene in the corridor is undignified: one man, the older of the two, is holding his companion in check with an arm flung across his chest. His fist is raised to rap on the door, but when he sees Spock standing there, he quickly converts it into a handshake.
“Leonard McCoy. And this one, who was clearly born in a barn -”
“Can make his own introductions. Jim Kirk. Hey.”
Kirk pushes against McCoy’s arm until he’s released. Spock stands aside to let both of them in.
“I am Spock.”
Kirk narrows his eyes at him suspiciously. “I thought this was an American school, but you sound like Jeeves.”
On his left, McCoy eyes him as though contemplating bodily harm. “Manners cost nothin’, Jim.”
“Sorry.” Kirk seems to make a physical effort to shake off his dark mood. He runs a hand over his hair and smiles suddenly and broadly at Spock. There’s a feral edge to it, Spock thinks, then decides that this is a needlessly dramatic interpretation. He doesn’t smile back.
Kirk appears possessed of a restless energy: he hovers by the mantelpiece for a few seconds, toying with the brass candlesticks on it, before crossing to the desk and thumbing idly through Spock’s papers. Spock wants to stop him, to tell him that these things are Spock’s and he has no right to touch them, but suspects this will only elicit the same supercilious smirk on Kirk’s face as it had on the boys at school. McCoy, by contrast, is content to stand just inside the door, unmoving.
Neither seems inclined to break the silence. Spock casts about for a suitable topic of conversation – small talk is not one of his skills – and settles on, “I hope your crossing was uneventful, Doctor McCoy?”
Kirk’s head whips round; McCoy looks at him in concern.
“How did you know he’s a doctor?” Kirk demands.
Spock is already regretting his slip. Kirk’s antagonistic tone only makes him surer that silence would have been the better policy. His hands clasped behind his back tighten their grip involuntarily. He says, “I observed when we shook hands that Doctor McCoy wears cufflinks in the shape of the caduceus – the symbol of the medical profession.”
“I know what it is,” Kirk snaps.
“And what can you tell about me?”
Spock looks him over: close-cropped hair, parade ground stance tempered with a deliberate slouch, suit inexpensive and new. “I would say that you are a soldier, though not a very good one. From your accent, of Mid-Western origin, though it is no longer distinctive, therefore you have relocated several times since your childhood and -”
“Stop it.” It’s McCoy that speaks, not Kirk. Kirk is glaring, not at Spock, but through him. The front page of The Times is crumpled under his fingers. As though McCoy’s words bring him back to the present, he unclenches his hand and refocuses his gaze on Spock.
“That’s not funny,” he says.
“Hey now, Jim, you did ask.” McCoy’s voice is pitched low and concerned.
“I apologise if I have upset you,” Spock begins, but McCoy waves him quiet.
They both of them watch Kirk, who avoids their eyes. After a silence in which he attempts to smooth out the crumpled newspaper, he darts a quick look at Spock and mumbles, “Sorry.”
Spock nods, tight-lipped. He is already certain he will not find the company a Beaulieu half as convivial as a Bletchley, but is resolved not to let it trouble him. In the face of McCoy’s increasingly pathetic attempts at small talk, Spock maintains a distance and answers any questions put to him as succinctly as possible.
He suspects that he is not the only one to welcome the orderly’s knock.
“Thank you, Mr Spock.” Professor Uhura – though the way she holds herself suggests she’s not spent much time sitting behind a desk – smiles, and there’s a brief moment of interference while Spock’s neural pathways readjust to English. “Bilingual, I think Colonel Pike said?”
Spock nods, feeling himself subjected to a silent scrutiny. Finally, Uhura nods. “Well, you’re fluent enough, and technically perfect – if anything too perfect. It doesn’t sound natural somehow.”
Kirk looks up from spinning a pencil to say, “He sounds like a robot in English, so what do you expect?”
Uhura smiles far too sweetly. “I had no idea you were such an expert in linguistics, Mr Kirk.” She continues in French: “Perhaps you’d like to tell us a bit about your academic background in the subject? What do you think of de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics?”
“Haven’t read it,” Kirk retorts, also in French, “but I don’t need a linguistics degree to tell you that Mr Spock sounds like a book of grammar exercises, and if you think the Milice won’t spot that you’re a – sadly mistaken.”
“Not bad,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Your accent’s appalling though.”
“Appalling. You’ll stand out far more than Mr Spock.”
“You really think the Germans are going to pick up on regional accents?”
“Maybe not, but the first Frenchman you run into will see through you the moment you open your mouth.”
Kirk opens his mouth, but appears to concede the point and shuts it again. Uhura nods approvingly. “We can work on that.”
“Oh, good,” he mutters.
“Doctor McCoy, your turn. Just a few questions to answer, then I’ll let you go.”
McCoy sits up straighter and swallows as though preparing for an ordeal by fire. After the first question, Spock sees why: where he (and Kirk, he admits) slip easily into the language without needing to think, McCoy pauses every third word or so. When his answer necessitates a verb in the conditional, a look of sheer panic crosses his face. Uhura brings the interview to a conclusion as soon as is tactfully possible.
“Your accent’s very good,” she begins.
“Yeah, always been good at accents,” McCoy says, Southern drawl back thicker than ever. “Not so great at the grammar, though.”
“Hey, between us, we make one whole French-speaker.” Kirk gives them the same startlingly sudden smile as before, and Spock feels an eyebrow lift in involuntary response.
Uhura sighs. “Well, I suppose it will do wonders for your teamwork skills if it takes all three of you to order a coffee.”
They take their dinner in the smaller of the two dining rooms, but it’s still hard not to feel dwarfed by the vast expanse of the mahogany table. By common consent, they sit together at one end, McCoy at the head of the table ‘to stop you two pulling each other’s pigtails’. Spock cannot help but feel that he has not thought this through – Kirk is still in his line of sight and the table is not wide enough to prevent physical contact, if it comes to that. For the moment, though, Kirk seems content to concentrate on his food.
“Those carrots won’t run away if you eat them one at a time, Jim,” McCoy observes.
Kirk looks up with a somewhat guilty expression, quickly concealed behind a virtuous one that fools nobody. “Just trying to ward off scurvy, o Doctorly one.”
McCoy snorts, turning his attention to Spock. “And you’re as bad as he is – don’t think I can’t see that slice of ham under your knife.”
“I do not believe it is any of your business what I choose to eat, Doctor.”
“Vegetarian?” Kirk says.
To Spock’s surprise, his tone is not confrontational, only curious, so that he finds himself answering as openly as he can. “I do not believe that the consumption of meat adds anything of value to my diet that cannot be obtained by other means. Therefore, there seems little point in continuing to eat it.”
“A vegetarian revolutionary,” McCoy murmurs. “God help us all.”
“Trade you for your ham? You can have my… I think they’re beans.” He prods doubtfully at the congealed mass of green.
“Oh no you don’t -” McCoy starts, but Spock has already passed his plate across to Kirk. Homegrown vegetables are possibly the only things not in short supply these days, but he appreciates the offer all the same.
Feeling it would be as well to further this spirit of co-operation, Spock tells him so. “Not a problem,” Kirk mutters, pushing the plate back.
“See, you can play nice,” McCoy says. Both Kirk and Spock turn to narrow their eyes at him.
After dinner, they adjourn to the library where Spock attempts to read in the face of Kirk’s voluble conversation with McCoy. By the time he has reached the third page, he has taken none of it in and has already forgotten the title.
A perfunctory knock, and the orderly’s head emerges round the door. “Post for you,” he says, tossing the envelopes down on a desk.
“Thanks, Jackson,” Kirk calls after him, making no movement to retrieve the letters. Seeing Spock’s look, he shrugs. “What? There are only two letters and I’ve got no one who’d write to me. Therefore, QED, they’re for you and Bones.”
McCoy pushes himself out of his armchair and makes his way over to the desk, calling back, “You do know I’m never forgiving you for that, right, Jim?”
“Ah, you love it really.” Kirk swivels in his chair until his legs are dangling over the side. “So, do tell, have the fabled Kirk family deigned to send their beloved son a letter? No? Oh, I am shocked.”
“Nope. One for you, though, Spock.”
The envelope and the single sheet of paper inside are both of good quality; the handwriting neat, uniform strokes in black ink. Spock can tell it’s from Sarek even before he’s read the stilted greeting: To My Son. Sarek does not believe in starting letters with Dear, except possibly billets-doux, though Spock would not swear to his even knowing such things exist.
He reads its contents swiftly – disapproval laced with concern lest Spock do even more to tarnish the family name than he already has – before slipping it back into its envelope and tucking it in his breast pocket. He looks up to find McCoy leafing through his own letter.
“Oh, you can tell it’s from Jocelyn all right,” McCoy says presently.
Kirk winces. “Bad, is it?”
“No, but my God can she write. It goes on for pages. All about how a little separation is good for the soul, and absence makes the heart grow fonder – I think she actually quotes that one word-for-word somewhere – and—Oh. She says Joanna misses me.” McCoy’s voice softens. “And Jo’s signed it too.”
“Hey, yeah? Let’s see.” He goes to lean over McCoy’s shoulder. “Got nicer writing than her mama.”
“Sweet as it is that you wanna do the knight in shining armour thing for me, Jim, please don’t. You don’t know me – and you certainly don’t know Jocelyn – well enough to be passing judgement. Anyway,” he adds, shuffling the pages into order, “who knows? Perhaps she’s right and this damn-fool war will be the saving of us.”
Kirk raises his eyebrows, but pats McCoy’s shoulder and says, “Perhaps.”
By the second day, whoever prepares their meals has worked out for themselves that Spock is vegetarian, and his arrangement with Kirk is rendered unfeasible. Kirk reacts to the news stoically: “Well, it was nice while it lasted.”
As well as undergoing lessons in ‘survival training’, Spock has his new role as instructor to contend with. Beaulieu, while theoretically under the same shadowy wing of government as Bletchley Park, is cast very much in the role of unwanted hanger-on, as Spock discovers when he hears Pike’s suggestions on what his lessons should cover. Coding methods looked on as quaint curiosities at Bletchley are here seen as the pinnacle of cryptographic achievement. It would be laughable if the situation were not so serious.
He also discovers that ‘short one coding instructor’ translates to ‘we don’t have a coding instructor at all’, because he finds himself teaching classes across the whole Beaulieu estate. He would not have thought it possible to keep so many people secret from each other, but each group seems convinced they are the only students there and makes the subsequent demands on his time. Spock feels it incumbent on him not to reveal Beaulieu’s secrets and answers evasively when his classes ask where he’s going.
On the third day, he realises, with a hastily repressed feeling of horror, that being the only coding instructor means he will have to teach Kirk and McCoy.
McCoy, who knows full well that he is only here because of his skills as a doctor, dislikes being forced to learn what he views as useless information. He grumbles almost continually, and has been known to launch into truly impressive rants at the dinner table, but Spock feels he can cope with this if he sets his mind to it.
Kirk is potentially more problematic. Spock foresees two outcomes: either Kirk will argue constantly with him and insist on finding ways to improve on what he’s been taught, as he does with Professor Uhura, or he will simply decide that the entire thing is a waste of time. Spock has seen the results of this, and they are not unpleasant for the instructors in question. Kirk merely listens to as little as he can get away with, then completes whatever task has been set with the minimum of fuss and effort.
Spock is unsure which outcome he dislikes most.
“Poem codes are perhaps the most useful codes you will learn here,” Spock begins, then pauses, wishing he’d thought to write down this introductory speech last time he delivered it, because Kirk’s eyes are full of such obvious disbelief that it is hard to concentrate. He straightens the small pile of books on his desk before continuing: “Their strength lies in the fact that the correct sequence of words is easy to recall and it is therefore unnecessary to commit any extra detail to writing.”
“Their weakness,” Kirk interrupts, “is that Himmler might just possibly be able to get his hands on a copy of The Lady of Shalott, in which case we are comprehensively fucked.”
Spock raises an eyebrow at his phrasing, but has to concede the point.
“You’ve got something better, haven’t you?” Kirk demands. “I mean, you’ve worked with Turing, for God’s sake, so please tell me there’s better than this?”
“We could attempt to obtain a supply of one-time pads,” Spock says. “They are, in theory, impossible to decrypt, as long as their production is truly random.”
“So let’s do it then.”
“I have already suggested the idea to Colonel Pike. He does not believe it is practical.”
This is a source of some frustration to Spock. He knows OTPs are the best practicable method of coding for agents in the field, but whoever is responsible for SOE’s supplies refuses to countenance the idea. It is, apparently, a waste of resources.
Kirk seems to share his sentiments. “Of all the ridiculous—Let’s see, unbreakable codes versus nursery rhymes, what shall we pick? Little Bo Peep, every fucking time.”
“The latest idea is to use original compositions--”
“Damn it all, Spock!” McCoy bursts out. “I’m a doctor, not a saboteur, and definitely not, no way in hell, a poet.”
“Perhaps you’re a poet and you just don’t know it?” Kirk suggests.
McCoy leaps up from his chair in order to beat his head softly against a wall. Spock can hear him chanting under his breath, “Why, oh dear God, why?”
“Doctor, please,” Spock tries, but any pretence that they’re actually having a lesson here vanishes as Kirk, too, jumps up and heads for the door.
“We’re getting those one-time pads,” he says grimly, “if I have to make them myself.”
Spock would point out the sheer impossibility of such a course of action, but Kirk has already gone, leaving the door to bang shut behind him.
At dinner that night, Kirk frowns at his potatoes and only looks up to answer direct questions. Spock extrapolates from this that his efforts have been unsuccessful, but if he reads Kirk correctly – and he thinks he does, for all they’ve only known each other three days – that won’t be enough to stop him trying again.
“If you wait, I will come with you next time,” Spock says, voice mildly reproving.
“To request the one-time pads. I can offer the benefit of my experiences at Bletchley and do, in fact, know what I am talking about.” The unlike you is unspoken, but Kirk seems to hear it and is not offended. He smiles slightly and says, “Suppose it can’t hurt. Bones, you in?”
“Sure, why not? I’m sure my vast experience of codes will just blow Pike away.”
Lessons with Professor Uhura continue apace. Kirk’s Québécois accent is gradually replaced with one more in keeping with his new identity’s upbringing, McCoy speaks with greater confidence each day, and Spock is now willing to let the occasional idiom creep into his speech.
Whenever he speaks English, though, he notices his accent shifting towards that of his father. Kirk has noticed it too – every time Spock speaks, he looks at him as though he is a puzzle to solve – but he doesn’t say anything until a week after their first meeting.
They have returned from a night spent in the hides they have built in the woods. All three are streaked with mud and aching from the cold ground, but pleased that none of the instructors they heard prowling around last night managed to find them.
Once they’ve had a chance to make themselves presentable (Spock has never appreciated the luxury of a clean, pressed shirt so much before), they congregate, as is their habit these days, in the library. They are talking about the war – they are always talking about the war, given that McCoy is the only one of them happy to discuss his life pre-SOE – when Kirk says, “Your accent’s changed.”
“Indeed. I attribute it to the presence of so many Americans.”
“Huh.” Kirk squints at him doubtfully. “Not sure it suits you.”
McCoy snorts at this. Spock says dryly, “My father is from Boston, though I myself grew up in Paris and London; arguably, this is my ‘true’ voice. No doubt you will become accustomed to it in time.”
“Now that sounded like Spock,” McCoy says.
“Up, up, get up now!”
Spock opens his eyes to the bright light of a torch shone in his face. His instinctive reaction is to knock it away, but before he can do so, someone seizes his arms and cuffs the wrists roughly together. The man behind him pulls hard on the cuffs so that Spock has to struggle upright or risk his shoulders dislocating.
Something heavy slams into his side and it takes Spock’s sleep-fuzzed brain a few seconds to realise he’s just been kicked. He can feel the pain of the blow hovering round the edges of his consciousness, but he ignores it.
Beaulieu, he’s still at Beaulieu, which means the people hauling him away must be training staff, not Gestapo officers. Training exercise, he thinks, somewhat blearily. Though what they’re training him in, other than an ability to stagger down stairs in his pyjamas, he doesn’t know. He’s dragged out the back door and half-lifted, half-thrown into the back of yet another of those covered vans. On his knees on the coarse wood flooring of the van, Spock pitches and rolls as they bump down country roads.
At the other end, hands grab at his pyjama shirt and compel him after them into a dingy Nissen hut. In the middle of the hut, a bare electric bulb spills its light over a table and chair. Interrogation, supplies his brain.
There are people in the hut, though it is too dark around the edges to be sure of their numbers. Spock has never seen any of them before. The man in the chair appears to be in charge of the operation; it is he that gives the flat order, “Clothes. Off.”
Ignoring the part of his brain still bothering to protest the insanity of this, Spock draws himself up as straight as he can manage and says, “Naturally, I would be happy to oblige, but I fear it would be impossible at present.” It is only after he has spoken that he realises the order was given in French and he has just replied in the same language.
The man in the chair snaps, “Get the cuffs off, Lamaison.” Spock wonders if the name is part of the act.
The spring air is warm against his skin, for which Spock is grateful. He refuses to let himself feel the humiliation of his situation, instead letting his mind play over the possible turns this mock-interrogation could take. He also wonders, briefly, what has happened to Kirk and McCoy.
“Name?” demands his interrogator.
“Raymond Moreau.” It’s the name all his false papers now bear, and Spock has had to memorise M. Moreau’s painstakingly constructed life story over the last week.
“At your age?”
“I’m writing a doctoral thesis on certain aspects of probability mathematics. As you can imagine, the research is quite time-consuming.” He smiles, playing the part of confused-but-helpful innocent.
“And what about your friends? They students too?”
“The ones you were with last night, when you blew up the Grand Pont at Samoëns.”
Spock shrugs. “We did not leave the village last night. M. Gérard will attest that we stayed at his establishment until perhaps two in the morning.”
“He will,” Spock says firmly.
His interrogator asks several more superficial questions concerning his cover story, then sucks in a deep breath and smiles. “All right, Mr Spock,” he says, switching abruptly to English. “Interview’s over. You can collect your clothes on the way out, and there’ll be a car waiting to take you back to your house. Thank you for your time.”
“Au revoir,” Spock says, unsure whether or not this is some further test to make him break character. The man’s smile widens.
The car outside is considerably more luxurious than the van he arrived in, but the wind whipping in through the open windows makes Spock shiver in his pyjamas. He’s missing a button, he notices, but that can be fixed.
He makes his way upstairs and along the corridor of bedrooms. All the doors are hanging open, all the bedclothes crumpled and, in McCoy’s room, dragged halfway out into the corridor. There’s no sound apart from the soft creak of floorboards under his feet. Spock must be the first to return from their ordeal. He doesn’t yet know if this is a good or a bad thing.
Sleep, he decides, is quite useless. His watch on the bedside table reads 4.30am. He heads first to he kitchen and then to the library. When Kirk stumbles in having seen the light under the door, Spock looks up from a copy of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica and says, “There is tea in the kitchen, though I imagine it is cold by now.”
Kirk nods gratefully and departs. When he returns, the cup in his hands emits the bitter smell of coffee. He shrugs apologetically. “It was cold. And I’ve never been much of a tea-drinker. Blasphemy, I know. So. Sleep well?”
Spock lays the book aside, careful not to crease the pages. “Until perhaps three o’clock.”
“Lucky you, getting a lie-in. They dragged me up at half past two. Then we spent God knows how long driving God knows where, only to find that orders had changed, so we had to go haring off someplace else. A-plus in General Incompetence, Beaulieu.” He is angry, Spock can see, fingertips pressed white against the porcelain cup. “I mean, it’s ridiculous that we’re signing up to go and die horribly in France – yeah, all right, that’s not technically meant to happen, but it’s still a distinct possibility, right? – and they go and fuck up something as trivial as this. It’s just so stupid.”
“I agree that SOE can behave with a remarkable lack of foresight.” (He is thinking of the one-time pads. Pike seems convinced of their use now, and a Mr Marks has lent his support, but those that control SOE are immovable on the issue.) “However, you must remember that it is only a fledgling organisation and can only do as well as resources allow.”
“And resources could allow a damn sight more if the people distributing them had brains in their heads instead of order forms. Dammit, Spock, do you have to be so fair-minded? Would it kill you to get angry about something once in a while? Or would it upset that perfectly balanced brain of yours too much? I shouldn’t have called you a robot before – robots have more humanity in them than you can manage.”
“Have you finished?” Spock says quietly. It’s taking more control than he thinks he has just to keep from lashing out at Kirk, and he feels himself to be standing on the edge of something dangerous.
“Damn right, I’ve finished,” Kirk snarls. His footsteps fall heavy on the parquet flooring and the door jumps in its frame as he goes.
Spock sits there, breathing deeply and trying to repair the rents Kirk has torn in his control. He thinks McCoy comes in, maybe even speaks to him, but he doesn’t move or respond and eventually he is left alone. In the end he sleeps, knees drawn up to his chest in the sagging armchair.
Breakfast is – not exactly strained, but silent. No one speaks, and if Spock didn’t know better, he could take it for a companionable quiet, but it is not, and all three of them know it.
Later they stand shivering in shirtsleeves as Instructor Olsen teaches them the rudiments of hand-to-hand combat. His demonstrations are quite painful – though Spock does not let such things interfere with his concentration – and interspersed with frequent exhortations to ‘kick him in the bollocks’. This, according to Olsen, is the solution to all life’s ills.
Though he is trying to avoid speaking to Kirk, or even looking at him too often, Spock cannot help noticing how at home he appears with the techniques they are being shown. Of course, Spock reflects, he has probably already learnt these things in his army training.
After lunch, Olsen announces, with perhaps too much enthusiasm, that he is going to teach them three different methods of killing a man silently. Spock feels himself tense up and forces his muscles to relax. Just what did you think ‘sabotage and subversion’ would entail? he demands of himself.
Olsen is telling them something about the knives, but Spock is barely listening. The handle feels alien and wrong in his hand. He tries switching sides – perhaps he will prove to be a left-handed murderer – but to no avail.
Olsen demonstrates the cuts they will make on a dummy. Stuffing leaks from its wounds. Then he lines them up and counts them down.
McCoy tries to protest: “I’m a doctor, damn it. I’m supposed to preserve life, not – not this.”
“And when we’re starvin’ and dyin’ in the Nazi work camps, I’m sure we’ll all be very grateful for your principles,” Olsen tells him. “You can either give up now, and we’ll ship you back to the States at no extra cost – though I don’t fancy your chances across the Atlantic – or you can shut up and get on with it. Your choice.”
Grumbling to himself, McCoy tightens his grip on the knife and looks Olsen square in the eye. “For future reference? The carotid artery’s about an inch further to the left than you seem to think.”
Olsen grins wolfishly. “I’ll bear that in mind, Doctor McCoy. In your own time now.”
McCoy makes the cuts with a surgeon’s precision that Spock supposes is only to be expected. Kirk follows him without a word.
Spock steps forward, trying not to notice how life-like the dummy is from behind. As the knife snicks across the dummy’s wooden throat, Spock thinks hard about carpentry and woodcarving and not at all about how one day this could be a human being gasping his last in Spock’s hands. Then it’s over and he stands there dumbly for a moment, the knife held loose by his side.
“That was terrible,” Olsen tells him cheerfully. “Everyone line up and I’ll show you how it’s done again.”
Spock doesn’t know whether to cling to the sick feeling of disgust he has for this whole exercise, or to push it away. In the end, he is not sure he can do either, but the feeling remains, pushing at his rather tenuous sense of control.
Finally the lesson ends. Spock would like nothing better than to disappear, to get away from here and find a place to let go, but to run would shatter any illusion he has of control and would certainly cause Kirk and McCoy to follow. So he walks, long strides and steady gaze shrouding him in a confidence he doesn’t feel.
He hears Kirk’s voice behind him, calling for him to wait up, but he ignores it. Kirk says, “I’m going after him.” Spock speeds up his pace.
“Take a hint and leave it, Jim.”
“Uh, yeah, he’s a vegetarian who’s just been taught to kill with his bare hands. I’m going after him.”
Kirk catches up with Spock as he reaches the back door. For a fleeting moment, Spock considers breaking left and heading out towards the woods and fields – he has a height advantage, he could outrun Kirk easily – but decides against it. Kirk can be amazingly persistent when he chooses.
They pass through the house in silence, side by side. The only words they exchange are at the top of the servants’ staircase. “Why are you following me?” Spock spits out, every word an exercise in restraint.
Kirk stands his ground. “Because you need me to.”
“That is absurd.”
Spock turns and strides on down the corridor. At the far end is a set of steps up to the roof, black paint peeling from the ironwork. He takes them two at a time, ignoring the clangs of Kirk ascending just behind him.
The air up here smells of rain, and the bricks of the main chimney are damp through Spock’s shirt as he leans against it. Kirk slumps beside him, not touching, not talking, a careful two inches of air between their shoulders.
Spock shuts his eyes, aware that his breath is still coming in ragged clumps. “Go away,” he says.
Kirk snorts softly. “Yeah, that’s happening.”
Spock digs his fingertips into the brickwork. “Why must you persist in--”
“In not doing as I’m told? Perhaps you haven’t heard, but I wasn’t a very good soldier.”
“Better than I,” Spock says, letting his head fall back against the chimney.
“Not true, actually. I’m only here because it was this or get thrown out on my ear.”
“As am I.”
“You managed to fuck up badly enough to get thrown out of code school?”
“Not precisely.” Kirk waits for him to continue. Spock swallows. How has he been manoeuvred into this particular corner? “There were rumours of an… indiscretion between myself and a colleague,” he says reluctantly. “One of my supervisors thought he could use the information for his own advantage. It came to a point where my only options were to report his behaviour or seek new employment, and I chose the latter.”
Kirk, Spock thinks, has never understood the concept of cutting one’s losses. He doubts whether Kirk has ever walked away from a fight in his life. Perhaps this is bravery, or a form of stupidity that comes very close.
“It seemed the logical course of action,” he says.
“The hell it was.”
“I do not regret my choice.”
“Even after today?”
Spock shakes his head.
“Well… good,” Kirk mutters. “Just… you know. I don’t regret it either.”
It’s the closest thing to an overture of friendship either of them has expressed, and Spock feels himself flushing slightly. Fortunately, Kirk is staring straight ahead, unwilling to meet his eyes, and the uncomfortable moment passes. For at least the next three seconds, at which point Kirk draws in a deep breath and says, “About last night – I was wrong and… Look. I could give you excuses, but I was out of line and I’m sorry.”
“And I am sorry that you believe I do not care,” Spock says, looking away.
“Spock.” Kirk reaches out tentatively to touch his shoulder, and Spock has to force himself not to flinch away. “I don’t think you don’t care. Hell, after today, I’d say you probably care more than the rest of us put together. So, yes, I’m sorry I was an asshole and… don’t hate me?”
Spock looks at him in surprise. “I do not hate you. That would suggest a degree of emotional investment I do not feel. If you will excuse me, I should like to return to my room now.”
He disengages himself carefully from Kirk’s grip and walks back towards the staircase. For a moment, it looks as though Kirk will follow him, but then he falls back against the chimney, letting out a harsh breath of laughter. “‘Emotional investment I do not feel’? Bullshit.”
His words are almost swallowed by the space between them, and since Spock cannot think of any response, he pretends not to hear.
“Gentlemen, I bring glad tidings.”
Free time these days is precious, but none of them can resent Pike for cutting into it, especially when he waves a sheaf of paper in Spock’s direction and announces, “Order forms, Mr Spock. The powers that be have seen fit to grant your request for one-time pads, and I get to write the requisition forms.”
“Head Office finally had the stick removed from its collective ass?” Kirk asks.
“Let the record state that I don’t approve of your phrasing,” Pike says, grinning. “But yes, the surgery was a great success.”
“Nicely done, gentlemen, nicely done.” Kirk shakes everyone’s hand with much ceremony. There is an almost frightening gleam of triumph in his eyes, and Spock wonders if there is anything Kirk cannot do once he sets his mind to it.
“And just in time, too,” Pike adds. “You’ve been kept in the dark with your timetable, I know, but let’s just say that you’ll have to have gotten the hang of these things by, oh, next Wednesday sounds about right.”
From the blank looks of the other two, they hadn’t expected it to be so soon either. It seems the sort of news that should be delivered in a speech about expectations and hopes for the future, but Pike just smiles at them kindly and says, “Enjoy the rest of your stay, gentlemen.”
Once he has gone, McCoy lets out a low whistle. “Way to spring it on us.”
It turns out that they have even less time than they thought to prepare: their last two days will be spent learning parachute jumping with the RAF. Lessons take on a new urgency. Mastering the one-time pads is the easy part; aside from that, they attend a disconcerting number of last-minute lectures that seem designed to impress on them all the ways their mission could possibly go wrong, and pass an unsettling couple of hours in what Pike euphemistically dubs ‘Research and Development’. Here, an enthusiastic young man with a strong Scottish accent shows them ‘a couple of wee nasties I’ve rigged up for you’. Spock is particularly impressed with the exploding rat corpses, though they are not issued with any of these.
Their French lessons no longer cover the language itself. Instead, Professor Uhura gives them a detailed history of the Occupation, until new orders come in saying that they’re to be sent to the Savoy region, occupied by the Italians not the Germans, and much of what they have been taught proves inaccurate.
They acquire codenames and clothes – the former from Pike, the latter from a tailor who is apparently an expert in French styles. When the clothes arrive, they have already passed through SOE’s team of scientists and look at least three years old. Their cover stories are checked and double-checked for inconsistencies that could give them away to the Milice.
Somewhere in the last two weeks, Spock has lost the ability to sleep the whole night through. It hasn’t bothered him until now, when he lies awake and cannot keep from calculating the probability that he will die, that McCoy will die, that Kirk will die, or worse, that they will make some tiny slip that will plunge the world further into this grey morass it is drowning in.
Or perhaps they will make no difference at all – and this is what scares him the most.
There is a party their final night at Beaulieu, which Spock considers in dubious taste until he notices that many of the female attendees are making woefully unsubtle attempts to charm state secrets out of the agents-to-be. At this point it becomes clear that the evening is actually one of SOE’s more practical ideas. In any case, he has observed that many people are foolishly attached to the idea of a ‘last hoorah’.
Kirk likens it to a condemned man’s final meal, then announces that they may as well enjoy it while it lasts and vanishes into a knot of people. McCoy shrugs and follows him.
At some point amidst the smoke and light and noise, Spock finds himself kissing Kirk. Afterwards, he can’t quite trace the path of actions that led up to this moment – there was, he suspects, a lot of champagne involved – but he remembers the event itself in awful clarity.
Strictly speaking, since Spock is the one pressed up against the dark wall of the terrace, Kirk is kissing him, which is confusing enough on its own. There is simply no accounting for the fact that Spock is kissing him back, hands coming up to hold Kirk’s shoulders and pull him closer.
It shouldn’t be happening; the small part of Spock’s brain that sits apart and analyses everything knows that much, at least. Kirk is arrogant and antagonistic and bewildering, and Spock is not sure he even likes him, let alone… He cuts that thought off and struggles to disentangle himself.
“You are drunk,” he says firmly when Kirk protests. This seems to have no effect, so he adds, “As am I.”
Kirk retreats a few steps and looks down at his shoes, then back to Spock. “If I wasn’t and you weren’t, would you…?”
“The point is moot,” Spock says, “since we both are.” The response is glib, instinctive, and considerably easier than a truthful answer. He is not even sure what a truthful answer would be.
He takes Kirk’s shoulder and propels him bodily back through the French windows into the ballroom. Once they have located McCoy at one of the flimsy card tables, the night passes easily – Spock concentrates his whole attention on the conversation and avoids looking at Kirk. Perhaps ‘easily’ is not the right word, but at least the night passes.
Spock is perhaps the only one of the three grateful for the early start next morning. It means he only has to spend half an hour lying awake not thinking about the previous night before he can legitimately get up and find more useful methods of distraction, like packing his battered new suitcase.
At breakfast, McCoy drinks copious amounts of coffee and mocks Kirk’s unscientific hangover cure of powdered egg, pepper and Worcester sauce. Spock agrees, but takes care to mention the placebo effect, which allows him to get drawn in to one of McCoy’s enthusiastic arguments on the subject.
Then they’re packed off in a van for an RAF base, location kept secret . They’re given a few minutes to store their cases in the bunkroom before being escorted out into a large field of uncut grass. Their instructor is built along the same lines as Olsen: around six foot in height, solidly built but not overly so, with the short-clipped hair that marks him as a soldier. An airman, Spock reminds himself, though perhaps it amounts to the same thing these days.
He tosses parachute packs towards them, eyes gleaming in approval when none of them fumble the catch. For silk, the parachutes are surprisingly heavy. He shows them how to strap them on and leads them to a barn on the edge of the field. They are already standing in the hayloft before McCoy seems to realise what comes next.
“When you jump, keep your legs together and your arms tucked in,” the instructor says. “I’ve seen more people break things because they just don’t listen than from anything going wrong.”
This is not altogether reassuring, and McCoy obviously thinks the same, because he scowls at the instructor in the way that means, ‘I’d like to call you ten kinds of idiot, but am resisting heroically’.
With deft, practised movements, the instructor fixes a length of rope to Spock’s parachute pack. The rope loops over a pulley; at the other end is a large sandbag. “To fake the parachute drag,” Spock is told. “On three, now.” The drop is, Spock estimates, about twelve feet. He tries to remember how high one has to be to reach terminal velocity.
Spock does not recall actually jumping, only the drag of the harness against his shoulders and the thump that shakes through him when he lands. He has not fallen over, and the landing is not painful. He hopes this is an accurate simulation of reality.
McCoy goes next. As he approaches the edge of the loft he shuts his eyes, and when he reaches the bottom, a heartfelt, “Hell,” floats back up. Kirk and the instructor grin.
They continue to practice the static jumps until the instructor is convinced they will survive the next level of training.
“No point in sending you up with the balloon now,” he says. “There’ll be food in the mess hall ‘til seven-ish – the mess hall’s the building on your right once you go out of here – and lights out is at ten. I’ll send one of the lads round to wake you up tomorrow.”
“Ready for another day of fun and adventure,” McCoy mutters. “I can’t wait.”
In the mess hall, Kirk pokes suspiciously at his stew, whistling Run, Rabbit, Run under his breath. McCoy nudges him sharply. “Knock it off, Jim. People are staring.”
“Oh, like they care about us. We’re just here for the day-trip and they know it.”
“Well, aren’t you a little ray of sunshine today?” His eyes take in the portion of stew still on Spock’s plate; the way Kirk hasn’t just taken it, as is his habit these days. “Don’t tell me, you’ve been at it again.”
“I beg your pardon, Doctor?”
“Fighting. Angels and ministers of grace defend me, but I thought you’d gotten over that. You have, haven’t you? Jittery as June bugs round each other.”
Kirk says, “We haven’t been fighting, Bones,” just as Spock says, “You are incorrect, Doctor. Furthermore, I fail to see how it is any of your business.”
McCoy looks between the two of them in exasperation. “Fine. Don’t tell me – see if I care. Just patch up whatever it is you’re not fighting about before we ship out. For the sake of my sanity, if nothing else.”
He pushes back his chair and stomps off to join the line for coffee. The second he’s out of hearing range, Kirk looks up from his food and says, “So, about last night.”
“No, I wanted to apologise.” Kirk looks determined, and much as Spock would like to avoid this conversation that doesn’t look possible, so he says, “I do not see why.”
“Because if we were in Iowa, your daddy would’ve come round with a shotgun by now.”
There is so much that is ridiculous about this sentence that Spock clings to the one thing he is sure of. “My father does not own a shotgun.”
Kirk’s lips twitch in a smile. “No, but me throwing myself on you when you were too drunk to protest – makes me feel like the cad in a bad romance novel.”
“I take issue with your claim that I was ‘too drunk to protest’,” Spock tells him. “I did, if you recall. Additionally, there is a disturbing lack of logic to your argument that I am not responsible for my actions when drunk, but you are.”
Kirk doesn’t bother to refute this. He is studying Spock now, searching for a trace of – Spock is unsure what, but he schools his face into the blankest expression he can. Eventually Kirk leans back, shaking his head. “Okay, I have no clue what you’re thinking here, so can you… talk to me? Preferably before Bones gets back?”
“I do not know what I think,” Spock says, trying to keep a check on the frustration he can hear spilling into his voice.
Spock would very much like to shake him – he thinks one of them should have some idea what to do now, and since Kirk opened proceedings, it’s his responsibility – but the silence spins itself out and neither of them move.
Eventually, Spock says, “I do not think it—wise to embark on a venture of this sort,” and he knows he’s a coward for the way he edges round the words like they might explode.
Kirk shrugs one shoulder. “Try telling that to all the girls with their soldier boys. We’d at least be better off than them.”
Spock has at least three counterarguments to this, but before he can deploy them, McCoy returns. “Got you coffee,” he says to Kirk, passing him the mug. “And tea for you,” he adds, carefully putting the cup down in front of Spock and unhooking his fingers from its handle.
“Lifesaver, Bones,” Kirk says, taking a sip and tilting his head back in rapture.
Spock lies awake on his bunk that night and wonders why he cannot find any of the certainties other people seem to be blessed with. He is fully prepared to admit that he is not as expert in emotions as he is in, say, differential equations, but most people (normal people) seem so sure in what they feel. Why can’t he be?
He wonders how Kirk can be so certain, or if it’s all merely an act. He wonders if his own careful concealments count as an act, and if perhaps everyone is acting. He wonders whether maybe, if one kept up the act for long enough, it would become reality.
Then he decides his brain is becoming locked in circular loops of pointless conjecture. He rolls over and forces his minds into the narrow tracks of multiplication tables.
McCoy darts another look over the edge of the balloon and promptly turns white. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“That’s what they all say. There’s really nothing to be scared of if you follow instructions. Legs together, as the curate said to the chorus-girl.” Sergeant Darnell, the instructor from yesterday, slaps McCoy on the back, inviting him to share the joke. McCoy glowers at him.
“Don’t pander to me, kid. You know what a shattered femur looks like? Or how it feels to hit the ground at a hundred miles an hour? Think about that and tell me there’s nothing to be scared of.”
McCoy’s breathing is audible even over the roar of the balloon’s burner. Spock steps towards him – the balloon shifts perilously under his weight – and says quietly, “Apprehension is perfectly logical, Doctor.”
McCoy turns his glare on Spock. “I’m not apprehensive, I’d just rather not end my days splattered across England’s green and pleasant land.”
“You’ll be fine,” Kirk says firmly.
Darnell turns back from checking the altimeter. “Reckon we’re at the drop height now. Don’t worry about pulling the cord, there’s a static line attached to the balloon and you’ll get the same on your actual drop.” He smiles grimly. “You’ll have more important things to worry about than that.”
“Oh, joy. Well, let’s get it over with then.”
Kirk exchanges a quick glance with Spock. “You sure you want to go first, Bones? Spock or I could--”
“Jim, I’m a grown man. Don’t need you tryin’ to babysit me.” McCoy’s Southern accent has thickened noticeably, a clear sign of stress. Spock raises his eyebrows at Kirk and nods his head towards the edge of the basket. Kirk grimaces.
“If you’re sure…”
But McCoy curses fluently under his breath all the time Darnell is checking the straps on his harness, and at the very last second he turns to Kirk and grits out between clenched teeth, “Jim, I can’t.”
Spock sees Darnell make a sudden movement towards McCoy and grabs the sergeant’s elbow without pausing to think. The man is too well trained to do more than hiss at the pain, but he stops moving. Low and quiet, so McCoy won’t hear, Spock says, “Pushing my friend out of the balloon would not be a wise move at this juncture, Sergeant.”
Darnell swears under his breath and mutters something that might be, “Bloody amateurs.” Spock adjusts his grip.
Kirk is standing close to McCoy, both hands on the other man’s shoulder, speaking in soft, soothing cadences. McCoy looks mutinous, but this is at least an improvement on blank fear. A second later Kirk straightens up and announces, “There’s been a change of plan. I’ll be jumping first after all.”
“Fantastic,” Darnell growls. “Tell your friend to let go of my arm and we might actually get somewhere.”
“I apologise, Sergeant,” Spock says, releasing him so that he can tend to Kirk’s parachute.
“A bientôt, mes amis,” Kirk says with a grin, stepping out of the basket. In the brief moment before his chute opens, Spock sees him waving, though whether at them or at the ground below, he is not entirely sure.
He watches the white circle diminishing against the green of the field; sees it crumple and lose its symmetry as Kirk hits the ground.
Darnell is already hustling McCoy into position. “Don’t think about it,” he advises, squeezing McCoy’s shoulder. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
McCoy nods tightly. Then he jumps. Darnell watches critically. “Think he’s going to yell like that every time?”
“Does it matter?”
“Nah.” Darnell tugs hard on Spock’s shoulder straps – payback for his arm, Spock thinks. “Just some of the pilots would pay good money to see that. Joking,” he adds hastily. “Christ, why’re you lot always so touchy? Something up with SOE’s recruiting procedure, I’d say.”
“Perhaps,” Spock observes, “‘touchiness’ is the preferred state for a spy?”
“Maybe, maybe. Now, keep your legs together – I’ve already done the one about the chorus-girl, haven’t I?”
“You have,” Spock agrees, and jumps.
Time stretches in ways that bear no relation to relativity. For endless seconds, Spock is in freefall, feeling himself gently supported on some invisible cushion. The ground is approaching very fast, individual trees beginning to stand out along the field’s perimeter, then their branches. Then the line goes and Spock’s harness hauls him roughly upwards before beginning a more gentle descent. Soon he can make out the patches of bare earth where dozens of other trainees have landed.
Though the parachute has slowed him, Spock feels he is moving very fast relative to the ground. Too fast? He tries in vain to find some fixed point to measure his velocity against, and when he looks down he can see clover amid the grass stalks. He bends his knees and prepares for impact.
The landing is considerably harder than jumping from the hayloft. Spock staggers slightly, nearly falls over, and the parachute settles over him in swathes of white silk. Hands reach out to disentangle him, and he emerges to find Kirk and McCoy holding armfuls of silk and grinning at him. If McCoy’s smile is still somewhat queasy, Spock doesn’t think it his place to remark on it.
“Nice of you to drop by,” Kirk quips, and McCoy groans.
“I suspect that telling you it is only a flying visit would be more apt had we jumped from an aeroplane.”
Kirk’s eyebrows leap alarmingly. “Did you just… make a joke?”
“It’s you, you’ve infected him with your godawful puns,” McCoy says, throwing his armful of parachute silk over Kirk’s head.
“Well, I’m just in awe of your mature sense of humour, Bones,” Kirk tells him once he’s untangled himself.
“You are both as insufferable as each other.” Spock relieves them of his parachute and begins to fold it up. He feels quite illogically pleased when he recalls Kirk’s look of stupefaction.
Up above, the balloon dips and bobs as Darnell begins its slow descent. Kirk throws himself down on the grass and tugs his discarded parachute pack over to serve as a pillow.
“Those grass-stains will never come out,” McCoy warns him. “Oh, what the hell.” Eight seconds later, he too is lying flat on his back, one arm flung across his eyes. “Spock, you coming? Got a long wait for that balloon, else.”
Spock acknowledges the truth of this. He puts his pack carefully on the ground and settles himself cross-legged beside it. McCoy lifts his arm enough to spare him a brief eyeroll.
“Yeah, real relaxed there, Spock.”
Spock raises an eyebrow at him, but McCoy has already let his arm fall back. Spock does not mind. In this field, in the sunlight, it is hard to mind about anything. There is a rightness about the scene that is almost tangible. Beside him, Kirk shifts slightly, crossing one ankle over the other. He is smiling faintly, and Spock wonders if he has fallen asleep already.
Spock shuts his eyes, unprepared for the rush of fondness brought on by the sight. The feeling is unfamiliar and discomfiting, and he tries to bury it in calculations – the terminal velocity of their bodies as they fell, the drag co-efficient of the air – but the number of assumptions he must make to do the sums in his head is too great.
The current state of affairs between himself and Kirk is unsatisfactory, and only likely to worsen until he works out a suitable plan of action. To do as Kirk suggests and embark on a romantic relationship with him is clearly impossible. (Is that what Kirk is suggesting, or is he merely offering what Spock has heard crudely referred to as ‘soldier’s solace’?) SOE expects only half of its operatives to survive – intellectually, Spock knows that it is quite likely one or more of them will die. What he has not considered is the effect on those who survive. Now he knows, with deep, aching certainty, that he will not be unaffected by the death of either of his teammates. His friends. Any emotional distance he might have hoped for has long since been swept away. Perhaps it is too late for such considerations, but in Spock’s experience, caring about people only leads to pain, and he will not go further down that road than he already has.
As soon as they have privacy, he will explain this to Kirk and so resolve matters.
Privacy, though, is kept in short supply as they are hurried through the last stage of training – a jump from a real plane. McCoy has found a flask of something pungently alcoholic, which seems to be more than capable of patching any holes in his confidence, and everything goes smoothly.
This done, Sergeant Darnell seems disinclined to let them leave his sight – apparently the weather conditions tonight are optimal and he doesn’t want to postpone the drop because one of them has gone missing. Under his watchful eye, they pack their suitcases in complete silence. Then a man none of them have seen before on the base orders them to follow him into a deserted Nissen hut, where he unpacks their cases onto trestle tables, goes through the contents with great thoroughness, and does the same for the clothes they are wearing. Only when he is satisfied they’re carrying nothing that could link them to England and SOE are they allowed to take their cases back.
They sit in the bunkroom, waiting for darkness to fall. McCoy is clearly suffering from anticipatory nerves, but he’s hiding them as best he can from Sergeant Darnell.
Finally another airman arrives to escort them out to the aeroplane. As he straps them in, he talks constantly, a steady stream of reminders and helpful tips: “Remember to let the supplies drop first – they’ll survive if you land on them, but I wouldn’t like to say the same for the other way round. I hope you’ve got your thermals on – ‘s bloody freezing up there, for all it’s supposedly June. Don’t worry about anything except keeping your knees together and not breaking your legs. Us and the boys on the ground can take care of everything else.”
Then the engines are rattling into life, they’re bouncing down the tarmac and suddenly there’s nothing except wind to support them. The airman’s eyes are bright. He turns to them, grinning, and bellows over the noise of the engines, “I love this bit!”
McCoy mutters, “Oh do you now?” but Spock thinks he’s the only person to hear it.
Half an hour passes and Spock finally concedes that the airman may have had a point – whatever the temperature earlier in the day, or even at ground level, up here it is rapidly approaching sub-zero. His hands in the pockets of his greatcoat are already numb, and an insistent draught is threatening to do the same to his nose. He hunches his shoulders and tries his best to sink into the warm woollen folds of his coat.
Beside him, Kirk is doing likewise. He calls to the airman, “How long does this normally take?”
“Depends. Couple of hours usually, but we’ve got a good wind behind us, should make things a bit easier. Not so much fun for us coming back, but you don’t need to worry about that.”
Kirk nods and goes back to trying to control his shivers. Somewhere during the flight, he has ended up pressed to Spock’s side, and on Spock’s right, McCoy has done the same, sharing the scant amount of body heat each of them generates.
Spock wakes to find his head bumping gently against the side of the plane. The pilot is shouting something, but he can’t hear what. The airman has vanished. He looks to his left.
“Turbulence.” Kirk answers the unspoken question with a grimace. “Hit some sort of mountain storm, I think.”
“‘Mountain storm’? Then we are nearly there?”
At this moment, the airman reappears, crawling down the gangway from the cockpit.
“Just been talking to the pilot – we’ll be coming in to the drop zone in five minutes, give or take.” He digs inside his fleece-lined flight jacket and produces a flask. “Bit of Dutch courage to speed you on your way, lads?”
The alcohol burns on the way down – the sole reason Spock will drink it – but otherwise has no appreciable effect.
At the back of the plane, a hatch opens. The airman unbuckles them and motions them to help in pushing the large bundles stacked against the walls through the hatch. Spock follows their descent, parachutes white and ghostly in the moonlight. The airman nods and waves Kirk forwards.
“Be seeing you,” Kirk says, and steps into space. A scant second after he’s gone, the plane bucks violently in the air. The airman swears. “Quick, go quickly, damn it.”
McCoy shuts his eyes, opens them again and steps through the hatch. Spock is about to follow him when the airman grabs hold of his harness. Spock turns to stare at him.
“Can’t go now,” the man explains. “We’ve gone too far into the valley – too much chance of you being spotted if you jump now. Give us a few minutes to circle round and we’ll give it another go.”
Spock edges back from the hole and is just in time to catch hold of one of the straps on the wall as the plane banks in a tight corner.
“On my signal,” the airman shouts. “Go, go, go!”
Reacting on instinct to the tone of command, Spock throws himself out the hatch and is immediately snatched up by a fierce wind. There are lights wheeling dizzyingly below him, but he’s too disoriented to know whether they are stars or the torches that are meant to be guiding him down. Then his parachute deploys with a violent jerk and things begin to settle.
As he gets closer, he can see dim figures moving in the torchlight, and catches the gleam of parachute silk. Then a terrific gust of wind catches him, swings him sickeningly around, and when he looks back down the glints of torchlight seem very distant.
He refuses to panic – it can only worsen his predicament – but the wind seems to be carrying him even further away. He tugs on the parachute cords, trying to encourage the great unwieldy canopy above him to turn back towards the lights. It’s partially successful, and he continues to hang on, even as the cords cut into his fingers. He stares at the ground below him, fixing it in his memory. He doubts he will make it back to the main drop zone before he lands and he has no other means of navigation.
He hits the black ground below far too fast, tucking into the smallest ball he can and simply rolling until he comes to a natural halt. When he picks himself up, the wind is still grabbing at his parachute. It takes all his strength to gather it back into its pack.
Ignoring the ache in his shoulders, he begins to pick his way over the ridge, back towards the drop zone. It is only now that Spock notices it is raining, making his boots skid over the grass. Once he gets to the scree immediately below the ridge, it only gets worse: stones skitter away under his feet and at every step he risks falling and sliding back to the bottom.
The ridge is sheer, but there’s a chimney in the rock, sheltered from the rain by overhanging bushes. Spock is not inclined to believe in luck, but he is nonetheless grateful for the respite. Once at the top, he can see that it is only a short stretch of grass to the torches. He sets off at a brisk jog.
As he draws near, he hears a voice raised in angry French and realises it’s Kirk’s.
“I don’t care what your orders are, we’re waiting here until my friend shows up. And if he doesn’t show up, we’re going looking for him.”
Spock thinks that some sort of intervention may be needed to keep Kirk from striking their contact. He’s near enough by now to call out and he does so, taking care to use Kirk’s codename. The look of absolute delight on Kirk’s face is worth any discomfort Spock has suffered to get here.
“Sp- Sébastien! What in God’s name happened to you?”
Any reply is made difficult by the fierce hug he gives Spock. At the contact, Spock stiffens instinctively, but there is such genuine relief in Kirk’s face that he forces himself to relax into it, bringing his hands up to hold Kirk’s shoulders.
At length Kirk steps back, looking a little embarrassed. “So, where have you been?”
“The wind blew me off course, though fortunately not more than a kilometre or so.”
“Quite far enough,” McCoy declares, gripping Spock’s shoulder briefly.
Their contact clears her throat. “If you’ve quite finished, perhaps you could lend a hand lifting the crates onto the wagons?”
They break shortly before dawn at a small farmstead on the lower slopes of the Aiguille du Midi. Cathérine, their contact, shows them into a small bedroom next to the kitchen. “I hope you like each other,” she says, pointing to the single bed. “I’ll bring you a couple more blankets.”
When she returns, Kirk asks her to whom the farmhouse belongs. Cathérine smiles sadly. “My fiancé. He volunteered to go to Germany for the Marshall’s Relief plans last month.” She shrugs. “It’s a job. Get some sleep – we move out as soon as it gets dark.”
They draw lots for the bed and McCoy wins. He falls onto it fully clothed and manages a sleep-blurred, “Night, all,” before his eyes slip shut completely.
“Guess that leaves you and me on the floor,” Kirk says, picking up one of the blankets Cathérine has left them.
Kirk snorts with quiet laughter. “You know, that’s the first time you’ve actually used my first name.”
“It seemed as well to adopt the habit of codenames as early as possible,” Spock says defensively.
“I don’t mind,” Kirk assures him. “It’s just… strange.”
Spock nods. He would have preferred codenames less similar to their given names himself, though he can see the logic of ones that can be corrected from a slip of the tongue.
“Sorry, were you trying to ask me something?” Kirk rises to strip off his wet overcoat.
“Only to talk.”
Kirk drops his coat and nods tiredly. “Guess we should.” He glances over to the bed, but McCoy is sleeping soundly. “You want to sit down?”
They end up leaning against one wooden wall, Kirk with his legs stretched out before him in a graceless sprawl, Spock cross-legged and upright. Even like this, he feels comfortable enough to fall asleep, thoughts slipping backwards in his mind, breathing slowing. After several seconds’ silence, he forces his eyes to focus once more and says, “I have given some thought to your proposal.”
Kirk snorts with laughter again. “Sorry, my sense of humour goes a little screwy when I’m tired. Go on.”
“I have considered it and…” He swallows. This should not be so hard to say – he has devoted unreasonable amounts of time to the issue, after all. “It is quite impossible.”
“Yeah, but what does that mean? That there’s no way in hell you’d ever want to fool around with a sorry case like me, or that you would like to, but you’ve got some stupid idea about being honourable?”
“I have some stupid idea that we may very well end up dead before the end of the month,” Spock returns.
“Most people would take that as a damn good incentive to enjoy themselves while they can.”
“I am not most people.”
“No, guess not.” Kirk is silent for so long that Spock thinks he has fallen asleep, but eventually he says, “Can’t lose you, Spock.”
“Sébastien,” Spock corrects him.
“No, I’m serious. I don’t want to lose you, not now.”
“You have known me less than a month,” Spock says to counter the confusing emotions Kirk’s words evoke. He cannot seem to think properly, his mind treading and retreading the same lines of thought – a result of fatigue, no doubt.
“Twenty-four days. I can count as well as the next man. And I’m not trying to claim it makes sense.”
“In any case, your argument is flawed. If we commence a romantic relationship, you will be emotionally compromised should anything else happen to me. And… and I would be likewise affected.”
Kirk pushes himself further up the wall and looks Spock in the eye. “You might not have noticed, but I think it’s a bit late to play the ‘emotionally compromised’ card. I already am. And I think you are too, even if you won’t admit it.”
Spock shuts his eyes. “You are wrong.”
“I’m not. My logic,” and Spock can hear the smile in the word, “is completely sound. For once.”
Spock opens his eyes. “You are most frustrating.”
“Particularly when I’m right. And come one, admit it, you like that. I piss you off and don’t do what you expect, and it fascinates you.” Kirk’s face is angled towards him now, an infuriatingly smug smile curving his mouth, and Spock knows he is lost, has been lost since before the start of this conversation, since Kirk followed him onto the roof because he thought Spock needed him. In a way, Spock welcomes the newfound certainty.
He closes the last inch between them; feels Kirk’s start of surprise – interesting, so he had not been certain of Spock either – and the way he slumps bonelessly into the wall, and only now realises how taut he has been holding himself. When Spock pulls away, Kirk blinks at him and laughs a little breathlessly.
“I’m going to take that as, ‘Yes, Jim, I love you wildly and devotedly’. That does sound good in French, doesn’t it?”
“You may take it however you please,” Spock tells him. “I will, however, acknowledge the euphonics of the French language.”
“Glad to hear it.” Kirk’s words are rendered somewhat indistinct by the way his face is pressed into Spock’s neck. He yawns. “Sorry, but I’m honestly liable to fall asleep right here at this point.”
“Of course. If you wish, you may have the rug to sleep on.”
Kirk pulls himself into a more upright state and directs at Spock what could pass for a leer, were it not interrupted by another yawn. “Plenty of room for two.”
“Incorrigible. I suppose I should be grateful you did not win the bed.”
“Think of the scandal,” Kirk agrees.
The rag rug is only marginally more comfortable than the floorboards, but then sleeping in one’s clothes is never particularly comfortable in Spock’s experience. The creeping daylight has not yet brought enough warmth to let Spock remove his jumper, and he is grateful for the small amount of Kirk’s body heat that permeates the layers of material between them.
Cathérine wakes them shortly after sunset, before the moon has fully risen. They leave the wagon behind – Cathérine’s associates will arrive to dispose of its contents soon enough. She leads them on narrow trails through the woods, over the shoulders of the Alps, and Spock begins to appreciate the physical training they went through at Beaulieu.
They break a little before midnight, in the poor shelter offered by an overhanging rock formation, and Cathérine distributes food in the form of bread, cheese and dried local saucisson. When she is not looking, Spock surreptitiously passes his to Kirk and receives a second lump of strong-smelling cheese in return.
“Chamonix is just over the next ridge,” Cathérine says, pointing.
Chamonix is not their final destination, but it has the advantage of being populous enough to disguise their arrival. They will travel to Abrosets by train, and arrive in a manner in keeping with their cover story of students meeting distant relatives.
They arrive in Chamonix at twelve minutes past three. Theoretically, there is a curfew in place, but Cathérine is canny enough to avoid the soldiers, and she guides them down back streets until they reach the house of her sister-in-law, Annelise.
Annelise makes them strong black coffee and stands by the stove while they drink it, talking quietly to Cathérine and giving the three of them the occasional suspicious look.
Even the coffee cannot keep them from dozing in the hard wooden chairs. Cathérine makes her excuses and leaves well before dawn. Annelise sits in the corner of the room and does not take her eyes off them. Spock wonders whether she is actually a member of a maquis, or if this is just a favour to Cathérine. Probably the latter, he decides.
Shortly before midday, she shakes them awake. The train is not due for another two hours, she says, but it is the only train today, and if they miss it… She shakes her head.
There is little sense in tiptoeing through the back streets when all of Chamonix is awake around them, so Annelise leads them down the main street of shops and through the marketplace – the stalls show more bare boards than produce, Spock notices – all the while pretending great interest in their lives as students.
McCoy keeps mainly silent throughout these discussions. Although Professor Uhura’s efforts have left him able to answer any question likely to be asked of him, and his accent is good enough to pass him off as a particularly taciturn Frenchman, his general conversation remains stilted and patched with pauses. In all honesty, though, Kirk talks enough for all three of them, happily inventing stories of his and McCoy’s childhood friendship and of how he met Spock in the library of the grand école at Lyon, while both were trying to find a copy of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. All Spock has to do is offer the odd supplementary detail – arguments over the merits of various translations, a shared dislike of mid-morning classes – to explain how a Science and an Arts student ended up good enough friends to be travelling together. That, and remember all the invented detail. Spock thinks he should remind Kirk that they are not, in fact, writing The Adventures of Jacquot and Sébastien before the tale becomes too improbable.
It is an irony, he thinks, that they both know more about their personas’ lives than about their real ones.
At the station, Annelise waits with them until the train pulls in., Then, with tears and choked up entreaties to stay safe, she bids them farewell. The act is most convincing.
Their false papers undergo their first test as the train pulls out of Chamonix, but the soldier gives them only the most cursory of glances before tossing them back.
The journey to Abrosets is a slow one; so few trains pass through these days that each one must call at all the stations it passes. Half an hour past Cluses, Kirk disappears. He does not return for some twenty minutes, and when he does, he slides into the seat next to Spock and whispers, “Interesting bit of news for you: last car in the train’s been completely sealed off. Got a couple of Italian soldiers guarding it.”
Making a concerted effort to ignore Kirk’s breath on his ear, Spock whispers back, “Weapons?”
Kirk nods. “Tried to get chatting, find out where they were bound, but the guards weren’t having any of it.”
All three of them exchange looks.
“Think they’re for our friend the General?” McCoy mouths.
“I do, but the skiing is also good at Morzine that time of year.”
Spock and McCoy trade puzzled looks. Kirk twitches his head towards the compartment door, where a soldier is peering through the glass.
“Papers please, gentlemen,” he says in heavily accented French. They hand them over without a word.
They are greeted at Abrosets station by a middle-aged couple who introduce themselves as ‘Tante Bernice’ and ‘Oncle Claude’. Even according to the cover story, they are not Spock’s aunt and uncle, but protests seem unwise.
Bernice and Claude have four children, one of whom is studying in Paris. The other three have gone to Germany for the Relief.
“The Marshall made it sound like such a good idea,” Bernice explains.
They’re sitting around the large pinewood table in the kitchen, drinking something called génépi. It is… green, and perhaps over-bitter, but that does not seem to matter so much after the first few sips.
“What I want to know,” Claude says loudly, “is when we’re going to see some damned return on it. On prisoner released for every three workers sent, that’s what they said. Well, my three boys have gone, and where’s the Giraud boy, or old Lavoisier’s son, hein?”
He has gone somewhat red in the face by the end of this, his fists clenched on the table. Bernice pats his arm and makes soothing noises until he relaxes back in his chair.
“And what use are you three going to be?” he demands abruptly, glaring at them.
They glance at each other. SOE works on a policy of lack of information. As Pike once put it: “What you don’t know can’t hurt anyone else.” If Claude has not been told what they are doing there, it is not their place to inform him.
At length, Spock says carefully, “I understand the Italians have sent a new commander to the region. A General Nero, though that is believed to be an assumed name.”
Bernice nods. “He arrived about three months ago, took over the château on the river. No one’s seen him since.”
“They says he’s mad you know,” Claude adds. “And that he’s made a monstrosity out of the old château, though anyone can see that. He’s got underground tunnels that stretch to Geneva, and mechanical soldiers, and three heads, too, if you believe the rumours.”
Spock considers this. “Fascinating.” McCoy rolls his eyes; Kirk grins.
They set out to view the château the next day in the guise of a walking party, stopping a safe distance up the river. The storms have blown over, but the sky remains a dirty white that threatens rain. It provides a stark backdrop for Nero’s headquarters. Somewhere in the confusion, the sleek lines of the original building are still visible, but they are blurred by the addition of countless outcroppings in mismatched stone.
“Gun turrets,” Kirk says softly. He digs in a pocket and produces a battered pair of binoculars that represent the pinnacle of SOE’s optical achievements. “Although it looks like they’re empty. You’ve got better eyesight than me – you take a look.”
Pale stone walls swim into focus as Spock tweaks the dial. He trains the binoculars on the narrow slit where a machine gun could be mounted and tries to see into the darkness beyond. There is no sign of movement.
They have already spent too long watching the chateau, but to make their activities marginally less obvious, Spock swings the binoculars round until he has found a bird wheeling low in the opposite direction.
“A falcon. How interesting,” he says. The other two nod intelligently, though Kirk looks as if he might laugh at any moment.
“So the question is: what the hell is Nero up to?”
They are back at the house, sitting on the two bottom bunks. McCoy has insisted on English, which is distracting (Spock keeps trying to mentally translate the conversation), but not as distracting as Kirk, whose movements cause the mattress to sag in the middle, tipping him against Spock. He gives an apologetic smile each time this happens, but Spock suspects it is not entirely accidental.
“I don’t know, Bones,” Kirk is saying now, “but I’ll tell you something: you don’t build gun-turrets unless you’re planning to stick around.”
“Whatever his plans are, they appear to require the import of large amounts of stone and weaponry,” Spock says. “We have already observed that he is using the trains to transport the materials. I also noticed, on our journey here, that the railway line passes over several viaducts.”
“And I’ll bet it would make his job a damn sight trickier if something happened to those viaducts, right?”
“My thoughts entirely, Doctor.”
“We can do that, easy,” Kirk says, eyes fixed on the ceiling as though he can see possibilities unfolding there. “I’d still like to know what he’s up to, though.”
“Wouldn’t we all, Jim, wouldn’t we all?”
That night, Spock lies awake forming theory after implausible theory to account for Nero’s behaviour. It is, he is well aware, a capital mistake to theorise in advance of the facts, but it is a habit he cannot seem to break.
A creak from overhead interrupts his thoughts. The bunk sways dangerously and there is a soft thump by Spock’s head. Unwillingly he opens his eyes.
“What are you doing?” he asks in a low voice he knows will carry less than a whisper.
“Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d come talk to you.”
“And when you say ‘talk’, you mean what, exactly?”
“I mean talk, actually. Of course, if you’re suggesting something else…” It is too dark to see Kirk’s face, but Spock is fairly sure he is smirking.
“Talk would be most welcome,” he says.
The bunks are too low to sit up comfortably in, so it is only logical that they conduct the conversation lying down. Less logical is the curiously empty feeling in Spock’s solar plexus at the sight of Kirk’s face, half-shadowed in the moonlight from the window. He realises he would very much like to kiss him at this point, but whatever they have here is so far outside Spock’s experience that he is unreasonably afraid of making a misstep.
Instead, he lies still and tries to concentrate on the conversation, but they are only retreading the same ground as before. A discussion of relativistic physics would be preferable. Now that Spock has admitted to himself that he is attracted to Kirk, it is hard not to find appeal in every gesture or facial expression. He closes his eyes.
Kirk touches his shoulder. “Spock, are you asleep?”
“No. Is it wise to use real names?” He is pleased with how level his voice is.
Kirk shrugs. “No one here who’s not in on the secret. ‘Sides, you’re not Sébastien. Sébastien seems kind of boring, to be honest.”
“As I recall, you invented most of his life,” Spock points out. “Perhaps you should have given him a background in piracy or highway robbery, or are they also too commonplace?”
Kirk slides his hand up Spock’s shoulders until he can tangle his fingers in his hair. “Perhaps I should’ve made him a spy. No one can say spies are boring.”
“I fear that would defeat the object of a cover story.”
“Just possibly,” Kirk agrees, thumb tracing the curves of Spock’s right ear.
By now, Spock doubts that kissing Kirk will in any way count as a misstep. He puts a tentative hand on Kirk’s hip and tugs him closer.
Kissing is not something that Spock has had much practice at. He associates it with courtship and poetry and other things that have little place alongside nervous fumblings in the dark. He suspects he is doing rather badly, but Kirk reciprocates and certainly doesn’t object, so he keeps going.
One of Kirk’s hands is caught in the front of Spock’s shirt; the other scrapes insistent paths down his back. The pain should not be pleasurable, but somehow it is, and when Kirk moves his hand lower, Spock arches somewhat wildly (really, he admits, he should have been more prepared) and cracks his head on the bunk above.
The noise in the quiet room startles some sense into him. He grabs Kirk’s wrist and stops moving entirely.
Kirk props himself up on his elbows, expression sardonic. “Were you planning on waiting until the wedding night?”
Spock raises an eyebrow, very aware that he is still straddling Kirk’s hips. “Do you really intend to engage in intercourse with me in the same room as Doctor McCoy?”
Kirk’s eyes widen. “Oh, fuck,” he breathes. “No, let’s—let’s not do that.”
“It does seem inadvisable.”
“Oh, God, please let him still be asleep. We were quiet weren’t we?”
“We were.” Spock pauses, looking down at Kirk. “Relocation may be an option.”
“Where?” Kirk says immediately.
But the house is a small one. Aside form the bedroom they share with McCoy, there is only their hosts’ room and the kitchen, which both agree is out of the question. It is very clearly not their house, nor is it sufficiently impersonal for them to disregard this. Forced to concede defeat, they stand awkwardly in the hallway outside their room.
“It seems sleep is the only viable course of action,” Spock says quietly.
Kirk nods. He reaches out and pulls Spock towards him, kisses him slow and deep. Spock feels himself leaning into the touch and forces himself to step back.
“Night, Sébastien.” Kirk grins and presses another kiss to Spock’s jaw before vanishing into the darkness of the bedroom.
“You look far too cheerful this morning,” McCoy growls over breakfast. “What are you plotting?”
Kirk shrugs. “Nothing. It’s a nice day, that’s all.”
“The barometer says it’s set fair for the rest of the day at least,” Claude says.
“A welcome change after the storms,” Spock offers, and Bernice agrees.
“We’re talking about the weather,” McCoy mutters in English. “God help us all.”
In the first week of their stay, rumours abound with regard to the three young gentlemen staying with the Fournières: they are working for the government, they are international art thieves, they have come to buy the chateau from Monsieur le Général. Spock has a shrewd idea where many of these rumours have started – Kirk is quite incapable of keeping a straight face whenever he overhears them.
They rapidly acquire a reputation for being inseparable. After three days, their visits to Laury’s café (if it has another name, none of them have heard it) are greeted with cries of ‘the three musketeers!’ and every now and then, someone will approach their table with suggestions for various ‘nice girls’ they might like to meet. Spock, who has been subject to the same thing in England ever since he came of age, is well practised at dodging these social obligations; Kirk and McCoy are less adept.
It is not that they are reclusive. All three are prepared to dance with the nice girls, and Kirk has a knack for obtaining useful information under the cover of flirtatious conversation, but the fact remains that none of them can run the risk of intimacy.
In any case, McCoy remains steadfastly faithful to his wife (Spock admires him for this – in another country, under another name, infidelity would be very easy) and Kirk explains that he doesn’t want to sleep with anyone other than Spock at the moment. He says this in tones of some surprise, which leaves Spock no choice but to demonstrate precisely why that might be.
In that first week, Kirk succeeds in striking up a friendship with one of the porters down at the station, a young man called Baud, who seems rather awed by Kirk’s status as one of the Lyonnais students. He joins their table at Laury’s occasionally, and whenever a large consignment of goods comes in, Kirk volunteers their services as auxiliary porters.
Thanks to this, they have a reasonably comprehensive picture of what supplies Nero is receiving – mainly non-perishable food and the occasional, baffling crate of copper piping.
They do not find out about the third thing for several weeks, when a wide-eyed Baud approaches their table and tells them that he has just seen an iron strongbox being carried up to the chateau under the guard of a full battalion.
“Did you see what was inside it?” Kirk demands, pitching his voice low enough to be masked by the surrounding chatter,
Baud shakes his head. “Whatever it was, their commander didn’t want to go anywhere near it, though.”
“Some sort of explosive?” Kirk wonders aloud. “Though why they’d need it delivering in a strongbox…”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been working at the station since before the war started.”
“Where did the train come from?” Spock asks.
“From over the border – Val d’Aoste, I think. Is it important?”
Kirk grins. “Doubt it. Interesting though – got to wonder what our general’s up to.”
Baud shrugs helplessly. “Blessed if I know. Could be building Frankenstein’s monster up at the castle for all I can tell.”
Later in the evening, a troop of Nero’s soldiers swing by Laury’s, as is their habit when off duty. Laury – a shrewd businessman if ever there was one – claims to be able to spot a soldier at twenty paces, with or without uniform, and charges accordingly.
Tonight the crowd is particularly raucous. The tables get pushed to the walls to make room for couples dancing to the notes of a badly tuned piano. After two or three renditions of a popular waltz, a solider produces a flute, and there is a brief scuffle while he and the pianist debate the merits of various tunes. In the quiet, Spock can hear the occupants of the next table – two soldiers and Clothilde Baud, who keeps trying to catch her brother’s eye. The soldiers are quite clearly drunk, an impressive feat on Laury’s watered-down wine, and are doing a poor job of wooing Clothilde with their boasts of the victories they’ve won under General Nero.
“He is modern-minded,” explains the least drunk of the two. “He understands progress. The old castle was a joke before he moved in – a child could have laid siege to it with a catapult. Now you could not break in with Hannibal’s elephants at your back.”
“I’d rather have half a dozen Panzers,” someone shouts to general applause.
“Even then you’d fail, my friend,” says the soldier, shaking his head. “He has science on his side.”
From the back of the room come the first few lines of The Major-General’s Song, inexpertly translated. It’s quickly taken up by the rest of the café. The Italian soldier blushes furiously as Clothilde takes up the tune too.
The other three have evidently heard the conversation too. Baud shrugs again. “Like I say, Frankenstein’s monster.”
The next day they make their way up the valley to Bourg-Sainte-Justine, where they’re to report to their wireless operator. Their instructions have given them the name of a café in the rue de la Révolution. The sunlight is not kind to it, picking out the peeling paint and the fraying edges of its awning. They sit at one of the tables that spill into the street outside and wait. The café is half-full, mainly with locals, though there is a group of soldiers inside who care nothing for the glares sent their way.
A waitress takes their order in a whirlwind of leaf-green cotton and red-copper hair. A request for soup means they have information; the flavour denotes its urgency. When it arrives, McCoy finds a slip of paper stuck to his plate, with an address in the boulevard des Érables written in looping handwriting.
They have to ask directions in the end, from a pale-faced girl of about seventeen who giggles and shoots them speculative looks from under the brim of her hat while deluging them in a stream of ‘turn left’s and ‘carry straight on until’s. She lets them get a few yards down the street before she calls, “But you’ll be out of luck – Madame Gaila’s still on-shift.”
“It’s no trouble; we’ll wait,” Kirk calls back, and the girl ducks her head, though she’s not entirely successful in stifling her laughter.
“Now what in the world was all that about?” McCoy asks as they set off. “And can anyone actually remember her instructions?”
Spock can. He had been sketching out a street plan in his head while the girl spoke, and now he guides them along it until they reach the house of the – apparently infamous – Madame Gaila. It’s one of those buildings that manage to appear austere and welcoming at the same time, painted a uniform shade of terracotta and with all but the bottom two windows shuttered. There’s a basket of red peonies on a hook by the door.
A woman’s voice floats down from the floor above: “If you’re looking for Gaila, her shift ends in half an hour. You’re welcome to come in – door’s on the latch.”
Beyond the door lies a narrow hallway, ending in a surprisingly elegant staircase in marble and wrought iron. A woman – presumably the same as called down to them – leans over the banisters, glancing them up and down.
“There’s coffee in the kitchen.”
McCoy narrows his eyes at her. “You’re not French.”
“Neither are you. Now, coffee? Not coffee? Come up from the hall at least.”
Upstairs the house widens unexpectedly and they’re shepherded into a shabbily decadent room with curtains of fraying blue velvet and a mismatched assortment of brocade chairs. The woman points firmly to a cluster of these and orders them to sit, taking the chair opposite and tucking her hair behind her ears.
“First you tell me who you are, then you tell me why you’re here. Then – maybe – you get coffee.”
The three of them exchange looks. “We’re students,” Kirk begins. The woman snorts softly but allows him to continue with their cover story. Occasionally, she interrupts to clarify some detail or other.
After five minutes, she sits back in her chair and says, “You’re good at this. Now tell me, what are three students doing in Saint-Gervais?”
“We’re here to see Gaila, of course.” Somehow – and Spock is not entirely sure how he does it – Kirk manages to intimate that ‘see’ is a euphemism for the most indelicate sort of behaviour. He catches Spock’s eye and winks. Spock allows one eyebrow to arch in a silent ‘Indeed?’
“Oh well, if you’re sticking to it…” she mutters. “I’ll get the coffee.”
The coffee is very black and very bitter. Over it, the woman tells them that her name is Christine – just Christine – and that she came over here with her aunt seven years ago. They are unable elicit further information as at this point a furious hammering comes from downstairs. Christine leans out the window and bellows down, “I’m coming, all right? Give a girl a chance! Back in a second,” she throws over one shoulder as she dashes from the room.
There is the sound of voices in the hallway, a ringing ‘Who?’ that bounces up the marble staircase, then hurried footsteps and another woman bursts into the room, closely followed by Christine.
It’s the waitress from the café – Spock had not been sure at the time. Her skirt is gathered over one arm and her other hand keeps flying up to push back her hair as it falls in her face.
“It’s the carrot soup club!” she exclaims, collapsing into Christine’s chair and grabbing the half-empty mug of coffee on the side table. “You’ll want to come upstairs.”
Coffee finished, she slams the mug back down on the table, leaps up and strides from the room. McCoy gapes after her for a second or two.
“She’s always like that,” Christine says cheerfully.
‘Upstairs’ proves to be a bedroom, liberally draped in bright fabrics and with a strong smell of some flowery perfume. Gaila catches their appraising looks and says firmly, “This is not a house of ill repute.” Then she laughs. “Actually, we’ve got quite a good reputation. Not Christine, though,” she adds conscientiously. “She’s just a friend.”
Kirk grins at her. “Guess it makes a pretty good cover story.”
“Explains why all these handsome strangers keep stopping by.” She winks, apparently on reflex, as she doesn’t wait to see his reaction before kneeling down to reach a suitcase out from under the bed. The wires, Spock realises, have been trailed round the room, artfully concealed behind furniture and swags of fabric.
“Most ingenious,” he murmurs.
“Thanks, darling,” she says casually, fiddling with one of the connections on the wireless until it’s aligned to her satisfaction. Kirk nudges Spock and mouths darling; Spock pretends not to see him.
Once Gaila has the wireless set up, she says, “Give me your message and I’ll give you fifteen minutes to get clear before I start transmitting.”
In quick, concise sentences, like he’s sending a telegram, Kirk sets out what they know or guess about Nero’s activities. Gaila listens attentively, asks for one more run through, and nods. From one pocket she produces a heavy silver watch. “Off you go then. You know where to find me.”
They take a few moments in the street outside to surreptitiously straighten out their clothes for the benefit of any onlookers, before heading for the main square. The war has been kind to the town – the closest air raid so far has been ten miles to the north – and all the shops opening on to the square have their windows intact. There is a small cluster of market stalls around the statue of the Marianne, and they spend some time strolling amongst these in the sunlight before they have to head back to the train station. Spock is sure he is not the only one resisting the urge to check his watch and speculate on their message’s journey to England.
The days after transmission seem in some indefinable way to be pulled taut. On the second day, Spock finds himself drawn into a furious argument with McCoy over some inconsequential remark. He does not understand where the other man’s sudden flare of temper has come from, and does not know how to appease him, so he keeps responding in calm, measured French to McCoy’s impassioned English accusations that it’s no wonder Spock makes a good spy, the way he refuses to tell anyone anything. In the end McCoy storms out of the house and does not return until it gets dark.
In his absence, the house seems unnaturally quiet. The Fournières run a shop down in Abrosets proper, and Kirk is nowhere to be found. That Spock finds the silence of the house uncomfortable is, in itself, a worrying sign of how dependent he has become on his friends’ company.
Spock is quite used to silent houses, but not to the absence of background noise. Aside from the time he has spent at boarding schools, he has never lived anywhere smaller than capital cities and their noisy hum of humanity. Even at Bletchley, there were the military trucks. Outside, there is at least the distant tolling of cowbells and the occasional rattle of a passing wagon to disturb the stillness. He sits against the wall of the house, watching the shadows the clouds throw on the mountainside, and allowing his mind to drift.
Kirk finds him like this when the clouds have completely covered the sun. He doesn’t say a word, just sinks to the grass beside Spock and offers him his coat, which Spock declines. Some minutes pass before Kirk says quietly, “Are you all right?”
Spock’s instinctive reaction is to say yes, to skate over it and keep Kirk at a safe distance, but something within him revolts at the idea, so he says, “Apparently I am insufficiently communicative for Doctor – for Léon’s tastes.”
Kirk looks nonplussed, so Spock elaborates. “He claimed embarrassing confidences are the basis of friendship. I declined to agree with him. The situation… escalated.”
“Of course it did,” Kirk mutters. “Look, it’s freezing out here, won’t you come inside and we can talk?”
In all honesty, Spock has been suppressing shivers for close on an hour, and he is quite willing to acquiesce. As they make their way inside, Kirk says, “He’s just on edge, I think. All the waiting we’re doing.” He pushes Spock firmly towards the chairs around the kitchen table and sits down himself, so that just the corner of the table is between them.
“I understand that. However, that I choose not to talk about my private life is none of his concern.”
Kirk nods. “We’ve all got our secrets,” he says lightly. “Anyway, I don’t think you necessarily need to know everything about a person to trust them – hell, that’d be nigh on impossible.”
This is very probably the point where Spock should say something like, ‘I know next to nothing about you, and yet I trust you implicitly,’ but he remains reticent. It is not easy to offer a rational explanation for this, and he dislikes having come to a conclusion without conscious knowledge of his thought processes.
“And yet, here we are,” Kirk says softly into the silence.
“If I may ask – you do not seem to feel the same need to establish intimacy through sharing stories of our pasts.”
“Well, no. Which either says something deep and meaningful about us, or maybe just means we’re both equally secretive bastards. Besides, I don’t really—I don’t feel like I need to know your past. You’re here in the present, and I think that’s enough for now.” He bites his lip and looks quickly away. “That may be the most ridiculously sentimental thing I’ve ever said.”
“The sentiment is appreciated,” Spock tells him.
A smile tugs at Kirk’s lips. “And reciprocated, I hope?” he asks, leaning in.
“Indeed,” Spock says dryly, closing the distance.
McCoy returns in a rather better mood than he left in. Both he and Spock make a concerted effort to avoid antagonising each other over dinner, which is what passes for an apology.
After dinner they tune in again to Les Français parlent aux Français on the BBC. In the middle of the usual nonsensical ‘personal messages’, there’s the signal – Sylvie will be travelling to Reims on Friday. Godspeed.
Sylvie will be travelling… is their cue to sabotage the railway line into the valley. On Friday is self-evident. Godspeed is altogether more worrying – it means that there are details SOE needs to pass on for which there are no established codes.
Gaila seems surprised to see them again so soon, and only becomes more so when they tell her they need to borrow her wireless set.
“Do you even know how to work it?” she asks.
“I have worked with similar machines in the past,” Spock tells her. Indeed, compared to the Bombe, the wireless kit looks almost simple.
Gaila looks doubtful. “I don’t want you hitting the wrong button and giving the game away. Not that there’s actually a button for that, but…”
“If it’d make you happier, you could show us how it works,” Kirk suggests.
She nods. “I think that would be best. So you see, it fits together like this…”
Spock soon discovers that Gaila knows more about the set’s inner workings than perhaps anyone except its designers. She has also developed range of makeshift solutions to counteract its foibles. He finds himself impressed.
“And remember,” she says as she packs the pieces back into the suitcase, “fifteen minutes is the absolute outside for transmissions. That’s how long it takes the OVRA to find you. Good luck, and I want my kit back in one piece, so do try not to get shot at.”
They carry the kit to a field beyond the outskirts of town and lie down surrounded by high summer grass. From his breast pocket, Spock produces a paperback novel with wide margins to write in. McCoy checks his watch reflexively and mutters, “Half an hour, dammit.” The procedure they have been taught is that any Godspeed messages will be transmitted the next day, at the same time as Les Français parlent aux Français.
The ground is still slightly wet from that morning’s rain, an insidious damp that works its way through to their skin as they lie there, fearing to move lest a passer-by sees them. Kirk flips idly through the book, occasionally choosing a passage at random to read aloud for their entertainment, voice barely above a whisper.
With five minutes to go, Spock begins to set up the receiver as Gaila has shown him. Almost exactly on the hour, the ‘dead noise’ is interrupted by familiar blips of Morse code. It’s the authorisation key from London that all three of them have memorised. Spock waits, pen poised, for the message to begin.
Beaulieu has engraved Morse code on Spock’s mind so thoroughly that the translation is automatic, each letter jotted down without a second’s thought. It is, of course, pure gibberish at the moment. All three of them have agreed it safest to carry only a coded copy of the message when they leave, and to decode it once they reach the relative safety of Abrosets.
Though the Morse is not a problem, signal reception is poor, and on first transmission, there are long gaps of crackling static where Spock cannot even hear the transmission. Fortunately, the message repeats and the interruptions come at different points so that he is able to piece together the message as a whole after three run-throughs.
“That’s eight minutes,” McCoy murmurs.
All that remains is to send an acknowledgement to halt the broadcast, which Spock does, and to pack the set back into its suitcase. By the time they have done this, twelve minutes have elapsed.
They keep low as they make their way back to the road, and it is as well they do, because they soon hear the distinctive heavy rumble of a military truck. They throw themselves down under the hedgerow as it passes, only to hear it stutter to a halt some fifty yards further on. It could be a breakdown, but on the other hand…
Kirk points in the direction the truck has come from and they set off back that way at a crouched run that keeps them below the level of the hedge, Spock doubled over the suitcase, feeling the sharp dig of the book in his pocket with every step. They put three fields between themselves and the truck before they stop and McCoy straightens long enough to scan the countryside surrounding them and reports no sign of movement. Spock is grateful for the opportunity to stand upright again.
“Well,” Kirk says, “guess we’d better find another way back to town.”
They regain Bourg-Sainte-Justine under cover of darkness, following the slope of the mountain on barely-there paths through the forests. They have not eaten since the previous day, but decline Gaila and Christine’s offer of dinner in favour of rushing back to Abrosets to work out what SOE was so desperate to tell them.
Spock works through the message, scarcely paying heed to its meaning as he concentrates on the individual letters. One he is done, he reads it through and pushes it across the table to Kirk and McCoy.
There is a dead silence for a moment, then:
“This has to be some sort of joke,” McCoy says hollowly. “A chemical corrosive enough to work through to the bone in seconds and he’s planning to put it in the water supply?” He looks as if he might be sick.
Spock nods. “Obviously, we have no intention of allowing that to happen.”
“Damn right, we don’t,” Kirk says. “Which is why I’ll sneak in there and steal it.”
“The hell you will!” McCoy exclaims.
“What, you think I’m going to sit around here and let Nero--” He breaks off, unable to find the words.
“Of course not, but you must be rational about this. To attempt such a feat on your own is nothing short of suicidal.”
But Kirk looks horribly determined, and Spock suspects he is only listening to Spock’s objections in order to dismiss them.
“That’s where you’re wrong. One person has a much better chance of avoiding detection than three, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would not. We have been trained to operate as a team and--”
“And you really think Nero’s not going to notice three strangers wandering round his castle?”
“You really think he will not notice one?”
“One man could be anyone; three men look like an invasion. It’s logical, you idiot, can’t you see that?”
Their voices have risen steadily to just this side of shouting. Spock clenches his fists under the table and forces himself to calm down. “Your logic is singularly unsound.”
“It’s not,” Kirk insists, making a sudden move as though he had gone to stand up and thought better of it. “If you don’t think I can cope, just say so.”
“Jim.” Kirk jumps at the name and a flash of almost-guilt crosses his face before he settles it back into a stubborn glare. “You are being absurd,” Spock continues, more quietly. “I intend no slight when I say that what you want to do is impossible. Your talents may be extraordinary, but you are still human. You cannot do this on your own. Let us help.”
“You can help by admitting that I’ve got a point.”
“Well, you have,” McCoy says suddenly. Both of them turn to look at him in disbelief. “One person is harder to spot than three, Spock. You’ve got to admit it – simple matter of volume or area or whatever. But!” He holds up a finger to cut Kirk off. To Spock’s slight amazement, Kirk falls silent. “Spock’s got a point too. Even if only one of us is going in there, the others can help from the outside. Planning and the like.”
“Okay,” Kirk says grudgingly. “What do you suggest, o wise one?”
“In the first place, I suggest we get some sleep and plan this thing properly in the morning. Fat lot of good it’ll be getting into the castle and falling asleep in some corridor. We’ll need time to prepare, and any sneaking is best done after dark, so we wait until tomorrow. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Spock says quickly.
“Why do I get the feeling you’ll knock me out anyway if I protest?” Kirk rather spoils his words by yawning widely.
“Don’t tempt me,” McCoy mutters.
The ‘plan’ – if, indeed, it even deserves that appellation – is quite ridiculously simple. The three of them will lie in wait for one of the stragglers from Laury’s that evening and, in McCoy’s phrase, ‘give him a headache that’ll last a month of Sundays’. While the soldier is unconscious, Kirk will purloin his uniform. They are fortunate in that the uniform for Italian officers includes a peaked cap, which will hide Kirk’s face enough to delay recognition.
It is inelegant and foolish and Spock does not want to agree to it, but can see no alternative.
Kirk is on edge tonight, though Spock does not think anyone besides himself notices – the signs are too small and well-hidden. After an hour of making increasingly inane small talk with the rest of their crowded table, Spock can stand it no longer. He manages to attract Kirk’s attention and looks pointedly towards the door. They escape with some elaborately vague excuse.
“Look,” says Kirk the second they are outside, “if you’re still trying to talk me out of it--”
“I am not.”
“Oh.” He stops in one of the odd shaped shadows cast by the overhanging roof. “Then why did you…?”
“I wanted to…” Spock pauses. Outside, away from the heavy, smoke-filled atmosphere of the café, his actions make little sense, even to himself. “I wanted to wish you luck, illogical as that may be.”
“And you couldn’t have done that inside?” Kirk’s grin is irrepressible.
“Not in the manner I wished.”
“Yeah?” Kirk takes half a step back, leaning against the walk in an exaggerated slouch. “What manner’s that?”
For answer, Spock steps forward and presses his body to Kirk’s, taking a moment to savour the way they fit together before ducking his head to kiss him. When he pulls away, Kirk follows, pushing away from the wall until he’s standing upright. In the silence between them, Spock can hear the discordant notes of Laury’s piano. One of Kirk’s hands is curled loosely round Spock’s neck, the fingers warm against his skin.
“If I don’t come back,” he says, and Spock wants to interrupt, to insist that of course he will come back, of course the plan will work (idiotic and foolhardy as it is), but there’s a steely determination to Kirk’s voice that keeps him locked in silence. Kirk’s eyes flicker sideways for a moment before he looks back at Spock. “Remember me,” he says, impossibly quiet.
Spock nods, just once, and lets Kirk pull him into another kiss, deeper and more vital than before. His hands are clenched painfully tight in the linen of Kirk’s shirt, and Kirk’s fingers comb roughly through Spock’s hair.
Later that night, Spock will stand by an unconscious soldier and watch Kirk’s unfamiliar silhouette disappear up the road. He will ignore McCoy’s hand on his shoulder, will feel only the road beneath his feet as he walks.
Here and now, though, this is where they say goodbye.
Kirk does not return the next morning, but Spock tells himself this signifies nothing. And in spite of his misgivings, there are still plans to be made. They are due to destroy the bridge tomorrow, which necessitates re-establishing contact with the local maquis group.
Claude arranges it, but refuses to accompany them to the cave complex where the group have their headquarters.
“They’re none too fond of SOE up there,” he cautions.
This proves to be something of an understatement; the two of them are nearly shot on sight, and even after they have explained their position, the second-in-command trains a gun on them throughout the meeting. It takes Spock the better part of half an hour to convince the group’s leader, a man of military carriage who calls himself François, to give them the explosives they need. (Spock has calculated the precise amount needed; McCoy has insisted they double it, ‘just in case’.)
They spend their afternoon hunched over a schematic of the target bridge that the three of them have compiled, each pretending not to notice the other’s frequent glances towards the clock.
That night, Spock sleeps fitfully. He does not dream, but finds himself waking as though in response to some noise, convinced that it’s Kirk returning. After the fourth occurrence, he gives up the attempt and simply lies awake until daybreak, when he makes his way to the kitchen to go over the plan for today (a pointless exercise, but one that will distract his mind from other, less welcome thoughts.)
McCoy arrives some hours later and blinks in disbelief at Spock.
“You’re planning to go through with this?” he demands.
“Naturally. It is, after all, our sole reason for being here.”
“And what about Jim? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, or if you care, but he’s not back yet.”
“An astute observation, Doctor.” Spock adjusts the schematic so that it is framed more symmetrically by the dark wood of the table. “However, the task should be relatively straightforward to accomplish, even without his presence.”
“Dammit, Spock, I wasn’t expecting roses and poetry, but you could at least act like you care.”
It feels like there is a chunk of something hard and cold inside Spock’s chest – steel or maybe ice. “It would serve no purpose to do so,” he says, the words coming straight from the coldness inside him.
“Now you listen to me, Spock,” McCoy says. “We can get Jim out of there if we set out minds to it, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
“Your suggestion might have some merit if we knew for sure that Jim was caught.”
“Oh, you think he’s just hanging round at Nero’s place, having a good time? Well, of course you must be right, how stupid of me.”
“Any attempt to rescue Jim would only result in our capture, Doctor.”
McCoy looks at him, aghast. “You mean to say you’re not even gonna try? You cold-blooded, unfeeling son of a bitch, Spock, you can’t just leave him in there!”
“And what, precisely, would be gained from all three of us ending up in the same position?” Spock’s voice sounds strained even to his own ears. He gets to his feet and begins to fold up the schematic. McCoy crosses the room in two long strides, gripping Spock’s shoulders with painful force.
“Shut up,” he growls. “Don’t you dare pretend you don’t care.”
Spock shrugs him off. “Doctor, even supposing it were feasible to attack Nero’s fortress, my first duty is to the mission. You know the threat Nero poses – I cannot place the well-being of an individual above the needs of the millions caught up in this war. I must do my duty.”
“You know what, Spock? Duty can go hang. Jim’s my friend, even if he’s not yours, and I won’t leave him in there.”
Spock clenches his fists, crumpling the gossamer-thin silk of the schematic. “The longer we spend arguing, the longer Nero has to interrogate Jim. The bridge must be destroyed. It will be easier to do this before Nero knows to post guards on it. Therefore your options are simple: help me, or find a safe location to wait for me.”
“You can’t stop me trying to help Jim.” McCoy stands poised as if to run. Spock reaches out and grabs his wrist – perhaps too tight, but neither of them cares at this point.
“I can and I will, Doctor. I will not lose another friend to Nero.”
McCoy glares at him and wrenches his hand free. “You’re acting like rescuing Jim and destroying the bridge are mutually exclusive. Why can’t we do both? The train comes through at eight and it’ll be easier to break into the castle after dark anyway, so why not?”
Spock stares at McCoy for a long moment, mind skittering over his words, half-afraid they won’t bear up to close examination. The solution is simple and elegant, and he has overlooked it while trying to claim he is acting rationally. The realisation disturbs him more than he would like to admit. He looks down at the floor. “Such a course of action would be satisfactory,” he says, feeling the cold in him ebb a little.
“Damn right it would,” McCoy says.
The rest of the day is spent in making preparations for their double mission that night. Having borrowed needle and thread from Bernice, the two of them spend several hours adjusting the seams and hems of their clothes to fit various items from Beaulieu. The plastic explosive they flatten out and conceal inside cigar cases.
They lay the charges ten minutes before the train is due, and retire to a short distance away to watch. From their vantage point they can see the train threading its way through the valley. As it gets nearer, it will shake the rails enough to detonate the charges.
Even at this distance they can hear the thrum of the train on the tracks, cha-chunk, cha-chunk, like a heartbeat. Spock tries to keep his own from speeding up as the train approaches. What if they have set the charges wrong? What is he has made a mistake in the calculations? What if, what if?
In the event, all works as perfectly as a textbook exercise – the front carriage of the train has just edged out over the bridge when there is a rumbling roar that seems to make the mountains shudder. The bridge disappears in a cloud of brick dust, and when it reappears, the central arch is gone completely. The train has slewed to a halt with the first forty feet overhanging the gap where the bridge used to be.
There is a moment of absolute silence before someone screams.
Spock swallows. The train‘s civilian passengers far outnumber its soldiers. Another thirty feet and the entire first car would have been over the edge – perhaps taking the whole train with it. He forces his gaze away from the scene. People will be sent to rescue the damaged train. To fixate on ‘what might have been’ only wastes time.
McCoy glances sideways at him. “Here we go then.”
Night has drawn in while they have been watching, a soft, blanketing darkness, the moon hidden behind billows of cloud. A strong wind makes the branches of the pine trees rattle overhead as the two of them make their way through the woods towards the chateau.
The building is floodlit at night, sweeping beams stripping it bare of shadows. Spock and McCoy crouch amid the rocks on the mountainside.
“I hope to God you’ve got a plan,” McCoy mutters.
Spock has. It lacks finesse, but it is at least workable, theoretically. “There should be some sort of drainage system into the river,” he murmurs, scanning the bank below through the binoculars.
“The sewers? Oh, joy. And what makes you think Nero won’t have set some sort of guard on them?”
“I do not think he will have left them unguarded; I merely anticipate that since access will involve swimming at least part of the way underwater, they will not be as heavily fortified as the main gate.”
McCoy swallows. “Well, no sense in sittin’ round up here, prayin’ for a miracle. Let’s get on with it.”
The walls that enclose the castle have taken the river into their embrace as well, but there is a tunnel cut into their base for the water to flow through, which has been blocked off with a metal grille. Spock sets the charges above the water and swims back upstream as fast and as noiselessly as he can.
The tunnel under the walls takes them into what must once have been formal gardens, though only the bare earth of the flowerbeds remains. It is far enough from the main courtyard, where small gangs of soldiers are hurrying to and fro, that the two of them can press on without being spotted.
They find the run-off pipe from the drainage system at the far end of the formal gardens.
“God bless French aristocrats,” McCoy says with feeling. “You could sail a boat through that.”
Spock merely nods and hoists himself onto the walkway that has been cut into the tunnel wall. It is almost impossible to see once they have moved beyond reach of the moonlight. Their footsteps become slithering as they feel their way forward, fingertips trailing along the damp wall.
They have been walking for three minutes in absolute darkness when McCoy grabs Spock’s shoulder. “Waterproof matches,” he hisses. “Devil take me for ten kinds of an idiot, but I forgot I had them. Hold up just a sec.”
The match flares, making their shadows leap and stretch on the tunnel walls. It burns out a few seconds later, but that is enough time for Spock to fix an image of the tunnel ahead in his mind.
“Hold onto my shirt,” he instructs McCoy before setting off again with greater confidence.
They continue in this fashion – McCoy lighting a match, Spock guiding them forward to the edge of his mental picture, McCoy lighting another – until they reach a high-vaulted cross-section of seven tunnels. The tunnel they have just come from is by far the largest, which must mean the others all lead further into the castle. Spock is still staring at them when the match dies. McCoy strikes another and sets off to peer down the mouth of the nearest tunnel.
“Just down here there’s something,” he says. The bizarre acoustics of the place catch his voice and send it bouncing back to Spock as a shout. “Looks like – yeah, it’s a ladder.”
The trapdoor at the tip of the ladder takes both of them to lift, a great slab of stone that crashes back into place with a floor-shaking boom.
“Remind me why we didn’t just use the front door again?” McCoy says, glancing nervously around what appears to be a wine cellar.
“Because that wouldn’t have been half as much fun for me.”
There is a single moment of silence before McCoy begins to swear fluently under his breath.
The man at the top of the cellar steps chuckles softly. “Such language, my friend.” His accent is an almost perfect imitation of an Oxford don, but there’s a certain cast to some of his vowels that marks him out for a non-native speaker. He waves a hand and four soldiers edge through the door. Two take hold of Spock’s arms and two McCoy’s.
“Who are you?” Spock says in French, though he is certain the pretence is a futile one.
“That is no concern of yours. And please lose the French – concentrating on two languages at once irritates me.”
Spock stares at him, looking for hints to his identity. He is wearing the uniform of the Royal Italian Army, but the tunic is missing any insignias or indeed anything at all to distinguish it. From his air of command, though, Spock guesses (and guessing is not in his nature, but right now he has little choice) that this could be Nero himself.
“I must say, I’m disappointed in this rescue attempt,” Nero says, and Spock feels his heart physically contract. He knows they are here for Jim. Nero must read something in his expression, because he laughs again. “I thought you’d at least make it to the next floor. Your friend was so anxious to let us know you’d be coming.”
There is perhaps a heartbeat when Spock considers believing him. Then something that is not logic, though logic follows close on its heels, slams iron certainty through him. “You are lying.”
“I’m really not. He was quite desperate near the end, poor chap.”
“You mean you killed him?” Spock’s voice does not waver in the slightest – he concentrates on that and not on the meaning of his words.
“It was… regrettable. We didn’t think he’d be quite so weak, you see.”
McCoy shoots him the most hate-filled, venomous look he can muster. Spock bites the inside of his lip until he can taste blood, just to have something else to focus on. A plan, they need a plan, some way of getting out of this. It is his own fault, he knows. If he had refused to acquiesce to Kirk’s inane plan in the first place, or persuaded maquis to give them back-up, they would not now be trapped here with this smiling torturer.
“That was not a wise move,” he says, quite calmly.
“Oh?” Nero looks amused.
“Killing the only one of us with any useful information to offer? I wouldn’t call that wise. Would you?” This last he addresses to McCoy, who shoots him a what the hell are you doing? look, but says only, “Not particularly bright, no.”
A brief twitch of Nero’s hand and Spock finds his arms twisted painfully behind his back. He makes a show of resistance – there is an agonising pressure somewhere in his shoulder joint, but he can ignore that for now – but Nero makes another gesture and his captors relax their grip infinitesimally.
“I’d advise you to think very carefully about that, my friend,” Nero says, voice dangerously low. “Your little spy-game likes to keep people in the dark – I highly doubt any of you have anything I would deem to be useful information.”
“Jacquot did,” Spock insists.
“And how did he get his hands on it?”
Spock manages a look of utter distain. “Station X, of course. He worked there, setting up the cipher keys for us to use. He could have given you access to the entire network, and you killed him.”
“Sloppy thinking,” McCoy agrees, biting off a grunt of pain as one of Nero’s thugs twists his arm.
“Now that is interesting,” Nero muses.
Spock’s chest seems to unclench. If Nero is this intrigued by Spock’s information then surely, surely Jim must still be alive. Nero waves a hand and his thugs obediently jerk Spock’s arms higher. There is a quiet crack. Elbow, Spock thinks distantly. In a way, he supposes it is beneficial to have two different sources of discomfort to focus on. It helps him maintain equilibrium.
Nero is speaking again, staccato orders in Italian, and Spock is hauled up the cellar steps, McCoy close behind him.
As soon as the guards have left them alone inside their cell, McCoy turns to Spock. “That was your arm I heard down there, wasn’t it? Lemme take a look.”
It is difficult to roll the wet sleeve of Spock’s shirt high enough to let McCoy examine him, and their attempts to do so make his elbow crackle unpleasantly. McCoy runs delicate fingers over the injury. “Dislocation,” he says after two minutes of analysis. “Just shut your eyes, okay?”
“Doctor, I hardly need--”
“Shut ‘em already. I’m not doing nothin’ with you glaring at me.”
Spock shuts his eyes. “Your use of the double-negative is a fascinating idiosyncrasy. Were you aware you only do so in times of stress?”
McCoy talks over him: “On three. One, two--” He wrenches at Spock’s arm. Spock feels involuntary tears of pain well up and grits his teeth . “There we go. And you can shut up about ‘fascinating idiosyncrasies’, Mr I Only Use Colloquialisms In French.”
They sit in silence for thirty seconds, listening to the distant sounds of footsteps and the occasional muffled shout. Their wet clothes are clammy and cold against their skin. When it is clear that no one is going to approach the cell for the foreseeable future, McCoy gets to his feet.
“If we have to be taken prisoner in the dungeons of some madman’s castle, could it at least be by people who act less like a bunch of amateurs? I mean, emptying our pockets, yeah, very nice, but completely fucking pointless, really.” He leans against the cell wall to fumble with his shoelaces. Shoes removed, he digs his nails into a crack in the heel of each and pulls out a chunk of sole about an inch and a half square.
Spock raises an eyebrow. “That is most ingenious.”
“Yeah. Would be even better if I could get the damn things out now.” What he produces in the end are two stubby brass tubes. “Tell me you kept some of that explosive?”
“Naturally,” Spock replies, beginning to unbuckle his belt. McCoy looks alarmed. “There are very few places where one can conceal a lump of explosive, Doctor,” Spock explains, “and they have taken my cigar case.”
“Of course,” McCoy says, turning pointedly to look at the wall.
This time, Spock insists that they use only the minimum amount of explosive necessary to destroy the hinges. He refuses to listen to McCoy’s blandishments (“If we don’t get it right first time, we’ll have half the Italian army on our heads before we can try again.”), citing the very reasonable objection that the cell is only six feet, three inches wide, and it would be inadvisable to risk getting caught in the blast radius. Besides, he is a mathematician; one would hope he could do the calculations correctly.
They crouch in the far corner of the cell – McCoy has no faith in Spock’s mathematical abilities – and wait.
“How long did you say the delay was?” McCoy asks after five minutes.
“I did not, as they are your time pencils. I am, however, assuming that as they are intended for emergency use, they will have only a short delay.”
Nine minutes later, half the wall vanishes with a crash into a billowing cloud of dust. The corridor beyond is still deserted. Spock wonders how far underground they are, whether anyone heard the explosion. Beside him, McCoy stoops to pick up a chunk of stone.
“They have machine guns, I at least want a rock,” he says.
Spock nods distractedly, listening for any clue to tell them where to head next, but apart from the occasional rattle as more of the wall collapses, there is only silence.
“We head that way,” he says with confidence. It is as good a direction as any.
He breaks into a jog and McCoy follows suit, shoes slapping against the stone floor of the tunnel. They pass more cells, all of them empty, as well as cavernous storerooms filled with unmarked sacks and barrels.
“Looks like he’s holding out for a siege,” McCoy comments as they pause for breath.
“Doctor, if you were planning on releasing a corrosive substance into the local water supply, would it not make sense to have your own source of sustenance?”
“Fair point. Guess this counts as corroboration then. SOE will be so happy.”
There is the distant echo of footsteps, and the two of them press themselves into the shadows at the edge of the storeroom, but whomever the footsteps belong to is in the corridor running perpendicular to theirs.
They run down corridors and up three flights of stairs before they find a window. When they do, it looks out on a part of the grounds they’ve never seen before.
“How the hell are we meant to find Jim in this?” McCoy demands in a whisper.
“We… I do not know,” Spock admits. “Perhaps we cannot, but that will not prevent me from trying.”
McCoy nods grimly. “I vote for lurking round corners and grabbing the first guard to come our way, make him tell us where they’re keeping Jim.”
“May well be our only option at this point.”
Spock nods. “I believe the first stage in your plan necessitates finding a corner.”
They choose a corridor not too far removed from the main hall, but not so close as to risk immediate discovery. Soon, they hear someone approaching – from the wrong direction, and too many of them to stage an ambush. They shrink back into the shadows and watch as the platoon jogs past. Their leader is bellowing orders in Italian, but the most Spock can catch is ‘le luci’. The lights.
The troop of soldiers is making too much noise to notice Spock and McCoy running behind them. Just before the main entrance, the pair of them slip down a side corridor – their wet clothes will give them away in an instant if anyone actually catches sight of them. From their hiding place, they can see the searchlights making dazzling patterns where they stream through the stained-glass window above the door.
“That looks remarkably like Jim’s work,” McCoy says. “He must have gotten into the control room somehow.”
“Where do you suppose--”
He is interrupted by a shout from the other end of the corridor. “Down here!”
Spock exchanges one look with McCoy, and then they’re both running, heedless of the noise they’re making on the stone floor.
The door to the control room is open, and there are three soldiers slumped inside, but this only dimly registers. Jim is leaning over a control board, adjusting the angle of one of the searchlights. McCoy pulls him into a one-armed hug that dislodges his fingers from the controller and makes the light swing crazily round, dazzling them all.
“We thought you were dead, you idiot. What the hell have you been playing at?”
“Engineering my great escape, of course. Thought you’d probably show up eventually, but it was kind of boring in that cell, you know?”
“I hate you so, so much,” McCoy tells him, still refusing to let go.
Jim grins. “Love you too, Bones. And hey there, Spock. Dripping wet suits you.”
“Being alive suits you,” Spock says. It is the best he can manage, under the circumstances, and he does not want to think about the livid bruises on Jim’s face and the cuts that have been drawn across his cheeks like grotesque cats’ whiskers.
Jim pulls himself away from McCoy’s arm and moves cautiously towards Spock. Spock wants—he doesn’t know what. There is something overwhelming and terrifying pounding through his body, and he finds he cannot move so much as a step. Jim reaches out and takes hold of his arms.
“Spock, it’s okay. We’re gonna be okay.”
Spock just nods. Jim’s grip on his arms is nothing like enough, but he feels as though if he tries to reach for Jim in turn, he will disappear. It is not logical, but then, when it comes to Jim, Spock knows his attitudes rarely are.
Then Jim takes one more step and his arms are round Spock and his face is buried in the crook of Spock’s neck, mouth pressed to Spock’s collarbone, whispering something that Spock can only feel as hot breath against his skin. Still Spock hesitates, but Jim’s body is warm and solid against his own and Spock wants to keep him there for as long as he can. His hands move of their own accord, and then he’s holding on to Jim like he’s the last stable thing in this world.
“Knew you’d come get me,” Jim mumbles. “Knew you wouldn’t leave me here.”
And Spock is at once sickened with disgust, because Jim should not trust him like this, not after what he’s done. He pushes himself away, pretends not to see the hurt look that flashes across Jim’s face. “I believe we should proceed,” he says stiffly.
“I… yeah, you’re right. I’ve been using the searchlights to make sure the gunners can’t see to aim, so we’ll only have to deal with whatever infantry soldiers Nero’s got. There must be some sort of postern gate somewhere we can sneak out of.” He is moving back towards the control board as he speaks, angling the last few lights to cause maximum confusion.
“There’s a tunnel through the walls where the river comes in,” McCoy says. “Might be guarded by now though – the way Nero reacted to us showing up, he must’ve known how we got in.”
“Might not be expecting us to go back the same way, though,” Jim argues. “Anyway, we can take ‘em.”
He abandons the control board and crouches by one of the unconscious soldiers. “Weapons, weapons, weapons” he mutters distractedly. “What sort of soldier doesn’t carry a weapon?”
“This one’s got a revolver,” McCoy says, patting down the soldier nearest him. “Colt. Loaded, too.”
Spock retrieves the revolver from his own soldier and offers it to Jim by the handle, trying to mask his distaste for the weapon.
“Thanks,” Jim says, examining it with a practised air. “You don’t want it?”
“I understand that as a general rule, one should not carry a gun one does not intend to use,” Spock says.
Jim nods his understanding. “All right, let’s move it then.”
With no knowledge of where to find a back door, they head for the main entrance. Halfway across the hall, a shot ricochets off the wall above their heads. There will be no warnings.
They break into a run. Spock glances back one last time to see that there is a sniper standing at the top of the staircase, sighting down his rifle.
“Right and down,” Spock shouts, throwing himself into a roll that makes his arm crunch unpleasantly. Kirk and McCoy do likewise, and the bullet hits the floor inches clear of where they would have been standing, before ricocheting in the opposite direction.
A soldier steps through the postern door that is built into the main one and immediately fumbles for his gun. The three of them scatter, Kirk diving for the man’s knees and knocking him to the floor before he can even get the gun out of its holster. He pistolwhips the soldier and heaves the unconscious form at Spock before firing two rapid shots through the open door. Using the insensible soldier to shield them from the sniper, they duck through the door and find themselves in the main courtyard.
Kirk’s shots have scattered the rest of the soldier’s platoon, but only to a safe distance, where they are quickly readying their guns.
“The river is this way,” Spock says. The weight of the soldier is making his muscles scream, but he ignores the pain long enough to charge the nearest gunman and knock him off balance with the body of his comrade.
“Shut your eyes,” Kirk yells as they sprint through the beam of a searchlight. Spock can feel it hot on his face, burning red through his eyelids. They dodge behind the next searchlight, using its glare to mask themselves from their pursuers. Then they’re free and clear, pounding across the flowerbeds, heading for the wall.
There is no pause before they enter the river, and the sheer cold of it hits Spock like a physical blow. He reaches blindly for where the tunnel must be, pushes himself along it and feels his lungs begin to protest. Then he is out the other side, Kirk and McCoy just ahead of him, and there are no searchlights, only the dark of the mountains and the unfriendly moonlight.
They lie up as far as they can from the river. Not daring to sleep, they sit back to back, regaining their breath and working out where to go next. In the end, there is only one real option: the maquis. Returning to Abrosets is something none of them will countenance – Nero has no way of knowing what ties they have in the area, so long as they do not lead him to their contacts’ door. In any case, McCoy insists (and Spock agrees with him) that the maquis need to be warned to expect reprisals.
François greets them with resignation. “Are you breeding? There were only two of you before.”
“This is what’s known as a successful rescue mission,” McCoy tells him.
“And the bridge? Also successful?”
“Yes,” Spock says. Kirk’s eyes flicker between him and McCoy, taking in the implications of this. Spock maintains a resolutely blank expression.
“We, ah, might’ve managed to annoy the General on our way out, just as a warning,” adds McCoy.
“But of course you did. I expected nothing less.” François sighs. “At least with the trains not running, it’ll be hard for him to get reinforcements. Do you want something else, or is this a genuinely strings-free visit?”
“Dry clothes would be nice,” Kirk says. François nods. “And if you could send someone down into Abrosets to collect our papers – we didn’t want to lead any of Nero’s men there.”
“No, you just led them to us instead,” François agrees.
“You are an active resistance unit,” Kirk points out. “We figured you were a better bet than a village of civilians.”
François glares at Kirk. “You’ll get your clothes and your papers, but don’t expect any more favours from us.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” McCoy says hastily. “Look, is there anything we can do for you?”
“Apart from get out of my hair?” François shrugs. “You’re a doctor, we’ve got a couple of people sick with dysentery back there. And Madeleine’s shoulder’s gone bad again. Your friends… probably know as much about medicine as any of my people. They can help.”
Spock finds himself assigned to boiling bandages for Madeleine’s shoulder. McCoy seems determined to keep him away from Jim, perhaps sensing the inevitable unpleasantness that will occur as soon as they have privacy.
Once one of François’s people has returned with their papers, things become too busy for conversation. The walk to Bourg-Sainte-Justine will take at least four hours, and quite apart from François’s heartfelt desire to see the back of them, it will be easier to travel in the dark. McCoy insists on doing all he can for the dysentery patients before they leave, but eventually they get underway.
They stumble into Bourg-Saint-Justine shortly before sunrise. Christine lets them in, eyes barely able to focus on them and blonde hair hanging in rats-tails around her face. She unlocks a door in the hallway that Spock had presumed led to a cellar, to reveal a whitewashed room with four beds. The windows have blackout curtains tacked across the inside.
“There y’go,” she mumbles. “Lock yourselves in, case the police come knocking. Don’ touch the windows an’ keep the noise down. ‘M upstairs if you need me.”
They collapse onto the beds in their still-damp clothing, making only the most cursory effort to arrange the covers before they fall asleep.
Spock wakes up disoriented and unable to breathe. Half a second later, his brain begins to work and he realises this is because his face is crushed against a hard, dusty bolster. He opens one eye in defiance of the glare of a bare electric lightbulb and squints at his watch. Eleven twenty-five. He has slept for nearly seven hours and feels he could sleep for another seven, but he does not have that luxury.
With some effort, he manoeuvres himself into a sitting position – his elbow has seized up overnight and he can only bend it with considerable pain – and looks around the room. McCoy has gone, leaving his bed neatly made. Jim is sitting on the next bed along from Spock’s. The cuts on his face look better today, Spock thinks guiltily. Perhaps McCoy has actually been able to persuade Jim to let him clean them.
Jim looks up from examining the weave of his trousers. “Hi,” he says.
Spock stares at him, trying to get a fix on his mood. His voice is giving nothing away, and his posture seems indicative only of exhaustion. Spock waits for him to say something more, but he appears to have become engrossed once more in his clothes.
“I.” Spock stops. I need to talk to you, sounds ridiculous; I need you to forgive me, merely abject. “We…”
Kirk says, “We need to talk. Probably. I think we do, anyway. But you’ve just woken up and I’d feel like a complete bastard trying to have a conversation with you in this state, so… can you come find me after breakfast? Lunch. After you’ve eaten something.”
It is Kirk’s right to dictate the terms of this discussion, Spock thinks, so he does not protest. There is a pot of lukewarm, watery porridge on one of the tables in the sitting room, accompanied by a note in Gaila’s writing informing him that she is at work. Underneath a second hand has added Gone to market, C.
Two-thirds of a bowl of porridge later, Spock feels he has don his duty by it. A part of him wants to wash everything up and dry it and put it all back in its place, but this is only an instinct for procrastination kicking in, and Spock ignores it. Downstairs, Jim is still sitting on the bed. Spock does not think he has moved at all.
“You’re back,” Jim says.
Spock nods, though the statement is quite self-evident.
“François said you destroyed the bridge.” Spock nods again. Jim seems to sit up a little straighter, though his eyes remain fixed on his knees. “I think I’d have noticed if you’d done it on the way out of Nero’s castle, so I’m gonna take a wild guess here and say you did it before you came to get me.”
“Yes.” Spock does not add It was the logical course of action. It sounds too much like he is offering excuses, and he does not want to do that.
“Logical as ever.”
Something seems to fracture inside Spock at Jim’s total lack of expression. He says, “My actions may have been logical, but I am not convinced they were right.”
Finally, Jim looks up. “Don’t say that. I don’t know how many people die fighting in this war every day, but I’m going to say ‘a lot’. And if completing the mission we were sent on ends the war even a day sooner, that’s a lot less people dead. I’m not gonna say I don’t like the idea of you dropping everything for my sake, but I’m just one person. I don’t deserve to live any more than anyone else does.”
There is something inherently wrong in hearing Jim’s arguments in support of his own death. Spock sits down on his own bed and leans against the wall. It is hard to think. “Objectively, no,” he says at last. “But as your friend, I should not be objective.”
“Look, can you forget about what you should be? Because you may want to believe you were all objective and logical about it, but I don’t buy it.”
“You would prefer to believe my instinct is to abandon you?”
Kirk glares at him. “I would prefer to believe your instinct is to make the best of a fucking impossible situation. Look, maybe they’ll write you into a philosophy textbook or something and tabulate all the pros and cons, but you did what you thought was right at the time, and it worked out pretty well, far as I can see. Bridge destroyed, me not dead, Nero’s nefarious schemes – dammit, I wish that began with an ‘N’ – foiled for now.”
“Foiled? But we did not--”
“I… may have set fire to the chemical. I was still figuring out how to go about stealing it when the heavy mob arrived, so I dropped a match on it and legged it. If I’d have gotten to the barracks I’d have been all right, but they caught me halfway down a corridor I shouldn’t have been in and didn’t seem to believe I was lost.” He shrugs. “Could have been worse.”
“You are arguing in favour of my abandoning you?”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m annoying like that.” Kirk slips off his own bed and sits down next to Spock, hands folded in his lap. “Do you want a formal speech? I can probably rustle up some famous dead guys talking about forgiveness if you like.”
“I… That will not be necessary.”
Jim leans into him a little, the press of his arm warm against Spock’s own. “Good.”
From there, it is very easy to simply fall back onto his too-hard bolster. Jim follows him, half on top, half alongside, cheek-to-cheek on the bolster. “Your arm will hate us when we wake up,” he tells Spock cheerfully, so Spock shifts it enough that his hand can rest somewhere on Jim’s back. “’S better.”
They fall asleep like that, and only wake when McCoy slams the door loudly and steps inside.
“I have only just returned and clearly have no idea what you’ve been up to in my absence,” he announces as they struggle to sit up and untangle limbs. “And if I could avoid ever learning about it, I’d be a very happy man.”
“’S okay, Bones,” Jim mumbles. “You can wait for it in book form.”
Gaila returns in the middle of the afternoon, and the five of them spend a companionable few hours in her sitting room. She and Christine do their best to get the full story of events in Abrosets, but learn only the bare minimum: that their mission there is complete and that Nero would probably like to see all of them shot.
“Sounds like we need to get you home,” Christine says thoughtfully.
“I radioed London this morning,” says Gaila. “They’re usually quite prompt about replying. And I did make it sound like the entire Italian Army was hammering on our door.”
“Miss Gaila, are you trying to get rid of us?” McCoy exclaims in wounded tones.
“Of course I am, darling. Do you know how hard it is to feed five people on two people’s ration cards?”
“Y’know, you could just use ours as well.”
“Of course I could, if you weren’t all wanted men now.”
The message does come through that night; some improbable sentence about parsnips that Gaila translates as meaning a Lysander plane will pick them up in three days.
Those three days are perhaps the closest thing to domesticity Spock has experienced in eight years, and he almost regrets that they have to leave so soon. But then they are standing in a moonlit field, and the pilot winks at them and calls them ‘old chap’ and tells them it’s ‘absolutely perishing’ up in the air, and for the first time in his life, Spock wants to go home.
He realises when they touch down at another anonymous RAF base that he does not, in fact, know where ‘home’ might be. Certainly he feels no particular nostalgia for London, after they have been put through their initial debriefing and shaken out into its damp September streets. Beaulieu, he will acknowledge a certain fondness for.
“Such memories,” Jim says solemnly when Spock tells him this, then laughs and takes hold of Spock’s elbow. “Come on. I hear the Grenville Hotel is very nice this time of year.”
There is a whole week where Spock barely sees either of his friends. SOE spirits them away for interviews – Spock endures some half a dozen himself – and when they return, both look unexpectedly thoughtful.
They sit on the floor of McCoy’s room that night, working their way through a bottle of whisky Jim has procured from somewhere and toasting the end of an era. McCoy, Spock knows, will be returning to Georgia on the next convoy to cross the Atlantic. He himself is also likely to be on it. He has refrained from asking what Jim’s plans are until now, not entirely sure he wants to know the answer.
Jim is perhaps a little drunk when he says, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m apparently going to be shaping the bright young minds of tomorrow. Or something like that.”
Spock cannot help raising an eyebrow. “You are going to become a teacher?”
Jim points at him. “Love it when you do that. And no, not a teacher. Instructor. At Beaulieu. Teaching the newbies how to lie and blow stuff up. My kind of job.”
Spock lets out a breath. So it had been very close after all. “Will you take it?”
“Hell yes. Like I say, my kind of job. You should come too, bet they’re still short a coding instructor.”
“I have prior commitments…” But he could telephone Pike in the morning, insist he would rather remain in England. A shame in some respects – he had almost been looking forward to America – but it would have its compensations.
“Where you going?”
“I believe its official designation is ‘Camp X’. The OSS appears to be using SOE’s manual for naming conventions.”
“So you’ll be doing all your code…instructor-y stuff, just, in America?” Jim sounds almost hurt.
“You should come too,” Spock offers. “They are almost certain to need someone skilled in lying and blowing things up. You could show me Iowa.”
“And its cornfields,” Jim says, smirking.
“I wish I didn’t know you,” McCoy mutters.
“Shush, Bones, me an’ Spock are trying to plan our lives here.”
“I know. You won’t shut up about it. Prediction for you, Spock: it’ll involve far too much sex in unhygienic places, and you’ll get sick of this one being his own particular brand of insane.”
“But it will not be dull,” Spock says.
McCoy rolls his eyes. “Can’t help some people.”
Jim is grinning again. “Takes about two weeks to get to the States by ship, right? D’you think as instructors we’ll get our own cabins? Or, I don’t know, hammocks might be fun.”
McCoy shoves another glass of whisky at him. “Drink this and please, for the love of God, shut up about your sex life. Why can’t you be healthily repressed like everyone else in this country?”
“I’m my own special brand of insanity and you love me for it,” Jim tells him.
“I believe that is, in fact, my job,” Spock says. Possibly the whisky has had more of an effect on him than he thought.
In the end though, it is unimportant. Jim will telephone Pike in the morning and be his usual persistent self until he secures a posting with Spock. No doubt they will make the trip down to Georgia to visit McCoy and his family. Perhaps they will start some sort of ghastly yearly tradition where they drink too much, live up the good bits and try to forget the bad bits.
There are always possibilities.